Disclaimer and Notes: Alliance owns them, but they've taken up semi-permanent visas in Stonyland, so... here I go again, having fun with them. No harm meant, no profit made. As this was written over the course of many months, a lot of people helped at various stages with the progression of this story. Thanks go to:
- Debbie Hann, for online alpha reading
- The Racine Street Irregulars, particularly Jo March, Icecat, Melanie Mitchell, Shirley Edstedt,and Courser, for ensuring my content and characterization stayed true, the answers to my worries about feasibility, and for all the encouragement
- Rhi's Eyrie listsibs Nicole, Diane, and Rena, for answering my medical questions
Warning: This is primarily a a dark and angst-filled fic gen/het fic, but it does revolve around a slash relationship. If a homosexual relationship isn't your cup of tea, may I suggest you switch to coffee?
Rated NC-17 for explicit m/f sex, language, and adult situations.
Canon changes: This takes place after CoTW. When this starts, Kowalski's back working at the 27th, Frannie didn't have Immaculate Conception, and Vecchio's working as a police consultant for the mayor's office. Fraser's still up north, though.
Comments and constructive criticism are extremely welcome. :-) Please send to me at email@example.com.
by Raine Wynd
Standing in the mirror, looking at her reflection, Frannie realized that the petite brunette in wedding white looked like something out of the pages of Bride's magazine, which was exactly what Frannie had intended when she picked out the gown. Pearls seeded the low-cut bodice of the strapless, tea-length gown. Fingerless gloves completed the dress, while a matching tiara-inspired veil had been woven into her hair. She'd opted to skip a train, since she had no attendants. Underneath the dress, Frannie wore matching silk lingerie and stockings. Her feet were encased in satin high heels. She was pleased by the effect, but a part of her knew she wasn't as beautiful as she thought she'd be. She was supposed to be glowing, and she wasn't.
Unconsciously, her hand caressed her stomach, and she drew a deep breath, trying for calm. Everything was so messed up. She wasn't supposed to be marrying Ray Kowalski. Not like this. Not now. Not when the Vecchio he was in love with wasn't her. Oh, sure, they were great friends, but it wasn't enough, would never be enough. She'd crossed a line one stormy night, asking him to stay with her when he'd come to her, trusting her with his deepest secrets. It shouldn't have been this way.
Stop it, just stop it, she told herself. Today is your wedding day, for the second time, and you have no right to be unhappy. Ray cares about you, and you care about him, and the sex wasn't half-bad either. She closed her eyes and willed the panic to subside.
"Hey, gorgeous," a male voice teased, "are you gonna play Sleeping Beauty for me?"
Opening her eyes, she met her fiance's gaze in the mirror. Dressed in the simply-cut tuxedo with a sky-blue vest, he was undeniably handsome, and her breath caught in response. The cocky grin he'd been wearing faded as he read her worry. "Hey," he said softly, turning her around to face him. "It's going to be okay."
She smiled wanly. "I know. I'm marrying my best friend and the father of my baby." She breathed deeply and straightened her shoulders. "You know, it's bad luck to be seeing the bride in her gown before the wedding," she reminded him.
Ray chuckled. "How else am I gonna be sure you get to the church on time if I don't see you?" he asked logically. "Come on, sweetheart, the minister's waiting." He offered his arm to her, and she took it, knowing she was about to commit the second biggest mistake of her life.
Three months earlier
Frannie swore as she glanced at her watch. She was going to be late to an evening out with the girls, but she'd forgotten her driver's license in her desk drawer at work, too distracted by the need to leave before Lt. Welsh assigned her any more paperwork. She'd taken it out to make a copy for a new car insurance policy, and had forgotten to put it back in her purse. It hadn't been until she'd gone to write a check for some new lingerie that she'd realized that her license was missing. The minor embarrassment still stung, especially since she hadn't taken her credit card with her in an attempt to cut down her spending. She had a present in mind for her brother's birthday, and she'd promised Ray Kowalski that she'd share half of the expense if he went in on the other half.
Thinking of Ray now made her smile. If anyone had told her that the energetic blond detective would end up as one of her best friends, she would've told them they were crazy. Though their relationship had started out under less-than-ideal circumstances, she'd grown to love him like the brother she had, the brother he'd successfully pretended to be. He was a disgusting freak, but damn it, he was her favorite freak, and no one else but she could say that to him.
For half a minute, Frannie considered just driving down to the station and grabbing her license, risking the ticket, but then she remembered that her sister had borrowed her car to get groceries, and she was stuck without transportation. Aside from that, the roads were slushy, and Frannie hated driving in slush. She then tried calling her friends to see if they would mind swinging by to run her by the station, but none of them were home. Guessing that they'd already left for the club they'd agreed upon going to, Frannie decided to call Ray and hope that he could be charmed into doing a favor for her.
She just started dialing the phone when she heard the back door open. As she was standing in the kitchen, using the cordless phone while trying to see if Maria had returned, Frannie turned to see if it was Maria coming into the house. She was surprised to see Ray Kowalski instead. Hanging up the phone, she exclaimed, "I was just trying to call you! What are you doing here?"
He didn't smile. "Hi, Frannie," he greeted dully.
She gave him a strange look. "What's wrong with you? You look like someone ran into you."
He chuckled mirthlessly. "Would've been easier."
"Easier than what?"
"Your brother's not here, is he?"
"No," Frannie answered, shaking her head. "He said he had a date."
"A date," Ray repeated. He closed his eyes briefly, as if to hold back pain, and snorted. "With Stella."
"Oh no," Frannie gasped. "Ray." Instinctively, she reached out to him, grabbing a hold of his forearm. "My brother is such an idiot."
Ray flashed a quick smile, but it wasn't reflected in his eyes. "Stella'll get bored with him," he predicted. "She's only interested in his connections."
"What connections?" Frannie asked before she realized that her friend was grasping for something to justify the relationship's end. Ray tried glaring at her for her stupidity, but the look failed miserably, and only served to add to his sad expression.
She sighed. "Ray, Stella isn't your wife anymore."
"I know that," he snapped at her. "I know that," he repeated more quietly. "But I thought I had a shot."
"At what? More verbal abuse?" Frannie started to question with the sometimes uncanny insight she was capable of, before she took a second look at Ray. "You're about as interested in her as I am Fras— " Abruptly, she broke off. "It's not Stella, is it? Oh my God. You're in — he's not— you're not — that's my brother you— "
Ray grinned reluctantly at her sputtering. "Nah," he told her laconically. "That's the real Ray Vecchio."
"Ray!" Frannie flushed indignantly. "This isn't the time to be joking!"
"What do you want me to do?" he challenged, turning abruptly serious. "I can't do a damn thing about it without looking stupid." He paused, then added, "Besides, he already told me he wasn't interested."
Frannie stared at him. "You didn't."
Ray looked away. "Stella's the only woman I've ever wanted," he told her in the most melancholy voice she'd ever heard. "Seeing her with him.... it's like... I want her to be happy, because I never really seemed to make her happy, but not — not with the person who could make me happy. It's not fair, and I know life ain't about being fair, but damn it — I fall in love with someone, and I wanna be with that someone, and I get all twisted and mixed up and confused, and then she's the one he wants, and I just want to shake him until he sees she's not... she's not someone you can hang your dreams on, I finally figured it out, she'll leave him like she did me, and I gotta watch him go through it because he doesn't want me. Doesn't need me like that. I'm such a stupid fuck."
"Oh, Ray," Frannie said softly, closing the distance between them and hugging him. He stood stiffly in her arms a moment, then bent his head, and laid it on her shoulder. She could feel him trembling with the effort to contain his emotions. "I'm so sorry. My brother is an idiot."
