Oh, The Places You'll Go

How the Ray was Won

Notes: Written for Team Romance for ds_match (yay, Romance!) with the prompt 'I was getting to that'. Beta by my girls brynnmck, slidellra and ignazwisdom.


Boxes. There were cardboard boxes everywhere. It was like the house had been visited by a swarm of box-fort builders with the planning skills of Frank Lloyd Wright on acid. Ray weaved between them, bottles clinking in his hand as he sidestepped and twisted. Rounding a perilously high stack he caught sight of his target: two Vecchios slumped side by side on the plastic-covered couch, dirty, dusty and looking exhausted.

"Beer," he said. "No glass, Frannie, they're all packed."

"Doesn't matter," replied Frannie, pushing sweat-plastered hair off her forehead, leaving a smear of dirt behind. "Gimme. I'm dying here. How do you two have so much stuff? I thought guys didn't like stuff."

Ray handed her a bottle and shoved at Vecchio's shoulder, making him move closer to his sister. Dropping down next to him, Ray passed another bottle over and swung his legs up to drape them over Vecchio's. Vecchio put the bottle to his lips and gave Ray an exasperated look.

"Christ, Kowalski, I'm already a hundred degrees here, you're not helping." But his free hand dropped onto Ray's shin and rubbed at it a little. Not that Ray was paying any attention to anything that came out of Vecchio's mouth. He'd learned that in Vecchio 101 — the things you should be listening for are the things that don't get said. It was so complex that it was the easiest thing in the world.

"Since when don't I like to get you hot, Raimundo?" Ray let his hand drop lightly onto Vecchio's shoulder and drift down his arm, barely touching.

"Ixnay on the extalksay," said Vecchio, jerking his head towards Frannie.

Frannie let out a scornful laugh.

"Yeah, right. Because you're only moving in together having declared your intentions to God and the world or at least to Ma and that's the same thing. You can't possibly be having sex too. Imagine." She screwed up her face as if she was being assaulted by particularly unpleasant mental images.

Vecchio poked her in the arm. "Stop that."

"Stop what?" Frannie's eyes widened with innocence.

"I'm your brother. Quit it, will you? It's, it's, it's wrong."

"I don't know what you're talking about." Frannie took a sip of her beer. "And I'll tell you something else I don't get."

"Dates?"

"Very funny, Stanley. Completely untrue, but very funny. Really." She rolled her eyes at him. "No. I don't get how you got here. I don't get how this happened, the two of you. I mean, did you both just, like, wake up gay one morning or something?"

"I told you already. What more do you want from me?"

"No you didn't. You said — and I quote — 'Kowalski and I have a thing. A kind of, you know, together thing. And if you bring it up in public ever I will make your life a living hell. You know I can do it too.'"

"I said that?"

"And some stuff about breaking things. You know you did. I didn't say a word to anyone. And I covered for you that time with the supply closet and the fishhooks, so now you owe me. Tell. But no gory details." Frannie paused, thoughtful. "Unless there's fighting. Then I want to hear about it. Especially if it's this asshole getting his head kicked in." She poked Vecchio with a sharp finger. He poked her straight back.

Ray looked at Vecchio who looked straight back at him. They shrugged in unison.

"You want a story?" asked Vecchio.

"Story is good. What kind? Thriller? Adventure? Science-fiction?" An evil grin spread across Frannie's face at that last one and Ray wondered if that was how she saw the two of them — as some kind of bizarre futuristic experiment gone wrong.

"It's kind of a fairy tale. So help me god, Frannie, if you don't stop snickering I'm burying you in the backyard."

"Okay, okay, okay! Don't get your panties in a bunch." Frannie held up a placatory hand as she rearranged herself so that she sat cross-legged, propped up against the corner of the couch. "Look, I'm in my listening position. Go ahead."

"Right then," said Vecchio. "Once upon a time there were two cops called Ray..."

An Introduction

Once upon a time there were two cops called Ray who met under circumstances that do not need exploring at this juncture. They had three things in common, including their name. Second, they both got the whole undercover thing, and third, they'd both been one half of the world's weirdest working partnership.

"Oh, Fraser," sighed Frannie. "I miss him."

"He's one of a kind, is Benny. I miss him too. But he's not the hero. This time. That'd be this tough guy over here." Vecchio patted Ray's knee and Ray felt his chest puff out a little. "Though, you know, traditionally heroes have a bit more meat on their bones."

"I have a fast metabolism. That's what makes my reflexes razor sharp."

"And your brain dull."

"Clever."

"Thank you."

"Tell the story."

"Okay."

The Rays met. They didn't exactly hit it off, but there was something there, some kind of connection so it didn't take long to bond. In a manly way. Then one Ray got shot and the other one vanished into the wilds of Canada to be eaten by polar bears or something so the first Ray ran off with the second one's ex-wife — it seemed to be the thing to do at the time. The end. Or that's probably what it should have been, but it wasn't.

Ray the second, also known as Kowalski, failed to get so much as nibbled by an Arctic hare so he got bored of attempting death by nature and came back to Chicago. Ray the first, meanwhile, was sunning himself in Florida and having lots of sex with Kowalski's ex-wife.

"Ow!" Vecchio rubbed the spot on his arm where Ray had punched him.

"That's for telling it wrong."

"What? I'm just telling it how it happened."

"And that's the problem, isn't it? That's not how a fairy tale works."

"So how does it work, Hans Christian Andersen?"

