Light From a Dead Star by Stellaluna
His tie is loosened and then pulled free of his collar, and he would flinch at the sudden breeze if he weren't immediately warmed by the touch of fingers against his throat. He swallows, hard, and closes his eyes and leans back against the wall, and lets this happen.
He hasn't been touched in a long time; he hasn't wanted to be touched in a long time. Even now, he's uncertain, and reluctant to offer a wholehearted yes to this, though he's not saying no, either. Part of his brain, the primal lizard part that governs the flight-or-fight response, the part that kept him alive on all his tours of duty when logic and fighting skill failed him, wants to run.
Get out of this now it's dangerous you can't be here this is bad don't let him don't let him know--
But his nerve endings are screaming out with pleasure at the hands sliding up and down his throat (the lightest of strokes, tie pushed aside but not even the top shirt button undone, not yet), the body tilted into his (shoulders, chest, stomach, nothing else), the hot breath against his cheek (he could kiss, he wants to kiss, would if he had just that much more courage).
The touch grows more insistent, and he doesn't know what to do with his hands. He can't bring himself to touch back, wouldn't know where to begin, and his fingers clutch at the wall behind him without finding purchase. He hears himself gasp when lips brush across his pulse point. He waits for the embarrassment to kick in, waits for the shamed blush to start spreading up the back of his neck, but this doesn't happen, and instead he presses himself forward.
The sound of a soft chuckle vibrates against his skin and makes him open his eyes; when he does, Danny has straightened up and is staring right at him, a lazy half-smile plastered across his face and a sharp, amused expression in his eyes. He runs one finger down the line of his throat, teases at the shirt button without making a move to undo it. "You like that?" he asks, voice just above a whisper.
He nods, unable to speak.
"Yeah, thought you did." Danny leans closer, as if preparing to impart a secret, the tone in his voice both challenge and invitation. "You can do whatever you want, you know."
His hands tighten into fists, nails biting into his palms. He tells himself to breathe.
I can't are the first words that occur to him, but of course he can't say that.
He can do this.
It's such a simple thing, this act of touching, of being touched. You put out your hand. You connect with skin. You move, and find your way with the tips of your fingers. He's held M-16A2 rifles in his hands, and a police special .38. He's held evidence, tiny fiddling pieces of dirt and skin and fabric that will, sometimes literally, fall apart in a breeze. He's, in the past, touched other people with desire. But this...he feels like he's learning the art of touch all over again, a teenager groping in the backseat of a '68 Ford, and his nervous giddy heartthump is making him sick with excitement.
Danny is still pressed against his chest, still looking into his face, and still that one agile finger sliding up and around the shirt button, never moving beneath to caress skin. He needs to make some movement, he realizes in some back part of his mind, needs to reciprocate before Danny comes to the conclusion that he isn't going to do anything at all, and leaves him standing here all alone.
He unclenches his fists, fingers uncurling. Hands, then: hands on Danny's shoulders. Okay. All right, then, he tells himself. He runs his hands along the shoulders, down the upper part of Danny's arms. Wiry muscles beneath cotton and wool that tense at the movement. A quick intake of breath, and when he meets Danny's gaze, his eyes are wide and alive behind his glasses. Danny's other hand comes up and presses against his waist.
Danny's body is warm against his; Danny smells like aftershave and shampoo. There's a fainter odor of latex that he thinks is clinging to Danny's hands, an aftereffect of gloves, and when he glances down there's the tiniest bit of powder residue on Danny's knuckles. Spearmint gum and coffee on his breath, and when he moves in close enough to smell that, the hand at his waist tightens convulsively. Danny leans in closer still and nuzzles at his cheek, quick and light but determined, and he doesn't plan it this way, but his mouth is open when he presses it against Danny's.
Danny's mouth opens to his with no hesitation. Kiss, and yes, he remembers how to do this, and it's not so different, not really. There are things you don't forget, even after four years; thank God for muscle memory. He kisses, kisses back, and Danny's arms are around him now, no more hand at his waist or touch at his collar, but arms circling his back, impatient caress along his spine.
Danny tastes like gum and coffee, too; that's the first thing he notices. Bitter espresso bean chased by a lighter taste of mint, and beyond that the ordinary salt tang of a human mouth. Danny's lips are chapped. A faint click of teeth against his own, and then Danny makes some minute adjustment in the angle, and the kiss becomes one wet blur of tongue and lips and heat.
A sudden thought occurs to him, making him shiver: Danny is as good with his tongue as he is with his fingers. He realizes he's still holding him by the shoulders, and takes his hands away so that he can put his arms around him: mirror image of the way Danny is holding him, but he doesn't caress. He just holds. And, doing so, draws Danny closer.
He doesn't know if this is Danny's doing or his, but the movement presses them together, body to body. Danny gasps into his mouth and keeps on kissing him, while he processes this new information: Hard lower body against his. Danny is hard. He's not the only one.
He would draw back, but there's nowhere to go. It's too late, anyway; he pulls away from the kiss, needing air, but already regretting the loss of that mouth. There's something wicked now in Danny's grin as he presses a light kiss to the corner of his mouth and pushes his hips forward.
He can't help the return thrust; it's involuntary, God, do that again.
"You want this?" Danny whispers.
He can't speak.
Danny kisses him again, and now there's a hand on his belt buckle. "How 'bout this?"
He tries to form words. "I--"
Too much Jesus can't stop don't let him stop but don't make me talk --
"Relax." Danny leans in and kisses his neck, licks along his carotid artery, and he's only dimly aware of hands undoing his belt. He registers the low sounds of leather and brass being undone, feels the shift of clothes, but these things seem unconnected to him. They are happening. He is standing here. He can't put these two facts together.
Danny's hand rests against the button of his pants. Rests without moving. He closes his eyes; he can feel Danny breathing quickly, in and out, as he keeps on kissing his neck. He draws in a breath of his own as fingers move, deft, and unfasten the button. Then pause at the zipper. There is the faintest, most far-away sound, a tiny rattle of metal as Danny's finger brushes over the tab. He hears this, and somewhere in his mind a thought circles: this is his last chance to back out, to say no. Put a stop to this. Because if he doesn't --
Before the thought can be fully formed, Danny leans in and brushes his tongue over Mac's lips, and then kisses him, hard, and is still kissing him as he tugs the zipper down. Tongue in his mouth, licking his teeth, and he kisses back, warm wet connected slide, and then Danny's hand is -- He gasps now, like Danny did before, can't help it and the sound is out before he can stop it. Hand cupping him, and thank God Danny's crotch is no longer pressed to his, because right now he doesn't think he could...could hold out, if that were the case.
Danny smiles in the midst of their kiss, and then murmurs, "Yeah, I know, that's good," into his mouth. His hand slides inside Mac's briefs, tugging them down, and Mac feels warm fingers wrap around him. Jesus, that, bare hand on bare flesh, Danny rubs up and down, stroking in a slow rhythm, and doesn't stop kissing. His other hand goes around the back of Mac's neck, fingers in his hair, and he keeps on doing both of those things until Mac feels dizzy, until he gives up on even the idea of coherent thought. Until he is starting to feel comfortable -- not relaxed, God no, but able to handle this.
And then Danny stops kissing him and takes away his hand, and, with another lazy smile, kneels down, and Mac can no longer pretend that this is happening to someone else, that he is somehow simply a disinterested observer.
This is the final result: this is where the story ends, or so Mac thinks. This is where he ends up, standing in a dark corner in the station locker room, head flung back against a cold concrete wall and fingers knotting and unknotting uselessly, as his good detective -- as Danny -- sinks to his knees in front of him, and pauses for only a moment (teasing, not hesitating) before wrapping his mouth around the erection Mac can no longer fight.
Where it begins is harder to pinpoint. How he got from there to here. From standing in his office reviewing the day's work to biting back a moan and thrusting against Danny Messer's mouth as Danny runs his tongue along the shaft of his penis.
He thinks about this later that night, when he is home and sitting on his couch, still wearing his coat and jacket and tie and staring across the room at the blank eye of the television. His hands, he tells himself, are not shaking, and there is a simple chain of cause-and-effect here, if only he can bring himself to see it.
Let me start the story for you, he would say, but there is no one to start it for but himself.
It begins, perhaps, with Tanglewood, with Danny and his graceful magician's hands, all quick gestures producing imaginary doves in the lamplight, and disavowing all but secondhand knowledge of the gang; and the sick, crashing feeling Mac felt in his gut when Sonny Sassone was laughing up at them in interrogation and naming names. Anger at Sonny, and for Danny, turning his head into a gyre, and by the time he got back to his office, it was all reduced to one thought, a single word that would have sounded like a plaintive question, had he spoken it aloud: Danny?
