A/N: So I tried to sit down and write another "Learning to Fight" story, and this came out instead. I'm still going to write another "Learning to Fight" story, but this is what I've been working on in the meantime. In terms of timeline and storyline, this is right after "Learning to Fight" and right before the next one. It just contains no self-defense lesson at all, and is purely fluffy. Sorry for the wait, and I'll have the next one up soon, I promise.


She was walking down the street, nearly at her apartment, when someone grabbed her from behind and dragged her into an alley. She scrambled for her piece, but he ripped her purse off her arm and threw it away. He pushed her to the ground and began punching her, pinning her to the ground and ripping at her pants, relishing in her screams, enjoying her attempts to fight him off. He was just too strong, and he was having his way with her, and no amount of screaming was going to save her now…

She sat bolt upright in bed, stifling a scream. She looked around wildly, half-expecting her faceless, nameless, unidentifiable attacker to return at any moment. It took her a moment to recognize her surroundings, including the man lying next to her on the bed. For one horrible, terrifying moment, she thought that he was the one who had attacked her, who had violated her, but as she looked again, she identified his sleeping form. Sighing in relief and shaking with fear and adrenaline, she lay back down again, snuggling up to him. He awoke at her touch and rolled over.

"Stella?" Is everything okay?" he asked sleepily, looking down at her with bleary eyes. Then he registered her shaking form and frowned.

"Another nightmare?" he asked. She nodded, feeling sudden tears in her eyes. She forced them back and snuggled into his chest, wrapping her arms around his chest and inhaling his scent.

"The same one as before?" Mac asked, wrapping his arms around her, but he knew the answer before she said it.

"Yeah," she said, her voice flat with despair and fear. "He grabs me, disarms me, and he rapes me." Her voice wavered, dangerously close to tears. Mac nodded. He was the only other person who knew the truth, knew how close she'd come to being raped. She hadn't put that into the police report, because he hadn't actually succeeded, but still, the thought haunted her…

Night after night, she'd lain awake in bed at her apartment, terrified of what was waiting for her when she closed her eyes. And every night would end the same; either waking herself up screaming or waking up to a neighbor pounding on her door, wanting to know who was dying and why they felt the need to make so much noise at such an hour. She'd apologize, shrugging away questions with the explanation of a foreign music track or a TV left on too loud. Then she'd lock the door, put on her robe, turn on the TV, and sit vigilantly on her couch, gun in hand, refusing to let herself fall asleep. After a full week of nightmares, Mac walked into her office and caught her dozing listlessly at her desk, several empty coffee cups littering the surrounding desk. He'd shut her office door, closed the blinds and then taken her into his arms, refusing to leave her until she'd explained to him what was wrong. When he'd finally coaxed the truth from her, he'd looked at her, sadness and anger coloring his wise face.

"How long has this been happening?" he'd asked her quietly. She'd looked down shamefully, a tear or two leaking out of her eyes.

"Every night since I got back to my apartment," she'd confessed, wiping away the tears with her thumb and index fingers.

"Stella, why didn't you say something?" he had asked her exasperatedly. She'd shrugged a shoulder.

"I didn't want to worry you. I figured I'd get over it," she had said. This wasn't entirely true. Their kiss had awakened a wish in her, a desire to be touched, held, cuddled. She wanted to be able to be dependent on someone, to let her guard down for once, and not get stabbed in the back for her trouble.

Stella Bonasera had worked hard not to become embittered by the horrors of the foster care system, but the one thing she retained was a fierce desire to be independent. She trusted very few people, and she kept up her guard, especially where boyfriends were concerned. She had known Mac for years, and she trusted him implicitly, but once they had kissed, it opened up a whole new playing field where Mac was concerned, and Stella didn't know if she could trust the game. Her track record had not been good; for whatever reason, she attracted the weirdos. She had been worried what staying at his place might lead to. But Mac had been insistent.

"No, you're staying with me," he'd said with a quiet authority that made her heart beat a little faster. She felt a slight prick of irritation, whether over Mac's insistence or just due to her independence and magnified by the lack of sleep.

"I'll be fine," she had replied, trying to sound snappy, not noticing the slight slur to her words. But Mac had.

