“Danny? Messer, open up!”
Mac Taylor tried to bury his concern under a layer of irritation, banging on the door with a vengeance. It wasn’t working, on either level. Not only was Danny not coming to the door, but his failure to answer was fueling Mac’s worry, no matter how hard the CSI tried to deny that he was concerned.
When Danny hadn’t shown up for work, Mac hadn’t thought too much of it at first. Earlier in the week, the younger CSI had been trapped when a call to investigate a possible arson had turned dangerous. The fire was believed to be safely out, but had in truth hidden itself in the building’s insulation, almost as though it were alive and actively avoiding discovery. Danny and a couple of firefighters had almost fried. Unlike the others, Danny hadn’t had an air tank and the scramble to get out of the building was too frantic for either of the firefighters to have time to share theirs. As a result, Danny had breathed in a lot of smoke. Not enough to go to the hospital, but a sufficient quantity that he hadn’t argued too much when Mac ordered him to go home.
In retrospect, the ease of that capitulation should have been a clue that something was wrong.
The first day that Danny hadn’t come in or called, Mac figured he was just following orders and taking it easy. The second day, Mac’s concern had been tweaked, but they’d been too busy to follow up on it and, besides, he figured Danny had been in touch with either Aiden or Don. The third day without a sign of Danny or a call had kicked that concern up to full-blown worry, especially when Mac found out that Danny wasn’t in contact with any of the other members of their team. When the younger CSI didn’t answer his phone, Mac had screwed his busy schedule and driven hell-bent out to Danny Messer’s apartment.
He told himself he’d be this concerned if any of his people had gone AWOL, but like with admitting his worry in the first place, he was having a hard time believing himself.
Another round of furious knocking on the door resulted in, not Danny’s door opening, but a neighbor coming out of the apartment next door. The woman looked old enough to be Mac’s mother and was obviously not happy.
“Ma’am, have you seen Mr. Messer…-?“ Mac started, but the woman just held up a hand, her expression a cross between boredom and annoyance.
Without speaking, the woman bent down and reached under the mat in front of Danny’s door. When she straightened, Mac could see that she was holding a key. She handed it to him and went back to her apartment, shutting her door without ever having said a word.
Mac grinned when he realized he’d hunched down, just like he had when he was a kid and his mamma had caught him doing something wrong. He turned back to Danny’s apartment and the smile faded as he remembered why he was there.
Mac made short order of unlocking the door, calling out as he did, “Danny? It’s Mac Taylor, I’m coming in.”
Getting inside didn’t relieve Mac’s concern at all. The place was dark and had that stale quality that came from a living space that had gone too long unused. Mac was just starting to reach for his gun when he heard the sound of coughing. It didn’t take long to track the source.
“Danny?” Even from the doorway, Mac could tell that his young colleague was in bad shape. Messer was paler than the sheets he was tangled in and his normally spiked hair was plastered with sweat.
Mac was across the room in the blink of an eye.
“Danny?” He repeated, brushing the damp hair off of the younger man’s forehead and flinching when he felt how hot the skin was.
Danny blinked as he looked up at Mac, eyes squinting as he tried to make out who was touching him. “Mac?”
“Yeah, it’s me, Danny,” Mac responded quietly. He grabbed Danny’s eyeglasses and handed them to him.
“Wht’re you doin’ here?” All the coughing had taken a toll on the other CSI’s voice. Danny was raspy and could barely speak in a whisper
“Worrying about you, knucklehead,” Mac replied, trying to keep the tone light. “Good thing I was, you look like hell.” He slipped a hand underneath Danny and started to lift him. “Come on, I’m getting you to the hospital.”
“Not that sick,” Danny protested, voice getting louder with emotion. Unfortunately, that attempt at vehemence set off another round of coughing and, up close, Mac could tell how wet the hacking sounded.
“You were saying?” Mac asked with light sarcasm. The coughing had left Danny so weak that he was practically hanging in Mac’s arms. Much to his surprise, Danny took his words at face value and opened his mouth to speak. Not wanting to burden Danny’s already taxed lungs, Mac spoke first. “Never mind. Your only choice here, Danny, is your regular doctor or the hospital. Not going is not an option.”
Danny sagged even further, until it was only Mac’s assistance that was keeping him upright. Mac would have enjoyed the warmth of the young man’s body pressed close, except that Danny was too warm. Heat radiated off him.
“Hospital,” Danny finally answered.
Mac had a feeling he knew why Danny had chosen the hospital, his regular doctor, assuming Danny had one, would probably be after him to take care of himself better. Well, after today, Mac would too and Messer damn well better listen.
“Hospital it is, then,” Mac stated, hoisting Danny to a sitting position.
“Gotta take a show’r,” Danny mumbled. “Smell like a gym locker.”
