"'Harry's Mom was dead to begin with,'" Ray read over Vecchio's shoulder. "What the hell kind of way is that to start the story, Vecchio?"
"It's Charles Dickens, dorkface," said Vecchio, pushing up the little, round glasses that were slipping down his nose. "Classic literature."
"Classic literature, my ass. You been watching the Muppets again." Ray looked at Vecchio critically, eyes narrowing. "Huh. You know, you got a resemblance to that Gonzo guy." He sketched a crude shape in the air and flashed a smile. "Something about the nose."
"Yeah? I guess that makes you the rat." Vecchio returned the gaze. "Yep, I can sure see rat-like qualities. Those squinty little eyes."
"Hey, that's not buddies," complained Ray, shoving at Vecchio's shoulder light enough that he barely swayed. "Seriously, though, you can't start like that." He stabbed a finger towards the keyboard. "Delete, delete, delete."
Vecchio sighed and pressed the backspace button. The words zipped away leaving a blank, white page. Hands hovering above the keyboard, he said, "Okay, Shakespeare, tell me where to start."
"Um, how about when we met him? You know, seeing as how we didn't even know he existed before that. Let's not be bringing that shit up, right?"
"Right," said Vecchio, frowning as he attacked the keyboard with two--count 'em!--fingers. "Shut up, Kowalski."
"I'm not even saying anything," complained Ray.
"You're not saying it loudly. Go away. Author at work." Vecchio shooed him with one hand without taking his eyes off the screen.
Ray stood, cuffing Vecchio lightly around the back of his head just so he didn't think he'd won completely and wandered out of the room. He had to get a start on dinner anyway; Harry would be home soon.
There was no mistaking him. The little heap of misery sitting on a chair at least two sizes too big for him, feet not even close to the floor, was the living spit of Kowalski, from his gangly frame to his red-gold hair, past the fullness of his mouth to the sharp set chin.
"Fuck," whispered Kowalski, and fumbled for Ray's hand, gripping it tightly. Ray squeezed back. This was big. This was bigger than big. This was the kind of big that made you dizzy just by trying to find the size of it. Kowalski had a kid. A kid that was all alone in the world now his mom had passed. Just like that they'd upped the size of their family 33%. Yeah, big. He squeezed again.
"What am I supposed to say?" Kowalski continued, as they hung back, the boy not appearing to have noticed them. "Hi, kid, sorry your mom's dead, I'm your daddy, want a hot dog?"
Ray snorted. "Kid's already scarred for life, Kowalski, do your worst."
Kowalski twisted Ray's hand sharply in retaliation, did a little shuffle-hop motion, squared his shoulders and said, "Okay, cover me. I'm going in."
Before he'd even made it half a step down the hallway a door opened, hiding the boy from view, and a neatly dressed, auburn-haired woman leaned out, fixing Kowalski with a pleasant smile that gave nothing away.
"Mr. Kowalski, I presume?" she said, holding out her hand. Kowalski stumbled forward, tripping over his own feet, as usual, and Ray really hoped 'good sense of balance' wasn't on the checklist for prospective fathers. Or 'ability to sit still for more than two minutes'. Or 'reluctance to kick people in the head.' On second thought, Ray hoped there was no checklist at all.
Kowalski managed not to fall though, and righted himself in time to take the offered hand, replying, "Detective. Detective Raymond Ve- Fuck. Shit. Sorry! I don't usually. Kind of a lot going on right now."
Ray fought the urge to leave Kowalski to bury himself deeper in the hole he was digging and stepped up, turning on the charm. "Hello, there. He's Detective Stanley Raymond Kowalski, I'm Lieutenant Raymond Vecchio, and you are?"
The woman looked at Kowalski guardedly, like maybe he was an escaped lunatic or something, which, at the moment, wasn't exactly distant from the truth, and then transferred her gaze and her hand to Ray, looking him over with a professional eye. Her gaze stripped Ray and he had to resist the urge to check if he was still wearing pants.
"Janel Demartin, Placement Officer," she said, her grip cool and firm. "Good to meet you, Lieutenant." She returned her attention to Kowalski. "Detective...Kowalski, if you would like to step into my-"
"I'm not a flake!" Kowalski burst out. "I was him for a year and it's been a day, you know, stress. Pressures of the job, phone call out of the blue telling me congratulations it's a boy. Anyway, his name, it's kinda m-"
Ray dropped his face into his palm. "Stop. Talking. Now," he said, as Kowalski looked wildly between the two of them. To Ray's great relief, he mimed zipping his lips and tucking the key away into a non-existent pocket.
"Shall we?" asked Ms. Demartin, raising perfectly shaped eyebrows, and Kowalski nodded, gesturing Ray in before him. "Oh, no, I'm sorry. This is a confidential matter. Your superior-" and here she paused as, Ray assumed, the strangeness of the situation hit her, "-will need to wait outside, Detective."
Kowalski must be really frightened--there were none of the usual "Not mine" disclaimers or to rate Ray on a scale of superior that went all the way from cockroach to something Benny would lick off a shoe. Resigning himself to the inevitable, Ray placed a hand in the small of Kowalski's back, rubbing in tiny, soothing circles.
"Ms. Demartin," Ray said, channeling Benny as best as he could," Detective Kowalski is not my officer, but yet he is my partner. I trust that you take my meaning."
Ms. Demartin surely did take his meaning and her expression went from a little condescending to a little speculative. Ray counted that as a win.
"I understand you perfectly, Lieutenant Vecchio," she said. "But I'm afraid regulations don't allow me to permit you to be party to our discussion. You'll have to stay out here, this shouldn't take long." She ushered Kowalski before her into the office, casting despairing looks over his shoulder as he went. Ray shrugged apologetically and closed the door behind them.
He looked to his right, where the little boy was staring up at him, his blue eyes shiny and red-rimmed.
"Looks like it's just you and me, kid," he said.
"My mommy's dead," said the kid, and Ray blinked in shock. He was--what?--four, or something. Wasn't he supposed to be babbling about her sleeping forever or going to be with the angels?
"Yeah," he replied, leaning his head back against the wall. "Yeah, she is. I'm sorry."
"That means I don't get to see her again, and someone else has to take care of me. Do you like my sneakers?" The kid lifted his legs and wiggled his feet for inspection.
Grief was a weird thing at the best of times, thought Ray. Go with what you've got. He inspected the shoes. "Your sneakers are very cool; did you tie the laces yourself?"
"Yes," said the boy, proudly. "Mommy taught me. See?" And he hitched a leg onto the chair, pulled the laces loose and started from scratch, chubby fingers making a ten second job last right up to the limit of Ray's interest. Eventually the kid was done and looked up, his face open and expectant.
"Good job," said Ray, nodding slowly. "Most kids these days, they go with Velcro, quick and easy. Laces are a sign of a smart mind."
The kid blinked at him and Ray realized he needed to stop thinking of him as 'the kid'--this was Kowalski's son, their son, his name mattered and oh holy crap. Kowalski's voice flashed in his head: "His name, it's kinda m-" And Jesus, Mary, Joseph and all the little, hairy Saints, Kowalski had as good as told Ms Demartin that they were married in all ways the bigoted bastard state allowed. And it wasn't like Ray hadn't known that, it was just that he hadn't known that. Like, four years ago when he'd stood in the bullpen at the 2-7 and called Kowalski 'Vecchio' just to see if he would pop an aneurysm he would have bust a gut laughing if someone had told him that one day Kowalski would be happy to consider that name his own. That was...well, it was... there may not even be words to describe the sheer level of mind-blowing that was. He collapsed backwards and clonked his head off the wall.
The kid giggled. Ray crossed his eyes at him, which only made him giggle more. His smile was so like his dad's it made Ray's heart do freaky loop-de-loop motions. That couldn't be good for his arteries. He made a mental note to check his cholesterol intake.
"What's your name, kid?" he asked.
"Harold Mitch Mitchell but you can call me Harry," recited the kid--Harry--like he'd learned it by rote.
"Mitch Mitchell, eh?" Ray said. "Someone ran out of ideas."
"Harold Mitch Mitchell," repeated Harry. "I'm Harry," he stuck out a hand.
"I'm Ray," said Ray, and took it.
"Where's ten sea?" asked Harry.
"Er, next to the ninth sea?" offered Ray.
"No, silly. Ten. Nuh. See. Ten'see." Harry slipped off the chair and looked underneath. "I dun see him."
Tennessee was a midget? With agoraphobia? And Ray had thought the day couldn't get weirder. "Who's Tennessee?" he asked, and hoped he wouldn't regret it.
"My teddy, 'course."
Oh. Well, that made more sense than the midget hypothesis, for sure.
"I want Ten'see," said Harry, straightening up and looking at Ray, eyes beginning to fill with tears just begging for an excuse to spill right over. "I need him."
Just as Ray was opening his mouth to take his best shot at saying something soothing the office door opened and Ray heard his name spoken. He turned in time to see Ms. Demartin's cool expression slide from his face towards Harry, transforming into a smile of genuine warmth. She abandoned her comments to Ray and asked, "What have we here, Harry?"
"Where's Ten'see?" Harry's voice had that plaintive wobble that Ray recognized so well from his nieces and nephews. If he didn't get what he wanted soon, Harry was going to go into total meltdown and it would not be pretty.
"Wait one moment," Ms. Demartin said to Harry and switched her gaze back to Ray. Her expression now concerned, she beckoned him into the office with a flick of her eyes.
"Hang on there, tough guy," said Ray. "I'm gonna make inquiries. I'm a police officer, you know."
Harry nodded and shifted from foot to foot.
Ms. Demartin closed the door behind them, and Kowalski had no time to do more than look up from his seat and say, "Hey," before she crossed to her desk, lifted a plastic bag from behind it and took out a teddy bear, holding it out silently. Ray took it. Its two glass eyes looked jauntily up at him and the stitched mouth curved in a smile. It looked great. Except for how it was spattered with blood.
"How the hell?"
"I believe Harry had lent the bear to his mother to sleep with when she got too sick to have him in the bed with her. There was an incident with a canula, I'm told. The nurse bagged the bear before Harry could see it, she didn't want him more upset than he already was."
"What the hell?" said Kowalski.
"Harry wants his teddy bear; this is it," said Ray, stuffing it back in the bag. "Okay, then." He went back into the hall. Harry hadn't moved. Ray dropped to his haunches so he was at eye-level with the kid. "I made some calls," he said. "Turns out Tennessee had to go check out some places for you to live. Make sure that he found the right one because he says he's the one that knows you best. He'll be back as soon as he can, okay?"
Harry nodded slowly and solemnly. "Okay," he said, and threw his arms around Ray's neck. Startled, Ray hugged him and picked him up, turning to see Kowalski leaning against the doorframe with a look on his face that Ray couldn't quite place.
"Well?" Ray asked as Harry burrowed his face into Ray's neck.
"DNA testing," replied Kowalski. "Doesn't matter what Annegret said in her will, there's no court order and my name's not on the birth certificate so I have to prove I'm his dad before I can take him. Like it's not obvious enough from looking at us. Did I tell you lately I hate rules? I hate rules."
"And yet you uphold the law on a daily basis. It's a wonder the 32nd hasn't dissolved into anarchy." Ray's tone was gentle and he was rewarded by a lightening of the black expression on Kowalski's face.
"They're giving me time to say-" Kowalski caught himself and mouthed "No, I don't want him." He looked outraged and Ray wished he had an extra arm for hugging purposes.
Ms. Demartin cleared her throat. "Given the circumstances, Detective, it would be quite understandable if you felt that the responsibility was not something you were able to shoulder. We have many families who would welcome the chance to parent-"
Ray couldn't listen to any more. Family was family. The one you were born into, the one you made, it didn't matter. Family was family and you took care of your own or gave up the right to call yourself a Vecchio.
"She thinks we have a choice, but we don't, do we?" Harry's hair was soft under Ray's cheek and his weight was heavy in his arms and Ray knew there was no way they could ever let him go. He was already theirs.
Kowalski shook his head, mute.
"Look," said Ray, "I'll pull in some favors at the lab. Get them to run the DNA fast, we won't make him wait."
Kowalski jerked his head up and Ray's translation machine kicked in to supply the unspoken 'thanks'.
"We better go. The sooner we get your blood drawn, the sooner we can bring him home." Ray shifted Harry's weight and realized the boy had gone to sleep. "Busy day, huh?" he murmured into Harry's hair. Louder, he added "Poor kid, he's tired out. I'll do you a swap, Ms. Demartin. Harry for that plastic bag."
Swap made, Ray tucked the bag under one arm and shoved Kowalski with the other. Kowalski made a start towards his sleeping son, then stopped. "I don't wanna- Look, tell him we're coming back, okay? Tell him we're coming back as soon as we can. And we'll bring his bear."
Ms. Demartin nodded and Kowalski let Ray grab him by the elbow and drag him away down the hallway.
"Better get Tennessee cleaned up," said Ray in the elevator, shaking the bag.
Kowalski startled out of the trance he was in. "The bear's called what?"
"Tennessee," said Ray, wondering what the hell was so urgent now.
"And Harry's name is what again?"
"Harry," said Ray. "Are you going to need to ride the short bus, Kowalski?"
"Full name, asshole."
"Harold Mitch Mitchell." The elevator dinged and Ray stepped out. Kowalski didn't follow him and Ray had to lunge in and pull him out through the closing doors.
"What?" Ray snapped. Not that he didn't appreciate Kowalski's right to freak out a little, he'd just prefer it if it didn't involve body parts being crushed by steel doors.
"See," said Kowalski, throwing up his hands. "This is why it would never have worked out. That, and I lost her number. And forgot her name." He paused. "And what she looked like."
"What? Because of his name? What's wrong with Harold Mitch Mitchell? Besides the chronic lack of imagination? Too old-fashioned for you? You want he should be called Wayne?"
Kowalski stopped dead and just looked at him.
"What?" asked Ray again. And "What?" as Kowalski didn't reply. Ray rubbed at his face. "I got something on my face? In my teeth? What?"
Kowalski shook his head. "Marlon Brando is spinning in his grave." He furrowed his brow. "If he was dead. And if there was enough room for him to spin, which, unlikely."
Ray looked at him. Kowalski rolled his eyes. "You know," he said, holding his hands palm up beside his face and mouthing an over-exaggerated "STELLA."
"Nope," said Ray, still in the dark. "You're gonna roll those eyes right out of your head," he added off of Kowalski's disgusted expression.
"So you never took literature at school, right? It's the name of Stanley's friend in Streetcar. Harold Mitchell, aka Mitch."
"Ohhhh," said Ray, nodding sagely. "Poor kid."
"Who was she trying to punish? You or the kid? And wasn't Mitch the guy's nickname, anyway?"
Ray patted his arm. "Look on the bright side. Gives you one more thing in common."
Kowalski's face brightened. "Yeah," he said. "Yeah."
Ray scratched his head, frowning. "Okay, so this is pretty much how it went, but what's with the third person? If you're writing the story how come it's not all 'I did this' and 'I did that'?"
"Since when did you become the expert on narrative, Stanley?"
"Since Stella took AP English and wouldn't blow me until she'd done her homework. And?"
"Huh," said Vecchio, thoughtfully. "I wonder if that would work with the ironing. I'll keep it in mind." His gaze wandered down to Ray's crotch so it was hardly surprising that Ray wasn't quite clued in when Vecchio said, "It's not my story, is it? It's Harry's. Benny says you have to know who the story belongs to so it comes out right. Or something like that anyhow."
"Huh?" said Ray, trying to remember what Vecchio'd just said.
"It works good. That simple enough for you?" Vecchio grinned, clearly knowing exactly where Ray's mind had been. They knew each other way too well.
"Whatever. How come you get to be Ray and I get to be Kowalski? That's just wrong. If I'm Kowalski you should be Vecchio. And if it's for Harry shouldn't we just be Dad and Pa?"
"And the cursing? Is that really the example you want to set to our son?"
"What, are you Mother Teresa now? He's not seeing this until he's sixteen. Cursing's gonna be the least of his worries by then. Now get lost, would you? It's taken three weeks to get this far, there's only six years to get the rest down, it's gonna be touch and go. Also? Give me a couple hours clear and you'll be rewarded for your patience."
"Oh, yeah?" said Ray, brightening.
"Oh, yeah," smirked Vecchio, and turned back to his typing.
There was no way Vecchio could pretend that Harry was anything but a shock. Still, three hours after they'd found out Kowalski was a dad Vecchio was already figuring out how to childproof the apartment. He had plenty of practice at being an uncle, even if he couldn't always seem to keep track of exactly how many kids Maria'd popped out. And, yeah, he'd done the baths and the stories and the no-vegetables-no-dessert face and the walking-the-croup-out (though he'd somehow always managed to be mysteriously absent when there was vomit involved--it was a talent), so he wasn't going to be at a loss when the kid moved in (and that was 100% for certain, DNA tests weren't going to tell them anything they didn't already know) but...Things were good right now--great, even--with Kowalski, with his job, with his family, everything. Vecchio hadn't thought he'd get to be this happy--he'd seen things, done things that would make most people's toes curl--and it turned out all he needed was a klutzy, distractible Polack with a great car and an oh-yeah! smile to set him on the right path.
He hadn't expected to be a father himself. In just a few days it wasn't going to be Ray and Ray against the world, or whoever had pissed them off that week, but Ray and Ray and Harry. Or Ray and Harry and Ray. It made Vecchio's head swim. Things were going to change, and fast. Vecchio'd do whatever it took, of course he would, this was Harry, he already belonged--whatever dumb name his mom had stuck him with he was still a Vecchio in every way it counted--it was just- When he'd looked into the future over the last couple of years it had always been the two of them, he'd never counted on kids. It was going to be fine, of course it was going to be fine, but where was the harm in a little reassurance?
Vecchio scrubbed his head with a hand and hauled himself to his feet. Crossing to his desk he lifted the phone and punched in a number.
"Lieberman," crackled the voice at the end of the line.
"It's Vecchio," he said. "Benny around?"
"He's training up the new pups. I can help you with anything?"
"Nah, I'm good. Could you-? Tell him to call me, okay. On my cell, I'm at work."
"Ray?" Lieberman's voice was sharp. "What's happened? Is it Ray? Do I need to go fetch Fraser? No one's lost a limb, have they?"
Vecchio chortled. "Less losing, more gaining. Four, no less." He slid into his chair.
"I don't understand."
