Disclaimer: I own very little, especially not CSI NY.
Author: Lily Moonlight
Notes: I haven't posted much of my own writing recently, so I'm a bit nervous about this. This came about because of a request Blue Shadowdancer made way back last August for a story about Mac losing something. It was going to be a oneshot, then it grew to a five part story :D Thanks to Ballettmaus for her help, and to Blue Shadowdancer and Sarramaks for reading and commenting on early drafts. Thanks also to cmaddict, Brinchen86, fractured-fairytale06 and Forest Angel for discussion, and to aislara who was happy for me to use this title (her current story is called 'Finding Home'). I hope you enjoy this!
Finding the Future
As she stood in the mild air of a spring day, feeling the breath of the Windy City lifting her curls, Stella realised that her partner's absence was becoming a matter of concern. She frowned at her watch and glanced in the direction he had disappeared. Seeing no sign of him, she sighed and let her mind wander back over the last few days, and her impulsive offer to accompany Mac to the city of his birth.
Entering his office six days ago, she had seen immediately his fatigue, and something else, evident in his crumpled posture and the heaviness of his eyes. Knowing he had gone home reasonably early the previous night, it had worried her. After watching him pick up a paperweight off his desk, stare at it then put it down, she had asked him what was wrong. He had, following only a brief pause, told her about the death of an old school friend, Stephen, in a car accident and how he had been invited to attend his funeral.
His hand had grasped the paperweight again and the lines around his eyes had deepened. That he was affected more than he was saying was clear to her, and glimpsing a fracture in his usually stoic exterior had made her determined to mend it. With instinctive compassion, and a rush of sympathy running through her, she had covered his hand with hers.
"I'll go with you."
Her words had blurted out without a moment of hesitation. Following that, their gazes had met and held. Silent moments had passed between them; moments of questions and answers. And then, slowly, he had nodded. The grooves on his face softened, and she had given him a slight smile as she curled her fingers round his. What the smile had hidden though was a rush of nerves at the implications of what she had just done, and what he had just done in accepting her offer. Though he would not admit it, the loss of his friend was a blow that had unsteadied him. But he had let her see something of the effect, and as her hand held his, anchoring him, she felt the force of something new between them shake them both; shake them from their usual positions relative to each other; moving them even closer together than they had become in recent months.
When she had left his office, lacing her fingers together anxiously as she walked away down the corridor, thoughts swirling in her mind, she had glanced back through the window and seen him watching her. Standing sideways to his desk, one hand on the surface he had sought her gaze. He found it, and their eyes had joined for a moment.
She had known then she had made the right decision.
Arrangements had been made more easily than she expected and they had arrived in Chicago the morning of the funeral. There had been time for them to collect the rental car, check in hastily at the hotel, and then they had driven to the funeral home. Throughout the service, she had watched Mac carefully; keeping at his side, remaining aware of the changing nuances of his expression. Although to the rest of the world he presented an unaffected face, she knew differently and was able to see with a glance that he was carrying a heavy load of sadness. Memories of the greatest loss he had suffered added to that also. She had realised too that it would not have taken much to crack his facade and spill the emotions inside. More than once, her hand had strayed to his, her fingertips brushing the back of his hand, tracing the lines of veins and ligaments. Those times, his gaze had not wavered from the front of the church, but he had moved a little closer to her.
After the service, they had walked silently together out of the church and to the wake. There, he had relaxed a little more, and had introduced her to his friend's family, and to other friends and acquaintances. After mingling for an hour, Mac and she had made a mutual decision to leave. She was not sorry to do so; she could see her partner was not either. Some time in peaceful and unrestrained companionship was what their unspoken communication agreed on.
Except, moments after leaving, their two had become three when Archie Brice, another of Mac's friends, had decided to run after them and leave with them. Despite the fact that he had downed more than a few bottles of beer, or perhaps because of that, he had attached himself to their sides.
Quite literally in the case of herself, Stella thought with a sudden shudder at the memory of straying hands.
Loquacious with drink, Archie had seemed unable to stop stories pouring forth of his, Stephen's, and Mac's exploits as children. This had amused Stella, and irritated Mac. And then had been told the story that had caught his attention, along with Stella's curiosity; the story of the military tags that had belonged to Stephen, been entrusted to Mac, and then lost by him at the site of a disused factory they had used as a hang-out when they were just turned teenagers....
"Which is still there, yeah, kind of hard to believe, almost as hard to believe as Mac the man losing stuff, but they still haven't gotten around to knocking that old place down. Still all there... Hey, you know what? We should go there, right now, the three of us, it'd be great to see the old place again," Archie had said enthusiastically, poking Mac in the chest with his beer bottle, whilst his eyes blinked and shone like flickering candle flames as he urged him to take a trip to the site, to try and find the missing tags. He had added that it would be just like old times, apart from Stella (or Sally as he insisted on calling her) being there, but she could tag along with them. He had laughed long and loud at his own joke. Mac had remained poker-faced.
