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Disclaimer: This story is written for the private entertainment of fans. The author makes no claims to the series' characters by the creation of this story. Fraser, Vecchio, Kowalski et.al. belong to Alliance, Paul Haggis and all the creative genius who made this show so special. No infringement of any copyrights held by CBS, Alliance, CTV, TNT or any other copyright holders of due SOUTH is intended. No money being made here.

due SOUTH:
Many Blessed Returns

By: Janice R. Sager
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Ben frowned into the approaching twilight as a blustery little north wind spat sleet from a dirty gray sky. His Stetson was pulled low and the collar of his leather coat turned up as he hurried through the dirty slush that covered the uneven sidewalk, his steps blending with the footprints of other last minute shoppers. Dief had refused to join him on his quest, unable to understand the importance of it to him.

Despite the adverse weather conditions, there were a surprising number of pedestrians still about. 5:30 pm on a Monday evening - half an hour before most merchants would close and hurry home to their own Christmas Eve festivities.

Not all, of course, he thought rather cynically as a young woman in tall black boots, fishnet stockings and a short, fur trimmed coat smiled at him and poised a moment to model the wares she offered. He awarded her a nod of greeting but otherwise ignored her silent invitation. She must be freezing in such an outfit. He was saddened to think that she, and hundreds of others just like her, should feel it necessary to walk the streets even on Christmas Eve. He felt only worse knowing she would not be freezing for long and thinking on the kind of men who would take advantage of her offer on this night of all nights. She could well be dead by morning but he knew that any words of warning he might offer would fall on deaf ears. A car horn and wolf whistle drew her attention from him before he could offer anything in any case. He lowered his eyes and continued his own journey as she made her way through the freezing slush to the dubious and fleeting warmth of a potential trick. She had chosen her path in life and there was nothing he could do to help her. He didn't even have the authority to arrest her.

Exhaust from a nearby bus belched upward as it drew to a stop, its brakes protesting the move even as its doors swung open to allow passengers on and off. Ben found himself caught in the ebb and flow and was jostled several times as he waded his way through against the tide. "Excuse me," he offered repeatedly, his greatest concern being to avoid the children accompanying harried parents. He was spun completely around more than once before he won free to the other side of the small crowd. A little girl of about four, half hidden in a bright pink snow suit that was too big for her, stared after him in curiosity as her mother dragged her toward the steps of the bus. "Merry Christmas!" she called.

He met the innocent look with a smile and a hand to his brim. "Merry Christmas," he called back.

"Don't talk to strangers!" her mother scolded her sharply before they disappeared and the doors swung shut with a loud pneumatic hiss. Black smoke again billowed upward as the bus pulled out, blending with the cloying smog that gathered like a blue-gray fog in the lamplight and assaulted his nose with the sickening sweetness of spent hydrocarbons. A car rounded the corner before him and fish-tailed as it momentarily lost traction on the slick roadway. He heard the teenage occupants squeal in delight as the back wheels slid toward the curb and potential disaster. Fortunately, the wheels caught before going over the curb, but the maneuver had already caused a large cock's comb of road spray to arc upward. Pedestrians scrambled to get out of the way but it was too late. The best Fraser could manage was to turn his back and hunch into his coat as the filthy deluge broke over him. The occupants of the car only laughed harder at the sight as they sped away into the deepening night.

With a sigh, he straightened and shook the worst of it from his coat. His hat had protected his head. Several others around him had fared far worse.

An older woman, wearing a cream colored wool coat that was now a mottled gray mess, her hair streaming dirty water into her face, turned to shake an impotent fist in the air. "Bastards!" she yelled after the retreating car. She wasn't the only one yelling imprecations and vulgarities after the offenders.

Ignoring the icy trickle that seeped under his collar, Ben turned to help the woman beside him. She'd dropped her package. He winced as he heard her lift it. The sound of broken glass was distinct. She jerked from his solicitous touch in distrust and glared after the car that had disappeared in the traffic. "God damned kids," she muttered before casting Ben another suspicious glance and hurrying away. He dropped his arm and turned to see if anyone else needed help, but he and the unknown woman had apparently taken the worst of the morass. He looked down at himself.

Dirty gray slush slipped from the brim of his hat to land with a loud 'plop' on the ground before the toes of his hiking boots. His knew his coat and hat had saved him from looking worse than he did but his jeans were soaked through from the back. Thank heavens for woolen long johns and thermal underwear. They would wick the moisture away from his skin while still providing some insulation and keep him from freezing to death before he could complete his errand and return home. He had to keep moving, however. It was definitely going to be a more uncomfortable trek than he'd anticipated.

