Thanks: Many many thanks to sprat and mergatrude for thoughtful, clever beta
Christ, what an evening. The 2-7 were out in force to celebrate a major bust—half a dozen gun traffickers supplying a local gang—and to welcome Kowalski back to the fold, too. Welsh even bought a round for his detectives, and they stood around grinning and clinking bottles, rehashing the case and making stupid elaborate toasts to each other. Fuck, they were doing it, cleaning up this goddamned dirty city. Making Chicago the way she oughta be. The way she'd always been, underneath the grime.
But was Kowalski getting with the spirit of the occasion? No, he was not. Instead he was pulling every dumb trick in the book to spoil the mood. Ray—knowing Welsh was probably gonna partner the two of them up—tried to smooth things over, keep things light. He told a couple of old stories about working with Fraser, got the room laughing, everyone throwing in their own dime's worth. But Kowalski slumped in the corner, getting quieter and sullen. Even a sympathetic nudge from Frannie didn't snap him out of it. In the end, Ray shrugged and gave up. Made his excuses and left.
He was surprised when Kowalski threw a ten on the table and followed him out.
The muggy air stunk to high heaven. Ray thanked his stars that his crappy pool car had air conditioning. He ignored Kowalski, who was weaving like a punch-drunk boxer, and turned down the alley toward the parking lot. Behind him, Kowalski muttered something indecipherable but probably insulting.
That was excuse enough for Ray to voice the question that'd been itching at him for the last week. He stopped and turned to Kowalski. "Why'd you come back, anyway?"
Kowalski staggered to a halt, shook his head clear and squinted. "What?"
"Why aren't you up there making snow Mounties with Fraser?"
Like a switch had been flicked, Kowalski went from sullen and drunk to furious. Jesus, the punk was fast off the blocks. "None of your goddamned business, Vecchio!"
"Hey, I don't care," said Ray, raising his hands. "I don't give a fuck what you do, Kowalski." He turned and started walking away, leaving Kowalski taut with rage, hands fisted, hair glowing crazy in the streetlight.
The sound of Ray's footsteps bounced around the alley.
"Fuck you!" A hard shove, and he was slammed into the brick wall, grit knocked into his eyes and mouth, his bottom teeth cutting into his lip. His hands were scuffed and started smarting immediately. Ray gasped—more from surprise than anything else—and tasted blood and musty old brick on his tongue. Felt it coating his sweaty skin in the stinking Chicago night.
Something sharp and angry dug in between his shoulderblades—Kowalski's shoulder, maybe. "Fuck you!" Kowalski repeated the words, low and dangerous. Shit.
The wall was rough through Ray's shirt, scraping against his chest. He didn't have to take this. He shoved back, keeping his voice light and scornful. "Yeah? Is that what you want, Kowalski? You're shit out of luck."
He thought he had enough leverage to break out of Kowalski's hold, but when he pushed back, Kowalski was ready for him, braced and not giving an inch. Before Ray could try again, Kowalski had a hot hand clamped about each wrist, had wrenched his right arm back and under like he was gonna cuff him. Had pinned his left hand to the wall by his head.
"Why's that?" Kowalski ground out. "Don't try and tell me you don't want this. You want this. Oh yeah, you want this." And Ray jerked back, lost his cool a little. Wasn't expecting that voice so low, so close in his ear. He started to get worried. Knew better than to let it show.
He leaned his head sideways against the snarl of brickwork and mortar and forced his body to relax, lulling Kowalski into relaxing, too. The trick was to keep him talking. Didn't matter what about. Didn't matter what he said. "What're you doing, Kowalski? What the fuck are you doing?"
Kowalski spoke fast and angry. "I'm doing what I do. Interro-fucking-gation. I'm a detective, and I'm solving a fucking mystery. Just answer the question, Vecchio."
"What question?" Ray squinted out of the corner of his eye, trying to figure out how much shit he was in. Stella had claimed Kowalski had a heart of marshmallow under his tough boy exterior, but right now he seemed bone-hard all the way through. "Look at you."
"Yeah," agreed Kowalski, his teeth gleaming. "Look at me." He shifted his weight, leaning in, his body hot and close against Ray's back.
Ray's pulse picked up. Kowalski would feel that, would know. Ray smiled to compensate. "I got standards. Stella, for example. Now there's a lady with class. You, on the other hand, are nowhere near my type."
Kowalski snorted, his breath hot on Ray's neck, reeking of scotch and bitterness. His fingers bit painfully into Ray's wrists. "Face it, Vecchio, your type moved back to Canada."
Ray tamped down a surge of anger. "What's the matter, Stanley? Jealous?"
And Ray got it. You never told him, did you, you stupid shit? Almost said as much, but Kowalski's grip loosened. This was the moment. Ray twisted around, jerking his hands free, sending Kowalski staggering back.
He should leave now. Should maybe even call for back-up and have the shithead arrested for assault. Ruin his career, his life. Any chance of retirement. Fuck, Kowalski deserved to go down, with what he'd said. Brawling in an alley like this.
But Ray's pride mattered more than revenge. And there was something about this Kowalski, beaten and lost, kicking out at the world like a kid who'd lost all his toys. Something there that Ray recognized. Pitied. Against his better judgment, he took a step forward. "Admit it. You got the hots for Fraser."
Kowalski's jaw clenched, and he shook his head, scattering drops of sweat onto the ground around them. "No. No way. You're crazy." He sounded hollow and bitter. Ray didn't believe him for a second.
"He loved me." The biggest truth Ray knew, in his whole life, and it was the first time he'd ever said it out loud. He felt ten feet tall and invincible. Christ, two years later, the whole situation shredded and shifted by distance and time. Both of them moved on, no regrets, still friends. Despite all of that, it made him feel a million dollars: beautiful Benton Fraser had once chosen him. Had fucked him and blown him, and sweetest of all, kissed him. Ray let his lips curve into a smile.
Kowalski slumped. "I look like I care?" he muttered, half-turning away, squinting down the alley at the traffic rushing past. Maybe seeing something Ray couldn't.
Fuck yeah. But Ray had had enough. This was no time to get his hands dirty, to kick a loser in the teeth. Besides, Fraser wouldn't like it. Fraser had partnered up with this punk. Ray tried to remember that. "Then what the hell is your problem?"
"Nothing." There, Kowalski's hands clenched into fists again, but this time he shoved them into his pockets, stepped back toward the street. Defeated. "I got no problem. Not a fucking care in the world."
"Okay then." Ray turned and started walking the other way, toward the parking lot, adrenalin coursing through his veins. And then, out of nowhere, without turning around, he heard himself say, "Come on. I'll drive you home."
There was a scuffle of garbage, sneakered footsteps behind him. Ray took his keys from his pockets, ignoring the ache in his wrists, and didn't bother to check whether Kowalski was following.