Disclaimer: I don't own CSI NY

Well, as you can surely figure while reading, this one was supposed to be posted a few days ago. But on Saturday, when I went back to simply review it before posting, I started to re-write that whole thing. And of course, since I didn't (and am not able to) work through the night(s) I didn't finish before Monday evening. Then I had to start the reviewing process all over again… and I'll stop rambling now, as I know it doesn't really matter when it's posted. (But I'll do my best to have the next one posted on the date it's supposed to be ;-))

One more thing – actually two.

First, I hope it's not too similar to the other one. Even though it's basically the same topic, the same purpose in any case, I tried to take a different approach and tried to keep from repeating phrases, still, my writing style remains the same. Please don't hesitate to let me know if it's boring. I am just one who loves to play with thoughts and emotions but constructive criticism is always appreciated.

Second – I have gotten all those awesome, encouraging and praising reviews the last time. Thanks again to all of you. It really feels great to get compliments and reassurance from time to time especially since usually no one is reading what I write.

An athlete once said, that it's much harder to defend your World title than to actually become World Champion for the first time. That, when you have the title everyone expects of you to defend it, to win again and the pressure it a lot greater.

That's kind of how I feel too, when I have done something widely appreciated. Not so much because of you, simply because I have high expectations at myself and want to live up to the standards I impose upon myself.

So, I hope this one is no disappointment for those of you who have read the other one and who are maybe expecting a certain standard from that one.

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Mac sat at his desk staring at the clock, watching the figures change minute by minute. Three more and it would be midnight. A new night, followed by a new day. A Sunday. Taking the place of the Saturday. Like every week; like every week since the days had been set like this. An ordinary Saturday succeeded by an ordinary Sunday. Yet there had been nothing ordinary about this Saturday. It wasn't supposed to be ordinary. Not since the 19th century anyway.

He observed another figure change then lifted his gaze to survey the hallways. The lab was fairly empty as it usually was at night. On contrary to dayshift there was only a minimum of employees in the lab during the graveyard hours. People appreciated the gesture and Mac saw no need in obligating them to work. It was sufficient enough for them to be on secondary call.

Another minute had passed and when he glanced back at the clock now, it turned to midnight.

February 15th. Finally.

He sighed in relief as if he had just waited for the date to change. In a way he had. Subconsciously at least.

In the back of his mind he had longed for the day to be over, had longed for Valentine's Day to be finally done with – for another year anyway.

February 14th belonged to those days he dreaded. Dreaded already on February 13th. Dreaded without admitting that he did neither to himself nor to anyone else.

It was one of those days that demanded all of his energy to not loose control over his emotions. One of those days when he felt like he had on Claire's birthday, their wedding day and the day she had died the years following her death.

The only difference was, he had been expected to dread those dates back then. Valentine's Day was not. In any case, not anymore. Shortly after her death, yes, at this time he had had the right to malfunction, to withdraw. But now, almost 8 years after she had died he was supposed to be better.

And he was. Had been for a while now. Those special dates hadn't hurt like they used to for a few years and he didn't need to be given the space he used to need.

Naturally, he still thought about her more on those days than on other ones and he regularly visited what used to be Ground Zero on those dates. But her birthday passed, as did their wedding day and except for Stella no one even remembered anymore. They didn't have to.

The only day that was unlike the others was the day she had died – but then, that date was out of the ordinary to the entire city. It had changed everyone, even the few ones who hadn't lost someone they knew, so being a little distracted was granted to all of them.

Nothing of that was important to Valentine's Day though. Everything had been different with Valentine's Day, had been the other way around from the very beginning.

The Valentine's Days right after Claire's death he had been happy to work; downright glad. He couldn't have worked enough and most of the times he had done a double shift. It had kept him busy, had kept him from grieving and mainly from noticing that he was all alone now.

That had changed however. Somehow, on Valentine's Day, he felt utterly alone when he was working. It was what made it painfully clear to him that he had no one to spend that day of the "lovers" with. That he was all by himself, that no one was waiting for him when he got home, no one had prepared a special dinner for two and no one was expecting him to bring flowers, pralines or to have prepared that dinner.

It was the reason why he preferred not to go home and the reason why he hated to work. A vicious circle he couldn't find a way out of because he wasn't ready to deal with it yet. A vicious circle that gave him troubles concentrating during the day. – Something he definitely wasn't used to.

Loosing his focus was nothing he was familiar with nor something that he tolerated. In any case not on him. Not at work. For others, it was alright, at least occasionally and if it didn't put their cases in jeopardy.

But he couldn't possibly allow himself to give in and so far he had always been able to somehow pull it together, to think straight. He had been able to manage.

Today, on the other hand – or rather yesterday – his thoughts had drifted freely at whatever moment. Several times did he have to force himself to focus and only his long time experience had made it possible for him to hide it.

Secretly he had had to admit how amazing it had been that he apparently had always had the right answers at the right moment and he was even more amazed over the fact that he obviously had been able to fool Stella as well. She usually had a sixth sense, knew straight away when something was wrong, when he was pre-occupied but if she had noticed, she hadn't mentioned it.

He was glad that she hadn't. Not only because he didn't have an answer for his emotional mess but also because he hadn't wanted to spoil the good mood she had been in. Somehow her laughter had been a soothing balm to his soul and he would have been content by just listening to her light voice and happy giggling all day long.

She had even succeeded in making him laugh – without intention but still. With Friday the 13th preceding the 14th and a Hawkes who had basically known every tale there was to Friday the 13th, the team had quickly tried to make him admit that he was indeed superstitious. Being the gifted scientist, he of course, had denied it fiercely and had done a good job of hiding it. Until yesterday anyway, when Mac had caught him in the lab taking all of the tools and objects he worked with from his left side. He had watched it with raised brows for a moment before he had, in his usual calm but slightly sceptical voice, inquired what exactly Hawkes was doing.

The answer was what had – despite his somewhat depressive state of mind – almost cracked him up.

Apparently Stella had very convincingly invented a story about a Greek myth that on Friday 13th and the two days that followed the Greek Gods had done every business from the left side only – the side of the heart. That way they had assured the business to succeed.

