A/N: Yes, I know - I owe you the ending of Crackles, and I'm working on it - just re-reading so I can do my edits. Nice to be writing again.
In the meantime, here is a tag to Arrow of Time.
"David!" Alan gripped the cell phone more tightly. He moved automatically toward the front door and privacy, trying to judge anything, anything at all, from the voice on the other end of the line.
"It's over, Mr. Eppes. Buck is in custody, Don is fine. Not a shot fired even."
Alan's legs dissolved underneath him and he sat down hard on the front porch step. Thank God. Thank God. But aloud he said, "Not a shot fired? How did you manage that?"
David huffed a humorless laugh. "How? I followed orders. Guess Don had a plan."
"A plan?" He wasn't sure whether he was fishing or stalling, but chances of Don telling him much beyond the barest of reassuring details were slim.
"A plan to take Buck alive – a plan to – avoid killing him."
"He said that. Said he was afraid that if he went out there, he was going to have to kill him."
"Yeah?" He could hear the speculation in David's voice. "That what was going on with him? I thought – I don't know what I thought. Couldn't figure it out. The last thing I thought, though, was that he knew what he was doing."
Alan smiled tremulously. Had he thought the same thing? Maybe. "Where is he now?"
"With the AD, briefing him."
Alan curled over his knees, clenching his stomach against an arrow of resentment. "He had his life threatened. They don't let you go home for that? Or is that just all in a day's work?"
"He probably could have. But - you know Don."
Alan made a noncommittal noise in his throat. Maybe he did. Some days, he wasn't so sure.
"He won't be forever, if you want to wait. Listen, you feel like a beer? I could use a beer."
Alan closed his eyes on a strange dampness and took a deep breath. "I would love a beer."
"Good. I hate drinking alone. I'll pick you up - be there in twenty."
"Just let me tell Charlie where I'm going."
It was a law enforcement bar, Alan could figure that much out without being told. It wasn't just that it was only a block from the Bureau: there was something about the patrons – the way they stood, the way they looked, the kind of jokes they told – that he hadn't even realized he had come to recognize from spending time with Don and his team. He saw David gesture to a passing waitress and hold up two fingers. She nodded and took a couple of glasses down and went to the tap.
"You come here a lot?"
David seemed to understand the real question, just as he had understood the real question outside of the FBI building the other day. "Yeah, sure – for a wind down or a bite. It's handy."
"They're gonna call me as soon as Don is done with the AD and we can stop over. It's a more comfortable place to wait."
The waitress appeared and set two beers down in front of them. No money changed hands, so Alan assumed David was here enough to run a tab. "I'm buying," he said hastily.
"Naw – that's not – my pick, my treat."
"No, David – I owe you. It's the least I can do."
David smiled. "Mr. Eppes, you don't owe me anything. I was looking out for Don, but in the end – well, he had it covered."
Alan snorted. "Did he."
David nodded slowly. "I didn't get it, you know? I thought he was going mano a mano with Buck, but that wasn't it at all. I knew he didn't want a repeat of the Crystal Hoyle thing, but I thought…" He shook his head and sipped at his beer.
"I remember that case. He told me he couldn't believe how far he had gone to get Megan back – asked me if I thought a person could do that and get their good judgment back."
"What did you tell him?"
"That the fact that he was asking meant that he could."
David drew on his beer again. "Yeah. Judgment." He hitched himself closer across the booth table. "These five years of working with Don – I've questioned his judgment more than once. When Colby called him from on the run I told him he needed to report it. He didn't – just in case Colby was on the up and up. Wouldn't risk his life. This time, when I pointed out he was withholding information, he told me to either turn him in or let him lead. And now I gotta face the fact that, if he had listened to me any of those times, or if I had been the one in charge, Colby would probably be dead. Buck would be dead. Maybe Megan too. What I don't get is, how come I still question him every time? How come I don't get it?"
