Chicago was a strange land.
The cars went fast, the sky was too small, and everything was loud -- or not loud, jarring; artificial sounds. Ray spent his whole first day back glancing in bewilderment at his neon wall clock, spitting out his Smarties-filled coffee and just drinking it black, eating pineapple pizza with astonished joy. He wondered how the hell Fraser had done it.
So Ray took a few days to get it together, and maybe convince himself he could take Chicago for the month and a half before Fraser came back down. Then he went to the 27, and discovered that Chicago was even stranger than he'd thought.
"I'm gone a year," Ray said, shutting the door of Welsh's office so the whole damn precinct wouldn't have to hear him freak out. "Just a year, and now --" He gestured with inarticulate violence.
"I'm aware of your frustrations, Detective," Welsh said, all long-suffering, and he probably was aware, considering he'd looked sort of braced for it. "Detective Vecchio has expressed similar." He pinched the bridge of his nose, a brief tired gesture Ray couldn't remember if he'd seen before. "If you'd like a transfer ..."
"A transfer," Ray repeated, and he hadn't felt like this in -- months, maybe a year, this shaking anger, this really strong desire to punch something. "Yeah. I bet Vecchio wants me to take a transfer."
Welsh got one of his blank polite sarcastic looks -- it was creepily like a less subtle version of Fraser's -- and Ray figured he'd somehow pushed Welsh too far, or he and Vecchio had. Sure enough Welsh said, "Funny you should mention that. See, I've been having a dilemma. I find Detective Vecchio is a much more effective officer with a partner. Since I hear Constable Fraser won't be back for at least a month --"
"Oh no, no, c'mon, you cannot do this," Ray said, not really respecting rank but making up for it in desperation, and he sort of meant he didn't want Welsh sadistically forcing him to work with Vecchio, but a lot more he meant that a year ago he'd run away from the world dropping out from under him, and now he was back, square one, and Welsh was gonna make Fraser choose.
"Detective --" Welsh said warningly.
Ray took a deep breath, and made a real effort to sound like a sane rational adult when he said, "Okay, so basically, sir, I gotta work with Vecchio for a month, or I'm out on my ass."
"Or you're transferred with a good record," Welsh corrected, sort of like he was warning Ray it could be out on his ass without recommendations only Welsh liked him too much, and through a year of snow and serious weirdness Ray suddenly remembered that Welsh looked after him. Grumpy uncle L-T for the awkward new kid.
"Yeah," Ray said, and relaxed a little. "Sorry, Lieutenant. Uh. I can do a month if he's good for it."
"He'll do it," Welsh said. "Play nice."
"Yessir," Ray said, and scrammed.
Some new guy had Ray Vecchio's old desk. Ray parked himself at Huey's; "Hey, you got Dewey's," he said to Vecchio, by way of saying hi, and Vecchio said, "Gardino's," in this tight voice, so as welcome-back conversations went, it sucked.
Ray decided he liked the arctic ghosts and non-conversations a lot better than the Chicago ones.
He tried again on his second day back at the 27. Came in late, over-caffeinated, and actually spent the afternoon catching up on policy updates, because three years of Benton Fraser could do that to a guy. Vecchio sat five feet away grumbling over paperwork. Just before five Ray sprang for pizza, and cornered Vecchio while everyone was clocking off.
"Pineapple?" Vecchio said incredulously, but at least he sounded like a real human being.
"Pick it off," Ray said unsympathetically, sitting down across the desk from him and taking a slice from the box. Vecchio snorted, but apparently he didn't think it was worth the fight, because he took a piece too.
Ray ate -- oh God, the joy of pizza -- and watched Vecchio. Still a style pig. Yeah. Stella wouldn't have minded the snazzy suits. A bit more balding, but he kept it short so it didn't look stupid. Lines around his eyes Vecchio might've had before, except they looked like Stella lines and Ray was the expert.
"So, uh, bowling alley didn't work out?" he asked, and it was dumb, really stupid, but Vecchio took it in the spirit it was given.
"Florida's a place to vacation," he said. "You don't live there."
"Like Canada," Ray offered. He wasn't sure he meant it.
"Yeah, like Canada," Vecchio agreed. He was eating the pizza without picking the pineapple off. "Hey, how's --" He stopped. "How's Canada?"
"Cold," Ray said. "Pretty." It was suddenly like talking in code, so he asked, maybe in a rawer voice than he'd intended: "How's Stella?"
"Loving Florida," Vecchio said wryly.
Yeah, Ray could imagine. He'd been Vecchio for two years and known Stella for more than twenty, and he knew how it'd gone. Girl meets boy, boy is somehow different from all those other losers. Back then boy was kind of sweet, stubborn, maybe even brave, could never quite stop being awkward; and Ray guessed that now boy's still stubborn and brave as anything but he wears Armani and has a suave smile. Ray'd be willing to bet Stella and Vecchio were still friends, and not in the awful obsessed story-making way, just the way where maybe it'd been their time and wasn't anymore, because Vecchio was Chicago, and Stella was ... something else. Stella. Stella was sheer justice in a dress, and no cop could live with that forever.
"Jeez, this is weird," said Ray.
"You're tellin' me," Vecchio said, and something snapped; they grinned at each other, and Ray thought, maybe it was gonna be okay. Ray'd been Vecchio and Vecchio'd sort of been Kowalski, and Ray had no idea who either of them were supposed to be undercover as now. But Vecchio was eating the pineapple slices and smiling away, and Ray figured they could work together as long as they didn't say too much. Yeah. Okay.
First case: some nut smuggling small arms. It was open-and-shut, really; Ray asked a couple of questions, Vecchio pieced them together into a good lead, they went in without a warrant but Jason Mathers had floor-to-ceiling guns and no warrant either, so it was all good, all easy. No one needed to lick anything or jump out of buildings, and there was one high-speed pursuit when Mathers bolted, but Vecchio just tore after him and Ray ran around to the other side of the building to head him off and that was it. Vecchio had a gun and was allowed to carry the damn thing; no one tried to reason unarmed with anyone else. Even after a year of tundra, it was weirdly low-stress.
"That was -- hey, that was good," Ray said, shoving Mathers handcuffed in the backseat, climbing in the passenger side. They'd taken Vecchio's new Riv, partly because Ray wasn't really sure how he felt about driving anything besides a dogsled just yet, partly because the GTO was way overdue for a tune-up, partly because doing this case so easy with Vecchio was giving him warm fuzzies and he had to sort of mock the Riv in his head and tell himself no way was the GTO gonna be sullied by Vecchio's pressed Armani trousers.
"Yeah, it was," Vecchio agreed, revving the engine, and maybe he was feeling the way Ray was, because he sort of smirked and added, "Good work, Stanley."
"Yeah, hey, drop dead," Ray returned, but shit, all the way back to the station both of them were grinning like idiots.
Fraser gave him a call right after they closed that case. It was night, but not dark out, not real sky at all, which Ray was still finding weird; but he felt damn fine about that arrest, bouncing-off-the-walls good. He ate some takeout, watched a hockey game without actually paying any attention, and when the phone rang -- his home number, which he'd written down on a napkin maybe an hour before catching his flight -- Fraser was on the other end.
"I hope I'm not calling too late?" Fraser said, sounding politely anxious and a little snowed out with distance.
"Frase, you're only like an hour behind," Ray said. "They do not have different time-zones above the forty-ninth."
"Understood," Fraser said, and Ray could fucking hear his smile, and a month was suddenly a hell of a lot too long. "How are you, Ray?"
"Good. I'm good. Pizza is god, Fraser, I've found religion."
"Pemmican will always be lost on you." Ray could still hear the smile.
"Yeah, whatever, it's gross." Ray took a deep breath and thought of saying, So my ex has got patterns of behavior and Vecchio's back with the CPD. Yeah, in a minute. He said, "Hey, you reapplied for the posting, right?"
"Indeed. I'm told it will take a short time to process, and heard a few observations as to the nature of my career vis-à-vis staying in Chicago, but on the whole I believe the transfer will go smoothly." By which of course Fraser meant people'd been telling him he was a dumbass to stick with the Americans, because after all those years basically exiling him Fraser had done one good case and now the RCMP was taking interest in him the same way every girl in Chicago did. Yeah, Ray could read between those lines.
"Good," he said. "Stick it to 'em."
"And you?" Fraser asked, probably because asking stupid questions about weird American aphorisms had worn thin a while ago. "Did Lieutenant Welsh allow you to resume work?"
Leftenant. Ray grinned, and didn't say, Hey, it's good to hear your voice, because it'd been about a week and he had rules in his head about the sort of things he was allowed to actually say to Fraser. He didn't say anything else either, just: "Yeah, the lieu's being good to me. Different desk, same old cases."
"I'm very pleased to hear that, Ray," Fraser said, and that was pretty much it, but Ray didn't really want to stop talking, so he asked after Diefenbaker, talked about how he wasn't used to the light pollution in the city, updated Fraser on Frannie and the One Liner and the state of the GTO. Finally he ran out of things to talk about, and they said their goodbyes.
"Hey, Vecchio's back," Ray said into the hum of the dial tone, and then just listened to it for a while. Finally he hung up and switched off the game and went to bed.
Second case: missing person, girl going to the University of Chicago who'd last been definitely seen four days ago. They took the Riv again and Ray spent a kind of hellish afternoon speaking to stressed-out undergrads, which in his book was up there with getting reliable witness statements from crackheads. By the end of it Vecchio looked about as beat and pissed-off as Ray felt, and when Ray said, "Fuck, I hate students," Vecchio pulled a U-turn with a screech and announced, "You're having dinner with my family."
"I've been yelled at all day," Ray said. "What are you, sadistic?"
"I want to share the pain," Vecchio answered, so Ray shrugged and hunched down a bit in his seat. He thought about bitching Vecchio out, and didn't, because part of the undercover gig had been getting to know the whole Vecchio family, and though maybe he'd been raised to speak one at a time and sometimes please pass the salt, he liked the loud company fine and he liked the food even better.
When they arrived, Ray could see pretty much instantly why Vecchio had dragged him along. It was one of the family dinners, everyone there, Ma Vecchio on a crazy dinner splurge, Tony and Maria yelling at each other and their three kids shrieking away, Frannie trying to coax her little girl to eat without throwing food everywhere, and Vecchio was obviously trying to use Ray as some sort of shield.
Ray shrugged Vecchio off, crammed himself right between Francesca and Ma Vecchio, crammed himself full of good Italian food. One of Maria's kids leaned around Ma Vecchio, going "Hey, hey, Other Ray, Other Ray!" which made Ray laugh and go shuffling through nutty Italian names until he came up with the right one and said, "Yeah, Gia?"
"Other Ray, I got a new Nintendo," Gia told him importantly, and Ray Kowalski, a man to whom even office computers were a closed electronic whatever, dutifully said, "A what?" So Gia was off, leaning around Ma Vecchio and chattering on about sixty-fours and the fifth generation and cartridges that had nothing to do with guns, or at least with non-pixilated guns, and the entire time Ma Vecchio was having a yelling match with Tony so it was amazing Ray even heard any of it. Then Maria noticed Gia giving Ray the whole videogame monologue, and more or less shouted her down.
Ray got himself more lasagna and caught Vecchio giving him this look that might've meant Jesus, you deserve a medal for listening to Gia or might've just meant Pass the lasagna, so Ray went with it, gave Vecchio a quick grin with attitude and passed on the food.
"So, Ray," Frannie said at Ray's elbow, more or less at a lull in Ray's personal conversation, "how's, uh," but Ray was having a nice evening, a really fucking good time, so he said, "It was great, Frannie, so are you gonna go back to the two-seven when the kid's grown up a bit?"
"Maybe," Frannie said, tilting her head a little and looking really pleased that Ray was taking an interest. Score one for Ray.
Funny thing was, it turned out Ray had sort of missed the way Frannie misused words and made crazy gestures with her hands all the time, so when dinner was over, Ray followed her into the kitchen and made a lame attempt at drying dishes while she talked at him and all the kids ran around shrieking. Ray kept on grinning, this face-cracking grin, and near the end of the dishes -- "Ray, are you even trying, they're all damp, God, you're as bad as my brother, you doof" -- he figured out why. It was the right kind of loud here. Loud like good things, not sirens and screams; loud like the sled dogs messing around in their traces, laughter loud.
Vecchio gave him a lift in the Riv afterward, and kept sort of glancing sideways at him until Ray twitched and said, "What?"
"They really did adopt you," Vecchio said.
"I was you," Ray said, but the sideways looks were making him jittery now so he tapped his fingers on his thigh and sort of shrugged. "Anyway, hey, my family's --"
"Out of a trailer park in Arizona," Vecchio finished for him. "And Stella got all the friends in the divorce."
"What, you went undercover as Kowalski?" Ray snapped.
"If I wanted, I could probably blame you for me and Stella not working out," Vecchio returned, all casual.
"Yeah?" They stopped at an intersection. The red flickered and jittered and reflected back at Ray. He blinked a few times. "What, she just told you stuff about me? Did you ask?"
