Thanks: Thank you thank you thank you to sprat and mergatrude for beta
On the first day of spring, Ray was sitting at his overloaded desk, trying to make sense of the coroner's report on the Edwards homicide, when he sensed someone watching him. He glanced up, thinking it was probably the new ASA, Jennifer Peterson, who'd been giving him a hard time about the Midler case. It wasn't her.
Kowalski stood in the doorway, his hands stuffed in his pockets, his sunglasses folded and dangling from the neck of his t-shirt. His deep-set eyes were smudged, and he looked sort of blurry all over, like a bad reproduction of a photo.
Then he shifted his weight onto one hip, and all at once, he reminded Ray of a blackjack croupier called Stevie. It was something about the mouth, maybe. The attitude. Ray looked away quickly, and didn't look up again until he heard Kowalski walk into Welsh's office and shut the door.
Ray had liked Stevie, liked her a lot, which meant he'd never gotten to know her. She had short dark hair, and long red nails, and a smile like she was letting you in on the joke. Ray trusted her the minute he saw her, but he wasn't stupid, so he kept his distance. Ninety percent of the nice guys—and girls—in Vegas were cons. Ninety percent of everyone else were sharks, scum and losers.
Ray'd had a lot of shit going on back then, driving him crazy, that he'd needed to tell someone. He didn't get to make friends, because he would've told, and that would've been the end of it. The end of him.
In the desert, he forgot how to play nice with others. In the desert, he stopped even wanting to.
Back in Chicago, habits died hard. Ray knew he was pushing the line when he chewed out Kowalski over interrogating a witness, and Welsh came in with that look that said I can hear you clear through to my office.
It was hot, and Kowalski was pissed. His damp t-shirt stuck to his back in wrinkled folds as he slammed his fist against the wall, and cursed, and stormed out.
Ray and Welsh exchanged superior glances, and then Ray raised his hand to the heavens: You see what I gotta put up with?
Welsh grimaced sympathetically, but what he said was, "I want you to go easy on him."
Ray was seeing a shrink, Dr. Huxley, twice a week, but Ray couldn't tell him anything. Huxley would never understand what it was like to be there. To be Armando.
Huxley had a wall of diplomas, three regional golf trophies on his shelf, and a picture of two little curly-haired girls with wide grins propped up on his desk.
Ray made stuff up, smooth lies slipping from his lips. It was easy.
"Come on," said Ray at the end of Kowalski's first week back. The squadroom was nearly empty, everyone gone home to their families, or out to meet friends and dates and live their lives. "I'll buy you a beer."
Kowalski looked suspicious for a long moment, but when Ray stayed calm and raised his eyebrows, he shrugged and reached for his jacket.
The bar was dark and cool and quiet. Ray and Kowalski sat for three songs on the jukebox, making low disjointed conversation about work, before Ray asked, "How was Canada? You catch any bears on that big adventure of yours?"
Kowalski froze for a second, then shrugged. "You know about that?"
"Welsh said, when you didn't come back." Ray kept it casual. It was casual. Just the usual cop gossip.
"Oh, yeah." Kowalski finished his beer, and Ray thought maybe he'd leave then, but he went and bought another round, sliding a Molson across the scarred wooden table.
Ray was casting for another conversation starter when Kowalski broke the silence. "You been to Canada, right?" He gestured north, past the Lake, to the snow and ice.
"That's how it was. Big and cold." Kowalski shook his head, and his tone changed. "A whole world of snow."
Ray glanced away, remembering. So fucking long ago. Another life. When he looked back, Kowalski was staring into space, a weird look on his face.
Kowalski said, "I couldn't live like that."
They went for drinks regularly after that. Wednesdays, and sometimes Fridays. They talked about Chicago, and working with Fraser. They talked about Welsh, and Huey and Dewey, and one time Ray told Kowalski about Louis, and how the bomb had been meant for him. "It's all borrowed time, you know what I mean?" he slurred, over five empty bottles on the table.
Another time, Kowalski got plastered and told a long story about a bank robbery he saw when he was a kid. "And I kind of, uh, wet my pants. I was, you know, twelve or something, and it was fucking scary. I hadn't even seen a real gun before. I was so sure I was gonna die. And the guy—Marcus Ellery, his name was—he just laughed at me."
