Pairing: Kowalski/Vecchio, Fraser/Vecchio
Warnings: References to non-con. Earworms.
Thanks: A thousand thousand thanks to sage and mergatrude not just for excellent beta, but also for creating this world with me. We make our own fun.
Notes: This story slots in between Gloria (will you catch him on the rebound?) and The Longest Year
The tiny guest room was cluttered with Ray's skis that he'd only used twice in his life and his dusty collection of 45s, Kowalski's bicycle and weights set, a pair of old-fashioned snowshoes and a few cartons of papers and old photographs they'd never unpacked. Ray sat on the end of the single bed, gazing unseeingly at the haphazard piles of belongings, and waiting until Frannie fell asleep, and then left the door slightly ajar and went through to the living room. He turned off the overhead light so the room shrunk to just the oasis created by the lamp beside the couch and, from the window, the faint orange glow of streetlights reflecting off the low swollen clouds.
Ray had been numb all day, but his composure was starting to crack.
He found a pad on the kitchen counter, the top sheet scribbled with soap spaghetti paper towels bread in Kowalski's handwriting, and turned to a new page. He hunted down a pen on the coffee table, and then spent forty-five minutes calling RCMP station after RCMP station, getting passed from receptionist to answering service before he gave up and just started dialing his way through the complete list of detachments, starting in the Northwest Territories and working his way down and east until, some time around one fifteen in the morning when Ray was pacing the room to stretch out the kinks in his back, a familiar voice answered.
A lump swelled in Ray's throat and he sat down suddenly on the couch—Kowalski's ratty old couch with the ratatouille stain on the cushion—leaned his arms on his knees and let his head drop.
"Benny," he heard himself say. "I need you."
And then, because he couldn't face the inevitable questions, the explanations, rehashing the last week of Meyerson's brutal cat-and-mouse game, the way he'd systematically set out to destroy Ray's family and, Christ, what he'd done to Frannie—Ray couldn't even think about that without needing to puke—and like a cherry on a grisly ice cream sundae, how Ray had woken that morning to find Kowalski gone like he'd been erased. Only a note: I'll get him. Don't come looking. And beneath that, I love you. K. And Welsh wouldn't tell Ray anything except that Kowalski had spoken to the Feds, and the Feds wouldn't even tell him that much.
Because all that was too much to begin to explain, he let the phone receiver fall away from his ear.
"Ray?" said Fraser's small tinny voice. "What's wrong? Where are you?"
Ray hung up, dropped the phone on the couch beside him and covered his face with his hands. He couldn't lose it. He was the one holding everything together now.
It was too late, anyway, he told himself. It was after one in the morning. He'd call Fraser back the next day at a decent hour. Ray'd lost track of the list of numbers, had no idea where Fraser was, but he could hit Redial, and then Fraser would be right there on the other end of the line, ready to support Ray in any way he could, given the hundreds of miles and four years and gulf of life experiences that separated them.
Ray would call him back tomorrow.
He reached over and switched off the lamp, then fell sideways on the couch and pillowed his head on the arm that wasn't itching inside its gauze bandage. He kicked off his shoes and pulled a soft camel-colored blanket over himself, watched the numbers on the VCR count down to dawn and tried to imagine where Kowalski was now—dozing in a low-rent motel or on a Greyhound bus, too tense to let himself sleep properly. Or charming information out of a suspicious landlord or creeping up a metal staircase with his gun in his hand and no backup. He should be here, dammit, with Ray, in their bed. Kowalski could be furious and frustrated and slam his hand into walls all he liked, but he should be here.
The stack of old Ring World magazines on the coffee table blurred in the streetlight, half promise, half memorial.
Just before five, Frannie started screaming and Ray heaved himself up and went to wake her, wrapped his arms around her and rocked her through her shuddering sobs. He murmured all the soothing Italian phrases Ma used to say to them when they were kids, out of his depth but knowing it was up to him.
For the first time, he was glad Kowalski had gone after Meyerson. If he hadn't, Ray would've had to, and then who would be here for Frannie.
He fell asleep next to her on the guest bed, and by the time he woke up, she was in the living room, on the phone to Carina from CPD Victim Services, and he'd nearly forgotten why he'd been calling Fraser in the middle of the night anyway. They'd make it. Things would get easier with time. Ray medicated himself with platitudes—which he heard in Benny's earnest reassuring voice—and let the moment pass.
He got the all clear from his doctor two days later and lost the bandage, and by then he was so tense and twisted up inside he knew he had to do something or he'd end up yelling at Frannie, and there was no way. So he arranged for Elaine Besbriss to sit with her that evening, climbed into the unremarkable blue Ford sedan he'd bought with the insurance money from the Riv, and drove to the Pink Ladies' Club. He parked a couple of blocks up the street and secured his gun in the lockbox under the driver's seat, along with his wallet.
