Rachel frowned at the picture, leaning closer so she could see it properly. A young woman, caught laughing, eyes bright, hair - long, straight, dark - loose around her and flying in all directions. It had been taken across a room, showing her in a short dress and heels, standing between two people who were in a softer focus, blurred out like they were unimportant. Gill clearly had no idea there was a camera there.
"I was so proud of that shot."
Rachel snapped upright as she whirled to face Julie. She felt like she had been caught doing something she shouldn't, though the picture was on the wall opposite the bathroom, it was fair enough for her to look at it. But her guilt made her slow, and she frowned. "You what?"
Julie rolled her eyes, leant in close to Rachel to peer at it, as Rachel stared at her. "I took it. It was her 29th birthday. I kept it for ages then got two copies made, gave her one for Christmas and kept one for myself." Rachel was surprised at the turn her evening had taken, but tried to keep her expression neutral. DSI Dodson was abrasive, tough, good at her job but hard to get to know, and Rachel could count on very few fingers the number of conversations they'd had alone that weren't about work, and she was unwilling to scare her off by reacting wrongly to this unexpected revelation.
But as the penny dropped, Rachel blushed. "Oh," she murmured, her stomach tightening with something that could have been embarrassment at the secret, but was more likely recognition.
Julie looked up, smiled, then looked back at the picture. She seemed unable to tear herself away. "Yes," she agreed. A pause. "Of course, I'm neither the first nor the last." Her eyebrow arched, questioning, and Rachel blushed harder, ducking her head and stepping away as though she could hide on this tiny landing. But Julie did not pursue it, merely smiled and disappeared into the bathroom, leaving Rachel confused and awkward outside the door.
She turned and made her way back downstairs, picking up her cigarettes from the kitchen and slipping out into the garden. The act of lighting it calmed her, stilling her shaking hands as she tried to work out whether it was just Julie, or whether everyone knew. Whether it was obvious where her eyes drifted, whose voice she could hone in on in a crowded room. She exhaled, leaning into her chair and closing her eyes.
"What's up, kid?" There was a scraping sound as Gill pulled another chair close. “Not feeling guilty about crashing another one of my parties, are you?”
Rachel opened her eyes, waved the cigarette in greeting and shook her head, smiling weakly. "Not at all, boss, I’m fine," she told her, trying to ignore the way she looked in the half light of the patio.
"Slap upset you?"
Yes. "No! Why would you think that?" She expected Gill to see straight through her, but she didn't seem to notice anything at all as she reached for Rachel's cigarette. As they sat side by side, looking out into the darkness of the garden and passing the cigarette between them, Rachel was acutely aware of her. Of the brush of her fingertips, the soft huff as she exhaled, the way she seemed perfectly content to be there with her, even when the cigarette was finished.
But it was November, and the cold got to her. Rachel shivered, and it seemed to break Gill out of some kind of reverie. "God you must be freezing!" Rachel tried to protest, but Gill's hand was on her back and it drove all coherent thought from her mind. "Indoors, now." Rachel did as she was told, allowing herself to be tugged to her feet and led inside. Gill's hand stayed on her back even after the door was closed, the cigarettes put back down on the counter, the light switched on. So when she let go, Rachel ached at the loss. "Are you sure you're alright, kid?"
Rachel smiled and ran a hand through her hair. "I'm fine," she began, just as Julie appeared, distracting Gill enough to let her off the hook, producing more wine from the fridge and demanding that they find their glasses.
As Gill wandered off, and Rachel made to follow, Julie’s voice brought her up sharp. "The difference, though, between you and me, is that it happened."
Rachel blinked, repeated the sentence in her head, and could still make no sense of it. "What?"
Julie smiled and looked around conspiratorially. "You didn't think we were always just friends, did you?" she asked, incredulous, clearly laughing while keeping a straight face, much in the way that Gill did. Rachel wondered momentarily whether that was something that they used to teach in training.
"Um. Well. Yeah." Rachel's head filled with a slideshow of images of the two of them together, and she blushed fiercely. If she wanted to make a go of this sergeant thing, she really ought to get all this blushing under control. She pressed the heels of her hands into her eyes, took a deep breath, then looked up. "Well?"
Julie laughed, then, properly, amused without mocking, and Rachel felt a twinge as she realised, despite how terrified of her she had often been, what it might be like to have her for a friend. "It was when we first started knew each other, only a few months. She'd been fairly mauled by some bloke, I forget which, turned up at my desk one afternoon and begged me to go for a drink with her. It didn't last long, not once Dave turned up," she made a face of displeasure before continuing, "but those few months were wonderful. And that picture," she waited for Rachel to nod, "that was in the middle of it."
Rachel had run out of patience for riddles. “And now?” she asked, taking a large mouthful of wine and watching Julie to see whether she was telling the truth.
A brief look of pain flitted across her face. "We’ve spoken about it. She won't risk it."
"That doesn't sound like Go-" Rachel caught herself just in time, "her."
