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A Very Lassiter Christmas

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1976

 

"Three days! I gave you THREE goddamn days, Eli, and you couldn't even make it past the second without almost getting her killed—!"

"Hey, she wandered off, I didn't do anything that—"

"Exactly, you didn't do anything. I bet you just parked your ass at the bar and didn't even turn your head to see if she was still there for the next few hours—am I right? Please tell me I'm not—but god, I know I'm fucking right..."

"It's not—Mona, come on, I told her to stay in the lodge, how the hell is it my fault if she don't listen?"

"Because you're supposed to check up on a goddamn seven year old, you..."

 

Once Booker realizes that he can move his arms again, he uses them to fold either side of his pillow over his ears. It's easy to sink into it, to fall somewhat back to sleep and away from reality, as he finds little relief in it.

He only went outside due to boredom, earlier. He'd never seen snow before. He only wanted to make use of his time here, make a snowman, build an igloo... He only strayed further than the front of the lodge because there was a man at another lodge with a horse. He didn't know how soon it would get dark or how quickly the snowfall would pick up. He didn't mean to lose his way, he certainly didn't mean to trip and fall down the hill, and he was only following what he'd seen on TV as he took root at the base of a tree, knowing that he'd get himself more lost if he moved.

He learned only then how badly the cold could burn.

He learns now, as he looks at the clock on the opposite wall, that it's been at least twelve hours since he disobeyed his father and left the lodge. Booker doesn't know how much of that time was spent in the snow, but he does know that that means Christmas Eve is tomorrow. Or maybe today.

He was supposed to be home by now, he remembers. They should all be home and having Christmas together. But his parents are still arguing outside the hospital room.

He wonders if they'll have to have Christmas here. There's already tinsel on the walls, a tree in the corner, a few... snowglobes, on the shelf. Rather than the Christmas cartoon that's playing on the TV, his eyes are glued to those.

It isn't cold at all anymore, but he can't help but shiver.

And he doesn't know it yet, but by this time next year, he won't remember why.

 

*

 

2008

 

Starting December first, Carlton decides that the best way he's going to get through the holidays is by ignoring that they're even happening. He stupidly got his own hopes up both of the last two years—first, when he tried to visit Victoria and wound up imposing himself on a bunch of her colleagues who were too polite to tell him he wasn't wanted until it was too late. Then, thankfully to a far lesser extent, when he invited himself to O'Hara's family Christmas.

He swears to himself that he will not make that mistake again. Though to his mother, when she calls with her annual request for him to visit for Christmas, he just tells her his usual: I'll try to make it at some point, but I'm pretty busy.

"Only because you work yourself far too hard, Booker," she hits him with her usual too. But then, "Well, I really hope you actually can make time this year, because your br—sister is coming home for the week and I'm sure she'd be pissed if she flies all the way here only to not see you at all—"

"Wait, Lauren is coming?" All pretense in his voice melts away. "Why didn't she say anything to me?"

"Because she only agreed just last night. I sent her the money order for the plane ticket and she should be able to get here on the 21st... Are you sure you can't put some time in your schedule for us by then?"

For just her and Althea, Carlton would have felt very little guilt if any in simply saying I'll see. But with his sister there, too? Well, it's no question. He hasn't gotten to have much more than a phonecall or email with her in years.

He can't just tell his mother outright that despite everything I already said, I will definitely come, of course, but—

"Well, I... I mean, for Lauren's sake I suppose I can spare some lunch breaks or... drop by in the late evenings, as long as my caseload isn't heavy."

Carlton pretends to be driving through a tunnel in the middle of his mother expressing how happy she is to "finally be spending another Christmas with him"—he doesn't care to be reminded that he's gone back on his word so soon.

Then again, unlike the past two years, he'll actually know what to expect from his own family.

 

*

 

"Why do you have a fake tree?"

It's the first thing he notices, before his mother is even finished hugging him. He can tell without even needing to be very close to it, as the room lacks the very distinct scent of pine that was so very present for all of his childhood Christmases. Even so, he sets down the tupperware full of cookies that he brought and walks to the corner where it's set up. He finds that he's at eye-level with the angel on top.

"And why is it such a small one?"

"Why do you think? Althea and I are getting on in age, Booker, if you haven't noticed. We just don't have the kind of energy or time to haul an eight-footer in here, let alone chop it down ourselves..."

As she huffs and starts carrying Carlton's cookies to the kitchen, he keeps facing the tree and simply speaks loudly:

"Grandpa was still chopping the tree when he was even older than you, though."

"Yes, because he wanted to," she all but shouts across the room. "I barely had anything to do with that! I mean, I wasn't going to say no to George wanting to give you that experience when he was the one paying your father's child support. I kept doing it because I did grow up with the real thing myself, but a few years ago I just stopped seeing the point. If you want to go chop one down and bring it here and vacuum up all the pine needles when you take it out, though, be my guest."

He scowls and sighs and resolves to say nothing further about it.

"So when is Lauren's flight getting in, again?"

 

*

 

Carlton lets his break last just long enough to meet his sister at the airport, give her a hug, and then carry her bags to his mother's car. There's nothing urgent to attend to, but he's saving himself about an hour of driving and a good amount of discomfort from whatever airs his mother is going to put on in welcoming Lauren home.

Despite all that, he does find himself relieved at the absence of crime to deal with throughout the day, and when the late evening arrives with his permission to clock out, he isn't at all hesitant to leave. He admits to both himself and his partner that it's because he genuinely doesn't want to miss out on time to catch up with Lauren—at which O'Hara of course has to begin prying about his family, as he's never mentioned a sister before. But he manages to convince her to save it for another time quickly enough.

And luckily, Lauren is the one to open the door when he gets there.

"Carlton, you made it! With about twenty minutes to spare before the turkey's done, too."

He walks in without a word, nodding awkwardly at his mother and Althea on the couch in front of the TV. Then he darts into the dining room, out of their earshot.

"She made a turkey? Four nights before Christmas?" he grumbles.

"Actually, I think she's just reusing leftovers. And she's still doing the pheasants on the actual day of, I'm pretty sure... But who cares about food—what's up with you, dude? I haven't seen you in forever! The hairline has taken a couple steps back, I see."

He grimaces and folds his arms. "Yeah, well, at least it's natural. Bleaching really isn't good for your hair, you know."

She rolls her eyes. "People say that, but I've done it at least ten times by now and my hair's fine. Though I think I might actually cut the bleached ends off so that I have more of a bob, and dye it something else soon. Maybe purple. Thoughts?"

"Uh, atrocious. Are you even allowed to have purple hair as a nurse?"

"I'm not sure, but..." For a moment, Lauren just leans back and checks out of the threshold between the dining and living room. "...To be honest, that might not actually matter soon. I'm really not feeling nursing school anymore, so I'm thinking about dropping out—"

"Wait—seriously, Lulu?" Carlton unfolds his arms and drops them. "Isn't this... what, the third time that you've almost gotten all the way through a certification only to change your mind?"

She checks out the threshold again and sighs, more defeatedly than anything.

"Yeah, well, not everyone can decide what they want to do with the rest of their lives when they're five years old, okay? I'm not gonna keep working at something that I don't feel passion for anymore, especially not when it's the kinda thing that needs you to be passionate for you to do a good job. And don't worry, it's not like I'm just choosing to not do anything, I'm... pretty sure I wanna try for film school."

"And if that doesn't pan out?"

"Then I'll find something else," she shrugs. "I'm only 28, I have plenty of time."

At 28 he was already on his hot streak that led him toward working directly under the previous Head Detective. He already had so much of his future planned out and the thought of just switching careers at that age would have felt utterly insane to him.

Granted, his career was just about the only thing he had figured out by then. And it would be a little too difficult to deny that he's becoming his mother if he were to try to give a lecture now, in her dining room... And perhaps most importantly, the imminence of Christmas clear in the decorations all around them have preemptively made Carlton feel like quite the ass.

If nothing else, the oven timer going off tells him to save it.

 

*

 

Lauren doesn't need to ask for him to know not to tell their mother about her change of career plans, naturally. Sibling code and all that (or that's at least what he's heard it's being called these days).

Likely because she got it out of the way with Lauren earlier, meanwhile, their mother doesn't even give him any reason to lie about it over dinner. She only asks about him.

Mainly, his marriage.

"So, Booker, you still hung up on the ex-wife?"

And she asks out of nowhere, right as he's in the middle of swallowing some mashed potatoes. He comes very close to inhaling it.

"She's not—" She's not my ex, we're only separated, he nearly snaps, before realizing what a broken record he is. As well as how, the longer their separation lasts, the more pathetic he sounds when he says that. And how all three of the women at the table will most certainly react if he says it now.

"...Victoria and I haven't officially divorced yet," Carlton says instead, as calmly as he can. "But no, I'm not hung up."

