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Sixteenth of June
I spotted Ray's face at his apartment window just too late to duck out of sight. I'd changed out of the uniform and left Diefenbaker at the Consulate, but apparently I was still not so inconspicuous as I would have liked. I heard the window opening and his voice shouting something indistinct, and a moment later he was calling to me from the outer door of the building.
A kitchen chair was pulled up to the window, and a glass sat on the sill. He saw me looking at them. "Yeah, moping, so what?" he said, half challenge and half joke. "It's that kinda night." He took my overcoat, opened the closet door, and, finding no empty hangers inside, hung it over his leather jacket. "So what are you doing over here?"
Moping, in a sense. "I didn't intend to disturb you. My evening walk took me into your neighborhood." I didn't choose to volunteer the fact that every evening's walk brought me here.
I recalled with chagrin his ex-wife's mouth shaping the word: "Stalker." It wasn't the same thing, I thought weakly. I was in no way trying to control him or frighten him or keep tabs on his movements. I certainly didn't harbor any illusion that I had the right to any role in his life greater than the one he granted me by choice.
I simply found that it gave me pleasure to be near him, even if he wasn't aware of my presence.
Well, especially if he wasn't aware of my presence. When he was unaware, I could think what I liked. When he was present, as now, I had to carefully guard my thoughts for fear of letting slip something inappropriate. In both public and personal matters, I often had cause to be thankful for all the questions people didn't think to ask, but Ray was a good detective and given to some rather surprising leaps of insight.
There in his apartment, sharing a soft drink and some meaningless conversation under the watchful eyes of his wedding photograph, I found it easy to be careful. Time enough to let my mind roam freely when I was alone.
"April is the cruelest month," the old gentleman intoned from the back seat of the GTO, handcuffs rattling as he clasped his hands and turned his eyes heavenward.
"Unless you're the IRS," Ray called over his shoulder. "Who are probably also gonna want a word with you, DuSable, unless you been reporting the money you made from selling fake Lotto tickets, which excuse me if I kinda doubt."
"You have no poetry in your soul," the counterfeiter said. "I'll bet the constable understands."
"Breeding lilacs out of the dead land," I answered. Here in Chicago it was too early for lilacs, but through the window I could see blooms on a number of trees whose names I had not yet learned. "A blossom on a bare branch, before the leaves return, is a potent image of hope," I said. "And at times hope can be very painful."
Ray looked at me as if he were astonished to find that he agreed with me. "It is, isn't it," he said. "It's like, it's like, what's that thing where they cut your arm off but your fingers still hurt?"
"That's a ... unique way of looking at it, Ray."
"No, he has a very good analogy," Mr. DuSable said.
"Thanks," Ray said. "Everybody says that. I take after my mother's side."
"On the other hand, it's certainly possible that --" I glanced over to see if Ray was following my analysis and found that he was nowhere in sight. Diefenbaker, too, seemed to have deserted me.
I retraced my steps and found them half a block back. Dief was looking at Ray, and Ray was looking at a shop window.
I looked, too, but I couldn't see what had riveted his attention so. Glossy potted azaleas which had no chance of surviving in this climate. Galvanized tubs of roses and daisies and tulips ...
"What is it, Ray?"
Ray shook himself all over like Dief awaking from a nap. "Sorry, sorry," he said, and began to walk again. "So you were gonna say those two shootings, they could just have nothing to do with each other?"
Dief sneezed -- as if I needed a reminder not to be distracted from the point. "Ray, what were you looking at?"
"Nothing. Just -- corsages." He looked sheepish. "Somewhere in Chicago it's prom night."
He gave what I had come to think of as the Stella Shrug: a sort of cross between a shrug and a cringe. In his whole vast repertoire of physical expressions, this was the only one that lacked grace. I fancied I was seeing the awkward adolescent he had once been.
"Just remembering," he said. "Always gets me this time of year."
He squared his shoulders and sped his steps. "So. Two shootings, same day, same street, both known associates of Pete Duckenfeld -- you wanna tell me how you get coincidence outta that?"
Lord knows I understand how a man can come to spend his love on an unworthy object. But sometimes I hate the woman.
Both of them.
I sniffed the inside of the GTO with relief. Liz Claiborne. So it was Michelle again.
For the first month or so of our acquaintance, Ray's car had smelled of no one but Ray. Then one morning it had been strongly scented with White Diamonds, and I had thought, with a combination of approval and jealousy: Ah. He's dating again.
But the next day the car had smelled of Chloe, and two days later of CK One, and four days after that of Emeraude. Three to four new aromas a week. I didn't care for what this suggested. Especially considering that not everyone wears scent.
Once it had been Gray Flannel. And once I was almost certain I had smelled Rogaine.
But then Ray and a blonde trauma nurse had testified at the same trial. He had taken her out for coffee and come back to the station beaming and for once not complaining about wearing a tie. And his car had smelled like Liz Claiborne ever since.
I resolutely permitted myself only positive thoughts about Michelle. She had very fine taste.
In perfume, as well.
"Shut up, Fraser."
"Ray!" I confess that I was a little sharp. "Under the circumstances, rudeness is even more unhelpful than usual."
"Under the circumstances? Under the circumstances?" I couldn't see him, but he didn't sound happy. "What circumstances would that be? The circumstances where we're in the back of a tractor-trailer full of Chia Pets headed for Wisconsin? The circumstances where we'd still be back at the warehouse with the wolf if you'd done like he did and jumped outta the trailer when I said 'Jump!' instead of saying, 'Why, Ray?' Are those the circumstances you mean?"
"We weren't trapped in a speeding truck the first time you said 'Shut up' to me today," I said wearily. "Nor the third, nor the twelfth."
"Well, if at any of those times you actually had shut up, maybe I wouldn't have had to say it again." I could hear his sigh over the road sounds, which were extraordinarily loud in the unpadded trailer.
The truck took a turn much too fast, flinging us both against the side, and I could hear crockery breaking inside the padded cardboard boxes. "Something tells me that the safety of these planters is not the driver's first priority," I told Ray.
"Every year I think this day can't possibly suck any more, and every year the universe is nice enough to prove me wrong."
I frowned. "I'm afraid I don't --"
"It's June the sixteenth. Ray's A Loser Day." And when I didn't answer: "My anniversary."
I began to get the sinking, and all too familiar, feeling that I was out of my emotional depth. I leaned back against a carton of novelty planters and said nothing.
"What, I don't seem like the anniversary kind of guy?" I heard him shifting uncomfortably. "I dunno. How would I know? Whatever it is Stella likes, I'm the kind of guy that does that. -- Truck's slowing down. Can you tell which way we're going?"
"Northwest," I said.
"We cross any rivers?"
"I don't believe so. I've heard six freeway overpasses, though."
