## The Scientific Method

### Work Text:

i. hypothesis

Stella sticks her head in the lab on her way home to make fun of him. "How's that coming? You still on trace?" She doesn't sound all that teasing, but Stella has this look on her face like she's secretly laughing, and she's had that look way too much lately. Danny just knows she's making fun on the inside.

"There's got to be an explanation for these fibers," says Danny. "What are the odds that the one thing that doesn't make sense isn't connected to the answer?"

Stella doesn't say anything about that, just, "Well, don't stay in here too long, make sure you're ready before eight. Aiden still here, too?"

"She went back to the scene."

"Okay. Just make sure. If you have to be dragged out of this lab," says Stella, "Danny--Danny, you're not even looking at me." Danny jumps and looks up from the microscope, trying to hang onto the thought he was having about the twisted gray fibers. "--If you have to be dragged out of here I promise, I will not be the one doing the dragging."

"Yes, ma'am."

She raises her eyebrows, and Danny winces. He's kind of afraid of Stella. She knows how to aim her punches. "I swear to you, Stella, it's under control. I got my nice suit all laid out in the office and the timer set on my watch."

"Okay," says Stella, and leaves.

Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on how you look at it, Aiden comes back from the scene with a lot of possible matches for the fibers and a security camera with about a thousand hours of footage on it, which is nine hundred and ninety-nine hours and about fifty-nine minutes more footage than they really need, but someone has to go through all of it. The timer on Danny's watch goes off for a whole minute before he rubs his eyes and hits stop on the computer, and he buttons his shirt the wrong way twice.

Aiden sticks her head back in the room, wearing dangly earrings and an expensive-looking navy blue dress. "Wanna switch off?" she says. "Computer for microscope? You looked like you were having a hard time."

Danny sighs and rubs his hand through his hair.

"You just messed up your hair," Aiden points out.

"Stella said she's coming back by eight," Danny mutters. "She went home. They closed their case already."

"Hey," Aiden says, coming the rest of the way into the room. She touches his shoulder. "We'll crack it, I know we're close."

Danny tries to smooth his hair down without a hairbrush or a mirror. He really doesn't want to have to go back into the locker room before eight. They've only got an hour.

Aiden bites her lip. She's looking at him like she's worried about him. "You know--" she says. "Danny, Mac, he won't care--"

"I don't want to talk about it," says Danny quickly.

Aiden jerks back slightly, looking hurt.

Danny sighs. He puts his arm around her shoulders--which is a lot different in this skimpy blue dress, he can tell you, than in normal clothes--she seems a lot smaller. "Look, I'm sorry," he says. "Just, ah..." Aiden is practically his best friend, and she has been giving him these worried little looks for a while. He is lucky she hasn't started dropping hints before. "Just not here," he says. It was probably inevitable.

Aiden nods okay, and then hands him a little mirror from a tiny beaded purse in her desk drawer, and waits while he fixes his hair.

The unfortunate part about Aiden having brought both the video and the pile of clothes and carpets and the bloody teddy bear is that while Danny is in the lab, Aiden is in the computer lab, and so she doesn't get to remind him what he's doing. He looks at the clock a few times, but this isn't enough to keep him from getting caught up, and he's got a line of ten test tubes under the hood, waiting for timed reactions staggered at one-minute intervals, when Stella appears in the door.

There's a firm knock on the door frame, and he looks up. Stella's wearing a dress that makes his mouth drop straight open, then makes him almost bite his tongue off closing it again, because that kind of thought just does not go with Stella. She really shouldn't be wearing that dress, but she looks stunning. He hopes he gets to see her politely chew the head off some higher-up assholes while they're trying not to look down the front of it.

"Danny," says Stella, smiling and showing her teeth. "How's it going?"

"I--oh, shit, Stella, I didn't forget, I swear, I just--I looked at the clock fifteen minutes ago, but I thought I'd have time." He's already almost lost his window for the current sample. He picks the test tube up and lifts it up to the light.

"Uh-huh. Danny, relax. It's not eight yet. You can finish that up."

She's standing there waiting. Danny winces. "Uh, actually--I have to wait for these."

Stella's progress into the lab is punctuated with the sharp, hollow-sounding clicks of her shoes. The black dress alternately shines in the light, and swallows it all.

She peers over his shoulder, then at the hood, then at the timer. Danny pipettes 0.10 ml of distilled water into the tube and agitates it some more. He's feeling a little warm in his very nice suit and wishes he could take off the jacket. He isn't even wearing a lab coat, just his rubber gloves and the suit.

It's very hard not to look over. He can just hear Stella thinking about where to leave his body and how to get it there. He wishes she'd think quieter.

When the little timer beeps sharply, he reaches to reset it and puts the test tube in a rack. That's when he chances a look at Stella. "Sorry, Stella," he offers nervously. "This case is just--well, I got a little caught up in the case. Aiden brought these fiber samples by and once it occurred to me to treat them, I just jumped right into it."

Stella sighs, and picks up off Danny's lab table a glittery little bag that looks like someone went crazy with the glue and sequins, pretty much like Aiden's. "Well," she says, "we're not going to be late..." Danny goes for the next test tube to make sure he'll have time before his minute is up, squeezes a drop onto a fresh slide and puts his eye back to the microscope. "...as long as we're out the door as soon as the last one is done."

Danny doesn't think much of it when she vanishes after that; he's just glad to be left alone.

Later he realizes he should have been suspicious from the minute he saw that smile, with teeth. You can't trust Stella, especially when she smiles like that. The last time he saw that particular smile was when she accepted his apology for embarrassing her in front of those two uniforms--and really, he hadn't meant to--and the next Friday, due to that waterproof mascara and those two Costa Rican exchange students at Sullivan's, became his official least favorite day of the year.

And Stella even warned him this time. She said, "I won't be the one doing the dragging."

It's 7:57, by the wall clock, when he hears Stella's voice in the hallway and the sharp clicks of her shoes, and the quieter noise of another pair.

When Danny looks up, the doorway is full of Mac.

At least, Stella is standing behind him, but Mac Taylor in an expensive dark blue suit, well-cut, with the faint sheen of silk--Mac always wears a suit, but this is the one he saves for special occasions--is enough to blank anyone else right out of the picture. It's all buttoned up, and Mac's tie is snug against his throat. He's looking into the room like it's full of unusually bright light and he's just walked out of a dungeon. He's probably thinking about the banquet--Mac doesn't enjoy playing politics.

"Danny!" says Stella. "There you are. You almost done?" Danny opens his mouth, but she doesn't let him speak. "Good. Oh, hey, Aiden gave me this, you left it on your desk." Mac's stepped aside, and Danny can see she's holding his tie rolled up in her hand. She makes to throw it, then stops. "Oh--you can't really catch it--can you?"

Danny blinks through his glasses, and a rising feeling of sickness. "Sorry," he says, holding up his hands in the latex gloves, which have some not entirely pleasant substances smeared on them.

Mac's moved into the lab, just the side of the door, and he's looking around like maybe he isn't exactly hearing them.

Stella shrugs, making that cute little smile she does, curling her top lip up. Yeah, Stella. Real cute. She smacks the tie into Mac's palm before he knows what's hit him. "Here, Mac, fix Danny's tie for him."

Danny freezes for a second, just when the timer goes off. It takes him a second to turn it off. "Stella, really--"

"No, come on, we're in a rush, here, your hands are full. Listen, I've got to go to the little girls' room, but I'll see you guys out in the bullpen--two minutes, okay?"

She's gone.

Danny isn't smart enough to get away with hiding her body, he's sure, or he'd be working on it. Mac's turned to look at him, there's that much at least. He blinks and takes a step or two towards the table. Danny almost kills himself trying to keep track of Mac and check the next tube's sample under the microscope at the same time.

He puts the test tube down and Mac's standing solemnly by his right elbow. "Oh, Mac, really, you don't have to--." He's sure all the blood in his body has rushed either to his face or below his belt. He's just glad he doesn't have lighter skin.

Mac's face is grave and earnest. He points to the clock with his chin. "Stella's right," he says in his gravelly voice, "if we want to make it to the police banquet on time we've only got a couple of minutes. Besides, I think I have more experience tying a tie than you do."

Danny pauses in the middle of taking out the last test tube to turn around and see the little hint of a smile. Yes, that was a genuine Mac Taylor joke. They're hard to recognize because, as Stella says, they're hardly ever funny, and a lot of the time just don't make any sense at all. That was actually a pretty good one, as Mac's jokes go.

Danny clears his throat and mumbles something like "yes" and glances confusedly back at the test tube. He swirls it gently and watches the sediment drifting in the liquid, which is the color of cherry Kool-Aid.

"If you would just lift your arm," says Mac politely.

Politely. Sweet Jesus, Mary and Joseph, Danny thinks, and lifts his arm and ends up having to shuffle half a step backwards because Mac actually ducks under it. Danny tries to watch the test tube and agitate it right with Mac standing between him and the lab table.

It's hard to miss the concentrating frown on Mac's face or the brushes against Danny's neck when he turns Danny's collar up, drapes the tie around and flips the collar back down carefully.

He picks his other arm up and puts two drops of distilled water in the test tube. It stays separate from the pink solution for a second, then absorbs into the cloudy swirls.

He can hear Mac breathing, can smell through his cologne--Mac doesn't wear much of it usually, must have put on extra for the special occasion--to what must be his own skin smell underneath.

Mac's got the edge of one hand resting against the lapel of Danny's jacket and he's sucked his lower lip into his mouth. Once he pulls the tie taut to the length he likes and starts looping it around itself, his mouth relaxes. Danny's looking at the fluid settling again in the test tube, but he sees Mac glance at his face out of the corner of his eye.

The precipitate is darker than Danny expected. He frowns at it a little and almost reaches for the dropper with his right arm, before he realizes he can't see around Mac, let alone pick anything up from the table behind him without wrapping his arm around Mac's waist. He clears his throat nervously. He can just reach the box of disposables with his other hand. He gets a new one instead and quickly puts a drop on each test strip and one on a fresh slide.

Mac's tugging the knot up, now, one hand wrapped around the tie, the back of his hand against Danny's chest, and damn, he's not sure he wants to kill Stella; he might have to kiss her.

Mac makes a little coughing noise. "Ah," he touches the point of Danny's collar, "do you mind--if I fasten your collar--?"

Danny says something, and it seems to have been something like a yes. He's just standing with his hand on the counter, because he can't look at the microscope until Mac moves even if he put both of his arms around Mac's waist, just wouldn't be able to get his head low enough, and Mac's fingers are fiddling with the second to the top button of his shirt. Whoever heard of it taking anyone so long to do a button?

Not that Danny's going to say anything, Mac can take as long as he wants. They can be late for the banquet.

The top button of Danny's shirt is always tricky. He can't stand having them done up, which is why he never wears them that way. They're too tight around his neck. Whenever he has to wear a tie, it always takes him at least two tries to get the top button done. Mac's face even seems to be a little closer, even though he isn't looking at Danny per se, just at Danny's nicest dress shirt and his neck.

Danny tries to stand really, really still.

He's pretty sure that doesn't work entirely. Like for instance, he doesn't even realize he isn't breathing until Mac bites his lip again and turns his hand, four fingers going right down inside the collar of Danny's shirt and brushing against his collarbone. And he realizes it then because he gasps one breath so fast it feels like a hiccup.

That's when he starts praying that Mac won't notice.

It actually only takes a few seconds, maybe five, definitely not ten, before Mac gets his shirt all buttoned. He slides Danny's tie up carefully, pinching it or something, right up to Danny's Adam's apple, and only then does he stop. He takes his hands away, and says, "There you go."

Danny has to swallow. "Thanks." He dares to look at Mac and is sort of surprised by how close they are, right up in each other's face. It was easier to ignore that when he was watching out of the corner of his eye. Actually, Danny's eyeballs are feeling a little sore from doing that. He's going to have to give them a rest... well, maybe after the banquet.

Mac twitches a little, and reaches up and straightens the tie again, a little line between his eyebrows. Then he steps aside. Danny just has time to look at the last slide for a second. He's glad to discover his mouth isn't hanging open. He twiddles the focus knob the wrong way and back; it was already in focus. And he was already pretty sure the last fiber was the one, but he won't be able to check it until tomorrow. He turns off the microscope, and looks up.

