Construction Paper Heart Rating: Awaiting Classification.
Thanks: Immeasurable thanks to sprat and miriam for their wonderfully insightful and punishing betas, and for forcing me out of my conflict-avoidy little shell. Thanks also to mergatrude for her clever and thoughtful answers to my random questions.
Notes: For aerye, who asked for more Vecchio.
The phone woke me. You'd think the light would've done it—it was past seven-thirty, and the sun was blazing through a crack in the curtains, striping my crisp white pillowcase, lighting the stubble on the back of Ray's head. But nah, I've learned to sleep through that. Christ, I could sleep through a World War 2 interrogation by now. Ve haf vayz off making you talk.
The phone rang again. Ray reached across me and pulled the whole phone over to his side, rolling so he was facing away, and trailing the cord across the bedspread. This time of the morning, it was always for him. I already knew who it was gonna be, how it was gonna go. I decided not to mind this time. I was cool. I thought about Ray's arms instead. They're getting thicker.
Yeah, he's putting on weight. Maybe we've been eating too good—too many pasta dinners. He's gonna end up like Marlon Brando. I know that should gross me out, but it doesn't. I grunted and slid in behind him—half to listen in, half to grope him before we had to get up and go spend the day renting shoes to smelly teenagers and overweight bowlers. Actually, I kind of like that part. Our staff pull their weight, and I got a good rapport with most of the regulars. It sure beats the hell out of getting shot at for a living. There's none of those everyday reminders of who I used to be, or who I used to be with. Plus I get discount rates on the beer.
"Ma," said Ray into the phone, and I stopped sucking on the side of his neck, and listened in more carefully. Couldn't really hear much on the other end—just a torrent of Italian and a couple of Santa Marias. Ray swatted at me and propped himself up on his elbow, wiping the spit off of his skin with his hand. He didn't look at me. "Ma, it's not even eight o'clock. What do you want me to do, eh?"
I put a hand on his hip, and rested the top of my head on his shoulder blade. I'd never tell him, but I love how he gets extra Italian when he's talking to his family.
"Again? Jesus Christ—Sorry, Ma. But, you know, she's doing okay with little Gino and Christina. Maybe she can handle another."
I figured Frannie had gotten knocked up again. Miracles never ceasing and all that. As far as the Vecchio family were concerned, Frannie was breaking the land speed record for immaculate conceptions. Hell, maybe they were right. She sure wasn't saying different.
"Yeah, yeah, the christening. September. I know. Yeah," Ray said. His chin went down, away from me, and a guarded note crept into his voice. "Yeah, she's fine."
My hand tightened on his hip before I could stop it. He wasn't talking about Frannie now. I could tell. He was talking about me.
I dumped cornflakes into a bowl—skittered yellow all over the counter—and splashed milk on top. The cutlery drawer crashed shut from a bump of my hip, and I stomped out onto the patio and leaned on the railing to eat. Didn't turn around when he came up behind me and said, "Hey."
There was nothing to say. I shrugged.
He sighed, big and dramatic, setting my teeth on edge, and went inside. Came back a few minutes later with two mugs of coffee. I took mine without a word. No point cutting off the caffeine supply, and the guy does make great coffee. I'll give him that.
He waited till I finished it—fuck, I could feel him waiting—before he tried again. "Ray."
My shoulders felt like blocks of wood. My voice was gravel. "What's the matter, Vecchio. You ashamed of me?"
He moved up beside me and shook his head firmly. "No! It's not about you, baby. You know that. I just don't want her to know I'm—"
"Oh, right. It's not me you're ashamed of. It's you." It came out like a snarl. "You being with me."
His mouth opened but he didn't have anything to say to that. He dropped a warm hand on my shoulder and squeezed. Most times that was enough.
Because I was sitting in a glasshouse with a big pile of rocks. I'd told Stella, sure, and my parents, finally. Hadn't been easy, but I'd said the words. Even sent photos. But when it came down to it, I was keeping us secret, too. So mostly I just accept that he can't tell his folks. It's too big. Too hard to say. Mostly I can deal with that.
I don't know why today was different. Don't know why, but my throat was tight, and I wanted to scream or fire my gun, or hit something hard. I kicked one of the patio chairs out of my way, and got out of there before that something turned out to be Ray.
I hung out at the Speedway for an hour or so, until the drone of the practicing cars had worn down my temper and I was buzzing on the speed, the sleek lines of them.
