Title: What the Heart Sees
Series: Chances in Particular Men.
Rating: NC-17 for anguish, bad language and kissing. Not really sexually explicit.
Pairings: Fraser/Kowalski. Vecchio/female. Frannie/male. Turnbull/female.
Spoilers: Victoria's Secret and various episodes from Season Three.
Disclaimer: Fraser, Kowalski, Vecchio, Stella, Frannie, Turnbull and the others belong to Alliance Communications and the great Pauls (both Haggis and Gross). The luminous Babylon 5 film, "The River of Souls" is quoted without permission. This is a dalliance set between the responsibilities of real life. It is not work. I am not getting paid.
Dedication: This story is dedicated to Cindy, VJ and Sophie. I would like to include here as well the actors, directors, writers and fans everywhere of "due South." Thank you, Clair, for your inspired suggestion for the title of the series. Jen, Sylvie and Corrinne, your generous advice and praise have been most appreciated and valued. Please never think otherwise. It's my wish also to offer up a trophy and medals to Frasrgrl, AuKestrel, Marilea and Cara, my guide, betas and example. AuKestrel, you are an astonishing teacher; it's been a privilege and honor to meet someone so talented. Marilea, I know we had differences of opinion over content and character motivation. But know this. Any mistakes are mine. I only supplied the angst, the pain, the rage and the words. Whereas all that is good and true, comes from your insight, intellect and laser like skill. I could not have done this without your wonderful help. Thank you both from the bottom of my being. I know it was a difficult childbirth for the three of us. All of you truly are the angels on my shoulder.
Distribution: Our sites and the main due South archives only.
Feedback: Would be lovely, thank you.
Personal note: Certain actions and choice of names may appear odd in this and the sequel. Please, stay the course. All will be explained in the third part.
Summary: Post Call of the Wild. Some Christmas gifts are best left unopened. First story in trilogy.
Dates written: December 13-15, 2000. Copyright: January 4, 2001. First appeared on the RSY Archive in March, 2001.
"The heart sees what it wants. The soul sees what it needs." from "The River of Souls."
Taken from the papers of Raymond Vecchio:
I'm getting all my Christmas gifts early this year. For seven days this December, the best friend a man could ask for, Benton Fraser, will make like an eagle and fly south, leaving behind the cold Canadian skies for the warm breezes of the Florida straits.
There's just one problem.
Christmas in casa Vecchio this year was supposed to be for the Vecchio family: me, Stella, Ma, Frannie, Maria, Tony, plus all the kids. They're at Disney World right now and will be back at any time.
It's not that I don't consider Benny family. I do. It's just been so long since I've seen him that I don't want to share.
"Merry Christmas, Ray. May we come in?"
"You know you're always welcome, Benny." I open the door wide and find myself surrounded by red and crushed in an all too brief bear hug. He's just beginning to go a little gray at his temples and has one or two extra lines around his eyes, but he's still my Benny. The stiff walk speaks of long patrols and poor traveling conditions. I guess the trip here from Fort Nelson wasn't a joy ride. Yet the smile I'm given warms me completely. From behind Benny comes a derisive snort. "Uh, you too, Stanley."
"Sit on it, Vecchio," Kowalski snaps, obviously burdened by the holiday cheer. He hefts a heavy military style duffle bag over his shoulder. "Are we gonna eat soon? I'm so hungry I could eat the ass out of a bear." With a purposeful angry stride, he pushes pass us. Benny tightens his grip on a bag he's holding as we're jostled. I roll my eyes. How can he stomach this lowlife?
Benny chuckles. "Ah, a thing of beauty is a joy forever." He takes the large bag from under his arm and gives it to me. "For you and Mrs. Vecchio. And your son."
What a guy. "Benny, you didn't have to bring anything."
"Yes, I did, Ray. You're my friend."
I link my arm in his. "Come on, Benny. I'll give you the five dollar tour."
We take a few steps forward when suddenly, he stops. He's looking in the door and I'm looking at him, so I turn my face. Inside the foyer stand Stella and Stanley. He has his free hand spread over her swollen belly. And the expression on his face seems nothing less than a lost soul who has found God.
