Disclaimer: Only the story is mine. Fraser, Vecchio, and Thatcher don't belong to me. They belong to Alliance, and I'm returning them not much the worse for wear.
A/N: Hope you enjoy it, and I'd love to hear your comments.
Warning: the sap is running.
Inspector Margaret Thatcher stood behind her desk, unmoving, as her eyes scanned the paper in her hand. As she read the letter, several different emotions chased each other across her face. Disbelief led the way, but this was quickly followed by real concern, and finally a faint hint of fear.
Constable Benton Fraser waited in the doorway, his face showing concern; Thatcher had not even heard his knock. A moment later she dropped the hand holding the paper to her desk, and raised her eyes. Perhaps her eyes refused to focus. Or perhaps Benton's large frame was too familiar a sight, whether attired, as now, in the outdated brown uniform he loved or the dress red serge required for many of his duties at the consulate. Then she noticed the letter he held in his own hand. She sat at her desk, and released a sigh.
"Come in Fraser. You may as well sit down. I assume by the way you're hovering about that you've received notice of the review next week?"
"Yes, sir. Sir, I've been asked to participate in the review process. They would like to see me in Ottawa Thursday next." Fraser's brow was showing two faint creases; he was obviously concerned about something. Furthermore, Thatcher mused, his eyes had that cloudy, somewhat confused look. Again.
She couldn't help thinking about some of the different expressions she'd seen in those eyes. So often they seemed shuttered when he looked at her. In fact, she admitted to herself, he often didn't look at her at all. Sometimes they were perplexed, as though all he wanted was a clue so he could solve the puzzle of pleasing her, his demanding superior officer. Sometimes they were serious and sincere, she considered, thinking back to the fiasco of the native people's masks, and her own error in judgment. She wondered again how much Fraser knew about her actions in that case.
But there was another expression she'd seen on his face, less often, and she realized that it was what she needed now: the open, honest, clear-eyed, "I believe in you" look that she'd occasionally seen bestowed on others, though she'd never received it herself.
As Thatcher studied Fraser and thought back over their time together at the Canadian Consulate in Chicago, Fraser's brow grew more and more creased. He shifted once and cleared his throat, and Thatcher sighed again.
"Is there a problem, Constable? Do you have some place else you need to be on that day?"
Fraser's heart sank as her sarcasm came out strongly. This was not going to be a good day. "No, ma'am. That is, I can easily participate in the proceedings in Ottawa next week. I just wondered," he paused. "I just wanted to inform you Ma'am."
"I know what you want Fraser. You want to know what this is all about, and so do I. I'm afraid my letter is not specific. It states only that a general review of the operation of this office is being held. There is a list of documents that will be required, including duty rosters, various reports, and so on. The letter concludes with the information that members of my staff may be invited to participate."
"I understand, sir."
"I know who's behind this. His name doesn't appear anywhere, and it won't, but trust me; Cloutier is involved somehow," Thatcher continued grim-faced. She sagged a bit from her usual erect posture.
"Fraser, I'm overdue for some time off. I'm going to put my paperwork together in the next few days, and then drive up to Ottawa. I'll be taking the scenic route. A friend has a cabin on a lake up there I'd like to visit again. I suggest you make your travel plans. I'll have a list of the documents for you to gather later this morning."
Fraser left the office quickly, knowing that after such uncharacteristically open remarks Thatcher would revert to her usual minimalist manner of communication.
Thatcher watched him go, still wishing she could see real confidence in his eyes when he looked at her, still wishing he believed in her. She wondered what he would have to say at the review proceedings, and then realized that she was much more concerned about what he thought of her than about what he might say in public. The realization caused an unpleasant feeling in her stomach, but she squared her shoulders. "You believe in yourself," she said in a voice too low to be overheard. "And if you can't convince the rest of the force, well you'll deal with that too."
The next days passed in a flurry of activity. Fraser stayed late every night, helping her to gather the materials she needed. They did not speak again about what might happen the next week, and when she left the office Sunday night she spoke curtly.
"I'll expect to see you on Thursday, Fraser."
Detective Ray Vecchio pulled up at the curb near Fraser's apartment and scowled as he locked the door, wondering, as he always did, why his friend insisted on living in such a crummy neighborhood. He dodged the trash as he ran up the steps, and arrived at Benny's door only slightly winded.
"Let's go, let's go, let's go!" he called as he knocked once and then pushed the door open. He found his friend deep in conversation with Diefenbaker, and listened to the end of the lecture.
"Now don't give me that helpless waif look," Benny was saying. "I know perfectly well that there are many things to eat at the Vecchios' home besides doughnuts. You're getting so soft I think I'm living with the Duncan Doughboy."
"Pillsbury," Vecchio murmured, smiling. He continued in a conspiratorial voice, "Come on, Dief, let's get rid of this guy and hit one of my favorite shops!"
"Ray!" Benny said with exasperation.
"I'm kidding, I'm just kidding! I'm a kidder. You need a hand with your bags? I'd like to get back to the car before the punks finish stripping it."
Fraser didn't need help. He had two small bags and his coat, and he swung everything over his shoulders easily and followed Ray and the excited wolf out of the cramped apartment and down to the car.
