Next of Kin
Author's Note: Thanks to Terri and Mia for their help with this! I could literally not do it without you guys. This story should not be confused with China Shop's excellent Fraser/Stella story Next of Kin, (with which it shares a title and a premise), but if your appetite has been whetted for Fraser/Stella, you might hie yourself to that story next. And actually, while I'm making Fraser/Stella recs, let me point you toward my own Covet and Pares's wildly sexy Satisfaction Is The Agent and Matthew Haldeman-Time's Obsession. Anybody else got a line on good Stella/Fraser, please let me know!
When Fraser arrived, frantic and dripping, at Cook County hospital, the nurse told him that Ray was going to be all right, that the blow he'd sustained had resulted in an epidural hematoma, which they'd just drained in surgery. But he was going to be fine.
Could Fraser see him? The nurse shook her head, and no amount of polite insistence, cajoling, or flirting would sway her. "He's in the recovery room," she said implacably. "We'll be moving him to the ICU in an hour or two." She gestured to a frosted glass door down the hallway from the nurse's station. "You're welcome to wait."
Fraser licked his lip and nodded thoughtfully. He turned, crossed the hallway, and opened the door to the waiting room. The room was empty save for a single occupant.
Stella Kowalski had somehow managed to take up an entire corner of the waiting room. She was sitting in one of the padded chairs, her bare feet propped up on another, high heels cast off beneath the chair. She had a slim silver laptop braced against her bent knees. A bulging leather briefcase was on the chair beside her, and two more chairs were covered with papers. She'd shoved her raincoat and handbag onto yet another chair, and an umbrella had been stuffed underneath it.
Without lifting her head, she flicked her eyes from the computer screen to him and back. "Yeah, I figured you'd come," she said, typing; apparently he didn't rate a greeting of any other sort. "I'm sure he'll appreciate it."
"What happened?" Fraser asked.
She didn't answer for what seemed like an unbearably long time; not, Fraser realized, until she'd finished her sentence or her thought or whatever it was. Then she looked up at him and said, distractedly tucking a long strand of hair behind her ear, "I don't know; he got hit on the head."
"Yes," Fraser said, trying to keep the ice out of his voice, "I know, but by whom?"
Stella narrowed her eyes at him; apparently, he hadn't done a very good job suppressing his irritation. "They don't tell me those things, Constable. I'm not a detective. All they do is call you and tell you the name of the hospital," and he was surprised at the bitterness in her voice. "And you come here, and you wait."
She trained her eyes back on her computer screen, emphatically signaling that this conversation was over. Fraser nodded slowly to himself, and sat down in a chair on the other side of the small waiting room, holding his hat in his hands. He stared down at the hideous orange and tan patterned carpet.
"I take it you're still his next of kin," Fraser said finally.
"Mm-hm," Stella said without looking up.
"Despite the divorce?" Fraser murmured; tactfully, he hoped.
"By legal decree," Stella replied, as if that settled the matter.
It didn't quite. "He doesn't have any other family?"
"Not here," Stella replied tersely, and then suddenly she looked up. "No, I take it back. One cousin, who he hates," she said, and grinned meanly, as if she were considering inviting him to dinner. "But other than that, no; just his parents, and they couldn't get here fast enough to authorize surgery or turn off his life support—"
"God." The blasphemy was out of his mouth before he could stop it; he felt like he'd been sucker-punched, and he was fairly sure his mouth was hanging open. "How the hell can you...?"
"How the hell can I?" Stella repeated, glaring across the room at him; he had her full attention now, by God, and he rather regretted it. "I've thought about it a million times, Constable," she said, and there was something about the way her lips suddenly twisted that made Fraser think she might burst into tears. She didn't, though. "Because it's only a matter of time before it's a knock on the door instead of a phone call, and some asshole like you is standing there and looking sorry. Holding his hat," she added, contemptuously, looking at him, and his hat.
He had a sudden, vivid memory of Superintendent Meers looking up from a telegram and saying, "It's your father." It had come as such a shock; why hadn't he ever anticipated that sort of news? He supposed that in some profoundly childlike way, he had thought his father indestructible. It had never occurred to him that his father would meet his death out there in the wilderness, while on the job; in fact, he associated death with the domestic sphere, with the drawn curtains and hushed whispers that had accompanied his mother's sudden illness.
