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slow and steady

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I move slow and steady
but I feel like a waterfall

*

Gill hasn't been able to sit still all night. She wanders the house aimlessly, leaving tasks half-done. Just across town, the annual police awards dinner is taking place without her. It's the first big do since her retirement.

Her body still knows the rhythms of the event: first the speeches, then the indifferent food, now the drinks. She and Julie should be standing there, watching the first poor sods get shoved onto the dance floor.

Julie is standing there. It's just Gill who isn't.

Julie asked, pointed out that she still got a plus one and Gill could come along, but Gill refused before Julie could even finish speaking. She thinks she made the right choice, no matter how much Julie'd begged. Still, the knowledge of her absence tugs through her like a thread, distorted, pulling the pattern out of warp. Instead of doing anything useful, here she is: wandering.

She opens her wardrobe door and stares at the shimmering gold of her dress. Putting it on again seemed impossible for so many reasons, but Gill wonders now how many of those were real, how many just cowardly excuses – and whether her place shouldn't still be at Julie's side.

The door rattles just as she's contemplating nipping out for a fag. She stuffs the packet back into her cardigan pocket and shuts the wardrobe on it, cursing herself yet again for the moment of weakness in which she said to Julie, "Oh yes, come over after."

What had possessed her, besides the relief she felt at escaping the evening's do without too many questions? Why had she thought she'd want company after spending the night imagining conversation upon conversation about her absence?

Again, her body betrays her; she's down the stairs and in the hall, waiting, before Julie's key is fully in the lock. The door opens – closes – and Julie comes in, magnificent in her finery.

Ah yes. Gill remembers now why she asked Julie to come by. "Hiya, slap." She grins and gives Julie a blatant once-over. The silver of her cufflinks glints, her suit retains its crisp lines even after the evening's wear, and the slight smear of the liner about her eyes only makes them look wider, deeper. Her sharp heels give her even more height; they gleam a dark burgundy, a subtle nod to the bright red ones Gill so favours. Although it's the end of the night she still carries herself with an unusually graceful posture, her normal slouch only just beginning to show again, and even the daub of mustard on her lapel doesn't detract from the overall picture.

"Cleaned up all right, didn't you," Gill says, suddenly aware of her own ratty jumper and knotted hair. She'd half-forgotten the glamour of these nights; she can almost feel the sequins of her dress against her skin, the memory of its casual power.

Julie smiles back and shrugs out of her jacket, hanging it over the banister before wandering into the lounge. She drops onto the settee with an exhausted sigh. "Damn bureaucrats," she groans as Gill joins her.

"Oh, you poor thing," Gill says acerbically. She takes Julie's hand in hers to soothe the sting of her tone, though, slides the cufflink from its holes, setting it aside and rolling the sleeve up to expose Julie's wiry forearm.

Julie's still going on by the time Gill's folded the other sleeve up; she weighs the cufflinks in her palm, staring at them. "Janet did her duty as your plus one, then?" she asks, wincing at the sharp edge still in her voice. What, now she's jealous?

Julie doesn't seem to notice, just wiggles back into the cushions, letting her legs sprawl apart and her head fall back. "Yeah, she did. Smiled her way through the whole dog and pony show like there was nowhere else she'd rather be. Said she learned all her best tricks from Parents' Evenings with the girls," she adds, blinking slyly at Gill. "How've you not picked up any of that subtlety, then?"

"I expect Janet's been to more Parents' Evenings than me." The silence stretches and Gill reaches for her drink, only to remember she hasn't one. The desire for a fag is tight at the back of her throat, but she doesn't smoke around Julie.

"Still bloody boring, anyway," Julie says. "You're well out of it, love, everybody agrees."

"Everybody?" Gill pounces on the word like it's evidence in a murder. She's vehement enough that Julie opens both eyes and sits straighter.

"Not – well, not everybody, I mean, only Pemberton asked after you, and Karen Zalinsky, of course, wanted to know how you were getting on, how you'd got out of being my plus one." Julie nudges Gill's arm. "Didn't tell them you couldn't face the thought of seeing them, don't fret."