It wasn't until Ray had dropped him at the airport, and driven far out of sight that Fraser noticed that he was feeling nervous. On the plane he thought he had the problem pinpointed. It was simply a matter of uncertainty. Uncertainty about what the review team would be looking for. Uncertainty about what they might ask him. Uncertainty about what he wanted to tell them. Uncertainty about whether he would ever hold that woman in his arms again. He tried to stop his thoughts then, but they persisted. How could he forget? He had had her in his arms; he had kissed her mouth; he had touched his tongue against the soft, white, oh dear. His eyes popped open just in time to catch the woman on his right eyeing him with curiosity and interest. She bit her lip and her eyes widened a bit before she turned away. Oh dear, he thought again.
Wednesday night found Thatcher restless after several days in the simple cabin. She stepped into her boots, threw her parka over her thick robe, and carried her coffee out onto the porch. Behind her the cabin was lit only by the fire in the hearth and a few candles. As her eyes adjusted to the greater darkness around her, the stars appeared thick in the sky wherever her view was not obscured by the trees. She could hear the stream not far away, and smell the wood smoke, and a sense of calm came over her again. The coffee she sipped was good, the spot was perfect for a quiet retreat, and she sighed with satisfaction. She was ready to face the dragons in Ottawa. Ready to face whatever trouble Henri had stirred up in retribution for the harsh rejection he'd received when he visited Chicago.
Thinking about the coming day, she remembered that Fraser would be there. Fraser, who had understood the ruse she had used at first with Henri Cloutier. Fraser, with his incredible faith in human nature, always trying to help someone whether they wanted help or not. Fraser, who claimed to see her as a living, breathing woman as well as a superior officer. Fraser, whom she'd held in her arms while his lips ...
Meg loosened the neck of her coat as she sternly ordered her imagination back under control. Fraser, she thought, who I've been sending on errands and chewing out every week for what, a year now? Fraser is going to be asked to comment on the way I've been running this office. She shivered a bit, and pulled her coat closer as two words entered her mind: Oh dear.
"Good morning, ma'am," Fraser offered as soon as he entered the conference room a few minutes early on Thursday morning. She was pouring coffee again, and at first she turned her usual sharp look on Ben, but then she recalled their circumstances and held out the cup to him.
"Something wrong with the coffee, ma'am?"
"No, Fraser, I simply thought you might enjoy a cup. How was your trip? Is your hotel adequate?"
"Yes, it's fine sir. Thank you."
Meg turned back to the coffee wishing she could start the day over again. Fraser would know she was only pretending concern for his comfort, and would undoubtedly imagine it was only because of the review. Which, of course, was the only reason she was bothering to engage in this idle chitchat.
Facing him again with her own coffee in hand, she smiled brightly. "Well, I imagine they'll start soon."
Thatcher's smile held up through a great part of the day. It wasn't hard actually; the review committee seemed pleased with the documentation she had provided, and pleased with the work her office had done during her time there. When the smile did slip, it was usually replaced with a perplexed look. "What are they looking for, anyway?" she wondered, "what am I doing here?"
It was late in the afternoon when the questions began to change a bit, and the one on the receiving end of those questions was not the Inspector, but Constable Fraser. She could tell the committee was fishing, and she could tell that they'd heard something already. The terminated file clerks, their near-disastrous first encounter with the terrorist Bolt from whom she herself had required rescue.
They had offered Fraser the option of answering their questions privately, but he had surprised them. With those clear, honest eyes of his he had stated clearly that he would gladly answer any and all questions with Inspector Thatcher present. He had not been looking at her, but she knew what expression he wore. It was an expression of integrity, of duty, of honor.
No one could have been more surprised by his responses to their questions than Thatcher, although she carefully schooled her features into a calm mask. The many personal errands on which she'd sent him were not mentioned. Her mistakes on the train when she'd first allowed herself to explore her feelings for him might never have happened. The steamy moments in the incubator when he must have known she was ready to throw her arms around his neck, the kiss that stopped time on that train, her indiscretion with a criminal, every dressing down must have been forgotten.
The picture that emerged was of a no-nonsense superior, a skilled diplomat cooperating with other governments, and a resourceful officer. Her impressive throwing arm even got into the conversation somehow. Yes, Fraser knew that the Inspector had not always been happy with his methods. Yes, he knew that she had questioned his record. Yes, she expected outstanding work from her subordinates - here his gaze did flicker to her face as he thought of all those hours spent standing still as a statue outside the consulate. No, none of her requests seemed capricious or inappropriate from a superior officer.
In the end the review ended early, meeting for only an hour on Friday morning so that the team could deliver their report. They recommended some tightening of the budget, encouraged her to look for additional public relations opportunities for the Force, and complimented her on her handling of the publicity surrounding her subordinate's more well-known cases.
As Meg Thatcher shook hands and said relaxed goodbyes to those who had been examining her the day before, a constable entered with a sealed note for her. Excusing herself, she opened the envelope and withdrew a single sheet of paper. "Gotcha'!" the note said, "No hard feelings. Have a good trip back with Ben. Yours, Henri." She was shaking her head slightly, thinking what Henri would do if he knew the truth, when a slightly flustered Fraser approached her.