"And he wanted kids," Stella concluded angrily, as if that were just the final insult to a lifetime of injuries. "To leave me stuck raising his kids after he—God, he must have been out of his freaking mind!"
"Be," Fraser said softly; it was all he could think of to say. He wondered if his own mother had been suffused with such resentment, then determinedly pushed the thought away. Stella frowned at him, not understanding, and he explained his correction, politely but pointedly: "'He must be out of his freaking mind.' He's still alive after all."
"Yeah," Stella sighed. "He sure is." She shoved the laptop onto her crumpled-up coat and braced her nylon-stockinged feet on the chair in front of her, taking up a defensive, almost fetal, position. Fraser had often seen her ex-husband in a similarly self-protective position, sock-clad feet braced on his coffee table, chest bent toward his knees—but unlike Ray, Stella was wearing a skirt, which rode up on her thighs in a most unladylike way.
Fraser averted his eyes from where Stella's skirt gaped. He first attempted to look down, but found himself staring at her painted pink toe-nails, visible beneath the seam of her sheer nylons. It felt oddly, disturbingly personal to be looking at her feet, so he yanked his eyes up to her face.
She was staring at him as if he were something incomprehensible. Her eyes, he saw, were large and grayish green, and he found himself thinking that, really, she was very pretty, with smooth, delicate features quite at odds with her rather unfortunate personality.
Stella raised an eyebrow and appeared to read his mind: "You don't like me, do you?"
"No," Fraser admitted, surprised into honesty. He glanced down at his hat, flipped it over in his hands and said: "But you don't like me either."
The corner of Stella's lip arched up into a smile. "Yeah, not a bit."
Fraser forced a smile and nodded his understanding; she returned this acknowledgment of their mutual dislike with a tip of her head and reached for her laptop. Fraser sat back in his chair, let his head fall back against the nubbled wallpaper, and listened to the renewed sound of Stella's typing. The waiting room had a dropped ceiling made of Styrofoam tiles; he counted two hundred and eight of them.
"Which I find odd, actually," Fraser ventured, letting his eyes drop back to Stella Kowalski, as if no time had elapsed in their conversation. "Because really, most people like me."
"Not me," Stella said, rummaging through the papers in her briefcase.
"Women especially. In my experience of them—which of course is not vast by any means."
"Yeah," Stella said; she seemed to have found what she was looking for, a blue-backed legal document.
"But not you," Fraser pressed, just for clarification.
"No." She wasn't really paying any attention to him; instead, she was biting her lip gently and reading, occasionally flipping a page.
"Interesting," Fraser said meditatively, and really, it was. Some part of him wanted to have Stella Kowalski tested in the lab in order to isolate whatever it was that made her resistant to him. Perhaps a vaccine could be developed for Francesca Vecchio, which would be a great relief to everyone.
She ignored him for the better part of the next 45 minutes, while he studied her with intermittent, sidelong glances. He found himself trying to imagine her and Ray together—not as he'd seen them, jostling awkwardly and shuffling their feet on the sidewalk, but as they must have been: childhood sweethearts, exchanging closed-mouthed kisses and paper valentines on the playground; teen lovers, hands in each other's back pockets; young married sweethearts, struggling to make ends meet. He had been surprised not only by the depth of Ray's feelings for her, even now, but by his willingness to admit those feelings, to air them not only publicly but in front of people who knew perfectly well that she had rejected him and no longer wanted anything to do with him. He wondered what Stella had done to inspire such devotion—and then thought that perhaps it was simply Ray's nature to be devoted, and she had merely been a convenient object. After all, Ray continued to devote himself to all manner of people and causes, Fraser included, and there was no other admirer currently groveling at Stella's pretty pink-toed feet.
But that was an unworthy thought, because after all, she was here, at the hospital, despite her dread and despite her divorce. Poor Stella, he thought; she hadn't been able to escape the telephone calls after all. She had none of the benefits of being married to Ray, and yet she would still be called upon to authorize his surgery or turn off his life support.
"It's good of you to do this," Fraser murmured, and regretted it instantly: who the hell was he to approve or disapprove of her actions where Ray was concerned?
Sure enough, she swiftly rejected the compliment. "There's no one else," she said matter-of-factly. "Or at least," she added, "no one who's willing to step up and take responsibility for him."