Gill's hands clench into fists, tight at her sides. Julie's joke hits too close to home. "What did you tell them, then?"

"Well, not much, love." Julie kicks off her heels and turns sideways, facing Gill. "Said you'd not destroyed your garden yet, despite best efforts, and forces across the country were vying for your expertise but you'd made no decisions. That's all, really."

Gill sighs and slumps back into the corner of the settee. She ought to be relieved by the banality of these conversations, so different from the unrestrained mutterings she's been imagining all evening, but something still sits uneasily in the pit of her stomach.

Beside her, Julie shifts, putting distance between them even on the small settee. "I didn't – " she starts, and Gill jerks around to look at her. "If you're worried," Julie tries again, and Gill is paralyzed by the idea of admitting – even to Julie – the horror she feels, thinking of her former colleagues... what? Pitying her? Or forgetting her? She hardly knows which would be worse.

But Julie's focused on something entirely different. "Nobody asked about us," she says finally. "And I wouldn't tell them if – not without asking – "

Gill's hands go nerveless; she drops Julie's cufflinks, barely hearing the clatter. "Slap – no," she says numbly. "That's not..." But the thought of admitting her petty worries – of being judged even further – dries her throat, and Julie looks away.

"Spread they put on wasn't much to write home about either, not after that rubbish about the budget last month, so you see, you made the right choice." She fidgets, rolling her cuffs down and back up. "So if all you were wanting was a report on the proceedings, then, I'll be off."

"Don't," Gill says quickly. "Listen, do you really – "

Suddenly she can't stand it, the way Julie is only half looking at her, eyes downcast. She moves before she really thinks, climbing into Julie's lap, pinning her at hips and shoulders. Julie's hands come up to her waist as if in reflex, grounding her, steadying her, and Julie's eyes, wide and shocked, meet hers.

"Don't be daft," Gill says, punctuating her words with a sharp squeeze to Julie's shoulders. Julie's lips twitch in the start of a smile, but Gill barrels on. "If you're digging for compliments, woman, well, don't you go getting used to it. But you must know that you're – well, you're the best bloody thing that's come out of this retirement." That's a bit damning with faint praise as yet, but Gill chooses to gloss over that fact.

"Don't think I don't know I'm lucky you've stuck with me, too," she adds, aiming for light-hearted, but from the look Julie gives her she's missed.

"Then – why?" Julie blurts. She bites her lip, but doesn’t back down.

They've had this argument already, several times, circling back to Gill's refusal to explain why she won't attend the do. Gill understands – she hasn't been able to find the words to tell Julie how different retirement is from what she'd planned, how she only feels more responsible for the city's crime rate now she has no way to influence it. How can she, when she knows Julie will come over all solicitous, like before?

She hasn't said, though, how grateful she is for Julie – Julie's steadiness, her integrity, give Gill a glimpse back into the world she's left, a reason to believe it won't all go wrong, the way she'd started to fear in her last months on the job. Julie's her proof that the cogs don't grind everyone down. But she hasn't the words for that, either.

"I'm sorry, slap." It's all she can say, but she says it honestly, directly, holding Julie's gaze, and Julie sighs.

"All right, then," she says, resigned. "I'll leave off." It's an act of trust Gill's not sure she deserves. Again, she's wordless – all she can think to do then is bend and kiss Julie. If she can't speak, still she can prove just how much she means what she has said.

Julie tastes like cheap champagne, dry and slightly sour, but she strains up against Gill's hold on her, biting at Gill's lips with a gratifying fierceness. Here, they don't need words; they've learned a new language of hands and bodies, a new way to apply their years of knowledge of each other.

Gill means to soothe, to reassure, but Julie's having none of it. She pushes forward, moaning low in her throat, and Gill responds surprisingly quickly, her body alive with need. Julie's hands on her hips are suddenly the only solid points in her world, and Julie's lopsided grin leaves her desperate to be worthy of it, to erase whatever hurt she's caused.

"Bloody lucky, see? 'Course," she says against Julie's cheek, into the shell of her ear, tracing its outline with her lips, "if you need me to prove it to you..."

