Title: Without You
Author: Banana Tooth
Spoilers: Slight spoilers for Season Three.
Disclaimer: I am in no way connected with CBS, the CSI Franchise, or its writers, producers, or directors.
It goes in cycles with Mac. I'll start to notice that his muscles are too tight, the shadows are darker under his eyes, his voice sounds scratchy. That's not unusual for any of us at the end of the day, but he'll be the same the next morning. He'll snap at suspects, or even, very rarely, at me. In my case he'll pinch the bridge of his nose and apologize wearily. I'll smile, to let him know there are no hard feelings, and plan my strategy.
If I can get him to talk (I seem to be the only person who can) and to relax, even just a little bit (I can usually do that too), he'll be better the next morning, and grin at things again, and it will last for a while after that. I ignore the side of me that wants to tell him that if he'd just let me, it could be like this all time…and watch for the cycle to start all over again.
So now I see it coming, and I'm determined not to let it go too far this time. I think ahead to see which night we'll both have available, and buy the stuff for lasagna. Thursday night, while he's working, I make the lasagna and put it in the fridge, and Friday morning when we're in his office I bring it up casually, and get him to agree to come over.
I unlock the door and he follows me in, a little shy and diffident, like he usually is at my place. I smile at him to put him at ease while I take off my blazer, leaving just my tank top, and kick off my shoes. "Sit down, Mac. I'll get dinner in the oven," I say, but he follows me into the kitchen.
"Do you need help?"
"No, I've got it."
He goes to the couch and picks up the paper—yesterday's paper, but he doesn't seem to care—while I put the lasagna in to heat and dump the salad greens in a bowl. I come down the stairs and pause, watching him on my couch, permitting the thought for just a fraction of a second…coming home to Mac, every night. I give my head a little shake and go to the window to look out, trying to think of what to say over dinner. This time I'm not sure what the problem is, if it's anything specific.
I hear him get up from the couch and he comes up beside me silently. Our arms almost brush together—almost, but not quite. It's as if he's drawn to me…but then, we've always been drawn to each other.
I wonder if he notices that too. Or maybe I just imagine it. Maybe I just see what I want to see… No. For six years, through everything, it's been the two of us. Even when we were seeing other people…and even now, if he shifts just a millimeter his arm will be against mine, and he never lets himself get that close with anyone else. No, I decide. I'm not imagining anything.
I like just standing with him, knowing that he's right here. It's how I've always tried to content myself—if I can't have him, I can have him as my best friend, steadfast and strong and so beautiful…it occurs to me that maybe instead of longing for what I can't have, I should focus on what I do. What if I didn't know him at all…couldn't draw strength and comfort from him, or talk out my thoughts until they made sense, or hear his gentle, reassuring voice…trying to imagine my life without him seems cold and empty and lonely. I've had all that, whatever else I might have wished for, and I imagine most people don't have anything close to this their whole lives.
I make up my mind. I'm going to tell him.
"I'm glad I have you, Mac."
He turns his head to look at me, his face still but with surprise showing in his expressive eyes. My lips aren't quite steady but I make myself go on. "I'm glad we have each other. So…" I lift my eyes to meet his, breathing carefully, "…thank you."
"Stella," he says quietly, a little bewildered. "What is it?"
"Nothing." I swallow. "It's just—we never say it, and I wanted to tell you."
He nods and turns back to the window, looking out silently. After a long moment he speaks softly, staring down at the street. "You're right," he says. "I never say it. So many times I want to and I just can't find the words—and that's no excuse."
He stops and I steal a sideways glance toward him. His gaze is still fixed on the street. After a while he takes a deep breath and his voice is low.
"I know I told you once I wouldn't do this job without you…but the truth is I couldn't do it without you. You've saved me from myself so many times…sometimes I wonder where I would be if I didn't have you, Stella, and I honestly don't know. So many nights I've thought I couldn't do this any more and then you come in smiling and you're so strong and I think maybe things aren't so bad after all, because I still have you."
