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10 reasons to hate Ray Kowalski, by Raymond Vecchio

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1. His big mouth

The first time he kissed me, we were both soaking wet. We'd been chasing a Pilates instructor half-way across town in the rain. Finally caught her in Gateway Park near Navy Pier. "Gotcha!" said Kowalski, grabbing her slinky arm and slamming the cuffs home. "Jeez, you're just a kid. Does your mom know you're out ripping off old people in leotards?"

"Screw you," she said. Very original. Like we haven't heard that one before, a thousand times a day.

"Sideways," I added, since it didn't seem like she was going to. "And upside-down." I collected the money from where it was spilling out of the strongbox and scattering across the grass. "And you're gonna hand over the mats you stole from the Ukrainian Village Iyengar Yoga Center, too, or we're taking your whole Pilates club down with you."

"They were learning everything wrong," she insisted. "Octogenarians shouldn't do sun salutes—it's dangerous. It's bad for their blood pressure. Someone could've died if I hadn't intervened!"

"Yeah," Kowalski said. "Intervened in their rent money."

"Save it for the judge," I said.

Kowalski read her her rights, and we hauled her in and booked her, all the while soaked to the bone. Which is a long explanation for why we were back at his place, huddled over the stove arguing about coffee, and no explanation at all for why one or the other of us hadn't at least made a move to shower or warm up or dry off.

"I've only got a hand grinder," said Kowalski, rummaging through his kitchen drawers. "And no beans."

"A hand grinder? Christ, Kowalski, what century are you living in?" As I pulled a packet of ready-ground out of his cupboard, I thought about how I would've reacted in the old days, before Vegas. Figured I would've made some smartass comment. "You heard of this little thing we've got now, called electricity? You should try it sometime."

Fake it till you make it, you know? But he looked up sharply like I'd said something that mattered. I mugged at him, and started to turn away. A spark burning in the back of his blue eyes made me double take.

Jesus, I can feel it like it was yesterday, that sudden twist of awareness in my gut. I never saw it coming, honest, not even for a second. Maybe 'cause I was still distracted with trying to put myself back together after nearly two years being someone else. I looked down at my hands on the counter where they were clutching the coffee packet and saw them trembling, and I took a deep slow breath and hoped it'd pass. Rainwater ran down my neck. I should've been catching pneumonia, but I wasn't cold.

"Don't move." Kowalski sounded half-strangled. "Stay there." For a moment I thought he was coming for me and I tensed, expecting any second now to feel his hands on me—on my shoulders, my waist, my ass. Fuck, I had no idea how this worked.

Instead his footsteps disappeared down the hallway, and the bedroom door banged shut.

I let my head hang for a second, getting my bearings. Nearly forty, and here I was getting turned on by my male partner. By Kowalski. Who in hell could've seen that coming? And who in hell would've thought he'd be reciprocating, except that even then I knew he was.

I went and leaned in the kitchen doorway and stared at the closed bedroom door, wondering what he was doing in there, what had been so urgent he'd bolted like that. Wondering if I should get going while the going was good. Drips fell on the carpet and I squelched in my shoes, but I took a couple of steps closer, and then I could hear him, could hear him clear as a bell. "I don't care," he was saying. Was nearly shouting, truth be told. "I do not care about that. That's not what I'm saying."

I hesitated. I should've given him his privacy, I know that, but then he started up again, and I got tangled up in curiosity, and nothing short of a Force Five hurricane would've moved me.

"I'm calling because—Are we through?" he said, his voice lower. I had to strain to hear him now. "I need you. I need—I am this close, this close, Ben, to giving up on us, moving on, and I gotta hear you say it. We're over. There's no chance. Because I've been waiting for you, I have been waiting for you for half a year now, and I am about to move on. You hear?" It was a torrent of words and it kept on, drumming on my skin like rain on a tin roof. "This is the last—No, it's not. It's not and if you're gonna fucking be like—Okay. No, I'm sorry. I know. Just, please, Ben. I need to know. Could you ever—Okay. Okay then. Yeah, well, me too."

He was winding up now. I backed away, gut churning, face hot, because this was because of me. This was because of me, and Christ, Fraser, I'm fucking sorry.

I reached the kitchen, right back where I'd started. The coffee packet looked strange, like the writing was in a foreign language. I couldn't get my head steady. My heart was thumping so hard I didn't even hear him come back. Jumped a mile in the air when he put his hand on my arm. Jesus, I'm not ready for this.

His hair was flat from the rain, his wet glasses were still hanging from his t-shirt collar. The lines around his mouth deepened as he looked at me, looked into me. I felt sixteen years old and scared as shit. He didn't look much better, but determined. Yeah, like he had to do this, no matter what. No matter if I socked him, or reported him, or smacked him down.

He swallowed hard. I opened my big dumb mouth and said something. Christ knows what. I think it was, "Well?" Or maybe, "Okay?" I can't remember. It doesn't matter. Next thing I knew he had me up against the counter, his hands steelband tight on my shoulders, his mouth soft on mine. Testing, testing, one two—

For a second, it was good. Hot and sweet. I kissed him back.

—three.

No fucking way.

2. His clothes

Okay, so this is how I found out what had happened: it was early, barely light out, and I was shocked awake by the phone, shrill and loud and ominous. The muscles down my back instantly seized up. When you're a cop, an early morning call's never good news. I had a split second where I let myself believe it was Kowalski. Maybe a smell made me think of him, reminded me of the way his skin pressed against me that one time we spent the night—

I dragged my head from being buried in the pillow and reached for the receiver. Everything was wrong: the room was blurry and unfocused; the sunlight was too bright through the curtains, and coming from the wrong direction; the sheets were pale and rumpled, and smelled of lilacs. My hand wasn't my hand.

I couldn't hear anything. I couldn't hear Frannie arguing with Maria over who got to use the bathroom first. I couldn't hear Tony brushing his teeth. There was no radio. No singing from the kitchen. Nothing. All of that registered in the time it took to get the phone to my face.

"What?" I barked into the receiver. It wasn't my voice. I rubbed my chin and found more stubble than I'd had in years.

"Vecchio?"

I sat up. What the hell? "Who is this?"

"It's me. Ray." Kowalski. It didn't sound like Kowalski. It sounded like my cousin Paulie.

"Paulie?"

"Kowalski. Are you okay?"

I looked down. "Jesus!" I was naked, and I wasn't me.

"Yeah," he said. "Stay there. I'm coming over."

"You stay there." I scrambled out of the covers and stood up, feeling woozy.

"You crazy? Your whole fucking family's here. You want to figure this out with Frannie and Maria shrieking in your ear?"

"How the fuck do you live like this, Kowalski?" I blinked, shoved the curtain aside, and blinked again.

"Hey," he said, sounding pissed. "You gotta problem?"

"Yeah, I can't fucking see!" The words rattled around my sinuses. "I'm going blind!"

He was silent a minute. "Glasses. Night stand. Don't move."

I dropped the phone on the bed, and knocked a bunch of stuff off the nightstand, trying to find the glasses. Once I had them on my nose, the world sharpened up and I started breathing again. No point panicking. We'd figure this out.

I waded through all the shit on the floor to the dresser, and opened his underwear drawer, hoping for a pair with dignity (no red and white striped boxers for me, no thanks) and without holes. Jesus, I couldn't believe I was doing this. So we'd fucked a couple times. So what? I'd pulled the plug. That was over and done. No way I wanted to read The History of Stanley Kowalski in Underwear. But it was all there. The guy hadn't cleaned out his drawers since Armstrong did his little moon dance: ancient off-white y-fronts and worn silk boxers scrunched up in the back of the drawer (obviously from the Stella era), faded garish cotton boxers and holey gray knit boxer briefs from the Fraser years. And his post-Canada favorites: silk knit bikini briefs in subdued colors, and plain cotton hipsters. I grabbed something navy and new-looking, and pulled them on, trying not to think about it. Ignoring the boner I had to tuck into them.

Jesus. So much for putting the past behind us.

The closet was the same problem all over again. Trying to find the overlap between what Kowalski owned and what I was prepared to wear was like trying to find another mint condition Buick Riviera. Plus there were a couple of items, like that jacket he wore to dinner that time, that I couldn't even consider. I rummaged around for a while. Found a parka with a neat mend on the sleeve where it'd torn. Found some thermals bunched up on the shelf. Found a sub-zero rated sleeping bag hanging up in the back. Yeah, like I needed that news bulletin.

Found a suit. Okay, so it was pin-striped and not my color, but hey, I wasn't my color either, and Kowalski would be here any minute. It'd have to do.

I was straightening up the tie, feeling weirdly self-conscious, and trying to avoid looking at my reflection in the mirror 'cause it gave me the creeps, when someone started hammering on the door. Someone. Guess who.

Kowalski and me in the same room again. I know it sounds stupid, but until I heard his knock, I was so busy trying to get my head around being in his body, that I'd almost forgotten about us. But now he was here. My pulse started hammering. My hands were sweaty on the locks, and I was telling myself, again and again, I'd play it cool.

When I opened the door, it was me but it was him, too. My body, but I could sense him in there, like smoke behind the eyes. Could see him in the set of the mouth. There was a long moment where we just stared at each other, and I got hot under the collar, wondering what the hell he was thinking. And then we both spoke at once. "What happened?" we both said.

"You tell me," I said, sharply.

"How would I know?" He pushed into the room and shut the door. "I woke up like this, in your fancy-pants pajamas, and when I came out of your room into the hallway to see what the fuck was going on, I ran smack-bang-kaboom into Maria." He went into the kitchen and got a soda from the fridge, talking the whole way, and I followed, distracted by the sight of my body moving like that, long and elegant in loose-fitting jeans, a frayed blue t-shirt, and a leather jacket that'd seen better days. No, make that better decades.

I shook my head in disgust. He looked ridiculous. I looked ridiculous. "I don't fucking believe this," I muttered, running my hands through my/his hair.

He popped the tab on the soda and took a gulp, then grinned at me, kind of strained. "Jeez, I think I aged about twenty years."

I hardly heard him. All this time, I'd been telling myself it was a physical thing. That I only wanted his skinny Polish ass.

