Title: The Conscience of a Friend
Author: Birgitt Schuknecht
Fandom: due South
Rating: R
Pairing: none
Category: drama
Disclaimer: The characters used in the following story are not mine. I
do not make any money out of this. It's written for fun and for the fans
of the show.
Feedback: birgitt.schuknecht@uni-essen.de
Spoilers: The Deal (kind of)
Teaser: Ray Vecchio finds a friend .

The Conscience of a Friend
by Birgitt Schuknecht

Author's note: Of course you know the ep "The Deal". If you don't, try
to get your hands on it. It's great due South, great TV, great script
writing. It inspired me to write "Conscience of a Friend". Ray Vecchio's
relationship with Frankie Zuko fascinates me and I intend to explore
this relationship in more detail. The following is the first story of a
cycle. I know that I'm inconsistent with the show, this is clearly
non-canon. But I hope it's not inconsistent with Ray Vecchio's
Feed me with feedback! I cannot promise to take it into account when
I'll write the other stories in this cycle, since I'm quite sure how I
want to portray the next instalments. Do you know what I'm talking about
when I tell you that I write the stories that I want to read?
Nevertheless, give me your comments. I just have to know what you think.

Please do not be offended by this rather aggressive note. But after
finishing the following you might understand the mood I'm in now.

"Come on, Marco, try it. At least you have to try..." Ray Vecchio let
his voice trail off in a mock-serious whine, knowing full well that his
best friend, Marco Mitrani, would follow his lead as usual. That was the
case now for over five years. Since their first days of school they had
been nearly inseparable, himself spending whole weeks with the Mitranis.
Sometimes his mother had to come for him just to check if he was still

Marco never discussed with Ray why he didn't invite him to the Vecchio
house. Once Ray had made a remark that made Marco guess the reason for
it, but it was something Ray was determined not to speak about again and
he was glad that Marco accepted that as an oddity but a rather
unimportant oddity of their friendship. Ray liked him all the more for
it. He knew that sometimes Marco pondered over his - Ray's - mood
swings, but he held his distance at those times. That made Ray more
comfortable with Marco than with any other person in the world,
including the members of his vast family.

Now the two friends were sitting in front of the Mitrani home, in the
baking sun of August. It was just the middle of their summer holidays,
and the two boys had a serious matter to discuss. As usual Ray did the
talking, supported by hands and arms, if necessary - and there were few
times when Ray didn't think it necessary. And Marco did the thinking,
weighing the risks of Ray's newest plan against the glory if it
succeeded. Ray observed Marco intently, forcing himself to keep his
mouth shut for a while. It might help Marco thinking, although it was
hard on himself. Not before long he began fidgeting.

Finally Marco looked up at him. His dark brown eyes under an equally
dark brown mop of thick hair showed a little sparkle. Ray couldn't avoid
a grin. He'd known Marco wouldn't let him down. And he'd been right
again. "That's my boy! I'm on my way. I'll take care of everything,
don't ya worry." He almost turned, before a thought came to his mind,
already busy with the details of his plan. "Ah, maybe you can do a few
shots till I'm back." He grinned sheepishly. "Ya know, just to be on the
safe side. Not that you'd need the exercise, but still..."

That broke finally Marco's silence. "Oh, get your ass going, Vecchio. If
you're going to pester me another minute I won't do it." His laughing
eyes belied his rude words. Ray put his hands into the pockets of his
shorts in deliberate slow motion. "Oh darlin', I just love you when
you're cross with me." Before Marco could hit him with the basketball
that was lying next to him Ray turned and broke into a run. Ah, it was
summer, school was out and they were going to teach Frankie Zuko a
lesson. It was good to be alive and it was good to be him. He reduced
his pace to a stroll, just to enjoy the day and to make most of the task
that lay ahead of him.


Ray was only eleven years old, but he had seen his share of unhappiness
in his little world. He had grown up in an almost ghetto-like
Italo-American neighbourhood in Chicago. The first rule kids had to
learn here was to respect the family. And respecting the family meant in
Ray's case two things. First, that his father was no man who discussed
matters of obedience; second, that nothing in the neighbourhood happened
without the knowledge and the "benediction" of the Zuko family. And Ray
had learned that rule the hard way, in both cases.

Since the earliest times Ray could remember, his father tried to educate
him as he saw fit. That meant harsh words in the best of cases and
brutal force in the worst. His mother was little help and Ray didn't
blame her for it. He had seen bruises on her face and arms as well. Him
being the only boy he got most of his father's "loving" attention. He
never hit his sisters, Maria, five years older than Ray, or Francesca,
two years younger than him. Sometimes that fact made it harder for Ray
to tolerate his father's abuse, sometimes it helped him to recover from
it, seeing himself some kind of protection for his sisters. But most of
the time he stayed away from his father as best as he could.

