Thanks: A multitude of thanks to my betas: Sprat, Miriam, Salieri, Sage and Isis. I'm also indebted to the LJ ficfinishing community, and especially my first readers, innocentsmith, neu and podficlover.
Fraser's ears burned. He stood at attention, curled his toes tightly inside his boots, and tried to block out the Inspector's stammered tirade.
"—the official premises of Canada in, in Chicago, Constable, and I like to think that we, that we can maintain a, a respectful, a professional—"
Fraser suppressed a flinch. It wasn't as though the Inspector had seen the pictures herself, thank God. Nor had Timothy and Mary-Kaye Keller's hysterical mother, for that matter. Still, the situation was bad enough. The children had run riot throughout the Consulate from the moment they'd set foot in the door that morning. Turnbull was, naturally, completely out of his depth and ended up locked in the closet upstairs, and Fraser arrived back from his lunch break to find his country's young guests had broken into his own office and had rifled through his bottom drawer.
"—Catriona was horrified. To think that her children had been exposed to, to those, those images." The Inspector's voice welled with feeling. "Canada, Constable! Canada cringes at such a, a smear on her reputation—"
He should have known better than to suppose that he could maintain any privacy here. Fraser would be willing to admit the pictures might be morally problematic out of their intended context, certainly, but they were also personal, and he had kept them meticulously hidden. Of course, he hadn't anticipated two inquisitive American schoolchildren, the more fool he. He spared a moment to imagine what might have happened if Ray had come looking for him and stumbled upon the fracas. He'd certainly have made no bones about examining the pictures himself. Fraser cringed inwardly and tuned back into the Inspector's diatribe.
"—if not to me, then to the Queen. How do you think Her Majesty would feel if she knew that, that innocent children had seen your disgusting—"
Fraser's head jerked involuntarily. "Sir," he protested. "There's nothing disgusting about them. They're simply—"
The Inspector's eyes snapped with contempt. "Constable, those children are five and seven years of age—"
"Yes, sir." Clearly it was no good arguing the point. Fraser hadn't fully realized until now how puritanical the times still were, nor how restrictive his situation.
The Inspector stepped forward and said, determinedly, "I need to see them."
Fortunately, Fraser had had time to devise a watertight excuse. "I think that would be unwise, sir. You see, as long as they are in my office, they remain, ethically speaking, on my own private property. However, as soon as I transport them into any other room, they will have breached that theoretical designation, and can be considered to have entered the Consulate proper."
Inspector Thatcher frowned. "And if I come to your office?"
"The fact of your presence, as my superior, automatically renders my office a part of the workplace, sir." Fraser mentally crossed his fingers, and kept his expression neutral.
The Inspector paused, stumped, and then gave in and glared at him. "What you do on your own time is, of course, entirely your business, although I must say I'm surprised at you, Constable."
Fraser flushed but remained silent. It will all blow over, he told himself. Worse things have happened at sea.
The Inspector swept him with one last look of disapproval. "Dismissed."
"Thank you, sir." He executed a formal retreat and had nearly gained the door when her voice rang out behind him.
Damn. He turned reluctantly. "Yes, sir?"
"Perhaps you could relieve Constable Stanton. He has a doctor's appointment this afternoon."
Thatcher gave him a look of steel. "I'm asking you, Fraser."
"Yes, sir." He stood in the hallway outside the Inspector's office and reviewed the situation. So he was to be punished with a double shift on sentry duty and not permitted to liaise with Ray. Apparently freedom of speech was a hypothetical concept in Canada, easily disrupted—as it was in the States, he reminded himself cynically. Of course, this had only come about because he insisted on dwelling in his workplace. Well, no longer. As soon as his shifts were completed, he'd find a new home, even if it meant sleeping in a cardboard box (as Turnbull had done for a time). It was intolerable that he, a grown man, should have to hide his possessions as though they were shameful. He would not do it, now, even if he could.
Ray hummed to himself as he threw his car into park and jogged up the Consulate steps, nodding to the sentry on his way past. It was a good day, they had a good case—no murders or nasty business this time—and if they hurried they could make it to Julietta's Diner before the kitchen closed after the lunch rush—
Wait a minute. He did a double take. That was Fraser standing there on tin soldier duty like a big hunk of galoot. Ray frowned. This was Thursday, which meant Stanton's shift. Fraser did sentry Tuesday and Friday. On Thursday he was supposed to be free from two-thirty on—or, at least, in Paperworkville, which amounted to the same thing.
Ray spun around and went toe-to-toe with his partner. "What's up, Fraser? Where's Stanton?"
Fraser didn't move a muscle. God only knew how they trained them at the RCMP academy. Ray prayed it didn't involve electrodes. He cracked his neck, and was just about to proceed inside, when he stopped and really looked at Fraser.
Something was going on. Fraser's cheeks were flushed, his jaw clenched tight. Maybe on the surface he was the perfect garden sculpture, but Ray was pretty sure that underneath he was seething.
Ray scowled—no one messed with his partner! He squeezed Fraser's arm reassuringly. "Back in a sec."
There was no one in the hallway, so Ray barged on through into Thatcher's office—except he didn't get that far, because she was standing just inside like she was waiting for him. Glaring.
Ray glared back. "Where's Stanton?"
"Not that it's any of your business, Detective, but Constable Stanton is visiting his medical consultant."
"Sawbones," translated Ray. "So where's Turnbull then?"
"I'm not at liberty to discuss the Consulate staffing roster."
"You hiding something?"
Her glare intensified. "Please leave my office immediately, or I shall be forced to call for—" She petered out, obviously realizing that if she called in Turnbull it'd give the game away, but then she rallied and shoved Ray bodily back through the doorway, slamming the door in his face.
Ray stared at the paneled door. That'd been weird.
Just then Turnbull came along, wearing his frilly apron and covered in flour. "Good afternoon, sir. Would you like some strudel? I'm trying a new recipe with peaches as well as apples. It'll be out of the oven in—" He looked at his watch. "—four minutes and twelve seconds. I've found that ice water in the pastry helps to—"
Ray ignored him, and gestured at the door. "What's her problem?"
Turnbull coughed discreetly. "I gather the Inspector considers you a bad influence on Constable Fraser, sir."
"Bad influence? On Fraser?" Ray frowned. "Then she's got the crazy end of the stick. Is that why he's on sentry?"
Turnbull leaned in closer and lowered his voice. "The Inspector reprimanded him after the Inspector's friend's children found pornographic material in Constable Fraser's office."
The world shifted out of focus as Ray scratched the back of his head and tried to imagine Fraser looking at girlie magazines. All he got was Fraser looking anywhere but at the page. "You're kidding."
"I assure you I'm not, sir." Turnbull sniffed the air. "If you'll excuse me, I believe the strudel requires my immediate attention."
Ray followed him into the kitchen, still dumbstruck by the idea of Fraser having porn in his possession. In his office. However unlikely—and distracting—that sounded, whether it was true or not, Ray was going to spring him. Fraser didn't deserve extra sentry duty. He didn't even deserve regular sentry duty. And besides, Ray needed him. He watched Turnbull slip on matching maple-leaf oven mitts. "I need a favor."
But Turnbull was preoccupied with his baking. "Oh dear, oh dear," he said, examining the darkened edges of the pastry. "I must have the oven's thermostat recalibrated."
"Yo, Turnbull." Ray waved his hand in front of Turnbull's face, impatiently. "I need your help."
Turnbull tore his gaze from the ruined dessert. "Yes, sir?" he said, morosely. "How may I be of service?"
"Listen, I know a guy, okay. Tony. He knows ovens like, like you know curling. He's the premiere oven expert in Illinois. If you're gonna let anyone get their paws on your oven, you want it to be this guy. I'll set it up so he'll come and check out your thermostat. Make sure everything's hunky-dory. How's that sound?"
Hope bloomed across Turnbull's face. "That sounds wonderful, sir."
"Yeah, good. Great. So, I need a teeny little favor, okay?" Ray waited until Turnbull nodded, then he nodded back. "Okay. So you take over Fraser's sentry shift, let him come liaise on a big important case, save the city of Chicago from certain doom, and I'll set you up with Tony the oven guy. What do you say?"
Turnbull's face fell. "I'm terribly sorry, but that's impossible."
"Good, okay, so—What?" Ray barely stopped himself from grabbing Turnbull by the apron strings.
"I'm under strict instructions not to." Turnbull looked regretful.
"She'll never notice," said Ray. "She never looks at your faces once you're out there."
But Turnbull's posture had stiffened enough that Ray wondered if he could get busted for tempting a Mountie off the one true path of obedience. That probably counted as treason in Canada. "It was a direct order, sir."
Not even a bulldozer was going to budge him. Apparently Turnbull was a complete fruit loop except on the one day Ray wanted him to be. So much for the US Cavalry to the rescue. Ray scowled at his feet. Round One to the Ice Queen.
It was two and a half minutes to five and Fraser's left kneecap had been itching for the last half hour when Ray returned to the Consulate, his car stereo emanating rock music like a broken nuclear reactor leaking radiation. Ray got out of the car and leaned against it with his arms folded, and watched Fraser over his sunglasses for the remaining two minutes and twenty-two seconds.
Fraser's skin prickled under his regard. No matter how innocently it was intended—and Fraser didn't question for a second that Ray meant to be anything other than purely companionable—and how inured to it Fraser should be by now, Ray's steady blue gaze always sent Fraser's thoughts sailing into inappropriate speculative waters. It was an eternity until the bell chimed five.
"Come on, hop to it." Ray beckoned impatiently and opened the driver's side door. "We got people to be, places to see."
"As a matter of fact we do," Fraser agreed. "A few minutes, if you please." He turned on his heel without waiting for a reply, and wasn't the least surprised when the slam of the car door sounded behind him and Ray's light tread followed him into the Consulate hallway.
"Tell me this ain't a dry-cleaning mission," said Ray, pointing at Inspector Thatcher's closed office door. "If I have to watch any of you kiss her ass one more time today, I'm going to give her favorite shoes to Dief to chew on."
Dief looked up from his position beside the reception desk and woofed hopefully. Ray bent to scratch behind his ear.
"On the contrary," said Fraser, "this is for my own benefit entirely." He took an empty file box from the storeroom and carried it into his office, where he dumped it on the desk. "I'll be right back," he said, and stepped into the closet. He was in no fit state to change in front of Ray; low-level arousal from Ray's observation mingled with the disgrace still stinging in his veins.
He hung his tunic on its hanger and smoothed a wrinkle from the shoulder, and was halfway out of his uniform pants before he realized his father's office wasn't empty.
"Hello, son." His father looked up from the large easel in the center of the room.
"Dad." Fraser swallowed his impatience and fastened his pants again. "What on earth are you doing?"
"Family portrait," said Bob. "Take a seat, would you?"
Fraser came around to look at the canvas instead, eyeing it critically.
"Like it?" asked his father, cheerily. "Of course, I'm painting your mother from memory—"
"She wasn't blonde." Fraser gazed at her face, which spoke of exasperation and humor, and seemed uncannily accurate from what he could recall.
"I didn't say it was perfect." His father waved him to an armchair. "Now hold still."
"Ray's waiting for me." Fraser sat down and closed his eyes, and recreated the half-finished picture in his head. "Is that Uncle Tiberius on the right?"
Bob nodded, pleased. "And his dog, Cicero. What do you think?" He dabbed his paintbrush in the vermillion.
"It's not bad, actually, for a work of pure fiction." Fraser leaned forward and threw another log on the fire. "You've made Grandmother too tall, and I'm not sure I fully understand the significance of the bear."
His father glanced down at the painting. "It doesn't have any, son. Sometimes a bear is just a bear."
Fraser came back for another look, and pointed at the small grizzly cub in the corner of the canvas. "Then why is it biting Grandpa's arm?"
"Artistic license," said his father, putting the finishing touches to Fraser's imaginary toque.
"If you say so," said Fraser, deciding not to mind. "Dad, I'm moving out."
His father startled and dropped his paintbrush, and promptly got down on his knees to retrieve it from under the desk. "Already? I only moved in myself a few months ago."
"I know," said Fraser. "And if you'd asked me before you went to all the trouble of building your cabin here, I'd have told you my sleeping arrangements were only temporary."
"They didn't seem temporary from where I was standing, son, and my compass has always been reliable." His father stood up with the brush held triumphantly aloft.
"Not this time," said Fraser. In the other room, he could hear Ray rearranging the pens in the stationery organizer. "If you'll excuse me—"
His father had already gone back to his painting. "Don't forget to leave a forwarding address," he said, without looking up.
"I won't," said Fraser. He shucked his pants quickly and donned jeans, and then opened the door of the now-stuffy closet.
"So what's with Thatcher?" asked Ray, as soon as Fraser had closed the closet door behind him. "She nearly killed me when I came to pick you up before. If looks could freeze—"
"There was a misunderstanding." Fraser finished buttoning his shirt and busied himself loading his personal effects into the file box.
Ray paused with a date stamp in one hand. "That's not what Turnbull said."
"I didn't know you were the kind of person who listened to gossip, Ray." Fraser forced his expression to remain neutral.
Ray grinned. "You kidding me? I live for the stuff. I mean, I'm not in Frannie's league, but I'm no slouch." He patted the shield pinned to his shoulder holster. "It's part of the job."
"Well, in this case I'm afraid that it's all smoke and no fire. In fact, it reminds me of the time Drew McGinty was charged with stealing a pair of kamiks that, upon investigation, turned out never to have existed in the first place."
"Kamiks?" Ray pressed the date stamp to his inner wrist just above the metallic line of his bracelet, leaving a smudge of blue ink on his skin.
Fraser looked away quickly. "Soft sealskin boots. The Inuit call them mukluks."
The file box was full. Fraser scanned the room for anything he might have missed and began to stuff the rest of his belongings into his duffle bag. The bones of contention were now locked in his filing cabinet, but if he got them out that would only invite Ray's curiosity, and there was no point taking unnecessary chances. Fraser decided to leave them where they lay, at least until he had a permanent private place to keep them.
