The Ten-Cent Adventure by Stellaluna

Title, and one line, inspired by Greg Rucka's Batman: The 10-Cent Adventure.

Coming out of the Garden, they're buffeted by the crowd in all directions, and it's making her cranky enough to want to reach for her gun. The worst part is when they get caught in a bottleneck in one of the corridors near the street; she feels someone's hand clamp onto her ass, and she's goddamn sure that: a) it's not an accident; and b) it's not Mac's hand. Mac is standing next to her, lifting his head to try to see what the hold-up is. Not that it would be any more acceptable if he were the one groping her, but it would confirm the suspicion she's been harboring all night that he's finally snapped.

But he's innocent as a lamb, as always (pure as the damn driven snow; does he even have any salacious urges, toward anyone? Ever?); and she turns as best she can and zeroes in on the most likely culprit. The guy behind her is middle-aged and nebbishy and staring off into space, wide-eyed. "You move that hand," she says, in a low voice designed to carry, "or you're going to lose it."

Mac looks over at her at this, but she doesn't blink. Nebbish does, though, and the way his eyes get even wider, along with the shade of red he turns, erases any fear that she may have been going after the wrong guy. The hand wavers. "How do you feel about the nickname 'Stumpy'?" she asks, and the hand freezes, then drops away.

"What I thought," and she flashes him a big, cheerful smile (he is looking studiously at something else altogether), then turns away. The crowd shuffles forward a few feet.

Mac looks at Nebbish, then back at her. "You okay?" he asks.

"Oh yeah." She's pleased enough with herself to not be angry anymore.

Finally, when they're on the other side of Seventh Avenue, and away from the worst of the crowd and the tropical heat of the Garden, they stop in front of a bodega to put their coats on. She can't resist taking one last look at his open-collared shirt before he begins to button his overcoat, and has to bite back a smile, turning her face down so that he won't see, as she fusses over her own coat.

All right already, she's wanted to say all evening, did you get into the happy pills or what?

Not that she's complaining. The sudden return of his sense of humor, which she'd given up for lost, is a welcome thing, even if it does mean she gets dragged to a dog show and fed a hot dog for dinner. The last time they sat down together and talked outside of work -- about anything other than the job -- maybe didn't happen prior to the turn of the millennium, but she suspects it's a close thing.

She finishes buttoning up her coat and adjusts her scarf as he stands there watching her, that little half-smile he's been sporting all evening still in place. "Well, that was fun," she says. "Not what I expected, but fun."

"I can't believe you made me pay you ten dollars," he says.

"Oh, give me a fucking break, Mac. Like you wouldn't have collected if that damn Doberman had won the ribbon."

"I wouldn't," he says, trying to look serious.

"Bullshit," she says. "Maybe you're too much of a gentleman to collect on a bet, but if you think I'm gonna be a lady about it, you're smoking something."

He laughs at that, and she just shakes her head. "Well, subway?" she asks after a pause. "What train do you need again?"

"The downtown N," he says. "Hold on." He steps to the curb and is hailing a cab before she can protest. One pulls up, and he opens the door, then waves her over.

"I don't want a cab," she says. "I can get something from here to Grand Central and then pick up the 6."

He's already pulling out a 20. "Stella, just get in."

She rolls her eyes. They stand in stalemate until the driver begins to protest, and then she climbs into the backseat with a huff. He hands over the money, then leans toward her. "Just think of me on the cold subway while you ride in comfort."

"With pleasure," she says.

"We'll do it again?" he asks.

"Not at the goddamn dog show," she tells him. "Gyros from a cart, maybe. Move up in the world."

"Hey," he says with a shrug, "I'm a cheap date."



"I'm not," she says, and he's laughing as he steps back and the cab pulls away.

"That's a nice guy," the driver says. "You oughta be nicer to your boyfriend, lady."

"God, he's not my boyfriend," she says with feeling, then tells the driver her address and sinks back into the seat.

Traffic is slow, but moving, and she looks out the window at the city streets. Things are quiet inside her head right now, so she leans her forehead against the cool glass and tries to figure out the why and how of it all. Funny, how this absurd evening has made the past seem as immediate as the present; she can recall almost all of it, even things she thought she'd forgotten, with unprecedented clarity.




