Thanks: With immense love, gratitude, and sunny weather to sprat and mergatrude for beta
Notes: For the GreatestFits challenge
So if we live our lives together
someone's always alone.
Ray counted the framed diplomas on Juno's wall (6), the ballroom dancing trophies (2), and the matching leatherbound books of Florida state law (18), and then shook himself mentally and tried to pay attention to what she was saying. He hadn't slept much in the last three weeks, and the sun was slicing through the Venetian blinds, striping Juno's big mahogany desk and giving Ray a headache. It made him think of prison bars. His gut tightened.
"Ray, hon, are you listening to me?" Juno's smooth Southern drawl cut into his thoughts. "It's important you're happy with the settlement. You can't go changing it in five years' time if you suddenly decide it wasn't fair, y'know."
He got up and went to stand by the window, looking down at the busy street below: SUVs and white suits and harsh bright light clanging against his skull in concert. "I'm not gonna change my mind. Stella can have it all, every last cent. I mean—" He stopped and turned to Juno, really looking at her for the first time since he walked into her office half an hour ago. She'd done something new with her hair, but he didn't comment. "I mean, that doesn't include my family's home, right? That's in a trust. And I'm keeping the car."
"That's right, and you'll have your pension from the Chicago PD, too." She smiled reassuringly, too much warmth in her eyes. He winced and looked away. He wasn't ready to see that look on a woman's face. Not now. Maybe not ever again.
He heard her shuffling paper, and when she spoke next, it was all business. "You're definitely going back to Chicago, then? Before you leave, let Cathie know if you'll be staying with your family or at your apartment. We'll notify you as soon as everything's properly formalized."
Ray sat down again. "Apartment?" he asked. "What apartment?"
A faint crease appeared between Juno's finely manicured eyebrows. "Bruno sent through your accounts," she said. "You're paying utilities on an apartment in Chicago. I just assumed—" She pursed her lips delicately. "Do you own the property? Should we include it in the settlement?"
"What property?" The office was too hot: Juno needed better air conditioning. "I don't have an apartment. What utilities?"
Juno's manicured finger hovered over the intercom button of her phone, a sure sign that the appointment was over. "All I know is what's in your accounts. You'd better talk to Bruno."
Ray turned into North Octavia Avenue and parked outside the Morellis', across the street from his Ma's house. Maria's kids were running around in the front yard yelling at each other, one of them waving a floor mop and shouting something about muggles. Ray leaned forward over the steering wheel and watched them, an ache in his chest. It was like watching his seven year old self playing with Frannie and Maria.
He looked the house over: nothing had changed in thirty years, even in spite of the house fire they'd had just after he went to Vegas. The vines were gnarled and old, and needed pruning, and the fence could use a coat of paint, but it had always been that way. Pop had never cared to keep up the house, and now Ray was following in his footsteps. Ray closed his eyes and let out a deep breath.
No one was expecting him. No one knew anything. All the way from Florida he'd told himself he could walk in that door, look Ma in the face and make up some lie. Slip back into his Chicago life like it was an old pair of slippers. But he couldn't do it. He couldn't pretend everything was okay, that he and Stella had had some polite sterile difference of opinion, decided to call it a day like mature adults. And with two divorces under his belt, he couldn't pretend he was his Ma's son, her bambino.
Maybe in a week or two it'd be different. Maybe he could get his life back together, his self-respect, so he had something to offer his family. Until then, he was just one more problem they shouldn't have to deal with.
He turned on the ignition, and drove off quickly before Paula and Joey could see him sitting there. At the next set of traffic lights he dug into the side pocket of his travel bag, and pulled out the envelope Bruno had given him. It was from the gas company. The address was crossed out in thick black marker pen—the envelope had been redirected to the 2-7, and then redirected again to Florida, to the bowling alley—but Ray could still read the original address. Enough of it, anyway.
The light turned green and he gunned the engine, and drove across town to find it.
* * *
Loud music pulsed behind the apartment door, but a glance through the peephole showed the place was dark. The hallway where Ray was standing smelled stale and uncomfortable like old cabbage, though the rest of the building was tidy, and it was in a respectable enough neighborhood. At least the carpet wasn't sticky. Ray turned his ear against the door, trying to identify the song or the band, but it was just some noisy punk rock—nothing he recognized.
The mailbox in the foyer had been empty except for some pizza fliers and a couple of coupon books. There'd been no indication of the occupant, nothing to confirm Ray's suspicions. There was nothing for it but to knock.
He did, banging his fist hard against the hollow door.
The music got louder.
Ray knocked again. "Hey, Kowalski! Open up!" He pulled out his wallet, and found his American Express card, but before he could break in, the door opened.
Kowalski had a dirty blond beard and hair down to his collar, and there were gray smudges under his eyes. He was skinny and barefoot, dressed in worn jeans and a stained off-white t-shirt. He wasn't wearing his glasses. He stunk. "What do you want?" he growled before the door was even open.
The music rolled over Ray like a wave.
Kowalski's eyes widened. "Vecchio?"
"Jesus Christ, Kowalski, you look like a goddamned hippy and you smell like a wino." Ray pushed past him into the apartment, dumped his bag and wallet on a chair just inside, flicked on the light and looked for the source of the music. He picked his way through the junk on the floor and turned off the stereo. The silence rang in his ears.
"Hey!" said Kowalski. "What the fuck do you think you're doing?"
"Making myself heard." Ray looked around at stacks of newspapers and magazines, dirty cups and plates, scattered laundry. There was a half-played game of chess on the coffee table, with a beer bottle sitting in the middle surrounded by pawns. There was a bicycle half-in, half-out the open window, and Christ, there were novelty lights hanging in the kitchen. What was this, Santa's Little Grotto? But more importantly: "Where's Fraser?"
Kowalski threw him a fake careless glance and picked up the beer bottle from the chess board. "He's in Canada. Where the fuck do you think he is? What are you doing here, Vecchio?"
Ray stepped over a pair of hiking boots and took the bottle from his hand. "You owe me fifteen hundred dollars. I've been paying your fucking utilities, and I'm here to collect."
"You've been what?!" Kowalski blinked, and then a slow humorless grin spread across his face. "How the hell did that happen?"
"They're in my name." Ray put the bottle back on the table and went to his bag, pulling out the sheaf of envelopes. "I guess someone forwarded them while you were in Canada."
"And you never noticed? Christ, you must be living the high life." His gaze sharpened. "What're you doing back in Chicago? Where's Stella?"
Ray ignored him. "I had an accountant. Who the hell has time to check their own bills when they're running a fucking business?" He picked up his bag, and stood in the hallway by the kitchen. He figured the bedroom and bathroom were probably back there somewhere. "And since I've been paying your utilities for the last seven months, I figure you owe me."
"Can't pay you back. I'm broke." Kowalski shrugged like he couldn't care less. "Where's Stella? You didn't leave her behind to come chasing me for a lousy couple of grand."
Ray licked his lips, and figured he might as well get it over with. "We broke up. And it's none of your fucking business, so that's all I'm saying. Jesus, you're a mess."
Kowalski went from zero to sixty in half a second. He stormed forward. "Where is she? What did you do? You'd better not have hurt her, Vecchio, or I'm gonna—"
"You ass. She's in Miami, right where she belongs. Face it," he raised his chin and met Kowalski's gaze on the level. "She's better off without either of us."
"What the fuck do you know about it?" Kowalski turned on his heel, snatching the phone out of its cradle and dialing.
