Lyric: Isn’t it hard sometimes? Isn’t it lonely?
How I still hang around here, there’s nothing to hold me
Major beta thanks to Queue for - as ever - reigning in my commas, pushing me towards choosing a tense, and making me show her that Vecchio is queer for Kowalski. FURTHER beta thanks to strangecobwebs for saying yes to my desperate and off-putting last-minute plea for help. You are both rockstars, and not in the Paul Gross way. ♥
The nice thing about owning your own bowling alley is that you can drink for free at your very own bar. Ray Vecchio had a stool at the corner of the bar where he sat and did the books and drank the good beer that he kept on tap. Sid, the bartender, kept his beer fresh and didn't bother him beyond that.
From his perch in the corner, Ray watches the old-timers bowl every Tuesday and Saturday night. It's a group of old guys who have been coming here longer than Ray himself has been alive. They come early in the evening, and they take their bowling seriously. They all have their own bowling balls, shined up all nice and buffed one last time for good luck before the first roll. They come in wearing nice pants and button-down shirts and some of them even have hats, old-timer hats, the brims thin with decades of wear.
They come in quiet enough, meet up with each other. Shake hands, maybe get a drink, and then it's all business. The way they go at bowling, it's like an art. Maybe even like poetry. Ray watches as the first ball gets rolled, and it's a strike, right off the bat. These guys are good. They make it look easy, like it's a part of who they are. Like the quick steps up to the line, the bend and the twist and the ball shooting smoothly up the alley is just the way things go, and they know from the second the ball leaves their fingers if it's a good shot.
Ray watches it all from his worn stool at the corner of the bar. After a while, he loosens his tie, shrugs out of his jacket, and gestures at Sid for a fresh beer. The paperwork lies neglected on the bar in front of him, as he gets lost watching the stately old men doing what they do best.
After they finish up the game and head out, Ray turns his back on the alley and switches from beer to scotch.
Ray slides off the stool at the end of the night and follows Sid to the door, his feet steady even though his head isn't. He lets Sid out and then locks the door against the humid night - it's fall and Ray can't get used to the heat.
He goes behind the bar and dims the lights on the lanes, then pours himself another drink. His head aches a little and he's sweating, even with the air conditioning up high. This building seems to echo with noise even when it's quiet like this, late at night, and Ray sips his scotch slow and thinks about cold winter nights.
The day he gets the divorce papers delivered from Stella, he stays too late and drinks too much and has to leave his car at the alley and walk home through the dark, muggy night. His shirt's stuck to his back with sweat by the time he gets home - home to an empty house, so dark out front it takes him three tries to get the key in the lock, because of course he hadn't turned the porch light on that morning, and there's no one there waiting for him. When he walks in, he closes his eyes for a second, imagining it still smells like her, like perfume and hair spray and just - her, even after she's been gone for months now.
He walks directly to the shelf of booze in the kitchen and pours himself another scotch that he doesn't need.
He leans unsteadily against the counter in the kitchen. The lights are off, but the goddamn sky is so clear that the moon shines in through the window over the sink like it's some sort of grayish daytime. You didn't even get real nighttime in Florida. You got nothing real in Florida. You got pink brick and fake sand and none of the bodies were anything close to how God made 'em: they were full of silicone or like beef jerky, one or the other. You got heat when it was supposed to be cold and hail when it was supposed to be hot and he's all fucked up, all so goddamn mixed up here.
It's autumn here in Florida and the leaves aren't changing.
What the fuck is he doing here?
The phone rings as he reaches for the bottle again. He stares at it, then at the clock on the wall. He can't bring it into focus, but it had been pretty damn late when he left the alley. Too late for phone calls, and fuck, he can't remember the last time the damn thing rang.
He picks up the phone with a weird sense of whimsy, because who the fuck would be calling him?
There's a long pause, and then, "Let me talk to Stella." Abrupt. Rude. Rough.
Ray snorts into the phone. "Right."
Stella is in Chicago, along with Ray's old life, his family, and most - if not all - of what's left of his dignity. Kowalski's a real asshole, huh? He thinks this is funny.
