Between Us

by Speranza

"Fraser!"  Fraser turned at the sound of his name.  His new partner had snatched up his jacket and was dodging toward him across the bullpen.  "Hey Fraser, wait up!"

Fraser reviewed the day's work— they had interviewed Lopez and Mendoza on the Benize case, reported their findings to Lieutenant Welsh, filed the appropriate paperwork.  "Did we forget something?" he asked.

Ray Kowalski stared at him for a moment, then shook his head.  "Nah," he said.  "Just wanted to talk to you."

Fraser glanced down at his wristwatch;  it was nearly six.   "All right," he agreed cautiously, wondering why Ray had waited until now to initiate conversation.  After all, they'd been working together for most of the day.  "What do you want to talk about?"

To his surprise, Ray slung an arm around his shoulders and began to coax him down the corridor.  "Let's walk and talk," he said.

"All right," Fraser agreed, and indeed, here they were, walking and talking, the very picture of ambulatory conversation.  He was supremely conscious of the weight of Ray's arm.  "Is it about the case?" he asked as Ray steered him past the notice board, past a group of uniformed officers.   "Benize?  Or Mendoza?"

"No."  Ray was only half paying attention to their so-called conversation;  instead, he was glancing nervously up and down the hall.  Fraser followed Ray's eyes but saw nothing unusual:  just the now-familiar faces of the 27th precinct.

"Ray," Fraser said in an undertone, "what do you want to talk ab—"

"Not now," Ray murmured.  "Not yet.  Walk and talk, Fraser."

They reached the outside door, and Ray pushed it open and ushered Fraser through with a firm hand to his back.  Some part of Fraser wanted to balk at this pressure, but one look at Ray's distracted face convinced him to hold his tongue.

"Where are we going?" Fraser asked.

"Just to the car."  Ray propelled him toward a brown Chevy, one hand burning his shoulder;  Ray finally removed his hand and reached for his keys.  "Then we'll drive and talk."  Ray showed him a warm, wry smile, then bent to unlock the passenger-side door.  But when he straightened, his smile had abruptly vanished.  "We need to talk in private," Ray said seriously.

All right, then;  Fraser was prepared to trust his new partner's judgment.  Ray Kowalski was, after all, a professional undercover operative, and the man responsible for protecting Ray Vecchio's life in Chicago.

Ray strode around the car to the driver's side door.  Ray got in and turned on the ignition, then stretched his long arm over the seat and backed out of the lot.  Fraser noticed the way the skin of Ray's neck twisted as he looked out the rear window, saw the rough metal jewelry on his fingers and wrist where he gripped the wheel.

So very different from—  "Everything's all right, isn't it?" Fraser asked, suddenly worried.

Ray shot him a quick, guilty look as he shifted the car into drive.  "Oh, yeah.  Yeah.  Far as I know, anyway."

Fraser blew out a relieved breath.   "But that's what you want to talk about, isn't it?"

"Sort of."  Ray kept his eyes resolutely on the road ahead of them.  "Yeah.  In a manner of speaking."

Fraser was beginning to find this obliqueness irritating.  "Well, we're alone now, aren't we?  Isn't this private enough?"

"No.  Not really.  Besides, this might take a while, so we might as well be comfortable."  Ray glanced at him, and Fraser saw something in his eyes that was pleading.  "I could go for some food, Fraser—how 'bout you?"

Fraser initially assumed that 'going for food' meant a restaurant,  but Ray pulled out his cell phone (he seemed to have Chinese take-out on speed dial) and placed an order.   Five minutes later Ray double-parked the Chevy in front of a glowing yellow and red neon sign, and five minutes after that, they were headed up the stairs to Ray's third-floor apartment.

Fraser had only been invited here once before, and he hadn't been so much invited as he had, well, broken in.  So all in all, Fraser thought he'd better be on best behavior, and he kept a respectful distance from Ray as Ray unlocked the door.

The apartment was just as he remembered it, with its orange and red chili pepper lights and its old and comfortable-looking leather furniture.  The living room carpet was firmly in place, completely covering the dancing footsteps he knew to be underneath.

"Take off your jacket." Ray stripped off his own jacket and tossed it carelessly in the direction of the sofa before heading into the kitchen.  It whuffed heavily onto the carpet.  "Make yourself at home."

Fraser interrupted the laborious process of removing his own jacket to pick Ray's up off the floor.  The black leather was surprisingly soft and heavy, and there were hard, angular things in the pockets that he couldn't immediately identify.  Fraser carefully draped the jacket over the sofa back before he could be tempted to snoop, then went to stand in the doorway of the narrow kitchen.

Ray was filling a chrome kettle.  "Tea, right?" he asked, looking up.

