Author's Notes: Thanks to Bast and XFreak for their support.
Story Notes: This contains a death of a secondary original character.
Ray fiddled with his tie, anxious and uneasy. He hadn't seen or heard from his cousin Roy for months, not since he'd gone undercover as Vecchio. Now, out of the blue, Roy called and asked him to meet at some fancy-smancy lawyer's office, but wouldn't say why. As Ray worked and worried the knot for the fourth time, Ben stepped between him and the mirror. "May I?"
Hands in the air, Ray surrendered. "Guess I'm a little nervous. I hate wearing a suit."
Ben smiled patiently and quickly set the navy and maroon striped tie to rights. He smoothed it down and nodded in approval. "You look quite fetching, Ray."
"Thanks." Ray glanced at himself in the mirror and then turned to wrap his arms around Ben's waist for a quick hug and peck on the cheek. "You could come with me, see what the deal is."
"I could, yes, but I have work at the Consulate. Besides, your cousin apparently has personal business to discuss."
"You could still come, you know, for moral support. Besides, whatever's personal to me is personal to you, too, now, remember?"
Ben studied him for a few extra seconds and then asked, "Ray, what's really wrong?"
"Nothing." Ray turned away from Ben to check his spiky hair in the mirror one more time before walking out into the living room. "It's just that I don't like walking into some office not knowing the score. I mean, he's been kind of weird ever since Cindy died."
"People grieve in different ways, Ray. After all, from what you've told me, they were married for quite some time and they had a small child. It must have been difficult for him."
"Oh, yeah, I know that. She was sick for months and then he was a basket case after she finally passed on. It's just that he's sort of shut himself off, you know? Before I got this assignment, I tried to help out, take Em when I could, but then he moved out of town and I couldn't do as much. Mum told me he's stopped coming to any of the family stuff, too."
"You don't go to the family stuff, either, Ray."
Ray frowned, remembering the fallout when his father inadvertently found out about his relationship with Fraser. "Yeah, well, you know why that is."
"Still, I regret that what we have together has led to another rift between you and your father. It wasn't my intention to cause problems with your family."
Shaking his head, Ray held up a hand to stall any more argument on that score. "Hey, before you, it was me being a cop. I figure I'll give him another eight years and see if he comes around. If he does, fine, if not, it's his choice. I'm not losing any sleep over it."
"I'm just sorry -"
"Not another word about my old man, okay? He's made his own bed. If he's too narrow-minded and pig-headed to know a good thing when he sees it, that's his tough luck." Ray moved in closer and drew Ben in for another hug, his voice softer. "You've got nothing to be sorry about, so shut up."
Ben hesitated briefly, but then nodded. "Understood."
The kiss began slowly, very soft and sweet, but revved up in a hurry when Ben's hands made a sneaky play for Ray's ass. Ray pushed away, all flustered. "Hold your horses there, Mr. Horny. I can't drive with a hard on and I have to be there in half an hour."
Ben pinked up as he teased, "You started it."
"Oh, yeah, and I'll start it again first chance I get." Ray slipped on his suit coat that was lying across the back of the sofa. "You want me to pick you up at the Consulate on the way back?"
Out of habit, Ben handed him a lint brush for all the white fluff sticking to Ray's dark suit. "It depends on the time. I should be finished by five."
"Yeah, me, too." Ray brushed off the fur and then stepped in closer again. "Hey, since I'm all fancied up, why don't we go out to eat later? We can go to that nice Italian place you like so much, my treat."
"That sounds lovely. I'd like that."
Diefenbaker yipped in protest at being left behind for supper and Ray shook his head. "Nope, not this time, buddy, but I'll bring you a doggie bag with something to gnaw on if you're good."
Ben fussed at the animal's ungrateful attitude. "And only if you're good. Ray pampers you shamelessly."
"Well, it comes with the territory."
"What territory is that, Ray?"
"He's an only dog. It's in the rulebook somewhere. All only dogs get spoiled rotten."
Ben grinned and played along. "I don't believe there is such a rule, Ray, or even a rulebook for that matter."
"You don't, huh? You calling me a liar?"
Ben's expression softened as he dragged Ray closer and into another hug. "Never."
"Good." Ray gave Ben a quick kiss and then handed him the lint brush. "Save that stuff up and you can knit me a sweater for Christmas or something."
"Actually, the undercoat is soft enough that I actually could -"
"I was kiddin'. Whatever you do, don't knit me a wolf sweater, okay? Jeez."
Ben's lower lip thinned as he fought hard not to laugh. "Very well, no wolf sweaters for Ray. What about a nice knitted cap instead?"
"You do and you're wearing it and I'm not talking about on your head, got it? There's a limit to that whole, waste not, want not stuff you pull."
Chuckling, Ben nodded in amusement. "Understood."
"I've got to go. Wish me luck."
"Good luck, Ray."
"Cross your fingers, too."
"Why would -"
"Just do it."
"Very well." Ben made a big production and crossed his fingers, holding them up for inspection. "I'm sure there's nothing seriously wrong, Ray."
"Sure, I know that. It's nothing, nothing at all. Probably just wants my legal advice or something." But even as he said it, Ray knew that deep down, he didn't believe a word he was saying.
When Ray got to the lawyer's office, he was directed to a back room and told to wait. Then the door opened and Roy walked in. Seeing Roy rocked Ray to his core. No wonder the guy stopped coming to family get-togethers. He was so skinny and sick, he could barely stand up. "Roy?"
"Hey, Ray." Rail-thin, his cousin held out both arms and pulled Ray into a quick hug, slapping him on the back. "Long time, no see."
As they parted, Ray stared, his stomach sinking. Roy looked wasted away like those pictures of Polish holocaust victims his mother used to show him as a kid. Roy had lost most of his hair and his pale flesh showed off the blue veins just under his skin. Sunken blue eyes and cheeks made him seem a hundred years old and yet he was only a year older than Ray. "Why didn't you call me sooner, Roy, tell me what was going on?"
"What was I going to say, 'Hey, Ray, I'm dying. Come on by and watch the show?'"
More hurt than insulted, Ray held his anger in check. "I could've helped. I don't know how, but somehow. You should've called. We're family."
"I'm sorry, Ray. Don't be mad. I know I should've called, but I just couldn't deal with it. I started getting sick right after Cindy died, but I thought I was just sick from her dying, so I put off getting checked out. Nothing anybody can do now. Believe me, I've tried everything, but there's nothing, no chance. It's pretty much a done deal all except for the burying."
"Jesus, Roy." His eyes stung as Ray thought about losing his cousin for good. He'd been so wrapped up in his own life, he hadn't even bothered to check up on him even though he'd known something wasn't right. Ray wanted to kick his own ass for not following up and helping out. Roy deserved better, a lot better, than being left alone to die.
Roy must have read his mind and stepped closer, his voice a lot softer. He put his hand on Ray's shoulder and squeezed it for reassurance. "I'm sorry, Ray. I know it's a shock. I didn't want people to know, but there's no way around it now. The doctor said it wouldn't be much longer and I can't put this off."
"Put what off?"
"That's why you're here."
Ray shook his head hard, trying to figure out what the hell Roy meant. "You're not making any sense. Why am I here?"
"Em. I need to find the right home for Em."
Realization sank in. The poor kid had not only lost her mum, but now she was losing her dad. Fuck. It wasn't right and it wasn't fair, but like a lot of things, that didn't stop it from happening. Life could be fucking cruel sometimes. "Sure, sure, I can help with that. Your mum and dad will take her, right?"
Roy shook his head, his expression even more grim than before. "I don't want my mom and dad to raise her, Ray. You know what they're like. They're small-minded and ultra-conservative, nothing like what I want for my daughter."
"But they're your folks, Roy."
"I know that. Believe me, I know them better than you do and I don't want my Em raised by people who believe the shit they believe. They'd fuck her up and make her miserable like they tried to do with me. You know how they were about Cindy."
Reluctantly, Ray nodded. He remembered all the flak Roy's parents had made about Roy marrying someone outside his faith. Being hard-core Catholics, they'd made a huge stink about Roy going to hell for marrying a Protestant. "Okay, so what about Cindy's parents?"
"They're great people, but they're in their eighties. Cindy was one of those babies who came right before the biological clock exploded, a change of life kid. They're just not able to take on the responsibility of a seven-year-old. Anyway, I know who I want for Em. I just have to convince him that he's the right guy."
"Him? Him who?"
A shotgun blast would've had less punch. "Me? Roy, that's not funny."
"I'm not kidding."
Ray settled into a nearby chair, a hand to his head. Doubts and worries all flooded in at once, reasons why he couldn't raise a child, not with all the other crazy stuff going on in his life. "Roy, I'm a cop. I'm hardly ever home. How can I raise a kid?"
"So, don't cops have kids? You can hire a sitter or nanny or use daycare like everybody else."
Swallowing hard, Ray shook his head. He'd never told Roy about Ben, never even introduced them. "You don't understand."
"Look, I know you're divorced and you're living with your partner. What's to understand?"
Shocked, Ray stared at his cousin. He had no idea that Roy knew about that part of his life, not even a clue. "And you're okay with that, with me living with another guy?"
Roy sat in the seat beside Ray, his face even more haggard than before. "Your mum told me. She says you really love the guy, which she didn't have to say because I know you. When you love somebody, you're all or nothing, always have been. You wouldn't take the risk and live with him unless you were sure."
"I am sure, and I do love him, but you know as well as I do people are going to think you've lost your mind if you make me her guardian."
"Let them think what they want. I could give a shit. You're a good man and you're the kind of person I want to raise my daughter."
"It's not that simple."
"Sure it is. It's not the dark ages anymore, Ray. You've got a right to have a family the same as anybody else."
"I don't know, Roy. Being Em's guardian is a huge step, a whopper of a step."
"I know that, but I know you can do it. You've always been great with kids and Em likes you already."
"She hasn't seen me in ages."
"But she still talks about you. She still carries around that long-legged little bunny you brought her the last time you came by."
"Yeah?" Ray remembered the bright sparkle in the little girl's blue eyes when he'd handed her the plush toy. She'd held on for dear life, one arm around Ray's neck, the other holding the toy. She named it Buster Bunny. "She's a great kid, Roy. I just don't know -"
"Ray, you can do it. I know you can. You always wanted kids, right? Well, here's your chance."
"Being a guardian isn't the same as just babysitting, Roy."
"I know that, but there's more."
"I not only want you to be her guardian, I want you to adopt her when I'm gone. That's why we're here." Roy waved a hand at the office and then the desk. "My lawyer's got the papers all drawn up. All you have to do is sign them and you're set."
Ray sat back in the chair, his mouth open. This was like some dream, something that wasn't real. "Set? I live in a one-bedroom apartment with my male partner. I can't raise a kid there. No court would let me."
"You can move into my place for now. It'll be yours, too, along with everything else when I'm gone. I want you in charge of her trust, too."
"Yeah, Cindy's grandparents had money, you knew that."
"Yeah, I knew that they were well off, but how much money are we talking about?"
"Enough so that money should never be a problem. I've got the folder with all the details. You can take it home and look it over. I want her well cared for. If you don't want to stay in the house, you can sell it and move back into the city or live wherever you want. You can do whatever you need to do to make this work." Roy's voice choked on the last sentence. "I just want your word you'll take care of my baby, Ray."
Ray took Roy's hand in his and squeezed it. "You know I love you and Em, right?"
"Please don't say no, Ray. Everything I've got in this world is riding on what you decide. I'm begging you here."
Gut clenched, Ray shook his head. "I'm not saying no. I just can't say yes yet. I have to talk to Ben first."
Eyes red, Roy brightened slightly with the hope of a positive answer. "Thank you. Thank you. You don't know how much this means to me, Ray. My parents might fight you on it, but that's why I'm having the lawyer draw up the papers now before something happens to me. I want it already in place before I'm gone."
"I get that, but I still have to talk to Ben, and what about Em? Does she really understand what's going on?"
"She knows Daddy's sick. My housekeeper told me Em's started wetting the bed again. I think she knows more than I thought she did."
"Jesus, Roy, I'm sorry."
"I know, I know." Roy waved off any sympathy and tried to focus on the topic at hand. "Anyway, that's why I hired a driver to come into town to see you and get things finalized. I want to get my lawyer in here and let him explain some of the stuff you need to know and answer questions. You can talk to your partner tonight. Bring him in tomorrow if you can. I want to meet the man who stole your heart and who's going to be my little girl's other father."
Hearing Roy's voice crack broke Ray's heart. He couldn't imagine the kind of courage it took to think of his daughter first instead of freaking out with death staring him in the face. Ray swallowed back his own fears and thought about how he could help his cousin and his little girl. "You'll like him, Roy. Everybody likes Fraser."
"You call him Fraser?"
"His name's Constable Benton Fraser of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. I call him Fraser on the job and Ben at home."
"So, you're in love with a Mountie, huh? Aunt Barbara said he was handsome, too, like I couldn't figure that out. You always did like the pretty ones."
Ray pinked up slightly at the unexpected razz, remembering how his cousin used to tease him about how pretty and smart Stella was when they were young. "Yeah, yeah, I do, but he's more than pretty, Roy. He's a great guy, honest and real, somebody I can always trust to be there when I need him or kick my ass when I need that, too. He makes me want to be a better person, and that's something I've never really had before."
Roy closed his eyes, dropping his head forward as he took a long wheezy breath. "I'm happy for you, Ray, and I'm grateful. You don't know what a relief it is to know you'll be here for Em. It's not going to be easy for her. I need someone I know who'll love and protect her since I won't be here to do it."
Instead of protesting, repeating his warning that he still had to talk to Ben and that it wasn't a done deal yet, Ray patted his cousin's shoulder in reassurance. "I'll always be here for her and for you, Roy. Don't worry about that, ever."
"I won't. I know you, Ray. You'll do the right thing."
Before Ray answered, the lawyer walked in with an armload of documents. He wore the same tough look Stella used to get right before she marched into court to fight and lock up the bad guys. "Mr. Stanley Raymond Kowalski?"
"Yeah, that's me. Call me Ray."
"It's nice to meet you, Ray. You and Roy have a seat at the table. We've got a lot to discuss and I want to make things perfectly clear before you make a decision that will not only change your life, but your cousin's daughter's life as well."
Ray stood up and helped Roy to his feet so they could all look at the papers. "I wish I'd brought Ben today. He's better about this sort of thing than I am, legalese and paperwork. He can breeze through this stuff."
"I'll give you copies to take with you, Ray. You can have your partner look them over. It's my understanding that Roy here wants this done with the greatest of expediency and I concur. It's important that affairs are in order so that we don't risk Em's future."
As they settled around the table, Ray frowned. "Are you saying if I don't sign, then something bad's going to happen? There's no back up plan?"
Roy sighed, a long wheezy sound that gave Ray chills. "My parents want her. They've already threatened to take me to court if I don't name them as guardians. I hate to say this, but it's not about Em, it's about the money. My dad wants access to it, and I'm not going to let that happen. Mr. Bradford believes that he can stop that or at least keep the hounds at bay by making sure that we get everything squared away before I pass."
Mr. Bradford put his hands together on the table. "There's no guarantee that they won't still take you to court, Ray, but they'd likely lose. I've done a background check and -"
"Hold up. You checked me out?"
"Yes, and you've got excellent credentials as does your partner. They would have a hard time discrediting a detective who's been decorated for bravery three times and the Liaison Officer of the Canadian Government here in Chicago."
Ray relaxed a little, but not completely. He cleared his throat. "What about the gay thing? Won't that be an issue?"
"For Roy's parents, I'm sure it will be, but courts have become more and more open to the notion that gay parents can provide loving homes the same as heterosexual couples. The fact that Roy wants to designate you and your partner as Em's guardians and eventual adoptive parents goes a long way."
"But what if they do go to court and fight it?"
"Bottom line, if you decide you want to raise Emma Raye Kowalski, then I'll fight tooth and nail to see that you have a chance to do that."
Ray nodded solemnly, his gut telling him that Roy picked a good one when it came to lawyers. After years with Stella and working in the court system, Ray had a knack for knowing the difference between a good guy and a bottom feeder. He just hoped he didn't have to see the guy in action too much. Ray motioned to the papers. "Okay, let's get started and see what you've drawn up so far."
Bradford smiled and opened up a folder that he turned toward Ray. "Let's start with the provisions for guardianship and how we'll start the adoption process."
Ray paced in front of the Consulate, his heart racing as he tried to keep himself from being totally freaked out. He didn't know if he could do this, tell Ben about the strain and horror of the last few hours without bawling. After a few minutes, the door opened and Dief bounded out with Ben right behind him. Frowning, Ben put a hand on Ray's shoulder. "Ray, what's wrong?"
"We need to talk. Not here, though. Let's go home. Can you leave yet?"
Reading Ray's serious mood correctly, Ben didn't push for more and simply nodded. "Let me tell Constable Turnbull to lock up. I'll be right back."
As Ben walked away, Ray settled down on the concrete step, Dief sitting right beside him. Ray had taken off his suit coat and tie, leaving them in the car. He loosened the top button of his shirt and rolled up his sleeves. Chicago in summer made it too hot to sit in the sun for long without some serious sweating. Ray rubbed his face with both hands, wondering what he might say or do to make Ben understand that he had to do this, make a home for Em. Ben had a soft spot for kids, but having a soft spot for Bounty Lady's brats and having a kid of your own was a whole different ballgame.
Dief woofed and licked Ray's face, obviously worried about Ray's unhappy state. Ray petted the wolf absently and shook his head. "Yeah, I know. It's a mess."
"What's a mess, Ray?"
Ray stood up and turned to see Ben behind him. "Let's go home. We've got a lot to talk about."
Once again, Ben didn't ask any more questions, but just followed Ray to the car. Once inside, Ray started the engine, but then turned it off. He couldn't wait for home. He had to say it here. "Roy's dying."
Ben reached over and squeezed Ray's shoulder for comfort. "I'm so sorry, Ray. I know you worried that there was something wrong. It would seem your instincts were right once again."
"There's more. Don't say anything, just listen. When I'm done, we don't talk, don't say a word until we're home and we can talk about it in private, okay?"
Concerned, Ben reluctantly nodded. "Agreed."
"Roy wants me... that is, he wants us, to take Em and raise her."
Ben's face paled, his eyes a bit wider. "You can't be serious."
"I'm dead serious." Ray lifted a hand to stall any more discussion. "Don't say anything yet, don't get all logical and pick it all to death to decide we can't do it. Just feel for a minute. Feel what it must be like for Em to lose her mum and her dad in less than a year when she's only seven. Roy's family, Ben. We grew up together. He's like my older brother and he's begging me to do this."
Ben took a long breath and squeezed Ray's shoulder one more time before folding his arms across his chest. Instead of saying anything or telling some Inuit story to ease the tension, he did something Ray had only seen him do a few times since he'd met him. He went totally quiet, not saying a word, but staring out the window lost in thought. Ray asked quietly, "You okay?"
"I'm fine, Ray. Let's go home. As you said, we have things to discuss."
Ray turned the engine back on and headed off down the road. Neither man spoke during the drive, each one thinking about how much life changed in a split second sometimes with little or no warning. Ray just prayed that whatever fate had in store for him, it included Ben by his side. His hands shook and he gripped the wheel harder, hoping he got them both home without crashing into some other crazy ass driver.
As soon as they were home, Ben made tea, big surprise. Ray sat at the kitchen table, his leg bouncing, nervous as hell. Ben took Ray's 'don't say anything yet' request to a whole new level. Finally, Ray couldn't hold it anymore. "Say something."
"What do you want me to say, Ray?"
"What do you think about us raising a kid?"
Ben turned and leaned back against the counter, his arms crossed. "I believe you told me not to think about it, to feel instead. That's what I've been doing."
"Yes, and I can safely say, it's not a good feeling."
Ray braced himself for what was coming. This was it, the deal-breaker. Ben didn't want to do this. His heart ached with the possibility of doing this family thing alone and losing the man he loved in the process. "So you're against it, against us taking Em?"
"I didn't say that, Ray. I said it wasn't a good feeling and it's not. If you'll remember, my own mother died when I was six. I know too well what it's like to be raised by people other than your parents."
Relieved, but angry with himself at the same time for jumping the gun, Ray smacked himself in the forehead. He got up to stand beside his partner. "Shit. I'm sorry. I didn't even think about that."
Grabbing Ray's hand, Ben laced their fingers together and then kissed it. "Don't hit yourself, Ray. We've talked about that."
"I know. I know. I just need to do it sometimes because I'm such a jerk. I forgot all about your mum."
"It's all right. It was a very long time ago and I've learned to cope with that loss. However, I must confess that the absence of my living father throughout most of my childhood still stings."
"Your dad might have been some kind of Mountie hero, Ben, but he was a real asshole when it came to doing the right thing for his son."
"His priorities certainly seemed rather skewed from what one would describe as family values. That said, my point is, that it didn't feel good, as it were, to be reminded of all that. I didn't mean to imply that I think it's a bad idea for us to care for your cousin's child."
Suddenly hopeful, Ray squeezed Ben's hand harder. "You don't?"
"It wouldn't be easy. There are a great many obstacles we'd face, not the least of which would be revealing our status as same-sex partners."
Swallowing hard, Ray nodded. "Yeah, I thought of that. I mean, most people know, but just don't say anything. We do our jobs and most people don't make a fuss."
"Having a child might change that, Ray. There are a lot of people vehemently opposed to homosexual couples raising children. You've seen the cases where lesbian mothers have even lost their birth children in some states."
"Which is stupid."
"But it happens. Who's to say the same won't happen when they find out about us?"
"Roy's got a good lawyer, a Stan Bradford. Roy has all the papers already drawn up. He knows we're gay and he's okay with that. The only problem might be with his parents, my dad's brother, Uncle David, and my Aunt Sylvia. They're hardcore, fundamentalist types, the kind who talk about Christ and damning people to hell all in the same sentence."
"Much like your father."
"Yeah, exactly. Still, Bradford said we've got a good case since Roy's the one who's making the decisions."
"Not to be insensitive, Ray, but what about when he dies? Many cases occur afterwards when there's a disagreement about the placement of children. Since your cousin's very ill and recently lost his wife, they might argue that he's not truly competent to make these decisions."
"They could, but Bradford says they'd probably lose. Even so, we'd still fight it. We're both stand up guys, Ben. I'm a decorated Chicago cop and you're a Mountie. They'd have to discredit us to make us unfit and that wouldn't be easy."