"Carlyle has big buyers in Milwaukee and Detroit," he mused. "But this cargo doesn't seem packed for a long haul. I'm betting we won't get far outta the state."
"We might be following the river to a location convenient for water transport."
It was extremely hot and uncomfortable in the back of the truck. A faint scent of spearmint and sweat rose up out of the darkness, marking Ray's location. I fanned myself with my hat.
"Stella's in for a shock, though," Ray said after a moment.
"Yeah. Now she's dating again, she's gonna find out not every guy will buy her flowers on the anniversary of their first kiss. Which was October twelfth, if you're wondering, which you probably weren't. It is really stinking hot in here."
"I quite agree." The truck decelerated again, and the tone of the noise changed. "We've left the state-maintained highway now."
I heard Ray draw his gun, and then there was a long silence.
"Sixteenth of June, eighty-seven," Ray said. "Five-thirty. St. Bartholomew." The truck was braking sharply. "Our folks don't even know how to talk to each other, but we don't care. I'm crazy in love and she still thinks I'm -- I dunno. Some kinda --"
The truck was stopping now, and we both stood as we heard the latch turning and saw the first bit of daylight under the hatch.
"Some kinda daredevil hero superman guy, I dunno -- All right. On three. One -- two --"
The hatch opened, and we jumped.
It was something of a liberty, I was well aware. But when the scent of Liz Claiborne had completely faded from the GTO, I went to Ray's apartment one evening uninvited, accompanied by a hungry wolf and bearing bags of sandwiches from a deli which Ray loved but which was too busy for us to frequent during working hours.
Ray appeared neither surprised nor especially pleased at my visit, but he let me in without comment and waved me and my bags toward the coffee table. He reeled off a succession of ever stranger beverage choices -- key lime soda? peach iced tea? -- before bringing a glass of water for me and a perfectly ordinary beer for himself.
"So," he said, unwrapping a still-warm pastrami sandwich, "you're bringing food. You figured out Chelle dumped me."
"I assumed you had had some bad news, yes."
He nodded and wiped his chin with the heel of his hand, swallowing too quickly in his haste to speak. "It wasn't the 'This isn't working out' speech. Just the 'We need to slow it down' speech."
"That's better?" I murmured around a mouthful of roast beef.
"Exactly the same only it takes longer," he said. Then without warning he slid down to sit on the floor. After a moment, I gathered up the bags and slid down beside him, pushing the coffee table out of the way.
"It wasn't like I was just in a big rush to go to bed with her," he said. Then he snorted. "I mean, yeah, I wanted to go to bed with her, she's -- jeez, you've seen her. You've heard her voice. That little laugh. You know?"
"But it wasn't just that. Really, it's not like I just wanted -- I mean, I like her. You know? She's funny and smart and, and brave and ... and her little boy is ..."
"I know," I told him. "And what's more, I imagine she knew all that, too."
Ray sighed, an explosive sigh that stirred the dust on the living room floor. "Yeah." His laugh sounded dry. He dropped his empty wrapper carelessly to the floor, where Dief immediately nosed it open in search of any stray bit of pastrami that might remain.
"I think that -- pacing -- is a common problem with the first serious relationship after a divorce," I offered.
He glared at me for a moment, but made no comment. There followed a long, brooding silence, broken only by the sound of Dief eating the potato chips which Ray was giving him when he thought I wasn't paying attention. At last he sighed again and leaned his head back against the couch, baring the long line of his throat for me to look at surreptitiously.
"Fraser," he said, "I wanna go home."
My first reaction was a kind of baffled, self-pitying anger. He thought he felt far from home? Hard on its heels came the warm empathy of one exile for another. But I knew all too well how little comfort mere words could provide, so I said nothing.
"I guess," he said after a moment, "this is home."
"All I'm saying," Stella said from her perch on the green couch in Lieutenant Welsh's office, "is that I can't file a bill of indictment without that tape. So I'm counting on you to find the tape, and I do mean immediately."
"I can assure you, Ms. Kowalski, that our team is doing all it can." The lieutenant's tone said very clearly that the meeting was over.
She lingered as the lieutenant and the other assistant left the room. I needed to speak with Ray, so I waited outside the door, not intentionally eavesdropping but not exactly innocent of dishonest intent.
"Thanks," she said. "It was sweet of you to remember." I recalled that she was wearing an orchid on her lapel.
"Like I'm gonna forget," he said. "You don't look a day over 34." She laughed. "So you doing anything?"
"Mom's doing a big family dinner on Sunday," she said. "Tonight I might just go out with some people after work."
"Want me to buy you dinner?"
She didn't answer right away. After a moment, I heard a little laugh. "Yes," she said, "but don't." He must have been protesting without words, because she defended herself: "You know how it would end."
"It doesn't have to," he said.
"If it doesn't, I'll wish it had," she said. "And if it does --"
"Yeah, I know. I know that," he said.
"And besides," she said, and there was a warmth in her voice that I hadn't heard before, "I can't -- you're not my backup boyfriend or something. You've got a life to live too."
"Not like anybody wants to offer me a fulltime gig," he said, but he had given in, and his next words proved it. "No, you're right. It's just -- I miss you sometimes, Stel. The way things were."
"I miss the way things were, too," she said. "But --"
"Yeah." A breath, a rustle of fabric. His voice was muffled. "Happy birthday."
I moved away from the door, and was trying to appear engrossed in a bulletin board when she came out, touching the corner of her eye with her little finger. She nodded as she passed, but didn't speak.
We had the misfortune of finding ourselves on a two-lane road behind a school bus on its afternoon route, which meant a stop approximately every two blocks. Ray swore and twitched for half a mile or so and then resigned himself to the delay and relaxed.
The passengers were in their early teens. The boys' clothes were enormous and the girls' were unimaginably tiny.
"Do you know," he said, "if Stella'd actually been pregnant the first time she thought she was pregnant, I could have a kid that age? Unbelievable."
I tried to imagine Ray being responsible for the well-being of one of these slouching amalgams of hormones and boredom. Wondered if he felt regret or relief. "But she wasn't."
"Aw, no." He waved it away. "Not that time, and not the next time, and not any of the next sixteen times before she finally went on the pill. Just the nervous type, I guess. Thinking she was gonna miss a period was enough to make her miss a period."
He gave me a sideways look. "You ever had to deal with that? Terrified girl with a stick in a cup full of pee going, 'Oh, please, God, no'?"
"No." Further discussion on this subject was going to reveal more about my sexual history than I was comfortable discussing, so I nodded at two boys climbing out of the school bus, holding their belt loops to keep their trousers in place. "Do you suppose the goal is to display their wealth by proving that they can buy more fabric than they need? Or is it a strategy to make them appear larger, like a wolf raising his hackles?"
His head turned, but I continued to look blandly out the window.
"I couldn't say, Fraser," he said.
