Oh, The Places You'll Go

Strange Constellations

Notes: Written for ds Match 2008. Many, many thanks to slidellra for her ridiculously awesome beta skills and also to zabira (Oh captain, my captain) for hand-holding and head-patting above and beyond the call of duty. I love you both. Also, thanks to my amazing team mates for their advice and squee and general all-round brilliance. \whimsy/ Prompt: "Pemmican was the first thing I thought of..."


Primus

Slow motion: a zoetrope of images that should make sense but don't. Ray Kowalski sees his partner's face contorted in a snarl as he tries to twist out of his captor's grip, sees his eyes widen in fear and mouth open to shout, sees a scarred fist smashing into Vecchio's jaw, Vecchio's body sagging and his hat tumbling with lazy comicality to the ground.

His own body reels under the force of a blow he can't yet feel and Vecchio recedes, head lolling at a frightening angle, into a red hazy mist. This time Ray sees the stock of the pistol before it hits and tries to dodge. He does not know it yet, but the small movement he makes marks the difference between life and death, the world hanging, as it always does, on the tiniest of chances.

He does not know it yet. For him there are only briefly flickering lights, then blackness and oblivion.

~~~

Secundus

The sun's rays slant across Ray's face, pushing aside drowsy shadows to draw a bright pathway out of the alley. The place smells like piss, Ray thinks, rubbing at the lump on his head, and that's familiar enough that he should feel comforted.

But he doesn't. Because the last thing he remembers is them being cornered by the Cravens, out-numbered ten to one and it didn't matter that they'd taken down five of the arrogant, no-necked bastards, they'd still taken Vecchio and left Ray for dead and, oh yeah, hadn't it all gone down at the docks? But here he is, back pressed up against hard brick, legs splayed in front of him, small, crumpled pieces of faded paper idly dancing at his feet, solid wall rising up and up not ten feet in front of his face. Why isn't he at the bottom of the lake?

Ray turns his head and there's another surprise — a huge metal container, bright green and covered in dirty white, stylized writing that he can't understand. It makes him twitchy. He pats at his vest pockets until he finds what he's looking for and tugs at the buckle, reaching inside. Settling the brass-edged goggles over his eyes, Ray staggers to his feet to inspect the thing. He lifts the lid and immediately drops it again, gagging and retching. The clang of metal on metal rings in his ears and he shakes his head and swallows hard as if it that will help clear the stink out of his nostrils. It reminds him of nights when the wind blows in from the north, carrying the funk of the marsh landfill into the streets and houses. But a thousand thousand times worse.

The logo stamped on the container says 'City of Chicago' but Ray doesn't recognize it. He stares at the writing and begins to wonder if the blow to his head has knocked the little sense that his mother told him he had out of it. There's only one way to find out, he thinks, pushing the goggles up to the top of his head, and strides toward the low rumble of noise and slice of brilliance at the entrance to the alleyway.

Chaos.

Chaos and color and noise and the air is so thick with the stink of burning fuel and tobacco that he can taste it. Machines race past at speeds Ray's only ever dreamed of. They look like some distant relation — the hot second cousin twice removed you're not supposed to get a crush on — of the mobilaires Ray knows and loves but they're sleeker and curvier and thrum with harnessed power. Ray may not understand what he's seeing but he's pretty sure he's in love. He drifts towards the edge of the sidewalk and stands staring, stock-still until a huge monster of a machine drives past, belching out black fumes that make him cough and choke.

If Ray isn’t already convinced that he’s died and gone to ... could this really be hell with vehicles like that? ... then the storefronts hammer home that this Chicago is not his own. He’s never heard of a Laundromat — though judging by the size of the bag some guy is hauling out of there business must be booming — and what’s a cell phone and why would he need to Unlock it Here? Ray’s seen some weird things in his life, like the woman who had a snake growing out of her wrist, or the Premier spontaneously combusting on taking the oath of office, but this not-Chicago is beating them out for weird like they’d never left the starting line.

And then he sees him.

"Vecchio!" yells Ray and starts running before he lets his brain catch up to tell him to think first. It's not like he usually listens when it does that anyway. Vecchio looks round and Ray sees the bewilderment on his face but then he catches something out of the corner of his eye and thinks No! Not again! and before the bullet has left the gun barrel he is on Vecchio, crashing them both to the ground, the loud crack of the shot emphasizing their fall. Ray is on his feet again in a flash, but the vehicle the shot came from is screeching round the corner and his feet can’t take him to it, no matter how much he wants to try.

"God damn," he says and whirls around again to face Vecchio, who's struggling to his feet and brushing off his suit. He's without his leather vest and his shirt has no buttons and looks like a flimsy version of a sailor's jersey but he wears it easily, like he does this every day. Like he shouldn't have a bandoleer criss-crossing his chest and a hat tipped low over his eyes so no one gets to read them, not even Ray.

"Are you okay?" he asks and his voice is more shaken up than he'd like but everything is wrong and Vecchio had nearly died and if he couldn't feel a little wobbly now then when could he?

"I think. Thank you." Vecchio sticks out his hand and Ray hesitates before taking it, shaking it briefly before hauling Vecchio in for a hug.

He pounds Vecchio's back lightly with his fists. "Man, Vecchio, don't do this to me. Twice in one day I can't handle. What is even going on here?"

"Ooookay," says Vecchio into Ray's ear, pushing at Ray's chest to separate them. "That was my question. Who the hell are you and how do you know my name?"

Ray's eyes widen in horror, an icy feeling settles low in his stomach and it must be the sudden breeze that's raised the goosebumps on his skin. "You don't ... it's me, you golim. Your partner."

"Um. No," says Vecchio, stepping back a pace or two and raising his hands as if to ward off the crazy man. "My partner wears red and leaps off tall buildings. It's his thing. Probably jumping off some ravine as we speak. He's on vacation." His eyes seem to finally take Ray in, sweeping up and down his body. It's a searching gaze, like he's under a scope. Ray wonders if he should lift up his arms and turn around slowly, it's not like the day could get weirder. "Look," says Vecchio after at least a beat too long, "I'm going to have to go down to the station, report what just happened. You need to come with, okay?"

"Okay?" Ray replies, vaguely hopeful.

"No funny business," Vecchio's finger wags a warning. "I'm the law and you don't mess with me, crazy-assed x-ray specs or not." He waves his finger in the direction of Ray's goggles. Ray'd forgotten they were there.

He pulls them off and stuffs them back in his pocket. "No funny business," he repeats. There's nothing funny about this whole situation. Nothing at all.

***

"So you're a what now?" Vecchio sips at a liquid he calls coffee but doesn't seem to conform to any coffee standards Ray knows. They're still in the station, instantly recognizable to Ray as law-enforcement offices the second he'd stepped through the door, though it looked nothing like the Patrol House. Something about the smell and the energy. Also, the people chained to benches, chairs and each other was a tip-off a detective of his caliber couldn't miss.

"A Patrolman. I am a man. I patrol. Patrolman. And you're ... well, not you, the other you ... you're my partner. Together we are Patrolmen, you see how that works?" He takes a sip from his own flimsy cup and grimaces.

Vecchio pushes another packet of sugar across the table and smiles and it's so familiar and so strange to Ray that it hurts. Once they'd spent some time exchanging details ("What do you mean it's 1995? It's Year 251 of the Great Revolution.") it had become clear to Ray that, insane as it sounded, he'd somehow slipped through to another dimension. He'd heard the legends, of course, but no one had ever met anyone who'd actually traveled. He'd been prepared for Vecchio to call in the medics but he'd taken the idea in stride, waffling something about ghost fathers and raven-men and more things in heaven and earth, Horatio. Ray'd pointed out that his name was Kowalski, Stanley Raymond Kowalski and that had just made Vecchio laugh. Hard.

Of course, knowing that he's in some other freaky dimension and figuring out what to do about it are two entirely different things. The more time he spends with Vecchio, the more he feels the restless urge to get back home, to find his own Vecchio — he's still alive, Ray can feel it — and get him the hell out of whatever mess he's gotten into this time.

"So, Patrolman Stanley Raymond Kowalski-"

"Ray. Ray will do fine."

"I don't know," says Vecchio, "You come to my universe, steal my name-"

"Save your life."

"There is that." Vecchio thumbs his nose in a gesture Ray must see a hundred times a day and he tears into the packet with a little more violence than necessary. At least half the sugar finds the cup, though, so Ray's good. "Ray, then. So, Ray, what are we going to do to get you back home? It's not like I'm gonna pistol-whip you to see if that works."

Ray slumps onto the table, head buried in his arms and groans.

"Yeah, that's what I thought," says Vecchio. "I do have one idea, though."

Ray raises his head and waits, expectant.

"We get very, very drunk." Vecchio drains his coffee and stands up, beckoning with one finger.

It's the best idea Ray's heard all day.

By the time Vecchio throws a blanket over Ray and stumbles off to the bathroom and then bed, it's past three in the morning. Ray's head is swimming with a combination of alcohol and everything he's learned in the past few hours. What he doesn't know about Vecchio's legendary Mountie is probably not worth knowing. It's stupid and childish but Ray can't help but feel jealous of the the Mountie — it's supposed to be the two of them, Ray and Ray, all the way and here's this alternate version of Vecchio, clearly pining for the guy. Still, on the upside there's baseball. After watching a couple of innings, Ray'd made Vecchio explain the rules to him, slowly and in detail. Twice. He wasn't going to let a little thing like half a bottle of hard liquor stop him bringing this game home.

"I'll buy you a book," Vecchio'd said. "Tomorrow, okay? And then we'll figure out how to get you home. Maybe I'll call Benny, guy knows everything."

"Thank you. I mean it." Ray'd said and Vecchio'd made a noise through his teeth and thrown a pillow at Ray's head.

It's going to be impossible to sleep, Ray thinks. Legends don't happen to Kowalskis and even if they did, chances are they'd just feed them sausage until they went away. He doesn't know what happened and this Vecchio is a good guy but he's not the right one and the whole damn place smells wrong. Home. He needs to get home.

Ray closes his eyes and the world whirls behind them. Fragments of colors, of shapes and patterns coalesce into flickering images that shatter into vivid jewels the second Ray's awareness lights on them. Brief, tantalizing glimpses of landscapes that are unfamiliar that call to him somehow. They form, split apart, reform and it's exhausting. Ray's day has been too long, too hard and he falls into sleep.

