Disclaimer: I own very little, especially not CSI NY.
Author: Lily Moonlight
Notes: Thank you very much for reviews, alerts and favourites! I'm really glad you're enjoying this so far :D Thanks to Ballettmaus for her help, and to Blue Shadowdancer and Sarramaks for reading and commenting on early drafts. Thanks also to cmaddict and Brinchen86 for discussion.
Finding the Future: Chapter Two
Stella's footsteps quickened as a thin breeze cut through her blazer. She pulled it closer round her, realising ruefully that Chicago hadn't received its nickname for nothing. It took a minute of walking before she found the man she was looking for standing staring at a section of fencing, lost in a frown of thought. She smiled: her target was in sight. So absorbed was he in his contemplation, he didn't notice her until she pinched his elbow and made him startle.
"Hey, did you forget about me?" Folding her arms, she gave him a look of mock-severity, any real annoyance evaporating at the sight of him and the knowledge he was all right.
He had the grace to look a little sheepish. "I lost track of time," he offered in apology. "Everything okay?" Then he looked around and his forehead puckered in puzzlement. "Where's Archie?"
Stella grinned crookedly. "Left him looking after his beer and sleeping off its effects. Seemed happy to do that. We were running out of conversation anyhow."
Mac gave her an intensive look. "Was he behaving himself?"
"Nothing I couldn't handle," she shrugged, not wanting to detail their conversation, or the fact of Archie trying to handle her, though she had a feeling Mac could take a good guess.
He raised his eyebrows and she continued, hoping to reassure him teasingly. "It's fine, though I was beginning to wonder if you were going to abandon me to his tender mercies for the rest of the afternoon..." Then seeing his frown, she added, "Really, it's fine. He was just a little over-enthusiastic, and his jacket was two bottles of beer lighter than when you left."
Mac looked at her in amusement, but with just a hint of something else. "Was he trying to hit on you?"
Stella hesitated, experiencing a tingle through her at the suggestion of protectiveness and even possessiveness that his question had betrayed. Then she smirked, attempting to hide her feelings. "As I said, nothing I couldn't handle. Anyhow," she continued, pointing at the fence that had so captivated his attention, "what are you doing? Surely you're not still trying to find a way in?"
"It's proving more difficult than I thought." Mac gave the base of the fence a kick, raising a small cloud of dust. "Gates round that way are padlocked and barbed wire's been wrapped round them."
"So no way in that way, huh?" Stella said, glancing about her and along the yards of chain-link fencing. Then meeting his eyes, she gave him a searching look, realising he had been doing more than simply finding a way in. "You really want to go in there and hunt for those tags?"
Mac returned her look steadily. "It's worth a try to see if I can find them. And you seemed pretty keen yourself earlier. I was outnumbered, if I remember right."
They stared at each other for a moment until Stella ducked her head slightly in acknowledgement, biting her lip and unable to deny it. "Okay, fine. So we need to search out another way in." He nodded once, having heeded her point, and she gave him a quick smile. "We'll find a way in, we're detectives, Mac."
He grinned. "That we are, and good ones too."
"How did you used to get in when you were kids?"
"Through the gate," he replied, adding wryly, "It didn't have the added decoration of barbed wire thirty something years ago."
"There's got to be another way in." Stella frowned and shook her hair away from her shoulders as she glanced about. "Anyhow, I didn't come all this way to stand looking at a fence."
Mac eyed her keenly, his lips curved into a smile. "You didn't? So what do you have in mind?"
Her hands placed on her hips, she contemplated the yards of fencing stretching in either direction, the anticipation of a problem to solve taking hold of her. "Okay..." she began. "The gate's a no-go, so we have to think unconventionally."
"Out of the box," Mac said.
"Or over the fence," she grinned, her gaze sliding towards him. But she became serious again an instant later, pursing her lips as she moved over to the fence and gripped the metal links with her fingers, pulling them slightly to test the tensile strength. Rocking back a little on her heels, she considered their options.
As she turned to Mac, she saw him giving her a questioning look.
