Well, here we go, final chapter. Thank you SOSO much every one who's read, alerted and favourited over the weeks. I have really enjoyed writing this one, and reading your views on it. This has been part of my life since April and took a serious hold when my Nan passed away in May, from when I could write Mac's experiences at the funeral from first hand knowledge.
Thank you to everyone I've spoken to over the few weeks too; the people who have theorised with me and helped form and re-form sections. Couldn't have done it without you!
I have a few more 'Beasts' in the works, so I'll be working on them over the next few months. Hopefully see y'all back? :)
"I'm fine, I don't need any medical attention."
"You said you got knocked out, Mac, just let them give you a once-over, okay? Humour me?"
He nodded in defeat as they made it out of the building, into the fresh open air.
"And don't think I've missed that limp you're sporting," she looked at him half-accusatory, half-worried. She'd never wanted to kiss him or hold him more than she did right now, but now was certainly not the time nor place. She looked over his face as they fell into step; he almost looked peaceful! More than she'd seen him to be in months. She gave him a quizzical look as she ducked under his arm, settling it over her shoulders as she supported his weight.
"Must have fallen on it when he knocked me out," he gave a frustrated snort at being caught out from behind, and for needing Stella's support for his aching ankle.
Stella settled her hand on his chest as she guided him to the ambulance, sitting him down on the tailgate. They both frowned at the loss of contact but kept their eyes locked together as the paramedics crossed over to them.
"How we doing over here?" One of them asked, a name badge reading 'M. Spencer'. It was only when he stepped in front of Mac that Stella noticed Aaron staring at her, expression ranging from confusion to hurt.
"Doesn't look like you're going to need stitches," Mac was told, his eyes seeking out Stella when the EMT moved away. He followed her eyeline to see Aaron, their gazes locked in silent conversations.
She opened her mouth to talk but Natalie bounding up cut her off before she began. "Oh Mac! Oh, thank God," she threw her arms around him in an awkward hug. "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine. Thank you," he smiled, his eyes shooting back to Aaron and Stella.
Aaron blinked, swallowing down a dry throat before extending a hand towards Nat. "You must be Natalie. I'm Aaron. Nice to meet you."
Her eyes lit up. "Stella's Aaron? Hi! Wow, very nice to meet you," she shook his hand, flashing a look of approval to Stella, only now noting the worry - guilt? – etched on her features. It gave her a start, "So, erm, is he really fine? He has a tendency to fib about these things…" she laughed nervously, failing at lightening the aura around the group.
"He'll be fine."
"Good. That's good," her eyes shot to the dumbstruck Stella trying to gauge what she had walked into. Once her friend's eye line hit the floor, Nat decided to give her an escape plan from the situation. "Danny and Adam are on their way to process the scene, why don't you get Mac home?" She turned to Mac, "And actually home to rest, not to work. You're to stay out of trouble, y'hear?" she gave a nervous laugh again.
"Yeah, I will, thanks," Stella said once she'd snapped herself back to reality. She turned back to Aaron, trying to keep her voice as light as she could muster. "I'll, er, see you later?"
"I think that's wise," she got as a reply.
She nodded, her lips tightly drawn together.
Spencer passed Mac some aspirin for the inevitable headache and muscle strain. He stuffed them in his pocket with a muttered thanks and tried to push himself off the tailgate. Stella tucked herself under his arm, avoiding Aaron's burning gaze, and helped him to the car with a small smile to Nat.
"So, they've worked together long?" Aaron asked, watching after the couple as Mac hopped into the front seat, minimal pressure on his sore joint. Stella tucked her hair behind her ear as she crossed in front of the truck. Her eyes locked with Aaron's as she climbed behind the wheel and started the engine.
"Oh yeah," Nat smiled awkwardly, "They're really lucky to have each other. Been through a lot together."
Aaron wondered just how much.
Stella slowed to a stop at the traffic lights, the first set away from the commotion of the building and law personnel of the scene.