~~~

Tertius

Vecchio's settle doesn't stand up to a night's sleep, Ray thinks, shifting his limbs, searching for comfort. It's impossible to find; his cheek is pressed against a cold surface, his pistol is digging into his ribs and there are hard ridges and dips his bones no longer fit into. Ray blinks awake, going from sleepy to bolt upright at lightning speed even without the aid of his customary morning coffee. Because there is no settle below him. There is no settle in the entire room.

He's sitting on a rough stone floor in a small room, no more than ten paces square. The walls are covered with dark, wooden shelves with glass jars full of strange liquids and colorful powders, polished boxes carved with intricate patterns and brass-like instruments scattered higgledy-piggledy across their surfaces. Several bulging sacks are stacked neatly against the wall in one corner, grain spilling from a mouse-nibbled hole, and in another rests a set of steps, the top rung grooved and worn with use. Light filters through a long, narrow, dust-covered window that runs the length of one wall above the shelves. The dust lends a dreamy cast to the light, but the red-tinged shafts of gold that streak the floor suggest to Ray that it's early morning.

"Oh," says Ray. And then, "Ah, damn," as he realizes that whatever trip he's made, his coat has stayed behind. He grimaces in annoyance. At least there isn't anything important in it, those things Ray carries closer to him, and he only ever removes his vest in the solid darkness of his own bedroom at night. Ray shrugs: maybe the legendary Mountie will get some use out of it. He grins at the idea of Vecchio explaining the presence of some other guy's coat in the apartment.

Vecchio.

Ray smacks his palm against the stone floor and then winces, shaking the sharp sting out of it. He's traveled again, but this isn't home and he's nowhere nearer to getting there or finding Vecchio. Every hour, every day he's away could be bringing Vecchio closer to death. The Cravens don't just kidnap and torture for money or information, their twisted little souls enjoy it. He has to get back.

The door is heavy and thick, its great iron handle nearly as wide as Ray's wrist. Ray wrestles with it, hauling the door open. It comes easily on well-oiled hinges once he has a little momentum going and as Ray steps into the corridor he can hear a rhythmic chanting interspersed with the occasional muttered curse. The voice sounds familiar. Being a nothing-ventured, nothing-gained kind of fellow, Ray walks towards it.

An open door stands at the end of the short hallway. From a few steps away, Ray can see a blue-robed figure on his knees, back towards him, bending forward. He can't quite make out what the figure is doing, but it seems to involve a fair amount of sweeping the floor with a hand. Leaning against the doorframe, Ray considers suggesting a brush would be easier on the hand-cream budget. The figure straightens and somehow Ray manages not to burst out laughing when he sees the pointy hat, deep blue like the robe and embroidered with weird symbols picked out with gold thread. It's exactly like the tales his mother used to read him when he was little. Wizards and witches, fair folk and fireworms, legends all. Ray'd always sworn they were true and now he is proved right. If only he had someone to tell.

And then the figure stretches, head twisting first to one side and then the other, and Ray's heart is held in his mouth because of course the voice was familiar; he knows that because he knows that profile better than his own. Sees it mobile and expressive every day as they bicker their way through the streets of Chicago, watches it fierce in concentration at the firing range, catches it drowsy and drooping in yet another of the Captain's compulsory talks on hygiene and the modern officer.

Something tumbles from Vecchio's hand and shatters on stone, startling Ray out of his shocked stupor. Small pieces fly in every direction and draw Ray's attention to the crude geometric shapes marked on the floor. Chalk. A wizard staple, he should have known. He sees the hem of Vecchio's robe skirl around his ankles and realizes he's been detected. Seems to be something Vecchio's good at in every dimension.