She's never been so close to a man without wanting to fuck him. At least no one who's not related to her by blood. This thought occurs to her for the first time maybe a year or so after she joins the Crime Scene Unit. Granted, he's technically her boss, not to mention married, and she's smart enough to not go there, but there's not even any real urge.

Not that she doesn't think about it from time to time: she's only human, after all, and he's not unattractive. But there's never any desire to translate fantasy into deed. It doesn't help that she can't quite imagine him...unbuttoning that much. It's a long time before she knows what to make of him; even in 1996 he's not what anyone would describe as "forthcoming." He's so goddamned serious all the time, so much the Marine even now, when she knows that it's been years since his last tour of duty. She gets used to the glares and befuddled looks every time she cracks a joke, and instead of taking these as a sign to tone down her humor, she keeps going. Searching, maybe, for the one thing that will finally make him laugh.

They're questioning a suspect one day in 1997 when she tosses out one of her usual wisecracks, and there's no doubt about it: his mouth twitches. She doesn't say a word, but a week or two later they're working in the lab, and she says something, and this time she gets an entire smile. He goes back into serious mode almost immediately, but she's seen it, and this time she can't let it pass without comment.

"Eureka," she says. "He has a sense of humor. Shall I call the Post, or would you prefer to keep it just between you and me and the lamppost?"

Instead of lecturing or ignoring her, which is what she expects, he turns bright red.

So she keeps talking. "I don't mind, but I understand if you need it to be a 'don't ask, don't tell' kinda thing. I'll keep it on the down-low, no problem."

He starts to say something, then stops. She turns to him and holds her hand out. "Stella Bonasera. Nice to meet you."

He hesitates. "I -- "

"I know, we've been working together for ages now. This is just the first time I've managed to crack the facade. It may be a historic occasion."

He keeps looking at her, and she feels the first pinprick of worry that she's pissed him off or hurt his feelings, when suddenly he takes her hand. "Mac Taylor," he says, and an unexpected wide grin breaks across his face. "It's good to meet you."

They go out for a beer after they finish running their tests, and they talk, and she's amazed at how the walls come down. He tells her about the Marine Corps, and studying forensics at NYU (first forensics department in the country, he says with bashful pride), and Claire. She tells him about working narcotics up in the Bronx, and how she loves science more than ever now after the filth of that assignment (science geek since I was a kid, she says, and he doesn't laugh at her), and about Neil, who she thinks she's breaking up with after almost three years together.

Things are different between them after that. He still glares at her when she starts mouthing off at crime scenes, but she catches the half-stifled smiles, too. Their beer nights out become a regular thing.

She goes ahead and breaks up with Neil, and after that she occasionally finds herself in a serious or semi-serious relationship, but more and more, she just doesn't have the energy for it. There are certain barriers: she doesn't like to date within the department, and most civilians end up having a hard time coping with her job. Whether it's the fact that she's licensed to carry a gun, or the fact that she spends her days collecting semen samples and sticking her hands inside dead bodies, sooner or later they start to look at her with narrowed eyes, and to pick fights over her long hours. (Mac tells her that she's going out with the wrong kind of men.) So it's easier, usually, to go the one-night-stand route. She can fuck them and then get the hell out of there before things start to go sour.

Mac stays with Claire, and if he ever has marital difficulties, he doesn't tell her about them. Once or twice he makes vague references to Claire commenting that she never sees him anymore, or to disagreements they've had, but he never goes into specifics. She learns to assess the state of things by what he doesn't say. She also learns what embarrasses him (any too-graphic reference to sex, for one), and either avoids these topics or nags him with them, depending on her mood. Outside of these boundaries, they confess almost everything to each other, over their beers.

2001 rolls around, and she's afflicted with premonitions all year. Her skin prickles with a formless disquiet, geese walking over her grave on a nightly basis. A presentiment of change to come haunts her through the winter and spring: what wind is blowing she doesn't know, but it's nothing good. She's embarrassed by this superstitious dread, and tells no one about it.

Mac is distracted that summer, irritable and short-tempered in uncharacteristic fashion. Once or twice she wonders if he shares in her fears, but then she hears him on the phone in his office, arguing, and she dismisses the idea.