And, after that, unasked questions. He is convinced, then and ever after, that Danny was on the other side of the mirror during Sonny's questioning. Some lingering presence in the hall, maybe, or just something in the way Danny looks at him in the weeks that follow, a shadow in his eyes that suggests his knowledge of Sonny's hints hasn't been acquired through the usual channels of lab gossip. He doesn't ask, though. Nor does he ask Danny for his side of the story, in any way. He feels Danny's eyes on him more than ever during this time, questioning and nervous in a way that goes far beyond the natural wariness he often catches in his gaze.
In the locker room, he thinks about none of this; it's all forgotten for the time being, pushed to some far corner of his brain by the here and now, which renders him incapable of coherent thought. Because Danny is working him over with expertise, and there was no hint of nervousness in his eyes, not before and he'd bet not now, either.
And maybe it has nothing to do with Tanglewood at all, except in the most relative, tangential fashion; maybe this is overcomplicating the matter. So many crimes begin with simple, seemingly inconsequential decisions. Perhaps that's the case here, too.
It begins, then, in the specific and the easy to define, earlier that night, when he walks past a closed door and sees a light shining, and opts to see who's there, rather than continuing on his way.
He likes the bustle of the lab during the day, for all his need to keep distance between himself and his co-workers. There's a comfort in the ebb and flow of the work, in knowing that he can walk through the halls at any hour and find DNA tests being conducted, CODIS searches being run, fingerprints being compared. It means that they are, in their own small way, holding back the tide. Even the worst crimes become explicable under the light of a microscope, or in the orderly lines of a database: history safe within the confines of LEXIS-NEXIS.
But he also likes the peace and solitude of the lab after hours. Not that there's really any such thing as "after hours" for the NYPD; perps do not confine their activities to a polite nine-to-five schedule. Nonetheless, by 11:00 or so, the crowds have emptied out, and he can stand at his office window and look over the place, safe from prying eyes. It's almost absurd, the level of pride he takes in his lab. But there it is. He knows what a mess the place was in when he was appointed head, how long he spent sorting the wheat from the chaff. How he has managed to turn it around in subsequent years.
He stands, framed in the window, and looks down at the warren of desks, the hallways and catwalks leading to the test labs, and knows he's done good. Not good enough, maybe, because that would imply the work is finished, but good all the same. He holds the little globe from his desk in one hand, turning it back and forth: world leader pretend, and here's his kingdom.
He tosses the globe a few inches into the air, catches it neatly, then glances at his watch: just 11:00. There are things he could do, tests to run and interviews to conduct, but most of these will have to wait for morning. Now, he thinks, he'll try for a few hours of sleep at home. He sets the globe back down on his desk, and adjusts its position until it's straight.
As he pulls on his coat and begins to shut off the lights, he lingers for a moment, as he always does, at his wall of photographs. One, in particular; he doesn't do more than slide his eyes over the transport plane or the ceremony on board the USS Missouri, and doesn't even turn his head to view his official Corps photo or medals (he keeps those up for others' benefit, not his own). What he looks at is the group photo: a battalion captured in black-and-white stasis, a moment frozen safe in time. Summer 1983, Beirut; Kyle and Tompkins and Abernathy and Winter. He'd been the one to hold the camera. There's another photo, tucked away somewhere, of the five of them together; they'd gotten one of the PFCs to click the shutter. He has no real need to look at himself, so he put that one in storage, and had this one blown up to 8x10 and professionally framed.
In the other photo, the one he hasn't looked at in years, they are all looking into the camera, much like they are here. His own smile might be described as restrained in comparison to the others, but it's there. Abernathy -- Jack -- has an arm slung around Mac's neck and is flashing a peace sign at the camera. Some people might call this an ironic gesture, but Jack would have argued otherwise: they were on a peacekeeping mission, after all. Jack's grin is wide and happy; he'd cracked one of his typically bad jokes just before the flash went off, and is still laughing with delight at his own humor.
Mac had tensed involuntarily when Jack wrapped that arm around his neck, then realized no one else even noticed, or cared, and relaxed. Winter and Tompkins stood with their arms around each other's shoulders, and with their free hands on Kyle's arms as he crouched in front of them. It was a comradely gesture, nothing more. Brothers in arms.
The frightened, angry thought that flashed across his mind -- don't they'll know what's wrong with you -- was groundless, after all, and gone from his memory by the time PFC Gilman told them to watch the birdie.
In the locker room, Mac squeezes his eyes shut tighter and wills himself to hold still, to not thrust himself deep into Danny's mouth the way he wants to.
Tompkins and Kyle had been killed that October. In combat, that's how he thinks of it, even though in reality they were doing nothing more than sleeping, or maybe showering. Jack -- Abernathy -- didn't die until Kuwait City, seven years later, but by then he and Mac hadn't spoken to each other in six years or more. Mac was stationed in Sarajevo that year and got the news second- or thirdhand, someone mentioning the name over dinner, and later that night, after he'd confirmed its truth, he'd gone out in back of the supply tent and stared up at the stars for an hour or two, wishing like hell that he smoked.
Winter is a high-ranking official with the Department of Defense; he e-mails Mac a couple of times a year, and Mac always waits a week or so before sending a brief reply. Do you remember the night we all went to that bar in Cologne? Winter wrote in last year's e-mail. Called The Farmer's Daughter or some damn thing, only in German. I can't remember the language any more. I thought Jack was going to pass out right there in the hall, that's how drunk he was. Probably would've if you hadn't gone on and dragged him back to base.
He had ignored this question, and written instead about the new blood type tests they were doing in the lab, and about a commendation he'd gotten from the Mayor for solving the Velasquez murder.
He finishes buttoning up his coat, and stands regarding the photo for a moment longer, before raising one hand to his head in a formal salute, as he does every night. Gentlemen.
The final light shut off, the door closed and locked behind him, he heads down the stairs. Here and there in the bullpen, lights still burn, tiny pools of light over abandoned desks, computer screensavers spinning in the semi-darkness. Reports and crime scene photographs lay scattered across tables: the detritus of the workday. But he is, he thinks again, the only living soul in the place. Which is why the low, nearly inaudible murmur of voices from down the hall comes so clearly to his ears, and causes him to hesitate, looking down the corridor.
He would just go home; he'll wonder later (thoughts he would turn off if he could, focus shot to hell) why he didn't. Then again, he prides himself on knowing what's going on in his lab at all times; out of such minor steps come great catastrophes. As he steps into the hall, he sees that there's a flickering blue light shining from beneath a closed door. He puts the pieces together: Blue light. Voices. The little office Danny and Aiden share. Which means --
He pushes the door open without knocking, and Danny looks up in surprise from the TV perched on a corner file cabinet. He makes a move as if to turn it off, and then a seemingly conscious effort to stop himself. "Hey, Mac," he says.
"Danny." He assesses the room. Danny, watching TV in the dark, the 11:00 news. The nervous twitch at the opening door, as if he were doing something wrong.
"Thought you'd gone home," Danny says.
"I was just on my way out." He studies him. "I thought you'd left hours ago."
Danny shrugs. His gaze slides back to the newscaster, and Mac follows it. The reporter is talking about a court hearing concerning city ordinances, dry and fact-filled and unimportant, nothing that could possibly hold his interest.
"Danny," he says again, warning now, and Danny snaps his head back around.
"Yeah. Sorry, Mac. Just...didn't feel like going home yet, you know? Figured I'd hang out here for a while and catch up on some reports. I turned on the news so I could take a break." He blinks, eyes nervous and darting.
"To take a break," he repeats.
"Yeah. Um. That's okay, isn't it? I mean, I wasn't neglecting any of my work or anything."
"No," he says. "It's fine."
The current story ends, and the newscaster begins talking again. "Coming up next on ABC news at eleven -- "
Danny's head whips around.
" -- Local weather, followed by the sports report. Stay tuned."
A commercial for Woolite comes on, and Danny's entire body seems to relax. He reaches over and shuts off the TV, then shoots a quick, slightly sheepish-looking glance at Mac.
"Danny, by any chance were you waiting for a particular story?" he asks.
A blush spreads up Danny's cheeks. "Yeah. Well, kinda. I didn't know if they were gonna air anything or not, but I figured I'd watch and see. Guess they didn't."
"Guess not." Mac wills himself to have patience, then adds, "Do you want to tell me what you were looking for?"