He hitched his duffle over his shoulder, put on his hat and picked up the box. "Where shall we eat?"
Ray blinked at him, as if he'd only just caught on that Fraser was packing. "Hey, wait a minute! Is she kicking you out?" He dropped the date stamp on the desk and stood up straighter, bouncing on the balls of his feet. "She's throwing you out on the street because you need a little normal healthy release—"
"No, not at all," Fraser interrupted, more sharply than he intended. "It's entirely voluntary, I assure you. It's long past time I found a more permanent lodging."
"I ain't disagreeing with you there, but—" Ray studied him narrowly for a moment, and Lord only knew what he saw. Fraser took a steadying breath to slow his heart rate and relax his shoulders, and decided distraction was the better part of valor.
"If you wouldn't mind—" He pushed the box against Ray's chest until Ray's arms came up to grasp it.
Fraser picked up Dief's water bowl and went to the kitchen to empty it. He washed and dried it quickly, and when he turned, Ray was standing in the doorway looking as though he had a thousand things he wanted to ask. Fraser was immeasurably grateful when all said was, "Okay, let's get out of here."
In the car, with most of Fraser's worldly possessions in the trunk, Fraser looked out at the city of Chicago with new eyes: it was a complex, interwoven ecosystem—hard and filthy, sordid and miraculous—and there was no longer any denying he was part of it. He'd lived here long enough to have made an imprint on the dusty streets, to echo through the constant hum of conversations that swelled and faded around them, down phone lines and in kitchens in dwelling after dwelling. Fraser had few friends here but many acquaintances, good people whose kindness he could call upon should he need it. He was certain the city would provide him with some new adventure, now that he'd finally made this move. What was less clear was whether it would also give him the space and solitude he needed for his peace of mind.
"So," said Ray, turning onto North Orleans Street, "dirty pictures, huh? Welcome to the human race, Fraser."
"Ray," Fraser protested, brought back to his immediate circumstances with a jolt. If the car had been moving any slower, he would have opened the door and jumped for it, but the traffic light ahead turned green and Ray sped up rather than slowing down. And Fraser knew Ray would view an abrupt exit with suspicion.
"I don't know about in Canada," Ray said, ignoring Fraser's silence, "but here in the US of A we got a constitutional right to look at bare breasts." He grinned, his eyes alight with mischief. "It's not some weird native porn, is it? Naked Eskimo girl draped on a dogsled?"
Fraser suppressed a wince at his crudity. "Ray, the Inuit live in the Arctic and are constantly struggling to survive the harsh conditions. A picture such as you describe would hardly be considered—" He sighed and looked out the side window.
"Prudent?" Ray pulled into the left lane and overtook a glazier's van. "Okay, so something else, then. Official Mountie porn? Girls in Stetsons and lanyards and nothing else?"
Fraser pressed his lips together. "You must have been misinformed. I don't have any pornography. It was a misunderstanding."
"I don't know, Fraser. Turnbull said you had some pretty hot skin rags." Ray shot him a look brimming with avid curiosity, and Fraser felt his cheeks flush. He looked away before he could betray himself. "Please tell me it's not National Geographic. Only thirteen-year-olds get their kicks from educational magazines and medical texts."
Fraser shook his head. "The pictures in question are works of art, Ray, not scientific diagrams. And they're not for 'kicks'. There's nothing provocative about them."
"Oh yeah? Then why did the Ice Queen blow a gasket? She's not the kind of chick who's gonna reject a Reuben."
"Inspector Thatcher didn't even see them. Her friend's children found their own way into my office and—it's not important. The point is, the images aren't objectionable and I see no reason to—"
"They aren't, huh?" Ray tilted his head thoughtfully. "You going to let me be the judge of that?"
"No, not at all." Fraser kept his eye on the red Honda ahead of them: Illinois plate XKY 164, he noted idly. His feet and back ached from sentry duty and even Ray's company wasn't enough to restore his spirits, especially when he insisted on prying. Fraser might admit to himself that his conscience was making him less than genial company, but no power on earth would make him confess as much to Ray. "Since we're in the area, perhaps we could drop off my belongings at the Fat Dragon Hostel before we eat."
"Nuh-huh," Ray shook his head and continued driving north despite Fraser clearly indicating the side street that led to Mr. Yao's boarding house. "Stay at my place till you find somewhere of your own. Don't that sound better than—"
"That's not necessary," said Fraser firmly. "I have no intention of imposing on you."
"It's not imposing if I invite you, Fraser." Ray parked outside Giovanni's, which meant steak and fries. "I mean it. Mi couch es su couch."
There were a lot of people around—couples and families with strollers and small children. Even out here in the street, the noise level of their collective conversations pressed against Fraser's skull. He turned to face Ray. "It's very kind of you to offer, but the whole reason I'm moving out is that I need some privacy."
"Privacy, huh? I get that. I'm down with that. You can have privacy at my place, no problem." Ray shrugged easily and reached into the backseat to extract his jacket from under Dief's front paws. "I got a lock on the bathroom door—what more could a good Mountie ask?"
Fraser shook his head and said, "Thank you, Ray, but I'd prefer to go to the hostel."
Dief sneezed in the backseat.
"Hey furface, watch the upholstery." Ray glanced at the rear view mirror, then his gaze met Fraser's and slid away. "Yeah. Okay, sure. Whatever. You need your privacy—I get that." He opened the car door and started to get out.
Obviously his feelings were hurt, but Fraser couldn't find it in himself to be conciliatory. Apologizing would only lead to Ray repeating his offer, and Fraser had no way to explain how much he needed to be alone. "It's been a long day. Please take me to the Fat Dragon Hostel."
Ray pursed his lips, but he got back in and started the car again, and drove back the way they'd come without further argument. He dropped off Fraser, Dief, and all of Fraser's belongings and reneged on dinner, pleading tiredness.
Fraser watched his taillights shrink into the distance with a sense of gloom, despite assuring himself that their partnership was robust enough to survive one night at odds, and that they'd both be able to shrug this off tomorrow.
Besides, there was nothing to be done about it now. Fraser collected together his duffle and his box, and went into the dingy red-painted hostel.
Mr. Yao was behind the reception counter, reading a book on the life of Marilyn Monroe. He smiled delightedly when he saw Fraser and Diefenbaker approach. "Mr. Constable Fraser! How are you? Can I be of service?"
"Mr. Yao." Fraser nodded as genially as he was able. Dief yipped his own welcome, no doubt fondly remembering Mr. Yao's dim sum. "I'm very well, thank you. I'm looking for lodging for myself and Diefenbaker for a few nights."
"Of course, of course." Mr. Yao turned to the row of hooks on the wall and selected a key. "You're not in any trouble, I hope."
Fraser took the key and signed the register. "No, nothing like that. How are Mr. and Mrs. Lee? I haven't seen them in many months."
A bright smile broke across Mr. Yao's face. "David graduated from college. They are very proud."
"That's wonderful news. Please pass on my congratulations!" Fraser chatted a few moments longer, then took Dief up to the austerely furnished room and shut the door with a sigh of relief. There was a bed, a battered brown dresser and an alcove that served as a closet. Objectively, it was no less agreeable than his office, and it was certainly larger.
Dief sat in the middle of the floor and regarded the room with a jaundiced eye.
Fraser sighed. "I'm sorry if it doesn't meet your exacting standards. It's been a rather trying day, in case you haven't noticed." Fraser set his belongings on the dresser and sat on the bed facing Dief. "And yes, before you ask, I do realize Ray had only our best interests at heart, but I could hardly take him up on the offer, under the circumstances."
Dief sneezed and lay down, looking up at Fraser like a starving Dickensian orphan.
"I'm not sulking. I don't sulk." Fraser broke off and dropped his head ruefully, examining the scuffed toes of his boots. He was in a sorry state if Diefenbaker was lecturing him on manners. "I'm sorry," he said softly. "I should have consulted you."
Dief flicked his ears—the wolf equivalent of a shrug—and Fraser sighed and dug in his bag for his boot polish.
Dief whuffed softly, and Fraser dropped the polish on the floor in surprise. "That's far too complicated and none of your concern. I have every reason to believe that Ray is thoroughly heterosexual and, even if he wasn't, that wouldn't mean his invitation implied—Yes, you would think so. I, on the other hand, have a great deal to lose. I'm doing very well as things stand."
Dief yawned mockingly and Fraser looked around the unappealing room. "Point taken. Still, it's an unjustifiable risk when he's given me absolutely no reason to think he'd welcome any overture."
Dief raised his head, twitched his nose and lay back down in a display of abject starvation.
"No, I do value your opinion," Fraser said warmly. "I just think that in this particular matter, your heart is ruled by your stomach. Mine? By my head, I hope."
Dief eyed him loftily.
"I never heard of anyone's heart being ruled by their feet before," Fraser said, surprised. "If you say so."
Ray started the next day with a headache that worsened into an antsy black mood when he was cut off in traffic in the pouring rain and the morning news dedicated a good five minutes to bitching about the CPD again. At work, he took some aspirin and spent the first part of the day growling at anyone who came close, and harboring bitter daydreams of running away to Vegas like Vecchio had done. But then Fraser showed up, hat in one hand, coffee from Ray's favorite diner in the other and a cautious look on his face. Ray accepted the coffee for the peace offering it was and forgot about his fading headache. The black clouds rolled back.
So what if Fraser didn't want to sleep on Ray's couch? They were still partners and friends, and no one ever said being friends with a grade-A freak like Fraser was going to be easy.
Ray knew sometimes he pushed too hard, and sometimes he got a little hazy on the difference between friends and something more. It'd happened before with other guys he'd worked with, and he'd always gotten over it with time and some sexual healing from Stella. Not that that was an option anymore, but that wasn't the point.
The point was Ray knew Fraser was a good guy, a straight-up guy, and he was not going to fuck with that. Fraser could do whatever he needed to do and Ray would back him up, one hundred percent. Even if Fraser decided to move out of the Consulate because of his porn collection, which Ray privately thought was one of the dumbest things he'd ever heard.
But then, Ray's own small collection of dirty magazines and two or three old videotapes had collected a thick layer of dust over the last couple of years. Maybe Fraser's was really kinky—animals or enormous-breasted French maids or something. Or maybe, which seemed more likely, Fraser thought sex was something to be ashamed of and he couldn't bear the thought of anyone else riding roughshod all over his fantasies.
Ray could understand that. He wasn't exactly shouting his favorite Red Serge scenario to the rooftops either.
At three minutes to lunchtime, they got called out to a shooting. Ray grabbed his jacket and keys, checked his gun, and then they were going, going, gone, weaving through the rain and the traffic with the siren blaring on the dash. Fraser started telling some Inuit story or other, but then they passed a Calvin Klein billboard, and the idea strobed through Ray's mind that maybe Fraser's porn wasn't girl porn at all. Maybe he was like Ray—AC/DC—and he had a stash of magazines of gleaming muscled bodies doing things to each other.
Just the thought was enough to send Ray's brain spinning, and he nearly plowed into a fruit stand, except that Fraser grabbed the wheel and righted them.
"Thanks," said Ray, breathless with hope. What if he could have Fraser? What if there was an actual honest-to-God chance? Stacked against that was all the times Fraser hadn't made a move, hadn't even hinted. But still—what if?
"He's out there!" The blasting crackcrackcrack of a semi-automatic drowned out the Indian pop songs playing over the sound system and the rain on the roof, as Sanjay Chandni pointed through his office window to the far side of the factory floor below. "I knocked him out in self-defense, but then he came to and started shooting at me, and he wouldn't let me leave."
"First rule of self-defense." Ray wiped his face on his shirtsleeve, then dried the raindrops from his glasses and shoved them onto his face. "Take the gun off them while they're unconscious."
Chandni flushed, clashing with his orange and pink shirt. His gold jewelry glinted under the fluorescent lights. "I didn't know he had a gun. I mean, a gun! We were supposed to be having a business meeting! Do you think he was planning to kill me?" He ran his hand through his hair, leaving it in disarray. "And anyway, I tied him up."
"Well, either you did a crappy job of it or he's got a buddy out there who untied him," said Ray.
"He let your employees leave before he opened fire—is that correct?" Fraser had his polite I-don't-believe-a-word-of-this face on, and Ray wished for the hundredth time that that look came equipped with standard issue body armor.
"Yeah," said Chandni, looking like six different kinds of weasel. "I mean, no. Once I'd tied him up, I sent them home and called the cops. Called you."
That was the third time he'd changed his story. Ray looked at Fraser. Yeah, he was keeping count too.
"Can you think of any reason why Kane might be angry at you personally?" Ray asked. "Like, did you swindle him out of a matching set of lava lamps or something?" They all ducked as a barrage of gunfire shattered the window, sending shards of glass like transparent daggers crashing to the ground. Papers flew into the air, and Fraser shoved Chandni behind the desk and followed him down.
Ray hunkered beside the filing cabinet.
"Well—" Chandni hesitated. "I mean, I sort of owe him some money, but you wouldn't kill someone over a couple of hundred bucks, would you?"
"It's never about the money," Ray told the filing cabinet (Accounts A-M) wearily.
"How much do you owe him?" Fraser's voice came from behind the desk.
"A thousand," said Chandni.
Another round of bullets left a trail of holes in the wall and smashed the phone to pieces.
"Fifteen hundred," Chandni corrected himself. "But he was blackmailing me. It wasn't a legitimate debt or anything. If it was a real debt, I'd have paid him."
"How long has Mr. Kane been blackmailing you?" Fraser sounded curious, like they weren't under siege from a very angry guy with an apparently limitless supply of ammo. Christ only knew how Chandni had missed more than six clips and a machine gun. This guy must be built like a truck.
"We can chat about this later," said Ray. "Right now, we gotta get out of here. This cover's not gonna hold."
