Disclaimer: All recognizable characters are the property of CBS and Jerry Bruckheimer. I'm a poor college student; please don't sue.

Notes: This story was inspired by the song "Dismantle. Repair." by Anberlin, so I've tried to inject lines from that song into this story. Other than that, I have no clue where this came from. It's probably the most amount of angst I've ever written, but I hope I've stayed true to the characters, and I really hope you all enjoy it. It's a three-chapter story, and the rating is probably going to go up soon. Please, as always, tell me what you think about it... I'm really worried about it, and you'll find out why in coming chapters. I know it's a lot of angst right now, but it'll get better.

Many, many thanks to Lily for reading over this for me and helping to alleviate some of my worries. I appreciate your input more than I could ever adequately say.

You Dismantle Me

It began innocently enough.

Greece changed them. That much he could admit. Watching her clutch the professor's dead body, mourning both his death and the death of the mother she never knew nearly broke his heart. He'd gathered her into his arms, holding her as she sobbed, her tears soaking through his thin t-shirt. Somewhere in that short moment, with his arms wrapped around her thin waist and her breath whispering across his neck, he'd realized that his feelings for her weren't the same as they'd been so many years ago. And somewhere in the back of his mind, he knew that they would never go back.

But he brutally shoved them aside as soon as they returned. Things were just as they should be between them, just as they'd always been. Nothing more than friendship, nothing less. It was how it had been for over ten years, and it was how they needed to stay.

Then Jessica died, and they worked tirelessly for more than twelve hours, hunting down those four men who'd brought shame to the uniform they once wore. She labored right by his side, a constant encouragement to him. And when it was all over, the smile on her face and the tender kiss to his cheek made the exhaustion disappear. She was part of why he decided to go to the bar in the first place. Little did he know that a few moments after his arrival, glass would rain down on them, bullets would whiz by his ears, and screams would echo in his memory.

She was the first person he looked for when the glass settled and the explosions ceased. She was lying face down on the floor, and for a moment his heart ceased to beat, afraid that Death had claimed her too. In that seemingly eternal moment, the memory of watching the towers fall with the knowledge that Claire was inside reared its horrible head, and it shattered him. He couldn't lose someone he cared for again. But then she raised her head and her jade-green eyes locked with his, and he knew she was alive. He wasn't prepared for the intensity of the feelings that washed over him – relief, anger, fear. Part of him wanted to scoop her up in his arms, to profess undying love for her, to keep her by his side for the rest of their days. But the other part of him balked, confused. He was her best friend, her boss. He wasn't allowed to feel that way for her - those were the rules, and he always kept the rules.

However, no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't stay away.

So it started with a bite to eat after work. Great little out-of-the-way places that she'd discovered over the years. Just the two of them in a booth, far away from the horrors of the world, drawing comfort from one another, dim light causing the dark curls framing her beautiful face to shine. They talked about anything and everything until the wee hours of the morning when she would finally start drifting off to sleep and he would finally say, "Let's call it a night." Then he would carefully drive her to her side of town and usher her up the stairs to her apartment. And she would always gently brush her lips against his cheek, lingering just enough for heat to rush throughout his entire body, and whisper, "Good night, Mac." Long after her apartment door closed, he stood looking at it, lost in the emotions such a simple gesture caused.

But soon even that wasn't enough.

He would find excuses to go to her place, giving her something that she'd forgotten or bringing over a movie he wanted her to see. And every time, she would laugh and make him the best Irish coffee he'd ever had. Standing in the kitchen with her, listening to the coffee pot percolating and the wonderful bitter scent of the brew waft through her apartment, she regaled him with stories from her youth, telling him about pranks pulled on the nuns at the orphanage. Again he marveled at her strength, her eternal optimism that somehow managed to find the good in every situation.

Coffee mugs in hand, they adjourned to her couch for whatever film he brought by. She always sat next to him, her long legs curled up under her, gaze glued to the screen. His gaze never wavered from her. He took the time to study her features: her caramel curls, her wonderfully high cheekbones, the strong line of her jaw. She was exotically beautiful, he thought, not the type of beauty Hollywood saw but gorgeous nonetheless.

Invariably, though, she would doze off halfway through the movie, breaking into his thoughts. Every time she did, he would pull her toward him, pillowing her head on his shoulder. A soft sigh would escape her, tickling the skin at his neck and sending a shiver down his spine. He could smell her shampoo, that sweet scent of coconut and summer.

