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Chapter 13

Didn't see either Mac or Stell for a few days after the awkwardness I'd witnessed. In fact, next time I did, it was at the preliminary hearing of our perp. Both me and Stell were required, of course, and I'd offered to meet up with her inside the courthouse beforehand.

Stell, Mac with her, had gotten there before me. Joined them and made a few attempts at small talk while we waited, trying to lighten up the situation. Stell was happy to chat, but the best I got out of Mac was a few one word answers.

When we were called in, Mac moved straight towards the room, but Stell hung back.

'Someone's on edge,' I said in a low voice, looking Mac's way.

'He's been like this all morning,' Stell murmured. 'Sorry.'

'You don't have to apologise for him,' I said, to which Stell gave me a look I couldn't decipher.

Anyways, couldn't blame the guy, I guess. Hadn't forgotten the tension at the precinct when he'd come face to face with the guy who'd been the primary cause for Stell getting injured. I'd been wondering myself exactly how today was going to go down.

Three of us sat together which made it easy for me to indulge my curiosity and observe the two of them, check out how things seemed between them.

What struck me most of all was how stiffly Mac sat, even more so than usual. Like he was holding everything in by sheer force. Stared straight ahead of him for the opening of proceedings. Noticed just a flicker across his face when the perp appeared. When the charges were read out that flicker was there again and his eyes hardened - looked like two pieces of steel. But that was the only sign of the suppressed anger that I guessed was behind his exterior. It was the little things with Mac that gave away the big stuff.

In contrast, Stell was restless and hardly able to keep still; kept tugging at her fingers, altering how she sat and twisting her necklace. Every so often she and Mac would meet each other's gaze and they'd have one of their silent conversations. Once or twice she laid her hand on his arm, but he made no contact with her. Pretty normal behaviour from them actually, so that was reassuring.

As for me, well, it brought back a whole lot of memories I'd prefer to forget. Had to keep reminding myself that Stella had survived, we hadn't lost her. For the first time in a while I thought about the premonition I'd had. Still freaked me out to think about it, but if I hadn't had it… well, it would have been a very different court hearing. I shuddered. Had to look over at Stell to reassure myself.

So yeah, it was tough to get through. Lucky for us, the case was pretty open and shut. Judge found probable cause on all counts and it wasn't long before we were out of the courtroom.

As we were about to leave, I got waylaid by one of the officers of the court I knew vaguely. Had to talk to the guy, but found it hard to concentrate on what he was saying. Mac and Stell were in my peripheral vision and they were drawing my attention with what they were doing. Or rather what they weren't doing. Could see Stell, who had her arms wrapped round herself, saying something to Mac. She looked upset and I expected - actually I hoped - he'd put his arms round her, give her a hug. But he didn't. He just stood there, arms at his side.

By the time I finished the conversation with the court officer (couldn't remember the guy's name which embarrassed me) and headed over to Stell and Mac, Stell was staring out of the window and Mac was looking at her like he really didn't know what to say or do. OK, so I knew he wasn't one for PDAs, but even so, in the circumstances, I thought he might at least have given Stell some contact.

'Hey, thanks for waiting for me,' I said as I reached them.

'Sure.' Stell smiled, kind of weakly at me.

So I put my arm around her shoulders and gave her a quick side hug. Felt how thin her shoulders were. Mac looked at his watch.

'We need to get back to the lab, we've got a meeting with Sinclair in thirty minutes,' he said shortly.

'Really? I was going to suggest we go grab a coffee and maybe a bite to eat,' I said, glancing between him and Stell.

'How about it, Mac?' Stell touched his arm. 'We've time for that, haven't we?'

'It's a nice idea, but no we haven't got time,' he said. 'We need to finalise the budget forecasts before the meeting. Don, I can give you a ride back to the precinct if you want?'

So that was that. Stell didn't argue, which surprised me. Actually it bothered me that she looked more resigned than anything as she walked to the car and got in without saying anything.

I made a few attempts at conversation during the journey, but gave up in the end when the awkwardness got too much. Boy was I glad to see the precinct, even with its crappy air-conditioning.

Headed inside feeling sort of heavy. There was an uncomfortable feeling in my gut that had nothing to do with missing lunch.

As it turned out, I never did get lunch: a messy home invasion case took up the rest of the day, so I didn't eat until late evening. Got take-out and beer with Dalia, watched a movie at my place and managed to put the day's events out of my mind.

