1. Central Park at Dusk by Trialia
She's never once wished she was out of town when the Towers fell. Not seriously.
She still remembers, though, late at night, how heart-wrenching a day it was. Thousands of people missing without a trace, people jumping from windows to choose a quick death by impact instead of a slow death by suffocation. She knows exactly how long it took people to choke to death from the smoke in there; saw slides of their lungs in the ME's office, charred and smoked. She doesn't regard herself as overly sensitive, but she didn't eat barbecue for months after 9/11. She couldn't.
She remembers even more clearly the stomach-churning worry for Mac, and for Claire. She'd known Claire worked in the North Tower; of course she had, she'd known them years by then. She remembers praying as hard as she never had, that her friend's wife had been ill that day; that she hadn't gone to work. Then she'd run into Mac in a state of quiet panic.
Out of luck.
She'd never tell Mac, not with the look in his eyes, but after those agonising days in the autopsy suite trying to identify what was left of so many people, she was almost glad they hadn't found Claire— not like that. It would almost have been worse.
Neither of them could stop for long: too much to do, too many people to protect and serve, dead or alive; but she made him take a break twice a day to eat something with her. Couldn't keep going with no fuel. She kept him talking the whole time, about the job. Did her best to keep him— and herself— from dwelling on the fact that his wife (and her friend) was still missing, to hold back the rising tide of fear in both their hearts when they hadn't found her or heard from her by September 17th, her birthday. What would have been her birthday. Held him together as best she could. Took care of him in the midst of the rubble, even when he'd tried to close off to everyone and everything.
He did his duty, as always. She'd never seen him shirk it— and even in the face of the growing probability his wife was dead along with thousands of other people they both knew, he still didn't.
So many people. So many. Too many.
She knows he still thinks they could have stopped it, if they'd known. Maybe they could; not just the two of them, obviously, but the country could have been so much better prepared. So many people died who should have escaped, for so many reasons.
She tries to quit dwelling on the subject; instead of continuing to toss and turn in her bed, she gets up to make herself a drink. Might help her to get back to sleep, she thinks.
She tries not to think about how much she wishes Mac were here. She's not so good at that one.
She doesn't think of the irony when she wakes up bound and bleeding in her own damn bathtub and wishing she'd asked Mac to come back with her that evening. Her head's still pounding from where Frankie hit her, and it makes thought difficult.
She will save herself from this. Whatever happens, if she lives, that's what matters. Not what happens in the meantime. If Frankie— she doesn't want to think about it. But he's determined to kill her. Whatever it'll take to stall her own death, that's what she'll do. It doesn't matter what. But before he comes back—- where has he gone, what is he doing? She doesn't need to know, doesn't want to know, just needs to get out.
She can't resent Mac for not being there for her now. She can only hope he'll make it there in time, if she can get hold of him somehow. If she can get out of this. When she gets out of this.
Come on. Don't be stupid.
Idiot, for not seeing what Frankie was like before this. For not realising what a dirtbag he was. Any other woman, she'd tell them they weren't to blame, and she knows she isn't, but she can't stop thinking to herself that she should have been more careful. She should have known. Should have asked Mac to her apartment tonight, to watch a movie or something, broken her long-standing rule of no-men-in-my-place for that one man and brought him home. Told him how she felt, how she's felt all along.
Maybe Frankie's figured that out, and that's what made him snap. But no— he was creepy sometimes before tonight, in hindsight. Other stuff that he'd done, even before he'd filmed them in bed together without asking her-– there'd been other things that should've been warning signs for her. She should have paid more attention, instead of worrying about trying to make herself care more about him and less about Mac. She should have been focussing on him and not on how she felt about him. About either of them. How did Frankie even find my place?
She catches muffled voices; a surge of hope almost suffocates her for a second.
But no— the door slams, making her jump. Her fingernails have dug into her palms, her hands are so cramped. The sudden release of pressure floods pain into the cuts, a stinging sensation that nonetheless makes her feel better because it means she's alive. Just like the radiating pain from the back of her head.
It gives her an idea. She can't wait for Mac to arrive to save the day, it's not her style. She's got to find a way out of here — and the safety razor on the side of her shower stand seems like a good idea, since her hands are cut already.
Do it. Before he comes back.
She gasps for breath, and forces herself up from her knees.
Mac, damn you, I wish you were here.
He wishes he could be at her side. He's been assured, at least, that she is going to wake up eventually, and that the damage to her body is not serious. He still worries about her.
Will she remember what happened to her, when she wakes up? He's got to work on the case with the assumption that she won't; got to find out from the evidence what happened. He'd thought things were okay between her and Frankie, but he hasn't seen much of her lately. Half his own fault, certainly: he wants her to be happy, but seeing her with another man on a regular basis, thinking about having that kind of conversation with her— now that he's sure about what his feelings are toward her— has been too hard to do. Marine or not, there are some things Mac Taylor's never had the nerve to do, and telling Stella Bonasera just how he feels about her is high on that list.
