Stalemate

Summary: Stella Bonasera is a professional dancer. Mac Taylor is the lead CSI in a grisly murder she's involved in. When they meet sparks will fly, but is Stella a victim or a suspect? As the investigation progresses, they both find themselves on a dangerous path that will change their lives forever.

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:-)

Dedicated to Darcie91! Hold on and be well, girl:)


Chapter 5 – In And Out Of Step

Rays of morning light were streaming in through the window into the bedroom bathing his face in their warm embrace. As Mac slowly opened his eyes and squinted into the light, he realized it was morning and he had slept through the whole night. No nightmares, no waking up in sweat in the dead of the night with a hammering heart, no specters from the past lurking in the shadows. Instead, he was well-slept and rested. It's been so long that it actually felt strange.

He lazily turned onto his back and took a while to gaze at the ceiling above as yesterday's events started to re-emerge from the confines of his memory, vast yet still creaky from sleep. He sighed wondering if it wasn't all just a dream. The Greek goddess arriving on his doorstep seeking his help and then sauntering through his apartment in nothing but his shirt on almost seemed too surreal to be true.

What seemed even more surreal was the way he felt around her. The connection they seemed to share from the very first time he set his eyes on her that fateful evening in her studio was as unexpected as it was exhilarating. He barely remembered a time when any woman could stir up such a flurry of emotions in him. He didn't think he had such a range of emotions in him anymore. Ever since Claire's death he felt dead in places she had once occupied. It was like a part of him he had reserved for the woman he loved perished together with her. His heart turned into a cold, empty place he no longer recognized and didn't want to venture into for fear of what he would find there. Or what he wouldn't because it wasn't there anymore. He felt numb and withdrawn. In fact, he hadn't felt anything in such a long time that he would sometimes slam his fist into the wall just to make sure that he was still able to feel at all.

This time his walls were safe, though. As if with a wave of a magic wand, he felt good and very much alive. As he lay in his bed that morning, for the first time in years he ventured inside, carefully probing and prodding the places that Claire's death had shattered into pieces. Or so he thought. He did find a void there but it wasn't the dark, uninviting and angry emptiness he feared it had become. True, it was maimed and scarred over like a burn but the remains were healed. They were rough to the touch and taut from lack of use but at the same time strong and waiting to be filled again.

Could it really be? Was he finally coming to terms with Claire's death? He remembered the strange sense of relief and lightness he had felt when he spoke to Stella about her. The pain didn't go away but Stella's presence was like a soothing balm that lessened the acute agony to an almost bearable throbbing. It was like he had been keeping his breath all those years and with Stella there, he could finally take a deep breath and remember what it was like to live in the colourful present with the living for a change not in the black-and-white past with ghosts. If love was red, then he had been colour blind for the last eight years. Now he felt like he was starting to see the hues back again and it was the most exhilarating and exciting sensation he had ever felt.

And in the middle of that brave new world was Stella Bonasera, who seemed like a brilliant gem sparkling with a million colours in the light, all of which he wanted to see and experience. He only feared she would be disappointed by the grayish hues his life was painted in. He knew Stella saw through his walls and into the scattered remains Claire's death had left. Grief-stricken and alone, he had created a silent mausoleum for her in his heart where he sent himself on a life-long banishment, only occasionally resurfacing to the real world of feelings and emotions. Claire's Taj Mahal in his heart was the most private and sacred thing he had left of her. Stella was the first person that he allowed a glimpse of it and strangely, he found he was all right with her peering inside.

He felt a wave of heat come over him and roll over his body as he remembered the undisguised tenderness and care he saw in her eyes yesterday. It wasn't pity, it was that deep understanding and compassion that could only be offered by someone who knew the bitter taste of loss and the dead sound of loneliness echoing through your heart.

This time, however, his best companions of ten years, Loneliness and Depression, were nowhere to be seen and for once Mac was glad. For the first time in years he had something else to fall back on. If she would have him, that is. With these pleasantly confusing thoughts still on his mind, he got out of the bed, still marveling at how well-slept and at peace with himself he felt.

The strong aroma of freshly brewed coffee pervaded his senses as soon as he opened his bedroom door. He smiled to himself realizing he would have a couple of more moments with Stella, hopefully over breakfast, and knew whatever happened today, his day was set.

Still slightly dazed and sleepy, he allowed his legs to lead him through his morning routine and went for the bathroom. Little did he know that today he wouldn't need a shower or coffee to wake him up at all. All it took was the sight that met his eyes as he pushed on the door handle and opened the door. He was welcomed by the indelibly beautiful image of Stella emerging out of the dense steam from the shower like Botticelli's Venus arising from the sea foam on the shores of Cyprus. The similarity in beauty was striking. Thank God she had a towel wrapped around her or he doubted he would be able to behave in a strictly professional and gentlemanly manner. He had a really hard time even now. He tried to back out noiselessly but Stella's gaze caught and held him hostage before he managed to move.

"Um, I…" he managed to mumble. "I was just leaving." Bushing, he beat a hasty retreat his former Marine commanders would have been proud of. His heart was still beating wildly around his ribcage and he felt heat rising within him.

Coffee, he thought frantically and rushed to the kitchen.

XxXxXxX

As Stella wandered into the kitchen a quarter of an hour later, fully dressed and positively glowing, Mac was still trying to bring his heart rate to normal over coffee. Her appearance did nothing good to his state and he had to stare yet again.

