Thanks: Huge enormous thanks to sprat, Miriam, mergatrude and woolly socks (as well as Andrew and Sage for title suggestions, many of them extremely unhelpful/hilarious).
Notes: For Tara Keezer for Due South Seekrit Santa 2008
"Dewey! Vecchio!" Welsh bellowed, flapping rain from his coat as he made his way through the crowded bullpen. "A moment of your time, if you please!" He hooked his coat on the stand and disappeared into his office.
Ray sighed, set his stapler, his cellphone and his magnetic paperclip holder to act as paperweights on the receipts and greasy scraps of paper from the Danish bakery jewelry smuggling case they'd been working on, straightened his tie and followed Dewey into Welsh's inner sanctum.
"It's almost five," Dewey muttered under his breath. "This better not take too long. I've got tickets to a monster truck rally tonight."
Ray didn't bother replying. Dewey wasn't the worst partner he'd had and Ray owed him for being willing to team up, but that didn't change the fact he smelled of old seafood and he was hard work sometimes.
Welsh was already on the phone. "Release it to the press and keep me posted. Anyone so much as sneezes in that hospital, I want to hear about it!" He hung up and signaled to Dewey and Ray to shut the door. "Gentlemen, it appears we have a situation with the Rhomboni case. We've got casualties in the hospital and one on a slab and I need you on board with this. Kowalski's at Northwestern Memorial—"
"He's in the hospital? Again?" Ray shook his head. Kowalski was such a fuck-up, he was always pulling some crazy stunt and getting hurt. "What happened this time—did he break anything?"
"Maybe a record," said Dewey, trying out yet another punchline that didn't make sense. He and Jack kept saying they were going to re-open the One Liner just as soon as they had some new material. At this rate, it'd be Judgment Day and Dewey would still be making puns worthy of Ray's six-year-old nephew, Tito.
"There was a firefight in an alley down on South Rockwell." Welsh leaned over his desk, looking grim. "Two hit, one dead. And Kowalski—"
He was interrupted by the door banging open.
"What?" Ray's attention was fixed on Welsh. "Kowalski what?"
But Welsh's answer was derailed. A long-legged redhead in a cream tailored suit slammed her briefcase down on the corner of Welsh's desk and slapped her business card on his blotter. "I represent Marc and Leo Rhomboni, and I'm here to tell you they're going to sue you to hell and high-water and back for the allegations you're spreading. Shooting a cop?"
Ray's blood ran cold. "Did Kowalski get hit?" Surely Welsh would look more cut up if it was serious.
The lawyer bulldozed right over him. "My clients have an iron-clad alibi for the last forty-eight hours. I hope you've got the State's Attorney's backing on this one, Lieutenant, because you are out on one hell of a limb. My clients—"
"Your clients are crooks, Ms.—" Welsh glanced at her card. "—Bianchi. I've got one of my people in the hospital because of them." He looked past her to the doorway. "Miss Vecchio! Goddammit, isn't anyone watching the door?"
"—are going to file so many police harassment charges, you won't know what hit you," Ms. Bianchi finished, crisply.
Welsh ignored her. "Vecchio, Dewey, I need you to back up Huey."
With a sigh, Dewey let his monster truck tickets fall into Welsh's waste paper basket. "Yes, sir."
"How's Kowalski?" Ray insisted. "What happened? Has anyone called his folks?"
Welsh's eyes flicked to the lawyer and back to Ray. "He's out cold in Northwestern Memorial Hospital. Huey says Kowalski got a good look at the shooter and he'll be able to ID him once he comes around. The hospital staff are under instruction to call me if there's any change in his condition, and I'll keep you updated. For now, we're short-staffed and I need you on the streets. Work with Huey, talk to your snitches. Whatever it takes, I want you to nail these guys, get their asses in here before they do any more damage. I want a nice, clean bust, no mishaps or technicalities. You hear me?" He got up, took Ms. Bianchi by the arm and marched her to the door. "And I want you out of my station."
Ray pushed past them, grabbed his coat and headed for the door.
"Vecchio!" Welsh yelled after him. "You're under orders."
Ray stopped, his coat half on, and turned enough that Welsh would see how determined he was. "We were partners, sir. I'll catch up with Huey and Dewey once I've checked up on him."
"Vecchio!" Welsh glared at him, then sighed, grabbed Ray's phone from where it lay on his desk and tossed it to him. "Anyone ever fill you in on the van Zandt case? Dewey, go with him and explain the thing with the toad."
