DueSouth Seekrit Santa Story


flying into the ocean, driving with their eyes closed

for pir8fancier

by justbreathe80

Author's Notes: MANY thanks to brooklinegirl for the beta, and for telling me that I COULD write this craziness, and to aerye for thinking highly enough of me to think I could write this thing.

Ray sat on the patio and watched Stella through the French doors, where she was standing in the kitchen. She had the phone resting between her ear and her shoulder and was gesturing with one of her hands.

Kowalski again.

Stella put her hand on her hip and he could see her chest heave with a heavy sigh. The hot, humid breeze blew across the pool and the patio and would have ruffled his hair, if he had any left. He still wasn't quite used to the nights down here, because at that moment in Chicago, you'd probably lose an extremity if you sat outside in linen pants and a shirt with the sleeves rolled up.

He loved Florida.

Finally, Stella turned off the phone and slid open the door, stepping in her heeled sandals out onto the flagstones. She walked over and flung herself into the lounger next to Ray.

"I'm not sure I can take much more of this. I told him not to call here anymore," Stella said, clearly irritated.

Ray sighed and folded his arms behind his head. "Give the guy a break, Stel."

Stella sat up quickly, a few strands of her blonde hair falling out of her ponytail and around her face. Ray Vecchio's wife was a truly beautiful woman. "You want me to give my ex-husband - who, I might remind you, you can't stand - a break?"

"It's just - I mean, he's back in Chicago, right?" Stella was absolutely fucking right - he had no love for Ray Kowalski. His partner's ex-partner. His wife's ex-husband.

Stella kicked off her sandals in the direction of the pool and settled back down. "Yeah. Sounds like the good Constable sent him packing. He's a mess. He just cries most of the time, and apologizes, and says he's sorry, for what I have no idea, and it's just goddamn awful."

Ray didn't know why, but he felt bad for the guy. He must be hurting, and Ray knew what it was like to lose someone you cared about. He'd been through it enough damn times himself. So, he figured, why the hell not?

"Invite him down."

"What?" Stella said, her voice going up, shooting him a look that must have had bad guys shaking in their boots on the stand back in Chicago.

"Invite the poor bastard down. Maybe he needs a vacation, and it doesn't sound like he has anybody or anything up there. We could stand it for a few days, right? It'd be the nice thing to do."

"You have got to be fucking kidding me."

"Do what you want, Stel, I'm just saying."

They lay there for a few minutes, staring up at the moon and listening to the sound of the waves crashing gently a few hundred feet away. It still made him smile, just a bit, because he'd never even seen the ocean until they moved here, and now it was right there. Any time of the day or night. It was pretty fucking amazing.

Then, Stella eased herself up from the lounger, padding off across the patio and back to the house, calling back, "If it's awful, I blame you," before sliding open the door and reaching for the phone.

The truth was, things weren't good. They'd gotten married way too fast, which they should have known better than to do, but he had gotten shot and nothing seemed to make any sense but her, so he asked and she said yes, and before he knew it, they were getting married at city hall and taking the next flight to Florida.

Stella wanted to get the hell out of Chicago for once in her life, and Ray couldn't stand the cold anymore.

They'd landed in a small town about forty-five minutes south of Tampa, on the Gulf Coast, where the green sea lapped gently (most of the time) against the pale sand. Neither of them had a clue what they wanted to be doing, except be with each other and not be anywhere near the parade of ghosts back in Chicago. It almost seemed fitting that, within a couple of weeks, they had signed their names to two mortgages. A brand-new house that was more expensive than anything Ray had ever had in his life, right on the water, and a bowling alley about seven miles inland.

Well, okay, things had been good for a while. They were happy. They couldn't keep their hands off of each other, fucking every morning and every night for months, not being able to get enough of each other. Stella's skin was pale, her hair was fine and soft between his fingers as he held onto her and slid into her warm, welcoming body. She was everything he wanted.

They owned a business, though, which was a hell of a lot harder than it looked, and the problems started there. Stella took exception to how he ran the books, how they marketed the place, what kind of shoes they bought - every damn thing. He offered to let her do it - hell, she probably could do it better - but she just rolled her eyes and walked away every time he suggested it.

It took a few more months for the fights to creep from the bowling alley into their house, but they did, eventually. They were about nothing and everything, from the laundry to the bills to what Ray watched on TV, and Ray found himself driving the little BMW convertible down the shore highway more nights than not, feeling the salty, balmy air on his face. Just to get out of the house.

It wasn't all bad. He loved her, god, he loved her so much, had since the first moment he saw her in the 27th. She was everything he wanted: beautiful, smart as hell, tough, and sexy, and he wasn't sorry. He just wished he knew how to make it better. They were both a mess when it came to this, and neither of them had a track record that was any goddamn good at all.

Kowalski flew in on a Wednesday evening, when Stella was out for drinks with some friends from town. She was probably punishing him for telling her to invite him in the first place by making him go get him by himself. Ray drove up to Tampa, taking the long stretch of highway over the bay to the airport. Stella swore up and down when she bustled out of the bowling alley, purse over her shoulder, that she'd be home before they got back from the airport.

The last damn thing he wanted was to be alone longer than he had to with his wife's fucked-up ex-husband.

He pulled up to the Southwest terminal, and kept the car on, engine purring quietly underneath him, while he waited for Kowalski. He fingered his sunglasses absentmindedly and checked the mirrors, watching the sun set huge behind the car.

Ray heard someone clear their throat across the open top of the convertible, and when he turned around, there was Kowalski. He looked like he did the last time Ray had seen him, maybe a little thinner, a little paler, but the same. Stupid fucking hair, baggy jeans, white t-shirt, leather jacket. It had to be at least 75 degrees out, but Kowalski was dressed for a Chicago November.

"Hey, Vecchio," Kowalski said, the corners of his mouth turning up, just a little. "Nice wheels. Bet Stella loves this car." Kowalski tossed his duffle in the backseat and then opened the passenger's side door, getting in and shifting around a bit on the leather seat.

