Everything Changes

Summary: It's winter in NY. An easy case turned deadly makes Mac realize what Stella means to him. Yet realizing something and acting on it are two different things, especially when you're Mac Taylor. But when you're Stella Bonasera, you won't let that stop you. SMacked romantic two-shot.

Disclaimer: I don't own anything. This is only a fan fiction story. CSI:NY and all the characters are the property of Anthony Zuiker and CBS. I'm just a fangirl who can't resist playing with their wonderful creations:-)

A/N: Set sometime after episode 6.11.

Read and enjoy!


CHAPTER 1 – Down the Rabbit Hole

"NYPD! Freeze!" Mac Taylor shouted as the young white male and the prime suspect in his case, Carl Bradford, started to run upon seeing the armed detective clad in a bulletproof vest. Bradford was the last piece in what had turned out to be a difficult and exhausting case, which Mac wanted nothing more than to close. In order to do so, he needed to catch him, though.

Little did Mac know that before that happened, he would have to endure more than he would have ever bargained for.

He started after Bradford with Flack and a couple of uniforms on his heels. The alley was covered in slippery sleet, the result of the last couple of days intense snowing, and as Mac ran it splashed his face and body, unpleasantly reminding him it was early January.

"We are in pursuit! The suspect is headed your way right now!" he heard Don report into his walkie-talkie.

Bradford had turned to one of the back alleys, exactly like they had been expecting. Stella, Danny and several more uniforms were already waiting for him there. As Mac rounded the corner, he expected to see the suspect already being tackled and cuffed. His expectations turned out to be nothing but wishful thinking, though. The scene that met him made his heart stop.

Bradford was indeed surrounded by police officers, all with guns raised at him. The only glitch was that he wasn't standing alone. Stella was standing with him. He had her in a strong hold in front of him as a shield, his gun pressed to her temple. As he heard Mac and Flack approach, he turned in their direction.

"Don't move any closer or I'll shoot her!" he shouted.

Mac stopped, his gun aimed at the man at all times. Flack stood beside him, also holding Bradford at gun-point.

"Easy," Mac said slowly. "You don't want to add killing an officer to your charges," he warned calmly even though his heart wanted to jump out of his chest out of fear for Stella's life.

"Maybe I do!" he dug his gun even harder into the delicate flesh of Stella's face and she winced. The guy was becoming more unstable with every second and Mac was afraid he could really make true on his promise. They had to act quickly.

It was as if Stella was reading his thoughts. Her eyes met his in a moment of silent understanding and she gave him an almost imperceptible nod.

The next couple of seconds happened so fast, they were almost a blur. Stella dug her heel into Bradford's foot with all her strength and elbowed him in the gut. Cursing, he loosened his hold just enough for her to be able to bend and try to move aside from him.

That was Mac's cue. He aimed his gun and took the man out in one shot. The uniforms and Flack were all over him in a flash and Mac ran up to Stella.

"You ok?" he put a hand on her shoulder.

"Yeah, I'm fine," she said with an angry look on her face as she glared in the direction of the man who had held her hostage. "That bastard…"

"You two make quite the team," Flack addressed them wearing one of his snarky half-smiles as he went up to them. "You ok, Stell?"

"Yeah. I only wish it was me who shot him."

"Maybe you'll get a chance. Mac got him in the arm. He's breathing and kicking," with that Flack was off, talking away into his talkie again.

"I can't wait," she stated looking back at Mac.

He didn't reciprocate her smile, his expression still holding tension and worry. He frowned as he looked at the side of her face. There was a purplish bruise already forming on her temple.

"You should get that looked at, Stella," he said with concern and his hand went to her face to remove a strand of hair that blocked the view of the whole damage done, careful not to touch the hurt flesh. He took it in with a deep frown.

Stella watched his moves and took his hand from her face into her hand. Although it was delicate as a whiff of wind, his touch left her skin tingling.

"Mac?"

"I…," he sighed and looked her in the eye. "For a moment there I thought he was really going to kill you."

"So did I," she gave him a tight-lipped expression. Seeing his agitated expression made her realize how shaken he was, even though he tried not to show it. "But I'm like a cat. Always land on my feet," she flashed him a smile, trying to lighten the mood.

"Stella, this is no joking matter," he said sternly. "You getting hurt in any way is not my idea of funny."

