Deviation from the Norm

by Nix
(crimsonquills AT gmail DOT com)

Author's Notes: Thanks to Moonbeam for beta reading--and in record time! Thanks also to James Walkswithwind and Wolfling, as this is once again set in their "Horses of Different Colors" universe.

At the sharp rap of knuckles on glass, Mac looked away from his computer screen and found Flack holding the door open and leaning partway into his office. Mac's neck prickled in acute awareness of the other stallion. "Something I can help you with, Flack?" he asked, raising his eyebrows in polite inquiry.

Flack accepted the implied invitation, stepping fully into the office and closing the door behind himself. "Stella mentioned you closed your case. Something to do with trinogamy."

Mac nodded. "Wife number one killed the husband with their...pinch hitter's gun."

"She also said you were pretty uncomfortable with the entire affair. Flack tilted his head and quirked a small grin. "No pun intended."

Mac frowned and studied him for a long time. "Not so much uncomfortable as skeptical," he said at last.

"Isn't that a little hypocritical?" Flack asked, raising his eyebrows.

"I've never been involved in a trinogamous relationship, Flack," Mac said dryly. He stood up, putting himself more or less on a level with the detective.

"No, but unless the Chicago herd handles things a hell of a lot differently than the rest of us, you didn't exactly grow up in a monogamous household," Flack pointed out. He slipped his hands into his pockets and shrugged. "I can't help but wonder why you didn't have more empathy for the situation."

Flack's posture was carefully calculated to play down the fact that he was critiquing Mac, but his caution did nothing to reassure the older stallion. That care shouldn't have been necessary, but Mac was trapped in a catch-22. When he acted with the certainty a herd stallion should--even with a herd of one--people noticed and he had to tone it down. When he toned it down, Flack started being extra careful not to overstep his bounds.

"Given the way the case turned out, I think my skepticism was justified," Mac said aloud.

"Maybe so. But you didn't know it was going to turn out that way when you caught the case, and you still reacted like a human."

"I work with humans," Mac argued. "Human reactions are more appropriate."

Flack hummed non-committally. "It's not about what's more appropriate, Mac. It doesn't matter how long you're away from the herd, you're still a centaur. I'm not so sure it's a good thing for you to forget that."

"I'll take that under advisement," Mac said, leveling a steady gaze at Flack. "Anything else?"

"Nope. I'm done," Flack said easily, withdrawing his hands from his pockets. "See you around."

Mac nodded sharply and seated himself again, turning his eyes, if not his attention, back to his computer screen. After a moment he forced himself to focus and start working his way through the deluge of e-mail, but it went more slowly than usual. At last Mac sat back with a sigh, acknowledging that his mind wasn't on work.

The problem was, Flack had a point. Growing up, Mac's family had been the herd stallion and the mares and the foals. That was normal, and it worked, and Mac had never thought twice about it before he'd been fostered out. It had taken him awhile to get used to the way humans paired off with each other. When had his sensibilities swung in the other direction?

You haven't forgotten what you are, Mac told himself, but the thought did nothing to banish his thread of uncertainty. Suddenly, he missed Claire with a fierceness that took his breath away. He could have talked to her about it, cleared his mind. Maybe she couldn't have done anything to make him feel better, but she'd have understood.

Stella was too human to see the conflict, Flack was too much of a centaur, and no one else knew. Of course, Stella and Flack only proved that knowing and understanding didn't necessarily go hand in hand. Which works the other way around, too, Mac realized after a moment. He glanced at the clock, which was ridiculous; it was days, not hours, before he was supposed to call. But he picked up the phone and dialed anyway.

"Eppes." The salutation was short, brisk. Mac hoped he wasn't interrupting something.

"Don, it's Mac."

"Mac! You're early. Something wrong?"

Mac suppressed a sigh and leaned forward on his desk a little. "No. Not really. Are you in the middle of something?"

"We're pulling files on a bunch of suspects," Don said. "But my guys can handle it without me for a few minutes."

"This isn't important enough to put a case on hold," Mac protested, but he could already hear the ambient noise on the other end of the line dropping as Don moved away from his team and into a quieter area of the office. Probably a conference room.

"Trust me," Don said dryly, "it's not on hold. What's up?"

You're already wasting his time, Mac told himself ruefully. Better to waste it with what you called about than with arguing about him going back to work. "We just closed a case and it's bothering me that it's bothering me."

Mac half expected to be teased about that last phrase, but all Don said was, "So what're you bothered about being bothered about?"

"The victim was involved in what his wives called a 'trinogamous' relationship." Mac couldn't help the tone of his voice that put vocal quotation marks around the word. "According to the two wives, the relationship they had with their husband was exactly like a monogamous relationship except it covered all three of them."

"And that put you off?"

Mac frowned. "Yeah. Right from the beginning I assumed that there was something wrong with their arrangement. I thought I was minded than that." Or at least more sympathetic.

"Even in monogamous relationships the perp is usually the spouse," Don pointed out. "You had a damn good reason to be suspicious. Adding a third person doesn't lower the risk, it increases it."

"But I was just as skeptical about the arrangement itself as I was suspicious of the wives," Mac argued. "I don't approach monogamous relationships with that cynicism despite the fact that more than half of marriages end in divorce. It shows a...bias on my part."

"Mac, it's only a bias if you don't have any solid basis for your reaction."