"It's all about growth, Lieberman. Plant a seed, grow a seed."
There was a silence. Then, "I don't have any hold music. I suppose I could put the radio on, but it's probably best if you put the phone down. He'll call you in ten minutes. Less, I hope. Don't move."
"Thanks," said Vecchio, but the phone line already buzzed in his ear.
It was seven minutes and thirty-two seconds, actually. Vecchio stabbed the call answer button on his cell and breathed out in relief as he heard Fraser's voice equal parts curious and concerned. "Ray?"
"God, Benny, I could really use you right now."
"What's happened, Ray? Are you and Ray both well?"
"Yeah, no. Don't panic, we're intact. Physically, at least. Look, you sitting down?"
"I am now."
"Good, good, 'cause this is, um, I don't know how to- Benny, you're gonna be an uncle." The words slid out of Vecchio in a rush. There was silence at the other end of the line and Vecchio could swear he could hear Fraser rubbing at his eyebrow.
"I don't understand."
"Okay, Benny, you're not going to believe this, but, cliff-notes version, Kowalski's a dad and the reason we know this is because the mom died of cancer and willed the kid to him. If I was making this up I'd be selling it to Days of Our Lives, not calling my best friend out in the sticks."
"Well, that's a turn up for the books," said Fraser, and it was the closest he was going to come to "Well, fuck me," so Vecchio considered it a fair reaction overall.
"His name's Harry and he's four," Vecchio barreled on. "Looks exactly like you'd expect a kid of Kowalski's to look. He's a parent. I'm a parent. We? Are parents. I might be having a minor freak-out. Like, what if I don't know what his favorite cereal is? What if I sing 'Baa Baa Black Sheep' with the wrong tune?"
"I think there's only one tune for that particular rhyme, Ray," said Fraser, and Vecchio could hear the suppressed smile in his voice. "You know, Ray, I realize this must be a shock for you both, but I can't think of two people I'd trust more to raise a lost child into a good man."
Vecchio wasn't sure if he wanted more to hug Benny or strangle him. His faith in them was overwhelming and Ray never knew if he could live up to it, though he tried, God knew he tried. "I don't know, Benny," he said. "Kowalski's still half-kid himself, he even skinned his knee on the bath last week, I don't even know how. And me, I've got to do this right, you know? He's four, he's lost his mom, I can't screw this up."
"You won't," and Fraser sounded so certain Vecchio couldn't help but believe him.
There was a moment's silence and Vecchio could picture Benny staring intently out of the window into the vast emptiness he called home. Then Fraser cleared his throat and Vecchio felt the mood shift, just a little. He frowned.
"Of course, the situation was very different and I was two years older, but I do, I can speak as one who understands the difficult nature of-"
Fraser trailed off and Vecchio clenched the phone a little tighter. He should've thought, how could he have forgotten what Benny had gone through? He was halfway through a particularly inventive mental curse when he realized Benny was speaking again.
"My mother was everything to me, Ray. I respected my father, of course--respected and loved--but he was so much less real to me than she was. She was with me every day and I knew she was still with me when I closed my eyes at night." Fraser stopped and cleared his throat again and Ray was very, very glad to know that he was not alone. "Her loss was difficult to bear and I needed...I needed what every child needs; to know that I was loved and safe. I needed to know that without my mother that there was still such a place as 'home'."
"And did you?"
There was a pause. "Harry lost his mother in different circumstances, I know. And he has already had to leave the home they shared together, but if I learned anything in my years in Chicago, home isn't four walls and a roof; it's who resides within it." Fraser cleared his throat again. "I always felt safe with you, Ray. Ray, also. I know Harry will, too."
Vecchio heard everything that had gone unspoken and his heart clenched. If he believed in that psychic claptrap he'd be sending out thought waves to Lieberman demanding he hug Benny right now.
"Thanks, Benny." Vecchio tried to infuse his voice with everything he wasn't saying. It was a guy thing--he was working on it. "So you think we can do this thing?"
"Certainly you can 'do this thing.'" Vecchio could hear the air quotes. "You know, you don't have to be perfect, Ray, just good enough."
Vecchio grinned, beginning to feel the anxiety lift. "That one of your own, or one from Grandma's library?"
"Donald Winnicott," said Fraser.
"And who's he? Don't tell me. Some shaman to a lost tribe of Inuit from Readagoodbook?"
"A psychoanalyst, actually. In fact, his treatise on the-"
Vecchio rolled his eyes with long-suffering affection, grateful that Fraser seemed back to his usual self. "Gotta go, Benny. You'll have to keep the class for another time. I'll send pictures, okay?"
"Understood. Goodbye, Ray, and good luck to all three of you."
"Thanks again, Benny. You know, for everything." Vecchio flipped the phone closed and leaned back in his chair, hands behind his head. Good enough he could do.
"That was your freak-out? Five minutes on the phone to Fraser and you're all Dad of the Year?" Ray didn't know whether to be pissed off or proud.
Vecchio shrugged. "That and buying out half the bookstore. What was the point of freaking out? You play the cards you're dealt. Sure, Harry was a wild card, but he was always ours, right?"
"Right," agreed Ray. "You, er, you think he needs to know that stuff at the beginning. The stuff about me?" Oh Jesus, he was blushing and wasn't that the most embarrassing thing ever? Well, no, that was the bank thing, but still, high on the list. They'd been together long enough now for him not to get all flipped around over Vecchio saying something nice about his smile. Sometimes Ray wondered if he'd made it past puberty at all.
"Aww," said Vecchio, pulling him down for a kiss. "You don't want Harry to know how cute your smile is, is that it?"
"Shut up, Vecchio," said Ray against Vecchio's neck.
Vecchio pushed him away, carefully took off his glasses, wiping and folding them and placing them next to the keyboard. "About that reward," he said, and it wasn't the change in focus that was making his eyes go dark.
Later, Ray lay head pillowed on Vecchio's chest, Vecchio's hand softly stroking through his hair. Vecchio's reward system was definitely something he could buy into, though for a second there he'd wondered if he was going to get a star chart just like Harry's. A thought crossed his mind and he laughed.
"What?" said Vecchio, halfway asleep.
"Remember what happened when we got the call from the lab?"
Ray's head wobbled as Vecchio laughed at the memory.
"We should probably keep that out of the story, huh?"
"What, how I got off the phone to find you butt-naked and demanding sex because of how we were going to be parents and it would never happen again?"
"Be fair, Kowalski, I was right. When did we have sex the next time after Harry came home?"
"Um, yeah, 'the next time we have sex he'll be sixteen' might have been a bit of an exaggeration. You know, just slightly."
"True," said Vecchio. "But we've never done it on the sofa again, have we?"
"Kitchen neither," agreed Ray.
"Kids," they said in unison.
The brand-new fathers hadn't visited Harry while they were waiting for the paternity results. "Too painful for him to be building a relationship with you and then have it taken away if things aren't in order," Ms. Demartin said.
She'd made a good point and Vecchio gave Kowalski half an hour of What-about-his-abandonment-issues? freak-out time and then shut him up with a blowjob, beer and Home Depot trifecta. Unable to resist, Vecchio'd headed to the nearest bookstore to dig out Donald Winnicott and his treatise on whatever-the-fuck and had come home with a stack of books he could barely see over. Books on kids and bereavement, books on raising boys, books on feeding children right, books on what to do when you inevitably fuck up. He had a book slipped into his pocket wherever he went--to work, to court, to the john. He was going to be the best-informed step-dad in Illinois if it ruined his eyesight to do it.
In the end they didn't go back to Child Services; Ms. Demartin brought Harry around with the paperwork. Tennessee (dry-cleaned to within an inch of his furry life) was waiting in Kowalski's arms.
"Told you he was finding a safe place for you to live," said Vecchio to Harry, who was half-hiding behind Ms. Demartin's legs. "Come and get him, then."
Harry's mouth curled up at the edges and he slid in through the door and up to Kowalski. "Can I have him now?" he said.
"Sure." Kowalski handed the bear over and Harry clutched it tightly. "I'm, um..." said Kowalski, casting a desperate look at Vecchio who nodded in support. "I'm your dad. Good to meet you." He stuck out a hand. Vecchio rolled his eyes. Because it wasn't like this situation was awkward enough without Kowalski behaving like some kind of repressed English lord or something.
Harry didn't take the hand, his eyes skittering away from Kowalski and around the apartment. "Okay," was all he said. Vecchio winced on behalf of Kowalski--that had to hurt--but they had to take it at the kid's pace. That's what all the books said. And Social Services. And Ma, and even Frannie, who was apparently an expert on kids now seeing as how she was now officially a Youth Liaison Officer. Not that Vecchio was proud of her or anything.
"May I?" asked Ms. Demartin, gesturing inside and drawing both Vecchio's and Kowalski's attention from Harry who had gone wandering off into the room. The pile of Lego, donated gladly by Maria ("I swear Tony plays with it more than the kids. I'm sick of nearly breaking my ankles on the stuff.") was like a Siren song to children everywhere.
Vecchio didn't have anything to do during the whole signing things procedure and it was probably best he didn't hover at Kowalski's shoulder bitching about how seriously? They weren't allowed to pursue second-parent adoption because he was a guy? Try telling that to the kid who wasn't going to discriminate between which one of them he threw up on after one ice cream too many. So he helped Harry construct something that looked like a boat had tried to give birth to an elephant. Still, Harry was completely focused on the task, placing each brick with deliberate care, so Vecchio had to assume he knew what he was doing, even if the end product was going to need a new noun. He didn't say much beyond, "No, not that one," or "yes, please," and Vecchio didn't want to push it, so they mostly worked in silence.
It was a while before Vecchio realized the low murmur of voices had stopped. A shadow fell across the two of them and he looked up.
"It's time for me to go, Harry," said Ms. Demartin, smiling down at him. "I know you and Tennessee will be very happy here. Maybe you can come and visit me some time to tell me how you're getting on?"
Harry reached for a red brick. "Bye bye," he said, looking at her briefly before returning to the task at hand.
Vecchio grimaced apologetically.
"I'm used to it, Lieutenant," said Ms. Demartin. "And let's face it, were a child to cling and beg me to stay I'd be doing my job badly."
"Good point, well made," said Vecchio, getting to his feet and shaking her hand. "Thanks for, you know, not making it difficult because of-" he waved a hand between him and Kowalski.
Ms. Demartin's lips twitched. "Detective Kowalski is Harry's father. His domestic arrangements are not our concern." She tilted her head to the side. "Unless, of course, he was running a procuring business from the premises, but given that you're duty bound to arrest him if he were, I'd say we were safe."
Vecchio stared. Had she just made a joke? He laughed weakly, in case, and let Kowalski guide her to the door.
"That's done, then," said Kowalski, leaning back on the door. "I'm officially a dad. Wow. That's...wow."
"Articulate, ain't you?" Vecchio crossed to the table and scooped up the papers Kowalski had left lying there, tapping them into a neat pile. The top paper was Harry's birth certificate. There it was in black and white-- Harold Mitch Mitchell--poor kid. "Hey, another one with the wrong name, eh, Vecchio?" he called.
"Jerk," said Kowalski, coming up behind him.
"Not in front of the kid," said Vecchio and managed not to jump ten feet when Kowalski goosed him.
It was a long day. Harry stayed with his Lego for a good while--establishing his comfort zone, Vecchio supposed--but after they'd coaxed him to the table for a peanut butter and jelly-based lunch he seemed to relax a little and was soon exploring the apartment. He showed no particular interest in his own room, but seemed fascinated by the small walk-in closet in the master bedroom, trying on Kowalski's boots that came all the way up to his thighs. He did his best to stomp about in them, but could only manage a sort of waddle, which did not at all match with the "Fee fie foe fum"-ing coming out of his mouth. After that he was into the drawers and Vecchio was able to spare a moment to be grateful that he'd remembered to move the porn and the sex toys to a high shelf. When Harry got taller they could always shove it all in the gun safe.
Then Harry wanted to draw and Kowalski sat with him drawing pictures of intricate-looking spaceships.
"You trying to tell me something, Kowalski?" asked Vecchio. "Like you want to be escaping? Because now is a bad time--Ma sent a huge lasagna so we don't have to cook and I don't think Harry and me can get through it on our own."
"I like spaceships," said Kowalski with a shrug. "They're cool."
"Spaceships are cool," echoed Harry and Kowalski nodded at him, all serious. Vecchio's heart maybe melted a little at the sight.
"Especially the ones that can go invisible," said Kowalski. "They're the coolest. Wanna see?"
"Yeah," breathed Harry, wide-eyed.
Kowalski held up a blank piece of paper. "There you go. Invisible spaceship."
Harry's pointy little face was utterly blank for a long moment and then slowly a smile unfurled itself. "Cool," he said, drawing out the vowel-sound through comically pursed lips.
Vecchio started laughing. Kowalski laughed, too. Harry stared between them and then back at the piece of paper. He started to laugh.
"He has no idea, has he?" said Vecchio, still laughing.
"Nope." Kowalski reached out to ruffle Harry's hair. Harry didn't seem to mind and Kowalski's smile got wider.
"He's gonna fit right in," said Vecchio. "The two of you--clueless wonders."
"Whatever you say, Vecchio." Still grinning, Kowalski picked up his pencil and started to draw.
By bedtime, Kowalski wasn't grinning any more. Harry had needed coaxing through dinner and would only eat from Vecchio's plate, saying Kowalski's was too hot and his own was too cold. "Are you Goldilocks?" Vecchio asked. "Because I don't want you sitting on my chair." Harry giggled and took the mouthful Vecchio was offering.
After dinner he'd gone back to his Lego construction and set up a wail when Kowalski told him it was time for his bath.
"I dun wanna bath! I'm already clean. I can be like a cat, see?" Harry licked his hand and rubbed it down his cheek. "Now, I'm done." He turned back to his bricks.
"First, that's gross and second, you need to bathe."
"Because I say so." No sooner were the words out of Kowalski's mouth then he was grimacing at Vecchio and miming blowing his head off.
"Because little boys who don't take their bath don't get stories before bed," said Vecchio, taking a chance. When they'd cleared Harry's stuff from his old apartment they'd found a whole shelf of well-thumbed books. Now stashed on the brand new bookcase in Harry's room, maybe they'd be a comfort to him. The kid probably didn't know if he was coming or going.
Harry's head whipped around. "Stories? More than one?"
"If you're in the bath in the next two minutes, you get three," said Vecchio.
Harry abandoned his bricks and sprinted for the bathroom.
"Negotiation 101," said Vecchio. "I should be in the FBI."
"You made the deal, you read the stories." Kowalski sounded tired and Vecchio went to put his arms around him, resting his chin on Kowalski's shoulder.
"That means you're on not-allowing-the-kid-to-drown-duty. Get." He gave Kowalski a little shove.
As he picked out a selection of books from Harry's shelves, Vecchio could hear the rise and fall of two voices, one high, one low, intercut with giggling and strange noises that could have been a sea lion or could have been an elephant in pain--with no visuals there was no way to tell. Day one and no one was dead. Yet. It was going in the win column.
"The Vecchio thing is weird," said Ray. "You should change it back to Ray." He squeezed Vecchio's shoulders and rested his chin on top of his head, the fuzz of Vecchio's hair prickly-soft against his skin.
"Really." Ray slid his hands down, criss-crossing Vecchio's chest and hugged him. The adoption thing had hurt Vecchio a lot. He'd had to sign consent forms to be allowed to pick up Harry from pre-school. When Ray'd been unreachable on a case and Harry'd had suspected appendicitis, Vecchio couldn't give consent to medical procedures. Lucky for all of them it had been a false alarm. They didn't talk about it but it was like a bruise that never healed. They'd almost beaten down the door to the courthouse the second same-sex parent adoption laws were passed. Finally, the state recognized what everyone else already knew: Vecchio was Harry's father, just as much as Ray was. Ray squeezed again.
"Water under the bridge," said Vecchio, reading his mind and twisting his head up and round to kiss the underside of Ray's chin. "It's signed, sealed and delivered so if you wanna run off with a stripper any time's good."
"Great," said Ray, "I'll go pack while you write the next part. Harry's sleeping, let him know I raided his piggy bank for dollar bills to stuff in my new girl's panties. I'll send him a postcard from Tijuana."
"Sure," Vecchio patted Ray's hand. "I mean, this is supposed to be an uplifting story about how one small boy transformed two grumpy cops into loving fathers. It's classic Hallmark. But if you want to turn it into a tale of tragedy and heartbreak with no surprise happy ending then fine, just you're selling to the wrong channel."
"Dork," said Ray.
"Not in front of the kid," said Vecchio and got a tweaked nipple for his trouble.
Ray was fairly sure Kowalski slept like hell that first night. The constant tossing and turning was a giveaway to someone whose detection skills were as finely honed as Ray's. Also, he'd had a shitty night himself. He'd spent half of it trying to figure out what Harry should call him and the rest of it straining his ears to see if Harry was restless or upset. He'd heard nothing, so either the kid was dead to the world or the walls in this place were thicker than Kowalski's shower-wailing had led him to believe.
Around 5:30, Ray gave up pretending to be getting any rest whatsoever and stumbled out to make coffee. The smell of fresh roast on the air was just beginning to put some perk into him when he felt a tug on his robe. Ray looked down.
Harry's hair stuck out at weird angles and there was a little white line from the corner of his mouth where his drool had dried. He had a round red mark on his cheek, which Ray could only figure came from sleeping on a button and his eyes still held the half-glazed expression of the barely awake. He was so much like his father Ray almost forgot to breathe.
They stared at each other in silence for a few seconds, then, "I'm hungry," Harry said. "Breakfast."
"Breakfast what?" returned Ray on politeness-autopilot.
"Breakfast, Ray," said Harry.
"Close enough." And Ray started pulling things from cupboards. 'Ray' it was, then, at least for now. They'd work it out eventually.
"Wanna help us finish off your room?" asked Kowalski once they'd managed to persuade Harry that the Spiderman underoos and chullo hat he'd chosen to wear maybe needed a couple extra items added on before it got to be called an outfit. They'd made a start--the walls were painted a warm yellow and they'd managed to put together a do-it-yourself racing car bed, bookcase and dresser without severe harm to limbs or their relationship--but they'd only had three days and besides, the books all said to let the child have some input. Ray trusted the books. Both Ray and Kowalski looked at Harry expectantly.
Harry looked puzzled. "I have a room," he said. "In my place, with my mom."