Mac knew a delaying tactic when he heard one. By this time, he’d gotten Danny sitting on the edge of the bed. The younger man was dressed in a t-shirt and boxers, both of which looked like they’d been sweat through several times. Well, Danny was just going to have to put up with it. There was no way Mac was letting a probable pneumonia patient get soaking wet.
“Where do you keep your sweats?” Mac asked, ignoring the shower question.
Danny waved vaguely at the other side of the room as another spat of coughing doubled him over. Mac followed the gesture and saw a dresser tucked up against the far wall.
With his usual methodical nature, Mac started with the top and worked his way down. The first couple of drawers didn’t have what he wanted, but contained nothing untoward either. That changed with the third drawer. There, nestled amongst an impressive collection of socks, was a dildo. It was purple and appeared to be a gel-type, the slender size leaving no doubt as to which orifice it was designed for.
Mac blinked. He turned and looked at Danny, but the young man was still busy trying to cough a lung out. Bringing his attention back to the drawer, Mac’s half-formed thought that the dildo had been some sort of gag gift was dispelled by the fact that it was so obviously well-used.
Behind him, Danny’s coughing briefly escalated into gagging. Mac frowned and firmly closed the drawer. He could deal with the implications of his find later. Right now, getting Danny medical help was more important.
Mac made quick work of searching the rest of the dresser. He found a sloppily folded pair of sweatpants in the fourth drawer and, in the bottom drawer, folded more carefully and tucked in the corner, he discovered a dark blue sweatshirt. Grabbing them both, he hurried back to Danny’s side.
“Come on, Messer,” he instructed briskly. “Let’s get you dressed.”
“Shower?” Danny asked forlornly.
Mac steeled himself; Danny was flushed with fever, his hair was tousled, and the younger CSI had a beseeching expression on his face. The little-boy look might have worked on Stella or Aiden, but Mac was made of sterner stuff.
“Nope,” he responded. When Danny sighed, he relented a little. “Take the t-shirt off. That’ll help a little bit.”
Danny obeyed, for once without comment. He briefly got tangled up in the t-shirt when pulling it off over his head, but Mac helped him straighten it out. The older man tried not to ogle, but it was a challenge. Danny obviously took care of himself in one way, because his torso was well-defined with muscle. A guy only got that buff if he worked out.
In short order, Mac got the sweatshirt on Danny, noticing as he did that it was several sizes too big for the other man. He didn’t comment on that fact, just helped the sick man to his feet. Once upright, Danny swayed, but managed not to fall.
Swallowing heavily, Mac turned his attention to Danny’s boxers. Reminding himself that his colleague was sick and it would be dishonorable to take advantage of him, Mac grimly slipped his fingers under the waistband of Danny’s shorts.
“Hey! What’re you doin’?” Danny had jumped when Mac’s hands touched him, no doubt they felt cold to Danny’s fevered skin.
“Thought you’d want these off too before you put clean sweats on,” Mac explained.
“No way I’m goin’ commando to the hospital,” Danny rasped. The effectiveness of his glare was diminished by how utterly miserable he looked.
Unlike the shower, this was one point it was easy for Mac to lose. The underwear stayed on. “Okay. Let’s go.”
After he helped Danny pull the soft pants over his slim hips, Mac tried to slip an arm around Danny’s waist to help him walk. Danny shrugged him off and Mac let him. Sometimes Messer’s infamous independent streak got him into trouble, but this time Mac couldn’t really blame him. It would be embarrassing enough to have your boss help you get dressed, being half-carried would be a major blow to a man’s ego.
Once they made it to the foyer, Mac dug in the closet for Danny’s coat while the younger man got his shoes on. Luckily, the sneakers had been left tied, so all Danny had to do was slide his feet in. Mac didn’t know who would have been more embarrassed if he’d had to help him with it, Danny or him.
Danny’s stubborn streak got him all the way down to the car, although there were moments when Mac wondered. Once or twice he reached out to steady the other man, only to receive the Messer glare.
Mac sighed. Things were never easy with Danny. The more he found out about the younger man, the more Mac appreciated him. It took a lot of character to walk away from the mob, especially if, like Danny, you’d been raised to appreciate a life of crime. That was why Mac was willing to give him a second, and even a third, chance. Danny tried harder than anybody Mac knew. That determination and innate honor made Danny a diamond in the rough; Mac had every intention of seeing him reach his full potential.
While Mac understood Danny’s drive to take care of himself, it didn’t make it any easier to watch Messer struggle to the car. When Danny started wheezing, Mac said to hell with it and wrapped an arm around Danny’s waist. When Danny didn’t shrug it off, he knew he’d made the right decision.
“Thanks,” Danny rasped as the other CSI helped him into the car. He wouldn’t look at Mac, however. Instead, he stared intently forward through the windshield.