"Ray, would you like to have dinner with me?"
He lifted his head from his paperwork and gave me a sharp look, and I could have kicked myself for my foolishness. We had dinner together several nights a week, a matter of casual agreement; I hadn't actually asked since that first time. So by speaking of it, I'd made it sound like a date.
But after a long frown in my direction, he said, "Yeah, OK," and grabbed his coat. "I could go for lasagna, how about you?"
Moments after we placed our drink order, he lowered his menu and pinned me with that same look. "Why'd you invite me here, Fraser?"
"Well, I had no particular dinner plans, and as we often dine together --" His eyes narrowed. "And I thought perhaps you could do with some company tonight."
He frowned. "What are you talking about?"
Oh, lord, had I gotten it wrong? "I'm sorry," I said. "My mistake."
He was having none of it. "Tonight what? Spit it out."
"Well, it being ... I mean, I thought that perhaps you would be recalling ... " In retrospect it seemed hideously inappropriate for me to have pushed myself into a place in Ray's romantic life where I had no business being. But further equivocation was only annoying him, so I got, reluctantly, to the point: "Your first kiss."
His eyes widened. "Holy -- how'd you find that out? I don't remember telling you about that."
"You didn't exactly tell me about it. But you mentioned the date." I felt very foolish. "And I --"
"And you remembered," he said. "And you thought you'd get me outta the house." He gave me a rather wicked grin. "Take my mind off of it."
"I'm sorry," I said. "Silly of me."
"Aw, no, no." He dropped his garlic bread and leaned forward over the table. "It was real nice of you, a real friend-type thing." Then he narrowed his eyes a little, and I could see a smile starting up in the muscles around his mouth. "And I'll do the same for all your embarrassing anniversaries as soon as you tell me all about them."
Oh, dear. I'm afraid I am precisely the sort of person who treasures up every significant date and dwells it. Even if I hadn't been keeping a secret from Ray, sharing my great litany of when-that-one-left-me would serve no purpose but to feed self-pity. "I'm trying to break the habit of ... brooding over them," I say.
He grinned. "I hear that, Fraser, old buddy. Do I ever hear that." And to my surprise, he reached across the table and gave my hand a squeeze. "Fellowship of World Champion Brooders. That's us."
He looked more fond than bitter. It seemed, unless I was mistaking my signals, to be a bonding moment. "That's us," I agreed.
The waitress arrived with our drinks, smiling at us a little pointedly, and I released Ray's hand, not wanting to embarrass him. He noticed, of course, and shot me a grin that said he knew exactly what was in my head. Then he turned the same grin on the waitress and upped the ante with a wink as he handed over his menu. Her smile got even wider.
"I'm afraid," I said as she retreated, "that she was under the mistaken impression that --"
"I know what she thought, Fraser. She was thinking, skinny one's way out of his league." He took a big gulp of iced tea. "Or else she figures I got money."
"Did you ever think," Ray said, with his mouth full of candy, "that what we're doing out here, this Tammy Whatserface is doing the exact same thing in there?"
I looked out the windshield at the dimly lighted apartment across the street. "Waiting for David Hoerr to make an appearance?"
"Even though it's pretty much a sure thing he's not gonna show, this being his twentieth wedding anniversary and all." Ray stuffed the candy wrapper in his jacket pocket. "Only difference is, she hadda shave her legs and we didn't. Least I didn't," he said, giving me a sidelong glance.
"I prefer the natural look myself," I told him.
"Yeah, well. Hoerr doesn't, that's for sure. You saw Tammy's picture."
"I believe the young woman's name is Tanya," I said. Hoerr's mistress certainly was what is termed high-maintenance. Though despite her best efforts, she had lost out to Hoerr's wife, at least for tonight.
"So what's the longest relationship you ever been in, Fraser?"
The question took me by surprise, and I wasn't sure how to answer it. "I assume you mean--" I chose my pronouns carefully, as is my habit -- "a relationship with someone who is actually present?"
"What other kind -- oh. Yeah. No, long-distance don't count," he said. He looked as though he wanted to ask me a question, but after a moment he changed his mind and went on, "And neither does, like, one-way obsession, either, if you're that type."
"Then -- just over a year, I suppose." A light had gone out in the apartment of Tanya St. James, nee Tammy Roschwalb, but a dim, warm glow remained in what must be the bedroom. A low-wattage lamp for atmosphere, I thought; it was too steady for candlelight.
"Mm." There was a silence while we pursued our separate reminiscences. "Thing about when you been married eleven years, Fraser, it's not just a relationship any more, you know? I mean, the relationship's the least of it, in a way."
This baffled me. "How so?"
"Well, take Stella and me. You got the yelling and the making up and the talking all night long, blah blah blah, so by the time you actually say, Hit the road, Jack, it's almost a relief, you know?"
A limousine pulled up in front of the mouth of the alley where we were parked, and we both trained our binoculars long enough to confirm that it wasn't Hoerr. Tanya's light was still burning upstairs. I wondered whether she, too, were watching the limousine to see who the passenger was.
"So you moved out," I prompted Ray as the car drove away.
"So I moved out," he agreed. "And then there's all this bullshit paperwork -- the bank account and the life insurance and the lease." He twitched with remembered dismay. "And then there's the stuff -- who needs a chair more, and whose uncle gave us that lamp, and who loves Ella Fitzgerald the most."
He must have won that round, I thought; he was certainly in possession of an enviable collection of modern jazz.
"Then you gotta tell everybody," he went on, picking at a threadbare patch on the knee of his trousers. "And, Fraser, you never know how many goddamned people you know till you gotta spend a couple years telling 'em all your sad news."
Another car pulled up, but this time he didn't stop speaking while he watched it.
"And then the rough part comes, because you gotta say bye-bye to everything you thought your life was gonna look like, you know?" He aimed an imaginary gun out the windshield and started picking off imaginary targets. "Bye-bye to that Caribbean cruise you were saving up for down the line. Bye-bye to that Christmas Eve party you used to go to every year."
Now he began making shooting noises with his mouth. "Real house with a yard." Bang. "Maybe get a dog." Bang. "All those kids you were gonna have." Bang. Bang. Bang.
It was difficult to know how to respond. I had never had such a future to lose. With Hugh, with Emily -- short-term futures are all but written into relationships at, and immediately after, the Depot, when assignments are made and remade frequently.
And Victoria -- if I could even call that a relationship -- well. Even when I believed that the two of us had a future, couldn't I feel the shadow of the past, of the death we had escaped, of the justice that had stalked her? Surely I must have had an inkling, an intuition. Surely even before I knew the truth about her, I must have been able to feel, somehow, that we were on borrowed time?
To take my mind out of that well-worn and dangerous track, I spoke quickly, hardly even aware of what I was saying: "How many children did you want, Ray?"
