One Step Removed

by Nix
(crimsonquills AT gmail DOT com)


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


Mac shrugged into his coat and dropped his wallet and badge in one of the pockets. It was nearly nine o'clock and the night shift had taken over hours ago, but Mac still paused before dousing the lights in his office and stepping through the doorway. It had been more than three hours since he'd called Don, and the FBI agent still hadn't called back.

It wasn't particularly unusual for the two of them to miss each other; their work schedules were nothing if not irregular. But they'd made a habit of both leaving and returning each other's messages promptly, if only to reschedule the call. Sometimes the game of phone tag lasted all day, but it did make it more likely that they'd find a mutual free moment.

An hour delay between messages would have been normal. Three was a little long, but it happened occasionally. Despite that, Mac couldn't shake a sense of uneasiness. Don had never before failed to return a call before the end of Mac's work day.

Mac frowned, but forced himself to close his office door and head for the elevators. He'd call into his voicemail when he got home. Just in case.

***

There was still no word from Don by the time Mac got to his apartment.

He shed his coat and suit jacket and tucked his wallet, badge, and keys into the appropriate places, contemplating the phone all the while. It's only six thirty in L.A., Mac reminded himself. Still, he picked up the phone and called Don again. When it transferred to the answering service he left another message. After a momentary hesitation, he included his home phone number.

Time seemed to drag by with excruciating slowness as Mac made and ate his dinner. He tried to settle down with the latest issue of the Journal of Forensic Sciences, but his attention kept wandering. So did his gaze, going to the phone over and over again. He punctuated the hours by calling into the lab's voicemail, with no result.

Midnight came and went, but Mac couldn't bring himself to go to bed, despite the fact that he was already depriving himself of sleep. He called his voicemail again, and then Don's line, and still there was no answer. "You're being paranoid," he muttered to himself, but even as he spoke he was looking up the general number for Don's office.

"Federal Bureau of Investigation, L.A. field office," the receptionist said crisply. "How may I direct your call?"

"Connect me to Special Agent Eppes, please," Mac said.

"Hold, please."

Mac forced himself not to hold his breath as he waited.

The receptionist came back on the line. "Special Agent Eppes is unavailable. Would you like his voicemail?"

Damn. Mac debated internally for a moment. Well, what can it hurt? "Is there another member of his team available?"

Another pause. "Hold for Special Agent Sinclair," the receptionist said eventually.

Mac carefully let out a quiet breath. After an interminable pause a ring came over the line and was quickly cut off. "Sinclair." The name was brisk, clipped.

"Special Agent Sinclair," Mac said, speaking quickly, half afraid he'd be cut off. "This is Detective Mac Taylor from the NYPD. I realize this may not be the best time, but I've been expecting a call from Agent Eppes all day and I couldn't help being concerned when I didn't hear from him."

"If it's important, maybe I can take care of it," Sinclair said tiredly.

"It's not the phone call I'm worried about," Mac clarified. "It's Don."

There was a pause. "Excuse me, but who is this, again?"

"Mac Taylor. From the New York Police Department," Mac repeated, struggling to keep his impatience out of his voice.

"New York," Sinclair said, as if the city had special meaning. "Of course. I'm sorry, it's been a very long day. Don's fine, Detective Taylor. The doctor just wanted to--"

"Doctor?" Mac said involuntarily. "What happened?" He swallowed the need to ask if Don was all right again; Sinclair had already said he was.

"I can't--"

"I'm not asking for details of an ongoing investigation, Agent Sinclair," Mac interrupted. "Just a quick word on Don's condition."

"Like I said, he's fine. He got into it with a suspect and the guy got him in the back of the neck with a needle full of sedative. Don took him down before the drug kicked in. The paramedics woke him up at the scene, but they also insisted on taking him back to the hospital to check him out and run a tox screen, just to make sure there wouldn't be any nasty surprises later."

Jesus. Mac took a long, deep breath. A needle full of sedative to the back of the neck. He's damn lucky he got a shot off, never mind actually hit the guy. "Do you have any idea when he'll be released?"