"Damn right she likes it. And besides, I had to settle for it after someone drove my Riv into the fucking lake." He pulled away from the curb. Kowalski was laughing.

"Jesus, you gonna get over that any time this century? It was - it wasn't my damn fault anyway." Kowalski pushed his own sunglasses down onto his face and looked out of the window as Ray turned out of the airport and onto the 275, crossing the bay again, this time with the pale orange glow of the sun on the water.

"The century is almost over," Ray said, pressing his foot down steadily on the pedal, feeling the quiet, German-made engine come to life, taking the 275 at 80 miles an hour all the way home.

Stella's silver Mercedes E320 was in the driveway when they pulled up, and Ray was fucking relieved, because he'd already suffered through forty-five minutes of silence in the car with Kowalski, who was practically hanging out of the window as they drove down the Gulf, like he'd never seen anything like it.

Maybe he hadn't. Vecchio knew first-hand how this place was nothing like Chicago, and he'd probably looked the same the first time he came here.

They both got out of the car, shutting the doors softly (couldn't shut them anything but softly on a BMW 6 Series Convertible), and Ray reached back to haul Kowalski's duffle bag out and sling it over his shoulder.

Kowalski stood there, next to the car. "Jesus, Vecchio, I can carry my own damn bag. I'm not a delicate flower or anything."

"Shut up, Kowalski."

The front door opened, and Stella stepped outside, with a dark blue, flowy skirt and white sleeveless top on, her hair loose around her shoulders. Suddenly, everything fell away, and Ray was smiling, walking toward his house and his beautiful, brilliant wife, and he could just pretend that her ex-husband wasn't walking next to him. That he and Stella was just perfect.

"Ray," Stella said, leaning forward to kiss him, almost chastely, on the mouth. She turned slightly, toward Kowalski. "Ray."

It was awkward as hell, as Kowalski had one hand jammed deep into his pocket, the other draping his jacket over his shoulder. He just looked at Stella, with this totally sad and naked look in his eyes. "Hey, Stella."

Stella sighed and stepped forward, wrapping her arms around Kowalski in a quick hug. "It's the least I can do for you. You did come all the way down here to visit us, after all."

Well, this was going to be fun. "How about we take this inside? Kowalski apparently brought rocks with him from Chicago." Stella stepped aside, her face shuttered, and Vecchio couldn't figure out what she was thinking.

"You hungry, Kowalski?" he asked as he dumped the bag inside the front door. Kowalski looked kind of confused, maybe just by this whole thing, as Stella walked ahead quietly and turned on the stove.


Three bottles of wine and a whole panful of chicken piccata later and things were better. Not easy, but not as fucking stupid as this all seemed when he drove up with Kowalski in tow. Stella seemed to have gotten over whatever the hell was bothering her, and she was actually smiling, laughing even, as Kowalski told a story about some kind of muskrat festival up in North Buttfuck, and how Fraser had tried to convince him that it was honoring the muskrats or some shit to skin them. Just like Benny.

They had three loungers next to the pool, and Stella got up, walking a little carefully to go flip the switch next to the door which turned on the lights in the pool, glowing green and blue under the surface of the water as Stella made her way back to her chair.

"God," Kowalski said, his story apparently over, at least for the moment. "It's like, forty degrees in Chicago right now. This place ain't right."

"If this ain't right, I don't wanna know what is," Ray shot back, watching Kowalski grin at him quickly. And as fast as it came, the grin was gone. The night was a little cooler than the night before, but it was still warm, breezy. Then Kowalski was up, padding in his bare feet (he'd lost his shoes along with the second bottle) to the door, sliding it shut behind him.

Ray closed his eyes, taking deep breaths, trying to keep the patio from swirling around him. He felt a cool, small hand on his, and he twined his fingers with Stella, hearing her sigh and take another sip from her glass. They were getting along better than they had in weeks, months even, and it was like the weirdness of Kowalski being there made them come together in solidarity.

"Listen, Ray, I -" but Stella cut herself off at the sound of the door sliding open again. When Ray opened his eyes, there was Kowalski, standing on the patio, wearing nothing but a truly hideous pair of purple swim trunks. Jesus.

Kowalski walked over, grinning like a little kid, before moving to a sitting position and dipping his toes in the water. "God. That's awesome," he whispered, before bracing himself on his arms to slide into the water.

"Ray!" Stella said loudly, almost jumping out of her seat. Ray heard her wine glass tip and break on the concrete. "Be careful!"

Kowalski's head bobbed back up, his hair wet and plastered to his head. He looked like a little kid, and he was still smiling, just a little. "I'm okay, Mom," he called to Stella.

"It's just that -" Stella eased herself back down onto the lounger, her breath coming fast. She reached up to push her hair behind her ears. "You don't know how to swim."

Ray watched as Kowalski dove down into the water, gliding almost gracefully, his skin pale. He seemed to be doing just fine. When he broke the surface again, he said, "Yeah, well, Fraser made me learn, back in Chicago. It was after we got trapped on a sinking boat and - well, never mind. I just promised him I'd take lessons. So I did. Turns out I'm kind of a natural."

Fraser. Jesus. Ray found himself grinning, coming up with a hundred different scenarios for how Fraser could get his partner stuck on a sinking boat, and he believed every damn one of them.

"You're not dead, anyway," Ray called back to Kowalski.

"Such a fucking sweetheart, Vecchio." Kowalski was pulling himself out of the pool, hoisting himself up onto the edge before standing up. Water was running from his hair down his spine and onto the concrete. Ray had always thought that Kowalski was a skinny, wiry fuck, but he was also kind of cut. Apparently, Canada had been kind to Kowalski physically, if not mentally. He looked good.

Kowalski stretched his arms out and bent his back, pushing himself off of the side with his feet and diving into the water with almost no splash. Ray thought he heard Stella gasp lightly, and when he turned his head, Stella was starting, her tongue out against her bottom lips, her eyes shining. She looked like -

Well, well. Stella was getting turned on by her ex-husband. She looked like she did right before she climbed on top of Ray in bed, when she still did that. Fuck.