I'd been staring too long. His smile faded and he narrowed his/my eyes. "You're fucking serious?" he said. "Oh yeah, I cooked up a little hocus-pocus hoodoo-voodoo for beginners in my microwave. Right. You're out of your tree."

"Well, someone did." I glared. This wasn't a fucking joke.

"How do you know?" He put the soda on the counter and stepped toward me. "You know how this shit works? 'Cause I have no fucking idea."

"Me neither, but someone does, and we'd better find out who," I said, without thinking. And then it hit me. Someone knew. Someone had put two and two—and the two of us—together. Jesus Christ on a plastic fucking flamingo. Just the thought turned my blood to ice, my voice to silk. "Someone does, and when I find them, I'm gonna throw them one hell of a party."

He held up his hands like stop signs. "Oh Jesus, Vecchio," he said, sounding exasperated. "Not now."

I had no idea what he was talking about, and I told him so.

"You know, if you could just get your paranoid fucked-up head together," he said, "and try to remember that you're Ray Vecchio and not Dr. David fucking Banner, we could—" He broke off and shook his head, folding his arms tight across his chest. Took a deep breath. Probably counted to ten. "We could fucking work together, at least," he finished, flat and expressionless.

He fetched his ugly brown coat from the closet by the door and handed it to me. "C'mon. I'll buy you a cup of coffee and we can rough out a game plan."

"Sure, Kowalski," I said agreeably, feeling in the coat pockets and finding his gloves. "Coffee and what else? Smokes? Booze? I suppose I'm gonna have to pander to your disgusting addictions, so long as I'm trapped like this."

"Nnrgh!" he growled, making angry claws in the air. "Stop thinking you know me, Vecchio. You don't. I quit all my disgusting addictions, okay? I'm a clean slate. Have been for over a month."

That should've shocked me to my senses, maybe, but at the time it was all too strange. To hear him talking in my voice, to see his postures and gestures with my frame, to be outside myself like this.

He'd taken all his cool with him when we switched, the bastard. Taken over my body like spring takes over a garden, and left me with unruly hair I didn't know what to do with, bad eyesight, and ribs you could count through a sports jacket. And for a moment, I didn't even give a shit: I just wanted to grab him and fuck him. There, over the back of the couch. Up against the wall. Wherever.

I wanted to fuck you in my own body. How fucking screwed up is that, Kowalski? How fucking crazy?

3. His hands

"You're out of your mind," I told him. Maybe it lacked diplomacy, but Jesus, someone had to say it. Kowalski'd been leaning across the table, talking steadily for three hours. He'd been waving his hands in the air and spinning me stories about working with the Mountie like it was a boys' own adventure.

It's not like I didn't believe him, Christ no. Let me tell you stories about Benton Fraser. I've got stories that'd make your hair fall out. But his were whacked out tales where nothing ever went wrong. The good guys always won. So damned innocent, it was like he was untouchable. Like he was Fraser.

Vegas was a stone in my chest, twisting me tight.

"Let me get this straight: you jumped through a skylight and you rode a patrol bike through a window," I summarized. "What are you, crazy? You got a deathwish? What?"

Kowalski grinned and ran a hand through his hair, wild and unrepentant. "Could be." He searched his shirt pocket for a toothpick and slipped it between his lips, like he was dying for a smoke. I realized I didn't even know if he smoked. I didn't know anything about him, and he knew me inside and out. I couldn't trust him an inch.

A click from the door and I was on my feet, but it was only Welsh.

"Jumpy." Kowalski sounded smug.

Fuck you, I thought. Punk.

"How's the debrief coming along, gentlemen?" Welsh asked, eyeing us like our mere existence was causing him a headache.

"Oh, just dandy," I told him, settling back in my chair.

"Still fully dressed," muttered Kowalski, walking over to the window and leaning one shoulder against the frame. Maybe he didn't think I'd hear him, but I got sharp ears.

The sun was so bright, it bleached him out. I could barely look at him, but I stared anyway.

"Debriefing," he explained. "Har-dee ha ha."

I shook my head in disgust, and turned to Welsh. "It's going to take some time, sir. Apparently my fellow officer here has a sense of humor."

"You've got till four-thirty," Welsh said, ignoring the both of us. "Then ASA Allenton needs the room."

"Yes, sir," I said.

"No problem," Kowalski chimed in. "I'll save the case with the toad and the crooked funeral parlor for Halloween."

Welsh grimaced apologetically at me. "I'll send in Miss Vecchio with some refreshments when she's finished cataloging the munitions supplies." Then he pulled back and the door swung shut.

"Thank you, sir," I called after him. I dreaded to think what kind of refreshments the CPD would lay on, but it had to be better than poring over case notes with Kowalski, finding out what kind of wreck he'd made of my life while I'd been gone.

Silence settled over the room. I shuffled some files so I didn't have to look at him.

"Okay," he said, plopping down across from me again.

"Okay," I repeated. "So, let's recap. You and Fraser burned up my car—" I'd heard about that a few weeks ago. I could say it, now, without choking up. "—gallivanted around Lake Superior in a submarine, joined a Canadian country music band, and took down Wilson Warfield. Am I missing anything?"

"The country band was Fraser, and the submarine was one of those little submersibles, but yeah. That's the gist of the grist." He sprawled back and scratched the side of his neck. "'Course with Warfield, it was like they all rolled over and one fell out, you know? One mob boss is just like the other. Two weeks later, you wouldn't know he was gone. But it was the principle of the thing." There was something about his hands—lean and capable. He was hiding something.

I thought about Warfield. After playing hardball with the Iguana family, it was almost a joke: Fraser and Kowalski and the 2-7 against some trumped-up operator, too big for his boots. But still, Warfield's business must've been blown wide open. I could imagine his associates like sharks in bloody water, grabbing what they could. I'd seen it happen before and it was never pretty.

"What else?" I said. "What's not in the files?"

"Christ, Vecchio," said Kowalski, rocking his chair back. "Everything. You can't write down a whole life on paper. Thought you'd know that."

I was smelling trouble, now, for sure. "What else?"

His chair clunked down to the floor. He licked his lips and glanced sideways at the wall, hands clasped in front of him, long fingers interwoven. Suddenly still.

I tensed without even knowing why. "What?"

"You hear about Rankin?"

Rankin. "Guy Rankin? That sleazebag? What'd he do?" I went cold and careful. My head flooded with nightmare images of him touching Frannie, hurting her, of her struggling to get away. I was on my feet. "Did he touch my sister? I fucking told him to keep away from her."

Dark fantasies of finding Rankin, cornering him and making him beg. Of turning away and wiping my hands on my white silk handkerchief, and calmly telling some compare to make him sorry.

Kowalski was coming toward me, frowning. "Vecchio," he said. "Hey, Vecchio, are you okay?"

My back was clammy with sweat. I swiped a hand across my forehead and tried to focus on here and now. Chicago. Rankin. But the icy mix of fear and fury kept sliding me sideways. "If he laid a finger on her, I'm gonna kill him," I said calmly, as if I was talking to my buddies.

Kowalski snapped his fingers in my face. "Hey, Ray. Earth to Dorothy. You're not in Kansas anymore."

I pushed him out of my way. "What do you know about it? I'll make sure he never comes near her again. I'll—"

"Vecchio!" he insisted, shoving me against the wall with a thud, knocking the air out of me. Maybe knocking some sense in. His eyes were dark, like he was worried. Like he cared. "You're one of the good guys, remember? Remember that?"

I blinked, trying to get my life into focus. This guy, Kowalski—who the hell was this guy? "Yeah."

He took a deep breath and let me go, backed away. "Rankin's dead. Frannie thought you did it."

Rankin was dead. Christ, what a relief. I was so jazzed it was like I'd pulled the trigger myself. High on adrenalin.

Frannie came in with a tray of tuna and limp lettuce sandwiches and bad coffee and plonked it on top of the Denny Scarpa case file. "Hey, you guys," she chirped. "Haven't you done telling each other your memoirs yet? Jeez, move it along. I've got a ton of paperwork from the FBI waiting for you, Ray."

Kowalski drew her fire. "Do we look like we're done?" he asked, waving at the files. "You know how it is with Fraser's cases: it takes six times longer to explain 'em than a normal American case, 'cause of the Canadian logic."

"Logic," she snorted. "Tell me about it. Some Canadians can't see logic when it's right in front of their noses." She went to the door. "Good luck trying to explain that away."

I slumped against the wall after she left, feeling like my skin was wearing thin, raw nerves just below the surface. "I wasn't here to protect her."

"No," said Kowalski, looking me in the eye. "You weren't." It was like Benny talking to me.

Another fear hit hard, this one grounded and more immediate. "You didn't touch her? Because Jesus, Kowalski, I swear to God I'll—"

"Vecchio," he interrupted. "Vecchio! Ray! She was my sister."

"She wasn't." I shook my head, disgusted. I hadn't been here. I'd left my little sister Frannie at the mercy of Christ knew who. Chicago hard guys. Sleazoids from the neighborhood. Kowalski.

Kowalski sat down and picked up a sandwich, peeling back the bread to inspect the contents, picking something off the lettuce. Avoiding my eyes. Long fingers lying to me. "She was my sister, okay? She was a sister to me. A real annoying one, for that matter. Ben—Fraser and me, we'd never let anything happen to her."

I rubbed my face, and dragged my tie off properly. Slung it over the back of the chair and walked around the room, trying to get my head together. Waiting for my gut to settle. Finally it did, and I sat down across from him. "Ben," I said. "You and Fraser?"

He met my gaze dead on, daring me to give him shit. His eyes were clear and blue and serious. His hands clenched into fists. "Yeah."

For a long time afterwards, the whole debrief was a blur. I remembered losing my cool, even though he never mentioned it again. I remembered feeling sick to my stomach. I remembered his restless hands, adjusting papers, scratching his neck, reaching for another toothpick. White at the knuckles, finally telling me something true.

4. The tattoo

The candle sputtered and died, and darkness blanketed the room, making Frannie squeak like she used to during brown-outs when we were kids. I still had a cramp in my foot from sitting Indian style, so I didn't think it had worked. Shit! What were we gonna do now? I was sick to death of being Kowalski. Jesus, like it wasn't hard enough just trying to be myself. Plus I was sick of watching him mooch around in my body, smirking and rubbing his/my head like he was making fun of my hair, or lack of it.