Mac's watching him, one hand on the edge of the lab table, a little interested frown on his face. "Are you done here?"

Danny nods, neatly stripping off the gloves inside out and dropping them in the trash. He grabs a paper towel to wipe the powder off his hands on his way out, hanging back a little to watch Mac going through the door. That, Danny thinks, is one damn fine suit. Mac hesitates right outside the door and looks over his shoulder, and Danny hurries to fall in beside him.

§§§

"What's the matter with you?" says Aiden about halfway through dinner, leaning over under the cover of yet another round of applause.

"What," says Danny, "is it so hard to believe I don't have anything disrespectful to say about the big guys tonight?"

Aiden raises her eyebrows at him and doesn't even have to say Please, don't even try that with me out loud.

Danny shrugs.

But she keeps looking at him. And looking at him, until Stella's definitely noticed it and even Mac, thankfully on the far side of a pretty big round table, has glanced at the two of them once.

"Okay," he hisses, when the DA has to stop in the middle of his speech for some thunderous applause about New York City's strength and "spirit" or something.

Aiden turns her head around to look at him like she isn't sure whether she might've heard something or not, and drops her napkin on the floor. Danny, bending over to get it, can't decide if it was a smart move or a stupid one.

Then Aiden bends down gracefully, and he realizes she can get away with it, because Aiden can get away with almost anything.

"Stella," he mutters out of the side of his mouth. "I was busy in the lab... she got Mac to tie my tie for me."

Aiden's face is blank for a second, and then it changes just a little and she tries to hide it, like a suspect suddenly realizing they haven't worked out all the kinks in their story. "Danny..." she whispers, but Danny is already sitting up again.

He catches Stella's eye across the table and smiles at her, gives a little wave. He has to admit she got him but good. And besides, this is going to provide him fantasy material for months and there's no use pretending otherwise. He never knew this well how Mac smells, before. He's definitely never had Mac's hands on his throat. Whether that's a good thing or not is kinda beside the point.

And also he can tell from Stella's face that his smile has her a little confused. And not that Stella is his enemy or anything, but they say it's good to keep your enemy off-balance, and that's probably a good precautionary measure with Stella. Two times after that he sees her pretending not to watch Mac. And it's hard to feel sympathy for Mac there, but Danny manages it, which again is probably not a sign of anything really good, but there it is.

He's hoped for a long time that Stella might do some good for Mac, because Mac listens to Stella and she's the one most likely to have the balls to say anything to him.

Danny tries not to think about it too much. He knows he's probably only capable of selfishness where Mac is concerned. His own... feelings... there are under control enough that he knows they would never interfere with him doing his job on a case, but outside of that they are really kind of out of control.

Danny's learned to live with them, just part of the furniture; he's had a couple of years to do that, get all settled in. But Danny's not a rookie anymore, afraid of going solo, not even afraid of the big cases, and lately it's been getting harder to keep his thoughts about Mac Taylor off in the distance, to tell himself how impossible it is, and how far away. A few years on this job have taught Danny there are very few things that are really impossible, and he's closer to Mac than he's ever been. Most of the time, Danny forgets to be afraid of him. Some of the time, he thinks Mac wants to be his friend.

It is getting harder not to think about it.

Up at the podium they're playing pin-the-next-speech-on-some-other-sucker, the Chief and the assistant DA and a couple other suits, mumbling back and forth. Given all the awards they've already given and "announcements" they've already made (like this year they're going to move forward against crime in the city--great idea, guys), they're probably having a hard time finding anything left to say.

"Wow," says Stella, pitched just to their table, "I hope we get another encore."

"I'm hoping for another standing ovation," says Mac, shocking everybody, even Stella. He doesn't crack a smile, but still, he's gotta be in a really good mood to come up with sarcasm. Danny's glad Mac has insisted he has to have "my whole team" (because they're always his team, not the team) at this thing this year.

Aiden takes a sip of wine and then ducks her head, wiping her lips, and catches Danny's eye. She doesn't make a face or anything but Danny feels her, yeah.

He leans back and smiles, stretching his shoulders a little. He puts his wrist on the edge of the table and twirls his clean dessert fork between his fingers. The suits at the podium have stopped shuffling. The extra ones are drifting away and the chatter dying back down.

"Looks like you may get your wish," Danny tells Mac, and looks over only to intercept Mac's gaze already on him. His brain just snags there and doesn't go any further for a second, meeting Mac's eyes across the table. Mac is almost smiling.

"Too many more standing ovations and I won't be able to shake hands, my palms will be too sore," says Aiden.

Stella leans over conspiratorially. "Well, you know, you're in public service, the job demands a lot of you."

Which in fact it does, but especially of Mac and Stella. After the last standing ovation, when people start milling around like cockroaches in a tenement kitchen, the first hand-shaker appears. It's Gordon from the DA's, Danny recognizes him alright, but the ones he's never heard of start appearing after that and they just don't stop coming, also like cockroaches.

Mac introduces them embarrassingly to a few people as "my hand-picked top team," and Stella less embarrassingly as the rest of the Crime Scene Investigation unit. Then she whispers something to Aiden, and Aiden says to Danny, "Let's get out of here."

§§§

"Give me your jacket," says Aiden thoughtfully, like she's just thought of what could be an important lead.

"What? You weren't cold outside, but now you want my jacket?"

Aiden smiles, "Thank you," flips her hair to the outside of the collar and shrugs her shoulders to settle it. Danny reaches automatically to his collar and fingers his tie, and then stops and drops his hands.

Aiden watches this expressionlessly. Then she turns to the bartender. "Rum and coke."

"Draft beer," mutters Danny, who is no way willing to be at a hard liquor disadvantage when either Stella or Mac shows up. When he said in the cab that maybe they should turn around and go back to the lab, Aiden said they couldn't, because she already told Stella they'd meet her here.

"And Mac?" Danny said.

Aiden shrugged expressively. "I don't know, she didn't say, but you know Mac, Danny."

Danny knows Mac.

One good thing about Sullivan's is that Aiden doesn't look out of place in her prom dress (he's going to call it that just to piss her off; he's only been waiting for the right opportunity), with or without Danny's jacket, although before she put it on she was maybe attracting more attention, what with the large amount of back that it doesn't have. Danny puts them in a booth and bends grimly over his beer, bracing himself to be killed with kindness.

He loves Aiden, really, Danny reminds himself. And she's trying to help, really. He'd love to have her for a sister; in fact, there's a coupla brothers he'd gladly trade in for her. And besides, he kinda owes her one a couple of times, now. Not that he's keeping score, but three and a half. So he zips his lips.

"Danny, how did Stella get Mac to tie your tie?"

Well, that Danny can handle although he glances around a little--you find cops in Sullivan's sometimes, but at the moment they are all alone. "She told me if I was still in the lab when she came back she would get someone else to drag me outta there, but I guess I didn't really believe her--" Aiden smiles like he's said something funny "--and then she brought him there at the last minute when my hands were full, gave the tie to him and said she had to go to the bathroom."

Aiden blinks rapidly, pressing her lips together hard.

Danny smiles a little and trails his fingertip across the table top. "Go on, laugh, I know it's funny."

A little giggle bursts out. Aiden hunches over inside his jacket so most of the blue dress disappears from view, it's just Danny's black suit coat and a sliver of satin and her hair covering up the skin of her chest. "I'm sorry, Danny," she says, "it's just--."

"Nah, that's all right." Danny wrinkles his nose. "I can take it."

The laughter fades a little and Aiden sighs, and takes a long drink of her rum and coke. "Is it really okay?"

"No," Danny says quietly. "I mean yeah, I can handle it. But--" He shrugs. "Dammit."

"What happened?"

Danny just looks at her. "He tied my tie, Aiden."

She lifts her hands apologetically, "Hey, I'm not asking for a re-enactment."

I am, Danny thinks before he can stop himself. He takes a drink instead of massaging his forehead.

"At least not here," Aiden smirks. This isn't happening to him.

"Wanna dance?" says Danny.

"To this?"

"You got all dolled up in your prom dress, your pretty shoes, here we are in a bar, there's a little empty space--sure," says Danny.

"You don't want to talk about this right now...," Aiden adds. "And I hate to tell you this, Danny, but those long, narrow empty spaces aren't dance floors. They're meant for walking between the tables."

Danny finishes off his beer, catches Aiden's hand and drags her out of the chair. "C'mon, you should be dancing in a dress like that, show it off. Besides, there's nothing wrong with the music. What, you don't like Black Flag?"

"You mean this prom dress?" says Aiden, swishing her skirt just a little. He was right, it's very pretty.

Danny whistles, takes her hand and twirls her around, and it drifts out around her like it doesn't weigh anything and shows off her ankles.

"Don't think you're getting your coat back," she warns, and puts her hand on his shoulder. "I like Black Flag fine--but for ballroom dancing..."

Danny ends up leading her through a kind of sloppy tango to Flogging Molly, which is the next thing that comes on, and another with a little salsa thrown in it to the Spicy McHaggis Jig, which Aiden starts humming along with halfway through. She's definitely getting a little happy, which might have something to do with the two empty glasses on their table. She's taken his coat off, too, but Danny hasn't called her on it. And they're sitting down again when Stella and Mac come in.

And Mac. Danny hasn't had anything to drink past that one beer and it's starting to wear off a little. He realizes that although Mac almost never comes out with them, he's been tense for the opposite reason tonight, he's been expecting Mac to show up. He grins and stands up.

Mac glances around only momentarily with what Danny privately calls his casing-the-joint look, and he's missing this little air of tension or hesitation that's been hanging around him a lot lately, like part of him isn't there and there's a time lag for him to interface with the rest of the world. Why Danny is reading all that into the way Mac walks across the room is a mystery, but he is.

The look Stella gives Danny when he pulls a chair out for her says that she doesn't mind but she wants him to know she's got his number. Danny can't help twitching a little because what if she's not done with him? He is never safe from Stella.

"So are your hands still all right?" says Aiden.

Mac makes the face that he makes when something is funny and he can't justify the expense of a whole smile.

"A little slimy, but nothing that a little alcohol won't fix," says Stella briskly, propping her elbows on the table. This does things to the neck of her dress and Danny kinda wants to give her a coat to put on, but it would probably be worth his life to say anything. Besides which, the danger of anyone else in the bar so much as looking at her sideways is basically zero. "Danny," says Stella, "you look thirsty. Why don't you get us all another round."

"If he was thirsty," Mac points out, leaning back in his chair, "alcohol would be the last thing he'd be drinking."

"Nah," Stella says, tucking a curl behind her ear. "It'd only be the last thing he should be drinking."

And there Mac does crack a smile, glancing at Danny. Danny stands up, but lingers with his hand on the back of his chair for a second, looking around the table. Mac hasn't loosened his own tie at all. Danny has kept touching the knot Mac made in the heavy silk of his since they got to the bar, but he hasn't taken it out yet.

"Mmm," says Aiden, "why not. Give me what you're having."

"Vodka tonic," says Stella firmly.

"Draft beer," says Mac, meeting his eyes. "Thank you, Danny."

Danny nods a little and turns away before he can make an even stupider face, because he can feel himself trying to smile. When he reaches the safety of the bar, Danny folds his arms and leans on it. "Hey, Danny, are you all right?"

It's the newest bartender, Lisa, an Italian-American girl who looks about four feet tall. She keeps a stool behind the bar for reaching some of the bottles. "Yeah, hi, Lisa, how are you doing? Spent the night at the police banquet and working on a case."

"Oh, tired, huh? I'm great, thanks." She pats his arm with a small hand, neatly manicured silver-pink fingernails. "What can I get you? Fuzzy navel and gin and tonic? Rum and coke and draft?"

Danny jerks his head over his shoulder. "Nah, we got two more. Vodka tonic and three draft beers."

"Coming up." She moves away, bouncing on her toes with a long brown ponytail swinging out behind her. When Danny complimented her on the way she moves once, she told him she dances ballet and modern and hip-hop and tap, everything but ballroom, which is too bad because Aiden looked pretty trying, but she doesn't know how either, and she doesn't have all that training.

Danny's fingers go absently up to his neck again while she's getting the drinks, and again when he's setting them on the table. He gets a little shock when he looks up and Mac's looking straight at him and watching him, and he knows Mac is noticing how he touches the knot and doesn't slide it down, and runs his finger over the tiny crease Mac put under it, right in the center of the tie. Danny wraps both his hands around his glass quickly. Mac looks away and straightens his own tie unnecessarily.

