Thanks: Many grateful thanks to aerye, qe2 and mergatrude for beta
Notes: For aingeal for Due South Seekrit Santa 2008
Before the fern was Elaine's, it belonged to her roommate, Julie. It sat in a tapered plant pot on the table in the hallway, by the phone, and between Elaine and Julie, they kept it watered enough that it grew leafy and happy. Julie said the secret was that they didn't fuss with it too much.
One afternoon, Ray turned up to drag Elaine to County Records. Julie had just had a bath and she answered the door barefoot, in her robe with a towel wound around her hair, her cheeks flushed. "Hey there," she said, eyeing Ray from head to toe.
"Well, hello." He smiled, doing that thing where he tried to be charming and suave but just came off as patronizing. "I'm Detective Raymond Vecchio. And who might you be?"
Elaine rolled her eyes and reached for her parka, knowing Fraser was waiting in the car with Diefenbaker. And, hey, this had better be an emergency if Ray was interrupting her day off. Her scarf was on the same hook as her coat, and when she pulled them down, the scarf caught on the fern, tipping it onto the hardwood floor with a heart-stopping smash.
At least it stopped Julie and Ray from making eyes at each other.
"I'm so sorry," Elaine told Julie, and went to get a dustpan and brush.
By the time she came back, Ray had deposited Julie safely in the living room and was bent down picking up the shards of terracotta. "Have to keep those tootsies safe," he told Julie over his shoulder.
He turned back to what he was doing, and Julie caught Elaine's eye and jerked her head towards him. "Nice ass," she mouthed silently.
Elaine tried not to glare at her and reached down to pluck the disheveled fern out of the rubble. "Put that in something," she said, dumping it in Julie's hands. Then she nudged Ray aside with her knee so she could sweep up the dirt that seemed to have spilled into every corner. As she nudged him, she realized all of a sudden that Julie was right. What do you know? It was a pretty nice ass.
Not that Elaine had any interest in it. Not in Ray.
She cleaned up quickly, knowing Ray would assume her cheeks were pink from the exertion. "Come on," she told him, "Fraser's waiting."
"Nice to meet you," he told Julie with a grin, and he and Elaine headed for the stairs.
They followed two dead ends before they found a lead that actually led somewhere and finally put Joseph Montague behind bars. "Excellent work, Elaine," Fraser said, leaning forward from the backseat to thank her. "If you hadn't noticed his cufflinks, we might never have apprehended him."
"What's he saying?" Ray asked, casually running a stop sign.
Elaine saw Fraser and Ray exchange glances in the rearview mirror. "He's agreeing with me," said Fraser, after a pause. "Although naturally he's frustrated we were unable to make better use of the wedding cake."
"It was laced with cyanide," Ray pointed out. "Has he lost all of his survival instincts from living here in the lap of urban civilization?" He pulled into Elaine's street and swerved to avoid a pothole.
"It's a worrying thought," Fraser agreed. "I suspect it's more a natural aversion to wasted food. Cake is extremely rare in the Arctic, as I'm sure you can appreciate."
"Maybe he's just hungry," said Elaine. "Do you guys want to come up for coffee?" She smiled at Dief. "I don't have any cake, but there's cookie-dough ice cream."
Fraser looked doubtful, but Diefenbaker woofed enthusiastically, and Ray pulled up to the curb and put on the brake. "You know what? A coffee would be great."
They trooped upstairs and Elaine let them into the apartment quietly—it was after eleven and Julie's light was out—and herded them over the hallway floor, still crunchy with dirt, through the living room and into the kitchen. She closed the door and switched on the light, and felt suddenly crowded. It wasn't a small kitchen, but it wasn't big either, and Ray and Fraser and Dief seemed to take up an awful lot of room.
Ray sat down at the kitchen table, and Fraser started reading the spines of the recipe books on top of the refrigerator. Elaine put the coffee on.
"Are you fond of cooking?" Fraser was leafing through a threadbare copy of The Joy of Cooking.
"No," Elaine admitted, "that's my roommate's. I mean, I like it, but I don't have much time, with the job and everything."