"I don't have a solid basis for my reaction!" Mac burst out, frustrated. He rubbed a hand over his face. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't be taking this out on you."

"If not me, who?" Mac could hear the shrug in Don's voice. "Look, you can only judge things like this based on your own experience. You're a cop, so I know your experience includes a hell of a lot of murders motivated by jealousy and infidelity, all of which tell you that human beings just aren't very good at sharing."

Human beings, Mac registered. He knew it was just an expression, a generalization, but Don had a point whether he knew it or not. Humans weren't herd animals the way centaurs were. They didn't interact with each other in the same way. It would never occur to a mare to be jealous of one of her fellows. The herd stallion was there for all of them, for the herd as a whole. But humans...humans instinctively saw each other as rivals when it came to relationships. "So you don't think it's possible for it to work?"

"Checking me for biases, now?" Don asked, but chuckled and went on before Mac could respond. "I think it depends on the people involved and the situation. Anything's possible, but when you got to this guy, he was already dead. That's a pretty strong indication that there was something wrong in his life."

"And his relationship with his wives was the only unusual thing about him," Mac said, remembering Stella's report.

"Personally, just the way they described the relationship makes me more than a little skeptical. I mean, 'trinogamy'?" Don paused, as if shaking his head. "You can't just lift the rules governing a relationship between two people and apply them to a relationship involving three people and expect it to work. A threesome has all sorts of problems that just aren't issues in monogamous relationships. If it's going to work at all, you have to work out a whole new set of rules for a whole new set of circumstances."

Mac found himself smiling. "Speaking from experience?" he asked, unable to help teasing just a little.

There was an awkward pause on the other end of the line.

Mac blinked. "Are you speaking from experience?"

"Not personal experience," Don said quickly. "Not quite, anyway. But I knew that had a complicated relationship and it did work."

"Polygamists?" Mac asked, surprised despite himself. He should have expected a man who lived in L.A. to have run into a few unconventional relationships, even if he was an FBI agent.

"None of them were legally married to each other, if that's what you mean," Don said. "But they all live together and take care of the children together, and have been for...a long time now. It's a stable situation, but it's also as much about responsibility as it is about love."

"It seems like most relationships--at least, the ones that work--are like that," Mac commented. The herd stallion's relationship with the mares of Mac's herd had been more about responsibility than love and he and Claire...well, he'd loved her more than anything, but they'd taken care of each other, too.

"Unfortunately, all of my experience with relationships that work is second hand," Don said wryly. "Relationships that don't work I could go on about for hours."

"I take it life has not been kind in the romance department," Mac commented. He wondered why not. Don was easy to talk to, dedicated to his family, confident but not overbearing, intelligent and, judging by his stories of his brother, pretty damn patient.

"Not kind would definitely be accurate." Don paused for a long moment. "I was engaged once, though. In Albuquerque."

It seemed, sometimes, like Don had left his whole life behind in Albuquerque. Friends, career, fiancee. "I take it she didn't come with you."

"Sent me the ring in the mail," Don confirmed. "The funny thing is, I was never all that upset about it. I mean, I was disappointed that we never got a chance to give it a shot, but I was in the middle of taking care of my mom. I had bigger things to worry about, and when I finally had a moment to focus on it, all I could think was that if she couldn't stick by me when my mom was dying, then we never would have gone the distance. There hasn't been anything really serious since then."

"But you keep trying?"

A long pause. "I gave up for a little while," Don admitted finally. "With the work I do...just being with me puts the people I care about at risk. The closer I feel to someone the more protective I get, and the more protective I get, the less willing I am to take the chance that they'll be hurt because of me."

"And after a while, it's easier just not to start the cycle over again," Mac said quietly.

Don let out what sounded like a breath of relief. "Yeah. Even when your family is constantly ragging on you about it," he added wryly. "I swear, one more 'my unmarried sons' from Dad and I'm going to snap." Mac chuckled along with Don, but he could hear the edge of truth in the comment. "He doesn't understand why I have so much trouble finding someone," Don said, sighing a little as their chuckles abated.

"I didn't even start dating again until four years after I lost Claire," Mac said quietly.

"Didn't see how lightning could strike twice?" Don's voice was gentle.

Mac smiled, remembering what he'd told Stella months ago, the same day the boxes of evidence for the Davies/Stefanos murder had arrived and he'd made that first return call to Don: Absolute, instant acceptance. That's an unreasonably high standard to hold someone to and I know it. "Most of the time I still can't," he admitted.

"You think that might have something to do with why you were so skeptical of your victim's threesome?" Don asked, almost lightly.

Mac started to reply, then closed his mouth and shook his head, smiling to himself. "Did you do that on purpose?"

"What, steer the conversation?" Don sounded amused now. "No, but who am I to pass up an opportunity like that? Besides, my team is shooting glances my way; I had to get it in before they dragged me away from the phone again."

"I should let you get back to it," Mac said, grimacing. Bad enough to have distracted him in the middle of a case in the first place without dragging it out.

"Hey, it's no problem," Don said easily. "Talk to you Thursday, the usual time?"

"Yeah, absolutely," Mac agreed. "Good luck with the case."

"Thanks," Don said warmly. "Damn, I really have to go. Bye!" There was a click and silence on the line before Mac could even return the rushed farewell. He shook his head and smiled as he hung up on his end.