Kowalski looked at Ray in horror. "You take this one," he indicated with a furious waggle of his eyebrows. 'Nu-uh," Ray replied, with a sweep of his. "You started it."
"Harry," said Kowalski, dropping to a knee so the two of them were more or less at eye level. "Your mom passed-"
"D-E-A-D," said Ray through the corner of his mouth. "Grief counselors say you have to say D-E-A-D."
Kowalski's back went rigid and Ray moved a little closer towards him. "Your mom died, Harry. She was sick for a long time and then she died. She didn't want to leave you but she couldn't help it. She can't come back and you can't have your old room. You have to live here now. With us." He reached out and took Harry's hand. "We're real glad to have you."
Harry's lip wobbled and his eyes filled with tears. "Mommy isn't coming?"
Ray's hand found Kowalski's shoulder and gripped it. Oh, hell.
"She can't. If she could she would, because she loved you so much, but she can't." Kowalski rubbed a thumb up and down against Harry's wrist. "Being dead, you can't do stuff any more. You can't see people or talk or think or feel. It's hard to understand, I know. I'm sorry."
Harry blinked two, three times. "Okay," he said. And, "Can I have stars on the roof?" And, "I have to go pee." He hopped out of the room.
"What was that?" asked Kowalski, getting to his feet with a wince and a lot of creaking.
"'A normal expression of grief,'" parroted Ray with a wry smile. "You did really good there, you know?"
"Yeah. Now quick, kiss me before he comes back. I need something to keep me going if we're hitting IKEA again."
Turned out that Harry was fond of dragons ("the ones that don't eat you,") and they came home with a dragon lamp, a dragon pillow, a dragon robe and some dragon stencils for the wall. The three of them spent the afternoon painting dragons all over Harry's room, Kowalski finding a Sharpie to write in speech bubbles with variations on 'GRAAGH' in them.
"You do realize we can't say anything if he writes on the walls now, right?" said Ray.
Kowalski shrugged. "It's called 'self-expression', Vecchio. It's probably in your books somewhere. Also, I bet he can't even write yet."
"I can so write," piped Harry indignantly. He stuck his brush in the red paint and laboriously painted HARRY MITCHELL over the wall and a surprised dragon's face.
Ray bit his lip to stop himself from laughing at Kowalski's horrified expression. "See?" he said with a smug grin. "Not in front of the kid."
Kowalski tilted his head and narrowed his eyes. "Hmmm," he said, and then reached for his own brush. "S. Ray Kowalski," said the sweeping blue letters. Kowalski grinned at his son who was wide-eyed and amazed. "Every artist signs their work. Come on, Vecchio. Your turn."
Ray shook his head. "I can't figure out who the bad influence is," he said. "I think I've got my work cut out."
"Come on, Ray!" said Harry, jumping on the bed, Kowalski just saving the paint brush from dripping onto the new covers. "You do it now!"
Shaking his head one last time, Ray dipped his paintbrush in the green paint and wrote 'Ray Vecchio' the other side of Harry's signature to Kowalski's. He turned the 'o' into a smiley face.
"Cooool," said Harry, paint-spattered, bright-eyed and happy. Ray looked from him to Kowalski to find the exact same expression on his face. Not all days were going to be this easy, but Ray could see it, taste it, the family that they were going to be. Five days ago he'd thought he'd never want kids, now he already couldn't imagine being without Harry.
"Gotta say, I'm glad we're through the dragon phase. And the pirate phase. There's only so many ways you can explain why it's better to have functioning limbs than a hook and a peg-leg."
Vecchio nodded. "True. Though if you're telling me you didn't enjoy swashbuckling your way through Halloween I'd have to call you a big fat liar. You could have put someone's eye out with that sword--why d'you think I made you take an extra patch?"
Ray grinned, remembering Harry's gleeful face underneath penciled on facial hair. He'd yo-ho-ho'd the neighbors into handing over a stash of candy that had kept them going well past Thanksgiving. Maybe you couldn't send kids up chimneys to keep you in beer and smokes any more, but they sure came in useful for something.
"You going to write about that?"
Vecchio shrugged. "Maybe. When I get up to that part. It's the funeral next. And, you know, the whole, ah, settling-in issues."
Ray winced. "You could skip it."
"I could, but...I don't know. Benny says I got to make choices, but blah blah fundamental-building-blocks-of-our-lives-together. I think he means that it's not all fun stuff and maybe when Harry reads this he needs to see we loved him through the crappiness as well as the good stuff, you know?"
"Okay," said Ray slowly. "I see that. Just don't make it all costume drama trauma, yeah?"
"I hear you," said Vecchio. "And if I could hear you making me a cup of coffee so I can get this next part done, even better."
Ray flipped him the bird on his way out of the room with his best fuck-you attitude.
And then he made coffee.
The funeral was a real simple affair. Kowalski'd contacted Annegret's surviving relatives, a couple of cousins and an aunt living in Texas, but neither of the cousins had been able to afford the time off to make it up to Chicago, and the aunt had muttered dark imprecations about The Incident before saying she wasn't surprised Annegret had left her son motherless. There'd been steam coming off of Kowalski when he put the phone down on her. All this meant that besides Ray, Kowalski, Harry and the officiate there were only a handful of friends, most of whom kept tearfully hugging a confused Harry until Kowalski gently but firmly put himself in the way. "He's not your emotional crutch," Ray heard him mutter and did his best to run interference so no one would notice the black cloud that was beginning to develop over Kowalski's head.
They'd fought over whether to let Harry go to the funeral, Ray said yes (the books said yes and he was all about the books) and Kowalski said no, Harry did not need to be seeing a box with his dead mom inside, he was confused enough already. Ray countered with the fact that if he didn't see the coffin he'd keep thinking she was coming back and she wasn't going to do that, barring a zombie resurrection and Kowalski said he hoped that wouldn't happen because bad enough she'd died long and slow and practically in front of the kid the first time, it probably wouldn't do Harry any good to see her get her zombie head smashed in by a shovel. Then Ray said they should stop talking about Harry's mom like that and felt as ashamed as Kowalski looked.
In the end it was Frannie who decided the issue. "Ma didn't let me go to Grandpop's funeral," she said. "I was too little to understand, apparently. I never did get to say goodbye and I loved him more than I ever loved Pop." She sniffed. "Sorry. Let him go, Ray. It's his mom. She's all he ever had."
Kowalski had no argument against that. The night before, they sat at the table either side of Harry and sorted through some of Annegret's things that they'd picked up when they'd fetched Harry's, barrettes and cheap jewelry, mostly.
"Tomorrow we have to go say goodbye to your mom," said Kowalski. "Do you want to pick out something for her to wear?"
"Angels don't wear clothes," said Harry.
"Okay," said Kowalski, slowly. "But these aren't clothes." He kept snapping open and closing a daisy-decorated hairclip over and over again. Ray wanted so bad to snatch it out of his hands, but Kowalski wasn't the four-year-old in this picture.
"Mommy's not an angel yet," said Ray. "Don't you want her to look her best when she goes to meet God? She'll get the pick of the best angel jobs when he sees how beautiful you helped her look."
Kowalski's glare said 'I can't believe you're spouting this crap,' and, really, neither could Ray. But Harry was the one who'd brought up the angels and besides, he was four, what were they supposed to say? 'Fair enough, kid, it's all so much melted metal anyway."
Harry hmmed and picked up a pin shaped like a unicorn. It was silver and looked the most expensive thing there.
"Mommy loves this most. She says it's special because her mommy gave it her. Her mommy's dead." Harry pressed his finger against the unicorn's horn and pulled it away, looking at the indentation he'd made. "Everyone's dead," he said, and his expression turned to one of sheer panic. He scrambled onto Ray's knee and burrowed in. "Dun you be dead, okay?"
Ray hugged Harry tight. Jesus, what must be going on in that little head? "I'll do my best, tough guy. We both will. We don't have plans to be dead, not as long as you need us." He felt the friction against his chest where Harry was nodding his head and squeezed tighter. Kowalski reached across and rubbed Harry's back, looking helpless. Why couldn't everything be as easy as painting dragons? That was what Ray wanted to know.
"Bath time," said Ray and Kowalski picked up the unicorn and slipped it into his pocket.
"I need a stiff one," said Kowalski, as Harry splashed and played deep-sea divers with his sponge.
Ray shoved at his shoulder, "Not in front of the kid, Stanley."
Kowalski looked horrified. "I didn't even mean-"
Ray just smirked.
Harry was due to start preschool the day following the funeral. Apparently, it was a good idea to give him something else to focus on besides losing his mom. Ray thought that maybe Harry was having to face down a whole set of 'news' right now and that one more was asking a lot, but Kowalski had run out of compassionate leave and Ray wasn't going to be able to cook the vacation books any longer. Add to that the fact that the preschool was right by the 2-7 with a good reputation and 8 through 5 care so Ray could take him and pick him up. They were lucky to get a place, and it wasn't like they had any choice.
Still, Ray felt for the little guy. He put a pan of milk and water on to boil to make oatmeal for a filling and nutritious breakfast--just like the book said--started the coffee, and went to wake Harry. He found him shivering and whimpering in the middle of his bedroom floor, his pajama pants soaked through and his face streaked with tears. When Harry saw Ray his face crumpled and he began to wail, gasping and gulping at air. Ray was horrified. In two steps he had Harry up and in his arms and was trying very hard not to think about the wetness of the little body pressed against his best silk robe. He should've known better.
"Hey, hey, are you trying to kill our kid?" came Kowalski's sleepy voice as Ray passed him coming out of their bedroom.
"New school ritual," said Ray, heading for the bathroom. "Make 'em cry before the bullies do." He put Harry down gently and started to run a bath. "Need some help there, little guy?"
Harry nodded mutely, his body still shuddering with sobs.
"He wet the bed," Ray said unnecessarily as Kowalski bent down to unbutton Harry's pajama top, 'arms up' clearly being beyond him at this point.
"Bath or sheets?"
"Bath. Okay, Harry, one leg up. And the other one? Good job, kiddo."
Ray left them to it and headed for Harry's room.
"We'll pick up a rubber sheet tonight, right?" called Kowalski.
It was only when he smelled burning that Ray remembered the pan on the stove. He was going to have to work on his multi-tasking skills.
Getting Harry to preschool after that was a piece of cake. It helped that his teacher, Miss Reyes, had the most beautiful smile Ray thought he had ever seen. It melted Harry on sight and if it was having that effect on a four-year-old, Ray was glad that a) he was taken and b) it wasn't directed at him.
They left him being led off to the home corner where a bunch of girls homed in on him, pulling and tugging him into their game.
"You can be Grandma,' said a little girl with glasses and a headful of spiral curls. "I'm the wolf."
"Okay," said Harry, and didn't look back.
The last thing they saw as they closed the door behind them was a flowery bonnet being crammed on to his head and a purse shoved into his hand.
"You'll remember to pick him up, right?" said Kowalski as he and Ray parted ways outside the building.
"No," said Ray. "I'll definitely leave him there and feed into his abandonment issues because what I want to do more than anything is make sure he never stops wetting the bed. Ever."
"What I love most about you is the way you care," said Kowalski, looping his fingers through Ray's belt loops and pulling him in for a brief kiss. Time was that Ray would've been frantically looking around to make sure no one saw. These days, if he'd seen a shit (which thanks to the anti-fouling laws was an increasingly rare occurrence) he wouldn't have given it. He kissed back then flicked Kowalski on the forehead.
"Go earn some money, Tigger," he said.
"That's the last time we watch The Tigger Movie," Kowalski retorted, but Ray was already walking away tossing a 'Ta-ta forever' over his shoulder.
"So?" crackled the voice at the end of the line.
"So? So what?" Ray twisted the phone cord around his finger and spun in his chair, cursing inwardly as he tangled himself up.
"How are the three of you getting on? Have you bonded? Has he ruined your furniture yet? Is he toilet-trained?"
"Has he...? He's not a cat, Lieberman." Ray untangled himself with a grimace. "We just took him for his first day at preschool."
"'Ah'? What kind of response is that, 'Ah'? We had to put him in preschool, we have to work. We can't all sit around cozy log cabins in the frozen wastes whipping up cordon bleu moose stew for rugged Mountie boyfriends."
Lieberman's laugh could only be described as knowing and it irritated Ray in parts no other laugh could reach. He bristled.
"Calm down, Ray," Lieberman said. "I'm not impugning your alternatively-lifestyled-two-working-parent-nuclear-family. I was merely imagining the turbulent state of your mind. You, my friend, must be freaking. Out."
Ray unbristled. "Yeah," he agreed, rubbing the back of his neck, "so far today I've managed to lose the budget sheet for last month, accidentally fire the most competent desk sergeant we've ever had and signed off on a stakeout that's probably going to end in jail for the cops, and it's not even lunchtime yet."
Lieberman laughed again. "You know he'll be fine, right? My first day at school, I threw a full-scale tantrum when Noah Levine took the blocks I was playing with. According to my mother, who, despite being prone to flights of fantasy when it comes to her bunions, is usually reliable about these things, I spent the whole of the rest of the day whimpering in a corner while the teacher attempted to lure me out with promises of finger-painting. I was not to be swayed." He paused and Ray heard him sigh. "Still, it's not like I can pinpoint that as the moment my life took a dramatic turn for the worse. What I'm trying to say is whatever happens, he'll rise above it. The question is, will you?"
"Man, first day at school. I was flaky cop that day, for sure."
Vecchio raised his eyebrow and said nothing.
"Okay, okay, more flaky. Whatever, Vecchio. I accidentally made a guy admit to 173 separate parking violations when I was supposed to be taking a statement from him as a witness to murder. Pleased the Lieu, confused the hell out of me."
"Aww," said Vecchio, tugging Ray down onto his lap and tucking his chin over Ray's shoulder. "It was a day, I'll give you that. Little guy was so tuckered out when we got him home."
"Yeah," said Ray, leaning his cheek against the fuzz of Vecchio's head. "And so was I."
"Consider yourself lucky you didn't have to wrestle him away from Aneesha. I thought I was never getting him out the door."
"Yeah," said Ray, not really listening. "You know how this whole thing might work easier?"
"What whole thing?"
"The you typing till ass o'clock in a little room all by yourself while I do pining-away-on-the-couch thing."
"You're right here, Stanley."
Ray waved his hand, accidentally smacking it against the desk. "Ow! Motherfuck." He shook it violently until Vecchio caught it and brought it to his mouth, kissing it with a resounding smack.
"All better now?" he asked and Ray could hear the smirk in his voice.
"Yeah, thanks for that, Pa. Anyway, my point is you're in here, I'm in there. Usually. Usually in there. Alone. With my thoughts." And here, Ray ground down into Vecchio's lap. "My lonely, lonely thoughts."
Vecchio snorted into Ray's ear.
"Grossness, Raimundo. Control yourself," Ray said with a grin, rubbing the spittle on his cheek off on Vecchio's head. "As I was saying. You need a laptop."
"You were saying I need a laptop?"
"That is what I was saying."
"You were saying it through the medium of telepathy because I was not getting that."
"I was saying it through the medium of oh my god could you pay attention through a whole interred thought process, please?"
"Oh, that medium," said Vecchio, knocking his head against Ray's.
"Yeah, that one."
"And I think you mean 'inferred'."
"Whatever. Get a laptop."
"Okay, then," Vecchio shoved the mouse towards Ray. "The power of Google, consider it yours. Though how it's gonna be different with a laptop..."
Ray twisted to face Vecchio and gave him his best feral grin. "Oh, it'll be different," he said.
Vecchio had the good sense to look scared.
If the new fathers had had hopes that the bed-wetting would stop once Harry settled down at preschool, then it was a good thing they weren't gambling men because they were most definitely out of luck. The stripping and washing of sheets and child became part of the morning rhythm, Ray learning to set the coffee maker for fifteen minutes earlier so Kowalski at least had his eyes open while he was scrubbing Harry in the bath.
Harry seemed to take it all in his stride, though; he'd stopped wailing after the first few days and just waited patiently to be dealt with. Sometimes he would sing little songs to himself. "I had a pee. A pee had me. Now I'm wet as wet can be." The first time Ray found himself humming it at work he knew he was in trouble.
About two weeks after the first bed-wetting incident, Ray looked up from the book he was reading on Children Coping with Loss and said, "We need to make a scrapbook."
"A scrapbook. You know, pictures of Harry and his mom, places they used to go, that sort of thing. Apparently it-" Ray looked briefly back down at the book and then up again, "-'assists the grieving process and provides a focused repository for memories."
Kowalski adjusted his glasses, narrowly avoiding stabbing himself in the eye with the needle he was using to sew buttons back on Harry's PJs. "Sure," he said. "But I'm not going in the craft store. They're always full of old ladies who want to collage their cats onto stuff. They scare me, man." He paused. "Also, they smell like kitty litter."
Ray shuddered. "We'll send Frannie," he said.
Frannie was an inspired choice, Ray knew he'd never have thought of photo corners shaped like Disney characters but Harry seemed to love them judging by the numbers they had to scrape off of the table. Ray and Kowalski pulled out the photographs they'd managed to salvage from Annegret's belongings and they left the things--scrapbook, remaining photo corners, photographs, stamps and stickers--on the coffee table and then very, very carefully ignored them.
"No pressure," Ray'd said. "The book says keep it no pressure."
Harry, like all kids, magpies and Kowalskis unable to resist shiny new things, took a brief look and then disappeared off to his bedroom.
Ray and Kowalski looked at each other.
"Should I?" said Kowalski, indicating the direction Harry had gone.
"Yeah. No. Maybe?" said Ray, and Kowalski was just grumbling about people who were supposed to be good at helping being the most unhelpful when Harry came back, Tennessee grasped by a paw.
He plomped onto his backside next to the table and picked up a photograph of Annegret smiling into the camera, shading her eyes against the sun.
"Mommy," he said, and kissed the photograph.
Ray's heart clenched and Kowalski reached for his hand, squeezing it hard.
"She was very pretty, your mommy," Kowalski said. "Wanna put the picture in this book?" He let go of Ray's hand, sliding to the floor the opposite side of the table to Harry and indicating the scrapbook. "We can put lots of pictures in here so you can see your mommy whenever you want. What do you think?"
"And my mommy can see me?" asked Harry, still clutching the photo.
"I'm not putting you in a book, if that's what you're asking," said Kowalski. "You're not flat enough to go on a shelf."
Harry giggled and, if it was possible, Ray fell a little bit more in love with Kowalski right then and there.