"But wouldn't a public case destroy any possibility of remaining undercover as Ray Vecchio?"
"They can find someone else to play the part. I mean, they offered me a transfer before and a chance to get my name back. That must mean something. If I have to go to court, then we go to court."
"I hate to sound argumentative, but that would take a great deal of money, Ray. How could you afford to pay an attorney for such an endeavor?"
Ray released Ben's hand and paced a few times before he stopped and faced his partner, his arms crossed tightly around his chest. His head and heart hurt just thinking about Roy dying. "Roy's leaving me his house and his other property, but only if I decide to be the guardian. It's quite a bit, so money's not a problem. Plus, Em's got a huge trust that Roy wants us to manage. In fact, that's one of the reasons he said he doesn't want Uncle David to have Em. He says his dad's been wanting to get his hands on the money for a long time, something about investing it. Roy's locked it up the best he could to keep that from happening. It's hard to believe that about my own flesh and blood, but knowing Uncle David like I do, I believe it."
"You really think your uncle wants custody of his granddaughter solely so he can manage her trust?"
"From what Roy said and what I know, yeah." Ray ran a nervous hand through his hair. "You've got to understand about my uncle. He's all about getting rich quick. He's invested in high risk stocks and schemes before and he and my aunt have had to get loans from my dad and mum, money they really couldn't afford to give away. So, yeah, I think he'd do that and wouldn't think it was even wrong. Plus, I hate to think of him raising Em to believe like he does. He's a bigot just like my old man."
Ben stepped in closer and wrapped his arms around Ray's waist. "You realize how different our lives will be if we do this?"
"I do, yeah."
"And you still want to do it?"
Ray dropped his forehead to Ben's shoulder, his voice soft. "I've always wanted a kid, Ben. I figured when we hooked up, that was it, end of story, there'd never be a chance for that. Now, all of a sudden, here's this opportunity to have a family and do the right thing, too."
Kissing his temple, Ben whispered, "Then let's do this together."
"I want you to be happy, Ray."
Lifting his head, Ray shook his head. "Wrong answer. You have to want this, too, Ben. You can't just do it for me. It won't work if that's the only reason you agree to go along."
Ben caressed Ray's face and smiled. "It'll work, Ray. I want this, too."
"Cross your heart? No doubts, no fears?"
"I'd be lying if I said I had no doubts and fears, but I do promise that I'm not just being selfless. We do this together, as a team."
"A real duet?"
Ray cupped the back of Ben's head and kissed him hard, making sure Ben got the full tongue effect. When he pulled back, Ray saw Ben's eyes mist. "What?"
"It means a lot to me, Ray, that you want this, that you trust me to be part of it."
Heart aching, Ray nodded in understanding. "I feel the same way. Not every person would do this. Stella wouldn't."
"I'm not Stella, Ray."
Ray kissed the tip of Ben's nose and laughed. "Thank god for big favors."
"I think you mean small favors, Ray."
"Nope, I said big and I meant big." Tugging at Ben's belt, Ray led him towards the bedroom. "Speaking of big, let's celebrate."
"By making love?"
"You got a problem with that?"
Ben's face brightened as he smiled wider. "Not in the least."
"Good, because I've got a feeling that having a seven-year-old around might put a dent in our fun time in the future."
Taking the words to heart, Ben moved faster. "Then I suggest we make this memorable."
"Oh, any time with you is memorable, Ben."
"Just telling it like it is, buddy."
Blushing a bright red, but obviously pleased, Ben backed him against the bed and proceeded to give Ray more good times to remember.
Three in the morning and Ray still wasn't sleeping, not a wink, no shuteye in sight. He paced in the living room, back and forth, his arms crossed, biting his bloody right thumbnail down to the quick. Dief lay curled on the rug, watching the show, keeping his eyes trained on Ray the whole time. Ben cleared his throat from the bedroom doorway. "Ray, come to bed."
"Would you like some hot milk?"
"Chamomile tea, perhaps?"
"Thanks, but I don't want anything, Ben. Go back to bed."
Ben stepped closer and stopped Ray's movements. "You have to sleep, Ray. It doesn't do any good to get yourself so upset."
Taking a long breath, Ray nodded and relaxed slightly into Ben's arms. "My body's pooped, but my head's still spinning round and round. I can't believe all this is happening."
"It's a lot to take in."
"Roy was more than a cousin, Ben. He taught me stuff, treated me like I wasn't something to scrape off the bottom of your shoe, you know?"
"The bottom of your shoe?"
"Yeah, you've got to understand. I wasn't always the confident, tough guy you see today. I used to be kind of scrawny and I wore thick, ugly ass glasses. People gave me a lot of grief, but not Roy. He taught me how to stand up for myself and I'm not just talking about punching people in the face, either. He taught me how to read people, to go in under the radar and figure out what made them bullies in the first place. Once you've got that figured out, once you know what makes people tick, you've got the battle pretty much won."
"He sounds like a good friend."
"Yeah, and now he's dying and it doesn't make any sense."
"Death rarely makes sense."
Ray pulled away, nodding as he settled down on the sofa. "Yeah, yeah, I get that." He closed his eyes, scrubbing his face with both hands, the fatigue weighing down his muscles. He wouldn't be worth shit in the morning if he didn't get at least a few hours of sleep. "You should go back to bed. I didn't mean to wake you."
"I'll go if you come back to bed, too."
Ray held out a hand, palm down, showing the tremor. "Look at that. Look at that. I'm all shaky. It's like I can't settle down." He pulled the hand back close to himself and crossed his arms tightly, his hands tucked under his armpits. "It's funny, too, because it's not like this is the first person I know who's died a slow death. I knew Cindy and there have been a slew of other relatives. But just thinking about Roy dying and dying so rough, you know, being so sick and alone and everything, it's hitting me really hard for some reason. I wish I'd known, that he hadn't shut me out. I could've done something to make it easier."
"The enormous impact of this situation isn't that hard to understand, Ray. Roy is about your age and you were very close to him at one point in your life. When one loses someone like that, it's like one's own mortality comes into question. With your sensibilities about death, it would be unlikely that you wouldn't be profoundly affected by his imminent demise."
"I guess that makes sense. It's kind of selfish, but it's true. I'm thinking about Roy, but I'm also thinking about me, thinking about how that could be me just as easy as him. Luck of the draw, throw of the dice, who wins, who loses. Cancer sucks."
"Yes, it does." Ben settled on the sofa beside Ray, massaging the tight shoulders. "Come back to bed. At least try to rest for a few hours."
"I will, honest."
Not taking no for an answer, Ben stood up and held out a hand. "Now, Ray."
Ignoring the hand, Ray smirked. "Bossy much?"
"If you stay out here, we both know you won't sleep at all. If nothing else, you need a clear head to deal with what we're going to do this afternoon."
Sighing heavily, Ray reluctantly stood up and took Ben's hand. "Yeah, I know. It's a tough thing. Nothing will be the same after we sign those papers. Our life will be under a magnifying glass, everybody butting in, trying to make what we do dirty."
"You don't know that. Perhaps, Roy's parents will realize that to come after us will reveal some of their own foibles."
"Foibles, Ray, shortcomings, bad habits, faults that they don't want exposed to public scrutiny. If what you say is true about your uncle's investments, that could go against him when people question his motives about wanting custody."
"They might say the same thing about us."
"We have no history of such behavior."
"No, only queer stuff for us."
"No, no, I get what you're saying. I just don't want this thing to get any uglier than it has to. I can just imagine what my old man's going to say about me raising a kid as it is."
Ben hugged him and then slipped his hand down to the small of Ray's back, urging him to the bedroom. "Enough, Ray. We'll discuss all of this later. You need sleep."
"Easy for you to say, Mr. I snooze like a log no matter what man." As they crawled under the covers, Ray ended up in a Mountie embrace, his head resting on Ben's chest. "How do you do it, just shut it off and go to sleep like you do?"
"Yes, a combination of meditation and imaging which allows me to relax and drift into a restful sleep."
"Just like that?"
"Not just like that, Ray. It takes practice and focus."
"Fuck me. Won't work."
"Now, Ray -"
"Don't 'now, Ray' me. You know me and focus. I've got the attention span of a gnat. You said so."
"Well, perhaps if you allow me to guide you."
"Yes. Close your eyes."
"Just do it. Listen to my voice and do what I say." Ben caressed Ray's cheek and whispered, "Trust me."
"I trust you."
"Then close your eyes. Listen to my voice. You're in a safe place, a calm place. Imagine yourself there." Ray did that, his arms and legs relaxing slightly, Ben's voice easing him into a less edgy state. "I want you to feel the cool breezes against your skin, smell the fresh scent of pine, hear the thundering sound of caribou herds as they migrate, the snowflakes tickling your cheek as the season changes -"
Ray opened his eyes and snorted. "That's relaxing, thundering caribou herds and snow?"
"Are you saying it's not?"
"Not hardly. All I'm seeing are caribou stampedes, blizzards, and freezing my ass off."
"Try again. This time describe something that's not going to give me nightmares, okay? Jeez."
Ben nodded thoughtfully and then covered Ray's eyes with his palm to block the light once more. With a little more confidence, he continued with a whole different scenario. "I want you to feel the hum of the engine, Ray. It's freshly tuned and purring. You have brand new tires and the steering wheel is extra sensitive to your every touch. The sharp smell of motor oil fills your nostrils and you're speeding down the highway, other motorists moving quickly out of your way. There's nothing but a long stretch of road ahead and you are one with your car, racing into the night." Ray smiled to himself and snuggled down against Ben, listening to the soothing sound of his lover's voice as Ben told his favorite bedtime story.
"I like your cousin, Ray. He seems like a very good man."
"He is, and he likes you, too. I could tell." They sat across from one another at the restaurant table, Ray drinking a bottled beer and Ben eating a salad. "We've done it now, though, no turning back. We've signed the papers, signed, sealed, delivered. God help us."
Wiping his mouth with a napkin, Ben asked, "Do you want to turn back?"
"I want to run like hell, yeah, but am I going to? No. I can't. Em needs me, needs us. I made a promise."
"It's natural to be frightened, Ray. This is going to be a complete shift in thinking for both of us, but I think we're up to the task. She is, after all, only seven years old. I think we can manage."
Ray shook his head and took another sip. "You don't get it. It's not Em that scares me. Thinking about being with her, taking care of her, that's kind of exciting, sort of like right before you get a fresh case and you're just raring to go. No, that's not what scares me."
"No? Then what does scare you?"
"The money and all the other stuff that goes with it."
"Why should having money scare you?"
"It's a big deal, Ben. We're not just talking about a few pennies here. Em's rich and we're going to be rolling in it before it's over. I mean, we're talking stocks and bonds and shit I've got no idea how to handle."
"I can teach you."
"Come on, Ben, be serious. You lived in an office no bigger than a closet so you didn't have to pay rent. You cut coupons and recycle everything you can get your Canadian hands on. You even reuse old plastic bags and pinch every penny like it's your last dime."
"That's just being frugal and ecologically responsible, Ray."
"You don't even have a checking account because you pay everything in that funny money you carry."
"Canadian funds are not funny money, Ray. They're entirely legitimate."
"I know, I know, but you know what I'm saying. You've never had much money and you've saved what little you've had. Nothing fancy, just put it in the bank and leave it."
"While I don't profess to be an expert in financial matters, Ray, I'm not completely ignorant of basic economics. Plus, there's an accountant and broker who deals with all those aspects of the estate. We'll just be the overseers."
"Yeah, I know. That's what scares me. What if we don't oversee well enough and we get robbed, end up losing everything and Em ends up with nothing?"
"That's not going to happen."
"You can't be sure of that."
"I can be and am. Even if the stock market does poorly, much of what Em is heir to is protected in savings accounts, bonds, and CDs. She has a generous monthly allotment for living expenses, but otherwise, the vast majority of her wealth is safely stowed for the future. She'll never have to worry about paying for her education or her future financial security. When she's old enough, she'll be given full control of her own estate, which by that time, should be even more substantial. I plan to make very sure that she's fully knowledgeable about her own affairs and how to handle them before that happens."
Ray smiled at the speech, knowing that even though he might not know a bank CD from a CD he danced to, Ben knew the difference and then some. That made him feel a little better. "Good to know. So, how did you find out about all that stuff, bonds and things? No offense, but you were born in a barn and raised in the wilderness. Your idea of big bucks is whatever you can fit into your hat."
"True enough, but there are books on the subject."
"You've read books on money?"
"Winter nights are long in the Yukon, Ray, and the choice of reading material slim. Besides, I'm curious by nature. Economics is actually quite fascinating if you take the time to read the theoretical aspects that fuel it."
"Sounds drier than dust."
Ben tugged at his ear before resuming his meal. "Well, yes, but still necessary."
"Better you than me, then."
"Indeed. Your idea of financial planning is deciding whether to buy season passes to baseball or hockey since you can't afford both."
"And your point?"
"I'm just saying that perhaps you might want a few lessons so you'll be more informed." More serious, Ben put his fork down again. "It's important that we both know about this sort of thing, Ray."
"I'll let you handle that part."
"And if something should happen to me, what then?"
Suddenly angry, Ray snapped, "Don't fucking say that."
Heads at a nearby table turned in their direction. Ben ignored the intrusion and explained, his voice calm and even. "Ray, I don't want to upset you, but it's not just us anymore. We have to prepare for every contingency. We have to make sure that Em is protected and provided for regardless of what happens to either of us individually. That means that -"
Ray held up a hand. "I know what it means, Ben. You don't have to preach about it. I have to know what's what, no sticking my head in the sand."
"I still don't want to think about it."
"Neither do I, Ray, and I sincerely hope it's not something either of us has to deal with for quite some time."
"Not till we're old and grey, limping around and being crabby."
"Long past that, Ray. You're crabby on a regular basis now."
Ray sputtered into his beer. "You're calling me crabby?"
"Cantankerous, irritable, argumentative, all of which make you very endearing at times."
"You're unhinged, definitely a nut job, if you think me being an asshole is endearing."
"It's just part of your nature sometimes. I accept that, just like you accept that I can sometimes be rather, shall we say, obstinate and precise."
"You mean stubborn and picky?"
"I have my reasons."
"Just like I have mine for being pissed off when you pull shit and don't listen."
Ben sat back, not upset by the force of Ray's words. "We know the other's forte as well as his faults, Ray. It's part of the push and shove, yin and yang of being a couple."
"Yeah, I get that. It's funny though."
"How much easier it is with you than it ever was with Stella."
Frowning, but intrigued, Ben pushed his salad plate away and leaned in closer. "How so?"
"It's just easier. You know I'm not perfect, don't expect it, but you don't rag on me because of it. You don't take shit and you're not a pushover, but you don't keep harping and bringing it up to make points later. You let it lie once it's over and that makes it easier. Stella never did that. She had the memory of an elephant and kept picking at it, any little problem, and would never let it scab over and get well, you know?"
"I think so."
"That doesn't mean you let me get away with much. You don't, but somehow it's different. I guess I was doing that passive-aggressive thing with her."
"Yeah, you know, the more she fussed, the more I wanted to push her buttons later."
Ben snorted and smiled knowingly. "I see. Actually, I prefer the more direct aggression. That way we can both deal with it and move on."
"See, that's what I'm saying. You get me."
Ben lifted his cup of tea like a toast. "For which I'm forever grateful, Ray."
Ray's face heated slightly as he smiled, nodding in return. "Yeah, me, too. We're a good fit. We're oil and water, night and day, but for some reason it works. We click."
"Our opposite natures do allow for a rather fiery mix, that's true."
"Passion, romance, adventure, we've got it goin' on, huh?"
"True, but I'm not sure how that's going to work once we're parents."
Ray settled back in his chair, the weight of the decision they'd made heavy on his shoulders. "I know. It's going to be different, but that doesn't mean we give up the sparkage, Ben. We're going to be good dads, but we're also partners. We can't forget that if we want this to family thing to work."
Ray finished his beer and took a deep breath. "Okay, then. I think we've got some explaining to do before we head out so you can meet and spend some time with Em."
"Explaining to whom, Ray?"
"Well, I figure I'll tell Welsh and Stella, you tell Thatcher. Then we go to my parents' house."
Ben actually gulped as he swallowed, his voice tight. "Your parents' house?"
"Yeah, save the best for last."
"I'm not sure it's a good idea for me to go with you, Ray."
"We're in this together, the whole enchilada, the good and the bad. My mum will be okay with it, but Pop's going to be an asshole just like he was last time. Still, I want him to hear it from me, not from his brother or someone else."
"I'll tell him it's up to him if he wants to be a grandpa or not. If he does, then he has to be civil, no threats, no disrespect."
"It's a risky proposition, Ray."
"Yeah, well, I know." Ray swallowed hard before he added, "I'm hoping that my mum will work on him, you know, be our ally in this. She's always wanted a grandkid. This is her last chance, take it or leave it. This is the only way she'll ever have one."
"You don't think that this will cause conflict in their marriage?"
"Like having a queer son hasn't already?"
"I just meant -"
Ray held up a stalling hand. "I get it. I know what you're saying. I just think we have to do it."
"Then we will."
"Good." Ray checked his watch and saw the time was a little after five. I'll go see Welsh and Stella, you take care of Thatcher. I'll call my mum and see if we can go out to Skokie tonight or early tomorrow morning. Remember we're taking tomorrow off so we can go spend the whole weekend out with Em and Roy. We've both got plenty of vacation days, so that shouldn't be a problem."
"Do you have the directions to the house?"
"I've been there. It's more like a big country farmhouse than a regular house. He's got horses and shit, too, but not like a real farm or anything. He doesn't grow anything but a few vegetables and a garden out back."
Ben's eyes brightened. "Horses?"
Ray laughed as he stood and picked up the bill. He knew all too well how much Ben loved riding even though there were very few chances to do that in the city. "Oh, yeah, did I forget to mention that?"
"You most certainly did."
"Hey, if it doesn't run at the track, what good's a horse anyway?"
Scandalized, Ben shook his head. "Ray, Ray, Ray -"
"Yeah, I know, I'm a horse heathen, so sue me."
"I can teach you to ride, Ray. You'd look quite dashing on horseback."
"Especially when I got bucked off on my ass."
Ben shook his head and chuckled as Ray paid the bill. Ray knew if nothing else, Ben would be great about teaching Em about horse safety and all that stuff that Ray had no idea about. She'd learn all about horses and cars, so she'd be set when it came to dating. Ray groaned to himself, imagining a flock of horny guys coming after Em when she got older. "Ray, what's wrong?"
"Nothing. I was just getting ahead of myself."
"Ahead of yourself?"
"Thinking about Em as a teenager and dealing with guys sniffing round."
"What's with the ah? What's that mean?"
As they headed out of the restaurant to the car, Ben spoke calmly. "First of all, she's only seven."
"I said I was ahead of myself."
"By about nine or ten years, I'd say." Ray snorted. "What?"
"With that math, she wouldn't be dating until she's sixteen or seventeen."
"Kids date sooner these days."
"Not our kid."
Chuckling and shaking his head, Ray unlocked the door and realized Em was going to have not one, but two overprotective dads to run her guys by. Remembering how bad it was when he met Stella's dad, he had more than a little sympathy for any poor schmuck who fell for their daughter.
Welsh glanced up from a stack of papers, his glasses balanced on the tip of his nose as Ray stuck his head in the door of his office. "Hey, Lieu, you got a minute?
"What are you doing here, Vecchio? I thought you left hours ago for that personal thing you had to do?"
"That's what I need to talk about. Can I come in?"
Welsh slipped off his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose as he waved Ray into his office. "Sure. Want some coffee?"
"No, thanks. I'm a little wired as it is."
Ray's boss studied him for a moment and then got up to pour himself some coffee, waiting for Ray to get the ball rolling. When Ray didn't say anything right away, he prompted. "You going to tell me what this is about or do I have to get out the rubber hoses?"
"No rubber hoses, sir, nothing like that. It's just I'm not sure where to start."
"The beginning usually works best."
"Not this time, but I do have to rewind a little bit. I've got a cousin."
"As we often do."
"Sir, please. This is important."
Welsh doctored his coffee and sat back down, more serious. "I just thought I'd give you some time to collect your thoughts. Okay, so I'm listening. You've got a cousin..."
"And he's dying. He's got cancer and I just found out."
Welsh's expression darkened. "I'm sorry. Is that why you took off this afternoon, to go see him?"
Ray paced the small office as he talked, replaying the meeting, the flurry of forms and discussions, so many details that he could hardly keep them all straight. He replayed how well Ben handled the whole thing, how thorough and professional, and yet compassionate he was when he talked to Roy about all the inevitabilities. In the meantime, Ray saw relief lessen the strain on Roy's worn features as he realized that Ray had picked a winner, a really on-the-ball guy, and a true partner. Before they'd left, Roy had told him as much and invited them both out for the weekend.
Ray pushed away the sting of tears and the terrible ache in his gut as he thought about losing someone who was as close to him as a brother might have been. "Yeah, we saw him."
"Fraser and me. Roy wanted to meet him."
"And how did that go?"
"Good, it went good. Everybody likes Fraser."
Welsh nodded thoughtfully. "He's a bit odd, the Canadian, but, yeah, he's a good guy. Makes a good impression. I still don't understand why you're telling me this."
"I need tomorrow off. Chances are, I'm going to need more time in the near future. Roy's bad off and there's not a lot more days left."
"That shouldn't be a problem. You've got plenty of personal days."
Ray scratched his head and nodded, "Yeah, I know. It's just that, well, I'm not sure how much good I'm going to be on the job for a while."
"Take the time you need. You know how to fill out the forms."
Ray stepped closer, his voice a little shaky. "Look, there's more, a lot more. I might have to quit."
Welsh sat up straighter, suddenly more than just sympathetic. "Quit as in quit the assignment or quit the force?"
"One or the other, both, neither, I don't know. I just don't know yet how it's going to work out."
"I don't understand."
"Roy has a little girl, Emma. She's only seven-years-old, but she lost her mum just last year and now her dad's dying. Roy wants me to raise her when he's gone."
For the first time ever in his experience, Ray saw Welsh go pale and then open his mouth and shut it again without saying anything. It took several long moments before Welsh finally responded. "You really think that's the best thing, you raising a little girl?"
"You don't think I can do it?"