Wherever I look tonight, all I see is Benny. Whether he's sharing a private joke with Stanley, nodding encouragement to Stella as she drones on about the birthing classes at the hospital, or carrying the ham to the table and offering to carve, he seems to have returned to take his rightful place in my life. Yet he's tired for some reason. No, more than that, exhausted -- but he appears content, truly happy. And because of that he's relaxed, nearly playful, and no longer annoying...he's just Benny. The best friend I ever had.
Somewhere between the soup and Maria's flan I realize that Benny has been going out of his way to build up Stanley in my eyes. Talking about cases where Kowalski's heart and brass ruled the day. Or how he took to the Great White Territories like a wolf cub.
I'm sorry, Benny. I just don't get the attraction. I mean, I'm grateful and all that he covered for me when I put on Armando's dancing shoes, but really. All I can see is a dumb Polack with long hair who, at forty, acts twenty, dresses like an unruly teenager, and has the surly vocabulary of some street trash. Even Stella, who in her unguarded moments will acknowledge that though the sex was very good, says it was like living with Peter Pan when what she needed was Captain Hook.
Well, tonight and the rest of the week I can afford to be generous and overlook his flaws because of Benny. He's obviously his current pet project; plus there's a touch of a big brother/little brother thing happening, which could almost be cute if Stanley wasn't so pathetic.
After my third helping of flan, I finally push myself away from the table and turn to smile at Stella. "It doesn't get any better than this." Both Benny and Kowalski are nodding in agreement.
"Yes, it was quite delicious, Mrs. Vecchio. Last year at this time we were still adventuring." Benny's animated eyes lose some of their luster and his voice fades to a whisper. "We were about a week from the nearest settlement when I realized I had made a rather severe miscalculation as to the amount of supplies we carried. We...I had to slaughter two of the weaker dogs for food for the team and ourselves-"
"Now don't be bringin' Marcia and Jan into this, Fraser. Do not go there. Ya promised." I stare in disbelief as Stanley jabs a long index finger less than an inch from Benny's sad eyes. He shakes it violently. I watch as Benny wraps one of his huge hands around Kowalski's thin wrist and ever so gently places that wrist and its hand on the table.
"You're right. I apologize, Stan. It wasn't buddies." With his free hand, reaches up and, to Stella's and my amazement, smoothes out the hair on the top of Stanley's head.
Kowalski's flashpoint of rage sputters and dies instantly, leaving only embers. His lips twitch and mold into a shy smile. He looks ten years old. "OK, then." His eyes follow Benny's hand as it leaves his wrist, then he looks up at me and Stella. "I'm sorry. I...I blow up sometimes."
"Shit, Stanley," I bellow. "You could poke somebody's eye out! What the hell is the matter with you?" I take a deep breath. "God, Benny, you need to take this puppy out on a collar and leash."
"Why, that's just silly, Ray. I could never do that to Stan," Benny replies in his most prim voice. "He's almost as well behaved as Diefenbaker." My jaw drops to the floor as Kowalski begins to bark vigorously. Stella frowns from behind her napkin, causing creases in her forehead.
Well, score one for the Polack. Maybe you're not so dumb after all if you can get Big Red to cut loose a little. Still, I wish-
"Would anyone like drinks?" Stella slowly rises from the table. Six months pregnant and still as beautiful as the day I married her. Both Benny and Stanley jump up in that half stand some guys do when they want to impress a woman. Me, I don't believe in it. Besides, if I do it once I'll have to do it every single time.
"I'll help ya, Stella."
She nods briskly and leads Stanley into the kitchen.
The poor whoosh; he still loves her. I fight down my growing smile then slap Benny hard across the thigh. "Come on, Benny. That's our cue to move into the living room."
After kicking off my shoes, I sprawl over the sofa while Benny pauses in front of the bookcase and picks up several knickknacks for a closer inspection. I love this sofa. It's big, roomy and comfortable no matter how you sit on it. And it's a deep reddish burgundy that is hands down, my favorite color. He holds up a photo of Frannie and her litter.
I nod. "I know, I know. Did you hear she's dating a gynecologist?"
His response startles me. "Yes, she wrote to me." He pauses. "Is she in love with him?"