"I can't remember," Vecchio admitted. Ray barked a laugh, and Vecchio's face slid into a rueful grin right as the light turned; green light, green eyes, and Ray had to face forward again and stare up at the light pollution sky until Vecchio pulled up in front of his apartment.
"We'll ask around some more tomorrow," Ray said, and slammed the Riv's green door behind him.
The missing girl turned up at the end of the week; dead, of course, so the search-and-rescue became a homicide investigation in an easy blink. She was in an alley, rope burns on her wrists and ankles and mouth, wispy hair and small, this nineteen-year-old still in her U of C sweatshirt. Jenny Knight, that was her name. Ray had all this useless vivid information about her just stuck in his head, and he went down to Mort to hear the autopsy but almost right away he started getting the dead-body shakes, stupid and obvious this time because the victim was bugging him worse than usual.
It was bad enough that Vecchio noticed and grabbed his elbow, pulling Ray out into the hall where it still smelled of formaldehyde or whatever. "You okay?" Vecchio asked.
"Yeah, I just --" Ray jammed his hands in his pockets and hunched up against the wall, far from the autopsy room as possible. "I don't like -- I'm a cop, I know, it's stupid --"
"Yeah, and sometimes you don't have to deal," Vecchio said. Ray searched his face and thought: okay, I get it now, of course Fraser was glad to see him. Vecchio was the sort of guy who saved all his annoyance and bitching and teasing for the stuff that wasn't important, and knew how to know when stuff was. Ray felt like maybe he was high-stakes to Vecchio all the time, but right now this was about him being a functional cop, end of story. "Get a coffee or something," Vecchio said. "I'll brief you."
"Okay," Ray said, and got out of there. Instead of heading for the lunch room, though, he went to the stairs and just climbed all the way to the top. Stood on the roof and pulled in deep lungfuls of disgusting Chicago air until he felt like maybe he'd be able to listen to Mort talking about rape and strangulation without having to haul off and hit something. Then he went back inside and found Vecchio, who looked like Ray felt again, all torn up with anger.
It was clocking-out time by then, more or less, and a big part of Ray wanted to go catch the psychopathic sonofabitch right the hell now, but what actually came out of his mouth after Vecchio'd finished the briefing was, "Wanna get dinner?"
This funny look flashed across Vecchio's face, the easiest thing Ray had ever read in his life; Vecchio might as well have said aloud, But I get dinner with Fraser. No Mountie, though, just a weird substitute-Vecchio with experimental hair, and somewhat to Ray's surprise, Vecchio said, "Sure."
So they went to the nearest dive for burgers and fries, and because shop talk would just about kill Ray right now, he asked Vecchio what number Riv the guy was on now. When Vecchio gave him a death glare he switched tacks and started talking about the GTO instead, and watched another change in Vecchio's face: tired lines smoothing out, eyes lighting.
"So you fixed her up yourself?" Vecchio asked, and Ray felt this pleased glow, unfamiliar especially given the kind of day he'd had.
"Mostly," he said. "My dad helped, but yeah, I keep her in good shape. Mostly. I mean, I left her alone for a year, she still needs some tuning up."
"Okay," Vecchio said, finishing his fries. "Up, Kowalski. We have a mission."
He drove Ray down to the garage where the GTO was being kept. Ray'd been to see it once or twice now, so it was fine, started up like a dream, purring the way Vecchio's Riv never would. Vecchio looked kind of impressed despite himself. Ray smirked and leaned against the GTO's side until Vecchio got over it and looked all mob boss to cover up. That, though, that wasn't what Ray was going for -- he was here, Vecchio was here, there was gonna be no trace of the Bookman just because the day had been hard.
"If you want, I can give her a look," Ray said, flicking his head at the Riv.
Vecchio's eyes stayed dangerous and narrow for a second; then he nodded and uncrossed his arms. "Let's go for it."
So they went for it, going over the Riv together; Ray found belts worn out, little things that needed tuning, so he and Vecchio were there for a while messing with Vecchio's old hunk of metal.
"I hear you burned the last one and drove into Lake Michigan," Vecchio said.
"Shut up and hand me that wrench," said Ray.
Later, when they were finishing up, Vecchio sort of stared in dismay at the grease stains messing up his designer clothes. "Oh, sure," he said, plucking at a dark-spattered sleeve, "I'm a mess here and I bet you still look pressed and --" Then his head shot up and he gave Ray this wide-eyed look, like Ray was a ghost.
"I don't have superpowers," Ray said, really casual, and Vecchio's mouth gave this little twitch of a smile.
"I guess it ain't contagious," he said.
"Yeah." Ray scrubbed at his ear and took the GTO's keys from his pocket, jangling them. "I'll, uh, I'll drive myself home."
"Night, Kowalski," Vecchio said, and retreated to the safety of the Riv.
Ray tried to enjoy the ride home, tried to enjoy having the GTO back, but he kept slamming the heel of his hand against the top of the steering wheel and muttering "Fuck," because apparently if they were gonna have the same Stella problem, they were gonna have all the same goddamn problems.
It didn't get weird, though, or any weirder than it already was, since Ray tensed up around Vecchio even when they weren't talking about the wrong thing. But there was no more accidental speaking in code for a week and change, because Vecchio was with Ray on the whole catching the bastard who'd murdered Jenny Knight deal. They followed up leads all day, Vecchio holding out mostly but sometimes coming over all mob boss again if someone didn't cooperate, going sharp edges and shark smile and Armando Langustini. Ray let him, because it worked, and Ray held out too, drank a ton of coffee (still black; Canada had done something to his sweet tooth), sort of stumbled home at night and went right to sleep, dreamed of the crackling aurora and Diefenbaker trying to tell him something important. Then the next day he did it all over again.
At the end of the week they finally tracked down a likely suspect, this guy Michael Johnson who'd been seen by a few of Jenny's friends, liked to hang around Jenny's end of campus, had a few priors although the assault charge hadn't stuck. They held him in Interview 3 and let him sweat for a bit, Ray and Vecchio both watching him from the other side of the glass.
"He did it," Ray said.
"We got nothing solid," Vecchio returned, but when Ray looked at him his mouth was set in a grim line and he was just as convinced as Ray.
"I'll get something," Ray said, and stalked into the interview room. "Hey," he said. "Afternoon, Mr. Johnson."
Johnson peered up at him, the sly between-the-handcuffs perp look that meant Hey, cop, we both know I'm a scumbag; now just you try and prove it. Ray grinned an angry grin right back, the grin that said Yeah, we could be in here a long fucking time.
"Do I get my lawyer?" Johnson asked.
"Yeah, sure," said Ray, and slammed his hands down on the table. "I hope you got a good one, Mike. Cuz, y'know, sick freaks like you? They're not too careful where they put their hands. She's got prints all over her."
"If that's true, why are you bothering to talk to me?" Johnson asked.
"Me personally, I like good clean confessions," Ray said. Problem was Mort had only been able to get partial prints off Jenny Knight, and if they could get a partial match it would be fucking great because a court wasn't about to listen to I just got a feeling he did it. "I mean, do you not just sometimes have this desire to confess? What you did to her, I bet that's a good story. I bet it's eating you up inside trying to get out, because you imagined getting the girl and then you really went through with it, you got her, and you wanna tell someone, don't you, Mike. Don't you?"
Yeah, he had this one pegged all right. Michael Johnson had gone straight from sly perp to that pupils-blown fascinated look the crazy ones got when Ray said the right words to them. Sort of hypnotized by the truth.
"I --" Johnson said, and swallowed. "I want my lawyer."
Ray's hands twitched; he was really goddamn close to something here. "Yeah, but lawyers, Mike? They don't wanna hear what happened, not when they have to lie for you. And what you did, this story you have, it's gotta be told. It'll just gnaw -- away -- until you have to tell --" and Ray realized he was slamming the heels of his hands against the table again, and again, punctuating his words.
The door opened and Ray shot up straight, Mountie-at-attention straight, vibrating like crazy. Vecchio was there, clean lines in a pressed suit, and for this wild second Ray thought he was gonna say some calm disapproving Fraser thing. But Vecchio just said, using that voice he'd been breaking out lately, the one Ray was starting to think of as the Langustini Voice: "Kowalski, the lieutenant wants to see you about those prints."
Ray thought suddenly: this is not bad cop, polite cop. This is not a one-two punch. This was crazy spaz cop and Italian mafia cop, this was a fucking beating, and he felt a little cold through the adrenaline buzz. But Ray nodded and slipped out past Vecchio, the jolt of contact he felt when his hand brushed Vecchio's sleeve just part of the buzz, and heard as the door closed behind him, Vecchio as the Bookman, saying, "We know it's you, Mikey, we got the prints."
So Ray went to Welsh, and miracle of fucking miracles Vecchio had meant it, Mort had got an actual match from the partial prints. "Good," Ray said when he heard this, "great," and Welsh gave him a narrow look.
"You and Vecchio doing all right?" he asked.
"Yeah," Ray said, and was surprised to find he meant it. "Yeah, we're good."
Welsh let him go and Ray went out to find Vecchio waiting for him in the hall, looking just a little rough at the edges. "Hey," Vecchio said. "We got him."
"We got him," Ray echoed, and suddenly there was nothing in the world less appealing than the idea of going back to his apartment for a drink and some TV and weird dreams about Canada. He took a deep breath and tried not to jitter too much. "Do you want to go do something?"
"Sure," Vecchio said. "Like what?"
"I don't know," Ray admitted.
Vecchio snorted and went to grab his coat from his desk chair. "Seriously?"
"Look, these things I know," Ray said. "I know all of Stella's favorite restaurants, and I know how to go home for hockey or baseball, and I know fifty-seven ways to get to the Canadian Consulate. And that's it."
"Let's do that," Vecchio said, and for a moment Ray actually thought Vecchio meant they should go to the Consulate, except then Vecchio clarified with something even weirder: "Let's go to one of her restaurants."
"That is not healthy," Ray observed, but neither was crashing alone after the Knight case, so Ray was somehow sitting in the Riv giving Vecchio directions to this place he liked uptown, which he figured would be a good bet, because Vecchio was probably a snob about wine selection and the place had a dance floor.
Vecchio drove them through the dusk and flashing lights while Ray stared out the window and tried to feel out his heart rate, tried to find normal even though he'd probably lost it the day he'd taken Vecchio's name. There was something familiar about this, and not in a going-to-a-restaurant-Stella-liked way, although that was maybe part of it; no, it was the quiet. It wasn't arctic quiet, but it was sitting-in-the-GTO-with-Fraser quiet, maybe even sitting-on-a-bed-with-Stella-when-they-were-sixteen quiet. Here he was in a car with Ray Vecchio, and somehow in the last week or the last thirty seconds, Vecchio had become Ray's third friend pretty much ever. Yeah, Ray knew how this one went.
Over dinner he didn't quite know what to talk about, but Vecchio gave him an annoyed litany of unsolved cases so could Ray maybe pick up some of the slack, and when it was time to order Vecchio got the most expensive house wine. Ray got to mock him about that.
"Shut up," Vecchio said. "I bet your fridge at home is full of cheap beer."
"Shut up," Ray said back, because it was.
They ended up talking about baseball (Vecchio liked the Cubbies; Vecchio was a freak), the old neighborhood Ray used to work (yeah, was Vecchio stupid, of course Ray'd known Italians, they were everywhere), dumb Chicago things they'd done as kids (yeah, did Ray look like he was Irish? and yeah, did it look like he couldn't have fun?), and both of them were startled into laughter more than once.
Vecchio ordered some ridiculous dessert; Ray stole a spoonful of whipped cream off the top and then left Vecchio to it, went to the edge of the dance floor and sort of waited around until some bored teenage girl with an elderly relative took pity on him and came out to dance with him. For a moment she looked like Jenny Knight, but then it was gone, and Ray was Fred Astaire, yeah, dancing out here he could make anybody look good. The girl was a decent dancer, laughed when he twirled her around, thanked him, and ran off. Probably wouldn't even remember Ray by the end of the week.
"You dance well," Vecchio said when Ray came back to the table. Vecchio had paid the bill when Ray wasn't looking.
"You bastard," Ray said, and Vecchio was giving him this funny half-amused look so Ray sighed and said, "Thanks."
Vecchio gave Ray a lift to his apartment, stopped by the brick side of the building, up against a NO PARKING sign. "Got a preference for the next unsolved case we start?" he asked.
"Yeah," Ray said, rubbing his neck. "Robbery. Heist. Drug stuff. No murders."
"You got it," Vecchio said, but he said it in a strange voice, soft and -- something that started with f. Fond, maybe. Or. Ray turned to stare at him, sort of smoothed out and half shadowed by the nearest streetlight, and god if he hadn't seen that look before, maybe just a half-dozen times ever, the look that said Ray Kowalski, you're a freak but that is never, ever going to matter to me.