"Way I see it," she said thoughtfully, dropping her sunglasses over her eyes to avoid the dazzle of the sun as she gazed at the top of the fence, "the only way is up." She turned back to him with a smile. Mac raised his eyebrow and folded his arms, clearly eager to see what she was about to do.
She grasped the wire. Then tightening her grip after a final glance at him, she flexed her fingers and set her foot firmly on the links of the fence, relieved to find that the pointed toe of her boot was a neat fit into the hexagons. She tested her weight and then feeling a flash of adrenaline at what she was about to do, she raised her other foot and let the fence take all her weight.
Stella released her breath, wiggled another toe hold a little higher and reached up closer to the top of the fence. Another few reaches and she was half-way up, realising suddenly just how high it was. For a moment it seemed to stretch above her, a gigantic web of wire, with her hanging there helplessly. She drew her breath in sharply.
"You sure you know what you're doing?" Mac asked, a morsel of anxiety present in his voice. To her relief, it broke the illusion.
She breathed out. "Of course I do!"
Glancing down at him, Stella saw he was standing just beneath her with his arms raised. To catch her, she realised with an inner smile, and a sudden vision which she dismissed almost instantly of her landing gracefully in his arms.
It was almost enough to make her want to fall.
However, it did not take long before she was grasping the top of the fence with both hands and looking down again at Mac, who seemed to be further away than she expected. The frown was still on his face as he watched her. For a moment, as she was kicking her right foot free from the links, she felt an unpleasant prickle of fear all the way to her fingertips. But she kept her gaze fixed to Mac's as she heaved herself up and sat uncomfortably astride the fence whilst she calmed her breaths.
"Just take it steady," Mac said, a cleft deepening between his eyes. "There's no rush." He was still holding his arms out.
"But if I slipped you'd catch me, right?" Stella couldn't resist asking.
Though Mac's gaze remained steady, there was a glint of something in his eyes, and she wondered if he had experienced the same image she had done moments before. "Of course," he replied.
It made her feel a little warmer inside, and she flashed him a smile before bracing her arms and swinging her right leg over the top bar. Hanging for a moment by her fingertips, she looked down the gap between her body and the fence before she let herself drop. The landing was a little harder, and more painful, than expected and knocked a curse out of her as she threw one arm out behind her to balance herself – falling on her backside in front of Mac was not something she wanted to happen. Her wrist jarred a little with the impact, but not enough to trouble her.
"Impressive," he said with a raised eyebrow, pressing closer to the fence as she stood up.
"Thanks." She beamed at him as she got to her feet, happy to be safe on solid ground. "Your turn now."
"I had a feeling you were going to say that." A faint grimace crossed his face as he took a step back from the fence and appeared to size it up.
"Come on, Mac," she said encouragingly, removing her sunglasses to meet his gaze. "Surely you did all this kind of stuff in the marines, and I know Flack's not the only one who's had to jump a few fences in pursuit of suspects."
Mac stared at her as his fingers curled round the links. "You're younger than me," he said finally.
"I'm wearing heels," she countered, turning her foot to show him and tilting her head on one side. "That hardly gives me an advantage."
"Never ceases to amaze me what a woman can do in unsuitable shoes." There was just a murmur of sarcasm in his voice.
"I guess I'm just an amazing kind of woman," Stella smirked.
"I've never thought anything less," Mac said, and all sarcasm had vanished from him.
It silenced Stella as wonderings rushed through her mind. Mac said nothing further though and she watched him thoughtfully as he shrugged out of his jacket and discarded it at the bottom of the fence, before placing his foot on the wire. As he climbed, she recovered herself and slipped her sunglasses back over her eyes, to be able to admire with a measure of discretion.
As he caught his breath at the top of the fence, she moved forward and held her palms out in front of her, smiling sweetly up at him. "If you fall, I'll catch you."
His only response was a look of scepticism which she lifted her shoulders at. As he swung himself over, Stella lowered her arms and stepped back. Matching her strategy, he hung for a moment before dropping to the ground. His landing was a little wobblier than hers and she suppressed a smile as she grabbed his hand and helped him to his feet.
"Thanks." Mac dusted himself down and then turned to survey the buildings, shielding his eyes with his hand.
