The morgue coffee is really shitty. The morgue coffee is always really shitty.
Still, Stella accepts it graciously, and still, Reed Smith smiles (tightly) at her as the cup exchanges hands. Stella is gracious and Reed smiles, even though there’s a woman down the hall who has been beaten so badly she may never recover, may never be able to provide her story, or bear witness (and how's that for tragic?), even though Reed feels utterly unnerved from examining this living victim and even though Stella wishes they didn't have to keep meeting like this.
They’re both grateful that they’re sort-of in this together.
Stella drinks deeply, sets the shitty coffee in the cheap styrofoam cup aside. She leans forward, elbows to knees. Fingers laced, twisting slowly, anxiously.
The names of these murdered women keep running through her mind day in and day out, resolute mantras that she refuses to release. Her heart has pulled itself so taught that it cannot keep from aching.
A moment later, Stella feels Reed’s hand rest gently on her back (and only then does she remember to breathe out).
“Your daughters,” Stella breaks the silence. “What are their names?”
And after a moment more of quiet Reed tells her, and Stella knows that she will make mantras of them, too. Every hard thing she’s ever done, every hard thing she continues to do, every bit of justice she seeks, is because she wants those little girls (any girl) to be able to grow up safe.
Later, Rose will disappear, and with her, any delusion they each might have had about their accountability. There is no question, now: they’re definitely in this together.
So, it starts like this:
Months ago, the same case, a different drink, another series of conversations (neither of them trust maleness much, but they think they can trust each other).
And then tonight, when Stella saves (distracts, fools) her with a kiss like some knight in shining armor, and they both linger in those personal spaces long after the threat (annoyance) is gone. This surprises Reed even more than the kiss does, because it, at least, is real.
Stella's eyes remain, alternately, on Reed's neck, lips, eyes. The way she drapes her arm around the back of Reed's seat is vaguely possessive (something the men in her life have done over and over again in public settings since she was very young -- marking territory, theirs -- reminding her that her body might be her own for the moment, but it would never stay that way).
(Except it doesn't feel like that with Stella. Not even close.)
"So what," Stella says, fundamentally unconcerned with anything but the woman beside her, making it clear that she will not allow judgement, or being toyed with (and here Reed feels the soft, alluring pulse of safety, even as the sudden, inexplicable heat slices into her belly like a warning).
Stella does not try to touch her. Stella's body is equal parts unknown and shelter, and it is intoxicating.
Reed wonders if she's been reading this relationship wrong from the start, or if this is a brand new, but perhaps inevitable, development. They've shared quite a few secrets by now, after all.
"Come back to the room with me," Stella murmurs, much later. A one gin and tonic, one scotch rocks, and two margaritas each sort of later. In no uncertain terms, what she means is come back to my bed.
Reed stares at her, searches the woman's face as though the correct response, some explanation as to what either of them are feeling, might be written there plainly (is this real or is it an escape they’ll both regret in the morning -- both? -- and she even almost laughs). All that stares back, though, are Stella's blue eyes, softly lidded. Reed feels light-headed and overly warm. "You're serious?"
She knows it's a stupid question and Stella knows it's a stupid question too, because she doesn't answer it.
Reed thinks about dark rooms and soft white blouses, the way Stella holds herself less rigidly in Reed's presence. It is shocking, really, how suddenly, how badly, she wants this. Wants Stella. Wants release, wants something to feel.
She reaches forward, but stops when her hand is just shy of Stella’s cheek.
Later still (one check, four mood-lit hallways and an almost-ride in the lift to Stella’s hotel room sort of later), Reed will wonder what the fuck she’s doing. She’ll think of all of her exes (who were men), and her mother (who is not), and she’s never been the type to care what people think but she wonders if this caring is something that has come with age and if it is something she should start rebelling against, like she did earlier in her life (nursery and primary through med school and residencies, by necessity). And then she wonders if she’s too tired to do that, anymore, because she’s finally (painfully and painstakingly) carved herself out a life in which she is comfortable in her own skin.
