Stella stands on the roof of the stationhouse, elbows on the ledge, trying to contemplate nothing. Sometimes, if she’s up here where there are no walls holding her in and no ceiling holding her down, something like a meditation alights upon her. But not tonight. No, tonight she’s restless and frustrated but otherwise feels numb. As though investigator-Stella is weathering the trauma appropriately, but person-Stella can’t begin to process how or what she feels. She remembers her brain ticking off emergency protocol. She recalls the scene clearly. She can see the events unfolding.
What she can’t stop seeing is Spector’s blood—all over her hands and clothes, saturating her field of vision—or his expression as he lay dying in her arms. Was he smiling? Can’t stop seeing the look on Tom’s face. Was it accusatory? Can’t stop worrying about Dani, who fell apart in the women’s room after giving her statement. Can’t stop thinking of Rose in that trunk, left to carve words into her own skin and die. Can’t stop kicking herself for letting Spector get to her. At what point, precisely, did he infiltrate? And who the fuck is leaking sensitive information to the press?
If she holds onto the anger, if she stays focused on these questions, if she maintains this dispassionate distance, Stella might make it through the night without breaking. Tomorrow is its own thing, and she’ll deal with that then. Autopilot. Muscle memory. Stubborn will.
She hears a door open and shut behind her but doesn’t turn around.
“Eastwood told me I might find you here.” Stella glances at Reed, who leans forward and matches her stance, elbows on the ledge, eyes cast indiscriminately out over the city. “You haven't been answering your phone.”
“I left it inside.” Stella focuses, unfocuses, and refocuses her eyes on the distant line that splits earth from sky.
“How long have you been up here?” There is concern in Reed’s voice, and even though it irritates Stella initially, the next thing she feels is relief.
She sighs. “I don’t know.”
“McNally said she hasn’t seen you in a couple hours.”
“I’m sorry if I’ve worried you.” She means it, but her tone is flat.
They’d spoken twice in the late morning and kept it all business, knowing they needed to do their jobs. But details found their way to Reed throughout the day, and she has been worrying. She learned that Stella witnessed James Tyler shoot Spector and DS Anderson, that she saw PC Ferrington shoot Tyler, and that she held Spector in her arms as he was bleeding out from two gunshot wounds. She heard that Stella was covered in his blood when the medics took him from her. All this after finding Rose terrifyingly close to death. Someone said that Burns tried to take a statement from Stella, but she openly refused to talk to him and requested Eastwood instead. And apparently, Matt sat patiently with a shaken-but-somehow-functioning Stella in her office for well over an hour.
All things considered, even if some details are wrong or embellished, Reed decides her concern is reasonable.
“Stella.” Reed pauses until she reluctantly returns eye contact. “Are you okay?” She goes to touch her arm, but Stella pulls away. Both movements are almost imperceptible.
“No,” she says quietly. “I will be, but I’m not.”
“Can I stay with you tonight? Keep you company?” Stella’s brows rise slightly as if turning to innuendo, but she doesn’t have the energy, and Reed keeps going. “We’ll get take-out and a bottle of top shelf whiskey. You don’t have to talk about today—or anything else—if you don’t want to. But you shouldn’t be alone.”
“Why?” Stella is curious, but there’s a tinge of self-deprecation, a hint of suspicion.
“You said yourself you’re not okay. I want to take care of you.”
“But why? Did everyone decide I need a babysitter and you drew the short straw?” She’s annoyed, but still, it comes out harsher than she intends.
“What? No.” Reed sighs, runs a hand through her hair, and pushes back from the ledge. She turns so that her body fully faces Stella.
“I’m sorry,” Stella says, and she seems a little embarrassed.
“It’s okay. I think we’re both on our final nerve.” Stella lets out an ironic laugh, and Reed persists. “You still have his blood in your hair.” She reaches out and runs her fingers over a dulled streak of reddish brown. Her hand drops to grasp one of Stella’s. “Just because your wounds aren’t so obvious as to gush blood doesn’t mean they don’t need tending. I see them.”
Stella’s defenses weaken more than she’d ever admit or let show. Her grip on Reed’s hand tightens, but still she hesitates to speak.
Reed senses that her hesitation is a little different now, though, and it occurs to her that if Stella were going to say no and shut her out, she probably would’ve done it already.
“Do you trust me?” Reed’s thumb brushes over the inside of Stella’s wrist.
Stella looks at Reed with eyes almost confused, bewildered by pain and circumstance, yet they offer a silent reply: instinctively. It’s the truth, and it’s terrifying.