He ran a hand through his hair.

"I should have taken him down before he even started running. I had him at gun point," he said in torment.

"Mac, don't you dare blame this on yourself! There was no way you could have done anything differently. We had a trap set and it was your role to lure him into it, not shoot him. We need him alive, remember?"

"When he puts the life of someone I care about in danger, I don't care how we need him."

She was taken with his declaration but couldn't allow him to beat himself up for something that was entirely not his fault. She sighed – it was so Mac Taylor.

"Mac, don't blow this out of proportion, ok?" she put a hand to his cheek and made him look her in the eye. "Everything is fine. I'm fine."

Seeing his unconvinced expression, she gave him a pat on the shoulder. "Come on, Maudlin Man. Let's get this guy behind bars."

XxXxXxX

The ride back to the lab was that of quiet introspection for Stella. She put up a good front but inside, she was boiling. She couldn't believe she let herself get ambushed like that. She tortured herself further by replaying the events of the last half an hour in her mind second by second, a tight-lipped expression on her face.

"How did this happen, Stella?" Mac finally broke the silence, concern and worry still clear in his voice. He had wanted to ask her earlier but didn't want to with all the people around.

"Frankly, I have no idea, Mac," she frowned in frustration. "We were expecting Bradford and he still managed to surprise us. I didn't expect him to run further when he saw all the guns pointed at him. But he did…and I guess I was just the closest thing he could grab onto… Dammit, I should have seen it coming!"

"People as desperate as him are unpredictable, Stella," he tried to comfort her. "Don't beat yourself up."

"If it hadn't been for you…"

"As I recall, you tackled him pretty well yourself even before I took the shot, Stella."

"Whoever said heels were impractical, huh?" she chuckled but then was serious again.

"Mac…thanks. That was one hell of a shot. If it had been anyone else taking it, it would have been me on the ground with a bullet hole in my arm, and that if I was lucky."

"Arm? I was aiming for the leg," he deadpanned and she swatted him playfully on the shoulder.

He looked sideways at her smiling face. She always managed to pry his mind off his gloomy thoughts and make him smile. All he could do was try and be as good a friend as she was to him and do the same for her when she was in a tight spot. Though he had always found it hard to deal with emotional issues and had never really been good at initiating heartfelt confessions, for Stella he would do his best, no matter how difficult it was. For her, he would do anything. Hell, if she told him seeing him jump off the Brooklyn Bridge made her feel better, he'd do it.

"Then maybe I should get you a pair of glasses," she mentioned casually.

"Glasses? Me?" he raised his eyebrows.

"I think you'd look cute."

"Cute?" his eyebrows were almost touching his hairline now.

"What's wrong with cute?" she asked innocently.

He threw her a sideways glance.

"Mac, girls like cute, you know," she teased and was rewarded when he turned a shade red.

He recovered quickly, though. "Do you?"

Stella gave him a surprised look. Was that flirting just now?

"I do," she said simply.

He looked at her with a shy smile playing on his lips.

"Is that your way of saying you fancy your boss?"

Stella took a moment to recover. She didn't see that coming. He was flirting!

"Is that your way of flirting with me, boss?" she finally countered calling his bluff.

"Maybe," he said unfazed. "How's it going?"

"It depends."

"On?"

"What your aim is."

"My aim is pretty good."

"All right, that's it. Who are you and what have you done to Mac Taylor?"

He only chuckled in response and focused back on the road, glad to have achieved his goal. Not that the conversation went exactly like he had planned. He didn't intend to make a lame-ass attempt at flirting with her and was relieved she took it lightly. She never had to know he meant every word.

He didn't know it but she meant everything she said, too. Her gaze lingered on his handsome face as he turned his gaze back towards the road ahead. She regretted Mac didn't let this softer, lighter side of him peek through more often. Seeing him genuinely smile for a change was really something. She found herself drawn to him with his every word and every smile. How long could she keep these feelings to herself? What was she waiting for? A tragedy to occur? Today was close enough.

She was done waiting.

XxXxXxX

Mac had insisted she take it easy the rest of the day and sent her off home earlier with his firm 'It's not up for discussion'. Frankly, she was too tired to argue so she just went home as ordered. She didn't show it but as the adrenaline wore off, the events of today started getting to her. She had to vent in silence and so decided to walk home. Cool winter air was just the right catalyst. When she got home, her punching bag would be another.