"You've got to start with the hero missing something. Like, I don't know, a kingdom or a name or whatever."

"Why?"

"Because then they can go and find it. Duh."

"Fine. You tell it."

"I will."

Something is missing

Not so long ago, in a galaxy pretty much like this one, a skinny, short-sighted cop with experimental hair was having a bad day. The real Ray Vecchio had returned to claim his kingdom and his princess Mountie thing and Ray Kowalski didn't know what the hell he was supposed to do next. He was like a can of soda that had been dropped on the floor and rolled behind a drawer or something — all shook up and lost. He realized that he couldn't figure out who he was without the Mountie. And if the princess Mountie was going to return to the rightful Ray Vecchio then the other Ray might blink out of existence. Or end up drunk and alone which was the same thing only with more headaches and Scooby Doo marathons.

Then through a set of bizarre and life-threatening circumstances he ended up in a snowy wilderness. It was cold up there and clean and Ray's brain felt clear for the first time in forever.

So Ray decided to team up with the Mountie, who it turned out was the king of the wilderness and not a princess after all, to go on an adventure to find a hand. Franklin's hand. And Ray being less dumb than he looked knew he wasn't going to find the hand but thought maybe by looking he might find himself somewhere out there in the cold and the ice. He learned how not to die in a thousand different ways, he learned about dogs and snow and skinning hares and snow and setting camp and snow. But he knew he couldn't do it on his own, knew he was still relying on the Mountie and finally figured out that if there was still a him to find it was going to be back home. So he packed up his mukluks and said goodbye to the Mountie — which was harder and easier than Ray thought it'd be — and headed back to Chicago.

Ray's fairy godfather, Welsh, was glad to see him back — he was a detective down since Vecchio had run off to Florida. So Ray went back to work at the two seven, under his own name this time and set about fixing his life. Sometimes when the phone rang he would pick it up and say 'Vecchio'. Sometimes he still forgot.

"Aww, Ray," Frannie clutched at her heart. "That's so sad. This story does have a happy ending, right?"

Kowalski waved his hand vigorously, indicating himself and Ray. Frannie smiled sheepishly.

"Sorry, you had me all swept up in the high attitude drama."

"Let me get this straight," said Ray. "What you were missing was you?"

"Yup."

"I get that. That makes sense. I was missing me, too."

"Tell it, sister," chimed Frannie.

Ray narrowed his eyes.

"Backyard," he muttered.

While Ray Kowalski was gallivanting through the frozen wasteland that calls itself the North West Territories looking for his special snowflake among billions, not like that was a waste of time or anything, Ray Vecchio was lost too. Somewhere between himself and the Bookman. Everything had ended so fast that his head was constantly spinning between who he had been, who he was supposed to be and who he was. The golden-haired princess Stella didn't seem to mind who he was on any particular day so he took her by the hand and ran away with her to Florida and started looking for a new him to be.

"How'd that work out for you?" asked Kowalski with a knowing smile.

"Not so good," Ray shook his head.

The golden-haired princess got fed up of not knowing which Ray she was with and they broke up. The way Ray figured it, the last person he'd liked being was the one he'd left in a Chicago police station, filed away in a drawer under the watchful eye of his Lieutenant. So maybe if he headed back there to look for it he might not wake up some mornings thirsty for buttermilk and vengeance.

When Ray got back to his kingdom he begged Welsh to take him back but Welsh said no. Something about it being for his own good. Ray didn't really want to get shot again so he was kinda relieved but he wasn't sure how he was supposed to get into his filing cabinet to get the old him out again. Especially when he walked out of the Lieutenant's office and into the bullpen and saw Cinderalski-

"Cinderalski? Really?"

"Who else, king of the bag-ladies?"

-sitting at his desk. He thought about going over and making a fuss but then the phone rang and Cinderalski picked it up and said "Vecchio." And that stopped Ray in his tracks because he saw the look on Cinderalski's face as he realized what he'd said and it was instant recognition, and something twisted inside.

Then Ray remembered laughing with this guy and the connection that he'd forgotten in the whole business of getting shot and being pissed that Cinderalski had rounded up Ray's princess Mountie king of the wilderness and taken off without so much as a by-your-leave.

"You told Fraser to go get his man, Vecchio. That seems pretty by-your-leavey to me." Kowalski nudged at Ray's belly with a knee.

Ray shrugged. He could barely remember that encounter what with the morphine and the near-death experience. He was fairly sure he hadn't meant Benny to run off with Kowalski, though. That was self-defeating, even for him.

"There may have been a mix-up in interpretation."

"Ah, the Canadian-American language barrier. People don't understand how tricky that can be."

"Exactly."

It occurred to Ray that what he needed right now was a friend and that, judging by the look of him, Cinderalski did too. Two heads were supposed to be better than one — or so Bill and Ted would have us believe. So Ray shoved his hands in his pockets and walked over to Cinders. Who, it has to be said, did not look overjoyed to see him. He put his hand over the phone.

"What are you doing here?" he asked. "Stella come to her senses and kick your hairy ass out?"

"What do my ass and Stella have in common? You wanna know? They're none of your damn business, Kowalski"

Cinderalski flipped Ray the bird and went back to his phone call. Ray reminded himself that antagonizing the guy wasn't the traditional way of making friends. At least, not outside Las Vegas. And he did not want to be the Ugly Sister here so he decided to suck it up and sat down opposite Cinderalski, waiting for him to hang up already. It was noisy in the bullpen. Ray didn't remember it being that noisy, all the shouting and posturing and the clanking of cuffs and constant ringing of telephones. It buzzed in his head and he thought he might go crazy with it. Eventually Cinderalski finished the call and Ray blinked, trying to concentrate.

