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A Fine and Private Place
Ray Vecchio, I thought, would have enjoyed my simulation of a traditional Territories birthday party immensely.
Or, if he hadn't enjoyed it -- I ducked a swinging cabbage with the ease of long practice -- then he would have enjoyed, perhaps for weeks, the opportunity to criticize it. And it came to the same thing, didn't it?
The man who was taking care of Ray Vecchio's name for him hardly seemed to notice the festivities at all. He didn't so much dodge the cabbage as simply happen not to be where it was when it got there, a knack that made me wonder whether perhaps he boxed. There was nothing in his files about that.
He was spinning his birthday gift idly around one long forefinger.
"Vecchio!" called a soggy voice, and Ray Kowalski turned instantly. It must have taken a great deal of practice to re-train his reflexes to respond to the new name. "You gonna bob?"
"Let me think here, Huey," he answered. "I lose, I get a face full of stinky lake water. I win, I get a face full of stinky lake water anda mouthful of fish scales." He cocked his head to one side as though the proposition actually required thought. "Call me nuts, but I think I'm gonna pass."
He turned to me. "I will have some more of this -- what did you say this was? -- uh-uh, don't eventell me what's in it, just tell me what it's called."
I didn't think the native name would be very edifying. "I believe the American term is gorp."
He grunted an acknowledgment, tipping back his head to empty a handful of nuts and dried fruit into his mouth. The silver bracelet slid up and then down again as he raised and lowered his arm.
"So this thing of yours, this dream catcher thing." He was still chewing. "It's defective, Fraser. All's it caught was Marcus Ellery."
"Then it did its job admirably. A dream catcher is made to catch bad dreams."
Ray slanted me a skeptical look out from under his pale lashes. "Why would anybody want to catch a bad dream?"
"To keep it out of your mind, of course," I told him. "Bad dreams, being heavy, get caught in the web, while good ones are said, variously, to float through the hole or to find their way to the dreamer by sliding down the feather."
I wondered what sort of dreams were finding their way to Ray Vecchio in Las Vegas. Oh, my friend, I thought. It's probably too much to hope that you'll be lucky, but I do hope that you'll be careful.
"It's good to hear your voice," he'd said on the phone, and that alone had been enough to alert me that something was amiss.
I had imagined that I might return to Chicago to find him sick, or injured, or suffering some undefined tragedy or bereavement. I'm afraid I even entertained visions of a bittersweet sickbed conversation, in which the extremity of the situation made it permissible for me to say, and possible for him to hear, all that our friendship had meant to me. The possibility of breaking through the native Fraser reserve and speaking my heart, without appearing either morbid or maudlin, was powerfully appealing.
Or perhaps, I had thought, the news was good. A whirlwind romance, a spontaneous marriage, the fire of that new love kindling all the relationships in its vicinity so that he could speak to me with such unaccustomed warmth?
Promoted? Arrested? Suddenly enriched or impoverished?
This, though, this I had not anticipated: My closest friend, absent but present, working but unreachable, himself but not himself. I had not anticipated it, and if I were honest with myself, I was not handling it well.
Throughout my vacation I had felt no particular urgency about contacting Ray. But now that I was unable to do so, I felt a persistent desire to share with him all manner of inconsequential things. Ray, the day the salvage crew dragged the Riviera up from the lake they call Michigan, the water was almost exactly the same color as the paint. Ray, your spare necktie is still rolled up in the bottom drawer of your desk at the station.
And of course underneath the inconsequential things were the things almost too deep for speech. The things about which, if my father was any indication, I would still be reticent even after death: I treasure your friendship. Thank you. I love you.
There is perhaps no vice so destructive as the ingrained habit of saying nothing.
After the party, my first priority was to find a new home for the trout, and my new partner offered to help me in my errand of mercy.
