Thanks: With eternal thanks to sage and mergatrude for beta
Notes: For SDWolfpup from her prompt, "Itís a kitten, not a cougar."
Fraser rang the Vecchios' doorbell and then turned to survey the darkening sky. It was early evening, already dusk, and the clouds seemed to press down. Trees held up their bare branches with twigs like latticework. Across the road a car slowed, its tail-lights glowing bright in the gloom, and pulled into a driveway. It idled while the garage door opened automatically.
It wasn't raining as such, but it was bitterly cold.
Ray answered the door with his gloves bunched up in his hand. "Fraser, thank God you're here. Did you bring the wolf?"
Fraser turned back and raised his eyebrows. "You know Dief doesn't like a capella music, Ray. No, he elected to stay home and finish reading Dumas' The Three Musketeers." Fraser had the double album of one of the last remaining copies of the Yukon Men's Trapridge Glacier and Inlet General Store, Fishing Supplies and Barber's Shop Quartet's eponymous first album under his arm. "Why are you wearing your coat?"
"You didn't get my message?" Ray pulled his gloves on, took the record from Fraser and propped it on the sideboard in the hall. He wrapped his dark red cashmere scarf around his neck, and then shut the door firmly, with them on the outside. "Better not track mud through the house," he said, pointing at Fraser's boots. "I promised Ma that when they got back from Indiana, the house would be as pristine as when they left it."
"What's going on?" Fraser asked.
Ray led Fraser around the side of the house. "I lost Frida Kahlo."
"You lost Frida Kahlo?" repeated Fraser, baffled. Ray turned back to look at him, to explain, and Fraser found himself distracted by the fact that Ray had forgotten his hat. He itched to at least pull up Ray's scarf over his ears to compensate, but he found himself unable to make the move. It was possible that this Frida Kahlo emergency was a diversion, that Ray was having second thoughts regarding their evening plans. Plans that, while not explicitly a date, certainly bore many of the hallmarks of one. Innuendo had been exchanged, and while Fraser was no expert in the subject, he thought he'd seen acknowledgement, acceptance even in Ray's—
"Fraser, did you hear me?" Ray asked impatiently. "Or are you communing with the Ghost of Winters Past again? Come on. We find Frida, and then we can go inside and get warm." He clapped his gloved hands together and then rubbed his ears.
"No, I'm afraid I didn't. I was. That is—" Fraser took off his hat and offered it to Ray.
It wasn't a purely unselfish move. The fact of the matter was that the back of Ray's head, the skin behind his ears where his hair was closely cropped, the line of his jaw — Fraser had been finding all of this, and Ray himself, increasingly distracting over recent weeks. Months, if he were honest. If they were to retrieve a missing painting, then events would be speeded up considerably if he didn't get waylaid contemplating the shape of Ray's skull, the graceful curve of his neck. The smile in his eyes as he rejected Fraser's hat and pulled a navy knitted toque from his pocket and put it on.
"Thanks, Benny." He pushed past the leafless hydrangeas and into the backyard. "I hope your tracking skills are on the ball."
"We're tracking a painting?" Fraser blamed his slight breathlessness on his bewilderment.
"Frida Kahlo," said Ray. "Sasha's kitten."
"Ah." Several pieces of the puzzle slotted into place. "How did she escape?"
Ray shrugged. "How do trees grow leaves? She's a kitten, Fraser — it's what they do. They're like little balls of fluffy Houdini." He caught Fraser's eye and shook his head. "Okay, and maybe I left the back door open when I took the trash out."
"I see." Fraser smiled at him, diverted from their mission yet again.
Ray's gaze slid away, his cheeks turning pink. Possibly from the cold. "So where do we start?" He rubbed his hands together again.
"Tracking a kitten?" Fraser considered a moment, then knelt down on the doorstep and searched for any sign of feline presence.
"Yeah, just—" Ray nudged Fraser's side with his knee. "Remember, it's a kitten, not a cougar. You don't have to lick anything."
"The principle's the same." Fraser hid a smile and studied the carefully tended bushes at the side of the steps.
"Benny! Fill me in later." Ray hunched his shoulders and looked around, as though the kitten would bound toward him out of nowhere. "For now, just find the damned furball before she gets pneumonia and I have to explain about death and angels and stuff to a crying six-year-old while his mother gives me the evil eye."
"Okay, Ray." Fraser got to his feet and opened the door. "How old did you say this kitten was?" He took off his boots and lined them up on the stoop.