Mac's growing sceptic had made Hawkes suspicious and when it had registered with him that his superstition had not only been revealed but that there wasn't even a myth like that, Mac's face had broken into a huge grin.

Hawkes had taken it with amusement, too, shaking his head in disbelief nevertheless giving credit to Stella for being that convincing.

Now, hours later, Mac still had to smile. Not so much about Hawkes, rather the image of Stella, explaining the story with a poker face, her green eyes full of innocence.

Those innocent eyes had had a mischievous spark all day long and were what had had Mac hope that she would not catch on to his mood. Even though he knew it would have made him feel better, he hadn't wanted to burden her with his problems.

Problems he couldn't even figure out what they were and which were rather than a distinct problem a pile of emotions that needed to be untangled. Something Stella surely would have tried to do and something he wasn't sure he had the desire to happen. Not that he was one to purposely hide emotions, he just wasn't showing them either. Moreover in that special case, he preferred them where they were – tugged away safely somewhere deep down inside of him.

Mac pushed back in his chair to get up and turn, his eyes wandering through his office, stopping at the photos that hung on his wall. He studied them, scanned each one carefully. They were about his life, about what mattered to him, what he had achieved, all of them portraying something that used to make him proud.

Oddly so, right now it didn't. Right now all they did was make him almost chuckle as he realized the irony. The irony of having served, of having received honours, of being considered a brave man, while at the same time he was so utterly cowardice. He had put up with the worst yet he couldn't even face his own feelings. Those he hid in the depth of his heart to make life easy. At least easier than it were if he so much as occasionally would admit to and deal with what he was feeling.

That, he wasn't capable of. He, the ex-marine, the detective, the head of the crime lab. He who was afraid of nothing was afraid of himself.

Nothing of it was news to him, though. He had known for along time that a person was not only defined by what he or she succeeded in but also by what was inside him or her. That strength didn't necessarily have something to do with who you could beat rather with how you handled life. How you managed to rise from the ashes like a phoenix after every defeat and would not give up in surrender.

That was why he himself didn't consider him strong. He was probably the only one, even Stella had told him that he indeed was; that he had lived through war combats, that he had gotten up after Claire's death and lived on.

Yet especially the latter had only been because of her, because of Stella, because of the one person that had taught him that there still was a point in life – a lot of points actually. He wasn't sure if she knew but he owed her what he was today. She was the reason he was not an unemployed homeless.

He wouldn't necessarily have started to drink in self pity. Rather, his grieve would have overwhelmed him, would have had him withdraw so much from all the others that he would have been unbearable to work with. Would probably have made him unable to work anyway.

To him Stella belonged on this wall. Right up there with all those honourable and memorable moments and people. She was something – someone – to be proud of. Someone he truly admired. Admired the way she handled life, handled her childhood, how she had made something out of herself despite the odds and how she still had a heart so huge the world could have fit in. At times it simply fascinated him. She fascinated him.

Even if he had never told her, or anyone else for that matter, he couldn't so much as imagine growing up without parents. Growing up without a family, people who love you, care for you, people you can call your own.

He had always been somewhat distant, had already taken his time to warm up to someone back in his childhood, but family was something he deeply cherished. That was essential to him.

Certainly, she had lived in foster homes, had had someone who had looked out for her, still, it wasn't the same. It wasn't your family, your own flesh and blood. There was no one who had home made videos, no one who would tell you even when you were fully grown that you had to sit up straight at lunch, no one to bug you about a grandchild.

Yet there was not the slightest hint of self pity anywhere to be found with Stella. Quite on contrary. Her childhood seemed to be what had driven her to become the person she was today.

And there was so much more he looked up to her for. Her passion, her determination, her love of life. The list was endless and he knew that she was the one person he wouldn't know how to go on without.

While he had thought so, too, when he had learnt of Claire's death, Stella had been there to lift him up. Yet if she were gone, he knew that there was no one to take her place. Not only because she was so unique but also because she was one of a kind. Because he knew that no matter how hard he tried, he would never find someone even remotely close to her.

Her, who could read him like no one else could. Her who knew him better than Claire had, who knew him almost better than he did himself. Her, who was the only one allowed to dig up his emotions from deep inside him, to poke around inside his heart. Her, who he drew his strength from. Her, who was in a way so much closer to him than Claire ever had been. Her, with whom he spent so little time compared to how valuable she was for him. How irreplaceable, actually.

Of course, they had gone out to dinner, for a drink, watched a movie, had been at birthday and other parties. But in all those years they had never spent a single Valentine's Day together – unless it was for work. All they ever did was for work, for work they were partners, were an item but when there was a special event to attend, they went by themselves. Neither one had ever brought a date to the official banquets they occasionally had to attend, he hadn't gone with Peyton, she hadn't brought Frankie. Or anyone else for that matter. It had just been them – separately.

It was always separate. Always had been. Even back when they had been with the NYPD, when she had been a young police officer and they had gone for the usual drink after work. She had been surrounded by fellow officers, engaging in lively conversation, he had sat and mostly watched. Watched out for her. Something he had – for whatever reason – felt compelled to do.

She wasn't exactly what the world would consider beautiful but her green eyes, curly hair and foreign appearance had made her interesting. Intriguing.

Half the police department had most likely been under her spell back then and her adventurous and flirtatious personality had attracted all kinds of men.

She had been aware of the attention and had been careful not to raise any false hopes but you never knew how a man would react. Especially when one had drunk one too many.

Nothing had happened back then and over time she had changed. Life had taken its toll on her, too. Something he had not been able to protect her from and which he deeply regretted.

Nevertheless her looks still drew attention – more than Mac secretly wished.

At the same time he wanted her to be happy. She deserved to be. Deserved to have her dreams come true, to have someone who cared so deeply for her and who was actually able to express that. Who was able to satisfy her wants and needs. Someone who would respect and love her for who she was.

Strangely, while part of him wanted nothing more than to have her tell him that she found that person, he also feared that day like nothing else. Because regardless of how hard they would try, regardless of how often she would assure him that everything would be like before, things would inevitably change between them.

