You take one road, you try one door
There isn’t time for any more
One’s life consists of either/or. . .
Steven Sondheim, Follies
“This was a great idea of mine, bringing you along. Dance lessons are exactly what you need, pal.” Ray Vecchio leans on his horn as he pulls a sudden left turn. “You know why? Ask me why, Fraser.”
“Why is that?” Fraser obliges him.
“Because dancing is a good way to meet people, not to mention a great date activity. Women melt into puddles over a guy who can really dance. Especially if he looks good in a tux—which I bet you do.”
“I don’t own a tuxedo,” Fraser points out.
“No, of course you don’t. But you could rent one. Anyway, my point is, ballroom dancing could be just the skill you need to give your social life some juice. Get you out of the library. Besides, it’ll come in handy for official-type occasions, receptions, tea with the Queen, that sort of stuff.”
“Actually, the Queen is unlikely to visit Chicago,” says Fraser. “And in any event, formal tea never includes dancing.”
Ray waves away Fraser’s objection.
“Anyway, Stella says this guy really knows his stuff. I’m sure he’ll have you dancing like Fred Astaire in no time. It’s really not that hard to do, anyway. I mean, they teach it to kids in P.E., how hard can it be? And it’s not like anybody’s going to be grading us, here. It’s just an informal thing; no big deal.”
As it happens, Fraser already knows how to ballroom dance. He’s a bit rusty, but he’s confident in his ability to waltz without mishap. However, he knows from experience that it’s futile to argue when Ray has gotten it into his head that Fraser is missing some essential life skill. More importantly, he also understands that Ray’s motivation for inviting him along tonight has nothing to do with expanding Fraser’s cultural horizons. Ray is wound up with love and nervous anticipation, and Fraser is here to provide moral support.
Not that Ray has anything to be afraid of, as far as Fraser can see. Assistant State’s Attorney Stella Dubois seems to be just as taken with Ray as he is with her. Granted, their relationship did have a rocky start. Fraser wouldn’t have given high odds of success for a romance with a woman whose lover Ray had arrested for fraud. That demerit might have been mitigated to some extent by the fact that he had also (with some help from Fraser) saved her from both a fake murder attempt and a genuine one. But Fraser thinks the real credit is due to some combination of Ray’s persistence and idiosyncratic charm, and Stella’s sense of fair play and sense of humor, along with their evident mutual attraction. A promising foundation for a relationship that seems to be flourishing into something strong and lasting. Much as Fraser has worried in the past about Ray’s romantic entanglements—or misguided attempts at such—he has no such fears about Ray’s relationship with Stella.
“Guess this is it.” Ray sounds dubious as he turns the car into the an unprepossessing lot surrounded by darkened warehouses. One warehouse shows lights on the top floor, along with a light over a small back entrance.
“They're not usually open Tuesday nights,” Ray explains. “Stella has a special arrangement.”
Stella's silver Chevrolet pulls into the parking lot just ahead of Ray's Riviera. Fraser lingers, fussing with his seatbelt, to give Ray a moment to greet her. She must have changed her clothing before coming here: instead of a business suit, she’s wearing a royal blue rayon dress that clings to her modest bust and swirls around her calves. She looks elegant and natural beside Ray in his grey suit. Fraser wonders whether he should have changed out of his uniform before coming.
The dance studio is three flights up, small but well-maintained, with one wall covered in mirrors and the other in windows that offer a view of warehouses and night sky. Two box fans circulate the hot air; either there is no air conditioning or it's already been turned off for the night. Waltz music—some popular song Fraser doesn’t recognize—plays from speakers mounted in the upper corners of the room.
The only person in the room is a thin man with spiked blond hair, who is dressed in form-hugging black that emphasizes the fluid grace of his movements. A gold earring glints in his right earlobe and a silver chain circles his right wrist. He greets Stella with a broad grin and a smacking kiss on the lips. Startled, Fraser glances at Ray, who just shakes his head with a small smile: polite, nervous.
“Thanks for making time for us,” says Stella, stepping aside so Ray can shake the blond man’s hand.
“Any time, sweetcakes.”
To Fraser's surprise, Stella doesn't seem affronted by the endearment. From what he’s seen of her, she's usually quick to squash anything that smacks of condescension or sexism. But apparently this man is a close enough friend to be allowed to tease.
“Ray, this is, uh, Ray.” Stella laughs a little as she gestures from one man to the other. “Ray Kowalski, Ray Vecchio.”
“Pleasure to meet you,” says Ray.
“Same here,” says Ray Kowalski, then offers his hand to Fraser in turn.
“Constable Benton Fraser, RCMP,” says Fraser automatically. Ray Kowalski raises his eyebrows, but before Fraser can explain how he came to Chicago on the trail of the killers of his father, Ray Vecchio cuts in.
“Fraser's my friend. We work together. He's Canadian.” Ray says this last as though it explains something, which means either that Fraser's done something Ray finds embarrassing, or that Ray's worried he's about to.
“Okay,” says Ray Kowalski amiably, though he doesn’t appear to attach any special significance to Fraser's nationality. “Good to meet you, Fraser. You looking to learn to dance, too?”