Ray was pretty far gone, too, and maybe wasn't listening as hard as he should've been, but at the end he clapped Kowalski on the shoulder and said, "Who the fuck cares? I did a heap of embarrassing shit when I was a kid, you wouldn't believe it. Christ, if you could see my confirmation photos—"
Kowalski opened his mouth. "No, you see—" But Ray waved that aside, and more or less evened the score by saying how he'd come in his pants in the parking lot outside the school prom, after Jenny Malone showed him her boobs.
Then Kowalski went undercover as a drug courier, and Vecchio didn't see him for a month. It was too long. Vecchio called in some favors and tracked him down. He knocked out the supplier and cuffed him, before Kowalski could intervene.
"Are you outta your fucking mind?" Kowalski yelled, shoving Ray against the wall of the old warehouse where the deal was going down. "That was my bust!"
Ray's head thudded against the brick. Ow. "I need you around, you little punk," he growled. He shoved back.
Kowalski glared at him. "Why?"
"Because—fuck, forget about it." He bent down, groped under the lowlife's dirty jacket, and yanked a tidy little 9mm Glock out of his waistband.
"You screwed up my fucking bust," Kowalski shouted, pointing. "The very least you can—"
Ray stood up and slapped the gun into Kowalski's outstretched hand. When Ray spoke, the desperation in his own voice scared the shit out of him. "You know what it's like to be me."
"You mean how I was undercover as you?"
"Yeah. No, not just that. I can't talk to anyone else." Ray rubbed his face with both hands, but Kowalski understood.
He laughed, nastily. "You wanna talk to yourself, Vecchio? Don't you know that's crazy?"
"Yeah." Ray shrugged and walked through the metal door, out into the rain.
Kowalski let him go.
The next Wednesday they had drinks like usual, but it was weird. Strained. Kowalski was distant, and Ray didn't know if it was because Ray'd screwed up the bust, or because Ray had admitted he needed Kowalski.
They didn't talk about it.
After a couple of beers each, Kowalski leaned over and nudged Ray's arm, then pointed discreetly at a tall thin guy on the opposite side of the bar. Good-looking, dark hair.
"What?" Ray asked, blinking at Kowalski.
Kowalski's smile was narrow and tense, but he leaned back casually, and looked at Ray like he was waiting for something.
"What?" said Ray again. He glanced over at the tall guy. Was he a celebrity maybe? A criminal?
Kowalski took a long swallow of beer. "Think I got a chance?"
When the meaning sunk in, Ray's mouth went dry. "How the hell would I know?"
He walked away, but Kowalski followed him out of the bar. "Fine," he said when they hit the street, and he peeled off, heading away into the night without saying goodbye.
Ray watched him go.
Fuck. Kowalski was a queer.
Ray avoided Kowalski for fifteen days. Even when they worked together, Ray kept himself to himself. He knew how to do that, and he could make it look natural, too. He'd had years of practice.
Kowalski was pissed and maybe hurt, too, but he didn't say anything. His smile got fierce and bitter, and his jokes got meaner, but he played the game. On the surface they were fine.
Ray felt like he was gonna burst with it, with how much he needed Kowalski on his side. He tried to talk himself down: he'd been alone before. He could do this. And so what if the guy was a queer, that didn't mean a damned thing. They'd been friends this long and nothing funky had happened.
In the back of his head, a little voice was asking insistent questions about Kowalski and Fraser. Fraser had always been weird about women, even before Victoria had fucked him over.
Ray thought about calling Fraser, but he didn't. Didn't, wouldn't, couldn't. Somehow he knew it would be disloyal to Kowalski, even to ask.
He didn't think about when—or how far—his loyalties had shifted.
Ray was going crazy. Crazier. He snatched a case file from his desk for an excuse, and went over to Kowalski's apartment.
It took Kowalski forever to answer his door, but then he was there, tall and unshaven, TV remote in his hand. Barefoot. His gaze flicked to the case file, then met Ray's squarely, seeing through the ruse, but all he said was, "Hey."