"Don't get into this, Kowalski," Ray warned, but it was like Kowalski'd gone deaf as Dief. Which was—well, it wasn't like Ray hadn't half-expected this situation, once he'd gone over the utility bills, but it was still a shock to find out that the skinny runt had come back from Canada alone. Wasn't it supposed to be the Great Gay Love of All Time? That's how Fraser's letter had sounded when he'd written to tell them. Stella had shaken her head and laughed disbelievingly when she found out, and Ray himself had managed to crack a smile. Fraser and his freak. But it looked like that had turned to shit just like him and Stella. Ray thought about Stella's strained face the last time he'd seen her, and wondered how Fraser was managing now, all by himself up there in the frozen wilderness. He reached for his cell and called directory services. "I need a Canadian number. Benton Robert Fraser, in—" He covered the phone, and called out, "Hey, where's Fraser now?"
Kowalski glowered at him. "Hang on, mom," he said into the phone. He put the receiver down on the counter, and snarled at Ray, "Get the hell out of here!"
"Fuck that." Ray hung up his cell. He could always call back. "You owe me. And Christ, I can't believe you walked out on Fraser. I thought you two were supposed to be living happily ever after in the Land of Snow."
Kowalski rushed forward and shoved Ray up against the wall by the door. "Not. One. More. Word," he growled, breathing beer in Ray's face. His eyes were bloodshot and his beard straggly, but he was fucking strong despite all that. Ray kept his breathing even and didn't flinch when Kowalski leaned in and hissed, "Stay out of it. You got the girl, you got the fucking sunshine state." He stabbed Ray in the chest with his fingers. "You fucked that up, that's your problem. But you keep out of my life, you hear me?"
"Too late for that," Ray told him. He knocked Kowalski's arms aside and pushed him away.
He went easily, like he was made of paper, or like he wanted to be pushed around. Like maybe he was looking for trouble, and here was Ray, fool enough to oblige. Ray bit down on his feelings, on his anger about Fraser, on his resentment that Stella still had a soft spot for this guy (not that Ray was in any position to object). On his instinct to assert who the hell was the real Ray Vecchio here. He shoved it all down hard, and smiled, cool and smooth like Langoustini. Not friendly, maybe a little bit patronizing, but overall in control. "Here's the deal," he said. "You owe me. So I'm gonna stay here a few days, in your pigsty of an apartment." With his eyes he said and there's not a damned thing you can do about it.
Kowalski shook his head. "No way."
"What're you gonna do? Call the cops? I'm guessing from the state you're in you haven't told a damned soul you're back." Kowalski clenched his hands at his sides, and Ray kept smiling. "You gonna fight me? You want to fight?"
Kowalski cracked his neck. "Sure." And just that like, he was up on the balls of his feet, fists at the ready. Ray was distracted by his moves, quick and graceful, but his own hands came up instinctively. Then Kowalski jabbed, smooth and clean with his right, taking Ray off-guard, and connecting with a resounding thud.
Ray's head was pushed back, and pain stabbed his jaw, his face. "Fuck," he said, and stepped in to retaliate, a world of anger adding force to his hook. His first blow landed clumsily on Kowalski's shoulder, and the next on the dead center of his chest, but the third smacked sure and true into his face, giving him what would no doubt turn into a hell of a shiner. That was when Ray realized Kowalski wasn't defending himself. His eyes were dark and deep, and he was breathing hard through his mouth, and he fucking wanted this. Wanted Ray to beat him to a pulp.
Ray stepped back and dropped his hands. "Nuh-huh," he said, already feeling used, resenting how easily he'd been goaded into fighting.
"What's the matter?" Kowalski moved in threateningly. "One little tap on the jaw and you're giving up? You're more of a girl than I am, and I'm a fag. Does Stella know you're such a pussy? Is that why she kicked you out—you weren't man enough for her?"
Ray grabbed him by the shirt and swung him around, shoving him back against the wall so hard that Kowalski flung his arms out to absorb some of the shock. "Shut the fuck up!"
Kowalski sucked air into his lungs and narrowed his eyes. "What happened? What did you do to her? If you fucking hurt her, I swear to God, you're gonna regret it." He yanked himself free and went back to the phone, keeping a wary eye on Ray while he spoke. "Mom? You still there? Yeah, sorry. Listen, I need Stella's number. No, I know. No. No, yeah, but I gotta talk to her. It's important. Sure. Yeah, I promise. I'll be—Okay. Okay, wait a minute." He searched through the junk on the counter till he found a pen. "Okay. Yeah." He wrote a number along the edge of a takeout menu. "Thanks, mom. Yeah, I know. I'll—I'm sorry. Yeah, later. I'll call you back. I really gotta go. I gotta—Thanks. Yeah, me too. Bye." He hung up, and started to dial.
Ray shut his eyes and took a deep breath. He couldn't be here, in this room, while Kowalski talked to Stella, maybe got the whole sordid story out of her. He wasn't ready for that, but he had nowhere else to go. He picked up his bag. "I'm taking a shower." And he went down the hallway, ignoring Kowalski's soothing worried tone as he said, "Hey, Stell. It's me."
* * *
The bathroom was as disgusting as the living room: there was blond hair clogging the drain, the basin was dirty and spattered with dried toothpaste, musty damp towels lay in heaps all over the floor. Ray wrinkled his nose, lowered the lid of the can, and put his bag on it. He found crusty old cleaning products in the cupboard under the basin, and squirted them in the bath and around the basin, and then pulled the towel off the towel rail and used it to wipe down the surfaces.
That done, he felt a little less like he was going to pick up an infection just from touching stuff. He threw Kowalski's towel into the corner and kicked the others there, too. Luckily he was carrying a clean one with him in case of emergencies. He locked the door and stripped, hanging his clothes neatly on the now-empty towel rail, and took a long hot shower. After 16 hours sitting behind the wheel of the Impala, it felt like heaven, even in the dirty stinky bathroom of his ex-wife's and ex-partner's ex.
Ray shook his head. Kowalski was a fucking mess. He was like a horrible warning of what could happen to a guy after a bad breakup. Ray was determined to learn from Kowalski's mistakes. He got out of the shower and shaved carefully, wincing when the razor skimmed the tender spot on his jaw where Kowalski's punch had landed.
He got dressed and went into the bedroom. It was musty and stale, and obviously unused. The bed was made. The drawers were all neatly shut. The floor was bare. Ray got the uneasy feeling no one had set foot in here in seven months. He'd been going to take the couch but, seeing this, he figured the couch was already taken.
He put his bag on the foot of the bed and pulled his cell out of his pocket. He called the Consulate, the RCMP detachment in Yellowhorse, and then the outpost in Inuvik. "Corporal Fraser isn't available," some young Mountie told him.
"When will he be back?" Ray strolled over to the window and looked out. It was raining. "Do you have a number for him?"
"No, sir. He's been on leave for a number of days. We expect him back on Friday."
"Well, when he turns up, tell him Ray Vecchio called. Vecchio, you got that? I'll call back Friday afternoon."
"Yes, sir. I'll let him know."
Ray flipped his phone shut and slipped it back into his pocket, and decided to brave Kowalski's kitchen. He was starving.
The kitchen was even worse than the bathroom. There were no clean dishes and when Ray looked into the dishwasher, he was met with the ripe stink of fetid garbage. He rummaged under the sink for dishwashing powder, but the box he found was empty, so he dropped it into the too-full trash and washed himself a mug in the sink, using detergent and rinsing it twice. The fridge was mostly empty except for beer and some moldy leftover pizza, and the only cans in the cupboards were one of beets and one of lychees, one of which he couldn't stand and the other of which he didn't know what the hell it was, so he made himself some instant coffee and added a couple of spoons of sugar to make up for the lack of milk, and figured he'd eat tomorrow. He was exhausted. He needed to crash out.