"Should be any time now." Sinclair paused. "Listen, you want Don's cell number? There's no guarantee he'll go straight to his apartment from the hospital."

"He'll probably want to stop by Charlie's place and see his family," Mac agreed. "I'd appreciate his number, if you're sure he wouldn't mind."

Sinclair just chuckled. "After all the time you two have spent on the phone together, I'm surprised you don't already have it."

Mac blinked and wondered if his own team had noticed the long series of phone calls the way Don's apparently had. Somehow the possibility just hadn't occurred to him. "We mostly talk while we're both at work," he explained, half afraid Sinclair would suddenly decide not to give him the number. "If he was out of reach of his office phone, chances were he'd be too busy to talk anyway."

"Makes sense," Sinclair said. "Got a pen and paper?"

Mac didn't need either, but he didn't feel like explaining. "Go ahead."

Sinclair reeled off a string of numbers and finished up by saying, "If you get a hold of him, remind him to call the office and let us know he's in the clear, okay?"

"I'll do that," Mac promised. "And thanks."

"No problem."

They hung up and Mac contemplated the phone for a long moment, wondering if he should call now or wait a while to give himself a better chance of Don being out of the hospital and able to answer.

Out of the hospital.

Mac set the phone down on his coffee table and went into the kitchen to put on a pot of coffee. It probably wasn't a good idea to drink coffee at nearly one in the morning, but he didn't expect to be sleeping for a while yet and he needed the familiar task to settle his nerves.

It took around twenty minutes for the pot to finish brewing. Mac returned to his living room with a cup, heavily dosed with milk to cut the caffeine at least a little. He settled down on the couch, took a long sip, and set down the cup in favor of the phone. He hesitated a moment before dialing. Don probably just wanted to be with his family, to regain his equilibrium. He might not want to be disturbed...but Mac found himself dialing anyway. I'll just make sure he's okay.

The phone rang three times before Don picked up. "Yeah." He sounded tired, worn out.

And no wonder, Mac thought wryly. "Don, it's me. Mac."

"Mac! Jesus, what time is it there? Quarter after one? Why on Earth are you calling me now?"

"You didn't call me back." And damn, but that sounded stupid now. "I was worried," Mac admitted.

"Shit. I'm sorry," Don said.

"Don't apologize to me," Mac said wryly. "I think being attacked and hospitalized is excuse enough."

"I wasn't hospitalized," Don contradicted. "They just gave me a quick check up. But how'd you know what happened?"

"I, ah, called your office and spoke to Special Agent Sinclair. I'm sorry if I overstepped my bounds, but--"

"You were worried," Don finished gently.

Mac swallowed, a little embarrassed. "Yeah." You weren't going to drag this out remember? "I should let you go. I'm probably just keeping you from your family."

But Don surprised him. "Not really," he said. "I mean, I'm at their place, but Charlie's out in the garage or the kitchen or somewhere and Dad's watching the end of the game in the living room."

"They do know you were hurt?" Mac asked, almost involuntarily.

"Yeah, but..." Don sighed. "I don't like to worry them, Mac. Besides, this was hardly serious."

"Hardly serious?" Mac asked incredulously. "Don, someone got you in the back of the neck with a needle! It doesn't matter that all that was in it was a sedative. It could have nicked your carotid artery. Hell, a needle is small enough that it could have slipped between the vertebrae and done damage to your spinal cord. Things are packed pretty close together in your neck; less than half an inch either way and you really would have been hospitalized. It was pure luck that he hit muscle tissue instead. Even then, the bastard got enough sedative into you to knock you out. If you hadn't gotten a shot off--" Mac cut himself off, clenching his eyes shut against the mental image.

"Mac." Don's voice was low and calm. Real. Solid. "Whatever might have happened, I am okay. Maybe a little sore, but nothing a couple of Tylenol won't fix."

"I know." Mac rubbed a hand over the back of his own neck, trying to push away the knowledge of just how many things could have gone wrong for Don. "I know. So if Alan and Charlie aren't there with you, what are you doing there?"