He took her hand from the wheel, leaning over to cup her face and kiss her. She melted into his touch, her hand squeezing his.
"Are you okay?" he asked against her lips.
"Ask me again later," she frowned, seeing Aaron's hurt face behind her eyes once again. "What about you?"
"I'm fine. In fact, I'm great and I really mean that. Like…it was a wake-up call. I had some time to think when I was up there and I realized just how stupid I've been lately." He squeezed her hand and stroked his fingers down her cheek, "And how much I don't want us to fall back to old habit. I really care for you, Stella."
She kissed him again, smiling against his lips. "I really care for you too." The lights changed before she could kiss him again.
They travelled in silence for a while, a smile constantly playing at her lips.
She flashed a look over to him.
"For knowing something was wrong."
She reached out for his, squeezing it tightly.
"Flack," Stella called out as the doors to the Police Dept. swung shut behind her. He relaxed back in his chair as she made her way over to his desk. "How's Officer Serrano?"
"Removing the bullet as we speak, they say he'll make a full recovery though. Half the squad's in the waiting room."
"For Serrano or the nurses?"
He had to think about that one, tapping his fingers on his chin as his eyes gazed in the distance with mischievousness glinting in the blue.
She smirked, "How about an easier one; do we know anything more? Why Mac?" she slid down into the spare seat.
"Ha a candid conversation with his lawyer," he leant forward on the desk, "actually a nice guy. For a lawyer. He said Griffiths wasn't too appreciative of the arrest yesterday, particularly how it went down with Mac barging in. Blames him for the cuts and bruises and the spot on his otherwise stellar criminal record of minor felonies.
"CCTV has Griffiths leaving here at 9am from where his lawyer dropped him off at home. He had a chat with Tina," he explained, choosing the street slang for crystal meth, "and set off back here. We got footage of him pistol-whipping Mac from behind and shoving him in the trunk of Mac's SUV. He drove out to his dealer's place in Bensonhurst, but the genius screwed up. There's a known dealer in apartment 323, but Einstein broke his way into 232; the home of Maya Roze and her daughter Ana, both well and thank us and Mac for our efforts"
Stella shook her head, the absurdity of the situation sinking in; of how close they were to really losing Mac. "How are you holding up?" She knew how much he hated adding to the notches on his gun.
"Part of the job, Stel"
Stella set about to the left over evidence from the Doozey case when she reached the lab floor. Natalie and the guys would be working on the latest Griffiths evidence, so she decided to finish her abandoned cases from that afternoon.
The sound of doors whooshing open gave way to the sight of Natalie backing into the layout room, arms heavy with evidence boxes. "Oh, hey, didn't know you was back."
"How's Mac?" she asked, her voice straining as she listed the boxes onto the tables.
"Doing well- possibly best yet actually. I left him resting," she tried to keep the knowing smile from her lips.
"Good," she replied, slotting the boxes into the cupboards the lined the walls. "So… that was Aaron…"
Stella nodded, her face paling.
"He seems nice."
Seeing the suddenly distant look in her friend's eyes, Natalie put the last box away and shut the doors, circling the desk to lean against it next to Stella. "You know, I have this friend," she folded her arms across her chest. "We'll call her 'Bella'.
Stella licked her lips in amusement, waiting for Nat to continue.
"Now, she seemed to have the weight of the world on her shoulders, and for whatever reason didn't think she could share her problems with me. Her friend. Her very understanding friend. But that was okay, as long as she knew that I was there and that I'd never seen her more happy than I have in recent weeks. Had. Than I had in recent weeks," she offered a weak smile at her slip-up. "And that if the reason for this new-found happiness was a guy called 'Jack', well, I was even more happy for her." She laid a hand on Stella's arm with a wink and left the room.
Stella called after her before the door closed, Nat turning back, "What happened? With Bella and Jack?"
"You tell me."