"Good," Ray said. "Great," and then he went ahead and ignored all the warnings his brain had been giving him for a goddamn week, or maybe Vecchio was just a nutcase who had no concept of the ground rules, but either way they were kissing.
And Vecchio -- Vecchio was good at it. It was easy, just lean in mouths together and then somehow there was tongue involved, Vecchio tasting like good wine and tiramisu, Vecchio's hand sliding around to cup the back of Ray's neck real warm. Ray twisted to get closer, banged his arm on the gear shift and made a hot helpless noise that made Vecchio's hand tighten a little. It wasn't good then, it was great; Ray pressed in further and made that noise again, the world starting to pleasantly dissolve like it hadn't in years, when all of a sudden Ray remembered the word he was looking for. It was like ice sluicing down his spine.
He tore his mouth away, panting for breath and fighting to stay still.
Vecchio was staring at him, wide-eyed, like maybe this was Ray's fault.
"What," Ray said, and from a welter of stupid things he pulled the stupidest: "What was that?"
"I got no idea," Vecchio returned, with every appearance of honesty.
They just sat there in the dim light for a long moment. Vecchio fiddled with the cross around his neck, and his thumb rubbed little tingling circles just under Ray's ear, and the worst part was that he seemed completely unaware he was doing either.
"Uh," said Ray, a little desperate now.
"Is this about Stella?" Vecchio asked.
"Is it --" Ray echoed, and started laughing helplessly, shocked by the absurdity, by all of it. "No. No. Don't be dumb, Vecchio, do not be stupid, this is not about Stella." And he couldn't help but make it sound how he meant it, couldn't help shaking, probably laughing still, something.
"Hey," Vecchio said softly. "Hey, Stanley, cool it."
"Don't." Ray's voice had gone thick and funny.
One of Vecchio's hands was still cupping the back of his neck, but he brought the other up and ran his thumb just under Ray's right eye. It came away wet and Ray stared at it in surprise. "Jeez," he said.
"What's it about?" Vecchio asked, like he didn't know. Maybe he didn't.
Ray sort of twitched away and Vecchio pulled back too, more awkwardly than Ray'd seen him do almost anything. Ray swiped the back of his hand across his eyes and muttered, "This about Stella to you?"
"Nah," Vecchio said, still really quiet like he was afraid Ray would run any second. "Maybe Stella was about other people, but this ain't about her."
"Hah," Ray said, and looked up at him. "Hey, what if it was actually about me?"
"Maybe it is," Vecchio replied steadily.
"It isn't if you gotta ask me for motive." Ray sort of shuffled until he was up against the window, back of his head on the cool glass. It didn't help much.
"Yeah, but you have motive," Vecchio said, sort of halfway between the teasing of infinite patience and like he really meant it. "Innocent people don't break down that easy under interrogation."
"Yeah," Ray whispered, and stared out the window. Brick wall. Woo.
It stayed quiet for a long, long time, and then Vecchio said, in a bare murmur, "He got you bad, didn't he."
Ray's hand was on the door handle and he was out of the car almost faster than thinking it; slammed the door shut and leaned over the roof, shaking a little. After a moment the driver's side door opened too, and Vecchio got out, watched him over the Riv.
"This was stupid," Ray said. "This was really damn stupid."
"Maybe it ain't all about you," Vecchio said tightly, and Ray's head snapped up.
Yeah, it took two people to spine-meltingly and inadvisably kiss in the front seat of a vintage car. Vecchio was sort of hanging onto his cross again, looking unhappy, and just like that the streetlight was clear as a star-spanned arctic night and Ray could see: Vecchio had Stella lines, a wry crease on the left side of his mouth and a little dent between his eyebrows, but he had Fraser lines too, laughter-crinkles at the corners of his eyes and a tightness of the jaw that meant Jesus, did you have to jump onto that moving car? For a second Ray couldn't breathe.
"So he got you bad too," he said hoarsely. It wasn't quite a question.
"Yeah," Vecchio said. "Yeah."
"But you weren't kissing him," Ray added. It seemed suddenly really important.
"No, that was you." Vecchio sighed and hung his head, staring at his reflection on the roof of the Riv or something. He took a deep breath. "I've never done that before."
"Oh," said Ray. "Wow. Uh." He was feeling a lot of things already, like tired and scared and inexplicably homesick, and on top of all that he got this feeling of being fourteen years old again, so what came out next was, "I didn't suck, right?"
Somehow that was the right thing to say, because Vecchio actually chuckled a little, looked back up at Ray and said, real gentle, "No, Stanley, you didn't suck," and -- wow, wow, there was the you're a freak but it doesn't matter look again, twice in the same damn five minutes and that with Ray being a complete spaz. Okay, maybe Vecchio had it bad for Fraser. Hell, it ran in the family. Maybe this was something else.
"You didn't, uh, you didn't suck either," Ray offered, although actually Vecchio had, on Ray's tongue for just a bare second, and Ray started flushing warm and shoved himself back from the Riv. "Look," he said, "I gotta -- I'll see you tomorrow."
"Yeah," Vecchio said, "okay," but he just stood there by his car and didn't drive away until Ray was back in his apartment and locked in tight.
He called Fraser.
He thought about maybe getting drunk first, which would've been dumb, or sleeping on it, which would've been smart, but instead he took a shower, jerked off to nothing in particular, got the shakes out, and was still too goddamn wired from Jenny Knight and Michael Johnson and Stella's favorite restaurant and Ray fucking Vecchio to just sleep, so he called Fraser.
He was shuffled through about three different RCMP offices, at least one of which had a freakish Turnbull clone operating the telephone, and was put on hold for five minutes at the last one. He scrawled something that was maybe a pattern for a waltz in red pen over last week's crossword, listening to the crackle of the line, and then Fraser's voice was on the other end, saying "Hello, Ray?" and everything was fine. It all just went right out of Ray's head the second he heard Fraser, which was completely crazy; he sank back against the couch and breathed out and was okay.
"Hi, Frase," he said. "Sorry I'm calling so late."
"Not to worry, Ray; in fact I was just about to call you myself."
Ray broke into a dumb smile. "Hey, well, convenient. How's it going?"
"Very well," Fraser said. "The office here has been in contact with Inspector Thatcher's replacement at the Consulate, and it seems they're woefully understaffed and my new superior officer would appreciate my return as soon as possible."
"In three days, I'm told. Naturally, Diefenbaker won't make it down before the weekend, which should give me ample time to ..." To something, Ray guessed, except the good feeling was gone, because three weeks was suddenly three days and maybe Ray had wanted to pretend just a little longer --
"Fraser," he said, "Vecchio's back."
He'd cut Fraser off mid-sentence and for a moment there was just startled silence. Then Fraser said, in this weirdly careful way, "Ray's back in Chicago?"
"Yeah. Back with the CPD."
"I take it, ah," Fraser said, and floundered for a moment. Ray figured he was shuffling through possibilities. That Ray and Vecchio were partners. That they were gonna kill each other. That he, Fraser, was going to have to apologize because if Vecchio was back for real, the working-with-Kowalski thing was moot, done, over. But Fraser said, "Florida didn't work out?"
"Yeah, apparently the Stella has bad luck with Rays." Ray took a breath and wanted to answer the unspoken questions or draw out the unspoken statements. The best he could come up with was "Hey, this is good, right? Me and Vecchio being around."
"Ray," Fraser said, with real Fraser sincerity, not just the polite kind, "there is nothing in the world I would like more."
"Fraser's coming back on Tuesday," Ray announced the next morning, which as morning after short inadvisable makeout sessions in a car hellos went, was really terrible but pretty apt. Then he had all the fun of watching the blood drain from Vecchio's face.
"This Tuesday?" Vecchio asked.
"Yeah," Ray confirmed, leaning his hip on the edge of Vecchio's desk. "I called him last night to say hi." And hey, speaking of which ... "Why haven't you called him?"
"Well, I just, I," Vecchio said, and wouldn't meet Ray's eyes.
Distance hurts, Ray thought. Cold out here, heat me up, just the one postcard, wording which had struck Ray as a little weird even at the time, and then nothing, and then being shot, bam, wedding with Stella ex-Kowalski, Florida and being the Bookman, leaving the Bookman, god knew what else, and Ray didn't have any idea if Vecchio had even ever said goodbye. He reached out, not thinking, and let his fingers curl on empty air over Vecchio's hand. "Okay," Ray said, because he couldn't think of anything else.
They spent the rest of the day doing paperwork, a careful five feet apart.
"Hey, uh, me and Vecchio don't have to start anything today, right?" Ray asked on Monday, hovering in the doorway of Welsh's office. "I mean, Fraser's back tomorrow."
Welsh sighed and gave Ray the familiar I-don't-know-what-to-do-with-you-Kowalski look. "I'm sure you both still have lots of paperwork, Detective."
"Okay, good," Ray said. "Uh, if Fraser's still doing his liaising thing, who's he gonna be doing it with?"
"I imagine that's up to Constable Fraser," said Welsh, the evil bastard. Ray was pretty convinced Welsh liked Ray a lot better than he liked Vecchio, but no, he wasn't going to back Ray on this one. If Ray needed backing. Ray had a headache and really needed coffee.
"Right," Ray said, and got the hell over to the lunch room with the view of messing around with Frannie's old cappuccino machine. Of course Vecchio was already there, having some sort of fight with a vending machine. Ray almost turned back, but he wanted his damn coffee, so he dug his nails into his palms and went in.
Vecchio's back was to him, but Vecchio still went tense right away, like he could recognize Ray from the way he walked by now. Vecchio kicked the vending machine a couple of times, about as violently as Ray would've under the circumstances, then gave up and announced to some Pepsi ad: "I want to go to the airport."
It took Ray a moment to figure that one out -- I want to be the one to pick Fraser up -- and when he did, he didn't say anything for a bit, just tried a couple of things with the cappuccino machine until it gave him something passable in a Styrofoam cup. "Yeah, sure," he said.
Vecchio turned to him, kinda fidgety. "You sure?"
"Yeah, yeah, I'm sure," Ray said, and felt like maybe all the caffeine in the world wouldn't make him feel less tired. "Jeez, I don't even wanna go. He's not --" Mine, yours, Frannie's, anyone's. Ray felt Chicago all over him like a second strangling skin; twitched his shoulders and threw his coffee in the trash. "I should ..." Do paperwork, beat his head against a wall, run away to Canada, something, anything.
"Hey," Vecchio said quietly, when Ray was almost at the door. Ray stopped, made himself turn back. Vecchio was still standing by the vending machine, looking like maybe his expensive tailored suit didn't fit so well today. Vecchio just looked at him for a long time, until Ray got the awful sick feeling that maybe Vecchio was going to apologize.
"What?" Ray snapped finally.
"Nothin'," Vecchio said, which was a goddamn lie, but Ray left anyway.
He didn't really sleep much, just tossed around on his bed and punched his pillow a lot. He mostly drifted, and once had a half-dream that Diefenbaker was still trying to tell him something really damn important, but Ray tried so hard to concentrate on what Dief was saying that he woke himself up and had a moment of blind frustrated anger before he remembered he'd been asleep. Then he drifted again, his brain running over the last day with Fraser before he'd caught a prop plane out of Inuvik: Fraser on the runway, the fur of his parka framing his face and his eyes blue blue blue, giving Ray a brilliant smile and saying, "I'll see you in a month."
Ray replayed it in his head, only it came out different, a quantum hallucination; this time Fraser said, "Don't go." And again: "Stay with me." Ray twisted and fought with the covers a little, and Fraser said, "My father will build us a cabin." Ray mumbled something about Fraser's dad being dead, and woke himself up again; when he drifted off it was worse. "I think you should have told me about Ray," Fraser said. "I don't think I'll be coming back to Chicago after all." Ray woke up again and punched the mattress a bit. The clock glowing on his bedside table said 6:23; Ray groaned and rolled over. He could a) give up and roll out of bed and get coffee, which sounded awful, or 2) jerk off because then at least he would get some real goddamn sleep, but that would be worse. Just staying here until the dream hallucinations got to the point where Fraser said he hated him seriously didn't bear thinking about.
With a groan Ray crawled out of bed and went to brew himself like six cups of coffee and maybe find all the sugar in the house, and just get through this day.
Ray went to the station as soon as he stopped feeling like he was maybe gonna die from his brain exploding. Probably there were things he needed to do but he just sat at his desk and shuffled papers around, took a pen and scribbled aimlessly until he tore through the paper, bounced his leg until his knee started bumping against the underside of the desk. He thought about going to the gym and beating the hell out of a punching bag, but he was having the funny feeling of too much caffeine, the world being really immediate and telescoping away all at once, which meant if he tried hitting something he'd probably end up with a broken hand. So he tried to do his work, pretended to do his work, snapped his head towards the door every time someone new entered the bullpen, waited.
Just after lunch -- Ray had maybe a sandwich or something, didn't taste it -- Vecchio came breezing through the door, heading for Welsh's office. Ray waited one heartbeat and another and there was nothing, no Mountie, Vecchio coming in alone. Ray was on his feet and right in Vecchio's space before he had time to think about it.
