Disclaimer: You still need to ask? They belong to Alliance and
the Pauls. Unfortunately. |
A thousand thanks to AuKestrel, Kellie Matthews, and Sihaya Black for beta. (This story begins just as "Strange Bedfellows" ends, so assume that anything up to and including that episode is fair game)
Stranger Than Fiction
by Beth H
(c) September 2001
* * * * *
Your living room becomes a ballroom. Or . . . maybe a dance hall? Yeah . . . a low stage at one end of a smoky dance hall, crowded with musicians. A band. The kind of band that you hardly ever see anywhere these days, except maybe pushed off to the side on some late-night talk show. One of those big bands with a big bandleader. Glenn Miller. Duke Ellington, maybe. Benny Goodman . . . oh man, you gotta love the swing of that man's clarinet.
You've got the lights set low. A little shadowy in places, just around the edges, but mostly there's a warm glow suffusing the dance hall . . . the ballroom. Maybe it should be a ballroom, after all.
CD's set on random play, and . . . no, it's a band, remember? They've got Helen O'Connell up there on the stage with them, and she's singing something your mom used to like when you were a kid. "Imagination." Yeah, that's it.
You close your eyes for just a minute when Billie Holiday takes over from Helen. The aching emotion in Billie's voice matches the ache that's been in your heart for the past few days, but hearing her now, it hurts a little less. You know you're not the only one who's aching.
Billie keeps singing. You take off your glasses, fold them up, place them on the table. Everything gets a little blurry, but something inside is telling you maybe you don't really want to see too clearly tonight. You turn toward the music. Toward the band. You squint a little at the stage, and you swear you can see Billie looking at you. Is she smiling? Yeah, a little smile, a little sad.
Not tonight, you think. You don't need her sadness. You're good. The band's swinging, and you . . . well, you've got a beautiful dance partner and she's smiling up at you from the table, waiting to be taken in your arms and out on the floor. You start to dance and . . . yeah, that's great. That's magic.
You keep dancing, and now the music's changing again. The band hasn't changed, but now you're hearing the twang of country chords. You look over in surprise. Frown. You see Patsy Cline up there with the boys. She's singing something about being " . . . crazy, for feeling so lonely . . . " and you wonder where she came from.
Then you listen some more, and yeah, it's different, but the feelings are the same. Patsy's been in that same place that you've been living in since Stella . . . well, you can just hear it in every note that Patsy sings. You continue your circuit around the ballroom, your partner still held in your arms. As you glide her past the stage, you nod at Patsy. Just a little nod of recognition . . . of kinship.
Once more, you move across the floor, carried by the longing you hear, deep and strong in the singer's voice. And while you're used to leading - you always lead whenever you dance - you realize you're not leading tonight. No, tonight there's no leading and no following, no need for either. You and your partner are in perfect synch. A perfect pair. A perfect duet.
The two of you move into a turn. Perfect, of course - it's just that kind of night. You didn't even know he could dance before tonight, but he's great . . . and he feels good in your arms, better than you ever imagined he would. His body's strong and warm against yours, and when he lowers his head to press his mouth against the base of your throat, you think this is it; this is the dance you needed. He . . . .
When did your partner turn into a guy?
* * *
Did you ever have a partner who needed your help, but you . . . you didn't know how to help him?
Benton Fraser sat on the edge of the cot in his office, his wolf curled up at his feet, and tried to remember what typically obtuse advice his not-quite-dead-enough father had offered in response to this question earlier in the day.
It was no use.
Whatever reply his father had given him had been irrevocably lost in the wake of Inspector Thatcher's shell-shocked expression when she opened the closet door and discovered him apparently deep in conversation with a few coats and some Hudson Bay blankets.
Fraser sighed. Inspector Thatcher seemed to have an unerring ability to turn up at the most inappropriate times - or as Ray would say, "the wrongest" of the wrong moments. It was only a matter of time before she walked in to find him in his underwear, though truthfully there was little to choose between being caught unclothed and being overheard doing what could only be interpreted as talking to himself, particularly at a time when his mental health was being called into question.
Although the results of his yearly psychological evaluation had confirmed that his mental state fell within "acceptable" parameters, Fraser knew that "acceptable" was not quite good enough, particularly when his standing within the ranks of the RCMP remained as precarious as it was.
He glanced over at the closet door. At least the distracting sounds of construction seemed to have finally come to a halt. While he could not fathom what his late father needed with an office, particularly one built in his own office closet, Fraser had all but given up expecting to understand the whys and wherefores of his father's odd existence. And although he was loathe to admit it, even to himself, his father's presence - annoying though it often was - had been a real comfort to him on a number of occasions, which made him less than eager to do anything that might risk losing his father again just as he was really getting to know him for the first time.
However, grateful though he was for having been given this second chance to get to know his father, who had been absent all too often during his childhood, Fraser was forced to acknowledge that his father's frequent appearances - when added to his apparent inability to ignore his father when he did appear - couldn't help but make his life more difficult than it already was.