Fraser tensed at the note of insinuation in her voice. Did she mean him? Was she implying that he should take legal responsibility for Ray on the basis of their partnership, or their friendship? Or was she implying something else? He took the bull by the horns: "Are you referring to me?"
"Not particularly," Stella replied.
"I'm Canadian," he said uncomfortably, and Stella quirked an eyebrow as if to say, no, really? "I haven't much in the way of legal standing—"
But she was already shaking her head. "That doesn't matter," she said. "Legally, there's nothing to stop you from being appointed next of kin or signing a power of attorney—aside from the fact that it would be an incredibly stupid idea."
He hadn't ever thought about being Ray's next of kin, but he bristled at the suggestion that he'd be inadequate in the role. "Why do you say that?"
She snorted softly, as if she thought him a complete and total fool. "Because odds are that whatever happens to him will have happened to you, too; you'll both have drowned, or fallen off the water tower, or been beaten till your brains rattle. He'd follow you off a cliff and," here, she smiled thinly at him; a smile that was no smile at all, "in fact, he has."
He took it as a personal rebuke and sat up straight. "Not this time, he didn't."
"No...not this time." Stella averted her eyes, and Fraser suddenly realized that she was doing everything possible to avoid thinking of Ray, lying in the recovery room with a cracked skull and an epidural hematoma: reading, writing, arguing with him. She sighed again, then seemed to soften visibly before his eyes. "He wasn't even on the job," she said, her shoulders slumping, "though that's a stupid thing to say, because he's always on the job. He doesn't know how to let it go."
Fraser realized with a start that Stella did know what had happened and leaned forward, knuckles white where they clutched the brim of his hat.
She told him what happened. "He stopped at the FastMart on his way home, and it was raining, and he was running back to the car when he saw a couple fighting, and he got in the middle of it, and the guy brained him with a tire iron." She flinched, once, hard, a moment after saying it, as if saying it made it real for her. "We've got 'em both, down at the station, and here's the kicker." Stella's face got a hard, tight look. "The woman's clearly been slapped around some—which I would have guessed even without the bruises, because it would have had to have been something like that for Ray to get involved—but she's swearing up and down that her husband is a prince among men and that Ray pulled his gun on them for no goddamned reason."
"That's ridiculous," Fraser said instantly.
"Says you, says me, says everyone down at the station, because a battered wife has got all the credibility of a damp rag, but still it just drives me..." She balled her soft, white hands into fists and pressed them to either side of her head. "God, that bitch—I hate her almost as much as I hate him. Some days I fucking hate everybody," and Fraser looked away quickly, not liking the way the obscenities contorted her mouth.
"I'm sorry," he said faintly.
"It's all right," she said; she was trying to pull herself together.
"It's not. It's not all right—"
The door opened, and a hospital orderly in pale green scrubs stood there and looked at them. "Mrs. Kowalski?"
"Ms." Stella said, and snapped her laptop shut.
"Detective," Stella corrected crisply.
"Sorry," the orderly said. "Detective Kowalski has been moved to the ICU; he's not awake yet, but Dr. Kaufman said you could see him."
"Okay. Yeah." Stella stood up, shoved her feet into her pumps, and quickly repacked her briefcase. "Meanwhile, you tell Dr. Kaufman I'd like to have a word with him."
"He's doing his rounds," the orderly said.
Stella slung her briefcase over her shoulder, picked up her raincoat, and strode over to the orderly. She was almost a full foot shorter than he was, but her face was determined and her manner, commanding. "You listen to me. I'm the Assistant State's Attorney for the City of Chicago and if you don't send Dr. Kaufman to see me within the next fifteen minutes I'm going to open an investigation and subpoena every record you people have got in order to assure the people of Chicago that business is being transacted at this hospital in an honest and aboveboard fashion. You got that?" The orderly swallowed and nodded. "Good," she said, and then, one hand reaching for the waiting room's door handle, she suddenly turned around and looked at Fraser. "Are you coming?"
Fraser instantly got to his feet and followed her.
To his surprise, Stella barely stuck her head through the curtained partition in the ICU where they were keeping Ray, as if she couldn't bear to look at him for long. Having verified for herself that yes, this was Ray and he was still breathing, Stella shoved her briefcase and coat onto a chair and disappeared, leaving Fraser standing there, alone and helpless.
