Beta by Purna, with thanks, too, to Kalena.
Ray wasn't at his apartment.
I hadn't seen him all day, but we'd made plans to meet for dinner. When he didn't come by the Consulate to pick me up, I'd called the station, and Lieutenant Welsh told me Ray had been gone for an hour, after being out of sorts and seemingly upset all day.
Perhaps I am short a few marbles or more obtuse than I realized, but I had thought he was happy. Or at least not upset or offended or put off. Nothing seemed to have changed between us, after Monday night. I didn't know how deeply unnerved he was.
I would have thought I'd read it in his face, where his emotions are displayed freely. I would have thought I'd decipher it from his words, if less easily. For if his face is like the open sky, Ray Kowalski's words are more like an occluding fog bank. In order to understand him, one must be able to unravel the clues, to speak his unique language.
For example, complaining is part of Ray's persona, his natural state. If he were to greet me without at least a hint of a scowl on his face, I'd worry he was sick. This posture of eternal grumbling is part of who he is -- I know it's a sham; so does he. After more than a year of partnering with him, I have learned, for example, that a morning's greeting of "C'mon, Fraser, hurry up," means "Glad to see you." "Can you believe I got all this paperwork dumped on me?" means "Thank you for helping" and "Welsh hates me" means "But at least you like me." It's just part of "that thing we do," a ritual between us I have come to depend on, just as I have come to depend on him.
Because I do depend on him, on seeing him, his surprising failure to show up this evening was disturbing to me. He never goes anywhere without his cell phone, so if something had come up, as does happen, he would have called. I felt a stab of fear that something had prevented him from doing so. Something unexpected. Something potentially dangerous. And so, having worked myself up to apprehensive concern, I took Dief and set out to find him.
Lieutenant Welsh had assured me nothing untoward had happened during the day, and that Ray hadn't seemed to be obsessing over a case, as he sometimes -- well, often -- will do. His mood had grown darker as the day progressed, and by the time he left, everyone in the squad had been happy to see him go.
But, I thought, as I climbed the steps to his apartment, when I'd considered his face, his demeanor over the past week, it had seemed he was lighter in spirit, and I had thought -- hoped -- well, flattered myself -- that this change in him was at least partly due to what happened on Monday. In retrospect, it was probably projection. I would curse myself for my foolish fantasies, but it honestly seemed to me that Ray felt about me the same way I feel about him.
And that is?
I hear my father's voice: Well, son, that's the question, isn't it?
Indeed it is.
Ray didn't answer when I knocked. Several times. In fact, I knocked so many times and evidently so loudly, that his landlady came upstairs to ask me to desist. I know she's fond of Ray, and spends much of her day leaning out her front window, so when she informed me she hadn't seen him since early morning, I believed her. So clearly he wasn't hibernating from the world in his own den.
I'd already checked with his gym, but he wasn't there working out his frustrations on the heavy bag.
My mind continued to conjure pictures of my friend bleeding in an alley, or beset by criminals seeking revenge. I pushed the images away.
To say I feel friendship towards Ray is a gross understatement. That's all I ever wanted, and after the initial awkwardness of our confusing meeting, all I expected.
I suppose I felt gratitude that he was willing to be my friend. Thrust into his role as Ray Vecchio, all he was called upon to do was pretend we were "buddies." He could easily have merely maintained a ruse, foregoing a true friendship, but surprisingly he had not. Instead he had reached out, literally, and had let our relationship deepen into a firm bond.
I felt the loss of my friend Ray Vecchio deeply -- I still do, but in his replacement I have found another person who seems genuinely glad to know me beyond simple acquaintance. I liked him nearly from the start, liked his easy familiarity, his peculiar way of looking at things, even his false bravado and unexpected insecurities. I liked the way he jumped from subject to subject with no warning. It is exhilarating being his friend, if a trifle exhausting. Thank God he threw me the lifeline of his friendship. I can't imagine what I would be like now if he hadn't.