Recently, and particularly after the fiasco this afternoon in front of his superior officer, Fraser had begun to question whether he might not actually be imagining these appearances. Although he had always had a healthy respect for the possibility of more existing than could be measured and quantified, he had never been much given to flights of fancy. But the sudden appearance of his father's ghost one Christmas when he most felt the lack of family was, perhaps, too coincidental to have nothing to do with his own wishes making it so, particularly since nobody else, with the notable exception of Bob Fraser's old partner Buck Frobisher, could see or hear him. However, Buck's evident ability to see his late partner would have been more reassuring to Fraser if he hadn't harbored some suspicion that Buck himself wasn't necessarily playing with a full deck.
If he were to be completely honest with himself, though, he had to accept that he couldn't lay all the blame for the way he was perceived by others entirely at his father's doorstep. While his abilities had been valued during his years with the RCMP, it was apparent that even among his colleagues he had always been seen as something of an odd duck. He recognized that he possessed traits which were not shared by the majority of his peers - an excessive zeal where justice was concerned, an uncommonly punctilious mien, etc. - and if half-whispered comments and raised eyebrows were anything to go by, these traits had marked him as an oddity, and at times almost a joke, in the RCMP.
That he had always seen the world in a different way from others couldn't be argued, and Fraser knew there was no forcing other people to see the world as he saw it. But it was a sad commentary on his life that the last time he felt certain he wasn't being viewed as a complete freak of nature was when he was working undercover as a patient in a psychiatric hospital, and that was a line of inquiry Fraser didn't really want to pursue.
Different, certainly. He was under no illusions about how different he was from most other people. But when had "different" become equivalent to "crazy" - that's what he wanted to know.
Suddenly he heard, from within the closet, the sound of a hammer dropping on the floor, followed by a frustrated-sounding, "Oh, drat!"
Fraser sighed. When had "different" and "crazy" become synonymous? Probably around the same time ghostly visitors that no one but Fraser could see or hear started a construction project in his closet.
Diefenbaker jumped up on the cot next to Fraser and yipped.
"Yes, I did tell you that Buck saw my father as well, but I'm not at all convinced that he should be looked upon as a model for good mental health."
Another yip from the wolf, louder this time.
"Yes, yes . . . I know you see him, too. And no, I don't expect you to hear him; I'm perfectly aware you're deaf, or so you keep telling me."
Three short barks.
"Ah. Well, no, I don't think you would be considered a particularly reliable witness by anyone but me. Hard as it may be for you to accept, not everyone is as willing as I am to entertain the notion that a deaf half wolf might actually . . . ."
"Yes, I suppose it is a form of prejudice."
"Perhaps if you didn't keep interrupting, Diefenbaker. You do realize, don't you, that my conversations with you only add fuel to the fire."
A low whine.
"Oddly enough, no. Ray no longer appears to think I'm unhinged for talking to you. Ever since your embarrassing display at the cemetery, however, he has, on occasion, questioned your mental stability."
"Now that's entirely unfair, Dief. Ray isn't . . . ." But before Fraser could complete his thought, Diefenbaker turned his head away, then jumped off the edge of the cot and crawled under Fraser's desk, effectively ending the conversation.
Perhaps the wolf was right. If Ray's recent obsessive behavior where his ex-wife was concerned was anything to go by, his partner might indeed be in no position to assess anyone else's mental health. And while Fraser may have acted almost oblivious to the extent of Ray's increasing distress over the past few days, privately he was forced to admit that he was growing somewhat worried about Ray's equilibrium.
And yet, he conceded, worry was only a part of what he was feeling right now for his partner. This new/old Vecchio. This Ray.
The far greater part of his feelings were wrapped up in something that felt far too much like jealousy for comfort. Jealousy of his partner's time, of his partner's attention, and now of his partner's feelings for his ex-wife. It was this last that was the crux of the issue, he had to admit. Despite the exasperation which had been evident in Stella Kowalski during each of her recent encounters with her ex-husband, Fraser could plainly see a not-yet-dormant spark between the two of them - a spark which, in his view, threatened at every moment to re-ignite into a flame.
Whether that flame would have caught had the evidence trail in the Orsini case not necessitated Fraser arriving at Assistant State's Attorney Kowalski's apartment door when he did was almost irrelevant. What was relevant was that the spark was there, and Fraser could only stand by mutely and wish that he was the one who could engender that response in Ray.
He sighed. Yet another item to add to the ever-increasing list of traits marking him as crazy. Fraser could only be grateful that the American Psychiatric Association no longer looked on homosexual inclinations as a kind of mental disorder.
Fraser had recognized his attraction to his partner from the first day they met. It had impelled him, in fact, to ask Ray out for dinner. This spark of interest, however, he kept ruthlessly tamped down. Yes, sometimes it seemed as if Ray reciprocated his feelings, but Fraser suspected that this perception was no more grounded in reality than were his frequent sightings of his father. He feared it was more likely that seeing some manner of returned interest from Ray was a subconscious attempt on his part to find more intimacy in the relationship he had with his partner than was truly there. And if that were true, nothing good could come of indulging in this foolish speculation; it would only serve to increase his own frustration and potentially drive a wedge into the strong working relationship that he and Ray had been forging.