“You’re welcome,” Mac replied. “And Danny,” he waited until Danny turned to look at him before continuing. “I know you’re not helpless; everybody needs a hand once in a while. Although, between you and me, I’m just as glad it wasn’t Aiden. She would have decked me if I’d tried to take her panties off.”
The lame attempt at a joke had the intended result. Danny smiled, if wanly. Unfortunately, the smile dissolved in another bout of coughing. Mac closed the passenger door and walked around to the other side of the car, grimly intent on getting his CSI medical attention. The ride to the hospital was uneventful, silent except for Danny’s cough and a brief call to Stella to update her on the situation.
Angel of Mercy, on the other hand, was another story. Its ER was bustling with activity. Mac Taylor could be a patient man when the situation warranted it. Having one of his people languish in a full ER, sicker than a dog, was not one of those situations. While Danny slumped in a chair, Mac paced, cursing softly under his breath with all the considerable skill he’d learned as a Marine.
“You don’t have to stick around, Mac,” Danny offered in a hoarse voice. “You did your civic duty bringin’ me here. I’m a big boy, I can handle the rest. Catch a cab when they’re done with my sorry ass.”
Mac winced inwardly. Danny had mistaken his boss’ agitation as being irritated at the wait; not as concern on his own behalf. Reining himself in, Mac settled into the chair next to his CSI.
“I’m going to tell you again, Danny,” Mac lectured the sick man. “We’re a team. You’re not alone, not anymore.” Danny looked away and Mac stifled a sigh. Ah well, he’d repeat it as often as was necessary to get it through Danny Messer’s thick skull.
Thankfully, Danny’s name was finally called. Mac automatically accompanied him back to the exam cubicle. Danny opened his mouth to complain, but took one look at Mac’s face and snapped it shut. Mac smiled tightly. Messer was learning.
As expected, the doctor took one brief listen to Danny’s lungs and sent him off for x-rays. Danny was the only one surprised when the results came back showing double pneumonia, probably as a result of breathing too much smoke. Surprise, however, didn’t keep him from protesting when the doctor broached the subject of admitting him.
“No way,” Danny stated flatly, eyes bright with more than fever. “I don’t need no hospital.”
“Mr. Messer,” the doctor responded patiently, “you have a lot of fluid in your lungs. You’re young and in good health; normally we’d give you antibiotics and send you home to let it work itself out naturally.”
Danny interrupted. “Good, let’s do that then.”
The doctor, however, was having none of it. “The oxygen levels in your blood are lower than I’d like,” she explained. “It would be irresponsible to send you home in this condition. You need to be on oxygen and maybe even to have the fluid expressed.”
“He’ll do it,” Mac stated firmly, stopping Danny from protesting by pinning him with a stern gaze. “And he’ll cooperate 100%.”
The doctor grinned, clearly amused at having an ally. “Good, I’ll start the paperwork.”
After she was gone, Danny exploded. “Mac, you had no right. You can order me around on the job, but not here. This is none of your business.”
Mac pulled up a plastic chair and, after turning it around, straddled it.
“You got hurt on the job, Danny, and that led to your illness,” Mac pointed out. “That makes it my business and, given how sick you got yourself, I’m starting to wonder what the paramedics really told you.”
Danny blushed and looked away, confirming Mac’s suspicions. He didn’t say anything, though, wanting to hear Danny admit it.
“Danny?” Mac prompted. “And remember how I feel about lying.”
Another coughing bout racked Danny’s body. When it was over, he looked at Mac hopefully. Seeing his boss patiently waiting for an answer, the younger man shrugged.
“It was more of a recommendation that I go to the hospital,” Danny admitted. “They left it up to me.”
“And you, with your sterling powers of judgment, decided not to go,” Mac retorted. “Well, not this time, Danny. You’re staying in the hospital as long as the doctor tells you to.”
“Yes, sir,” Danny responded, visibly deflating as the fight went out of him.
“I’m glad we understand one another. I’ve got to get to the office,” Mac explained as he stood and put the chair back in its place. “I’m sure one of the others will come by later to check on you. The reports I get better be good.”
When Mac left, Danny was slumped against the pillows, the utter picture of dejection. Mac told himself it was for the best. Danny had to learn he was part of a team and that it meant more than just watching each other’s backs on the job.
But the memory of a warm Danny Messer, pressed up close to him haunted Mac for the rest of the day.
How could he be hot and cold at the same time?
Danny alternately shivered and sweated as he huddled under the blankets. What he really wanted to do was curl into a ball of misery, but the stupid oxygen paraphernalia kept getting in the way.
God, he hated hospitals.
His physical condition wasn’t the only thing making Danny utterly wretched. Once again, he’d screwed up and, once again, Mac had been caught in a Messer mess. Only, this time, Danny had been trying to save his boss some trouble.
