Disclaimer: I own very little, especially not CSI NY.
Author: Lily Moonlight
Notes: Thank you very much for alerts, favourites and of course reviews! Please continue to review! Thanks to Ballettmaus for her help, and to cmaddict and Brinchen86 for discussion.
One more chapter to go after this one :)
Finding the Future: Chapter Four
On the other side of the door they stopped, glancing round warily, half-expecting something to collapse. When nothing did, they took a few tentative steps forward. They had entered a smaller, equally abandoned room: metal shelves were scattered about the floor, all in a state of collapse, rotted clumps of cardboard boxes, or what had once been cardboard boxes, lolled about and cans were strewn all over the place; some nestled together whilst others stood incongruously upright. On the far wall, a rusty-looking staircase wound up to a mezzanine floor which was little more than a balcony and ran round two walls of the room. Stella shook her head slightly at the sight as she and Mac stared round.
"Must have been one hell of a place to play when you were a kid," she remarked as she moved into the room. "All this stuff, all the potential of the building."
It drew a smile from Mac. "It was. I'm surprised we haven't run into any kids ourselves since we've been here, seeing it's the weekend."
"I guess these days they aren't allowed the same kind of freedom," Stella suggested as they walked together towards the far wall and the steel staircase that adorned it. "Or maybe they just don't know about this place?"
"Possibly. There wasn't much evidence of anyone else being around, other than the window being boarded over," Mac said, kicking a stray can to the side. It bounced and clattered, striking a cluster of its fellows, sending them scattering.
Stella raised an eyebrow. "Nice footwork. You guys played soccer here too?"
"Would have been a pity to have wasted all these cans," Mac grinned.
"Absolutely." After returning the grin, Stella began to scan the floor, looking for any trace of the tags. It was easier to search in here; more empty floor space. Mac matched her actions and another silence fell for a few minutes. It gave Stella time for thought, and glancing across at her partner as she rootled through the flotsam and jetsam, she decided it was time to question him a little more. "So how exactly did you come to lose these tags?" she called out.
Mac paused in his search of the opposite corner to where she was. His eyes met hers, before he spoke slowly. "The first and last time we got caught here. It was one of the last days of the summer vacation and maybe someone had tipped off whoever about a bunch of kids hanging round, as we'd spent almost every day here. We were here as usual, I had the tags as I told you, we were in the middle of a battle and suddenly there's a guy appearing in the doorway yelling at us."
"Must have been a shock," Stella said, her mouth quirking in amusement.
"It was. We did the only thing we could in the circumstances, we made a run for it."
"Obviously you got away from him," she said, the scene playing in her mind; Mac and his friends, no doubt yelling themselves, fleeing from the irate intruder. It reminded her of an incident from her own childhood - when, aged eleven, her friends and she had been caught red-handed attempting to sneak out of the orphanage for a midnight picnic. Only in her case they had been caught by a furious Sister and sent straight back to bed.
"We did," Mac said. "By the skin of our teeth."
"How?" she asked, interested to hear more details of his childhood.
His expression was wry. "We ran. Very fast. In the opposite direction from him. Fortunately for us he tripped which gave us an extra few seconds. But he carried on yelling threats and our legs didn't stop running till we were over that gate and on the road home. It was only after we were safely back in Stephen's Mom's yard that I realised I no longer had the tags round my neck."
"Which must have been a worse shock," Stella said, scrunching her face up in empathy.
"As I said, made worse by the fact he didn't get mad about it." He met her gaze again, curiosity in his eyes. "Anything like that ever happen to you when you were growing up?"
She shared the story of the thwarted midnight picnic and was happy to see him amused by it. There was a short silence again after that as they stared round the room. Then another can rattled across the floor as Mac's foot connected with it.
Stella watched its trajectory and sighed. "We've still got a bit of time to look, before it gets too dark." The encroaching sunset had been in her awareness and as she glanced up at the high windows, it was clear that it was soon going to be too dark to see anything. They would have to be quick. Moving to opposite ends of the room, a few more minutes searching passed and then Mac came across the floor to her, a frustrated look on his face which she could see even in the failing light.
"Doesn't seem like we're going to find them in here."
She stood up, and patted his arm, her sympathy in the simple touch. "Don't give up yet, we haven't looked everywhere here, and there's still upstairs. How about one of us looks up there, the other stays down here?"
"Upstairs is the last place," he said. "I was up there when the guy interrupted us, almost broke my neck tearing down those stairs in fact."
"I'm very glad you didn't!" Stella exclaimed, her heart accelerating at the thought, it striking her how different fate could have been, even as she knew it was a ridiculous thing to worry about now.
As Mac moved to place one foot on the bottom step, Stella grabbed his shoulder, envisioning disaster involving rusted stairs and her partner plunging to the ground. "No, wait," she said hurriedly. "They don't look too strong, and not meaning to be rude, but you'll be a little heavier than you were when you were last here, and those stairs will be a lot more rusty. I'm lighter than you, let me go up."