He still hasn't looked up, but I've turned toward him and I'm watching him breathlessly. My heart is pounding because he's never talked like this before, and it almost sounds like…
He goes on, hunching his shoulders a little. "When I was in London…I spent the whole time wishing you were with me. I imagined seeing things with you and I thought about what you would say, and what I would say, and how much you'd enjoy it… But the thing is, I didn't even realize I was doing that, because I always do that, wherever I am. It was just after—Peyton—when I was thinking about it, and I realized…I'm never happy anymore except when I'm with you."
I watch his profile, wide-eyed, for a moment and then look back out the window, because I really, really don't know what to do now. I catch his wrist, gently pull his hand from his pocket, lace my fingers through his. A jumble of thoughts swirls through my head: doesn't he know, can't he see…what would happen if I just turned and kissed him, right now…
The oven timer rings, startling both of us. I draw a deep breath and set my other hand lightly on his arm as I gently disentangle my fingers from his. I let my hand brush along his sleeve as I move away, a little surprised at myself for doing that.
I get the lasagna out, and set out the salad and the dressing—ranch for him, thousand island for me—and pour his tea. Iced tea and Italian—I've never quite seen the connection myself, but that's what he likes.
I go back to the window and touch his shoulder. "Come on and eat," I say softly, but the words aren't even out of my mouth before I'm caught tightly up against him, his hands gripping my wrists hard at my sides, his face against my shoulder. It happens so fast I feel like the wind has been knocked out of me. My heart is racing and he's tense and even trembling a little, his body hard against mine all the way down to our knees.
"We work together." His lips are against my neck and his voice is rough and vibrates through my skin. I feel dizzy.
"Yeah," I murmur.
"I'm your boss."
His kiss is hot and unexpected, just behind my ear. My breath catches audibly before I can help it. I don't know what to do, what to say, but I keep thinking I should stop him, because finally, finally, he seems to be on the brink of some kind of decision, but I can't let him do it while he's upset like this, he needs to think it out…
He just stays like that for what seems like a long time, until his breathing isn't quite so ragged anymore. "This is where you're supposed to talk some sense into me," he says at last, and I smile.
"Sorry, Mac, you're going to have to make up your own mind on this one." I turn my head to brush a kiss against his cheek and pull away gently. "Come on, the food will be cold."
For a second I think he's not going to let me go, but his grip loosens and his hands slide away—reluctantly, it seems to me—and he follows me to the table.
I dish him up a huge helping of lasagna, knowing he'll eat it and more, knowing how famished he always is at the end of the day. He doesn't look up at me, instead watching my hands, and when I pass him his plate I see why—my wrists are faintly red where he had gripped them so hard. He catches my hand, gently this time, and strokes his thumb lightly against my wrist bone. "I'm sorry," he says softly.
He raises his eyes to mine. "I hurt you," he says simply.
I meet his gaze, trying to read his expression, wondering whether to take that at face value or if his words have a deeper meaning. "It's okay," I say reassuringly, because he didn't really hurt my wrists, and as for everything else…I know he never meant to hurt me.
He squeezes my hand, still gently, and lets it go. I begin to eat, if only to get him to follow my lead. I've got to get some food in him.
We don't say much, but I can see his condition visibly improving as he eats and I decide I was right to interrupt him. You can't base a romance on low blood sugar, I think, stealing glances at him across the table.
As he finishes his lasagna I silently slide the pan toward him and he breathes the bashful little laugh I love, helping himself to more. "This is good," he murmurs.
I grin at him, because his hair is tousled and his eyes have softened and oh, I love him so much. "Thanks," I answer.
When we finish, we slip automatically into our routine—he puts the food away and I do the dishes. There are just a few, so I go ahead and wash them. He's done before I am, and he leans against the front of the stove, hands in his pockets, watching me. Even without looking I can feel his eyes on me, sending little shivers up and down my spine, even though I'm sure he's not looking at me like that. I'm dismayed to find myself blushing.
"Thanks for dinner," he says at last.
"Sorry I wasn't very good company," he says quietly.
"You're always good company, Mac," I murmur, half to myself.
"No, I'm not. I know that."
But I don't care, I think, eyes fixed on my hands in the soapy water. Even when you're depressed or cranky, even when I can hardly get you to say a word, all I want is to stay with you, to try to make you better…
And then he comes up behind me. I feel the sweet, familiar pang low in my stomach as he comes up close enough for me to feel his warmth, for his breath to stir my hair. He sets his hands on my bare arms and I lower my head, my own hands going still in the water. His hands are big and hard and gentle on my skin. He slides them down to my elbows and back up again and I know he can feel the goose bumps that immediately arise, which makes me blush more.