"Put her on the phone, asshole." Kowalski slurs the last word. Just the tiniest bit, but it's there, and Ray grins, suddenly, into the darkness of the kitchen. Stella's been back in Chicago two months, maybe, and Kowalski doesn't have a fucking clue.
"Some detective you are," Ray says. The receiver feels cool against his face, and he shuts his eyes for a few seconds, and listens to the quiet on the line. Kowalski is processing, and Ray has time. He's pleased, actually. Pretty damn fucking pleased. He's waiting for the penny to drop, and Kowalski doesn’t disappoint.
"Son of a bitch." He's breathing harsh down the line, and Ray, against his eyelids, is picturing Chicago's crowded skyline, and Kowalski crammed in his tiny apartment, drunk and depressed and calling looking for his ex-wife. "Son of a fucking bitch," Kowalski says again, and the line goes dead.
Ray, tired all at once, thumbs the phone off and places it carefully on the counter. He walks upstairs to the bedroom, where the room is dark and the sheets are cold and the curtains are too sheer to block out even the moonlight.
The air conditioning is on too high and he's shivering as he falls asleep. It's not till morning that he thinks to wonder what the fuck Kowalski is doing in Chicago instead of Canada.
It doesn't take much. Ray's a smart guy, and he can add two and two and come up with Kowalski alone in Chicago. Why the hell else would Kowalski be drunk-dialing Stella unless his whole perfect fucking life way up north had fallen completely apart?
Ray wants to feel vindicated in some way. Instead, he just feels depressed. If Fraser can't make it work (even with an asshole like Kowalski, Ray feels that Fraser should have persevered), then who the hell else in the world can? If Fraser had failed - at love. Sex. Romance. Bowling. Whatever. - how the hell did a normal guy like Ray stand a goddamn chance?
The phone doesn't ring again for another three days. This time it's earlier, maybe around nine, and Ray's at home. The caller ID showed a Chicago exchange. "What," he says flatly as he picks up.
"What happened?" Kowalski's tone is demanding. Ray leans his head back against the sofa.
"Kowalski," he says, and he gives his voice that soft, deliberate tone. "What the fuck business is that of yours?"
"It's my business." Ray can hear Kowalski suck in a breath. "It's completely my business."
"Yeah?" Ray keeps his voice gentle. "Does Stella know that?"
The phone slamming down is loud in his ear, and Ray feels his lips spread into a wide, humorless smile as he sets the receiver down softly and laces his fingers behind his head. Maybe it's twisted, but that felt like a win. She may have divorced both of them, but at least Ray knows where she is.
The weeks drift by and Ray circles through his not-life down here. The alley, the books. Drinking, watching the old guys play string after string, knocking down every pin almost always and turning away with that stoic, sure look on their faces, like a strike was never not an option.
Ray goes to the alley every day and comes home late every night, his tie loose, his head dizzy, so tired he thinks he'll fall down. But every time he lies down on their bed, the too-soft pillow still smells like Stella's expensive perfume to him and the moonlight - so different from the moon in the Chicago sky - shines too brightly in the window, hurting his eyes. He can't sleep here. The only time he's ever been able to sleep here was when he'd been able to turn over and bury his face in Stella's shoulder, her hair drifting soft over his cheek.
Ray comes home late enough that it takes him three tries and dropping the whole ring twice to get the key in the door. The phone is ringing insistently when he comes in, and it keeps ringing while he locks the door behind him, takes off his jacket, and slides his loosened tie the rest of the way open. He leaves it dangling and it gets in the way of his hands as he unsteadily pours himself another drink that he really doesn't need.
Finally he grabs the phone, sitting down on the couch and managing to hit the button. "Did you talk to her?" he says, which isn't at all what he meant to say. He was going to say something scathing, something really nasty, that would bring Kowalski down a whole bunch of notches, let him know that Ray wasn't there to be his punching bag, that any issues Kowalski had with Fraser, or Stella, or with Ray himself - god, the guy was a mess, wasn't he? - he was going to have to deal with himself.
But Ray has no control over his tongue - how much has he had to drink, anyway? He'd gotten good at keeping his mouth shut in Vegas, no matter how much he had. Kowalski's breathing is harsh on the line, and Ray slouches back further, one part of his brain intently listening for the sounds of Chicago in the background.