Danny takes a drink.

"Is that what those dinners are always like?" Aiden asks.

"Oh, you get some different strains," Stella shrugs, "but it's all the same species."

Aiden laughs and drinks some more beer. "I thought it wasn't as bad as it could've been. --This beer really isn't that great, Danny."

Mac's had time for some alcohol to work its way into his blood by now--he took exactly two sips of wine at dinner, Danny counted--and he cracks a very small smile again. "I thought the shrimp was fantastic," he murmurs.

"Remember that year with the cold baked chicken?" Stella makes the same face she makes for bodies in advanced stages of decomposition. "Ugh."

"Ninety-nine," says Mac. "It was breaded chicken Parmesan. And they ran out of marinara sauce."

Aiden snickers. "I bet they never used the same caterer again."

Mac says, "I'm not sure that the caterer survived."

Stella finishes her drink and sighs. "I think that was the year I almost ate my napkin."

Aiden brightens up. "Paper or cloth?"

"Cloth."

"You know," she says, "the paper ones aren't that bad."

Stella looks interested. "Yeah, I remember we used to eat them when I was a kid. I'm not sure if there were dares involved or it was just for fun."

Aiden says, "My brothers liked them. I've eaten a napkin or two in my time."

By the time Aiden has finished her beer, she and Stella have also settled that they are going to ask at the bar for a stack of paper napkins. "Anyone else want anything?" says Aiden, wobbling slightly, and doesn't stand up.

"Danny go," Stella decides. "Danny, have you ever eaten a paper napkin?"

Danny meets Mac's eyes across the table with a little thrill of horror. It occurs to him there may be a reason Mac doesn't go out with them very often. "Uh, I have to go to the bathroom," he says, and bolts from the table.

§§§

Stella and Aiden have moved way past paper napkins to other subjects. ("This is soggy," said Stella, after dipping a shred of napkin in beer, "I'm not eating any more of this.") Although Stella and Aiden on a few drinks make him nervous, Danny has been enjoying tonight a lot. Even Mac is having a good time, almost laughing more than once, and he's unbuttoned his suit jacket, but he hasn't touched his tie again.

These things lull Danny into a false sense of security.

He comes back from the can again later, and Mac is saying, "Danny?" with a little bit of something in his voice, maybe not surprise, maybe contemplation, consideration. The thing is he can't possibly be talking to Danny, because Danny is just walking up behind him.

It makes the hair stand up on Danny's neck. He wishes he could see Mac's face to interpret that voice. Ever since Sonny Sassone made his little insinuations, Danny's been a little paranoid about Mac and what Mac's thinking, and if it's not just his paranoid imagination, Mac has been a little funny lately too. (Not that Danny would blame him. He's pretty sure he's been staring a little more than he should, for one thing.)

"Oh yeah," Aiden says.

"I believe it," says Stella, gets out of her chair and corners him against the wall behind Mac's chair a lot faster than she should be able to. "Danny! Teach me to tango," she demands.

Danny laughs just a little, nervously, while Mac jerks around quickly to watch. "Tango? I don't know how to tango," Danny lies.

"That's not what Aiden said." Stella sways alarmingly towards him on the beat, which is the Corrs at the moment, Lisa's biggest weakness as a bartender. When Danny puts up his hands to catch her in case she falls, she grabs them and holds on.

"That? That wasn't really the tango. That was fake-tango. The make-it-up-as-you-go-along tango."

Aiden smirks. "It went along pretty good, Danny."

"That's because you know even less about tangoing than I do."

Stella jiggles his hands around in what she probably thinks is a tango move, or maybe she's just punishing him some more. Or, judging by her face, this is her idea of fun. "C'mon, Danny. Show off your skills."

Just what he should do in front of Mac. If he wants to spontaneously combust.

"We can have them put on the Dropkick Murphys again," says Stella.

"For the full tango experience," pipes up Aiden, his very favorite person.

Stella takes a step forward, turning sideways, mimicking a tango position. Danny leans back, Stella laughs and leans some more, there's a little confusion, and Danny collides with Mac and suddenly he's hanging off the back of Mac's empty chair, and Mac is bending over him partly holding him up. Mac's got a firm grip on his arm and shoulder, and Stella's collapsed against his chest snickering to herself, half-sprawled on the floor. "Oh, God," says Stella.

"Forget tango," says Danny, "I'm not sure you could do the Macarena."

"At this moment, no," he feels her say against his chest. Her hair is itching his chin.

Danny gets the other foot under him but he almost falls back on his butt again when Stella takes the hand Mac offers and climbs to her feet. She leans on the wall, still chuckling, and Mac pulls Danny up, too.

For a second they stand there with Danny's hand in Mac's, because he can't move--literally, he's between Stella and Mac and Mac's chair and the wall, and there's not a lot of space. "Thanks," Danny says.

They find two cabs right when they step outside, and Stella and Aiden get packed away almost without arguing at all, although Aiden keeps Danny's coat. Mac stands back from the curb and puts his hands in his pockets. "I think that went well."

Danny laughs and turns to look at him. "What, the banquet or getting Stella and Aiden to go home?"

Mac smiles right at him in a way that is somehow different from just smiling and looking at him at the same time, and makes something in Danny's chest clutch tight. Jesus, he's got to get a grip on this. "Both," says Mac. "Did you know our solve rate just keeps increasing the last few years?"

Danny glances at him, surprised. "I guess I hadn't thought about it."

Mac nods. "The last year especially. I've got a good team. You do good work, Danny."

"I, uh, thank you, Mac. Thank you. I really--that means a lot to me," Danny stutters.

Mac nods like he's said something that makes sense. "The department as a whole isn't doing as well. It's my people that make the difference. It's time we had a presence at these functions." His mouth twitches a little again. "And it's nice that Stella and Aiden got in the cabs."

Danny shudders. "A lot of times we have some trouble with that."

Mac tilts his head curiously. "Stella can be... very stubborn. Do you ever just give up?"

But Danny shakes his head. "No. No, I couldn't do that." Mac glances down. His dark blue suit looks mostly black in the dark. Somehow he seems smaller than usual, too. Danny thinks, This is good, and reaches up, and Mac watches him loosen his tie.

"I thought you didn't like ties," Mac observes.

"Oh, you know." Danny shrugs. "Hate 'em."

Mac actually laughs a little, just a tiny huff of breath. "You left it tied a long time."

Danny looks at Mac and thinks about his precise speeches and his neat, shaved jaw and his perfect tie, and then the crooked little smile he makes, the crease that's only on one side of his mouth. "Yeah," he says, "I did. All night. What about you?"

"Me?"

"Need some help? You know, untying it?" Danny reaches out, grinning, and tugs on Mac's tie just enough to loosen it.

Mac wanders a few steps closer to the curb and puts his hand up to his neck and touches the tie. "How was the case?" he says.

"The microscope?"

Mac nods. He doesn't fix his tie, just drops his hand again.

"I think those gray fibers are going to be the key. I've still got some more tests I can run." Now a cab has paused in the street.

Mac hails it, and then gestures for Danny to take it. "You going to be at the lab tomorrow looking at your results?" Even though it's Saturday, he doesn't say.

Danny stops with the door open. "Yeah," he says over the top of it, "I think I'm gonna be working on it tomorrow."

Mac nods and steps back. "Then I'll see you there."

ii. materials and procedure

Mac startles him in the computer lab the next day and says he's going to go out and get some decent coffee, and does Danny want anything? It's quieter on the weekends in general, although of course the station is staffed and there are always people working on the open cases in the labs. Danny understands Mac regards Saturdays as a little less formal still, even though he's pretty sure Mac has been here working almost every weekend since he hired Danny.

Mac stands there in his coat and overcoat, watching him calmly, while Danny says "yeah" and "hummm" and finally, "I like the sweet stuff, the kind that tastes like they dissolved a whole birthday cake in the cup, you know?"

"And looks like it," says Mac, raising his eyebrows a little. "I know you do."

"Oh," Danny says blankly, "yeah, thanks, Mac."

Either he's getting better at noticing those almost-invisible, maybe-you-imagined-it little smiles that Mac does, or Mac is smiling more. He's not sure which he'd rather believe.

§§§

Danny has an elaborate fantasy that involves Mac inviting him into his office some time late at night. When he comes by with some paperwork and finds Mac reading a novel, Mac looks up quickly and says, "Danny! Come in." He sounds pleased.

It's exactly how the fantasy begins, which throws Danny for a loop. He pushes his glasses up his nose to have something to do with his hands. "Don't work too hard," he jokes, nodding at the book.

Mac smiles slightly and puts a bookmark in it before he puts it down. "Is that it?"

"Every last scrap of paper," Danny confirms, and puts it on Mac's desk. He pauses. "I guess you're done, too?"

Mac tilts his chair back a little. "I was looking at some old open case files. Went through all of them once, and I decided to take a break."

Danny smiles at the thought of Mac taking a break. Not that it doesn't happen; but usually Mac seems either reluctant or guilty about it. "Rest your brain, huh?"

It's only then, when Mac moves his head a little, that Danny sees his tie is just barely loosened and his collar unbuttoned. There's a lamp on behind him, the one Mac uses when he's reading at his desk, and the yellow light is sliding around the side of his neck, between the tendons, down the soft exposed skin of his throat. "What about you?" says Mac.

Danny is still looking at his neck, a little dazed. "What about me?"

"Have you... rested your brain? Or have you been here all weekend and since six this morning?" Danny's startled that Mac knows; he wasn't here yet when Danny came in. Mac nods at his look. "My eyes are everywhere."

Unlike Danny's eyes, which he can't take away from Mac. "You know how it is when you just want to get a case done, everything over with, you don't want to find a piece of it on your desk next week..."

Mac nods, glances for an instant at his desk, looks back up at Danny. "I know." He pauses like he's thinking, and just when Danny thinks he's not going to talk anymore and is opening his mouth and licking dry lips trying to come up with something, Mac says, "I used to work myself to the bone."

Stella would laugh at that. Used to? she would say. Mac works all the time. Work is Mac's life. But if Mac says he used to be worse, Danny is willing to believe him. "Yeah?" Danny says.

This is the part where in any self-respecting fantasy, Mac would segue into how either he or Danny needs to relax. One of Danny's favorite versions of the fantasy involves a hand massage. He has no idea if Mac is really good at hand massages--he kind of doubts it. But it makes a really nice fantasy.

"I was tireless," says Mac, "in the pursuit of justice. Or at least... I wanted to be." Mac has spread one of his hands flat, palm-down, on the desk, and he's looking at his own fingers, speaking deliberately. It's like an illustration for Danny's train of thought. Danny is glad his skin doesn't show a blush very badly.

Mac looks up suddenly at Danny, his eyebrows lifted the way they are when he's being totally earnest. "I couldn't rest, I couldn't even slow down until I closed a case."

There's a long pause. By this time in the fantasy, Mac is usually telling Danny how glad he is Danny joined the team, and how he knew from the beginning what talent Danny had and how Danny is a truly fine CSI. Danny realizes for the first time that this fantasy doesn't have all the kinks worked out, because he's never bothered to explain how he gets behind Mac's desk.

Mac is still talking, though. "Eventually I learned you can leave the paperwork until the next morning." He says this with a tiny smile and shakes his head a little, not at Danny but like he's shaking it at himself.

Danny's nodding. He's not sure why. And then he's saying, "Well in that case, maybe you can leave the book until tomorrow morning, too. You want to go get a drink--or something?"

He asks Mac this from time to time, but suddenly, instead of almost knowing that Mac will say no, he really thinks that Mac will say yes.

Both of Mac's arms are on the desk in front of him and he's smiling up at Danny, slightly, but more than his usual invisible smile. For Mac this is practically a grin. And he's looking up at Danny, for a long moment, before he answers. "Actually," he says, "why don't you pull up that chair?" There are little crinkles in the corners of his eyes.

When Danny pulls up the chair and settles in it, Mac's set two little packets of instant coffee on the desk. "Wooow," says Danny, pretending he's oh-so-impressed to cover up the real pleasure spreading through his chest. He scoots the chair closer to the other side of Mac's desk.

"I have a coffee maker here, too," says Mac, bending to open one of the big drawers under his desk.

