Gas Food Lodging by Stellaluna

The seed for this story was planted during a conversation with Erik; many thanks to him for the inspiration and encouragement.

Saturday morning, finally Saturday, and Stella is deep in the throes of hangover sleep when her booze-soaked doze is shattered by the ringing phone.

At first she can't process the sound at all; it's simply part of a half-waking dream. Then she realizes that it's her phone, for real, and she opens one eye, regretting it instantly. She squints at the bedside clock, trying to focus, and realizes that it's not quite ten minutes past nine. On Saturday morning. And someone is calling her.

Caller ID reads Unavailable, and she's tempted to just let the machine get it. It's what she'll think of later as some ill-starred instinct that makes her pick up the phone.

"Hello?" Groggy, thinking, This had better be important.

"Hey. Stella. Hi."

"Danny?" She tries to sit up, then changes her mind and collapses back onto the pillows. "What's going on?"

"I, um...look." He sounds crackling and far away, and she's beginning to think that her first guess -- some big case -- is wrong, because he's off-duty today and so is she, and it's unlikely he'd be fumbling like this if it were work-related.

"Yes?" she asks, knowing she's going to regret it.

"I...oh, hell. I'm in jail."

"You're what?" This time she sits up all the way, and doesn't even notice the protesting pain in her head.

"Jail. You know, it just...things happened."

"Things like what?"

"Drunk and disorderly," he says, so low and so quick she can barely make it out.

She heaves a sigh. "Great. That's just great. Way to represent New York's finest, Danny. So why are you calling me?"

"I, well, I kinda need bail money, Stella. I already tried to call Flack, and he didn't answer his phone, and then I tried to call Aiden, and she didn't answer her phone, either. I don't think they're, like, not answering them together or anything, if you get me, but neither of 'em is picking up. And I don't wanna call any of my relatives, 'cause they'd give me a ration of shit. What am I saying, they'd probably just let me rot in my cell all weekend. So I didn't know who else I was gonna call, and I'm so glad you're home."

"Danny, Christ, take a breath occasionally." She presses a hand to her forehead, trying to think. "Okay, you need bail. How much? And where are you?"

There's a long pause, then he says, "Well, that's the other thing."

"Danny?" she asks suspiciously.

"Carlisle," he says.

"Carlisle," she repeats. "Where the hell is--"

"Pennsylvania," he blurts out, fast, as if wanting to get it over with.

"Are you fucking kidding me?" and she's aware that she's yelling, that any second now her neighbors are probably going to start pounding on the walls.

"No, I'm not. I'm not, Stella." She hears him draw in a deep breath, and thinks that at least he maybe won't hyperventilate any time in the next few seconds. "And I need the bail, and they don't take credit cards, or I would have paid it myself by now. Well, actually, I'm not sure if this credit card has any room on it, or maybe it's maxed out. I just--"

"How much?" she asks, willing calm into her voice.

"--need you to bring cash, and then we can get outta here, and I am so sorry. If Flack had--"

"How much?"

"Two hundred dollars."

"Okay. Great. That's just great. You need me to bring two hundred dollars in cash, and come bail your ass out of jail in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, which I don't even know where that is, but I do know this means I'm gonna have to rent a car. And you are so paying me back for both that and the bail, you sorry asshole."

"I am. I will, Stella. Not even a question. Um, you can probably get directions from Mapquest or something." She can hear him shuffling around on the other end of the phone (which is in a jail holding area in fucking Carlisle, of all places), and just knows that he's running a hand through his hair until it's standing on end.

"Yeah, Mapquest. Whatever. What's the address?"

"I'm so sorry. I'll make this up to you, really."

"The address."

"Okay,'s the Cumberland County Jail." He gives her the address in a quiet voice, and she scribbles it on the back of a Starbucks receipt she finds on the nightstand.

"All right. Got it." She sets the pen down. "I'm going to go get ready now, because I really don't want to talk to you any more. And if you think that I'm gonna run out of here without taking a shower, just because you got your sad little self thrown into the slammer--"

"No," he says quickly. "No, I wasn't thinking that. You do what you gotta do. I'll be here waiting."

"Yeah, well, you don't really have a choice, do you, you dick?" She hangs up on him before he can answer, then sits on the edge of the bed for a minute, breathing in and out and trying to process this.

Danny is fucking drunk and disorderly in fucking Pennsylvania, of all places, and she just knows there's got to be a story behind this. If she were hearing it after the fact, it would probably be something she'd laugh at. As it is, she's just fucking pissed and frustrated, and goddammit, she does not need this. Not with a hangover the size of the Flatiron Building and not before she's had her coffee.

And that's another thing, she tells herself as she stomps into the bathroom to turn on the shower. I was drunk last night. And yet, somehow, I managed not to get myself arrested. Go fucking figure. What really kills her about all this is that Danny was with them the night before, having an after-work beer at Sullivan's.

He'd only had a couple of beers and hadn't even been more than mildly tipsy the last time she had seen him, which was when he'd run into a couple of old college friends and -- wait. Her eyes widen. There's the explanation right there, she's willing to bet. They'd taken off together after awhile, supposedly to go to The Library, and she hasn't quite made the connection between that and Carlisle, but she can see the beginnings of this chain of events clear as day now.

