The Queer Card

I love Ray. I love "The Ladies' Man." I love the bartender from "The Ladies' Man." I wrote Ray and the bartender from "The Ladies' Man." This has been sitting on my hard drive for nearly a year, being the first dS fic I ever started. This challenge forced me to look it up and see if I could salvage it. Here it is, salvaged. For various reasons that don't need exploring at this juncture, written, or, well, finished, for Joandarck. With thanks to Maya Tawi for pointing out a rather, um, central mistake.

It’d been a bit of a slow day, but he didn’t mind. It might have been the cold keeping people away, or something else, but whatever it was, his back was a bit off today, so he was just glad there was no mad dash for much drink. He and Jonathan had had that damn fight earlier in the day, though, so he had plenty of time to ruminate on that subject. Well, whatever, it certainly wasn’t his problem anymore, and it wasn’t his fault that it wasn’t his problem anymore, so Jonathan could just go and shove it. Johnny was a free man now, and he would use that to his advantage.

Johnny sighed and poured the kid in front of him her Shirley Temple. It was sort of early in the day, but why would you waste your money on a Shirley Temple when you could get a coke for three bucks cheaper? He never got teenagers, not even when he was one himself. Well, maybe that delicious-looking boy next to her had something to do with it. Johnny contemplated taking his new single status and making the day a little more interesting, but the next minute, the thought dissolved into another half-baked idea that had no grounding in reality. The kid was definitely straight, and definitely much too young for him. It was just a bad call all around.

That was one thing Johnny could really pride himself on: his gaydar was tuned so tightly, even the queenest of the queens who’d been queening Chicago since before he was born couldn’t compete. He’d won many rounds for his talents, and it certainly made tending bar that much more interesting. Often, when it was slow or he was having a fight with Jonathan, he would play ‘spot the queer’ with himself, and although most of the time, he never found out the answers, he somehow always knew he was right. Call it a gift. And, really, it had to be, when you were a queer bartender with a slut of a boyfriend.

Ex-boyfriend. Ex.

For instance, that kid with the girl and her Shirley Temple? Straight as a rod. Kept shooting glances at her teenaged bosom like it held the answers to life’s great mysteries. Not only straight, but a total virgin, too. Jonathan wondered if he should give them complimentary condoms, on the house, so to speak. God knew, he sighed, he wouldn’t be needing them tonight. He washed another glass and turned toward the door as a gust of cold air hit the bar. Damn, it was windy outside. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Shirley Temple scoot closer to her boyfriend and pretend to shiver, but then he stopped paying attention to them altogether.

Because, hello, what have we here? His day seemed to have gotten a lot more interesting all of a sudden.

Nearly six foot tall, thin, leather jacket, tight pants over long, long legs, blond, spiky hair, and damn, hot all around. Johnny’s gaydar sang like a canary. The next minute, before the door even closed, another man came in. Johnny blinked. A Mountie? That was certainly different. He watched as the Mountie, a couple of feet behind tall lanky man, caught up with him and almost forced him onto a stool in front of the bar. Tall lanky man seemed kind of cagey, though, and pretty out of it. Jonathan frowned. Something was definitely not all right. As the Mountie went off to the sidebar that held all the snacks, the blond piece of gorgeousness there just put his head down on his folded arms and shivered. Huh. Somebody was having a bad day.

Well, it was slow, and Johnny was bored, and the mystery man was clearly a lot more interesting than either of the teenagers at the other end of the bar, so Johnny decided he could insinuate himself into any conversation he wanted to. He merely had to wait for the conversation to begin.

He put down the glass in his hands and made his way over. Just then, the Mountie - quite a dish himself, actually, if you went in for classically gorgeous looks – caught Johnny’s gaze and gestured for a coffee. Glad to have a reason to get closer, Johnny nodded back and went to fill a cup with their strongest brew. Tall Lanky Man continued sitting at the bar with his head down, so obviously full of tension, Johnny was tempted to offer a wholly inappropriate backrub. Instead, he put the cup the down in front of him and waited for the Mountie to return from the buffet. It didn’t take him long. He slid a plate in front of his friend as he made himself comfortable on one of the stools.