With almost two decades as a policewoman behind her, she was used to dangerous situations such as today's but somehow it was different this time. Maybe because Bradford was really unhinged and had Mac tarried one second, he would have really shot her in the head. Or maybe it was the look on Mac's face when he saw her in her captor's hold. The sheer horror and anguish his face had displayed would stay with her for a long time.

It was trite to say that a brush with death changes your perspective, but that didn't make it any less true. As the gun was inches from her head and Mac was standing several feet away looking at her with torment in his eyes, she remembered thinking that if she died, she would never get to tell him…what exactly? That she cared for him? That he was more than a friend to her? But how did he feel about it?

She knew the looks he gave her were reserved only for her and the sincerity and openness he offered her he did not offer to anyone else but did that mean that he would perhaps consider something more? With Mac, you just never knew what was inside. Flack had once called him the man with the perfect poker face and Stella had to admit truer words have never been said about Mac Taylor.

Today, however, had somehow made all the difference for her. It made her sure that she really wanted to know what was behind it before it was too late. She remembered their conversation in the car earlier today.

She was done waiting.

With a ruminative look on her face, she looked at one of the window displays she was passing and an idea popped in her head. She went inside.

XxXxXxX

"That's the last of the files, Mac," Sheldon sat a manila folder on his desk. It was already past eight and he and Mac were the only team members still on the clock.

"Thanks, doc," Mac looked up from his work.

"So, how's Stella doing?"

"She's tough," Mac sighed. "If she had had just a few more seconds, she'd have put one in Bedford herself."

"That's not hard to imagine," Sheldon smiled as he prepared to take his leave. "Night, Mac," he added as he headed outside.

"Night," Mac replied and turned his chair around. He stared out the window at the sprawling panorama of New York at night with a frown.

He believed every word he had told Hawkes about Stella. She was tough. In fact, she was the toughest person he knew. Which didn't mean she was indestructible. He had been painfully reminded of this today. His mind kept replaying the blood-curdling moment when he saw her at the mercy of a dangerous criminal and the horrifying first thought that had crossed his mind then: He'll shoot her. The flurry of emotions that had engulfed him at that moment was quickly overridden by adrenaline as the shooting unfolded, but now these feelings were coming back.

If Stella had died, how could he ever recover from that? She was his rock, the one constant in his life. She had never failed him and was always there when he needed her.

Ever since Claire died, he had been subconsciously waiting for someone like that to come into his life. It was only now that he realized she had been in his life all along. The question was what he was going to do about it. Would he dare do anything at all? He had never really gotten over the fear of his heart being ripped apart again as it had been after his wife died. But Stella would never do that to him, of that he was sure. What held him back, then? Fear, insecurity, or his plain refusal to look the truth in the eye?

He shook his head in frustration and decided going back to his papers was the wisest he could do right now.

XxXxXxX

Stella came to the lab next morning with a big smile on her face and a small box in her hand. All the negative emotions from yesterday were gone, literally punched out of her system. All that was left from yesterday's scare was the bruise on her temple. Here, she was once again thankful for her bushy hair – they masked the black and blue spot rather nicely and the rest she had covered with a concealer.

She swung by Mac's office but he was in court. Then she was called off to a crime scene so she didn't see him until the afternoon. Even then, she didn't so much see as hear him first. His angry voice could be heard as soon as she exited the elevator and started for her office. She stole a glance into his and saw he was on the phone. She suspected who it was. Not many people could make the usually calm and cool Mac Taylor this angry.

Chief Sinclair had been giving Mac a hard time about the Bradford case from the very beginning as it involved the mayor's nephew and had quickly become a loud case. Sinclair had gotten wind of it instantly and insisted on being kept in the loop on all new developments. He had already held two press conferences and kept haranguing Mac to participate in them. While Mac grudgingly agreed to chief's demands for constant new updates, he drew the line at any 'public stunts' on his part, as he called them.

Stella understood Mac's beef with Sinclair. She knew that he didn't give a damn about any PR considerations. He was interested in doing the job and everything else would sort itself out on its own. While they both knew it didn't exactly work like this, they still didn't have to like it.