"Where is he?"
"Consulate," Vecchio said, shouldering past Ray, so Ray was forced to follow Vecchio into the lieutenant's office. "Fraser's back, sir," Vecchio announced, trying to shut the door on Ray, but Ray shouldered right back and got in, making Vecchio look a bit stupid when the door slammed behind him. Vecchio took it in a beat, though, said smoothly, "He said he wanted a day to settle in and find a place. He'll be back tomorrow."
"Tell him there's no rush," Welsh said, and sort of looked back and forth between Vecchio and Ray, maybe calculating something out. "Anything else?"
"Yeah, c'mon, who's he gonna --" Ray started, and over him Vecchio said "I'm just thinkin', sir, it might be hard for him to liaise if we already have the partner thing covered."
"Well," said Welsh, and then he did the unthinkable and sided with Vecchio. "God knows you work better with the Mountie than alone, Vecchio. Kowalski's record is a bit more solid."
"What," Ray yelped, "come on, this guy was under cover with the mob for two years, you are not gonna tell me he won't get results --" and then his brain caught up with his mouth and he took a breath, jammed his hands deep in his pockets. "I thought you said it was Fraser's decision, sir."
"Hey, this is just my professional opinion," Welsh said mildly. "Constable Fraser can liaise with whoever he wants."
And that seemed to be that, interview over, done; hey, Kowalski, maybe you should just get out of here, do the undercover thing again, start over and make the same mistakes in exciting new ways. Ray yanked the door open and stalked out. Vecchio followed him, then actually grabbed his shoulder, and it was a good thing Ray's hands were still shoved in his pockets because otherwise he would've punched Vecchio right in the face. Instead Ray just froze.
"Listen," Vecchio said, in this soft, urgent, incredibly weird voice, "I got things to do, you go to the Consulate, okay?"
Ray had no idea what that meant, no idea what the fuck that meant, but he nodded blindly and tore away from Vecchio anyway, needing to get out of there and needing to see Fraser and probably needing other things too.
In the GTO he clutched hard at the steering wheel and almost crashed at least twice, going to the Consulate on instinct alone, trying not to think. Years and years of Stella had not prepared him for this at all, years with Fraser and years being Vecchio, a year in the arctic with just a bunch of dogs and Inuit stories and his own thoughts -- none of it had prepared him for this because he didn't even have any idea what this was; it meant his shoulder was still tingling where Vecchio'd grabbed his jacket, and he could hardly breathe he missed Fraser so much, but what it was, that he was really unclear on.
Then he was at the Consulate, ignition off, out of the car, knocking at the door, one two three, and the next moment the door was open and Ray had himself an armful of Fraser. He was in civvies, jeans and leather jacket, smelled like airports and jet fuel and pine trees, was warm and hugging Ray hard and Ray's knees wanted to give out from sheer fucking joy.
"Hi," Ray said, and Fraser pulled back enough to give him this soft smile about two inches from Ray's face.
"Hello, Ray," Fraser said.
They held on maybe a second too long and then Fraser was turning, pulling Ray along in his field of personal Fraser-gravity so he was still up in Fraser's space with their arms almost touching. "I was unsure whether to unpack," Fraser said, making his way towards the miserable little back room he'd been living in as long as Ray had known him. "It seemed a little presumptuous to impose myself without clearing it with the new Inspector, and since my move south has something of permanence about it this time ..."
"Yeah?" Ray prompted after a moment, then, "Oh. Oh, hey, if you need a place to crash for a few nights my couch is yours. Least I can do."
The look Fraser gave him was full of -- not relief, even, just pleasure at Ray's company, and Ray realized that, yeah, maybe he could do this like he'd done in the arctic even if here there were reasonable temperatures and reasonable layers of clothing, but wow, wow, tomorrow, Vecchio was going to kill him.
"Thank you, Ray," Fraser said, blissfully oblivious to all this, and followed Ray with his duffle out to the GTO.
Somehow even with the change of scenery they did their arctic camping routine, or at least motions that felt the same: Ray got the food, Fraser got what they'd be eating it with, and they ate in companionable silence with their elbows almost touching. Yeah, it was pizza in ceramic plates instead of pemmican and whatever in collapsible camping tins, and there were sirens outside instead of sled dogs scuffling a few feet away, but it was the same, the same in a good way.
"So you met the new Inspector?" Ray asked.
"Briefly," Fraser said. "Inspector Brown seems like a capable man."
"Hm," Ray said, and that pretty much covered the companionable silence and all the available conversation. It was like a week of good tundra and then suddenly ice fields for the next fifty miles. Fraser's new living space, the 27, Vecchio, those were Ray's ice fields. He took the last piece of pizza without asking.
Fraser drew in a deep breath, like he was going to say something -- about manners, maybe, or something else about the new Inspector -- and then let it out in a sigh, leaned back a little, smoothed a finger over his right eyebrow.
"Okay," said Ray. "What?"
"You mentioned you're currently partnered with Ray Vecchio," Fraser said, and here it was, ice crevasse number one.
"Temporary thing," Ray said. "Just until you're back, which is now."
"I took the liberty of investigating the records," Fraser went on, which, okay, how, but Ray had learned a long time ago that Fraser could do pretty much anything once he determined to do it. "You've already achieved impressive results together."
Beginner's luck, Ray almost said, but that was too dumb. "I guess so."
"And, well, I wouldn't want to step on any toes --"
"Did you talk to Vecchio about this?" Ray interrupted. Fraser blinked at him, this polite confused blink that could mean anything, and Ray said, "Because if he picked you up at the airport and said, 'Fraser my friend, I am enjoying my productive time with Kowalski,' he was probably lying."
"It didn't come up," Fraser admitted, a faint frown line appearing between his eyebrows. Ray had even missed that look, the Ray, your mind baffles me and I don't like it one. "I take it your partnership has been less than ... amiable, then?"
"Amiable," Ray muttered. "Yeah. No." It was lots of things, frustrating and a little inspiring and freaking Ray the hell out, but that -- "No. We, uh, personal stuff, Fraser. We got too much of the same life."
"Ah," Fraser said, with just the faintest note of disappointment. "I see how that might become detrimental. I'm sorry to hear that, Ray."
"Yeah," Ray said, setting down his last half-eaten slice of pizza. He closed the pizza box and shoved it to the side, tapped his fingertips against the table, gripped the edges and watched the blood seep out of his knuckles. All of a sudden it was really important he see this through. "So it'd suck for me and Vecchio to work together, but we're both still at the 27 and if you're gonna be here too ..."
"I'm sure I can work it case by case, as my assistance is required," Fraser said, getting it, making it all easy, one sentence fixing everything right up.
Ray could breathe again, and did, in relieved gulps, really fucking obvious. Fraser reached out and touched a hand to Ray's shoulder, this brief solid warm touch in exactly the same place Vecchio had, leaving Ray with not quite enough air again. But he looked at Fraser, and Fraser was wearing this little rueful smile as he said, "Surely you don't think I came back to Chicago for the Consular position, Ray."
"You got a point, my friend," Ray said, and got to his feet. "Blankets are in the closet. I'll do dishes."
So, okay, they were good here.
Only Ray hadn't calculated in the part where Fraser was sleeping like ten feet away, never mind the bedroom wall between them. Sleeping alone had not been an issue in the pre-arctic quest days, except in the pathetic-loser-missing-Stella way, which was old hat; maybe Ray got to be sort of fond of the weird campout sleepovers with Fraser, even if they were hell on his back, but by then Ray was fond of all the wildly bizarre stuff he did with Fraser. Then on the arctic quest it had been a non-issue, because it was thirty fucking degrees below most nights, and Ray shook until his teeth rattled unless Fraser zipped their sleeping bags together and wrapped himself around Ray. Ray had briefly worried it was going to be a problem, but it wasn't, it was this camaraderie-and-survival thing and Ray didn't really associate sex with being wrapped in six layers with a Fraser-blanket on top. It was still nice, though, breathing in rhythm with someone, sharing that. Back in Chicago everything was so weird and different Ray hadn't associated sleeping alone with loss anymore than he'd missed the dance of driving the sled, but now with Fraser sleeping ten feet away it was completely different.
Because Ray wasn't wearing six layers and trying not to freeze to death; Ray was in an apartment in Chicago in the late spring, wearing a t-shirt and boxers, and he was replaying Fraser touching his shoulder, and Vecchio touching his shoulder, and Vecchio's goddamn tongue in his mouth in the Riv, and how exactly Fraser's would feel, which was an old obsession but it seemed dangerous now, like any second everything might go solid and real.
Ray groaned into his pillow in sheer frustrated panic, and fell asleep slow and dizzy, scared he was gonna get Fraser and Vecchio all mixed up in his head, more scared when he realized right on the edge of sleep that getting them mixed up wasn't the real problem at all.
He woke to the smell of coffee, and for a disoriented moment he was back in the bed and breakfast in Inuvik, where they'd been staying a couple of days before Ray's flight; then he remembered what was actually going on, and jerked up out of bed, shuffling to the doorway. "Coffee?"
"Good morning, Ray," Fraser said. "Sugar?"
"Black," Ray said, and gave Fraser a bleary smile when a hot mug was pressed into his hands. A few minutes later, when he was awake enough for full sentences and could see Fraser was all done up in his red serge, this dream of a cartoon Mountie Ray had known years ago, he said, "You want me to drive you to the Consulate?"
"That would be much appreciated, Ray."
So Ray drove Fraser to the Consulate, and made him promise to come by the 27 when his shift was over, because Ray figured the sooner he and Vecchio worked out custody, the easier it'd be in the long run. Then Ray went into the station by himself, and even though it was some ungodly hour of the day when only Canadians should be awake, there Vecchio was at his desk five feet from Ray's, looking the same sort of strung-out from nerves that Ray had been feeling yesterday.
"Morning," Ray said, coming over and sitting down on the edge of Vecchio's desk.
"Morning," Vecchio returned, sounding surprised more than anything.
"So Fraser, he said he'd work it case-by-case," Ray said. "Whoever wanted the help, that kinda thing." Vecchio just sat there, nodding a little, and Ray had it figured out by now that a healthy happy Vecchio was expansive, maybe loud, maybe mocking, whatever, and that Vecchio sitting there quiet was not a good sign. Yeah, and probably it wasn't a good sign that Ray had the physical-indicators-of-emotion thing all catalogued with Vecchio the way he did with Fraser and Stella, but Ray was already walking down this road and maybe Fraser was back now but that didn't mean this new road, metaphor, whatever, was just going to vanish. Ray tapped his fingers on the desk and added, "I got nothing big right now. You probably got a bigger pile of the unsolved ones. You want him first, go for it."
"Yeah, sure," Vecchio said, and gave this great gusting sigh, which, cool, at least he was showing emotion again. "This is really screwed up, Kowalski."
"Like having joint custody," Ray agreed, and tried a grin; it actually worked for a minute, even if it was just a flash. "Only, hey, no divorce procedures first. Woo-hoo!"
"You're completely nuts, Stanley," Vecchio said, grinning back, and there, there it was again, everything he felt right out on his face, like a two-by-four straight to Ray's head, because Ray had lived with Fraser the Stoic Mountie for three goddamn years and he didn't know what to do with this. He'd thought he and Vecchio were not good, not buddies, and all of a sudden Vecchio was giving him this open grin, and it had the same this-is-your-new-magnetic-center-of-gravity quality to it that being around Fraser had. Ray found himself leaning helplessly into it, arm braced hard against the desk; he was about two inches from Vecchio's mouth when he realized what was going on.
They both jerked back. The worst part was Ray wasn't the only one breathing hard.
"Don't do that," Ray muttered. "Do not do that!"
"Yeah, next time I'll try to not talk or somethin'," Vecchio snapped. "Jesus, Kowalski." A pause. "Get off my desk."
Ray got the hell off Vecchio's desk.
He spent the rest of the morning making friends with the never-ending paperwork.
Fraser turned up around noon; he went to Ray's desk first, probably because it was closer to the door. "Afternoon, Ray."
"Hey," Ray said. "I got nothing outstanding or weird yet. Try Vecchio."
"I shall, Ray," Fraser said, and sort of bumped his hand against the shoulder of Ray's jacket as he went past, leaving Ray all tingling and a little shaky. He had a good seat to watch, too, his back to the door and facing the whole bullpen; Fraser went over to Vecchio, and Vecchio looked up with theatrical surprise, like he hadn't known the hot second Fraser had come through that door.
"Hey, Benny," he said. "Shift over?"
"That it is, Ray," said Fraser, who was standing -- yeah, right up in Vecchio's space, like he couldn't escape the magnetic whatever any more than Ray could. Ray remembered something about that from high school science class, something about how magnets with the same charge couldn't get near each other, but high school science had been wrong, because Ray was the one pinging off the walls over here, while Fraser and Vecchio were just standing there, easy as anything. "I was hoping I might make myself useful."