"Right you are, Ray." Fraser raised his voice and called into the next pause in shooting, "Please surrender your weapon and come out with your hands in plain sight."
"He said he'd out me if I didn't pay up," Chandni explained, "but I told him to go fuck himself." Ray had a feeling they were finally sneaking up on the truth of the matter.
"Out you?" repeated Fraser, blankly.
"I thought you were the poster boy for the gay Indian community in Chicago," said Ray. "I'm sure I saw your face on a poster. How much outer are you gonna get?"
"Exactly," said Chandni. "Kane was going to publish—" His words were drowned out by the clatter of bullets splintering the windowsill and doorframe, and taking out the clock on the wall.
"Fuck this," muttered Ray, and yelled, "Chicago PD. Put down your weapon, you sleazoid blackmailing pus-head, and come out with your mitts where we can see them, or I'll pry that gun from your cold dead hands."
"Ray." Fraser frowned at him.
"I'm exaggerating for, uh, rhetorical effect," Ray told him. "Shut up."
Silence echoed through the factory, and then there was the distinct click of an empty magazine being released from a gun.
Now! thought Ray. "Stay here." He crouched low and made it through the door, leaped down the six wooden steps to the factory floor and rolled, and started inching his way around the perimeter, climbing silently over bolts of vinyl and fun fur in lurid purple and lime green.
There was a scuffle behind him when he reached the corner near the ladies' room, and Ray hissed, without looking back, "I told you to stay put. This guy is nuts and he aims like a lawn sprinkler. He's gonna take you out by accident."
"Not to worry, Ray," said Fraser. "He's running low on ammunition."
"Oh yeah? How do you know?" Ray felt his temper rising and knew Fraser was doing it on purpose. They were good when they were cold, but when Ray was pissed, nothing could stop them.
"And he quite likely has a concussion," Fraser continued. "There were traces of blood on the edge of the desk."
"Great," said Ray, and yelled out, "Who's President of the United States?"
"Eisenhower," came a rough reply from off to their left, but Ray couldn't tell if he was messed up or just sarcastic.
"He's heading back to the office," Ray told Fraser, and nudged him to break right, but Fraser gripped his arm instead, and reached across to twist the nozzle on the big vat next to them so that the spout pointed to where Johnny Kane's voice had come from.
"Cover your face." Fraser slung his arm across his own nose and mouth, and thumped a big red ON button.
The vat rumbled like an enormous vacuum warming up, a huge sucking whooshing noise that made Ray's ears buzz, and then all of a sudden it was snowing inside, thick choking drifts of white beanbag beans swirling in the air, sticking to every slightly staticky surface.
Ray groped behind him for the wall to steady himself and listened hard. Beyond the blowing, the growl of the vat's motor, the hiss of white polystyrene pelting every surface and the rain on the roof, he heard muffled curses, a brief burst of machine gunfire, and then a gun hitting the floor.
"Now!" he yelled, and they went to get Kane.
"By your own admission you knocked Mr. Kane out before you knew he had a gun," Fraser summarized as the EMTs drove away with the gunman.
"Yeah," said Ray, drawing his attention back from the parade of flashers and sirens, "and you said 'self-defense'. So what exactly were you defending yourself from?"
Chandni sighed and shut the office door in a bid for privacy, despite the window being shot out. "He was going to publish photos—" He hung his head. "He threatened to tell my boyfriend—to tell everyone that I had an affair with a woman."
Ray blinked. "Now that I was not expecting."
"How long has he been extorting money from you?" Fraser sounded weirdly sympathetic.
"Three months," said Chandni. "It's been stressing me out like anything—you have no idea." He scratched his head. "And the price kept going up and going up—he was going to ruin me."
"In more ways than one," Fraser agreed.
Ray frowned at him.
"You're not going to tell on me, are you?" Chandni folded his arms nervously. "I mean, he started it."
Fraser glanced down at his hat in his hands, and for a second Ray actually thought he was going to agree with the guy, maybe offer to buy him a restorative cup of tea. But Fraser veered back to reality at the last minute. "That may well be, but you were the one who escalated the exchange to physical harm," he said. "I suggest you call your lawyer."
The words were okay, but Fraser's tone was way out of line. Ray grabbed him and dragged him outside the office, shutting the splintered door behind them. "What is up with you?" he hissed. "Since when have you been a fan of vigilantes knocking people out with paperweights?"
"I know," Fraser looked uncomfortable, "but there is an element of self-defense in this case. Mr. Chandni was in an untenable position. To be threatened with exposure on such a personal level—" He lowered his voice as a couple of guys from Forensics went past with evidence bags full of bullets and styrofoam beans. The factory looked like something off a Christmas card.
Ray dusted some beans off his sweatshirt and leaned in so he could keep his voice down too. "Untenable my ass. If he'd come clean to his boyfriend, he could have laughed in Kane's face."
"That's true, but that's no justification for an invasion of privacy nor for blackmail."
"That's for the judge to decide." Ray took a deep breath and jumped in headfirst with both feet. "Listen, I know the Ice Queen busted your hoops about the porn thing—" Fraser opened his mouth to object, but Ray bulldozed on through. "I know, I know. Not porn. Whatever. The point is, you can't go around Chicago feeling sorry for every Tom, Dick and Sanjay who has something to hide. This is Chicago! And we're not a support group, we're not defense lawyers, we're cops. You know that."
"Kane may not have initiated physical violence, but he did open fire, and the fact remains that—" Fraser had that stubborn look, like he was going to keep talking until Ray agreed with him.
Ray held up his hands. "You know what? I'm rainsoaked to the bone and I think I swallowed about a bucket of beans. Let's just book both of them. If you want, we can bend Welsh's ear about it and maybe get Chandni some leniency through the proper channels. How's that?"
"That would be—" Fraser's gaze flicked up to Ray's hair and then around the factory, where cops were wading knee deep through snowy mounds of little styrofoam balls. "Thanks, Ray."
Ray clapped Fraser on the shoulder to distract both of them. "Not a problem. Come on, if we hurry, we can get through Processing and still check out that apartment you wanted to see."
Having found a listening ear, Mr. Chandni seemed compelled to confide every last detail of his heterosexual indiscretion, much to Fraser's discomfiture. The ride to the station was a combined effort to screen out his monologue from the backseat without seeming unsympathetic, to rise above Dief's commentary on same, and to avoid staring mindlessly at Ray's hair, which was dotted with a distracting constellation of beanbag beans.
"Okay, okay," grumbled Ray at last, looking in his rearview mirror. "Would you quit it with the play-by-play? I only need that much juice on where someone's dick's been if I'm sleeping with him. And to be honest, not even then."
Mr. Chandni leaned forward. "Wait. You're gay too? Hey, yeah, now you mention it, I think I saw you in Club Heat the other night—"
"What?" Ray glanced at Fraser, then over his shoulder. "No, no, no, that was, uh, I was joking. Hardee har har har."
"Hey wolf, quiet in the cheap seats." Ray faced forward again and skidded to a halt, nearly rear-ending a florist van. "Listen, just keep the chin music down. We're working, here."
"Well, I'm sorry to have intruded on your precious police thought processes." Mr. Chandni retreated into a huff.
The lights changed and Ray accelerated again, then glanced across at Fraser. "What? What?"
Fraser snapped his mouth shut with some effort. "Ah. You have—" He waved his fingers around his own head, hoping he didn't look as thunderstruck as he felt. "Beans. In your hair."
"What? Oh dammit! Get off the road!" Ray turned his attention back to the road barely in time to swerve around two clowns jaywalking, carrying a ladder between them. He leaned on his horn, and yelled out the window as they passed, "Use the crosswalk, for Christ's sake!"
The clown in front, who was apparently from the Pierrot school and whose makeup was running in the rain, waved after them mournfully, disconcerted by neither Ray's language nor his driving. The other's rude reply echoed after them.
Diefenbaker growled through the rear window and barked twice. He'd never been fond of clowns.
Fraser sat back in his own seat and stared blindly through the windshield, his mind racing. If Ray's remark to Chandni had been a joke, it wasn't a particularly funny one. The possibility that Ray had spoken in earnest, hiding his disclosure behind a glib fašade, seemed strangely more plausible, and that thought sent Fraser's heart thudding against his ribcage, making the buttons on his tunic tremble.
Fraser caught himself. His marbles were running loose. Even if it were by some unlikely coincidence true that Ray sometimes slept with men—and the odds of two closeted police officers being partnered must be ridiculously low, and surely Fraser would have noticed by now, he would have known—Regardless, even if it were true, it didn't change anything.
Ray may have chosen to reveal himself, but he had backtracked very quickly. Fraser would respect that and—obeying the Golden Rule—not encroach. He would assume nothing, while still offering support. "Ray." Fraser tugged on his earlobe. "Did I ever tell you about my Uncle Tiberius?"
It wasn't until they reached the station parking lot and Ray helped Mr. Chandni out of the car, carefully cupping his head to prevent any injury on the car's frame, that it occurred to Fraser that Ray's remark, if it had been true, might not have been directed at Fraser at all.
Perhaps Ray had been coming onto Mr. Chandni.
"Well, then," said Fraser to Dief as he let him out of the back. "Either way, I suppose it's none of our business."
"He's your partner, son. Of course it's your business." Fraser turned to see his father in full dress uniform, oblivious to the puddle he was kneeling in, apparently helping a shivering courier repair a puncture on his bicycle tire. "You can't go diving into life-threatening situations with a man you don't know."
"It's not as if I don't know him," Fraser protested, settling his hat on his head. "I can understand him and still offer him a modicum of personal—"
"What's a modicum?" asked Ray, making Fraser start and turn on his heel.
"A kind of pastry," said Fraser, falling into step beside him and Chandni. "Diefenbaker's hungry. Unusual for him, I know."
"Me too, furface," said Ray. "We'll be out of here in an hour, tops. I promise."
The station was teeming with young men and women in damp animal rights t-shirts, accompanied by half a dozen children dressed as pirates. Fraser and Ray left Chandni in Booking and went up to the squadroom to draft their report.
At the top of the stairs they passed Detectives Huey and Dewey carrying a box of old takeout wrappers.
"You guys been dumpster diving?" asked Ray feigning pity. "What's the matter—you spend all your pay on hookers and deodorant, and now you can't afford to eat?"
"It's evidence," said Dewey.
"What about you, Vecchio?" Huey retorted loftily. "You look like a cheap Christmas decoration."
Dewey sniggered. "Can hair get acne?"
Ray frowned, confused, and looked to Fraser for an explanation.
"I think he's referring to the beans in your hair," said Fraser. "Although I once met a young man in Fort McPherson who made his living as a garden statue, but those were exceptional circumstances. Gentlemen." He ushered Ray into the men's room and meticulously straightened his cuffs and lanyard while Ray peered in the mirror and plucked styrofoam pellets out of his hair, flicking them into the trash one by one.
"Did I get 'em all?"
Fraser looked up. The front of Ray's hair looked tortured but free of beans, but there were still a dozen or so nestled behind his ear and clinging to the back of his head. "Not quite."
Fraser went to stand behind him, so close he could feel Ray's body heat. He raised his hands to Ray's hair and teased the beans out, one by one. Hair gel had bound the styrofoam to his hair like paste, and Fraser had to tug each one out separately as if unthreading it from a necklace. Ray smelled of laundry soap, wet denim and hair gel, and the intricate scent of human discomfort, and it was only by the exercise of great self-control that Fraser resisted bending forward to sniff, to taste—
Ray shifted his weight, his shoulder blade whispering against Fraser's tunic. "What I said back there," Ray said, his voice low. "In the car. You know I was just trying to shut off the gas pipe." His eyes were closed, lashes dark in contrast to the brown-gold stubble on his jaw.
"All right." Fraser's finger brushed the back of Ray's ear, and Ray's eyes flew open. Their gazes locked in the mirror, and Fraser's heart thudded nonsensically.
Ray licked his teeth. "I mean, you didn't want to listen to that Playboy True Confessions pap any more than I did. Or, uh, did you?" It was a real question, not just rhetoric.
"No, you're right." Fraser looked grateful—or tried to—and turned his attention back to the task at hand. He combed his fingers loosely through the back of Ray's hair, fingertips lightly raking over Ray's scalp, checking to see if he'd missed any beans.
A muscle twitched in Ray's jaw and his shoulders tightened perceptibly. "You done? Okay, let's get out of here." He pushed through the door, not waiting for a response, leaving Fraser with a small handful of sticky white beans, and an unwelcome and untimely erection.
Ten minutes later, Ray stood over the printer and watched it spit out sheet after sheet. "How many copies did you print, Frannie? I only need the one."
"I only printed one, bro," Frannie told him, gesturing at the screen with her pale pink nails. "This guy's got a rap novella."
Ray picked up the sheaf of papers and flicked through it. "I can see that. Jeez, attempted homicide, theft, grand theft, intimidation—Nice guy!"
Frannie hit a button and Kane's face appeared on the screen. "Yeah, he's a real prince and he's got the mugsnaps to match."
"Shots, Frannie. Mug shots." It was hard to believe she'd been working in a cop station for four months already. Her brain was like a duck's back.
"Shots, snaps, pops, bangs. Whatever!" She shrugged, and then her face brightened and Ray could tell without looking that Fraser had walked in.
Bingo! And Fraser wasn't dotted with beanbag pellets, oh no! He was perfect as always, pristine and untouchable, and if Ray had needed evidence that the whole porn hoo-ha was a load of hogwash, that was it right there: Fraser all serged up and carrying his Stetson, neatly side-stepping the perp in the chef's hat who was explaining to Huey at length how to cook couscous, while Dewey sorted through the garbage on his desk. Yeah, Fraser was fresh as a daisy, untouched and untouchable as always. Ray's hopes took a nosedive off the nearest roof, leaving him feeling like a complete dumbass for that crack in the car.