"Oh, yeah. That." Danny runs a hand through his hair and looks down at a stack of papers on his desk. "My brother Tommy called earlier today and said that Sonny Sassone's trial was gettin' started. I was wondering if they were gonna cover it on the local news or not."
"I'd be surprised if they did," Mac says. "It's not a particularly high profile case, so the local media are going to be reluctant to send crews all the way up to Yonkers if there's no chance of getting anything juicy out of the story."
"Juicy. Yeah. Good point." Danny shuffles the papers around; Mac thinks he's trying to create the appearance of organizing them, but in reality he's doing no more than moving them from one pile to another, more or less at random. "I shoulda thought of that myself. Think maybe Court TV will show it if they have a slow afternoon?"
"I doubt it," Mac says, and stands where he is, watching Danny pretend to rearrange his desk. "Do you have reason to worry that they will?" he asks after a minute.
Danny starts, sharply enough to drop the stack of reports he's clutching. "Jesus, Mac," he says after a pause, "don't scare me like that." He starts to reach out for the paper he just dropped, then changes his mind, and turns to face Mac for the first time. He's biting his lip and blinking rapidly. "Kinda," he says. "I guess."
"Ah." Mac leans against the doorframe. "This would date back to the infamous Tanglewood case, then. Wouldn't it?"
"Yeah, you could say that."
"You want to talk about it?" he asks.
Danny flashes him a rapid-fire, jumpy grin. "Not really. But I guess I can't put it off any longer."
"Okay. I'd, um, ask you to sit down, but there's really no...no room. Unless you wanna sit at Aiden's desk, and she gets kinda touchy about that." Danny sighs. "Maybe we could go somewhere else?"
"Sure. How about my office?" Mac asks.
"Oh. No. No, not there. No offense, Mac, but that's way too much like gettin' called into the principal's office."
"That's all right. Do you have any suggestions?" He'll go wherever Danny feels comfortable, just as long as they can finally discuss this; it's long past time.
"I dunno." Danny glances around. "The locker room? That seems like neutral territory enough. I wanna change my shirt anyway. I spilled coffee on it before."
"That's fine." Mac waits for Danny to shut out the lights, then follows him down the hall to the men's locker room, unbuttoning his own overcoat as they walk.
He takes it off completely when they get to the locker room, folding it and setting it down next to him on a bench. Danny stands at his locker to change his shirt, and it doesn't escape Mac's notice that he keeps his back to the locker as he does so, or that the sleeves of his undershirt are long enough to cover his shoulders. He wonders, as he has wondered periodically over the past few months, if there's a hidden-at-all-costs tattoo on Danny's shoulder, and what the exit date marked on it might be. If there is an exit date at all, he thinks, and then shoves the thought away. Of course there is. If there's a tattoo in the first place, it has two dates. That's not even a consideration.
Danny finishes buttoning up his clean shirt and pulls his jacket back on before tossing the stained shirt into his locker and slamming the door.
"Better?" Mac asks.
"Yeah." Danny leans against the locker. "Okay, so. Sonny Sassone."
"Yes." Mac studies him. "I'm guessing you know that he had some things to say about you when we had him in the interrogation room."
"Yeah. Heard about that. Well..." Danny looks down at his hands. "Heard it, actually. Firsthand, you know. I was listening on the other side of the glass."
"I suspected as much at the time," Mac says.
Danny nods. "Yeah, should've figured that. Nothing gets past you."
"And was it -- " Mac can't think how to finish the question.
"Was it true?" Danny smiles humorlessly at the floor. "Well, he pretty much stuck to implication, instead of coming out with any actual facts, but yeah." He looks up at Mac, biting his lip again. "I was a Tanglewood boy."
"I see." Mac's stomach sinks. Somehow, all evidence to the contrary, he'd wanted to believe it wasn't true, that Sonny was just throwing out names to show off, to shake them up.
"I'm out now," Danny goes on. "I been out for over ten years. That case was the first time I'd seen Sonny since I graduated from college and moved out of my parents' house."
He nods. "And what did you do in Tanglewood?"
"Nothing much. I mean, not in the grand scheme of things. Not compared to the shit a lot of those guys pulled. I ran errands, starting when I was 15 or so. Hell, I got arrested a few times, but just for petty crimes and stuff. Not anything major. I quit when I was 20, which is when I started college." He stops talking abruptly and looks Mac in the eye for the length of several heartbeats. "I swear to God, Mac, it wasn't anything more than that. It was just a few too many years of me acting like a stupid kid. Wanting to fit in. You know how it is."
He's silent for a minute, remembering their conversation during the case. How he'd talked to Danny about wanting to belong, and how the Marines had done that for him. He'd sent Danny back to work after that, and it had never occurred to him until it was too late that Danny had come over to talk to him that day for a reason.
"I know how it is," he says now. "How did you manage to get your NYPD application in without any problems?"
Danny shrugs, looking uneasy again. "All my relatives on the force. They..." He waves one hand. "...Finessed things."
This surprises him. Not because Danny's relatives had been able -- with little trouble, he'd be willing to bet -- to bury the truth about the most recent Messer family recruit's criminal record, because he knows that's standard practice for anyone who has the right connections. What surprises him is that they would do this for Danny in the first place, given the rumors they'd been so dedicated to spreading when he was in the process of hiring Danny. How he'd been approached by members of the Messer clan on two separate occasions, and told that hiring Danny would be the biggest mistake of his career. "Kid's a perpetual fuck-up," one of them (a cousin, he thinks) had said. "You'd be better off just losing the application."
He had thanked them all for their time and sent them on their way, and hired as he saw fit. He's never regretted that decision.
"All right," he says now, nodding. "I suppose I should have figured that out."
"So what now?" Danny asks, returning his attention to his hands. "You wanna yell at me, maybe put me on suspension?" He pauses, then adds "Fire me?" in a low voice.
"No," he says, and Danny looks up, surprise and hope flaring in his eyes.
"No?" he asks.
"No." Mac shifts his position on the narrow bench. "You haven't done anything wrong. Nothing that the statute of limitations hasn't run out on, anyway -- right?"
Danny seems to catch on immediately. "Oh. Yeah. For sure. None of my crimes were the kind that come without an expiration date. No, sir." He nods emphatically.
"All right." Mac looks up at him. "There's nothing I can legitimately discipline you for, then. You didn't compromise the case in any way, or try to impede the investigation."
"No, I didn't. I wouldn't. I...I just didn't want you to know. That's all."
"What I don't get," Mac goes on, "is how could you not tell me? At least once you knew who was involved in that murder."
"How could I tell?" Danny counters. "I mean, c'mon, Mac. It's not exactly the kind of thing I coulda brought up casually in the lab, or one night down at Sullivan's. I just -- when I started here, I figured that was all behind me. I mean, it was all behind me. And then once the case came up...well, all of a sudden it was too big to talk about. Too much. I'm sorry, Mac," he goes on in a rush. "I'm really, really sorry. If there was anyone I coulda told, it woulda been you. Honest to God."
"I know, Danny."
Danny's eyes widen. "Really?" he asks.
"Really." He still feels a surge of frustration when he thinks about Danny keeping all of this to himself, but beneath that is a greater feeling of relief: of all the possibilities he'd imagined and worried about after learning about Danny's Tanglewood involvement, this is the best possible outcome, save for the admittedly far less likely one of Danny not being involved at all, of Sonny making up a malicious lie about a boy he'd known back in the old neighborhood for the sole purpose of antagonizing the very people who had brought him to justice. Since that's not possible, Mac thinks, he'll take what he can get.
He stands up. "Don't worry about it," he says.
Danny looks up at him. "So, like, you're cool with this and all?"
He can't help a small smile. "Yes, I'm 'cool with this.' You don't have any more surprises to spring on me, do you?"
"No." Danny smiles and shakes his head. "Hell, no. Well...not about my criminal past, anyway. Probably I got another trick or two up my sleeve, though."
"Not that I want there to be a next time, but just...warn me first next time, would you?"
"I will. I will. I promise." Danny's smile widens into a grin. "You know, that wasn't as hard as I kept thinkin' it was gonna be. Thanks, Mac."
"Any time." He claps a hand on Danny's shoulder. "You're a good CSI, Danny. One of the best I've seen." This is true. If it weren't, Mac thinks, he might not have been as troubled as he was by the revelations. Then again, he wouldn't have pushed for Danny's hire in the first place, if he hadn't seen the potential in him.
"Yeah?" Danny's grin is now taking on a definite arrogance.
"Yes." Mac meets his gaze. "You're going to go far in this department, if I have anything to say about it." This is the kind of good-soldier moment that he likes, the kind of approbation that he's most capable of handling.