The morning light painted her silhouette and face in warm tones, highlighting the rich olive tint of her skin and bringing out the golden sparks in her eyes. Her freshly washed hair bounced around her shoulders and temples in a storm of dark blonde locks that reflected the light and created an incandescent halo around her face. She gave him the megawatt smile he had come to associate with her and he felt defenseless as her undivided attention focused on him.

"Hi," she said. "Sorry for earlier, I didn't expect you to be up so early." She smiled apologetically.

Was she really apologizing for the best wake-up he had had in years?

"Um, no problem." He felt himself blushing again as the image of her in the shower promptly emerged to the forefront of his brain. It was an image he wouldn't get rid of any time soon. Not that he wanted to. "I guess I'm not used to having someone else around so I just went in without thinking. Sorry."

"Apologize only if you really mean it," she said with a mischievous smile.

"Then I take it back," he heard himself say before he could think and almost choked on his coffee. "Sorry, that didn't come out like I wanted."

"I think it came out exactly like you wanted," she said with a raised eyebrow.

His shyness and confusion were something new and endearing and she couldn't help herself from eliciting another one of those coy smiles from him. Each day she knew him she had the opportunity to see another side of him and each was more fascinating than the previous one. Yesterday she had been amazed to see him reveal the side he probably guarded most. She could see his curt yet heart-felt confession about his late wife didn't come easy to him yet he spoke to her about Claire anyway. She could see the very fact of mentioning her aloud was a milestone for him, hopefully a new chapter.

He led a lonely and withdrawn life, his work in the centre and almost all the other aspects pushed aside. She understood how this self-imposed banishment from all things emotional would help him cope with his tragedy and infuse some semblance of sanity into his tumultuous life but it came with a price tag. A high one. One she had been paying herself a long time.

Which was why she knew it wasn't worth it. There was so much to him, he had so much to give and yet he had single-handedly taken that away from himself and closed himself off from people in his self-imposed prison. All alone. She didn't know if he was even aware that he was hurting. No man was an island and Mac Taylor was no different. True, there was a remoteness to him that she imagined kept people away, and a reserve that was hard to penetrate but as she looked at him, she realized he wanted to be drawn out of his shell. He just needed the right person to do it. She wanted to be this person, however hard it would prove. In all honesty, there wasn't much she could do to stop it. The forces pulling her to him were stronger than even gravity that normally had her feet rooted firmly to the ground. Now it was more like zero G and she felt powerless to fight it. Even if she got burned, it would be worth it. He was worth it.

"I'm glad to hear you say what's really in your heart and mind for a change," she said softly.

"You make it easy," he said quietly avoiding her eyes.

Her lips turned up in a tender smile. She wanted to call him up on this rare occasion when he seemed to let his heart out of his chest but she also saw how uneasy he felt. While she was dying to get a glimpse into this fascinating man's soul, she didn't want him to be uncomfortable because of her.

"You know what I also make easy?" she asked with a mischievous smile. "Breakfast."

His face molded into a mask of pure surprise mixed with relief. She just had a chance to pick his brain and heart and she didn't. He knew he would have let her, even though it would have been painful for him. As if she knew that, she backed down and turned it all into a joke. Any other woman he had ever met would ruthlessly take any chance she got at drawing out any kind of confession from him.

"Just tell me where do you keep your cutlery and pans and I'll be fine," she said, her eyes catching the light coming in from the window and taking on a cheerful, golden glint.

"Well," he cleared his throat. "Cutlery seems too big a word but the forks and spoons are in there," he motioned at one of the drawers to the right of where she was standing.

"Can I help?" he asked as she swiftly started bustling about the kitchen.

She turned around from the stove and measured him from top to toe with a skeptically raised eyebrow. "You can help by taking your morning shower. You look like you still haven't fully woken up, mister," she added wryly.

Mac flashed her an embarrassed smile. "I do feel like I'm in a dream," he said under his breath, watching her move with grace and purpose around his kitchen, making him breakfast, as if she belonged there.

"We'll see if you feel the same after I burn half of your apartment," she quipped and he felt himself blush. She wasn't supposed to hear that.

Then she turned to reach for milk and glanced at him from out the corner of her eye. Seeing his flabbergasted expression, she laughed out.

The happy, mellifluous sound filled the kitchen and made him look up. It was something so rare and unexpected in his apartment, and life for that matter, that it only intensified the impression that he was still dreaming. He really did need a shower.

XxXxXxX

Freshly showered and dressed, Mac wandered back into the kitchen. The delicious smell of something frying invaded his nostrils already in the corridor.

Stella watched him come back and as her eyes swept over him, she had to take a deep breath. He was wearing black suit pants and a blue button-down shirt that made the turquoise sparks in his eyes come out. His freshly washed hair were sticking out in all directions only adding to his boyish charm. And to top it all, he was smiling at her with a look of tenderness mixed with amazement that made her heart skip a beat. If it hadn't been for the smell of breakfast which was starting to burn, she would have just stood like that and stared.

"Pancakes?" he asked incredulously noticing the play of emotions on her face when he came in. At the sound of his voice, she quickly turned away with an unfathomable look in her eyes.

"Yeah," she said taking the frying pan from the stove. "I was hoping for something more filling but your bacon isn't bacon anymore and your eggs have hatched, I think, though into what I preferred not to look."

"I'm not that big on food," he said apologetically. "And when I am, I order in."

"I could tell from the way your fridge door creaked from lack of use when I opened it," she said with a cheeky grin and he had to chuckle.

