"Where do you go?"
Mac snapped his attention back to Jo, his brow furrowed at her question. "Sorry?"
A smile spread slowly across Jo's lips. "Several times, we've been talking and you get a little wistful smile and drift away. Where does your mind go?"
Mac could tell then, from the knowing smirk that appeared on Jo's face, that the blush he could feel on his cheeks was visible to her. He had hoped it wasn't.
He couldn't stop the smile that formed as he thought about the answer to her question and he ducked his head away from her knowing gaze.
"Should I guess?" Jo asked next, her amusement clearly heard in her lilting tone.
He raised his eyes to meet hers - sparkling brightly at him from across the table.
"Go on then," he challenged, curious as to how much she knew.
She leant back confidently in her seat, her fingers tapping against the side of her glass, as she told him, "New Orleans."
Again, Mac's smile was uncontrollable, and he found that he wasn't overly surprised that she knew. Of course he was aware that she knew where Stella had moved to, but he had been wondering what the others might have said to her about the extent of his relationship with Stella. No one ever uttered a word to him, but he suspected they knew how he felt. And had known for some time.
"Yes, it's obvious," Jo added, anticipating his next remark. She picked up her drink and raised it to her lips as she grinned at him.
She was giving him time to decide what to tell her, and he was grateful for that. They had only known each other for two months, but he felt strangely compelled to confide in her. Maybe it was the encouraging way she always smiled at him, or her kind heart - that often was the reason his mind was reminded of Stella.
He had told Jo that he would always have her back. He realised now that she had quickly become a good friend. And maybe it was about time he admitted his feelings for Stella out loud. Replaying a decade's worth of moments and memories in his head was probably not good for him. It certainly hadn't helped him make any progress towards not missing her.
"What did they tell you?" he asked her, lifting his own drink; taking a mouthful as he waited for her answer.
Her head inclined slightly in thought and she pursed her lips. "Not a lot, actually… But that in itself told me a whole lot."
Mac laughed. "Well you are a detective."
A hint of red tinged her cheeks. "Do I say that a lot?"
Mac shook his head, laughing again. "Not really."
"So what have they all avoided telling me?" she asked him.
"Oh no, please, Detective, tell me what you've deduced," Mac grinned, finding that this banter was helping him to feel more at ease about the heavy topic of their conversation.
Jo shook her head as she chuckled. "Okay… I've deduced that Stella was more to you than just a co-worker. The fact that you haven't mentioned her at all tells me that you miss her."
Mac took another swig of his drink to try not to think about how much he missed her.
Jo smiled at him, sympathetically. "And the fact that you miss her so much that you don't want to talk about her, tells me that she was more than a friend too."
Mac was ready to clarify that point when she added, "… And that you never told her how you feel."
Well, that was direct and to the point, short of her outright accusing him of being in love with Stella.
"You're good," he told her with a small smile. The only problem was that he was no longer sure he could talk about this. Hearing her tell it had been a stark reminder of how true it all was.
She sat forward, resting her arms along the table. "Mac, we don't have to talk about this."
That definitely sounded like there was more she planned to say. "But?" he prompted, and drew a wide smile from her.
"But… You lost a lot when Stella left. Some things you can replace: I can be the one member of your team that you will actually open up to - we all need that; I can drag you out for a beer when you look like you need one… And I can make sure the young ones stay out of trouble while you're out of town."
Mac's lips curved into a small smile. "Stella rarely had to do that."
Jo's smile mirrored his. "That's what I suspected." She leaned further forward, conspiratorially lowering her voice as she continued, "So you have enough vacation days to take a little trip."
Mac resisted the urge to laugh at her not-so-subtle hint. "And where might I go?" he enquired, as if he didn't know.
Jo shrugged as she sat back again and played with her glass, tilting it, turning it, causing the liquid to splash about inside. "Oh, I don't know. Hawaii, Europe… New Orleans."
As she grinned at him, he held her gaze, once more unable to fight off his own smile. But his heart was pounding and his stomach churning at the thought of doing what she was suggesting.
"I'm not sure that's…" He let his words trail off, not sure he could voice a declination of her offer when he really wanted to run to the airport immediately. Of course he had thought about going to see Stella - on many occasions - but he had always convinced himself it was a crazy idea. Having someone else speak the same idea gave it some credibility. But the fear and nerves remained.
"You don't have to tell her anything you're not ready to," Jo spoke kindly, "Just go and see her… Some things can't be replaced, Mac. You miss her. And I'd bet she's sitting in New Orleans missing you."
As sadistic as it sounded, he hoped that was true, but he remained sceptical: After all, she had accepted the job and moved away in the first place.
"Did the two of you talk before she left?" Jo asked him next, and he wondered what had prompted that question.
"Of course we did," he replied, his face creased in a slight frown.
"About why she was leaving?"
"Not really… It was a fantastic opportunity - and a well deserved promotion. She'd have been crazy not to take it."
Jo smiled, knowingly, again and nodded. "Exactly."
It took a mere beat of passing time for Mac to realise the point Jo was making. "You didn't list mind-reading on your resume," he commented with a smirk.
"I find it's better if people don't know. Makes them nervous."
Mac laughed out loud at that and Jo joined him. As he calmed down, he realised that he was imagining Stella's reaction when he turned up out of the blue; picturing holding her; seeing her smile… And it was all 'when' he turned up. Not 'if'. His stomach continued to somersault, but a degree of excitement and anticipation was creeping in. It seemed he had made his decision.
"And before it dawns on you that I've never met Stella so can't be certain that she's going to welcome you with open arms…" Jo stated, "I've met you. I've seen you these last months and there's no way you fell this deeply without it being a two-way thing. So, just see what happens when the two of you are in the same city again."
Mac admired the wistful, romantic, look on Jo's face. "This means a lot to you," he observed.
Jo's shoulders sank. "Am I being too pushy? I can -"
"No," Mac stopped her quickly. "No, I didn't mean that. I definitely needed this nudge."
"Well what are friends for?" Jo grinned. Then she raised her glass, and toasted, "To New Orleans."
Mac sat forward, lifting his own glass to clink it gently against hers. "New Orleans," he echoed, sharing her pleased smile, wondering how she had made the solution to the months of torment seem so obviously simple.
They each moved their glasses to their lips but Jo paused before drinking. "Do you want me to book your ticket?" she teased, her eyes twinkling with mischief.
Mac released a short laugh and shook his head once. "No. No, I will do it."
The sparkle in her eyes seemed to shift to something akin to triumph as Jo prompted, "Soon?"
Mac held her eyes as she smirked at him, waiting expectantly for his answer. She really did know him surprisingly well given their short acquaintance - perhaps he hadn't been as good at hiding his feelings as he had thought he was. Ordinarily he would have put off the vacation; found excuses not to go; let his nerves and fears stand in the way. But since accepting that going to New Orleans was a realistic option, he had been flushed with a sense of happiness that he hadn't felt at all since Stella left. He knew he had to go. He knew he wanted to go. What would happen when he got there was yet to be seen - and continued to be the source of the butterflies in his abdomen. But, whatever he may or may not admit to, suddenly all that mattered was that he would see Stella again.
He smiled, excitedly, at Jo and answered her question. "Soon."