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Soon as Stell left, I came pretty close to tracking Mac down and confronting him there and then. But after some second, third and fourth thoughts, I decided that wasn't the smartest idea I'd ever had and went home instead, determined to figure something out.
By morning I'd cooled down and could think more clearly about the situation while I ate breakfast. Unfortunately, in the cold light of day, things seemed even less straightforward. I had no idea what to do, and actually, I began to wonder whether I should do anything. I mean, there wasn't much doubt that Mac and Stell's relationship was in a mess, but it was their relationship and their mess. And sure, they were my friends as well as my co-workers, but there were still boundaries and by interfering, I'd be crossing several boundaries. Could also end up with me doing more harm than good. Stell wasn't lying when she'd said it was complicated. Understatement of the year.
On the other hand… paused with scrambled eggs on my fork in front of my mouth – actually, why was it complicated? They loved each other, that was certain, so how hard could it be to find a way to be together? I mean, it wasn't like they were from two warring families or anything. Romeo and Juliet they weren't.
Shook my head and carried on eating.
By the time I'd finished breakfast, I'd come to a decision – wait and see how things were between Stell and Mac when I next saw them together, then make another decision.
Over the next couple days I saw the two of them separately several times, and once together in the lab. Was kind of awkward, with both of them looking doubtful at something Ross was saying… but seemed like the awkward was due to Ross not them. So it was all pretty normal.
Didn't have time or opportunity to talk to either of them until I caught a murder scene in Far Rockaway. I'd heard on the grapevine it was Stell's first day back out in the field since returning to work, so I expected she'd be pretty happy about that. Unluckily, she showed up with Danny right in the middle of a cloudburst. During the two seconds it took me to run for cover, I'd gotten wetter than if I'd showered in my clothes.
'Welcome back to the field, Stell,' I called from a doorway, as she stood with gloved hands on her hips and a sour look on her face. 'Advanced decomp, compromised scene, rain… everything you could wish for from a scene.'
'Great,' she growled.
I caught the smirk on Danny's face which he hid from Stell. After that, I left them to do their forensic thing and went to have a chat to the guy who'd found the body. He turned out to be that rare thing - a surprisingly useful witness - and I was there for a while, fortunately sheltered inside a store doorway. My guys had put up a canopy over the crime scene, but in driving rain it didn't do much to shelter Stell and Danny, or their scene. Poor things soon looked like drowned rats.
Stell was working on the perimeter, Danny on the body. I had most of my attention on the notes I'd taken, but Stell's raised voice at one point drew my notice. Didn't hear exactly what she said, but whatever it was, Danny looked pissed. Stella did, too – eyebrows almost knotted up and her lips pressed tightly together. When she spoke again to Danny, it was abrupt and impatient. Most likely she was tired, and the compromised scene would put most people in a bad mood.
Managed to draw out checking over my notes until the rain stopped, probably because the clouds had run out of water by that point.
'You guys find anything useful?' I asked, sauntering over to them.
Danny was in the middle of wiping water off of his glasses. 'Not a whole lot. Rain had already washed a lot of evidence away. Got a few things to work on, though. You?'
'Actually, yes…' Told him what I'd learned and he looked impressed. Followed it up with asking him if he'd seen last night's game, which he had. We talked about it and how the Giants were doing, till I noticed Stell hadn't joined in the conversation.
'Hey, Stell, what d'you think of Amukamara being drafted in?' I asked her. Got no response, so I smirked. 'Oh sorry, forgot you're a Jets fan.'
Danny snickered, but Stell's head snapped up and she glared daggers at us both. 'I've got a job to do here in case you hadn't noticed. If you're not too busy talking sport, maybe you two could move your asses and do yours as well?'
Danny and me looked at each other and got out of the way pretty swiftly.
'What was that all about?' I jerked a thumb over to Stell, soon as we were out of earshot.
Danny grimaced and glanced round to check Stell wasn't looking our way. 'She's been snapping at me since we left the lab.'
'What'd you do?'