"Then why haven't you divorced yet?" asks Althea, with a bit of a laugh between her and his mother.

He then stabs a little too harshly at his roulade, and lies more easily than he'd imagined he could:

"Because we're both busy people, and dividing assets takes time. An official, legal divorce just isn't top priority, alright?"

The full truth would be that it's so low a priority for him, that he's in fact terrified of it, that he has actively changed the subject every time that Victoria has so much as mentioned divorce. Somehow he doesn't feel that terror at the moment, though. Just... righteousness. And defiance.

"Well, then, why haven't I gotten my wedding ring back yet?"

And an intense desire to escape his mother's judgment, it seems, as he tells her simply,

"Because I might need it for someone else."

"What does that mean?" asks Lauren, who's been a mere audience for all this until now.

"I—"

"It sounds like he means he has a new lady that he might wanna propose to, soon," Althea says, leaning forward with a curious smile.

Oops. "Well—"

"Booker! Why didn't you say so?" His mother grins and smacks her hands down on the table. There's no getting out of it now. "Oh, I am so glad you're finally moving on, son—it's been, what, five years since that woman left you? I don't know what Victoria did to keep her claws in your heart for so long, but I think we'd all like to meet the woman that put an end to it."

Carlton's chest burns something furious, and it's only made hotter by the fact that he can't unleash it without ruining everything.

He wants to tell his mother that she has no business talking about Victoria like that. He wants to say that his marriage is none of her business. He wants to ask her really? you're going to act like the idea of staying married for so long regardless of that person's absence in your life is a foreign concept to you? you don't think that me growing up with a mom who married the first man she was ever with and then also settled down with the first woman she was ever with has ANYTHING to do with ANY of this?

Possibly the only thing that keeps him from blowing up is the glance he takes at Lauren, who certainly didn't fly here to watch her family fight.

Perhaps also the fact that he really, really does not want his mother to know the truth.

"You should bring her over soon!" Her voice breaks through the ringing in his ears.

"Uh—what?"

"This new woman of yours. Don't tell me you're afraid to let her meet us—"

"Oh—no, that's not it at all." At least that technically isn't a lie. "It's just... you know a lot of people are quite busy around the holidays, so I can't guarantee—"

"Well, if you of all people managed to spare a visit here, I'm sure she—oh, unless... it's long-distance? Please tell me you haven't gotten wrapped up in one of those long-distance things, Booker—"

"No, Mother, it's not long-distance," he sighs, halfway burying his face in his hands. He'd have lied and said that it was if not for the fact that that's truly something he would never do.

And he'd be chugging a drink if he didn't know that he wanted to leave as soon as possible.

"Oh, good," is all she says for a long moment.

He uses the pause to note that his dinner's gone cold, then take it to the microwave to reheat it. After that he hurries to finish, and he declines the offer of staying in his old bedroom with the excuse that he doesn't want to drive for nearly an hour to get to work in the morning.

On his way out, still, he doesn't avoid his mother urging him one more time to bring that girlfriend that he never quite claimed to have.

 

***

 

His mother is most often the last person that Carlton wants to take any sort of order or advice from (even if he might claim that that's Spencer), but all through the next morning he can't stop thinking about needing a date to bring home.

If he doesn't, he's sure that he can expect to be hounded about it not just throughout the holidays, but long after. And then the longer he goes without giving his mother a name or a face, she'll inevitably figure out that he just made it up, and then she'll come bust his and/or Victoria's door down to get her ring back, and she'll still believe that he's hanging onto a long-dead marriage—and whether he is or not doesn't matter, but he'll be damned if he allows his mother to believe that she was right.

The issue is, women aren't exactly lining up to date him. Or to even speak to him in general. Not even the women that he has gone on a date with in the past few months want to respond to his calls right now. He only manages to get as far as "It's Carlton Lassiter—remember me? I'm the guy that had the dead clown story? Anyway I need someone to pretend to be in a long-term relationship with me," before all three of them hang up.

He has to be glad that there aren't more, he supposes. The SBPD is getting hectic enough this afternoon without him being preoccupied by something so stupid.

Not hectic in any kind of good way, either. Nothing that he could point to on the news and tell his family "that's why I'm not coming home," but just extra piles of paperwork and an extra full building. All petty crap that mostly gets dealt with by people far below him.

Easily the most interesting part of his day so far comes when his eye is caught by a woman sitting outside the Chief's office, wearing a visitor's badge and looking around impatiently. Chief Vick herself, meanwhile, is alone in the office and clearly not busy. Carlton approaches.

"Can I help you, ma'am? If you're here to report a stolen item, there's a line—"

"Oh—no, I'm just waiting for my brother," she says earnestly. "Burton Guster. He said he'd be helping your psychic get Santa out of jail, I think—oh, wow, that really sounds crazy when you say it out loud, huh?"

As she mumbles that to herself, Carlton can only bark a laugh. Small world, huh. He didn't even see those two come in.

"Tell me about it." He wastes no time in sitting down next to her. "So you're Guster's sister? Why have I never seen you before?"

"Well, I haven't been in Santa Barbara at all for a few years due to being out of state for law school—wait. You know Gus?"

Mainly as an extension of Spencer, truthfully.

"He and Spencer work with me on a regular basis," still truthfully, but nicer. He feels compelled to be nice. "...You're a lawyer?"

She smirks and holds out her hand. "Josephine Guster, Paralegal."

He shakes it, firmly as he might do in a job interview, thinking mainly of how perfect this opportunity is. "Carlton Lassiter, Head Detective."

 

*

 

Josephine—call me Joy, she says—came here hoping that she'd get to see what her brother and his friend do for the SBPD, only to have no choice but to wait behind. Carlton, of course, sympathizes and offers to give her a glimpse of something even better: what real detectives do.

"For example, unlike those two knobs, I actually have an issued weapon," he tells her, promptly removing it from his holster and dropping the clip.

She seems impressed. This feels like a Christmas miracle.

It feels too good to be true, really. The longer he talks to her the more Joy seems like the perfect woman to bring home—beautiful, successful, intelligent, trustworthy, all-around likable... He just has to find a way to work up naturally to the question, or at least asking for her number so he can propose it later—

"What's going on here?"

He almost forgot that Joy being here meant Guster and Spencer were here, too. Even with the reminder, he's still openly smiling as he turns around to see them.

"Just having a conversation with your delightful sister," Carlton says, almost too cheerfully even for himself. He'd likely be creeped out in any other scenario, but he's desperate to make a good impression.

So much so that as Joy stands up, he instinctively offers to help her with her bag... which she's already lifting on her own. He grins extra brightly to hide that he's screaming internally.

To top it off, her brother is not happy.

"Get that for you," he immediately repeats, and pokes Carlton in the chest when he turns around. "I know exactly what that means. Shawn, what is the sentence for assaulting a police officer?"

The man actually looks ready to do just that before Spencer puts both arms around his friend to hold him in place.

"Woah...!—It's okay, buddy," he laughs. Then he looks to Carlton, who feels markedly less optimistic about Joy than a moment ago. "Sorry, Gus is a little overprotective of his older sister..."

"What's the deal with you and people's sisters, anyway?" Guster starts again. "First Vick and now mine? And aren't you still married—?"

"Stand down, Guster, we are simply having a conversation! Jeez—!"

"You snow white—"

"Lassie, I think Dobson is, uh... calling for you," Spencer interrupts with quite the anxious voice crack... probably for all of their own good.

That is, Carlton doesn't want to have to detain Guster in front of his own sister, but he certainly will if the man actually attempts to assault him. Better he simply not incite that rage.

In a last ditch effort to maintain the possibility that she'll accept a date with him later, he touches Joy flirtatiously on either arm and makes it clear that he very much enjoyed meeting her. By the time he's walking away only moments later, though, he's already made up his mind.

 

*

 

Yeah, no, trying to date a friend's sister is not an option. Even if Guster is hardly that close of a friend and come to think of it, has never done so much as been alone in a room with him at all? Still. It feels wrong, with or without the threats made to him over the notion.

So much for that Christmas miracle. Hell, it feels like Jesus or Santa or whoever else just dangled that in front of his nose to purposely get his hopes up and then drop them.

Out of spite, then, Carlton refuses to put further stock in the idea that he needs a date. He drives to his mother's house that evening empty-handed and convinces himself that he doesn't mind it that way. And luckily, when he arrives, he isn't immediately greeted with questions about his love life.

Probably only because his mother and her girlfriend are out of the house, though.

"They had to go pick up some stuff for Christmas dinner," Lauren explains. "Wanted to do it before the Christmas Eve mob, I guess. I think if you want to eat here tonight you'll have to either reheat some scraps or make it yourself."

"Fine by me," he says, coat halfway off and already on his way to the kitchen.