The music was back on in the living room, not quite as loud as before, but too loud to talk over. Anyway, Ray really didn't want to know what Stella had told Kowalski. He felt sick and exposed just thinking about it. So he took his coffee back to the bedroom and shut the door. Drank it quickly, stripped down to his underwear, lay down under the covers and tried to ignore his stomach's growls.
Sometime later he was woken by the door creaking open. Light spilled across the foot of the bed. Ray forced his eyes open and squinted into the glare. "What?"
There was no reply. The door shut again. Ray went back to sleep.
* * *
Ray woke early the next morning—his watch said six twelve—and lay in Kowalski's too-hard bed staring at the ceiling and wondering what to do next. He couldn't go home yet—the clench in his gut at the thought told him that—and that meant he couldn't go anywhere in Chicago where people might recognize him. Juno had warned him against spending too freely until the divorce was settled, in case things didn't go so smooth, so his only real alternatives were leaving town again and finding somewhere cheap to stay, or staying put in Kowalski's apartment and watching Kowalski descend down the evolutionary ladder back to Neanderthal. Which wouldn't have been such a bad option, all things considered (at least he could feel superior to someone), except that it was Kowalski, and Kowalski had talked to Stella.
Ray shifted, tugging the twisted bottom sheet flat, and wondered if he could bluff it out. He wasn't ready to quit the city yet, and maybe, just maybe, Kowalski was too wrapped up in his own drama to give Ray shit.
Ray didn't have much to lose, all things considered. Shreds of dignity, but Stella could blow those away with a few icy words. He decided to stick it out as long as he could, at least until he could get hold of Fraser and maybe arrange to go up north for a visit.
* * *
When Ray got up the balls to make an appearance a few hours later, Kowalski had cleared a patch on the counter and was using a disgusting chopping board to slice cheese, while he grilled toast in his revolting oven. "Thought you'd be on your way to Florida by now," Ray said from the doorway.
Kowalski glanced up, then back down at his tiny stub of cheese. His right eye was bruised and puffy, but not swollen shut. He was wearing the same shirt, same jeans. Still barefoot. Still stinky. His hair and beard looked even wilder than they had yesterday. He shrugged one hunched shoulder. "You gonna lend me your car?"
"After what happened last time?" Ray was still sore about his last Riv, the last perfect Riv he'd seen. "I don't think so."
Kowalski nodded. "That's what I thought."
"Where's your car? I thought you had a Pontiac." Ray squared his shoulders and invaded Kowalski's kitchen to fill the kettle and clean out his mug from yesterday.
"Storage," said Kowalski shortly. "Anyway, Stella's going to Aruba with someone called Betty."
Ray paused, hot water scalding his fingers. In his mind's eye he could picture Stella, tanned and laughing on a beach with Betty Silverman, drinking cocktails at a tropical bar. Swimming in sparkling water. Drops of water glistening in the hollow above her collarbone. He shook his head. He had no right to be thinking about her like that anymore. Shit, he hadn't been thinking of her like that when—
"What're you driving now?" Kowalski's curt question interrupted his thoughts. He looked up and caught a trace of sympathy in Kowalski's eyes.
"1971 Impala." Ray made his coffee, and went to sit at the dining table where a newspaper from last week was shuffled in amongst the crumbs and screwed-up paper napkins and empty beer bottles.
Kowalski flicked the toast out from the grill with his fingers, put cheese on it and smushed it together into a sandwich. He came over and sat across from Ray. He ate hungrily, grossly, chewing with his mouth open.
"Christ, no wonder Fraser kicked you out," said Ray without thinking.
Kowalski froze, his gaze snapping up. "Did you—" He swallowed his mouthful and started again, trying for casual and failing miserably. "Did you talk to him?"
Ray felt a pang of pity, but he ground it down. Kowalski must've done something or he'd still be up there. Still, there was a flash of real raw pain in his eyes before his guard came down. Ray shook his head. "He's on vacation." The words came out kinder than he'd meant them, but maybe that was okay.
Kowalski got abruptly to his feet and went to wash his hands at the sink. "We're out of milk," he said.
"So go get some." Ray picked up the Arts section of the old paper and started reading the book reviews, tense all over because Kowalski's casual inclusion of him, like they were a household, was making his throat hurt.
Kowalski came over and leaned on the other side of the table. "Got any money?"
Ray turned the page and started a feature article about a Spanish opera singer. "I've only got plastic. You—"
"I know how to sign your name, Vecchio." Kowalski had the attitude of a trouble-making teenager asking his parents for the car keys.
"Fuck you," Ray told him automatically.
Kowalski didn't move.
Ray hesitated, but couldn't think of a reason why not. It wasn't like he had enough credit to get Kowalski to Florida—or Aruba. He took out his wallet and handed over his American Express. "While you're at it, buy yourself a fucking razor."
Kowalski grinned at him and pocketed the card. "You want anything?"
"Toothpaste," said Ray. "And get some powder for the dishwasher."
Kowalski nodded and left the room.
"And don't fucking spend all my money on booze," Ray shouted, but the door banged shut and there was no reply. Ray swore to himself, and got up to see if there was any bread left.
* * *
Kowalski was gone for hours. Ray spent the first thirty minutes cleaning the kitchen counter and then making himself some toast, and the next hour sweating that Kowalski'd gone, he wasn't coming back. That he'd stolen Ray's identity again, this time for real, and Ray was stuck here with no money, no life, and no one to talk to in this horrible apartment.
Twice, he picked up the phone to call American Express and cancel his card, but both times he talked himself down again, and went back to cleaning. It was soothing, and he got some relief from throwing away disgusting things that he thought Kowalski might still want. He took down the stupid novelty lights and put them in a cupboard. He threw away most of the herbs and spices that looked like they'd been sitting there since the eighties. Then he found a fresh trash bag under the sink, and tackled the refrigerator.
There were dozens of little jars of half-used condiments with the lids rusted on. Ray tossed them all, the slimy frozen lettuce at the back, three different kinds of Chinese takeout, a withered half of a red pepper, a plate of something yellow and slushy and unidentifiable. In less than five minutes, he emptied the fridge completely so he could wipe it out. He stacked the stuff he didn't throw away (four bottles of beer, an unopened jar of pickles, a pair of slightly withered carrots, and a jar of salad dressing) on the newly wiped-down counter, and then he found the marmalade.
The marmalade was at the back of the bottom shelf. It was a small jar, with a handwritten label that was yellowed and wrinkled. It was faint, but he could make out the words: Orange, Lime, & Quince Dec 12, 1994. It was Stella's handwriting. The surface of the marmalade was crystallized and rubbery looking, but that didn't matter.
Ray put the jar back where he'd found it, shut the fridge door, and went into the bathroom. He stripped off his clothes and had a shower, letting the spray drum on his face, keeping his eyes shut tight, letting himself break.
He'd put himself back together and was sitting on Kowalski's couch watching a movie when Kowalski came back. He swaggered in with six bags of groceries. His hair was short—shorter than Ray'd ever seen it—and his beard was gone. He was wearing new jeans and a new shirt. He looked like a different person—tired and old, but clean. Even his bruise looked like it had faded somehow. Maybe it was just the glasses.
Ray stared for a moment, then turned back to the TV. "Christ! How much did you spend?" he demanded.