“I. . .” Fraser catches himself before launching into a more detailed explanation than is called for. “Yes.”
“Well then, you are in luck, my friend. I can get dead guys doing the tango. Ain't that right, Stell?”
She rolls her eyes as she tells Ray Vecchio, “A guy wins one lousy national trophy and he thinks it gives him eternal bragging rights.”
“What are you saying, you think you can out-dance me, is that it?” Ray Kowalski squares off at her, mock-combative, looking momentarily more like a boxer than a dancer.
“Any time, any place,” she says, her voice like honey, not giving an inch.
“You want to put your money where your mouth is?” He holds out his hand to her, and as she takes it, his body language shifts again, to a kind of formal grace.
“Watch and learn, grasshoppers,” he tells Ray Vecchio and Fraser. Then he spins Stella in close to him and the two of them are in motion.
They dance naturally, without apparent effort or constraint, the way wolves run or geese fly. Ray Vecchio and Stella made a pretty picture standing together, a well-suited couple, but Ray Kowalski and Stella fit together like two halves of a single body. They must know each other very well indeed, Fraser realizes.
They are also obviously both expert dancers, and after a few moments, they start to show off. Fraser is no expert, but he can appreciate the complexity of some of the moves, and more importantly, the precision and style of the execution. But even beyond that, their bodies are so. . .expressive. This is art married to science.
“Shit,” mutters Ray, staring at the dancing couple. “I'm never going to be able to do that.”
“I imagine that level of skill takes years of practice,” Fraser replies, but privately he understands just how Ray feels.
“Yeah, they've been at it since they were kids.”
“Obviously Ray is a professional, but I didn't realize that Stella. . .”
“It's her big hobby,” says Ray. “Why the hell do you think I'm here? I mean, I know I'm never going to compete with that, but I've got to be able to take her out dancing without embarrassing myself. Or her.”
“I'm sure she understands--” Fraser begins, but Ray cuts him off.
“Understands, nothing. Don't you get it, Benny? This is a test.”
“Of your dancing ability?”
“Of whether I'm serious about her. Whether I'm good enough for her.”
“Ray, surely Stella isn't going to evaluate your relationship on the basis of how well you dance,” Fraser protests.
“You just don't understand romance.”
Since Ray is demonstrably correct on that point, Fraser doesn't argue further.
“Besides, it's not just the dancing,” says Ray. “It's him.”
“Ray Kowalski? You're not suggesting she's. . .setting the two of you up as rivals for her affections?” That doesn't seem in character for Stella, but Ray knows her far better than Fraser does.
“Rivals? Jeez, no. Stella's way too classy for that kind of bullshit.”
“I would have thought so,” says Fraser, relieved. “Though they do seem to be on rather affectionate terms. . .”
“They're best buddies,” Ray explains. “Like you and me. Known each other since junior high. Anyway, no way Kowalski's competition for anybody's girlfriend.”
“I don't see why not,” says Fraser. “He seems like a charming and attractive man. I don't imagine he'd have much trouble in winning a woman's affections if he—”
“Fraser. He's a ballroom dancer. With an earring.”
“Yes. . .” Fraser agrees, baffled.
Ray gives him an exasperated look.
“Are you saying you think women are not attracted to men who dance?” Fraser asks, though he can't imagine that that's what Ray means. “If so, then I don't understand what we're doing here.”
“The earring, Benny.”
“I don't understand, Ray.”
“Yeah, that's obvious.” Ray starts to say something more, then smiles and shakes his head. “You know what? I bet Kowalski can explain it better than I can. Why don't you ask him?”
“All right,” says Fraser, still confused. He wonders whether Ray finds the earring a sign of poor taste, or perhaps it's a marker of social class or ethnic origin. Ray's understanding of such cultural gradations, here in his native territory, is extensive and nuanced. However, he does also place more importance on the boundaries between social groups than Fraser personally feels is necessary or helpful.
Or possibly Ray views jewelry on a man as effeminate (though Ray himself wears a pendant crucifix). Fraser doesn't see how anyone could describe Ray Kowalski as insufficiently masculine, though. He's as tall as Ray himself, equally thin but more obviously muscular. His face and body are all sharp angles and planes, nothing soft or curved about him. Even his hair—bleached nearly white, though his eyebrows and facial hair suggest his natural color is a rusty gold—is gelled into a fierce crest.
“Anyway, I'm not worried about Kowalski putting the moves on Stella.” Ray's voice recalls Fraser from his wandering thoughts. “It's the opposite. He's the gatekeeper.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“He's her best friend. If he doesn't think I'm good enough for her. . .Look, you know, when I started getting serious about Stella, what did I do? I brought her home for dinner with Ma and the family, and I introduced her to you. For the seal of approval, right?”
Fraser smiles, touched and a little flustered by the compliment. He is aware that Ray values his friendship deeply, but somehow it still takes him by surprise to hear Ray say so in so many words. His attempt to muster an appropriate response is interrupted by the return of Stella and Ray Kowalski.
“Hey, that was great, guys,” Ray Vecchio tells them, though his smile is all for Stella.
“Thanks,” says Ray Kowalski, rolling his eyes at Fraser good-naturedly. “Now, did you happen to get a look at what I was doing, at all? Or were you too busy ogling Stell?”