"Kowalski." Ray isn't quick enough to see Vecchio's face as he utters the single word but his voice brims with disbelieving hope. He looks up in time to see a whole lot of excited wizard bearing down on him, smile wide as his outstretched arms, and is crushed in a bruising hug.

A split second later the wizard is on the far side of the room, pressed up against a table, papers crackling and crumpling under scrabbling fingers. Ray hasn't washed in a couple of days but this is ridiculous.

"No," Vecchio says, the hopeful voice now twisted and dark. "I don't know which of the Fey sent you. I don't care if you're supposed to be a torment or a reward. Get away from me. You're dead. I killed you."

Ray staggers a little, the words punching straight into his stomach. Vecchio killed him — this alternate him — and the synapses in his brain can't be firing right because he can't put those three words together in any way that makes sense.

He stares at Vecchio.

Vecchio stares back.

It's Vecchio that breaks first. It always is, and that knowledge gives Ray a brief thrill of recognition. "Well, aren't you going to say something?" Vecchio snaps.

Ray holds up a finger. "Number one, I'm dead so I can't talk." A second finger flicks up to join the first. "B, I was considering fainting at the shocking news, but the floor is some seriously hard stone and I already crossed concussion off my to-do list for the week and-" Ray adds a third finger and jabs the three of them in Vecchio's direction. "-in conclusion, oh yeah, you killed me. What'd I do, steal your favorite magic wand?"

Vecchio's face is a kaleidoscope of emotions — annoyance, confusion, annoyance, sorrow, annoyance, bemused happiness — and Ray wants to hate this Vecchio on behalf of the dead Kowalski but he can't. He pushes a hand through his hair in frustration, advancing into the room. Pulling off his hat and dropping it on the table behind him, Vecchio takes a tentative step or two forward and they stop only three paces from each other. Close enough for Vecchio to reach out and touch Ray's arm, catching the light fabric of his shirt between finger and thumb. He lets go, dropping his head, and rubs back and forth across the nape of his neck. When he looks up at Ray his green eyes shine with a light that Ray doesn't recognize.

"You weren't supposed to- Look, I told you more times than you can count not to come in in the middle of a spell. And, okay, so you can probably only count to five, but even for you, that should be enough. But no-"

"Hey," Ray interrupts, feeling somewhat aggrieved. "I died. Less of the Kowalski-is-special routine. There should definitely be less of that. And more breakfast." His stomach growls in agreement. "Yeah, see, stomach says more breakfast."

Vecchio's smile is instantaneous and warm, a sunburst from behind a rain cloud. "Same old Kowalski," he says but then the smile disappears as swiftly as it came and Vecchio grips Ray's shoulders hard, shaking him. "You crossed the lines, you stupid, stupid idiot. You crossed the damn lines and I watched you burn. There was barely enough of you left to bury. Who are you and why are you doing this to me?" He drops his hands abruptly and half-turns away, shoulders sagging. "I miss you," he says. "Every day, I miss you."

Ray hovers, uncertain. Vecchio's grief fills the room and part of Ray wants to say, "Hey, look, I'm not worth this, I don't deserve this," and part of him wants to punch other Kowalski in the head for being a flake, for dying, for being important. His hand starts towards Vecchio and then drops. There's no comfort he can offer; he is not this Vecchio's Kowalski, he would only ever be a substitute even if he could stay. The silence between them stretches, the weight of it pressing down on Ray, and the urge to break it is too powerful to ignore. "I'm sorry," he blurts out. "I have this, um, attention problem. I get all excited about something and then all the stuff I'm supposed to be thinking about takes a little vacation. If I ... if the other me got in the middle of the mojo you were working because he couldn't remember the ABC of Magic-land health and safety then it's not your fault he got charcoaled."

Ray isn't sure he's ever seen Vecchio boggle before, and he'd been pretty sure he knew every expression that face could muster. He reviews his little speech and mentally smacks himself. Usually before he can get to the point where he's putting his booted foot into it, Vecchio's got a hand over his mouth and is apologizing. Loudly.

"No, really," says Vecchio, finally. "Who are you?" Ray's stomach growls loud and insistently. "Yes, yes, I can take a hint. You can tell me over breakfast." Vecchio sighs, apparently resigned, and leads the way out of the room.

The kitchen comes fully equipped with an air of neglect. Precariously stacked dishes fill the grimy sink, unrecognizable stains clinging to their surfaces, the iron stove is cold and the stale smell of ash indicates it hasn't been lit for some time. A wooden dresser stands against one wall and the earthenware pots that squat on its shelves are covered with a film of grease and dust. Vecchio opens one and peers in. He wrinkles his nose and checks another one, this time starting back in horror and slamming the lids down.

They go to a tavern for breakfast.

The tavern is a brief walk from Vecchio's house and Ray has little time to register more than the red dust street and the slightly odd angles of the houses that line it before they're inside and Vecchio is ordering for both of them. Early as it is, there are a few patrons scattered here and there and Ray's aware of every eye on him. He tugs at Vecchio's sleeve. Vecchio is halfway through describing the exact consistency his egg needs to be and his mouth keeps going long after his eyes have widened in understanding.

"...crispy around the edges or I'll tell everyone here how you got rid of that pox and ... okay, okay, everyone, as you were. This isn't Kowalski. Not the one we knew anyway. Get back to your-" he waves his hand vaguely and Ray grins as one shady-looking character ducks, "-proto-alcoholism."

To Ray's surprise they do as they're told and soon there's a low buzz of conversation that covers Vecchio's explanation. "I can make things drop off that they would prefer stay on." He shrugs. "Not that I would, but ... it's a thing."

"A wizard thing?"

"Thaumaturge," says Vecchio and the air of long-suffering is back.

"I was a pain in the ass, huh?" asks Ray.

Vecchio offers another brilliant smile, shepherding Ray to a table. "You have no idea."

A golden-haired barmaid sashays over as they sit down, the rickety stool wobbling under Ray's weight. Two tankards dangle off delicately crooked fingers and she lightly swings a leather jug in the other hand. She places them on the table, bending low in front of Ray, sliding him a provocative look. He blinks rapidly.

"Yeah, put your eyes away, Marika, this one's not for you either."

Marika tuts and her eyeballs retreat back into their sockets with a sucking pop as they settle. With a swirl of skirts she retreats, muttering something about if that's what he wants to do with his staff then fine. Ray blinks some more; it seems the safest reaction.

Vecchio fills a tankard and pushes it across to him. "Never seen a Separator before, have you?"

Ray shakes his head, downing the drink in one, grateful that it's only water. He uses his sleeve to wipe his chin dry. "So there's a lot of magic here, huh? Wiz- thaumaturges, Separators, that guy over there with the hammer and the green skin. Do you have fireworms?"

"Fireworms?"

"Yeah, big things with leathery wings and sharp teeth, breathe fire out of their noses? They steal sheep and princesses and stuff, like gold, kinda evil. You know, grrr, argh." Ray bares his teeth and his hands scrabble in the air close to his chest.