Danny blushes, and then glances down, and Mac realizes that his hand is still resting on Danny's shoulder. He would take the hand away; to do so is, after all, his first instinct.
But he doesn't move.
And Danny looks down at that hand for a long moment, and when he looks back up his gaze is direct, solid and earnest, looking right into Mac's eyes. "Thank you," he says, and doesn't move away from the physical contact.
"I mean it," Mac says, and he hears each individual word echo in his ears, measured and precise.
There's something dangerous in the room now, something taking shape between the two of them that Mac senses has the ability to drag him under like a riptide, like the days when the weather service warns swimmers to stay out of the water. Current tugging at him, the tide lapping at his legs, and he can almost imagine a smell of salt in the air as the water surrounds him. He swallows, hard, and meets Danny's gaze, because there's nothing to be afraid of, nothing at all, really. He's faced danger before, has faced difficult situations, and this is something he's capable of dealing with. He tells himself this.
Danny reaches up, then, and puts the hand of his other arm on Mac's wrist. And still he doesn't move away. Doesn't flinch at the touch. He knows he should. He can't; what's more, he's not sure he wants to. They stare at each other.
"You...think a lot of me, huh?" Danny asks, and there is a rasp in his voice that sends a shiver straight down Mac's spine.
He nods. "Yes."
"Yeah, well, it's mutual," Danny says, and his fingers circle Mac's wrist. Eight bones in the wrist. He can name them all. Trapezoid, scaphoid bone, lunate bone, capitate...
Danny's hand closes in a light, warm grip, and he takes a step closer. "Can't think how to say thank you properly," Danny goes on.
It's the unexpected nature of this series of events that keeps Mac where he is, all but pinned to the spot by the force of Danny's gaze. Paradoxically, he is kept there, too, by the fact that it's not unexpected, not at all, not really. Not deep down underneath where secrets live.
"Can't you?" he asks, and somehow they have turned, or switched positions, and now Mac's back is to the wall, Danny looming in front of him like an interrogating officer, or someone who's about to ask him to dance.
Danny shrugs. "Then again, maybe I can."
Mac can remember, now (or thinks he can, but he knows what a liar memory can be) other glances that have been held too long, and one particular night in a bar on the Lower East Side when Danny was very drunk, when his hand, clutching for support, lingered a little too long on Mac's waist, and when his bright intoxicated gaze kept drifting between Mac's eyes and mouth. Things he dismissed as the products of an alcoholic haze at the time, and filed way as being unimportant, but they're all coming back to him now.
And he is (he will tell himself later) tired, and it's been a very long time since anyone has touched him with any kind of affection at all (a long time since he has allowed anyone to do so), and so that he reacts to Danny's hand as he does is, if not forgivable, then explicable at the very least.
"Really?" he asks.
"Yeah. Wanna see?"
He nods, the appropriate words -- if there are any -- dancing out of his reach.
Danny puts both his hands on the wall, one on either side of Mac's head, and stares into his face. Danny's eyes are wide, questioning, and there's a hint of something else in them, deep down, desire or perhaps simple affection. Mac isn't sure which would be a less welcome sight. He swallows hard. He will not look away, he tells himself, will not blink. Will not lose this staring contest. He's not a coward.
And then Danny's hand moves, and slides beneath his tie, and Danny's breath is warm against his face, and he closes his eyes and lets this happen. It's so easy that way, so easy to just stand back and let things happen. Let things remain unconnected, in a deliberate act of will. This is something he knows how to do.
A whisper in the dark: "Say my name."
"My name, say my name. I wanna hear it." There is a faint note of pleading in the tone.
"Ab -- "
"No, not that. Shit. My name, my Christian name. Say it. You never -- "
"I -- Jack."
"Yeah, like that, just -- oh. Oh, Jesus fuck, yes."
"Jack." Steady rhythm, words like a metronome. "Jack. Jack."
Hands press, pull him down: not falling. He already fell.
And falls again, three thousand miles and twenty-some-odd years away. Despite his earlier vow to hold still, he is pumping now into Danny's mouth, has been for some time, hips swaying in steady rhythm, and Danny is matching him beat for beat, head moving up and down and sucking hard.
The pressure is building, Danny's mouth on him all heat and wet and friction, and his nails are digging into his palms, breath coming in harsh gasps, and that he can't hold back any longer is a relief. His orgasm hits him like a bullet, nerves shattered and voluntary functions suddenly on strike and he arches up into Danny's mouth for long seconds, shivering, until he collapses back against the wall. He can't move at first, can't open his eyes; coherent thought, shaky throughout, has checked out of his head entirely.
When he opens his eyes, feeling his heartbeat start to slow, nothing has changed around him. The locker room looks the same as ever, long shadows and gray metal lockers, plywood benches. He can hear a faint drip of water from one of the showers and, outside, traffic going back and forth, a honking horn and brief squeal of brakes. It occurs to him that he feels cold, a sudden shiver of air on his exposed flesh.
Danny sits back on his heels and looks up at him for a moment before getting to his feet. His pants are open, Mac notices, and he's stroking himself with one hand, probably has been the whole time. He wasn't aware of this, but that doesn't mean much; he suspects that he wouldn't have noticed much short of an earthquake in the heat of the moment.
He fixes and zips his pants, still breathing heavily. Danny has left off caressing himself and is studying Mac's face, eyes dark and watchful. Before he can say a word -- Mac senses some speech building, or questions at the very least -- he reaches out and takes Danny's arm, and pulls him to him. Hard kiss, tongue deep in Danny's mouth and teeth scraping his lips; Danny gasps and it turns into a moan when he slides his hand inside Danny's still-open pants and wraps his fingers around his hard-on. Danny jerks his hips and rubs into Mac's palm, and he strokes him hard and fast and breaks their kiss only to fasten his teeth on his neck. It doesn't take long; a minute or two of this fierce caress and Danny is coming in his hand, gasping and shuddering and moaning his name in between obscenities.
"Fuck, Mac, yeah...oh, fuck, Christ, there...Mac."
Danny's tremors come to a gradual stop, and he leans on Mac for support. He allows this for a minute before stepping away, wondering where he can wash his hands. His brain isn't working too quickly right now. The shower room. Of course. He doesn't move just yet. Danny is standing in front of him, looking a little more focused, but glassy-eyed and still swaying back and forth.
"Jesus," he says now in a low voice. "That was...wow. I dunno what that was. Except, y'know, wow." He grins. "We gotta try that again."
"Excuse me," he says in a polite tone, and steps around Danny.
"Where are you -- oh. Yeah. Prob'ly a good idea." Danny wanders after him into the sink area, still talking. "So, uh, listen...you want to go grab a beer or something? No pressure. Hell, usually I make people buy me a drink first, so you're, like, a lucky guy, you know? And hey, listen, if you're worried? Don't be. I am totally discreet. Believe me. I mean, you never knew about me and -- well, actually, I can't say, 'cause then that wouldn't be discreet. So just trust me: I am the model of discretion. Par excellence and all that shit. So. Um. The beer? What do you say?"
Mac stands at the sink, slowly drying his hands with a paper towel. "Make sure you're in by 9:00 tomorrow," he says after a minute. "You and Aiden have witness interviews all morning for the Villanova case, as I recall."
Danny flinches as if he's been struck; he tries to cover it, and Mac doesn't want to see it, but it's there all the same. "The Villanova case," he says, finally.
"Yes." He drops the paper towel in the trash bin. "It's your collar, remember. You need to stay on top of these things."
"Stay on top of these things," Danny repeats, and now there's no mistaking the dangerous, angry edge to his voice.
"Yes." He has to go now. He meant to leave an hour ago. "The criminals don't take a break, neither do we." The words fall from his lips like stones. How many times has he said things like this?
"So...that's it?" Danny waves one hand as if shooing away a fly. "No beer, okay, I get that. You're just gonna walk outta here like nothing happened?"
"Danny -- " he begins, closing his eyes.
"You can't bury this, Mac. Even if you think it was a mistake, why don't you be fucking man enough to look me in the eye and tell me that?"
Because it didn't happen. Because I don't want it to have happened. He says nothing. Doesn't move. This isn't --
"Mac." Danny lowers his voice. "I get that you're wigged right now. I kinda am, too. But don't -- You can't shut your eyes and make it go away. You wanna tell me to fuck off, fine; I'll do it. Just...say something. One way or the other."
Breathe. He is breathing. He looks at Danny, who is shifting from foot to foot, biting his lip. Words. There are words here to be said, and he only needs to find the right ones. He pauses again, thinking.