"Now that we've established your dreadful eating habits-" she continued faking a shiver of dread. "-dig in." She put a plateful of delightfully smelling pancakes in front of him.

He looked at her incredulously, then at the pancakes, then back at her, once again making sure she was real. She just gave him a big smile in return.

"I might not be the best gourmet cook but my pancakes are edible, Mac," she said when met with his amazed stare. "And they're certainly better than that bacon you've got crawling in the fridge."

He smiled. "I'm sure they are, it's just that…" he fell silent, searching for the right words. "You really didn't have to…"

"That's the least I could do," she cut him off. "Besides, I gather it's the first home-cooked warm meal you've had in days so don't argue."

"I won't win this, will I?"

"Do you really want to?" she shot back with one elegant brow raised.

Smiling, he shook his head and conceded. "This is delicious," he said swallowing the first bite.

"Told ya," she grinned at him with satisfaction.

He watched her sit opposite him with a mug of steaming coffee. She gave him a contented smile and took a sip but when he chanced another glance at her, she was looking into the black liquid swirling it absent-mindedly in her mug with an unfathomable look on her face. She tried to hide it but he imagined what she had to be going through right now with her apartment damaged and her life possibly in danger, entangled in what was becoming a spider-web of crime and deception. He put down his fork and knife.

"You know, it won't turn into a margherita however hard you look at it," he said with a wry smile trying to get her mind off the thoughts that were so obviously bringing down her normally radiantly cheerful spirit.

Her train of thoughts broken, her head snapped up and she chuckled.

"I could sure use one right now." She sighed putting her mug down. "Though tequila would be more like it."

"So you're a tequila girl?"

"Guilty," she nodded with a mischievous smile. "Are you?"

"A tequila girl?" he asked trying to keep a straight face. "Not since the last time I went out with my boys. You don't wanna know," he added seeing the sparks of interest in her eyes. "And neither do I."

She chuckled. "Maybe you should try it in a different company," she said after a moment, looking him straight in the eye.

He glanced at her with surprise, wondering if he heard her right. Was this breath-taking woman hinting at wanting to go out for a drink with him? He was tempted to pinch himself just to make sure he wasn't still dreaming. But she continued to stare at him expectantly and it somehow sobered him up. He was about to open his mouth when his phone went off. He looked at the ID with a frown.

"I'm sorry, it's work," he mumbled standing up. "I've got to take this."

She watched him walk a step away and speak over the phone. She ground her teeth inwardly. He was about to answer her and from the look on his face she doubted it would be a 'no'. She was now beginning to see firsthand that against his job, everything else took a backseat. Still, she couldn't hold it against him – that's all he had until now. That was who he was and part of why she admired him so much.

"Sorry," he said putting his phone down and sitting himself back down. Stella was looking into the window despondently and though she quickly turned back to him with a smile, he knew she wasn't fine. "I've pulled a few strings and a police detail will be assigned to you by noon. You won't have to worry about the stalker. You'll be safe," he added with a feeling of relief.

"Thank you, Mac," she said. "Though I'd rather you put all the available resources into finding the bastards who did all this rather than on shadowing me."

"This has gone too far, Stella." Seeing her unconvinced expression, he added, "If it makes you feel better, do this for my sake, ok? I can't be around to protect you myself because of work and I can't work knowing you're on your own with a killer on the loose and possibly out to get you."

She eyed him biting down on her lower lip.

"Quite a vicious circle, detective," she said teasingly, her independent streak not ready to give up the fight just yet. Still, hearing him word his concern for her in such a straightforward manner did strike a chord. Maybe what she felt for him wasn't entirely one-sided? Though with him and his poker face, it was almost impossible to say.

"Humour me," he said. "And if you're still not convinced, let me just add the alternative is cuffing you and sticking you in lock-up at the precinct."

"Only if you promise to do it yourself," she shot back with a cheeky grin.

"Stella, I'm serious."

"So am I."

He shook his head but she could see his eyes were crinkling with a smile. "You are one stubborn woman, Stella Bonasera," he said trying to sound stern but knew he hadn't succeeded in the least bit. He couldn't help being fascinated with her every trait, even if it was something that made them lock horns. Because in all honesty, he didn't mind. To the contrary, their verbal duels which so often verged on flirting were making him feel alive and wanted. He had known her but a couple of days and he already no longer imagined his life without them. Her?

"I'll take that as a compliment," she retorted. "And what about my apartment, Mac? Are you guys finished with it?"

"We are," he admitted uneasily. "But it's not exactly the safest place for you to be. And you've seen the state it's in."

"Precisely," she nodded her head to make a point. "I've got loads of cleaning up to do and I'd rather start as soon as possible."

"Stella…"

"It's my home, Mac," she enunciated. "I'll only feel good and safe when I'm back there," she added in the heat of the moment.

Something flashed behind his eyes and Stella realized she might have inadvertently offended him.

"I…I'm sorry, Mac. It's not that I don't feel good and safe here with you…"

He raised his hand to silence her. "No need to apologize, Stella. I'm well aware you'd rather be at your own place with your own mug of coffee and your chosen company right now…"

"Mac, you are my chosen company. I came to you of my own free will, remember?"