Ray Vecchio splutters, but Ray Kowalski just grins and waves an encouraging hand at him.
“Go ahead, show me what you got.”
Ray gamely offers his hand to Stella, who steps obligingly into his arms. Ray leads her in a series of careful box-steps, until Ray Kowalski snaps his fingers several times to call a halt.
“Okay, so you got a handle on the basics, maybe you actually paid attention in P.E., great. You could get out on the dance floor at a wedding without embarrassing yourself.” If Ray Kowalski notices that he’s embarrassing Ray Vecchio right now, he doesn’t act like it. From the glint in his eye, though, Fraser suspects he knows.
“But if you want to take it to the next level, we’re going to have to work on your lead. You’re trying to make her do what you want, like you’re pushing a wheelbarrow or something.” Ray Kowalski glances at Stella, who gives him a little nod of confirmation.
“I’m not trying to be pushy,” Ray Vecchio protests. “The guy’s supposed to lead. I’m just doing my job.”
Ray Kowalski exchanges an amused look with Stella.
“It’s okay,” she tells Ray Vecchio, giving his elbow a reassuring squeeze. “Almost everybody does it. Ray’ll fix you up, just let him do his thing.”
Ray Vecchio’s face relaxes into a fond smile.
“Okay, Kowalski,” he says, turning to the other man. “Lay it on me.”
“So here’s the thing you got to remember. The reason you feel like you have to shove to get your point across is because you’re just kind of holding onto her, like you’re walking down the street or something.” Ray Kowalski takes Stella’s hand and wiggles his arm around in the air; Stella’s arm flops loosely in his grasp. “See, there’s no connection there, no way for her to feel what your body’s doing. You got to have a firm frame—I don’t mean stiff, that’s just as bad as loose. Just steady, see?”
Ray and Stella barely move, but the change in their posture reminds Fraser of watching a sentry go on alert: that physical readiness. This time, when Ray moves his arm, his whole torso rotates slightly, and Stella mirrors the motion, the relative positions of their arms and chests unchanging. Then they take a gliding step, Ray forward, Stella back, moving like a single body rather than two.
Watching closely, Ray Vecchio lines up beside them and tentatively holds up his hands in a pose that approximates Ray Kowalski’s.
“Yeah, that’s it,” says Ray Kowalski. “Now, you want to keep it firm, so if I jog your elbow, it won’t go anywhere.” He reaches over and jostles Ray Vecchio’s arm lightly. “But not so stiff you can’t feel anything. You’re not hauling luggage here, you’re. . .”
“Fishing, perhaps?” Fraser suggests. “Or skiing?”
Both Rays look at him with nearly-identical dubious expressions. Fraser searches for a metaphor these city-bred men are more likely to identify with. Probably neither of them has ever ridden a horse. . .
“I was going to say driving.” Ray Kowalski shakes his head at Fraser before turning back to Ray Vecchio. “You know, some people haul on the wheel, but that just keeps ‘em from being able to feel what the hell’s going on. You got to have a light touch. But not too light, obviously, or you won’t have any control.”
“Exactly!” Ray Vecchio’s face lights up. “You need finesse.”
“And, of course, a good driver can get good performance out of a heap of junk, but with a really responsive car, one that handles well—”
“We get the point, bozo.” Stella punches Ray Kowalski on the shoulder—a surprisingly hard blow, from the sound of it. “You want to talk cars, go to a garage.”
He flashes her an unrepentant grin; she responds with a sigh and an eye-roll. Ray and Ray exchange mock-sorrowful head-shakes, clearly commiserating about how misunderstood they are.
“Anyway, the other thing that’ll really help is if you have the right frame. See, you dance like this.” Ray Kowalski takes Stella into a position that looks like the way Fraser himself was taught to dance: face-to-face with perhaps twenty-five centimeters of space between their chests, his right arm around her waist, her left hand on his shoulder. What it doesn’t look like, Fraser realizes, is the way the two of them were dancing earlier.
“This is how your grandma dances, which is okay for her. But what you really want—for Standard, anyway, like your waltz, say—is this.” Ray’s stance shifts; his foot slides between Stella’s as he tugs her closer. She leans backwards from the waist, the left side of her body pressed against Ray’s from hip to shoulder, her head tipping back slightly.
“That close?” asks Ray Vecchio, surprised.
“Uh huh. You should be able to hold a piece of paper between you, just barely. And here, feel my arm. Flexible, but not limp. Right? Hers, too.”
Ray Vecchio squeezes Ray Kowalski’s forearm perfunctorily, then gives Stella’s a much more thorough feel. She pulls a face at him while Ray Kowalski laughs.
“And now, see, I don’t have to push her around. I move, she comes with. Natural.” Ray Kowalski demonstrates with a few gliding steps, then spins Stella out into a turn and back into close position.
“But no one dances like that,” Ray Vecchio protests. “All bent over backwards like that?”
“Social dancing is different,” Stella explains. “What Ray's saying is mostly for professional ballroom: competition dancing. But it really does work. Come on and try it, you'll feel the difference.”
She holds out her arms and Ray obediently steps into position. He lets Ray Kowalski adjust the placement of his hands and the angle of his stance, keeping his mouth shut while the two of them issue directions and commentary.
