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Keeping Balance

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There's something, Stella thinks, that changes about Chicago when Ray is in town. Not that he had called her, he probably knew she wouldn't answer, but she had heard from Walsh at work that Ray would be in town briefly to collect his things before going back up North. Knowing Ray is here makes the city feel brighter, warmer than it had any right to be in January. She lets herself think she won't see him, and it's in fact almost nineteen and a half hours later before Ray shows up at her doorstep, refuses to leave, and coaxes her into a walk on the rocks by the shore.

It was crazy to agree to this, Stella knows. It was never easy to keep the lines of her body straight and her voice emotionless when she spoke to him. But perhaps it would be easier now that he seems to be with that Mountie of his, and for all he knew she was married to Ray Vecchio. And it feels good to be walking here beside him, just like it always did.

Nineteen years ago, also in January, they had played on these same rocks, just north of Navy Pier and almost walking distance from her parents' house. He had just begun his training and was learning, he said, how to keep his balance while being punched. She asked him to show her, and he balanced her on a rock, holding her by her waist. She raised her hands to heaven and then lifted one foot. He pushed her, then steadied her, swaying her back and forth until she learned to find her own stability. It comes from the gut, he said, but it was someplace just slightly lower than that where Stella felt it, felt her hunger for him keeping her as steady as it always had. Later they would drive her car fifteen miles west to find a secluded lane and he would fuck her slowly and sweetly in the back seat for hours. But there, standing on that rock, she felt the snow swirling around her and Ray's hands holding her, releasing her, pushing her, steadying her, and with the wind in her face and her arms in the sky she screamed his name. And eventually she toppled over, there would be bruises for him to kiss that night, but with all her winter gear on she was well padded and it didn't hurt too badly and she just pulled him down on top of her. Then they got up and she tried again.

Ray wouldn't know it, but even now, so many years later, she still comes down to these rocks sometimes when she needs to find out how to balance herself during a case that feels like it's knocking her down. It's good to bring him back here. Good, and a little scary, as much as it's safer now. He's just as beautiful as he had been nineteen years earlier, except that sometimes it seems like he gets more beautiful for every day she doesn't see him. She wonders if he can still smell when she's aroused just from being near him, like he always could back when it was any of his business. She sets her back a little straighter and follows him to sit on a rock overlooking the frozen lake. She follows his gaze to the water that flows just beneath the surface. She thinks of Ray in Canada and wonders if there's something about him that calls him to ice.

"So how are you and, um, Ray doing?" he asks.

She laughs. "We brought down the Congressman, busted the prostitution ring, and put sixteen people behind bars for corruption and kidnapping."

He stares, then laughs as well. "I thought a bowling alley wouldn't be your thing. Makes sense it was a front." Her marriage to Ray Vecchio had been a front as well, but Stella figures it might go better for everyone if her ex doesn't know that. "Look." He's serious again. "There's something I need to tell you for...Ben calls it closure. It's about how we met. There's something I never told you."

"About the robbery." He's playing with her, he must be. "Haven't we been through it all before?"

She first met Ray while standing in line at the Fifth Third Bank. She was twelve. He was thirteen. His accent marked him as Southside, and his scruffy clothes made clear that he wasn't anyone her parents would like her to know, but he told crazy made-up stories about his life that just made her wish the line would be longer so that she could be next to him just a little bit more. Then there was a shout, and an order to get on the floor, and Ellery had his gun out and was grabbing her. She was his hostage. She thought she was going to die, but then Ray messed himself and made a distraction so that Stella could twist herself, get out of Ellery's grasp and run away. She hid in the alley until the commotion was over, and in the chaos that followed, what was most important, she found a way to slip Ray her telephone number.

They went over it so many times, in so many ways. How they were going to stop crooks like Ellery, wipe Chicago clean of them, how he was going to arrest them and she was going to put them behind bars. They would be stronger than he was. They could be, together. They would have to be. They could do it.

Nine years after the robbery they got married. Fourteen years after that they got divorced. The following year Ray did arrest him, and Stella did gleefully serve as the prosecuting attorney, but they didn't go home together afterwards so it was something of an empty victory.

"The thing is," Ray says, "I lied to you all these years. I let you think I saved you. That I distracted him on purpose. But I didn't. I was just scared."

"Is that all?" She wants to reach for him so badly her hands hurt. It was something so little. It so didn't matter. Because the truth was, Ray had saved her. There wasn't a day that went by in any of the past twenty-five years in which Stella didn't remember Ray's face when Ellery grabbed her, and knowing that even if he was afraid, and even if he didn't know what to do, and even if, as it turns out, he didn't do anything at all, he still thought she was worth dying for. He was willing to risk his life to save hers. It had given her the strength to save herself.

It was strange, a moment before the attack he had been putting on moves, telling stories, and he was charming, yeah, but boys had tried to charm her before. And then he wanted to risk his life for her. She didn't think anyone could love her that much. She didn't think it was possible, but it had only taken him a moment to convince her that it was. And that was how he had loved her, every day since she was twelve. That was what mattered.

It was why she had never taken back her maiden name. Stella Kowalski could face down drug lords, mafia chiefs, bribed judges, corrupt politicians, whatever it takes. Stella Pierce, the girl she had been before Ray, could never have done any of that, not with all her parents' money behind her.

It's too much to say, too much to explain to this man she still loves but who isn't any longer her husband. Besides, it would just confuse him, because no matter how much she loves him she is not going to bear his children. Still, she needs to give him something. Some closure, if that's what he wants. She can't think of what to say and he's close to her and he smells like he always did and finally it just comes out. "Ray," she says, looking down at the ice below her. "You saved me every minute of my life." And it was too much to say, way too much, she can see it in the light in his eyes when she looks up and the way he turns towards her. She feels the ache inside her, right above where the longing sits, but she knows she needs to be the one to stop it.

When she stands up, the rocks wobble beneath her. She murmurs something about his friend who must be waiting, that she needs to be somewhere. He hears it. But as they climb back across the rocks, no matter how they shift under her, Stella knows the reason why her balance is perfect.