so I haven't posted anything in this forum for over a year despite having written stuff (oops...), so I thought I'd pop over and post a couple of the stories I'm currently working on. So without further ado, here's Dance with the Devil. Rating: T - language, violence Synopsis: It is January 2002, and struggling to make it day to day after Claire's death, Mac finds himself chasing down a criminal who pushes him to his already stretched limits. Chapter 1 The snow swirled in miniature funnels along the surface of the street, whipped into a frenzy by the wind which gusted with sudden viciousness. It was a biting wind, turning the already frigid air into something akin to malevolent. It was the kind of cold which instantly cut through coats, hats, scarves, and any other attempts which were employed to keep it out. The kind of cold that made each breath burn and lungs hurt. The kind of cold that numbed lips and noses in seconds, and made eyes water. But there was a certain vicious beauty to it too. A raw power that was both terrifying and intoxicating at the same time. Mac leaned his burning head against the impossible cold of the bus window and watched the funnels of snow whipping down the street. The icy chill of the glass flowed through his overheated body and clashed with the internal fire coursing through him, making him shiver uncontrollably as he cooled down far too quickly. His heart pounded and his lungs ached from the frigid air he had forced his body to breathe as he had run. He closed his eyes and tightened his muscles against his body's protest at the temperature shock and the pain of each breath, and slowly he stopped shivering. The cold window actually felt good on his forehead, and he remained leaning motionless against it, as if it could somehow cool the incessant burning in his head. The bus continued along its route, the accumulating snow making it and the city appear to be in slow motion. Not that there were many people out at three-thirty in the morning, but this was New York. There were always some people out, going on with whatever business it was they might have. Hurrying along, heads down, keeping their intentions as closely wrapped as the coats and scarves they pulled tight to keep out the cold. It was the time of night when time seemed to hover and pause, hanging still, and one could imagine a world where it simply chose not to continue. A world forever under the hush of night, and silent, unspoken thoughts. The bus bounced suddenly as it hit a pothole that had been obscured by the new snow. The bus driver swore and started muttering to himself about the deteriorating road conditions and how the city never fixed the streets that really needed to be fixed, punctuating his sentences with choice epitaphs endowed endearingly on the objects of his wrath and frustration. His voice grew gradually louder as he warmed into his subject. "Goddamn motherfucking politicians, that's the problem! Ride around in their fancy goddamn cars, sipping their 'esspresso lattes'," he said as he mockingly pretended to sip from an imaginary cup, sticking the pinky of the hand he was drinking from out as he did so. "Ooooh no! They can't spill their double espresso goddamn fuckin' lattes! Fucking politicians…SHIT!" he exploded suddenly as the bus hit another pothole and the wheels lost traction with the road. For a few seconds it felt as if the bus' back end might whip out sideways, but the driver had seen more than his share of winters, and expertly coaxed the unwieldy vehicle back into line. "GODDAMN MOTHERFUCKING POLITICIANS!" Mac watched the proceedings through a half-open eye. The other three people on the bus hadn't so much as blinked or moved a muscle the whole time. They sat in their seats, hoods pulled low, shoulders slumped, going god knows where, wishing only to be left alone and not even remotely bothered with potholes, politicians or a bus driver's grievances against either. Mac slumped his own shoulders as the adrenaline and endorphins that had been racing through his body left him. Absolute exhaustion began to settle in, as he mentally and physically withdrew into himself. He closed his eyes again as the bus driver returned to his muttering. The snow continued to swirl outside, and the sounds of the city grew muted as he drifted into sleep. A part of his brain protested against the sleep, insisting it was a dangerous thing to do in such a setting at this time of night. But he didn't care. He was beyond caring. The steady rumble of the diesel engine and the almost rhythmic bouncing of the bus was strangely relaxing. He vaguely wondered how getting off the bus when necessary would work if he fell asleep. But again, he realized he didn't care. It was part