Danny sighed deeply, which set off a round of coughing. For just a minute, he wished his lungs really would burst and stop his suffering. He only hoped that for a minute, though, because no doubt Mac would be called in to deal with that mess too.
Danny had known right from the beginning that Mac had personally picked him for his team. At first, Danny had busted his ass solely to live up to that honor. As he’d gotten to know Mac better, however, he’d redoubled his efforts. Mac was the exact opposite of the men Danny had grown up around. Namely, Mac was honorable and honest.
Not to mention sexy as hell.
Danny groaned and shifted his body again in a futile attempt to get comfortable. Of all the men to fall for, he’d had to plunge head over heels for an ex-Marine who was still deeply in love with his deceased wife. It was even more impossible than most of the guys Danny was attracted to. There was no way an honorable man like Mac Taylor would want a street rat like Danny Messer and that was just the way it was.
Danny was long used to aching for the unattainable. Usually, he managed to move on. Not this time. There was something about Mac that drew him like a moth to a flame. Maybe it was the other man’s quiet strength, so unlike the blustering blobs of testosterone he’d grown up around. Or maybe it was the constant shadow of grief in Mac’s eyes; a sorrow that Danny longed to ease.
If he couldn’t have Mac, Danny decided, then he’d just be the best damn CSI he could and least make the man proud. Given how much of himself Mac invested in his work, that’d be almost as meaningful to Danny as having Mac’s love. Or, so he kept telling himself.
It was a good plan, but Danny had forgotten something. Namely, Tanglewood and the long shadows it cast. No matter how hard he tried, he always seemed to screw up. It was a wonder Mac hadn’t gotten rid of him already.
This latest stunt had really taken the cake. Danny had meant to prove that he could take care of himself, that Mac could count on Danny Messer. All he’d really managed to do was to demonstrate what a spectacular failure he was, having to be hauled to the hospital by his boss like a stupid kid.
“Real suave, Messer,” Danny muttered to himself.
Well, he’d just have to do damage control as best he could. Take his medicine, literally, like a man and show Mac he could follow orders. Maybe that would stick with Mac more than how Danny ended up in the hospital in the first place.
“All right, Mr. Messer, here’s your dinner,” the nurse’s aide called out as she brought in a tray. “Eat as much as you can.”
Danny waited until after she’d gone before uncovering the food. Everything was white, the chicken, the potatoes, and what appeared to be stewed turnips. Everything, that was, except for the lime Jell-O. It was bright green and already soupy.
Danny swallowed heavily. Yeah, he’d follow the doctor’s orders all right, to the letter…. starting first thing in the morning.
He pushed the tray to the side and curled up on his side. If he couldn’t eat, then at least he could follow the orders to rest. Willing himself to sleep, Danny closed his eyes.
Maybe he’d get lucky and dream of Mac.
“So, what’s the latest?”
Mac looked over at Stella as he flipped his phone shut. The two of them were on their way to a crime scene first thing in the morning and, since Stella was driving, Mac had taken the opportunity to check up on his sick CSI. “Danny had a pretty good night, according to the nurse. The oxygen’s really making a difference.”
“Good,” Stella nodded. “He looked like death warmed over when Aiden and I visited him yesterday.” She smiled sadly. “Danny’s usually got so much energy, it was hard to see him so quiet.”
Mac swallowed heavily. “Yeah.”
Stella eyed him. “It’s okay, you know.”
“What?” Mac couldn’t help feeling a little defensive. It never was a good sign when Stella gave him the Bonasera ‘eye.’
“You can admit you care,” Stella stated, steering the car to the side of the street and nabbing a parking space. “Danny’s gotten under your skin. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
“I’d be concerned if anyone on my team was in the hospital,” Mac protested. “Especially if it was because of something work-related.”
“What I should do is put him on report,” Mac fumed. “Turns out the paramedics recommended to Danny that he go to the hospital after the fire, but they didn’t insist and Danny wiggled out of it.”
“That sounds like him,” Stella agreed as she got out of the car. “That man needs a keeper.”
“Danny’s his own worst enemy,” Mac complained, also getting out and slamming the door shut. “I don’t know what it’s going to take to get through to him.”
Stella frowned. “Keep in mind where he comes from, Mac.”
“Tanglewood,” Mac’s mouth twisted; he found the word as distasteful as he did the society it named.
“Tanglewood,” Stella confirmed. “Danny grew up in an environment where asking for help showed weakness and needing the help in the first place meant that you were vulnerable.” She shook her head. “Weak and vulnerable; I can’t imagine anything more dangerous where Danny grew up.”
“That was a long time ago,” Mac growled, stalking off towards their crime scene. “He’s going to have to get over it.”