Finally, "Yeah," Kowalski says, thickly. He's been drinking too; no surprise. "I talked to her."
"I -" Ray can't get the words out; everything's mixed up in his head, and there are too many questions and not enough answers. Did you ask her about me? Did she tell you about us? Did she kiss you? Did you fuck her? Finally - "Is - is she okay?"
There's a long pause, and Kowalski says, faintly, like he'd let the phone slip, "She was fine. Good." Ray hears him take a swallow of whatever he was drinking. "Better than me." He gives a harsh laugh, and adds, "Better than us."
"No surprise there," Ray says, staring down into the scotch in his own glass where he held it, resting, tilting, on his thigh. "Did she -" God, what the fuck is he doing, about to ask if she had said anything about him? He's not going to ask Kowalski; he doesn't want to know that badly. He doesn't want to know anything that badly, and he takes a sip of scotch to keep his mouth busy, concentrating on the burn as it goes down.
Another long silence on the line, and then Kowalski's voice, stronger now into the phone, says steadily, "She didn't say - anything. Just that it didn't work out. You went your own ways. That she was good, and you were good… I take it you haven't talked to her in a while, huh?"
"Not since she left." Ray shakes his head alone in the empty room in the empty house. The ocean is rolling right outside his window, but he can't hear the sound over the persistent hum of the air conditioning. His head hurts, and he lifts his glass unsteadily, holds it to his temple. It doesn't help at all.
"Right." Kowalski's breath rasps down the line. "Was she happy? There? With you?"
Ray blinks into the dark. Asshole. What a fucking asshole. "Would I be alone here in this fucking - Jesus. You know what?" Would he be explaining this to her other ex-husband if she had been goddamned happy? "Fuck you," he says, tired. "Just - fuck you.
"I didn't mean - aw, fuck this shit." Kowalski slams the phone down and the buzz of the dial tone is loud in Ray's ear. He thumbs the phone off and drops it on the couch. He leans his head back and shuts his eyes. The room spins softly around him and he hardly even notices he's crying.
It's only maybe a week later that the phone rings, about ten at night. Ray eyes the liquor cabinet for a long moment before picking up.
Kowalski is on the line, messed up, bad, worse than any call before this, or maybe it's just that Ray is sober and can hear it this time around. "I left him," he keeps saying, like he's trying to prove something, to Ray or to himself, or fuck, maybe to Fraser. Like if he says it out loud, he's owning it, proving that he did the right thing. "I left him and I came back here and fuck, Vecchio, I just - "
Ray wanders to the picture window with the phone pressed against his ear and watches the waves outside, thinking about Benny alone up in some cabin in the wilds of Canada. He thinks about what it had been like with Kowalski up there with Fraser, the two of them alone, crammed together, trying like hell to make it work. He leans one arm up against the glass, presses his forehead against it as he peers out into the darkness. "I left him, too," he says softly.
"Yeah, but you had a good reason." Kowalski's voice is harsh. Broken.
Ray sighs. "I thought I did at the time." He'd thought he could come home and step right back into his life. He grins humorlessly to himself. He hadn't really thought that one through.
They're both quiet for a minute, and then Ray says, "Did you? Have a reason, I mean?"
"Yeah." Kowalski's voice is muffled. "No. I don't know."
"Well," Ray says gravely, "So long as you're sure."
Kowalski laughs a little, hollowly, and he doesn't say goodbye when he hangs up.
Ray got to the alley later than usual Wednesday night. The books are still spread out on the bar and he's barely touched his drink by the time they close up. He dims the lights over the lanes one by one, pushing down the lever with the side of his hand, leaving just the bar area lit, before following Sid to the door to lock it up behind him. When he pushes the heavy glass door open to let Sid out, the hot, humid air hits him like a smack in the face, and standing right outside, with a duffle bag slung over his shoulder, is Kowalski.
Ray just blinks stupidly at him.
Sid looks slowly between the two of them, like he's afraid they're getting ready to rumble or something. "Boss, you need me to hang around?"
