Chapter 6 – July 2010

"You sure about this?"

"What, Mac? You want me to quit?"

"You wouldn't quit if the end of the world was nigh. I just want you to take care."

"Come on then – old man!" She ran ahead of him, thrilled to be alive: a spot of Mac-teasing was just the cure for any aches and pains.

She knew she had to be careful: things were different now – it wasn't just her any more. She was responsible for other lives, and that responsibility was at once heavy and exhilarating. But a good bit of exercise – and three hundred fifty or so steps up the Statue of Liberty counted as a good bit of exercise – was just what she needed. She wasn't going to spend time sitting on sofas with her feet up: she was going to run and swim and dance and – always – be the Stella Mac had fallen in love with.

She shivered. It wasn't new knowledge: it was now July, ten months since Mac's request had changed their lives, and three months since they had both finally accepted the inevitable, confessed their feelings, and never looked back. God, she thought, what fools supposedly intelligent people can be; what anguish we put ourselves through, all for shyness and pride. If only everyone was a bit more honest – a bit less scared. Huh – just what Lindsay had said.

But that Mac was in love with her – not just loving her, but in love – what a difference that had made! He was a wonderful lover, in every sense of the word, and she had come to appreciate him outside the bedroom as much as in: his gentleness, intuition and – surprisingly – sense of fun had flipped her world on its head, turning its greys to colour and its colours to jewels. She felt more like a heroine in an impossibly romantic novel than a real woman in the real world. When Mac held her close as she drifted off to sleep, she knew she could never be happier; when Mac smiled at her across the kitchen and made coffee exactly the way she liked it, she knew she could never be happier; when Mac wrestled her in intellectual argument on some knotty point of politics or art, she knew she could never be happier. She wasn't good enough for him, she was aware of that – but did she look like a woman who cared?

One of the strangest joys of their relationship was his gradually-revealed vulnerabilities. As they grew closer, he had shyly opened himself up to her scrutiny, and she had discovered things that, she realised, no-one but Claire had ever known. At first, she had been tempted to dismiss some of his weaknesses: just in time, she realised how privileged she was to be allowed to share them.

He was – for example – scared of spiders. Such a girly fear – and it made him mad – but it was deep and visceral, and she saw his relief at having someone to call on when a particularly large or defiant specimen looked him in the eye. It ran in the family, he said – his father had always been terrified of them, and it had been his mom's job to keep the Taylor household bug and spider free.

And he hated confined spaces. One evening she had closed the curtains in his bedroom, and wondered at his reaction as he almost ran to open them again. He had said he loved the lights of New York too much to shut them out: now, she knew that two months' imprisonment in an underground cell when on special ops in Iraq had left an indelible mark that only death would wash away. Suddenly, his insistence on glass walls for his office made sense. He told her no more – said it was still classified – but the remembered horror was alive in his eyes, and she wept inside that healing such pain was beyond her capabilities.

Some pain, however, she could ease. She assumed that he had largely ceased to mourn Claire, but as he began to share his deepest thoughts and longings, she discovered that this was not so: there was a place in his heart that bled afresh every day for his dead young wife. Stella made no attempt to heal the wound, merely trying to soothe its ache, sharing it with him and carrying half his burden. Gradually, Mac's references to Claire became more light-hearted – he talked of her with laughter rather than sorrow, and began to share anecdotes of their life together that clearly gave him real pleasure. She found herself – not for the first time – furious with Peyton for not seeing and meeting the needs of the man.

A clatter of footsteps up the narrow metal stairway – Mac had terrible feet and always wore the most solid shoes she'd ever seen – and the object of her thoughts was by her side, panting slightly and doing his best to disguise it. "All that running and swimming," she said, "and still you wheeze after a few stairs? You'll have to get fitter than this!"

He grimaced. "Too much sex," he said. "Wears me out."

She giggled like a schoolgirl: immediately behind him two real schoolgirls were standing gaping, clearly of the opinion that no-one over twenty-five ever had sex, and that most people over twenty had probably given up on it. She leaned towards them. "Twice a night," she whispered. "Every night. But what can I do?"

The schoolgirls fled.

"You're wicked."

"I know…"

"Pity there are people around. We could be wicked together, right here."

"Mac!"

He grinned. "You always use that tone of voice when I suggest anything interesting." He paused. "But then you do it anyway!" He stepped closer. "Come on – let's give them nightmares."