"You came to me to see the police investigator in the murder case you're a witness in, Stella," he said in a tone devoid of emotion. Inside, he was boiling. He felt all he emotion merge into a sharp blade poking at his insides. She as much as said she didn't feel good in his company. As he pondered her words, he realized he could hardly blame her. He wasn't the most entertaining and attractive guy out there and he did wonder why she would choose to spend time with him in the first place. His suspicious mind instantly brought back up the paparazzo debacle. Though he knew she had nothing to do with that and his suspicions that she wanted to use him for money turned out completely groundless, a seed of doubt had been planted in his mind. She might not have wanted to play him for money but maybe she was just this kind of girl, a femme fatale chewing up men just for the pleasure of it? He knew nothing about her. The old demons of insecurity and doubt began gnawing at his newly gained confidence with double force.

"You were right to do so," he continued without inflection. "Because that's what I am to you and I don't expect you to treat me as anything else. Let's face it, I'm just some stranger, a person paid by this city to protect you and solve the crime you've witnessed. Someone you find amusing for a while because he's so different from the people you usually meet. The novelty will soon wear off, the investigation will end, and we'll go our separate ways and never see each other again," he ended with finality. It was less painful to drive her away now and thus be sure his heart and hers as well, remained unharmed. There was the possibility that he was making a huge mistake and thus missing out on something wonderful but he'd rather not put his heart on the line and live like he had before rather than suffer in the future when she would be done with her toy and threw him away like some used rug. Although he didn't really think she would something like that, he couldn't be sure. And for his analytical brain anything less than a 100% certainty was unacceptable.

"Is that so?" she asked through clenched teeth, still reeling from the 180 his mood had done in a matter of seconds. It was like someone had turned the light off. With what he had gone through, she could hardly blame him for being on guard and careful with a person who was still a stranger but he seemed so intent on shielding himself at all costs, so hell-bent on finding even the flimsiest excuse for backing down that she wanted to physically shake him. She saw the steel and conviction in his eyes. He had already made up his mind based on one random sentence spoken in the heat of the moment. He wouldn't even give her a chance. She felt anger flash through her in hot flares.

"I've seen it a thousand times, Stella," he said in a tired tone, tough his eyes begged her to contradict him, to tell him that for once it would be different, that she wanted this to last and that he was more than a temporary distraction.

But she was too angry to see that. She felt hurt and offended. So that's what she was to him? Just another stranger? An anonymous person he would shrug off and outright forget as soon as she was of no interest to the case he was working on? How could he be so blind and unfair? He was so quick to judge her yet again. One unfortunate moment and his mind instantly jumped on the worst he could think up about her. Why couldn't he believe that she chose him willingly because he was the first person in a long time that made her feel alive inside? Why wouldn't he even consider the possibility that she had no ulterior motive, apart from spending more time with the man she was infatuated with? Why did he so easily chalk her off as a manipulative and spiteful vixen out on a mission to make him suffer? Why wouldn't he give her a chance?

The questions rose in her mind like angry daggers, stabbing and prodding at any part of her they could reach. Seeing the set expression on his face, she felt it was no use trying to convince him otherwise.

"I see you've already made up your mind about me, detective," she said acrimoniously. "It's funny how you're so quick to write me off as some shallow, impressionable bimbo with the attention span of a gnat."

"That's not what I…"

"That's exactly what you were thinking," she cut him off. "I should have known what you thought about me when you were so quick to accuse me of playing you for money the other day. I chose to chalk it up to your difficult job and treat it as an unfortunate slip of the tongue spoken in the heat of the moment, which is apparently more than you're willing to do for me. Instead, now you come up with the idea that I'm playing you just for the fun of it. Well, here's a crazy thought for you – how about I'm not playing you at all? How about I like spending time with you and thought I could trust you?" she let out a bitter laugh. "Look how wrong I was, maybe you're right after all, I am impressionable!"

Mac met her blazing gaze and they seemed to remain stuck in the moment, both of them trying to find out what it was that the other one thought and wanted. The elation he felt upon waking up had vanished into thin air replaced by the well-known fear and insecurity that he feared he would never completely overcome. He felt cold and color-blind again, old scars toughening up around his heart and cutting it off from the outside world. From Stella.

Ever since they met, she gently pushed his buttons, making him see and experience things he didn't think he was still able to. She was slowly turning his world upside down and making him venture out of his comfort zone, which made bouts of panic rise within him. It was so much easier to fall back on the doubt and suspicion that always seemed to reside somewhere at the back of his mind. It had always worked before. He knew he hurt himself by shelling in but it was nothing compared to the pain he would go through by putting his battered heart on the line and getting it smashed to pieces again. What he didn't realize until now was that by doing so he didn't only hurt himself but other people as well. He saw he had hurt Stella and it pained him more than any heart-break he tried to shield himself from ever would.

The realization hit him with the force of a speeding Nascar race car. He looked at her, not able to utter a single word. He knew she had misinterpreted his silence.

"Funny how one can be so educated and intelligent and yet so narrow-minded and judgmental," she shook her head in sorrow. "Well, have a good life, detective, if you're even able to." She grabbed her purse and was out the door, the dying clunk of her heels on the wooden floor resounding with dead finality through the corridor and his mind.

He made to go after her but fate wouldn't have it. His phone buzzed and made him stop. Dammit! He was on call this morning. He had to pick up. "What?" he growled into the speaker. "What?" he asked again, this time with incredulity, upon listening to the dispatcher. "I'll be right there," he said with resignation and reached for his coat.

Before hailing a cab, he looked up and down the street with concern and worry gnawing at his stomach. As he expected, Stella was nowhere to be seen. He was a fool and now he could only hope she would allow him to make this right. He had no idea how but he would. He had to. He felt life had thrown him another ball, probably the last one, and even if it was a vicious curve, he'd take it.

