Hey folks, much as I'm enjoying writing my Mac and Claire fic I felt the need to flex my SMACKED muscles again. Saw The Timetraveller's Wife the other night and I think it got me feeling a little sappy which probably explains where this came from.

I know it's a little early for a Christmas story but I just couldn't wait all those months to post it.

Disclaimer: I don't own CSI:NY and neither does Charles Dickens lol.

Dedication: This is dedicated to my fabulous fellow Mac lover and awesome SMACK writer Andorian Ice Princess-AIP who recently dedicated a great Mac/Stella oneshot to me. It's called The Sound of Music and you should allgo check it out, as well as her other stuff because she rocks! This is for you honey ;)

WARNING: Um, it's a little long, sorry folks.


Christmas in New York was one of the most colourful, fairytale-like places in the world; bright lights, fluttering banners, the sound of Christmas carols everywhere you went, not to mention the thick blanket of snow. Happy families and cheerful tourists flocked the streets, hustling and bustling to and fro in their haste to get everything ready for the big day.

Unfortunately for Mac Taylor and his team, the criminals were not on holiday. It was Christmas Eve and Mac hadn't been home all week, but not even the week from hell had deterred his team from their annual party and the break room was decorated with streamers and tinsel. He watched from the doorway, not keen to get too involved, far too aware of the pile of paperwork sat on his desk.

He couldn't help smiling at Lucy, his baby goddaughter staring with wide eyes at the shiny red bauble that hung from the light bracket above her head. Her parents and their friends cooed and fussed over her, the rest of the lab smiling fondly in her direction. Even Mac was able to spare a smile for the little babbling bundle, especially when Sheldon placed a little set of baby antlers on her head, making Linsday giggle.

"Cute huh?" said a voice at his side and he turned to see Stella standing next to him.

Even though he knew she'd barely left the lab all week herself she still managed to look stunning in a tight green shirt with little red and gold earrings in the shape of tree decorations.

"Very," he agreed, watching as she grinned back in the direction of the little girl.

Things had been different between the two of them lately. He couldn't ignore the fact that, although she had lied to him and betrayed his trust, something which he did not give lightly, he had still flown half way around the world to protect her. He had confessed, in public, in broad daylight, to caring for her, above and beyond the sense of loyalty he felt towards her as a superior and friend.

But the possibility of taking their relationship, if you could call it that, any further seemed slim. There were just too many things in the way, like the fact that he was her boss.

Nevertheless he couldn't deny that standing close to her like this, the faint smell of her perfume tickling his nose, watching her smile and laugh, he wished there could be something more for them.

"Hey Mac, you gonna make an honest woman out of Stella?" called Danny across the room, making Mac's eyebrows shoot up.

"What?"

Danny pointed above Mac's head and he looked up, suddenly noticing the sprig of mistletoe that hung form the doorframe.

"Very funny Danny," he said.

"Well come on Mac, are you gonna kiss her or not?" demanded the sandy haired CSI.

Mac flushed slightly and looked at Stella who only grinned at him.

"It is sort of a tradition," she reminded him.

"Fine," he said, giving in before glaring around the room, "but only because it's a tradition."

Everyone laughed and Mac reached out to pull Stella a little closer to him before leaning in and giving her a peck on the cheek. A groan went around the room.

"Come on man, do it properly!" cried Danny.

He opened his mouth to reply but Stella just sighed and took hold of the front of his shirt.

"Oh come here," she said before kissing him firmly on the lips.

Mac went stiff, very aware that the rest of the revellers were cheering. But his awareness quickly dimmed as she continued to kiss him and his body adjusted to the sensation. But just as he had begun to relax she pulled back, pulling his shirt straight and grinning at him impishly.

"That wasn't so bad was it?" she said sweetly.

"I uh, I guess not," he managed to murmur.

Leaning in she placed another quick kiss on his cheek before turning and slipping away from him, into the happy throng.

Mac stood in the doorway a little longer, watching her, before he finally dragged himself away, back to his office and his paperwork.

It was a couple of hours later when he heard the tap on the door. Looking up he saw Stella standing there, her coat over her arm.

"Everyone's gone home," she said, her could hear the accusation in her voice.

"I'll go just as soon as I'm done," he said and she shook her head, sidling up to his desk and perching herself on the edge.

"It's Christmas Eve Mac," she pointed out.

"Crime doesn't stop for the holidays Stell, you know that."

"I know, but I wish you would once in a while."

"I'll be fine," he promised and she gave a little sigh.