He kissed her. In public, in full view of anyone in Brooklyn – if they had a telescope – and in front of half a dozen fourteen-year-olds, he kissed her. And not a paltry peck on the cheek, either: he kissed her as passionately, as deeply and as fiercely as he had ever done in private. He kept his hands carefully on her back, but otherwise buried himself in her as if this was the last kiss they would ever share. His lips on hers were harsh, bruising – his mouth angrily eager – his tongue scouring and insistent. She closed her eyes and sank: there was nothing in the world except this kiss, nothing except his body hardening against hers, nothing except the heat and the fire and the want in her belly.

She knew they were 'on display', but still began to lose herself: the physical sensations, and the emotion they represented, were as intoxicating as champagne. She began to feel the need build inside her, the small flares of desire that gathered together to form an irresistible fire that could only be quenched by having him, completely and utterly. And then – mercifully – he pulled her back, panting and breathless, into the real world. Gathering herself from the brink, she looked surreptitiously around, suddenly guilty, even though it had only been a bit of fun to scare the horses. "God, Mac," she whispered, "what are you thinking?"

"Didn't know thinking was required," he whispered back. "Look – everyone's gone."

He was right: the schoolgirls had vanished, and Stella heard an uneasy shuffling on the stairs as other tourists hesitated about interrupting this couple who – it seemed – were about to indulge in public sex. "That's so embarrassing. We're supposed to be responsible citizens, not – not – "

"Not in love?" Now he was serious, his eyes deep and dark, and his hands on her were hands of love, not lust.

She closed her eyes and leant into him. He pulled her to him and together, as others finally joined them, they gazed out across the city they both loved. She felt overwhelmed with joy and humility. She shivered, and he drew her closer.

To think, it had so nearly come to an end not two weeks ago…

* * *

It was a tiny thing – a little shove – a jostle at the station entrance. Commuters, vying for space on the New York subway, and some of them none too careful about how they got it. An elbow here, a bag there – nothing out of the ordinary – and before she knew it, Stella was lying at the bottom of a flight of concrete stairs.

In such situations, New Yorkers divide into three camps. The first ignore the problem: they're late, or squeamish, or think if they don't look, it didn't happen. The second gather round, stare and mutter a bit, and wonder if they should do something. The third call 911, clear people out of the way, and have a tendency to save lives.

Later, Mac suggested that the God she didn't believe in must have been looking out for her that morning: the member of camp number three who came to her aid was not only level-headed and competent, but a doctor to boot. He had no reply to Stella's terse response that perhaps next time God would circumvent the problem by saving her from falling: but the fact that – apart from cuts and bruises, a cracked rib and a beautiful black eye – she was unhurt, was more important than anything else. Mac held her as tightly as he dared as she lay in her hospital bed, and she found a moment in the midst of her pain to be grateful to – fate – for bringing them together.

* * *

"I want to go home."

"Well you can't," Mac was infuriatingly calm. "You need rest, and they want to do some more blood work."

Stella wriggled irritably, then groaned in pain. "Oh God… When did I last take pain killers?"

"Half an hour ago."

"Oh…" She sighed, then realised that this wasn't the best way to stop him worrying. She was fine – everything just hurt like hell – he should go home and get some sleep. "Listen, Mac, I'll be OK, why don't – "

"No."

"Sorry?"

"No. I'm not leaving you. You're my partner and I'm staying right here." He leaned closer and whispered in mock aggressiveness. "Get used to it!"

"Ow… Mac, oh God, don't make me laugh." She could feel the tears in her eyes – real tears of real pain – but that part of her brain unaffected by either pain or drugs thrilled to his words. You're my partner. And he didn't mean professionally. She smiled wanly at him, gripping his hand. He ought to go – there wasn't anything he could do here – but she was selfishly glad that he'd decided to stay. She blinked in the harsh light. They'd pumped a delicatessen of drugs into her and she was beginning to grow sleepy: all she wanted to do was fade into unconsciousness, Mac's hand in hers, and see his face at her side when she woke up.

"Go to sleep, Stellie," Mac whispered. He kissed her poor cut forehead, and she felt his heat as he leant close to her. Then she slipped away from everything, and ceased to be aware.

Almost.

She knew she wasn't dreaming: dreams didn't hurt this much. And dreams weren't this coherent, and if she was dreaming Mac would be beside her, rather than hovering in the background and occasionally shouting at someone. Things were very bright – all the colours in the room were deep and intense – and there were too many people round her bed.

She opened her eyes and looked up at a ceiling of faces, all crowding in and suffocating her. She groaned, but couldn't move: she was drowning in a sea of people and no-one was here to help her. She tried to call for Mac but couldn't make her lips move. She closed her eyes again. It seemed the only sensible thing to do.