Vecchio laughs. "Terrifying. And if by fireworms you mean dragons then yeah, we got them. They tend to keep themselves to themselves, though, raise their own herds since the Parliament Act of Dragon Self-Sufficiency went through. They're not so great about paying their taxes, but no one seems to mind, funnily enough."

The food arrives and they both tuck in. The thin strips of meat that Vecchio calls hogback tastes almost exactly like grilled ham only much, much better. Ray groans with unadulterated joy around his mouthful and drums his feet against the floor with the sheer pleasure of it. Across from him, Vecchio reaches for his tankard and takes a long drink.

"So you got all this magic, just like in the story books," Ray says, mouth still half full, "do you got any idea about alternate dimensions?"

"You mean the concept of a series of interlocking planes of existence where the laws of nature differ, allowing magical phenomena to occur in some existences, whilst others remain grounded in what may be defined as 'nature' or 'reality' and all existences retain some sort of common thread?"

Ray swallows. Hard. "Um, yes?"

Vecchio spears a slippery piece of egg and sticks it in his mouth with a flourish. "No," he says, smugly. "Never heard of it."

Ray reaches over and steals Vecchio's last slice of hogback, rolls it and pops it in his mouth whole. Vecchio looks deeply traumatized. Now it's Ray's turn to look smug.

"Fine. I may have studied the idea a little," says Vecchio. He'd shoved the rest of his breakfast down at top speed, obviously afraid it, too, was going to disappear. "You're saying you're Kowalski from an alternate dimension, I take it?" Ray nods. "Sell me," says Vecchio. So Ray does.

***

"I still don't see why you can't just wave your magic wand and send me home."

"It's a thaumaturgical staff, Kowalski." Vecchio keeps right on pouring the sea-green powder along the criss-crossing chalk lines, doesn't even look up. "I told you a mi- Look, if it was as easy as waving a stick of wood in the air, don't you think everyone would be doing it?"

Ray grins and doesn't say a word. Vecchio's right, though, setting up the spell has been complicated, to say the least. The second they'd gotten back from breakfast, Vecchio'd gone into yet another room and started pulling huge books off shelves, muttering as he leafed through the pages. "Yes!" he'd shouted, finally, slamming the current volume, a little cloud of dust mushrooming in the air. "We can do this. I think we can really do this. We can get you home." He'd looked at Ray then, staring so hard that Ray'd lifted a hand to his face, rubbing his two-day-old stubble and shifted his weight from foot to foot, self-conscious. Vecchio's eyes had sheened over and he'd shaken his head, turning away and tucking the volume under his arm. "Come on," he'd said. "Work to do."

Ray'd watched Vecchio go, long strides carrying him quickly away. He'd grimaced in frustration, feeling unbalanced, like the stone floor was shifting under his feet. Sure, he was in another dimension which fact was screwed up enough even without the place having more magic than you could shake a wand at. And sure, he was with a Vecchio that was so close to but still so far from being his own, but neither of those things cut it. There was something here, something he couldn't quite get a hold of and he knew that if he could just ask the right question, say the right words it would all make sense. He just needed time to think.

"You want to get home or not? The choice is yours," Vecchio'd yelled from down the hallway and Ray'd shoved his hands in his pockets, scowling at the interruption.

It wasn't as if he'd been able to help much; Vecchio'd allowed him to grind some wrinkled seeds that smelled like the salve his mother used to make for toothache, and he'd fetched and carried like a pro, but mostly he'd watched Vecchio work, a picture of concentration except from time to time when Ray'd caught him stealing glances at him. And now Ray sits like a schoolboy in the center of a confusion of chalk lines, intersecting, converging and diverging in a complex pattern. The work has taken hours and the room is dark, lit by candles that are beginning to gutter.

Vecchio caps the bottle he's holding and stands up straight. "There," he says, taking the long way round to the table so that he doesn't step over any of the lines. "Done." He picks up a staff of twisted wood and runs a hand thoughtfully along its length, fingers pressing into carved symbols. "I hope you find him," he says without looking at Ray.

"Me too." The air is choked with dust, all the different powders combining to make a potent mixture. Leastways that's what Ray blames for the tightness in his throat.

"Ray, if he tells you ... if he has something to say, listen to him. For me?" Vecchio does look at Ray then, but the candlelight casts him in shadow and Ray can't see his eyes. His eyebrows pucker in confusion. He feels strange, like he's teetering on the edge of knowledge but there's an invisible barrier in the way and he's run out of time.

"I'll listen," he says. "I promise. I'm sorry, I wish-" But he can't finish the sentence because there's no end that makes this better for either of them; Vecchio left alone again or himself knowing that he will be in the same place if he gets home too late.

Vecchio nods once and his back straightens. He moves around the room, taking his position and Ray watches unblinking as the man becomes the thaumaturge. He settles into a solid stance and stretches out his arms, staff held horizontal in the air. He seems almost to grow several inches, robes shivering with suppressed energy. Even the pointy hat seems significant, no longer silly. Vecchio begins to chant in a steady monotone and the hairs stand up on Ray's arms as the air thickens and crackles around him.

With one swift move, Vecchio flicks the staff over and points it at Ray. A white light shoots from its tip and Ray can't spare any time to be scared before sheets of flame leap up and surround him. The searing heat lasts only a split second and then the flames resolve into a wall of swirling light, colors shifting across its surface, and Ray begins to see landscapes, muffled and indistinct as they whirl past him. Vecchio had told him he would have to watch closely, to touch the portal only when he was sure he had seen the right place because who knew what would happen if this spell failed to get him home. He hadn't told Ray it would be so confusing, though. On his feet now, Ray turns and turns, pivoting on his heel, trying to track the most likely candidates, rejecting the images that are too blue or too red or in a thousand other ways not home.

And then he sees it, he's sure he sees it. He sees the silhouette of airships in the night sky, the familiar spire of the judiciary building. Ray reaches out a hand towards it, still turning. He hesitates for a brief second, he can't afford to get this wrong.