Then I headed to Flagler Beach trailer park to see Julie Bonnair from the Tuesday night women's league. I'd heard a rumor she was painting her trailer, and I figured I could help out, get sunstroke and maybe have a beer. She's a sweetheart. About my age, but weather-beaten. Looks older. Chews stick after stick of nicotine gum and has a scar on her leg from a car accident ten years ago. She's got character and grit, and a way of making me feel better. Maybe it's just the beer.
The park was pretty quiet when I got there. A few old couples bickering over cups of coffee, and a chick with a huge black dog roaming over by the laundry facilities. I cut across the gravel driveway and headed directly toward the east side of the park.
Julie called down to me when she saw me, and five minutes later I'd taken her place on the roof, coating the old gray metal with paint the color of peach schnapps. We worked in silence. I concentrated on the regular slap-swish-slap of the brush, and the buzz of flies, while she painted the door and windowsills mint green. The paint fumes made my head swim.
The sun was high and hot by the time I cracked, and blurted out of nowhere, "You know, Stell and me started dating when we were fifteen, and she wouldn't tell anyone. Not even her best friend knew. For months we were sneaking around—behind the gym, in her parent's basement, out back of the 7-11. Finally, she made me change my clothes and my name, and even then—"
I stood up and stretched out my back, squinting over the straggly trees on the edge of the park, looking to the sea. The sky was blazing blue and endless. When I looked down again, Julie was watching me with a waiting look.
I rubbed my face. "I am fucking sick of not being good enough."
She snorted, dumped her brush in a bucket of turps, and disappeared into her trailer. Came back a second later with a couple of beers. I tidied up the patches I'd missed, and climbed down to the ground.
She waited till I was sprawled on the grass, shirt bunched up under my head, and most of the beer cool down my throat before she hit me with it. "What're you afraid of?"
I answered without thinking. "It's like one day he's gonna walk out. He's gonna go back to Chicago, and it'll be like none of this ever happened."
"He won't leave." She sounded dead certain, and I wanted to believe her.
"How do you know?"
"He's happy," she said simply. She grinned at me, and wiped sweat from the back of her neck. "Get going, now. I've got things to do."
I put the beer bottle in the trash, and inspected her handiwork on the door. "Looks good. It's gonna be real pretty when you're done."
She grimaced, but I could tell she was pleased. "That's the plan. Then I'm gonna get a mess of geraniums."
"Yeah? Geraniums, huh?"
"Keep the flies away."
I nodded, and gave her a hug. "Thanks, Julie. You're a pal."
She gruffly waved that aside, and poked me in the chest with her thick strong fingers. "Lighten up," she said, nailing me with a shrewd look. "I reckon we all keep our options open if we can, huh?"
Ray's new Riv wasn't in the lot when I got to the Lucky Strike. My stomach sank into my shoes, and I wondered whether he'd packed up and moved back to Chicago already. Asshole.
Anyway, I still had the business. Tiny had opened, and there was a steady stream of regulars. I left Joe and Tiny in charge, and went into the back office, where I dropped into Ray's desk chair and stared at the phone. Julie was right. I'd had a backup plan the whole damned time. Maybe that was the problem.
I took a deep breath, and blew it out real slow. Shit. I shook the nerves out of my fingers, and picked up the receiver. Okay. This was good. I called directory and got the number.
The phone rang forever. It jangled in my head, and I waited, feeling slightly sick and wondering whether it was a sign. Maybe I should give up and try again later.
Maybe they didn't have answering machines in Canada.
Finally there was a click, and an "RCMP, Dawson Detachment. How can I help?" He'd gotten a hell of a lot less formal since he'd moved back to the wild north, but I could tell it was him.
There was a startled exclamation, like a double take. I could feel every single one of the miles between us, stretching our friendship thin. Voices argued in the background—something about a traveling circus and some escaped lions. "Ray?"
And then a volley of barking. Dief must be there. I licked my lips, feeling better for knowing the wolf was around, which was stupid, but it helped, and I was grasping any straw I could find, right about now.
"Diefenbaker. Please!" Fraser sounded harassed, and the circus people were shouting to be heard. "Ray, this isn't a very good time to talk. Perhaps you could call back—"
I shook my head, even though he couldn't see. "Make it a good time, Frase. I been trying to tell you this for over a year."
There was a pause. "Okay," he said. "Hold on." There was more shouting, getting angry now, and barking, and footsteps. Then Fraser said something apologetic, and then something else firm and decisive, and the shouting got a bit fainter and the barking stopped, and then there was a thunk—the door shutting, I guessed—and quiet.
A clatter as Fraser picked up the phone again. "Are you still there?"
"I'm here." I licked my lips again. Christ, my mouth was dry as sandpaper.
"All right. How can I help?"
