Disclaimer: I own very little, especially not CSI NY.
Author: Lily Moonlight
Notes: Thanks very much for the reviews for Old West – I will be updating that very soon. In the meantime, in contrast to the angst and drama of the last few chapters of that story, here's a very fluffy oneshot : ) Written as a challenge for my friend DNAisUnique, after we had some interesting conversations about fics, and inspired by several things, including perilous walks I've taken through the woods, and, strangely enough, a scary encounter with a bunch of cows...
But it's still fluffy, honest! Although it could have turned out very differently ;)
Many thanks to Ballettmaus for her help, friendship and as usual for keeping me in touch with reality :D And of course, lots of thanks to DNAisUnique for her friendship, discussions and encouragement – please check out her story too, 'Rain Check', as we've posted these together.
A Different Story
'I was not lost,' she insisted between chattering teeth, sending him a lightning flash of a look. Both were well aware that it was a dare for him to contradict her. Mac, however, merely throwing her a glance, seemed impervious. As the downpour continued to roar round them, he reached for the car door, still with his arm encircling her; only releasing her when it was open. She clutched her arms around herself. The stinging cold of the rain was more noticeable without his embrace, but it took no more than a second for him to pluck his coat from the passenger seat and enfold her in it. The fact she was still shivering with some force was the only reason he got away with helping her into the car and closing the door, or so she convinced herself.
Water streamed off her and pooled on the floor as she watched Mac hurry round the front of the car, his shoulders a hunched defence against the weather. The throb of the engine he had left running rivalled the thudding of the rain on the car roof. She shook more water off her hands dismally. It had even stuck to her eyelashes and she blinked and wiped them, trying to clear them as the brackish taste irritated her lips as he wrenched his door open and slung himself inside.
Before doing anything else, Mac turned to her, his gaze running anxiously over her as he arranged his coat closer round her legs, his hand brushing her thigh, offering a caress with his thumb. The touch, a gesture of his concern, warmed her even more than the heated interior and she in turn eased his worries with a faint smile, assuring him she was all right. After studying her, to ascertain that for himself, he drew his hand away and shifted the car into drive.
The engine growled as his foot pressed on the gas pedal and the headlights blazed at full strength, halogen beams silvering the rain in their path.
A shiver sent droplets flying from his hair and clothes as he finally responded to her earlier statement. 'I didn't mean you were lost, Stella.' He failed to prevent his lips from curving at the edges. 'As I saw it, you were uncertain of your location...'
The roar of the car's tyres as they spun in the brew of leaves and mire underneath them muffled Stella's response. Which was a pity, she decided, sniffing and swiping more water that had dripped from her hair onto her nose and cheeks away with the back of her hand.
Mac had focused his concentration on grappling with the steering wheel and the gas pedal, struggling to drag the car out of the intractable hold the mud had on it. Stella watched him the warmth of the interior beginning to enliven her again; her teeth were knocking together a little less violently and some of the torpor that exposure to the elements had caused was lifting.
'You could try not putting your foot down so hard,' she said elevating her gaze from his face to the floor pointedly, her eyes wide in pretended innocence. Mac responded with a sideways glance. 'It was only a suggestion,' she shrugged, fingering the folds of her dress and making another futile attempt to wipe some of the streaks of dirt off the bottom of it. They were the evidence of a struggle through the near swamp of composted leaves and mud she had left her own car in. 'I'm sure you know what you're doing.' She glanced up at him, a small smirk on her face. 'Just don't expect me to get out and push us free.'
He grunted, unappreciative of her humour, but lightened the pressure on the gas pedal. The tranche of mud finally released the vehicle, venting a squeal as it did so and splattering globules of itself up the side and windows before they started to pull away.
They had driven a few yards when the need to ask something else gripped Stella. 'Why didn't you just park at the side of the road?' Shifting a little, she looked at him with a candid gaze, knowing very well his answer would not be the truth.
'I didn't want to block the road.' His voice was level, his eyes looked straight ahead.
A hint of amusement curved her mouth; her calculation had been correct; he had wanted to save her any more of a walk through the mud. 'Of course not,' she nodded, presenting a concerned expression. 'Especially not at this time of night when there's so much traffic about...' No reply came from Mac, not that she had expected one. He adhered his concentration to the road; she smiled to herself.
