I Saw Three Ships
Aw, man. Stella.
Her arms around his waist on the motorbike. Fox-trotting their way to the junior semi-finals. Quiet love-making in her dorm room. Loud arguments in the stairwell. Tearful confessions in their double bed. A slow and painful sliding apart and then passionate, pointless meetings for a couple of years after.
Flown off to Florida to run a bowling alley with the idiot friend of his partner, and now here she was, in Chicago, in Dominick's, carefully choosing the best oranges from the crate.
Ray hung out by the canned goods for a minute or two, hesitating, before he walked up to her.
There were flour and apples in her basket. Brown sugar.
"Orange and apple crumble?"
She looked up, startled, and her expression changed, her private smile giving way to something shuttered and cautious, and man, he knew her so well. He could recognise guilt in the slight widening of her eyes, the set of her mouth.
Her mom had served him orange and apple crumble way back when, the first time he'd come over. He had fidgeted with his tea cup and been painfully aware of his cigarette and cabbage smell in Stella's tea and biscuit home.
Her hair was lighter than he remembered, and her eyes looked paler in her tanned face. She put the orange back in the crate to pull the lapels of her coat together, and if she hadn't done that he might not even have noticed it, the soft swell of her stomach under her lime green sweater.
Oh, man. That smarted, even now.
He didn't comment on it. It wasn't the kind of conversation you had in a Dominick's. And yeah, she had never actually said "I don't want children," she had just said "Ray, I don't think it's a good idea," and boy had she been right about that, all things considered.
What he finally ended up saying was, "You back for the holidays?"
"Yes," she said tentatively, brushing hair out of her eyes. "Visiting family."
She didn't have any family in Chicago anymore. He could hear her carefully omitting the 'we', and he wanted to say "It's alright," "I'm okay," "Things are different now, I'm with someone, too," but that still wasn't the kind of conversation they were having.
He indicated her basket. "You're making the cake."
"Yes, well," she huffed out a laugh, "you know."
Yeah, he knew. Turkey burnt to a crisp, potatoes put on the heat to boil and forgotten for seven hours. Page after page of jurisdictionary paragraphs memorized, and only one single recipe that ever stuck.
He cracked a grin, and then he realized something with a start: used to be they couldn't trust themselves around each other. Used to be they ended up in bed whenever she let her guards down to be anything like civil to him, and now here they were, small-talking over oranges.
It weirded him out and he was about to beat a hasty retreat when Fraser arrived via the organic produce section, hefting a full basket.
"Who would have thought it'd be so hard to find lichen in --"
He stopped short seeing Stella. Ray had the instinct to reach out and touch him - he could see the nervous eyebrow rub coming on - but he couldn't quite bring himself to do it under Stella's keen gaze. There was a tube of Smarties sticking out from Fraser's basket, and Stella always was the smart one.
"Ah, Mrs. Kowalski."
"Vecchio, Fraser. Vecchio," Ray corrected.
"Oh yes, of course, I -"
Stella smiled awkwardly, "Hello, Fraser."
"Merry Christmas to you and your -"
Fraser stopped himself abruptly. He shifted his weight and his elbow brushed up against Ray's. Stella's eyes slid smoothly down and then back up, and that was just great, that was greatness. Ray didn't shift away, but he knew that all his "shake bad guys, shake," leather jackets and punk attitude was all for nothing, now. To Stella, he was going to be the guy who did Christmas shopping with his partner from now on.
They waited through a full verse of 'Last Christmas' playing tinnily from the loudspeakers, before an old lady with a trolley virtually pushed Fraser back into action.
"Well, I'll go stand in line for the check-out." A tip of an imaginary hat - since Fraser was in jeans and leather jacket - and he was gone.
Ray smiled tightly. "So, uh, I'd better go join him before he tries to pay in Canadian."
"Of course. Ray -" she hesitated, rubbing a hand against the low of her belly soothingly, like a reflex she wasn't aware of. "You look good. It was nice seeing you again."
Nice maybe wasn't the right word, but again, Dominick's. And he had to take his hat off to her easy acceptance, especially since it had taken him and Fraser two years of mutual denial and a trip to the North Pole to get there.
He had never considered how she'd react before now, before being outed to his ex-wife in a grocery store. He realized that he hadn't even thought about her for a long time, and, huh, that was a first in close on twenty-five years.
