Chain of Command

by Nix
(crimsonquills AT gmail DOT com)

Author's Notes: Thanks to Canthlian for beta reading despite my demandingness. :-) Thanks also to James Walkswithwind and Wolfling, as this is once again set in their "Horses of Different Colors" universe.

Mac and Lindsay crouched over the body, eyes carefully taking in every inch, looking for something out of place. His concentration should have been entirely on the evidence, but no matter how hard he focused, Mac couldn't help the fragment of his attention that stayed on the far side of the room, where Flack was interviewing the neighbor who'd called the police.

"Yellow fibers," Lindsay commented, reaching out and plucking one of the fine threads from the victim's brown hair with latex covered fingers. Mac pushed Flack further to the back of his mind in favor of the victim.

Mac let his eyes range lower, finding more threads on the dead woman's eyelashes and the collar of her shirt. "Lots of them," he added. Together he and Lindsay worked their way down the body, finding threads all along the length of it, but nothing else. Faintly, Mac could hear Flack thanking the neighbor for her time.

Out of the corner of his eye, Mac watched the detective cross the room and come to stand over them. He waited while Mac carefully snagged some of the yellow fibers with a pair of tweezers and dropped them into an evidence envelope. Mac labeled it neatly and looked up, raising his eyebrows a fraction.

"Neighbor says they go for coffee every morning at 7:00 AM," Flack reported, tilting his head back towards the woman he'd been interviewing. "When the vic didn't answer the door, she went back to her apartment and called. No answer, so she talked the super into opening the place up. Saw her friend, saw the blood, called 911 on her cell."

Mac frowned thoughtfully. "She didn't check for a pulse? Attempt CPR?"

"Nope," Flack confirmed. "She says she's heard you can do more harm than good if you don't know what you're doing."

With CPR that was possible, but most people would've at least checked a friend's pulse or looked to see if they could stop the bleeding. "What about the superintendent?" Mac asked, straightening up from his crouch.

"He was gone when we got here. The neighbor says she doesn't remember him leaving, but she was kind of distracted," Flack said skeptically.

"Distracted?" Mac raised his eyebrows. "By what? She wasn't trying to save her friend." He looked over at the neighbor. She was staring at the body, one hand wrapped around her waist, the other raised, fingers just resting on her top lip. "What could be urgent enough to take the super away from a dead tenant?" Mac mused aloud. "We need to find him and have a chat."

Flack nodded. "I'm on it."

"And Flack?" The detective paused in the midst of leaving and looked back at Mac. "Tell the uniforms interviewing the building residents to keep an eye out for something large and yellow."

"Large and yellow?" Flack asked incredulously.

Mac waved the evidence envelope. "We found yellow fibers all over her body. Head to toe."

"Great," Flack muttered as he left. "I have to tell a bunch of uniforms to watch out for Big Bird."

Mac grinned a little, but it faded quickly when he looked down at the victim. "Got anything else?" he asked Lindsay as she straightened up.

Sighing, she shook her head. "Just a lot of yellow fibers."

"Well, we've got a whole apartment of potential. Let's get to it."

Lindsay stepped away from the victim and worked her way over to the front door while Mac headed deeper into the apartment, towards the couch and television. "You mind if I ask you something?" she asked.

"Go ahead," Mac said, eyes carefully scanning the couch. He bent over to lift the cushions.

"Why does he do that?"

Mac looked up and found Lindsay looking back at him. "Who?" He set the couch cushions back down and moved onto the coffee table.

"Flack," Lindsay said. "He treats you like his lieutenant, not like a CSI. In Montana, we'd never get away with doing the kind of investigative work this team handles routinely. The detectives would be on our butts for poaching on their territory."

Mac carefully suppressed a grimace. When it came right down to it, he didn't know why Flack deferred to him the way he did. They'd met maybe half a dozen times before the other stallion had quietly informed Mac that as far as he was concerned, Mac was dominant, and that was the end of it. Mac had been relieved--he hadn't been looking forward to fighting it out--but the way it had all happened left him with the lingering feeling that he'd missed something along the way and maybe the issue wasn't as settled as it was supposed to be.