"I have some outstanding thefts from about a week ago," Vecchio said. "Wanna go make inquiries?"
"That sounds very good, Ray," Fraser said, and waited politely while Vecchio got his jacket. Then they were going to the door, moving like they were sure of things, like they were the one-two punch. "Goodbye, Ray," Fraser said over his shoulder, and Vecchio said, "Yeah, see ya, Stanley," and they were gone, leaving Ray sitting there feeling like all the air had gone out of the room with them.
Something queer, he thought vaguely, the way Fraser could say Ray and Ray and Ray didn't even know if he was saying them with particular inflections or anything, but he could still hear the difference.
Of course with Fraser back Ray's life went right out of normal-people-problems territory and into the surreal, which was how he found himself that evening sitting in a sticky bright-red diner booth, Fraser's serge clashing horribly with everything, Fraser and Vecchio wedged together in the booth seat opposite, Vecchio laughing his head off and Fraser chuckling a bit while they told Ray about their day.
"So she wanted to sew all the handbags back together and make a, a, what was it, Fraser, a reverse alligator?" Vecchio giggled and wiped his eyes.
"Now, Ray, Ms. Miller honestly believed that she had stumbled upon a supernatural method of restoring life to a wronged creature," Fraser said seriously, but the corners of his mouth were curving upwards a little, like he couldn't quite help himself. "And she was admirably methodical; I haven't had time to investigate thoroughly, but it does seem that all the handbags she stole were, indeed, from the same alligator."
"Crazy animal rights people, huh," Vecchio said.
"So she got six months and a therapist or what?" Ray asked, prodding a fry against the edge of his plate.
"We did apprehend her before she had time to complete the, ah, alligator restoration ritual," Fraser pointed out. "Were it genuine, a therapist would not be required, although obviously an alligator loose in Chicago would present a new host of problems."
"I bet they live in the sewers anyway," Vecchio said, his eyebrows telegraphing to Ray, That Fraser, he's a nutcase sometimes.
"I thought that was New York," Ray said, and didn't try telegraphing anything back because one, Fraser could see him, and also hell if he was gonna commiserate with Vecchio about Fraser's weirdness.
"Pure hearsay, but possibly worth looking into," Fraser said. "And how was your day, Ray?"
"Boring. Paperwork. I kinda miss the alligators."
"Yes," Fraser said, with this little frown line, and looked between Vecchio and Ray. Ray saw him starting to wonder why maybe the three of them couldn't work together; Ray could almost hear the unorthodox, but and the effective teamwork, and he knew that Fraser would work his Fraser magic and make it sound like a good idea. But it wasn't, not when Ray and Vecchio were all over him like every other sucker in Chicago, not when he played totally fucking oblivious to this and also had that same problem Ray did, the one where he'd never been much good at having friends and all the lines of affection got real blurred, not when he had no idea all the screwed-up things that were going on between Ray and Vecchio. Get the three of them working together, and someone was gonna end up distracted or angry or dead.
Ray looked over at Vecchio, to see if he'd noticed the little cogs turning away in Fraser's brain. Help.
Vecchio gave a curt nod. He stole a fry from Ray's plate and announced, "Okay, I'm beat. Move, Benny."
"But we haven't --" Fraser protested, and Ray said over him, "No, yeah, I'm tired too, Frase, let's get you home."
They were up then, him and Vecchio splitting the bill and getting Fraser outside, into the GTO, Vecchio saying, "See ya tomorrow," and beating it, all quick and easy with no talk, like a dance. Ray slid into the driver's seat feeling funny, feeling like music. He stared at the ignition for a long moment before actually starting up.
Fraser waited until they were well away from the diner and jammed into evening traffic before he spoke, so he was either giving Ray a moment to get it together or he'd been biding his time for an ambush. Maybe both. "Ray," he said, "why are you and Ray so reluctant to work together?"
"It's, uh, it's," Ray said, and hit on a brilliant word. "It's logical, Fraser. Partners you can do, partners is good -- you watch each other's backs and it all works out. You can't do that if you're watching two backs all the time, right? The whatsits don't work. The, uh. Trying to keep track of a lot of stuff, you miss something important and you get hurt, or you're protecting your partner and you think, oh, hey, I got another one, I wonder how he's doing --"
"Logistics," Fraser said.
"The logistics don't work," Fraser repeated. "I see your point, Ray."
"Oh, yeah," said Ray. The light changed color and he gunned it until he came up to the next wave of traffic and slowed back to a crawl. "Yeah, you sound convinced there, Fraser."
"Well, I simply think that given the right set of people, a team can work as well as a partnership --"
"Three's a crowd, Frase."
"Ray, listen to me," Fraser said, and he actually sounded angry now, the kind of Fraser-angry that meant Ray would have to sit this through. He nodded, and saw out of the corner of his eye that Fraser was relaxing, just a little. He still used his unwavering, This Is Fact voice when he next spoke, but at least he wasn't pissed off. "I think," said Fraser, "that you and Ray work together very effectively. Your case reports reflect it, but I also witnessed it not ten minutes ago. I don't mind saying I find it ironic that you should work so well together in order to not work together." Ray opened his mouth, and Fraser said firmly, "Furthermore, I know from firsthand experience that my partnerships with both of you have been productive and satisfying. It is of course possible that the logistics will present as many difficulties as you suggest, but I still believe it to be well worth trying."
Ray nodded, had started nodding about halfway through and just kept on, this funny jerky little movement, because he knew what Fraser was saying, and it sounded good, but it was like -- like icebergs, like Fraser saw the part that was sticking out of the water and liked it, but underneath there was this huge dangerous thing he couldn't even see; underneath Ray had this weird maybe-not-irrational fear that he was going to stick his tongue down Vecchio's throat without warning, Ray spent every minute of every goddamn day choking back all these stupid words he wanted to say to Fraser, Ray didn't have any fucking idea how to even start to reconcile these two facts. He gripped the steering wheel really tight and swung around the corner into his own neighborhood, the apartment starting to loom up before them.
"I know," Ray said. "I -- I can't, Frase, I can't do it."
Fraser stayed quiet while Ray parallel parked the GTO, right by the apartment's front door in a spot that was usually taken. Ray shut off the engine.
"Ray," Fraser said into the silence, sounding as torn-up as Ray had ever heard him, "I don't want to choose."
And there it was, five little words Fraser could have said instead of a whole speech, and even though Ray'd heard it the first time, hearing it like that, just quiet and simple and brutally stripped down, made his throat close right up. "Yeah," Ray whispered. "Yeah, I -- okay. I got it. Yeah." He got out of the GTO, fumbling a little, and had to wait for a minute, standing there shaking, before Fraser got out too and he could lock it up.
Fraser looked at him over the roof of the car, and Ray got that been-here-before feeling, the déjà vu thing, except last time his lips had been buzzing and Vecchio'd been doing just as much twitchy moving around as him, and this time Fraser hadn't even bumped up against his arm in hours, and if the look was the same, if Fraser was giving him that you're a freak but I still care look, then Ray -- god, Ray had no idea what any of it was supposed to mean anymore.
He let Fraser into his apartment, feeling like one of those bouncing-away magnets, trying to get close but completely incapable. Fraser went over to the couch, dug a little notebook out of his duffle, and started writing. In Fraser-land that was really impolite, so Ray took the hint, and went to bed without a word.
Fraser didn't make him coffee. Ray made it himself, and put like a whole bag of Smarties in, and drove Fraser over to the Consulate jittery and wired and absolutely quiet. It wasn't that they Weren't Talking, but wow, they were not talking.
Which would have been bad enough, but Ray got into the station and right away Vecchio was right there, grabbing Ray's elbow and dragging him into the lunch room. Ray dug in his heels a little from sheer panic, because they'd been pretty much okay last night and now Vecchio looked like he wanted to kill him, but when the door swung shut behind Ray, Vecchio let go of him and said without preamble, "Johnson's escaped."
Sharper jolt than a kick in the head. Ray stood stunned for a moment. "He's escaped prison?"
"Yeah," Vecchio said, looking tired and angry and a million other reflections of Ray. "I mean, maybe we cut corners, maybe we missed accomplices --"
"Jeez, who cares about accomplices," Ray snapped; "It's not like he was on parole, Vecchio, he was in prison!"
"Yeah, shut up," Vecchio said, and looked so miserable that Ray raised his hands, impatient surrender. "I guess," said Vecchio, "I mean, I don't think we overlooked anyone. He's never been picked up for anything serious before."
"There weren't -- Mort didn't find any other --?" Ray asked. Everything was ringing a little; it had been case closed, case fucking closed, and if they'd missed something ...
"Nah, nah," Vecchio said, "The prints were Johnson's." He rubbed at the back of his neck and calmed down visibly, but it didn't do much for Ray's state of mind. "We got to find out who his friends are, anyone with a record -- someone who might've helped him get out of that assault charge he had ..."
Ray started nodding, but what actually came out of his mouth was, "This in our jurisdiction?"
Vecchio stared at him.
Ray grit his teeth. "Okay, I wanna catch him, yeah, I wanna catch him, and we'll be a lot better than those idiots that let him escape, but this is tracking, this is --"
"Fraser's," Vecchio finished for him. "We need Fraser on this."
"Yeah." Ray pressed his knuckles to his mouth, moved away; the room was too small. "Okay, what seriously shitty karmic thing have we done?"
"I don't know," Vecchio said. "Kowalski --"
Ray whirled and glared at him. "Save it. Just fucking save it. We are going to do this thing because we have to, and then we are back to the plan."
Vecchio looked like he wanted to argue, but all he actually did was go quiet. "Fine," he said. "I'll look through the records."
"Fine," Ray said back. "I'll go get Fraser."
He stormed right back out of the station and then sat in the GTO for a few minutes, insulated in windows and doors. This was just a thing that had to be done. He thought of Jenny Knight, and thought, yeah, they were gonna see this through.
"Don't say anything," Ray told Fraser when he opened the Consulate door. Fraser's eyes went the sort of wide and innocent that meant he was about to say something, which, forbidden here, so Ray pointed a finger at him. "Zip. I mean it. We got a case."
"Ray, I --" Fraser said.
"No, shut up. You read about it, right, the Knight case? Johnson escaped the big house and we gotta get him back. Me and Vecchio. But you're coming too, okay, we want you to help with that tracking thing you do."
Fraser's hand curled a little on the doorframe. "We, Ray?" he asked gently.
"Don't, Fraser." Ray stared at Fraser's hand and then at his face, and Fraser, because he was a total bastard, didn't look accusatory or even satisfied. He was just ... waiting. "Do not make me do this."
Fraser stood there a moment longer, absolutely still; then he nodded. "One moment; I need to fetch my hat."
"I'll be in the car," Ray said, and they left the door in opposite directions. He slammed his way into the GTO and pressed his head against the steering wheel. He wondered dumb things like whose car they were going to take, where any of them would sit. How long before he blurted something stupid to Fraser, making Vecchio hate him forever and Fraser be polite and distant forever, how --
Ray jerked his head up. "Yeah! Hi."
"Shall we go?" Fraser asked, sliding into the passenger seat.
"Yeah," Ray said again. Ignition.
"I'm pleased to be working a case with you again," Fraser said quietly. It wasn't an apology, but it was -- something. And Fraser wasn't the one here who needed to be doing the apologizing.
Ray gripped the steering wheel tight. "Me too, Frase," he said. "Me too."
They checked Johnson's old apartment first. The landlord was a guy who set Ray's teeth right on edge, and he was getting ready for a fight, could feel Vecchio getting ready for a fight next to him, when Fraser just stepped smoothly forward and started asking the polite questions. A year had taught Ray to trust Fraser's instincts all the time, not just on the days he had the patience for it, so he backed down -- and Vecchio did too.
It happened again when they followed the one address the landlord had given them that wasn't an obvious lie, this old guy down at the corner market. He was more willing to talk -- didn't seem thrilled at the news Johnson was out -- so Ray left Fraser to it and went to hang on the corner, to put a little distance between him and Fraser and Vecchio, who wasn't doing the Langustini voice or stance or anything, was just hovering over Fraser's shoulder and watching like he was fucking starved for it.
Ray did not slam his way out, because it would make the bell jingle; Ray shut the flimsy Plexiglas door as gently as possible and leaned back on the brickwork, hands jammed in his pockets. Traffic. Sirens. He tilted his head up and squinted at the sky, a sort of cottony gray that didn't look like it would ever allow for the deep, upside-down-bowl, almost scary blue the tundra got sometimes. But the buildings -- the buildings here shoved up against the sky, shoring it the way the peaks of the Mackenzies did, and for a moment -- a moment, nothing to write home about, wherever that was -- Ray felt still, Canada silence still, of course I'll be coming back down to Chicago still, maybe it ain't all about you still. Then Ray breathed and the sirens came back and the world was still just as screwy as it had been before, but he could make himself go back inside.