My tone didn't match my words. I could see him noticing, and I held my breath. But he decided not to call me on the mismatch.
"Two, three maybe. I dunno." He smiled wryly. "Never really been around kids. Probably woulda hated it, really. What do you think, Fraser, am I cut out for fatherhood?"
After a moment I said, "I don't know anything about fatherhood."
If we flattened ourselves against the ballroom wall and edged very slowly sideways, we could move toward the kitchen area without stirring the heavy gold curtain that hid us from the partygoers. On the other side of the curtain, the orchestra was playing "It Had To Be You." Despite our extremely limited range of movement, Ray was somehow contriving to sidle in time to the music.
"Not yet. C'mon."
When we reached the corner, we had a bit more room to breathe; there, the curtain was set away from the wall a bit to allow the caterers to move about and store their equipment.
I checked my watch. "Eleven thirty-five."
"Might as well hang here for a minute, then." He leaned back against the wall, looking, as always, surprisingly comfortable in his tuxedo.
The band struck up "Mack the Knife." "Sounds like a good party out there," he said.
I nodded. "It's a shame you had to give up your New Year's Eve plans."
"Got no plans," he said. "New Year's Eve's hell for the dateless. Used to love it when I had a live-in dance partner, but now ..." He shrugs.
"You and Beth didn't have a date?" She was a camera operator for one of the TV news teams; he'd taken her out twice that month, and I had assumed they would be spending the evening together.
But he was shaking his head. "New Year's Eve's a serious date, Fraser. We ain't that serious." He made a face. "I hate this shit."
"Dating," he said. "All this do-I-or-don't-I. All this wondering, you know? Like, are we far enough along to do New Year's Eve? Am I supposed to buy her a Christmas present or what?" He sighed explosively. "I never wanted to date. I just wanted to get on with real life, you know? The house and the kids and the dog and the noise and the mess. None of this stuff like every night's a test and you got a million ways to flunk."
My imaginary version of "real life" was rather quieter than his, but I certainly shared his discomfort with dating. "I used to enjoy greeting the new year outdoors," I offered, "though it's less appealing here, as the city lights make it difficult to see the stars."
"Huh," he said. "You want stars, we oughta take a trip up to Wisconsin. Maybe next year --"
There was a gunshot in the kitchen. Screams, glass breaking. "We're on," he said, and put his glasses on as he ran along behind the curtain toward where the noise came from.
It was Frampton, of course; his feud with the head caterer was well known, and we'd been expecting him, but I was pleasantly surprised that he seemed to have brought along only one lieutenant. Ray's first shot sent that man's gun flying. It hit a bottle of champagne, which detonated like a fizzy bomb.
Disarmed, Frampton's man, predictably, shoved a vat of chocolate mousse into our path -- my god, do they all see the same movies? We blundered stickily through it, but Ray got off a shot that hit the man in the thigh, and he went down, swearing.
Frampton began a sprint that carried him face-first into the champagne bottle I was holding. I disarmed him as he clutched at his bleeding nose, and then it was over. I glanced over just in time to see Ray hiking up his dinner jacket to unclip the cuffs from his trousers, which was a rather more inspiring image than I had expected this New Year's Eve to yield. I turned my attention back to securing Frampton while Ray called for transport.
Suddenly the ballroom roared with applause. "Hey." I looked up just in time to catch a chocolate-covered strawberry that Ray had tossed in my direction. He advanced slowly over the slick floor, grinning, and patted the side of my face, leaving a smear of chocolate mousse. "Happy new year, Fraser."
The first thing I noticed when I entered the Consulate was the yellow rose on Turnbull's desk. I could hardly miss it, as he was fussing over it lovingly, making microscopic adjustments to the fern leaves and baby's breath that garnished it, rearranging the items on his desktop to give the vase a more advantageous spot.
"Oh, good morning, sir," he said as I removed my hat. "You wouldn't have a one-cent piece about your person, would you? Or an aspirin tablet?"
"I might have some change in my office," I told him. "Did you check with Inspector Thatcher for aspirin?"
"She prefers ibuprofen, which of course won't serve the purpose at all." He followed me down the hall with a last adoring glance at his flower.
In her office, Inspector Thatcher was looking at a white rose with the expression she usually reserved for kittens, small children, and other creatures whom she suspected of using their charm to get the better of her. I did notice, though, that she had placed her blossom in a vase, and placed the vase in a position of honor beneath her portrait of Winston Churchill.
"Ah, there you are, Constable," she said. "Would you be so good as to find poor Turnbull the coin and the aspirin that he so urgently needs?"
"I'll do my best."
"I do appreciate it, sir," he said eagerly as we continued toward my office. "An aspirin tablet dropped into a vase, as you may know, will prolong the life of the bloom by increasing the acidity of the water, while a copper-alloy coin will alter the mineral balance so as to --"
Ray was sitting in my chair. His feet were on my desk, right next to a red rose in a plastic cup.
"Hey, Fraser, you got a penny and an aspirin?"
"If you have a headache, you'll need two aspirin," I said, going behind the desk and moving his feet to one side to gain access to the drawer. "And if you expect the headache to kill you, you'll need two pennies." But as I thought, there were a small bottle of aspirin and a few American bills among the other oddments in my drawer.
"There you are, Turnbull," I said, giving them to him. "If you'll step next door and purchase a cup of coffee for Detective Vecchio, you can ask for your change in any combination of coins you prefer."
If I hadn't already guessed that Ray was the source of this botanical largesse, his smug smile would have given it away. "Red?" I asked as he yielded my chair.
"What else?" he asked, giving me a sound finger-thump in the middle of my tunic-clad chest.
"When did you become a florist?" I noted that he'd been in my office long enough to leave the chair warm.
"Last night I was feeling all sorry for myself, you know? On account of here's another Valentine's Day and I got no valentine?" In the absence of a second chair, he hopped up on my desk. "So I say something about it to Sandor when he comes with the pizza, right, and he goes, Gah!" He smacked himself on the forehead. "He goes, 'I gotta tell Tony. If he forgets again Sylvia'll have his balls.'
"So then I thought, hey, at least I got nobody who's gonna punish me if I screw up, right? And then -- then I thought, you know what? I can get flowers for people who don't expect it." He nodded at me. "You know, so I can mess with their minds."
"And that's us."
"And that's you and the two-seven. Oh, thanks, Turnbull," he said, taking the coffee. I opened the drawer again and handed him four packets of sugar. "I gave Welsh white, but he swapped with Elaine to get a pink one, can you believe it?"
I leaned over and sniffed the rose, still sweet-smelling despite being out of season and hothouse-grown. It was just beginning to open, so it would probably last several days, provided Turnbull didn't kill it with aspirin.
Ray jumped down from the desk, miraculously without spilling the coffee. "I gotta go now. You gonna come by this afternoon?"
