It was winter in Los Angeles. A little colder than Stefan was used to, but not even close to the deep freeze he remembered in New York. He visited once after he graduated high school, but he could never get used to the weather. He was built for long days and the sweltering sun.
He tugged his blanket closer and turned over on the couch. The radiator was chugging along beside him and he let his body soak up the heat. He had just woken up from a nap, everything still cloudy in his head. Unfocused and hazy, but so warm. He could hear the radio whining from the kitchen. It was faint, but he could clearly make out the trumpet and the drawling piano and even a woman’s voice. The tune was torturous.
“Dance with me,” Cole said, tossing his jacket onto the chair and clicking the radio on. They had just gotten home after a long day of working cases, and all Stefan wanted to do was sleep. But Cole held his hands out and smiled and it made Stefan’s knees feel weak. He felt his fingers locking with Cole’s and dropped his own stuff to the floor as they whisked off around the living room.
“You’re going to be the death of me.” Stefan laughed and he could hear Cole humming lowly in his ear. He didn’t think they would ever be able to be this close. Sharing the same apartment, coming home from work together, stealing kisses where no one could see. He didn’t think it would lead to this, that night when Marie kicked him out. When Cole showed up at his doorstep, suitcase gripped tight between pale knuckles and tears hidden in his crow’s feet. He felt bad that Cole didn’t get to see his daughters much anymore, but he was selfish enough to revel in his arms every night.
Stefan squeezed his eyes shut and tried to will the memories away. They were stale these days- the old times and old feelings and old music. He used his pillow to try and block out the noise, but that lady’s wailing was loud in his ears. He hated music and he hated dancing and he just wanted to go back to sleep.
He moved his blanket so that it was resting on his shoulders and pushed himself out of the warm spot he had made on the couch. He stumbled towards the kitchen on the same wooden floor he used to glide on.
“I can’t move like that,” Stefan protested as he was pulled into a spin.
Cole used to tell Stefan that dancing didn’t have rules. But that was usually when he complained that Cole always got to lead- whirling him around like a broad and dipping him so low that it made his heart race.
“Are you joking,” Cole scoffed and Stefan bit back a smile. “You’re the most graceful guy I know.”
“I better be.” He returned smugly and Cole laughed loudly in his ear.
As he got closer, he realized that the radio wasn’t playing the usual station. Cole used to turn on jazz or swing, but this was slow. A guitar was strumming lazily and the piano raced to keep it all together. And from somewhere deep in his memories, he remembered Cole having this on record. With Ella Fitzgerald and The Ink Spots, singing about rain and tears and the sun shining.
“Into each life some rain must fall, but too much is falling in mine.” A husky voice sang, the noise tumbling from the needle and pooling into the silence of the room.
“Come here,” Cole whispered and Stefan held him tight as they swayed to the music. The clouds had been heavy all day, and the case they were working just kept getting longer.
“Some folks can lose the blues in their hearts, but when I think of you another shower starts.”
Cole got tense when cases dragged on, when evidence wasn’t easy to come by and he wasn’t sure what to do next. But when they got home, he’d always pull out his favorite record and set it down on the turntable. They would hold each other close- Cole’s hands curled into Stefan’s waist, and his own fingers digging deeply into the other man’s shoulders. They would hold onto each other like the floor was going to fall out from under them.
“Into each heart some tears must fall, but some day the sun will shine.”
He used his fist to stop the music, and the static slowly fizzled out of existence. The house was empty, and without the radio playing it was completely quiet. The cold flooring sent a chill up Stefan’s bare feet, the bitter night air getting in from the crack under the door and between the windows.
Stefan just stood there for a moment, his feet glued to the tile and his body feeling fragile under his wool blanket. His hair was mussed and he was wearing flannel pajamas that he thinks were a Christmas gift from his mother. The kind that he put away in his closet and didn’t think he would touch again. Except now he felt like he was frozen even though the house really wasn’t that cold.
The only light he had turned on was the small one above the sink- the one he always left on for when he woke up in the middle of the night and needed a glass of water. So it was dark, and it was cold, and he had been thinking about Cole all night. And he realized that the last thing he wanted to do was go back to sleep, because he’d have dreams about him and all that terrible music.