"So what now?" Stella asked, the reality of what they were doing occurring to her, along with a little unease. "We continue trespassing on private property?"
"It's long abandoned," he shrugged. "I don't think anyone's going to mind."
"Did no one ever come around when you used to hang out here?"
An expression of discomfort moved across his face and then vanished. "On one occasion, but we didn't get caught."
Lifting her sunglasses, Stella pierced him with a look. "You got any friends in the Chicago PD just in case? They might be more kindly disposed to us if you're acquainted with some of them, or if you flash your credentials round if we get arrested..."
"Which would do what exactly?" he asked with his lips quirking.
"Oh, I don't know, give us a reduced sentence?" Stella said, her voice stretching sarcastically.
He sent her an amused look before he began walking towards the disarray of buildings.
Shaking her head, she hurried to catch him up. He gave her a sideways grin, and though she tried to remain severe, she was unable to, and her face relaxed in good humour. It was undeniable; there was something gratifying about a little harmless illicit activity. Also, she had to admit, she was attracted to the romance of a missing item that they might be able to find after more than thirty years. Mac too seemed enlivened at the prospect, and for that she was glad. It made climbing that fence worth it, and if needs be, for him, she would climb any number of fences.
Their footsteps soon settled into a natural synchronicity as they continued walking side by side across the ground and sparse vegetation blasted by the wind. She became caught up for a moment in watching how the wind pressed his black shirt against his chest, outlining and sculpting the shape of his figure, and observed him discreetly. Their arms brushed as they walked, and as the wind increased, she was glad of the near-contact. The gusts brushed frigid fingers through her clothes, and trembled against her skin. Failing to squash a shiver, she wrapped her blazer round her again, but Mac had already turned towards her with concern in his eyes. "Are you cold?"
"Just thinking that it's probably a whole lot warmer back home," she said with a shudder. "Less windy..." she gave Mac a resigned look, anticipating a smart comment in return. "I know, you don't need to remind me, we're in the Windy City which is named for a very good reason. And yes, I know, I'm probably the thousandth person to say that, but that doesn't mean it's not true..." she squinted at him. "Please tell me to shut up, Mac."
He remained serious and a little thoughtful. "You'd rather be in New York than Chicago?"
"I haven't seen enough of Chicago to answer that fairly," she said and hesitated before answering honestly, as she knew she could, "But yes, I guess I'd prefer to be in New York."
"I had a feeling you'd say that," he said, and a small smile appeared on his face.
"You did, huh?" she asked him with an arched eyebrow.
"I know how much you love the city," he replied. "It's your home."
"It's your home too, Mac," she said slowly, wondering where his thoughts were going.
His eyes met hers and she was reassured by what she saw in them. "Yes it is." They walked a few more steps before he continued. "You know, my Dad used to say whenever he was on leave that home is where your heart is. I guess I've come to understand what he really meant over the years."
A hush tingled like static electricity around them.
Mac's smile grew a little shyer and he slowed his walk, hers similarly reducing in pace to match, though her heart was racing. "I appreciate you coming out here with me." His voice fell quietly amongst the breeze that stirred the leaves and detritus on the ground around them into spirals.
"Any time, Mac," Stella said softly, and the warmth of his smile was a breath of heat through her, enough to repel any amount of icy winds.
They continued in a comfortable silence until they reached the first of the buildings; a large, concrete rectangle. Uninspiring in the extreme, Stella thought as they stood and regarded it. Its surface appeared to have had chunks nibbled out of it by giant teeth, and the paintwork along the windowsills had been flayed away by the sun. It stood silent and grim, slumped and abandoned. What disheartened her was that no way in was immediately apparent: the door was covered with a metal grille daubed with graffiti and the strip of windows was more than fifteen feet above the ground. It was not looking promising and she pushed her sunglasses back onto the top of her head with a glower at the structure. It seemed their mission had become impossible.
Mac, as she turned to look at him, was standing with his thumbs hooked in his pockets, and his mouth pursed. She contemplated him for a moment, biting her bottom lip before asking, "Know any secret ways in?" There was the hint of a challenge in her voice. But no answer was forthcoming so she took a step closer. "Mac?"