Sitting back, Stella released a sigh, the stress of the last hour dissipating from her muscles and her mind. As the warmth swept over her, she felt the chill of her body ease further and the saturating cold evaporate. In the silence she turned her head to watch Mac, her gaze roaming over his face. Rain still glistened on his cheeks and trickled in translucent threads down his neck, sparkled in his hair. Resisting the wish to wipe them away was only possible because she did not want to startle him while he drove along a highway that wound and twisted. Instead, she contented herself with studying him; her gaze wandering over his every line and curve. His expression had set in concentration; frowning and leaning slightly forward, he peered between the rain slopping across the windshield.
She suppressed a shiver, thankful the rain could not touch her now, nestled as she was in Mac's coat. Letting it envelop her, calm her, she drew comfort from the rough warmth of the woollen fibres and the scent it held. Her eyes half-closed for a second, she breathed deeply, and another shudder shook her, one she could not prevent. It made her unpleasantly aware again of the sodden state of her clothes. Due to her unplanned excursion off the highway and its coincidence with a cloudburst, it was the only dry garment between the two of them. Or rather, it had been until he had draped it round her drenched figure. Even the seat was waterlogged, the rainwater from her clothes having leached quickly into the fabric. If her dress could be restored to its former state of finery it would be a miracle, she decided forlornly as she tried shaking out the clinging cloth to aid its drying.
Giving up on the dress with a groan, hopes of the planned evening drifted away from her. Propping her elbow on the side of the window, she rested her chin on the heel of her hand and stared at the night-streaked scenery. There was no chance of dinner now, not in the bedraggled state they were both in. For that she was sorry; the day had been brightened with anticipation of the evening, of seeing Mac for the first time in two days, but with the near disaster she had experienced, gloom had settled on her.
Her shoulders sagged and her mouth turned down. She was annoyed at herself and the turn of events: a moment's carelessness had almost ended in disaster. Further minutes of silence passed before she lifted her head and lowered her arm. Letting her fingertips pick at the rim of the window as her mind ran over the events of the last hour, she turned to her companion, needing to pick at something else.
'We really should have called the tow truck before we left the car, Mac.' The statement was abrupt and Mac gave her a quick sideways look, his eyebrows drawn together.
'We can organise that when we get to the hotel, or tomorrow if needs be. That's not my major concern at the moment.'
She eyed him, her head tipped to the side as her fingers continued to patter against the side of the door. 'We've abandoned a vehicle. I'm concerned about that.' While she knew realistically that there had been no other alternative to abandoning it at the scene, neither of them being able to move it, she was uncomfortable with the idea of leaving it unreported.
'It's not doing anyone any harm,' he replied, his eyes focused on the oily black strip of road that flashed in and out of view with each sweep of the wipers. 'I'm more concerned that you've technically just been in a car accident and are sitting there in soaking wet clothes.' The fact that his usual concern for the rules had been disregarded in favour of her safety both pleased and flustered her.
'I wasn't hurt.' She dealt with her feelings by sending him another challenge in her stare. A defensive one this time, a counterpoint to the sudden vulnerability she felt. Her hand gripped the edge of the seat at the memory of the car sliding out of her control, across the rain-glassed tarmac and into a small clearing at the side of the highway.
'Miraculously,' Mac murmured, almost to himself. After letting his eyes linger on her for only a second, but long enough to show his emotions, he returned his gaze to the road. The look in his eyes needled guilt into Stella, and she huddled further into his coat, drew her knees up onto the seat and wrapped her arms round them. The numbness of her fingers had subsided, leaving a tingling, boiling sensation instead. Her feet were another matter. In thin-soled shoes with straps that were nothing but ornament, she had ceased to have any feeling in them the moment she had scrambled out of her car on legs that wobbled despite her best attempts to stop them doing so. The saturated ground, thick and sludgy with the debris of autumn, had clung to her feet and ankles, causing a chill that had seeped through to her very bones.
She tucked her knees closer to her body and adjusted the thick fabric to cover her ankles. The effort, however, was too late to prevent a spasm of cold juddering through her. Without a word, Mac adjusted the heater, increased warmth whooshing out instantly from the vents. Stella, giving him a flicker of a smile in thanks as he glanced at her, released her hand from the sleeve of the coat and swiped her hair behind her ears. The dripping strands, laden with water were painfully icy against her face and heavy on her scalp. It caused another shiver across her skin and she wiped frigid drips out of her eyes and sniffed again.
Mac darted a concerned look at her.
'You're almost as wet as I am,' she countered his silent comment. 'I'll dry soon enough.'