Ray turned back, and yeah, he kind of got it. Kowalski was doing a simple crawl stroke, his lightly muscled arms breaking the surface of the water and curving back in, his legs kicking and moving. Ray licked his own lips. He was a secure guy. He could admit when another guy was attractive and he couldn't blame Stella for responding to it. His own hand came down to rest on his thigh, and he pressed it lightly against his dick in his pants.

Later that night, they'd barely gotten in the bedroom door and shut it around when Stella was on him, pressing him up against the wall. "Come on," she urged. "Come on, Ray." She was pulling off her white top, her breasts small and beautiful in the lace cups of her bra, and he swallowed hard when her skirt fell off and pooled on the floor around her feet.

It hadn't been like this, like they were teenagers, like they couldn't help themselves, since those first months, and it was fucking great. Stella was alive under his hands, and he pushed her, gently, onto her back on the bed.

He knew he should be more careful, take his time, but he couldn't help himself, and when he slid inside her wet, tight pussy, she groaned and closed her eyes tight. He slowed down a little, pulling out and pushing back in, making her take him, working for it. Making sure she knew who was fucking her.

It was a Tuesday in January when Ray came home, and Stella's car was in the driveway when he pulled up. He'd been out having a drink with some of the guys who were regulars down at the alley.

The front door was open and the house was quiet, and he hung his suit jacket up in the front hall and toed off his shoes. When he rounded the corner, his heart stopped.

Stella was sitting at the dining room table, facing him. She had three bags sitting next to her.

"Jesus Christ," he said, not even sure why. He wasn't fucking stupid, and he knew exactly what was going on here.

"Hi, Ray," Stella said, her voice soft. "Can you sit?"

He walked closer and sat down next to her. "Where you going?"

Stella reached one hand across the table and grasped his. "Back to Chicago, I think. I don't know."

"Okay." Except not one damn thing was okay.

"Listen, I'm sorry -"

Ray sighed and let go of her hand, leaning back in his chair. "What do you got to be sorry about? Huh?"

Stella looked right at him, right in the eye, not wavering, and god, he loved her. "I don't know. I have no fucking clue."

"Well, baby, we did the best we could, right?"

"I know, I know that...hell, maybe I'm just not cut out for this, you know? And I just can't sit around and watch this one fall apart until I can't even stand you anymore. I can't do that again." Stella's breath was coming jagged into the room. "So I'm going to go, okay?"

Ray looked over at her. She was so fucking beautiful, so smart, so brave, and he knew that she was right, even though it was tearing him into a million little pieces. "Yeah, okay." He reached over and clasped his hand behind her neck, feeling the warm, smooth skin there, the brush of her hair against the back of his hand. "I'm gonna miss the hell out of you. I love you."

Stella smiled, and it was like the sun in the morning when it came up over the water. Ray pulled her closer and kissed her, her hands coming up to rest on his chest. When they pulled away from each other, she was still smiling. "Thanks. I love you too."

And she was gone.

It was a Sunday in February when Ray came home to his quiet, empty house, and let himself into the front door. It had been three weeks since Stella took off back to Chicago, and she'd called once to say that she'd gotten in safely and once to say that she'd gotten a lawyer. Surprisingly, he was sad, but it was good to talk to her. The last divorce had been full of screaming and yelling and moving back in with his ma, and this one was quiet and a little sad and kind of a relief. Stella sounded better, lighter somehow, and he found that he was doing okay by himself here.

He loved Florida, he loved the water and the sand and the ugly, too-bright colors that everybody liked to use here, and the fat, stupid tourists who didn't use sunscreen, and the old guys down at the bowling alley who played the leagues. And he liked his quiet, too-big house, and he spent most of his nights sitting out on his front yard (which was the fucking beach, and it didn't get much better than that) and watching the tide come up.

Ray'd never been alone in his life, and he thought he maybe couldn't handle it, but he could. He cooked ridiculous meals and ate half of them, taking the rest in to the guys who worked for him for lunch. He lounged around in his boxers and left the toilet seat up and drank cheap, disgusting beer.

That night, he came home and flopped down on the couch, not even taking off his shoes, and flipped on the TV. The Devil Rays, god, no way, but they were playing the White Sox, so he stuck it out for a little while, relaxing back against the cushions.

He wasn't sure how long he'd been asleep when he heard the knock at the door, which didn't make any sense at all, since they hadn't had a single unexpected visitor in the year they'd been here. He shook himself awake and half-stumbled to the door, turning the knob and flinging it open.

"What -" he started to say, but when he looked up, the words died in his mouth.

Because there was Kowalski, standing there in black t-shirt and jeans and a smile, the black duffle slung over his shoulder. Jesus.

"Hey, Vecchio."

"What the hell are you doing here?"

Kowalski laughed and stepped forward, and Ray stepped back instinctively. "Aren't you going to invite me in?"

Ray blinked, because he couldn't get this to come together in his head. That Kowalski was here, in his house, in Florida. Again. What the hell was going on?

Despite his better judgment, he stepped aside and let Kowalski in. Kowalski turned around and said, "Can I have my old room back?" Ray just looked at him, and Kowalski took off up the stairs with his bag.

Ray was sitting at the kitchen counter on the stool with his head in his hands when Kowalski came back downstairs. "Listen, Vecchio, let me explain."

Ray looked up and shook his head. "This should be good."

Kowalski took the stool next to him, sitting a little too close and making Ray's head spin. Maybe he was still half-asleep, but he almost felt drunk. "I ran into Stella. She came by the station to say she was back, and told me you were still here, and, well - I figured, you did me a favor when I needed it. It was the least I could do to try to pay you back for that, right?"

"And you're helping me by showing up at my house? I don't get it."