Harry put the photograph down and opened the book. "There," he said, pointing with a chubby finger at the center of the first page. "Mommy goes there. With Tinkerbell."
"Well, okay then," said Kowalski and they got to work.
When the last letter of 'Harry and his Mom' was written on the cover with a flourish and the final stickers stuck, there was no way the coffee table was ever going to be the same again. Ray knew he'd be finding glitter in hard to reach places for the next, oh, decade or so, but Harry was flushed and happy, talking about all the things he and his mom had done together. The park they had visited almost every day, the special breakfasts on the days she didn't have to work, the stories she'd read to him and the trips they'd plan to the moon or to where the wild things were.
Ray knew kids, though, and Harry's eyes were a little too bright; he was riding right on the edge.
"Okay," he said. "Time for dinner, I think."
"Macncheese," said Harry, rubbing his finger through spilled glitter and wiping it on his cheek.
"Sure," said Ray. "And what vegetable would sir be wanting with that?"
"Green cheese," said Harry.
"Nice try, tough guy. Now pick something with leaves."
"Cheese trees?" Harry was trying his cutest smile, but Ray'd had years of practice against the persuasive tactics of his entire family, Benny, and Kowalski. It was going to take more than dimples and tiny teeth to sway him from the path of vitamins.
"Green beans it is," said Ray.
"But I. Don't. Wannaaaaaa." Harry's lip wobbled and he clambered over the coffee table, narrowly avoiding knocking over the glitter pot and dropped onto Kowalski's lab, weeping piteously. "Daddy, Daddy, don't make me eat be-e-e-eeeeeeans."
Kowalski's arms automatically went around his son, but his head jerked up and he met Ray's eyes, which seemed to have got something stuck in them, glitter most like.
"He did, right?"
"Yeah," said Ray, a smile breaking out across his face. "He really did. That's-"
"Yeah," agreed Kowalski, who seemed to be suffering from the eye-glitter problem also.
"He's still eating the beans," said Ray, and went to make dinner.
Harry took the scrapbook to bed with him that night, Ray rescuing it from under his cheek, grimacing at the traces of glitter left behind on both Harry's skin and the pillow. Frannie was punishing him for something, he was sure.
He took it with him to pre-school the next day, too, and, for the next few days, whenever he wasn't running around, burning off his seemingly limitless energy (he definitely got that from his father), the only thing Harry wanted to do was look through his scrapbook, telling Tennessee the same stories over and over. He never said much to Ray or Kowalski about it after the first day, which was why it startled Ray when Harry said,
"When's Mommy coming back?"
Ray's hand froze in mid air, the knife it was holding dripping jelly onto the counter. He raced through his memory banks, trying to remember what the books said about dealing with this. Putting the knife down, he turned to look at Harry who was sitting on his booster seat, waving his legs and holding his glass of milk with both hands. He didn't look sad--just curious.
"She's not coming back, Harry. She died. We said goodbye. Remember?"
Harry frowned. "With the unicorn?"
"With the unicorn." Ray took a seat next to the little boy. "That's why we made the book, so you can always remember your mom, even if she's gone."
"But when you go, you come back," said Harry.
"True," said Ray, and waited.
Harry's frown deepened. "And Daddy comes back. But Mommy can't."
"Like Littlefoot's mom."
"Yes," said Ray, still unsure as to why, exactly, Maria had let her kids sit Harry down in front of a movie in which a cute cartoon dinosaur had his mom eaten in front of him. Harry had been a mess when Ray'd extricated him from the pats and hugs of his cousins. Still, if it was going to help now...
"Like the flies that squish on the buzzy thing at Corner Joe's."
"Hmmm," said Harry in a serious voice. "I dun think I'm'anna do dying. It's boring. You can't even watch TV." He finished the rest of his milk in a gulp, slid off the chair and skipped away.
Ray slumped over the table. "You stick to your guns, kiddo," he muttered into his folded arms. He needed to shift himself--there was a perfectly good sandwich going to waste just a couple of feet over.
"How many times did we have that same conversation?" asked Ray, passing the laptop back over to Vecchio.
"Eleventy billion," said Vecchio, deleting 'and that was because Kowalski was the most awesum in the world,' with nothing more than a tiny shake of his head in acknowledgment of Ray's valiant attempt to improve the story.
"How to Tell You've Got a Small Kid, reason 48: Made up numbers." Ray paused. "It was a lot, though. A lot."
"Yeah." Vecchio shut the laptop and slid it onto the coffee table, grabbing the untouched beer that had been waiting for him the last half hour. "He did manage variations on a theme, you gotta give him that."
Ray nodded. "My favorite was probably the one at the diner where he freaked out about his burger being made of dead and wouldn't eat meat for a week. And by favorite I mean the one that made me want to put my head in an oven."
"Aww," said Vecchio, knuckling Ray's head. "You didn't have to be offended on the cow's behalf, you know."
Ray slapped Vecchio's hand away. "We got through it, though."
"We did. Because we are a team."
"U-huh. You set 'em up, I drive the getaway car."
"Okay. Or? We're a team." Vecchio grinned around the mouth of his beer bottle.
"That, too, Mr. Obnoxious," Ray knocked his foot against Vecchio's. "So, you gonna write about the first time Harry called you 'Pa'?"
Vecchio shrugged. "Thought about it. But it's just the same thing twice, right? And repetition doesn't drive the plot forward."
"You think this thing has a plot? A plot's like, I don't know, a murder happens, cops get on the case, bad guys get kicked a lot, something crappy almost happens and then it all works out."
"No," said Ray, stubborn. "It works out."
"Stanley Raymond Kowalski," said Vecchio, reaching over and tugging Ray's ear, "you're a happy ending freak and I never even knew. Should've guessed."
Once again, Ray swatted at Vecchio's hand. "Don't worry about plot. Write about the Pa thing, okay? For me."
"Okay," said Vecchio, and it didn't take a genius to see that he was pleased.
It would have made for a more interesting story had some major uplifting occasion occurred that ended in 'and Harry never wet his bed again,' complete with a Hallelujah Chorus and rapturous applause from the studio audience, but that wasn't how it went down. What happened was one day he woke up dry. Two days after that he wet again, but about a month later when he'd been dry for a week Ray and Kowalski started to feel hopeful that it was all over. Good for Famiglia Rays, bad for detergent manufacturers everywhere.
"You know what, Harry?" said Ray, handing him a t-shirt. "I think somebody here deserves an ice cream sundae."
"Me?" said Harry, soft sprigs of hair and nothing else poking out of the top of his tee as he tugged at it.
Ray grinned, straightening the bed covers. "I was thinking Tennessee, but, yeah, maybe you."
"Ice cream!" squealed Harry, running for the door.
"Ice cream," agreed Ray following behind. "You missing something?" he asked, looking pointedly at Harry's legs.
Harry followed his gaze. "Pants! I don't have pants." He looked back up at Ray. "Ice cream made me forget my pants. Huh. I'll go get them." He skipped off.
"You know," Kowalski's voice floated over from the kitchen. "I can think of some other things that make me forget pants."
"I bet. Because you are more easily distractable than a puppy in a new place."
There was a pause in which Ray could practically hear the disappointment coming off of Kowalski.
"Not in front of the kid? Right?"
"Are you okay?" said Ray, suppressing a smile. "Do you need me to call someone to watch you while we're gone?"
"I hate you."
"Yes. Yes, you do." And if the power of smug could be transferred into electricity, Ray's smirk could've lit up the whole building.
Harry came skipping back, newly pants-wearing, flopping himself onto the floor and pulling on his sneakers. "Ch-ch-choc'lit FUDGE. I want ch-ch-choc'lit FUDGE," he sang under his breath.
Ray figured it would probably put him in jail if he actually ate Harry's face for being over the legal limit of adorable, so he settled for ruffling his hair and saying, "Come on, tough guy. Time and sundaes wait for no man."
"What about Saturdays?" asked Harry, scrambling to his feet and putting a hand in Ray's.
Ray pulled a face, considering. "Oh, Saturdays wait. Mostly," he said. "Go kiss your dad goodbye."
"GOODBYE, DADDY!" yelled Harry, not moving from the door. Probably because it was a few steps closer to the promised ice cream, Ray figured.
He waggled a finger in his ear. "I wasn't using my hearing anyway," he said as Kowalski appeared, the pink, sud-covered rubber gloves lending a certain domestic appeal to the ratty t-shirt and jeans.
"Proper goodbye, short stuff," said Kowalski, grave-faced, and Harry tipped his face up for a kiss.
"I figure we got six more months of that before he decides he's too manly," said Ray as Harry clung to Kowalski's neck. "We should make the most of it."
Ray took Harry to the park first to run off some energy and work up an appetite for his sundae. Keeping a watchful eye on Harry as he threw himself down slides with no apparent thought for his safety, Ray got talking to some old guy who was there with his grandkids.
They were deep in conversation about how the state of baseball at any given time was a reflection of society when Harry barreled up, pounding on Ray's thighs.
"Iiiiiiiiiiiice cream. Ice cream. Ice cream!" he chanted.
"I'll scream if you don't stop with the leg torture," said Ray, grimacing.
"Sorry, Ray," said Harry, and Ray cast a sidelong glance at the old guy to see if he was going to say anything about Harry calling him by his first name. It wouldn't be the first time..
"Going for ice cream, huh?" was all the man said. "Lucky kid. You be good for your pa, okay?"
"I'm always good," protested Harry, as Ray stood.
The old man smiled at Harry. "Sure," he said, adding, "which makes you pretty unique."
"You can't be pretty unique," said Harry solemnly. "You're either unique or not. There's no in-betweens."
Ray took Harry's hand, mugging an apologetic glance at the old man. "Sorry. It's a bugbear of mine. You know kids, they pick stuff up." He tugged at Harry's hand. "Come on, little guy, let's go get that sundae."
"What about Saturday?" Harry said as they walked off.
"Still waiting," said Ray. "Still waiting."
Harry was wearing a chocolate moustache before he'd barely made a dent in his ice cream. Ray'd been watching with fascination--the spoon was making it into the kid's mouth, he didn't seem to be plastering the contents onto his upper lip and yet there it was, making Ray think of Kowalski and a very bad undercover gig. There was going to have to be handkerchiefs and licking and that never went down well.
They weren't talking much; Harry attacked food with the same concentration he gave to everything, which was fierce while it lasted but when it was done it was done. Ray was taking bets with himself about how much of the sundae would be in (or on) the kid before Harry's attention flip-flopped and he discovered the resonant properties of the booth bench or started loudly pointing out the flaws their fellow customers would prefer went unremarked. ("Look, Ray! His nose has another big nose on it and it's yellow!" was a personal favorite.) He figured somewhere between a half and three-quarters. This was why all Ray was nursing was a cup of black coffee. No way was he keeping his girlish figure if he was eating for two.
Sure enough, Harry was two-thirds through with the beginnings of an evil-Harry chocolate goatee when the spoon clattered on the table.
"You done?" asked Ray.
"Mmmm," said Harry dreamily, staring out the window.
Ray pulled the dish across and dug in.
"Pa, why are there no girl pirates?"
Ray choked around the spoon in his mouth. Did Harry just...? Wow, this ice cream was tough to swallow. What had they put in the sauce? Ray blinked rapidly, his throat working.
"I think there are girl pirates," he said, proud of his ability to keep it together. "I didn't take pirate class at school, though, so I don't know for sure. We could pick up Daddy and go to the library to find out if you want."
Harry beamed. "Daddy and Pa and me, go to the library," he sang. "Oooh, that rhymed." And he sang it again. And again.
And, even though by the time they got back to the apartment Ray had heard the same song at least infinity times, he never once got sick of it.
"Aww, you," said Ray. Setting the laptop down he picked up Vecchio's hand and kissed the knuckles one by one. "Anyone ever tell you you're kinda cute?"
"Yes," said Vecchio, and smirked.
"Anyone who isn't me?"
"Case closed," said Ray, hitting Vecchio's thigh with Vecchio's hand. "And eating for two, huh? You got something you want to share?"
"Yes. Your reading comprehension sucks. Also, I was pregnant with your love child and lost it in a game of cards. Kowalski, you're an idiot."
Ray grinned. "I could get me an ice cream moustache and we could play bad porn movies with me as the undercover cop and you as the hooker with a heart of gold." He shifted quickly, straddling Vecchio's thighs and nuzzling at his neck.
"ADD was invented for you, right?" said Vecchio, tilting his head to give Ray better access. "That's...mmmm...we should take this upstairs."
"You know that we're further away from Harry here than we are in our room, right?"
"I didn't say it was logical," said Vecchio, pulling Ray's hands out of his pants and holding them out wide. "I'm a parent. The logic pathways got atrophied to make room for paranoid fear. Now get your butt up those stairs if you want to get laid."
Ray slithered backwards off Vecchio, pulling them both up. "It's hot when you talk daddy at me," he said with a wiggle of his hips. "I'll suck you off, you scold me."
"Really?" Vecchio's eyebrows climbed.
"Yeah, no," said Ray and towed Vecchio behind him all the way to their room.
"Harry, stop kicking the seat," Ray said, flicking a glance at the mirror. "You'll scuff the upholstery. Also? It's annoying."
The kicking stopped, but before Ray could draw breath to ask Harry about his day it began again.
"Harry!" warned Ray with a sharp edge to his voice. "I said stop and I meant stop. Don't make me tell you again."
Harry stopped. Ray glanced at the mirror again, expecting to see some variation on a scowl or pout--Harry had his dad's best sulky expressions down cold--but he just looked miserable.
"Hey, little guy," said Ray, concerned. "What's making you sad?"
"Nothing," said Harry in a voice so small Ray had to strain to catch it.
"Doesn't seem like nothing. Tell you what, when we get home I'll break out the cookie dough and you can tell me all about it over a glass of milk. Deal?"
Harry didn't reply, but Ray saw the reflection of his little head bob up and down and took it as a yes.
Two cookies later, Harry still wasn't talking, but then Ray began to unpack his school bag. He pulled out a piece of construction paper, folded over and over. Unfolding it, Ray found himself looking at a painting of what he assumed by the bright yellow slashes of paint in the general head area to be Kowalski, holding the cactus-like arm-hand of two smaller circles, which seemed to represent Harry. This meant that the two larger circles with the red line down the front on the other side of Harry, clutching his other cactus hand, must be him. Good choice of tie, there. Underneath the picture the teacher had printed in thick, black marker 'Harry and Daddy and Pa go to the park.'
Ray smiled and held out the picture to Harry. "Wanna put this up on the fridge? It's a while since we had a new masterpiece from you."
Harry burst into tears.
Ten minutes of rocking, cuddling and soothing later, Ray was finally able to decipher what Harry was saying through the hiccupping breaths. He didn't like what he heard.
"And then he said that you would go to Hell because you love Daddy and so would Daddy and I would go too because I've got no mummy and I live with two quo- qua- quirs."
Ray tightened his grip around Harry's small form and pressed his lips tight together.
"And I don't even know what quirs are and I don't want you to go to He-e-e-e-e-ll," Harry continued, wailing. "It's hot and there are monkeys. Evil monkeys."
Whoa. Okay. The whole Hell thing (with or without evil monkeys) was going to have to be dealt with at a later date. Right now, Ray was going to get his Bookman on because somebody's ass needed to be kicked.
Of course, he'd figured without the need to make an appointment, and by 24 hours later Ray was feeling the perfect balance between cool and menacing. Harry was playing with Lego on the floor of the waiting area outside the Principal's office when Kowalski came in.
"Daddy!" Harry squealed, and threw himself at Kowalski's legs.
Kowalski petted him. "Hey there, short stuff, how you doing?"
"Good!" said Harry, beaming up at Kowalski before flinging himself back at his Lego.
Kowalski gave Ray a look. Ray shrugged. "Golden boy wasn't in today regurgitating his parents' crappy attitudes to embracing difference," he said, adding a warbled, "What a difference a day maaaaakes."
"Quit it, Vecchio," said Kowalski, slumping in the seat next to Ray. "How'm I supposed to keep my mad on if you're singing?"
"Oh, I'm sorry, Stanley. Am I distracting you with my guileless charm again? I have no control over it."
"Yeah, you have no control over your-"
"Not in front of the kid, Kowalski."
Kowalski threw up his hands. "I wasn't even thinking that! Don't be putting words into my mouth. Jeez, Vecchio."
Ray smirked and put his hand on Kowalski's thigh. "I'm sure I don't know what you're talking about," he said. Checking that Harry was fully engrossed, Ray slid his hand slowly up Kowalski's leg, laughing like a drain when Kowalski sprang out of the chair. "Like a cat! On a hot tin roof!" Ray sputtered.
Kowalski flipped him the bird.
At that moment, the door to the Principal's Office opened.
"No, you see, you can't do that. It's not buddies," Kowalski said later, over a post-mortem beer.
"What? Fondle you in public?"
"Yes. No. Fuck. Yes. No!"
Ray smacked Kowalski upside the head. "Don't mention it," he said. "Recursive feedback loops are a freaking nightmare."
Kowalski scowled. "Not the in front of the kid, the principal and the whole world thing, no. All day I was practicing, you know. Finding the line between being Mr. Menacing and expressing the, um, natural desire to kick the little fucker in the head until he popped like a watermelon, that sort of thing. And you ruined it. With your...your...your-" Kowalski waved his beer bottle in Ray's general direction, "-incitement to boner."
"Incitement to what now?"
Kowalski, though, was on a roll and ignored Ray and carried straight on. "I had rage, Vecchio, and you made me go and use it all up for boner-deflation purposes. And you know what? I do not need another scene where Harry asks if I've got an extra gun I keep in my pocket, okay, thanks very much."
"Aww, I'm sorry, Stanley," Ray said, not feeling sorry at all. "Though, you know, nothing was lost." He paused. "Except your boner," he added with a smirk. "I think I had the principal-menacing thing covered."
"Yeah," agreed Kowalski, leaning his head onto Ray's shoulder. "You know, I think he thinks you're connected."
"That's the Bookman for you," said Ray, cheek resting against Kowalski's hair. "Pretty sure I saw some Puzo on his bookshelves; I can't help it if the Principal does not appear to know fantasy from reality."
"I know it, though," said Kowalski, and Ray recognized that tone in his voice.
"Like that, is it?" said Ray, taking a long swig of beer and straightening up. He put down the bottle with deliberate care, widening his legs.