Ray was lying on a table, hooked up to any number of wires and machines. He looked terrible—blood still smeared his forehead below the huge, white bandage that wrapped his head, and the side of his face was a single dark bruise. Fraser felt his insides clench. He didn't think he could bear another loss. He took Ray's hand—pale and bruised from the repeated insertion of IVs—and squeezed it gently. Ray made a faint snuffling sound—"hhhhm"—but didn't stir at all.
"You'll be all right," Fraser told him in as confident a voice as he could manage. "You'll be just fine," and then, because he couldn't fight his own deep superstitions, he leaned forward and murmured into Ray's ear: "I caught this morning morning's minion, kingdom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding of the rolling level underneath him steady air..."
He'd repeated the poem four times and was just starting his fifth when the curtain rustled. Stella was standing there, staring at him—and he raised a hand to keep her at bay while he rushed through the end of the poem, which he regarded as half-medicine, half-prayer. "...fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion." He took a deep breath, murmured, "Get well, Ray," and straightened up to look at her.
"Dr. Kaufman says..." Stella was staring at him, and she seemed to lose her train of thought for a moment before finding it again. "...well, that Ray has a very hard head."
"That's good," Fraser said, not quite knowing what else to say.
"Yeah. I mean, he's gonna be here for a while, but he's going to be fine, the doctor says. His skull took the brunt of the injury, and they've successfully drained the hematoma, and his brainscans all look normal. Well, normal for Ray, anyway." She sounded vastly relieved, and then she turned and finally gave her ex-husband a prolonged look.
Fraser quickly picked up his hat. "I'll go now."
But Stella only had eyes for Ray. "Yeah, okay," she said, drifting toward Ray's side, and Fraser slipped out of the curtained cubicle and fled.
It was still raining when Fraser left the hospital, but Fraser didn't mind; he just put on his hat and doggedly turned toward the Consulate. He had been walking for about five minutes when he saw the flash of headlights and turned to see a dark gray sedan pulling toward the curb. He frowned as the passenger-side window whirred down, and then the interior light went on and he saw it was Stella Kowalski.
"Get in," she said. "I'll give you a lift."
He wanted to tell her that he didn't require a lift—he didn't mind walking, even in the rain, and he needed to think things over—but he couldn't find the right words. She had given him a direct order, and he didn't think she'd accept "I don't want to" as an answer. It would end up as an argument, or a contest of wills, and right now he didn't have the heart for either.
Fraser stepped off the curb, opened the car's door, and got in.
She nodded approvingly at this, her body language saying clearly that she appreciated a man who knew his place, then shut off the overhead light, thrusting them into darkness. She threw the car into drive and moved back into traffic. "Where do you live?"
"The Canadian Consulate," Fraser replied, staring determinedly out the front window.
"I didn't know anyone lived there."
"I do," Fraser said, and then added, in order to be truthful: "I sleep in my office."
"Oh," Stella said. "Is that comfortable?"
It was oddly easy to be frank with her. "Not at all."
She surprised him by barking out a quick laugh. "I see."
After that, they both fell silent as she drove them through the darkness toward the Consulate. The wet streets were empty, and the car's engine—an expensive piece of machinery, Fraser surmised—purred beautifully.
She surprised him again by throwing the car into park at a red light, and turning to look at him. "What are you doing right now?"
He glanced at his watch instinctively, though the answer would have been the same whether it was nine o'clock, midnight, or three in the morning. As it happened, it was almost a quarter past two. "I'm going to bed."
Stella Kowalski leaned back in her gray leather seat, drumming her manicured fingers on the top of the thick steering wheel, and said: "Come to my place instead."
Somehow he couldn't even pretend not to know what she was talking about. She had spoken plainly enough, and his faux naivety deserted him in the face of her straightforward request. "Why?" he asked instead.
She shrugged; an elegant gesture of "I could take you or leave you." "Does it matter?"
Fraser rather thought that it did matter. He licked his lip thoughtfully and chose his next words with some care. "But you don't even like me."
He'd thought it a good point, but she hardly seemed to register it. "No, I don't," she said, and then paused, apparently to choose her own words. "But that makes everything easier, don't you think?"
She seemed to be thinking through the complexities of the situation with remarkable rapidity; no doubt she was a very good lawyer. It was strange, this feeling of playing intellectual catch up, but it was also vaguely exciting.