Julie groans; her hands flex on Gill's hips; she seems for a moment to want to protest, but Gill kisses her again, gentle, persuasive, and any argument she had is set aside.

"I was sorry," Gill says slowly, leaning more heavily on Julie's shoulders, "to have missed you all dressed to the nines tonight." She smoothes the fine fabric of Julie's shirt where her tight grip has wrinkled it. "Head and shoulders above the brass in style as well as height, hey? That's why." She bends again, whispering against Julie's lips. "That's why I wanted you here tonight."

"So you could see what you're missing?" Julie says, squirming under Gill.

"Thought I might appreciate it piece by piece." Gill slides her hands down Julie's arms, from the fine cotton of her shirt to the warmth of her bare forearms and back again until Julie is practically purring, the stress of the argument and of the annoying evening that preceded it transmuting into a new, different tension in her muscles.

"Gill," she says softly, tightening her grip, but Gill won't be distracted or dissuaded, not now. She braces herself on Julie's shoulder and leans back, into Julie's hold, far enough to allow her to start plucking open Julie's buttons one by one, till she can spread the shirt apart and run her fingers down from Julie's throat, over her breasts and belly, down to her waistband.

Julie sighs, arching up, and Gill sighs too, comforted by the familiarity of this touch and response: new as it is, her ability to reduce Julie to incoherence still fills her with surprise and delight. She pops the button on Julie's trousers, draws down the zip, and smiles helplessly at the look of desire on Julie's face. Everything she can't say crowds in on her, but she forces it from her mind.

It takes some manoeuvring, but she stops Julie's laughing mouth with a kiss and wiggles her fingers down inside Julie's knickers, and then neither of them have breath to speak.

Julie jerks under her hand and Gill gathers herself, leaning in, pressing her forehead to Julie's. "Damn it, I just..." She closes her eyes, curls her fingers deeper inside Julie's cunt. "Everything's changing, and you, you're – you're just – you're just bloody wonderful, you are." She sighs with the admission, speeds the curl and thrust of her fingers, and smiles to hear the catch in Julie's breath that's become so recognizable to her. "Don't let it go to your head, though," she adds wryly, laughing as Julie laughs, as the two of them rock together on the settee, until Julie shouts out and Gill slumps against her.

It takes a long moment for them to come back to themselves, Julie with her arms draped around Gill and Gill clinging limpet-like to Julie. Eventually, though, Julie stirs, looking down along their entwined bodies. Gill cringes, half-fearing a resurgence of their earlier row. Instead, Julie sputters indignantly. "Hell, woman, I'd hate to see what you'd do to an outfit you don't like!" She shifts gingerly; Gill leans back and stifles a chuckle.

"You enjoyed the getting of every one of those wrinkles," she says, caressing Julie's belly just to see her twitch.

"Not saying I didn't." Julie draws her back down for a thorough kiss. "You'll be explaining them to the dry cleaner, though, love, not me."

"Fair." Gill slides sideways to curl under Julie's arm. "Sorry I abandoned you to that horrid do without me," she says after a minute. It's easier, somehow, to apologize now.

"Make it up to me next time," Julie says easily.

"Thought I just had?" Gill means it as a tease, but Julie pulls away and holds her gaze.

"No, really, Gill. Don't give me any bollocks about retirees' privilege. Just come along next time, hey? Let everyone tell you how much you're missed."

Gill wrinkles her nose. "I – all right, I'll think about it," she says at last. "On one condition."

Julie knows her too well to agree straight off; she makes an interrogative noise and lifts a brow.

"You'll wear this suit again," Gill says with a smirk.

Laughing, Julie tips her head in acknowledgement. "If we want to salvage it," she says, yawning, "best get it the rest of the way off." She stands with a grunt, holding her sagging trousers up with one hand, and extends the other to Gill.

Gill takes it, lets herself be drawn off the settee and urged up the stairs. She falls asleep that night with her fingers still twined with Julie's, holding as if to a lifeline, and though she wakes the next morning with a nicotine craving buzzing under her skin, Julie's smile and her sweet sleepy kiss calm the sensation, for now.