"I didn't say that." Welsh cleared his throat, suddenly very uneasy. "Is Fraser going to be involved in this?"
Ray nodded, seeing where his lieutenant was going and hoping he was wrong. "Yeah. Is that a problem for you?"
"Don't take this the wrong way, Ray, but have you thought about all the ramifications of that, you and Fraser, being parents?"
"Yeah, we have and Roy's okay with it."
"This isn't Canada. It's one thing to be together off the job. I've got no problem with that. It's another when you start taking in kids."
"So you're saying I'm good enough to risk my skinny white ass on the streets, but I'm not good enough to take care of Emma because I'm with Fraser?"
Welsh shook his head, his face more red. "Don't put words in my mouth. That's not what I said and it's not what I believe. I'm just saying that there are a lot of people who've looked the other way with you two, but when they find out about this, they're not going to be happy."
Mouth dry, Ray swallowed hard. He'd thought the same things himself, even said them to Ben and Roy, but hearing them from Welsh, Mr. Practical, Mr. Real World Experience, it sounded so much worse. "Yeah, I know that. We're ready for it. We've got a good lawyer lined up to deal with it if something happens."
"A good lawyer will take care of the legal obstacles. What about the day-to-day stuff, the hassle people are going to dish out about this? You won't get any from me, but you and I both know there are plenty who'll be really bent out of shape as soon as they hear about this, people who don't even know you and some who do."
"We'll deal with it."
"By quitting the force? How do you plan on making a living? Unless Fraser's been hiding a lot of assets, I don't see you living too well off your savings. Even if you cash in your retirement, that's not enough to take care of a family."
"Money's not a problem. Roy's rich and Em's got a trust fund. The big problem will be my uncle trying to get custody because Fraser and I are, well, you know."
"Yeah, you know."
Welsh finally got what Ray was saying about being gay. "Oh, riiight, you know."
"So, I haven't decided for sure to quit, but it's a possibility. Roy and Em live about an hour outside Chicago. It'd be a hell of a commute."
"Sounds like it."
"We don't want to make any more major changes in Em's life until we know how she's going to deal with Fraser and me showing up and Roy not always being there."
"Poor kid. That's a lot to deal with in a short time."
"So, that's why I'm thinking about just taking an extended leave until we know for sure how this is going to play out."
"And Fraser? Is he taking a leave, too?"
"I don't know yet. This all just happened yesterday afternoon. We haven't ironed out all the bugs yet." Ray rubbed the back of his neck, the achy tension driving spikes through his shoulders. "To tell the truth, this has all been like some kind of whirlwind. I haven't really had a chance to let it all hit me yet."
"I hope you're sitting down when it does."
"Yeah, me, too."
Welsh drank some of his coffee, weighing his thoughts for an extra moment. "Tell you what. You take the extended leave as Vecchio. That way we'll get a substitute, not a permanent replacement. If you decide to come back, your position will still be here."
"You don't think it'll be a problem with the cover?"
"Shouldn't be. Vecchio can take personal leave the same as anyone else."
"And my cases?"
"Not a problem. Look, Ray, you go do what you have to with your cousin and his little girl." Welsh paused before he added, "I think you're going to make a good father."
"Yeah, I mean, who better to raise a kid than a big kid who knows how they think?"
Ray saw the twinkle in the eye and appreciated his boss's pat on the back even if it did come disguised as a putdown. "Good point, sir. Luckily, we'll have Fraser around to play the grown up."
More serious, Welsh stood and held out a hand. "Good luck, Kowalski. Keep me informed."
Ray shook his lieutenant's hand, the grip strong to show his support. "Yes, sir, three bags full, sir. I'll let you know as soon as we decide for sure what to do."
"You do that. Just don't keep me in the dark too long. If you decide you're not coming back, let me know. It's not easy to find good cops."
"You think I'm a good cop?"
"Did I say that?"
"You sort of did, yeah."
"You're hearing things. Must be the stress of being a new parent." Welsh waved a hand at the door. "Now, get out of here and send me the paperwork as soon as you can get Fraser to type it up."
Ray headed to the door, turning, his hand on the knob. "Thanks, sir."
"You still here, Vecchio?"
Recognizing his cue to leave, Ray headed out and shut the door behind him. He walked over to his desk and picked up the phone, punching in a number he knew by heart. After two rings, he recognized the woman's voice. "Hey, Stella? You busy?"
Ray handed Stella another tissue and watched helplessly as his tougher-than-nails ex-wife cried her eyes out. She took the news worse than he thought she would. She'd always liked Roy and had been close friends with Cindy, but he never realized she'd be hit this hard with the bad news. "You okay, Stella?"
She blew her nose again and shook her head. "Of course I'm not okay, Ray. You come in and drop a bomb like this and I'm supposed to be okay? I don't think so. This is an awful thing. I didn't need to hear about this on top of a shitty day."
Always undone when Stella cried, Ray rubbed his hands on his pant legs. He needed to do something, anything except just sit there. "You want a drink, something to settle your nerves?"
Taking a deep, calming breath, she threw the tissue away and reached for another. "Yeah, yeah, a whiskey would help. You know where it is."
Ray got up and went to the bar, poured out just the one drink. He was tempted to join her, but knew he'd better not. He was already wiped out from stress and almost no sleep from the night before. Hard liquor on top of all that before seeing his parents would only make things worse. He handed her the drink and sat back down on the sofa. "I'm sorry, Stell. I thought you should know."
"I'm glad you told me, but it's still a terrible thing." She drank half the whiskey in one swallow and then cradled the glass in her hands as she sagged back in the chair. "We grew up with Cindy and Roy. Cindy was such a good friend and Roy was your best man. How could this happen, Cindy already dead and Roy nearly there?"
"I don't know, Stella. I wish I did."
Sighing, she accepted his lame response. She studied him a few extra moments. "So how are you dealing with this? I mean, I know how close you and Roy are. You look terrible."
"We used to be close, not as much anymore. We kind of drifted apart, his life, my life, both too busy to keep up. I never in a million years expected things to happen like this. I mean, I always figured he'd be there, somebody to talk to and call on when I just needed to talk even when I got old and decrepit."
"We don't think about people our age dying."
"But they do. People our age and younger die all the time."
"You just never expect it to happen to you or someone you care about." Stella sat back up, finished off the drink, and dried her eyes. "So, what do you need from me, Ray?"
"I don't need anything. I just wanted you to hear it from me first."
"Thank you for that. Have you told your parents about you taking Emma yet?"
"I told Mum. I figure I'll tell Pop when I get there."
"Are you taking your gun when you go?"
"Not funny, Stell."
"I'm not kidding. Your dad's going to go crazy. You know how he feels about you and the Canadian."
"Don't call him that. The Canadian has a name."
"I fucking know he has a name, Ray." She stopped herself from saying anything hateful and shook her head. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to snap like that. We're not married anymore and it's none of my business who you sleep with."
"It's not just about sex. You know me better than that. This is the real deal. I'm sorry if you're still pissed off about it, but I didn't fall in love with Ben to hurt you."
Her expression softened and she nodded. She reached over and took his hand in hers. "I'm not pissed off, Ray. I'm really glad you've found someone who makes you happy. I just worry, that's all."
"Worry about what?"
"You never pick the easy roads. First there was me and now Fraser. I know you're tough, but this isn't going to be a walk in the park. People will fight you, people you probably even thought were your friends."
Ray squeezed her hand, a familiar hand he'd held a million times before in different situations. "I know that, but I have to do this. Roy asked me to, sort of a last request thing. Besides, Emma needs a father." He bit his lower lip before he made his next confession. "I always wanted a little girl, Stella, you know that."
"I know. I remember when Emma was born how jealous you were."
"Oh, yeah. You hounded me for months about giving in and having a baby, too. It was always worse after we'd visit. You'd get that look you get, the one that says you're dying to have one of your own." She patted his hand and shook her head. "But I just couldn't, Ray. It would've been a disaster."
"You're selling yourself short, Stella. You would've been a great mom."
"No, Ray, I wouldn't have, but you would've been a great dad. Now you're going to have that chance. I just wish it wasn't under these circumstances."
Another tear rolled down Stella's face and Ray gently wiped it away with his thumb. She reached over and touched his face back, her lips pursed and her cheeks flushed from more than crying. Despite his love for Ben, Ray had to fight down the terrible urge to kiss her, to grab her up in his arms and take her to bed. Sometimes he still hungered for her touch, her body, the comfort of his life from their many years together. Regardless of that urge and the obvious invitation in her eyes, Ray pulled back. He'd never risk what he had with Ben because of his urge to fuck Stella one more time for old time's sake. Ben wouldn't understand and Ray didn't expect him to. "Stella, don't."
"You know what." Ray stood up and ran a nervous hand through his hair. "I should be going. Ben and I are going out to see the folks tonight. Mum's expecting us."
"Barbara will be fine with it."
"Your father, on the other hand, is going to be completely unreasonable as always."
"I know that, too. I still have to tell him before Uncle David does."
"Does David know what Roy has planned yet?"
"I don't know if he knows about me, but he knows Roy doesn't want him to have Emma or the money."
"No offense, Ray, but your Uncle David can't be trusted. I always said so. There was always something shifty about him, the way he'd cozy up to me, asking about the stocks my father gave me. I can't tell you how many times he asked me to invest in some stupid scheme he'd cooked up. Thank goodness I didn't. Behind all that talk about God and the church, I always figured he'd steal you blind given half a chance. He still hasn't paid back that big loan he took out from your parents, a loan they couldn't afford, by the way."
"And he never will, Stella. I mean, Mum's already told me that they didn't expect to get it back. You know what they say about loaning money. Never loan more than you can afford to lose, especially to relatives."
Stella crossed her arms and then said something that Ray didn't expect, hadn't even thought about. "Ray, he might use that as a ploy to get your father to support him going after custody."
"What do you mean, ploy?"
"I mean, David might tell Damien that he can get his money back when he gets Emma. I mean, Damien's already going to be against you having her because of Fraser. That would just seal it."
Pushing down his own fear, Ray shook his head, not wanting to think about battling his dad about his own worth as a person and a potential father. "Seal it or not seal it, that doesn't matter. I'm going to do this whether Dad likes it or not."
"Well, you've got a good lawyer in your corner, so that's something. Stan Bradford's one of the best estate and family law attorneys in the country."
"He's good, huh?"
"He's excellent. You know me, Ray, I don't hand out that kind of praise lightly." She cleared her throat and stepped closer. "Tell him if he needs a character witness, to call me. If he needs any help at all, I'm on your side."
"Thanks, Stella. That means a lot to me."
She patted his face and then kissed him on the cheek. "Tell Roy I'm sorry and let me know what happens, okay?"
"Sure, sure, I'll do that."
"Maybe later on... no, forget that."
"Nothing. I was just going to say, I'd like to see Emma sometime if you bring her into the city."
"That's not a problem. She'd probably like to see you, too. It's just I don't know when that will be. Things are still so up in the air, you know?"
"Yeah, I do." She wiped her face and pushed back her hair with her right hand. "Look, I've had a long day and I've got a ton of briefs to go over before tomorrow, so -"
"Not a problem. I'll get out of your hair. Take a hot bath and relax. You'll feel better."
"I'd feel better if you stayed the night, but -"
"Don't start, Stella. We can't do that anymore."
"I know. Doesn't keep me from thinking about it. We had a lot of problems, Ray, but the sex was always fantastic even after we broke up. Hell, sometimes it was even better. I guess I'm a little jealous."
"Yeah, jealous. Can you believe it? I mean, I know it's stupid and immature. You're a grown man and I'm the one who filed for divorce, but every now and again, I get jealous of the fact that you're with someone who's prettier than I am." She smacked his arm before he had a chance to even say anything back.
"And don't you dare tell him I said that."
Ray snorted and shook his head in amusement, still rubbing his arm, playing up how hard she hit him. "What and make his head too big for his Stetson? No way."
She opened the door and waved Ray away. "Go on now. Good luck with your parents."
Any good mood that might have started left quickly at the thought of the confrontation he knew waited for him in Skokie. "Thanks, but I'm going to need more than luck."
"I'm fresh out of miracles, Ray. Just hang in there and stand your ground, like you'd do anything differently."
"You saying I'm stubborn?"
"I'd say it runs in the family."
Ray kissed her on the cheek to say good bye and then left. As the door shut behind him, he hoped that he made it through the night without punching out his own father.
Ray found Ben waiting at the apartment looking like he'd just gone fifteen rounds and went down for the count, TKO, unanimous decision. "Jesus, Ben, what the hell happened?"
"It's a long story."
Ray stepped closer and touched Ben's pale face gently. "What is it? Tell me."
"Inspector Thatcher didn't react well to the news about me taking personal leave."
"I mean it. What'd she say?"
Troubled, Ben shook his head and pulled away, his right thumb rubbing his eyebrow. "It's not important."
"Fuck that. It's important if you're this upset."
Ben settled on the sofa, leaning forward. He'd taken off his uniform coat and pushed back the sleeves of his undershirt. "I never realized how much she truly resented our relationship."
"Ben, you're killing me here. Just tell me what she said."
"I always knew she could be spiteful, but this was beyond the pale, Ray. The things she said, well, suffice it to say, she wasn't exactly supportive of the situation. She as much as threatened to have me reassigned back to Ottawa against my wishes if we proceed with the adoption."
Ray settled down beside Ben, panic rising. "Can she do that? Can she ship you off like that for no good reason?"
"In her mind there is a reason. She feels that my continued involvement with you, and now with Emma, has made me less than objective, that I don't see the possible negative repercussions should our relationship go public. She thinks it would reflect badly on Canada."
"She's threatening to transfer you because she's afraid of bad press?"
Ray squeezed Ben's shoulder for reassurance and then shook his head. "I always knew she was a bully, throwing her weight around."
"It's more than that, Ray. I think she's jealous of our relationship. I knew she didn't approve. That was evident enough through various comments and aspersions. However, this goes far beyond personal displeasure. I just never believed she'd go to this extreme to try to manipulate and end what we have."
Ben glanced up and managed a weak smile. "Don't worry, Ray. Nothing's going to end between us."
"However, I might have to reevaluate my dedication to the service. Given a choice of leaving the RMCP or staying with you, I'd choose you."
"You'd stop being a Mountie for me?"
"For us, yes."
"Wow. I never expected that, not really. I mean, I thought about it. I thought about what you might do if you couldn't take leave, but -"
"You're willing to stop being a detective, Ray. Why should my career be more important than yours?"
"I didn't say it was. I'm just saying I know how important being a Mountie is to you."
"And you love being a detective."
"Not so much."
"Now you're just trying to make me feel better."
Ray let his forehead rest against Ben's. "Is it working?"
"A little. Thank you."
"You're welcome." After a few moments, Ben relaxed and Ray took advantage. He kissed him briefly and pulled back. "I can call my mum and tell her we'll come by tomorrow morning instead of tonight."
"No, Ray. We should go tonight."
"Get it over with, huh?"
"It was your idea to talk this out face-to-face. If we wait until tomorrow, I'm afraid you won't sleep again tonight."
"Go or not go, I probably won't sleep anyway."
"That might well be, but if we're going to do it, I personally would rather do it tonight than tomorrow."
"Okay, then I guess I'll hit the can and we can head out."
When Ray didn't make an effort to move, Ben nudged him. "Ray, we said we'd be there by eight-thirty."
"I know." Ray still made no effort to get up. Instead, he swallowed hard and asked, "So what are you going to do about Thatcher?"
"I told her I'd be taking leave indefinitely until the situation is more settled. If she decides to put in the transfer, I'll deal with it then."
"Do you want to quit?" Ben didn't answer right away, just tugged at his ear. Ray repeated the question. "Ben, do you want to quit? Be honest."
"No, Ray, I don't want to resign, but I'll do what I have to." Ben took Ray's hand and laced their fingers together. "I always thought that nothing was more important than my service for the general good of my country. Now, I've come to realize that the individual good is just as important. Taking care of Emma at this point in her life is more important than whether or not I wear a uniform. Sharing that experience and responsibility with you is the bonus."
Ray lifted their clasped hands to his mouth and kissed them. "You really are something else, you know that?"
"As are you, Ray."
Kissing Ben again, Ray then stood up and squared his shoulders. "Get yourself gussied up, the hat, the whole deal."
"You think me wearing the uniform will make a difference to our reception?"
"Not a bit." Ray pecked him on the cheek and took off, talking over his shoulder. "I just want to show you off."
Blushing from the compliment, Ben nodded and proceeded to put on his jacket. Ray just prayed that Ben didn't have to eventually give up the uniform Ben loved so much.
Ray and Ben sat on the cramped sofa of the small trailer, while Ray's mother dabbed at her eyes. Damien Kowalski had taken off before they'd even arrived. "Mum, I know this is upsetting, but I really need to know what you think about this whole thing, about me and Ben here taking Emma."
His mother sniffed a few times and sat up straighter in the battered, patched-up recliner. "You'll be a wonderful father, Stanley, I've always believed that." She trained her eyes on Ben and leaned forward to pat his hand. "And you, Ben, you'll help my Stanley, yes?"
"Of course, Mrs. Kowalski. We're partners."
She smiled and nodded, happy with his polite nature. "I'm going to hold you to that, and from now on, I want you to call me Barbara."
Ben glanced first at Ray and then back at Ray's mother. "I'd be honored."
"Good, good, that's settled." She cleared her throat and asked, "How long are you two staying with Roy?"
"We don't know yet. We're going out tomorrow morning so Ben can meet Em and so we can just sort of hash out some more details, learn her routine, figure out what's the best way to handle things when the worst happens."
"Do you think you'll move back into the city?"
Ray shrugged. "I'm not sure. I guess a lot will depend on how Em deals with everything. It's a lot of changes for a little girl."
"Poor little thing, no mother, now her father's sick. It's terrible."
"You said you knew he was sick. Why didn't you tell me when you first found out?"
"Because he told me not to. I told him it was a mistake, that you'd want to know, but he wouldn't listen." She sniffed again and reached for another Kleenex. "You Kowalski men are all the same when it comes to being prideful and stubborn."
That gave Ray the opening for what he needed to say next. He tried to keep the anger out of his voice, but he couldn't hide the deep hurt from his own mother. "Couldn't he at least stay and face me?"
"You know your father, Stanley." Uneasy, Barbara shook her head. "I'm sorry, Ben, but I'm sure you understand that my husband is very old-fashioned. He's not very accepting of your relationship with our son."
"So I've gathered."
"Saying he'd 'punch his lights out' next time he saw Fraser might have been the clue."
"He didn't mean that. He'd never hit anyone except in self-defense, you know that. It was just a shock to find out that you two were, well, you know."
Ray reached over and took Ben's hand, squeezing it. "Tell him to get over it, to make room in his narrow little head for the idea that I can make my own decisions. Ben and I are together. Dot it, file it, put it in a box marked done."
"I already have, Stanley. It doesn't do any good. You know how he is about this sort of thing. He doesn't understand it and thinks it's a sin."
Swallowing back his own fear, Ray had to ask the next question. "What about you, Mum? You've never said what you think about us."
She hesitated, but not for long, looking first at Ray and then at Ben before returning her full attention to her son. "I love you, Stanley. I want you to be happy. If Ben helps with that instead of Stella or some other person, then so be it. Who am I to say what's right or wrong?" She paused and then added softly. "You love him, Stanley. I can see that and he loves you. How can that be wrong?"
"It's not, Mum."
"No, I don't think it is, either."
"Thank you, Barbara. That was very nicely said and I appreciate you supporting Ray and me even though I know that position has caused difficulties in your marriage."
"Damien is hardheaded, that's a fact. He never been one to make things easy." Then she said something that floored Ray, something he never expected to ever hear come out of her mouth. "I love my husband, but I'm afraid he hasn't been a very good father."
She held up a hand to stall his protest. "No, it's true, Stanley. Sure, he was there when you were little, took you to ballgames, taught you how to work on cars, did all those kind of father-son things. He tried to be a good father, God bless him, and he was for a while. It's just that when you got older and fell in love with Stella, you started thinking for yourself, planning out your own life, one that your father didn't agree with. I suppose it goes back to your grandfather, Richard. He was a hard man and Damien has, unfortunately, followed in his footsteps."
Ray shook his head, confused. "I always thought he was dead a long time ago like Grandma Kowalski."
"He wasn't, not until about eight years ago. Richard didn't want to have anything to do with your father or me after we got married."
His jaw dropped and then he closed it. Ray couldn't believe what he was hearing. "You're saying Dad's father cut him off because he married you?"
"He didn't think I was good enough for your father. I wasn't Polish or Catholic. I converted for your father's sake, but that still wasn't good enough for Richard Kowalski."
"Son of a bitch."
Barbara nodded approvingly of Ben's comment. "He's right, Stanley. You know I don't like cussing."
"Sorry, Mum. I just can't believe you never told me about this."
"There was nothing to be gained, not really. You were a child. You didn't need to know about all that ugliness. Now here we are years later and Damien is making the same mistake his father made, judging you because you love somebody he doesn't approve of. It's stupid and hurtful, and it makes me terribly angry."
"I'm sorry, Mum."
"I'm not mad at you, Stanley, I'm mad at your father. I've warned him though."
"Warned him about what?"
"If he spoils this chance for you to have a family, I'll never forgive him. I'll leave him if I have to."
Ray's jaw dropped. "What?"
"You heard me. I won't stay with him if he does anything at all to jeopardize your happiness."
Ray shook his head, stunned and amazed. "You told him that? You'd really leave Pop after all these years?"
"I don't want to, but I will. I won't divorce him, because I don't believe in that sort of thing, but I won't live with him if he keeps acting this way and rejecting our own son. I've got enough money saved that I could find a small place of my own and Stella has said she'd help."
"I'd help, too, Mum. You don't have to worry."
"Thank you, Stanley. I hope it doesn't come to that, but I always taught you to be prepared for whatever life throws your way. If your father insists on being a poop head, then he'll lose everything. It's entirely up to him."
"A poop head?"
She held up a hand, her face flushed with embarrassment. "I know, I know, I shouldn't call him that, but that's what he acts like sometimes, a big poop head."
Ray couldn't hold back the grin when Ben coughed and covered his mouth with a fist to hide his own amusement. "Gee, Mum, I've never heard you use that word."