"Yes, actually; it does," he said, and Stella Kowalski nodded, and put the car into drive.
Stella drove them steadily eastward, toward the lake, toward the Gold Coast. The city was quiet in a way that was familiar to him from driving around late at night with Ray, but the GTO's powerfully revving engine was an entirely different animal from this sleek, almost entirely silent, machine. Sometimes Ray drove up Lake Shore Drive at full throttle in the middle of the night, when the roads were empty, indulging his need for gut-wrenching, window-rattling speed. Tonight, however, Fraser was shocked, when he glanced at the speedometer, to see that they were going over seventy miles per hour; there was no sensation of speed at all. It felt like they were gliding on air.
Stella pulled into the circular driveway of the glass tower where she lived and then made a sharp right into what Fraser quickly realized was an underground parking garage. She raised her hand to her visor and pressed a small button, and in front of them, an automatic door began to rise. She drove slowly into the underground garage, and again, Fraser felt a queer excitement at the sense of entering forbidden territory. The door closed heavily behind them, trapping them in a world of fluorescent-lit concrete.
Stella guided the car smoothly toward an empty parking space bearing the yellow painted number 163. She switched off the ignition and the car suddenly came alive with lights and soft-ringing bells, which stopped when she yanked the keys out of the ignition.
She reached across the car with a quick movement that made him go very still, but she was only opening the glove compartment to pop the trunk. She turned, then, and got out of the car, and Fraser took a long, deep breath before following her. Her trunk, Fraser saw as he approached it, was immaculate, carpeted in soft black fabric and containing only her briefcase and raincoat. Fraser gestured his willingness to carry them for her—under the circumstances, surely some extra level of courtesy was due?—but Stella snorted her disdain and slammed the trunk closed.
Feeling helpless and empty-handed, Fraser followed her to a brass elevator bank and watched her push the lighted UP button. A moment later, they stepped into the plushly appointed car and she pressed the button for her floor, the 16th. The doors shut and they glided rapidly upwards.
Should he say something? He hadn't the faintest idea what to say to her, but surely the situation warranted some sort of conversation? Stella didn't seem to think so; in fact, she just stood there, holding her briefcase and coat, her shoulders slumped with what looked like exhaustion, patiently waiting for the elevator to arrive at her floor. Finally, it did, opening onto a familiar-looking hallway, and he followed her to her brown apartment door. The last time he had been here, Ray had been inside with Stella, and a bomb. Now, Fraser thought, he and Stella were here alone, but still he felt a strong sense of impending explosion.
She walked into the apartment, dropped her things onto a chair, and kicked off her shoes—all while making a beeline for what Fraser realized was a bar. He shut and locked her door, then stepped into the living room, still awkwardly holding his hat.
"Do you want a drink?" Stella asked, apparently fussing with ice and limes.
"No, thank you," Fraser said.
She shot him a swift look. "God, you don't want to do this while sober?" Her voice thrummed with mock horror.
"I do everything while sober," Fraser replied, and set his hat down on her sideboard.
"Yeah, and that's another reason why I don't like you." She was holding a large, clear drink in which floated a slice of lime. She took a sip and regarded him thoughtfully. "Why are you doing this, anyway?"
Fraser stared at her for a long moment across her dimly lit living room. Beyond her, full-length windows looked on to the lake. In his mind's eye, he could see Ray glaring at him through a gap in the doorway, begging him to go, leave, disappear on the off-chance he could earn her affection back. In his mind's eye, he could see Ray relenting and opening the door, sacrificing his dreams of reconciliation for Stella's safety. He could see Ray shoving Stella behind him and puffing himself up, trying to make himself seem larger, willing to protect her with his life from the man with the gun.
Stella Kowalski had thrown away that devotion, but Benton Fraser wanted it and meant to have it. He figured he owed her something in return.
But even that—that wasn't the whole reason. He crossed the room, took the glass of liquor from her hand, and set it down carefully on the bar.
"Because," Fraser said softly, looking down at her upturned face, her gray-green eyes and snub nose, "you're safe for me. You may be the only woman in Chicago who is. There's no way I can hurt you."
That brought a smile to her face, the first real smile he'd seen. "No," she agreed.
Then he leaned in to kiss her.