It stayed that way until a few days later when I had to go over to the lab for updates from Danny.

On the way, I passed Mac's office: he was in there, standing by his desk facing Stell, who was saying something to him with forceful gestures. Both of them looked annoyed. That uneasy feeling reared right up again. Managed to push it back down by reasoning that they were likely arguing about budgets – that had been what they were meeting Sinclair about after the hearing, so it made sense. Plus there'd been talk of budget adjustments throughout the department.

Yeah, that was definitely what it was about.

Walked on to find Danny, having managed to get rid of the unease. More or less anyway.

He had some technical stuff to tell me about the case, which, of course, I needed to know, according to Danny. I had my doubts about that. Last few days had taken it out of me mentally and it was hard to stay focused. Found my mind drifting towards the dinner Dalia and me had planned.

Meeting with her had become the highlight of my days…

'You OK, Flack? I get the feeling your mind ain't entirely on what I'm telling you, buddy.'

Shook myself slightly. 'Yeah, yeah, I'm good. Sorry. Drifted for a second.'

Danny grinned as he shoved his glasses up his nose. 'I get it. You got someone on your mind, eh? Certain lady who works at the hospital, am I right?

'Don't know who you're talking about,' I said, unable to stop my face heating.

Messer cackled. 'Oh man, you're in deep…' Unexpectedly, he clapped me on the shoulder and looked genuinely pleased. 'But that's great, I'm happy for you, bud.'

'Uh… thanks.'

''Bout time you had something good happening to ya,' he said.

Really didn't know what to say there, so I grabbed the print-outs he had for me. And mumbled something about having to get back to my paperwork…

'Wait, before you go - you see Stell or Mac today?'

'Yeah I did. Why?'

'They seem OK to you?'

Immediately, I was on alert.

'I guess so. Why you asking?'

'You guess?'

The guy didn't miss a lot, had to give him credit for that.

'Only that they were in Mac's office and seemed to be having a kind of heated discussion about something, most likely they've argued over something and nothing,' I said, trying to be casual. 'You know, the usual kind of thing.'

Look on his face made my heart sink.

'Come on, Flack, be honest: you really think it's nothing?'

'It was probably just an argument about budgets,' I said, not even able to convince myself now that it was.

Messer shook his head. 'Nah. Nice try, but it ain't budgets. There's something else going on. Since Stell got back to work things haven't been right between them. Me and Linds have noticed there's tension between them. Nothing I can put my finger on,' he added before I could ask. 'But whenever I've seen them together, it's tense as hell.'

'Could be they argued over when Stell came back to work? Could be that they just need some space – I mean, can't have been easy living together when both of them have lived alone for so long?'

Even as I said it, I thought about how, only a couple weeks ago, I'd been thinking how relaxed they seemed living with each other. Didn't mention to Messer what I knew about their changed living arrangements.

'Maybe… I don't know.' Messer shrugged. 'But, guess there's not much we can do about it.'

'Don't see either of them appreciating it if we go interfering, 'I said, trying to imagine how Mac in particular would react if I went and questioned him. Frankly, that wasn't something I wanted to experience - I preferred to live a bit longer.

We finished up and I headed out of the lab. Passed Stell's office on the way – she was at her desk, staring off into the distance. Passed Mac's office and he was at his desk, too, also staring into the distance.

Much as I hated to admit it, after the conversation with Danny, it was even harder to ignore what my gut was telling me – something was really wrong between Stell and Mac.

But, when me and Dalia met up later for dinner at her place, I decided I was going to forget about Stell and Mac for a bit. After a stressful day, it was balm to my soul to see Dalia. Felt the tension in me easing, clouds in my mind blowing away while we prepared the meal together – kind of a hybrid of one of my Irish grandma's favourite recipes and one of Dalia's grandfather's St Lucian dishes. On paper it sounded eccentric, but in reality it was a damn fine dish, and we had a lot of fun preparing it.

We chatted about this and that while we ate, enjoying flirting and making each other laugh. We stayed at the table after eating, in no rush to do the sensible thing of loading the dishwasher.

Following a comfortable pause in the conversation while we sipped our drinks, listened to the music in the background, I took the opportunity to study Dalia.

'Like what you see?' she said with a slow smile.


But, I played it cool.

'Absolutely,' I grinned.

