Author's Note: Thanks to the usual suspects: Julad, Mia, Resonant, Merry, Gear, and Linda.
Emendation: Okay, so the thing is? The below version of the story wasn't the first version of the story. The first version of the story was a) more incomprehensible and b) smarm. Being worried about this, I tried to come up with a version that was less incomprehensible and not smarm. In truth, I don't think either version of the story actually captures what was in my head. Sometimes, you just lose. Anyway. In the interests of full disclosure, I present Until Midnight: The Demo Version. Feel free to ignore it.
Things were a little crazy when Fraser called, which meant that Ray didn't get to think about the call till later.
The bullpen was chock-a-block full of criminals, all of them screaming for lawyers. There were perps handcuffed to chairs, to the legs of tables, to the heating pipes—to anything heavy or nailed down. Ray himself was personally trying to interview some guy who insisted that he'd never even been near the gas station in question, and even if he had, he didn't rob it—and okay, even if he had robbed it, he'd been legally insane at the time.
In the middle of this, the phone rang, so Ray wasn't at his best when he swiped the receiver out of its cradle. "Vecchio—what?"
"Hello, Ray, it's me."
"Hey there, Fraser." Ray tucked the mouthpiece under his chin and snarled viciously at Legally Insane Guy, just in case he got any funny ideas. "What can I do for you?" he asked, yanking the mouthpiece back up.
"You sound busy." Fraser always had an amazing knack for the obvious. "Is this a bad time?"
"Yeah, terrible time—I got perps hanging from the ceiling—so talk quick or lemme call you back."
"Ah. Well. All right," Fraser said hurriedly. "I was just calling to see...or rather, I wanted to ask you if..."
Ray spun his hand frantically in the air even though Fraser couldn't see him do it. "Come on, come on, while I'm young—"
"Do you want to have dinner with—"
"Sure, yeah." Ray grabbed for a pencil. "Where and when?"
"Tonight. Eight o'clock," Fraser replied promptly. "At the Parkland."
Ray scribbled "Parkland @ 8" on his blotter and said, "Right, done, see you then."
So it was only later, when Legally Insane Guy had been booked, and Indecent Exposure Guy was cooling his noodle in the tank with Drunk and Disorderly Guy, and Welsh had actually come out of his office to mutter, "Good work today," which had stunned the entire bullpen into silence, what with fear of the impending apocalypse, that Ray sat down at his desk with a powdered donut and a cup of coffee and glanced down at his blotter.
"Parkland @ 8."
Holy shit. Holy fucking...and if the message hadn't been in his own chicken-scratch handwriting, Ray would have sworn it was some kind of mistake. Except now he could hear Fraser saying it: "Hello, Ray... Do you want to have dinner?"
But the Parkland, for Christ's sake. Since when could Fraser afford the fucking Parkland? Since when did Fraser want to eat at a place like the Parkland even if he could afford it? Fraser's favorite food was... now, lessee, what was it? Oh, yeah: dried meat in a bag.
This was some bad, bad juju here. Bad omen-o-rama.
Ray had a sudden, vivid picture of Stella. There were little pink rosebuds between them, pale yellow walls behind her, cream-colored linen spread out on the table and too many freakin' forks. Stella was ordering for both of them, Stella always ordered for both of them, like she didn't trust him to pronounce Chateau Briand or fois gras or canard.
So he would sit there while she ordered and stare down at his ragged, black-edged fingernails. Bottle of Chardonnay, seafood bisque... hmm, how's the Sole Meunière today? He said nothing. He had nothing to say.
It took him years to figure out that this was the restaurant's key attraction. Stella took him there when she had something to tell him and she wanted him to shut up. "Ray, I just got an offer from the State's Attorney's Office." "Ray, I think we need some time apart." "Ray, I want a divorce." Stella took him to the Parkland when she was afraid he'd make a scene.
And god, how he wanted to make scenes! Oh, the scenes he wanted to make! He wanted to smash the china, hurl the stupid pink roses across the dining room, disturb those fancy-ass people eating their fancy-ass dinners!
Instead he sat there, paralyzed. He thought that probably had something to do with the cold, rich faces at the neighboring tables. They'd just shake their heads and pity him.
Mighty Fucking White, as his friend Lamar used to say.
So Ray ate whatever Stella ordered. By the time Stella suggested that they meet at the Parkland to sign their divorce papers, Ray'd felt so brutalized and exhausted that he'd just mumbled, "All right. Yeah. Okay," and eaten his coq au vin without protest. When Stella handed him the papers, he pushed his plate aside and put his glasses on and made a big show of reading all the fine print. Actually, he couldn't see a goddamned thing; his vision was fractured. He saw the back of his hand, the half-filled wineglass, Stella's shoulder. He swiped at his eyes and his wrist came away wet.