The days before he went to school he remembered just as a dark room,
full of fear and tears. He tried to hold those memories well locked
behind a heavy door. Sometimes the door opened a little bit, all by
itself it seemed, and then he woke in the middle of the night,
whimpering in the aftermath of another nightmare. He didn't dare to cry,
in case his father would hear it and would open the door to the dark
room full width.

Going to school was a relieve in itself - at the beginning. Each day he
would spend several hours away from his home, and that meant staying
clear off his father. Ray even enjoyed the classes. He was a good
student as long as there weren't any exams. He hated those. Every time
his teachers put up a test, he failed miserably, much to their
astonishment. One teacher even tried to speak to his parents about it.
Ray had no idea what they talked about, he was made to wait outside.
When his father came out again, Ray could see that tonight wouldn't
going to be easy for him. And it wasn't.

That was the last time a teacher tried to help him in any way. Ray
overheard a discussion between his parents. Discussion, all right. His
father was yelling at his mother, telling her in clear words that the
whole school business could go to hell. That he had told Ray's teacher
she could go to hell as well. That if he, Ernesto Vecchio, would ever
hear any more complaints about his son, he would give her a special
visit at home.

Hadn't it been for the tone of his father's voice when he said that, Ray
would have thought his father had tried to protect him. But the yelling
was the same Ray got almost every day from his father. So he gathered
that his father just didn't want to be bothered with anything concerning
him - Ray - the failure of the Vecchio family.

Then there was Frankie Zuko. He was the only son of a rich family in the
neighbourhood. The Zukos played in another league, his father had told
him some time ago. They had no business with the Vecchios. Ray was
expected to pay respect whenever he met one of that family - which he
did, every Sunday after church. It was a small price to pay for going,
since Ray loved being in the small church of their parish, St.
Michael's. He liked their old priest very much. Father Antonio had a
very prominent white beard, blue kind eyes and longish white hair. When
he was little, Ray had believed him to be God himself. It was kind of
embarrassing when he found out he was not.

When church was out, the whole parish seemed to gather in a two lines
next to the path leading from the church to the street, so that the
Zukos could parade between those lines. Ray had heard stories of ancient
kings told by his mother. It was just like that with the Zukos. When the
head of the family passed them, his father would lift his hat - like all
the others did - and bowed rather deeply. Apart from the beating it was
the only physical ability his father seemed to possess. Little Ray was
made to imitate the bowing. When he had refused the first time, his
father had thrashed his back for more than five minutes. Ray could tell
the time because during the beatings he concentrated on counting the
seconds. The little boy learned counting up to five hundred and
twenty-three before he was five years old.

Seeing the Zukos after church was the only contact Ray had with that
family - until he went to school. To his astonishment he learned that
Frankie Zuko was only a month younger than him. He wouldn't have thought
that. Frankie had always looked like an very innocent and very young
angel to him. It was just his face, not his hair and his eyes, those
were of a very dark colour, but his face that made Ray think of an

That changed when he got to know the boy in school. Frankie was arrogant
and cruel, a bully, a coward... Ray learned all that in just two days.
And he felt like he had found in Frankie a soulmate of his father's.
Although Ray was only six years old, he had developed a keen eye for his
fellow humans, as a means of survival. He knew after a few hours of
observation if people were really the people they pretended to be. It
was even easier in Frankie's case. Frankie Zuko had no reasons for
pretension. He was the little prince and he lived up to people's
expectations. A week after school had started he was the centre of
attention. The teachers better humoured him, his father would have the
means to make them, if they refused. And his fellow students learned
that the well-meaning of a Zuko paid.

Ray wondered for a short time how he should behave himself around
Frankie. He knew that it would be intelligent and right to become
friends with him. But he couldn't bring himself to do it. When he saw
into Frankie's eyes there was too much that reminded him of his father.
So he resolved to stay away from him, even if that meant to have no one
in class Ray could speak to.

Although he knew that Frankie kind of specialised in bringing outsiders
back into line, he did not want to be like all the others. It had not
helped to avoid the beatings his father gave him when he tried to live
up to his standards and to do as he was told to do. His father did not
need an excuse to beat him, he just had to be in "the mood" for it. And
it was the same with Frankie. His mood dictated his actions, not the
behaviour of the people around him. Humouring him did not protect anyone
from Frankie's sudden outbursts of his unpredictable temper. Sometimes
it seemed that it was just that humouring setting his temper off.

Frankie tried two, no three times to win Ray over. The first attempt was
an offer of friendship and protection. Ray refused, trying to ignore his
stomach and be polite. That had stunned the little prince, more than it
had angered him - at first, that is. The anger came later. That led to
the second attempt. Of course Frankie did not corner Ray alone, some of
his goons were with him. Ray could remember only two of them with
clarity. The rest was blurred in a memory of pain.