Now that they had finally caught the culprit, the press was all over the case and Sinclair was having a field day with it. She could only imagine where that left Mac. Certainly not where he wanted to be, as could be heard loud and clear in his tone.

She sighed deciding it was best she came over and checked how he was doing when he got off the phone. A fuming Mac was never a good Mac. Plus, she figured he could really use a distraction right now. The Gravedigger case, the Compass killer and lately the Sam Manning case had all taken their toll on him and this newest case with Sinclair breathing down his neck did nothing to make this better. She wanted to take his mind off all this and she only hoped that what she had in mind would work. She pursed her lips in frustration and headed for her office with the intention of finishing some reports.

She didn't manage to do much when she heard the sound of a phone speaker being set down somewhat too violently. She smiled to herself. One of these days Mac would simply crash the thing into pieces. Not that she could blame him.

She waited another ten minutes to let him vent in silence a little before she pushed herself out of her chair and made it to his office, the little package in her hand.

"Hi," she smiled.

"Hi," he greeted her looking up from his paperwork and drawing a hand over his eyes. She could see he was still fuming.

"Bad time?" she asked.

"It was before you came in," he said simply. She smiled even though she wanted nothing more than to come up and kiss all the worry from his face.

"Sinclair giving you a hard time?" she asked conversationally as she stood on the opposite side of his desk.

"How did you…?" he began but then thought better of it and just shook his head.

"Mac, you were shouting so loud half the lab heard you. Hell, I think even Sid down in autopsy heard you!"

"Right," he sighed with a frown building on his face.

She played with a block of post-its she had taken from his desk, then looked at him with raised eyebrows.

"So, are you still the boss around here?"

"At least for the time being," he huffed.

"You shouted louder, huh?" she settled into the chair opposite him.

"Something like that," he said and Stella was finally rewarded with a smile on his face. "So, how are you feeling?" he motioned in the direction of her bruised temple.

"I'm fine, Mac," she dismissed his concern with a half-smile. "Me and my punching bag, in fact."

Mac had to smile imagining Stella taking it out on the bag. It was so her to use even such a harrowing and distressing situation to make herself even stronger, both physically and mentally, instead of wallow in self-pity or take it easy on herself. Her adamant nature and strength never failed to impress him.

"Anyways, this is for you."

She landed the little box on top of the file lying in front of him. He looked at her questioningly.

"It's past Christmas, Stella," he frowned as he saw the festive packaging the box was wrapped in.

"I know, Mac. Do you see me caroling or wearing an elf costume?" she let the question hang in the air for a while before she spoke again, a smile playing on her lips. "In that case we've established it's past holidays."

He didn't respond, only looked at her with an unreadable expression on his face.

"What?" she asked furrowing her eyebrows.

"Sorry. I'm still at 'elf costume'," he smirked. "I'd like to see that."

"You wish," she flashed him a grin and pointed at the box. "Open it already, Mac."

"Stella, seriously. You already got me a gift."

"It's not a gift, Mac," she spoke with a mysterious smile. "Call it a New Year incentive."

He arched his eyebrows at her. "Incentive?"

He looked at the box suspiciously and then back at her.

"Just open it, Mac. It's not a bomb, I promise," she teased.

He let out a small chuckle and ripped the paper off the box. He opened the lid and stared at the small item inside. Then he looked at her, puzzled.

"A key?"

She nodded her head with a grin worthy of the Cheshire Cat.

"What's it to, Stella?"

"Last time I checked, you were one of the best investigators around here. You can figure it out."

Mac smirked. "Gee, thanks for the vote of confidence."

"I aim to please," she flashed him a cheeky grin. "But to make it a bit easier let me give you a hint – it's always darkest under the lamppost."

"It's mysterious keys and riddles now?"

"That makes you Alice, right?" she asked with smarmy glee.

He was about to respond when her phone buzzed to life.

"Sorry," she stood up to take it.

He watched her talk and wondered what this was all about. It wasn't unlike her to keep him guessing at her intentions but this time it appeared she had really put an effort in this. Seeing the happy sparks playing in her eyes, he couldn't help but oblige her and do this. Even if she was playing a prank on him. Even if she was, he found he didn't mind. If it only meant spending some quality time with her…And maybe somewhere along the way an opportunity would present itself to finally tell her how he felt…Whoa, there, Mac. You're getting ahead of yourself, he scolded himself inwardly. For all he knew, this was just a ruse and nothing more.