XxXxXxX

Lindsay Monroe-Messer allowed herself a small frown upon setting her eyes on the crime scene. The mess was incredible and she could already imagine the hours she would spend on collecting, bagging and tagging the debris. Still, somewhere in there was that one piece that would hopefully give them the killer and make all the effort worth it.

It had been very much the same thing in the Bozeman carnage she would have engraved in her memory till the day she died. Tons of broken glass, splinters, shards, the food and drinks the patrons were enjoying and all kinds of debris must have been a nightmare for her Montana colleagues to sort out but they did their job right and it was thanks to them that the man who murdered her friends and was a hair's width of killing her as well, got captured and convicted. Whenever she had doubts or her resolve melted, she would remember the dead faces of her childhood friends and plough on, reminding herself that while she couldn't do anything back then, she could do a lot for the friends and family of the victim, just like the CSIs back home did for her. Justice was served then and she would do everything she could so that it would be the same now.

With new determination, she flipped the strap of her Nikon over her neck and started conscientiously clicking pictures, careful not to step on anything that could help them find the killer of the young man lying sprawled on his back in the middle of the office, completely indifferent to the chaos around him. Lindsay swallowed harder when she moved closer to photo the body itself and saw the look of utter shock and pain the vic's features were frozen into. It didn't matter how many crime scenes she had worked on and how many bodies she saw, it was still hard to keep herself emotionless and strictly business. Mac told his team many times it's easier to work a scene when you thought about the victim as a dead body, not a person. There would come a time to put a name and history to it but the crime scene was no place for it. Here you had to stay focused and keep your cool. With Mac's words ringing in her ears, she went back to work.

Once she got the whole victim photo album, she put the camera down and reached for a pair of tweezers from her kit. Just as she was crouching over the vic and taking a sample of a wooden-like substance she found on his shirt, she heard a shuffle behind her.

"Hi, Mac," she greeted him with a smile. He was in no smiley mood, though – his jaw was set and his eyes stormy. She saw that behind his cool exterior, he was simmering. Who- or whatever got him into such a state must have been really something.

"Hi," he said curtly and almost mimicked Lindsay's frown from before as he took a look around. Then his gaze settled on the immobile body and his brow creased with worry. "I've only interviewed him yesterday," he said looking at the ghastly white face of Tony Boyd. "Who called it in?"

"The morning shift security officer. He was making his usual rounds at five before the building opened and found him like that," Lindsay said with a sigh. "I spoke with the janitor and he saw our vic up and about yesterday at nine. He was the last person to stay in the office."

"Apart from the killer," Mac sighed setting down his kit and putting rubber gloves on. He took in the scene once again. "Someone was very eager to find something. And judging by the mess, they probably didn't. The question is whether it was Tony Boyd or the killer."

"You think the vic thrashed his own office like that?"

"His office?" Mac cracked a minute smile. "Probably not. The thing is this isn't his office. It's down the corridor, I interviewed him with Flack there yesterday. This is the office of Jayme Kurtz."

"The vic from the alley?"

Mac nodded. "Boyd was his business partner."

"So what was he doing in the office of his late partner in the dead of the night? Apart from getting himself shot?"

"Good question," he nodded. "Let's hope Mr. Boyd can give us some answers."

Lindsay looked at him suspiciously, getting the feeling he knew more than he was letting on. But if Mac wasn't sharing what he had, he had a good reason. Usually it meant that it was a working theory he was unsure of and didn't want to mislead the team. He crouched over Boyd's body and his gaze immediately settled on the two red marks on his chest.

"There's gunpowder trace and stippling around the wounds," he said gently lifting the soiled fabric around the wounds to take a better look at the maimed skin underneath. "Close range. Someone wasn't taking any chances," he stated straightening up. "Any luck on the slugs yet?"

Lindsay looked around. "No. And it's going to take lots of luck," she said wryly. It would probably take her the whole day to sort through the debris and there was no guarantee she would find the casings.

"Entry wounds look middle caliber, probably a nine mil," Mac said thoughtfully. "Exactly like the gun that killed Steve Ballas. And the MO is the same as in Stella Bonasera's apartment."

"You think it's the same person?"

"Everything seems to suggest it," Mac said, though Lindsay could sense the reserve in his voice. "But until we find those shells and hopefully some DNA, it's only an educated guess."

"Nice, she sighed. "And I was hoping for an early evening."

XxXxXxX

Down at the NYPD Crime Lab, Danny Messer cracked his knuckles with a contented grin as he sat himself down at the newest state-of-the-art computer Mac had ordered. He let his fingers hover above the keyboard before he actually touched the keys, like a piano maestro taking a while to feel the atmosphere and the instrument before his solo recital. A wide smile spread over his lips as he was about to start work on analyzing the samples from Jayme Kurtz's murder he had spent the last day tagging and inserting into their database. It was onerous and time-consuming but now he got to play with their newest equipment. His fingers flew across the keyboard when he heard a muffled chuckle behind him. He turned around to see Sheldon standing on the threshold with his arms crossed and a raised eyebrow.

"You are such a geek," he said with a shake of his head and stepped inside.

Danny pouted and turned back to the screen. "How long have you been standing there?" he asked aiming for unconcerned and faking complete focus on the data from the scene on the screen.

"Long enough," Hawkes said innocently.

"Don't you have work to do, doc?" Danny said with a grimace.

