A/N: Yes, I finally have the last chapter up! It took much longer than I'd intended to write. Thanks for your patience, and thank you also to the people who've been poking me with varying degrees of subtlety to get this finished! More of an author's note at the end...
There was darkness surrounding her, lying over and wrapping around her like a childhood quilt. Now I lay me down to sleep… Safe, and warm. Suspended within a pool of eiderdown, layers upon layers of feathers gently brushing over her face, her hands, her hair, feathers piled over her thick as midwinter snow, layers of silence and softness blocking all the light. She didn't want to leave.
Sounds began to filter down through the feathers, which began to fall away from her, brushing her hands, brushing over her eyelids as the darkness became less absolute, the screen that was over her eyes beneath the lids beginning to dissolve, melt away.
Someone called her back, a voice she couldn't place but would have followed anywhere, calling her name over and over, a sea of sound swelling, the waves of it breaking over her head.
Eyes struggling open. Light.
The circle of a face, looking down at her.
Blink, slowly. Darkness, then light again.
The same face, with blurred edges, drawn in greys, light and dark. Light skin, dark hair.
In focus now, the face familiar, contours that she knew well, grey-green eyes that were waiting, waiting for her to recognise him.
"Stella? Stella, can you hear me?"
She searched her throat for her voice, finally found it, although it was weaker than she had expected. "Mac."
She felt his hand in hers, squeezing it gently. "Don't try to move, ok?"
She turned her head, though, and he settled back down into a chair. The remembered darkness still muffling her thoughts, she accepted without question the fact that he was there. Of course he was. But after a few seconds had gone by, she realised that she didn't know where 'there' was. "Mac? What – "
He read the worry in her eyes, speaking calmly, reassuringly. "You're in the hospital, Stella. You're safe. You're going to be fine soon, you just need to rest for now."
Obediently, she closed her eyes, letting herself sink back into the comfort of the darkness, despite a faint nagging feeling that there was something wrong. Her mind drifted. Patchworked scraps of memory rose up through it, all tinged with grey, all dissolving at the edges. Down came the rain, and washed the spider out… Voices. Faces. Pain. Grey concrete, and Adam's face, Adam's voice afraid. Water. Concrete. Spiders.
A scream, someone screaming, everything crashing down, blurred figures, Adam slumping to the ground, blood, red blood, and Mac next to him, pressing a blood-soaked shirt against his side, but his eyes were closed, and then everything blurred again, and then there was just darkness for her…
Her eyes snapped open as she was suddenly clawing for air in a blind panic. Mac was leaning over her in a second, catching her loosely flailing hand, her shoulder, holding her firmly to anchor her to reality. "Stella! Stella, calm down. It's ok. It's ok."
She shook her head, struggling to make sense, to become fully awake, fingers closing around his as tightly as she could clasp them, which wasn't very tight at all. "Adam – where's Adam? Mac, he was hurt, he was bleeding…"
Eyes fixed on his, she saw his face clench in sudden pain. "I…"
She clutched his hand, her voice desperate. "Mac, tell me. Is he ok?"
The pause only increased her fear, as he caught his breath, his eyes suddenly shadowed, his face paler. "Mac? Please, tell me. Say something."
And Mac told her, everything, choking out the story as water welled glassily in his eyes, spilled down her cheeks in rivulets.
- - - - -
The rain had stopped. The ground dried, slowly, and the remains of the half-shattered building were razed, the rubble carted away, until there was nothing visible left at all.
Time passed. It always did, always would.
- - - - -
The sun smiled down through young green leaves, casting dappled patterns on the path. The branches dipped in the light breeze, patches of shade ebbing and shifting, shadows dancing hand-in-hand with the sunbeams. Stones still damp from the morning's dew glinted like gems or dulled to insignificance, depending on chance, and on the beholder.
A man walked slowly along the dirt path, his eyes taking in the greenness surrounding him, the plants stretching up to the sun. The damp earth beneath his feet held the shape of his footprints as he passed.
- - - - -
A woman sat on a bench beneath the shade of a weeping silver birch, leaves trembling and shimmering above her, head tipped back. She looked up at the approach of feet, brushing strands of hair away from her face where they'd been tugged by the breeze. "You're late," she said, by way of a greeting.