Her heart was beating frantically in her chest, the impending conversation/argument making a dull feeling of dread fall over her. She stood outside Aaron's door for a good few minutes before she picked up the courage to knock.
He opened the door in a washed out Giants tee, beer bottle in his hand, hair mussed and unkempt. "Hi."
He walked back into his living room, leaving Stella to close the door behind her. "How's Mac?"
"He's fine. Sounds like it's done him some good, to be honest."
He sat down on his couch, not interested by the answer.
"How are you?"
"Well, I'm sat here trying to figure out when my girlfriend started cheating on me."
"You are, aren't you," he said as more of a statement than a question. She didn't answer. "God, I'm so stupid! So stupid!" He slammed his beer on the table, leaning forward with elbows digging into his knees.
She slid down into a chair. "Aaron, please…"
"When? Was it Chicago?"
He gave a humourless laugh. "So stupid…"
"It wasn't meant to happen. You have to believe me, it just… happened."
"Yeah, okay," he laughed, pacing to the other side of the room. "God, when I kissed you in his office and you went red! That wasn't embarrassment, was it? That was guilt!"
"Yes. Yes it was guilt. Guilt and hatred. I hate myself, Aaron. I hate that I've hurt you and that I've abused your trust. You don't deserve that. You are an amazing man, Aaron. Any girl is lucky to have you. But I don't deserve you."
"You should go."
She crossed back to the door, but was called back before she disappeared out the door. "Stella, I hope you're happy." He was look out the window, hands dug in his pockets.
She tilted her head to the ambiguity of his voice and the statement. "You too," she whispered with sincerity, slipping away.
She walked from Aaron's to Sullivan's. It was over ten blocks but that didn't matter- she needed the peace to process what had happened, how much she had hurt him. The dull feeling of dread had been replaced with the ton-heavy sensation of guilt in the pit of her stomach, tears threatening to spill.
She'd never cheated on anyone before, never thought herself capable of it. Outside of the practically meaningless hook-ups at College, she'd never been cheated on either.
She'd also never hated herself so much before in all her thirty-eight years. Never had such a strong feeling of regret that it felt like she was being thumped in the guy whenever the memory appeared.
She'd hurt people before, sure, everybody had at some point, but more often than not it was physical pain in the line of duty or self-defense. She'd killed five people.
What was shocking her more was the element of relief she also felt. She was free to explore her relationship with Mac now, and he wanted to be with her! It hadn't gone unnoticed that they could be like a married couple at times, finishing sentences and not even saying a word in some cases. It hadn't been missed by anyone else either, so the evolution of their friendship wasn't really much of a shock.
Because that's what it was, wasn't it? An evolution. It wasn't a grand leap from friends to lovers, it was like a natural course for some. It certainly felt natural. In fact, it felt long overdue.
She found herself stood outside Sullivan's, not really registering how she had gotten there. She was transfixed on the tables by the window, where she and Aaron had sat just weeks before. Before everything changed.
Nat's voice broke her reverie. "Hey."
"How'd it go? You've been to Aaron's right?"
"Yeah, how'd you-?"
"Figured. Was it awful?"
"Yes, but it's done now. I didn't deserve him."
Nat gave a small smile and laid a squeezing hand on her arm. "Come on, we'll get you a drink." She held the door open for her, but Stella spun in the frame, blocking the way.
"About… Bella and Jack…"
"Oh yeah, listen, they've sworn me to secrecy, so don't tell anyone, okay?"
She smiled, "Okay."
Nat winked with a grin as they joined the team in the bar.
"Okay," Stella announced with a smile to everyone- especially Mac, "last in the round, right? What y'all having?"
A barrage of orders came at her. "Whoa…five beers and a white wine?"
"I'll help you carry," Mac laughed as Danny announced she could get herself something too.
They burrowed into a gap at the busy bar, "How'd it go?"
"Horrible. I hate that I've been able to inflict that much pain."