"Stella, I'm not arguing with you and it's not a suggestion. As soon as you finish your case, you're coming home with me," he'd announced.

"Shh!" Stella said, with a panicked look towards the door. "People will hear you!"

Mac suddenly grinned. "Hear what?" he asked. "Hear one friend doing a favor for another friend?"

Mac waited patiently while Stella considered this. After a moment, she regarded him blearily.

"I'll have to get a bag from my apartment," she said grudgingly, "and I'm only saying yes because I'm too tired to argue."

She remembered the corners of Mac's mouth twitching. "Of course," he'd said agreeably, taking her in his arms again and giving her a quick squeeze. Then he'd stood up and walked to the door as if nothing ever happened.

"Wait," Stella had called sleepily after him. He'd turned.

"Yes?"

"I'm sleeping on your couch."

"I wouldn't have it any other way," he'd said with a mysterious smile.

As it turned out, however, she did not end up sleeping on his couch. In fact, the first night she'd slept there, she'd woken up from the same nightmare in record time, waking herself up with a scream and writhing around in fear. Mac had come running into the living room, still fully clothed, his gun in his hand.

"Stella!" he'd said, looking into her fear-widened eyes. "Stella, it's all right." She'd continued to thrash wildly, shaking and crying and screaming "Get off of me, get off of me! Leave me alone!" She'd kicked him and scratched him, but he managed to get his arms around her. Her terror had increased tenfold, and even though she fought harder, Mac was smarter.

"Shh, it's me, it's Mac, Stella," he'd whispered in her ear. "It's me, I've got you, you're safe. I'm here, Stella. I'm here." Eventually, her terror had subsided, and she had sat, sobbing uncontrollably on his lap. He'd shushed her and soothed her, rubbing her back like a child. They sat like that most of the night, neither one sleeping. Sometime around dawn, Mac had finally calmed her enough to consider sleep again.

"But Mac," she'd tried to protest. "We have work in just a couple hours."

"Nope," Mac had said. "You're taking a sick day, and it's my day off."

Too tired to argue, Stella had shrugged.

"Now what, though?" She asked.

"Now," he'd said plainly, "we go to bed."

It took her only a moment to realize what he'd meant.

"We?" she'd asked skeptically, her eyes wide with mistrust. "No. Oh, no. I don't think so."

"Stella, I'm not going to try anything," Mac said patiently. "You and I will sleep in the same bed. That's it. No sex." And without another word, he'd lifted her and carried her bride-style into his bedroom. He'd set her down on the bed, then, after changing quickly into a t-shirt and sweatpants, gone and lain down beside her. He'd held her to him, humming some seventies rock song under his breath until Stella had fallen asleep…

That day was the first time she had gotten any real sleep in over a week. She'd woken up hours later, well into mid-afternoon, curled up against Mac's warm body. He was sleeping, too. She smiled at the memory. Mac learned quickly after that night that the key to Stella not having nightmares—or at least making nightmares easier to deal with and less severe—was being with someone else. In the days that followed, Stella began to sleep normally again, falling asleep and waking up in the arms of her boss. The nightmares had gradually lessened in severity, though they still came almost every night. But now, Mac was there with her, to calm her down and ease her fears. She didn't have to deal with them alone.

Until tonight, anyway. Tonight's dream was worse than usual, as if her mind was screwing with her. She was back at work, and she was finally to the point where Mac was considering letting her move back into her own apartment, or at least back to his couch. She'd even been sort of looking forward to it, if she didn't think about it too hard. But Stella had a sinking feeling that Mac wasn't going to let that happen.

"You need to sleep," Mac's voice rumbled in his chest. He began to rub her back, like he had that first night, and Stella felt herself begin to feel drowsy again. She sighed, closing her eyes again. Mac smiled and continued rubbing up and down her back, feeling the hard ridges of her spine through the blankets and her t-shirt. Gradually, her breathing became deep and even, and her dancer's body relaxed, curled naturally against him. Mac tried hard not to think about her like that—especially now that he was in bed with her—and instead found himself thinking about her body in an entirely different way. His mind flashed back to their lesson, before they had kissed. She was relatively strong; she had been able to disarm him fairly easily, even though Mac had been distracted. She could be able to fight off an attacker. He resolved to teach her more as soon as she was ready. As a Marine, Mac knew how to defend himself. He could teach her. He yawned and rolled onto his side, positioning himself so that he and Stella were face to face. He looked at her face, calm and serene, and the last thing he thought before falling asleep was a prayer, a fervently heartfelt promise to God that he would teach her how to defend herself, and well, as long as she never, ever had to use it.