"Yes, please.  How did you know?"

"Frannie told me."  Ray banged the kettle down onto the burner and flicked the gas on.  "Her and me already had a private chat."

Ah.  Fraser watched as Ray drifted toward the linoleum-topped dinette table and started unpacking white cartons of Chinese food, setting out paper plates and plastic forks.  He now thought he understood what Ray wanted from him.  He finished unbuttoning his tunic, took it off,  and lay it down next to where he'd put Ray's leather jacket.  When Ray was finally ready to sit down, Fraser chose the chair opposite so that they were sitting debate style, interrogation style.

Ray loaded up his plate with food.   Fraser pushed up the sleeves of his Henley and followed suit.

Ray ate a dumpling, took a couple bites of Kung Pao chicken, and then began, offhandedly.  "So I've read the file—Vecchio's file—so I know all about that."  Fraser nodded and ate a large forkful of sesame noodles.  "I've also talked to Frannie, like I said, for what that was worth, and she gave me a good sense of the family, relatives, that sort of thing.  I'm getting that she was closest to him?" Ray asked, and Fraser nodded again, this time in confirmation.  Ray looked satisfied.  "Okay, good.  Still, though," Ray said, "there's stuff that a guy doesn't tell his sister or his boss, you know what I mean?  You're his partner, you're his best friend," and Fraser had to blink at that, because was that true?  My god, that was true, wasn't it? "so I'm figuring that you know things about him that nobody else does."

Ray suddenly put down his plastic fork and gave up all pretense of eating.  "I got to know those things," Ray said quietly, seriously, with great sincerity.  "It don't go further than me, but I have got to know everything if I'm going to protect him.  Because there is no such thing as a secret, Fraser—you may think you have a secret, but you never do.  Trust me, there's always somebody who knows, which is why I gotta know, so I know how to act, what to do."

Fraser was staring now, because there was something more than met the eye here.  Ray, with his tense face, with his low, strained voice, was trying to tell him something, though Fraser wasn't sure what.

"I—of course I'll help," Fraser replied softly, and despite the fact that they'd come here for privacy, they'd both instinctively lowered their voices as if somebody were listening.  "Any way I can."

Ray looked relieved, swallowed hard, nodded—then leaned forward over the table.  "I gotta know about the two of you," he said, dropping his voice still further.  "How long, when it started, what your habits were.  All that."

Fraser thought about this for a moment, then licked his lips and began.  "Well, it was 1994.  And my father had just been killed.  Word came that a group of dentists—"

"No, no.  I mean the other thing," and Ray was waving his hand back and forth between them.

"What other thing?" Fraser asked.

Ray's expression grew resolute.  "You know."

"I don't," Fraser insisted.

"You may think you have a secret," Ray repeated meaningfully, "but you don't, Fraser.  Somebody knows—even if it's just waiters at restaurants, the woman who walks her dog every day at four in the afternoon—"

Fraser felt lost.  "What woman?  What dog?"

"—or at four in the morning, whatever, get my drift?" and suddenly Fraser did get Ray's drift and flinched.  His cheeks started to burn.

Ray noticed his embarrassment and broke off, reaching across the table to seize Fraser's hand.  Fraser tried to pull away, but Ray just tightened his grip.

"Hey, don't take it like that, don't take it like that!"  Ray's voice was low and distressed and kind.  "I mean, I run that way myself, if it makes you feel better.  This doesn't go further than me, I swear to God."

Fraser stared down at where Ray's long, strong fingers were clutching at his hand.  Ray's hand was oddly flattened, with wide fingernails and wide, flat knuckles.  "Be that as it may," Fraser managed, forcing the words out, "you've got it wrong."

Ray's face was all sympathy.  "Somebody'll know, Fraser."

Fraser shook his head.  "Nobody will know, because there's nothing to know.  There wasn't anything."

For the first time, Ray looked doubtful.  "But—  I mean, you, you're—"

"Yes."  Best to get this part over with.  "But Ray isn't."

"Huh."  Ray pulled his hand back and rubbed at his forehead, then carded his fingers through his spiky yellow hair.  He looked confused, and looking confused made him seem somehow younger.  "I was so so sure," Ray said, almost to himself, as he stared down at the table.  "I couldn't get a bead on his private life, and then I saw you and figured—"  Ray looked up suddenly, his face creased in a deep frown.  "I need a beer.  You want one?"

Fraser was about to reflexively refuse, then thought better of it.  "I wouldn't mind."

Ray came back a moment later with two sweating brown bottles and offered one to Fraser.  "Cheers," he said, and they clinked bottles before each taking a sip.  The cold lager seemed to clear Fraser's head.

