Summary: Dief thought the new kitten smelled funny.
Fandom: due South
Warnings: Animal harm and unpleasantness
Thanks to: My betas, etcetera_cat and Steven, and also to kinetikatrue for her calm and generous response to the way I *ahem* fucked with her original story.
Original story: Bathrobe Wars by kinetikatrue.
A lazy Saturday morning in the noisy tropical heat of the building laundry room. Ray was wearing cut-offs and his favorite Ramones t-shirt. It had faded to a dull grey, letters cracked, shoulder seam torn, perfectly soft. It was the kind of shirt you could only wear on laundry day. But Ray wore it every laundry day.
Ben was sweating through a white Henley and jeans, folding their clothes with military precision. Ray dumped a 2nd dryer’s load of clothes on the splintery green wooden table for him. He would help with the folding, had done it before, until he’d realized that all the socks seemed to get mysteriously refolded, Ben-style, before making their way into the dresser drawers.
Ray lowered himself down, careful of his trick knee, and started emptying out the lint traps. Tiny little colorful threads and bits of fluff. Grey hairs from Diefenbaker. Black and white hairs from the little kitten that had adopted them a few days ago, and had immediately decided to treat Ben like its own private monkey bars. His and his, all stuck together to make one thing, held together with nothing more than hot air and static cling. Ray slowly peeled it out in one long, Downey-fresh strip, balled it up, tossed it, and was almost sorry to see it disappear into the trash can.
“Ray,” Ben called out, voice harsh over the rumble-clank of the machines.
“Yeah?” Ray yelled back, standing up and brushing away the grit that was caught in his leg hairs.
“I’ve been meaning to ask,” and now Ben was glancing away, rubbing his eyebrow. “Could you please hang up your bathrobe when you’re done with it, rather than leaving it on the floor?”
Ben had every right to ask that. Cleaning the apartment was his job, just like cooking was Ray’s. Ben was a real neat-freak, not used to the compromises that came from living with someone else. And, seriously, it was some kind of crime against nature that Ben, smart, kind, gorgeous Ben hadn’t ever moved in with anybody before. Ray could do this, easy, he could bend to fit somebody into his apartment, his life. Hell, it was two years since Ray’s divorce and he still only took up half the bed until Ben came along to claim the empty part. So Ray didn’t mind picking up his bathrobe, not at all. There was just one problem.
“Sure Ben, happy to. Only …” Ray got closer and rested a hip on the table. “I never leave my bathrobe on the floor.”
Ben looked up at him, blue eyes steady and distant in a way Ray hadn’t seen before. Not in year as cop partners and six weeks as the other kind. Then Ben shrugged, nodded with a little smile, and went back to folding the laundry.
Ray needed to get back upstairs. He didn’t want to leave the furry ones alone together for too long. According to Ben, Dief thought the new kitten smelled funny. Ray grabbed a stack of folded clothes, put them in the basket, and lugged them up the stairs to the apartment, wondering what that look of Fraser’s was all about.
Thinking back, that was the first sign that something was wrong.
Ben opened the door and stepped inside, leaving his keys in the lock. Ray rescued them and walked in, almost bumping into Ben, who had stopped just inside, like he had no idea what to do next.
“Hey,” Ray said gently. “Why don’t you sit down on the couch? I’ll make some tea.”
Ben nodded dumbly and stumbled into the living room. Ray closed the door behind them and flipped the dead bolt. He hung up Ben’s keys on one of the little pegs that Ben had hammered into the wall when he moved in. Then Ray headed into the kitchen, put the kettle on and scooped some of that twig tea Ben liked into the tea pot.
Ray pulled his notebook out of his pocket and flipped it open. There was a bunch of medical jargon on the page. Theobromine poisoning. Ataxia. Hyperthermia. All of it mixed up in his head with Ben’s hoarse cry for help and the sight of Dief twitching on the floor in a puddle of his own puke, trying to crawl to them. The scraps of chocolate bar wrapper in the puke that told Ray this was his fault.
