Thanks to everyone who's stuck with me, who's allowed me to rant and vent about NY post-season 6. This fic has been a long time in the works-since September, I believe-and it feels good to finally be posting it. It was written as a response to a challenge between lily moonlight and me, so please take the time to read her story, 'In This Moment,' too. It's very good, as are all of her stories.

Special thanks to lily moonlight for supplying the challenge topic and for reading through this many times, always offering suggestions and support. I couldn't have done this without you.

Enjoy!

VVVVV

The door flew open. Mac, taut-faced, strode towards them. "What happened?" His demand sliced through the silence. "Where is she?"

Flack bolted from his seat next to Hawkes, hurrying toward their colleague and friend, tossing a quick look behind him and motioning for the doctor-turned-CSI to stay where he was.

Hawkes sighed and reluctantly sat back down, wishing there was something he could do to help. It was gnawing at him that all he could do was sit there. He covered his face with his hands, and though he was a doctor and felt he should have control over his reactions, he couldn't stop the nauseous feeling from returning. That had been a close call. Too close. And he didn't want to think about what could have happened if…

The two detectives came face-to-face as Mac's tirade continued, numerous expletives flying from his mouth, and earning more than a few odd looks from other people in the waiting room. Not that Mac gave a damn what they thought of him at the moment.

"It's not as bad as it sounds, Mac," Flack declared, holding up a hand in a 'calm down' motion as he was finally able to interrupt.

Still, Mac's nostrils flared, and his eyes sparked with anger. And fear. "A detective-Stella-was attacked at a crime scene, and you tell me that her head injury is not as bad as it sounds?" Mac seethed, chest heaving as anger continued to pulsate through him. "Where is she?" he demanded again, pausing after each word, his tone menacing.

"You gotta calm down, man," Flack insisted. "She can't see you like this."

"She can't see me anyway!" Mac spat.

"What are you talking about?" Flack asked, confused, though his voice remained calm, despite Mac's distress. "Look, we're in a hospital, Mac. Do you really think they're going to let you see her when you bust in here yelling obscenities at the top of your lungs? They'll have you tossed in a heartbeat. Just take a deep breath and calm the hell down."

Mac shoulders still heaved as he finally realized that he was the subjects of numerous annoyed stares. It wasn't like him to lose his cool in public. But the circumstances were different this time. Stella was involved. If anything had happened to her… The weight of that thought finally registered in his brain. She completed him. She was his everything. For years, he'd pushed aside the fact that he needed-and wanted-her by his side forever. It scared him to need another person that much.

He flashed back to the call informing him that Stella was being admitted to the ER, that the extent of her head trauma was unknown. Nothing else mattered, and he'd tossed his phone onto the seat beside him and blue-lighted his way through the perpetually crowded streets of Manhattan, terrified that their world was about to be flipped upside down.

"You know I'm right," Flack continued, one eyebrow raised matter-of-factly.

Slowly, Mac unclenched his jaws.

"You good?" Flack asked.

Mac nodded tersely.

Satisfied that Mac was telling the truth-or at least had control of his emotions now-Flack reached up and laid a reassuring hand on his friend's shoulder. "She's okay, Mac," he insisted, though his voice broke as he remembered a time not too long ago when he was in Mac's position. He'd replayed the scenes over and over, how he'd rushed his girlfriend into the ER, begging her to hang on, how the doctor broke the terrible news to him, how he cried, then threw up, then cried some more. But he couldn't think about Jess now. Stella was alive. Clearing his throat and making himself smile, he continued, "Give her our love."

A brief flash of confusion passed over Mac's face, and Flack's eyebrows furrowed. "You know she's awake, right?"

Mac gasped. "No, I…She's awake?"

"Yeah," Flack nodded, "she came to in the ambulance on the way here. No wonder you were so distraught," he shook his head. It all made sense now. "Get in there and see her!" he finished with a grin.

Mac nodded again and genuinely smiled, and Flack stepped aside. Mac cast a glance in Hawkes' direction, immediately noticing his rumpled clothing and haggard appearance. But he couldn't talk to him right now; his only objective was to get to Stella as quickly as possible.