'No idea.' He shoved his hands into his pockets. 'She's been touchy the last couple days, maybe longer.' He glanced again at Stella, who was talking to the coroner. 'We only got to breathe too loud and she snaps at us. Hawkes wanted to ask her something yesterday, but she was on her computer and almost bit his head off, told him unless it was urgent, he could wait, she was busy.' Danny looked like he was still offended on the doc's behalf.
'That's not like her.'
'Nope. And Hawkes of all people. Guy's the least offensive person I know.'
'Yeah he is… Maybe she was nervous about being back in the field, or Mac's been tense about it and it's affected her?'
'Nah, I don't think that's it – she and Mac are avoiding each other most of the time. When they do have to be in the same room, they're so polite with each other it's painful.'
'Give 'em time. They'll figure something out,' I said with more hope than certainty. 'I mean, what else can we do?'
'Tell them to speed up?'
'Oh sure, yeah, I'll drop in on Mac later and tell him.' Rolled my eyes.
Danny's eyebrows rose. 'You think that would work?'
I squinted at him. 'You lost your sarcasm detector? I was kidding.'
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Stell approaching.
Danny followed my gaze, and said quickly, 'better not let her catch us standing around talking again. Later, Flack.'
Grabbing his kit, he hurried over to the car and I braced myself for what Stella might have to say to me.
In fact, after glancing at Danny's retreating back, she had very little to say. There was no mention of our talk the other night, only some brief questions about the witness before she strode away and I was left with things to think about.
Driving back to the precinct gave me time for more thinking – about what Danny had told me regarding Stell and Mac, and all the stuff I knew about myself. Things weren't great between them, I knew that already, but I also knew it could get a whole lot worse. For starters, how much longer could they go on being polite to each other at work? That had got to be a hell of a strain for both of them. Actually, it'd be funny if it wasn't so damn…
Terrific. Now I could add almost running a red light because of being distracted by them. I'd been annoyed already by the whole situation, now I was really pissed off. I didn't want to be caught up in this whole mess, I hadn't wanted any of this, from that damn dream to all of this crap. All I'd wanted was for Mac and Stell to be happy, preferably with each other, and it had seemed like that was what they wanted, too. Happy days. So why the hell had they made things so complicated for themselves? And most of all, why had I gotten so involved and why did I care about it so much?
If I wanted an answer to those questions there was only one person who could help. So at the end of my shift, I called Dalia before I'd even left the precinct. Arranged to meet her at Ray's Pizza in thirty minutes. Even though we'd only had a brief conversation, I was smiling while I grabbed my jacket and headed for the door.
But Stell came through it first.
She looked relieved to see me, although I couldn't say the same about seeing her. Least she seemed to be in a better mood than she had been at the scene.
'Don,' she began, pushing her hair behind her ear and glancing around. 'Have you got a minute?'
Inwardly, I sighed but told her I could spare a few before I met Dalia.
'Oh, right…' She bit her lip and then shook her head slightly. 'OK, never mind, it can wait. You go, have fun with Dalia.'
I hesitated, very tempted to say 'thanks' and walk away…
But I couldn't. There was something in Stell's voice that made me decide to stay.
'Nah, I got time, Stell. What's up?'
It wasn't hard to see how relieved she looked. 'Nothing's up,' she said a bit too casually. 'I just had a question for you. I won't make you late for dinner.'
'Sure. Fire away.'
'So, do you remember Detective McNeill?'
'Woody McNeill? Sure. Nice guy, good detective.' I paused, confused. 'Why you asking?'
She shrugged and pulled at her pinkie, gaze darting away from me. 'I wondered if you'd kept in touch with him since he left – he was one of your guys, right?'
'He was, yeah. But no, not really.'
'Right.' Her face fell. 'So you don't know how he's doing in DC?'
'Well, I got a Christmas card from him and according to that, he's getting along fine,' I said, still confused. 'But that's as much as I know. Why do you suddenly want to know about McNeill and DC, Stell?'
'No particular reason,' she said. 'Someone mentioned him the other day and I, uh, wondered how he was doing.'