An unimpressed grunt answered her.
They drove on and as the hot air swirled round her she felt her focus slipping, her eyes becoming transfixed on the scene ahead. The moon was barely visible, disappeared behind the swathing clouds, and the rain still swept across the road. Half in memory, half in the present, she caught a blink of movement at the side of the highway.
'Watch out for deer,' she blurted, and startled herself. A small bat-like form flittered from the undergrowth and rose in flight. She exhaled, her heartbeat quickened, but managed to cover the reaction as Mac tossed her a curious and amused glance. 'It's easy to miss them,' she mumbled, her cheeks warming.
'Which is clearly why the accident was the deer's fault.' He returned his attention to the highway; the only evidence of any teasing in the twitch of his cheek.
Stella glowered and clasped her wrists inside the coat sleeves, rubbing them to try and stimulate her circulation. 'I told you, it ran straight out in front of me. I only took my eyes off the road for a second...'
It sounded feeble as she said it, and she cursed herself again. Her purse had slipped off the passenger seat as she spun round a corner, aware how late she was running already. It had taken just a moment for her attention to stray from the road to it; but a moment was long enough. Looking back up from the annoyance of her personal effects strewn across the footwell, her eyes had caught the sight of a deer leaping across the beam of her headlights and her breath had caught in her throat. Going against everything she knew not to do, she had swerved, even as she did so, realising her error. The deer had bolted into the undergrowth fringing the side of the road, and with the tyres surrendering their grip on the greasy surface and her self losing control of the steering, her car had followed it, ending up almost capsized in a shallow dip filled with water.
'A second is all it takes, Stella.' A frown creased Mac's face. Although the statement sounded stern, it was underlaid with fear. The same fear that had been present when he had pulled up, flung the car door open, and come striding over to where she had sat hunched on a fallen tree trunk.
'Yeah, well,' she muttered and turned away. She moved in her seat, uncomfortable with the still sodden weight of her dress sticking to her skin. Uncomfortable also with the knowledge that he was right and that she had caused him so much concern.
They drifted into silence again, eased by the drowsy whirr of the heating and the rhythm of the wiper blades as they shushed across the glass. Silver strings of rain, wriggling and writhing, slid down the window and Stella watched them, Mac remaining in her eyeline and her thoughts.
'You didn't tell me if it was also the deer's fault you took the wrong turning.' He returned to the previous subject, his voice dry with humour.
Her head shot round and she glared at him, discomfited at the reminder, but aware he was trying to alleviate some of the tension. 'That was the fault of the GPS...' She felt her cheeks flushing as she retorted. She was fully aware that past a certain point on the road, she had ignored the instructions, confident because she had travelled that way once or twice before, and thought she remembered a certain turning that led to a shortcut. Unfortunately, it had not been the turning she had taken shortly before encountering the deer.
Mac's profile was crinkling into a smile as he nodded. 'Of course.'
Pursing her lips, Stella stared at him. 'You don't sound convinced.'
He kept his eyes averted and on the road. 'I'm convinced. I know you wouldn't have been trying to prove the GPS wrong.'
'Absolutely not,' she nodded decisively, the heat of embarrassment cooling. He flashed a wry look at her, shook his head slightly and turned his attention to the highway once more. 'I'm glad we're on the same page.'
With a smile, feeling some of her poise regained, Stella settled back. Her smile remained as she turned to stare out of the window, watching more stretches of trees skim past them. Safe inside the vehicle, together, they passed beneath arching canopies of darkest green, near black in the dusk shaking under the rain's wrath. Still clad in shadows, the moon drifted amongst rags of clouds. A half-visible disc, fairy wrought from white gold, that floated above them and filigreed the topmost leaves.
Warm and protected now, she could take pleasure from the beauty of the night, which while sitting waiting for Mac at the edge of the woods, feeling cold, tired and shaken had been bewitched with a spell of shadows. During those long minutes of waiting her imagination had turned the woods into a theatre of the bizarre and disturbing. Away from the linear shapes of the city, the predictability of the streets and avenues, everything was different: the woods were unpredictable, unruly, almost unreal. The trees had stretched out gloating, thin hands towards her, their night-blackened trunks had devolved into sneering faces and alien forms, and the hiss and groan of the rain and wind had unnerved her.