At the admittance desk, Mac gave the clerk his information and presented his badge and ID, annoyed when the clerk took far too long-in Mac's opinion-checking and double-checking to see that he was indeed listed as Stella's Emergency Contact. Finally obtaining a visitor's pass and Stella's room number, he hurried down the corridor.

Monitors beeped and Mac's heart raced, and he was unable to stop his stomach from knotting up as he passed curtained room after curtained room, searching for hers. Anxiety and frustration increased the longer he searched. What was with hospitals and their catacomb-like hallways?

Finally, he found her room, and though he didn't know why, he hesitated and drew in a deep breath. He had been anxious and excited to get to her, to see for himself that she was indeed okay. Why was he nervous now?

"You can come in, Mac," Stella called out to him.

A tired half-grin greeted him when he pushed aside the curtain, and he let out a breath he didn't know he'd been holding. She was alive and right in front of him.

"How'd you know it was me?" he asked, the question accompanied by a relieved half-smile.

"I recognized the sound of your breathing," she said as he pulled the curtain closed behind him. "And I heard you yelling when you got here."

Mac thought about the lengthy path he'd taken to get to her, and he chuckled and rubbed the back of his neck, embarrassed by how loud he must've been during his outburst in the waiting area.

"You know, I kind of like the whole 'Angry Mac' thing you've got going on there," she grinned, wiggling her fingers at him.

He was glad to hear her joking, even if it was at his expense. "That's the painkillers talking. No one should like 'Angry Mac,' as you call it," he replied, taking another hesitant step forward, studying her, scrutinizing her injuries.

Stella shrugged and smirked. "I do. I like all your sides." She watched him watching her and couldn't help but roll her eyes as she practically read his thoughts. "I'm fine," she insisted with a sigh. "They just want to keep me overnight for observation, to make sure there's no signs of concussion," she continued, giving him the standard response that they both knew too well. "I'm here only until they find a room for me upstairs."

"What happened out there, Stella?" Mac asked, concern and hints of anger finding their way back into his voice. "Who didn't clear the scene? Whose screw-up was this?"

"The scene was cleared, and-"

"Apparently not," he interrupted.

"Mac, I'm fine," she repeated, pinning him with a look. "Hawkes and Robinson were there, and they got the guy."

"And, yet, you're here in the hospital, injured. You could have died out there!"

"Wow, exaggerate much?" She sighed and ran a hand over her face, wincing as her fingers came into contact with a soon-to-be bruise under her left eye. "Aside from a few cuts and abrasions, I'm fine!"

"You're obviously not fine!" Mac retorted, having seen her reaction. "You're in the Emergency Room! Again! I'm really tired of conversing with you while you're laid up in a hospital bed."

"You don't have to come every time I end up here," Stella mumbled, her voice soft and tinged with hurt.

"That's not what I meant," Mac sighed again.

"I know," she said softly, "and I'm getting tired of being in these damn hospital beds. But it comes with the job." She picked at the edge of the thin blanket covering her from the waist down. "I seem to remember once or twice when the roles were reversed, and you were the one in the hospital, itching to get out and back to work."

Mac shifted his weight from one foot to the other. "That's different."

"Why?" she asked, an eyebrow arched coyly. "Because I'm a woman?"

"No," he replied. He knew she was only kidding, but in all seriousness, it was different. "I just don't like seeing you hurt."

"Do you think I like seeing you hurt?"

Mac mumbled an incoherent response and rubbed the back of his neck again.

"I don't, you know…" Her fingers continued to fiddle with the blanket, and she looked at him, watching as he briefly slipped into a world of his own, his forehead creases deepening, consumed by his own thoughts. "Why are you still standing over there?" she asked eventually, drawing his eyes back to hers. "I'm not going to break; it's okay to sit with me," she encouraged, patting the bed.

Mac inched closer, then half-sat on the bed facing her, his hand covering hers when she laid it on his knee. He could see various bruises already forming on her face, and he silently worried that the Steri-Strips over the gash on her chin weren't sufficient. Seeing up close the extent of her injuries brought about more anger, and the pace of his breathing increased. He wanted a piece of the man responsible for hurting her.

