Brilliant Disguise
by Stellaluna

Stella goes back to work, because that's what she knows how to do, and because it's better than sitting on the couch listening for small sounds and watching the walls shrink tight around her. There are other reasons she doesn't want to be in her apartment right now; even though she's had a professional cleaning service go through the place twice, she keeps thinking that she sees spots of blood on the floor, or spattered across the mirror. When she moves closer to look, there's never anything there, and she'll close her eyes for a count of ten, wondering if it'll be better if the spots have vanished when she looks again, or if they're still there.

The smell of blood is a near-constant, too, every time she turns around or the air currents shift, a smell like old pennies and rust in her nose, like dying flowers beneath the floorboards. The place just needs to air out some more, maybe. But it's been weeks now, long enough, and she doesn't like to open the windows anymore. She lives with it, instead, and buys the strongest air fresheners she can find when she ventures out to D'Agostino.

She doesn't talk about these phantoms when she goes to see the department shrink; she knows better than that.

Crime scenes are a relief, because the blood is real, and because they give her something else to think about. Her first day back, she goes looking for Mac and nearly runs headlong into him outside his office. He stands there and looks at her without saying anything, and she holds the paperwork out to him. He takes it and they go into the office, and he starts to flip through the sheaf of papers, signing where he needs to.

"It's my call what scenes you work," he says, and scrawls his name across another line.

"Of course," she says, looking over his shoulder.

"Your timing is good," he says, and sets the papers down. "I just got a call. DB at Grand Army Plaza. Why don't you go get your kit?"

She nods and lets out a breath. "I'll do that."

All day, she's bracing herself for the stares and questions. Though she hears whispers whenever she passes anyone, nobody says anything directly to her, not really. Lindsay fumbles her way through a nervous-sounding speech that Stella stops listening to after the first few words, turning away from the worry in the other woman's face. Danny and Hawkes both hug her and welcome her back, and then start talking to her about other things, and Flack does the same when she and Mac get to Prospect Park. She leans on his shoulder, a comforting scratch of wool against her cheek, then stands up straight and turns around to face the body.

It's a man, and he's no one she knows. He looks like no one she knows. She can feel Mac's eyes on her as she sets her kit down and reaches for her gloves, and then she says, "What've we got, Flack?", and the moment passes as Mac starts to set up his camera.

Just like she could have told him from the first, being back here is all that she needs. She works her scene and goes about her business, and it's not until late on the second afternoon that Mac catches her stifling a yawn against the back of her hand.

They're in the lab, peering at bloodstained clothes under strong light, and he looks at her. She ignores him and keeps her eyes focused on the gray jacket in front of her.

"You know, Stella, you can knock off after this if you want to," he says.

"What? No, I'm fine." She keeps her voice even, with maybe a faint note of surprise creeping into it. "I'm scheduled until eight, remember."

"You just seem tired," he says, slow and reluctant. "It's a lot to jump back into all at -- "

"I'm not tired," she says, looking up at him. "Why would you think I'm tired?"

"I just -- "

"If I were tired, I'd say I was tired, but I'm not, so guess what?" She can feel cloth wrinkling between her fingers. "I'm staying right here, because -- "

"All right, Stella."

" -- because I'm not tired."

"All right, Stella." He shakes his head. "I just thought -- "

"Yeah, well, you thought wrong." She stares down at the jacket in her hands, wondering how it got there, and then sets it down, pushing it a few inches away from her.

"Obviously I did."

"Can we just get back to it?"

"Sure." He picks up a white cotton shirt. There are red stains all down the front, and as Mac bends over the light, flecks of blood begin to fall across the table in a soft shower. Blood running down his wrists. She stares at his hands and something rises in her throat.

"I'll be right back," she says, and walks out of the room without waiting for his response.

The porcelain is cold on her cheek, tiles beneath her knees so icy they could be covered in frost, the way they must feel in the morgue. She sits and waits for spots to stop dancing in front of her eyes, acid burning in her throat. The ventilation system clicks and hums, and her heels make a flat echo across the floor when she finally pulls herself to her feet and goes to the sink.

Mac doesn't say a word when she walks back into the lab, about being tired or about anything else.

That night, at home, her hand is on her service piece the whole way up in the elevator. She goes into the apartment the way she would go into an unsecured scene, gun drawn, pushing the door open and then stepping to one side. She leads with her gun hand when she goes in, and it's not until she's opened all the doors that she lowers the weapon. Clear, she thinks, and goes slowly to the couch to sit down.

She watches old movies on cable until her eyes can no longer properly focus, until Joseph Cotten's voice begins to stutter and slow like the power is failing, gaps between words so that she can't follow what he's saying; until the shadows on Alida Valli's face begin to seem much too long, shade with no discernible source and bending at odd angles. Stella stands up and turns off the TV.

