Actions

Work Header

better than a harmony

Chapter Text

When Beth was a kid, she thought the hardest thing she’d ever have to do was leave Annie.  The image of her mother, who ignored her at best and was cruel at worst, who sometimes didn’t leave her bed for days, who seemed only to pay attention to Annie to compare her to Beth--and it was a long time ago that Beth started to notice that and feel the guilt in her belly and taste it on her tongue--left alone with just Annie, totally in charge of her…  As it turned out, it was a moot point. By the time she and Dean got married, Annie practically lived with them. There had been, for a moment, a naive thought that maybe if Beth were out of the way, Annie could shine at home, but that was quashed before the honeymoon was over.

When Beth was pregnant with Kenny, she thought the hardest thing she’d ever have to do was give birth.  And it had been hard.  But, as it turns out, it was the weeks later, when something weighed her down into the mattress and every step she took felt like she was walking through Jell-O and she looked at Kenny and felt nothing but despair, that were the hardest.  Dean had been better in those days, though, and the depression had passed, and she thought, Maybe this is just what motherhood is .   That thought was bolstered by the fact that it happened again and it got worse--it got worse with Emma and Danny and, by then, Dean just… he just didn’t see and she was so bogged down in shame for hating herself and feeling nothing else, completely numb at best, that she didn’t say anything.  It got worse until she got pregnant with Jane--and it had been the first time she’d ever had a panic attack. She’d been at Annie’s, and, mirroring a very similar but very different situation so many years before, Annie held her through it.

She never told Dean she got her tubes tied when they’d had to deliver Jane via C-section.  She never knew why, never really thought about it, just couldn’t go through this again.  And the depression after peaked until finally, finally someone saw her.  It had been Ruby who held her hand in the waiting room at that first appointment while Auntie Annie watched the kids.  And then the hardest part wasn’t the disease, it was the cure.

Dean didn’t see it, not until she explained it to him, and even then she didn’t think--still doesn’t think--that he really got it.

As time went on, the hardest thing she’d ever have to do got bigger and bigger.  After Amber, she thought the hardest thing would be to forgive him. After finding out what he’d done to their finances, she thought it’d be not killing him.  After finding out about all the other women-- how had it been? she’d demanded, face hot with fury, was it good?  Was it hot? Was it worth destroying a 20 year marriage?  I just want to know-- she thought it’d be telling the kids that she and their dad were getting a divorce.   That , at least, had been surprisingly easy, although she’d thought woefully about what she’d done as a mother if her kids only thought about presents when their parents were splitting up.

There had been so much in those few months--trying to work with him, trying to salvage the dealership until she ultimately had to find the steel her spine had been missing and send him home because they can’t both steer the ship , because she was good at this, better than him and better than his top salesperson, and it had felt good to be good at something for once.  He’d fought to keep her, but he never knew how to do it without somehow degrading her until she’d realized, finally, that she didn’t want this.

She’d kept the house, and, after a few weeks’ adjustment, she found it was surprisingly easy to get on without him.  Easier, even.

--

“I worry about him,” Beth sighs, wallet out as she and Ruby wait in line for ice cream, watching Kenny ignore Danny.  “Like, I can’t even trust him to get ice cream--he’ll just eat it .  In front of his siblings.”

“Well, he’s at that age,” Ruby responds, her own eyes on Sara and full of worry.  It’s a good day, but they both know how quickly a good day can turn, and Beth nudges her shoulder into Ruby’s sympathetically, pressing just a moment longer, I’m here, we got this, she’ll be fine .

“It’s too bad we can’t afford military school or something,” she jokes half-heartedly, ordering and paying in spite of Ruby’s protests, which she waves off with, “You got coffee on Sunday, remember?”

What happens next is totally her fault--Ruby's grabbed the popsicles, leaving Beth to take the cones, and it's not like she's never carried four ice cream cones before, but she realizes she's forgotten napkins.  Without thinking, she whips around and--runs smack into the person who was, apparently, next in line. She watches with dismay as one of the cones falls in slow motion, smearing chocolate ice cream down the front of a black shirt and then black jeans and finally landing on the toe of a black sneaker, and for a moment she's completely frozen.

She snaps out of it before the guy can say anything, reaching across him for a handful of napkins and mumbling, “Shit , I am so sorry, I--”

“Nah, it's cool, don't worry about it,” she hears above her even as long fingers close around hers, stopping her where she’s already started dabbing at the fabric.  She jerks back with a nervous laugh, eyes skipping over a weirdly detailed neck tattoo to dark eyes that look more amused than angry and leaving the napkins under his hand, and it’s only a momentary thing but it leaves her feeling hot and embarrassed.  Luckily, he turns away from her to look at the guy in the truck and asks, “Hey, can I get a chocolate cone?”

“You know, I've probably got a Tide pen in my…” she trails off, rummaging clumsily in her purse.

There’s a sharp snicker before, “See, we get ice cream on our way out, so it’s all good.”  She looks up in time to watch him shuffle his fingers through a little boy’s hair.

“Sugary treats before you leave the park?” she hears herself scoff, “Rookie move, you’re supposed to load them up then let ‘em run around.”

“That right?” he asks, smirking.

She opens her mouth to shove her foot in there-- Maybe your kid's better behaved than mine, which is probably more likely --but she's saved by a gruff, “Buddy, that's gonna be $9.”

“Wait,” she says, doing the math with dismay as the guy she literally just dropped food on pays for a new ice cream cone for her, “You really don't have to--”

“It's cool,” he interrupts, shoving it into her hand until she doesn't have a choice but to take it before handing some monstrosity that's supposed to be Spider-Man to his kid.  “See you around,” he grins in a way that doesn't totally set her at ease.

A moment later, she hears behind her, “Honey, you cannot be serious.”

“Huh?” she asks, distracted, looking back at Ruby who is giving her that wide-eyed I cannot believe you right now look which… she usually reserves for Annie, come to think of it.   “What?”

“I know it’s been a while, but seriously?” she demands as they walk back to the kids.  Once the cones have been divvied and Beth’s wiped melted ice cream off her hands with a wet wipe, she continues, “Like, I’m president of the Beth Needs To Get Some ,” she conspicuously lowers her voice here that somehow just embarrasses her more, “Club, but flirting with a guy with a neck tattoo?”

Eyes widening, Beth shoots her a look that she hopes fully conveys her unspoken, That’s so wrong I’m not even gonna dignify it with a response .  When her eyebrows just raise, she rolls her eyes and says, “I wasn’t flirting.”

“Would you even know flirting if it bit you in the face?” she counters.  “Or bought you a new ice cream?”

She doesn’t really have a response prepared for that, but Jane rescues her by bounding up to them with chocolate smeared across her face.  It’s been like a minute, maximum, and she still wonders how they do this so quickly. She thinks, Was I flirting with him? and she thinks, So what if I was, it doesn’t matter, I’m divorced, I’m entitled, and she thinks, Oh my God, what if he thought I was flirting?  She thinks, probably, if Ruby hadn’t brought it up, she never would have thought about it again--but now that it’s been brought up…

It takes a few days for the mortification to pass, but it does, eventually, pass.  She’s not sure why she’s mortified, really, and tries to convince herself she’s not , but it couldn’t be helped, and it probably didn’t help that Ruby told Annie and Annie had been merciless, which, in retrospect, is probably fair given how judgemental Beth has been in the past about her choices.  At a certain point, though, she quits dwelling on it--she’s spent too much time dwelling on a simple interaction with a complete stranger she’s sure she’ll never see again--mostly because she’s got more on her plate to distract her than not.  Before she knows it, she’s forgotten it even happened.

Well, until she sees him again.

The thing is that she almost doesn’t see him, but apparently that grin is burned into her retinas or something because as she scans the park from the relative comfort of her bench, she sees a guy and a kid playing soccer not too far off--the kid kicks the ball hard and it goes soaring past the guy, the guy turns with laughter across his face.  Of course, he turns towards her because that’s where the ball is hurtling, and Beth only has half a moment to consider that before she’s either gotta catch it or let it smack her in the face.  She does manage to catch it, but her hands sting with the impact and she’s still wincing when the guy jogs up.

“This is revenge for the ice cream, isn’t it?” she asks wryly, tossing the ball to him.

“Yeah, part of a master plan I started weeks ago,” he smirks back, twisting to lob the ball underhanded at the kid.  “Revenge is quality bonding.”

“Of course,” she laughs, “It is the #1 suggestion on all the mommy boards.”

The effect is immediate and weirdly gratifying--he tosses his head back and his shoulders shake and his laughter is bigger and fuller than she’d expect from, well…  Her face heats when she finds herself leaning forward and watching the bob of his Adam’s apple underneath his tattoo. When their eyes meet again, her heart is hammering so hard she wonders how he can’t hear it, and she mirrors him when his tongue swipes across his lower lip.  It’s not like Beth’s never been looked at before--people look at her all the time, and she’s not naive , she knows what she looks like.  But that’s not what’s happening here--she watches his eyes, they stray to her lips and her neck but they keep coming back up to her own, boring into her and leaving her feeling like she’s told a secret she doesn’t even know she has.

It shouldn’t make sense--and it should be too intense, he’s a stranger , but she doesn’t hate it.

“You got a name?” he asks after what feels like minutes but could really only be a few seconds.

“No,” she says, rolling her eyes but smiling as she stands and offers a hand.  “Beth.”

“Rio,” he responds, taking her hand.  His grip is warm and dry and not firm enough to be painful, but he holds it for a few beats longer than is probably necessary.  “What’s it short for?”

“Huh?”   Smooth.

“Beth, what’s it short for?”

As she pulls her hand from his grasp, she answers with an awkward, halting laugh, “Elizabeth, but no one’s called me that in…”   Ever , she thinks.   Years, decades.

His smile is lopsided and lazy, and she doesn’t have more than a moment to consider what he might be thinking before there’s a long, “Dad!” behind him.

“Guess that’s your cue,” she says, eyes sliding past him and to the kid even as the guy-- Rio --looks back.

“Guess so,” he replies, walking backwards.  “See you around, Elizabeth.”

It’s not until the fourth time-- not that she’s keeping track (not on purpose , anyway, she’s an organized person!) that she says, “You know, ‘See you around,’ does not come off as friendly as I think you mean it.”

He just smirks.

Chapter Text

Now, Rio’s not seeking her out.  Not really .  The ice cream had been all her--and, if he’s honest, he’d liked the way he flush crept up her neck and cheeks and how she hadn’t quite looked at him before trying to clean up the mess.  And he’d seen the brood she’d been dealing with, didn’t really hold her distraction against her.  It had been mildly irritating for a moment, max, before irritation gave way to amusement.  It’s not until the second time he sees her--the first time he meets her--that he realizes he must have seen her around.  Woman that looks like she does isn’t exactly forgettable , and he’s sure there’s something about her laugh or her smile or the flash of her hair that’s familiar, but he, pretty reasonably, doesn’t really socialize with the other parents.

Thing is, after he’s met her, he can’t not notice when she’s there.

And when he notices she’s there, he can’t not say something.

At first, he’s man enough to admit that it’s ego.  At first, he likes that thing he can see in her--that thing that makes her lean toward him and stare right back at him and flirt in a way that shouldn’t really work but somehow does.  There’s something in her almost-embarrassed pleasure in the moment he can see she’s caught herself, and she’s a little awkward, and he likes that, likes that she gets a little flustered and then looks at him like she’s daring him to call her out on it.

Anyway, regardless of how it starts, after a month or two it just becomes natural to take the bench next to hers, ankle on his knee--making conversation that isn’t quite small talk but doesn’t go further than surface-level.  It’s when he realizes he wants to go deeper than surface-level that he has to take stock.  He’s not entirely sure what the fact that that moment of taking stock happens in the produce section of Fine and Frugal says about this whole situation , but what can you do?  Elizabeth’s been staring at the same display of cantaloupes for the past few minutes, which he knows because he’s been staring at her for the past few minutes.  

She doesn’t seem to notice when he slides up behind her, and she jumps when he starts, “Hey, ma, can I ask you a question?”  Her mouth forms a silent O as she whirls on him before spreading into a slow smile.  “When are these things ripe?” he asks, knocking on a cantaloupe with one knuckle.

“Can I be honest with you?” she asks seriously, one hand on the edge of the display as she leans towards him conspiratorially.  “I don’t know--I don’t think anyone knows.” Corners of her mouth turning down thoughtfully, she picks one up and says, “My m--my ex-mother-in-law used to say you could tap them and know , but I could never figure out how she meant.”

“Lemme buy you dinner,” he says suddenly enough he may actually give himself whiplash.

Frowning, she asks slowly, “For… revealing that no one… knows when melons are ripe?”

“Yeah, it gets me goin’,” he rolls his eyes.

“I guess there are stranger things,” she muses, cocking her hip against the same spot she’d had her hand as she crosses her arms.  “You don’t wanna date me, I--”

“Nah, don’t do that,” he interrupts, waving her excuse off.  “You don’t wanna go out with me, don’t. But don’t pretend it’s ‘cause you think you know what I want.”

For what feels like a solid minute, she gapes at him before blinking several times and nodding with a faint, “I have the kids this weekend.  Does Thursday work?”

“Thursday works,” he smirks.  “You like Italian? There’s that little place on, uh, 40th and something, it opened like six months ago--”

“Giuseppe’s,” she cuts in.  “You know that was a brunch spot like seven months ago, right?”  As if she anticipates his next question, she says, “That wasn’t a no , I just think you should be able to make informed decisions.”

So, informed decisions made, they agree to meet there at seven, and after a pause that’s just this side of uncomfortable, they go their separate ways.  He fully expects to leave the grocery store without incident, and he nearly accomplishes that goal when he hears from directly behind him , “No, no --you are not going out with Daddy Gang Tats!”  

It’s followed by a familiar, horrified, “Oh my God .”

Shoving his tongue into his cheek to keep from laughing, he pays for the few things he’d picked up and shoves the change into the donation box before turning and holding up a hand with a cool, “Have a nice afternoon, ladies.”

Elizabeth has her fingers pressed to her forehead and is studiously not looking anywhere but the card reader, but the cashier--Annie, by her nametag and, oh , Rio knows that name on reputation alone--whips around and grimaces with a simple, “Awh, shit.

--

The first date was, to be honest, bad.

He wouldn’t go so far as to say fucking awful, but it was real bad.

It had started off fine--she’d smiled at his inspection of the wine list and had pointedly but not rudely ordered water, had asked idly what his thoughts were on bruschetta, had pulled but not jerked away when their fingers brushed over breadsticks.  She’d flushed at his mention of Daddy Gang Tats and choked on a laugh when he asked if that was his nickname.  The small talk over the menu options wasn’t painful, wasn’t so dull he wanted to drive his salad fork into his eye, innocuous and safely boring.

But then the orders had been taken and the questions had started and they hadn’t stopped .  On the one hand, he thought it was probably nerves--but it really bears repeating that she didn’t really stop asking questions .

“What do you do?”

“I’m in pharmaceuticals.”

“That sounds like a euphemism for selling drugs.”  A laugh, she’d only been half-serious. “How long have you been doing that?”

Where did you grow up?  Do you have any siblings?  How many? How old are they?  Any family in the area? Did you go to school?   And on and on and on until he’d leaned back, pushing his half-empty plate away from him, and asked, “Not for nothing, but is this a date or a job interview?”

“I--sorry,” she’d winced.

From there, the conversation had been stilted, uncomfortable, and he had watched, in real time, how her face had closed off and shut down, turning inward.  By the time dinner was paid for and they were outside, it was almost a relief. On the short walk to her car-- you really don’t have to, I’m good, honestly it’s not even necessary --he thinks she may have apologized a dozen times.  Looking back, he doesn’t even think she really meant to slam the car door in his face.

--

It’s not until about a week later that he sees her again.  She’s alone on a park bench, which is good because if she were with her friend or her sister this wouldn’t work.  Her back is toward him as he approaches, and he thinks he can make out some of her kids on the jungle gym. When he reaches her bench, he props his elbows up on the back and stares forward.

“Nice weather, huh?” he observes innocuously.

“Ugh,” she groans, which isn’t generally the response he hopes for from her.

“Yeah,” he nods.  “Anyway, I was thinkin’, since Italian food didn’t agree with you, maybe we could give the new sushi place a shot.”

“God, didn’t you get enough last week?” she laughs without humor, looking at him with something like wide-eyed horror.

“Guess not.”  He turns his gaze back towards the jungle gym, screaming kids not far off, but out of the corner of his eye he can see her shoulders sag.  Silence rests between them, easier, he thinks, on his end than on hers, but he’s nothing if not a man aware of how effective silence can be.

Clearing her throat, she doesn’t look at him as she says, “I haven’t been on a date--a real one--since… high school, I think.”  When he looks over, her eyes are distant as she continues, “I met my husband in high school, so around then.” Lips twisting, she turns toward him but doesn’t quite meet his gaze.  “I don’t really know how to do this… whole thing.”

“Aight, noted,” he shrugs.  “So, you wanna go out again or not?”

“You wanna go out again?” she asks, baffled.

“Nah, I asked because I thought it’d make this,” he gestures quickly between them, “Less uncomfortable.”

She shakes her head, just a little, not even enough to stir her hair, and lets out a huff that’s not quite a laugh before demanding, “Why?”

Moving slowly, he reaches forward to do what he’s wanted to do since roughly the third time they met.  He gives her plenty of time to back away, but she doesn’t, and he doesn’t even think she breathes, not until the edge of his little finger strokes over her temple.  Her exhale stutters, and if he weren’t so keyed into her, if he weren’t watching her for every minute change, he probably wouldn’t even notice. He strokes down from her temple to the hinge of her jaw, eyes on hers.

A kid’s happy scream yanks them both out of the moment and back into reality.

“Where’s Marcus?” she asks suddenly, looking around, and he’s fascinated to find he can tell the exact moment her eyes land on each of her own children.

“With his mom,” he shrugs.  When she whips back around to him, he smirks, “I ain’t got your number--it was come here on your usual day or stake out a grocery store.”

Her eyes narrow.  “I can’t decide if that’s weird or not.” she says.  She stares at him, and eventually he hears, “Not sushi, though.  What about O’Malley’s?”

Propping his chin up on one hand, he replies, “That’s pub food, Elizabeth.”

The corners of her mouth pull down.  “I can’t like pub food?”

With an elaborate eye roll, he straightens and holds out a hand, “Lemme see your phone.”

“Please,” she chides, handing it over.

By the time he’s back in his car, he’s already got a text from an unknown number, See you around .

--

“You’re late,” is how she greets him in front of the bar--and, really, it’s more of a bar that serves shitty food, and he’s still surprised this is what she chose.

“You sure about that?” he asks as he makes a show of checking his watch.  “‘Cause I’m thinkin’ you’re early.”

A smile blooms slowly across her face, and her eyes flicker slowly from his own to his lips, a bit lower--his throat, he thinks--before she pushes herself away from the wall and steps closer until they’re only inches apart.  She tilts her head and says, “Maybe.” And then, “So, are we going inside, or…”

“Okay,” he gives her a lazy once-over, and he sees her confidence falter as she turns on a heel and leads the way inside.  As he catches the door, his free hand presses to the space between her shoulder blades, fingers spreading wide, and she favors him with a quick not-quite-smile.  When the hostess approaches with a couple menus, he directs his half-question of, “Bar?” more to Elizabeth than to her.

“Bar,” she nods definitively.  Once they’re perched on barstools, she bites her lip and orders bourbon and looks back at him and says, with mocking judgement, “You’re not actually a white wine guy, are you?”

“Make it two,” he says to the bartender.  The look she gives him is considering but he can’t quite interpret it before she also orders a couple waters.  When their drinks come, she stirs her straw around absently, and he asks casually, “So, what do you do?”

Smacking her lips, she leans forward on her elbows and looks at him sideways and says, mournful, “I guess it couldn’t have lasted forever.  My ex-husband’s last name is Boland, as in--”

“You sell used cars?” he laughs.  “Isn’t that that place with the corny commercials?  ‘What are you waitin’ for, a pig to fly?’”

“The very same,” she replies dryly, tipping her tumbler to her lips and taking a generous drink.  “The pig would be my ex-husband,” she continues, voice artificially light.  “And the blonde is, well…” Suddenly, she straightens and winces, “God, I’m sorry, I’m pretty sure the rule is that you’re not supposed to talk about your exes on a date.”

“I dunno about any rules ,” he starts, swirling his own glass, “But I think they’re a little different when you had kids with the ex.”

“Yeah,” she breathes, shoulders dropping.  Her nose wrinkles and she seems to steel herself before saying, “Technically, I got half of the business because there wasn’t really a…  Anyway, I realized I couldn’t just be a silent partner before the divorce, so I’m there, for now, I’m--”

“Babysitting?”

Tossing him a look, she snorts.  “I didn’t say that.”

“Nah, nah, I did,” he concedes, holding up his hands.

“Well, since I’ve already broken the exes rule,” she smiles, pushing the tumbler away to pull her water forward and looking over at him slyly.  “Marcus’ mom?”

Letting his head fall, he shakes his head and doesn’t quite look at her as he says, “We’re better as, uh, coparents.  Wanted different stuff.”

“And you work in pharmaceutical sales.”

There’s a distinct disbelief in her voice and her eyes and the set of her mouth, but it’s more playful than anything else, so he corrects, “Distribution, really.”

“Uh-huh.”  The bartender comes through again, and they both order refills, and she says, “I could go for some Irish nachos, do you want some Irish nachos?”

“Yeah,” he says.  Then, when the bartender leaves, “The hell are Irish nachos?”

“Uh, bad bar nachos but with potato chips instead of tortilla chips,” she smiles, looking at him through her lashes almost shyly.  “Do you regret this yet?”

He doesn’t.

--

He walks her to her van again, and this time she doesn’t shut the door in his face, doesn’t even make a move to get out her keys.  Instead, she steps up close and starts, “Do you mind if I--” just before her lips meet his and he doesn’t mind at goddamn all .  It’s too quick and he catches himself chasing her when she pulls back--she catches him, too, if the soft chuckle he feels against his lips is anything to go by.

--

“Does this count as our third date?” Elizabeth teases from across the desk as she stabs her fork into the burrito bowl he brought.

“This counts as a polite gesture,” he waves her off, softening it with a private smile.  “Since I was in the neighborhood.” Which they both know was a lie, but the fact is is that with five kids between them, scheduling that third date has been somewhat problematic.

“So, I was thinking--” she stops as the door behind him opens.  Her back straightens, smile stiffens, and her voice goes businesslike in an instant as she says in a way that implies a question more than asks it, “Hi, Maggie.”