It was the solitude that had disturbed her most and made her realise just how alone she was; how far from the certainties of civilisation she was. In the city, she knew she could fight, because she knew what there was to fight, but out here, that surety had disappeared. The moment Mac had arrived, her relief had overwhelmed her, and she had reached out and clung to him with a fierce grip. He in turn had drawn her into him, his embrace providing the valediction to the cold and loneliness.
Glancing at him now, dreamy-eyed, Stella was at peace. With her head tilted back, heated air blanketing her, she soon found her eyes heavy and her previously stiff limbs softening into a lissom state. The woods began to thin out and her fears became a memory.
'Warming up?' Mac's voice echoed into her drifting reality.
'Beautifully,' she murmured, turning a smile, languidly, in his direction. 'You?'
'I'm becoming aware of how uncomfortable warm and wet clothing is,' he said dryly.
She wrinkled her mouth in sympathy, reminded of exactly how deep the rain had penetrated her flimsy layers of clothing: all she had been wearing was a linen jacket over her dress and it had taken only moments for the stinging pellets of rain to pierce through to her skin. Every scrap of clothing she had on was wet.
Stella resisted the urge to wriggle about, instead asking, 'How much further?'
He kept his eyes on the road. 'About another half hour.'
At that, a realisation made her turn to him, frowning, her tone accusing. 'But it took you less than twenty minutes after I called you for you to reach me.' The speed he must have driven at to reach her in the time he had was not something she wanted to guess at. Her remark provoked no response and she tried again. 'And how exactly did you know where to find me? I wasn't even certain where I was!'
Undoubtedly, he had not even stopped to think about a trace on her phone. Although for a moment at that possibility, heat flared up in her; she was embarrassed enough about taking the wrong turning, almost crashing and having to call for help. To have had a member of the team know of her predicament would have been mortifying...
'I know the route pretty well, and I had a pretty sure idea of where you were when you described it.' He threw her a quick glance. 'Your description had more than enough detail, you know how good your observation skills are...'
'Flatterer,' Stella muttered, narrowing her eyes at his attempt to mollify, although it still drew a smile from her.
Mac continued, keeping his attention fixed on the road. 'A friend used to have a cabin out this way; he invited me up here now and again when Claire was alive.' He sent another glance in her direction, his mouth quirked. 'He came up for the deer hunting.'
'I see.' She raised an eyebrow. 'I'm guessing you didn't join him on those excursions?'
'Not my idea of a hobby. I have enough of hunting criminals at work.'
She nodded, smiling briefly, her fingers interlacing as she watched him. 'I'm glad the one I almost hit wasn't killed.'
There was a pause.
'You were lucky you weren't killed.' His hands were tight on the steering wheel, his eyes on the windshield.
She felt her cheeks flush again, unable to deny his statement, but needing to mitigate his fear. 'It could have been worse...' she began tentatively.
He flung a brief, incredulous look at her. 'You ended up half in a ditch, inches from hitting a tree. It couldn't have gotten much worse.'
Fiddling with the cuffs of his coat, Stella challenged him with a sudden glint of humour in her eyes. 'Yes it could. A tree could have fallen on my car, I could have dropped and broken my phone before I was able to call you, I could have slipped and fallen down a slope and twisted my ankle...' Despite the frown he still displayed, she continued, warming to her argument. 'I could have knocked myself unconscious against a tree and been lying there, helpless, in unimaginable danger.' Her mouth pursed up in suppressed amusement. 'Unarmed as well, just to add to my dire situation.'
The frown decreased finally as Mac sent her another look, his expression in a wry twist. 'At the mercy of all the bears and wolves that roam the woods.'
Merriment laughed in her eyes. 'Exactly. Witches and goblins as well, who knows what there is lurking amongst all those trees. You know, I'm sure I heard something growling as I was waiting for you. You probably only just arrived in time. I'm only sorry you didn't have to fight one off for me, it wouldn't have stood a chance.'
Mac chuckled, a smile stretching across his face, to her relief. A beam of moonlight glittered on the tips of his hair as he turned to her. 'I'm sorry all I had to fight against was a few drops of rain.' He wiped a hand through his hair, leaving it slicked down. 'Though they seem to have got the better of me.'
Stella sobered slightly and her amusement became rueful as she reached across and ruffled his hair up again. 'Still, thank you.'
His expression questioned her. 'Do you honestly think I'd have left you there?'
The grin returned to her face for a moment. 'No. Your sense of chivalry wouldn't have allowed you to.'