I was sick of caring about him. Sick of pretending I didn't.

And, right now, I was sick of feeling like a trespasser—like I shouldn't touch, like I couldn't relax and enjoy it. I'd been inside his body twenty-fours a day for two weeks now, and I couldn't take advantage. Not that I hadn't been tempted, for sure. I mean, his dick was dangling there. Hell, it was begging for attention half the time. But I didn't want to be the guy who couldn't keep his hands off of other guys' dicks.

There was a thud and a feminine "ouch!", dragging me back to the moment. "Ray!" Frannie whined.

I felt disorientated like she'd shifted around. And then Kowalski said, "Did it work?" right in front of me, his voice strained. My arm was itching, high up near my shoulder.

The parlor was pitch black, not even streetlights penetrating the thick old curtains. Ma'd throw a fit if she saw what we were up to. I reached in my pocket for Kowalski's lighter, that I'd used to light the candle, but all I got was a handful of handkerchief.

"I can't find the light switch," said my sister. "Ray, have you got a flashlight?"

"Yeah, right," I said. Was that my voice? "I always carry a flashlight when I'm doing magic witch spells. What do you think I am—a security guard?"

Steel on steel rasped in front of me. A zippo, and fire flared between us, cupped by Kowalski's long fingers.

Frannie was wide-eyed and nervous—probably because I'd scolded her six ways to Sunday over the whole mess. ("What did Ma tell you about buying stuff from strange old ladies at the market?" I'd ranted. "Since you were twelve and you bought those fake pearls that turned your neck green, what did she tell you? Jesus, Frannie, you gotta think." Frannie had sniffed back tears and said, "But Mrs. Krakatoa is my friend, Ray. She knows all about aromatherapy, and her daughter works for the Mayor's office. It was just a candle." "No, Frannie. It was not just a candle. If it was just a candle, I wouldn't look like this!")

Kowalski, thank god, was back behind his own face. Blue eyes glinting in the firelight, body tense and ready for action. (He'd defended Frannie. "It's not her fault," he'd said, shoving between the two of us. "Stop yelling at her." "She's my sister," I'd shouted. "I'll yell at her if I want to. Stay out of this." But he wouldn't: "I'm in this mess, too, Vecchio, in case you haven't been paying attention. You brought me into this." Which was when Frannie opened her mouth and asked the question we'd both been avoiding: "Yeah, Ray, why is Ray mixed up in this, anyway? When she was telling me how to reverse the spell, Mrs. Krakatoa said it would be someone close to you." "Shut up and light the damned candle," I'd snapped, checking the mirrors were in place, refusing to look at either of them. Except that she lit the candle and the flame flickered up, and Kowalski switched off the light and turned, and I watched him then, in the mirror, his reflection wearing my face, lit golden, squinting like he'd forgotten he had 20/20 vision. I watched him in the mirror, his eyes (so much like Pop's) fixed on me, his lips pressed together. Kowalski's spirit in my body. Christ, I missed him. "He lived my life for two years. How much closer do you want?" I muttered to Frannie, refusing to make any other connection. Kowalski looked away, then, sat cross-legged on the floor like the instructions said, and closed in on himself. But what the hell was I supposed to say, with Frannie right there?)

Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah, both of us switched back, halle-fucking-lujah, and the itch on my arm.

The room flooded with light. I blinked and rubbed my eyes—no need for glasses anymore; this was getting better and better—and there was Frannie standing by the light switch, looking from me to Kowalski and back again, and Kowalski hugging his arms around his chest, and looking not as happy as I thought he should. Kind of pinched.

I raised my eyebrows, and he shrugged. "Guess we're done. Thanks, Frannie. Good work."

"You're welcome, Ray," she said, exaggerating for my benefit. "Anytime. Turns out I can detective with the best of them, huh? Maybe I should get a pipe and some slippers like Shylock Holmes."

The corner of his mouth tilted up. "Maybe. You ever thought of going to the Academy?"

"Oh, Christ," I muttered. "Don't encourage her!" I tuned them out and checked myself over, getting my bearings. It was strange suddenly being me again after two weeks of switcheroo. There was a gauze patch on my arm where the itchiness was, just under the sleeve of my t-shirt. "What's this?" I asked, dangerously quiet, but I could guess.

That piece of shit.

Kowalski held his ground as I stalked toward him. "It's what you needed." He cracked his neck. "One day you'll thank me."

"Ray," Frannie tried to interrupt, but I was cold and in control.

"I'll thank you? I'll fucking thank you?!" I laughed softly. "Is that what you think?" I grabbed his collar, the blue and teal tie I'd bought only days ago crumpling in my hand and, in one smooth motion, I shoved him bodily against Ma's polished oak sideboard so hard all the cups and saucers rattled and rolled. I did it again, my sweaty palm flat on his chest.

He grabbed my wrists, fingers digging in. "Vecchio," he said, enunciating clearly like he was talking to a halfwit. "You're losing it."

The mirror crashed down against the wall and he flinched. I was too busy glaring at him through a blur of cold rage to care. Frannie screamed and tried to tug me away, but nothing was stopping me now. I said, "What does it say? 'Kowalski was here'? How dare you?"

He shook his head. Now he was getting pissed, too. "You said you wanted one, Vecchio. I thought that's what you needed."

"Ray!" Frannie was almost in tears. "Ray, stop! Stop it now!"

But I had my hands on Kowalski, I was hissing in his face, "Fuck that! You don't just tattoo someone without their consent, Kowalski! Don't you fucking tell me you don't know better." I yanked my fist free and shook Frannie off, blind with righteous anger, wishing I was carrying.

"Yeah," he grunted, and I punched him in the nose. Frannie screamed again. Fire coursed through my knuckles, up my arm, leaving me panting. He didn't try to defend himself, at least. I smelled sweat and anger and the scent from the candle, and shut my eyes. Let him go. Shook my hand out.

His nose was spurting blood all over his shirt and his pants and Ma's carpet. Some of the cups in the sideboard had shattered. The place was a disaster zone. And I had a fucking tattoo on my arm. I ripped off the gauze and twisted around to get a look. Fuck. Was this a joke? Did I look like a fucking sailor?

"We're done," I said, under my breath, wishing for the first time since I got back that I was still in Vegas, bleached clean by the desert sun. "We're through here."

Frannie was on her knees, moaning about the crockery and the mirror, and the carpet and everything. "What'll Ma say?" she kept asking, like I had a magic answer for her.

Kowalski panted, his nose already puffed up. He wiped the back of his hand across his bloody mouth and stared at me. "We were already through," he said at last.

"Yeah," I said, walking to the door, and not looking at him again. "Yeah, we were."

5. His dick

So after that time when he kissed me, I kept my distance and pretended like it never happened. And that was almost working, you know? That was fine until the day when he slid into my booth across the table from me at Malina's, peeled off his hat and gloves, and stole one of my French fries.

I watched him dip the end in my pool of ketchup, and eat it, and I didn't say anything. I picked up my big juicy burger, slices of fresh tomato and green lettuce, crisp and tasty looking, and took a bite just to prove how much I didn't give a shit.

"You avoiding me?" He took another fry and slouched back, watching me.

I chewed, swallowed, took another bite. I can still taste it. That was a hell of a burger, I'm telling you. Tangy and sweet and perfect.

"What's the matter, Vecchio? We closed the Fugaz brothers case, we've got a solid lead on Mac Geraldo, and you're still pissed? I don't know why I fucking bother."

I shrugged, gathered the burger in one hand, and took a mouthful of coffee.

He pushed my plate aside and craned forward, forcing his way into my field of vision. "What is your problem? Let's get it sorted. Here. Now." He stabbed two fingers at the counter, and scowled. "Enough with the silent treatment, okay?"

I snapped. I leaned in low over the table till we were only a couple of inches apart. There were bluish smudges under his eyes—we'd both been working too hard, but he was wearing thinner than me. He had no resilience, no reserves to fall back on. It made me concerned, like in my head I was his fucking mother nagging him to eat right and get plenty of sleep, and that wasn't something I wanted to think about. "You want to know my problem?" I hissed at him. "You want to know? You fucking kissed me."

He went dead still. "I thought we weren't gonna talk about that."

I sat back. Right. That was how we'd left it. How I'd left it: Not one word about this to anyone, I'd warned him, hoping if we let it lie, it'd be nothing. Forgotten. But it hadn't worked like that: for days now, I'd been checking him out when no one was looking. Staring at his ass, wondering what he looked like naked. What he'd feel like. Taste like. Whether I'd like it.

Whether he'd let me hold him down and—

Fuck him. I ate another bite of my burger then placed the remains, carefully and deliberately, on my plate. "You know what?" I wiped my mouth, balled up the napkin and threw it on my leftovers. "I had the best pastrami on rye of my life in this diner."

He nodded, tense and waiting.

"A long time ago, I came here with Ange. My wife," I said, making it real plain, "and the pastrami was perfect. It'd break your heart." I waved my hand at the plate. "This here? Now? This tastes like shit."

His face slammed shut like a prison door. "Fuck you."

"No, thank you." I sneered, hating myself even as I said it. "Thank you kindly."

He was already out the door. Fuck. I dropped twenty on the table and followed, scanning the street for him. Saw him disappearing round the corner, dissolving into the crowd. "Kowalski," I called. "Hey, Kowalski, wait up."

He didn't look back.

I found him, a couple of hours later, in the bullpen booking a little old lady for holding up the Chicago Public Library Reservations Desk with a 9mm handgun her grandson had given her for Christmas. "All the Hercule Poirot novels were on loan every time I visited," she was telling Kowalski. "I had to do something, dear."

He shook his head. "Yeah, well, next time write to Congress. Sign here." He slapped her statement down on the desk in front of her and handed her a pen.

"Hey, Kowalski," I joked, trying to unburn my bridges. "Making the world a safer place for librarians, huh?"

He glanced up, his face tight with suspicion. "What do you want?"

I swallowed, tried to smile. "What do you think?"

He turned his attention back to the old lady. "Are you done? It's just your signature we're after, lady, not a constitutional essay on readers' rights. Come on, gimme that." He took the pen away from her. "I'm taking you down to booking. They're gonna take your picture."

"But my hair," she wailed. "It's an awful mess. I'm having it styled tomorrow."