"Yeah, I think so. She seems happy enough."
He smiles a real smile at that, not only with his mouth but also with his eyes. "I'm gratified for Francesca. She needs someone to watch over her." He settles tidily into the plush, high-backed chair in front of me. Something passes over his face that I can't read then he looks over in my direction. "Are you happy, Ray? You and Mrs. Vecchio?"
"As right as we'll ever be, why?"
"It's...it's nothing. I wish the best for you and Mrs. Vecchio. You appear well matched for each other."
"Well, love is like a tennis game. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose."
"Yes, I know." Huh? I'm about to ask what he means by that when Stella and Stanley come in, carrying drinks. Stella puts a glass of red wine in front of me and with her free hand finds a coaster to place under her mug of warm milk. Then she sits down and snuggles up close to me on the sofa. I wrap my arm around her and smile. She gives one back, which is more than I get most nights. Life is good.
Stanley follows her example and hands a cup of hot tea to Benny, then does something very strange. He drapes himself over the arm of the chair, slouches down and opens his beer, just an inch or so away from Benny. And Benny doesn't seem to mind having his personal space violated. They must have gotten into the habit up north; I know Benny doesn't own more than five pieces of furniture. Yeah, that's got to be it.
We drink in silence for a moment, then Benny reaches over and taps Kowalski's beer can. "Tell them about your team," he says. I don't want to hear about Stanley's personal best. What about Welsh, the Duck Boys' comedy club and how did Frannie end up with that floor mop of a dog? I'm about to open my mouth in protest when Benny says, "You have to listen to this." I don't believe it. He's giving me the Big-Eyed Mountie look. All right already. Game over. You win. I guess I can give him five minutes.
Ninety-seven mind-numbing minutes later I'm ready to throw in the towel. Right down Kowalski's throat. After rambling profiles and the MO of nine different dogs, we're given the long version of a race that has something to do with the flu, sick kids and a wolf named Balto, who I swear to God sounds like he must have been Dief's great-great grandfather.
As he starts to wind down, I realize that's all there is. No real paying job. Plays with these huskies all morning, cleans out Benny's cabin in the afternoon. Cooks dinner. Works on the occasional snowmobile and jeep for pocket change and beer money. Does odd jobs about town. Has worked hard to overcome a natural queasiness and now stitches up and medicates their livestock regularly. Finds new homes for abused animals. Pores over the classics in Benny's library. Is learning how to ski. But mostly, he talks about the dogs, almost like they're people. And how this race next March is going to be important. "For our pride," he says with conviction. "Mine and Fraser's." I find myself nodding; it's the first thing out of his mouth that's made any sense tonight. Yeah, I can see what he sees now. Benny standing at parade rest, smiling proudly, chest puffed out to here, yet watchful and protective, while Stanley, silent, head down, circles the dogs, checking feet and faces and leather. It's a pretty dream. But it's kid stuff, right? I mean, adults meet, fall in love, marry, have kids and raise a family. Even Tom and Huck had to grow up sometime.
"Really Ray, you make it sound like they're your children." Stella stands up, collecting her mug and my wine glass. "I mean, I'm glad you have a hobby, but when are you going to get a real job?" With her free hand, she reaches for Kowalski's beer can, but stops when she sees him frown.
"It is a real job, Stella. When machines break down in winterland, we use the dogs to get around. The dogs just go."
Stella looks a little startled, like she's not used to Stanley sassing her. "But they're just pets, right? Look, maybe I just don't get it because I'm tired and still have to clean up."
"Nonsense, Mrs. Vecchio. Stan and I will be perfectly happy to clean up for you." Despite his obvious exhaustion, Benny manages to outshine us all again, lighting up the room brighter than any Christmas tree.
"Sure, Stella, we're cool with this. Now, pitter patter, you two," Stanley stops and catches his mistake, then includes me, "you three, and get some Zs. We'll get this done in no time. Right, Frase?"
"Absolutely, Stan. No time at all. Now if you'll excuse us, we'll get started."
