Notes: Not mine, sadly

Notes: Thanks to everyone who took the time to leave a review last chapter, I really appreciate it. Please do continue. Thank you Guest for your lovely review! Many thanks to Ballettmaus and also to Suallenparker for their help.

Chapter 3

Half an hour ago, Flack had come early to pay his daily visit, arriving while Mac was in the middle of a conversation with Stella's doctor. After that conversation, Mac could not talk to the younger detective, giving him only a brief greeting before hurrying away.

Now he sat alone at the front of the hospital chapel. Surrounded by golden, amber, yellow flickering candles. He stared at them until their teardrop shape was almost burned onto his retinas, sitting with fingers spread and hands gripping his knees in anger. He'd found peace inside the chapel but none in his heart. Inside was a tumult, a chaos and conflict of emotions. And lurking like a spider in the depths of a web, the terror that he might lose the person he cared for most of all, because she cared so much for him.

He breathed out slowly and the candle flames trembled.

His head dropped to his chest and his hands tightened their grip on his knees, nearly crushing them. Still angry with Stella for her actions; even more angry with himself for having failed to prevent her actions. With a low groan, he asked himself the same question he'd been asking for the last three days.

How had it happened?

How had he let it happen?

How?

Mac tipped his head back, staring at the ceiling, blinking his eyes to clear them. His gaze fell on the altar and a further flicker of anger stirred in him; how had He let it happen?

The unfairness, the injustice of it burned him. The only harm he'd suffered from falling against the kerb was a graze along his jaw, a few bruises and a sprained wrist. Stella, though...

Unconscious, she had been taken straight into the ER for scans and X-rays – suspected fractured skull, concussion and possible internal injuries the diagnosis. In a daze, he'd signed his consent as her next of kin for any necessary surgery, to be given the news a few hours later that the head injuries Stella had suffered had caused swelling to the brain and left her in a coma.

Somehow, he'd managed to overrule the official visiting times and for the last three days he had taken every moment he could to sit by Stella's bedside. For almost all those moments since she'd lost consciousness at the scene of the accident he'd held her hand, willing her to respond.

There was no sign she even knew he was there.

That there was nothing more he could do to help her was ruining him, he was powerless. Unable to do anything more than cling to her hand to try and keep her from slipping away to where he couldn't reach her.

Mac closed his eyes, his forehead creasing as he pushed his thumb and forefinger into his eyelids. Releasing another weighty sigh, he opened his eyes, blinking. A quiver of heat rose from the rows of votive candles by the altar and he found his gaze enthralled by them. Drawn, he stood up and moved towards them. Near to the lit candles sat a discreetly-placed box of new candles and a printed card suggesting a donation. He hesitated a moment before reaching into his jacket for his wallet.

His fingers found something else first: the thin piece of paper with a blurred black and white scan image that the doctor had given him earlier. He couldn't look at it now and shoved it abruptly back into his pocket, delving again for his wallet. After dropping several quarters into the donation box, he selected a candle, needing a light in the darkness. Eyes fixed on it, he held it against one of its lit fellows and watched as the wick fizzled and finally flared into life.

He cupped it in his hands as the flame wavered, strengthened and grew. When it stood tall, he set it a little way apart from the others, returned to his seat and sat watching it, keeping a silent vigil for Stella.

A sudden draught made the candle flames bend and Mac spun round. By the chapel door stood a small figure. He frowned in surprise, recognising the child Stella had spoken to just before the accident. How she had found her way to the hospital mystified him - he'd lost sight of her after the ambulance had arrived and she had slipped from his mind since then.

Tentatively, serious-faced, the little girl approached him with something clutched in her hands.

'Are you lost?' he asked, softening his voice, not wanting to scare her away, mindful that she had witnessed the accident.

She shook her head. 'I'm not lost. I was looking for you.'

'For me?' Mac frowned.

This time, the child nodded. 'You're the friend of the lady who got hurt by the car, aren't you? You're the soldier.'

Mac looked at her in confusion. 'The soldier?'

She opened her hands and showed him, lying on her spread palms, the two tiny dolls she had given Stella to hold. Now he saw them close up, one seemed to be a fairy with wings, a little dress and a gold foil star, and the other a doll dressed in a uniform, with dark hair and a sober expression. Mac studied them, his forehead creasing. If he unbound his imagination, then maybe, maybe there was something similar about the dolls...

'See, your friend with the pretty hair is the fairy and you're the soldier,' the little girl broke in, picking the soldier doll up and presenting it to him. As if handling a piece of fragile evidence, Mac accepted it and laid it on his palm. The doll stared back up at him. 'He got hurt,' She pointed to a mark on the doll's uniform, a fierce note jarring her voice, 'but he won't ever be hurt again, ever.'

