Pairing: Vecchio/Kowalski, Stella
Thanks: To mergatrude for read-through
Notes: For Tara Keezer
It was the worst time of year to be flying into O'Hare. The plan rocked and jolted through its descent, at one point lurching downward so violently that Stella gave up trying to read, packed Wonder Boys into her briefcase and slid it back under the seat in front of her.
Ray — her second Ray, Ray Vecchio — was collecting her from the airport. He'd insisted on it, even though her parents had also offered and she'd been quite clear to all of them that she was perfectly capable of catching a cab. But Ray had insisted, saying he had something to tell her — whether pertaining to their short-lived marriage and the fate of their bowling alley, Striker's, or something else, he wouldn't say.
Stella suspected he was seeing someone new. It had been over six months since they'd separated, and he was smart, a good man with a kind heart. She'd be pleased for him, she decided, even if her own recent forays into dating had been abortive on the one hand and farcical on the other. It wasn't too late to build the life she'd dreamed of, and however much Chicago sometimes felt like a small town, crowded with familiar faces and the ghosts of mistakes, there were always new possibilities. If nothing else, she had her work, a new position ripe with new challenges.
The plane touched down, skidded sideways, then touched down again.
"Thank Christ," said the elderly man next to her, when they stabilized on the runway.
Stella smiled politely, waited while they taxied to a halt outside the terminal, and then switched on her cellphone and gathered her things.
Ray the second was waiting. He was wearing a charcoal suit, his shirt unbuttoned at the throat. Stella reached up to kiss his cheek, catching a faint whiff of cologne. "Hello, Ray."
"Stella." He smiled down at her. "How was your flight?"
"Hell," she said, grimacing. "For a while there, I thought they were going to give up and reroute us through Colorado." They started making their way through the press of people to the baggage carousel. "What's up, Ray?"
Ray looked around at the families greeting each other, couples laughing and hugging, children squealing. "You want to talk about it here?"
"I don't even know what 'it' is," Stella pointed out.
Ray put his hand on the small of her back to guide her past two men pushing a towering stack of suitcases. "I know, but—"
"Ray, I'm tired," Stella interrupted. "Just spill the beans and take me home to my parents, okay?"
Ray's hand fell away. "Can't we at least talk about it in the car?"
"Sure, Ray," said Stella. "What's 'it'?"
Ray caught her eye and then looked away, like he was checking the signage for baggage collection, even though Stella knew he could find his way around O'Hare blindfolded. "Oh, you know. Kowalski."
For a second, Stella thought he was questioning her decision to keep her first married name, after all this time, even though they'd talked about it before their wedding and agreed that continuity was important for her career. Then she clicked. "You mean Ray? What about him? Is he okay?"
"Is he okay?" repeated Ray Vecchio, like this was a riddle. "Sure. Is he driving me nuts? Absolutely. I get it now, how you—" They passed a crowd of European backpackers, all chattering loudly, and Stella could only hear snatches of what he was saying. "I mean, he gets under— like a Trojan, you know? And just when I think I've cracked, I've gone crazy and I'm hallucinating it all, he kisses me, and I—"
"He what?!" Stella stopped dead in her tracks, astounded. Ray didn't seem to realize, though, so she hurried to catch up.
"—and that's when I realize it's not only in my head, it's in his head too." Ray rubbed his hand over his mouth and chin. "I mean, maybe someone's messed with the water supply at the station, but I don't see Jack and Dewey playing tonsil hockey, so—"
"Ray!" Stella grabbed his arm and dragged him to the baggage collection, before he drifted off into the hubbub. "He kissed you? What, on the cheek?"
Ray looked at her. "No." He peered over the heads of the other people waiting. "How many bags?"
"Two. Brown calfskin, with—"
"I know the ones." He kept his eyes fixed on the stream of suitcases and rucksacks and boxes while he answered. "I mean, it was just a— just a one-time thing, but now I—"
"So, wait a minute." Stella scrambled to catch up, so busy trying to make sense of what he was saying that she couldn't even react. "He kissed you? But then— what the hell does a Trojan have to do with anything?"
"I told you," said Ray. "It was a stealth attack." He dived through the tightly packed crowd before she could reply, and returned triumphant with the larger of her two suitcases. "What did you pack in here, lead jewelry?"
"Books," she said. "And shoes. So this stealth attack — you mean the kiss?"
"No, no, forget the kiss." Ray hung his head and scratched the back of his neck. "Forget about the kiss. I'm talking about Kowalski. He's like the Trojan horse, seems all innocent, kinda weird but mostly harmless on the outside, and then you wake up one day and it's all upside-down, and you find yourself—"
"It was the Greeks who hid inside the Trojan horse, not the Trojans," Stella pointed out.
Ray stared at her incredulously. "Could you focus on what's important here? I'm trying to tell you that I think I've fallen in love with Kowalski, and you're giving me lessons in Greek history?"
Stella's mouth fell open. "Oh my God! You—" She broke off, at a loss for words. Ray and Ray? She'd long known that Ray Kowalski was— versatile— but her second Ray as well? "In love?"
Ray was looking around self-consciously. "Yeah, so can we maybe talk about this in the car?"
"I mean, I knew—" Hysteria bubbled up inside her and she started giggling. "But—"
"Hey, show some respect!" said Ray indignantly. "It's not— okay, maybe it's a little bit funny." The corner of his mouth turned up. "I guess I should be glad you're not mad."
Stella's giggles increased. She struggled for breath. "Just— just make sure you invite me to— to the wedding."
"Stella!" Ray blushed dark red. "I'm telling you this in confidence, okay? I mean, Christ, I haven't even talked to him, since he— since we—" He took a deep breath. "Just— don't expect too much."
"Oh, don't worry," said Stella, recovering herself. "I'm giving up expecting anything." She pressed a hand to her aching side. "It seems like the world is too weird for me to predict the weather, let alone what my ex-husbands may or may not do with each other."
Ray took her by the shoulders and bit his lip. "But you're— you'd be okay with it? I mean, if he's okay with it."
"Yeah, Ray." Stella surprised herself, how easy it was to say that. It was almost a relief. Maybe it wasn't her fault after all that her marriages had failed — maybe they'd been doomed from the outset. "If you two can make each other happy, somehow—" Hysteria threatened to seize her again, but she forced it down. "—then you have my blessing."
"Thanks, Stell." He straightened and looked at the carousel. Most of the travelers and their families had dispersed and there were just three lost-looking pieces of luggage slowly trundling past. One of them was Stella's. Ray grabbed it and brought it back to her, then picked up her other suitcase too and shepherded her toward the exit to the parking lot. "Oh, and another thing. You breathe so much as a word of this to anyone, I'm gonna arrest you," he told her.
"Arrest me?" Stella raised her eyebrows at him in mock challenge. "For what?"
He grinned. "Oh, I don't know," he said. "I'll think of something."