By the time she leaves the apartment, hair still damp from the shower and clutching a set of hastily-printed directions, she's managed to dial back her fury enough to function in strict work mode: Go to ATM. Go to car rental place. Get coffee. Find Holland Tunnel. Don't leave Danny's body where it'll be easy to find.

She has a moment of near-panic when she can't remember if she's renewed her driver's license lately, because if it is expired, then she's going to have to call Mac and ask him to rent a car, and he's going to want to know why, and then they are both so dead. Danny is so dead.

She fumbles through her wallet to find it, and then heaves a sigh of relief when she sees that it's good for another year. That's one bullet dodged, at least.

By the time she hits the Holland Tunnel, she's infuriated all over again, thanks to the unfamiliar car and idiots who don't understand the laws of physics. Her eventual (nerve-wracking) arrival on I-78 is a relief; nothing to do but drive for miles in not-bad Saturday traffic, and she's beginning to get used to the way the car handles.

A couple of hours into the trip, her anger is beginning to be nudged out by fear. She's been worried from the start about how they're going to handle this once she picks up Danny and they get back to the city, and about what will happen if Mac ever finds out, but it occurs to her that Danny never said if he was all right. He could have gotten in a fight, could have been injured; and she starts to worry about how the rural cops may be reacting to drunken city interlopers, and about how Danny may be faring in general lock-up. By the time she pulls up to Cumberland County Jail (she only got a little bit lost after getting off the interstate), she's imagining Midnight Express and worse.

What she finds, instead, is a rumpled-looking but uninjured Danny, sitting on a bench in the cell with his feet up, reading Guns & Ammo. He looks up at the sound of her and the other police officer's footsteps, and the expression on his face is so pathetically grateful that she doesn't know whether to hug him or hit him.

"Stella. Hey," he says with a grin, and the officer unlocks the door.

"Getting in a little quality reading time?" she asks, nodding at the magazine, which he's still clutching.

"What? Oh. Yeah." He starts to set it down on the bench, then glances over at the officer. "Where should I--?"

The officer nods toward the front. "Up on the desk on your way out. Your friend here's paid your bail, so you're free to go now."

"Great. Um, thanks, I..." He runs a hand through his hair, making it stand on end even more than it already is. "Can I use the bathroom first, or--"

"Can we just get out of here?" she asks. "I'll stop at a gas station or something." She turns to the officer and adds, "Thank you. I'm sorry for all of this."

He shrugs. "Look, if you're gonna get drunk, next time stay in New York to do it, that's all I ask."

"Yeah, right, I will. Right." Danny shifts from foot to foot. "Thanks for, you know, everything. I'll send you the brochure for that forensics seminar if you still want it."

"Thanks." The officer claps him on the back, then stands to one side to let them pass by.

She walks ahead of Danny on the way out to the parking lot, determined not to look at him or talk to him any more than she has to. Unfortunately, Danny doesn't seem to have gotten that memo, because he's talking away at her as they head down the front steps.

"Oh, man, the outside world. I am so glad to see this again. I tell ya, for awhile this morning? Didn't think I was ever gonna get outta there. Okay, I guess that's pretty melodramatic, but man, it's a whole other world from that side of the bars, Stella, I'll tell you that. I have a whole new understanding of what suspects must go through."

He takes the briefest pause for breath, then barrels ahead. She keeps walking to the car. "Stella, oh my God. I didn't say thank you, did I? Thank you. I am so, so, so sorry for all of this. I'll make it up to you however I can, I swear. I mean, of course I'm going to pay you back for bail and for the car rental, but I'll do something else for you, too, I promise. You came all the way out here, and didn't even say anything to Mac -- you didn't call Mac and tell him, did you? -- and now here you are, and I've never been so glad to see anyone in my life, and..."

He pauses, falters. She stands by the driver's side of the car and stares at him. He blinks at her, then starts to speak again. "...And, um, like I was saying, I'm really glad you're here, and maybe I can buy you dinner or something later? Not drinks, I guess, but--"

"Danny?" she says.

He stops, and comes to a standstill, more or less, though he's still shifting from foot to foot. "Yeah?"

"Stop talking now."

The relieved grin on his face wavers, then disappears entirely, and he looks away from her.

She doesn't say anything else until they're in the car and Danny is fumbling with his seatbelt, and then she says, "I'm so glad you took the time to make a new friend." He flinches at this, at the acid she intends to be in her tone, and loses his already-shaky grip on the belt.

"What? Oh, you mean Officer Benson. Well, you know, we got to talking after awhile. Not a lot going on in a town like this on a Saturday morning." He reaches for the belt again, and manages this time to fasten it. "He was real interested when I started telling him about working Crime Scene back in the city."

"How nice for you," she says, and throws the car into gear. "Now do you want to tell me just what the fuck you did to get yourself thrown in jail in the middle of Pennsylvania? I don't know about you, Danny, but for me that's pretty much the million-dollar question right now." She makes an effort not to squeal the tires as she pulls out of the parking lot, though the urge to just floor it is strong; getting a speeding ticket right now isn't going to do wonders for her righteous indignation.

"I told you," Danny says, and clutches the door handle as she makes a sharp right turn. "Drunk and disorderly."