"I understand." Fraser looked sympathetic. "The pressures—"
"Yeah, exactly." Elaine nodded, distracted by the soft curve of his lower lip. She blinked and got out the ice cream.
"Besides, who needs it?" Ray said, trying to balance the salt shaker on one edge. "A major metropolis like this, there's people standing by 24/7 with pizzas and a hundred other kinds of takeout. It's our duty as American citizens to keep their businesses going."
"It's an interesting proposition, Ray, although the risks associated with societies where people's roles are highly specialized—" Fraser broke off. "Oh, dear."
Elaine looked around. The kettle was starting to boil, and it took her a moment to register what Fraser was reacting to. Then he reached over and picked up the plastic bowl on the back half of the stovetop. The bowl was melted down one side and the fern itself was singed, some of its leaves actually smoldering.
"Oh, dear," Elaine echoed.
"Adiantum raddianum," said Fraser. He snapped off the damaged leaves and smiled ruefully at Elaine.
"You may want to take out some plant insurance," said Ray. "That thing's jinxed."
Not much more than a week later, Elaine arrived home in a flurry of wind and rain and agitation. It can't be, she kept telling herself. They wouldn't! But they obviously were, and whenever she closed her eyes, she saw it again: Fraser following Ray out of the stationery closet, both of them red-cheeked and subtly ruffled, walking too close together.
Maybe she could have explained that away. Maybe one of them was upset about something, the other providing a listening ear in the privacy of the closet. But then Ray had stopped outside the bullpen—neither of them noticing Elaine, who'd frozen on the stairs above them, arrested by the scene—Ray had stopped and put his hand on Fraser's cheek. Had brushed his thumb across Fraser's mouth! And the look on Ray's face, intent and tender and possessive!
They were—they were—
Elaine dropped her bag and coat inside the door and stood motionless for a long moment, not sure what to do. Fraser?! So much for her dreams, she thought, and closed her eyes again. Ray's thumb smoothing over Fraser's lips.
She bit her lip and reached for the phone. She had to tell someone or she'd burst. She had to.
For a hysterical moment, she thought about calling Francesca Vecchio and blurting the whole story out to her. She even got as far as looking up the Vecchios' number, but sanity prevailed before she dialed. In the end, Elaine leaned her face against the cool painted wall and called her little sister. She explained in awkward, halting phrases what she'd seen.
Bethany wasn't impressed. "You should see the gays in New York City, girl. They don't go into the closet to make out, I'll tell you that! Some of them have no shame at all!"
Half an hour later, Elaine hung up and looked at the pile of leaves on the table beside her. Julie's fern, picked to death. She hadn't even realized.
Plant insurance, she thought, and laughed out loud. Oh, boy!
Julie gave Elaine the remains of the fern as an early Christmas present. "You keep trying to kill the thing," she said. "Maybe you'll take better care of it if it belongs to you!"
"Thanks," said Elaine. "I think." She ran her thumb over the pretty new pot. "I'm really sorry." In contrast to the red and green pot, the plant itself was a small black spiky ball of dead stems, with only two or three shoots of new green to hint at any possibility of revival.
Julie shrugged. "It's okay. Lloyd gave me tulip bulbs. I'm going to grow them on the fire escape." She flipped her long hair over her shoulder and then laughed. "You know what they say: you can't have kids until you can keep a potted plant alive. You'd better get working on that, honey. Some things won't keep forever."
Elaine swallowed a retort and put the fern in her bedroom, on the shadiest corner of her windowsill. She kept it damp and bought it a couple of plant food sticks, and after only a couple of weeks it had a dozen delicate stems, dotted with pale green leaves.
On Christmas Eve, Elaine got home from the station to find three small presents clustered around the plant, as if the fern were a miniature Christmas tree.
The first was wrapped in red paper, with a tiny card that said,
Merry Christmas. Always a pleasure working with you.
Yours, B. Fraser.
In the package was a small jar of very smelly ointment, marked Antiseptic (do not ingest).