'No,' Mac said, unsure of how else to respond, though he had no doubt that the child meant what she said.

'Me and fairy doll take care of him and make sure he doesn't get hurt,' she confided, the determination plain in her eyes, 'Like your friend does...' She faltered and her mouth scrunched up, but with a gulp, she continued, 'Even - even though it meant she got hurt, she protected you, didn't she?'

The devastating simplicity of that truth hit Mac hard.

'Yes. Yes, she did,' he said slowly and the child nodded, gazing at him from under her woollen hat.

'Maybe she didn't want you to be hurt 'cause that would have made her very sad,' she said solemnly.

Unable to form a reply, Mac stared at the little girl, trying to control the sudden painful swell of helpless, unwanted anger at Stella for not realising what it did to him when she was hurt. Finally, he swallowed and managed to speak. 'I... I guess she didn't.'

'Was your friend hurt very bad?' the child asked in a soft voice, her eyes full of sympathy.

Mac paused, before deciding to be honest without being brutal. 'She got hurt pretty bad,' he said, 'And she'll probably be in hospital a while longer.'

The little girl nodded, her face grave. 'So she can get better.'

So simply stated... Mac wished he could share her conviction. Instead as he told her yes, it was so she could get better, his words felt hollow, echoing with falsity.

But the child didn't seem to notice. Instead, with a blush of shyness, she held out the fairy doll towards him. 'Here... she's for your friend, and you can keep soldier doll. They can help you look after your friend so she gets better very soon.'

Though he hesitated, Mac accepted, feeling that to refuse would offend. 'Thank you,' he said in a gruff voice. 'That's very kind of you. My – my friend will be very happy.'

The little girl beamed and clasped her hands together as she took a step closer. 'Can I tell you a secret, too?' she asked in a hushed voice. Despite himself, Mac discovered a smile within and gave it to her.

'Go right ahead.'

'Christmas Eve is a very, very special night. You got to wait till midnight, then you can make a wish on your Christmas tree star and it will come true,' she whispered, one hand cupped round her mouth as she glanced around, and then stepped back with a shy grin, twisting her fingers together.

Christmas Eve... he'd almost forgotten. After the accident, everything beyond his new routine at the hospital had melted away. Even the Christmas tree – his and Stella's – had been forgotten.

'I don't have...' Mac stopped. The little girl watched him expectantly and he remembered the gift that he had bought for Stella, that he should have given her; would have given her over dinner three nights ago, had the evening gone to plan. 'Thank you for telling me about it,' he said at last

The child looked pleased. 'You got to wish at exactly midnight, or it won't work,' she warned and pulled back her coat sleeve to study a wristwatch with Mickey Mouse on the face. 'That's in... four hours,' she told him and he nodded.

'I'll remember.' Adding, 'That's a pretty nice watch you got.' At the compliment, the little girl's face lit up.

'It's almost new,' she boasted and Mac couldn't help a smile crossing his face.

Faint, then, but easily identifiable, came the sound of someone coming along the corridor and the child startled. With a glance at the door and back at Mac, her eyes wide, she blurted out, 'I got to go. Don't forget your wish!'

Before he could stop her, she had darted out of the door and away. Moments later, Flack entered, glancing behind him with a puzzled look on his face.

'Was there a kid here just now, or am I imagining things?' He jerked a thumb over his shoulder. 'Could have sworn I saw one running out of here.'

'There was a kid here,' Mac confirmed as he stood up and looked out of the door at the empty corridor.

Flack turned a questioning gaze on Mac. 'What was a kid doing here at this time of night?'

'I'm not entirely sure.'

Unwilling to pressure him into further explanation, Flack nodded briefly before he sat down, a trace of discomfort in his features.

'Mac, I...' He stopped, a flush creeping over his face. Mac waited, half-suspecting what the younger man was about to tell him. 'When I got here and you were talking to the doc about Stell, I...'

'You heard what we said,' Mac finished.

'Most of it,' Flack admitted, his eyes darting up to meet Mac's. 'Including what she said about the baby…'

Feeling heavy with weariness, Mac lowered himself onto a seat opposite his friend and exhaled slowly.

'When did you find out - that Stell was pregnant?' Flack asked, meeting Mac's gaze fully.

'The night of the accident,' Mac said, his mind falling back into the darkness of those hours in the hospital - the shock of the doctor telling him that they had been able to save the baby's life, not even knowing that there had been another life to save; disbelief and then simply numbness, with guilt that he could not feel joy at the news.

'You had no idea before? Flack questioned him and he shook his head, suddenly needing to talk.