They sat on the couch. Kowalski was distracted, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees and picking at the dirt under his thumbnail, but then he turned his attention on Ray, and Ray's heart started pounding for no reason. Thudthudthud…
This was it: Ray was gonna have a heart attack on Kowalski's ratty old couch. He wondered hysterically if Kowalski would give him mouth-to-mouth, and his face got hot at the thought. Kowalski's lips, the shimmer of stubble on his chin. Fuck it, thought Ray. I don't want to be unconscious for that.
Kowalski was looking at him funny. Ray leaned in and kissed him.
They were just lips, Ray told himself, but he felt the kiss all the way to the pit of his stomach. He was hot and shaky. He was fucking dizzy with it.
Kowalski heaved at Ray's chest, shoving him away. "Jesus, Vecchio! I know you got a problem, but—" He clenched his fists, eyes sparking. "I'm gay, I'm not a fucking slut. You know the difference?"
In a second, Ray went cold and clammy. "Sorry." He slumped back into the couch.
Kowalski sprang up and stalked over to the window, and leaned his shoulder against the frame, facing Ray. The setting sun gleamed around his head like a halo. "You must have a hell of an itch if you wanna scratch it here."
Ray shook his head. "Listen, I'm sorry, okay? I didn't mean—" He cleared his throat, and lied, "I didn't mean it. I don't know—"
"'—what came over you'," Kowalski finished. "Yeah. I got the memo." He looked Ray up and down, and Ray shivered like the look was a touch. And then he left.
Ray avoided Kowalski for a week. He felt like a jerk, and on top of that, he couldn't stop thinking about that moment, that press of lips. He didn't want to jerk off to that moment, but with his dick in his hand, that was all the memory he had, and it left him feverish and uncomfortable.
He tried to think of Stevie the croupier, but the Stevie in his mind's eye had stubble, not breasts.
After a week, Welsh called them both into his office. "We've got a tip that Frankie 'the Porkchop' Ficello is going to grace us with his presence at the Meniere warehouse on Lake Street," he said. "You're experienced officers, so I'm hoping you can figure out the implications of that, but given your respective solve rates of recent months, I'm gonna spell it out anyway to be on the safe side." He paused and scratched his neck wearily. "Stakeout. Think you can handle it?"
"Yes, sir," said Kowalski.
Ray nodded. "Yeah."
Kowalski parked the GTO behind a row of 40 gallon drums, and switched off the ignition, but the high voltage buzz in the air was loud in Ray's ears. He wondered how many times Fraser had sat in this seat, in the dark, and waited with Kowalski. What the hell had they talked about? What had they done?
"I'm sorry," he said, softly, wishing it could go back to normal, they could go back to being friends.
Kowalski sighed. "Forget it."
"Yeah," said Ray, keeping his eyes on the warehouse door. "Wish I could."
"Hey, we all make mistakes." There were layers of history there. Ray wanted to peel them back, one by one. Read Kowalski's past. Learn his future.
When had this happened? When the fuck had this happened to him? "Listen, Kowalski—"
"Ray. Listen, I—" He broke off. He didn't know how to say this. He hadn't been this awkward, this clumsy since Ange, and fuck, look how that'd turned out—angry and distant, and finally, blessedly, empty.
But this wasn't like that. Jesus, this was a whole 'nother ballgame. He searched for what to say. What was the right thing?
There was a soft thud as Kowalski's hand fell onto the seat between them, laying there, casual, in a loose fist.
Ray's pulse picked up, drumming at the base of his throat till he could barely breath. He let his own hand drop next to Kowalski's, only inches away. The vinyl seat was cool and taut beneath his fingers.
"Vecchio." Kowalski sounded hesitant for once. "You don't gotta prove anything to me."
And that was it, that hesitancy. Enough to nudge Ray that last little bit. Without looking, without even really moving his hand from where it rested, he stretched out his fingers and curled them around Kowalski's thumb and first finger, stroking over Kowalski's knuckles and brushing Kowalski's own unique fingerprints. Finally, at last, he entwined their hands in a firm hold. "I know."