His car wasn't in the garage behind the building, but it occurred to me to talk to the mechanic around the corner who sometimes assists Ray when he wants to tinker with his GTO. This fellow Dominic is one of the few people Ray trusts with his precious car, and they've known each other since adolescence. I'm afraid a love of classic automobiles is one interest we do not share.
We are very different in more important ways. Where Ray is all instinct and impulse, I am logic and reason. These differences once brought us to blows. He was married for many years to a clever and attractive woman, and though it ended badly, he maintained the relationship for over two decades. He still manages to work with her, despite the considerable strain she causes by being caustic and rude to him. On the other hand, my most profound relationship lasted a week, was revived for three days, and nearly ended my life. I maintain an outward calm. Ray does not rein in his emotions, to put it kindly.
But we are also alike. As I got to know him, I began to understand why we bonded so quickly. Unlike Ray Vecchio, this Ray is nearly as isolated as I am -- not only divorced, but also estranged from his family, lonely -- the collateral damage of undercover work. I understand his alienation, for I share it.
I thought we were alike in another way, but now I wonder if I was mistaken.
Dominic greeted me warmly, and Diefenbaker warily. He told me that he and Ray used to drown their sorrows at bars "back in the old neighborhood." He couldn't be more specific because he didn't remember the names. I thanked him kindly and signaled to Dief. We had a long walk ahead of us.
Somewhere along the way of our relationship, I realized I felt something more than friendship for Ray. Oddly, I wasn't as startled by this revelation as I might have imagined. There was an inevitability to the process, I suppose, borne of so much time spent together, a camaraderie that managed to survive Ray's quick temper and my unfortunate need for control. We've hurt each other and forgiven each other. He has cried in front of me with no shame and no apologies. I've let him see at least a little of my loneliness and neediness. We two admitted eccentrics are. . . used to each other. We share nearly everything -- pizza, problems, crushing defeats, exhilarating successes. Our connection has its awkward moments, but by and large it is comfortable. It certainly is of comfort to me.
It was inevitable, perhaps, that I would be drawn to him, but I had no clue of how strongly I felt. It seemed that one day he was my best friend and the next I just woke up and knew I loved him. Loved him in a way that encompassed the love I'd felt for Ray Vecchio, but went beyond even that. IN love. I wanted him, emotionally, physically, every way.
I was not so much stunned by this discovery as I was liberated by it. Relieved. After Victoria I feared I would never love again.
I was happy.
Suddenly I found myself looking at him as a lover might, feasting on the planes of his face, a face that can look unremarkable or dazzling, depending on the angle from which it is viewed. His uncooperative hair suddenly seemed the only sensible style in the world -- and like a crazed teenage fan I harbored a brief desire to run out and cut my hair exactly the same way. Fortunately for the reputation of the R.C.M.P., a shred of my adult reason remained.
When viewed through the hazy lens of love, even his faded tee shirts and absurd eyeglasses became symbols of an endearing vulnerability. On and on it went, my obsessive mental listing of his virtues. A few more days and no doubt I would have started writing odes to his eyebrows, or hiding in the shadows beneath his window, Cyrano-like, to spout poetry at him. Fortunately, before it came to that I made myself sick with my exalted interpretations of Ray's earthbound charms.
Once I was past the giddiness, I still very much wanted to express my feelings to him; I just lacked the courage to do so directly. At first I tried to show him by returning in kind the affectionate touches he bestowed so casually on me.
Such physical familiarity is not easy for me, however. I found myself acutely aware of each touch and gesture, made myself thoroughly self-conscious and immediately stopped touching him altogether. I don't think he noticed any of it.
Next I tried lingering eye contact, which he did notice, but seemed not to mind, though occasionally he would regard me quizzically and say, "What?" But these were mere cosmetic changes in our relationship -- the essentials remained the same. We still spent almost all our time together, sharing everything. I wanted to show him my great sense of joy in being with him. I just didn't know how.
And then last Monday night, without planning to, I swallowed a bite of pineapple pizza, looked at him and said, "I love you."
And Ray said, "I know."
