Thanks: Many many thanks to sage and mergatrude for beta
Notes: For sprat, for DS Seekrit Santa 2006
"Ray, why don't you take this delivery," said Tony one night when the phone at the Pizzeria had been ringing off the hook. Ray'd been hanging around since he got back from Canada a couple of months ago, mostly just slouching on the stool by the counter, drinking coffee before six, beer after, and watching the world go by from his own personal cloud of misery.
It was only a quarter past six now and he was only halfway through his first glass of Coors, so he figured he was safe to drive. He had nothing better to do. He shrugged and took the stack of steaming boxes from Tony. "Okay."
In the car, with the streetlights just come on and the wrapped up people hurrying along the pavements to their respective homes, he figured yeah. He wasn't ready to go back to the force just yet and pizza delivery, that was a good springboard career. It'd set him up. People didn't stay pizza drivers for the rest of their lives — even Sandor had moved on. And for now, well, he could use a sense of purpose, no matter how lame.
The first guy said he'd ordered pepperoni, and refused to tip. The second guy was watching the game and it took five solid minutes of hammering on the door for him to even answer. Ray was starting to have second thoughts about the whole gig. The third place, a college girl answered, and it looked like she was in the middle of losing at strip poker with a bunch of her preppy young friends — Ray felt ancient.
And the fourth place, Ray walked into the middle of an armed standoff. On the one side was a guy in a suit who looked like a smarmy Al Pacino. He opened the door. He was tense and sweaty faced, and pointing a neat little Smith & Wesson at a greasy-haired, pointy-nosed punk with a 9mm.
"You order a pizza?" asked Ray, sizing up the situation and wishing like fuck he had his badge and his gun.
"Yeah," said smarmy Pacino guy, and thrust a twenty at him without taking his eyes off the punk. He snatched the pizza and tried to slam the door in Ray's face, but Ray stuck his foot out, bounced the door off his knee — oww! — and slipped inside.
"What's going on?" he asked casually, moving far enough away from Pacino guy that the punk couldn't cover them both.
"He stole my girl," whined the punk.
"Get the fuck out of here," Pacino guy snapped at Ray.
Ray ignored him. "What," he asked the punk, "he kidnapped her at gunpoint? Is she tied up around here someplace?"
"Get out!" yelled Pacino guy. "I'm calling the cops!"
"Good idea. You do that." Ray held up his hands to try and calm him down.
"He bought her jewelry and took her to the Ritz-Carlton," said the punk. "How'm I supposed to compete with that?"
The punk looked like he could barely afford a haircut. "You can't," said Ray, inching toward him — the punk was the looser cannon of the two. "But you know, it doesn't sound like she was really your girl in the first place if she let herself get stolen. You think blowing his head off is gonna get her back?"
The punk shrugged, but he didn't lower his gun. His eyes flicked back and forth between Ray and Pacino guy.
Ray kept his hands in the open and tried to keep calm, but his heart was pounding. Two loaded guns, tempers high — plenty of scope for a nasty accident. "Listen," he said soothingly, "I know how it feels. My ex-wife, she hooked up with this guy, all fancy suits and smooth talk. It hurts, right? But you can't just off the guy, believe me." He kept talking, took one more step and then he was within reach. Ray hoped to God that Pacino guy wouldn't do anything stupid. "Come on. You don't want to do this," he said, holding out his hand, straining to project confidence and reassurance. Trying to channel his inner Fraser. "Give me the gun."
The punk hesitated, and then his shoulders slumped in surrender and his arm came down —
Bang! A mirror exploded to Ray's left, glass crashing down. Ray instinctively leaped sideways, shoving the punk guy through the nearby doorway into the kitchen.
"What the fuck?" Ray yelled indignantly.
There was another gunshot, then another. Ray grabbed the gun from the punk, slammed his glasses on his face and stuck his head out of the doorway, scowling. Pacino guy was wild eyed, his gun shaking in his hands, and he was coming this way.