But Stella. Stella looks at her with this….gaze, soft but steady, and Reed wants to know what Stella sees in her. Why Stella wants her. How long she's been wanting her. Their friendship up until this point has been comprised bizarrely of shades of grey and shades of death (with mutual understanding serving as a vague foundation), and sex and death are two sides of the same coin, Reed knows this, but--
Mostly, her head is swimming with alcohol and she’s a fucking pathologist -- she keeps a clear head for a living. Mostly, she’s embarrassed that she gave into that niggling feeling (jealousy, a treacherous voice inside her head whispers) and let herself pry into Stella Gibson's personal life, and then that she apologized for it, and mostly she’s worried about Rose, about Tom, the kids...
(Mostly, she’s scared.)
(Stella does not try to kiss her again.)
Eventually, Reed will go home alone. She will sit on the edge of the tub in her dark bathroom and she’ll have to take twenty deep breaths all in a row because she needs to be at the lab at seven, and she’ll need both her hands to have stopped shaking by then.
They see each other once more, twice more, in the following days. There is work to be done.
It's astounding, really, the amount of compartmentalization that can happen inside the human brain, the way the heart can train itself to stagger all of its simultaneous worries and desires and fears so that it can keep beating its regular beat.
When Stella asks if she's okay just before they examine the body of the woman found in the forest, Reed says yeah, she's fine, even as her mind fills with dread, even as the tension between them hums and tangles, peaks and evens. Stella is really asking two (vastly different) questions, but Reed's answer remains the same.
(There is work to be done.)
Reed doesn't know what any of this is supposed to mean, anymore. All she knows is that when the day is through, she's relieved that it wasn't Rose and she’s relieved that she can still look into Stella's tired eyes without backing down. She’s relieved that she can look down at Stella sleeping on her office couch and smile and mean it.
While Reed is locking up, Stella hovers behind her, coat pulled tightly about her small frame. Reed says, “I’ll bring the examination reports over first thing tomorrow. We’ll go over the findings together.”
“You can send them with someone else,” Stella says. “I know you’re busy.”
Reed puts her keys into her pocket, turns around to face Stella. “We’ll go over them together,” she repeats, but what she means is I’m not afraid of you.
Stella accepts this silently (but she’s relieved now, too, because Reed has consistently been the only person in Belfast who isn’t).
Stella’s cell phone rings. It’s a quarter to midnight, and she hasn't left the station yet.
“You didn't tell me that he’d been to your hotel room.”
Stella puts down the black and white glossy photograph she’d been staring at, and stares at the wall instead. “Should I have?”
“Stella,” Reed says seriously. “Are you in danger?”
Stella is silent. She taps her fingernail against the grain of the desk in front of her.
“I don’t know,” Stella relents. “He’s trying to rattle me.”
On the other end of the line, Reed breathes out audibly. “Well, I can’t imagine that anyone else has caught on. I’m certain you remain quite scary.”
For the first time in days, the corner of Stella’s mouth lifts slightly (Reed is not afraid of her).
“I’m coming over,” Reed tells her.
Stella thinks about telling her not to bother. She thinks about outright objecting. “I’m still at the station.”
“You’ll come here, then. When you’re done.” Reed proceeds to give her the address, driving instructions.
This directness is quite new (but if she’s honest, there are few people she would like to see more tonight -- up until last week she’d had exactly one friend in Belfast, and this week she’s been wondering if she even has that). “Alright,” Stella agrees.
Stella texts Reed after she pulls up beside the house. It’s in a nice part of town with a garden out front and two bikes in the driveway -- one Reed’s, one smaller and yellow with a little red bell painted like a ladybug on its handlebar.
"Where are your girls?" She asks as Reed closes the front door behind them.
"Upstairs," Reed says. Stella follows her into the kitchen, shrugging off her coat. Reed does not turn on any lights, but there are nightlights at the baseboards, moonlight through the windows. "Been asleep for hours."
Stella is glancing around her home, taking in what details she can in the semi-darkness (photos on the refrigerator; two pairs of little rain boots by the back door, one purple and one pink; and Reed herself is wearing this long-sleeved sweater that looks soft to the touch and falls carelessly off of her right shoulder).
“Wine?” Reed asks.