It is surprisingly difficult to find a good point of departure for a trout to return to Lake Michigan. In the end, rather than release it in a shallow area and risk its being dashed on the rocks, we dumped it unceremoniously from a pier. Its silvery body reflected the lights of the nighttime city for a moment before it hit the water and vanished. Diefenbaker gave a forlorn little yelp, but as he had devoured nearly a pound of smoked salmon at the party, I put it down to pique rather than hunger.
In lieu of the drowned Riviera, the motor pool had provided a silver sedan so undistinguished that Ray Kowalski had gone momentarily limp with dismay when he saw it. Even now, after more than a week, he was no closer to being resigned to the vehicle, which was parked under the street light with the dream catcher on the dashboard.
To my surprise, he picked it up instead of starting the car.
"When'd you make this, Fraser?" He was running a thumb back and forth over the bent-willow ring.
"Well, making a dream catcher is a simple matter," I began. "The weaving itself can be done in about an hour. So I didn't begin until after the feather arrived from Commerce City, and I confess that I felt some trepidation about whether there would be enough time to get it finished in time for ... your ... birthday."
His eyes said he noted the hesitation.
"Prior to beginning the weaving, of course, I had to gather and prepare the materials. Soak and bend the willow branches, skin the deer and treat the hide and the sinew, carve the beads from antler." Diefenbaker yipped from the back seat. "Yes," I said, "your help in disposing of the venison was invaluable. At any rate, I did all that while vacationing in the Territories."
"So basically, about from here in you did it for me." His fingers measured about an inch out from the center of the web. "And the rest of the way you did it for ... the other me."
"Well, strictly speaking, the weaving itself ..." His raised eyebrows stopped me. "Essentially that's correct, yes."
It occurred to me then how very difficult it would be for Ray Kowalski to take any pleasure in this gift. It was meant for someone else, woven in a friendship that he had no part of. And its first act had been to catch, and then lose, the man he blamed for the doubt at the heart of both his career and his marriage.
The gift, my grandmother said, is in the giver's intention to please. "You know, Ray, a dream catcher is intended to be temporary."
"Over time, the willow and sinew lose moisture and become brittle." It was of course possible to make a dream catcher out of more permanent materials, but that had seemed to me somehow graceless. And I had rather cherished the image of making a new one when this one succumbed to age. "So -- in short --"
"You wouldn't get your feelings hurt if I did something to shorten its lifespan, that it?"
"I was going to suggest that you bury it."
"I got an even better idea." The suggestion seemed to cheer him; he was grinning now, and I felt my own spirits lift. His smile was charming.
Wait. Name it, Benton.
His smile was ... attractive.
His strange pale eyes, his narrow hands: attractive. His restless energy, his sudden shifts of mood. The slight dusty scent that suggested that few of his clothes ever made it into the closet. Attractive.
Naming my feelings in this way didn't come naturally to me. But surely from the loss of my father, from the absence of my friend, somethingcould be gained. Some greater measure of emotional honesty, if nothing else.
Otherwise there was no hope for me at all.
"How do you propose to gain entrance to the --" The answer to my question appeared in the form of a pair of disreputable boots, which were propping the crypt door open.
"Here, gimme a hand, Fraser," Ray said, tugging the unconscious groundskeeper out. He was heavier than he looked -- "Dead weight," Ray said with a wink -- but we succeeded in laying him in the back of his cart and covering him with an empty sack. I feared he would injure himself with the broken bottle he held, but I was unable to pry his fingers from it, so I left him with it and followed Ray into the crypt again, leaving Dief to continue whatever errand so compelled his attention here.
Strange expressions appeared on the impassive face of the stone angel in the moving beam of Ray's flashlight. He hung the dream catcher over her outstretched hand. "Yeah," he said. "Catch some nightmares here -- you think dead people dream, Fraser?"
"I'll -- I don't know." I'll ask, I had nearly said. "Hamlet thought dreams were among the chief terrors of death. 'To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there's the rub, for in that sleep of death what dreams may come, when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause.' "
"Huh." He shone the flashlight upward at the angel's face, casting unsettling upside-down shadows. "Worst thing would be if you could still dream stuff and not be able to doanything."