Stella stares at them, incredulously. She just doesn't realize yet that we have Batman and the Boy Wonder as houseguests, cleaning up our downstairs. I laugh out loud. "Not a problem, Benny. If you and Stanley want to spend your vacation as our personal maids, it's not a problem. Knock yourselves out."
"Why, thank you, Ray. I believe we shall." With that, he tears open the Velcro at the top of his tunic and glances over at Stanley, who is grinning like the damned Mona Lisa. Benny tilts his head in response; like separate parts of a single, well-oiled machine, they move as one in their tasks. Smiling, as if someone was doing them the favor.
I look back at Stella. She still doesn't get it. She's about to say something, but I put my finger to her lips to keep her from speaking. "Hey," I whisper, "if it makes them happy, let them go for it. And besides, it will give us more time to be alone, capisce?" She nods back and puts down the mug and glass. With a last wave to Santa's helpers, Stella and I climb the stairs. Once I reach the top I turn back, willing Benny to look at me. As if reading my mind he lifts his head up, smiles beautifully and sends me a perfect salute. I salute back as Stella opens the door to our bedroom. Shrugging my shoulders, I follow my wife.
Once I turn out the lights, I get a peck from Stella, who almost immediately drifts off to sleep. I suppose I could have asked for a quick cuddle, but it just wouldn't be right, what with Benny downstairs. He is, after all, my best friend. And as far as I know, the last time he was with a woman was that bitch in Chicago. So I find myself staring up at the ceiling, which looks like a giant, darkened television. I play over on its surface memories of me, Benny and Dief like they were reruns of a favorite TV show. I smile, shed a tear or two, but generally feel warm and happy.
It's how, an hour later, I fall asleep.
In my dream a blanket of white surrounds me. And I'm cold. Not just cold but down-to-the-bone-freezing-the-blood-in-my-veins cold. I can just make out a tiny speck of red in the distance. It moves closer and I realize it's a man. Benny! I jump up and down and shout until I get his attention. It is a Mountie; he looks a lot like Benny, though he's older and grayer. He seems to be in his sixties, but fit and in good shape. He beckons me forward with a raised hand. I come closer.
Pointing, he indicates my bedroom where I can see quite clearly the figures of Stella and me sleeping on the sheets we bought at Burdines. "You can stay here, or you can go over there." He points in the opposite direction. "I'd stay here if I were you, Yank. It's what you know."
"What's over there?" I ask, looking over his shoulder.
"Hey," I bluster, "I can handle the truth. I can handle anything."
"Then go there. Only realize you may not like what you see."
I nod. "That way?" He nods back. "Listen, I'm sorry I got mad. It's just...my old man..." I look into his kind face and know he has no idea what I'm trying to say. "It's...my father never thought I could handle tying my own shoes, let alone the truth."
"Understood. Will you do me a favor?"
"Tell Benton for me that his mother and I think about him all the time."
His mother and I...
I stare ahead; the old Mountie is gone. There's only a door, which I try to open. It's heavy and hard to move but I'm finally able to manage it.
Inside is a tiny, sparse room, made livable and even pleasant by the fire in the small woodstove, a wooden, handmade case filled with books, a cabinet, a simple table and two chairs. Several hides carpet the floor. On one side of the room is a large double bed, nicely made up with striped woolen blankets. At the foot of the bed is an oversized trunk. Extra blankets are folded on top of it. In the far corner is a round wood tub and a press dryer. Antlers, furs, handguns, knives, maps and several faded black-and-white photographs are fastened to the walls. Two shotguns, one crossed over the other in an X pattern, draw my eye. It's then that I hear the humming.
I look around, startled. It's only now that I realize there's a second room, the kitchen. It's half hidden by a pull curtain of sorts, so I move closer for a better look.
The person humming is Stanley. He's wearing a green flannel shirt, a thick, woolly white sweater with a tear at the neck and some faded blue jeans. At his moccasin-covered feet are Dief, a pure white husky and her six or seven puppies, fat with milk. He's cooking what smells like beef stew on one of those old-fashioned iron stoves that you see in Westerns on cable. It smells so good, I have to take a step forward. At that, Dief looks up -- he sees me. Wags his tail, too, but stays where he is. Makes his choice known.