"It was Lindsay," she informed him as she got off the phone. "We're headed to a new scene in the Bronx and she's waiting for me," she turned towards the door. "See you," she added on her way out.

Mac ran a hand through his hair as he looked after her. What was the phrase? Hate to see you go but love to watch you leave? He felt his face redden at the thoughts his treacherous brain generated but continued to watch her graceful silhouette move nonetheless. After all, he was only a guy. A guy finding himself increasingly attracted to his beautiful friend. As if on cue, the beautiful friend turned around once again.

"You better solve this today!" she mouthed pointing her finger at him before she disappeared in the elevator.

Mac looked back at the box. "Down the rabbit hole," he murmured to himself.

XxXxXxX

As Stella drove her department Avalanche to the new crime scene with Lindsay in the passenger seat, she couldn't help but smile all the time. Mac had taken the bait. Now she would have to wait.

She felt Lindsay's scrutinizing gaze on her and turned towards her.

"What's up?"

"Um…nothing…it's just that…you're humming, Stella."

"Sorry," she smiled in embarrassment. "Just can't help myself."

"A hot date?" Lindsay asked knowingly.

Stella shot her a sideways glance.

"Is it that obvious?"

"Yeah. Sorry." Lindsay said with mock sympathy. "So, who's the guy? He must be pretty great, I haven't seen you like this in a long while."

Lindsay's observation took Stella by surprise. It must have shown on her face because the younger woman chuckled. "Stella, I'm a woman, too. Plus, I've known you for some time now."

Stella sighed. "Yeah, he is pretty great. And the best part is, he doesn't even know it. Which makes him even greater. Does this even make sense, Linds?" she looked at her in frustration.

"Not much," Lindsay deadpanned. "But it shows just how much you're taken with him," she said it half-jokingly but seeing Stella's earnest expression, she stopped smiling. "Wow, this really is serious, isn't it?"

Stella gave her a wondering glance and was really grateful they had gotten to the crime scene at that moment. She was as bad at wording her personal emotions as Mac was and doubted she would survive any more of Lindsay's questions.

"Speaking of serious, Linds," she said as they got out of the car. "There's a dead body to process."

She took the entire crime scene in with a practiced eye as she put on her rubber gloves. This was her element and she was glad to be off the treacherous waters of girl talk. She was never any good at it and considered it only a way for women to whine and go mushy over men. She didn't do mushy.

She turned to Flack who was coming their way.

"All right, so what have you got?" she asked him matter-of-factly, her focus already completely on the crime scene ahead.

XxXxXxX

On the other side of Manhattan, Mac was saying the very same words to detective O'Reilly. He had been called to another new scene shortly after his conversation with Stella. Though he pitied the victim, he couldn't help but be grateful for this call. It allowed him to talk himself out of the press conference Sinclair was organizing just about now and had been pestering Mac about. The yelling contest earlier had concerned much the same thing. But back then, Mac didn't have an excuse even half as convincing as this.

He looked around with his camera in hands and started clicking pictures while two technicians moved around looking for bullets and traces. It was pretty much a standard case so he went on his own, what with Stella, Lindsay and Danny covering the double homicide in the Bronx and Sheldon on another shift this day. The down side was that when he was done processing, it was almost six in the evening and he still had to go back to the lab to drop off the evidence.

As he got to the lab, it was almost empty. He looked in the direction of Stella's office but her lights were off and he figured she must have gone home. She did have two other sets of experienced hands to help her with her crime scene so it was no wonder that by now she was already done for the day.

Besides, he didn't even try to fool himself – she was a beautiful and attractive woman and he knew she had to have a busy social calendar and an exciting life out of work. With a silent shake of his head he dropped off the evidence to be tackled by Sheldon and Adam tomorrow. Then he headed for his office figuring he could just as well do the paperwork now since there was not much else he had planned for the evening. It was turning out to be another typical lonely night at the office with no one and nothing to keep him company besides the files, folders and his thoughts.

He went into his office and took off his suit jacket, getting ready for work. Then as he turned, his eyes fell on the one item that was out of place in his otherwise neatly organized work space. The box from Stella. Now there was a small note attached to it.