"Good to see you too, Stell."
The mock sternness relaxed into a smile. "Thanks for coming, Mac."
"I'm happy to." He sat down beside her, handing her one of the cups of coffee he'd carried from the vendor near where he'd parked his car. "I hope it's still warm. How are you doing?"
"Not too bad. Looking forward to coming back to work."
"When you're ready for it, Stell. Not when you want to be ready."
"I am ready, to come back to the lab anyway."
He groaned. "No. Give it another week, at least. We went through all this last night at dinner."
"Well, I thought that you asking me the same thing barely twelve hours later meant that maybe you were receptive to a different answer."
Her teasing words drew a smile from him, and he wrapped his hand around hers, marvelling as he did so that she still existed, that he could feel the warmth of her smooth skin, creasing at the joints, and the reassuring solidity of the bones beneath as her fingers echoed the folding of his, soft pressure as their palms nestled against each other. He held her hand gently in his, aware now of how easily she could be hurt, could be taken away from him. He was determined not to cause her any more pain.
She, of course, knew what he was thinking. She always did. Without warning she suddenly tightened her grip to that of a vice, squashing the bones of his hand together. "Ouch!" he complained.
Laughing slightly, she released him. "See? I'm not going to break, Mac."
He still couldn't quite believe it, not just yet. But he was getting there. They were getting there.
The breeze shook the last of the may from the hawthorn trees, tiny white petals tossed haphazardly, whirling through the air to settle at last, white against the green of the grass. A wisp of cloud scurried across the face of the sun, a fleeting shade and momentary coolness that quickly moved on.
"Aren't you going to tell me the gossip?" she asked. The impish sparkle in her eyes was infectious, dragging him back to the moment, clearing the clouds from his mind.
"That depends," he replied, a smile tugging upwards the corners of his mouth, in response to hers.
"On who else you're getting gossip from. I want to make sure my stories are going to match up."
She laughed. "Oh, you needn't worry about that, I've been getting gossip from everyone – no one's stories match up accurately. Danny's match up to nothing else on Earth, though."
A pigeon noticed the two of them and landed ungainly near their feet, hoping for crumbs. He watched as she unbuttoned her jacket, fingers slower than he was accustomed to seeing them. "Talk," she demanded.
What was there to talk about? "The lab's pretty quiet. There's a case I'm working on at the moment, a nightclub dancer found in an alley, when the test results come back I'll have to leave you here for now."
"Tell me about the important stuff. I can catch up on this any day."
"What do you mean, the important stuff?" The pigeon gave up on searching for nonexistent food, fixing them with a beady glare before launching itself into the sky. He followed it with his eyes until it cleared the tree line, finally turning back to Stella.
The look from her green eyes was piercing. "I think you know what I mean. The questions you've always said you'll answer 'later', but never have."
He met her eyes with his own. A bleakness crept into his face and voice. "I – I'll talk about it, but not right now. Later."
She nodded, slowly, and allowed him to put his arm around her, this time not saying anything as he touched her as if she was made of glass. "I'll wait." The same pattern of question and answer that they had repeated every time they were together. She wished that she could fix what was broken in him, but all that she could do was wait for as long as it took, and hope that she was helping him to heal.
His pager beeped, dispelling the sombreness had begun to hang around them in the air. He checked the display. "I need to go back. I'll see you tonight at your place?"
She replied with an affirmative, and he squeezed her hand again gently as he stood up, reluctant to let her go.
He kept looking back at her as he left, and she laughed and waved him onwards, knowing that he would soon be back with her again.
- - - - -
The man carried on along the path, his feet slowing, hands in his pockets. He didn't want to arrive too early, and anyway, he still wasn't able to walk as fast as he used to. Finally he came to the turning that he had been looking for, waited to see if he could hear any voices, but there was only distant traffic, and birdsong, and the rustle of leaves. She was still sitting on the bench when he reached it, waiting for him.
"Hi." His greeting was hesitant, as was his smile.