of the reason he had impulsively gotten on in the first place. He had run until he could literally push himself no further, but still had had no desire to go back to his empty, deserted apartment. A taxi was no good. You had to actually go somewhere and know where you wanted to go. But you could theoretically ride a bus indefinitely, so he had gotten on one whose route took him somewhere near the vicinity of his apartment should he decide at some point to actually get off there. He felt his shoulder twitch and his breathing slow as he drifted into sleep, intermittent shivers still running through him. His mind stopped racing, and for a precious split second before he lost conscious thought, he felt a small measure of exhausted peace. xxx "Hey!" an annoyed voice said. He felt a sharp kick on his boot, and his eyes flew open, hand instinctively going to his right hip, thumb ready to release the snap securing his gun in its holster. But it was just the bus driver. He let his hand continue up his side to his neck and tried to rub out the aching crick that had developed. "This ain't a motel. We're 'Out of Service'." The driver jerked his head towards the door at the front of the bus, "Beat it." Head pounding from the cold of the window and the constant bouncing of the road, Mac pushed himself up. Muttering an apology to the driver who, despite not losing the scowl off his face, nonetheless grunted his acceptance, he stepped out into the snow-covered street. He shivered. Light was just tingeing the sky, and the new snow creaked with cold under his boots. The wind had died down somewhat, but still came in gusts, sneaking between the zipper of his coat and down his neck. He shivered again as his damp t-shirt absorbed the seeping cold. He glanced around as the bus pulled away in a cloud of diesel fumes. He was only five blocks from his apartment and despite being achingly tired, decided to walk. He didn't even look up as he entered the main entrance to his apartment building. He opened the door by rote, mechanically pushed the elevator buttons, and as he walked down the hall to his apartment, he tried not to think about the silence that awaited him. The warmth of the building brought feeling back to his face, and his feet started to hurt as the numbness began to dissipate. He turned his key in his lock and pushed his door open. No lights. No sound. Nothing, except the quiet hum of the refrigerator. And there wasn't going to be anything either. Closing the door behind him, he took a deep breath as he leaned wearily against it. The emptiness pushed in against him, ringing paradoxically loudly in his eardrums. His eyes burned hot, and he squeezed them closed. He desperately wished he could just slide down into a corner and slip into an oblivion. But sleep was no good either. The accompanying dreams were more torturous than the waking ones. He hated being here, and he wouldn't have been if it had been up to him. "Why not, Jimmy?" he had asked, waving a slip of paper and pushing the door to his boss' office open. "Huh? You're still two people short this weekend and you denied it?" his eyes flashed. Jim Harris looked up from his desk where he was reviewing a case file, and which was covered in folders, two open evidence boxes balanced precariously on one side. "That's right Mac, I denied it," he said ironly, meeting Mac's furious eyes steely. "You've been working between 70, 90 hours, hell, sometimes even more than that, nearly every week…" Mac started to interrupt, but Jim ignored him. "…for the past…" he paused. His voice softened as Mac almost imperceptibly flinched as the fire left his eyes and instantly took on that haunted look that only ever momentarily left him. Jim set down the case file and leaned across his desk towards his friend and probably the most brilliant detective he'd ever had work for him. And if not that, then certainly the most driven. But it was a perversion of that very drive which was prompting this mini-confrontation. "Look, Mac, I can't even pretend to know what you're going through, but I know why you basically never leave and I can't say that I wouldn't do differently. But you're no good to me or the department, run into the ground. I'm sorry, but I've got to draw an official line somewhere." He looked searchingly and with concern at him. "When was the last time you actually went home?" he asked gently. Mac rubbed his eyes with his right hand and sat wearily down in the chair by the door, any fight drained out of him. Leaning his elbows resignedly on his knees he looked up, "Ahhh, I don't know…two days ago?" he ventured a guess. "That's what I thought," Jim said with a small huff. "Go home. Sleep. I don't want to see you back here until Monday." He