My body recognized the moment before my mind did. Muscles drawing up in readiness. Fight or flight.
"May I ask you a question?"
"I'd say you just did."
"Then may I ask you another?"
Ray turned his head to grin at me. "I can go on like this all night, Fraser. Spit it out."
"Do you find me attractive?" It wasn't that much of a risk, considering the circumstances, but my heart was pounding.
He looked sideways at me, then spun around and leaned a hip against the base of the angel sculpture. "Now, a normal guy, you ask him that question, he's gonna say, 'Why do you ask?' " he said, one hand coming up to cup his chin in a parody of thoughtfulness, finger tapping his cheek. "Or else he's gonna figure he already knows why you're asking and he's gonna say, 'What the hell kinda question is that?' "
He pushed off the statue and began to pace. "But I think we've already established that neither one of us is really what you'd call a normal guy, right? So my answer would be --" He came to an abrupt stop just inside my personal space -- "Hell yes." His eyes, inches from mine, were dark in the dim crypt. "That the answer you were hoping for?"
I moved the scant half-step closer, close enough to get a whiff of his undefinable scent. "What do you think?"
He didn't answer with words, but he cocked his head and raised his eyebrows, a wordless challenge.
I kissed him.
He tasted of toothpaste, which made me wonder briefly whether he too had been imagining that our evening might end like this. He kissed with the lazy, unhurried pleasure of someone who likes to kiss and is confident that he can make you like it, too. His confidence was not misplaced.
After a few moments, I pulled back to look at him. The kiss had wrought an enchanting change on his expression, softening a tension that, even on so short an acquaintance, I could already guess was habitual.
"So," he said, and he wasn't smiling but his eyes were mischievous, "what're you saying, here, Fraser?"
I smiled a bit in response. "I would be more than pleased," I said, and I could hear the husky note in my own voice, "to be more than friends with you, Ray Kowalski."
"Don't get an offer like that every day," he said, and the smile found its way to his mouth. "I don't think I wanna know what your research turned up to make you decide that."
"I think it might have been the glasses," I said before I could stop myself, and he laughed out loud.
"Oh, yeah," he said. "You and me, Benton Fraser, I can already tell it's gonna be a hell of a ride."
Instead of answering, I pulled him closer, grasping his sweatshirt and pulling it up.
He gave me a sharp look. "You move fast."
"When the situation warrants it." I did not remove my hand from his bare back.
He seemed to consider this for a moment. Then he ran both his hands, which had been resting on my shoulders, down my chest to grasp my hips. "Works for me," he said.
Taking that as permission, I ran my fingertips up his hot back, leaning back to watch his eyes fall half-closed, then moving forward to taste his mouth again. But I craved full-body contact. I moved forward, pushing him back until his back hit the crypt wall. Another half-step brought us body to body, my leg finding a place between his with the ease of something long rehearsed.
It was only a moment, though, before he pushed away again. I held the kiss for a second, in the stubborn hope that he would change his mind, but he put a hand in the center of my chest and pressed me gently back. "Wall's damp," he said, pausing to kiss my temple, curiously tender. "And what kind of freaks are necking in a tomb, anyway? So you come home with me, continue this conversation someplace with no dead people, yeah?"
I reluctantly pulled my hands out from under his shirt. "All right."
"Hang on." He went back to the angel, snapped open his pocket knife, and cut the thong holding the eagle feather. "This I'll keep."
As he locked his apartment door shut behind us, it occurred to me that I had been in his apartment more recently than he had. It seemed, now, strangely intimate to have been here while he was elsewhere. Since he hadn't returned to close the curtains, the streetlights cast a half-light into the room, bright enough that he didn't need to switch on a light.
I expected Diefenbaker to make himself comfortable as he usually does in new places, but he surprised me by nudging Ray's hand for attention. "He want something, Fraser?" Ray ruffled his fur absently.