Kowalski dropped Ray's credit card on the couch beside him. "What? I got to live up to your exacting standards, right?" He collected the bags together and went into the kitchen.
Ray put the card into his wallet and slumped back on the couch, watching Doris Day twirl around singing about her damned secret love. In the other room, he could hear cupboards opening and shutting. The fridge. A few minutes later, the dishwasher swished into action.
Ray bit back a smile, and switched the channel to a NBA final. He pushed the chess board aside, put his feet up on the coffee table and let his eyes fall shut, and just listened to the commentary until he dozed off.
* * *
The fridge stuff sat on the counter for the next few days. Ray found himself avoiding the fridge superstitiously, and Kowalski didn't seem to have noticed, or if he had, didn't care enough to do anything about it. The black half-full trash bag sat squat and shiny in the corner of the kitchen until one day it was gone. Ray didn't know where or how. The carrots and the salad dressing had gone, too—either into the bag or into the fridge.
They developed a routine so they didn't get in each other's way while they were making food. This was made easier by the fact that Kowalski didn't eat anything that took longer than three and a half minutes to prepare. If Kowalski was in the kitchen, Ray waited until he was done before he started cooking.
One time Ray was cooking and Kowalski came in, and Ray stood in the corner, pretending that the pasta sauce he was making needed his full attention, until Kowalski left again.
Sometimes they sat across from each other, eating in silence. Kowalski seemed to have some kind of arrangement with the pizza guy where he didn't have to pay, which explained all the pizza boxes. On Ray's fourth evening in the apartment, Kowalski was picking half-heartedly at his pizza but not really eating it. Ray watched him for a few minutes, then sighed, fetched another fork and plate from the kitchen. He sat back down, scraped some of his tortellini onto the clean plate, set the fork on the edge of the plate, and pushed it across the table.
At first, Kowalski ignored it, and Ray found himself holding his breath. It was like trying to befriend a stray dog, wondering if it was going to deign to let you feed it. Ray shook his head and started eating again, reading the sports section of the old paper for the third time.
After a moment, there was the scrape of fork on plate, and Ray looked up. Kowalski was wolfing down the tortellini. Ray suppressed a smile, and went back to the paper.
Kowalski dropped his fork on his empty plate. "Thanks."
"No problem." After that, Ray cooked for two.
* * *
They spent most of their time sitting on the couch watching TV. Ray dozed off and on. He was exhausted, even though he hadn't been doing anything. He thought maybe he'd picked up a virus and was fighting it off.
By mutual unspoken agreement, neither of them mentioned Fraser or Stella after the first day. Ray decided there was no point stirring up bad feeling, since he and Kowalski were in such close quarters. He'd wait until he heard Fraser's side of the story before he jumped to any judgments. Late on Sunday night, he realized he'd forgotten to call Fraser back. It was too late then, so he called the next morning. "Corporal Fraser's gone on patrol," said the same young Mountie. "He'll be back on Wednesday."
"Okay. Thanks," said Ray. This time he didn't leave a message. He put on his shoes and went down to the corner store for eggs and a new newspaper.
Ray was going to call Fraser on Wednesday but his phone was dead. He plugged it into the charger, and forgot about it. There was a Die Hard marathon on channel 9, and he and Kowalski watched it together, throwing balled up paper napkins at the screen whenever Bruce Willis breached police procedure.
"It's a fucking action movie," Ray pointed out at first, but then Bruce blew out the window of the skyscraper, and Ray reached for the stack of white napkins that had come with Kowalski's last pizza.
When Bruce walked over broken glass and kept going, Ray said without thinking, "Christ, he's as bad as Fraser."
Kowalski tensed, and then jumped up and went into the kitchen. Ray cursed silently and waited, wondering if he'd come back.
He did, with two beers in one hand and a bottle opener in the other. He sat down, flipped off the caps, and handed one bottle to Ray in silence, but the relaxed vibe had evaporated. Kowalski was grim and tight-jawed, and Ray couldn't pay attention to the movie anymore. It was almost a relief when his phone rang in the next room.
Until he answered it, anyway. "Ray? It's me." His sister's teary voice trembled down the line.
"Frannie? Are you okay? What's wrong?" Ray sat on the end of the bed, his phone still plugged into the charger, and rested his head on his hand. It was so long since he'd spoken to any of his family, he felt like he was speaking a foreign language.
In the background there was a bang—the slam of a door, maybe—and his Ma shouting unintelligibly. Frannie sobbed. "I—I need to get—Ray, can I come visit? I've got some money saved. I can fly down, and—"
"Hey, hey, what's wrong? Is something going on?"
"I'm—" Frannie hiccoughed, and then laughed hysterically. "I'm knocked out, and—"
Shit. "Knocked up?"
"Yeah. Yeah, I got a pie in the oven."
"Who is it?" Ray heard his voice get hard and steely. "Who's the father? Tell me, Frannie. I'm gonna—"
She laughed again, strained with desperation. "I don't know. I don't know. I haven't—Listen, I gotta get out of here. Ma's furious and I can't—I'm coming to see you." She gulped. "I'll fly down tonight. Pick me up at the airport."
"No!" said Ray, breaking into a sweat. "No, you can't come—"
"Ray, I need to get out of here. I can't stay here. I'm going to go crazy! She keeps yelling about convents. Honestly Ray, you'd think I was sixteen, the way she's talking. I have to—" She sobbed again. "There's a flight out of O'Hare at seven-fifteen tonight."
Ray scrubbed his face. "I'm not in Florida anymore. I'm—"
"Oh Jeez," Frannie moaned. "You're not there? Please, Ray, you gotta help me."
"I'm in Chicago," Ray said, reluctantly. "I'm—"
"Chicago?" Frannie screeched. "You're here?"
"Jesus, would you keep your voice down? What if she hears you?" Ray looked around, like he was there, like he could see Ma glaring at him reproachfully from the doorway. "I'm at Kowalski's, but you can't come here."
"I'll be right over," said Frannie, and hung up.
"No!" Ray yelled into the phone. "You can't—" But it was too late.
There was a snort behind him, and he turned to see Kowalski slouched in the doorway. He had a few days' worth of stubble, and a mocking gleam in his eye.
"Frannie's on her way over," said Ray. "She's pregnant. Ma's having a fit."
"Shit!" Kowalski pushed off the doorframe and stood up, frowning. "Do you know who did it?"
Ray shook his head. "She didn't say." He went into the living room, switched off the movie, and looked around. "Christ! Help me tidy?"
Kowalski sat down and turned the TV back on. "It's just Frannie." A big orange fireball filled the screen.
Ray leaned over the back of the couch and snatched the remote from his hand, and turned it off again. "Who is directly related to my mother." He shoved Kowalski's shoulder, aware of the knotted muscles underneath his t-shirt. "Could you at least stack the pizza boxes?"
Kowalski rubbed the back of his neck a moment where Ray'd touched him, and then shrugged and started collecting the boxes together. "You want me to alphabetize them, too?"
Ray retrieved a screwed-up napkin from behind the TV and threw it at him, catching him on the arm. "Just do it. She's in enough of a state without walking into this trash heap. It's a miracle we don't have rats."
* * *
In spite of their best efforts, Frannie's first words once she'd walked inside, before she'd even put her suitcase down, were, "Jeez, Ray. What a dump."
Kowalski was eyeing her suitcase like it was a snake. "You're not staying here."
Which made Frannie shudder all over, cover her face and burst into tears. "I don't have anywhere else to go," she sobbed.