"You want me to take you?" snarled Ray. "Because I will take you right now if you don't drop your weapon and put your fucking hands in the air."
"You're only a fucking pizza guy," said Pacino guy, "and this is my house." And Bam! He blew a hole in the wall just by Ray's head, sending chips of plaster skittering across the parquet floor.
Ray shot the gun out of his hand, neat as you please, without even thinking.
Because this was Ray's life, the cops brought him to the 2-7. He sat in Interview One, staring at the wall where he and Fraser had found Guy Rankin and waiting for someone to take his statement. He was just a regular Joe, like everyone else. He was gonna give his statement and leave, nice and simple. He wasn't gonna talk to anyone he knew, he was not going to visit Welsh. This was a simple in–out operation.
The door opened and he looked over, expecting a fresh-faced rookie and — no fucking way.
"Kowalski?" said Vecchio, incredulously. "Stanley Kowalski? What the hell are you doing here?"
"It's Ray!" Ray was stunned. He leaned back in the wooden chair and lifted his chin, working hard to stay cool. "And what's it to you? Aren't you supposed to be living up large in Florida with my wife?"
Vecchio came in and shut the door behind him. "I guess she didn't tell you. It didn't work out." He raked his eyes over Ray. "Aren't you supposed to be in Canada?"
Ray glared at him for a long moment, forming and discarding answer after answer, and then gave in and said flatly, "It didn't work out."
Apparently that wasn't much of a surprise. Vecchio looked unexpectedly sympathetic, though. "And you're here because — ?"
"I live here. Chicago is my town. Are you telling me you have more right to be here than me?" Ray folded his arms tight across his chest.
Vecchio pulled out the chair across from Ray, but didn't sit down. "No, I mean, here." He pointed at the table.
"Oh." Ray felt stupid for a second and then shrugged it off and let the front legs of his chair thump to the floor. He rested his folded arms on the table. "I broke up a stand-off and made a couple of citizen's arrests. The uniforms brought me in for a statement — which I guess you're supposed to take down. Someone here has a sick twisted sense of humor."
"Arnott," said Vecchio, tilting his head in acknowledgement. "He's the worst station-house gossip since Frannie went on maternity leave. But wait, Brazendale said the pizza guy shot him."
Ray felt his face get hot, but he nodded, keeping his eyes on the familiar scarred wooden table. "I shot the gun he was firing at me out of his hand. Jesus, I had to disarm him somehow."
"You're delivering pizza now?" Jeez, if Vecchio's voice went any higher, he could be a dog whistle. He sat down and stared openly, and Ray stared right back and counted to ten. "You should've identified yourself," said Vecchio at last, an odd flush rising from his collar.
"As what — the pizza guy? They already knew that." This was the guy who'd swept Stella off her feet. This guy. Ray didn't know whether to thank him or punch him. In the end, he didn't do either — Vecchio looked sort of rumpled and tired. "I'm not a cop anymore," Ray told him. "I'm an ex-arctic explorer."
Vecchio sighed through his nose. "Okay, okay." He rubbed his face. "Let's get this over with — My shift's up at seven-thirty. Hang around and I'll buy you a drink."
It was Ray's turn to be thrown. "You'll do what? Since when?"
Vecchio showed his teeth. "Since I figure what with Stella and Fraser — you and me're practically family now."
Ray ignored the ache in his throat. He shook his head. "You're crazy." It was the understatement of the year.
Vecchio shrugged. "I'm not the one turning down free beer."
Ray wrote his statement and Vecchio read it over and they both signed it, and then Vecchio said he had to check on Brazendale and the punk. So Ray went and waited on the steps at the back of the station, under the streetlight, hoping no one he knew would see him and nearly leaving half a dozen times before Vecchio emerged, but each time letting his curiosity get the better of him.
He had his hands clasped behind his neck and was bumping his head repeatedly against the brick stationhouse wall when Vecchio came up behind him.
"You done?" Vecchio asked, a laugh in his voice.