Finally, Ray Kowalski claps Ray Vecchio on the shoulder, saying, “Okay, that’s enough to keep track of at one time. You think about that while I give Fraser a hard time. Stella, you want to let him give you a whirl, I can see where he’s at?”
Stella holds out her arms to Fraser. He’s not sure what she sees in his face that makes her say, with a glint of mischief in her smile, “I promise I won’t bite.”
He tugs his tunic straight and nods in acknowledgement of the joke, feeling suddenly stiff and embarrassed. He steps up as confidently as he can to take her right hand in his left, settling his left in the middle of her back. Ray Kowalski counts them in, “One-two-three, one-two-three,” and Fraser steps forward and pivots in time to the music, with Stella drifting backwards before him.
She is really an excellent dancer, her body strong and supple, alive to every shift in his balance, every slight pressure of his hand. She goes where he goes effortlessly, as though it were all her own idea. He knows he’s dancing correctly, but her fluid grace and petite stature make him feel clumsy, like a bear trying to dance with a butterfly.
When the song ends, Fraser twirls Stella away from him, then bows over her hand, self-conscious about the exaggeratedly formal gesture. Stella sinks into a curtsey with that same not-quite-mocking smile.
“Hey, not bad, Benny!” Ray Vecchio claps and smiles encouragingly.
“Yeah, you’ve obviously had some lessons, huh?” says Ray Kowalski. “I can see why Vecchio thought you could use some pointers, though. You got a real good handle on the steps, but you move like you got a pole up your ass. No offense.”
Stella shoots him a frown, but she's obviously working hard to keep from smiling. Ray Vecchio, meanwhile, looks torn between agreeing with the assessment and jumping to Fraser’s defense.
Fraser tugs at his collar, his face growing hot. He wishes he’d changed into less formal clothing, but in all honesty, he can hardly blame his stiffness on the uniform.
“None taken,” he assures Ray Kowalski, aware that he must sound as ridiculously formal as he looked dancing, but unable to adjust to a more casual tone. “I’m here to learn, after all. If you don’t point out my faults, I can hardly correct them.”
Ray Kowalski gives him a look that says he thinks Fraser might have a hole in his bag of marbles, but it lasts only for a moment before giving way to a boyish grin that makes his face suddenly handsome.
“That’s the stuff,” he says. “Stellabella, take your boyfriend for a practice spin, would you? I’ll take care of Fraser.”
“Anything you say, Stanley.” Stella’s tone is more amused than annoyed as she takes Ray Vecchio by the hand and leads him to the far side of the room. Fraser can’t tell whether Ray is taking any of Ray Kowalski’s advice to heart, but it hardly matters. Ray might not be the most expert of dancers, but a talented partner can cover a multitude of sins, and in any case, Stella's smile suggests that his worries about impressing her were needless.
Fraser turns back to Ray Kowalski, who is holding out his arms: right hand up, left hand extended at shoulder height.
“C’mon,” he says. “You lead.”
Another waltz is playing. Fraser takes Ray’s hand, places his arm around his waist, and steps forward before Ray can give him a count. Ray moves with him automatically, unfazed by the lack of warning. Dancing with him is very much like dancing with Stella: the same responsiveness, the same supple grace. The only difference is the novelty of dancing with a partner so close to Fraser’s own height; no irrational fear of accidentally overpowering his partner, here.
No, there is another difference, Fraser notices after a few moments. Where Stella danced with a kind of calm delight shining through her usual confidence, Ray Kowalski’s grace seems to conceal—or contain—a constant fizz of energy. He reminds Fraser of a racehorse: wild, raw power, harnessed by focused physical training.
“Don’t think about it,” says Ray suddenly.
“I—what?” Fraser stammers.
“You’re working too hard at it. Just relax. Your body knows what it’s doing, right? Just let it do its thing; keep your head out of this.”
“I’m afraid that’s easier said than done.” If he wasn't aware of thinking about what he was doing before, he certainly is now. He can feel his movements getting more stilted; he is consciously steering Ray, now, rather than simply moving and trusting the connection between their bodies to communicate his intent.
“Okay, so talk to me,” says Ray. “About anything you want, doesn’t matter. Just something to distract your brain.”
“Stella called you Stanley.” It's the first thing that pops into Fraser's head, and it's out of his mouth before he can censor himself. “You’re fond of A Streetcar Named Desire, I take it?”
“Fond, no.” Ray makes a face. “My dad was the Brando fan. Me, I can’t stand it. I mean, the movie's okay, but when your name is Stanley Kowalski, well, the joke gets old fast, you know?”
“Oh. Then your name actually is—?”
“I go by Ray. My middle name. Have since high school. But Stella knows all my dirty secrets. When we were dating we’d joke about how terrible it’d be if we got married, Stanley and Stella Kowalski.”
“I didn’t know that you and Stella had—not that it’s any of my business, of course—”
“Oh, it’s ancient history. We dated in high school. Didn’t work out, obviously, but we’ve been best friends ever since.”