That was all. He didn't profess similar feelings, nor did he seem distressed. He didn't leap on me and shred my clothing (which I suppose I'd secretly hoped for). He smiled easily, took another piece of pizza, sat back and turned on the hockey game. And that was that.
I was a little disappointed that nothing more happened, and also that I was too cowardly to pursue it further in the moment, but it seemed a victory to me nonetheless. And since then, Ray's manner had appeared to be somewhat lighter and happier. And from time to time I'd catch him looking at me, pondering something. So, I thought, I can hope. And I did.
It took hours, but in the end we found him. I turned a corner, remembering the street from the brief tour Ray had given me of his old neighborhood. He'd grown up around here, had his fateful meeting with Marcus Ellery here, fallen afoul of his father here. Suddenly Dief began to bark excitedly, and I watched with growing anticipation as he danced in a circle and ran back to me with a triumphant expression -- the clear sign that he'd found his prey. And there it was: Ray's car, parked haphazardly across the street from a small, dark tavern.
I walked into the bar, Diefenbaker at my side, and peered through the blue haze of cigarette smoke. There was some sort of music playing in the background, and a noisy row of people at the bar. I heard snatches of words that might have been Polish. It took me a minute or two to find him, wedged into the corner of a small booth near the back. It was clear from the look of him he'd been there awhile.
Dief ran ahead to jump up on the seat next to him, and Ray looked up woozily and reached over to lace his fingers through the white fur. "Hey, Dief, boy, whatcha doin' here? Out on the town?" His voice was thick and slow. He ruffled Dief's neck and then took a drink of his beer. There were several bottles on the table and a lit cigarette in an ashtray.
I stood in front of him, but he didn't glance up as he spoke. "Wondered if Dief was off on his own."
"Hardly," I said. I stood there another minute, feeling awkward. "May I sit?"
He snorted. "'May I sit?' Kinda formal, there, Fraser. Knock yourself out."
Ray leaned his elbows on the table and took a drag on his cigarette, finally looking up at me as he exhaled. His face was set in neutral.
"You smoke?" I said, trying to find a footing.
"Well, duh, Fraser."
"It's just that I never saw. . ."
"Quit. Started." His shrug was uncharacteristically awkward. He considered the cigarette with a look of distaste, and went to grind it out, but missed the ashtray, stubbing it out on the pitted wood table. He sneered at his fumbling. "Fuck." Then, for a moment, his face lost its mask.
He looked much older than his years, tired, from alcohol or something else, and once he slipped from his deliberately distant pose, he also seemed distraught. My heart clenched. "Ray."
"Wish you hadn't come." His voice was raspy.
"Lieutenant Welsh called me. He said you seemed very upset about something, and he was worried."
"He's a nosy S.O.B"
"He was concerned, Ray."
He said nothing to that, just took a long swallow. "Hey, Siggy," he called to the waiter, gesturing to his empty bottle. I refrained from comment, though it was clear from his jerky movements he'd had quite a bit to drink already.
I waited until the waiter deposited another bottle on the table. "I was concerned, as well. I. . . I thought we were supposed to get together tonight." I bit my tongue, but it was too late. I sounded childish.
"Guess I screwed up your plans." He looked down at the table, spinning the beer bottle in wet circles against the wood.
I felt extremely apprehensive, and rushed to smooth things over. "Doesn't matter, Ray. We'll do it another night."
"I know." He took a long swig of beer, lit another cigarette. "You track my footprints?"
"No, Ray. That would be impossible. Diefenbaker--"
"You always get your man, huh?" He studied his cigarette through slitted eyes. I knew this was not the time to remind him of the correct R.C.M.P. motto. I wondered what he was trying to tell me. I could feel my pulse begin to race, and another pang near my heart. This wasn't good, that much was clear.
"What's wrong, Ray?" He just shook his head. He was growing more and more miserable before my eyes. "Can't you tell me? Maybe. . . I can help?"
That made him laugh mirthlessly, but it sounded almost like a sob, and I could feel my heart begin to crush in my chest. "Ray, perhaps it's time to go home. . ."