Alan swirled his own beer. "Maybe you question him, but…David, you did what he asked. It was hard, but you did it. And you're the one he trusted with that job, so I'm guessing that he knew, whatever you felt yourself, that you would. I think it's even possible…" he slid his hands down the sides of his glass, scattering condensation, "that he expects you to question him. Counts on it – to keep him honest. Counts on you."
David sipped his beer pensively.
"I know you're the one I turned to. Because I knew I could count on you."
David's beer tapped lightly on the table, spattering a wet ring on the table top. "That's something, I guess. Man, he's got a cast iron pair though, huh? Don't know how he does it. Walkin' in there to meet a guy who wants to kill him. Trustin' me to do what he asked, even when it looks like it's the wrong thing. Trustin' Buck to do what he thinks he'll do, even when it doesn't look likely. Buck packin' that hand-held cannon. Don packin' nothin'."
"Nothing?" Alan head jerked up at that. "You mean like - no gun?"
David blinked, face suddenly blank, lips moving soundlessly. "Um…" He rubbed a hand over his mouth. "…um…did I say…?"
Alan pushed his beer aside. "Unless I misunderstand the vernacular. Then, yes - you did say. That my son walked in there…to take on a killer…a killer who had targeted him…" his voice evaporated and he turned his head, watching the shadows on the wall, an odd chill sitting lightly on his skin. There was no point in throwing up now, he decided. Not when it was all over. Not when David had assured him…he massaged the steel band tightening between his eyes. David. Why on earth hadn't he…?
And that was completely unfair. Aside from knocking Don unconscious or locking him up, what was he supposed to do? And wasn't that insubordination or something anyway…? He caught a glimpse of David's face and managed a tight, grim smile. "Cast iron. Yeah. He didn't get those from me, by the way." He propped his elbows on the table and buried his face in his hands.
"Mr. Eppes…I'm sorry. I shouldn't have…I never meant…"
He lifted one hand and gave a tired, dismissive wave. "Never mind. It's been a rough time for all of us." He heard the squeak of Naugahyde as David slumped back into the booth cushions.
"Don is gonna kill me," he moaned. "Man. Maybe he should."
Alan raised his head at that. "It'll be our secret. In fact, I intend to try forgetting I ever heard it, starting right now. Let's order another round - my treat this time." He gestured for the waitress, who nodded and took down two fresh glasses. He waited until he'd swallowed a mouthful of the foam topping the glass before trying to speak again. "Cast iron. No, ironically, he gets those from his mother. The problem with being fearless, of course, is that it scares the rest of us to death."
David rolled a mouthful of beer around with his tongue, then swallowed. "Yeah," he agreed at last. "Yeah. It does."
"Probably means it was unreasonable of me to ask you what I did. I'm sorry. No one knows better than I do how far out of your hands it was."
David raised his brows at that. "Mr. Eppes, you didn't ask me. I volunteered. Guess I been volunteering for more or less five years now. Maybe it's fighting a losing battle, but I don't expect to stop volunteering for it any time soon." He drew deeply on his beer, shook his head. "You got no idea how many times that man has saved my ass - what I've learned from him. Least I can do is try and return the favor."
Alan pressed his lips together, David's face blurring unexpectedly before him. He didn't trust himself to speak, so he just nodded his thanks, turning to inspect the shadows on the wall again. After a moment he burst out, before he could stop himself, "No gun?"
David sighed through his nose. "That whole forgettin' thing isn't workin', huh?"
Alan shook his head.
"I was afraid of that." David drained his glass. "Would it help if I told you that there were a bunch of us placed all around the synagogue, standing at the ready with assault rifles?"
"A little." Alan frowned. "Synagogue?"
"Yeah. That was the place Don chose to meet Buck. You didn't know?"
Alan gave a short laugh. "Really. You know, if it's any comfort to you, I don't get it either. And he's my son. Flesh of my flesh and all that. But every time I think I have a handle on what he's thinking or what he's doing - " he shook his head. "He surprises me. I mean, no children come with instructions, but Donnie should have come with a decoder ring."
