Fraser dumped the fat shiny bag of garbage into the trashcan and closed the lid, and then stood in the yard for a moment, enjoying the golden glow of dusk, the sounds of children playing in the neighborhood, and the strong scents of rosemary, lemon thyme, and freshly turned earth that rose up from Mrs. Vecchio's herb garden. It was early summer, still cool enough that Fraser could appreciate the evenings rather than craving the relief of an air-conditioned room.
Behind him, in the kitchen, Maria was complaining about the quality of fresh produce at the corner store as she and Ray finished up the dishes, while upstairs Fraser knew that Ray and Mrs. Vecchio were marshalling the children into bed and no doubt discussing the financial upkeep of the house. Tony and Diefenbaker were watching a fight on the television in the living room.
It was pleasant to have this moment's peace, away from the bustle and attention. The Vecchio household was warm and welcoming, and Fraser enjoyed his occasional visits greatly — they gave him a glimpse of what intergenerational family life could be — but his tolerance for chaos was waning as he got older. He smiled to himself. Or perhaps he now exhausted that tolerance at home, and so had less for the outside world.
The kitchen door opened and Fraser turned to see Francesca coming down the stairs, her belly large and her hand pressed against the small of her back. In recent months, she'd seemed to grow increasingly peaceful and happy with the world, and in the soft evening Fraser felt none of the need to escape that he'd used to associate with her.
She leaned on the fence and turned her face to the sky. "Wow, it's a beautiful night."
"Yes, it is." The sky was muted peach and apricot. Soon he and Ray and Ray would head home to their shared apartment, and sprawl in their own sitting room, exchanging gossip and observations. And then they'd all go to bed, where Ray and Ray would give him an entirely different kind of welcome from that proffered by Mrs. Vecchio and her family. Tension eased from Fraser's shoulders at the prospect.
"So," said Francesca, letting the word hang in the air for a moment, "I don't get it."
He raised his eyebrows. "I'm sorry?"
"What you see in my brother," she said, her tone deceptively casual. "You could have anyone. Why Ray?"
Fraser froze for a second, and then forced himself to relax and meet her eye. "How— How did you know?"
"Oh, please!" She flapped her hand dismissively. "Kowalski's as smug as a bug in a rug, and my brother can't keep his eyes off either of you. It's tattooed all over his face."
"Ah," said Fraser, buying time. He looked around automatically to make sure no one could overhear them: he'd spent months exercising discretion during these visits at Ray's request, and it had become habitual. "Does— do you think your mother's noticed?"
Francesca shrugged that aside. "It wouldn't occur to her in a million years. So, yeah, okay, I can sort of understand why you'd go for Kowalski. He's not repulsive, and he treats you nice when he's not arguing you to death. Plus he's got good teeth. But what on earth do you see in Ray?"
Fraser opened his mouth and then shut it again. It was an innocent enough question, he was sure, but he had no idea how to answer it appropriately. He could hardly tell Francesca that her brother's sarcastic front hid a sly humor and sexiness that only those closest to him ever witnessed. That he was as generous with his casual caresses and kisses as he was in love-making. That the way Ray's suits fit his lean powerful body attracted Fraser as surely as Ray Kowalski's more casual style and grace. That Fraser loved watching them together, the mutual affection and teasing, even their bickering. That Ray's smile, or just a simple slanted glance from him could set Fraser's pulse racing in anticipation. That Ray and Fraser shared a bond that was different from but equally as important as the partnership Fraser had built with his other Ray. Fraser could no longer imagine life without the two of them: they all fit together, they all complemented each other. Their mutual passion was tangled and complicated and improbable, but it called to Fraser's heart with an insistence that would not be denied.
Francesca was watching the fading sky, waiting for his answer.
He cleared his throat. "He— that is—" He clasped his hands behind his back, and settled into the familiar stance of parade rest. "I— Well, I love him. And he has the most loyal generous heart of anyone I know."
Fraser fully expected Francesca to laugh at this assertion, but she didn't. Instead her smile widened, and she patted him briefly on the arm. "Yeah, he does," she said. "I just wanted to make sure that you knew that. You take care of my brother, okay, or you'll have me to answer to."
Fraser swallowed back gratitude. Perhaps they couldn't ask for Ray's mother's blessing, but here was Ray's sister, offering hers freely. "I'll do my best," he told her. "Thank you."
"Yeah, well, you missed out on me," she said, winking up at him. "So I guess my brother's the next best thing." She rubbed her belly absently, and took Fraser's arm. "Come on, the coffee's ready."
Fraser glanced at the house, where light shone from the kitchen and dining room windows. Ray Kowalski was standing silhouetted in the dining room now, gesturing expressively with his hands. "Yes, of course," said Fraser, and escorted Francesca inside, where their extended family was waiting.