Kowalski sighed and ran one hand through his stupid fucking hair. "It's like this, right? When I came back from Canada, after Fraser and I split, I was a mess, and the last thing I needed was to be alone, and coming down here? Well, it should have been fucked and a really bad idea, but it wasn't. It was the best thing I did, because it helped me figure out that I needed to move on, you know? And I figure, well, maybe you might need the same thing."

Ray stood up suddenly. Fuck this. "Well, actually, I'm quite enjoying being alone. I love it. So thanks, really, but I'm good. You can go now."

Kowalski was quiet, and stayed in his chair. "Okay, well, I'm gonna stay the night, if that's okay, and if you still want me to go tomorrow, I will."

Ray woke up sweating, pushing the light blanket and the sheets off of himself violently. When he rolled over, he saw that the clock said it was 4:27. He lay there, on his back, staring up into the dark and trying to breathe, damn it, when he finally gave up and got out of bed, grabbing his robe.

He walked out of the door of the house and onto the soft sand, feeling it sink and fall beneath his toes. Sometimes he came out here at night, more nights than not now, letting the breeze clear his head and help him sleep again.

As he got closer to the water, he saw a figure standing at the edge, where the water met the sand. A few steps more and he could make out Kowalski's spiky hair, his long, bare legs, his toes in the water. "Couldn't sleep?" Kowalski said softly, kicking gently at the sand.

"Nope." Ray closed his eyes and took a deep breath.

"Yeah, me either." Kowalski said. "Wanna take a walk?"

Ray honestly had no idea what on earth he wanted when it came to anything, so he nodded and followed Kowalski, who was walking slowly, for once. Ray could feel the water rolling over his feet as they walked, and he was ridiculously grateful that Kowalski was keeping his mouth shut. He looked out on the water, which was shining under the moonlight.

"You love it here, don't you?"

Ray looked over at Kowalski, who was smiling faintly. His hair was blonder than the last time Ray had seen him. "Yeah. I do."

"Don't miss the 2-7?"

"You know, I thought I would. We didn't even mean to end up here, just came down here on a whim and then decided to buy the bowling alley when we drove by it. I think we were both looking for something here."

"I get that."

"But I fell in love with it. How could I not?" He gestured at the beach and the house behind them.

Kowalski grinned. "Yeah. I can see why."

They walked a little further in silence, and Kowalski knelt down to pick up a shell. Ray watched him, the cuffs of his jeans wet and his t-shirt riding up in the back, exposing the small of his back. The little glimpse of skin made Ray flash back to the night, Kowalski in those stupid swim trunks in the pool. Ray got suddenly and instantly hard, and his head was swimming. Jesus.

"So, Kowalski, listen. You can stay if you want." Kowalski looked up at him, and Ray could tell that his eyebrow was quirked up even in the dark. "I mean, you don't have to." He wasn't sure why he just said that, but he was sure that it was dumb. He didn't need Kowalski there, he wasn't sure he wanted Kowalski there at all, but he suddenly didn't want to be alone. That was all.

Kowalski got to his feet and smoothed his hands down the front of his jeans, before looking up at Ray with unwavering eyes. "Okay, yeah. I'll stay a little while, then."

The next day, Ray woke up at 10 a.m., and felt more well-rested then he had in ages. He hadn't realized how little he slept, how many nights he spent staring out at the water.

He groaned and turned over in bed and took a deep breath. And smelled coffee.


When he finally dragged himself out of bed and slipped into his bathrobe and slippers, he could smell something like breakfast wafting up the stairs. Sure enough, Kowalski was standing over the stove, cursing.

"Hey," Ray said, making a beeline for the percolator.

"Good morning, Sleeping Beauty," Kowalski said cheerfully. Then, he hissed sharply. "Fuck."

"Breakfast, huh?" Ray asked, smiling and sliding into a stool with his mug firmly in his hands. "Smells, uh - is something burning?"

"Yeah, yeah. Didn't Ma teach you that it's the thought that counts?" Kowalski turned back around to start turning off the burners and plating the food.

Ray waited until he'd tasted off the plate that Kowalski slid in front of him, before he said, "Thanks." Because it was actually pretty good.

Kowalski sat next to him and tucked into his plate, eating quickly and making happy noises. Ray realized a few seconds too late, when Kowalski cleared his throat and grinned at him, that he had set his fork down and was just watching Kowalski eat. "Sorry," Ray mumbled, before dropping his head back down.

"No big deal," Kowalski said, his mouth half-full. "So, what's on the schedule for today?"

"The schedule?"

"Yeah, you know. What the hell do you do that you can get up at 10 a.m.?"

Ray took a sip of his coffee. "Well, Jimmy opens the bowling alley, so I usually head down there in the middle of the day, stay through to the evening."

"Oh," Kowalski said.

"What, you wanna come or something?"

Kowalski paused, then put his fork down on the countertop with a clink. "Yeah. That okay?"

Jeez, Ray was surprised as hell that Kowalski gave a shit about coming down, he didn't have any idea why, but it couldn't hurt to have him there, show him around a bit. Keep him from "cooking" any more meals in Ray's kitchen. Ray downed the last of his coffee and set the mug down. "Okay then. We leave in twenty minutes."

Kowalski did good - really, really good - down at the bowling alley. Ray had been nervous, but then he remembered that Kowalski wasn't trying to be anything but what he was - a Polish guy from a bad neighborhood in Chicago who worked hard his whole life. The guys down at the bowling alley, the regulars, they were just like him, and Kowalski was having a beer with Jimmy and Dave at the bar within a half an hour.

Ray snuck away and went to his office, working the books for a while until he heard a whoop come from outside. When he got up and opened the door, leaning against the doorframe, he saw Kowalski with his arms in the air, yelling and running around in front of Lane 12. With the guys from Lenny's Auto Parts.

"Hey, Kowalski," he called. Kowalski was grinning when he turned around. "Keep it down out there!"

"Shut the hell up," Kowalski yelled back, and the guys started laughing. Dave O'Leary clapped Kowalski on the back and asked him, "You sticking around for a while, Ray?"