I followed him back to the reception area, meeting Inspector Thatcher on the way. "Detective," she said. "I -- appreciate your thoughtfulness."
"No problem," he said, and then in a stage whisper so loud that it echoed in the high-ceilinged entryway, "Don't tell these guys, but you're really my favorite valentine." And he swung out the door, raincoat billowing behind him.
"First day of spring, Ray."
Ray looked up from his snow shovel briefly, nose bright red. "You don't say, Fraser."
His boots were too short for the snow, and I imagined his feet must be cold and wet, but we couldn't leave until we had unearthed his car from the drift of ash-colored snow that the snowplow had left behind. Ray's folding snow shovel was precisely the right length for maximum back strain. I was making better headway with a shovel borrowed from Mr. Petty, the custodian, who apparently kept a stock of such implements to keep the station walkways clear.
"In the time it takes us to dig your car out, we could easily walk to your apartment."
"Yeah, we could," he said. "But the forecast says snow all night and freezing rain in the morning, so if we leave it here it'll be three times as worse when we come back."
He had a point. I redoubled my efforts in hopes of uncovering the car before the snowplow could come by again and undo our work. Diefenbaker paced on the sidewalk, grumbling and making the occasional supervisory suggestion.
I was secretly dreading returning to the Consulate, which could be extremely drafty on windy nights such as this. So although I felt duty bound to make a token protest, I was pleased when Ray said bluntly, "This car ain't going anywhere but home, Fraser, so you might as well bed down on the couch."
He insisted I take the first shower, wanting, I suspected, to clean up a bit before allowing his apartment to be subject to scrutiny.
It was strangely intimate, being naked in Ray's shower. In the future, memory would undoubtedly endow the experience with a glow of eroticism -- this seemed to happen with nearly everything I did with Ray, from fisticuffs to underwater lifesaving techniques, much to my bafflement -- but in the present I found it profoundly uncomfortable. I rushed through my shower so quickly that my feet never got entirely warm.
Ray gave me a puzzled look as I emerged dressed in his sweatsuit a bare five minutes after I entered, but he was eager for his own shower, so he didn't waste time questioning me.
He took his time about it, and I puttered about his apartment -- putting down water for Dief and finding him some food under the sink from our last visit, wiping the salt from both our boots and stuffing them loosely with newspaper to absorb the moisture, putting soup on the stove and noxious canned biscuits in the oven.
At last, all chores done, I gave myself permission to shamelessly indulge my curiosity about Ray's apartment.
The chair which had been at the window was of course back at its place at the kitchen table. There was another significant change since that evening, too: His wedding photo had been taken down. I supposed he must have removed it in the days when Michelle was a frequent visitor, or perhaps it had been gone since he began seriously dating again.
It was warm enough by now that I was a bit uncomfortable in Ray's sweatsuit, and he dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, baring endearingly bony red-furred knees. Outside I could hear the full range of Great Lakes winter precipitation, snow and sleet and rain in turn. Inside it was a pleasure to share dinner and conversation and a warm place with a friend, a pleasure to share dishes and linger over powdered hot chocolate as the wind blew ice against the windowpanes.
After dinner, Ray fetched a blanket and some sheets from the closet, but he seemed in no hurry to end the conversation. His couch was really too small to accommodate two tall men, especially when one of them had a marked tendency to sprawl, so I took up a position on the floor, with my back against the couch and Dief curled against my thigh.
The storm subsided shortly after midnight, and long pauses began to punctuate our conversation. It was during one of these silences -- when we had exhausted the topic of "stupidest criminals" and I was beginning to think of sleep -- when I felt Ray's fingers smoothing my hair.
It was so soothing a touch that for a moment I was -- well, soothed. Lulled. It seemed strangely natural to sit on the floor and let my partner ... pet me.
His fingers slid over the surface, then began to card slowly through my hair. I could feel them against my scalp, slightly cooler than my skin. The sensation raised a pleasant prickle of gooseflesh on the back of my neck.
Reality caught up with me in a sudden rush of terror -- was this a test? Had he somehow, despite my best efforts, discerned my true feelings and set out to make a fool of me?
I didn't dare look at him. I fought the urge to bolt, and the opposite urge to drop my head forward and wordlessly beg for that touch to travel further. Instead, I sat perfectly still, facing straight ahead, too terrified to risk moving a muscle.
After a long moment, Ray said in a perfectly normal tone, "Sleeting again, sounds like," and lifted his hand from my hair. I let out the breath I'd been holding as quietly as I could. A snowplow scraped by in the street below.
"Hey, I'm sitting where you need to sleep," Ray said cheerfully. "Sorry." He got up and stretched, yawning, T-shirt riding up to show the faintest sliver of bare skin, or perhaps it was just a trick of the light.
"Sweet dreams, Fraser," he said, and padded off toward the bathroom.
I very carefully kept my eyes straight ahead until I heard the door click and the fan come on. Then I allowed myself to turn and look.
And saw my father walking up the hallway toward me, shaking icy water from his hat.
"Evening, son," he said. "Good night to be holed up somewhere out of the weather."
"I would have thought you were beyond worrying about the weather," I said.
"Oh, weather is universal, son. What would people talk about otherwise?"
He turned and looked at the bathroom door, where we could hear toothbrushing noises, and then back at me. "Some people," he said, "can't find their future because they can't let go of the past."
"If you're here to point out that my wishes have no hope of being fulfilled, then thank you very much, your duty is done."
He gave me a long, assessing look, as though I were a storm whose speed he was calculating. "I had hoped," he said, "that this sort of thing was a phase, but I see that it's not."
"No, Dad, it isn't."
He signed. "It's a hard, hard way with the world against you, son," he said. "None of us can change what Nature made us, but if you're one of the ones to whom Nature gave a choice, and I think you may be, then I really recommend choosing a normal family life."
As usual, his smugness pushed me beyond the bounds of discretion. "What would you know about a normal family life? You acted as though family were something that happened to other people."
He didn't rise to the bait. Perhaps the fortunate dead are beyond the need to defend themselves. "I only want what's best for you, son. A home, a family, a life that doesn't have to be hidden or explained." He got an infuriating little smile. "A grandchild or two wouldn't come amiss."
"Don't --" The bathroom fan clicked off, and I hastily lowered my voice as the door opened. "Don't get your hopes up," I said, looking down at my hands.
When I looked back, he was gone.
"Nature's first green is gold, her hardest hue to hold," sighed Mr. DuSable in the back of the GTO.
"Green -- gold -- hey, poems about money. How appropriate," Ray said.
"The gold," Mr. DuSable said loftily, "is symbolic gold."
"Well, in reality, Mr. DuSable," I said, failing to resist the temptation of showing off, "if you'll look outside, you'll see that the few leaves on the trees are quite literally gold in color." I continued the quotation: "Her early leaf's a flower, but only so an hour."