No matter how hard he tried to fight it, he fell a little more for her.

He could admit it to himself, in the privacy of his own home when the memory of her in his arms made him ache with desire and the phantom touch of her lips sent shockwaves through his body. But admitting it to her... that was something entirely different. He'd faced down countless enemies, braving gunfire and explosions more times than he could remember. He was Mac Taylor, the stoic head of the crime lab in the largest city in the United States. He'd looked criminals in the eye with nary a blink.

The thought of facing her, of drowning in her gaze sent him running as fast and as far as he could.

Darkness descended like a black canopy. The summer heat was stifling, steam rising from the hot asphalt to the steel girders of the city's infrastructure. Humid air circulated the smells of car exhaust and grime down each street and alley. Though the sun had long since vanished beyond the western horizon, the temperature hadn't adjusted a bit. Not a leaf rustled in the stillness of the evening.

Mac groaned as he rubbed his eyes wearily. It had been a difficult shift. A woman had been murdered the previous night, left in an alley like last week's garbage. Though they'd processed and interviewed and researched for hours, they were trapped at a dead end.

He glanced at the clock on his desk. 7:44. It was Stella's day off, and he'd felt her absence since he first arrived at the lab, the hole that she filled weighing down on him. He missed her smile, her laugh, the way she teased him endlessly. It wasn't too late. She was probably still awake.

Before he'd even realized it, he was standing outside her apartment door, hand poised to knock. For a moment, he stopped. He had no excuse to see her; she hadn't forgotten anything, and he didn't even bother to stop by the video store and rent a movie. What would he say? What if she wasn't alone? She hadn't mentioned anyone, but he didn't know if she dated. What if...?

Stop it, he commanded himself. He rapped softly on the door and stepped back. Straining to listen, he could hear someone moving around and then the distinct clang of the chain sliding back. Suddenly the door flew open, and he stepped back again, startled.

She stood in the doorway, barefoot and clad in a pair of faded blue jeans and an old Mets shirt. Her curly mane fell softly over her shoulders, glowing caramel in the low light from her living room. Her green eyes sparkled with a mixture of happiness and curiosity. "Well, this is a surprise," she said, a hint of a smile appearing on the corners of her mouth.

"I... I was just in the neighborhood," he replied lamely, and though her eyebrow arched delicately, she said nothing. "Mind if I come in?"

The quirk at the corner of her mouth blossomed into a full-fledged grin, and she silently stepped aside.

He crossed the threshold into her apartment, just like he had thousands of other times. The television in the living room displayed some movie that he vaguely recognized, and a single wine glass rested on the coffee table. Good. She was alone.

"Want some coffee or something?" Her voice broke the comfortable silence, and when he looked up, he saw her standing in the kitchen by the counter.

"Sure," he answered with a smile.

She turned back to the counter and reached for the coffee can she kept nearby to feed her caffeine addiction. With practiced ease, she scooped some into a filter and fit it into the top of the maker. "How was work?" she asked.

He sighed. "Same old stuff. Found a murdered woman in an alley this morning. No leads so far and Sinclair's on my back."

"And you're frustrated." It was a statement rather than a query, and his lips stretched into a thin smile. She knew him too well.

"Yeah. And tired, I guess."

Stella chuckled, her back still toward him. "So you come over here for coffee. Makes perfect sense."

He grinned and shook his head. "I thought it did."

She turned to look at him, her gaze locking with his again. There was something behind it that he had never seen from her before, and his smile slowly faded from his lips. Something was bothering her. "What does the evidence say?" she asked, turning back to the percolating pot.

"Nothing conclusive so far," he replied. "DNA on her body, no hits in CODIS. Some sort of flora at the scene. Came back to a kind of lily available everywhere this time of year."

"That's it?"

He nodded. "The worst part is I talked to her husband earlier this afternoon. Nicest guy you'd ever meet. I could hear his two-year-old son in the background, playing. All he asked was that we catch this guy."

She turned to him, that unreadable expression in her eyes. He could always read her, and the fact that he couldn't now frightened him. "You will, Mac. You always do. You'll take a fresh look at it in the morning, and you'll catch him."

He leaned against the counter, watching her as she reached up into the cabinet for a mug. She always knew what to say. Even in his darkest hour, she always knew how to make him feel better. Why? How?