Stella seriously considers this, but then, “No. Thank you.”
And somehow, ironically, this small exchange sobers them both. They look at each other. Reed bites her lip. Stella’s eyes move there.
“Stella,” she begins, but she isn’t sure what she’s going to say, whether it will be something about the case or about Rose or about them or about Stella, Stella, who didn’t tell Reed that she’d been targeted by the killer himself on the very night they’d been together at the bar, and it makes Reed feel sick just thinking about what might have--
--she should have gone back to the room with Stella, she should’ve helped keep her safe, because Stella is important for so many reasons--
“Why did you tell me to come round tonight?” Stella asks softly, and Reed’s thoughts come to a halt.
Reed moves unconsciously closer to Stella around the island, splays a hand across its surface. “I…” she begins, and then stops, and lowers her head. Smiles inwardly, and Stella detects a slight hint of embarrassment. Then, Reed decides to be honest. “I wanted to see you. I wanted to...help you be okay, if you’d let me.”
“I’m fine,” Stella says, not unkindly. She isn't lying.
Still, Reed tilts her head like she’s not buying it. “But you’re still rattled. And you can't afford that right now."
Stella thinks about black hair ties around thin wrists and how many years it’s taken her to get this far. She could tell Reed about the dream journal, about how Spector couldn't possibly have known that the violation, the way it was utterly personal, triggered something so deep inside of her that in that instant she could not remember how to breathe. She could tell Reed that her worst fear right now, besides Rose being dead, is that somehow, he does know, that somehow, all of this could come crashing down around her. That it would all be her fault, in the end.
But Stella is fine. She is always, always fine. She is nothing if not capable, adaptable, and steadfast. Her resolve is stronger than her weaknesses, and it has been that way for a very, very long time. They are so close to putting the bastard behind bars and she is very, very good at her job. ”I am fine,” she repeats.
Reed stares at her, surveying. “Okay,” she says simply. And then, “Here.” She reaches out a hand to Stella’s arm, and a moment later Stella realizes that she’s trying to take the coat draped around it.
Reed is over at the row of hangers beside the back door when Stella speaks again into the silence. “There’s an officer outside,” she says. “They've got me on twenty-four-hour watch. Just in case.”
Reed nods. “I know.”
“Does that not bother you?”
“Why would it?”
Stella simultaneously cannot stand and thrives in this sort of coy, beating-around-the-bush type manner. “Because,” she says slowly, and her voice becomes lower and more matter-of-fact as she takes her hands from her pockets, “that officer knows that I've come here, in the middle of the night, to Professor Reed Smith's house, for absolutely no reason other than the one I’m sure he suspects should be the obvious, the reason anybody shows up at anybody’s house -- or hotel room -- in the middle of the night. Whether they are married or not.”
Reed smiles, but Stella thinks she can see that vaguely embarrassed look again before she glances away.
“You’re not worried about what this looks like?” Stella's voice is very quiet, very contained. The tone is familiar to Reed, the “again” perfectly implied.
Reed’s smile thins into something more serious, and then, after what seems like an eternity, she finally looks back at Stella. “So what,” she whispers, and she does not break eye contact this time.
(The tension between them begins to hum and tangle once more.)
So Stella waits. She waits, and then she steps forward, one slow, testing step, until she’s close enough that she can see the little pinpricks of reflected moonlight in Reed's dark eyes.
Stella tilts her head, watches Reed's throat as she swallows, watches her mouth as it parts nervously. Reed breathes in, hesitantly and shallowly, like she's trying not to spook out of her own skin.
Stella finds her absolutely mesmerizing.
And then Reed speaks, with surprisingly little difficulty. "I thought maybe if I could just...touch you..." But then she trails off, feeling silly and uncertain (her heartbeat feels thunderous inside her body).
Stella tries not to let her feel silly and uncertain for an uncommonly cruel amount of time. She waits a few beats, and then she leans forward infinitesimally. Offers up her palms. "By all means, please do," she says.
Reed knows that there is still safety in the soft lines of Stella’s hands, but there’s still a warning, too, in every enticing line of her body, in every halt and dip of her voice. The quirk of Stella’s mouth a moment later makes Reed feel a little feral, a little frustrated, like she’s trying to call Reed’s obvious bluff. It makes Reed want to swallow Stella whole.