"Oh, so you're saying I'm an idiot, since I pretended to be your brother?" He stepped back, suddenly angry.
"No, that's not it."
"Maybe I should've just stopped at pretending, and not even got started wanting. I'm stupid."
"Ray! Stop twisting things around!" Frannie scolded. "You're not stupid. You're smart enough to be a good cop, you make me laugh, and sometimes, you're halfway to being a nice guy."
He stared at her a long moment. She could see his anger slowly fading as disbelief took its place. "Just sometimes?" he said challengingly, a trace of his usual good humor sparkling in his eyes.
She smothered a laugh. "You think I'm gonna tell you different when I know you too well?"
"Maybe," he hedged. "If there's something you want from me."
"From you?" she scoffed, forgetting that she was supposed to be comforting him, and that she was still in need of a ride to the club. "Not in a million years."
His expression fell. "Funny, that's what your brother said."
Frannie swore. "He's an idiot, okay? And I was just teasing you."
"Yeah, I know," Ray said glumly. "You never mean anything."
Frannie sighed, caught between frustration and indignation at his insult, then she pulled him into a rough hug. "I love you, damn it. You drive me up a creek, you're a freak, and you're the last guy I'd ever thought would be undercover for my idiot brother, who, by the way, doesn't deserve you. And yeah, I mean that."
Ray shuddered in her arms, and it took her a moment to realize he was crying. "Hey," she said softly after a few minutes. "It's not the end of the world, okay?"
He closed his eyes, sniffled, and nodded. "Sorry," he apologized. "It's just the last thing I needed."
"Yeah," she agreed. It had been a rough week at the station; there was a serial killer loose in the city, and one of the precinct's own had been killed when he'd stopped at a traffic light. Lt. Welsh had been grumpier than usual, and no one had been left unscathed by his temper.
She stepped back slightly to grab a paper towel from the rack hanging underneath one of the kitchen cabinets near the sink. Handing it to him, she surveyed him critically. "You're a mess," she pronounced. "And you got my shirt all wet."
He half-chuckled, then wiped his eyes and blew his nose. "Gee, thanks, Frannie." With the ease of familiarity, he opened the cabinet underneath the sink and tossed the paper towel into the garbage can residing there. "What do you want me to do now, kiss you and make you feel better?"
A smile played on her lips as she snorted. "No, but you can drive me to Club Joy," she told him. "After I change." She started for the stairs.
"Sure," he agreed readily, sounding relieved it wasn't something more complicated. "You sure you wanna go there, though?" he asked as he followed her up the stairs and into her bedroom.
"Why? What's wrong with the place?"
"It's in a bad neighborhood, Frannie." He lounged against one wall and crossed his arms.
Frannie wasn't too surprised that he'd followed her, but still she hesitated as modesty kicked in. Then she shrugged. He'd seen her in her robe, with traces of a mint masque on, smelling of smoke from a fire, and after that, she'd decided that as long as he never saw her in less than what she'd wear to the beach, it was not a big deal. She slid open the door to her closet and peered in carefully, then grabbed a hanger with a red, long-sleeved, ballet-style knit top hanging from it.
"All the clubs are in bad neighborhoods," Frannie pointed out, stripping off the dark black-and-red blouse she'd worn to reveal the red bra she'd worn underneath. She tossed the blouse to the floor and peeled the red top off its hanger. She was about to put in on when she became conscious of Ray's stare. "What?" she demanded, trying to pretend she wasn't suddenly aware that the bra she'd worn was not much more than a bit of sheer stretch satin and underwire. "You're not supposed to be looking."
He didn't say anything for several tense seconds. Then he met her eyes, and she read desire glittering in them. "You're beautiful, Frannie," he said quietly. Abruptly, he turned away. "Get dressed. I'm being a jerk."
She stared at him for a long moment while he stood stiffly, facing the door.
"Thank you," she said finally, breaking the silence.
"For what? Being a pervert? You're like my sister."
"But I'm not." Frannie wasn't sure where her mouth was going, but something told her she didn't want to look too deeply. A glance out of her bedroom window told her it had started snowing again, and suddenly, going out didn't seem all that great of an idea. She took a deep breath and dropped the knit top onto her bed. "All that pretending — we don't have to do that anymore."
He snorted. "Don't matter. I got used to thinking of you that way."
He looked so alone, standing there so rigidly, and Frannie ached for him. Crossing the room, she didn't stop until she was in front of him. "You're not a pervert for thinking I'm beautiful. You know how long it's been since someone told me that?"
"Since Fraser last in town?" he answered with a half-laugh. "Frannie..." he began. "Please. I don't want to piss off your brother."
"Maybe that's what he needs."
Ray's eyes narrowed, then he deliberately stepped around her to pick up the top she'd left on the bed. "No, Frannie. I love you like a sister, I'm in love with Ray, and I'm not gonna take the blame for hurting either of you." So saying, he thrust the top into her hands, forcing her to accept it.
She stared at the top a moment, then at him, and took a deep breath. "I'm not afraid of him."
"Frannie, get your shirt on, and let's go." Ray turned around and crossed his arms. He glanced out the window. "Before the roads get too bad."
Exhaling heavily, not quite understanding why she felt disappointed, Frannie pulled on the top and fluffed her hair. "Okay, I'm ready."
Ray half-turned, uncrossing his arms. His smile held sadness and relief. "Let's get at 'er, then." He pulled open the bedroom door.
Frannie started to walk out of the door, then stopped. Turning, she bumped into Ray, who'd started following her.
"What?" he asked her, annoyed.
"I wanna know something," she demanded.
He narrowed his gaze. "What?"
"Why my brother and not me? You just— " She swallowed. "I mean, a minute ago, you looked like you wanted me."
His expressive face changed, became guarded. "C'mon, Frannie, I'm a guy." He shoved his hands in his pockets while his shoulders hunched forward defensively.
"Not just any guy," Frannie insisted. "You're the guy in love with my brother." She hesitated, then plunged forward. "And I'm tired of playing the game, of going out to clubs and hoping I don't pick up some sleaze but knowing I probably will anyway." She breathed deeply, stared into Ray's eyes, and gave him a crooked smile. "I pretend sometimes that he's Fraser."
"You're not suggesting that I—"
Pressing her lips against his, she silenced his protest. "Shh," she whispered against his mouth, then sucked gently at his lower lip. Her hands rose to caress his biceps. "It's okay." She stepped closer, ignoring his resistance, and leaned into him, shamelessly using her body to coax his capitulation. Some part of her knew what she was doing was wrong, but she justified it with the kind of circular logic only a woman raised as a strict Catholic could. Suddenly, all she wanted was to turn him on, to ease the sharp ache of his heartbreak, and maybe, just maybe, convince him that this Vecchio at least wanted him.
Now she deepened the kiss and moved her hands to pull his body closer to her own. For perhaps the longest moment of her life, Ray did nothing but stand there. She was beginning to fear he wouldn't react at all, and that all the things she'd learned and read were for nothing. Then slowly, his hands rose to push her ever so slightly back. Her breath caught in her throat, and she gazed at him uncertainly.
"I'm sorry," she began apologizing. "I shouldn't have done that."
He shook his head slightly as a faint but sad smile tugged at his lips. "I know the difference, Frannie."
She watched him uncertainly, certain that he was going to walk out of the door, and come Monday morning, would treat her with some measure of distance because she'd crossed the line between friends into something more. If she was going to be shunned, she wanted some greater justification than this, but she couldn't find the courage to move. She was filled with an inexplicable feeling of emptiness, and there was a sourness in the pit of her stomach. She wanted to turn away, but his eyes held her mesmerized.