Silence settled over them, broken only by the growl of thunder in the distance. A summer thunderstorm was blowing in, bringing much needed rain to the steaming city. He watched her movements around the kitchen, that solemn slump of her shoulders. Something was definitely bothering her.

Stella turned to face him again, those jade-colored eyes locking with his. He could almost see the wheels of her mind grinding. After a long moment, the coffee pot dinged loudly, and she turned her back to him again. "You know, I'm glad you stopped by, Mac," she said softly. "I've been thinking, and I think we need to talk."

His brow furrowed. He wasn't sure what that meant, but in his experience with women, that was never a good thing.

"We've..." she began, not turning around. She released a frustrated sigh, brushing back a stray curl that had fallen into her eyes. "We've been spending a lot of time together, haven't we?"

Mac frowned. "We're friends and colleagues, Stella. It makes sense that we'd spend a lot of time together."

"But it's different, now, isn't it?" Finally she spun around to face him, leaning against the counter. For once, he couldn't read her expression. "It's not the same as it used to be."

"What are you trying to say, Stel?"

"I - I mean, we -" She stopped again mid-sentence, frustration evident in her gaze. He wasn't sure where this discussion was leading, but whatever it was had her extremely flustered. He'd never really seen Stella Bonasera flustered.

Finally she growled and threw up her hands. "How long are we gonna do this dance, Mac?"

Now he was really confused. "Dance?"

"Yeah. Dance. This 'are we friends or more than friends' tango we've been doing for the last six years. I can't pretend that I don't have feelings for you anymore, Mac. Not after everything we've been through in the last six months. Not after Thessaloniki, after Jess."

Her words took him completely by surprise. She was confessing her feelings for him? What feelings? When had that happened? She had feelings for him?

"Feelings?" he asked, his voice sounding like a croak to his ears. She nodded, almost shyly. "What kind of feelings?"

She shrugged one thin shoulder. "Feelings. I guess you could say… well, romantic feelings. Dating and stuff."

It wasn't like he hadn't thought of it before. God, she was a beautiful, smart, funny, compassionate woman; his best friend. Visions of them together had often plagued him, especially in the last six months.

But his emotions still confused him. He'd wanted to wait until he'd sorted out what he should do. But now that she'd brought it up and it was in the open, how was he supposed to handle it?

"Stella..."

"Just answer one question for me, Mac." She took a step closer to him, green eyes smoldering. His gaze locked with hers, and he couldn't move. She held him captive, just like she always had. "Do you have feelings for me? Romantic feelings?"

He wanted to look away, but he couldn't. His mind whirled uncontrollably.

Did he have feelings for her? Absolutely. But it was so much more complicated than that.

"Stella, I had the power to overlook Danny and Lindsay. But if this gets out, I won't be able to do anything about it. You know Sinclair's been out to get me since he made chief of detectives."

"Sinclair can go to hell," she said firmly, and he wanted to laugh, but knowing that she'd probably kill him, he bit the inside of his cheek. "You didn't answer my question. Do you have feelings for me?"

Staring into her eyes, he didn't know how to respond. It had been years since he'd felt this strongly for someone other than Claire. But she was his best friend, his confidant. She was the woman in his life, and he wasn't sure he trusted himself enough to be something more to her. Beneath that strong exterior was a fragile heart, and he didn't want to hurt her. And if this got out, he couldn't protect her like he could Danny and Lindsay. It would ruin her reputation.

Glancing away from her, he took a deep breath and said with all the strength he could muster, "No."

The silence that settled over them was as suppressive as the summer heat. He couldn't bring himself to look at her, afraid that if he did, she would see that he lied.

"Liar."

The cold tone of her voice snapped his head up, and he stared at her in shock. Her eyes blazed with hurt, so much that it cut him deeper than any knife ever could. "Stella..."

"Don't give me excuses, Mac. Don't tell me it's Sinclair or the lab. You're afraid to let yourself love again, and you know it." Her voice shook, and he could see her struggle to control her emotion.

"Stella, I'm…" he started to apologize, but she held up a hand to stop him.

"Mac, the last six months have been some of the happiest in my life, and I know it's been the same for you. You've smiled and laughed more, and it was like the old Mac was slowly coming back. I thought that maybe since you were treating me like that, you'd decided it was time to move on, that you could summon up the courage to love again. But I guess I was wrong. You led me on, and that hurts."