"The Bookman is in the building," he said. "Assume the position."
"Are you trying to up this story's rating or what, Vecchio?" asked Ray, peering at the screen.
"It's not a movie, Stanley. It doesn't have a rating."
"Are you sure?"
"Sure I'm sure, I'm not the one that needs my eyes tested. Twice-yearly." Vecchio snapped the laptop shut, narrowly missing Ray's nose.
"Hey! Watch it."
"My point exactly," said Vecchio. "You gotta get to the optometrist before you wind up all squinty and hunched like the chess guys in the park."
"I like the chess guys. They tell good stories and sometimes they have sandwiches. Cheese and ham. The good kind, not the processed crap."
Vecchio shook his head. "Way to miss the point, tough guy. I like knowing you can see stuff, okay? Mostly I like that you can see me."
Ray hated the optometrist and he'd been all ready to put up a fight, but really? What kind of defense did he have against something like that? "Aww, Vecchio, you love me so hard," he said.
Vecchio smiled and shoved Ray's shoulder with his own. "I love something that's hard," he replied.
"The New York Times crossword? Yeah, I know," said Ray, grinning. "But listen, you can't leave that bit in. The boner bit. You want Harry to be reading about that? Really?"
"Nah, I just wrote that bit for you," said Vecchio. "God, if I was going to write about boners you know what it'd be, right? From that first year."
Ray cringed at the memory. Harry'd been living with them about three months, long enough for him and Vecchio to relax about the whole sex thing. The kid'd had a busy day with his cousins and was out for the count, or so they'd thought.
"Soooo," Vecchio'd said.
"Soooo," Ray'd returned, rolling on top of Vecchio and pinning him down, kissing him wet and messy, like they hadn't spent the last 90 days of their lives being run ragged by a four-year-old. Vecchio'd kissed back and...things...were in progress when the creak of hinges, the pattering of feet and a slight bounce in the mattress signified Harry's presence in the bed. Ray'd rolled off Vecchio so fast he'd almost gotten whiplash.
"I can't sleep. The dragons keep snoring," Harry'd said, wriggling between them, his foot missing Ray's disappointed hard-on by the width of an arrest warrant for indecent public behavior. Ray'd twisted himself nearly in half trying to point his hips one way and his shoulders the other, willing Harry not to notice his dad trying to turn himself into a Moebius strip. Vecchio's gentle snickering hadn't helped either.
"Yeah, let's keep that between us," said Ray, with a protective glance at his crotch. "You know what? Let's agree to keep all boner-related material for the uncut, late night edition."
Vecchio snickered and Ray punched him in the arm. "I'm not even going there," he said. "I'm rising above you."
Vecchio cracked up completely, then.
"You have a filthy mind, Vecchio," said Ray, standing up and pointing his finger at Vecchio's forehead.
Vecchio caught the finger and brought it to his mouth, sucking it in lightly. "Oh, yeah?" he said, releasing the finger. "You love it."
There was nothing Ray could say to that.
Ray had learned to tune out most of the crashes and bangs he heard these days. He'd been jumpy when Harry first came, imagining all sorts of disasters befalling the kid with every uncataloged thump, but he'd learned that bad = yelling and as long as there was no yelling it was only the furniture that was in danger, and really? There wasn't a hell of a lot he could do about that. So the latest round of slamming drawers barely grazed his radar as he got to work on the cupcakes he'd promised Miss Reyes for Harry's class bake sale. Harry had been 'helping' by waving around the spatula, but he'd suddenly paused mid-wave, shouted "Spatula!" as if he was Archimedes in the bath and run out of the kitchen.
"I am Olivia, I am good at lots of things," declared Harry, pirouetting back into the kitchen, spatula in hand.
"Okay, Olivia," said Ray, grinning. "I see you're good at wearing Daddy's t-shirts."
Harry (Olivia) stopped his twirling, wide-eyed. "This isn't Daddy's t-shirt, this is my dress," he said. "I am good at being pretty."
Ray's grin got wider. "U-huh," he said. "Red becomes you very well, my little piglet. You wanna come help bake or you wanna go be good at singing loud songs? You know how Daddy loves the loud songs." Well, okay, Kowalski didn't love them, but seeing as his idea of 'reviewing case notes' was napping with the folder over his face, Ray couldn't see the harm in a little light music to, er, assist.
"Ooh, ooh!" said Harry, standing on tiptoes. "I'm a little teapot!"
"Sure," said Ray to Harry's retreating back and waited. In 3, 2, 1...and right on cue the singing started up followed by a startled yelp from Kowalski and the sound of a hundred pieces of paper fluttering slowly to the ground. Ray laughed. A lot.
The Olivia the Pig thing had been going on for two weeks solid now, ever since Harry's cousin Gina had read him the book and dressed him up with a red bow in his hair. He'd cried when they'd tried to take him home without the book, and Gina, at the wise old age of seven, had shrugged and given it to him. It was the only book he'd listen to before bed, usually twice through, and he'd stopped answering to Harry and refused to eat bacon because Gina had told him it came from pigs.
The dress thing was new, though.
Ray measured out the flour to the strains of 'Little Rabbit Foo Foo'. He hummed along.
"Pa, pa, pa, help!" squealed Harry, skidding to a stop and grabbing Ray's legs from behind. "The fairy's going to turn me into a Goooooon."
"Did you keep bopping the field mice?"
"I'm coming to get you, you mouse bopper," boomed Kowalski's voice from the hallway.
Harry squealed again and clung tighter to Ray's legs.
"You still got that spatula?"
"Yes!" The spatula narrowly missed someplace Ray really didn't want it to go as Harry shoved it forward to prove its existence.
Kowalski's leg appeared in the doorway, his foot shaking menacingly before he stomped it down on the floor.
Cue more squealing and leg-clinging. It was possible Ray was going to lose all circulation to his lower extremities.
"Then you're okay. Goonification can't work if you have hold of the spatula."
Then Kowalski rushed them both and the whole thing devolved into a tickle fight that resulted in both Ray and Kowalski flat on the floor, covered in flour, while Harry sat on Kowalski's stomach, bouncing and waving the spatula in the air, and declaring "I am the best pig-rabbit and I can bop anyone."
"You win, Olivia," said Kowalski. "What do I have to bribe you with to get you off of me?"
Harry stopped bouncing in order to think. He looked down at his floury red dress and bare legs. "I need some black and white tights," he said. "My legs are cold."
"Sold," said Kowalski. And then, "Black and white tights?"
"Cupcakes," said Ray. "C'mon, people, we've got a job to do."
When they were done and the kitchen looked habitable again and Harry's 'helping' had devolved into sticking his head into the mixing bowl to lick it clean, Kowalski handed off the dishcloth to Ray and muttered, "Are we turning him gay?"
Ray spluttered. "What?"
"I know," Kowalski squirmed. "I know it's not a thing. It's just, he wants tights, Vecchio, and he thinks he's a girl."
"He thinks he's a pig."
"A pig that wears a dress."
Ray stared at Kowalski. "You're not serious, Kowalski?"
"No, not-" Kowalski didn't meet his eyes, running the faucet and testing the water temperature. "But all his friends are girls, he wants to be called Olivia and he...he lives with us. Don't tell me it hasn't crossed your mind."
"Well, now it has. Only if I were you I'd be more concerned about him wanting a sex change than wanting to suck cock. Or a species change. Do they do those yet?"
"I'm whispering, he can't hear me."
"It's not that it matters, if he is," said Kowalski, miserably. "I want him to be happy, whatever that means. I just don't want it to be our fault, you know? If he is gay and gets shit for it, I don't want it to be at my door."
And, just like that, Ray understood. Same as Kowalski, he wanted to be responsible for Harry's happiness, not his unhappiness. He thought about his own family, how hard it must have been for his Ma to make sure they were happy when all his Pa had to do to tear it down was to remember where he lived after one of his drunken binges. When he thought about his Pa now there was still anger there, yeah, and residual fear if he was honest, but when he thought of his Ma and what she'd been to him over the years it was like being shrouded in a warm halo of light. That's what he wanted to give to his kid.
"I get it," said Ray.
"You do?" Kowalski glanced across at him.
"Yeah. But I think we maybe can't worry about it too much. I think there are enough things about bringing up a kid that are gonna drive us crazy. If I thought about all the ways I could screw him up I think I'd never get out of bed again."
"I started making a list once," admitted Kowalski.
"Yeah. Before he came."
"How'd that work out for you?"
"I threw up."
"Nice." Ray reached over and patted Kowalski's shoulder. "Listen. We'll make a deal, right? You don't freak out over our son, Olivia, and I'll stop listening to the stupid little voice in my head that yells at me every time I come home after a bad day and pour myself a Scotch. Deal?"
"Little voice?" asked Kowalski, all concern.
Ray winced. "Raincheck? The cupcakes are almost done and-" he raised his voice, "someone is going to need a bath."
"Pigs don't have water baths, pigs have mud baths," declared Harry from inside his bowl.
Kowalski said nothing, just looked at Vecchio, solemn-eyed.
"It's not a big thing, I promise," said Vecchio, sliding his hand down Kowalski's upper arm. "Later. Anyway, what I was saying? Deal?"
"Deal," said Kowalski and went to open negotiations with a mud-loving pig.
"Way to go with the over-reacting, Kowalski," said Ray, smacking his own forehead.
"Don't do that, you don't have brain cells to spare. And you weren't over-reacting, you were being a parent. I was just as bad as you."
Ray considered this. "Yeah," he said. "Like, honestly? You really thought the occasional Scotch after a bad day was going to turn you into a buttplate alcoholic like your Pa? Uh, no. And I kinda still miss Olivia sometimes. She was a very good pig." He tipped his head to one side, thinking. "Though not as good at the loud songs as she thought."
Vecchio smiled at him, eyes warm. Ray smiled back and shoulder-barged him.
"You sure you want to leave in the bit about cock-sucking?"
"He's in public school, it's not like the words won't have come up. Besides, I figure that by the time he's sixteen he'll have at least some kind of idea about his sexuality."
"Oh, right. Like you did." Ray smirked.
"Listen, smartass, he won't have grown up buried in Catholic guilt with the only thing about homosexuality he knew being that nice Father Nunzio resisting arrest by the police for fiddling with the incense bearers. Harry's been to Pride every year for the last five, for fuck's sake. And his soccer team is co-ed. If he hasn't at least had some inkling about which way he dresses by the time he reads this then we've gone very, very wrong somewhere and we may have to turn to porn."
"Hey, Vecchio, breathe," said Ray, "I was only kidding." And. "What do you mean, turn to porn?"
"I have no idea," said Vecchio, turning wide eyes on Ray, laptop wobbling precariously on his knee.
"You want me to make something up?" said Ray, leaning across and kissing Vecchio, nipping his lower lip just a little, the way Vecchio liked it.
"Why the hell not?" said Vecchio against Ray's lips, and kissed him back.
Turned out the laptop was much harder than Vecchio's foot.
In the morning it had been a sniffle, maybe an allergy or something, by lunchtime, Ray wanted to smash his head against his desk to stop the headache that was crushing his skull (okay, so that seemed kinda counterintuitive but the Advil wasn't working so what the hell?). By the time Ray dragged his sorry ass through the door and collapsed on the couch, every muscle aching and his throat holding his lungs ransom, it was flu. And not man-flu either--the proper kind. Death warmed up had nothing on him.
He had Harry to see to, though, and the kid needed his dinner. Ray hauled himself to his feet and stumbled to the kitchen. The light seemed really bright and he couldn't remember where they kept the knives. He leaned against the counter, breathing shallow, wondering why the hell Kowalski always had to keep the thermostat so high. It was so hot. Ray pulled off his jacket and held it in one hand, staring at it. What was he supposed to do with it now? And why was he in the kitchen?
It couldn't have been more than five minutes later that Kowalski found him there, still staring at his jacket, but it felt like hours. Kowalski started to make a jibing remark but stopped short, eyebrows flying upwards.
"Jeez, Vecchio, you look like crap. Are you okay?" And then Kowalski was crowding Ray's space, hand on his forehead, other hand taking the jacket and tossing it on the counter. Ray knew he was sick when he didn't automatically respond, "Hanger, Kowalski," but let himself be half-carried into the bedroom. He heard Kowalski saying, "Pa's sick, Harry. I'll come fix dinner when I've put him to bed, okay?"
Ray let Kowalski strip him and fasten him into clean pajamas. He dutifully swallowed the Tylenol he was offered, though it was like forcing golf balls down a straw. He sighed with relief as his head met the coolness of cotton and didn't complain when Kowalski stuck a thermometer in his mouth.
"What?" said Kowalski. "No bitching? You must be pushing 104 at least."
"Oh god, I'm going to die," croaked Ray as Kowalski pulled the thermometer out and squinted at the scale.
And that's when the screaming started.
Neither of them had noticed Harry creep into the room and stand at the foot of the bed. They couldn't miss him now, red-faced, wild-eyed and screaming wordlessly. Ray jolted upright and Kowalski was at Harry's side in an instant, pulling him into his arms. For what seemed like an eternity, Harry resisted, stiff as a board, and then the screaming, muffled into Kowalski's shoulder, changed into a wail and Harry's arms came up, clinging tightly around Kowalski's neck.
Fever-addled as he was, Ray knew that this was his fault and would have hit himself for being such a dumbass if he'd had more strength than a newborn kitten.
"Hey, hey, hey," Kowalski was saying, gently pushing Harry away from him so he could meet his eyes. "Harry, Pa's not gonna die. He's not."
"B-but he s-said," Harry sobbed. "And he's s-s-sick. And Mo-hommy was too and she died."
Kowalski pulled Harry close again, kissing his hair and glaring across at Ray who winced apologetically and then sneezed.
"You know, most people who are sick get better," said Kowalski. "Sometimes they're just sick for a day or two, sometimes they're sick for longer, but mostly they get better."
Harry lifted his face and looked at Kowalski, wiping his nose with his arm. Now was not the time to bust out the lecture on tissues. "Mommy didn't."
"No," said Kowalski. "She didn't. But you remember when you ate that weird mushroom Gina found at Nonna's place? And you were so sick we thought maybe you were going to throw up your whole stomach?" He pulled a face and Ray thought he maybe saw a glimmer of a smile on Harry's face when he nodded. "You got better, right? I mean, you couldn't eat anything except creamed rice for three days, but you got better."
Harry nodded again.
"And when we made that card for Grandma Barb because she'd been in the hospital to get her unmentionables fixed?" ("What are unmenshuhballs?" Harry had asked at the time. "We don't mention them. Ever," Kowalski had replied.)
Harry nodded again, this time with a big sniff. Ray watched in horrified fascination as a rope of green snot disappeared back up his nose.
"See, so she was sick, but now she's better. You talked to her just a couple of days ago, right?"
"She said we should go visit."
It was Kowalski's turn to nod. "And we will." He turned Harry to face Ray. "Pa here? He's got the flu. He feels real bad right now, in fact he needs us to leave him alone so he can sleep so his body can get to work at fighting off the flu bugs, but he's gonna be just fine in a few days. Right, Pa?"
And Ray would have nodded too, if he hadn't thought it would have set his head off pounding again. "Right," he agreed. "I promise you I'm not going to die, Harry, and I don't make promises I can't keep. You get me?"
Harry heaved out one final shuddering sob and clambered onto the bed, throwing his arms around Ray's waist and burying his head in Ray's lap. Ray rubbed his back gently, praying he didn't give into the urge to sneeze and spray his germs all over the kid.
"I'm sorry I scared you," he said. "You listen to your dad, though, he's a smart guy." A wave of exhaustion rolled over him bringing shivers in its wake. He needed to be horizontal. Preferably yesterday. Ray's eyes met Kowalski's, pleading.
Kowalski stood, peeling Harry off of Ray and throwing him over his shoulder, heading for the door. "Come on, tough guy, the dinner's feeling lonely," he said. "Say goodnight, Gracie."
"Goodnight, Gracie," said Harry, waving at Ray. "I'll bring you my sword to fight the flu bugs."
"Thank you," said Ray. "No way I can lose with that advantage."
The door closed and Ray slid under the covers, picking sleep over self-recrimination. There'd be plenty time for that later.
"Yeah, that was a hairy one," said Ray. "Also? Unexpected."
"No," said Vecchio, his mouth set in a stubborn line. "It shouldn't have been unexpected. I can't believe I said that. I read the books. I should've known better."
"Are you kidding me? You were almost delirious with fever and you wanted to school what you were saying? When you didn't even know he was there? You know, you only get to be a martyr once, you should pick something bigger." Ray flicked Vecchio's ear.
Vecchio flicked back, half-hearted. "It was just, you know, he'd been doing so well, I should've realized there was something else. Lurking. The books said-"
"Screw the books, Vecchio. No one gets to do it right the whole time, not even the people who write the goddamn books. So you gave our kid a mini-meltdown, at least he got it out and doesn't have to spend the rest of his life having the heebie-jeebies every time one of us so much as sniffs."
"Yeah, you're right." Vecchio sighed and Ray dropped a hand to his neck, shaking him lightly.
"Do we have to be perfect?" he asked, thumb stroking over warm, taut skin.
Vecchio shook his head.
"What do we have to be?" pushed Ray.
"Good enough," said Vecchio. "Okay? Good enough."
"And are we?" Another light shake.
Vecchio exhaled again, only this time it didn't sound like he was wearing the weight of the world. "Yeah," he said. "Yeah, we are."
Ray let go of Vecchio's neck, slapping him on the shoulder. "There you are, then. Now shift your butt, if we miss this plane Lieberman's gonna put a hit out on us."
The day Benny came, Harry was almost sick with excitement. The kid had only been out of bed an hour and Ray was already tired of the sound of "Harry, don't..." as he and Kowalski tried in vain to pull Harry off of the ceiling. "Uncle Ben" ("Do you think he minds being called after rice-based produce?") had been sending video-letters to Harry twice a month. They were always full of tales of adventure, shots of the great, wild North and usually some kvetching from Lieberman about the impossibility of getting a hold of good matzo meal in the geographical center of exactly nowhere.
In return, Harry drew pictures (mostly dragons--though sometimes there was a wolf squished in the corner, almost as an afterthought. Dief was probably offended) which could be seen slowly taking over one of the cabin walls as time went on. Ray wondered how much Lieberman was longing for the day Harry learned to write letters instead.
They were getting a little too close to "That's it. No zoo for you tomorrow," for Ray's liking but luckily, that was when the intercom buzzed and Benny was on his way up. Harry froze like he'd been injected with instant marble-izer.