His mother cried out loud when she dressed up her sons wounds. And Ray
was only wondering why she did cry. He'd been hurt before by his father,
far worse than now. So when she asked him who had done it to him - for
once knowing that his father wasn't responsible - he just looked at her
and that made her crying even more. She kept him home for another day,
but he still refused to speak about it. That got him another beating
from his father. And Ray did not know whom he should hate more. His
father or Frankie Zuko. He decided to give both an equal share. But Ray
didn't dare to show his hate, neither to his father, nor to Frankie. He
fled into isolation.

The third time he had a run-in with Frankie was during the long break in
school. The boys played basketball, except Ray, sitting by himself,
studying. Sometimes he asked himself why he didn't give up all that
learning. Everything he memorised so easily when he was on his own would
fly away when any of his teachers so much as looked at him. But what
else could he do? He looked up, watching the game. He liked basketball,
much better than baseball. He liked touching the ball, dribbling it
seemed to be like caressing it. He played regularly at home, taking
shots at the basket behind the Vecchio house. The ball he used was
precious to him, a present from his favourite uncle, his namesake. His
uncle was in the military now, and he came to visit very rarely. But
when he'd left he'd given his basketball to his five year old nephew.
His father had just muttered, about Ray being far too small and fat to
be good at playing. Uncle Raimondo had given Ray a reassuring smile and
said that he would grow, maybe even become taller than himself. That had
made Ray laugh, because Uncle Raimondo was the tallest man he knew.
Later his laughter had turned into tears when his uncle had been picked
up by one of his friends and waved good-bye to him. He'd run away with
the basketball in his hands. He hadn't been able to be near his father
after seeing his uncle leave.

Now he sat in the schoolyard, eyeing his fellow students with
ill-concerned desire. Frankie had picked out his team, carefully
avoiding the not so talented players. No way that a Zuko could lose a
game, whatever game was to be played. His team was well in the lead and
the players were eager to bring their centre player into the best
shooting positions instead the other way round. Guess who that centre
was! When Ray had seen Frankie play the first time, he had been stunned.
Frankie Zuko was really good. He had the right technique and he was
fast. If he'd just played it a team sport, he would have been brilliant.
But there was only one thing on Frankie's mind and that was Frankie
Zuko! Today he was at his best, shooting at the basket from sheer
incredible distances and - succeeding. Ray caught himself thinking how
much he desired to play with Frankie just once.

He shook his head determinedly, wondering where that thought had come
from. In the next moment the playing stopped and every student in the
yard except Frankie fell silent. He was yelling at one of his own team
players. Ray blinked a little and recognised Marco Mitrani, a very good
player, a real match even for Frankie Zuko. What Ray could gather from
Frankie's screams told him, that Marco had dared to take a shot himself,
instead of passing the ball over to Frankie who was firm in the belief
that he had been in a better position.

Afterwards Ray couldn't tell what made him go over to the crowd centring
around Frankie and Marco. He even squeezed through between the others
and stood just a few paces from Frankie. The little prince had started
giving Marco little shoves. Marco just tried - unsuccessfully - to keep
out of Frankie's range. Finally he tripped and fell backwards, his head
bumping with a sickening thud on the concrete. That made all the
on-lookers jump and Ray dashed forward to check on Marco. The boy
blinked up to Ray, but wasn't able to say anything. "Ya awright, Marco?"
Ray's voice showed real concern. Marco blinked again and nodded
slightly. When he tried to sit up with Ray's help his head rolled onto
Ray's shoulder and he closed his eyes. Ray was shocked and put Marco's
head carefully back on the ground. He would have to call for help.

As he stood and turned he faced Frankie Zuko. The boy's face was still
flushed with anger and he snarled at Ray: "Keep out of this, Vecchio, go
home to mama! Marco is my friend and I'll take care of him." Frankie
pronounced every word very clearly, as if he was talking to a madman.
But Ray was in no mood of being reasonable. With a voice that seemed not
be his own he told his opponent. "You're no friend to no one, Zuko,
you're just a pain in the ass." The last word came out like a hiss of a
serpent and Zuko stepped back as if he feared being bitten by Ray.
Murmurs rose in the crowd around them. Murmurs of disbelieve.

Ignoring Zuko Ray turned towards Marco, who lay on the ground very
still. Ray looked around him, but the faces of his fellow students just
showed shock and fear, no way he would find help here. He pushed through
the crowd, making his way to the school building, when someone grabbed
him from behind by the collar of his T-shirt. The fabric gave away and
he got free. In a flash he was up the stairs, banging on the door of the
teachers' office. Ray wondered shortly why all of them were inside,
there should have been at least one teacher outside. When he saw the
face of Miss Cassini as she came out after the fraction of a second, he
thought she looked guilty and embarrassed. Before he could say a word,
she just stroked his cheek for a second, then ran down the stairs and
made her way through the crowd. Ray stood like he'd been struck by
lightning, His hand came up to his cheek where the teacher had touched
him ever so briefly.