With a much put upon sigh, he swept his hat from his head and slapped it against his leg to remove the last of the mess. He didn't need to inspect it to know it would need to be taken to a milliner for professional cleaning and reblocking. He closed his eyes, battling a sense of despair and homesickness that threatened to drown him. Refusing to allow such emotions to overwhelm him, he straightened once more, replaced his hat, and forced himself to concentrate on the task that had sent him into the encroaching night in the first place. Such misery was no more than he deserved for having left it to the last minute.

There, less than a block ahead, was what he was looking for. He hurried his pace and was soon contemplating the sad, picked-over remnants of half-dead Christmas trees no one else had chosen.

The chain link enclosure was the same as several others he'd seen sprout up the day after Thanksgiving. That was Thanksgiving in the States. His was in October, not that anyone seemed to be aware of that or care if he mentioned it. And he'd seen various stores donning Christmas decorations as early as mid-October, before Halloween. He shook his head at the thought of such commercialism. It always made him think on the bible story of Jesus and the Money Lenders, how he had raged against them and thrown them out of the temple. The holidays here simply weren't the same as they were at home.

He allowed his thoughts to drift back over various Christmas' past. None of them were the traditional observances most such as the Vecchios practiced each year. His grandparents were poor, but he'd never realized it for they were rich in spirit and love. Material possessions simply weren't important to them. They celebrated the meaning of the Christmas story and the joy of giving to others in need, rather than emphasizing the idea of getting gifts as modern society seemed to do. He was given clothes as he needed and new books to stimulate his avid imagination and curiosity. An apple or orange in his stocking was an expensive extravagance that was hard to come by so far north. What toys he'd received were few and handmade by his grandfather.

When his mother had been alive, she'd cut and trimmed a small Christmas tree each year, though he barely remembered it. His grandparents had not allowed a tree in the house, explaining that it was a Catholic adaptation of a pagan tradition regarding the worship of tree spirits. Besides, there were very few if any trees in or around the far northern communities they moved between every few years. Later, when he joined the academy and was on his own, he blended the two traditions as best he could. He had managed a small tree every year since, although the one at Academy had been an artificial six inch tall nod at tradition as a real tree was not permitted within the barracks.

Now, he was stationed farther from home than ever before and it was somehow even more important that he remember and honor those traditions. Unfortunately, the Consulate had been exceedingly busy for more than a month. The new Chief Liaison Officer, Inspector Thatcher, (after she decided not to fire him) had demanded much of his time, discussing their position within the diplomatic framework of the US and Chicago in general, attending various diplomatic and social functions, and generally trying to repair the damage Inspector Moffatt had left in his wake when he was transferred back to Ottawa. Then there was the normal influx of passport difficulties and citizenship authentication checks that the holidays and increased travel always brought. In addition, the criminal element of the city had seemed to gain greater daring and boldness with the coming of colder weather. He had spent a great deal of time working with Ray on various cases, as was his wont. He enjoyed it, but had pushed himself to be able to do so. He'd been in hospital repeatedly this year, first after Ray shot him and Victoria escaped; then after their plane crash and aborted vacation; and finally, most recently, when he was shot in the leg while saving Gerrard, the man who'd arranged his father's murder... It was little wonder he was exhausted: Physically, emotionally, spiritually...

He winced as the throbbing base of someone's car audio system assaulted his ears.

He longed for the solitude of the north, for the smell of pine and birch and new fallen snow, for the gentle silences and the awe inspiring beauty of a virgin snow field reflecting the mystical dance of the Northern Lights on long winter nights that never saw daybreak...

"I close in ten minutes," someone interrupted his reverie, dragging him back to the present. He blinked in the incandescent glare of the small Christmas Tree lot's lights and found the proprietor, a small rotund man with an unlit cigar clamped firmly between his teeth standing beside him. "Not much left. You can have your pick for ten dollars but I'm not waiting all night for you to make up your mind. I got grand-kids visiting and the wife will kill me if I'm not there to help control the spoiled little brats."

Fraser had to blink again, trying to find even a hint of jocularity about the man's words or manner which might indicate a grudging, unspoken love for his grandchildren... and failing. "I've always heard that's what grandchildren are for: For grandparents to spoil."

No softening in the icy demeanor, the man merely grunted disparagingly. "Nine minutes," he told Ben and turned to walk away.

No... Christmas in Chicago was nothing like what he'd always known and loved. The true spirit of Christmas seemed to have been merchandised out of existence, a has-been ideal that no longer had any mass-market appeal. 'Peace on earth, goodwill toward men' had been replaced by 'give me, give me, give me'.