"After the Villanova interviews, I want you to take point on that exhumation at Greenpoint Cemetery," he says finally. "It's at noon; you should be able to do that and get back to the city by 2:00. Hawkes will take it from there and we'll see what he turns up. Stella and I are probably going to be in Brooklyn most of the day, working that John Doe in Red Hook, but you can call my cell if anything pops." He is silent for a minute, looking for a reaction, then adds, "We clear?"
Silence spins out between them. He thinks that, maybe, now he can leave.
"Oh, you fucking asshole," Danny says at last.
He freezes, then turns on him, sharp and quick, glaring into his face. Danny meets the stare without blinking. "Don't you swear at me," he says. "You want to remember your place."
A muscle twitches in Danny's jaw. "My place. Right. What place would that be?" he asks, and Mac realizes, stomach sinking, that he's not going to back down so easily. "On my knees, sucking your cock? 'Cause that sure as shit felt like my place. Or, hey, here's a thought: Stick around. You could bend me over your desk and fuck me. That's my place, too, right? And I tell ya, I'm nice and tight. You'd love it. We probably got some K-Y Jelly somewhere around here, but hell, I don't even need that. I'm real good at smiling while I take it up the ass. Is that how you like it, Mac? Is that my place? Is -- "
"Enough." He's almost blind with fury now, but he keeps his voice low, snapping out the order just like he does when Danny starts mouthing off to the Assistant DA or a random beat cop. "Shut your mouth before I have to file disciplinary measures. You want that? A nice red flag on your record for insubordination? That'll go over really well when they're reviewing you for promotion."
Danny laughs, bitterly and without humor. "Go on. What do I fucking care? I'd kinda like to see how you manage to tap-dance around that one, actually. How you gonna explain what I said without letting on that you were jerking me off ten minutes before?"
He eyes Danny. "Is that a threat?"
Danny's shoulders slump suddenly; all the fight goes out of him. "No," he says in a soft, toneless voice. "If you think that's what I meant...forget it. Just forget it." He turns away. "I'm gonna go on home. Big day tomorrow, after all."
He doesn't look back. "You always do this, Mac?" he asks from the door of the locker room. "'Cause you're real fucking good at it." He doesn't wait for an answer.
Mac leans back on the couch, closing his eyes and shutting out the tiny reflection of himself in the television screen. He had no answer for that, not that Danny was inclined to stick around and wait for one.
No, he thinks now. No, I don't.
Tiny explosions of light behind his eyelids tell him he's a liar.
"Just say something," Abernathy says.
It's 1984, and Mac could have predicted it was a year in which things were fated to go wrong, if he'd remembered his Orwell. They stand there, Abernathy glaring at him from the other side of the bunk, a spill of shirts in his hand and an open duffel bag on the bed in front of him, Mac staring off at a point just past his shoulder.
"You're going home on leave," he says. "That's a good -- "
"Yeah, and when my next tour of duty starts, I'm gonna be in the Philippines. Now, don't get me wrong." Abernathy drops the shirts in a bundle and reaches for a pair of binoculars. "Tropical sand and surf after bein' in this hellhole? Shit, yes, I do believe I can deal with that. But goddammit, say something. Not this 'goodbye, good luck' shit, either. Everyone says that."
Mac shifts his feet. At ease. He's not at ease, not at all. The orders came down earlier today, and Winter, after whooping and hugging Abernathy and calling him a son of a bitch about twenty times, has gone off to see about getting some booze and cigars for what he terms "a proper send-off, you asshole." Mac's gotten stuck with the duty of keeping Abernathy company while he packs, and for some reason he can't understand, his wishes of luck have struck a nerve.
"But it's -- " Mac stops, frowning. He doesn't like having to fumble for words. "I mean it," he continues. "Good luck, and -- it's a good gig you've got for yourself this time around."
"I know you mean it. That ain't the problem. It's -- Look. 'Good luck, take care of yourself,' that's the shit you say to guys you don't know too well. It's, like, that's for everybody. C'mon, Mac." Abernathy drops the jacket he's holding, and comes around to the other side of the bed. Mac has to will himself not to take a step back. "I mean, I get it, okay. It's not like it's easy, but can't you at least say you're gonna miss me? After all this time together?"
Together. Right. And Abernathy is right, Mac thinks. They've come up together, have fought side by side in their now-decimated little battalion, and Abernathy is right: their comradeship deserves a better send-off. He turns, and meets Abernathy's gaze directly. "Of course I'm going to miss you," he says, and Abernathy grins. "You're a good soldier." He thinks the grin slips a little at that, but he's not sure.
"Yeah," Abernathy says. "Goddamn right I'm a good soldier." He glances around, then goes on in a low, teasing voice. "Ain't all I'm good at, right?"
"Jack -- " Mac does take a step back this time. Abernathy is discreet, and always has been, and they're the only ones here right now. Still, he thinks, this is neither the time nor the place.
"Whatcha say, Mac?" Abernathy goes on, his tone just barely above a whisper. "You gonna meet me in the usual place tonight after the going-away party? One more time before I have to hit the road?"
"I don't think that's a good idea."
Abernathy frowns at him for a moment, then, as is probably to be expected, makes a joke out of it. "What? Why don't -- Oh, hey. I get it. Afraid you'd miss me too much, right? Dude. Don't ya know that's gonna happen anyhow?"
Mac studies him, not saying anything.
"Hell, I'll miss you too. But we'll figure somethin' out. Brothers in arms, right? I'll write to ya. In the meantime -- " He takes another step forward and presses one hand to Mac's chest, near the center of his ribcage. "'Least make it a good send-off for me, what do you say?" Though the tone is teasing, there is something begging and desperate deep down in Abernathy's eyes, a desire for affirmation that's entirely at odds with his usual swaggering self-confidence.
"Winter's taking care of that, I believe," he says.
"Oh yeah?" Abernathy says. "Is Winter gonna give me one last blowjob, too?"
The surge of anger he feels is a relief; anger is a better than this nervous, teasing game Abernathy is forcing him to play. He backs away again, jerking himself free of the warm hand. "Don't talk about that," he says. "You -- "
"Oh, I'm sorry." Abernathy folds his arms. "I forgot. We're just supposed to pretend like all of that stuff isn't really happening. Which I get while we're around other people, don't get me wrong. Shit, ain't nothin' like a little bit of secrecy to make the whole thing sweeter. All'a that is fine. What I don't get is why we gotta keep pretending around each other. Especially now."
Mac straightens his uniform shirt, crumpled where Abernathy's hand rested. "There's nothing to pretend about," he says. "That's where you're wrong."
"No? Then just answer me one question. What does this mean to you, Mac?" Abernathy asks.
"What? I don't -- "
"Sure you do. I'll spell it out. The fact that we been fucking each other for the past year. Do you ever think about that when we ain't doing it, or is it just something you block out of your mind in between times?" Abernathy raises a questioning eyebrow at him. "Again, don't get me wrong. It's not like I'm asking for some kinda declaration of love or anything, 'cause that ain't never been what this is about. It's like I told you back when this all started: I just know who I like, that's all. But I just -- I'd like to think you at least managed to wrap your brain around that, Mac, that you ain't just getting off when you need to and looking at me with disgust in between times."
"Of course I'm not," Mac says, surprised and stung. Abernathy has just proved his point, although he doesn't realize it. What they've done together doesn't mean anything; Abernathy has just said it's never been about love. He's been right, then, about its lack of meaning, and is baffled by what Abernathy wants from him right now.
"No, then what are you?" Abernathy asks.
Mac takes a deep breath. "The -- the situation's been pleasant," he says. "You've been a good friend."
Abernathy stares at him. Mac holds out his hand. "Good luck in the Philippines," he says.
This isn't the last thing they say to each other. The last thing comes next.
He stands up. It's very late, and he's got a long day tomorrow -- today, really. He hangs up his coat, and leaves the unsorted main on the hall table. In the bedroom, he sorts the dry cleaning from the laundry and, after turning out the light, lies in bed until his skin starts to itch with the urge to be up and moving about, instead of lying here in the coffin-dark feeling the four walls close in around him. It's the same routine every night, and he no longer wonders why he keeps acting as if it's going to change.
He's not thinking about anything when, maybe twenty minutes later, he leans on the railing and looks across the river to Manhattan. That's the point of these walks, or one of them: to turn off his thoughts, damp down the constant whirl of case file and evidence. It's proving more difficult tonight than it usually is, shame and residual lust making his head pound. He sighs to himself; this is ridiculous. Everything always looks its worst at 3:00 a.m.; by the morning, his head will be clearer, and he'll know how to handle this. How to put the events of the night into perspective. He reminds himself of this, and repeats the assurance every time he starts to think of the confident way Danny kissed him, the wild smile as he dropped to his knees.