Dee was striding around backstage picking up glittery chiffon robes and a tangle of bright boas and crumpled plastic shopping bags like she was searching for something.
"What've you lost?" asked Ray, and she squeaked and spun around to face him, threw herself into his arms.
"Ray! Long time, no see." She kissed his cheek, and Ray knew without checking that she'd left a smudge of plum lip gloss. She had always worn too much lipstick.
"I've been busy." He shrugged. "Got a full line-up tonight?" The show had already started. He could hear Tina Turner singing What's Love Got To Do With It over the sound system, which meant Vanessa was strutting her stuff.
"I can squeeze you in if you hurry, girl," said Dee, "though would it kill you to give me some warning?"
"You know how it goes." He picked his way through the chaos to the dressing room. "Who've you got now and do they ever clean up after themselves?"
Dee rolled her eyes. "You wouldn't believe these young things! Half of them think I'm their mom, for Christ's sake."
Ray grinned. "It's 'cause you're so matronly," he told her, risking both his neck and his spot in the line-up.
But Dee was too pleased to see him to take offense. She just threw a silver five-inch-heel pump at his head and told him to hurry up.
Ray paused in the doorway. The music changed to Holding Out For a Hero, and he felt a buzz start at the prospect of letting Gloria out to play, the makeup and the lights and the music and the audience's faces tilted up to watch. "Hey, Dee," he said. "You still got that blue-sequined spandex dress?"
"The one you refused to wear because the hem was too short?" She stood up and put her hands on her hips, and stared at him. "What's going on with you, honey?"
"Nothing," he said, avoiding her gaze. She kept waiting, stubborn as ever, and he sighed and put his hand on the doorframe. "I need to cut loose tonight, Dee."
She cocked her head thoughtfully, then shrugged. "It's in the closet next to my Priscilla frock. Help yourself."
Gloria did two numbers—There Are Worse Things I Could Do and Whitney Houston's Saving All My Love—and it was fantastic to be on stage again. Her false eyelashes sparkled in the spotlight as she coyly ran her hand up and down her stocking-clad thigh in front of a roomful of friends and strangers. It felt sexy and liberating and right.
She'd been coming here less and less often, knowing Kowalski wasn't comfortable with the idea of Gloria, let alone the reality. He never said so—if he had, she'd probably have needed the outlet—but even Ray's more colorful shirts had kept Kowalski at a distance. And Ray hadn't missed performing, had been too busy fucking Kowalski at every opportunity, arguing and making up and working with him. Getting close, carving out a life together. They had a small circle of semi-closeted gay friends, guys to hang out with, play poker and shoot pool, no questions asked. Them and Ray's family and one or two of the more relaxed guys at work. That had been enough.
But here, with music making her light-headed like too much oxygen, and that overwhelming sense of release that she only ever got from casting aside the suit and tie and pulling on a bustier, high heels, a wig and flattering feminine clothes—here was where she shone.
After the last week, this was what she needed. And if everything magically went back to normal tomorrow—if Frannie had never been assaulted and Kowalski came back, and Ma and the whole Vecchio family were healthy and safe in Octavia Avenue where they were supposed to be—even then, Gloria knew she couldn't give this up again.
She got to the final verse I've got to get ready, just a few minutes more and wrapped both hands around the microphone, putting her heart and soul into the performance, feeling the music. The club was crowded, those near the stage watching attentively while people in the back were flirting with each other and buying drinks. Gonna get that old feeling when you walk through that door.
She cocked her hip and gestured dramatically towards the back of the club, and then faltered.
There was a guy sitting on a bar stool next to the cigarette vending machine. He was watching her intently, his face cold and blank, eyes like shiny metal disks. Gloria stumbled and tried to look away, but her heart began to pound and a second later sweat trickled down her spine. Images of Frannie flooded her mind.
Whoever this guy was, Gloria didn't know him and neither did Ray, and it wasn't like either of them were in immediate danger, not here. Gloria knew half the people in this club and the ones she didn't would probably leap to her defense, too. But there was something cruel about the guy, about the line of his arm on the bar and his sharp features, that tripped her internal alarm.
He leaned back and the light above the bar shifted the shadows on his face. He looked like a predator.
Gloria lost her grip, her hand sweaty, and the microphone slipped onto the stage with a clatter and rolled towards the edge. That brought her to her senses. Good thing it wasn't switched on. Gerry caught it before it rolled off the stage onto the floor, and offered it up to her. She retrieved it as gracefully as she could, nodding her thanks, and forced her attention back to the song for the big finish, ignoring the taste of bile in her mouth, the way the faces turned towards her suddenly seemed hostile and mocking.