He tugged his blanket tighter and started to turn on all the lights in the kitchen- the two above the countertops and the one above the table and then turned on all the ones in the living room and bedroom too. All the light made him feel a little less lonely even though it was still deathly quiet and he won’t turn the radio on again.
He reached up to the cabinet where he kept his coffee grounds, and decided that the caffeine might make him feel better or at least warm him up. And as he pulled out the dark roast, he saw a white box stuffed into the back. Curiously, he reached in farther and pulled it out. It was a box of tea bags and he doesn’t know where they came from or why they’re there, but they make him feel raw.
And suddenly he remembered that it was Cole’s. He thought back to their mornings together, when he would put on a pot of coffee for himself while Cole boiled water for his tea. When they would make breakfast, moving around one another with the practiced ease they learned from working traffic.
His mouth tasted like ash and he wasn’t all that thirsty anymore. He pushed the box back into the cabinet and slowly slipped into the living room to collapse on the couch again.
“Are you comfortable?” Stefan asked, adjusting himself so he was holding Cole tight in his arms. It was late and they were in bed together. Stefan could feel sleep pulling heavily at his eyelids, but he wanted to enjoy the time he found with Cole. The press had just found out about Elsa, and Cole was working Arson- his office now a thousand away from homicide. And while he’s never felt so close to him, he’s never been this far.
“Yeah,” He whispered and he let out a deep breath. “I miss doing this every night. I miss getting up with you and going home with you after we finish a case. And now I’ve got to work all these extra hours and everyone hates me-” Cole cut himself off and Stefan just held him tighter.
“It’s okay. It will all blow over soon and they’ll remember what a great detective you are and we can work homicide together.” Stefan said and even though he truly believed it, it sounded like he was lying. Like he was trying to assure him that everything would be okay even when things rarely worked out that way. “And you’ll remember how much you like to dance.” Stefan added and Cole chuckled. It had been quiet in the apartment with Cole working all hours of the day. Even when he did make his way home, he was too tired.
Cole turned in his arms so they were face to face and said, “I love you Stefan.” He was smiling but it was small and a little sad, and Stefan didn’t know what that meant. It almost sounded like a goodbye.
“I love you too.” He responded and he pulled him into a kiss. He wanted to erase whatever sadness that Cole had felt but when he pulled away, he didn’t look any happier. Cole looked at him like he wasn’t there, like he knew that one day soon he wouldn’t be. Stefan was losing him and he didn’t know why.
He wanted to stay awake. He wanted to commit the entire thing to memory- Cole’s snoring and the smell of his shampoo and the warmth they made together under all the blankets. But his eyes slipped shut and the next time they opened the sun was streaming in through the curtains and Cole was gone.
The room was silent except for Stefan’s deep breaths. The more he listened to them, the more rhythmic they sounded. He stopped as soon as he heard a pattern.
“You have to dance with me, it’s Glenn Miller!” Stefan giggled, the alcohol he had been drinking catching up to him as he stood up and gestured to Cole. It was a lazy Sunday for the both of them and Stefan had broken out the good scotch to celebrate his first big win in homicide. They were both pleasantly drunk, and Stefan wanted to dance.
“I thought you’d never ask,” Cole responded warmly and held his hands out for Stefan to take. It was a fast song, a little too fast for how drunk Stefan felt, but he took them anyway.
“Is that what you’ve been waiting for?” He asked as they did a unsteady spin and almost fell over each other.
“Mm hmm,” Cole hummed, leaning heavily into Stefan’s arms. “Wanna do whatever you want.”
Stefan didn’t like music. The ceaseless metronome- the cords- the notes- the way each instrument built on each other in suspenseful succession. And he didn’t like dancing either. Gripping onto clammy hands and tripping over clumsy feet and fighting against the music.
He understood love even less than he understood music.
Cole would come home smelling like soot and fire. Looking worse than when he had left- the weight of everyone’s jeering taking its toll. And it drove Stefan crazy, because everyone was falling over themselves for him not even a month ago.