There's a light cloud cover over the moon, and no stars visible when he looks up at the night sky. There rarely are any stars to be seen here in the city, too much pollution and too many electric lights. This is comforting; the sky seems close and tangible and small, something that can be easily quantified, rather than the unimaginable vastness that's so apparent out in the country, or anywhere, really, that it's possible to pick out the constellations. He stands with his elbows propped on the rail and stares at the rational lights of the skyscrapers, listening to the traffic and the occasional far-off siren of a Coast Guard boat, and is glad he doesn't smoke.
He tells himself that he's fine, that it's all fine, but can't stop his back from stiffening when Danny walks into his office a few minutes past 8:00 that morning. All Danny does, though, is ask for the tox report for the Villanova case, and his face is calm and neutral. He offers a polite thank-you when Mac hands it to him, and then leaves to go do the witness interviews. Mac watches him go, relieved, a faint tug of some other emotion at the back of his mind, which is easy enough to dismiss.
Routine reasserts itself, as it has a tendency to do. ("Well, that's why it's called 'routine,'" Stella would say.) He walks through a falling-down tenement in Red Hook with his flashlight trained on the walls, the uneven wood floor shifting and creaking beneath him with every step. Stella crouches at the baseboards, squinting and muttering to herself, and occasionally cursing out loud. It's dull, and the damp rot that's set into the building is making him cough, and okay, he thinks, this is okay. The world hasn't stopped spinning on its axis, and no one seems able to tell just by looking at him what happened last night -- this last the superstitious, childish fear he's been unable to shake since he left the locker room and got on the Brooklyn-bound train home.
He lets Stella drive back into the city, something he usually vetoes as a matter of course, because Stella behind the wheel is an open invitation to disaster and speeding tickets, but today he's grateful for the chance to just stare out the window and not have to concentrate on the road. Though he can't refrain from the occasional mild suggestion ("Stella, that's not a turning light"), for the most part he says nothing, and mulls the case over in his head as he watches the streets speed past.
Back at the lab, the rest of his day is consumed with reports and meetings and waiting for test results, and chasing evidence through various databases until his vision begins to blur. He sees Danny once or twice, across the main floor, but they don't speak, and that night, when he comes back from a coffee run, he finds a message on his voicemail, from Danny, telling him that Hawkes won't be done with the autopsy they requested until tomorrow. He plays the message back twice, trying to parse Danny's tone for any possible hidden meaning, but at last comes to the conclusion that there is none.
So that's that. The rest of the week is much the same, all of them consumed with cases and working even longer hours than usual, trying to make puzzle pieces that cannot, will not, fit together magically fall into some kind of order. And none of this is unusual, either; there are many weeks when he sees little of his team except in passing, and at the regular progress report meetings, which themselves often have to be rescheduled again and again as last-minute issues crop up and drag one or another of them back out into the field. He even finds himself exchanging a few sentences with Danny, and nothing in the latter's demeanor suggests that anything is other than usual. Still, he keeps picking at it, searching for meaning and subtext, and is secretly grateful that the current round of cases have Danny either flying solo or working with Aiden, and that he himself is spending the bulk of his days with Stella.
There is one thing that's different, though, and it takes him until the following Monday to catch onto it. It's a simple, little, subtle thing, and in the forest-for-the-trees way they often overlook the most simple explanation in any given investigation, that's probably the exact reason why he's so slow on the uptake. This is what he thinks, at least, looking back at it that night and wondering how he could have been so blind.
It is, simply, this: Danny is going out of his way to be polite and professional, and to use as few words as possible whenever he's around Mac. Gone, during their meetings, are the sarcastic remarks, the constant flow of chatter and the tangents that usually have Mac all but clawing at the edge of his desk in impatience. Even the casual swearing and the slang have disappeared from his vocabulary. Now, he sticks to bare-bones recitations of the facts: I am going here; I am doing this; this is what we found out; here's what we still don't know. He's cool, workmanlike, and what may be the most damning thing about the whole situation is that he never quite looks Mac in the eye when they speak, but chooses instead to stare at a point maybe two inches to the right or left: discreet enough to not be noticed, unless you're looking for it. Which, Mac now admits, he is.
With everyone else, Danny is the same as he always was. Mac hears, walking by, him talking to Aiden about their case, and sees him gesticulate wildly as he goes into profanity-laced detail about how the perp in the Gadling case screwed up, and how they're going to nail his balls to the wall, that little fucker, just you wait. Once he even sees Danny laugh and then grab Aiden around the waist and spin her across the room, before dipping her backwards in an exaggerated tango move -- and sees him laugh again as Aiden extricates herself and swats him in the back of the head.
So it really is just him. And that's fine, he tells himself; it's understandable. He would no doubt do the same, were he in Danny's shoes. (You did do the same, a pedantic voice mutters in his head. You did this to him right after you finished having...well, no, not having sex. Whatever it was you did that night. This is how you acted afterward.) It is, perhaps, the only professional response possible, and he should be commending Danny for not allowing their brief indiscretion to taint their working relationship. Still, he never thought he would miss the constant flow of chatter, never thought that all those times he longed for silence, for Danny to shut up for just two minutes, please God, would result in this. Until it ceased, he never realized how much the steady babble was an expected part of his workday. This new, circumspect Danny pierces him with guilt.
"Are you okay?" Stella asks him one night, leaning against the counter at the Starbucks on Astor Place.
He looks at her, surprised. "Fine," he says. "Why?"
She shrugs. "You seem distracted. More than usual, anyway."
He shakes his head. "Just thinking about the case."
She studies him, a dead-on, head-to-toe assessment that always makes him feel like a deer in the headlights. "Right," she says at last, and reaches out to take her caramel macchiato from the barista.
He wakes up with a start, and the sheets beneath him are soaking wet, his head pounding hard, and in general he feels like he's just been run over by a train. He sits up, and after a minute reaches over to turn on the lamp. Jesus. He finally manages to fall asleep for a few hours, and this is what happens. It's not as if he's never experienced a sexual dream before, but...not like that. Not since he was thirteen or so, anyway. It's embarrassing and troubling in equal measure, especially given the subject matter. He sits there for a minute, then gets up and begins to strip off the damp sheets.
In the dream, he was lying on a narrow bed in what was at first a bunkhouse, before the walls fell away to reveal the Central Park Reservoir, and just beyond it the white bulk of the Guggenheim, shimmering and fading in and out through patches of fog. The geography was all wrong, of course, but unquestioned within the context of the dream. Danny hovered over him, kneeling at the end of the bed, dressed in a combat utility uniform, correct in every particular save for the fact that he was wearing his own slim silver chain in place of the regulation dog tags.
Somewhere far off there was a low, steady boom, as of cannons being fired, and Danny ran a hand down Mac's chest, toying in absent fashion with the ribbons on his dress blues uniform. There wasn't a hint of a smile on his face as he moved his hand lower and began to undo his trouser buttons. Instead, he just blinked down at Mac, calm, eyes expressionless behind his glasses. There was, maybe, a faint hint of curiosity there, the same look Danny sometimes gets on his face in real life when trying to puzzle meaning out of a particularly confounding bit of evidence: no real personal investment, but a mild, clinical sort of interest.
That's supposed to be my role, Mac thought, but in spite of this, he found himself moaning, arching up toward Danny and in desperate need of being touched. Fucked. Jerked off. All the words he didn't ever use in the waking world were coming to his lips there on the cot in the Central Park mist, and somewhere overhead a flare gun went off. He found himself pleading, finally, and all Danny did was shrug and slide his pants down and thrust into him, and Jesus. It was good. He felt himself come, and then keep coming even as Danny continued to move, his expression never changing. The silver chain brushed against his face the entire time.
"Thank you," he said, and he didn't even blush.
Danny looked down at him, and put a hand to his throat. Cold fingers stroked his pulse point. "Why not?" he asked. "I thought I should return the favor." And then the landscape shifted again around them, Central Park melding into the beach at Parris Island, mortar shells raining down, and Danny was standing by the side of the bed, watching with that same clinical disinterest as someone else rolled Mac over on his stomach and pushed his face into the pillow. Still fucking him; there hadn't been a break in the action at any point, but Mac could no longer tell if it was Danny or this other person or maybe both. Danny knelt down, then, and kissed him hard on the mouth, brusque and businesslike, and when Mac started to kiss back, Danny bit his lip, hard enough to draw blood. "Coward," he said, and then shoved him away as the tide began to roll in.