"Nah," Ray says automatically, not able to look away, because Kowalski is still standing in the dark on the hot cement outside his bowling alley. Ray shakes himself, straightening up, pulling the cuffs on his shirt down neatly, and giving Kowalski a stare like he learned in Vegas. He waits for Sid to walk away before holding the door open and standing back a little. "Well? You're here, aren't you?"
Kowalski face goes from uneasy to belligerent and he pushes his way inside, brushing against Ray with his duffle bag. Ray carefully closes and locks the door behind him, then turns around. Kowalski has dropped his bag to the floor and is wiping his forehead with the hem of his t-shirt. Classy.
"Air conditioning feels good." He looks up at Ray. "Why the fuck did you move down to this godforsaken place? It feels like hell on earth out there."
Ray tucks his hands in his pockets carefully. "I liked the scenery."
Kowalski snorts. "Right. Scenery. Gotcha." He looks around. "Nice place you got here." He turns back and looks at Ray. "Bowling, huh?"
Ray shrugs. "It seemed like a good idea at the time."
Kowalski cracks a grin. "Yeah, I bet it did."
"Kowalski." Jesus. "What the fuck are you doing here?"
Kowalski shrugs eloquently, looking him right in the eye. "I needed a drink."
Man, this guy is a piece of work. Ray eyes him for a minute before rocking back on his heels and tilting his head. "My bowling alley happens to have a bar."
"Yeah." Kowalski looks pleased. "I thought it might."
They start off with beers but switch to scotch pretty quickly. They talk about bowling and they talk about the heat and they talk about how hard it sucks to get a cab from the airport in Florida. They don't talk about Chicago or Canada or Fraser or Stella or anything that even comes close to any of that. It had been easy over the phone, but here, now, face to face, it's impossible to talk about the only things they have in common.
The only things Ray knows are that Kowalski is here, in Florida, in the bowling alley with Ray, that they are well on their way to getting truly and meaningfully drunk, and that Ray has not clue one as to how Kowalski ended up here.
After the second drink, he asks the question again. "What are you doing here, Kowalski?"
And Kowalski looks down at the glass between his hands, spinning it slowly round and round on the bar, damp with condensation. "I took this cab, I got on this plane," he says, a half-smile on his face.
Ray stares at him. "What are you talking about?"
Kowalski looks up at Ray, who's leaning against the bar, sleeves rolled up now, cufflinks in his pocket, and gives a slow shrug. "You got me - I'm just faking it."
"Right," Ray murmurs, and pours them each another drink.
None of it makes any fucking sense, but very little in his life does, and as he gets older, he realizes he doesn't so much care. Kowalski walks back from the men's room, only slightly unsteady, looking down, still fumbling at his belt.
Ray watches him, his eyelids heavy, at that level of drunk where he feels super-focused, like everything is falling into place, like everything is making sense, like he can impose order on the whole damn universe if only he can stay awake long enough and keep drinking.
Fraser's in Canada and Stella's in Chicago and Kowalski is here, drunk on Ray's scotch, and looking like the closest thing he's seen to home in a long time.
Kowalski looks up at him, and Ray slouches back on his barstool, leaning his arms back against the bar, drink hanging easily from one hand. Kowalski's brow wrinkles for a second, then clears, and his hands fall away from his belt, leaving it undone and dangling open. He moves towards Ray, and Ray feels his breath catch in his chest, but he doesn't show a thing, just lifts his glass to his mouth and takes a slow sip.
Kowalski is close, now, standing right in front of him. When he edges between Ray's spread legs, Ray's body gets tense and his mouth goes dry. "Kowalski," he says, his voice tight. "You need to just - " Back off, he's going to say, but the words catch in his throat.
Kowalski slides his hands up Ray's thighs and stops, tilting his head to the side. "Why are you here, Vecchio?" he says softly.
Ray shakes his head, confused, mesmerized by the catch of light against Kowalski's face from the neon sign still lit over the lanes, glowing letters spelling out B O W L. "'Cause I married your wife," he says hoarsely.
Kowalski's shaking his head slowly. "That's not a good reason."