I'm about to say something when the door is pulled open effortlessly by a strong force. The cabin turns chilly for a moment until the door is shut tight again. It's Benny! I turn to face him with open arms. He's in his brown uniform, a pair of gloves, heavy boots and a long wool duster. He tosses his hat to the table. The dark streaks of hair that cover his cheeks shock me.
"Ray! Get yourself over here," he shouts joyously. I've never seen him so carefree, so alive. I take a step forward, when Kowalski runs laughing out of the kitchen. And runs through me. Through me.
Into Benny's outstretched arms and embrace.
Oh no. No.
No fucking way.
Just a dream. It's just a dream.
I force myself awake. Look around the room. Yeah, there's my clock radio, the TV and the picture of Ma, Maria and Frannie in the antique gold frame taken on the day of my graduation from high school. Over to my left is Stella.
Just a dream. My heart stops its pounding and I'm able to breathe again.
I've got to talk to Benny. I slip on my robe and head toward the door.
He'll be up. It's just after five. It should be light soon. I open the door silently so not to wake Stella.
God, Benny. Please be awake. I push open the door only six or so inches, allowing my eyes to adjust to the darkness. I watch the shadows move and twist like living things, mocking me. Laughing at me. I open the door further.
It's then that I see them, caught in the reflected headlights of a passing car.
Stanley is spread out over the sofa. He's facing my direction but he doesn't have his glasses on, so I know he can't see me. Benny's standing right next to him, looking out the big window on the front wall, at what I don't know. I can only make out half his face.
Yawning, Kowalski covers his mouth with his left hand. He then raises that hand only to bring it down to rest on Benny. On his knee.
"Come on, Ben. Ease up. 'Member what the doc told ya." He begins to massage the knee as the darkness swallows them whole. "Course, ya could give me my Christmas gift. That should make ya sleepy."
"Really, Ray. Has someone spoken to you about the salacious side of your nature? It's most disconcerting."
"If that means dirty, yeah, ya tell me about it, all the time. Now get yer butt on this couch." Benny's shadow bends and unfolds as he drops to the sofa. "Watch yer leg. Yeah, that's better. Put yer head down. Here."
"I don't see how you can breathe, Ray."
"I ain't complainin'. I kinda like it. So c'mere. Sleep." Muffled kissing sounds cut like knives into my chest and skull. "I'll wake ya at daybreak."
I stumble back into my room. Close the door. It's only then that I realize I'm crying. How could this be happening? Benny and Kowalski are fags? I feel the taste of bile running up my throat and, grabbing the wastebasket near the bed, begin to vomit again and again. I can't seem to stop shaking.
God damn them. God damn them both to hell.
Downstairs, somebody has put Christmas carols on the CD player. Voices compete with the music and I can't understand either for a minute. That's when the phone rings. I open my eyes. Stare at the phone.
It continues ringing. "Yeah, who the hell is this?"
"And a Merry Christmas to you, too, Ray." Frannie snorts her disgust. "What's the matter? Didn't the man in the red suit visit you last night?"
I groan. "Yeah, he came by. In fact, he and Stella's ex are in my kitchen right now, sipping tea."
"BENTON AND RAY ARE THERE?" she shouts, causing the sharp, blinding pain in my head to explode into a migraine. "I thought they weren't coming down till next month."
"Yeah, yeah, they showed up yesterday. Benny got his vacation days changed at the last minute. It's a long story. Listen, are you alone right now?"
"Yeah. Maria's next door with Ma and the kids and Tony's checking out downstairs. Why?"
How can I tell her? "Uhhh, I had a long talk with Benny last night-"
"And he's seeing somebody," I pause, watching my free hand clench into a fist. "Somebody special."
Here goes. "Really special."
"Oh." She's so quiet I feel I can hear her heartbeat. Please, Sis, don't let this break you. "Oh. Does he love her?"
"Love...her? Yeah, I think so. He seems happy."
"Ohhh, I'm glad, really glad. He needs someone to look after him. He hasn't been the same since...you know."
Thanks, Frannie. Just rub my nose in the fact that I shot my best friend when he was running after the bitch who broke his heart. But she's right. "Yeah, I know."