With a sigh and a determination to hang onto what small piece of holiday joy he could, Ben turned his attention back to the pathetic selection of sad little trees. They were all in pretty bad shape. Most were little more than fire hazards, needles gone brown and falling from cracked and dry limbs. He made his way around the sparse lot, knowing that there wasn't time to seek out another place which might have a fresher cut. He would have to make do or forego the tradition entirely, something he was loath to do. Finally, he found a small Canadian pine that had apparently been buried under others of its kind but which had managed towick enough moisture from the snow to keep most of its needles green. It had one good side, or almost good side. If he put it in the corner and was careful with the decorations, it would do quite well... at least for a few short days.

"I'm closing!" the proprietor called. "Choose a tree or forever hold your peace. You got thirty seconds to decide."

"I'll take this one," Ben called back, pulling the small tree upright from the fence.

The man sighed and trudged toward him, his breath pluming in the frosty night air. "Ten dollars," he demanded succinctly.

"Of course," Ben agreed amicably and reached for his wallet... "Oh dear..." He frowned in surprise to discover the cold, wet pocket empty. Sheer disbelief brought his hand forward to check his hip pocket. The keys to the Consulate and his pocket knife were there. His other hand released the small, sad tree and patted his other side, searching his coat pockets as well, knowing it was a vain hope even as he did so. He knew he hadn't left it anywhere and it couldn't have fallen--

His mind instantly flashed back to the bus stop. He'd been jostled by the crowd and... he closed his eyes in despair... he'd been so intent on avoiding the children. He'd failed to note the one bump that had been too firm, too carefully maneuvered and manufactured to distract him. It had worked. He'd never felt the tug that lifted his wallet free. He dropped his head in defeat. He'd been pick pocketed. A police officer, supposedly wise to the ways of such petty criminals, and he'd fallen victim to one of them. Tonight of all nights. The irony of it did not escape him.

"Forgot your wallet?" the older man guessed, his voice laced with heavy sarcasm. Fraser lifted his head to explain only to be met with a disparaging shake of the head as the man took the tree and tossed it back into the corner. "You take me for a pushover, huh? Think you can wait till the last minute and spring a sad eyed con job on me to get a free tree? Well, forget it. I sell 'em for firewood in the morning. Now get lost, before I call the cops and have you arrested for wasting my time! I'm closed."

Wasting the man's time was hardly a crime, especially as that had never been Ben's intent, but he knew that any defense he might mount would be dismissed by the jaded and cynical proprietor who did have every right to expect payment for his goods and every right to wish to go home to his own family in a timely manner on Christmas Eve.

Ben sighed and turned for the exit. He was not a man who normally believed in luck, either good or bad, but he simply couldn't believe how very wrong his quest had gone. He had only himself to blame, he knew. He should never have left it to the last minute. He knew better than to do so. He was being punished for his procrastination. He really couldn't see it any other way. Only divine guidance could have conspired to so utterly destroy his simple quest for a Christmas tree. It was no wonder his father had failed to appear.

Ben had to wonder where he was or... not that he'd ever decided what he was. His timing and comments often made Ben think he was nothing more than a manifestation of his own off-kilter senses, but othertimes... How was it possible for Buck Frobisher to see him? Ben didn't think that his father's old partner was humoring him. And Gerrard certainly had no reason to do so. A psychic phenomenon? A projection of his subconscious, or an actual spiritual entity that--

He slammed the door on such pointless and fruitless contemplation. Internal or external manifestation, Ben decided he was simply glad his father had chosen to stay away for the present, for whatever reason, as he therefore wasn't around to harangue his son for failing to see to the matter earlier. Surely, there was sometime during the last month that Ben could have found a free hour to search out and purchase a Christmas tree for his small apartment. And his wallet! He frowned down at the freezing slush crunching heavily beneath his boots. The thief or thieves had not gotten much, perhaps thirty dollars, but his shield was in there too! Money he could replace easily enough, his health card, license and ID were harder, but his badge... He sighed. He dreaded having to explain things to Inspector Thatcher and then tackle the mountain of paper work that would be required to requisition a new one. He was quite capable of beating himself up over the last few hours without his father's help, thank you.

He kicked at a particularly dirty clump of snow in frustration and nearly lost his footing on the slippery sidewalk. He gasped as he only just caught his balance and brought himself to an abrupt standstill. He couldn't even seem to vent his emotions safely tonight! He shook his head and gave up. Enough was enough. It was time to go home.