"You coming?" asked Kowalski, who'd been on Harry-distraction shift, and started for the door.
Harry just stared.
"Fraser!" Kowalski wrapped his friend in a hug. "Come in, good to see you, give me your bag, how was your flight?"
"Jeez, Kowalski, let the man breathe," said Ray, not at all hovering for his own chance to hug the stuffing out of Benny. It had been a long time.
Somehow they managed to get past the exclamations and the fussing and luggage distributing and were sitting down, Fraser on Kowalski's beloved battered leather armchair, Ray and Kowalski on the couch, when Fraser said, "And where's Harry?"
"Huh," said Ray looking around.
And Kowalski said, "He was just here, I swear."
There was a rustling sound behind the couch. Ray twisted around and Kowalski kneeled up and bent over the back. "Hey, little guy, whatcha doing down there? I thought you wanted to say hi to Uncle Ben and show him your room and stuff?"
"I'm plannin'," said Harry's disembodied voice.
"Okay. You want some help with that?"
Kowalski flopped back around, shrugging. "I don't get it," he said. "He hasn't stopped talking about you all morning."
Fraser leaned over the chair arm, looking somewhere to the left of and down from Ray. He winked. "I'm sure Harry will be out in due course. A good plan is essential to any endeavor, Ray, I know you both appreciate that. For example, we'll need someone very smart to think of a plan for our visit to the zoo tomorrow."
There was another rustle. Fraser straightened up, smiling a little, "Now, tell me all your news."
It took another fifteen minutes for Harry to emerge from behind the couch, standing and clinging to its arm like a limpet. A half hour more and he was sitting on Benny's lap, playing with his Stetson while Benny answered the thousand and fifty-eighth question about why did caribou. By bedtime, Harry had completely transferred his limpeting properties to Fraser and Ray was only too happy to hand over bath duties to their guest.
"Oh, yeah, of course you'd stay completely dry," Ray said, disgusted, as damp-round-the-edges Harry skipped back into the front room, followed by a spotless Fraser. And, "Are you ready for bed, now, Harry?"
"Yes!" said Harry with unexpected enthusiasm. "Because then the zoo is quicker."
Ray had a momentary mental flash of speeding zoos before parsing the sentence correctly. "Sure thing," he said, standing up and taking Harry's hand, leading him off to bed. "Come on, tough guy. You want me to read you your stories or you want Uncle Benny to do it?"
Harry grasped Ray's thumb with his free hand and leaned his cheek against their entwined hands. "You do it," he said. "'ncle Ben tomorrow."
"You got it," said Ray and wondered what it would say on his tombstone if his heart spontaneously exploded with love.
"So," said Kowalski later, when the three of them were kicking back with beer and bark tea (some things never changed), "You and Lieberman ever think about kids?"
"I'm sure they cross both our minds in the daily scheme of things. Much of my work involves community building with the youth of-"
"Don't be obstruse, Fraser."
"Obtuse," said Ray automatically.
"Whatever. Quit dodging the question, Mountie. Answer up."
Fraser sighed and leaned back against the chair, leather creaking in muted complaint. "Ray isn't really comfortable around anyone under four foot six. Which is one of the reasons he didn't accompany me on this trip. That, and the, ah, issues surrounding his re-entry to the States."
"Not comfortable around anyone under four foot six? What, he have some childhood trauma involving midgets?"
"They prefer 'people of restricted growth', Ray."
"Doubt it," muttered Kowalski.
"And no, there was no traumatic incident, Ray simply does not enjoy the company of small children. He seems to think that their brand of logic is a deliberate ploy to throw us off our guard. Also, something about heads being too big for their bodies. I admit I may not have grasped all the subtleties of his argument."
"Right," said Ray, "No little kids for Benny and Lieberman. Got you."
"I haven't-" Fraser paused, shifting a little and rubbing his eyebrow. "Perhaps Ray might be persuaded to think about caring for an older child, there are many troubled souls looking for a home. Even in Canada."
"You'd be a great dad, Benton-buddy," said Kowalski.
"Really?" Fraser lit up.
"Yeah," Ray agreed and hoped like hell that one day Benny would get the chance to prove it.
The next day everyone was up early, not that Ray and Kowalski were going to get the chance to sleep in with Fraser and Harry on the case. Still, there were easier ways to wake up then with a small child bouncing on your chest and chanting "Zoo, zoo, zoo," until your ears started to bleed.
The plan was to hit the zoo early ("Animals prefer the cooler parts of the day, Ray. We wouldn't want Ray to get there and be disappointed. I mean, of course, Harry.") and then explore some of the rest of Lincoln Park once Harry got bored of the animals. For once, Ray didn't bitch about the extortionate charge for the parking lot, he had his best friend, his partner and his son with him, the sky was blue, the Riv sang like a bird (a bird with a throat disorder) and all was right with his world.
They arrived in time to feed the cows in the Dairy Barn. Harry held tight to Kowalski's hand and ran back every time a cow took some hay from him, but he kept going back for more.
"These cows are Holsteins," said Fraser. "Did you know that every cow's spots are unique, like a fingerprint, making them easy to track should they be mixed with the wrong herd."
"Get a lot of cow thieving in the Arctic wastelands, do you, Benny?"
"Cows make milk," said Harry. "I like milk, it's good with cookies, but not when it's warm. Blech. The milk not the cookies. Warm cookies are good. Can I have a cookie?"
"Er," said Ray, and felt his head gingerly for mental whiplash. "Cookies later, Harry. Maybe you can have ice cream instead, if you want."
"Oooh, ice cream. Does that come from cows?" Harry swung from Kowalski's hand.
"Actually, it does, Harry. The process is really quite fascinating. You see-"
Ray rolled his eyes and went to stare balefully at the nanny goats. They stared balefully back. Solidarity, sisters, thought Ray.
Once the requisite number of bunnies had been petted (three) and the requisite number of ponies had been demanded (two--one for Harry and one to be its friend) they made their way up towards the ape center.
"Kanga!" yelled Harry, delighted, plastering his face up against the glass and waving frantically at a bemused-looking kangaroo. "What did you do with Roo?"
"Pretty sure that's not Kanga, kiddo. She's safe in the Hundred Acre Wood with Pooh and the others."
"Oh," said Harry, crestfallen. Then he brightened again. "Miss Reyes says kangaroos live in Aus-tray-lee-na. And they can kick you. Hard."
"I once knew a man whose back was broken by a kangaroo kick," said Fraser.
"Wow," said Harry, all eyes.
"Better tell Piglet not to be mean to Roo, huh?" Ray said, ruffling Harry's hair.
"Yeah," breathed Harry in an awed voice.
It turned out that of all of them, Kowalski made the best gorilla. No one quite understood it, but there it was. Harry didn't like them too much after one of the males rushed the partition just a couple of feet away and they moved off to the chimps pretty quickly.
Harry kept looking back, though. "Daddy, why was the g'rilla mad?"
"I don't know. I guess maybe he's grumpy like Pa."
"Hey, I heard that!"
"'Cuz you were meant to, dummy."
"Not in front of the kid, Kowalski,"
"How is that even-"
Kowalski stopped talking as they both tuned in to what Fraser was saying. "So you see, although animals need to be kept safe and protected, it still isn't home and they can't roam like they were born to do. If you could only stay in your room, do you think that would make you angry sometimes?"
Harry scrunched up his nose and tipped his head to the side. "I like my room. All my stuff is there. But I like other places too, like Nonna's and school and the park. I guess I would be mad if I couldn't go anyplace else." He twisted around looking back toward the gorilla enclosure so Ray couldn't see his face. "Poor gorilla," he said mournfully.
Benny dropped into a squat and put a hand on Harry's shoulder. Harry turned back to look at him. "Everyone gets angry sometimes, Harry," he said. "And that's okay. No one can be happy all the time, it's not in our nature."
Harry paused, nodding. "Poor gorilla," he said with a sigh.
"Okay! Chimpanzees!" said Kowalski, clapping his hands. "Cute, lovable chimpanzees fresh off their anger management class. Get!"
Their zoo karma had served them pretty well so far, so Ray wasn't really surprised when there were no tigers to be seen. Some attractive rocky outcrops and some patches of dense shrubbery, but no tigers.
"But why aren't there tigers?" Harry asked with enough of a hint of a wail to his voice to make his parents raise their eyebrows at each other.
They had that wordless communication down now (okay, so it worked about 75% of the time and the remaining 25% was usually "what the hell where you thinking?") so Ray was totally on board when Kowalski asked, "You want that ice cream now, little guy?"
Harry jumped up and down. "Ice cream time! Ice cream time!"
"I'll take that as a yes. Sir's usual chocolate?"
"Ice cream. Choc'lit. Choc'lit ice cream," sang Harry, still jumping.
"Gotta love the distraction technique," said Kowalski, leaning over and planting a kiss on Ray's cheek. "Don't go far, okay?"
"You see a tiger, Harry, you tell it to stay where it is until I get back," Kowalski said, "I'm counting on you."
Harry nodded vigorously.
Ray watched Kowalski saunter off, hands stuffed in pockets, still trying to get away with the bad boy slouch even though his posture was doing nothing for his back health. Two teenage boys barreled towards him, not looking where they were going and Kowalski stood in the eye of the hurricane, hands raised and twisting sideways as he called after them, "Hey, hey, hey, manners!" Ray smiled, warmth pooling in his gut. He turned to see Fraser watching him.
"What can I say? I love the doofus," he said.
"In the words of Ray, 'Well, duh,'" Fraser replied.
"Benton Fraser, did you just use slang?" Ray clutched at his chest in feigned shock.
"It has been known to happen."
"Oh, Lieberman, so much to answer for," said Ray, grinning.
Fraser grinned back and they just stood for a few seconds, happy to be with each other.
"Canada is far," said Ray. "It needs to be less far."
Ray blinked and turned his head toward the tiger enclosure, breaking the moment. "So what's with the hiding?"
"It could be one of many reasons, Ray. Heat, sleep, and, of course, there are certain pursuits that one should, if one were a gentleman about it, prefer privacy to the public arena. Of course, with the breeding season generally being in the w-"
Ray clapped his hand over Fraser's mouth. "Oh my god, Fraser, don't you be talking about 'pursuits' in front of my son. Shut up."
Ray removed his hand. "What?"
"Do you know how much they charge for ice cream in this place? It's extortion. I could have 'em done for racketeering. There's gotta be a bylaw somewhere," said Kowalski, returning and negotiating the handing over of ice cream cones with more skill than Ray would have given him credit for. "Where's Harry? I want him to understand why we can't afford to send him to college."
"He's right here," said Ray, looking behind him.
Only he wasn't. He wasn't there. Ray turned a full 360 and he wasn't anywhere. He turned back the other way in case he missed something the first go around but there was still no Harry.
Instinctively the three men grouped back to back, scanning the milling crowds. There was no answer. Ray shivered in the blazing sun. Four ice creams hit the floor unnoticed.
"Ohgodohgodohgod, where is he?"
"Maybe he went around the enclosure to see if he could get a better view."
"Yeah, that. Okay. I'll-" and Kowalski sprinted off in one direction while Ray sprinted in the other.
Two complete circuits of the Big Cat House, one clockwise, one anti-clockwise turned up exactly nothing, and Ray and Kowalski found themselves back with Fraser again, panting and half out of their minds with worry.
"Plan. Fraser. Plan. Everything's better with a-"
"Yes," interrupted Fraser. "I suggest that two of us search and one remains here in case Harry returns. Ray, if you retrace our steps, it's possible Harry's concern for the gorilla has caused him to return there." Kowalski nodded. "Ray, stay here. I'll search in the opposite direction to Ray. If any of us locate a zoo official, report it, the more eyes the better." Ray nodded, too, feeling sick to his stomach. Fraser put a hand on each of their shoulders. "We'll find him," he said, and he and Kowalski jogged off.
Ray tried standing still. That didn't work. He tried pacing ten steps in one direction, ten back the other way. That didn't work either. He tried twisting around and around, searching for any sign of his son. That was slightly better, but with every second that brought no sight of Harry, he felt sicker and sicker. Out of the corner of his eye, Ray caught sight of someone moving up high--it was Benny, of course it was. He'd somehow managed to scale one of the zoo buildings and stood on the roof, shading his eyes with his Stetson, looking in every direction. Ray was suddenly struck by an overwhelming, sickening sense that he'd been here before. Of course. Victoria. Why hadn't he thought of that before? He wouldn't be surprised if Fraser refused ever to set foot in a zoo again after today.
Then he heard Fraser yell and saw him wildly waving his hat at Ray, pointing with his other hand. Ray followed the direction of the point and saw a zoo official bustling down the path with Harry in tow. Ray's heart stopped beating.
"Do you see your daddy?" the official was saying.
Ray managed to move a step towards them and Harry's white face crumpled. "PAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!" he wailed, wrenching his hand from the official's and flinging himself at Ray, bursting into tears as Ray scooped him up and squeezed and squeezed and squeezed. He pressed Harry's head into his shoulder and said, "Never ever ever run off again, capisce? Never ever again. Jesus God, Harry, I love you so much."
Ray became aware that the zoo official was hovering and waffling on about appropriate childcare and how one must never take one's eyes off a child. Or eels.
"You know what," said Ray. "Thank you for bringing him back, I'm grateful, but I am all booked-up for lectures on my ability to parent, so no thanks for that."
"Well, I-" started the official, but Ray waved him off and accompanied it with his best Bookman glare. He could guilt himself over this enough without anyone else's help.
Hefting Harry onto one hip, Ray fished out his cell and dialed Kowalski.
"Got him," he said, and hung up.
He shifted Harry back around and shh-ed him as Fraser jogged up, with a sprinting Kowalski a close second. Kowalski closed around Ray and Harry, burying his head in Ray's free shoulder and breathing out hot, shuddering breaths. Fraser put his arms around all three of them and they stood like that for a little while, Harry's tearful little body in the middle of a circle of protection.
"It's okay," said Ray. "It's okay. Sometimes people get lost. But if you ever do, we'll always come find you. We will never let you stay lost, I promise. Okay, Harry? We will never let you stay lost."
"Promise," said Kowalski.
"I promise," said Fraser.
"Where did you go?" asked Kowalski once Harry had calmed down and was sitting on Kowalski's lap on a nearby bench.
"I saw the seals and they swimmed under the water and I wanted to see if they would eat the goldfish cracker I found in my pants because it's almost a fish but then there were wolves and I thought Dief might want me to say hello so I went there and then I couldn't remember where you were and I was frightened." Harry drew a deep breath and burrowed deeper into Kowalski's lap.
Ray and Kowalski exchanged an anguished look over Harry's head. Ray reached for Harry's hand as Kowalski squeezed the kid around his middle.
"You wanna go home, Harry?"
"I think I want..."
"I think I want polar bears."
"Polar bears." Ray looked at Fraser, eyes narrowed a little. "You okay with polar bears, Benny?"
Fraser smiled. "I'm fine with polar bears, Ray, thank you for asking." He gave an almost imperceptible nod before turning to Harry. "Did you know, Harry, that when I was growing up, sometimes polar bears used to attempt to break in to the library where my grandparents worked?"
"Why?" asked Harry, sliding off of Kowalski's lap and taking Fraser's hand.
"I think perhaps they were making a statement about the lack of selection in the historical romance section. Polar bears are very fond of Regency heroines, I believe."
"Can I be a rejunsee heron?"
"I wouldn't rule it out. Are you coming?"
"Yes," said Harry, Ray and Kowalski all together.
Ray only realized he'd been gripping Vecchio's arm when Vecchio said, "Ow," in a conversational tone of voice. He loosened his fingers.
"Does he still have the tiger we got him in the shop on the way out?"
"Somewhere," said Vecchio. "And thank fuck for Fraser or we'd've bought him the rest of the shop, too."
"Yup." Ray smoothed his hand over Vecchio's crumpled sleeve. "I swear, I am dying exactly three years too early because of that day."
"Five," countered Vecchio. "But every kid has to get lost at some point, right? It's like a formative experience or something."
"Okay, every kid who ends up in a book. You gotta have lows as well as highs, you know, for emotional resonance."
"And still I'm going with no," said Ray. "I mean, any other kid, any other book, you can lose 'em three times a chapter and emotionally resonate up the ass, it's all good. Harry? No."
"Yeah, I know," said Vecchio, putting his hand over Ray's. "Who made the rule that we can't stop shitty things from happening to our kid? Because we're gonna go toe to toe."
"No idea, but I'm a detective, I'll find the bastard."
"You get on that."
They sat in silence for a little while, Ray trying not to remember his frantic search, or the way his fingers were so clumsy when he reached for his cell that he almost fumbled it to the ground. He tried instead to remember Harry's face as he skipped beside Fraser, smiling up at his uncle who was spouting some pretty sketchy bullshit about polar bears, and how Vecchio had taken hold of Ray's hand as they walked and hadn't let go again until they'd gotten to the car.
"What're you thinking about?" asked Vecchio.
"Nothing. Just I'm glad we went to visit them the next time."
"Oh, yes, because nothing bad could possibly happen in the vast wilderness of northern Canada," sniped Vecchio. "It's just like a zoo only with less glass partitions and more mortal peril. Also, very poor public facilities."
Ray snorted. "You know what I love about you, Vecchio? Your sense of adventure."
"You say adventure, I say reckless endangerment."
"Whatever, Ginger Rogers. Now get over here before I call the whole thing off."
Ray was polishing his shoes at the table when Harry prowled into the room on all fours, butt naked except for the tiger mask he'd made at pre-school. At least, Ray figured it was a tiger; Harry's conception of stripes was kind of loose and liberal. Also, Ray was pretty sure no tiger he'd ever seen had been at all blue.
"Hey, Harry," said Kowalski, looking up from his book. "Looking good."
"Grrr," said Harry and wiggled his ass. Ray assumed it was supposed to be threatening. Kowalski just grinned, not cowed at all.
Harry straightened up and threw himself against Kowalski. "I'm not scary," he said, sadly. "Daddy, why did I have to be a little boy? Why didn't you make me a tiger?"
Good luck explaining that one, thought Ray, making himself as invisible as possible.
And Kowalski said, "Um."