"Look," he said, palms up in that way that said I mean you no immediate violent harm. "I'm sorry. Let me buy you a drink, make up for being an asshole."

"You hurt Stella and it's gonna take a whole lot more than a Wild Turkey to make up for it."

"Wait. Do not tell me you are doing me now. You're making me sound like some weird Canadian-Chicagoan hybrid. I'd hate to hear your Fraser. 'Sooorey.' Just do it normal."

"I was adding local color." Ray grinned and took a swig of his beer.

"Yeah? Well, don't. Also you skipped."

"Huh?"

"You skipped to part two."

"I did? There's a part two? I did?"

"Yeah, you started the quest already."

"The quest?" asked Frannie. "Shouldn't there be horses if there's a quest? I'm sure there's always horses."

"No horses. Just the hero out to find the thing he's missing."

"You didn't say yes yet," Ray pointed out, quite pleased at himself for following along.

"Not out loud. Anyway, I'm the hero, I get to mix it up if I like."

"Mixed-up you definitely are. Do go on," Ray said with exaggerated politeness.

The hero is forced to go on a quest to find the thing he lacks

Despite his better judgment, Ray found himself in a bar with Prince Not-So-Charming. The drink was flowing even if conversation was on the sticky side of awkward and after maybe a half bottle of good whisky Ray was sick enough of all the avoiding to say,

"Look!"

"What?"

Ray flapped his hand at the bar.

"Elephants. Two great, stinking elephants sitting at the bar. Whadda you know?" He grinned and waited to see if he got a smile or scowl in response.

Smile.

"Who's gonna go first?"

They made their way through another half-bottle sharing stories of the golden-haired princess Stella and Fraser, the Super Mountie. It felt real good to share the good points as well as the bad and to laugh over Stella's weird toenail phobia and Fraser's ability to be Mr. Stay-Pressed against all odds. Ray found himself relaxing, though that may have had just as much to do with the alcohol as the company.

"For an anal retentive chick she's really hot, right?" Prince Not-So-Charming raised a glass in toast.

Ray had a split second of thinking he ought to punch Vecchio's lights out for that before deciding that the man had a point. He raised his own glass and clinked it against Vecchio's.

"Hell, yeah. And there's something she's got in common with Frase."

"What? The chick thing?" Vecchio giggled and Ray decided he was drunk enough not to freak out when he said,

"No. Hot." He paused. "And anal-retentive, I guess."

"Prettiest man I ever saw," agreed Prince Not-So-Charming, which, okay, was further than Ray had thought he'd go.

"You think Fraser is pretty?" demanded Frannie in a squeaky voice.

"You don't?"

"Well, duh, Ray, of course I do. I just never knew you- Wow. Wait a minute. Were you two? When I? Oh. My. God. You must have though I was so- Why didn't you say something?" She pressed a hand to her flushed cheeks.

Vecchio reached out and pulled it away, clasping it in his own.

"Frannie, it wasn't like that. I promise. I mean it's not like I didn't- It wasn't- You'd have to be blind not to notice how damn gorgeous Benny is and then you'd still figure it out from the thuds of women hitting the ground all around him. Okay?"

Frannie smiled weakly. "Okay."

"You know," the uncharming prince continued, "The thing about Stella and Fraser is they were so damn perfect that I couldn't match up. I mean, they had faults, sure, but they were like those perfect imperfections, you know? No clay feet on those idols."

"And your feet?"

"Solid mud."

"Me too."

"Sucks, right?"

"I'll drink to that."

And they did until the bottle was empty. When Ray got home that night he passed by the mirror in the darkened hall like he always did, catching his reflection out of the corner of his eye. Only this time, it looked like him.

Time passed. It does that. Ray detected and Prince Not-So-Charming proved he'd left his marbles behind in Las Vegas by taking up a post as a volunteer librarian. In a hospital.

"Are you ever going to get over that?"

Ray shook his head vigorously. "Nah. You. A librarian. With the quiet. And the reading. You."

"I like it," Vecchio said simply.

"I know." And Ray did know. He'd seen it. He'd seen Vecchio voluble in defense of what he thought was a great classic, successfully selling it to some sick person who could barely lift a comic, let alone a five hundred page sweeping epic or whatever. He'd seen him on the children's ward reading aloud to enraptured kids. And anyone who could sell a bunch of cynical pre-teens on the joy of a mouse who thought she was a ballerina had to be a natural. But still. Vecchio — the man who thought silence was a terminal disease — a librarian. It went against everything Ray knew to be right.

So Ray and the librarian prince started kicking it old school. It was weird, but when Ray looked at Vecchio he saw himself. Not himself through Vecchio, like it used to be with Stella, with Fraser, but himself reflected byVecchio. It was a good feeling. Ray liked it. So he hung out more with Prince-Okay-Maybe-Sorta-Charming. They were buddies doing buddy things. Getting their hearts ripped out by the Cubs, drinking themselves stupid, working on the best car in the world or its, you know, medi-, medicro-, crappy substitute.

"Don't talk trash about the GTO, Kowalski. It's not its fault it can't be as superior as the Riv. It's not about settling, it's about achieving your potential."