“Ah, I see.” Fraser feels an odd stab of envy. He has friends he's known that long, but none who are part of his adult life. Ray Vecchio is an intimate friend, but their shared history is comparatively short, and sometimes the difference in their upbringings and experiences feels like an uncrossable gulf. As for remaining on terms of such easy and profound intimacy with an ex-lover. . .He shuts down that unprofitable line of thought and concentrates on his footwork.
When the song ends, Fraser halts, unsure how to end the dance gracefully. If bowing to Stella was quaint and theatrical, bowing to another man would be far more eccentric. Ray doesn't seem to mind the abrupt transition from dancing to not-dancing: his body simply shifts from the formal, supple pose of the waltz back to its casual resting posture. Though “resting” is exactly the wrong word for it. Even when standing still, Ray looks like he’s on the verge of launching himself into motion, like a racer waiting for the starting gun, or a fighter anticipating the first punch.
“Okay,” he says. “So, the good news is, you know the steps, you can walk and chew gum at the same time, and obviously you can hear the music—don't laugh, a lot of people can't. You got a clue about how to lead: you weren't shoving me around or being all wishy-washy; at least, not ‘till you started second-guessing yourself. Where you got a problem though, is you stiffen up. That's bad for your frame, which is bad for your lead. You hold yourself like a board, your partner can't feel how you're moving, see?”
Ray rattles this all off casually, but his eyes are on Fraser's face, judging his reaction. Fraser nods, trying not to feel defensive. He knows Ray is absolutely right.
“It's all about frame and connection. Two people, one frame, like a circuit, the electricity flows through you, to me, through me, to you.” Ray puts one hand lightly on Fraser's bicep and traces a line with the other, over Fraser's shoulder, down to Ray's hand and up again along Ray's arm to his own shoulder. “That's what powers the whole thing. See?”
Fraser nods again, consciously relaxing his arm while maintaining its position, as though he were aiming a gun or—more apropos—calming a wild animal, listening and speaking through touch alone.
“Yeah, better.” Ray steps into Fraser’s arms again, and Fraser tries to keep his body relaxed and fluid, like Ray’s. He takes a tentative step forward, and Ray responds with a step back and an encouraging smile. They dance a few sets of steps, and although Fraser feels awkward and self-conscious, it really is easier than before. Ray seems to know—to feel—what Fraser wants, sometimes before Fraser is consciously aware of it himself.
“You’re getting the hang of it,” Ray says when they part. “You know, I think half your problem is you don’t believe your partner will do what you want. You’re trying to do all the work for both of us, am I right?”
“Possibly,” Fraser admits.
“Your partner will help if you let her,” Ray says. “You just got to trust her to read your signals and be where you need her to be.”
“I haven't had much chance to practice. I don't often have the opportunity to dance with a partner, and then it's usually at formal functions where few of the guests are skilled dancers.” Fraser winces; he sounds like he's making excuses for his clumsiness. “I don't think I've ever had the pleasure of dancing with as skilled a partner as you,” he adds in a rush, and dear Lord, now the man will think Fraser's trying to flatter him, even though it's the literal truth. “You're an excellent follower,” he goes on. “That's a somewhat unusual skill for a man to learn.”
“Yeah, I swing both ways.” Ray grins and executes a few fast jitterbug steps. Fraser can't help smiling back as he watches, wondering if he's interpreting that bit of slang correctly. Did Ray intend a double entendre or is Fraser once again missing a joke due to lack of cultural context? That thought reminds him of Ray Vecchio's talk about the earring: Fraser was very definitely missing something there, but perhaps now he can guess what it was.
“Be right back,” says this Ray, patting him casually on the shoulder. “Hang tight.”
Fraser watches him stride to the far wall, where he fusses with the audio system until the music changes to something Latin American, upbeat and sultry. Ray half-walks, half-dances over to exchange some quick words with Ray Vecchio and Stella. Ray Kowalski flashes his bright grin as he pats Ray Vecchio’s shoulder much as he did to Fraser a moment ago. Then he returns to Fraser, still moving with the music, as though it's the only way to travel.
“Stella's got him in hand,” Ray says, jerking his head backwards at the couple. “Honestly, I don't know what she bothered dragging him here for, she could've stayed home and taught him herself.”
“You're being modest, I'm sure. Besides, there's something about going to an official lesson at a given time and place. And sometimes it's easier to take instruction from a stranger than from a. . .loved one.”
“Ain't that the truth? I tried to teach Stella to drive when we were in high school. Talk about a bad idea. On the other hand, I never got along better with my dad than when he was showing me how to build an engine.”
“I. . .suppose that was true of me and my father, as well,” Fraser reflects. “Not engines, but, well, I learned a lot of important skills from my father, but we didn't. . .talk much.”
Ray gives him a glance that makes Fraser wonder what he's about to ask, but in fact, he simply holds out his hand, saying, “You samba?”
Fraser shakes his head regretfully.
“Want to learn? Come on, basic step's easy, here.”
Before Fraser can respond, Ray grabs both his hands and starts dancing in place. Fraser looks down at Ray's feet as they move back and forth with a syncopated change of weight between steps that sends a slight undulation up through his body.
“The important thing here is the beat, see? One and-a-two, one and-a-two, you feel that?” Ray illustrates by shuttling their joined hands in time to the music.