Ray pocketed his phone and hurried down the crowded hallway, dodging between a guy on a ladder fixing the air conditioning, and a cop herding two kids with unicycles into Interview Two. When Dewey caught up, Ray asked, "Nick van Zandt, the mob boss?"
"Yeah, Two Tone Jones was going to testify against him, so van Zandt had him whacked, and then Fraser licked a toad and nearly died." Dewey pulled on his gloves.
"Fraser licked a toad?" Ray frowned. "What's that got to do with the Rhombonis? I thought Welsh said Kowalski took a bullet."
"Hey, I don't know." Dewey shrugged. "I just remember Fraser sitting up in his coffin like Sleeping Beauty, and your sister showed up at the funeral parlor in a wedding dress. Hey, what's orange and sounds like a parrot?"
The last thing Ray wanted was Dewey telling lame jokes all the way to Northwestern. "Find Jack," he said, curtly. "Catch those bastards."
The nurse's nametag said Betty, and she had tiny penguin studs in her ears. "We're under strict instructions. No visitors."
"I'm not a visitor, I'm a cop," said Ray, and edged past her into Kowalski's room. "More than that, I'm his partner. That's practically next of kin."
She was young enough that she gave in, confirming Ray's suspicion that there was no goddamned security in this place.
Betty barely glanced at Kowalski's chart. "We're still waiting on test results so I can't give you a prognosis, but he's stable." She sounded like she was reciting a line, like this kind of thing happened every day and maybe it did, maybe Ray should be used to this kind of thing by now, the linoleum, the smell of iodine and antiseptic, Kowalski lying there motionless... Nurse Betty moved a folded blanket and a couple of pillows off the visitor's chair to make room for Ray. "Talk to him. He may respond to a familiar voice."
"Oh, I'll talk to him!" Ray said, curtly, and waited for her to leave the room before he exploded. "You jackass, what the hell did you do? I suppose I should've expected this, since you never listen to a goddamned word anyone tells you. Think you're so smart. Well, you know what? You're going to listen to me now!" He started pacing the scuffed linoleum between the bed and the window. "Christ, Kowalski, do you think I partnered up with Dewey 'cause I wanted to? Jack was supposed to keep your stupid ass out of this kind of mess." He stopped for breath, and for a moment all he could hear was the slow, steady beep of the heart monitor.
That took the wind out of his sails. He stopped at the foot of the bed and studied Kowalski. His hand was curled loosely on the hospital blanket, middle finger slightly extended. Yeah, even unconscious, Kowalski was giving the finger to the whole world. And even unconscious, he radiated energy. If it weren't for the dressing on his temple and the oxygen tube across his upper lip, Ray might've thought he was faking it.
The room was warm and dim, and like every other hospital room Ray had been in. It reminded him of other gunshot wounds—his own and Benny's. Angie's that one time. And now Kowalski's. Not for the first time, Ray wondered why in hell they all persisted in chasing down bad guys, why they kept putting themselves in the line of fire, over and over.
The thought made him pissed—at the system, at the criminal element who kept fighting back, even at Fraser for inspiring heroics and suicidal stunts. Most of all, at Kowalski. What kind of crazy Mountie-style maneuver had he been trying to pull this time? Had he walked out unarmed and demanded one of the Rhombonis hand over his piece? Ray had seen that before, seen it and barely believed it. It was absurd enough when Fraser did it, stepping out into the world with nothing to shield him save his faith in human nature—with Kowalski, it was like watching a head-on collision between a cyclist and a locomotive. Given the odds, it was surprising how often the cyclist came out on top, but it wasn't enough. In the end, Ray just couldn't take it anymore.
Not that Dewey had been a step up in the world, but at least Ray didn't have his heart in his mouth on a daily basis. At least Kowalski wasn't taking stupid risks in some ridiculous game of one-upmanship that Ray never signed up for in the first place. And at least Ray wasn't taunted every day with wanting something he couldn't have.
He shrugged out of his coat, collapsed into the visitor's chair and loosened his tie. "You make me crazy, you know that?" he told Kowalski's still form.
Out in the corridor there were footsteps and voices. Ray watched the door till they faded, until the only sound was the steady beep beep beep.
Kowalski's eyelashes moved against his flushed cheeks.