The second was long and thin and wrapped in white paper with silver stars. "For Elaine, with kind regards from Diefenbaker," said the card and, beneath that was printed, in smaller letters, "I don't pretend to understand his reasoning, but he was quite insistent that you should have these." It was a set of four beautifully shaped, long-handled dessert spoons.
The third was in gold-colored paper.
We know you know. Happy holidays and thanks for not blowing this for us.
Inside was a silver whistle.
By New Year's Eve, the fern was brown and drooping. Elaine blamed the ointment.
Julie went out of state to meet Lloyd's family in early February and Elaine decided that, well, if she knew about Fraser and Ray, and Fraser and Ray knew that she knew, then she might as well be open about it.
"Come over for dinner, you two," she said, the next time she saw them when no one else was around. "And Diefenbaker, of course. I'll cook."
Ray relieved her of the boxes of stationery supplies she was carrying. "See, you say 'cook' and all I can picture is houseplant flambé," he said.
Fraser smiled. "That would be delightful. We haven't—we don't—That is, there hasn't been a lot of opportunity for us to, ah, go out together. As a couple."
"Well, now's your chance," said Elaine, wondering if she was making a terrible mistake. "Shall we say Friday?" She opened the stationery closet door so Ray could put the boxes on the shelf for her, and when the bare bulb illuminated the small space, she remember what she'd seen and blushed bright red. "I'll, uh. I'll see you Friday, then."
She hurried away down the corridor, hoping no one had noticed her reaction and wondering if she could somehow avoid running into Fraser and Ray before Friday night, despite them all working in the same squadroom.
When Friday night came, Elaine made a chicken ragout that her mother described as "foolproof," and it turned out pretty well. Both Ray and Fraser asked for second helpings, and Fraser told lots of stories about growing up in the North, while Ray teased him about it and Elaine slowly relaxed. The wine helped, too.
She cleared the table to make way for the sachertorte Ray had brought (from one of those fancy bakeries Elaine never went into because she had to spend her salary on boring things like rent and hair conditioner), and Fraser looked around. "Where's Dief?"
Three seconds later, there was a crash from Elaine's bedroom, and Elaine's hands flew to her face. "He didn't!"
They all rushed into the bedroom to find Dief sitting guiltily next to the shattered remains of the fern and its pretty red and green pot. There were leaves all over the carpet and some in Dief's fur.
"Well, I hope you're proud of yourself," Fraser told Dief. "Not only have you abused Elaine's kind hospitality, but you've made a terrible mess in the process. What have you got to say for yourself?"
Dief whined and hung his head.
Elaine burst out laughing. "You were right the first time," she told Ray. "So where do you get plant insurance, anyway?"
His eyes lit up with humor and Elaine leaned on him, still giggling, and then her gaze dropped to his mouth and fixed there.
All of a sudden, it wasn't funny anymore. Or maybe it was, but she couldn't remember what was funny. She just knew that Ray was warm, standing really close, his smile fading, too.
There was a soft, choked noise, and Elaine started guiltily and turned, stepping back. Fraser was watching them—with, wow! With heat in his eyes.
They were all in her bedroom. Her bed was right there.
Elaine swallowed. "Um, aren't you guys—?" Even to her own ears, her voice sounded thin and breathless. She waved at the space between them.
Fraser cleared his throat. "We are."
"Yeah." Ray backed him up.
For a long minute, none of them moved. Elaine's heart thumped in her chest, and she couldn't think, couldn't decide if this was the craziest thing in the world or a really good idea. "And you both—?"
Fraser and Ray looked at each other, a long serious look that seemed to convey a whole conversation. Fraser took a step forward. "It would appear so."
"And you're okay with that?" Elaine blurted, because this didn't seem like the Fraser she thought she knew at all.
Fraser cracked his neck. He was wearing a blue sweater that brought out his eyes, and Elaine could feel his body heat from three feet away, despite the fact the radiator was clunking away in the corner of the room.
"I'm not—averse," said Fraser.
Ray snorted softly, and Fraser held up his hand to forestall interruptions.