And he wasn't wasted or desperate or wanting her, anymore. He looked good because he'd been good.
So had she, apparently. And here they were, small-talking over oranges, and it hadn't even been that bad, he realized.
"Yeah, you too," he said, and he meant it. "Merry Christmas, Stella." And then he turned away and headed for the check-out.
Ray caught up with him just as he was paying and then he stood around, jittery and preoccupied, while Fraser packed their groceries, carefully placing bottles and jars at the bottom, fruit and vegetables on top.
In his time working with Ray Kowalski at the 9-7, Stella had always come across to him as a quite stand-offish person. One that he could not easily connect to Ray's Stella, the one present in almost every story that Ray had told him about his life. The one Ray danced with to soft music behind closed doors, the one who made him come to work in yesterday's clothes, freshly showered and grinning.
Fraser wondered if perhaps he had just gotten a glimpse of that Stella, relaxed and forthcoming.
He remembered all to well walking home alone from the station that time Ray offered to drive her home, and he couldn't say that he hadn't felt a pang of anxiety seeing them together again, leaning towards each other over a box of oranges, both of them blonde and tall and beautiful.
A tug on his arm and he found himself staring down morosely at a slightly dented zucchini in his hand.
"Pitter patter, Fraser. C'mon, let's get home before Dief eats my turtle."
They pushed out onto the snowy street and started walking for the car in silence.
Fraser had moved into Ray's apartment straight after their return. By mutual consent they'd made no move to obscure anything, both of them agreeing that laying the cards on the table from the start was the only way to make it work.
It had been easy on the trip - alone on the ice or in the solitude of rented cottages - and it was easy in the privacy of their shared home. In the apartment, Ray had no problem with admitting to what they were to each other. He was loose and unrestrained, easily leaning in for kisses, unashamedly naked after showers. Casual about touching and asking to be touched. But sometimes when they went out, all of Ray's restless energy returned, and he was dancing around Fraser like a skittish horse.
In Fraser's childhood there hadn't been enough people, and too many local eccentrics, to give him a good understanding of masculine ideals, or really, normality in general. But he did understand that it wasn't always easy for Ray.
They loaded the groceries into the back of the car, and slid into the front seats. Ray relaxed visibly, sliding in behind the wheel, letting out a deep breath.
"Wow. So. That was a trip."
"How do you mean?"
"Just. She's making orange and apple crumble."
Ray absently pulled on his seatbelt.
"Stella always made orange and apple crumble for Christmas. It was the only recipe she ever learned, so she used to bring it every year. She didn't really have any family left after her mom died, so we spent Christmases at my parents'... My mom loved that pie."
Fraser hadn't met Damien and Barbara Kowalski. He knew that they had loved Stella, and that they had kept in touch with her for a long time after the divorce.
Ray turned his face away to look out the driver side window. "Before, I could tell that she was unhappy, but I had no idea... "
Fraser realised that he had never considered that, even though it really had been naive of him to think that Stella hadn't been affected by the divorce, that she hadn't had to give up on anything.
Ray half shrugged, but Fraser couldn't gauge his emotion from the set of his body. "She looks happy now."
"Does that... bother you, Ray?"
Ray whipped his head around, surprised at first, then smiling softly. Unexpectedly, he reached out and placed a warm hand on the back of Fraser's neck, letting it rest there for a minute before running it down his arm, landing on his thigh. He squeezed lightly. "Nah. I'm pretty happy, too."
He surprised Fraser even further by leaning over to kiss him, lips firm and dry.
He pulled back a little, and looked at Fraser knowingly. "I'll tell you something, I was stupid jealous when Vecchio came back."
"Yeah. Big time."
"And then when we came back from the expedition and I heard that him and Stella had hooked up? Nothing."
"You know, we could go to Arizona for New Year's, if you want to. Bet we could get tickets. And you could bring some of that blubber and lichen."
"Don't be silly Ray," Fraser scolded, but he felt warmed all the same.
Ray winked at him and then he let go of Fraser's thigh to swing his arm around the back of Fraser's seat, craning his body around to see better while he backed the Pontiac out of the parking spot and onto the road.
The rest of the clan still hadn't come back from their uncle's when Ray returned to the Vecchio house.
The dining room table was set with coffee cups and plates, and his wife was in the kitchen peeling oranges. The smell of them was rich in the air around her when he stepped in to kiss the back of her head.