It is not a bluff. Not this time.
(And that’s it, isn’t it -- there is something about Stella that brings out in Reed both the animal and the nurturer, and that is a fact that is endlessly complicated, endlessly difficult, endlessly foreign and endlessly terrifying to her because it’s not like she and Stella Gibson are old, old friends. Soon they will have a history, but they do not have one to speak of right now.)
Stella’s palms remain open. They hover close, but not close enough. She will not reach any further, and Reed knows this, so she accepts the challenge and reaches for Stella herself. She lets her hands brush the crooks of Stella’s bare arms, lets them slide down, down, until their palms touch, until fingers are brushing wrists.
Stella looks at her, smiles in the darkness, and a spark inside of Reed’s body flares dangerously. She curls her hands around Stella’s waist and pushes her back into the counter’s ledge. Her thumbs start trailing tentatively along the peaks of bone at Stella’s hips, shifting fabric until slowly, it gives way to skin.
Stella's eyes seem to darken. They flutter shut. She breathes out, one long breath from her nose, and Reed can feel all of it.
Reed can't be sure that her own hands aren't shaking again when she slides them up the length of Stella's body and into her hair, or when she brings Stella's ear towards her lips. "This isn't because I feel guilty," she whispers.
"I know," Stella murmurs back.
"This isn't because I don't know what else to offer you," she continues.
Stella’s lips curve up once more. "I understand," she says, and Reed's hands are still cradling her head, holding her close.
Reed traces her lips along Stella's cheek now, kisses the corner of her mouth, and then, eventually, the center. Stella responds with her whole body, melting forward (she has wanted, needed, this for longer than she is willing to admit).
It's hard for Reed to remember that she doesn't actually know what she's doing, because she knows where her hands want to be, where her lips want to be, and the rest seems to follow.
Reed's fingers are twisting up beneath Stella's bra now, her body pressing hard against Stella's at the counter's ledge.
"Your daughters..." Stella whispers distractedly, and it comes out half wrapped in a moan.
Whether by accident or design, Reed brushes her fingertips across a very sensitive nipple as she withdraws her hand, before she pushes it back through the mess of blonde hair again. She makes a fist. Tenses. Releases. The tugging sensation makes Stella hiss. "Yeah," Reed breathes out. Rests her forehead against Stella's. "Yeah. Okay. Bedroom."
Upstairs, the door shuts softly. Stella waits until Reed has peeled her ear from the door, listening for tell-tale signs of her daughters stirring, before she kisses her up against it.
It is sort of surreal, Reed thinks. She hasn't had someone here since--hasn't wanted someone here since--
--and it's not the best timing, and it's certainly not very appropriate, but--
“Speak to me,” Stella whispers against Reed’s neck. "Tell me what you want."
Reed huffs out a low breath. "You," she says, and the honesty building here between them, slowly, brick by brick, is breathtaking.
Stella pushes Reed's sweater further down her shoulder, touches the skin there. "Where?"
"Anywhere," Reed says. "Everywhere."
Stella does not need to be told twice (she has wanted, needed, this for longer than she's willing to admit). She tugs Reed over to the bed, pushes her gently into the mattress and says, "Remove your clothes," but her voice is soft, and lacks any real command.
Reed keeps her eyes on Stella's while she sits up, reaches for the hem of her sweater, and pulls it over her head. Her hair falls dark and messy around her shoulders and face, and the way Stella is looking at her now makes her feel like she's teetering on the edge of complete madness.
Stella pulls Reed closer to the edge of the bed by her hips, and she's fumbling with the zipper of Reed's trousers when Reed pushes her hands away. "Not yet," she says. "Let me see you."
Undressing Stella is an exercise in patience. Uncovering her skin like this (slowly, letting her mouth follow) is the most intimate thing Reed has done in a such a long time that it aches, just a little bit. Just in the center of her chest.
She thinks that Stella probably hasn't been quite this intimate in a long time, too, because there is a near-hesitancy and a subsequent mindlessness that accompanies her every movement, her every response.