“Okay,” Reed says softly, acquiescing to something unsaid, something unknown. Her voice takes on a touch of authority. “I’m sitting watch tonight.”
“Okay. Yeah.” It comes out shaky, equal parts fear and relief.
Reed’s heart melts, and she pulls Stella into an embrace. They stand there for a while, holding one another above Belfast. The din of the city fades into a quiet hum, the wind whips blonde and black, and logic has no place here. Eventually, Reed pulls back a little and whispers a few words to Stella. She nods, and the two women walk back into the stationhouse feeling something between them has shifted.
* * *
As soon as they’re out of the stationhouse, Reed switches into mum mode. Stella realizes almost immediately that allowing her to take the lead is in her own best interests. So she doesn’t argue when Reed drops her at the Merchant and tells her to relax in a bath, “or just do whatever feels good,” while she picks up their provisions.
When she enters her room, Stella almost expects it to have changed in some fundamental way. Her conversation with Tom over coffee feels a lifetime ago. Now he’s just another one of her victims, or at least that’s how he probably sees it. To Stella, he’s another misreading, more evidence that she’s off her game. She let him stay the night, and he promptly insulted her over breakfast with that ‘you want to fuck Spector’ bullshit then, within an hour, questioned her authority and expertise as SIO. She should know better. He should know better. She does know better. It’s still a sad reconfirmation.
Stella sighs, drops her bag on the chair, kicks off her shoes, and walks into the bathroom. The tub is deep and spacious, and Reed’s suggestion of a bath sounds perfect. She turns on the faucet, lets the water run until it’s nearly scalding, and puts the stopper in. There’s a full-length mirror on the back of the door, and Stella studies herself in it as she undresses. The streak of blood in her hair. The lines etched in her face. The circles under her eyes. The pallor of her skin. It’s not that she feels old; it’s that she feels diminished. Fuck Paul Spector.
She tests the water, adjusts, and steps in. She lowers her body in and leans back slowly, giving her skin enough time to acclimate to the temperature. Limbs outstretched, she closes her eyes. Willing her muscles to relax, she’s surprised at how sore and achy she is, and surprised still that she hadn’t registered it sooner.
Her mind wanders and she finds herself debating over whether or not she should tell Reed about Tom Anderson. Part of her thinks yes; part of her thinks no; part of her thinks it’s too soon to know. She needs more data. Reed frustrates the investigator in Stella, which can’t quite get a handle on what it is she wants. Stella knows she’s not the only one who feels the energy between them. She doesn’t doubt that part of Reed wanted to sleep with her the other night, but that’s irrelevant because she didn't. She left. Stella is trying to respect that boundary.
But Reed frustrates more than the investigator in her, and it isn’t entirely unpleasant. It’s the kind of frustration that comes with a slow appraisal, when the space between a desire expressed and its fulfillment stretches longer than a few hours and forms a nonlinear path. It’s a rare kind of frustration that can make Stella ache between her legs just thinking of Reed’s eyes, remembering the soft fullness of her lips, at the idea of kissing her again.
Earlier, on the roof, Reed was kind and patient but also firm. She came up there with a purpose, Stella realizes. There was such tenderness when she touched her hair, when she took her hand, when she held her and promised her it wouldn’t always feel this way.
As Stella registers that there’s still blood staining her hair, a flashback to the shooting shakes loose her thoughts of Reed. Her heart rate increases. The memory tries to pull her in its direction, but she doesn’t want to go there now. A series of slow controlled breaths quells the anxiety that threatens the bathroom’s quiet calm. She slips down, submerging her head and hair under the water, and the dulling of external noise makes her feel instantly safer. Beneath the surface, she feels both free and held, cut off from the expectations of the outside world yet tethered to it still. She comes up for air, grabs the shampoo, and washes her hair vigorously. Twice.
* * *
When Reed returns with their dinner, she finds Stella sprawled on her back on the bed wearing pajama pants, a tank top, and her unbelted robe. Her hair is still damp.
“You’re back,” Stella states, propping herself up on her elbows. She rises and wraps the robe around her body. There’s something about pulling the sash snugly around her waist, a familiarity in the action, which helps her relax.
“I am, and I come bearing sustenance.” Reed sets a few shopping bags on the table, takes off her jacket, and starts pulling items out. Stella joins her at the table. “I ordered from that Thai place I was telling you about.”
“It smells delicious.” Stella smiles. There’s a knock. “I called the kitchen and asked them to bring up place settings and ice,” she explains as she walks away.
“Of course you did.” Reed smiles and finishes unpacking the food while Stella transacts with the server at the door.
“Do you want to borrow something to change into?” Stella asks as she sets down the newly acquired items. She wastes no time in taking the lid off the ice bucket and plunking some cubes into two glasses.