"Wait," said Ray, scrabbling about in his pocket and pulling out his cell. "I have Letterman on speed dial. I'll call and tell him I have his new warm-up guy right here."

"I would, only I don't want to break Huey and Dewey's hearts."

"Well, that's fair," conceded Ray and put the phone away.

Ray found out that Vecchio could make the best coffee he'd ever tasted. That the louder he bitched the closer he was to giving in. That he had a weird thing for costume drama. That he really was comfortable in a suit. That he didn't like to be surprised. That he hated blackouts. That arguing was his default setting. And one day — when they were getting into it over whether retiring 99 was an over-reaction or a fitting tribute to the best guy ever to strap on ice-skates — that his eyes were beautiful. Like really. Really. Beautiful.

Vecchio squirmed under Ray and he squeezed his complimented eyes shut.

"They're still gorgeous under your eyelids, dumbass. Don't worry, once we're done with the story I won't say it again."

Vecchio peeked through one eye.

"Never say never," he said hopefully.

Ray rolled his eyes, but he was enjoying the opportunity. Somehow it seemed easier to say stuff when he was narrating. Maybe what he needed was a permanent voice over.

Prince Yeah-A-Whole-Lotta-Charming noticed Ray noticing because those eyes got big and round. Everything froze. Ray could feel his heart speeding up but before he had a chance to figure out what he wanted to happen next Vecchio was out of his seat and pleading an early start. Ray spent the rest of the night wondering if he'd imagined the whole thing.

"You were freaking ou-out," Frannie crowed.

If she expected a denial, she was badly mistaken.

"Hell, yeah," agreed Vecchio. "Like nothing you'd ever seen." He turned to Ray. "Mind if I-?"

"The floor is yours," said Ray, attempting to wave his hand graciously and succeeding only in nearly clonking Vecchio with his beer bottle.

That was the first time that the prince had let himself admit that he was attracted to Cinderalski. In his kingdom that kind of thing wasn't the thing you did so he shoved it out of sight, pretended it never happened. But then there were stirrings, near misses and the prince started to freak out. Because, yeah, he'd looked but he'd never had that heart-beats-faster-when-the-phone-rings thing for a guy before. Not ever. And he sure didn't plan to start now. Before he knew it the prince had left his own kingdom and was way deep in the Land of Denial.

"Waaaaaaaay deep," Ray nodded his agreement.

"That's the problem with the men in this family," said Frannie. "They don't allow for the possibility of change. Embrace the inner child. Do something or other with the outer pain-in-the-ass. Sexuality is a plectrum. Say it once, say it loud. You're gay, lesbian, bisexual, transfigured, questionable and proud!"

"Shovel," said Vecchio. "We brought a shovel, didn't we?"

"Queer," said Ray.

"What?"

"Queer. Me. Queer. Him too. Kinda. Only he's more in the traditional-" Ray made a whistling sound and twirled a finger by his ear "-case. Seriously. No pineapple on pizza? There's something not quite right there."

Prince Kinda-Hot-If-You-Squint took his nice long trip into Denial. It was dangerous country. He met ogres and trolls and giants and dated every single one of them.

"Hey!"

"C'mon, Vecchio. It was anything above a B-cup. Frannie remembers, don't you, Frannie?"

Frannie giggled.

"Oh god, was that what all that was about? It makes so much more sense now." She smiled at Ray, jerking her thumb towards Vecchio. "My brother, the idiot."

Back in Chi-town Ray watched. It all seemed a bit loop-di-loop to him. Bottom line: he liked the prince, the prince liked him. Anything else was extra. But the prince didn't seem to be in any hurry to get back from his extended vacation in the Freak-Out motel. Ray needed a plan. Force was out. Wooing was in.

"What do you know from wooing, Raymond Kowalski?" demanded Frannie. "Since when have you slivered your timbers on the cover of a Harlequin?"

"Look at me," said Ray. Frannie looked. "Now think about Stella."

"Oh," said Frannie. "Yes, well. I see your point. As you were."

"It'll have to wait." Ray got to his feet, groaning a little as his stiff muscles protested.

"Where are you going? You're not done."

"Beeswax, Frannie. Mind yours. Call of whatever. Beer break. You'll have to wait for part three."

Vecchio stretched his arms above his head revealing the tiniest sliver of skin. It made Ray want to touch, he hadn't had a chance to since the removal truck showed up at stupid o'clock that morning. It would be rude to kick Frannie out, right? After all the help. Not brotherly.

"What's part three?" Frannie called to his disappearing back.

"You'll see," was all he replied, wondering if he was going to tell her the truth.

***

On the quest, the hero encounters a magical helper

"No way!" said Frannie.

"Yes way," said Kowalski who now found himself in between Ray and Frannie, leaning back so his head rested against Ray's shoulder. "Look. This is a fairy tale, Francesca. It has to have a magical helper. There are rules."

"Yeah, like you know about rules."

"I did go to school, you know. I have read books. It's a motif. So suck on that."

Frannie threw up her arms.

"Fine. A magical helper. What was it? A tiny wee leprechaun?"

"I'm Polish, not Irish. That'd be a domovoi and no. It wasn't. Are you going to listen or what?"

"I'm listening, I'm listening."

"Okay then."

Ray needed some help with his plan. But there was no one he could talk to about it seeing as how 'I'd like to get it on with my very male, stuck in a closet best friend' wasn't your everyday 'pass the Smarties' conversation. Then one day he walked into the station. There was a strange guy sitting on his desk. Short, weaselly looking, with a jacket that was a size too big.