The kettle whistled. Ray pulled it off the burner and then poured hot water into the teapot. He left it to steep while he looked through the cupboard for Ben’s favorite mug. It was brown and hand-made – Ray’d found it for him at a yard sale, and Ben claimed that tea just tasted better in there. Mug in hand, Ray leaned to check on Ben through the cut-away. He was sitting on the couch.
The drive to the vet had been a blur. Ray had no memory of navigating cross-streets and stoplights, just glimpses of Ben and Dief in the rearview mirror, his own voice a senseless murmur of, “Almost there, guys, Dief’ll be fine, we’re almost there.”
Then fluorescent lights, blanks green walls and bad coffee, waiting. Finally the vet came out, tiny and solid, blond hair back in a tight braid, her hands forming constant expressive little arcs as she gave them the news. Good news. There was a good chance Dief would make a full recovery. She kept talking. Ray had pulled out his notebook and started trying to get the gist of it down, fuck the spelling, when he realized Ben wasn’t asking questions, wasn’t nodding, probably hadn’t heard a word. Ray tucked the notebook away, poured some tea into Ben’s mug, and stepped into the living room.
Ben was still on the couch. The little black and white kitten was curled up in his lap. Ben was running a hand through the kitten’s fur, over and over.
“Dief’s gonna be fine,” Ray told him.
Ben stared at the blank TV.
“No permanent damage, the doc said. One week of that fluid replacement therapy in the animal hospital, and we can bring him home, good as new,” Ray continued.
Time to man up. Ray walked across the room to the couch. He put Ben’s tea down on the coffee table and settled on the couch next to him.
“I’m sorry,” Ray said. It came out so quiet, even Ray could barely hear it. He cleared his throat and tried again. “I’m sorry about Dief.”
Ben’s hand paused in the kitten’s fur. It kneaded his leg, little claws snagging on the denim, splotched dark with reminders of that frantic drive with Dief on Ben’s lap. Ray needed to get Ben to change, take a shower. But first he had to get through this.
Ray barreled ahead. “I always buy Stella fancy imported chocolate for her birthday, ever since we were kids. And this year …”
Ben started petting the kitten again. It purred, loud in the silence of the apartment. Ray’s stomach sank. Yeah, great idea, Ray. Bring up the ex in the middle of this.
“But that’s not important,” Ray corrected himself. “What’s important is that I know chocolate’s poison to dogs. I had a dog before. I knew that. So I wouldn’t just leave a big bar of chocolate lying around for Dief to find, any more than I’d leave a loaded gun lying around for kids to play with. It was up on top of the bedroom dresser, the tall one, and –“
The kitten yowled a little protest, like Ben had squeezed too hard. Ben muttered something.
“What?” Ray asked.
“I said that wolves are not known for their climbing abilities,” Ben said flatly. Ray risked a glance sideways at him. Ben’s eyes were closed.
“Exactly,” Ray said. “That’s what I’m saying. There’s no way Dief should have been able to get that chocolate bar off the dresser.”
Ben stood up abruptly with the kitten in his arms. His knee banged into the coffee table, slopping tea over the National Geographic he’d been reading that morning. “I think I’m going to turn in. It’s been a rather tiring day.”
“Okay, but –“ Ray scampered after Ben, “you should take a shower, maybe get something to eat?” Ray was left talking to the closed bedroom door. “I’m really, really sorry, Fraser.”
The kitten had a new game. It liked to pounce on them when they were asleep, a few times an hour. Fraser left for work before Ray even made it out of bed. Ray rolled into the bull pen that morning feeling like he’d spent the weekend on a bender. His voice-mail had a message from Fraser, saying he’d be too busy preparing for next week’s Cultural Exchange conference to liaise.
