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chasing smoke

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It had started small, barely noticeable to anyone who didn’t know Mick. Hell, Len had initially dismissed it himself at first, letting it bypass all his internal alarms in favor of being busy integrating Mick into his plans. They were partners on and off for twenty years, but nobody knew how Len worked better than Mick.

They’ve had their fights and tense silences, but they always somehow drifted back to each other. He heard all the arguments over his life whenever people snidely commented on their relationship. Mick Rory was dangerous, teetering on the edge of madness, and an unpredictable flight risk on jobs.

But Len knew better. There was no one in the world he would trust his back to other than Mick. Someone who saved a scrawny teen stumbling his way through juvie the first time with a mouth that couldn’t shut up. Someone who didn’t give a damn that he was corrupt policeman Lewis Snart’s kid, telling him straight in the eye that he didn’t give a crap. Someone loyal and crazy enough to put up with Len’s bullshit, aware yet unafraid of Len’s cold ruthlessness.

Knowing Mick as long as has, he should’ve paid more attention. Nothing about Mick was subtle, and that should’ve been the first sign.

Mick was always, for lack of a better word, loud.

He’s never really been the chatter between the two of them, preferring to answer in grunts and let his partner do the talking and long-winded speeches. Len was aware of his own faults, no matter what Lisa said. It never does any good to be in denial when reality wasn’t going anywhere. (He learnt that the hard way.)

But Mick was always quick to throw out a quip, to react before thinking. The man of action next to the man who never ran out of words. Hot-blooded and always rearing for a fight with snarling grins and growls in spares. He may not be as much of a talker, but nothing about the man could be described as quiet.

Yet over the past year, something about Mick has shifted.

When they kidnapped Caitlin Snow, Mick couldn’t stop staring at her with intense, hungry eyes. It had worried Len, made him tense at the idea Mick would cross that line Len never thought Mick would’ve ever thought to cross. Consent, choice, it was important to Mick.

But Mick never had to cajole a person into bed, willing partners flirting with Mick’s surprising charms. Not to mention, Mick had a temper like nothing else, an inferno of rage that wildly got out of control, especially when people looked down on him. And Len had done the unthinkable merely half a year ago, deciding to cut his losses because he couldn’t stand to be around his own very visible mistakes on Mick’s burnt body. Who knew what the incident could’ve done to Mick mentally? Len wanted to kick himself now for being such a coward for running away.

So Len, acting like he wasn’t carefully observing, listened to Mick as he gave his fervent rant about fire to one terrified scientist.

It was a pretty standard scare tactic playing up Mick’s insanity, all things considered, until Mick hummed and commented idly, “I wonder if by burning you alive, it’ll melt some of that ice stuck on you. You wanna tell me what froze your heart?” he grinned, something sharp in his burning eyes. “I bet it’s cause of a sweetheart, ain’t it? Did he die, or leave you?”

The way Snow paled white as her namesake at Mick’s words definitely pinged Len’s attention. The once diminutive woman now looked ready to commit murder, some invisible string that represented her patience or sanity snapping.

“How dare you-” she hissed, eyes flashing and enraged. Mick merely stared, looking absolutely fascinated.

“Mick.” Len barked, demanding for Mick to stop whatever he was playing at. “Time to go.”

To Len’s hidden relief, Mick actually listened with one last contemplative glance at the tied up furious Snow before following.

Things didn’t end there.

After they escaped arrest with Lisa’s help, Len decided he would stick around for Mick this time. A case of making up to the man for ditching. And also, of course, for the sake of trying to figure out what Mick’s deal was.

The next morning, Len casually declared they should stick together. That Len had plans for Central City and he didn’t want his partner to be too far out of reach. Convenient excuses, but valid ones. Mick had rolled his eyes, seeing right through him so easily that it was kind of scary, not even protesting against this invasion of privacy like he used to. It was the closest either would ever get to admitting they didn’t like the idea of being alone again.

Lisa cheerfully enlisted in this move and the three now ended up sharing one place, coexisting in a way they haven’t done since Len and Mick were teenagers with no one else to turn to but each other.

It was... oddly nice.

He didn’t forget about his main reason for staying though. With this opportunity, Len now had a close up view to how Mick was operating. He could find out himself what happened this year to have Mick change so much. So he lied in wait, vigilantly trying to piece together the picture as little instances started piling up.

For one, there were the books.

Mick, as it turned out now, bought books. In an actual bookstore. Second hand, but still.

And it was accumulating in number as the weeks pass by. They were all lined up on bookshelves that, apparently, Mick decided to build into the wall himself.

Len stared at the psychology books and... A color thesaurus?

When he asked, Mick just nonchalantly shrugged and said, “Gets me to fall asleep. And it’s interesting.”

Interesting?

Len shook his head, baffled, and mentally added this firmly to the Mick observation folder.

Second, were the trips.

Len watched as Mick put on a jacket and, curiously enough, a baseball cap before grunting he was heading out without so much as a by-your-leave. Len wrestled with himself as he stared at the closed apartment door before standing up from the worn out couch and deciding to follow.

The man’s been too calm these days despite Len never seeing him take out his lighter. And the vanishing acts have been increasingly occurring, Mick coming back every time looking in control, content even.

It was strange, and Len was determined to find out the reason behind it.

It wasn’t that hard. Mick was a giant among the crowd no matter how much the man purposely hunched himself over, head low with oxymoronic humble behavior the older man used on undercover jobs. Mick knew that Len knew Mick learnt how to act like such by watching Len over the early years. The show of being carefully subservient whenever Len was around Lewis in the house.

People who’ve said Mick was dumb as a brick wall were fucking idiots.

Mick took several buses, making a confusing trail that Len couldn’t help be impressed by with how easily Mick seemed to be able to keep track that led them to Mick’s destination which was, of all places, the public park in Central City.