“I’d love that, thanks,” Reed replies with grateful eyes.
“In the closet, second drawer; take whatever you like.” She reaches for the whiskey and pours two generous doubles. “I’ll get us set up properly while you change.”
“I’m supposed to be taking care of you,” Reed reminds her as she accepts the drink from Stella.
“I’m very well taken care of.” She gestures first to her robe then to the spread of food and drink. “You, however,” Stella’s voice lowers just a little, and one of her hands rises to touch the collar of Reed’s shirt, “are still wearing what you wore to work. You should be comfortable, too.”
The words themselves aren’t anything special, but the way her mouth shapes them and the sincerity in her expression bring a sting of moisture to Reed’s eyes. She knows plenty of people don’t like Stella Gibson, and even those who do like her tend to find her intimidating. But as Reed looks at her right now, she’s convinced those people can’t know the first thing about this woman. Reed feels lucky to know her, and she finds the urge to lean in and kiss her nearly impossible to resist.
Instead, she rasps, “You make a pretty strong case,” before tearing her gaze from tempting lips and turning toward the closet.
After Stella dishes out their food and Reed changes into leggings and a soft pullover, they sit on the sofa with their plates in their laps. Reed watches Stella take a couple good-sized bites and smiles, the caretaker in her satisfied, before picking up her own fork and digging in. They eat in companionable silence, exchanging few words that aren’t praise for the meal. Both women are ravenous, and both women appreciate the other’s appetite. It feels good to eat, to satisfy a basic need without thinking about what comes next.
When she’s done, Stella sits back, thoughtful, sips at her drink, and looks at Reed.
“What?” Reed asks. “Do I have food on my face?”
“No.” She smiles faintly. Reed just looks at her and waits for her to talk. Silence doesn’t scare her, a rare trait that Stella appreciates anew tonight. She takes another pull from her drink and looks away. “I keep replaying the scene this morning in my head, trying to figure it out. I keep expecting it to hit me, but I’m just sort of numb.” She pauses; her tone shifts. “Spector was smiling at me. Even as he was dying, he took pleasure from my pain. I hate him. I really do. Yet I see the child in him, the human. I didn’t want him to die, and I think I feel a little guilty about it.”
“Well, I wanted him to die, and I think I feel a little guilty about it.” Stella returns Reed’s gaze. They share an ironic smile.
“He still might,” she points out. “A lot of people would be happy if he did.”
“I wouldn’t delight in his death. The part of me that wanted him to die is the part of me that wants to hurt him, and badly, for what he’s done to Rose, to you... For everything he’s done.” There is a ferocity in Reed’s eyes that Stella’s not seen before. “It’s the mama bear in me,” she explains and sips her drink.
“I see,” Stella says. One corner of her mouth quirks up, and she adds, “It’s a good look on you.” Reed smiles, and they maintain eye contact for a few moments too long. Their smiles fade into a lingering silence. It’s not uncomfortable, but it’s not as easy as those they usually share.
After a while, Reed speaks: “Can I ask you something?” Stella nods, so she continues, “Why did you kiss me the other night?”
“I thought my intentions were fairly clear.” Her tone gives nothing away.
“I’d just like you to tell me.” Reed’s voice is gentle but firm. “Please.”
Stella inhales deeply as the effect of Reed’s request seeps through her. Consciously, she’s aware of anxiety and arousal. Meanwhile, her subconscious gains a deep down, almost ancient knowledge that there are few things she wouldn’t do for this woman if she only said “please.”
“On one level,” she begins, selecting her words with care, “because you looked uncomfortable with the man talking to you, and kissing you seemed a fun way to get rid of him.” She pauses, and her brow furrows a little. “And if I’m honest, I felt possessive. I didn’t like seeing a strange man talking to you.”
“A strange man?” Reed asks, echoing their conversation at the Kay scene.
“Any man.” Stella echoes that same conversation. Two words take on new meaning, the subversion thickening the space between them. It fills the air, their lungs and chests, with its spreading heat.
“If I’m honest, I like that you felt possessive,” Reed admits quietly, and Stella’s cheeks wear the slightest blush.
“Why did you leave?” Stella’s eyes are locked into Reed’s. Her gaze is intense, but her tone is gentle with honesty.
“I got nervous. Worried that it’d end up in the paper somehow.” She puts her drink on the coffee table and reaches for Stella’s hand. “I wanted to stay.” Stella hopes the unexpected jolt of vulnerability she feels isn’t obvious. “Were you angry?”