"Hey, Frase." Frannie tucked her hair behind her ear, her smile like cheap perfume.
"Are you aware there's half a women's basketball team in the hallway?" Fraser had his bland face on, and the nervousness he usually reserved for Frannie bled into the quick look he sent in Ray's direction, too. Uh-oh. Ray decided to head things off at the pass before they got awkward and stuck there.
"Yeah." He winked at Fraser. "I wanted to stay and watch—those girls are like extra-long bendy-straws—but Welsh caught me."
Fraser looked away and tugged at his collar. "Ray, basketball is a demanding vocation that requires many years of rigorous—"
"Yeah, I know," Ray interrupted. And, fine, maybe the bendy-straw comment had been out of line, but how else was Ray supposed to signal to Fraser that a) queer or not, Ray was not about to jump him uninvited, and 2) he did not care what dirty little thoughts, if any, Fraser was harboring under his hat? The sky was blue, trees were green, and guys thought about sex. Even Canadian guys. It was the natural order of things. "You okay?"
Fraser met his eyes uncertainly. "Perfectly fine, Ray."
"Good, good." Ray got up and handed him the sheaf of paper. "Kane has a hell of a sheet."
"Professional sleazeball," Frannie piped up. "Did you ever think of being an athlete, Frase?" She got up and perched on the edge of her desk, and groped Fraser's bicep. "You've got great arms."
Ray watched Fraser's already-stiff posture get even tighter. "Not really, no," Fraser said, disengaging awkwardly and taking a step back.
Huh. Maybe Fraser looked at porn like spiderphobes looked at pictures of tarantulas, studying them till their adrenal glands gave up the ghost and they forgot how to be scared. Maybe it was all some kind of desensitization program. Given the way Frannie looked like she wanted to crawl all over him, that would kind of make sense. Shame it wasn't working.
Fraser cleared his throat—a clear call for help—and Ray shelved that thought and went to the rescue. "Okay, so we've got Chandni in Interview One and Kane in Two. Pick a card, any card."
He grabbed Fraser by the arm and dragged him out of Frannie's clutches and down the hallway.
"Thanks, Ray," said Fraser in an undertone, when they were well out of Frannie range.
Ray grinned at him. "Anytime, buddy. What are partners for?"
Ray stuck his head into the Pleasure Chest on North Lincoln. There was one guy in tight jeans and a couple of girls in torn fishnets and half a dozen facial piercings apiece. He gave the magazine wall a quick once-over as a matter of course and tried not to get distracted wondering which of the magazines Fraser might own. He'd said art, not porn, but maybe that was just Mountie code for soft-core.
Ray took a second, slower look at the muscles and ripe curves on display. Maybe the way to show Fraser that porn was no big deal was to buy him some. Fraser acted like he was the first guy in history to be turned on by dirty pictures. A skin rag would prove that wrong just by existing, put the whole damned thing in perspective, but what would Fraser go for? Hockey porn? Royalty look-alike porn? Ray tried to think what else turned Fraser's crank. Justice—maybe Linda Carter with maple leaves instead of stars and stripes? Or leather?
Ray's train of thought hurtled to a halt. Fraser and leather, the smell, the taste. Fraser wrapping his belt around his cock and jerking off. Ray blinked at the sea of body parts in front of him, the guy in the leather harness, the girl in the black patent corset—there was a magazine in his hand before he knew what he was doing. He bit his lip and stepped away from the wall before he lost his mind.
Fraser, he reminded himself desperately. Good, clean Fraser. Not a sexual being! Sure as hell not kinky or hot or—Ray moaned under his breath and stumbled back into one of the fishnet girls. "Sorry."
He shoved the magazine back on the rack and shook himself all over, trying to activate his commonsense. He was here on cop business. He looked around.
There was a cloud of cigarette smoke hanging around the counter in blatant violation of the smoking code, and in the middle of it there was a fat guy reading the horoscopes in the Trib. "What's your sign?" he asked when Ray approached the counter.
"Chicago PD," said Ray, flashing his badge.
The guy crushed out his cigarette in an overflowing ashtray and unsuccessfully tried to wave the smoke aside. "How can I help, officer?"
Ray hid a grin. He didn't have a warrant, but maybe he wouldn't need one with this guy. "I'm looking to meet an envelope full of photographs left here by a creep named Kane—six foot one, two-twenty pounds, Caucasian, tats."
The fat guy stuck his lower lip out and eyed Ray's badge again. "Sure," he said. "I told Johnny he should've kept them somewhere safe." He dug around under the counter and came up with an envelope full of photos.
"That's the ticket. Thanks." Ray turned to leave.
"When's your birthday?" the guy called after him.
"Aries," said Ray from the doorway.
"Usually you'd jump at the kind of opportunity you're offered today," the guy read out slowly, "but the planets suggest you look before you leap. It's very possible to advance your position by making no change at all."
"Huh," said Ray, his eye caught by a display of giant dildos. He resisted the temptation to look any closer, and headed back to the car, wishing the day would hurry up and end so he could bury his face in a pillow for eight hours and start all over again from scratch tomorrow.
They left the station with Dief at seven. It had been a productive day and Ray, although distant, seemed to have forgiven Fraser his rudeness of the night before.
They were going to view an apartment that Desk Sergeant Nye had recommended. It was near the lake and only a brisk walk from the Consulate, but they got caught in the last of the rush hour traffic, inching through intersections at a snail's pace, watching the traffic lights cycle. Fraser roused himself to keep Ray entertained with a description of the time Rufus Apiuk made tea in his own leaky boots. Ray made encouraging noises whenever Fraser paused, but other than that, showed no sign he was paying any attention whatsoever. "Ray, is everything all right?"
"Sure, why wouldn't it be?" Ray pulled off the freeway and turned into the street that was their destination. "Where is this place?"
"It's number 1337," said Fraser. Dief whuffed from the backseat. "Up ahead on the left," Fraser interpreted. The building was barely distinguishable from its neighbors, but seemed pleasant enough, rather like the landlord, a short, balding but otherwise nondescript man called Humphrey, who greeted Fraser and Ray with a perplexing twinkle in his eye. The apartment was small but clean, a two-bedroom with a tiny balcony and a fire escape down to the parking lot at the back of the building.
Fraser stood in the kitchen, examining the new range thoughtfully, and Ray stuck his head around the door and said the bedroom would get good morning sun and there was a linen closet in the bathroom, under the hot water heater. "Nice place," he told Humphrey.
The landlord smiled proudly. "I like settled tenants. The last couple stayed eight years. We used to play canasta on Wednesday nights."
Fraser felt his smile tighten but he nodded politely, and then Ray jerked his head toward the tiny balcony, and Fraser followed him out there. "Give us a minute," said Ray, and shut the door in Humphrey's face.
"What is it?" asked Fraser. Ray was in an odd mood.
"Uh, nothing." Ray looked at the skyline, turning orange as the day passed, and rubbed the back of his neck. "I mean, you realize Humphrey thinks we're together, right?"
Fraser looked at him blankly. "Together?" As he echoed Ray, understanding flashed through him.
"Maybe we should run with that," Ray added, apparently oblivious to Fraser's widening eyes. By the time he turned, Fraser had collected himself and was staring fixedly at the tips of the trees in the park, which he could see over the rooftops.
"What are you saying?" Fraser asked, carefully. In his peripheral vision, he saw Ray shrug.
"Maybe we could move in together. We could be roommates."
"I—" Fraser stopped, at a loss for words.
"No, 'cause it'd be great." Ray warmed to his theme. "Lots of pizza, sling some hammocks out here, late night baseball games—it'd be companionable. Buddies. And you'd have your own nice, private bedroom for when you needed alone time."
Fraser realized he was holding his breath, and let it out slowly. "Ray, I'm—" He glanced at Ray's face, open and warm and—buried beneath that—alert and nervous, and then he looked up at the sky as though the emerging moon would give him some clue how to navigate these shoals. He gripped the balcony railing. "I need to be alone. To live alone. I need space."
"Okay," said Ray, too quickly. He raised his hands and backed into the kitchen window. "Okay, no big deal. It was just a thought." He opened the door and shook his head at Humphrey.
"I'm sorry," said Fraser to Ray, but it was the landlord who answered.
"Hey, no obligation." He waved them out the front door. "No point taking it if it's not what you want."
"Truer words," said Fraser, settling his hat on his head as he followed Ray to the stairs.
By the next day, Fraser had had his fill of the Fat Dragon Hostel. Or, more to the point, he'd had enough of Dief's complaints. It was a relief when Ray picked them up in the morning, a complicated pleasure to see his wry smile at Dief's disgruntled grumbling. "Tough night, furface?"
"I beg of you, don't encourage his martyr complex," Fraser said, but he didn't protest when Ray stopped off to buy them all donuts for breakfast, even though the resulting lupine gastric discomfort was both inevitable and malodorous.
They closed the Chandni case and then spent the rest of the day following up leads in the homicide of a businessman with no friends, family or apparent enemies. "A model citizen," said Ray over wonton soup at lunchtime. "Even his boss has nothing bad to say about him. So why'd someone break into his apartment and whack him, and not even empty his wallet?"
"Perhaps it was a case of mistaken identity," Fraser suggested.
"Or maybe he was leading a double life," said Ray, snapping his fingers as if to help his neurons fire. "Think about it—no one's life could possibly be that boring."
Fraser refrained from pointing out that he himself wasn't exactly burdened with dozens of relatives and associates, but he didn't need to. Ray pointed at him with two fingers. "Don't even think it. You've got Dief, you've got me, you've got Canada, you've got half the female population of Chicago wanting to jump your bones. You are not Mr. Blankety Blank from Loserville."
"Thanks, Ray." Fraser picked up the check—it was his turn—and then they were off again, uncovering a trail that led to a fetish club, a series of hair-raising revelations and, finally, a murderer.
After they'd booked and processed the suspect, and put him in a holding cell until bail could be set, Ray drove Fraser back to Mr. Yao's boarding house. "No apartments to check out?"
"Not this evening," said Fraser. "I seem to have reached an impasse."
Ray nodded, opened his mouth and shut it again, and indicated to turn left.
"I, uh, didn't know whether to bring this up," said Ray, unusually diffident. "Didn't want to tromp on your tootsies."
Fraser wondered if the tensions of the last few days would ever fully be dispelled. He kept his voice steady, though. "What is it?"
"Nothing," Ray told him. "Just—there's an apartment free in my building. Second floor. You know, in case you—Forget it."
It was relief that made him stutter. "That—that sounds like an excellent plan, if you—Yes."
"Yeah?" Ray was still skirting the subject like he wasn't sure of his ground.
Fraser felt suddenly guilty for having kept him so firmly at a distance. They were friends, after all, and partners, and Fraser's current predicament was in no way Ray's fault. "Certainly," he said firmly. "I mean, if Mrs. Giggenbach will permit wolves."
"Yeah, Dief's cool. I asked." Ray accelerated to make a yellow light, and then he slowed again. He and Fraser exchanged sheepish grins.
Dief barked his approval from the backseat, and Fraser laughed. "Well, then. Shall we have a look?"
"Yeah." Ray looked around at the streets that were blurring past, as if he'd only just realized they were heading in the wrong direction. "Oh, uh, yeah." He took the next right, and then the next.
Ray's landlady, Mrs. Giggenbach, was more or less awake when they knocked on the door, and she tucked her vivid pink knitting into her apron pocket, rubbed her eyes and gave them the key, telling them to go look at the place while she watched the last ten minutes of Jeopardy!
The apartment was on the second floor at the opposite end of the building from Ray's, and it had the same layout but in a mirror image. It was small but clean and light. Fraser gave each room a quick inspection, raised his eyebrows at Dief—who had undoubtedly noticed that Mrs. Giggenbach's own apartment smelled pleasantly of pie and therefore couldn't be trusted to be the slightest bit impartial—and decided it would do very well. It was a far cry from Racine Avenue, both in location and cost, but living so near Ray would be convenient, especially after late-night stakeouts, and it was affordable.
More to the point, it was available right now.
"What do you think?" asked Ray. It was difficult to judge his enthusiasm for the idea, but Fraser decided not to worry about that. He had suggested the arrangement, after all, and Fraser was sure that any awkwardness would soon pass if they carried on as usual and he proved he wouldn't intrude on Ray's privacy or personal space.
Fraser looked at Dief again to be sure, and then nodded. "We'll take it."
"Swell." Ray ran his hand through his hair and surveyed the empty living room. "You're going to need some stuff."
"I have a few things in storage at the Consulate," said Fraser. "You don't have to worry about me, Ray."
"Right." Ray shot him an impenetrable look, then smiled lopsidedly, as if to himself. "Okay, no worrying. One carefree Chicago cop, coming right up."
Mrs. Giggenbach ambled through the front door with her knitting, pink wool trailing behind her and a lease agreement tucked in her pocket. "RCMP," she said, looking Fraser's uniform up and down.
"Ah, yes, ma'am. I first came to Chicago on the trail of the killers of my father, and—"
"I remember," said Mrs. Giggenbach. "You told me last time. Are you taking the place or what?" She slapped the paperwork on the breakfast bar.
So in forty-eight hours, Ray kinda sorta came out to his partner (not that Fraser seemed to notice), helped said partner and associated wolf move into his apartment building, and got himself a date.
"Things move fast in the big city," he told his reflection as he shaved. "Wham, bam, kaboom! One minute, you're standing on a street corner eating a pastrami sandwich, and the next you're driving a flaming Buick into the lake, there's a wolf licking your ear and you're best friends with a drop-dead Canadian who owns leather-porn-slash-dirty-art but still acts like he never thought about sex in his life." He rinsed his razor and scraped the soap from his upper lip. "You have to roll with it. You have to be flexible. Ow! Mostly you have to shut up while you're shaving, moron!" He dabbed the blood from his lip and finished up quickly. He was picking up Kim Lovell in half an hour.
