Thank you to everyone who has stuck with this story. It's with your support that I've been able to keep writing.
**Because of the content, this chapter was one of the most difficult ones I've ever written. It deals with the events of September 11, 2001, so please be advised.**
For csiAngel, who requested this, and lily moonlight, who always takes time to offer feedback and suggestions about things which never crossed my mind but are so valuable to the plot, and for always encouraging me, even when I'm not feeling confident.
Mac paused just outside the sandwich shop, a smile on his face as he replayed the last part of his phone call with Stella:
"Are you sure you don't want to come with me?"
"This is something that you need to do, Mac. Besides, someone's got to be working."
He chuckled at the teasing tone in her voice. "I love you, Stella."
"I know, Mac," she said. "And I love you, too."
"See you later."
"Yes, you will."
Mac drifted back into the present, knowing that he and Stella would be okay. But first he had to clear up things with Claire. He pulled open the door to the sandwich shop and scanned the patrons, looking for Claire. He found her in the corner booth at the back of the shop, the one that offered the most privacy.
She smiled and stood as he neared. She hugged him and kissed his cheek, pulling away awkwardly when he didn't respond. Her cheeks burned with something akin to embarrassment, and she cleared her throat as she sat back down and motioned for him to take the seat opposite her.
"Thank you for coming, Mac," she said eventually. That wasn't really how she wanted to begin the conversation, but so far all they'd done was sit across from each other, uneasiness hanging heavy in the air, avoiding eye contact. Further silence ensued, and she took it to mean that he wasn't yet ready to talk. He was waiting for her to continue. "I wasn't sure you'd call."
"You have Stella to thank for that."
"Right," Claire replied a bit sarcastically, wiping away an invisible speck from the table. "You always did listen to her."
"Don't make this about her, Claire," Mac bristled. He shook his head and sighed as he slid to the edge of the bench. "I'm not going to sit here and listen to this."
"Mac, wait," Claire pleaded, her hand shooting out and landing on his arm in an effort to stop him. "You're right," she said, wishing he would look at her. "That wasn't fair and I apologize."
He couldn't meet her gaze though; his eyes were glued to where her fingers grasped his arm. Hands that he once longed to hold again now felt foreign. Wrong.
"Are you ready to order?" the waitress interrupted, pulling a pen and order pad from the front pocket of her apron.
Startled by the waitress's sudden appearance, Mac jerked his arm away from Claire's grasp as though he'd been burned. Neither he nor the waitress missed the look of hurt that passed over Claire's face.
"I can come back," the waitress suggested.
"No, we're ready," Mac replied quickly, clearing his throat and indicating with a motion of his hand that Claire should order first.
They ordered simple things, and the waitress assured them it wouldn't be long. Then she was gone, and the blanket of tension once again settled over them.
Claire studied the tabletop and swept away more invisible particles, unable to deny the feelings of hurt that bubbled up inside of her. She'd imagined this conversation over a thousand times, never once considering that he'd react the way he had yesterday and today. Mac had shunned her touch twice in the last five minutes. She decided being kicked in the stomach would hurt less.
Mac said nothing, not knowing where to begin. He had so many unanswered questions, but he was still trying to wrap his mind around the reality that Claire was sitting across from him. As her eyes focused on the tabletop, he took a few moments to study her. Her hair was shoulder-length, shorter than she'd worn it in all the years he'd known her, and it was darker than he remembered. Time had added lines to her face, of course, but she was still an attractive woman. The years had changed her eyes though. Once vibrant and happy, the now-dull orbs reflected a deep sadness. He knew because he'd seen the same look in his own eyes for many years after Claire…died? Left him?
Claire glanced up at him as a look of confusion passed across his face. She swallowed around the lump in her throat. "I suppose I owe you an explanation," she said quietly, breaking the silence.
"To say the least," he replied wryly. He was trying to be understanding, but seeing her after all that time was so shocking. Ultimately though, she'd lied to--or at the very least deceived--him, and he couldn't help feeling hurt and betrayed. And angry. The latter was evident in his expression and tone. "What I want to know is…why?"
"Why are you mad?" she questioned, her forehead wrinkling. "I thought you'd be happy to see me."
"I am happy to see you," Mac sighed, anger dissipating only slightly.
"You've got a odd way of showing it."
The waitress silently put their drinks on the table and quickly moved away. She'd worked there long enough to know when people didn't want to be bothered.
"Did you ever wish things were different, Mac?" she mused, her gaze again falling from his.
"Of course, I did," he told her. "Every day for years I wished things were different. I wished you were alive, that you hadn't gone to work that day…that I could have done something to protect you."
"I'm sorry, Mac," she told him, her voice barely above a whisper. "So, so sorry."
"It's obvious that you're not dead, so why'd you leave?" he pressed, asking the question for the second time. Usually he was most concerned with the 'how,' but this was far different than anything he'd dealt with on a professional level. This was personal.
She sighed. "It sounds silly and childish now."
"I still deserve to know."
"I got lonely."
Mac shook his head, disbelievingly. "You 'got lonely?'"
"You were always working, Mac," she admitted, the words sounding lame, even to her own ears.
"As an officer of the law for the NYPD! When I took this job, we both knew that it would be time-consuming. We talked about it." His eyes slipped shut, and he rubbed his tired eyes with the pads of his thumb and index finger. He never expected to hear that.
"Yeah, but I never knew just how much time it would take...until you weren't there."