She takes a deep breath. "I have something to tell you, too." Her voice drops to a conspiratorial whisper. "Laurie asked me to marry him."
Thank God. "Hey, Sis, that's great. When are you two gonna tie the knot?"
She falls silent. "You think that Laurie and me...oh, no. I told him no. He got so mad, we had a fight and broke up."
Poor kid. "Frannie, I'm sorry." She starts laughing merrily. What?
"I'm not. I'm glad it happened. You see, Ray, I had a long phone call earlier in the day from an old friend, who I come to find out has feelings of a personal nature for me..."
Old friend? "Who?"
"...And I realized that I have feelings of a personal nature for him."
"Oh, Ray," she's as breathless as a teenager, "I love Renfield! Listen, I have to hang up now, Tony's at the door. Give my love to Benton and Ray. Bye! See you tonight."
I stare at the now-dead phone. Turnbull? God, let me just get my gun and shoot myself now. I toss the receiver onto the table and fall backward on the bed. I grab Stella's pillow, wait a beat, and then drop it over my head. I don't know if I should cry or laugh. I'm still like that when Stella comes in.
"Ray, are you all right? You were sick last night." She sounds concerned, only not overly so.
Not like Benny.
"Ray?" She picks up the pillow, looks at me. "God, what's the matter?"
"Headache. Made me throw up, but I'm better now. See." I smile at her. Believe me, Stella. Believe the lie. Cause I don't know what's gonna happen yet.
"Well, good. Try and come down in fifteen minutes, okay? Ray and Corporal Fraser are making breakfast." She shakes her head almost fondly. "It's sausage and pancakes." She heads for the door and stops. "When Ray and I were married, he made breakfast for us each morning and brown bagged his own lunch every day, so I could go out with clients. Why don't you do things like that?"
"Because I'm too busy running a business I hate just to keep you paid up on your credit cards." And if you liked having Blondie around so much, why didn't you stay with him? That way he wouldn't be doing my best friend.
She loses her petulant look and stares at me, her eyes hard. "We decided we were not going to talk about this when guests are here. So shower and shave. I'll see you downstairs."
I manage to make it in twelve minutes. In the kitchen, Stella's already at the table, pouring a glass of milk. Benny follows her a moment later.
Kowalski notices me, gives a grunt in greeting. I make a fist and smack him a shade too hard on the shoulder as he's sitting down. His eyes flare momentarily as he zeros in on me. I put on my best game face and casually squeeze one of Benny's shoulders before joining them at the table.
I study them a minute and marvel at how alike they really are. Same blue eyes, same wry grin, same worrying gesture with the thumb. They're even wearing similar shirts and jeans. Their hands brush together oh-so-innocently while reaching for the orange juice and they smile that smug secret smile that just shouts, 'we know something you don't know. And we're not going to tell you.' I bite down on my tongue, hoping not to give myself away. It's then that I become aware of something.
They are both as happy as I've ever seen them. Not only with themselves, but with each other. As if each was the key to the door that leads to joy for the other.
I find my mouth opening of its own accord. My instincts are more than willing to tear them apart. Nobody deserves to be that happy when they're doing something wrong.
I taste the blood inside my mouth. Oh, yeah. Now is the time.
I am so going to enjoy this.
"So, Benny," I start slowly. "You meet any nice girls since you've been home?"
Benny reacts like I knew he would, by turning a bright shade of pink. It's very pretty.
Kowalski starts to move the muscles around his mouth, like he feels he should be talking, but can't for the life of him figure out what to say. Not so pretty.
Or maybe he's just nervous.
Benny reaches over and pats Kowalski on the elbow. They look at one another, deep waters meeting blue flames. And I can feel it across the table. Whoa. I think I would feel that across anything.
Then unexpectedly, Kowalski smiles. And it has the strength and softness of a caress.
Nodding, Benny turns his attention back to me and for the first time I notice a curtain falling across his face, a veil of neutrality. Shielding him against the world -- against me. "Ah, the truth of the matter is, I started seeing someone a while ago."
Stella looks up briefly from buttering her pancakes. "Really, Corporal? When did this happen? Is it serious?"
