One night Raj raises the idea of double dating.
Stuart’s pretty sure Raj thinks he’s going to hate the idea, because Raj has made crème brûlée for dessert. It could just be because Raj likes playing with his new kitchen blowtorch, but there’s this look Raj gets on his face when he’s planning to suggest something that he doesn’t think Stuart will like, and he’s prone to culinary bribes.
“I thought we could try stargazing, maybe; Howard likes it and Bernadette would probably think it’s romantic, but maybe it’s too romantic for a first double date. Maybe we should just do dinner and a movie. Or Sound of Music? Wait, Bernadette doesn’t like Sound of Music...”
Raj continues monologuing until Stuart pokes a forkful of crème brûlée against his lips.
“Rajesh. Eat this.”
Raj opens his mouth to accept the tidbit.
“Now, what’s the first thing that you think of—after you swallow, don’t choke.”
Raj swallows, licks his lips, and blurts, “Roller disco!”
“Okay, good. When?”
The next answer comes after Raj stares into space for a moment, consulting the diary in his head. “The Friday after next?”
“Sure. Call Howard and ask them if they’re free.” Stuart grabs Raj’s wrist as he begins to rise. “After you finish eating.”
Raj settles sheepishly back in his seat. “Yes, my sweet white sugar boy.”
Stuart unearths his old black sports bag from behind Raj’s shoe rack after dinner, while Raj calls Howard and persuades the Rostenkowski-Wolowitzes to come skating. Judging from the brevity of the call, they’re easily convinced.
Raj stays out in the living room, though, which pleases Stuart; this won’t be a surprise if Raj knows now.
The skates go on a little stiffly, but the boots mold to his feet after a couple of minutes of patient flexing. Stuart consults his own mental diary, figuring out a couple of times between now and the designated Friday that he can practice. There’s every chance he’ll just wind up making an idiot of himself—he hasn’t done this seriously in a long time—but even just standing up in their bedroom and rolling tiny circles on the carpet makes his muscle memory sit up and take notice.
He’s long since thrown out all his safety gear, thanks to the fact that one can never quite get the smell of sweat out of kneepads and the like, but he’s sentimentally attached to the skates, and to the derby referee’s whistle, and to the two small local speed skating trophies dated somewhere in the nineties.
He takes the skates back off and shoves them back in the bag.
It’s funny; even just those few minutes have brought to mind the memory of speed, of wrist guards strapped carefully to keep his fingers safe, of the horrendous funk after a particularly full-on training session.
Stuart resolves to buy a new, just for skating towel, and goes to join his boyfriend in front of the television.
When the chosen Friday arrives, Stuart’s feeling semi-confident, at least until he sees what Raj is wearing and recoils.
“I got you a shirt too,” Raj says.
Stuart averts his gaze from the spangled monstrosity Raj is holding out and says, “You look like Fez from That 70s Show grew up and never changed clothes.”
Raj pouts. “Howard’s dressing up.”
“Yeah, well, Howard doesn’t have the ability to withhold sex from you if you keep nagging,” Stuart says, hunting out his most aged and therefore most flexible jeans.
“You want to try me?”
“No,” Raj admits.
Stuart finds the jeans, shakes the wrinkles out of his black Slasher Chicks t-shirt, and pulls his sports bag out of the wardrobe.
“You’ll find out.”
As soon as they get to the rink and Stuart sees Bernadette doing warm-up laps, he knows she has a skating background and narrows it down to derby with very little thought. Oh, she could have been a quad speed skater, or an artistic dancer, but not with the combination of tiny green skirt and black fishnets. The way that she’s positioned herself to keep her center of gravity low, and neatly dodges when three young girls wearing party hats collide with each other and fall, that’s what gives it away to him.
“I didn’t know you did derby,” he says when she slows down to greet them.
“Angel City, 1999-2002,” she says with a dangerously happy grin that should really involve a mouthguard.
“Angel City, ‘96 to ‘99,” Stuart replies. “I must have just missed you.”
Bernadette’s eyes widen. “You were a zebra?”
“Yeah.” Stuart sits down on one of the long wooden benches and starts pulling his skates out of his bag. “What was your derby name?”
“Burny Roaster. I would have gone for something less obvious but someone called me that at fresh meat and it stuck.”
Howard and Raj are attempting to follow this conversation, but both look thoroughly bemused.
“Go on and skate,” Bernadette tells them, waving at the floor. The rink is filling up as the main lights go down and the disco lights come on. Raj and Howard, drawn by the music, pushed by Bernadette’s imperative wave, merge into the crowd.
“Have you had much practice since you left derby?” Stuart asks, smoothing each sock before putting his skates on.
“Oh, I try to get here once a month.”
Shit. “Good for you!”
Bernadette gives him that dangerously happy smile again. “Afraid you’re out of practice?”
“No way,” Stuart’s mouth says, while his brain wishes he was anywhere but here.
Bernadette pushes off from the wall, back into the steady counter-clockwise flow of skaters. Stuart pushes his bag under the bench—risky, but without the skates all it has in it is a half-used tube of Neosporin and three Band-Aids. Probably not the prime target of choice for thievery. But then he’s used to skaters’ bags being safe. Nobody wants to take their own stinky pads and helmets home, let alone someone else’s.
He stands up and doesn’t fall over. It’s a good start.
The first lap isn’t mortifying, but it does remind him of the number of muscles that skating works like nothing else. Bernadette’s watching him carefully. Howard and Raj are in the middle of the floor, laughing over something. Stuart feels a little jealous, but mostly because his boyfriend isn’t watching him.