Ray stopped and rested against the wall for a second. "Just about." But he rolled around and squinted at Vecchio, who didn't look mean and didn't look like he was trying to steal Ray's life out from under him this time. Which made sense, because Ray didn't have a damned thing left to steal. "Yeah, I'm done. Where're we going?"
Vecchio shrugged so that the turned-up collar of his thick winter coat brushed against his chin. "Louie's?"
"Nah," said Ray. "There'll be other cops — " He didn't explain how he was keeping a low profile, but from the graceful tilt of Vecchio head, it looked like he didn't have to.
"Mike's?" offered Vecchio.
"On the West Side?" Ray considered it. "Okay." He followed Vecchio over to a tan sedan — a pool car — and let him drive them there. "How's Frannie?" he asked, trying for neutral ground.
Vecchio snorted and started ranting about pregnant sisters and how they went into gross anatomical detail at the dinner table every damned night. Ray leaned back in his seat and grinned a little at the thought of Frannie's fierce energy being focused on some poor defenseless baby. It was weird, Vecchio talking to him like they were old friends, just catching up. Hell, they barely knew each other — but it seemed that they knew enough about each other that it almost didn't matter.
When Vecchio ran out of steam about Frannie, he started in on the rookies at the station and how Welsh kept threatening to demote them to traffic cops.
"Still playing the same old song," said Ray. "He should think up some new threats."
"He's an environmentalist — if the old ones are still working, he'll keep recycling them," retorted Vecchio, pulling into the parking lot.
Mike's was busy. Vecchio shoved through to the bar and bought two glasses of Goose Island Oatmeal Stout, and then they found a table at the back where it was quieter, and sat drinking in silence for a while. Ray realized he hadn't called in to Tony and that there were still three cold pizzas in his car back in the alley outside Pacino guy's apartment, but it was too late to worry about that now. He'd make good tomorrow.
Vecchio looked lost in his own private world, lost in his beer. He was studying the table like it had the meaning of life carved into the wood.
Ray shifted in his seat and leaned his elbows on the table. He rubbed the condensation off the outside of his beer glass with his thumb.
Then Vecchio looked up at him. "So, you came back."
Ray narrowed his eyes, expecting mockery or scorn, but he couldn't figure Vecchio's expression. He held eye contact. "You, too. Is Stella okay?"
Vecchio smiled, a sad smile that looked way too familiar. "Yeah," he said. "She met someone else as soon as we were through."
"Shit." Ray couldn't help feeling sorry for Vecchio. And worried about Stella. "Is he legit?"
"Yeah, I checked him out and he came up squeaky clean. He's an asshole, but — " Vecchio took another mouthful of his beer and shrugged philosophically.
"But that's her type," Ray said wryly.
Ray drank some more, too, and started to wish he'd snacked on some of that cold pizza. Vecchio's presence was bringing the whole Fraser fiasco way too close to the surface, and the beer-buzz wasn't helping, either.
And maybe Vecchio was psychic or something, because he chose that exact moment to ask, "How's Fraser?" pretending like it was casual when it was obvious the moment he said it that that was what he'd brought Ray here to ask. Cornered him in the back of the bar, filled his brain with beer and set the question on him like a bulldog.
For a second, Ray thought about throwing his beer glass at the wall, letting the hubbub around them screech to a shocked halt and walking out — but then he realized he had nowhere to walk to but a cold apartment and a cold car full of cold pizza, and just the thought of that — He slumped back in his seat and gave in, confessing everything. Haltingly at first. "Fraser's — It was — You know, when we were here we had a kind of balance. Not that we didn't have problems, but it worked. But in Canada — Jesus, in Canada Fraser was Super Mountie and I didn't have a single goddamned thing to fall back on." He lifted his gaze from his beer and rubbed his chin. "He drove me crazy."
"Yeah, well, Benton Fraser could drive a saint to drink." Vecchio let that lie for a minute, then grinned. "Not that I'm saying you're a saint, but Christ, do you have any idea how many cars he cost me?"