"I believe," I said cautiously -- if one is going to speak for Diefenbaker, one must speak accurately or risk reprisals -- "that he's uncertain whether you would regard it as an intrusion if he made himself at home on your furniture."
"Nah. Mi couch is su couch," he said, expansively if ungrammatically. But Spanish is one of Dief's weaker languages, so he leapt up onto the couch without complaint and ostentatiously turned his back on us.
Ray hung up his raincoat and my jacket in silence. He seemed ill at ease, as though uncertain of the protocol.
"So," he said, turning away from me to look into the kitchen. "You want maybe a drink or something?"
He reached up to rub the back of his head, and his back muscles moved, concealed by his clothing. I remembered the feel of them under my hands and was suddenly impatient with all the layers -- of fabric, of convention -- that stood between his skin and mine.
I crossed quickly and stood behind him, hands on his shoulders. "No," I said, and put my mouth on the nape of his neck.
He shivered and dropped his head forward, granting implicit permission. I gripped his neck in my teeth, gently but inexorably, and held on. I was grateful for Dief's inattention, as I'm certain he would have recognized the gesture.
When I didn't let go for a moment, Ray shuddered back until his back was touching my chest. "Fuck," he said, and his voice was rough. "What isthat?"
In lieu of an answer, I released him from my teeth, wrapped my left arm across his chest, and dropped my right hand to his groin.
Oh, yes, he was hard for me. His thrust into my hand was so brief that it was most likely involuntary, quickly controlled but giving away his eagerness all the same. I shaped his length through the warm denim, then flicked open the button.
"Hey," he began, but I licked the side of his neck as I slid the zipper down, and the protest died in a sigh that was just short of being a moan.
Inside, another damned layer: thin cotton over hot flesh. When my hand found its way under the elastic waistband, he did moan. I was not entirely silent myself.
Good, it was so good.No deceptions, no conventions, no complexities. Just clean, honest desire, his and mine.
Probably it was too soon to ask him to show me the grip he preferred, the speed, the pressure. But I am skilled at improvisation. In short order he had made my hand slippery, easing my way. He leaned his head back onto my shoulder, baring the side of his neck to my mouth, and his hands reached behind him to grip my hips, pulling at me in rhythm.
He kept up a low, half-articulate mutter, punctuated by sharper exclamations: "Shit oh fuck I can't believe -- oh hellyes, just like that, just -- ah, Fraser, Fraser, yes-- oh jesus, close now, close -- "
"Ray," I murmured. The name felt strange in my mouth, but I was well aware of whom I was addressing. "Don't stop."
He gave a breathy laugh. "My line," he said. And then his climax overtook him and he uttered a groan so deep I felt the vibration everywhere his body touched mine.
Good. It was so good.
Still panting, he writhed out of his spattered sweatshirt, then twisted in my arms and began laying soft kisses on my face -- cheek, nose, eyelid, chin. Finally he anointed my mouth with the most voluptuous of kisses, soft lips and soft tongue, without urgency, heavy with languid sensuality.
If I had known you could kiss like this, I thought, I might not even have waited ten days.
"Sorry," he said at last, though he didn't sound very sorry. "I go off fast, but give me a minute and I'm always good for more."
"More," I said, "sounds wonderful." And I followed him into his bedroom.
It was darker here, and he switched on a small bedside lamp, filling the room with amber light. He turned back to me, all agile, un-self-conscious grace, chest bare, jeans open, utterly desirable.
"So," he said. "You fuck? Want to?"
I detest the word, but I couldn't argue with the proposal. "Yes," I said. "And yes."
"Good." I was growing very fond of that grin. "You done it before, right? Know how, make it good, don't hurt me, hey?"
"If," I said, "you don't rush me."
"I'm makin' no promises here." He pointed at me with two fingers of each hand. "You do that, you know, with all deliberate speed thing like you do everything else, and hell yeah I'm gonna rush you."