Without two older Catholic women in the house, the tension melts away almost entirely. He can cook to his own tastes, he can turn off the hymns on vinyl that his mother apparently likes to play around the goddamn clock and put the radio on instead, he can speak at normal volume with Lauren and not have to worry about whatever his mother might interrupt with...

Carlton might be entirely at peace, if not for what he notices the first time that he strays further than the front rooms of the house.

"Oh, god, Mom still has those pictures up?"

A full-body shiver of disgust hits him just seeing evidence of his teenage years, let alone thinking about the fact that these have been on display for god knows how long. That even if likely no one would guess that he and that kid were the same person—

Nope. He's not gonna take this. He's not going to look at these or let anyone else look at them, at least not as long as he's here.

"Don't you think she might notice the empty spaces?" comes Lauren's voice once his arms are nearly full.

He spares her a glance before continuing to scan the shelves, just to make sure he got them all.

"Nah, I'll just fill them in with Christmas decorations. There's more than enough ceramic Jesuses just lying around—"

"Jesi."

"Sorry, yes, ceramic Jesi. I doubt Mom will notice. Oh, do you want these old pictures of you down, too?"

He'd have assumed yes and was going to take those down along with his anyway, but Lauren just shrugs.

"Eh, I think Mom might actually notice if there's that many missing photos. To be honest, I don't really even mind how I looked back then—like, look, I'm so young I easily pass as just a girl with short hair and overalls."

He knows that she's right without looking. It's the backstory that they decided on for her forever ago—to explain away young childhood pictures and stories with her just being a tomboy. Unfortunately there's no such excuse for him, and what makes him angrier is realizing that there are no pictures here of when he did just look like a little boy.

Clearly, despite having let him dress that way at the time, his mother got rid of the evidence by the time she managed to pressure him into dressing like a girl again.

What Carlton would really like to do now is take these pictures outside and chuck them in the air and shoot them down... but he settles for hiding them. In somewhat of a fugue state, he strides to his old bedroom and finds the closet, and dumps them all in the back and closes the door. Then he fills in those empty spaces on the shelves and shakes his head a few times, and he's right back to normal.

Just in time for his mother to arrive home with groceries.

 

*

 

It seems even Lauren is deeply curious about the "new woman in his life." Particularly, when she gets to meet her.

After only a short amount of deliberation, Carlton decides that there isn't much of a point. They're on a far more equal level than he is with their mother, and he knows that she'll understand why he lied. She's keeping a pretty huge secret of her own to boot.

So he waits until they're properly alone and he sighs and he pushes himself to admit it:

"Listen, Lulu, she's not... there is no woman, okay? I'm—"

"What?"

Seems he was wrong about being properly alone. Or rather, his mother lied about heading straight to bed.

"But you said you were seeing someone!" his mother insists, stomping into the kitchen with folded arms. "Unless you were just lying straight to my face."

"I..." Technically if he lied at all, it was by omission. But that hardly counts as an excuse. He says the first thing that he can think of to cover this up: "Well, I never actually said that I was seeing a woman, did I?"

Somehow, the alarm bells in his brain turn off the moment that that comes out. The implications of it aren't even true, and he hasn't been with a man since before he even met Victoria, and the last Man In His Life that his mother ever knew about was in high school... And he only got shit from her about it, back then. He feels the spike of dread rise up again—

"Oh!" His mother looks... delighted. Her stance relaxes immediately. "Dammit, Booker, you should've said so! Did you really think your lesbian mother would be upset?"

...Actually, it's never been about you being upset, it's about the even more invasive questions I could only assume I would get, and it's about the fact that the last time I checked, you were still of the belief that I wasn't even a man so much just "extremely butch," no matter how much you cloak it in shit like "your happiness is my happiness and I'll support whatever you want to do," and god, you're really going to act like you've always been this understanding and like I'm the one overreacting for expecting worse—

"I don't know what I thought," he mutters.

His mother steps forward for a hug that he simply cannot reciprocate. All he can think of is how she didn't used to do this either.

"Well, you're just as welcome to bring him over for Christmas, too."

He stifles the urge to groan. "...Great."

"And loosen up, would you? You're stiff as a board."

 

***

 

Any men that Carlton has been with in the past would be off the table even if it hadn't been far too long since he's last seen them. Approaching a stranger who might be willing to help him like this would have to involve either vetting shady guys from Craigslist or vetting shady guys at a gay bar. Neither of which he's willing to do. Potentially outing himself to anyone in the SBPD doesn't feel worth it, either.

But none of that is even close to stressing him out as much as the very first option that crosses his mind: asking Spencer.

It's a comically horrible idea, he tells himself, and that should be that... but it's not. No matter how many other ideas he tries to think of, his first refuses to be set aside. And then every time he actually indulges the thought, it tears him up on the inside. Every last one of his fears feels as though they've come true all at once.

And yet, part of him keeps coming to the conclusion that it's the best option he has.

It's not even a real date, is it? he tries to bargain with himself. More than anything it's just to maintain a lie to his mother. To spite his mother. Prove in the most undeniable way possible that she was wrong about him still not having moved on from Victoria. Make it clear that yes, I like men, and I do so as a man.

Though that one does still feel a bit scary. He in turn feels stupid for that, considering how long he's known.

Being with Victoria made him forget about it in some way, he supposes.

Save for that last part, really, Carlton has no doubt that Spencer would be interested in playing a role like this. The man's got to be the best actor that he knows if only based on how long the psychic charade has lasted with himself being the only one not fooled. Even further, Carlton has seen Spencer while he was undercover.

He's talked down killers at the last second. He's reached those who were long past losing it. His on-the-spot speeches alone have saved lives.

Surely Spencer could save him some mere familial grief.

Now, if only Carlton could manage to stay on that train of thought for long enough to just text or call him without chickening out.

Instead yet another day passes with absolutely no progress made toward date plans—despite all the times that he comes very close—and after eight o'clock he finally begins yet another resigned drive out to his mother's place.

Then that resignation shifts to somehow both panic and relief as he gets a call from Spencer, claiming he's had a vision about a robbery conspiracy and telling him to come to the Santa's Village in Solvang right now.

 

*

 

For a good thirty seconds or so, he gets to be in that safe territory again. He gets to simply feel annoyed at Spencer for making him (and O'Hara) drive out of his way and waste their time, nothing more, nothing less. Nothing mixed. Nothing complicated.

Then his partner stops at the gate of the Santa's Village to comment that they don't actually have anything better to do at the moment—

And it's not ten more seconds before they hear a girlish scream.

 

*

 

While Wilcox's car is still in the parking lot, the man himself seems to be gone from the premises. Carlton checked as thoroughly as he could before backup arrived, and by then has already given everything that Spencer told him about Wilcox to the dispatch.

He's clearly a very dangerous man if he'd pull a sick charade like this... Not just killing his own partner, but then taking the time to dress up the body like this, too? To think, this guy was a mall Santa. This guy spends all his time around kids.

If Carlton was still interested in disproving Spencer's psychicness, he'd want to ask him something like, if you could supposedly 'read his guilt' to find out he was innocent in a little fight when you helped him out of jail, why'd it take you this long to figure out he was actually a murderer?

...But all he can really feel, once his disgust fades, and once EMTs and CSI arrive on scene and take the responsibility away from him, and as he observes Spencer at more of a distance, leaning against a wall and still staring at Ted... is thankful.

There's also a twinge of annoyance at O'Hara for still not finding anything suspicious about how Spencer's "psychicness" works, but—

If they hadn't found Ted Meltregger's body now, it would have gone unnoticed until tomorrow, when the Santa's Village re-opened. It likely would have been a child who noticed and got subsequently traumatized, along with all other children in the vicinity now smelling the stench of death on Christmas Eve of all days.

Clearly Spencer did some kind of investigation on his own time, to get to this point. It's a good fucking thing he did.

Carlton should really be hurrying to find out Wilcox's address about now.

But surely O'Hara is taking it upon herself to do that. He shouldn't worry.

He couldn't bring himself to worry if he wanted to, really. He's high on adrenaline and a million other things, and they all tell him that he has something better to do.

 

*

 

Perhaps a little too high, Carlton finds himself approaching Spencer at a swift pace, grabbing him by the shoulder without a word, and leading him away from the others.

"Uh... what's up, Lassie?" comes Spencer's lilting tone after a few moments.

He chooses that moment to stop walking. This should be far enough. Carlton lets go, faces him, and with almost delirious confidence,

"I need to ask you for a favor."

Spencer narrows his eyes and tilts his head, and gives him an odd, slow smile.

"Didn't I just now do you one by leading you to a murder that you'd never have had any idea of without me? I mean, granted, I didn't know there was a murder until I got here either, but I'd still say it's pretty impressive—"

"I'd call that more of a favor to the SBPD. This... doesn't have anything to do with the case."