"Kowalski," I tried again.

"What, Vecchio?" He left the lady in her seat, fussing with her makeup, and walked over to me. "What?"

Huey looked up to see what the noise was about. Welsh walked past and muttered something about solve rates and vacation days. I stuck my chin out. "I'm sorry. I'm just—I'm sorry."

Thirty-five minutes later, he was pressing his body against me, pressing me against the wall just inside his apartment door, holding my hand to his crotch and mouthing my neck while I groaned and gasped.

"You want this, Vecchio?" The words burning in my ear, making me flush. "Tell me you want this."

The bastard made me beg. "Yeah." I let my head thunk back against the wall, closed my eyes. I was shaking and sweating, and I thought I was gonna pass out from how turned on I was. "Yeah, I want it. Please."

His dick was hard and thick in his jeans. I wrenched my hand away, out of his grip, and wrapped my arms around him—waist and shoulders—pulling him tight against me. I needed the pressure of his thigh on my cock, needed to feel him solid and real.

His slung his arms around me. "Yeah?" The challenge was fading from his voice. He rested his forehead on my shoulder and pushed into me, urgently, again and again. I met him halfway, breathed him in, traces of cigarettes and old lady perfume.

"Yeah. Yeah, I want this. Fuck, yeah." The need to prove it drove me to my knees. Okay, so maybe I wasn't thinking too clearly. I never could keep my head around Kowalski for long.

He braced himself on the wall above me, and I grabbed his hips and buried my face in his crotch, huffing breath through the hot denim, nuzzling his cock. My heart pounded in my ears, drowning out my commonsense, my fears, the warning voice that was telling me guys didn't do this.

He groaned and slumped further against the wall, but he didn't touch me, didn't move. He was waiting.

I swallowed, and reached for his belt, worn brown leather, noticing the tremor in my fingers, desperate not to let it show. "Yeah," I said again, pulling his zipper down over the bulge in his jeans, pushing his briefs out of the way. I closed my eyes and let my fingers curl around the weight and length of his swollen dick.

He hissed, and shuddered all over. His hand fell to my shoulder and rested there, not urging me on or pulling me back. Just holding me. I don't know why that gave me courage. Christ, I don't know why any of this. But nothing short of forcible restraint could've stopped me then.

The scents of musk and sweat filled my nostrils. I held him with one hand and ran my fingertips up and down his cock, learning the veins, the contours, the tight stretch of his skin. The soft folds around his balls. Tangled my fingers in his wiry pubes and tugged till he gasped. His cockhead was wet, leaking, and I rubbed my cheek across it, feeling the smear like a brand, then back again, over my closed lips.

Then I leaned my head against his thigh and jacked him while I fought to steady my breathing. Licked his come from my lips. Summoned my nerve. Turned my head and took him in, my lips folded over my teeth. A couple of inches was all I could manage, but I did it. I sucked him off. Kept my eyes shut the whole time, and sucked and licked and sucked. I felt him quiver, maybe with the effort of holding himself upright, or not thrusting, or something else, something I didn't understand yet. There was a lump in my throat and my eyes stung, and I flushed all over, because this was sexy as hell, what I was doing to him, and the noises he was making, and the tension humming through his body like electricity, so intense I could almost hear it. In spite of everything, I was fucking proud of myself for doing it. For having the balls to do it. For having the balls to do him.

6. His manners

Sometimes I wished he'd disappear off the face of the earth, you know? Or that I could. It was like worlds colliding, every time I saw him: at work, hanging out in the local bar, wherever. Everywhere but his apartment—for some reason, that felt right. And the motel. But most of the time, I freaked out. It came to a head that Tuesday night in October.

It started off great with a zinger of a baseball game, had me yelling at the screen. During the commercial breaks, I wrestled with myself over whether to drop in on Kowalski later on, knock on his door and see what was shaking. Just the thought of it made my toes curl.

Frannie barged in the front door with her arms full of groceries, and dropped them all when she caught sight of me. An apple rolled across the floor and bumped into my foot.

"What are you doing here?" Frannie demanded, putting her hands on her hips. "I thought you were going to shoot hoops with Paulie and Vinnie tonight."

I picked up the apple and polished it against my shirt. "Why would you think that?"

"Because," she said, like I was stupid, "I told Paulie to ask you. Man, he's just hopeless!"

"What's going on?" I lobbed the apple to her and she caught it without looking. That's my sis.

"We're having company for dinner." She started gathering the spilled groceries together.

"So what else is new?" I took one of the bags off her and carried it through to the kitchen. The best dishes were in the warmer, but that happens six nights out of seven in our house. If it's not one of Maria's divorcee friends needing a shoulder to cry on, or Tony's bowling buddies looking for a free feed (though usually we hide the best dishes when it's Tony's pals), then it's old Mrs. Proserpine from Ma's bridge club.

"He said he wouldn't come if you were gonna be here. I told him no problem," said Frannie, like it was my fault I was settling in for an evening in my own home. "You gotta be nice. Promise you'll be nice."

I narrowed my eyes at her, playing tough big brother like I used to when we were kids. "You gotta new boyfriend, huh? You want me to talk to him? Make sure he's gonna behave himself?"

She rolled her eyes. "Yeah, I wish. No, it's—"

Maria burst in. "Hey, Frannie, Ma wants to know if you got the gelato. Did you get the gelato?"

"Oh yeah," I told her. "Yeah, Ma wants to know. You eat any more gelato you're gonna be a palloncino." She flipped me off, and I grinned and went back to the game.

Half an hour later, we were sitting down ready to eat when the doorbell rang. And then Frannie walked into the dining room talking over her shoulder, and behind her was Kowalski.

Here. In my house. With my family.

His eyes widened when he saw me, and he straightaway folded him arms across his chest and shot Frannie a look. My face heated up like a hotplate, but I just nodded at him, "Hey, Kowalski," and reached for the bread rolls, while he said hi to the others, kissing Ma on the cheek, and teasing Frannie about her earrings. Everyone sat down, and the usual fussing started: Maria bitched to Ma about her insteps, and Tony talked—mostly to himself—about whether to invest in a plug-in electric toothbrush, or if the battery one was good enough. Frannie was making small talk with Kowalski, right across the table from me.

I kept my head down and kidded myself I wasn't hanging on his every word. Tried not to think about how crazy my family sounded. Tried not to imagine running my hands down his back, licking his neck.

"Are you feeling all right, Raimundo?" Ma asked me, halfway through the entree. "You're not looking so good, my baby."

"I'm fine, Ma." I smiled to reassure her, and accidentally caught Kowalski's eye, which was kind of like accidentally hitting myself in the head with a wrecking ball.

"What shall I get you for your birthday, Ray?" Frannie asked, suddenly changing subjects from what kind of coffee beans to order in at the precinct to birthday presents, via her own crazy Frannie logic.

"I don't know." I glanced at her, then down at my plate. "Get me anything."

"Geez, Ray, have an opinion already," she ragged on me. "There must be something you want."

"What, I have to decide my own presents now?" I twisted my fork in my food. "Surprise me."

Maria broke off a fascinating monologue about her verrucas to say, "Get him some bubblebath and a scented candle. The length of time he spends in the bathroom, he's like a girl."

"Jesus, what a way to talk to the head of your family!" I snapped, embarrassed. "I'm not the one who married the Dental Hypochondriac of North Octavia Avenue."

"I'll ask Mrs. Krakatoa if she's got anything that'll magically make you a nicer person," said Frannie. "Jeez!"

I gave her the finger.

"Santa Maria!" said Ma, waving her hands wildly at us. "Did I raise savages? We have company."

"Some company," said Maria, eyeing Kowalski.

I bit my tongue to stop from jumping to his defense, just as Kowalski said, "I'm good."

Ma carried on like none of us had spoken. "I bet your mother raised you to behave when you have company. Have some more pollo della nonna."

"Uh, thanks," said Kowalski, looking from me to Tony to Frannie and back at me, before finally settling his gaze on Ma. "I'm good. It was delicious."

"Eat the chicken, Kowalski," I said, challenging him.

He lifted his chin like we were facing off, but winked, so quick no one else saw. I dropped my eyes to my plate and fought to keep a straight face.

"Ray!" Frannie scolded me. She turned to Kowalski, and cooed, "So, Ray, how you been? You heard from Fraser lately?"

I took a sharp breath. Should've known she had a motive for inviting him over. My fork slid sideways on my plate, sending a piece of chicken shooting onto the table. It bounced off the salad bowl and came to rest next to the salt shaker.

"Yeah," Kowalski told Frannie, pretending he didn't see that. "Yeah, I got a letter last week. Him and Dief just tracked a thief hundreds of miles. Halfway across the territories, it sounded like."

I snorted. "Yeah? What'd he steal? Snow?"

Frannie glared at me, and turned back to Kowalski, all solicitous and friendly. Christ, she wasn't interested in him, was she? The thought of her wanting him made my head spin. Please God, no!

"Ignore him," Frannie advised Kowalski. "So what was the perp's modal operetta?"

The corner of Kowalski's mouth twitched. He scraped his fork against his plate, and swallowed his last mouthful of chicken before he answered. "He was taking wood."

"Ha!" I said. "Told you. Snow, wood, and dogs—it had to be one of them. That's all they got up there."

Ma broke off her discussion with Maria and tuned in. "Stealing wood? What kind of a man is this?"

"Well, you know, it gets real cold that far North," Kowalski announced, like we didn't all know that. Like we hadn't been there, getting shot at and blown up. "Fuel's a scarce resource—" He went on like that for a while, impressing Ma and Frannie with a lecture on energy efficiency in the arctic circle that he was probably quoting verbatim from Fraser.

Finally Ma pushed her plate away. "Time for il dolce," she said. "Francesca, clear the table."

"Yeah, Frannie," said Maria, because she never knows when to keep her mouth shut.

"You too, Maria," said Ma.

Maria rolled her eyes, but did what she was told. Frannie started stacking the plates, gathering the cutlery in one hand. "I found this great gelato in the market," she said. "Lime and pistachio chocolate chocolate-chip."

Kowalski made an encouraging noise and got to his feet to help clear up. Such a nice guy. So helpful. Ma clucked approvingly and, somehow, like out of nowhere, that flipped my lid. That was the last straw.