"And if your father behaves, you won't hear it again. In the meantime, I just want you to know that I'll be here to baby sit if you need me." She held up a finger. "Hold on just a minute. I've got something you should see."
Barbara got up and went to the bedroom, returning in a just a few seconds. "Look at this. Isn't she the sweetest little thing?"
Ray took the offered picture and held it between him and Ben. He heard the sharp intake of breath beside him and saw Ben's eyes widen. Ben spoke softly, like he couldn't believe what he was seeing. "Dear Lord, Ray, she looks just like you. She's beautiful."
Barbara smiled with intense pride and nodded. "She's a doll. Roy sent that to me a few months ago. It's her second grade picture. She'll be in third grade this fall."
Ray studied the girl in the photo. Whip-sharp blue eyes under a fine thatch of blond hair stared out at him, eyes full of mischief and wonder. He remembered seeing pictures of himself at that age and had to admit to having the same gleam in his eye, like nothing was safe if he had a chance to smash it or take it apart. All in all though, the smile struck him the most, the way she grinned and looked so happy, like she had no clue what life was throwing her way one day soon. "She looks more like Roy than me."
Barbara paled and sat back down in the chair. "Stanley, I swore I'd never tell you this, but I have to. It's not right. It's just not right. I should never have promised."
Ben took Ray's hand again and held it, almost like he knew what was coming. Ray swallowed hard and said out loud something he always suspected, something that would explain a hell of a lot. "Roy's not my cousin, is he? He's more than that."
She cried softly, not able to speak right away, but nodded. Ray didn't really know how to react, what to say. He was shocked, but not so shocked that he didn't believe it. He remembered a long time ago when he was little how he'd asked why he couldn't have a brother and his mother crying then, too. Now he knew why. He had a brother all this time and nobody ever told him. "Does Roy know?"
"No, but I think he suspects." Barbara wiped her nose and threw away the tissue. Then she worked to contain her emotions to explain the puzzle. "Damien dated Roy's mother before he met me. She was already pregnant when she married David, but didn't tell either brother that Damien was Roy's father."
Ray didn't want to even deal with the fact that his father knocked up his own brother's girlfriend. Talk about casting the first stone thing. What a fucking hypocrite. Instead, he focused on his mother, who still suffered for his father's sins. "So, how'd you find out?"
"She died when Roy was just a baby and she told us then. David married Sylvia shortly after that. Damien and David both made me promise not to tell you or David that you were brothers."
"I don't understand, Mum, I don't get it. Why keep it a secret?"
"A lot of reasons, all of which seem stupid now, but you have to understand, Stanley, it was a different time back then. This would've been a huge scandal in the church and David was very angry with your father for not telling him that he'd even been with Nancy. On top of that, your father felt incredibly guilty. He went along with David to keep peace. Plus, David said he didn't want Roy to be confused or think less of his mother."
"Even if I went along with that, I still don't understand why it's still a secret now. We're not kids anymore." Ray stood up and paced the small space, shaking his head with frustration. "This is the dumbest shit I've ever heard. I had a brother, Roy had a brother, and nobody told us."
"But you guessed. I remember you asking about it once before."
"Yeah, well, more like wishful thinking. I wanted him to be my brother and not just a cousin, but now it all makes sense."
"What does, dear?"
"Why Uncle David and Pop didn't like us playing together so much. They thought we'd find out and cause trouble. Idiots. I swear to god, the men in my family are idiots on top of being assholes."
"Don't say anything, Ben. I mean it. I had a right to know and so did Roy. We got cheated."
Barbara nodded. "Yes, Stanley, you did, and I'm sorry. I'm as much to blame as your father. I should've told you sooner."
His mother's sad tone tapped off his anger enough that Ray sat back down, his heart still racing. "I'm going to tell him."
"Yes, Stanley, I know that. He deserves to know."
"And I want you to tell Dad that it's probably a good thing he left tonight because I might've kicked his ass if he'd been here."
"Ray, you don't mean that."
Ray turned to Ben and saw the worry, the concern for Ray's mental state after taking so many emotional blows in such a short time. Ray took a deep breath to calm down. "Actually, I do mean that, but you're right. I have you here to talk me out of it and keep my dad from getting his butt kicked."
"Ben's a good influence."
"Yeah, Mum, he is."
Barbara stood up at the same time Ray did. They hugged and she patted his back. "Keep Em's picture. Tell Roy and Emma I love them."
"I will, Mum, thanks."
"Now, you two had better go home and get some rest. It's a long drive out to Roy's place."
Ben stood up, holding his hat in his hands. Barbara turned from Ray's arms and then wrapped Ben in an embrace. She whispered into his ear. "Take care of my Stanley."
"I will, Barbara, I promise."
She pulled back and smiled as she patted his cheek gratefully. "Thank you."
Ray drank the second beer and seriously considered getting another. Instead, he cradled his face in his arms at the kitchen table. He had to get some sleep, try to turn off the voices in his head for a while if he was going to be worth shit to drive come sun up.
"I'm okay. I'm good. Go back to bed."
Ben settled in the chair at the table and put his hand on Ray's shoulder. "You're not okay, Ray. Talk to me."
Ray got up and tossed the empty bottle in the trash with a loud thud. "Dads suck."
"They can, yes."
"You admit that your dad sucked, too?"
"I'll admit that he wasn't the father I'd hoped for."
Ben rarely talked about his father, almost never brought him up. Ray sat down again and reached over to take Ben's hand. Talking about Ben's dad gave him a chance not to think about his own. "What kind of father did you hope for?"
"One who was there."
"Yeah, that would've helped."
"And one who wasn't so afraid of me."
Ray frowned, not sure what that meant. "Afraid of you? Are you saying you think your dad was afraid of you?"
"Not afraid of me in the traditional sense. It was more like he was fearful of what I represented."
"His life with my mother, a life that no longer existed after her death."
"Okay, I get what you're saying. You're saying he freaked out and then just farmed you out and took off, became Super Mountie, and forgot about his own kid, huh?"
"He wouldn't see it like that, but, yes, that's pretty accurate."
"And that pissed you off?"
"It hurt more than angered me, Ray." Ben squeezed Ray's hand. "But this isn't about my issues with my father. It's about yours."
"Issues? Who said I've got issues?"
"Be serious, Ray."
Ray ran a hand through his hair and then sat back, his arms crossed. He didn't want to do this, talk about what was really eating him alive. "No matter what I ever did, I could never please him. I tried, too, tons of times and in tons of ways. Nothing worked. Now I find out that on top of rejecting me, making me feel like shit about myself, he's kept this big secret. He sucks." When Ben didn't say anything, Ray added, "You can say he sucked, Ben. It's okay."
"It's not my place."
"If I can say your dad sucked, you can say mine sucked, too. I don't mind."
Ben's lips thinned a little as he accepted Ray's prodding. "Very well. He sucked. He should have loved you and supported you, not rejected you like he did."
"Good." Ray took a deep breath and finally said what he didn't want to say. "What if I screw up like he did, do something stupid for no good reason?"
"You don't know that. You don't know that for sure. You can do a lot of things, but you don't have a crystal ball. You've got no way to tell the future. I could turn out to be just like my old man, a lousy father who's too stuck in his ways to do right by his kid. I'm already pig-headed and bad-tempered. What if I fuck Emma up even more by doing this?"
"You're wrong to doubt yourself, Ray. You're not your father. You're nothing like that man. You're kind and good and you want the best for Emma. There's no reason to think that you'd ever do anything to harm her."
Choked up by Ben's conviction, Ray leaned in, his head down and his voice raw. "I don't want to fuck up. I just don't know if I can do this. I think I can do the right thing, but I've never been around a kid for longer than a day or two. This isn't babysitting, it's parenting. Those are two different animals."
"Yes, they are, but you're up to the task, Ray. More importantly, you won't be alone. I'll be there. Neither of us had model parents, though I must confess, I'm jealous of your relationship with your mother."
Ray smiled and nodded, proud of his mum. "Yeah, she's something."
"You're very lucky."
"Yeah, I know."
"So, despite your anger with your father, you can take heart in knowing you can provide what Emma needs most."
"Unconditional love, just like what you have with Barbara."
"God, I hope so."
"I know so."
"I wish I had your faith, Ben, but that's always been my weak point. It's hard to believe in myself sometimes."
"I believe in you, Ray."
Lifting his head, Ray met those intense blue eyes in the low light of the kitchen. "Yeah?"
"You're not just saying that?"
"Not in the least." Ben reached out and took both Ray's hands in his before he stood up. He tugged Ray to his feet. "Now, I suggest we try to get a few hours of sleep."
Ray didn't protest, just let Ben lead him back to bed. Once there, they snuggled in together and got comfortable in one another's arms. Ray sighed deeply, still a little amazed by his mother's revelation. "I've got a brother."
Ben kissed the top of his head. "Yes."
"I would imagine. Finding out one has a grown sibling might be a bit disconcerting."
"You just don't like to think about your folks having sex with other people."
"That's true, but it happens."
"Obviously. Did I ever tell you that Em already calls me Uncle Ray?"
"Yeah, when she started talking, Roy told her to call me that. She's always called me Uncle Ray this and Uncle Ray that. It's like he knew all along, but he really didn't know, not know know anyway. Go figure."
"Perhaps he felt the same as you did, Ray. He wanted a brother as much as you did."
"Yeah, yeah, he said that. Funny."
"Well, I was just thinking about how he and Uncle David never got along even when he was a kid. Maybe finding out Roy wasn't his real kid made a difference."
"You think your uncle took out his disappointment at not being his biological father on Roy?"
"Wouldn't put it past him."
"That would be very wrong, Ray."
"Yeah, well, that seems to be the catch phrase of the day. I hate secrets and lies. They always come back to haunt you, bite you in the ass when you least expect it. Might as well come clean, take your licks, and start fresh."
Ray turned and wrapped his arms around Ben's middle, kissing the side of his neck. "No secrets, okay?"
After a few minutes, Ray still twitched in his skin. "So, you got any secrets you want to confess?"
"No, Ray. Do you?"
"No, not really, well, maybe."
Ben released him and turned on his side to face him, his head propped up on one arm. "What is it, Ray?"
"Don't get mad. Nothing happened."
Ben closed his eyes briefly and took a deep breath. "Is this about Stella?"
"How'd you know?"
"You saw her this evening."
"Yeah, but -"
"And you didn't want to talk about your time together."
Ray heard the hint of pain in the words, saw how Ben fought to keep cool, braced himself for whatever Ray might say. "Nothing happened, I promise."
"But you wanted it to happen?"
"Not exactly, no, but the opportunity was there." Ben didn't say anything, but waited, his eyes narrowed and the lines around his mouth tight. "I'd never do it. I just want you to know that."
"I do know that, Ray, but I'm a bit confounded about why you feel the need to tell me."
"Because I don't want any secrets between us. You've got to understand, it was just a bad habit we had, but we're done with it, finished, that's all she wrote."
"Yeah, me and Stella, doing it even though we were split up. We'd get together for something, anything really, just sort of as an excuse. We just sort of fell into a pattern."
Ben sat up and turned away, throwing his legs over the side of the bed. He ran a hand through his hair as he spoke quietly. "You're saying you had sexual relations with your ex-wife even after your divorce?"
"Yeah, sort of."
"You either did or you didn't, Ray. There's no sort of."
"We did, yeah, but it's not what you think. I didn't do it to hurt anybody. I did it because I was stupid and I still loved her."
"And what was her excuse?"
"She did it because she liked it. She always said -"
Ben raised a hand to cut him off. "Please, Ray, I don't want to hear what Stella has to say about your sexual prowess. I know full well just how addictive you are in that regard."
"Sorry and, uh, thanks, I think."
"Just tell me you weren't with her when we were together."
Ben still didn't turn around. "But you wanted to be."
"Sometimes, but I'd never do it. I love you. I only want you, not Stella."
"But you just said -"
Ray got up and moved around to sit on the edge of the bed next to Ben. "I can't control what my mind thinks, Ben. I was with her since I was a kid. It's sort of like conditioning. But I promise you I will never, ever cheat on you, not with Stella, not with anybody. I just don't want us to have any secrets."
Releasing a long breath, Ben took Ray's hand and nodded. "I suppose it's only human to be tempted by the past, Ray. It can be very seductive, especially if you still harbor strong feelings."
"I do have strong feelings, but not the way you think, not the kind that threaten us. You've always been great about understanding how it is with her and me. I appreciate that. I still need her as a friend." Ray touched Ben's chin and lifted his face to meet his. "I'd never betray you, Ben. Trust me on this. You're the one and only forever and ever. From now on, it's just you and me."
Instead of answering right away, Ben studied him for a long moment. Then he whispered, "I love you, Ray, but if you ever succumb to her charms when you're with me, I'd never forgive you."
"I'd never forgive me, either. I might be damaged, Ben, but I'm not stupid. I'm not going to fuck up the best thing that's ever happened to me."
"Best thing? Me?"
"Yeah, you, you dumb Canuck."
Ben leaned in and kissed him then, sliding his tongue in and pushing him back on the bed. Ray might drag his ass in the morning, but he'd have a smile on his face.
"Uncle Ray!" The high-pitched squeal made his insides all happy as Emma jumped out of the chair in the kitchen and ran right past the housekeeper, Mrs. Gomez, and straight at him.
"Hi, Peanut. How ya doin'?"
Slender arms wrapped around Ray's neck as he scooped her up in his arms and squeezed her tight. She was as light as a feather and Ray marveled at how someone so small could have such force, such power in his life. She kissed his cheek and hugged him again. "I missed you."
"Missed you, too, Pumpkin."
"Yeah, I know. We can see him when he wakes up."
"Okay." She relaxed in his arms and then whispered, "Who's he?"
Em pointed at Ben who stood just inside the doorway. "Him."
"Oh, him. That's Ben. He's my best friend." Ray put her down and smoothed down her blue T-shirt that said 'Save the Whales'. "Say hi."
Still holding Ray's hand, she waved with the other. "Hi, Ben. Is that your dog?"
Ben smiled and took off his hat. "He's half wolf, actually. His name is Diefenbaker."
Chuckling, Ben glanced at Ray and then back at the little girl, like he was remembering all the times Ray did the same thing when he didn't recognize a word. "You may call him Dief. However, he's deaf, so you have to say things where he can see you talk."
"He's deaf, like he can't hear and stuff?"
"Yes. He saved my life by jumping into freezing rapids, but, unfortunately, his eardrums ruptured in the process."
Emma's eyes widened and she took a few steps away from Ray as she kept her eyes trained on Diefenbaker. "Brave wolf."
"Yes, he is."
"Can I pet him?"
Emma moved to stand next to Ben and then reached out to Diefenbaker who sniffed at her hand. Her face broke into a big grin when her fingers sank into that deep fur around his neck. "Oh, man, he's so soft."
"Softer than he used to be, that's true."
Emma didn't understand Ben's snarky comment about his companion's citified condition, but that didn't matter. She petted Diefenbaker several more times, fur flying everywhere. She giggled as she tried to rub the fur off her hands and face. "He loses hair about as bad as Daddy does. Is he going to go bald, too?"
Ray's heart sank as he stepped closer and lifted Emma into his arms again. "He's not going bald, Baby. He's from the far north where it's cold a lot, so he sheds when it's hot."
"Oh, I know about all that. Becca's dog Elmo sheds, too."
"Yeah? What kind of dog does she have?"
"A black one, a Pomeranian. Mrs. Gomez has to brush me all over when I come home from Becca's house."
Ray laughed and sat down on the chair as Ben sat down on the sofa. Emma balanced on his knee, but she wiggled and squirmed the whole time. He asked, "So, who's Becca?"
"She's my best friend. We do stuff together."
"What kind of stuff?"
She looked at him and rolled her eyes like he was the slowest guy on the bus. "Just stuff, you know, girl stuff and other stuff."
"Girl stuff, huh?"
"Yep." She climbed further into his lap and traced her finger around the edges of the letters on his T-shirt. "Becca's mom teaches us how to make stuff and clean and work in the garden."
"That sounds cool."
"I like working in the garden, but I don't like cleaning much, but Becca's mom says we need to know how to do that kind of thing so we don't grow up and be slobs like Becca's brother, Tommy."
Ray laughed out loud. "Tommy's a slob, huh?"
"Oh, yeah. You wouldn't believe his room. It's a mess. My room's not a mess. Want to come see?"
She climbed off his lap and took his hand. Then she held out the other hand to Ben. "You want to come, too?"
"Thank you kindly. I'd like that."
Ben stood up a little stiffly, but loosened up when he took Emma's hand in his own. Ray saw his partner melt right before his eyes. The little girl would have the big Mountie eating out of her hand in no time flat. With a man on both sides, Emma led them up the stairs to the second floor and down the hall and to the biggest room at the back of the house. "See. This is my room."
It'd changed since the last time he'd seen it. Instead of the girly pink and ruffles from before, the walls were a sandy neutral color and had posters of wolves and other wild creatures hanging up. One whole wall was nothing but corkboard where she'd put up her own drawings, very cool drawings, mostly of animals. It was a lot better artwork than what he expected from a seven-year-old. Another wall had a shelf full of stuffed animals, just about every creature in the woods or jungle, and stacks of puzzles, all dealing with animals, mainly endangered species or dinosaurs. The desk sat in the corner, with a computer, printer, and more technology than Ray had at the station. Rows of books took up the shelves behind and above it. There were also art supplies; paints, papers, a ton of stickers, and all kinds of colored markers. Over by the bay window, the bed was a twin, but the comforter was a dark forest green squared off with chocolate brown images of moose, wolves, and bears. Buster rabbit with his pastel blue body and skinny, white legs looked out of place lying on the pillow.
Despite having plenty of stuff packed in the room, everything was like Emma promised, neat and tidy. Ray whistled in appreciation. "This is great, Em. Did you fix all this up yourself?"
"Me and Becca, yeah. We're going to be biologists together when we grow up."
Whoa. Ray wondered what the hell happened to ballerina and rock star. "Biologists, huh?"
"Oh, yeah, we're going to save all the animals and make the world cleaner. Did you know some people do bad things to animals and dump garbage all over the place, Uncle Ray?"
"Yeah, Hon, I knew that."
"How come? Why do they do stuff like that? Isn't that terrible?"
"Maybe they don't know any better."
"That's no excuse. They should know better."
Ben popped in. "They most certainly should."
Emma nodded and smiled, running over to her bed and grabbing Buster rabbit. She held it up to Ben. "See what Uncle Ray gave me?"
"He's a very fine looking rabbit indeed."
"I know he doesn't look like a real rabbit, but I don't care. I was just a kid when I got him, but he'll always be my favorite." Emma hugged Buster and then stopped, cocking her head to the side as she listened. "Daddy's awake."
Ray frowned. "How do you know that?"
"I can hear him downstairs. He just turned on his breathing machine."
Ben paused for a moment, as if also listening, and then nodded. "I hear him, too. Perhaps we should go see if he needs anything."
Shaking his head, Ray complained, "Oh, great, now I've got two people with bat ears to contend with."
Emma headed down the hallway towards the stairs. "Bats can hear stuff we can't hear. That's how they catch food like bugs and stuff. It's called echo something or other."
Ben provided the missing word. "Echolocation."
Em nodded enthusiastically. "Yeah, yeah, that's it, echolocation. Thanks. I keep forgetting."
Ben turned and leaned toward Ray, lowering his voice as he asked, "How old did you say she was again?"
Emma answered first. "I'm seven. I'll be eight next month. I get to go to third grade this year. I get Mrs. Hester for science and she's cool. She always takes her classes to the Aquarium and the zoo in Chicago. I can't wait."
Ben rubbed his head, obviously surprised by the girl's unexpectedly bright nature. "I see. You're very smart for your age, Emma."
"Thank you. Daddy says I'm like my mom that way. She was smart, too. You want to go see my daddy, Ben?"
Ben nodded. "I'd like that."
She motioned for both men to follow and took off like a blue streak down the stairs, not waiting to take their hands.
Ray shook his head. It was going to be one hell of a time keeping up with little Miss never sit still.
Downstairs in what used to be the study, Roy lay in a hospital bed. White puffs of smoke came out of the clear, plastic mask he wore, puffs Ray knew let him breathe better. Even more pale than yesterday, Roy didn't move as they all three came into the room. Emma jumped up on the end of the bed, excited, but careful not to sit on his legs. She patted his hand until he opened his eyes. "Look, Daddy, Uncle Ray's here and he's got his friend Ben with him. Ben has a wolf named Dief who saved him, but went deaf because the water was too cold. Isn't that strange, a deaf wolf? How are you, Daddy? You want anything to drink or eat or something?"
Roy reached over and turned off the machine before taking the mask off. "No, I'm fine, Baby." Roy patted her hand and then looked over at Ray, a weak smile on his lips. "Thanks for coming."
"Not a problem."
"Have you got your stuff in your room yet?"
Ray moved closer and stood by the bed while Ben stayed down at the foot of it. "No, we thought we'd get those in later. We've been visiting with Em here. She's a great little tour guide. She's grown since the last time I saw her, too."
Em interrupted, acting quite miffed. "That's cause you don't come to see us enough. If you came all the time, you wouldn't even notice."
"You been busy chasing bad guys?"
"More than I can count."
"Okay, I guess I'll let it slide then, but you should still come more often. Me and Daddy miss you."
Ray's chest tightened at the sharp, but honest little words. "I miss you, too."
Roy took her hand and drew her up for a quick kiss. When she pulled back, he spoke quietly. "Why don't you take Ben down to the stables and show him the horses?"
"What about Ray?"
"You can show him later. I need to talk to him alone for a little bit."
She turned on the bed. "You want to see the horses, Ben?"
"I'd be delighted to see the horses."
Her whole face lit up. Em slipped off the bed, but didn't move away. Instead, she turned and handed the stuffed toy to her father. "Watch Buster for me, okay?"
As soon as Roy took the rabbit, she walked over to Ben and took his hand. "Do you like horses?"
"I do, indeed. I find them amazing creatures."
"Cool. Wait until you see Sadie. She's an Arabian mare. She was going to have a baby, but it didn't work out. Maybe next time."
As they walked out, Ray shut the door and dragged a chair closer to the bedside. "She's something, Roy. You should be proud."
"I am." Roy closed his eyes, his breathing more labored, his voice hoarse and strained. "I can't take this much longer, Ray. I hate that she sees me like this."