Stella snorted inelegantly. “Now that’s a little much, coming from you.”
Her comment brought Mac to a stop and she almost walked into him.
“What do you mean, ‘a little much’?” He demanded.
Once again, Stella demonstrated that she wasn’t the least bit intimidated by one Mac Taylor. “You, saying that someone else has to get over something.” She looked him straight in the eye. “It’s been three years, Mac. How close are you to getting over it?”
“That’s different,” Mac growled. “Claire was my wife; I loved her.”
“And she loved you,” Stella shot right back at him. “The closed off way you’ve been since she died, do you really think that Claire would want that for you?”
Mac looked at her, his shock at her audacious words quickly turning to anger. “How did our conversation about Danny Messer turn into a discussion about my wife?”
Stella rolled her eyes. “You’re the one always going on about finding connections, you figure it out.”
She strode away quickly, leaving Mac behind with his thoughts. It didn’t take long to draw a mental line from Point A to Point B. Claire and Danny. One he’d cared for deeply and lost. The other was alive, but deeply troubled… lost in a whole other way.
The question was, could Mac care for Danny, the way he had Claire?
Or, more to the point, could he afford not to?
Mac stepped out of the car and was immediately enveloped by silence. There were few places in New York that were truly quiet, even at night. Ground Zero was one of them.
He walked over to the metal gate and looked at the hallowed ground it protected. After he’d stared as long as he could stand the sight of it, Mac leaned his forehead against the metal. Claire had a tombstone, located in a serene cemetery. He never went there. Mac always felt closer to Claire, here, where she died, than anywhere else. Maybe because the gaping hole where the twin towers had stood matched the gaping hole in his heart.
“His name is Danny,” Mac said quietly.
It seemed the most natural thing in the world to talk to his wife. Claire had been his best friend as well as his spouse. Mac wasn’t going to stop confiding in her just because she was dead.
“He’s a hothead and a loner,” Mac described the other CSI. “And he’ll bang his head against a wall until it bleeds.”
At first glance, there couldn’t be two people less alike than Claire and Danny. Where Claire had been full of quiet sophistication, Danny was all energy and street smarts. Mac’s wife had been a trusting soul, quick to make friends and slow to judge. With Danny, trust was slow and had to be earned; he’d been hurt too often to let anyone in quickly. For every difference Mac could think of between the two, however, there was a similarity. Claire and Danny both had a wickedly dry sense of humor and a love of baseball. And, like Claire, Danny had no idea how sexy he was.
“But there’s something about him, Claire,” Mac continued. “Danny’s been kicked around a lot, but he comes back swinging. I admire that.”
Mac had no doubt, had the two met, that Claire would have taken to Danny immediately. She would have seen right through that tough guy persona of his and realized that there was a lot more beneath the surface. She’d been like that. Mac remembered that he’d stayed up all night before admitting to Claire that he was bi-sexual, only to have her wrap her arm around him and tell him it was going to be okay.
“I think you’d like him, Claire,” Mac stated with confidence. “I like him. Maybe more than like him.”
Mac thought about Danny’s sudden smile, the way his lithe body moved underneath his clothes, of the indomitable will that got Danny into trouble more often than not.
‘More than liking’ Danny was a probability, not a possibility.
“Most of all, Danny makes me feel again, Claire,” Mac admitted. “Stella was right; I’ve let my grief box me in. You’d hate that. Danny got through to me and he wasn’t even trying.” Mac shook his head in wonder. “Maybe it’s because he just needs so much and I remember what that’s like.”
Mac reached up and stroked the fence with one hand. “I’d like to think you’d approve.”
He walked away from the memorial and, for the first time, Claire’s memory didn’t cause Mac pain. Instead, it gave him hope.
“C’mon, Flack, you promised.”
Danny knew he was whining, but he couldn’t help it. He’d really been counting on Flack giving him a lift from the hospital. Not that Danny couldn’t take a cab or the bus, but he had to have something better than that lined up or Mac would do it. He couldn’t make anything up, either, because he knew that Mac would check it out. It seemed like his boss had been double-checking Danny’s every move lately.
“Sorry, Messer,” Flack’s voice sounded apologetic. “But Mac insisted and he’s the boss.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Danny acknowledged. It wasn’t really Flack’s fault. “Thanks anyway.”
“Take care of yourself, Messer,” Flack responded. “I want to go back to kicking your sorry ass up and down the basketball court before too long.”
“In your dreams, Flack,” Danny retorted, but he was chuckling as he hung up the phone.
Danny scrubbed his hands across his face. Okay, he could do this. Mac driving him home was no big deal. At least this time, his boss wouldn’t have to help him get dressed.