Ice swept up my spine, the familiar bite of Langoustini trying to take over, before I could stop it. "Hey, Kowalski," I said, scraping my chair back. "Something I gotta show you."

He followed me into the hall. I shut the door with all due restraint, and turned on him. "What the fuck are you doing?" I said, that smooth lightness in my voice that made me think of blackjack tables and silk sheets.

"Hey listen," he said, standing real close, talking in an undertone. "I didn't mean to barge in on you like this. You weren't supposed to be here. Frannie said—"

"Oh, right," I drawled. "I wasn't supposed to be here in my own goddamned house." I could feel his bodyheat, he was standing so close. I started to melt.

Kowalski squinted at me, tilted his head. "You got another bug up your ass? Jeez, I can't keep up, Vecchio. Is it a stick insect this time, or a cockroach?"

"Hey," I said, putting my hands on his chest to push him away, curling my fingers into his sweatshirt, aware of the muscles underneath. "Hey, you're in my house."

"Oh yeah, 'cause you're always so painfully polite to me in mine." He moved forward, ignoring that I was holding him off. Crowding me against the banister until there was nowhere to go. His hand sliding down my side like a snake. His mouth moving in to kiss me—

I shoved him hard. "We do not talk about that. Not here."

He shut his eyes a minute, folded his arms. "Vecchio," he said, at last, his voice low and urgent, "every time you open your mouth, I get whiplash. I am sick to the gills of not knowing where I stand with you. Either you want to kiss me or kick me in the head, and I am fucked if I can tell which one it's gonna be at any given moment. It's driving me out of my mind."

I gave a mean laugh. "You were already out of your mind, Kowalski."

He poked me in the chest with two fingers, then pulled back before I could push him away again. "You have got to figure out what you want."

"Is that why you're here?" I said, seething with frustration but unable to let it out past my tightly controlled veneer. "To worm your way into my family, help me figure it out. You're not my boyfriend, Kowalski. I didn't bring you home to meet my mom."

He shook his head. I could see him holding tight to his patience. "I am here because Frannie asked me. She was my sister for nearly two years. She and me are—friends, sort of. Seeing you is just a—" He sighed and scratched the back of his neck, then shoved his hands into his pockets and backed up a step or two until he was leaning against the wall. "—a complication. You want to see me, Vecchio. You need me. I'm not asking you to take out a full-page fucking newspaper advertisement, but you could at least admit it to me."

Which felt like a punch to the gut. "All I'm doing is I'm trying to get my life back," I told him, fiercely. "I'm trying to resume normality. Resume normality. Does that mean anything to you?"

"You're saying I don't know normal? Is that it? Look who's talking, Vecchio. Neither of us is your milk-fed, run-of-the-mill, all-American boy, here." He blew out a breath and slouched against the wall. His voice softened. "Did, uh, did Fraser ever tell you that story about the caribou up on the mountain ledge?"

That was it. The ice took over. "This thing—" I gestured between the two of us. "Don't make it more than it is, Kowalski."

He shifted his weight to one hip, and glanced sideways at the dining room door, then straight at me. Serious. A light in his eye. "What is it?"

The photos hanging on the wall stared down at me. The galoshes were lined up neatly under the coats that hung in the entranceway. I hardly belonged here anymore, as it was, and now my worlds were smashing into each other, and they were both gonna fall apart if I didn't do something to stop it.

"Ray! Raimundo!" Ma called through the door. "What are you doing? It's time for dessert!"

"It's nothing," I said to Kowalski. "It's over."

His head jerked up like I'd hit him. His fists clenched and he opened his mouth, maybe to protest, but then Frannie appeared in the doorway. "Hey, guys. The sweet's getting warm."

Kowalski didn't even look at her. "You sure about that?" he asked me.

I smiled for Frannie's benefit, though it was killing me. "Never been surer."

"Ray?" said Frannie, turning her back on me.

Kowalski bent down to press his lips to her cheek. "Hey, Frannie," he murmured. "I gotta go. Say thanks to your mom."

"What about dessert?" she asked.

"Something's come up." He pulled his ugly brown coat from the hook and shrugged into it, looking older and thinner than he had when he walked in.

Ma came into the hall just then. "Raimundo, what's taking so long? This couldn't have waited until we'd eaten, like decent people? You have to be running around the house in the middle of a meal?"

"Ma," I protested. I felt limp, worn to a frayed thread, but I kept myself upright out of sheer pride.

"You'll get indigestion," she fussed. "Come and sit."

Kowalski backed toward the door. "I'm real sorry, Mrs. Vecchio. I have to leave now." There were the usual protestations, like you always get from Ma, even if it's 11.30 on a weeknight, but Kowalski managed to extricate himself and left.

Frannie saw him out. "See you at work," she said.

"Yeah, I'll see you."

Frannie shut the door, and walked back to the dining room, smacking me hard on the arm as she passed. I deserved it, too. I've never been a bigger jackass.

The next day Kowalski called in sick. The following day, he talked to Welsh and got it so we stopped working together. Not long after that, he transferred to the 1-9. I didn't see him again until I woke up in his body.

7. For being right

Rain glinted in the sodium streetlights, making the city bland and metallic. I dragged my sorry ass out of the One-Liner, where I'd been listening to Dewey deliver the same tired punchlines he told last week and the week before. "'Night, Henry," I said to the guy on the door.

I felt as old as Dewey's jokes, and twice as stale. The audience tonight had been scattered and distracted, and I gave it a month, tops, before the Duck boys'd have to close up shop if they didn't get some new material. Maybe I'd write them some lines. I've always been a funny guy, and my evenings were pretty empty these days. I had time to spare. How hard could it be?

"How much can you fit into Canadian footwear?" I muttered to myself, as I walked around the corner to where I'd parked the car. "Till it's aboot full. Ha!" I repeated it a couple of times. Maybe I could hone it.

An ambulance swerved to the curb beside me, and the back door thudded open. "Hey," I said, craning to see inside. "Chicago PD. Is everything okay in there?"

Before I'd stopped talking, a tough in scrubs reached out and grabbed me. Behind him, was a goombah I recognized from Vegas. Marty someone. Oh shit, here were chickens flying straight at me, looking for a place to roost. I elbowed the stranger in the face, and went for my gun before I realized I wasn't carrying. Marty gripped my wrist and twisted hard, wrenching my arm till my shoulder popped. He jerked me into the back of the ambulance by my arm and my jacket, and the stranger, who'd steadied himself on the ambulance door, swung in after me, slamming the doors behind him. "Let's go."

The ambulance took off with a screech of tires.

"Hey!" I yelled in Marty's face. "Hey, what the hell's going on? Chicago PD!"

Marty snorted, and shrugged out of his jacket.

"Yeah, right, Mr. Langoustini," said the other guy.

I started to identify myself again, but Marty didn't listen. He shoved me onto a gurney with one meaty fist, and threw a hospital gown at me. I picked it up at looked at it. "What is this?"

A husky female voice said, "Take off your clothes."

I looked around wildly, the gown still scrunched in my hand. Jesus Christ, it was Patti Cappesante in a nurse's uniform. Every mob guy's wet dream. Except that she was aiming a gleaming silver pistol at my head.

I was gonna die. Worse, if I did what she said, I was gonna die naked. My fear tasted familiar and honest. This was me, down to the bone. Down to the fucking core. This was who I'd been a long time ago. The whole life-in-peril thing felt like déjà vu. I looked out the back window of the ambulance, half-expecting to see Fraser chasing on behind, with Dief at his side.

The road glistened up at me, reflecting the city lights. No one was gonna save me. I was a cop without a partner. I stood up and looked Patti in the eye. "Who the hell are you?" I barked. "Cruella DeVille?"

She narrowed her steel gray eyes, and hissed, "Don't play games with me." Her bosom heaved under the starched white fabric.

I faked a smile and played innocent. "Listen, I don't know who you think I am, but my name is Raymond Vecchio, and I work for the Chicago Police Department. You guys are honest EMTs, just trying to make a buck, right? So, you let me out on the next corner and we'll call it a deal. I'll forget about it. Won't even check your firearm licenses."

We turned a corner, and everyone lost their footing for a minute, except Patti, who grabbed a strap above her head with her free hand and kept her eyes and gun trained on me. "Shut your hole, Mandy," she said.

Mandy. Oh yeah. What, you never wondered why Armando called himself the Bookman?

"You and your moronic pranks," Patti continued. "I've still got a score to settle with you for putting prawns in my grandfather's coffin at the funeral. Give me one just reason not to tap you in the fucking head."

I opened my mouth to tell her again, I'm not your guy, but the stranger spoke first. "Fellini wants him alive, boss."

Fellini. Oh hell. He was small time, but I'd made a business deal with him, just before my cover got blown, and had never made good. Guess he hadn't taken that so well. I glanced around, trying to figure myself an escape route. There was a fire extinguisher on the wall in the corner, if I could only get to it.

"Was I asking you?" Patti demanded of the stranger.

A partition between the ambulance cab and the back slid open, and we were politely informed that we'd hit the airstrip in ten minutes. Patti exchanged a few words with the driver, then turned her attention back to me. "Come on, move it."

Her trigger finger twitched. I pulled my tie loose, and unbuttoned my shirt.

A high pitched wail started up, getting louder and louder till my head was gonna explode, on top of everything else. They'd turned the fucking siren on. No one was gonna stop us now. No one would pull over an ambulance with its siren blaring. I had to do something. What would Fraser do? I asked myself, watching in horror as Marty straightened up his EMT outfit and took a pair of hypodermic needles out of a case.

"What's that?" I asked him.

"Haldol," shouted Marty over the siren. "And Ativan. Together they form a sedative. You get changed, and then we're gonna let you have a nice long sleep. When you wake up, no more Chicago."

"Shut up!" yelled Patti. She tilted the gun sideways a fraction and squeezed the trigger: Bang! The report pounded into my brain. I spun around. Fuck! She'd shot a hole in the side of the ambulance. She was psychotic. "Take your fucking clothes off, Mandy, and put on the gown! Do it now or, I swear, I'll—"

I hurriedly unbuckled my belt and stripped my shirt off so I was just wearing my wife beater and my pants. I protested all the while. "I'm telling you, you got the wrong guy," I kept saying. They ignored me, every single word.