The difficulty was that he wasn't altogether sure how successful he had been in masking his burgeoning interest. He had encouraged Ray to share details of his life which his partner had evidently shared with no one else before that day in the crypt. He had arranged to spend the night in Ray's company when Bruce Spender's life was in jeopardy and a safe place had to be found for him to stay. He had even slammed a car door into Alderman Orsini the other day, which was a very uncharacteristic action for him to have taken, although he had found it oddly satisfying. True, all these things could be seen merely as the sort of supportive actions one partner might take for another. Yet Fraser knew that nothing quite so straightforward had motivated his actions, and he feared it was only a matter of time before Ray - with his fine observational skills and sharp instincts - would be able to put the pieces together and realize that these were not just the actions of a good partner or a good friend.
The fact was, though, regardless of any unreciprocated feelings he was harboring for his partner, he and Ray were friends, and Fraser was feeling quite guilty about having let his recent concerns about the RCMP psychological evaluation interfere with paying attention to his partner's emotional needs. Despite the lateness of the hour, he needed to reassure himself that Ray was all right after the events of the day.
Stetson firmly placed on his head, Fraser walked toward the door. "Come on, Dief. Let's go see Ray."
* * *
If there was a theme for the erratic thoughts that had been running through Ray's head over the past half hour, it would have been "Why do I keep doing this?"
Following Stella on a date? Was he out of his mind? No matter what kind of bullshit he tried to feed himself about worrying about her and wanting to make sure she was safe, he knew that what it really came down to was stalking, plain and simple.
Yeah, Stella had said that he wasn't anything like Dwayne Weston, that he always knew when to draw the line, always knew when to stop. But he wasn't sure that was true. Sure didn't know when to stop tonight with Stella. Didn't know when to stop trolling for dates at the station, and Ray wasn't even interested in anyone he worked with, unless he counted the nutty crush he'd obviously been developing on his partner.
Was that going to be his life from now on? Chasing after people who didn't want him? People he didn't even want?
Okay, maybe "want" was the wrong word. He still wanted Stella. Might always want her in some ways. But he wasn't in love with her anymore - he knew that. And he sure as hell knew that she hadn't been in love with him for years.
She was still attracted to him, though, he wasn't kidding himself on that score. In fact, he figured her attraction might have something to do with how pissy she'd been with him lately. Stella didn't want the attraction because she knew there was no future for them, and she was no more into sex without love than he was, or at least she didn't used to be.
So if Ray wasn't in love with her and she wasn't in love with him - and she wasn't - and neither of them were into sex without love, then why had they both been so ready to fall into bed tonight? Would've done, in fact, if Fraser hadn't shown up at the door at just the wrong/right time.
Because it was familiar. Because the sex had always been good. And, for Ray at least, because he was just so damned sick of being alone that it was driving him crazy, and it was leading him to do some pretty weird things.
Like . . . he had to be a little crazy to have asked Fraser if he thought he was attractive. Just came right out and asked without a second thought and with a crowd of strangers listening. Nuts. Then again, Fraser had given him an answer - had said yes, in fact - so maybe it wasn't so nuts after all. Or maybe Fraser was just as crazy as he was. The RCMP sure seemed to think Fraser was a little wacked out. At least the Chicago P.D. hadn't asked Ray to stay away from work. Not yet, anyway.
Wonder what happened with that psych thing, Ray thought as he went to feed his turtle. "You haven't met Fraser yet, have you, Curtis?"
The turtle looked up at Ray. "Oh right, you must've seen him when he got Gladys to let him in to snoop around while I was . . . what did Fraser call it? . . . finding closure. You think he's nuts?" he asked, but the turtle just stared at him. "Nah, me neither."
Ray put the cover back on the turtle food container, then looked back into the tank. "Don't give me that look. If the results had been bad, he'd've called and told me."
He waited a few seconds to see if Curtis was going to concede the point, but the turtle just drew his head into his shell. "Fine. I'll go over to the Consulate and check up on him. There . . . you satisfied? God, you're a pushy bastard, you know that?"
* * *
The American Express card: don't leave home without it. Ray shook his head in disbelief as he heard the lock click open on the first try. Fraser knew the Consulate was about as secure as a house of cards - he'd already caught Ray breaking into the place three times - and he still hadn't done anything about getting better locks. Maybe Fraser just thought that since he was living there, nothing bad could happen to the place. That would make a weird kind of sense. Sure would fit with the way he acted like nothing could happen to him when he was going after a perp.
"Hey, Fraser!" Ray called. "You home?"
His own voice echoed back at him in the dim hallway. Ray thought for sure Fraser would have heard him stomping around the place by now if he'd been in. What had Orsini said about Fraser? Ears like a bat. Orsini was a dick, but he'd got that right. Ray figured it had to be stuff like that X-Men hearing that made so many people think Fraser was weird. The guy could hear and see and do damn near everything better than anyone else, so of course he was going to seem a little strange in comparison to most people. Yeah, different equals weird . . . wasn't that just the way of the world.
But then Ray started thinking of all that other stuff that wasn't just about being way too good at things. Running into a burning house to rescue fish. Making a dream catcher for a guy he barely knew. And all that other other stuff. All that talking. Talking to Dief like the wolf could actually understand what Fraser was saying (nothing like him and his turtle - after all, Curtis could hear Ray). Talking to . . . well, to thin air sometimes, when he didn't think anyone was paying any attention.