But that was only one of the reasons. The simple one. The one that was a logical consequence.

Yet it all was part of a much bigger picture.

There was so much more to it, so many emotions that were much more complicated than fear of losing part of their bonding. Emotions that belonged to that pile he had stored away so tightly.

As usual, Mac didn't have the intention of pursuing that topic any further. In his opinion he had already spent way too much thought on it.

He cleaned up his desk, stored what needed to be, then headed to the lockers. Quickly he changed into sweat pants, a t-shirt and his sneakers and, putting on a lose jacket, left the building.

The air was cold, his breath was visible and the snow, the weather channel had so dramatically announced for three days had finally begun to fall. Thick flakes were silently dancing towards the ground and had already covered everything with a fairly good blanket.

The perfect night for a long run. There hardly was a night that he didn't consider good but there were perfect ones and less perfect ones. This one was one of the former though. One of those in which the city was peaceful and quiet – despite its busyness. Without a doubt the snow was one of the reasons for that, swallowing the noises of life.

It was almost eerily quiet as Mac made his way down the road, past the skyscrapers towards Central Park. He chose the smaller, less busy streets where many of the pedestrian walks were untouched and the few footprints he came across were already quite thickly recovered with snow. Few people were out and he was noticed by even less. They were busy heading wherever they had to go, pulling their coats tight, shivering from the cold and late hour. Not one of them was so much as glancing at Mac.

Not that he minded. New Yorkers scarcely were aware of each other during the day, less so at night. Everyone was always going about his business, something Mac had grown to love and hate. Personally he liked that you could stay anonymous, be a part of the crowd and not get noticed. When it came to work it was a different story though and more than once had he found himself silently cursing the carelessness of the people.

But now he didn't work. Now he loved to be a lone jogger, running at his own rhythm, his steady steps and even breathing being the only sound. Here and there a car could be heard but he hardly noticed.

Just like he hardly noticed that Valentine's Day was still screaming from every corner, from every store he passed.

It was him and his personal challenge now and it felt oddly good to slowly exhaust his body. Downright liberating.

It was exactly what he had needed and he carefully accelerated his pace. He knew how far he could push his body and at present he had the desire to push it to the maximum.

He reached Central Park and chose his favourite route through it. The little bit of traffic noise there was subdued with each step until all that could be heard was the snow crouching under his weight. Sweat was running down his forehead and his back as he went on. An all too familiar energy built in his body, telling him that his body was beyond the point of wanting to stop. Now he could go one for another hour if he desired.

He didn't know if he did. He let his body tell him, let it select the path, followed where it led him. His route grew larger, the ways narrower.

It didn't matter. He continued to jog, his breath coming short and rapidly, the cool air clearing his lungs. Every now and then a snow flake settled onto his nose but melted instantly, mixing with his sweat.

He could feel himself relax. Each step took him further away from everything that had occupied his mind. It was going blank, like all of the data being erased from a hard drive. Precisely what he had intended.

The snow flakes seemed to get tinier as Mac noticed the lanes to widen again, signalling him that he was approaching the main tracks. Not that it made a difference. With the weather and hour the entire park was more or less deserted.

Buildings surrounding the park became more visible again, the first indication that Mac's body was leading him towards the end of his jog. City noises grew louder but the snow still muffled a great deal of them maintaining the serene atmosphere from the park which Mac now exited.

He passed some more streets even emptier than those he had been on earlier. The neighbourhood became familiar and then it was just one more corner before he reached his street. As he closed on to his building, he slowed his steps, cutting his pace from a trot into a fast, then slow walk.

Breathing heavily he walked out, calming down in the process. As he got to his building his muscles were tired nevertheless he felt good. The hot shower that he would take would do the rest, reviving his body and giving him the freshness he needed for the day to come.

Satisfied with himself and the world, Mac fished for his keys when he sensed someone being behind him. Out of a habit he felt his body tense and for a split second he was about to reach for his gun – the one he had left locked away at work.

Since whoever was behind him hadn't taken over the process of opening the door, he assumed that the person didn't belong to the building. He debated whether or not to turn and eventually opted for doing so, ready to fight. The instant he had, he dropped his keys in response to who he found standing only inches from him.

"Stella!" he stated the obvious staring at her as if she were a ghost. "What are you doing here?" he asked the almost standard question in that kind of situations.

But he truly wanted to know since he neither had a clue as to what she could be doing there nor had he expected to see her here or anywhere other than the office or a crime scene for that matter.

"Picking up your keys," she replied, putting a warm paper cup in his hand as she bent down to take his keys out of the snow.

She offered them to him but he was still busy staring at her, so she drew her hand back again.

"What's that?" Mac then asked, aware of the cup in his hand.

"Last time I checked, it was coffee," Stella explained.

He watched as she lifted the plastic top and sniffed at the warm liquid before taking a sip.

"Yep, it still is coffee," she offered her face as serious as she could manage. "We could run a test at the lab if you want to though," she added maintaining her seriousness.

Since Mac didn't reply, she shifted her gaze and took another long sip that emptied her cup. Obviously she had been waiting for him for quite a while although Mac didn't make the connection.

In fact, he felt fairly unable to make any connection at all. He was still holding the cup she had thrust into his hand and hadn't moved an inch ever since. It was so unlike him but after his jog his mind had been so cleared and she had so completely caught him off guard that he needed some time to bring his brain back to functioning.

"So…" he finally said even though there was nothing to follow it up with.

It wasn't so much that he felt like he had to say something it was more that he had basically just registered that she was there. Or rather who she was.

He studied her, the light that fell on her casting mystifying shadows on her. She was wearing a winter coat, her uncovered hands halfway inside the arms, a shawl wound around her neck several times and the fake fur trimmed hood pulled over her head. Snow flakes were settling on the fur and that whole outfit made her look somewhat cute. He couldn't help but think of an Eskimo.

His eyes wandered back to hers and he noticed her curious expression realizing that he had been smiling. He held her gaze not bothering to explain. He didn't think he would have been capable of doing so anyway.

