The smell of death is in the air;
A woman weeping in despair says,
He has been here.

The first thing to come back after her consciousness was the pain immediately followed by the cloudy, vague memories, and only then the desire to open her eyes and face the man she was sure was holding her hand.

Her brain was working, being its regular sarcastic, intelligent self when all she wanted to do was seem moderately pleasant or attentive. At least one of her ribs had cracked and possibly collapsed, judging by the sharp pain she felt each time she breathed in. Her right ankle was badly sprained. A throbbing headache pounded at her skull and various patches of her skin seemed to have their own pulse as well.

Someone's soft thumb was rubbing her fingers tenderly, and she didn't need sight to know it was Mac. She was fairly positive he knew she was awake, too. Suspicions were confirmed when he began to speak.

"Broken rib, along with a collapse," he murmured quietly, his voice throwing a violent shade of pain behind her eyelids. The sound stabbed at her already pounding head. "A piece of ceiling managed to cause enough blunt trauma to do that and also possibly cause a concussion. A sprained right ankle, multiple bruises. Light burns on legs." His voice ached with ire.

There was a pause, and then a loud, shaky inhalation. "One large gash on the left side of your lower abdomen, other various scrapes and cuts." He stopped. "But you already knew all that, didn't you?"

A minuscule smile quirked to her lips, but then it was gone. Her eyes opened and immediately shut with a pained groan.

His hand was gone immediately and then the lights were off, only the fish tank light in the hall setting off a comfortable blue glow. With the light went a high-pitched buzzing, leaving just the pouring rain outside and her own breathing tangled with Mac's.

Her eyes opened again. "Better?" he asked, a tight smile appearing across his features. If she could've without disturbing her brain, she would've nodded, but decided against it.

He helped her sit up gingerly in the bed. "You're not going anywhere for a little while, so don't try anything creative," he told her. "You've been through hell. It's a wonder you're even alive, Stella."

The look he gave her frightened her. Like it really was a wonder she was alive.

"I'm trying to... to remember," she supplied, cringing into the darkness.

"I wish you didn't have to," Mac sighed. "You've only been out for a few hours. They relocated your knee and shoulder. Lindsay and Hawkes are processing the scene now; we haven't found anything we could possibly get anyone on, except the gun."

It was clear it was difficult for him to be so nonchalant about this—his jaw was locked in place angrily and his features were screwed up in restraint from showing his real emotions.

"The gun?" Stella asked, eyes wide. Tears filled them. She angled her head upward to try to drain them out. "I don't remember, Mac, I can't..."

She remembered the pain, the threatening tone to his voice. Seeing red. The awful feeling of realization that had hit her like a fucking mack truck when she'd discovered who he was hit her once again, and her emotions painted her face with anguish.

Mac's hands encompassed hers, squeezing tightly. He held her comfortingly in his gaze, though the rest of his face now looked just as tormented as hers.

"Jesse," she breathed, her chest heaving up and down as she tried to control her thoughts. "Jesse Mala, he was... he was Frankie's brother."

Mac's fists almost crushed Stella's fragile fingers.

It always went back to Frankie. Always. Mac lit up with fury at the sound of his name.

"Stella, you don't have to do this now," he whispered as consolingly as he could through his clenched teeth. "You need rest."

But then she was sobbing harder than he'd ever seen her do so before, and he had to hug her, no matter how afraid he was of shattering her anymore. She didn't move, only weeped harder, soaking his shirt in a matter of moments.

And that was how they remained for quite a while. From behind him, Danny came in and uttered half a syllable before turning and retreating, knowing it wasn't his place to interfere. Flack came in after that, and he stayed until she finally quieted down and began her story, her breaths hiccuping painfully in her chest.

"Mac, I had to solve this, I had to do it. You couldn't keep me from working just because he wanted me, you can't protect me all the time. I had to do it. I couldn't kill more people again. All those people, dead, because of me. I can't take that. And all I remember... it was Jesse. It was him, Mac; he said he was angry because I killed his brother, because I killed Frankie—and he said that you would get to feel what it was like to lose someone important..." she trailed off and began to cry again.

Flack seemed to stop breathing in the background. "Frankie's brother?" he roared, throwing the newspaper he'd had in his hands to the ground. "Son of a bitch!" he shouted, and turned and exited the room in a near sprint.

"It's okay, Stella. It's okay," he repeated over and over into her hair, trying as hard as he could to make the words true.

"That's all I remember, Mac," she finished, her crying coming to a close.

"Don't worry," he said, releasing her awkwardly and sitting normally in the chair. "Just like last time, the evidence will fill in the empty spaces. We will catch this guy, okay? He's not going to get away with this."

The hardness of his voice was comforting to Stella. Mac always made her feel safe, especially when she was too vulnerable to protect herself. Though she did hate that feeling more than anything else, except maybe the entire Mala family tree at this point.

"Flack will be talking to you," he said, slowly rising to his feet. Stella nodded, understanding why Mac wouldn't. Though she'd be more comfortable with him, he couldn't take reliving it again, and he would do everything in his power to catch Jesse.

"After the nurse processes you," he added softly, and Stella nodded.

"Thank you, Mac."

Mac smiled a tight smile and took her hand again into his, the one intimate thing Mac Taylor would ever let himself do. Though he'd seen many years in the service, building bombs and firing rifles and protecting the United States, his hands remained uncalloused and soft, the only innocent part of him.

"Hang in there, Stella."

She smiled back. "What other choice do I have?"

short, uneventful, WHATEVARRR

songcred; He Has Been Here, James Blunt