And all that listening stuff, too. Listening like no one had ever listened to him before while Ray spilled his guts all over the floor of the crypt. The kind of listening that made Ray want to do the same for Fraser. Really listen to him. Really hear him.
Yeah, all that added up to a whole lot of weird. But it was a really good weird. A great weird. And Ray couldn't get why Thatcher or the shrink or whoever it was who'd shooed Fraser away from the Consulate for the past couple of days just couldn't see that.
As he walked down the hallway, Ray thought that even if the guy was a little nuts, how could that possibly interfere with his job when the RCMP never seemed to give him anything to do except stand outside the consulate all day like some kind of statue? What a waste of a good cop.
Oh well, the RCMP's loss was his gain. Ray wanted his partner around even if they didn't. Even if he was weird. Maybe because he was weird.
Ray opened the door to Fraser's office and walked in.
Still no Fraser and no Dief - just a radio or something playing in the closet. Ray darted his eyes over toward the closet door. Who kept their radio in the closet? Jeez. Another mark in the weird column, because Fraser obviously did.
The Billie Holiday song that Ray had been dancing to earlier came on. Radio must be tuned to one of those oldies stations. Maybe Fraser had a ballroom scenario of his own perking away somewhere in his head.
Ray shook his head and laughed a little. No way. Fraser might be into some of the same music as Ray, but his fantasies wouldn't be set in a ballroom. Fraser's fantasies probably involved an igloo. Or a log cabin out in the middle of some snowy nowhere.
Yeah, that was it . . . Daniel Boone's Arctic Cottage. Ray opened the closet door to turn up the volume on the radio and closed his eyes halfway, just sort of imagining what Fraser's fantasy place might look like. He smiled and moved into the closet, still reaching for the radio. Uh huh, just like this. Big place, nice old desk (trust Fraser to have somewhere to work even in his fantasies), a couple of cabinets, wood burning stove. Ray reached out to touch the stove and immediately jerked his hand away. Damn, that was hot!
Okay, it was getting freaky in here. This was kind of real for a fantasy.
Ray looked over his shoulder at the door a little nervously, then got a log from the wood pile and used it to keep the closet door from shutting. It wasn't like he was actually worried about the door shutting. Hell, no. If it did, he could always open it again. Sure. But "better safe than sorry," that was Ray's motto - or at least it had been for the past thirty seconds.
Ray looked across the room. "Okay, where does that other door lead? Some secret passageway to the Ice Queen's lair?" Ray grinned as he turned the knob. He opened the door, and was hit with a blast of cold air. Little eddies of drifting snow from outside the door swirled around his feet and melted into puddles as the snowflakes fell onto the warm wood floor.
Oddly enough, it was the snow that finally convinced Ray everything was okay. It couldn't possibly be snowing in Chicago in the summer; ipso facto, this was all some elaborate dream. Ray didn't know he'd had stuff like this lurking in his subconscious, but as long as he was here in this weird "Narnia meets Little House on the Prairie" place, he might as well go with it.
He looked around the room. Not much to see. He opened a drawer or two, but they didn't seem to contain anything except the kind of paperwork Ray spent most of his work day trying to avoid. In the center drawer of the desk, crammed into the back and half buried, Ray found a black and white photograph: two grown ups and a small boy, all three wrapped up like the Nanook-of-the-North Family Robinson. Fraser when he was a little kid? Had to be. Cute. Ray looked around and slipped the photograph into his pocket. You never knew when something like that might come in handy.
Okay, what else was there to see in here? Nothing much. Maybe it was time to venture out into Polar Bear Junction and take a look around. Ray saw a pair of fur-lined parkas hanging on a hook by the door. Convenient. Funny how you always find what you're looking for in dreams. Zipping himself into the closest parka, Ray walked out the door and into the cold, clear night.
* * *
"Yes, Diefenbaker, that was Ray's car outside his apartment, but I hardly think he was snubbing us just because he didn't answer his bell. Perhaps he was asleep. Or perhaps he had just gone for a walk."
The wolf gave Fraser a disbelieving look, then turned and trotted on ahead toward the Consulate. Diefenbaker was probably correct. Knowing Ray as he did, it was highly unlikely that his partner would have developed a sudden desire to stroll the streets of Chicago at ten p.m.
When Ray hadn't responded to the ring of the doorbell, Fraser's first impulse had been to ask Ray's landlady to provide access to the apartment, as she had proved willing to do once before. But the relative lateness of the hour, coupled with the knowledge that Ray would strongly resent any implication that he needed someone to check up on him, forced Fraser to stifle that impulse. Ray did not need a babysitter. While his responses to emotional upsets were often volatile, Fraser had to acknowledge that Ray was not self-destructive.
By the time Fraser reached the front door of the Consulate, Diefenbaker had apparently grown tired of waiting for his human to appear, for he was nowhere to be seen. Ah well, Dief would make his presence known - loudly and irritatingly - when he was ready to come in for the night, and until then he was well able to fend for himself.
The first thing he noticed when he walked into his office was the elevated temperature. Even during the winter months in Chicago, Fraser tended to keep the thermostat set as low as possible, due primarily to environmental concerns. And certainly the Chicago summers required no additional means of heating - the ambient temperature was already rather uncomfortable for someone raised, as he had been, in the far north.