"Yeah, we've established that."

"Then where do you want me to start, Stella?" he snaps back. "Tell me, 'cause I don't fucking know, and obviously you've got it in for me right now."

"Funny, I get like that when I get dragged across state lines on a Saturday morning." She pulls up to a stoplight and takes the opportunity to shoot him a glare. He is so dead, she thinks again, especially if he keeps sassing her. "Start with this: why Pennsylvania? Last I saw, you and your idiot friends were headed for The Library."

Danny sighs and leans back in the seat, not looking at her. "Fine. See, Paulie's mom lives down here, and he decided that he wanted to come see her this weekend. And he'd heard about a party at Dickinson, so he asked Dave and me if we wanted to come along."

"So, naturally, you said yes."

"Well...yeah. You know. It sounded like a good idea at the time. We managed to find a train, and we got here around midnight. It was a pretty bitchin' party."

"Was it, now?" She shoots him another look; he's still looking out the window.


"So how did you get from party to drunk and disorderly? And where are the moron twins through all of this?"

"Um. I don't know." He's picking at his thumbnail now, a ragged edge along the cuticle. "We got separated at the party, and I ended up going to the park with a bunch of law students. I...the cops don't really like it if you have an open container, you know."

She sighs.

"Or if you're holding that open container while you're standing in the middle of a fountain singing 'Daniel.'"

She sighs again.

"I mean, I don't know. We all thought it would be funny, on account of it being my name and all. And to top it all off, cops really don't like it if you tell them to fuck off when they tell you to get out of the fountain and knock it off."

"You didn't." Risking a crash, she turns to look at him. "Please tell me that you, a New York City police officer, did not resist arrest."

It's Danny's turn to sigh.

"Oh, that's beautiful. That's just great, Danny. What possessed you? Please tell me that." She thinks, unhappily, that she's starting to sound like somebody's mother, or somebody's nagging wife, and she's never wanted to take on either role.

"I don't know." He frowns. "It wasn't a carefully planned-out course of action or anything. And I only told him to fuck off once. After that I got out of the fountain and let 'em cuff me. And by then the law students had been smart enough to take off, so I was the only one who ended up getting hauled in. That's my big story, Stella. You fascinated or what?"

"Danny, Jesus Christ." She slaps the steering wheel in frustration. "You know, this is not how I intended to spend my Saturday, driving out to the fucking boondocks to bail you out of the pokey."

"You said that already. Several times."

"Well, it's still true. God. I just can't believe that you--" She shuts her mouth, and concentrates on keeping her eyes open for the entrance ramp.

"Like you've never gotten drunk," he mutters. "Don't even try to tell me that you haven't, Stella, because I've seen you."

"Yes, but you don't see me running off to other states to do it, or getting myself arrested. That's the difference you seem to be missing. Goddammit, Danny, how old are you? 29 now? 30?"

"31 in April," he says in a low voice.

"You're too old for this shit. I'm too old for this shit."

"Yeah, okay, Stella. I got that. Thank you. Thank you very fucking much." He huddles against the window, staring out at the highway.

I could have left your ass in jail, buddy, is what occurs to her, but she bites it back. It's useless at this point, much as she'd like to spend some more time tearing him a new one. They're both quiet for the next couple of exits, and then Danny finally says, "I'd still really like to stop at a bathroom."

"And I'd like to not have my weekends interrupted by asshole co-workers. Too bad we can't always get what we want, isn't it?" That flies out of her mouth before she can stop it; so much for maintaining peace and taking the high road.

"Oh, all right, already, Stella." Danny sits up straight. "I get the message. What do you want from me? I can't undo what I did last night. I can't take it the fuck back, even if I wish I could."

A moment of dead silence in the car, during which he's glaring at her, and she would be glaring right back if she didn't have to keep her eyes on the road, and then she makes a sudden decision and swerves the car across two lanes of traffic. Outraged honks from other cars follow them, and Danny lets out a satisfying, startled yelp and clutches at the door handle.

"Jesus! What the hell--"

"You wanted to stop and use the bathroom, right?" she says, nothing but calm. "Well, we're stopping. There's got to be a diner around here somewhere."




A half-hour later, he's slumped across from her in a fake-leather booth, staring down into an untouched cup of coffee as she butters a piece of toast. His visit to the bathroom seems to have done him some good; his hair, at least, is now in some semblance of order, and it looks like he washed his face while he was at it. The shirt and jacket are beyond help.

"Sure you don't want anything?" she asks. "This isn't bad."

He holds up a hand. "I couldn't."

"Some eggs would probably do you good," she says, and watches him turn pale. "Get a little protein into you."

"Real cute, Stella." He glances up. "I have a hangover, in case you haven't noticed."

"Oh, do you? That's too bad. So do I." She takes another bite. "Fortunately, I'm also starving. Must have been all the travel."

"You're not going to let this go, are you?" he asks, sounding sullen.

"What do you think, Danny?" she says. "You'll have to forgive me if I'm having a little bit of trouble getting over this."

