Down to the River
Mac's kiss tastes like cheap beer and regret. Stella arches into it and forgets all about choosing a song on the jukebox, and his hands tighten on her waist as his lips move over hers. They've been drinking for a few hours by now, but Stella doesn't think that he's drunk, or at least not so drunk that he doesn't know what he's doing, or that he'll be able to use alcohol as an excuse when he wakes up tomorrow and remembers what they've done. Maybe he won't even be searching for justifications in the clear light of day, but she figured out a long time ago that hoping for the best had to be tempered with realism. She'd like to think that he'll accept this for what it is, and that he won't be overcome with more useless guilt, and she would hope that by now he knows her well enough to realize that just because she's kissing him back doesn't mean she's looking for romance from him. But hope and would like to don't, in and of themselves, add up to truth.
She forgets about all of that and concentrates on kissing him, instead, on what truth she can find in his mouth and hands.
After Mac had gone and seen for himself that Mike Prineman had gotten his job back, he'd brought her here, to this workingman's bar down near the docks, down here on the outskirts of Brooklyn where the river flows out to the ocean. It's not the same place they went to while they were investigating Paddy Dolan's murder, but this bar is enough like that one to make little difference in the atmosphere. It's dimly lit and smells of sawdust and booze, and every time the door opens, a cold, rain-tinged breeze blows through the room, filling Stella's head with the scent of the sea. Salt seemed to work its way into everything during this case, traces of it on her skin and stinging her lips, and she can smell brine when she buries her nose in the scratchy wool collar of Mac's overcoat, drawing in a couple of deep breaths before she lifts her head and kisses him again; she thinks she'll be encountering these phantoms for weeks to come. Neon afterimages dance on the insides of her lids as she closes her eyes.
The immediate fire of her anger at him has been tamped down some since they left the interrogation room. She didn't know, at the time, if he truly got it even then, and never mind his awkward words of thanks; he had sounded like a man who was trying to remember how to be human, rusty words like the machinery in some abandoned factory. Now she thinks he does get it after all, and she shifts in his grip as he keeps on kissing her and his fingers find their way under the hem of her shirt. His touch is cold at first, but warms quickly, and he rubs his thumb across the skin just above her hipbone before suddenly breaking the kiss and pulling back a little. She opens her eyes again.
Mac looks at her, worried little frown line on his forehead, and she realizes that even though he's not kissing her anymore, he's also not letting her go. She feels like she's holding her breath. Muscles in his shoulders flex under her hands, under layers of wool and cotton, and then his thumb starts to move again, this time in a slow circle.
He drops his eyes and she follows his gaze; he's watching himself touch her, watching the way his hand moves. This is Mac, she thinks, and we're standing in a dockyard bar in Brooklyn and his hand is on my stomach. Nobody is watching them and there's no one here to care, but after a few moments he glances up and looks around the bar, bemused; and then he stops and smoothes her shirt back down, and reaches for her hand.
The air outside is damp, river breezes teasing at her hair, and they're both silent as they walk to where their car is parked at the end of the street; Stella thinks that saying anything right now may upset the fragile equilibrium they've managed to achieve. He'd dropped her hand after they stepped away from the jukebox, but his palm rests lightly at the small of her back as they walk, gentle pressure against her spine reminding her that he's still here.
When they get to the car, there's nothing gentle about the way he puts his arms around her and backs her up against the passenger-side door and kisses her again. Hard kiss, like nothing she would have imagined from Mac, and she presses into him gladly. Maybe this is why he brought her with him to the docks, she thinks, and why he took her to the local bar instead of going back into the city for a drink: not because he intended to seduce her -- Mac isn't that calculating, not in a thousand years -- but because it's a place where nobody knows them, where there probably isn't the faintest chance of running into anyone either of them knows. Neutral territory after what happened, after he almost got himself killed and she realized with a heartstopping lurch that, once again, he hadn't been paying attention.
He's got the car keys out now, and he's fumbling for the lock, trying to find it without letting go of her; his hand slides uselessly up and down the car door, and the movement pushes her further back against the side of the SUV, presses his body more firmly into hers. Stella half-turns, laughing a little now, and puts her hand over his. He finally manages to get the door open, and then they're stumbling together into the front seat and she's in his lap looking down into his eyes, and she forgets what she was laughing about just a minute ago. His mouth is still wet and a little swollen from their kisses, but there's also a lost look in his eyes, something puzzled and hurt and maybe even a little bit betrayed. It's something she's seen in his expression from time to time over the last few years, and she's never known what, if anything, to do about it.
They hadn't talked much while they were drinking back at the bar; there didn't seem to be much to say. They don't always need words, not with each other, and sometimes when they do, when she wishes that Mac could just say what's on his mind, and when she suddenly finds it much harder than it should be to call him a jackass or too stubborn for his own good, the words aren't there anyway. Not the right words, and not the wrong words, either; and by now, Stella thinks that she'd settle sometimes for the latter. There's only this: the silence that's been growing between them for the last four years and Mac's goddamned inattention, like he's not even in his body, like he doesn't even see anymore why it's important for him to be there.
I'm glad you were paying attention, he'd said, and she'd bitten back the retort she'd really wanted to give:
One of us has to be.
She tries to put that out of her mind; it won't do any good now to remember it, or to let it get her angry at him all over again. Words don't work anymore, so maybe now it's time to try another form of communication, another way of bridging the gaps that have been allowed to grow between them. And maybe even Mac recognizes that, in some dim, half-articulated way. Maybe this is the real reason why he asked her to come with him to the docks, and why he took her out drinking afterward -- and why he had come up to her while she was standing at the jukebox flipping through the song choices and put a hand on her cheek and leaned his face against hers.
He's here in his body now, that's for sure, and he reaches a hand up to her face, fingers slipping across her cheek and then brushing the upper curve of her lip. She nips at his thumb as he traces the outline of her mouth, and he sighs. He still looks worried, and then he puts his other hand on her shoulder and pulls her into him, into another long kiss. Stella flicks her tongue across his teeth and cups his face in her hands, nails biting into his scalp. She wants him to feel it, to know that he's really here and so is she, and that they're really doing this. That it isn't just something that's happening, but something that they're both active participants in.
"Stella..." He whispers it into her mouth, the first word he's spoken since they were in the bar.
"Here," she says, and loosens his tie so that she can undo the top buttons of his shirt. He lets her do it.
It's getting warm in the car now, their combined breath making little steam circles on the glass, and he reaches past her and opens the driver's-side window just a crack, just enough to let in a little bit of that rain-soaked breeze. Salt and seaweed fill her nose again, and she thinks of storms at sea; when she looks down at Mac again, he's looking out the window, staring into the Brooklyn night.
After a moment or two, he turns his gaze back to her. "Still," he says, and there's bewilderment in his voice now as well as his eyes.
Stella folds back his collar. "What else?" she asks, matter-of-fact, and at first she thinks he's going to argue with her, but in the end, he just nods. There's still the same old sorrow in his eyes, too, the same old ghosts, but now there's realization there, too -- or maybe it's only lust, after all. His hands move under her shirt again and he slides a little lower in the seat. She kisses his forehead and his closed eyelids and then his mouth again, and as she moves in his lap and then slides lower, letting her breasts brush his shirtfront, another sigh escapes his lips, a sound that may be the beginning of a moan.
He tips his head back, and as she licks her way down the line of his exposed throat, she's not sure if it's tears or the ocean under her tongue.