"...Oh?"

Something about Spencer's voice (or expression, or stance, or any of it) cuts the strength of this impulse down by half. That confidence is already fading. He's aware of everything around him and it's very close to being too much. Carlton sure is glad that he pathologically cannot quit something once he's started it.

Oh, god, I'm really doing this, huh.

"Long story short, my mother believes that I'm in a new relationship and it is far too late to back out of that lie, so I need someone to bring home at some point during the holidays to prove it to her. It doesn't need to be for Christmas Day or anything—just for maybe one hour at some point in the next few days to establish that I'm not pathetic or lonely or hung up on my ex-wife—"

Huh. He just called Victoria his ex. Oops.

Before Carlton can get over that slip and go any further, Spencer lifts up a hand between them.

"Wait—you're asking me to be a fake date? Why not Jules? She seems perfect for that."

"Because I—" His throat seems to close in on itself to keep him from saying the main reason why. He takes a deep breath. "...Because. O'Hara quite honestly feels too much like a sister for me to not feel gross even pretending to date her—and along with that, the age difference is the same between me and my actual sister. So—no, she is not perfect for that."

No argument from Spencer there, thankfully. But then,

"Alright, so why not... some other woman, at least?"

Of course. It had to come out eventually. Carlton just barely manages to open his mouth, though, before Spencer's eyes go wide and he slaps him on the arm—

"Oh! It's to piss off the Catholic mom, right?" His wry smile turns into a grin. He doesn't wait for any confirmation. "Okay, Lassie, hell yeah—don't worry, I've seen Holidays In Handcuffs, I know exactly what to do."

Oh, no.

"...Which is?"

"To do the opposite of everything they did in that movie, obviously. Except I guess Mario Lopez being there wouldn't hurt... But I think we can make do without him. Is tomorrow night good for you?"

Carlton absolutely expected something to this degree from Spencer's response, but it's instilled some fear in him nevertheless. The guy never actually sounds sincere when Carlton needs to know that he is, and he always sounds too sincere when he must be joking. It's a simple pattern to follow, really. He just wishes that his own feelings would listen to his goddamn brain for once.

He also wishes that he could bring himself to say more now than a simple "yeah, that's fine" and "thanks" before Spencer is out of his sight.

 

*****

 

It seems pretty obvious to Shawn that Carl wasn't even at the Santa's Village when Ted was murdered. Even if Carl didn't have time to escape in his car before police arrived and he had to leave another way so as to not be noticed, or something like that... The real question is, how did Ted get there?

Either the killer took his car for some reason, or he came in the car that Shawn is now about 90% certain he and Carl share. Due to being partners.

But he doesn't expect the SBPD to catch onto those facts right away if at all, nor does he really want them to, as frustrating it can be to watch Lassiter in particular just ignore what's right in front of his face. It just won't feel like Christmas until Shawn solves this thing himself.

"You mean until we solve it," Gus corrects him right on cue. "Heck, since it's a fifty-fifty chance that either of us will get the bar that Frank's at, I might even solve it."

"Not if you keep saying heck, you won't. And definitely not if you keep 'sympathetic crying'—"

"Hey, I stopped crying before we even left the interrogation room!"

"Which brings me to my next point—it's kinda creepy that it's so intense but only lasts for like, one minute, wouldn't you say?"

Instead of answering that, immediately upon reaching the top of the stairs Gus starts gunning for the nearest bathrooms. Shawn just stops in his tracks and shouts after him.

"Really? You went when we got here!"

"You know that crying always makes me have to pee, Shawn!" he shouts back, already past the threshold.

Well. He'll definitely be a few minutes. Shawn sighs and takes the opportunity for a short walk back to the Chief's office.

Quite expectedly, Lassiter calls him across the hallway before he can get there.

"Hey, what'd you get out of Wilcox?"

He's already prepared his answer, complete with two fingers to the forehead and a slightly strained expression: "Not very much, Lassie, sorry. Only a psychic hint that my end of the investigation will be impaired until about... 5 P.M. today."

"...Uh-huh."

Lassiter looks as (emotionally) tired and vaguely suspicious as ever, as he just narrows his eyes and stares at (through) Shawn... but there's something new there, too. Shawn can only assume it's the same thing that makes him actually hesitate to address the white elephant in the room (he's heard it both ways).

"So—that being said, I know we agreed tonight but since I'm free for the next several hours, I wouldn't mind just getting it over with now if you wanted to visit your mom on your lunch break, or... something."

He finishes that off with a shrug, yet feeling like he completely failed to sound casual just now. For what feels like a long time, Lassiter's expression gives away nothing.

Then the man very quickly looks him up and down. A split second later, he almost seems excited.

"Are you, uh... gonna be dressed like that?"

 

*

 

Honestly, Shawn thinks it's funny more than anything. Obviously, no, he was not planning to wear a mere button-up t-shirt to a Christmas Eve lunch. But Lassie was openly giddy to turn the tables on him and try to give him fashion advice for a change, and it was not only a cute try but... also kind of just plain cute.

It's not difficult at all for him to pick out the perfect sweater for meeting his pretend future in-laws—he just needs to stop back at Gus's place to get it.

While he's there, he figures he should take a minute to get his hair looking perfectly fluffed up. Maybe brush his teeth and wash his face a little, maybe go under the lint roller real quick because most of his clothes have cat hair on them, maybe even do a spritz of cologne... except he doesn't have any.

Stuck in that train of thought, Shawn goes rummaging through the hallway bathroom for any scent at all.

He only notices Joy standing next to him when he closes the cabinet above the sink and sees her in the mirror like a slasher flick villain.

"Who are you getting all dressed up for?" she asks, ignoring his startled jump. Her smirk turns sultry and she moves to close the bathroom door. "...You look like you're going on a date."

She doesn't wait for a response before practically draping herself all over him—and clearly trying to do a lot more, but Shawn remains perfectly stiff and upright other than putting his hands on her waist to keep her steady.

"Maybe I am," he says, with just enough plausible deniability that he's serious.

Joy clicks her tongue in a remarkably Gus-like fashion. "You'd do that while I'm here?"

"Well hey, you were chatting up Lassiter, so I don't see why I should be held to different standards."

"Oh, I was not chatting him up. I was just sitting there while he chatted me up."

Shawn already figured as much, but he couldn't resist the private joke to himself. It doesn't matter, anyway. He and Joy should really not be doing this, least of all in this house while her parents and Gus himself are right downstairs.

Not to mention—as he checks his watch—Lassie should be picking him up any minute now. Thank god.

"Well, it was nice talking, but I... oh—" He pauses in the middle of opening the bathroom door, catching a whiff of his own sweater. "And thanks for the perfume! Gotta go!"

 

*

 

All Gus knows is that Lassie cashed in some favor points with him, along with an assurance that it's nothing bad. As straightforward and easy as it should be to explain what he's doing... Shawn really just does not want to. It's not that he wants to keep it a secret so much as that he doesn't want to hear whatever it is Gus might say about it.

And part of him worries that it might not be that straightforward. But he tries not to think about that.

"So, do you already have a plan for my backstory?" he asks as soon as Lassiter starts driving. "If not, I'd like to go by Jacob Cratchit. I used to be your unpaid intern, but then you realized that you've been selfish and you started treating me like an equal, and over time we—"

"This isn't a case, Spencer, you're not going undercover," Lassiter sighs. Though a slight, amused smirk does betray him. "You can just... be yourself. Well—something like yourself."

Shawn doesn't try to hide his own amusement. "Duly noted. Except—you know, if you wanna sell it that we're dating, you should probably get out of the mindset of calling me 'Spencer.'"

Lassiter spends half a minute glancing between him and the road in silence.

"...Duly noted."

Even after that, he doesn't actually call Shawn by his first name at any point during the ride. He barely even relays any information that might be important for him to know, going in.

Granted, Shawn doesn't ask for any.

The most the man speaks at all for the next half hour is after they've finally parked, at which he abruptly turns towards Shawn and points a finger at him.

"You better not pull any of the psychic crap while you're here, by the way. If they don't have at least a base level of respect for you, it kind of... ruins the whole point."

"What should I say when they inevitably ask what I do for a living, then?" And why didn't they talk about this on the ride?

"Just say you're a coworker!"

"Then they're gonna assume that that means I'm a cop, Lassie. And I honestly don't think I can make that lie track for very long. They'd ask questions that I'd have no idea how to answer, like... 'what's your favorite gun' and 'how do you wash a police hat?' And I wouldn't seem nearly as impressive."

Lassiter gives him a sort of that's fair enough shrug and eyeroll. Then he sighs again.

"Well... I'm sure that they'd be impressed and then some if you just told them the truth."

Without elaborating, he just gives Shawn a pointed look before getting out of the car. And Shawn follows, figuring out on the way to the door all that Lassiter likely meant by that.