"You always know what to do," he breathes. "How do you do that?" He leans his face against my hair and I bite my lip, grateful for the support of the sink in front of me. "Why do you do that? Why do you even bother with me, Stella?"
I know what I'm going to say before I say it, and I try to tell myself not to. Not like this, not with your back to him, just tell him it's not that hard to figure out, if he'd just remember to eat lunch once in a while he'd be a whole lot better off… "Because I love you," I say steadily.
He's still and silent for a long moment. So I am too, and now my stomach really hurts because I've ruined everything, but it's just that I've grown so tired of just thinking it, never being able to say it out loud… I bite my lip harder.
Finally he stirs and reaches for the towel. He takes my hands from the water and dries them carefully, and then he turns me around to face him. My gaze is fixed on his Adam's apple, but he sets his hand under my chin, tipping my face up enough that our eyes meet.
"Have you made up your mind?"
I swallow and nod. "A long time ago."
"Say it again."
It almost sounds like an order. I've never heard his voice like that, rough and low and gravelly—almost as if he's angry, but his eyes aren't. My own voice cracks a little, but I manage to get it out. "I love you, Mac."
He breathes out and his shoulders relax a little, as if he's relieved, and his hand slides up along my cheek. "How long?" he asks.
"Oh—years…" It's hard to say, really. Of course I've loved him as long as I've known him, but as far as loving him like I do now…that just sort of crept up on me, slowly, sometime after that awful first year without Claire. It's odd, but I'd been so wrapped up in him then that I couldn't see past us to what was happening with me.
"I thought it was just me."
"I just…tried to ignore it. I couldn't think of anything more—inappropriate than having a crush on a coworker…unless it was falling in love my best friend. I'm so sorry, Stella."
He's sorry? Is he—turning me down? I'm afraid he is, and it feels like something is squeezing my chest, crushing my lungs…but his palm is cradling my cheek, holding me close to him, and he never does that. "What do you mean?"
"I thought it didn't matter, since it was just me, I'd just get through it somehow." He rubs his thumb a little against my cheekbone. "We could have been happy, all this time…"
Oh, Mac… I'm afraid the tears are going to start again. I set my hands gently at his sides, against his belt. "Well, we could start now."
"You sure? It's not too late?"
"Of course not." Is that what he thought?
"I shouldn't have been with Peyton," he says quietly.
"No, don't say that..."
"I just…I'm sorry if it was hard for you. I know what it was like for me, when you were with Frankie."
I stare at him. I'd never even thought about that. I was lonely, and it seemed like nothing was ever going to happen with Mac…was that the way it was for him, too? Have we been at cross-purposes all these years? "Listen," I murmur, sliding my hands against him so my palms rest against his stomach, where it's nice and flat and hard… "Why don't we just start over?"
"You sure?" he says again.
I smile up at him, thinking, like I have perhaps too often, that when he's wearing shoes and I'm not we're just the right height—he just needs to lean down a little, while I look up, and it wouldn't be awkward at all… "I'm sure."
He sighs—and goes on talking. I think he's apologizing again, but I really don't know what he's saying. I'm not listening; I'm trying to keep a straight face. Maybe he's right…why would anyone want to take this on?
"Mac." My hands skim up along his ribs, and now I'm laughing. It's terrible, but I can't help it. "Shut. Up."
He does, startled, and then his beautiful smile shines out and he takes my face between both hands, pulling me up to him. His eyes are on my lips and he leans in slowly, too slowly, but I wait for him. And I wonder, considering the way he looks at me sometimes, if he's thought about kissing me before, because he knows just how to tilt his head so we don't bump noses and our mouths fit just right.
He's sweet and soft and warm, but I'm grinning too widely to even kiss him back. But then his fingers slide into my hair, grasping the back of my head, and his other hand is at the small of my back and he kisses me again, deeper this time, and I'm not grinning anymore. I gasp as he suddenly catches me to him and I wrap my arms all the way around him and hold on tight. I love the way he feels—all muscle and bone and sinew, his heartbeat quickened, matching mine.