Her words slowly sunk in, and his chest started to ache. He wanted so desperately to tell her everything, but nothing coherent would come. Now's your chance, you idiot, his heart shouted at him, but he couldn't. He just couldn't.

He shook his head slowly and stepped forward. "Stel, I didn't mean –"

"It's okay, Mac. I understand. It's my fault, really. For falling for an emotionally unavailable man."

His jaw dropped. He couldn't believe what he was hearing. This was Stella, for God's sake. But he just couldn't. It was all too confusing, too sudden, too complex, too wonderful for him to comprehend.

She turned around, her back to him. "Please just go."

The next thing he knew, a loud slam reverberated through the hallway, leaving him to stare incredulously at her closed door. He couldn't believe it. He could still hear her voice echoing in his mind, and the ache in his chest intensified.

Falling for an emotionally unavailable man.

Liar.

Her words slashed through him like a blade. Numb, he turned toward the elevator and almost robotically pressed the button for the ground floor. He felt like he'd been ripped apart, piece by piece by damn piece.

She'd dismantled him. God, she'd completely taken him apart.

Outside, it felt like a steaming wet blanket had been draped over the city, stealing the very breath from his lungs. The smells of car exhaust and old trash assaulted his nostrils. He felt sick to his stomach, though he wasn't sure if it was from her words or the heat. Slowly he turned down the street and started walking. He didn't know where, and honestly he didn't care. He had to go somewhere to think, somewhere to figure all of this out.

Was she right? Was he emotionally unavailable?

It wasn't like he didn't care for her. He would risk life and limb for her if he had to. When Frankie had attacked her, he learned the new meaning of the expression 'seeing red'. If that bastard hadn't already been dead, he would've killed him. No one hurt Stella and got away with it. No one.

And he'd told her he cared for her. Several times, in fact, when they were in Thessaloniki. He did care for her, immensely. More so than anyone else in the world.

She made hellish day after hellish day worth living. When he was frustrated with a case or with the administration, she somehow knew the perfect thing to say to make him feel better. She made him laugh with her notoriously smart-aleck comebacks. She was strong, tough, independent. But her tough exterior hid a heart of compassion and tenderness. She sacrificed so much to take care of him and the rest of the team, to the extent that she would often forget to take care of herself.

So what was his problem?

He raked a hand through his hair. Here was the one woman he'd really loved since Claire, and he'd just told her that he didn't have feelings for her. And the truth was that his feelings for her were all he could ever think about.

He was a coward.

Such a thought stopped him dead in his tracks, as if he'd run straight into a brick wall.

But it was true.

Mac Taylor, Marine and detective and crime scene investigator, was afraid of her. Though he'd looked into the eyes of serial killers and terrorists, he was afraid of the way she made him feel.

He was afraid of needing her, and need her he certainly did.

He needed her smile. He needed her comforting touch in the midst of the turmoil of his job. He needed her sharp mind on difficult cases. He needed her humor in dark situations, that quick wit that instantly made everyone around her feel at home. He needed her tough outer shell to push him through hard times, and he needed her compassionate soul to encourage him.

She'd broken through the walls he'd erected around his emotions and brought him back.

And that was really what he was afraid of. Needing her meant he had to feel again, and that opened him up to a world of hurt. He'd succumbed to his emotions once before and ended up with a broken heart.

The problem was his heart felt like it was already breaking. And he knew it would stay that way as long as he was without her.

That hurt look on her face flashed before his eyes, and he cringed. He'd wounded her, and he knew it. God, he was such a hypocrite. For a man who didn't want to hurt her, he'd broken that fragile heart with a lie.

Thunder cracked loudly, and he looked up at the sky. The vast expanse suddenly opened its floodgates, and rain poured down to the hot asphalt in sheets. Steam rose from the concrete and steel exoskeleton of the city, washing the horrid scents of the city away. It soaked through his shirt and streamed down his face, bathing him in cool water. Keeping his face lifted to the sky, he inhaled deeply. The dull ache in his chest eased a little.

Could he change? Could he become that man?

He wanted to. God, he wanted to. He wanted to have the courage to tell her that he loved her, that he couldn't take another night without her. In his heart of hearts, he wanted to need her touch, her smile, her face. He wanted to stop running, stop trying to escape her. Maybe in giving up was redemption.

He certainly hoped so. Because she had dismantled him, and no one else on earth could put him back together.

But the question lingered: Would she?