'OK…' I stared at her but she wasn't giving nothing away. 'Sorry I can't help you more than that.'
'No problem,' she said pushing her hair back and smiling a bit too brightly. 'Anyway, I don't want to hold you up any longer for your date. Say 'hi' to Dalia from me.'
'Sure, sure, I will. Thanks.'
I really wanted to question her some more – there was something behind this supposedly random interest in McNeill, I'd bet a month's pay check on it. It could wait, though. As much as I wanted to find out, I wanted to see Dalia even more.
'Have a good evening.' Stell gave me a wave and I left her by herself in the bullpen.
'Hey, darling…' I caught Dalia in a hug. 'I'm sorry I'm late, got held up at the last minute. You been here long?'
'Only long enough to work up an appetite,' she said kissing me, before pulling back slightly to study me. 'You OK, honey?'
Grinned at her. 'I got my girl in my arms, and pizza for dinner, what more could a simple guy like me want?'
No way were Mac and Stell's relationship issues going to cloud our evening.
'Sweet talker.' She patted my cheek. 'Let's go inside and you can catch your breath.'
'Yeah…' Running the last couple blocks had left me kind of dishevelled. 'Haven't had to chase down too many suspects lately.' I deadpanned. 'I'm getting out of shape.'
Dalia looked me up and down, eyelids lowered. 'You're the perfect shape for me, honey.'
'Now who's the sweet talker, huh?' Hand on her lower back, I opened the door for her and we went inside.
Little while later I sat back with an empty plate in front of me. 'Perfect.' I sighed, then glanced over at Dalia's plate. 'Uh, you going to want that garlic bread or not?' Nodded at the two pieces she'd left at the side of her plate.
'You want them, honey, they're yours.' She pushed the plate towards me. 'I'm keeping room for dessert.'
'Me too. But you know I hate seeing good food go to waste.'
Dalia propped her chin on her upturned palms. 'If ever you lose your appetite, then I'll know something's seriously wrong with you.'
Swallowed my mouthful of garlic bread. 'That's exactly what Jess used to say.'
Dalia smiled. 'A lady after my own heart.'
'Absolutely.' I nodded. 'You two would have gotten along great.'
'I know we would have.' Dalia reached across and laid her hand on mine. 'I know what a wonderful person she was from how you talk about her.' Her thumb brushed the back of my hand.
'She was.' I nodded, my mind full of memories. 'She was.'
'Tell me about your first date with Jess,' Dalia asked after a pause, adding with a glint in her eye. 'Did it involve food?'
I smirked. 'Actually, it didn't. It started with Irish coffee…'
While our plates were cleared and we waited for dessert I told Dalia about that first date with Jess. It seemed like years ago, and at the same time, no time at all since we'd stepped out of the precinct together, neither of us quite knowing where it would lead. While I talked, it dawned on me that something had changed: for the first time since Jess had died, I could talk about her and the time we'd spent with enjoyment of the memories. That was new, and good. I felt the loss still, but the sharp edge had blunted a little.
'OK, so, tell me about your first ever date,' I asked Dalia after our desserts arrived. 'Who with, where and what did you do?'
Laughter bubbling from her, Dalia shook her head and the silver comb in her hair caught the light. 'Oh no, honey, no way do you want to hear about that.'
'Now I definitely do,' I retorted. 'Spill.'
It took a lot more persuasion, and about a third of my dessert before Dalia finally agreed to tell me…
It was totally worth it.
I just about managed to stop wheezing with laughter to say, 'That is… that really is one hell of a first date – chased along 5th Avenue by an Elvis impersonator... Oh man.'
'Uh huh.' Dalia nodded, still giggling herself. 'It was… unexpected. And no, before you ask, there was no second date. What about you?'
'Not even close to being as dramatic as yours. Mine was a typical teenage first date – I was in 10th grade and it was with the girl who sat next to me in math – Debbie Peters. We went to the movie theatre to watch Jurassic Park.'
'Did that turn into a second date?'
'Not exactly…' More than twenty years after the event, and it still had the power to make me cringe.