When the audience applauded, she hardly heard them. She bowed quickly and went backstage, desperate to change back into Ray. Her hands shook as she wiped off her makeup, and her pulse thudded too fast at the base of her throat, making her dizzy.
Ray didn't stick around to watch the rest of the show or meet the new girls afterwards. He took the back exit, strode to his car down the block without looking left or right, and drove home with his jaw clenched tight, his mind circling obsessively. He needed to be Gloria to cope with the shit that was going on in his life, but being Gloria meant letting guys like that look at him, risking panicking on stage, being vulnerable. He couldn't afford to be vulnerable right now.
Ray checked his face in the rear view mirror and his hands for any residual traces of Gloria, sniffed his shirt and jacket for perfume, and then took the stairs up to his apartment two at a time.
Elaine and Frannie were on the couch watching a rerun of Friends, and they both looked around when the door opened. Ray dumped his decoy gym bag just inside the door and hung his coat and scarf on the hook.
"How was the game?" asked Frannie.
Ray shrugged. "We lost. No big deal. Paulie pulled a muscle in his shoulder and his doctor said he's not allowed to play again for four weeks—not even a friendly game of pick-up." This much was true, though it was a risk to say it. But Frannie never talked to Paulie, and especially not now. "Without him and Kowalski, we didn't stand much of a chance."
Frannie's mouth curved down and she turned back to the TV, hugging the cushion on her lap. She was pale and had dark purple smudges under her eyes like bruises, but her actual bruises were fading to yellow and green. She looked like a ghost.
Elaine met Ray's eye. He raised his eyebrows in a question. She shrugged a little and nodded, indicating that Frannie was pretty much how he'd expect, and then she smiled suddenly and jerked her head towards the kitchen.
"You guys want a cup of coffee?" Ray figured that was what Elaine was suggesting. "Or that herbal tea you like, Frannie?"
"I've just made some," said a deep voice behind him.
Ray nearly jumped out of his skin. "Fraser?! What are you doing here?"
"Hello, Ray." Fraser stood in the kitchen doorway with three steaming mugs in his hands and examined Ray's face. Ray looked back. Fraser's hair was longer than it used to be, slightly wavy with a few touches of silver here and there, and the creases around his eyes were deeper, but otherwise it was the same Fraser. He was even wearing that old crew-neck sweater he loved so much, which must be held together with just a wing and a prayer by now.
Ray wanted to throw his arms around him and hang on, but there were the drinks, and Frannie and Elaine sitting right there, and anyway, it had been a crazy night and Ray wasn't sure he could stay on top of things if Fraser put his arms around him. It would be too easy to lean.
They sat in the living room—Frannie and Elaine on the couch, Ray in the armchair running his thumb over the delicate patterns on his coffee mug. Fraser was on the floor with his back against the wall by the bookshelf, his legs crossed in front of him. Frannie had switched off the TV, and Fraser regaled them all with anecdotes about Canada and moose and people with improbable names committing ridiculous crimes, until Elaine finally yawned and said good night.
Ray saw her to the door and thanked her quietly.
"It's okay." She pulled up the hood of her green sweatshirt and zipped up her parka, and then fished leather gloves out of her pocket. "It's—I'm really sorry, Ray."
Ray ducked his head in thanks. "You want me to walk you to your car?"
"I'll be fine." Elaine touched his arm. "Have you heard from Kowalski?"
"Not a word." Ray couldn't talk about it. That loss, on top of everything else that had happened, was more than he could deal with right now. Kowalski would be back soon, or he'd find some way to be in touch. Otherwise, Ray didn't know what he'd do.
Elaine grimaced sympathetically and turned to leave, and Ray took a deep breath and let her go. If she didn't want an escort that was her call. "Hey, Elaine," he called after her.
She stopped at the top of the stairs and looked back.
"Call me when you get home so I know you made it safe and sound, okay?" He went back inside.
"I should go to bed, too," said Frannie, flatly. "I'm really tired." She avoided looking at Fraser. Ray's heart ached for her.
"Good night, Francesca," said Fraser from his spot on the floor.
Ray stood up to give her a gentle hug. "Sleep good."
After she'd left the room, still clutching the cushion, Ray took her spot on the couch and Fraser looked over at him. "Elaine told me what happened. Are you all right?"
"If she'd really filled you in, you wouldn't need to ask that," Ray told him, and dropped his gaze to his own hands on his thighs. "I was the only one that bastard didn't touch." It felt like an admission of guilt.