"In my experience, in a harsh climate, a person has two choices. He can insulate himself from the world, become self-sufficient and resourceful, and refuse to accept help for fear it will make him weak. Or he can build friendships, communities with strong ties to help each other through the hard winters."
"Benny," Ray said, like a warning.
Fraser licked his lip and looked away at the devastated fern. "I've always tended towards the former," he went on, quietly, "but I—well, I find living in Chicago—" His gaze flicked to Ray. "Surprisingly lonely, with a few obvious exceptions. And—"
"Benny." Ray went over to Fraser and clasped his shoulder. He looked at him seriously. "Shut up and answer the lady's question. Are you okay with this?" He lowered his voice, so Elaine could hardly hear him. "I swear, you say the word and this goes nowhere. Some apologies, a flower shop voucher, whatever it takes to make it disappear."
Fraser smiled softly, and then looked over his shoulder at Elaine and met her eye. The heat there made her tremble. "I'd rather leave that choice up to Elaine," he said.
"You're sure?" Elaine and Ray asked as one, and Elaine felt Ray glance at her. For her own part, she couldn't look away from Fraser.
Fraser, whose gaze never wavered. "What's your feeling on the matter?" he asked her.
Elaine tucked her hair behind her ear, let her hand drift down over her collarbone, over the low neckline of her blouse, and watched Fraser and Ray track its path. She took a shaky breath and slowly, deliberately smiled.
Lloyd and Ray came face to face in the doorway of Elaine's apartment, each loaded up with two cartons of stuff, plus Lloyd had a plastic trash bag full of Julie's shoes balanced on top and Ray had two Stetsons (one with a bullet hole in its crown) and a carving of a grizzly bear sticking out of his.
"After you," said Ray, stepping back so Lloyd could get past.
Lloyd grunted his thanks and sidestepped the TV Julie had dumped just outside the living room. Elaine backed up a step to give him room, tripped over a stack of books and tumbled back against the wall with a thump that knocked all the air out of her lungs and dislodged the mirror. The mirror swung wildly and sent the sunflower print next to it flying. The print tumbled through Elaine's bedroom doorway with a crash, shortly followed by another crash.
Elaine and Ray both burst out laughing. "I bet you fifty dollars," Ray said.
"Not on your life," said Elaine, sliding the rest of the way to the floor. "Besides, if we bet for money, Fraser will find out." She rubbed her twisted ankle ruefully.
In a second, Ray was beside her, his boxes set aside. He pushed her hands away and carefully prodded her ankle himself. "You're okay, right?"
"I'm fine," she murmured, pulling one of his hands away and holding it. "Stop fussing."
"You better be." Ray tilted her chin up and kissed her. "You ever smelled one of Fraser's poultices?"
Elaine laughed up at him. "Is that a threat?"
"I call it truth in advertising." Ray winked.
"I'm fine," she said firmly. "And you and Fraser can keep those revolting potions in your own room." She wrinkled her nose, remembering the antiseptic ointment from Christmas.
There was the clatter of a high-heeled pump hitting the floor, and Elaine looked up to see Lloyd watching them over the top of his boxes, his eyes nearly popping out of his head.
Ray sprang to his feet and glared at him, bristling. "What do you think you're looking at?"
Lloyd pulled a face and backed away. "What's your problem, man?"
"Ray!" Elaine frowned a warning.
Ray looked from Elaine to the cartons of Fraser's memorabilia, and his shoulders slowly relaxed. "Me, I got no problems. You need a hand with that? Here, I'll take the TV."
They bundled through the door, arms full of sleeping bags and rucksacks and packets of left-over beef jerky. "So, wait, all three of us tipped the taxi driver?" said Elaine.
"Yeah," said Ray, "but he tipped him in Canadian, so that don't count."
"Are you maligning my national currency, Ray?" asked Fraser with a glint in his eye.
"Would I do that?" Ray waited until Dief was inside and shut the door after them. He threw his rucksack into his and Fraser's room. "Man, a whole week of wilderness! I need a cup of coffee!"
Dief barked agreement, though Elaine thought he was more likely pining for pretzels.
