Ray didn't know why he was here. This was so not his thing, only Stel had called and asked him… begged him to come, so she'd have someone to talk to, and he'd agreed, like he always did when Stella asked him for anything. It wasn't that he was under any illusions that they might have a second chance together, and he'd even come so far that he could honestly say that he wouldn't want one. But after 12 years of marriage, it was just habit. If Stella wanted something, Ray wanted her to have it. Even this. Their fucking high school reunion. As her date.
He hadn't even had the excuse of his current undercover status. Their old school was far enough across the other side of town that he could be Stanley Kowalski and not bump into anyone who knew him as Vecchio. It was one of the reasons why he'd got the gig in the first place – he knew Chicago, but he'd never lived anywhere near the area covered by the 27th.
Everyone looked uncomfortable in suits and dresses. The guys drank too much, too fast and the women fell upon the buffet after weeks of starving themselves so they wouldn't look overweight to friends from twenty years ago who they hadn't seen or thought of since. Stella was the exception, looking stunning and natural in her aqua silk shift dress, chatting and laughing and dragging Brad or Brett or Bruce – whatever the guy had been called – from group to group and being welcomed wherever she went with squeals of "Oh my God! Look at youuuuuuuu!" Date or no date, she hadn't needed Ray at all, which came as no surprise to Ray.
Of course Stella had done a number on him. Again. He'd been in the bullpen when she'd called to say she had a date after all, that she'd meet him there and he was still coming, wasn't he? Please?
Damned if he was going to salve her guilt trip. She'd blown him off! He'd told her he'd try and got off the phone before she'd had time to persuade him, then cussed a blue streak… quietly, but not quietly enough that it had gone unnoticed by his bat-eared Mountie who happened to walk in that moment.
Ray had explained what had happened and Fraser had made appropriate noises and almost managed to hide his angry expression - Ray was under no illusion that Fraser had little time for his ex-wife, which was odd when he thought about it, because he thought Fraser liked everyone.
"Well, Ms. Kowalski is right about one thing, you should still go along, Ray," Fraser had asserted.
"Why?" Ray had demanded.
What had followed, Ray couldn't clearly recall. He thought some of it might have involved duty and something social something. Peer groups? It was all a haze of earnest Mountie nods and eyebrow rubs. He did recall having to keep his voice down when he'd said "Well if I have to go, then you have to come with me, 'cause I'm not sitting there and watching Stell show off her new boyfriend while I sit in the corner and cry into my beer on my own."
He also recalled Fraser saying that he'd be delighted and asking what time to be ready.
Speaking of which, where was Fraser? He'd already lost him twice this evening. Ray scanned the dance floor from the make-shift bar without luck and carried on around the edge of the dark hall watching for his partner. It was trickier without the red coat and the hat, which he was beginning to think he'd become imprinted on. But he eventually spotted him in the centre of a gaggle of middle-aged women, most of them married, who all should have known better than to be standing so close to him.
"Fraser, can I have a word with you?" Ray interrupted, pushing his way through, and having to get pretty up close and physical with one particularly ardent admirer.
"Certainly, Ray, excuse me ladies," Fraser said politely, reaching up to tip his non-existent hat.
"Fraser, what is it with you? You're supposed to be keeping me from slitting my wrists over here. What's with the hitting on all the mommies?" Ray scolded his partner as they made their way back to the bar.
Fraser cracked his neck and pulled at his tie. "I can assure you, Ray, that I was not hitting on the ladies as you so crudely put it. One of them expressed an interest in Canadian exported goods, which I tried to answer, but every time I said I had to get back to you, they asked another question. It was quite irksome, if encouraging that they were so interested in Canadian produce."
"S'only one Canadian product they're interested in, Fraser – and it ain't maple syrup."
"Really, Ray, your mind is a collection of the most delusional…"
"I may be delusional, but I ain't blind. You look pretty… well… you look kind of… you're not…" Ray stumbled to a confused, awkward silence.
"Thank you, Ray. You, too, look very fetching this evening."
Ray ordered a drink.
A large drink.
With a chaser.
Twenty minutes later, Ray was making short work of his next drink, and watching Fraser. It was quite comical how they had been parted; like watching one of those National Geographic reconstructions of plate tectonics. Fraser had answered a woman who'd asked him for a light, planting herself directly between Ray and the Mountie. She had been joined by a friend, and another, and another. So now Ray was watching from five yards further down the bar as Fraser politely fielded questions, blatant come-ons and one whispered offer that had made him blush so hard, Ray swore he'd felt the heat coming off those cheeks.