“Ray, there’s a selection of dates, apricots, prunes, figs and two cheese sticks.” Voice like honey. Johnny got a bit closer.

Tall Lanky Man - Ray - made some indistinct noise and didn’t look at the food twice. Instead, he lifted a hand and squeezed it into a fist once, twice, and it shook. “Look at that, look at that...” Johnny looked along with the Mountie. “I’m just... I’m just... I’m pressed up against some...I don’t know...” He struggled for words, and Johnny found himself riveted. He wanted to know more, wanted for this Ray to continue. And watching Ray struggle to find the right words, he began supplying some of his own.

“Breakdown?” he suggested. For the first time, Ray actually looked at him, and Johnny’s heart seemed to flip over itself. Clearly, this Ray was in a considerable amount of pain, and needed some kind of assistance. But Johnny was only human. He wasn’t going to voice exactly what kind of assistance he wanted to offer, but boy, did his mind fill with some delicious images. He forced himself to focus and do what he did (second) best: he forced himself to listen.

Ray sighed, and answered: “No, no… I just need to get my --” He seemed lost for words again, and Johnny came to his rescue, only half letting go of his mental images:

“Head?” he offered. Ray looked up again, looking almost frustrated, but Johnny decided it wasn’t really with him. Obviously, he had nothing to do with whatever it was that ailing the man. Ray rubbed his face, and continued: “…Head. Screwed on right, and I just…”

He didn’t finish. His Mountie friend interfered, then, and started talking about something having to do with the killers of his father – ouch, that’s gotta smart. Then again, it depended on the father. Johnny’s progenitor was no walk in the park, after all. Johnny couldn’t see himself following a long trail if anybody happened to kill his father, but then again, he wasn’t a Mountie. He tuned back into the conversation, busying himself with drying whatever glasses happened to be around, just to stall for time.

“…I would often picture myself,” the Mountie was saying, “Picture the moment when I came face to face with them. And in every scenario I would concoct, I would exact revenge in like kind.”

Johnny paused in his drying. “Like kind? What does that mean, like kind?” Who talked like that?

The Mountie, looking very much like a kind yet firm teacher, explained, without batting an eye:

“It means I could – see myself, killing the killers.”

“Ah,” Johnny nodded. Yeah, okay, clearly the Mountie had missed his calling, should have become a teacher. But, nevertheless, he was still talking, having turned back to Ray.

“But the impulse to murder, no matter how justified, was dulled by time and reality,” he concluded, apparently waiting for his words to take effect.

Johnny looked at Ray, too. He didn’t seem convinced, and that was proven right, once he spoke. “What if it’s out of your hands, then what?”

He had a funny way of talking. Chicago native. Johnny had only spent a few years in Chicago, and the accent still surprised him. On this guy, it was almost sweet. He could definitely get used to it.

The Mountie, sounding every bit the boy-scout he appeared to be, answered: “It’s never out of your hands. It’s your decision.”

Johnny decided to assume – to save himself some sanity and needless legging out the door, especially with this back trouble and all – that Ray was not, indeed, a psychotic murderer who had to be talked down from gunning up the place, but a man who was – and, in fact, looked to be – very deeply conflicted about some Hugely Heavy Issue. These two were definitely a lot more interesting than Shirley Temple and her virgin boyfriend, Johnny decided, just as Ray sighed, shook his head a bit, and said: “Not in this case.”

What the hell? Repressing the desire to back away from the man he was still so damnably drawn to, Johnny decided to ask the question so obviously on the tip of the Mountie’s tongue. “I don’t follow.”

Ray gave another, heavier sigh, and finally moved enough to hand the Mountie today’s newspaper, a bit crumpled around the edges where his arms had rested. While the Mountie was trying to piece together Ray’s cryptic words, Ray laid it out for both of them: “Beth Botrelle gets a needle stuck in her arm in two days. I was the arresting officer.”