His gaze moved away from the building and settled on her. "I remember a few. They might still be around. You up for finding them?"
A grin crinkled her eyes. "I'm always up for finding things."
She slipped her arm through his, feeling it to be the right thing to do in the circumstances. If Mac was surprised at her actions he was not displeased, as the sparkle in his eyes showed. Giving his arm a squeeze, she smiled and dared to be a little more flirtatious. "Come on then, share your secrets with me," she said, adding with a memory of one of Archie's admonitions. "As long as you're not leading me into trouble..."
His lifted eyebrows matched hers. "Trouble? I'm not familiar with that."
She snorted as he began to lead her round the side of the building. "Sure you're not..." It struck her then that Mac seemed willing to take a risk with her, and that did not displease her.
They arrived at a narrow passageway between the main building and the smaller one next to it; a dark and uninviting thoroughfare. Mac, nevertheless, after unhooking his arm from her and giving it a short weighing-up glance, turned sideways and started to edge crab-like along it. With a brief shake of her head, and a sigh of mourning for her new blazer, Stella followed him.
Slender as she was, it was a tight fit. The bricks scraped her clothes and more than a few grazes were inflicted on her hands, but she pressed on. A few steps ahead of her, her partner also seemed to be finding it uncomfortable as she turned her head in the confined space to look at him.
"You breathing in, Mac?" she asked less than innocently. A mumble answered her and she chuckled to herself.
They continued in silence, Stella finding her amusement to be soon suffocated. She was beginning to feel more than uncomfortable herself: the bricks were covered in mildew and smelled damp and sepulchral, and soon claustrophobia began to creep over her skin, inveigle its way into her. It was not something that usually troubled her, and she was annoyed with herself, but there was something about the thinness of the space they were in that unnerved her. Being surrounded by towering walls was making her breathing quicken. It was suddenly not hard to imagine them closing in on her, pressing into her skin, crushing her slowly and painfully, and she felt her heart begin to ricochet against her ribs...
"Stella!" Mac's voice jolted her out of the stifling panic and she realised that whilst she had almost come to a halt, he was standing in the open again, back-lit by the late afternoon light. He extended a hand to her, but she pulled herself the rest of the distance hastily. "You okay?" he asked, studying her with care as she scrambled into the open air.
"Yes, yes, I'm fine," she breathed and managed a quick smile. "Thanks."
He reached out and straightened the lapel of her blazer, his fingers skimming her bare neck. Even though his hand returned quickly to his side, the feel of his skin against hers remained and her heart refused to return to its usual sedate pace straight away. But they had a mission to accomplish, and even if it was a mission of the heart, she needed to keep her own in check. Smoothing her clothes down, and looking in resignation at the marks and abrasions on them, she walked further into the courtyard they had emerged into, inhaling the cool air and glad to be in an unconfined space. The ground bloomed with fragments of glass and wood that scrunched underfoot. Looming above them, the back of the building was almost identical to the front, complete with a door also blocked with a sheet of metal. At the sight of it, Mac stopped short and his face creased in annoyance.
Stella stepped over to him. "There a problem?" Clearly there was.
"This wasn't here..."
"...thirty something years ago?" she finished. "I guess a few people have been here since."
He jerked his head, his frustration very apparent. "Should have realised."
She laid her hand on his shoulder, leaving it there as she felt the tension of his muscles. "What exactly was this place?" As well as wanting to distract him, she was genuinely curious. There was no outward indication of the site's past role and she had not thought to ask before now.
"Canning factory," Mac replied, looking around him restlessly. "Place shut down when we started high school, owners just seemed to up and leave, so it was the perfect place for us when we were kids."
"I'm sure," Stella smiled, imagining as she gazed at him, Mac as a teenager scaling gates and squeezing through gaps, laughing with friends. Before the care of years had settled on him. A wistful sigh breathed out of her as she pressed his shoulder and let her hand drop. They stood and a breeze stirred her curls. The sun was low over the building, a melting mass of gold, and it glowed across them, defining Mac's features as it lit his face. She stared, losing herself in the sight, breathing deeply of the moment; of the sun gilding them, the gentle touch of the wind in the courtyard, the evening scent of the air. At that moment, she realised, there was nowhere else she would rather be.