Ray felt something lighten in his chest. "He's like a walking disaster. He could walk into a convent and within five minutes there'd be a bomb or an armed hold-up — "
"Or an escaped zoo animal." Vecchio nodded. "Everywhere we went there was something. Did you know he tried to drown me in a bank vault one time?"
Ray snorted. "He tried to drown me on a boat." Vecchio frowned in confusion, so Ray explained, "It was sinking. I mean, he saved my life about a couple dozen times, too, but you know, I always had this feeling like if he was more careful — "
"If he would only carry a gun," Vecchio interjected.
"Yeah," said Ray. "Then maybe we wouldn't have had to save each other so many times." He paused and took a mouthful of beer to wash away the taste of disloyalty. Then he said like he was stepping off a cliff, "Plus there was that whole unrequited lust thing — "
It was the first time he'd admitted it to anyone but Fraser — and admitting it to Fraser hadn't exactly been a rousing success. This time there was something liberating about saying it out loud, like he could breathe easier when he wasn't carrying it around like a shameful secret.
Vecchio raised his eyebrows a little, but he didn't actually say anything.
Ray stumbled on. "And it's cold as hell up there. Just ice and ice and snow and snow — a hundred different ways to die of frostbite. I — Human beings can't live up there. Maybe polar bears and Mounties can make it, but — "
"You did the right thing, Kowalski," said Vecchio, and his rough Chicago voice sounded like honey. "You gotta be crazy to live up there."
"And if you're not crazy to start off with — " Ray sighed, deep and cleansing. The big picture was starting to come into focus. For the last couple of months, all he'd be able to see was a close up of the red serge.
"Yeah," said Vecchio, clunking his empty glass onto the table top. "Listen, I know what it's like."
"What?" Ray frowned. Had the conversation shifted while he'd been watching Vecchio roll the glass between the palms of his hands?
Vecchio put down the glass and rapped his knuckles on the table. "Pay attention, Einstein. I know what it's like to leave Fraser. It's — "
"It's just he's so — " Ray met Vecchio's gaze and then looked away quickly. " — Canadian."
Vecchio's lips twisted. "Straight," he translated.
"Yeah, straight as a screwdriver. How'd you know?'
Vecchio took the two glasses and stood up. Standing at the side of the table, he said, too casually, "He was my partner, too."
It took a moment for the penny to drop. Vecchio had wanted Fraser? Ray blinked up at him. "Huh."
"Yeah," said Vecchio, and went to get more beer. When he came back, Ray'd had time to get his ducks lined up. So when Vecchio sat down and said, "Don't spread it around," Ray nodded coolly.
"Not me. What about Stella?"
"Hey, I like women!" Vecchio loosened his tie. "Fraser was the only — " He sighed and rubbed the back of his head. "I guess everyone's got their exceptions that prove the rule."
"Except Fraser." Fraser was the exception to everything — to Ray's rule, to Vecchio's rule, to the Exception Rule. Fraser did not make sense. He was a law unto himself.
"It gets easier," Vecchio said, but the way he hunched his shoulders, the sadness lurking in his eyes, they said different.
Halfway through the second round, a kid brought them burgers and fries. Ray raised his eyebrows.
"I was hungry," said Vecchio. "So sue me." He picked up his burger. Melted cheese bulged out of it as he took a bite.
"Thanks," muttered Ray, wondering where all this was heading. The crazy idea that maybe this was a date occurred to him, but it was too whacked to even think about, which left — what? Friends? Ray watched Vecchio chew and swallow, and tried to imagine being friends with the guy who'd taken Stella away, with the guy who knew Fraser second best in the world (not counting the wolf). It was brainless. There was no way that couldn't hurt, wouldn't keep the wound raw and aching, and yet — there was something attractive — even comforting — about being understood, being known.
Ray picked up his burger and dug in, lured by the aroma of ketchup and fried meat. It tasted as good as it smelled.