"Alright, but at least try and get a couple of hours sleep tonight?" she requested. She leant forward so that she was whispering in his ear. "Afterall, if you don't sleep Santa won't deliver your presents."

Mac chuckled softly.

"I'll remember that."

"Please do."

She kissed his cheek again before getting up.

"Merry Christmas Mac," she called as she left the office.

"Merry Christmas Stell."

But hours later he was no closer to fulfilling his promise. The collection of files on his desk seemed to increase every time he looked at them and he had long since drained his mug of coffee. Somewhere in the bowls of the lab he heard a clock strike.

"You never change do you?"

Glancing up at the sound of a woman's voice he found himself face to face with a young woman he'd never thought he'd see again.

"Aiden!" he gasped. "But…"

"I'm dead, yes, that is correct."

She was giving him one of those knowing little smiles she used to get whenever a piece of evidence had given up its secrets to her.

"Thanks for catching him by the way," she added.

"This isn't possible."

"Kinda neat huh?"

"This is not possible," he repeated.

"Sure it is," the brunette before him insisted. "Let's face it Mac, you know as well as I do there are millions of unexplained phenomenon people class as supernatural or paranormal."

Mac swallowed hard.

"You're not real," he muttered to himself. "You can't be real. You're just a chemical reaction in my brain caused by lack of sleep."

She smirked at him.

"Well if I'm just a figment of your imagination how come you're talkin' to me like I'm real?"

"Aiden," he whispered, "you're dead. You've been dead for nearly three years now."

"I know, it's kind of difficult to forget something like that Mac. But I'm here to help you."

"Help me? With what, paperwork?"

She laughed.

"No way man! I gave that up when I gave up breathing."

"Aiden!"

"Bad joke, I'm sorry. But I really am here to help you. You're a mess Mac."

"I am not!" he said defensively.

"Yeah right, you're sat here on Christmas Eve all by yourself because your life's a bed of roses."

He glared at his former CSI, quite aware that he was, to all intents and purposes, arguing with a ghost.

"It's my job Aiden," he reminded her.

"Your job is not who you are Mac. I thought you'd figured that out when you went to Greece."

"You know about that!" he said, starting in his chair.

"Mac, I'm dead, I know everything."

"Who shot JFK?"

"Don't change the subject." She sighed irritably. "You know you had a choice when you came back from Greece. You could be at home with Stella right now, glass of wine in your hand, crappy movie on the TV, a beautiful woman in your arms."

"Since when were you my conscience?" he wondered sarcastically.

"Since you obviously need someone to tell you what's what, 'cause your not doin' too good a job by yourself."

He sighed tiredly.

"Go away Aiden," he murmured, leaning back in his chair and closing his eyes.

"I'll go," she said, "but I'll be back. Look for me when the bell tolls one."

"When the bell tolls one? Isn't that a little archaic for you?"

But there was no reply. Opening his eyes he realised his office was once again empty.

Mac shook himself, looking at the clock on his desk; a quarter after twelve. He was just tired, that was all. He needed to go home and get some rest.

Deciding to leave the remainder of his paperwork for the morning he grabbed his jacket and switched off his desk lamp, casting the office into darkness. At the door he turned and looked around the room once more.

I just need some sleep, he told himself.

With that thought he made his way down to the garage and slid into his truck, pulling out into the late night traffic.

When he finally reached home he quickly changed and fell into bed. The lit numbers on his alarm clock blinked at him; ten to one. He shook himself again.

"Just go to sleep Mac," he told himself.

He closed his eyes but his mind was unable to switch off. A long ten minutes later he heard a clock somewhere strike the hour and he sat bolt upright, looking around the room.

Nothing.

Sighing he slid back down onto his back.

Right, nothing. Just go to sleep.

He closed his eyes again, settling into the mattress.

"Miss me?"

Bolting up once again he reached for the light switch and found Aiden perched on the end of his bed.

"How the hell did you get in here?" he exclaimed in anger.

"The same way I got into your office. I'm a ghost, remember?"

"There's no such thing as ghosts."

She sighed and blew a strand of hair out of her eyes.

"Are we gonna have that conversation again, because we've got a lot to get through tonight."

He frowned.

"What are you talking about?"

She shook her head at him in exasperation.

"You know for such an intelligent guy you don't know a lot," she told him.

Before he could answer she jumped up off the bed and held out her hand.

"Come on," she said.

"Where are we going?" he asked tentatively.

"Just into the other room," she said. "Now come on. Lot's to do remember."

He reached out slowly, his fingertips brushing hers. He felt a tingling sensation, like he'd just put his hand in something cold. It was like her fingers were there but they weren't entirely solid.

