Dedicated to afrozenheart412, sorry for being so bad at replying to things lately!
Thanks to lily moonlight for reading and suggestions, and for persuading me to post this.
Please do tell me what you think of this, good or bad!
Black coffee. Two sugars.
She tears open the little paper packet and pours it in slowly, watches the tiny white cubes drop into the dark liquid, waterfalling in without a splash. She repeats with the other packet, noticing how the fibres at the edge of the tear poke out. A plastic spoon held between trembling fingers, and she stirs it, feeling the grittiness of the sediment at the bottom of the cup dissolve.
She takes a sip, and immediately misses the cream which she refused. The taste is bitter.
There are moments when she wonders if he knows. Times when her arms bring him into an instinctive embrace, when lips touch his cheek. Just for a second. A second too long. And then the moments pass. And life goes on.
She brings him coffee sometimes. She can't remember if he ever told her how he likes it, or if she noticed, or if she just knew, somehow. Occasionally she wonders if she's been getting it wrong all these years, that he's just humouring her, too polite to mention it, but she doesn't think so. Black coffee, two sugars. Always the same. It's practically one of his defining features.
And there're all the other things she brings him, too. Data. Ideas. Theories. Companionship. They've come to depend on each other, the two of them.
When did that happen? And when did it become more? She can't pin it down. It was a gradual thing, as if a seed was planted at their meeting, planted in her heart to gradually grow upwards, taking parasitic root inside her, insinuating itself into her arteries and veins and neurones and cells until she can't uproot it, can't eradicate it, can't control it.
"I'm Stella Bonasera. You must be Mac Taylor."
She's never seen anything to be gained by not being direct, in situations like this. Either he'll like her, or he won't, but it's always better to find out at the beginning, rather than later. Years of guarding her heart have taught her that sometimes the best defence is to strip it bare and lay it out. And anyway, he's read her file and application already. Chances are he'd decided her fate before she walked into his office.
"So you want me to hire you?"
He meets her directness head on, and raises it, his eyes amused. Well, he's not going to outwit her at her own game. She can already read the answer to his own question in his face.
"I know that you want to hire me. And I accept."
His eyes widen slightly before he catches himself. She's surprised him again. She grins inwardly in triumph. "What if I now change my mind?"
"You won't," she says confidently.
He laughs. "No, I won't. Welcome to the crime lab, Stella."
She already knew about his military background, and uses it to salute him. "Thank you, Sir."
Claire makes the best coffee. She drinks it with lots of cream, and always chides Mac for adding sugar. "It spoils the taste," she complains to Stella as the two of them curl into opposite ends of the couch, like a pair of cats, watching Mac clean the dishes because his cooking is atrocious and he's long ago given up trying, so this is his job instead.
She's matter-of-fact about their work, accepting it as a necessary part of life, but she doesn't want details, and neither of them would ever be unkind enough to give them. Stella wonders at first how she can be so serene about what her husband faces every day, and then realises how infinitely easier it must be than to wait at home while he's shipped out overseas, serving his country, but leaving his wife fearful of the post, of the telephone, of her own thoughts. Always waiting for news, always dreading receiving it.
At least New York is safer.
And then one warm September day the world stands still and holds its collective breath, shockwaves rippling outwards, as if from a penny thrown into a pond, bearing with it a wish for anger and pain.
She holds onto Mac as he crumbles, cooking for him, making him endless cups of coffee, removing the clip from his gun when he isn't looking, empting the bathroom cabinet of everything but the bare essentials. She isn't sure which of them she's doing it for. Maybe it's selfish of her, to force him to stay, but she knows, already, that she couldn't bear to lose him.
Did he notice how she was spending more and more time with him? She'll never know. She pulled back after she dreamt of Claire, ghosting in with the twilight mist and finding herself displaced.
Thou shalt not covert thy dead friend's husband.
She still brings him coffee, though. Some habits die hard.
"Stella!" The voice calling her name is sharp with urgency.
She opens her eyes, and Mac's there, but it's not safe, not if he's still there – "Where's Frankie?" she manages to whisper.
His face is enough of a reply.
He brings her coffee at the hospital. "I need to look around your apartment. Do you have any objection to that?"
"No." Stay with me. Please, please stay with me.
He squeezes her shoulder as he leaves. The coffee is tasteless.
Later she takes a cab to his apartment, and stands outside his door, her knuckles resting on the dark wood. Almost knocking, but not quite. If he had asked her to come to his…
She turns, and leaves.
He brings her coffee again when her apartment is destroyed by fire, and she's sifting through the ashen mementoes. "Stay at mine," he offers.
She hesitates. In the past, she would have accepted, called herself lucky. She's longed for this, after all.
But she thinks back, back through Peyton, and how it would destroy her if she finds that he still keeps mementos from her. And she thinks of Jordan, whom she saw in his office last week, their arms around each other as he gives her comfort.
She's adept at hiding what she knows she feels, but she doesn't think it'll be enough, if she's put to the test.