'Oh?' Dalia propped her chin on her hands, eyes alight, her bangles glittering.
Laughing at myself, but still kind of wincing, I asked Dalia, 'have you seen the movie?'
A pained look appeared on her face. 'My little sister had a long-lasting obsession with dinosaurs. I've seen the movie.'
I smirked. 'Say no more. So, you know the scene when the T Rex appears?'
'I'm very familiar with it.'
'Well, let's just say I wasn't prepared for that… Basically, when that big-ass dinosaur appeared, I jumped and yelled like an idiot, and spilled Pepsi down the front of Debbie's new blouse.' I grimaced. 'She didn't talk to me for the rest of the year. Didn't do a whole lot for my image at school neither. Damn dinos.'
'Aww, honey. She didn't know what she was missing out on.' Dalia tried to look sympathetic, but failed. I didn't mind, and the two of us were soon laughing like kids.
We continued reminiscing about teenage dating disasters. Happened to mention a date where I'd taken a girl to a Jets game, and it triggered a reminder of Mac and Stell.
It was an instant downer.
They'd been to a Jets game the night before Stell was injured. Had that been their first official date? Was it the last date they'd ever go on together?
Annoyed, I tried to push all thoughts of them out of my mind. They'd been in my head enough recently. Unfortunately, the more I tried not to think about them, the more I did. And the more annoyed I got.
Trouble was, as usual, it didn't escape Dalia's notice.
'So, you going to tell me what's bugging you, honey?' she asked eventually. 'You've had something on your mind since you got here.'
Did my absolute best to brush it off and tell her there was nothing, and not to worry about it, before I had to accept she wasn't going to let it go.
'I've known you long enough to know when something's bothering you,' she said, 'And no, you don't need to feel guilty about sharing your troubles with me. You're very good at hiding it, just not good enough to hide it from me.'
Shook my head ruefully. 'Should have realised that…' I sighed. 'All right, let's order coffee first and I can tell you about it.'
So we did, and I talked. Told her all about the trouble between Mac and Stell, and where things stood between them, as much as I knew anyways.
'And now Stell's asking me about a guy who left to live in DC last year, seemingly out of the blue,' I finished, feeling pissed all over again at the whole situation. 'Why'd she ask about that? Something's going on, more than she's letting on. And why can't I simply shrug it off and leave them to sort this out by themselves? Right now they're living rent free in my head and I can't seem to do nothing about it.'
Placing her hands on the table, fingers over mine, Dalia said, 'So let's try and figure this out together. Two heads are better than one as my grandmother used to say.'
'Your head is way better at this than mine,' I said and Dalia shook her head with a grin.
'Sure, Detective. All right, let me ask you this first, honey,' she said. 'Why do you think you've gotten so emotionally invested in what happens to their relationship?'
I sat back in my seat.
'That's the question I've been turning over in my mind for the last few days. And I still don't know the answer.'
'Not at all?'
I frowned, pausing a moment to think. 'I mean, obviously they're my friends, I care about them and want them to be happy, but… it's more than that. Don't get me wrong, I'm not into all that written in the stars destiny, meant to be together stuff,' I added hastily. 'It's because they genuinely seemed to be happy together, like it was what they'd always wanted.'
Dalia nodded. 'I get that. It was obvious to me right away that they cared very deeply for each other.'
'Absolutely. So I really don't get why it's gone wrong and why they've let it go wrong.' Took a sip of my coffee and shook my head. 'It's blown up over work and their jobs, but there's more to it than that, I know there is. They're professional enough to not let a relationship interfere with their work. Jess and I made it work, other people do, too.'
'So you think the work issue is a convenient excuse?'
'I do. But for what exactly, I don't know.'
Dalia looked thoughtful. 'Is it possible they think entering into a relationship is too big a risk?'
'It's possible,' I said, 'but surely they've got to see it's worth taking the chance after everything that's happened?'
'You know better than many people that not everyone gets a second chance,' Dalia said softly.
'See that's the thing, they know that, too, or at least they should. They've both had more than their fair share of tragedy and heartache, so why would they let this chance of happiness go?'