Have you caught your rabbit already, Alice?

You've got till eight before the Queen of Hearts comes after you.

He smirked. He glanced at the paperwork and then back at the note. It was just a key, how long could it take him to figure it out? Paperwork was nothing that urgent as they haven't even begun the official investigation yet, and Stella would have his head alright if he didn't do this soon.

He took the box off his desk and headed for the working stations.

XxXxXxX

Stella was beginning to doubt her plan. When she came back from Bronx with Lindsay and Danny, Mac was off at another crime scene and knowing him, it would take him some time, what with his attention to detail and protocol.

She was right because by the time she left, he still wasn't back. And he had probably forgotten about their conversation altogether. She would have stayed and made him remember but she had to run a few urgent errands, some of them necessary if her plot was going to kick off at all. She hoped the note she left him would do the trick, though. Otherwise, she would have his head.

XxXxXxX

Mac ran the key through their database but there was no hit, the obvious conclusion being that it was custom-made. He also ran it for finger-prints and DNA hoping that maybe he could track the key's purpose by its owner but he only got Stella's and his own fingerprints. He wasn't surprised, though. He knew she wouldn't make it that easy for him. He looked at the key in frustration. Then he remembered Stella's 'riddle'. Darkest under the lamppost. The lock to this key had to be somewhere right under his nose.

He smiled to himself and went to Stella's office. He tried the lock in her desk and her file cabinet but it didn't work. Then he compared the key with his own desk key but it was no match as well. But as he was looking at the key more closely he saw there was a tiny logo etched on it.

He scanned it and compared it to their logo database. This time he got a hit. The logo belonged to a specialized firm, which did locks only on commission and one of the most current clients was…NYPD Crime Lab ME Office. Mac smiled to himself and took the elevator down to the morgue. It was even more deserted than the lab. Somehow Mac wasn't surprised.

He tried to fit the key to all the desks and lockers he could find and he only hoped no one, especially Sid, would come in on him or it would quickly make its way to the office gossip newsletter that the boss was lurking around the morgue going through people's stuff.

After trying the last lock, he stood up and ran a frustrated hand through his hair. Stella wouldn't have given him the key to one of the body holders, would she?

As he was looking around, his eyes focused on a lab coat hanging haphazardly on one of the chairs. Sid should work on his subordinates' tidiness, he thought. After work, all coats should be put into…and then it hit him. Smiling to himself that he should have thought about it in the first place, he headed for the locker-room.

With new-found certainty, he went straight for Sid's locker. He knew Stella's sense of irony and somehow he sensed that when it came to making him a prank, Sid would be in on it with her.

He found the right locker and slowly inserted the key into the lock. As he expected, it fit perfectly. He slowly turned the key, expecting at least a mummified brain to fall out when he opened it. He subconsciously held his breath and pulled the handle.

What was revealed to him was the most ordinary contents of a locker – several lab coats, some pictures, a spare pair of glasses, a teddy bear, a protein bar…a teddy bear? He looked at the toy more carefully and took it out. It had a small envelope pinned to its back with 'Mac' written in Stella's hand. He opened it. There was another key and a small note inside. He read the note:

59th and 5th Avenue, today 9 pm, locker 24

S.

PS. Bring a scarf!

He looked at the note again and then as if on cue, his phone came to life. He looked at the caller ID displayed on the screen.

"You've really made me work for it, you know."

"So, I gather you've found Sid's teddy bear?"

"Sid's?" he asked incredulously. "You didn't plant it here?"

He heard her laugh on the other side. "Sid might surprise you."

"I can see that," he said looking the bear up and down with an amazed frown.

"So, you up for the second part of your New Year hunt?"

"No more morgue excursions?"

"I promise," he could almost picture her smile on the other end as she responded.

"Then I'll be there. Will you?"

"Nice try but you won't get anything out of me. You'll see when you get there. Bye, Mac," and she hung up.

Mac pocketed his phone with a sigh and took the little key between his thumb and index finger, setting it before his eyes. Looking at it ruminatively, he said to himself: "What are you setting me up for, Stella?"

tbc.


A/N: What do you think Stella has planned? That's to come in the next chapter:-) I hope you liked this one! Please leave a review and let me know! Thanks a lot:-)