Her mouth opened under his, and he found her surprisingly forward, hands instantly moving to unbutton his tunic. He debated reaching for her wrists and forcing her to slow down—then abruptly decided to accelerate to her speed instead. He cupped her face in his hands as he kissed her and began to nudge her backwards, across the richly-carpeted floor and through the open door of her bedroom. She backpedaled as she undid his tunic and tugged his Henley out of his pants—and when she touched him, her cool, small hand sliding against the bare skin of his side, he wrapped his arms around her and pulled her mouth firmly to his, also inadvertently lifting her some inches off the ground.
Belatedly realizing this, he carefully settled her down on the floor, whereupon she pulled out of his arms and began to worm her way out of her own suit jacket. Fraser took the opportunity to unlace his boots. Stella had gotten down to her bra—a tiny, lace thing that flattered the soft, pink-creamy curves of her breasts—by the time Fraser'd gotten both boots off, and then he found himself unable to resist putting his hands on her.
She sighed contentedly, and closed her eyes as his hands drifted over her—caressing her breasts gently, then sliding down to her waist. She reached up and wrapped her arms around his neck while he cupped her rounded ass through the expensive fabric of her skirt, and then he was lifting her up and kneeing his own way onto the bed.
They knelt together on the mattress, exploring each other's bodies with their hands and mouths but not kissing; after that first, long kiss, they didn't kiss again, though Fraser's mouth sometimes found the softness of her earlobe, and Stella occasionally brushed her lips across his cheek. But sex between them was—much to Fraser's relief—entirely devoid of emotional pretense and therefore wonderfully uncomplicated; all he had to worry about was her pleasure and his own, without considering any of the larger implications.
Stella guided his hand beneath her skirt, and so he turned her around in his arms, obligingly slipped his hand beneath the lace-trimmed elastic of her panties, and rubbed between her legs. He stroked her with his fingertips until she was panting and gasping and convulsing rhythmically in his arms, until he was fairly certain that if he hadn't had an arm curled around her body, she wouldn't have been able to hold herself upright.
She was wet, too, slickening his fingertips, and he was aware of his own primitive, animal response to that—he was hard, excited enough to be trembling a little, heart pounding in his ribcage. Fraser closed his eyes and let himself enjoy the raging of all-too-rare physical sensations. It was pleasant to feel so on the edge, and equally pleasant to exert control over himself, to steel himself against an onslaught of—
"Okay," Stella said breathlessly. "You can fuck me now," and his control broke as he pushed her down onto her back. She was very pretty as she smiled up at him, her skin flushed, her hair wild around her face, and wriggled her way out of her skirt, her lace bra, her panties. "Wait," she said, as he leaned forward to take her. "Condom," and as he took one from the carved wooden box she kept on her bedside table and went about the rather embarrassing business of putting it on, she propped herself up on one elbow and explained that of course she was also on the pill, but you couldn't be too careful because she didn't want his babies either, thanks. And also, of course, there was the matter of disease, which...
She abandoned this line of conversation when he looked up at her, condom firmly in place. "Oh," Stella said, and seemed to relax back into the bed, her lovely, bare breasts spreading over her chest, pink nipples hardening in the center of her areolas. "Yes. Go ahead," and he settled himself on top of her as gently as he could and began to fuck her.
"Harder," she whispered. "Yes, harder," and so he grabbed her hips and tilted her upwards so he could thrust downward at a sharper, more forceful angle. He found the noises she made, her long shuddering gasps and low groans, intensely arousing, and strained blindly for sexual release within her body. But it wasn't until he was suddenly ambushed by thoughts of Ray—Ray! dear God! his friend, whose wife this had been —that he gasped and achieved an almost violent orgasm. It had been a very long time, and his body felt wracked with it, unused to sustaining this much feeling.
"Well," Stella panted, as Fraser shuddered and sank down, exhausted, against the softness of her body, "that was nice."
He didn't think it right to stay; he couldn't imagine them actually sleeping together, cuddling and dozing like lovers. Stella, eyes already heavy-lidded with sleep, didn't object when he didn't return to bed after disposing of the condom, and simply murmured, "Thanks," when he tucked the covers up around her chin.
He dressed swiftly in the moonlit room, eyes picking pieces of his uniform out from the shadows. He was nearly dressed—henley, trousers, boots, tunic, belt—when he saw that Stella's eyes were open.