Afterwards, Mac told her what happened. Her memories were fragmentary, disjointed: she knew there had been raised voices, a lot of machinery, anxious glances and long periods of silence, but could make no sense of it until he filled in the blanks.

* * *

He sat and watched her sleep, grateful that she was out of pain at last. Occasionally her hand tightened on his, even in unconsciousness: the movement scared him, because it spoke of a love so vast that he could hardly comprehend it. Stella wore their relationship lightly, rarely plumbing his depths of seriousness: but he knew the strength of her love, and almost cowered under its weight.

It was some hours later when a doctor entered the room, a worried expression on her face: Mac, who had begun to doze, was immediately alert. He sat in silence as the doctor looked at the monitors, consulted her notes, and touched the sleeping woman's face and free hand. Then she glanced at him and spoke. "Mr Bonasera?"

"Um – no. My name's Mac Taylor. What's going on?"

"Ah. I need to contact Mr Bonasera. Do you have a number for him?"

Mac felt stupid. "There isn't a Mr Bonasera."

"Then do you know who's the next of kin?"

He went cold. There was only one reason for asking that question. "Er – no. She doesn't have any family. I – I'm her best friend." It sounded pathetic, a poor phrase to explain what Stella meant to him.

The doctor drew herself up. "I'm afraid I'll have to ask you to leave, Mr Taylor. Family only."

"She is my family." He couldn't organise his thoughts: he, the best interrogator his unit had ever had, was lost for words. Why, he wondered, should he think of that now? "I'm – " 'lover' seemed such an odd word " – I'm the nearest she's got to family. We work together. If I go she'll be alone. Please – tell me what's wrong."

The woman's slender Asian face softened a little: she looked at their clasped hands, and seemed to understand that this was not a common friendship. "Ms Bonasera – "

"Stella," Mac said. "Her name's Stella."

The woman softened further. "Stella's suffered multiple cuts and bruises – you can see that for yourself – but there was also some internal bleeding. Not a great deal, but enough to require the administration of prednisone and advil – for the pain." She paused. "The bleeding has been arrested, but there are possible contraindications for someone in her condition. We've withdrawn the drugs now, but there is a slight danger… Sir, it's obvious that the two of you are close – can you tell me about her social life? Her sexual history?" Mac blinked. "I'm sorry to have to ask you," she continued. "If there's someone else who might know more details…"

He shook his head. "No," he whispered, "no-one." What the hell was going on? What was wrong with Stella?

Then, like a blow, it hit him: the test Adam had done – what, three years ago? – must have given a false negative. Stella – his beloved, beautiful Stella – was HIV positive, and the blood tests they'd done here had confirmed it. "Oh God," he whimpered. He tried to regulate his breathing: losing control wouldn't help anyone. At least she was in the right place: she could start an antiretroviral regime immediately, and they could decide how to face the future together. And if he – if he was also positive, it would mean he could go on loving her as he wished without her having an excuse to push him away.

"Mr Taylor?"

He swallowed. Beautiful Stella, hair blowing in the wind, dancing in the hallway, clinging to him in passion… He watched a tear land fatly on her hand, and realised it was his. "She was exposed to the HIV virus a few years ago," he said quietly. "She had a PCR test – it was negative. Are you saying – we were wrong?" He looked up at the doctor. "She's positive?"

The woman shook her head, puzzled. "No – we've found no evidence to suggest she's HIV positive. But I really need to speak to her husband, or partner. You said you were a colleague?"

"Yes, but – "

The doctor appeared to decide the time for firmness had come. "Look, I'll allow you to stay for the moment – you're right, being alone isn't going to help her – but I do need to find the father of her child. Can you give me a name? An address, a contact number?"

Mac's mind went as blank as an unused sheet of paper: he stared at the doctor with cow eyes, feeling nothing, thinking nothing, saying nothing. What?

What?

He tried to speak, but could only open his mouth ineffectually. He felt as if someone had just punched him in the gut, or he had fallen twenty storeys and found that he was still alive. Instead, he shook his head: it was all he was capable of at that moment.

"You didn't know she was pregnant? So you can't tell me how long it is since she conceived?"

Mac tried again to speak: his throat was dry, and his tongue seemed the size of Alaska. "No," he managed to rasp. "I – didn't…" He heard a clattering, and realised it was coming from him: he was trembling so violently that he was making the bed shake. He turned to the unconscious woman, her face peppered with wounds, her poor cheeks blue with bruises, her jaw bandaged where it had hit the bottom step, and thought she had never looked more beautiful. Stella – his Stella – their child…

He reached out to cradle her face with his free hand, staring at her as if she were the centre and circumference of all that mattered, or ever had mattered, to him. Which, at that moment, she was.