"Jesus. I should've been there." Ray inhaled the scent of starch, and looked down at his own hands clasped between his knees. "Don't even think about calling it quits, Kowalski. Don't even think about it."
That wasn't in question, he reminded himself. Kowalski was stable. He was going to pull through just fine, so long as Ray bullied him into it. This wasn't a deathbed. And yet, the way Kowalski was just lying there, Ray could feel confessions welling up inside him, and for once in his life there was no reason to stop them.
"It wasn't your fault," he said abruptly. He inched the chair closer to the bed. "It wasn't you. Not that you weren't a pain in my ass—you fucking were—but that wasn't why I got reassigned."
He waited a second, just in case Kowalski would choose this moment to open his eyes and look at Ray, mock him for being heartfelt and Hallmark. But the beep beep beep stayed constant and Kowalski didn't move.
"I didn't even mean it," he said at last. It was a load off his shoulders, just saying the words out loud. He hadn't told anyone, not Fraser, not Frannie, and certainly not Welsh or Dewey. Too much pride to admit the truth. But he could say it now, here, to a Kowalski who couldn't hear him. "I didn't want to. I only said it because I was pissed and I wanted you to argue with me, ask me to stay."
He could still taste the words, laced with acrid smoke: Fuck this, he'd snapped, pulling away, fire sprinklers showering his face, drenching his explosion-scorched clothes. I've had it with you, Kowalski. You're a walking disaster zone. Find yourself another fucking partner.
"I mean," Ray lowered his voice, but kept on, relentless. If he was ever going to admit this out loud, now was the time. "I know I never stood a chance with you. There was Stella, and there was Fraser, and then there was me, and even I'm not dumb enough to think a guy who's been with Benny is gonna look twice at a guy like me, but—"
In his peripheral vision, Kowalski's hand twitched. Ray looked up, startled, and was just about to call for the nurse when she appeared in the doorway. "Visiting hours are over."
"I think he moved." Ray stood up. "He moved his hand."
"I'll inform the doctor." She came into the room, carrying a syringe. "But I'm afraid you'll have to leave now. I'm going to administer his medication. "
"Thanks—" Ray glanced at her nametag. "Uh, thanks, Betty."
The tie at the neck of her scrubs was torn, hanging by a thread. She didn't have penguin studs in her ears. She was shorter than the Nurse Betty who'd shown him into the room earlier, and she was wearing high heels.
She gave him a smile that didn't reach her eyes, stuck a syringe into Kowalski's IV and injected the saline with straw-colored fluid.
Ray's instincts flared. He flung himself across the bed, landing bodily on Kowalski, and yanked hard on the IV, ripping it out of the dressing on Kowalski's arm. "What did you do?" he demanded.
Before she could answer, Kowalski convulsed under him, bucking and lurching to free his hands, and nearly giving Ray a heart attack. "What the fuck?" he yelped.
Kowalski was all arms and legs. He elbowed Ray in the nose and shoved him aside, and Ray landed on the floor in a stunned heap.
There was some kind of desperate scuffle, and then the blunt thwack of a bullet burying itself in the visitor's chair where Ray had been sitting moments earlier. By the time Ray—one hand cupped over his throbbing nose—scrambled to his knees to see what was going on, there was a pillow on the floor with the syringe sticking out of it, and Kowalski was removing the clip from a semi-automatic.
God only knew where the fake Betty had stashed a piece that size. The scrubs sure didn't conceal much.
She made for the door, but Ray lunged across the room and caught her, momentum slamming them both into the wall. Ray yanked her back into the room, towards the bed, and Kowalski grabbed her wrist, making her swear.
They were working together smoothly, anticipating each other. It felt easy, despite the throbbing in Ray's nose and shoulder. Christ, Ray had missed this.
Kowalski dug cuffs out from somewhere and slapped them on the fake nurse, all the while wearing nothing but a hospital gown and sweatpants. The oxygen tube was draped around his collarbone like a necklace, and the gauze dressing that'd held his IV in place flapped freely as he started Mirandaing her. His arm was unmarked.
Ray went into the hallway and followed the sound of thumping to find the real Nurse Betty, tied up half-naked and angry in a medical supply closet. "Lieutenant Welsh called for you," she said, when Ray pulled the tape from her mouth. "And some bitch stole my scrubs."
"Yeah, we got her. Are you okay?" Ray untied Betty and called the other ward nurse to take care of her. He got back to the room as Kowalski was saying, "Do you understand these rights?"
