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In the Forest of This Heart

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Reed sleeps in the car. She had been called into work late, the previous night, and Stella doesn’t want to disturb her, so she doesn’t turn on the radio, and drives as smoothly as she can, minding the pedal.

Jas and Libby, in the back, sing a song they learned at school.

Another fifty kilometres, and they leave the city behind them.

*******************

“I’ve been advised that another pathologist will be taking over for me,” Reed says at the hospital, when they are sharing Styrofoam cups of tea on plastic chairs, again. This is where they had their first proper conversation, and it seems so very far away right now. “To examine Rose. They think I’m too close now, because of her.”

Stella is both surprised and unsurprised. “Advised by whom?”

“Burns.” Reed looks up from her cup.

Stella rolls her eyes. She is suddenly very unremorseful about the bloody nose he suffered at her hand, though she knows he is not entirely wrong.

“It’s okay,” Reed says, a light palm on Stella’s knee that makes her turn her head. Their eyes meet. “It’s better this way, I think. I need to be her friend, not her doctor.”

Stella leans back, nods.

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry,” Stella says, more tired suddenly than she thought. “I’m glad we found her alive.”

“God.” Reed cradles her cup in both hands again. “Me too. Tom looks like he hasn’t slept in a week.”

“I imagine he probably hasn’t… not really.”

“Hmm.”

“If he has any questions that you can’t answer now, please let me know. I’ll make sure he is informed.”

“Thank you.”

Stella looks at Reed again. “Your work in this investigation has been invaluable, I hope you know this.”

Reed’s small, tired smile appears and disappears.

*******************

“We should have gotten you some sunscreen,” Reed says, her voice very close at her left.

Stella’s right arm is folded under her head, a blanket cushions the soft grass beneath her. “Hmm?”

“You’ll burn. Your skin is so fair.”

The sky is a cartoonish blue, with cumulonimbus clouds assembled and floating. Eventually they will shed their rain, but not here, not right now. Libby and Jas, with freshly picked flowers in their hair, shriek the way children who have been sat for several hours in a car do, as they run and play.

Two hundred kilometres of road are written on the tyres of Stella’s car, more yet ahead. This patch of grass on an English lakeside, where no one has passed in an hour, this is the sort of liminal space they exist best in. She turns her head to see Reed, her position mirrored on the blanket beside her. “Don’t worry. I could use a bit of colour.”

Reed rises to lean on an elbow, lean over Stella. “I always wanted freckles when I was little.”

Stella smiles with just one corner of her mouth. “I always hated mine.”

“I like them.”

A beat passes and Stella watches Reed’s pupils very closely. “Then I like them too.”

Reed leans closer and kisses Stella lightly, as one of the girls erupts in childish giggles. Stella smiles against Reed’s lips, closes her eyes but can still see the sun.

*******************

Rose looks small, pale, shocked and barely present.

Stella’s heart breaks again and she doesn’t know how many pieces are missing now. One for Fiona Gallagher, one for Alice Monroe, for Sarah Kay, for Annie and her brother. And now, for Rose. One for sorrow, she thinks. What does the rest of the rhyme say - six for gold?

“He’s been caught?” she asks, her voice rough and quiet from disuse.

“Yes,” Stella confirms. “I can’t divulge any more details, but I can assure you this is a certainty.”

“Good,” Tom says, his face hard and his eyes rimmed pink. At Rose’s side, he holds her limp hand. “Let him rot in hell behind bars now.”

Rose closes her eyes, then opens them again, as if too weak to even bear this anger.

Across from her, Stella meets Reed’s eyes.

She’s on the other side now, with the family, not part of Stella’s little misfit team that she has patched together; it feels both right and wrong. Reed tightens her lips in what Stella recognises as encouragement, reassurance, solidarity, and she returns it in kind.

“We’ll keep you informed of the details,” she says. “Please take care of yourselves for now.”