He almost lost her in every way, today. The thought makes him sick to his stomach.
He's almost hoping she doesn't remember— for her sake— and that he can learn what happened to her without needing to take her through it again. It's not working out that way yet, though.
He can still see the blood on her hands. Her own blood. But the stains on her face weren't her blood type; those must have been his.
His fists clench in anger. That Stella had been driven to that—
He has to stay calm. To do his job as best he can. To figure out exactly what went on here. He never expected to have to treat Stella's apartment like a crime scene— but that's what it is. He's just not sure what the crime will turn out to be, and he hates that he isn't. He's got to determine that— and do it fast. He can't get emotional enough about it to risk being taken off this case; if Sinclair decides to arrest Stella, even if she's not charged with anything, it'll mean the end of her career. And since this case is what's making it impossible for him to be at Stella's bedside when she wakes up, he's damn well going to give it everything he's got.
He's got to figure out what went on here. He's certain, heart-sure, that Stella didn't kill her own boyfriend without some major provocation; her injuries alone would prove that even if nothing else did. The razor cuts on her fingertips, the bruising on her face— it has to have been self-defence. She'd never do this otherwise. What had he done to her?
Detachment. A necessary condition. He can't go over every little detail of what Stella went through in this room without taking a step back from it, treating it like any other case. It's not just any other case, but it has to be.
You can't go back and kill the guy again for her, Mac.
He sets his jaw, picks up his kit and gets on with his job.
He can't be with her— but he can prove her innocent of murder. He's sure of that, if nothing else.
Dammit, Stella. I wish you were here.
Mac strums his instrument lightly, trying to take his mind off the events of the day. The best way he's found to distract himself from problems at work is to play his guitar, to concentrate on the performance, on the music and nothing else.
It's hard to do when work follows him home, like it did today. When the lives of people he holds dear have been specifically threatened, it gets worse. Andy— he can't think of him as Drew— Andy didn't just want Mac dead, today. He wanted to watch while Mac lost someone he loved. He had been sure Andy had been expecting Stella to come through that door. It makes him sick to think about it, and that physical response makes him rage.
The anger stays on the inside, now. He presses the strings against the fret gently, careful not to damage the guitar. It doesn't deserve to be wrecked in a fit of rage. The guitar didn't have anything to do with what happened today, except to be the outlet to help him relax.
It's not working. Mac knows it, but he still thinks it's worth a try. It's done the trick before.
He looks up, as footsteps sound down the hall. Some spark of hope rises— is it Stella? He'd seen her in the bar before the show. He hadn't known that she knew he came here to play with the band. Lindsay probably told her. He's not sure he's entirely comfortable with her being aware of his escape, and at the same time he wants her to know. Wants her to be there. Wants to—
The door opens, interrupting thought.
A blonde leans in through the doorway. Curls like Stella's, but a different colour-– she's got big blue eyes and pouting red lips, not like Stella at all. He doesn't know her, but it's pretty clear what she came for.
"Hey," she murmurs, "you played good tonight."
"Do I know you?" His response is polite, but deliberately distant.
He's not interested in picking up a groupie, if that's what she is, and her spaghetti-strap high heels, heavy makeup and skimpy blue dress would suggest it. Her curly hair does remind him of Stella, though; it wanders in all directions, just like hers. Maybe he shouldn't take that thought much further.
He's never been good at picking up women, anyway. He's not sure that's a bad thing. He gets up from his seat, settles the guitar in the corner and gently disengages the blonde woman's hand from his shoulder as he turns around.
He makes some excuse. Doesn't even remember, later, what it was that he said. She pouts, tries to recover the situation. Fails.
"Listen," he tells her in a friendlier tone, "if you want to meet Dan, I could arrange that for you."
She brightens up. Not a wasted night for her after all, he thinks. Hopes that listening to the band wasn't a waste either. That he hadn't had an off night, despite the troubles on his mind.
Mentally apologises to his bandmate, then thinks better of it. What the hell. Dan might even enjoy meeting this woman tonight. Dan's attitude to dating isn't even close to Mac's own, and maybe that's a good thing. It's unlikely he'll have another encounter with someone like Andy any time soon, he's sure. He takes the blonde down the hall to the other dressing room, asking her name while they're headed there so he can introduce her properly. He's not comfortable leaving that an unknown quantity, either— just in case.
When he steps back out into the bar, guitar hitched over his shoulder in its soft shell, his gaze automatically slides to the table where Stella's been sitting all night.
She's gone. He bites back the disappointment. He thought she might be, but maybe she needed to get away from it all just as much as he did tonight, and maybe that included him. He can't help wanting to protect her, though, after today. Always, even though he knows better than most just how well she's able to stand up for herself. But he'd been hoping she'd stay.
I wish you were here, Stell.
He's not answering his phone tonight. It worries her. The door to his building is closed tightly, handle wet from the rain as she touches it. It glistens in the dim glow of a light from one of the first-floor windows.