Hmm. Not only was it quite warm in his office, but Fraser believed he could detect the scent of wood smoke in the air. He scanned the room and saw that the door to his closet had been propped open by a small birch log. Fraser frowned and walked through into his father's office, shutting the door behind him.
There was no reply. The stove was burning away, which explained the heat, and an old Philip's radio, just like the one Fraser remembered from his childhood, was playing, but the room was empty. Then the door swung open.
A parka-clad form rushed into the room, slammed the door behind him, and started stomping his feet hard on the mat in the doorway. "Man, it's cold out there!"
"Ta da!" Ray threw the hood back from his head. "Who were you expecting, Fraser? Santa Claus?"
"You've . . . you've been outside?"
"Sure have!" Ray hopped a little as he tugged his wet boots off, then padded over to the stove to rub his hands in front of the fire. "God, this feels great. You got yourself a cold annex here, buddy. Pretty though. One of those Aurora Thingywhatsits going on outside."
"Aurora Borealis?" Fraser offered automatically.
"Yeah, that's it. Of course, I knew I'd see that if I went outside. Didn't know it'd make noise, though. That's some loud light show."
Fraser crossed to the door and opened it a crack to peer outside. "You knew you'd see the Aurora Borealis?"
"Hey, shut the door, Fraser! You're letting all the heat out." Ray peeled his damp socks off his feet and hung them next to the stove to dry.
"Ray?" prompted Fraser.
"Yeah, yeah. The Aurora. I mean, this is all coming out of my head, isn't it," Ray said over his shoulder as he went to turn up the volume on the radio.
"Out of your . . . head?"
"Come on, Fraser, you're repeating everything I say. Get with the program already. Hey, this is a nice song." Ray started to move a little in time with the music. Eyes half closed, humming tunelessly along with the music, Ray moved toward Fraser and held his hand out. "Dance with me?"
Fraser leaned in toward Ray. He wanted to say yes. To take Ray's hand in his own. To move with him . . . to dance with him. Why was this happening to him? Fraser couldn't bring himself to do it. Couldn't allow himself to say yes before he was sure that Ray knew what he was asking . . . and where he was asking it.
"Hmm?" Ray murmured, still moving slowly in time to the music. "What is it?"
It was now Fraser's turn to close his eyes as he felt the back of Ray's hand trail down the edge of his cheek, then turn until Ray's thumb rested at the corner of Fraser's mouth. It would be so simple . . . so damned simple to just open his mouth and . . . .
"No, Ray . . . wait!" Fraser reached up and wrapped his fingers around Ray's wrist.
"Christ!" Ray pulled out of Fraser's grasp and crossed his arms over his chest. "You know, I don't know if I've ever had a fantasy that was this much of a pain in the ass. Started out okay, but . . . you shouldn't even be able to say no, you know that, don't you?"
"Ray, what do you think is . . . where do you think you are?"
"I don't know. The Consulate, I guess. Maybe my apartment? Who cares . . . none of this is real." Ray walked over to the stove and removed his socks from where they'd been drying. "You're not even real. This is all just, like, dreaming or something."
Fraser didn't know whether to laugh or to cry. Not sane. Not real. This had been one hell of a week.
"I assure you that I, at least, am real, Ray. Nor is this a dream, although I have had some reason to . . . ."
Ray looked up sharply at Fraser. "Prove it."
"Prove that this isn't a dream or something."
"How do you propose I do that, Ray?" Exasperation mingled with a hint of amusement in Fraser's voice.
"I don't know. You're the Answer Man. You think of something."
"Well, the traditional method of proving such a thing is to pinch . . . ow!" Fraser yelped as Ray pinched him hard on the arm. "Not me, Ray. I believe you're meant to pinch yourself."
"Right. Shit. Sorry about that Fraser." Then Ray laughed. "Want me to kiss it and make it better?"
Before he could even think about whether that was a terrible idea or the best idea his partner had ever had, Fraser turned to Ray and said, "Yes."
* * *
Yes? Fraser said yes? He wanted Ray to kiss him? Now Ray knew for sure that this had to be dreamland . . . no way would his partner say anything like that, at least not without explaining what he'd meant for a half hour.
Ray glanced back at Fraser, who was still just standing there . . . and all of a sudden he looked so sexy and so sweet that Ray finally said, "Oh, what the hell" and leaned in and kissed him. Kissed Fraser's arm where he'd pinched him. Kissed his shoulder. Paused for a minute to make sure that Fraser still wasn't going anywhere and then kissed his jaw. And all the time Fraser just stood there and let him. And not just let him, because by the time Ray had worked his way over to Fraser's mouth, there was some serious reciprocity happening if Fraser's tongue licking along the edge of Ray's bottom lip and nudging its way inside was anything to go by.
Ray had never been much of a drinker, but he could remember one time during college when a rare night of partying had just vanished from his memory banks as if it had never happened. It was likely that Ray might never have thought any more about that night at all if it hadn't been for the reactions he got from people the next day. Laughter from most of the friends he passed on the way to class. A few head shakes. And Stella, who was going through one of her less uptight phases, just saying "It's not that big a deal, Ray. Don't worry about it," then kissing him and hurrying off to a political science seminar.