“Uh, hi, Mrs.--Ms. Boland,” when Rio turns to look at the mousy woman at the door, her eyes just slide away from him, “These need you, when you can,” she steps forward to hand Elizabeth a stack of files, giving him an unreasonably wide berth.  Then, “And Mr. Boland needs to speak with you.” Her eyes flick between the two of them. “When you can.”

With a smile that’s everything professional and polite, she thanks her in a clear dismissal, and he bites back a comment about her being the boss.  As soon as the door closes, her posture changes again, and she says as if there had been no interruption, “I was thinking that--I mean, Dean’s coming to get the kids Friday afternoon.  Maybe you could come over, if you don’t have, I mean--”

“I think the kids call it Netflix and chill ,” he interrupts before she can swallow her own tongue.  Then, pretending to be affronted, he grabs his chest and gasps, “Elizabeth!  Are you suggesting--”

“I am not, and I want you out of my office,” she says flatly.

Huffing, he sits back and takes another bite.  “So, about eight? Could grab food on the way.”

“Been meaning to try Taj,” she replies.

He starts to say something, to snark about how she’s been meaning to try a restaurant that’s been open the better part of a decade, but his phone pings in his pocket.  Work has to take precedence, it’s not like the people he deals with will casually accept he decided to take a long lunch.  It’s not that it’s not something he can handle, but it’s a complication he doesn’t need right now. “I gotta head out,” he says instead, standing and tossing his half-eaten bowl into the garbage next to her desk and leaning over the corner.

She obligingly sits up and smiles into his lips before sitting back down and shoving her food away from her to drag the files forward and say, “Good, I have work to do, you should definitely go.”  Then, just as he’s reaching the door, as if she can’t leave it at that, he hears her say in a rush, “Thanks for lunch.”

If this were a romance novel, one of the cheesy harlequins his baby sister likes, the wait to Friday would be fraught--he wouldn’t know what to do with himself.  He wouldn’t be able to tear himself from his phone, waiting for the next text or call or FaceTime--never mind they don’t call, never mind he would only FaceTime under duress.  However, the fact of the matter is that they’re both parents with jobs--that their jobs are pretty dramatically different doesn’t diminish that fact--and their individual obligations leave little room for that level of too-early devotion.  And since this is real life, which is much less frantic in general, what he finds is that he makes it to Friday without the fact that they have a date driving him to distraction or something equally ridiculous.  There’s--there’s work , and he has Marcus half the week, and he knows she’s got the kids this week, so they text when they’ve got a free minute and he doesn’t bring her lunch again. On Friday morning, she sends him her address--as if he doesn’t know, as if that’s not standard due diligence in his line of work--and he sends back, sorry, what’s this for again?  Her response is one eye-rolling emoji, to which he nearly responds asking how old she is.  But then Marcus announces he’s finished brushing his teeth and the day really starts.

Now, Friday does drag.  There’s plenty to keep him busy, but he keeps checking his phone and his watch and--

Jesus , man, is he in high school or something?

At around six thirty, he asks what she wants so he can call in their order.  He picks it up at exactly 7:37PM, and he rolls up on her house, sun setting and front porch warmly lit by the lights outside, at 7:58PM, about the same time as another car does from the opposite direction.  Grabbing the takeout off the passenger seat, he gets out at the same time the other guy does--if he didn’t already know who he was, he thinks he’d be able to tell just from the way he straightens, takes stock of Rio, glances at the house, glances at the bag in his hand and the make of his car--and Rio, because getting his laughs in where he can keeps his blood pressure low, doesn’t say a damn thing and opts for a smirk.  They walk up to the front door at the same time, and he keeps his peace. He checks his phone and sees that Elizabeth actually texted him like ten minutes ago--damn AT&T DriveMode--saying Dean was late.

At the front door, there’s a pause.  Only natural, who should knock? The ex-husband or the date (stranger, delivery guy, probably).

Rio feels himself being eyed, huffs, steps forward, and knocks.

Chapter Text

“Guys, that’s your dad,” Beth calls, running her fingers through her hair self-consciously, feeling like she’s too obviously dressed up, feeling like this isn’t a conversation she wants to have with Dean right now.  Or ever. Ever is good. She snatches up Janey as she’s darting past and asks, “Sweetie, did you remember to pack your underwear? Daddy told me you ran out after, like, a day last time.”

“That’s only because she decided to wear them all at once,” Emma says frankly.

They have got to get the wardrobe thing sorted.

“Okay,” she breathes bracingly when her youngest doesn’t dispute the fact.  “Well, we’re not gonna do that again, are we?” She’s not foolish enough to be satisfied when she shakes her head, but it’s not like she can do more now.  She hitches her up higher on her hip and goes to the door, and it’s only years of practice that keeps her from dropping Jane at what she finds on her doorstep.  Eyes wide, she’s not sure if she wants to look at Dean or Rio--Rio just looks amused, but Dean, Dean looks like he’s suddenly figured everything out and it is not an expression that rests easily on his face.  At length, she lets Jane down to the floor and calls behind her, “Guys, c’mon, your dad’s here.”

She’s nearly bowled over by the younger three, and she shoots a look to Rio to try to gauge his reaction but his face so perfectly displays nothing but a faint urge to laugh at her pain--okay, she may be projecting here.  There’s a sardonic raise to his brow and nothing much else.

After what feels like minutes, she tells him, “If you want--the kitchen is,” and jabs a thumb over her shoulder with a look that she hopes isn’t too pleading.

While she may not achieve her goal of not seeming like she’s begging, he does slide past her, between her and Dean for just a moment with a look in his eyes she can’t quite decipher, not angry but firm somehow, and she tries to smile her thanks because Dean’s already starting to go a little red in the face.  His hand closes on her shoulder for just a moment, and it’s probably not altogether right that it’s as grounding as it is.  

She thinks she’s probably home free until Kenny passes through, carrying a bag, and utters a casual, “Hey, Rio.”

Eyes closing, she hears him say something in response but it’s drowned out by Dean’s hissed, “Rio?”  And then, quietly, like he’s being subtle , “Beth, who is this guy?”

“Well, his name is Rio,” she says, then, at Kenny’s retreating back, “Check their seatbelts before you get in!”  Her attention turns back to Dean, who’s doing that puffing-his-chest-and-pulling-up-his-pants thing she never really got.  “You know,” she adds, belatedly irritable both about his being late and about the fact that he’s apparently going to make this a thing , “This is kind of no longer in the realm of your business.”

“My bu--” he sputters.  “It’s my business if you have guys like that around my kids.”

Of course, they’re his kids when he can use them as a bludgeon, but she’s actually more interested in the date waiting inside than she is in having this fight in front of the date she has waiting inside.

“We met at the park,” she replies, voice as calm as she can make it.  “You know, the place where I take our kids?”

“Dad, can we go?” Kenny yells from the front seat.

“Have a fun weekend,” Beth says quietly, with feeling, kinder than he probably deserves.  “Don’t let Jane wear all her underwear at once, okay?”

She closes the door before he can respond, which she’s going to hear about later.

Pressing her hands to the door, she bends slightly until her forehead rests against it too, and she thinks, We’re never gonna have a good date and I’m gonna have to live out the rest of my life in sexless misery .  Then she thinks she’s been spending too much time with Annie.  After a few moments, she hears some super conspicuous shuffling in the kitchen and groans quietly, pushes herself away from the door, and follows the sound.  She pauses across the island from him, rapping her knuckles on the countertop.

“So, that was my ex-husband.”  Pulling a face, she shakes her head quickly and says, “Listen, if this is--if you want to go…”  She trails off and stares at the food he’s laid out, before, “I’m giving you an out, here.”

“You think that’s gonna scare me off?  Please.”

Her gaze shoots up to his face and still finds mostly laughter there.  She winces at the memory of him hearing Annie calling him Daddy Gang Tats --which, to be fair, isn’t the worst thing she’s called him, just the most embarrassing.  “I just get the distinct feeling that the people in my life are only going to get worse from here,” she tries to joke.  “Terrible first impressions and all that.”

“Good thing I’m dating you and not them then, yeah?” he responds simply, shrugging as he comes closer.

As his fingers touch the side of her face, she focuses on the smallest things--spicy-heavy air over the smell of her perfume and his cologne and the glint of his watch in the dimly lit kitchen and the grain of his stubble against his skin.  She finds, for all her earlier discomfort, it’s surprisingly easy to dart up, to close the space between their lips--finds they open easily to the gentle swipe of her tongue, and her hands grip into his shoulders to get enough leverage to get closer.  Her teeth graze his lower lip as she pulls back for a breath, and he follows, groan sending a bolt of heat straight through her.

“You taste like cumin,” she says dumbly, one arm hooking around his neck as she licks her own lips.  “You started eating without me.”

“Just a bite--I’m hungry ,” and she thinks it’s supposed to sound defensive but mostly she thinks it sounds like the best thing ever.

The small of her back hits the lip of the counter as his fingers bury into her hair, and the next kiss feels messier in the best way, spit-slick and full of teeth.  Her lips buzz, and her hands don’t seem to know where to go--shoulders, neck, chest, back--and she moans when he pushes closer, one thigh slotting between hers. Any former anxiety forgotten, she just wants more and more and--

--

“And then he said he wanted to take things slow,” Beth says sullenly, glaring at her milkshake.

“So, after all that stressing,” Annie laughs, then continues in a really obnoxious falsetto, “‘Oh, it’s the third date, should we actually have sex?  What if he’s expecting it? What if he thinks I’m easy for jumping into his pants?’”

“I did not say that,” she scowls.  Looking to Ruby for support, she says, “C’mon, you know I didn’t say that.”

“I mean…”  At her heated look, Ruby raises both hands then, “Not in so many words, you didn’t, but come on.  You were pretty freaked out.”

Annie drums her fingers on the table and swipes a few fries through her own shake before adding, “And, like, not for nothing, but, like--and, I’m gonna need you not to get mad at me here even though it’s gonna be tempting--you had literally just had a run-in with your ex-husband.  Can’t blame a guy for not being in the mood after all that.”

What she doesn’t tell them is that she could feel how very much in the mood he was.  It’s pointless--and it’s embarrassing.  Besides, it’s not like he left as soon as he said that.  They ate--and the food had been good , and her kiss-bruised lips ached from the heat of the vindaloo for hours after--and they sat on the couch, inching closer like nervous teenagers until his arm was around her shoulders and she was pressed all along his side and she hadn’t felt this anxious or self-conscious then .  They watched some forgettable comedy--she’d barely paid attention, she’d been so caught up in his smell and his warmth and the sleepy-content feeling of a full belly and the way his thumb stroked her upper arm.  She thinks now she may even have dozed off a little there, fingers tracing patterns on his stomach. The movie had ended, and they’d talked--not about Dean, but about the kids, both of theirs, about where they’d grown up, about what they’d wanted to be when they were kids.  She’d talked about how she’d always wanted birds when she was younger-- no, Bethie, her mother used to say in her sleepy-numb voice, they make too much noise.   Like children, she’d thought.  She hadn’t said that, though.  He’d told her about the stray cat he’d brought home once, how his mother had said he couldn’t keep her, how his middle sister had screeched when the cat had given birth in a nest comprised mostly of her favorite sweater.  It had been a little sanitized, sure, but she thinks they both knew that, and it was a little early still for the unvarnished truth.

She’d walked him to the door at some godawful time in the morning because they’d lost track of the hours, and then she’d been a bit gunshy, something so close to the sting of rejection still fresh on her mind that she couldn’t quite dispel the last traces of unease clinging to her.  Until he kissed her, long and slow and testing somehow, asking some question she wanted to answer but didn’t quite know how except to press up on her toes and hope that it meant something.

It had been… nice.  Better than. She hadn’t begun to feel the weight of him telling her no until the next day.

“Besides,” Ruby says, cutting right into her reverie, “Wasn’t he there, like, all night?  You didn’t text me until like two in the morning.”

“He wasn’t there all night,” she scoffs, lifting the spoon out of her shake to pop it in her mouth.  “But yeah that’s around when he left.” The other two share a look and she lets out an affronted, “What?”

“Honey,” Ruby winces.

Annie interjects, though, “Yeah, this is not a thing where he doesn’t wanna take a trip to--”

“Do not say what you’re about to say,” Beth cuts her off.  “Whatever crude… Pound Town, Bone City--just please don’t.”

“The point,” she continues as if she hadn’t been interrupted and looking like she really wants to laugh, “Is that he’s like being respectful and shit.  So, like, rejoice! You accidentally and totally unexpectedly caught a guy with a neck tat who doesn’t want to immediately jump in your panties!”

“Ew, don’t say I caught him.”

“The panties thing you’re cool with, though?” Ruby asks incredulously.  Beth shrugs. “She’s not wrong. Besides, you did sorta jump him within minutes of having seen Dean.  Cut the guy some slack, he probably just wanted to make sure this wasn’t some latent bullshit with your ex.”

“You both make very valid points,” Beth concedes, waving her spoon between the two of them, “To which I say… I need more hot fudge.”

“Attagirl,” Annie cheers, shoving the jar across the table to her.  “You’re gonna be fine, she’s gonna be fine.”

And, really, truer words were never spoken--she’s gonna be fine .  It’s just that a woman can only go so long with the secret stash in her nightstand before she starts to forget what actual sex feels like--and she passed that point, like, four years ago.  They’re right, anyway, and she knows they’re right, but there’s still something gnawing away at her.  Some niggling insecurity, some little irritation she can’t stop worrying like an ulcer inside her cheek.  It’s not something she can exactly get lost in, she’s got a thousand other things going on at once, but it’s there and it’s ever present and she isn’t entirely sure what to do with it.

Of course, the one evening she would have to wallow in that, Rio’s name flashes across her screen, and he’s only called her, like, twice, so the novelty still makes her stomach lurch in a way that’s not entirely unpleasant.  It takes her a moment to get over that-- ugh-- but she picks up with a relatively steady, “Yes?”

“Hey, you got plans tonight?” he asks, voice a touch lower than normal.

“Mhm, I’ve got a date,” she says, giddy and stupid and playful.

“That right?”

“Yeah, actually two dates, but I think if it’s at the same time--” she can’t help herself, she laughs.  “I’m sorry, that was--” my attempt at a joke , “Um, no, I was going to drown my loneliness in Ben & Jerry’s, actually.”

“Cute, Elizabeth.”  Shutting her eyes, she digs the heel of her palm into her forehead and tries not to die .  After half a beat, he asks, “You think you could postpone your date and come out with me instead?”

Biting her lip, she frowns even though he can’t see it and says, “I dunno, I’m already in my pajamas.”  She’s not. “Out where?”

A pause.  “What if it’s a surprise?”

With a hum, she considers that, sobering a little.  “What if I said I hate surprises?”

“Do you?”


 

It’s not that he thought it had been because seeing her ex-husband had filled her with desire--and it’s not that he hadn’t wanted her, the way his jeans felt like they were crushing him pretty well destroyed any illusion to that effect.  But there had been too much gratitude in the way she’d kissed him, too much acknowledgement that he wasn’t running away because of some drama with her ex.  It’s not until he’d gotten into his car hours later, still feeling the imprint of her lips on his, that he’d realized what this meant--if it meant less , he would have fucked her.  Probably should have, in all honesty.  This is probably a complication he doesn’t need, but, he realized, he liked her.  Liked her enough that he didn’t want their first time to be a hurried fuck over Indian food, regardless of how good that Indian food was.

Of course he’d noticed the stiff way she’d held herself around him and the way the corners of her mouth seemed heavier.  But, then, he thinks she probably got it, by the time he left.

And even hours after, he could feel the ghost of her curled sleepily at his side.

The last few days have been bad--shipments delivered late and short, regular distributors getting caught up, not exactly unusual in his line of work but irritating all the same.  These things happen, and the reason his ass is still walking free is that he rolls with it, and he’s gonna roll with it--that being said…

He calls Elizabeth because he likes her but also because he likes the draw of pretending to be a normal guy with a normal job, even if she doesn’t believe him.  And there’s something in the teasing laughter in her voice that makes the knot in his gut that’s been growing for the better part of a week loosen just a notch. With more thoughtfulness than enthusiasm, she agrees to leave it at a surprise , and he says he’ll pick her up in about an hour.

Even after showering before he changes, he’s still ten or fifteen minutes earlier than he’d expected, and he’s seriously considering just staying in his car until his phone buzzes with a message that reads, I’m almost ready if you’d rather wait inside.  It really only takes a moment for him to decide to bound across the street and up to her front door, and it opens before he has a chance to knock and--

“Damn, Elizabeth,” he says without meaning to.

Thing is, her dressing well isn't a new phenomenon.  While she's looked harried before, and anxious, and ruffled, she pretty generally looks well put-together.  Buttoned up. But this is--the dress is rich blue and whatever it's made of seems to flow like water, clinging in some places and fanning out at her hips, V of her neckline just deep enough to make his mouth dry.  His eyes trail from her bare feet to the blush creeping up her throat to the tip of her tongue caught between her teeth as she hooks in an earring.  When his gaze finally meets hers, she grins, wide, and waves him in on the tail end of a laugh, and she shakes her head so that her curls dance around as he nudges the door closed behind him.  She stays where she is when he steps closer, winds her arms around his neck as his hands find her hips, and pushes up on tip toe so she's on level with him. His own arms wrap around her middle as their lips touch, and even though the kiss itself is quick, he holds her close for a few moments longer.

“You look ready,” he eventually says as he pulls back, “You ain’t ready?”

“I’m not ready,” she confirms, still grinning with her hands lingering on his shoulders as she steps back.  “Just another minute or so, you can wait in the living room.” It’s worded like a suggestion but he hears that businesslike note in her voice that makes it an order, and he shakes his head--he wonders if she’d boss him around if she knew what he really does, who he really is.  

He waits in the living room.

And it really does just take her a couple minutes--he’s only just settled on the couch, it seems, when he hears the click of heels behind him.

“I assume,” she says, both hands on a clutch in front of her and tilting her head to one side, red lips quirking as he looks up at her, “This is okay for where we’re going, since you won’t tell me where exactly that is.”

“I mean,” he starts as he stands and gets near enough to touch the string of pearls at her throat, “You don’t gotta do every other lady in the place like this, but it’s a damn good look.”

Ducking her head, she bites down on her lower lip and asks, “You’re really not gonna tell me?” as they walk to the door, something like playful disbelief in her tone.

“Kinda the point of a surprise,” he says pointedly as she locks up behind them.  “You scared or something?”

“Of you?” she asks, eyebrows raised as he opens the car door for her with an exaggerated flourish.  He walks around to the driver’s side and gets in, and she continues, “If you were a bad guy, wouldn’t you go after someone who wouldn’t be missed?”

He doesn’t point out the problems with that thought process, nor does he point out that he technically is a bad guy by the conventional definition, even though he has a feeling it’s a subject that’s gonna come up, at some point.  Instead, he offers as he stops at a red light, “I could give you a hint.” He gets a little lost in her expectant smile for a moment before asking, “You dance?”

“At weddings,” she laughs, “And, sometimes, in the kitchen.”

“Huh,” is all he comes up with as he tries to imagine that scene.  It’s kind of adorable, kinda sweet, and he bites his lip and keeps his eyes forward because he’s concerned if he looks her in the eye some of what he’s thinking will show on his face.  It’s not a familiar feeling.

“Stop it,” she warns, but there’s still warm amusement in her voice.

“I didn’t say anything,” he says defensively.

There’s something wry and disbelieving in her face when he glances over, having gotten his own features back under control, but she takes his hand when he offers it.  The rest of the drive is quiet except for the soft music playing--she hums along with the tune of some godawful Top 40 hit, but the fingers of her free hand trace patterns over his knuckles so he finds he can bear the music without much complaint.  He realizes this is the peace he’s been craving the last few days--the quiet, nervous-contented calm.

The first words out of her mouth when he pulls up to their destination, as the valet driver is jogging to his door, are, “A jazz club?”

Once they’re both out of the car and on the sidewalk, he asks, “That a problem?”

“Just unexpected,” she says, eyes flitting from his face to the door.

With a flash of a smile, he lets his hand skim down her back as he leads her inside where they find it’s not crowded , necessarily, but busy enough that the warm air seems to carry an edge of buzzing excitement.  There’s a trio just starting to set up on the stage, people milling around with drinks, and something slow he doesn’t recognize playing over the sound system in the meantime.  He follows her to the bar, watches her take in the place--the lights do something to her eyes, make them seem to shine, and there’s a smile playing around the corners of her mouth--and when her knees bump his as she turns, she seems to remember he’s there, all wide eyes and parted lips.

“So,” she starts, “It really bears repeating that this is not the kind of place I expected you to take me--I didn’t even know jazz clubs were still a thing , and it just doesn’t seem like your scene.”

He recognizes fishing when he hears it.  “Well, first of all, what you’re implying is kinda rude,” he says, and she makes a face that seems to say fair enough.   He tries to stare down the bartender as he continues, “And it ain’t my scene--my scene was kinda pissing me off.  I needed a break.”

There’s something like real understanding in her eyes when he meets them, and she touches his knee, brief and feather-light before the bartender comes around.  The band’s still not ready by the time they get their drinks, and she surprises him by taking his hand and nodding towards a round, high-backed booth in a dark corner.  It feels quieter there, even if it isn’t, and she’s close enough that her arm brushes his every time she lifts her glass to her lips.

The silence stretches before she asks, “Do you wanna tell me why your scene was pissing you off?”  She doesn’t sound or look expectant, just so damn earnest that the denial sticks in his throat.

“Just…” he stops, sucking a sharp breath through his teeth and skimming his hands over his buzzed hair.  “Just clients not knowing what they want, people working for me dropping the ball, the usual.” It’s not even really a lie , but it tastes like one--and it’s not like he’s not used to lying!  Something about her wide, clear eyes makes lies rest bitter on the back of his tongue where they would otherwise flow like water.  He feels her hand slip over his back and between his shoulder blades and begin to rub small circles there, and some of the tension he didn’t even know he was holding bleeds out of him.  Eyes narrowing, he starts to ask if she’s mothering him, but the band starts playing and pretty effectively cuts him off. She stops, anyway, eyes on the stage and chin in her hand, and she’s so rapt that he can’t help but ask, “So, you like jazz?”

Lifting one shoulder, she says, “I like this place--and the pianist is pretty good.”

“Glad you approve,” he smirks, realizing he means it.

She only hums, and he thinks that’s the only response he’s gonna get before, “Finish your drink, you said there would be dancing.”