Carefully holding his hospital gown together in the back, Danny slid off the bed and crossed the room to the cubby that served as the room’s closet. Even with the uncomfortable ride with Mac to look forward to, he’d be happy to be rid of the hospital and gown both. He never could sleep wearing one of those awful things; it made him feel too vulnerable with his ass hanging out for everybody to see. When Stella and Aiden had come to visit him the night before, he’d carefully kept under the covers. Stella had too much class to take a peek, but he wouldn’t put it past Aiden.
Danny dug the clothes that he’d arrived in out of the cubby. The gray pants weren’t anything unusual and he quickly pulled them on. The sweatshirt was another story; he cursed when he saw what Mac had found for him to wear. He hadn’t been in any shape to pay attention at the time or he would have protested.
Mike Langley had been Danny’s first male lover and he’d learned a lot from him. He’d had lots of urges before leaving Tanglewood behind but had never acted on them. The mob wasn’t exactly known for their open-mindedness, even the next generation. Mike had been in the academy with Danny and had shown him just how much pleasure his body could bring. Then he’d taught Danny another important lesson when Danny had made the mistake of getting too close.
‘You’re fun to knock boots together with,’ Mike had told him. ‘But I’m not risking my career for you.’
When Mike had walked out of his life, Danny kept the sweatshirt that he’d left behind. Itwas a reminder more than anything else. Danny was a good fuck, but he needed to bear in mind that he wasn’t the kind of man worth keeping. If he ever doubted it, two years later, Mike had left the NYPD to open a restaurant with his partner, Billy. Apparently, there had been a man out there worth Mike giving his career for, but obviously it hadn’t been Danny.
Danny set his mouth and reached for the sweatshirt. He’d wear the damn thing. Having it on around Mac would be a slice of hell, but given the shirt’s history, that might be a good thing,.
Being around Mac had this tendency to make Danny think he was a better man than he really was. The shirt would keep him grounded, remind him of his true worth.
In other words, not much.
Sometimes it was good to be boss. Aiden and Flack had both shown an interest in giving Danny a ride home from the hospital, but Mac had exercised his supervisory rights and claimed the privilege for himself.
Danny had appeared somewhat resigned when Mac had shown up in his hospital room and he suspected that the younger man had been warned to expect him. That was fine by Mac; it was going to be an interesting enough evening the way it was.
When he entered the room, Danny was sitting on the edge of the hospital bed, dressed again in that ridiculously big sweatshirt. Mac hid a grin. The overlarge shirt and the way Danny’s feet dangled above floor made him look like a recalcitrant child. The scowl didn’t help either, since it looked a lot like a pout.
“You gonna need your cabbie license at this rate,” Danny greeted him.
“It’s all part of the service,” Mac replied with a straight face. “Besides, I can’t be a cabdriver, my English is too good.”
Danny snorted in appreciation of Mac’s of quip and it almost turned into a cough. The younger man glanced at Mac quickly after he stifled it, as though he was afraid the near-miss would cause his boss to insist that he stay in the hospital.
“You good to go?” Mac asked instead.
His words caused Danny to relax. “Yeah. Got my meds and my walkin’ papers. I’m ready to blow this popsicle joint.”
“Your chariot awaits,” Mac told him, gesturing for an aide to come in with a wheelchair. He halfway expected Danny to object and, by the tightening around the young man’s mouth, Danny thought about it. He didn’t say anything, though, and the walk out to Mac’s car was conducted in silence.
Everything was going smoothly until they reached Danny’s apartment building.
“You don’t have to come up, Mac,” Danny announced as the older man found a parking spot nearby. “Thanks for the lift.”
Mac shot a sideways glance at Danny and simply opened his car door and exited. He saw Danny briefly thump his head against the back of the seat before following him.
“So I was coughin’ a bit,” Danny griped as he trailed after Mac into the building. “Don’t mean I can’t walk myself up to my place. ‘Sides, my fever’s gone, Doc says I’m better.”
Mac waited until they were in the elevator before answering. “It takes more than a little bit of coughing to get put on oxygen, Danny. And forgive me if I don’t trust your judgment about your limitations, since you didn’t take the paramedic’s suggestion about going to the hospital in the first place.”
“Aw, c’mon, Mac,” Danny complained. “I didn’t think it was that serious.”
“Obviously not,” Mac said sarcastically. “But just in case it happens again, I went to the bus garage for our jurisdiction and passed your picture around. All the emergency personnel now know not to give you that kind of choice again. They’ve standing orders to strap you to a stretcher and haul you off to the hospital.”
By this time, the elevator was at Danny’s floor. Mac got off and took a few steps before realizing Danny wasn’t behind him. He walked back and managed to grab the door before it shut. Danny was braced against the wall, a totally appalled expression on his face.
“Tell me you didn’t, Mac,” Danny pleaded.