Finally, he smiles to himself. The best lies are ground in truth, after all.

 

***

 

The moment that he sees his mother on the other side of the door, Carlton deeply regrets not having given Spencer a rundown of what his family household is like. It all just felt too daunting to say out loud while in the car, stupid as that makes him feel. He just couldn't bring himself to even believe that he's actually going through with this.

He still can't believe it, but... Spencer seems to be managing fine so far.

"Mona," Lassiter's mother introduces herself, seeming far more convincingly enthusiastic to meet him than Shawn expected. Then she gestures to the woman beside her— "And this is my wife, Althea."

Shawn struggles to hide his surprise as he shakes her hand. At least he does to the two women in question—to Lassiter, as he shoots him a look a moment later, he doesn't even try.

And Carlton returns his look with tight lips and an attempt to telepathically send the message, look, I never said my mother was homophobic. He was already dreading this, and now he's dreading the questions that he knows will come later all the while that he watches Spencer answer their questions—

Until he's yanked away from it by hearing Spencer describe his job as "SBPD's primary consultant."

"They call me when they need a little—or a lot—of extra help. And let's be honest, it's usually a lot," Shawn explains, and the three women laugh along good-naturedly. "Lassie used to really resent having to take my help, I think, but... as you can see, he came around."

He rests his hand on Carlton's upper arm, then, and for a moment Carlton feels the sensation of that throughout his whole body. He smiles through the flush that has certainly covered his face by now, and he can't help but make it worse by thinking of how, sure, his family will perceive that as normal but what will Spencer assume, and—

And even worse, after a few seconds of staring at each other, his mother and sister and Althea all look at him quizzically and say,

"Lassie?"

"Oh!" Shawn is immediately ready to take the heat. "Yeah, I gave him that nickname forever ago. It was—lemme think... damn, less than a month after we met? Once again I'm pretty sure he didn't care for it at first, but it was a lot more fun to say than 'Detective Lassiter,' and, well, it stuck. I'm sure it wasn't too long before he became fond of it. Isn't that right, Lassie?"

Oh, fuck you.

"Uh, well I—"

"Wait, how long have you two known each other?" Lauren interrupts, gesturing between them.

"Almost three years," Carlton hurries to answer, just so he can finally have room to speak. Then, as he catches his mother beginning to frown and open her mouth, "But we've only been dating the past six months."

"Only six months?" Shawn says reflexively. "I mean—I know you were married for a while and all, but this is the longest relationship I've ever had."

If it was a real one, that would be true. Especially taking into account that most people he's dated, he didn't know them for very long before doing so and he didn't keep in touch with them afterward. Now, thinking about it that way, plus the look he gets from Lassiter... makes him feel almost nervous. He takes the one hand off the man's arm and puts them both up defensively.

"I'm just saying! Six months feels like a big deal to me."

"Oh, don't worry, I'm sure it feels like a big deal to him, too," Lassiter's mom tells him with a wave of her hand, like she's trying to pull him aside and tell him a secret. "He proposed to his ex-wife after just six months, you know."

Oh, really?

"Oh, yeah, he told me that—"

Carlton clears his throat very loudly and glares daggers at his mother, an instinct reaction to make sure that she doesn't scare away his boyfriend.

Then he remembers that Shawn isn't actually his boyfriend.

Spencer, he reminds himself.

God. This is exactly what he was afraid of.

 

*

 

Shawn's assumptions are flipped yet again when Mom Lassiter asks if he'd like to say grace before lunch. But he rolls with it.

"Uh... rub a dub dub, thanks for the grub. Yay God."

He was expecting a snicker from Lauren, and he gets it, but even more quickly he catches an actual snort from right beside him. Then, in Lassiter's distinctive tone,

"Amen."

Everyone else opens their eyes, and Carlton pointedly stabs at his food as he speaks a little bit louder: "Come on, Mom, when's the last time I've ever said grace? Did you really think I'd date someone who wanted to?"

His mother and Althea both roll their eyes and huff, but they make no move to do a proper grace before digging in themselves. Probably to avoid a scene in front of a stranger.

Despite the complete lack of coaching that Carlton gave him, Spencer does fairly well for the rest of the lunch. All while... actually behaving like himself. Not all of himself, but. There isn't a single thing that comes out of his mouth that Carlton would otherwise be surprised to hear—other than what directly alludes to them dating, of course.

And everyone else just eats it up. It's surreal to witness. Oddly, what occasionally brings him back to full reality is Spencer just briefly touching his hand, or rubbing his back, or eating off of his plate.

The odder thing is that, for Shawn, this is nothing. This is bush league compared to how he most often acts when pretending to be in a relationship with another man—which is most often his best lifelong friend whom he's very comfortable with, yes, but... he's definitely never had any reservations about this sort of thing. He's always been so effortlessly affectionate. Hell, he's been more physically affectionate with Lassie himself before now.

He's just suddenly very conscious of where his hands are going.

Well, if I oversell it, then my cover's blown and I'll have made things worse, is how Shawn rationalizes it. Lassie doesn't seem like the kinda guy who's gonna be all touchy-feely with a boyfriend in front of his family anyway. And if he wanted that kind of performance from me right now, he'd have asked.

Come to think of it, Lassiter hasn't actually initiated any of the touch himself other than a mere arm around Shawn's shoulders when introducing him.

He feels even more conscious of it now.

At least somewhat with the intention to de-stress, Shawn finishes his main course quickly and then goes to town on the cookies and cakes. The plate they were on shifts, at some point, from the middle of the table to directly in front of him without him quite realizing. He blames that on how goddamn good they are.

"Looks like you're gonna have to bake some more of those, huh, Booker?" Lassiter's mother laughs.

And Shawn's head shoots up, half-chewed chunk of gingerbread still in his mouth.

"Booker?"

"Oh, he didn't tell you? That's what he—"

"Childhood nickname," Carlton snaps before she can get any further. He maintains a glare on his mother instead of looking at Spencer. "She's the only one who still calls me that."

Narrowing his eyes, Shawn looks back and forth between the two of them and tries to gauge what that means. Mainly because it's by all means a very cool and fitting nickname that he cannot imagine Lassie hating.

He ultimately decides that he's going to need more context if he wants to understand. So he folds his hands politely over the table and clears his throat.

"So, Mona, do you have any albums of baby pictures of Booker that you'd like to show me?"

Lassiter kicks him under the table.

 

*

 

It doesn't quite end with lunch, and Carlton realizes all over again how much he did not think this through.

Thankfully it didn't take much to keep his mother from breaking out any old pictures or school projects or even too-old stories, but Spencer is still learning far too much about him in one afternoon. Worse yet... yes, he did specifically want to bring home someone that his family would like. He just didn't realize exactly how much they would like him.

Lauren especially. That one really should have been a given, just knowing both of them, but—

Seeing Spencer talk animatedly and laugh with her, right as he leaves the bathroom, does quite the number on his chest. Then it occurs to him that they might be talking about him.

"Oh hey, Lassie," Shawn says the moment he notices him. "I was just asking Lauren how the whole 'being a lesbian and a devout Catholic' thing works. She says she has no idea. Thoughts?"

Caught off guard and very much not prepared, particularly not for his sister to also be genuinely expecting an answer, he stalls. That is, by turning his attention to the nativity scene next to them and nearly getting himself worked up over how historically inaccurate it is. Then he shakes his head and glances around to make sure neither of the old Catholic lesbians in question are there.

"Uh... I can only assume that they're only still calling themselves Catholic out of tradition. Or they go with the belief that being gay is fine as long as you don't have sex. Or they actually think that they're going to hell but they've just decided that they're cool with it. Either way I've never asked, and I'm never going to. Anyway—Shawn, I think it's about time we got back to work, don't you?"

"Huh? Oh, uh..."

Honestly, Shawn is having fun, religious atmosphere aside. He's also gotten only more curious about Lassiter's life with each passing minute that he's spent here and has barely seen half the house yet. And the idea of walking out of here and just never seeing Lauren again is already making him a little sad.

"Didn't you say that your investigation could restart around five?" Carlton reminds him. "That's an hour from now."

"...Yeah, I did say that, didn't I." Shawn doesn't sigh so much as deflate. Well. He's fulfilled his duty here, he supposes.

His disappointment hardly gets to last, however, before Lassiter's mom tells him in no uncertain terms that he is invited for dinner tonight as well as tomorrow.

At the precise moment that Carlton intends to say he can't make it, Shawn tells her,

"I'd love to!"

He's never heard Lassie's neck crack so fast.

"...But?" Carlton leads him, trying very hard to not let his mother notice. Then, when Spencer doesn't take it, "Are you sure you don't already have Christmas Eve plans? With your own family?"

