Disclaimer: Still not mine, sadly
Notes: Thank you very much for the reviews and follows for chapter 1 :) Thanks also to Suallenparker and Ballettmaus for their help.
'Go 'way,' she mumbled, batting at the hand that shook her shoulder, still in the comfortable state between dreams and waking, her mind reluctant to leave the memories she'd revisited.
'Stella!' The voice became insistent. Grudgingly, Stella opened her eyes and blinked at a blurry form which resolved itself into Mac. He stood over her with an amused expression.
'You were sleeping', he informed her and she groaned as she sat up, yawned and stretched.
'I wasn't sleeping, I was resting my eyes.' She gazed bleary-eyed at him and he gave her a sceptical look as he picked up a sheaf of reports waiting for his signature.
'My mistake,' he said dryly. 'But if you've rested your eyes enough, how about dinner when I've finished signing these off?'
The last vestiges of sleep evaporating from her mind and her vision clearing, Stella smiled. 'Sounds good. I got a few more things to sign off myself then I'm done.'
'Sure?' Mac asked. 'Your eyes don't need to rest any longer?' His question was light, but his concern was not hidden very deeply behind it as he studied her.
She pulled a face. 'They're fully rested, thank you. I guess a double shift wears them out a little.'
With a grin, she reassured him and he nodded, smiling briefly. 'I'll find you after I finish,' he said before he took his leave.
Her chin balanced on the heel of her hand, Stella smiled as she watched him walk along the corridor, before the corners of her mouth slipped downwards. For the second time in two days she had fallen asleep at her desk. Admittedly, the last few days had been hectic, both she and Mac pulling more than one double shift, but she felt more exhausted than usual.
And it was only a few days before Christmas, and she was barely ready – there were gifts still to wrap, gifts still to buy even. So different from when she was a child and the weeks before Christmas had stretched out almost unbearably. At times like now, those Christmases past in her foster home, and later, at St Basil's Orphanage, seemed long, long ago, melted away like the snow that had fallen on Christmas Eve almost thirty years ago when she had crept out of bed at midnight to see Santa.
The sight of the tiny potted fir tree on her desk, a gift from Adam, brought her back to the present. With a sigh for the vanished innocence of Christmas, Stella touched one of the miniature baubles on the tree which winked in the light. She still missed her two Christmas tree dolls, the fairy and the soldier doll. On Christmas morning after her midnight vigil (after being returned to bed by her foster mother, she had later found out) she had rushed to the tree and found them gone, with only an empty plate of cookies left.
She had never seen them again, despite her searches and the efforts of her friends and at this time of year, she always thought of them. Even as a little girl, she had wanted them to stay with her and join the family she'd wished for, had her wish come true.
Shaking her head slightly with a smile holding just a trace of wistfulness, she touched the bauble again with her fingernail, hearing its faint chime. It hung next to a paper snowflake that Lucy had made and presented to her, almost bursting with pride. Stella treasured it; every last uneven edge of it.
Along with the snowflake, an assortment of sprigs of tinsel, miniature toys and tiny baubles almost covered the tree. Gazing at it, Stella became pensive: it lacked a star - she'd meant to find one, but lack of time had thwarted her.
It would have to wait. Paperwork was calling and, she consoled herself, she had dinner with Mac to look forward to and maybe, if there was time, they could buy a tree... their tree, in honour of spending their first Christmas together. Christmases were different now, true, but she had never lost her love of the season and now with Mac, there were Christmases ahead to look forward to, with all that they might bring.
Buoyed by that thought, with a last yawn and stretch, she shook herself into action after gulping down a mouthful of cold coffee and pulling a face at its bitterness. The task soon absorbed her and before she knew it, Mac was knocking at her office door. He had brought her coat and held it for her while she slipped her arms into the sleeves. His chivalrous gesture pleased her and she placed a kiss on his lips which softened his expression. In turn, she smoothed down the lapels of his coat, and they left her office with his hand on the small of her back, a pleasant anticipation filling her.
On their way out of the dimly-lit lab, made festive with swags of tinsel and garlands of greenery in unexpected places, they encountered Adam, looking unusually groomed and neatly pressed despite his headlong rush.
Mac raised his eyebrows and the lab tech gave an awkward grin as he skidded to a stop. 'Hey, boss; Stella.'
'Going someplace nice?' Stella asked him, a smile hovering round her lips and he gave her a grin.
'Yeah, actually, I am. Heading out to pick a tree, with, uh, with my girlfriend, you know, Fliss. Realised I was running late...' Self-conscious, he ran his hand through his hair and shrugged his bag back onto his shoulder. 'How 'bout you guys? You going somewhere? I mean, if that's not an impertinent question...'
He tailed off and Mac pinned him with a stare, but Stella intervened.
'Out for dinner,' she answered and he grinned.
He rode down in the elevator with them, happy to answer Stella's questions about where he and his girlfriend planned to get their tree from, even though he shifted from one foot to another, fiddled with the strap of his bag and glanced at the numbers all the way down, visibly relieved when the elevator reached the lobby.