"What is this," says Danny, "the Ritz?" and has the pleasure of seeing Mac's eyelashes drop down and his mouth curve up in amusement.

Mac has to get up and go behind him to fill the coffeepot--he tells Danny to wait--and Danny thinks about how sometimes he can just feel Mac behind him, and how fast he usually comes when he jerks off to the Mac-comes-up-behind-him scenario (which isn't related to the office one; it doesn't have any words), and how he's never actually worked it into the office one, yet.

By this time in his office fantasy they'd be on the floor, or on the wall, or else Danny would be straddling Mac's legs with his hands braced on the back of the desk chair over Mac's head. Danny likes to imagine that Mac unbuttons his shirt and slides one hand inside and over his chest, and that Mac undresses him slowly, and carefully, and keeps getting distracted. And one time Danny spent hours in bed on his day off, with the sun pouring in the window over him and his body warm and his head under the pillow, slowly rubbing himself on the mattress and drifting in and out of sleep, and the whole time imagining Mac's hands on his back and his chest.

Mac doesn't come up behind him, and clap his hand on Danny's shoulder, and slide it around to the back of his neck and let it stay there. He doesn't get to see what Danny would do, which is drop his head forward and lay his neck bare for Mac's touch. He doesn't silently guide Danny to his feet with hands on his arms, and then plaster his body all up and down Danny's back, breathing hard. He doesn't hold onto Danny's hips, or run his hands over the fronts of Danny's thighs. He doesn't smooth off Danny's pants or his or slo-o-o-o-owly agonizingly put his cock in or fuck Danny right there standing up, with their hands braced against his office wall.

Mac doesn't do any of that, but he stands next to Danny to pour the hot water into the paper cup, and when he slides it gently a few inches across the desktop, their fingertips brush. Danny's trying desperately not to steal looks at the smooth drape of Mac's dress slacks over his ass and thigh. "Now, if only you had some of those little marshmallows..." is the first thing he comes up with.

Mac pauses at the corner of the desk and meets Danny's eyes, smiling warmly, so warmly it touches his eyes. "I don't know," he says, "but if you want, I brought a paper napkin."

§§§

Aiden has insisted on driving a lot lately. She's only said a couple of times that it's because Danny doesn't look so good, but he knows that's why. Well, besides that she likes being in control. "How are you doing?" she says one day while she's got the wheel, still looking at the road.

Danny usually doesn't like talking when you're driving because of that, the way the one driving has to look at the road. He likes to look at who he's talking to. But for once he's glad. He's been pinching the bridge of his nose anyway, his glasses lying in his lap. "I don't know, Aiden." He doesn't pretend not to know what she's talking about.

Danny stops to think. He looks up out the windshield. It's raining, but it's not too cloudy; the sun's still shining down between the drops, spattering on the people going by on the sidewalk. A woman goes in front of them on the crosswalk with her shoulders around her ears, holding a plastic grocery bag over her hair. "I'm not bad, really. I was actually thinking about the case."

"Oh." They drive in silence for a second. Then Aiden says, "Tied any good ties lately?"

"Hah hah hah," says Danny, but he smiles. "Did you know Mac keeps those little packs of instant coffee in his office?"

"That doesn't surprise me," says Aiden, "he sleeps in there more than you think."

Danny never questions the mysterious connection between Stella and Aiden. Sometimes Stella things come out of Aiden's mouth and things only Aiden could have known come out of Stella's, and he's never said a word about it to either of them. It happens without warning, like maybe they have some kinda wireless telepathic connection. Maybe Aiden downloads this stuff from Stella's brain, or the mother ship, or something. Anyway, he's not going to doubt her information.

"What," says Aiden suddenly, suggestively, "did Mac share his secret stash with you?" Danny just shrugs. Aiden looks over at him, and she must see the way he's smiling because she starts cracking up. "Your face, look at your face. That's sweet. You guys bond, what, over staying up all night working, right?"

Danny shakes his head and won't look at her. For some reason, he can't get rid of the thought that they shouldn't talk about Mac in the lab vehicle. "Let up, Aiden, all right?"

But she's not laughing any more. "You shouldn't."

"What?"

"Let up," Aiden explains. "You shouldn't let up."

§§§

It is the first day of Spring when Danny tells Mac about Tanglewood.

Or, actually, it isn't the first day of Spring, but it feels like it is. It's Saturday and it's his day off, and it's just got up to fifty degrees for the first time in a few weeks, and the sun is so bright, and the trees and the flowers in people's boxes are so green, that Danny goes outside in nothing warmer than a t-shirt for the first time since last fall.

He's been thinking about this a lot for a few weeks, thinking mainly about the fact that for all he knows, Mac could be thinking something a lot worse than the truth. Between that and his much clearer knowledge of the way that Mac smells, and the memory of Mac's fingers on his neck, Danny hasn't been thinking about a lot else besides Mac, when he lets his thoughts wander. He remembers a time when he used to stop himself from thinking about it on purpose.

There was even a long time when Danny used to pretend he wasn't picturing Mac (his mouth, his hands. His neck) when he jerked off, it was just slim compact shoulders, firm muscular forearms, dark hair, green eyes. "There's no point even going there," was what he used to tell himself. Danny's not sure exactly when he stopped.

He goes down the stairs and outside before he's taken a shower, with his feet shoved sockless into his tennis shoes, to jog a few blocks to the next newspaper box, because he's having a hankering for reading one, but doesn't get it delivered himself.

The coolness of the air's a bit of a shock but it feels good, abrading his cheeks, making his nipples tight under his shirt, giving him goosebumps along his arms for a second. It's not far to the nearest Italian bakery, and just a little farther to the newspaper stand. Danny can see it, he's had his eye fixed on it already, when he sees Mac and freezes in his tracks.

At first Danny thinks he's imagined it. It's not that he's usually prone to imagining things. He's never conjured a whole person up out of his mind before, but he knows there's a first time for everything, and for a second it seems more likely than that Mac would actually be there.

But he stops in the sidewalk and stares and Mac is still there, still being him, squinting at the window of the bakery. And the fact that Danny's staring catches his eye, or maybe it was his bright green t-shirt, but Mac turns around and faces him. He looks a little surprised, but not shocked. Not stunned. "Danny," he says. "Hi."

"Mac." Danny stuffs his hands awkwardly in his pockets. "Umm, good morning. What brings you here?"

Mac nods at the window. "The bakery. The arson case brought me and Stella here last week and I thought it smelled good."

"Oh. Gotti's, yeah, it's pretty good," says Danny, feeling a little desperate and self-conscious. Despite having lived here for years, Danny has only been in the bakery a couple of times. "Were you done or--are you on your way somewhere--"

Mac smiles slightly and suddenly, the way he does, so there's almost no forewarning in his face, just this careful and rather conservative little smile curving his mouth. "No, I was just going in. What about you?"

"Uhm," says Danny, rubbing a hand quickly over his face, "no, I was just, I just came downstairs before breakfast..." He holds the door open for Mac. "I could get something."

Mac goes through the door, but he stops and tilts his head. "I knew you lived somewhere around here," he says.

When Danny shuffles a little sideways in the narrow space between the front window and the glass display case, his old sneakers squeak on the red tile floor. He puts one hand up to the back of his neck, where he can feel heated blood rushing close to the skin. "You did?"

"You mentioned it once a couple of years ago," says Mac, looking not at Danny, but at the display dedicated to cakes and cookies. "On a case. "

"Oh," says Danny blankly. Now that Mac says that he can remember the case. He didn't remember that he told Mac that, though. He was probably babbling. He's always had that problem when his mouth gets away with him, that half the time he doesn't know what he's saying. It even led on a few memorable occasions in college to blackmail, and on one really memorable occasion to Danny getting laid.

He wonders what else he has told Mac without realizing it, over the years. He's a little horrified to realize that whatever it is, Mac probably remembers all of it.

While Danny is trying to see exactly how bad his hair is standing up from the dim, curved reflection in the donut case, and remembering this morning's featured erotic daydream starring (who else?) Mac, Mac goes ahead and orders a Danish and some coffee.

Danny gets a cherry-filled pastry that turns out to be warm and incredibly flaky, and a paper bag of half a dozen croissants. He wonders why he hasn't been back to this bakery more. The pastry is fantastic.

It's just as sunny as before outside, bright and unashamedly fresh, so even the air feels alive. There's a crisp breeze and some faint birdsong. "So, you came down here just for one Danish?" says Danny, between satisfied bites of pastry.

Mac shrugs. "Well, the weather's so nice, I thought I'd get out some. Take a walk. Like you?"

"Oh," says Danny. "I was just," he jerks his thumb over his shoulder, "coming down to get a paper." He eyes Mac. "But a walk, yeah. The weather is gorgeous. A walk would be nice."

Mac hides his face in his Danish, but his eyes drop closed and some smile lines appear in the corners so Danny knows he's smiling at something. "Well," says Mac. "We could walk towards the paper dispenser."

They do, slowly, Mac sipping his coffee, Danny trying not to drip red cherry pie filling on his favorite old t-shirt. Then they walk right past the paper dispenser and keep going. People go by them on the sidewalk, an old lady, an Asian chick in a biker jacket, two teenagers on rollerblades.

It's not far to the nearest public school. That's where it's happening on a Saturday morning, although it's just barely morning anymore; the sun's straight overhead. The kids with the rollerblades must have come from there, because there are whole packs of them swarming around the parking lot in their elbow guards and knee pads. There's some shrill shouting, and running, and there are kids hanging off the top of the climbing wall and doing gymnastics on the chin-up bars--just like any self-respecting playground on the first day of Spring. It makes him proud to be a cop.

Danny smiles softly to himself and when he looks sideways, Mac is smiling, too, and they're thinking the same thing. They cross the street over to the same side as the school and walk slowly along the sidewalk, closer to the yelling and running. The croissants in the bag are gonna get cold and maybe a little squished because he's tucked them under his arm and stuffed his hands in his jeans pockets, but Danny doesn't really care. "Listen, Mac," he says carefully, looking at his toes. "There's somethin' I've been meaning to talk to you about."

Mac keeps walking beside him for a little bit, a few steps. Then, "You can tell me anything you want to."

Danny laughs a little bit, nervously and painfully. "I don't know if want to is the word, but I really think I gotta," he says.

Mac must have already sensed what he's going to say, but he doesn't say anything until there's been a little silence and it's clear that Danny needs some encouragement. "Is this about Tanglewood, Danny?"

Danny pulls one hand out of his pocket to scrub it through the hair at the back of his head. "Yeah. Yeah, it is." The silence stretches out for a breath, two. Danny wants to savor the last time before Mac knows. Everything could change after this. He doesn't know what Mac will think of him, but he has to face the fact that it can't possibly be the same. "I was... involved. With Tanglewood. I wasn't a bona fide Tanglewood boy, and I never got that tattoo, but most people in the neighborhood were Sonny Sassone's errand boys in one way or another."

There's a change in the sound of Mac's footsteps next to him, and in an agony so intense he can hardly see, and certainly can't look, he thinks Mac has just stopped walking in his tracks several steps behind him. Danny takes a few more quick steps before his momentum runs out and he stands there shivering, feeling like he's stripped naked right there on the sidewalk while the wind flips the sleeves of his shirt against his arm.

But when Mac talks again, his voice is right next to Danny and close. "And you?"

But Danny somehow still keeps himself from looking over. "I was an errand boy. I was in that parking lot under the Tanglewood mall, I ran with Sonny Sassone. I did things I'm not proud of. I saw some things that I--" he pauses, feeling his voice getting thinner, and swallows "--that I'll never forget."

Mac is still silent.

Danny has to push himself, but he has to, has to tell the rest. "Things that I--" he finds it almost impossible to talk about this "--stood and watched."

Danny was in, sometimes, holding some guy down while someone else went at him, or raining kicks and blows on some punk who had to be taught a lesson; but standing back and watching are the times he remembers the most vividly. And it doesn't happen any more now; but every blood-splattered crime scene used to make his stomach heave, because he couldn't stop remembering the screams he heard one night and what it might have been that he didn't see, and all the marks on the concrete the next day, the guy he glimpsed going out back with the big boys who never came back.