"Okay."  Ray leaned forward, the beer bottle loosely clamped between his fingers.  "Let's take this from the top."

"Right," Fraser said, and told Ray what he knew about Angela Vecchio and Irene Zuko.  Ray listened intently, and nodded at all the appropriate places;  Fraser noted, with some appreciation, that he seemed to be committing relevant names and places to memory without needing to take notes.  "There were occasionally other women—he was enamored of an federal agent named Suzanne Chapin, for example—-but nothing that struck me as serious."

"You think he's carrying a torch for his ex-wife?" Ray asked.

"No." Fraser laced his fingers and stared down at them meditatively.  "Perhaps for Irene."

When he raised his eyes to look at Ray, he found that his new partner was nodding rapidly.  "Right," he told Fraser.  "That fits—that makes sense.  Explains why I,  he—"

"Vecchio," Fraser supplied.

"—why Vecchio," Ray agreed, "suddenly decides to take a risky undercover job with the mob.  In fact," Ray mused, ducking his head thoughtfully, "that explains everything, really."

Fraser nodded, and together they sipped their beers in silence.  "Well, that helps," Ray said finally.  "An' at least I don't have to run around acting like some kind of ladies' man."

"No," Fraser agreed, carefully peeling strips of silver label off his beer bottle.  "Ray certainly does his share of flirting, but underneath, he's a man who feels deeply."

"All right.  What about you?"

Fraser picked at the label's glue with his thumbnail.  "Well, I'd like to think that I'm a feeling person—"  He glanced at Ray and found that Ray was smiling.

"I bet you are," Ray said, his smile broadening into a grin that made Fraser's heart pound, "but that's not what I was asking."

"Oh," Fraser said, and cracked his neck.

Ray sat up, and suddenly Fraser was again facing the professional undercover agent.  "What does Vecchio know about your personal life?"

Fraser smiled ruefully.  "I don't have a personal life."

"Aw, c'mon."  Ray seemed to think he was being disingenuous.  "Look, seriously.  I need to know what Vecchio knows."

"Ray," Fraser said patiently, "you now know considerably more than Ray Vecchio knows."

It seemed to take Ray a moment to process this.  Then he leaned back in his chair with a low whistle.  "He didn't know?"

"I never told him."

"You don't think he guessed?" Ray asked.

"Why should he have guessed?  I wasn't—"   The unspoken words hung in the air between them:   I wasn't attracted to him.

Fraser watched as Ray averted his eyes;  he hadn't said the words, but damned if Ray hadn't heard them anyway.  Ray who had guessed everything.

"Well, hey."  Ray stood up, still clutching his beer bottle, and looked here, there, anywhere.  Fraser couldn't blame him—this was a hell of a situation.  Only a fool would rush in, and Ray Kowalski had already proven himself anything but foolish.  "Thanks for clearing that up."

"Not a problem," Fraser said, and stood up, too.

Ray took a last swig from his beer bottle and then put it down on the table.  "Want another?" he asked, but it was merely a social question, a formality.

Fraser shook his head.  "Thank you, no.  I should be going now."

Ray didn't protest; instead, Ray just watched him put on his tunic and fasten the buttons.  "See you tomorrow at the station?" Ray asked.

"Yes," Fraser said, and picked up his hat.  "Of course.  As usual."

Ray followed him to the door, but stopped him when he reached for the knob.  "Seriously, Fraser," Ray said, hand gripping Fraser's sleeve, "this stays between us, okay?"

Fraser couldn't tell if Ray was requesting discretion or promising it, but that didn't matter.  What did matter was that he and Ray now shared a secret, and sharing a secret was a kind of intimacy in itself.

He nodded at Ray solemnly.  "Of course.  Between us."

Ray tugged at his arm, and when Fraser leaned forward reflexively, Ray surprised him by kissing him.  It was a quick kiss but a real one, mouth to mouth, Ray's lips warm against his.  It was an oddly asexual kiss—not of promise but of recognition.  I know you.  You know me.  We know who we are to each other, and Fraser thought it was the nicest kiss he'd ever received, ever ever.

Ray pulled away with a smile and then gently brushed his knuckles against Fraser's.  This gesture was unfamiliar to Fraser, who nonetheless found the casual touch of fingers electrifyingly sexy.  He decided that it must be some kind of hipster handshake, some secret code that that indicated mutual knowledge.  Carefully, wanting to respond in kind, Fraser returned the gesture by stroking the backs of his fingers against Ray's, feeling Ray shiver, too.

Ray opened the door for him, and as Fraser turned and walked down the hallway, he felt, for perhaps the first time in his life, impossibly hip and improbably cool.  

The End

Author's Notes:  Thanks to Merry and Mia and Julad for beta.

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