Thanks: Special thanks to Miriam for wonderful beta
Stella rested her beer bottle on the bar and looked around the dim noisy room. The 2-7 were celebrating the arrest of Daniel Feynman on charges of murder and conspiracy. Stella had been in the precinct when they brought him in, and had been swept up in the tide of triumph and relief. But really, what the hell was she doing here? She didn't belong. She'd finish her drink and then she'd go. Ten minutes tops.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the Mountie walking toward her and, God, there was something about him—maybe the uniform—that made her want to litter or jaywalk, or smash respectable mailboxes with a baseball bat.
She was too old for that. Rebellion belonged to the young and the stupid, and she had no legitimate reason to resent him. She schooled herself to be professional, and turned to greet him.
"Assistant State's Attorney Kowalski." He nodded politely, set his hat on the counter in front of him, and asked the hovering barman for a club soda.
"Constable." She couldn't help sounding brisk.
He inclined his head down over the bar, looking at her sideways. "Please. Call me Fraser."
She nodded but didn't return the favor. The music ebbed and flowed. She swiped a finger across the beaded condensation on her bottle.
The barman slid the Mountie's soda across the polished wooden bar into his waiting hand.
"May I buy you a drink?" Fraser offered, catching Stella's eye. He was making an effort, and she should too. If only it wasn't such a goddamned effort.
"No, thanks," she said, holding up her half-full bottle. "I'm fine." She leaned an elbow on the bar and discreetly looked him over, impartially speculating as to whether the uniform was fully detachable. Of course, it must be if—
"Ray told you." The Mountie's voice was low and private.
"Yeah." It was all she wanted to say, but it seemed rude not to add, "I hope you'll be happy together." She couldn't suppress a note of but I doubt it.
Constable Fraser didn't seem to notice. He smiled smugly and said, "Thank you kindly."
Stella internally rolled her eyes, and glanced past him to Ray. Oh, hell. Ray was giving some guy grief at the jukebox. The sight made her apprehensive. Here we go again. It was always like this, always embarrassing.
Fraser noticed her reaction and turned, leaning back against the bar so he could see the situation without shutting her out.
"Trouble," explained Stella. "Ray's gonna start something."
Fraser surveyed the situation placidly. "I don't think so."
And that just showed you, didn't it? It showed you that the Mountie was an idiot who couldn't see what was right under his nose. Every time Stella'd seen Ray in public in the last year, if there'd been something to start, Ray had been right there starting it. You think you know him, she wanted to say. What do you know? It's been, what, a month you've been together? A month is easy. Have you seen him mad, yet? Have you seen him hurting? A horrible saccharine song started up and Stella knew that was enough. Enough to set Ray off, if he was that way inclined.
But Ray didn't get in the guy's face at all. Maybe because Welsh was right behind him saying "Detective" in a warning tone of voice, or maybe it was something else.
Instead Ray slung an arm around the guy's shoulder and switched on the charm. Over the sickly synthesizer and girl group harmonizing, Stella could just make out Ray saying, "That, my friend, is not music. Here, let me buy you a beer and I'll play you some real music."
The guy protested weakly, but Ray's smile was full-beam irresistible. Stella hadn't seen that smile in a long time. As he led the Man of No Musical Taste to the bar behind them, Ray looked over and saw Stella and Fraser standing there. He raised his eyebrows at Fraser and grinned.
The Mountie smirked down into his soda. Stella gulped the last of her drink, feeling irrationally irritated, and picked up her purse to leave. But then he turned to her, and there was a line of worry on his face that made her give a little. He was always so damned earnest. It must be hell taking everything that seriously, especially when dealing with Ray.
"I was hoping to get your advice, actually," he said.
She looked at him enquiringly, and waited for him to continue. It was all the invitation she was prepared to offer.
He cleared his throat (a nervous trait she would have to rid him of if he ever took the stand, she noted automatically). "I know the circumstances are rather unusual," he said, seeming to choose his words with care, "but I thought you might know—if you weren't averse to discussing the matter—whether you have any insight into how his parents will react."
Stella was stunned, but refused to let it show on her face. "You're going to tell them?"
"Well," the Mountie prevaricated. "Not immediately. We're keeping things under our hats in the meantime, as I'm sure Ray informed you, since— As you'll appreciate, it's something of a sensitive—" He ducked his head, then tried again. "It's not a particularly straightforward situation. But one day, certainly. I hope." He stared thoughtfully into his glass for a moment, then refocused on the conversation. "You're friends with Mrs Kowalski. The, ah, other Mrs Kowalski. How do you think she'll respond?"