In the next moment the crowd began dispersing. Ray heard Miss Cassini
yelling at the students who were eager to get out of her sight. Ray
decided to go over to her. She knelt beside Marco, checking for his
pulse and then lifting one of his eyelids. A shudder went through her
and she looked up, a worried expression on her face. She spotted Ray
standing next to her. "Raimondo, please tell Mr. Mandolini to call for
Dr. Vaselli." When she registered the shocked look on the boy's face she
added. "He'll be fine, Raimondo. I think it's a light concussion. He has
quite a lump on his head, but his pulse is steady. Now go!" And Ray ran
to the teacher's office. He delivered his message to the group of
teachers who still didn't come out of the office. Ray had the impression
that they looked like the pet dogs of Mrs. Bertoldi when Mr. Bertoldi
yelled at them in a rage, because he'd tripped over them again.

But he refused to bother himself any further with them. He raced off to
the yard again, joining Miss Cassini who still held Marco's wrist in her
left hand. She smiled up at Raimondo: "Thanks for getting me. Can you
tell me what happened exactly?" Ray thought only for a second. He
wouldn't lie. Not because he feared the revenge of Frankie Zuko, but he
just couldn't stand to be responsible for injustice, no matter if
Frankie deserved it or not. "It was an accident. Marco and Frankie
quarrelled over the game. Marco tripped and bumped his head."

Miss Cassini eyed Ray with suspicion. Dio mio, she doesn't believe it.
Her next words were a confirmation. "So that's all, Raimondo? I see.
Well, if anything else comes back to your memory you didn't tell me,
don't hesitate to tell me later, OK?" He sensed that his teacher thought
he feared Frankie and would lie to save his neck. He shook his head to
answer her silent reproach, but she interpreted his gesture differently.
"No? That's fine with me, Raimondo. Just remember that you have to live
with your conscience, not I." She turned away from him deliberately.

Ray backed off. There was nothing he could do anymore. He gathered his
books and settled down again. But his mind wasn't able to concentrate
anymore. He had difficulties to breathe properly. The door to the dark
room had opened again, rather wide this time. Tears welt up in his
throat. Ray fought as best he could, but he failed to keep those tears
down. All he could do was not to sob loudly and brush away the tears
from his face with angry gestures. He didn't know whom to hate more,
Miss Cassini, who had just given up on him, or himself for being so
stupid to stand up for Marco in the first place. Ray was so overwhelmed
with that hate that he didn't see the doctor arrive, checking on Marco
and then leaving with the boy in his arms, accompanied by Miss Cassini.

He did not know how long he'd been sitting there. The school bell
announcing afternoon's classes brought him back to reality. He wiped
away the tears one more time. The dark room was not entirely closed, but
he would manage now. Before he could stand a shadow hovered over him. He
looked up, still blinking from all the crying he'd done. The sun shone
brightly and he couldn't make out the face of the person towering over
him. Ray did not need to see the face. He knew it was Frankie.

Ray had to make sure to be face to face with him and stood up quickly,
leaving his books on the ground. He stemmed his hands on his hips and
eyed Frankie defiantly, but not daring to hold his gaze steady. Frankie
did not say anything at first, just trying to lock eyes with Ray.
Frankie's friends were behind him, but neither Frankie nor Ray
acknowledged them being there at all. After some time Ray gave up
evading Frankie's gaze. Better to get over with it. "What?"

Frankie gave him a small confident smile. "Ray, I'd like to have you on
my team." Just that. Nothing more. Nothing less. Ray was stunned. He
knew, of course, that Frankie wasn't only speaking of basketball, maybe
he did not speak of basketball at all. He had never seen Ray play
outside classes and in gym class Ray failed whenever he had to prove his
abilities, as usually. So he had to think that Ray was a miserable
player and having him on team would not benefit Frankie in the
slightest. Although his wish to play with Frankie seemed to have come
true, he feared the real reason behind the boy's offer. And Ray knew
only one way to fight that fear, even if he knew that what he was real

With a sigh Ray let his hands dangle at his sides, slumping his
shoulders a little forward. His voice showed a strained patience.
"Frankie, Frankie, I'll already toldya what I think of ya! Ain't ya
never listenin' at all?" Next thing he knew was the impact Frankie's
fist made, connecting with his jaw. Ray stumbled back until his back hit
the wall behind him. Carefully he touched his jaw, finding it all in
place, but throbbing painfully. Tears stung in his eyes, but this time
he didn't cry. It was as if Frankie's hit had closed the door to the
dark room.

"That should teach you a lesson, Vecchio. I'm not done with you. You are
enemy and you better look out." With that he turned and his friends
followed immediately. Ray kept standing there for a moment. Then
realisation hit him. Great, his tactics to make everyone around him
thinking that he didn't exist at all just had started to work. This new
attitude even had saved him from his father for three or four times.
Thanks to his stupidity he was off worse than at the beginning. Frankie
would do to him at school what his father did to him at home. Ray wished
he'd be dead. Slowly he picked up his books and got into the building.
He was in a kind of trance for the rest of the school day.