Ray gave her a hug and sat her down on the couch. He gave her the last of the paper napkins to dry her eyes, and said, "It's okay. We'll sort this out. Just tell me you didn't tell Ma I was here."
Frannie sniffed. "I'm not stupid!" She blew her nose on the napkin, and looked around. "Where's Fraser?"
Kowalski folded his arms and shifted his weight to one hip. "He's in Canada. It's none of your business."
"But aren't you two an item now? I thought he said—"
"Frannie," Ray interrupted. "Forget about Fraser. What happened? Who's the father?"
But Frannie wouldn't be deterred. "Is Fraser still gay? Because—"
"Could you focus?" yelled Ray. "What happened to you?" There was a thump and he looked around.
Kowalski was shoving his feet into his boots, standing up. He grabbed his jacket from the floor by the window. "Sort it out," he told Ray. He snatched Ray's car keys from the hook on the wall and left, slamming the door behind him.
Ray stared at the door for a moment, then turned back to Frannie's curious tearstained face.
"What's he doing back here, anyway?" she asked.
"I don't know," said Ray. "It doesn't matter. What about you?"
"Oh." Frannie raked her hand through her hair and stared glumly at the newly wiped coffee table. "Well, I didn't get my period for ages, so I took a test and I passed. Or failed. I don't know which, but I'm—I'm pregnant, and I told Maria, and Maria told Ma, and now Ma's terrified of what Father Behan will say and all her friends at the bridge club, and I feel poisonous all the time and can't eat. And she keeps nagging me about who's the father," Frannie finished up pointedly. "So don't you start, because honestly, I don't know. It's got to be a miraculous conception or something. I swear, I haven't had sex in forever, and not for lack of trying either."
"You're sure there's no guy? You haven't been letting strangers buy you drinks or anything?"
Frannie rolled her eyes. "Were you listening? The last time I saw any action was when Charlie Kochanski bought me dinner six months ago. He gave me the wettest goodnight kiss in the history of dating. It was gross. I thought I was gonna drown."
"I don't want to hear about it," said Ray immediately. "Just—" He sat down beside her, and patted her awkwardly on the back. "So you're okay."
"Yeah. I guess. Now that I'm out of the house, at least. I can't go back there, Ray. You have no idea what it's like."
"Yeah, I do." Ray leaned his head back on the couch and shut his eyes. "Christ, look at the pair of us."
"You're not in Florida," Frannie said.
"We're getting divorced. She's in Aruba." The word tasted bitter in his mouth.
"And you're living with Ray? In this place?" She seemed more puzzled than shocked.
"I'm staying here until I figure out what to do next."
"But you're not—?"
Ray rolled his head to look at her. "What?"
"You're not with Kowalski?"
Ray sat up straight. "What? No, Frannie. No! I am not with Kowalski! I am not gay! Jesus, could you concentrate on your own problems? Stella and me called it quits. I needed a place to stay. I couldn't—"
"You couldn't face Ma."
"Yeah. I couldn't face Ma." Ray took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "So I came here."
Frannie was quiet for a minute, fiddling with her bracelet. "It's a one bedroom, right?"
"He sleeps on the couch, Frannie."
"Oh." She rubbed her belly. "Okay. Uh, do you have any toast? I think I'm gonna throw up."
* * *
Frannie stayed the night. Ray felt like they should've had the "are you gonna keep it?" conversation, but he didn't know how to go there and he didn't particularly want to.
Kowalski came back around six and went straight into the bathroom and had a shower—leaving Frannie to throw up into the kitchen sink when the smell of carbonara proved too much for her—and then he sat in front of the TV, ignoring both of them until Frannie yawned and went to bed. Ray made sure she had everything she needed, and listened to her diatribe about the state of the bathroom, and then went back into the living room and collapsed on the couch beside Kowalski. "Jesus!"
"Shut up," said Kowalski. "This is the good part." It was a Clint Eastwood movie Ray didn't know. They watched it in silence, and Ray slowly relaxed, letting his worries about Frannie and his Ma and Stella and Fraser, and even Billy Blake—who he'd been trying so hard not to think about before now—drift off into the night, until he was only aware of this room, the TV with its gunfight and its cryptic Western dialogue, and Kowalski sprawled carelessly. He'd kicked his boots and socks off and was scratching the heel of one foot with the toes of the other.
Ray watched, mesmerized, at the way the cuff of Kowalski's jeans was riding up, showing the curly blond hairs on his leg. Then he caught himself and looked away. Kowalski hadn't noticed, thank God. "I'm making coffee. You want one?"
"Yeah." Kowalski drained his beer and handed the empty bottle to Ray without taking his eyes from the screen.
But when Ray came back five minutes later with two mugs of coffee, Kowalski was fast asleep, his head tilted to the side, mouth slightly open, his hands lax in his lap.
Ray studied him, his pulse racing like a greyhound, then took both cups of coffee back to the kitchen and poured them down the drain.
He didn't turn off the TV because he knew Kowalski usually slept with it on, but he lowered the volume a little. Then he covered Kowalski with one of the blankets from the pile in the corner, tucking it under his chin and holding his breath when Kowalski stirred slightly and raised one hand to pillow his cheek.
Ray backed away slowly, and then lay down on Kowalski's bedroll under the window and listened to Clint Eastwood's laconic manly drawl, and thought about Billy Blake until he fell asleep.
* * *
For two days, Frannie cried, threw up, bitched about the state of the apartment, nagged Kowalski about Fraser, and refused to discuss her pregnancy. Finally, late on Friday afternoon, she asked after Fraser one too many times, and Kowalski grabbed Ray's sleeve, dragged him forcibly into the bathroom, and locked the door. His eyes were blazing with frustration. "Get her out of here."
"She's my sister," said Ray. "She's fucking pregnant. You want me to kick her out onto the streets?"
"No, I just—" Kowalski wheeled away and paced the length of the small bathroom. "I can't stand it. I'm not hiding here for kicks, Vecchio. I need to be alone."
Ray felt a sinking sensation in his stomach. "I've been here nearly two weeks and you haven't—"
Kowalski dismissed that with a wave of his hand. "You don't count. You're like furniture. Frannie is work." He came to a halt on the other side of the room and met Ray's eye. "Either she goes or I go."
"Oh, and what makes you think I'd choose you over my own flesh and blood?" Ray demanded, unable to look away. Kowalski's black eye had faded almost completely.
But Kowalski just shook his head. "It's her or me."
Ray took a sharp breath and turned to unlock the door. He paused before he opened it. "Okay," he told the door handle. "Okay, give me a couple of days."
As it turned out, it only took one. Frannie was so miserable with her morning sickness and so disgusted by the grimy state of the apartment that she was spending half the time lying on the bed crying anyway. Ray only had to offer to take her home and smooth things over with Ma, and then Frannie was nodding and crying and packing her suitcase.
That bit was easy. It was the walk from the car to the front door of casa Vecchio that was hard. Ray's stomach churned, but he gritted his teeth and kept going. When they walked in the door, Maria was walking down the stairs. "Oh my God," she shrieked. "Ray! What are you doing here?"
Ma came running out of the kitchen. "Raimundo!" she cried, and then she saw Frannie cowering next to him, and ran forward with her arms outstretched. "Francesca! Where have you been? I've been worried sick about you!"
The kids came tumbling out of the living room like puppies, and even Tony looked up from the TV, and everyone was too busy fussing over Ray and asking Frannie if she was okay to question what he was doing in Chicago. Ray figured they were assuming Frannie had called him and he'd flown to the rescue, and he decided to leave it at that.
