A/N: Apparently this is one of those cases of 'better late than never.' I'm so, so sorry... things have been insane in my life recently, getting settled into a new job and life apart from college. It certainly hasn't been easy, but things are actually starting to look up. Thanks so much to everyone who reviewed the last chapter of "Holiday Season." Originally I'd planned to post this one as part of that collection, but I decided to make it a separate entity. I hope you guys enjoy it... it was a labor of love, sweat, tears, nightmares, and lots and lots of brainstorming. Feel free to let me know what you think!
Many thanks to Lily for the read-through and discussion and gentle prodding to get this finished. You're awesome.
Disclaimer: I don't own CSI:NY or the characters.
"Valentine's Day sucks."
Amused at his partner's sudden declaration, Mac raised his eyebrow as he set a completed case file on the other side of his desk. "Oh?"
"Yeah. It sucks. The only thing good that comes out of it is the candy." To emphasize her point, Stella held up a box of those colored candy hearts. Mac chuckled. She was such a sweet tooth, though one would never guess it from her enviable figure. A couple days ago, he caught her with a box of heart-shaped chocolates left from a suitor. She'd explained to him that she gracefully declined his offer of a date but kept the treats just because she could. He'd said he wouldn't tell anyone as long as she let him have one.
Grinning at the memory, he leaned back in his chair and folded his hands over his chest, watching her closely. The setting sun cast dark shades of yellow and orange across his desk, making Stella's caramel-colored hair glow. "The hopeless romantic doesn't like celebrating love?"
Stella rolled her green eyes at him before popping another one of those candies in her mouth. "I am not a hopeless romantic."
The corner of his mouth twitched. "Yeah you are. But you didn't answer my question. And what are those?"
A smile brightened her beautiful face. "Sweethearts." She dug through the box for a colored candy heart. At last she extracted one and reached across his desk with it. "They're a Valentine's Day tradition."
Mac tried not to shiver when his fingers brushed against hers as he gently took it from her. "Oh, these are those things that are more sugar than flavor, right?" He ignored her offended humph. "I haven't had these since I was a kid," he murmured.
"Oh? Did little Mac Taylor have a Valentine?" she teased, smirking.
He made a face at her, and she laughed. "I was in the fourth grade, thank you very much. And for your information, she was the meanest girl in school. She pushed me down on the playground almost every day."
"Aw, she had a crush on you!" His brow knit together questioningly, and she sighed like she usually did when he exhibited his lack of social awareness. "Mac, she was mean to you because she liked you."
"You never knew that?" Stella's eyes twinkled merrily. "It's been – what? – thirty years?"
"Huh." Mac ran a hand through his hair, lips pressed together thoughtfully. "You learn something new every day."
Stella burst into a fit of laughter, and Mac couldn't help but chuckle too. Her laugh was infectious, just like the woman herself. Once you met Stella Bonasera, you just couldn't forget her. At last, wiping tears from her eyes, she gestured toward the "You have to read it."
"I thought you hated Valentine's Day traditions."
Stella rolled her eyes at him again. "Just read the damn heart, Mac."
He grinned and held it up to the light streaming in through the window behind him. "'Call Me.'" Mac glanced up at his partner, eyebrow raised. "Why? You're right here."
"Not me, you goof. See?" She held up one. "'Look Good.'"
Mac snorted. "What does that even mean?"
Stella chuckled before popping it into her mouth. "Who knows?" She grabbed a piece of blank paper from the corner of his desk and dumped the contents of the box onto the paper so they could share.
"You know," he picked up a candy from the desk and held it between his fingers, "you never answered my question."
"What question was that?"
Mac shrugged. "The one about you hating Valentine's Day."
"Oh, that question." Stella chewed on another piece of candy pensively. "It's just a dumb holiday."
"Actually it's to celebrate a priest named Valentine who married people against an emperor's order. The emperor eventually had him put to death for carrying out one of the most important sacraments in the church."