“I asked if you dance,” he corrects her, smirk becoming a real smile.  Still, he tosses back the last swallow in his glass and takes her hand as he slides out of the booth.

“I haven’t done this in a very long time,” she says with a nervous sort of chuckle as she arranges herself stiffly once they’re on the dance floor.

Rio doesn’t respond that he hasn’t either, just tugs her closer until she loosens up a little.  It’s awkward, at first, with both of them out of practice, and he can see she’s self-conscious by the way she keeps looking at other couples rather than at him and the apologetic twist of her mouth.  They find their rhythm, though, and soon her eyes are locked on his, sparkling bright, and the world seems to condense down into this moment.  It’s deceptively simple--there’s only this song, this woman, this heat under his hands--and it’s like nothing else could possibly need his attention.

He didn’t even drink that much.

Eventually-- finally-- she slows, sways against him, and says close to his ear, “I can’t--I need to stop, rest.”  

He rocks with her from side to side with leftover momentum before they drag themselves off the floor, and he asks, “You want another drink?”  She drifts a little into his side, one hand tucked into the bend of his elbow, and bobs her head, breathing heavily.


 

Somehow, saying I had a really good time tonight feels inadequate.

“I had a really good time tonight,” Beth says, feeling cheesy even as the words are coming out of her mouth.  Cringing, she looks over at him, but he’s resting back against the headrest and smiling over at her, so she guesses it wasn’t so bad.  She thinks this is the part where she kisses him, but there’s a whole console between them and, anyway, what she really wants is--“Do you wanna come inside?”

Face softening, sobering even, his eyes seem to search her face, then he says, “Yeah, I do.”

He follows close behind her, but his hands stay in his pockets as she fumbles with her keys--in fact, he doesn’t touch her when they get inside, either.  It’s a little jarring after the dancing and his hands so hot through her dress they almost felt like brands, after sitting so close in the booth she can still feel him.  Part of her is anxious--this isn’t uncharted territory, necessarily, but it’s certainly unexplored-for-so-long-she-lost-the-map territory--but another part, a part that’s getting louder with every step forward she takes, whispers that it’s not like he’s not into her, that they are sort of dating, after all.  With extreme care, like he’s made of glass, she strokes up his arms, his shoulders, until she can cup his jaw, and she feels him huff and touch her hips.  Even as she’s drawing him forward, she asks, “Can I?”

His hold on her hips tightens, and he nods before she closes the last inch between their mouths, and she tries so hard to keep the kiss gentle, but it quickly becomes bruising as he palms the back of her neck, as she tries to somehow get closer.  When she pulls back, he chases her, something too quiet to hear on his lips, and she relents without too much of a fight, and she goes happily when he turns them around so her back is pressed against the front door.  It’s only once she remembers she needs to breathe that she really breaks away with a faint laugh.

“So, not that my foyer isn’t great,” she hedges, letting herself get distracted by his mouth against hers and his hand sliding from her waist to her shoulder, down her back to her ass for a moment before picking up her train of thought again and continuing, “But I have a bedroom…”

“Wow, that was real subtle,” he murmurs.

“Oh, was it?” she blinks up at him.  “I’d like you to come to my bedroom.”

She watches his teeth scrape over his lower lip, and then he frees her with, “Lead the way.”

Something in her belly clenches at that, and she feels hot with embarrassment or excitement or both--at her boldness, at what they’re about to do--as she leads him towards her room.  They stop briefly in the hallway because he keeps touching her and she, apparently, can’t make it the long walk through her house without pushing him against a wall, palms pressed flat to his chest and his belly, smoothing up the planes of his back.  But then he mutters bedroom , and he’s right but the impatience is welling up in her--they do, eventually, make it to her door, and she only hesitates for a moment.  The first thing she notices are the discarded dresses she’d tried on before settling on the one she’s wearing tossed haphazardly over her unmade bed, and then the handful of toys--on the nightstand, on the bench at the end of her bed, on her dresser--and she darts forward to throw the dresses on the bench with a hurried, “Sorry about the mess, I didn’t expect--”

Didn’t expect to invite you in, didn’t expect you to say yes.

“Mami, please, that is not what I’m focusing on right now,” he says from the doorway with a purposeful glance down her body that makes her breath catch.  “But it’s cute you think this requires an apology.”

There’s something very relaxed about the way he moves as he toes off his shoes and peels off his jacket, and she can’t quite figure out what it is about that that she likes or why it makes her mouth dry--but then suddenly she doesn’t have to figure it out because he’s close enough to touch.  He crowds into her space until she’s backed right up to the bed, and the only thing that keeps her from losing her balance is the arm he wraps around her. It doesn’t keep her from gasping, surprised, into his mouth, and his tongue slips past her open lips. She’s not sure who moves onto the bed first, if he pushes her or she pulls him, but soon she’s kicking her heels off and shifting back onto the mattress and he’s following, hovering over her, eyeing her, and, God , they’re both wearing too much clothing, which may be a sentiment she voices out loud because he makes a noise that sounds suspiciously like a choked-off laugh.  Her head falls back with a sigh, exaggeratedly longsuffering.

Still, when he kisses her, it’s soft enough to almost feel like an apology, and he goes easily when she nudges his shoulder until he’s on his back and she’s straddling his hips.  Now, at least, she can focus on unbuttoning his shirt, and she makes short work of it and straightens so he can sit up enough to take it off--and, for a moment, she just looks at the expanse of bare skin under her like she can’t decide where she wants her hands or her mouth first, gripping his shoulders ostensibly to keep her balance as she does.

With more eagerness than finesse--and, in her defense, it’s been a long time--she nips her way past his lips as her fingernails scratch lightly through his beard, and she can feel him groping for and finding the zipper on the back of her dress.  As he pulls it down, he drags his fingertips down her spine and she tries not to shiver. When she pulls away, gulping in big breaths that don’t feel like they fill her lungs at all , he mouths at her jaw, the sensitive skin underneath, the column of her throat--she tips her head back and rocks down into him, bites down on a cry when he sucks a bruise in the space under her ear and slips a hand under her dress.

“I need to--” she shoves his shoulders--not all that hard, she’s feeling a little conflicted about stopping him right now--until he pops off wetly, allowing her to yank her dress off, up over her head, pleasantly surprised when she doesn’t get tangled up in it.

For a moment, she thinks that she kind of wishes she’d turned the light off as he unhooks her bra, but whatever creeping anxiety was starting is pretty quickly quashed by the way he looks at her, the way he touches her--eyes hot and hungry and fingers slow and deliberate--and she lets out a breathless moan.  She hears herself curse as he dips his head down and takes one of her nipples into his mouth, lips and teeth and tongue teasing it to a hard peak--he does the same to the other and she’s on fire she needs him so badly.  As their lips crash together again, he flips their positions in one quick motion that leaves her a little dizzy, and he settles into her, hips rolling slow and relentless and even that friction, not enough by far, sparks heat in her.

“What do you want, Elizabeth?” he asks, eyes locked burning onto hers as his thumb traces where her necklace meets her skin.

“You,” she says, simple and on the edge of desperate--she’ll have time to be embarrassed about that later, about how ready and eager she is, how she’s already wet and aching.  Just now, she’s more focused on the matter at hand. “Please, Rio, I--”

He cuts her off with another kiss, rough and hard and hungry, before he sits back on his knees, eyes skipping over her as he works at his belt, his button, his zipper, and she can’t quite meet his eye when she hooks her thumbs into the waist of her panties and drags them down and kicks them off or as he shoves off his jeans.  When she does finally look back up at him, his gaze is steady on her face as he strokes a hand up the inside of one thigh--she squeezes her eyes shut when his fingertips brush her clit, can’t hold back a whine when he presses a finger inside of her, then another, and she’s distantly aware that he curses but it’s all she can do to keep from bucking her hips.

It’s not that she thinks he’s teasing her because when she does open her eyes his face is so intent, but she can’t help begging for more.  At least he seems to get the message because his fingers slip out of her, and she doesn’t quite tear her eyes away from the erection hidden only by his underwear as she hears herself say, “Condoms in the nightstand.”

“Tell me again what you weren’t expecting,” he replies with an easy smirk even as he stretches towards the nightstand and digs in the drawer.

Tongue swiping at her lips, she watches him strip his underwear off and roll the condom on, and she counters distractedly, “There’s a difference between expectation and optimism.”

“Aight, if you say so,” he says-- now he’s teasing--as he lowers himself over her, but his tone is tempered by the gentle glide of his lips against hers.

Shaking her head, she opens her mouth to say something , but that urge flies straight out the window as he guides his cock into her and anything she would have said devolves into a moan.  For a moment, he doesn’t move except to kiss her, and she hitches her knees up higher over his hips and strokes his face and shoulders and back.  Then finally, finally he rocks into her--he starts slow, but it doesn’t take long for him to speed up as he drops hot, open-mouthed kisses everywhere he seems to be able to reach.  From there it’s fast--quick, hard thrusts that set off little shockwaves of pleasure in her, that she can’t help but buck up to meet, her nails on his skin and his teeth on her throat and his hands in her hair, on her breasts, his groans buried into her skin.  She can feel the heat pooling in her, can feel it--she’s so, so close and can’t stop letting little things slip out, yes and please and Rio and Jesus don’t stop and--

Pleasure peaks, sugar-bright and excruciating, and her fingers hurt from how tight she’s clenching his arms--she’s coming down as his rhythm goes jerky and he stills with a choked off noise.

For a period of time she can’t even begin to conceptualize, they don’t move, breathing the same air, touching each other with lazy, sleepy fingers--his keep returning to her necklace, and she’ll have to ask him about that later when she can figure out how to form sentences again.  Right now, all she can manage is a hiss when he eases off of her, settling on his side next to her. She curls towards him and lets her eyes slide shut as he cards his fingers through her sweat-damp hair, traces her cheekbone with his thumb, and she strokes the tattoos on his arm absently.

Clearing his throat, he eventually asks, “Bathroom?”

She mumbles and waves vaguely, “En suite is that door.”

He chuckles and disappears inside, and she stretches languidly with a little, satisfied mewl and drags the comforter over her, too sleepy, too sated to be willing to do much more.  She’s barely begun to formulate a plan to try to get him to stay--if not for the night then for a little while--when he comes out of the bathroom. The only thing she’s thought of is to reach for him, but it seems to be enough because his palm slides against hers as he climbs back into the bed.  It’s almost awkward at first, there’s so much skin on skin on skin and she doesn’t know what to do with the casual arm he throws around her or the way he draws her forward until her head’s tucked under his chin, but she finds it’s a quick adjustment.

“Does this still count as a break?” she asks suddenly as soon as she can string together a sentence.  He hums questioningly. “From your scene.”  

He snorts.  “It’s overtime.”

“That doesn’t even make sense,” she yawns.

Chapter Text

Truth be told, Beth hadn’t actually anticipated getting to the point where she’d need to have the conversation with her kids that Rio wasn’t just her friend.  They’d met him at the park, knew him, knew Marcus, but for the most part, Beth had been really careful with the PDA and careful with planning their dates--the last thing she wanted was to be the kind of mother who introduced her children to a significant other, only to break it off a month or so later.  But then weeks turned into months, and she stopped waiting for him to realize he wanted something else or waiting for the other shoe to drop or waiting for the way he looked at her, smiled at her, touched her to stop giving her butterflies.  She stopped waiting for the newness and excitement to wear off only to reveal that underneath it all they didn’t have enough in common to make this thing between them last.  So, they’d had the what are we talk and the so we’re not dating anyone else talk and the so we should tell the kids talk, and she’d… hesitated some more.  Stressed some more. Researched a whole lot.  She worried about how the kids would take it--would Kenny be mad?  Would Jane and Emma feel like she was betraying their dad? Would Danny feel lost in the shuffle?

In the end, the decision of when to break it to them had been taken out of her hands because one day Emma had asked loudly over her dessert what screwing meant and had announced her big brother had told her that that’s what she was doing with her friend with the drawings on his neck.  There’d been some confusion, a lot of mortification, a hissed Kenneth Anthony Boland , but… she was relieved, after the fact.  

Emma wants to know if you draw the bird on every morning, she’d texted Rio that night.

And, really, for the few weeks after that, everything had been great.  Rio had had lunch at her place, which was lowkey enough not to freak the younger ones out--she’d gone with him and Marcus to a movie and then to get ice cream after.  The first time he’d called her Miss Elizabeth , she was pretty much done for.

Honestly, it wasn’t until Legoland that there was a problem.

Or, maybe, there had always been a problem, but it wasn’t until Legoland that Dean’s problem became hers.

--

“Hey, I got the pictures from this weekend developed, I made you some copies,” Beth says from the doorway of Dean’s office, digging in her purse as she walks.  Her hand closes on the envelope, and she checks inside to make sure it’s the right one--this one is all pictures of the kids, the other has those, and some of her with the kids, some of Rio and Marcus, some of them all together.  At Dean’s blank look, she waves the envelope a little in front of his face and prompts, “This weekend? Legoland? I told you two weeks ago Rio and I were--”

“Rio and you?” he asks, taking it from her and immediately shuffling through the pictures.

It’s only years of experience with him that keeps her from actually smacking her palm to her forehead.  Keeping her face as carefully, pleasantly neutral as she can, she says patiently, “We took the kids to Legoland, which I told you.  Two weeks ago. And put in your iCal.”

“Just--just our kids, or--Janey said he has a kid about her age--”

“All five of ‘em,” she pipes, falsely cheerful, ignoring the flash of irritation at the phrase Janey said which is heavy with an implication she can’t deal with right now.  “They had a good time,” she says, quieter now when she sees him pause over a picture of their four--and they do look like they’re having fun.  She thinks that one might even be one of her favorites--she was thinking about framing it.

“Beth, I don’t like that guy around the kids,” he says seriously.

“I don’t really think that’s your call,” she responds with a wince, voice more understanding than she thinks he really deserves--it’s not what she wants to say because what she wants to say isn’t conducive to a conversation and she’s trying here, she really is.  “He’s my--” she feels asinine saying the word boyfriend .  “He’s in my life, so he’s in theirs.”  

He stands quickly as she turns to leave and hisses, “There’s no way he’s a good guy.”

Pausing, she clenches her fists for a moment before letting out a breath.  “You don’t know him, like at all. So you’re basing your opinion on the, what, three times you’ve seen him?”  With both eyebrows raised, she continues without thinking, “And that says more about you than it does him.”

“I’ve been talking to a private investigator,” he blurts when she takes another step.

The annoyance she’s been trying to stifle flares up, grows into an actual flame of anger that she tries to swallow, and she keeps her back to him as she asks, very quietly, “Well, did they find anything?”

“Huh?”

“The private eye, Dean,” she snaps, turning back to him and knowing the better choice would have been to just leave.  “Did they find anything? Is there something I need to know? If you have something to share…”

She waits with eyebrows raised, pissed off and expectant and feeling, knowing in her bones that the answer is no.  If he’d found so much as a parking ticket, she’s sure she’d have heard of it.  He’d have waltzed into her office waving it like a flag in victory--instead, he sputters, mumbles a sheepish, “Well, not yet.”  Then, as if compelled to say it, “Look, I’m just trying to look out for you--guys like that, they take advantage of--”

“Stop,” she says, shaking her head.  “I’m not a child,” she adds. “Leave it alone.  Looking out for me isn’t your job.”

“Beth--”

“I’m gonna go… work,” she interrupts, pinching the bridge of her nose.

Maybe it’s her fault, maybe she should have handled things differently--maybe she shouldn’t have even told Dean that she was serious enough with Rio to warrant an outing.  The thing is, though, that despite his faults… he’s the father of her children, and she really does think he should know who she’s bringing into their lives.  It’s not that she didn’t expect conflict over it because she knows her ex-husband, but she never would have guessed that he’d have gone so far as to hire a PI.  It stings--and it shouldn’t because she does know him--but not as much as the implication that she’s being taken advantage of .  As if she can’t make a decision about who she dates.  As if she were being forced into something she didn’t want.  She doesn’t want to think about why that’s the assumption he makes, doesn’t particularly want to follow that thought process to a natural conclusion, so she does her best to wave away their conversation.  She should be used to Dean being--well, Dean , but this is all still new enough to her that she barely knows what to expect.

Being treated like she’s the one being unreasonable is, apparently, what to expect.

If pressed, she wouldn’t be able to say exactly why she doesn’t tell Rio about the private eye.  She knows part of it--but only part--has to do with the fact that she can handle Dean being the way he is, and there’s no reason to go dragging an innocent bystander into the fray.  Deep down, there’s also the mortification of being looked after as if she’s too naive to navigate dating-- and the humiliation of knowing that her ex-husband didn’t respect her enough to talk to her, hired someone before even asking her what she knew about the guy.

This shouldn’t be a surprise, and yet…

When she tells Annie as she sits across the island from her while Beth rolls chocolate croissant #14 out of 40, her response is… underwhelming.

“Well, did you expect anything better from the guy?” she asks.  “I mean, good for you if you did because I dunno how you maintain that level of optimism, but…  You’ve seen Rio.”

“Do I need to remind you I’m making croissants for Sadie’s class so you don’t have to buy them?” she demands with a sweeping gesture at her kitchen.   “You’ve seen Rio, but you’ve come so far as to call him a surprisingly cool guy, so maybe be nicer.”

“Hey!  I think he’s great, I didn’t say Rio isn’t great, I’m happy you’re happy,” she replies in a rush, reaching across the island for a piece of chocolate and making an affronted noise when Beth slaps her hand away and points at the pantry.  “I’m just saying,” she continues as she pushes herself off her stool, “The guy looks like he responded to a casting call for Gang Member #4--Deansie is an ass, but anyone who saw their ex-wife dating a guy who looked like he’d cap a bitch for looking at him funny would be worried!   I was worried!  I thought you were having a midlife crisis.”

Wounded, Beth mumbles, “I’m not old enough for a midlife crisis--do not make me watch you eat a Snack Pack with your fingers.”  Annie pulls a face but goes to get a spoon. “I just don’t like it.”

“I mean…”  Annie pauses thoughtfully.  “What if the PI found something?  Would you wanna know?”

The right answer is yes , and Beth knows it, wants to be able to say it--when she opens her mouth, the word doesn’t come out.

Annie doesn’t press the issue.

--

It takes a few days for Beth to stop being mad about the private investigator.

It helps that, in that time, the subject doesn’t come up again.  Honestly, she doesn’t get a lot of facetime with Dean for a few days--which works fine for her, it gives her a chance to stop feeling betrayed and offended.  Regardless of her personal doubts about what Rio does for a living--and she still has them, although they are surprisingly easy to push to the side--she’s fully aware that it’s got nothing to do with him .  Not for Dean.  This, she rationalizes, would have happened with anyone she dated.

Tonight is a pizza night--there were never so many before the divorce, and there’s a pang of guilt every time she announces the plan, but the kids seem to like it--so when the doorbell rings, she’s already saying, “Okay, pizza’s here--if you haven’t washed your hands already, I’m eating your slice,” with pointed looks to Danny and Emma as she heads to answer it.  What she finds is a man wearing a suit and definitely not carrying a pizza.  “Um, hi.”

“Evening, I’m looking for a Mrs. Boland?” he smiles, hands in his pockets.

“It’s Ms., but you’ve got her,” she responds as politely as she can while still correcting the guy.  “Can I help you, Mr…”

“Agent Jimmy Turner,” he says, hitting that agent a little hard, which she supposes she deserves, as he holds out a badge.  “And I was hoping you could--I’ve just got a couple questions, shouldn’t take a couple minutes, do you mind?”

With only a momentary hesitation, she steps aside and chirps, “Not at all, why don’t you come in?”  Then, as she leads him past the living room where there’s an unusual lack of screaming going on, she jokes, “This isn’t about that stop sign that keeps getting stolen, is it?”

“I’m afraid not,” he replies, shrugging as they reach the kitchen, “Jurisdictional thing.”

“Ah, well, what can you do?”  She starts to ask if she can get him anything when the doorbell rings and Danny, very helpfully, yells that the pizza is here.  With a sheepish smile, she says, “I’ll be right back, sorry.”

The pizza’s been paid for already--honestly, she’s not sure what they did before online ordering--and the driver’s been tipped, so really all there is to do is awkwardly and hurriedly sign the receipt and accept the small stack of boxes the driver passes her.  She sets them on the dining room table where plates have already been set out--once everyone’s been set up and happily devouring carb- and grease-loaded goodness (there’s that guilt again), she finds Agent Turner inspecting the artwork displayed on the fridge.

“Cute kids,” he says as he turns to face her.

“Yeah, they--” she bites back the have their moments pressing at the back of her tongue and shakes her head.  “Would you like something to drink? I’d offer you some pizza, but you’d have to fight a bunch of hungry children for it.”

“Water would be great, actually.”

“Great.”  As she bustles about, carefully cheerful, she thinks, What’s Dean done now?  She thinks about the months leading to the divorce--finding the final notices, hearing about bad investments, finding out who those bad investments were with--and she thinks, after all this time keeping her eyes on the books and working so hard to make sure he’d never put them in that position again, he’s gone and done something .  Handing him the glass, she starts, “So, Agent Turner--”

“Please,” he interrupts, “Jimmy.”

“Jimmy,” she says, smile faltering, “You said you had questions?”

“Right,” he nods, setting the glass down after draining nearly half of it.  “Could you tell me--” he reaches into his pocket and pulling out his phone, “--whether or not you know this man?”

Whatever she’s expecting when he holds out his phone, it certainly isn’t Rio --far away, sure, but unmistakable--with his arms crossed and looking like he’s deep in conversation with someone whose back is to the camera.  For a moment, she can’t make any sound come out of her mouth because she is in no way prepared for this--it’s like a bad movie! Stuff like this doesn’t happen in real life!

“I’m guessing so.”

Shaking herself out of it, Beth laughs hollowly and says, “I do know him, that’s my--we’ve been seeing each other for--” months.  Known him over eight months.  “For a while.”

The look Agent Turner--Jimmy? Agent Turner-- pins her with is hard to interpret, disbelief and something else she can’t identify, but then he asks as if he can’t help himself, “How’s something like that happen?”

“I don’t understand what you’re asking,” she mumbles distantly, eyes still on the phone, cold all over.  “What’s this about?”

“What I mean is, how does a housewife end up with a criminal kingpin?”  His tone is conversational, his smile seems genuine and even friendly, but there’s something calculating behind his eyes, and she feels, somehow, like she’s being measured.  “Sorry,” he amends quickly, “Alleged criminal kingpin.”

I met him at a playground, he asked me out in the produce section, I helped his kid scoop toppings onto frozen yogurt last week, she thinks, brow furrowed.  