"Thank you kindly," Fraser was saying behind the jingle of the bell. Ray sidled over. "Ah, Ray. Our next stop, as I understand it, is at a waste management facility --"
Vecchio shot Ray a look that probably said Save the Armani! If people felt about whales the way Vecchio looked now about his clothes, Fraser would never have to worry about the fate of the narwhals again.
"You take the back, then," he told Vecchio. Muttered, "Yeah. Style pig."
"Have fun playing in the trash, Stanley," Vecchio shot back, breezing out the door.
"Thank you for your time," Fraser told the market guy, and went with Ray out the door, frowning. "Ray, are you --?"
"It's good, Frase," Ray said, glancing over at Vecchio, who was up at the car already, looking like he was trying to figure out the best place to hide from any potential garbage. "We're cool."
"Ah," said Fraser; his eyes went back and forth between them, and a faint frown line appeared, like he was starting to puzzle it out. Ray's mind raced silently through all the panicked swearwords he knew; he hustled Fraser into the GTO.
Garbage dump: stank like crazy, squelched a little. Vecchio didn't actually stay in the car; he picked his way carefully around stuff, while Ray tried to pick his way around stuff too without being obvious, and Fraser strode around looking like Dief after a scent. A year of Fraser trying to teach him tracking had completely failed, mostly on the grounds that he sure as hell wasn't gonna lick anything; but Fraser looked just as confident, just as clear-sighted, here in the middle of a Chicago waste fucking management facility as he'd done in the Yukon. Buildings and mountains, old mattresses and new snow. Ray and Vecchio watched Fraser, waited, both of them starting to fidget a little, and finally Fraser came back.
"Mr. White's information was correct," Fraser told them. "Michael Johnson has been dumping anything identifying his whereabouts directly into this area, probably in the hopes of leaving no trace of his location."
"So he's probably still staying in the same place," Ray said.
"Indeed. Now, I was able to procure this label -- a hotel --" He handed the label to Vecchio for inspection.
"I know this place," Vecchio said. "Southside. Want directions, Kowalski?"
"Trick question?" Ray returned. Vecchio smiled a crooked half-smile weirdly like Fraser's and gave directions while they headed back to the car. It'd be a good fifteen minutes on the freeway. Fifteen minutes in a tight space with both of them.
Second they hit the road, Vecchio turned halfway around in his seat and started talking away with Fraser in the back. "Speaking of hotels, Fraser, you gonna try to move back into that dump on West Racine?"
"Ah," said Fraser. "I'm afraid it was burned down."
"Yes, Ray. By a performance arsonist."
"Oh yeah, that's the -- Ma said the house got a bit scorched. Same guy?"
"Woman," said Fraser. About then Ray broke in, because telling the story of Ray Kowalski's First Day With The Mountie was way preferable to just listening to Vecchio and Fraser chatting away. So he told it, car chase and rubber ducks and all, let Vecchio chew him out about the Riv yet again, felt himself starting to relax, felt himself tense right back up when Fraser said, "Now, Ray, it can hardly be Ray's fault he had no idea you were so very attached to that particular car."
"Forget it, forget it," Vecchio said, actually laughing a little. "So Racine's out. Where'd you live after that?"
"The Consulate," Fraser said, quite naturally, but Vecchio made some aborted violent motion with his hands and shoulders, and when Ray glanced sideways, Vecchio was glaring at both of them.
"You just stayed in Canada?" Vecchio demanded, and put like that -- put like that, Fraser had spent two years crammed in a box and Ray had assumed it was just one of those freakish things he did, but Vecchio made it sound awful, not like a normal Fraser thing to do. Ray's hands curled tighter on the steering wheel. Number of things he did not actually know about Fraser: rising.
"It was an entirely sensible and fiscally responsible move, Ray," Fraser was saying, polysyllabic and faintly annoyed. So Vecchio was right to be upset.
"Fine, Benny. But this time you're gonna get a real place to live. Right, Kowalski?"
Ray did not say, Do not drag me into this. Ray did not say, Shut the hell up; he's fine at my place. Ray said, "Right."
"Certainly, Ray," Fraser said equitably.
"Good," Vecchio said, and started talking about something else. Ray didn't know what. He probably said words, or maybe didn't, but he thought about Fraser's little room in the Canadian Consulate, thought about boundless snow, and didn't know what to think.
When they got to the hotel, Fraser tried to go in first.
Vecchio seized his shoulder and Ray shot him a glare and Fraser glanced between them again, then nodded and backed up so the guys with guns could do their thing. That went smooth -- less argument than Ray might've expected from Fraser, actually -- but already his heart was revved up in anticipation of something; logistics, that was the word, logistics, two backs to watch.
"Ray," Fraser whispered. They both looked at him; he gestured, a tap on the side of his nose and thumb jerked backwards, Someone should cover the back. And Ray was all over that; a quick glance told him Vecchio was all over looking out for Fraser's stupid Mountie ass, so Ray got going. Only back here to watch was his own.
There wasn't a back door into the hotel room, just a dinky window with a moth-eaten once-white curtain. Ray crouched next to it, breathed in, breathed out, didn't switch off the safety. He heard the front door bang open, heard Vecchio -- "Freeze, Chicago PD!" -- heard a bang and another and a scrabbling at the window.
It was Johnson all right, because he and Vecchio could slog through a case for a week and maybe catch the perp, but give Fraser a free afternoon and the scumbag all but dropped right into Ray's lap. Dropped out the window, anyway, without seeing Ray, and Ray stepped forward to press the barrel of his gun to Johnson's head. "Hey," he said, real quiet. "Freeze."
Ray didn't have any free hands for handcuffs. "Drop the gun," he said. "Drop it," and now, now was not the time to start shaking, now was not the time to remember how Jenny Knight had looked in the morgue, now was not the time for every single millisecond to last a goddamn year before Vecchio shoved his head and shoulders out the window, gun held out, and yelled, "You heard the man, drop your gun!"
Johnson did the smart thing and dropped it.
Fraser pushed past Vecchio and came down neatly to his feet in front of Johnson. "Cuffs, Ray?" he said. Vecchio passed them over. "Thank you kindly," Fraser said, and smiled at Ray over Johnson's shoulder. Ray nodded a little, waited until the cuffs clicked into place, and read Johnson his rights again, even though he'd already heard them, even though he didn't deserve them, and by the end Ray was able to click the safety back on his gun.
Vecchio came out the window a little less gracefully, clapped Ray on the shoulder and took Johnson's right arm while Fraser took his left. He caught Vecchio's eye for a moment, accidental, and Vecchio looked just as adrenaline-shot, just as totally overwhelmed by how fucking easy this was, just as -- thrilled, panicked, yeah.
Then he turned away with Fraser, dragging Johnson along; they went for the GTO, Ray following. Ray following, trying not to watch the way they moved, not to see Jenny Knight behind his eyes, trying to keep the shakes down, trying to think of glaciers and the L and anything, anything besides how he could get used to this.
Ray didn't really sleep that night. Instead his brain replayed, on endless sadistic loop, the photo fragments of scenes. The brilliance of Fraser's smile in the corridor of a ritzy hotel with Armando Langustini on the other side of the door, no admittance. Some half-forgotten night spent shuffling around to Stella music and noticing the shocking absence of ache in his own chest. The clear green of Vecchio's eyes. The two of them, walking. Ray spent a lot of time pummeling the pillow, but it didn't make much difference.
In the morning he let Fraser put a single spooned pile of sugar in his coffee. Drove him to the Consulate. The not talking was just not talking, the quiet preparation of the day. On the curb Ray leaned over and said, "Bye, Fraser;" when Fraser smiled back to say his own goodbyes, Ray's heart cracked a little more, like it'd been doing since the day Fraser had seen him off to Chicago on the tarmac.
He drove away.
The second Ray got into the station, he went over to Vecchio's desk and practically grabbed Vecchio by the collar to drag him into the supply closet. Vecchio said things like, "Hey, whaddya doin', whaddya doin'?" but he went. He slammed the door behind them, and Vecchio clicked on the little bare bulb overhead, turning the anonymous dark into a little green space full of paper and shelves. Vecchio looked puzzled but not angry. "What the hell was that, Stanley?"
"You got him," Ray said without preamble. "I'm done."
Vecchio looked completely floored. "What -- what the hell happened?"
Ray took a deep breath, and it came in embarrassingly shaky. "I cannot do this."
"This," Vecchio repeated flatly. Like Ray meant the damn closet or something.
"This -- custody thing," Ray said. "The pretending. The -- Okay. The other day. After the diner. Fraser said, I don't want to choose."
"Oh," Vecchio said. His eyes went wide. "Jesus, he actually said that? Like, it wasn't in Fraser-code, you didn't just figure out he maybe meant --"
"No, no." Ray jittered a little and tried to lean back, but the shelves just poked into his spine. "No, he did that first, he did this whole speech about teamwork and logistics and shit like that, and then he just -- he said it, he just said it."
"Jesus," Vecchio said again. He fiddled with a cuff and frowned, crossed his arms, uncrossed them, said, "So what do we do?" like he was thinking yesterday, Johnson, maybe it wasn't a fluke.
No. There was no way.
"You do nothing," Ray told him. "I'm done, I'm out, he's your partner. You had him first."
"What," Vecchio said, and had the nerve to actually sound angry about this, like he didn't know what it cost Ray to say that. "Jesus, Kowalski, of all the idiotic things -- I had him first?"
"Yeah," Ray snapped. "And, you know, most people, when they don't see each other a couple of years? It gets weird, it gets off, maybe you never find the rhythm again. But you two, I've been watching, and you still got it. You still got it down to goddamn telepathy almost, it's scary. So you win and I'm done."
"Kowalski," Vecchio said, and Ray was learning to recognize that voice. It was the quiet one like he'd used that night in the Riv, like nothing he'd ever heard before because Stella'd never sounded like this, and it scared the hell out of him. He looked at Vecchio anyway, and there was the face to match; Vecchio had upgraded him from you're a freak to you're an idiot, but the qualifier was still there, the never gonna matter bit. "You ever try lookin' in a mirror?" Vecchio asked. "You and Benny would probably need a freaking crowbar to pry you apart."
"That's --" Ray started, and the stupid died before it left his mouth, because it had freaked him out a little, how he and Fraser had been in the same space here and not constantly touching. "Uh," Ray said.
"I'm thinkin', if you really don't want to be his partner you can probably do it," Vecchio said, "but you'd have to do it far away, and I just might break your face on the way out for hurting him."
"I can't --" Leave. Do this. Ray pressed a fist to his forehead and muttered, "Okay, yeah, what do we do?"
"I was considering the possibility of maybe panicking a lot," Vecchio said, a little wryly, "and also of staying in this closet for the next ever."
"I hope you mean the supply closet," Ray said, peering at Vecchio over his knuckles, "cuz otherwise I'd have to break your face. For, y'know, bad puns or whatever."
"Supply closet," Vecchio confirmed, and tried the leaning-on-the-shelves thing too, but maybe they wrinkled his suit or something because he gave up on that pretty fast. "Anyway it's Fraser-specific," he added, very, very casually.
"Oh yeah," Ray agreed, feeling like he might start doing something hysterical at any second. "I like women. It is a Fraser-specific thing."
"Yeah, definitely," Vecchio said, which was great, which meant they had established something important here, which meant that a moment later Vecchio's hands were gripping Ray's hair and Ray's hands were shoved up inside Vecchio's suit jacket and they were kissing the way Ray had never, never done before. It was kissing like a goddamn fist fight. It was not like kissing Stella on the way to makeup sex after a shouting match; it was easier than that, a different charge. Vecchio still tasted a little like good wine, so maybe he was just like that, and a little like blood, which was unsurprising because they were kissing messy, their teeth getting in the way in all the urgency, and it was great. A few seconds and Ray was being backed into the shelving, a board digging into his lower back, which for whatever reason was pretty great too. He started tugging at Vecchio's dress shirt, because skin, skin was also greatness, he wanted --
And Vecchio pulled back, wide-eyed and panting with all his designer clothes skewed.
"Oh wow," Ray said weakly, clutching at the shelf behind him.
"What are we gonna do?" Vecchio said again, plaintive and panicky.
"Hey, Frase," Ray said, rehearsing. But that was ridiculous; he sounded like he'd been kissed within an inch of his life, and Vecchio was a mess, so if Fraser decided to come into the station right now with a craving for paperclips, there really wouldn't be a lot of background-type explaining they'd need to do. "Hey, Frase, we --" We were in a supply closet, kissing like maniacs, maybe gonna have sex, hell if I know. "Vecchio," Ray said. "Vecchio, this, this thing, this is not about Fraser."
"Yes it is," Vecchio said back, the panic ratcheting up a notch.
"Yeah?" Ray said, and got his stance fixed up the best he could, fighting-ready, because it made him feel a bit less panicky himself. "So that right there, you're telling me in your head you were going 'oh hey, I wish this was Fraser'?"
"Hey, maybe I wasn't thinking at all," Vecchio snapped.
"Ooh, thanks," Ray said, giving Vecchio a tight grin that wasn't supposed to get an answer. "But I know in my head I was not thinking 'I wish this was Fraser'."