Ray turned to find the beer-flushed face of Johnny Mazzotti, a guy who Ray doubted he'd ever spoken to before. Slick dressing, sport-mad Johnny had been Mr. Popularity – hardly Ray's style.
"Mazzotti," Ray acknowledged warily, wondering what had prompted him to strike up a conversation.
"I was talking to Fraser earlier. I gotta say, you guys have got some balls," he sniggered, breathing beery fumes into Ray's face.
Ray wondered what stories Fraser had been telling. Every day was a touch of the bizarre and more often than not Ray was called upon to execute something weird, brave or downright suicidal, so it was hard to narrow down.
"Well, you know, it's a wild world out there. You just never know what you're gonna be facing next," Ray said modestly.
"And he's a cop too. Man, that takes guts."
"Uh, yeah," Ray replied, out of his depth. He wondered how many Mazzotti had put away already.
"Good for you, Kowalski. Good for you," Johnny grinned, patting him on the shoulder and reeling away onto the dance floor.
"Okay," Ray muttered to himself with a lift of his eyebrows.
Ray only had time for one more sip before a huge hand landed on his shoulder, twirled him around and he was engulfed in a rib-bursting hug.
"Raymond Kowalski! Where have you been?" bellowed a familiar voice.
"Dennis Sains? Jeezus man, lemme go!" Ray yelped, afraid his boyhood friend was going to lift him off his feet.
Ray was released, only to be pelted on the back by the enormous Sains and his hand pumped so hard Ray's head bounced on his neck.
"Ray. It's so great to see you. How are you? What have you been doing, man?"
Dennis had been a good friend of Ray's way back when. Although a hulking great kid, Dennis had also been a gentle and non-confrontational sort. Luckily his very size had dissuaded anyone from taking a pop at him, and his presence at Ray's side had meant that Ray got fewer beatings than he might otherwise have had.
Ray opened his mouth to speak, but obviously the questions asked were rhetorical as Dennis carried on without waiting.
"Listen, man, you and Fraser, I think it's great. You two are just… I dunno, so out there, you know?"
"You been talking to Fraser?" Ray was beginning to think that Fraser had covered every person in the damn hall at least once.
"Yeah, yeah. He's cool. And you guys are kind of the talk of the evening, being so up front and everything. And with your ex-wife here too. That took some guts, Kowalski."
Ray was starting to get that weird itching feeling inside his head that meant he was missing something important. This was the second time someone had told him he had guts. Either Fraser was talking him up or he was confusing the fuck out of people. Or both. Probably both.
"What do you mean, Den? What's Fraser saying?"
"Ah, he doesn't need to say anything, Ray. You can see it in the way he looks at you. You guys been together long?"
"We've been partners since…wait, when you say together, you mean…?"
"Partners. Boyfriends. Whatever you guys call it, but I tell you, it is totally awesome, and he seems like a really good person," Dennis asserted.
"Uh…. Yeah, he is," Ray said vacantly, catching hold of the last part of the sentence as the only one that made sense.
"So listen, I have to go and find Cindy, but I want her to meet you two. You're not leaving yet are you?"
Ray had time to shake his head before Dennis lumbered off to find the mysterious "Cindy".
"Well everyone seems to be having a good time, Ray. Have you met up with a lot of old friends?" Fraser asked, appearing at his elbow, alone for a few moments.
Ray grabbed Fraser by the sleeve. "Fraser," he hissed, "Everyone thinks…"
Over Fraser's shoulder, Lisa Meyer, who Ray used to bum cigarettes off when he was fifteen, was beaming at him and making exaggerated thumbs up signs. Ray smiled back weakly, took a firmer hold on Fraser and dragged him off, out of the double doors and into a quiet corridor.
"Is everything alright, Ray? Are you not enjoying yourself?"
"Fraser!" Ray interrupted. This was his own fault. It hadn't even crossed his mind that people would think Fraser was anything more than his friend. Some of the girls had brought girlfriends with them and no one thought that they were… Ah! Girlfriends. Ray held his head in one hand as his naivety became smack in the face obvious. Shit! Shit!
Now he had got a hall full of former friends thinking that Fraser was his… that he and Fraser were… And they were impressed. As well they might be if they thought that geeky weirdo Stanley Raymond Kowalski had been in relationships with not only the best looking woman at the party, but also the best looking man. He'd got lucky once – twice, no matter how appealing that might sound, would be way too much to hope for.
"Fraser," Ray began again, hands splayed in a gesture of apology, "I'm afraid… you see I didn't think, and when I… the thing is… the thing is… everyone thinks we're together."
Fraser nodded seriously while Ray blinked at him and waited for the indignant spluttering to start.