"Then I won't be responsible for the consequences." He smiled back, showing teeth. Not afraid.
The nightstand drawer was open. He took out a bottle, then frowned thoughtfully down at a strip of condoms.
"Could bareback," he said. "Never done it. With a guy, I mean."
I have. "It's neater with," I said.
He snorted. "Fuck neat. Hotter without."
Indisputably. The thought of our being so intimate, skin to skin, was powerfully arousing. And yet -- "Ray, I've seen your medical records. You haven't seen mine."
He waved this off. "Hey, you tell me you're clean, that's good enough for me."
After a long pause I nodded. He smacked his palm with his fist, tossed the condoms back in, and shut the drawer with his thigh.
"Now," he said, and came over to pluck at my tunic. "How the fuck'm I supposed to get you outta this? No, wait, don't tell me, I'm a detective -- I'd say before anything else, we gotta undo this string, yeah? What kinda headcase designs a uniform with a string, Fraser?"
I could have gotten myself undressed in half the time, but there were certain advantages to leaving the job to Ray. His hands smoothing over fabric. His hands smoothing over skin.
Not to mention his running commentary. "Suspenders, yeah, good look for you." And "Canadians got some sorta fetish for laces, Fraser?" And "Hm, woulda pegged you for a briefs guy, but I guess in pants like these you gotta worry about visible panty lines."
And at last, almost whispering, when he had peeled back all my layers one by one: "Jesus fucking christ, Fraser, you're the hottest thing I ever saw in my life."
My vocabulary isn't equal to a verbal response to that, so I settled for a kiss. Then I pushed his jeans and briefs off his hips, and he shook them to the floor and stepped out of them.
"I see you weren't exaggerating about your refractory period."
He looked down, looked back up with a grin. "Fraser, my friend, one thing you'll learn about me is that I never exaggerate my refractory period."
I tumbled us both down onto his unmade bed.
Of course he rushed me. I would have been surprised if he hadn't. Perhaps later there would be time for a leisurely exploration of his body, his responses. At the moment, he hardly gave us time to stretch out on the bed before he was pressing the bottle into my hand and rolling to his knees.
"Do me like this, yeah? Like in the kitchen?"
Oh, that had made an impression. I would have to remember that. I prefer face-to-face, myself, but we were close enough in height that I thought I could work out a compromise.
I ran the pad of my thumb over the tip of my fingernail. Short. Smooth. All right, then. I knelt beside him, ran a wet finger down from the base of his spine, and put my teeth in his neck again.
Oh, yes, that was the sound I wanted to hear.
His body knew what to expect, and he opened readily for my finger, so I saw no point in further delay. I bit him again as I pushed in, to get him through the initial discomfort, and he hung his head down, breathing in fast little pants, and said, "Go, already."
Instead, I said in his ear: "Lie down for me," and rocked a little. He hissed with pleasure and hurried to comply, going down on his belly without unseating me, and I pulled back on his hip to bring us partly to our sides, pushing his top knee forward with mine.
"What? What?" he asked, but he stayed still, waiting for me to explain myself. I leaned up over him and licked his neck, and then his ear, and then his cheek -- and then he understood, and he turned his head, and our mouths met just as I drew back and thrust for the first time.
He cried out into my mouth, and I answered in the same language, and he reached up to wrap his arm around my head, holding my mouth to his. He was so beautiful, his body's clasp on mine so hot. We moved upward wave on wave like the tide.
I lost control first. He felt it, hissed unnecessary encouragements -- "Yes, give it, take it, yes --" and then while I was still pulsing with pleasure he pushed back hard against me, three times, four times, and bit out, "Fra --" and throbbed around me as he climaxed.
I nuzzled the back of his neck and he reached back to stroke my hair. I caught that hand in mine and intertwined our fingers, and he brought both hands back around and kissed my knuckles, kissed his own, laughed drowsily.
Still clasped together, we slept.
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April 7, 2001