David grinned at that and glanced at his watch. "You should be able to give him a piece of your mind in another few minutes."
Alan snorted. "And say what? 'Donnie, you know the gun I don't like? The one I complain about? Well, why the hell weren't you carrying the gun?' What kind of hypocrite would that make me?"
David's grin grew to a chuckle. "I don't think that makes you a hypocrite. I think it just makes you a dad." He raised his glass to Alan in salute, and Alan clinked his against it. A low humming interrupted and David fumbled at his belt and yanked his phone free, shooting a glance at the display. "He's out," he announced.
Alan was pulling out his wallet almost before David could finish speaking. He tossed a sheaf of bills on the table and grabbed his jacket. David glanced at the money as he shrugged into his own jacket.
"You leave that kind of tip and they're going to be expecting it from the rest of us," he remarked dryly.
Alan gestured impatiently. "David - "
David lifted a hand. "We're going, we're going."
Alan shoved his wallet back in his pocket as he followed. "Was that him?"
"Hm? No - the AD's assistant. I asked her to give me a buzz when they were done."
"Then we'd better hurry, if we're going to catch him."
David laughed out loud. "Don. Hurrying away from work. Yeah, that I'd like to see."
Alan opened his mouth to point out that he had to be tired by now, closed it again. Since when had that ever made a difference? Instead he followed close at David's heels, picked up a Visitor's ID at the front desk, nodding 'hello' to the security guard. If anyone had ever told him, he reflected as they called the elevator, that he would one day be frequenting the FBI building often enough to be recognizable to staff, he would have assumed that it was because he was there for questioning.
The elevator doors shushed open to deposit them at Don's floor. There was only a scattering of people remaining, the only face he knew Robin's. She sat motionless at Don's desk, her profile expressionless and Sphinx-like, focused in the direction of the corridor. She turned her head as they approached, the stillness of her face melting into surprise.
"Alan? What are you - ? Don isn't out yet - "
He looked past her then, at a movement in the corridor beyond her, the clenched-hard fist he'd barely been aware of around his heart loosening. He wondered in passing what David and Robin saw - David his boss, Robin her lover? A grown man, at the very least. Certainly not what he saw.
For him, time mysteriously telescoped and Don looked exactly as he had twenty-five years past - hair rumpled and vest unfastened and moving loosely around his frame, eyes red-rimmed - not the eyes of a seasoned FBI Agent, but the eyes of a tired boy - drained, exhausted, questioning, a little lost. The ache around his heart blossomed into a throb.
His son faced death every day, that he knew, but this time death had come looking for him, and that had scared him to the bone. And yet, somehow, Donnie was still here - still alive. Still with him - right within reach. Another bullet dodged.
Don caught sight of him and stopped in mid-word, mouth half open. The suited man next to him - the AD, he assumed - eyed him questioningly.
"Dad?" Don got his mouth moving again, brows knotting together. "What are you doing here? I thought you were with Charlie?"
He took a breath to answer, found the words trapped somehow beneath the ache: too many feelings too long unspoken to find their way to words.
A cast iron pair, David had said. How many times had he cursed that? Worried about it? Blessed it? Fearlessness had its price, but sometimes, it actually won the day.
"Dad?" Don sounded worried now, dragging his Kevlar a little self consciously over his head and letting it dangle from one hand. "You okay?"
Was he? Almost. He needed…one thing more.
Cast iron nothing. I'll show them cast iron.
Alan took a step forward. Without a word, and in full view of the Assistant Director, David, Robin, and any number of federal agents, he hooked an arm around Don's neck and pulled him into a bone crushing hug.
He expected him to stiffen and pull away, nearly lost his grip when he felt Don's head drop to his shoulder instead, rest there.
He hid a smile in his son's hair.
Figures, damn him. Surprises me.