Bad things were supposed to happen in threes, he seemed to remember someone saying. Sorta like, three-time loser, three strikes and you're out. Right, so okay, so three days of rain and three days of stakeouts with Huey and Dewey, three no-shows by assorted bad guys—and Welsh climbing his ass like he enjoyed twelve hours in an unheated van with Beavis and Butthead—and Ray could almost hear the whoosh! of the bat as it headed right for the back of his head. Three strikes and you're out and he was down for the count, and as he pulled into the parking lot at his apartment he tried to think ahead to hot water and cold beer and eight hours of uninterrupted sleep.
It was late, dark already, and so of course there was no place to park that was anywhere near close to the entrance to his building. And once he was out of the car, of course he hit three out of five overflowing potholes on his way back, water squishing around his toes and rain pouring down his face, the raindrops on his eyeglasses catching the glow of the lights in the entryway and blinding him in a shimmery disco ball kind of way. The steady din of the rain faded once he got his key to work in the lock of the security door and he traded the sound of the pouring rain for the quiet hiss of steamed air from the heater. The mail was all bills as usual and, as usual, Mrs. Jarosinski stuck her head out the front door to see who was lurking in the hallway. They traded nods, the typical downtown Chicago we-don't-really-know-each-other-and-let's-keep-it-that-way sign of mutual recognition and disinterest, and then he headed up the stairs, two steps at a time, in a hurry for warm dry clothes and the Hawks.
But the sound of running water was back as he opened the door to his apartment, the distinctive ping ping ping of the plumbing under his kitchen sink, and for one terrible, wonderful moment, it was déjà vu time and he was the grand prize winner in the This is Your Life Stanley Raymond Kowalski Lottery. 'Cause he used to come home to this, all the time, and it would be Fraser in the kitchen, tunic hung carefully over the back of a chair or on a hanger from the door knob, sleeves pushed up and arms buried up to the elbows in hot, soapy water, washing a week's worth of Ray's dirty dishes the way he always did, even when Ray complained about it. Fraser, home after a long day at the Consulate and 10989B reports and picking up the Ice Queen's laundry. Fraser, before the adventure and the settling down in Canada thing, before the long cold nights and the arguments and the silence that Ray couldn't get over or under or through, and the let's stay friends speech, and the stilted good-bye in the airport lobby, and the less stilted good-bye in the airport bathroom frantic, frantic, Fraser's mouth hot and wet and eating him alive because good-bye and good luck wasn't what either of them wanted, just the only thing they both could live with. And Ray froze for just a moment, stuck somewhere between holding on to the impossible and closing his front door, and then he saw the grey wool jacket folded carefully cross the arm of the couch, and heard Vecchio shut off the water and call to him, "Kowalski, is that you?"
At which point the bubble burst, pow! Kabloowee! fantasy time, and he was just a tired cop with wet feet and a boyfriend home three days early. Ray pushed the door shut behind him, shrugging out of his own jacket and shaking off the rain. He hung the wet jacket over the hook on the back of the door and unclipped his holster. "Who the hell else would it be?" he called back, shoving the dripping hair out of his eyes and dropping his gun down next to Vecchio's on the low table by the couch. Vecchio's was newer and bigger, a state of affairs that still bothered him in an off-hand sort of way, but private paid better than city, and Glocks were the Buick Riviera of handguns. Vecchio didn't do anything small, when he could do it big.
Vecchio. Who appeared from around the corner, drying his hands on one of Ray's scraggly bits of kitchen towel, something so old that if he bothered to think about it, he could probably remember Stella picking it out, spending longer than it should've to decide whether tastefully hemmed beige terry or white butcher cloth made a stronger statement about "urban professional" status, and him rolling his eyes and trying not to knock anything off the shelves in the housewares department. Vecchio's sleeves were carefully rolled up to his elbows and his forehead was still slightly wet, like he'd been throwing water on his face. He was wearing a shirt so bright Ray thought maybe he'd have to start squinting, some shiny purple thing that would get Ray tagged as queer right out of the box, though on Vecchio it just looked expensive and kinda smarmy.