"Seniority," Mac said aloud, shrugging. "I've been around longer than Flack has. Seen more."

"He's not exactly a rookie," Lindsay said dryly. She finished with her area of the apartment and pointed towards the bedroom. Mac nodded and followed her in, taking the dresser while she handled the bed sheets.

"I suppose we got into the habit early on and it just stuck," Mac said as he worked. "It works."

"No arguing with that," Lindsay said, a smile in her voice. "My solve rate has gone way up since I transferred, and it wasn't that bad in Montana." She paused and sighed deeply, prompting Mac to turn around. She was crouching on the other side of the bed. "Although I could wish the cases weren't all so weird."

"I take it you found something," Mac commented.

Lindsay held up a fake rubber snake covered in blood. "Please tell me this isn't our murder weapon?" she said plaintively.

Mac smiled and chuckled a little. "We'll have to wait for Hammerback to tell us for sure," he said. "But we've seen stranger things."

"I never thought I'd see the day when killing someone with a rubber snake became comparatively normal," Lindsay said, bagging and labeling the potential murder weapon.

"Keeps us from getting bored," Mac commented, going back to processing his side of the room.

"Forensics is never boring." Lindsay flashed him a smile.

Mac agreed, but not even the incongruity of the rubber snake stopped him from turning Lindsay's comments about Flack over and over in his mind. No one had ever remarked on their oddly backwards chain of command before. Had they just been holding their tongues, or had they not actually noticed? And if the latter, had his and Flack's behavior become pronounced enough to start drawing attention? Lindsay's comment could be just the first of many.

If that was the case, they had a problem. No, Mac corrected himself as they headed back to the lab. I have a problem. I'm in charge. It's not Flack's responsibility. It's mine. Even if he hadn't really been looking for it. Somewhere in the midst of courting and marrying his wife and doing his job as thoroughly and as well as he could, his skill had gotten him promoted into a leadership position he hadn't been looking for.

At least it gave you experience dealing with personnel problems, Mac thought wryly. As though anything could be proper training for dealing with another stallion. He couldn't help but hope that there wasn't a problem at all, that Lindsay was just being extra sensitive to the dynamic of a team to which she was a newcomer. Stepping into his office, the evidence logged and much of it in the midst of running, Mac silently resolved to have Stella keep an eye on him and Flack for awhile. An outside, but informed, perspective would help.

Settling down behind his desk, Mac surveyed the stack of paperwork waiting for him and suppressed a sigh. Purchase orders, progress reports, vacation requests, overtime forms...if he wasn't working a sixty hour work week regularly, Mac suspected the actual forensics would slip through his fingers and leave him with nothing but paperwork. He started to reach for the folder on the top of the stack, but paused and glanced at the clock first. It was just about time...

The phone rang.

...for Don to call. Mac smiled and lifted the receiver, pressing it to his ear. "Taylor, NYPD CSU."

"You know, it'd actually be fewer syllables to just say 'New York,'" Don said by way of greeting.

Mac chuckled. "People know what the NYPD is. If I cut it short, half the people who called wouldn't even know they were talking to the police."

"Who calls you other than other divisions of the PD, anyway?"

"The FBI," Mac said dryly.

Don laughed. "Hey, I was transferred to you by someone else in the NYPD. Doesn't count."

"Well, there's always the authors of this stack of paperwork on my desk." Mac braced the phone between ear and shoulder and shuffled through a few folders. "Somehow I didn't expect to be getting marketing packages when I took this job."

"Marketing packages?" Don sounded surprised. "Marketing for what?"

"Scientific equipment," Mac answered. "Mass spectrometers, DNA sequencers, X-ray diffractometers, facial recognition software, latex gloves, chemical supplies--"

"Okay, okay, I get the idea," Don said, voice rich with amusement. "Don't you have a purchasing department to take care of that sort of thing?"