"What, then?" The question came out a scratchy whisper.
"I don't know," Ray said, which was no answer at all. "Probably 'hey, that's great, keep doing it'."
Vecchio gave this little barking laugh, more than half misery, the top of his head shiny under the closet light bulb and his clothes still all wrinkled and pulled, and just like that all the mixed-up fucked-up confusion inside Ray shook itself out into a pattern he understood. Whatever he saw in Vecchio's face, in those tiny moments, the you're a freak but it doesn't matter, that did have something to do with Fraser. It was the same thing. Fraser was a freak and it was never gonna matter; Vecchio, in his own suave mafia way, was kind of a freak too, and Ray was starting to think that it was never gonna matter either. And Ray had dealt with worse than this -- he'd spent years trying to convince Stella it was worth it when she probably hadn't really loved him since high school. Convincing Vecchio, that should be easy, because Ray actually had things to work with here.
Ray shuffled a step forward and sort of thumbed Vecchio's lapels. Vecchio stared at Ray's hands for a minute, then back up at Ray's face. Ray said: "Hell if I know why, but this is specifically about you, okay?"
"Okay," Vecchio said, sort of like he was accepting that the posted speed limit was fact, but not that he had to like it. "And again, Kowalski, what are we gonna do?"
Ray held on a little tighter. "About Fraser?"
"Yeah, about Fraser."
"Right, yeah," Ray said. He let go of Vecchio's jacket and balled his hands up into fists. Then he said maybe the two scariest words he'd ever said in his life. "Tell him."
Canada was probably as close to neutral territory as they were going to get. There was no way they were waiting until Fraser's shift was over, and there was no way Ray was gonna let Vecchio drive right now, so they took the GTO. Vecchio moved around in his seat, never really managing to stay still, and after a while said, "What are we going to tell him?"
"I don't know," Ray said. "The truth, I guess. We improvise."
"Fine," Vecchio said. "So what's the truth?"
Bastard was gonna make him rehearse, Ray realized. Fine. Nothing could possibly be worse than that final year with Stella, trying to force out the words. "The truth," Ray said, "the truth, the truth is, I -- I woke up one morning, I went through my day, I got a call from my mom, she said, 'Hi, Ray, Stella's told me about her new boyfriend,' and I ... didn't feel it. Hey, Mom, that's cool, how are things with Dad? And it wasn't other girls -- I'd tried other girls, and all of 'em had the blonde hair and blue eyes and ended hating me." He thumped the steering wheel. "This isn't working."
"It's three words," Vecchio said, in this voice Ray didn't get at all, and when he glanced over, Vecchio was giving him this kind of stunned look, like Ray'd been saying real things after all.
"I know it is," Ray told him. Eyes to the road. Two more blocks; stoplight on green; one block. "And you know what, I've said 'em, I've said 'em a hundred times and every single time he says it back, he says I love you too Ray like he's thanking you for passing the salt --" He slammed on the brakes. "Okay, everyone out, welcome to Canada."
Vecchio just stayed where he was, staring at Ray. "Jesus Christ, Kowalski, what?"
"I don't know, I do not know, I just started saying it and he probably thinks I'm being nice." Ray got out of the car and had to lean on it for a moment, because somehow his life had become shuttling around a panicking Italian so they could visit an oblivious Mountie, and if Ray had to spend one more second being the emotionally articulate one, he was gonna kick something hard. He banged on the roof. "Out, Vecchio!"
Step one to not kicking something hard was to let Vecchio go first, and knock on the Consulate door. Then they had a few moments to fidget and second-guess things before Fraser opened the door, all done up in the red serge but without his Stetson. "Ray!" he said in some surprise. "Ray! Is something afoot?"
"'Is something afoot'," Vecchio muttered. "Yeah, in a manner of speaking. Let us in."
"Certainly," Fraser said, stepping aside. "Welcome back to Canada."
"We're not interrupting?" Ray asked, maybe a little bit because he was stalling but mostly because asking that sort of question was another thing three years of Benton Fraser could do to a guy.
"Not at all," Fraser assured him, ushering them both in. "In fact my only present task is to bake a cake for the new inspector. I was considering the crossword, but I'm sure your company will prove better." He shut the door and looked a little anxiously between them in the relative dimness of the hall. "I assume this is not an official visit, since you mentioned, Ray, that you would prefer to no longer work with Ray."
"Yeah, that's --" Ray started, and Vecchio said, "That's what we're here about."
"Ah," said Fraser, and then, of all ridiculous things, darted a concerned glance at the portrait of the Queen above the stairs. "If you might follow me into the kitchen?"
So they followed Fraser to the kitchen. Vecchio leaned back against the counter with his arms folded, which Ray had meant to do, but since Vecchio got there first he sat down in the kitchen's singular chair, turned it backwards so his arms were resting on the back and he could slouch forward. Fraser hadn't been kidding about the cake; he had the oven turned up to 350 and a bowl full of gooey cake ingredients from scratch. Open cookbook with a neat bookmark in it and not a single pile of flour anywhere. Fraser gave the contents of the bowl a cursory stir, then started pouring the whole thing into a cake pan with studied meticulousness. On anyone else it would've been obvious and petty, but on Fraser it was really damn careful, and like ten minutes ago in the supply closet Ray had another moment where it fell into patterns.
Fraser got it. Fraser absolutely one hundred per cent got what was going on here.
"So," Ray said, the minute the cake pan was in the oven and Fraser had run out of things to do with his hands, "me and Vecchio were doing this crazy kissing thing right before we came over. It happened last week too."
Vecchio jerked upright and made a choked sound of horrified protest, but Fraser just carefully wiped his hands on a towel and said, "Yes, I can see how that might create concerns in the question of professional partnership."
"Yeah, therefore me the other night," Ray said, nodding. They seemed to be doing good so far in this conversational ice field.
"Okay, Kowalski is tellin' it wrong," Vecchio said. "We're not here to tell you why we can't partner up. We're here to ..." He folded his arms again, and for a second Ray thought he was gonna take refuge in Langustini, which would have been the worst thing possible; but Vecchio just said, "Uh, confess," which was a dumb way of putting it, but basically accurate.
"Ray," Fraser said, a faint frown line appearing, "what you and Ray choose to do in private is certainly not something that merits confession --"
"Okay, Vecchio's telling it wrong," Ray interrupted. Vecchio shot him a look that said Jesus, don't help! but Ray ignored him. "What I was saying, it was not a confession, it was a -- a thing, a lead-up to a thing."
"The thing being both of us are crazy about you, Fraser," Vecchio said, and -- wow. Wow. Ray sat there, kind of feeling like he'd asked Vecchio to pull off a Band-Aid slowly and instead it'd been ripped away, that's how direct it was.
"Ah," Fraser said, and set the hand towel aside in a crumpled heap.
"That's it?" Vecchio asked. "That's it? 'Ah'?" He couldn't keep still, did something theatrical and Italian with his hands while Ray hung onto the stupid kitchen chair for dear life and tried to keep breathing. "So," Vecchio said, "is it 'ah' like 'ah, I'm sorry, I got enough of this bullshit from your sister and somehow in all the years I've been alive and gorgeous I've never figured out how to say no,' or is it 'ah, I'm glad someone said something because I'm too damn saintly to worry about me but I actually like the idea of you being crazy about me,' or --"
"Ray," Fraser said, and Vecchio stopped, sort of quivering. Fraser tugged nervously at his ear and went on, really quiet, "I thought it -- imprudent -- to change the pattern of something good."
"I think that's option two," Ray said. "Vecchio? You think that's option two?"
"Yeah, I think that might not be a 'no'," Vecchio agreed.
"But if a routine no longer works --" Fraser said earnestly, and stopped mid-sentence, took a deep breath. "It's not a no, Ray."
"Right, okay," Vecchio said, and actually glanced over at Ray like he was asking for permission, which was fucked up on a lot of levels and made Ray feel weirdly warm. Ray just gave Vecchio the you gotta be kidding me look, and Vecchio nodded.
This next part, Ray wasn't sure he wanted to see. It involved Vecchio going up to Fraser slow and careful, like Fraser was half-wild, which might've been accurate, since Fraser was standing there wide-eyed and frozen. Then Vecchio's hands came up and slid tentatively over Fraser's shoulders, and Ray saw it, saw something in Fraser just snap, because all of a sudden Fraser was all over Vecchio, Vecchio was more or less in Fraser's arms and they were kissing like they needed it to live. Ray started heating up, toes to crazy hair; part of it was a weird equal-division jealousy, part of it was this strong conviction that he was witnessing something really personal and private and important and it was gonna feel weird whether or not he had any right to see it, part of it was straight-up lust. After a moment he had to look away and just try to breathe, and a moment after that he had to look back, because Vecchio was making these soft desperate noises and him kissing Fraser was maybe the most fascinating thing Ray'd ever seen in his life.
They pulled apart slowly -- magnets that didn't want to let go -- and Ray saw Vecchio's face was just alight, like he'd found the meaning of life or something. Fraser, though, Fraser was shaking, actually visibly shaking, and though the look on his face was vivid, Ray couldn't tell if it was anything like happy.
"Hey, Benny, it's okay," Vecchio said then, really soft and gentle, and it hit Ray, wham, this double revelation. One, he knew, absolutely clear to the last detail, why Stella and Vecchio hadn't worked out: she'd gotten annoyed, and he'd used that voice on her one too many times, and she'd had enough, because Stella Kowalski hated being coddled and patronized. Two, Ray also knew that this voice Vecchio was using, it was not a voice that said it's okay, the big strong man has everything under control now; this was a voice that said hell if I know what I'm doing, but I'm gonna try because I care about you more than anything in the world. So that was it, that was officially the end of Ray Kowalski's unofficial career making time being ticked off at Vecchio.
"Yes, I," Fraser said, and glanced almost involuntarily over at Ray. That hit Ray too, the urgency with which Fraser was looking at him, and Ray'd maybe got echoes of that look before but never the real thing. He was up from his chair in a hot second, and Fraser, in typical Fraser style, went out of Vecchio's space and into Ray's without looking like he'd done anything at all.
So suddenly Ray had an armful of Fraser.
Suddenly Ray had an armful of Fraser kissing him, and it was like nothing, nothing Ray'd ever felt. Fraser kissed with absolute assurance, and kissed like Ray was something he already knew inside-out; he pressed his tongue to Ray's in a way that made Ray whine and shimmy up against him, pressed his hands to the small of Ray's back so their hips rocked together and Ray saw stars, an honest-to-god shock overload in bright lights behind his eyes. Fraser was solid as anything, and still shaking a little, like a tree in high wind. Ray hung onto him for dear life and tried not to actually think about the fact he was specifically kissing Benton Fraser, or he was gonna completely lose it.
Then a second pair of hands slid over his hips, tentative and determined -- Vecchio. Ray jerked a little, less from surprise than from the sheer shock of how amazingly good just Vecchio's hands resting on his hips felt. Then Vecchio stepped forward, full-length up against Ray, and kissed the back of his neck; and somehow that, that, set Ray shaking too, not fear and not really shock anymore either, just need.
He pulled back from Fraser's mouth -- maybe the hardest thing he'd ever done, in a day of difficult things -- and "Ray," Fraser said, "Ray, Ray," completely stunned; Ray turned a little and somehow got one of his hands tangled with Vecchio's. Vecchio squeezed it tightly, and sort of gave Ray a look, maybe telegraphing I can't believe sometimes we actually get what we want, but that might have just been Ray projecting because mostly the look in Vecchio's eyes said Why are we still wearing clothes?
"Why," Ray said, "Frase, why are we still wearing clothes?"
"It's a kitchen, Ray," Fraser said.
"Hey, yeah, Benny's right," Vecchio said. "We're in a kitchen, Kowalski. I think Benny is trying to imply that there's no bed."
"Yeah, that sounds about right," Ray agreed, trying to get the script when he could barely speak in full sentences, because Vecchio's eyes were still going We're wearing too many clothes and Fraser still had one hand on the small of Ray's back, and Fraser was looking back and forth between them and this was all in fact really damn important. "The thing is, the thing is all Fraser's got is some little military-issue cot, and -- hey, Frase, what happens if you have sex in the Queen's bedroom?"
"I shudder to think," Fraser said, although he had, Ray'd felt the deep involuntary shiver Fraser'd done right when he said the word sex. "In any case --"
"We just have to be inventive," Vecchio finished for him.
"I have to watch the cake," Fraser said reprovingly, and added a little "Mmf!" at the end because Vecchio'd had enough of this crazy Mountie talk and was kissing Fraser again. It was kind of knee-weakening close up, and Ray nearly squeezed his eyes shut to keep from going right into sensory overload when he got a better idea.
"So you guys seem kinda busy," he said, sort of mumbled so they wouldn't get distracted, and even though he was still hanging on hard to Vecchio's hand, he slid right down between them. The principle of the thing was, he wanted something done right, say, anyone getting naked, he would have to do it himself. All of himself, though, both hands, so he let go of Vecchio's and got to work figuring out how exactly the ridiculous Mountie pants came off.