'Neither of us… At least, I'm pretty sure Stella herself didn't know. We'd talked about it, thought about maybe trying for a baby in the New Year, but...' He stopped and the blurred image of that speck of life in the photo he had stuffed deep in his jacket pocket passed through his mind. 'She'd been tired more than usual the last week or so, but we never thought...'

'They know how far along she is?' Flack asked and Mac nodded.

'Three months, which was one of the factors that helped save the baby. As did the fact that the car hit Stella more to the back than the front and she likely hit the ground on her side... not that it did her any good.' He stopped again, angry with himself for the bitterness that had crept into him, aware of Flack watching him.

'So the baby's okay?'

Again, Mac nodded in answer to Flack's question. 'As far as they can tell: it's got a strong heartbeat, they can't detect any distress and all the scans show it's developing normally with no damage caused from the accident.'

'Pretty miraculous, huh?' Flack gave a brief shake of his head, his hands shoved into his pockets.

'That's what the doctors have said.'

A beat or two of silence passed before Flack spoke again. 'And Stell? What's the news on her?'

His voice flat, Mac answered. 'It's been three days, Don. The longer she's unconscious, the smaller her chances of waking and making a full recovery get.'

When the doctor had told him that, he had felt ice start to form in his chest, only been able to stand and listen as the doctor talked. Now, as he watched Flack's shoulders slump, the cold would not relinquish its grip.

'That bad?' Flack asked at last, his voice heavy.

'She's tough...' Mac said, knowing as he said it that it was only for his own comfort. True, Stella was tough, but she was also fragile. Strong, determined, brave... and vulnerable. Susceptible to hurt, just as he was.

Weariness was sketched on Flack's face and his blue eyes were dimmed as he heaved himself to his feet and stood, folding his arms across his chest. 'Something else you ought to know - we caught up with the driver a few hours ago. That's the reason I got here early. We got him down at the precinct.' He sighed and rubbed the side of his nose. 'Name Scott Murphy mean anything to you?'

The unexpected question nudged Mac out of his state; he frowned at Flack and a memory ignited – a man cautioned for obstruction, when he and Stella had arrested his brother for murder.

Flack's expression was grim. 'I see it does. He remembered you and Stell; never forgot you in fact.'

His implication was clear.

'It was deliberate?' A cold fire of rage kindled inside him.

'That's what his confession said.' Disgust spread across Flack's face as he grunted. 'Blamed you two for his brother doing time in Sing-Sing, conveniently forgetting said brother's conviction for murdering his girlfriend. Murphy said he'd followed you all the way from the lab, drinking half a bottle of scotch to build up his nerve, and took his chance when he saw you crossing the street.'

'Son of a bitch,' Mac growled, bile and fury twisting his features, overcoming his propriety for the chapel.

'Sergeant was booking him as I left.'

It was no comfort to Mac and he pushed past Flack abruptly. 'I need to get back to Stella.' If he didn't take that path to her, he couldn't trust himself not to take another path, a path that led all the way to the precinct to find Murphy and beyond, to revenge and destruction.

Flack followed him, all the way back to the door of Stella's room. There, after a clasp of his shoulder and a murmured instruction to hang in there, he left him.

Alone with Stella, Mac lowered himself into his seat, feeling snow-touched and chilled. Three days had changed the room, at first simply blue, white and grey, to a warmth of colour – full of flowers, gifts and cards. The little Christmas tree from her desk now sat on the windowsill, brought by Adam two days ago, and Lucy had added another paper snowflake to it, as well as a card telling her Aunt Stella in lopsided handwriting to wake up soon so she didn't miss Christmas.

Those days and hours had brought no change in Stella. Unaware of any of it, she still lay in the bed with her eyes closed, her arms laid at her sides, skin waxy, a taped-together laceration along her temple remaining brutally clear. Her eyelashes stood out against her pale face and under her eyes looked bruised. Further grazes and bruises marked her skin, healing slowly, still stark. Reaching out a cautious hand, Mac let it hover for a moment over her forehead. Her hair fanned out over the pillow and he combed his fingers through its curls.

'Oh, Stella,' he sighed.

To see her so vulnerable, to feel so unable to help her after she had risked her life to protect his, neither of them knowing of that other spark of life... he could hardly bear it and hands clenching, he shoved the chair back and strode over to the window. The snow still fell over the city; pirouetting, tumbling to the ground.

Falling, falling...

Falling along with his hope.

Mac dragged his hand down his face and exhaled. Bracing himself, he turned back to Stella and returned to his chair, his gaze focused on the slight rise and fall of her breathing.