Len crept behind his partner whose back was to him and watched as Mick shuffled to a bench, sat down, and did... nothing.

He sat there peaceably, the back of his head swerving around as if he was casually looking around. Len automatically thought Mick was surveying the place from the movement, maybe for a job though god knows what kind of job would involve a public park, but his body language was all wrong.

His shoulders were low and relaxed and he was leaning his entire weight at the back of the bench, a sign he wasn’t planning on going anywhere. Len’s curiosity burnt to know more, but this was the best view he could get. There was no way in hell Len was going to manage better than this, Mick’s instincts were just as sharp as his own.

So he watched from afar, waiting for something, anything to happen.

Three hours later when it was dipping into evening, Mick got up and simply walked away.

Len thought he missed something that first time, so he followed Mick a few more times to see if anything would change.

Nothing happened.

Len was almost tempted to think that Mick was messing with him, knowing he was following him. But no, Len knew he had been careful, he was a thief damnit. He always knew when a job’s gone bad and he was caught.

The only conculsion Len could come up with was that Mick spontaneously goes to a park, without any reason at all, then comes back home right before night hits like clockwork.

Len had to admit defeat in that instance, and it ticked him off more than he’d like to admit.

And the jobs. Fuck, the jobs.

Mick wasn’t as quick to irritation whenever Len reminded him not to kill anyone. Instead of being annoyed, an almost pensive look would cross his face, as if he was really considering following the one rule he always had trouble understanding. Len knew Mick didn’t think like most people and honestly, Len’s morals weren’t that sparkly clean either. Len just didn’t want to be more like his father than he already was. But to see Mick actually hold back, thoughtful as he rolled it over through his mind was a staggering development that Len somehow had missed.

It was, admittedly, driving Len a little insane trying to solve the mystery.

Len was a pro when it came to the art of adapting.

He just never expected he would have to adapt to Mick.

The thing that broke the camels back though was brought to his notice by Lisa.

“Lenny, what’s going on with Mick?” she point blank questioned, getting to the point instead of toying around the issue. She always did when it came to family.

“Don’t know what you mean.” He drawled, glancing up from the blueprints scattered on the rickety dining table. Their next heist was happening in a week and he was swamped at the moment preparing for it. Half his mind was still focused on it, mind whirling as he accumulated the information into a formidable plan.

All of that faded away though when he took in the rare frown lines wrinkling her forehead in a way she always hated. Said it made her look unattractive, something Len couldn’t see no matter how much she whined over it. Right now, she was genuinely worried.

“What happened?”

“More like what’s not happening.” Lisa bit her bottom lip, a nervous tic she never completely gotten rid of from childhood. “He’s not burning anything.”

Len nodded, already aware of that.

“No recent fires have been reported in the newspapers...” he trailed off when Lisa started shaking her head, uncharacteristically serious.

“It’s more than that. Lenny, he forgot where he put his lighter.”

“What?” Len blurted out, straightening up instantly in alarm.

That wasn’t possible. Mick literally couldn’t function without something that could produce fires on him at all times. Lighters, matches, you name it. The one time he didn’t have a lighter with him was in their early twenties when a job went pear shaped, Mick ending up losing it in their rush for escape. The bigger man had a goddamn anxiety attack when he realized it was missing, breathing fast and eyes darting everywhere as he curled up and tried to calm down. It had been terrifying to see someone Len saw as physically unbeatable break down so badly.

Lisa hadn’t been there to see it, but she knew what happened. She knew how serious this was.

“What happened?” Len already felt himself standing up, tense and ready to dash out the door. He had to find Mick, had to make sure he was okay-

“He’s fine,” Lisa said quickly before grasping his shoulder, the weight of her hand grounding him. “We were at the club and a girl was asking for a light. Mick searched his pockets and,” Lisa let a little bewilderment and wonder color her next words. “he apologized and said he didn’t have it. He was fine.”

Both Snart siblings looked at each other, feeling like a rug has been pulled right underneath them.

Len couldn’t deny any longer that this was just a small thing now. Something happened to Mick when he wasn’t here, something serious and life-changing from the looks of it.

“I’m going to talk to him-” he halted in his tracks when Lisa shook her head.

“Lenny, I think we should leave it alone.”

Len opened his mouth because why the hell shouldn’t he demand an explanation-

But then he stopped to think, to really ponder the changes themselves.

He didn’t know what was different with Mick, but there was no denying the man was, in lots of ways, happier.

He wasn’t burning things as often as before, not as prone to being lost in flames which would definitely make him less of a hazard to jobs. Ignoring the fact that all the changes were baffling and strange, it was relatively harmless to both Mick and other people. Was this, maybe, a sign?

A sign that Mick was getting better?

Was he getting help? What if the disappearances weren’t all going to a park? What if he was seeing a competent shrink – a novel idea – and it was working? Hell, maybe going to the park was even an exercise for all Len knew. And it would definitely explain the psychology books’ existence, though he still wasn’t sure what the color thesaurus was for.

Maybe the no-killing rule and not depending on the lighter as much were symptoms of him improving?

If that’s the case, Len shouldn’t interfere. Mick was always touchy on the idea of shrinks from bad experiences, and wouldn’t want Len to know about it until the man knew for sure it was working. Neither of them trusted the idea of false hope, this could be Mick’s way of protecting Len in his mind.

Len should probably respect that. He still owed Mick for cutting the man loose and he didn’t want to push him. He didn’t have the right to force the man to talk, he was going to have to earn the right to know. Later.

He sighed, running a hand over his scalp before shooting his sister an assenting look.

“I’m not good at waiting, but fine. I see your point.” He reluctantly admitted.

Lisa smiled, relief in her eyes.

They’ll just have to wait.