Getting ready for bed is a matter of rote, taking off her makeup and washing her face, stepping into sweats and a Police Athletic League t-shirt as she decides what to wear tomorrow. She sets the alarm clock, a hopeful gesture, and checks the safety on her gun before setting it down next to the clock. Her fingers slide beneath the pillow and touch cold steel, a solid wooden handle. All right, then.

Shutting off the light doesn't bother her; it means she can no longer see the chairs that got knocked over that night, or the place where the rug used to be. Dark isn't all bad. She's even gotten in the habit of taking her showers with the lights off.

The night hours are long, and time slows to a crawl as she stares at the ceiling. She tries to empty her mind, tries to slow and steady herself and concentrate on her breathing. She has to sleep tonight, she just has to, because otherwise she's going to be no good tomorrow. Despite knowing this, despite her building frustration as the minutes tick by and she's still staring at the same patch of moonlight on the floor, she finds herself fighting it when her eyes finally start to close.

Finally, her body wins out over her mind, and her eyes shut as she drifts into fragmented sleep. The patch of moonlight is still there on the floor, but now there's something crossing it, a shadow that snaps in and out of focus as she watches. The silhouette of a hand stretches out, and clay drips onto the floor as the fingers crook at her in a "come on" gesture. She backs for the door and the hall twists behind her, spider-things with too many legs dropping onto her shoulders and head as she tries to load her gun and the clip falls into the dirt at her feet.

She bends, scrambling for it as the shadow in the bedroom detaches itself from the other shadows along the wall, and the door bellows in and out like it's breathing, soft sounds like hands on the wood, someone feeling around for the knob. Somewhere -- she sees this with a sort of divided vision -- Mac is trying to get into the building, but the elevator won't come and the stairs are blocked off. Take them anyway! she screams silently, but he can't.

Her fingers close around the clip as the door shivers in its frame, but her hands are slick and wet and she can't make it go in. There's wetness running down her face now and getting into her eyes, blood dripping from the ends of her hair like rain and spider-things skittering up her arms. She reaches for the knob to hold it still, and as she does she's grabbed from behind and lifted off her feet.

Stella opens her eyes on a gasp and then curses out loud, and huddles under the blankets until her heart stops racing. She gets up, feeling like she could scream or pound her fists into the wall, and walks toward the kitchen. The world is wavering around her, but it's real and there's no blood on her face, no dirt on the floor. That being the case, she can live with another night of drinking tea at the kitchen table until it's time to get ready for work; she thinks she finally knows firsthand how Mac feels, all those years of insomnia and too-strong coffee.

The rest of the week is painfully ordinary. Friday evening she's working in the AFIS database when Danny knocks on the door. "Hey, Stella," he says.

She glances up. "Hi, Danny. What's going on?"

"Not too much. Just finishin' some stuff up, wanted to check in with you."

"How's your brother doing?" she asks.

"He's all right." Danny leans against the doorframe. "Lotta physical therapy and shit, know. He's hangin' in there."

"That's good." She wonders how the two of them are getting along now that Louie is more or less out of the woods, but decides not to ask.

"So, listen," Danny goes on. "I'm off shift now, and me and Hawkes were gonna go by Sullivan's for a drink. I talked to Flack and he's gonna meet us in about an hour. You up for a beer or anything?"

"I don't think so." She smiles at him. "I've just got to finish up here, and then I'm going to head home."

"You sure?" he says. "Seems to me you still owe me a rematch at the table hockey."

"Maybe next week. Let Hawkes take your money this time."

"Hey now, don't be like that," Danny says, grinning. "That was a pure fluke you won last time around. Me and Hawkes play, the good doctor is gonna be eatin' that fucking puck. Okay." He nods at her. "I gotta get going. But if you reconsider, you know where to find us."

"Sure. Hey, Danny?"

He turns back. "Yeah?"

"Thanks all the same."

"No problem. 'Night, Stella."

"Good night."

She watches him go from behind her computer. He doesn't get more than a few feet down the hall before he runs into Mac, and she can hear him extending the same invitation. Mac shakes his head and says something about catching up on paperwork, then asks how long they're going to be there.

"Dunno," Danny says. "But it's not like I'm gonna be in any hurry to get home."

"If I finish up at a reasonable hour, why don't I give you a call?" Mac says. "Maybe I can drop in for a drink or two."

"Sure." She can see Danny nodding. "You got my cell number."

"I do." Mac pats him on the shoulder as he moves on. "I'll let you know."

"See you later, maybe," Danny says, and then he's gone.