"Who else could it be, Kowalski? I could name seven or eight certified psychos of your acquaintance without breaking a sweat―" Vecchio stopped and looked at him. "What?"
"What what?" He shook his arms, watching the tiny drops of water fly off the tips of his fingers, letting his irritation roll off his shoulders like the raindrops, and leaned against the wall to tug off his boots.
"I don't know, you look kinda funny." Vecchio crossed his arms. "Like you just lost your best friend or something."
And wow, didn't that just ding right where it hurt. "I'm cold. I'm wet. I'm hungry." He started ticking off the points on his fingers. "I just spent twelve hours in an unheated van with the Duck Boys, for which Welsh should be making me a saint for leaving 'em alive and unharmed, and should not be ripping me a new asshole 'cause the bad guys didn't get the fucking memo and show up when they were supposed to and thereby avoided getting their asses arrested. And you got my towel so I'm dripping all over the floor here—"
And Vecchio just looked at him while he ranted, like he was gonna give Ray plenty of room to back off from being a complete asshole, then shook his head. "Christ, you're pissy today," he said, then grinned and threw the towel at Ray's head. Ray ducked and caught it mid-air, finding a smile to match Vecchio's somewhere between the pitch and the catch, and ran the towel over his face and hair as he started moving again, right up to the counter, right into Vecchio, and the shiny purple shirt that felt as smooth under his hands as it looked. Vecchio held up his hands and started protesting, something like "wait, wait, wait" and "you're all wet, Kowalski" and "damn it, this shirt is silk", but Ray noticed Vecchio's hands were speaking a whole other language, more like "yes, yes, yes" and "nice to meet you, let's get naked", sliding up and down his back before slipping under the edge of his wet shirt and onto wet skin, where they pressed dry and hot against his spine.
"You're supposed to be in Atlantic City." Vecchio tasted like cheap airplane scotch and peanuts.
"I was in Atlantic City. And then Cincinnati and then St. Louis and then Memphis." Vecchio did look tired. "He ditched the bimbo girlfriend and ran. We didn't nail his ass until he reached Pensacola."
"He still have the money?"
"Nah. Well, some of it. What he didn't lose in the slots in Jersey. Not enough to make up for chasing him through five states." One of Vecchio's hands settled on the back of his neck, warm and heavy, thumb rubbing softly at the base of his skull. "You look like someone's stray dog, Kowalski."
"Yeah, and you look like someone's pimp, what else is new? I don't have any food," he said, stepping back, his words muffled as he tugged the wet t-shirt over his head. "I wasn't expecting you back 'til Wednesday."
"You never have any food." Vecchio trailed a couple of fingers down the center of Ray's chest, backing him up against the counter, and Ray shivered, not from the cold. "We can order pizza."
Vecchio kissed liked he dressed, all heat and bright colors and extravagance, heavy wet sweep of his tongue in Ray's mouth. Like an Imax moment with Dolby sound, like kissing Ray was do or die, life or death, but there was all the time in the world to do it. And somehow Vecchio's knee was wedged between his legs and Ray was holding onto Vecchio by his belt, gripping hard and rubbing up against his thigh. In between kisses he could feel Vecchio's harsh breath, wet against his cheek, and that was turning him on as much as Vecchio’s hand, headed south and in the mood for a party.
"You want something, Vecchio?" he asked, hitching his leg up a bit, feeling the rain-heavy denim of his jeans tug at his dick.
"What do you mean, do I want something—who's humping whose leg here, Kowalski?" Vecchio was laughing a little now, and sweating, the smell of his cologne getting stronger. And Ray shut him up, just took over—kissed Vecchio back and swallowed his laugh, eating his mouth and shoving up against him, pushing him back, hands on Vecchio's face where the bristles from his five o'clock shadow were only a little shorter than the hair on the back of his head. Vecchio froze for a sec, the way he always did, and Ray just waited and then, yeah, there it was, the way Vecchio's spine just seemed to melt like snow cones in July, soft and sweet as warm toffee, and Ray felt it, and felt the zing he always got when that happened, that hot sweet clench right under his balls.
