The blast of music and swirl of scent wrapped around Don like one of Robin's silky scarves. He paused inside the door, let it swing shut behind him, and breathed deep, feeling his shoulders loosen and his headache ease. The rest of the world was out there; in here, everyone was having a good time.
Such a good time that the only open seat was at the far end of the bar, between a couple kind of obnoxiously absorbed in each other and a scruffy guy in a leather jacket.
What the hell. Don wasn't looking for companionship, just a drink and a chance to get lost for a bit in the splash of Los Angeles humanity. Half the girls in here at this time of night were hookers, anyway.
Don leaned into the bar and waved at the bartender, who had her manicured hands full with someone's cheery red cocktail. Then he turned to the guy to his left and tapped the empty stool. "This seat taken?"
There was gray in the man's hair and beard, dark shadows under his heavily-lidded eyes. It took him a few seconds to respond; from the three glasses, two empty and one half-full of Scotch, he was probably pretty drunk. "Nope. Have at."
"Thanks." Don settled onto the stool, making sure his jacket didn't swing open enough to show the shoulder holster he hadn't bother to take off before walking down to the bar.
The bartender brought Don his usual, a beer and a glass of bourbon on the rocks, without being asked. Don downed the bourbon in a few quick swallows, letting the burn soak into him, untwist the sense of responsibility from his shoulders.
The guy next to him was looking at him steadily, curiously. "Rough day?" he asked, voice a low but not unfriendly burr.
Don scrubbed a hand through his carefully gelled hair, roughing it into a mess. "Yeah. What gave me away?"
The guy raised a thick eyebrow at Don's empty glass. "It turn out okay?"
"Yeah. So far." Don took a long pull from his beer, using the rich, bitter taste to build a wall against the memory Charlie's haunted eyes. "Some asshole shot up the place where I work. Almost killed my brother. Came this close." He drew a line along the wood of the bar to measure the distance, just over three inches. He could still feel the hole in the whiteboard, the dusty slip of dry erase ink and lead residue. "He's a consultant, he shouldn't've been in the line of fire."
The guy chugged the rest of his Scotch and signaled for another. "Can't keep everyone safe forever, huh?"
"He's my brother. I can try," Don said, determinedly, and was taken aback by the huge grin that split his drinking buddy's grizzled face.
It was as quickly wiped away by a hand across his mouth, pain creasing the edges of his dark, tired eyes.
Don offered his hand. "I'm Don. Nice to meet you."
"John." He wrapped Don's hand briefly with his harsh and calloused fingers, then pulled his new drink towards himself.
"Looks like you had a rough day too, huh?" Weird how a couple of drinks made the rudest questions seem normal.
John just sat there, staring down at the bar. Was that too personal? No, Don realized--John was staring at the cell phone that lay at his elbow, screen dark and silent. Having, not had. "Waiting for a call?"
John's dark eyes flickered in his direction, and Don abruptly revised his take on the older man's earlier hesitation: he wasn't all that drunk, he'd just been taking Don's measure. Law enforcement, or ex-military, or maybe a career criminal. Don waited for the results. It wouldn't be the first time someone looked at him, thought, 'shit, a cop,' and backed off.
"Yeah," John said, finally. "My son, he's...sick. I'm hoping for some good news tonight."
Sounded serious. Don remembered leaving a job, a city, a fiance, to be with family when they needed him. He tried to quash the snap judgment that would accuse John of bad parenting, and asked instead, "How old is he? Your son."
That rough face, stern and whiskered, softened. "Twenty-six. Haven't seen him in a while."
And there had to be a story there, but it wasn't Don's to ask for. He took another pull of beer. "My brother's twenty-nine. Not quite thirty."
"And he's a...consultant?"
Don couldn't tell if John's question was carefully worded or if he was just trying to remember how Don had phrased it. "Actually, he's at the California Institute of Science."
There's a silence, another drink. "Grad student," John guessed.
Don grinned; this was still weird even to him, but he isn't tired yet of the reaction it gets from other people. "Nope, tenured professor. Applied mathematics."
"Son of a bitch." John got quiet again, staring at his phone. "That's...remarkable. And he consults for you on the side?"
"Yeah." Don finished his first beer and plunked the bottle down on the bar. "Where he gets himself fucking shot at when he should be safe. The hell was I thinking, asking him to get involved in stuff like this?"
"Did you?" John sounded interested, although his posture hadn't changed, whiskey and phone the only things in his direct line of sight. "Ask him to put his life on the line for something?"
"No! No. God." Don rubbed his eyes. Signaled the bartender for his second beer. "Actually, it was his idea. Not--not the 'putting his life on the line' part, but the consulting." He snorted. "Charlie thinks math can do anything. The hell of it is, he's not wrong. There are--" He stopped himself from saying 'perps,' still not sure how his FBI status would go down, and tried to rephrase. "His work, it's been invaluable."
John finished his drink, and tapped on the bar for another. "You're lucky," he said firmly, turning to face Don for the first time.
"Oh yeah?" Don wrapped a hand around his bottle. Just because this guy was a little bit older than himself didn't give him the right to give Don advice.
John frowned at him. "Sure. You get to work with your brother, and he's an asset to to you. If he needs protecting, you're there to do that."
Don remembered hearing the shots. Slamming Charlie to the ground. After the near-miss had already happened. He hadn't been able to protect Charlie very well even in his own office.
John took a mouthful from his new glass. "Used to work with my son. Family business. Best partner I ever had. He's still doing it. I'm proud of him, but I can't be there to watch his back."
"The one who's sick?" When John nodded and took a bigger drink, Don decided that anyone who opened up that far voluntarily was fair game. "Why aren't you with him now? I mean, even if you work different areas or whatever, if it's as serious as you made it sound... Family comes first, doesn't it?"
John face crumpled. His eyes, when he looked at Don, were bright with tears; his voice, almost too low to hear over the conversations around them. "It's not safe. For them."
Probably a career con, then, Don thought. Although, if he was smart, maybe he'd do the same thing. Move, cut ties with Charlie and Dad again. No more ducking bullets because of Donnie. "I'm sorry. That's tough."
"It's not a fucking picnic," John agreed. His hand crept forward to cover the cell phone. With his other hand, he drained the glass. Then he stood, and held out a hand. "Hope your brother knows you're looking out for him."
Don shook it. "Hope you get your good news, John."
The music whirled in, filling the quiet space that had enveloped Don for the past few minutes. He leaned both elbows against the bar, sipped his beer, and thought about calling Charlie.
Nah. It was late. Anyway, he'd see him tomorrow.