* * *

When he had recovered – and the doctor had apologised – he was told what had happened: there was a danger, given Stella's physical condition, that the drugs she had received could cause a spontaneous abortion. He was almost sick at the thought. But, he was assured, if nothing happened within forty-eight hours, all would be well.

Mac never shared with Stella the hell he endured waiting for that window to pass. I sat with you, was all he would say. The horror of his solitary emotional journey as she was tested and retested and fought to keep their child was beyond the ability of human words to describe, or human mind to endure remembering. All that mattered was that, at the end of it, he was able to take his family – both members of his family – home.

* * *

And now here she was, scampering around the Statue of Liberty's crown like a twelve-year-old – and feeling like one, too. She tried to imagine what it must have been like for him, sitting next to her and not knowing what the next hour or minute might bring. He was right: she had to take care of herself, for all of them.

"You know," she murmured, "we'll have to tell everyone." He raised his eyebrows. "Well, it'll become obvious soon enough. You want to be the object of office gossip?"

He pulled a face. "God, no. You can do it."

"Oh no – we'll do it together. Tomorrow."

"Tomorrow?"

She kissed him on the cheek, revelling in the smooth softness of his skin: as soft as the baby he had placed inside her. "Tomorrow."

* * *

"What's this all about?" Lindsay whispered to Hawkes as they sat in Mac's office the following morning. Even Sid – who should have been at home on a day's leave instead of skulking in the corner eating a bagel – was there.

"I don't know. Perhaps we're all being fired! How's Danny?"

"Oh, he's fine. You know."

Hawkes nodded. "Uh oh! Here we go…"

The glass door opened and Mac and Stella walked in. Mac sat down at his desk – and Stella stood behind him, her stance still slightly awkward from her injured ribs. That, thought Lindsay, was very odd. In the ensuing pause, they both looked around, almost – almost, Lindsay realised, as if they were a couple.

A couple…

She could barely subdue an excited squeak. Danny had been right all those months before, after all: if she needed any more proof, here it was!

But Stella had started to speak. "Ten months ago we all went to Lucy Messer's baptism," she said, and Lindsay grew red. "It was great – we all had fun, and…" She paused, as if lost for words.

Mac leaned forward. "Stella and I had a conversation that day which is going to change our lives. It was always going to take time to make things happen, but now we want to tell you what's going on."

Lindsay felt sick: Mac and Stella – Mac or Stella –were going to leave the lab, and nothing would ever be the same again.

"We – we saw how happy you were with Lucy," Stella continued, "and we're not – well, we don't have children of our own – I mean there's Reed…"

"And so," Mac interrupted, "we came to an arrangement, Stella and I. And frankly – " he leaned back in his chair and regarded his team sardonically, " – I can't make out why some of you haven't already guessed what I'm going to say. You're supposed to be detectives!"

There was a pause, and as everyone turned to look at each other in puzzlement, Lindsay saw Stella move closer to Mac and quietly put a hand on his shoulder. Briefly, their eyes met, and the truth flashed through the younger woman like fire. She bit her lip to stop herself grinning, and Stella's eyebrows flicked up in confirmation.

But Adam got there first. "Call me sentimental," he said, looking round nervously, "but I think you're getting married!"

Mac smiled a slow, lazy smile, as though the idea was new to him but might have merit if taken under advisement. "Well," he said, "it's a thought, but no, we hadn't discussed that. I guess we're just going to have to tell you, though I have to say it's a pretty poor show that none of you have worked it out."

"Lindsay has," said Stella.

"Lindsay?"

Lindsay felt tears start behind her eyes. "You guys," she said, "you guys are going to have a baby."

Mac put his hand over Stella's. The grin on his face was as wide as anyone in the lab had ever seen – in fact, some who hadn't known him before 9/11 had never seen it – as the news sank in and the team began to recover from their shock and congratulate the new parents to be. There were hugs and kisses and tears and a lot of tummy-touching.

But it was for Lindsay that both Mac and Stella reserved their greatest affection: quiet, feisty Lindsay, who had stared into the mouth of hell and stuck her tongue out at the devil, before shouldering a thousand burdens and walking on through life with style. If they could emulate her, they thought as they held each other close in the darkness of the welcoming night, they'd be doing OK.

The End