Ray Kowalski hadn't been drinking much at all. Just a beer and a couple of margaritas -- two or three -- or so. Whatever. Anyway, it wasn't a party without three -- or so -- of Vecchio's famous peach margaritas. Not enough to get drunk on. Just enough to make him a little loose, a little slurred, a little sleepy.
Fuck it. His party, right? His fortieth birthday. A guy had to get a little smashed. It was like a law or something.
Had it been up to Ray, there wouldn't have been a party at all. What was he, seven? Twenty-one? Naw, he was forty. A grown-up. A real live middle-aged cop-type guy, the sort of guy who used words like "flat tax" and "domestic partner" in sentences, for Chrissakes. Way too far gone into the black abyss of maturity for this birthday party shit. Huh.
But nobody else seemed to see it like that, and hell or high water, Ray's friends were going to throw him a birthday party. So here he was, a little bit bombed, staring owlishly around his own living room like he'd never seen it before. Here was his buddy Fraser in black jeans -- hey, Frase, wild'n'crazy there with the wardrobe, my friend. Here was Huey talking about cowboy novels with his mom, Elaine talking baseball with his dad -- was there anything that lady didn't know something about? She was as bad as his last partner.... Welsh ragging on Frannie cause he didn't like the looks of her date. And there was Vecchio, lording it over the kitchen, dishing out endless drinks and appetizers and guarding his territory with that Vecchio-special sarcasm that was like being maced in the face if anyone was so stupid as to think he could use any help.
He definitely remembered all those things. And then he remembered zoning out a little bit, then kissing his mom goodbye. He remembered being outside on the balcony for a while, laughing uproariously at some joke of Huey's, which should have been all the clue he needed that he was trashed out of his mind. He remembered a cake, and not quite getting all the candles blown out, and explaining to Fraser at rambling length that you had to eat cake and ice cream by smashing them together with the back of your spoon, it wasn't optional, it was how you eat cake and ice cream. He vaguely remembered music, the lights dimmer than before, dancing with Vecchio's arms around him, his lips brushing Ray's eyebrow, and Ray thinking, Shit, not in front of my mom.... But then, his mom had gone home, right? So had a lot of people. He remembered sinking against Vecchio's black silk-covered shoulder and mumbling into it, saying Fuck me, you know how much I love you, it's all you. Remembered Vecchio's double-chocolate-fudge-ice-cream chuckle vibrating through his body, his hands flat and protective on Ray's back.
And next thing he remembered he was asleep -- or was waking up, more like. He was on the couch, his head resting on Vecchio's leg, close enough to his body that every time Vecchio breathed in he was nudging Ray just slightly, and Vecchio's long-fingered hand was laying casually in Ray's hair.
"--almost two weeks this time. Doesn't Canada have to close up shop or something when you're not there?"
"Not at all, Ray. There are many fine members of the RCMP who are more than capable of maintaining law and order in Canada while I'm on leave."
"That was a joke."
"I know, Ray."
"Then what'd you answer me for?"
"Just holding up my end of the conversation."
"You're a piece of work."
"I'm flattered, Ray."
Vecchio snorted. "You would be. But...how long are you staying?"
"I don't know." Fraser sounded just the tiniest bit testy, like he was having to think about something he'd rather ignore, but was too polite to tell his friend just to shut the hell up about it.
"Benny." A warning tone in Vecchio's voice. What was that all about? "Don't be stupid...."
"Have you found that to be a chronic problem with me?" Oh, there it was. That little offended-Fraser snap and crackle.
"Now that you mention it...."
Fraser made a humming sound that might have looked like a laugh under the right lighting. "I beg your pardon. I forgot to whom I was speaking."
"Yeah, keep us straight, could you? I'm the one who doesn't think you make the sun and moon rise." But there was so much affection in his voice you could have taken a bath -- a warm, soapy, scented bath -- in it. "Look, you're not stupid. But you're stubborn -- oh, shut up. You are stubborn as fuck-all, and you're not adjusting to the desk job."
"Well, I...." But he didn't finish his protest. Jeez, Ray wished he could do that the way Vecchio could. Get Fraser to back down when he knew he was wrong instead of just dealing from the bottom of the deck and trying to make it look like he hadn't really been saying what he'd obviously been saying from the start. "It's quite an adjustment."
"You hate it."
"It's stressful. I'm having to acquire an entirely new set of skills--"
"You hate it."