Sheldon just shook his head. He donned his lab coat and went over to their ABI genetic analyzer. He was still waiting for the results of the comparative study of Tony Boyd's DNA and the trace they'd found on the scene. It was taking longer than usual because the sample came from nasal secretions and was more degraded so he couldn't use their standard instruments. He had to resort to their DNA sequencer for special tasks, the ABI. Sheldon liked working with it because it was almost flawless, using capillary electrophoresis to analyze DNA by separating even the most degraded fragments according to their sizes as they travelled through a narrow polymer-filled tube, thus rendering 99.9% accurate results in even the smallest and most damaged samples. The instrument was handy and efficient yet involved lots of work and almost no fun so Danny was only too eager to weasel out of it and play with the more fun stuff, like their newest computer software. He was such a child sometimes. And he desperately wanted to impress Mac.

They worked together in silence for another half an hour. The ABI was almost done and Sheldon was just waiting for the final results.

"How's it going out there in the mediaeval part of the lab?" Danny asked with an evil grin.

Sheldon rolled his eyes. "Just because the ABI has the processing speed of 2.34 nanoparticles per second and your computer is 1.5 particle faster, doesn't mean it's mediaeval."

"You know this by heart but I'm the geek?" Danny asked incredulously and Sheldon just grinned.

As if spurred by Danny's barb, the ABI began spewing out processed data. Hawkes frowned.

"Danny, I've got something," he said in the other CSI's direction.

"Why do I get the feeling I'm not gonna like it?"

"Oh, you will," Sheldon said copying the results to a tab and bringing it over for Danny to see.

"The DNA from the tissue matches the one we found on the cigarette butt at the scene," Danny said. "So Boyd was the shooter?" he looked at Hawkes incredulously.

"You don't seem convinced."

"No, it's just that I've been analyzing the footprints we took from the scene," he pulled up the photos he was working on for Sheldon to take a look at. "And here, next to the butt, there are no discernible traces of anyone standing there. It was wet and dirty there and all the other participants left traces so it stands to reason he would, too. I was already leaning towards Mac's theory that the butt was just a piece of unimportant garbage that lay there for months."

"But it isn't. Which means we're taking a trip to Mr. Boyd's apartment to get his boots and have a chat with him," Sheldon said with a half-smile.

"That won't be possible," came a voice from the entrance and Mac walked in. "I've just been to his murder scene."

Sheldon and Danny looked at each other. "But we've just found…" they both started at the same time.

Danny threw up his hands in the air. "Go ahead, doc," he said grumpily. "You've stolen my thunder with your ABI anyway."

XxXxXxX

If Jessica Angell had had any knowledge of what she was stepping into by going to that party, she would have never gone. Not only was his best friend's life in danger and her apartment turned upside down but now the police were calling her all the way down town for some silly paperwork details. She could have sworn it was detective Flack, the snarky one with whom she had sparred at the party, taking his revenge for her attitude.

She had just entered the precinct when she heard screams coming from the opposite direction and nearing her. She didn't frequent police stations but she was pretty much sure they weren't supposed to be this loud and rowdy. The shouting became louder, this time accompanied by footsteps. After that everything happened so fast, she barely had a chance to think.

A surly man in cuffs jumped from around the corner, skidding but not falling down. He was going straight at her and the look on his face told her he wasn't exactly the gentlemanly type who would allow her to move away before he bulldozed her. With not enough time to jump away, she went with her instincts.

A knee to the groin and a fist to the solar plexus later, the thug was lying at her feet groaning in pain while half of the precinct stood staring at the petite woman who had disabled a two hundred pound giant in a matter of seconds.

"I've already done your job for you," she said snarkily, brushing her hair out of her face. "Am I supposed to cuff him as well or will you stop staring and help me?"

"You heard the lady," came a snarky voice from the crowd and one detective Don Flack emerged holding a pair of cuffs. He promptly cuffed the guy and handed him over to a uniform while Flack approached Jessica.

"Talk David and Goliath," he said with an appreciative whistle.

She raised an eyebrow at him, still irate. From the look on his face, she was now sure he was the one to drag her here in the first place. "Quite the literate comparison coming from a guy on a state salary."

"Quite the kung fu coming from a 5'2" ballerina."

She rolled her eyes and asked impatiently, "Why am I here, detective?"

"Maybe not here," he said and motioned for her to follow him. He offered her a seat at his desk and as they were both seated, gave her an inquiring look. "I wanted to talk to you about Tony Boyd, miss Angell."

She furrowed her eyebrows. "What about Tony?"

"So you know him?"

"Yes," she confirmed suspiciously. "What about him?"

"He was murdered yesterday night," Don drove the wedge in and watched intently for her reaction.

Jessica swallowed hard. First Jayme, now Tony? What was going on here?

"Miss Angell?" Flack's soft voice brought her back to the present.

"I…I'm sorry," she mumbled returning his gaze. "What happened?"

"He was shot twice in the chest. Didn't stand a chance," he informed her and saw shock and flash through her face. It was all sincere, he could sense it. "Do you need a moment?" he asked gently.

"No, no, I'm fine." She spoke in a shaky tone. "So what do you want to know from me? Have you spoken to his wife, Tina?"

"Yes, we have," Flack said uneasily. "And that is part of the reason why you're here. When did you last see Mr. Boyd?"

"Last Wednesday," she said guardedly.

Flack nodded and consulted his notes. "He had two-hour time slots every Wednesday evening in his schedule with your name and he had you on his speed-dial."

Jess narrowed her eyes at him. "Are you asking me if I had an affair with him?"

"Should I be?"

