Diner was smoky, over-warm, and dimly lit, but it was open all night,
and you could buy a bottomless cup of coffee for 69 cents, so it was
the default hangout in the area for shift workers, cops, and desperate
college students on a deadline. Welsh spent more time there than he probably
should; there was something reassuringly familiar about the atmosphere
and the universal badness of the food. He glared down at the greasy tail-end
of his omelet and cursed his insomnia.
There was a uniform sitting in the corner, facing out the window. A young woman, it looked like, her heavy coat slung over the back of the chair and brown hair in a neat braid. She was hunched over something- a coffee cup, probably-with an almost religious fervency, and he wondered idly if she were just coming off shift or just going on.
He felt a brief surge of fellow feeling. The next time his waitress came by, he paid his check and, giving in to impulse, the uniform's as well.
"It looks like you've got an admirer, Frannie," Diane said, leaning over her old friend's table.
Frannie sighed. "Is this about Michael Warnikowski again? Because I wasn't interested in him in high school and I'm not interested now."
"You were nuts not to go to the prom with Mikey," Diane said, "but that's not what I'm talking about right now. That guy in the corner just paid your tab."
"Oh God," Frannie said. "Not another sleazy come-on. I'm too tired for this. If I pretend you didn't tell me, do you think he'll go away?"
"I don't think he's sleazy," Diane said. "He's an older guy, comes in here a lot and he's never tried to grab my ass or anything."
"There's a stunning character reference."
"Seriously, Frannie. He's probably just doing his civic duty or something. Helping one of our boys in blue, only you're a girl."
"That'd be a nice change from the ones who want to play Strip Search," Frannie said dryly. "Is he looking over here? Can I turn around?"
"Not now, he's looking. Wait. Wait... OK, now, look quick!"
Frannie twisted around and shot a look over her shoulder, then turned back hurriedly, burying her face in her hands.
"Oh my God," she said. "It's my boss!"
Diane looked blank. "Sergeant Gupta?"
"No, no, my old boss. At the 27th. Lieutenant Welsh."
"Wow," said Diane. "Really? That's kinda sweet. You should go tell him thank you."
"He looks like he wants to be left alone," Frannie said doubtfully.
"He didn't know it was you," Diane said. "If he did he'd have come over and said hi. Now you go over there or I'll go for you."
Frannie blanched. "OK, already. Jeez."
"Excuse me, sir?"
Welsh looked up from his papers and blinked in surprise. "Ms. Vecchio," he said. "Officer Vecchio, I see. I'm happy to see that you arrived at a solution to the hat problem."
"Oh. Um. Fortunately, I don't have to wear it very much," she said. "Look, I don't want to bother you or anything, I just wanted to thank you for the coffee."
He nodded an acknowledgement. "You looked like you could use it."
"God, could I ever," she said. "I hate Saturday nights. You know about Saturday nights," she said, and Welsh nodded, because everyone knew about Saturday nights.
"I mean, you always get wackos," Frannie said, plopping down in the chair across from him, "but at least on the day shift you get mostly, you know, unemployed wackos. Saturday nights you get the wackos with jobs, they've been saving it up all week while they sit in cubicles or whatever. And tonight they were even crazier than normal."
"Full moon," Welsh said. "Makes 'em nuts."
"Huh." Frannie looked at him thoughtfully. "Really? Ray always used to say that but I though it was just a cop superstition."
"Everyone does," said Welsh, "until they start working nights."
"I guess that's it, then," Frannie said. "Cause I had all the crazies tonight. I pulled this one guy over for a moving violation and he told me to shove my nightstick up his ass." She sighed. "I swear to God, every time I get one of the ones that perv on the uniform I feel like calling Fraser in the Yukon to apologize for the entire city of Chicago."
Welsh blinked. "Have you?"
She snorted. "Just once. I was drunk, it was three am... I'm not even sure it was Fraser I was talking to. It might have been Turnbull. Which would have explained that comment about the feather duster." She shook her head. "Anyway. Um. It was nice to see you again."