“No, not angry.” Stella finishes her whiskey and puts the glass on the table. Her fingers intertwine with Reed’s. “Disappointed. Then worried I’d crossed a line.” She glances at their hands before meeting Reed’s eyes. Stella’s sex throbs with desire.
“Don’t forget—before I ran away, I said yes.” Reed bites her lower lip and looks at Stella’s mouth.
“I’m going to kiss you again,” Stella warns, her eyes smoking over. “You probably still have time to run away.”
It’s the teasing smirk that makes Reed pounce first; she closes the short distance between their lips with conviction. Reed is firm, but her lips are soft, and god, do they both want this. She moves her body into Stella’s, making her lean back against the arm of the sofa, and their kiss deepens. Reed’s tongue searches out the warmth of Stella’s mouth, teasing at her lips to open. Both women moan when their tongues meet, and one of Stella’s hands finds a strip of bare skin at Reed’s lower back. Her fingertips explore tentatively as Reed’s dance along her jaw and down her neck.
Their kissing is passionate but not frenzied. It is careful and lusty, all tiny sighs and soft murmurs. Neither woman knows what this is. Neither one is in a position to make any declarations. But neither can they deny that the solace they find in one another is singular in both their lives.
When Reed breaks away, her breathing heavy, she rests her forehead against Stella’s.
Stella exhales a long shaky breath. “Wow.”
“Yeah,” Reed agrees. There’s a thick silence.
They spend a few more moments like this then Reed brushes Stella’s forehead with her lips and moves back to her side of the sofa. Stella sits up slowly. Running a hand through her hair, she gives Reed a look that falls somewhere between a warning and a challenge. Then she grabs her empty glass, stands up, and walks over to the table where the bottle of whiskey waits.
Reed watches as she walks past, paying special attention to her hips and ass. Arousal deepens in her belly and wetness gathers between her legs. Before Stella kissed her at Bert’s, Reed had been able to deny that the je ne sais quoi she felt around her was sexual in nature. In the few days since, however, she’s noted ample physical evidence to the contrary. She knows she should care more that she’s married, but when she’s with Stella, it feels inevitable. Like they’re already set on a course for something; the rest is just details.
“You’re lucky I’m so exhausted,” Stella says as she pours her drink.
“Oh, I don’t know that I’d use the word ‘lucky,’” Reed replies.
Stella smiles to herself then brings her drink and the bottle back to the sofa. “So tell me,” she begins as she makes herself comfortable, “is kissing a thing we do now?” The question is blunt but her eyes betray vulnerability.
“Do you want it to be?”
“Don’t answer with a question.” It rides the line between demand and plea.
“I like kissing you. I want to keep doing it.” Reed pauses. “Do you?”
“Yes,” Stella says and notices relief on Reed’s face. “But it makes me anxious.” She takes a healthy swig of whiskey to reward herself.
“You’re the only thing that makes Belfast bearable,” she explains.
“I’m not going anywhere.”
Stella doesn’t say anything, and Reed reminds herself that neither of them is the type of woman to lie to themselves or one another. Nevertheless, the urge to make promises grows stronger in the absence of a response, so Reed forces a distraction and stands.
“Has it occurred to you,” she says, sipping her drink and walking toward the window, “that you make things bearable for me? That I might not want to lose you?”
When Stella doesn’t answer, Reed turns her upper body to glance at her. Her brow is slightly furrowed, her eyes cast down into the amber liquid she swirls aimlessly in her glass.
“I didn’t think so,” Reed says softly. She sets her glass on the table and walks to her purse.
“What are you doing?” Stella asks abruptly, sitting up straight.
Reed pulls a small box of truffles from her purse. “I remembered the chocolate.”
She sighs, relaxing back into the sofa. Her relief isn’t lost on Reed.
“I’m sorry; I didn’t realize how that would look.” Reed sits on the sofa, opens the box, and displays it to Stella. “Peace offering.” They smirk at one another. “Aside from dark chocolate, I wasn’t sure what you like,” Reed says and explains what each has inside.
“Are any of them your favorite?” Stella asks, looking up into her eyes.
“I can never choose a single favorite, but this one,” she points, “with the cinnamon and chili pepper, is what I’ve been into lately.”
Stella selects that truffle and bites into it. She lets the chocolate melt in her mouth, savoring its richness, its hints of heat, and offers to feed Reed the other half. Reed smiles, opens her mouth, and accepts.
Brushing her thumb across full lips, Stella licks her own as the last of the truffle melts away on her tongue. She leans in and kisses Reed, who tastes of chocolate and whiskey and spice. As Stella hums her pleasure, Reed flicks her tongue across Stella’s bottom lip. Stella feels it between her legs and moans, which Reed feels between her legs; she moves into Stella. They share a few slow open-mouthed kisses before Reed pulls away.