"It's not about help. I just—I wanted to tell you—" I stopped. This was crazy. I couldn't just call out of the blue and blurt it out. "How you been?"
A soft whump, as though he was sitting down. "I've been fine, Ray. And yourself?"
"Yeah." Okay, this was it. My pulse was thumping against my eardrums. "I—we're good. Me and Vecchio, we're in Florida now. Maybe you heard."
"You and—" He sounded blank.
"Yeah," I said quickly. "Ray Vecchio. Me and him are—" I stumbled to a halt. Never had good words for that. Luckily, Fraser's always been quick on the uptake.
"You and Ray." His voice was completely expressionless.
"Yeah." I drummed my fingers on the desk, and waited.
Finally, he said, "But Ray Vecchio's straight."
Which was a real interesting thing for him to say, because by rights he should've said that about me, too. I never told him different. Guess he saw through me better than I thought. But all I said was, "Yeah. Well, that's kind of a problem."
There was a cracking sound—his neck, I'd bet—and then he said, "How?"
"It just sort of happened." I drew a circle on the desk with my fingertip. "We—In Chicago—"
The silence pulled tight and long.
And then, Bam! All of a sudden I was babbling. Maybe it was the relief of finally telling him, of breaking through that last barrier and telling Fraser, but I started stammering out the whole story. "I—He was there, you know? And he was kind. Well, sort of. Most of the time. I wasn't—We—it's not like it was easy, but logistically it was—" I stared at the smear I'd made on the desktop, and then wiped it clean. "And I thought, 'I can do this. I can be someone for this guy.'"
"No, Frase. No." I held up my hand to stop him. "Remember when I asked if you were going to stay single your whole life? Remember that? And you said, 'Yeah.' You said 'It's very likely.'"
"Ray—" He sounded kind of hoarse, but I kept talking. I had to say this.
"And I said, 'Are you okay with that? Is that what you want?' and you said—"
"'It's just the way things are,'" he interrupted.
"Yeah." I felt a shock in my gut that Fraser remembered. One conversation out of a thousand, nearly a year and a half ago, and he remembered. He knew. I blinked hard. "'It's just the way things are.'"
I had to do this.
Fraser was talking again, soft now. "I didn't know—I—"
"It's okay, Frase. I just—I need you to do something for me."
He didn't hesitate. "All right."
"Yeah," I said. "Here's the thing." I tightened my grip on the receiver and bent my head. Deep breath. This was it. "Find someone. I need you to find someone, and be happy."
Long silence. Long, long silence.
"Are you there?" I said, wondering if we'd gotten cut off, or if he'd just dropped the phone and walked away.
He cleared his throat, the rasp clear down the line. Clearer than our voices, or than anything we were trying to say. "There is someone, actually," he said at last. "Nicky Gallagher."
Nicky. I didn't know if that was a guy or a girl. Could be either. I didn't ask.
Fraser went on. "Nothing's actually—We haven't—" Shuffling noises, like he was straightening piles of paper or sorting mail. "We've talked."
With my eyes shut, I could almost see him. Could picture him in his brown uniform, clean shaven, smooth hair, talking seriously into the phone, with a sheaf of forms in his hand. I could almost taste him. I blinked my eyes open again. Nicky. "Good. Okay, good." I put my elbow on a pile of invoices, and propped my head on my hand, and told him quietly, "I'm glad. Go get 'em, Frase."
A small sound to my left made me turn my head, and shit, there was Ray, leaning in the doorway, watching me. Busted. "I, uh, I gotta go," I told the phone.
"Give my regards to Ray Vecchio," said Fraser slowly, like he still couldn't quite get his head around it, the idea of the two of us together.
"Will do," I said, and hung up.
I was sure there was gonna be a shit storm. Ray loves Fraser, of course, like a brother, but he's kind of weird about me and him. Understandably. So I approached with caution.
The light was behind him, streaming in through the glass in the fire exit door, and I could hardly see his face. I pulled him around toward me till we were one on either side of the doorframe, staring at each other.
It was weird, though. Ray's eyes were huge and panicked, and somehow familiar. I wracked my brains trying to figure out who he reminded me of, and then it hit me like a train. His expression was just exactly like Stella's, the day we got married. That fierce, proud, terrified look, like Oh shit, what the hell have I gotten myself into with this lunatic?
"You told him," he said, sort of squeaky, and I'd have laughed, maybe, but this was too big for that.
I nodded instead, and held his gaze, pushing off the doorframe with my shoulder. I leaned forward, and put my arms around him, and held him tight. "I ain't going nowhere," I murmured against his ear. "How 'bout you?"