"When I had to get out, when I was in school--you don't just leave Tanglewood, not even if you don't have the tattoo--I had to ask those guys' blessings to go, I had to ask. And you gotta understand they have the power to say no--I don't know what would have happened--I really don't know, because I needed--I had to get out, but I was just a little scared kid and I cared what those boys thought of me. Even by then, even though I was in college and I was starting to realize how I wanted to make something of myself, or at least try."

Mac makes some sound next to him. Danny hears it, but he can't tell if it's really words. He doesn't know if that's because he isn't processing, or Mac really hasn't said anything.

A few yards away, a pair of little girls are wrestling with a kite, blond hair flying and ponytail bobbing in the breeze. Now that he's not walking briskly anymore the air feels colder. Danny hunches his shoulders against the wind. Mac's hand on his arm is a shock of heat as startling as a static shock from the door of a car. "Danny," Mac says.

He sounds so intent Danny half-turns, but he doesn't meet Mac's eyes. "Yeah."

Danny's blank for a second. "No. I never--I was never taken in." He forgets not to look for an instant and his eyes rush up in horror like they're pulled by gravity. He smacks into the heaviness of Mac's eyes on him like coming up against a wall and he's caught in them. They're light and tawny in today's warm-colored sun. "I didn't ever, I mean, I never did anything like what you pulled them in for--I didn't, I'm not a." God, they're standing in front of a playground. Danny drops his voice even more, which makes him realize he's been almost whispering. "I'm not a killer."

Mac's eyes widen and he grabs Danny's other elbow. He still hasn't let go of the first. "Danny," Mac says firmly, "look at me." Danny hasn't looked away. He hasn't even looked out of Mac's eyes. "I never doubted that for a second."

It's hard for Danny to say anything to that at first. His mouth works. You never doubted, Mac? Fuck that. You want to know what I did when I heard that screaming? I did nothing.

Because Mac might not have doubted it, but there've been times, in the middle of the night, when Danny has.

He drops his eyes. "You didn't, huh?"

"No," says Mac, a little sharply.

When he can move again Danny turns and keeps walking. It's not far to the end of the block, and then he crosses the street. Going around the next block over makes the way to his apartment longer, but he doesn't want to turn and walk by the school again.

"Danny--" Mac starts, after about three quarters of a block.

"Thanks," Danny says quietly.

"All that was a long time ago," says Mac. "It's okay."

Danny's fist flexes and the paper bag of croissants crumples and rustles. "It's really nice of you to say that, Mac. But I don't think 'okay' is exactly the word for this."

"Look." Mac pauses thoughtfully. When Danny steals a look sideways, he's walking with his head bowed against the glare of the sun and his hands in his pockets. For once, he's not wearing a tie, and a sweater instead of a suit jacket. The brown wool looks soft. It's flecked with lighter shades like the ones that show in Mac's hair just where the sun hits strongest. "I know you had put all this behind you for a while. That's what you should have done, it's what you should do. I'm sorry that the case dug it up for you again."

Danny shakes his head and laughs a little. "Are you actually saying you're glad you didn't know? What about when you were hiring me?"

But Mac surprises him a little by not answering right away, and when he does answer, he surprises Danny even more by saying, "I don't know."

Danny's surprised, at first, but then it hurts, and he's not even sure why.

"But I do know I'm glad I hired you," Mac says firmly, and he tilts his head to catch Danny's eye.

Danny can't think of anything to say. He swallows. "Well, so am I." Glad is an understatement. This job, this job was everything. He didn't even know Mac, when he applied, and he wanted this job so badly.

Mac stops walking and says, "I'll leave you here." Only then does Danny realize they're at his block, although not quite at his building. "But Danny--I'm glad you told me." When Danny meets Mac's eyes, Mac's eyebrows are lifted just a little again, his whole face so solemn and concentrated. "I'm glad you told me about it."

§§§

Danny doesn't make a habit of eavesdropping in closets, but every now and then, obviously, he has to go into closets, and a closet is where he is--in the copy room, specifically--when he hears Aiden and Stella come in.

He's crouching among boxes of paper and toner looking for a box of refill staples, the extra long kind, and at first he's not quite paying attention to what he's hearing.

"--is funny," Aiden is saying, when Danny realizes that that's her voice he's hearing. He peers into another cardboard box and ends up pulling out some blank fingerprint forms. Totally in the wrong place. Danny shrugs and puts them back.

He sees a smaller box behind a stack of three lidded cardboard boxes of paper and leans way forward to examine it--it turns out to be ink jet printer cartridges and Danny almost bangs his head on the lowest shelf pulling back. He's about to get up and open the door, say hi to Aiden, when he notices that Stella's talking.

"--one of them applied the tenth of the brainpower it takes to solve one case to his own behavior, there wouldn't be a problem, I'm not feeling a lot of sympathy," she's saying emphatically.

Danny stops still. There's nothing to tell him Stella is talking about something to do with him or Mac except the same premonition that fortunately told him not to open the break room refrigerator that day Flack had booby-trapped the door with eggs. He reminds himself mentally of the scientific method, of how useless and misleading it can be to theorize ahead of the evidence, and has almost convinced himself it doesn't even matter what Stella was talking about, when she speaks again.

This time she's laughing. "Besides," she says, "it's nice to see the Code of No Talking coming back to bite them both in the ass," and that time he knows she's talking about him and is about 99.99-repeating percent sure she's also talking about Mac, because Aiden has lectured him about the Code of No Talking before.

He thought at the time it sounded more like a Stella theory.

Aiden laughs and says, "No, you're right, you know." A minute later the door slams. Danny waits until he's completely sure they're gone, though, before leaving the closet.

§§§

The tie is still coiled loosely on top of Danny's dresser where he put it when he went to bed the night of the police banquet. Every now and then he stops and looks at it, or puts his fingertip on it, or runs it through his fingers and then coils it up again. He thinks about when the next time he will need to wear a tie is before next year. Probably never.

He fantasizes about just for the hell of it bringing it to work and asking Mac to tie it for him because he did such a good job, before, or better yet, asking Mac to show him how to tie it.

The two melt together in his imagination. He's standing with his eyes closed, and one minute he's imagining that Mac's stopped in the middle of buttoning his collar, and his hand is curved so Danny's Adam's apple rests in the palm of his hand, with his fingers caressing Danny's jaw in short little strokes, maybe tracing the edge of Danny's mouth with his thumb.

The next minute Danny's holding the tie and Mac's hands are wrapped around his holding them steady, and Mac's trapped between him and the lab table of course, so when they try to cross the halves their hands get all tangled up together, knuckles brushing Danny's chest and fingers intertwined, and then all four hands in their motionless knot getting slowly squeezed between their chests as Mac moves closer and closer and then kisses him, or maybe he moves closer, and just watches Danny, with his eyelids getting heavier, and licks his lips and Danny kisses him--

"Danny, Earth to Danny," Stella says, snapping her fingers.

"Oh, sorry, Stella."

"Did you hear me? I said to check back with Mac as soon as you get any lab results on that trace. They just called in with a body at Grand Central, I'm off the case."

At least it wasn't Mac who interrupted his fantasy, Danny reflects. Not that Mac hasn't done that plenty of times, and Danny's used that tie-tying scenario so many times he's surprised it's not worn transparent by now.

But then, that's the thing with fantasies, isn't it? They never do wear out--fantasies and dreams. Probably the first one he ever had about Mac, when he'd barely known him two weeks, was just that he could make him laugh a real laugh. He's even done that a few times since then, but he still hasn't gotten tired of thinking about it.

"Okay," says Danny, "good luck," and Stella smiles at him and even pats him on the shoulder before she goes.

A couple weeks have passed, and Danny is starting to feel better about Tanglewood, even though Mac hasn't exactly stopped with the funny looks at him. At least he doesn't seem mad, or suspicious, or scared, and Danny will take what he can get.

That night they're leaving the small file room together with a folder when Mac stops in the doorway and turns his head, and Danny's talking and doesn't notice right away, and walks a step more. His hand slides under Mac's elbow.

He can feel the arm he brushes through shirt and jacket; his hand shifts automatically just a little, and his fingers curve around between Mac's sleeve and his body, against his jacket. Under the jacket Danny can feel the warmth of Mac's skin, before he moves his hand away, drops his arm back by his side.

At close range, in the dim yellow light of the file room, Mac's eyes look dark and gold-tinged, almost brown. And he's right there, not moving, looking thoughtful. Danny can't not ask.

"Mac," he says in a low voice.

When Mac answers him, "Yeah," his voice is low, too, but it's extra low--deeper than Mac's usual pitch and rougher than his usual gravelly tone.

"About that--Tanglewood stuff. Are you really going to be all right with it?"

"Danny," says Mac. "It's not going to be a problem." He clasps Danny's forearm hard and turns towards him, close enough to count the flecks in his eyes or his eyelashes, close enough to tie Danny's tie. "I trust you. I'm sorry you couldn't tell me before--but--" he breaks off and shrugs.

And then he seems to realize that he's holding onto Danny's arm, or actually both of them now, almost hard enough to hurt. His hands open before he moves them away.

"Excuse me," says Mac, and pushes through the door.

iii. results

When Danny finally gets it together and follows Mac out of the file room Mac isn't anywhere in sight. After looking for him in three or four other places in the nearly deserted station, Danny follows his gut up to the roof and finds Mac standing alone up there in the darkness, in the rain, looking at the cloud-stuffed blackness of the sky. There's not a star in sight. Although whether Mac is actually looking at the sky is hard to say because it's pouring down and his hair is already plastered to his skull after ten or twenty minutes, and he's squinting against the rain so hard it looks like he can barely see.

Danny splashes through a couple of puddles of various depth. He can feel water seeping up into the fabric of his pants.

"Mac," he says, somewhere between an ordinary voice and a shout. The rain is pretty noisy by itself up here, and they can also hear from up here how it's even noisier down in the street. But Mac hears right away and turns to him.

It's hard to read his face, in the dark and the shifting silver and black of the water falling between them and swiftly soaking through Danny's jacket. Danny tells himself he doesn't feel hope, he's not thinking anything. Oh, yeah, Messer, he replies immediately, why did you come up here anyway? But he knows he just had to follow Mac. And he's glad he came. He's glad he can see Mac frowning against the cold gusts of rain, straight and alone on the rooftop buffeted by moving darkness. Mac's face is very pale. He lifts his face just a little and nods.

It's cold with the wind and his wet clothes. He wonders why Mac, standing closer to the edge, isn't chilled since it looks like he's soaked straight through to the skin. But then, who knows what kind of cold-controlling techniques they teach them in the Marines, or maybe besides Bosnia Mac was stationed in Siberia a coupla years and he just never mentioned it.

So Mac's mouth moves, and in the rain, it's hard for Danny to tell if he might have been talking to Danny, or if it was anyone else but Mac maybe talking to himself, or just biting his lip or licking it--maybe licking the rain off. But if he wants to hear anything, he has to go closer. A few steps away from the stairwell the rain is harder, and louder, and little and big puddles splash under every step. Danny rushes across the roof, splashing right and left, and in the end he's almost running.

And then, at the end of the running, his very nice and relatively new shoes go in a puddle, and out from under him.

He almost goes face-first to the gritty dirty ground, except Mac makes a sideways dive and somehow Danny goes face-first into him instead, falls right into his arms.

Literally into them, because Mac's arms have come up automatically around him when he made the catch. Mac's supporting all his weight, mainly through holding fistfuls of Danny's wet jacket. He can feel it pulling tight across his back and under one of his arms.

He tries half-heartedly to get his feet under him, making both of them sway and lurch. Danny can't help laughing, breathlessly, and wondering if they're going to land on the ground in the middle of a puddle with a giant splash. But they stop instead, half fallen, half upright, fingers white with cold and slick with rain tangled in each other's clothes, and nothing but an inch of air and falling water and breath between Danny and Mac's mouth.

Mac blinks, making some of the water in his eyelashes drop down to his cheeks, and Danny has a crazy image of what it would be like to see Mac cry. His mouth comes open a little. His body is radiating heat.

For the first time Danny thinks, He wants me, looks up to meet Mac's eyes and catches his breath. Mac's frozen and wary and his eyes are wild. And he's not breathing either. When his eyelashes flutter, then Danny just breaks, the last couple of weeks unraveling all over him, pieces of control flying apart, and lunges forward to kiss him.