"I don't know — a couple of months? Past the big paws, stubby tail, sleep all the time stage, into the curiosity killed stage." Ray stamped his boots on the doormat and followed Fraser into the kitchen, leaving the door open behind them. When he turned on the light, warmth seemed to flood the kitchen, welcoming them in. "We need special kitten-hunting equipment?"
"Yes." Fraser went to the pantry and found a can of tuna. He carried it to the counter and pulled out his pocket knife, intending to pry it open.
Ray sighed and pushed him aside. "This is America, Benny. You don't have to do that by hand."
He held the can up to the electric can-opener on the wall, and they stood side-by-side watching as the can whirred around.
"Now what?" asked Ray. "We scour the neighborhood waving a dish of tuna around until we look like the Pied Piper but with cats instead of rats?"
From behind them came a small, hungry meow.
"I don't think that'll be necessary," Fraser told Ray, and scooped up the small tabby, who blinked sleepy eyes at him and licked his hand. She was silver gray with a black marking above her eyes, and her body was wriggly and warm. "And I don't think Miss Kahlo has been outside."
"Oh." Ray went over and closed the door. He pulled off his gloves and shrugged out of his coat, then looked into the utility room and made a face. "Ma's gonna kill me. That cat's been sleeping on Grandma Vecchio's best linen table cloth from the old country. Jeez, I'm never gonna hear the end of it."
Fraser paused in rubbing Frida's head. "Perhaps we can restore it to its original—"
"No," said Ray firmly. He came over and took the kitten out of Fraser's hands. "For starters, something bad would happen, the table cloth would be ruined for all eternity and I'd never hear the end of it." He stared at Fraser, daring him to contradict this.
Fraser smiled. "True enough. And secondly?"
"Secondly," said Ray, and swallowed. "Secondly, I didn't ask you over here this evening to do laundry."
"Indeed." Fraser licked his lip carefully. "I believe the record's still on the sideboard by the front door."
"Benny, I've got to make a confession," said Ray. "You know how Dief—" He broke off and met Fraser's eye, and seemed to find reassurance there, but still he hesitated.
Fraser's pulse quickened. He dropped his gaze to Ray's mouth, the generous curve of his lower lip, then dragged his attention down to the kitten cradled in Ray's hands. It was a delicate thing, this alchemy of friendship into romance. Fraser trusted Ray to manage it far better than he himself could hope to.
They'd been heading here for a long time, and he'd imagined variations of this moment so often that now it had arrived, it barely felt real.
Ray took a deep breath and his hands tightened on Frida, making her squirm. "The thing is, I'm not too hot on a capella music either," said Ray quietly.
"I see." Fraser closed his eyes, summoning his courage.
"Benny?" Ray sounded nervous, on the verge of stepping away.
Fraser reached out and touched his wrist, and felt the scratch of needle-sharp claws on the back of his hand, forcing him to believe in the reality of here and now. It was irrefutable.
"Plans are made—" he started, and had to clear his throat. When he'd done so, the sentence no longer seemed worth finishing. Instead, he pushed Ray's toque off his head with both hands, letting it fall to the floor, and stroked his thumbs over the skin behind Ray's ears.
Ray's lips parted. Fraser could almost see him breathing, excitement and tension sending tremors through him, and then Fraser couldn't wait another second. He drew Ray toward him, met him halfway with a soft press of lips on lips. Lips welcoming lips, warm and sweet, then heating and deepening. Fraser wrapped his arms around Ray and pulled him close. Between them, the kitten mewled and struggled to break free.
Ray laughed into Fraser's mouth and set Frida on the counter next to them, all without breaking the kiss. He unbuttoned Fraser's greatcoat and put his hands on Fraser's hips, and Fraser slid his tongue into Ray's mouth eagerly, tasting his laughter and his love.
After a long time, they stopped kissing and stood there, breathing hard, their foreheads pressed together. "The thing I've found with plans," said Fraser, breathlessly, "is that they can always be improved upon."
Ray's arms tightened around him. "Don't get me wrong, Benny, but I gotta tell you — as plans go this is a big step up from two hours of Hello, Dolly! sung by guys wearing snowshoes."
Fraser shook his head fondly. "They didn't actually wear snowshoes during the recording, you know—"
As he'd hoped, Ray chose to interrupt him with another kiss.
And on the counter beside them, a small kitten purred loudly and tried her best to eat an entire can of tuna.
Alchemy is the art of far and near
— Robert Morgan.