That smile widened as she stretched her hand across the table to clasp my fingers. 'I got a pretty nice view from here, too. I'm happy to see you looking more relaxed than when you got here. Looked like something was on your mind then?'

Keeping my promise to myself, I shook my head. 'Right now, the only thing on my mind is dessert…'

'Don't you worry about dessert honey, I've got that covered.' She stood up, moved round behind me and placed her hands on my shoulders, kneading them gently. Everything else disappeared from my mind when she kissed the side of my neck and I groaned as her fingers continued easing out the knots.

'Damn, that feels good.'

'Good. How about we take a rain check on dessert and get more comfortable in the living room?'

There wasn't much else that would make me wait for dessert.

Dalia drew me by the hand through to the living area and we settled ourselves on the couch. Had a few massage techniques at my fingertips (so to speak) as well, so I returned the favour for Dalia.

Couldn't honestly remember the last time I'd felt so at ease and relaxed, and so happy spending time with someone. Didn't think that would be possible again after Jess died.

After a while, almost reading my mind, Dalia made to move and fetch the key lime pie she'd made. Stopped her, though. Told her I could go do that.

'What? Think I've been hanging out here long enough to figure out where all your dishes and cutlery are stored,' I said with a grin.

'Honey, I'd be happy to spend a whole lot more time hanging out with you,' she said, and the truth of that was in her eyes.

'Right back at you,' I said, and immediately realised that hadn't sounded like I'd intended when I saw a flicker of uncertainty in her eyes. 'No, I mean it. Listen, I'm not a guy who's particularly skilled with words, so you got to forgive me if I don't say things the right way. Basically, you put it better than I could, because I absolutely would love to spend more time with you.'

A dusky blush appeared on her cheeks. 'Don, honey, whatever you might think, you say things in exactly the right way. I'd rather have some straight talking from an honest guy than sweet words that don't mean a thing from some of the creeps I've known.'

Felt a spark ignite. 'Hey,' I said, 'you ever get any trouble from creeps, you let me know.' Wasn't going to have anyone messing about with my girl.

'If anyone gives me any kind of crap, they don't do it a second time,' Dalia said with a glint in her eyes.

I knew she didn't need me to protect her. Didn't mean I didn't want to, though.

Still feeling fiercely protective, I served up the pie and the rest of the night passed very enjoyably.

It wasn't until the next day, on my way to work, that it struck me how I'd thought of Dalia as 'my girl' - not that she was my possession or anything. Hell no. No, it was because it'd started to feel like we belonged together. Smiled at the thought of that, and only realised I was still smiling when I saw my reflection in the door to the bullpen.

Following few days were busy, meaning there wasn't time to think about, never mind do anything about, Mac and Stella. Barely got to see Dalia in between our shifts, which was tough.

Must have been a week after the hearing that I caught up with Stell. I'd gone over to the lab to see Hammerback and Hawkes, and was on my way out of there when I ran into her. Literally. Head down, she came hurrying along, didn't see me until we collided.

'Whoa, hold up. Where's the fire?' Caught hold of her arm to steady her.

'I'm so sorry,' she said breathlessly and I took a closer look at her.

'Wait… what's up? You OK, Stell?'

'Fine, I'm fine,' she said, trying to give me a bright smile, despite the fact her eyes looked red and her voice wasn't entirely steady.

'No you're not,' I said gently. 'What's happened?'

'Nothing's happened. It's nothing.'

Snorted. 'Nothing my ass, come on, Stell, what's going on?'

She shook her head, lips pressed together. 'I can't talk about it now.'

'So how about we go grab a hot dog or something later? You still me owe me at least a pretzel, remember?'

'I'm already late for a meeting, Don.'

'Then let's talk and eat after it.'

She grimaced. 'I don't know how long this meeting's going to go on for.'

I wasn't going to be put off as easy as that and thought quickly.

'So, how about I meet you at Carlucci's at 7? You'll be done by then, right?'

Could see her wavering as she looked at me. Finally, she nodded. 'All right.'

'Great. I'll wait outside for you.'

She nodded again. 'OK.'

'All right. Take it easy, I'll see you later.'

'Thanks. Thanks, Don.' She squeezed my arm and hurried away. Watched her go, unhappy about it, especially as I had a pretty strong idea what she was upset about. But, only thing I could do was wait until later.

I got to Carlucci's ten minutes before 7. Half expected Stell wouldn't show, but about a minute after 7pm, she appeared out of the shadows walking slowly towards me, eyes downcast.