She's got a key to the building; he gave her that after the last accident he had on the job, when someone had had to visit his apartment to grab clothes for him while he stayed under observation-– under duress—- in the hospital, and she'd been the one who'd had the opportunity and the level of trust to go. It makes her warm to know he trusts her as much as she trusts him. Sometimes she wonders if he knows exactly how much she trusts him. She knows he knows that she doesn't let men into her apartment as a rule, but that she would let him in. Has let him in.
After today, she can't leave him to face his demons alone. Not after this. And maybe— just maybe— it's past time she lets him in in the other sense, too.
First, though, he's got to let her in, more literally. She's rung the bell twice, and still isn't getting an answer. Maybe he's asleep? It would be unusual for Mac, but so is him not answering the bell or the phone to her. He knows she's not on call, but...
She rings the super's bell. He knows her, and he'll let her into the building. She's done enough worrying over Mac today, and truth be told, she doesn't want to be alone.
She expects his eyes to be puffy from sleep when he opens his apartment door to her at last, since he didn't answer his phone or his doorbell. They're not, though, and she checks her assumption; ought to know better. He'd never be asleep so deeply, not after what just happened.
“Stella.” The corner of his mouth crooks up in a half-smile, the one he gives when she's done something he didn't quite expect her to do that he likes. She's learned that smile. She returns it. Neither reaches their eyes.
“I guess you weren't asleep, huh.” It's not a question, and she doesn't wait for an answer.
He steps back into his front hall, wordlessly letting her in, walking back inside without taking his eyes off her. The tall lamp in his living room is lit, and the glow reflects softly against the window. It's the only light in the apartment.
Pointless, useless question. It's something to say.
“About as much as you, I guess.”
He's drifted toward the counter; her eyes follow him in the low light as he opens a cupboard, retrieving a bottle of wine. She smiles to herself, a little; she knows he only keeps red for her-— he hardly drinks it otherwise. He tilts the bottle in her direction, asking.
“Sure,” she says, leaning against the door-frame and watching his back as he reaches up to get glasses for them both. Beautiful sight, though she'd never tell him “beautiful”: all long, lean lines. She knows what he looks like underneath the pale shirt he's wearing, and savours it, just for a minute.
He catches her looking at him, when he turns around. He doesn't call her on it, but he smiles again, knowing. She wishes she could see the look in his eyes.
She steps forward, reaches to take the glass from his hand, and he lets her; the tension in the room is made a little sweeter when their fingers brush in passing.
"C'mon," he murmurs, "let's take this somewhere more comfortable."
Her lips twist; Mac's usual way of saying something that might mean something or might not gets to her sometimes. Like tonight. She's almost sure... But he doesn't look at her as he moves past her, and she follows him into the living room. His couch is set up against the back wall, a blanket covering most of it.
"You planning to sleep on the couch again?" she says, without thinking first about why he might want to.
Mac gives her an amused look. If he were any other man, she'd expect him to say something like only if you sleep with me, but he wouldn't come out with a line like that. She's glad. It's what makes him Mac, that he isn't like that. That and plenty of other things that she loves about him.
And she does love him. She's known that for long enough that she's not afraid admitting it to herself any more. Not to him either, she thinks, suddenly. Not tonight.
His glass has been set on the table at one end; she leans to place hers at the other. Always thoughtful— he plans out everything. Usually. He didn't plan out tonight, or what Drew Bedford— Andy, Mac called him— was going to do. She should have never started dating again so soon, and she sure shouldn't have let Drew get under her skin the least little bit, but she did, and she did, and she can't be sorry enough that she let him get that close to Mac.
He's felt the atmosphere, the change in her mood, and he doesn't try to talk her out of it.
Instead, as soon as the glass is gone from her hand, he reaches for it, to possess it. She goes willingly, letting him pull her down to the couch and rest her head against his shoulder. It's not the first time they've sat like this, though it's been a long time since the last, and never with the focus on nothing but them— there's usually an old movie on TV, with popcorn, or something.
This is different. She knows it, and appreciates it.
"It's not—" he begins. She interrupts.
"Not my fault, Mac," she agrees, looking up into his face. Whether she really believes it or not. "I know. But it wasn't yours either. Quit blaming yourself."
He begins to shake his head, just a little, but pauses.
"Come on, Mac," she says. "You were just a kid."
She's right. And apparently it's enough for now. He stops arguing, and just pulls her into a different position; he's almost lying down, now, and her head is on his chest. Closer than she's used to. She inhales his scent, breathes him in. If this is the only chance she's got left—
She's taken by surprise, when he cups her chin and tilts her face up to his again. His eyes search hers like he's seeking something he already knows will be there; he must have found what he's looking for, because his hand slides around the curve of her jaw, and he buries his fingers in her hair.
She shivers, involuntarily, at the moving touch.
His voice is a tone lower than she's used to. Somehow, she finds herself holding her breath. She can't bring herself to speak. Instead, she reaches out for him in return.
Their lips meet softly, and she begins to drown.
Nowhere but here.