"Not physically, perhaps." Fraser came over, sat beside him and rested his hand on Ray's shoulder.
Ray took a deep breath and held it, trying not to think or feel or react. "Why are you here, Benny?"
"You said you needed me," said Fraser, simply, and sure, for Fraser that was enough. Ray had forgotten, had let it slip from his mind how straightforward the rules were in Fraser's world. "And while I'm very sorry about the circumstances, it is good to see you, Ray."
Ray let his breath out in a long sigh. "Yeah, you too." He leaned forward and rested his forearms on his knees so he didn't have to look at Fraser's face. "I was doing okay, but then Kowalski left and I—I couldn't do it anymore. I was hanging on by a thread. That's when I called."
"You underestimate yourself," Fraser told him. "You've always been strong. You've always—"
"Um," said Frannie from the doorway. She was wearing burgundy and white striped flannel pajamas and she smelled of soap and toothpaste. She unwrapped her arms from around the cushion and handed it to Ray over the back of the couch. It had a damp toothpaste stain on it. "I'm going to bed now. Goodnight."
"'Night, Frannie," said Ray, and neither him nor Fraser said anything more until they heard her bedroom door shut. Even then, the quiet hung around them like mist until Fraser spoke in an undertone.
"Were you really playing basketball this evening?"
Ray flushed, caught out. "I went to see Dee." Fraser nodded, unsurprised, and Ray didn't want to know how he'd figured that out. "I had to get out, get away for a while. It's been—" He rubbed his face. "It's been tough, and Elaine said Frannie'd be okay with her."
"Which she was," Fraser said. "You don't have to do everything alone."
Ray snorted. "That's rich coming from you. Anyway, Ma's still in the hospital—Maria's with her—and Tony took the kids to some friends in Wisconsin." He gathered the empty mugs and stood up to carry them through to the kitchen, then hesitated. "Where's the wolf?"
Fraser rubbed his eyebrow just like old times. Ray remembered kissing him there, remembered the thrill of being close to him. He looked at the empty cups in his hand.
"He's in quarantine," said Fraser.
Ray glanced up, startled. "You brought him with you?"
"Dief's no more able to ignore a call for help than I am," Fraser told him, "assuming he hears it, of course."
Ray tried to smile but his face felt heavy. "How long are you staying?"
He took the cups to the kitchen and Fraser followed him and leaned in the doorway, watching Ray load the dishwasher. "As long as you need me to. I've taken the liberty of arranging my bedroll on the floor in your room."
Ray clenched his jaw and grimly dropped teaspoons and knives into the cutlery holder. He was determined not to cry. After a minute, he managed a gruff, "Thanks."
And then Fraser was right there, turning him and wrapping him up in a tight hug, giving him strength and endurance and someone to lean on. Ray sighed and relaxed into it, hugged back.
Fraser smelled as good as ever, fresh and wholesome, nothing like Kowalski's coffee and sweat and gun oil scent. Fraser's body was hard, strong and familiar. And after all this time, being in his arms was like coming home, just as much as being with Kowalski was. Could a guy have two homes? Two loves? Kowalski wouldn't think so, but Ray couldn't stop his pulse kicking up and this time it wasn't fear or panic. Fraser's hands stopped rubbing his back and they both froze.
Fraser's breath was coming too fast, too.
"I can't." The words were like dull gray pebbles, choking him. He lurched out of Fraser's arms. "You know I can't."
The phone rang and Ray snatched it up before it could wake Frannie. It was Elaine, saying she'd arrived home safely. "Take care, Ray," she said.
"Thanks." He hung up and looked across the kitchen at Fraser. He was staring inscrutably at a faded photo of some snowy mountains Kowalski had taped to the refrigerator when they moved in. "Benny."
"I'm sorry." Fraser folded his arms and stepped back. "You know I didn't come to make things more complicated for you."
"I know, I know. It's not some sort of master plan—it's just what you do naturally, like breathing and irritating the hell out of me." Ray shook his head and let his conflicted feelings show. "I can't do that to Kowalski, however pissed I am that he ran off."
Fraser nodded. "It's late. Let's go to bed."
Twenty minutes later, Ray lay in his bed that smelled of Kowalski and sex, and listened to Fraser's calm regular breathing as he lay on the floor only a few feet away. He pushed the covers down a little and confessed into the dark, "I choked. I—Gloria lost it tonight. I don't think I can do it anymore."
"I'll help any way I can," Fraser told him.
Ray's stomach sunk, like admitting his weakness was a weakness in itself, but he fought it, fought to let Fraser back in. "I know you will," he said. "I'm glad you're here."
