A/N: Just a small story I've been working on, inspired by the last verse of a poem, for which I've used part of the first verse as a title. Anyone who recognises the poem (without googling) gets a cookie, sadly virtual. Please do review, I'd love to hear what you think of this, as it's slightly different to the things I've been writing for a while now.

Dedicated to lily moonlight, for reading and discussion, and also for the many and frequent pokes for me to get on and write more things!

Whose Woods These Are…

The silence stretches out for miles. He can't remember the last time he hasn't been able to hear any sounds of civilisation at all.

The river flows quietly and sluggishly between low banks piled with snow. To the left is a thick forest, bare branches outlined in black and white, unreal. To the right, across the water, snow-smoothed plains roll towards the distant mountains.

Stella strolls lightly alongside him, bright winter sun sparking in her evergreen eyes, a knitted rainbow scarf wrapped around her neck. Her mittened hands are thrust deep inside the pockets of her dark overcoat. They've been walking together for a while now, in companionable silence through the winter wilderness, and he's happier than he remembers being for years, a calm, peaceful bliss, the light and colour from her eyes and her scarf illuminating his heart.

"We should have done this long before now," he tells her, sincerely. "Gone away somewhere, just the two of us."

She smiles at him, her curls bobbing up and down in time to her steps. Somewhere deep within the trees a bird is singing, barely audible over the gentle lapping and gurgling of the river.

Colour comes drifting down the current; a branch storm-torn from a beech tree, bright orange autumn leaves still clinging bravely to the twigs. They pause to watch it as it passes, and instinctively step closer to the bank. Mac looks down into the depths of the blue-grey-green water, patterns forming and reforming on the surface. Shifting in and out of shapes before his eyes.

And for a brief moment an image forms, coalescing into coherence, before dissolving back into the confusion of the waves. A woman wrought from water, hair drifting around her as feathery weeds, her face turned to his with a smile that had held him in loving thrall for years. And then she's gone, only the ever-running ripples remaining.

His head jerks up in shock, eyes struggling to find Stella. Did you see her?

She stares at him. He takes it as confirmation.

He doesn't believe in ghosts. Phantoms of long-dead loves don't linger within rivers in the wilderness. And yet she had been there.

"Claire…" he whispers. And falters, because Stella's eyes are suddenly cold and hard, the unfeeling beauty of an emerald. She takes a backwards step away from him, towards the beckoning line of trees.

He knows that he's made a mistake. That Stella didn't see Claire's ghost, her blue eyes filled up with cold river water. She's angry with him, and hurt that he would speak her name, conjure her into existence between them, now, when they're finally alone together. He holds out a hand, his voice an apology. "Stella…"

She backs away another step. Wary. He's suddenly cold, as if the snow and the frost-filled air have begun leaching into his very bones. "Stella, I'm sorry."

She stares at him. And then at the ground. He follows her gaze.

The snow holds only one set of footprints. Hers. Where his should be, the white riverbank is undisturbed. No evidence of him at all…

Fear forces more ice into his veins. "Stella!" No breath mists from his mouth into the frozen air. She steps further back, into the shadow of the trees. He starts to run towards her, his long strides eating up the distance she has created, but it's as if he's hardly moving, or maybe she's moving so fast that he simply can't keep up, but the trees are moving away too…

Desperately, he reaches out, grasps for her hand, only to have it melt away from him, dissolving at his touch, fading.


He's cold, so cold, and the bird in the distance is calling louder, shriller, a wailing siren-sound. And he feels melting snowflakes on his face, falling from a clear sky. But then suddenly he's inside a blizzard, while the noise of the river grows louder, ever louder, as if it's carrying a city's worth of voices washing within its waves, flooding its banks and flowing around him, over him, a suffocating susurration of sound. And the paralysing cold coagulates into a knot of solid ice, just below his heart.

And he can hear her voice now, although he can't see her anymore, can't see anything anymore, however much he struggles to return to the wilderness and their peaceful winter walk where there's no hurry, no urgency, a stroll together through an eternity of frozen time.

Hold on for me, Mac…

just a little longer…

please don't leave me…