When school was out, he snatched up his books and raced from the
building. He made his way back home in record time. His luck held, his
father was out of the house, playing pool at Finelli's. He dreaded to
face his mother, but she just sighed at the sight of his face. She
tended his jaw, helped him change and put away his shirt to mend it
later on. She gave him his an extra large portion of pasta and sent him
to bed after he'd eaten without any further comment. He wished she would
have held him tight for only a second, but maybe she feared that his bad
luck would spill over to her as well.

Sleep escaped Ray for a long time. He was thankful that he had a room on
his own. He wouldn't have stood to face his sisters. Finally the day's
events took his toll on him and he fell into a deep sleep, and when he
woke at the shrill sound of his alarm clock he could not remember if he
had dreamed at all.

Ray sat up and the memories came back to him. So there was nothing
anymore to keep him going. His life was a mess. He feared to stay at
home, his father would beat the life out of him. And going to school
meant to face Frankie Zuko, and he feared that maybe even more. At least
he had some experience with his father's rage, he knew how to avoid the
worst hits by now. Frankie might have some new ideas.

His mother came up to wake him, thinking he had overslept. Without
knocking - nobody knocked in the Vecchio home - she entered Ray's room,
waiting for a second for him to acknowledge her presence. He could not
avoid her forever, so he raised his eyes finally. It was then he
discovered that he was crying uncontrollably. Since the T-shirt he wore
in bed during the summer months was already quite wet, he must have been
crying for some time by now. His mother was at his side in an instant,
gathering him in a tight hug. He sobbed loudly, unable to speak a single

"Shhh, Raimondo, you'll be safe with me. Don't fear anything. Mama is
here. Mama is with you, bambino." Her voice sounded strangled. She must
be crying, too. Ray felt comforted against his will. What could his
mother do for him? There was no way she could help him ever. He pulled
back, brushing away his tears with the back of his right hand. "I'm
okay, Mama. I have to dress now, or I'll be late for school."

"Raimondo, tell me what happened," she demanded, holding him by both
hands, searching for his eyes. He met his mother's serious look. "Oh,
nothin' really, Mama. I had a little run-in when we played basketball."
That - he told himself - wasn't exactly a lie. Somehow she must have
sensed that he would say no more. "And you're up to going to school, you
think, caro?"

Ray refused to take the unspoken offer. "Yeah, I'll better go..." After
a small pause he asked carefully. "Is... is Pop awake?" She shook her
head, "No, he's still sleeping. Why don't you dress now and I'll prepare
breakfast for you? How does cinnamon toast sound to you?"

Ray blinked away some unspilled tears and got out with an effort.
"That'll be fine, Mama. How about some hot chocolate?" His mother raised
her eyebrows. "Hot chocolate, Raimondo? Don't you think it's a bit warm
for that?" Ray shot her a pleading look and she nodded. "Hot chocolate
it is!" In the next moment she was gone.

What he needed was a plan, a real good plan. He didn't know when or how
Frankie wanted to pay him back. But he had to be sure to avoid him as
long as he could. Ray decided it would be a good start if he was just in
time, or even a little late for school. Punctuality was a big item in
school and Ray hoped Frankie would not risk his record just for his -
Ray's - sake by coming late into class himself. And his own record -
there wasn't much he could make up with being punctual. And on his way
back home he had to be as fast as he could. That left the breaks. Ray
thought he could force the teachers to keep him inside by playing some
pranks on them. That might bring the danger of some beating from his
father, but he could deal with one enemy at a time. Or so he hoped. He
thanked God that Miss Cassini refused to use beatings as punishment.
That would have just made his day, to escape Frankie and in consequence
being beaten by his teachers. Ray had a hard time to keep the door to
the dark room closed.

So Ray took his time going to school. He had finished his breakfast and
his mother's splendid cooking had lifted his spirits a little. He
strolled along the streets. It was only a five minutes walk and it was
quite an effort to walk really slow. But he managed to be five minutes
late. Miss Cassini was furious, told him that he was to stay inside
during the breaks, to do some studies, while the others were free to
play basketball or baseball. Ray tried hard not to grin at the verdict.

After three days Miss Cassini became suspicious. She tried to talk to
him during the first break. "Raimondo, what is it with you? If you're
not punctual I will have to talk to your father." Ray heard a silent
plea behind her words. She did not want to tell his father. Ray
remembered his father's rage a few weeks ago. So he wasn't sure if Miss
Cassini was concerned for herself or for him. He thought it worth a try.

"Miss Cassini, it's kinda of hard for me to be in school on time. Maybe
it can stay like it is. I can make up the time I lose in the breaks. I
don't like to play basketball with Frankie." Ray stressed every word of
his last remark. Miss Cassini looked at him in astonishment, a question
forming on her lips. But she bit it back, thinking for a few minutes.
Finally she said, "Maybe you're right, Raimondo. I take it, that
basketball can be a rather dangerous game sometimes." She smiled at him.
Ray nearly jumped with joy. She'd understood, finally. And she would
help him. "Grazie, Miss Cassini." She nodded, still smiling. He turned
to sit down at his desk again.