He does not hear the "No!" torn from Vecchio's throat, nor does he see the tiny, furry body scurrying across the floor but he hears the roaring boom of the explosion and sees the wall of images flare momentarily then sputter and die, before he is thrown to the floor and once again his world turns black.

~~~

Quartus

Ray hates this dimension. He'd woken up soaking from the rain that never seems to stop, the air tastes bitter, and there are too many people in streets crowded with tiny shops with no doors. Everywhere there is noise, brightly lit screens flicker with dancing figures that shout and sing in distorted voices. Sirens and quarrels, negotiations and the constant thrum of vehicles on the ground and up above overlay the clashing tunes to create a hellish racket. Ray can't even tell if it's night or day; vast, smooth-faced buildings stretch upwards until they disappear into perspective and clouds and he can't see the sky for the rain.

At least Ray is warm, clean and dry now, wearing some shirt and pants combination of Vecchio's. The material is soft and slides over his skin with a whisper every time he moves. His own clothes are in some whirring machine, though Ray hasn't allowed his vest to leave his sight. It had taken hours to convince this Vecchio that he wasn't the Ray Kowalski who was traveling the wastes of the north with his partner (who turned out to have the same name as the Mountie and hadn't that little tidbit of information freaked Ray out?) and in the end it had been Vecchio's wife that had swung it.

"He doesn’t know me," she'd said, shocked, when Vecchio had finally noticed Ray shivering and frog-marched him back to their cramped apartment. "He doesn't know me at all." That, and, "In my country there are stories about people like you, we call them Buscadores," had been, apparently, all Vecchio needed to be convinced. The guy obviously loves his wife a lot, which is great. Which is as it should be.

Yeah, Ray really needs to go home.

Anita can't tell him much about Buscadores other than that they can, like Ray, move from world to world, though with greater control over their power than Ray has, that they can seek what others cannot. Ray spares a moment to wonder why, if they can get out of this miserable dimension, they would ever bother coming back.

"I need to meet one," says Ray. "Do you know how I can find one?"

Anita looks thoughtful. "I remember my grandmother telling me of one in Little Merida. He would be old now, if he is still alive." She glances over at her husband, who is pulling Ray's clothes out of the machine and shaking them out.

"What?" he asks, but Ray can see he already understands her completely. They're a partnership. A duet.

"You have some days owing," she says. "And credits for the Skytrain because of the thing with the thing." Vecchio grins at that and Ray's stomach twists with something akin to jealousy. He frowns at himself. Is he really beginning to expect to be at the center of every Vecchio's world?

"We'll take you," says Vecchio, thrusting Ray's clothes into his arms. "Fraser would kill me if I didn't and then there's the small matter of keeping other me alive. Alive is good."

Unless you're a Craven, Ray thinks. He nods. "Alive is better than good."

"That's settled then." Anita stands and ruffles Ray's hair as she passes, taking Vecchio's hand. "We'll leave first thing in the morning. Do you need anything before we sleep?"

Ray shakes his head.

A bed has been made for him on the floor of the second, tiny bedroom. It's little more than a closet, the only furniture a small, white cot. The walls are white, too, though covered with brightly colored animals of all shapes and sizes, obviously painted with love if not great skill. An air of expectancy hangs over the room and that's what Kowalski blames for his inability to sleep.

After a little while of tossing and turning, Ray shifts the blame to the strangeness of Vecchio's clothes and changes in the dark, immediately feeling more comfortable as he slides on his loose shirt and buckles his vest over the top of it, hands automatically patting the pockets to check the safety of their contents. He lies back down again and tries not to think of his Vecchio, alone and apparently abandoned, no loving wife, no potential kid, because it gives him a pain in his side like he's been running too fast, too long and he can't quite catch his breath.

He tries not to think of him but it seems his brain has other ideas and Ray finds his head full of Vecchio: the way he tips his hat at the Captain instead of saluting like he's supposed to, the way he whines about everything from the temperature of the beer at Old Mac's to the poor political choices of the ruling classes at the same time as buying everyone a round of sours or stuffing campaign envelopes for the opposition, the way he smiles at Ray and puts a hand on his shoulder every time they take another villain down, or the way he laughs at Ray's goggles but carries a cleaning cloth with him everywhere he goes. Ray scrunches the covers in his fists, the desire to get home almost overwhelming.

"Vecchio," Ray whispers into the dark, "You hang on in there, buddy. I'm coming for you." He lets go of the covers and unconsciously runs a thumb over his lips, pressing it lightly against them before letting it drop. "I'm coming."

Eventually the thoughts begin to slip and slide in Ray's head and he's barely aware of the images pushing aside his memories and crowding behind his eyes. Pretty hills, thinks Ray on the edge of awareness and then he fades into sleep.

~~~

Quintus

It takes Ray two days to find Vecchio this time. Mostly this is because he wakes on the edge of a sheer drop at the top of a high mountain and it takes him a long while to figure out how to get down it without breaking his neck. And then a storm strikes and Ray is lucky enough to find a shallow cave to shelter in as lightning splits the sky and the rocks echo with violent thunderclaps. From what Ray has seen of this dimension from his vantage point on the mountainside — fields, fields, more fields, the occasional house ... surrounded by fields — he's unlikely to find another machine as technologically advanced as the one back at Vecchio-four and Anita's place. Staying dry is a better option.

He passes the time by maintaining his firearm, settling his goggles over his eyes, then pulling the gun out of its concealed holster and laying out the cleaning equipment he keeps stashed in his vest pockets in a neatly ordered line. The work is soothing and monotonous and soon Ray feels sleepy. He considers taking a nap and then the lightning that splinters the air outside might as well have struck him because he knows, he knows and he hits his forehead repeatedly with the heel of his hand because it's so obvious and he must be the dumbest man alive.

Unconsciousness, alcohol and a spell gone wrong had combined to keep him off-balance, not thinking. But it is clear now that it is sleep, both natural and unnatural, that causes the shifts. That's it, thinks Ray, no more and he determines not to sleep until his has found this Vecchio — number five — and enlisted his help in getting home. Who knows what dimension he could find himself in next? What if it has no Vecchio? What if this dimension doesn't? Ray shivers and draws in against the cold.

A day and a half later when Ray is hot, tired and thirsty and dusty from the dirt track roads he's been trekking for endless hours, he sees what he's looking for. Out in a field, under the relentless sun, Vecchio stoops over a piece of machinery and Ray can hear the tink tink of metal on metal as Vecchio strikes at it with a small implement over and again. He's shirtless, baggy black pants held on by suspenders, his olive skin glows with a sheen of sweat and Ray can see the muscles in his back cord and release with each blow.

God, Ray's thirsty.

"Vecchio," he calls and Vecchio turns immediately, dropping the implement and Ray can see the smile that suffuses his face with delight. He's genuinely pleased to see Ray — obviously they know each other well in this dimension. And then something about Vecchio's face changes, the smile is still there, and the pleasure, but something else is taking over, something that glues Ray to the ground.

Vecchio walks towards him in slow, measured strides, thumbs tucked into the waistband of his pants, eyes fixed on Ray's face and Ray feels like a deer caught on the end of a hunter's rifle. He licks his lips but his tongue is dry. Something is happening, something strange and wonderful and terrifying. Ray can't move.

And then Vecchio stops.

He stops and the smile is replaced with a quizzical purse of the lips and the droopy-lidded feral stare with a frown that lines his forehead. It's like having a bucket of cold water thrown over Ray and he reels, swaying as he stands. He wants it back, he wants the sensation back. Only this is the wrong Vecchio. And, clearly, he is the wrong Ray Kowalski.

It turns out the right Ray Kowalski is visiting his family a day's journey to the south. It turns out the right Ray Kowalski shares a home and a bed with this Vecchio. It turns out that the most surprising part of this information is his own startling lack of surprise. Even falling-down-tired his heart skips when he sees the wide, wooden bed covered in a light, woven blanket with two pillows at the top end, each indented with the shape of a head. Ray curls his fingers into fists, nails digging into his palm. This Vecchio is happy. And so, he thinks, is this Kowalski.