Instead, he watched some more snow flakes settle on her hood then with her being all wrapped up he became aware of how cold he himself had gotten. Automatically he began looking for his keys and when he couldn't locate them in his pockets vaguely remembered that he had dropped them. He lowered his head to search for them in the snow as he heard something dangle. At the sound he looked back up and was rather surprised to see his keys in Stella's hands. Unintentionally he stared at her for a moment a bit confused. He was about to ask how she had gotten a hold of his keys but decided otherwise. There was no need for her to know more about his perplexity than she could guess. Or what's more, his perfectionist ego didn't want her to.

Mumbling a "thanks" he took the keys from her then unlocked the entrance door. As he did, he became once again aware of the cup of coffee in his hand, turning back to Stella, brows still raised in questioning confusion.

"I –" he began, not knowing what else to say. The little diversion from what he had expected to happen was enough to make the bit of composure he had been able to regain disappear again.

He stared at the coffee, frowning over it as he lifted his gaze again. This whole situation was so awkward yet he didn't seem to be able to do anything about it. It almost was as if he was a prisoner in his own body – something he could not remember ever having felt and had no idea of how to deal with.

"Thanks for that too," he murmured, not noticing her amusement. He was too desperate to get his brain to respond commonly.

She eyed him sceptically, realizing that her appearance had thrown him off in an unusual kind of way, something she surely hadn't intended to. Nevertheless did it not only do good to see him lose his serenity – to see that he was only human, too – but he was also utterly adorable.

"Mac, I do know that you know that I care for you," she cut through the silence, "but between you and me," she lowered her voice, leaning in to him, " – I didn't come to solely bring you coffee. Not at this hour."

Her intimate yet teasing whisper seemed to confuse him even more and she watched as he stared at her blankly. Since he didn't move she finally pushed him aside, reaching for the keys to open the door and let them inside.

"I always thought that those jogs were bad," Stella remarked matter-of-factly, as she pulled him into the entrance hall, "still, I have to admit, I never imagined it to be that bad," she added. She knew that that comment would only puzzle him further but by now she took a strange pleasure in his confusion.

As expected, he didn't catch on to her joke and quietly followed her towards the elevator. They rode up in silence and walked the short distance to his apartment. Since she was still holding the keys, she opened the door.

Once inside he put the cup onto the shelf next to the door then watched her peel out of her winter garments.

When she had taken her shoes off she turned her head to face him. He returned that look and for a moment they stood in front of his door staring at each other, their locked gazes causing a sudden change in the atmosphere neither one could describe nor grab.

"How about you go shower first?" Stella suggested, hurriedly tearing her eyes away from him.

Now that she was inside his apartment and the light mood from downstairs was gone she felt strangely self-conscious. Especially since she knew that there was no turning back, that she had to explain her being here. That she had to explain it rather well for Mac wouldn't buy any lame excuses, not when she came to see him at this hour.

Albeit she had to admit that she could probably tell him anything right now and he wouldn't notice until tomorrow morning. But he would notice eventually and then she'd have to explain herself anyway.

Mac took her up on her suggestion, squeezing past her and disappearing into his bedroom. The shower was exactly what he had needed to re-organize his thoughts, to get his mind in order again. While he towelled he registered that Stella had had her fun with him downstairs and even though he was slightly embarrassed by his behaviour he had to smile. It fit to how she had been the entire day – and he liked her that way. The things they dealt with on a daily basis were serious enough and she undoubtedly had had her share of difficulties in live. And whereas she wasn't as forlorn as he frequently was, it was rare that she was as childlike and carefree as she had been today.

He quickly dressed into a fresh set of comfortable clothes then, hair still damp, opened the bedroom door. He was about to apologize for his performance from earlier but when seeing Stella he didn't.

She was propped onto the sofa, her legs up comfortably, a pillow in her hands, her head turned to face the window, apparently watching the snow travel silently to the ground. A tea she obviously had made was sitting at the table at the side. It was a sweet picture, a picture that without any words described their relationship rather perfectly. A relationship in which either one felt at home in the other one's presence.

Leaning against the doorway, Mac studied her. Her brown curls framed her face so softly and he couldn't help thinking about what he already had earlier. She would never pass as an Aphrodite in a general sense but to him she was a Goddess nevertheless. Whether it was Athena or Artemis he didn't know. Probably a little bit of both – with a heart of gold yet so fragile it could easily shatter into a thousand pieces. And he was her Zeus, not in the sense of power but in the sense of protection.

Quietly he pushed away from the doorway and not making a noise approached the sofa. He managed to reach it unnoticed by Stella, sitting down on the arm rest and throwing one of the smaller pillows at her.

She stirred in surprise, turning to face him, noticing the somewhat withdrawn but warm smile on his lips. It meant that he was his old self again.

She studied him, feeling how her heartbeat quickened in anticipation of what he waited for her to explain. Her hands became damp and she pressed the pillow harder against her then sat up straight to reach for the cup of tea.

Mac watched as she closed both of her hands around it, blowing at it. She carefully took a sip trying hard to ignore Mac's stare.

"So – if it's not about the coffee," she heard Mac's calm voice interrupt the silence, "then what are you doing here?"

It was the question she had expected yet hoped not to hear. Her heartbeat quickened even more while she continued to stare into the tea. She considered her options and quickly came to the conclusion that there were few. Besides, she had chosen to come and it was unlike her to chicken out now.

As she spoke, she turned her head to face Mac, her eyes locking with his.

"I needed to talk to you," she said loud and clear, the confidence in her voice surprising her.

It was safe to say that he had figured that she hadn't come to play cards in the middle of the night on his own, so he waited for more. She, on the other hand, kept looking at him, into his eyes, apparently expecting a reaction from him.

"I am listening," he told her attentively.

She nodded, thoughtfully and barely, so barely that he wasn't sure if she really was nodding. Her eyes had shifted to the side, still fixed at him yet without focus. It was obvious that she was searching for words, trying to find a way to begin to tell him what was on her mind.

Patiently he sat on the arm rest, his eyes on her, studying her features. The spark she had had during the day, the one that made the green color of her eyes catlike, was long gone. In its place her eyes were almost pale, clouded by what was occupying her.