Stella rolled her bottle between her hands while she considered the question. The Mountie had some cheek asking, given Stella was Ray's ex, but she was actually inclined to give him credit for that, so she answered honestly. "Barb will talk to me. I don't know for sure what she'll think, but she'll want to talk to me about it."
Fraser pursed his lips, probably resisting the urge to ask what Stella would say, which was just as well because, at this stage, Stella had no idea. What would she say? It's okay, Barb. Ray may be gay, but at least he's not punching people in bars anymore.
"And Mr Kowalski?" asked Fraser.
That one was much easier. Stella smiled wryly, and said, "Oh, he'll stop talking to Ray for six months, probably, but only because he won't know how else to handle it. Eventually he'll turn up with a part for Ray's car and they'll be fine."
Fraser looked relieved by this prognosis, and smiled back at her. "Understood."
Stella surprised herself with a rush of fellow feeling—perhaps it was the beer—and was compelled to warn him. "I hope you realize what you've gotten yourself into, Constable. When you break up, you may have to move further than Canada. He's very persistent."
Fraser looked over to Ray, who was back by the jukebox, selecting tracks with great concentration and gesturing wildly as he explained something to the hapless jukebox guy. Stella followed his gaze, noting that the poor schmuck had apparently gained an expensive-looking cocktail from the situation, at least.
"I'm hoping it won't come to that."
Fraser's words broke in on her observation, and the warmth and optimism in them contrasted so strongly with Stella's faint bitterness—that feeling of disenchantment she'd been carrying round since well before her divorce—that she nearly snorted. She made up for her uncharitable response by saying, "Good luck."
Fraser's attention swung back to her, understanding in his eyes. "Ray is capable of a degree of commitment that sometimes blinds him to the effects he has on other people," he said.
Stella met his gaze. "Yeah, no kidding." In that moment, in the light of that understanding, it was like a twisted muscle inside her that had been cramping forever finally released. There was still a dull residual ache, but nothing she couldn't live with. Nothing that would last. "Well," she added, softly, "he's all yours now."
Fraser smiled then, a real smile, and opened his mouth to say something—Stella would have bet good money on it being another Thank you kindly—but she forestalled him. "Does that offer of a drink still stand?"
The awful song ended and, yes, this next one was Ray's choice, no question. He'd always had a talent for finding danceable tunes, even from the crappiest selection. Stella's toe tapped in time with the soothing drumbeat.
And then Ray was coming towards them, and Stella felt her shoulders tense, marshalling her defences, ready to fend him off again like always. It was a habit now, how he tried to embarrass her in public, in front of his workmates, whenever he got the chance. She glared at him pre-emptively.
But it was immediately obvious that Stella wasn't in Ray's spotlight anymore: his eyes, his whole focus was on Fraser. Stella was relieved, and also unexpectedly let down. This was how it felt to be left behind. Exactly what she'd said she wanted.
Ray's grin encompassed both of them, though. "What're you guys talking about?"
They looked at him mutely, caught out, and he laughed. Then he handed off his drink to Fraser and turned to Stella. "May I have this dance?"
There was no sense of desperation or entitlement in the way he asked. All the pressure between them had dissipated. For the first time since the Oriole she was tempted to say yes. God, how she missed dancing. "Are you gonna behave yourself?" she said, and took his hand without waiting for an answer.
And they danced. They were light on their feet, as well-matched as they'd ever been. Stella was swept away by the music, by Ray's arms around her, his graceful sway, the warmth radiating through his thin shirt. She shut her eyes to the dingy bar and the detectives' rowdy discussion of the witness protection program, and just for this one dance she let herself pretend that everything had turned out differently between her and Ray, like a fairytale. They danced so well together, it made no sense that they couldn't work things out.
He dipped her, making her laugh, and when she was upright again, she looked past him to see the Mountie at the bar. He was facing away from them, listening intently to the barman. That told her everything she needed to know about his relationship with Ray—he was sufficiently sure of himself that didn't need to keep tabs. And it said everything about Ray's feelings for her, too. It was really over.
Ray spun her, then caught her close to him, prompting misguided catcalls from Huey and Dewey, which they both ignored. "Hey, Stell."
"Hey," she said, smiling up at him, determined not to let him see the small ache of displacement she knew would soon pass.
"The first dance of the rest of your life." Ray's voice was light but serious. "D'you think we'll ever be friends again, maybe?"
"We were never friends, Ray," said Stella automatically. And it was true: classmates, partners, lovers, husband and wife, exes. Never friends.
He frowned slightly, like he wanted to argue, but stayed quiet. They danced to the last few bars of the song before she added, "But now—I think—"
"Yeah?" He twirled her around in a big finish and pulled her back into his arms.
She pushed away from him just a couple of inches, giving them both some space. "Yeah, Ray. I think yeah."