It's as if he's trying to breathe me in, as if what we've held back all this time is finally spilling out—years of little smiles and tiny touches and shy words that don't say what we meant at all, and now I know that it was the same way for him too, and I just want to show him that everything's going to be all right…
He moves lower, kissing my bottom lip, taking it between his own and pulling gently as he draws back. It takes me a moment to get my eyes open after that. When I do, he's smiling, but he looks a little dazed. "Stella…" he murmurs.
"Shh." I stop him, afraid he's going to start talking again, and set my lips along his jaw line, trailing little kisses there.
"Can I say I love you?" he asks, and I grin.
"Yes," I reply against his chin. "You can say that."
His hands go to my sides and I'm surprised when he lifts me up and sets me on the edge of the counter so that he's standing between my knees. He looks up at me, eyes shining. "I love you," he says softly.
Beaming, blinking back tears, I pull him to me and he sets his face where the V of my top leaves my skin bare, his forehead against my throat, and I turn my head to rest my cheek against his hair. I like this—an old expression comes to my mind, holding him to my bosom—and I smile and bring my hand up to stroke his hair, soft between my fingers. I graze my nails lightly against his scalp and his breath catches sharply and his arms go tight around my waist. So I hold him, sliding my other hand across his shoulders, feeling the breadth and warmth of him and thinking, I can do this now.
I almost whimper when he kisses me there, just once, slow and lingering, because the tingle that spreads outward all the way to my fingertips is so strong it's almost painful. He brushes the tip of his nose all along my throat and shoulders, still seeming just to breathe me in. I feel achingly, radiantly happy, and he makes a breathy little sound that makes me think he feels the same, and leans against me again, and I think, he can do this now, whenever he wants...
I'm not surprised when his phone rings—it's a wonder it hasn't rung all evening—but I'm frustrated, almost angry. Leave him alone, he's busy, I think impatiently as he reaches for it.
"Taylor." His face is still against me as he answers. I hold perfectly still, not making a sound, and he stays there. It's Flack—I can hear his voice, but I can't make out what he's saying—and for some reason as Mac's low voice pulses through me and I think how Flack has no idea where Mac is, or what he's doing, my heartbeat quickens again. I'm breathing hard but being careful to be quiet as Mac says, "Okay. Get Hawkes and Danny on it, they can handle it."
Is he actually not going? He's choosing me over work…a sort of warm glow starts to spread through me.
"Sorry," he says, putting his phone away.
"Hey," I murmur, and he looks up. I want to thank him, but I can't think of what to say without sounding corny so instead I take his face between my hands and kiss him all along his hairline. His eyes drift shut and I kiss them too,and then the side of his nose…and then his phone rings again.
Now it's Danny. I can't hear him either, but I know what it means when Mac looks up at me helplessly, apologetically, as if seeking permission. "It's okay," I whisper, and he tells Danny he'll be right there.
This time as he hangs up his shoulders are sagging. "Stella, I'm sorry."
I've heard that enough tonight to last me a lifetime. I get him to look back up at me. "Mac…it's okay. I'm—familiar with your line of work."
He grins a little, and says, "Thanks."
He lifts me down and sets me gently back on my feet and we walk hand-in-hand to the door. He turns from pulling on his jacket to see me putting on my shoes and getting my keys, and he's surprised. "You don't have to come," he says.
"We'll get done sooner."
"True." He tilts his head. "I just don't want to ruin your evening, too…"
I go to him and nuzzle his neck. "You've done anything but ruin my evening."
That makes him laugh a little, and he clasps his arms hard around me. "It's been a good night, hasn't it?"
Nestling, I tell him, "I liked the counter thing."
"I've always wanted to do that," he admits.
"To me, or just to anyone?" I tease him.
"It's only ever been you, Stella. Ever since…Claire." And then, while I'm still digesting that, he adds, "Besides, I like your collarbones."
I laugh out loud at that. "Thank you." I slide my hands along his arms, exploring the strong, solid curves of his biceps. "Anything else you've always wanted to do?"
He seems a bit flustered, to my delight. "Yes," he says, looking at my mouth.
I set my lips next to his ear, and breathe, "Show me later?"
I love making him blush.