"Who the hell are you?" Ray asked. Politely.

"Louis Gardino," said Louis Gardino.

"No shit! But you're dead." Not that this surprised Ray. He'd been around Fraser long enough to know that the real world had blurry edges.

"Yeah, that's about right."

"Then what are you doing here?"

"Huey didn't want me around at the comedy club. Said I was scaring the customers. I'm lonely. So are you." Gardino kicked his heels against the desk. He probably thought he was being cute. He wasn't.

"Well, yeah. But I'm working on it."

"Uh-huh. I seen the way you look at Vecchio. Though I gotta say — bad taste, man."

"When did you see?"

"I been around. Told you I'm bored."

"Go away, little ghostie man." Ray started to shoo him away and then noticed the weird looks he was getting. "Fly," he said to anyone who'd listen.

"No. I can help."

"How?"

"I can tell you what to do."

"What not to do more like. Listen, I got work to do. Why don't you go haunt the vending machine or something?"

"Been there, done that. Why d'you think you got an apple the last five times you went for candy?"

Ray sat down at his chair.

"You're not going anywhere soon are you?"

"Nope."

"Okay. What do you got?"

"Gardino was your magical helper? Why would you pick Gardino? You didn't even know him," said Frannie.

Kowalski squirmed. God, thought Ray. He was telling the truth. Gardino really had been Ray's little helper. That was weird. Though no more weird than Ray's pa appearing to him at inopportune moments and trying to make him dump Benny. It suddenly struck Ray that considering how easily he'd manage to accept that he was being haunted by his dad's ghost it should have been a helluva lot easier to accept that he wasn't exactly straight. After all, his pa bent one way, why shouldn't Ray bend another?

"I didn't pick him, he picked me. That's how stories go. If you don't like it, tell your own story next time."

"Gardino was a good cop," said Ray. "But he couldn't hold on to a woman for love nor money. A lot of money. You sure he didn't sign on to sabotage?"

Kowalski shrugged.

"A dead good cop is still a good cop. I trusted him."

"So I let you help me. What's first?"

"Well, obviously you need to get tested."

Ray's hackles rose. Who did this punk think he was?

"What for? I'm clean. You think I go up to Vecchio and present him with my blood work and he's going to agree to a date?"

Gardino rolled his eyes.

"No, dumbass. Not that kind of testing. You need to keep showing up and take the chance to get shot down. A test of your endurance. Or something way too girly for me to even think about."

"Testing?"

"Testing."

"One, two, three."

"Aha, see, now you should be running that comedy club with Huey. Not that wannabe me replacement with his greasy dark hair and his smarmy ways."

"Issues much?"

"Let's work on yours, shall we?"

The hero is subjected to one or more tests

"Okay, so first you gotta think, what does Ray Vecchio want? Apart from a brain transplant, a nose reduction and a good wig."

"Hey! That's my-" Ray stopped and scratched his head. What was Vecchio? Should be easy. Slap a label on. Stick him in the right box. Only he didn't seem to fit into any of them. "Don't," he settled for.

Gardino put his hands up.

"Touchy, touchy. Let's try that again. You're giving him a gift, what would make him happy?"

"A gift?"

"Sure. Who doesn't like a nice, thoughtful gift? If he was a woman, which is a matter of debate, you could bring him flowers, candy, shit like that. But we're thinking Ray specific. Come on, think." Gardino snapped his fingers.

"What does Ray want?" muttered Ray. "What does Ray want?" He picked up a pen and tapped it against the desktop, repeating his mantra and flipping through his mental files on Prince Difficult-To-Buy-For.

"A Lieutenant who doesn't think he's a total whack job?" said Welsh from behind, making Ray jump ten feet out of his chair.

"S-s-sir?"

"Since when did you start talking about yourself in the third person? You think you're related to the Queen of England or something?"

"Actually, sir, she uses second person plural."

"Try again, Kowalski."

"Um. No, sir?"

"Better. Come with me. I have a job for which you are eminently suited. You'll need waders."

Ray did as he was told. Following the Lieutenant he turned round to see Gardino sitting in his chair.

"Don't worry!" yelled Gardino. "I'm on it."

Ray chose not to worry. It was better for his health.

It was while he was thigh deep in something he didn't want to spend time thinking about that the light pinged on over Ray's head. What Vecchio loved. It was so obvious. He would've smacked himself over the head for being so slow but the gloves he was wearing were covered in something that was probably mutant. And from outer space.

"What?" said Frannie. "What did he love? And where were you? And did you use the mutant stuff on him to make him date you? I told you it was science fiction."

"First: wait. Second: sorry, classified. And third: derrrrrrrrrrrrr. It's not science-fiction. There are no mutant aliens with tentacles." Kowalski demonstrated tentacles with great efficiency considering he only had four limbs.

Frannie pulled a face.

"You've got a magical helper," she muttered. "Don't see how that's so different from aliens. Picky, picky, picky."

"You know, Francesca, you don't have to listen to the rest of the story." Ray's voice was smooth and warm. "You could go home, take a nice hot bath, listen to some Sinatra, think about why your life is so boring you want to be visited by tentacled aliens. We won't stop you."

"Did I tell you lately that I hate you?"

"Oh, yes. But please, tell me again. It fills my heart with such joy."

"Jackass."