"Raimondo?" He turned to face her. "Please, no more pranks in this
classroom?" It was more a statement than a question. Ray answered her
with the first real smile he managed in weeks. "No, Miss Cassini, no
more pranks." He still felt guilty about the frog he'd put into her bag
the day before.

The next day Marco returned to school. He came with his father in the
middle of the morning. When they entered Miss Cassini stood up to greet
them and they spoke a few words together. Ray couldn't understand
anything of it, although he tried to. As did the whole class. Miss
Cassini shook Mr. Mitrani's hand and Marco's father left, giving his son
a clap on his back. Marco smiled, but the smile vanished when Miss
Cassini took his hand and turned him to face the class.

"Boys, please give Marco a welcome back. The doctor said he is well
enough to join us now." Some students murmured a welcome, Ray among
them. Miss Cassini hesitated for a moment, but then went on. "Bruno,
would you change your place with Marco? I'd like him to sit beside
Raimondo. He would be a great help for Raimondo, don't you think Marco?"
Although she addressed Marco her eyes were intent on the class before
her. And her expression made clear that there was more to this change
than what her words had implied. Ray should have been embarrassed that
his problems in school were discussed before the whole class. But he
sensed Miss Cassini's concern for Marco and maybe even for himself
behind her actions and decided to be thankful.

Bruno didn't mind at all. It meant to be nearer his hero, since Marco
had inhabited the place beside Frankie Zuko. Ray eyed Frankie curiously,
but could not make out the slightest reaction. He was a tough one, he
had to give him that. Whenever he saw Frankie with that stoic
expression, he asked himself how he could have ever thought of Frankie's
face being that of an angel.

After Bruno had gathered his things Marco came over and settled on the
seat next to Ray. The boy gave him a slight smile, and Ray responded in
kind. He had been relieved when he'd seen Marco enter, being OK after
all. Maybe he had been right after all, helping Marco against Frankie.
Surely it was good to see him now. Miss Cassini went on with her
explanations. Ray forced his mind back on class. There would be enough
time for him and Marco to talk, later.

When the bell announced the break most boys were out of the room in a
flash. Ray kept to his seat and Marco did likewise. Miss Cassini nodded
to them and left the room as well. Both boys followed her with their
eyes, then they looked at each other. Ray found his voice first.
"Welcome back, Marco. Are ya all right?" Marco shook his head violently
and grinned. "See, no more dizziness." He laughed at Ray's stunned
expression. "Don't worry. The doc says I'm good as new."

Ray laughed, relieved. Then he became serious. "So why don't ya go out,
playing basketball with Frankie? Ya sure missed it, didn't ya?" He got
no response. Marco's dark brown eyes locked with his green ones. After
what seemed an eternity, Marco said, "That's over, Ray. I won't play
basketball anymore." He paused for a moment. "... with Frankie, that is.
Oh God, I can't keep my hands off the ball." Their was a sparkle of
passion in his eyes, Ray noted.

"Maybe we could play? After school, that is. I have ta stay in class
during the breaks." Marco threw him a questioning glance. "Ya see, I'm
kinda slow in the mornings, so I have ta make up for it in the breaks."
Ray hesitated for a moment, but the pressure in him was too great. He
told Marco about his problems with Frankie. He would learn of it soon
enough. Better Ray told him than anybody else.

Marco was shocked. "Ray, I never thought... Listen. My Papa told me I
don't have ta fear Frankie. He talked to Frankie's father, ya know they
are doing some business together, so he knows him kinda well. So Frankie
ain't be trying anything with me. Ya know, I could ask Papa if you could
talk to Frankie's father about you..."

Now it was Ray's turn to be shocked. "No, no, Marco, please don't. I
ain't wanna have that. If my pop hears about this... he'll have my
hide..." Too late he stopped. He never told anyone outside his family
that his father was beating him. Now Marco knew. And somehow that
thought was comforting to Ray. Marco had paled at Ray's words. He simply
took Ray's hand in his own. "I understand. See, I won't tell 'im, never
ever, if you won't have it. But we can go over to my place, after
school, have a few shots..." Ray nodded, hardly trying not to cry again.

"And Ray, thanks for standing up for me. I ain't forgetting that..." Ray
threw him a questioning glance. "Miss Cassini told me what you did." He
pressed Ray's hand again. Ray heard the door to the door shut with a
loud bang. And he knew that as long as he was with Marco it won't open
so easily again.


Ray thought with pride of his best friend. In the last years they had
been inseparable. The learned together for school, mostly at the Mitrani
house, sometimes in the library. Marco was a brilliant student and he
gave Ray the security to trust into his own abilities. Ray calmed down
and he was able to pass his tests fairly well. He wasn't top of the
class, but good average. Despite all of Marco's efforts Ray was still
holding back. It was good enough for Ray, though, and he didn't mind to
be second after Marco. He adored his friend because Marco showed openly
his friendship for him. And Marco's father seemed to have enough
influence to keep Frankie at bay.