"Look, I--" He stops and takes a deep breath, letting his hands rest on the table, palms down. When he starts to speak again, his tone is conciliatory. "I'm sorry. I really am. I know that doesn't make up for me being stupid last night -- and I was stupid, I get that. Don't think I don't. I also know that it doesn't make up for me dragging you a couple hundred miles out of your way on a weekend. And I'm grateful, really grateful that you came out here to get me. I just...I get why you're mad, believe me, I do. But there ain't nothing I can do now to change what happened."

He stops talking and looks at her, all plaintive earnestness, nervous eyes flickering back and forth behind his glasses, and she realizes that he's going to keep apologizing until he's certain that he's been forgiven, and maybe then some. She could really milk this for all it's worth, she realizes; she also doesn't want to listen to three more hours of abject apologies.

"The fact that you can't change it," she says, "is exactly why you should have thought, and possibly considered not haring off to Pennsylvania in the first place." She pauses, then pushes a plate across the table at him. "Have some plain toast. It'll settle your stomach."

He hesitates. "Does that mean you forgive me?"

She raises an eyebrow at him. "Not yet."

"Does it mean you'll stop yelling at me?"

"For now." He starts to smile, and she adds, "But don't press your luck, pal."

"No. No, ma'am. I won't." He puts on a serious expression and reaches for a piece of toast.

For the next few minutes, they're both silent, eating, and since the diner is mostly empty, she can feel herself sinking into the quiet, a sense of calm beginning to reassert itself. All she has to do is drive back to the city, she tells herself; it's a few hours, and the traffic wasn't bad this morning. She can drop Danny off at his place, then get rid of the rental car and go collapse for the rest of the weekend. This time, she'll take the precaution of unplugging her phone. All Danny has to do is keep his mouth shut for the rest of the trip (at least about why they're here, she amends; she'll allow him a bit of casual conversation), and it might not even be so bad.

Danny glances up from his toast, which he's been quietly shredding into pieces as he eats it. "So, um, didn't say anything to Mac, right? You didn't, like, call him or anything after I called you?"

She takes a sip of coffee. Breathes in. Sets her mug down on the table, very deliberately, being careful not to let it slam.

"Did I say anything to Mac?" she says, staring off into space as if contemplating the question.

"Yeah. Well...did you?" Danny peers anxiously into her face.

"That's such an interesting question, Danny. You know what?"

She leans toward him across the table, as if about to impart a confidence, and he all but perks up his ears to listen.

"Do you think I'm fucking dense?" she asks, and then sits back.

The flush that spreads up his cheeks is well worth watching, and she bites back a smirk. "But it would serve you fucking right if I did," she adds.

"But you didn't," he says.

"Of course not."

"Thank God. Or, well, thank you, I guess. Boy, that would've been...I tell you, Stella, if you hadn't been home? Mac was pretty much the only choice I had left, and I think I sooner would have sat in jail for ten days than call him to bail me out. That's what they do in Carlisle if you disturb the peace and can't pay the bail, you know. Ten days in jail. Which might've been okay in that situation, except that then I'd have to call in, and he want to know why I was gonna be out for so long, and...I guess that wouldn't have worked out too well after all, huh?" He shakes his head.

"Probably not," she says.

"Mac woulda freaked, huh?"

She sits up and takes a piece of toast out of his hand. "Mac would have been very unhappy with you."

She tries to imagine what Mac would have said if she had called him, if her driver's license had turned out to be expired after all or if she'd decided for some unknown reason that he needed to be in on this little field trip. Imagination fails her, perhaps as a protective measure. It would have been bad, there's no question about that, but bad in what fashion is the question. She would like to think that he would have gotten angry, shouted, made arrangements for her to meet him so that they could have driven to Pennsylvania together and he could have torn Danny a new one in person.

This is what she hopes. What she fears is that, had she called him, all she would have heard over the line is that deep, scary silence that seems to be his standard response to almost everything these days. He would have been angry, no question; he would have started planning to call Danny into his office on Monday morning for a lecture and for disciplinary action. But would he have actually reacted? Shown some emotion other than weariness or frustration? She's afraid she knows the answer.

"Very unhappy, huh?" Danny picks up a packet of sugar. "I'm guessing that's an understatement."

When she doesn't answer, he goes on, still turning the little packet around and around in his hands without actually opening it. "Yeah, I'm thinking there's not a lot of room in his little guidebooks for booze runs to the boonies. He's been looking at me funny lately anyway. The last thing I need is for him to get the idea that I'm some kinda lawbreaker. Which I'm not."

She has a feeling she knows where this is going, but she studies Danny for a moment before she says anything. "Funny?" she says at last.

"Yeah. You know..." He gestures vaguely. "Funny. Like he's not sure what to make of me."

"I see." She folds her arms on the table. "And why do you think that might be?"

"I don't know." He draws the words out.

"Well, I could make a guess. Could it--"

"Please don't."

"Could it have something to do with a certain suspect we booked a few weeks ago?" she barrels on, ignoring his protestation.

Danny lets the sugar packet drop to the table and sits still for a minute, staring down into his coffee. He's absolutely still, for once, no fidgets, though she can see a muscle twitching in his jaw.

"Wow," he says at last, just barely above a mutter. "I guess today's the day we're gonna bring up all of my dirty laundry, isn't it?"

"Well, it's about time." She tries to keep the frustration out of her voice. "Have you talked to Mac about the things Sonny Sassone said about you?"