Kowalski paused, and looked up at Ray, who suddenly felt like everything was slowing down or in some kind of fog. Because watching Kowalski out there, comfortable like Stella never had been and wanting to be there - it was nice. Really nice.

"Maybe, Dave. We'll have to see." With that, Kowalski was bounding up the stairs and coming to a stop right in front of Ray, just a little too close, like he always was. "Hey."

"Hey, yourself. Ready to head back?" Ray clasped his hands behind his back, because he was this close to wrapping them around Kowalski's waist.

"Yeah, sounds good."

After Ray and Kowalski said goodbye and got into the car, Ray drove them just a little too fast back to the house. Kowalski was looking out the window and smiling, just a little, and he looked happy. Nothing like he'd looked when he was there the last time, in the car on the ride from the airport.

"You hungry?" Ray asked, because food always seemed like a good idea when he didn't know what the hell else to say.

"Starving," Kowalski replied, and he dropped his hand down to the seat, brushing his fingertips along the outside seam of Ray's pants. Ray was instantly, mind-bogglingly hard, and was overjoyed that they'd made it back to the house without him crashing his very, very nice car.

Ray had made a simple alfredo sauce and pasta for dinner, which Kowalski ate with gusto, which seemed to be his thing. Although Ray was insanely jealous that he could eat a huge plate of alfredo and probably stay skinny, the fuck. Kowalski asked for a second helping and Ray brought back a bottle of really good pinot noir, which they polished off with the last of dinner.

Ray's head was just a little foggy, but not too much - he felt good and relaxed like he hadn't been since - well, he couldn't actually remember. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, savoring it, before blinking his eyes open again.

"You wanna swim?" Kowalski was up, stretching his hands over his head and making his t-shirt ride up, and Ray squeezed his eyes shut, because for the second time that day, he had to physically restrain himself from touching Kowalski, and it was driving him crazy.

"Swim? Aren't you supposed to wait an hour after you eat or something?"

"Fuck that, Vecchio, come on," and Kowalski was grabbing his hands and practically dragging him through the French doors and onto the patio. Kowalski let him go, and grabbed the hem of his own t-shirt and pulled it up and off. Ray's heart started pounding when Kowalski's hands moved down to start working open the button of his jeans. "Jesus, Kowalski, what are you doing?"

"Swimming. What does it look like?" And then the jeans were hitting the ground, followed by the boxers. Ray just stood there, staring, because Kowalski looked as good as he had the last time he swam in Ray's pool, except he hadn't seen Kowalski's dick the last time, and he couldn't decide if that was good or bad.

"Yoo hoo, Vecchio. Up here." Ray jerked his head up, feeling the blush spread and hoping that his tan covered.

Kowalski walked naked to the edge of the pool. "You coming?" he asked, grinning, before he dove in.

Ray knew that he was at one of those points where he could tell Kowalski to get the hell out of his pool and put his goddamn clothes back on, pretend this hadn't happened, and send Kowalski packing back to Chicago the next day. Or there was option two.

Ray never said that he always made good decisions.

He unbuttoned his shirt and pushed it off of his shoulders, then dropped his pants and underwear in the pile before sliding into the water. It was warm and felt good. Kowalski was swimming around, the lights in the pool bright against his skin.

God, Ray had no clue what he was doing, but he was painfully aware of Kowalski naked near him and the fact that Ray seemed to be really okay with that, surprisingly. He wanted to freak out, because he shouldn't be okay with this, but he just leaned back against the concrete edge of the pool and watched Kowalski's body move under the water.

Then Kowalski was swimming over, his arms breaking the surface of the water on each stroke. He stopped mere inches away from Ray, and he could Kowalski's warm skin across the short distance. Kowalski leaned forward and bracketed Ray's head between his hands braced on the edge. "You gonna swim?"

"Nah, I'm good. I'll just watch." He tried to sound nonchalant, but he even he could hear the edge to his voice.

Kowalski looked at him hard, his eyes going black, before he leaned in closer. "You wanna do more than watch?"

Ray bit back a groan. "No."

"You're such a fucking liar. You've wanted me since the first time I came here."

"Fuck you."

"Okay," Kowalski said, and he leaned in, pressing his lips against Ray's, and Ray let the groan go and pushed his tongue against Kowalski's lips. He knew it didn't make any sense, and they sure as hell didn't make a damn bit of sense together, but he knew how it made him feel to watch Kowalski. Who was so fucking sexy. God. He reached up a hand to cup Kowalski's jaw, running his fingertips along the stubble there.

Kowalski was kissing him so fucking good, stroking his tongue into Ray's mouth and it was great, and he felt Kowalski push closer and Kowalski's dick push into his thigh. Jesus. He wanted this, he had wanted this, wanted him. Ray reached down through the water and grasped Kowalski's dick in his fist.

"Jesus fuck," Kowalski gasped, pulling his mouth away from Ray's before his buried his face in Ray's neck, kissing him and licking his earlobe, driving him crazy. Kowalski was moving his hips slow and steady, fucking Ray's hand, and Ray was just losing it at how good Kowalski felt, slick and hard and soft in his hand.

"Come on," Ray said, low and desperate into Kowalski's ear. "Come on, baby."

Kowalski moaned like he was dying, but he was backing off, pulling away. "Wait," he said, gasping and pushing himself back from the wall.

"What the fuck?" Ray'd thought they were on the same page here. Kowalski had started it after all. "You change your mind?"

"Hell no," Kowalski drawled, coming closer again. "I just - I'm all pruny, and - can we take this somewhere more comfortable?"

Oh. "Um, yeah. Yeah, let's go."

They hauled themselves out of the pool and dripped water all of the way upstairs. Kowalski paused outside of his room (Jesus, the guy had been there once before and already had a room?), asking Ray a question with his eyes. Ray stopped, because he wasn't sure he was ready for this, if this was right, but before he could worry himself out of it, he was pulling Kowalski toward Ray's own room. His room that he'd shared with Stella.