“I’m not going anywhere,” she whispers and tucks fallen strands of blonde behind Stella’s ear.
Stella nods and pulls her in for another kiss.
* * *
A little while later, after more kissing and talking and drinking, Reed stands with the intention of going to the bathroom but stumbles and falls back onto the sofa, and they realize just how much they’ve had to drink. They look at each other, their expressions briefly serious before Reed cracks a nervous smile and they both start laughing. Reed makes a second attempt, and this time she succeeds in keeping her balance all the way into the bathroom. When she returns, just a minute or two later, she finds Stella curled up on the sofa with her eyes closed.
“You awake?” she asks, gently sitting down and rubbing a hand over her thigh.
“Hovering around ‘about to pass out,’ but I’m awake.” Stella’s eyes open and she sits up slowly. “Let’s go to bed.”
They are both sleep-deprived and drunk, but Reed tries to help Stella stand up anyway. It doesn’t work out very well, because somehow the sash of her robe ends up beneath one of Reed’s feet, but they can’t care enough to figure out why they’re having such difficulty. The delirium kicks in. They’re already trying not to laugh when Stella bumps into the closet door as she stumbles toward the bathroom. There are expletives and giggles, and when Reed notices the way Stella’s hair is sticking up in back, she practically cackles in delight. Reed’s laugh fully cracks Stella, who will later deny that she snorts amongst her laughter, and both women struggle to regain control. They laugh sporadically throughout their before-bed tasks, and they both feel grateful—even if the whiskey has a lot to do with it. Stella thinks Reed has a lot to do with it, too, and blood rises in her cheeks.
When Reed brushes past her as she exits the bathroom, Stella reaches out for her wrist and latches onto it gently. She pulls Reed toward her and slides her other arm around her waist. They smile, taking a few moments just to look at each other, and then their mouths inch closer. Their lips meet, and they kiss slowly, sweetly. But then Reed’s hand slips under Stella’s tank top and glides up her back. Stella’s body responds of its own accord, opening her mouth and deepening the kiss. From here, it escalates, and soon they’re making out like high school kids, with Stella holding Reed up against the wall next to the bathroom door.
Somehow, after some minutes, Stella tears herself away. “We’ll share the bed, right?” she asks, and even though she’s breathless, Reed can tell it’s not lust that motivates her question.
“If you’ll have me,” Reed answers.
Stella kisses her lightly and whispers, “Yes.” Weightiness settles in the space surrounding them, and they reluctantly end their embrace.
As Stella closes the drapes and turns down the bed, Reed fills two large glasses with water—because they drank a lot and she’s not getting any younger. The impending hangover promises to be a rough one. As she places a glass on each bedside table, she wonders at how being here with Stella can be so comfortable even as it’s so fraught. She hits the lights and both women fall into the king-sized bed with sighs. The combination of darkness, drowsiness, and drink pulls down whatever little disguise they might still be wearing.
“Can I hold you?” Reed asks quietly, and for a moment, on the inside, she admits to herself that she could fall for Stella Gibson. She doesn’t dwell but just allows herself to feel it—feel the little rush of possibility and, for a smattering of seconds, feel the good of it.
“Really?” She sounds so raw in the dark, so small and fragile.
Stella nestles up to Reed and slides her arm across Reed’s belly, under her shirt.
“Mmm,” Reed murmurs sleepily, “I like it when you touch me.”
“Does it scare you?” Stella relaxes against her and breathes in her scent.
“What scares me is how much I like it.”
“Hmmm,” Stella murmurs. “Or maybe the particular way I like it,” she ruminates, words a little slurred.
“That too,” Reed agrees.
It takes them both some moments to realize what they’ve just confessed, and they each tense briefly when they do. But, whether because they’re too drunk or too exhausted, their bodies relax back into one another with ease. Stella tilts her head up to look at Reed, and Reed responds by tilting hers down. She scoots up, kisses Reed lightly, and then turns on her side, reaching back for Reed to follow. Reed rolls over to spoon her with a smile dancing on her lips.
“I probably won’t be able to fall asleep like this,” Stella whispers, “but I like it.”
“Me too.” She presses a kiss into Stella’s hair. “And it’s okay. Just relax, and shove me away if you need space.”
Stella hums in agreement, and it sounds to Reed like she’s already on the verge. In very little time, her breathing evens, and when Reed is convinced she’s actually asleep, she lets herself succumb as well.
Tomorrow is its own thing, and they’ll deal with that then.