He keeps his eyes fixed on his hands. "No."

"Great. And has he come to you, asked you any questions about that?"


"Of course not." She can't help laughing. "Of course neither of you have said a word. God forbid anybody who works in that lab fucking say what's on their minds."

"You don't seem to have a problem with it." His voice is edged with defiance, but he flinches when she slams her hand against the tabletop.

"Goddammit, Danny, don't give me that flip shit. You know I'm right."

"Yeah, Stella, 'cause that's real professional. Me and Mac can just go sit around that fucking terrarium of an office he's got, and I can tell him all the juicy details about my past. I'm sure the two of you would just love that, right?"

She runs a hand through her hair in irritation, pushing it back off her forehead. "It's not about me, Danny, that's what you don't get. Sure, it would be nice if you had felt comfortable enough to talk to me about all of this, but to not even talk to Mac...I don't know what's going through your head. I can't believe you'd rather just let it fester. He thinks a lot of you, you know."

"Thought," he says.

"What?" she says, thinking Don't give me this, I don't need this shit. I just want this day to be over with.

"Thought," he repeats. "Past tense. Assuming he did in the first place."

"Oh, get off the cross," she snaps back at him. "Of course he thinks a lot of you. He wouldn't have recommended you for promotion if he didn't."

"Fine. Yes. He did that." She senses that Danny is struggling to keep his tone even. "But that was back before the holidays, before all this shit with Tanglewood went down. You can't look me in the eye and tell me that he hasn't changed his mind since."

"If you haven't talked to him, he probably doesn't know what to think. He -- I imagine he's confused, the same way I am, wondering what that was all about. And, of course, being Mac, he couldn't come to you directly." She shakes her head, wondering why she's even surprised.

"No." Danny is looking up, but away from her, out the window to the parking lot. "And I told you, I haven't gone to him. 'Cause whatever he thinks, he's not gonna have anything good to say to me."

She sits and looks at him, and doesn't say a word, until he finally turns his face from the window and looks over at her. "Okay, time to go," she says. "I think we're just about done here."

He looks startled, but says only, "Can I get the check or anything?"

"No," she says, forcing herself to smile at him. "No, I think that will be fine."

After they get back in the car, she waits ten minutes without saying a word or looking away from the road, except to shoot him a quick glare when he briefly tunes the radio to a station playing Black Flag.

Finally, when the on-ramp is looming in front of them, and Danny has gone back to mangling his thumbnail, she asks, "So tell me, what did happen with you and the Tanglewood boys?"

This time he doesn't even flinch or jump, but shoots her a weary-looking smile. "How did I know that was coming?" he says.

"Look, pal, we've got a good three hours of road ahead of us, and I didn't think to bring the Travel Parcheesi. Seems to me like now's as good a time as any to talk about it."

When he doesn't say anything, she adds, "I can wait all day, if necessary."

"Yeah, I know," Danny says, and she thinks that he sounds almost amused now. "I'm just trying to think where to start. I don't know. There isn't that much to tell, really. I started doing little errands for 'em when I was 15. Got initiated when I was 16. Got picked up a few times, not for anything big. You gotta understand: I was strictly small-time. I never killed nobody or nothing. I got out when I was 20 and decided I wanted to go to college." He looks over at her. "That about cover it for you, Stella?"

His emotionless recitation of the facts reminds her of something. At first, she can't grasp it, then the picture comes clear: Mac, sitting across from her in McSorley's one day in the fall of 1998, talking about Sarajevo and not looking at her, flipping a beer coaster around and around between his fingers. (And Mac, again, next to her on the roof of his old apartment building on the West Side, back before he'd moved to Brooklyn, dark suit making him look like it was his funeral they'd just gone to. Standing and looking downtown at the cloud of smoke that wouldn't go away, and he hadn't talked for days -- and that memory hurts too much, makes her chest tighten even now, so she puts it away for some other time.)

"How come none of this ever came up before?" she asks. "You should have gotten flagged when you put in an application."

"I got a lot of cop relatives."


"Meaning they know how to make uncomfortable stuff go away."

She nods; she's been in the department long enough to know how these things work. "And that's it?" she asks.

"What do you mean? Yeah, that's it. Unless you want me to recite my arrest record for you, Stella. I could do that if you really like." He raises an eyebrow, challenge as much as question.

"No, Danny, that's fine." She tells herself to keep both hands on the wheel, that even though she's capable of driving with one hand and hitting him with the other, it wouldn't be a good idea. "I get the picture. But that's all? You were a stupid juvenile delinquent?"

"Yeah, pretty much. I hadn't even seen Sonny in almost ten years, up until the other week."

"So let me see if I have this all straight." She ticks off her points on the fingers of one hand. "You're not mobbed up. You haven't been a part of the Tanglewood gang for ten years, and haven't seen Sonny in as long. You got arrested a few times when you were underage, but never committed a capital crime and didn't spend any time in lock-up. Did I hit the high points?"

He shrugs. "That about covers it."

She breathes in. Calm, she reminds herself, calm.

"And that's what all this fucking drama has been about? Are you serious?"

Danny shrinks back against the car door, holding up his hands as if to fend her off. "It's not drama, Stella. It's my life. You asked me and I told you, what more do you want from me?"