“We should take the day off,” Stefan said, rolling over in bed and trapping him in with strong arms. Cole smiled at him and let himself fall back into the sheets.
“And do what?” He asked cheekily and Stefan climbed on top of him, straddling his hips.
“Dance.” Stefan said like it was obvious, leaning down to press kisses into his neck.
“We can’t,” Cole laughed and used his hands to try and push Stefan off, but he didn’t budge. “Herschel needs me.”
“Biggs has been working arson without a partner for years. He’ll be fine, whereas I…” Stefan drifted off as he let one hand drift under the covers. Cole bit his lip as a wide smile broke out on his face. “We’ll just call out sick.”He said and Cole nodded, pulling Stefan down to kiss him.
If he had understood love, then his apartment wouldn’t be so lonely. But he had been lonely his entire life and nothing’s changed except now he got drunk with Galloway on Fridays. He thought it might be time to make a real friend, but the only other person he saw regularly around the precinct was Roy and just the thought of him made Stefan sick.
“When are you coming home?” Stefan asked, his words sloppy from a little too much to drink. He had gone to the bar with Rusty after work to talk about the case over whiskey. And then the case had turned into Cole and he was spilling all his secrets across the bar like a wine bottle without the cork. Rusty must have taken him home, because Stefan had woken up face down in the couch. The last dregs of sunlight colored the sky as Stefan picked up the phone.
“Stefan? You can’t call me at work, you know how dangerous this is!” He whispered into the receiver and Stefan knew he was right. But it was getting late and he hadn’t seen Cole in too long and he missed him more than anything. He knew he should probably just hang up, but Stefan could only think about that tiny knot Cole got in his forehead when he was mad and it made Stefan want him even more.
“I miss you,” He said and there was so much more that he wanted to say. But he didn’t want to say it over the phone- his voice grainy and the operator hiding in the background, shifting plugs and calls and it all felt a little insignificant. Cole sighed and Stefan could tell he was deflating.
His voice was lighter in return, "I know I haven't been home. But it won't be like this forever. Just for now."
"And what about right now?" He asked and Cole laughed.
"I'll try to get out early. Turn on the radio until I get there." He said warmly and Stefan smiled. He hung up the phone and then walked over to the kitchen, turning the radio on and the volume up loud.
But the silence feels different this time.
“What- The River Tunnels? It’s fucking storming outside, what is he doing!” Stefan yelled over the phone, quickly grabbing his coat and keys as Rusty rambled.
“Come fast Stefan.” Rusty said gravely before he was gone and there was only static on the other end. He threw the phone down and ran out the door.
The silence seems a little more permanent than before.
“He was a great detective,” Donnelly said, his voice steely and hard. An unforgiving irish lilt to his words. Cole’s death was still fresh, not even three days old and Donnelly had called him into his office for this shit. “Los Angeles will mourn him.” Stefan’s fists were clenched by his side, his eyes red and bloodshot and full of anger.
He wanted to yell. He wanted to tower over him and tell him how Cole was a better man than he would ever be. He was sitting behind his desk, acting like his hands were clean of the whole mess. Stefan stood to his feet and let his anger flash. “A great detective? After everything you did- you never even gave him a chance!” He said, his voice pushing out from deep in his chest, louder than he thought he was capable. No one ever defended Cole, not after Elsa. Stefan hadn’t either and he used to make all these excuses about it. That no one would listen or that people would know what they did if he said anything. But the truth was that he was scared. And now Cole was dead and it was too late.
Donnelly jumped out of his chair and responded, “He dug himself into his own hole with that dope fiend!”
“There was no girl Donnelly!”
“I know!” He yelled back and Stefan was caught off guard. His mouth went dry and his eyes were wide in surprise.“Do you think that no one noticed? That I didn’t notice? If this gets out, we will be publicly humiliated,” He said, his voice dropping low and intimidating. “I won’t let that happen. So keep your mouth shut and you get to keep your job. Now get out of my office.”
Stefan can’t just turn on the radio and wait for Cole to walk back in through the front door. Not this time.