“I didn’t,” Mac reassured him. “But if you ever pull a stunt like that again, I will.”
Danny closed his eyes in relief. “I swear. Next time a EMT tells me to go to the hospital, I’m gone. No questions.”
“Good,” Mac stated firmly. He had no problem believing Danny, mostly since he had every intention of being in a position to enforce the promise. “Now, come on. I think you’ll be more comfortable in your apartment than the elevator.”
Danny was subdued as he followed Mac down the hallway. When they reached his door, however, he groaned.
“You okay?” Mac asked, concerned that the noise meant that his companion was in physical discomfort.
“I don’t got my keys,” Danny grumbled. “Somebody hustled me out of there before I could grab ‘em.”
Mac dangled the keys in front of Danny’s face. “Your neighbor was quite helpful.” He applied the keys to the lock. “Not the most original hiding place.”
Danny shrugged. “Works for me.”
Once Mac got the door open, Danny went in and made a beeline for the couch. He flopped down on it and sighed heavily in satisfaction.
“Don’t get too comfortable,” Mac warned him. “I’m sure you’re supposed to be in bed.”
“Doc said to rest,” Danny protested. “Didn’t say where.”
“Fair enough,” Mac responded equably. “But since I’m sleeping on the couch, you might want to reconsider.”
Mac started counting to himself as soon as he uttered the words. He’d only gotten to three before Danny exploded.
“What’re you playin’ at, Mac?” Danny demanded. He lurched from the sofa and stood glaring at Mac, hands fisted at his side.
“I’m not playing at anything,” Mac responded.
“Pull the other one, ‘cause I’m not buyin’.” Danny retorted. “You don’t treat any of the others like this.”
“No, I don’t,” Mac agreed.
The older man’s easy admission seemed to throw Danny for a loop for a moment, but it didn’t take him long to recover.
“I know you think I’m a screw-up and that I can’t be trusted,” Danny stated. He looked away and swallowed. “And after that Tanglewood mess and the shooting, I guess I can’t really blame you.” He brought his gaze back to Mac’s face. “But I’m not so pathetic that I need a babysitter.”
Danny’s words made Mac feel like an utter shit. It’s been a rough year for the other man, but Mac had no idea that Danny still felt such a burden of guilt for those two incidents. As he thought about it, though, it made sense. Mac hadn’t exactly been easy on Danny, but there was nothing uncharacteristic about that. Mac took the integrity of the lab very seriously and expected his people to as well. He just hadn’t realized that Danny had taken his reaction so to heart.
No, Mac reflected, nothing with Danny was ever easy.
“Mac?” Danny asked softly, making Mac realize that several moments had gone by while he’d been thinking.
“Stella says you need a keeper,” Mac stated quietly. “I think that she thinks I’m the guy to do it.”
“That’s one woman wit way too much time on her hands,” Danny retorted, shoving his glasses up on his nose with more force than was strictly necessary. He did a double-take when he realized Mac was serious. “Uh, what do you think?”
Mac allowed himself a slight smile. “I think I’d like to try.”
Danny’s mouth open and shut a few times. “What makes you so sure I’m into guys?”
“Just a gut feeling,” Mac replied.
“But Mac,” Danny rebuked him. “You’re always tellin’ me that instinct isn’t enough. ”
“You want to know what my evidence is,” Mac guessed.
Danny crossed his arms across his chest. “Yeah.”
Reminding himself that things that were easy were rarely worth having, Mac made his first point. “The sweatshirt you’re wearing is too big for you. I think it’s an old boyfriend’s.”
“My cousin left it, last time he visited,” Danny claimed.
Mac shook his head. “I don’t think so. It was folded neatly and with more care than the other things in your dresser. More like it was a keepsake, not something left behind by a careless guest.”
“Conjecture,” Danny countered. His face had that look it got when he was disgusted, as though he’d smelled something sour.
Since Mac couldn’t really argue that, and also since he had a feeling he’d hit a sore spot, he went on to his next point. “Top drawer of your dresser. Variable speed, purple and well-used.”
Danny flushed and Mac had a pretty good idea that it wasn’t fever-related. “You found that?”
“While I was looking for sweats for you to wear to the hospital,” Mac informed him. Mac scratched the side of his nose. “I’ve never tried the gel-type myself. Maybe you’ll let me borrow it sometime.”
He hadn’t been a Marine for nothing; coming up with a plan of action on the spur of the moment was second nature. When Danny’s mouth dropped open in surprise, Mac crossed the few steps between them. Tangling his hair in Danny’s hair, Mac pulled the younger man close and kissed him hard and wet.
Somewhere between the slide of tongue against tongue, Mac found himself on the couch, pressing Danny down against the cushions as their mouths battled for dominance.
Unfortunately, Danny’s lungs weren’t up to a prolonged kiss and a cough interrupted the lovers. Mac held Danny until the spasm passed.