Marty stepped toward me, unsteadily 'cause the vehicle had serious speed wobbles. He was brandishing one of the syringes.

I flinched, anticipating the sharp prick of the needle.

"I haven't even started yet, Mr. Langoustini," he said, grabbing my arm. "Calm down." Like that was supposed to be reassuring. He hesitated, his eyes fixed on my shoulder. "Hey, boss, does the Bookman have a tattoo?"

I flushed. The tattoo made me think of Kowalski. How it was really his tattoo. How he'd branded me. Christ, what I wouldn't give to have him burst in the door, with his cowboy attitude and steel-capped boots. What I wouldn't give just to see him again before I died.

Patti sat down in one of the little foldout seats. "What're you talking about, Marty?"

Marty frowned. "It's just that I heard him say at a party one time that he didn't like 'em. Said they were tacky."

I remembered that party. I'd been talking to Jasmine Cozza on a balcony, drinking cold beer and watching the sun set over the desert. It seemed like a lifetime ago. Like someone else's memory.

"I heard that, too," said the goombah, looking up from the tiny supply cupboard near the cab. "The Bookman hates needles."

"So?" said Patti.

"So this guy's inked." Marty pointed. They all stared at me.

My heart thudded. I was running out of time.

"Fuck!" said Patti. She looked royally pissed. "Who the fuck are you?"

I dropped back onto the gurney, and kicked Marty's arm and hip with the flats of my feet. He yelled and grabbed at the ceiling strap, but missed. He fell back like a tree crashing down. The other guy tried to step out of the way and tripped, slamming into the window to the cab. Marty's hypodermic spiked straight into Patti's cleavage, pumping her full of sedative.

"I'm one of the good guys," I announced, and dove for the door handle, twisting it and flinging it open. The gravel road blurred out behind us, shiny with rain. I was about to jump when the ambulance swerved around a corner, throwing me back against the interior wall. Dammit! And then the goombah I didn't know grabbed my arm and dragged me further in. He had a scalpel glinting in his big stupid hand, silver and lethal. I struggled to loosen his grip, kicking at bandages and medical supplies that tumbled out of the ambulance and scattered the road behind us like a trail of breadcrumbs in a fairytale book.

Thrashing around just made him tighten his grip, so I twisted till I had my back to him, and shoved the point of my elbow into his neck. At exactly the same moment, he thrust his scalpel at me, burning into my side like fire. Jesus Christ! But his grip went slack on my arm, at least, and I jumped for the doorway, no hesitation this time.

The ground came up to meet me. I grunted on impact, and rolled onto the wet road, grazing my knees and arms and shoulders. My head went thunk thunk thunk against the gravel. The street was deserted, lined with warehouses on one side, dark fields on the other. No help either way.

I struggled to get air back into my lungs as the ambulance slewed to a halt a couple hundred meters down the road. I was seeing double from the head jolts, but I gritted my teeth and forced myself to my feet. Don't puke, I told my shaken body. Just get to safety.

The siren was still belting out, and the flashing lights made the whole scene feel like home, like any minute now cop cars would pull up, and maybe someone who looked like me would get out of one of them and yell, "Freeze!"

I didn't have time to find out. I limped to a ditch on the side of the road and threw myself in there, reciting the plate to myself as I went, trying to commit it to memory. Hoping Patti and her friends wouldn't find me before someone else did. And knowing that if they did, that'd be the end of it.

The ditch was slimy and muddy, and it smelled of dead frogs, but it was my only chance of surviving, and Jesus, I thought, I fucking love my screwed up, crazy, puzzle piece of a life. I loved my family, and my job, and Fraser, my friend. And yeah, it was different and scary, but I loved Kowalski, too. For a moment there, I loved them all so hard I could've died.

"Where the fuck did he go, the weasel?" I heard Marty yell, sending goosebumps down my skin. I swallowed my pride and stayed down, stayed put, and wished like hell I had my gun. What the fuck was I gonna do?

And then the sweetest sound in the whole world: an engine. A truck. I stuck my head out of the ditch and watched it pull up behind the ambulance. Two burly guys in security guard uniforms started to get out. "You boys lost a bunch of bandages, back along the road there," one of them called out to Marty, who was standing in the back door of the ambulance. "Is everything okay?"

"Chicago PD!" I yelled. "Ten-Oh! Proceed with caution." I tried to think of the code for That Ambulance is Manned by Psychotic Las Vegas Mob Guys Who Tried to Kill Me! but my head was too shaken up, so I shouted, "Forty-four. For Christ's sake, call the cops!"

Bless Charlie Dodgson and Sam Clements, senior night watchmen with Huckleberry's Security Contractors. Bless them for believing me, no questions asked. They both reached for their guns, as soon as they heard "Ten-Oh". And bless Sam Clements even better, a moment later, when the goombah barreled toward him waving his bloody scalpel, for keeping his head and pulling the goddamned trigger.

8. His life

At the time we switched bodies, I hadn't seen Kowalski in maybe a month, maybe six weeks, and then all of a sudden he was all around me. I was in him. And not just that: I was undercover as him, too. Living his life. Mostly it was familiar: the usual round of work, diner, home. Nothing too challenging there, you'd think, except that made the differences stand out like Christmas lights. The gap between us etched out in thirty-foot glowing letters like the Hollywood sign.

We agreed straight up we weren't telling anyone—too risky, too many questions. Even if they believed us, which they wouldn't, what the hell could I say if someone asked, "Why Kowalski?" I thought about it in the quiet of his apartment at night, what the answer was: "Because I fucked him. Because I can't stop wanting him." I could admit that to myself, maybe—it was just another piece of me that didn't fit the puzzle—but no way could I say it out loud.

But not telling anyone meant we had no one to talk to but each other, and since that evening at my house when I ended it, we couldn't do that anymore either.

I spent a lot of time alone in his apartment, which was too empty, wearing his body, which was twitchy and wired.

And the phone never stopped ringing. First off it was some fruity old guy checking I was okay because I'd missed a chess game in the park. Then a deep-voiced guy called Sal who wanted to know if I was still up for a sparring session at the gym on Saturday. Then Kowalski's mom, saying she couldn't come iron his shirts on Wednesday because she had to go to the hairdresser, so she'd come Friday instead. Then someone named Jenny from a community center saying the mentor program was recruiting and did he want to sign up again this year?

Jesus, Kowalski's life was like a three-ringed circus, and no way did I want to play P.T. Barnum for him. After that I let the machine pick up—the Chicago Chapter of the American Turtle Owners' Association's fund-raising drive was something Kowalski could deal with himself once we'd switched back, thank you very much. I flicked on the TV, intending to catch a couple of innings and maybe sack out on the couch. Kowalski's bed was too—intimate.

There was a break in transmission after the end of the fourth, and for just a fraction of time, the apartment was silent and empty. The phone rang into the silence.

I sighed. Jesus, was there anyone left in the greater Chicago area who hadn't called tonight?

"This is Kowalski," the machine droned. "Leave a message."

"Hello, Ray," said the voice on the other end, distant, polite and Canadian.

"Benny!" I yelled, getting to my feet. Christ, why hadn't I thought of that? There was someone I could talk to. My old friend and partner. I dashed for the phone, grabbing it just as Fraser was winding up his message ("Sorry to have missed you" and that kind of thing) and said, "Hey!"

"Ray!" he said, sounding pleased and—something else. Diffident, maybe? "How are you?"

I laughed, dryly. "Complicated question, Fraser. I'm not sure how to answer that. Jesus, but it's good to hear your voice, though."

"I'm glad. I've been—thinking about you." His voice deepened, and all of a sudden I remembered who I sounded like, and that phonecall I'd overheard, where Kowalski had given Fraser an ultimatum, had called it quits with him because of me. I squirmed, and carried the phone over to the couch.

"Oh jeez, Fraser, I have to tell you. It's not me you've been thinking about."

There was a pause. "Why do you say that?"

"Trust me. In fact—" I took a deep breath. "Okay, here's the situation. Kowalski and I—"

"Ray?" There was a whine in the background. "No, it's not dinnertime. I don't know why every year you think the shorter daylight hours will fool me into feeding you early. I'm not as wet behind the ears as you seem to think, you know, nor as oblivious to the change in seasons." Fraser cleared his throat. "I'm sorry, Ray. You were saying?"

"Yeah, I was trying to—Benny, it's me. Ray Vecchio." I stretched my legs out onto the coffee table and studied Kowalski's feet. They were long and bony, with square-cut nails.

I could hear his frown. "You sound like Ray Kowalski."

"Yeah, well, that's the thing. We've kind of switched. Bodies." I felt awkward even saying it, it sounded so stupid. Plus talking about Kowalski's body to Fraser felt like rubbing salt into a wound I wasn't supposed to know about. "It happened on Thursday, and we've been trying to straighten it out since then."

"I see," Fraser said neutrally. I imagined him weighing the chances of Kowalski being delusional against the possibility of supernatural intervention and general Chicago craziness. "That's rather—Are you all right?"

I closed my eyes and let out a deep breath. He believed me. "Yeah. Thanks, Benny. Yeah, I'm okay. It's crazy, you know. It kind of took me by surprise."

"I imagine it would. Particularly since I hear you and Ray have been at odds, lately."

I twisted my finger in the hem of my t-shirt, and my heart started thumping. "He told you?"

"Yes, Ray." Fraser sounded sad. "He—we maintain a rather erratic correspondence, but I think in regards to—to this, he needed someone to confide in."

"Christ." I rubbed my face. "He wasn't the only one."

"I'm aware it's none of my business, Ray, but—"

"Yeah," I said, suddenly feeling fierce. How had I sidelined this guy, this amazing guy, my best friend? How had I come to resent him so bad? What the hell was happening to me? "Yeah, it's your business, Benny. I say so. You tell me whatever you want. Tell me I'm an ass. It's about time someone did."

He cleared his throat. "I was merely going to ask if there isn't a way the two of you could be friends?"

My heart ached for him. Fraser up there alone in the snow, and here we were, all the riches of the world at our fingertips, wasting our opportunities. But it wasn't that simple. It was never that simple. "I don't know. I don't know. Kowalski is—he's hard work, you know? He's not—he's not what I expected."