Marco and Ray seemed to play basketball in every spare second. During
the last years Ray had lost every ounce of puppy fat, growing tall and
lanky. Thanks to all the exercise he and Marco took he didn't lose his
abilities in his favourite sport. There were times when he had
difficulties to manage his long limbs appropriately but both he and
Marco became really good players. That showed in gym class. Since they
always ended up in the team opposing Frankie, there were memorable
matches between two very good teams. And they even managed a kind of
truce with Frankie's group to team up when they played together in the
school team.

Nonetheless the rivalry between Marco and Frankie about who was the best
player had been a constant in all those years. Ray was convinced that
Marco was slightly in the lead now and he wanted to show it to the whole
class. That was the plan he was about to set in motion. He planned to
challenge Frankie to play against Marco. Such a challenge Frankie would
not been able to turn down. Ray even planned to have some betting over
the outcome. Ever short on cash the share he would get out of it would
be a welcomed side-effect of the match.

Ray strolled over to the Zuko house, enjoying every minute of his walk.
He was confident that Marco would win and that would give him a great
satisfaction. Ray couldn't explain it, but he was fascinated by Frankie.
Ray knew by now what his father was doing, and that fascinated him even
more. It was kind of a dance with the devil when he had "dealings" with
Frankie. Marco tried to hold back his friend as best as he could. But
sometimes Ray was not to be stopped. Ray himself thought those times
being the best of his life. He never felt more alive as when he
confronted Frankie Zuko. It even helped him dealing with his father. His
old man still beat him on a regular basis, but Ray was able to endure
everything as long as he knew that he could stand his ground against
Frankie Zuko. Sometimes Ray even thought that he should thank Frankie
for it.

He found Frankie and Bruno and some other guys behind the impressive
Zuko villa. From time to time Ray wondered how it would be to live in
such a house. He had never been inside, and probably he never would be.
He shrugged and dismissed that thought. Nothing to worry about. For a
moment he just stood there, eyeing Frankie and friends sunbathing on the
extensive lawn, sipping on soft drinks and eating something that looked
like biscotti. Ray felt the warm sun on his face, arms and legs, already
dark tanned from being outside all the time in the last weeks. That was
going to be real good.

In the next moment he nearly jumped, as a little girl shrieked at the
top of her voice: "Frankie, Ray's here." He turned and saw Irene,
Frankie's little sister. He smiled at her with a slightly pained
expression. "Dio mio, Irene, ya frightened the shit outa me. What had
you done, if I dropped dead before ya eyes?" The girl giggled and ran
off into the house. Ray turned round to face Frankie, making his way
towards him.

"Ray, Ray, Ray!" It was obvious that Frankie imitated his father's
behaviour towards his subordinates. "Just what are you doing here on
Zuko ground? Don't you fear to get yourself... killed?" Ray gave him his
most charming smile. "Frankie, Frankie, Frankie! Your little sister
tried just that a minute ago. If I survived that, what do I have to
fear?" Ray copied Frankie diction with accuracy.

Frankie's amiable smile stopped. "What is it, Vecchio? And where is your
shadow?" Ray congratulated himself. Everything was going according to
plan. "Shadow, Frankie? I guess it's right behind me." He turned
slightly. "Yes, it's still there. Who would have thought it?"

"No more of that, Vecchio. Now, what are you doing here? Surely you
don't expect me to offer you a drink?" Ray sensed Frankie's nervousness.
The mobster's son was eager to be rid of him again. But Ray wasn't going
to be soft on him. "That would be a real gesture of Italian
hospitality." When he saw the anger in Frankie's eyes he held up his
hands in a gesture of total innocence. "Hey, Frankie, it's me. You know
that I won't do anything that offends you." He stood beside Frankie,
laying his arm around the other one's shoulders. Frankie was too stunned
to pull back.

"I've got a deal for ya, Frankie. It's real hot, ya like it, promise.
Maybe we can talk it through..." Frankie finally managed to get Ray's
arm off his shoulders. "There's nothing you can offer me I'm interested
in. Nothing." Ray put his hands in the pockets of his shorts, still
smiling. "Don't be so rash, Frankie. Let me tell you about it,
pleaasse." He gave Frankie a round-eyed stare.

Frankie lost his patience, finally. "Spit it out, Vecchio. I give you
two minutes and then you'll leave. If you want to or..." Frankie looked
at his friends with a humourless smile. "or if you do not want to." His
friends snickered obediently. Ray felt his stomach turn. But he had to
go on with his plan. He straightened his back and stopped smiling.

"OK, here's the deal. You can show the whole class that you are a better
player than Marco. Marco has agreed to meet your challenge tonight. We
meet on the school yard at 7 o'clock sharp." Ray saw Frankie swallow
with difficulty.