Kowalski pushed Ray down on his back on the mattress as soon as they got into the room, and grinned as he dropped down to his knees, taking Ray into his mouth and pretty much blowing his mind in all senses of the phrase, until Ray was panting and begging and coming down Kowalski's throat.

It was like there were a thousand ghosts in the room when he got Kowalski up off of the floor and onto his back on the bed, stretched out and, well - fucking gorgeous like that on the bed. They didn't talk about them; they didn't talk about anything. Ray didn't want to think about that, not right now, not as he jerked Kowalski off, making him cry out and come all over Ray's hand and the wet sheets.

It didn't take Ray too long to figure out that Kowalski wasn't going anywhere, or that this was maybe a thing that they had going here, because Kowalski was making drinks at the bar down at the alley most days and slouching against the doorframe of Ray's office looking like fucking jailbait, which was just wrong considering he was pushing forty. And Kowalski's clothes were draped over the chair in the bedroom and in the drawers, and their toothbrushes were side-by-side in the master bath. They didn't talk about it, but Ray didn't ask Kowalski to stay or leave. Didn't ask a damn thing of him.

Truth was, it worked for him. Kowalski was nothing like Stella, and Ray could see why they didn't work, right from the beginning, because Kowalski was a mess in every sense of the word. He could burn pasta and he drank too much and swore too much and wore the worst clothes in the entire world, to the point where Ray was almost embarrassed to be seen with him in public, until he got distracted by his ass in those jeans.

And, god, Kowalski even had shitty taste in cars, because it took him weeks of driving Stella's E320 around before he grudgingly admitted that it was an okay car.

Ray kind of forgot all about that when the sun streamed in the window in the morning, and Ray woke up with Kowalski's warm, wet mouth on his dick. Or falling into bed at night, Kowalski turning over onto his hands and knees and Ray sinking into him, fucking him so good. When they were like that, he couldn't remember anything that drove him crazy about Kowalski.

And sure, they weren't talking about any number of things that they should probably be talking about, like their shared ex-wife and ex-partner and what the fuck they were doing here.

One Sunday morning in August, Kowalski bent over the sports section, muttering about how shitty the Cubs were and clutching his coffee mug for dear life, the phone rang. Ray picked the cordless up off of the table.


"Hi, Ray." Fuck.

"Uh, hey, Stel. How are you?" Kowalski's head jerked up, his eyes wide and staring. She hadn't called in months, not since Kowalski came down here and never left, and it was almost like they'd managed to forget her. As much as either of them could.

"I'm good. Really good. Chicago is - well, it's Chicago. How're things?"

"They're good. Business is doing real well, and I started a Thursday afternoon ladies league."

"I'm glad to hear it. Listen, Ray, I did call for a reason." When he looked out of the corner of his eye, Kowalski was leaning back in his chair, nursing his coffee and listening intently.

"Okay. What's up?"

"Well, I got the divorce papers from my lawyer, to sign." Wow, okay. Things with Stella had ended so easily that he barely remembered that they were divorcing, because in his head divorce was mean and nasty and cruel. Something that Kowalski and Stella probably knew all too well. He'd almost assumed that it was done with, but then he remembered that his lawyer had said something about waiting on papers.

"You wanna send them to me?"

"Well, I was actually thinking - if you don't mind - I thought I'd bring them to you. Come down for a couple of days."

Fuck. This was a spectacularly bad idea, because Kowalski was sitting across the dining room table from him and he had pretty much moved into Ray's house and his life, and now his soon-to-be-ex-wife wanted to courier his divorce papers down personally so that they could what? Say goodbye to their marriage together? For old times' sake? "Listen, Stel -"

"I know, I just - I don't want this to be like that, you know? I love you, Ray, and I don't want to end our marriage through lawyers. Unless they're me," Stella said resolutely.

Ray sighed. He knew that it was the right thing to do, the best thing. "All right. But listen, I gotta tell you something."

Stella laughed softly. "What, you have a woman down there or something?"

"Um. Not exactly."

"Well, what then?" Stella said impatiently. Ray looked over at Kowalski, trying to figure out what to do. Kowalski leaned over and put his empty coffee mug on the table, reaching his hand out thread his fingers with Ray's.

"I ain't ashamed of you, Vecchio," Kowalski whispered, before kissing the skin below Ray's ear and settling back in his chair. He held tight to Ray's hand.

"Kowalski's here."

"Ray is there?" Stella sounded like she was trying to desperately wrap her brain around the concept.

"Yeah, he came down after you left. Trying to return the favor, he said, and, well - he stayed." Ray swallowed hard. "He's staying."

"Oh." Stella's voice was soft and clear over the line. "Wow. I don't - you and Ray, huh?"

Kowalski squeezed his hand, hard. "Yeah, crazy, huh?"

"Can't say I blame you. I've been there."

Ray laughed, and Stella was laughing too, and everything was better, suddenly. "So, when will you be here?"

Stella arrived late on a Saturday afternoon, pulling her cherry-red, rented convertible into the driveway and stepping out onto the driveway. Ray and Kowalski were standing on the front steps.

God, Stella looked fantastic; she was wearing a short white sundress, and her legs were still - yeah. She still had it, and she was still breathtakingly beautiful. Kowalski was staying quiet too and watching her, and it seemed like knowing each other for over twenty-five years hadn't killed Stella's ability to take the words right out of Kowalski's mouth.

"So," Stella said, her hands on her hips. "Someone going to help me with my bags?"

After they got Stella in and settled in the guest room (she didn't mention the fact that Kowalski clearly wasn't staying there anymore, and neither did they), Ray got started on dinner, and put Kowalski to work making a salad. Stella was talking, telling them stories about people back in Chicago. How she'd gone to see Frannie's new baby (Frannie had e-mailed Ray some pictures a few weeks back) and how Huey and Dewey were back working at the 2-7. And how Chicago was still the fucking same, probably always would be.