"Together," Ray repeated, pointing between them.
Fraser licked his bottom lip and nodded again.
"Oh fer Chrissakes Fraser, they think we're lovers."
Fraser blinked at him. "I see," he replied, equably.
Ray, who was privately of the opinion that this was the weirdest conversation they'd had in months, and that included the ear anecdotes, just stood and stared at his partner. "Doesn't that bother you?"
"No, should it? It's merely a misapprehension on their part, no doubt engendered by our arriving together."
"Fraser, they think you're gay!"
"Yes, I did understand the implication."
"And you're okay with that?"
"Well, if it's upsetting to you, I will be very clear when addressing any of your former colleagues that we are not intimately associated."
"Not intimately associated. Yeah, okay. One thing though… are you insane?"
"Not as far as I know, although my mental health review has, on occasion, been…"
For the first time, Ray got a glimpse of something that wasn't likeably clueless – a sharpness to Fraser's gaze and a tenseness in his posture.
Fraser dropped his eyes. "Maybe I wasn't the best choice of companion for this, I'm sorry," he said stiffly.
"Shut up! I asked you to come. You're only here because I…" Ray stopped and watched as Fraser found something fascinating on the pin-board beside them about the importance of fire safety. Fraser's jaw was set tight as he focussed intently on the poster.
"Has anyone asked you if we were together?" Ray asked quietly.
"No," Fraser replied in a controlled voice.
"But they have asked who you were here with and you have told them that you came with me." It wasn't a question.
"And you haven't corrected any of them when they've leapt to the conclusion that we're…" Once again, Ray was out of words.
Fraser didn't reply or turn to face him, just stood, ramrod straight, staring at the notices.
Ray watched his profile, watched the way his eyes were not scanning the words in front of his nose.
"Why not? Is that to keep the chicks off you or what?"
"No, Ray, it's not."
Ray leaned his shoulders against the wall next to Fraser and thumped his head back softly against the noticeboard. This was news. Big news. Humungo, cosmically gigantic news. Not in an "I'm going to completely lose it" way, but in a "I didn't know this" way. And Ray needed to think about it. And a beer. Beer was definitely something Ray needed.
Because, how, when and what the fuck? Not to mention why? Why hadn't Ray noticed this? Why hadn't Fraser said anything? And why Ray? Fraser was…what? Gay? Into Ray?
"Come on, Fraser. I need a drink," Ray said, walked a few paces, then waited for his partner to join him, silent and reluctant.
The hall was more subdued when they re-entered. The music had changed tempo and a few couples had bravely taken to the floor to shuffle in slow circles, wrapped in each other's arms.
Ray noticed Stella as he crossed to the bar. She was watching him with a strange look on her pretty face. It was an expression Ray was all too familiar with - one of exasperated disappointment. She'd looked like that for most of the last year of their marriage.
Ray wondered what he had done this time, that Stella, his ex was still disenchanted enough with him to look like that. Then her eyes strayed to Fraser and Ray knew.
Stella had heard the rumours and was pissed with him. He couldn't quite see how that reflected badly on her, but obviously she felt it had, because her eyes hardened into an almost contemptuous glare – a look she had honed on many a day of courtroom cross-examining. Ray stepped in front of Fraser, mostly to avoid Fraser seeing something so ugly on Stella's face, but also to let Stella know that he'd seen it.
Her face cleared as she registered, and she smiled a brittle, insincere smile.
And that was it.
Ray turned to Fraser. "Forget the drink. Would you like to dance?"
Fraser seemed to shake himself alert again. "Pardon?' he asked, his face going from unresponsive to quite comically surprised.
"Dance, you know?" Ray made little stick men with his fingers and wiggled them next to each other.
Fraser stared at Ray for an impossibly long time, looking for something, hoping for something. Ray held his gaze, keeping his eye steady and his expression politely hopeful.
"Before I say yes," Fraser started, so quietly, Ray had to lean in to hear properly, "…I would like to point out that this is a slow dance."
Ray nodded. "I know that."
"And furthermore, you will be adding weight to the speculation that we are…"
"Intimately associated?" Ray suggested with a smirk.
Fraser nodded, very slowly.
"I know that too. Anything else?" Ray challenged.
"Your ex-wife is watching."
And Ray should have known that Fraser wouldn't have missed that.
"Is this for her benefit?" he asked softly, his chin raised, expecting the worst.
"No, Fraser, it's not," Ray replied and held out his hand.
Fraser looked at it, looked at Ray, then back to his hand. "Okay," he murmured, nodding once.
Ray smiled, long and bright, took Fraser's broad hand in his and pulled him along. "Cool, but I'm leading."