"I'm sorry, Roy. I don't know what to say. Are you in pain? Do you need anything?"
"I need you to promise to take care of Em. You do that and I can die in peace."
Ray wanted to snap, 'don't talk like that', to scold his brother for giving in, for giving up, but he held back. He knew he'd probably feel the same way in his place. Instead of fussing, he said what he knew would make a difference. "I will, I promise."
Roy relaxed slightly, but his face remained contorted with obvious suffering. "I watched Cindy die like this. I remember thinking that I never wanted to go out this way, that I'd take a gun to my head instead. It's a big fucking joke, Ray, dying. It's never like what you think it's going to be. The only reason I'm still around is for Em."
His head aching, Ray rubbed his temples with the heels of his fists. He hated this, being here, seeing a man he loved just wasting away like this. "She still needs you, Roy."
"I need you to do it for me."
"Good, that's good. Thanks."
Ray wet his lower lip, working up the spit to say what else he needed to say. "Roy, I talked to Mum last night and she told me something, something important that you need to know about me and you."
Roy opened one eye and smiled. "What? We're really Vikings, right?"
Ray laughed, remembering the old joke about how they used to play raiders together as kids, pretending to be Viking warriors and explorers. "No, not exactly. I wish we were. That sounds better than being a Polack."
"Nothing wrong with being a Polack, Ray."
"Not now, but growing up, well, you know what it was like, all the Polack jokes and shit."
"Yeah, yeah, I remember. How many Polacks does it take to do whatever." Roy took a deep breath and coughed, a long wheezy hack of a cough. Then he asked, "What'd she tell you, Ray? You seem upset."
"Not upset upset. I mean, I'm glad about what she told me. I just wish she'd told me sooner."
Roy turned his head on the pillow, his blue eyes faded to a pale grey. "What?"
"She said we were brothers."
Completely casual, Roy nodded. "Yeah? I always figured that."
"You did? You're not surprised or pissed that they lied to us all this time?"
"Being pissed takes too much energy." He paused, his voice soft as he held out a hand. Ray took it in his own, the skin papery dry and thin. He squeezed it gently, careful not to hold it too hard, afraid he might break it with his touch. "It's like my last wish is just that much better. You're really Em's uncle. It's a good thing, Ray. If nothing else, it'll just make it harder for Dad to get Em. He's a liar and he's not even my father. He's got no rights to her, whatsoever."
Ray leaned in, a question nagging. "Why do you hate him so much?"
"I don't hate him. I'm too tired to hate anybody. I just don't want him anywhere near Em. He'd poison her mind like he tried to do to me growing up, telling me about how one group is better than another. He used to talk down about your dad and your mum and you even. I won't even repeat the shit he said about Cindy. He's just not a nice person, Ray. I'm really glad to know he's not my real dad."
"I'm glad you're my brother, Roy."
"Yeah, me, too."
Roy closed his eyes, his hand going slack, loosening its grip. Ray went to get up, but Roy tightened his hold again. "Wait. Don't go yet. Don't leave me alone."
Settling back in the chair, Ray shook his head. "I'm not going anywhere."
"Good, because I've got stuff you need to know about Em, stuff you need to know if you're going to do right by her."
"Like what? She's a great kid, Roy."
"Yeah, yeah, she is. She's got a sweet tooth, though, so you have to watch so she doesn't eat too much chocolate. Or if she starts not eating, like she does when she's upset, you've got to make sure she eats right, just don't force her or anything. Let her pick and choose. Put down an ultimatum and she'll dig her heels in just like you used to. Give her choices, and she'll work with you."
Ray remembered what it was like as a kid when he couldn't eat, his stomach all twitchy and uneasy, his old man forcing him to sit at the table until his food turned cold and all nasty. He'd been made to eat it anyway and Ray had vomited it up almost as soon as he'd left the table. He'd never do that to Em, never. "Don't worry about that, Roy. She'll be fine."
Nodding, Roy continued talking about his daughter, the love for her making his words lighter and more sunny. "She loves gymnastics, too, and green's her favorite color. When she can't sleep, tell her a story and she's snoozing before long. She's also great little artist."
"Yeah, I saw some of her pictures. She's good."
"Yeah, she is, but she's not perfect. She's headstrong just like Cindy and me and she's fearless. She'd just as soon jump out of the hayloft as not, even though I tell her not to." Roy chuckled. "She's so much like you when you were a kid, Ray. Remember how you used to climb and jump out of trees all the time?"
"I remember breaking my left arm a couple of times, too, yeah."
"And that's what I'm afraid of for Em. She's a risk taker and hyper as all get out. She'll go to bed, but if I don't watch, she'll get back up and stay up half the night. Doesn't seem to faze her though. She can go a long time with no sleep. Plus, she doesn't always mind the rules, especially about the horses. She can't ride without supervision, but she tries to anyway. She'll sneak out of the house sometimes if I'm not careful."
Ray rubbed his chin, thinking back to years ago. "Hey, I think I remember a kid like that, somebody who used to sneak out to go play ball or something like that."
"Believe me, Ray, that old saying about what goes around, comes around, it's true. Cindy's just like we were when we were kids, but a lot smarter."
Roy shook his head and shut his eyes, his voice weak. "I mean Em. God, my mind's going, Ray. I don't know what I'm saying half the time."
"It's okay. You're just tired."
"Tired doesn't begin to describe what I'm feeling. Anyway, since I've been sick, Mrs. Gomez has been watching her, but she's not going to be around when school starts. That's another thing, if you're going to move, you should probably think about doing it before the new semester starts. I'd hate for Em to get yanked out of class once she got settled."
"You're moving too fast, Roy. I never said I was going to yank her out of anything."
"What about being a cop? I know you don't want to give that up forever, and I wouldn't ask you to. I just think you should have things set up in Chicago, a good house, a good school, before you move back if that's what you want to do."
Ray's head swam with all the details, all the things he needed to think about, but just couldn't, not yet. "I honestly don't know what I want to do yet. I mean, this is all new. You've had a while to adjust to the idea. Me, I just found out a couple of days ago that you were sick, much less all the other."
"Yeah, I know. It's a lot to take in all at once, but you'll do all right. Having a guy like Ben around must help."
"Yeah, it does."
"He'll be good for Em."
"Why do you say that?"
"He's smart and he won't let her wrap him around her little finger like she does you."
Ray snorted, kind of insulted even though in his gut, he knew it was true. "What makes you think he'll be so tough?"
"Just his way. He strikes me as the type of guy who knows you have to have discipline even when you love somebody. Em needs that."
"I can give her discipline."
"You'd send her to her room and then give her a present afterwards because you'd feel all guilty. She has to have boundaries, Ray. You can't let her get away with so much. She knows how to work you. She'll have to work harder with Ben."
"You don't even know Ben."
"Hey, he handles you. He must know a little bit about taking care of a kid."
Ray smirked, knowing Roy wasn't far wrong. "Funny. You're a real laugh riot."
"I thought so. Anyway, I figure if you two get your ducks in a row, you should be able to handle her."
"God, I hope so."
Roy sighed and let go of Ray's hand. He scratched his cheek absently and closed his eyes. "I'm so tired, Ray. I just woke up and I can't stay awake."
"Then sleep. We'll be here when you wake up."
His brother didn't answer, just turned his head on the pillow, his shallow breaths barely lifting his chest as he dropped off to sleep. Ray tidied the sheet and blanket as he smoothed down the satiny edge. He leaned over and kissed Roy's cheek. Then he sat back down and wiped away his own tears, hoping Em didn't come back too soon and catch him crying by her daddy's bedside.
"You know what?"
"Randy says that I could be a great ranch hand someday."
Ben patted the fine, broad head of the mare in the stable stall as he listened to Em tell her story. "Who's Randy?"
"He helps with the horses. Daddy used to do all the work, but then he got sick, so he hired Randy. Randy comes in twice a day so they don't get hungry or sick or anything."
"Yeah, he does a good job. Right now Sadie's staying inside because Randy says she needs to rest since she lost the baby. Rain, Wind, and River are all out in the field grazing. He said it's good to let them exercise during the summer. Wind's my favorite to ride, but I can't ride unless Randy's around."
"That sounds reasonable."
"No, it's not. Everybody thinks I'm just a little kid. They won't let me do anything fun by myself."
Ben held his tongue, knowing that she didn't want to hear that she was, indeed, a little kid. Instead, he took the carrot she offered and broke it into smaller pieces to give to Sadie. The mare fed lazily from his hand.
"She likes you."
Ben patted her again and stroked the side of the massive head. "She's a very beautiful animal."
"You like to ride?"
"Yes, but I don't get much opportunity in the city."
"Guess not." Em paused for a moment before she added, "You could ride while you're here if you wanted. We could go riding together. It would be fun."
Ben smiled knowingly, thinking once again just how much this little girl reminded him so much of his partner. "And against the rules."
"But you're a grown up. You don't have to follow the rules."
"On the contrary, Emma. Rules apply to everyone in one form or another." Em heaved her shoulders and sighed in disappointment. Ben took pity. "After I talk to Randy or your father, we'll discuss the possibility of your riding with my supervision."
Her face lit up. "Yeah? You'd do that, take me riding?"
"Perhaps. It's not a promise, but we'll see. I need to know your skill level and any other rules that might need to be observed."
"Okay, that's fair." She paused and fed Sadie some more carrot pieces. Then she asked casually, not really looking up at Ben when she spoke. "Where are you from?"
"What makes you think I'm not from Chicago?"
"You talk funny. Not funny funny, just different."
"Ah? What's ah mean?"
"It's just an expression, something one says when processing information."
Ben smiled at her imitation of one of his more irritating comments. Ray would be very amused, or not. She giggled, pleased that she'd gotten him to smile. He rewarded her with an answer to her question. "I'm from Canada."
Em's smile widened. "I know where that is. We studied it in social studies. It's a big place, lots of snow and ice and big mountains. What part of Canada?"
"Several places, but primarily the Northwest Territories and the Yukon. I work for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police."
Her eyes went wide and she stared. "You're a Mountie? A real, honest-to-god Mountie with a horse and everything?"
"I'm a Mountie, yes, but I don't have a horse, no. Living in Chicago as I do, there's not much call for one."
She scratched her head and went back to feeding Sadie, now switching to hay instead of the carrots. "So, how come you're in Chicago and how'd you meet my Uncle Ray?"
Ben didn't know whether to tell the child the truth or give her an abridged, less complicated version. He went with the truth. "I first came to Chicago on the trail of my father's killers."
Again, her eyes rounded and her voice got higher. "Killers? Somebody killed your dad?"
"I'm afraid so, yes."
"He was a police officer, too. He stood in the way of a project that meant a great deal of money to certain people. He was killed when he discovered their plans to defraud the public."
"Defraud? What's that mean?"
"Cheat, swindle, dupe."
"And he stopped that?"
"Yes, he did."
"So, he did a good thing and got killed for it?"
"Yes, I'm afraid so."
Em sighed heavily and shook her head. "People can be mean sometimes."
"That's very true."
"Did you catch the guys?"
"Yes, I did."
"Did my Uncle Ray help?"
"No, but when I stayed in Chicago, I eventually met your uncle and we became partners. We're part of a special program to promote cooperation and better relations between Canada and the US."
She paused and sneaked a look upward. "I'm sorry about your dad. That must have been bad for you, losing your dad like that."
"Yes, it was, but he died in the line of duty. It's the way he would've wanted it."
Em sat down on a bale of hay, playing with a few bits of straw in her hands, suddenly quieter. Ben thought that the talk of his father's death might have triggered some of her fears about her own father's health situation. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to upset you."
"It's okay. I know my daddy's really sick."
"My mom died last year. She was sick like daddy for a long time." Em lifted her head, her eyes red. "I sometimes forget what she looks like. Is that normal?"
Ben sat down on the bale beside her and put his arm around her small shoulders, his voice soft. "It's very normal. My mother died when I was about your age, too. I loved her very much, but, I, too, would forget what she actually looked like over time."
Em looked up at him, skeptical, not sure if he was telling the truth or just trying to baby her. "Really? You were my age?"
"I was six. I was raised by my grandparents."
"But what about your dad?"
"He was working."
"So? Couldn't he have taken care of you and worked, too?"
Ben took a long breath, her words echoing a familiar question in his own mind. "Perhaps, but his job took him away from home for long periods of time. He thought it best that I have a more stable life with his parents."
"So it would seem now, but I did love my grandparents. It wasn't so bad."
Em relaxed and leaned against him. "I've got grandparents, too. They're okay. I love them and everything, but they're old. I wouldn't want to live with them all the time." She cleared her throat, her body still wedged up against Ben with his arm around her shoulders. "Since I don't have a mom anymore, if something happened to Daddy, do you think I'd have to go live with them like you did?"
Ben rubbed her shoulders and then squeezed her gently. "No, Emma. If something happens to your Daddy, your Uncle Ray is going to take care of you."
She pulled away and studied him, like she wasn't quite sure whether to believe him or not. Like her uncle, though, she seemed to have a thriving instinct. "Uncle Ray is going to take care of me? Is that why he's here now?"
"We're just visiting right now."
"But he's going to be here if something happens, right?"
Her bottom lip trembled and a big tear ran down her face. She wiped it away and nodded, "Good." She stood up and took his hand. "Let's go see the other horses, want to?"
Ray sat at the end of their guest bed, his shoulders hunched and his mind reeling. Watching his brother fade away took a lot out of him, a lot more than chasing criminals or even losing Stella. Nothing really compared to the gut-wrenching pain he got when he thought about Roy slipping away a little at a time. Powerless, miserable, and mad as hell, Ray kept himself in check. He knew he had to put on a brave face for Em. It wouldn't be easy, but he had to stop thinking about his own pain and worry about her. He didn't have time for pity parties, not with a kid to take care of. Thank god he had Ben to help him with that. He really didn't think he could do it all on his own.
Ben put the last of their clothes in the dresser and then closed the suitcase. He sat down beside him and rubbed Ray's shoulders. "It'll be all right, Ray."
"You don't really believe that any more than I do."
"I didn't mean -"
"Sorry. I shouldn't jump down your throat just because I'm pissed." Ray dropped his face to his hands. "This is tough, Ben, tougher than I thought it would be. Just sitting there with him, I kept thinking that I never want to go out like that. Shoot me and be done with it. Throw me in the lake or something. Just don't let it happen like this, where you just waste away and there's not a damn thing you can do about it."
Instead of arguing about life being always worth living and giving him a pep talk, Ben simply kissed Ray's temple and whispered, "You're exhausted. You need to rest."
"I'll rest when he's dead, not before. I can't leave him. I just came up to ask you to keep an eye on Em while I sit with him." Ray swallowed hard. "It won't be much longer."
"He's been sick a long time, Ray. He could linger a lot longer. You can't exhaust yourself. Think of Emma."
"I am thinking of her. That's why I don't want her in there tonight. I know it's going to be soon."
"But how do you know that?"
"I can feel it, deep down in my gut, I just know his time is close. It's like I can almost see this cloud around him."
Ray hesitated, but then confided something he'd kept to himself, well, except for that one time with Stella. She'd actually thought he needed to see a shrink, so he'd never said another word about it, like it was just the whiskey talking, and she'd let it drop. Ray swallowed hard, his throat tight and his stomach all clenched and uneasy. "Cloud, shadow, some kind of vapor. It's hard to explain. I've seen it before, ever since I got shot in that warehouse. Right before people die, I see it. Once they pass, it goes away."
Ben frowned, his face deeply etched with concern. "You're saying you actually see something around a person before he passes?"
"Yeah. I know it sounds crazy, but I saw it when Cindy passed and I've seen it a dozen times since, usually right before people died at crime scenes. It's creepy as hell, too."
Ben pulled back, obviously disturbed by his unexpected confession. "You've never said anything about it before."
"Hell, no, I never said anything. You think I want people to lock me away and throw away the key or something? Crazy Kowalski's seeing shit? No, thanks. The only person I ever told before was Stella and she thought I'd lost my marbles. Told me it was just grief or an overactive imagination or some such shit. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't, but I still see it just the same."
Ben studied him again, this time a lot harder. "So you believe you can actually tell when someone is near death?"
"Yeah. I hear things, too, but that's another story."
Ben's frown deepened. "Hear things?"
"Yeah, voices." Ray held up a hand and shook his head. "Yeah, I know. It's nuts, but I hear people I can't see just talking and saying stuff."
"Saying stuff? What kind of stuff?"
"Just stuff like, 'It's okay', 'There's nothing to be afraid of'. Stuff like that. Spooked the shit out of me the first time I heard it. Thought I'd lost my mind." Ray snorted and shrugged his shoulders. "Maybe I have. Maybe I have gone gaga, completely over the edge. I don't know. I just know that it won't be long before Roy's gone and I have to be there. I don't want him to be scared or alone. He's been alone long enough through all this."
Ben took Ray's hand and lifted it to his mouth. He kissed it and then he kissed Ray's cheek. "I love you."
"Yeah, me, too, love you, that is." Ray swallowed hard. "So, you don't think I'm completely batshit crazy?"
"Not at all. You're what might be referred to as a sensitive."
"Someone who is in tune with the other side. Perhaps when you were wounded, it triggered some latent connection."
"But the other side of what?"
"The other side beyond the border that separates life and death. It's seems that you're able to breach that border in some small way."
"So you believe me?"
"Of course I believe you. Why wouldn't I?"
"Because it's kind of nuts?"
Ben tugged at his ear and cleared his throat. "It's not nuts, Ray. There are numerous accounts similar to your own where people see or have some connection to the afterlife. Accounts of phenomenon such as apparitions and precognition appear in almost every culture around the world."
"Did you ever?"
Ben went a little pale and didn't meet Ray's gaze. "Did I ever what?"
"Ever, you know, see or hear something like that?"
Ray took a deep breath and shook his head. "Never mind. It was a stupid question. Just forget I asked." Ray squeezed Ben's hand and released it. He stood up. "Do me a favor. Em's downstairs with Mrs. Gomez. She needs to have supper and then go to bed. Could you read her a story or something? I need to stay with Roy tonight."
"Certainly, but what about you? You haven't eaten all day. You need to eat, Ray."
"I'm not hungry. I'll get something later, not now. Just make sure Em's fed and tucked in, okay?"
"Actually, Emma and I have plans to camp out."
Ray paused and shook his head, not sure if he'd heard right. "Camp out?"
"Yes. It would seem that Emma got a new tent and has yet to be able to use it. Normally, she and Becca would have what's referred to as a sleep over, but since Becca is with her father this weekend, Emma has decided that I might do as a companion instead."
"So, you two are going to pitch a tent in the backyard or something?"
"Yes. It's a clear, warm night. She wants to do some stargazing. I didn't see any harm in saying yes."
Ray smiled, pleased that Ben and Emma hit it off so well. "Sounds good. You going to toast marshmallows and weenies, too?"
"Actually, there is a small fire pit by the brick barbeque and it's been suggested by Emma that we do exactly that." Ben grinned and shook his head in wonder. "Your niece is quite extraordinary, Ray."
"Stole your heart already, huh?"
"Good." Ray stepped closer and kissed Ben briefly. "I've got to go. I'll see you later on, okay?"
"Call me if you need me, Ray."
Nodding, Ray repeated his request. "Just take care of Em."
As Ray left the room, he shut the door behind him and then stopped. He rubbed the back of his head, worried that he might be losing his mind after all. He could've sworn he'd heard someone besides Ben say, "You should tell him the truth, Son."
Ray shivered and shook off the chill before heading downstairs, knowing full well he needed to get a grip if he wanted to survive the night without a serious breakdown.
Around three in the morning, Ray stepped out onto the back porch and scanned the yard. He saw the tent, the flap closed, everything peaceful, and sighed in relief. Grateful that Em slept soundly, he rubbed a hand across the back of his neck. Arms and legs weighed down by exhaustion barely held him up as he leaned against the rail. He wished like hell that he still smoked, that he could take a deep, long drag. His lungs and throat felt ashy anyway, might as well have a good reason. He couldn't remember ever feeling so wasted, so completely useless, not for a hell of a long time anyway.
Jumping out of his skin, Ray snapped, "Fuck, Ben, don't do that."
Ben stayed put in the porch swing, keeping his voice low. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to startle you. Are you all right?"
Ray waved off the apology and settled in beside Ben, the swing giving a bit with the added weight, the creak of the boards sounding loud and out of place against the backdrop of crickets and a breezy, summer wind. "No, not even close."
Leaning forward, he scrubbed his face with his hands as his voice choked. "He's gone."
A hand settled on Ray's arm and squeezed gently. "I'm sorry, Ray."
"Just went to sleep and never woke up. I mean, his eyelids fluttered a little bit, like he was dreaming, but then, poof, he was gone. Just like that, no more Roy. One minute he's breathing, then he's not. It's not fair."
"No, it's not."
Ray turned and allowed Ben to pull him close, let himself go ahead and weep. The sobs caught in his throat, his breathing rough and ragged. Ray wished he could've saved Roy, could've made a difference, but knew it was a stupid thought, knew full well that death didn't give a shit who it took or didn't take. By the time he finished bawling, his chest hurt, his eyes burned, and he couldn't breathe worth shit. Ben handed him a handkerchief and Ray blew his nose loudly. "Sorry."
"No need to apologize, Ray. It's normal to grieve for a loved one. I'd be more concerned if you didn't cry."
"Good, because I'll probably cry plenty more before it's over."
"Have you called anyone?"
"The arrangements were already made. All I had to do was call Hospice and the undertaker. They're coming by first thing in the morning with the coroner. He didn't want a regular funeral, so no visitation or open casket, nothing like that, and no graveside service. He just wanted a small memorial service here and then his body will be taken back to Chicago to be buried next to Cindy. He wanted the whole thing as no fuss as he could make it." Ray cleared his throat. "Roy was like that. He was never into the whole funeral thing."
"Some people aren't, and it was his choice."
"Yeah, I know that." Ray rubbed his temples with both hands, his head aching. "I also called the lawyer. I figure we'd better have the paperwork ready if anybody says anything. God, I hate this shit, losing Roy and then having to worry about losing Em, too."
Ben nodded, knowing that it would be a very difficult day ahead. "You should try to get a few hours sleep, Ray."
Shaking his head, Ray stared out at the tent, his heart heavy. "I have to tell her."
"Not right now."
"No, not right now. I'll let her sleep. Poor kid. It's going to be rough."