Allowing her to draw him to his feet he followed her to the bedroom door where she stopped.

"Go ahead," she said, nodding to the door. "Go on through."

Frowning he reached out and pushed the door.

The living room light was on. He was pretty sure he'd switched that off before coming to bed. But there was something else.

There were far more Christmas decorations than he remembered. The TV was in the wrong place. His guitar case was missing from the hallway. The photos on the wall were different; they were pictures he recognised, pictures of himself and a woman.

"No," he whispered to himself, just as the bathroom door opened and the woman in the photos stepped out into the living room.

"Claire!" he gasped, his chest becoming tight at the sight of his wife. "Oh God, Claire!"

She walked right past him, even as he reached out to touch her. She slumped down in an armchair and flicking through a magazine.

"She can't hear you," said Aiden softly from behind him. "She can't see you either. She's not really there."

"I can see her!" he all but sobbed.

"She's just an image of the past. Watch."

As she spoke the front door of the apartment opened and Mac saw himself walk through the door. Except that it wasn't really him, he was younger, happier, less tired and frayed.

"Hello beautiful," he greeted the woman in the chair, slinging his overcoat over the back of the sofa.

"Hello yourself," she replied, rising to meet him, wrapping her arms about him and kissing him passionately.

"Mm, I love having you home every day," she said quietly into his neck.

"I love being home every day," he replied before picking her up in his arms and sitting down on the couch with her in his lap.

"This was our first Christmas in New York," Mac murmured sadly, watching the happy couple in front of him as they continued to canoodle on the couch. "I'd just joined the NYPD. We'd barely even finished decorating the apartment."

"You know," whispered Claire into her husband's ear, "I got a special Christmas present for you."

"Oh really?" he said, a grin spreading onto his face.

"Uh huh. I thought that maybe you could open it tonight, seeing as you've been such a good boy."

"Mm, well that sounds like fun Mrs Santa Claus," he murmured, caressing her neck with the tip of his nose.

But before he could kiss her again she had slipped out of his grasp. Leaning down she pecked his pouting lips lightly.

"Come on through in five minutes," she told him before turning and sashaying towards the bedroom. "Oh and Mac?"

"Yeah?"

She turned to wink at him over her shoulder.

"Bring your handcuffs," she said sweetly, closing the bedroom door behind her, leaving her happy horny husband alone on the sofa, a dopey grin all over his face.

"Wow," muttered Aiden, "I never realised your wife was such a handful."

Mac watched his elated younger self happily jump up onto his feet and proceed to bounce on the sofa a couple of times before sitting down again.

"You used to be pretty excitable huh?"

"Used to be."

The younger Mac began humming to himself as he bent over to remove first his shoes and then his socks. He stood, padding barefoot across the room to peer out of the window before closing the blinds, then unlacing his tie and discarding it in the floor.

"Messy too," muttered Aiden as she watched him lark around, unbuttoning his shirt, still humming to himself.

"Claire!" called the younger Mac.

"Yes?"

"Has it been five minutes yet?"

They heard a laugh from the other room.

"No."

"Can I come in anyway?"

More laughter.

"Absolutely!"

Grinning he made for the door before pausing and going back to the couch. There he rummaged in the pocket of his overcoat until he found what he was looking for. Aiden raised her eyebrows as she watched him enter the bedroom, his NYPD issue handcuffs clasped in his teeth.

"Wow," she said as the door swung shut behind him. "Gotta say Mac, I never picked you for the kinky type."

But Mac was staring blankly at the empty room once more.

"Of course," she said, nearing him, "there were other Christmases."

Mac watched wordlessly as the years paraded before him. The year Claire decided to cook a proper Christmas dinner and nearly burned down the building. The year she caught the flu over the holidays and he had carried her around the house like a queen. The year they'd had a food fight with the Christmas pudding and ended up having sex on the living room floor, both of them covered in pudding pieces while It's A Wonderful Life played on the TV in the background.

Mac could feel his hands clench into fists as the years flashed past quicker and quicker until he could take it no longer.

"Make it stop!" he yelled and at once everything went still around him.

He looked at the room. There were no lights, no decorations, no pictures even, just Mac. Mac alone and pale in a corner of the room, staring out of the window.

"Please," he whispered to the woman beside him. "Please don't show me this Christmas."

"I have to," was her only reply.

They stood there for an age, watching the silent man by the window until eventually there was a knock at the door.

Breaking out of his trance the younger Mac crossed the room but didn't open the door, leaning against it instead.

"Who's there?" he asked stiffly.