And then it's September, and she finds out what she's been afraid of, and Jesus Christ, it is so much worse than she ever imagined at even her lowest moments. The sky opens and the rubble pours down, and in the end, most of them can't even bury their dead. She wants to scream with helplessness and rage.

She's lucky; she doesn't lose anyone she loves in the Towers. People she knows do die: fellow officers and firefighters. It would have been unusual, if not downright statistically improbable, if this weren't the case, given her profession. And there will come a day that October, just before Halloween, when she comes to a standstill in the middle of the catwalk, her bird's-eye view of the lab and offices filling her gaze, and it will strike her how many familiar and half-familiar faces are no longer around. Not just here (not even mostly here), but at her neighborhood firehouse and down the corner on her way to work.

But no one she loves is gone. She can look at her friends and family and they're still here. They're not reduced to faded pictures in an album or a weathered gray stone in a cemetery somewhere in the depths of Queens. They're here, within her reach, and God, she is so fucking lucky.

Sometimes, that fall and in the years to come, she looks at Mac and thinks that maybe he's fading away too, sliding out of her life, out of all their lives, without so much as a backwards glance. There's a stone look to his face sometimes, the gray of shock seeming to have settled permanently into the lines around his mouth, deep bruise-colored circles under his eyes no matter what the time of day. Maybe he's already gone.

He's been an insomniac as long as she's known him, but she wonders if he sleeps at all these days, or if it does him any good when he does. When she talks to him, now, he'll stare at her for a few seconds before answering. It's not that he's thinking things over or considering his words; she knows what that kind of pause looks like. This is something altogether different: more like it takes those few seconds for him to process the words before he can answer, as if his brain is now functioning on tape delay.

Worse, and more permanent, is the systematic way he goes about shutting her out of his life.

In the first days and even weeks after 9/11, after they all came to the realization that Claire was one of the people who was never going to come home, she never thought of his withdrawn state as anything that would last, or as anything that had much to do with their friendship. He was in pain, possibly the worst pain of his life, and he had never been good at talking about his feelings anyway. She let him know she was there for him, said the meaningless sorry words as best she could, and waited for him to work through whatever he needed to work through in private.

He never works through anything. Not that she can see, anyway. The little tape-delay pauses stop happening with time, but now whenever she speaks to him, about anything that isn't strictly case-related, he stares at her in a different way. Like she's a stranger, like he can't believe she has the nerve to talk to him.

Still, she doesn't imagine yet that this is going to be the status quo from now on. It can't be; it's impossible. Ten days before Christmas, she tracks him down in one of the labs. He's running prints, watching as the computer searches the database for a match. She stands in the doorway for several moments, watching the back of his head, then leans into the room.


He doesn't turn around. "Hey."

She swallows hard against the doubt, then plunges ahead. "Listen, some of us are going to Benny's Burritos for pre-holiday margaritas. You want to come with?"

He's tapping at the keyboard now, still not looking at her. "Thanks. No."

"You know, you're right. Benny's, it's such a frat-boy scene. Who needs to put up with that, right? I bet I could talk them into Sullivan's instead, or maybe the Pig & Whistle?"

He shakes his head.

She pauses, then comes all the way into the room and stands behind the computer, so that he's forced to look in her direction even if he doesn't want to. Now that she's in it, she's going to see this all the way through, dammit.

"Well, okay," she says. "I don't blame you for not wanting to do the group thing, either. How about just you and me, then? It's been ages since we went out for dinner. We could grab some blintzes at Veselka. My treat."

Finally he looks up at her. "Thanks, but I can't." His eyes almost meet hers, but don't quite make it, then he looks back down at the screen. A moment later, the printer starts to whir, and he gets up from his chair.

She follows him to the printer station. "Come on, you can't tell me you don't have time for one meal in that busy schedule of yours. You've got to eat sometime, you know. Get out of the office -- and not to a crime scene. I hear the -- "

She can never remember, later, how that sentence was supposed to end. He's standing by the printer, sorting his papers, when, without warning, he slams the stack of reports down on the table and whirls to face her.