XXXXXXXX

It was that same damn dream all over again, Stella thought bitterly, looking around. Any moment now, I'm going to be grabbed from behind and raped. She felt herself sigh resignedly, but she didn't hear it. She looked up and saw the same thing she'd seen every night for weeks: the street corner, the name of her street lit up by the streetlamp. She waited. Any moment now, she would be grabbed.

3…2…1… But it never came. Stella looked around in amazement. Had she finally defeated the nightmare? But as she looked around, Stella realized that the night was much warmer than it had been, and that there were more people on the sidewalk…

Funny, she'd always been alone before…

And now she was walking down her street, going up the steps to her apartment, and… walking inside. Stella began to feel suspicious. Something wasn't right. She went up to her apartment and unlocked it, noticing for the first time that she was holding shopping bags…

The door swung open as the realization hit her. She gasped in horror, because she was wrong.

This was a very different nightmare indeed.

She peered in the doorway, and shock flooded her.

Her entire apartment was covered in blood. Arterial spray, medium-velocity spatter, high-velocity spatter, castoff from knives, hatchets, spears, and various other weapons covered her walls and her ceiling. The floor was soaked in blood, too, with trails of blood that criss-crossed over one another, deadly cross hash telling a gruesome story indeed. She realized with a start that there was a body in the middle of her living room, right where…

"Frankie," she whispered in horror. She knew. She knew he was behind this. He was back.

But who was the body? She took a few steps forward and heard his voice behind her.

"Stella." The hairs on the back of her neck stood up. She turned around slowly, warily.

"What happened, Frankie?" she asked cautiously. Frankie laughed.

"What, this?" he gestured around, and for the first time, Stella noticed that he was covered in blood. Soaked, in fact. It dripped from his hair, from his fingers, rolled down the side of his temple. His shirt was dark with it and clung to his torso like a bad omen. His dark eyes glinted malevolently as he took a step closer. "It's art, Stella. Art imitates life. Remember?"

"Frankie, who is that behind me on the floor?" she asked, gesturing with her thumb. Frankie just laughed. It was a cold, barking laugh, completely devoid of mirth, and it fell upon her ears harshly, like a slap.

"He tried to protect you," he said, anger coloring his cold voice. "He was waiting for you when you got home. Said he had something to tell you. About the case," he added significantly. Stella turned around and looked at the body in horror.

"You didn't," she said weakly, fighting the urge to run to the body. Frankie laughed again and took a step closer to her.

"Oh, but I did," he said menacingly. "I did. He fought hard, but he was too weak."

Rage boiled up in Stella like lava, and she could taste iron on her tongue. "Mac was not weak!" she cried valiantly. "Even dead, he's twice the man you are and when he was alive, his left pinky was four times the man you'll ever be!"

This angered him. Howling with rage, he advanced towards her, fists flying. She ducked out of the way just in time; he lumbered past her, closer to Mac's body. On sudden inspiration, he turned and kicked Mac's corpse. It did not react, flopping lifelessly to the side. Stella cried out.

"You killed him," she cried accusingly. Frankie said nothing. She looked at him and screamed.

He had turned into her attacker from the alley. He grabbed her from behind and pushed her to the ground. She rolled over and tried to get out of his way, but she was blocked by Mac's dead body. She looked into his lifeless eyes and began to scream…

Her eyes flew open. She saw Mac's face inches from hers and she screamed again, rolling away and falling to the floor.

"Ouch," she said, her heart beating like she had just run a marathon. Mac leaned over the edge of the bed, looking at her with worry in his eyes.

"What the hell was that?" he asked her. She looked up at him, alive, and smiled shakily.

"Just another bad dream," she said, scrambling into a sitting position.

"The same one?"