Nothing hesitant about her smile. "Adam! I'm glad you've made it."
"You just missed seeing Mac, he got paged."
Adam didn't say that he'd missed Mac on purpose, walking slower and slower as he'd neared his destination. It was Stella who he'd come to see. "How are you?" he asked.
"Oh, I'm fine, never better. You?"
"I'm good, yeah." Her face was still pale, and both of them still played host to a spectre of pain, flitting almost constantly at the back of their thoughts. Knowing this, they were both content to take the half-truths at face value.
"Sit down," she insisted, as he seemed to be waiting for a prompt.
He sat down on the bench next to her, where Mac had been sitting a few minutes ago, and wished that he didn't still feel nervous in her presence. But then, maybe the nervousness was just who he was, and he should just accept it, as he was accepting the friendship growing between them. He'd been seeing a lot of her during the last month, at the hospital, and afterwards, during the days, when everyone was busy at work. (She'd been spending most of the evenings with Mac, and he doubted that he was mentioned then, certainly hoped that he wasn't.) And neither of them had spoken very much. There didn't seem to be very much to say, really. Generic things; 'How are you?', and 'What have you been doing?', but not much else. Nothing important.
Well, no time like the present. Some things had to be said, and he'd been turning over in his mind for a while the things that he needed to say, needed to tell her. He launched in without giving himself time to change his mind. "I didn't expect that I wasn't going to die."
Stella squeezed his hand tightly. "Oh, Adam." Her tone was sympathetic, almost apologetic, but he rushed on before she could say anything else.
"It's true. I thought I was dying, when we were in that – that place. When I opened my eyes at the hospital, I was confused. I wasn't upset, or thankful that I was alive, or anything, just confused." He still felt an echo of the surprise he had felt then. A note of shame crept into his voice. "I – I didn't even remember you were hurt, at first. I just wondered what I was doing, being not dead."
She frowned slightly, thinking back. "I don't remember what I thought. Everything was just… drifting." Shaking her head to dispel the memories she now tried to keep out of her dreams, she turned again to Adam, knowing that he needed reassurance, but not sure that she would be able to give enough of it. "You saved me, though. I do know that."
"Mac saved you. I couldn't have stopped it when the ceiling fell." But despite what he said, pride burned through him at her words, and he suddenly felt so much lighter. Maybe light enough to give him the courage to ask her what he'd been wondering every time he had seen her since – it – had happened.
"Do you know – " he began, and stopped. He didn't have enough courage, after all.
"Do I know what?" she asked. He looked away and began to twist the hem of the thin coat he was wearing, screwing the fabric into a tight knot.
"Doesn't it?" she persisted. At the look on his face, understanding hit her. "Do I know about what happened? What – what Mac did?"
"Yeah," he muttered.
"Yes, I know. Mac told me," she added. She didn't remember the moment of it herself. Didn't remember Mac's makeshift shield deflecting the falling concrete that would have crushed her skull and certainly killed her.
He nodded. She felt as if she was supposed to say something, but didn't know what.
What do you say to someone? When your life was chosen over theirs?
The wind whispered in the trees, and the sun tangled in her hair.
She was alive, Adam was miraculously still alive, but that wasn't all that mattered, because to haunt all of them there would always be a what if. The very act of living made her at least partly responsible for the fact that Adam had come so close to dying. It wasn't something that could just be swept away beneath the carpet and forgotten about, but it was something they would have to live through and past, none the less.
Swifts danced their crazy patterns through the sky. A peacock butterfly alighted briefly by her foot.
There wasn't anything to say at all, not quite yet, so they just sat there, silently, just being alive, holding on to each other's presence, building themselves back up from the fragments that they had been left with in the aftermath of all the wrong choices, and the right choices too, while the sun slid along its set path in the sky, shade swinging round the sundial gnomon of the tree's trunk.
Until the shadows were all gone.
A/N: Thank you for reading, and I really hope that you enjoyed it, please do let me know, especially if you haven't before! Thank you very much to everyone who's reviewed this, and added it to favourites and alerts, I very much appreciate it! :D
I'm sure I'll be writing something else soon, so I hope to see you again! Kate x