From somewhere afar, she heard a voice speak. "I don't want to be alone tonight." With a start, she realized that voice was her own, and she closed her eyes, her heart aching with pain.
The touch of his right hand on her cheek was suddenly almost unbearable in its tenderness. She opened her eyes in time to see him close the remaining distance between them. She raised her hand to place it on top of his, intending to pull it away, but something stopped her. Frannie watched as he slowly bent his head to kiss her. She was vividly aware of her heartbeat by the time his lips touched hers.
He kissed her like it was the last time he'd ever kiss a woman, as if he couldn't bear to touch her and yet couldn't stop. She returned his passion with an aching heart, feeling as though she'd walked through a door she hadn't meant to open. Now that it was, Frannie was determined to ensure that at least for this moment, there would be no regrets. Later, there would be time to dwell on what was missing. Determinedly, she pushed the creeping emptiness aside and focused on giving Ray pleasure.
Deepening the kiss, she began tugging at the tails of his shirt, wanting to touch his skin. His tongue dueled with hers for a moment before he pulled back slightly and took off his shirt. The brief separation gave her a chance to take off her top, and she was back to standing before him in her bra. He stared at her momentarily, desire glittering in his eyes, then began to lay a trail of wet kisses along her collarbone before moving downward. She trembled at the touch, and thought of how turned on she was when it felt so wrong to be.
Not wanting to think, wanting to drown in sensation, she reached back to unsnap her bra. Ray caught the falling lingerie and looked up, caught off guard by her action. She smiled at him, suddenly nervous. He dropped the bra to the floor, and she changed her mind, no longer wanting him to suck on her breasts. She was abruptly filled with fear, thinking that he would be reminded that she wasn't the right gender, that she wasn't the one he really wanted, when he looked at her. More than anything, she now wanted this to be about his pleasure, not her own. Before he could act, she pressed herself against him, inhaling the distinctly masculine scent of him. She felt him tense against her, the heat of his body igniting a responding warmth in her own. Then she began to lick and nibble on his chest in a determined path to his waist. She was rewarded by the sound of his breathing as it quickened.
The pain in his tight lower body was excruciating as Frannie's lips moved over his skin. Ray closed his eyes, feeling the tender expertise in her touch. It made him want to cry for the gift she was giving him, and he fought back the tears, knowing now wasn't the moment, but the ache in his heart was like a knife. He knew he should stop this before the regrets became too much, though he knew a line had already been crossed. Her fingertips grazed his erection and he groaned helplessly. Her fingers made short work of the buttons to his jeans, revealing he hadn't worn underwear. His eyes flew open at the feel of her hands on his cock, and he looked down to see that she knelt on the floor. He met her eyes briefly before she took him into her mouth. He moaned at the sensation as she took him deeper before bringing her mouth to just over the head of his cock and tonguing it. He shuddered and groaned her name.
Loving his response, Frannie continued, shamelessly using every trick she'd ever learned. Good Catholic girls didn't do this, her conscience remembered, and she shoved the automatic guilt aside. She wanted this, and she was going to not think about it beyond the moment. Determinedly, she lost herself in learning how he responded to every flick of her tongue, every brush of her fingertips. Soon, she could taste the precum on her tongue, and feel his body trembling with the effort to remain standing and not thrust too wildly into her mouth.
"Frannie," he groaned.
Sensing he wanted her to stop, she reluctantly let go of him and stood. Quickly, she pulled off her skirt and the scrap of bikini underwear she'd worn and climbed onto the bed, spreading her legs wide in clear invitation. For a long moment, he stood there, doing nothing.
She looked so beautiful laying there against the incongruously floral print of the bedspread, her dark brunette hair tousled, her pale skin flush with desire, that all Ray could think of was how he didn't deserve to have her. Lust rose within him, and he crossed the short distance to join her on the bed. Now was the time to take what she so willingly offered. As he settled his body atop hers, he kissed her deeply.
She arched her hips up against his, her arms rising to embrace him tightly to her, her mouth clinging hotly to his. Yes, she wanted him in every possible way; there were no more hesitations. Save one. He tore his mouth from hers, his breath heavy, as he asked, "Condom?"
Dazed with the fire heating her blood, Frannie barely registered the word. She moaned, not quite understanding his reservation. She stared blankly up at him, then it hit. Twisting slightly, she reached for a carved wooden box on the nightstand and opened it up to fish out a foil-wrapped packet from a tangle of jewelry.
He kissed his gratitude at her preparedness, and reached for the packet. She smiled and shook her head. Ripping it open, she carefully extracted the condom and pushed him on his back. It didn't escape her notice that his erection had faded at the interruption. Deftly, she put the condom on his cock, taking the time to make it an opportunity to turn him on further.
"Tease," he groaned, and then she was guiding him into her, and he couldn't help the instinctive lift of his hips.
"Oh God, Ray," she cried, unable to believe how good he felt within her. She began to move up and down on his shaft, and he let her set the pace for a few moments, then he grasped her hips, steadying her. She met and matched his driving thrusts, her breathing as ragged as he stroked the lust they shared to dizzying heights. Her blood pounded hotly through her as if a raging fever, as they breathed together in gasps of pleasure. Forgotten for the moment were the guilt and the fact that she wasn't the right Vecchio for Ray. Nothing mattered except the feel of his body as they rocked towards an explosive climax.
Frannie slid into sleep with Ray's arms around her. When she woke, he was gone, as she knew he would be. Something within her ached with the knowledge she now held within her. For the sake of their friendship, and their working relationship, she told herself that they'd shared a night out of time, and tried to put it out of her memory. She was painfully aware, though, that Ray's demeanor towards her had softened.
Six weeks later
Flush with the success of nailing a criminal, Ray didn't think twice about grabbing the phone on his desk when it rang. "Kowalski," he answered, greeting the unknown caller with more than his usual warmth.
"Ray, it's Frannie," she announced, a hint of panic in her voice. "Are we still on for lunch?"
Ray frowned. He didn't like the sound of her voice. "Yeah, it's Wednesday, why?"
"Oh, good," she declared. "I know we talked about it, but I wanted to be sure that you were still coming."
He glanced at his watch. Fifteen minutes to noon. "I was just headed out to meet you."
"Okay, I'm waiting."
Ray's frown deepened. Something was bothering Frannie, and he didn't like it. With that in mind, he hung up the phone.
"Bad call?" his partner, a young Hispanic woman named Marisa Villanueva, asked as she looked at him from across the expanse of their desks.
"Frannie," he answered. He forced a smile. "Probably nothing more than she needs to borrow some money."
Marisa chuckled, aware of the civilian aide's spending habits. "Better watch your wallet, then. Go on, get out of here. I'll get started on this paperwork before Welsh has our heads."
"Thanks, Marisa. Have I told you lately I love you?" He rose from his chair and slipped on his jacket to hide his shoulder holster.
She laughed. "You're such a flirt, Ray."
"You mean to say that we don't have a date tonight?" He put his hands on his chest, pretending hurt.
"Get out of here, Ray, before Francesca decides not to wait on you anymore."
The light banter cheered Ray up slightly. It didn't take long to get to the small café near the station where he was to meet Frannie. He found her waiting for him in a booth about midway through the restaurant, sipping a 7-Up. She looked pale and exhausted.
Sliding into the chair across from her, he asked, "Everything okay? You don't look good."
She chuckled humorlessly, but waited until after the waitress had taken Ray's order of coffee to reply. "I'm fine," she told him. "You know, I used to dream of how I'd tell someone this. We'd have this nice romantic dinner, maybe some candlelight and roses, and we'd be in love." She half-giggled, half-sobbed. "I thought maybe I was coming down with a cold, you know. I mean, with working all those late nights like I've been doing and all and everybody being sick."