"I'm quite fortunate to have been chosen at all for the post, given my lack of experience."
"I.... Well. You know me."
"Yeah. I know you. Look, if you hate it that much...you don't have to...."
Steely, serene and cold. "I do have to. You of all people know why."
"Benny, c'mon. You think you're gonna be happier if you get transferred to the Consulate when this guy retires? You're like him. You're a beat cop at heart. You don't belong behind a desk."
"Yes. I do think I'll be happier."
A long pause, and Ray sort of wanted to say something, but was sort of embarrassed, too, to let them know he'd been listening in. Vecchio made a little hmphing sound that didn't quite make it all the way to laughter. "Guess I should be flattered."
"I miss you."
More than a simple statement of fact. The smoky, rugged sound of his voice made Ray's stomach twist, made him want to know if that was you in the plural or the singular so bad he had to bite his lip to shut himself up. What was he -- jealous? Of who?
Vecchio sighed deeply, absently moving his fingers in Ray's hair, against his scalp. "Yeah, I know, Benny. Me, too."
It was the hardest thing Ray could remember having to do in ages -- lie there fake-asleep while five-alarm emotion burned through him. Shame, because he should in no way be eavesdropping on this. Fear, because this wasn't the Vecchio or the Fraser that he knew, and that threw his whole world into a tailspin. Jealous -- yeah, he was jealous. Of Vecchio, because since when did he have this hungry-sounding piece of Fraser, and how did he rate, anyway? Of Fraser, hell, yeah, because that was his man, his lover, his domestic fucking partner, his love that Fraser was talking all over that way. And anger. Lots and lots of anger. On my fucking birthday, Vecchio, you bastard? His birthday, that he'd naively thought Fraser came all the way down from Canada to be there on. Hardy har har.
"Ray. I have to ask this...."
No, you don't. You really, really don't have to ask this, Frase, whatever it is. From the subtle tension in Vecchio's body that Ray could feel gathering underneath him, it seemed like something kind of similar might be running through Vecchio's mind just then. "What's that?"
"Why...was it...Ray...and not me?" Every word cuffed and dragged out like a suspect trying to flee the scene of a crime.
"What...what do you mean, why? It just...was. It just is, Benny."
"Of course. Of course." No way was he going to let it go, of course. Not Constable -- no, sorry, Inspector Benton Fraser, RCMP. "Except that...I thought...."
"No, I'm not trying to...cause any trouble. I just thought...we were so close. Weren't we?"
"You know we were. Benny...I love you like a brother. You're not nearly stupid enough not to know that."
"Now I suppose I'm the one who should be flattered." A little hint of the pissy, but mostly his voice was too dull to carry it off.
Dead silence. Ray was maliciously glad that they seemed as uncomfortable as he'd been since the beginning of this conversation.
He didn't expect Vecchio to be the one who broke it, though. "Is that why it never worked between you two? Are you telling me it was because of me?"
"Never...worked?" Weak attempt at innocence, there, Fraser, buddy.
"Don't even, Fraser. Don't play that with me. I know, all right?"
"For God's sake, Fraser, just say it! Just be a man and fucking say it, all right?"
"It's been five years. You can fucking say it." Ray barely stifled the automatic urge to reach up and stroke his partner, who was trembling tightly with some emotional strain that Ray couldn't figure at all. This was all just...so complicated. And he was still kinda drunk. Why couldn't anyone around here just dish it out, straight up? Why was there always some game, some dance, some things you had to say and some things you never could? All of them wearing their poker faces, double-bluff and playing everything close to the chest.
"I think we should end this conversation here."
"You would think that, you coward. I want to hear it. I want you to say it!"
"I love him!"
Wow. With whipped cream and a cherry on top.
And how come this wasn't a mouth-drying, stomach-dropping surprise to Vecchio? Jerk. Could warn a guy, you know.
Low, a little dangerous. "Then what's all this shit about you and me all of a sudden?"
"I don't...know. It's possible that I just...would like to hear you. Tell me. Maybe I want to know...what it's like. To love him the way you do, instead of the way I do. To be with him." Trust Fraser to get some kind of weird masochistic pleasure out of that.
Frase, you're a sick freak. And you never, ever fucking told me how it was....
Vecchio sighed, his fingertips rubbing gently into Ray's scalp. "Okay. Why did I end up with Ray. I guess...."