She's gotten used to the lack of expression in his face, to the absence of emotion when he talks or when he glances over at her. Now, finally, he's no longer tabula rasa, but what she sees as he stares at her is the last thing she ever expected: blind fury.

"Stella," he says, and it's the first time he's even said her name in over two months. He's not even raising his voice, but the venom in his tone makes her want to take a step back. Because she's not one for backing down, though, all she does is hold her ground.

"Get this through your head," he says. "I don't want to go out for dinner or drinks. What I want everyone to do -- what I want you to do -- is to fuck off and leave me alone. Is that clear?"

The least offensive response that pops into her mind right then involves the word asshole, but all she says is, "As a bell."

"Good." He looks her up and down. His eyes, normally such a calm, mild blue, are like the winter Atlantic. "So we don't have anything more to say to each other, do we?"

"Guess not."

He holds her gaze for a heartbeat more, then nods and walks away without saying another word. She stands by the printer until he's gone back to his computer, then leaves. Her hands, as she walks down the hall, are shaking with suppressed rage; she's too furious right now for the hurt which will come later.

So that's where they leave it. She doesn't say a word that night to anyone about what happened in the lab, but gets very drunk on three Irish Car Bombs and lets a homicide detective from midtown take her home, then laughs in his face the next morning when he asks for her number.

After some weeks have gone by, she notices that Mac is going out of his way to be polite to her, and to seek out her opinion on cases. She takes this for his own peculiar brand of contrition, and tries to put the past behind her, but she can never forget it. As time passes, she finds that he will talk to her now and again, sometimes even about things that don't involve work. But it's never the same as it used to be.

Grief and anger can be impossible to untangle, she knows; and when she thinks back to the summer of 2001, to the unexplained arguments she overheard while standing outside his office door, she realizes that he was beginning to close her out even before the 11th of September.

One night the next summer she goes out with her friend Elaine and a bunch of their old dormmates from college. Somehow they get to talking about the idea of best friends, and how even though most of them haven't used that term for fifteen years or more, they still have people they'd call their best friends. She's quiet, nodding and laughing but not saying much, and it's not until most of the group have wandered off to refresh their makeup or their drinks that Elaine turns to her.

"Come on, sweetie, give it up," she says. "Who's your best friend? And I won't be hurt if you don't say me. I know we haven't kept in touch enough for that."

She stares down into the depths of her drink, and is horrified to feel a sudden tightness in her throat. "My best friend?" she asks. "Let me run down the list." And she's about to say something sarcastic and dismissive, but instead the truth spills out.

"I think my best friend is a former Marine with a dead wife. And, you know, I think he hates me."

Elaine is smart enough not to try to say anything comforting, and instead puts an arm around her shoulders. She leans into her, grateful for the human contact.




"Lady. You want to hop out or what? I personally don't care if we sit here all night, but your boyfriend's money ain't gonna cover that kinda tab."

She blinks and turns her head, shaking off the fog of memory. The cab is sitting in front of her building, and the driver is turned around in his seat, an inquiring look on his face.

"Sorry," she says. "Have we been here long?"

"Nah, coupla seconds. But you looked distracted."

"Did he give you enough for the fare?"

"Yeah, I'm aces."

"Great. Thanks," and she steps out of the cab.

The whole way up the front steps and into her apartment, she finds herself reviewing everything she's just spent the ride uptown thinking about. She can't believe how melodramatic it all sounds in her head, as if her life has been taking place as part of a dime novel, pulp fiction in its classic form. How trite. Although it could be worse, she supposes: she could be living in a Dorothy Parker story, or a Kafka novel. She smiles to herself. Mac would appreciate that one, not that she's ever going to tell him about this little trip down memory lane.

No, not her boyfriend, she thinks, remembering the cab driver's words with a private smirk, and she doesn't want him to be, but that doesn't mean she hasn't missed him, the asshole. Isn't that pathetic: she's seen him five or six days a week for the last eight years, with very few exceptions, and she misses the hell out of him. She has for almost half that time.

As she drops her coat on the living room floor, she's already thinking about the next day, about cornering him in his office and making him sit still while she tells him all about her latest conquest. Picking a fight with him over some minor point of trivia. It'll be just like old times; maybe she can even make him blush.