'Hey, have a great evening,' he threw over his shoulder as he hurried out of the doors before they were fully open.
'You too,' Stella returned, Mac echoing her. Giving them a thumbs up, Adam dashed off as they exited at a more sedate pace, exchanging a smile with each other.
'How he's never broken a limb the way he runs round the place baffles me,' Mac remarked. The thought had crossed Stella's mind more than once and she laughed.
'Guardian angel?' she suggested with a twinkle and Mac chuckled.
'Got to be,' he said, guiding her across the lobby, still with his hand against her back.
'You know, we could look for a tree later if you want?' Stella suggested and Mac grinned at her.
'I was hoping to do just that.'
'Great minds, huh?' Stella smiled and caught hold of Mac's hand. Their eyes met briefly, a spark, no more, no less, passing between them as they left the building and stepped onto the snow-covered street.
They gasped as the freezing cold air embraced them. A shocking cold that made the air sharp, catching like glass splinters in nostrils and lungs. All the winters they had spent in New York never could prepare them for that transition between heated indoors and the raw winter cold outside. Everything was ice-white, crisp and fresh and as she caught her breath, Stella forgot the temperature and beamed at the transformed city. She tucked her chin into her scarf and felt snowflakes feathering against her face as Mac tightened his grip round her hand.
'Where to?' she asked, blinking away snow from her eyelashes.
'Wherever you'd like to go.' He smiled at her.
'How about the little Italian place we tried last week?' Their dinner there had been softly lit by candles pushed into glass bottles and after the meal they had lingered long into the evening, both reluctant to leave the cosy tranquillity.
'Sounds good to me,' Mac flashed her a smile as he hunched into his coat, turning his collar up with his free hand.
Hand in hand, they trudged along the sidewalk, compacted snow creaking underfoot. People bustled past them in a hurry and flurry. The usual noise of downtown Manhattan was muffled by the snow, allowing the sound of bells rung by the charity-collecting Santas and festive songs blaring from stores to fill the air. With only three days until Christmas, panic was starting to ferment among shoppers. But they walked through it, serene amid the frenzy, snow fluttering down on them, powdering their hair and clothes and covering their footprints, enjoying taking their time. Every so often they glanced at each other, sometimes with a smile, sometimes just a look, their fingers interlaced.
After leaving the busier streets, they found Christmas trees for sale on the sidewalk which neither of them were able to pass. With a glance at each other, they stopped and looked over them while the vendor stood and waited hopefully.
As Mac paced along the row, measuring the biggest ones up with his eyes, Stella watched him fondly, a smile playing on her lips.
'Don't forget your apartment does have a ceiling,' she remarked, 'And your neighbours above are unlikely to appreciate a hole cut in their floor...'
Mac stopped and stared at her. 'I know the exact measurements of my apartment and how much height we have to spare for the tree. I'll organise that; you can take charge when we decorate it.'
Stella grinned. 'I can take charge? I like that idea.' Impulsively, she leaned forward and kissed him, her hand sliding down his arm as he responded and for a short time they forgot the street, the snow and that there was anyone else but them as they savoured the sweetness of the kiss, until the sound of the man selling the trees clearing his throat, broke them apart in amused embarrassment.
There was still little more measuring and discussion with the seller to be done, and while Mac negotiated, Stella found her attention drifting. It was caught by the sound of a carol she knew well, sung by a child's voice floating through the air. The melody strangely intriguing, she walked towards where it seemed to be coming from and stopped to listen.
'Stella?' She turned to see Mac approaching her.
'Let's listen for a moment,' she said, the appeal in her voice reaching him as with a brief look at her, he obliged. The notes through the still night revived an image of her and the other children at the foster home, singing the carol in front of the Christmas tree...
'Remembering something?' Mac's question and his light touch of her arm jolted her out of her memories and she gave him a quick self-conscious smile.
'Oh, just a few things from the past,' she said and his gaze dallied over her face.
'Shall we get something to eat or do you want to listen any longer?' he asked and she shook her head, surprised to realise that she was ravenous.
'No, let's get some food.' She smiled, adding, 'Did you choose a tree?'
Mac's face broke into a grin. 'I did. Reserved and ready to be delivered later.'
'Perfect.' Happy to see him so pleased, Stella took his proffered arm and they walked on, about to cross the street when a flicker of movement snagged her eye. They had found the mystery singer. Forming a whimsical tableau, a girl, maybe seven or eight, sat on the stoop at the front of an old brownstone occupied in playing with some small toys and singing to them. The girl's coat, Stella noted, seemed too big and she wore a rather shapeless woollen hat jammed on her head, a few ringlets straggling from underneath it. Apparently sensing her scrutiny, the girl looked up.
'Hey there.' Smiling, Stella took a few steps towards her after glancing at Mac, who followed at a slower pace. 'It's okay, you can talk to us, we're police officers,' she reassured the child, holding her badge out.
'Hello,' the girl replied, her initial wariness lessening.
