Disclaimer and Notes: dueSouth characters and concepts property of Alliance. Just borrowing them for fun.
This is slash and slightly AU (no sex, though, sorry.) Inspired by the song of the same name by American country artists Little Texas, available on the Big Time CD.
Thanks to Debbie Hann for the beta, even if she only saw the beginning....
By Raine Wynd
I didn't expect to see her here, especially not in the restaurant I co-owned. Then again, I didn't really expect much these days. Four years is a long time, and I'd spent most it up in Canada with Fraser. I was still getting used to being back in Chicago. There were days when I woke up thinking I was still part of that special task force Fraser got me hooked up with so I could go on being a cop while I was hanging out with him. Not that it mattered much: I had a bunch of citations in a file somewhere, but the Chicago PD wouldn't take me back. Told me a bunch of crap about hiring freezes and budget constraints, but I found out that they were afraid I'd ask for more money, seeing as I couldn't do the fieldwork like I once had. Like I needed it; Fraser taught me more than I ever wanted to know about living like you're dirt poor. All I'd ever wanted to be was a cop, but I guess being a businessman ain't too bad. The money wasn't anything to sneeze at, either, even after the franchise fees and other operating expenses were paid. There were other reasons Chicago PD didn't want me back, and I'd expected those, but the people I'd hoped would be there to help weren't there anymore, even with the favors I'd picked up from all the work I did in Canada. I suppose I could've made a case out of being denied what I knew best to do, but I lost the heart for it, once I knew the truth.
I knew from talking with Frannie that her brother had married Stella, and had moved to Florida not long after Fraser and I wrapped up the Muldoon case. The moment I'd gotten the news, I'd bet Fraser that Stella and Ray wouldn't last. I'd laughed at the idea of her running a bowling alley, and somehow, knowing what I knew about Ray Vecchio, I didn't think he'd last long either. You can only pretend for so long before it all comes crashing down around you, and I knew enough about him to know he hadn't been marrying her for love.
Fraser hadn't believed me, but he'd paid on the bet when he'd gotten the call from Ray that Ray was moving back to Chicago, without Stella. I hadn't quite believed he'd really find a way to pay out on a million puffs of air, but he had. I still had the receipt for the two oxygen tanks he'd given me as payment, but I'm going off on one of those tangents Ray and Fraser find so annoying. Speaking of Ray, that reminded me of who was standing expectantly before me. I had to take a deep breath and exhale it slowly, marveling at how happy Stella looked. Even knowing I'd been right about her and Ray, I wondered who was the one who was making her look like she did now.
She glowed. I remembered how she used to glow like that, and had to slam the door on how I used to live for moments when I was the reason for that look. She was dressed casually — Florida must've taught her about dressing down, 'cause the last time I saw her in jeans and a T-shirt we'd just gotten married — and her hair was a bit longer than I remembered, but even dressed like that, I knew she was happy. For a moment, I wanted very much to be the man who'd made her feel that way, but I shoved the urge away. Still, she was beautiful to me, and I knew she'd always be. Somehow, I found the strength to open my mouth and not stumble over my tongue.
She smiled nervously, taking a seat at the bar next to me, where I'd been sampling a new appetizer on the menu while keeping an eye on how well things were running.
"Hi, Ray." She swallowed, and I watched, fascinated. It had been a long time since I'd seen her, and I could feel her nervousness. Oddly, I was calm, calmer than I'd expected. Maybe being around Fraser had taught me something more than just how to be a quietly rich man.
"I didn't expect you to be here," she said at last. "I mean, I'd been told you'd be here, but I thought he was joking."
Her eyes searched mine before taking inventory of the rest of me. I was still thin, but not as much as I'd once been, and I'd gotten more muscle. Guy's gotta be in shape to be partnered up with Fraser, and the habit of working out was hard to break, even though it had been a good nine months since I'd been Fraser's partner. I waited for her to see what was left of my right arm, knowing the golf shirt I wore didn't hide a damn thing, knowing she wouldn't have seen the stump that ended just above my elbow until I'd turned to face her.
Her response was predictable, and I stopped the question before it started. "A year ago," I told her. "I was working on a case with Fraser."
I wasn't really in the mood to go into the details, rehash the tale of how one chase too many down a dark alley with Fraser had cost me my arm. I'd learned to live with it, but the last thing I needed was to go down that memory lane. I was having enough problems with her being around as it was. The more time I spent around her, the more I felt my calm slipping away, and the jealousy and the old heartache creeping in to fill the void. I knew better, but I still couldn't stop the feeling.