"'Bout a year back." Kowalski purrs like a contented cat. God, I want to wipe that smirk off his face with a tire iron.
"Actually, Stan, it was on the equinox so that would make it...yes, almost a year now. And yes. It is serious."
"So, who's the lucky girl, Benny?" I can no longer keep the sarcasm out of my voice. "Some half-pint Eskimo princess? A missionary? A killer on the run?" The bright, rosy glow that seems to surround them darkens a little. They're both really looking at me now.
"Naw. She's kinda tall, skinny, with funny blond hair," Kowalski pipes up, and placing his hand over Benny's, holds it. Protectively. "And best of all, she's Polish."
Stella gasps; it sounds like a tire releasing air. She had no idea. Not a clue. And she worked with both of them together for a year before they left Chicago. And didn't see anything. No matter what problems we have, I love my wife. But she feels the sun rises and sets on her shoulders.
It's time to play the game.
And we all fall down.
"Come on, now. You're pulling my leg, right? I mean, what about Victoria?" I can see him flinch. Good. "Hell, Benny. You're not only straight, you're almost a priest."
He flinches again as if hit. But his eyes never leave mine. "I would have to tell you, Ray, I no longer have a clear answer to give. All I know is that I'm just a man. A man with certain...needs." His eyes flick away to find Kowalski, and for a brief second, all the affection and gratitude they share shine like searchlights. He turns his eyes back. And the light is gone. Shut off. "Last March I realized I could no longer successfully continue to live alone. I had become accustomed to Stan's companionship. It -- no, he -- was as vital to my survival as food and water. This...unnerved me. So I chose to keep silent. As my new assignment was scheduled to begin in a few weeks, we were at the time headed toward Fort Nelson. Two days out of Stewart Crossing, Stan made the announcement that he wanted to stay in Canada. With me. And though my mind said no, I told him yes, please stay."
God. What else don't I know about you? "You're telling me the truth here?" He nods firmly. "Then there's just one thing I need to know, Benny. One thing." He nods again. "Were you screwing Stanley in Chicago" -- Stella looks stricken by this --, "when he was wearing my name? When he was supposed to be me? Did that somehow make it okay?"
Benny's face goes from red to white in a heartbeat. Like blood turning into melting snow. When he's finally able to speak, his tone is even, measured. "I assure you, nothing of a physical nature transpired between us until we were established at Fort Nelson. Well established. We would have done nothing to endanger your life. In Chicago, our relationship was one of...close friends."
"Best friends," Kowalski spits out to me.
"Yes. Best friends."
My eyes narrow at that. "Best friends, best friends," I mimic. "I thought we were best friends, Benny. I go away for a little while and everything changes. What is that?" He can't answer and for a moment, he looks like he did five years ago: an innocent, a wise fool with the face of an angel. I don't know if I can do this, I don't-
"Ya stupid pig!" Kowalski explodes, his voice loud and raw all of a sudden. "You don't know shit! I was his best friend. You were his brother. His family. And when ya left him," Benny starts to open his mouth, but Kowalski quiets him by clasping his hand tighter. "No, Ben. He's gotta know what's what." He turns back to me, his eyes burning. "When ya left, he broke up inside-"
"-And you were there to put the pieces back together, weren't you, Stanley?"
"Yeah, I helped. And he helped me with my life, which was in the toilet," he glances over at Stella, who is sobbing now, but only for a moment. "He believed in me. Trusted me. Acted like I was smart. Important. Stuff like that."
"So you drop your pants and bend over because the Mountie thinks you're smart? What kind of sick whore are you, Kow-"
"That's enough, Ray. Say what you want about me, but you will not insult Stan." We look across the table at each other. He means it.
Well, Benny, so do I.
"I can say what I want, Benny. This is my life, my house and my wife who's carrying my baby. I'm the normal one here. Not you." His eyes bore into mine, as if he can see all the way to my bones. He thinks he understands everything about me now. Like he's seeing me for the first time. I don't know, maybe he is.
"Stan, I believe we should go now," he says in a strange voice that's more distant than I've ever heard from him before. He stands up like an old man in pain. I can't believe that I forgot about his back -- and that I don't care.