"No," Stella said, standing up. "A different one." she cocked her head to the side, blinking several times.

"What? What is it?" he asked her. She shook her head, her curls bouncing around her head. She sat down on the bed next to Mac and put her head on his shoulder.

"What was your dream about?" he asked her. She shook her head again.

"It's… it's kind of hard to explain," she said slowly. She put her arms around his chest and then lay down, taking him with her. The corners of his mouth turned up slightly as he turned his head to look at her.

"What was it about?" Mac asked again. Stella made a face.

"I don't want to talk about it right now," she said, nuzzling Mac's neck gently. She wanted him to kiss her, to wipe away the memories of Frankie Mala and her attacker and that horrible dream altogether. Mac kissed the top of her head and held her tighter.

"It… it was about Frankie," Stella said finally, looking up at Mac, who worked hard to keep any alarm off his face.

"Oh," he said casually. "What about Frankie?"

"He…" Stella bit her lip. "He had killed… someone in my old apartment. There was blood everywhere, and it was just horrible." She took a deep breath and decided to go for it. "Hey, Mac?" she asked, her voice trembling slightly in nervousness.

"Yeah?" Mac said. Stella let out the breath slowly, trying to slow her suddenly racing heart.

"If I asked you to kiss me, would you?"

"Of course," Mac said immediately, but he made no move to do so. "I would wonder why, but I would." He paused. "Do you want me to?"

She nodded shyly. Mac rolled so that he was over her, one of his arms supporting him, the other still wrapped securely around Stella. He looked at her for a second and then slowly lowered his mouth to hers. Stella sighed and wrapped her arms around his neck, pulling him closer and deepening the kiss almost immediately. He eagerly searched her mouth, probing gently, sensually. She moaned and fought to hold back her passion—she wanted so desperately to roll over so that she was on top of him again, to kiss him until their bodies gave way to years of slowly building passion—but she couldn't. She didn't dare mess up the relationship they had—whatever it was they had—by bringing in sex. It was doomed to end in failure. So instead, she forced her lips from his and began kissing gentle patterns around his mouth, up his chin, tracing his earlobe with her tongue, and then back, down his chin with her tongue until she brought her lips back to his with a gentle gasp. Mac felt his body respond instantly at her touch, and he felt rather than heard himself groan. His lips yearned to kiss part of her, any part, every part, and he reached to kiss her long, elegant neck. She shivered with pleasure at that and moved her head to allow him better access, panting. Mac eagerly kissed her neck, sucking gently on the warm expanse of flesh. She whimpered, pressing herself tighter against him. Mac moved his body slightly so that he was on top of her, never breaking the contact between his lips and her supple throat. He pressed his lips harder to her throat, feeling her pulse against his lips. His tongue flicked out between his parted lips, tracing the gentlest of patterns against her skin, and she moaned, gasping slightly. She maneuvered her head to better reach him, managing to just brush underneath his chin with her tongue. He understood and wordlessly moved himself closer to her touch. She spread gentle kisses over his chin and neck, tracing idle patterns on the soft skin of his neck. He closed his eyes and whispered her name like a prayer.

"Stella…"

"Mm?" she responded.

"Stella, I… I…" he had been trying to tell her something, but he couldn't think with her so close, kissing him, touching him… he moaned again, feeling her soft lips against his skin. She trailed kisses up his neck and back to her mouth, and Mac almost went crazy at the taste of her: elegant, bold, unbelievable, just like her. He held her tighter to him, needing the closeness, but respectfully keeping his distance at the same time. She couldn't get enough of his touch, of his hands sliding up and down her back, grasping her waist, feeling her arms. She ran her hands over his chest, feeling the scars from the old battles, knowing that somewhere in there, there were more scars—not visible, but she felt them all the same. She held herself to him, their hearts beating as one, needing each other in ways they had never needed each other before. When Mac finally dredged his lips from her supple skin, he did so with a smile. Stella saw that smile and wondered. He kissed the top of her forehead and told her not to worry, that he'd be there, that he was always there, and that she could sleep safely in his arms tonight. The words brought a smile to her lips, even as she yawned and closed her eyes, Mac's arms around her, creating a safe haven for them to lie in, having each other and needing no one else.