“You really don’t know,” he frowns.  “Listen, you seem like a good person, and you do not want to get mixed up with a guy like him.  What did he even tell you he did?”

The words criminal kingpin just don’t mesh with the Rio she knows--loving father, considerate boyfriend, the guy who smiles at moms pushing strollers at the park and waves back at babies and keeps a pint of pistachio ice cream in the back of his freezer--and in spite of the fact that it’s been a running joke with Annie, in spite of Ruby’s doubts, in spite of Dean’s fears, she never actually believed he--

She’s getting ahead of herself here.  

“Pharmaceutical distribution,” she says faintly.

“Well, I mean, that wouldn’t be an outright lie, now would it?” he laughs.

“As I understand it,” she says slowly, “‘Alleged’ means ‘ suspected,’ doesn’t it?  If you had proof--”

“I wouldn’t be talking to you,” he interrupts.  “And this guy wouldn’t be on the streets.”

Smiling coolly--unsure of what she’s going to do with all this but very sure that it doesn’t involve him--she says, “I really don’t see how I can help you, Agent Turner, since I don’t know anything.”  Then, before he can say anything further, she adds with a note of finality, “I’ll walk you out.”

Instead of trying to convince her further--convince her of what , she’s not entirely sure--he goes willingly, only offering a card and urging, “Call me, if you think of anything.”

“Of course, I will,” she tells him, well aware that she won’t.

It’s not until the kids are in bed hours later that Beth has a chance to really consider what this means.  And panic. There’s a good panic squeezed in there. She’s got her contacts pulled up on her phone and her thumb hovering over Rio’s name, but as she paces the living room she can’t make herself select it.  Biting her lip, she thinks about what Turner said--that Rio saying he worked in pharmaceutical distribution wouldn’t be an outright lie--and can’t help the fact that her thoughts also turn to the fact that that never sounded quite genuine.  She still can’t--she doesn’t believe that he’s a bad guy, doesn’t believe she’d be in any danger calling him, but what would she even say?  That the FBI came around asking about him, and, oh, why didn’t he tell her he was a literal drug dealer?

She stares at her contacts for a moment longer before making the call.

Ruby picks up after the first ring.

“Hey, do you think--” she rubs her forehead.  “Do you think I could borrow your car tomorrow?  And could you watch the kids?”

 

Chapter Text

When Rio turns, the first thing he wonders is why he even has guys at the door if they’re just gonna let people in.  Like, what do they even think they’re there for? They had one job, and they failed at it.  It’s not like he hadn’t known he’s had a tail for the last few days--few weeks, even.  It’s not like he hadn’t noticed that today’s was different--and worse.

That it’s Elizabeth, white-faced and looking anywhere but at him, shouldn’t be a surprise, but somehow it is.  He wonders if he thought he was gonna be able to keep this from her forever--wonders how long they thought they could pretend she had full faith in what he told her.  Her eyes are on the pills more than the cash, and for a moment there’s only stunned silence. Well, near silence, as the sounds of the warehouse fade into the background, and he tracks her gaze around the room.  When she finally does look at him, those big, expressive eyes give him nothing .  Her mouth is open just a little bit, but it slams shut when he says her name, when he comes closer.

“C’mon, let’s talk,” he says, nodding in the direction of an old manager’s office.

Nodding warily, she follows him, and if his guys notice anything odd about the situation, they’re smart enough to keep their mouths shut.  Once the door’s shut, she opens her mouth again as if to speak but all that tumbles out is a nervous giggle that she cuts off with clamped lips.  He waits, doesn’t quite know what to do with this, and feels cold somewhere in his stomach.

Eventually, she clears her throat and looks him in the eye and says in a voice that’s so small he hurts with it, “You lied--kind of like a lot.”

“Technically--”

“Pro-tip, if you have to say technically I didn’t lie, you lied , Rio,” she snaps, expression shifting rapidly from pain to fury in a flash.  “You’ve lied since day one, and I had to learn from the FBI that you weren’t who you said you were!”

“That,” he says, angry out of reflex in spite of himself as he jabs a finger at the door, “Is what I do .  Not who I am.”  

It’s not fair to be mad at her about this--he recognizes that, distantly, and he recognizes that he lied , but there’s a little voice in the back of his mind that says that lying by omission is vastly different from telling outright falsehoods.  (Later, it’ll occur to him to ask himself if it was even her he’d been mad at, but anger’s funny that way.)

Scoffing, she sits back against the dusty desk in the middle of the room.  “That’s bullshit and you know it.”

“Like you believed me anyway,” he responds.

“I thought you were unemployed!” she counters, waving a hand helplessly.  “I thought you, like, worked for CVS or something, I didn’t think you--” Her jaw sets before she bows her head and lets out a slow, stuttering breath.  “You know, I even get you not telling me at first, but it’s been months ,” she rubs angrily at her eyes, and they’re red-rimmed and hurt when she looks back up and oh.

She’s been saying it this whole time, but it’s only now that it hits him that it’s the lying , not what’s downstairs.  The indignation bleeds out of him, and, keeping his voice carefully void of any emotion, he asks, “Would you have stuck around if I’d told you?”

There’s a stark, raw honesty in her voice when she shrugs and says so quietly he almost can’t hear, “I don’t know, but I guess we don’t get to find out.”  That rests uncomfortably between them before she orders, “Explain to me what I just saw down there.”

“Fake cash, real drugs,” he says simply.  “Wash the cash, distro the drugs.”

“And the drugs are…”

“Legit.”  At her get on with it hand wave, he sighs.  “Like, from Canada--heart medication, acid reflux shit, I dunno.  It’s better money than the fun stuff, and I don’t gotta worry about my supplies going up one of my distributor’s noses, yeah?”

When she breathes a laugh now, it at least sounds real--not fully humorous, more surprised than anything, but sounding more like her.  “The thing is, I really wanna believe you here,” she says, looking up at him as he steps forward until he’s close enough to touch her.

“Believe,” he responds lowly, hands coming up to cup her jaw, satisfied when her eyes flutter shut and she presses into the touch, “That I never lied about anything important.”

“That seems really subjective,” she winces as she pulls back.  Her hands come up to cover his, and she locks her eyes with his and says, “I think--I think I need some time.”  

His heart plummets--he’d never admit it, but it happens and suddenly he’s giving those cheesy harlequins some credence--but he nods because what the hell else is he supposed to do?  “All the time you need,” he answers. Brushing his thumbs across the backs of her knuckles, he waits a beat before saying he’ll walk her out. “Whose car is this?” he asks once they get to where she’s parked.

“Uh, Ruby’s, I--”  She shakes her head and offers a watery smile as she gets in, and he hangs in the open door for a moment before she says, “I’ll see you around.”

--

As it turns out, there’s plenty of time for reflection in the ensuing week that Rio doesn’t think he’d necessarily make time for in different circumstances.  He can’t shake the betrayal in her eyes, her voice, and for the first few days it’s easy to be pissed off about it. Pissed off at her for being unreasonable, for not calling him when the fed came to her, for not asking .

Thing is, the oldest of his sisters used to say that being angry is easier than being afraid, and that hits a little harder than he likes to admit.

It’s harder for him to do much more than pretend that he doesn’t really care.  Business as usual--it’s not like he’s never had a breakup before, bad ones, worse than this.  Well, louder. Involving property damage. It’s not a fact that he’s proud of, but it’s a fact nonetheless.  So, he goes to work, he takes Marcus to Little League practice, he tries not to check his phone as often as he wants to--tries, basically, to give her the time she said she needed, the time he promised her.  If he listens to a little bit more sad music--confusing his Spotify in the process--and if he eats more takeout and drinks a little more on his nights without his son, no one really needs to know.

Standard procedure before a delivery dictates that he does a sweep of the warehouse after they’ve cleared out--there’s a reason he’s still a free man when his field is an ever-shifting parade of people who think they can run the whole game--and tonight he brings Cisco and Bullet to back him up.  They’re reliable guys and don’t feel the need to talk too much, which is a trait he really appreciates at the moment. The beam of his flashlight does a wide arch across the room in front of him as he steps around the perimeter, and he’s gotta be focused on the task at hand, it’s not just his ass on the line, after all, and he’s not 100% a dick, but an unfamiliar glint in a doorway catches his eye.  Pausing, he brings the light back over, but he’s far enough away that he’s still not sure what it is.

Steps slow, he walks forward until, just a few feet away, he freezes.

“Uh, boss?” someone--Bullet--asks behind him.

Shaking his head, he says, “It’s fine.  We good.”

Before they leave, he grabs the pearls off the doorknob and shoves them in his pocket until he gets back to his car.  He holds them up to the dim light filtering in from the street and grins--he should call, but he figures he’s entitled to repay the gesture in kind.  The drive somehow doesn’t feel as long as it actually is--that’s not how it’s supposed to work, and he feels like he should be more worried about the fact the drive went by without him having any real recollection of it, but then he’s pulling up to her house and knocking on the front door, and he’s not worried about anything but what he’s gonna say.

“You know,” he starts as the door swings open, bracing his forearm on the door jamb.  “The tradition is Jordan’s on a telephone line.”

Tilting her head, she takes a step forward and leans forward with her hand just under his arm.  “I only had pumps,” she answers with a slow smile full of promise.

“Fair enough,” he says, a little awed.

She backs up with a raised eyebrow and a quick, “Do you wanna come inside?”

He wants to say yes , he wants to say all sorts of things like I’m sorry and I should have told you sooner and I think I fucking love you , and when the hell did he have that epiphany?  

Instead, he asks, “No kids?”

Her smile twists into something a little more sardonic and a little less sweet as she teases, “You already forgot my days?”

“I’m being courteous , mama, jeez,” he jokes, not fully at ease but closer as he follows her inside, fingers loose around the pearls in his pocket.  “So, what, all’s forgiven?”

“Well,” she hems, setting herself neatly down on the couch and watching him expectantly until he sits next to her, “I have some questions.”  She seems to wait, so he tips his head and waves in a quick aight go on then .  “So, fake cash and real drugs, is that all?”

“Whatchu mean?” he asks guardedly.

Rolling her eyes, she asks, “Is that all you deal in?”

Ah.  He scrubs a finger over his lower lip for a moment before answering, “At the moment.”  At her look, he says, “Listen, I don’t deal in kids, I don’t deal in people, but otherwise?”  He shrugs, “I’m flexible.”

She lets that sit, seems to mull it over, and keeps her eyes steady on his, and he’s not used to having her stare at him so seriously, having such a hard time reading her.  Then, as if she’s made her decision, she nods. “Okay, so, say I believe you--which, you know--” she makes a sort of equivocal gesture with one hand as she props her cheek on the other, elbow sinking into the back of the couch, and he barely suppresses a smile, “What’s that mean?”

“Huh?”

“For us.”

“For us?”

“Is there an echo in here?” she asks.  “Is this, like, an actual real gang situation?  Like a TLC special where now I’m just--I dunno, in it, or--”

“Elizabeth,” he interrupts.  “You were never in it. That was sorta the point.”  She snorts, but he waits until she’s done thinking that over before leaning towards her, just slightly, and saying, “Like, if you’re worried I’ma take you out ‘cause you know what I do…”

“It’s not that , I’m not scared of you,” she says, which seems almost true.  “But that’s a thing you do.”

It’s not a question, it’s said with a cool certainty, but he answers, “I do what I have to.”

She doesn’t say anything to that, but she doesn’t look scared or angry or worried, her face a serene, pensive mask.  He lets her have her moment and ignores the too-fast beat of his heart and the way his mouth feels dry. There’s a risk, he knows, in telling her all this--to him, to the people he works with, all that--but he also thinks that if he were in any danger of being sold out, she’d’ve done it by now.

“This,” she says slowly, “I can deal with.  I actually--” she stops and laughs, shaking her head in disbelief, “I actually think I’m more interested than you probably think is appropriate.”  Chewing her lip, she seems to consider her words carefully. “But… I’ve done the lying thing and the hiding things thing, and that’s gonna be a hard line for me.”

“So, what’re you saying?” he asks.

“I’m saying that I like you a lot, and I don’t wanna--” she sighs, turning her eyes upward and looking frustrated.  “I wanna be with you. If you want.”

“If I want,” he snorts.

“There’s that echo again.”  There’s still a bit of a smile playing at the corners of her mouth, but something about the way she watches his face tells him she actually thinks she’s gotta ask--he’d laugh, but he thinks she might get the wrong idea.

“Yeah, aight,” he says, falsely casual.  Her face goes flat, unamused, and he grins, reaches forward, lets his fingers trace a line down her cheek as she lets out a long breath.  “We’re cool?”

Her eyes drop to his mouth, and his grin widens, and he thinks, Oh, we’re cool.

“Will be,” she answers, mirroring his smile.

He thinks, for a moment, she may be waiting for something--but then she nods once, decisively, and grabs the back of his neck, closing the last few inches between them and mashing their mouths together so hard their teeth clash.  Laughing breathlessly, she starts to pull back and maybe even starts to apologize, but he chases her, catches her lips against his and groans when her tongue slips into his mouth. He lets himself be pushed backward, feels her pause with one hand on his chest--she doesn’t stop kissing him, but she doesn’t move closer, doesn’t move to touch him more, just keeps her palm flat over his heart.  After a few moments, he tangles his fingers with hers and breaks the kiss to press his mouth to the center of her palm, and when he looks at her face, she’s got her lip snagged between her teeth. He pushes the sleeve of her sweater up, follows the line of the vein that runs from her wrist to the inside of her elbow until she jerks back with a sharp inhale.

At the question he doesn’t get a chance to ask, she explains, “Your beard tickles.”

“You wanna stop?  I could go shave,” he snarks idly, bringing her hand to his cheek.

Rolling her eyes, she pulls her hand away and stands and steps just before him.  “I don’t wanna stop,” she says. “And I don't want you to shave.”

He watches her hands fist in her skirt and hike it up before she straddles his thighs and touches her forehead to his as her fingers slip under his jacket, splay wide over his shoulders, warm through his shirt.  His own hands find the spot where her skirt is stretched tight across her thighs--tight enough to be painful, it feels like--and he pushes up to kiss her again, letting one hand curl around the back of her neck and hold her close.  It’s a little ridiculous, he thinks, to have missed her this much and to want her this badly--it’s not like they’ve never been apart for a week, for longer, but he--

Her arms wind around his neck, and she leans into him, sinks into him, and he uses his other hand to shove her skirt until it bunches up around her waist.  She pulls back and tugs her sweater up and off, letting it fall to the floor. Fingers tangling into her hair, he draws her head back as she lets out a shuddering breath so he can nip and kiss her bared throat.  

When she starts pushing his jacket off, he stops and croaks, “Wait.”  She settles back as he clears his throat and makes a face that really can only be called a pout, and he says, “Got somethin’ of yours.”

With a questioning hum, she pecks the ridge of his cheekbone and snorts when he pulls her pearls out of his pocket and lets them dangle from one finger.  “I can't believe that worked,” she chuckles. “I thought I might never see those again.”

“That's adorable,” he teases as she bends and lifts her hair to let him fasten the string around her neck.  He watches her eyelids flutter as his fingers trail under the necklace.

This time, he lets her shove his jacket off, sits forward so he can pull his arms from the sleeves, lifts his arms when she yanks on the hem of his shirt.  

“I’m glad it worked, though,” she says, grinning now as she strokes over his collar bones.

“You’d’ve missed your pearls,” he answers.

“And that's it,” she mocks.  

Shrugging, he stands--she gasps and clings to him with arms and legs-- and wobbles a little with the added weight, and he turns to deposit her on the couch.  As he's sinking to his knees between her spread thighs, he says, “Woulda missed me, too.”

“Oh, I dunno,” she responds, but she's watching him so intently he couldn't pretend to believe her if he tried.  He turns his face into the inside of her knee and sucks a kiss there--he learned early on that Elizabeth likes hickeys, likes getting them and touching them and seeing them, but she doesn’t like them where people can see --and she tips her head back and sighs, “Okay, I’d maybe have missed you.”

“Maybe,” he scoffs, moving higher and higher until there’s a line of bruises from her knee to where her thighs meet, until her back arches and little mewls slip past her parted lips.  His hands smooth up to her hips, thumbs stroking over the waistband of her panties, as he asks, “You wanna go to bed?”

With her tongue swiping across her swollen lower lip, she shakes her head slowly and nudges his shoulder with her knee.  Then, she smiles, “I think I’m good here.”

“Yeah?” he laughs, pulling her forward until she's right at the edge of the couch and straightening to mash his mouth into hers, messy and hungry and hot.

“Uh-huh,” she breathes against his lips, scraping the back of his neck with her nails before breaking away and reaching behind herself to unhook her bra.

With a deliberate lack of urgency, he drags kisses down her throat, trips over her collarbone, her breasts.  As his teeth graze one nipple, she lets out a whine and squeezes his sides with her knees--doesn’t tell him to get on with it, but might as well.  Still, he takes his time, pausing only to wonder if he should get her out of that skirt, but then she damn near sobs , “God, Rio, please.”

Nodding, he grabs the hem of her panties and says, “Lift up for me.”  

She does, and he yanks them down so hard that he thinks he hears them rip and doesn’t quite manage to stifle a snort.  He sees her roll her eyes, but he’s more focused on the ache of his cock against the zipper of his jeans and how wet she is under his fingers and how she tastes when he puts his mouth on her.  With a loud moan, she slaps a hand to the back of his head, but the sting barely registers as he pushes a finger into her, and he hears her gasp and almost slur, “Definitely woulda missed you.”

Humming mhm just to hear her keen, he holds her hip as she jerks, and when he looks up, she’s got her eyes squeezed shut and her free hand gripping the back of the couch, knuckles white.  He keeps his eyes on her face and adds another finger, watching her head tip back into the cushion as she catches her lip between her teeth again and lets out a groan that tapers into a laugh.  It’s not that he’s teasing her--he’s got a pretty good grasp on how to make her scream, and beg, and let out a stream of curses so filthy he feels like he should blush, and he likes to take his time, get her worked up.  He likes the way her face goes red and the way that whole prim-and-proper thing she does so well falls away--he likes the wrecked way she sounds when she comes.

Thighs shaking, she chokes out little jumbled phrases-- likethat and fuckyes and rightthere --and he can tell how close she is in the way she clenches around him and the way her breath stutters and the way her nails dig into his scalp.  She cries out and rocks against the thrust of his fingers, and she gasps out a quick, “I’m gonna--” and he feels it when she tips over the edge.

She whines when he pulls his fingers away, lips and tongue working at an unmarked patch of her thigh, and after a minute or so, he feels her hands grope at his cheeks and jaw before she drags him up to her, eyes still half-shut as she arches up to kiss him--if she’s going for his mouth, she misses the mark by like an inch, but he’s so far gone he doesn’t actually mind.  With a thumb under her chin, he presses his lips to hers, and the low noise she lets out vibrates through him. She strokes over his neck and his shoulders, down his chest then up his back, fleeting but heated.

“These need to come off,” she murmurs, fingers clumsy on the button of his jeans, and, really, who is he to disagree?

--

Later, much later, after they’ve somehow ended up on the floor tangled up in the throw that had been on the couch, as sweat cools and their breathing evens out and Rio at least regains feeling in his legs, Elizabeth lays next to him with her head cushioned on his arm and her fingers tangled loosely with his, and his voice is hoarse when he says, “I am sorry for lying.”

“I know,” she replies without a moment’s hesitation.  Then, with a smile that’s nearly playful, she says, “Don’t let it happen again.”

He snorts but doesn’t respond.

His arm is starting to fall asleep when she rolls onto her side and shifts her head onto his shoulder, hand pressing flat just under his ribs and thumb tracing a slow arch back and forth.  He isn’t sure how but he knows she’s about to ask something.  At length, she says haltingly, “Tell me…  Tell me something true.”

Flippant responses-- my name really is Rio or I have a truly stunning collection of designer watches or I have a son --press behind his teeth, and he has to swallow them before he can think of anything else to say.  Something better, something really true, something she deserves. “My ma likes jazz,” he says slowly, and the words burn the back of his throat, but he doesn’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing.  “I think my dad did too.” He feels her nose at his shoulder and press dry kisses to his skin, and he’s not sure if she’s waiting for more, but he adds, “This isn’t what I wanna do--not forever. Just tryna…”  He finds himself gesturing without knowing what it means or what he wants to say. “The plan was always to get out,”

Propping herself up on one elbow and letting her head rest in her palm, she searches his face for a moment before asking, “What would it take to get you to quit?”

“One real big job,” he laughs--it’s not entirely true, but he’s feeling a little raw under her gaze, and he’d probably get out for enough money.  He lifts a hand to tuck her messy hair behind her ear and says, “And the feds would need to stop comin’ after my girl.”

Her smile softens, and she shakes her head just a little as her eyes lower, and then, either sensing his discomfort or just done with this line of questioning for now, she murmurs, “You should stay the night--in my bed, though, the floor is actually getting really uncomfortable.”

“You said it,” he agrees, struggling to push himself up.

She steals the throw as she stands and drapes it around her shoulders, and he feels a little like a newborn giraffe when he stands with knees like jelly--he thinks he does a good job of hiding it until he sees her lips twitching, but she doesn’t say anything.  It’s not until they’re in bed, foreheads nearly touching on the same pillow and comforter pulled up to their shoulders, that she breaks the silence again with, “Dean got a private eye to follow you.”

“Mm, don’t talk about your ex-husband when I’m not wearing pants,” he mumbles, all fuzzy around the edges.

“‘Kay but can I talk to you about the private eye thing when you’re not wearing pants?” she presses, sounding amused.

“In the morning,” he answers, petting her hair blindly in the dark.

For a breath, he thinks she’s going to argue, but then she sighs a resigned, “In the morning.”

Chapter Text

If she’s being honest, Beth knew weeks before Agent Turner, before the private investigator, before Legoland --maybe it was the moment he’d woken her up with lips on her eyelids and nose and cheeks, or when he’d jogged up to her at the park with Marcus over one shoulder and Emma on the other, sweaty and panting and grinning with a grass stain on his jaw.  Maybe it had been when he’d laughed, “I know what a buckle is, sweetheart.” Or maybe when he hadn’t reacted at all when Kenny started pushing boundaries except to take him aside to have a conversation Beth hadn’t been privy to but had watched from a distance--a conversation which had resulted in Kenny looking sheepish but not angry or afraid and had somehow left the two of them as thick as thieves.  

But maybe, just maybe , it hadn’t been one moment she could pinpoint.  Maybe it had all come on more gradually than that.