"Mac, it's Stella," said a voice from the other side. "Please let me in."

With a heavy sigh he drew back the bolt and opened the door, letting the form of Stella Bonasera slide past him, into the empty room.

She seemed so much younger, her dark hair longer, fewer worry lines marring her beautiful face.

"I just wanted to check on you," she said uncertainly.

"To make sure I hadn't committed suicide?" the younger Mac asked bitterly.

"Yes," was her honest reply.

"Well thanks for the visit but I don't plan on slitting my wrists quite yet," he said archly, still standing by the open door.

"Mac please," she said, eyes filling with tears. "Don't."

"Why no!" he shouted, slamming the door and striding angrily into the room. "Why shouldn't I be depressed?" he asked forcefully, taking hold of her arm tightly. "Why shouldn't I feel like there's a knife twisting in my heart, tell me why Stella?"

"Mac you're hurting me!" she cried, trying to pry his hand from her arm.

"Why should I be the only one that's hurting?" he practically roared at her.

That was when she slapped him, a good hard slap that made his head snap back on his neck, making him release her.

"Don't you dare!" she fumed at him. "Don't you dare try and pretend that you're the only one who's in pain! You're not the only one who lost someone Mac, you don't get to act like no one else is hurting!"

"You didn't lose someone!" he yelled at her, tears now starting to fall from his angry eyes.

"Yes I did!" she countered. "I lost you."

She paused then, they both did. When she spoke again her voice was softer.

"When Claire died I lost my best friend," she said. "And I don't know what to do without you. So you don't get to pretend you're the only one in pain and you don't get to pretend that you're alone, because I won't let you. I need you to stay with me. Please Mac?"

The anger ebbed from his face as she spoke and the tears began to run more freely.

"I miss her," he whispered.

She put out her arms and let him come to her, cradling him against her chest, holding him close against the horror.

"I know," she murmured in return. "I know."

They stayed there like that for a long time until eventually they faded from view.

Feeling the tears trail down his own cheeks Mac turned angrily to Aiden.

"Why did you show me that?" he asked sharply.

"Because you needed to see it," she replied calmly.

"What the hell does that mean? he shouted at her.

"Mac," she said gently, "I don't make the rules. You needed to see that, to remind you that when everything fell apart Stella was there for you; that she's always been there for you."

"I already know that!" he hissed at her.

"Don't get mad at me!" Aiden spat back at him, hands on hips. "If you weren't so damn bone headed I wouldn't have to be here in the first place."

"Just leave me alone!" he shouted.

"No!"

As she spoke a blinding white light filled the room and Mac was forced to close his eyes. When he opened them again he was no longer in his own living room but rather in someone else's and it was once again dark outside.

He looked around the room in confusion, sure it too seemed familiar but he wasn't sure from where. Like the shadows of his own apartment in happier times this room too was covered in Christmas decorations of all shapes and sizes. Little lights twinkled on the tree in the corner, under which sat one lone present, beautifully wrapped and waiting.

"Aiden?" he said, turning to make sure the young woman was still with him.

"Don't worry your head Mac, I'm still here," she said, motioning to him from behind a kitchen counter.

"Where are we?" he asked. "Is this another memory?"

"Nope, this is what you might call the mid-section of the evening."

"What do you mean?"

"This," she gestured around, "is Christmas Day 2009."

"But that's this year."

"Exactly."

His brow furrowed as he tried to make sense of what she was telling him.

"So," he said slowly, "this is what's going to happen tomorrow?"

"Pretty much, although I believe the powers that be prefer 'Christmas Present'."

He looked around again.

"So where are we?"

"You mean you don't know?" she asked in amusement but he shook his head.

"No. I mean, it all looks vaguely familiar but, I don't know where I've seen this place before."

Aiden sighed and shook her head at him.

"Aw Mac, you really are hopeless," she told him.

He was about to reply when once again a door opened and he saw Stella enter the room. She was dressed in a bathrobe and had a half-finished glass of wine in her hand.

"This is Stella's apartment?" he asked, suddenly realising why he knew where he was.

"The fact that you didn't recognise it straight away tells me that you have serious problems," Aiden told him.

"I've only been here a couple of times," he said in defence. "And what's that supposed to mean?"

"Just watch and learn bone head."

"You're just lucky you don't work for me anymore," he muttered.

"Just shut up and watch," she said, smacking the side of his head to make him pay attention.

While they were chatting Stella had lain down on the couch, glass of wine still in hand. She gazed thoughtfully at the waiting present beneath the tree.

