Thanks: Many thanks to sage and morebliss for beta, and mergatrude for cheerleading
Notes: For the Refusal challenge on ds_flashfiction
Friday night and Ray's apartment was full of junk. He'd been going through the motions for weeks — maybe months — and it was time to start cleaning up after himself. The little Stella voice in his head had gone past exasperated and into outright disgust, and the little Fraser voice wasn't even sticking up for him anymore.
He rolled up three dead pizza boxes, shoved them into the half-full trash bag and dragged the bag over to the fridge, where he emptied a couple of weeks' worth of leftovers and unidentifiable food objects into the bag, leaving the fridge bare except for three jars of pickles, a few cans of beer, and some milk that didn't smell bad yet.
The bright emptiness of the fridge was better than gross food that only a starving wolf would eat.
Old chow mein had splattered Tony's pizza logo, and mac'n'cheese oozed through a gash in the plastic made by the corner of one of the boxes. Ray grabbed an old utility bill from the counter and slid it down the inside of the bag to block the tear, wiped the ooze off the outside of the bag with his thumb and flicked it into the sink, then tied the bag closed.
He grabbed his keys from the counter and pulled open his apartment door, and somehow managed not to react to the fact that Vecchio was standing halfway down the hall, leaning against the wall where the paint was flaking next to Mrs. Gremoli's front door. He was wearing a grape-colored sweater, his coat was draped over his arm and his hands were shoved in his pockets. He was frowning at the dirty grey carpet in front of his feet.
Ray left his apartment door open, hefted the bag and carried it past Vecchio. "Hey." And kept walking.
Vecchio didn't answer. Maybe he'd fallen asleep on his feet. It'd been a helluva week.
It wasn't till Ray let the lid of the dumpster slap shut and absent-mindedly wiped his hands on his jeans that he noticed he had orange goop smeared down his thigh. "Shit."
He leaned on the dumpster under the stars for a minute and let himself speculate about Vecchio — what he was doing here, whether he'd woken up and made himself at home in Ray's apartment yet. They'd been partnered up for nearly a month now, thanks to Welsh's not-funny sense of humor, and they were getting on okay, considering. Learning to work together, starting to get a rhythm going. Earning each other's respect. It wasn't like working with Fraser, but although working with Fraser had been a blast it had also made Ray nuts half the time, so Ray figured that was okay.
On the other mitt, Ray was pretty sure that working with him wasn't like working with Fraser either, and maybe Vecchio had got more of a kick out of rescuing waifs and strays and nearly dying every second day than Ray had. Maybe Vecchio was here to say it wasn't working out, they should cut their losses now. That would suck.
Or maybe Vecchio was here about that other thing. Ray broke his thoughts off right there, stretched his neck out and went back inside.
Vecchio hadn't moved.
"Hey," said Ray again, and walked past, expecting him to follow. When he didn't, Ray turned. "You want something?"
Vecchio glanced up, blinked, shook his head, and looked back down at the carpet.
Ray studied him for a minute, then shrugged and went inside, leaving the door ajar. You couldn't make a horse drink water — Vecchio would come inside when he was ready. Ray washed his hands, got two beers out of the fridge, put one on the coffee table and opened the other, and collapsed on the couch to watch Jeopardy!
When the credits rolled twenty minutes later, Ray wasn't any the wiser about the capital of Lithuania, the beer was all gone, and Vecchio still hadn't come inside. Ray went and leaned in the doorway. He hadn't moved. It was like Ray's landlady had bought a Vecchio statue out of the blue and installed it on his floor.
Ray's gut did a weird twisty thing, but he ignored it and went to get another bottle of beer. It wasn't like Vecchio to keep his mouth shut for more than a minute — something must be up. Ray opened the beer, took it out to the hall and tried to hand it to him.
Vecchio glanced up, startled. "Uh, thanks." His hands stayed in his pockets. "I'm good."