Well, no fucking shit. He was a cop. How many queer cops had Johnny met in his life? Very few on this side of the law. One was down in New Orleans, though Johnny had had a hell of a time picking him out from a crowd of wannabes back at The Oyster on Bourbon. Every fag wanted to be a cop down that way, but Johnny could usually spot the real thing a mile away. (So, sue him, he had a thing for law enforcement.) It was weird, though, that he hadn’t pegged Ray for a cop, even as he was escorted by a Mountie. The queer card seemed to trump the cop one. Jack beat Ace. (And Ace liked it.)

So, Ray was a cop, and – no less! – he was a cop with a conscience. Oh, Johnny’s day was getting better and better. Of course, he could show none of this, because Ray was still Very Deeply Troubled, and Johnny didn’t blame him. He tended bar, he sucked cock, he fought with his (ex)boyfriend. He’d been arrested a couple of times – the kind of arrests you didn’t pay good money for – but the extent of his troubles had never seen such a wide reach. A woman never got killed by the state because he had arrested her. Jeez, it was no wonder Ray was having a shitty day. That would ruin anybody’s lunch.

Johnny stood by silently as Ray uncovered the whole tale, bit by bit, spilling his guts all over the bar. The Mountie sat close, listening so intently, Johnny didn’t even have to worry about intruding. He was sure they’d forgotten him. Ray was too engrossed in telling his tale, the Mountie was too engrossed in Ray.

As Ray began stuttering once again, Johnny tried to help by supplying the words. He’d miscalculated, though, and apparently overstepped Ray’s patience.

“Hey, do you mind?” Ray snapped. Johnny, just a wee bit hurt, though not wholly surprised – being a bartender had its various “vantages,” dis and ad – decided that maybe for a little while, he should hang back a bit. He still had nothing better to do with his time, so why not give Ray a bit of space, while Johnny went and made a signature drink that used to help quite a few unfortunates who happened by his bar? There was nothing wrong with that plan, nothing at all, he decided.

He watched from the shadows as the Mountie got up, put his arm carefully around Ray’s shoulders, not touching, and began to lead him away from the bar. Ray seemed to go almost willingly, his posture sagged, deflated even from when he first came storming through the door. Despondent was a good word for it. Just what was on the menu.

But as Johnny watched, the two didn’t head towards the dining room but turned and walked out of the bar. Johnny barely had time to admire the view before the door swung closed behind them. His stomach rumbling in disappointment, he picked up the drying towel and went over to refill Shirley Temple.

Three hours of watching people come and go, and Johnny was getting antsy again. He was kind of pissed off that he never even got a chance to test Ray out, see if the queer cop lived up to his holster. He’d sure helped break up the day, but what did Johnny have to show it for but a newly-exed boyfriend and a dollar’s worth of a tip off of a teenaged virgin? Zip. Wasn’t his day, after all. And it wasn’t every day that you got a looker like that coming in and shaking things up.

Johnny had a little over an hour left of his shift when the door swung open for the twentieth time that day, swirling in dead leaves and wind, and – Johnny nearly dropped a glass of coke. Well, well. What do you know. Mr. Tall and Lanky Ray and his Mountie pal were back.

Johnny had Despondency ingredients in front of him in no time. He always kept a spare jar of St. John’s Wort in the back, for just such occasions, anyway – it was why they paid him the big bucks.

He made the drink and watched them walk towards an empty table, the Mountie’s hand on Ray’s shoulder, their steps nearly synchronized, comfortable. For the first time that day, he started to wonder about more than Ray.

Still, though, what were the odds of both the cop and the Mountie being queer? Not fucking likely is what. However, what were the odds of a cop and Mountie being friendly in Chicago in the first place? He had to give it to them. Pretty fucking small.