"Oh Stella, stop being such a worrywart and just call him," she chided herself.

Great, thought Mac, she's seeing someone. I knew I shouldn't have kissed her at the party.

Leaning over to the coffee table she picked up her phone and dialled. He could faintly hear a voice at the other end reply.

"Taylor," said the voice curtly.

"She called me?" he said in surprise.

"Duh," muttered Aiden, rolling her eyes at him.

"Hey Mac, it's Stella."

"Hey Stell, something I can do for you?"

"I was just wondering if you were doing anything? I thought maybe you could come over, we could watch a movie, maybe have a drink?"

"I don't know Stell."

"Come on," she said in that light pleading tone of hers. "I haven't given you you're present yet. I'll make you an Irish coffee."

But her wheedling tone clearly wasn't working.

"I can't. I still have a mountain of paperwork to get through and Sinclair's already on my ass for the reports from this week. You can always give me my present tomorrow."

Standing beside her Mac could clearly see the disappointment on her face as he spoke.

"You idiot," he muttered.

"That's alright," she said, her bright voice cleverly disguising her hurt expression. "I'll see you tomorrow."

"See you tomorrow Stell."

The line disconnected and she put down the phone again, staring sadly once more at the present beneath the tree.

"Would it kill you to say yes just this once," she huffed. "I knew I shouldn't have kissed him."

Mac felt bad. There were a lot of times when Stella had offered to spend some time with him and he had brushed her off for work. It wasn't that he didn't want to spend time with her; it was more that he was afraid of what might happen if he did.

Stella stood from the sofa and reached under the tree, pulling the present out and bringing it back to the sofa, cradling it in her lap. Her long delicate fingers stroked the shiny paper for a second or two.

"It's not like he's going to find out," she whispered to herself.

Coming to a decision she began to slowly unwrap the gift in front of her.

Mac watched with interest until eventually the paper lay in a neat bundle at her feet, the ribbon beside it. She was now holding what he assumed must be his Christmas present. It was a dressing gown, a navy blue dressing gown, floor length and slightly fuzzy.

"She got you that?" asked a surprised Aiden from the kitchen.

Mac smiled slightly.

"I had to put my old one out a couple of weeks ago. It practically fell to pieces. I hadn't gotten around to buying a new one yet."

He half remembered telling Stella about it in a list of things that had gone wrong for him one morning. He didn't even think she'd been really listening and he'd never in a million years expected her to buy him a new one.

"You two are weird," he heard Aiden mumble in the background.

Stella was smiling at the robe in her hands, stroking the soft fabric with her fingers. Then she stood and without warning slid her own robe to the floor, leaving her naked in her living room.

Mac felt all the blood rush to his face. Well, most of it. He tried to look away but couldn't help but peek at her. She really was gorgeous.

He watched in fascination as she slid into the navy robe in her hands, wrapping it tightly about herself and snuggling into its warmth.

"Mm," she murmured as she lay back down on the sofa, sliding the soft fabric across her skin, burrowing her face into it. "Mac," she whispered and Mac felt his heart stop beating.

Stella closed her eyes, beginning to drift off on the couch.

"I love you," she whispered before she fell asleep.

Mac leant over her, gently stroking her soft curls.

"Stella," he murmured, brushing a tender kiss to her temple.

"Come on," said Aiden and he felt her touch his shoulder. "We got other places to be."

Sighing Mac stood, still looking at the sleeping woman before him.

"I didn't know she felt like that," he said quietly.

Aiden frowned at him.

"Funny," she said, "I thought she made it pretty obvious."

She reached out to take his hand once more, her cold, not-quite-there fingers making him tingle once again. There was another flash of light and they were standing in yet another apartment.

Even if he hadn't seen Lindsay sprawled on the couch he would have known this was the Messer's place. The entire living room was hip deep in toys and wrapping paper.

Danny entered and sat down beside his wife, pulling her into his arms.

"She asleep?" asked Lindsay with a yawn.

"Finally. I'm tellin' you, our baby girl is a real party animal," moaned Danny, making her laugh.

They were silent for a little while, just holding each other. It was Lindsay who broke the silence.

"Do you think anything will happen with Mac and Stella?" she asked.

Danny frowned at her.

"What makes you ask that?" he wondered.

She shrugged gently.

"Just, what with that kiss yesterday and everything. I thought maybe this might be the year they finally get it together."

Danny chuckled at her.

"I doubt it," he told her. "Those two are gonna dance around each other till doomsday."

Lindsay gave him a shove.

"Come on," she said. "I know you and Don have a bet on when they're gonna get together."