"It wasn't so bad, surely?" Fraser came up behind Ray and slid his arms around him, pulled him close.
Elaine leaned against the wall, letting her appreciation show. Sometimes it was as much fun to watch as it was to join in—at least to start off with.
"I said coffee," said Ray, turning in Fraser's arms. He kissed him. "You know, that's the problem with you, Fraser. You don't understand about priorities."
"Perhaps I simply have different priorities from yours," Fraser said mildly, letting his hands wander lower.
Elaine sauntered over and kissed them both—first Fraser, whose mouth was a miracle every single time, and then Ray, who started out faking casual, maybe, but was breathing hard against her lips in about fifteen seconds.
She pulled away, dizzy. "Coffee," she said, trying to sound unmoved.
"A girl after my own heart," said Ray.
"Mmmm," said Fraser, "and mine." He caught Elaine's arm so he could tug her back into another kiss.
Elaine's resolve weakened, but Ray was urging her towards the kitchen.
"Coffee first," he announced, "and you guys aren't allowed to start anything without me, so you might as well have some too." He went into the kitchen and light spilled into the shadowy living room.
Fraser and Elaine followed slowly, stopping every few feet to make out in the half-light. Elaine felt warm and turned on, and pleasantly drowsy from a week of fresh air and exercise.
"Hey, guess what Troy forgot to do when he was house-sitting," Ray called from the kitchen.
"Water the plants?" joked Elaine, in between kisses. Fraser grunted in the back of his throat and slid his thigh between hers, and she rocked against him, her drowsiness falling away.
Ray appeared at their side and covered Fraser's hand on her breast. "Yeah, you know what?" he said, sliding his other hand under the back of her sweater and smoothing his thumb over her skin. "Forget the coffee."
Elaine stood by the kitchen window, looking out. Snowflakes dawdled in the dull gray late Saturday afternoon light. It was winter again, nearly four months since Ray and Fraser had moved in. She was still surprised by them, taken off guard by their generosity and their warmth. They'd made a secret, magical home together and she was happier than she'd ever been.
And it was a kind enough atmosphere that even her fern had survived, against all odds. Fraser had given it a good soaking the night before and it was draining on the kitchen counter, leafy and green after its last near-death experience. It was amazing, when you stopped to think about it. She wondered if it would last forever, outlast them all.
There was a knock on the door and she heard Fraser's footsteps, and voices—a woman—and then Fraser was ushering Frannie Vecchio into the kitchen.
"Oh." Frannie stopped short. Her arms were full of Tupperware and garishly wrapped Christmas presents. "Hi."
"Hi," said Elaine, and helped her unload onto the table. "Ray's out walking Dief."
"Yeah, I know. Benton said," Frannie said and then seemed to force a smile.
Elaine raised her eyebrows at Fraser, and he considered a moment, then nodded quickly. It wasn't fair to Frannie not to tell her. A quick glance at the Christmas presents showed they were all for Fraser and Ray. It wasn't fair to Elaine, either.
"Coffee?" Elaine offered, waving Frannie into a chair.
"Thanks." Frannie waited until Fraser mirrored Elaine's invitation, and then sank into a chair and started fiddling with the curly ribbon tied around the nearest gift. "So—"
"So," said Elaine. She looked at Fraser again, muttered something about getting her coffee cup from the bedroom and left them to it, keeping her fingers crossed that it would go well. She liked Frannie. She'd like to be friends with her, and after all, they were practically family, even if Frannie didn't know it.
"My brother?" came a screech from the kitchen, followed by Fraser's soothing tones. A few moments later, another screech: "Both of them?"
Elaine stood in the hallway, biting her lip and wondering whether to return and back Fraser up or to chicken out and hide in her room. Then there was the scrape of a key in the door, and she relaxed. Ray would take care of it.
Dief's claws clicked on the wooden floor, and he padded past Elaine into her room and curled up on his blanket in the corner. Elaine waited until Ray had closed the front door of the apartment. She made a helpless gesture. "Your sister's here."