Kim was the new girl in Records, blonde and fresh-faced. Ray and Fraser had gone looking for Vecchio's file notes on an old kidnapping case, hoping to find a clue on the Magellan disappearance—or at least a hint about who'd been Vecchio's snitch.
"What can I do you for?" the new girl had asked Fraser, twinkling up at him. It would've taken Ray's breath away if she'd been aiming that smile at him.
But apparently Fraser was blind as a doorpost. He smiled politely and handed her the slip of memo paper. "We'd like to review the file on this case number, if you'd be so kind."
Ray hung back, watching him talk to Kim. Fraser was treating this girl exactly the same as he treated Hugo the vending machine guy. He just didn't seem like a guy who used porn. If he was more uncomfortable then, yeah, it might be some arctic repression thing where he was embarrassed about objectifying women and got flustered and couldn't meet their eyes. That would add up. But Fraser wasn't like that—well, except for with Frannie. Mostly he was polite and oblivious. And, okay, he might shut all his dirty thoughts away in the back corners of his mind. He was probably someone who could do that. But that didn't seem right either.
Then again, maybe Fraser just didn't go for blondes.
Kim let them into the file room and found the case for them. "I'll leave you guys to it," she said, talking to both of them this time, and after everything that had happened in the last week, that sounded dirty enough that Ray had to throw some smoke in her face. "Hey, uh, Kim. You want to have dinner with me sometime?"
She glanced at Fraser, quirked her eyebrows like she knew she didn't have a chance there, and then tilted her head at Ray. "It's Vecchio, right?"
"Yeah." Ray held out his hand to shake hers. "Ray Vecchio. How'd you know?"
Her eyes darted to Fraser again. "Word gets around." She looked Ray right in the eye for a minute, then dropped her eyelashes, a smile playing around the corner of her mouth. "Sure, Ray. How's tonight?"
Ray was all set to say, "Okay, some other time, thanks for the files anyway," and deal with the rejection, so it took a minute to sink in that Kim was actually saying yes. When it did, the file folder Fraser had just handed Ray slid to the floor and paper went everywhere.
Kim laughed, but not in a mean way, and they agreed a time and she left, backing away a couple of paces before she gave him a cute little wave, turned and walked back to her desk with a spring in her black-high-heeled step.
"Wowza," said Ray without meaning to.
Fraser was gathering up the scattered pages. "She seems very nice."
"Yeah," said Ray, coming back to earth. "Listen, I know it's your first proper night in your new place. I was going to, you know, bring pizza, help you settle in, but—" He waved his hands in the air, trying to illustrate the impossible luck of a girl like Kim agreeing to go out with him, without giving away that, bombshell or not, he'd actually rather have spent the time with Fraser. There was no good way to explain that.
"I understand." Fraser sounded like he meant it, and Ray wasn't going to argue.
It was probably just as well they weren't rooming together after all.
Ray took Kim to a place in Chinatown he'd been a couple of times with Fraser. Dolled up in a red fake leather dress with glittery earrings and her hair curling down to her shoulders, she was stunning, but the leather just made Ray think about Fraser.
Like she could read his mind, she smiled and asked, "How long have you been working with the Mountie?"
"Uh, about three and a half years, since he first came to Chicago on the trail of the killers of his father." Ray shifted in his seat. "Before that I—"
"Must be interesting—with the hat and the red and everything," Kim prompted him.
"—worked Vice at the 1-7." Ray forced himself to stop reciting Vecchio's resume. "Yeah. What about you—what did you do before?"
"I worked for a P.I." She picked up her glass and pointed a spear-like finger at him. "Does he really have a wolf?"
"Yeah, Diefenbaker." The low lighting made her wine glow red and mesmerizing. It was hard keeping track of the conversation. "You worked for a P.I.?"
"Dana Jellicoe. I was her receptionist." Kim tucked her hair behind her ear, and fiddled with her earring. "She was great. I was going to get my license and join the business as a partner, but then my husband skipped town and I had to get a job that could actually pay the rent."
"Sorry about your husband," Ray told her. "That sucks."
She shrugged. "No great loss." She waited while the waiter cleared the remains of their appetizers and Mr. Lee brought the entrees. When they were alone again, she leaned so far forward Ray's eyes started watering with the effort of not staring at her perfect, creamy cleavage. "Come on, Ray, dish me some dirt. I told Marcia and Judy and Carol about our date tonight, and they had a ton of questions for you. Seems like Fraser's really popular." She grinned. "He doesn't radiate some kind of secret love potion, does he?"
Ray put down his fork. "I, uh—"
"Does he moisturize? Is he nursing a broken heart for a mysterious lost love? Does he like kids? I'm new at the station. If you told me about him—even if it wasn't personal, you know, just small stuff—that could really make my life easier."
She was so upfront about it, Ray couldn't even get offended. "That's why you came out with me?"
"Well, you seem like a nice enough guy," she said, helping herself to some sweet and sour pork, "except for how you hit on girls you only just met. But yeah, mostly I wanted the inside scoop."
"Fraser, he—he's kind of a private guy." There was no way Ray was telling her diddly. She wanted to use gossip about Fraser as currency, and Fraser did not deserve that. "Come on, let's talk about you. What's your story? Did you grow up in Chicago?"
She accepted defeat gracefully, and they had an okay time talking about the station and the weirdo criminals Ray had brought down since he'd worked there. Still, Ray was relieved when it came time to take her home, and he didn't even try to kiss her goodnight.
The lights were on in Fraser's kitchen and living-room windows when Ray parked his car, so he figured he'd drop in, in the friendly spirit of neighborliness.
"Ray." Fraser sounded surprised.
Ray clapped his hand over his eyes. "You got your porn collection safely tucked away? Is it safe to look?"
"Really, Ray, this whole business is a tempest in a teakettle," said Fraser reproachfully. Then he cleared his throat, and Ray could almost hear his tongue sliding over his lower lip. "Besides, even if I had such a thing, I doubt you'd find it the least bit interesting."
Ray suddenly flashed back to the men's room with Fraser standing right behind him, breathing on his neck, and the hypnotic way he'd tugged bean-bag beans out of his hair, his fingers against Ray's scalp. "Right." He dropped his hand and smiled weakly. "Hi."
Fraser was in jeans and a Henley with a smear of dust on his cheek and his hair slightly mussed, like he'd been shifting furniture. Forget the porn, it was Fraser who looked like a gay pinup. "Is everything all right?"
"Oh yeah, sure, I just, uh—I got home early and figured I'd see how you're getting on with the place." Ray slipped off his jacket and hung it on a hook by the door. He didn't have so many good clothes that he could afford to get them covered in wolf hair and dust. "What's going on?"
Dief trotted into the room, picked up half a dozen National Geographic magazines from a pile under the window and then pattered back down the hallway towards the dark bedroom. "Looks like the wolf's on a mission."
"He's more or less taken over the main bedroom entirely. I tried to reason with him, but—" Fraser shook his head, then went into the kitchen and opened the fridge. "I'm afraid I can't offer you much in the way of refreshments. I have water, milk and dog food."
"No tea?" Ray called.
"I'm afraid not, nor coffee. I'll have to stock up tomorrow." Fraser reappeared in the doorway. "I trust you had a pleasant evening."
"It was okay." Ray dropped his keys on the breakfast bar, next to a jumble of camping utensils, a compass, a pile of half-used candles, a couple of wicked hunting knives and a potted geranium with a lurid green bow on it, which Ray would've bet money was from Turnbull.
The rest of the living room was still pretty empty by most people's standards. There was a small bookcase crammed with faded paperbacks, Fraser's foot locker, a cheap-looking wicker-and-glass coffee table and, in the middle of the room, a fancy overstuffed green sofa missing one of its claw-shaped feet, and an array of carpentry tools.
Ray unbuttoned his cuffs and started rolling up his sleeves. "You need a hand with that?"
Fraser hesitated, then nodded. "Actually, yes. Inspector Thatcher said I could have the couch if I wanted, and I've just been trying to repair it, but it's not particularly sturdy. I've secured the back in place and carved a new foot. If you could hold the body steady while I nail it on—"
Ray looked at him sharply, but his expression was innocent, just like always. Jeez, if Ray was starting to hear innuendo from Fraser, it probably meant he needed a vacation or to get seriously laid. Maybe he should have tried it on with Kim, despite everything.
Fraser was looking at him curiously.
Ray put on his poker face. "Uh, sure." He hauled the couch onto its back and steadied it with his knee. "Like this?"
For a split second, he thought Fraser was checking out his ass, but the moment passed before he could be sure. "Yeah."
Fraser picked up a hammer and held the new foot in place. It looked like it was made from a different kind of wood—paler and with more contrast in the grain—but otherwise it matched perfectly.
"Hey, so, I was thinking about the case," said Ray, bracing the sofa against the hammer's blows. "I think we should talk to Maria Callas again."
Fraser stopped hammering and stared at him. "The opera singer?" He managed to sound baffled despite the nails clamped between his lips. "I believe she's dead, Ray."
"The manager at the homeless shelter, wiseass." Ray scratched his neck, and then hurriedly grabbed the couch before Fraser started hammering again. "Maria something."
Fraser banged in the last nail and sat back on his heels with a look of satisfaction. He took the last of the nails out of his mouth. "Chalmers."
"Yeah, her." Ray helped right the couch, and then sat down on it cautiously. It felt pretty good—more comfortable than its shiny fabric looked. He crossed his legs. "Her statement's got more holes in it than a month of leaky Sundays."
Fraser dropped the leftover nails into a jar and sat on the bare wooden floor across from him, his back against the wall, forearms on his knees, his hands hanging loose. He still had that dust smudge on his cheek.
He frowned thoughtfully, and said, "You may be right," and Ray rubbed his palms on his thighs and tried not to notice how good he looked.
"So we can do that—" Ray cracked his neck. "—uh, go talk to her first thing tomorrow."
Fraser nodded and opened his mouth to reply, but Dief came in just then, jumped onto the couch next to Ray and flopped down, resting his head in Ray's lap. Ray ruffled behind his ears and Dief yawned, showing all his glossy white fangs.
"Really, Dief," said Fraser, "that's no way to—" He was cut off by his own yawn, which he tried and failed to stifle.
Ray grinned, pushed Dief gently aside and stood up. "Okay, well, I'll see you guys in the morning." He collected his jacket and was nearly out the door when he remembered his keys on the counter. "Sleep well, Fraser. You too, furface."
Over the next couple of weeks, Ray spent more time at Fraser's place than he did in his own apartment. Together they assembled a bookshelf, rewired two lamps and a radio that Fraser kept permanently tuned to Chicago Public Radio, and fixed a dining set including four ramshackle chairs. In the process they argued and discussed and nutted out cases, solving the Magellan disappearance and a couple of times ending up chasing leads in the middle of the night. Their previously good solve rate went through the roof.
And despite Fraser claiming he wanted privacy-with-a-capital-P, he seemed perfectly happy to have Ray hanging around.
Ray started leaving stuff at Fraser's place—beer in the fridge, jeans and an old t-shirt for when they were painting the chairs—and Fraser got better at saying "Goodnight, Ray" in the way that meant "Get the hell outta here! I need to sleep!"
The whole situation was like living together without the arguing and negotiating about chores and without Ray having to justify coming home late on the couple of evenings he stopped by a sports bar and got waylaid.
In fact, there was only one downside to Fraser moving in, and it was stupid, but at first Ray couldn't figure out know how to fix it. The downside was that Ray couldn't jerk off anymore.
He tried a couple of times, but it was creepy to think about Fraser like that when the guy was sleeping only a couple of hundred feet away—even if Ray turned out the light it was weird—and Ray couldn't work up any enthusiasm thinking about anything else.
Maybe he should just give up and borrow Fraser's goddamned porn collection! The moment he thought that, everything fell into place: Ray couldn't get hot thinking about Fraser, but his conscience didn't think Fraser's porn was out of bounds, and it was enough of a mystery that Ray had any amount of enthusiasm for that. He lay back on his unmade bed, the navy sheets cool against his overheated skin, and wrapped his fingers around his dick and let his mind wander.
Leather was still a favorite theory, or maybe doctors and nurses. Did Fraser get off on starched uniforms? That would explain his boxers. Or maybe he had the classics—Penthouse and Playboy and that kind of thing—probably old ones from the seventies before the girls started shaving their hair into weird shapes. The thought of Fraser flicking through skin magazines in a store and rubbing his eyebrow at the sad state of trimming today made Ray gasp with laughter.
He squeezed his dick and took a different tack. Maybe Fraser had meant it when he said it was art. It could be those red-cheeked nudes in old paintings, draped robes falling off them, all warm curves and rosebud lips and rounded breasts and bellies, and bunches of grapes hanging from their fingers. The thought of Fraser getting off on something like that was sad, but it was also—Fraser getting off. Fraser panting, maybe biting his lip as he touched himself. Ray's hand sped up all on its own, and the next minute Ray was coming, groaning and feeling faintly ashamed of himself, but done, all the same.
There. Now he could sleep. And he did.
Fraser was running out of furniture and appliances to repair. He'd salvaged a toaster oven on Tuesday, and a footstool and a rickety coat stand on Wednesday, and all were now solid and fully functional. But Ray was no fool. There were only so many broken objects Fraser could plausibly acquire before Ray would—rightly—suspect him of malingering.
Perhaps he should buy a car.
It wasn't as though Fraser could explain, even to himself, why he wanted the current state of affairs to continue. Before he moved into the building, he and Ray had passed many pleasant evenings watching hockey matches and poorly-plotted American movies on Ray's television. No doubt once they were free of other projects, they'd pass many more. And there was always work to be shared—it wasn't as though Chicago had a shortage of criminals.
On top of that, Fraser had planned to live in solitude. He'd needed space and privacy: it made no sense to allow Ray free access to his bolt hole. And Ray's constant presence certainly put a damper on Fraser's ability to indulge in art—not only because it restricted the time available, but also because whenever he did pick up a pencil and smooth his hands over a blank sheet of paper, he couldn't help but imagine Ray watching him, lips pursed, eyes narrowed, judging him.