Fraser wasn’t really trying to shut him out. He was just dealing with this on his own. And Ray got that, he did. Because his whole life, Fraser didn’t have anybody to rely on in bad times but himself. Maybe Ray should push, get inside Fraser’s space, make him talk about it. He wasn’t sure. They hadn’t been together long enough for him to know that kind of thing. And … this was all kind of his fault. So Ray left Fraser to figure things out on his own.
The week pretty much slid downhill from there.
Ray had a cold, and the spicy peanut sauce that he’d made to clear his sinuses didn’t taste right. Too much soy sauce? Was the peanut butter stale? Or maybe it was just the company.
Fraser sat across the table from him quietly, mechanically spooning up mouthfuls of food and avoiding eye contact. It was like having a tidy but boring roommate. When was the last time they’d had a real conversation? Not just about groceries, or how work was fine, but something that mattered? Not since they took Dief to the vet. Five days. Ray would have to make the first move.
“Fraser,” Ray said, “this is just dumb. We have to talk about it.”
Fraser slowly chewed, then swallowed. “Ah, to what are you referring, Ray?” he asked, polite as if Ray was some stranger stepping into the Consulate for a summary of Canada’s major exports.
“It! The thing that’s got you coming home late, leaving early in the morning without saying two words to me? The thing that’s made it so you haven’t touched me in days?” Ray got that Ben was pissed. Seeing Dief like that – it shook him up pretty bad, and Fraser and Dief had been partners, buddies, for years. He could take his licks. If Fraser wanted to yell at him, maybe even get in a good punch or two, Ray was up for that. He deserved it.
The kitten meowed from its favorite spot on Fraser’s boot. Fraser looked down at his plate, made a face like he’d just realized how it tasted, and ducked under the table to give a piece of chicken to the kitten. When he straightened up his jaw was set.
“I hadn’t intended to bring it up, but if you insist-”
“Yeah, Fraser, I insist.”
Fraser pushed his chair back and stood up. Ray forced himself to stay seated, look up, and let Fraser have the advantage if he needed it.
“I don’t like to impugn your honesty, Ray, but if you continue to willfully claim to hang up your bathrobe and in actuality do precisely the opposite, there’s only one conclusion I can draw.”
Ray ran that sentence through his head a few times, just to check. “Let me get this straight, Fraser. You’re calling me a liar over a fucking bathrobe? Because that’s nuts for so many different reasons, but let’s start with this one. I have not. Been. Lying.”
Fraser glared down at him. “Well, you certainly haven’t been picking up your robe.”
Ray stared up at Fraser. Was Fraser so mad about Dief that he couldn’t even talk about it? That was … he had no idea what to say. The kitten pounced on Ray’s shoelace, and he had to resist the sudden, furious impulse to kick it across the room. “Fuck this noise,” Ray snarled, popping to his feet. “I’m going for a drive.”
Fraser started clearing the table, the silverware clanking aggressively against the glasses. When Ray stepped out the door, Fraser was scraping the left-over Spicy Peanut Chicken into the garbage disposal like it was toxic waste.
Ray drove around for a few hours. The apartment was dark and quiet when he got back. Fraser was usually a real light sleeper, but he didn’t wake up when Ray slipped quietly into bed and brushed a kiss over his shoulder.
Fraser went in to do some more work for that conference. Ray was just as glad. Between kitten-induced sleep deprivation and the damned cold, he wasn’t up to a big dramatic scene. Fraser had closed the bedroom door with the kitten outside, and Ray got his first decent sleep in a week.
He woke up feeling pretty good around two in the afternoon. The kitten sat on the couch primly ignoring him when he came out of the bedroom. Ray had just gotten dressed after his shower when the doorbell rang. It was Sandor with a carton of chicken soup from Fleischmann’s Deli. Fraser had used his lunch break to pick it up, and then paid Sandor extra to deliver it instead of the usual pizza. Ray tipped him again, not bothering to damp down the goofy grin on his face. It was just so … Fraser. Chicken soup, special delivery.