"And not just for Emma."
Ray sighed deeply again and leaned back against his partner's chest, wrapped in Ben's arms. "Thanks for being here."
"I wouldn't be anywhere else."
"You might change your mind when everyone finds out we're taking her. The shit will hit the fan and, service or not, the tongues are going to be wagging full speed ahead. I just hope my dad and Uncle David have enough good sense to keep off our backs until Roy's at least in the ground and buried."
Ray closed his eyes, trying to block out all the ugly scenes with his father and failing miserably. He loved his dad, but his father just didn't get it, didn't understand that Ray had to live his own life the best he could, the same as everyone else. He couldn't help it if his old man thought he was a disgrace for wanting to be a cop or loving another man. Fuck his father and anybody else who was too closed-minded to know that love was too damn hard to find not to grab it when it came your way. He fought down his growing anger, his hands balled into fists. "I don't want Em to see that, to hear any of that shit about why we shouldn't have her."
"We can't shield her completely, Ray, but I think even your family has enough decorum to respect traditions and not disrupt the memorial service."
"I hope so, I do, because I'm telling you, Ben, I won't be held responsible if they pull any shit."
Ben hugged him gently, kissing his temple. "As my grandmother would say, 'Don't go borrowing trouble.' We'll just do the best we can and hope that your family does the same."
"Yeah, well, you don't know my family all that great."
"I know Barbara. I think she should be able to handle your father."
They sat there together a while longer. Finally, Ray pulled away and leaned forward, his elbows propped on his knees. "I'm going back inside. I just want to sit with him for a little bit longer."
Nodding, Ben glanced over at the tent. "I'll stay here and watch over Emma."
Ray eyed his partner and then frowned. "How come you weren't sleeping before, you know, when I first came out?"
"It's bound to be something. You're not much for not sleeping."
"So what gives? Why the nighttime vigil?"
Ben cleared his throat, looking more and more uneasy. "I was thinking."
"About many things."
Ray groaned and complained, "Come on, Ben. I'm too tired to play twenty questions. What's going on?"
His expression softened and Ben touched his cheek lovingly. "I was thinking about what an enormous thing we've done, what an incredibly huge journey we've decided to take together."
"You mean about taking Em?"
"That along with just being together. It really is quite staggering to think about sometimes."
A quick terror grabbed Ray's heart. "I hope you weren't thinking it's too staggering, too much to handle, because I'm telling you, Ben, if you bail on me, I'm through, finished, all she wrote. I don't think I can do this on my own."
Ben shook his head and kissed him briefly, his voice hushed in the darkness. "On the contrary, Ray. I was thinking how fortunate I am, how incredibly lucky I've been to find you. The fact that we now have this huge responsibility of raising a child together is an added blessing I never counted on, but accept gratefully."
"You do, huh?"
Ray relaxed slightly, truly believing for the first time that Ben really wanted this, too, and wasn't just going along to please him. "Thanks."
"For just being you. You can bet not everybody would feel the way you do about this whole mess."
"I don't consider it a mess, Ray. Your brother's death is tragic, but being offered guardianship of Emma, that's truly a gift."
"Yeah, it is. It's just that not everybody sees it that way."
"Then they'd be wrong."
"You think so, huh?"
"Indeed, I do."
Ray kissed him again, this time more thoroughly. He pulled back and stood up. "As soon as it's light, I need to tell her. I don't want her to find out when the coroner gets here."
"You want me to tell her with you?"
Ray ran a hand through his hair, dreading the conversation, but knowing he had to do it alone. "No, I'll do it. I don't know exactly what I'll say, though."
"You won't have to say much. She's a very perceptive child."
"She is that."
"She's also receptive to the idea of you taking care of her if something happened to her father."
Stunned, Ray turned and stared. "How do you know that?"
Ben tugged his ear. "We were talking, bonding as it were. I was explaining that my mother died when I was young as well. One thing led to another and I mentioned that if something happened to her father, she'd be well cared for by you."
"And she was good with that, liked the idea?"
Relieved, Ray nodded. "That's good then. That's one hurdle down, a million to go."
"That's a rather pessimistic view, Ray."
"Pessimism, realism, it's all the same to me."
"So it would seem."
"It's going to be tough, no two ways about it. We can do it, but I'm just saying, don't expect it to be all fun and games, because it won't be. I'm not like you, Mr. Sunshine. I can't wear the rose-colored Mountie glasses and think everybody's all good and kind and not going to kick up a stink. Plus, I know raising a kid's going to bust our balls and make working on the streets look like a cake walk."
Ben stood up and moved into his space, his face solemn, but sure. "I know it will be difficult, Ray. Adjustments will need to made on many levels. I'm not saying otherwise. However, I think the positive points will far outweigh the negatives, that's all."
"God, I hope you're right."
"I usually am."
Ray smirked at the confidence, the outlandish way Ben said that, like he never had a doubt in the world, which Ray knew for a fact was hogwash. Hell, maybe Ben had a point though. Maybe if they said it enough, tried hard enough, that it would all turn out okay. Didn't hurt to try it Ben's way for a change, at least for a bit. He'd never say that out loud though, couldn't. He didn't want to jinx it.
Giving Ben one last, quick kiss, Ray pulled away. "I'll come back out near daybreak. I'll tell her then."
"I'll come get you if she wakes sooner."
"Yeah, you do that."
Then Ray headed back to sit one last time with his brother, knowing his life with Ben would never be the same again. For the first time since this whole thing started, he realized that was okay, more than okay. They wouldn't just be a couple anymore, but a family, something Ray always dreamed about, but never once believed he'd have. Now his brother, the man he'd always known as a cousin, had given him one of the greatest gifts one could ever give to another, the opportunity to be a dad. Now all he had to do was not fuck it up, a fear that scratched at the back of his mind, made him wince sometimes when he thought about his own father.
People always said a guy learned what he lived and that scared Ray plenty. No way did he ever want Em to know the rejection, the hurt, the terrible heartache that he'd learned first hand from his old man. No, Ray would focus on his mum's approach, lots of hugs and good food, smiles and kisses, kind words to soothe over the traumas of just growing up. Ray never once doubted his mother's pride, her love, or the fact that she'd always be there for him no matter what his father did. That's what Ray wanted for Em, and with Ben's help, by god, he'd do it.
Standing by his brother's bedside, Ray closed his eyes and bowed his head, hoping against hope that he might somehow find the right words to tell Em that her father was dead.
With Ben out front to wait for early arrivals, Ray pulled back the flap on the tent and crawled inside. Em lay pressed against Diefenbaker, fast asleep, her head resting on his side. The wolf blinked at Ray, but remained perfectly still, making no movement that might wake the child. Ray suddenly realized that he and Ben weren't the only ones under the charm of little Em Kowalski. Reluctantly, he touched her shoulder, keeping his voice low and easy. "Em, baby, wake up."
It took several tries before she finally groaned against the animal's side. "Go 'way."
"Sorry, baby, wake up. We need to talk."
Her eyes opened slowly and she rolled back onto her sleeping bag. She rubbed her eyes with both hands before she finally sat up. "Uncle Ray?"
"Morning, Sleepy Head."
"Morning. You look tired."
Ray rubbed his hand across his whiskery chin, his bloodshot eyes like sandpaper in the morning light. "Yeah, I guess I do. It was a long night."
"You stayed up with Daddy instead of sleepin'?"
"Yeah, I did." Ray dropped his gaze, his stomach in knots. He'd rehearsed his speech a hundred times in his head, but when it came to actually saying it out loud, he didn't know if he could actually do it without breaking down. That was the last thing he wanted to do, to cry in front of Em. She had her own tears to deal with without worrying about his.
Wearing only her shorts and T-shirt, Em crawled over to him and sat in his lap. She put her arms around his neck, resting her head on his shoulder. "It's okay. You could take a nap here if you want. Dief's a good pillow."
"Thanks, but I can't." He swallowed really hard and whispered, "I'm sorry, Em. I don't know how to say this, but -"
Em pulled back, her eyes narrowed as she stared right at him. "Is it Daddy?"
"I'm afraid so."
"Is he with Mommy now?" Tears stung his eyes and Ray managed a nod. Em lowered her head on his shoulder again, her voice soft against his ear. "Do people stay sick when they're in heaven, Uncle Ray?"
Ray could hardly find his voice. "No, baby, at least I don't think so."
"So, Daddy's well now?"
"Yeah, Em, he is."
She took a deep breath, but didn't lift her head. Instead, she lay there in his arms, very quiet. After a few moments, Ray squeezed her a little bit and asked, "Are you okay?"
"I don't know yet."
"It's okay to cry if you want."
Em still didn't do anything right away, but kept clinging to his neck, her breathing faster than normal. They sat together for a long time before she finally took two long, deep breaths and lifted her head. "I don't want him to be gone forever, Uncle Ray."
Nodding, she took his agreement as a cue to say more. "Do you think it hurts to die?"
"I don't think it hurts, no." Ray didn't know what else to say, how to explain his own doubts and fears about the other side. So, he tried to soften the blow a little more. "He was sick for a long time. Maybe it's better now."
Tears welled up in the blue eyes and fell down her cheeks. "Yeah, I know, but I'm going to miss him."
"Me, too." He kissed her and then wiped her tears away. "It'll be okay. You won't be alone. I'm going to be here and so's Ben."
"Yeah, and Dief. We're going to take good care of you, just the way your dad wanted."
"What about Grandpa David? He said I'd be living with him and Grandma Sylvia."
A quick anger flared up, but Ray kept it in check, his voice still soft and hopefully neutral. He didn't care for his uncle, but he was still family and Ray didn't want to pass any bad feelings onto Em. "He got mixed up, is all. Your daddy wanted me to take care of you."
"That's what Ben said."
"Didn't you believe him?"
"I wanted to, but -"
"I don't know Ben too good yet."
Ray kissed her temple and hugged her again. "You will. You're going to like him, too. He does all that good outdoor stuff you like to do."
"Yeah, I know. He's neat and he's a Mountie, too."
"Yeah, he is."
"Could I see Daddy one more time?"
Ray hesitated, not sure if it was a good idea for the little girl to see her father's body. He had no idea what Roy would want, but decided that since she asked, he couldn't really say no, not about something so important. "Are you sure?"
Em's lower lip stuck out and she wiped her red eyes with one hand as she answered with a nod. Then with a small voice she added, "Please?"
"Okay, but if you get scared, you have to tell me."
"Why would I be scared of Daddy?"
"No reason. I just want you to tell me if you get upset."
She nodded again and then squirmed off his lap, crawling out of the tent. Ray followed her and stood up, reaching down to take her hand. They walked into the house together, into the room where Roy still lay. Em stood there, studying him, cocking her head. She inched closer and touched his hand, but pulled back quickly in surprise. "He's cold."
She cried again, her voice shaking as she tried to cover him up more with the blanket. "I don't want him to be cold."
Thinking he'd made a terrible mistake, Ray tried to explain. "He doesn't feel it, baby. He's not cold anymore."
"How do you know for sure?"
"I have faith."
Ray leaned down and picked her up in his arms again. She automatically wrapped her own arms around his neck, her eyes still trained on her father's body. "Faith? What's that mean?"
"It's something you believe with all your heart."
"You believe with all your heart that Daddy's not cold?"
"And that wherever he is, he's not in pain and he's with your mum."
Satisfied with that, Em nodded and dropped her head on his shoulder. "I don't so feel good."
He patted her back. "It's okay. You want to go lie down in your room for a little while?" She hadn't sucked her thumb since she was three, but she stuck the right one in her mouth and nodded again.
Ray turned to leave, but then stopped. Instead, he reached down and picked up Buster Bunny from the bed. A little hand grabbed it and held it to her chest as she hugged Ray's neck even tighter. "Let's go upstairs. I'll get Dief to stay with you if you want."
Em didn't say anything else, just lay in his arms, her body shaking as her tears soaked through Ray's shirt. Ray walked up the stairs, the wolf padding up behind him. Reaching her room, he placed her on the bed and under the covers. He didn't fuss as Dief hopped up beside her and lay down, too. Instead, Ray took the mental picture of the little girl curled up with her toy rabbit and the wolf as she sucked her thumb and grieved for the father she'd never see again.
The morning passed in a flurry of activity. The undertaker took the body after the coroner signed off on the cause of death. Then the local hospice chapter emptied the room quickly of all the medical equipment, leaving it as if nothing had happened, as if Roy had never been there. Ray shuddered at the eerie quiet of the room and walked back out into the hallway, shutting the door behind him.
Ray put his signature on the last form just as his mother came to the front door and knocked on the screen. Ben greeted her first. "Hello, Barbara. I'm glad you could come."
Frowning, Ray stared first at his mum and then at Ben. His partner answered his unspoken question. "I called her early this morning. I thought she should be here."
Instead of being angry, Ray wondered why he hadn't thought of that himself. His mother's arms wrapped around his shoulders and she pulled him into a hug. "Stanley, I'm so sorry."
"Thanks. Is Pop here?"
She backed away and shook her head. "No, but he's coming up Monday for the memorial service." Before Ray said a word, she held up a hand. "Don't worry, Stanley. He's not staying here. I made reservations for us at the hotel in town."
Relieved, Ray nodded. "Thanks, Mum. You know you're welcome to stay here. There's plenty of room. I just don't think Dad would be that comfortable and I can't take his craziness right now."
"I know that, Stanley. Things as they are, I thought it'd be best if we didn't stay here. David and Sylvia will be staying in town as well." She cupped his bearded cheek, her eyes the kindest, softest blue he'd ever seen. "You look terribly tired. Have you slept at all?"
Ben answered for him. "He's hardly slept at all for several days."
"And I'll bet he hasn't eaten, either."
Suddenly angry, Ray snapped, "He's standing right here. Don't talk about me like I'm not here, you two."
Keeping her voice steady and calm, she shook her head. "Don't be angry, Stanley. We just worry."
Sheepishly, Ray nodded. "Yeah, I know, but I'm fine. Just tired."
Barbara patted his cheek. "I'll fix you something to eat in a minute, but first, where's Emma?"
Ray motioned to the stairs. "She's in her room. She wouldn't eat breakfast and -"
"It's past lunch."
"I know, Mum, but she says she's not hungry. I can't make her eat. She just lost her dad."
Shaking her head, Barbara disagreed as she headed to the stairs. "She's upset, but she still needs to eat. I'll go talk to her." She paused, hand on the banister. "If that's okay with you?"
"Of course, it's okay with me, Mum. Why wouldn't it be?"
"I don't want to overstep."
Ray walked over to his mother and kissed her on the cheek. "You could never do that, Mum. I'm glad you're here. Thanks."
Barbara smiled, her face red as she nodded and then headed up the stairs to Emma's room. Ray turned to find Ben right there beside him, watching him intently. For some reason, all the attention made him uneasy. "What?"
"You should rest, Ray. You've been up all night. You'll do Emma no good by letting yourself become exhausted."
Ray turned away and walked to the front window. A sunny farmland full of greenness and airy summer breezes waited just beyond the glass. That pissed him off. It should've been raining, should've been storming with lightning and thunder, lots of bad weather to suit his mood. Instead the world went on like his brother's death didn't mean a damn thing. God, it was depressing as hell to think about Roy rotting away.
A hand settled on his shoulder. "Ray?"
"I couldn't sleep even if I tried."
"You haven't tried. Perhaps if you were to just lie down for a bit, it would help."
Shaking his head, Ray watched as the horses grazed in the field just past the stable. He dismissed Ben's concern and changed the subject. "You should take her riding today, try to take her mind off what's going on."
Ben didn't press the point about resting. Ray knew how Ben could be, stubborn as all get out, but, thankfully, not this time. "That's probably a good idea. I talked to the stable manager earlier, a very nice young man by the name of Randy Kovack. He says she has an excellent seat for her age."
Ray frowned. "An excellent seat? What's that mean?"
"She rides well."
"Then why the hell didn't he say that? An excellent seat sounds like she's a chair or something."
Ben ignored his irritability. "It's just an expression, Ray. At any rate, he's very knowledgeable about the horses and gave me a fairly detailed summary of her training to date. He says she's a natural equestrian."
"That's means she's good with horses, right?"
"That's good then."
"You could rest while we ride."
Again Ray ignored Ben and frowned at the person getting out of the car in the driveway. "What's Turnbull doing here?"
Ben peeked over his shoulder. "I asked him to bring me my uniform for the memorial service."
"All the way from Chicago?"
"He said he didn't mind."
Turnbull held the uniform in one hand and knocked with the other. Ben opened the door and let him in. "Thank you so much for coming, Constable. I appreciate it."
"Not a problem, sir." He handed the uniform to Ben, who promptly took it and hung it in the hallway closet. Turnbull turned to Ray and took off his Stetson. "I'm so sorry to hear about your loss, Ray."
Ray crossed his arms tightly around his chest. He hated getting sympathy even though he knew it was well intentioned. There would probably be a hell of lot more coming their way before it was over, too, so he knew he should get used to it. He swallowed down his uneasiness and practiced his manners by keeping it short and to the point. "Thanks."
"I didn't know you had a brother."
"Me, neither." Ray saw the confused look and explained, "Long story short, I thought he was my cousin until recently."
Turnbull's eyes widened and he nodded. "Ah, I see. A family secret revealed then?"
"Something like that, yeah."
"Cousin or brother, it was still a terrible personal loss for which you have my deepest sympathy."
Ray repeated himself because he couldn't think of anything else to say to that. "Thanks."
Ben came to his rescue. "Would you like some tea, Constable?"
"Tea would be lovely, sir, but first..." Turnbull held up a finger with one hand and then reached into his coat pocket with the other. He pulled out an envelope and handed it to Ben. "It's from Inspector Thatcher."
Ben held it in both hands, but didn't open it. Turnbull added, "She said it was rather urgent."
Ray snorted. "Oh, yeah, I'll just bet she did."
"I'll open it later."
Shaking his head, getting mad all over again at Thatcher's previous threat to transfer his partner, Ray insisted, "No, open it now. Let's see what the Ice Queen's got to say."
"That might not be wise at this juncture, Ray."
"I can take it, Ben. The day's already fucked up. Nothing she can say can make it much worse."
Turnbull stood between them, listening intently, his face flushed with embarrassment at Ray's strong language. He obviously wasn't in on Thatcher's plan to split up their partnership, but knew enough about his boss to know that she had done something pretty awful for that kind of reaction. "I'm sorry, sir. Perhaps, I should have waited to deliver the letter at a more appropriate and less fraught time."
Ray shook his head and raised a hand of dismissal. "We're not going to shoot the messenger, don't worry. Come on, Ben, open it."
"Should I wait outside, sir?"
"No, Turnbull, you're fine." Ben stared at Ray an extra moment and then licked his lower lip. He opened the letter and pulled out the paper, reading it to himself first. His features relaxed and he actually smiled a little bit.
Instead of snatching it away to read for himself, Ray complained, "Come on, Ben, share with the class here. What's it say?"
Folding the letter again, Ben returned it to the envelope and slipped it into his pocket. "She sends her condolences. She also said that my personal leave has been approved."
"And that my position as Liaison Officer in Chicago is secure."
Ray gave his own sigh of relief. "Thank god."
Turnbull shook his head, totally lost. "You were going to transfer, sir?"
"No, Turnbull. However, the Inspector did suggest it would be inevitable should I choose to pursue a certain course of action."
The young constable bit his lower lip, looking first at Ben and then at Ray before gazing back at Ben again. "Sir, I don't mean to intrude, but I think perhaps there's something you should know."
Ben's expression darkened again. "What is it, Constable?"
Still standing in the hallway, Turnbull spun his hat in his hands. "It's rather a long story, sir."
Picking up the cue, quick Mountie that he was, Ben nodded. "You can explain over tea. Ray, would you care to join us?"
"I hate tea."
"Sure, I could do coffee."
The three men walked into the huge country kitchen. The coffee was already made and the water boiled for tea. It took only a matter of minutes for Ben to serve up the drinks. He also put one of the many sympathy coffee cakes that the neighbors had dropped by in the middle of the table. He squeezed Ray's shoulder. "It's chocolate, Ray. Eat."
Ray served himself a slice and then put a piece in his mouth as Ben settled beside him. It tasted pretty good, sweet and bitter at the same time. He had another bite washed down with strong coffee as Ben prompted Turnbull to tell his story. "You said you had something to say, Constable."
"Well, sir, please be aware that it was never my intention to eavesdrop on the Inspector, but on occasion I inadvertently overhear certain things, personal things, during the course of my duties."
"I would never assume you were spying."
"Thank you, sir. That said, I think you should know that the Inspector has been talking to Ottawa about certain issues."
Turnbull cleared his throat and once again blushed a pinkish color. "I have to say, I was rather confused. I didn't realize that the matter concerned you and your relationship with Ray."
Ray raised one hand and finished putting the rest of the cake in his mouth with the other. He spoke with his mouth still full. "Ray's right here, folks."
Turnbull turned even redder. "I realize that, Ray. I'm sorry. It's just, well, that is to say, while I knew you were cohabitating, I didn't realize that it was for more than economic reasons."
Ray put his coffee down and licked off his sticky fingers. "Don't take it personal. We didn't tell anybody."
"But still, I'm usually more perceptive, especially about such delicate matters."
"We're not delicate. We're just gay."
Ben tried to put the conversation back on track. "What is it you want to tell us about the Inspector, Constable?"
Turnbull turned his attention back toward Ben, leaning in a bit and keeping his voice low. "She was talking to the legal advisors about domestic partnerships and about adoption. Are you two going to adopt a child, sir?"
Ray answered the question first. "My niece Emma. Roy wanted me to take her. Your boss is afraid of bad press and threatened to ship Ben off if we went through with it."
Sitting back, his mouth open, Turnbull shook his head in surprise. "That would be unconscionable. You two will make excellent parents."
"I think so, too. So, what did the mother ship say to Thatcher to make her change her mind?"
"Mother ship, Ray?"
"Yeah, you know the bigwigs in Ottawa, the head honchos. What'd they say to make her change her mind?"
Turnbull finally got the picture and explained. "I didn't know she was referring to the transfer, but now it makes more sense. She was told that certain actions on her part, which I now assume was the involuntary transfer, would leave the service and herself vulnerable to legal action."
Ray frowned, not sure what that meant. "What kind of legal action?"
"It would be discrimination to transfer Constable Fraser against his wishes in order to keep him from being with his official domestic partner or because of the adoption."