Stella, staying out of the matter for a time, had watched with interest, looking between the two men and observing their differences. Archie, on the one hand, was disheveled and unsteady; his tie half-undone, his jacket crumpled and splashed with beer and his hair looking like a field of wind-blown wheat. In contrast, Mac was groomed, neat and soberly attired in black. Looking at his smartly-dressed best, Stella had thought, indulging in a moment of possibly inappropriate admiration of her partner.
She had pushed it aside though, and continued to listen. Whilst Archie made his attempts at persuasion, Mac's face had closed over, trying to hide the annoyance at being forced into what was an almost impossible mission to find the long missing tags, but Archie, oblivious to this, continued to gush out an alcoholic river of arguments as to why they should go. Finally, Stella had spoken up in favour of the expedition, intrigued by the prospect and wanting to resolve the matter, and reluctantly, Mac had agreed.
During the drive to the site, Archie, who had enough bottles on his person to make his pockets clank, had related yet more stories of their youth between swigs of beer and leers at Stella from the back seat. At one point, a hand had crept round to the front where she was sitting and landed on her leg. She had removed it quickly after having fired a glare at its owner, who simply winked at her. Having known they were almost at their destination, Stella had gritted her teeth and tried to shift over as much as possible away from Archie's wandering fingers.
After they had left the car and walked over to the perimeter fence, Archie had announced he could walk no further until he had rested. It led to a few minutes more argument between him and Mac, the outcome being that her partner had agreed to go and seek a way into the factory. Something she suspected he had done just to silence his friend.
However, that had been fifteen minutes ago and he was still out of sight whilst she stood guard over his friend. Stella ground her heel into the dust of the path in irritation. Regretting, and wondering at, the fact that she had volunteered to stand guard, and even come here in the first place. This had been a bad idea, she decided re-folding her arms; a really bad idea. Not least because Mac seemed to have abandoned her. It had seemed much more fun when trying to persuade him. Although, she had not actually thought he would agree. Now she was beginning to regret her eagerness to come out here...
Her thoughts were interrupted by Archie who had until that point been occupied with his beer. "Soooo..." He grinned and leaned a little further towards her, giving her a conspiratorial wink. "You and Mac, eh? Gonna tell me what the score is?"
As he poked her in the side, she dodged out of his reach, resisting the temptation to slap his hand away from her person. His eyes glittered with alcohol, and his gaze trailed up and down her body as a grin spread across his face.
Stella rolled her eyes and scowled. "There is no score," sarcasm oozed from her words. At least she hoped it did. "Mac and I are just colleagues, and friends...."
And everything else they were, which was not something she could put into words, certainly not words for Mac's extremely drunk former school friend.
Archie staggered and took another step closer to her. Stella stepped back. "Well, if you say so, Sally..." he drawled, fluttering his eyelashes at her.
"I do say so," she snapped. "And it's Stella."
In response, he slapped his forehead, beer sloshing out of the bottle. "Oh sure, sure. Geez, I'm sorry, Sally."
Releasing a sigh heaved up from the depths of her lungs that could almost have been a groan, Stella folded her arms even more tightly across her chest, wishing that she had worn something with a turtle-neck. Despite the fact she was not wearing a particularly low-cut shirt, Archie's eyes seemed to be drawn to her neckline, his gaze almost pouring down it, and attempts to draw her blazer closer around her to prevent him doing so were proving futile.
The beer bottle distracted Archie's attention for a moment so Stella turned again to look in the direction Mac had disappeared. Was it only fifteen minutes ago? She checked her watch and confirmed it, although it felt like one of the longest fifteen minutes she had ever spent. There was still no sign of him, and she cursed him inwardly in a Babel of languages. A little sneaky thought, however, reminded her that she had agreed to stay with Archie.
But that didn't mean Mac was allowed to be taking this much time.
A moment later she was startled out of her wishing misfortune on Mac, though not fatal misfortune (at least not until she had the chance to inflict it upon him herself) by Archie's chin pressing on her shoulder.
"You want some?" he turned his chin towards her, his lips almost brushing her cheek, and she recoiled at the beer soaked breath assailing her nostrils as he swung the bottle in front of her face.
Closing her eyes in a pained fashion, she shrugged him off. "No, I don't," she said forcefully, riled by his invasion of her space. But his thoughts seemed to be taking another direction as he remained standing far too close to her, swaying a little as if blown by a breeze.