"You know what today is, Fraser?" He looked up at me, eyes direct for the first time.
I blinked, confused by the non sequitur, wondering what the day of the week had to do with anything. "It's Friday," I said. He shook his head. "It's not Friday?" I was trying for a little levity, but it fell flat.
Ray dropped his head and shook it again. "Never mind." He started to rise, and slipped back down in the seat. When he looked back again, his eyes were veiled. I didn't know what he was seeing, or what he wanted me to do.
"Come on," I said softly, taking his arm.
"Fraser, I don't want. . ." He fell silent, without finishing the thought. Didn't want to go? Didn't want me? Did he think I'd molest him when he was too drunk to fight me off?
I stood up with him, steadying him, because he was weaving all over the place. I wondered how much he'd had to drink. He started fumbling for his wallet and I had to take it out of his hands. I put the money on the table and steered him to the door.
It was a warm night, too warm for me to be comfortable, but Ray shivered slightly, and I kept holding on to him. I'd never seen him this drunk before, and I guess I would have expected him to be more unruly in this condition. But he was still unnervingly contained and silent.
His car was a big black shadow lurking under a broken streetlamp. "I want your keys, Ray," I said.
He didn't reach for them, but instead slumped heavily against the car. "You always know what you want," he said. It wasn't a question. He was speaking so softly that I barely heard him.
I felt the sting of his words. "Not really." I thought about my life of safe choices, years of never daring to reach for what I wanted. Now I knew I wanted him, but I was too terrified of what was happening right now to articulate it. Clearly he'd had time to think about what I had said the other night, and he'd found it unpalatable. I was half-expecting him to suddenly lash out, verbally or physically, push me away, tell me I'd ruined our partnership. Because that's how I was feeling in the pit of my stomach: I've ruined our friendship. I've lost him.
"It's not the same anymore." There was such a note of despair in his voice I could barely keep myself from pulling him into an embrace. But his words prevented me from doing so. I understood. My profession of love the other night had changed our relationship forever, and he couldn't stand the thought. He wanted to end it, but didn't want to hurt my feelings, so he got drunk. He was sickened by me -- a thousand ugly possibilities flooded my mind.
Already I felt the loss of him, of his friendship. I should never have hoped for more, never let him know anything but that I simply liked his company. This loss I would never recover from, I knew it.
It's not the same any more, he'd said. My heart was pounding in my throat. "Ray, I don't want you to--"
That came from left field. "What?"
"It's August 18th."
Today's date. I remained silent, just watching him, and suddenly he folded up against the car and slid to the ground, his back braced against the wheel, the heels of his hands in his eyes. I followed him, crouching down, concerned for him, frightened by his actions, the depth of his distress. "Ray?"
There was just enough light for me to see his eyes were bleak. "Twenty-four years, Frase. That's how long it's been. Since I was thirteen. There never was anyone else for me. Just her."
"Saw her at the station today. Just like she was then. I was twenty-two years old. August 18th. Gonna sing 'Happy Anniversary' to me?"
"I don't think so."
"'S okay." He sniffled, wiped his nose with the back of his hand. I fished around for my handkerchief and he took it, but just looked at it. So this was about Stella. I had hoped -- prayed! -- that the business with Stella and the alderman had cleared away some of the baggage Ray still carried for her, but I must have been wrong. Terribly wrong. I'd been delusional, so wrong about Ray and his feelings. I'd only imagined the connection between us. I'd imagined a promise in our two-sentence conversation the other night. I love you. I know. Five words, that's all it had been. There was only one person for him in his heart, and whether she loved him or not, he could not stop loving her.
At least he doesn't hate me, I thought, completely self-absorbed. I supposed I should feel grateful that his distress was not directed at me. In fact, it had nothing to do with me at all. Well, I might be irrelevant to him romantically, but I could be a friend, at least. "I'm sorry, Ray," I said, and I was, because I know only too well about unrequited love. "Did you have words with her?"
"Nah. Don't think she remembers."