"Actually, my dad has all his lodge buddies over and I doubt there'd be room for me even if I wanted to go," Shawn doesn't skip a beat in saying. "Barring something crime-solving related, I should be completely free."

He then grins between Lassiter and his mom, and he keeps grinning all the way out of the house and halfway down the walkway until he hears,

"Hey, uh, Spencer? What the fuck."

Then it fades. "Who am I to say no to free food, man?"

"So you're really imposing yourself on my family's Christmas just for a meal?"

"How can I be imposing if I was invited?" Shawn knows immediately that he's not fooling Lassiter with that one. For a moment he almost feels bad, but then he gets an idea. "Listen, man, I did you a pretty big favor here. If you can just return the favor in the form of letting me come over again and have a succulent, home-cooked meal, as well as more of those cookies... I'll consider us totally even."

"That will make us even? Really?" Carlton finds that hard to believe. Nothing about lunch today should have indicated that his mother is more than an average chef. And while his baking is pretty damn good, he's got enough humility to know that something is up.

Shawn can tell through prolonged eye-contact that he's not going to accept it, too. Dammit.

"Alright, here's the thing, Lassie... I was spending the holidays with Gus's family because my apartment has fleas, but his sister is also staying there which is... really awkward because she and I had a fling about a decade ago—"

"Woah—" Okay, first of all, his impression of Joy is now changed irreparably. Second of all, "Isn't Guster your best friend? And you slept with his—?"

"And I repeat, Lassie, a decade ago. I couldn't even legally drink yet. I mean, I did, but... Yes, I get it, I'm not proud of it, and that's actually the point, here! She's enthusiastic about rekindling it, and I am not, and..." He heaves a deep sigh. "Frankly, man, I just want to avoid it. And I don't have anywhere else to go."

Now that, Carlton understands. The only issue is that he'd really prefer not expending yet more time tonight just picking Spencer up.

"...If you really want to come over again for dinner—a late one, by the way—you can drive yourself up here next time."

 

***

 

The lead about Carl and Ted's bookie gives them jack squat in record time. Regarding the case, at least. It does give Shawn one hell of a coincidental insight into the Guster family... and for once he can't say he's all that upset that he didn't get more, even if a man's freedom is on the line. What he can say is... he's pretty effectively distracted by his prior engagement.

Meanwhile, Gus now believes that Lassiter must be truly evil if he's "making you do some kinda gross work for him on Christmas Eve of all nights."

Which Shawn decides that, if nothing else, it would not be in the spirit of the season to allow.

But he's also even less able to come entirely clean, now.

"It's not gross work, okay, Gus?" He'll do the best he can, though. "And I—listen, I didn't want to tell you earlier, but I actually promised Lassie this specific favor a while ago. The date was already agreed upon. I didn't expect that it was going to continue into the evening, but it's an undercover thing that I... honestly don't even want to get out of. I finish what I start, y'know?"

"Well, in that case... I guess I don't have a problem," Gus says. "But you better tell me about it when it's over, alright?"

Maybe someday he will tell Gus the whole truth, whatever does happen, but for now—like many other things between him and Lassie—this just isn't his business. And what he's actually far more worried about is how Mr. and Mrs. Guster are going to perceive his absence at their own dinner. He already had a whole thing with them last Christmas about whether or not he's a good friend to Gus that he'd really rather not rehash...

And then Joy gives him bedroom eyes while her parents and brother are right there, and all of his worries are abruptly gone.

"It's a case thing, I'm sure y'all understand. Okay bye!"

It's actually a little early to be leaving, based on when Lassiter said dinner would be, but he can't stay at Gus's right now without eating and he won't have room for Lassiter's dinner if he eats now. He also knows that traffic is often heavy during the holidays and feels a very rare urgency to not be late.

He worries at the same time about being too early, but when he gets there an hour before dinner he notices Lassie's car already there.

Althea lets him in and tells him that Carlton is in the kitchen. Shawn once again has to wonder what the deal is, there—he can tell from pictures alone that she's been with Lassie's mom for about twenty years, that she's likely been more present in Lassie's life than his dad, who is not so subtly cropped out of a lot of the framed pictures that are up. And yet they call him different names and are treated in entirely different regards by Lassie himself.

And while it must be related, none of that helps him understand the total lack of any pre-academy pictures of Lassie, save for one of him at two days old, literally anywhere.

In any other situation, Shawn would probably just put his curiosity above politeness and outright ask. But with no one addressing it, he can only assume that he's expected to simply already know, being "Carlton's boyfriend" and all. Plus, this is Lassie. The only thing he'll tell Shawn if he asks is to leave.

Nevermind all of that, his interest shifts entirely as he walks into the kitchen, anyway.

He could smell the gingerbread baking practically from outside—it isn't that. (Though it is amazing.) No, it's... Lassiter, in an apron, sweater sleeves rolled up, cutting out cookies, and singing along to the living room radio that's playing The Holly and the Ivy. Except much better than even the radio sounds.

"Damn, you bake and you sing?" Lassiter jumps. Shawn doesn't acknowledge it and just walks forward. "Why am I only just now learning this stuff about you, Lassie?"

"Why would you have learned it before?" Carlton grumbles, just barely turning to look at him while he continues cutting. He'd be startled worse if he hadn't heard the front door open. "I'm not going to bring any baked goods to the station, and I'd have no reason to sing in front of other people—I hardly even noticed that I was singing just now. I don't even like this song, it's just a reflex from Catholic school choir days..."

As he trails off, Shawn stops just close enough to observe the baking process. A timer goes off and Lassiter leaves the cutting board to pull a finished batch out of the oven.

"Oh, man, you were a choirboy?" Not too much of a surprise, knowing what he knows now, but Shawn immediately imagines those ridiculous choir robes on him. "...Do you have pictures?"

Carlton drops the tray of cookies on the stove and looks Spencer dead in the eye.

"No."

His childhood and relationship with the Catholic church aside, he isn't truly ashamed of either of those things. They're skills and they're useful. It's only that they don't mesh with what people know him for, and he's already established plenty of walls around his personal life, and it disrupts the whole persona if what people know about him changes.

If only he had a nickel for every time Spencer has personally disrupted it. At least Carlton can trust that he won't tell anyone.

 

*

 

"Hey, Lassie!" Spencer shouts across the house. "Which bedroom's yours?"

Oh, no. That's another nickel.

Carlton is in the middle of rinsing out the bowls that he used for the dough, but he decides in an instant that it can wait. He's not even sure that he shuts the faucet off all the way before sprinting down the hallway to where... Shawn is already opening the door and walking inside.

"Nevermind, I found it! Damn, it's... kinda bland in here. Guess that tracks."

Now that he's over here, Carlton really doesn't know why he panicked. There's nothing identifiable about him in here at all, likely not even to Spencer's hyper-observant abilities.

"Yeah, because I took everything that I still wanted with me when I moved out," he says with a purposeful note of condescension as he walks in after him.

That makes one of us, Shawn thinks. He left home too impulsively to remember to take anything with him and often forgets, now, that that isn't the norm. But surely this sheer lack of anything is also uncommon.

"What about everything you didn't want?"

"Either sold it, handed it down to Lulu, or... torched it out of shame, preparing for this exact scenario."

The most substantial thing that remains in plain sight, other than the bed (which itself is uninteresting, covered in a solid-color wool blanket), is some books on a shelf. All of them were assigned reading in high school, as Shawn can guess through recognizing the titles.

"Well, that's boring. You gotta at least give me a mental tour, Lassie—how about..." Shawn takes two quick strides across the room—"Okay, say I've come over to work on a group project, and I flip through your records on this shelf, here. What do I find?"

Carlton folds his arms and says nothing—partially out of annoyance that Spencer is already right about that having been his record shelf.

It's as simple as seeing that records would fit perfectly in that space and knowing that Lassie grew up in the 70s, really. Absolute child's play. Shawn figures he ought to challenge himself more, especially since the other man will give him nothing.

"Lemme see, uh... The Smiths—The Queen Is Dead. Pretty well worn—I bet it scratches a lot, but that just adds to the vibe, am I right?" He moves his hand through the shelf like he's flipping through invisible records. "What else... Depeche Mode... The Cure... Johnny Cash... Jethro Tull... How am I doing?"

He turns to find Lassiter with his lips tighter than ever, and slowly turning red. "Lucky guess."

"Yep, five in a row sure is lucky... Guess I'll quit while I'm ahead." Shawn grins and stands back up, pointing over to the wall where there are two sets of four, distinct thumbtack holes. "Movie posters. I'm calling it. Heartbreak Ridge, and... something with Chuck Norris. Sorry, I couldn't think of anything he's in before Walker, Texas Ranger."

Now Carlton finally gets to loosen up and crack a smirk.

"One out of three."

"Three?"