"It never was," Ray says inanely, and then Kowalski's kissing him, hungry and lost and hard up against him, between his legs and pressing forward like he's going to shove Ray back onto the bar and take him right there. It's fucked up and it's wrong but nothing's been right in Ray's whole goddamn life for so long that he can't seem to stop.
They kiss, hard and wet and messy up against the bar until Ray fists his hand in Kowalski's hair and yanks his head back. Kowalski grins at him, mockingly. "What, Vecchio, you don't do this?" He shoves his hips forward, his cock pressing against Ray's crotch. "I do this. Stella must have told you that."
Ray doesn't do this. He's never done this. But he just looks at Kowalski, breathing fast. "Stella never told me anything." He tightens his hold on Kowalski's hair. Kowalski's eyes flutter shut, and he moans softly. "Come on," Ray murmurs, watching the play of light against Kowalski's face. "Let's get out of here."
"Yeah." Kowalski's eyes are dark. "Yeah."
Ray stays where he is for a handful of seconds, before he loosens his hold and pushes Kowalski gently away. Kowalski just looks at him, wiping his mouth with the back of his wrist. Ray takes a breath and goes behind the bar to shut off the rest of the lights. He hesitates, then grabs another bottle of scotch to take home with them. He's pretty sure he's not drunk enough for this.
The short walk back to the house is a blur of heat and sweat and Kowalski pushing into his space, his hand pressing against Ray where his shirt is sticking to his back, his shoulder bumping up against Ray's as he walks with his easy, rolling gait, his duffle bag slung over his shoulder.
Ray poured them drinks when they got back to the house. Kowalski wanders around with sharp eyes, picking up the knick-knacks Stella had chosen and putting them back down in the wrong spots. Ray leans heavily in the doorway with the two drinks in his hands and watches Kowalski with his shabby jeans and his disheveled hair, barefoot, his boots kicked off in the doorway, in this house with its soft carpet and faded pastels. There's an odd urgency in the pit of Ray's stomach, and he can't stop thinking about Kowalski's mouth.
Kowalski half-turns to him from peering out the picture window. He'd put his glasses on when he started poking around and he looks ridiculously young. "Nice place you got here," he said dryly. He spotted the drinks and walked over to Ray, taking one out of his hand. "This sure as hell ain't Chicago."
Ray has to swallow before he can respond. "It sure isn't."
Kowalski glances around. "Is there more?"
Ray tilts his head toward the stairs, and Kowalski gives him a swift, cocky smile, and pads up the softly carpeted stairs with his drink in hand. Ray looks around the room, which is quiet with Kowalski gone, everything nudged out of place. He finishes his drink and makes a new one, bringing it with him as he goes upstairs.
The light is on in their - his - bedroom, spilling out into the hallway. When he goes in, Kowalski is sprawled back on the bed, his t-shirt pushed up and his jeans undone. His drink is melting slowly on the bedside table, and he's watching Ray with lidded eyes. "Took you long enough," he says, his hand running over the skin of his stomach slowly, back and forth.
Ray takes a long sip of his drink before setting it down on the dresser and he can't take his eyes off Kowalski as he takes off his shoes and socks, and unbuttons his shirt the rest of the way. He leaves it hanging open as he crawls onto the bed. He's breathing harder than he should and the air conditioning is blowing coolly across his back. Kowalski slides one hot hand up his side and under his shirt, pressing against his back and dragging him close. Ray moves on top of him and kisses him again. Kowalski arches up and presses his tongue into Ray's mouth.
They kiss until Ray can't breathe, until his cock is hard, so fucking hard, and he has to drag his mouth away, kiss the stubble on Kowalski's jaw, the curve of his throat as he pushes his head back.
"Christ," Ray mutters against Kowalski's ear, as Kowalski's hands move over him, sliding down his hips and tugging at him rhythmically. "You - "
"Yeah." Kowalski winds himself around Ray, panting against his cheek, mouthing his ear, sinking his teeth into his neck so good that it makes Ray groan out loud. He grabs Kowalski's shoulders and shoves him down, kissing him and struggling to get his own pants open at the same time. Kowalski tears his mouth away, bending himself at an improbable angle to tug his t-shirt off, lifting his hips to shove the baggy jeans off, and then he's naked, sprawled there in the middle of the rumpled bed that Ray and Stella had shared for six months and three weeks.