Fraser said quietly, "It's his curse, Ray, to take people unawares."

"Yeah. You too, huh? Yeah." I sighed. "Why didn't it work out with the two of you? Do you mind me asking, Benny? Can you say?"

He went silent a while—long enough that I started to wonder if I shouldn't have asked in the first place—and Dief whined again, softer this time, but closer to the receiver. Finally Fraser said, "If I were a better person, perhaps—more resilient, less stubborn—I would have returned to Chicago with him, but quite frankly, the prospect of even one more summer—the city streets, the unrelenting noise, the taste of the air, all those people. I was—it was hard—when he left, but I couldn't go back there, Ray. I couldn't bear it." His voice cracked.

"Jesus, Fraser. I'm sorry." I took Kowalski's glasses off and pressed the ball of my palm against my eye. "You okay?"

He took a deep breath. "Yeah. Yes, Ray. I'll be okay."

"Do you love him?"

Fraser made a small sound of protest.

"Never mind, never mind. Forget I asked," I interrupted quickly. It was cruel to make him say it. To remind him of what he couldn't have.

His next words were a challenge if ever I heard one. "Do you?"

Love. Jesus Christ. I hadn't even thought about it. Hadn't thought beyond wanting Kowalski and hiding it, and being scared of what people would think if they knew. If they knew me.

I looked around the apartment, full of color and kitsch, and my heart throbbed. Maybe this is it, I thought. Maybe this is love. I struggled not to panic. What the fuck did I do with that? "I don't know," I told Fraser, and even then I couldn't tell you if I was speaking the truth, or if I was still hiding it from myself. "Maybe."

Maybe. The thing with loving Kowalski is this: he's not like the girl you can take home to meet the family. For a start, they already know him, or think they do. For another thing, they already think they know you, and what happens when you stand that on its head? Huh? What happens then? Maybe the world caves in. Maybe knowing each other, knowing where we stand with each other, is all we got in this world. Maybe it's best not to fuck with that.

9. His hair

The hospital. I was too woozy to get bored. I kept waking up in a blur of aches and pains and drugs. Nurses taking my temperature and injecting me full of stuff. Hassling me about my lifestyle. Beep beep beep machines. Bedpans and sponge baths. Oxygen cold in my nostrils. I lost track of time, to start off with.

* * *

A shadowy figure sitting next to my bed. I rolled my head sideways and squinted, sending sparks down my spine. Hoping.

He leaned forward. It was Father Behan. "How're you feeling, son?"

* * *

"He's awake!"

I blinked fuzzily. Doped up on something. "Hey, Frannie." Words swollen. Lips dry, stinging. "How's it going?"

"Hey, Ray." Her soft fingers clutched my hand too tight. "It's going okay."

* * *

"How long?" I croaked, blinking against the light.

"My boy's awake! What can I get you? Are you hungry?"

"Ma." I tried to smile. "How long since I been here?"

"Two days ago, they found you on the side of the street, near death." She crossed herself. "Yesterday they took you into surgery."

"M'okay, Ma."

"Thanks to the Grace of God."

* * *

Everyone in the hospital had dark hair. Frannie, Ma, all the nurses and doctors, even the cop who took down my statement. That's how I knew Kowalski wasn't here. It was a dark-haired hospital. Fraser would've blended right in.

* * *

Dark. I tried to reach for the water on the table by the bed, but I was too stiff to move.

A small hand on my arm stopped me. "I'll get it."

"Thanks." It was Frannie. "How bad is it?" I asked, while she poured some into a glass. They'd told me before, but the doctor had been in a hurry, rattling off phrases that sounded like gobbledygook, and I hadn't been up to asking her to translate into English. Must've hit my head pretty hard.

"You're going to be okay, Ray. It's just gonna take time."

"What's your diagnosis?" I asked, half-teasing. She used to play nurses with her dolls, a lifetime ago.

"Two broken ribs, concussion, major confusions, and a hole in your side. You lost a lot of blood before the ambulance showed up." She paused. "They had to remove your spleen, Ray, but you're going to be okay. They thought there might be brain damage, but your scans are clear. You're going to be fine."

She held my head up, gave me a sip of water, then laid me down again. I licked my lips, and the beep beep beep got faster. "Kowalski," I said.

"Ray? Is that you?"

I frowned at her. What the hell?

"Have you switched bodies again?" She peered closer, worried. "Should I call your mom and dad?"

I shut my eyes. "No, Frannie. I'm me."

She took my hand. "Thank God."

There was a pause. I listened to the hospital rustling around me. Nurses' footsteps in the hallway, the distant murmur of voices. "Does Kowalski know?"

"Know what?"

"That I'm here."

"I don't know." She looked surprised. "You want me to tell him?"

I took a breath and pain jabbed my chest, prodding me on. "Yeah. If I'm gonna give Ma a heart attack, might as well do it while we're in the hospital."

"Ray?" She looked at me like what the hell was I talking about, but I was too tired to explain.

"Just tell him."

* * *

He was there. He was standing right there in the doorway. Black leather jacket over one arm. Red vest. Blond hair pointing in all directions. Pale. "How're you feeling?"

"Sorry." It was supposed to be a joke, but it came out hoarse and heavy. "You coming in, or you just gonna stand there?"

He sat in the visitor's chair, then shuffled it closer and hunched forward, rolling his bracelet between his thumb and middle finger. "Frannie said you're gonna be okay."

"So they keep telling me." I shut my eyes, and smoothed the white cotton sheets. Everything I said was coming out grouchy. I tried again. "Sorry. I'm sorry. And thanks."

His chin came up, eyes searching my face. "Oh yeah, I'm a hero. What're you thanking me for?"

"They would've killed me," I told him.

He smiled without a trace of humor. "They nearly did."

"If they'd got me to Vegas, Fellini would've—" I made a gun with my fingers, shot myself in the temple. Let my arm fall back onto the sheet. "The tatt. That's how they knew I wasn't Langoustini." He'd fucking saved my life: he deserved to know it.

Kowalski leaned forward and reached for my hand. I splayed my fingers and laced them with his.

"Distinguishing feature," I mumbled, feeling sleepy now I'd told him. Damned drugs. His fingers were warm and rough on mine. I held on.

* * *

He was still there when I woke again. Still daylight. Late afternoon? He was reading the newspaper.

"Hey."

"Hey," he said, softly, folding the paper and dropping it on the floor beside him. His red vest brightened up the whole room. "You need anything?"

I tried to sit up. He put another pillow behind me, impersonal, like an orderly, but I liked the feel of his hand on my back, supporting me. Fuck, it was good to see him, even like this. The tightness inside me unwound a little. "Did I say I'm an idiot?"

He smiled, lopsidedly. "Hey, trust me. If you're someone else long enough, it's hard to stop. I know."

Pieces fell into place. "Yeah. You knew?"

"I know you, Vecchio. And I know when you're not being yourself. You just gotta find a way to pull yourself back."

A lightbulb went off in my head and I laughed. "That's why the anchor?"

He shrugged, looking embarrassed.

I got serious again. "I'm still figuring this out. I'm gonna fuck up."

"You'll be okay." He looked toward the doorway. "You got family on your side."

I followed his gaze. "Hey, Frannie."

"Hey, bro. Hi, Ray." She walked to the foot of the bed, and picked up my charts. "How're you feeling today?"

Kowalski got to his feet. "I gotta go."

I nodded. "Yeah. No, wait." I beckoned him closer.

"What?"

I met his eyes. This was serious. I couldn't fuck this up again. "Second chance?" I held out my hand.

He hesitated. "I'm not your punching bag, Vecchio."

"I know." I swallowed. "Ray. I know that." It was the first time I called him by his name.

Maybe it was that, or maybe I had my heart in my eyes. Either way, he got the message. The look on his face, the curve of his lips—all of him warmed me to my toes. He ran his fingers through his hair. "Okay, then." We shook on it, like we were sealing a business deal.

I started to pull his hand to my lips, the grand romantic gesture, but he glanced at Frannie where she was flipping through my charts, looked back at me, and tried to take his hand back. I refused to let go.

"Jeez, Kowalski," Frannie snorted. She had her hand on her hip and was staring at us, frowning.

Ray and I both froze, staring back at her. Panicked. Busted. I breathed deep, waiting for shock and outrage. Ready to brave it out, like I'd decided.

"You'd arm wrestle a guy in a hospital bed?" Frannie continued, disgusted. "That's pathetic. Aren't you guys ever gonna stop fighting?"

We both burst out laughing, still holding hands, and I knew then that it was gonna be okay.

10. For remembering

That time, that time in the Motel 6. That time was something else. Even though I was tired and my back hurt from six hours sitting in his car on a stakeout—

We got the call at 4am that they caught the guy—the suspect had rear-ended a cop car on West Upper Wacker Drive, would you believe it. When they ran his plate, they found the APB, and he confessed everything. Dispatch called to let us know.

"Thanks," said Kowalski into the radio, and glanced across at me. "Can you believe that? What a loser!"

"You better believe it. They're making criminals dumber every day." The last couple of words got stretched around a jumbo-sized yawn.

He yawned right back. "I'm too tired to drive you home, Vecchio," he said. "I'm thinking I'll get a room." He jerked his head at the Vacancy light next door.

"What is that?" I taunted, ignoring my blood pressure ratcheting up. "The Polack equivalent of 'accidentally' running out of gas? You're too tired?" I stretched my leg out and nudged his calf with my foot. "What are you, sixteen?"

He looked at me sideways, his eyes dark in the shadows of the car. "How old do you want me to be?"

"Your age, not your shoe size," I told him.

That earned me a sweet smile. "Maybe we can do the twirl." He turned and looked at me square on, his eyes brilliant and daring. "C'mon."

"You get us a room, I'll think about it," I said, pretending I wasn't remembering his taste, his come in my mouth. I was dead on my feet—or my ass, if you wanted to get technical about it. I could go home to my house, my cold empty bed, and sleep. Or I could take what he was offering, hot and dirty and close. I could already feel his skin on my hands. Could already imagine licking my way down his chest. I wet my lips, and his gaze sharpened.

He moved forward like he was gonna kiss me, and Christ, Christ, I opened my mouth in anticipation, but maybe he didn't see. He went for my ear, instead, and murmured, "You know you want it, Vecchio." Husky words that sent shivers through me.