Stella feels her shoulders tensing as Mac walks past the door, but all he does is glance in briefly and then keep going. She stares at the screen and hits the button to print her results, then starts gathering up the papers to take back to her office.

The elevator, descending, is silent and calm. Ordinary, just like most of the week has been. She watches the numbers flash until it jolts to a stop, then steps out into the lobby, and from there to the street, where she sidesteps tourists without thinking about it, then stands looking up and down the stretch of Broadway. Her train, if she wants to take the subway, is in one direction, or she could get a cab right here just by stepping to the curb. She doesn't do either, and instead just stands beneath the overhang of the building, thinking. The thought of going back to her apartment is suddenly unbearable: another night of staring at black-and-white celluloid until she's given herself a headache, and then another round of sleeplessness -- or of things worse than sleeplessness. And this is Friday, and she's not scheduled for another shift until Monday. What is she supposed to do with herself?

Stay right here, she decides, at least for now. There's a Starbucks not more than five steps to her right, and they're not crowded. She goes inside and takes her place in line, knowing, as she does, that this is only a temporary solution. It'll have to do, all the same.

Close to two hours later, she's still there and is thinking about getting up to order a third cup of coffee. When she glances toward the front to see what the line is like, Mac is standing at the cash register. She's about to look away when he gets his coffee and turns around, and suddenly they're looking right into each other's faces. He raises one hand in a wave. She returns it, feeling resigned, and then he comes over to her table.

"Stella," he says.

"Hey, Mac."

"I thought you left hours ago."

"I did," she says, "and then I came here. I thought you were working late."

"I am," he says mildly. "I needed a break. All the lines on the DD5s were starting to blur into each other."

She looks up at him. "Want to have a seat?" she asks.

"Sure." He sits down across from her, and then doesn't say anything at first, stirring his coffee. She takes the opportunity to study him. There are no more dark circles under his eyes, or at least the ones that are there are less dark and deep than they were a year ago. Sure, he can sleep these days; he has no reason not to.

"How are your cases going?" he asks.

"Fine," she says. "Just chasing a few leads. You know how it goes."

He nods. "And the workload's all right for you?"

"What? Goddammit, Mac. Yes. Why wouldn't it be?"

"Stella." He holds up his hands, as if in surrender. "I'm just asking. It's my job."

Of course it is. She should know that by now. It's his job, and she looks at his hands on his cardboard coffee cup, hands that processed her apartment. "I know," she says. "The workload is fine. More than fine. You want to give me a few more cases?"

"I think we're doing all right with what we've got," he says.

"Then there's nothing to worry about."

"I guess not." They fall silent again, and he seems to pause, to consider something. She watches him, knowing that he's turning something over in his mind; she's familiar with the signs. His eyes are on the folded copy of the Village Voice beneath her elbow, she realizes, a little too late, and it would be too obvious now to shove it out of his view.

"Checking out the real estate listings?" he says.

"I just thought I'd see what's out there," she says.

He nods. "It might not be a bad idea."

"Oh? Why's that?" She can hear her voice rising in a way she doesn't like. Not like she hasn't been irritated with him all week, and not bothering to hide it, but this is different.

"A new start," he says. "Get out of a place where...where you've got bad memories associated with it. A different living arrangement can help."

"Or maybe I should just face up to things and get over it," she says. "How about that?"

He picks up a coffee stirrer, turning it around between his fingers. "I moved," he says.

For a moment she doesn't understand, and then it hits her. "What? Mac, no," she says. "That was different. That -- you couldn't afford the rent any more. You told me."

"No, I couldn't afford the rent," he says, and his eyes are calm. "But I think I would have gone anyway. It was too much. Too familiar to come home every night and see everything that...that wasn't there any more."

"So you moved," she says.

"I did." He shifts in his chair, leaning forward. "I'm not going to lie to you, Stella; that didn't fix everything. It didn't even fix some of it. But helped in some ways."

"And you don't think it's..." She doesn't even know how to finish the sentence.

"I don't think it's wrong, or weak, to do what you need to."

"It's just..." She looks down at the paper, at her coffee and the napkins spread across the tabletop. "I go back at night and it's not...I don't feel like I used to when I'm there. I loved that apartment, and now..." A strand of hair is falling into her eyes, and she wraps it around one finger. "Now I can't stand being there. It's like -- like the place has turned on me. And I never even saw it coming. I know that's stupid."

"No, it's not," he says. "And, Stella, most of us never see these things coming."

She meets his gaze. "So it's not a bad idea, then."

"It's not," he says. "You could even look in my neighborhood if you want. There are usually some places up for rent."

She raises her eyebrows at him. "I'm not so sure that's what I have in mind," she says.

"You have something against Brooklyn? It's come a long way in the world."