Julie shook her head and rolled her eyes. "I don't know what she sees in you. You're not nearly as clever as she makes out." The words were an admonishment, but the tone was light, encouraging, and Rachel couldn't work out what it was she had missed. "There's someone else," she said, finally.
It was like a punch in the throat. Rachel stumbled backwards, dropping Julie's hand as she grabbed her bag from a nearby chair, and fled.
“So.” Rachel exhaled, blowing smoke away from Gill before turning to her, leaning on the rail and dropping the end into the gravel beneath her.
“Is it true?”
Gill pursed her lips a little, seeming to collect herself. “Is what true? Yes I am proud of you, if that’s it.” She glanced at Rachel, but looked away again, staring at her hands, twisting her fingers together.
“You know that’s not what I meant.” Rachel scratched at the inside of her elbow, ducking her head to avoid looking at her, even though that was exactly what she wanted to do. “What Julie –”
Gill laughed softly, her head falling forward, her hair and the shadows hiding her face completely. “Of course it is. You know it is.” The silence yawned between them, until she turned and leant her back on the rail instead, looking back into the pub with a strange expression. “At some point, you'll have to learn to let Slap finish when she's trying to tell you something. Even at work, she’s terrible. And now I’m not there to translate for you, you’re really going to have to get used to it.”
Rachel swallowed, trying not to think about the syndicate without Gill in it, and frowned at her, trying to join the dots quickly enough to keep up, but coming up woefully short. Trying to buy time, she lit another cigarette. “What was she trying to tell me? Because frankly, Boss, I don’t have the first idea.”
The pause that followed was leaden. “I’m not your boss any more, Rachel.” She reached for the cigarette, inhaled, and handed it back with a wrinkle of her nose. “I don’t know how I did that all the time,” she murmured.
Another silence followed, in which Rachel managed to dust herself with ash like a teenager. “What, then?” she asked, brushing it away half-heartedly, glancing at Gill. "What was she trying to tell me?"
"Get that cigarette out of my face before you burn me." It was such an unexpected, abrupt response that Rachel could not help but laugh, and as she obeyed, her laughter was cut off by Gill's lips pressed against her own. She didn't think about it, just dropped the cigarette and curled her knuckles against Gill's jaw. Gill's fingers threaded into her hair, brushing the nape of her neck, and stayed there even as she pulled back a little, just far enough for them to be able to look at one another properly, biting her lower lip nervously. "Julie said I should tell you," she murmured, still very much close enough to kiss again, "before someone else did, it was that obvious, but I was scared. So she begged me to let her do it." She bit her lower lip, looking so nervous and unsure, clearly worried that she had done the wrong thing.
So Rachel felt like a monster as she took a deep breath and asked, “What is this?"
Gill blinked in that way that was laughing, questioning, damning, and telling off, all at once, just by blinking. "I'm not sure I understand what you're asking me."
Rachel squirmed and pulled away. "I need to know your motives here. Are you just pissed? Or having second thoughts about going? Or something?" Her voice rose and she forced herself to be quiet, to just stop and let her speak. Besides, if anyone inside heard anything like yelling, there would have to be a lot of explaining. But she needed to ask, she needed to know what had brought Gill out here and into her arms. Why now, and why ever. She needed to know that before it went any further, before she got in so deep that she would surely drown.
But Gill closed her eyes and ducked her head, resting it against Rachel’s collarbone. "What exactly did Julie say to you?" she asked in the general direction of their feet.
Rachel frowned and tried to focus when all she could feel was Gill’s breath on her skin and her hand on her waist. "That she took that picture of you upstairs," she recited, trying to make sense of it all, "when you two used to be together, but you won't get back with her because there's someone else. And then I ran away and tried to forget about it. And then you came out here and did that and frankly, this is a lot of new information to take in."
"And there's Julie telling me how obvious I've been and all along you apparently didn't have a clue." Gill was unreadable, still talking to the ground, her voice level, neutral. She seemed so small all of a sudden, smaller than Rachel had ever seen her, even when she was crying in her office, even after Helen Bartlett.
Rachel's stomach churned. "You could've been obvious as a brick through a window and I would've told myself it was wishful thinking," she admitted, wondering whether Gill, still so close to her, could hear her heart racing.
Gill's head snapped up then, her fingers closing tight around Rachel's. "So you aren't just humouring me because I’m going?” She was very close to tears, her lips tight as she tried to control herself, her voice strange.
"What the fuck made you think that?" She pulled her close, looking down at her, and remembered, as she did so, the first time that Gill had congratulated her, how she had glowed for days afterwards. How she was still floating on air after her whispered praise earlier. How this was beyond anything she could have ever expected. She leant back so that Gill looked up at her, and kissed her again, and it took everything she had to only kiss her, even with those maddening fingers curling against her waist, the other finding her free hand. Rachel shivered as her thumb ran across her knuckles and curled around her wrist. The pressure was so gentle, like a breath across her skin, but it was a hint, a promise, and it made her dizzy.