Vecchio wiped some juice from the corner of his mouth with his napkin. "Well?"
Vecchio was flushed around his collar. "What's the verdict?"
"It's better than pizza." Ray gestured with his burger. "I'm sick to hell and back of pizza." Vecchio was still watching him. Huh, guess he wasn't talking about the food after all. Ray cocked his head and stuck his chin out. "Verdict? I dunno, Vecchio. Depends what the charges are."
"Twelve eighty-five apiece, plus tip," joked Vecchio, a glint in his eye replacing the sadness from earlier. Christ, Ray had been right the first time. This was a date or something like it and Vecchio was flirting with him. He lowered his gaze to his fries, then looked up and saw Vecchio watching him. They both knew it.
Ray teetered between pointing out how massively fucked up that was and seriously considering it, and ended up choking on his burger, because Jesus! Vecchio?
"You need the Heimlich maneuver?" asked Vecchio. "You want me to whack you on the back?"
Ray shook his head, coughed a couple more times and got himself together. The thought of Vecchio close up behind him with his arms tight under Ray's ribcage giving him the Heimlich maneuver was unsettling. He gave Vecchio a second look-over. Maybe —
Vecchio wasn't so bad. He had good lines, kind eyes and an ironic twist to his mouth that made Ray want to tease him. Plus he was weirdly sweet, buying Ray beer and burgers. It wasn't anything like what Ray had expected next, but Ray wasn't getting a lot of other offers. "So it would be like — a rebound thing?" he asked tentatively, wondering what the hell Vecchio was thinking.
Vecchio put his burger down and wiped his fingers. "Like something easy," he said. "No secret hopes and if onlys."
"Like an arranged marriage."
Vecchio huffed a laugh. "Yeah — only without the marriage."
Ray wondered if Vecchio knew he was rubbing the band of untanned skin on his ring finger. He snorted. "It'd drive Stella bugfuck if she found out."
Vecchio looked at him, serious now. "This isn't about Stella."
Ray ate a french fry. "Fraser would approve."
"Yeah, well, this isn't about Fraser either," said Vecchio, sharply, and that was so obviously crapola that Ray didn't even have to call him on it. It just lay on the table between them with the used napkins and the little paper sachets of salt and pepper.
"So you, uh, you want — to do this?" asked Ray, more curious than anything else. "You want to date?"
Vecchio flushed but he met Ray's eye steadily enough, and wow, he really did have nice eyes, and this was really fucking weird. Vecchio was a stranger, but they'd been finishing each other's sentences all night, barely needing to put things into words. Ray almost knew how Vecchio tasted, what his hands would feel like. He rubbed his thigh through his jeans and tried to imagine sex with Vecchio, and — yeah. Christ yeah. He could go there.
But an arranged thing — that wasn't anything Ray had ever thought about before. That was something from exotic cultures and The Fiddler on the Roof. It was deciding instead of feeling and that was wrong, that wasn't how relationships were supposed to go — but Ray had left his heart in the frozen arctic, and he needed some warmth.
Love had fucked him over, he told himself, so maybe he should leave love out of it for a while.
"Okay." He was already half-hard, anticipating getting laid in the not-too-distant future.
Vecchio narrowed his eyes, rested his hands on the table. "I'm not saying forever."
"As long as it lasts." Ray scratched his neck. "Jesus, Vecchio, you're such a romantic."
"Fuck you," Vecchio shot back, not the slightest bit offended.
Ray licked his lips. He ate another French fry and then looked up at Vecchio through his eyelashes and smirked when he saw him watching, his mouth slightly open.
Vecchio swore and pushed his plate away. "Come on."
Outside, the air was biting cold. Ray followed Vecchio back to the car, watching his gait and the way he yanked at his collar to untwist it. It was starting to snow and Ray felt a mix of nostalgia and heartache and impatient, low-burn anticipation. When they got to the car, he grabbed Vecchio's shoulder and turned him, pushed him against the driver's door before he had a chance to unlock it. Because there was something he had to know before he could go down this road for real.