Ray's heart leapt into his throat as his instincts went on full alert. Swallowing hard, he stared across the table at the woman he loved like a sister and tried to speak. Half-forgotten dreams rose to haunt him, phantom pains that tied his stomach in knots. No sound came out his mouth and he closed it with a snap. Taking a deep breath, he tried again. "We were careful."
She favored him with a rueful smile. "God works in mysterious ways."
He bit back the cynical retort that came automatically to his lips. He'd been raised Catholic too, and had only gotten back into going to Mass thanks to his exposure to the Vecchio family. Instead, he sighed. "You sure?"
"I went to the doctor this morning. I'm pregnant. I haven't been with anyone else."
He closed his eyes, thinking of how much he'd once wanted to hear those words from his now ex-wife. Regret swelled within him. "What do you wanna do?"
"I can't kill the baby, if that's what you're asking," Frannie snapped, eyes blazing.
Ray reached across the table and grasped her right hand. "I wouldn't ask you to do that."
She glanced down at his hand. "I can't ask you to do anything. I mean, I'm not expecting anything, that's not fair to you, I just—I just wanted you to know."
"Hey," he said softly, tilting her chin up with a gentle touch of a finger. "I'm not gonna just walk away, you know."
She smiled shakily. "You don't have—"
"I want to," he interrupted her. "'Sides, it's my fault you're in this mess."
Frannie shook her head. "It's not—"
"Yes, it is," he said forcefully. His tone made her head jerk in surprise. "I've always wanted a kid, you know. 'Cept I kinda thought it'd be with— Well it don't matter now. I got a second chance, and maybe... Maybe this time I won't fuck it up." He stared at her intensely, his voice passionate. "I'm gonna be there for you, and I ain't gonna leave unless you want me to. You have my word on that."
For a long moment, she looked as though she didn't believe him. Then she grasped his hand tighter and smiled past sudden tears. "What about Ray?"
"You let me worry about that," he told her gruffly. Deliberately, he lightened his tone, all too aware of the door he was shutting on his future chances with her brother. "If he freaks, I can always give him something else to think about," he said suggestively.
"Ray!" Frannie exclaimed, scandalized.
He grinned, unrepentant, even as some part of his heart wept for what would not be.
Two weeks later
"Maria, what are we doing at the airport on a Friday night? I thought we were going out," Frannie complained as she walked with her sister towards a departure/arrival gate.
Her older sister smiled mysteriously and walked confidently up to the airline check-in counter at one of the gates. Plucking Frannie's purse off her shoulder, Maria rummaged in it and fished out her sister's driver's license before plopping it down in front of the agent behind the counter. Ignoring her sister's protests, Maria told the agent, "This is my sister Francesca Vecchio, and she's going to Vegas."
"Vegas? I am not going to Vegas!"
"Yes, you are," Maria argued with finality. "You've been feeling crappy lately, and this is a present to cheer you up." Turning to the agent and ignoring her sister's stunned expression, Maria asked, "She's confirmed, right?"
"Yes," the agent said, deftly tearing off a boarding pass. "Francesca Vecchio, electronic ticket, from Chicago to Las Vegas." He rattled off the standard security questions, to which Frannie answered with a dazed negative, then handed Frannie her license and the boarding pass.
Maria handed her sister a hundred-dollar bill. "This is from me and Tony. Go, have fun."
Frannie said at the bill a moment before hastily stuffing it into the purse she'd taken back from her sister. "Okay," she agreed, as her sense of adventure kicked into gear. "But I owe you big time for this."
Maria smiled. "Oh, you don't owe me anything."
Smiling broadly, Frannie boarded the plane. Not having any luggage and being the last passenger aboard, she didn't have any trouble finding her seat, which turned out to a window seat on a two-passenger row. The aisle seat was empty, so she took her seat like the practiced airline passenger she was. As she buckled her seatbelt, she spent a few minutes wondering how Maria and Tony managed to give her a present like this trip when Tony had just gotten employed again after being laid off for most of the summer.
The plane was taxiing to the runway when, out of the corner of her eye, she noticed movement to her left as the person who'd been assigned the seat next to her belatedly took it, murmuring something to the flight attendant that sounded like an apology for changing seats. Automatically, Frannie catalogued the details of her new companion: faded blue jeans so old they hugged the owner's legs, an equally faded Chicago Bulls T-shirt stretched over a lean chest, a silver bracelet on the right wrist, a sharply angular face, a shock of blond hair, and amused blue eyes. "Ray!" she gasped as recognition hit.
"Hi Frannie," he greeted her. "Wanna go to Vegas and get married?"
At first, she gaped at him, then closed her mouth as she realized he wasn't joking. "This was your idea?"
He strapped himself into the seat and looked at her. "Yes. I owe your sister a night of baby-sitting for getting you to the airport and getting your clothes packed and to me before you realized what was going on." He gripped her hand as the plane eased to a stop at the edge of the main runway, waiting for its turn in line for takeoff. "I know you're gonna say no, tell me this is a stupid idea, and all the reasons why we shouldn't, but. I love you, I love the baby, and I'm never gonna leave you lonely. I know it may not be much of a thing to be married on, but I married for love once, and look how that turned out."
Frannie closed her eyes, certain that the woman in the seat in front of her was listening avidly. A wave of embarrassment swept over Frannie, and, taking a deep breath, she opened her eyes.
"I know," Frannie agreed, thinking aloud. "Gio was my first love, you know, and I thought he was going to be the one I'd be with forever and ever, but he went a little crazy and threatened to kill me, so my brother had to arrest him so I was only married a year and I never got around to changing my name and stuff."
"Only if you want to," Ray told her.
"Oh, good," Frannie said with relief, but it was clear to Ray that she wasn't fully comprehending her own words. "I mean, you gotta do the right thing. That's what all the women's magazines say, you know. It's better to marry someone you know well, preferably someone you're friends with before marriage. At least, that's what they say. It's not like you're a total stranger or anything. You have a good job, you're good with kids, and that you'll do anything for the family, even if you don't have to anymore. You're not the worst guy I could pick for myself, and I know all your disgusting habits. Like forgetting that I might have wanted a chance to plan this better? I mean, if I was gonna get married again, and I haven't said yes yet, so don't hold your breath, I had all these people I wanted to invite, and promises I'd made, and I had all the colors picked out and everything. Okay, so maybe I couldn't afford it all, but you gotta dream big, right? I mean, I know it's probably long past time that I stopped dreaming that Fraser would come back for me. I talked to him, you know, and he's involved with some chick up North, and he loves her, and not me, and I just gotta accept that."
Ray's mouth twitched in a half-grin at her rambling monologue. He clamped down on the urge to remind her that she hadn't had a snowball's chance in hell with Fraser, and instead asked, "So have you?"
"Have I what?" Frannie looked at him blankly as the jet engines started to whine as the aircraft began takeoff. The sensations made her think about how high in the sky her dreams had always been, and how often she'd been disappointed that they hadn't come true. Yet she'd never backed down from dreaming, from taking chances where others would have long quit or refused altogether.
"Accepted what?" Frannie continued to stare at him, completely clueless. Gesturing, she asked, "That I'm going to Vegas with you? How can I not? I mean, I'm here, aren't I?"
"No, that's not what I meant."
"What? That you're in love with—" Abruptly, Frannie shot a look at the old woman in the aisle seat across from Ray, and decided against finishing her sentence as the reality of her situation impacted. Anxiety slammed into her stomach with the force of the gravity pushing against the airplane, and she couldn't speak for the panic welling in her throat.