“Cole Phelps was the best kind of man,” Roy began, his voice fragile and shallow from the podium, the microphone cracking loudly. Stefan was sitting in the back of the church, his tweed suit stiff and constricting. His eyes were dark and the fug of cigarette smoke hung over him like a ghost. He was slumped up against the pew and he was trying to hold it together.
Cole’s daughters were sitting in the front of the church, holding each other’s hands tightly with red faces and sad eyes. “A cop wrongly accused,” Roy continued strongly. “Who never lost his faith in the LAPD and the system.” Stefan laughed bitterly and Roy’s eyes found his in the crowd. He had destroyed everything, but now he’s standing up there- telling everyone how Cole was a ‘good man’ and how he was dealt a bad hand. If Stefan had been drinking, he would have pulled him off the stage himself, but he dug himself a little deeper into his seat and sighed.
There wasn’t any music playing. There was children crying and Roy’s cheap one liners and even a priest who repeated words that Cole never believed in. But there was no music. And it made Stefan feel like he was going crazy, because he looked around the room and saw a lot of dry eyes. He saw some other officers on their breaks, showing up to watch a legend die out. Kelso and Biggs were sitting a couple rows ahead of him but Stefan didn’t see the rest of Cole’s platoon. They hadn’t talked about Okinawa, but Stefan had assumed that Cole was how he always had been. Perfect. But not a single one of them had come and Kelso always had a hint of hatred in his eyes when he saw him. Now, Stefan would never know.
Galloway was sitting strong next to him, and Stefan knew that Rusty would take him out for a drink later to make sure that he was okay. That he was still holding up. Stefan had never told him about Cole, but Rusty was a good detective and Stefan was a bad liar. Rusty wasn’t soft, he didn’t tip toe around people and he didn’t deal with feelings. But ever since Cole’s demotion, he always seemed to be around. Always there with a new pack of cigarettes and a ride home when Stefan was too fucked up to drive.
At the end of the funeral, everyone filtered out and there was time to sit with the coffin before the family followed it for internment. Stefan slowly walked up the aisle towards it, towards that big lonely box and the old picture they dug up of Cole, his bright and shining face in his uniform blues. He kneeled down in front of the coffin, and he had all these things he wanted to say. He put his hand on top of the American flag they had draped over it and let his fingers caress the cotton. He stared down at it and felt tears well up in his eyes but he didn’t say anything. Didn’t think. The casket was empty anyway.
Stefan didn’t mind the loneliness- he didn’t mind the dark house and the bitter coffee and the cold floor boards.
Stefan shuddered as the water turned on in the shower. And he knew that it was stupid and that he was a grown man and that water can’t hurt him. But he could hear it running down the drain and feel it pooling at his feet. And he thought about what Kelso told him- about the tunnels filling. About the hand that Cole didn’t take as the water swept him up. He turned the shower off.
He didn’t mind the loneliness because he had never been in love. And he had never liked the down beat of a song, or the way the needle scratched the vinyl. And he had never enjoyed the way the trumpet blared as he pulled his partner around the room. He had never lost the thing he loved most.
“Cole, I need you.” He whispered brokenly into his pillow. He was tied up in the sheets, and his bed wasn’t warm like it used to be. The room was as familiar as the back of his hand, but he felt like he didn’t even recognize it anymore. Cole’s books used to sit on the side table, and his shoes would be piled up near the door, and his jacket was always hanging in the closet. But then Marie came around and asked for his things back and Stefan had reluctantly handed everything over. Well, almost everything he thought, staring down at the ring on his finger. It was Cole’s wedding ring. He should have given it back to Marie, should have apologized for pulling her family apart. But he didn’t and he twisted the ring around his finger and thought about the man who gave it to him. Warm hands, warm eyes, warm heart. All gone cold now.
He’s never had to say goodbye.
“I love you,” Stefan said quietly, his breath like smoke in the cold. He glanced around the graveyard, but he didn’t see anyone else. He looked back down to Cole’s grave and let his hand rest on the stone. “I didn’t say it too much, but I do.” And he hoped that Cole was dancing wherever he was now. He hoped that Cole was finally at peace.
Never, until now.