Ray sprawled across cool, starched sheets. Crisp, bright, functional and impersonal, Ray didn't need more than the linen to let him know how much he wasn't home. Home was worn and comfortable flannel in winter and faded cotton in summer. Home was random dinosaur pillowcases on their bed because Harry had needed theirs for some reason that always sounded as important as solving the global-warming crisis or something. Home was his boys. He reached for his cell.
"How's the masterpiece?"
"Yeah? Why's that?"
"You try being a single parent holding down a full-time job where you get to be another kind of single parent to idiot cops who can't seem to understand the basic concept of accountability and see how much energy left you got to write What Harry Did Next."
"Bad day, huh?"
"You have no idea. Come home now?" Vecchio's voice was plaintive and Ray tortured himself a little by letting himself think of the expression Vecchio would be wearing and not being able to do anything to fix it.
"Two days. It's not so long."
Vecchio snorted. "Tell that to Harry. He's staying overnight with Ma just so I get a rest from 'When's Dad coming home?' on loop." He sighed. "I miss you, asshole."
"Me too." The sudden wave of homesickness hit Ray like a brick to the head. "Write about me," he said in a rush. "Harry's out, you got time. Write about me. About us. That way I know you're thinking about me."
"Of course I'm thinking about you, you dink. And thinking about you."
Ray could hear the leer in Vecchio's voice. He grinned. "Yeah?"
"Wanna tell me?"
"Not in front of the kid."
"He's not even there! Man, Vecchio, you are no fun."
"Kowalski, I'm too old and too tired for phone sex. My zing has zung. If you're lucky, I can schedule you in for a quick and dirty blowjob when Harry's at soccer practice. Other than that, you got an imagination. Use it."
Ray resisted the temptation to blow a raspberry down the phone. It would be a good quick and dirty blowjob, he knew that for sure. "Write about me," he said again. And then because he couldn't resist, "and do it with both hands."
"You're a real comedian, you know that?" Vecchio's voice was warm and Ray pressed the phone closer to his ear.
"That thing where I love you? I still do that."
"I know, Stanley. Me, too. You sleep good, okay?"
"Yeah. 'Night, dickweed."
Ray tried hard not to notice he was hanging on to the phone long after the dial tone buzzed. Two days. He could do two days.
If Ray had been into rewriting his life (and believe him, there were times--the hair in the early eighties, for example--when erasing the past would be a mercy to mankind), he'd say his friendship with Kowalski started the day Welsh bought them dinner. Then again, the chances of two such statistically improbable events occurring within the same few hours were pretty much nil, so maybe it was no surprise that they circled each other like a pair of sparring tomcats the whole night. Only without the whole spraying thing.
No, it didn't happen that night, it didn't happen for a while, but Ray's Ma insisted on having Kowalski around every Sunday for the family dinner and Welsh insisted on having him around every third Friday for Poker Night and Ray got tired of the effort of keeping his hackles up and started noticing stuff. Like Kowalski made him laugh--he did killer impersonations of the Duck Boys, of Tony, of Fraser even ("So you were being bad at acting like me on purpose, huh?") as well as always seeming to have a here's-how-this-bust-got-fucked-up-by-someone-not-me tale of the week.
Like he would get around Ma's 'no guests do dishes' rule by quietly sneaking off from the table mid-dessert (and usually mid-fight over whether Frannie needed that second helping because it wasn't going to keep off her hips forever) and starting in on them before anyone noticed. Somehow he managed to get away with it almost every week. Sneaky. Ray liked that. Like how his hands would mash the air when he had a point to make and how his fingers twitched even when he was quiet, like if his brain ticked his body had to tock. Like how in the middle of another Vecchio free-for-all or Welsh pontificating on the beauty of a sandwich, Kowalski's eyes would find Ray's and they'd share a look of complete understanding at the stupidity of the rest of the world.
Of course, the fact that he was almost illegally hot hadn't gone unnoticed, either. Not that Ray was thinking about that at all, nuh-uh.
So slowly, slowly, they stopped being two people who just happened to be in the same place at the same time and started doing friend stuff--meeting in sports bars to watch a variety of Chicago teams take turns at sucking, haring off on wild goose chases to track down yet another '72 Buick Riviera, stripping down and repainting Ma's French dresser, doing Kowalski's laundry. Okay, so maybe that last one was above and beyond the call of the friend thing, but Kowalski wouldn't stop scratching and it was hard enough to keep track of all his limbs at the best of times. It was self-preservation, really.
And if Kowalski spent more of his time over at Ray's apartment, what of it? Ray's place was cleaner, bigger, lighter, and he had a big-ass TV because he might not be able to afford plasma but there were certain standards he'd gotten used to in Vegas, and being able to see every nose hair of Charlton Heston as he over-emoted to the Statue of Liberty was one of them. So what if Ray made sure he always had the fridge stocked with Kowalski's favorite beer or that he bribed his ma to make Italian-Polish hybrid pierogi (Ricotta, potato and fried onions? Surprisingly tasty)? So what if he bought a Playstation after Kowalski had mentioned wanting an Atari for a graduation present but getting a new bathrobe instead? Someone had to show him how digitized-basketball was really played, right?
It was good to have a friend, Ray thought. Maybe even a best friend like Benny had been--was--it was confusing. Coming back from Vegas he'd felt displaced (and then shot, which, ow) and kind of separate even though there were people who loved him everywhere he turned. Kowalski, though, with his bitching and his trash-talk, kept him connected, caught Ray on a hook and hauled him in. There was no time to feel alone when Kowalski was around--he was a whole congregation in one person. Ray was grateful for that--when he didn't want to thwap Kowalski around the head for being an asshole.
Then there was a night. A mild, early spring night, with just enough warmth in the air to make Ray spend a good five minutes with a sweater in each hand, debating heavy wool against cotton. It had been a particularly crazy family dinner that day, what with the Pope's unexpected apology for the Catholic Church being arrogant assholes through the ages to pretty much everyone who wasn't Catholic ever ("And the ethnics and the women," Frannie'd declared. "Don't forget the mythologizing"), and he was glad of the peace and quiet.
Until the buzzer started up and did not stop. Sighing, Ray got to his feet and answered the intercom. "What?"
"Me. Let me up." Huh. Last Ray had seen of Kowalski he'd been kind of pale and more twitchy than usual and had excused himself to go home early. Ma had taken an hour of convincing it hadn't been something he ate. Kowalski owed Ray one for that. He buzzed him in, opening the door and retaking his seat. If Kowalski wanted a beer, he could get one himself--he knew where they lived.
He heard Kowalski's feet pounding along the hall. Okay, that seemed odd. "Don't slam the-" he commanded too late as the door closed with a loud bang.
Kowalski flopped down beside him, red-faced and panting.
"You run a marathon, Stanley?" asked Ray, thinking that at least he had his color back now.
"No, just a lot of blocks. A lot. Shut up. Listen."
Ray raised his eyebrows but said nothing. It was a struggle.
"I'm ethnic," said Kowalski.
"Yeah, you Polack. You didn't have to hurry up your inevitable heart attack to tell me that."
Kowalski shook his head. "No. I'm ethnic. In that I'm a minority." He jabbed two fingers at his chest and stared hard at Ray.
Ray frowned. Kowalski always walked a fine line between sanity and becoming the pet resident at the funny farm but usually Ray could figure him out. This time he was clueless.
"You're a minority what?"
"Vecchio! Jesus fuck!" Kowalski smacked his forehead into his palm several times before turning to fix Vecchio with his best don't-fuck-with-me stare.
"I'm here," said Kowalski, slow and deliberate.
"Y-" started Ray but Kowalski death-glared him into silence.
Ray's eyebrows shot up.
Kowalski put a hand on Vecchio's chest and an invitation into his voice. "Get used to it."
Ah. Right. That put a whole new spin on things, didn't it? Including Ray's head, which was whirling as if he'd been going 24 hours non-stop on fairground rides. Because he could see it now, behind the get-there-faster stare he could see the slightly desperate hope, the rapid breathing, the shaking fingers. It all had to mean one thing.
One thing that made the blood rush to Ray's extremities and the adrenalin fizz through his veins because if there was ever a time for fight or flight this was probably it. He hadn't meant to- They were just friends, was all, right? Maybe he'd woken in a mess from the occasional dream starring Kowalski's mouth and Ray's dick, but it wasn't like he could control his subconscious--it was only that they hung out a lot and the only women Ray saw these days were his family, his colleagues and a parade of hookers, petty thieves and scam artists. He stared back at Kowalski, frozen.
"Ray," Kowalski said. "Please."
And that's all it took to clear Ray's head. To make him think Fuck it. Life's too short to be freaking out about being in love with a guy, I'm almost forty.
"Well, if he apologized," said Ray, and leaned in to kiss the man he apparently loved.
It had been plain sailing from then in so much as it could be when the two people in the relationship were heading towards middle-age, set in their ways, with Catholic disapproval built into their families' genetic code, and a highly-limited pool of gay sex experience between them. So yeah, pretty choppy at times, but mostly fair seas. It was a love thing, and that was the only thing that mattered, really.
"You wrote about me."
"You asked me to."
"Yeah, but you wrote about me." There were better words, Ray knew, it was just he couldn't find any at that exact moment. Because they didn't talk about this stuff--the how they came to be stuff--because they were men and men didn't do that. Okay, men probably also didn't sing the whole Enchanted soundtrack complete with twirling, but still. Talking. Stuff.
"You wanna kiss me right now, don't you?"
For the second time since Vecchio started his writing project, Ray found himself blushing which was dumb and another thing to add to the list of 'Stuff Men Don't Do', but at this point the list was getting so long he might as well toss it and redefine this whole man thing anyway.
"Might," he said instead.
Vecchio turned to Ray, looking at him over the rims of his glasses in the way that Ray found stupidly hot. "You gonna take my glasses off or will I do it?" he asked.
Ray wet his too-dry lips. "I'll do it," he said and reached out, cupping Vecchio's face in both hands and stroking his thumbs across the day-old stubble before reaching up to unhook the glasses from over Vecchio's ears. Vecchio swallowed, hard.
Slowly, deliberately, Ray folded first one arm of the glasses and then the other, placing them on the stack of neatly-squared magazines on the coffee table. He replaced his hands on Vecchio's face, leaning in towards him, closer, closer, wondering if tonight was going to be the night he could persuade Vecchio that yes, Ray could do quiet when being fucked. Vecchio's eyes were black, he wanted Ray so bad that all Ray had to do was-
"Dad, I can't sleep. My stomach hurts real bad, I might hurl."
He'd take that as a no, then.
"Okay," said Ray. "We're gonna need a bigger boat."
"What?" asked Kowalski. He lay on his belly, legs waving in the air, his hands full of train track. The track that had gotten laid (and in what world was it fair that wooden track was doing better than Ray himself?) wound its way around the furniture and disappeared down the hall. It could be going to Timbuktu for all Ray knew.
"Did a bomb drop or something?" asked Ray, gesturing at the track and fifteen million other toys scattered around the apartment.
Kowalski grinned. "Looks like."
Ray weaved his way toward Kowalski, keeping a wary eye out for surprise wheels--a broken ankle he could do without, thank you very much. He dropped down on his haunches, kissing Kowalski's upturned face.
"A yard. The kid needs a yard. Because don't even try to smoke me that you're not getting the kid a baseball glove the second my back is turned and this place? Not really designed with the Major Leagues in mind."
Harry crawled into view, pushing his favorite blue train along the track with accompanying noises that no train Ray had ever come across had made. Ray grinned.
"Don't freak out on me, Stanley," he said, slipping an arm around Kowalski's shoulders and squeezing. "But I think we're gonna need a realtor."
"There, there," he added, patting gently as Kowalski groaned and crashed his head against Ray's thigh.
Ray slapped his hand over Kowalski's mouth. "Not in front of the kid, sweet cheeks. Not in front of the kid." He got his hand out of the way a split second before Kowalski could attempt to bite it off and stood up. "Hey, Harry, any singing Mounties on that train?"
Harry stopped and looked at Ray, then the train, then Ray again. "Only talking lions. And man-horses."
"Yup." And, obviously feeling like he'd contributed enough to Ray's understanding of the world for one day, Harry went back to his game.
Ray looked down at Kowalski.
"That's what you get for making me sit through that Narnia crap," said Kowalski. "Man-horses."
"Oh," said Ray, as it all became clear. "Man-horses. Sure. And don't go thinking you're too big and clever for Narnia, tough guy, I saw you tear up when Santa showed up."
"That's 'cause I always wanted a bow and arrow and he gave it to the pouty girl," muttered Kowalski, not meeting Ray's eyes.
"U-huh," said Ray, nudging Kowalski in the side with a foot. "If he'd seen your pout I'm sure he'd've given it to you. You are the poutiest in the land. Now can I leave you and Harry to put this stuff away without disappearing through a wardrobe while I start house-hunting hell?"
It was possible Ray's reflexes weren't what they used to be, but he managed to avoid Kowalski's ankle grab by a hair's breadth. Shame he hadn't remembered about the abandoned coach just behind him, though. In their new place they were getting carpet, he decided, rubbing his ass and scowling at a hysterically laughing Kowalski.
Ray'd always thought of himself as the picky one in the relationship, but when it came to choosing a house, turned out not so much. Once Kowalski had come around to the idea that they couldn't just buy a plot of land and get Fraser to throw them up a quick log cabin, he'd got this calm focused look and just gone for it. He had a notebook, with questions. And every house they looked at he pulled the notebook out, flipped it open, pulled a pencil from behind his ear and asked every last question on the list. Ray didn't have the first clue how Kowalski knew so much about real estate and he didn't care, either; he'd never liked the word escrow anyway. If his main job was to watch Harry then that was fine by him.
"So, tell me about the zoning regulations," Kowalski would say, and Ray would look at Harry and say, "Yard?"
They'd come away from a viewing and Kowalski would drive around, casing the neighborhood. Conversation in the car would go something like this:
"There was a swing! I like swinging. I can go high."
"The master bedroom en suite has a double shower cubicle. We could get very...clean."
"No laundry room off the yard, could be a problem with muddy boots. Is that a broken streetlight? Can you write that down?"
Ray was happy with the first place they saw. Kowalski kinda liked the fifteenth. Harry just wanted a swing.
Place sixteen was the winner, though, ticked all of the boxes on Kowalski's list, was close enough to Ray's family that Sunday dinners and sleepovers would be a whole bunch easier, but not close enough to find one of Maria and Tony's brood on the front porch every night and, best of all as far as Harry was concerned, had a spreading oak in the yard with a tree-house already built.
Ray had thought that moving day was going to be the most traumatic part of the whole upping-sticks thing, but it turned out it was the dragons. They were packing up Harry's room when he said, "How are we gonna pack the dragons?"
"Which ones, Har?" asked Kowalski, head under Harry's bed, looking for stray socks.
"The ones on the wall, silly," said Harry, bouncing on his mattress and giggling at Kowalski's affronted, "Hey!"
"We can't take those, kiddo, they're painted on," said Ray.
The bouncing stopped. "But they're mine."
"Well, yeah, but only as long as this is your room. In your new room we can paint more dragons, if you want. Or something else. Up to you."
"Uh-oh," said Kowalski, emerging from under the bed, red-faced and even crazier-haired than usual.
"What?" Ray mugged at Kowalski.
"I don't want more dragons. I want these dragons. I won't go and you can't make me." Harry's face was set in a stubborn line.
"That. Just. That." Kowalski shot out a hand to still Harry's legs which were starting to kick against the bed. "No. Listen, moving sucks, everyone knows that. You have to leave stuff you love behind and start over. It's not good times. But then you get to the new place and there's a tree house and a whole yard to explore, and your room has your stuff in it and maybe it doesn't smell right or look right but bit by bit you fix that and in a while you forget you didn't always live there.
"So you wanna scream and yell about your dragons, you do that. Me, I'm gonna sulk about not living two blocks from the best Polish deli in town. Pa is gonna come home every day for months cursing up and down about the commute. But, you know what? It's gonna be just fine."
Kowalski took his hand away from Harry's legs and stood up. "C'mon, Pa, let's give Harry some space to commune with his kind. We've still got the you know whats box to sort through."
Ray followed Kowalski out of the room. "Was that too easy? It seemed like it was too easy," he said as he kept watch by the door while Kowalski hauled down their box of Things Not Fit For Harry's Eyes from the top shelf of the closet.
"Or I could be just that good," Kowalski replied. "Let him wail about the dragons. It's the second time the kid's had to move in six months, he's probably subliterating or something."
"Sublimating." Ray smirked. "And I think you mean 'transferring'."
"Whatever. Maybe a little part of him doesn't believe we're coming, too. Kids don't work right, who knows what he's thinking? Hey? When the batteries leak that's time to throw shit out, yeah?"
"And he says kids don't work right," Ray muttered to himself.
It turned out it was too easy. It was another two days before they moved. Harry didn't shout the place down but made Ray suffer through forty-eight hours of torture where every time Harry looked at Ray it was with big puppy eyes of pain and Why, Pa? Why? By the time Harry was safely with his Nonna on the eve of the move, Ray was seriously considering the logistics of dismantling the whole damn wall and moving it with them.
"You know," said Ray after Harry had amped up the melodrama by refusing to let Ray read him a bedtime story, turning his face to the wall and saying with a shuddering sigh, "My dragons," in a voice guaranteed to melt stone, "this is worse than getting beat up. Or shot up. Or blown up. Or, you know, other up-related injuries."
"And you don't get time off or a hot nurse to help you recover from the trauma," said Kowalski. "You should ask for your money back."
"Don't tempt me," said Ray, and went to do something violent with packing tape.
The move itself wasn't so bad with everyone pitching in. One of the benefits they didn't tell you when signing on to be Lieutenant was that you got to know exactly who was off roster and couldn't say no to a "Come help the boss move" invite. So that was the heavy lifting accounted for.
"So it gives me a real sense of satisfaction, helping these kids. They're all hiding a light under their bushes." Frannie leaned against the doorframe, holding it with both hands. She was smiling up a Lennox, a big bruiser of a detective, who towered over her, sweating profusely, probably due to the large box he was shifting awkwardly from hip to hip. At least, Ray really hoped it was due to the box.
"Bushels, Frannie. Not bushes," said Ray, walking up to her and kicking her in the ankle. "Now will you get back to getting drinks for the workers and stop blocking the entrance so we can get this thing done."
Frannie's eyes flashed and she pushed herself away from the doorframe, waving off Lennox without a glance. Lennox cast Ray a "Sorry, boss," look and vamoosed as fast as his load would let him. Frannie jabbed Ray in the chest and Ray allowed himself a split second to wonder if she'd had a nail specially sharpened for poking purposes.