"Indeed," said Welsh. "You'll have to keep me posted on your progress."
Welsh started taking extra paperwork to Carl's to do, instead of staying at his desk. At least that way, he figured, he could have someone bring him the coffee. Some days, she would be there, and would bring her cup of coffee over and bitch about the job. He found it oddly soothing.
Carl's was convenient, Frannie told herself, and cappuccino was really too expensive to have every day, anyway.
She caught herself thinking, as she cuffed a perp who kept moaning annoyingly and saying "yeah, please, book me officer," that it would be a good story to tell the Lieutenant the next time she saw him.
"Would you just shut up? God," she said.
Ray and Fraser came back to Chicago for a holiday visit, and invited their friends out to Morrigan's. They looked good, Welsh thought. Kowalski had packed on about twenty pounds, and Fraser wasn't wearing his hat.
"So then he looks at me," Kowalski was saying, waving a hand expansively, "and he says, 'I'm sorry! I thought you were talking about the snowmobile.'"
A wave of laughter greeted his punchline, and he sat back with a smug grin, taking a pull off his beer.
"What Ray isn't telling you," said Fraser, leaning forward with a look of perfect innocence on his face that meant, in Welsh's experience, that someone would be jumping off a roof within the hour, "is that while all this was happening, Bullseye McClintock was in the bar, asking if anyone had seen the caribou antler."
Dewey choked on his beer. Welsh patted him on the back, shaking his head. When Fraser looked like that, people should know better than to drink until after he was finished talking.
Someone slid into the chair next to him. "Hey, what'd I miss?"
"Frannie!" Fraser and Ray were hemmed in at the back of the table, but that didn't keep Ray from leaning half across it to hug his sometime sister. "Wow, you look great!"
Fraser wasn't as demonstrative, but he did lean across the table to shake Francesca's hand warmly. "Francesca," he said. "I hope your new career has been going well."
Francesca launched into a series of stories of her first year on the force. Welsh already knew them all. He watched her face carefully; she seemed happy to see Fraser and Ray again, but the desperation was gone from her manner.
She glanced at him and smiled, and he smiled back before he caught himself and took a hurried gulp of his beer.
Frannie had come straight from work, and was still wearing her uniform, the heavy utility belt gleaming dully around her waist. Some little pieces of hair had worked loose from the braid she wore while she was on duty.
Blue was really a flattering color for her, he thought.
The party started winding down about half an hour after Frannie got there. Dewey had had too much to drink, and Fraser and Ray were apparently used to going to bed every night at ten, which was kind of weird; but then, Frannie thought, if you lived in the Yukon with a hot guy, any reasonable person would probably go to bed every night at ten.
She'd been pretty sure that she was over Fraser, and it was nice that seeing him again had confirmed it. Just as well, really. The woman should be the prettiest one in a relationship.
She realized she'd fallen into step with Lieutenant Welsh as they left the bar.
"Did you drive?" he asked.
"No, I had my partner drop me off," she said. "The house isn't far."
"Let me give you a ride," he said.
"I appreciate it, but you don't have to," she said. "I am a cop, you know."
"Yeah, but it's cold," he said. "There's no reason to be cold when you don't have to. Time enough to be cold when you're on duty."
"You've got a point," she said.
"It's the wisdom of experience."
He opened the car door for her to get in, and they spent the short drive to her house in a comfortable silence. When he parked in her driveway, he got out of the car and went around to open her door. She thought that she should probably say something feminist about not needing her door opened now that she was a cop and all, but decided to let it be. It was nice, being treated like a lady sometimes, and the Lieutenant had never shown signs of thinking she was less of an officer for all his chivalry. He was just a gentleman.
He had called her "Officer Vecchio" at first, with dignified courtesy. The third time they had coffee she'd told him to use her first name.
"Goodnight, Francesca," he said, at the door, and she smiled.