(What Reed doesn't know is that, while it may be partially true that this particular level of intimacy, hunger, is something that Stella hasn't felt in a while, her movements and responses in this moment are for Reed and only for Reed.)
Stella is whispering "fuck, fuck" over and over and over again, and when Reed smiles and moves her hands and mouth lower still on Stella's body, the obscenities all tumble over one another in their rush to leave Stella's lips. Stella's hands guide and coax, her fingers pulling, twisting in Reed's hair.
Everything is excruciating and exquisite, everything is sweat and salt and skin (and still, the both of them hold in their gasps like holding breaths underwater). Every so often though, their laughter chimes a string of soft bells between them, reverberates back and forth between their bodies gently, all at the beautiful absurdity of the night.
When Stella can't quite stand it anymore, she pulls away and makes quick work of removing the rest of Reed's clothes. She pushes Reed back into the mattress and kneels on the floor between her legs, uses her mouth and hands until Reed comes once, twice; until Stella's fingers start to tremble and Reed pulls her back up onto the bed once more.
"Hey," Reed says later, touching Stella's shoulder gently. "You'll stay tonight, yeah?"
Stella has her back to Reed on the mattress. Usually, this is the part where her mind goes blank and there's a small window wherein she can fall briefly into a dreamless sleep, if she lets herself. "If you'd like," she says.
(Reed thinks that she asked because she wants Stella to be safe, but she also thinks that that's not the only reason she asked.)
"Stella," she hears Reed say somewhere far, far off. "Look at me."
Stella turns. Blinks. Reed's eyes come into clearer focus and Stella looks into them, grasps onto the fact of holding the eye contact like she’d grasp at a wall after a dizzy spell -- which is a little what tonight has felt like, really (Stella is used to nights like this, but Reed is different, this case is different, Belfast is different).
Reed does not blink when she says, "You're safe here. We're going to figure all of this out."
Stella lets out the breath she'd been holding. "Mm," she murmurs. Closes her eyes, because Reed has begun to play the backs of her fingers against Stella's cheek. She feels the tightness at her chest begin to ease (this, too, is different).
"We'll have breakfast in the morning and then we'll go back to work. Tonight doesn't have to be something that we talk about."
And for once, Stella speaks before she thinks. "I don't...think that I want that."
“Well,” Reed says evenly. “We’ll talk about that too, then.”
They settle into silence, and Stella begins to drift off. Sleep is the same endless black ocean of flickering dreams it usually is, but Reed keeps her warm hand on Stella’s arm and this is more of an anchor than Stella has had in years, more of an anchor than she would have believed she wanted or needed.
It’s the wee hours of the morning again when Stella’s cell phone chimes.
“I am so fucking proud of you,” Reed’s voice says into her ear.
Stella sets down her pen, pushes her notepad away.
“They said you’d made an arrest,” Reed clarifies.
“Tom Anderson did,” Stella says, “and it’s going to be a long and difficult process.”
“I’m still proud,” Reed tells her. “You’ve done an incredible job.”
Stella stares off into the nearest corner for a few long, long moments. “Have dinner with me tomorrow.”
A beat passes, and then Reed says, “Alright.”
“Or we could do take-out,” Stella suggests. “Night in.”
“Alright,” Reed says again, but Stella can feel her smile through the line like a tangible thing. “But only if you promise to relax. Just for an hour. Two hours at most. Promise. I’ll even give you a ride back to the station afterward.”
Stella props an elbow onto the desk, brings her forehead to rest against her hand. Lets some of the weight and tension in her neck trickle back down her spine while she listens to Reed’s voice. “Sounds lovely,” she murmurs. When she closes her eyes and imagines Reed wherever she is right now, at home next to the kitchen sink or at work making tea or one leg over her motorbike and helmet in hand, it’s easier for Stella to breathe. It’s easier to remember, in the midst of this awful game of cat and mouse, why she does this work in first place.
“Tell the girls I say hello,” Stella says.
“I will,” Reed says. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Stella.”
Stella can hear the motorbike start up on the other end of the line and corner of her mouth twists up, too. “See you tomorrow.”