So Ray leaned against the wall opposite and took a swallow of beer. "Uh-huh." Vecchio looked thin and tired. His Florida tan was long since faded, and the stubbly hair around his temples was going gray. It looked good on him.
Vecchio's gaze flicked to the beer, then he looked away and flushed. "I should go."
"Your call," said Ray, determined to be casual, give the guy plenty of space. He stayed there another minute in case something was going to happen, and then shrugged and went back inside to fix himself some dinner. Pretended to his little Fraser voice that he wasn't distracted. Told his Stella voice to take a hike.
Half-way through heating the instant pasta sauce, he went back out into the hall. "Hungry?"
Vecchio shook his head.
This was weird. Ray took a breath. "Listen, this isn't because I, uh—" He scratched the back of his neck. "You know." Touched your knee, he thought loudly, unable to make himself say it.
Vecchio's jaw tightened.
"Because, uh, that was an accident. I didn't— I just lost my balance, what with the shooting and the kid yelling at me and you yelling at me, I—"
"Shut up." But the grape sweater softened across the shoulders, and the crease between Vecchio's eyebrows eased a little.
Ray ducked his head, feeling stupid. "You want to come inside?"
Vecchio sucked his top lip between his teeth and let it out, shiny wet. He shook his head.
"Okay, well." Ray took another swallow of beer and thought, Screw this. "You know where to find me. If you want to." He took a step back towards his apartment door, realized he was backing away and turned on his heel, shut the door behind him with a soft thud.
The TV was playing a commercial for diet pills. Ray switched it off and stood in his bright, empty living room, feeling thrown. He braced his arms on the back of his couch — his old shabby couch that had seen him through Stella years and Fraser years and now the footloose and fancy free years of his late thirties — and let his head hang down and tried to get a grip, tried to figure out what was going on. But it was like he'd left half of himself out in the hall with Vecchio.
His little Fraser and Stella voices had both gone silent.
"Screw this," he said out loud. He straightened up and went to turn off the stove. He wasn't hungry anyway. In the dining area he took the pile of clean laundry from its chair and dumped it on the table, ignoring the pair of socks that escaped and fell behind the knee-high stack of old newspapers and boxing magazines on the floor. He picked up the vacated chair and the one next to it, and took them out into the hall. "Here."
Vecchio had moved a few feet closer, but he was standing in the same position, the same closed, tired expression on his face like he was fighting a losing battle with himself.
Ray set the chairs at right angles so they wouldn't have to look at each other, and pointed at Vecchio. "Sit."
Vecchio pushed off the wall and looked at him, and for a second Ray thought he was going to turn away and leave, but he didn't. He sighed and sat down.
Ray sat down next to him. The chairs were close enough together that their knees bumped, and Ray's gut clenched again and his mouth went dry, and he thought, Oh.
Vecchio didn't move his chair away. Neither did Ray. Ray rested his knee against Vecchio's, and rubbed at the mac'n'cheese stain on his jeans and tried not to swallow too loud, and waited for one of them to say something.
Minutes passed. Ray clamped down on his jitters and his impatience and forced himself to listen to Vecchio. Listen to his breathing and the rustle of his coat against his slacks when he shifted in his seat. Listen to the small talk he wasn't making, the fact he wasn't leaving. Listen to the pressure of his knee against Ray's. This was something Ray had learned from Fraser out on the ice fields, how to see what wasn't there, to hear the silences. It was like negative space in a painting.
But he could only listen for so long. And now his inner Stella and inner Fraser had stopped bitching at him and giving him sensible advice, he felt kind of light-headed. He took a breath with no idea what he was going to use it for and then—
The door to apartment 3B opened and Mrs. Montgomery came out in a brown suede coat with her shiny silver purse over her arm. She looked at Vecchio over the top of her glasses, then turned to Ray. "Detective Kowalski?"
"We're just—" Ray circled his hand in the air, at a loss. "Uh."