He stiffened in my arms, not moving for a moment, and then he jerked away from me. His eyes turned to ice. "Christ, what do you want from me?" he muttered, backing into the corridor. "I'm here now, but that's not enough, is it?"
My gut twisted. I tried to catch his eye, but he wouldn't look at me. His eyelids drooped, heavy and sinister, and oh fuck, oh fuck, this wasn't even Ray anymore. This was Langoustini. Ray hardly ever fell back into being Armando, but when he did, things could get ugly. I yanked my glasses off my face and tossed them onto the desk behind me without looking, ready to fight if I had to.
My shoulders were strangely loose, and I realized I was missing my holster. Hadn't worn it in over a year, and now all of a sudden, I felt half-dressed. Shit. I shook my head to try and focus.
Ray's lip curled meanly. "You think I'm gonna marry you, Kowalski?" he sneered, low and pissed. "You think I'm gonna be your fucking wife?" He spat it out like spoiled milk.
I scowled, suddenly flushed. "Yeah, Vecchio. That's exactly what I think." I stepped forward and got in his face, my fists coming up instinctively when I saw him tense.
He raised an accusing hand, his face tight. "Fuck you. I didn't sign up for this."
"Christ." I shoved his hand aside, and stabbed him in the chest with my fingers. "We live together, we run a business. You—what? You thought this was a phase you were going through? You thought you'd wake up tomorrow and say, 'Sayonara, Ray, have a nice life'?"
He was gonna hit me. He was furious, he was gonna pop me one, and a part of me wanted him to. Old fashioned stress release. I ducked my head, ready to go toe-to-toe, but it didn't happen. The words sunk in and he shifted his weight back, looking dumbstruck and pale. "No. That's not what I—"
"Because I'm here for the long haul, Ray. I am here for you. Jesus, forsaking all others." My voice was shaking. "But I can't make you want it, if you—"
I grabbed his shirt, crumpling the fabric, and tried to shake him, to get through to him, that this was it. But he seized my wrists and dragged my hands away. Shoved me hard against the wall. "I want it, okay. I just—"
I struggled, hardly hearing him, too caught up in what I was saying. "If you're too scared to—"
"What the hell do you want from me?" he yelled in my face.
We glared at each other for what felt like forever, and I couldn't answer him. It was too much to say. I felt the fight leak out of me.
He changed his grip on my wrists, loosed his hold, and the warmth came back into his face. I watched him closely, misgivings mixed with the last of my anger.
He kissed me, quick and hard, saying what he had to say without words. Just before he pulled away, I kissed him back. Made sure he knew I meant it.
It flashed through my mind how Stella used to freak out—A lawyer and a cop, she'd yell. It's fucking impossible, Ray! What the hell were we thinking?—and I'd get mad and throw my hands in the air, and we'd fight about it until she was right. And Fraser, with his long impossible folktales that never meant anything, never got us anywhere. But you live and learn, you know? I like to think I've learned a thing or two. I slumped until my head was resting on Ray's shoulder. "It's okay."
I could hear the waves, like when you hold a conch shell to your ear. The shhhhh washed right through me as Ray jerked me off, his big hand gentle on my cock. I held onto him, and my breath rushed in and out, back and forth, and I couldn't take my eyes off his face.
"Hey," he said, tightening his grip, and slowing the stroke. "Sorry about before."
"Forget it," I panted, digging in my fingers to hurry him up. "I seen worse—Just—just fucking—"
"You been worse, baby," he said, showing his teeth, but the last of the tension eased out of his face. He slowed even more. Fucking teasing me.
I smacked the back of his head, and we grinned at each other, distracted from the matter in hand. The stroking stopped completely, and his grin faded till he was staring at me, serious as hell.
"What?" I asked.
There was still a spark of fear in his eyes, but something else was burning there, too, getting brighter. He shook his head.
I let my head fall back, and thrust into Ray's hand, helplessly, trying to get him back up to speed. "You—you, uh, okay?"
"You kidding me?" Ray kissed me deep and sweet, and then pulled back, his eyes roving all over me. The way he looked at me had me melting and hard all at once. He hitched his leg over my thigh to pull me closer, then brought his spare hand up and rubbed his thumb over my lips. I licked it, trying not to moan.
"For chrissake—" I mumbled against his hand. "Just—" His fingers pushed into my mouth, stopping the words, then pulled out again, and he ran them up my cheek, threaded them into my hair.
"Just what?" he said, his hand quickening again at last, thank Christ, slick and sure on me. Possessive. His eyes sparkled, and he lowered his voice. "Say the word, you got it."