She turned away from him, staring again at the cup in her hand. Steam continued to rise and both of them observed how it dissolved into air.

Stella turned back to Mac, their eyes locking once more, hers searching his, still thoughtfully. It was as if she was debating, what exactly he couldn't tell.

He began to wonder what this was all about. She would hardly come to him to tell him about a boyfriend and she had been in too good a mood that anything could have happened to her. Yet judging from her hesitation it had to be something serious and he started to get eager for her to explain.

He was pulled out of his thoughts when Stella suddenly rose, placing the cup on the table.

Mac almost expected her to leave and was ready to go after her but she didn't. Instead she positioned herself in front of him, her legs slightly spread, her fingers playing, a habit she had developed over the years and that meant she was either thinking hard about something or was nervous.

From the way her eyes were darting around, looking past Mac, out of the window, he could tell that it was nervousness now.

"It's about us," she finally said, letting out a breath, clutching her hands, her eyes looking at him. Despite her voice being firm, it was a little shaky.

Mac wasn't sure how he was supposed to react to that. "Us" could mean a lot, it didn't even indicate whether it was personal or work-related. There was nothing constructive he could think of to add, so he simply returned her gaze with his brows slightly raised but otherwise a blank expression.

"It's…" Her eyes left his again, wandering around once more. She had begun to clench and unclench her hands, pressing her lips together, then releasing them.

He couldn't remember having ever seen her that nervous and despite himself he felt a tiny flicker of fear build up inside him. Still, he remained calm, something he always had. He wasn't one to panic. Never had been. Not even before he had joined the marines. The Sears Tower could have burnt down next to him but he would have kept his cool, probably more so than the fire rescue.

He turned his attention back to Stella whose actions still hadn't changed. Her eyes were moving back to his though and again he felt like she was looking for something. It started to make him uneasy, another sensation he wasn't used to and one that he definitely didn't like.

"Mac, I…" Stella tried anew, this time keeping her eyes on his. "We… The past months…" She crashed once more, closing her eyes, clasping her hands tight, her head dropping back. She groaned quietly and took a deep breath before facing him again.

In any other situation he would have smiled, he was sure of it. Stella was cute when she was nervous, when she didn't know what to say and was at a loss of words. Adorably cute.

But the fact that it considered them, their relationship in whatever way had Mac watch her in an almost anxious anticipation. It bothered him that he had no clue of what was about to come. There were a million possibilities and only a few that he could rule out, sending a fresh, invisible shiver of fear through is body.

"I noticed," she began a new approach, her hands returning to their clenching and unclenching, "you – were… well… I just felt like – and…"

Incapable of forming a whole sentence she broke off once more. She was obviously unnerved by herself and all of a sudden she let go of her hands almost thrusting them down. He heard her curse in Greek and a moment later her hands cupped his cheeks, drawing him closer as she lowered her head to crush her lips onto his.

Stunned, he stared at her in disbelief. He knew that she always had preferred actions over words but this was something he had no way of expecting.

Yet it were her lips which were on his and it was him who was now beginning to respond to the kiss. Their eyes still open, he watched as she gradually shut hers, at the same time lowering herself to carefully sit on his lap, one leg at each side of him. Despite his bewilderment he lifted his arms to put them around her waist, pulling her a little closer. Encouraged by that she intensified the kiss a little, exploring his lips, taking it all in. He went with it, his eyes now closing too while his hands began to caress her back. Tenderly, barely touching her and at snail's pace, he rubbed it causing a tickling sensation that ran down her spine.

He had overcome his surprise and just like she already was, began to enjoy the warm feel that spread through their bodies. Their lips continued to be busy, tasting each other, discovering, unleashing a desire that made them almost feel like Romeo and Juliet. Somehow it was as if they were finally doing something that had been forbidden. Something they weren't supposed to do that nevertheless was so right and should have been done a long time ago.

Reluctantly and only because you had to end a kiss some time or other, their caressing became less intense. Little by little did they draw back holding on to the other one's lips until they eventually parted.

Their faces close together, they could feel each other's rapid breaths. They kept their eyes shut, almost as if they were afraid of what would occur if they didn't. Letting the emotions the kiss had caused, sink in, they sat there, motionless, inundated by what they had just experienced. Even though neither one had been willing to explicitly admit it, it had been long anticipated and now that it had happened, it was so overwhelming that it was almost like it hadn't.

But it had. Simply had to have. She was indeed sitting on his lap, her hands still on his cheeks, his arms around her and ever so slowly did they dare to open their eyes.

They instantly locked making all of it real and existent.

Her hands began to glide off his face, moving over his neck towards his chest where they came to a rest.

For a brief instant he lowered his gaze to look at them then raised it to meet hers again. The green of her eyes had become much clearer yet it appeared to be much more intense despite the spark that had returned.

"So," Mac broke the silence with that soft but rather deep voice of his "what was it you wanted to talk about?"

He looked at her with innocent eyes, a sly smile on his lips and she playfully shoved him backwards.

"I meant to tell you that my boyfriend asked me to become wife number six and move to India with him to live in his Harem," she replied naughtily and he couldn't help but grin broadly at her words.

"Then you'd better learn Hindi," he remarked impishly, feeling her push him again an instant later, this time a bit harder.

He struggled for his balance and not able to keep it, he slid from the arm rest of the couch, taking Stella with him in the process. Stunned at first they lay there for a moment, arms and legs a bit entangled. They quickly glanced at each other and despite himself Mac had to chuckle. It had been a long time since he had last felt that boyish but it felt absolutely perfect. Right now he was carefree and his only worry was how to get up rather gracefully.

He turned his head to look at Stella who was already freeing herself of his embrace. She caught his gaze and offered a grin which he almost mischievously returned.

They both sat up straight and for an instant remained motionless, nevertheless kept looking at one another. He became conscious of her face growing serious again and gradually his grin faded as well. As he now stared into her eyes, he realized that a small part of him was still afraid; afraid that he would be woken at any minute, at the lab, at his desk and that all of it had only been a dream – no matter how real it all had felt. Despite that it had never happened before – he had never fallen asleep at his desk. But there was always a first, even to him.