"Now, what is it? You coming?" Ray knew exactly the way he had put it
that Frankie could not - and would not - refuse. And he was not
disappointed. Frankie had a reputation to lose here, in front of his
friends. "Of course I'll be there. I waited a long time for the
opportunity to show Marco where his limits are." Ray had to admit that
Frankie had style. But he had all he had wished for. Now there were
still three hours before seven, enough time to inform the rest of the
class and some other people who might be interested. The more the
merrier, and Ray hoped to make a few bucks out of the betting.

"See ya then, Frankie. Perhaps you can use the next hours to do a little
practice? Anyway, that's not my business. Ciao." Then he turned and left
the agitated murmurs behind him. It was not before he was out of sight,
that he allowed himself to relax and his shoulders slumped slightly
forward. But a thrilling sensation filled his mind and after a few
seconds he straightened his back again and held his head high up.

A few hours later everything was prepared for the challenge. Marco and
Frankie were sitting on benches in opposite corners of the schoolyard,
surrounded by their friends. Needless to say that Frankie's group was
considerably larger. It still paid to humour him. Ray was busy
collecting the bets, and everything ran smoothly. It was a perfect
evening for a game and there were even some of the older students who
took an interest in the match.

When Ray was ready he beckoned Marco and Frankie under the basket. One
of the older students was standing next to him. "Carlo will be the ref.
You OK with that?" Both boys nodded, not saying anything. They already
concentrated on the task lying ahead of them. "Fine. Carlo, they're all
yours now." He picked up the basketball lying between his feet - it was
his own, the gift from his uncle, now only used for special occasions -
and passed it over to Carlo.

The older boy gave both players a sign, then tossed the ball high up
into the sky and stepped back. Frankie and Marco jumped to gain
possession of the ball. Marco had the better timing and snatched it a
second before Frankie was able to get hold of it. In a flash he started
an attack on the basket, succeeding with an elegant shot. Frankie was
too late several seconds. Now it was his turn. He dribbled for some
time, than trying an attack. Marco tried to block, but Frankie changed
the direction of his dribbling and placed the ball into the basket

The game went on and on, Frankie and Marco seemed to be equally matched.
It was still a draw, either player leading only by one point each time
they changed their positions. Now Marco was in the lead again - by one
point. If he could block Frankie's next attack and succeed with another
shot he would be the victor.

Both of them were covered with sweat, breathing heavily. Frankie's hold
of the ball nearly slipped, in the last moment he broke off his attack
and managed to gain back his control over the ball. Marco waited for the
next attack. He was in the lead, he was eager to use this advantage.
Again Frankie tried an attack. He deliberately tried to shove Marco
aside with the elbow of his free arm. But Marco had expected Frankie's
move. Instead of blocking him he stepped aside and Frankie lost nearly
his balance. Marco snatched the ball from Frankie's slippery fingers and
started towards the basket himself. Frankie regained his balance in a
fraction of a second, going after Marco, trying to hold him back by his
shirt. Marco used his free hand to keep Frankie at bay and shot at the
basket with just using one hand. It was an incredible shot and Ray
whooped in delight as Marco made the final point.

In the next moment he was at his friend's side, pulled him into a tight
hug, ignoring all the sweat and grim Marco was covered with. Ray pulled
back and lifted up Marco's right arm high to make it clear to all who
was the winner of the day. Marco smiled at him, exhausted, but happy all
the same. "We both won, Ray," he whispered warmly. That was rewarded by
another hug of his friend.

Suddenly Ray was grabbed from behind. He staggered back, landing on his
behind rather hard. Frankie was confronting Marco now. And he was
yelling at the top of his voice. It was a horrible screaming in Ray's
ears and he couldn't even make out the words. Carlo, who had picked up
the ball, came over and tried to calm Frankie down. Frankie snatched the
ball from Carlo, lashing out at the older boy. Carlo was shocked and
stepped back. Ray couldn't believe what happened next. Frankie ran into
Marco full force, the ball firm in his hand. Marco lost his footing,
falling flat on his back. The next moment Frankie was sitting on his
chest. With the basketball he smashed Marco's face repeatedly. Again and
again. Each time the back of Marco's head bumped on the concrete beneath
him. Ray felt like he'd turned to stone. He didn't hear anything around
him, didn't see the boys running from the yard, Carlo among them. He
just saw Frankie bashing Marco with the ball. His ball. Again and again.
Ray couldn't move, he couldn't speak, he couldn't even breathe. His
stare focused on the memory Marco's beautiful dark eyes, encouraging him
when he had to face another test. Ray began to choke. The door... the
door opened. The dark room loomed before him, blocking all other sights,
whether real or imagined ones. Ray didn't know if he went into the
darkness or if the darkness came to him. Suddenly he was inside it and
the door closed behind him with a loud thud.

The End