Danny flushed and so did Mac, was it really that clear to everyone the way he felt about her?

"Yeah well, even so, I doubt it'll be this year. Come on, let's go to bed."

Lindsay acquiesced but as she rose Mac heard her mumble to herself.

"Well for everyone's sake, I hope they get together soon."

When they had disappeared into the other room Mac turned to look at Aiden.

"Is that what everyone thinks?" he asked and she nodded.

"Pretty much. Listen Mac, the entire department thinks the two of you should be together. The only one standing in the way is you."

Mac looked down at his hands.

"I don't mean to," he murmured.

Aiden moved forward and laid a hand on his shoulder again.

"I know it's hard Mac," she said gently. "But sometimes you have to put yourself out there for a good thing to happen."

He looked over at her with a frown.

"What happens if I don't?" he asked. "What happens if I never ask her out?"

Aiden sighed.

"I can show you if you want, but you won't like it."

"Show me, please?"

Another sigh.

"Okay, but don't say I didn't warn you."

Another bright flash and Mac found himself standing in his office, but like the scenes in his apartment, it was different.

"Where's all my stuff?" he asked, looking in bemusement at the empty walls.

"Gone," she replied.

"What do you mean gone? Gone where?"

"I told you you wouldn't like it."

Outside he saw people scurry past the door, heads bent, not looking inside.

"Aiden what's going on?" he asked.

"You died," she told him.

Mac felt himself go cold all over.

"I what?"

"You died Mac. You were at a scene and you wandered off down a blind alley. You were distracted and you didn't hear the guy behind you. You took two in the chest, you were dead before anyone even realised you were gone."

Mac blinked at her, shaking his head in disbelief.

"No," he whispered. "No, I wouldn't do that, I know better than that."

"Like I said, you were distracted."

"By what? What the hell could make me so careless?" He was shouting at her again, angry with himself and with her for telling him all this.

"Stella," she said simply.

"Stella?"

Aiden leant against the desk, folding her arms across her chest.

"She got married," she told him. "A few months later she got pregnant, handed in her notice. She and her husband were gonna go to Greece. She came to tell you just before you got called to the scene."

"But," he whispered in anguish, "but she said she loved me. Why would she marry someone else?"

"You wanted to see what would happen if you never made a move," she told him. "She wanted to wait for you but this guy offered her something she wanted even more; a family."

Mac stared at the floor. So Stella could move on and live without him, maybe that was a good thing.

"Is she happy?" he asked but Aiden shook her head.

"Mac," she said softly. "She lost the baby."
"No."

She nodded.

"The doctor said it was triggered by emotional stress. She blamed herself for your death. The miscarriage ruined her marriage. She disappeared to Greece and no one ever heard from her again."

Mac felt as though he couldn't breathe.

"No," he said again. "No, that can't happen!"

"Hey," she said. "You wanted to know! Besides, this is only one version of what could happen. Call it a worse case scenario."

Mac stared at her.

"You mean this might not happen?" he asked hopefully, fighting the tears for the second time that evening.

"That's entirely up to you," she said.

Mac chewed his lip.

"Show me something different," he said. "Show me what happens if I tell her how I feel."

Aiden smiled at him.

"I was hoping you'd ask that," she said.

More bright light and this time he was in a place he didn't recognise at all. A house, a very nice house, beautifully decorated with a massive tree in the middle of the living room.

"Whose house is this?" he asked dumbly.

"Wait and see," said Aiden happily.

As he watched a door twitched open and a little girl, no more than three or four crept into the room. She had a head of dark bouncing curls and familiar blue eyes.

"That's not Lucy is it?" Mac asked breathlessly.

"Nope," smirked Aiden.

The little girl approached the base of the tree, her chubby face lighting up when she saw the stacks of presents beneath it and the full stockings pinned to the mantelpiece. She gave out an excited squeak and ran towards the tree.

"Now just hold it right there little miss," said someone from the doorway.

Mac looked up to see Stella standing in a dressing gown, her arms folded across her chest.

"Were you going to start opening presents without waiting for mommy and daddy?" she asked with mock sternness.

The little girl hung her head.

"Sowwy," she mumbled.

Stella laughed.

"It's okay baby, come here."

The little girl ran to her mother who bundled her up into her arms.

"Where's daddy?" asked the little girl, looking around the room.

"Right here."

Mac turned to see himself enter the room, something hidden behind his back.

"Daddy!" squealed the little girl.

"Merry Christmas baby," he said, kissing her on the forehead. "Do you want to see your special present?"