Kowalski was chiming in and laughing, and Ray let out a big sigh of relief at his pot of marinara that this wasn't more weird, because he'd been terrified that they wouldn't have a damn thing to talk about and that it would just be awful and awkward, but it was okay. As long as they didn't talk about anything important, it was okay. Kowalski stayed a safe distance away and didn't touch him, which sucked mostly, but he knew that it wasn't fair to do anything in front of Stella.

Ray uncorked a really fucking fantastic bottle of cabernet sauvignon that he'd been saving for something special, and they drank it with their pasta and salad, talking about nothing and everything over the dim light in the dining room. Ray watched Stella smoothing her soft, blonde hair behind her ears. He watched Kowalski smiling but fidgeting constantly with edge of his napkin and drinking way too fast.

They graduated from the cabernet to two really mediocre bottles of merlot that Kowalski drunkenly dug out of the back of the cabinet in the kitchen. "God, I didn't even know I owned wine this bad."

"Jesus, Vecchio, you're such a snob," Kowalski said, his words slurring a little at the ends. "Shut up and drink."

"Here, here," Stella said, giggling and raising her glass. "Hey, can we go outside? I miss the hell out of the patio. Goddamn twentieth-floor city apartment."

So that's how they ended up drunk and on the patio, Ray walking out of the French doors with his hand on the small of Stella's back. Her skin was hot and a little damp. Some soft Latin music came out of the windows and Kowalski walked out, sliding the door shut behind them. Kowalski walked over to the loungers and set his wine glass down on the small table there, then straightened up and held out his hand. "What do you say, Stel?"

Stella stared at him, like he was a puzzle she was trying to figure out, or some perp on the stand that she was trying to find the right way to take down. Then she set down her glass next to Kowalski's and took his hand. "All right."

Ray took a sip of the merlot and sat down on the edge of the lounger, almost tipping himself over onto the concrete. "Fuck," he muttered, and steadied himself. He watched as Kowalski took Stella's hand in his and pulled her close with a hand on her waist. Stella was smiling, and then they were moving, like they'd never, ever stopped.

They were gorgeous, the two of them, their blond heads tipped together, Kowalski's long fingers tight on Stella's waist. The dance was slow, and they were pressed tightly together. Stella was smiling and resting her cheek on Kowalski's shoulder. Ray downed the rest of his glass and blamed that for why he felt so hot and dizzy, because it couldn't have anything to do with Kowalski and Stella. No way.

Kowalski turned them, and he looked up from Stella and directly at Ray. He wasn't saying anything, but he was clearly asking Ray something with his eyes. It was probably one of the stupidest things he'd done in his whole life, which was saying a lot, but he nodded, just a little. Giving Kowalski permission.

The song changed, and they stopped dancing, but they were still holding on to each other. Kowalski's hand came up and pushed Stella's hair back from her face. Ray could hear Kowalski whisper, "hey," and Stella whisper back, "hey yourself," before Kowalski was kissing her. Kowalski's hands were tangled in Stella's hair. Ray couldn't stop watching, and, god, that was unbelievably hot, his wife kissing his, what, boyfriend? And her ex-husband. This was so fucked.

Ray put his glass down with the rest of them and walked over, and it actually felt like it was hotter next to them. He could hear, now that he was closer, all of Kowalski's little moans that he always made when he was kissing, and the slick sounds of their lips and tongues against each other. God.

They finally pulled away from each other, both of them breathing kind of hard. Kowalski looked up and grinned. "What, you just gonna stand there, Vecchio?"

He felt totally frozen, like if he moved, then there was no going back from this. It could change everything. And he wanted, god, yeah, he wanted it so much, but he needed to think.

Stella turned and held out a hand to him. "Ray," she said, and her voice went straight to his dick. "It's okay."

Maybe it was okay. Or if it wasn't, maybe it wouldn't be awful. Maybe they could just laugh it off and chalk it up to the three bottles of wine.

Ray stepped forward and wrapped his arms around Stella - his wife - and breathed her in. Her understated but expensive-as-hell perfume, a little bit of the city, the salt air. Kowalski's hands were on his back.

They somehow made it up the stairs, Kowalski's hands on Ray's face, kissing him hotly and almost making his knees give out, Stella's small, soft hand in his as she followed them. She didn't seemed to be fazed that her two ex-husbands were kissing each other, that they lived together in her old house. Maybe life was too short.

When they got inside the bedroom, god, Ray and Kowalski's bedroom, Ray and Stella's bedroom, they all just stood there, until Stella smiled and reached for Ray. Ray helped her pull her dress over her head, and she wasn't wearing a bra, just a pair of small, white panties. She pushed them down over her slim, pale hips and sat on the edge of the bed. He could remember every single reason why he married her, every single time they'd fucked in this bed.

Kowalski was shedding his clothes too, pulling his t-shirt off and shucking his pants, before he climbed onto the bed next to Stella and kissed her again, reaching down to tug lightly at her nipples, which made her groan and push closer to him. Ray slowly unbuttoned his own linen shirt and pants and stepped out of them, not sure what to do.

Kowalski rolled off to the side, and Ray took that as his opening, to lean down and kiss Stella low on her belly, where the skin was impossibly soft, and then trail kisses up to her breasts. Stella's hands came down to rest on his head when he took one of her nipples in his mouth, and she sighed. "Yeah." He could feel Kowalski's hands running gently up and down the hollow of his spine, and it was driving him nuts.

He laid down full-length against Stella, getting even dizzier at how it felt to be close to her like that, and she reached down to wrap her fingers around his dick. "Oh, god," he moaned, and starting rocking his hips. Kowalski was moving around, and it was distracting, but it was a hell of a lot more distracting when Kowalski pressed a condom into his hand.

"Stella?" Ray said hoarsely, wanting to make sure this was okay, because, god, he wanted it so much, wanted to be inside her.

Stella brought her hand up and cupped his cheek. "Yeah," she said softly. "I want you to, please."