"I don't have to tell you never to speak of this," she asked, squinting narrowly at him.
"No," Fraser agreed. "Of course not," but he did speak of it, many years later. To Ray.
Ray raised a hand to shield his eyes; the reflected glare of sun on snow was almost blinding. "Yeah, whatever, I'm shocked, because it's not like you two aren't the most competitive people on the earth," and then Ray added: "Gimme those tongs, will you?"
Biting his lip, Fraser gave him the tongs. "It wasn't like that. It wasn't a competition—"
"Maybe for you, it wasn't." Ray frowned down at the grill, which was smoking wildly, though the hot dogs looked like they were cooking all right. "But I know Stella. This was when again?"
"During the Mitchell case," Fraser said, and then looked away quickly. "The first night you were in the hospital."
"Yeah, that's rich." Ray rolled his eyes, then went back to carefully rotating his hot dogs with the tongs so they would cook evenly. "I'm in the hospital with a brain injury—"
Fraser crossed his arms. "You didn't have a brain injury. In fact, the doctors said you had a very hard—"
"—and you break some fifteen-year vow of chastity—"
"Three year," Fraser sighed.
"—three year vow of chastity, whatever, to go to bed with my ex-wife of all people." Ray stopped, shook his head sadly, tsked. "That's like a talk show story, Fraser; you could go on a talk show with that, you and Stella, and the audience would throw fruit at you and love me. I would be, like, the hero, brain-damage and everything. You want your buns toasted?"
Fraser blew out an exasperated breath. "Ray. Would you just forget the frankfurters for a moment—"
"It's Memorial Day weekend," Ray insisted. "You barbeque on Memorial Day weekend, that's what you do—"
Fraser had been unable to budge Ray on this point, despite showing him actual written proof that in Canada, Memorial Day wasn't until early July. But Ray had been planning his end-of-May Memorial Day barbeque for at least a month now, and he'd used the Inuvik emergency radio to get someone in Yellowknife to call Chicago and order a special package from Lenny's, his favorite Chicago butcher. Lenny shipped the hot dogs and sausages as far as Yellowknife, and then Ray had bribed Jake Parker with the promise of a couple of pornographic magazines to fly his prop-plane down to fetch the package of meat. Ray had been optimistic that the snow would melt in time, but May had been cold and it hadn't. Still, Ray was determined to have his Memorial Day barbeque and so here he was, wearing fourteen different layers of plaid flannel and a wool hat, happily standing over his grill, breath white in front of his face.
Fraser had to admit, though, that the hot dogs looked very good indeed. "All right, yes; toast the bun."
Ray beat his gloved hands together happily and reached for the package of frankfurter rolls. "Now you're talking..."
"You're really not upset?" Fraser asked, eyeing him closely.
Ray never even looked up from where he was laying the open buns face down on the grill. "You're a hell of a detective, Fraser. No, I'm not upset. This was what, five years ago? Stella and me weren't together, you and me weren't together, plus I was in a coma."
Fraser hung his head and idly rubbed at his temple. "That just seems to me to make it worse."
Ray shrugged. "Stella always liked to fuck when she was stressed. It calmed her down. She kept me around for that, long after she'd stopped liking me. You, meanwhile," Ray said, taking a bun off the grill and carefully laying a hissing and spitting hot dog on it, "Stella's totally your type: she didn't like you, and she wasn't going to stick around."
"You think I'm that pathological?" Fraser asked.
"Where women are concerned? Absolutely." Now Ray was messing around with a tray of condiments he'd brought out. "Or else you subconsciously wanted a last huzzah before eloping with me to the Arctic. I was a mail order bride." With a maniacal grin, Ray took a huge bite of his hot dog.
Fraser supposed that Ray's picture of events, while not strictly accurate, was true in some underlying way. Stella had turned to him for comfort. He had pursued Stella as a way of being near to Ray—-and the fact that Stella was unlikely to form any sort of emotional attachment to him had, of course, been a definite advantage.
"All right. Fine." Fraser looked down at the row of shiny, fat-slick hot dogs. "Can I have one of those?"
"Are you kidding? You fucked my wife! No hot dog for you!" Fraser whipped his head around to stare at him, feeling like his eyes were popping out of his head. But Ray just grinned and said, "Geez, lighten up already," and made him a hot dog with mustard and extra relish.