What was it that he wasn't supposed to worry about? What had he done? All these years later and he still didn't know since he'd always been too chickenshit to ask.
And now, seeing Fraser gazing intently at him, all Ray could keep asking himself - just like that long ago morning after - was what did I do? What the hell did I do? But no . . . this was different. This time he knew what he'd done. He remembered everything. Asking Fraser to dance? Rubbing up against him like a cat in heat? Kissing him?
Jesus! He'd kissed Fraser. What kind of a nut was he? Was he trying to convince himself that this was okay because it wasn't real? Oh, this was real, all right. This was stubble and sweat and teeth bumping into teeth and mouths - hot and sweet - trying to swallow each other.
What could he say? I'm sorry?
No, he couldn't say that. Because he wasn't sorry.
* * *
Ray had kissed him. Well, to be strictly accurate, they had kissed each other. Repeatedly.
At almost any other time, Fraser would have been overjoyed by this turn of events. To discover that Ray was attracted to him or at least, apparently, not averse to exploring a new direction for their relationship would have felt wonderful, but at the moment, Fraser wasn't sure whether he was feeling wonderful or if he was on the verge of hysteria.
Over the past decade, truly wonderful moments had been in such short supply in his life that he wasn't certain he could even recognize the feeling anymore.
But he had loved the taste of Ray's mouth, warm and welcoming, against his own. Loved the feel of Ray's hands on his body. And he had wanted so much more from Ray. With Ray. This should have felt like a marvelous new beginning, but it couldn't . . . not with Ray looking slightly sick and panic-stricken as if he wanted, somehow, to erase the last ten minutes from his memory.
He was uncertain how welcome his touch would be at this moment, but Fraser tentatively extended his hand. He wanted to reassure the still-silent Ray that whatever happened next, he still wanted them to be friends, even if they could be nothing more.
At first, Ray barely acknowledged Fraser's hand on his arm, but after a moment he smiled a little weakly at his partner, and reached his own hand out to stroke his fingers along the line of Fraser's jaw. Then he sat down on the floor by the stove.
"This is real, isn't it?"
"When you say 'this,' do you mean . . . .."
"I mean this," he said, waving his hands a little. "This whole thing. This room. Out there in the snow. You being here. All of it."
Fraser sighed and joined Ray down on the floor. "I believe so, Ray, although I haven't actually been outside this room yet."
"Well, no. My father just had this office built."
"This is your dad's office?
"Your dad . . . he's . . . um . . . isn't he . . . .?"
"Dead? Yeah, he is, Ray, although that doesn't seem to have stopped him from . . . lingering. That was his jacket you were wearing when you came in from outside."
Ray started a bit and looked down, almost as if he were expecting to discover he was still wearing a dead man's parka, then settled again. "So, um, you invite anyone else in here?"
"Strictly speaking, I didn't invite you here."
"Fraser, you know what I mean. Anyone else seen this place?"
"Well, Diefenbaker took it upon himself to investigate during the building process, but I believe he found the vibrations from the chainsaw a bit disconcerting."
"Yes, it surprised me too. I thought my father might've been more of a traditionalist where construction materials are concerned."
"Afterlife. Go figure, huh? Probably a whole lot's changed for your dad since, well . . . you know."
"I suppose you're right," Fraser said quietly. "However, in answer to your question: no. As far as I know, nobody but you has been in here. To be honest, Ray, I doubted very seriously whether anyone else could see this place."
Ray looked down at his hands. "But here I am."
"Yes, here you are."
"And this is, like, real? I mean, I'm really not making this place up? Making you up?"
"No, odd as it seems, we both appear to be here, wherever here is."
Ray cocked his head to one side, grinned, and said, "So what are you doing all the way over there?"
"I haven't the faintest idea."
Fraser closed the distance between them, sat down beside Ray, and drew him into a one-armed embrace and began gently tracing just above the neckline of Ray's sweatshirt with the fingers of his other hand.
Ray turned in toward his partner and nestled the top of his head in the crook of Fraser's neck, "Man," he murmured against Fraser's jaw. "This is really crazy."
"What is, Ray?"
"This. Like I said . . . this whole thing. This office. All of it."
Fraser continued running his fingers lightly along Ray's collarbones, never breaking his rhythm, but Ray could feel a moment of hesitation before Fraser said, "And us?"
Ray was silent for a moment, then bumped the side of his head into Fraser's shoulder. "Hey, look over here for a minute, okay?"
Fraser turned his head, and Ray nodded.
"Good. Okay . . . what do you see?"
"What do I see?" Fraser asked, a little hesitantly.
"Yeah, what do you see? And none of that thinking stuff." Ray reached over and smoothed his thumb over the worry lines that had started to collect between Fraser's brows. "Just . . . what do you see?"
"Well, I see . . . I'm not sure how you want me to answer that."
Ray shook his head, then sighed and cupped Fraser's face in the palm of his hands. "This isn't a trick question, Fraser. What do you see? And don't think you can distract me with that lip licking thing of yours," he added with a smile.
Fraser smiled in return, then grew serious again. "I see you."
"Not Vecchio, right? Kowalski? The guy you've been partnered with for a while now?"
Fraser looked more confused, but continued gamely on. "Yes, of course."