'Are you okay, sweetie? You look kind of lonely out here on your own,' Stella said.
'I'm not lonely,' the child answered and carried on playing with her toys.
'Aren't you cold?' Stella asked, seeing a lack of gloves on the child's hands.
'I'm playing.' She seemed surprised that Stella did not understand the correlation.
Stella's smile softened as she took another few steps towards the self-possessed little girl and crouched down close to her. 'What are you playing with, sweetie?'
'My friends,' she answered, opening her hands and holding them out, revealing a sight that drew a gasp from Stella.
The fairy and the soldier, her own lost friends from the past, lay in the little girl's palms.
With a startled look at the child, Stella found her voice. 'May I... May I take a look at them? I promise to be very careful,' she asked and after a moment's thought and consideration of her, the little girl nodded. Placing the dolls with great care into Stella's hands, she sat back and wrapped her arms round her knees, looking between the two adults.
As gently as if she held an eggshell, Stella examined the tiny dolls. They were exactly as she remembered them. The passing of time, wherever they had been, seemed to have left them without ravage. The fairy still had her foil star, the soldier still wore his uniform, complete with the burn mark. She smiled at the child who watched her with serious eyes; eyes that gave her a fleeting sense of recognition.
'Your friends used to be my friends, too, when I was growing up,' Stella told her. 'It's been a long time since I last saw them. Where did you find them?'
The girl shrugged. 'I just found them. I look after them when it's Christmas and they look after each other all the time.'
Stella nodded as she touched the mark on the soldier's uniform, aware of Mac a little way behind her. 'You obviously take really good care of them. They look very happy.'
A shy smile crossed the child's face and she hugged her knees tighter. 'They're my friends,' she said simply and Stella felt a rush of empathy with her.
'Thank you so much for letting me see your friends,' she said softly as she passed back the tiny dolls into the child's waiting hands, making sure they were safe and secure before she withdrew her hands. 'I missed them.'
'That's okay,' the little girl said, wide green eyes looking up at Stella as she straightened up.
'Don't get cold and don't stay out too long. Remember, Santa comes in a few days.' Stella smiled and the girl smiled back.
'I know. We won't.' And she focused her attention back on the dolls again, standing them on the snow, moving them around, then lying one of them down so they seemed to be looking up at the night sky.
With a last glance at them, Stella trod carefully across to where Mac waited for her.
'Okay?' he asked and she nodded, bestowing a smile on him, despite the wistfulness for times lost that had fallen over her. Taking his arm again, Stella stepped off the sidewalk, her mind elsewhere. Lights in the corner of her eye and a squealing sound wrenched her attention back to the street, to Mac and to her, and to the car speeding towards them.
Her actions were instinctive, driven by the need she had - had always had - to protect those she loved. With a cry, echoed by a scream from the little girl, she shoved Mac out of the way and took the full impact of the car as it slammed into her.
It was a blow from a hundred iron-clad fists. All of them punching her at once, smashing the breath out of her as she hit the hood of the car and was thrown onto the road. As her body crashed onto the tarmac and rolled over, she had only sensations of blunt, hard pain as she ended up lying on her back, the metallic tang of blood filling her mouth.
Her head rang with shouts, a crump of metal and concrete colliding, glass splintering and her own gasps for breath as she struggled to draw air back into her lungs. Blinking, she tried to clear the milky film across her vision. Everything seemed cast into snow hues, all the colour leached out. When she turned her head, it felt like a knife ramming into her skull and she moaned, her eyes closing as she fought the agony and nausea it caused. Even breathing hurt, her chest feeling straitened and wheezing. She tried to move again, only to be stopped by someone dropping to their knees beside her.
'Stella!' Mac's voice, urgent and afraid; his hand grabbing hers. 'Stella, don't move, stay still. It's okay, there's an ambulance coming. You're going to be okay...'
His face hovered over hers, his features hazy apart from his eyes.
'You're... okay?' she murmured and saw him try to smile as his fingertips brushed her cheek, wiped away a trickle of blood from her mouth.
'You're not... not hurt? Is the... is the little girl okay?'
'I'm not hurt and neither is she,' he reassured her as he began to chafe her fingers, although it did little to stop the numbing cold which was spreading through her whole body.
Vaguely, she was conscious of others crowding round her, Mac commanding them to move back, and the little girl holding the two tiny figures standing by her, her face shocked.
There were more lights when she blinked again, sparkling, coruscating; a bright confusion laced with stars. Stella felt her eyelids becoming heavier. It seemed to be snowing even more, the soft, fat flakes tumbling down and covering her; forming a blanket over her that deadened everything, even the throb of pain in her skull.
Mac's voice was fading as he spoke to her, although she could still feel the soothing touch of his fingers stroking through her snow-soaked hair as she lay on the ground like a broken doll. With a last glimpse of his frightened face, her eyes closed and she sank into the welcoming, painless embrace of the snow.
Thank you for reading! Please take a moment to review, it's really great to know what you think :) Lily x