Here, back in the calm sanity of Brooklyn, Mac finishes dropping the sheets into the hamper, and adds his pajamas as an afterthought. He finds a clean pair, then goes about the tedious business of remaking the bed. He feels, as he does so, mild dismay at the detritus his subconscious has chosen to throw at him, but nothing more; by now he's well-acquainted with the garbage that can be conjured up by even the most well-adjusted mind.
He is not, he reminds himself, a coward.
"I ain't no queer, I just know who I like," Abernathy says. His hand moves up and down the length of his erection with deliberate casualness, uniform pants open and unzipped but still on, hard pale flesh against camo green. He sprawls on an unused cot in this dark corner of the supply tent, propped up on one elbow. Wiseass grin still lighting up his face.
Mac hovers in a crouch at the side of the cot, eyes fixed on Abernathy's hand, unwilling to see this but unable to look away. If they get caught --
"Relax yourself, my Midwestern friend," Abernathy says. "Ain't no one comin' around here 'cept me. And maybe you, if you're lucky. You think I didn't check this out first?"
He's sure that Abernathy has, actually. He's good like that, knows how to work all the angles to his best advantage, how to fly under the radar. Mac nods, not trusting his voice.
"Good." Abernathy's hand keeps moving, never varying the pace. "This feels real nice, you know. Only better thing would be another hand, but -- " he chuckles " -- I'll take what I can get." Mac wonders at the even tone of his voice, how he can sound so damned calm. As if they were talking about shooting range scores, or the weather. Abernathy's hand pauses, squeezing, and his eyes slide closed for a moment, a soft sigh escaping his throat.
Mac is still fully dressed, hands clenched, but he doesn't try to kid himself: he's been hard since this began, and is getting even harder. Still, he can keep it under control. Keep himself under control. As long as all he has to do is sit here and watch. Abernathy's thumb brushes over the head of his penis, beads of moisture forming at the tip, and then he tilts his head back and looks at Mac, and smiles right into his eyes. "Why you sitting all the way over there for?" he asks, and leans forward and slicks his wet thumb over Mac's lips.
Mac knows, later, that this is the moment he fell.
And the days continue their endless spiral. They're into late February now, the city inundated by rain day after day: not the gentle spring rains or April-showers-bring-May-flowers that will come later in the year, but a dreary, pounding downpour that rarely ceases. It makes Stella cranky and makes the entire lab gradually take on a faint odor of mold, of damp and decaying fabric. Too many umbrellas left to dry in puddles of rainwater, and clothes that don't have a chance to air out before their wearers have to plunge back into the torrent. Even going out for lunch or coffee becomes too much to cope with, for all of them; ordering take-out doesn't solve the problem, because the soaked and shivering delivery people bring the weather inside with them. Mac begins to hope for crimes committed indoors, because aside from everything else, trying to work an outdoor scene right now is an exercise in futility; the rain washes away any evidence they might be able to find. Danny continues to be a model employee, and to avoid Mac's gaze every time they end up in the same room together.
The weather finally breaks the first week in March, and the first day Mac steps outside his door to find the sun shimmering off the Brooklyn sidewalks, he can't escape a sudden feeling of renewed hope. To hell with everything else; it's not spring yet, but it feels close enough to it to make no difference, and the breeze making its way down Clinton Street is warm, and by the time he gets to the subway he realizes that he could have left his overcoat at home.
At the lab, Stella is cheerful for the first time in weeks, barging into his office as soon as she gets in and berating him about how much work he's going to be making her do today. He parries her wisecracks, as he always does, but underneath it all he can't help feeling pleased, and on the way back from a scene in Morningside Heights, he stops and buys both of them a soft pretzel from a street vendor.
Back at the lab, Stella wanders off to consult CODIS, and Mac settles down at his desk. It seems a shame to waste the sunny afternoon, but he's weeks behind on paperwork, and this is as good a time as any to catch up. It's excruciating at first, dull as peeling paint, but after a while he gets into the routine of it, and by the time he's managed to get through maybe three-quarters of the stack, it's dark outside, and Danny is knocking at his office door.
"Danny." He sets down his pen. "What can I do for you?"
"I've got the legal files you wanted to see from the Parker case." He holds up a manila folder.
"Great. Let's have it." Mac stands up and holds out a hand. Danny pauses for the briefest second, then comes all the way into the office and hands over the folder. "Anything good?" Mac asks, glancing through it.
"Maybe. It's hard to tell. We're going to have to compare the information in there to the evidence we pulled from the scene."
"I'll get to that tomorrow." He sets the folder down. "Good job, anyway."
"Thank you." Danny turns, about to go, and suddenly the last thing Mac wants is for him to leave.
"Danny," he says, then realizes as Danny turns back that he has no idea of what he's going to say. "Are you through for the day?" he asks.
"I think so. Unless there's something else you need me to do." Danny stares at something just over Mac's shoulder.
"Nothing comes to mind."
"Well, then. Good night, Mac."
This time, when Danny turns back, he looks put-upon. "Yes?" he asks.
"I was just about finished myself," he says. "Do you -- do you want to get a beer? It's been a while since any of us have gone out."
"Has it? I hadn't realized." Danny shrugs. "Thanks, but no. I should get home."
"Danny -- "
"What, Mac? What?" Danny, already part way out the door, stops where he is, and for the first time in weeks, Mac can hear a note of something in his voice other than professional politeness.
"I just thought..." He pauses. Fiddles with the strap of his watch. "It might be a good night for a beer."
There is a pause. "Why?" Danny asks finally. "So you can get drunk before you get me to suck your dick? Then at least you'll have a believable excuse for pretending it didn't happen."
He looks up, too startled, for the moment at least, to even be angry. When he does, he finds that Danny is glaring at him, jaw hard and set, hands clenched into fists at his sides. "That's not -- " he starts to say.
"Fair?" Danny asks. "No. Maybe not. I don't fucking care about fair. Neither was what you did after we...after we got it on that night."
"We didn't -- "
"Yeah, we did. Deny it all you want; it happened." Danny comes back into the office, to the other side of the desk. "It happened, and then you tried to pretend it hadn't, that you weren't standing there with my come all over your hands. Oh, sorry. Should I say 'semen'? Maybe that's proper enough for you. And now you have the fucking gall to ask me out for a beer like it was nothing?" He slams a fist down on the desk, making everything there jump. "Fuck you and fuck your beer."
"Don't you talk to me like that," Mac snaps, sudden rage red-hot in his field of vision. "Don't you stand there and use that kind of language in this office."
"Right. I forgot. It's all about appearances. Stupid fucking cocksucking me." Danny stands there, very still for the moment, tapping his fingers against the corner of the desk. "Don't worry. I am well aware of how outta line I just was, and it's not gonna happen again." He turns to go, then can't resist one final parting shot from the safety of the door. "Sure wish I could turn my emotions off the way you can, Mac. It would make dealing with you a fuck of a lot easier."
And he's gone.
Mac stands there, blinking, angry at Danny for all the things he just said -- completely out of line, as even he acknowledged -- and, he realizes gradually, angry at himself for standing there and barely saying a word, for just taking the abuse. This isn't so surprising, really, he thinks as he sits back down at his desk; Danny's fury at him surfaced with the suddenness and speed of a car wreck, and he remembers the deer-in-headlights metaphor he often thinks of when dealing with Stella's whirlwind of emotions. This was like that multiplied by a factor of a thousand.
He tried, he tells himself. Dammit, he tried. He reached out to Danny with an offer of rapprochement and saw it rejected in the most abrupt and extreme manner possible. That's on Danny, not him. If Danny hadn't --
If Danny hadn't been so hurt, he wouldn't have reacted the way he did.
The puzzle piece falls into place with no warning, much like Danny's outburst, or like the unexpected moments when a previously unclear aspect of a case will suddenly snap into sharp focus.
He puts the rest of the pieces together, a crime scene of the most personal sort.
Danny is hurt. Because of what they did -- no, because of how he behaved afterwards.
He had sex with Danny, or something close to it. He tried to pretend it hadn't happened, and this didn't work. God, how it didn't work.
These are the facts. He can't avoid them any longer; he wouldn't be any kind of CSI if he did.
He sits at his desk, fists clenched, feeling a muscle jump in his jaw. How did he end up here again?
"Don't talk to me about friendship," Abernathy says. "You don't know shit about it, Mac, can't see a goddamn thing past the nose on your face."
"Jack -- " he begins.