"Frannie or Maria?" Ray was instantly alert. "What's wrong?"
"Frannie. She brought Christmas gifts, and—" Elaine hesitated. "And Fraser's telling her about us."
"He's what?" Ray flipped from alert to horrified. "Why?"
Elaine glanced towards the kitchen and dragged Ray into his and Fraser's room, shutting the door behind them. "Because she's got a crush on him! And that's wrong on so many levels."
"She's over it!" Ray started pacing, unwinding his scarf as he went. "She told me she was over him!"
"Yeah, 'cause sisters never lie to their big brothers about their feelings." Elaine stepped into his path and grabbed him by the shoulders. She looked him right in the eye. "Come on, Ray. She deserves to know the truth."
For a second he looked like he was going to pull away and storm into the kitchen to put a stop to Fraser's confession. Then he stopped and focused on Elaine.
"I love you. You know that, right?"
She swallowed around the lump in her throat and nodded. They didn't talk about their feelings that much—actions spoke louder than words, most of the time.
"Fraser, too. We both." Ray sighed, looking defeated and scared. "But I—it's my family."
Elaine pulled him close, cradling him. "It's your sister. She loves you, too."
"She couldn't keep a secret if her life depended on it."
Elaine held him tighter. "She had you believing she was over Fraser," she reminded him. Ray's arms came up and hugged her back, and she leaned her head on his shoulder. "It's the right thing to do."
"The right thing, huh?" Ray stroked her hair. "I think you've been spending too much time around Benny. He's a bad influence on us Chicago types."
She kissed him. "It'll be okay."
They gave Fraser five more minutes and then went to "assess the damage," as Ray put it. Fraser was leaning against the window frame, his arms folded and his expression sober but calm.
Frannie was at the counter. She looked up, wide-eyed and guilty, as they entered the room. "I'm sorry about your plant. I, uh, I spilled my coffee, and—"
Ray went over to her. "Are you okay?"
She nodded quickly, then narrowed her eyes and smacked him hard on the chest. "You didn't tell me, you big jerk! Exactly how long were you planning on letting me daydream about your boyfriend before you put me out of my misery?"
He pulled her into a hug. "I'm sorry, okay? You know Ma—either it'd kill her or she'd kill me. Or both."
"I know," she told him. "It's okay, my lips are seals." She hit him again, presumably for good measure, and then turned to Elaine. "I didn't know. Obviously." She glared at Ray and Fraser, and then pressed her lips together a moment. "I'm sorry if I, you know. Said anything."
She held out her hand, and if it felt a little wooden when Elaine shook it, that was okay. Elaine was grateful for what she could get.
They arrived at the Vecchios' a little after seven, and Frannie welcomed them at the door, mischief sparkling in her eyes.
Ray glared at her. "You're gonna behave, right?"
"I'm not stupid!" she said. "And besides, I have a date, and I think meeting my family au naturale is enough for one evening, don't you?" She waved them all inside, directing Fraser and Elaine where to put their coats.
"Happy birthday," said Fraser, and gave Frannie a large flat present that Elaine knew contained a book about arctic wildlife. She wondered whether Fraser had chosen it specifically to remind Frannie of the real him, not the fantasy one Frannie had made up in her head.
Not that Elaine was in any position to criticize, given how she herself had lusted after Fraser from afar herself before she got to know the man behind the courteous Mountie. She shrugged that thought aside, and when he bent his head so Frannie could kiss his cheek, Elaine didn't feel a single spark of jealousy. She might be here as Ray and Fraser's roommate, but when they were alone, Fraser did not have that brotherly air with her!
Elaine stepped forward and offered Frannie the birthday gift she'd brought. It was a small cutting, barely starting out, planted in a tiny hand-painted terracotta pot. "Happy birthday," she said, and smiled when Frannie kissed her cheek, just as she had Fraser's.
Ray squeezed Elaine's shoulder briefly and let his hand drop away to the small of her back. Fraser twirled his hat in his fingers and radiated approval.
Elaine focused on Frannie. "I hope it brings you luck," she said simply. "It has to me."