pulled the case file back towards him, signaling there would be no further discussion on the subject. Mac pushed himself up and left the office wordlessly, lips pressed tight together. As his office door closed behind Mac's rigid back, Jim leaned back in his chair and set the case file down with a sigh. Which was how Mac now found himself facing an unexpected and unwanted weekend off. He started to shiver again and found he couldn't stop, the prolonged cold and exhaustion finally catching up to him. His fingers on fire from the blood rushing back to them, he took off his coat and unlaced his boots. Kicking them into a heap in the corner, he pulled his gun off his belt and set it on the kitchen counter as he walked down the hall to the bathroom. He let the room become vaguely hazy with steam and the mirrors fog over as he pulled his sweatshirt over his head and peeled off his damp t-shirt. The room's rising temperature was bliss, and he suddenly found it difficult to keep his eyes open. He leaned forward on the counter, resting his forehead on the mirrored cabinet above it. The humid plumes of stream rolled softly over his back and around his arms, warming him. Maybe he would sleep after all. Pushing himself back up, he slowly took off his belt and, out of habit emptied his pockets: wallet, spare change, pocket knife, extra apartment key, cell phone… The water was impossibly hot, his skin impossibly cold, but a sense of normalcy returned as it poured over him. Twenty minutes later he reluctantly turned it off and stepped out. Pulling on his oldest faded t-shirt and lounge pants, he collapsed onto his bed and fell instantly into an exhausted, fitful sleep. xxx 3 months earlier She paused outside the door as she heard the familiar sound of an electric bass riff float through. She smiled, it was a new one though. She listened for a few seconds before quietly turning the key and slipping inside. Setting her keys and purse down and sliding her shoes off, she snuck across the kitchen to the entrance of the living room. She peeked around the corner and saw him seated on the floor, his back leaned against the couch and dressed in nothing but his favorite tattered t-shirt and cargo shorts, one bare foot keeping time. The music line faltered and stuttered, and she grinned as several choice words immediately followed. Keeping a tight lid on the giggles that desperately tried to escape at his oblivious frustration, she advanced stealthily behind him. He had been so engrossed in figuring out the new chord progression, that he had never even heard her come into the apartment, let alone sneak up behind him. Continuing to mutter expletives, he directed a glare at the uncooperative, suspended D7 chord sequence. The damn thing had been giving him fits for the last hour. He instinctively tensed as a pair of hands suddenly covered his face. Then a low, amused voice sounded in his ear. "I have you now, Mr. Detective man! You're all mine!" He grinned broadly, and with one swift motion set aside his bass and gave an expert tug on one of the arms that had so suddenly appeared. With a little squeal, the owner came tumbling over the back of the couch towards him. "Mac!" she exclaimed with a giggle as she landed with a soft thwump on the cushions by his head. "Not fair! Now be nice!" "I'm always nice!" he replied, still grinning and not releasing his hold on her wrist. "Aren't I always nice?" he queried, pretending to be hurt. She just laughed and tried to twist her hand free. "Oh no you don't!" Mac exclaimed mischievously, grabbing her other wrist. "You decided to sneak up on me. Time to pay the consequences!" "Consequences?" she said, still laughing as she continued vainly to try to pull free of his grip. "What 'consequences?" Instead of answering, Mac simply leaned to one side and gave her wrists another quick tug, pulling her off the couch and onto the floor next to him. Grinning down at her and meeting the dancing eyes that were looking up at him through her hair that had now fallen all across her face, he smirked. "Who's got who now?" She tried to blow her hair from off her face, but only succeeded in making more of it to fall into her mouth. "Mac?" she spluttered, alternating between attempts to look sternly at him and fits of giggles. "Please?" Mac burst out laughing at her rapidly changing expression as she tried to decide whether to be annoyed or amused at him. "All right," he said, releasing her hands. "But since you interrupted me, you have to help me finish sorting this thing out." She propped herself up on her elbows, removing damp strands of hair from her mouth and smoothing it all back in place. She pouted at him, "And I just had it done special this morning!" "Awwww," Mac