He left his foot where it was. "I'm not risking you going up there."
Glaring at him, she grasped his shoulder harder. "Mac, we've had this conversation already. I'm prepared to take a few risks. You can stay down here and continue to search, I'll check out upstairs. Or," she added, relaxing her grip a little and allowing a smile to play round the corners of her mouth, "you can wait below with your arms outstretched in case I fall this time."
For a long few seconds he regarded her with a frown and she could almost see the decisions warring in his mind, before he conceded and took his foot off the step. "Just be careful," he warned.
"Of course," she said. "After all, I don't want to go breaking my neck and depriving you of your best CSI, do I?" Then giving him no chance for a comment, she pushed him gently out of the way. She set her foot on the first stair and wrapped her fingers round the wobbling handrail.
After a few slow and careful steps, she paused and licked her dry lips. Mac, she saw as she glanced down, was standing below, his hands hovering at his sides. She smiled slightly. It faded though as she continued and realised that she was far higher off the ground than she had been when climbing the fence. And on a far weaker structure. Every time her foot came down, the staircase seemed to squawk in protest, and the spiral of its structure was enough to make her dizzy. But she continued. As she put her foot on the second to last step, however, the staircase jolted and swayed, and she froze, waiting, her heart jumping. Plain to see, it was coming loose at the walls. As softly as possible, with a sudden image of herself at six years old practising what she had fondly imagined were feather-light ballet steps in her fairy dress, she moved onto the last step. More creaks and wails broke from the stairs, so she hopped off and onto the balcony, dismayed at the fact she would have to go back down them again.
At the top, finally, she exhaled in relief to have the slightly stronger structure of the balcony underfoot. "It's fine, Mac," she called down to him, leaning over the railing. "Keep looking, I'll do the same up here."
After receiving his agreement, she set about combing the balcony, working methodically from end to end. It was easy to see though that there was nothing other than flakes of rust and years of accumulated dust embedded in the ridges of the floor. Frowning, she walked the length of the balcony again, reluctant to give up and disappointed in herself for not being able to find them. She hoped there was still the slim chance of Mac finding them. Looking over the railing, she could see him trawling the floor below. The best thing she could do now was go down and help him. She leaned back and then received a shock as the top bar of the rail pulled away in her hand. It hit the balcony with a dull clank leaving only a trace of rust gritting her hands. Letting out a quiet whistle, Stella stepped away from the edge in a hurry.
"Everything okay?" Mac's voice called up to her.
"Fine," she replied quickly, not wanting him to know what had happened. "On my way down."
She made her way to the stairs and trod delicately on the first step, testing it, mindful of its previous behaviour. Nothing moved any further though, so she took another cautious step.
The metal grumbled but held. She released her breath and took another step down, aware in the corner of her vision of Mac moving towards the stairs. When she put her foot down again, something snapped and a terrible screeching sound ripped through the air.
Unable to stop a scream tearing from her throat, Stella felt the whole staircase falling away beneath her. As air replaced the solid metal under her feet, she grabbed desperately at the edge of the balcony, catching it with one hand only, wrenching her previously jarred wrist as she did so. Yelling out to Mac in terror, she was helpless to prevent the whole structure crashing towards him. All she could do was struggle for a stronger hand-hold as the tenuous grip she had was fast slipping and call him again.
Her blood roared in her ears and she could hear nothing but the bangs and echoes of the destructing stairs. She called Mac's name, again and again even as she coughed as more dust rose and coated her throat, drying and choking it. Tears burned in her eyes and horror made her heart almost explode out of her chest when she heard no answer. Vaguely, she was aware of her wrist sending bolts of pain through her, but she didn't care. He had not answered her.
And then a voice, croaky and not completely steady, called up to her and she almost cried out in relief. Emerging intact from just behind the smashed-up heap of metal was Mac.
"Stella!" he called to her, fear in his voice for her as he clambered over the mess. "Are you all right? Just hold on..."
A laugh bordering on hysteria jerked out of her at that. "I'm hardly going to do anything else am I?"
He looked round hastily whilst she managed to catch hold of the balcony edge with her other hand, relieving some of the strain on her wrist now she had both hands grasping it. As he turned his face back up to her, even at that distance and in the dim light she could see the anxiety there. It looked as if all the colour had been sucked out of him.
"Stella, you're not going to like this, but..." he called.
She groaned, knowing exactly what he was going to suggest and not liking the idea any more than he was. "It's a long drop, Mac!" Taking a look down, her heart sank at the distance; easily twenty feet, if not more.
But what other option was there?
The stairs were gone, there was no other way down, and she was not going to hang there waiting whilst Mac called for help. There was only one thing for it: she was going to have to trust him.
"Stella, come on, I'll catch you!" His arms were held out and he had positioned himself beneath her. Stella let her eyes close, inhaling heavily, and then she opened them and looked down again.