It didn't happen the first time him and Vecchio fucked, that slow, sweet melting, or even anytime soon after that. At first Ray didn't think it ever would happen—like maybe they were both just scratching an itch and that was all there was to it. Which was fine, he wasn't complaining or anything, 'cause he certainly had the itch and Vecchio was better at scratching then he ever expected. And then he caught Vecchio watching him one time, pretending like he wasn't, and at that point he realized they were both waiting for something to happen, Vecchio was waiting for him to show his hand just like he was waiting for Vecchio, and for awhile then it became a competition, a game, because there was more to it than an itch, it was more than just scratching, but he wasn't gonna be the one who copped to it first. If feeling Vecchio get out of bed in the middle of the night, watching him get dressed in the dark, sometimes made him want to say things that sounded like "stay" and "I want you here," then thinking about the days and weeks after he got back from Canada usually killed that impulse pretty quick.
Because he'd been here before—been here, done that. Twice, if anyone was asking. He'd gone after the thing he wanted, the person he wanted, with both hands and all his heart, and yeah, he'd gotten them for awhile, and for awhile it was wonderful, it was great, it was the best, but then it stopped working, both times it stopped working, and nothing Ray could do could fix it. And Ray wasn't sure he could do that again because…well, because if losing Stella hadn't put him in the ground, losing Fraser pretty much did. Because damn it, he'd taken another chance because it was Fraser, Fraser, who was pretty much right all the time about everything. Everything except, it turned out, the one thing Ray really needed him to be right about, and if Fraser could be wrong about something so important, if he and Fraser couldn't make it work, then what the fuck chance did he and Vecchio have at getting it right? So if Ray was a little gun-shy this time, well, Vecchio was just gonna have to suck it up and pick up the slack himself. And maybe Vecchio did understand, maybe, 'cause one day he pulled away from Ray right in the middle of it, just grabbed Ray's jaw and looked at him, long and hard, and then he kissed Ray again and that's when it happened, that's when Vecchio just melted under his hands, under his mouth, with that soft soft tender smile he had that reached down and grabbed Ray by the nuts, and not so long after that Vecchio said "hey, we're good together, Kowalski", and Ray relaxed a little bit after that, and gave him a key, and Vecchio started leaving his clothes in Ray's closet, and they were a regular thing Wednesday and Friday nights.
"Ah, fuck, Kowalski..." Hot breath in his ear, and Vecchio was really melting now, slip-sliding, and Ray backed him up a few more steps to the dining room table, where Vecchio grabbed the edge like maybe he was about to go down, only Ray beat him to it, going to his knees and palming Vecchio's dick through those oh-so-snazzy pants of his. Where Vecchio's dick wasn't doing anything like melting, just the opposite in fact, getting hard, hard, harder against Ray's hand.
It didn't make sense to him sometimes, this thing with him and Vecchio. It wasn't like one look at Vecchio had him dreaming of blow jobs, like with Fraser, his pulse pretty much going thumpity-thump-thump-thump every time he looked at him. Buttermilk was supposedly healthy, but along with some sleepless nights Vegas had given Vecchio an extra ten pounds he was always complaining about and which he mostly hid behind vests these days. The hair was a lost cause—there was no hair, Vecchio didn't have hair, just stubble on the back of his head—and you could hang a bookshelf off his nose. And it wasn't just Vecchio's looks that didn't jive—his taste in cars sucked, he hated Ray's music, and he'd married Stella, his Stella, and left her in a bowling alley in Florida. They disagreed about sports ("hockey sucks"), clothes ("suits suck"), and where to order pizza and what to put on it. They were nothing alike, they had nothing in common—in fact, sometimes Ray thought that if someone set out to make two people as different as possible, they might have come up with him and Vecchio.
Except...except he fit with Vecchio, in ways he'd never fit with Fraser. Or Stella, come to think of it. Not like Vecchio was everything he wanted—hell, sometimes Vecchio was nothing like what he wanted, sometimes Vecchio needed to wear a big fucking sign that said "Not What Ray Kowalski Wants, No Way, No How."
It was just that, a lot of time, Vecchio was just what he needed.