"I see," she murmured, but I knew she didn't. No way she could, short of her going through it herself, and I wouldn't wish that on her. "How is Fraser anyway?"
I smiled. "He's still a Mountie," I informed her. "He's supposed to be coming down in a couple weeks. Frannie's wedding, you know."
Stella cleared her throat, and I quietly signaled the pubkeep for a drink. "Coke, with a lime in it," I ordered, remembering how she'd liked it.
Stella flashed me a grateful smile, taking the drink that was promptly delivered as the appetizer I'd been sampling was quickly cleared and my own glass of coffee refilled. She took a sip, clearly stalling for time, and I let her. I had nothing but time on my hands now; the restaurant was in the lull period between lunch and dinner, and the staff on duty was more than capable of handling things. I usually left now, but I wasn't in any rush to get home. Nothing for me there except the four walls and a TV, and most days, I didn't spend at home anyway.
"I didn't know Frannie was getting married," Stella remarked as she set her drink down, and looked at me. "I'm not part of the Vecchio family anymore, Ray," she stated quietly.
I wasn't surprised, but I still glanced at her left hand anyway. The ring finger was bare. There wasn't even a trace of a tan line. "What happened?" I asked, genuinely curious. I knew Ray had been back in town a while longer than I had, but he'd never explained what had happened to him and Stella, and I'd always figured he'd tell me if he really wanted me to know. That didn't mean I couldn't find out some other way, and this was the perfect opportunity.
She shrugged. "I don't think we really knew what we were doing when we left here. We probably would've done better without getting married and starting a business together all at the same time." She paused and took another sip of her drink. "All I know is we drifted apart, just like you and I did, and I could see it all happening all over again. We talked it over, and we decided to go our separate ways. I haven't talked to him or Frannie in at least five months. Well, until this morning anyway."
She took a deep breath. "I ran into Ray at the grocery store. He asked if I'd seen you yet. When I told him no, he told me to come here. Wasn't sure what he meant; you were never one to hang out in a place like this."
'A place like this' meant a quietly elegant restaurant — rich mahogany paneling, white linen tablecloths, black-and-white-clad servers, but not so stuffy I didn't feel out of place wearing my favorite black jeans. The golf shirt wasn't really me, but it had the restaurant's logo on it, and it hadn't taken much to convince me it looked better than a plain T-shirt, at least when I was sitting around here. Wearing it made me feel like I belonged, and in the beginning, I'd needed all the armor I could get. It was the kind of place I would've taken Stella out to dinner at and spent a good fifty bucks on a pair of steaks, hoping she wouldn't notice I would be paying the electric bill late to try and make up for it. Yeah, it was the kind of place I used to feel intimidated by — and I couldn't help but smile at her words.
"People change," I told her. "I own half of this." I couldn't help the pride in my voice. "Me and some corporation out of Texas."
"You're not a cop anymore?" Stella seemed shocked. "I mean—" she gestured to my left side awkwardly "surely, they can't hold that against you."
"Well, they didn't, not really," I answered her. "But they figured out I'd cost them more because I don't like using a fake arm, and I'd have to be assigned somewhere where I wouldn't be as much of a risk to my partner because I don't have both arms. It's not like I wasn't skating on thin ice anyway, all those years, with me being nearly blind as a bat without my glasses." I didn't mention that being involved with one of the city's leading private investigators hadn't exactly endeared me to anyone, either.
"Ray, that's not legal—"
"Stel, don't even start," I interrupted with a smile. It felt better than it should have, hearing the indignation on my behalf in her voice. "I'm good. I know I can be a cop with an arm gone. Hell, I proved it up in Canada." I snorted, remembering. "You shoulda heard Fraser bitching at me because I was always trying too much. I don't got anything to prove to anyone anymore. This—" and I gestured towards the tables, trying to indicate the whole place "— owning a restaurant — makes me happy. I don't ask for much. Never have, really."
She smiled reluctantly. "Funny, that doesn't sound like the man I knew. The one I knew used to ask me for a lot of things I couldn't give, at least not then. Maybe I just was too focused on my career to realize I wanted some of those things too."
I closed my eyes, remembering the desperate way I used to believe she'd come back to me. Hearing she'd married Ray had just hammered home the fact she wouldn't ever be mine again. Seeing her now took me back to how I'd spent weeks hoping for their divorce, not accepting reality, and when it had all finally sunk in, I'd gone a little crazy. I owe Fraser more than I can ever repay for saving my sanity then.