Still, Fraser continued to bring home chairs and lamps from the curb until his apartment resembled a thrift store, and it didn't come to a head until Ray walked in and found him dissecting a battered old television set.
"This is out of control," Ray declared, in lieu of a greeting. He took the screwdriver from Fraser's hand and dropped it into its place in the open toolbox. "Get your coat."
"Where are we going?" Fraser obediently fetched his coat without waiting for an answer.
"First off, we are returning this piece of junk to the low-rent dumpster where you found it," said Ray, hoisting the broken television set into his arms, trailing wires and all. "And then I'm introducing you to one of the joys of urban American living—the mall."
Fraser opened his mouth to object, but under the circumstances he could hardly admit he didn't want a television. He called Dief to join them and settled his hat on his head. "Okay, Ray. Lead on."
"I have been to a mall before," said Fraser, once they were in the car.
"Yeah?" Ray turned on the windshield wipers and swiped at the condensation with his hand. "You wouldn't know it to look at your apartment."
"Ray Vecchio and I went to Pipers Alley two Christmases ago on the trail of a homicidal elf, and again a few months later to talk to the witness of a nearby shooting. As I recall, Dief was very taken with the food court."
Dief flicked his ears forward, but declined to comment.
Ray pulled up at a traffic light. "Wait just one minute," he said, staring at Fraser. "Are you telling me you've never shopped in a mall as a customer?" He seemed torn between awe and outrage. "You've lived in the United States how many years now and no one's made you trudge the shiny white atriums of the—That's, that's—I don't know what that is." He scowled at the road ahead of them. "I think I'm jealous."
"The light, Ray."
Ray set the car in motion. "Well, we're going to pop your mall cherry tonight, because if you want a TV, we're getting you one that's not going to short circuit in the middle of the night and burn down the whole damned building, of which I happen to be a resident."
"You know, I really don't need—"
"Everyone needs a TV, Fraser. It's the basis of modern civilization." Ray pulled into the mall's parking lot and added, without looking at Fraser, "My treat. It can be a house-warming present."
Fraser licked his lip. "You know, it's really not necessary."
"Oh yeah?" The corner of Ray's mouth quirked up. "None of these stores are gonna accept your funny money anyway."
"That's very kind of you, Ray."
"In my day we didn't have any truck with televisions," said Fraser's father from the backseat.
Diefenbaker whined and put his head on his paws.
"And that was in no way affected by the fact you didn't have electricity, I suppose."
"We made do with shadow theatre and the wireless." Fraser Senior looked nostalgic for a moment. "And when we made passes at people, we made passes—we didn't maneuver them into buying us household appliances."
"The wolf pining for the great outdoors again?" asked Ray. "It's okay, furface. We'll take you to the park this weekend."
"That's very thoughtful of you, Ray. I'm sure he'll appreciate it." Fraser risked a quick glance back. His father was out of uniform and had several empty shopping bags with him. "What exactly are you planning to buy?" Fraser asked, exasperated. "And with what?"
"Just stocking up, son," his father replied. "You never know when you'll need a clean pair of longjohns."
"I'm thinking a twenty-inch should be big enough." Ray stopped and closed his eyes, his ears turning pink. "Uh, I mean, screen. It's not a large apartment—you don't want to go crazy."
"No, no, of course not," said Fraser. "That sounds more than adequate."
"And don't you worry about the with what." Ray tapped his American Express card against the steering wheel. "I got it covered."
In the end, Fraser had to be extremely firm with Ray to stop him from buying the biggest, most expensive television in the store. Fraser prevailed, though, and he lugged the new moderately sized appliance through the mall—first after Ray, who got turned around by the presence of not two but three Borders stores, then after Dief, who was repeatedly distracted by fast-food outlets. In the end, Fraser had to hand off the television set to Ray and employ his compass to find the exit.
They took the TV home, wrestled it up the stairs with no help from Dief, and unpacked it in the middle of Fraser's living room amid a wealth of molded packing material.
Next to Fraser's motley collection of furniture, the new television gleamed, and Ray was eager to try it out, but the best place for it—on the footlocker by the bookshelf—was too far from the nearest wall socket for the cord to reach.
"There's an extension cord in the hall closet," said Fraser, and Ray went to fetch it.
Fraser collected the packaging, twist ties and plastic bags, and put them in the trash. He was re-filling Dief's water bowl when he heard a slap and, a few seconds later, a muffled exclamation from Ray. He went to investigate and stopped dead at the sight.
His battered leather art folio had fallen out of the closet and lay on the floor, sheets of paper spilling from it across the narrow hallway. The hall light illuminated them relentlessly—all portraits, some from memory, others carefully sketched out while his models teased him. There was Eric in the woods near his parents' home, wearing nothing but a grin; Mark, shirtless, touching himself through his jeans, the worn denim shading into shadow; Mark again, leaning against a brick wall with one leg bent, the flat of his foot against the brick, fully clothed this time but undeniably sexual; Victoria lying in Fraser's bed in Racine Avenue, her hair black as ink, eyes sultry, lips curved—And peeking out beneath those pictures were even more incriminating studies: Ray's hands, his wrists, the back of his neck—
They were meant for no one's eyes but Fraser's own, and it had been bad enough that the Keller children had stumbled across them. To see them laid out before Ray was terrifying. Fraser flushed from head to foot.
"You—" Ray was staring at the top few, thank God. At Eric and Mark and Victoria.
"Ray." Fraser didn't know where to start. He bent and gathered the pages, embarrassed for the first time by the placement of Mark's hand. It had always been erotic, but it had never before struck him as obscene. Now, with Ray gawping as if it depicted something shameful, Fraser wondered whether there were some merit to Inspector Thatcher's objections after all.
This, then, was the real cost of allowing Ray such easy access to his refuge: humiliation.
"This is the storm in the teacup?" Ray had regained the use of his voice. "This is your porn collection?"
Fraser shoved the folder roughly back into the closet and shut the door with a decisive click. "It's not pornography. They're—well, to the best of my ability, which is hardly—They—" Fraser took a deep breath, his cheeks still burning. "I'm very tired, Ray. If you wouldn't mind." He herded him toward the door.
Ray didn't resist until he was on the threshold and Fraser was shutting him out. He stuck a boot in the gap and pushed the door open again. "The pictures," he said. "Do those people know you drew 'em?"
"Yeah," said Fraser quickly, crossing his fingers behind his back. What the heart didn't know, he told himself, both guilty at the lie and relieved beyond measure that Ray was asking, since it meant he couldn't have glimpsed the pictures of himself amongst the others.
Ray nodded slowly. "Okay."
Fraser's hand tightened on the door handle and conscience compelled him to clarify. "Most of them."
Not Victoria, of course—he hadn't seen her since the train station. For all he knew, she was dead, and she most certainly believed he was.
And not Ray. Fraser couldn't imagine having that conversation with him, especially not now.
Ray got halfway up the stairs to his apartment before his thoughts overwhelmed him and he had to sit down and catch his breath.
Fraser liked guys.
If those drawings were anything to go by, Fraser really liked guys. Sure, there'd been a girl in there too—Ray was pretty sure that was Victoria Metcalf—but mostly the pictures had been beefcake.
Ray scrubbed at his face and tried to get his head lined up. The pictures weren't of him, and Fraser hadn't taken the opportunity—or any of the many other opportunities Ray kept throwing at him—to make a move. On the other hand, Fraser liked hanging out with Ray, he enjoyed his company, and they'd been fix-it buddies ever since Fraser moved in. And Fraser liked guys.
Maybe Ray still had a shot.
He was starting to get turned on in hopeful anticipation, and then he remembered where he was and took himself the rest of the way home, collapsed on his couch and stared at the ceiling.
Fraser was embarrassed, any idiot could see that, and embarrassed meant defensive. Ray needed to give him some space to get over that and see that Ray was right here waiting for him. Ripe for the picking.
The problem was that giving people space was not Ray's specialty. Kinda the opposite. But this was important, and hey, he could always make the wheels a little greasy. All was fair in love and seduction, right?
Ray went to bed, simmering with plans, and lay awake for three hours, twitching and wanting nothing more than to head back down to Fraser's and jump him, however doomed that would be.
The next morning he called Tony from work and pulled in a favor. "It's probably just a loose connection to the thermostat," he said. "Anyway, I got Sandor off those parking fines. You owe me."
Then Ray called the Consulate, with his fingers crossed. He was in luck.
"Canadian Consulate, Consulat du Canada. Constable Turnbull speaking."
"Hey, Turnbull. Listen, I'm sending my guy over to check out your oven tonight, okay? He'll tweak your thermostat till it's ticking like a baby."
"Oh, Detective," said Turnbull rapturously. "That's wonderful news! If you could only see the state of my chicken cannelloni! It would bring tears to your mother's eyes."
"Yeah, yeah." Ray waved that aside. "So I need you to be extra nice to Fraser for a couple of days, okay? I can't spell out the details—it's a matter of, uh, national security—but he's had a rough week. Just cut him some slack, run interference with the Ice Queen, stuff like that."
"Of course, sir." Turnbull sounded like he was saluting. "Extra nice with chocolate sprinkles on top. You have my word. We've just received a new portrait of the Queen from Ottawa. I'll ask Constable Fraser if he'd like to help me hang it. Her Majesty is widely recognized for her soothing influence."
"Okay, good, good. Thanks." Ray had an uneasy feeling, but he shrugged it off. He had to do something. "Uh, hey, I gotta go."
On the far side of the room, Huey and Dewey were squabbling about whether maraschino cherries were actually cherries. "They've got the wrong consistency," Dewey argued. "They're nothing like fruit—they're more like jelly babies."
"But they're made from cherries," said Huey, exasperated.
Ray rolled his eyes and settled in with a case file, pretending to work.
Fraser didn't turn up at the 2-7 all day, which Ray pretty much expected, but Ray still skipped lunch. He was in no mood to eat by himself. By five, he was starving, but he went to the gym, where he ran circuits, his feet pounding the boards like dull drums, thud thud thud, tension slowly draining. He'd been going nuts all afternoon, trying to figure out what it would take to make Fraser fall for him, and finally concluding that if he hadn't won Fraser's big red Canadian heart by now, then—given how well they knew each other—it was hopeless. There weren't any rabbits left in Ray's hat, just more of the same and jeez, that was a depressing thought.
He ran till everyone had gone home except Mad Herbert, the seventy-year-old wannabe boxer who practically lived there, whacking his taped hands against the heavy bag like it'd make him young again, saggy arms juddering on every impact. Sometimes Ray thought it was cool that a guy his age was still trying to live his dreams. Today it just made him sad.
He grabbed takeout from a burger joint on the way home and stuffed it in his mouth as he stumbled up the stairs to his apartment, thinking that after he showered, he'd knock on Fraser's door and test the waters, just in case. Maybe Fraser had been bluffing all this time, hiding his secret longing for Ray. Except no, because the pictures didn't lie.
He'd almost reached his apartment when he saw the wolf at his door.
Dief lay with a roll of paper between his front legs. He looked up and whined, and his ears flicked forward.
Ray held out the last mouthful of his burger. "Hey, furface. Hungry? You want to come inside?"
Grease dripped on the floor. Dief stood up and shook himself thoroughly, and then stretched out his neck and snatched the remains of the burger from Ray's hand, swallowed it whole and licked Ray's fingers clean, all in a split second like a magic trick—now you see it, now you don't.
Then he shook himself again, barked once, and trotted off toward the stairs.
"Hey," Ray called after him, "you forgot your, uh, scroll."
Dief didn't look back.
Ray picked up his gym bag and the roll of paper and went inside. But before he could so much as lock the door, a bell started ringing—shrill, insistent and deafening.
Fire alarm. Ray dropped everything but his keys and ran out. He slammed the door behind him and hammered on 317, knowing Fraser would be doing the same for the residents on his floor. "Hey! Fire! Anyone home, now would be a great time to get the hell out of there!"
People from the other apartments started bustling into the hallway, the ladies clutching cats and handbags, jewelry and art, and the old men lugging armfuls of official-looking documents and other stuff they couldn't bear to leave behind. Mrs. Ganfrey, widowed six months ago, had her arms full of men's suits and left a trail of ugly silk ties behind her.
Ray banged on 317 again, but there was no time to wait for a reply. He could faintly taste smoke and the alarm was jolting him full of adrenaline. He took a step back and kicked in the door, feeling the impact all the way up to his hip. The lock gave and the door crashed open.
Vance, the kid who lived there, was lying on his bed surrounded by Formula One racing posters. He had his headphones on. "Get outta here," Ray yelled, manhandling him to the door. "Where's your mom?"
"What?" said Vance, pushing his headphones back so he could hear. "What's that noise?"
Ray bundled Vance and Ms. Wong from 315 down the stairs, the alarm still shrilling so loud Ray thought his brain might rupture.
They burst out into the cool, relatively quiet night air, where all Ray's neighbors were milling around. Ray instinctively looked for the Stetson and found it—and Fraser—bending down to listen to a little old lady Ray didn't recognize.
Fraser met Ray's eye across the crowded parking lot, held up one then two fingers and gave the thumbs up, and then turned back to the lady.
Two fire trucks were already on the scene, lights flashing and yellow-jacketed guys unrolling hoses. Ray went up to one of them. "Chicago PD. I got everyone off the third floor, and my partner cleared the first and second floors."
The guy nodded and went to pass this on to the head honcho who was yelling orders.
Ray found himself momentarily alone, out of the flurry of people and anxious chatter, and he looked for Fraser again, met his eye. They rendezvoused by the dumpsters.
"Is everything all right?" Fraser was wearing his painting clothes and smelled of smoke, even out here. He had a scorch mark on his sleeve.