Mac's automatic response to being overbalanced like that is to clutch at Danny, tight, and one of his arms wraps around Danny's back. Their teeth click together so hard it hurts. His lip almost bleeds, and Mac's lips are cold and taste like the rain, but just a millimeter away is the inside of his mouth and it's soft and so hot.

And Mac lets him in--for a second he's frozen, or at least his hands are, and his mouth is soft and pliable, but passive--but just for a second, and then he responds, his lips are softening and his head tilts just a tiny bit and his mouth opens more than willingly for Danny. Danny traces the edge of Mac's lip, the point of a tooth with his tongue, and gasps and seals their mouths closer together when Mac's tongue twines hot and slippery around his.

Oh. Danny thinks dimly that he has to get a grip, or he's just totally going to lose it, like for instance he's pushed his hands inside Mac's jacket, feeling the muscles of his back through his damp shirt, clutching frantically, trying to pull Mac closer and he's going too fast, going to scare him away.

And then Mac's arm tightens around him. He can feel Mac's hand smoothing firmly and slowly up from his waist to his shoulder blade and back down, dragging the wet fabric of his jacket against his skin. It's a very deliberate caress and it hits Danny hard, because there's no way it doesn't mean something.

Danny pulls back because he has to breathe, but he doesn't move six inches before he gets resistance from Mac's arm wrapped around his back. Mac doesn't loosen his hold right away, like there's a lag between his brain and his body. The rain beats down on their heads like helpless anger.

"Danny," Mac says, a little strained. It sounds like that is his whole sentence--like a statement, not a question, or an introduction to something else. He's looking at Danny like he's confused or puzzled or even, maybe, worried.

"Yeah," Danny breathes, and leans in to kiss him again quickly.

But Mac pushes up into the kiss. He follows Danny's mouth and his lips move a little bit, a little hesitant, which is something Mac tries never to show on the surface but there's a lot of it in him, and whenever Danny sees it, it almost gives him a heart attack, he wants Mac so bad.

"Oh," Danny murmurs out loud, and when his mouth opens, Mac opens his mouth, too. Mac shifts his feet, and the next thing Danny knows, there's a hand on the back of his neck--Mac's hand, freezing cold and dripping wet. It stays there, heavy and firm, the whole time they kiss, and by the time they stop this time Mac's hand has got warm, and Danny has to gasp for air so deeply that he gets rain in his mouth and coughs.

Mac is watching him. Danny wishes he could see Mac's face better, that they were in the sun right now. Mac is... Mac kissed him. Danny's heart is beating fast with arousal and the exhilarating craziness of it.

It's raining harder than before, he thinks, but it's hard to tell--hard to tell how long they've been out here, but he's wet through. He shivers and Mac hunches his shoulders against the downpour and says, looking straight at him, "I think we'd better get in out of the rain."

§§§

When they are walking down the stairs, Mac says, "Do you have a change of clothes with you?"

And at that exact same moment Danny blurts out, "Come home with me."

In the next second he could kill himself, but when he looks sideways Mac is looking at him, too, for a second blank with surprise, and then smiling warmly.

And he's seen that look a million times--okay, maybe only a few hundred, not nearly as often as he'd like--but suddenly, anyway, it goes straight to his dick, which was not completely unaffected by sucking rainwater out of Mac's mouth, to put it one way. He wants to push Mac up against the wall right here in the stairs and kiss it off his face.

Mac says, "We're leaving a trail of water through the building," and goes a little faster down the stairs.

Danny glances behind. He's right. It wouldn't take a detective to trace their steps.

They break the trail in the locker room, toweling off without showering and Mac offers Danny a plastic bag for his soaking wet clothes, and Danny has seen Mac strip in here a hundred times before, he's stolen a hundred little glimpses, but right now he makes himself not watch for some really crazy reason.

He knows why for the first time when Mac gives him the evidence bag and their eyes meet. Mac is different. This Mac is different. There's some kinda chemistry, some kinda alchemy happening with them now between Danny's eyes and Mac's eyes and their hands and Danny stuffs the clothes into the bag, fumbling a lot, while Mac has already folded his and stuffed them in another.

No kissing in the locker room, Danny chants to himself, no kissing in the locker room, because with this new look on Mac--a kind of scary look, like a layer of Mac has been peeled back, like maybe that look on Mac's face is too new and tender, the skin underneath when a fingernail comes off, and it shouldn't be exposed to the air. It makes Danny shake a little, hot and uncertain inside, wanting to reach out and touch Mac, like if he puts his hand on Mac's face, that will somehow shield the newness and Mac from something.

Danny keeps trying not to look at Mac, because of what it does to him, and what is Mac thinking? But--he wants me--Danny thought that so clearly, he felt it, he really knew it. And he looks at Mac, and Mac does. Mac is standing by the door in his spare clothes already, but his skin is still damp, his hair is still wet, and he smiles at Danny and says, "Do you want to call a cab?"

Danny blows out a breath and says, shaky, "Yeah--no, you know--you call the cab, I'll just be--right--" throwing things back into his locker, an old empty tube of deodorant he should've thrown away, a crumpled paper napkin, an old copy of the Sports section of the Times.

But when he glances sideways, Mac is smiling quietly, the way he does, more with one side of his mouth than the other. He smooths his hand back over his wet hair and stays by the door. "That's okay," Mac says, "I'll wait."

And Danny finally stuffs everything in his locker, slams it, takes two steps away, goes back to shut it again and bang on the corner until it closes. Takes two steps away, turns around again and picks up the garbage bag of his wet clothes, and goes to the door. Mac is still smiling, in a way that for any normal person would be laughter. He meets Danny's eye and tilts his head and starts to walk out of the door just when Danny reaches him, and their shoulders and sleeves brush together. Danny changes his mantra to No kissing in the locker room doorway, no kissing in the locker room doorway.

There's a payphone in the hall that he walks resolutely past. His office is between the locker room and the elevator--or the little closet he likes to call an office is, anyway. He picks up the phone in there, but then he pauses with his hand on the button and looks up at Mac.

Mac is standing in the door, glancing around the way he does when they're out at a new location after a witness or something. His mouth is more relaxed than usual, though, and it's also (sweet Jesus, Joseph and Mary) a little swollen, kinda red, and damp. Um. No kissing in the office.

"I--Mac--about what I said up there--" Danny stutters.

Mac's eyes shift to him and focus in. Mac isn't making any particular expression, but he still looks different--Danny can almost see some thought shimmer away behind his face. "Come home with you," says Mac, "if I'm not mistaken."

For a second Danny thinks he just won't be able to talk--he'll open his mouth and move it and nothing will come out. "--Right," he says.

Mac raises his eyebrows. "Are you retracting that offer, Messer?"

Danny dials the cab right away. "No."

§§§

Mac is serene in the cab, almost expressionless in the elevator, and in Danny's living room, to Danny's astonishment, he doesn't case the joint, doesn't evaluate for possible exits, doesn't raise a single eyebrow or twitch a single muscle or even glance at the pile of mail on the floor, or the other pile on the floor of shoes, or the glass with dregs of Coke in it still on the table. He doesn't look at anything except Danny. He's intent, focused, watching, but as Danny looks back his face changes.

Danny watches until he can't stand to anymore, and when Mac licks his lips and slowly blinks, he steps forward and kisses him.

Hard.

For all the times Danny has thought about sex with Mac--just kissing Mac--Mac against a wall, him against a desk, Mac against the side of the SUV, Mac in his desk chair--he has never thought about Mac being here, in his home. He's never thought about the familiar smoothness of the painted wood door of his own apartment under his fingertips, his hands flat against the door next to Mac's body, trapping him in Danny's arms.

Danny stops kissing Mac's lips and moves his mouth to the edge of Mac's jaw and sucks hard, sharply, and Mac twitches under him, against him, around him, presses his hard lean body up against Danny and twines his hand in Danny's hair and grunts softly, and Danny thinks, maybe I'll never let you go.

Mac breaks away from kissing after a while by turning his head away. He's breathing fast, his hair rumpled, his face flushed. Danny's hand cups around his neck, half on warm skin, half on the heated cotton of his collar, his thumb flicking back and forth over the knot in his tie. "Maybe," says Mac, resting his cheek against the door, "we should take this somewhere more comfortable."

"Yeah," Danny whispers, and buries his face behind Mac's ear, nuzzling--"yeah, yeah, yeah," like he's coaxing a scared cat out from behind a couch, and Mac's hair smells so good--even with the dirty, metallic smell of rain still in it. He puts his hands down on Mac's hips and walks him away from the door a little, stops with their feet tangled halfway to the bedroom and wraps his arms under Mac's suit jacket again.

Mac makes a strained noise, and his breath hitches once, and then Danny's face is turned up, Mac's hand brushing his cheek. "Danny," Mac murmurs right on his mouth. "Danny," half-whispering, and then Danny feels Mac's hand on his belt buckle.

They kiss to the bed--"Wait," Mac mutters in his mouth, and Danny stops walking, and Mac drags one of his own arms out of his jacket, stops, and leans in to kiss Danny again like he just didn't quite finish up before, and then he finishes taking off his jacket. It hits the floor, then his holster, and then Danny's sliding the knot of his tie loose and tugging it down, fumbling with buttons, pushing his hands in the opening at the top and cupping the heat of Mac's collarbone in the hollow of his hand while Mac leans towards him like he can't help it and fumbles open his pants.

Pants kicked out of the way, guns on the bedside table, Danny presses his face against Mac's neck and nuzzles gently, marveling at the scent, the texture of the skin--the leap of Mac's pulse in the hollow of his throat, under Danny's lips. He steps closer, slides one hand around Mac's waist, where his skin is soft and silky, a little loose, over compact, hard muscles, still trim.

He trails the backs of his fingers into the small of Mac's back and touches Mac's collarbone with his teeth and Mac hisses and then they're in the bed, sideways at first, but Danny rolls quickly on top and pushes Mac's thighs apart with his knee, holding himself up with braced arms, and lets Mac guide his head down and hold him in place for a long thorough kiss--and oh, God--was Mac holding back before, because seriously, Mac is kissing like this time he really, really means it, like this is Danny's last warning, like Mac means to take no prisoners.

And this is fine with Danny. He lets Mac mouth the outline and shape of his lips and kiss him slick and slow and tease his tongue into Danny's mouth deep, open his mouth wide with shocking, wet, determined kisses.

They kiss until he's hard and aching, throbbing and pressing his dick desperately against Mac's hip, and Mac's grinding back against him.

"Let me, hold on a sec, just--" Danny gasps, jerking his head back and working a hand between them, lifting his hips so he can get them both in his hand.

Mac's hands leave his hair, trail over the back of his neck and his shoulders, giving him goosebumps, but when Danny settles his weight again and wraps his hand around both of them, Mac lets out a startled, gasping moan and clutches frantically at Danny's waist, so hard Danny can almost feel where the bruises would form.

That's good. It's really good. His hand is tight around them, they're both sweating, and Mac is hot and hard rubbing against him, and damp. He flexes his hand a little and Mac opens his mouth like he's going to speak, but he just gasps, thrusting up against Danny, spreading his thighs apart a little bit and hitching one up around Danny's hip.

Okay, "Oh God," gasps Danny, "Mac, Mac, I--"

Mac grabs his head, drags him down and kisses him open-mouthed, so hard their teeth click and his lip gets bitten by he's-not-sure-who, so hard his knee skids and he falls flat on Mac. Mac's hand wraps around the back of his thigh, tugging at him, and Danny squirms, uncoordinated and desperate, rubbing himself in the sweet crease where Mac's leg meets his body.

Mac's fingers move, just slightly, pushing through the curls on Danny's thigh as he grips it, and then his hand slides up a little, another firm caress that takes Danny right back to that moment in the rain, after Mac started to kiss him back, but before that information had completely locked into his brain yet, when Mac's hand stroked through his jacket--and now, up the back of his thigh, curving around his ass and gripping tight and pulling--

Danny sucks a deep breath almost right out of Mac's mouth, so close he can feel the rush of air on both their lips, grinds down against Mac's hip and comes.

Before he has a chance to move or think, or start kissing the other parts of Mac's face which he has been kinda forced to ignore what with everything, Mac has flipped him over, making some kind of pleased humming noise that rumbles a little bit in his chest, and Danny presses his palm right there with a moment's wonder, feeling the rumble travel through his skin. But Mac presses him down to the bed, plastering their bodies together from neck to knee and crushing Danny's hand a little until he gets it away, and then Mac is burying his face in Danny's neck, making some muffled gasps, his whole body seeming to tense and curl as he comes over their bellies.