A few hours later, sipping at a coffee that a kindly nurse had brought him, he shifted in his seat; something poking into his side puzzled him, and then he remembered. From his jacket he withdrew the two small dolls and placed them at the side of the bed, where Stella would be able to see them when she woke up.

He remembered, too, the child's secret and glanced over at the little paper-wrapped gift, Stella's early Christmas gift, that sat on the bedside table.

Mac reached over and toyed with it in his fingers and, calling it a foolish whim, glanced at his watch. It was a quarter before midnight; fifteen more minutes. Something akin to a smile crossed his lips at the memory of the little girl's belief in a Christmas Eve wish. The secret she'd shared held a strange appeal.

Still, he wavered. Too many Christmas Eves had gone by; too much seen in all those years had left him jaded and cynical. He was a grown man, a scientist; he didn't believe in wishes.

But his self-consciousness fought with a yearning to believe in them again, to rekindle his hope. Maybe it was even something Stella believed in. Anyhow, what harm would a wish do? No one else need know...

'When you're awake, I'll get you another gift you can open yourself,' he told her softly. With care, he opened the package, peeling away the layers of tissue until the small gold star he had bought for her Christmas tree shone in his hand.

Gently, tenderly, he turned her hand over so it was palm upwards and placed the star in it.

'For you, Stella,' he whispered, caressing her cheek. He placed his hand over hers, the gesture protective, and curled his fingers around hers so the star lay between their palms. The contact spread a tendril of warmth through him and he sat, his eyes never leaving her, remembering the flame of the candle he had lit for her earlier.

The minutes passed. Mac glanced at his watch. Almost midnight. When he heard the first faint chime of the hour, feeling half-foolish and sentimental, but with a hope that was drawn from childhood Christmases long ago, he closed his eyes and made his wish.

As the last stroke of twelve faded to an echo, he opened his eyes. Blinking, he glanced around warily; there was no sign of anyone else inside or outside the room. The regular blip of the monitors above the bed intruded into his consciousness, but there was no other sound. No movement either. Stella's eyes were still closed, she was still oblivious to her surroundings, and to him.

It made the ice inside him tighten its grip round his heart, even though haunting him was a ghost of sadness. Cold, even colder than before, he hunched his shoulders, turning his back on the emotion. All that was left to do was keep watch and wait.

He sat back in his chair, his face set and resumed his vigil.

Maybe it was the hypnotic snow ballet outside the window, maybe the evening's events; whichever it was, tiredness overcame him eventually and Mac jerked awake several hours later, startled at having succumbed to sleep. His mouth was dry and his head felt fuzzy and he rubbed his eyes before standing up and stretching, reaching for the water at the side of the bed. But his hand froze halfway to the jug.

Instantly alert, he stared at Stella: he hadn't imagined it, she had moved. One arm now lay partly across her stomach and her head had turned a fraction. Hope began to stir in his chest as he glimpsed a wink of gold from the star still in her grasp. Touching her cheek with his fingertips, he saw her eyelids flicker.

'Stella?' he spoke softly, smoothed her hair away from her forehead. 'Stella, can you hear me?'

Her head shifted on the pillow and her lips parted. Mac took hold of her hand and lifted it to his lips, brushing a kiss against the back of it, his eyes never leaving her.

A frown passed across Stella's face and she sighed before at last her eyes fluttered open. Almost immediately, he felt her fingers curl round his and as her gaze focused on him, he felt a surge of relief when he saw she recognised him.

'Hey,' he said, 'You were sleeping again...'

His voice cracked and at the same time, fissures appeared in the numbing cold around his heart, the protection and constriction it had provided shattering. All he could do was hold on to her hand.

'Mac,' she murmured, and even though her eyes were still heavy, she raised her hand to his cheek, brushing away the tear that had appeared there.

Gazing down at her, joy destroying the fear and leaving him exposed to all his feelings, Mac stroked her hair with a delicate tenderness.

'I missed you,' he breathed.

'Sorry...' Stella's eyes glistened and he hurried to speak again, knowing he needed to call for her doctor, but not wanting to lose his moment to tell her what he had to.

'You saved me from being injured, maybe even killed by that car,' he said, 'thank you. But, please,' he continued, his thumb caressing the back of her hand, 'never do that again, especially not because of me.'

A faint smile appeared on Stella's lips. 'I made a promise...' she whispered.

'I have a promise to keep, too,' he said, gazing down at her. 'To look after you, because... because I love you.'

Stella stared up at him, her eyes emeralds. He clasped her hand, their fingers entwined, warmth radiating through him. For now, there was nothing more that needed to be said.


Thank you for reading. Please do let me know what you think! One more chapter to go... Lily x