The soup was delicious, chock-full of onions and garlic. Its heat sank into his chest, loosening things up even better than the shower had. Ray picked up the phone and dialed Fraser’s office. It rang six times before going to voicemail.
“Hey Fraser,” Ray recorded. “Thanks for the soup, it was great. I’m feeling lots better. I was thinking maybe Pasta Primavera tonight?” Fraser loved Ray’s Pasta Primavera. “Or if you want something different, just give me a call.” Ray stood there for a second, deciding what else he could say on Fraser’s work phone. “Anyway, I’m looking forward to seeing you tonight. Bye.”
Ray hung up the phone and wandered down to the Chinese grocery on the corner to pick up fresh veggies and a moon cake for Dief. He’d be back from the vet tomorrow, deserved a treat to mark the occasion. Things were already looking up. Hopefully, with Dief home, life with Fraser could get back to normal.
When he got back to the apartment the kitten greeted him with frantic enthusiasm. Ray put some food in his dish, and then got down on his hands and knees to play with the little guy. The kitten was more interested in pouncing on Ray’s hand than the felt mouse. Pretty soon his right hand was covered in tiny punctures and scratches. The skin around each one was turning red, and it was getting itchy. Ray figured he must be allergic.
Ray swung the fake mouse around by its long yarn tail. The kitten stared, crouched, and started creeping forwards. Ray let go, and the toy shot off under the couch.
“Shit! Sorry-” The kitten dashed after it. Ray heard some rustling, and then a triumphant chirp. The kitten backed out from under the couch dragging a golden scrap of something in its jaws.
“What you got there?” Ray asked, reaching out to pull it away. The kitten batted at his hand for a moment before giving up its prize. It was a torn, empty condom wrapper. Trojan Magnum. The brand that he and Fraser had used when they first got together. The ones they stopped using a month ago, after the sexual histories talk and a set of clean test results.
Fraser had vacuumed under the couch just last week, with a whole set of dead-pan Fraser remarks about disturbing the ecosystems he’d discovered there and behind the stove.
Which meant that Fraser had used a condom, on their couch, sometime in the last week.
It was déjà vu all over again. Ray wasn’t sure when Stella had started sleeping around, but she shoved his face in it when she demanded a divorce. Wouldn’t give him any names, either, said it wasn’t any of his business anymore. Did he have some kind of mark written on his forehead? Some special code that said, ‘Loser. Dumb as a box of rocks. Will settle for scraps.’
Ray scratched absently at his hand and checked his watch. Fraser was due home any time now. He dragged a chair from the kitchen table to the entryway and sat down to wait, facing the door. The kitten curled up under the chair, purring.
Ray stared at the door, stomach hot and roiling. He didn’t know what he was going to say. Couldn’t think past one word, in time with the tapping of the condom wrapper on his thigh - who. Who? Who.
The door opened a few minutes later. Fraser let himself in, distracted, wearing the brown uniform.
“Ray, I…” The surprised smile slipped from Fraser’s face. He closed the door firmly behind him. “What’s wrong?”
Ray had the Trojan wrapper between his index and middle fingers. He held it up in the air for Fraser to see.
Fraser leaned forward and inspected the wrapper carefully, hands behind his back, as if it were evidence. “A condom?” he said finally, sounding perplexed.
And, fuck, Fraser was one hell of a liar. If Ray had him in an interrogation room, he would have been ready to swear the guy was innocent. Ray’s right hand and wrist were a stubborn, aching itch. He let go of the wrapper. It fluttered to the ground as dropped his hand into his lap to scratch.
“That’s right, Fraser, a condom.” His voice was thick, rough, from deep in his chest. Ray stared down at the red welts on his skin. “So, who‘ve you been fucking around with behind my back?”
“Ray, I swear, I haven’t-”
A soft touch to his cheek. Ray exploded up out of the chair; it clattered to the floor. Fraser had stepped back against the door, open-mouth and shocked wide-eyes. Ray’s hand was a crawling burn, clenched into a fist. He stared at Fraser, trying to catch his breath.