Rose looks up at Stella, as if registering her words after a long pause. “Yes. Thank you.”

Stella excuses herself, and leans against the wall of the corridor as soon as the door is shut behind her, but it opens again. She turns to see Reed follow her out.

“How are they, really?” Stella asks.

Reed shakes her head. ”I’m not sure. It’s very early. Tom is relieved, Rose seems… like she’s too tired to think about anything.”

Stella sighs. “It’s understandable.”

“Yeah. They are grateful for what you’ve done for her, Stella.”

Stella exhales, the irony sharp, stabbing her with guilt. “She was in danger because of me. I could have prevented what happened to her. I should have protected her.”

Reed’s hand is warm on her shoulder. ”I know.” Reed sighs, is silent for several heartbeats. “We’re both at fault. But don’t think about that right now. Focus on the work, and on Rose. She’s alive and she will heal.”

Stella blinks slowly, as if trying to wake up from an underwater dream. “Have the children been by?”

Reed shakes her head, lips tight. “Tom wants to wait until she’s regained her strength a bit. Perhaps tomorrow. She spoke to Nancy on the phone.”

“Good.”

“What about Anderson?”

Stella exhales sharply at his mention, shaking herself out of this momentary funk that she cannot afford to remain in. “He’s out of surgery. Seems to be making a recovery, though time will tell how long he will be down.” She thinks about his interviews and his words in her bedroom and the way he looked at her when she cradled Paul Spector’s bleeding form next to him. “I’ll have to finish this without him, probably.”

“Eastwood seemed to imply that you knew more about Anderson than he would, when I asked,” Reed says, lowering her gaze to the floor.

Stella is back in a car explaining trimmed fingernails. She leans her head back against the wall, rolls her eyes with an exasperated sigh, and she doesn’t know if she is upset with Eastwood or with herself. “Eastwood said that.” It isn’t a question.

“It’s okay,” Reed says. “I was just wondering. Prying.” She smiles a little, not quite. “Just take care of yourself as well. You deserve it too.”

Stella nods and can’t quite meet Reed’s eyes before she goes back inside, the walls between them. Seven for a secret never to be told.

*******************

The radio is playing something recent, but slow and charming, acoustic. Stella tries to remember the words from chorus to chorus.

“I think you’re going a bit fast,” Reed says next to her, peering over her arm at the dashboard.

“There isn’t anyone else on the road for miles,” Stella says. “I’ve seen you on your motorcycle. Don’t pretend you don’t like speed.”

Reed makes a strangled noise in her throat that makes Stella smile. “You’re a police officer.”

“Precisely.”

“Well, at least let me turn up the radio, then. Let’s go down in a blaze of glory.”

“We’re almost at the beach, actually.”

“The beach, really?” Stella can hear her smile. “I haven’t been to a beach in ages.”

“Well, now is your chance to escape a fiery death at my hands,” Stella quips.

“As good as any,” Reed says, watching the northern window of the car past Stella now.

A few minutes pass as Stella indulges her with a law-abiding velocity, before she pulls up on the shoulder of the road near a crudely fenced off stretch of water. The beach is sandy and full of pebbles, the waves foaming and breaking on the larger rocks.

She turns off the ignition and gets out of the car.

“What are you doing?” Reed asks, getting out as well, keeping her door open.

Stella looks at the horizon and beyond it. “Let’s get our feet wet.”

“The water must be freezing,” Reed says. “And the girls are asleep.”

“You go on then, I’ll watch them.” Stella opens the driver’s side door and leans against its side.

“You’re crazy,” Reed says, but laughs and closes her door, walks around the car to stand next to Stella.

“Go on,” she says again, suddenly wanting nothing better than to see Reed barefoot in the sand.

Reed steps over a low point in the fence, stopping halfway to the water to take off her sandals and carry one in each hand.

“Stella?” Jas says, sleepy-hoarse from inside the car.

Stella sits down, her face to the back seat. “Yes, sweetheart.”