Ray slid his hand around the back of Fraser's neck and pushed his fingertips deep into Fraser's hair. "Your eyesight . . . it's pretty good, right? Better than good?"
"I suppose so, but . . . ."
"Don't interrupt when I'm being rhetorical, Fraser. I'm on a roll here." Ray grinned. "Okay, so sight checks out fine. What about your hearing? That good, too?"
Fraser smiled, and leaned his head back into Ray's fingertips. "I seem to be hearing what you're saying."
"Yeah, maybe you are. Okay, good. I think we can skip over the other senses because I'd swear in court to how good your touch is. And your smell." Ray leaned forward and licked Fraser's chin with the tip of his tongue, then sat back and grinned. "You taste really good, too."
Fraser blushed."I don't believe you're actually talking about my senses anymore, Ray."
"Yeah, well . . . who cares? Here's the way I figure it, Fraser. We're in this place. You tell me it's your dead father's office, and I've got to believe you because I see it too. We're seeing the same thing. We're hearing the same thing. And, uh . . . we kind of seem to be feeling the same thing, yeah?"
Fraser looked up at Ray, then placed his hand on top of Ray's own. Ray smiled and flipped his hand over so that the two men were palm to palm, then entwined his fingers with Fraser's. "Like I said, we're maybe feeling the same thing?"
Fraser leaned in and kissed Ray. "So it would appear."
Ray smiled again. "Maybe this is crazy. Maybe you're a little nuts. Maybe I'm a little kooky myself. Who cares?"
Fraser pulled back for a moment. "Ray . . . you really don't care if people think you're . . . crazy?"
Ray just laughed. "Like they don't already. Look, this is a good crazy, Fraser, at least I think so. Unless . . . are you sorry? I mean, I didn't ask to come here or anything. I know that. I'm sorry about that."
"Don't be sorry, Ray. I'm certainly not sorry you're here."
"Good. So . . . um . . . you want to kind of get back to . . . to what we were doing."
The two men knelt on the rough wooden floorboards, facing each other. Fraser sat back on the heels of his boots and watched as Ray tugged his sweatshirt off, leaving only a thin white tee shirt beneath.
"Hey, come on," Ray muttered. "You want Gypsy Rose Lee, you can rent a video."
"I'm not familiar with . . . ."
"Clothes off, Fraser."
"Ah, yes. Sorry, Ray," Fraser said with a grin. "I was just enjoying the view." Embarrassed and pleased in equal parts, Ray ducked his head, then looked back up and glared at his partner. "Yeah? Well, enjoy the view with more of your own skin showing."
Fraser nodded, but Ray had a feeling it was going to take a hell of a lot of cajoling to get Fraser out of the layers he was wearing. Hell, it was hard enough to get the guy to take off his Stetson half the time.
Ray pulled his tee shirt over his head and tossed it beside him. He turned back towards Fraser, who was still sitting there looking at Ray, but who was now wearing nothing except a pair of crisp, white boxers. Fraser's shirt and jeans were neatly folded on the floor next to him, and even his boots had been removed and were lined up against the wall.
Ray blinked, staring first at the stack of clothes and then at Fraser.
"What is it, Ray?"
"How do you do stuff like that? Okay, that is so not normal. You're a freak, you know that, don't you?"
"I believe I was just following your directions."
"You always do what you're told?" Ray asked.
Fraser smiled. "Why don't you tell me to do something else and find out."
"Now see, this is good. This is what a fantasy date's supposed to act like. Where was this obedient enthusiasm earlier, that's what I want to know." Ray smiled back at Fraser. "Okay, so get that mouth of yours over here, Mountie. Let's see what that tongue's good for apart from licking electrical sockets."
"Happy to oblige, Ray."
Too weird. Ray had started the day doing a little pointless retro-obsessing over his ex-wife and ended it on the floor, half-naked with Fraser. Not a bad trade off, Ray thought, until Fraser suddenly sat back down on the floor and drew his knees up to his chest.
"I seem to be at something of a loss here, Ray. Perhaps we might discuss the, er . . . .
Ray grinned. Fraser was nervous. He did good with the whole kissing thing, but it was obvious he was still freaking nervous about this. "You don't really know what the hell you're doing here either, do you?
Fraser looked down for a moment, then took a deep breath and looked back at Ray. "Not as such. I'm familiar with the concept, of course, but . . . either? Are you saying this isn't normal for you?"
"Define normal. Fraser, I wouldn't know normal if it crawled over and bit me on the ass."
When Fraser's eyes darted to Ray's backside, Ray barked out a laugh. "If you're looking to take a sample of the merchandise, I'm good with that."
If he hadn't seen it with his own eyes, Ray wouldn't have believed it was possible for anyone to blush over their entire body, but Fraser's skin immediately took on a rosy hue that couldn't be explained in any other way.
For a second there, Ray almost apologized for embarrassing his friend, but when the blush was followed by Fraser's tongue darting out over his lips and then a hungry look appearing in his eyes, he decided he wasn't going to apologize for anything. His partner might not be the most experienced guy on the planet, but hell . . . neither was he. And if that slightly wicked grin that'd just broken out on Fraser's face was anything to go by, it looked like the guy might have a few plans of his own.