Vecchio's hips were starting to buck against the heat and pressure of Ray's mouth, and Ray tilted his head back as he unbuckled and unzipped. Vecchio's eyes were on him, narrowed, watching, and Ray watched him back as Vecchio's thumb dragged across his mouth, pushing against his lower lip, pushing inside and pressing down on his tongue, withdrawing to paint his mouth with his own saliva.
"You wanna blow job, Vecchio?" he asked, sliding his fingers inside Vecchio's pants, feeling Vecchio's cock jerk against his hand.
And Vecchio seemed to consider this, thumb still tracing the edges of Ray's mouth, and then he took a deep breath, put his hand over Ray's and pulled him to his feet. "I want a shower," he finally said. "Trust me, I need a shower. And I want some food, and I want some wine, and maybe even some candles, and then we'll get horizontal, Kowalski, and you can suck anything you want."
And fuck it all if Vecchio couldn't make him shake, rattle and roll when he talked like that, with his eyes doing that droopy sexy Italian thing and his voice dropping an octave or two. And Vecchio kissed him again, big and bold and wet, and when they drew apart Ray headed for the phone.
"I'll call for the pizza."
Vecchio pulled his tie off and started unbuttoning his shirt. "Get anchovies. And olives."
Ray picked up the phone. "Anchovies suck."
"You suck, Kowalski."
"Yeah, well, fuck you, Vecchio." He started to dial, turning to call after Vecchio as he retreated down the hallway. "And don't use all the hot water—I been dreaming about a hot shower since noon."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah..." The bathroom door closed.
Sandor answered the phone, which meant it must be slow and Tony was in the back, watching the fights.
"Hey, Sandor—I need a pizza."
"And here I thought you were going for the record, Ray. What's it been, twelve, fourteen hours? What'll it be, the usual?"
He noticed the light blinking on his answering machine, one new message. "Yeah, but throw some olives and anchovies on it again. And I want these to be anchovies I can actually see this time, Sandor, and I'm not talking with a fucking microscope here."
"What's with the anchovies all of a sudden, Ray—since when you like anchovies?"
"Since when I gotta answer a survey to get a pizza? And put some extra cheese on it, too."
"Jeez, touchy, touchy. Okay, we got the usual here, plus anchovies, olives, extra cheese. You want anything else?"
"Yeah, give me some salad with that, and stop at Minski's on the way over and pick up a bottle of something."
"Ray, you know Tony don't like it when I do that―"
"Yeah, yeah, blah, blah, blah. Get a union. And ask Norm to recommend something this time—last time we turned green drinking whatever the hell it was you brought."
"Hey, that was my mother's favorite, god rest her sweet soul."
"Heh. That explains a lot. How long?"
"Uh...forty minutes, give or take?"
"Great. And knock first this time, okay?" He hung up in the middle of Sandor's protest about 'one time, Kowalski, it was one time' and pressed the play button on the machine.
− pause, during which Ray's heart took a dive in the direction of his feet and Fraser figured out that he'd gotten the machine and not Ray himself. He listened to Fraser clear his throat −
"Ah. Well. Ray. This is..."
− another pause while Fraser grappled with the Ben-Benton-Fraser-Constable Fraser dilemma −
− Vecchio started singing in the shower, some Franco-American Dean Martin thing, and his voice filled the next pause on the message machine. Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck and Ray leaned forward against the counter, head down, feeling the punch and roll of his gut and that all over cold fuck I wish this was happening to someone else feeling. This wasn't the lottery—this was the opposite of the lottery, this was fucking tax day, and his return was late and wasn't any refund coming, and oh, by the way, Mr. Kowalski, did we mention that whole penalties thing? −
"I, ah, I just wanted to...to 'say hello,' as I suppose you would say. I am...quite well. Matters here are, well, very much the same as when you—as you would remember, although Constable MacNeil decided not to take the transfer to..."
− fuck, fuck, fuck, c'mon Fraser, get to it, whatever this is, whatever it is you gotta say, spit it out, spit it out, spit it out. Ray closed his eyes and realized they were closed, and opened them again −
"...Edmonton, so he is still here, along with Constable Aumanil. Both of them wanted me to send you greetings. Darlene Annahatak had her baby and the naming ceremony was today, and I was reminded of last year, when you were..."