The point is, though, that she thinks she’s known for a while now, but it’s not until the morning after their, well, very enthusiastic make-up that she’s even willing to address it.  Perhaps, she thinks, what had held her back had been the deep-seated knowledge that he hadn’t been fully candid with her--now that she knows the truth, it’s an easier truth to accept.

She wakes to the heavy smell of strong coffee, bedroom door open and robe laid out across the foot of her bed, and she thinks, Oh, that’s what that is.  For a moment, all she can do is bury her face in her pillow to hide the grin that cracks her face wide open and stretch , luxuriating in the satisfying, intimate ache inside her and the burn in the muscles of her thighs and the slip-slide of bamboo sheets against her skin.

At length, though, she has to get up, and she can hear cabinets opening and closing as she ties her robe.  She finds him in the kitchen in his underwear and T-shirt, and his back is to her when she wraps her arms around his middle and presses her open mouth to the base of his neck.

“Good morning,” he rumbles, rubbing her forearms.

“Mhm,” she hums, afraid that if she tries to talk the words are gonna come tumbling out before she’s ready.  She breathes in the faded-cologne-dried-sweat smell of him until she feels it’s safe to ask, “What’re you making?”

“Hadn’t gotten that far yet,” he says as he turns in her embrace.  As his arms come up to wind around her neck, she slips her hands up the back of his shirt, up the planes of his back, over his shoulder blades, and smiles into his throat at the low, satisfied noise he makes.  “Any requests?”

“Surprise me,” she murmurs--she doesn’t mean it to sound like that, all sex-thick and seductive in a way that makes her own belly quiver in anticipation.  He boosts her up onto the island--which does thoroughly surprise her--and steps between her knees as she laughs breathlessly and knocks their foreheads together.  “Sex is great,” she says, letting their noses brush, “But that coffee smells amazing.”

His laugh is big and blindingly bright and takes up all the space in the room until she can’t breathe, and she hears her own answering laughter, but it barely registers because the only thing that matters right now is his grin and the way he tosses his head back and the way his hands come up to either side of her face.  “You’re somthin’ else,” he mumbles, warm enough that it makes her chest clench. “But I can make that happen for you.”

As he starts to pull away, she hooks her legs around him and says in a rush, “You don’t have to make me coffee.”

“I wanna make you coffee,” he replies, eyebrow cocking, and she thinks, This isn’t really the guy a federal agent called a criminal kingpin, is it?  “And breakfast.  Could be convinced to make lunch and dinner, too, and--”

“I love you,” she blurts.

For a moment, she thinks it was probably a bad time to bring that up, or maybe he doesn’t feel the same, or maybe--but then he grins, derailing her panic, and he presses his mouth to her forehead and cheek and the corner of her mouth and whispers, “I love you,” between each kiss until she’s almost dizzy, until she has to wrap her arms around him and bury her face in his neck.  She relishes the strength of his own arms around her, and she's just decided she could really happily never move again when she hears him say decisively, “Pancakes.”

“Pancakes for breakfast is a… surprise?” she mocks as she pulls back.

“If you're not expecting them,” he replies, lifting one shoulder.

“Wisely put,” she laughs helplessly, and she tilts her chin to accept another quick peck before letting him step away and hopping down.  

The coffee he hands her is just as strong as it smells--she remembers the first time he’d made coffee and joked drink enough of that and you’ll be speaking Spanish --and they sorta dance around each other around the kitchen, and she feels a little like she’s floating with how ridiculously pleased that makes her.  It’s so easy--she might still be dreaming.  She grabs eggs and milk out of the fridge and passes them to him as he balances flour in one arm, and she stacks containers of blueberries and strawberries on top of each other in one hand and, after some deliberation, snags the bag of cherries that’s been in there for a few days and needs to be eaten anyway.  As she pulls down a mixing bowl and a cutting board, a whisk and a knife, she’s peripherally aware of him grabbing other ingredients--sugar, cinnamon, vanilla extract, baking powder--and she thinks it’s probably weird that she finds the fact that he can make pancakes from scratch off memory as hot as she does.

Sue her, everyone’s got a thing.

Later, as he drags fingertips stained red because he’s morally opposed to using a cherry pitter or something over the bruises dotting her inner thigh, she thinks in awe that she can’t believe she gets this.

--

“Boy,” Annie huffs, collapsing into the chair next to hers and forking up a mouthful of cup noodles, “When that other shoe drops, it drops, right?”  Mouth open, Beth tries to convey the full force of you can eat shitty cardboard noodles right now?! with her eyes alone.  It must work because she immediately replies, “What?  We didn’t make it to lunch!”

“Just... “ she shakes her head.  She shouldn’t be irritated with her sister--she knows it’s anxiety more than anything, for both of them, as they watch Stan and Ruby talk to the doctor.  Even from here, she can see the grave lines of Stan’s face and the tear tracking down Ruby’s cheek, and her chest aches with--with wanting to be able to help, be able to fix things for her, be able to do something other than watch stupidly from the sidelines.  

As if as a direct response to her thoughts, her phone buzzes with a one-word text-- breathe.

Lips twisting--not quite smiling, but losing some of their tension--she asks how the kids are, and bless him for staying behind with seven kids, six of which aren’t his.  He suggests they offer to trade Kenny for Sadie, and she replies with an angry emoji and a NOT funny!!!  He sends her another quick message telling her not to worry, and she thinks from anyone else it would sound hollow.  She lets it a natural end to the conversation, and when Annie asks after the kids, she says, “Whatever Sadie’s doing, he’s endearing himself to Rio.”

“He can’t have him,” she replies quickly, somehow adamant around more noodles.  “That kid’s the best thing about me.”

“Hush,” Beth scolds, all mom-voice as she elbows her.

There’s not much time for more--Stan takes Ruby’s face in both of his hands and says something low to her as the doctor walks away, and the ache in her chest changes because, no matter the circumstances, this is the one constant in their lives, that those two radiate something so powerful it makes her almost want to cry (did make her cry, a few times, especially at the wedding).  As cheesy as it sounds, she feels like the only reason she ever believed in any love that wasn’t familial is that she’s spent the last two decades watching them.  When Stan leaves, Ruby comes to sit on Beth’s other side and lets her link their elbows, and Annie jumps up to take the free seat next to her.  

They wait.

“They said that when she uh--” Ruby stops, blinks a few times, clears her throat, and starts again, “They said that it’s both of her kidneys now--the new treatment I was looking into is gonna be just--and then dialysis is already so expensive, but if we actually do find a donor, how are we supposed to afford--”

“We’ll figure it out, okay,” Beth says quietly, squeezing her hand and pressing her cheek to her shoulder as she tries to do the math in her head.  “We’ll figure it out.”

Distantly, she hears Annie agree.

It’s hard to say how long it is between then and when Sara gets discharged--they came in around lunchtime, and it’s dark when they leave, and that’s about all Beth has.  She’s honestly never been happier than she is now to drive a minivan as everyone gets loaded up, and she sends Rio a quick text to let him know they’re on their way to pick up Harry and get Ruby’s car before climbing behind the steering wheel.  Her eyes go to Ruby in the rearview where she’s watching Sara anxiously, and she offers as she pulls out of the hospital parking lot, “You could stay at mine--Harry’s probably sharing with Danny and Kenny, guest room’s free.”

“No, I--I really want to go home.”

“Okay,” she says gently, voice feeling too thin in her aching throat.

The drive home seems longer than it probably is--they’re all tired, all worn out from anxiety and bad lighting and the noise of the waiting room, and although she’s far from dozing off at the wheel, she’s eager to get home, to take off her shoes, to eat some real food .  Now that the immediate danger is dealt with, she needs to sleep before trying to think anymore about how they’re gonna figure this out--and they will, of course, they’re family and that’s what you do for family.  It’s just that right now her brain feels like a browser with too many tabs open.

Once the van’s in park, she turns in her seat and, one hand reaching out to shake Annie awake, asks, “You wanna get Sara in your car and I’ll go get Harry?”

“I think you’re actually good on that one,” Ruby answers, pointing.

When Beth twists to look where she is, she sorta falls back into the seat with a whoosh of breath--it’s gotta be biological, she’s sure it’s biological, but something about seeing him walking toward them, Harry sleeping in his arms with his head curled just so under his chin that makes her want to do something filthy to him.  He bypasses her door to grab the sliding passenger door and says, voice pitched low, “Gimme your keys, I’ll get him buckled in.”

Somehow, in spite of the fact that he’s a father --and a good one--she’s still so completely thrown by how he is about kids.  She thinks, maybe, part of it has to do with the fact that she still has trouble reconciling Rio the Dad and Rio the Gang Leader , but she thinks some part of it must be something else, something unflatteringly close to drawing comparisons between him and other men--between him and Dean.  Beth snaps out of it quickly, hovers over Ruby and Sara until they’re both safely in the car, and tries to keep the fretting to a minimum as she watches their tail lights turn out of sight.  As she follows them inside, she hears Rio try to convince Annie to let them keep Sadie.

“Over my dead body,” she replies as they approach the couch where he's sleeping, arms crossed and chin on his chest.  “Maybe not even then,” she continues, and Beth steps past her into the kitchen to find something to quell the pang in her gut and the throb in her head as she stage whispers inches from his face, “Kid!  You’ve been asleep for four years! You missed high school!”

“Ugh,” is what he comes back with, batting her away and sitting up.

From inside the kitchen, she can’t really hear what they say after that--she can hear the rise and fall of Annie’s voice and the quieter, more even tone of Sadie’s, but the words are lost behind the sound of the fridge and the space between them.  Rio follows her, strokes his fingers through her hair as he presses his mouth to her temple and whispers, “Gonna check on the kids.”

“No,” she says, keeping her voice low as her hand closes in the front of his shirt.  “I got this.”

“It’s cool--”

“Listen,” she interrupts, still quiet but sounding more like she does at work than she does with him or even the kids, “The house is clean , and the food is put away, and as far as I know, none of the kids are dead , so I’m gonna go ahead and say you did enough.”  When he looks like he’s going to argue, she shrugs, “If I need to tie you to the bed to get you stay down here and let me handle this, I will.”

Her cheeks heat as her words catch up with her, and his brows fly up as he asks, “Oh, we gonna start doin’ that now?”  Opening her mouth, she shakes her head as he cuts in, “Nah, nah, don’t break out the rope just yet--you win.”

With a snort, she gives his shoulder a light shove, and she’s satisfied when he tells the others to have a good night and saunters off to her room.  She pours herself a glass of juice and downs half of it to take the edge off her hunger before walking with Annie and Sadie to the door as Sadie’s finishing up telling her, “Seriously, it was fine , Rio’s cool, but--”

Frowning, Beth grabs the doorknob and asks, “But what?”

He looks between the two of them and shrugs, “Like, are we just all ignoring the fact that he’s kinda shady?”

Beth tries to ignore Annie’s laughter as she says, with the slightest hint of a smile, “Good night , you two.”  Then, to her sister, “Text me when you get home.”

She knows she’ll forget.

Once she’s gone through the kids’ rooms--and the guest room, where Marcus looks so small in the bed she almost hurts with it--and once she’s dug in the fridge for some cold leftovers so she doesn’t wake up with a migraine, she makes her way to her room, already unbuttoning her dress as she goes.  For all his grand aspirations of checking on the kids and whatever else he thought he was gonna do, she finds Rio curled up on the right side of the bed-- his side, as she’s come to think of it, the side where the pillow smells like his cologne now--so deeply asleep that he doesn’t even stir when she shuts the door.  And, really, she’s not surprised. The house is clean--for a relative definition of clean , since a house full of kids is never gonna be spotless--and the food wasn’t just tossed in the fridge, it had been put into Tupperware.  Her chest feels too full at that, though, so she finishes changing into her pajamas. She keeps half of her attention on his face, though, because he usually wakes up before her, and she never gets to see him like this, and for a giddy moment all she can think is that he’s beautiful and she’s so dangerously, stupidly, deeply in love that she actually can’t breathe.

After she’s brushed her teeth, she comes back into the room to find him awake, rubbing his cheek and pushing up onto one elbow and looking endearingly confused.  “You fell asleep with the lights on,” she says as she walks over to the lightswitch.

“I was waiting ,” he mumbles, falling back into the pillow.

“Hey, I appreciate it, but my electric bill will not,” she teases as she plunges them into darkness.  She only finds her bed by the grace of god, but once she’s in there, it’s easy to slot herself behind him and press her nose to his shoulder.  There’s a quiet, warm want buried in her belly that she wants to address, but she’s fading fast, so she has to be satisfied with informing him that she has very real intentions of thanking him properly when she feels less like passing out.

She only barely hears him grunt in acknowledgement before drifting off.

--

When Beth wakes up, it’s still dark in the room, although she thinks it’s close to dawn--there’s something like a gentle grey light filtering in through the curtains, but she’s too warm and content to roll over to see what time it is--there’s plenty of time, anyway, to go back to sleep.  Of course, she realizes as she noses at the back of Rio’s neck, going back to sleep is the last thing she wants.  The heat that could barely manage to spark enough to make itself known the night before is building into a fire in her belly, and what she very much wants is to make good on her promise.  As her hand slips down his abdomen, she drags her open mouth over the space where his T-shirt meets his skin and croons, “Rio, wake up.”

Time is it?” he grumbles, stiffening against her as she drags the front of his shirt up and her thumb grazes one nipple, and he lets out a moan that sounds helpless as she arches up to suck a bruise behind his ear.   “Oh.”

“Mhm,” she hums as she lets her fingertips follow the line of fine hair leading to the waistband of his underwear.

Slowly, like he’s still more asleep than awake, he rolls over to face her, and she can feel his breath on her lips as his own hand comes up to her hip.  In the dim light, she can see his head lift, and he groans, “It’s not even five.”

“House full of kids,” she answers pointedly, pushing up onto an elbow to kiss him.  “But,” she breathes as she pulls back and smirking when he follows, “If you wanna go back to sleep…”

“C'mon now,” he murmurs, “I’m up now.”  

When she kisses him now, his lips part to the swipe of her tongue, and his hand pushes down under her pajama bottoms and squeezes her ass as her own hand curls around the back of his neck.  She guides him backward onto the pillow and hitches her leg up over his hips, thumb stroking back and forth over the close-shaved hair at the base of his skull. Moving without urgency, she pushes up onto her knees so she’s straddling him and presses her palms to his shoulders to keep him flat on his back--she can’t see his face, and she suddenly wishes she could .  She doesn’t wish it enough to turn on a light, but she likes the way he looks at her, likes the way he bites his lower lip, likes that he looks like he’s curious to find out what she’ll do.  His fingers brush over her jaw, and she turns her face into the touch to press a kiss into the center of his hand before tracing from his life line to the pad of his thumb with the tip of her tongue.

“Je sus, baby,” he whispers, smearing his thumb across her lower lip, and she tugs him upward for another slow, deep kiss that leaves him panting and grasping her back.  “This is how you say thank you? ‘Cause I can watch the kids anytime.”

“Anytime, between having your own and running a criminal enterprise,” she jokes.

Pinching her hip, he mutters, “I can make it work.”

She snickers and pecks his lips again--in spite of the pleasant burn of her own lips as she nibbles her way over his jawline, in spite of the heat spreading through her, there’s half an idea that’s starting to form that she can’t really place, doesn’t have words for just yet, but she’s aware of it.  But then he’s unbuttoning her top and slipping his hands underneath and palming her breasts as she kisses his neck and draws little hitching moans out of him with lips and teeth and tongue.

“Lay back,” she orders, voice low and rough as she rocks slowly into him, feeling him start to get hard under her, “I’m--”

The creak of her door opening shocks her right out of his lap--instinctively, she grabs the front of her shirt to hold it closed even in the dark, and his hands fly off of her like he’s been burned.

“I had a nightmare,” Emma says, a shadow in the doorway with a tiny, frightened voice.

Without thinking, Beth asks, “Sweetie, do you want me to come sit with you until you fall back asleep?”

“Can I sleep with you?”

“Of course,” she says as she buttons up her shirt.  

It’s like she’s forgotten Rio is there until he lets out a quiet oof when Emma climbs into bed and, consequently, right on top of him.  There’s some shifting before he murmurs, “I think this is for you,” before bumping a kiss to the side of her head and full-on handing her her child.

“Thank you,” she snorts, wrinkling her nose at him even if he won’t be able to see her as she gets Emma situated under the covers.  The bed shifts as he pushes himself up, and she feels him pulling away as if to get out--she can’t help but let her hand flail out behind her until she catches his elbow.

Pausing, he takes her hand in his and strokes his thumb over her knuckles, and the mattress dips as he comes close enough to whisper, “You good, darling.”

The door closes behind him.  Former intentions all but forgotten, Beth falls asleep combing her fingers through Emma’s hair, and she wakes up… alone.  Her alarm clock reads 9:48, and she frowns, confused until she hears laughter from somewhere else in the house. Stretching, she yawns until her jaw cracks and pushes herself out of bed and drapes her robe around herself.

In some ways, Beth feels like she’s never really prepared for Rio.  He always manages to surprise her--like now.  She doesn’t think she’s ever seen her boys willingly do dishes, and it really can only be his doing.  For what feels like a solid minute, she gapes at the scene--Kenny and Danny washing and rinsing while Rio dries, Jane and Marcus cutting up construction paper with safety scissors at the table, and Emma drawing up at the island.  It’s peaceful in a way that she feels like her house rarely is, and she almost pinches herself to make sure she’s not dreaming. After a while, though, Rio laughs at something and turns, still grinning, and her chest constricts.

“There’s a plate in the microwave, mama,” he says, tossing the towel he’s been using over one shoulder as Danny shuts off the water and Kenny yanks the plug out of the sink.

She tells the boys thank you as they pass her, then, as she makes her way to the microwave, she repeats gently to Rio, “Thank you.”

“We gonna have to get a rain check on that,” he replies with a strange, sweet wryness that makes her stomach flip as he closes the distance between them.  “Sleep well?” he asks, right in her personal space.

“Slept late,” she smiles.

Threading his fingers through her hair, he presses a lingering kiss to her forehead before pulling back.  “I gotta take Marcus to his mom’s,” he says. “Then I got work stuff. We still on for Little League this weekend?”

“Of course,” she says, head shaking a little.  “I wouldn’t miss it,” she adds, looking over her shoulder at Marcus’ bowed head.


 

When Rio got the text asking to meet Elizabeth at her office for lunch, he doesn’t expect anything especially… special.  That’s not to say that he doesn’t hold his time with her as special, but they do lunch all the time.  It’s not like he’s expecting her to come at him with any off the wall questions.  When he gets there and she steps past him to lock the door, he almost asks if she’s planning something untoward--partially because that’s what it seems like, even if she’s always very careful not to do anything egregiously inappropriate at the dealership, and partially because he likes the way she flushes at the slightest innuendo.

“I wanna ask you a question,” she starts, offering him a Chinese takeout container.

“Okay…”

“How do you clean the money?” she asks bluntly, eyes unwavering on his.

“Wait--huh?”

Biting her lip, she takes her seat and spreads her fingers wide on the desk in front of her, businesslike and serious.  “I want--I’d like you to tell me how you do it.” Then, as if thinking this will make this whole thing less fucking bizarre, she adds, “Please.”

“Couple ways,” he says, feeling surreal.  “Got arrangements with a couple local businesses--grocery stores, check cashing places, that Kwik Mart on 45th and 9th.  They’re called cash-intensive businesses , it’s kinda the basis of their appeal.”

“Wait,” she breaks in, leaning forward to offer chopsticks.  “The Fine and Frugal.”

It’s not a question, but the piercing, keen look she pegs him with makes him lift one shoulder with a self-deprecating smirk and a, “What, you thought I shopped there?”

“No,” she grins.  “How does it work?”

“So, take the grocery store--” he starts, digging into his lo mein and shoveling up a hefty mouthful of noodles, “--Weekly drops.  We get in the fake cash, go in, exchange it for the real stuff. Rinse, repeat.”

He watches as Elizabeth scoops a wonton out of her soup--she’s staring into her food as she chews, thoughtful and otherwise unreadable.  Her silence now is unnerving. He isn’t sure how , but it feels like she’s building towards something.

“So, just local businesses?”

“Easier that way,” he grunts, trying not to let on that she’s kind of weirding him out right now.  At her raised eyebrow, he explains, “Local businesses got less oversight, less levels between the bottom rung and the top, less of a payout when I buy people off.”  When her only response is a gentle mm , he frowns and asks, “What’s this about?”

“Did you know that dialysis can cost almost a hundred thousand dollars a year?  And that to get a kidney transplant--if they find a donor, if --they make you pay down a huge amount up front?” she demands, setting her soup aside and drumming her fingers on her desk.  “You know that even with insurance, puberty blockers are prohibitively expensive in a ton of cases?  And that dental insurance providers think braces are cosmetic?”

He knows some of those things.  “You want a job.”

“I have a job,” she says, waving her spoon.  “Ruby has a job--Annie has a job. It’s not enough when you’ve got sick kids or kids with special medical needs or a son whose teeth are coming in all…”

“You want a job because the healthcare system in this country is shit.”  She wouldn’t be the first .

With a low noise, she stands and crosses her arms as she walks to the big window behind her desk, eyes out on the lot.  Even if her back is to him, he knows her eyes are on Dean. “I worked really hard,” she says quietly, “To get our heads above water after--we’re still paying people off, I’m still paying people off because--”

She doesn’t finish, but Rio knows.  He’s known since about a month after their second date, had looked into Dean out of what he’d called curiosity then--he’d gotten mixed in with some bad investments, but, more importantly, he’d gotten mixed in with some people who break kneecaps for looking at them funny, much less losing thousands on the ugliest luxury cars he’s ever seen.  Honestly, he’s still a little amazed he thought it’d work--luxury cars, at a respectable but decidedly not luxury used car dealership.  If not for the fact that Rio’s got a pretty good handle on the local money laundering scene, he’d’ve assumed that’s what this was about.  To this day, he wonders if the guy knows what kinda deep shit he nearly got his family in.

“I don’t have the money to give to Ruby--and she wouldn’t take it if I did ,” she turns back to him, face cool and removed--this is a business proposition, and he’s grudgingly impressed with how she switches gears.  “But if I had the money--she’s got a GoFundMe, and I could--”

Rio sets his food on the desk and stands.  “So, what’s your pitch?” he asks.

For a breath, her face is so blank he thinks she’s going to ask what he means, but then her shoulders straighten and she says simply, “Big box stores.  Anything you buy with cash can be returned with cash as long as you have a receipt.”

“Seriously?”