"Mac, I'm fine," she insisted again, easily guessing his thoughts.

"God, Stella…" he uttered, trying unsuccessfully to keep the emotion out of his voice. "What happened out there?"

She shrugged and sighed. "Everything was going smoothly. Hawkes and I were processing the scene. I was printing one of the bedrooms, then the next thing I knew, there was a crash behind me. I went for my gun, but the bastard was on me before I knew it. I'm pretty sure I landed a kick before he shoved me headfirst into the bookcase, but I'm a little fuzzy on the details after that."

"That's when you were unconscious?"

She nodded. "I was only out a few minutes."

"Flack said you were in the ambulance when you came to. That's longer than a few minutes."

"A girl can't even have one secret," she said facetiously, slowly shaking her head.

"Stella…" he sighed, not amused. "Where was Hawkes during all of this?"

"In the other bedroom." She narrowed her eyes at Mac, knowing what he was thinking. "It's not Hawkes' fault I was jumped. Nor Robinson's. I'm grateful they were there."

"I am, too, but the simple truth is that someone didn't clear the scene, and you're here because that person screwed up! I can't let this go, Stella. I won't."

"It happened and it doesn't do any good to rehash things that have already been taken care of. It was a mistake, Mac."

"What happens when mistakes become fatal, Stella?"

She grew silent and picked at the blanket yet again, begrudgingly admitting to herself that Mac had a point. The perp could have been armed, could have had a partner, could have gotten away. But none of that had happened. She was fine.

She was just about to point out all of that to Mac when she noticed that his demeanor had changed in an instant, and a different kind of tension had filled the small space.

"What is it?" Stella asked, her tired eyes now concerned on Mac's behalf.

"I want to talk to you about something." His voice was quieter-a tone he used when they talked about non-work-related matters.

"Oh-kay…"

"I've been thinking about this for a long time," he sighed, his gaze falling to their hands. Slowly, he slid his free hand under hers, encasing her small hand in both of his large ones. Her hand was cold. Too cold.

Hospital gowns and thin bedding could only do so much.

His odd behavior was unsettling, and Stella tilted her head to the side in an attempt to gauge the situation. "Mac?"

"Marry me."

Stella gasped and pulled her hand away, pushing herself up in the bed, wincing in pain. Perhaps she was more battered than she'd originally thought.

She certainly wasn't expecting that. "I love you, Mac." A sigh. "And I know you love me…"

"Then what's the problem?" Mac replied, shifting on the bed, unsure of how to respond to her reaction.

She sighed again. "You're emotional now, and I don't want to be engaged because of a so-called near-death experience."

"Stella…"

"I'm sorry, Mac," she whispered, hating herself for putting that pained look on his face. "I love you, but, no. At least not now."

He broke their eye contact, his gaze downcast, a wry smile and a disbelieving, minute headshake following. "You're not going to change your mind." Stated.

Slowly, she reached out, her hand finding his again. "Don't be mad."

"I'm not mad," he said, though he couldn't yet look her in the eye. "Disappointed, yes, but not mad."

"It's just that there are lots of negative memories associated with this place, and I don't want to start our together togetherness here. You understand, right?"

"No, I don't. We're meant to be together, Stella."

She smiled. "I'm not arguing that point. It's just… I don't want the memory of our engagement to be associated with bruises, painkillers, and antiseptics. Hey," she said lightly, tipping up his chin with her free hand, "never doubt my love for you, Mac Taylor. When the time is right, my answer will be 'yes.'"

"So, we'll think of this as a pre-engagement," he suggested.

"Mmm, yes," Stella chuckled as her eyelids began to droop, and after a failed attempt at stifling a yawn, she mumbled, "Getting sleepy…"

"It's okay," he replied as he stood and bent and kissed her forehead. "Get some rest."

"Stay with me?" she asked, her words slurred and whisper-soft.

He lovingly brushed his knuckle across her cheek. He wouldn't give up on her. On them. "Always."

VVVVV

Thanks for reading!