She knew, from conversations that she'd had with Ray over the past two weeks since she'd told him of her pregnancy, that he was still very much in love with her brother. Could she accept less than all of his heart? Or was half his heart better than no love at all?
"Francesca?" Ray asked uncertainly, his use of her full name betraying his nervousness. "Please? Say something. If you say no, that's okay, I won't be mad, we'll just have a good time in Vegas and I won't be—"
She opened her eyes and searched his face, seeing again how earnest he was. His voice faded as his eyes met hers. He slipped her hand out from under his to lace their fingers together and squeezed reassuringly.
"What about Ra—" she started to say.
He reached over and pressed a finger against her lips, silencing her. "He doesn't have anything to do with this. I'll get over it, don't worry. You're more important."
He sounded so sincere, Frannie believed him. "Maybe...." she thought aloud, not even realizing she was doing it. Her voice trailed off before she could add, Maybe this is my last chance at happiness.
"No, you are," Ray insisted, and she realized he'd misunderstood.
"No, I meant—" Frannie began, then stopped. "Oh, hell, I can't explain it, and it doesn't matter anyway. You're offering me a chance to have a dream come true, and I'd be stupid not to take it, and I'm not stupid, even if Sister Mary Margaret used to tell me all the time that I was when I was growing up." Taking a deep breath, she tightened her grip on Ray's hand. "Yes, I'll marry you."
She heard someone applaud and ducked her head as she realized their little drama had captured the attention of their nearby passengers. Ray cracked a grin, both at Frannie's acceptance and her resultant embarrassment.
The folliowing day
"Where's Frannie?" Ray Vecchio asked his mother as he stepped into the kitchen, an envelope in his hand. "I tried calling her on her cell phone, but she left it in her room."
Mrs. Vecchio looked up from chopping vegetables to glance at her son. "Maria said that Ray convinced Frannie to go with him for the weekend. They left last night right after work. You know she's been feeling depressed lately, and he wanted to cheer her up."
Ray frowned. "My sister's with Kowalski again?" he demanded suspiciously. "They've been spending a lot of time together lately."
Mrs. Vecchio smiled. "He's a sweet boy, Raimundo. He took good care of us while you were away," she said pointedly. "I think it's good that he's taking care of Frannie now. Was there something you needed from your sister?"
Ray flushed at the unspoken rebuke. "I wanted to ask her about this charge she made on my credit card. I'll give Kowalski a call on his cell phone." He reached for the cordless phone that sat on the counter within his mother's reach and began dialing a number he'd memorized several months previously.
The call was answered on the third ring, only Ray was greeted with a recorded message telling him that the cellular subscriber he'd contacted was not in service. That meant that either Kowalski had his phone turned off or he was out of range. Ray's frown deepened. He knew Kowalski wouldn't do anything with his sister to harm her, but he couldn't shake the sense that something was wrong with the relationship that they shared. Hanging up the phone, Ray decided to try again later.
Telling his mother that he hadn't been successful, Ray then went back to his room. He paced the floor, trying to fit the pieces together. Though he wouldn't say that he and Kowalski were best friends, they had, much to Ray's surprise, developed a strong friendship in the wake of Kowalski's return to Chicago. Ruefully, Ray acknowledged that if they hadn't, his mother would've probably been extremely hurt that her son couldn't get along with the man who'd pretended to be her son. Though he'd gathered that Kowalski hadn't spent much time in the Vecchio house, not wanting to cause any more confusion than was necessary, he had been there for the family. That was a truth that Ray couldn't deny, nor could he deny the debt of gratitude he felt towards the other man, even though Kowalski was just doing his job.
No one had been more surprised than Ray when he'd discovered that Frannie and Kowalski were dating. Frannie had been interested in Fraser for so long that Ray had begun to despair that she'd ever get over her infatuation. Then Fraser had returned to Canada after a short leave in which he and Kowalski tried unsuccessfully to find the Hand of Franklin. Frannie had been morose for a while, then she'd seemed to bounce back — and straight into Kowalski's arms.
Ray had talked to Stella Kowalski several times since the Muldoon case. Initially, he'd been attracted to her, but he'd quickly figured out that she was interested in two things: her career, and making sure that her ex-husband left her alone, in that order. It hadn't taken him long to discover that she wasn't interested in him per se, but what his connections could do for her. The experience had left him wanting to call her a bitch while admiring her single-minded focus. Still, he'd gained an insight into her ex-husband that he didn't think a lot of people knew.
Stella had told him that Kowalski had gotten in trouble at his old precinct for defending a friend of theirs who was gay. What made things worse was the fact that Kowalski and friend happened to be in a gay bar at the time, and while Kowalski had been off-duty, it was known that he and Stella had been having problems. Circumstantially, the evidence was damning. Rumors had flown, rumors that, when Ray had made a few discreet inquiries, still persisted. Apparently, it had gotten so bad that Kowalski had gotten roughed up a few times, and his commanding officer had decided it would be better if Kowalski got sent elsewhere. The Vecchio assignment had been a kind of godsend, falling in place just in time for Kowalski to vanish into someone else's life.
Ray hadn't thought there was any truth to those rumors. Then he'd decided to ask Kowalski about it one night at the other man's apartment. After a couple of beers, of course. Kowalski had frozen for an instant, then smiled lazily. "Why?" he'd challenged. "Thinking about trying out a new way to get laid?" He'd leered suggestively. "I've always wondered what it'd be like to get in your pants, Vecchio. I already know what it's like to be you."
"You can't be serious," Ray had argued, but something inside him responded to the suggestion. Subtly, he'd felt the air shift, felt the invisible dynamic between them change. Abruptly, he'd become aware of the other man's lean form, the almost too intimate way his jeans hugged his body and the way his white T-shirt stretched over his chest. The flickering light from the TV had cast shadows across his angular face. Ray had breathed deeply, and tried to tell himself he was just imagining things, that he wasn't feeling the first stirrings of desire for another man, that maybe he'd just drunk too much beer.
Kowalski had leaned forward, so close his lips were a breath away from touching. In a panic, not liking the sudden heat in his groin the action seemed to generate, Ray moved back towards the other end of the couch. For a moment, Ray could've sworn he'd seen disappointment and hurt cross the other man's face, and then it was gone. Kowalski chuckled, breaking the tension. "Of course I'm not serious. C'mon, Ray, I was married. Do you really think I'm gay?" Casually, Kowalski dug into the cushions just past where Ray had been sitting and unearthed the remote.
Ray had answered no then, but his cop's instincts were screaming. It wasn't long after that Kowalski started seeing Frannie, and Ray had tried to forget that night. Unfortunately, the more he tried, the harder it became to forget. He wasn't sure what kind of person he was becoming; he'd never been interested in other men that way, though he did admit there were some men — like Fraser — whose attraction would be difficult to ignore.
The phone in Ray's room, a separate line from the rest of the house, rang. Still troubled by his thoughts, Ray answered it with only half his attention.
"Ray! How are you? I hope I'm not catching you at a bad time," a familiar, much-missed voice greeted him.
Ray stopped pacing, caught off guard by the unexpected call, and sat down on his bed. "Fraser!" he greeted with genuine enthusiasm. "How's up in the wilds of Canada? How's the donut thief?"
"Diefenbaker is fine, and we haven't been all together too far north," Fraser answered. "I wanted to tell you congratulations on becoming an uncle."
"An uncle? What in the world are you talking about?" Ray exploded, launching himself off the bed.
"Didn't Francesca tell you?" came the puzzled reply.
"No, she did not," Ray enunciated carefully. "How long have you known?"