On the other hand the weight that had been lifted off his shoulders was undeniably. The weight that had come from the pile, the pile she had managed to mostly detangle by one simple action, by one simple kiss. Of course, there were still some loose ends to make meet but those were a minority compared to what had been there before. And by looking at her he knew that those would be sorted out over time; that he didn't need to be afraid of the future. That there was nothing to be scared off. That even though it would not be easy they would make it work. That he would never lose her. Not for a long time anyway, not until it was time for either one of them to go.

Reflexively his lips had formed into a barely distinguishable but content smile and unconsciously he had begun to lift his left hand. A moment later she could feel the tips of his fingers touch her temple. He brushed over her skin, watching her as she closed her eyes to better enjoy the soft tingle his fingers left on her face. It was almost magical, like an illusion yet it was very present. For the life of her, she could not have described the exceptional emotions he caused but she wanted him to go on forever.

His hand slid into her hair, softly combing through her curls. She reopened her eyes, a warm smile on her lips as their eyes locked once more for the night.

Naturally had they done so many many times before but never with so much meaning, never with as many emotions as there were now. Furthermore their eyes were like magnets. They sought one another out as soon as they were open, instantly holding on to each other.

Subconsciously he noticed her inching closer, her arms rising towards his neck. She clasped her fingers behind it, her thumbs brushing over his skin. A warm sensation spread through his body, stronger than before. It made him hungry for more and he hesitantly but resolutely put his hand around the back of her head. He pulled her closer until their lips touched again.

For a moment he felt her smile then watched her as she shut her eyes to fully concentrate on the kiss. He did the same as they began to explore the other ones mouth anew. In spite of the electrifying sensation that their kiss caused, it was in a way already familiar how their lips moved smoothly across the other one's.

Her hands wandered up to his head as his left her curls to settle around her shoulders to draw her even closer. For a second her T-shirt covered breasts touched his dressed chest sending a shiver through their bodies. They briefly froze then went on kissing with an even greater intensity.

He put his arms around her waist again and let himself carefully sink against the pillows. She didn't seem to be the least distracted by it and continued to lovingly caress his lips. His legs straightened out under her, as his hands, still placed on her back resumed the soft stroking.

He felt her tongue hesitantly search for his mouth, touching his upper lip. Timidly she licked over it but unsure of herself retreated again. Still, she was eager for more and a moment later she ran her tongue over his lips once more, shyly demanding his. He gave in to her and another electrifying spark rushed through their bodies as their tongues touched causing them to hold their breaths for an instant. Their eyes opened but closed again a split second later.

Softly their tongues began to tease one another, tenderly touching, then withdrawing, making them yearn for more. It was an intimacy both had longed for and with her being so straight forward, Mac, too, dared to be a little bolder. Cautiously he lifted the fabric of her top and brushed a finger over her bare back, testing her reaction.

She tensed for a brief moment in the need of catching her breath due to the building pleasure inside her. Encouraged by that he tenderly slid his hand fully under her t-shirt, his thumb brushing over her spine. Very gently he pulled the tips of his fingers up, stopping shortly before he would have touched her bra.

As their lips and tongues went on with their love making his fingers drew small circles over her naked back, inching further down in the process. When he reached her pants, he hesitated only a split second – so shortly she didn't even notice in the heat of the action – before he slipped under the fabric. Tenderly, barely touching her, he traced the outline of her slip, ready for more. With their mouths still busy with the kiss, he ran a hand over her silk-covered bottom, feeling her hands dug into his scull in response. Instantly he became aware that all of this was going far further than he had intended it to and he pulled his hand back up, out of her pants.

It was so easy to get caught up in her passion, to let yourself go, to loose control. She was causing emotions in him he had never known he was capable of feeling and without a doubt he could have made love to her right then and there.

However, he didn't want to. He didn't want to rush things, didn't want them to be overwhelmed by passion. His way of thinking might have been old fashioned but he intended for it to happen in a special way, romantic, the bedroom preferably, somewhere else than on the couch for sure. Following one of those bubble baths she loved, in a room full of roses and with her being his precious princess. His treasure.

Determined not to excite her any further, he decreased his caressing her back, his tongue withdrawing, therefore initiating the end of the kiss. She consented, just like him having the intensity fade and little by little, pulling back. They still savoured every small contact of their lips, benefited from it until they finally parted.

Breathing rather heavily they opened their eyes, looking at each other, their emotions evident and completely visible in that one gaze. The loving and happy smile that appeared on Stella's face was instantly mirrored by Mac. He lifted a hand to put a strand of hair behind her ear, tracing her curls, never letting go of her eyes. He loved the silky feel, loved to touch her and from the way she now pressed her cheek in his palm he knew that she did too. His hand between her shoulder and cheek, he studied her, his love so obvious in his velvet-like eyes.

Her features soft, she lifted her head back up straight and for a moment they simply remained laying in each other's arms, a slight smile on their faces, their eyes still locked. His hands went back to go slowly up and down her covered back as they relived every second of the past hour. It still seemed so fantastic, so incredible.

The amazement they both felt about it didn't show though, nevertheless they were very aware of what the other one was thinking. Neither one could tell how, they just did and all of a sudden Stella began to giggle.

Mac raised his eyebrows a little bewildered but he couldn't help but grin over her happy mood.

"We're so pathetic, you know," she stated which had him furrow his brows even further as she calmed down again.

"Pathetic?" he repeated pragmatically.

She nodded, placing a soft kiss on his mouth.

"Here we are, the "great scientists", head and co-head of the crime lab – and we need Valentine's Day for a simple thing like that."

He had to admit that she had a point although he didn't quite agree with "that" being so simple. Not for him at least. Nonetheless her words had him grin anew, a tiny bit of awkwardness over her words nevertheless reflected in it.

"At least we didn't need a manual," he stated rather dryly and now it was her turn to smirk before they went back to their comfortable silence, cherishing what they finally had achieved.

Enjoying each other's company they pursued their own thoughts oblivious of the faint smile their lips had formed into.