She nodded, her blue eyes wide and sparkling.

"Here you go," he said, bringing his hands around in front of him. He was holding a chocolate brown puppy in his hands that squirmed happily in his grasp.

The little girl squeaked again, reaching out to clap the tiny dog who licked and nuzzled her fingers.

"Do you like him?" asked Mac and she giggled.

"Oh yes daddy, I love him!"

"Good. He set the puppy down on the floor and Stella put down the little girl. Immediately the puppy began to bounce around her feet, licking her bare toes and making her giggle.

"What do you want to call him honey?" asked Stella, watching her daughter happily.

"Muffin," announced the little girl.

"Muffin, I kind of like that," said Stella as Mac slid an arm around her, kissing her temple.

"Muffin it is then," he agreed.

"Come on," said Stella, "let's open the rest of these presents."

The happy little family proceeded to dig into the parcels beneath the tree, Muffin making a nuisance of himself among the wrapping paper. Stella cuddled up in Mac's lap, giggling at both the puppy and her daughter.

Breaking away from Aiden Mac came closer, leaning down to get a better view of the little girl.

"She's beautiful."

"Yeah, she's pretty cute, but then I always figured you and Stell would have cute kids."

"I could have all this?" he whispered. "The house, the dog… her?"

Aiden shrugged a little.

"Like I said, these are shadows of things that could happen. This future, it takes a lot of work but, yeah, this could be the way your life pans out."

Mac reached out carefully, the tips of his fingers brushing the dark curls of the little girl in front of him.

"It's time to go."

"Just give me a minute."

"Mac."

He turned. She gave him a sympathetic look.

"It's time to go," she repeated.

He cast one last look at the happy family around the Christmas tree.

"Okay," he murmured.

The light was stronger this time but for a long time he could still see the little girl on the living room floor.

"Mac."

The light was blinding around him, he could no longer see Aiden but he could hear her.

"Mac I have to go, it's all up to you now. Stella loves you Mac, remember that."

"Aiden wait!"

"See you round Mac."

"Aiden!"

Buzz, buzz.

Mac sat up in bed. He was at home, alone.

"A dream," he whispered sadly. "It was just a dream."

Blinking, he reached for his phone which was buzzing angrily. It was dispatch, two DB's over on Lafayette.

Groaning he pulled himself out of bed. So much for getting a decent night's sleep.

"Merry Christmas," he muttered to himself.

It was a long day. Mac did his best to push thoughts of his weird dream to the back of his mind but it was difficult. Visions of his little girl kept floating before his distracted eyes.

Stella had a case of her own, he barely saw her all day. In some ways he supposed that was good; it would have been too hard to see her with all that stuff in his head.

He was still in his office long after everyone had gone.

Looking out of the window he could see the lights of New York City, twinkling in the swirling snow.

His phone rang.

"Taylor."

"Hey Mac, it's Stella."

"Hey Stell, something I can do for you?"

"I was just wondering if you were doing anything? I thought maybe you could come over and we could watch a movie, maybe have a drink?"

Mac blinked to himself. This was the conversation he'd overheard in his dream. Stella was at home, stretched out on her couch in her bathrobe, a glass of wine on the floor beside her. He gulped.

"Uh, I don't know Stell," he managed to murmur.

"Come on. I haven't given you your present yet. I'll make you an Irish coffee."

He remembered the look on her face when he had refused, the disappointment in her eyes. A plan began to form in his mind.

"I can't," he said in his most serious voice. "I still have a mountain of paperwork to get through and Sincalir's already on my ass for the reports from this week. You can always give me my present tomorrow."

He heard the tiny pause and for a second he felt bad for disappointing her, but the thought of what would happen next made him smile.

"That's alright," he heard her say. "I'll see you tomorrow."

"See you tomorrow Stell."

He hung up and stared out of the window once more, still smiling faintly before he sprang to his feet.

Grabbing his overcoat he left the office, heading for the elevator. But a moment later he raced back the way he had come and into the break room where he ferreted around in a drawer for a moment or two before coming up triumphant.

Forty five minutes later he was standing in the hallway outside Stella's apartment, knocking softly on the door.

She opened it, her hair slightly mussed from dozing on the couch, her expression a little groggy but quickly changing to surprise when she saw him standing there.

"Mac!" she exclaimed, instinctively drawing the blue bathrobe she wore more tightly around herself. The blue bathrobe that was his Christmas present.

"Am I allowed to change my mind?" he asked softly.

A grin spread across her face and she nodded, opening the door more fully.

"Absolutely."

Welcoming him into her apartment she suddenly realised what she was wearing and blushed deeply.