"Oh, dear," Fraser murmured. "She told me a week ago, but this is the first chance I've had to call you and offer my congratulations." Ray could almost see the frown in Fraser's voice as he paused, then said, "I must admit, I did wonder why she seemed suddenly in a hurry to end the call when I asked her if she'd told the family yet."
"She's been pretty moody lately," Ray told his friend. "She's been dating Kowalski, too."
"I thought—" Fraser began, then stopped abruptly.
"You thought what, Benny?"
"It's not important, Ray. I was merely thinking aloud."
"Fraser," Ray said warningly. Taking a stab in the dark, he guessed, "This about Kowalski being gay, isn't it?"
There was a long pause. "I would be breaking a confidence if I answered that."
"So he is." The conclusion gave Ray no comfort. Instead, the part of him that hadn't forgotten the dare Kowalski had made on that long-ago night thrilled at the news, and Ray had to struggle to remember he wasn't supposed to feel that way.
"I did not say that, Ray," Fraser answered carefully. "Human sexuality is not at all a black and white issue, Ray. There are graduations of sexuality, and studies have shown that most people are somewhere between 100% heterosexual and 100% homosexual. If you really wish to know, Ray, you should ask him."
Ray closed his eyes briefly, fighting the urge to argue with Fraser, reminding himself that Fraser would never break a confidence once shared. He took a deep breath, then admitted, "I did. He, uh, he made a pass at me." Hastily, he added, "I think — I thought he was joking, though."
"I see," Fraser said evenly. Something about that phrase always annoyed Ray, and this was no different.
"What's that supposed to mean, Fraser?"
"I merely was trying to convey my understa—"
"Forget it, Benny," Ray interrupted tiredly. He was feeling off-balance, and he knew he was striking out at the nearest object in his path at the moment. "I know what you meant," he clarified more gently.
In an attempt to steer the conversation onto more neutral ground, Ray asked, "So what else is going on with you?"
"I have been reassigned."
A less astute listener wouldn't have caught the faint bitterness in Fraser's tone, but as Ray had learned how to listen to his friend, he caught it. "Who'd you piss off this time, Benny?"
"I did nothing of the sort, Ray."
"Aw, Benny, this is Ray, remember? You can't fool me."
There was a pause, then Fraser cleared his throat. "I might, however, been less than circumspect with my interest in the daughter of—"
"Got caught with your pants down with the wrong girl?"
Deep sigh. "In a manner of speaking, I believe that would be correct, yes."
"I don't believe it, Benny. You're the last guy I'd expect would be disciplined for something like that."
"I am not perfect, Ray," Fraser chided gently. "In any case," he continued, his voice sliding back into its more normal, modulated tone, "I will be in Chicago in four weeks' time. They wanted me out of here sooner, but the paperwork had to be processed."
"Well, I'm glad you're coming back to town, Benny," Ray said honestly. "But I wish it wasn't like this."
"Neither do I," Fraser admitted. "However, I am looking forward to seeing everyone, and congratulations again on being an uncle. When you see your sister, would you tell her I wish her well?"
"I will," Ray promised, and the call ended shortly thereafter.
Feeling only marginally reassured by the call, Ray decided the best thing to do was wait until Kowalski and Frannie returned.
"Earth to Ms. Vecchio," Lt. Welsh demanded the following Monday morning. "In case you forgot, it's no longer the weekend, and I need some information."
Jerking with surprise, Frannie blinked at her boss. She'd been in the midst of a particularly vivid memory of how tenderly Ray had made love to her after the ceremony, having vowed that he was determined to make it as real a marriage as possible. Feeling heat flush her cheeks, she picked up her coffee mug with her left hand and took a sip, trying to cover the embarrassment.
"Britney McBride, I need —" Welsh broke off abruptly as the diamonds on Frannie's wedding ring caught the light. "Is that an engagement ring?" he asked.
"No, sir. It's my wedding ring. I got married this weekend." Seeing the question in her commander's face, she added quickly, "To Ray Kowalski."
"Kowalski?" Welsh did a double take. "You and him?"
Warily, Frannie nodded, not sure what was running through Welsh's mind. "Yeah," she answered inelegantly. "We just decided to go ahead and get it over with, without all the fuss, since we were married before."
Welsh absorbed this information for a long moment. Then he smiled. "Well, congratulations. No wonder Kowalski called in sick. Take the rest of the day off as my present."
"But you said you needed—"
"Go on, go."
"Now," Welsh growled.
Frannie glanced at her boss and decided retreat was the better part of valor. She really didn't want to go home; home meant facing her brother, and she wasn't entirely up to that yet. She had come straight from her husband's apartment, having left clothes there that she could change into, and dropped off the rented wedding gown on her way into work. Grabbing her purse and keys, she debated going back to Ray's apartment or heading straight home. Mentally, she reviewed what she had at Ray's apartment, and realized she had to get clothes.
She'd made it through the house and into her room before her brother chose to confront her.
"So where did Kowalski take you?"
For thirty seconds, Frannie debated evading the question, then she sighed. She wasn't in the mood to be interrogated like a suspect, and her brother was very good at doing that. Suddenly, she was tired; the weekend had been more exhausting than she'd allowed herself to feel. Being tired made her less inclined to be patient. "Here's the news flash, Ray: I'm pregnant with his baby, and we got married on Saturday."
"Just like that, huh? When were you gonna tell the rest of the family? Or were you just gonna have me pay the bills for your medical expenses like I've been doing and pretend I didn't try and figure out what they were for?"
"I was going to tell you."
"When?" Ray demanded.
"Tonight," Frannie answered. "Ray and I were going to tell everyone together."
"Why didn't you tell anyone before? Why all the sneaking around?"
Frannie resisted the urge to back down in the face of her brother's hurt. "Because it wasn't supposed to happen," she replied quietly.
Ray searched her expression, trying to find understanding. "You're not in love with him," he concluded. "Why, Frannie, why did you want to marry him? You could have anybody."
"I could," Frannie shot back, suddenly tired with the questions. "But if a near-perfect Mountie isn't good enough for you, then who the hell is? I know Ray, I know he'll take care of our child and me. Even if he is in love with you."
Ray stared at her, unable to believe what he was hearing. "What — what are you talking about?" he demanded even as hope flared into life. "You're crazy."
"Am I?" Frannie laughed harshly. "Do you think I'd lie about something like this?"
"You gonna chase after someone who's not in love with you?" Ray was still trying to wrap his brain around the idea that that someone else was him.
"Why not?" Frannie demanded sharply. "I've been doing it for years with Fraser. Why shouldn't Ray be any different?"
"He's not Fraser."
"Well, duh, I noticed that."
"So why'd you sleep with him? Jesus, Frannie, don't you have any respect for yourself?
"Don't you accuse me of that, oh sweet brother of mine," Frannie shot back. "You're the one who was seeing Ms. Career Bitch Kowalski."
Ray's eyes narrowed. "Leave Stella out of this."
"Okay then," Frannie retorted. "You don't know what you did by going out with her."
"Oh, and you do, huh? So tell me, what big bad thing did I do? If what you say is true, then why didn't he tell me?"
"Because he doesn't think he's good enough for you, because you're my brother, and because you're too fucking scared to think that some guy might have the hots for you to even consider the possibility."
"Oh, so he chose you instead?"
"Yes," Frannie answered in the quietest voice her brother had ever heard her use. "I don't care what you think of me, Ray. Maybe this is the only chance I'll get at having what I want, and maybe it's not what I planned, but I'm going to make this marriage work. I can live with my husband being in love with my brother and not me." Her words were defiant, but Ray heard the faintest traces of fear underlying her tone. It made him want to hold her and tell her everything was all right, but he couldn't get past his own conflicted emotions.