"I just can't believe that the whole lab has been in a complete fucking mental spiral over what amounts to you being a stupid teenager." She reminds herself again not to hit him. "You cannot tell me that that's the big secret you were afraid to go to Mac with."

"Yeah, Stella, 'cause it's really just that simple. You don't get it, all right? You just don't get it."

"Then why don't you go ahead and explain it to me, Danny?"

At first she thinks he's not going to answer, that he's either going to sit there glaring at her in silence, or that he'll tell her to fuck off. "Look," he says at last, "just because I never killed anyone or served any actual jail time doesn't mean I didn't do bad things. I committed crimes. I hurt people. That's not even counting all the minor shit I never got caught for. And when I decided to straighten up and do something with my life, my goddamn relatives, the same ones who hate my fucking guts, had to lie for me and make the files disappear just so that I could get through the application stage for the department."

This, all delivered breathless and without hesitation, as if he's been saving it up for years; probably, she thinks, he has. Before she can say anything, or even think to formulate a response, he goes on, still in the same harsh, headlong rush. His hands, resting in his lap, are clenched into fists, the only thing, she guesses, that's keeping him from endless emphatic gesturing.

"And if you think for a second that Mac's gonna look at all of that as something that's in the past, that doesn't affect my everyday work here...if you think that Mac's not gonna want all the particulars, name and rank and serial number, you're living in a goddamn dreamworld, Stella. He's not gonna give a shit that it was a long time ago or that I never did a murder. All he's gonna look at is that I'm a goddamn scumbag criminal, just the same as the ones he busts every day. And he's gonna know I lied to him, that I lied to even get in, after he fucking handpicked me for his fucking elite crime lab, and if he doesn't fire me on the fucking spot, he's sure as hell not gonna support any future promotions for me. Do you have the fucking picture now, huh?"

He flings his head against the back of the seat in an abrupt gesture, staring up at nothing at all, and blinks fiercely. The muscle in his jaw is twitching now without hesitation, a metronome of tension.

"Yeah, I do, Danny," she says. "I have a really good picture of your melodramatic worst-case scenario." He starts to protest, and she goes on. "No, you had your say, now you let me have mine. I'm not about to kid you: Mac's going to be unhappy about all of this. Newsflash, buddy? Mac's already unhappy, because he doesn't know what's going on, and all he has to go on are Sonny Sassone's nasty little hints. You're only making it worse by avoiding the issue with him. But if you really think that he's just going to dismiss you out of hand after all the work you've done -- after he picked you for the team himself, as you just reminded me -- then I really have to wonder how much you think of Mac, to say he'd be that unwilling to hear your side of the story."

"Oh, don't even go there, Stella. I think the world of Mac, and you know it."

"So do I." She has to slow down for a merge lane, and takes the opportunity to look over at him. He's still staring off at nothing, face red with anger. She can feel her own cheeks burning, and knows she must be just as flushed and unkempt-looking. She's angry again, in a different way than she was this morning, or during the long drive to Pennsylvania, or even after she picked him up at the Carlisle police station. This cuts deeper, and though she thrives on her anger, right now she feels almost sick with tension, hands so tight on the steering wheel that she can feel it digging into her palms.

She wills steel into her voice, and says, "I think enough of him to know that he'd listen, if you'd just find the balls to talk to him."

"Yeah. Okay. Thank you very much for the advice, Stella, and I'll be sure to take it under consideration. You keep forgetting," he adds, sounding spiteful, "it's not like he's made such a big effort to come talk to me, either. I woulda told him if he'd asked, same as I did with you."

"Would you have?" she asks.

"Yeah, I would. What? You don't believe me?"

"Like I said before: God forbid anyone who works in that lab actually open their fucking mouth and say what's on their mind. No, God forbid any of the men actually say what's on their minds, because like you said, I sure don't seem to have a problem with it, and neither does Aiden."

She feels the familiar frustration well up, and can't help pounding on the steering wheel again. "God, what is wrong with all of you? Why is every man who walks through the door of the lab such a fucking emotional cripple? Why can't any of you just be normal, or at least a little bit less fucked in the head occasionally? And it starts right at the top, too, I'll tell you that. God."

Danny sinks even lower in his seat, saying nothing.

They're both quiet for a few minutes after her outburst, and then Danny finally says, low, "You really think he'd be okay with it? The gang thing, I mean."

"Eventually he would be," she says.

He nods. "Guess that's the best I can hope for, huh?"

She doesn't answer, and when he reaches out to turn on the radio, she makes no move to stop him. Willie Nelson coming over a crackling, in-and-out signal, "Bloody Mary Morning," and neither of them says a word for the next twenty miles.




An hour later, full dark by now, and they're sitting in a booth at a road-stop diner somewhere off the interstate. When she'd pulled over and parked, both of them had gravitated away, by some unspoken agreement, from the bright neon lights at McDonald's and Pizza Hut, and toward this underlit truckers' paradise. Danny sits fiddling with a burger deluxe, while she pulls apart a grilled cheese sandwich.

He offers her a wary smile when he asks for the ketchup, and she returns it as she slides the bottle across the table to him. "You really care what he thinks about you, don't you?" she asks.