"If you two have finished?"

"Sorry, Ray," said Frannie. "Do continue."

Gardino was still at Ray's desk when he got back.

"I got it!" said Ray, all pleased with himself.

Gardino screwed up his nose.

"What? Terminal body odor? You smell bad. Real bad."

"Never mind that. I got it. The Riv. He loves the Riv more than anything. Or, you know, the various Rivs."

Ray saw Gardino's face pale a little. Which you would have thought was SOP for a ghost, but there was something wrong. Another little light clicked on and this time Ray's hands were clean so he smacked his forehead with his palm.

"Sorry, man," he said. "Wasn't thinking. You and the Riv, unpleasant memories, huh?"

Gardino shrugged.

"You get over it," he said. "Besides, cars on fire is one thing we got in common."

Ray nodded to the truth of this statement.

"Besides," Gardino continued, "I already had that figured. It's the superior ectoplasmic mentality."

"The what?"

"You know. Freed from the physical the mental capacity is strengthened. Or some bullshit like that. I wasn't listening in incorporeal class."

"You have class?"

"Oh yeah. You think they let just anyone haunt the corporeal realm? No, my friend, they do not." Gardino dug in his pocket and placed a small object on the desk. "This, Kemo Sabe, is Vecchio's Holy Grail. He will look upon this and worship."

"Wait a minute there, Kowalski. The Lone Ranger, some English knights and a biblical reference in one paragraph? You going for some record?"

"This was Gardino, Vecchio," said Kowalski, banging his head off Vecchio's bony shoulder. "You should be grateful he wasn't referencing Sam I Am."

"You see him again, tell him I got some good books down at the hospital library. Broaden his range."

"Sure, I'll do that. In Bizarro World."

The object was small, cylindrical, silver and black. Ray picked it up to examine it. Then he put it down again.

"Gardino?"

"Yeah?"

"How'd I do that?"

"Do what?"

"Pick that thing up."

Gardino gave Ray a look as if to say 'I knew you were one of the loopy ones' before replying,

"Opposable thumbs?"

"No. Idiot. I mean, you're a ghost. You have no mass. You are massless. How can you carry something solid?"

"I got a pass for the laws of physics. Can we hurry this up?"

Ray checked his watch. Damn, he was going to be late for his not-date with Vecchio. He scooped up the object and inspected it.

"This is cool. This is great. This is cool. I gotta run. Thank you."

He wasn't late. And when Prince Always-Exactly-On-Time knocked on the door he was ready and waiting with an open bottle of beer and the object in the middle of the coffee table. The prince didn't notice the thing on the table because he was too busy doing his looking at Ray while pretending not to be looking thing. The thing that drove Ray crazy. Wait. One of the many, many, many things that drove Ray crazy.

Ray thought about objecting but Kowalski was right. He'd had that whole surreptitious looking thing going on for some time by then. In his freaked out version of reality he'd thought that as long as no one caught him at it then just looking didn't make the whole big scary hots for a guy thing real. He'd been too far into his own head to realize Kowalski had made him from the start.

Eventually Ray used the looking-not-looking to his advantage and stretched forward to put his bottle down on the table, knowing Vecchio was following his every move. Gotcha.

"What's that?" Prince Get-There-Faster asked.

"Take a look."

Vecchio picked up the object and gasped.

"Is this what I think it is?"

"A three-speed vibrator? No. Guess again."

"Kowalski, seriously. This is a genuine, nineteen seventy one Buick Riviera lighter. Do you know how hard it is to find these? Do you know how hard I've looked for one?"

"You might have said so once or twice."

"This is incredible! How'd you get it?" The smile on Vecchio's face was bright like the headlights on his car. Ray's insides did the happy dance they usually reserved for major sporting triumphs.

"I know someone."

"You know someone. You know someone! You are something else, Kowalski. I could kiss you right now."

Ray didn't say a thing. He had to bite his tongue so hard it bled but he didn't say a thing. But Vecchio must have got the vibe anyway because he jumped up like someone stuck him with a cattle prod and started babbling about putting the lighter in right this second. He didn't stop babbling the rest of the evening.

Strike.

Later, Ray was brushing his teeth. He grimaced at himself in the mirror and then nearly shoved his brush through his gums when he saw Gardino standing behind him, leaning against the wall. He spat into the sink.

"Well?" said Gardino.

"It didn't work. It almost worked. Just for a second in his face, I saw it. But no. He freaked out again. Big F for fail."

"Stop griping, moron. You didn't fail. He loved the gift. It just wasn't enough to push him over the edge, er, into your arms. Anyway, that was just the first test. Do you know nothing? These things come in threes."

Ray considered this.

"Always?"

Gardino shrugged.

"Almost always." He pointed a finger at Ray's chest. "But no skimping on number two because this could be one of those tales that subverts the norm. You dig?"

Ray grasped the essentials. That was all he needed.

"I wouldn't skimp. This is Vecchio. I-" He clamped his mouth shut.

"Nothing says I love you like a haberdasher of death," Frannie's voice was dry.

"A what now?"

"A haberdasher of death. You know. Smoking kills? Cigarettes need lighters?"

Ray sighed. Trust his sister to concentrate on the unimportant things. What were the words after 'I', that's what Ray wanted to know, fictionalized version of his own story or not. He'd get it out of Kowalski later and he knew exactly how to go about it too.

"It doesn't get pressed, Frannie. That's not the point."