"Sure." Mac sorted the marketing packages out from the rest of the paperwork and set them aside for another time. "But they pretty much buy what I recommend and the equipment companies know it. If they can get a shift supervisor to endorse their product, it's worth their time to get the marketing to me."

"It's a wonder you have time for the evidence," Don commented.

Mac smiled at the echo of his own thought. "Well, I work too much."

Don chuckled. "Speaking of which, you got time now to work too much with me?"

"At least an hour," Mac confirmed. He'd actually set aside two, but he didn't want to count on all of that time, not with evidence running as they spoke.

"Sweet," Don said. "If I recall correctly, we left off at Eagle Eye Optics."

"You do recall correctly." Mac opened a box of evidence from the Stefanos/Davies murder and rifled through it until he found the appropriate file. "Stefanos first approached Eagle Eye in September, 1994..."

Even with Don's voice in his ear, asking questions about the file, Mac found it difficult to concentrate. The stack of paperwork on his desk, the blinking message light as he and Don tied up the phone line, even Stefanos's case file only reminded him that he was supposed to be taking care of things in the lab, which inevitably brought him back to Lindsay's comments about Flack.

Mac had to wonder if things would have turned out better if he'd been the one to back down, but at the time that hadn't even occurred to him as a possibility. Stallions fought to settle dominance. That was the way it was, the way it always had been. He hadn't wanted to fight, despite--or maybe because of--the advantage his military training would have given him, so he'd carefully avoided allowing any opportunity for a confrontation. Flack's sudden and inexplicable deferral had taken a few days just to sink in. By then it was settled and Mac found his hands full of a responsibility he wasn't quite sure what to do with. He'd defaulted to the strategy that had served him perfectly well for decades--act as normally as possible, by human standards.


Mac blinked and realized he'd completely missed Don's last sentence or two. "I'm sorry," he said. "I'm a little distracted."

"Problem?" Don asked, concern coloring his voice.

"Not with this case," Mac assured him.

The concern didn't ease. "With what, then?"

Mac paused, considering for a moment. How much of this could he share, and would it make any sense? "I'm having a bit of a personnel problem," he said at last.

"How serious a personnel problem?"

"Not serious at all, at the moment," Mac said, sighing and closing the file he'd been reviewing. "But if I let it go, I'm afraid it'll snowball."

"The joys of a supervisory position," Don said wryly. His voice had relaxed a little. "You know about the problem, at least. It's the ones that sneak up on you that really screw things up."

Tanglewood, Mac thought wryly. Now there was a mess he hadn't expected to land on his plate. "You ever wonder how you ended up with the life you've got now?" he asked, leaning back in his chair and resettling the phone against his ear.

There was a pause. "Not really," Don said, almost apologetically. "There are some decisions I regret, some parts of my life that I wish had worked out differently, but I'm pretty clear on how one event led to another."

"I don't feel like I'm part of a chain of events at all," Mac commented. "Or if I am, it's not one I control. I think I've just been reacting to things ever since Claire died." He thought for a moment. "No," Mac admitted. "Since before Claire died."

"You don't seem to have done too badly for yourself," Don offered. "You're the head of one of the best crime labs in the country."

Mac huffed a short laugh. "That would be more encouraging if I'd intended to become head of this lab," he said dryly.

"Didn't you?"

"No." Mac stared across his office at his military photographs. "I had my fill of leadership in the Marines. They were my family for a long time. I belonged there. I worked hard to be a good officer, but the more advanced I got, the less I seemed to belong. There was a sense of separation between the senior officers and the men."

"That why you left?" Don asked quietly.

Man nodded, then realized he needed to speak aloud. "Yes. Among other things. I met Claire just before I shipped out the last time. And I was getting more interested in science, forensics in particular. I wanted a chance to use my mind to solve problems other than the tactical."