Taking a deep breath, I opened my eyes and studied her. I took my time, trying to really see past what my first impression of her when she'd walked up to the bar had been. Abruptly, I realized she had been happy to see me, happy in a way that I hadn't seen in years, and her last words registered.
"What do you want, Stel?" I asked suspiciously, aware she had, in her way, apologized for the way she'd put her ambitions first and our relationship second.
Now she cast her eyes downward and fiddled with the straw in her drink, suddenly nervous. "I guess I should've asked more questions," she said with a sigh. She glanced up at me. "All I could think of was that I missed you, and here was the chance to tell you how I feel."
She reached for my hand, and I let her take it. I was still trying to digest the fact she'd apologized, and I had to really concentrate to make sense of what she was saying.
"I got scared, Ray. Scared I was drowning in what you wanted, what you thought I should be, and that I'd never be anyone without you." She took a deep breath and rushed on, "I had to prove I could be someone without you, but it's not the same. I guess I always thought you'd be there to share in my success."
The words twisted something inside of me, and I grew angry. Taking my hand back, I demanded, "What the hell kind of game are you playing, Stella? You gonna bounce back between me and Ray until you can figure out which one of us you like better?"
"Ray, it's not like that," she pleaded. "I thought of you a lot more than I should have when I was married to Ray Vecchio; it's one of the reasons why I got divorced a second time."
I stared at her. Time was when I would've paid through the nose to hear her say stuff like that. "Then tell me what you're wanting from me."
"A second chance?" she ventured hopefully.
I wanted to believe her. Some part of me was screaming for me to just take her up on it and to hell with the consequences, but I wasn't going to make a stupid mistake. I'd already made too damn many as far as she was concerned. "Why should I give you one?" I wasn't trying to be difficult, and I suspected I probably sounded as shocked I felt, if not downright hostile, but the time I'd spent away from her had made me realize she'd turned me down multiple times, and I just had refused to pay attention.
"You never stopped loving me," she answered. "No matter what happened, you were always there. Wasn't until I was away from you that I realized how much I missed knowing that I could count on you." She hesitated. "There was a time when you were the best friend I had in the whole wide world."
I smiled reluctantly, seeing the memories that tumbled through my mind echoed in her expression. "That was a long time ago," I reminded her, my voice sharper than I'd intended. Judging from her expression, I realized I could use that to my advantage. "You decided I wasn't good enough to be your best friend, remember?"
Knowing she had no answer for that, I pressed on. "You wanted more than I could ever give you, and I wanted the one thing you didn't want to give. What makes you think we could work this time around, even supposing I wasn't involved with someone, which I am?"
She looked at me, surprised. "I didn't know you were involved with anyone. Ray didn't mention it."
A half-chuckle escaped my lips. "No, I don't think he would." As useful as I'd discovered it could be, Ray's habit of telling someone only what he'd been asked or what he deemed important had annoyed me on more than one occasion. I quickly concluded he'd deliberately left a lot unsaid, and though I could understand one reason why he'd left out the truth, I didn't understand why he'd set up Stella this way.
"So who is it?" Stella questioned. The hope she'd been carrying around was a deflated balloon, but I could see a bit of air still left in that balloon. "Anyone I know?"
For a minute, I was tempted to tell her the whole truth. "Does it matter?" I asked instead, knowing she was smart enough to take that for a yes. "I got a good life now; I've moved on. We had something good for a while, but it's like you said to me a long time ago. There's no use in trying anything, because all we'd do is end up with more regrets."
She thought about this a minute. "Can we at least be friends?" she asked.
Damn it, that balloon had a hell of lot more air left in it than I thought. I took a deep breath, hating the need to be cruel. "I got enough of those, Stella." Deliberately, I gentled my voice, knowing I was just reacting, and not really thinking about my words. I'd thought I'd learned how to control that, but I guess Stella still could push my buttons. I took another deep breath and continued, "You made it pretty clear four years ago that you weren't interested in me. I would've taken you back in a heartbeat, then. I can't say the same thing now."
She closed her eyes and exhaled heavily. Opening them, she stated, "Guess I'm a little too late, then." The glow she'd had faded with her acceptance, and I swore I heard a door slam on a hope I hadn't realized I'd been carrying around until just that moment. For one crazy instant, I wanted to take back the words I'd spoken, but I knew if I changed my mind, I'd have hell to pay.