"Ahh," says Danny, stunned. He really is stunned, he thinks, sort of like if he'd been hit on the head by a two-by-four and knocked over, except he's been knocked over by an orgasm.

And the aftermath of it is warm and heavy, draped over him, and when something tickles in the palm of his hand and he drifts a little closer to awareness, he discovers it's the flutter of fingers, Mac's hand lying half in his, both their arms flung out to the side. Danny curls his hand around that flutter, and closes his eyes, and feels warm fingers slip between his before he falls asleep.

§§§

Danny halfway wakes up a couple of times, or dreams that he does, with lips on the back of his neck, or the side of it, or the curve of his shoulder, and a voice whispering "Shhh", which he doesn't realize or remember is Mac's voice until he wakes up just before dawn, his room turning pinkish from the weak light leaking around the curtain.

Mac's face is right there and when Danny blinks and focuses on him and mumbles, "Mac," with his voice scratchy from sleep, Mac smiles at him, suddenly and broadly, so crinkles form next to his eyes, and something hot uncurls in Danny's chest. He smiles back, of course, smiles so hard it feels like he's cracked wide open--right down the center.

He has the idea that Mac said something to wake him up, but if so, he's not saying anything now. Mac watches him for a minute, and Danny sleepily watches him--the flickers in his eyelids as his gaze moves, the muscles shifting under the pale skin on his narrow shoulders, because Mac Taylor is naked in Danny's bed, the sheet falling back from his body, the dim light from the window sliding in a bar over half his face and picking up the glint of his eyes, warm and nearly golden.

After a minute Mac lifts one of his own hands and pauses to look at it; he's almost hesitant, Danny thinks. What is he so afraid of, now that they've already done it--isn't it a bit late for that? But he picks up his hand and catches Mac's, drags it back down under the blankets. He lets go, but he feels Mac's hand move, the side of one finger brushing back and forth against the side of his rib cage, and Mac just watches him.

It's clear, Danny thinks--Mac wanted him last night; he slept with him all night; now he's still here, and he isn't avoiding Danny's gaze; he's watching Danny very solemnly, and if he hasn't said anything, at least he hasn't jumped out of bed. Danny reaches out, because Mac is naked in his bed, and he doesn't have time to finish going through everything with scientific reasoning and drawing his conclusions right now, like Mac is maybe probably doing; Mac is in his bed and even if he did have time, Danny wouldn't be able to resist.

He wraps his hand around Mac's wrist, slides his other up to Mac's shoulder, touches the side of Mac's neck and his earlobe with the tip of his index finger.

Mac's eyes fall shut, and he tilts his head a little, moves a little closer to Danny under the covers. Danny can feel the drag of the sheets, the brush of Mac's knee on his leg.

He tugs on Mac's shoulder and Mac lets himself be collapsed slowly, kind of gracefully, into Danny's arms. Because Danny keeps his eyes open, he sees how Mac deliberately bends and kisses the bridge of his nose first, then his cheek near the corner of his eye, then the point of his chin, then finally his mouth--touching gently in the corner, moving with a soft sigh to fit their lips together, and Danny opens his mouth and wraps his hand from Mac's shoulder around the back of his neck.

"Mac," he whispers. He's not sure what he means: he says that several times, when Mac kisses him, when Mac starts stroking his hipbone, when his teeth scrape down the side of Danny's neck right over the carotid artery, oh yeah, and how come he never knew before how that would feel? It sends goosebumps over half his body.

He says it again when Mac puts a hand on his knee and shifts their positions. He moans it when Mac's hand wraps around his hard-on and chokes it out when he comes a minute later, easy and sweet, warm pulsing over his belly. He falls silent for a while as Mac's fingers stroke gently over his belly, the tops of his thighs, his sensitive cock, the crease of his leg, his balls and the cleft of his ass. He says it louder, a little hoarsely, when he folds his legs up to his chest, to take Mac in between.

Mac watches him carefully for a moment, his eyes darting quickly over Danny's face, before he says "Yes." Danny mumbles that everything's in the drawer, and sort of lies there with his eyes glazed, wrapping his leg around Mac's waist and stealing touches--his belly; his long thigh; the inside of his wrist--while Mac gets it all together. And then he melts back into the bed and holds onto Mac's arms tight and Mac curves down over him, head hanging, and says "Danny, just wait, just--" and breaks off with a long breath as he slides into Danny.

He's hot and relaxed, every now and then picking up his hips a little as Mac rocks and presses and glides and finally thrusts all the way in, and Danny wonders if maybe he never woke up all the way, because that's how good it feels--like dream-fucking, the slow rhythmic surges, Mac lying heavy between his legs, the--God!--deep fullness, taut, hard, stretching him, riding him.

Danny lets go of Mac with one hand and wraps it around his cock to jerk himself off in time to the thrusts he rocks breathlessly into. Mac doesn't start kissing him until Danny comes. Then he leans down, carefully, and it's like he lines his mouth up over Danny's with scientific precision--he even hovers there for a moment before he closes the gap and licks Danny's lower lip and then kisses him, slow and steady, while the whole time he slowly and carefully and scien-fucking-tifically fucks Danny into the mattress.

"Yeah," Danny's saying, "yeah, come on--Mac--come on--"

Mac holds tight to Danny's hips and pulls Danny up tight against him, shuddering, and comes.

"Yeah," Danny murmurs, letting himself relax, unfolding his legs, which feel wobbly.

Mac kisses the corner of his mouth, lightly. The last thing Danny hears is, "I'll see you in a few hours. Do you have an alarm? --Oh."

iv. conclusion

It's Friday and it's raining again, which by itself is maybe not much, but they've got a fair amount of lab work, and Danny and Aiden have spent most of the morning holed up there, sitting on stools at their microscopes, comparing slides and samples back and forth, lazily trading insults--a nice day, a slow day.

Stella comes by and leans up against the lab table, arms crossed over her chest. "Hey, what you got there?" she says, jerking her chin at Aiden.

"Not much," Aiden says, "we were just deciding to go with the leaf fragment Danny's got."

"Oh, really? Let me see."

Danny's leaning politely back from the microscope and Stella's peering through it and saying, "Kind of small, isn't it," when Mac bursts into the lab like a small, controlled hurricane.

"Stella," says Mac first, "have you finished all the paperwork on the Monroe case already?"

"Crossed every t, dotted every i," says Stella casually, "and by the way, since I was technically right about the brother, you still owe me five bucks. I thought I'd come down and see if Danny and Aiden needed some help."

"If I remember right," Mac snaps, arching his eyebrow at her, "there's still an open case on your desk involving a hitchhiker and a possible drug tie-in."

Stella raises both her eyebrows and crosses her feet at the ankle. "All right," she says, glancing at Danny and Aiden and then back consideringly at Mac, and Danny's just glad she's not directing that gaze at him. "You're right. I'll get right to it when my break's over."

Mac turns to them. "Aiden? How did that DNA test come back?"

"None of the samples was a match," says Aiden, "and Flack is still trying for a warrant on the plumber, so I came to work with Danny on the evidence we bagged at the scene."

"Tell Flack we need that warrant, and in the meantime, if you're not getting anything on the trace you've been examining since this morning--"

"Trace is really a one-person job from here; I was just going to check the missing persons database on the off-chance that we could get a lead on someone from the right period," Aiden explains. How she never gets flustered when Mac's glaring at her like that is beyond Danny, but she escapes and Mac turns to glare at him.

"Danny, get moving on that trace. If you can't get a lead there, leave it and come at it from another angle; you won't do anybody any good by getting fixated on one angle where the evidence isn't going to back you up," says Mac, and Danny almost stutters as he explains how they're matching the leaf fragments to a database and hoping to pinpoint more exactly where they could have come from, and then finally Mac turns and stalks out of the room the way he came in, and you can practically hear him grinding his teeth.

"What was that," Aiden mutters, taking off her lab coat and hanging it on the rack.

"That," Stella says, "was the result of a budget meeting." But when Aiden leaves, Stella doesn't immediately go off to check out the hitchhiker case with the drug tie-in. She comes back over and looks in Danny's microscope again, and then she stands back, silent, while he goes back to the computer and a lot of close-up pictures of leaves. He can feel her eyes on his back as he works.

It's a relief when she finally says something. "Hey, Danny. You don't happen to remember the last time Mac had a budget meeting, do you?"

"Uh, no, I can't say that I do," Danny replies.

"Huh," Stella says. "Because I was just thinking--compared to that--you might not remember, but he and I didn't speak for a week unless we absolutely had to--this is really pretty good."

"Oh, that?" Danny says before he can stop himself, "That was about a budget meeting?"

Stella waves her hand impatiently. "In fact," she presses on, "in fact, Danny, Mac has been pretty good for at least--" she pauses, apparently thinking "--at least two weeks, more like--three weeks, I think. Three weeks, except for that time we had to drag him off the witness and give him a little time out in the hall. And the guy was a convicted rapist, so that really doesn't count--I mean, you know how Mac gets."

Danny says warily, "Yeah." He knows how Mac gets. And he has to click back two entries in the leaf classification diagrams because he forgot to pay attention to what he was looking at.

He forces himself to focus on the computer screen and notice the tips and edges of the leaf, and then hit next. Because as soon as Stella started talking about the last couple of weeks Danny felt his whole chest and throat tangle up into one big knot of terrified paranoia, which is just stupid, because regardless of the effect of Stella's overwhelming personality on Danny, she doesn't know what he's thinking. She can't know, and it's just ridiculous to think his mouth would open without his consent and tell her that Mac's been getting laid for three weeks, and that most of the laying has been happening in Danny's bed.

Danny swallows, and keeps looking at pictures of leaves.

Danny stops and looks up from the computer screen again. That's a good question. That is a really good question, because it has a good answer. Danny hasn't noticed, and why not?

He has a mental store of smiles Mac has given him, and times Mac has touched his arm, and looks Mac has exchanged with him across his desk, across Danny's desk, the lab table, the SUV. He saves them up. And in the past three weeks, he's saved up a good supply of kisses and touches and he's learned that Mac doesn't always make the same face when he comes.

But Mac has been more relaxed the last three weeks, as clear and visible as the bony part of Stella's chest between her cleavage in that shirt, and Danny has not even noticed that this was anything out of the ordinary, because for all that he watches and watches Mac, he hasn't really been paying attention.

"Danny?"

"Wha--what? Oh," Danny stutters, "Uh, n--no, I mean, yeah, you're right--you're right! But no, I didn't notice that."

"Huh," Stella murmurs again, more quietly. This time Danny is pretty sure she's only talking to herself, and he hears the rustle of her moving behind him and turns back to the leaf catalog on the screen. He's even gotten through six more leaves and is carefully comparing two kinds of maple, and is assuming that Stella's left the room, when she appears directly in front of him again.

Danny looks up over the top of the monitor at her. He starts to say "What?" and then bites down on his tongue to make himself shut up.

Stella must've read it in his face. She gives a delicate little snort of laughter and tilts her head at him. "You guys talked about Tanglewood, didn't you? You actually talked."

Danny scowls. Of course Stella is interested in Tanglewood; she was with Mac in the interrogation room--and of course she knows everything he's ever said to Aiden. She's probably downloading the information directly to her brain right now.

Besides, this doesn't have anything to do with Tanglewood; they talked about that more than a month ago. "Not that I don't appreciate the whole lab's interest in my past traumas, Stella--"

"I'm glad you talked," Stella interrupts. "You know, you really kind of hurt Mac's feelings there. Poor guy, he really kind of needs to be, well, trusted."

Hurt his feelings? Hurt Mac's feelings? Danny stares at Stella, totally blank for a second, then wondering if one of them has some kind of head injury for another second, but he has to admit Stella is acting exactly like herself--being more charming than usual, but she hardly seems concussed. And he hasn't touched anything more dangerous than a cup of coffee today.

"I--"

But Stella pats his shoulder. "And hey, it all turned out okay, right? And seriously, Mac really impressed me with his patience; I'd never have guessed he had it in him."

Suddenly her eyes are a little bit narrow, and Danny isn't sure whether they're talking about what he thought they were or not.