It involved unhooking Fraser's belt and unbuttoning the last few buttons on the red tunic, and then a few complicated fastenings on the pants themselves, and then figuring out how exactly to get Fraser's boxers out of the way; this was all made more difficult by the fact that somewhere around step one Fraser had figured out what he was doing and actually stopped kissing Vecchio to say, "Ray, I -- you don't have to --" before Vecchio let him know he was being ridiculous. And then Fraser just carried on, still kissing Vecchio but making these little half-panicky totally turned-on noises and moving his hips around, which wouldn't be a problem if he could just wait a few seconds.
Then Fraser's clothes were off, and Ray allowed himself a crazy grin before getting down to business. Yeah, here was a catalogue of unexpected things: Ray would never in a million years have guessed he'd be giving Fraser a blowjob while the guy made out with Vecchio right over his head. Actually he'd never have guessed he'd get the opportunity to give Fraser a blowjob anyway; the rest was probably just trimmings, like the fact that he was also in the kitchen of the Canadian Consulate, and that Vecchio'd reached down again to card his fingers through Ray's hair and set his spine tingling, and that Fraser was not polite, not at all, he was still making those little noises and moving enough that Ray had to hang on hard to his hips -- yeah, these things were not trimmings. Maybe the kitchen-in-Consulate part was, but Vecchio's hands in his hair, the way Fraser was moving, those things were making Ray dizzy and unbearably hot and, of all things, happy.
He didn't quite register at first that Vecchio and Fraser had stopped kissing, but he heard Vecchio say, "Oh Jesus, Kowalski," in slightly choked awe, and then Fraser, his voice low and shaky and half-moan, "Ray, Ray, Ray, I think --" and yeah, Ray got it, so he ignored them until Fraser gave this soft little cry that was basically the hottest thing ever; Ray swallowed reflexively and held onto Fraser's hips for a minute longer, until he was sure Vecchio was holding Fraser up. He got shakily to his feet.
"Ray," Fraser said again, and Ray was pulled into a kiss, languid and awed, which was not what Ray usually expected in a kiss. When Fraser let him go, Ray tried to focus enough to look at him; Fraser's hair was sticking to his forehead, eyes wide and blissed-out, mouth shiny with kisses.
"Oh god," said Ray, with feeling.
"Uh, yeah," Vecchio agreed, and when Ray turned his head enough to give Vecchio a look, Vecchio looked a lot the same way, although maybe like he was still waiting for Ray to give him the best orgasm ever. Vecchio gave Ray a slow grin. "Think he can stand?"
"I doubt it," Fraser said quietly.
"We'll give you the chair," Ray said, and it came out easy, we. Like he and Vecchio were some sort of Fraser-protecting and -working-with and -loving and whatever-else-Fraser-needed team.
"No, Ray, I -- I'd like --" Fraser tried, and Ray could guess what Fraser would like and probably wouldn't articulate, but Vecchio said firmly, "If you can't stand by yourself you're not gonna do anything else until we've got a bed," which was good and sensible and got Fraser to stumble to the chair, and got Ray all set up with this completely insane mental image of them all getting actually naked and going at it in specifically Ray's bed, and maybe afterwards doing normal things like going to work and getting dinner and then being in Ray's bed all over again, and this -- this Ray was not going to think about with a hard-on, because it was crazy enough to think about even when he did have blood in his brain.
They got Fraser settled boneless in the chair, and then Ray looked at Vecchio and Vecchio looked at Ray, and Vecchio gave Ray that slow grin again, and Ray was gone, kissing Vecchio kind of like a fistfight still, but all urgency, no violence. He fumbled with Vecchio's pants and got a hand inside them about a second before Vecchio did, which was a good thing because Ray was gone gone gone then, throwing his head back panting and trying not to wail gone, and Christ, Vecchio's hand. Ray lasted maybe a minute, and then came, shaking like mad, totally silent like he only was when it was really, really good.
When his brain switched back on Vecchio was swearing like crazy and they couldn't actually hold each other up anymore, so they collapsed down together right by Fraser's chair. Vecchio started laughing, this delighted astonished sound, totally disbelieving of his own luck. Ray leaned half on Vecchio's shoulder and half back against Fraser's leg, and made some blurred happy noise of agreement.
Things couldn't possibly get any better, Ray thought; and Fraser's hand settled in his hair, stroking through it lightly. Ray squeezed his eyes shut and through the haze of endorphins had to fight a sudden urge to cry, because this was the single most intimate thing Benton Fraser had ever done with him, just this hand in his hair.
Eventually Fraser said, in his normal calm voice, "I have to pick up Diefenbaker from quarantine after I finish with the cake. Would you be interested in driving me?"
"We only got Kowalski's car," Vecchio said, voice a little fuzzy around the edges.
Ray kind of nudged at him. "You can have shotgun."
"Yeah, Benny's not licensed for a firearm. He can sit in back with the wolf."
"I think that would do nicely," Fraser said, and actually got up, carefully buttoning himself back up into his uniform. Vecchio and Ray glanced at each other, and Vecchio's face said Can you believe this guy? which, no, Ray wasn't sure he could. It was still Fraser in there, but Ray was about half convinced that any moment he was gonna wake up with sticky sheets and hating the world. He grinned at Vecchio and held Vecchio's hand, not because he really had a thing for hand-holding but because he needed something to anchor him here, and Vecchio seemed to get that. He squeezed Ray's hand and they both watched Fraser perform some complicated cake ritual involving oven mitts and a toothpick.
"I think that should do for now," Fraser announced, absently running a hand through his hair, which should have just made it sweatier and messier, but instead worked as well as a comb. He set the cake into the little Consulate refrigerator, then turned to Vecchio and Ray. "Shall we get Diefenbaker?"
"Sure thing," Vecchio said.
By some Fraser-related miracle they both managed to make it out to the GTO more or less like normal people. Fraser settled into the back seat, Vecchio started messing around with the radio, and Ray gunned it down the street to the first stoplight. The magnet thing was still going on; Ray knew exactly where Vecchio was and where Fraser was even though he was looking at the road, because the air or something curved weirdly to make them the two most obvious objects in the universe. It was tension, too, but good tension -- Ray could tell all three of them were waiting for the moment it would all just break and get impossible, but it didn't, and didn't, and didn't.
Vecchio settled the radio on something that was actually a bit punk, which was probably his way of saying the GTO was Ray's territory. Ray tapped his fingers on the steering wheel and wondered what musical indignities he'd have to suffer in the Riv, and thought, hey, he didn't mind, they were all freaks in this together. At least Vecchio didn't listen to sheet music. Then he thought, hey, that assumed he'd be spending quality time with the Riv. With Vecchio.
Yeah. Yeah, okay.
Ray reached over to turn the music down. "Hey, Frase?"
"Yes, Ray?" Fraser met Ray's eyes briefly in the rear-view mirror and suddenly okay didn't cover it.
"Forget the logistics," Ray said. "You're liaising with both of us, you got it?" Which as pronouncements went was a good one, because Fraser's face in the mirror lit right up, the way Vecchio's had earlier, that discovered-the-meaning-of-life look, which should have freaked Ray right the hell out but didn't. "Right, Vecchio?"
"Jesus, gimme a few minutes, Stanley," Vecchio said, but it was in that particular voice, the one Ray'd been called a lot of things usually with the word freak in them, but what Ray was hearing was just three words, that was it. He held tight to the steering wheel and nodded.
Giving Vecchio a few minutes meant they got to the quarantine building, and Fraser got out with a "I'll only be a minute," leaving Ray and Vecchio alone with a soft radio beat.
"Jesus," Vecchio said again, and started laughing, with such infectious joy that Ray actually laughed a little too. Vecchio looked at Ray with shining eyes. "I'm sittin' here thinking 'I shoulda done this years ago'," he said. "But you know what, Stanley? I don't think it works like that."
"Hey, yeah, it's Ray," said Ray.
"No, that's me," Vecchio said, smirking, but after a second it softened down. "You want it can be Kowalski."
Ray started saying Vecchio'd better, and then thought of Vecchio calling Fraser Benny, which was totally nuts, and the way maybe Vecchio'd started out saying Stanley like he wanted a rise but was saying it now like it didn't mean Ray was Brando or an asshole or anything, but sort of like Vecchio just compulsively nicknamed everything he loved, and Ray said, "Whatever, whichever, just don't be a jerk."
The smirk came right back. "You got it, Stanley."
Ray punched him in the arm and Vecchio started laughing again, which, yeah, he was officially in the freak club. Ray turned the punch into just sort of running his hand up and down Vecchio's arm until Vecchio stopped snickering. "So what now?" Ray asked. "I mean, Welsh'll go for it, and your entire damn family's already adopted us, but where's Fraser gonna stay?"
Vecchio tensed up, just the tiniest bit, so that Ray barely heard him say, "That's up to Fraser;" Ray thought, we're back to custody rules here. Which was wrong, wrong like a very wrong thing, and it hadn't turned into a Fraser contest yet, but this was not supposed to be about shuttling Fraser back and forth between them.
"You're still living with the folks, right?" Ray asked.
"Yeah," Vecchio said warily.
"So if your house is big enough for Ma Vecchio and Frannie and the kids, and Tony and Maria every weekend, my place is definitely big enough for three."
Vecchio stared at him.
Ray started tapping his hand along to the music again.
"We'd kill each other," Vecchio said. "You dress like a hobo. You never clean. You think the height of cuisine is pineapple pizza. Jesus, Kowalski, you get on every last nerve I have."
"Hey," said Ray, "maybe I just wanna pay less rent."
Vecchio snorted softly. "Sure."
"Look," Ray said, "you ever done something crazy, Vecchio? Like maybe gone undercover with the mob and turned out okay?"
"You ever maybe married the wrong person and hung on too long?" Vecchio shot back,
It was way below the belt, but his eyes had gone hard and scared so Ray didn't flinch, just said, "Jumped when Fraser told you how high?"
"Maybe," Vecchio conceded, his face softening again.
"Maybe what?" Fraser asked, opening the door on Vecchio's side. Vecchio didn't answer, just went "Hey hey hey Dief ow get off!" because Diefenbaker had leapt in and was using Vecchio as leverage for his paws so he could slobber all over Ray's face.
"Hey, Dief, buddy, hi," Ray said, trying to get Diefenbaker off him. He grabbed Dief's ruff, looked deep into his eyes, and said, "Get in the back seat."
"Oh, sure, he listens to you," Vecchio muttered.
"Certainly, Ray," Fraser said, climbing in after Dief. "Ray and Diefenbaker became very close during our year in the Territories. Perhaps if you made an effort to become something more to him than simply a doughnut dispenser --"
"Yeah yeah," Vecchio said.
They sat there for a minute, Diefenbaker panting away contentedly in the back seat. It was probably about noon. Ray coughed and said, "Hey, speaking of, anyone for lunch?"
"You got any food at your place?" Vecchio asked.
Yeah, Ray had some -- enough for sandwiches, anyway. "Sure," he said, starting the GTO up and pulling out onto the road. He fiddled with the radio dial and started to turn the music up again.
"Hey, Benny," Vecchio said. Ray turned the radio back down. "You got anywhere to stay yet?"
"I've only been back for a few extremely busy days, Ray," Fraser replied a little reproachfully. "I haven't even begun to look for accommodations that will take wolves --"
"Kowalski, your landlady fine with pets?"
"I think so, yeah," Ray said, wondering what exactly Vecchio thought he was doing.
"You pay a third of what Kowalski's paying for rent right now and I bet it won't cost much more than living on Racine did." Vecchio gave Ray a grin and Ray's heart just about punched right out of his chest.
"A third --" Fraser started.
"Yeah, yeah, both of you," Ray said. He caught Fraser's eyes in the mirror. Fraser looked stunned, like all those casual I love yous were coming back and hitting him in the face, every one of them. "Frase?"
"I think," Fraser said, and looked away, at Dief, at Vecchio, back to Ray. "I would like that. Very much."
"Good," Ray said. "Okay, good. Greatness."
Which maybe it wouldn't be. Dief was gonna shed over everything; Vecchio wore stupid suits and both of them got to Ray in more ways than he liked; Vecchio was divorced twice now and Ray still woke up sometimes wondering if he should've hung on harder or let go quick and Fraser, Ray was sort of scared to go touching some of the things that went on in Fraser's heart. But Vecchio was grinning and Fraser -- Fraser was grinning too, as uncomplicatedly happy as he'd been the day they fell out of a plane into snowy tundra. So when Ray pulled the GTO into a space in front of the apartment, he was maybe grinning too, and definitely looking like he'd found the meaning of life, because, because ...
He got out of this car, he watched this wolf go bounding up the steps toward the apartment, he looked at this cop and this Mountie who were total freaks, and he walked back into his life.
"Hey, well," Vecchio said, pretty much to both of them. "Welcome home."