Of course she trusted him. With her life.
"Okay..." she called, trying to hide the tremble of anxiety in her voice. "If you're sure you're ready."
"I'm ready." He raised his arms a little more and planted his feet firmly on the ground.
She let go.
The air whooshed past her as she plummeted. Her eyes closed involuntarily and her stomach lurched upwards.
If she missed Mac's arms...
If he missed her...
"Got you!" he gasped as she landed in his grasp. He staggered backwards a little, banging against the wall, but kept his balance as she clutched him, breathless from the descent, her head reeling. He kept hold of her, his arms tightly round her and his face pressed against hers. As she gripped his shirt between her fingers and tried to bring her breathing back to normal, his heart was in rhythm with hers. "I told you I'd catch you," he murmured and she smiled, half-laughing, half near tears as she nodded.
"I knew you would."
Gently and carefully, he set her down, keeping one arm round her waist; a support for both of them.
"Thank you," Stella said, looking up at him with a shaky smile. "For not dropping me."
His expression was serious. "I would never have dropped you." Then he grinned suddenly. "You were lighter than I expected."
"Mac!" She swatted his arm, and then was reminded of the strain she had put on her wrist as the movement sent a shock of pain through it. Unable to stop the wince it provoked, she clasped it with her other hand, trying to conceal her discomfort.
"What have you done?" A frown reappeared on Mac's face as he reached for her wrist and cradled it in his hand, his fingers running over her skin again.
She breathed in sharply, the ache of sprained muscles disappearing under his touch, replaced by a surge of sparks. "It's fine, I probably just pulled it." Then she frowned herself as she studied him more closely and saw the damage he had sustained; the cut and bleeding skin just below his hairline, and the tear to the front of his shirt with a scrape to his chest visible beneath. With her free hand, she reached and brushed delicately across it. "You've cut yourself," she murmured.
"It's nothing," he said gruffly, putting his hand over hers. She stilled her movement, but did not draw away.
His eyes closed for a moment at her touch and she smiled softly. "We're alive and intact, that's what matters."
"Yes it does," he said, and returned her smile a little sadly. "I guess those tags just weren't meant to be found..."
He broke off, staring beyond her at the wreckage of the staircase. "Mac?" she asked, trying to look where he was looking. Letting go of her carefully, he gave her a wondering look, stepped forwards and then crouched down. She moved over to him, and as he lifted a small item up to her, her face broke into an elated smile. "Oh! Oh my God, Mac! You found them!"
"We found them," he said, his face alight, and then she was in his arms again, their embrace coming so naturally after everything.
Sighing happily she pulled back and studied him. "I'm so glad, you deserved to find them." She held out her hand. "Let me look." Almost reverently, he offered the battered and dusty tags to her and she took them, turning them back and forth. "Wow," she breathed. "They must have been caught somewhere in the staircase, no wonder you hadn't found them till now."
She handed them back and Mac, after a moment's more gazing at them, half-disbelieving that they were in his possession again, put them into his pocket.
Then he reached out to her and traced his finger down her cheek. "Thank you."
"You've no need to thank me," she said, moving even closer.
"I want to thank you," he said in a low voice. "For everything: for making me come out here in the first place, for coming with me..."
"Mac," she said, her eyes locking with his, "I would do this all over again if you wanted me to."
He smiled and his other hand trailed down her arm. "Then we'll have to arrange that... though maybe we'll miss out on this place next time."
"It wasn't so bad," she grinned, and then became serious as she said quietly, "But I'd like that. Very much."
She knew, and knew that Mac did too, that the boundaries they had crossed and the barriers they had breached were not just those made of wire and brick and glass; other walls had come tumbling down between them.
They stood for a moment, eyes reading each other's thoughts, their hands together, and then Stella gave a start. Her hand broke from his and flew to her mouth."Oh no! Archie! He's still outside, with my phone. And I told him to call for help if we were gone longer than an hour, and okay, he was asleep when I left him, but still, we must have been, what, two hours at least in here..." Aware she was gabbling, she couldn't stop herself. The adrenaline from their brush with disaster was just taking hold and starting to fizz through her nerves.
"It'll be fine," Mac said, slipping his arm round her and drawing her to his side. "He's big enough to take care of himself..."
"And he's drunk enough to get himself into a whole bunch of trouble!" she exclaimed, breaking away from him in agitation. "We need to get out of here."
Calm and collected in contrast, he smiled. "We do. I believe we have a dinner date to get to. Trust me, Archie will be fine where he is. We'll find him sleeping peacefully where you left him."
She stared at him for a moment, and then lifted her shoulders in acceptance. "Okay... I guess you're right."
"Occasionally I am," he said still smiling serenely. He replaced his arm round her and as he ushered her towards their exit, she allowed herself to relax into the comfort of his hold.
Please let me know what you think, reviews much appreciated. Last chapter will be posted in a few days time :) Thanks, Lily x