So she declines, and blinks away an opportunity. A possibility. A future.
The coffee burns her tongue.
Then Quinn turns up, and she tells herself that here's proof that she made the right decision.
And a glass test tube splinters into thousands of tiny, sharp shards on the floor of the lab where she's working. The noise is not dissimilar to how she'd always imagined a heart would sound.
A year goes past. She nearly falls apart when he goes missing and is so relieved when he's found that it's almost enough to break down those carefully built barriers. Almost.
She brings him coffee, and offers him friendship, and shares meals every now and then. They fight and they make up, they compete in a friendly way to solve cases.
And she betrays him.
And then there's that illicit trip to Greece, where something changed between them in the hot, unfamiliar sun, and the streets which are not overshadowed by tall buildings scraping rain from a brooding grey sky. Or maybe nothing changed, and they simply discovered a new way of looking at each other. They don't speak about it, but she reads the change in the way his hands seem to seek excuses to find contact with hers, and there's some question in his eyes, which she won't acknowledge until he does.
So it's still the same dance she's been dancing for years, but this time he's also worked out what the steps are, and is accompanying her. It feels good to have a partner.
She reads his future in coffee grounds. They still haven't acknowledged what's been building between them, both silently complicit in the pretence that it's not there, because it's been so long that neither of them quite know what to do about it. How to take that first step, how to say the words which burn to be spoken.
And she's waiting for him. Some urge to make him go through what she's gone through for longer than she will admit to herself, because having a crush is a childish, almost shameful thing, when it's not reciprocated. Or noticed.
Unless it is. And then it becomes something quite different.
"We should have dinner," he says. Unexpected, the suddenness, but not unanticipated. "Together."
She's determined not to make it easy. "Did you have anywhere particular in mind?"
He hesitates nervously. She realises he's afraid she might turn him down, and smothers a laugh before it can reach her face. If only he knew. "How about my place? Tomorrow evening?" There's something in his voice that suggests perhaps he does know, after all.
"Tomorrow," she agrees, and floats home, her dancing steps not touching the sidewalk.
Tomorrow. She takes another small sip of the bitter coffee. It's hard to swallow.
She looks down sterilised hallways, and half-expects to catch a shimmering glimpse of Angell, wings antiseptic-white, lingering still in this place where she failed to be saved. But she's not here. She's in a steel drawer, covered by a sheet which provides no warmth, her body in death violated by steel and camera lenses.
A tear splashes into the cardboard cup.
She runs her hands absently along the row of stitches on her face, the momentary pain the pressure causes not enough to drown the deeper pain stabbing inside her. She was only caught by flying glass.
Could be worse. Could be much worse.
Maybe that would be better.
"Mac!" She cradles his face in her hands, her world shrunk to contain only the two of them, her eyes fastened on his, trying to keep in the warmth she can feel slipping out of him, pooling against her body as it's pressed against his side. Hawkes has his bundled jacket pushed firmly against the entry wound, but it's not enough…
"Stell – " He coughs out her name, a trail of blood mixed with saliva running from the corner of his mouth. She wipes it away with her sleeve.
"You'll be fine, Mac," she says fiercely, fiercely enough to make it true. "Fine. Don't you dare give up on me."
"Stell – "
"I'm right here," she tells him forcefully. "I'm not going anywhere. So you'd better not leave me, you hear?"
He tries to smile at her. She finds that she's crying, tears running down her face which she doesn't waste time wiping away. They don't matter. Only he matters. "I hear," he whispers. "Stell, I love you."
"I love you too," she says, with all the strength she has. "I love you, Mac."
There. Words spoken that have foundered somewhere between them for years, and now she would give back the knowledge he's just handed her, give back his words, hide her feelings again, even, just so that this never happens, so that Mac's not lying before her agonisingly choking out each of his breaths, staining her with his own life-blood as it stammers with each heart beat from arteries ripped and torn wide open.
He struggles to breathe. At long last she can hear the faint noise of sirens, a thousand years since the shooting, a thousand years late. "Have for years," he gasps out. "You – didn't know – "
His eyes close, as if he's said all he needs to. But she needs so much more than this, she needs a lifetime of words from him, not a moment – "Open your eyes!" she half begs, half shouts, one hand pressed against his pulse to reassure herself it's still there. Faint and stuttering and failing… Not now – you can't leave me now, like this… "Mac, come on!"
Her coffee is bitter. She takes another sip, and it nearly chokes her.
An eternity passes, while hushed feet shuffle back and forth and white coats sigh sadly as they flap past, until the white doors she's been watching swing open and pull her instantly upright.
The surgeon approaches her. There's no mistaking his trajectory.
There's time for one last, silent prayer, before he can reach her, to tell her how the rest of her life is going to be.
Let him be ok, please, please, please let him be ok…
The surgeon pulls down his mask. "Detective Bonasera?"
The coffee scorches her trembling hand through the thin cardboard of the cup. She clutches it tightly, the one point of heat in her ice-cold body.
Still one small, small space of unknowing.