"You did good," Stella says softly, slips around the edge of the table and hugs him hard around his shoulders with one arm. The soft curls of her hair brush against his neck and the side of his face and for a second he feels her nose press against the edge of his jaw, and then he's alone in the room, brushing the place where her eyelashes tickled his cheek. He swallows hard and clears his throat, packages the whole thing up to think about later and shelves it, and turns back to the computer.

§§§

Mac always has more paperwork than them, but he'd probably be at work the latest anyway regardless of that. He's been gradually loosening up a little, is how Danny has been thinking of it, and he's left about when Danny did four times in the last two weeks.

One of the times they even went to Sullivan's, and Danny sat two seats away from Mac and kept Aiden and Flack from pulling each other's hair.

Danny comes back to thinking about Mac and patience again and again all day after Stella leaves him alone in the lab. While he's slamming open and shut his desk drawers looking for the business card he knows he shoved in one of them and Aiden's tapping her foot at the door, he thinks, He does need to be trusted, kind of. While he's pouring his third cup of coffee, he thinks Okay, say I did hurt his feelings. And while he's clinging to the hanging strap in the subway on his way home, he thinks, Patience!--

--Oh. He bites his lip, and thinks maybe he wasn't exactly fair to Mac about Tanglewood, about a lot of things, because thinking of Mac just being patient hurts Danny a little, with a sharp, deceptively small pain behind his diaphragm, and it also makes him somehow look at it all in a different light, from Mac's point of view.

Why has he always operated under the assumption that Mac would blame him? Why has he always thought about this in terms of forgiveness?

Danny starts to make a pot of coffee, pours the water out again and unplugs the coffee maker. Instead he throws away the junk mail that's scattered over his whole table--except in the clear spot the size of two place settings that Mac has made there. Danny pauses, looking at the clear spot for a minute. Then he clears the rest of the table, does the dishes.

He pages Mac and tosses his phone down onto the clean table, but it rings right away.

"Hello," says Danny, trying not to pant too obviously.

"Hey," says Mac. "What's up? You at home?"

"Yeah, and nothing much, really."

"Uh--yeah, yeah," Danny says quickly, "sure, I was just going to fix something to eat--I don't know if I have--"

Mac cuts him off. "Danny, it's fine. I'll be there in five minutes."

Danny goes to take a shower. Five minutes--that's close, he had to have already been on the way over if he's only five minutes away.

The doorbell rings a few minutes later, and Danny stumbles trying to pull on boxers and slacks on his way to answer; barefoot, he can feel the gritty dust in the carpet sticking to his damp skin. He pulls open the door with one hand and buttons the top button on his pants with the other.

Mac's standing there quietly in his work suit with a paper bag in his hand and a very faint smile on his face that starts a warm, happy chain reaction somewhere in Danny's stomach. Danny can see Mac's glance flick over his wet hair dripping down his neck and his bare chest, too, and his skin heats up as he closes the door and turns the lock.

"How does spaghetti sound?" Mac says, holding up the paper bag slightly.

But Danny's been thinking all day about this. He can't be turned aside that easily, and he's staring at Mac's face now, studying Mac's expression. "Mac," he says, and then he's kissing Mac, fisting his hands in his hair, gripping Mac's head in his hands, pressing close. And Mac eats it up, drops the bag, puts his cool hands on the hot flesh at Danny's waist and pulls him closer, hooks an arm around him--how could he think he was, what, seducing Mac, talking him into it, showing him or something?

Danny's been thinking of these last three weeks as his chance, somehow, to prove something, but he's got nothing to prove--God, Mac's licking and delicately biting his neck--he's got nothing to prove, he doesn't have to prove anything, because Mac is right here with him, one hundred percent.

Mac goes along with him, holds him pretty tight, actually--which is something Mac almost always does--but he's more relaxed compared to Danny's sudden urgency. When Danny tries to peel his arms back to get him out of his coat and shirt, he keeps putting them back on Danny's waist and hips, getting in the way. And when Danny's backed him up to the couch and pushed him onto it, Mac just smooths his hands over Danny's back and ass slowly while Danny is fumbling with Mac's zipper, trying to tug it open without moving back to let any air in between their bodies.

Teeth unexpectedly scrape along his collarbone and Danny gasps and closes his eyes, and the next thing he knows he's sprawled out on top of Mac along the couch. He shifts a little, and lifts his head up. Mac's face is a little flushed, and his mouth is open, and when he catches Danny's eye he smiles at him--and gets a hand inside Danny's pants.

"Oh," says Danny stupidly, he wants Mac so much he can't even--there aren't any words, he can't--he squirms on top of Mac just as Mac's hand wraps around his cock, stops and grinds his hips down, clutching at Mac's shoulder with one hand, and his bicep with the other. Mac is strong; his arms are slender, but the muscles are slim and hard under the skin. His arm flexes under Danny's fingers and Danny clutches harder and presses his open mouth against the side of Mac's face and holds on tight while Mac thrusts up against him.

It's good; it's always good with Mac but this is really good, and Danny wonders, no, he knows that it's because of Mac, how much he wants Mac.

"Mac," he mumbles against the skin of Mac's neck, tasting salt, feeling the prickle of beard starting to grow through the skin.

"Yes?" Mac's gone mostly still under him, having got his thighs apart and settled Danny between them, and is now just slowly working his hand down into the back of Danny's pants.

There's a little silence, and then Mac shifts a little, pushes Danny back and sits up. His pants are hanging open, his hair is mussed and his neck is shining faintly with sweat. "What?"

"With Tanglewood," says Danny cautiously, a little unhappy about the physical separation between them.

"Did you hurt my feelings with Tanglewood? Danny, if I acted in any way inappropriately--. It was not my intention to make it more difficult for you," Mac begins, putting his hands on his knees just like he was completely dressed and sitting behind a desk, like he's ready to really dive in and get to the heart of this matter.

"Whoa, whoa, that's not what I meant," says Danny. "You didn't do nothin' wrong, you just played it very cool, and that worked, that's fine--that's not what I'm talking about, Mac, I'm not talking about how I felt."

Mac watches him from the very corner of the couch, which is where he now seems to be sitting. "Then what are you talking about?" he says expressionlessly, which kind of scares Danny because it's just like all those weeks after Tanglewood again when he thought Mac was mad, or afraid of him, God only knows what. Mac's hands aren't just resting on his knees anymore, they're curled and tense.

But he's halfway naked, still, on Danny's couch. He may have fumbled his fly closed, but he's barefoot and his neck is red where Danny's mouth was. Danny makes himself take a breath and look at Mac again, and Mac isn't mad, he's nervous, he's--he's waiting.

"You just..." Danny sighs. "I didn't get it, I was so fucking dumb, I did not have a clue what was going on with Tanglewood. I'm talking about you, Mac." He gestures helplessly, as if what he's talking about is Mac's posture or his chest, and not his personality.

The movement of Danny's arm seems like some kind of sign or something, or maybe Mac's just waited too long, because at that point he twitches, and then starts to stand up, still watching Danny.

"You didn't know what the hell was going on--I kept you totally in the dark, my fault, and then when you knew there was something there you still didn't do nothin'. After what Sassone said, I was so scared and you didn't say anything, and you--I know you, Mac--you tried to not even think anything, because you don't want to think the wrong thing when you don't know, you want to wait for the evidence--"

Mac's standing next to the couch, looking down at Danny, and he starts to break in here, "You have to wait for evidence, Danny. There is no case without evidence," but Danny keeps talking right over him.

"--No no, that's not my point, my point is you--you just--waited! After what Sonny Sassone said--you don't turn around and bust me--you don't go snooping around, trying to find out--you don't call me on the carpet, you don't even take me aside and ask me a question--you don't jump to any conclusions, and God, you had to have been dying to know--you just waited--"

Mac's moved jerkily a few steps away, and even through the excited haze of what he's trying to say, Danny knows that Mac moving away from him is not a good thing, so he gets off the couch and starts towards him.

"--You're always waiting," Danny is saying, "Mac, what are you doing, stop--waiting for me. Stupid! I'm so stupid."

Mac has thrown his shirt on and started buttoning it, but he freezes when Danny says that, and Danny reaches out for his hands, but Mac backpedals fast and puts the sofa between them and starts doing up the buttons again. "I don't know what you want me to say," he says tightly. "I don't know what we're talking about."

Danny frowns. Mac's nervous, not meeting his eyes, and his fingers keep fumbling the buttons, and he hasn't noticed yet that the buttons are all one hole off. "I don't want you to say anything, Mac, for God's sake, I'm trying to say something, here. I'm saying--when Sonny spilled the beans you had to know something was there, something big, maybe something bad, and you couldn't be on top of it. You needed to know that, Mac, and you still didn't ask--"

"--Danny, I couldn't pressure you there, I couldn't know how you would react; I trusted you to give me the information in the end, and in the end you did." Mac's gazing seriously at him, his hands still and poised at the second-to-top button. In the dimness of just one overhead light, his eyes look very dark.

"But not soon enough," Danny says. "You're on the wrong button."

Mac blinks and looks down, up, and down again. Then he seems to realize, and starts unbuttoning again. He doesn't say anything.

"But look, Mac," Danny says, and shakes his head a little to clear it. He's getting impatient with himself. "This isn't about Tanglewood. That was just supposed to be an example--that's what made me realize."

Mac's about halfway through the buttons on the shirt, in the right holes this time, and Danny realizes he has to explain himself fast in case Mac has something else planned for after the shirt--like his jacket and shoes, for instance.

"Will you look at me?" he says instead of explaining, and lunges across the space between them, grabbing Mac's hands and jerking them away from his buttons.

Mac's so startled he doesn't struggle right away, and then he doesn't struggle hard--he can flip Danny on his back with no trouble any day, and Danny's seen him take down big guys, tackle them running or halfway up walls. He turns his hands a little and tugs on them, and takes half a step back, but he lets Danny follow. "What?" Mac snaps, and Danny catches his mouth.

Mac kisses hard, like he might be angry; and Danny kisses hard and desperate, thinking of Mac's cold closed face and what and putting his buttons in the wrong holes and waiting. "You," Danny hisses into his mouth, and licks the curve of Mac's top lip. "You, Mac, I understand you."

By that time Mac's stopped fighting, and Danny walks him backwards and pins him up against the wall, standing between his spread feet, fumbling between them to unbutton the damn shirt again, kissing, and breaking away to talk-- "I didn't get you--" --and leaning back in for another kiss.

"Danny," Mac breathes, and puts his hand up hesitantly, sliding his fingers through Danny's hair and cupping the back of his head, holding him steady.

"I thought I got you, I thought I got me, I thought I had it down," Danny explains, looking right into Mac's gorgeous green eyes, right up close so he can see the color. "I was wrong about all of that, wrong about everything."

That must be Mac's thumb he can feel tracing a slow small arc above his hip bone, the same two inches of skin over and over until they catch on fire, and Danny presses himself closer, one of his thighs between Mac's legs, his cock up against Mac's hip.

"I'm sorry," Danny says breathlessly, swaying forward so he can say it right into Mac's mouth. "Sorry. I understand now--"

"Danny." Mac shuts him up by kissing him, open-mouthed and a little messy, hot, hard, wraps his arm around Danny's waist again and drags him closer until they're pressed together, shoulder to thigh. He strokes Danny's side with his free hand, down over his hip and the outside of his thigh, while Danny gasps and sweats and grinds his cock against Mac's wool-covered hip until he comes, and Mac doesn't even try to get his pants out of the way until after.

They both wrap their hands around Mac's dick, fingers tangling, and jerk him uncoordinatedly, uneven. When Danny bends his head down to taste the hollow of Mac's throat and trails his mouth out along the left clavicle, Mac's head hits the wall. He's breathing loud, the fingers of his other hand groping for Danny and finally wrapping around his arm and squeezing so hard Danny's arm actually hurts for a second when Mac finally comes.

"Don't be sorry," Mac says, quietly. His body's gone lax and pliable, sweet and heavy in Danny's arms. Probably both of them are more than half held up by the wall. "You want to understand me." And Danny does.

"There's more than one way you can go and arrive at the truth, I guess," Danny mumbles, lifting his head.

Mac smiles at him slowly, unexpectedly, tilting his head so you know he's considering, his eyes actually crinkling in the corners. "You've got your own method. You get there eventually."