She huffed impatiently. "Do you dance, detective?" she answered him with a question.

"If you mean moving to music, then yeah, sure, I think I'm not that bad," he shrugged. "What's that got to do with anything?"

"I figured you to be the 'moving to the music' type," she said snarkily and Flack felt he should feel offended though he didn't exactly know what was wrong with 'moving to the music'. "You see, so was Tony Boyd before he started coming to my dancing school. He wanted to do something special for his wife for their fifth wedding anniversary. You see, she used to be a pro once. So he decided he would learn to dance for her. He had his lessons each Wednesday at eight."

"And why did he have his dancing instructor, you, on speed dial?" Don still found the circumstances suspicious. "I doubt that would make a very good anniversary present if his wife found out he had such an attractive, unmarried woman as one of his key contacts."

Her jaw was set when she answered. "Nothing ever happened," she enunciated. When he raised his eyebrow at her skeptically, she knew she would have to elaborate further to convince him. She sighed. "Sometimes dancing can turn into a therapy, detective. I doubt you'd understand but dancing isn't just 'moving to the music'. It needs the heart and mind as much as legs. In order to dance well, you have to face all your emotions and fears. If there's something constraining you in here-" she gently touched the place above his heart. "-then you'll never really dance."

Flack watched transfixed the passion flickering in her eyes as she spoke about dancing. She was fascinating to watch and he found he believed her. She didn't use her obvious beauty and charm to play with him, to the contrary, she dismissed it and . His gut told him there was not a dishonest thread in her. Besides, her DNA was nowhere on Boyd's body or at the crime scene. She didn't do it.

"Makes me wanna start taking lessons," he finally said with an amused glimmer in his eye. "Ok, miss Angell, I think that's it for now. Sorry if I offended you in any way…"

"It's your job, detective. You're paid to ask these questions and be suspicious." She gave him a small smile.

"Glad to hear you understand. So…," he said pondering a certain idea but fearing she would turn him down. "You're free to go," he finally said. "Unless you want to meet for a drink with a guy on a city salary?" he asked, deciding to go for it. True, he risked a bruised ego but the chance of her saying yes was enough for him to put it on the line.

She flashed him a small smile and surprised herself with her answer. "I'd like that."

"Great," he said, equally surprised. "Tomorrow at eight?"

"It's a date. See you, detective."

"See you."

On the way out, her phone rang. "Stella? What's up?"

XxXxXxX

Mac allowed himself a silent curse as he noticed he was again making small, absent-minded scribbles on one of the corners of the report instead of reviewing it. He let his pen fall onto the report and shoved it away with a frustrated grunt. He couldn't focus and it was really getting onto his nerves. True, it had been a long day full of twists and turns but that was his daily bread and he was always able to work through the stress and weariness into the wee hours of the day before. Not this time, though. It was as early as six pm and he was completely stuck, his mind and body refusing to cooperate with him.

He rubbed his nape and temples in an attempt at relaxing the taut muscles there but it didn't help much. He knew the reason for his distracted state resided somewhere else and his muscles had nothing to do with it.

He had tried to reach Stella the whole day but to no avail. It looked as if she had disappeared from the face of the Earth. He felt awful because it was his fault. He couldn't even assign her the police detail he promised what with having no one to assign it to. So she was all alone out there with a killer out to get her. He had no doubts that Tony Boyd's murder was connected with the pen drive. Tony must have known about the existence of the drive and probably suspected what was on it. They had tipped him off when they came to interview him and so he sneaked into Jayme's office to look for it and either spooked the murderer or they spooked him. Either way, it didn't do him any good. And having confirmed the pen wasn't at the office, they would target Stella again, he feared. If something happened to her, it would be his fault and he would never forgive himself.

He took a couple of hours out of his working day trying to find her using everything in the lab's capacity, which was quite an impressive 'everything', but even his last resort, calibrating her phone, gave him nada because she had turned it off. To get a location on a disabled cell, you needed a warrant and no sane judge would give him one with what little he had so his hands were tied.

He sighed and looked at the pen, which was innocently lying on his desk. Next to Stella's whereabouts, it was the second mystery of the day. His technicians tried to decipher it this whole day and even with the lab's powerful computers, couldn't get past the 32-byte code. The only institution with equipment powerful enough to break the code was the FBI and considering their possible involvement in his homicide investigation, he wasn't exactly eager to hand it to them on a plate.

He turned around on his chair and looked out onto the oval of the sun already preparing itself to start its slow descent behind the Manhattan skyscrapers. Amidst this spider-web of mystery and danger in which he found himself entangled, there was one thing he knew he could make right. At least he had to try.

It was time to go.

XxXxXxX

It was already past eight pm when Stella Bonasera looked at the evening cobalt sky streaked with violet clouds. She marveled at the last rays of butter-rich light falling on the shining walls of the skyscrapers that made up the horizon in the centre of New York. Then she turned around. She had still a couple of blocks to her final destination.

She had been wandering aimlessly around Manhattan for the best part of the day, avoiding the studio, Jess or any of her usual haunts in case they were monitored by the stalker or Mac. She turned off her blackberry and only allowed herself a single call from a booth to tell Jess she was fine and was taking the day off. Even in her frame of mind, she detected a joyful lilt in her friend's voice that intrigued her but Jess wouldn't say what it was and evasively told her to enjoy her day off.