“It was a better plan than trying to rent a bounce house for Kenny’s birthday last year--speaking of, are you coming to--”

“Elizabeth,” he interrupts, amused now in spite of the wary way he’s watching her.

“Right,” she breathes, letting out a chuckle that’s more nervous than any she’s directed at him in months .  “It’s just a thought.”

“Yanno,” he says slowly, “It’s not on you to make sure that--”

“Don’t,” she cuts him off, face suddenly hard.  “What you’re about to say--please don’t.”

They hold each other’s gaze for a long time before he nods, once.  “What you’re asking for--you gotta understand that this ain’t some part time gig.  This is real,” he stops, but her eyes don’t stray. “And--word of advice--you’re gonna need Ruby and Annie.”  A thought occurs, and before she can reply, he asks, “Did you tell ‘em ab--”

“No!” she laughs like it’s the most ridiculous question in the world.  “You think I was gonna tell my sister--who already thought you were some kind of… gang member or something, and my best friend , whose husband is also a cop ?”

Okay, so maybe it is.

“I mean…”

Her face splits into an indulgent smile that he feels like she reserves for the kids , and he sneers, which only makes her smile widen.  “Are we doing this?” she asks, one eyebrow raising.

“Trial basis--your cut is ten percent.”

“Twenty,” she counters, stepping closer.

“Fifteen, and I don’t walk out that door and forget this whole conversation happened.”  While mostly he’s joking-- mostly --he doesn’t know what to think about all this.  This isn’t how other people approach him asking for work--she doesn’t look or sound desperate.  There’s no hand-wringing. There’s no tears. Just the steely conviction that this is the way to get what she needs--and he thinks it has to be a need , not a want.  “What if I offered--”

“No,” she shakes her head.  Then, chin dipping down, she smirks, “No, I don’t want--I’m not taking money from you.  Not like that.”

He gives her a once-over.  “Just thought I’d ask.”

--

The thing is--the thing is that it worked, and Rio never expected that.

Well, it worked for about a month.

He didn’t have the privilege of bearing witness to the big reveal--Elizabeth didn’t even tell him how it had gone down--but he’s got a few guesses as to how it went.  For his money, he guesses that Elizabeth hemmed, hedged around the truth, stammered and alluded until finally someone told her to spit it out. It’s a damn near certainty that Annie punched the air and crowed that she knew it, and that Ruby asked Elizabeth if she had lost her damn mind.  In the end, though, they’d agreed to go along with it, and they did a good job.

He’s not about to tell them that, but it’s true.

--

“So, what happened?” he asks, swirling the last swallow of bourbon left in his glass.

“I was escorted out by rent-a-cops,” she scowls.  “In front of the whole store.  There were other PTA moms there!”  That last part is added with a bit of a wail--she’s been here for a while before he came up--and he can’t quite stifle his snicker.  “Rude,” she grumbles. Then, quietly, she sighs, “All that money.”

“Mm, all that money,” he agrees.  “You’ll get me back.” This isn’t something he’s used to, comforting someone who, technically, fucked all the way up.  But then, he’s not usually sleeping with that person--he’s not ever sleeping with that person, and he’s sure as shit not in love with that person.  He’d been angry when she’d called, a hot flame that licked its way up his spine and burned just inside his ribs, but then she’d sounded miserable and sick , and, somehow, this woman wormed her way so deeply under his skin that he couldn’t find it in him to really hold onto that anger.  Waving down the bartender, he asks, “Yo, can we get some water?”

“What am I gonna do?” she asks her empty tumbler in undertone.

Sighing, he grabs her shoulder as the waters are set in front of them and says, “You’re gonna drink some water, and you’re gonna let me take you home.”

“You know that’s not what I’m talking about,” she mumbles, turning those big, wide eyes on him.

“I know.”

She drinks her water.

It’s not until they’re nearly to her house that she presses the heels of her hands into her eyes and groans, “Ugh, I’m sorry.”

“For the money or for getting a little day drunk?” he asks with a sideways glance.  Her mascara is smudged under her eyes when she takes her hands away to glare at him, and he snorts.  He puts the car in park and twists in his seat to face her, and when he tucks her hair back, her eyes flutter shut for half a beat.  “I’m not havin’ this conversation with you until you sober up, Elizabeth.”

There’s a moment when he thinks she’s going to argue with him, but then the fight goes out of her and she nods and murmurs, “Okay, thank you.”

She doesn’t quite stumble as she gets out of the car, but it’s a near thing.  When he rolls down his window and calls out to her, she whirls so that her hair fans out, and her eyes are clear enough that he almost forgets she really has been drinking--forgets, almost, how much she can put away.  He waits until she bends to his window to say, “Call me later if you need someone to take you to your van.”

“Awh,” she coos, scratching gently through his beard, “You love me.”

“I do?”

“Yep,” she pops.

Rolling his eyes, he straightens to kiss her goodbye before saying, “Go inside.”

Nose scrunching, she shakes her head and pushes away from the car.  He waits for her to get inside--well, he watches her walk to the door because he’s only human and then waits for her to get inside--before leaving.  

Hours later, when she texts him a simple what about the dealership? , he almost laughs.  He shouldn’t be proud of her--it’s easily the most obvious choice.  No one’s batting an eye at the cash coming in or on hand, no one’s concerned about the fact that cars move in and out of the place like a goddamn drive-thru, no one’s surprised if you don’t keep the strictest records on a cash sale… perfect.  Not to mention the fact that he’s pretty sure that if you look up the words “innocuous” and “respectable,” what comes up are pictures of Elizabeth goddamn Boland.  He’d be concerned about Dean, but the thing is… she’s pretty vocal about the fact that she handles all the higher-level shit, wears that fact that armor.

And if he has half an idea of how easily Dean could take a fall should things go south…

The part that gives him pause, the dangerous part, the part that makes him know without doubt how very fucked he could be is how easily Elizabeth draws information and confessions and promises out of him.  How she turns her eyes to him late at night when his skin is still wet with sweat and his breath is still coming in heavy and quick and asks him to teach her something.

“File your taxes,” he breathes into the dark one night.  “And don’t try to get slick with the bank--just deposit all your cash at once.  No one gives a shit unless you try to deposit less than ten grand, then you look suspicious as hell and they’re looking .”

--

“Before you get mad--”

“Elizabeth--”

“Before you get mad at me ,” she steamrolls ahead, anxiety and anger and something else rippling through her voice, “Just--please, you gotta know I didn’t tell him anything.”

Every breath scorches through his chest but he tries to keep his face as neutral as possible.  It had been the fact that she led with something happened with tears threatening but not falling, and then followed with something about Dean, and then wanted to preface it with some shit, and he just wanted to shake her and make him tell her what happened.  “Aight, I know that now, so what’s up?”

“I--he--he got into the money, I guess?  I don’t know, but I came in this morning and there’s this…”  Stopping, she takes a deep breath. “He bought another goddamn car that no one’s gonna buy and it’s just gonna stay in our showroom for another three years and--” she flails her arms out, frustrated and helpless, and he recognizes the too-quick pace of her ragged breathing as closer to panic now than anything else.

“With my money?” he demands, and something about the steel in his voice makes her flinch.  He grinds his teeth together until his jaw hurts.

“I mean, yes,” she says, adding in a rush, “But I can fix it!”

Shaking his head, he lowers his voice without softening it to say, “Not your department.”

Blanching, she swallows and stammers, “What does--what does that mean, Rio?”

“Means I’m gonna handle it,” he shrugs, shoving his hands in his pockets.   Means I’m gonna put the fear of God in a motherfucker, he thinks.

“Just--” she bites her lip.  For the most part, they’ve been able to avoid this--for the most part, she’s done okay, and when there’s been a fuck up, it hasn’t been super consequential.  But now?  “Just do me a favor and don’t kill him.”  At his raised eyebrows, she sighs, “He’s still the father of my children.”

“Nah, not this time,” he says with a half-smile.  He reaches for her, and she doesn’t back away, turns her face into his hand, and he adds, “I make special dumbass exceptions.  I’m just gonna kick his ass.” At her look of disapproval, he says, “Listen, sweetheart, you know what it is.”

“I told you I’d fix it,” she huffs, voice desperate, and he hears her unspoken plea of, Just let me fix it .  Like it’s her penance to pay.

“That’s not how this goes, you can’t fix this one,” he replies coolly.   “This ain’t about money, it’s about kindergarten shit--don’t take somethin’ that don’t belong to you.”  When she keeps hesitating, he groans, “I’m not gonna cause him any bodily harm, okay?”

He wonders, not for the first time, if it’s wise to let her drag those kinds of promises out of him--he rationalizes that it’s not like she knows she’s doing it anyway.

Rio is well aware of which days Elizabeth will be at Boland Motors late--which days she balances the books, which days she documents the fresh cash he’s given her--and he knows that, usually, the days she doesn’t work late coincide with the nights she’s got her kids.  It’s a pretty neat arrangement, and it makes it easy to track.  Not only does she have the children on the night he picks, he knows that two of the four have activities, which means she’ll be too damn busy to be concerned with what’s going on at the dealership.

The last of the actual salespeople leaves about an hour after he parks, and Rio waits another minute or so before grabbing the tire iron off the seat next to him and sauntering across the street, across the parking lot.  Inside, it’s dark with only lights filtering through from Dean’s office, and Rio picks his way through the cars in the showroom before he finds it. It’s a blindingly yellow monstrosity, brand new and set for a price that makes him gag.  He sees the words ostrich leather and his upper lip pulls back from his teeth.  As he walks slowly around the Corvette, he shakes his head--he’s heard the stories, knows the guy has pulled a stunt like this before, but seriously.  Sighing, he opens the driver’s side door and slides behind the wheel--with his long legs, it takes some adjustment, and it’s not until he’s comfortably situated to his finicky preference that he flexes his fingers around the wheel and touches his feet to the pedals.

It’s an ugly, overpriced car, but fuck if some of the craftsmanship ain’t nice.

He finds he’s got a nice little view through the blinds into Dean’s office from where he’s sitting, and, after watching him chew a pen cap and stare at his computer for a minute, Rio jabs the heel of his hand into the horn and stifles the urge to burst out laughing when he sees Dean jump and spit out the pen cap.  Once he sees him leap up and rush to the door, Rio pops his head up through the space where the roof would go and says cheerfully, “Yo, so, I’m sittin’ here, right? Tryna figure out who would buy a neon ‘vette with ostrich interior, and--” he shoves the door open and leaps out, landing solidly on his feet and slamming the door behind him, “I think I finally figured it out.”  He waits a pause as Dean gapes at him. “Nobody.”

“Wh-what’re you doing?” he demands.

Smiling coldly, Rio says, “See, now, normally a motherfucker steals from me and I drop his ass in Lake Michigan--you should feel real lucky that you get a warning, aight?”  He turns away so the guy doesn’t see him trying not to laugh at the way his mouth keeps opening and closing like a fish and only faces him again when he knows he’s no longer in danger.  “So, here’s how it’s gonna go, since it wasn’t properly communicated the first time, I’ma spell it out for you. I supply the capital, and you wash it with these…” he pauses, gesturing at the cars, “Buckets, yeah?  Otherwise, you keep your goddamn hands off my money, clear?”

“Man, you can go to hell, I’m not dealing with you--”

“No, you ain’t,” he interrupts pointedly, rubbing his chin.  “That’s cool, though, I got a partner already.” He watches that settle with Dean, sees him start to really process what he’s just said, lets the denial start to form on his lips before reaching into the Corvette and pulling out the tire iron--he twirls it in the air a little like a fence and shrugs, “Listen, you got a problem, take it up with HR.”

He’s just lifting the iron over his head when he hears Dean shriek, “Who is HR?”

Face going blank, he lets his shoulders relax as he leans backward on the foot behind him--he hadn’t expected to be asked it had just been a quip --and he lets his arms fall to his sides as he turns back to Dean.  With a little hiccup of a chuckle, he puts a hand to his chest. “Me,” he replies simply before swinging the tire iron in a smooth arc into the windshield of the Corvette.

He hears a cracking cry of, “No!”  

Now, he does let out a mad peal of laughter as he takes a swing at the driver’s side window, then brings it down on the side mirror.  He’s still in control--it’s just that he does, actually, enjoy this part of the job in a weird way. It’s only partly because he’s been wanting to scare the piss out of Dean for a while --he never had anything to worry about from the private investigator, but the fact is that it’s fucking rude at best --but there’s also a huge part of him that needs this cathartic release.  That it’s fun doesn’t necessarily say anything nice about him, but, well, he’s not a nice guy.  Plus, the acoustics in this place are amazing for this sort of thing.

When he’s pretty thoroughly busted up this piece of shit that was never gonna see a return on investment, he whirls around to the silver BMW next to it and lifts the tire iron up over his head once again, whole body poised and just beginning to bring it back down when a hand wraps around his forearm and he stills.  What he finds when he turns his head is Elizabeth’s big, blue eyes on him, face pale and unreadable, and they stay like that for so long his arms start to ache from the effort of holding himself so tensely.

Eventually, she says low enough that only he can hear, “Not one I can sell, please.”  She clears her throat as he loosens, dropping the tire iron on the ground with a clatter.  “He’s got the message, anyway,” she pauses, directing her gaze past Rio to Dean. “He won’t do it again, right?”

“Right,” he answers behind him, sounding strangled, but Rio’s attention is laser focused on Elizabeth as she lets her hand fall away and brushes the front of her dress thoughtlessly, smoothing out wrinkles that aren’t there.

“I need to see you in my office,” she says to him after a breath, eyes back on his and voice tightly controlled.  

She doesn’t look angry, but that voice…  He should say no--he’s not about to let anyone, not even her, tell him how to run this shit, but instead he hears himself say, “Okay.”  As he steps past Dean, he stares him down, but he manfully resists the urge to fake him out, see if he’ll flinch.

Behind him, he hears the scrape of metal on concrete, and he hears Elizabeth say, “You should probably head home before he changes his mind.”  It’s right on the edge of a joke, but he thinks he hears something serious buried in there.

“What the hell was that?” he demands.

What she says next, hissing so close to his face and jabbing a finger behind herself, is too low for Rio to be able to hear, but if he were to hazard a guess, he’d think it’s along the lines of go fuck yourself .  That could just be wishful thinking, though.  At his insistence that they’re gonna talk about this, she says, “Go home, Dean.”

Rio watches her step inside her office, and he doesn't miss the way that Dean's eyes are flicking between the two of them before she pulls the door shut.  She catches the lock, and, with tire iron held loosely in one hand, she paces around the room and closes the blinds. The weight of her silence is… uncomfortable, and she won’t meet his eyes, won’t really even look near him, and he hears himself start, “Look, I can’t just let--”

“Rio,” she interrupts gently, slow circuit of the room coming to an end.  As she comes closer, she sets the iron in one of the chairs--then, before he can even consider what it is that she’s doing, she steps right up to him, so close she’s nearly pressed all along his front.  For a time that seems to stretch and stretch and stretch, they just stand there, close enough to share breath--but then she hooks her fingers around the back of his neck and rocks up to mash their mouths together, sudden and urgent and lacking any sort of gentleness, and he crashes back into the desk but barely even registers the pain of wood digging into the backs of his thighs.

“What--” he gasps as her hands come up to work the buttons of his shirt open, but her tongue slips past his lips and he loses track of his question.

Once his shirt is open, she pulls back, cheeks and lips already red, and her fingers stroke over his chest, his belly, around his back, and he sucks in a breath when he feels her grab the gun tucked into the back of his jeans.  Her gaze locks on his as she lifts it out of his waistband, and neither of them breathes as she drags the muzzle of the gun over his skin, over the ridge of his hip, before stepping back and setting it on the chair next to the tire iron.  He’s barely gotten a chance to think about where this is going when she pops the button of his jeans and inches the zipper down, and her teeth close on the spot where his neck and his shoulder meet, and he hears her ask if this is okay as one hand slips over the front of his underwear where his cock decided to join the party before his brain even knew there was one.

“S’fine, great, fantastic,” he breathes, “Dunno what it’s about, but definitely not complaining .”

She snorts against the center of his chest as she kisses her way down and drops to her knees between his thighs.  She turns her eyes back up toward him as she sucks a bruise just under his navel, and his hand comes up to the back of her head as he lets out a groan.  With a smirk, she pulls back and licks the same spot before dipping lower, fingers dragging his jeans and underwear down enough to free his half-mast erection.  Looking up through her lashes--she knows exactly what she does to him--she takes him into her mouth and lets her eyes fall shut again, and his fingers flex in her hair convulsively with every pull of her mouth.  The breath--and the anger, and the fire-- whoosh es out of him until all that’s left behind is his stiffening cock and her lips and hands and tongue and--

“C’mere,” he groans, tugging her upward to kiss her spit-slick lips, one hand around the back of her neck and the other cupping her jaw.  She moans into the kiss, mouth open and hot and hungry, and he twists them around to push her up onto the desk, muttering distracted apologies when something crashes to the floor.

“It’s fine, it’s fine,” she laughs impatiently, arms winding around his neck and legs wrapping around his hips and sucking his bottom lip until he moans shakily and pulls back and scrapes rough kisses down her throat.   “God, Rio,” she gasps as he shoves her dress up and works his fingers under her panties.

She plants her own hand on the edge of the desk as her hips work against his hand, working up a wet mess that just makes him throb with want.  “I don’t have a--”

“It’s fine-- shit, ” she hisses with a jerk, pushing against his chest as she jumps down and turns, shoves her ass against his crotch, and he lets out a stream of curses into the back of her neck.  “Yeah,” she bites out, hiking up the skirt of her dress and looking over her shoulder at him.

He wastes no time in dragging her panties down and buries his face in her shoulder--he can’t help the little chuckle that escapes him when she slaps a hand over her mouth to stifle her cry as he presses into her.  And he definitely can’t help the low rumble of a real laugh when she bites out a whine and rocks back into him.  Biting his lip, he fists a hand in the back of her dress and holds the skirt up, and he just watches her fuck back on his cock, breath shallow as he mutters, “You’re gonna kill me.”

Her head drops as his hand slides from her hip to shoulder, and she lets out a shaky moan as his thumb digs into the muscle there.  “Could you--”

She gives a strangled noise when his hips snap forward.  “Like that?” he demands, voice gruff.

“Uh-huh,” she bobs her head.  “Yeah, I want--like that.”

From there, it’s hard and fast--she bucks back into him, countering every thrust, and he groans as heat pools in his belly.  She straightens, pressing her back to his front, and his hips jerk quick and short and rough. Her hand comes up to cover the one clutching her hip and squeezes his fingers--she gulps loud breaths, and he presses his forehead into the juncture of her neck and shoulder as his other hand slips down her stomach, down between her legs, and he feels how close she is in the twitch of her hips and the desperation of the noises spilling out of her, and, God, he’s close too, so close he can barely breathe, and--

In the end, he tips over the edge first, thrusts growing stiff and jerky as he touches her too hard and too urgent, but he doesn’t think she minds it--not if her cries are to be trusted.  She digs her nails into his wrist, and he feels her shake apart with a high, choked-off noise.

Minutes later, after he’s righted his jeans and she’s sitting back up on the desk and they’re sort of leaning into one another, he asks, breath not quite steady yet, “So, what was that?”

“If I have to explain it to you…” she trails off, grinning right into his face.

--

It’s really just the way things go, he rationalizes.  Things start to even out, they find their footing, they manage a month or so of peace and productivity and money , for God’s sake, and the other shoe drops.  In some ways, it’s almost comforting--Rio thinks he was getting too used to this.  Things were getting to be a little too normal , and he’s been waiting for something to go wrong for weeks.  So, it’s really kind of a relief when he hears the feds have been snooping around again--it puts him back on familiar ground, and his ground’s been feeling a little too shaky since--

Anyway, it’s not really a problem until one of his warehouses--the next one he’d planned to use--gets tapped.   That’s when shit gets real, and he knows then that he needs to figure some shit out.  Needs to find and stomp out the bad eggs in his basket.

The line rings too-shrill in his ears.

“Hey,” he says once Elizabeth picks up.  “I need you to do a job for me.”

Chapter Text

“What if it’s a trap?” Ruby asks at her right.

“What if it’s--” Beth shakes her head as if it were a completely ridiculous idea, “It’s not a trap.  He wouldn’t--it’s not a trap.”

“Super convincing!” Annie pipes on her other side.

“He wouldn't,” she repeats, injecting her voice with as much confidence as she can.  

He wouldn’t, right?

It should be a simple job.  Pick up the truck, take the truck from point A to point B, hand Rio the keys, go home in time to get the roast out of the oven.  The fact is, though… the fact is, this whole thing puts a bad taste in her mouth, and it’s making the hair on the back of her neck stand up.  

What she wants is for this to be some latent trust issue thing left over from Dean--and, really, what could be more natural?  Given that this is her first relationship after him, not to mention the fact that she hasn’t got the most extensive history before him, wouldn’t that make the most sense in the world?  All things being equal, even if they took crime out of the equation, wouldn’t some trust issues be normal?  That they’re coming up this late in the game may be kinda odd, but it can’t be that weird, right? She wants it to be her--she wants, so deep in her bones she can barely breathe, to have imagined that Rio’s voice was just different when they spoke on the phone.  Still, she can hardly blame the others for not being able to trust the situation, especially because the longer they stand up here on the roof of the parking garage, the less she trusts it.

“So, what do we do?” Ruby demands.  “Just walk up to it and hope snipers don't hop out from--”

“From where?” Beth interrupts, tilting her head and bringing herself back into the moment as she gestures at the flat expanse of concrete around them.  If either of them notices that her voice is more artificially amused than anything else, they do her the kindness of keeping it to themselves.

“Besides,” Annie adds, hands fisted in the pockets of her jacket as she scuffs the toe on the ground, “I don't think snipers hop.”

“Thank you,” Ruby answers coolly, and when Beth ducks her head to hide her smile, worry giving way to real mirth now, she continues, “Wow, I'm glad you're having a good time here because I'm getting real sketchy vibes.  I didn't wake up this morning thinking jail was on the agenda.”

Brow furrowing, she squeezes her fists to suppress the urge to wring her hands for a moment and asks, “Well, what if it is being watched?”

“Oh but I thought he wouldn't,” she responds with a scathing look. 