Stella finished off the Coke she'd been drinking and set the glass firmly on the counter. The simple task completed, she focused her attention again to me. "Are you happy? I mean, I know you said you were, that you didn't mean much, but this woman who you're involved with, does she make you happy?"
Trust her to ask the tough questions, but that was Stella... always asking the questions I hated answering, except when I knew it would help put some perp behind bars. Then I saw who came up behind her and I smiled. My eyes locked on those of my lover, and there wasn't any more hesitation. "He makes me happy, yes."
Stella turned slowly. Her gasp was audible, and she turned shocked eyes on me first, then on the Italian-American who'd paused in his stride towards me to await her reaction.
"Hello, Stella," he drawled. "I see you found Ray."
It was kinda funny to see Stella's mouth working like a fish, but I knew from Ray's tone that he had deliberately set her up, just as I'd guessed. I bit back the temptation to call him on it; I would've liked to have some advance warning, but looking at him, I realized he'd been testing me too. I couldn't say I blamed him. Even after four years, too many people remembered what an ass I'd made of myself over Stella, even if they didn't know she was the reason I'd gone a little crazy and ended up losing an arm when I shouldn't have been anywhere near a dangerous situation. Then again, just being around Fraser always had the potential of becoming a dangerous situation, but I couldn't say that now, couldn't just laugh off the pain like I had when Ray had asked me about my arm. Guess I should've expected Ray would've asked Fraser about it, and Fraser, being Fraser, would've told him Stella had been the cata— damn, why can't I ever think of that word? — the spark, the what's it, that started the snowball rolling down the hill.
You ever have a moment when you know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, just how you feel about someone? That moment was happening now. I looked at Stella, the girl of my dreams from forever ago, and I just knew all the love I'd ever felt for her belonged in that yesterday. She wasn't the keeper of my heart, and maybe she never really had been. We'd been going in different directions since the day we met, and I'd always been too good at pretending we hadn't been. It all seemed so crystal clear, I wondered why I'd never seen it that way before.
My eyes met Ray's. Damn, he knew me well. I'd needed this, needed to know Stella and me was over. From the look in his eyes, he'd needed this too, and I ached at the thought of how much pain she'd caused us both. All I wanted now was to take Ray home and show him she wasn't worth the heartache, that I loved him more than she would ever know.
Ray finished walking towards me and I stood, not wanting to be a part of this scene anymore. Unfortunately, I didn't realize that Ray wasn't quite finished yet, and he took advantage of my movement to draw me into a possessive embrace, my back against his chest, his arms around my waist. His mouth nuzzled my shoulder, the closest he would come to a kiss in as public a place as this. I'd long ago stopped caring about who saw us kissing, but Ray wasn't like that. The intimacy distracted me for the moment, stopped me when I would've kept on going.
"You can't be serious," Stella finally sputtered, her face flushed with embarrassment and disbelief. "You're joking. You're the last two men I'd think were— " Her voice broke off abruptly as she struggled with the truth.
Strange, she could say "homosexual" or "gay" in court, but when it applied to the men she'd been married to, suddenly she couldn't even say the word. My respect for her fell with the realization.
"So did we," Ray replied, a smile in his voice that I knew, without looking, would be missing from his eyes. "Funny what happens when you swear off women, especially when the only one you wanted is the same woman."
"Ray— " I started, hating the way Stella seemed to be crumpling with every word he spoke. I didn't want to hurt her; the memory of what she'd once been to me was bittersweet, but I'd never been mean to her. I was afraid Ray was on one of his blast modes, and he didn't always remember to be kind.
"No, caro, I think she needs this," he cut me off. "You can't just come back, Stella. You're years too late for Ray, and if you wanted him, God knows he gave you enough chances before you and I ever met. Knowing him like I do, it was probably every chance he saw you, and from what my sister tells me, I can imagine it was a hell of a lot more times than that. Hell, woman, you're the reason he lost his arm. Oh sure, maybe you weren't there, but you didn't think about what hearing you'd married me would do to him, did you?"
I tensed at that statement, hating the memories it triggered. Stupid, pathetic fool, yeah, that had been me, but I'd been too scared I'd never find anything half as good as what I'd had with Stella to realize it then. Ray's hand found mine and gripped it reassuringly, and I took a deep breath, feeling the calm his touch invoked. Yeah, I knew I was loved, and loved deeply, even if I'd been a screw-up when it came to Stella. I took a quick glance over my shoulder and saw that love shining out of his eyes, and I had to look away before it melted whatever strength I had left to stand.