"Writing up my incident report on the shooting." There was a momentary pause. "I didn't feel like going back to an empty apartment. My family doesn't have to be sitting at the same table to be with me."

"I hope I'm not distracting you."

"Of course you are," Don said, a smile in his voice. "That doesn't mean I mind."

Maybe he didn't feel like he needed his family right there, sitting at the table with him, and maybe having them there would only make Don worry that they were worrying about him, but that didn't necessarily mean that he wanted to be alone, one step removed from human contact. If Mac could help with that, he would. Although I'm not even human, Mac thought wryly, and a voice in his ear is more than one step removed.

Mac struggled for a moment to find something to say, some topic to turn the conversation to other than the shooting he couldn't ask about, even if he was wondering where Don's backup had been while he was getting stabbed in the neck and sedated. He was still coming up blank when Don spoke again.

"But you ought to mind, given how late it is in New York. I shouldn't keep you up. Will you--"

"This is hardly my first late night," Mac interrupted. "A little missed sleep won't do me any harm."

There was a pause, and then Don chuckled. "Our jobs don't exactly encourage regular hours, do they?"

A tension that Mac hadn't even known was there went out of his shoulders. "Not exactly," he agreed.

"It's nice sometimes, though, to be in the office when there's no one around and nothing to distract you," Don mused. "I feel like that's when I make the most progress, despite the fact that I know everything important happens in the insane rush of field work."

"When you're rushed, everything seems to happen faster," Mac said. He picked up his coffee and leaned back into the embrace of his couch. "Which makes it feel like it occupied less time, and therefore embodies less work."

There was a smile in Don's voice when he answered. "Interesting observation for a lab rat to make."

"What, you've never put a rush on your lab results?" Mac retorted dryly.

Don snickered. "I think lab results suffer from the opposite effect. The more important they are, the longer it is before they're ready."

"Maybe time in general is just contrary," Mac suggested.

An unexpectedly heavy pause followed. "Sometimes it cooperates," Don said quietly. "You were a Marine; did you ever have one of those moments when the whole world slowed down and it seemed like you had all the time you needed?"

Mac took a long, slow sip from his coffee mug. "Yeah," he said. "Yeah, I have."

"It's not usually like that for me." There was a moment of silence while Don gathered his thoughts. "Normally the bust has just gone to hell and I'm in the middle of a fire fight and I'm thinking more about keeping my people safe than I am about killing anyone. But every now and then... Every now and then I have time to stop and think and make a conscious choice. I'm never sure whether to be grateful for that time or not."

"Aren't you grateful to be alive?" Mac asked curiously.

"Glad, yes," Don said. "But grateful? To who?"

Mac shrugged, knowing that his voice would communicate the gesture to Don even though they couldn't see each other. "God?" he suggested, thinking of Zeus. Of course, Zeus might like to keep a hand in with his children, but that doesn't mean he fine tunes every moment of our lives.

"I don't think even the biggest busybody of a god would interfere in a perfectly ordinary case," Don said dryly, unknowingly echoing Mac's thought. "Besides, where would my self-esteem be if I gave the credit for every break in my favor to my god? I'd prefer to chalk them up to skill, training, and preparation."

"Which also means you have to take personal responsibility for the breaks that don't go in your favor," Mac pointed out, more for the sake of argument than because he disagreed.

Don sighed. "Yeah, well, that's what makes them learning experiences, right? If I didn't take on the consequences of my choices I wouldn't have much motivation to make the right ones."

"I don't know the exact circumstances," Mac said, "and I'm certainly biased, but it was your life or his. As far as I'm concerned, you made the right choice."

"Yeah." Don was quiet for a long moment. "Biased, huh?" he said eventually, his voice taking on a lighter note. "That mean you want me to stick around a while?"

"Maybe a little longer than 'a while.'" Mac stopped, suddenly feeling awkward.

"I should have guessed, after the one A.M. phone call."