"And they were all Clint Eastwood." He steps up to the wall and points out the placement. "Dirty Harry. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. And there," he points to the ceiling above his bed, "was Heartbreak Ridge."

As it turns out, guessing the wrong thing is a very effective way to trick Lassie into revealing the truth. Carlton realizes it himself after a couple more times—right after Spencer manages to work a description of an old comforter out of him. He guessed halfway right that it was cowboy related, the truth being that he had an Old West-themed blanket when he was little and it stopped fitting when he got older.

He wants to be annoyed (at least with himself) at the same time that he figures he's still got one over Spencer by not telling him all of it. Like how he still has all those posters and all those records, and how his high school trophies were some of the things that he torched, and how he used to hide copies of Playgirl underneath his mattress...

He's actually too nostalgic, for a moment, to notice Spencer opening the closet door.

"And here I'm betting we have... off-white polo shirt after off-white polo shirt, the same three pairs of brown khakis, about ten more plain-color button-ups, an oversized sweater or two for the wintertime, definitely a JROTC uniform—the boots'll be down there, and I seriously doubt you wore anything else... wait."

Shawn sees the first interesting thing in this whole room: a stack of framed photos, just lying on the floor of the closet.

Carlton realizes what he's bending down to pick up a moment too late.

"Spencer, don't—"

"Who's this?"

And he's stopped in the middle of his panicked stride toward the closet, heart pounding like it does when he's facing a murderer head-on, every muscle in his body screaming for him to physically stop this—

But his brain still works enough for Carlton to have a moment of clarity and realize that he can lie his way out of this. He can say that those are pictures of a cousin, or even old pictures of Lauren.

"Uh..."

Shawn flips through them swiftly, noticing that they all feature the same girl—dark hair kept in a messy bob, visibly unhappy in each picture, mostly in loose clothes other than one in a wrestling unitard, and another in... a JROTC uniform?

The moment Carlton sees that one, it's over. He starts forward and swipes it from Spencer's hand, feeling like he must look like a rabid animal to the other man at best, and then worse so as he takes the whole rest of the stack and drops them back in the closet. He hears at least one of them break.

It's the only thing that he can think to do, but he feels only more panicked after shoving the door closed. Because the damage was already done and he just painted a big red circle around it. And he continues to do so every moment that he refuses to even turn back around.

It wouldn't even take what Spencer has to begin to piece it together by now.

Though Shawn might say that the pieces have been coming together for a long time before this. Long before he recognized them at all for what they were.

He recalls the heavy objection Lassie had to being called Carly—far more than any other stupid nickname. He recalls learning about Lassie's childhood obsession with horses. He recalls the hundreds of times that the man has been secretive about his past, many of which have been in the past day and most of which involved his childhood... And they all begin to make sense.

He suddenly feels very bad for accepting the invitation here in the first place.

"Lassie, I..."

"Booker, Shawn! I don't know how busy you are in there but dinner's ready!"

Carlton finally steps away from the closet. Now his stomach turns for an entirely different reason. God. He supposes he would rather be out there than let his mother speculate about what he's doing in here.

Just in case, he wipes his eyes, and he looks back at Spencer just long enough to say,

"You coming?"

 

*

 

Mona doesn't make the mistake of offering up grace to anyone but herself, this time. Shawn is nervous to actually take Lassie's hand, but finds that the other man grabs it before he can even reach out. A little harsly, too.

Naturally, as soon as the grace starts being said, Shawn opens his eyes back up and looks to the man next to him—who is doing the exact same thing.

For a second the two of them hold a mutually fearful gaze. At the same time that Carlton simply averts his, Shawn has a spike of courage and leans close.

"I get it," he whispers as softly as he can, directly into Lassiter's ear. "And it's fine. Don't worry, Lassie, I won't tell anyone."

With that, Carlton feels Spencer squeeze his hand. He turns his head again before Spencer leans all the way back.

Reasonably, as a reassurance that one of his biggest fears did not just come entirely true, that should have calmed him down. He should be heaving the biggest sigh of relief he's ever had. But as he stares at Spencer, now, his heart only beats harder. He only finds it harder to breathe. And he can't stop staring.

Until his mother's voice comes through.

"We said amen, Booker. You can stop holding his hand now."

"Oh, stop," Althea nudges her and chuckles. "You know we were young once, too. We used to make it through entire meals without lettin' go of each other's hands..."

The desire to spite his mother and the embarrassment from everything Althea just said are briefly at war in Carlton's brain. Then Spencer makes the decision for him and slips his hand away to grab a fork instead.

Oh, that's right, we're at dinner. I should eat.

And he proceeds to eat very much very quickly—moreso than he even realizes, until it's pointed out to him. He then makes a conscious effort to slow down, and manages to do so by having a mouthful of spiked eggnog every couple bites or so.

He knows, on some level, that it's too much. He knows it even before Spencer takes his glass away from him and jokes about him being a grandma who's going to get run over by a reindeer. But he needs it. It's just... it's the only thing that will make his goddamn heart slow down.

He still lets Spencer take it from him, as he has enough brain left in him to know he'll make a fool of himself if he doesn't. Unfortunately he does not have enough left to know not to admit that out loud.

"Oh, don't worry about that, Lassie," Shawn tells him with a few pats on the back. "No matter how foolish you get, I will always beat you by a mile."

Just to make sure that Lassiter won't, he drinks the rest of the glass that he just confiscated. Shawn must say, he's glad to see the guy looking far less like death than he did not so long ago... but he's also concerned, watching Lassie of all people so blatantly try to drink his feelings away. And knowing that he's the one who caused it.

On a whim, slightly alcohol-fueled on his own part, Shawn reaches out for the other man's hand again. Under the table, this time.

Carlton lets him take it. He feels warm enough already that it doesn't make a difference.

 

*

 

"Since I doubt either of you can legally drive home right now, would you like to come look at Christmas lights with us? Not for too long, of course—Lauren, Althea and I were just going to walk a little around the neighborhood."

He's sobered up enough by now (thanks to the water and bowl of nuts that Spencer has put in front of him) to know immediately that his only other option is staying here. Either alone with his thoughts, or with Spencer. The latter of which would at best put some assumptions in his family's heads.

A walk out in the cold, meanwhile, will likely sober him up further. He promptly pulls his sweater on. Shawn already agrees without needing to be told any of that and grabs a cookie for the road.

And at the doorway, he holds out his free hand for Lassie to take again.

It almost feels casual to do so, by this point. A mere moment of thought convinces him that it would appear suspicious, really, if they didn't.

"So, do any of these neighbors have stories?" Shawn asks, hardly even past the front porch yet. "Any Old Man Marley-types? Or—families you suspected of being cannibal serial killers but it turned out they were actually just foreign and kinda eccentric, but then they actually were serial killers?"

"Uh..." At least one of the women walking ahead of them is very amused. Carlton tries to ignore it. "No, I can't say any of them were ever particularly interesting. But if you want gossip about who doesn't pick up after their dogs and who revs their car engine at 3am, I'm sure you can ask my mother."

"Hm... I might take her up on that one of these days."

"If you can take it for more than five minutes, be my guest," he mutters out the side of his mouth.

Shawn smirks to himself. He obviously won't ever do that—all of this for Lassie has probably felt exactly like it did for him when he had to witness the guy being friendly with Henry. Or... it would, if Lassie had also discovered some incredibly personal and incriminating information about him at the time.

Thinking about that makes it hard to believe that Shawn hasn't just been forced to leave yet.

He's frankly never stopped finding it hard to believe that he was asked to do any of this in the first place.

For the first time, now, since Shawn initially arrived, he spends a good several minutes in total silence. He walks with Lassie at a leisurely pace, gradually falling back further and further behind the other three, and simply observes the lights on the surrounding houses. Almost none of them are noteworthy. Even the ones that catch his attention do so for a few seconds at best. But he just appreciates having something to look at while he thinks.

When he's done thinking, his eyes stays on the lights.

"Hey, Lassie... why am I here?"

He asks it so softly that Carlton takes a moment to register it as real, and not part of his still-tipsy imagination.

"...Because you slept with your best friend's sister, and you wanted to avoid her, and—"

"No, no, why am I really here?" Shawn shakes his head and tilts it up at Lassiter, now, with the real question burning in his eyes better than he can possibly articulate it. But he still has to. "When I agreed to this I assumed I was gonna play a role for shock value. But that was pretty quickly obviously not the case. And you just—do not seem like the kinda guy who would even care what his mom thinks, Lassie, so... what's up?"

Carlton glances to his mother on instinct. Thankfully she's too far ahead to have heard that. Shawn continues,

"I swear I've been trying to figure it out and I admit it, man, I'm out of guesses. Unless you, uh..." Shawn looks down for a moment. "You didn't happen to ask me out just to have an excuse to hold my hand, did you?"

He's kidding. They both know he's kidding—and that makes it worse.