"Excuse me, Ma'am, but I may have some trouble getting back to the consulate in time for my next shift. It seems my airline ticket has been canceled mistakenly, and I'm having an unusual amount of trouble getting it replaced."
"Well, Fraser, I think I may have a solution to your problem. You have some vacation time coming, haven't you?"
The original plan had called for Fraser to do the driving, but Thatcher's patience would only extend so far, and before they'd been on the road for 20 minutes she'd taken over the wheel. Soon her hair was whipping around her face as they tore down the road at a much faster pace, windows open. The tape player was blasting an old Bruce Springsteen tune, which she had referred to as "road music."
"Don't worry, Constable, you can make up for it by getting some firewood ready when we arrive at the cabin. I think I just about cleaned out all I cut earlier this week."
"Of course, ma'am," responded Ben, still wondering what was behind this invitation to escort the Inspector back to Chicago via her friend's lakeside cabin. He firmly squelched the more attractive possibilities, and blushed when she caught him staring and raised an eyebrow before returning her attention to the road.
After a dinner of fruit, cheese, and potatoes cooked in the hearth, Ben and Meg were both more relaxed, sipping wine before the fire. He had ceased to question his good fortune, content - no, delighted - to have this chance to be with her. She, however, was ready to begin her questioning.
"Constable Fraser," she began, "I appreciate the support you gave to me and our office at the review this week."
"I simply answered the questions I was asked, ma'am."
"Nevertheless, I was surprised that your appraisal of our work at the consulate was so positive ... your appraisal of my work at the consulate."
"Inspector," he hesitated, looking at her closely, as though he could divine her thoughts, "were you expecting me to say something else?"
"Fraser! You didn't say a word about picking up laundry, or about being chewed out in front of half the Chicago PD. I know ... I know I'm not the easiest person to work for."
Thinking that she had no idea how hard it was for him to work so closely with her, he answered carefully. "Ma'am, I know you are not the easiest person to work for, and you have sent me out on some errands that bear little resemblance to police work, although, if you recall, that has occasionally afforded me an opportunity to have a positive impact on the lives of some of the citizens of Chicago."
"Not ma'am, tonight, please. It's Meg. Call me Meg." she interjected when he paused for breath.
He looked startled but continued undaunted. "Uh, Meg. Despite any particular personality quirks -"
Her eyebrows shot up at this.
"- you may have, you have proven yourself to be an able officer. You have also given me the freedom to involve myself with worthwhile cases which were not strictly part of my duties as Deputy Liaison Officer. And you have, while not entirely overlooking my own unorthodox methods, allowed me to work in the way that suits me best. You obviously know how to manage a wide variety of people in your diplomatic work. Your integrity is above reproach, despite a penchant for minor traffic violations, and you've shown as much courage when in personal danger as any member of the Force. I'm surprised that you would have expected anything less than the positive appraisal I gave to the review committee."
She looked at him, nonplused. And then she saw it: the look. The look that said he really did believe in her. She sighed, the residual tension leaving her body, and took another sip from her glass.
"Well, Fraser -"
"Ben," she smiled. "Ben, there's something I started to say to you a long time ago. When we were stuck in that incubator with the eggs. I wanted to tell you something."
"There were actually several things I wanted to say." She looked down, suddenly losing her courage.
"You don't have to -"
"No, I want to. I want to tell you that I was wrong when I tried to get rid of you soon after I arrived in Chicago. I was wrong when I belittled you and didn't trust your judgment. You're a credit to the Force, and it's an honor to serve with you."
Ben looked at her with surprise and pleasure, and a growing thought that this might not be such a bad trip after all.
"Thank you kindly," he said faintly.
"Here I am again," Meg told herself, "alone on the porch, with Fraser - Ben - right inside, sleeping peacefully." She knew he was sleeping because she'd had to pass close by his bedroll on the floor as she crept from the cabin's lone bedroom to the door.
She looked up, and once again the stars greeted her like old friends. They are old friends, she thought. She listened to the sounds of the night, breathed in the smell of the smoke pouring from the chimney, and sighed, rubbing gently at her neck.
"Let me, Meg."
She remained silent as strong but gentle hands took over the chore for her, but the parka made it difficult and she turned to face Ben, staring at the bit of skin showing at his throat. They were very close.
He reached for her again, raising her chin as he tugged her closer still, looking at her, the question in his eyes.
"Was there anything else you wanted to tell me, back in that incubator?"
"Yes. I wanted to tell you that I was confused. I believed I might have feelings for you."
"Now I'm sure. And I'm not nearly as confused."
Their eyes were locked now, and she saw a completely new expression in them, one she definitely hadn't seen before, even on that train...
Suddenly shy before his intense gaze, she turned again in his arms, turned to face the woods, to drink in the stars, to hear the sounds. She leaned back into his chest, holding onto the arms that held her, and then stirred again as she felt his breath at her ear.
"Ready to come inside with me now?"
"Yes. And thank you kindly, Ben."
Much later she snuggled securely in his arms and chuckled.