It didn’t hurt to double-check. What else did he have to do, anyway? He poured the drink into a cup still steaming from the dishwasher and bravely walked out from behind the bar. Cleared his throat, checked his breath. Passable? Off he went.

“Throw some of this down the ol’ food tube?” he asked, casual as could be, and just loud enough to be heard. “Boost you right back up.” He set the glass down and just very lightly put his hand over Ray’s shoulder, his wrist barely touching the leather holster. Ray didn’t even twitch.

“What is that?” he asked instead, pretty grumpy, but Johnny couldn’t blame him. He sat down – closer to Ray than to the Mountie – and let his hand grow heavy over Ray’s back while he explained.

“A small concoction of my own devising.” He leaned closer to Ray, watching his face. He focused on that vein Ray had, popping out of his forehead. Tense. He definitely needed that drink. “I call it Despondency,” he continued in his near-seductive voice. “It’s got wind flowers, it’s got a little bit of dried cuttlefish, but the main ingredient?” He leaned in even closer. “St. John’s Wort. That’s --”

Ray interrupted, his breath hot in the space between them. “What, you want me to eat something that’s got warts in it?”

Pretty. But not too bright. Johnny hastened to explain, shaking his head, but the Mountie got there first.

“No, no, I believe that’s ‘wort’, w-o-r-t, Ray – an herb renowned for its medicinal qualities.”

And that was where Ray kept his brains. Johnny gestured in the Mountie’s direction, and faced Ray again. “Gotta respect a guy who knows his roots,” he said, ‘cause he knew his roots, too – roots, tips, you name ‘em, he knew ‘em, and he knew just what to do with them, too.

“Yeah, well, I’d respect you if you were to take your Despondency and give yourself a colonic,” Ray answered, quick as you can. “We’re talkin’ here, ‘kay?”

Johnny felt his face falling. The guy didn’t know his roots, but he sure knew his enemas. Johnny could always tell when he’d failed, but damn, why did this one sting so hard? Was it ‘cause Ray was a cop? Was it ‘cause it was his second turn-down of the day? What? Johnny was left with no choice but to get up and leave the table.

Less than an hour till his shift ended. Maybe he’d call Jonathan, and – and they could talk. Maybe it’d just been a giant misunderstanding. Maybe he could surprise him with something, like his favorite bread from the bakery down the street, and really good coffee, from that Italian place Jonathan loved.

No. Johnny popped another glass into the dishwasher. What was he thinking? If Jonathan wanted him back, he’d just have to come crawling back himself. Being shot down by a hot cop wasn’t on Johnny’s list of Best Ways To Spend A Day, but hey, he still had some self-respect left. He could be without a man. He could. He’d done it before, he’d do it again. He’d call Colleen and they’d go out on the town, go dancing or something. Maybe hear a band play downtown. Something.

Johnny watched Ray's head sink lower on the table, then lift. And then, Ray turned his head and yelled out, like nothing had even happened:

"You get any of that, uh, Despondency?"

Johnny did his hardest not to smile. "You know I do," he answered, hoping that...well. Possibly just hoping.

"Okay, bring me a jumbo." Ray turned away from him. "To go."

Johnny did. Then, after all was said and done, he watched as Ray and the Mountie – Frasier, he thought he’d heard Ray calling him – turned away and walked towards the door. Protective lean on the Mountie’s part, a neurotic, swift walk on Ray’s. Partners walked like that. Cop buddies, teammates. Lovers, too, because Johnny had done the protective stance, and he’d done the neurotic, swift, I-don’t-give-a-crap stance, and he’d been on just about every end of the relationship equation you could think of. Now he was walking the newly-single beat again, and hey. He could do it. So, Ray the Cop had refused to budge. So, he was gorgeous. He was taken, right? Yeah, if Frasier’s arm hovering just over Ray’s back had anything to say about it.

Johnny sniffed and turned away. The door swung shut and the dried leaves scattered around the floor, settling down in the dust. Good thing he wasn’t closing tonight. He hated sweeping up that doorway.

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