Frannie looked across the table at her date. She'd met Joe Biancardi through work; actually, she'd given the Officer Safety presentation to the third-grade class he taught. Shockingly, he'd failed to be put off by the frightening sight of Frannie wearing the Officer Safety hat, and had asked for her number. She'd given it to him; he was handsome, kind, good with kids, and Italian. Furthermore, he showed no signs of being unduly attached to any of his male friends.
She paid attention to that now.
It had taken a few weeks for their schedules to coincide enough to make a date possible, but they'd finally worked it out. He'd picked her up with flowers in hand; Ma had been utterly charmed.
She'd started out telling a few of her favorite cop stories, but he didn't really seem to get them. He smiled politely at the one about the "cuff me, officer!" guy. Welsh had nearly snorted coffee out his nose when she'd told him that story.
"Anyway," she said. "I guess you just had to be there." She cleared her throat. "So, how's life in the third grade?"
He seemed relieved to change the subject and was happy to talk about the upcoming Christmas play- "Although it's not just Christmas, of course, we've got some adorable little first-graders playing dreidls, and a whole section about Kwanzaa and one of my kids is playing the sun for the Solstice Song-" and about the sad decline in parental participation in their children's education. The candlelight gleamed on his wavy dark hair and burnished his golden skin. He was really very good-looking. They would make a striking couple.
Five years ago, she thought, I would have married this man.
"...don't you think?"
Oh, crap. "Um, I'm sorry?"
He looked a little hurt. "I was just saying that it's important for parents to take an active role in their children's lives. When I have kids, I hope that my wife or I will be available to care for them at all times."
"Yes," Frannie said. "It's important for parents to take good care of their kids. You wouldn't believe the number of calls we get for stupid stuff that wouldn't have ever been a problem if the parents were paying attention."
"That's exactly what I mean," he said, "and furthermore-"
She watched him talk, his eyes flashing with conviction. She could see the way it could go; they'd date when her schedule allowed, and soon she'd start swapping with people to make her schedule allow more often. He'd start getting invited to Sunday dinner. After a time, he'd go down on one knee with a tasteful small diamond, which she would wear for an appropriate period of time before the wedding, likewise small and tasteful. Ma would cry into her lace hanky; Ray would give her away. Joe would ask Fraser and Ray Kowalski to be groomsmen as a courtesy to her. In a few years, there would be rosy Italian children for Ma to spoil. It would be everything she'd ever wanted.
Except, she found, she didn't really want it any more.
If I'm going to get married, dammit, she thought, I want someone who laughs at the cuff me, officer guy.
She heard a low purr from her handbag, and pulled out her phone to check the display. She recognized the number- she'd answered that phone for two years. "I'm really sorry," she said, cutting Joe off mid-sentence, "but I've got to get this."
She flipped the phone open. "Hello?"
"Ms. Vecc- Francesca."
"Oh, hello Har- Lieutenant." She felt herself blushing. "Can I help you with something?"
"I'm sorry to bother you on your night off," he said, "but I've got a situation down here and I need your help with it."
"Anything I can do, of course," she said. "What's up?"
"Do you know a Donatella Giancarlo? An older lady, runs a pastry shop, doesn't speak much English?"
"Yeah, she goes to our church- did something happen? Is she OK?"
Welsh sighed. "Her shop got broken into while she was in back doing the inventory, and the perp smacked her around some," he said. "She was treated and released and we've got her at the station but she doesn't seem to understand what we're saying and we can't get in touch with her next of kin."
"No, you wouldn't," Frannie said. "Frankie and Melissa are on vacation this week, you'd have to track down their hotel. Don't you have a translator or something who can talk to her?"
"Apparently, since we lost all our Vecchios, the only person in the entire precinct who's fluent in Italian is Bruce Tagliosi, and she won't let him anywhere near her."
Frannie remembered him- nice guy, but he looked like a thug. "Would it help if I came down and talked to her?"
"Could you?" he sounded relieved. "I can send a car-"
"No need," she said. "I've got mine. I can be there in fifteen, if that's OK?"
"Great," he said. "Thank you, Francesca. I'll make sure your sergeant hears about this."
"It's no trouble," she said. "I'm happy to help."