Finally, he nodded and stretched out his hand, palm up. "Pen," he said, and Stella fished around in her expensive handbag and produced a pen that had to be worth four hundred bucks—no flickin' Bic, this. Ray took it and carefully signed his name on the dotted line, right next to the little yellow sticky that said, "PLEASE SIGN HERE" and right above his carefully typewritten name.
Stanley R. Kowalski.
Mother of God, how he hated the fucking Parkland.
Ray picked up the phone and dialed the Consulate, but the message machine picked up and asked him, very politely, to please call again during normal Canadian business hours. On a whim, Ray dialed information and got the Parkland's number, and thirty seconds later he was being informed that yes, Constable Fraser had made a reservation for that evening. Eight o'clock, table for two—was that correct?
"Yeah," Ray said and put the receiver down slowly. He cupped his coffee mug in both hands and tried to ignore the tightening knots in his stomach.
Fraser was leaving. Fraser was transferring back to the Northwestern Areas. A fancy dinner, the last huzzah. Fraser'd break the news to him, Ray'd put his game face on, and they'd have a couple of drinks for the road—a toast!
Here's to Canada! and hockey! and—whatever! Beavers! The Queen! The Queen's Beaver!
Then they'd reminisce about old times: "Remember how we drove into the lake?" "Remember how I measured your nose?" "Remember that thing with the ReddiWhip and the automatic weapons?" Oh yeah, those were the days, such were the joys. More fun than a barrel of monkeys.
"I'll come up and visit," Ray would say, but that was such bullshit. How was he even gonna find Fraser up in Tuktoyoctopus? He was betting there was no holiday package tour on Delta.
"I'll write to you, Ray," Fraser would insist, but Ray would bet that the postal service up where Fraser lived was nothing to write home about. The mail probably came by sled dog, or worse.
So there'd be lies and booze and mussels in white wine sauce. Then Ray would get drunk and end up crying alone in his car.
A typical evening at the Parkland, in Ray's experience. He tried to get ready for it.
When Ray showed up at ten after eight, the head waiter told him that Fraser was waiting for him at the bar.
Ray pushed through the heavy stained glass door which separated the bar room from the main dining room. There were mostly couples here—nicely dressed couples, having drinks—and if Ray squinted he could see himself and Stella, so he didn't squint. Instead he tracked for red, but that just brought his eye to a blonde in a silk dress, a guy in a red tie, another guy in a burgundy leather jacket—where the hell was Fraser?
Ray was on the verge of going back to the maitre d's podium when he spotted him. Fraser was sitting at the bar, wearing normal-person clothes (black pants, blue shirt, no red in sight), and drinking something that looked suspiciously like whiskey.
Fuck, Fraser was leaving town, all right. Ray only hoped he wasn't going, like— tomorrow.
Ray weaved his way around the chatting couples and slid onto the barstool next to Fraser's. "Hey there."
Fraser looked up from his drink and smiled warmly, and Ray had the sudden sharp intuition of how much losing him was gonna hurt. "Hi, Ray, glad you could make it. How was your day?"
"You know. Whatever. Same old," Ray said, and then he looked over at the approaching bartender and said, with a jerky, sideways nod at Fraser, "I'll have what he's having."
"Work sounded particularly eventful," Fraser suggested, and Ray rolled his eyes and explained about Legally Crazy Guy and the whole nutty afternoon he'd had. "Hmm," Fraser said, when he'd heard the whole story. "Well, but you got a confession out of him, didn't you? He admitted he was there, that he robbed the gas station—"
"He admitted it, sure, but see if it sticks." Ray picked up his drink and took a sip; whisky, yes, and it was the good stuff, single malt. "All God's children got lawyers, Fraser. Half those guys'll walk, wait and see."
Fraser's lips twisted wryly and he nodded, apparently admitting the truth of this. "That's very frustrating, Ray, I'm sorry," Fraser said. He was slowly and precisely turning his glass around in a circle.
"Frustrating is right," Ray agreed, "but it's not my problem. Our job is to catch them, let somebody else try to keep them. Let Stella—" he instantly wished he hadn't mentioned Stella, "—let the D.A. lose sleep over it. Me, I'm going to enjoy this drink now." Ray touched his glass to Fraser's until they clinked softly. "To, um...uh..."
"To a long life. And a merry one." Fraser tossed back the rest of his glass.
At Fraser's suggestion, they moved into the restaurant proper. Ray tried to keep his eyes focused on the back of Fraser's shirt; the room was full of ghosts that looked like him, that looked like Stella. Ugly, ugly things. Ray had accurately remembered the yellow walls and the pink roses, but somehow he'd forgotten that one whole side opened onto the park. Maybe it was normally too cold, but right now it was August and the huge glass doors had been thrown wide, revealing a canopy of dark trees and a thin slice of silver-blue lake.
