This is embarrassingly late in getting posted. Thanks SO much for your patience! Now you know why most of my stories are one shots!!! I hope the end is worth the wait. If you've not read my other stories please go do some R&R with some of them after you're done here!! There might be an epilogue but I'm not sure.

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It was not long before he was walking into Stella's room, only to see that she was asleep. There was no quelling the rush of emotion that came with the realization that she was safe. Again. Mac could not stop himself; positioning himself on the bed, he pulled the sleeping woman into his arms and lap. Burying his face into her curls, he let the tears come. This could not happen again. He wanted, no needed, to protect her. Every time Stella was hurt something inside of him shattered. He knew he could not always protect her from everything but dammit! He was going to try.

Stella had woken when Mac had moved her but remained still, thankful for the comfort and security he brought. She wondered what he was thinking; he was being incredibly still, only the muscles in his arms flexing occasionally. She finally realized he was crying.

"Mac?" She pulled herself up to face him. "What's wrong? What happened?"

He pulled her back into his arms; his heart needed her as close as possible. "Nothing's wrong Stella. We got him." He would only tell her details if she asked.

"Then why…?" she looked up at him as she touched his face.

Mac grasped her hand, pulling it to his lips before lacing his fingers with hers. "I can't do this anymore Stella. I can't see you hurt, fix it and not be able to protect you from something else. My heart can't do it. I know that the timing is all wrong and that saying this is probably inappropriate right now but you need to know; I love you. Please, let me protect you. Always…forever."

Stella sat up, but stayed in Mac's arms. Placing her hands on the sides of his face she said; "There will never be an inappropriate time for that Mac. You are the reason I have gotten through all the trauma of my recent past. Frankie, AIDS, fires. All of it. I made it through because you were there. Yours was the first face I saw after I shot Frankie. Do you have any idea how seeing you made me feel? I was upset but not afraid. I'm not afraid now, and haven't been during this whole time. I knew that you would find who did this and that you would make sure he answered for what he did. I trust you Mac. I trust you more than I've ever trusted anyone. More than I ever will trust anyone. You know my past. You know what I've gone through. Other people have used their knowledge of my past to hurt me, but never you. Never. You've gone out of your way at times to keep me from getting hurt. I've seen that and over time, a very long time, I came to trust you and to love you. Yes; I love you too Mac. I don't think this is a bad time. Love is never at a bad time."

The kiss was not accidental this time. This time it was sure, both of them communicating with their lips things their mouths were unable to say.

When the pulled apart Mac still had tears in his eyes.

"Still?" asked Stella.

"I'm worried about you. What is your life going to be like for the next several weeks? Are you going to be ok? I can't protect you from the trauma-induced stress that you are going to go through. All I can do is be there for you. But I wish I could do more."

"Let me show you something. I need my phone."

Pulling Stella's phone out of his pocket Mac worried about what he might be about to see. But instead Stella put her phone on speaker and called up her messages. The familiar voice said "You have one saved message. Saved since: 2005." Then his own voice came over the speaker; "Stella, it's me. I just wanted to make sure you're ok. My offer for a hotel still stands. And if you need anything, anything at all, I'm here for you. Three in the morning? Fine. You know I'll be there as soon as you ask. You don't have to go through this alone." There was silence as she shut the phone. Finally:

"Do you know when you left that?"

"The day after Frankie. You saved it? That was years ago."

"Every time I had a hard day, or something happened I would listen to this. I listened to it every night for three weeks after I got it. Hearing your voice right before I went to sleep made me feel safe and kept the dreams of Frankie at bay. When he did appear in my dreams you did too and in those dreams you protected me every time. I still listen to it on a regular basis. Every time I have a hard day I listen to it. When we have a fight and I want to strangle you I listen to it; it makes my anger dissipate. You don't need to worry about my mental state in the near future. If having your voice was all I needed to make me feel safe, having you will increase that feeling of safety exponentially. I know I don't have to go through this alone. Now that you know I still have this on here I can thank you. I've always wanted to thank you for making me feel safe after a bad event but I knew you'd want details and I was not ready to tell you exactly how you did that. Now you know. This message has gotten me through so many hard times. So; thank you Mac. For keeping me safe and protected."

Another kiss, another declaration of love. Uncertain tho the future was it was also safer.

Fin.

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Please: R&R! I have a long weekend so I'll do my best to reply to you guys this time. (=