"Yeah, what the hell happened?" Ray folded his arms tight to keep from patting Fraser down to check for injuries or, truthfully, just to touch him. "Where's the wolf?"
"Dief's with Mrs. Giggenbach," said Fraser, assuming parade rest. "He's been in a strange mood all day—possibly it's contagious, given Turnbull's behavior, which can only be described as bizarre. At any rate," Fraser gestured at the crowded parking lot, "I'm afraid this is all my fault."
That got Ray's attention. Which was good. Better than staring at the soot smudge on Fraser's neck, anyway. "What did you do?"
Fraser hung his head. "I was disposing of some, ah, household rubbish, and one of the lamps—you know the elephant one with the yellow and green lampshade that I rescued from the curb by Mario's Pizza Palace?—was unfortunately a little too close to the trash can. I smothered the blaze immediately of course and vented the area. There was no danger. But by that time the smoke must have alerted Mr. Potts next door. I believe he was the one to sound the alarm."
Ray forgot all about Project Greasing the Wheels. "Jesus, Fraser, you had a bonfire in your living room?"
Fraser pulled on his earlobe. "Only a small one."
"What the hell were you thinking?" Ray glanced up at the building and saw smoke drifting from Fraser's open living-room window. Unbelievable.
"It's quite safe if you simply—" Ray turned on him, eyes narrowed, and Fraser bit off the rest of his sentence and took a deep breath. "I'm truly sorry, Ray. It seems I'm not accustomed to living in buildings that have fire alarms. My apartment in Racine Avenue certainly wasn't equipped with one, the Consulate one has been disabled ever since Turnbull started having trouble with the oven and as for my cabin in the Yukon—" He squared his shoulders and turned to the crowd of their neighbors. "Ladies and gentlemen," he said loudly, "my name is Benton Fraser and this is all my fault."
The hubbub died down and everyone was listening. Ray shrank back into the shadows.
Fraser kept digging himself an early grave. "I was disposing of some paperwork when a spark from my fire landed on a rather ugly—Well, that's not important."
"Are you crazy?" shouted a tired-looking woman carrying a baby.
"Trying to burn our building down," growled a tall lean man in a bathrobe.
"Oughta be evicted," came a voice from the crowd. This was met with a buzz of agreement.
"I take full responsibility and I assure you that I've learned my lesson. Detective Vecchio will now take me into police custody." Fraser offered Ray his wrists and murmured, "You'll have to arrest me, of course."
"Fraser, I am not arresting you! No, stop it." Ray smacked his hands away, feeling tired and irritable. "I just been to the gym, I don't have my cuffs and even if I did, I'm not arresting you. There's no charge. The fire department will fine you for the call-out, and Mrs. G. will give you the evil eyeball every time you pass her on the stairs. You'll have to make do with that." He glared at the expectant crowd, which was on the verge of turning into a lynch mob. "There's no charge!"
Once the firefighters had given the all-clear and Fraser, Ray and Dief had helped everyone back inside, Fraser insisted on returning to his smoky apartment.
Ray didn't bother arguing much. He climbed the stairs to the third floor, dragged himself into the kitchen and chugged a bottle of water, and then went into the living room and looked at Dief's roll of paper, lying on the floor next to Ray's gym bag.
When he unrolled it, he almost laughed. Fraser had drawn him. Fraser had sat with charcoal in his hand and imagined Ray naked, and drawn that image on paper. No wonder Fraser was so uptight about his porn collection if he was hiding this!
Ray dropped the sketch on the couch and paced the room. It didn't take a genius to figure out Fraser had been trying to destroy the evidence when he started the fire. He'd been caught out and he wanted this whole thing to go away, to pretend he was as pure as the driven ice fields. Ray needed a strategy, some way to balance the moral scales.
He put Janis Joplin on low and came back to the couch and Fraser's drawing.
There was something weird about it, and not just because Ray had never lain naked in a log cabin, in front of an open fire. It was a good picture—even Ray could tell that. The proportions were right and Ray recognized himself, not just in his face but in the angle of his chin and the slight hunch of his shoulders. The head and the hands were unmistakably him, but the torso—Ray had never had definition like that, not even when he'd been training for the ring. The guy in the picture had at least fifteen pounds on Ray, in all the right places.
He threw the paper aside and went searching in the top of his hall closet for the Polaroid camera he and Stella had bought on vacation years ago. It took a while to find, but there were a couple of ancient packets of instant film, too, in the box of leftover marriage stuff. He let himself out onto the fire escape.
Fraser might need to beef up Ray to find him attractive, but Ray was going to capture the real Fraser.
The day after Fraser's ill-considered disposal of what Ray would call his pornography collection—a term Fraser found distasteful not least because he was increasingly unable to deny its aptness—started badly.
He'd slept fitfully, probably due to the residual smoke.
Dief was full of smug good-humor and refused to explain why.
When they left for their morning run, there was a torn piece of paper wedged between Fraser's door and the jamb that said, "To Constable Pyro! Go back to Canada!"
"It's understandable," Fraser told Dief. "I did endanger their homes." As he followed Dief down the stairs, his attempts to greet their neighbors were met with stony silence and suspicion.
And when they returned an hour later, there was another note waiting. Fraser took it, wincing in anticipation, but this one was in Ray's messy scrawl. It said simply: "My place, 10AM." It was accompanied by a Polaroid photograph. It was out of focus, but there was no mistaking the dark red smudge of longjohns. The subject was unquestionably Fraser in bed, asleep.
Fraser showered quickly, indignation growing every time he thought about the photograph. He dressed in jeans and a Henley and went upstairs to see Ray, too impatient to wait the sixteen and a half minutes until ten o'clock. There was no answer when he knocked, and the door wasn't locked, so he let himself in. "Ray?"
Ray didn't reply, and when Fraser entered, he heard the shower running.
He hadn't been here in weeks—they'd spent all their time at Fraser's place. Ray's apartment was tidy and oddly sterile. It felt unlived in. Fraser quashed a pang and went to get a glass of water.
He stopped dead in the middle of the kitchen floor. Stuck to the refrigerator with a scattering of Ray's green four-leaf-clover magnets were another half-dozen photographs of Fraser sleeping, his face a ghostly smudge.
One on its own had been outrageous, but this array—intimate and invasive—against the stark surface of the refrigerator door was unbearable. Ray had seen him—his pictures and his body, both laid out before him. Well, no more!
The Ray who had done this—had willfully spied on him—was not the Ray of his private thoughts. They might as well be entirely different people, a wave and a particle, irreconcilable.
There was a noise from behind him, a throat-clearing, and Fraser belatedly registered that the shower had stopped running and there was a distinctive scent of shampoo and aftershave in the air.
The duality collapsed and there was just Ray, his partner, his friend, admired and desired, fallible but principled nonetheless. Ray, who must have a reason, however misguided. But why? wasn't the question that escaped Fraser. "When did you—?" he asked without looking around.
"Last night." Ray's voice was guarded, careful.
Fraser wondered if they'd reached the end of their partnership, if this was how it would end. "From the fire escape," he said, and allowed himself to turn, Ray was bare-chested, barefoot, wearing only worn gray sweatpants. He'd shaved and he smelled of soap.
"You're early," he said, in reply to Fraser's silent regard.
Fraser shook his head, brushing that aside, and held up the photograph Ray had left on his door. "Spying on me, Ray?"
Ray grabbed the roll of art paper from the kitchen counter and pointed it at him. "Oh, so it's okay for the goose to gander but not the other way around, is that it?"
Fraser frowned at the roll, his face heating. "How did you get that? I burned them all."
"Special wolf delivery service." Ray unrolled it and studied the drawing, raising his eyebrows pointedly. "If this is what you want, you're gonna be damned disappointed."
Fraser met his gaze. "Never." And then the full import of Ray's words hit him. "But you—"
"What?" Ray's body was poised for action, his attitude fierce. He was an eagle. Fraser almost took a step back.
Ray had retracted the revelation about his sexual preferences as soon as he'd made it. Fraser had been so used to hiding—his feelings, his pictures, his self—he'd barely questioned that. "You said it was a joke," he reminded Ray now, feeling breathless.
"I was covering." Ray pointed. "Don't tell me you didn't know that."
"But I—" He gaze flicked from the drawing to the photos. "You—We both—"
"Bingo," said Ray with some satisfaction.
"If we can't respect each other's privacy—two wrongs don't make a right, Ray," said Fraser crossly. It was typical of Ray not to see that—to lower himself to Fraser's level merely so they could be equal. That was no basis for anything good.
As if to prove his point, Ray moved closer. "We didn't hurt anyone, Fraser. There's no harm in wanting."
Fraser's breath caught at Ray's proximity, at his certainty.
"The question now is—is that enough? You just want to look, you just want to think about touching, or actually you want to touch me? Taste me? That's what it comes down to, here and now."
For a moment, Fraser could only long for the safety of art and fantasies. The Ray in the picture had never challenged him, had never demanded anything but secrecy. The Ray in the picture, then, Fraser's logic supplied, was evidently not Ray. To choose a fantasy over reality would be an act of shameful cowardice, and yet to engage with Ray—the real Ray—
Vertigo shook him. Through the haze he saw Ray's face, love and doubt and fear like fleeting shadows, and the decision was made. If Ray was prepared to lower himself to Fraser's level vis-Ó-vis the pictures, Fraser would certainly rise to Ray's exalted heights of courage. "I want," he said, the words a wrecking ball, breaking down walls, setting his feelings free—He started to shake. "I want you."
The next moment Ray was upon him, solid and alive, hot and yes, demanding, his mouth a crucible, a blessing. Fraser's shame burned to ash, and there was only Ray.
The bed was rumpled and yielding, the sheets soft. It had been a long time since Fraser had let anyone close to him like this, and he was light-headed from Ray's touch, the feverish press of his mouth.
He stripped his Henley over his head, and Ray's hands were back on him before it hit the floor, smoothing down his sides, across his back. Fraser slid his hand into Ray's hair and brought Ray's mouth to his and kissed him deeply, showing him the depths of his desire. Ray met him measure for measure, and Fraser wondered why on earth he'd been fool enough not to ask for this sooner.
The window was ajar, and fresh air and sunlight teased his skin, bringing him alive. It felt utterly decadent to be doing this in the middle of the day with the curtains opened. Fraser groaned with pleasure and rolled Ray onto his back so he could lean over him, taking full advantage, learning Ray's body with his hands and mouth.
He delved inside Ray's sweats and cupped his rear, pulling him bodily closer, and Ray gasped, hooking his leg around Fraser's calf, hitching up against him. "Oh God, oh God, Frase—"
The urgency in his voice left no room for thought or delay. Fraser closed his mouth over Ray's adam's apple, tasting the vibrations, and pushed Ray's sweatpants out of the way, grasped his hot, thick erection and watched him respond, vibrant and in motion and nothing at all like the drawings Fraser had made. Ray bit his lip and thrust into Fraser's hand, grabbing his shoulder for leverage, digging his heels into the mattress, and then scrabbling at the fastenings on Fraser's jeans. "Have got to get you out of these."
Fraser obliged, skinning out of his clothes in haste. He returned to Ray's arms at once, bent his head to lick his skin, his nipple, collarbone, belly. Painting him with his tongue, exploring the dips and curves and strength of him. He caught Ray's wrist and pinned it beside his head, held him down and stroked his cock, regular and steady.
"Oh, Jesus!" Ray twisted his head to the side, making the muscles of his neck stand out, gleaming with sweat. "Fuck!"
The curse brought with it an array of images, flashes of old memories, vivid possibilities, and Fraser thrust against Ray's hip and brought his mouth as near to Ray's ear as he could manage. "Yes. God, yes. Fuck."
Ray's breathing accelerated. His hips jerked forward, his erection straining in Fraser's hand, and he squeezed Fraser's shoulder too tightly, but the pain was almost sweet, arcing through Fraser like lightning and setting him off, deep pulses wringing him from the inside out, with Ray right there holding him, turning his world on its head and everything in it into disarray.
Ray was still hard, still moving. They kissed messily, gasping into each other's mouths, until Fraser pulled back and looked at the flushed, sweaty face gazing up at him.
"Stay there," he said, and moved down the bed, laughing when Ray smacked his shoulder. He took Ray's erection in his mouth and sucked him gently, sliding his lips up and down Ray's length, savoring his bitter taste, flooded with an excitement beyond orgasms or even sex. To be naked and intimate with someone again, to have nothing to hide.
He fondled Ray's balls, the skin soft and vulnerable, and redoubled his efforts. Ray cursed, his fingers clenching in the sheets as if he were trying to stop himself from falling. It was wild and wonderful, and far too soon Ray stiffened, his body taut as wire. His cock pulsed on Fraser's tongue.
Fraser swallowed eagerly and let him slip from his mouth. He nuzzled the hair at the base of Ray's cock, breathing in the warm musk scent of sex and skin, and then worked his way up the bed again and found Ray flushed, his arms flung above his head, eyes heavy.
Fraser kissed him luxuriously and then collapsed next to him, and they grinned at each other like fools.
"There's leftover chow mein from The Magic Wok, three carrots, a cauliflower that's past its best and two little packets of pickled ginger, or—" Ray left the fridge and went to the cupboard. "—uh, a can of chicken soup." He was wearing only shorts, and Fraser studied him openly, admiring the shift of muscles in his back and thighs.
"Perhaps—" Fraser picked out a couple of takeout menus from the pile of junkmail on Ray's breakfast bar.
Ray bit him gently on the shoulder. "Good thinking. Might save me from gnawing your leg off."
"I doubt you'd get the chance," said Fraser.
"What, you think I can't take you?" Ray angled his head and gave him a wicked look. "I know some dirty tricks."
"It's more that I suspect you'd get, ah, waylaid," Fraser told him, straight-faced. Only the need for nourishment prevented him from dragging Ray back to bed and proving his point.
Ray breathed a laugh. "I'm not the only one, Mr. Distraction. So—pizza, Thai, Indian or Chinese?"