Still, it’s not all bad; it gives him time to warm up.
Bernadette stops doing her own thing after two more laps and comes to skate in front of him, backward. Stuart catches her hands when she wobbles on a crossover and steers her.
“Do you surf as well?” she asks.
“I’m not that Californian.”
“I can picture you rollerblading on the boardwalk in Santa Monica.”
“I learned how to fall properly because I kept getting distracted by girls in bikinis,” Stuart admits.
“I keep forgetting you and Raj used to date girls,” Bernadette says, going pink. “You just—now you’re together, it’s hard to remember you ever weren’t.”
“Well, that’s nice. Slightly, uh, erasive, but nice.”
Bernadette smiles, this time without looking like she should be wearing a mouthguard dripping someone else’s blood. She has pretty dimples. “I used to date girls,” she says. “So I know what you mean. But I can’t tell Howie.”
Stuart needs no further explanation; he knows Howard well enough to vividly imagine the sort of response he would have to his wife coming out as bisexual. He just squeezes Bernadette’s hands by way of response.
Howard and Raj have finished their little bout of spinning around under the disco ball and come to join them. Stuart’s glad; while he was talking to Bernadette his body has has time to remember the way to move and, aside from a little ache where his left ankle tends to bow in, it’s feeling good.
“Hey, you guys are pretty good at this,” Howard says with undisguised surprise.
“Oh, it’s nothing, really,” Bernadette says. And the dangerous smile, the one Stuart imagines she used to wear as a jammer gleefully breaking through the pack, is back.
“No, really,” Raj says, with an undisguised stare at Stuart’s ass.
“Well, you know, I grew up in Santa Monica. Boardwalk rollerblading’s the second state sport.”
“Did you ever surf?” Howard asks, looking confused when Stuart and Bernadette share a laugh.
“The DJ said there’s a fast skate coming up,” Raj says. “But we can sit it out if you want.”
“We’ll see,” Bernadette says.
There are actually two fast skates: Stuart watches the under-16s, resisting the temptation to whistle when a couple of young guys try to trip each other. Beside him Bernadette grumbles something about dirty tactics as one of the guys shoves his elbow into the other’s side. The DJ notices and interrupts the song—it’s “Tubthumping”, which strikes Stuart as a little offbeat—to send them off.
Then it’s their turn.
The four of them line up at the start line. There are a handful of other over-16s, but they’re going to have a very clear rink.
“It’s okay to go off any time if you don’t think you can keep up,” Raj says kindly to Stuart and Bernadette.
This time Bernadette dispenses with the smile and just glares at him. Stuart touches her shoulder and she subsides.
The best fast skate songs are short, rhythmic, and—naturally—fast. After “Tubthumping”, though, Stuart’s not totally confident about the DJ’s choices.
There’s a traffic light hanging at the far end of the rink. Maybe it’s real, maybe not. It changes from red to amber and all of the skaters tense at once.
Stuart pushes off, half-crouched, making himself smaller to reduce drag, and then registers the song: blink-182’s “What’s My Age Again?”. The song he skated to at age twenty-three almost every weekend; he almost falls just from the weight of memory.
But his body’s memory overrides his mind’s, and he corners just in front of Raj. By the end of the first lap he’s half a lap ahead and his boyfriend is just staring. Howard has come to a full stop and has his hands on his hips, shaking his head. Somehow Stuart doesn’t think that’s because of him, though.
Bernadette cuts in front of him with effortless grace. How old would she have been in 1997? However old she was, it’s as if she’s in her late teens again, practiced skills kicking in automatically, and her blonde hair flies out behind her as she flies around the rink.
Somewhere during the third or fourth lap Stuart realizes Howard’s left the floor entirely. Another half-lap and he sees Howard leaning on the rink wall just staring admiringly at his wife.
Raj, on the other hand, is still skating, although regular roller disco has clearly not prepared him for this level of activity. Stuart considers slowing down to Raj’s pace, but the exhilaration of flying like this after so long without wins.
He catches and passes Bernadette, who lets out an audible huff and starts pushing harder.
The song is almost over, and Raj has ceded the floor to them. Stuart’s already witnessed the no-contact rule. But the other skaters are also well-experienced, and he figures they’re capable of dodging. Plus going fast is one thing, but Bernadette really should get the chance to demonstrate her skills.
So when she catches up to him again, Stuart holds his hand out to her.
Her palms close warm around his hand.
They shouldn’t do this without proper safety gear. Their skating histories are a long time ago. They’re older and not as fast or agile and—
Fuck it, Stuart thinks, and whips Bernadette as hard and fast as he can manage.
She goes flying past him, eyes bright with delight, and Stuart hears Howard yelling something—the words are unintelligible but he sounds entertained rather than furious.
Bernadette does a perfect plow stop to pull up by their respective partners, but Stuart is determined to get one last lap out of the song, and does so, although the wide smile on Raj’s face looks awfully kissable.
The song finishes.
Bernadette’s hands tap her hips: call it off. Or, more likely, stop showing off.
Stuart pulls up with a t-stop that squeals more than he’d intended, and flops against the rink wall, laughing.
“Neither of you said you could skate,” Howard says.
“Neither of you asked,” Bernadette retorts.
Raj doesn’t have any words, jealous or otherwise. He just grabs Stuart by the sweaty collar of his t-shirt and hauls him in for a kiss.