"Thank you, History Channel," she retorted sarcastically. Mac just grinned at her words, knowing she was just teasing him. "Maybe it had a good start. But it's just so commercialized now."
"You'll get no argument from me there."
"It's all about the money and not actually about love. Why have a day for celebrating love? Why not celebrate love for all 365 days of the year? Love doesn't just exist on one day."
"Maybe it's to remind people about love. Get them to focus on what's really important in life." Mac toyed with another piece of candy. "We all need that reminder every now and again." He knew he certainly did.
Stella shrugged. "Well, yeah, we do. But it's still pretty sad."
Sensing she was holding something back, he impulsively reached across his desk and tapped her hand with his finger. "You've never mentioned your hatred of Valentine's Day before. What else is there, Stel?"
She fidgeted in her chair, clearly not wanting to tell him whatever was on her mind. At last she looked up at him, and he could see something in her eyes that he couldn't quite interpret.
"It's just…" her voice trailed off, and he tapped her hand again. "Valentine's Day makes me remember that I don't have anyone. That I'm alone. I'm pushing forty and I'm alone."
He looked at her for a long, long moment, not saying a word. And she stared back at him expectantly, just waiting for him to say something. But he couldn't. His mind was occupied with all the memories flooding through him: memories of first meeting her, of her clutching his hand at the World Trade Center memorial, of holding her in his arms on the floor of her apartment and praying that she was alive, of her hot tears on his neck in a field in Greece. Enough time had passed between then and now. He'd been content to just watch for far too long.
At last, the sound of her gentle whisper broke him out of his reverie. He looked at her, her green eyes staring at him expectantly, a candy heart almost to her lips. "Sorry," he mumbled.
"Okay, 'cause for a moment I thought I'd lost you completely."
He met her smile with one of his own. Again his hand reached out to touch hers, this time gently grasping one of her fingers. "You'll never lose me, sweetheart," he said. Her eyebrows shot up at his use of an endearment that slipped out far more easily than he'd expected. "And you're not alone."
"Mac, I didn't mean –"
He held up his free hand, and she stopped talking. A confused and surprised look appeared on her face; her eyes searched his. "I know how you meant it," he said in a soft voice. "You're not alone, Stella. You'll never be alone."
His words hung in the air as silence settled over them. Her eyes stayed locked with his, and he could see a hint of a tear glisten in the green orbs. Finally she drew a ragged breath and whispered, "Oh, Mac."
He smiled gently. Glancing down at the few remaining pieces of candy, he picked one out of the pile and slid it across his desk at her. This time a tear did escape her when she looked down and read the tiny pink words imprinted in the sugar.
Mac squeezed her finger gently. "Would you, Stella?"
A wide smile split her face, and in the slowly setting sun, he thought she'd never looked more beautiful. And this time he let himself think that. This time, instead of watching, he was doing something about it. And it felt so good.
Stella took a deep breath and, with trembling fingers, reached out to pick up the little pink heart. She ran her fingers over it gently, touching the letters, caressing it. Mac held his breath, his heart pounding in his ears, waiting for her to give her answer. The silence was deafening.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, she looked up at him. Her hand turned over on his desk so that her palm met his, and his heart fluttered when she interlaced their fingers. He locked gazes with her again.
"I was always yours, Mac," she whispered. "I was always yours."
Relief flooded him. He shoved his chair back and stood up, his hand cold suddenly without hers clasped in it. In two long strides, he rounded his desk to where she sat. Grabbing her warm hand again, he helped her to her feet. She laughed quietly when he slid his arm around her narrow waist and pulled her to him.
Gently he cupped her cheek, stroking it with his thumb. "Oh, sweetheart," he murmured, his lips just inches from hers, the word not accidental this time, "I was always yours too."
"Always?" she asked with a smile, her breath warm against his lips.
Mac nodded. "Always," he whispered, just before he claimed her lips for his own.