Fraser nods, but Ray shakes his head, laughing.
“Don't concentrate. You've got to be loose. Not limp like spaghetti, you still need your frame. Just easy. Come on, follow me now. It's just forward and back, one and-a-two.”
He steps back, towing Fraser forward with him. Fraser mirrors his steps, determined at least to make the correct movements even if fluidity is beyond him. Ray's still shaking his head, but he's still smiling, too, so Fraser swallows his embarrassment and lets Ray reel him into closed position. Ray's right hand is up—giving the leader role to Fraser again—and his hand rests on Fraser's shoulder.
“Frame's a little different for Latin,” Ray points out. “We go toe-to-toe, straight on, not offset like in Standard. And there isn't that body contact like I said before, which seems backwards, since Latin is all about the sexiness.” He tips Fraser a mischievous wink.
“I'm afraid I don't know how to, ah, do sexiness,” Fraser confesses, although surely Ray can tell that by now.
Ray laughs. “It ain't something you do. It's a state of mind.” He squeezes Fraser's shoulder, then bends his head forward a little, his voice dropping. “You want to know my secret?”
Fraser can't tell to what extent Ray is joking, but he nods dumbly, because he does want to know.
“Step one: have fun. And let everyone see how much fun you're having.” Ray smiles warmly, catching and holding Fraser's eyes, and Fraser instinctively smiles back.
“Step two: eye contact.” Ray’s eyes are blue, set deep under expressive brows, faint smile-lines fanning around the corners.
“Step three: don't worry about what you look like. In fact, don't think about yourself at all. Far as you're concerned, most fascinating thing in this room right now is me.”
“That goes without saying,” says Fraser thoughtlessly. Ray laughs, startled, but he seems genuinely pleased as well.
“See? You're getting the hang of it already.”
Blushing, Fraser raises his arm to lead Ray in a spin, guessing that the move is probably much the same as in other ballroom dances. And Ray does a slow, sensuous pivot under their joined hands, his hips swiveling in a way that turns his body language almost feminine.
What can it hurt? Fraser decides.
“May I ask a personal question?” he asks.
“I was curious. . .that is, I noticed your earring, and I wondered whether there's a story behind it.”
“Well, you know how it is.” Ray shrugs, the movement flowing naturally with the rhythm of his dancing. “You’re seventeen and your girlfriend is about to dump you to go off to college without you, and you don’t know what you’re going to do with your life, but you’ve got a few bucks in your pocket, and you’re standing on Archer Street, and you’ve got a choice. Get the tattoo, get the ear pierced. Open one door or the other. Get on the bus or—Hey, step to your left this time,” he adds, with a tiny shift of his weight in that direction.
Fraser complies, changing their back-and-forth pattern to a side-to-side one.
“I don't know,” Ray says thoughtfully after the new footwork is established. “Sometimes I wonder where I’d be today if I’d gone for the tattoo. Maybe in some alternate universe, there’s a version of me who followed Stella to college and got a job my dad approved of, got married and settled down and had kids.” His gaze drifts away over Fraser's shoulder, and for a moment, he looks so lost and wistful that Fraser gives his hand a reassuring squeeze. Ray smiles self-consciously.
“Or, you know, maybe the me with a tattoo became a cop. That was something I thought about doing, back in high school. Would’ve pissed off my dad, but not as much as the dancing thing and the earring and that whole deal, you know? Hell, who knows, maybe my folks would still be speaking to me.”
“I'm sorry,” Fraser says, taken aback. “I didn't mean to pry into your personal history.” Although what he really means is that he's sorry for Ray's pain, and sorry to have caused him to think about it. He isn't sorry to have heard this fragment of Ray's history; in fact, it only makes him more curious about the man.
“Sure, you did,” says Ray. His tone is light, but there's an edge to it. Fraser can feel tension in Ray's back and arms that wasn't there a moment ago.
“Actually, to tell the truth. . .” Fraser twists his head a little to adjust his collar, unsure precisely how he’s misstepped. “I only meant to ask about the cultural significance of the earring. Ray Vecchio seemed to think. . .”
He trails off because Ray is goggling at him.
“You're seriously asking me what it means? Earring in the right ear?”
“Oh, man. I wouldn't've just blabbed all that stuff if I'd known you were that clueless—I mean, clueless about that. . .Well, that's kind of embarrassing.” Ray ducks his head, an incongruously awkward gesture. “Though worse for you than for me, I guess. Anyway, the earring is to let people know I'm gay. That I go for guys.”
Fraser isn't really surprised to hear it, by this point.
“I do know what ‘gay’ means,” he tells Ray. “In this context. Although, perhaps it isn't the most accurate term for you, if you actually do swing both—?”
“Both ways, yeah, I do,” Ray says. “But. . .mostly people want you to be one thing or the other. That's just how the world works. You get the earring, you get the tattoo. You become a cop, you become a dancer. You pick one world to live in.”
Fraser frowns thoughtfully. He's not at all sure Ray's right. Yes, it can be difficult to live true to oneself despite other people's opinions, but it's certainly not impossible. And Fraser's always found that on the whole, both individuals and societal rules turn out to be more flexible than one might assume.