Mr. DuSable was ecstatic that someone shared his enthusiasm. "Then leaf subsides to leaf --"
I joined him and we finished the poem together. "So Eden fell to grief. So dawn goes down to day. Nothing gold can -- Ray!" Ray had taken a turn so fast that I was quite certain we'd been airborne for a moment.
He ignored my concern in favor of literary topics. "So this guy thinks it's something all tragic that it's not sunrise all the time?"
"Tragic might be too strong a word," I said, "but -- poignant, yes. Sad."
"Poignant," he snorted. "Tell you what I think. I'm not a poet or nothing --"
"Obviously," Mr. DuSable sniffed.
"But what I think is, you can't learn to appreciate plain old daytime and regular green leaves, you're in for a lifetime of disappointment."
"The hostages are where?"
"In the lobby on the thirty-second floor."
"In the lobby."
"You mean like right in front of the elevators."
"Like in, if we want to not have a gun in our faces as soon as --"
"I believe the culprits are armed with crossbows," I corrected him.
"A weapon, as I was saying, in our faces as soon as the door goes ding, then we can't use the elevators."
Ray looked at the hotel lobby. "Can't anybody ever take a hostage on the, the mezzanine or something? If I'd have wanted to climb stairs for a living, I would have taken a job as a mover or something. A tour guide to the Mexican pyramids. A rock climbing trainer."
He blew a gust of air out. "I guess we better start climbing."
"There is another alternative," I said. "We could take the service elevator up --"
"Too close. It's just down the hall. They'll hear the ding."
"Up to the thirty-fourth floor," I went on, ignoring the interruption. "And then take the stairs down to level thirty-two."
A slow smile spread across his face. "Friend!" he said. "Buddy! Nice person!" And he took off at a run for the service elevators.
In the stairwell of the thirty-second floor, Ray put out his hand to stop me as I reached for the door handle. Through the door I could hear the voices of the captors -- two crossbow-toting college dropouts who were styling themselves the Pict Liberation League -- arguing with each other and shouting demands at the negotiation team on the telephone. The officer in command had estimated that there were at least four hostages, but I heard the voices of two children that she hadn't mentioned. They seemed to be arguing softly over whether something called a Namekian ball could perform a resurrection twice or only once.
All this was muffled by the heavy door, and on this side of the door I could hear Ray breathing, could hear fabric rustling as he failed to tame his perpetual motion. For some months I had been in the habit of taking this brief bubble of calm, before we walked into danger, and using it to drink in what I could of Ray's ... Rayness. His left thumb drumming restlessly against the outseam of his trousers. The faint scent of his gum. The wheat-colored highlights in this month's haircolor.
He turned away from the door and moved closer so we could speak without being overheard. "Hang on. You gotta pick your time for these things."
"How will you know?" This close I could see stubble on his jaw as I spoke into his ear.
"Got a hunch."
He looked off at nothing, listening, as one of the men shouted a slogan in execrable Scots Gallic. Somehow I didn't think he and his comrade really intended to free the roast mutton.
I turned to Ray and found him looking at me. His eyelashes were very slightly darker than his hair. They moved, and I realized he had cast his eyes down just as they came back up.
"Um. I been thinking," he said.
A moment later I felt his mouth on mine.
His lips were warm and very slightly chapped and surprisingly soft. He didn't press the kiss, but he didn't release it, either, keeping his lips pressed gently to mine for long enough that there could be no mistaking his intentions. For long enough that my eyes, which had been open in shock, fell shut in pleasure.
When he stepped back, I could feel him watching me closely, and I opened my eyes, but found I could not speak. My lips were exquisitely sensitive now, and when I parted them, my next breath was rough, clearly audible in the echoing silence of the stairwell.
Ray's eyes went to the door and back to me. "Yeah, OK," he said, drawing his gun, "you think about it. I'll be right back."
He gave the door a hard shove, and I heard a loud curse and the moist sound of the metal door connecting with flesh and Ray's voice shouting, "Drop it, drop it, drop it!" and a complicated wooden thunk -- and then my wits came back to me and I followed him through the door in time to disarm the gentleman with a bloody nose, handcuff him, and take his colleague's dropped crossbow away from the children before they could figure out how to fire it.
Ray caught my eye, and we looked at each other for a moment before the elevator dinged and our backup arrived.
The commanding officer assigned two of her people to take charge of the two men, then began assigning the others to the hostages. Once they were all in the elevator, she held open the door for us.
"You know what?" Ray said. "I think we'll take the stairs."
"Thank you kindly," I said as the doors slid together to hide her puzzled face.
Ray clattered hastily down the first flight of stairs. I followed, feeling as though I were moving in slow motion.
He paused at the bottom of the flight -- I looked for a moment down on the spiky, complicated hair on top of his head -- and then he turned and looked back at me. "Fraser?" There was more in his question than just curiosity about my slowness.
"Ray --" I felt breathless. "Did you mean --"
"Yeah," he said. I was two steps above him now, and I reached out and touched his hair, broke the crispness of the gel so I could run my fingers through it.
I took a step down, and another, and we were face to face. My eyes went to his mouth. "I want to --"
"Why don't you, then."
So I did.
He tasted of that same gum, and his lips were still soft, but his hands were hard over my ribs, gripping strongly at the uniform as though he were frustrated by its unyielding roughness. I drew my hands down over the back of his jacket and lower to frame his hips, and he lifted his mouth from mine and said, "Home, come home with me."
"We should -- we should talk about --" And then I discovered that there was nothing I needed to say to him or hear from him, no reassurance I needed except what I could get from my hands on his skin. "All right," I said.
He jerked his head and we bolted hard down four flights. At the next landing, he grabbed my wrist, backed me up against a door, and kissed me again
"At this rate," I said as his mouth left mine and investigated my cheek, my temple, my ear -- "it's going to take us -- ah -- it will be hours before we -- Ray --"
And just as suddenly he was gone, leaping down three steps at a time, hitting the next landing before I could pull my back away from the door and follow.
When the drive was done and we opened the door to Ray's building and looked at the three flights up, I nearly laughed out loud. Ray glanced at me and at the stairs and grinned, shaking his head. "Jesus, Fraser," he said, "I can see loving you's gonna be hell on the knees."
The image of Ray on his knees hit me like a physical blow. I stopped short, half breathless, my hat falling from suddenly numb fingers.
Ray was already half a flight up, but he turned. "Fraser?" He thundered back down again. "Hey. You OK?" He reached out to touch my face gently, misinterpreting my difficulties. "It's OK. We can go slow --"
I turned and took his thumb in my mouth, tasting sugar and the slight brassy flavor of the handcuffs, sucking hard until I could get to the taste of pure Ray.