Like I could, Stella thought and allowed her feet to lead her wherever they pleased in an attempt at clearing her mind. Mac's shocked expression when he realized he'd hurt her wouldn't leave her, though. She had stormed out of his place for the very same reasons he acted the way he did. She knew he was instantly sorry and was going to apologize but she chose to flee. She didn't know if she even wanted his apology. She couldn't deny her fascination with him but she wasn't sure she had what it took to handle that much insecurity and angst. If she was strong enough to be there for him. At that point her musing came to a halt as she climbed a flight of stairs and reached her destination.

She frowned at the yellow police tape on her apartment door and tore it off before she came in. It was dark and quiet inside and she felt an involuntary shiver run down her spine. Just as she was groping around for the light switch, she heard a muffled noise coming from the living room and she gulped. Maybe Mac was right all along and it really wasn't the best idea to get back here? But dammit, she was Stella Bonasera and this was her home. She wouldn't let some thugs dictate whether it was safe or not to go into her own apartment. With that, she picked up a candle stick lying on the floor and inched her way towards the source of the noise. The intruder had the light turned on and wasn't very quiet about whatever he was doing as a hammering noise penetrated the air. She carefully peered around the corner and her jaw dropped.

Mac Taylor was crouching with his back to her and studiously putting back together a dresser that the burglars have badly damaged. She could see he had already fixed her kitchen table and cupboard.

She put her hands on her hips and cleared her throat. Mac whirled around and looked at her, his face a mask of contrite surprise.

"You're wearing suit pants and a shirt," she said with a raised eyebrow. "To mend furniture."

"Um…yeah, I didn't have any other clothes with me."

"I'd get to that," she said tartly. "I came here to tidy up."

"I know, I just figured I'd come after work and do this for you," he said avoiding her gaze and driving the final nail into the dresser's side.

She watched him work for a moment with an incredulous gaze. "Mac?"

"Yeah?" he looked up at her, though his gaze didn't really meet her eyes, stopping somewhere around her chin.

"This is a really ridiculous apology."

He put down the hammer and stood up to face her. "It was all I could think of. I couldn't find you anywhere to apologize to you face to face so I figured I could start with mending these…and maybe you'd also allow me to mend what I broke."

She folded her hands across her chest. "I didn't want to be found."

He nodded uneasily. "I know."

"So why did you look for me anyway?"she asked angrily.

Because when you walked out, all the colours disappeared with you, he thought but suppressed the treacherous thought. He wanted to make things with her better not worse, and he was sure she didn't want to hear a half-baked, lame confession from him.

"Because you deserve a proper apology from me," he sighed. "I'm really sorry, Stella," he looked her in the eye for the very first time this evening. "I know that I'm not the easiest person to get to know and like. I keep everything locked up and rarely let on what's on my mind. So if you don't want to see me ever again, I understand and I'll disappear from your life for good. However, if you forgive me, I promise to try as best as I can to change that. You make me want to change who I've become and that's the most anyone had done for me in a long time."

He was rewarded by the catch in her breathing. She made a step towards him and allowed her fingertips to gently brush his cheek. She tried to blink away the treacherous tears that threatened to spill on her cheeks. It's been a long time since anybody fought so hard for her trust and friendship. It's been a long time since she wanted anybody to fight for her. All the doubts that had been festering in her heart since this morning were gone. She no longer wondered if she was strong enough to even consider a relationship with him.

"Quite the speech, detective," she breathed, her face inches from his.

"Have rehearsed it like a million times," he mumbled, intoxicated by her nearness.

"It worked," she smiled.

He was looking down at her now and his expression had changed – there was a look on his face she hadn't seen before. His eyes were almost black with an intensity that took her breath away. She was too surprised to move, even when he leaned towards her and she realized what he was about to do. Reflexively she shut her eyes as his lips hovered but an inch from hers, his closeness sending intoxicating shivers through her whole body. A sudden fierce longing to be held and kissed in a way that would make her forget everything else surged through her. She put her arms around his neck, partly to steady herself and partly to draw him closer.

Fascinated and awed by her shining beauty, he let his fingers trace her cheeks and the outline of her jaw. A fierce longing surged through him in a flurry of emotion threatening to engulf him whole. He moved to cover her waiting lips with his…

...and a crashing noise reverberated through the whole apartment, making them jump away from each other and alerting them there was someone else there. There wasn't supposed to be anyone in here, this was still officially a crime scene and anyone trespassing was facing a federal offense. Unless it was someone who didn't care that much about committing federal offenses. Mac reached for his Glock, motioning for Stella to stay behind him. He wandered into the darkness of the hall and caught a glimpse of a male silhouette groping his way around the entrance. When the intruder turned so that he was with his back to him, Mac wasted no time and got to him in two swift strides.

"NYPD! Don't move!" he warned the man.

The intruder seemed to freeze but then began spinning around with something heavy in his hand. Mac didn't take any chances, his well-honed instincts of a Marine and cop kicking in. In one flurry of movement he had the man in a wristlock that made him fall to the floor facedown with his wrist twisted upwards and effectively immobilizing any movements.

Stella moved into the room and turned the light on just as Mac was going to twist the intruder's shoulder further to stop the intruder from moving too much.

"Mac, stop!" she gasped turning to the disabled and whimpering intruder. "Adam? What are you doing here?"

tbc.


What do you think Adam's doing at Stella's apartment? How will the case progress? How will Flack and Jess' first date go? Will Mac and Stella get another chance at that kiss? All this and more in the next chapter.

Thanks for reading, I hope you liked this enough to leave me even the shortest review:) All your thoughts and opinions are highly appreciated!