“Whaddya think's in it?” Annie asks, pointedly not looking at her and instead squinting at the light overhead.  “More fake cash? That'd be enough for…”

Beth thinks, with a glimmer of hope, about the warm, wistful way he'd said the only way he could get out would be with a really big job--but surely he'd have told her if that had been what this was, right?  Maybe if he hadn’t been so damn cryptic over the phone, she’d be able to say that of course he’d tell her.  But now? Now the uncertainty is gnawing at her stomach.  She wonders if she’d have taken all this differently before the Corvette incident--

She knows they're good.  He'd been more angry at Dean, which is something she can relate to and can't really begrudge him, and she can't really believe he'd set her up.  

But if she really believes that, why is she so nervous?

“Well,” she says finally, “We can't very well just… drive this thing out there.”  At their twin looks of confusion, she adds, “I mean, it’s probably fine, but if we’re worried it’s being watched…”  She’s pretty sure she overshoots nonchalance by a wide margin.

“I mean, teleportation isn't a thing so I dunno where you're going with this,” Annie replies slowly with a quick glance at Ruby as if trying to see if she knows where she's going with this.

And, really, Beth knows that neither of them is going to like this--maybe she should’ve done this alone.  This idea doesn’t work without the three of them , but she’d’ve saved herself the mortification of having the other two stare at her like she’s growing another head as she suggests, “What about three-card shuffle?”

Ruby reacts first, gaping and responding loudly, “No.”

“Or you could ask Stan if it’s got a tail?” Annie asks, eyebrows raising because they all know the whole life-of-crime or at least life-adjacent-to-crime thing has been justifiably a touchy subject in the Hill household.

“I think you overestimate the amount of information they give rookie cops,” she replies as she narrows her eyes.  

Before Annie can respond and say something they’ll all regret, Beth cuts in, “Alright, so, are you guys with me on this, or am I driving this thing outta here alone?  No judgement, I just need to know. Also, I’m a little worried I’m gonna have to pay the parking on it.”

She at least gets a halfhearted laugh at that one.

“Couldn’t you just--”  Annie starts.

“What, blow off her literal crime lord boyfriend?” Ruby demands.  “That sounds like asking for your sister to end up in a pine box.”

Beth wrinkles her nose and shakes her head with a snort.  “Rio wouldn’t--I’m not scared of him,” she says, and the more she says it the truer it sounds--besides, it’s hard to be afraid of a guy when you’ve seen him try to fry bacon in his underwear.  While she’s worried about what this is, she’s not worried about Rio, and anyway, “I’m doing this job.”  She shrugs, “I’m not quitting now-- I like the money too much.”

A half-truth.

“You like the danger too much,” Ruby counters pointedly.

“Danger,” she scoffs.  “What danger?”

--

“Alright, here’s the test,” Annie says definitively, palms flat on the island.  “Do you remember calling me?”

Ruby’s face clouds.  “Yes.”

“Do you remember that you were so high that you forgot why you got high?” she presses.

Beth tries to hold back a snicker.

Ruby looks to the ceiling.

“Mhm,” Annie grunts into her mug.

“Why were you high again?” Beth asks, fighting to keep her face straight and losing horribly.  She kinda wishes she’d been on that call--hell, after the last couple days, she’s even a little jealous.  “I feel like it’s a little counterproductive is all.”

“Stan gets chatty when he smokes!” she replies defensively.

“Yeah, but you’re not supposed to inhale,” Annie snipes playfully, softened by the way she leans over to bump their shoulders together.  “Hey, you got any more of that sixteen-year-old weed left?”

Ruby just rolls her eyes.  “Look,” she says, “I’m pretty sure the cops don’t know anything about a truck.”

Both of them look to Beth, bracing herself on the other side of the island, as she takes a deep breath and lets it out.  “So,” she asks finally, “Who wants to drive?”

--

Those old Penske trucks aren’t that hard to come by, and finding two in alright condition wasn’t that hard, all they needed was an hour or so and an internet connection.  In the end, even though they bicker about drawing straws and rock-paper-scissors, Beth takes the real one--it should be her neck, right?  It’s her job.  It wasn’t even one where Rio “recommended” bringing in anyone else.  He just didn’t say she had to go it alone.

She was right, though, and she did regret leaving the truck an extra night--the parking fee was ridiculous .  And yet, once they get on the road, she maybe even has a little bit of fun with it--especially as they’re weaving in and out of traffic, as first she’s in front, then Ruby, then Annie, then all three of them side-by-side.  It’s fun.   It’s like a dance, like they rehearsed it.

If she were more honest with herself, maybe she’d be able to admit that there’s something perverse and giddy in the pit of her stomach at committing illegal acts right out in public.  It’s part of what makes every cash sale so exciting--at first, before all this, before Rio, when she was just finding her stride at the dealership, every sale was exciting.  But it was never like this, it never made a silent thrill trip up her spine and settle in the dimples of her cheeks--she liked being good at what she did, she loves being good at something criminal and getting away with it.

“Everybody okay?” she asks, grinning ear-to-ear.

“No smokies on my tail,” Annie reports, but Beth can almost hear her grip tighten on the steering wheel.

“Yeah, I’m good,” Ruby says, sounding surprised.

“Guys, that was so sick, they should totally make a movie about us,” Annie jokes as they come to a light.

“Um, no thank you.”

Beth’s wide smile doesn’t falter as she listens to the other two, watches them go in different directions in her side mirrors.  There are jokes about who they’d be--Annie says she’d be the Pacino, but Beth lets her laughter curl in her voice as she says, “Oh, you’d so be the Joe Pesci.”

She thinks there’s more, but she barely hears it as she looks down into her mirror and sees the grill of a cop car and her heart stops.  For a moment, she can’t make her voice make any sound as Annie goes off on some annoyed riff, and Beth’s eyes are more on the Charger behind her than the road.  

“Guys,” she says at length.  Then, when no one responds, more urgently.  “Guys.”

“What?” Annie asks.

“There’s a cop behind me.”  She can’t quite keep the note of real anxiety out of her voice.

A pause.  Annie tells her to relax.  Beth wants to laugh with how seriously not helpful that is.

“Easy for you to say,” she reminds her, voice hard in spite of a sing-song note of panic buried in there.

“Make a turn,” Ruby orders.  At Annie’s directive to lose that sucker, she continues, “Just go slow.  Chill. Be cool. See if he follows.”

She makes the turn.

The cop follows.

And, for the first time, this suddenly feels… very real.  It’s not that the fake cash was never a real problem for her--although, being honest, it was probably more of a problem for the others--it’s just that… to this point, except being banned from a couple stores, Beth realizes now she’s gotten so lucky .  No one’s even looked at her sideways, and even the security at the stores didn’t do much but escort her out.  No one filed any report, as far as she knows. Turner hasn’t sniffed around anymore. To this point, none of this ever felt dangerous .

Swallowing thickly, she steels herself before saying, “You guys have to help Dean with the kids, he can’t do it alone…”


 

When Rio and his sisters were kids, after their dad died, they had this neighbor who brought them dinner from time to time when their mom worked late.  Now an adult and father himself, he guesses that the food was more of a pretense to check on a couple kids who had the run of the apartment for hours on end.  Later, when he and his oldest sister started working themselves, she’d bring the odd lunch, too. When their ma got sick, she’d bring soup and sit with her, making sure the youngest weren’t too much, bringing along her two--there was a time Rio thinks he ate more Italian food than anything else because of that lady.  The phrase babysat was never used, but he realizes that, whether by arrangement with his mother or just by virtue of the fact that, sometimes, neighbors really do look out for one another, that’s kinda what she was doing a lot of those years.

Now, that lady--Angie--had a boy more than ten years younger than Rio.  They weren’t close, more like distant cousins raised in proximity--the age difference was too great and Rio had enough on his plate.  Still, when Eddie came for him asking for a job…

Thing he knows about Eddie, though, is that that kid never had much of a constitution.  It was practically written in the stars that involving the guy was gonna come back to bite him in the ass--it’s not like he was ever high-level, but he, like all of the people Rio employs, knows enough to be a problem if they wanna be.  At most, a danger, and at the very least, a big damn pain in his ass.

If he were a kinder person or if this were a different line of business--hell, if this were the same line of business but under different circumstances--maybe Rio would drop it.  Hey, he’d say, Takin’ a bullet to the gut’ll rattle anyone, better luck next time .  Perhaps if he’d come to him, it wouldn’t have had to end this way.  If he’d told him, if he’d done anything but tuck tail and hide and let him find out on his own that some fed was all over social media tagging his ass--and he’s gotta ask himself what kinda fed tags you on Insta , they’re evolving in the worst way--this coulda gone differently.

“You think your mother knows she raised such a little bitch, Eddie?” he asks, taking the rag Cisco offers and wiping blood and spit off his bruised knuckles.

“Prob’ly,” Eddie slurs thickly.

That makes Rio throw his head back in a real, deep laugh that makes him regret wanting him dead.  “You probably right, you know, Angie’s a smart lady,” he muses as if to himself. He hunches down onto Eddie’s level and surveys his work--he can’t have hit him all that hard, he rationalizes, not hard enough to break anything, his own knuckles are sore and swollen but aren’t even scraped.  Without looking away from swollen eyes and what might be a broken nose, he reaches back.  Cool, heavy metal drops into his palm, and he presses the muzzle of the gun under Eddie’s chin.  “You said that fed--Turner--he’ll be expectin’ to meet you tonight, yeah?”

--

It’s been more than a day since he told Elizabeth where to get the truck, and it’s been radio silence since.  It’s bizarre--it’s almost painful, the way a sore tooth is, and like a sore tooth he can’t stop worrying it. Besides, they haven’t really gone a day without talking in months, and the absence feels strange in spite of the fact that it hasn’t even been that long --and he kinda misses her.  At the thought, though, there’s a chill--she’s so far intertwined in his shit right now, most days he barely knows which way is up, and it’s goddamn unnerving .  Even though he’s never been a fidgeter, he drums his fingers on the steering wheel before letting his head drop against the headrest.  You got more pressing matters, he reminds himself.

When he walks into the diner, he doesn’t miss the way the fed double-takes at him, but then his face settles into a resigned mask as Rio says to the server who’s just begun to hold up a coffee carafe, “Nah, thanks, I’m not stayin’.”  He slides into the booth across from Turner, a guy he’s made it his business to know all about, and says, “If you’re waitin’ on my boy, you’re wasting your time.”  Smallest smirk tugging at the corner of his mouth, he shakes his head and continues, “He ain’t coming tonight.”

“That so?” Turner asks, sitting a little straighter.  “So, you come in here and admit to a federal agent--”

“What?  That I sent him to a farm in the country where there’s plenty of space to run and squirrels to chase?” he smiles coolly.  “All I said was he’s not gonna be here tonight.” He watches the other guy’s cheek bulge as he jabs his tongue there and says, “Listen, if I were you, I’d go back home to that beautiful family you got back in Baltimore.”  He shrugs, “Let’s just call this thing what it is, yeah?  I mean, not that I mind having my picture taken--but ain’t it gettin’ a little old for you guys, followin’ my ass around town and not comin’ up with jack?”

“I think,” Turner says after a beat, “I’d like to talk to Eddie myself, if that’s alright.”

“Yeah,” Rio huffs, laughing without any real humor behind it, “Good luck with that.”

--

When Rio was sixteen, he tried smoking cigarettes--because he was a kid, basically, and he was always pretty contrary--and he got into it for about a week in the dead of winter before his ma caught him and ripped him a new asshole.  He doesn’t miss it, didn’t really even do it enough to miss it, but he finds himself thinking with a weird sort of nostalgia about the burn in his chest on cold, crisp nights when his breath fogs out in front of him on every exhale.  Even through his coat, he can feel the chill, it bleeds into him, and his forearms are icy where they rest against metal railing. From where he’s standing on the loading dock of one of the warehouses he rotates through, he can see through the windshield of the truck as Elizabeth pulls up--under the sick yellow street lights, her eyes and cheeks look hollow, but his own jaw hurts sympathetically with how tightly she’s holding hers as she parks crookedly in front of him.

He’s hopping down to meet her when she jumps out of the truck and slams the door, demanding as she stalks forward, “Did you know?”  When he doesn’t answer immediately, she snaps, “I got pulled over--I could have gone to jail-- I just barely talked myself out of getting arrested!”

“For driving an empty truck?” he asks, keeping his voice carefully cool, detached against the fury in hers.

“Don’t--why’d you have me do it, then?” she asks.  “Why didn’t you just do it yourself if it was just an empty truck?”

Her face is flushed, her voice is tight, and her movements are quick and clipped, and in spite of her obvious anger, he’s distantly aware of the hurt in her eyes.  There’s something in him warring against his knee-jerk reaction to comfort her, but in spite of that he’s overly gentle as he explains, “I had a kid. The feds turned him.  I needed to know--”

“This was a test?”   Then, rigid posture somehow stiffening and straightening further, she shakes her head and asks, “Or was I bait?”

“Just gimme the keys, Elizabeth, I got work I gotta do,” he says, reflexively bucking against being questioned--he’s allowed her too much leeway as is, he should never have--

“No, we’re gonna talk about why you somehow think it’s okay to put me in danger, to string me up like a worm on a hook just so you don’t get caught,” she replies, voice climbing as she stomps closer, right up into his space like she has no idea who he is or what he does--what he’s done in the last 24 hours alone .  “I’m not some lackey you can--you can’t just pull shit like this!  You’ve got to trust me more than this, I have a family , and I’m your--”

“You’re my what?” he asks plainly, and it’s not intended to wound, but she steps back with wide, stricken eyes.  “You think that because you’re my girl you get exempted when shit goes down? That’s not how this works, sweetheart.  This is my business--you asked to be part of my business, remember?  You don’t get to pick and choose which parts you get to keep just ‘cause you’re new, or just ‘cause we got something.”  You already get away with too much, he doesn’t say, but the more he talks, the more annoyed he gets.  Old habits die hard, and he’s not used to being interrogated by someone who works for him and letting them off easily.  Besides, there’s something niggling at the back of his mind he still hasn’t named that’s been eating at him for a while that makes saying all this so easy .  “Some jobs have random drug tests,” he shrugs, “This is what I got.  Now, you can take it or leave it, but I’m the boss here.”

For a long time, she gapes at him, arms limp at her sides and one hand barely closed around the keys, but he’s still too hot in the moment to feel anything about that but impatience.  “So, what, I’m not allowed to question your methods at all because you’re the boss?” she finally demands, eyebrows raising, words tinged with venom.  “That seems like the kind of dickish rule that would’ve been nice to have been made aware of before we started all this, huh?”

“Listen,” he sneers, words bubbling out of him without a thought, rising easily to her baiting tone, “I really ain’t got time for bitches who can’t follow orders.”  What he’s just said catches up with him as she reels back like he’s actually hit her, but he clicks his jaw shut--childishly, he realizes even in the moment--against an apology.  The silence hangs thick and oppressive between them before finally he holds out a hand and says, “Just give me the keys.”

“Go screw yourself,” she hisses, arm winding back as she chucks the keys at his face.

He flinches as they strike his cheek, and it feels like it takes a long time for them to hit the asphalt at his feet--for a long moment, the only thing he’s aware of is the blood rushing in his ears and the sting in his face as he brings a hand to where they’d hit.  When he looks at his fingers, they’re clean--which is fortunate--and he takes a bracing breath as he lifts his eyes to her face. She’s lost all color, but her back is still straight as she rights the front of her jacket, chin lifting.

He holds her gaze as he bends to pick up the keys, and when he straightens, he steps toward her until there’s only a couple inches separating them.

“Go home to your family, Elizabeth,” he forces out tersely, holding himself very still, “Because what you and I had?  It’s over. Done.”

Her mouth opens and closes a couple times before he turns away, but he hears behind him as he’s taking the stairs back up onto the loading dock, “What do you mean you had a kid?”

Turning, he doesn’t answer, just stuffs his fists in his coat pockets.

“Is that what happens when people go against you?” she asks--he realizes now that he’s never seen her scared before, not really.  But he recognizes fear easily--hell, he’s used to using it to his advantage--and he sees it now. “So, what, do I come home from getting groceries one day and--”

“No,” he says, bile on the back of his tongue at the admission.  “No, just. Go home.”

Chapter Text

It just isn’t fair that Beth remembers exactly what happened last night the moment she wakes up.  There’s no moment of amnesia, no blissful lack of awareness.  Instead, for a long time all she can hear is a voice, tight with anger in a way she’s never heard before, echoing done over and over and over again until it fills her skull, makes her feel so hollow she wants to be sick--but then Danny’s pushing into her bedroom to tell her that they’re out of milk and Kenny used the last of it and now he and the girls can’t have cereal for breakfast, and she rubs her eyes until she sees stars.  Her voice is rough and her throat aches when she says, “Have some oatmeal--I know, I know. I promise I’ll get milk today.”

Her door closes, and she squeezes her eyes shut against a burning rush of tears as she drags a pillow into her arms and buries her face into it--and, secretly, she presses her nose into the spot where the scent of his cologne is strongest and breathes and breathes and breathes until her lungs can’t take in anymore and her chest feels like it’ll burst.  Muffled, she lets out a choked sob, then another, sounds mangled in the back of her throat as she tries to stifle them. All she wants is to stay in this bed, wrap herself in her covers, and listen to sad music. She wants to watch Fried Green Tomatoes and eat Haagen Dazs Bourbon Vanilla Bean ice cream and cry , ugly and messy and loud .  She wants to take a couple days off from work, from her life, wants to petulantly dig her heels in and demand them--but she can hear Emma screaming that she’s gonna tell Mommy and Beth is violently reminded that you don’t really get days off from parenthood.

Well, she doesn’t.  That thought is ugly and unfair and bitter, though, and she tries to shove it away.  It’s not constructive to compare her level of involvement in her kids’ lives to her ex’s.

Rolling out of bed, Beth wraps her robe around herself as she shuffles to the bathroom.  She splashes water on her face, stares at her reflection, and scowls at her puffy eyes.

She goes about her day.

And the next day. 

And the week after, too.

It doesn’t really get any easier--this isn’t like Dean, she didn’t gradually fall out of love with him.  It’s not that she’s not mad about what he did, she is --but no amount of anger and hurt and betrayal is enough to overcome the fact that she feels like someone’s cut into her and taken something away, so much so that every step she takes is off-kilter and unbalanced.  Her fingers ache with the urge to grab her phone, to text him, to reach out and apologize and bend over backwards to make things better, to tell him about good moments and bad.  She tells herself that it’s just muscle memory and that she’ll get over it, but it feels as fresh now as it did then, and she has moments where she can’t breathe with the knowledge that she’s never gonna see him again.

It feels, somehow, unfinished.  Maybe that’s got more to do with the fact that he’s gone completely ghost--no little run-ins at the park, no glimpses at the store, no texts to let her know she left something at his place.  In fact, no texts to ask for the things he left at hers.  And she knows he meant what he’d said, really meant it was over, and guesses he must’ve just chalked the clothes and coffee mugs and that one watch up to a loss.

There are moments when the anger flares up, peeks an ugly head over the sadness that bleeds into her bones, but it’s impermanent and hard to maintain.  Her acting out hadn’t been so much cathartic as it had been the last nail in her coffin, as it were--and there’s a nasty little voice in the back of her head that tells her it was her fault , that everything had been going so well, so it has to be.

It’s the fight she’s been having with herself, cycling through it until she exhausts herself.

To make matters worse, as if the universe has decided to kick her when she’s down, Dean announces he’s noticed Rio hasn’t been “lurking”-- lurking, she thinks with disdain--around, and she hears herself snap, “Yeah, we broke up.  Next time, I’ll remember to update my Facebook.”

“Oh,” is all he says, but she catches the smug pleasure curling at his mouth.  “Oh, I’m--that’s--”

“Nope,” she interrupts.  “Don’t forget Danny has an appointment with the ortho this afternoon.”

She avoids him a lot after that.

But that day also kicks off his days with the kids, which means she’s finally got a chance to get a good mope in since the breakup.  That night, she very briefly considers calling Ruby and Annie when the matter is taken out of her hands entirely as the doorbell rings.  What she finds on her doorstep is her best friend wearing a sympathetic wince and her sister holding a bottle of liquor that’s more sugar than alcohol.

“You know that’s the reason your hangovers are so bad, right?” Beth asks with a vague wave towards the bottle as she steps aside to let them in.

“Haven’t you only been home for, like, four minutes?  How are you already in your pajamas?” Annie responds.

Instead of answering, Beth pulls a face behind her back.

“I think what she means to ask is are you okay?” Ruby says with a sharp look.

“I’m fine,” Beth insists, voice too high.  At Ruby’s look of disbelief--Annie’s already marched on to the kitchen and she can hear her banging around in the cabinets from the foyer--she continues a little shrilly, “I mean, why wouldn’t I be?  Definitely nothing to do with the breakup--which Dean knows about now, by the way.  I’m fantastic.”

“Oh, yeah, you’re totally fine, I see that now,” Ruby replies, deadpan delivery made a little kinder when she squeezes her arm.  “You wanna talk about it?”

“Not--no, no, I want to drink a lot about it and maybe order Chinese,” Beth frowns, shaking her head.

“Well, lucky for you, we brought alcohol, and DoorDash is a thing!” Annie cheers, offering a glass of suspiciously clear liquid.

“I have my own liquor cabinet, actually,” she says, sidestepping her.  “But if you wanted to order from Jade Gardens....”

Once drinks are made and food is ordered, and after Beth muses that she thinks the two of them still have at least one set of pajamas somewhere around the house, she ends up on her knees in front of her dresser digging through the bottom drawer.  Behind her, Annie’s pacing, and she only half-listens to, “God, I’m just saying she’s such a hag, I don’t even know what Gregg sees in her.”

“Careful,” Beth warns as Ruby snorts, but then--ah- hah , she knew they were around here somewhere--she finds what she’s looking for.  “What did Nancy even do this time?”

“She told me not to let my hair touch the couch because my hair oils were really hard to clean out last time,” she responds vehemently, gesturing so quickly she nearly spills her drink.  “There’s no way that’s a real thing, she’s just being awful because she’s awful.”

“Hair oils are a real thing,” Beth says, distracted as she distributes the pajamas.  Then, what Annie’s said kind of processes and she demands, “Wait, what?”  

“Exactly,” she hisses causticly.

--

For better or worse, some days are just bad, and today is bad.  She wakes up and immediately stubs her toe, her water heater is on the fritz which makes showers a crapshoot, the kids only barely make it to school, and the walk up to her house is slick enough that she nearly took a bite out of the concrete earlier.  All these things would have been fine if they hadn’t happened within a few hours of one another, and if the water hadn’t gone frigid just as she’d stepped under the showerhead--to say she’s having a shitty day is just an understatement, and all she wants is to make it through the rest of the day without falling, forgetting anything or any one important, or any other minor disasters cropping up so that she can, God willing, actually get clean .