"Just uh, let me go put some clothes on," she mumbled.

"I don't mind," he replied.

She stopped at his words, looking him in the eye the way she always did when he tried to flirt with her, and for the first time he didn't look away in embarrassment. Instead he smiled at her, holding her gaze for a moment before allowing her to look away.

"Well I," she began and he turned away, heading for the couch.

He stopped when he got there, eyeing the small neat pile of wrapping paper and ribbon on the floor where he'd known it would be and also Stella's own crumpled robe.

"Decided you liked the blue one better huh?" he asked, casting her a sidelong glance.

"I, well, I mean," she was flustered, not at all sure what to say, which was new for Stella.

Bending down he picked up the tag which had been attached to the ribbon.

"To Mac," he read, "Something to keep you warm on cold and lonely nights. Merry Christmas, love Stella."

He raised his eyebrows at her, giving her another of his slightly crooked smiles.

"I'm not sure how warm a piece of ribbon is going to keep me Stell," he said gently.

She blushed again, her eyes locked on the floor.

"Actually," she mumbled, "this is your Christmas present." She flapped the arms of the robe she wore. "I was just… I wanted to make sure it would fit," she explained lamely and Mac chuckled. The thing drowned her, far too wide across her narrow shoulders and swamping her tiny waist.

"Right," was all he said, drawing close to her and using the tips of his fingers to raise her chin so that she was looking at him. "Looks cute on you," he said quietly. "Something to keep me warm on cold and lonely nights," he repeated, his voice low.

His fingers lightly traced her jaw-line and she closed her eyes, breathing deeply.

"I have something for you," he whispered, making her open her eyes again in surprise.

"You already gave me my Christmas present," she murmured.

"This is a little something extra."

Reaching into his pocket he removed a little red box with a gold bow stuck on the top which he passed to her, keeping the space between them minimal.

Breaking eye contact with him she stared down at the little box in her hand.

"Go ahead," he whispered.

She pried off the lid and grinned as she lifted the little sprig of mistletoe from the break room out of its container, dropping the box to the floor.

"Hm," she said teasingly, "how does this work?"

"Well," he replied, "you hold it above your head and you make a wish."

"Really? Like this?"

She lifted the little plastic twig above their heads.

"Like that," he said, stepping a little closer.

He leant forward slightly letting his lips brush tentatively over hers for a second before leaning into the kiss, allowing his arms to wind around her even as her own came to wrap around his neck, the edge of the mistletoe tickling his neck slightly.

Stella kissed him back happily, releasing a soft moan into his mouth as she pressed against him, going up on her toes.

When they finally broke apart she grinned at him.

"What brought this on?" she asked breathlessly.

"Let's just say my better angels gave me a talking to," he said and she chuckled at him.

"Remind me to thank them," she said, leaning in for another kiss but pulling away with a look of concern. "But Mac, what about work? Not that I don't want this but… can we really have a future together?"

"Stella believe me," he said, pulling her closer once more. "Without you in my life, I don't have a future. We'll make this work."

His confidence was clearly contagious as she grinned at him again.

"Okay," she whispered, kissing him again.

This time it was his turn to moan as his hands travelled across her back, feeling the curves of her body beneath the folds of the dressing gown.

"So," he said, pulling away slightly again, "do I get to try out my Christmas present?"

"Mm, you bet."

Laughing she pulled him down onto the sofa so that she was beneath him, kissing him fiercely.

"Stella?" he asked as they broke for air.

"What?"

"Do you like dogs?"

"What?"

"Never mind."

Later they lay side by side in Stella's bed, her curly head resting against his shoulder, fast asleep. Mac stared at the ceiling, content for the first time in a long while.

"So I see you made a decision," came a familiar voice from the end of the bed and he looked to see Aiden perched there, grinning at him.

"I guess you could say that."

"Good. But you know this isn't going to be easy."

He smiled slightly.

"No, but it's worth it."

She laughed.

"Face it Mac, you're just in this for Muffin."

"Get out of here," he replied, laughing at her in return.

"Okay, okay, I'm goin'. I just wanted to make sure you made the right choice."

He nodded solemnly.

"Thanks Aiden," he said softly.

"Hey, don't mention it."

And with that she was gone. But Mac didn't forget the magic that had occurred that Christmas night and years later as he watched his daughter play with her new dog amidst the carnage of Christmas morning he hugged his wife a little closer and grinned at the angel on top of the Christmas tree.

"Thanks," he mouthed and he could swear he saw the angel wink one brown eye knowingly in return.