“You couldn't wear both an earring and a tattoo?” he asks.
“Sure, and be nothing to nobody.” Ray drops Fraser's hand, stepping back out of his personal space. Fraser belatedly notices that the song has ended.
“I think the world's a bigger place than you give it credit for,” says Fraser gently. “And a kinder one.”
“Easy for you to say.” Ray scowls at him. “I notice you don't got an earring or a tattoo.”
“How can you be sure I don't have a tattoo?” Fraser asks.
“Instinct.” He flicks the cuff of Fraser's uniform tunic with one long finger, flashing a smirk that dares Fraser to contradict him. Fraser can’t, of course.
“You're right, I don't have a tattoo. On the other hand, I have successfully passed as a woman in my time. For professional reasons, but I found it a refreshing change of perspective.”
That earns him an incredulous look, but at least Ray isn't frowning any more.
“You can ask Ray if you doubt me. He escorted me to a dance. Only a disco, I'm afraid. At a girls’ school.”
Ray's eyebrows go up still further.
“You can disco?”
“For a worthy cause,” Fraser replies.
“That'd be worth the price of admission.” Ray grins. “With or without the drag.”
Fraser isn't entirely sure whether he's being teased.
“This hardly seems the appropriate time or place for disco. On the other hand. . .” Another tune has started up on the sound system: a foxtrot. He lifts his arms again, but this time in the follower position.
Ray looks him over for a moment, then nods slowly.
“Yeah, all right. Fine.”
Ray takes Fraser's right hand in his left, places his left in the middle of Fraser's back, and snugs him in until the left side of Fraser's torso is just barely touching Ray's. Just close enough to feel the heat of another living body through the layers of wool and cotton. Fraser finds himself tilting backwards until Ray stops him just at the angle that feels naturally balanced. Then Ray steps forward and Fraser is in motion.
Of course there's more to following than simply doing the same steps backwards; Fraser knows that, though he's never tried it before. But mirroring the footwork is trivial, and once he stops thinking of it as dancing and imagines that he's working with a sled dog or interviewing a suspect, his instinct for reading body language takes over and it's simple enough to predict how Ray will move.
Besides, Ray makes it easy for him. All Fraser has to do is keep the connection alive and not fight Ray. Ray leads him through progressively more complex moves, some of them completely unfamiliar, and Fraser goes where Ray needs him to be, as though his body is simply an extension of Ray's. He knows he's never danced so well, and that this is an indication of just how fine a leader Ray is.
He'd like to express his admiration for Ray's skill, to thank him for this gift, but he can't think of any words that wouldn't cheapen the moment. He'll just have to hope that for once, his body will speak for him, that Ray will read the genuine pleasure behind his now-self-conscious smile.
Ray’s own smile makes his weathered face look boyish, until he catches Fraser staring at him. Then his eyes drop and his shoulders tense just a little under Fraser’s hand, as though the instinct to hunch in on himself is only being checked by his dancer’s training. Shy is a strange look on him, contrasting with the easy self-confidence that Fraser has been taking for Ray’s natural state. This new hint of vulnerability intrigues him, draws him, even as he wonders what he can do to put Ray back at his ease.
While Fraser ponders, Ray’s expression evolves into a pensive frown. Rather than interrupt Ray’s thought process, Fraser keeps quiet, enjoying the sensation of their bodies moving in concert. Ray seems to be dancing—and leading Fraser—almost unconsciously, while his mind is occupied with whatever it is he’s chewing over. It’s yet another indication of his skill, and fascinating to watch.
“So,” says Ray after a while. “Vecchio.”
“What about him?”
“He a stand-up guy?”
Fraser doesn't know why Ray is asking him, a stranger, but he feels oddly pleased at the idea that this man might value his opinion.
“I'm hardly an unbiased source,” he points out. “Ray is my friend. But yes, in my opinion, he's a good man. Loyal, warm-hearted, trustworthy. Far kinder and more generous than he likes to let on.”
Ray snorts in amusement at that.
“Well, I hope he's paying attention over there, because I ain't giving Stella the thumbs-up to marry a man who can't dance. Just wouldn't be right.” But Ray's grin makes it clear he's only joking. Still. . .
“Marry? Are they talking about getting married?” Fraser's surprised—and, honestly, a little hurt—that Ray Vecchio wouldn't have mentioned such a thing to him. Not that he's under any obligation to do so, of course, but. . .
“Nah, not that I know of,” Ray answers. “But I've met every guy Stella's ever dated, pretty much. And I can't remember the last time I saw her this happy with someone. Vecchio's a keeper, I'd bet the farm on it.”
“I wouldn't bet against you. If I were a betting man, which I'm not. I've seen Ray romantically interested in other women, but the way he acts with Stella, even the way he talks about her. . .it's not quite the same.” Fraser hesitates, feeling a bit guilty for telling tales on Ray.
Ray Kowalski understands, apparently. “It's okay, you can tell me,” he murmurs, leaning in so close that Fraser can feel Ray's breath on his ear. “I won't blab.”