She’s got her hair clipped back, and she doesn’t think anyone but her can actually tell it hasn’t been washed, but she can’t help herself from touching it self-consciously, smoothing her fingers over the sides or tucking loose strands behind her ears.  Scowling, she hunches closer to her computer screen--in the month since the end of her relationship with Rio and by extension the end of the criminal supplement to her legitimate business, she’s started to feel it .  They’re not desperate, but she’s starting to see where she may have taken the money laundering thing for granted.  Her own personal account is comfortable , but she’s thinking that may be more of a for now situation, and the dealerships accounts are--

They’ll be fine , but it’s not like life needs to throw more reasons at her to regret that night.

Her cell rings, effectively cutting through those thoughts--thank God --and she shifts quickly from mild anxiety to outright worry when she sees Ruby’s name across her screen.  “Hey, what’s up?” she answers immediately.

“Hey, so, I’m gonna need to ask you to do me a favor, are you busy?” she asks.

Twisting to look out through her office walls to the empty showroom, Beth snorts, “No, I’m free.”

“Cool, Stan just called and I guess he forgot his lunch?  Or someone ate it? He was being a little vague on the details,” she says quickly--and she’s lying, Beth knows she’s lying because she’s known her since they were kids.

“Uh… huh.”

“Do you think you could swing by my place and take him something?  There should be some leftover casserole in the fridge.”

“Sure,” Beth says cheerfully.  “Do you plan on telling me what this is really about before I do?”

“I gotta get back to work!  Thanks for this!”

After she hangs up, Beth shoots her a text about how this totally isn’t suspicious at all, but since she really doesn’t have anything better to do, and since she’s sure this can’t be all that nefarious, she locks her computer.  With a brief pause to let Dean know she’s taking off, she leaves. On her way to her van, she tips her head back into the sun, warm against the chill in the air.

There is, in fact, a casserole in the fridge, and Beth makes short work of cutting out a generous portion for Stan and putting it into a container.  Then, after a moment’s thought, she tosses it into a bag with one of the kids’ juice boxes and puts everything else away. She washes the knife she’d used before she locks up and leaves.

On her way to the station, Beth tries to figure out what exactly is going on here.  Why wouldn’t Stan just buy lunch?  Or stop buy to grab it himself? Ruby working is not suspicious, but this is… weird.  Decidedly weird. For a moment, she considers that it may be some kind of attempt at setting her up--but then why would she do it in the middle of the workday?  Also, she’s technically a criminal, so setting her up with a cop would be an odd choice. Ruby’s exempt because she didn’t start breaking the law until twenty years into her marriage.

Once she’s there, though, she has about fifteen seconds to continue that line of thought before she freezes mid-step, mouth falling open.  It can only be a flash of a moment, but time seems to stop, and the only thing she can really focus on is the fact that she feels the fact that she hasn’t showered.  The fact that he’s cuffed, that he’s being ushered out of a room or something , that he’s bracketed on both sides by cops--these details are all secondary to the way his lips twist, the way his eyes scan her face, catch and hold on her hand lifting to tuck her hair back, drop to her throat where she’s been wearing a gold chain Judith got her for Mother’s Day (the tag had said From Dean but even then she knew) instead of her pearls since…

The moment ends, and Beth finds herself able to shut her mouth and turn away as Agent Turner follows them--she doesn’t think he sees her, or at least, he doesn’t see her staring, and she catches sight of Stan a second later.

“You,” he says, stepping towards her and accepting the bag she offers, “Are a lifesaver.”  Before she can respond, he nods to her left--his right--and says, “C’mon, come have lunch with me.”

“Alright,” Beth agrees slowly.  Then, as they make their way to what is clearly a breakroom, she adds in undertone, “What, and I cannot stress this enough, the hell.”  

“I--I know, I’m sorry,” he grimaces, pulling the door shut.  Even though they’re alone, he continues quietly, “Listen, he breaks the law and should probably go to jail--but…  That guy Turner?” He pauses, taking the Tupperware out of the bag she’d given him and tossing it into the microwave.  “He’s a piece of work.”

Frowning, Beth leans against the counter and dips her chin a little, and she folds her arms in front of her chest and laughs humorlessly, “Well, I’m pretty sure you got the memo that Rio and I broke up, so…”

“He’s only in here on an open container charge,” he says as if she hasn’t spoken, “And I gotta tell you, I was there when he was talking to that kid in Rio’s gang, and I hear guys talking about that arrest, and something just doesn’t sound right, you know?”  The look he pins her with is weighted, significant, and she doesn’t want--she really doesn’t want to understand what she’s being told.  “Hypothetically speaking, if they have him in custody right now, it’s because they think they can get a warrant for something bigger and want him out of the way,” he tells her, voice so low but face so serious Beth has a moment where all she can think is that he might as well be holding up a sign that says important, illicit conversations happening here.

She loves the guy, but he really wasn’t made for this.  It’s probably to his credit.

“And that warrant would be for…”  She cocks an eyebrow.

“You know that Fine and Frugal on Kennedy?  Kid brought it up once.”

Guess he talked, she thinks acidly--it’s not that she wants Rio to go to jail, she’s not still that angry, but she can’t help the small, ugly, victorious fist bump some part of her wants to do.  That being said, she recognizes what’s happening here. And for Stan to be telling her all this, describing Turner as a piece of work has got to be an understatement.

On the one hand, she wants to turn coldly away, wants to shrug and say not my problem and move the hell on.  She wants to say good riddance, that’s what you get when you choose that life .  In short, she wants to be able to turn her back on him and walk away, she wants to be hurt and angry enough to do that--the distance of a month has cooled her anger, and while she’s still hurt , she can’t muster up enough of that feeling to dismiss the undercurrent obvious in Stan’s voice--the one that says clearly that she wouldn’t be here, and he wouldn’t be telling her what he had, if not for the hand Rio had in making sure that Sara got what she needed to get better.

The thing is, regardless of the fact that he is, technically, a bad guy--she just still can’t bring herself to think of him as a bad guy.  A guy who’s made terrible choices, sure, and a guy who does bad things, and a guy who called her a bad name , but not… a bad guy.

She’s smart enough to know that she’s already decided to figure out a way to get his money out of the grocery store and that most of this is just a token protest.  Mostly, she’s annoyed--with herself for being so predictable, with Rio for being high enough profile for this to have come up, with Turner for going after him, the list goes on and on.

“Well, that’s interesting, isn’t it?  Lucky I got out when I did, huh?” she scoffs stiffly, realizing she’s been silent for too long.

“Oh, yeah, for sure,” he responds, his own smile gentler and more genuine than hers.  “Hey, thanks again for bringing me lunch!”

--

“So, what you’re saying is that you want to rob a grocery store to get cash that you know is fake so that your ex-boyfriend--the one who you said used you as bait and then broke up with you because you had a problem with that--doesn’t go to prison?” Annie asks slowly when Beth finishes laying out the plan.

“Technically, from how I understood the story, the breakup was actually because she started throwing keys--” Ruby stops when Beth shoots her a wounded glare.

“Listen, I have a list of reasons we should do this, and it begins with the fact that he knows our faces and what we’ve done and ends with the fact that he’s got a kid who I like a whole lot and would hate to see grow up without his dad,” she says, as cool and detached as she can make herself sound.

Holding her gaze, Ruby’s brow furrows before she says, “You’re full of shit.”

“Those are both real reasons,” she replies innocently, face heating.

“No, no, wait, this is good,” Annie gasps as if a lightbulb just went off over her head.  “Do you know how many times I’ve imagined robbing that place?  And Boomer’s on duty this week.  I’ve changed my mind, I love this plan, let’s do it.”

“So, it was just that quick for you, huh?” Ruby asks, arms crossing.  “What’d he do this time?”

“Asked me to go to church with him and then told me I was a stuck-up bitch when I said no,” she says sweetly, snatching up a piece of construction paper discarded by one of the kids and using a crayon to draw on it.  “Doesn’t sound super Christian to me, incel prick.”  As Beth pats her shoulder sympathetically, she continues, “Anyway, I could probably rob this place blindfolded.  Alone. It’ll be great. We’ll need masks, though, because there are security cameras… here, and here, and here--they’re shitty, but I mean…”  Trailing off, she looks up and gestures vaguely between the three of them.

“Oh, it’s the grocery store,” Ruby says, impressed.

Snickering, Beth asks, “Okay, so, what, we go Sugar & Spice and get some Halloween masks?”

“I was thinking ski masks, but I like your style.”  At their stares, she shrugs, “I’m a traditionalist.”

“Do you guys ever feel like we’ve gotten awfully cavalier about breaking the law?” Ruby asks.  “I just feel like we should all have more objections to this.”

“Well, see, aside from the revenge thing and the I-hate-my-job thing, I kinda thought she had a point with the whole… he knows who we are and what we’ve done thing,” she says casually.  “Now, the back doesn’t have any cameras, so that’s where we should park--are we planning one car?  More than one car? When do you wanna do this?”

“Tonight,” Beth answers decisively.  “I mean, we’re all here, right? Might as well.”

“Might as well,” Ruby repeats, voice faint.  She pinches the bridge of her nose and says, “Fine, okay, sure.  We’ll do it tonight.”

Later, once Annie’s laid out the plan that she's apparently been working on since the day she started at Fine and Frugal and kept working on even after finding out it was used as a front to launder money--and, honestly, Beth’s gotta appreciate her persistence--and has all too gleefully volunteered to go get the masks, Beth and Ruby stand over the improvised map in silence.  They don't speak for a long time, and eventually the silence starts to make Beth more nervous than to set her at ease. 

“Hey,” she says quietly, nudging Ruby with her elbow, “Thanks for doing this.”

“Uh-huh,” she replies, giving Beth a considering look.  “You wanna give me the not-bullshit reason you're doing this?”

“I maintain that him having enough to flip on us and the fact that I feel for Marcus are valid reasons,” Beth answers, voice prim and back straight, not meeting her eyes. 

“Yeah, but they're not the reason,” she challenges.  When it's clear Beth has no intention of volunteering anything potentially mortifying, Ruby sighs, “You remember how you told me you never looked at Dean the way I look at Stan?”

In an instant, Beth knows she's lost--she feels her throat tighten and tears prick at the corners of her eyes, and she dips her head in hopes that she can hide just how quickly the dam burst.  She grips the edges of the table and takes a steadying breath before she can make herself utter a hoarse, “I don't know how that's relevant to the matter at hand.” At Ruby's derisive snort, she lifts her head, once she's secure in feeling like she's not about to burst into tears under her scrutiny, and says falteringly, “Fine, that's… true, and I get what you're saying here, but I'm not--this isn't…  I don't expect to get anything out of it.”  There's more she could say--more she ought to say, like how this is probably the right thing (or, the least wrong thing) to do and how she's paying him back for helping them, how she really does love Marcus and think Rio's the kind of dad who should be around--but she's saved by the unmistakable shriek of Annie's brakes out front.

After another heavy pause, Ruby nods and says, “Alright, let's go rob a grocery store.”

--

Considering they spent less than three hours planning the whole thing--two of them did, anyway--the robbery really goes quite well.  There are moments when she thinks they’re definitely gonna get caught--and moments during which Ruby would later tell her she was pretty sure Beth had forgotten that they were in the middle of a robbery, like when she’d stopped to comfort a little kid.  What? she’d demand, I’ve been a mom longer than I’ve been a criminal, sue me.   There are parts that are terrifying--when it start and no one really reacts, when Beth watches Annie take the manager to the back, when they make their escape--but there are also moments, little flashes and blinding, that are fun .  It’s been a month since she’s done anything more scandalous than pirate the episode of a show she’s only vaguely interested in that she hadn’t gotten to watch before it had been deleted from the DVR by one of the kids--she knew on one level that she missed this, but she didn’t realize how much until she was right in the thick of it.

Beth smiles, and she hasn’t stopped smiling--not when they make their escape, not when they drive off in separate cars with the money in a big, festive Rubbermaid in the back of her van, not when a cluster of cop cars pass her, going the opposite direction with lights flashing and sirens screaming.  Goosebumps raise on her arms and she feels a thrill through her spine, but, all the way back to her house, no matter how much she checks the rearview, no one follows her.

--

The moment Beth is home, she hauls the Rubbermaid inside--she’s got a plan for it, but the first thing on her agenda is a goddamn shower , and she’s reasonably certain that she’d be courting disaster by leaving it out in the van--and makes a bee-line for her bathroom.  Of course, she spends roughly eight minutes waiting futilely for the water to warm up before she realizes this just isn’t gonna happen.

With a frustrated sigh--she’s gonna have to call a guy about the water heater and she’s really, really not prepared for that financial reality--she shuts the water off and drags her fingers through her hair and paces around the bathroom before grabbing her phone and dialing her sister.

“Miss me already?” Annie answers--there’s something tremulous in her voice, but Beth can’t quite tell if that’s adrenaline or the line or if something’s wrong wrong.

“Totally,” she snorts.  “Can I use your shower?”

“I just--I feel so used,” Annie gasps back, and at least that sounds like her.  “You can’t just call to say hi?”

“Please,” Beth begs, rubbing her fingers together and scowling at how greasy they feel.  “My water heater’s broke and I’m covered in crime and sadness.”

“Fine,” Annie responds, exaggeratedly put-upon.

“Love you, thank you, see you in ten!” Beth chirps in quick succession, already throwing together a change of clothes.

The trip to Annie’s apartment is short, and when she opens the door, she looks… different.  Nervous. She’s not shaking, not pale, but Beth’s known Annie her whole life, she knows what she looks like when something’s up, but when she starts to ask what’s wrong, Annie says, “Hurry up, shower’s free but I might change my mind,” with a watery sort of smile.

“We’re gonna talk about this,” Beth promises, hiking her bag up higher on her shoulder and marching to the bathroom.  Almost as soon as the water gets going, the small room starts to steam up, and she lets out a sigh of relief--even if Annie’s water pressure isn’t shit compared to hers, it’s better than trying to take a cold shower in the middle of winter--and makes quick work of undressing and jumping under the stream.

She thinks, as she tips her head back under the stream, that the water could trickle right now as long as it was warm, and she wastes no time in lathering up her hair with shampoo--but then there’s a crash, and she stiffens.  A cry, a no!  Stop!

Shutting the water off, she hears what is unmistakably Annie, a muffled sob around words she can’t make out, and she slips and only barely catches herself in her haste to get out of the tub--she throws on Annie’s bathrobe as an afterthought and digs in her purse for--

A knife, pepper spray, anything --

When her hand closes around the handle of the fake pistol she’d used to rob the store earlier that night, she rushes out in time to see a man yanking his pants down and she shouts, “Get off of her!”

The guy lets go of Annie and whips around, flinching when he sees the gun and backing away, into the kitchen, as he puts his hands up and stammers, “Hey, e-easy there, no need to get upset--no need to get upset--”

With a quick look over at her sister--and now she’s shaking and now she’s pale, hands coming up to clamp shut around the V-neck of her shirt and eyes falling and looking more scared than she’s ever seen her--Beth feels fury rise up in her throat like fire and snaps as she turns her attention back to him, “Oh, do I seem upset?  Why would I be upset?”

“Okay, okay, look, we were just having a little bit of fun--”

Annie lets out a choking noise as Beth asks, “Oh, was that what that was?”  Her hand is steady around the plastic gun, and she realizes she’s never wished for a real weapon in her life before this moment, never wished she could cause pain quite as much as she wishes she could now, as she continues, “‘Cause you see, when a lady screams stop , it is usually because she is not having the time of her life.”   Her voice is hard but starts to fray right at the end as the anger in her chest starts to boil over--she feels it spread through her, viscous and poisonous and fortifying.  “But what do I know?” she growls. “Now, you’re gonna pull up your pants, and you are gonna get the hell out of here.” When he doesn’t move immediately, she adds, “Get!  Out!”

But the guy--the guy who’s still got his hands up and his pants around his ankles, who looked about three seconds from pissing himself a moment ago--only cocks his head and asks, “Is that a… toy gun?”

“No,” she sneers.

With a scoff, the guy nods, “Yeah, it is.”

“No, it’s not,” Beth says, but she feels some of the conviction in her voice start to give way as he walks forward, hands lowering, and challenges her to shoot him, then.  He looks down the barrel of the toy gun she’s still aiming at him and wraps his mouth around the tip--revulsion, fear, shame tamp down her anger, and it takes all she has not to jerk back.

When he pulls back, the marker she’d used to hide the orange tip of the gun is gone, and he laughs derisively, “You stupid bitches.”  He bends down to yank his pants up and says, “You’re going down.”

“Boomer--Boomer, please,” Annie shouts, lurching away from the wall suddenly to cut him off at the door.

“No, no way, you’re going to jail--you’re never gonna see that loser kid of yours, and your stupid sister too…”

Beth doesn’t hear the rest--she can see his mouth moving, but she can’t hear what he says over the panicked, furious rush of blood in her ears as she backs into the table.  Unthinkingly, she reaches behind herself, feels glass, gropes until her hand closes around the neck of a bottle, and lurches forward--it feels like another person moving when she pulls her hand back and brings the bottle down on the back of his head, and fear and adrenaline pull her back with her free hand grasping for Annie as he stumbles towards them holding his head, and she lets out a sort of scream as she trips back and--

And his foot catches on something and she covers her mouth as she watches him fall face-first into the glass coffee table.

Later--maybe a few seconds, maybe ten minutes, maybe an hour--Beth lets the bottle slip from her fingers and thunk against the floor.  She keeps her eyes on Boomer as she edges around the room and catches the door.

She can hear Annie’s quick, stuttering breathing, her hushed, “Is he--is he--”

“Ow, sonuva bitch!” Beth cries as her eyes start to burn.

“Th-thanks for getting shampoo in your eyes for me,” Annie jokes as Beth hunches over to dab her eyes with the hem of her robe.  She lets out a faltering laugh, sniffs, croaks a noise caught between a sob and something else--when she can see again, Beth catches her rubbing at her red cheeks.  After another beat, they both look back to Boomer. In a small voice Beth hasn’t heard in decades, Annie asks, “Do you think he’s dead?”

As if on cue, he lets out a groan.

--

For three days, Boomer is held in her kids’ treehouse before they figure out something to do.  That that something had to somehow involve Beth and Ruby seeing that guy’s dick wasn’t really something that Beth had planned , but then she hadn’t really planned on bludgeoning him with a half-empty bottle of Jack.  Life comes at you fast like that.

Somehow, life finds equilibrium again.

She gets Stan to recommend a guy for the water heater, and she gets it taken care of without needing to ask Dean.  She finds a home for the fake cash--she waits, but that’s not all she does.  That Rio doesn’t show up immediately after they hold up the store kind of incentivizes moving on--she takes care of her kids, goes to work, goes grocery shopping.  It’s not like she can just wait around her house for him to swing by at his leisure. Besides, he’s got her number.

He’s gotta know by now it was her, anyway.

She should have known he was just waiting for her to give him an opportunity for the most dramatic entrance possible.

The worst part is that her kitchen was empty when she brought in the heavy stuff--when it was the juice and potatoes and canned goods, she was the only soul in that house, she was sure of it.  It’s not until she returns from a second trip with one hand full of cold stuff, the other carrying a carton of eggs, that she finds him sitting on the counter--she shrieks and jumps and drops everything.

“Oh, goddamnit, Rio,” she cries, glaring first at the mess of broken eggs on her floor and then up at him, and she sees him duck his head as if to hide the laughter starting at the corners of his mouth.  “Are you serious right now?”

“Awh, c’mon,” he grins.  Then, he straightens, hops down, and steps closer--not quite close enough to touch, but close enough to make anticipation thrum under her skin.  “Heard you got somethin’ of mine.”

“Few things,” she responds gently.  “Grab me a couple paper towels first?” she asks, letting her eyes fall to the mess at her feet again.

She expects him to fight, expects him to tell her to get on with it, expects him to dismiss her--instead, his dark eyes drop from her face to her throat, his eyelashes smudgy, inky black against his skin, and then he backs up, goes to the counter where the roll of paper towels is, and rips a few sheets off.  There’s a flush of pleasure at the sight, but he doesn’t do more than hand them over and retreat back to the island, leaning back against it and watching her clean up--she can’t read his expression, it’s too frustratingly neutral, but she takes her time, forces herself to breathe more steadily and tries to keep her face equally collected.

“You gonna gimme my money?” he asks as she finishes cleaning up, crossing his arms in front of his chest.

“No,” she says around a smile just to watch his jaw tick.  “No, but I’ll tell you where you can find it.” Something flashes in his gaze at that, and something hot squirms its way into her belly--she turns away and goes to her silverware drawer.  When she turns back to him, she holds up a hand, displaying the key to the storage unit she’d rented under someone else’s name far enough away from both of their places to be inconvenient--and smarter than, say, the one right down the road.  When she tells him where to go, his eyebrows jump, and she thinks what she sees is approval.

For a beat longer than she thinks is really necessary under the circumstances, his eyes stay on hers, his arms stay crossed--he keeps leaning back against the counter.  Her fingers itch as her gaze drops to the relaxed slope of his shoulders because she knows what those shoulders would feel like if she reached out and touched him, and it’s harder with him here than she thought it would be.  Soon, though--soon, he pushes forward, stalks towards her, and she can’t help the way her spine stiffens.  She manages not to suck in a breath when his fingers brush her palm as he takes the key--but only just-- and her eyes flit from his to the length of his nose to the tail of his tattoo.  She thinks she sees, out of the corner of her eye, his other hand lift, clench into a fist, and fall back to his side.  She’s so focused on searching his face, though, it could just be a trick of the light.

Eventually he whispers, “Thank you, Elizabeth.”

It’s not until he’s past her that she whirls around and blurts, “How do you know this isn’t a setup?”

What are you doing? she asks herself, angry at her own apparent inability to just let him leave.

He turns and tilts his head to one side, and she feels something in the way he pins her with a look that she can’t quite explain.  “I figure it’s ‘cause you woulda just gone straight to the feds instead of tryna entrap me,” he responds easily, one shoulder lifting in a lazy shrug.  Another look she can’t quite decipher, one that makes her heart pound, makes her tuck her hair back just to do something with her hands--then he says, brow furrowing, “I’ll see you around.”

And that’s it.  He walks away. He walks away, and Beth can’t breathe around the thundering in her chest, and she barely hears herself cry, “Wait!”  She doesn’t wait for him to look at her, doesn’t even really give herself a chance to think about what she’s going to say next, just asks, “Do you wanna--I was gonna make some coffee--do you want a cup of coffee?”