"Yeah, Benny. Get out. And if you ever think about coming back, I'll shoot you, your faggot boy toy and your dog."
The dark blue of his eyes has turned to ice. When he speaks, I no longer recognize his voice. "You can try. And I will stop you." With that he turns to Stella. It's as if I no longer exist. "Mrs. Vecchio, I am so sorry for this...unpleasantness. We had no desire to deceive or hurt you. We thought it would be best to wait to tell you after your son's birth. There was no maliciousness or recrimination directed toward you in any way. Please believe that. If you would be so kind as to call a taxi for us, we'll be on our way." Stella nods, wiping her tears. "Thank you. Stan, why don't you collect our clothes?" Kowalski moves his head up and down. Releases Benny's hand. Great. A puppet with a purpose. He and Stella rise at the same time. She looks as if she might faint. I put out my hand, but Kowalski reaches her first. Gently but firmly, he cradles her a long minute.
"I'm all right," she breathes. He nods, removes his hands then starts to move away. "Ray?" Kowalski stops.
"Thank you. If you can give me a minute after I make the phone call, I would like to join you and Corporal Fraser." What?
"Sure, yeah. That'd be greatness." He jerks his head at the door. "Be on the porch in a few." With a last glance at Benny, he makes his way out of the kitchen. Stella waits a beat, and then follows him without looking back at me.
Which leaves Benny and me alone together.
Is that it? What just happened? Why don't I feel like I'm winning here? I shoot up like a rocket, knocking the chair over. I'm the one who's right. The one who's normal. I'm not-
"Corporal Fraser?" Stella's troubled voice whips through the room like an angry wind. At least she's stopped her crying. "The cab should be here within ten minutes."
"Thank you, Mrs. Vecchio. Especially for your tolerance towards Stan." His fingers reach for the wool Stetson on the counter.
"Corporal, I've loved Ray since I was thirteen years old. That's not going to change because he's sleeping with someone else. I'm happy he found someone else. So take care of him for me, please. I...I just didn't know how. Maybe you can do better."
The hat comes down on that perfect head. "I give you my word, I will certainly try my best." It's only then, with halo in place, that he seems to notice me again. He almost smiles. Almost. But it's the cold, bitter snarl of a wolf. "Ray, I wanted to thank you kindly. For your loyalty." He makes a precise half turn and marches out of the kitchen. After a moment, we can hear Kowalski's footfalls, hushed whispers, movement.
Then the front door opens. And closes. They're really leaving. I look at Stella.
Is it over? Really over? I didn't want him to leave. Not really. Why didn't he fight, yell at me, knock my teeth out? Why doesn't he come back?
I still love you, Benny. I can try to forgive-
"You coward. You nearly kill your best friend and then don't have the guts to finish him off and put him out of his misery."
"Now listen, Stella." I realize that my voice is as harsh with her as it was with them. "You heard him. I was never his best friend. Stanley was. I was just the poor dumb Joe who put up with all his crap. You know he's the most annoying man in the world. And besides, what do I care - it's a sin what they're doing. They're perverts. No better than kiddie rapers."
She glares at me with the power and fury of a hurricane. Then she hurls her full strength at me with a vengeance. "Ray! You can't compare what two grown men do in the privacy of their own home to pedophilia. You hear me now, Ray. You're the one who's sick. You can die for all I care. You are nothing to me." Turning, she heads furiously toward the front door.
This can't be happening. I take a few wobbly steps forward. After a few minutes or so, I can just make out the voices from the other side of the door. Stella has started to cry again, so it's difficult at first, but if I focus and listen-
"Ray, are you sure about this?" More sobbing. "I mean, really sure?"
"More sure than anythin' in my whole life," Kowalski answers, placing his cards on the table. "I'm sorry, babe, but that's the truth."
"Then I give you my blessing. Watch over him for me, Corporal. He's pretty but he's stupid. And he never did have the sense to come in out of the rain."
Benny's answer is lost as the cab's horn shrieks, demanding attention. Good-byes are given, more doors open and close. And in the blink of an eye, they're gone.
Oh my God, Benny. How could you choose this? How could you choose him?
How could you not choose me?
You can find the sequel to this story here: Honor and Glory