"Yeah, Francesca. That's not the point. There was no death by cufflink."

Ray grinned and resisted the temptation to drop a kiss on Kowalski's head. He'd only get flapped at. Kowalski did not do PDAs. Private ones he did a lot. That worked out well for Ray.

Frannie looked puzzled and Kowalski took advantage of her silence to get back to the story.

Gardino turned up again a week later. Ray was trying to empty the sludge that called itself coffee from the jug to his cup but it wasn't working.

"Just dip a spoon in it," said Gardino and Ray jumped, shaking the jug. The alleged coffee fell to the floor with a splat. Ray growled.

"You're better off," Gardino nodded. "That stuff would make you dead or sleep-deprived. Either way you lose."

"Is this just a social call, or ..."

"Test two, Kowalski. I've got a plan for test two."

Now Ray was interested. He'd hardly seen anything of Vecchio this last week. There'd been three dates that he'd heard of and maybe a couple that he hadn't. If Prince Flirts-With-Big-Breasted-Women kept dipping into the well of nurses from his hospital at this rate he'd hit bottom before the month was out. All these dates made Ray jittery. It wasn't like he thought they were going anywhere. Life just had this way of throwing a wrench in the works. Ray kept his wrenches locked in his toolbox, but you never knew.

"Go on."

"Vecchio loves his food, right? And they say the way to a man's heart is through his stomach. I would've thought that was only if you stab upwards but whatever. You can't take him out for dinner, right? It would be all public and he'd flip his lid if he thought you were on a date. So-" Gardino looked at Ray expectantly.

Ray twitched his head and bugged his eyes.

"So-" he countered.

Gardino nodded slowly at Ray, eyes wide, encouraging him to figure it out.

Ray rocked back on his heels, lifted his arms and twirled in triumph.

"So I take the food to him. Yes. This works. This I like."

Prince Books-Make-You-Dusty looked surprised and pleased when Ray showed up at the hospital and started unpacking his backpack onto the table in the middle of the small library.

"What's going on, Kowalski?"

Ray shrugged.

"I thought you might be hungry. Are you hungry? I'm starved."

"I could eat. What'd you get?"

Ray slid a couple of plates out of his backpack and placed them next to each other before peeling the lid off one of the tubs.

"Puttanesca? Are you kidding me? I love puttanesca." Vecchio slid into one of the seats and picked up a fork.

Ray smiled and passed him a napkin. Vecchio turned it over in his hands.

"Pat's? You went to Pat's? That's the best puttanesca in town. Kowalski, you are a man of great taste." Vecchio looked up and met Ray's eyes, beaming. "Except in clothes," he added, reaching for the sauce. Ray snagged the other side of the tub, keeping it where it was.

"Watch it, librarian," he said. "You want to eat this, not wear it."

"Did I tell you lately I love the Bulls?"

Ray let go of the tub.

The lunch went great. Prince Needs-A-Napkin didn't even freak out when his hand accidentally touched Ray's over the cannoli. Or when Ray leaned over to wipe away a smear of sauce from Vecchio's chin with his thumb. He even managed to respond to a little mild flirting. But when Ray was packed and ready to go and asked, "So what are you doing tonight, Vecchio?" he got the reply,

"Got a date with a hot little number from Rheumatology. Movie, then her place, I hope." Vecchio was studying his nails.

Ray didn't slam his fist into the table.

"Nice," he said, through clenched teeth. "Well, see ya."

"Yeah, sure. Thanks Kowalski, now I got the energy for War and Peace with Mrs. Laraby."

"I'm a helpful guy."

Ray got out of the hospital as fast as he could. Why wasn't this working? He'd seen how Vecchio looked at him, noticed certain, er, automatic responses but zip, nada, nix. Vecchio needed to make the first move, be comfortable with this whole thing but the prince looked like he'd moved permanently into the Land of Denial. Wait a minute. What had Gardino said? Something about the rule of three. Ray relaxed a little. So it was okay. There was one more chance.

"This rule of three thing. You're making that up, right?"

"Nope. Motif."

"I never heard of it."

"That's because you only read Cosmo Girl."

Ray let the bickering flow over his head. He remembered the shock of Kowalski's fingers on his own, the rough skin of Kowalski's thumb, gentle on his chin, remembered wishing that Kowalski would just kiss him already. He remembered how it was getting too difficult to understand why he was keeping Kowalski at arm's length, why he kept insisting to himself that they were just friends, why night after night he'd take out these women and then go home and beat off to fantasies that always resolved into Kowalski's face, his hands, his mouth. And how afterwards he'd stand under hot water as if he could wash Kowalski off his skin, out of his head. He remembered how each time it got harder to pack Kowalski back into the box marked 'forbidden'. How he'd sleep and sleep and still wake tired.

He would go visit Gardino at the cemetery and thank him for the rule of three.

"Okay," said Frannie. "Fine. Rule of three. I get it now. Let's move it along, shall we? I asked for a story, not a ten volume epic journey."

"Test three," said Gardino. "You need to show yourself at your best."

"What's that?" asked Ray, thinking he did a pretty mean interrogation but that didn't seem to be in the right spirit.

"You move with the grace of a cat. Take him dancing."

"The grace of a cat? Are you sure you don't want to date me, Gardino?"

Gardino made a face like he'd sucked a lemon.

"Too skinny," he said. "Also too male. But I got no prejudice — not now I'm dead anyhow — and I can appreciate a fine mover of either sex. You got the moves, Kowalski."