Mac turned and met her gaze and she dropped her eyes briefly, self-consciousness overcoming her, before she smiled at him. "I guess we need to find our own secret way in."
He grinned suddenly, his face lightening at the prospect. "Sounds a good plan."
This time she took the lead, picking her way over the flotsam scattered ground, round the far end of the building where the wall turned corners in almost a zig-zag composition. But around the second corner, a welcome sight met their eyes - a ground floor window covered with a piece of boarding. The board had crinkled and warped over the time and looked not too difficult to remove. Stella eyed it with thoughtful interest.
"What do you think?"
Mac slanted his gaze at it, his head at an angle. "Looks promising..." Then he returned his gaze to her. "What do you think?"
"I was expecting something a little more adventurous than a ground floor window. After climbing that fence, this is hardly a challenge." Stella said tilting him a mischievous smile.
It provoked a grin. "Disappointed, Stella? Would you have preferred a third or fourth floor window?"
"Sure, why not?" she said with a glint in her eyes. "I could have stood on your shoulders then climbed in with you waiting below. "
"Ready to catch you again of course."
"If you insist," she smirked.
"Well I wouldn't want you plummeting to the ground and breaking your neck," Mac said, his smile becoming a little less than teasing. "I couldn't afford to lose you... my best CSI."
They looked at each other, and she wondered if she should infer anything from his pause, before she broke the moment with a smile and nudged his arm. "This'll do fine for me. Come on, if we can get in, we've got a chance of finding these tags."
"I'm glad you think so," Mac said, his face and voice sincere. "Otherwise I made you climb a fence and squeeze through that passage for nothing."
She gave him an appraising look before replying, "Mac, even if we don't find them, it doesn't matter... I hope we do, but if we don't, then it's fine." She paused, taking in his change of expression. "But I can see you want to."
He was silent for the beat of a second before he answered. "You know, I always felt bad for losing them, even though Stephen never minded, never complained about it. He thought it was funny when he realised, said he thought he'd never see the day I lost anything..."
"Which made you feel even guiltier," Stella said, her sympathy for him coursing through her, and then a quick smile crossed her lips as she judged him accurately. "And even more determined to find them."
Mac shrugged his shoulders slightly and shoved his hands in his pockets, leaning side-on against the wall. "His Dad had given him the tags for his eleventh birthday. Few weeks after that, he was killed in Vietnam." He gave her a self-deprecating look. "I did buy him some more that he accepted, but it wasn't the same. I couldn't replace what his Dad had given him."
Reading the emotions that were being written with a fleet hand across his face, she felt her own roused. "You didn't lose them on purpose," she said sympathetically. "How did you come to have them anyhow?" Neither Archie nor Mac had been elaborate about that earlier.
As he moved over to the window, Mac's expression was invisible for a moment, but he answered her as he took hold of the board across the window. "There was a bunch of us who hung out here during summer vacation after we were in eighth grade..." Unexpectedly, the board came away with a splintering crunch and Mac darted backwards, letting it drop to the ground. A smashed window pane, a hole punched out jaggedly in the middle, its remaining glass opaque with grime, was revealed. Mac grunted and dusted his hands before continuing his story. "We were messing about here one day playing war games and after they voted me Commander in Chief, he lent me the tags so I'd look the part."
There was silence for a moment and Stella let her imagination wander again with a smile at the thought of Mac playing soldiers with his friends. The information that he had been designated Chief did not surprise her, and no doubt even back then he would have insisted they all stuck to the rules.
Another question rose to her lips. "Didn't you try to look for the tags after that?"
He peered at the window, fingering the edges of the glass. "Didn't have much chance to, and after that summer we found other places to hang out."
"Understandable," Stella nodded as she watched him, and watched the procession of his thoughts. "But..." she asked, suspicious of his expression, "Surely you searched a few more times?"
"Not really." Mac did not meet her eyes.
"Are you sure you didn't make a few furtive trips back here without the others, to keep up your reputation that Mac Taylor never lost anything?" She looked penetratingly at him and he relented and met her gaze.