− another pause, longer this time, and when Fraser spoke again his voice had dropped, enough so that Ray bit the side of his mouth and punched up the volume a notch −
"I'm sorry, Ray. I'm, I'm not very good at this. I..."
− fuck, fuck, fuck, breathe, Kowalski, breathe −
"...miss you. I. I."
− shorter pause and then Fraser's voice was picking up again, louder, faster, stronger, as Fraser stuffed all his feelings back in that foot locker of his, again −
"Forgive me, Ray, this was a bad idea. It's just the slow part of season, as I'm sure you recall, and all this inactivity has made me...maudlin. I regret inflicting my mood upon you. I just wanted to let you know that things were fine here and pass on the news about Ms. Annahatak's baby...
− blah, blah, blah, and Fraser was winding it up fast now, wham, bam, sayonara, adios, and hey, it's been nice chatting. Ray smelled Vecchio before he felt him, sharp, astringent smell of soap and aftershave, and Vecchio's arm slid up under his, around his chest, holding tight and almost trapping the sound that was clawing its way up from his gut, up, up, up, into his chest, pushing, pushing, into his throat, and Ray set his teeth against it, bit down hard and almost stopped it, just a high thin sound escaping from between his lips. And Vecchio held him tighter at the noise, grabbed Ray's chin and pulled his face around to kiss him, hard, pushing his tongue into Ray's mouth and kissing him, kissing, kissing. It was messy and awkward, and his mouth was slick with Vecchio and the angle hurt his neck, and Ray just groaned, melted, let go and leaned back into Vecchio, sucked hard on his tongue. Moved as Vecchio turned him, pushed him, held him up against the wall, arms going around him hard and sure, and Ray's hands scrabbled for something to hold onto but Vecchio didn't have a shirt on, didn't have any hair, didn't have any taste in cars or music, and finally Ray's fingers just latched onto Vecchio's shoulders, digging in hard.
And Fraser was on his second or third apology now, segueing into the whole polite how were Ray's parents doing thing, moving on to a stilted 'give my regards to Ray Vecchio and his family' thing, and Ray felt Vecchio stiffen at that and knew that it had to hurt, the stiffness and the third party regards, 'cause used to be they were tight, Vecchio and Fraser, used to be they were best friends, buddies, once upon another lifetime. And then Vecchio's tongue was on his face again, licking his eyes and his cheek and on down to his neck, where he started biting, and Ray groaned again, loud and long, and all he could think was "harder, harder." Maybe he was saying it too because his pants were open and he wasn’t sure how that happened, and Vecchio's hand was on his dick, stripping it fast and hard, and Ray was jerking, jerking, pushing into that grip and biting his lip and banging his head against Vecchio's shoulder. Vecchio shifted again and there was a sudden pain at the back of his head, and he swore as Vecchio's hand gripped his hair and pulled his head back, and Vecchio was talking again, fast and low, and Ray tried to concentrate but it was hard with Fraser's voice in his head and Vecchio's hand on his dick, but Vecchio was shaking him now and saying 'open your eyes, damn you, Kowalski, open your eyes,' and Ray did, and all he could see was Vecchio, eyes narrow and hot and burning into his, and Vecchio's face was flushed and there was something ugly, something like pain twisting his mouth.
And finally, finally, the Fraser politeness machine was running out of script and he was saying good-bye, and now Vecchio was muttering "love you, love you" into his ear and Ray was coming, coming, thick, obscene spurts that filled Vecchio's palm and spilled over to slick his chest. And then the room was quiet again, except for the soft whirl of the tape as it automatically rewound, and the series of clicks as the machine reset itself, the sound of Vecchio's breathing, harsh and quick next to his ear. And Ray's face was wet where Vecchio touched him, kissed him, and he was chanting "fuck, fuck, fuck" into Vecchio's skin, and he couldn’t stop, couldn’t stop, and his mouth kept moving even when he stopped making any sound.
[ space for author's notes ]
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