'Of course.' His gaze flickered briefly to her and away, but enough to leave sparkles of warmth inside her.
'I'm just sorry about dinner,' she spoke into the stillness.
He shook his head. 'It doesn't matter, we can take a rain check...'
'Funny,' she said wryly, her eyes sliding to him.
He grinned. 'I thought so. The room is still booked, and we can order something to eat from room service. Your company's what matters most to me.' He paused, glancing across at her. 'I missed you.'
It provoked another smile from her, her eyes bright. 'I missed you too. You know, two days is an awfully long time to be away from you...'
'Too long,' he agreed. 'Staying in a hotel room by myself wasn't much fun.'
'Neither was being in the apartment by myself. I was cold, the bed was too big without you.' Although she pouted, half-joking, there was truth in the sentiment.
His eyes darted towards her, the brief look uttering all of his emotions. 'I was lonely without you.' Their need for each other resonated between them, both still shy of its spoken admission, but not afraid of it.
'Me too,' she said softly, remembering the phone conversations they had lingered over in the small hours of the morning. A grin, however, then formed on her face. 'Guess you'll have to insist on an invitation for me next time, won't you? Tell whoever organises these conferences that you need the woman in your life accompanying you.'
'That I will.' His eyes warm, his gaze caressed her for a moment, and Stella was satisfied.
A comfortable silence fell, disturbed only when an unexpected shiver shook her. Mac frowned and pressed on the gas pedal, the car accelerating in response.
Stella raised her eyebrows as she was jolted backwards.
'I don't want you catching a chill.' Mac, nevertheless, gave her a flick of his eyes of apology.
'Arriving in one piece is more important,' she said, with a hint of irony.
He conceded with a glance before a smile curved his lips. 'The bathtub in the room is twice the size of the one in our apartment, I can run you a bath when we get there, if you're still cold...'
'Oh I'll still be cold,' Stella drawled, already craving the luxury of sinking into hot water and mounds of bubbles. 'But I am perfectly capable of turning on a faucet by myself.'
'I never said you weren't,' Mac's reply came swiftly, his eyes twinkling. 'But you got to allow me to assert my chivalrous side now and again.'
Reclining in the corner of the seat, Stella half-lidded her eyes and regarded him with appraisal. 'In that case, when we get to the room, maybe you can be even more chivalrous and help me out of my dress. The zip is kind of awkward to manage by myself, and I know you wouldn't want me to be staying in wet clothes any longer than I have to...'
For a second, his eyes ran over her almost palpably and she felt the judder of the car as it accelerated a little more, matching the anticipation inside her. 'Well I wouldn't want you getting sick,' he smirked.
'Though if you got sick, I could always mop your fevered brow.' She laughed as his eyebrows crooked.
'Mop my brow? Since when does that happen in this day and age, Stella?'
She lifted her shoulders, eyes sparkling. 'It could happen, don't complain.'
'Who said I'd be complaining?'
She returned his grin, their gazes flirting, a deeper desire beneath.
The car sped onwards. Stella sighed in contentment, propping her elbow next to the window and curling her hand under her chin as she watched Mac. The warmth of security and his company suffused her and as he drove on, she finally allowed her eyelids to drop and her lulled mind wandered into other realms.
The ceasing of the car's motion brought her back to awareness. Her eyes fluttered open to the sight of Mac looking at her, tenderness in his gaze and a love-filled smile on his face, his hand brushing the back of hers.
'Hate to wake you but I'm sure you'd much rather sleep in a bed than in a car in wet clothes,' he said in a low voice as he opened his door.
Failing to stifle a yawn, Stella could only agree as she fumbled with her seatbelt, her movements slurry with sleep. As Mac opened her door, she smiled dreamily at him, happy for him to take her hand. Once she was standing outside, he slammed the door and slid his arm round her waist, drawing her to him, their mouths meeting in a kiss.
Separating after moments, mindful of their still damp state, they walked to the hotel; his arm clasped round her hip and her head resting on his shoulder. Inside the entrance, he bent his head, grazing her lips again, his forehead touching hers as they breathed, savouring the touch of each other. Raising his head slowly, their gazes never parting, the pad of his thumb swept up her cheekbone taking a last drop of water with it. The door closed out the rain, hushing it to a whisper, as he told her how much he loved her.
Many thanks for reading! I'd love to know what you think – writing fluffiness doesn't come easily to me, so I'd appreciate your thoughts. Don't forget to read 'Rain Check' also!