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ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
Stella's phone vibrates in her pocket near the end of the workshop as the last speaker is about to begin. It's Messer, so she ducks out into the hall, and while he updates her on the Parker case she watches a tall, slender woman, pale as a ghost, as she starts to talk. Something about cooperative interviews - which is kind of foreign to Stella's experience of police work - and the woman's voice over the spotty speaker system is a low, soothing murmur from here.
"Stella?" Messer asks, and she realizes he's waiting for some kind of response.
"Sounds good," she says, although she doesn't really know what he's been talking about. "Listen, Danny, I have to run. See you Monday."
The speaker's eyes flick to hers as she slides back into the room, and she smiles apologetically. The other woman doesn't miss a beat.
She's actually pretty interesting, Stella thinks after a few more minutes. It's a pleasant surprise on the second mind-numbing day of the conference. She checks her program guide for the workshop called "Interviewing Reluctant Witnesses: Tactics and Strategies." Det. Lilly Rush, it reads. Philadelphia Police Department.
"Stella Bonasera," she says after the end of the talk, and doesn't really smile. "NYPD."
"Pleasure to meet you," says Rush. Unamplified, her voice is unexpectedly girlish, though her tone is even. She looks a little flustered by the sudden crush of people at the lectern where she's been standing. Her eyes are startlingly blue.
"I really liked your presentation," Stella tells her, and Rush smiles at her. She's beautiful, Stella thinks suddenly, and she has a good, strong handshake, but Rush is saying thank you and already moving on, to a tall, broad-shouldered cop from Seattle who claps her on the shoulder, too familiar, and Stella reminds herself that she has nothing, no claim to anyone here.
Anyway, she's due for the next workshop. Stella contemplates skipping it and having a beer instead, or maybe checking out some of the new goodies at the Sig Sauer booth in the convention hall, but she's doing Mac a favor, and Stella does not let her friends down. Even if keeping her promises means suffering through an hourlong presentation on interrogation body language. She passes the rest of the afternoon in an unusually foul mood.
"Hi," Stella hears at her shoulder, and before she can quite place the voice the cop from Philly is smiling at her. "Do you mind if I join you?"
It's fine by her, since having another woman at the empty barstool means she won't have to feign interest in another beefy jackass with a conspicuously pale-ringed finger. "Go ahead," she says, then, "I don't know if you remember me. I'm "
"Stella Bonasera from New York," Rush says, quietly. She smiles a little, and she says Stella's name with a lilt, almost. "I remember you well."
It seems a little hot in the room. "I don't remember your first name," Stella says lamely. Stella has not felt nervous in fourteen years, but the unfamiliar feeling is coiling in her stomach while Rush smiles at her.
"Lilly," she says, and she extends her hand again. It's warm and steely in Stella's grip. Stella smiles.
"Yeah," Stella agrees, an hour later, and she laughs like it's actually funny: "I haven't really had the best luck with men."
Rush smiles ruefully, and Stella watches her long, delicate fingers as they curve around her pint glass. "I've been there."
Something about her smile, or maybe it's the pleasing warmth of the alcohol, makes Stella want to talk, to tell Rush about the boyfriend who tried to kill her in her own apartment, or the one who was using her to try to kill Mac, or the creeping feeling that she's doomed to become a recluse, fighting off good-looking psychopaths for the rest of her life.
Instead she says, "I'll get us another round."
"Just a Coke for me, if you don't mind," Lilly says. A shadow crosses her face. "I don't drink much."
By ten, Stella is feeling a little fuzzy, and Lilly's smile is looking prettier and prettier. She's dimly aware that she's laughing a lot more than usual. And she's bone-crushingly tired, suddenly, probably still a little jet-lagged. "I think I should head up to bed," she says, and sways a little as she stands.
Lilly's hand is on her arm, then, holding her steady. She is much stronger than she looks. Stella takes a deep breath. She's more tired than drunk, really.
Her smile is warm. "Well," she says, and there's a flicker of something in her eyes, "Stella. It was very nice to meet you."
Stella wants to ask her to say her name again, knows she will never do it.
Her bags packed, and coldly furious, she picks up the phone and dials the front desk again. She asks to be connected.
The phone rings, then clicks. "This is Rush," she says, and Stella exhales.
"Hi," she says. "This is, uh, Stella. We met yesterday?" Is that a question?
"Of course," Lilly says. She sounds good, Stella thinks. "Um. How are you?"
"Fine," Stella answers, and she feels ridiculous. "I have a really big favor to ask - the hotel sold my room to the guys from the video game convention, and there's nothing else, I've been trying to find another hotel, and I don't know anyone else here, and I was wondering if maybe I could take your extra bed, just for tonight." She never rambles like this.
"Oh, sure," Lilly tells her, which is surprising, actually. Stella wouldn't offer to let someone she barely knows sleep in her room, anyway. "Only I don't have an extra bed. Just a king."
Ordinarily Stella would hesitate, try one more round of increasingly irate calls, but something in her belly leaps at her. "No problem," she says, and her voice is barely a whisper.
Lilly emerges from the small bathroom wearing a pair of men's flannel pants and an oversized button-down shirt. She looks enchanting. Her piece is already on the nightstand near the hotel's alarm clock, next to her badge and a bottle of water. Stella feels a bizarre welling of affection for her, and for the way Lilly's hair looks when it's undone and loose about her face, and for the delicate wrinkles that have appeared around her eyes now that Lilly's washed away her makeup.