Ray continued on, his voice gaining strength. "I didn't know back then the things I know now. If I had, maybe I'd have saved us both some trouble. You thought he wouldn't find out about us, since he was up in Canada."
"It wasn't like that," Stella protested. "I loved you."
Ray snorted. "For all the things you told me about how you were over him," he pointed out, "you never really let him go, and nobody knows that better than me. Nothing messes with a guy's head better than wondering if his wife means you or her ex-husband when she cries out 'Ray' in the heat of passion." He snorted again. "For what it's worth, Stella, I convinced myself I was in love with you. I believed you meant me when you said you loved me, but you coming back now just makes me wonder even more."
Ray paused, letting go of me momentarily to pull out a newspaper article and place it firmly on the bar between me and Stella. A glance at it told me it was the feature the paper had done on the restaurant when it first opened. "You dropped this at the store," he informed Stella. "So why don't you tell us again just why you came back to town."
Stella flushed in anger and embarrassment. "I wanted to see you," and her gaze clearly indicated me. "My mother sent me this, said it was good to see that you'd finally made something of yourself. I was in town anyway to see her and do some work for one of the charities she's on the board of, and I thought... I thought, maybe, it was time to see if— "
"If the cop wasn't good enough for you, maybe the businessman would be?" Ray's voice was dry. "I thought you had enough of trying to change a cop into something he wasn't ever going to be, or was I just practice?"
"That's not the way it was between you and me," Stella retorted. "You're just twisting things around."
"Bullshit," I interjected. "You just got done telling me you missed me, that you thought of me when you were married to him." I was getting angry, not so much for myself, but for Ray. I couldn't believe she was doing this to him, to us. "Oh, you might've meant what you told him when you said it, but you can't take back what you've said, to either of us."
Caught by the truth of my words, Stella directed her attention towards the back of the bar and refused to meet our eyes.
Ray shook his head. Disbelief and disgust radiated from him like the cologne he used to wear before I'd told him it made me sneeze. His voice held contempt as he spoke. "Guess we'll never know now what might have been, so why don't you just turn around, walk right out that door, and leave us both alone?"
Stella looked at him, then at me. "I always wondered," she stated, trying for a calm she clearly didn't feel, "if the rumor I'd heard about you and that wrestler was true."
"High school was a long time ago, Stel," I reminded her quietly. The intended barb still had the power to sting, even if I knew the truth. I couldn't believe she'd drag something so old out to use as a weapon, but at the same time, it hurt that she had chosen to do so. I had to fight to keep the pain out of my voice, not wanting to give her the satisfaction of hearing it. "For the record, that rumor had no truth behind it."
Now that the dark sunglasses were off, I could see her true colors, and I wasn't happy with what I saw. Something told me Ray had seen through her a hell of a lot faster than I had. Maybe that was because he hadn't grown up with her like I had, hadn't learned to make a thousand excuses for how she acted based on the things I knew had happened to her. Maybe if I'd... but then I felt Ray's hand take mine, gripping it tightly, grounding me, and all the what-ifs in my head vanished.
"Not that it matters, Stella," Ray added. "Neither of us is gonna sit here and pretend whatever fantasy you got cooked up for whatever reasons you have. I got reality right here, and reality is what's standing right in front of you. We can sit here and talk about it all night, but I know I promised Ray we'd go see a movie, and we'd better get moving if we're going to make the early show."
That said, Ray hustled me out to his car. I didn't protest. If I'd stayed there a minute longer, I wasn't sure how long I'd hold out against the tears I'd glimpsed in her eyes, tears that had formed with Ray's final words. I'd always been a sucker for tears, and Stella's probably had the power of a knife to the gut. I chanced a look at Ray as he put the Riviera into gear, and something in his expression told me he'd seen those tears too.
"It's for the best," Ray reminded me unnecessarily. "I didn't want her coming between us."
"I know," I answered, but still, my heart was heavy with unexpected regret. I'd always hated hurting Stella, and this was no different. "I don't love her like I once did."
"I'm glad," Ray replied. He didn't say anything more. He didn't have to. His right hand reached for my left, and grasped it tightly in a message I understood perfectly.
"Forget the movie," I told him. "Let's just go home."
Judging from the quick, devilish grin that appeared a heartbeat later, I'd made the right call.
**** Finis ****
©2.28.00 Raine Wynd