"Or not," he said in a strangled voice.
"Not, please," I said, and he backed up the steps, came back down, picked up the hat and handed it to me, and took my arm, tugging me up the stairs.
In the bedroom, I reached for him, but he pushed me down to sit on the bed and dropped to his knees in front of me.
"Soon, soon, hang on." He untied my left boot and lifted my foot into his lap, then began to loosen the laces. "I've given this a lot of thought, Fraser, and I do not want to get you half undressed and then have to stop for these damned boots." He cupped the heel and pulled the boot off, then rubbed soothingly over my calf. "I'm all about momentum," he said with a wink.
He hauled off the other boot, then knelt up, fingers busily unlacing, unbuckling and unfastening.
"You, ah, know the uniform quite well, Ray." The sight of his fingers on the Sam Browne was astonishingly arousing.
"I been watching," he said, eyes on my chest as he began on the tunic buttons. "Thought you knew."
"I didn't know."
"No," he agreed. "Figured that out. 'Cause you were too busy trying not to watch me, right?"
"Watch me any time you want, Fraser." He pushed the tunic off my shoulders and drew me to my feet. "I like it."
But I didn't. I closed my eyes and kissed him instead, tasting his mouth and his face and his neck, and when my trousers hit the floor I was hardly aware of it in the whirl of sensation -- the roughness of his jaw, the heat of his skin, the heave of his chest against mine. I backed into the bed and pulled him down on top of me.
"Fraser -- Fraser -- god!" For a brief intoxicating moment he ground against me. Then he pushed up to his knees, straddling my thighs, and tore off his jacket with an impatient sound. He hauled up his T-shirt next, unveiling a lovely expanse of bare, flushed skin.
I put my hand on his belly and slid it firmly down to his groin, and he pushed his hips forward eagerly, his "Fuck yeah!" muffled by the T-shirt still covering his face.
A moment later the shirt hit the bed beside my face, sending up a mouthwatering gust of Ray's scent, and he was thrusting forward against my stroking hand. A twist of his hips trapped my hand between his groin and my own, heat and hardness against my palm and against my knuckles. The denim was hot by now, but the flesh behind it would be hotter still --
I pulled my hand free and pushed at him, trying to get enough space to undo the buttons, and he went back up on his knees. "Yeah, yeah, yes --" He trailed off in a hiss as I plunged my hand into his briefs.
"Christ!" He made three quick thrusts, rubbing the slippery crown over my palm, before he managed to still his hips enough for me to get a better grip. I watched him kneeling above me -- mouth open, eyes unfocused, all but glowing with lust.
After a moment he came back to himself enough to undo the rest of the buttons and begin pushing the pants and briefs off. He got them down to thigh level, and then I found a grip which must have been especially pleasurable, because he froze, hands on his thighs, and threw back his head, pushing hungrily into my hand.
So beautiful! I couldn't have imagined how greedy I would be for his eagerness, his careless pursuit of pleasure. I wanted, suddenly, to stay like this, to push him over the edge just like this, poised over me, his whole body on display for me as he surrendered.
But he broke loose from my grasp with a muttered, "Jesus, Fraser," and stood up, shaking his jeans the rest of the way off. Then he turned to me where I lay, ran a finger down my throat, hooked it in the neck of my henley, and tugged once, raising his eyebrows.
I've never disrobed so quickly.
I had dreamed of exploring him slowly, of tasting every inch of his long-imagined body. But the moment I felt his bare skin against mine, I found myself frantic for him, too overwhelmed by the feeling of his flesh against mine to do anything but thrust hotly against him and feed on his mouth.
He seemed to feel the same way. "Fraser -- oh, fuck, you're so -- I wanted -- but I need --" And he tugged me over on top of him and insinuated a hand between us, capturing both his erection and mine in a grip that was just this side of too tight. God -- so hot, so smooth -- I wanted to join my hand with his, but I was moving against him so quickly I feared I'd collapse without both hands to brace myself. So I trusted him, gave over to him -- and tore my mouth from his just long enough to cry out his name as he drove me to climax.
I was still shuddering with after-pleasures when he released his grip, and, still driving hard against, me, brought his hand to his mouth and climaxed beneath me, sucking on his own fingers as he pulsed out heat against my belly.
For a moment we lay in silence, getting our breath back. Then he turned us on our sides, propped his head on his hand, and reached out to touch my face. "That OK?"
I blinked at him. "Are you looking for a formal evaluation?"
"I was trying," he said, "to see if you were having any kind of freak-out that you needed my help with, but apparently your brain's in the same place as always, wherever that is, so --" Then he narrowed his eyes. "What if I was? What grade would you give me? I any good?"
"Well, bearing in mind that all of us can benefit from practice --" That was all I got out before I was silenced by a faceful of pillow.
"Hell 'n a Maury's moving."
It took me a moment to make sense of Ray's words, murmured into my neck after a long postcoital silence. Hell and ...
Oh. "Should I know who Helen Omari is?"
"She knows who you are. Thinks you're cute." He raised his head from my shoulder and gave me a mischievous look.
Nothing I said could speed up the exposition, so I thought I might as well play along. "I wonder, then, if she knows I'm otherwise involved."
"She can probably hear that for herself." At last he took pity on me: "Her bedroom's on the other side of that wall. I run into her all the time because we both use the same back landing." His tone was light, but there was a tension in his body, only perceptible because we were pressed together so closely.
"But she's moving."
"Yeah. Lease is up the first."
"I see." My hand tightened on his shoulder; I loosened it before I spoke. "Does your landlady allow dogs?"
His muscles relaxed again. "Yeah," he said. "Already asked."
"Well." I touched his hair, lifted his face. "That sounds --" I cleared my throat. "It sounds like an eminently practical arrangement."
He pushed up on his elbows and gave me a long, slow, soft kiss. "Don't it, though?"
"I'll need some furniture," I said breathlessly when we paused. "Couch. Table and chairs."
I looked at him.
"You can have this one. I been meaning to buy something bigger anyway."
Apartment keys. What an odd thing, to have apartment keys again. As I walked from the Consulate, I told them over like rosary beads. Basement storage closet. My front door. My kitchen door.
Ray's front door. Ray's kitchen door.
Ray had insisted on taking a vacation day to set up the apartment, and he had been just as insistent that I go to work as usual. Which was just as well, since Turnbull had surprised both of us by declaring that he wished to assist in the project. I only hoped that his strength had outweighed his odd notions sufficiently to make him, on balance, more of an asset than a liability.
Beside me, Dief was grumbling. How sharper than a serpent's tooth to have an ungrateful wolf.
"Some of your ancestors were Arctic wolves. You should be ashamed of yourself, complaining about cold feet."
He gave a pleading little whuffle.