He doesn't bother to play dumb by asking her who she means. "Yeah," he says, shrugging as if this could never be in doubt. "I do. It's know. He's Mac. He's scary, but he's so fucking smart. That's why I became a criminalist in the first place, hoping I could be like that someday."

"You're good at it," she says.

"Yeah, but not like you and Mac."

It's her turn to shrug. "We've had more years on it than you. Give it time."

"Time I got." He hesitates, then adds, "Hey, Stella? Can I ask you something?"

"Oh, this sounds ominous." She helps herself to one of his fries. "Go ahead."

"I may be outta bounds here, so tell me if I am." He pauses and adjusts his glasses, then goes on. "Was Mac ever...has he always been, you know, the way he is now?"

When she doesn't answer immediately, he says, "I just, I didn't know, and I wondered, because I only started working here a few months before 9/11. I didn't really know him very well. I mean, he seemed okay. Kinda quiet, but not like this. He scared me, but I was so new I was scared of everything. Shit, this is outta bounds, isn't it? No problem, I totally understand. I--"

"Danny. Slow down." She holds up one hand. "It's okay. It's not of bounds. I was just trying to think how to answer that."

"Really?" he says, all caution.

"Yes, really." She sighs, and props one hand against her cheek. "It's not a yes-or-no question, that's all. He was different. He wasn't...he was never a really forthcoming person -- not unless you pushed really hard -- but he wasn't so...locked down as he is now. He smiled once in a while."

Danny looks at her. "He smiles now. Sometimes."

"Back then he looked like he meant it."

She's given so much thought to this over the past few years, and now, when it comes time to actually talk about it with someone, she can't seem to find the words. She thinks over the things she's just told Danny, and is shocked at how trite it all sounds: He was different. He smiled. Is that really all she can say, all the words she has?

Maybe, though, it's not a failure of eloquence on her part; maybe there simply aren't any easy ways to talk about this. She thinks about Mac, and all the history between them, and there's no good way to explain any of it. It's too complicated and too intrinsically personal. She could say that she misses their old, easy camaraderie, how they just seemed to understand each other. She could talk about how, even then, there were always boundaries that she wasn't allowed to cross, that she learned these by trial and error over the course of years and late-night conversations. She could try to explain how much the lighter mood that has seemed to settle upon him since the holidays troubles her, how surface and false it seems, and how she fears it's only a temporary staving-off of something bad to come.

But none of this would do any more than pay lip service to everything between them, and to everything she's seen change in him over the past few years. (Or it's not change, as such; it's more like old things that he can no longer hold down, hold back. 9/11 was not so much a sea change for him as the opening of a door. And this right here is a perfect example, she thinks, of why none of this can ever be explained, not really.)

She could also, were she feeling masochistic, say that she worries about him and loves him and misses his friendship, and is often furious at him. But this would be misinterpreted, too; her feelings would be spin-doctored as romantic and unrequited, and she will not have something so personal, so core to her, be cast in that light.

Danny is studying her, thoughtful and puzzled and worried. "You think it could change again?" he asks. "That he could move on? I--I know that sounds awful, but..."

"I know what you mean," she says, and then adds, "I don't know. I like to think it could get better. Slowly."

"Yeah. Well. Like I said before...time I got." Danny offers her a grin.

She smiles back, even as she wonders.




"I'll tell you one thing about Mac," she says as they cross the parking lot.

"Yeah, what's that?" he asks.

"He really does think a lot of you, Danny. He always has. I wasn't kidding about that." She tries to catch his eye as she unlocks the doors, but his gaze is elsewhere. "That hasn't changed."

"Yeah?" Danny asks, and the hope in his voice is too heartfelt to be disguised.

"Yeah, really," she says.

"Good." He clambers into the car and throws himself into the seat with a complete lack of finesse. "Then maybe I can just charm my way through the situation." He flashes her a winning smile, at which she rolls her eyes.

"Oh, please."

"Whattaya mean, 'oh, please'? I will have you know I happen to be a very charming person."

"Yeah, I've noticed," she says, trying with little success to hide her smile.

"Then you can drop the sarcasm, thank you very much." He tries to look dignified, and has about as much success as she's having with keeping a straight face. "I'm very charming, I always have been. All the boys love me."

"And I'm sure that's worked out very nicely for you."

"It has. Just be grateful I haven't attempted to work my wiles on you, too. I'd have you eating out of my hand in no time."

"Right." She gives up on looking serious. "And that's why you wooed me right out of my bad mood in Carlisle today."

"Well...okay. It doesn't always work. But if you were a guy?" Danny snaps his fingers. "Just like that, Stella, I'm telling ya. I turn that charm on Mac, and hell, he'll be asking me for advice on cases, not the other way around." He leans back in his seat, looking pleased with himself.

And maybe sometimes she's guilty of not talking about things herself, because she knows, she's known, and Danny knows that she knows, and neither of them has made even oblique reference to it until just now. Something else occurs to her, something that she has in fact wondered about from time to time in a vague way, and she decides now that is good a time as any to toss out a few feelers. It's been a day for airing dirty laundry, after all, and if nothing else, it'll give her a chance to needle him some more.

"All this worry about Mac, and what he thinks, and what he's going to say...I'm thinking this goes a little beyond professional regard," she says.