"Hey, you know, last time we talked, me and Mac... well not talked exactly, more like a meail... email... sorta' thing, kind of the same but not, you know... well, anyhow, Mac, the man..."
Stella managed, with a deft sidestep, to extricate herself from the hand that was creeping like a vine round her waist.
"So, yeah," he continued unperturbed, his eyes roving over her. "Me and Mac, real close you know, real close friends when we were kids... you two close? You look pretty close, 'specially the way he kinda... y'know, looks at you..." He waggled his fingers at her and let his voice trail tantalisingly away before he took another swig.
She screwed her face up in despair and felt her shoulders sag. Archie's judgements on her relationship with Mac bothered her. She remembered Flack's looks and comments about their trip to Chicago, and how following her informing the team about it, she had observed Danny murmuring something to Lindsay, who had shut him up with a shove to his ribs and a glare; Lindsay clearly had more sense of discretion than her husband. Stella also suspected that Mr Messer and his buddy Flack had been having their own conversations about Mac and her, in all senses of the phrase. When the tall detective had heard they were going to Chicago together, it had caused a suggestively raised eyebrow. Stella had answered his questions with only scant information, refusing to tell him any more than he needed to know. Obviously dissatisfied, he had dropped a few cryptic references to Greece. Stella had ignored them. He had then thrown them knowing glances over the next couple of crime scenes they had worked. She had ignored them as well.
But just how much did their colleagues gossip about them? And what did they say? Normally she would not be troubled by idle talk, but it was a worry that had begun to niggle at her recently, and Archie's comments were causing it to flare up again now.
Trying to quell her concerns for the time being, she looked again in the direction her partner had vanished. If something had happened to Mac and she had to return to New York and report that she had managed to lose the head of the crime lab in Chicago... The discussions that would provoke would be interesting indeed, Stella thought with no small amount of irony.
And there was still no sign of him of him; just the dusty path and the tattered chain-link fence that bordered the old factory site. Releasing another impatient sigh, she squinted into the low sun, the sky a glare of yellow light above the just-visible city skyline.
Archie was raising his bottle to her as she turned back to him with a frown. "You're a fine woman, Sally, a damn fine woman... Mac's real lucky to have... have you with him... just hope he 'preciates... appreciates you..." he heaved a bathetic sigh and Stella winced: he was about to become a morose drunk, and she was apprehensive about what other pronouncements he might have on her and Mac. "Yes ma'am, a lucky man... guess I'd count myself lucky to have a woman half as fine as you... but seeing as there's no woman in my life, fine or otherwise, then maybe I just don't have any luck at all..." His face crumpled and a suspicion of a sob dropped from his lips. "I'm not a man who likes his drink neither, hate beer, you know, can't stand it. Real nasty stuff, wouldn't normally touch it...." He took another swig from the bottle and smacked his lips. Stella raised her eyebrows in disbelief, but he didn't seem to notice. "But, you know, today just kind of... kind of all got to me with Stephen, and since I got no one to listen to me, no girl... Not like Mac, 'cause you know, he's got you and all..."
Torn between sympathy and exasperation, ignoring his last comment for the time being, Stella dithered over her actions. But when she heard a sniffle, sympathy won out and she gave Archie's shoulder a hesitant pat as he wiped his nose on his sleeve. "Hey, listen, honestly, you're a nice guy! Really, and I'm sure there's a woman out there for you..."
Archie turned water-logged eyes to her, the grape-red of them rivalling the colour of his nose. "You think so?" he asked hopefully, the bottle clutched in both hands in front of him.
"I know so," Stella said with a determined smile. "Trust me."
After all, there were a lot of women in the world, some of whom weren't too choosy.
But he shook his head violently, causing more beer to slosh out of the bottle. "No, no, no, I know my faults... got plenny... plenty of 'em... s'fine, fine, don't need sympathy or pity, Sally, got too many faults to find a woman," he slurred.
Before she could stop herself, Stella found her arm around his shoulders. "Hey, I'm sure it's not that bad..."
And regretted her actions a moment later when he wrapped his arms around her and buried his face in her chest as his shoulders heaved with misery.
"S'not fair," he sobbed. "Got no one... no one who loves me... all alone... last girlfriend left me, lost her to another guy."
Stella sighed; that information did not surprise her in the slightest. But she patted his back whilst at the same time trying to maneuver him from pressing himself any further into her bosom.
"My life sucks," Archie snivelled, refusing to be maneuvered, and Stella groaned again. Managing to turn her head and look over her shoulder, she saw there was still no sign of Mac coming to her rescue.
Great. She had to wonder at how long it was taking one of the finest criminal investigators to find a way into an abandoned factory.