"He won't come dancing, he'll think it's a date."

"It is a date."

"Yeah, but-"

"Look. Just take him dancing. It's not like you're going to dance with him. You find yourself a beautiful woman, you dance with her, he watches, it's in the bag."

"You think?"

"On even days and holidays, yes."

Ray only needed to mention hot women to get Prince Oh-So-Predictable to agree to go dancing. He took extra care getting ready, black shirt under black skinny suit, no tie. Dress boots polished to within an inch of their lives, each spike of hair carefully arranged. Ray grinned at his reflection before he headed out. He looked hot. He knew it.

Vecchio knew it too. Ray saw the flash in his eyes as Vecchio caught sight of Ray leaning against the wall outside the club, waiting. He let himself rest a hand on Vecchio's back, guiding him inside and then stepped away, looking around for a potential partner.

Within minutes Ray had scored a dance and was moving across the floor like there was air under his feet. As he and the girl stepped and dipped and twirled he could feel Vecchio's eyes on him the whole time. No more looking-not-looking. Ray couldn't stop the grin spreading across his face.

"You can really dance," said Vecchio when Ray finally made his way back over.

"Don't sound so surprised," said Ray. "I can do a lot of stuff. Real well."

Vecchio actually blushed and Ray had to look away to stop himself laughing.

"Come on," he said. "I got you a partner. Let's see you shake your booty." He grabbed Vecchio's arm and led him across the room, introducing him to his dance partner's friend.

Ray watched Vecchio turn on the charm but it seemed less focused than usual. Ray blessed Gardino then took his partner's hand and led her on to the floor. This was going to be a great night.

They burst through the door to Ray's apartment, laughing and joking about the line that had formed for Ray's services.

"I should pimp you out," said Vecchio. "Could make a fortune."

Ray moved the coffee table.

"Least I got options if Welsh ever kicks me out." He set to work on shifting the couch.

"Cruise ship?"

"Upscale resort." Ray flipped open a CD case and slid the disc into the player. He turned around and looked at Vecchio, who stood in the middle of the room looking thoughtful. "Come on," he said, curving his arms into position. "I saw you watching. Show me what you got."

He saw the bluster coming from a mile away.

"I wouldn't want to damage the goods. The old ladies and debutantes would never forgive me. You dance if you want, I'll watch." And Vecchio backed away.

It was now or never, Ray thought.

"Nobody puts Baby in a corner," he said with his best Swayze impression and slid across the floor to end up in front of Vecchio, hands outstretched.

"You did not just do that."

"Come ahhhhhn."

Vecchio's expression changed and he was laughing, taking Ray's hands and placing one on his shoulder.

"This is how it's done," he said and began to maneuver Ray around the room.

"Yeah, in beginner's class," said Ray, redistributing their hands and taking the lead.

Prince Nearly-There-But-Not-Quite held himself stiff and upright and it made it difficult to dance. But Ray held his ground and Vecchio's hand and kept them going, talking quiet and even. And then, out of nowhere, Vecchio relaxed against him. Completely relaxed. Like he had no bones, no resistance. And Ray knew he'd got it. Rule of three.

"Oh. My. God," said Frannie. "That's so romantic and it doesn't even make me want to throw up. You guys!"

"It's not quite done. You want to hear the end?"

"Isn't that it?"

"Nah. Now it's time for the hero's reward." Kowalski's tone was suggestive and Ray watched the horror dawn on Frannie's face.

"Do not go there, Stanley Raymond Kowalski," she said. "There are things sisters never need to know."

"Hey, you asked. I'm just giving you the whole story. You mean you don't want to know about the part where I put my-"

Frannie clamped both hands over her ears, her empty bottle dropping to the floor.

"La la la, not listening." She leapt to her feet. "Is that the time? Wow, Ma will be wondering where I am." She turned on her heel and started negotiating the stacks of boxes without taking her hands from her ears.

Ray chuckled. Kowalski sat up and yelled after her.

"But what about when I slipped my hand around his-"

"La la la la laaaaaaaaaaaa, la la la," sang Frannie at the top of her voice, tripping over a rolled up rug and colliding against the doorway before hurrying away down the hall.

"Wrist! His wrist, Frannie."

The door slammed.

Kowalski turned to Ray.

"Wanna hear the rest?"

"Yeah," breathed Ray. He really, really did.

After passing the tests the hero gets his reward

Ray touched Prince Here-At-Last's face, looked at him, making sure. Vecchio nodded. This tiny, tiny nod. And Ray kissed him. It was soft and slow and the sweetest thing Ray had known in a very long time. He was surprised by it. When he'd started this, back in the beginning, he'd thought it was all about the physical connection. About the pull of body to body. And it kind of was because he wanted so badly to get Vecchio into bed, floor, couch, wherever. But there was more to it than that. Standing there, kissing Vecchio, letting his hands start to learn the shape of him, it was more. Like Ray was always going to be liquid, changing, but Vecchio was hollow stone and Ray could fill him up.

"It's just one of those special cases where alone we're incomplete, but together we're better than we are separately," said Ray thinking about how the same thing could mean two totally different things. "I felt it, you know, when you kissed me. It was like something broke inside me. But in a good way. In a really, really good way. You remember what happened next?"

"I was getting to that."

"Come here and prove it."

Ray reached out for Kowalski and as their lips drew close together heard him murmur,

And they all lived happily ever after.


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