"So you're saying we could sue the pumpkin pants off Thatcher if she tried to pull anything, right?"
Ben nodded, pleased. "I suspected as much."
Ray turned and frowned at his partner. "You already knew that?"
"I did, but I was hoping that it wouldn't get that far."
"You'd have quit rather than go to court to keep your job?"
Ben rubbed his forehead and shook his head. "I don't know, Ray. I'm just glad it didn't happen."
"Me, too, sir." Turnbull smiled and sipped more tea.
A small voice came from the doorway. "There's a Mountie in the kitchen, Uncle Ray."
Ray turned and smiled, happy to see Em out of her room for the first time since she'd gone there earlier that morning. Dief stood beside her and his mother right behind the little girl "Actually, there are two, Ben and Constable Turnbull."
The young man stood up, his face bright and shiny at seeing the little girl. He bowed. "Constable Renfield Turnbull at your service, ma'am."
"He's pretty like Christmas."
Ray actually laughed out loud and Ben chuckled as Turnbull turned beet red. Out of the mouth of babes or something like that, Ray thought to himself. His niece had a good eye and an honest tongue, a true Kowalski.
Turnbull cleared his throat and bowed again. "Why thank you. You must be Emma." She nodded, her eyes wide as she stared at the newcomer. If Ray didn't know that she was just seven, he'd swear she was smitten. "You're very pretty as well, Emma."
Ray motioned to his mother to introduce her. "This is my mum, Barbara Kowalski."
"Pleased to meet you, ma'am."
"The same here and call me Barbara. I thought I'd fix some lunch for Emma here. We're having some tomato soup and grilled cheese. Would you gentlemen like some, too?"
Ray relaxed and smiled at his mother. She knew his favorites. "Yeah, Mum, that sounds good." He glanced over at Ben. "How about you, Ben?"
"I'd like that. Thank you, Barbara."
His mother stared at Turnbull. "And you, young man?"
"Only if I might help in some small way, Barbara."
"Nonsense. Too many cooks. You all just go out on the back porch and Em and I will do the cooking. Right, Em?"
The little girl bobbed her head and glanced over at Ray. "Yeah, me and Aunt Barbara are going to cook together. She's going to teach me how to do it without setting off the smoke alarm."
Ray grinned at her enthusiasm, glad that she seemed excited about something again. "A good thing to know, kiddo."
Em imitated his mum's motion with her hands to scoot them out of the kitchen as she ordered them to leave. "Go on. We'll call you when it's ready."
Following directions, the three men got up and went out the back door to the porch. Ben and Ray settled in the swing, Turnbull in one of the three rockers. They sat quietly, Ray listening to his mother and his niece working together and chatting inside. Ray rested his head on Ben's shoulder, closing his eyes, and thinking things might be okay after all.
Lying on the bed, one arm behind his head, the other over his eyes, Ray thought about the long day, the stresses, the drain of just going through the motions. It was like drowning all over again without Ben there to do the buddy breathing thing. Ray heard the click of the bedroom door, but didn't put his arms down. "Hey."
"I thought you might be sleeping."
"Couldn't sleep. You looked good riding with Em."
The mattress dipped as Ben sat on the bed. "You should've come with us."
"Horses and me, not a good mix. I watched from the window, though. Thanks for taking her."
"I enjoyed it. She's a delightful little girl, Ray, and I agree with Randy. She's an excellent rider for her age."
"Yeah, she looked great. So, what's she doing now?"
"Barbara's helping her with her bath."
Ray shifted to his side and stared at his partner's back. "You mind Mum staying here until Dad comes into town?"
"Not at all. She seems to have a natural rapport with Emma beyond just the familial connection."
"Yeah, she's good with kids. She should've had a houseful."
Ben turned on the bed and met Ray's gaze. "It surprises me that she didn't."
"She tried. She had a couple of miscarriages and then couldn't have any more."
Ben's eyes widened slightly at the new information. "I'm sorry, Ray. I didn't know."
"It's okay. It was a long time ago. It's kind of a sore subject with her. I guess this thing with Roy makes it even worse."
"Think about it. My old man has another kid and passes him off as a cousin instead of doing the right thing and claiming him. Mum wants more kids and can't have any. It's kind of fucked up."
"I can see how it would be upsetting to her, yes."
Ray propped his head up on one hand as he changed the subject. "We need to be thinking about what we're going to do. I mean, we have to decide if we're going to stay out here for a while and let her start school or take her back to Chicago and find a place there."
"We don't have to do all that tonight, Ray. You've had enough to deal with in such a short period of time."
Sitting up, Ray swung his legs over the side of the bed and stood up. He crossed his arms tightly across his chest and paced the room in front of Ben. "If it was just me and you, no problem. We could decide this tonight and I'd be good with that, either or, doesn't matter, whatever you want. Only now that we have Emma, it's different."
"I understand that, Ray, but you're grieving. This isn't the time to be making such huge decisions about our lives, including Emma's. You're in no condition to do that."
Ray stopped moving and then took a deep, calming breath. "You really think it's okay just to wait a while?"
"I think any decision we make has to be made with clear heads. Right now I have to say that I'm a bit muddled myself and I'm sure you'll feel a lot better after a full night's sleep."
Settling on the bed beside Ben, Ray shook his head. "I keep going over and over this, pros and cons, trying to sort out what'd be best for Em, but I just can't seem to settle. On the one hand, I know she'd probably love to stay here, but, on the other hand, what about us? If we stay here, how can you work at the Consulate? It's not like you could work during the week and just come out on the weekends. Plus, I honestly don't see me sitting out here in the middle of Farmsville, USA without going a little whacko. Another crazy uncle isn't what Emma needs."
Ben took his hand and held it, squeezing it gently. "It sounds to me like you've already made up your mind. You want to go back to Chicago."
"Is that wrong? I mean, is it so selfish to want to keep my life, too, even though it's not really my life, it's Vecchio's life, but you know what I mean."
"I know what you mean, yes."
"So, is it selfish?"
"I don't think so, no. I think it's realistic."
Ray swallowed hard before he asked the next question. "What was it like when you had to leave home to go live with your grandparents, you know, when you were a kid? I mean, you weren't much younger than Emma."
Ben didn't answer right away, but he didn't let go of Ray's hand. After a few moments, he spoke very softly. "It's difficult, Ray. My situation wasn't exactly the same. I did have one parent still alive."
"No offense, Ben, but he might as well have been dead, too, the way he dumped you off on your grandparents and went off to play super cop. How did it make you feel to be uprooted like that?"
Again Ben took a little longer to answer than usual. "Regardless of what we do, stay or leave, it's never going to be easy, in any sense of the word, for Emma. The most we can do is try to make the transition as painless as possible by showing how much we care for her and her well-being."
"What did your grandparents do to make it easier?"
Rubbing his eyebrow, Ben shook his head. "I can't really say. My memories of that time are a tad foggy."
"Foggy? You've got a memory like a steel-trap. You remember shit from when you were a baby. Remember the whole born in a barn, wool diapers, and boots before you could walk stuff you told me about?"
"I'm aware of that, Ray, but I suspect the emotional intensity of the loss of my mother, and, by his elective absence, my father, created a coping mechanism that allowed me to be rather selective in terms of my memory of that particularly stressful period."
"In plain English, you forgot stuff on purpose because it was so bad?"
"Not on purpose, necessarily. It's just that certain things were more painful than others. I suspect that those memories could be retrieved by self-hypnosis, but I've elected not to do so."
Ray squeezed Ben's hand and then kissed his cheek. "I'm sorry."
"Nothing to be sorry for, Ray. It was a long time ago. I've come to terms with much of my past."
"But not all of it, not the part about your dad taking off, right?"
"Actually, that doesn't bother me as much anymore. I was thinking more about the nature of my relationship with my grandparents."
Ray chose his words carefully, knowing that this was a very sticky subject with his partner. "You don't talk about them much."
"I loved them."
"I know that."
"But I was never entirely sure they loved me."
"What?" Ray turned sideways on the bed, staring at Ben, dumbfounded. It hurt like hell to hear that Ben grew up thinking he was unloved. "Are you saying you don't think they wanted you?"
"I know they didn't want me, Ray. They had already raised their sons. They had no desire or inclination to raise a mere child when they were already in their late sixties. Certainly, they fulfilled their obligation as grandparents, but that didn't mean they had to go out of their way to be cheerful about it." Ben paused before he added, "Our cabin was small and I could often hear them talking when they thought I was sleeping."
"And you heard them say they didn't want you?"
"In so many words, yes."
"Damn, Ben, I'm sorry. That sucks. I never knew that."
"I don't think I've ever said it out loud before. The point is, that while I wanted to think they eventually came to love me, they never actually said it. They weren't emotionally demonstrative people."
Ben cocked his eyebrow at Ray's sarcasm, recognizing it as a tease about his own character. "It's often said, and rightly so, that one learns what one lives. Thus, I often have difficulty expressing my emotions as well. Meeting Ray Vecchio and then you changed all that." Ben whispered, "You've been such a blessing in my life, Ray. I love that your emotions are so freely given and expressed."
"Gives you something to shoot for, huh?"
"Something like that, yes."
Ray let his forehead meet Ben's and then they kissed gently. Ray pulled back, his heart still heavy. "I don't want to hurt her, Ben, but I don't want to stay out here, either."
"Perhaps there's a compromise to be had."
"Such as, we find a place that's near enough to Chicago that we can both work in the city, but outside the urban setting enough that Emma will feel more at home and will have more ready access to her horses."
"Might mean you getting a car and driving."
Ben sat up a little straighter and sighed heavily. "I've been thinking about that, as well, and while I admit, it's not something I'd enjoy, I can drive, Ray."
"Like an old woman, yeah."
"But nevertheless, I'm a fast learner. You could teach me."
Ray shook his head, smiling at the revival of an old argument. "I've tried. Repeat after me, the car is not a dogsled."
"True enough." Ben ran a finger along the edge of Ray's lower lip. "However, I can be a very apt pupil given the right motivation."
Smiling, Ray kissed him briefly and stood up. "We'll see. I'm going to go check on Emma. Then we might do some of that motivating you're talking about."
Ben leaned over and unlaced his boots. "I'll be here."
"I might be a while. She likes a bedtime story."
"Time doesn't matter, Ray. I'll be here."
Leaving the room, Ray stepped a lot livelier, but as he shut the door, he heard the faint sobs of his niece and his mother's low voice giving her comfort. He stopped in his tracks. He didn't know whether to bust in and add his two cents or not. Of course, he had no idea what he'd say or do, but he hated just standing there, feeling all helpless. Opting for just waiting, he listened, wondering if his parents had done the same thing to him growing up, sneaked around and spied on him in his room.
Ray stood right outside the doorway and after a minute of soft crying and shushing, he heard his mother's voice again. "It'll be okay, Emma. You're not alone. You've got plenty of people who love you right here."
"I miss Daddy."
"I know you do, baby, but your daddy and mama are together in heaven now. They want you to be happy and not be so sad."
"How do you know?"
"Because all parents want their children to be happy."
Ray heard the sniff and the shifting of the mattress along with the smack of lips kissing. "Goodnight, Emma. Uncle Ray will be in to tuck you in soon."
"'Night, Aunt Barbara."
His mother came out the door and stopped when she saw him. She smiled weakly and whispered, "She'll be all right eventually. Just let her cry when she needs to."
She patted his face. "Goodnight, Stanley."
As she headed to her room, he called to her back, keeping his voice low. "I love you, Mum."
His mother stopped and turned, this time smiling a lot bigger. "I love you, too, Stanley."
"I never told you enough."
"But I always knew."
"Still, I should've said it more."
"Say it to Emma. She needs to hear it, too."
His mother went into her room, shutting the door and leaving Ray standing alone in the hallway. He took a deep breath and knocked on Emma's door. "Come in."
As Ray walked in, he noticed the small nightlight under the bedside table. He remembered being afraid of the dark as a kid, too. Dief lay on the end of the bed, his head on his paws, like a big stuffed critter.
Ray sat down on the edge of the bed, staring into the puffy, tear-streaked face of his niece. His heart ached as he wished there was something to make the pain all go away. A little girl shouldn't have to suffer so much, shouldn't have to lose the people she loved so soon in her life. "How you doing, Em? You have fun with the horses?"
"Oh, yeah. Ben's a good rider."
"He says the same thing about you."
"Yeah. Says you're a natural."
"So, you want me to read you a bedtime story or something?"
"No, not tonight."
"Then I guess I should leave you alone and let you get some sleep, huh?"
Despite the warmth of the room, Emma held the cover up against her chin like she was freezing. She lay on her side and held Buster Bunny close to her chest. She grabbed his hand as he started to stand up, so he stayed put. "Uncle Ray?"
"Am I going to live with you from now on?"
"Yeah, Em, I told you that. You don't have to worry. Ben and I are going to take good care of you."
"I know, but does that mean we're going to have to leave?"
"You mean leave the farm?"
"Yeah, are we going to move to Chicago to live?"
Ray shifted and stretched his legs out on the bed as he pulled her in closer. "What do want to do, Em? Do you want to move to the city?"
"I don't know. I mean, I like the city because there's lots of stuff to do, the aquarium and the museums and all kinds of cool stuff. It's just -"
"Becca and my horses and my room with all my stuff, it's all here."
"Well, all your stuff can go with you, and we can find a place for your horses."
"You mean I can still ride?"
"I don't see why not. There are places where people ride horses all the time."
"But what about Becca?"
Ray took a deep breath, knowing that giving up her best friend would be the hardest thing to do if they moved. "I don't know, Em. I mean, we could always have Becca come to visit on weekends, but I can't promise that. I don't know what her mum would think about it."
"She sees her daddy every other weekend and her mom doesn't like Becca to go to the city much. She's afraid something might happen."
"Something can happen anywhere, Em."
"Yeah, I know that, but Becca's mom watches the news and worries a lot." The little girl took a deep breath. "Could I play with your turtle if we move?"
"Better than that, you can play with Turtle and Dief, too."
"A wolf and a turtle in the same place?"
"Believe it or not, Dief and Turtle get along pretty good. I didn't think they would at first, thought Dief might get ideas and make Turtle a snack, you know? But it turns out that they actually do okay together."
Emma snuggled in closer to Ray, her arms now around his waist and her eyes closed. "I'd miss Becca, but we could still email each other and talk on the phone or something."
"Sure, you could do that, except we'd have to keep an eye on those long distance charges."
"If I got a cell phone, I could have unlimited minutes."
Ray pulled back and stared down at the top of his seven-year-old niece's head with new respect. Talk about growing up with tech savvy. He kissed her head with a smile. "Yeah, yeah, we can see about doing a cell phone, no promises."
"Okay. I love you, Uncle Ray."
"I love you, too, sweetie. Now you need to go to sleep. It's been a long day."
"Would you tell me a story first?"
"Thought you didn't want a story tonight."
"I changed my mind. Tell me a story about Turtle and Dief."
"Turtle and Dief, huh?"
"Yeah, make one up."
Ray scratched his head, wishing like hell that he had Ben's gift for gab when it came to the story deal. He took a deep breath and just jumped in, telling it the best way he could in kidspeak. "Well, once upon a time, there was this wolf who lived with a Mountie. One day he came to the apartment of a cop who had a turtle. At first the cop was afraid because he thought that the wolf and the turtle were natural enemies, but the Mountie said the wolf had no interest in the turtle and left the wolf there anyway. A Mountie will do that sometimes, just make up his mind and there's no changing it, but you get used to it after a while. Anyway, turns out the Mountie was right, and the wolf liked the turtle and the turtle liked the wolf. They played games when the Mountie and the cop went to work or went out to dinner sometimes, too. They played snatch the turtle out of the tank and roll the turtle across the carpet until his shell's all furry with lint. The cop washed him off, though, and he was good as new, all bright and shiny, back in his tank, safe and sound. Other times they'd play hide and seek, with the turtle hiding where the cop couldn't find him, and then he'd need the wolf to sniff out the turtle who was snoozing in the closet under the big pile of dirty socks that should've been washed last Thursday. Yeah, the wolf and the turtle were best buddies after they got used to each other and their different ways of living. It just goes to show that even a strange mix like a turtle and a wolf can sometimes work out."
Ray glanced down and realized that his niece had fallen asleep in his arms, her eyes shut and her chest just going up and down, slow and easy. It was a good feeling, her warm body against his, her soft breaths like baby kisses against his skin. The smell of baby powder made him remember when she was just an infant, how he'd taken care of her then, too. Now, years later, she trusted him and loved him and it was like Christmas and every other holiday rolled into one. Even so, the slight tug of guilt at being so happy when his brother had to die for this to happen kept him from smiling. Instead, Ray lay there quietly, afraid that if he moved, he might wake her, might break the magic of the moment. He closed his eyes and relaxed, let her tiny snores lull him into the sleep he so desperately needed.
A little while later, Ray woke up with a start and then shuddered. He'd been dreaming about Roy being dead but still trying to talk to him from the other side. Disoriented, it took a few moments to remember where he was. Ray calmed himself down enough to see Emma lying on her side, turned way from him and still sleeping. Dief snuffled a few times as Ray eased himself off the bed. He went out and closed the door, tiptoeing over to his room. He stopped right outside the bedroom door, his hand on the knob, when he heard Ben's voice.
"I know you mean well, but this isn't the time, Dad." His partner paused as if listening to someone and then continued. "No, I don't think I'm being unreasonable."
Frowning, Ray opened the door to find Ben standing in his white T-shirt and boxer briefs and talking to thin air. "Ben?"
Startled, Ben whipped around, his mouth hanging open before he snapped it shut. He swallowed hard and then managed to regain his composure. "Ray, I thought you'd fallen asleep in Emma's room."
"I did. I woke up." Ray came inside and shut the door. He had a creepy, crawly sensation he couldn't explain, his skin covered with goosebumps, like it was momentarily a lot colder in their room than in the hallway. "You okay?"
"Yeah? So why are you talking to yourself in the middle of the night?"
Flustered, Ben sat on the edge of the bed, his head down, his arms crossed. "It's a very long story, Ray."
Ray settled beside him and scrubbed his face with both hands. He'd been asleep only a few hours, just enough to take the edge off the exhaustion, but not enough to really put a dent in the backlog of shuteye he needed to catch up. "Look, we both have a lot going on right now, a lot more than terrorists and arsonists and your run of the mill, save the world kind of thing. I mean, you listened to me babble on about seeing shadows and hearing voices without calling for the guys in white coats. At least let me return the favor. I figure it's got something to do with Roy's death churning up some old issues about your dad, huh?"
Ben didn't answer right away, but instead stood up, checking things out around the room and even under the bed. Then, whoa, he yanked open the closet door like he was expecting something to jump out. "Ben, tell me what the hell's going on. I know you do the freak thing pretty good sometimes, but you're acting a little crazier than usual."
"I just needed to be sure."
Ben took a very long breath and then sat back down beside him. "You said something once about keeping secrets and how it's never good for a relationship."
"You saying you've got a secret?"
"Ben, I told you to tell me."
"I know that, Ray, but this isn't exactly your typical secret. It's about my father."
"Your dead father?"
"If only it were that simple."
Ray's eyes narrowed and he shook his head. "What's simple about him being dead? It's because of him you got vanished to Chicago, not that I'm not happy about that, because it worked out great for me, but still -"
"It's banished, and it's worked out well for me, too, Ray, but there's something you need to know. I started to tell you earlier when you confessed to seeing the so-called shadows when someone is near death."
Once more Ben hesitated, but then he took another deep breath. "I see my father's ghost. Actually, it's more than see. We converse and he gives me long, and, oftentimes, annoying, advice on how to run my life."
Stunned, Ray sat there and just stared for a few extra seconds. He didn't really know what to think, what to say to that. Ben saw his old man, his dead old man? Well, hell, that explained a lot, the talking to himself thing and the way Ben sometimes stated the obvious about shit they weren't even talking about. "Fuck."
"Ray, I -"
"How long has this been going on?"
Ben rubbed his right eyebrow with his thumb, his voice still husky and strained. "Almost from the beginning. He showed up about the same time I came to Chicago."
"And he's for real, not just your imagination?"
"He's as real as your shadows and voices."
"That real, huh?"
"It was very disconcerting in the beginning. I thought I had a hole in my bag of marbles or that my elevator didn't go all the way to the top, as it were."
Ray scanned the room and looked behind him. "So, is the old coot still here?"
"No, he left when you came in."
"But he doesn't always, right? Sometimes he hangs around and rags on you while you're trying to have a conversation."
"Yes. Unfortunately, it's sometimes impossible to ignore him even though no one else sees him." Ben paused and then shook his head. "Actually, that's not entirely true. His partner Buck Frobisher sees him as well. That's what finally convinced me that he is, in fact, real, and not just a product of some mental aberration on my part."
Ray studied Ben's face, the tight lines around his mouth and sleepy blue eyes. He reached over and cupped his cheek. "It's okay. I believe you."
Ben relaxed and rested his forehead on Ray's shoulder. "I should've told you sooner, but I really didn't know how to broach the subject."
"What, that you see dead people? Go figure."
Ben lifted his head, still not sure about Ray's reaction. "It sounds unbalanced."
"Did it sound unbalanced when I told you I knew Roy was going to die soon?"
"Honestly, if you'd said that before this experience with my father, I would've said you were overwrought and experiencing some kind psychological episode precipitated by grief. However, my perspective on supernatural phenomenon has changed rather drastically over the last few years."
Ben took his hand and squeezed it. "Thank you, Ray."
"For what, believing in you? I'll always believe in you, no matter what."
"I know that."
"Not enough to tell me the truth."
"And for that, I apologize. I should've known you'd be sympathetic to the situation."
"I guess we're even now, huh?"
"I suppose so."
Ray got up to take off his jeans and then stripped off his T-shirt before sitting back down to remove his socks. He talked while he undressed. "What were you guys arguing about when I came in?"
"He wanted me to tell you about the afterlife, or at least his version of it."
"His version of it? You saying that there's more than one version of the afterlife?"
"I really couldn't say, Ray, but I will say that according to my father, it's very much like this one life, only a bit less organized."
"He thought that by telling you of his existence that it would ease your mind about your brother."
"Roy? Are you saying he saw Roy?"
Ben shook his head. "No, I'm not saying that. He wanted you to understand that the afterlife isn't as frightening as some people think, but simply an extension of this one."