"We. You weren't alone on that," he said, eliciting a smirk from Stella, "I wish you would have let me go with you."
"No, it was my thing to do."
"I'll forgive you," she smiled, "Aaron might not, but…"
Joey Sullivan finally made his way to them. Stella ordered their drinks, sending him back away for the 'girlie drink' of wine.
She sighed, "What a day."
He gently and lightly traced across her wrist in inconspicuous intimacy, the sensation lifting her heart and blood pressure. She looked into his eyes, instantly recognizing those staring back at her- it was Mac. Her Mac. He was back. The corners of her mouth curled softly into a smile. There were still dark purple hues beneath his eyes, but they would soon go.
"Listen, I-" he began, interrupted by their drink order suddenly clinking onto the bar. Stella snatched her wrist away quickly, shifting the money between her hands. Mac straightened his back, swallowing his words and fastening a smile to his lips as a thanks to Joey. Had it been a woman serving them, their intimate display would have been obvious, thankfully Joey was none the wiser.
Cash in hand, Joey moved to the register as an onslaught of shouted orders came his way again. Stella turned back to Mac, "What were you saying?"
Before he could let the sound escape again from his opened mouth, Danny interjected and moved between them. "Parched over 'ere, Stel," he smirked, wrapping his fingers around the necks of the bottles, leaving just Mac's, Stella's and Natalie's drinks before them.
"You're welcome," she chuckled, leaning back as the he lifted the drinks high over their heads as he backed away. "Thanks, Joey," she said as the change was thrust in his hand. She smiled apologetically at Mac, tilting her head toward the group. He nodded, grabbing his beer from the bar and following behind, a hand falling instinctively to the small of her back.
Stella pulled herself up onto the stool Adam vacated for her, Mac standing near as she passed Nat her wine. Mac fed an arm behind her to lean on the bar, hoping he looked casual and nonchalant, and not that his thumb was tracing circles across her back, craving any kind of contact.
They all fell into easy conversation, the current football season proving popular fodder as the Super Bowl drew near.
Natalie proved herself more knowledgeable on the subject that they imagined, though her team was Greenbay Packers instead of Giants or Jets.
"Cheesehead," Adam subtly mentioned mid-cough, eliciting smirks all around and a proud back-slap off Danny.
Natalie smiled, "Yeah yeah, need I remind you of the 12 World Championships titles? Hmm?"
Stella laughed, "Touchdown, Roberts." The women of the group clinked their glasses together.
The conversations revolved again to various subjects as the next rounds of drinks came and went. Mac leant into Stella when the talk excluded them. "Before, I was going to ask…"
Stella nodded that she was listening, her eyes fixed on the bickering team. She pulled the straw from her whisky-coke to her mouth.
"I was going to ask you to come to Chicago with me."
Her head spun to him in an instant, the straw bouncing off the side of the glass as it felt from her mouth. "What?" She wanted to make sure she'd heard him correctly over the noise of the busy bar.
"Come to Chicago with me. You could do with a break as much as me and we can give 'us' a proper start."
Her jaw steeled as she thought about it. It would be nice to get away, and to see more of Chicago than its airport and cemeteries. She thought about trying to start a relationship when they would be surrounded by the very people they were trying to keep it quiet from. Not a secret, but quiet at least. They wouldn't deny it if asked, but they weren't going to volunteer the information, flaunt it in public.
Her lips curled into a smile as she nodded, her eyes meeting his. He mirrored her grin, exhaling the breath he didn't realize she was holding.
She wrapped her free arm around her back to clasp his hand. He squeezed her fingers, wishing he could cup her chin and kiss her lips.
Natalie, sipping her wine, shot a quizzical look to Stella.
She broke out into a grin, giving Nat a wink in reply.
From behind her glass, Nat returned the grin, then feigned being sick at the sight.
Stella narrowed her eyes at her as Adam looked on, confused by the quiet exchanges in the busy bustling bar.