Slowly they became again aware of the other one. They spent another moment looking at each other, then Stella let her head drop onto Mac's chest. She snuggled into it, his left arm now around her, her left leg between his.

He pulled her a little closer as she took a deep breath, inhaling his all too familiar scent. She loved the smell of his detergent, always had and that mixed with him was unbeatable. Indispensable.

Snuggling even deeper into his chest she smiled at the prospect of all the nights she would be able to spend with him, laying in his arms, taking in his fragrance, feeling as protected as she did now.

Being with him had always had her consider herself safe – right from the moment she had met him she had known he would protect her. His calm, reassuring personality had that kind of effect to her. But being held by him, being in his arms, feeling the warmth of it body let that sensation be even stronger. She had the impression of being guarded, of being save from any harm and despite it never being possible, being sheltered from all the evil in the world.

Content beyond words she closed her eyes concentrating on the soothing sound of his rhythmic heartbeat. She realized that the tips of his fingers had begun to caress her back again, slowly stroking up and down her spine. He was scarcely touching her, yet the feel of it was once more incredibly intense, making her relax completely. Against her will she felt herself doze off, exhausted from the day and entirely comfortable in his arms.

"I am sorry, you had to be alone on Valentine's Day," she heard his distant and calm voice cut through the silence.

Although she didn't raise her head – she was too tired to do so – she knew that he was gazing off into space as if lost in thought while actually not thinking about anything. She still wanted to tell him that he shouldn't be when she heard him to go on.

"During the week I came to the conclusion that Valentine's Day was not only about love and lovers," he continued, his tone not as distant anymore but still gentle and quiet. His fingers kept brushing over her back more or less automatically, soothingly, reassuringly, tenderly.

"It's about relationships in general, about showing people you care for that you do." He paused and she instinctively held her breath.

It was rare that he opened up like that, that he talked about his thoughts voluntarily without an input, an initiation on her part. She instinctively knew when something was troubling him and he knew that she did, in 9 out of 10 cases he nevertheless didn't talk about it unless she asked. Usually she already had a good guess of what it was all about but she always wanted him to tell her, wanted him to admit it, say it out loud.

That he now volunteered what was on his mind told her that it was causing him a great deal of distress.

She briefly considered glancing up to make sure that he would go on then decided otherwise. He had begun and she was sure he would finish. Like he did all the time, whether it was work-related or personal, he simply didn't leave any business unfinished – and again she was right with her assumption.

"I figured, I could – ask you –" His voice still hadn't changed, neither had his look or his rubbing of her back, for that matter, "reserve a table at "Joe's"," he mentioned her favourite yet expensive but definitely worth it Italian restaurant. "I even considered buying tickets for the Met," he added almost shyly which had her smile into his chest.

His bashful tone reminded her of a teenage boy, asking his crush out on a date – and a date was exactly what he had had in mind. Most certainly without being aware of it, but he had undeniably planned a date and it took her some strength to fight the urge to tease him at least a little about it.

It didn't last though and growing serious again, she now did lift her head to look at him.

"Why didn't you?" There was no disappointment in her voice, no reproach or anything that indicated that she thought him guilty of something. It was plain interest.

He looked at her, his fingers still wandering over her back, leaving her with that protected feeling she had already come to find a necessity.

She wasn't sure if he was reflecting on an answer or if he simply needed the time before he did so. Whatever it was, she patiently waited for him to be ready and comfortable to tell her.

"I was scared, Stel," he finally whispered. "I simply couldn't work up the courage."

His eyes were fixed on hers, baring his deepest inner emotions, showing a vulnerability she had never seen before on him. Her heart immediately went out to him. Not so much because she felt sorry for him, rather because she only so much as imagined how it was like to live with such a burden. The burden of not being able to express what you were feeling, of keeping it all stashed inside you.

Without words she reached out for him, her hand touching his cheek, softly, gently, her thumb brushing over his skin comfortingly. He didn't need to say any more. His look had told her all she had to know. Had told her more than words ever would.

She continued to tenderly stroke his cheek, her eyes fixed on his. He returned her look, almost hesitantly feeling for her hand and even more hesitantly covering it with his.

A warm, reassuring smile, only noticeably to him, appeared on her lips as he gently pressed her palm onto his skin. He held it there for a moment before he took her hand into his.

She kept her eyes on his, the smile still on her lips telling him that she had understood. Had, for the first time in all those long years that their deep friendship lasted, truly comprehended how much he depended on her. How much they both depended on each other. How there was so much to loose and at the same time so much more to gain.

Slowly, she dropped her head back against his chest to re-cuddle into his arms. She felt him lead her hand away from his face, and caressing her fingers, lowering it until it was back beside her. As if it were fragile he placed it ever so carefully a little beneath her head, his one tenderly closed around it.

She went back to follow the soothing sound of his heartbeat, observing their hands laying on top of each other. It was such a small gesture yet it meant so much and she couldn't get enough of it. She liked, adored, how it made her feel, how his index finger was drawing small circles on her skin.

The calmness which engulfed them so fully detached her and laying there, it was almost as if she was watching two hands from someone else. Only because she was aware of his touch did she know that it was indeed hers.

Again she felt utterly content and closing her eyes, she realized that his other hand had gone back to absent-mindedly rub her back. Or maybe he hadn't even stopped doing so. She had been so consumed by his eyes, by his touch, by the emotions that she couldn't tell.

Not that it mattered. What did was how wonderful it made her feel and needing to sense him, to assure that the caressing wouldn't stop she turned her hand under his. For a moment she simply intertwined her fingers with his before those started to incredibly faintly explore each other.

Despite her tiredness Stella opened her eyes again. She watched their engaged fingers knowing, that he was watching, too. Watching with that same distant but warm look he had had early when he had told her about his feelings. That look that meant so much with saying so little.

He ended their little play, interlacing his fingers with her and holding on to them. She didn't mind and continued to stare at their joint hands. His other one unfailingly continued to soothe her back, making her wonder if he even knew what he was doing.

She shifted so she was able to look at him without having to lift her head. He caught on to that, meeting her eyes, a smile appearing on his face a moment after he did so.