"Fuck!" I groaned down to my toes, and a second later a perfect wave rushed right through me, and I tightened and came crashing down, falling and crumbling at the edges, hot and wet all over his hand, over the both of us.
The dishwasher had been broken for months. Whenever I mentioned it, Ray would explain how washing dishes by hand was good enough for our immigrant forefathers and blah blah blah—which was all very well for him, but most of the time I was the one who did the washing up.
So anyway, that's why I was holding a tea towel and a handful of cutlery as I leaned in the kitchen doorway, watching him dial.
He sat on the couch, the phone resting on his knee. He hadn't buttoned his shirt. His face was pale and serious. I wanted to put my arms around him. I wanted to help somehow, but he'd said no, that he had to do this on his own. So I stayed back and watched, almost as nervous as he was, but hiding it better, I hoped. There to pick up the pieces if I needed to.
Funny how he could survive Vegas and mobsters and me being an ass—most of the time—but talking to his nice loving family put him in a tailspin. I stared down at the forks and spoons in my hand, and waited.
"Hey," he said into the phone. "It's Ray."
I could hear the faint female chatter in reply. Then there was a click and a squeak, and I could hear it louder, could hear what she was saying. I glanced up quickly, and Ray's eyes were on me, his finger on the speakerphone button.
I bit my lip and shot him an encouraging smile.
"—my God, I haven't heard from you since, when was it, Christmas?"
"Yeah, well, I heard the news, Frannie. Congratulations!"
"Yeah? Did Ma call to cry on your shoulder?" Frannie sounded resigned and amused. "She keeps telling me I'm a crimson woman."
Ray's lips curved up. "Yeah, she called. Hey, so how are the kids?"
That was all the encouragement it took for Frannie to give the low down on Christina's potty training and little Gino's latest antics for the next half an hour, while Ray made encouraging older brother noises, and I dried the rest of the dishes as quietly as I could.
"So, Frannie," Ray finally interrupted, when it became obvious that Frannie could talk about her kids all night without taking a breath. "I'm gonna come up for Gino's christening in September."
Frannie broke off her description of Christina's cute new shoes, and squealed in delight. "You can distract Ma from the fact that I'll be big as a horse by then."
"Yeah, I'll distract her. I'm gonna bring someone, okay?" He raised his eyebrows at me, and I nodded.
More squealing. "Anyone I know?" she joked, bless her. It was the perfect opening.
"Yeah." He hesitated. I twisted the damp tea towel around my hand. "It's Ray Kowalski."
There was a silence. "Oh my God. Ray?" It wasn't clear if she meant him or me.
Ray clenched his hand on his knee and leaned forward. "Yeah."
"You and Ray? But isn't he—" She sounded really confused. "What about Fraser?"
Fuck. I couldn't stay out of it. In two seconds, I was on the couch, hard up against Ray, bent over the phone, trying not to yell. "This has nothing to do with Fraser."
"Ray?" she said, again, sounding even more confused. "Oh my God."
"Yeah, it's me. Hi, Frannie." I put my hand over Ray's fist and held on tight. "I'm in love with your brother."
"Wow," she said. "But I thought—"
I raised my head to where Ray was staring at me, his face going red. I smiled at him. "No buts."
It was a warm night. Husky saxophone music spilled out through the open doors, and we slow danced around the patio furniture. "You okay?"
"Yeah," said Ray, like he wasn't sure.
"She'll come around." There'd already been an edge of excitement in Frannie's voice by the time she hung up, and she'd mentioned the Oprah Winfrey show repeatedly. I figured she'd be fine once she got used to the idea. I nuzzled Ray's neck. "Thanks. You didn't have to."
"You were right." His hold on my waist tightened. "This morning. About me being ashamed."
"I know. But you still didn't have to." We danced a circuit of the patio table, before I made myself say it. "She's not going to be the only one to say that, about Fraser."
He made a grunt that sounded like agreement.
"That bother you?"
He stopped dancing and pulled away. We stood there, looking at each other in the moonlight, and I got this distanced feeling, like I was looking at us from a long way away: these two aging ex-cops, with all their scars and history. This is it, I thought. I could've had a fucking fairytale, but I choose this. I need this. All of a sudden I was terrified of what he was going to say. Terrified he was going to say Yeah. All of a sudden I knew I'd say anything to get him to stay.
He smiled, that slow gentle smile, so that I wanted to lean in and kiss his beautiful mouth. "I got you, right?"
The saxophone slid up the scale and then trailed off into silence. I smiled back at him. "Oh yeah. You got me good."