This Vecchio knows about farming, he knows about the best way to coax milk from reluctant kine, he knows when to sow seed and how to divert a river onto his land. He knows the names of the birds that live in the hedgerows and can tell a distressed bleat from one that merely wants company or food. He knows his place in the land. He does not know about magic or alternate dimensions or the possibility of a life lived that is not his.

He can't help. But he knows someone who can. Ray watches as Vecchio scribbles a note and rides away. "The mail post is only a couple of hours away. Make yourself at home." He grins and Ray could swear he hears him mutter, "Oh, what I could do with two of you," as he urges his horse to move.

The mountains are crowned with red and gold long before Vecchio returns. Ray has been awake now for longer than he can count and the silver he's been cleaning slips through numb fingers and clatters onto the table, making him jump. He blunders out into the fresh air, hoping the cool of the evening will help him stave off sleep. He can't sleep. He must not sleep. Out of the corner of his eye Ray catches a movement and he turns to see Vecchio. Only it's not Vecchio of this dimension, it's the one from Ray's first shift in space, suit jacket slung casually over one shoulder, leaning against an invisible wall.

Just as that Vecchio opens his mouth there's another movement and Ray jerks his head around to see Vecchio-three, the thaumaturge, pushing the bent point of his hat out of his face. And then there's Vecchio-four in soft purples and grays, turning around and beckoning behind him. Ray doesn't know what to do. He takes a step towards Vecchio-two but he dissolves into nothingness as Vecchio-five reins in at exactly the same spot as he was standing.

Ray gasps, shaking.

"What's wrong?" demands Vecchio, sliding from the saddle and crossing swiftly to Ray.

Ray stares at his hands and they flicker in front of his eyes, fading in and out of existence. Choking off a panicked cry, he shoves them into his pockets, not knowing if he's hiding more from himself or from Vecchio.

"I'm ... it's ... everything is coming apart," he manages before his voice cracks and he can't say more.

Vecchio steps closer and puts his arms around Ray, holding him tight, holding him together. "I've got you," he says, voice soft in Ray's ear. "It's alright, I've got you. I'm not gonna let you come apart. I may know jack about alternates but I'm telling you there's no Vecchio in no universe that's gonna let that happen, you get me?"

Ray shakes and shakes and the world dissolves in and out of focus but he nods against Vecchio's steady shoulder and hears him say, "That's right. That's right. Always, Ray. Whatever that means for us. I believe it."

