Here is the final chapter guys!!! YAY!! Sorry it took so long. I think I rewrote this about eight different ways before being satisfied with it, so hopefully you all like it! :)
Mac turned the key in its lock and pushed his door open. Closing it carefully, he leaned against it and looked around at his silent apartment. It seemed like a life time ago that he had been here, and it wasn't just because he'd spent the last three weeks fighting for his life. He had changed. Or rather, he thought with some irony, change had been forced on him. Although, fate could have used less drastic measures than nearly killing him.
The first several days he had spent in the hospital hadn't really been days at all. They had been one timeless, never-ending blur of faces, noise and pain. Constant, gut-wrenching pain. He could hazily recall that they told him they were giving him medication to help, but all it really did was make him tired and take the edge off. He hadn't ever hurt that badly, not even when he had been injured in Beirut. He would drift in and out, sometimes actually sleeping, but mostly just in a drug induced, pain-filled fog.
He thought he might have easily lost his mind had it not been for Stella's constant presence. She had stayed by his side, leaving only long enough to eat, shower and check in on the lab. And he had been afraid. Afraid that she was staying as an obligation and as a friend. Afraid at how much he wanted that not to be the case. Afraid at how he knew it wasn't. And deathly afraid of how badly he wanted to step off the emotional precipice he had so careful kept himself on, towards her.
The struggle was almost as hard as the daily one he waged against his constant pain, physical and mental conflict fighting for the upper hand. One had to eventually give to the other. He simply couldn't cope with both. And one did.
It had been about a week, when he had started having some serious problems breathing and it was discovered that one of the chest tubes had somehow gotten dislodged. They had had to do an emergency replacement. As his oxygen levels dropped and he struggled to breathe, they had secured his arm above his head and rapidly pulled the old tube.
As they quickly cleaned the area and injected a local anesthetic, Stella had gripped his forearm. "Hold on to me," she had told him quietly, her face full of anguish for him, but eyes firm. He had.
It was quick. It worked. It hurt like hell.
He lay, the head of his bed raised half-way to help his breathing. Every muscle in his face and neck were tight with barely suppressed pain. His eyes were squeezed shut, one hand still holding onto Stella, the other clenched in a fist at his side. Damp waves of hair were plastered to his forehead. Stella slid from the chair next to his bed and sat down beside him. Mac opened his eyes and looked at her. Stella could hardly stand the tortured look in them. His breathing was rapid and shallow as he instinctively tried to guard his broken ribs as well as the new pain coursing through him.
"Shall I get your nurse?" she asked him quietly, knowing what the answer would be. Mac shook his head wordlessly as he closed his eyes again, the effort to contain his pain, too much for speech.
Stella looked at him, tears sparkling in her eyes. She bent down to him and gently cradled the side of his head with her hand. "It's ok Mac," she told him softly. "Let it go. Let me take some of it for you."
He had squeezed his eyes tight in a mighty effort and a muted sound escaped his lips. Stella could almost see the internal argument he was having with himself.
"Let it go Mac," she whispered.
With a sudden, small cry, he had pulled her close with his left arm, holding her tightly and desperately, and buried his face in her shoulder. He could only take so much. His gasping breaths were hot on her neck, and Stella held the back of his head close, gently supporting his shoulders with her other arm. His whole body was tight, and she could feel his muscles tense and spasm with each wave of pain that shot through him.
Time faded into meaningless non-existence for him as he held onto Stella. She gently stroked his hair and murmured words of encouragement in his ear.
Slowly the pain subsided and he was left limp and exhausted. He remained motionless, head resting on her shoulder. The struggle was over. He felt completely vulnerable and laid bare, yet as safe and at peace as he had ever known. It was an achingly familiar feeling, and one he had thought he had lost forever; one he had never dared hope, or, he was forced to admit, let himself find again. After Claire had been ripped from him, he had been too terrified of experiencing again the emotional pain such an unreserved surrender could precipitate. Only once before had he let all his defenses down, before securely locking that part of himself up. And, he thought with an ironic sense of fate, it had been with the woman who now held him, and had been there for him the whole time.
It had been easier after that. Although he still stubbornly internally dealt with the daily pain and recovery process, the simple knowledge that he didn't have to, was enough. He felt free. But the fear also returned. The paranoid part of his brain refused to give up its nagging doubt that Stella felt anything more than a deep friendship for him.
That's ludicrous, the other side of it told him, Are you blind?!
But what if? the opposite side persisted.
Are you blind and deaf?! the other side responded incredulously. Have you seen how she looks you, the things she says, and, it reached over and smacked the opposition on the side of its head with a board, have the last three weeks shown you NOTHING?!!!!
The opposition cowered a bit, Yeah, but what IF?!