"We're just sitting down to dinner," said Ma, and herded everyone into the dining room.
"No, Ma," said Ray, but she ignored him, and when Ma and Maria carried the food in, the smells were so good that he caved.
"Where's bella Stella," asked Ma as they were sitting down to eat.
"She's running the bowling alley." Ray shot Frannie a warning glance. "You can't just leave a business unattended, Ma."
And Ma nodded, and passed him a plate heaped with greens and pasta.
After the entrée, Ma called Ray into the kitchen to pass down a serving platter from the top shelf of the cupboard, but it was really an excuse to ask Ray, "Did Francesca tell you who was the man who did this to her?"
Ray handed her the dish. "No, Ma! And you know what? It doesn't matter. She's a Vecchio, she's your daughter, and her baby is your nipote. Whoever the father is, we should be thankful."
Ma shook her head, muttering about scandals.
"Please, Mama. She's infelice. She needs you." Ray gathered her into his arms. "We all make mistakes, Ma."
"Mi figlio," said Ma, and hugged him back. "Mi figlio prediletto."
"Your only son," Ray teased, and helped her carry the dessert into the dining room, while the weight of his family home threatened to smother him.
* * *
It was late when he got back—nearly midnight—and the apartment was empty. The lights were on, the TV showing a boxing match, but there was no sign of Kowalski. Ray checked the kitchen and the bathroom, and even looked in the bedroom. The bed was stripped down to the mattress.
Ray looked in the bathroom again, in the laundry hamper. The musty towels were gone.
He went down to the basement and found Kowalski pulling a tangle of sheets out of the dryer.
Without asking, Ray opened the lid of the silent washer, and transferred the damp towels to the dryer. He set it going, and looked up to find Kowalski watching him with a weird intensity. Ray ducked his head and reached for the warm dry sheets, shaking the top sheet loose and folding it in half and then quarters, and eighths, until it was small and neat and manageable. He dumped it in the laundry basket, and folded the matching pillowcases.
Then he had nothing to do with his hands, so he crossed his arms and leaned on the empty washer and stared at the stained concrete floor in front of him. There was a faint spill of laundry soap. The room smelled of warm dry clothes.
Kowalski leaned on the wall and stuck his hands in his pockets. "Is Frannie okay?"
Ray nodded. "Yeah, she'll be okay. Ma'll get over the shock pretty soon, and get excited about the new grandkid."
Kowalski nodded. "Cool." He picked up the washing basket and put it down again, and then scratched the back of his head and went back to leaning on the wall. "You know what?" he said out of nowhere. "I fucking miss living your life."
Ray grinned in surprise. "Yeah? Well, your life was pretty sweet, too, for the six months I got to try it out."
Kowalski stared at him blankly for a moment, then barked a laugh. "I never ran a fucking bowling alley, you freak."
"One circus is pretty much the same as another." Ray shrugged, and attributed the warm glow in the pit of his stomach to his Ma's cooking.
They stood there, listening to the rumble of the dryer. Ray's palms started to sweat. Crazy questions bubbled to the top of his mind, like Did you ever think about Stella when you were with Fraser? And Do you still love him? Questions that would shatter the peace, would earn him another punch in the face.
After a long time, Kowalski shifted restlessly and said, "He sent me away."
Ray looked at him, but his eyes were unfocused, like he was seeing some other scene. "What? Why?"
Kowalski shrugged restlessly. "I nearly broke my neck falling down an ice crevasse. My second ice crevasse. He decided I wasn't cut out for the frozen lifestyle. Better safe and sorry, I guess."
"It's 'better safe than sorry'," Ray corrected before he could stop himself.
"Not for me." Kowalski turned and leaned his face against the brick wall of the basement, hunching his shoulders. He rubbed his cheek against the rough surface.
He was only an arm's length away. Less than an arm's length. Ray reached out from where he was standing and clasped his shoulder tight, wanting to comfort him. The next thing he knew he had an armful of Kowalski, shaking and tense, clinging to him. Christ!
Ray flushed all over. Kowalski's body was impossibly thin—Ray's arms could've gone around him twice at least—and hot, and he buried his face in Ray's shoulder and hung on. Ray didn't know what else to do, so he hugged him hard and murmured the stupid Italian phrases his Ma used to say to him when he was a kid. Above all, he tried to ignore how good it felt, holding him. He told himself it was just that he was holding someone. It didn't mean anything. This wasn't about Kowalski at all. But he sure as hell hadn't felt like this hugging Ma earlier that evening.
Kowalski made Ray feel like a man, strong and reassuring and—Christ, it was scary even to think it—sexy. It wasn't until Kowalski sniffed, long and snotty, that Ray realized he was crying, he was really fucked up. Ray instantly felt guilty for thinking about Kowalski like that. Jesus, talk about taking advantage of someone. He rubbed Kowalski's back soothingly, absently counting the bumps of vertebrae through his t-shirt, and Kowalski sniffed again and pulled away, avoiding Ray's eye. He wiped his nose on his bare wrist.
"Shit. I'm—sorry. Shit." He rubbed his face. "Jesus, I'm a mess."
"You're not the only one," said Ray, rubbing at the damp spot where Kowalski had slobbered on his shirt. His pulse picked up, but he opened his mouth anyway. "I, uh, Stella—she—" He shook his head, and said it in a rush. "She caught me fooling around. With—with a guy. Nothing serious. Nothing—It was just—nothing. In the office of the bowling alley. Middle of the afternoon. It was nothing. I was just—But, you know, there was you and then there was me, and I guess she thought—Anyway. I felt like shit. So fucking stupid. She's—I just—"
He risked a glance at Kowalski's face. It was slack with shock, staring at him.
Ray looked back at the floor. "His name was Billy. Uh, William Blake."
"Like the poet?"
"Yeah. I guess so. I didn't—I hardly knew him, but—" But he reminded me of you. Ray swallowed.
Kowalski's voice sounded weird and husky. "You make your bed, you gotta lie in it."
"Yeah." Ray nodded and took a deep breath. He closed his hand on the edge of the laundry basket, bending the plastic. "Yeah, so—You. You want to make the bed with me?" His voice squeaked with nervousness, but Kowalski didn't laugh.
Ray first met Kowalski in Muldoon's room at the Hotel California. Kowalski stood in the doorway with Fraser, and Ray knew him as soon as he set eyes on him. He recognized him, though he'd never seen him before.
Ray'd never felt that recognition for a guy, like being twisted inside out. But it wasn't what he wanted in his life, it wasn't the happy ending he had planned, so once they dealt with Muldoon and the Bookman's heavies, Ray covered it up by making fun of Kowalski, playing the tough guy. Plus, Kowalski barely even noticed when Ray got shot, he was so busy mooning over Fraser. So all in all, it was a relief when Fraser and Kowalski flew off to Canada, leaving Ray to live the good life with Stella. Stella who was blonde and fiery, and as close to Kowalski as he'd ever find in a woman.
For a while he managed to forget, to pretend he got what he wanted. Then he and Stella got Fraser's letter, and after that, Ray found himself daydreaming about Kowalski at weird times, thinking about Kowalski and Fraser together, picturing them. And in his mental pictures, it was Kowalski's quick moves and golden skin that drew his attention. It was crazy: Fraser was his friend, Fraser was gorgeous, if anyone was going to make Ray think about guys, it should by rights have been Fraser. But it wasn't.
And hanging out with Kowalski, watching TV with him, and holding him while he cried in the basement—all that felt more honest and real than any of the times he'd made love to Stella over the last seven months and pretended he was the man she wanted him to be.