"This whole thing was a fucking setup," Ray said, half to himself. "I don't believe this."
"You gonna call the Lieu or should I?" Kowalski jerked his head at Ray's cellphone.
"Oh, uh." Ray reached for it. The battery was dead. Kowalski snatched his own phone from the table and threw it to him. Ray dialed. "It's Vecchio. I'm at the hospital. We've got—" He raised his eyebrows at Kowalski.
"Theresa Dolores Rhomboni-Corelli," said Kowalski. "She's the cousin."
"Good work, detective," said Welsh, when Ray relayed this intel. "Bring her in."
The heart monitor was still beeping when they left the room.
"So, no one told me it was a ploy to draw her out! No one bothered to tell me!" They'd processed Rhomboni-Corelli and left her to stew in a holding cell, and now delayed shock was setting in. Ray was so furious he was barely aware they were still in Welsh's office. "What part of that plan seems smart to you, Kowalski?"
"The Lieu was supposed to fill you in."
"Which I would have done if you'd followed orders," snapped Welsh. "Or waited for Dewey to explain about the van Zandt case. Or kept your cellphone charged."
Kowalski nodded. "Anyway, you were supposed to be out there chasing down the brothers with Huey and—"
Ray's hands clenched involuntarily. "You didn't think to give me a clue? You must've known I didn't know. You fucking played me."
"No, I thought you knew!" Kowalski gently kicked the corner of Welsh's desk a couple of times and didn't look at him. "As soon as I figured out you were in the dark, I tried to give you a hint. You know." He wiggled his fingers.
"You did your job, detectives," Welsh intervened. "It was unfortunate we didn't manage to keep you fully appraised of the situation, but if you have a beef with that, I suggest you get over it now."
"Sir." Ray stared blindly at Welsh's blotter and struggled for a long minute not to growl out his resignation then and there. His nose ached. Fuck all of it.
"I really did think you knew." Kowalski spoke directly to Ray, sounding subdued. He scratched the back of his neck. "I thought you meant to—I'm sorry."
Ray gritted his teeth. "Sure you are."
"Vecchio—" Kowalski reached out to touch his arm, but Ray batted him away.
"Forget it," he said abruptly, and turned back to Welsh. "Forget everything. We made the collar, all's right with the world, right?"
Welsh nodded soberly. "Huey and Dewey picked up the brothers half an hour ago. The case is closed."
"We're done?" Ray raised his chin.
Welsh closed the file folder on his desk. "Go home and get some sleep, detective."
"Vecchio!" Ray made it as far as the parking lot before Kowalski caught up with him.
Ray kept walking. "What do you want?"
"You, uh." Kowalski jogged up beside him and asked, a little breathlessly, "You want to get something to eat?" He still had that stupid dressing on his temple.
Ray tried to remember what he'd said in the hospital room, thinking no one could hear him. How much he'd given away. Too much—that he was sure of. "What do you want, Kowalski?" Even that felt like giving in. He veered away. "Just forget it. If I'd known—"
But Kowalski wasn't listening. "I, uh, I didn't think I stood a chance with you, either."
Ray clamped his jaw shut and stopped short by his car. Dug into his pocket for his keys.
"I mean, I didn't think I was your, uh, type. I didn't know. Fraser never mentioned, you know. And you were always on my case, so I figured—" Kowalski pursed his lips and shook his head, then shot a sideways glance at Ray. "Which was cool. I can handle it. I'm not everyone's idea of a picnic sandwich, I know that. And then you ditched me for Dewey, so—" He met Ray's eye, then rubbed intently at an invisible mark on Ray's car's paintwork. "Coffin meet nail."
Ray didn't know whether to believe a word he was saying. What if this was more bullshit, just another game? "Shut up, Kowalski."
Kowalski kept right on. "Huey—you know, he's not so bad. We do okay. But it's not like it was with me and Fraser. And it's not like you and me. There's no click, no back and forth, no wham bam."
"I said shut up." Ray was wavering, drawn in by Kowalski's crazy patter like he always was. Ray's protests sounded unconvincing even to him.
"I know I drive you crazy." Kowalski scratched the corner of his mouth and looked rueful. "Not like I do it on purpose, but I've seen you flip your lid more times than I can count. But the thing is—" He took a deep breath, his face vulnerable like it had been in the hospital bed, but awake now. Blue eyes watching Ray closely, making Ray's stomach tighten. "The thing is—" Kowalski leaned his arm along the roof of Ray's car, and said deliberately, "You want to get something to eat with me, Vecchio?"