said with a totally un-sympathetic grin. "Here, let me help." He reached over before she could duck away, and rumpled it all backwards, making it into a worse mess than before. "Mac!" she squeaked, trying to evade his continued efforts to 'help'. He caught her as she attempted her escape. "Oh no you don't!" he said pulling her back towards him. "You have to stay here and help me figure this out, remember?" She landed laying, half-breathless from trying to laugh and scold him all at the same time, pinned securely and expertly against his chest. He smiled down at her. Her face was flushed, carrying a look of amused, hopeless exasperation, hair impossibly messed and falling everywhere. Her blue, feisty eyes bored straight into his. She was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen. She squirmed around to face him as she pushed herself ever so slightly away so she could emphasize her sentence with several strategic pokes, "Only. if you. behave. yourself! Or else," she looked at him coyly with a shake of her finger, "The great Detective Mac Taylor might find himself without his muse. And then where would he be?" He pulled her back towards him so she was directly in front of him, her back against his chest and head on his shoulder. He wrapped his arms around her, holding her close. The moment stilled and grew tangible. She could feel his heartbeat, strong and quick, as he leaned down and brushed her neck. His breath was warm and teasing as he gently kissed her, making his way from her shoulder up to her ear. Her own heartbeat quickened, and he spoke low, "He'd be lost." She turned in the close confines of his arms to face him. His eyes met hers with a warmth impossibly deep. "I love you Mac," she whispered, fingers entwining in his dark, wavy hair and around the back of his neck. His eyes closed and for a moment he didn't say anything, but his chest rose quicker and she could feel his body tense. When he opened his eyes, they were filled with a smoldering intensity that took her breath away. His hands snaked under her shirt and up her back as he pulled her even closer. "I love you Claire," he said huskily as he leaned forward to meet her lips, and kissed her with a passion matched in intensity only by the pounding of his racing heart. xxx He lay on his side, head propped on his hand, quiet smile unable to be erased from his face and traced her perfect curves with his fingers, "Not that I'm complaining," he said, unable to keep his smile out of his voice, "But weren't you supposed to have some sort of big consulting meeting today at the Trade Center?" Claire grinned at him, "Yep, but I got a call asking if I would mind rescheduling for tomorrow. And since I'd already blocked out the rest of today think I'd be completely tied up, I figured there were worse things than spending the rest of my day off with you!" "Oh, worse things huh?" Mac laughed. "So I see how I rank now!" Claire punched his shoulder, "Hey, you know that's not what I meant." He smirked, "You said it though. I'm going to have to reconsider that homemade pasta I was going to make for dinner now that you'll be home." "Mac…!" she pouted. "Not fair!" He laughed. It was September 10, 2001. xxx "Hey Mac!" Mac turned as he walked to his office. "Oh hey Stella," he replied. "Have a good day off?" she asked him. He smiled, "Yeah, I did." "Good, because after yesterday we're backed way up, and I'm fairly certain Jim dropped off a rather large stack of case files from yesterday on your desk. He says he split things equally with you, but I'm thinking not so much." Mac gave a little sigh, "Nothing says a nice hello like a pile of paperwork, results and photos to sift through." He snorted in disbelief, "And, I'm sure it was 'equal'!" "Yeah he did look rather shifty coming out of your office," Stella said with a grin that she tried to infuse with sympathy. Mac gave a another resigned sigh, "Anything in particular I need to watch out for?" Stella thought for a moment, "No there shouldn't be. We were crazy busy, but nothing complicated or overly weird or anything." "Well I suppose there is that," Mac said, "Hey, I'll catch up with you later." "Sure thing!" Stella said. "I've got mystery dirt to un-mystify." "Have fun with that," Mac replied with a smile. "Oh I will," Stella said as she headed down the hall, "But I'll take that over your paperwork any day!" Mac grimaced, "Yeah, me too." He turned and headed into his office. Sure enough, Jim had left him a not unsubstantial stack of folders and boxes. Mac sighed and settled in for what would most certainly prove to be a long morning. That morning ended abruptly only an hour later at 8:46am. New York City shook, and Mac Taylor's world crumbled in an instant.