"I went back a few times by myself." Stella nodded and waited, knowing he had more to say. "It bugged me," Mac admitted. "Knowing they were in here somewhere and I couldn't find them, along with knowing I'd lost something that was important. Even by eighth grade my friends had figured a few things out about me, and it took almost a year before Archie and the other guys gave up reminding me on a daily basis that I'd lost Stephen's tags."
Stella couldn't help a smile at Mac's wry expression as she realised more of his motives for wanting to find the tags. "Yeah, I can see that would really have bugged you."
"Today reminded me about the whole thing; that I'd never been able to find them and that I'd never kind of made that up to him, and that now it's too late. I know maybe a set of dog tags is no big deal, especially not after all this time, but when Archie got to talking and you added your opinion..." He paused, pulling a few slivers of glass away from the window pane and dropping them on the ground before he turned to her. "I guess it's worth a try to look for them again."
"It is," she gave him a warm smile and once again her hand came to rest on his shoulder.
A glance conveyed his thanks, and then in unspoken agreement, they returned their attention to their current difficulty.
Moving closer and poking gingerly at the sill and surround, Stella frowned. The prospect of climbing through was not appealing, although, she considered, seeing as they had come this far it would be a shame not to continue; balking at a broken window was as unappealing as giving up.
And giving up was something she was not prepared to do.
She became aware then with the touch of his arm against hers and the faint scent of his aftershave that Mac was almost pressed against her. As he stretched, standing on his toes, towards something above their heads, his upper arm brushed her shoulder and the contact sent sensations through her. Involuntarily, her hands caught hold of the sill, and her fingers sank into the soft, rotten wood. She withdrew them hastily and glanced up at her partner in curiosity.
"What are you doing, Mac?"
"Just seeing if this catch will open," he said.
"Is it rusted?"
"Seems to be..." Mac continued tugging at it. The next moment there was a snap and he stood flat on his feet again, looking a little surprised at the piece of metal in his fingers.
"I guess it was rusted," Stella said dryly.
Mac tossed it aside with a frown. "Clearly..."
"Which means we have to go through the glass," she said, not enthralled at the prospect. She scratched disconsolately at the window sill and then stopped as she realised she was filling her nails with muck.
He sighed, his eyes lowering a little. "This was a bad idea..."
"We're not turning back and giving up now," she said firmly, seeing him wavering. "You're going in there to find it, and I'm going with you..." They were both aware of the similarity to her words a few days ago, at the starting point of the journey they were taking. A journey that had become more than simply a funeral in Chicago and a visit to Mac's childhood haunts. "As long as you go first," she continued, bringing levity to the moment, and Mac crooked his eyebrows.
"Sure you don't want it to be ladies first this time?"
The memory of that remark made her smile as she swiped at his hand. "I do not, and for what it's worth, if you insist, what I said then still stands!"
"You don't have your piece," he said slyly, extracting another piece of glass like a rotten tooth from the window frame.
She did not deign to answer. Instead she stood and watched as Mac, a smile lingering on his lips, tugged free the last fang-like pieces of glass. Their broken points glinted a lethal red in the rays of sun as they fell to the ground.
"Okay, here goes," he said once the window presented a gaping hole, clear of glass. The return of his enthusiasm for the mission pleased her and confirmed that she had done the right thing in helping to persuade him to come here. Placing his hands on the sill, he pressed down experimentally and then vaulted himself up onto it. Then grabbing the upright edge of the window frame, he crouched on his heels. Stella was impressed, but with her lips in a thin line, she watched him anxiously.
"You don't know what you're landing on, be careful," she warned and he twisted his neck to glance at her, something of a smug look on his face as he rocked on his heels.
"Of course." He jumped down: Stella's heart jumped in unison. And then he reappeared, the smugness on his face now definite. "Floor's solid enough. You coming?"
With a brief shake of her head, she accepted whatever lay ahead. "I guess I am..."
Thanks for reading, I hope you enjoyed it. Please review and let me know what you thought! I'll update this and Old West again next week. Thanks, Lily x