"I'll see you then," he said. She heard someone wailing in the background. "Gotta go," he said, and hung up halfway through her "Goodbye."
She replaced the phone in her bag and looked up at Joe guiltily. "I'm sorry," she said. "Duty calls."
She told Joe to finish his dinner without her; no reason for both of them to miss the pasta. He said something about a raincheck and she agreed absently, making sure she had all her stuff.
She could make the drive to the precinct without thinking about it, which was just as well, because her mind wasn't on the road. She was worried about Mrs. Giancarlo, but it sounded like she'd be OK, and Harding had sounded so happy she could come, and he'd called her, of all the people he knew, he thought she was the one to help him. She wanted to help him, maybe earn one of his rare compliments, his big hand clapping her on the shoulder...
Oh shit, she thought. This can't be happening.
She'd spent the entire evening comparing Joe to Harding in her head, and Harding had won most of the time.
Joe was handsome and charming and perfect and bored her to tears.
And since when did she call Welsh "Harding," anyway?
Shit, she thought. Not again.
Welsh was sitting in Interview Three with Mrs. Giancarlo, offering her tea and listening helplessly to streams of rapid, angry Italian. He was about to give up and try Tagliosi again, if only to tell her that Francesca was coming, when the door flew open and Francesca entered in a swirl of rapid Italian and dark red velvet.
She'd obviously been out somewhere, probably on a date, and had left early to come help him out.
She was a damn good cop.
Her hair was swept up, and long earrings swung and glinted in the harsh light of the interrogation room. She was kneeling beside Mrs. Giancarlo, who had started crying in what looked like relief, and was holding her hand. Her dress would get dirty.
She was the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen.
Mrs. Giancarlo laid a shaking hand on Francesca's head, and nodded at something she asked her.
Francesca turned towards him. "Har- sir? She's ready to answer your questions now."
His chest hurt. He hoped it was indigestion. Or an ulcer.
Knowing his luck, it was probably love.
"I invited your Lieutenant Welsh to dinner on Christmas Eve," Ma told her one day.
"What?" she asked. "Why?"
"Don't be silly, Francesca. I think it's time he met the family."
"He's already met us, Ma!"
"That was business," she said, waving a dismissive hand. "This is different."
"You wouldn't have me call the poor man, tell him not to come after all, would you?"
Frannie wilted. "No, Ma," she said.
Christmas was going to be... interesting.
Ray and Stella's plane was delayed by a storm front coming out of Canada, and they wouldn't be in until later that evening. It was, Frannie thought, perhaps the only good thing that had happened all day. She missed her brother, but he was just too perceptive. There was no way on God's earth she was going to explain to him why Harding was having dinner with the family. She looked over to where Tony had pulled him aside and was talking to him earnestly, and hoped they were talking about football.
Maria pulled her into the kitchen. "Isn't that Ray's old boss?"
"You know he is," Frannie said. "You met him when he was telling us about Ray's undercover job."
"So does Ray know you're dating him?"
"I'm not dating him, Maria. He's a friend."
"That's not what Ma said."
"Ma doesn't know," Frannie said. "Could we just drop it, please?"
"Ma was pretty sure," Maria said.
"Yeah, well, Ma was pretty sure I'd end up married to Fraser, but she was wrong about that too."
"Oh yeah," Maria said. "The Mountie. He was gay, right?"
"So," said Tony. He handed Welsh a glass of wine. "You and Frannie, huh."
"Ms. Vecchio's a good friend," said Welsh, in the tone of voice that sent his detectives scurrying out of his office. Tony didn't seem to notice.
"She's a good kid, you know, just had some tough breaks. She's doing real well with this whole cop thing."
"She's a very capable officer," Welsh agreed.
"She deserves someone who'll treat her right," said Tony. "Not like that loser she used to be married to."
Welsh couldn't disagree with the sentiment, but felt uncomfortably like agreeing would put him in an awkward position.