* * *
Ray tucked the sheet in neat and tight while Kowalski let his side hang loose, and then they both smoothed down the comforter. Ray watched Kowalski put fresh pillowcases on the pillows—one from the bed and one he'd retrieved from the living room. He plumped them up and tossed them onto the head of the bed. Then they looked at each other.
"Which side?" asked Kowalski.
Ray's face got hot and he took a step back from the bed, but he shrugged as casually as he could. "Either."
"Okay." Kowalski sat down on the side with the nightstand. Ray went to brush his teeth, feeling like he was going to throw up.
When he came back, Kowalski was already in bed, lying on his side facing away. Ray couldn't tell if he was wearing anything or not, and he wasn't a hundred percent certain what was going on here, so he took off his socks and pants and shirt, and left his undershirt and shorts on and slid into bed, trying to ignore how turned on he was. The mattress sank beneath him, and he lay on his back, hands on his chest, and took a slow careful breath.
Beside him, Kowalski sighed and turned out the light, and then shifted around a bit, joggling Ray but not touching him. After a short while, he settled down.
Ray was too tense to close his eyes. His feet were cold. His dick was hard. He was in bed with Kowalski. He listened to the sounds of the city, the jabbering from the TV in the living room that they'd forgotten to switch off, the whisper of Kowalski breathing. He laced his fingers together and paid attention to the smell of clean sheets, the residual mustiness of the room. The scent of skin.
"Vecchio?" whispered Kowalski.
He rolled over, his weight tugging at Ray like gravity, and leaned up on one elbow. "You okay?"
"Yeah." Ray's throat was dry.
Kowalski nodded and his hand rested briefly on Ray's bare arm. "Go to sleep."
But Ray couldn't sleep. His thoughts flickered like old movies showing him how he'd ended up here.
Kowalski snuffled and tugged at the blanket and, just like that, Ray was aware of his body, solid and heavy, scarred and vulnerable and strong, lying next to Ray. An image slid into Ray's mind: kissing Kowalski, his hot wet mouth, sharp teeth closing on Ray's lip. The dark flutter of his eyelashes. Ray stretched his head back and gritted his teeth, trying to think of something else, something boring and gross, but these pictures were coming thick and fast now: Kowalski rubbing his scratchy face across Ray's chest; their bodies sliding together, hard and sweaty; running his hand over Kowalski's ass, curving around his thigh with its curly hair; stroking his cock; moving moving moving together—
Ray bit his lip hard to bring himself back to the present.
Kowalski's breathing had deepened. He was asleep.
* * *
Ray lay awake half the night, tense and uncomfortable and a million times too aware of his bedmate. He got up as soon as there was any light in the sky, slid out of bed inch by inch, not wanting to wake Kowalski, and then got caught watching him sleep. Kowalski's mouth was open, his hand splayed on the pillow beside him. His stubble glistened in the half-light.
Ray tore himself away, dressed silently, and went out into the early morning. He drove to the lake and sat on a park bench and called Fraser.
"Constable Benton Fraser." Fraser brisk and businesslike. Ray had no idea what time it was up there.
"Fraser." For a moment, Ray didn't know what to say. He blinked at the gray oily waves in front of him. "I've been trying to call you for two weeks."
"Ray!" There was a smile in his voice. "What can I do for you?"
Ray shook his head. Same old Fraser. "It's not what you can do for me. I was worried about you. Are you okay?"
Fraser hesitated for a nanosecond. "Yes, of course."
"You're still up there," said Ray, leaning down and resting his forehead in his hand. "You didn't come back with him."
"Ah." There were footsteps, and the creak of a door. "I'm home, Ray. I belong here."
"Yeah, I know. Listen, I—"
"Have you—seen him? Is he all right?"
The worry in Fraser's voice made Ray answer more harshly than he meant to. "You sent him away, Fraser. How do you think he is?"
Fraser breathed in sharply. "He told you."
"Yeah, he told me." Ray could hear the cogs turning in Fraser's head from here. "Listen, is there any chance that the two of you—"
"It was the right thing to do, Ray."
You got scared, thought Ray, but what he said was, "You regret it?"
"No. I can't go back to Chicago. Don't ask me to."
"I'm not." Ray rubbed his hand over his head. "I'm not. Jesus, playing matchmaker here—trust me, that's the last thing—" He trailed off, not sure how much to say.
Fraser cleared his throat. "Ray, are you all right? How's Stella?"
"How's Stella?" Ray echoed dryly. "Stella is Stella. She's in Aruba. I hear she's in Aruba. She and me, we've called it quits. It was—it was a mess, Benny, and I'm sorry—"
"What's going on, Ray?" There was a hint of steel in Fraser's tone.
"I—" Ray shut his eyes. "I got feelings for Kowalski." He blew out a breath. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry, I know, Christ, that's the last thing you want to hear."
"Dear Lord," said Fraser blankly. "Does he—does he reciprocate?"
Ray leaned back on the bench and looked out across the lake toward Canada. "I don't know. Maybe. He's pretty messed up, but—" He felt like he was pleading for his life. "I could be good for him."
The line cracked and hissed.
"Are you asking for my blessing, Ray?"
Ray huffed a humorless laugh. "Yeah, sure. Why not? I've screwed up a lot of things in my life. I don't want our friendship to be one of them."
An early morning jogger ran past. He got all the way to the bend in the path before Fraser answered. "That's—it's a lot to ask."
"I know." Ray dug his fingernails into his thigh. "I'm asking anyway."
"And if I say no?" Fraser asked quietly.
"You sent him away," Ray reminded him. "Do you want him to spend his whole life missing you? You don't want him, but you don't want anyone else to try and make him happy either?"
"I never said I didn't want him." Jesus, the way Fraser was talking was making Ray think about Victoria Metcalf.
"I know," Ray told him quickly. "I know. I just—I can't help how I feel."
"All right," said Fraser, sounding a long way away. "You have my blessing. Take care of each other."
"You're a good friend, Ray." From the way he said it, Ray thanked Christ Almighty he couldn't see Fraser's face.
"You, too, Benny." But Fraser had already hung up.
Ray watched the sunrise, letting his guilt dissipate with the dawn. He hadn't made this situation and, hell, he sure didn't know how it was going to turn out. But he had to try.
He drove through rush hour back to the apartment, and crawled back into bed where Kowalski hadn't moved a muscle, and fell into a deep sleep.
Ray woke up with a headache and morning breath, in desperate need of a shower. Kowalski was leaning over him, watching him with serious eyes.
"What?" said Ray, wondering if Kowalski could somehow see traces of the phonecall written on his face.
Kowalski dropped his gaze to Ray's mouth, making Ray's heart stop beating, and then moved away. "You want coffee?"
"Yeah," said Ray, and he meant it, but he grabbed Kowalski's wrist anyway, and dragged him back onto the bed. He wrapped his arms around him, holding him side on, halfway between play-fighting and hugging. Kowalski struggled and Ray instantly let go and tensed, expecting another punch or maybe outrage or mocking, but Kowalski twisted around and loomed over him, and pinned Ray to the bed by his shoulders.
Ray still didn't know if they were wrestling or what. He kicked a leg free from the blankets and hooked it around Kowalski's calf, knocking him off-balance so he landed on Ray with an oof! His jaw cracked against Ray's forehead.
"Fuck," muttered Kowalski, releasing one of Ray's shoulders so he could rub his jaw. His other hand pressed down harder to compensate, and Ray tried not to think how sexy that was.