"No," she says, starting to smile. "No, I don't. I'm not a Manhattan snob. Well, I am, but...I just think that sounds like the premise of a bad sitcom."

"The two of us being neighbors?" He returns her smile. "It'd be convenient. You get a sudden idea about the solution to a case in the middle of the night, you'd know exactly where to find me."

"You'd hate that," she says.

"I could think of worse things," he says, and it occurs to her that she could, too, but she shrugs the thought off.

"Anyway," she says, "I have to do some more research before I make a decision. Get a better sense of what's out there."

"Research is good." He glances at his watch. "You know, I just meant this to be a quick break. I really should..."

"Oh, sure. Go. Get back to work." She waves a hand at her paper. "I have plenty to do."

"Want to come keep me company?" he asks. "I still have a lot of reports to get through, but you could set up camp on the couch. Read or research -- or whatever you want."

"Why not?" she says. "Just let me get a fresh cup of coffee, and I'm all set."

"Sure," he says. "I could use another one for the road, too."

"Of course you could," she says, and doesn't even bother to try to hide her smile.

"Are you saying I'm predictable?" he asks, as they get in line.

"No, nothing of the sort."

"I just want another cup of coffee."

"Of course," she says. He looks half-suspicious and half-amused, and she turns to face him as they wait. "How long have we been partners now?"

"Ten years, I believe," he says.

"Well, so, I know your love for a good cup of coffee," she says. "That's all."

And in ten years he hasn't ever turned on her, she thinks as she puts in her order and then goes to wait for it. Mac hasn't always been sane in the time she's known him, but he hasn't...he wouldn't ever turn on her. She's not naive enough or arrogant enough to think that there are no surprises in him, no unexpected facets to his personality even after all this time, but one thing she does know is that Mac isn't Frankie. Mac isn't any of the other men she's never let come home with her over the years.

That's something. Something to hold onto when the nights are bad.

She doesn't say anything about this to Mac, of course, not then and not when they're going upstairs in the elevator, or when she's settling herself on the couch in his office. They talk a little while longer, and then Mac goes back to his DD5s, and she stretches out with her paper and coffee.

The next thing she knows, there's weak dawn sunlight coming through the windows, and she's curled under a blanket, blinking at it in confusion. Mac isn't in the room, but his jacket is draped over the back of his chair and his desk light is still on, so she knows he's around somewhere. How -- She tries to piece it together. It was pretty late when they got back here, but...the last thing she remembers is flipping through the Voice, and then deciding to set it down for a minute or two when she realized she'd just read the cartoon with the weird little guys in fezzes three times in a row, and it hadn't made any more sense the third time than it had the first. She props herself up on her elbows.

"Good morning." Mac walks in, holding yet another cup of coffee.

"Good morning." She frowns up at him. "Did I -- "

"You nodded off a few hours ago." He sits down in the chair across from the couch. "I grabbed you a blanket from the supply room."

"Thank you." She sits up. "But I...I didn't mean to fall asleep. God, that's embarrassing."

"It's not like you snore, Stella. Or talk in your sleep." The smile he gives her is so innocent that she can't help laughing.

"Well, thank God for small favors, right? But you should have woken me up. Or left me here to sleep it off."

"Why?" he asks.

"Did you really mean to stay here all night?" she says. "I thought you were going to meet Danny, and..."

"I hadn't planned on it originally, but..." He shrugs. "Not like I couldn't find plenty to keep myself occupied. And don't worry about Danny; I gave him a call and told him I wasn't going to be able to make it. How'd you sleep?"

"Fine," she says, realizing that she actually feels wide-awake, the way she only does after she's gotten a good, solid night's sleep. She didn't wake up once -- and she didn't have any bad dreams. "I actually slept really well. This is a comfortable couch."

"I've always thought so," he says. "You up for some breakfast?"

"Yeah," she says. "I could go for something like that. Just let me freshen up."

"Sure," he says, and stands up. "I'll meet you back here."

She gets to her feet, letting the blanket fall. "You know, Mac," she says, "you really didn't have to do this."

"Stella," he says, sounding patient, "all I did was let you pass out on my couch."

"Sure." She pushes her hair out of her eyes. "I'll be right back."

It's not until she's bending over the sink to splash water on her face that she identifies the little tickle of feeling inside her: something a lot like hope, or at the very least an inkling that things aren't always going to be the way they've been since everything happened. She's had a good night's sleep, and she hasn't thought of blood in hours, no phantom traces of it on the air or on anything she touches. And there are far worse ways to spend a Saturday morning, she thinks, pulling her hair back. She's still here, and maybe there's even still something of her left inside, someone she still recognizes.

Stella takes a long look at herself in the mirror, then goes to find Mac.