Fraser closed his mouth and straightened his tunic. “Perhaps I should spend the night at the Consulate,” he said in the calm, measured tone that he used on gunmen.
“Perhaps you should,” Ray snarled, spinning, kicking the chair out of his way, and walking away. Was it that chick with the weird laugh down in evidence? Officer Cartwright, who was asking Fraser about the Canadian Miranda last week? Frannie? Turnbull?
The door opened and closed behind him. Ray stepped into the bedroom. The kitten was napping on Ray’s pillow. He jerked open the top dresser drawer and started tossing Fraser’s clothes onto the bed.
Three hours later, it was done. One trip to the grocery, where Mrs. Wei had handed over the boxes without comment. One bottle of Stoli vodka from the freezer, sitting empty in the trash. One box for toiletries, two for clothes, two for books, one for everything else, including the stupid brown mug. All sitting in a neat pile in the entryway, with Fraser’s uniforms draped over the top. A pretty fucking clear message for the next time Fraser dared stick his head through that door.
Ray stumbled to bed just after midnight. He had to step over his bathrobe, lying abandoned on the hallway floor. He must have knocked it off the bathroom door as he was shoving Fraser’s bathroom stuff into a box. He stared blearily at it for a minute.
“Great. That’s just … fucking great.” He left it lying where it fell.
Ray shucked out of his jeans and sprawled out across the bed. Fraser’s pillow smelled like him. Ray threw it, heard it thump against the dresser. His keys and cuffs hit the carpet with a distinctive clatter. He lay there, absolutely not thinking, just watching the beams of headlights marking time across the ceiling. Fraser usually closed the curtains when he came to bed. Ray would have to get back in the habit.
Ray woke up curled up on his side of the bed, muzzy-headed and bone-dry. He shuffled to the bathroom. Drank a glass of water and downed a few aspirin in the dull blue glow of the nightlight. On the way back to bed, Ray saw the bathrobe again. It wasn’t in the hallway anymore. It was in the bedroom, next to the bed, less than a foot from where he’d been sleeping.
Ray reached out a hand to steady himself on the doorframe and backed away. No way was he getting back into bed with that thing there. Too fucking creepy.
Ray found the lamp in the living room by touch and turned it on, movie-watching low. The boxes of Fraser’s stuff were a shadowy lump in the entryway. Ray lay down on the couch. The settling creaks were familiar from the month he and Stella first split-up; he used to fall asleep watching TV when he couldn’t face an empty bed.
Ray startled awake, head throbbing, adrenaline jangling through his body. Where? Couch. Morning light. He started putting together the pieces from last night. Ray picked up his head. Felt like he might hurl, but he looked around anyway. Something was wrong.
A glimpse of green out the corner of his eye. Ray slowly turned his head towards it.
His bathrobe was on the floor, under the coffee table. As Ray watched, it slithered closer, the fabric rustling along the carpet. What was it – How? Ray tried to cringe back, but was frozen watching it ripple along the floor towards him. A sleeve caught on the table leg, snagged, pulled. Ray saw a black and white paw emerge from under the fabric.
He should have laughed. Should have been relieved. But instead the tiny hairs all over Ray’s body stood up in an instinctive warning. He could barely breathe through his tight throat as the cat slipped free of the robe.
As he struggled to sit up, the cat sprang at his face. He fell backwards as the too-heavy weight landed on his chest, claws pricking the hollow of his throat. Its breath, ghosting hot over him, stank like a murder scene at high summer, rotting blood and violence.
A fierce, wild snarl from the door. The cat’s green eyes met Ray’s. Next time, whispered through his mind, and then the cat was gone.
Dief was in the middle of the living room, barking deep and ferocious at nothing. Other dogs around the neighborhood picked it up, started barking with him. Somewhere out on the street, a car alarm went off.
By the door, Fraser was staring whitely at the boxes.