I'd picked somewhere I knew wasn't especially favoured by NYPD officers, and being a mid-week evening, it wasn't busy.

'So, talk to me, Stell. What's going on?' I asked soon as we had our drinks. 'Is it anything to do with Mac?'

Stell took a sip from her glass, glancing to the side for a moment before she met my gaze. Knew straight away from her face that I'd hit on the correct reason.

'It's… complicated,' she said eventually.

Gave a snort. 'When isn't it with you two?' Look of annoyance on Stell's face had me apologising rapidly. 'No, listen, I'm sorry, Stell. What's happened? Has it got anything to do with the two of you being back in your own places? Did you fall out while you were living together?'

'No, not at all, we got along really well. Actually, it worked better than I thought it would.'

'Then why'd Mac go back to his place?'

After taking another sip of her drink, Stell sighed while I tried to hide my curiosity.

'Because he thought I wanted him to,' she said flatly.

'Why would he think that?'

'He didn't actually ask me, and I didn't say otherwise, so after the two weeks we'd originally agreed he'd stay, he packed up his stuff.'

'Didn't you tell him you didn't want him to move out?'

Stell shook her head. 'No.'

I stared at her.

'Why not? Why don't you just tell him now?' How the hell could two such smart people be so stupid at times?

'Like I said, it's complicated. Especially now I'm back at work. You know Mac - rules are rules.'

'What do you mean exactly?' None of this made any sense.

Stell's lips were twisted as if she was trying not to cry. 'He's head of the lab, I'm technically his subordinate. The rules are pretty clear on those kinds of relationships, go figure.'

She set her empty glass down hard on the bar.

Hardly believing I was hearing all this, I asked her, 'So is that it, you've split? That's the end of the relationship?'

Stell gave a bitter laugh. 'We'd barely started a relationship. Honestly, I don't know what the status is right now.'

'But… surely you guys can figure something out, after everything you've been through? I mean, you've had rows over things before, hell you even handed your badge in to him.'

'Not like this we haven't. This is different. Right now, I can't see a way around it.' Her face looked hard, but under the surface I could see the hurt she was trying to conceal.

'There's got to be something you can do. You've worked things out before. You guys need to talk to each other, find out what you both want and how you're going to make it work...'

Stell shook her head. 'Not if Mac isn't willing to try.'

'Have you asked him if he's willing to try?'

'There's no point. He's made that very clear.'

It just didn't compute that Mac would throw a relationship with Stell away because of his job, especially after everything that had happened. Seriously? What the hell was the guy thinking?

In the end, all I could say was, 'Stell, I'm sorry, I…'

'Yeah, so am I,' she said, before she added with a humourless laugh. 'You know, for a while there, I really thought we had a chance. Guess I should have listened to my head rather than my heart.'

She rubbed the back of her hand across her eyes and shook her head again before she swallowed the last of her drink. Her hand was shaking, and looking at her more closely, I saw how drawn and tired she was.

'Stella, listen,' I said gently, 'what you need right now is to go home, rest and be kind to yourself. Take a long hot bath, read a book, lie on the couch, whatever… just do something you enjoy. That's the best advice I can give you at the moment.'

At first she looked kind of startled, but then I was happy to see the ghost of a smile on her lips.

'That sounds like good advice.'

'Damn straight. Don't give it very often, so it's pretty valuable.'

'In that case, I'll take it.' She stood up, reaching for her purse. 'Thanks for listening.'

'Any time. I mean it.'

'I know. I know you do.' Leaning in, she kissed my cheek. 'You're a good guy, Don.'

'So it's been said.' I grinned, but was touched nonetheless.

Stell smiled sadly before moving to leave.

'Wait, let me call you a cab.'

'I don't need you to do that.'

'I know you don't, but it'd make me feel better.'

After a second, she nodded. 'All right.'

We waited in silence for a cab, Stell standing with her arms wrapped around herself. There was nothing I could think to say, even though I desperately wanted to tell her something reassuring. All I was sure about was how absolutely pissed I was with Mac.

Right before she got in the cab I'd flagged down, Stell turned and gave me a tight hug.

'Thank you,' she said. 'For being such a good friend.'

And then she'd gone.

I didn't know how the hell I was going to do it, but whatever it took, I had to fix this. I had to.

It couldn't end like this.

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