Ray's breathless, unable to take his eyes off of Kowalski's lean body, his hard cock. Ray's own pants are half off, and he's so hard he can't even think. He pushes Kowalski back onto the bed again, and Kowalski moans. "Fuck me," he says urgently, panting and biting against Ray's lips. "Vecchio, fuck me."
Ray is dizzy, so turned on and hot that he can't even focus his eyes. Kowalski is rocking up under him, and Christ - if he was any less drunk, no way he'd do this. If he was any more drunk, no way he could do this. As it is, his cock is hard and throbbing, and all he can do is swallow and grasp Kowalski's hips. "Turn over," he says thickly, and Kowalski's eyes open, give him a long, hot look before rolling over and pushing himself up on his hands and knees.
When Ray sinks inside Kowalski, after Kowalski's muffled instructions about lube and condoms and, "Careful, god, Vecchio, slow," Ray has to close his eyes and breathe shallowly, trying to keep it together, keep control here. Kowalski's ass is hot and tight and nothing at all like fucking a woman. Nothing at all like fucking Stella. Kowalski's head is bowed low, and he's moaning as Ray pushes all the way in and stays there, can only stay there, has to hang onto Kowalski's hips so tight he's sure he's leaving bruises.
"Vecchio." Kowalski's voice is tight. "Come on. You've gotta -" He shoves back a little, and Ray gasps, and thrusts forward, shoving Kowalski down onto his elbows. "Yeah," Kowalski breathes. "Like that."
"Yeah?" Ray swallows and pulls out, then thrusts back in hard. He and Kowalski both moan at that. "Like that?"
Kowalski's hands fist in the comforter. "Do it," he pants.
Ray does it, fucking Kowalski as best he can, sliding into him over and over until he can't take it anymore, until Kowalski is jerking and coming all over the comforter Stella had picked out, until Ray is going to die, stroke out, if he doesn't come, now, now. He curves himself over Kowalski's sweaty back, hanging on, driving into him again and again, until he makes one last thrust and comes, crying out muffled against the back of Kowalski's neck.
He doesn't even remember falling asleep, but when he wakes up, dim early-morning light is filtering in through the filmy bedroom curtains, and his ex-wife's ex-husband is curled up beside him, head buried under the covers, only the top of his spiky head showing.
Ray has a headache and his mouth tastes like something died in it. He pushes himself up on one elbow, every part of his body aching, and runs a hand over his face. He wants coffee. He wants aspirin. He wants to know why the hell Kowalski came to Florida.
By the time Kowalski gets up. Ray's sitting in his robe at the kitchen table, reading the paper, on his second cup of coffee and feeling much more human. Kowalski is wearing last night's jeans and no shirt, his eyes not quite open and he goes straight for the coffeemaker. Ray silently pushes the cream and sugar at him when he sits down at the table. It takes half a cup for Kowalski to look up at Ray, squinting in the dazzling morning sunshine pouring through the window. "Is it always like this here?"
"Every morning," Ray says, turning another page in the paper.
Kowalski grunts. "It sucks."
Ray looks up at him. "I know." And - he does know. He hates it here. He hates the alley, he hates the sand. He hates the sunshine and the heat and the air conditioning and all the washed-out, pallid splendor of life in southern Florida. He feels that - lets himself feel it - for the first time, like a jolt of heat through his stomach, and he watches as Kowalski squeezes his eyes shut and buries his face in his cup of coffee again.
"Why are you here, Kowalski?" he asks one last time.
Kowalski looks at him tiredly over the top of his cup. "It seemed like a good idea at the time," he says finally.
"Yeah," says Ray softly, thinking of Chicago in all its dirty, cramped, comfortable glory. Kowalski's like a piece carved out of it, plunked down in here in the crisp kitchen for reasons known only to God. He's free to come and go as he pleases. Nothing holding him anywhere, Chicago or Canada or Florida; nothing holding him back.
Ray feels a smile curving his lips. He turns back to the paper, flipping to the travel section. Airfares are cheap this time of year.
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