Ray let the words soak in before he asked, "You believe that?"
"From what I've seen and heard, yes."
The lump in Ray's throat blocked his words. It took a couple of tries to swallow it down and speak, his voice still choked with grief. "I want to believe that, Ben, I do. It's just hard."
Ben wrapped his arm around Ray's shoulders and pulled him closer. "I know."
"I used to think there was nothing, just a big black hole of empty space. You just got stuck in the ground and you rotted away. That was it, over and done with, no more Stanley Raymond Kowalski. After I got shot, that all changed. I saw stuff, things I can't explain, before they brought me back."
"It's not uncommon for a near-death experience to drastically change one's ideas about eternity."
"I know that. It's because of that, that I believe there's something, something good, but I don't know that for sure, not for sure sure, not like I'm really sure. It scares me because I don't think it's always all sweetness and light once you kick the bucket, at least not for everybody."
"The shadows. They're creepy. Sure, the voices tell me it's cool, that's it's okay, but it's still scary as hell because they won't let me see the whole picture."
"What do the voices sound like? Are they voices of people you know?"
"Don't know. Sometimes I think I recognize a voice, but then it's gone, poof, nada, nothing."
Ben squeezed him gently and then kissed his temple. "I know death isn't the end, Ray. If nothing else, my father has given me that knowledge, which in and of itself, is a true gift."
"Yeah, I guess."
"I think we should try to rest now."
Ray didn't argue, just let Ben guide him back under the covers. Lying with his head on Ben's chest, Ray asked, "Is your old man still around?"
"Not at the moment, no."
"Do you think your old man would tell you if he ran into Roy?"
"I can ask."
"Yeah, do that." Ray closed his eyes and then opened them again as a scary idea popped into his head. "Ben?"
"Your old man, did he ever, you know, drop by when we were, you know -"
Ben grinned as he petted and stroked the side of Ray's face. "He did once, yes, but only once."
"Shit. Did he see anything?"
"We hadn't gotten to the most intimate juncture, but -"
"However, he saw enough to convince him that such an uninvited intrusion wouldn't serve him well in the future."
Ray smiled and chuckled to himself. "Got an eyeful, huh?"
"It was only after that incident that I realized that ghosts could blush."
"Served him right for being a buttinski."
"Indeed. Though I must say he handled the discovery of our relationship better than I'd expected."
"Yeah? Your old man a homophobe like mine?"
"On the contrary. While he's old-fashioned and incredibly traditional about many things, he doesn't seem to have that particular bias."
"Guess all that time up at the North Pole gives a guy a different feel for things, huh? Grab who you can, when you can, otherwise you might freeze your skinny ass off all alone."
Ben ignored the North Pole remark and simply whispered, "Consider yourself grabbed, Ray."
"Oh, yeah, grabbed is good, grabbed is greatness."
The memorial on Monday morning was held in a local church and went without a hitch. No fights or screaming matches between various branches of the Kowalski clan broke out anywhere during the service. Despite that, Ray didn't miss the black eye his father sported or the busted nose and lip of his Uncle David. He didn't ask what happened, just got Ben and Emma back in the limo and hurried back to the house. There he found his mother already fixing iced tea and coffee for anyone who dropped by later. Roy had a lot of friends in town who showed up at the service, but Ray was in no mood to meet and greet a houseful of strangers.
Ray stood in the kitchen watching his mum and Emma put food out on the table. Emma, dressed in a dark blue dress, wore her shoulder-length blond hair with one navy satin ribbon tied in a bow on the top of her head. She moved around like an old hand, putting out forks and spoons, napkins, and all the other stuff that went with a funeral reception. Except there hadn't really been a funeral, no graveside service, nothing like that, just a lot of eulogies and music mixed with a bunch of clichd speeches about celebrating Roy's life instead of mourning his death. Roy would've liked it, but it just made Ray sad.
Pinching the bridge of his nose, Ray tried to keep the weariness out of his voice. "Anything I can do to help, Mum?"
"No, dear. Emma and I have everything in hand. Father Tobias and some of the others should be here soon."
"What about Pop?"
Barbara fidgeted and glanced over at Emma, who was busy carrying mourning cakes to the center of the table. His mother cleared her throat, always a bad sign. " He had a few things to do. He should be here later on. Please, Stanley, listen to what he has to say first before -"
"Before what, Mum? What's he going to say that's worth listening to?"
Emma's head came up at his harsh tone, her eyes rounded. "Are you mad about something, Uncle Ray?"
"Nothing, baby. Just tired."
His mother stepped to his side and patted his shoulder. "Why don't you go up and rest a few minutes before everyone gets here? Emma and I will take care of things here, won't we, Emma?"
"Sure thing. We've got enough food to feed an army."
Ray smiled at her gutsy attitude and then nodded. "Okay, but just for a little bit. I'll come back down when people start showing up."
His mother shooed him out of the room and he went upstairs. Ben came out of the bathroom and stopped when he saw him. "Ray, are you all right?"
Shrugging, Ray went into their room and let Ben follow. Once the door closed, Ray collapsed on the bed. He didn't give a shit if he wrinkled the suit or anything else. Ben sat on the bed next to him, but remained quiet. Ray finally broke the silence. "I hate this."
"It was a lovely service, Ray. Your brother was well-loved."
"He's still dead. His little girl is dealing with this better than I am." Ray closed his eyes against the sting of tears. "It's just hard knowing he's gone. I wish I'd known, wish I could've been there."
"You're here now, Ray, and you eased his passing by promising to take care of Emma."
"I didn't want to ease his passing. I wanted to keep him breathing."
"Ray, Ray, Ray -"
"Stop with the Ray shit, okay? I'm not in the mood." Ben gave a heavy sigh and then stretched out beside him, boots and all. Ben never did that, but Ray smiled at the sympathetic gesture. "Sorry. Didn't mean to bite your head off."
Ben reached between them and took his hand, lacing their fingers together. Ray kind of wished he had a mirror on the ceiling, thinking they'd make a funny sight, the cop in his best suit and the Mountie in his red uniform, both stretched out on their backs and holding hands in the middle of the bed. "We should get up, Ben. People are coming."
"True, but it won't hurt to take just a minute to recoup."
"I think it's going to take more than a minute."
"Perhaps, but no one says we have to rush down and host the reception. Your mother is quite able and willing to do that."
"It's not fair to her or to Emma."
"No, it's not, but sometimes one needs to take an extra moment to regroup or affairs can deteriorate.
"Like when my dad shows up?"
Instead of answering that question, Ben asked one of his own. "Did you notice his condition?"
"You mean the shiner? Yeah, I saw that."
"And your uncle looked a little worse for wear as well. What do you suppose happened?"
"Who knows, who cares? Maybe if they beat each other's brains out, they'll leave us alone."
Ben rolled over, his weight and position dipping the mattress way down. "That's a bit harsh. He is, after all, your father. I know you have differences, but take my advice here, and don't let this rift continue."
"He started it."
"I know that, but I'm hoping that we can end it, for Emma's sake. She needs her family, Ray, all of her family, not just us. If we can manage it, I'd like us to try to mend fences."
Ray closed his eyes again, his heart heavy, not wanting to think about fighting with his father again. So, he didn't. Instead, he asked, "You think your father would ever show himself to me?"
"Is that a no?"
Ben sat up and swung his legs off the side of the bed. He straightened his tunic before he answered. "I don't know if he'll show himself, Ray. I don't know if he even has any choice in the matter. That said, we were talking about your father, not mine."
Ray took the hint and sat up as well, noting the worry lines that creased Ben's forehead. He smoothed them out with his palm and then kissed him gently. Ben's mouth melted into his own, but before they got carried away, a knock came at the door. They parted just as Emma poked her head in. "Uncle Ray, Ben, there are lots of people downstairs. You coming down now?"
Running a hand through his hair, Ray smiled at his niece. "Thanks, baby, I'll be down in a minute, okay?"
"Sure." Then she was gone, the door slamming shut behind her.
Ray shook his head, a wry grin on his lips. "First thing we're going to do when we move into the new place is buy a lock."
Ben stood up and held out his hand to Ray. "An excellent idea."
Standing up, Ray took a steadying breath and then headed downstairs with Ben walking right behind him, watching his back, making sure that things didn't get out of hand with his dad or anyone else who might start some shit.
Roy had made a big impression on the small town even though he'd only lived there for a little over a year. The mayor, the chief of police, the fire chief, a whole string of other prominent locals all said so. Ray knew that it wasn't just for show, either. The people who talked to him that afternoon all came across as sincere, not as people just being polite because a guy died kind of thing. Ray's cop sense would've picked up on any bullshit in no time. These were all genuine people, folks who cared about Roy and really wanted to show their sympathy.
Cindy's parents didn't stay long, but they assured Ray that they had no intention of trying to take Emma. They only wanted to see her and be a part of her life like they had been. Ray let them know in no uncertain terms that they were welcome anytime.
His Uncle David and his wife never showed up, didn't even bother to put in an appearance, but his father walked in just as almost everyone else had left. Damien stood out on the back porch, alone and staring off into space. He'd been out there a long time before Ben finally leaned over and whispered, "Go talk to him, Ray."
"Why should I get stuck making the first move?"
"Because you're the bigger man. Please, Ray, just see what he has to say."
Reluctantly, Ray headed outside. He planted his butt on the rail, his arms hugging his chest so he wouldn't be tempted to use his fist if his old man popped off. "So, you came."
"Yes, Raymond, I came."
"Uncle David didn't."
"I told him not to."
Ray snorted. "That's a new one. The way I remember it, it's Uncle David who calls all the shots."
His father stiffened, his voice tighter. "I know that, Raymond. I've made mistakes in my life, I know that, too. I suppose you're perfect, never screw up?"
"I never said that."
"Good, because I'd have to point out a few examples if you decided to make such a claim. Nobody's perfect."
"Yeah, well, you're good at that, pointing out other people's faults."
His father took a deep breath, but didn't snap back. Instead his voice softened. "Your mother told me she told you about Roy and his mother."
"Yeah, she did. Why didn't you tell me before?"
"It's complicated. You wouldn't understand."
Hesitating, his father finally told his story. "I hadn't met your mother yet. You have to know that this all happened before she came along. I was never unfaithful to your mother, ever."
"You just messed around with your brother's girlfriend."
"Nancy wasn't with David when we were together. I had no idea that she was pregnant with my child, Raymond, or I would've done the right thing. It wasn't until right before she died that she ever told anyone the truth. I was as shocked as David."
"Couldn't someone have done the math? I mean, I'm no genius with numbers, but I can count back from nine, Dad."
"I know, but I was young and nave and I really thought Roy belonged to David."
"But when you found out, why didn't you claim him?" Ray stood up and leaned against the rail, his arms extended as he faced the yard. "He was your son, your own flesh and blood. How could you just keep pretending like that?"
It took a few extra moments for his father to answer. "Mostly I did it for Nancy."
"I don't get that."
His father rubbed his face and then moved to lean against the rail, too, mirroring Ray's position. "Nancy was a devout Catholic, Raymond. If it became known that she had my child instead of her husband's, nobody would've cared about the circumstances. They would've simply called her a whore or worse. Roy would've been considered a bastard. I didn't want to do that to her or to our child."
Ray had to admit, he'd never really thought about it like that, about how important the church was to the whole deal. "Okay, I guess I can see why you kept it from public knowledge, but, Dad, Roy and me, we deserved to know."
"I know, Son. I wish I'd told you, but David made me promise not to. Despite our differences, he's my older brother, and I had in his words "defiled" his bride."
"'Defiled his bride'? What a crock of shit."
"I agree, but I did promise him to keep the secret and no matter how difficult it was to keep, I am nothing if not a man of my word."
"And you made Mum promise, too."
"Yes, yes, I did and I regret that." His father cleared his throat, still not looking in Ray's direction. "I regret many things, Raymond. I shouldn't have said those things to you or your partner."
"No, you shouldn't have."
"But I never thought of you that way. You mooned over Stella since you were a child. How was I to know you'd gone queer?"
Ray's head dipped down as he shook it hard, the anger exploding. "You don't go queer, Dad. I like women and men, well, Stella and Ben. Those are the only two people I've ever been with or ever want to be with."
His father looked at him harder then and stood up straight. "Is that true? You've only ever been with your wife and this man?"
"Why would I lie about that? You think I'm this guy who goes around screwing everything in sight, man or woman, that I'm just some kind of slut?"
"No, Son, I didn't mean it like that."
"Then how did you mean it?"
"I just meant I was surprised, that's all. In this day and age, you hear stories."
"And that's just what they are, Dad, stories." Ray rubbed his face with one hand and moved to sit in the swing. He had to do this right, make it good again between him and his father, but it sure as hell wasn't easy. "Look, I know you don't get the gay thing, I respect that, but you have to know that I love him as much as you love Mum. That's just the way it is, take it or leave it. I can't change who I love, wouldn't, even if I could."
"I realize that now."
Hopeful, Ray studied the serious lines of his father's face, saw the frown, and once again checked out the black eye. "So, did you and Uncle David have a knockdown drag out or what?"
His father touched his eye and shrugged. "We had a difference of opinion."
"That's nothing new. You two usually don't start swinging, though."
Moving to sit on the rail closest to the swing, his father frowned, swallowing several times before he spoke. "He said some things, terrible things. I let him know that he couldn't talk about my son that way."
Ray sat back in surprise. He hadn't expected that, that his dad would fight for his good name, but it tickled him to hear. "I guess I don't have to ask what he said, huh?"
"No, but suffice it to say, I made sure he understood not to say it again. Also, I made it clear that if he tried to get custody of my grandchild, he'd better be ready for me to testify against him."
Stunned, Ray sat forward. "Testify? About what?"
"David has done some things, things that I've known about for some time. These things are not only immoral, but illegal. I never turned him in because he's my brother and I just couldn't do that. But, I told him that if he tried to keep you from raising Emma, he'd be behind bars so fast that he'd never see daylight again, much less get the child."
"You blackmailed him?"
"I just told him the facts, Raymond."
Ray opened his mouth and then closed it, completely shocked by his father's actions. After a few extra moments, Ray managed to speak. "Thanks, Dad. We appreciate it."
"I just have one favor to ask."
His voice choked on the words. "Your mother and I, we want to be part of her life. I know you're still angry with me, and you have every right to be. I've been stupid about a lot of things, but your mother has helped me see the truth. I'm not getting any younger and neither is she. This is our last chance to have a grandchild. I don't want to lose it because I'm some stubborn son of a bitch like my father was."
A terrible weight lifted from Ray's shoulders as he stood, his eyes stinging. He held out a hand to his father and they shook to seal the deal. "Thanks."
Unexpectedly, his father pulled him into a brief hug, patting him on the back before he released him. "There's just one more thing I have to do."
"What's that, Dad?"
"I need to apologize to your partner."
Nodding, smiling again, Ray agreed, "Yeah, you really do."
As they headed back inside to find Ben, Ray couldn't keep the grin off his face. Funeral reception or not, he felt reborn and hopeful for the first time in a long while.
"Did you tell him to do that?"
"Do what, Ray?"
Standing on the back porch, watching the sun go down as Emma and Dief played in the tent, Ray motioned toward the new best buddies. "Tell Dief to stick with her like that. He hasn't been a foot away from Em since we got here."
"Diefenbaker has always had a strange attraction, a thing as it were, to blondes, Ray. Age doesn't seem to be much of a factor."
Ray glanced at Ben beside him, touching and teasing his dark hair. "You're not blond, so why'd he hook up with you?"
"I've often asked him that, but he's perpetually obtuse about the matter."
"Maybe he's just got really good taste."
Ben smiled and returned his gaze. "Thank you kindly."
"You're welcome." Ray patted Ben's cheek and then headed for the swing. He settled into it as Ben did the same, their combined weight straining the chains. "When we get the new place, I want a swing."
"I'm sure that can be arranged."
As they swayed back and forth, listening to Em boss Dief around, Ben chuckled quietly. Ray asked, "What's so funny?"
"Emma is quite the alpha."
"Yes. She's a very headstrong, little girl, Ray, much like another Kowalski blond I know."
"I'm not that bossy."
"No, you've learned to compromise."
"Didn't want to get my ass kicked." He leaned over, whispering so Emma couldn't hear. "I much prefer you to do other things to my ass, Mr. Mountie."
Ben turned red and cleared his throat as he made sure Emma was out of earshot. "Ray, we can't."
"Not now maybe, but later tonight. Just thought I'd let you know I'm kind of in the mood."
"So it would appear."
"How about you? You in the mood?"
"Ray, Emma's just a few feet away."
"I know that, and she and the wolf are busy playing pup tent or something. I've got another game in mind, something where you can practice those riding skills you've been working on."
Ben covered his mouth with his hand and coughed loudly just as Emma ran up and onto the porch. "Uncle Ray, Ben, what ya doing?"
Scooting over to make room between them, Ben patted the swing. "Join us, Emma."
Wasting no time, she did just that, jumping up and squirming around until she was settled just right. "Dief and me, we were thinking."
"It's Dief and I, Emma."
She looked up at Ben, paused and corrected herself. "Dief and I were thinking."
"Very good, Emma."
She smiled at the praise and continued, "We thought that you two should sleep out here tonight with us."
Ray shook his head. "Nobody said you could sleep outside tonight."
"I know, but I thought -"
"I'm sorry, baby, but it's going to rain."
"But we'll be in the tent. It'll be fun and it'll just be us."
Ray stared over her head and met Ben's amused expression. Bastard thought it was a great idea to camp out. "Yes, Ray, a little rain can't hurt."
It was two against one for sleeping on the dirt, three to one if you counted the wolf. Damn. Still, Ray had no desire to sleep out in the pouring rain, vote or no vote. "Look, it's been a really long day, Em. I was thinking we could sleep in our own beds tonight and then maybe camp out tomorrow night. How about that instead?"
"Well, maybe just Ben and me could sleep out with Dief."
"Ben and I, Emma."
Ray snapped, "Ben, she's only seven."
"She's never too young for proper grammar, Ray."
Emma looked up, moving her head side to side as they bickered. "It's okay, Uncle Ray. I want to know if it's wrong so I can fix it."
Ray patted her head, and gave Ben a glare. "Okay, sweetie, but no camping out tonight for anybody. We'll do it tomorrow. Now, you need to go up and get ready for bed. You need any help with your jammies?"
Disappointed, Emma crossed her arms stubbornly and let out a long, overly dramatic sigh. "I want to camp out."
"I'm sorry, but -"
"Daddy would let me."
Ray's jaw dropped, not sure what to say to that. Ben stepped up to the plate, his voice soft, but firm. "He might and he might not, Emma. There's no way to know that. Regardless, Ray has made his decision. We'll camp out as a family tomorrow night. Now, do you need help getting ready for bed or not?"
Emma stared at Ben a few seconds longer, her lower lip sticking out. Just as fast as she turned on the pout, she turned it off. She smiled and shook her head. "No, I can do it." She patted both their legs. "I want a good story when I'm finished. You two can tuck me in."
Ben nodded and answered for them both. "That can be arranged. We'll be up shortly."
"Okay." She jumped off the swing and headed inside, Dief scooting in right behind her just before the screen door slammed shut.
Ray stared first at the door and then back at Ben. "Damn. How did you do that?"
"Do what, Ray?"
"Read her like that?"
"She's testing us, Ray."
"Oh, yeah, I got that."
"And we need to have a united front. As I said before, she's very headstrong. Even if she hadn't gone through this terrible loss, she'd still be what might be referred to as a handful."
"A handful of trouble, that's a fact. That still doesn't explain how you knew what to do when she pulled the emotional blackmail thing."
Ben shrugged and then tugged at his ear. "I seem to remember doing the same thing with my grandmother."
Ray turned in the swing, studying his partner. "Yeah? What'd you do?"
"My grandmother was a very strong disciplinarian and had a much harsher view of child rearing than my mother did. It was a big adjustment for me, so when she'd tell me to do something I didn't want to do or tell me that I couldn't do something I wanted, then I'd say my mother would let me."
"And your grandmother saw through it?"
"Oh, yes, but to this day, I remember the hurt expression she wore. It was the same one you just had when Emma mentioned her father."
"She was playing me, that's for sure."
"Indeed." Ben's face got even more serious. "We have to be firm about certain things, Ray. I don't want to be as stern as my grandparents, but we can't be permissive and spoil her, either. We wouldn't be doing her any favors if we did that."
"It'd be easy to do though." Ray rubbed his chin and then smiled to himself. "You know Roy had you pegged all right."
"Yeah, he told me she'd run over me if I wasn't careful, but that you'd make her hold the line."
Ben sat up a little straighter, obviously surprised at the comment. "We only met a few times."
"I know, but like I said before, he could read people. It was a gift. He could meet a guy once and know what made him tick. It was pretty uncanny."
"You have a similar gift, Ray."
"Yeah, maybe, but not to the same degree. He taught me a lot of things, though." Ray's voice choked as he thought of his loss. "I'm going to miss him."
Ray rubbed his face with both hands, suddenly very tired. "God, I'm so glad this day is over and that my old man came through like he did."
"It'll certainly make the eventual adoption go more smoothly."
"God, I hope so. I want this, Ben. More than anything, I want us to be a family."
"I feel the same way, Ray."
They sat there together as the world got darker around them, the light from the kitchen filtering out to the back porch. Ben stood up and held out a hand. "I think we should go check on our daughter, Ray."
"Our daughter." Ray repeated the words with a kind of reverence, like they had more power than he ever imagined words to have. He took Ben's hand and stood up, his heart filled with an unexpected joy. "Yeah, let's do that. I've got just the story to tell her, too."
"Oh? What's that?"
"You ever hear the one about the Mountie and the Flatfoot who drove a burning car into Lake Michigan the first day they met?"
Ben laughed that musical laugh he had, and Ray heard it combine to form the perfect harmony with his daughter's giggle and the wolf yips drifting down the stairs from the bath. Oh, yeah, he could do the family thing, no problem, dancing and keeping step with the rhythm of their new life together. Greatness took on a whole new meaning when a guy had a family to love and care for.
Ben tugged at his hand. "Are you coming?"
Ray grinned wide and stole a kiss before taking off. He called over his shoulder, "Loser scrubs the tub." Then he raced up the stairs, taking the steps two at a time with Ben chasing right behind him.
End Family Thing by Grey
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