Ray wasn't surprised that the waiter led them to a table right near the doors. He suddenly guessed why it was that Fraser wanted to come here—from their table, if you turned your chair a little, you saw nothing but trees and water. Ray couldn't help smiling as he yanked his napkin out of his wineglass and spread it out across his lap.
For Stella, the place had been "The Parkland." For Fraser, this was about park land a lot more literally.
"So you like this, huh?" Ray spun his finger in a slow circle that took in restaurant, lake and park. "Dining out with the squirrels?"
"Yes." Fraser was only half-hearing him; he seemed caught up in the view. "I like this part of the park."
"Oh." Ray braced himself on his forearms and leaned forward. He was half hoping Fraser would cut to the chase, and half wanting to put off the bad news for as long as possible. "So," Ray said. "D'you come here often?"
To his dismay, Fraser took the question literally. "No, I've actually never eaten here before. I've always meant to," Fraser explained, "because I walk past here all the time. At night, you can see these windows glowing through the trees." Suddenly Fraser's forehead creased and he added, worriedly: "I hope the food's good. I didn't think to ask."
"The food's pretty good, Fraser," Ray admitted reluctantly. "It damn well better be—take a look at the price tag."
"Oh?" Fraser glanced down at his menu for the first time. His eyes perceptibly widened. "Oh..."
Ray nodded his head glumly, sympathetically. "Yeah, I know. Enough money to feed Tuktoyaktuk for a week." He wondered if Fraser would take the bait, but Fraser was totally engrossed in the menu. "You know, we don't have to stay," Ray added, hopefully. "We could go eat at—"
"No," Fraser said slowly, still reading, "no, let's stay here. It's expensive, but everything sounds really—" Fraser looked up suddenly and added, awkwardly, "My treat, of course."
Ray got a sudden cold feeling. This was deja vu all over again. "You don't have to."
"I picked the restaurant," Fraser explained. "It's only fair I should pick up the check."
"I said I don't want you to. Okay? So just don't." Ray's mouth felt very dry suddenly, which made it hard to talk. He reached for his water glass, nearly knocking over one of his empty wine glasses—red, white, how many glasses did a human being need? "We'll split it. Like we always do."
Fraser looked away through the trees, and when he turned back, Ray found it hard to gauge his expression. "All right, Ray. If you insist."
Fraser had some kind of fresh fish with lemon and capers, a fancy rice side-dish, and three more glasses of whisky.
Ray had the chateau briand and an argument with himself. Ask him. Don't ask him. He knew exactly what he needed to ask, too—"So. Fraser. What's the occasion?"—except he didn't want to know what the occasion was.
All news was bad news at the Parkland, and nothing was real until Fraser made it real by saying it out loud.
Still, though, what else could it be with Mr. Perfect Mountie knocking drinks back like that? Ray wished he had a video recorder or something, because nobody was ever going to believe this. Fraser was quietly soaking, aided and abetted by the efficient waiter service, which always had a fresh drink at your elbow before you even knew you wanted one.
The waiter finally brought the check over to them in a soft leather folder. Fraser reached out for it so steadily and deliberately that Ray was sure he was completely kerboozled. "You okay there, Fraser?" he asked suspiciously.
Fraser blinked owlishly down at the check, then pulled a wad of bills from his front shirt pocket and carefully began counting. Ray scrambled to work his own wallet out of his back pocket. "Yes, Ray," Fraser said without looking up, as if looking up would disrupt his concentration. "I'm fine."
Ray glanced over the check, registered the amount, and handed his half to Fraser. Fraser counted and recounted the money before finally pushing it toward the center of the table. "Do you want to take a walk?" Fraser asked.
Ray hesitated in the act of shoving his wallet back into his pants pocket; this was probably it. Just like Fraser not to want to ruin their meal with unpleasant news. Fraser wasn't Stella. In fact, Fraser was nothing like Stella.
"Sure," Ray said, and then he took a deep breath and went for it. "I'm betting you have something to tell me, right?"
Fraser looked surprised. "Yeah. I—yes." Fraser nodded and kept nodding, like maybe he'd lost control of his head. He put his hands down on the table to balance himself as he stood.
"Yeah, that's what I figured," Ray sighed, "because—" and a second later, he was out of his chair and grabbing Fraser's arm to steady him, because Fraser had just fucking teetered. "Whoa—!"
"I'm fine," Fraser said instantly. He sounded perfectly normal and exactly like Fraser, except that Fraser never fucking teetered. Fraser could juggle chainsaws on a high wire and not teeter. "Really, Ray," Fraser said gently, though he didn't pull away from Ray's hands. "I'm perfectly fine."