Vecchio stood up. "We're—"
"What is it, Maud?" said Mr. Montgomery peering over Mrs. Montgomery's shoulder.
"It's that nice young police officer from across the hall," she told him loudly. "He's got his dining chairs in the hallway."
"What's that for? Is there something wrong with his apartment?"
"I don't know, George," she said crisply. "Why don't you ask him yourself?"
Down the hall, Mrs. Gremoli stuck her head out her door and asked what was going on.
"Vecchio," said Ray under his breath.
Vecchio nodded, picked up his chair and took it into Ray's living room. Ray said good evening to his nosy neighbors, assured them that nothing was on fire, and followed, shutting the door behind him and leaning on it with a sigh of relief.
"If you need to corroborate an alibi for tonight, I think you just got that covered," he told Vecchio, and lightly kicked the chair aside.
Vecchio shook his head, smiling faintly, and then got serious again. "You know, I don't get involved with other cops."
Ray looked up, startled, opened his mouth to say — something.
But Vecchio held up his hand. "Not with cops, especially not with my partner." He scrubbed his hand over his face. "Christ, you're not even Italian."
Ray took a step forward, backing him against the wall by the coat hooks. He looked at Vecchio's mouth, the lines around his eyes, his defiant gaze, and thought about the twist in his gut when their knees touched. Ray didn't know how they'd skipped from the conversation-free zone in the hallway to talking about dating in one small leap, but he was up for it. The world was full of strangers, but Vecchio wasn't one of them.
Ray couldn't admit that, though. Couldn't make this too easy, not when the stakes were this high. He moved in so they were inches apart and kept his voice light. "I don't know in what freakshow world you think you got a chance with me, Vecchio, but I've got three little words for you."
Vecchio's eyebrows went up, curious.
"Angie, Fraser, Stella." Ray punctuated the list with little jabs to Vecchio's sweater. "Cop, partner, not Italian."
Vecchio opened his mouth, then snapped it shut again. "Fine. You're right." He grabbed Ray's finger before it could poke him in the chest again. "So shut up and come here."
Ray shook his head. "Nuh-huh. Nothing is going to happen here. In fact—" He pulled his hand free and folded his arms, trying to convince himself, torn between wanting it and knowing how complicated it could get with their shared and overlapping history. "—I am going to take this weirdass opportunity to demonstrate that there is zero, zip, niente between us. You ready?"
"Sure." Vecchio leaned back against the wall, watching him. "Be my guest. I just spent forty-five minutes trying to talk myself out of it. Show me what you've got."
Ray stuck his chin out, annoyed. The last thing he needed was yet another relationship with someone who didn't really want to be there. "See, nothing is going to happen with us because you and me, we don't spark like that. There's no chemistry. And I can prove it." He kept his arms crossed and leaned forward, breathing in Vecchio's aftershave, the smell of coffee and woodsmoke, and he pressed his mouth to Vecchio's in what was supposed to be a short, casual, making-a-point kind of kiss. Except that once he got his lips on Vecchio's, he found out he didn't want to stop.
Vecchio's hands came up slowly and gripped his shoulders, pulling him closer, and Ray went with it, opened his mouth and let Vecchio's tongue in. Ray's blood started singing in his veins, his nerve-endings prickled like sparks from a campfire whirling into the sky. He clenched his fists and hugged himself tight to keep from grabbing the guy and tearing his clothes off. Not doing this, he thought. Stupid.
He pulled back slowly, breathing hard, and his pulse kicked at Vecchio's flushed face, his full parted lips. Ray's head was quiet — no little voice except his own — and his apartment wasn't empty anymore. It felt warm and alive. "See?" said Ray unsteadily. "Nothing."
Vecchio huffed a laugh. "Right." His thumb brushed down Ray's neck, a gentle touch that made Ray shiver, and Vecchio's humor ebbed. "Okay," he said and pulled Ray close and kissed him again.