"Oh, c'mon, Stella. What--"

"I think you've got a crush," she says.

"What?" The shade of red Danny has just turned answers any lingering doubts she may have had about the validity of her guess.

"You do," she says, laughing, suddenly feeling more cheerful than she has all day. "You have a total crush on him. Oh, come on" -- reaching out to pat him on the shoulder -- "don't be embarrassed. I think it's sweet."

"I'm not--I don't--" he stutters, all the cockiness of a minute before vanished like it had never been.

"Danny, come on." She tries to compose herself. "You're lit up like the Brooklyn Bridge. You can't tell me that I'm wrong."

"I..." He blushes an even brighter red, if that's possible, and then shrugs. "Okay, say I do. So what?"

"So you like Mac. I think it's great. You should bring it up when you guys have your big talk."

"Stella!" He sits up straight. "Are you crazy? I could never--"

"Tell him. He'd be flattered. Maybe he'd even take you out for coffee."

"He wouldn't--I couldn't ever--"

"No, coffee is a definite possibility. God knows the man likes his caffeine." She gives his shoulder another pat. "Really, why not?"

Danny doesn't answer for a few seconds, and when he does, the fury in his voice stops her cold, freezing the laughter before it can get started again.

"Oh, I don't know, Stella. Maybe because he's a Marine? Because he was married? Because he's my fucking boss? Fuck!" and Danny pounds his fist against the passenger-side window.

His face, in the wash of headlights, looks as bleak as she's ever seen it.

Understanding hits her then, and she wishes to God she could take back the teasing of a moment ago.

"Danny, I...You really--" She bites her lip, not knowing how to finish that sentence.

Danny cuts her off before she has a chance to think about it, voice low and steady and lifeless. "Don't say it, Stella." He chuckles a little, and presses his fingertips to his forehead. "Yeah, I really. For all the good it'll do me."

"I'm sorry," she says.

"Yeah, I know. You're sorry. We're all sorry." He takes off his glasses and rubs his eyes. "What a sorry boy I am," he mutters.

"He wouldn't hate you for that, either," she says quietly.

"I know." He puts the glasses back on, blinking. "I know he wouldn't. But he also wouldn't feel anything else."

Wouldn't he? she wonders, and realizes that she simply doesn't know. It's not something that she's ever considered before, but some gut instinct -- something other than any need to shelter Danny's feelings, she realizes -- stays her hand from giving an unequivocal agreement to the lack of possibility Danny has just outlined for her. What it is she doesn't know; this is something that's going to have be given some consideration, preferably when she's not so brain-fried and wired. And maybe she's wrong, at that.

But it's not pity that makes her say, "Don't dismiss him out of hand, okay?"

"Stella, don't--"

She holds up one hand. "That's all I'm going to say."

"All right. Thanks." His tone is sharp and skeptical, his jaw set; and after a minute, when he changes the subject, she lets him.




Danny's Astoria neighborhood is poorly lit and unfamiliar to her, and he directs her through the narrow streets to a parking space across from his pre-war cinderblock apartment building.

"Well," he says, "home at last. What are you going to do for the rest of the weekend?"

"First, take this baby back to the rental place." She knocks on the dashboard. "Then go home and go to bed and sleep until Monday."

"Yeah," he says, drawing the word out, "that sounds like heaven. Think I might try for some of that action myself." He unhooks the seatbelt and gets out, then comes around to the driver's side window to say goodnight.

"Well, my dear," he says, bending down to the window. "This is where we part ways."

"Looks like it."

"Thank you. For everything. I promise, no more Saturday morning bail-outs."

"There had better not be," she tells him. "Next time, I will bring Mac with me, and I won't stop him when he goes ballistic on you."

"All right." He runs a hand through his hair. "I would deserve that, I guess."

She leans toward him. "Danny. You know you're going to have to talk to him soon. If not about the...the personal stuff, then at least about the gang."

"Yeah. I know." He smiles, and she's relieved to see some of the old spark in his eyes. "That oughta be one hell of an interesting conversation, huh?"

She smiles back. "Yeah, it ought to be."

He taps the back of her hand lightly, not quite a squeeze. "Thanks again, Stella. You're a good friend. Really. I'll pay you back first thing Monday, as long as Mac's not looking."

"I know where to find you if you don't."

He's laughing as he stands up and backs onto the sidewalk, and she watches him wave to her as she pulls away.

What a day, she thinks as she turns the corner, looking for signs to the 59th Street Bridge. What an absolute roller coaster of a day. She wouldn't even know where to begin to try to sort out her tangled emotions right now, and doesn't much feel like trying. It'll keep for some other time. She searches through the dial until she finds the local NPR station, and lets the radio-trained voices spill over her without bothering to pick up the sense of the words.

She wants to turn her mind off, she really does, but she's never been much good at that, and as she gets closer and closer to the city, she thinks about never-had conversations: between Danny and Mac, and between her and Mac, too. All the years behind them, and all the years to come, and she still can't decide if these will be anything more than a waste of breath. They'll all find out sooner or later, one way or another, but she doesn't know what will happen then. The outcome is uncertain, and she's unable to read the portents.

The lights of the city are coming up fast, and she tilts her face up to the skyline, searching for stars.