"She was pretty broke up about the Mountie for a while," Tony continued, seemingly oblivious to his growing discomfort, "but I told her, I said, 'Frannie, we shoulda known all along he drove stick, cause otherwise he'd have gone for you,' and hey, I said, at least he isn't sleeping with your actual brother, you know? Cause that would make some weirdness in the family, if you know what I mean."
"I imagine it would," said Welsh.
"Anyway, you know, she seems happy," said Tony. "So that's good."
"Have some more, Lieutenant," Mrs. Vecchio said, pushing a dish a few inches closer to his elbow. Welsh looked at his laden plate in some dismay.
"I'm sure it's not as good as what your mother made," Mrs. Vecchio continued, and Welsh picked up the spoon immediately.
"No, no, not at all, Mrs. Vecchio," he said, scooping up a generous spoonful of green beans. "I was only planning out where I could fit it on my plate." He nudged a slab of fish aside and heaped the beans precariously on the edge of the plate.
Mrs. Vecchio beamed. "I do like to see a man enjoy his food," she said.
Tony nudged him. "You're in, man," he muttered. "She won't even make Grandmother Vecchio's beans for Frannie unless it's her birthday."
Welsh looked across the table, hoping that Francesca hadn't heard, but she seemed deep in conversation with her mother. He picked up his fork and applied himself to his dinner with grim determination.
Across the table, Frannie's mother was whispering in her ear.
"He's a fine man, Francesca. He'll be good to you and look after you."
Frannie shot a horrified look across the table. Welsh was working his way through his plate with the sort of steady effort she usually associated with getting paperwork done, and seemed to be avoiding looking their direction. He was probably afraid Ma would give him another helping of something if he caught her eye.
"Ma," she muttered, "would you stop? I told you, he's just a friend."
Ma looked at her darkly, but blessedly didn't pursue the topic any further.
After the meal, Ma pulled Frannie into the kitchen to help serve dessert.
"I don't know why you're being so stubborn," she said. "He obviously loves you."
"Ma, he doesn't," she said. "He's just being nice to me because of Ray."
"But you admit you have feelings for him! Don't deny it, Francesca, this is your mother talking."
"OK, fine!" she hissed, scooping ice cream into bowls with unnecessary force. "Yes! I admit it! I've fallen for him, like an idiot, you don't have to remind me! And you aren't making it any easier with all this hinting around and saying things to him- you're probably embarrassing him to death and he's going to think I haven't even changed, and- fuck!"
She stood frozen in the kitchen, staring with wide eyes at the doorway, where Harding was standing, a pile of dirty dishes in his hands, looking at her in shock. Maria was standing behind him, smirking.
She felt her eyes burn with tears. "Oh God," she said. "Oh God, I'm sorry." Someone took the ice cream bowls out of her hands. "I'm sorry," she said, "I never meant to- please don't be mad, I won't-"
"Francesca," he said, and set the dishes on the counter. A small cascade of silverware slid to the floor. "Come here. Let's talk." He put a hand in the small of her back and steered her gently out into the front hall, closing the door firmly behind them. She didn't want to meet his eyes.
"I didn't want you to know," she whispered. "I know you don't feel the same way and I tried not to, I did, it's just you're so... and I..." She swallowed, and felt the first tears escape her control. "I'm sorry."
She felt his hands on her face, blunt warm thumbs stroking away the tears. "Francesca," he said, and his voice was oddly rough. "Francesca, don't cry." He tilted her face up, and she finally looked at him.
He didn't look angry.
"I'm not mad," he said, and bent to brush a kiss on the corner of her mouth.
She made a sound, something that couldn't decide if it were a laugh or a sob. Her hands were on his shoulders, smoothing nervously over the lapels of his coat.
She was a cop, dammit. She would be brave.
"Then kiss me for real," she said.
He pulled her close and bent his head, and she let herself sink into him, his warmth and strength, the big hands that felt so right in the hollow of her back. She shivered. Was that...
"Oh my God!" came a voice from the doorway. Frannie leaned back out of the kiss reluctantly and smiled up at Harding before turning her head to face the door.
"Hi, Ray," she said.
"Detective," Harding added. "Merry Christmas."