Quiet. Wait. Jeez, Vecchio. Don't hurt yourself trying to think of a reason....
"Man, Benny. What can I say? Because every time I think it's about to end, it doesn't. We bitch, we make up. We slag each other, we stand up for each other. We go to bed, we get up, we drink our fucking coffee, and we get on with our lives. It just...keeps going."
"You called me a coward."
"Yeah, well...I call you a lot of things."
"It's difficult for me to discuss my feelings."
"It's just as difficult for you. But you hide it better."
Vecchio made a dismissive little noise. But Fraser was coming in for the kill now, his voice all sweet and deep and smug like every time he was about to make a point -- right between your eyes. "I think I'd like to hear you say it, Ray."
"That you love Ray."
Annoyed, now, Vecchio snapped, "You know that."
"I want to hear you say it." Inexorable.
"I -- do."
"Obviously, but indulge me. Tell me so."
"Go fuck yourself, Fraser."
"Really, Ray. Language."
"This is stupid! He's my -- partner -- husband, shit, I don't know. He's Ray. You know how it is with us."
"Do you find it so difficult to discuss in all situations, or just with me?"
"I -- love him. You happy? I'm so goddamn in love with him that I can't -- breathe -- think -- stand the way you look at him. All right?"
More silence. So stupid, pretending to be asleep, taking it this far.
"I should...go. It's late."
"Benny. I'm sorry. That was a stupid thing to say."
"No. Truly, Ray. I understand."
He laughed, and it sounded more than a little forced. "I don't think that makes me feel any better."
"You'll feel better in the morning." Creak of Ray's chair, as Fraser stood up. "Shall I meet you for lunch again tomorrow?"
"Yeah. If you're gonna be passive-agressively avoiding the job you hate but need so you can be promoted back to Chicago, then who am I to hold you back? Let's have lunch."
"You make an excellent enabler, Ray."
"You're as crazy as they come. You know that, don't you?"
"Thanks to you. My friend."
Even behind closed eyelids, Ray could see the shadow, the darkness of Fraser hovering over him, bigger than life. He sensed more than heard the kiss -- it was quiet, quiet like he remembered the Yukon being about this hour of the night, but not what Ray would call quick.
And then, completely unexpected, warmth and a rush of displaced air, the still-familiar woolen-warm scent of Fraser. His hand, hovering just above Ray Kowalski's cheek, shadow-stroking his face without making contact.
"Benny. Please. You're killing me, here."
"I'm terribly sorry, Ray." The sensation disappeared, Fraser's heavy presence receding. "Tell him I intended to wish him a happy birthday."
"Yeah. Night, Benny."
After the sounds of Fraser rousing Dief and the two of them clicking softly to the door, claws and hard-heeled boots on the bare wood floors of Ray's living room, the unmistakable sounds of a door opening and closing again, there was more silence, broken only by Vecchio's long, soft sigh as he ran his fingers through Ray's hair in a repetitive, lulling rhythm.
Finally, finally, finally, he shook Ray by the shoulder, giving him the excuse he needed to open his eyes, turn his head and look around. "Let's go to bed, huh?"
"Everybody gone?" Not liking himself very much for playing this game, but...but how else could you play it at this point?
"Yeah. It's way past midnight, Cinderella."
"Some party, huh?"
"Social event of the season. And I don't know about you, but I'm too old for it. I wanna go to bed."
Ray sat up, and he didn't have to fake the yawn that stretching out his back brought on. Vecchio scratched his back absently, a gesture that somehow coming on top of everything else tonight, brought a weak feeling to Kowalski's arms and legs. He could feel those well-trimmed nails just like they were on his skin instead of his t-shirt, and he could feel that bedrock, instinctive, everyday affection coming off of Vecchio like it was a birthday present someone had set in his hands.
He leaned back, just a little, just enough to brush Vecchio's lips with his. Vecchio shivered at the faint touch, and a little snarky arrogance flashed through Ray. Fraser's kiss didn't make him shiver like that. "Gonna make me feel like I was thirty-nine again tonight?" he asked huskily, letting his breath warm Vecchio's lips.
Slowly, Vecchio took him by the hair agaain, kissed him harder, right to the edge of a full-on make-out kiss and hovering there, then easing off carefully. "Party animal."
"You know it."
"Yeah. Yeah. I want you."
"You love me."
"I sure as hell do." True enough. As close to everything on the table as you could get -- as you'd ever need.