Ray couldn't seem to unclench his fingers. "Maybe—you know. We should call it a night. I'll drive you home and—"
Fraser stepped close, seeming to fill all the space between them. His voice was quiet and insistent and maybe even a little desperate. "Take a walk with me, Ray. I have something to tell you."
"All right," Ray said, feeling pretty desperate himself. "Okay."
Together they walked out through the French doors and down the stone steps into the park proper. Once outside, they followed the asphalt path towards the water until Fraser decided to veer off through the trees. The grass here was kind of slippery, plus Ray found it hard to see with the streetlights so far away.
Still, Fraser seemed to know where he was going, and how lost could they get in a city park, anyway?
They ended up at a bend of the lake where Ray'd never been before, which was weird because he could have sworn that he'd biked the whole Chicago lakefront, back and forth, a thousand times. Still, the bike path didn't always stick tight to the shore, so there were pieces you missed, places you could only get to on foot.
This looked like one of those places: an isolated bend in the coastline, far from the path, where the ground gently curved up to overlook the water. Some bright park planner had stuck a bench there, planted a streetlight, and provided a trash can.
Fraser leaned against the heavy iron railing and stared out across the dark water, the wind blowing his hair back. Ray lit a cigarette and paced out the area behind him, circling the bench, taking in the beer bottles in the trash, the cigarette butts in the dirt. This place had all the hallmarks of a lover's lane, a place to meet or neck or fuck.
Finally Ray crushed his cigarette out under his boot and went to stand next to Fraser. The wind off the lake felt good for a change, cooled his skin, cooled his brain. He took a deep breath and prepared to ask his question.
"So, hey," Ray said softly. Fraser took his eyes off the water and trained them on Ray's face. "What's the occasion, Fraser?"
To his surprise, Fraser raised his wrist and glanced down at his watch. Ray looked down at his own wristwatch—nearly eleven, whatever that meant. When Ray looked up again, he noticed that Fraser was staring fixedly out across the water again, and his face was reddening fast.
"It's my birthday, actually. For another sixty-five minutes, to be exact."
Ray just stared at him; he couldn't really process what he was hearing. "Your birthday?"
Fraser nodded awkwardly, his face getting redder and redder.
"Today's your birthday?" Ray repeated, and again, Fraser nodded. "Why the hell didn't you say something?" Ray exploded, flinging his arms up into the air. "I mean, you really could have said something."
"I know. But I didn't know how to mention it." Fraser nervously rubbed his right temple with his fingertips; a familiar nervous tic. "It's stupid, I know."
A birthday dinner, for Christ's sake! Fraser'd just wanted a decent dinner on his birthday—a fresh fish, a couple of drinks. Fraser wasn't going anywhere. Ray felt almost giddy with relief.
"I don't normally celebrate my birthday," Fraser said quietly; he'd gone back to looking at the water. "But this year, I thought... I don't know what I thought." He shook his head, shrugged a little. "I thought it would be nice to have dinner with you."
Right. Suddenly Ray understood—this year, Fraser had taken the bull by the horns and planned his own birthday dinner, bought his own birthday drink, orchestrated his own birthday treat. Dinner with Ray at the Parkland.
Ray stared at Fraser's profile, watched the wind blow through his hair. He wished he had something to give Fraser, a dreamcatcher, maybe. A city one for Chicago, made out of butcher's string and pigeon feathers.
"You should have said something, Fraser."
Fraser shrugged, licking nervously at his lip. "I'm not good at saying things."
"Yeah. No. You're really not." Ray's eyes drifted away from Fraser's face and moved down Fraser's blue shirt, which was light and tight enough to let him see the shape of Fraser's chest, the outline of his muscles. "I mean, for a guy who talks a lot, you sure clam up fast."
Ray glanced up quick to see if Fraser was teasing him, but Fraser seemed perfectly serious. Ray raised his hand, took an educated guess, and felt Fraser's nipple rise under his fingertip. "Which I get, you know? I really get that," Ray said.
Fraser hissed a little, and closed his eyes.
"Sometimes you just, don't have words when you need them." Ray thought Fraser's hair smelled really nice, and he buried his nose and mouth in it. "What's that word?" he murmured.
"Yeah." Ray felt more than heard the deep breath Fraser took; it was an inhalation like when you smell something wonderful, hot coffee or bacon or something like that. Fraser's hands were warm on his body where they clutched at his sides. Fraser's mouth was warm and wet on his ear, tonguing it gently, making him shiver. It took him a moment to realize that Fraser was humming happily.
"Happy birthday," Ray whispered.
Fraser's voice was a warm gust of air at Ray's ear, stirring his hair. "Mmm?"
Ray tried again. "Happy b—" but then Fraser's mouth was on his, and Ray held him and kissed him until after midnight.