She stared at him a long while before adding gently, "I just want him to be happy. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to pack." She looked pointedly at him until he left the room.
In a daze, he wandered downstairs, grabbing a cup of coffee from the kitchen and then taking a seat at the dining table. It took him a second to realize he'd drunk half of the coffee without tasting any of it. Some part of his brain recognized he was experiencing shock. Breath shuddered through him as he forced himself to be calm.
He married my sister.
In his wildest dreams, Ray had never imagined that Kowalski would go that far, or that Frannie would have even noticed Kowalski. He'd known they were close; having to pretend that they were brother and sister had evidently fostered a friendship that continued even after Kowalski's official transfer into the 27th Precinct. Yet Ray had never dreamed that Kowalski and Frannie would end up married.
It seemed wrong somehow. Not that Ray had any proof that their marriage shouldn't have happened, but Frannie had never indicated that she and Kowalski were any more than friends. Not, Ray supposed, that she told him everything about her love life, but she'd never been silent about her romantic relationships, either.
When Frannie was in love, she made sure everyone knew it.
Ray glanced over the stack of bills he'd set off to one side, bills that he managed on his family's behalf because no one else in the family wanted the responsibility and hassle, and he was still the man of the house. All he'd ever wanted was to take care of his family. For a while, he'd even dreamed of having his own family, but that dream had been shattered in the reality of being a cop. The last thing he'd expected was Kowalski.
He hadn't known. At least, not about Kowalski being in love with him. He'd heard rumors, though, that Kowalski swung both ways, and that Kowalski's sexual orientation had been part of the reason why he'd been so willing to take over Vecchio's life. Stella's words had only solidified those suspicions. Undercover meant no one knew who you'd been except a handful of trusted people, and what better way to shut up the rumor mill than taking on the life of an avidly straight, Catholic, Italian detective? There had been no way for Kowalski to be anything but heterosexual without blowing his cover.
The last thing he'd expected was for Kowalski to hit on him. It had been late, they'd been drunk, and he'd thought Kowalski was kidding. For his part, Kowalski had treated it like it had been all one great big drunken joke, and Ray had put it out of his mind.
Now, he knew differently, and it was too late to do anything that would help. He thought of the child his sister carried, and of the vow he'd made never to do anything that would hurt Frannie. He thought of Kowalski, and wondered how in the world he'd misinterpreted the clues. Now that he knew, he wasn't sure what to do about it, or even if he wanted to do anything about it. The more he thought about it, though, the more uncertain he felt.
God knew that he hadn't had much success with women. There'd been brief moments in his life, though, when he'd given passing thought to other men. Certainly, there were some people too beautiful to ignore, regardless of gender, and he'd acknowledged them while quickly assuring himself that there was nothing wrong with doing so. Confronted with the fact that someone of his own gender found him attractive, however, Ray floundered. Nothing in his life had prepared him to deal with it, and the overwhelmingly heterosexual attitude of those he associated with on a daily basis only served to reinforce his own beliefs. Yet he couldn't help but wonder if he'd been too quick to accept prejudices without any solid evidence to the contrary. He'd been wrong about so many things before, and going undercover as Armando had shown him just how wrong he'd been about his own strength of character.
Closing his eyes, Ray silently acknowledged that he was curious. He wanted to know what the hell a guy would see in him. He admitted that he wasn't about to go find some guy and ask him that, though. He wanted Kowalski to tell him, and maybe, just maybe, show him. Then he'd know for sure that he wasn't interested. Or was he just trying to find a reason for a mystery he couldn't solve?
He took a shuddering breath and opened his eyes. Who was he kidding? He'd lost any chance of finding out, and he hadn't even realized he'd even had an opportunity. In Kowalski's eyes, Ray was out of reach, and moreover, Kowalski had married Frannie as a substitute. Ray didn't know which was worse: knowing that someone had chosen another over him, or that his own sister had accepted being that second choice.
It was a long, lonely time before Ray reached over and methodically began paying the bills.
By accident and design, Ray did not see his sister or his new brother-in-law much in the next two months, spending his free time on numerous political events disguised as social functions or with Fraser, who had returned to Chicago with a minimum of fuss. Ray told himself that he wasn't avoiding his sister or Kowalski, but some part of him recognized he was only kidding himself. He felt awkward knowing the truth about their relationship, and the few times he did see them, he swore afterwards that he could tell that Kowalski still wanted him, which only made Ray that much more uncomfortable. On the few occasions when they were all together, however, Ray noticed that Kowalski treated Frannie like she was queen of his universe, and the jealousy that burned within Ray at the sight shocked him. The feeling confused and unnerved him, and he dealt with it by burying himself with work.
As a special consultant on police affairs for the mayor's office, a position Ray had taken after taking the early retirement the department had offered him, Ray's work took him to various precincts. This particular day found him following up on a high-profile murder case on the mayor's behalf. Most of the time in a situation like this, all Ray had to do was talk to the detective on the case and get a feel for what was going on so that the mayor could be properly informed. At most, he'd be done and back to his office in forty-five minutes to an hour. Today, he was counting on it; if he timed it right, he'd miss most of the traffic headed for a major convention downtown and be able to get some information out of County Records before they closed for lunch.
Ray had just finished talking to the detective on the latest high-profile case the mayor wanted information on when he heard his name being called. He turned in time to see a young sergeant hurrying his way. "Sir, there's a Constable Fraser trying to reach you. He says it's urgent."
Automatically, Ray glanced down at his belt, realizing he hadn't felt or heard his cell phone ring. Grabbing it from the belt clip, it took him only a glance to discover the battery had gone dead. He looked at the sergeant and fought to keep panic from rising. If it was Fraser, 'urgent' could be just about anything, and probably not the kind of emergency Ray would consider to be urgent. "Is he on hold?" The sergeant nodded, and motioned him over to her desk.
"What's up, Fraser?" Ray greeted as soon as he put the receiver to his ear.
"I apologize for intruding on your workday like this, Ray, but I wanted to let you know that your sister and Ray were injured. They are at Mercy Hospital."
"I'll be right there."
It didn't take Ray long to get to the hospital. His fear shot up as he saw Fraser, his brown service uniform stained with blood. "What happened?" he demanded.
"Apparently, your sister was coming up the stairs to the squad room when a suspect broke free of the officers who had arrested him. Ray tried to stop him, but the suspect punched Ray, bit him, and then shoved Francesca down the stairs before he was subdued and taken back into custody."
"Is Frannie all right?"
Fraser looked at him bleakly. "From what I could determine before the paramedics arrived, she has a broken leg, possible damage to her back, and internal bleeding. She was taken into emergency surgery to attempt to stop the bleeding and save her baby. That was an hour and a half ago, and the staff refuses to provide me with information since I am not family. I speculate, however, that she is experiencing abruptio placenta, which means that the placenta is sheered from the wall of the uterus, causing the hemorrhaging." Fraser paused, looking for once unnerved by the situation. Ray had a sudden vision of Fraser rushing to Frannie's side, trying to perform first aid, and not being able to help. The image scared him, and it took him a few precious seconds to refocus on his friend's words. "Ray had to be sedated while the doctors stitched up his arm; he was fighting with the staff because he wanted to be with Francesca."
Ray swallowed. The last thing he wanted was for his sister to be hurt, much less Kowalski. He wasted a few more minutes staring at Fraser, hoping that he'd heard wrong, hoping that Fraser would lie to him and tell him that Frannie and Kowalski would be all right. Then a doctor stepped up to them, asking if Fraser had been successful in contacting a family member, and the reality began.