Mac scoffed and continued to shake his head, his hand sliding from his face. "I can't believe what I'm hearing, Claire! Did you ever think about how disrespectful you've been to those who died that day and to all who have died since because they were fighting for what they thought was right?"
Claire quickly glanced around the shop at the other patrons and ducked her head. "Mac, people are staring."
"I'm past the point of caring whether people are staring."
"Anger's not going to solve anything," Claire snapped in response, feeling slightly irritated herself.
"There's nothing to solve. For eight years you let people who loved you believe that you were dead. Eight years." Anger eventually transformed into sadness, and he finally lowered his voice. "We had good years together, Claire, but I've moved on." His expression softened as he thought about how he'd been able to move past Claire's…death--and who had helped him. "I'm happy again."
A sad smile settled on Claire's lips as well, and she forced herself to look at him, though his admittance that he'd moved on was more difficult to hear than she could have imagined. Not that she expected him to be alone forever. "I realize now that I made a mistake when I left you. But we got married so young, Mac, and I felt like I'd missed out on seeing the world. I was selfish and I'll forever regret that."
"When you say it like that, it's almost as if you wanted a divorce."
Claire squirmed in her seat and became quite interested in the bubbles in her drink.
Surely not. "Claire?"
She drew in a deep breath and wrapped her hands around her glass in an effort to stop them from shaking. "I was at work that day, but I managed to get out. I'd been contemplating asking for a divorce for a while, but I knew you'd never agree to it, that you'd manage to convince me to stay."
"I'm not manipulative," Mac quietly told her.
"I didn't mean it like that, Mac." When he didn't reply, she continued. "When the Towers fell, I don't know…I panicked and fled. I guess I saw it as a sign that I was supposed to go."
Now he was the one who felt like he'd been kicked in the gut. "People don't 'get signs' that they're supposed to leave the ones they love."
She swirled the straw in her drink, watching the ice as it spun inside the glass.
His gaze was drawn to the glass as well, and he didn't know why, but he actually felt sorry for her. "But that's in the past, and there's nothing we can do about it now."
His response wasn't what she expected, and she glanced up at him wide-eyed, the straw slipping from her fingers and continuing to circle the inside of the glass.
"Did you see the world?" he asked, as though it was a normal conversation topic.
She chuckled and visibly relaxed. "Hardly."
"World traveling alone?"
Mac arched an eyebrow at her.
"Ironic, isn't it? I left because I felt alone, and I've been nothing but alone since."
"Mind if I ask where you've been?" He felt he needed to know.
She shrugged. "Little Podunk town in eastern Tennessee. If I ever see that much orange again…"
Mac chuckled. "Tennessee?"
Claire shrugged again, this time adding facial expressions. "I went until I couldn't go any further."
"Does your family know? Your parents?"
She shook her head. "Not yet."
"They need to know, Claire," he said caringly.
"Yeah," she agreed, sighing deeply. "It should be easier telling them."
Mac nodded noncommittally but took a moment to gather his thoughts. Finally, he said, "Why come back after all these years?"
"It's like I said before; I realized I'd made a mistake when I left. I still love you, you know."
"No, it's okay, Mac. I came back here with the hope of getting back together with you, but now I see how wrong that would be. It hurts to admit it, but you're right, we've both changed; we're not the same people we were eight years ago," she said, pausing for a single beat. "I am glad you've been able to find happiness, Mac. Stella's to thank for that, too?"
"I really am sorry. This couldn't have been easy on her either."
"She was prepared to stand beside me, even if my decision had been to be with you."
Mac's phone rang at that moment, and he pulled it from his pocket, an apology etched on his features as he answered it. The conversation was quick, and he soon tucked away his phone.
"Work?" Claire asked.
"Guess this is what you meant when you said I worked all the time." His words weren't said with anger, but rather with the realization and understanding that things happen for a reason.
"Your work is noble, Mac," she said with a genuine smile. "I just hope that one day you'll be able to forgive me for all the pain and heartache I caused you."
Mac stood and pulled his wallet from his pocket. "It was good to see you, Claire. I mean that."
"I know you do," she smiled. "Don't worry about lunch; it's on me."
"No, I insist," he told her, putting the money on the table. Then, almost as an afterthought, he pulled a pen from his pocket and wrote a phone number on a napkin. "Call him. I think he'll want to meet you."
"Who is it?" she asked, brows crinkling as she glanced up at Mac.
She gasped as her left hand flew to cover her mouth. "My…son?"
Mac nodded. "His name's Reed. He came looking for you a few years ago."
Her hand slid to her cheek, and she wiped away a tear that had already managed to fall. "And you had to tell him that I was dead?"
Mac nodded again and placed a comforting hand on her shoulder.
"But you stayed in contact with him?" she choked out, now looking through teary eyes at the number on the napkin.
"He needed a friend," Mac said simply. "Some things are best left in the past, Claire, but maybe it's not too late for a relationship with him."
She stared at the number a bit longer before looking up at Mac. "Thank you."
He gave her shoulder a slight squeeze, then he was gone. He stopped just before he reached the door and glanced back at Claire who remained unmoved, still clutching the napkin in her hands. The smile that he wore when he arrived returned as he left the shop. He was grateful for his past with Claire, but that's where his relationship with her belonged--in the past. He knew without a doubt that his present--and future--was with Stella.
Thanks for reading! One more chapter to go.
Oh, and no offense was meant by Claire's comment about Tennessee or orange. I'm a native Tennessean, *the* biggest Tennessee fan, and I love *everything* orange. Seriously.