"No, but there's a bakery right next door," I told him, "and I'm certain Ray will spoil you shamelessly."
Somewhat mollified, he bounded forward and waited for me at the outer door. I watched my hands unlocking it with my key. Walked up my stairs. Unlocked the door to my apartment. So very strange.
Couch. Rag rug. A lightweight desk I recognized from the storage room of the Consulate. Two bookshelves. Turnbull had donated a quite good pencil drawing of Dief, striking a rather more noble pose than was his wont, and Francesca had surprised me by offering a print decorated with ducks apparently drawn by someone with a fondness for autumnal colors and no familiarity whatsoever with actual ducks.
In the bedroom: Footlocker. Dresser. Ray's bed. With Ray's sheets. And -- yes, I knew it from the scent, Ray's pillows.
There was a whine from the closet. After a moment, just as I identified the sound as a power drill, another sound joined it: my father's thin but pleasant tenor. "Oh, Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling ..."
"He always pitches it too high for his range," I told Dief. "When he gets to 'It's I'll be here in sunlight or in shadow,' I'm afraid it's going to be painful for you." Dief gave the vulpine equivalent of a shrug, as if to say my family entanglements were of no concern to him.
I found cargo shorts, a belt, a T-shirt, and a pair of canvas deck shoes among the boxes on the dresser, changed hastily out of my uniform, and left the room as quickly as I could without getting any closer to the closet, where I now heard the clack of a ratchet screwdriver.
Kitchen door. Screen door. Back landing, cluttered with large garbage cans.
Ray's screen door. Ray's kitchen door.
Music was blasting as I let myself in, and Ray was singing -- or shouting -- along: "Twenty, twenty, twenty-four hours to go, I wanna be sedated." He was dressed in sweatpants and a T-shirt, barefoot, damp-haired, dancing about and jabbing a spatula at a frying egg.
"Fraser?" He looked at his watch. "It's not even four-thirty."
"Inspector Thatcher very kindly allowed me to leave a bit early." She had been aggrieved by my decision to move out and even more aggrieved by the loss of a day of Turnbull's labor, and by the end of the day she had apparently had an attack of remorse for thoughts she had not chosen to express.
"So. You like it?" Ray looked a little anxious.
I took him by the hips and kissed him. "You did a beautiful job, Ray." I kissed him again, and again, and then slid my thumbs under the elastic of his sweatpants, heart pounding a little faster as I felt the bare flesh there. Without breaking the kiss, I freed one hand and reached behind me to turn off the flame under the egg.
Ray raised his head, breathing a little fast. "Come on," he said, "come and see the new bed."
It was easily four times the size of my cot at the Consulate. New sheets, new quilt, at least one new pillow. Ray beamed at me. "It's ... enormous," I told him. "Very -- very -- "
And then a quick move and I went "thunk" on my back, and Ray was on top of me.
"Soft, too," I observed.
"Mhm," Ray answered, mouth against my ear.
Ignoring him, I scooted to the center of the bed, then stretched my arms and legs as far as I could in all directions. None of my limbs hung over the edge. "My. This is really -- quite roomy --" Ray had taken advantage of my spreadeagle position to put his face in my armpit, an act which was wearing away at my composure. He murmured his agreement into my T-shirt.
I wasn't able to prevent myself from wrapping my right arm around Ray, fingers as always seeking out the vulnerable places along his ribs which I could fancy were never touched except by me. But I swept my left hand under the quilt and attempted to continue my praises of his new bed.
"The sheets -- if I'm not mistaken --" He had nuzzled his way over to my nipple, and was plucking at it with his lips through the fabric of my T-shirt, and I had to swallow before I could continue. "Egyptian cotton, are they not?"
"Nothin' but the best, Fraser," and then I felt his teeth on me through the fabric, and I gave up the charade and hauled him up for a kiss.
I gripped his buttocks through the sweatpants, and he grinned down at me. "Oh, yeah, you're thinking about the mattress."
"I'm simply --" I slid my hands under the sweatpants and continued to grope him shamelessly -- "simply looking for a similarly firm yet yielding surface for purposes of comparison." He collapsed on top of me, giggling helplessly.
"I don't get why everybody thinks you're some kind of intellectual," he snuffled into my neck. "Getcha horizontal and you're this far from Beavis and Butthead." But as I still had my hands in his pants, he wasn't inclined to pursue the subject.
"Mm," he murmured as I explored him a little more intimately, and he rose up on his elbows so he could kiss me between words. "Mm, yeah, yeah -- no, no, wait, let me do you." He raised his head, suddenly flushed and serious, and repeated: "Let me fuck you again, Fraser, I want to. Is it too soon? Can I?"
"Oh yes. Yes." I kissed him and said "Yes" again for good measure, but he was already rolling the surprisingly long distance to the edge of the bed to hunt for the lubricant in the nightstand drawer.
"Floor," I told him; he had dropped the tube in his haste this morning, and it seemed unlikely he would have retrieved it during the process of moving one bed out and another bed in. While he was occupied with feeling around under the bed, I took the opportunity to undress and turn down the quilt and blanket.
"Gotcha." His head appeared over the edge of the bed, hair first, almost comical -- but then his eyes swept hotly over my body and it wasn't funny any more. It suddenly occurred to me that his bed was my bed and this bed was our bed. God. To be given this gift, this homecoming -- to be given it twice over --
"Ray," I said hoarsely, and he flung off his clothes and lay down in my arms.
He was all over me, a whirlwind of fingers and tongue and teeth, until I was gasping for breath and reaching for him desperately. Only now and then did he let me capture him for a brief, hot kiss; the rest of the time he kept up a steady, mostly unintelligible murmur, in which I occasionally caught "fuck" and my name.
At last, when I was nearly ready to beg, his fingers breached me suddenly, and I cried out in surprise and pleasure. "Fraser, god," he hissed, "you just open up for me, it's so fucking -- god -- the way you want it --"
"I want it," I sighed, twisting my hips to keep his hand moving. He gave me another moment of that and then climbed on top of me and filled me in one swift motion, wrenching cries out of both of us.
This feeling, this pleasure -- I would never get used to it, the perfection of the fit between his body and mine, without awkwardness or discomfort. From the very first time. I would never get used to it.
And his face above me, eyes slitted with pleasure but still watching, watching me, seeing what was hidden from everyone but him. Until I closed my eyes and let him carry us both up that great cliff of pleasure and out over the edge into nothingness.
Afterwards I rolled him over and got on top of him, just because I could, now, without falling off the bed. He beamed up at me and scrubbed both hands through my hair, though I was sure it was a disgrace already. "Welcome to the neighborhood, Fraser," he said.
"Thank you." And then I ran my fingers through the hair on the back of his neck, making him shudder, and tipped his face up for a kiss, and said, "Welcome home."
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Back to in medias Res
November 16, 2001