And maybe it's because Ray believes it, too, that his eyes fall closed and finally, finally he lets himself sleep.

~~~

Sextus

Ray pelts along the lakeshore as fast as he can given that he sinks into the soft, white sand with every step and he's been awake only a short time and half of that on the run from a very angry Vecchio.

"She thought you were going to marry her!" yells Vecchio. "And then you up and left. I will cut you, don't think I won't!" He's been yelling stuff like this ever since Ray had come upon him down by the lakeside and Ray is none the wiser. He's impressed that Vecchio's got the breath left to yell, though, given that they must have run five furlongs or more.

"You'll scare the fish!" he shouts back, nimbly leaping over a small boulder and veering right, heading up the beach to a small clump of trees. Maybe he could play hide and go seek behind the trunks long enough for Vecchio to let him explain.

"Screw the fish! I've got bigger plans for the rod now you've shown up, you lily-livered- aha! Got you!" This last because Ray's foot lands awkwardly in a dip in the sand and he stumbles, his legs going out from under him. He scrambles quickly to his hands and knees but isn't quite fast enough and the breath is knocked out of him as a heavy weight collides with his back and he is flung face first into the sand. On automatic, his hand scrabbles underneath him for his pistol before he realizes he could never use it on someone with Vecchio's face, no matter how much the guy may seem to want to feed him to the fishes.

Winded, Ray is unable to resist as Vecchio flips him over, straddling his hips and looming over him as he pins Ray's wrists above his head. Vecchio is flushed and panting and a bead of sweat drips from the end of his nose and onto Ray's lips. Without thought, Ray licks it off and sees Vecchio's eyes widen. He doesn't let go, though.

"Sister-fucker," he says instead, voice so low as to be almost a growl and understanding dawns. His Vecchio is as fiercely protective of his younger sister, despite her constant protestations that she's perfectly capable of looking after herself. Ray, who has more than once been at the end of her sights and only just able to escape virtue intact, has to agree. This Kowalski had obviously not gotten away so easily.

"Vecchio, I didn't-" but Ray doesn't get to finish the sentence because Vecchio has let go of one wrist and is brushing at Ray's sand-covered cheek. Ray stays very still. Vecchio's fingers on Ray's face, hot and sweat-damp, are the on switch to Ray's body and he has to fight against his hips bucking up to meet Vecchio's weight on him. This is wrong. This is not-

"Where is it?" demands Vecchio, grabbing Ray's chin and jerking his head from side to side. Ray slides his hand around Vecchio's wrist to still him.

"Where's what?"

"The scar. Where's the scar? You can't unscar, that's against the laws of God and man. Also, it's impossible."

"Vecchio, brace yourself," says Ray, feeling Vecchio's pulse quicken under his thumb. "I'm not your Ray Kowalski."

"Come again?" says Vecchio, his voice rising up an octave and Ray wishes he'd made a better choice of words.

***

By the time they reach their destination, Ray isn't sure what's freaking him out the most, Vecchio or everything else.

It's so quiet here, everyone they've met on the way has had smooth, unlined faces and the same peaceful, half-smiling expression. They all greet Vecchio as a brother and accept without question the garbled explanation of Kowalski's provenance. They offer food and water if they have it, bless them and then pass on their way, the swish of the colorful, cool fabrics they wear fading into the distance.

The air here holds the same peaceful quality, it tastes almost sweet. They walk past groves of trees, brightly plump fruits nestling among broad, green leaves, past painted wooden houses at the end of riotously-colored gardens, wild and alluring. Behind them, the lake shines the same blue as the sky. Everything here seems super-saturated, more.

And then there's Vecchio, who'd started off their journey in companionable silence but as they get closer begins to reel off a never-ending list of dos and don'ts, looping back to the beginning each time Ray thinks he's done. Don't look at her funny. Do offer her blessings whether you believe in it or not. Don't insult her by trying to pay her. The list goes on. If Ray remembers half of it, he'll be doing well.

All this worry seems out of place in such a serene environment and Ray wants to reach over and pat him on the shoulder, tell him to relax. That if anyone should be on the edge of a nervous breakdown, it's him. He doesn't, though, nervous about touching this Vecchio. Instead he settles for inserting various noises of agreement into Vecchio's monologue.

As the trees in the grove they are passing begin to thin, Vecchio takes a sharp left, Ray following on his heels. Vecchio seems to be taking totally random turns — Ray could swear they cross back on themselves at least once — but before long he stops in front of a vast, split tree trunk where someone has left a huge bundle of rags and drops to his knees, pulling Ray down beside him.

"Mamacita, we seek your guidance," he says and the bundle of rags moves, revealing the most wrinkled face Ray has ever seen. Wild, grey hair studded with twigs and moss stands out around it at crazy angles. Ray wants to laugh but remembers rule one: Don't look at her funny. And just in time, it seems, because her head whips around to face him and he finds himself on the receiving end of the most piercing stare he's ever seen. Her eyes are river blue and diamond hard and it's like she's reading him like a book without him needing to say a word.

"Seventh son of a seventh son," she exclaims, clapping her hands together and causing a flurry of birds from somewhere about her person. "I haven't had the honor in a long time. Blessings upon you, seventh son."

"And on you," says Ray on automatic, perplexed. How can she know that? No one knows that in his own dimension, let alone here. His father is the only surviving child of seven brothers and he himself has only one brother living. They don't talk about it. Ever.

"Aha," says Mamacita, a little coquettishly, "don't be confused, seventh son, I have my ways."

"You can call me Ray if you like," says Ray and ignores the hissing sound from Vecchio. He told him he wouldn't remember all the rules.

"Yes, yes, for you are a little ray of sunshine, you are. A seventh son of a seventh son, a Finder of Lost Things."

"I? What?"

Mamacita tuts. "They have not done right by you, your kin. When legends speak it is because they are true. You are a Finder, a Seeker, a Buscadero. Across the universes you have many names and all of them good, for you find lost things that fall through the gaps in space and bring them home." She draws in a deep breath and Ray speaks quickly before she can continue.

"Okay. Recap. Grandma and Ma had lots of boys so I got the power to move through space like some kind of treasure hunter. That right?"

Mamacita nods, slowly.

"Check. So am I supposed to know what's lost or am I just gonna keep slipping between dimensions every time I go to sleep on the off chance that someone accidentally threw their wedding ring through an invisible portal?"

Vecchio hisses again. Don't Be Flippant is probably rule 328.

"So much to learn, child," says the old lady. "You will stop slipping when you find the thing you seek."

"Which is?" Ray is too tired for riddles.

"You already know the answer to that question, sunshine Ray. Usually I would say 'look deep inside you,' but today inside you is not where you need to look." Ray can't make out her expression among all the wrinkles, but he's going with smug. He looks to Vecchio for support.

He looks to Vecchio.

He looks.

Images flash before him in rapid succession: the Mountie's Vecchio patiently talking him through RBIs and backdoor sliders; the thaumaturge's grief-stricken face; the fourth Vecchio and his wife sharing a secret smile; the empty bed holding on to traces of its occupants; this dimension's Vecchio looming over him in the sand, fingers brushing at his cheek; and his own Vecchio, flipping up the brim of his hat and smiling at Ray, his eyes, for once visible, shining with a brightness that Ray thinks he understands, now. A dam bursts inside him and he shakes with suppressed energy. It's immeasurable and intense and Ray could fly apart with it; he needs to harness it, control it, use it to get home. Potential to kinetic, kinetic to heat. Lots of heat.

Mamacita claps her hands again, this time setting off a cloud of butterflies. "Your talent, your special power, is usually more simple to control. Objects are what are lost and they tend to uniqueness, you will find there is only one choice of where you may travel. Even if there are copies they will not be so widely scattered. You seek a man, however, and as all dimensions you may pass through share a common root, there are many thousands of analogues of each person among them. You do not yet understand how to control the traces of him that you sense and so you spin from 'verse to 'verse, pulled hither and yon by all these men who are not quite who you seek. It's a puzzle, isn't it?" She pulls a face and cocks her head to one side, blinking at him and Ray wants to shake her and demand she tell him how to get home, now.

Rule 1073 — no hitting Mamacita no matter how much you might want to.

"But he wasn't lost. I didn't lose him, I'm good at not losing him. I just got smashed on the head. Do I have to bash my head in with a rock to get home? Because I'll do it." Ray is only stopped from lunging for the nearest stone by Vecchio's touch on his arm.

"Yes, it is an unusual set of circumstances. Commonly, powers manifest late, two score is usual, but there are those that come into their abilities sooner, the loss of someone dearly loved, whether taken by death or disaster, a deep unconscious state allowing the other realities to show themselves. Both at once, seventh son ..." Mamacita shakes her head and she seems almost sorrowful. "It is good that you are strong. I fear-"

"How do I control the power, Mamacita?" Ray asks through a forced smile, not at all interested in the old lady's fears.

Mamacita's eyes close and there is silence for a long moment. Ray really hopes she hasn't gone to sleep. He looks at Vecchio again and puckers his eyebrows at him in a 'do something' gesture.

"Um. Maybe pemmican?" says Vecchio, loudly.

"Mmmmm," says Mamacita, crossing her hands over where her belly probably is given the layers of clothing she's wearing. She doesn't open her eyes. "Pemmican was the first thing I thought of, but truthfully it is too chewy to be conducive to the meditative state."

"Pemmican?" asks Ray at the same time Vecchio asks, "Meditation?"

Mamacita's eyes snap open again. "Pemmican is meat of a opek, killed at full moon and left to dry in a sacred grove. It has many uses. Meditation is not one of them." She taps a finger against her chin, the long, filthy nail rasping against her weather-beaten skin. "You could always smoke it, I suppose. I wonder why no one has thought of that before."

"Meditation, Mamacita?" urges Vecchio again and his voice is milk-soft like Ray's Vecchio negotiating his way out of countless tricky situations.

"Oh, yes," she says airily. "Here, let me show you."

~~~

Septimus

No, no, no! Ray'd felt his concentration slip at the last moment — the peppery-smelling smoke from the burning pemmican making him sneeze — and knows before he opens his eyes that he's still not home.

There's the scent of cordite in the air and someone is gasping harsh, ragged breaths. Ray forces his eyelids open and is greeted with a scene of horror. The ground is blackened, blasted tree stumps dot the horizon and everywhere there are bodies, faces burned beyond recognition, limbs torn away, blood soaking into the ground. In the distance, Ray can hear the dull whine and thud of bombs, whatever war this is, it has moved far away. He stands still, listening hard to the increasingly shallow breaths, getting his bearings. He pinpoints the source and moves towards it, his strides quickening as he admits to himself what he is about to find.

It's even worse than he'd feared.

Vecchio has a gaping wound the size of Ray's fist in the middle of his stomach. Blood still wells up from it around the edges, soaking already saturated cloth. Ray has no idea how he's still alive. He drops to his knees and lifts Vecchio's head carefully, cradling it on his lap. Vecchio's eyes, murky and unseeing, roll in his head.

"It's okay, Vecchio," he says, smoothing the dying man's forehead. "I'm here now, you're safe, you can let go."

Vecchio's hand scrabbles weakly on his chest and Ray grips it, tight. "I'm here," he manages to repeat before his voice gives up.

For a brief second, Vecchio's eyes clear and he looks straight at Ray, the tiniest smile edging his lips and then blood bubbles from his mouth and he goes still.

It is not the Vecchio Ray knows, that Ray wants, but he feels the death like a crushing blow and collapses over Vecchio's body, racked with dry sobs and with the sure knowledge that if he does not get home in time he may never be able to live with himself. If he does? Well, there are things that need to be said if he can convince Vecchio to listen.