Having Fraser around made everyone feel better. Even Ma's ribs seemed to heal faster, and she was released from the hospital a few days later with a bottle of Darvocet to keep her going. The house was already cleaned up enough that she and Maria could move back home without too much trouble.
Ray went by on his way home every day to make sure they were doing okay, and most times he'd find Fraser there, helping out the contractors who were replacing the flooded and damaged drywall in the foyer and living room, or the security guy who came on Thursday to install the new alarm.
At the end of the week, Tony came back with the kids.
Frannie stayed at Ray's, not ready to face her own room yet. Once Dief was out of quarantine he barely left her side and that seemed to help her sleep, so she got a bit more spring in her step and stopped looking so haunted. A week to the day after Fraser arrived, she told Ray to get out and leave her in peace for a while.
"You want me to call Elaine?" he asked.
She shoved his shoulder. "I'll be fine. Dief will keep me company."
Dief barked a confirmation.
"Okay, well, you've got my number." He checked his cellphone battery. "Call me if you need anything."
"Jeez, Ray, I'm a grown woman. I think I can have a bath and watch a romantic movie without my brother around." She sounded so much like the old Frannie that Ray couldn't help but hug her.
She returned the hug briefly, then slapped him on the chest. "Get out of here. You need a change of scenery. And take Fraser with you—he's starting to get cockpit fever. I know the signs."
"If you're sure," said Ray. "Benny, you want to get something to eat?"
"By all means." Fraser was wearing a charcoal sweater and chinos. He pulled on his great coat and settled his Stetson on his head. Ray checked his cellphone again and grabbed his black wool coat and scarf, and they left the apartment and took the stairs to the ground floor in companionable silence.
It was raining lightly, a brisk chill in the air. Fraser held the outer door for Ray and that gave Ray an idea. He led the way to the car and asked as casually as he could, "Hey, Benny, how would it be if instead of you and me going out on the town, you took Gloria someplace nice? Would that be okay?"
"It would be my pleasure," said Fraser promptly.
Ray glanced at him across the roof of the car, not at all surprised by his poorly disguised eagerness, but troubled by it anyway. "Be gentle with her, okay? She's a little shaken up."
"Of course, Ray." Fraser gave him a reassuring smile, took his hat off and slid into the car.
They went to the same diner they'd gone to that first night so many years ago, the night Fraser tracked her down and found out her secret. The photos on the walls had been updated and there were new faces behind the grill, but mostly nothing had changed. This was still a safe place for Gloria to relax in, and Fraser was still respectful, still good company. Still too pretty for his own good—or Gloria's peace of mind.
Fraser told her about the drag bar he'd visited in Yellowknife where they only played country and western. And Gloria spilled some of the dirt on Vegas, on coming back from Vegas. She glossed over her time with Kowalski, didn't tell him how she was persona non grata, but she could see Fraser reading between the lines, between the omissions, and when he rested his hand over hers on the scummy formica tabletop, she didn't pull away.
She knew she was misbehaving, leading him on, but this was Benny. She'd always loved him, loved how he made her feel, how he cherished her and wanted her. She smoothed her sleek black wig and hid behind her eyelashes, watching him finish his burger. Knowing he knew exactly what she was thinking, that he was as torn as she was.
After dinner and coffee, and more coffee, they walked back towards the club, hand in hand. It had stopped raining and the streets shone under the neon signs and streetlights. There were people around, some who looked intimidating, but this was the neighborhood where no one would give them a second glance. Gloria bumped her shoulder against Fraser's. "Remember the first time?"
"Vividly." He glanced at her, looked away. "Gloria—"
She tightened her grip on his hand, and without conscious decision or even really being aware of what she was doing, she tugged him into the shadowed doorway of a travel agency, closed for the night, and pressed his hand to her cheek.
In this dark space, with the world passing by oblivious to them, it was easy to pretend no time had passed. They were still young, there was nothing to stop them. Gloria ran her thumb over his soft lower lip and moaned under her breath, and Fraser's lips parted. They came together slowly, like they were in a dream, and Gloria knew it was wrong, knew Kowalski would kill her, but she couldn't help herself. Because this was Fraser, Benny, and he loved her, and when his mouth closed on hers, nothing was wrong with the world.
She let him push her against the mesh security door and press against her. His hands slid from her arms to her waist, and she gasped and broke the kiss, leaning her forehead against his and struggling for air. Fraser was murmuring something, sounding distressed. She pulled him close and hugged him, and he buried his face in her neck and said over and over, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry I wasn't here for you. I'm sorry, Ray."
And finally, the tears came.