It was like the air between them sparked, and Ray had a sudden vivid mental image of leaning into Kowalski's body, pressing him back against the car, hips to hips, holding his head and kissing him senseless. Putting all that chemistry to good use.
"Vecchio?" A line formed between Kowalski's eyebrows.
Ray cleared his throat and tried to clear the image from his mind. He closed his eyes, fighting, and then surrendered. What the hell. He'd already given up his pride. He'd already come out, for Christ's sake. There was nothing else left to lose at this point. "Okay, fine. Whatever."
Kowalski let out a breath and his face relaxed into a slow, sweet smile that turned Ray's knees to rubber, everything in the world narrowing down to those warm eyes, the full curve of his lower lip and the smudge of stubble on his jawline.
Ray reached up and peeled away the dressing from Kowalski's forehead, revealing a graze. So he had been hurt. Had probably only thought up the stupid plan because he'd ended up at the hospital in the first place.
Kowalski glanced around, a move which reminded Ray this was the precinct parking lot, and even if it was ten after eleven, it was still the worst possible place for taking the next step.
Kowalski, on the other hand, seemed to think just because he couldn't see anyone looking, that was precaution enough. "Anyone ever tell you you're hot when you're mad?" he murmured, stepping in close
Ray grabbed his arm and somehow managed not to strangle him. "I was fucking worried about you, asshole," he ground out. "Do you get that? Do you get that I thought you'd taken a fucking bullet?" He gave Kowalski a shake, overcome with frustration.
For once, Kowalski didn't argue or explain or wisecrack. "I know," he said. "Plus I think I gave you a black eye." His fingertips whispered over the hot bruise on Ray's face.
And Ray's fury and his outrage and the accumulated embarrassment from the whole fiasco evaporated, just like that, leaving him weak.
"I'll make it up to you," Kowalski assured him.
Ray breathed a shaky laugh. "You're just a walking bundle of clichés, aren't you?"
"I can rock your world." Kowalski clearly thought that was license to dick around. He gave Ray a sly, cocky grin that made Ray's pulse kick up, and rested his hand on Ray's hip, hot through the fine linen of his shirt. "For a good time, call Kowalski." The tension between them softened and flared. "Takes one to know one."
Ray tried to hold him off. "Not here! Jesus, Kowalski, you ever heard of the word discreet?"
He put his hand over Kowalski's, meaning to push it away, to regain some distance and decorum and sanity, but the touch was like a drug, so good he couldn't bring himself to break the connection. Instead he pulled it around so Kowalski's fingers were splayed on Ray's belly, over his belt buckle.
Ray's mouth fell open. "Jesus fuck," he said hoarsely.
Kowalski's gaze brimmed with heat and laughter, and he curled his fingers over Ray's waistband and tugged. "This is your idea of discreet?"
Ray scanned the parking lot quickly. There were a lot of shadows, but he couldn't see anyone lurking. He cupped the side of Kowalski's neck and tugged, brought their mouths together, and the zipper of Kowalski's jacket brushed against Ray's chest, scraping Ray's nipples through the sheer fabric, turning him on hard and fast so his whole body pulsed with excitement.
Kowalski moaned and slid his hand down the outside of Ray's thigh.
Somehow Ray summoned enough self-preservation and will-power to pull back and push Kowalski away. This was not the place for this! He blinked hard to focus. Kowalski looked as dumbstruck as Ray felt, his lips wet, his chest heaving.
"Get in the car," Ray told him. Kowalski's eloquently raised eyebrows got Ray's head swimming with all kinds of pornographic ideas. "Front seat."
Kowalski ducked his head, smiling to himself. "Thought you'd never ask. Want to play doctors and nurses?"
"With you it'd be shrinks and headcases." Ray unlocked the car and waited while Kowalski got in, then leaned against the driver's side for a moment, catching his breath. He was determined to take it slow, do it right, however impatient he felt. There was too much at stake to fuck it up. He slid into the driver's seat and buckled his seatbelt. "Let's take this one step at a time, okay? You only got out of your coma a couple of hours ago. Let's start with getting something to eat and take it from there."
Kowalski laughed low and reached across to squeeze Ray's thigh, so Ray had no choice but to smack him on the arm. "Whatever you say, Vecchio. Whatever you say."