She gets in bed, and Stella folds her copy of Guns & Ammo and slides it under her own gun on the nightstand.
"Anything good in that issue?" Lilly asks, and she looks so beautiful Stella can barely answer. "Couple of new grips that look interesting," she manages, and Lilly smiles.
"I'm pretty beat," she says. "Okay with you if we turn out the lights?"
It is, but even with the lights out, there's a faint glow from the windows, enough for Stella to see Lilly coming at her. Then she's leaning over her, and Stella's heart is in her throat. She can smell the soap on Lilly's skin, and has a sudden, powerful urge to touch her hair. But she doesn't, and when Lilly breathes "Good night" against her earlobe, she's frozen. It's all she can do not to turn her head and kiss her.
Lilly's lips touch her cheek, painfully briefly, and Stella can't breathe, and then Lilly rolls over and is gone, her back to Stella, hair splayed out on her pillow.
Breathe, she tells herself. Breathe. Lilly is only being friendly (does she want more? does Lilly like women?) and her weight on the other side of the mattress is comforting. For what might be the first time ever, Stella feels well and truly safe, and the security of it glows in her belly. Still, listening to Lilly's deep, even breathing, smelling the detergent in the hotel pillowcase, there's an odd kind of ache in her throat, one she doesn't really recognize.
And a twist in her stomach, one she does recognize, but there's nothing she can do about it except stare at the wall and think about something deeply unsexy and wait for it to pass. She tries alphabetizing the fifty states, but can barely remember half of them. It's a long time before Stella finally slips into a fitful sleep, plagued by dreams of longing.
Lilly is already showered and dressed when Stella wakes up the next morning, which is a great relief. Stella clears her throat, her voice raspy with sleep, and Lilly looks up from her coffee. Her face is open and friendly, but Stella can't remember the last time she's felt so awkward. "Thanks for letting me sleep with you."
Lilly looks amused. "My pleasure," she says. She takes a sudden interest in her complimentary copy of USA Today, just in time to miss Stella's blush.
Not much later, Lilly takes an early shuttle to the airport. She hugs Stella with her free arm as she leaves. They have not exchanged numbers.
Mac raps on Stella's open door a couple of months later with a flaxen-haired woman over his shoulder, and Stella looks at Lilly Rush and realizes, like a punch in the gut, how much she's missed her, her graceful step and lovely, wounded smile and her eyes like a winter sky, clear and blue and boundless.
"Stella," Mac says, but she can barely hear him for the tightness in her throat. "Detective Rush is in town following up on some old evidence. She says you two know each other?"
"Yes," Stella says. Lilly's smile is mesmerizing. "Yes, we do. We met in San Diego."
"You have some time to help her out?" Mac asks, and yes, Stella says again. Sure. Professional courtesy. No problem.
"I thought you spent most of your time interviewing reluctant witnesses," Stella tells her as she drives her to the central repository, and is relieved when Lilly recognizes the phrase. She laughs a little. "Whatever I can do to avoid the paperwork," she says.
Which isn't surprising. Stella's spent long afternoons sifting through old files at cold case archives: fluorescent-lit warehouses with the depressing ghosts of the unavenged dead trapped in cardboard boxes, cold rooms filled with the dust of years. It's not hard to imagine that Lilly would prefer the field.
On the other hand, when people are dead, they can't disappoint you anymore.
"Thanks for helping me out today," Lilly says, copies of the files she came for tucked securely into a small, well-worn leather bag. "Can I take you to dinner?"
Their meal is companionable. Twice, their fingers touch, by accident, surely, and each time it sends a thrilling jolt up the length of Stella's spine. She is careful not to react.
By unspoken agreement they keep the conversation light, trading war stories. Lilly is as easy to talk with as she has always been, and she looks almost shy as she picks up the check. Stella feels as though she were on a sweet, nervous date. Maybe she is.
Outside the restaurant, with her collar flipped up against the cold, Lilly presses her lips together. "It's not going to work out between you and me, Stella," she says. "Is it."
A small, unhappy part of Stella wants to ask her what she's talking about, because there is no it, not really, but there's something, she knows, because of the way Lilly says her name and the way her own stomach responds to it. And Stella doesn't have the heart to deny it, or to pretend that some other version of her didn't need it.
Lilly hasn't asked a question, really, because she's more than strong enough for this. Stella can feel her own fragile, half-built fantasy crumbling to dust right in front of her. "I don't," she starts, and she doesn't know what to say. She doesn't even know why she's here, expecting something from Lilly. It was a beautiful idea, and maybe she wants it, but it isn't her, or what she could handle. She just isn't brave enough. Not yet, maybe not ever. "No," she says, finally, and the sting in her eyes surprises her, but she has to face facts. "No."
The wind is cold. Lilly is pale, pale, like frosted glass, pink-blushed lips and a messy sweep of blanched hair and sad eyes like bruised cornflowers. She smiles, and it's breathtaking, and she shoves her hands in her coat pockets a little too hard. Stella's stomach flutters painfully.
"Okay," Lilly says softly. "Take care of yourself." Her voice is kind. She turns, and then she walks away.
She melts easily into the foot traffic, and then all Stella can see is a flash of bright hair in a sea of dark coats. "Lilly," Stella whispers halfheartedly, but she's already gone.
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