Grasping Archie by the shoulders, removing him from her person and giving him a small shake, she spoke firmly. "Look, seriously, you have a great life, from what Mac's told me about you."
A small white lie wouldn't harm, she decided: what Mac had actually said on their way to Chicago was that Archie was a man who had drifted through life and had very little luck with women, something Stella was witnessing first hand, and beginning to understand. He wasn't a bad guy, but she had not come all this way with to be hit on by and give counsel to an overly curious and inebriated man.
She had come here for Mac.
Finally, she managed to untangle Archie's arms from around her before his hands could slide any lower than her hips, and then replacing her hands on his shoulders, holding him at a distance, Stella came to a decision. "Okay, here's a thought. Why don't you stay here and finish your beer, while I go and find Mac? You got a cellphone?"
He shook his head, looking up at her mournfully. "Last girlfriend took it, said she, you know, hadn't got one, don't b'lieve... believe her though. 'Cause you wouldn't do that, would you? Taking a guy's phone, geez... You know, she took verything... everthing... everything. Man..." His bottle shook in his hand, chinking against his teeth as he took another sip, and then he fixed her with a bleary stare. "Can't bl'ieve a girl would do that to her boyfriend... You'd never do that to Mac though, would you?"
Her fingers dug into his shoulders as she realised what he was implying. "Mac is not my boyfriend, okay?"
Although Archie wouldn't be the first person who had jumped to that conclusion, others had not been quite so persistent about it.
Hope shone in his eyes. "So you're single? Looking for a good man to keep you? A man like..."
"No!" she bit his sentence off, horror filling her at the thought. "Absolutely not!"
Maybe she shouldn't have been quite so vehement in denying a relationship with Mac...
Archie's head drooped and his hand fell to his side, beer splattering from the bottle onto the ground. "Guess not," he mumbled. "Should've realised, got no chance... not with you. 'Specially not with you and Mac being so, you know, close..." he looked slyly at her out of the corner of his eye, and Stella narrowed her eyes at him. "Know you're trying to deny that you're his girlfriend, but I can tell..." Tapping his nose and dipping his head, a wide grin split his face and his cheerful mood returned suddenly. He leaned closer and tripped over his feet, grabbing onto her waist to steady himself. "You can tell me, Sally, s'fine, good at keeping shecrets... strecrets... things you're not s'posed to tell..." he snickered, dropping his eyelid in an elongated wink. "You and Mac..."
"There is no me and Mac, and it's Stella!" she hissed. Frustration and annoyance vied for dominance as she prised his hands away from her. If Mac had been present, embarrassment would also have been in there.
"Sure," he hiccupped and giggled, adding in a stage-whisper, "I won't tell anyone..." Then he staggered forward again, clutching at empty air as she stepped out of his way. After taking another sip from his bottle, he frowned at it in puzzlement, shook it upside down, and then when a single drop fell from it, tossed it aside and drew another one, along with a bottle opener, out the depths of his jacket.
It was time to abandon him. Dipping into her pocket, she withdrew her phone and looked at it wistfully. Being rather fond of it she handed it to him after a brief hesitation. "I'm going to find Mac. Use this in an emergency, and don't drop it. If we're not back in an hour, call someone, preferably 911." As she said the last words, she realised the probable uselessness of them, considering his state of sobriety. However, it made her feel a tiny bit better.
"Gotcha," Archie gave her a tremulous thumbs-up as he plumped down to the ground, his legs stretched out in front of him. His head wobbled a little as he continued to speak, tapping the bottle on the ground to emphasise his words. "Watch your step in that old place, don't let Mac the man go leading you into trouble." He gave her another wink and slurped his beer. Then setting the bottle carefully down on the ground and wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, a look of serious concentration descended on his face. "'Cause, you know something, Stella, I may be drunk as a skunk, but I can still recognise two people in love when I see it... Don't let him go lealing... leaning... leading you 'stray..." Then he keeled over sideways, a smile plastered across his face.
Stella blinked. Her forehead wrinkled in consternation before she crouched beside him and gave him a cautious prod. He mumbled something but didn't stir or open his eyes, so she straightened up, shrugged slightly and spun on her heel. He was safe enough where he was. And besides, she thought, if getting into trouble with Mac was the alternative to staying here to be mauled and questioned on subjects she did not want to be questioned on, she would choose trouble every time.
Especially with Mac.
She strode off down the path. Finding Mac was now her focus. Finding him and demanding to know why he had abandoned her for more than twenty minutes, as a quick check of her watch confirmed. Any other thoughts about her relationship with him could be considered later. A determined look set on her face; she had questions to ask and he had answers to give.
Please review and tell me what you think! I'd love to know. Next chapter posted at the weekend, and I'll update 'Old West' again on Friday. Thanks, Lily x