"Don't bother." Abernathy zips the duffel bag with a vicious gesture and drops it on the floor. "I'm wasting my time. Taylor, you have a nice life. I'm sure you'll go far in the Corps." With that, he turns and leaves. Mac stands by the side of the bed, feeling sick to his stomach. A brief impulse to go after Abernathy arises; he should go grab him by the arm, offer apology and explanation. Help send him off in style, however they want to define that. But he doesn't move, and in a little while, the urge passes.
That night, at the impromptu bon voyage party, nobody seems to notice how he and Abernathy avoid each other, and the next morning, Abernathy is gone, bound for the States and then the Philippines, and eventually for an ill-met sniper's bullet in Kuwait City.
Mac does go far in the Corps, and then in the New York Police Department, and his thoughts of Jack Abernathy are few and far between.
An hour or so after Danny storms out of his office, he stands on the roof of the station, staring out over the city. Work was impossible after that encounter and his realization, of course. The evening is calm and dark, the sounds of the neighborhood and traffic removed enough to be easily ignored. He is well aware, now, of his role in this recent upheaval. What he doesn't know is how to fix it. There are other questions to be considered, too, questions about why he did what he did with Danny, and whether or not he would like for it to happen again. For these things, too, he has no answers. So, instead, he stands here, not even trying any more to cease or divert the flow of his thoughts.
He thinks of Abernathy, seven years older than the last time they saw each other, dying in a remote desert at the wrong end of a bullet. He thinks of Kyle and Tompkins, and of what happened to them. He thinks of himself, half-dreaming on guard duty in the pale early-morning light, thinking vaguely about breakfast and a shower and the little birds in the grass around the barracks. Then the world had exploded, rumble and flash and bright bone-white sizzle, like lightning striking overhead, and then he couldn't hear anything and there was rubble pouring down all around him and blood running down his face, and the birds were gone.
He thinks of Winter, sitting in an office somewhere deep within the rings of the Pentagon, composing his hopeful e-mails and moving further away, year by year, from the boy Mac knew in the Corps. We're the only two left now, Winter had said after Abernathy shipped home. Whole goddamn squad scattered to hell. Mac hadn't pointed out the obvious, that "scattered" wasn't an accurate word when two of the people in question were dead, and that they hadn't been an integrated group even before October, maybe. If Winter knew about him and Abernathy --
But Winter hadn't known. No one had ever found out, and the only other person who could have revealed the secret has been dead for over a decade.
After that, he thinks about Claire, realizing with a guilty start how little she has been on his mind throughout this entire fiasco. That's something else to be considered, but he doesn't know if he has the mental energy for it right now. He loved her. Loves her. He tells himself that one thing has nothing to do with the other, that what happened with Danny doesn't need to be analyzed in terms of Claire, but his detective's mind suggests that sooner or later he'll have to. Fine. It can wait. That's an added complication, and too much right now.
The only thing Claire has in common with Jack Abernathy is that they're both dead. He...is not. And neither is Danny. So many ghosts, these beacons of light from his past come back to crowd around him; he almost thinks he might have to brush them aside when he walks, push his way through the crowd. He's not superstitious. He's not. Yet the dead are everywhere, disguised, sometimes, as the living -- who are only the not-yet dead. The about-to-be. He wishes he could tell the difference, but maybe there isn't one.
He tilts his face up to the sky for a brief moment before returning his gaze to the streets below. There are no constellations readily visible here, it's true, but the lights of the city are spread out before him like artificial stars.
"Anybody ever tells you they don't believe in ghosts," Abernathy says, "you take 'em outside and you show 'em the stars."
Mac looks over at him. "How do you mean?"
They're on guard duty; it's the spring of 1983. Abernathy is fond of these spontaneous lectures on random subjects, which is fine with Mac; it saves him having to come up with a topic of conversation.
Abernathy leans back against a railing. "Just what I said. We see ghosts every night. The stars." He grins. "C'mon, Mr. Wizard. Didn't they ever teach you that in all those science classes you're so goddamn fond of?"
"I must've missed that day," Mac says, amused.
"Damn. I get to teach you something for once, go figure. Okay, so come over here and look up at the sky." Mac does so, knowing from experience that Abernathy will keep nagging at him -- and won't go on with whatever point he's itching to make -- until he cooperates. "Good," Abernathy goes on. "So you look up at the sky, what do you see?"
"Stars?" Mac asks, knowing it's not the answer he's looking for.
"No, my friend, that's where you'd go wrong. But that's all right; it's a common mistake. Actually what you're seeing are a bunch of dead stars. Well..." He pauses, thinking. "I shouldn't say that. They ain't all dead. But a load of 'em are. See, the stars we see are thousands of light years away from where we are, and do you know how long it takes light to travel that distance? Longer'n it takes the brass to make a decision about whether to ship us out or not, I tell you what."
Mac chuckles at this, and keeps studying the sky. Now that Abernathy is talking, his words are pinging something in Mac's memory, some nearly-forgotten grade-school science lesson. He lets him keep talking anyway, the cadence of the words soothing, and the stars in question bright in his eyes against the dark night sky.
"So that means that a star can, like, explode or go supernova, or whatever the hell they call it, ages ago, and we'll still be getting the light from it long after it's dead." He leans toward Mac, pointing up at the sky. "Point is, we ain't really seeing stars. Not all the time. Sometimes we're seeing dead stars, and what are those but -- "
" -- Ghosts," Mac finishes.
Abernathy's wild-boy grin spreads across his face again. "Exactly it. Good boy, you get a gold star," he says, and with that he leans in even closer and kisses Mac, hard and sloppy and affectionate.
This is a week or so before they end up in the supply tent together, and nearly a year before the last time they ever speak to each other.
Mac thinks of these things as he stands on the rooftop, the events of the past weeks and years brushing at him with wispy, ectoplasmic fingers, insistent murmurs in his ear.
He pulls his jacket closer around him, the night breeze gone chilly as he's been standing here. Abernathy had been right about his science lesson, however inelegantly it had been expressed. He looks up at the sky, knowing before he does that no matter how close or how long he looks, he'll, at best, spot a faint star or two, twinkling way off in the distance. And he doesn't mind this. Any glimpsed star, he'd have no way of knowing whether it's still in existence, or if he's just catching the faded glimmers of its afterlife. With electric lights, he thinks, at least you know where you stand. No light bulb or neon sign will ever keep on shining after its inner workings give out. Dead is dead, and it's the deceit inherent in these spirit constellations that he objects to; what's worse is that there's no way of telling one from another, no way to distinguish a living nebula from a dead, burned-out thing sending its last-gasp light across the universe.
He has to fix things, if only he knew how, or where to begin. Astrology is something he disdains as an illogical con game, but at the moment he understands its appeal: there's a comfort in thinking that one's life is in the hands of destiny and that no human agency can change the ordained course of events.
If only he knew what category to put Danny into, had some way of knowing that the things Danny seems ready to offer him are what they seem, and not the product of some dead star, not some will o'the wisp leading him off his safe, well-trodden path into treacherous bogs and marshes.
He has his cell phone in his hand, and he scrolls through the stored numbers until he finds the one he's looking for. The next step would be so easy: all he has to do is push the "Talk" button, and from there events will take their course. It's like pulling the trigger on a gun: move one finger an infinitesimal distance, and the world can change.
One little movement. The work of a split second.
The signal is strong and clear; he'd half-hoped that he wouldn't be able to get service up here, that somehow he'd be out of range of the nearest tower. Ironic, this, that he's willing to leave his decisions up to the whims of Sprint. He doesn't have to push the button if he doesn't want to; he doesn't have to do anything. He can put the phone back in his pocket and go back downstairs, and go on with his life: his life as it has been, moving along in its accustomed grooves. His past and his present will stay where they belong, and his future...his future will be straightforward and untroubled. He can see his choices very clearly, and suddenly he knows what he has to do.
He pushes the button before he can change his mind, and raises the cell to his ear. There is further irony to be considered, he realizes, as he listens to the ring of a phone somewhere across the river in Queens: he may get an answering machine. Doesn't matter, he decides; he'll leave a message even if he does.
The plastic of the phone feels clammy in his hand, slick with the sweat of his palms. Two rings. He should hang up; he still has time. But if Caller ID has already identified him --
Three rings, and then a click.
Deep breath. In and out. "Hi. It's -- it's me."
Silence on the other end, but the line is still open; he's not been hung up on.
As he starts to talk, he can sense the murmuring ghosts withdraw into the background, at least for the time being. He's pulled the trigger, taken the plunge, and for all that he can't see the ground beneath his feet, he has a curious sense of exhilaration as he speaks, of walking on a giddy high wire.
He keeps talking, and the electric stars of the city fill his sight.