Squeezing his hand she returned that smile, then realized that his was fading. His look became distant again and she waited patiently for him to sort out what he wanted to say. When he focused once more on her, his eyes seemed even more velvety than they had before. She had the impression of gazing into a deer's eyes and she already knew that she would never be able to avoid getting lost in them.

"I love you, Stel." The softness and honesty of his voice was reflected in his eyes nevertheless Stella couldn't keep from staring at him a little stunned.

It certainly wasn't the reaction one dreamed about getting when admitting to loving somebody, at the same time it neither was the reaction Stella had wanted to have when he told her. He simply had said it too soon. Too unexpectedly.

He rarely surprised her and surely not when it came to emotions. Then he was usually quite predictable. Yet he definitely had caught her off guard now.

At the same time she knew that he would never make fun with that sort of thing and she also knew that he meant every word. Nonetheless she couldn't think of anything to say and simply continued to stare into his eyes.

The ones that wholly confirmed what he had just said. – And which were gazing at her somewhat expectantly.

She opened her mouth, still not sure about what to say. She knew that the logical thing to reply was that she loved him, too – and she did. It was why she had come tonight in the first place. But somehow her mind refused to cooperate, to come up with anything to answer, not even the natural response.

A beeping, persistent sound interrupted, making her jerk. It took her a second to realize that both of them were paged but when she did, she immediately lowered her head, snuggling deeper into Mac's chest.

"No," she whined, stressing the 'o'.

He had stopped to stroke her back yet he didn't make a move that indicated that he was about to get up. She was glad for that and hoped that it had been a mistake. It was a fat chance, still, she could wish for it.

The beeping stopped and since Mac hadn't shifted an inch, Stella cuddled even further into his arms. She wanted to assure that he would not try to stand up within the next seconds, even though she knew that they eventually had to respond to the call. Which was why she was a little surprised by Mac tenderly pressing her a bit closer to his body.

She had barely resettled when his cell phone started to ring. Hers joined in shortly after and groaning she buried her face in his T-shirt.

"No, no, no," she muttered into the fabric. "I don't want to!" She had turned her head back during the last words, making them not only audible but also understandable.

Slowly, she glanced up at Mac. He was as reluctant to get up as she was and even though the ringing had stopped to, she knew that he would do so any minute.

Both of their cell phones announced that they had a text message then they began again to ring.

With apologetic eyes Mac carefully shoved Stella to the side, leaving her lying face down on the couch as he went to answer. Upset she grabbed a pillow but otherwise remained in the same position not bothering to sit up.

She knew how it looked outside, how cold it was, how uncomfortable especially at that hour, knew that probably more snow had fallen and that she wouldn't get any sleep until the following night. And above all she knew the incredible feeling of laying in Mac's arms. That alone was reason enough to refuse to get up and deny anything that would require them leaving.

"We have a homicide in Battery Park," she heard Mac's voice next to her as she felt his hand on her back.

She turned her head sideways not really facing him since he was only bent over her but she could at least see his legs.

"I quit," she mumbled, turning her whole body around.

Mac smirked at her with warm eyes, offering her a hand to pull her up. She took it and a moment later sat up straight but didn't show any intention of moving any further.

He on the other hand was already on his way to the door calling for her to join him.

She stifled a yawn and combed a hand through her hair. The thought of going outside was no more appealing than it had minutes ago and as she now dared to glance outside it was even less so.

Stella grimaced, slowly pushing off the sofa taking her time to get to Mac. He was already fully dressed waiting for her, looking at her reproachfully as she now approached.

"What?" she asked in response to his accusing eyes. "Whoever it is, is dead and is definitely not going anywhere."

Despite himself he had to chuckle. Her tranquil attitude certainly explained why she was almost always the last to appear at a crime scene in the middle of the night when she was on secondary call – unless it concerned a victim still alive.

He watched as she put on her shoes with no hurry, all of a sudden curious as to what mornings were like with her. To him it was no secret that she was not a morning person and he couldn't help but smile at the thought of a little grumpy her when they had to get up early.

At the same time he felt himself look forward to it, to be able to tenderly wake her, pamper her with a cup of freshly brewed coffee and spoil her with breakfast.

"Stel!" Even though he had been pursuing his thoughts he had somehow become aware of her opening the door. He reached for her arm, holding her back as she turned expectantly.

He let go of her, looking into her eyes as if drawing the courage he needed from them.

"I meant what I said earlier," he told her honestly, in his slightly husky voice, gazing straight into her eyes. "I do love you."

Regardless that they had to hurry, he had had to tell her again before they were leaving. He simply needed to make sure that she knew since she hadn't answered.

She studied him, or rather his face, her eyes warm and comforting. They locked with his – naturally – as her lips broke into a meaningful, affectionate smile.

"I know," she said softly, holding her breath for a split second, so shortly someone else wouldn't even have noticed. "That's why I am here, Mac," she went on caringly, her eyes not leaving his. "– Because I love you, too."

She was directly looking at him with an expression that was so pure that he wasn't even surprised at her words. Instead he kept his eyes on hers, not quite aware of the small, somewhat timid, smile that formed on his face.

The moments passed as they stood in his entrance way, their gazes locked a tender smile on their lips. It amazed them that a simple look could cause such tremendous emotions and neither one wanted to be the first to tear away.

They wished to be able to ignore why they were standing there, yet not even Stella who not long ago had not been willing to get up from the couch, was able to. Eventually Mac opened the door. He took a step towards it, before turning to Stella. Hesitantly, again with a certain shyness to it and tentative eyes, he lifted his hand a little, offering it to her. She took it carefully and they watched as their fingers interlaced before lifting their eyes back up.

They allowed themselves to spend another moment gazing into each others eyes and Stella could almost see that he became more confident of himself. She smiled to herself, keeping her eyes linked with his until they really couldn't delay their departure anymore.

Tightening his grip on Stella's hand, Mac held the door open for her and hands joined they stepped into the hallway. He locked the door, glancing back up at her. She squeezed his hand reassuringly and they slowly began to walk away from his apartment, stealing another quick look. It showed what they both already knew – never would it be only his apartment anymore. From now on it would theirs.