Fraser slid one arm behind Ray's back and began to lower him to the floor. When Ray grimaced a little, trying to find a comfortable position on the rough floorboards, Fraser reached for his own neatly stacked clothes and tucked them - not at all neatly - underneath his partner.
Ray smiled and lay back on the nest made from Fraser's clothes. He stretched his arms up over his head to rest on the floor, palms up and open. He watched Fraser gazing down at him.
"Dance with me now?"
Fraser smiled. "I take it the word "dance" is being used metaphorically?"
Ray rolled his eyes, but smiled back at Fraser. "Take it however you want it, but just take it already."
And then just like he'd asked, Fraser's mouth was on him again, melting into him, laying warm kisses along the edges of his lips, pressing hard against his mouth, gentling for a moment so that Ray could take a breath, then deepening until he couldn't tell where his own mouth ended and Fraser's began.
This was good . . . this was . . . oh, God . . . this was what he'd wanted all along, he thought in a sudden rush. He just never knew he wanted it. Not really. Never knew how much he wanted it. Wanted this. Wanted Fraser like this.
He closed his eyes, tilted his head back, and felt the slow hot exhalation of Fraser's breath on the edge of his mouth, along his jaw . . . felt Fraser's mouth suck softly against the sensitive skin of his throat, then pause and press against the quick up-and-down of his Adam's apple as he swallowed hard once, then once more.
Eyes still closed, he reached down and threaded his fingers through Fraser's soft, silky hair, tugging gently, wanting to bring that mouth back up to join his own, then abandoning the attempt as his partner's mouth moved to his chest, found a nipple, and sucked on it until Ray couldn't remember why he'd ever wanted Fraser's mouth anywhere but right . . . there.
Or there, he thought, as Fraser moved lower, his tongue leaving a warm, moist trail down the center of Ray's chest, the hollow below his ribs, his stomach. Then lower still and . . . God . . . Ray could feel Fraser's tongue move slowly along the edge of his cock, Fraser's lips sucking lightly at the head, then that tongue again - that fucking amazing tongue - swirling over the top and moving underneath and Ray's world narrowed to his cock and Fraser's tongue and the sound of their harsh breathing and . . .
. . . a sound in the hall.
Ray jerked his head to one side, then stilled Fraser with his hands. "Do you hear something?"
"I don't hear anything," Fraser murmured, and returned his mouth to the underside of Ray's cock. The last thing Ray wanted to do was to stop his partner from doing . . . that, but the sound grew louder.
Ray lifted Fraser's head up and hissed. "Listen!"
A moment of silence, then footsteps and a woman's voice calling out, "Constable Fraser?"
Fraser pushed himself quickly up to his knees and pulled Ray up next to him. " Ray, while you'll get no disagreement from me that this kind of crazy is a good thing, I'm not altogether certain I'm ready to explain to the inspector just why I was . . . well . . . in here twice in one day - and this time naked and on the floor with my partner. I doubt her forbearance will extend quite this far."
"Yeah, I'm with you, Fraser."
Fraser smiled. "You are, aren't you?"
"Fraser," called Inspector Thatcher. "If you're here, would you answer me? I found your wolf lurking on the premises, and I brought him inside. Surely you must be here somewhere. Where else would you be?"
Ray looked at his partner. "Time to get out of Dodge, buddy. There another way out of here?"
"I'm not certain. Only one way to find out. Clothes, Ray?"
The two men scrambled into jeans, shirts, jackets, scarves, and boots as quickly as they could and fled through the outer door just as Inspector Thatcher opened the door to Fraser's closet. For the second time that day, Meg Thatcher saw a few coats and some Hudson Bay blankets, but this time, Fraser wasn't in the closet.
"Hmm," said Thatcher. "He must be . . . out."
* * *
As soon as you're both outside, you close the door behind you, but the snow-covered vista glistening brightly in the moonlight that you saw so clearly the last time you walked through that door is gone.
In its place is a Chicago street, still bustling with life at one a.m. The scent of wood smoke fades, replaced by stronger, more familiar smells: car exhaust, french fries from the Wendy's down the block, incense burning in ornate brass holders on a card table across the street.
A neon light blinks behind you, and you turn around to read the sign. The Lone Star Bar and Grill - yeah, you've seen this place. You used to pass by it every day on your way to work before you were transferred to the 2-7 and everything in your life changed. Three young women, giggling and wearing brand new cowboy hats with feathers tied into the bands, walk past you and into the bar, and just before the door closes behind them, you recognize the song that's playing inside the bar. Willie Nelson's version this time, but it's still "Crazy," and you smile when you hear it.
Crazy is right.
None of what happened over the last few hours should have been real, of course, but it must be because your feet are still a little cold and your boots are still damp from snow and you have a splinter somewhere that's really starting to bug you. And when you look over at your crazy partner, he's grinning and looking like he wants to go back to tasting you all over, right there on the street.
And then he does, sort of. He leans forward and kisses you and licks you a little, and you think there's something to be said for his oral fixation.
"You're nuts, you know that?" you say, then grin and kiss him back.
Because you're nuts, too.
And maybe that's not such a bad thing.
* * *
Chit chat, Critiques, Gratuitous Praise: Beth H
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