"So how'd you end up as the head of the NYPD CSU?" Don's tone was curious, but also a little confused.

"Apparently I'm just too damn good at what I do," Mac said dryly.

Don burst out laughing. "That and you work too much," he shot back, almost teasing.

Mac found himself smiling. "That, too. I suppose, given the time and effort I can't seem to help putting in here, it was just a matter of time before I ended up where I am. I never really noticed the promotions; whether or not I got one never affected how I worked, and I had Claire..."

"She was your wife?" Don's tone was soft. Gentle.

"Yeah," Mac replied, equally soft. "If I hadn't already been head of the lab before she died, I expect I'd have gotten there not too long afterward. I hardly did anything but sleep and work for months. I even ate at the lab."

"You mentioned once it had been five years." Don hesitated. "Can I"

Mac's lips twisted. This part, at least, needed no explanation. "September 11th." There was a sharp intake of breath and a pause. "The worst part," Mac said, feeling a certain tightness in his throat, "is not having had a chance to say goodbye."

"Losing someone is always hard, whether you have to watch them suffer or whether you never see it coming," Don said after a moment. "I've been through both, and I wouldn't want to choose between them."

"But you think you could?" Mac asked, his eyebrows rising.

"If I was forced to it, yeah. That's doesn't mean it would be an easy choice, or the right choice, or that it'd be made for the right reasons. But when you've got limited options, a choice is always made one way or the other."

There was a solid, even conviction in Don's voice. Mac could imagine how he'd be under fire: adaptable but decisive. "You must be a very good team leader," Mac commented.

Don paused. "Thanks," he said, audibly thrown off his stride.

Mac smiled just a little but didn't bother to explain. "Did you always want to be an FBI agent?"

He could hear Don grinning as he answered. "Nah. I wanted to be a baseball player."

Mac blinked. "You're kidding."

"Nope," Don said. "I went to college on a baseball scholarship. Even played single-A ball with the Stockton Rangers for a couple of years."

"How do you go from baseball player to federal agent?"

"A moment of clarity," Don said wryly. "I was up at bat in a game one day and the pitcher really blew it. Sent a ball across the plate slow and sweet as anything you ever saw. Should have been a home run."

"You miss it?" Mac asked, grimacing in anticipation.

"Got a double," Don answered. "Signed up for the Quantico entrance exam the next day."

"That turn around must have given everyone you knew whiplash," Mac commented dryly.

Don laughed. "You don't know the half of it. My parents were real hippie, anti-war protesters. When the FBI did my background check, they even turned up in the government's files. My dad has a folder all to himself."

"He try to talk you out of it?"

"Nope." Don's voice was warm. "He didn't say a word, not until years later when I brought it up myself. At the time, yeah, he was disappointed. It must have been hard for him to hold his tongue, but he did it. By the time we talked, he'd had a chance to get used to it, even develop a little pride."

"But why the FBI?" Mac asked. "If you signed up for the entrance exam the next day, you must have already been thinking of it."

A pause. "I just knew I'd be good at it, you know?" Don said at last. "Just had a good feeling about it."

"Do you always put so much weight on your instincts?"

"I've had wrong hunches," Don admitted. "But you have to trust yourself."

"I'd rather trust the evidence," Mac said.

"So speaks the CSI," Don chuckled. "Sometimes the evidence will only take you so far. You need the human factor to bridge the gap."

"The human factor isn't exactly my forte," Mac said dryly.

"You must do okay, or you wouldn't still be in charge of the lab," Don argued. "I mean, you spotted this personnel problem of yours, right?"

Mac grimaced. "One of my people spotted it."

"And you listened," Don returned promptly.

"I do have weak spots," Mac said, smiling to himself.

"We all do." Don was unrepentant. "But I'm not so sure yours are where you think they are."

"Planning to enlighten me?"

Don laughed. "You got some time?"

Actually, Mac thought. I do.