“Can I go with mummy?”

“Of course you can, let’s get you out.”

Stella opens the back seat and unbuckles the little girl, lifts her out of the car and carries her the few feet to set down over the fence. She watches her run toward Reed, watches them hold hands and wade the shallow waters, and thinks, how is it possible for a heart to feel this full, this peaceful.

*******************

Stella sits in her car for a long time before she finally knocks on Reed's wooden door, painted blue.

She almost thinks no one is home, almost turns back when it creaks open. A young girl holds the handle, her eyes large and dark and curious. Her mother's eyes, Stella realises.

She clears her throat. "Hi. Is your mummy home?"

"Yes," the girl says, then turns and shouts, "Mum!"

Stella would laugh if she weren't busy struggling with what a bad idea this may turn out to be. But then Reed is at the door, sending her daughter away ("Libby, I've told you not to answer the door alone"), looking at her with questioning eyes, and it's too late to back away and pretend she hadn't come. "Stella. Is everything is okay?"

"Yes," she says and clears her throat. "I just thought I should come and say goodbye."

Reed opens the door wider, inviting, and Stella steps inside. "Are you going back to London, then?"

"Yes. I'm not needed anymore, not until trial proceedings."

Reed leads her through a neat living room and Stella follows into a warm kitchen, where Reed moves to fill a teakettle.

Stella stops by the dining table and isn't sure what to do with herself. Reed leans with her back against the counter. "So I suppose I won't see you again for a while."

"Seems that way," Stella agrees.

Reed is quiet until the kettle whistles, and then she busies herself pouring out two cups of tea. When she doesn't have anything left to do with her hands, when Stella is watching her cup cool on the table beside her, she says, "I've been thinking about leaving Belfast too."

Stella is startled at what a reaction this draws from her, a momentarily panicked instability, before she forces it to pass. "Really?"

Reed winces a little bit, and Stella thinks she probably wasn't meant to be able to tell. "The girls' father has been back in England for a while. It would be good for them to be close to him again. Rose seems better now.... and I do miss it."

Again, Stella is startled by the wave of misery that flows through her and stops her from breathing, as she pictures the little girls who look remarkably like their mother stand with their parents. They are a family that she has no right to. A forced deep inhale and she's able to breathe again, and says, "How soon are you planning to move?"

(She wants to ask where, she wants to ask why now, she doesn't want to ask his name.)

"Not sure yet." Reed takes a sip from her cup, blows on the surface of the hot liquid. "It’s almost end of term. I've looked into putting the house on the market and I've got job offers as well."

"I hope it works out for you." Stella's heart is beating too quickly for her liking, but she forces herself to be happy for her colleague, her friend, her... (seven for a secret never to be told)

Reed thanks her, wearing a contemplative expression.

At a loss for what to do next, Stella checks her watch and pushes away from the table. "I'm sorry, thank you for the tea, but I'm expected at the police station before I go."

"When are you leaving?"

"Tomorrow."

Reed straightens and sets her teacup aside. "Okay. Then I will see you in a few months, when the trials procedures start, perhaps. I'll be needed too."

"Of course," Stella says and nods, leads the way back toward the wooden door that's painted blue, and leaves her secrets behind.

*******************

They cross the water on a ferry and have a quiet dinner in a small restaurant in Dublin, before checking into their hotel room. Tomorrow they will drive along the coast to Belfast. Tonight Stella holds Reed against her, soft and pliant.

The girls have fallen asleep quickly in the next bed, tired from a full day in a car.

Reed’s hair is wet and fresh from the shower, her satin pajamas are slippery and cool, and Stella quietly, lazily, without intent, kisses every bit of her skin that she can reach. They feel every inch of the road on their skin as they fall asleep.

*******************

Her things are packed and her passport is on the vanity, ready beside the last items she will pack in the morning. Stella flicks the buttons on the remote, not interested in anything she finds.