"Your call." Fraser handed him the phone and went over to the fridge, still adorned with Polaroid photographs. He took them down, one by one, and re-arranged the magnets to suit himself. "I think you've made your point."
Ray was too busy ordering Thom Yum and Chicken Pad Thai to reply.
Fraser stacked the photos into a neat pile next to the coffeemaker, then hesitated. The refrigerator was too bare now, despite the shamrocks. On a whim, he put one of the Polaroids back, pinning it to the refrigerator door with half a dozen magnets.
"That tickles." Ray tried not to squirm. Outside, morning rain lashed the windows, turning the light cold and gray, but it was warm in Ray's bedroom.
Fraser smiled without looking up. "I told you stomachs are more sensitive than backs. It's not too late."
"No way." Ray reached out and mussed up Fraser's hair. "I want to watch."
Fraser gave up on the green chalk pastel he was using and crumbled some soft dark charcoal between his fingertips. That worked better, leaving smudgy streaks on Ray's skin, which made Fraser nod in satisfaction.
The faint trail of his fingers was turning Ray on. "Gonna be much longer?"
"Patience," said Fraser, and left fingerprints down Ray's thigh, rubbing Ray's dick with his wrist in the process.
Ray's breath caught. "Don't try to tell me that was an accident."
"Okay, Ray." Ray could hear his smile.
"You Canadians got a weird idea of foreplay," Ray told him. "You finish this, take a photo, and then I'm gonna blow you."
"Is that so?" Fraser was trying to sound like he wasn't listening, but Ray knew better. A week of spending every second together, waking and sleeping, and Ray was even more in tune with Fraser's tricks that he had been when they were just work-type partners. Fraser was always teasing, so deadpan that Ray had to stop and figure it out half the time.
Of course, Ray had some tricks of his own. "Can't wait," he said now. "Can't wait to hold you down and lick your skin, blow across the wet patches and suck you, taste you—"
"Ray." Fraser looked up at him with a grave face. "Are you by any chance trying to sidetrack me?"
A Wednesday night, snow falling in swirls outside. Ray was bundled up in a thick sweater and wearing a pair of Fraser's thick wooly socks. They were in Ray's apartment repairing a shattered ghetto blaster for a guy called Jerome. Ray re-wired and re-soldered the connections while Fraser carefully glued the casing back together.
Dief was watching Lassie re-runs on TV.
"You know, my pictures weren't really pornography, Ray," Fraser said out of nowhere.
Ray smiled to himself. "Whatever you say, Fraser."
Fraser put down the glue and frowned at him. "I'm serious. They were works of art. I'm aware their quality was far from perfect, and they were admittedly erotic, but they were never intended as pornography."
Ray soldered one more spot, then put down the soldering iron and picked up a flathead screwdriver. "You ever jerk off to them?"
"No!" Ray was pretty sure that had to be a lie, but he nodded anyway. Maybe Fraser had a different definition of 'jerking off to them'.
"You ever want to? You ever pretend like those people are yours, like they're real?"
"They are real." Fraser sounded stubborn. Ray would've bet turkeys he was pressing his lips together, but he didn't look to see. There were times to give The Fraser his space, and this moment was one of them.
But if they were going to have this conversation, then Ray was determined to make his point. "You know what I mean. You ever put yourself in the picture, imagine they're laid out like that just for you? That you can do whatever you want with them?" He took off his glasses and looked Fraser in the eye.
Fraser locked gazes with him, his color rising. "Only once."
"There you go." Ray hoped like hell that once had been him, but even if it wasn't, it didn't matter.
"But—" Fraser stopped, apparently stumped. Ray watched as the wheels turned and clicked into place, and stubborn slowly gave way to stricken. "Oh."
Ray checked that the soldering iron was off, pushed back his chair and went to straddle Fraser's lap. He took the stereo casing out of Fraser's hand and put it carefully on the table to dry, and then he stooped and kissed Fraser on the forehead, just below his hairline. "It's okay, Fraser. Some people think porn's the road to moral bankruptcy and decay. Me, I figure if you ain't hurting anyone, where's the problem? It's only natural."
Fraser's hands dug tight into Ray's hips through his jeans. "It's an exploitative industry," he said. "Ray."
The last was nearly a moan. Ray bit his lip to stay on track. "Yeah, it is," he allowed. "Some people get burned by it, fucked up, used up, spat out. But that's got nothing to do with your pictures. You're okay."
Fraser nuzzled his neck, inhaling so deep that Ray felt the cool rush of air. "Thanks, Ray. I've never really—"
"Mmmm?" Fraser's thighs tightened under Ray and he shifted forward, hoping for some action.
"—seen pornography," Fraser continued. "The commercial variety, that is. So it didn't occur to me that—"
Ray kissed him, only partly to shut him up. Fraser's mouth was a miracle, full and lush, and Ray started tugging at his undershirt, trying to get to all that pale hot skin he knew was hiding under there.
After a delay like on a long distance phone call, Fraser's words sunk into Ray's thick skull. "Never?" he asked, leaning back to look at Fraser and check he wasn't joking.
"Not once," said Fraser. "Come here." He tried to pull Ray close again, grabbed Ray's hand and held it against his dick, but Ray was trying to get his head around the idea that Fraser—a full grown adult male who, it turned out, was not asexual didn't-even-think-about-sex after all, far from it—had never looked at a dirty magazine. That was—that was Fraser all over.
"I've got some," Ray blurted out.
Fraser's expression didn't change, but Ray could still feel disappointment dropping the temperature.
"Not recent stuff," he added hastily. "Old, old, dusty—from before Stella and me called it quits, even."
The warmth got dialed back up, and Fraser's voice deepened. "Come to bed."
"No, no, I want to show you. I mean, you oughta—" Ray searched for the right reason, the right words, but all he had was, "I want to see your face, see you looking at dirty pictures, maybe suck you while you look at them."
Fraser stood up under him, bringing them both to their feet. They staggered a step sideways, then found their balance in the small space between chair and table. Ray squeezed him tight and kissed him hard, and if the table hadn't been covered in junk, he would've pulled Fraser on top of him and done him then and there.
"Okay," said Fraser. "If that's what you want."
For a second, Ray thought he was talking about the table, but then Ray caught up with the program. "Good. Uh, cool."
They went to the bedroom and Ray dug a battered box out from under the bed. He brushed it off with his hand and put it on the covers, trying to remember what was in there, suddenly self-conscious. He knew there were a couple of videotapes and some copies of Playboy and Penthouse from the early nineties. He couldn't remember the last time he'd looked at them. "Go for it."
Fraser lifted the lid like there might be a nest of snakes inside.
Yeah, half a dozen magazines and two tapes. It was pathetic, and Ray was glad Fraser had already seen him at his worst and loved him anyway. "This is—we can forget it."
He went to close the box, but Fraser stopped him. "May I?"
So Ray sat back as Fraser took out a couple of magazines, yellow with time, and flicked through them.
It wasn't hot—Fraser had that crease between his eyebrows he got when he was politely curious about strange American customs—but it was still intimate. At least, it was until Ray realized Fraser was actually reading the articles.
"Fraser!" Ray tore the Playboy out of his hands and threw it on the floor, quickly followed by the rest of the box. Then he pushed Fraser back onto the bed and crawled on top of him. "You are a freak."
Fraser grinned up at him and trailed his fingers over Ray's belly.
"Move in with me," said Ray.
Fraser's eyes widened and the world spun and the next thing Ray knew, there was a Canadian on top of him. "Yeah. Okay. Yes."
"Good," said Ray, stretching to peel off his socks. "Now shut up and fuck me."
Fraser hefted the large flat rectangular parcel Inspector Thatcher had given him. "You don't have to open it now," she'd said hastily when he went to peel back the tape with an outward show of gratitude and inner foreboding. If the Inspector had given him a portrait of Her Majesty, however artistically rendered, he was sure he'd never hear the end of it from Ray or Dief.
Dief led the way up the stairs, paused on the second floor, apparently contemplating whether to visit his new friend, Humphrey the landlord, but decided better of it.
"You just want to see me unwrap the Inspector's gift so you can laugh at me," Fraser told him. "Don't bother trying to deny it."
Dief shook himself vigorously and said he wouldn't dream of denying it.
They reached their own front door, freshly painted serge red, and Fraser propped the painting against the wall so he could extract his door key from his hat and let them in.
Ray was fixing a toaster by the light of the charred elephant lamp. Fraser had given away most of the appliances they'd repaired together to his neighbors in their old building, hoping in some small way to compensate for the fire and to appease their anger. But Ray had insisted on keeping the elephant lamp. When Fraser had questioned him, he'd said, "So I got proof I'm not the only one who screws up sometimes."
Fraser put down the painting, hung up his hat and coat, and shut the front door. Then he went over and gave Ray a lingering kiss hello, and raised his eyebrows at the toaster in silent query.
"Humphrey's," said Ray. "And Jasmine asked us to look at her table later. Wobbly leg. She wanted to pay, so I told her to make a donation to a charity."
Fraser nodded approvingly.
"What's that?" Ray pointed with his pliers.
"Inspector Thatcher gave us a housewarming present," said Fraser, grimacing. "I believe it's some kind of peace offering. She's been spending a lot of time with the new Japanese Ambassador and she keeps talking about 'acquiring Zen'."
"This should be good." Ray leaned back in his chair and stretched his neck out. "You opened it yet?"
"No, I'm afraid to," Fraser told him. "Please feel free." And he went through to their bedroom to change out of his uniform.
The phone rang in the other room just as Fraser was pulling on his sweater, and a few seconds later Ray came in and gave him the handset. "Frannie," he said. "She wants to talk to you, big surprise."
Fraser took it with some trepidation. "Hello?"
"Hi, Fraser." Francesca sounded as if she'd been drinking and Fraser remembered her mentioning something about a girls' night at the local bar. "It's so weird you having a phone after all this time. You want to go to the movies on Friday?"
"Ah." Fraser caught Ray's smirk out of the corner of his eye and turned away so he could give Francesca the respect and privacy she deserved. "I'm afraid Ray and I already have plans."
There was a long silence, and then Francesca sighed. "Huh. Kim said you guys were—you know. Happy. I thought she was blowing it out of her mule."
"Happy?" As was usual with Francesca, Fraser found the conversation eluding him.
"You know. Happy with each other," Francesca said meaningfully.
"Ah." Fraser wondered how Ray would feel about most of the 2-7 knowing their business. The more Fraser thought about it, the better he felt, particularly since Francesca had mentioned the beautiful Ms. Lovell. "Yes," he said boldly. "Yes, we are."
"Yeah." She blew a loud sigh in his ear, and took an audible swallow of something liquid. "So, uh. Can I ask you something?"
Fraser was inclined to be generous. "Of course, Francesca. By all means."
"Are you the man or the woman?"
Fraser's eyebrows flew up his forehead. "I, ah." He sat down on the edge of the bed, stumped, but fairly sure that if for some bizarre reason Ray were given the choice, he'd want to be the man. And given that Fraser was in no way prepared to enter into a discussion with his best friend's sister about the particular dynamics of his and Ray's relationship, in the interests of expedience and taking into account his having cross-dressed in the line of duty, he answered hypothetically. "I'm the woman," he said, cautiously. "Relatively speaking, that is."
"That's what Kim said!" Francesca sounded inexplicably relieved by this news. "So I guess that's why it never would have worked out with us, anyway."
"With you and Ms. Lovell?" It was possible that Fraser's eyebrows had become permanently attached to his hairline.
"With you and me, dingbat. Why didn't you tell me?" Francesca was apparently already well on her way to treating him like another substitute brother. A habitual weight lifted from Fraser's shoulders.
"Anyway," said Francesca, "Ma said to invite the two of you to Sunday dinner, so we'll see you then." She hung up.
Fraser stared at the phone in his hand. How peculiar. And then Ray took it off him and poked him in the chest with it. "Let me guess—she asked you out."
"I think those days are over," said Fraser, feeling far more kindly toward Kim Lovell than he had previously. "Also, our presence is requested at the Vecchio household on Sunday."
Ray eyed him suspiciously, apparently deducing the whole story from his reaction. "She knows?"
"It seems as if everyone knows." Fraser stood up and kissed him. "Is that all right?"
Ray tilted his head and blinked owlishly. "You kidding me? So long as I'm not the one who has to tell them, the whole world can find out for all I care. Take out a page in the Trib if you want."
Fraser smiled. "I think at this stage that would be redundant. Anyway—" He took Ray by the wrist and led him back to the living room. "We have a present to unwrap."
"After you," said Ray, gesturing grandly.
Fraser nodded and peeled off the thick brown wrapping paper, and then sat back on his heels. "Oh dear."
It was worse than he'd feared: a sallow print of a Japanese nude, complete with kraken-style tentacles.
Ray let out a whoop of laughter. "She really hasn't figured it out, has she?"
Fraser couldn't tear his eyes away from the sickly green background—or the wide-eyed expression of the woman wrapped in giant suckered coils.
"Hoo, boy!" Ray gasped for breath. "She wants you bad." He came up behind Fraser and Fraser leaned back against his legs.
"He's right, son," said Fraser's father from beside the skeletal elephant lamp. "There's a woman not afraid to send a signal—even if she does mix 'em. No doubt at all she's hoping for a taste of your apple."
"Even if that were true," said Fraser firmly, "she can't have me. I'm taken."
"You bet your brass buttons you are," said Ray, nudging forward with his knees.
Fraser went back to contemplating the horror of the painting. "You know, if I turned her into a mermaid, it's possible that Turnbull might be willing to house it."
Ray crouched down behind him and slid his fingers into Fraser's hair, sliding his thumbs up and down the back of Fraser's neck. "That's the ticket," he murmured approvingly. "I'll fix the toaster, you fix the painting. And when we're done—" His voice went soft and warm. "When we're done, we can fix each other."