He pulled back in one sleek move, and got out of the car. I let my head fall against the headrest and watched him prowl over to the Motel 6 reception and bang on the door. A light came on. The wide extravagant gestures, hunched shoulders emphasizing the cold, engaging smile wheedling a room even though it was almost morning and goshdarnit they were a respectable business, sir. I could see it all. Every wiry line of his body turned me on. At the slide of his long fingers delving into his coat pocket, I had to adjust myself. He pulled out a fold of banknotes, and then followed the proprietor into his office.

I shut my eyes and breathed while ice crawled my spine and crackled through my fingers, curling them into fists. Argued with myself over what the hell I thought I was doing. This would be the third time. This would be premeditated. This would mean something. I got out of the car and stretched until my spine popped. The northerly wind knifed in between my scarf and my coat, nipped at my ankles, and scoured my cheeks. I stuck my hands in my pockets and studied the cracked uneven ice on the ground.

A couple of minutes later Kowalski's boots stepped into my field of vision, and I looked up. He was watching me, standing with his weight on one hip, and a serious expression that vanished into attitude when he caught me looking. He tossed me a room key and I caught it automatically, turned it over in my fingers. Seventeen. "What name did you give?"

"Terry Malloy." He grinned sharply, and drifted a couple of steps back toward the units. "C'mon, Vecchio," he said, jerking his head. "It's cold out."

I followed him. In my head, I was still telling myself I could leave anytime I wanted. Or that maybe I could pretend he was a girl. Ass or pussy, how much difference could it make? My body was starting to hum with the truth, though. My body knew exactly what it wanted.

I pushed past and strode ahead of him to the room, skirting the slush that'd built up in the gutters and around the edge of the building. I didn't look back, but I could sense him close behind me as I unlocked the door and flicked on the lights. The walls were salmon-colored, the quilts patterned in blue and pink triangles, and the combined smell of carpet and cleaning products filled the air, but it was tidy and inoffensive, and it was pretty warm. I relaxed a little. Went to put my gun in the drawer under the television.

"I gotta take a leak," Kowalski said, and disappeared into the bathroom, not quite shutting the door after him. A couple of seconds later, I could hear him pissing.

"Jesus," I called out. "Don't be shy." I closed the drapes on the world outside, and then sat on the edge of the bed so I could pull my shoes off, one at a time, wriggling my toes to get the circulation going. "What side of the bed do you want?" I asked.

The john flushed and he came out of the bathroom, carrying a foot-long strip of paper. "I wasn't planning on sleeping," he leered, coming toward me. He'd buttoned up, but his belt was undone, the buckle jingling a little.

"Yeah." I looked away, taking off my watch with more care than it needed, and putting it on the nearest nightstand.

He tossed his coat onto a chair, shrugged out of his shoulder holster, and pulled me up into his arms, but I moved away. "Hang on, hang on," I said, and fussed around turning down the quilt.

"Yeah," he mocked. "God forbid we should mess up the covers."

"Exactly," I said over my shoulder. "Are we civilized human beings or what?"

"I don't know about you, Vecchio," he said, flattening the strip of paper across his chest, "but me, I'm feeling kinda wild." The paper read Sanitized For Your Protection.

"You take that from the john?"

"I'm thinking of having it tattooed on my ass." He pursed his lips and looked down at the slogan, with raised eyebrows. "What do you think?"

I couldn't keep from laughing. "False advertising," I told him, and peeled off my coat and scarf. I would've kept undressing, too. So tired I didn't know if I wanted to get off or just slide between the sheets and sleep. I took a step toward Kowalski and he dropped the paper to the floor and came up to me. Then uncertainty dissolved and it was all him. Everything. And one lingering kiss, softer than I expected. Romantic. His fingers on my cheek as he sucked my lip between his teeth. I moaned, my breath already coming in gasps as I pushed his sweater out of the way, my hands grazing his waist, his hips.

We broke apart and stood staring at each other, both panting. His eyes were dark and heavy-lidded. He smiled—or smirked, maybe—and without warning, he started throwing off his clothes, dropping them on the floor, not stopping till he was naked. I stared at his ribs, his bony hips, his dick flushed and hard, jutting out from his body, and I swear to God, I was shaking with how much I wanted him. I couldn't imagine doing this, having these feelings for any other guy. Carnal and vibrant, like I was turned on for the first time in my life. Or for any woman, either.

He licked his lips, temptation made flesh, and I got a shiver down my spine. "You do this a lot, Kowalski?"

His smirk froze, eyes slitting like a cat. "What's it to you?"

"Nothing." I looked away, and pulled my tie loose, wishing I hadn't asked. Unbuttoned my shirt and threw it on a chair. "It's nothing to me." I told better lies in grade school. But I stripped, and there was no hiding that I was hard for him, too.

He threw himself at me, kissing me fiercely, and now there was skin all the way down. I smoothed my hands down his back, curved around his ass and pulled him close against me, taking control, lining us up so our dicks rubbed together. After a moment he sighed and softened, molding to me. And a moment after that, he got his hands between us and shoved me onto the bed.

I rolled onto my back just as he sprawled across me, and oh, yeah, this was better, horizontal like this. This was heaven. I shut my eyes and concentrated on his weight, his dick hard against my hip, and the way our pubes, our legs rasped against each other. His hands were touching me, were all over me. I wrapped my arms around him and held on, then braced my foot against the wall and pushed us over so I was on top, pinning him down. I licked my way down his chest, sucked at his nipple while he clutched my shoulders and moaned my name. It felt like triumph, like he was at my mercy.

He didn't seem to care. He writhed under me and panted up at the ceiling. "Fuck, Vecchio. Fuck me."

I looked up at him, startled that he'd want that. His eyes were shining, his lips parted. He was fucking beautiful. "Yeah," I said, hoarsely. "You. Have you got anything?"

He nodded and squirmed out from under me, hung upside-down off the bed, his stomach taut, his back arched. I licked down his side, and he convulsed and smacked my head away. "Stop it, you ass. That tickles." I laughed and did it again, and he grabbed my ear with one hand to hold me off, and went back to scrabbling around amongst his clothes with the other. Probably took longer that way, but I didn't care. I liked how we were together, this magic line between teasing and fucking, his body pressing up against me. He found the stuff eventually.

He let go of my ear and grabbed my arm to lever himself back onto the bed, which was when I really properly saw his tattoo: Champion. His arm flexed and the shape shifted. I stroked my thumb over the outline and inhaled sharply. Dragged it toward me so I could lick it.

He stared at me, breathing through his mouth. "You got a kink for ink, Vecchio?"

"Maybe." The admission didn't come easy, even though by now I would've said anything to keep him with me. "Yeah. It looks good on you."

"Yeah, I know." He ripped the packet open, and took my dick in his hand without hesitation.

I bit down on his tatt, tracing with my tongue where I thought the lines were, and tried not to come from his touch, the steady pressure of the rubber rolling down. He slicked me up, and then pushed me back so he could get his legs in the air, his face flushed and serious with concentration. I'd presumed till now we'd do it doggy-style—that that was how guys did it. But the sight of him spread out beneath me, panting, pale and incandescent, like a wild and untamed angel. I tell you, my heart exploded inside of me, messy and protective. You shouldn't do this with me, I nearly told him. You deserve better. I had to close my eyes to keep my mouth shut.

He put his ankles on my shoulders, and said, "Do it," and I opened my eyes again, focusing. I wanted this, and who the hell cared what it meant. I'd deal with that later. Right now there was just him, naked and sweaty and crazy. I pressed against him, but his ass resisted. Impossible. I tried to ease forward, one hand aiming my dick, the other braced on the bed for balance. "Come on, Kowalski. Let me in. Let me." And then he was slipping tight around me, letting me in, letting me in slow slow slow hot hot, while I held my breath and watched him, watched his face relax, saw his wince replaced by wonder.

He threw his head back and I waited till he started breathing again, until I could move without losing it. Yeah, I can still get zero-to-sixty hard just thinking about it. At the time, I felt like I was winning the lottery, fucking him slow and steady, in and out, desperate to keep control. I wanted to touch him, to run my fingers over his lined face, to be with him, but that was a line I couldn't cross. Might as well have cut myself open and spilled my guts all over the bed. So instead I smoothed over his belly, and then jerked him off. His dick swollen and heavy in my hand. Every stroke ratcheting up the tension in his frame. He clenched his hands in the sheets and strained up against me, again and again, until he was gasping for air, and I was swearing black and blue, because Jesus, look at him! His orgasm broke him open, come spattering on my hand and his chest. He collapsed back and shook sweat out of his eyes, and then blinked up at me like he'd lost track of time and place and everything.

"Oh yeah. Yeah." I kept thrusting, amazed by this, amazed by how right it felt. "Jesus fuck, Kowalski," I breathed. My whole being was focused on my dick now, on the heat of him, the smooth tight slide of the two of us together, shaping me into someone new. Someone I never expected to be.

"Jesus," I wailed, coming hard and sudden, torn to pieces. "Oh Jesus." There were no other words. I pulled out and collapsed sideways, pulling him into my arms, sticky mess smeared between us and I didn't care. I was still catching my breath, my lungs full of him, full of sex and sweat. He reached behind him and yanked the corner of the sheet free, dried us both off. Then his gaze was back on my face, like he was searching for something there.

I ran my thumb back and forth over his tattoo, watching Champion disappear under my hand, time after time, so I didn't have to look at him.

"You got one?" he asked, after a minute.

"What?" My mind was jumbled and confused.

He propped his head on his hand and looked down at me, his expression neutral. "Tattoo. You don't have any?"

"Nah, I never—I don't—How do you decide something that'll last your whole life, through thick and thin, no matter what? I could never do that."

He cupped my face and dragged me round to looked at him. Gave me a half-smile. "You just choose something you like and you go with it, Vecchio. After a while, it's a part of you, like your foot or your dick. You don't question it."

"Okay," I said, because I was sick of talking. I wanted him to lie back down. I wanted to hold him close and let the puzzle pieces fall wherever the fuck they landed. So I said "Yeah, okay" like I believed him, but I didn't have a fucking clue what he was talking about. Not then.



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