Don sounded...pleased, maybe. Happy. The sense of awkwardness faded as quickly as it had come. "One fifteen A.M.," Mac corrected, smiling a little.

"Is that hair splitting, or just scientific precision?"

"Neither," Mac said. "If late night calls are buying me brownie points now, why shouldn't I angle for all I can get?"

Don laughed. "Are you expecting to need brownie points later?"

Mac finished off his milk laden coffee and set the empty mug down on the table. "If I keep coming up empty on the Stefanos/Davies evidence, I might," he said wryly.

"You're not the only one coming up empty," Don said.

"I take it Charlie hasn't pulled a miracle out of his equations?" He knew that Charlie had finally looked into it because the mathematician had pestered him for more and more data every day for a week.

"Not this time," Don affirmed. "Ten years, three murders, and two cases worth of data and he couldn't even pull a pattern out of it, never mind a coherent connection between Carlos Esteban and Evander Stefanos."

"Apparently there's a place in this world for old fashioned police work yet," Mac said dryly.

Don snorted. "Either that or I've dragged us both around on a wild goose chase."

"By the end of it, the perp's goose could still be cooked."

Don groaned. "Please, Mac, no more," he begged. "I'm just out of hospital. Have some mercy."

Mac chuckled. "You told me yourself: you weren't hospitalized, they just gave you a quick check up."

"They weren't expecting my body to bear the stress of your bizarre sense of humor," Don returned.

"My sense of humor is stressful?"

"Your sense of humor verges on being a health hazard," Don said. "Fortunately, I've been building my immunity over the past months or that last quip might have done me in."

"You only think you've been building an immunity," Mac responded. "In reality, you've been working up to the effective dosage. Any moment now it'll reach full potency and you'll find yourself making puns."

"So if I'm cut off the source, will I suffer from with drawl?" Don asked, drawing the last word out in demonstration.

Mac's mouth hung open for one startled moment and then he started laughing helplessly. "That was terrible," he managed at last.

"And you loved it."

"What gave you that impression?" Mac said, still chuckling.

There was a smile in Don's voice, too. "Well, I am an FBI agent. We get extensive training in profiling."

"And yet the vaunted FBI training didn't save you from my sense of humor."

"That presumes I wanted to be saved," Don said.

Mac raised his eyebrows. "I thought you considered my sense of humor a health hazard?"

"So are drinking, eating anything that tastes decent, and doing my job," Don said dryly.

"So they are," Mac said. Leaning back against the couch, he blinked slowly. It was as if the burst of laughter had released the coil of tension that had been keeping him focused.

"Mac?"

"Hmmm?" Mac blinked. "Sorry," he said. "I guess I drifted for a moment there."

"It's the middle of the night," Don said. "Maybe you ought to go to bed."

He was tired. "Maybe I should."

"Go. Sleep. I'll talk to you tomorrow."

Mac pushed himself up off the couch, phone still pressed to his ear, and stretched a little. "Don?"

"Yeah?"

Mac reeled off a string of numbers, knowing Don didn't need a pen and paper anymore than he did. "My cell number," he explained. "Just in case. And your Agent Sinclair wants you to call and let them know how you are."

"Thanks," Don said. "Now go get some sleep before you fall over."

Sir, yes sir, Mac thought, amused. "I'm going, I'm going," he said aloud. "Good night, Don."

"Night."

Mac hung up the phone. Exhaustion hit him like a hammer. It took him a long time to gather the energy to lever himself to his feet and go to the kitchen to set his mug in the sink. He leaned against the kitchen counter for a moment, head hanging down, and let out a slow breath. Eventually he pushed off the sink and headed for his bedroom. Mac stripped off his clothes and scraped together enough energy to drop them in the hamper before he pulled on a clean t-shirt and boxer shorts and crawled into bed.

Perversely, once he was settled, Mac's brain refused to slow down enough to let him drop into sleep. He played his conversation with Don over again in his mind. There hadn't been any pain in his voice. Fatigue, but that made sense. He's okay, Mac told himself firmly. Sleep slowly pulled him down.

He's okay.

--End--