That was all he needed and he was tearing open the packet and Stella was helping him roll the condom down onto his hard, straining dick. He pressed her hips up and her legs back, just a little, and pushed into her. And it was just like every other time; she let him in so easy, opened up and let him fuck her, like she always had.

"Fuck," Stella whispered as he pulled out and pushed back into her, hard. He was catching his rhythm and he braced his hands above her shoulders, fucking her slow and steady, which he knew would drive her out of her mind. "Please."

Ray turned his head, not letting up, and saw Kowalski stretched out beside them, heavy-lidded and watching, his hand stroking his own dick slowly. "You okay, Kowalski?"

Kowalski smiled, and Ray felt himself getting even dizzier, because this was way too much. Too much of everything. "I'm good, Vecchio," Kowalski said. "God, you should see the two of you."

Vecchio turned his head back to Stella and leaned down to run his tongue across her collarbone and up to her ear. She tasted as good as he remembered. He was thrusting faster, and he wanted to make it last, but everything was on overload. The room was hot and he could smell Stella and it was just more than he could handle.

"Come on, Ray, come on," Stella was murmuring. Yeah, that was it, god, he pushed into her wet pussy and came, collapsing down onto her body. She was covered in sweat and shaking, and he hoped to hell he wasn't crushing her to death, but he couldn't make himself move. Not yet. Stella's hands came up to stroke his back, lightly scraping her nails up and down his sides, and he just wanted to stay there forever.

Kowalski, though, he had other plans. "Come on, Vecchio, up," he said, urging Ray to roll off of Stella with gentle pressure of his hands, and when he did, Kowalski was climbing over him, up on all fours over Stella.

"Hey," Kowalski said softly, moving one hand down between Stella's legs, making her buck up on the bed as he stroked her slowly. Ray tried to get a grip, using his shaky hands to take off the condom and tie it up, which took what seemed like forever, tossing it in the general direction of the wastebasket. He pushed himself up so that he could see Kowalski's long fingers (and, god, he knew first-hand what Kowalski could do with those hands) stroking over Stella's clit and pushing into her pussy. Jesus. Pushing in where he'd just been fucking her.

Stella wasn't using words anymore, just moaning and writhing and moving her hips to meet Kowalski's fingers, and Ray was getting light-headed and hard all over again, just watching Kowalski's slick fingers working and getting Stella to make all of those noises. He reached up to stroke Stella's damp hair away from her face.

"Baby," he whispered to Stella. "You are so damn beautiful." And she was, just like that first time he saw her in the 2-7 and knew that he was going to marry her.

Stella threw her head back and cried out, and Ray looked down to see Kowalski sliding his dick into her, her legs coming up around his waist and moving her hips in time with his thrusts. There was no slow, lazy rhythm, just Kowalski fucking her hard and making the headboard hit the wall. Ray watched Kowalski's face, his bottom lip caught in his teeth. "God, you're so good, so hot," Kowalski was whispering.

Ray inched closer to them on the bed, feeling his own dick getting hard again, and he splayed his hand out on Stella's belly, holding her down, feeling Kowalski fucking her through his hand. It was unbelievably hot, and he dropped his fingers down to brush along Stella's clit.

Kowalski went still at that - he must have felt Stella tighten up - and Stella picked her head up off the bed. "Jesus," she said.

Ray kept at it, working her with the tips of two of his fingers, Kowalski starting to fuck her again, moving them all. Then, he pushed the heel of his hand into her clit and slid his fingers down wrap around where Kowalski's dick was buried in Stella, where he was fucking her. Stella was close, pushing up desperately into his hand and scratching frantically at his back, leaving marks. "Ray, please, please," she begged.

Kowalski's thrusts were off now, and he was close too, and then Stella was shouting and coming, Ray pushing a finger into her pussy to feel Kowalski's dick sliding and Stella clenching down, hard. Kowalski was sweating and thrusting and saying something, something Ray couldn't hear over the blood pounding in his own ears, and then Kowalski said, "Fuck, god," and came, going still.

Ray rolled over onto his back and away, panting, not sure where to put his hands or what to think, and then Kowalski was next to him, wrapping his arms around him and pulling him close, and Stella was pressed up against Kowalski's back, and he was too tired and fucked out and drunk to do anything but close his eyes. He buried his face his Kowalski's neck and slept.

"You going?" Ray was lying on his stomach on the bed, and didn't open his eyes, but he heard Kowalski's voice.

"Yeah, I think I should," Stella said, sounding like she was pulling her dress back on. "Listen -"

"Jesus, Stel, what is there to say?" Ray's side went cold as Kowalski moved away.

Stella sighed loudly. "Ray, I just - that was monumentally stupid."

"Probably, yeah, but we're all adults, and we were all there, and it will be okay. We'll be okay." Ray could hear that Kowalski didn't mean him and Stella, and he felt a flush of relief at that.

"Yeah," Stella said softly, and then he heard the sound of them kissing, and then felt Stella's lips brush his cheek. He stirred, like he was still asleep, and stroked his fingers, just barely, through her hair. "Bye, Ray."

"It was really, really good to see you, Stella." Kowalski's voice was still raspy with sleep, but Ray could hear the affection there.

"You too, and - I hope you're happy. Can you tell him that I left the papers, that he can just send them to his lawyer when he's done?"

"I really am, and I'll tell him."

Then, the sound of the door shutting softly, and Kowalski's warmth settled back down next to him. "Hey," Kowalski said, lips against Ray's ear. Ray turned and pulled Kowalski close, kissing him softly and whispering, "I'm happy, too."

Kowalski laughed softly, and Ray knew with a sudden clarity that he loved Stella, always would, and Kowalski probably always would too, just like they'd probably both always love Fraser. But this was right, and he couldn't seem to fuck it up even if he tried, so he was going to take it. Sign the papers and let her go, and take what was right in front of him. Take Florida, his bowling alley and his beach house and this guy who was nothing he'd ever thought he wanted or needed.

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