"I'm sure she does, Ray."
"But you're so unforgettable."
That earned me a wan smile. "Loved her for so long, Fraser."
"And now I've lost that."
I fumbled for words to help. "You know, Ray, you may have lost her, but--"
"I lost her, yeah, but I've lost the love."
"I--" My face must have been a study in confusion. "I. . . don't understand."
"The love, Fraser. I've lost it. It's not the same any more." A couple of tears overflowed onto his cheeks.
"Ray." I couldn't help myself; I put an arm around his shoulders.
"Man, I am so fucked up." He shook himself and sniffed. He drew his sleeve against his eyes to blot them.
"Use my handkerchief, Ray."
"It's too fucking clean."
He nodded and wiped his nose. "Sorry. I might be a little drunk."
I suppressed a smile. "Maybe just a little."
"It's just that I loved her for so long, and there she was, and the calendar. . ." Suddenly the words were pouring out of him in a voice that shook with emotion. "And I thought, like I always think, shit, I've lost her, I've lost Stella, but something didn't, it didn't hurt the right way, and when I think about not being with Stella, it should hurt, my heart should be ripped open, right? It should be, because it always is, it's supposed to be, you know? I told her it was for forever. But I didn't feel it this time, not the same way, and that's just really wrong, because I should still love her the same way, shouldn't I? I mean, we were supposed to be together forever, and everything. But --. Dammit." He stopped and took a huge breath.
"But. . .?" I struggled to understand his meaning.
"But. . . I don't. I feel. . . It's not the same. It should be. I know it should be. But, then, I don't want it to be, not any more. I got confused, Fraser, and I felt guilty, really guilty." He sniffed and used the handkerchief. "And I felt, I feel, the. . . the. . ." He gestured in frustration, looking for the word.
But I understood his language, knew the word he sought. "The loss."
"Yeah. The loss. Of something I needed. Used to need. The hurt. The hurt kept me going. And then. . . it didn't."
"And that's why you. . ." I gestured vaguely at the bar. I could see the outline of his head as he nodded. I sat down on the ground next to him, in the street, my back to the GTO. A car passed, not close. A few moments went by in silence before Ray spoke again.
"It's just been so long, the hurt's been a part of me. And now. . . I feel like it's not. She's not. And this time it's because of me, not her. I've lost the me who loved her, Fraser. It just made me sad, you know? Sad and freaked and a little empty. It's the end of something, really the end. So fucking sad." He turned his face to me. "Do you understand?"
I swallowed the lump that had formed in my throat. "I think so."
"You do?" He laughed a little at that. "Shit. Then explain it to me." The tension was finally falling away from him.
"It's not exactly a subject I have expertise in, Ray. I do know there's no reason to feel guilty."
He snorted derisively, then blew his nose, in a very childlike way. "Gonna have a hell of a head tomorrow."
"No doubt," I said affectionately. "I'm sorry, Ray. Sorry. . . you feel empty."
"Just did for a little while. Hard to let go."
"It is." I gently squeezed his shoulder. "Maybe it's good, though. Perhaps it means you're ready to move on."
He looked at my hand, then up at me. "I have," he said quietly.
My mouth went suddenly dry.
"I just didn't know what I wanted. And then I did."
Oh. OH. "And, what is that, Ray?"
"What do you think it is, Fraser?" Now there was gentle mockery in his tone.
"I. . . Is that, ah, a rhetorical question?" I couldn't ignore the way my pulse was pounding in my ears. It was so very hard to hear my voice over the noise of my heart.
"What you said the other night, Frase."
I swallowed. "Yes."
"I didn't know right away. Until now. What you said, then. It's the same for me." He smiled, finally, a rueful, lopsided smile. "But you know that. I hope you know that."
He was looking at me pointedly, despite all the drink, and the clouds in his eyes had dissipated, leaving nothing but clear skies.
"I love you."
I closed my eyes for a moment against my own tears. And when I opened them, there was no need to imagine a promise, because it was shining through him so strongly there was no mistaking it.
"I know," I said.