I saw compassion in Dalia's eyes. 'I think I understand.' She continued gently. 'You had your happiness with Jess and Jess herself taken away, so seeing your friends apparently throwing their happiness away feels all kinds of wrong and unfair.'
It silenced me while I processed it.
She was right. There was also the knowledge of that other reality I had, the one we'd brushed against, the one Mac and Stell would never know about. If they knew, maybe Mac would realise exactly how lucky he was to still have Stell with him.
Finally, I nodded wearily. 'Yes. I… yes, that's it exactly.' I rubbed my forehead, trying to find the right words. 'It's like… don't they know how lucky they are? How different things could have turned out? They love each other, and yet here they are trying to make themselves as unhappy as possible. It's… frustrating. Really, really frustrating.'
'I hear you,' Dalia said, her brown eyes meeting mine.
I felt a stab of guilt and took hold of her hands in mine, saying quickly, 'Listen, please, don't think that I'm not happy with you or not as happy as I was with Jess. I've gotten a second chance, too, with you. I'm happier than I ever thought I could be after Jess died.'
'Honey, you don't need to explain,' Dalia said softly. 'I don't ever expect to replace Jess in your heart…'
'Because you're not a replacement, or a substitute. You have your own place in my heart. I loved Jess, and she's always going to be there. But… I love you, for the amazing, beautiful, unique person you are.'
I wasn't used to saying this kind of stuff, certainly didn't come easy to me, but somehow the words had spoken themselves.
'I love you too, Don,' Dalia said, her eyes shining. 'You're a very special guy.'
'Now I'm blushing,' I said, feeling my face heating up, and feeling kind of giddy with everything.
'I'm just speaking the truth, honey,' Dalia said, smiling. 'And I got to add,' she continued, 'even though I've said it before, your friends are very lucky to have you looking out for them.'
I pulled a wry face. 'Just wish there was something more I could do. Uh, maybe you could have a word with them,' I added, only half joking but Dalia was wise to me and shook her head.
'Oh no. Not even you could sweet talk me into that. I'm sorry, honey, but hard as it might seem I think they're going to have to get there themselves.'
She was right, I knew that, but…
'You're not giving up on them, if that's what you're thinking,' Dalia said, giving me a piercing look.
Kind of sheepishly, I looked at her. 'Was it that easy to read my mind?'
She patted my hand. 'It wasn't difficult.'
We still had coffee, so while we finished our drinks, I asked Dalia about her day and put any thoughts about Stell and Mac right out of my head. All I wanted to do for the rest of the evening was to be with my girl.
After we'd paid the check, I made a suggestion. 'It's been a long day, so why don't we head back to my place, watch the goofiest movie we can find and get comfy on the couch? How's that sound, sweetheart?'
'Perfect, absolutely perfect.'
And so it proved.
Two days later, I still had a spring in my step as I headed over to the lab for a check-in with Danny.
'Someone's happy,' Danny commented when I ran him to ground. 'You smiling for a reason, Flack?'
'What? Guy's not allowed to smile without a reason?'
He smirked but lost the chance to say anything more when Mac appeared, told him he needed his report within the hour, and strode off again with barely a glance at me.
Raised my eyebrows. 'Someone's not happy.'
Looking darkly after Mac, Danny folded his arms. 'He's pissed because Stella's decided to head out of town for a couple days, apparently without warning.'
'Stell's out of town? Where'd she go?' The conversation I'd had with her the other evening flashed through my mind.
'Linds overheard her say something about DC, but who knows. Mac ain't saying.'
I frowned. 'DC, huh?'
'So Linds said.'
With that information, certain things became clearer. I took the printouts from Danny and thanked him kind of absently.
Walked along slower than usual, I felt a growing unease about it all: Stell snapping at Hawkes, followed by her asking about a detective who'd moved to DC, then taking a trip to DC herself. It led me to a conclusion I didn't like. Maybe I ought to confirm with Mac if she really had gone to DC…
I stopped. Right outside Mac's office, with Mac inside.
Must be fate, I thought, and tapped on the door.
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