"It's fucking freezing," Vecchio muttered.
Ray moved closer, breathing out white puffs of airs. "Could warm you up."
Vecchio's lips looked soft, and maybe he was annoying and he dressed way too good for a cop, but his eyes were dark and hungry, and he understood, and if Ray could just let go of what he'd thought he wanted, this might be okay.
Everything moved in slow motion — even the snowflakes dawdled downward. When their mouths were about an inch apart, Vecchio put the brakes on. "Here?"
"Shut up." Ray leaned forward and touched his lips to Vecchio's, gentle and warm, and stayed like that for a second —
It was too careful. It wasn't going to work if they couldn't get some traction, some momentum. Yeah, Ray knew all about momentum. He opened his mouth and Vecchio mirrored him, and then Ray licked in and pressed closer, plastering his body up against Vecchio's, his thigh against Vecchio's crotch, needing to prove he wasn't damaged beyond repair, that this crazy thing could work.
Vecchio grunted and slid his arms around Ray, crumpling his too-thin winter coat, and then they were kissing — as if they'd been counting the steps, counting the beat one-two-three, and now they were really dancing by instinct, alive with the music.
Ray rested one hand on Vecchio's waist and clutched the back of Vecchio's soft woolen hat with the other, angling his head and kissing him hard, tasting excitement and beer.
Vecchio broke away, breathless. "Don't waste any time, do you?"
Ray snorted. "It was your idea." He kissed him again, hot and sweet, and Vecchio's fingers brushed his cheek. Then, "Good idea."
Vecchio groaned and pushed his hips forward — just the right amount of pressure, oh yeah. "Touch me."
"Not here." Ray nipped his jaw. "Besides, maybe I don't — " Nip. " — put out — " Lick. " — on the first date." He pulled back a little and watched fascinated as Vecchio's tongue slid over his lip.
"Yeah, maybe." Vecchio's voice was dry with mockery.
Ray grinned. "Shut up." And leaned in to kiss him again.
Long, slow, hot kisses, and Ray forgot about the snow and the bar and the last three months of misery, focused instead on now and want and Jesus! Vecchio snuck his fingers in under Ray's coat, his sweater, and Ray nearly jumped out of his skin at the smooth slide of icy cold hand across his lower back. "Christ," he gasped. "Okay, yeah — "
"Not here," Vecchio murmured in his ear, and Ray knew he was right, but he had to rest his head on Vecchio's shoulder for a long minute before he could pull himself together enough to step away.
"Fine, let's get out of here, then." Ray pulled his coat tight around himself and tried to get his composure back. He couldn't let Vecchio see how much he wanted this — it was one thing to turn to the guy for sex because he was horny, because they had something in common and hey, why not? It was something else entirely to need it. Had to hide that. Desperation was not pretty: if Stella had taught him anything, she'd taught him that.
He glanced around, but no one was looking, thank Christ. There was a couple getting into their car on the other side of the parking lot and half a dozen people clustered around the entrance of the bar, smoking and chattering. No one paying him and Vecchio any attention at all.
Then he looked back at Vecchio, who was watching him warily, waiting for a reaction. Ray knew he could see the defenses coming up. Vecchio could see right through him. Vecchio — who belonged in Chicago as much as Ray did, whose family were whacked but warm-hearted, and who was the only person who knew where Ray was coming from. Vecchio, who could kiss like an angel, and Ray wasn't in any position to walk away from that, no matter how much pride it cost him or how complicated it would inevitably get.
He let his gaze slide sideways, distracted by the snow. The tan sedan was squat and ugly under the sodium orange streetlights. Ray said the first thing that came into his head: "We're gonna have to find you another Riv."
Vecchio's laugh cracked the air. "Now you're talking!" He leered a little and turned to unlock the car door. "Come on, I'll drive you home."
"Yeah," said Ray. "Yeah, okay."