"Sap," she said affectionately and reached around to place a sticky hand on his cheek. She turned her head to kiss him, and then went back to peeling an orange. "Did you get what you needed?"
"Yep." He slid his fingers up her sides underneath her sweater, and then reached forward to cradle her stomach. She leaned into his hands a little. He could see how she had measured out all the ingredients, arranged them meticulously on the kitchen counter.
"Did you get what you needed?" he asked.
"Yes. I'm making a crumble, a kind of pie."
"I thought that looked like cooking," he teased.
"Shut up," Stella jabbed back an elbow, quick but without force,"I want them to like me."
She turned around, smoothing her hair back behind her ears and Ray didn't think he'd ever seen her nervous before. She leaned back against the counter, looking up at him.
"I'm a divorcé. And I'm Irish," she said seriously.
He was surprised and a little amused: Stella married him at the drop of a hat, flew to Florida a couple of days after, bought a bowling alley, got a job in a high profile law firm, asked him to have a baby with her, and now she was nervous.
"You're Catholic, and you're making them pie."
And what was more, they were going to like her because Ray loved her, and because he knew how head-over-heels and happy he'd sounded every time he'd talked with his family on the phone during the last year.
Maybe Stella hadn't loved working in the bowling alley, but she still loved the Florida sun, and she loved slathering on sunscreen and reading with her feet in their tiny little back yard pool. She loved eating out every night because neither of them could cook worth a damn, and she loved him well enough to want to have his baby.
She was working as an attorney again, and Ray ran the bowling alley, which had mostly become a place for old geezers to meet up and drink coffee and beer and gossip. Sometimes Stella came by and they drank macchiatos, and Stella kicked his ass with nothing but strikes, and Ray was pretty sure he had Kowalski to blame for that one.
And yeah, sometimes he missed being on the force, and sometimes he missed Chicago, and sometimes the bullet lodged against his spine gave him crap. But that was sometimes. He had a bowling alley, a small but classy house, a breathtakingly smart wife, and a baby on the way.
It would have been a sin to be unhappy, and lately Ray'd been a good Catholic.
He tapped her belly softly, indicating what he privately thought was a little girl, although Stella wasn't guessing yet. "Anyway, we're home safe - we're procreating."
The corner of her mouth curled upwards, but she still asked, "They wont think it's to soon?"
"Hey, my little sister pulled whoops I'm four months pregnant, must be immaculate conception five months ago, and everybody loves little Benny Raimondo. We're golden."
He placed his hands on her shoulders, let his thumbs touch the pulse points at the base of her neck where her freckles faded out.
They'd been married for a year now, and he was still learning new things about her. Him, he was pretty happy to be living in Florida, to get a breather from living in the Vecchio household, to get a little of himself back after the Bookman deal. Stella was the one sending birthday cards and baby shower presents to Chicago, pausing pen above paper to listen in on his conversations with his family, the one asking him about his sisters.
And thinking about it, it made sense. When he'd told her about becoming a cop to one-up his dad, and how hard it had sometimes been to be the man of the house, she'd told him about her mother passing away before she got her diploma, and how she had slowly lost touch with Barbara and Damien Kowalski after the divorce.
Stella leaned against him for a second, and then she broke away.
"Oh, speaking of Benny - Fraser says hello," she turned back to the counter and resumed her baking. "I met him and Ray at the store... Did you know about those two?"
"Know what about them," he asked. He was headed for the coffee he could smell brewing on the stove.
She turned around to lift an eyebrow at him. It still took him a couple of seconds to get it.
"Nah. No way. No chance."
"What's the matter, can't handle the truth, macho man?" She was grinning over her shoulder, both hands deep in a bowl, kneading something vigorously.
Ray lifted the coffeepot, put it back down again. "No way. Really?"
Fraser had seemed uncharacteristically chipper in his last letters.
"I'm pretty sure." Her smile was softer now. She absently rubbed her face against her shoulder, both hands still in the bowl.
Ray went to the cupboard and found a cup and a saucer. He got the pot from the stove and carefully poured himself a shot of espresso which he proceeded to down, grimacing at the slight burn.
"Huh. Well, I have a generous heart, remember? I can handle it."
Stella groaned, "You're never letting that one go, are you?"
She was laughing at him, and so he put a little sashay into his hips as he sauntered past her, taking himself and his generous heart off for a shower before his family returned.