"Listen up, Raymond," said Frannie, voice dripping with contempt. "I may be your sister and I may think that pink is superior to all other colors, but it doesn't mean I have to put up with your sexist bullcrap."
"No." Frannie transferred her finger from Ray's chest to his mouth, smushing his lips. He held his arms out from his sides in surrender. "I talk, you listen. It may have escaped your attention but the person who figured out how to get your couch through the door without giving you a heart attack? Was a woman. The two people right now rebuilding Harry's bed? Both women. Me, I've humped as many boxes through that door as anybody and don't even think about making a humping crack or the only balls you'll be seeing in your near future are the ones Harry will be playing with in the yard."
Frannie took a deep breath and shook her head, curls vibrating with coiled energy. "Really, Ray, shouldn't you be all enlightened, you and your Jenny Lives With Eric and Martin family? Well, have you got anything to say for yourself?"
Ray waggled his hand to explain just how Frannie's finger was impeding his ability to open his mouth and she took a step back, dropping her hand to her hip and tapping her foot.
"Uh, I was kidding?" Yeah, Ray knew he shouldn't have gone for the questioning tone, he was going to be her bitch now, like it or not. That was the problem with little sisters; eventually they grew up, even if it took some longer than others.
"And that is why Jerry Seinfeld makes the big bucks and you sign off on orders for paperclips."
"Sorry, Frannie," said Ray, rubbing his neck. "I apologize to you on behalf of all your kind. Honest injun. Can I go now?"
Frannie narrowed her eyes. "I don't know why I was ever surprised you ended up with a boyfriend, no respectable woman would have you. Now, excuse me, I was lining myself up a date. I have needs. Womanly ones. I don't expect you to understand." She swiveled on her heel and started down the hallway. "Mine's a lemonade," she called over her shoulder.
Ray stared after her in horror.
They worked on Harry's room first so that by the time he was dropped off the next day it looked like his bedroom and not a bombsite.
"So," said Ray. "You like it?"
"It's my stuff!" said Harry, rushing to his toy chest and dumping half the contents on the floor.
"Now it feels like home," muttered Kowalski in Ray's ear.
"Sure it's your stuff. Your room, your stuff. Simple." Ray took a deep breath and bit the bullet. "Hey, we got time today, wanna paint some wall dragons?"
Harry looked up from his search for who even knew what, his nose wrinkled as he thought. "No," he said. "Dragons are for babies, I want pirates."
Surely--surely--there was a way Ray could get his money back.
Ray laughed. And laughed. "Man, I thought you were gonna pop an aneurysm," he wheezed. "It was so funny."
"Oh, yeah, Kowalski?" Vecchio's lips twitched upwards. "Like it was funny last week when he walked in on you, uh, cleaning yourself in the shower? What do we say? Yay, fogged-up glass?"
"Shut up, derbrain, I was just cleaning." Yeah, that had come off less whiny and defensive in his head.
"U-huh." Vecchio was out and out grinning now and Ray tried to remember that domestic abuse was never the answer. "Honest, officer, I was just cleaning it and it went off. In front of my kid."
Okay, so maybe a little domestic abuse was called for. Ray punched Vecchio in the shoulder. "Nothing went off! Oh my god, Vecchio, you freak, I need to wirewool my brain."
"See, Stanley, it's what I'm always telling you," said Vecchio and his grin was so smug that Ray knew he should just keep his own mouth shut, say nothing, wait it out, maybe go feed the non-existent chickens and-
"What? What are you always telling me?" Ray mentally kicked himself in the head. What was wrong with him?
"Not in front of the kid, Kowalski. Not. In front. Of the kid."
Sworn to uphold the law, Ray told himself. I am sworn to uphold the law.
By the time Harry's fifth birthday came around the pirate obsession had taken full hold.
"We should throw him a pirate party," Kowalski had said.
"Little sugared-up monsters running into our knees and trying to hack us to death with cutlasses?" Ray had tried hard over the years to repress his memories of children's parties, they always seemed to end with something edible--or even worse, used to be edible--mashed into his suit. Kids' parties were to dry-cleaning what Kowalski was to accidental damage: inevitable.
"We won't give them blades, Vecchio. We're not a training camp for gangbangers."
"But we'll have to plan games. And decorate."
Once Ray had gotten past his initial trauma he went straight to the only person he trusted to get him through this. Maria may still have been the sister who'd taken malicious pleasure in dressing up Ray's GI Joes in her Barbies' clothes and leaving them in Ray's room for his little pals to find, and she may still have been far too attached to skin-tight leopard print for a woman pushing forty, but she'd raised four kids and what she didn't know about birthday parties wasn't worth knowing.
"Okay, Raymond," said Maria, "you need to write this down because it's a long list. Guests: rule of thumb, one for each year being celebrated, that's five in case you can't count. Don't even think about inviting his whole pre-school class because a Lieutenant arrested for child murder does not look good. Also, you'll be finding Jell-O and cake smushed into weird places for months. Let Harry pick, and talk to the moms on the phone to make sure they'll come. There is nothing sadder than a kid at his party with no one there.
"Don't be having friends and family at the same party, it never ends well. Do what I do, friends on the closest weekend and a family gathering on the day itself. I can lend you Gina if you like, sometimes it's good to have an older kid there and seeing as how Harry's got no siblings. Oh! If you're having a theme you need to think about decorations, games, party favors and the cake, you can't forget the cake. And whatever you do don't let the party run over two hours, you think it's just kids who get cranky from too much sugar and lack of sleep? Think again. And you have to-"
"Whoa!" said Ray, his hand cramping. "I can't write that fast, slow down."
"You only have three weeks, brother of mine," said Maria with a pointed look. "There's no time to slow down.'
There wasn't. It seemed like Ray had barely had time to draw breath when he was opening the door with a smile, taking the coat and gift from the first guest and passing her to Kowalski who stood by ready with bandana, patch and eyeliner to pirate her up from her hair down to her temporary beard.
"'Neesha!" yelled Harry, careening down the hallway and skidding to a stop by the simple method of crashing into Ray's legs. "I'm a pirate, too!"
Aneesha beamed and sang, "Yo ho ho," as Kowalski regarded her thoughtfully, eye patch in one hand.
"How're we gonna do this?" he asked her. "Over or under?"
"Under, silly." And Ray swore he could hear the rolled-eyes in her voice. "My glasses aren't a pirate."
"Oh. Okay," said Kowalski, nonplussed. "Under it is." He fixed the eye-patch, a more complicated maneuver than it needed to be given Aneesha's refusal to take her glasses off first, finished up the beard and bandana and packed her off to play with Harry. "Tree house is out of bounds," he yelled after them. "It's too windy. Anyone up there will have to walk the plank. You hearing me?"
"YES!" they chorused, and then disappeared singing, "SIX-teen men onna DEAD man's chest..."
Aneesha's mom, Lora, worked at the 2-7 as part of the CAPS team, which was why Ray had asked her if she wouldn't mind staying to help out--he wasn't saying he and Kowalski couldn't handle a handful of preschoolers single-handed, but what was wrong with a little community policing experience if you could come by it free of charge?
"You want me to go watch them?" she asked, shrugging off her coat and handing it over.
"Nah," said Ray, "Gina's got this one. Save your energy for now and tell me about that last beat meeting you went to. Is it true some guy dropped his-"
Then the doorbell rang with three guests arriving at once and Ray never did get to find out what happened.
It wasn't a bad experience, per se. There was the fact that Javi's dad dropped him off with a lunch box and a list of allergies longer than Ray's arm as well as instructions on "never ever ever I mean never" to let Javi touch any kind of food or drink that hadn't arrived with him, oh and by the way here's an EpiPen just in case he needs it because he loves cake and it's hard explaining look don't touch to a little kid.
Lora had taken one look at the horrified expression on Ray's face and swiftly taken charge of the situation. "Aneesha's older sister is allergic to strawberries," she said. "Though if I ever get this paranoid, feel free to shoot my ass. Which way's the kitchen?"
And then there was the part where Sarah hid under the table and refused to come out to play because William had said pirates couldn't wear dresses especially ones with pink flowers. Kowalski had given William a brief lecture on the detrimental effects of gender stereotyping in an already patriarchal society ("Girl pirates can wear whatever they want, William, there's no rules. Boy pirates can too. Want us to lend you a dress?"), Gina had crawled under the table with a cupcake in each hand and, after a series of whispers and giggles incomprehensible to anyone listening, Sarah had crawled out again, smiling with a mouth ringed with chocolate frosting. ("Easy," said Gina, "I told her dresses were way better 'n' pants cuz when you have to walk the plank they float up like a life belt." "And she believed you?" "Duh, she's four.")
Oh, and there was the part where Kane's foam cutlass had gone flying, nearly destroying the stained glass hamsa hand hanging in the window that Lieberman had sent as a house warming gift ("May it protect you from the Evil Eye, keyn aynhoreh,"), leading Ray to wonder if the Evil Eye was just another word for horde of small children.
But other than that, things had gone well. The gifts had been spirited away to be opened later to cut off another avenue of potential tears and tantrums. The kids had loved Pin the Flag on the Pirate Ship, the breadstick sword fights had been won by Aneesha whose mastery over carbohydrate-based weaponry turned out to be Olympic class, and they'd all walked the plank at least four thousand times each. They'd sung sea-shanties and, led by Gina, attacked the landlubbers' port and captured the flag. They'd decorated mini-treasure chests, run screaming from the tick-tocking crocodile (despite the fact they were supposed to find it) and demolished dead man's eyes (grapes), chicken legs, hot dog pirate ships and sharks blood (red Kool-Aid ice cubes dropped in Sprite). Not Javi, of course, whose lip had wobbled a little when he saw what he couldn't have, but Kowalski had the idea of pretending to raid Javi's lunch box, forcing him to defend it with his cutlass and his eating skills and the wobble went away.
And when the time came for the cake, Harry's delighted face was all either Ray needed to see. Ma Vecchio had made it herself, a treasure chest spilling over with candy necklaces, jellybean jewels and gold chocolate coins, a pirate sitting guard on top ("Kinda like Fraser in his red coat, don't you think?" "Nah," said Kowalski, "he's not at parade rest."). Everyone sang Happy Birthday--most of them at least vaguely in tune--and Harry blew out the candles with his first try. Nothing caught fire, no one fought over who got which piece, it was all good. Ray caught Kowalski's eye across the table and smiled.
While they waited for the other parents to come pick up their kids, Ray read a quiet pirate story, Harry snuggled against one side, Aneesha against the other, with the other children squashed haphazardly alongside them.
"You pushing for a Kodak moment?" Kowalski murmured in his ear as he peeled William off of the puppy-pile. Ray mouthed "Not in front of the kids." and kept on reading. Kowalski poked out his tongue.
Finally, all the kids were gone, clutching their goody bags, Kowalski thanking Lora profusely for her help--Ray was sure he'd heard him promising her all sorts of weirdass favors in return--and Ray closed his book, looking down to see Harry fast asleep, bandana askew, beard smudged and eye patch now covering his invisible third eye.
"Aww," he said, nodding towards Harry as Kowalski came back into the room. "That makes the whole thing worthwhile."
"Yeah?" Kowalski lowered himself gingerly the other side of Harry, careful not to wake him.
"No," said Ray. "Are you kidding me? What d'you think I am? Crazy? I could sleep for a week. Miss Reyes needs a raise. All preschool teachers need a raise. Anyone involved in childcare of anyone that still needs to be reminded that potty breaks are an essential part of life that need to happen on the potty needs a raise."
Kowalski just grinned. "You have shark's blood on your shirt. Don't go in the water, Jaws' mom will get you."
"She can have me," said Ray.
The next day was Harry's actual birthday. On Maria's advice they started the present opening early so that Harry could get over every present being the Best. Thing. Ever and actually get done before he graduated high school. The wooden pirate ship kept him occupied for a long time, Harry 'sailing' it up and down the floor accompanied by cries of "I've got lots of doubloons!"
The pirate ship was almost forgotten, though, when Kowalski disappeared for a few minutes and then opened the door to reveal a Thomas the Tank Engine bike. Harry turned big shining eyes on Ray then back to the bike and abandoned his ship mid-cruise, racing over to his newest toy and crooning as he petted it all over before clambering onto the saddle.
"Daddy, Daddy, can we go outside? Can we go outside? Can we?"
Kowalski said, "Hey, who said this bike was for you?" And, off Harry's puzzled look, "Just kidding, junior. Yes, we can go outside. Probably you should be less in your PJs. Just a suggestion."
"Ooh," said Harry, pulling his top off over his head without getting off the bike. "I can wear my new jersey."
"I'm calling success," said Ray, bringing the jersey over to Harry as the little boy twisted the handlebars and made vrooming noises.
"Gimme some love," said Kowalski, making a fist and holding it between them.
"You need to spend less time with Gina," said Ray, but fist-bumped back anyway.
The family get together was like all Vecchio family birthday celebrations, full of noise, gifts and the combined family's bodyweight in cake and baked goods. Ray, Kowalski and Harry drove home accompanied by three separate cake boxes as well as Tupperware full of leftovers. They weren't going to have to shop for a week.
Ray had stood watching Kowalski playing with Harry and his cousins. He knew he had a goofy grin on his face and he just didn't care. He'd felt a hand on his shoulder and turned to see his Ma looking up at him, serious-faced. He knew that look. Ray did a quick mental check--had he left the stove on? Stayed out past curfew? Broken Ma's best china and tried to cover it up? He couldn't remember doing anything bad--didn't mean he hadn't, though.
"Raimundo, you know I love you, right?"
"Yeees," Ray'd agreed guardedly, wondering where this was going.
"And you know how important the Church is to me?"
"And that I've prayed over you and your-" She'd paused, pressing her lips together.
Ray had held his breath. Not this. Not this again. Hadn't this all been done and buried back at the beginning?
"Your choices, Raimundo. It was hard for me. I couldn't see, I didn't- The Church is very clear about these things, you know? Very clear. And I'm not a priest, so I can't-" She'd stopped again, moving her hand to cup Ray's face, searching his eyes with her own. "I look at you. I look at you and Ray and caro Harry and it's so obvious to me that you're happy, perhaps the happiest of all my children and I have to ask. How can anyone believe this is wrong?" She'd patted his cheek. "How?"
"Ma," Ray most certainly had not choked out, wrapping his arms around her and squeezing tight. "I love you, too, Ma."
"That's because you are genetically programmed."
Ray'd stopped, mid-squeeze. "Huh?"
"What? Your old ma can't watch the Discovery Channel? Fsh." She'd tapped Ray lightly across the back of the head. He'd let her go and kissed her forehead.
"Now go and rescue that man of yours, his knees are going to give out if he spends any more time being the children's pony."
Ray thought about this exchange as he watched Kowalski tuck their son up in bed, still glowing from the day. He knew his ma had never exactly been thrilled that he'd departed from the straight and narrow and if it had been anyone other than Kowalski, who she already loved like a son, she might have chosen never to speak to him again, so, yeah, he had been more than happy to have it her way and never talk about what went on behind closed doors--his apartment's or the church's. They rubbed along just fine and that was good enough. Only this, today, this was more than rubbing along, this was acceptance and understanding, and if Ray had thought he was already as happy as it was possible to be for an inveterate cynic with rheumatism on damp days? Turned out he was wrong.
Ray blinked out of his reverie. "Yeah, little guy?"
"Okay." Ray settled on the bed next to Kowalski, smoothing Harry's hair away from his face before bending down to kiss him good night. Harry looped one arm around Ray's neck and tugged Kowalski down with the other so they were all three smushed in the same tiny area of space.
"That was my best birthday ever," said Harry. "Ever ever."
"Yeah," said Ray, kissing Harry again, cheek rubbing against Kowalski's. "Mine, too."
Ray watched from behind the couch as Vecchio typed, his shoulders hunched. Without needing to see it, Ray knew Vecchio was wearing the little crease between his brows that appeared when he was thinking hard--these days it never quite went away thanks to the good old aging process. Same process that meant Ray kept finding hair in places no hair had a right to be. Ray liked that little crease, like he liked the crows feet that were the result of years of laughter and plenty confusion. Oh, the joys of parenting. To be fair, there wasn't much Ray didn't like about the way Vecchio was put together, though he'd reserved the right to withhold judgment on liver spots until forced to confront them.
He took a moment to admire the way Vecchio had graduated to using four (count 'em) fingers to attack the keyboard instead of his standard two. Maybe the rest of the book would take half the time, or a quarter; Ray wasn't too sure of the math.
He waited until Vecchio hit a period and leaned back with a satisfied grunt, and then he handed the coffee mug he was holding over Vecchio's shoulder.
Vecchio startled, narrowly avoiding knocking the mug out of Ray's hand. He tipped his head back, glaring. "Hey, watch it, Stealthy McStealtherson. You want me to wind up in the ER with third degree burns?"
Ray thrust the mug forward again and, after a beat, Vecchio straightened up and took it. "I want you to quit typing. There'll be plenty time for more edited highlights later. Right now we gotta go see a man about a dog, you dig?"
"Do I dig the dog?" said Vecchio, and even the back of his head seemed filled with irritating smugness. "I would think it's the dog that digs."
Ray skirted the couch and said, "I know where you live. Worse, so does Harry. And he's very, very excited." He lowered his voice for dramatic effect. "He finished his chores early."
Vecchio drained his coffee and held out the mug. Ray didn't take it. Vecchio rolled his eyes and said, "I said okay, didn't I? Tenth birthday equals dog. I get it. There was nothing in there about how I have to like it."
"They know when you don't like 'em, Vecchio. They can smell it. You wanna make a good impression, don't you? Let that puppy smell your fear and you'll be her bitch for life."
"Oh," said Vecchio with a slow, curling grin that made Ray wish they didn't have an appointment to keep halfway across town. "Like how you became mine. Yeah, I get that."
"That's it, I'm taking the laptop," said Ray, making a grab for it.
Vecchio slapped at his fingers but he was one hand down and Ray swung the laptop up and away, holding it up above him.
"Do not drop that laptop, Stanley, or I will have your head."
"You'll give me what?" Ray took a couple of sideways steps and brought the laptop down, keeping it well out of Vecchio's scrambling reach. "What's that, Vecchio? You'll give me-" He put one hand on top of the laptop's lid and pressed.
And Vecchio said, "Not in front of-"