Later, after they'd both eaten too much and drunk too much, Ray took hold of Fraser's face and gave him a sloppy, beery kiss that Fraser found completely intoxicating. He closed his eyes and opened his mouth and let Ray push him against the sofa back, let Ray kiss him. The kiss made him hard, and it was lovely to just lie there and let it happen.
When Ray pulled back, they were both breathing faster. Ray held his face and looked at him; after a moment, Ray's gaze dropped to his mouth.
"It wasn't anything," Fraser said quietly; he was sure he knew what Ray was looking for, some invisible trace of Stella's lips on his.
"It was something. Maybe nothing important, but something anyway." Ray couldn't seem to tear his eyes away from Fraser's mouth. "She's beautiful, isn't she?"
Ray slid his thumb meditatively over Fraser's lower lip. Fraser inhaled raggedly and closed his eyes. "Was the sex good, you and her?"
Behind his eyelids, Fraser could see the nape of Stella's neck, the pale curve of her back as she gasped through an orgasm on his fingers. "Yes," he said, understanding that Ray was trying to picture it, perhaps to make it something real, and not an abstraction.
Ray was quiet for a while, and then he said, softly, "Were you thinking of me?" and Fraser's eyes flew open and he said, "Yes," and Ray's golden blond hair was so like Stella's and so different, "Yes, I was. I think we both were. You were in bed with us," and Ray groaned and kissed him until he could barely breathe. And for a few minutes, there were three of them again—he was kissing husband and wife simultaneously, and knew that Ray was seeking Stella on his lips. Then his hand closed around the thick, hot erection protruding from Ray's fly, and Ray was fumbling in Fraser's pants—and Stella was gone, and it was just the two of them, making love together.
What was interesting, Stella thought, was that postcard was neither addressed nor signed. Oh, it had an address, of course, otherwise it would never have been delivered, but it wasn't addressed to any specific person. The "To:" box contained only the house address: 1156 Moon Bay Circle, Palm Beach, Florida.
Still, there wasn't any doubt as to whom the postcard was from; first, it was of some astoundingly beautiful mountain peak, which the caption assured her was "Near Tulita NWT," and second, it had been postmarked from someplace called "Fort Norman," and third, it had been addressed in a neat, slightly old-fashioned script that said "Benton Fraser" all over it.
"Thinking of you," the card said.
Her husband came into the kitchen, slopped coffee into a mug, and pressed a gentle kiss to her temple before leaning back tiredly against the counter. "God, I'm beat," he said, and then showed her a giant, almost leonine yawn. "Can't get moving this morning." He took a deep swig of coffee, eyeing her over the cup. "Hey, what's that?" he asked.
"Postcard," she said, and pushed the card across the counter towards him.
He picked up the card, studied it for a second, and then broke into a grin. "Benny," he said, affectionately adding: "What a freak. Not much to say, I guess." He surprised her by holding the card up to the light and peering at it suspiciously, as if it might contain some kind of secret message. Apparently there wasn't one, though, and he shrugged after a moment and tossed the card back down onto the countertop. "Gotta take him at his word, I guess. He was thinking of us," her husband said, though she could tell from the tone of his voice that the "us" was a gentlemanly sop to her, the routine inclusion granted a married couple by right of law.
But the postcard said no such thing. Stella picked it up again as her husband turned to the fridge and rummaged through a white, string-tied box for a cream puff. "Thinking of you," the postcard said, and no "you" was specified: why was that? It took her only seconds to come up with the answer; if Fraser didn't address the card, it was because he couldn't. And he could certainly have addressed the card to "Ray Vecchio" or "Mr. and Mrs. Vecchio" or "Ray and Stella Vecchio" or even "The Vecchios"—but he didn't.
Me, she thought. The card was meant for me, and me alone.
"You know," Ray was saying, a cream puff between his fingers, "seriously, I'm no fan of your ex-husband's, but I gotta pity the guy being trapped up there in the frozen north. First of all, there's like a thousand ways to die up there, and second of all, he's only got Fraser for company; it must be Inuit stories up the wazoo." Ray took a sensual bite of his cream puff and another slug of coffee. "You ought to call up there sometime; he could be dead."
The thought caught Stella by surprise, and made her smile. "That's not my problem anymore," she said, and pinned the postcard to the corkboard in the kitchen.