A knock on the door makes her flick it back off. Barefoot on the tips of her toes, she peers through the door, and then takes a deep breath before tightening her silk robe around her and opening it.

"There's another thing," Reed says softly with a small sigh, and takes a tentative step inside, looking as if she is about to lose her nerve, which makes Stella's blood race.

"What is it?" Stella asks.

"Stand still."

Stella does stand still as Reed steps closer, closer until there isn't space between them (and the hotel door clicks shut behind them), touches a soft palm to Stella's cheek, and looks her straight in the eye when their lips make contact. It's a gentle touch for a moment, and then Stella slide her hands up Reed's sides, feels the ridges of her ribs, her warmth radiating through the fabric of her shirt. She moves into the kiss until it become urgent and full of want, parted lips, gentle teeth and curious tongues.

Reed breaks the kiss, breathing hard, her forehead against Stella's and her hand still on her cheek, the other on Stella's scapula. "I'm sorry," she says, the words out of breath and full of ache.

Stella shakes her head. "Why are you sorry," comes out so thin and lacking her usual confidence that it barely sounds like a question.

"Because I don't think I can be.... Sergeant Olsen and Detective Anderson.... I'm not...."

"You weren't meant to be," Stella says, tightening her fingers around Reed's ribs.

"My ex lives in London."

Stella feels as if drenched in cold water, and tries to be unselfish, entirely against her usual instincts. "You should go and be a family."

"I won’t go unless you want me there."

Stella straightens a little to meet Reed's eyes. "I thought..."

Reed shakes her head. "You don't have to promise me anything, Stella, but if you don't want me there, tell me now."

Stella slides a hand across Reed's jaw and into her hair, kisses her cheek before saying, "Come to London," and then kissing her again.

*******************

The Belfast skyline appears without fanfare, Reed at the wheel and Stella leaning against the centre console, her hand on Reed's thigh.

At the hotel, the girls settle in front of the television once the excitement of their fancy dresses wears off, and Stella joins Reed in the bathroom to finish touching up her make up. Reed lifts her hair into a knot at the base of her neck.

"I can't believe it's been two years already," Reed says.

"I can't believe the trial is over. It seemed like it would go on forever," Stella says, rolling her neck.

"It’s nice to be here for a pleasant reason, for a change."

Stella rolls her eyes slightly and agrees. "It is."

To Reed, this city was a home of many years, but Stella knows death, guilt, misery.

Reed puts a comforting arm around her shoulder and meets her eyes in the mirror. "Are we ready?"

"Mummy! Stella! When are we going to the wedding? We want to see Nancy!"

They break into smiles and little laughs. "I think it's been decided for us," Stella says, and leads the way out of the bathroom.

An hour later, they round an old, steepled church into its spacious back yard, and Rose appears before them from among the mill of friends and relatives, and the neat rows of white chairs decorated with ribbons.

"Thank you for coming," she says, smiling and beautiful and strong and Stella feels tension drain from her as Rose hugs her and Reed in turn.

"Nancy!" The girls, spotting their friend, run to join her and someone Stella doesn't recognize - her grandmother, perhaps.

They smile and watch the kids laugh excitedly. "Tom is on his way with his brothers," Rose says. "I can't believe I'm nervous, it's only a renewal of vows!" She laughs and Stella recognizes her, recognizes the woman who sat in the grass and made flower crowns for her family in the video she saw, before the last two years happened.

"Congratulations," Stella says. "It’s good to see you, really."

"You too," Rose says, and Stella thinks she means it.

They take their places in the rows, the girls holding hands on Stella's side and playing a game with their fingers, not entirely interested in the real show.

"I didn't know how to exist in the world before I met you," Tom says to Rose at the altar. "You’re forever to me."

Rose's smile radiates peace and happiness. "You are my place in the world. You are my family," she says.

Stella takes Reed's hand beside her and squeezes it, meets her eyes as Reed squeezes back. The words pass between them silently.