“How’d you know?” Danny asked, looking up intently into Mac’s face.
“You mean, besides all my hard evidence?” Mac teased, referring more to the growing stiffness in Danny’s pants than the facts he’d just laid out. He kissed Danny again, gently this time, before answering him. “I was pretty sure you were sexually attracted to men, but wasn’t sure if you were attracted to me. Not until I kissed you.”
“Not sure I was attracted to you?” Danny repeated in disbelief. “Mac, you gotta be kiddin’.”
Mac blushed. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been active on the dating scene, Danny.”
Danny wiggled underneath him. “You remember that case with the funeral clothes? When we were workin’ on that bride who died during her wedding?” When Mac nodded, he continued. “You told me that someday it’d happen to me. Love. And I told you not to talk like that. That’s because it already had happened; I just didn’t want you to know.”
“Why not?” Mac asked, gently brushing a finger along Danny’s cheek.
The younger man grasped Mac’s hand, kissing the palm before turning it over. Mac’s wedding ring sparkled in the light coming through the window.
“In some ways, I’ll always be married to Claire,” Mac stated quietly
“I got no problem with that,” Danny responded seriously. “When you said ‘I do,’ you promised forever and you’re not a man who breaks promises. Claire’s always going to be in your heart. I just gotta know that there’s room enough in there for me too.”
“After Claire was killed, I shut down and closed myself off,” Mac confessed. “I thought I was protecting myself by not letting anybody in. I had always enjoyed serving my country, but I became obsessed with bringing criminals to justice.”
“You couldn’t get justice for Claire,” Danny theorized, running a hand through Mac’s short hair. “So you went after justice for everybody else.”
“But a man can’t live on justice alone,” Mac admitted. “That was my mistake. I thought I was protecting myself, but I was really just starving emotionally.”
“You didn’t answer the question, Mac,” Danny pointed out. “I don’t mind if you still love Claire, but can you love me too?”
A loaded question, but one that needed to be asked and Mac knew he owed it to Danny to give it the weight that it deserved. He thought about it carefully before giving the other man an answer.
“Claire’s gone, Danny,” Mac struggled to explain. “My life with her has been over for years, stagnant. And my heart became stagnant too. You woke it up.” He abruptly sat up and looked away. “It’s not a matter if I’m capable of loving you both, it’s whether I can survive if I don’t.”
Mac felt a warmth on his shoulder and turned around to find that Danny had sat up too. The younger man had a hand on his shoulder and he was so close to Mac that there was no doubting the tenderness in his expression.
“Come here you,” Danny ordered, pulling Mac into a kiss.
Danny’s kiss started out sweet and gentle, but like their first kiss, it quickly deepened into more. This time, it wasn’t Danny’s coughing that interrupted the, but Mac pulling away.
“Like I said, it’s been a while, Danny,” he said sheepishly. He rubbed his hands up and down Danny’s arms. “You’re going to have to be patient with me.”
“I can do that,” Danny assured him. He grinned. “Besides, you’re foggin’ my glasses up.”
“So for the sake of your glasses, maybe we should postpone this for a little while,” Mac suggested.
Danny opened his mouth to say something, but coughed instead. It was a particularly violent spate of coughing, leading Mac to think that the younger man had been stifling it for as long as he could.
By the time it was over, Danny was sagging against Mac. “Maybe we should delay getting up close an’ personal. I don’t want to get you sick too.”
“Don’t worry about that,” Mac reassured him. He kissed him softly and then got off the sofa. Turning to offer Danny a hand, he suggested, “Maybe you should get some rest.”
Danny let himself be pulled to his feet. “I suppose I could sleep a little. They’re always wakin’ you up at the hospital.”
He took a few steps towards the bedroom. “Are you really gonna sleep on the couch?”
Mac gestured towards a duffle bag sitting off to the side. He’d dropped it off on his way to the hospital. “Absolutely.”
Danny looked from the couch to the bedroom and back again. “The doc says I should sleep elevated.”
“That’ll probably help your breathing,” Mac agreed.
The younger man looked towards the bedroom again and then returned his gaze to Mac. “You wanna help with that?” When Mac looked startled, he shrugged. “That’s okay, I’ve got some pillows I can use.”
Mac finally got a clue. “That won’t be necessary.”
Danny’s smile blossomed as Mac stepped towards him and wrapped an arm around his waist, leading him towards the bedroom. He’d been truthful when he told Danny that he could love him and the memory of his wife both. But he’d been equally honest when he said he was going to need some time.
Holding Danny while he slept seemed like a fine way to start.
As they made their way to the bedroom, oddly shy for two men who’d worked together for years, Mac reflected that nothing was easy with Danny. Nothing except loving him and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
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