Notes: For Sonia
Ray led the way into the small white-painted art gallery on North Franklin, his taupe spring coat flapping about his knees. "I'm telling you, Fraser, this woman is guilty. I can feel it. She's the one who stole my car."
"Is there any evidence other than your feelings?" asked Fraser, taking off his coat. The gallery was in a converted house, the paintings displayed in a series of rooms with widened doorways. A young bearded man dressed all in black sat at a white painted table, reading La Nausea, apparently oblivious to his surroundings. Fraser supposed him to be the gallery's assistant. There didn't appear to be any other patrons at this time — they'd beaten the lunchtime crowds.
"You want evidence?" asked Ray. "She's crazy and she hates me. Look around! She's painted me dying all kinds of gruesome, violent deaths."
Fraser looked and was glad that Dief had elected to wait in the pool car. His reactions to art were always rather unpredictable, and he was increasingly protective of Ray. "It's not illegal to dislike police officers, Ray, nor to depict them in works of art." Fraser glanced at a painting of Ray being squeezed to death by a boa constrictor. "That doesn't automatically mean she committed grand theft auto."
"You call this art?" said Ray, disgusted. "These aren't art — they're death threats!"
"Now, Ray, death threats are rarely exhibited in public galleries." Fraser examined a piece wherein Ray was tied down and his liver being devoured by giant vultures. "Added to that, they're traditionally verbal, either oral or written, and—"
"Fraser! She painted me being mauled to death by an alligator!" Ray gestured dramatically at a larger piece just inside the second room of the gallery.
Fraser glanced at the painting in question. "Crocodile."
"Alligator, crocodile, what difference does it make? It's feasting on my entrails!" Ray was starting to screech.
"Actually, telling the difference between an alligator and a crocodile is quite simple," started Fraser soothingly, and then his attention was caught by the next piece. "Ah." He hurried Ray past before he could see it.
Unfortunately, Ray was wise to this strategy. "What is it?" he demanded, craning his head back.
"It'll only upset you." Fraser bundled him towards the third room in the gallery.
"I'm already upset." Ray tried to break free, and succeeded, but he didn't go back to the painting. Instead, he stared accusingly at Fraser. "What are you hiding from me now?"
"Really, it's a terrible likeness," Fraser prevaricated, wishing there was at least one pleasant picture in the gallery to which he could divert Ray's attention. There wasn't.
"Of you," said Fraser reluctantly truthful. "Being disemboweled with red hot pokers."
"That's it!" Ray threw up his hands. "That's it, I'm taking out a restraining order."
"Ray, the artist hasn't attempted to contact you, and you are here entirely of your own volition," Fraser pointed out. "There simply aren't grounds—"
"Yeah," interrupted Ray. "Of my own volition after Maria saw a flyer for this exhibition with my face on it." He picked up a flyer from a small table by the doorway and waved it in Fraser's face: Police Brutality by Annie Muss. "Good thing Maria didn't come down here herself, or she'd be handing these out like Christmas cards. Whose side are you on, anyway?"
Fraser met his gaze. "The side of justice, Ray, same as you."
Ray snorted and wheeled away. "Yeah, it's like I thought. You'd sell me down the river for a Freedom of Speech and Artistic License campaign in a second."
He sounded more grouchy than bitter, and Fraser hoped that repeated exposure to the artist's vision was desensitizing him. "Ray, this woman is publicly displaying her vehement dislike of you."
"Tell me something I don't know," said Ray, contemplating a scene of his body parts being fed into a wood chipper by a grizzly bear.
"Many people find such expressions therapeutic." Fraser rested a comforting hand on Ray's shoulder. "They're rarely an indication of intent. And regardless, she must know that should any harm befall you, she would be a prime suspect." His gaze wandered to the next painting in the exhibition. "Huh."
"Huh?" said Ray. "What huh?"
"Oh, nothing." Fraser went over to the table by the door.
"What are you doing? Are you checking the price list?" Ray sounded, if possible, even more outraged than before. "Do not tell me you're even considering buying one of these monstrosities!"
Fraser scanned the list and refused to look at him. "Now, Ray, that portrait of you drowning in lava is very evocative."