“Well, ah, that is. . .” Fraser takes a breath and concentrates on his footwork for a moment, until he can speak without stammering. “Ray has always approached affairs of the heart with great enthusiasm and a romantic outlook. Sometimes, perhaps, he's unrealistically romantic. Not that I'm one to talk, as far as that's concerned,” he adds hastily, because it really isn't fair for him to criticize anyone else's overly romantic notions. Ray Vecchio's attempts at romance, however ill-advised, never involved criminals.
Ray Kowalski raises his eyebrows, obviously curious, but he doesn't ask. Fraser hurries to get to his actual point.
“In any case, with Stella, I get the feeling that Ray has his feet on the ground. I'm sorry, I don't mean to imply that he doesn't feel passionately about her, because he obviously does. . .” He trails off, feeling idiotic, but Ray Kowalski is nodding thoughtfully.
“No, no, I get you. Now, Stella, see, she's a real feet-on-the-ground kind of lady, but the thing is, she's got a soft spot for romance. She just kind of needs someone to coax her into it, you know?”
“Ray can certainly do that,” Fraser says. Glancing past Ray's shoulder, he sees that Ray Vecchio and Stella have abandoned the formal dance lesson and are standing with their arms around each other, swaying gently to the music.
Ray Kowalski notices the direction of Fraser's gaze and rotates them until he has a view of Stella and Ray. He nods, with a smile that's sweet but also a little sad.
“They'll be good for each other, then,” he says quietly.
“Yes, I believe so,” Fraser agrees.
“Well, good. That's good,” Ray mumbles, sounding like he's talking more to himself than to Fraser.
Fraser casts about for something to say that might bring Ray's relaxed grin back, but instead finds himself asking, “What about yourself?”
“What about me, what?”
“Would you marry a man who couldn't dance?” He can't manage the easy, joking tone that such a question requires, the way he imagines Ray himself might ask it. He sounds too earnest.
Ray gives him a narrow-eyed glance before shrugging and answering, “Nah, wouldn't be legal.”
“But if it were?” Fraser presses, not sure why it feels important to pursue Ray onto this overly personal ground.
Ray's gazing over Fraser's shoulder at the mirrored wall behind them. He's still guiding Fraser in some sort of box step, the two of them rotating slowly more or less in place, but Fraser doesn't think his mind is on what his body is doing.
“I'm the marrying kind, if that's what you're asking. I know I don't look like it.” Fraser has no idea what the marrying kind of man ought to look like, but before he has a chance to say so, Ray goes on. “Problem is, no one’s ever wanted to stick around long enough. Or maybe I had my one big chance at love when I was in high school and that's it, game over.”
Under his hand, Fraser feels Ray's shoulder tense and start to pull away from him. Without conscious thought, he checks Ray’s movement with a gentle press of his hand against the back of Ray's shoulder, drawing him in closer. Ray follows the signal as though it were the most natural thing in the world; as though he, like Fraser, has forgotten that Fraser isn't even supposed to be leading right now.
His eyes meet Fraser's, and there's a split second's hesitation before Fraser follows his instinct and pulls Ray closer still, wrapping his arms around him. Ray relaxes against him with a soft sound somewhere between a chuckle and a sigh. His stubbled cheek brushes Fraser’s.
Over Ray's shoulder, Fraser sees Ray Vecchio grinning at him; when their eyes meet, Ray's grin broadens. Startled, Fraser nearly stumbles, but Ray Kowalski keeps him steady. As their rotation takes Ray Vecchio out of Fraser's line of sight, he sees Ray bend his head to murmur something to Stella. Ray looks amused and delighted, as though he's telling a joke he particularly relishes. Under the music, Fraser distinctly hears Stella's low chuckle.
Fraser wonders whether he misunderstood Ray's motive for insisting that Fraser accompany him tonight, or whether Ray misunderstood Stella's. Has he been set up? Was Ray Kowalski in on the scheme as well? But no, Fraser doesn't believe that: perhaps Ray understood the possibility sooner than Fraser himself did, but no more than that. And perhaps there was no scheme at all, and Ray Vecchio and Stella are simply giving their seal of approval to what they see.
It doesn't really matter, he supposes. However it came about, here they all are in this place on this night, and he isn't quite such a fool as to look this gift horse in the mouth. He hugs Ray a little closer, and Ray lays his head on Fraser's shoulder. He's humming quietly along with the music, a love song Fraser doesn't recognize. Fraser has lost track of who's leading, but then, this slowly rotating shuffle hardly requires a leader.
Somewhere in the universe of branching might-have-beens, there is a Ray Kowalski who is a police officer and sports a tattoo instead of an earring. Fraser wonders if he ever would have met this alternate Ray. Perhaps through Ray Vecchio, who would be Ray’s professional colleague, maybe even working for the same district. Maybe the four of them are friends: Fraser, Ray Vecchio, Ray Kowalski, and Stella Kowalski, who went to college but married her high school boyfriend anyway. Maybe Fraser babysits for the Kowalski children now and then, while their parents go out dancing.
Of course, there are other might-have-beens, roads not taken that lead to Fraser having left Chicago, or never having come at all. A train caught. . .but there’s no point in pursuing that thought. The choices of the past are made, and those choices piled on choices led to this moment, toFraser swaying to soft music with Ray Kowalski’s chest warm and solid against his own. At this moment, regret seems absurd.