The long walk was a time of introspection and re-evaluation. He really wasn't well suited for life in the city. If not for Ray, and the certain knowledge that he was still in the ill graces of the-powers-that-be back home, he would have gladly taken the transfer Thatcher had offered him a few short months ago. But, he hadn't. And despite a general feeling of depression over the entire holiday season and his life in general, he didn't regret it. He had friends. He had a sense of duty and fulfillment here. As Thatcher had said not so long ago, he felt he had 'something to offer them'. And normally he enjoyed doing just that. It was just that his soul was starving in the process.

Music greeted his ears as he entered his apartment building. He recognized the strains of 'O Holy Night' coming from someone's radio. It was a particular favorite of his and brought a slight smile to his lips.

"Merry Christmas, Constable," a voice called from a doorway before him.

"Merry Christmas, Mrs. Garcia," he answered as his neighbor smiled before closing her door once more. He swept off his hat and mounted the stairs. If the city could not feed his soul, he would do it himself. So what if he would have to do without a Christmas Tree this year, he thought...

"Merry Christmas, Fraser."

"Merry Christmas, Constable."

He smiled and nodded at Mr. Campbell and Mr. Mustafi in turn. "Merry Christmas," he rejoined politely.

...Tree or no tree, he would not forego the other traditions he'd chosen to embrace as his own...

"Merry Christmas!" a younger voice called from the stair well.

"Merry Christmas," he called back and watched as Lucy dashed back up the stairs.

...There was eggnog in the frig and his fingers longed to strum his guitar...

"Merry Christmas, Constable," Mrs. Gamez called from her own doorway. Four little ones peaked around her and waved.

"Merry Christmas!" Ms. Krazjapolov offered as well.

"Merry Christmas," he called and waved in return. As the doors closed once more he was struck by the fact that he'd just been greeted by a majority of his fellow tenants - very unlike the first few weeks after he'd moved in here. He was part of their neighborhood now, and neighbors watched out for one another. The greeting was a bit curious even so but this was Christmas after all.

Feeling a bit more relaxed, he dismissed his earlier despair and entered his apartment, determined to enjoy his Christmas Eve... and froze in his tracks. Dief sat up and greeted him with a soft 'wuff', allowing his tongue to lull as he enjoyed his friend's reaction.

There, to the right of his bed, stood a small Christmas Tree. He glanced back over his shoulder but the doors all remained closed, the hallway empty. He closed his door and went to the gift, trying to figure out which of his neighbors could have...

He never locked his door. It was broken and there wasn't much to steal after all. He'd transfered his weapons and his truly precious possessions, such as most of his father's journals, to the Consulate after he'd realized how easily Victoria had stolen his side arm. What remained was of very little material value.

It was a small Douglas fir, about four feet tall, not unlike the sad little fellow he'd been contemplating such a short time before. A single string of multicolored lights had been woven around and through its branches and someone had taken the time to string a length of popcorn and gum drops as a garland. Handmade Santa Clauses and bulbs made of construction paper sprinkled with glitter were scattered with starched and pressed crochet snow flakes, small store-bought candy canes and homemade gingerbread men. On the very top was an angle made of tissue and tinsel with gold pipe cleaners forming her wings.

He stared at it in wonder, deeply touched by such an unexpected act of kindness. He knew he had more than one person to thank for this gift. His neighbors must have learned of his lack of a tree and conspired to create one for him. He closed his eyes and thanked God for the mysterious gift of ill-fortune that had kept him from buying a tree earlier tonight. He would not have wanted to deny his friends, or himself, such a wondrous moment. It was the most beautiful Christmas tree he had ever seen!

"Wuff!" Dief called after a long moment, drawing his attention to the kitchen table. There rested a plate of more gingerbread men... whose warm aroma was driving Dief nuts with impatience. Ben laughed and brushed an errant tear away as he stepped to the table and retrieved the confection for the wolf. It was Christmas after all and Dief had obviously helped in simply allowing the tree to be set up and decorated while he was here. "One's enough," Ben warned him. "I don't feel like having to take you out at midnight when your bowels decide to protest."

A single card lay beside the plate, though he knew more than one set of hands was behind the incredible gift he'd received tonight. He lifted it, admiring the blue and silver depiction of a snow covered cabin somewhere in the wilderness, and opened it to find several signatures and well wishes for the season scattered about the interior. A single, hand written message in the center of the right panel was larger than the rest and seemed to speak for them all.

'No good deed goes unpunished.
Thank you kindly, and many blessed returns.'

The End

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