As it turned out, Frannie nearly died from the blood loss, and lost the baby she was carrying. She broke her hip, her right leg, and fractured both wrists, lost consciousness twice, and on doctor's orders would spend the rest of the week in the hospital. Her husband was treated and released, and he immediately went to her room.
Ray had gone for coffee when he came back to find Kowalski in Frannie's room, just staring blankly at her as she slept. For a moment, Ray indulged himself in looking at the blond man, let himself feel the sharp ache of desire, before trying desperately to slam the door shut on those feelings. Ray set his coffee cup on the nightstand, and put a hand on the other man's shoulder to get his attention.
"Hey." Ray spoke softly, not wanting to disturb Frannie. He fought to control the sudden rush of awkwardness that he felt, the shiver of awareness that traveled through him at the feel of Kowalski's shoulder under his hand. "You oughta go home, get some rest."
Kowalski jumped at the sound of Ray's voice, dislodging his hand and nearly toppling over the chair in the process of standing up. Ray caught the metal chair before it could fall, and ended up standing a hair's breadth away from Kowalski. The shock of his proximity ran through Ray's body, freezing him in place.
For an endless moment, neither spoke. All Ray could think of was how he'd never noticed the way Kowalski looked, never paid attention to how blue his eyes were, or how rangy his body was, or how almost evenly matched their heights were. Exhaustion shadowed Kowalski's angular face, and Ray found himself wanting to erase it somehow. Over and above his desire to comfort Kowalski, Ray began to feel an unwelcome surge of excitement at the other man's nearness. It was ridiculous, Ray thought, but his pulse pounded anyway, and the pit of his stomach churned with tension. He didn't understand it, didn't want it, but even as he tried to suppress it, Ray knew the reason he'd minimized contact with Kowalski was because he'd been afraid to face his attraction to the man.
Kowalski recovered first. "You're right, I should go," he rasped in a tired voice, and stepped back, breaking the silence. "You, uh, you don't need me around."
Ray glanced at his sister, who appeared to be fast asleep, then back at Kowalski. Instantly, he made a decision. "Come on, I'll take you home."
"You just want to be sure I'm not around Frannie."
Instinctively, Ray played it cool, not wanting to show just how Kowalski's perception of him hurt. "So what if I do? Maybe I want to be sure you get home in one piece, so when my sister wakes up, she has someone to come home to." Saying that made Ray feel grounded in reality, even if the words tasted bitter in his mouth. "Feels like I've been here at this damned hospital all my life, you know? And I dunno about you, but I need a shower and something other than this bad coffee."
Kowalski hesitated. "She needs me," he argued. "It's my fault she's here anyway."
Ray looked at him strangely. "Your fault?"
"I should've stopped that bastard. I knew Roberts wasn't strong enough to handle a bruiser like Cortez, but he didn't like me interfering. Guess he had something to prove, hell if I know what it was. It was only because Cortez came tearing towards me that I even had a shot of getting him, and I was too busy being pissed off at him biting me, and being glad that Frannie wasn't in the room. I had him, and I let him go."
"Sounds like he didn't give you much choice."
"If I'd stopped him, he wouldn't have gone down the stairs, and Frannie wouldn't have — "
"That's a crock of shit, Kowalski," Ray interrupted him. "You psychic?" At Kowalski's startled look, Ray continued, "What's to say this perp wouldn't have run into Frannie anyway? If he bit you and fought past the other cops, which it sounds like he did, then he was one hyped up S.O.B."
He paused. "Now, you gonna come home with me so my sister doesn't think you haven't been taking care of yourself, and yell at me for not making sure you were?"
He was rewarded with a reluctant smile from the other man. "She would, wouldn't she?" he murmured. Kowalski's gaze traveled back to Frannie, and Ray knew that he had to hustle him out of the room before he got more morose than he already was.
It took some effort, but finally, Ray got him home. After dropping him off at his apartment, Ray drove home, and tried not to think about how broken up Kowalski looked, or how he still wanted him.
Somehow, Ray wasn't too surprised to find himself back at Kowalski's apartment a few hours later. He was greeted suspiciously.
"What do you want?" Kowalski asked, opening the door wide enough to let Ray inside.
"Answers," Ray admitted, stepping in and shutting it behind him. He stared at the blond man. "You love my sister."
"I married her, didn't I?"
"You married her because she was going to have your baby."
"You think I'm not gonna stay married to her because she lost it?" Kowalski growled. "You're dead wrong."
"Am I? You don't love her. Not like you love me."
For a moment, Kowalski said nothing. His silence damned him. "You made it clear you didn't want it."
"Funny, I don't remember you giving me much of a chance."
"What the hell was I supposed to do, Ray? Kiss you?" He snorted in disbelief, his expression bitter and resigned. "I know you. Maybe better than you know yourself, 'cause I had to be you. You would've run screaming in the opposite direction, and you pretty much did, the one time I offered. Guess I just wasn't expecting you to go running to Stella. Messed with my head, you know? That you'd want her and not me." He paused. "Not that it matters. You won't do anything to hurt Frannie, and I'm not about to start. Not after what she's been through. I can guess what you came here for, and I'm telling you, Ray, you're about seven months too late. Maybe someday I'll kick myself for it, but I promised Frannie a lot of important things. I screwed up one marriage already. Go home, Ray." He turned and walked into the kitchen, clearly dismissing the other man.
Some stubborn perversity made Ray stay. He couldn't, wouldn't accept that this was the end, that the feelings he'd just discovered he held for Kowalski would be so easily rejected. It didn't seem possible. Anger rose within him. "So this is it?" he demanded, storming into the kitchen.
"What do you want me to do? Cheat on your sister?" Kowalski demanded, setting the soda bottle he'd just retrieved out of the refrigerator on the counter with a violent thump and shutting the refrigerator door hard. "The answer is no."
"No, of course not, but— "
"But what, Vecchio?" He stepped closer, his eyes glittering with frustration. "I made my choices, and I'm standing by 'em. Now get the hell out, dear brother-in-law, before one of us does something we both will regret."
Ray couldn't think of anything to dispute that. He could see the regret in the other man's eyes, the longing that hadn't died, as well as the loyalty and love that bound him to Frannie. For a moment, Ray fought against his own sense of ethics, cursing them even as he agreed with its strictures.
He wouldn't hurt Frannie for the world.
Would never be the other man in a relationship involving a married couple.
Would never throw himself at someone who so clearly had rebuffed him...even if Ray could see that doing so cost Kowalski.
Would never cross the line between being Kowalski's brother-in-law and being his lover.
It wasn't him. Maybe on some desperate night when nothing else mattered and tomorrow would never come.... and maybe not even then. Kowalski knew it, and Ray could only respect him more for understanding him better than he did himself.
He closed his eyes, unable to bear seeing the truth reflected in Kowalski's face, hating the way things were. This wasn't the movies, where happily-ever-after was guaranteed, and morals be damned. Kowalski was as honorable as he was. There was no turning back time, no going back to that moment where a decision had been made.
Ray had to leave now, before the pain became too much, before he did something he'd regret. But, oh, this was turning into one huge regret already, and he couldn't stop it from being the hardest thing he'd ever not done. As he turned to go, he thought he heard his heart shatter into a million fractured pieces, and knew he would always be alone.
Still, he couldn't leave without saying something. His hand on the doorknob, with the door cracked just enough for his foot, Ray paused and turned slightly so his words wouldn't spill out into the hallway, but not enough so that he was looking at the other man. "Take care of my sister, you hear?" he told Kowalski fiercely, and walked out the door.
"Fare thee well
Trade in all our words for tea and sympathy
And wonder why we tried, for things could never be"
- Jars of Clay, "Tea and Sympathy"
9.4.00 Raine Wynd