Mac sighed and rubbed his eyes. He made his way to his bedroom and fished out a pair of jeans. Taking off the scrubs he had pawned from the medical staff at the hospital so he could actually have something to wear on the way home, he pulled them on. They were looser than he had remembered, and he had to pull his belt a couple notches tighter. He gingerly pulled the scrub top over his head, wincing as his ribs stabbed him sharply. He looked at himself in the mirror and smiled wryly. Now, to accompany the scar he already had on his chest, he had added three bullet holes, along with their accompanying surgical lines. He shook his head, stupid warm weather, he thought. Deciding that dealing with t-shirts was too painful and awkward at this point, he shrugged on an old button shirt.
His mind continued to race in circles as he tried to lay down and relax. But he was hopelessly restless. Giving up on books, TV and music all in turn, and not even having past mail to go through (Stella had been collecting it all for him SEE!!! his brain interjected), he grabbed his coat and headed out.
Stella heard a knock on her office door. "Come in!" she said absently without looking up from her computer screen. Squinting at it and tracing the lines of a chart on the screen in the air in front of her, she remained completely oblivious to the person now standing just inside her door.
"I can come back if you prefer," a familiar voice said in a tone of amusement.
Stella's head whipped up at the sound. "Mac!" she exclaimed, standing up suddenly and knocking her chair backwards. "What are you doing here?! You weren't supposed to be let home until tomorrow!"
Mac stood there, small smile playing on his lips, and Stella could see how carefully he held himself against the residual pain from his injuries. "Well," he said slowly, "I guess the powers that be, decided that an extra 16 hours in their fine establishment wouldn't really make all that much of a difference." The half smile stayed, playing at the corners of his mouth as he walked slowly towards her.
Stella looked at him skeptically. "They decided? Or you made up their minds for them?"
Mac stopped and pretended to look hurt, "Stella! Would I?!"
"Yes, you would!" Stella told him emphatically with a grin as she came around her desk and wrapped him in big hug. She had a sudden thought, "Mac, don't tell me you took a taxi home?!" She looked at him despairingly, "You should've called me!"
Mac gave her that amused look again, as he saw the expression on her face. "Stella!" he said for the second time, "Would I?!"
Stella pointed her finger at him accusingly, "Yes, you would!"
Mac grinned, "Well, I didn't, if that makes you feel any better. Don happened to be up there when I got my discharge instructions and drove me."
Stella stepped back and looked at him wearing dark jeans and an untucked button shirt, and had a second sudden thought. "Wait, what did you wear home?" she asked quizzically. "You didn't have anything there with you except your boots."
"Surgical scrubs," he said, somewhat embarrassed, "And Don lent me his coat." He paused, "Don't you have enough blackmail material on me already?"
Stella looked deviously at him, "And don't you forget it!"
They both fell silent, eyes locked with each other, memories of the last three weeks zooming between them.
Mac broke the silence first. "Stella," he said quietly.
She searched his face. It had a level of both peace and turmoil, and he looked at her with absolute tenderness.
Mac looked down briefly and then found Stella's eyes again, "I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for you." She started to say something but he stopped her, raising his hand slightly. "Stell, you don't have to say anything. I just…" he broke off and shook his head desperately, words escaping him.
Stella crossed the small space between them and placed her hand on his cheek, raising his eyes back to hers. "No, Mac. You don't have to say anything."
He stood there, unmoving, enjoying the feeling of her fingers on his face. Then he slowly reached out and gently brushed a stray curl off her face. "Thank you," he said simply and quietly. The moment stretched into an unspoken, emotionally filled silence. There was simply no way to express in words what had happened during those weeks.
Stella's phone ringing, broke the moment, and they both jumped slightly and laughed. They grinned at each other shyly and Stella walked back behind her desk and answered it.
"Ok, thanks Adam, that's brilliant!…"
"Yeah, if you could drop those off that would be awesome!..."
As she hung up the phone, Stella looked at Mac slyly, "So, does this mean I don't owe you dinner anymore?"
Mac folded his arms gingerly across his chest and smiled at her coy look. To hell with it his brain said, the opposing little voice squawking as it was given a final bludgeon. He walked around the desk towards her, "Now, you can't weasel out of it that easily!"
Stella's heart stood still as Mac closed the inches between them.
"Besides," he breathed as he reached for her hair again, "You couldn't leave a poor…"
He leaned in closer…
…the inches were turning into millimeters…
"…gravely injured might I add…"
…a piece of paper could barely have fit between them…
"…lonely police officer injured in the line of duty to fend for himself."
His eyes bored into hers, and Stella thought her heart would pound out of her chest.
"No," she managed, with a minute shake of her head. There was no room but for the barest of motions. "I couldn't."
"So, is that a yes?" he asked, repeating the question she had never gotten to answer that warm, sunny morning.
"It is," she replied.
Mac's hand snaked around the back of her neck and leaned down to meet her lips, closing the microscopic distance that was left between them.