Ray buries the body as well as he can, given the circumstances, and prays over it to every god he can think of and then some. Vecchio deserves the best chance he can get. Then he sits down, closes his eyes and centers his thoughts on home and everything that means to him.

~~~

Primus

The transition is smooth and swift this time and when Ray looks around, he's behind a stack of wooden crates marked with the stamp 'S.S. Verne.'

His heart leaps into his mouth. The Verne was where Vecchio had been stolen from him. He's home.

Cautiously, he gets to his feet and peers around the edge of the crates. And there he is, the lost thing Ray has sought so hard, tied to a chair in the middle of the room, gagged and bloodied but alive and, judging by the look in his eyes, very, very pissed. Ray stuffs a hand in his mouth to stop himself laughing with relief.

Ray tears his eyes from Vecchio and looks around the room for hazards and potential assistance. There's only one guard in sight, a great lunk of a man, rocking on his chair and picking at his nails. Should be easy enough to take him out; the crates will hide Ray's approach until it's too late. He can see, too, Vecchio's vest and bandoleer. His hat, though, is nowhere to be seen. Ray'll buy him a new one, he thinks, almost dizzy with the thought that he can. So, breaking Vecchio loose should be easy. After that, it's anyone's guess.

Slowly, slowly, Ray reaches for his gun, drawing it noiselessly from its hiding place. He reverses his hold, gripping it by the barrel, and steals around the crates. The lunkhead guard is humming some little ditty to himself and stops, mid-bar, surprised as the stock of Ray's gun comes down hard on his head. He keels over in complete silence, hitting the floor with a thud. Ray jerks his head in satisfaction before turning to Vecchio.

Vecchio, who is looking at him with big, green eyes that fill with relief. Vecchio, who bounces impatiently as Ray cuts his bonds. Vecchio, who spits as the gag is pulled out and says, "It's about fucking time."

Ray resists the temptation to skip to the end and throw him down then and there and helps him to his feet, a shock running through him as their hands touch. He signals 'silence' and grabs Vecchio's vest from the corner of the room, grinning at Vecchio's obvious disgust at the new stains. Ray puts on his goggles and adjusts the strap — he wants to see the faces of the guys he's going to blow away. Dressed and ready for action, Vecchio stands by the door, pistol raised, and nods once at Ray, who tests the door and, finding it unlocked, yanks it open and charges into the corridor. There is no one there.

Signaling Vecchio to follow, Ray makes his way to the stairs he can see at the far end. So far so good. He starts down them, and, as he rounds a corner, meets a man coming up. They both freeze, shocked by the others' presence. Ray sees the guy reaching for his gun and lifts his own but it feels like he's moving through molasses. Then there is a loud BLAM and Ray flinches as the man drops at Ray's feet, tumbling away down the stairs. Ray looks around to find Vecchio a few steps up, gun pointing over Ray's shoulder, his face grimly satisfied.

"That bastard? Told me you were dead. Wasn't really too bothered how many times he hit me with the poker after that."

Ray stares and Vecchio steps down towards him and taps him on the shoulder with his gun.

"I suggest we run," he says.

They run.

"So," says Vecchio as they fling themselves, panting, onto an omnibus going they don't care where. "Always good to be rescued by someone who takes such pride in his appearance." He reaches out and lifts up Ray's arm, indicating the bloodied cuff. "The beard is a bold choice. As scruffy as your hair. Don't think the Captain will be thrilled, though, Kowalski. You might have to ... wait for it ... shave."

"Ha ha," says Ray and it's the best he can manage right now because there are passengers and laws against public indecency that he's been sworn to uphold. Sometimes he hates his job.

"You pining for me so much you forget how to use a razor?" teases Vecchio, dropping Ray's arm and rubbing one finger against the grain of his facial hair. It's frighteningly erotic and Ray isn't sure how he's managing not to turn his head to just suck Vecchio's finger into his mouth and keep it there.

He pulls away and drops into a seat. Vecchio follows, wincing as he sits down.

Ray frowns. "How bad they hurt you?"

"I'll live. Nothing broken, just a whole lot of bruises. Tell you the truth, they lost interest after a couple of days. From what I got, there was some unexpected shipment that arrived and they needed all hands."

"We should look into that," says Ray, leaning his head against the window, the familiar juddering of the omnibus strangely soothing. He yawns. "You know, when you're better."

"Sure," says Vecchio, patting his knee. "We'll get right on it."

"Mmmmm," says Ray, but he's already mostly asleep.

***

When Ray jerks awake the motion has stopped, it's dark and there is no warm weight pressed against his side.

No, he thinks. I found my lost thing. This can't happen. This is not fair. He kicks out.

"Hey there," says a familiar voice. Ray twists around to see Vecchio leaning forward, chin resting on arms that are folded on the back of Ray's seat. He's very, very close. Ray swallows hard. "Nap time and a temper tantrum? You need me to change you next?" Ray's attempt to cuff Vecchio's head ends in failure as Vecchio ducks back out of the way, settling himself back against his seat. "Stop freaking out, Kowalski. We're at the terminal, but you looked so peaceful I didn't want to wake you. I just called in to the Captain; apparently they were planning both our memorial services for next week. I told them to spend the money on booze instead of flowers. Where the hell were you, anyway?"

He's home! He's still home and Vecchio is still with him and the world could not be better if it tried. No, wait. There's one more thing. And it's more terrifying and strange than anything that's happened to Ray over the past few days, but the thing is, once you realize the importance of something that is lost, you have to make every effort to keep it close, to make sure you never lose it again.

Ray kneels on the seat and reaches across to take Vecchio's hand, lacing their fingers together. Vecchio looks at their clasped hands but doesn't pull away. Ray chooses to count that as a victory.

"The thing is," he says, "there's so much to tell you and I will. I tell you, you tell me, it's a whole exposition kind of thing we've got going, but there's this one important thing I gotta find first."

"Yeah?" Vecchio's eyes are smiling as Ray nods and tugs on his hand, pulling him forward. He catches Vecchio's vest with his other hand and steadies them both, leaning in to touch their lips together in a tentative kiss. Vecchio is warm underneath Ray and his lips part just enough for Ray to fit their mouths together like perfect puzzle pieces. Apart from Vecchio's hand coming up to cup Ray's jaw, neither of them move for a long time. Ray's almost afraid to break the kiss because he knows this moment won't ever come again but Vecchio's thumb rubs along his cheek and then Ray's head is filled with the worlds and worlds of possibilities of what could come next. He's glad Vecchio is a quick healer.

"Oh, that," says Vecchio, and he's never looked goofier.

"Yeah, that," Ray replies, knowing he mirrors Vecchio's face-splitting grin.

"You want we should go home, maybe?"

"Hell, yes." Ray forces himself to let go of Vecchio's hand. "You know," he says as they make their way slowly down to the street, hobbling for a variety of different reasons, "I'm thinking of getting you a bell to wear round your neck."

"Sure," says Vecchio, agreeably, "if you can find one slick enough."

And Ray says, "Me? I can find anything."


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