"Sorry," he said, feeling stupid, and then Kowalski came closer, his body hovering over Ray, and his lips grazed Ray's forehead. Kissing it better.
Ray's breath died in his throat. Slowly, slowly he looked up, knowing his face was flushed and desperate-looking, but unable to help himself. Kowalski's lips were parted, and his breathing went ragged. He lifted his hips a little and, Christ, his dick was pressing against Ray's belly. Kowalski was hard.
Ray knocked his supporting hand aside. Kowalski fell onto him, and Ray rolled them so he was on top. He had to get some control here or he was going to lose everything.
Kowalski leaned up and licked Ray's jaw, the bruise where he'd punched him that first day. Ray jerked his head down to meet Kowalski's lips, but his head had already fallen back onto the pillow, chin jutting up proudly. "I'm on the rebound."
Ray's gut twisted in sympathy. "Yeah."
There was a glint in Kowalski's eye. A spark of life. The lines around his eyes deepened. "You wanna catch me?"
Ray leaned in and answered him with a deep wet kiss. Kowalski opened his mouth and kissed back, licking and sucking, not holding anything back. His hands slipped under Ray's t-shirt and covered his skin in hot sweaty trails, driving Ray crazy. Ray grunted, and ground his hips down, needing friction, needing to connect their dicks, but sliding sideways instead. He must've been doing something right, though, because Kowalski gasped, and his fingers bit into Ray's waist and ass.
"Comfort me?" Kowalski said it with an edge of bitterness like he was making fun of this whole thing.
"Shut up, Kowalski." Ray reached between them and lined them up, then pressed down again, and Jesus, Jesus! He hadn't known it could be like this. His dick throbbed, and he had to bite his lip to keep from coming. He pressed his open mouth against Kowalski's throat, his shoulder.
But Kowalski was still holding back. "Make me feel better?"
Ray shook him a little, then shoved his t-shirt aside and licked down his hot smooth body, looking for a way to drag him into this vortex, too. Wanting them both to be taut and disoriented and crazed with desire.
"Purely medicinal," he lied, and took him into his mouth.
"Fuck!" was the last coherent word Kowalski said.
* * *
They screwed on and off for three days straight, stopping only to eat, shower and sleep. After the first day, it was like Ray's body had learned a new language—he forgot all the words he'd grown up with, the ideas, the responsibilities. All he knew were the planes and angles of Kowalski's hips, the taste of his skin, the jolt of his foot kicking out when Ray nibbled his kneecap.
Kowalski seemed renewed after that first blowjob, and gave as good as he got. He sucked Ray off with dizzying skill and focus, and let his fingers drift back to stroke over Ray's hole, so that Ray went crazy and yelled himself hoarse when he came. He explored Ray's body curiously, asking about scars, kissing his neck, the inside of his elbow, his nipples.
Ray wanted to let himself relax and take it for granted, but he couldn't. Kowalski had said this was a rebound. Every time Ray came, he wondered if it was the last time, if this flurry of sexual energy would burn itself out. Maybe Kowalski wouldn't come back from the shower, this time. Maybe he'd sit back on his heels in the middle of this blowjob and really look at Ray, and wonder why he was wasting his time.
It kept Ray on edge. It made every caress and stroke sweet and desperate. Sometimes he couldn't take his eyes off Kowalski—even when he was coming, he watched the slide of Kowalski's lips, or the clutch of his hands. Other times, he couldn't bear to witness it: he'd close his eyes and then everything would intensify and deepen, and he have to stretch out his limbs in all directions, grip the headboard tight to keep from begging Kowalski to stay.
They kissed for hours. Ray got stubble burn over his bruised jaw, and his lips grew tender, but he didn't care. He wouldn't be the one to call a halt.
* * *
Kowalski flopped back on the bed, panting. "Jesus!" He grinned at the ceiling. "Don't tell me you've never done that before. I won't fucking believe it."
"I'm a quick study." Ray lay beside him and wiped the back of his hand across his mouth.
Kowalski laughed, and then craned his head around to look at the clock on the nightstand. "If I never see another pizza in my life it'll be too soon," he said, conversationally.
Ray flexed his ankles, and winced. "I don't know if I can stand up long enough to cook."
"Yeah, no." Kowalski pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes, then dropped his arms to his sides. "Get dressed. I'm taking you out."
"What, like on a date?" teased Ray, recklessly. "I'm touched. I thought you didn't have any money."
Kowalski sat up and studied his hands. "I've got a thousand bucks."
"So why is your car in storage then?" Ray rolled onto his side and looked up at him. "Why did you use my credit card?"
Kowalski got up, grabbed a fresh towel from the laundry basket and walked to the door. He turned, shook his head a little, and looked at Ray defiantly. "I was saving it. I'm not gonna need it now."
For a moment Ray couldn't speak. He swallowed. "Okay, then," he managed. "A thousand bucks. This is gonna be a hell of a meal."
"Oh Christ," Ray groaned, rubbing his hand over the back of his head. "You call first."
"You're such a girl, Vecchio." Kowalski picked up the phone and dialed the 1-9. "Lieutenant Harding Welsh."
Kowalski paced the length of the phone cord and back. "Yeah, Lieu? It's Kowalski. Yeah, yeah. Ex-Vecchio. You got it, sir. How's it going?" He stopped and bent his head, listening hard. "I'm sorry to hear that." He grinned and gave Vecchio the thumbs up, then his grin faded.
"No, sir. No, I don't know. I haven't heard from him in a couple of months. Yeah." He shrugged, and started pacing again. "So, I suppose you're wondering why I'm calling—Oh. Okay. Yes, sir. Monday. Uh-huh. No problem, sir."
There was a long babble of talk from the other end of the phone, and Kowalski looked amused and mimicked a blabbermouth with his hand.
"Yes, sir," he said finally. "Uh—Yeah. You got room for one more?" Kowalski winked at Ray. "Yes, sir, I am talking about someone you know. The real Ray Vecchio." There was another torrent of words. "Nah, he's come to his senses. Chicago all the way. Great. That's peachy. Thank you, sir. You won't regret it." He laughed. "I have no idea. Indigestion, maybe. No, sir. We'll do our best." He hung up.
"Shit," said Ray. "We're gonna have to remember how to socialize with normal human beings."
"Worse," Kowalski told him. "We're gonna have to get up in the mornings. He wants to see us eight-thirty, Monday. Apparently there's a string of robberies in the South Side, and no one's on it."
"Christ," groaned Ray. "What are we thinking?" He slumped into the chair. "Who'd be a working stiff?"
"I don't know about you, Mr. Pension-For-Life, but me, I need the money." But Kowalski was grinning fit to burst. "Come on, it's gonna be a blast."
"Fine," said Ray. "So we've got two days before we've gotta get up, get smart, and become productive members of society again, right?"
"Right." Kowalski nodded, and came to stand in front of him.
Ray hid his nerves behind a smile. "So I figure that's long enough for you to perfect the art of fucking me through the mattress," he said, casually.
Kowalski blinked, but didn't miss a beat. He braced an arm on the back of the couch next to Ray's head, and leaned in. "Maybe not perfect it, exactly," he said low in Ray's ear, and he pressed his other hand to Ray's chest, the tips of his fingers stroking the skin at the open neck of Ray's shirt making Ray feel like his oxygen supply had just cut off. "Perfecting it might take years. But we can definitely get in some groundwork."
"Okay." Ray pulled Kowalski into his lap and pushed him back against the arm of the couch, running his hands over his newly familiar territory. "Where do we start?"