"You want evocative? I'll give you evocative!" Ray's voice couldn't possibly go any higher. "Imagine that's a Mountie drowning there. One of the Queen's representatives up to his epaulettes and eyeballs in molten rock! How would you like that?"
"That's hardly respectful of the uniform." Fraser stole another quick glance at the picture.
"Hey, at least the Mountie has a uniform," said Ray. "Do I look like I'm wearing clothes in that painting?"
"It's rather hard to tell, what with the little demons with pitchforks in the foreground," said Fraser. "Ray, what exactly did you do to Ms. Muss?"
Ray sighed and shoved his hands in his coat pockets. "I arrested her parents for fraud eight months ago. They were travel agents, had a racket where they sold package tours of Spain and the south of France to old people and then sent them to Mexico instead."
"Ah." Fraser's eyebrow itched. He scratched it. "Perhaps if you apologized?"
"They were guilty as sin, Fraser!" Ray's coat flapped agitatedly. "They were ripping off pensioners."
Fraser nodded. "Nonetheless, it can be— traumatic to lose one parent, let alone two."
"Aw, Benny." Ray stared at him for a long moment, a confusing mélange of emotions crossing his face. "Come on," he said at last. "Let's get out of here."
Fraser nodded and discreetly slipped the price list into his inner hat band.
"I saw that!" said Ray, poking him in the side.
"I have no idea what you're talking about." Fraser stepped out of the gallery and settled his hat on his head. There was a light drizzle, the ground barely wet.
Ray strode along next to him and jostled his elbow. "Just tell me that you don't want to buy a painting of me being inventively tortured to death because you hate me and want to see me suffer."
"Oh, no!" Fraser stopped dead in his tracks, shocked. Ray couldn't possibly think that. "Not at all! Quite the opposite."
Ray, who'd walked on ahead, turned, side-stepped a lady with a stroller, and came back now to stand directly in front of Fraser. "What opposite? You love me and you want to stare at naked pictures of me all day?"
Fraser fought a rising flush of embarrassment. "Ordinarily you know I would never deface an artwork, but in this instance, well—" He knew he sounded defensive, but he couldn't seem to help it.
Luckily, Ray was more confused than anything else. "What?"
"It would be simple enough to paint a bed of roses over the lava and demons," Fraser explained.
Ray studied him, and Fraser blushed helplessly. "So stop me if I'm wrong," said Ray, slowly. "You're planning to hang in your apartment — I'm assuming we're not talking about hanging it in your office — a painting of me, half-naked and covered in flowers. Does that strike you as in any way peculiar, Benny?"
Fraser cleared his throat and stepped sideways, trying to move them both towards the car and safer conversational waters. "It's hardly unusual for people to display pictures of their friends and family—"
"Half-naked?" said Ray.
"I could paint you some clothes if you'd prefer," said Fraser desperately. Dief was curled up on the backseat but he raised his head when they got into the car. "You wouldn't have liked it," Fraser told him. "None of it was edible." He set his hat on the dash and looked resolutely through the front windshield.
Dief yawned in disgust.
"Man, a Ford? I hate this car. I have got to find my Riviera!" Ray put his hands on the offending steering wheel and leaned back in his seat, also looking straight ahead. He didn't move to put the key in the ignition. Then he turned to Fraser and said, "Benny, if you want to look at me naked, all you have to do is ask."
Shock spilled through Fraser. Shock — at being discovered, at Ray's admission, at the sudden possibilities opening up between them. He licked his lip and took a deep, unsteady breath. "Ray," he said carefully, when he was sure he could adequately form the words, "would you accompany me to my apartment."
"Yeah," croaked Ray. "But first I gotta—" He swallowed. "Come here, I gotta tell you something." He beckoned Fraser closer, and when Fraser leaned in, Ray touched his cheek and kissed him quickly on the mouth.
Fraser caught his hand as it dropped away, and squeezed it. "That's— that's good to know, Ray."
"Yeah," said Ray, and cleared his throat. "It's good to say, too." Apparently all his concerns about the grisly art exhibition were forgotten, at least for now. "Okay, well, hang onto your hat," said Ray, and he started the car with a roar and drove them, at dangerous and illegal speeds, towards Racine Avenue and home.