"No," Carlton snaps, his chest icing over. He jerks his hand away and speeds up his pace until the other man is out of his peripheral, and once he is, the thought hits him against his will—Wait, did I, though? Did I really do this just to get a taste of what a relationship would really be like?

But he shuts that down entirely a second later. No, in fact, it's the opposite of what he wanted. He was terrified of this. And he wasn't even worried about cutting through all the tension that's often between them, not at all—no, funnily enough... that's the exact problem. Things have been good between them lately. Too good. Carlton has been finding it harder to truly feel ill will toward him. He's been finding himself with his hopes actually up. And he's been finding it impossible to feel more than a fleeting romantic hope for anyone else.

In spite of his anger, he finds it difficult even now to believe that all of this was a bad idea, though.

Shawn catches up to his side, but doesn't get the chance to apologize before Lassiter sighs and tells him, eyes still forward,

"I told you the truth to begin with, Spencer. I don't visit home often and I suppose I'm glad that I come off as someone who's above it all, but... It really is not fun to spend time around people who believe that you're lonely and miserable."

Shawn's mouth opens to say why would they believe that?—and it takes a fraction of a second for him to realize it's a stupid question. But then he has another realization.

"So you thought that having me around would make you seem happier and more stable?" He has to laugh. Or at least exhale sharply. "...Why? How could I possibly be your first choice for making Christmas with the family more tolerable? I mean, I... I was a fucking asshole to you last Christmas, dude..."

"Yeah, you were," Carlton says with a sharp exhale of his own. "Honestly, I don't think I've ever had an easier time feeling like I just plain hated you. But you... god, you still managed to fix it."

Shawn's head snaps over to him, his face still twisted in confusion.

"...With the book, remember? You left it at my door on Christmas night."

"Yeah, of course I remember, you've just... never brought it up before."

"Neither have you."

"Well, if anyone was gonna be the first to mention it, it would've been weird if it was me. And I... didn't really see the point," Shawn sighs and shrugs. "If you were gonna forgive me for the snowglobe thing, it wouldn't have been from me asking you to."

Carlton could only assume at the time that that was the purpose of the gift, but hearing that now still makes him smile. He can't think of anything to say.

Neither can Shawn, but for a different reason. He's falling down a rabbit hole of memories now, thinking of how bad he felt not long at all after giving Lassie that joke gift, from seeing with his own two eyes that even if it's an irrational and ridiculous fear, it's clearly still affecting him a lot.

He felt stupid for really thinking that a joke like that would be harmless in the first place, considering it was based off of something Lassiter revealed in a psych evaluation.

And he finally felt a true, rare fear that he'd done something that had made the guy truly despise him. That is, if Lassiter all but breaking his finger was anything to go by.

Giving him a real gift to make up for it, bought with Gus's money, was really the least that Shawn could have done.

"So... I really did turn last Christmas back around for you?" he brings himself to ask.

"You made it..." Carlton takes a moment to relive it. "...tolerable."

"And, uh." After everything Shawn has done, he can't believe that he's so nervous over such a short question. He takes a sweeping look around the neighborhood to avoid making it obvious. "...This year?"

An easy answer might be that Spencer certainly accomplished what Carlton asked of him, therefore this Christmas was much more peaceful than it might have otherwise been. In spite of everything, he's sure that he did appear happy and as though he's moved on.

Perhaps that's because for the first time in a long time, Carlton was trying very hard to do more than just appear that way.

He's been so, so tired of being lonely. He's been trying to get out of it all year. He's been trying to date again, even. But every last attempt only made him feel worse afterward, and he thinks now that it's because he was so focused on simply having another person that he ignored the concept of actually being happy.

So he can't use that easy answer. Not without feeling awful for leaving out all the credit that Spencer is actually due.

But he also struggles to find the words for anything close to the truth.

"Well. You, um—"

"It's fine, Lassie." And Shawn saves him from having to. He understands why that would be a heavy question. "I'm sorry, by the way."

Carlton can only assume that he means what happened in his bedroom. He sighs, somehow already mostly over it. "I guess there was no hiding it from you for very long, anyway."

"Huh? Oh—yeah, I'm really sorry about that, too. But I meant—you know. Making you uncomfortable in front of your family and everything."

Actually, he doesn't know. Not what ways that Spencer made him uncomfortable, but—

"Since when do you apologize for making someone uncomfortable?"

Shawn smirks just briefly—fair question. "On special occasions. Like when I... probably overdo the fake relationship stuff by touching you too much, and whatnot."

Now, Carlton would really appreciate that apology if it wasn't so confusing.

"Wait, you think you overdid it? You barely touched me at all."

"Uh—yeah, because you barely touched me." Shawn has to actually stop them in their tracks, now. Was he really so worried earlier for nothing? "I was picking up on your cues, Lassie. At least after a little bit. I mean, at first I thought that your family just expected you to be pretty chaste in front of them, or something, but then I got the feeling that you were actually repulsed by it, so—"

"Repulsed?" Alright, Carlton doesn't need to think for too long to see how he might come off that way, but the idea of letting Spencer believe that that's the truth, right now... is what truly repulses him. "I held your hand through dinner. I held your hand while we were walking. What part of that makes me seem like I'm disgusted just by touching you?"

Shawn blinks. After a pause he opens his mouth for just a second, then closes it, then furrows his brow.

"...The only thing I actually can't stand is when it's fake," Carlton admits after a few more beats. "I don't think I was thinking about that when I asked you to do this, but I... I just cannot do physical affection if it isn't real, Shawn."

They both realize the implications of that at the same time. The corner of Shawn's mouth ticks up at the sound of his name, and Carlton's stomach drops in regret.

With a very small window of time that he imagines this confidence will remain, now, and with the Christmas Spirit flowing through his veins, and with the utterly dreamlike lighting on Lassie's face, Shawn decides that there's only one thing to do. Something real.

He looks directly, intensely into Lassie's eyes as he reaches out for each of his hands, locking their fingers together as soon as he meets them with his own.

He uses that, along with standing on his tip-toes, to pull himself up.

Carlton decides immediately upon being kissed that he would rather have his hands on Shawn's face, but they're being held so tight it feels almost like a crime to pull them away. Of course, Shawn doesn't let him feel bad for long. He makes him feel as happy as he could possibly want. He makes him feel like everything he's been through in the past three years has been worth it. And even though Carlton has hardly even let himself dream of this, it all feels real.

 

It feels a little too real about a minute later, when he hears Lauren shout from down the road,

"HEY, WE'RE HEADING BACK! ARE YOU GUYS COMING?"

Oh, she was so obviously having fun with that.

"...Well, are we?" Shawn is the first to ask. "Or are we gonna keep kissing on the sidewalk, twenty feet from a giant inflatable snowglobe?"

 

***

 

The last time he woke up in this bed, his Heartbreak Ridge poster was still on the ceiling. Merry Christmas, Clint, his teenage self would have thought.

His teenage self wouldn't have imagined that he could ever have this.

Someone who knows who he is and sees him as he is and still goes to bed with him, and even stays in it afterward.

man who does all those things, specifically.

They wouldn't have spent the night here, but quite frankly it was late, and they were... impatient. Shawn in particular wanted to give him a real Christmas gift, as well as formally prove that he wasn't afraid to be intimate. That he might not already understand all of it, but he is dedicated to it. That he's always been dedicated to understanding Lassie as well as he possibly can.

Now, even though they should probably get going, they find it very difficult to get out of bed. It's comfortable and warm and Carlton's body is all but molded to Shawn's. And Shawn can't exactly get up when he's weighed down.

"Gus and his family are gonna be pretty upset if I don't get there by lunch," he mutters sleepily into Lassie's shoulder.

"And there is an open murder investigation that gets further and further from being solved the longer we do nothing," he mutters back, into Shawn's temple.

"And we kinda owe it to both of those things that... this even happened."

"...By which I assume you mean if you and Joy weren't both staying at the Guster's, and if... Wilcox hadn't initially been attacked while playing Santa in a mall—"

"WAIT!" Shawn shoots upward in bed, accidentally pushing the other man into the wall. "Shit, sorry—but Lassie, that's it! I can't believe this whole time I never even wondered why that guy was trying to fight Carl to begin with... I'm betting you that's the guy who killed Ted, and he tried to kill Carl, too. They must've scammed him at some point and he came for revenge. And if he did, I guarantee he intends to finish the job as soon as possible, too."

Carlton doesn't think he's ever witnessed Shawn openly demonstrate actual detective thinking without a hint of the psychic crap, before. God, that's sexy.

"Moncrief Johnson," he recalls a moment later, from the arrest record that he saw while attempting to interrogate Wilcox. "That was the guy who was knocked unconscious by the Krav Maga expert."

Shawn raises an eyebrow. "You just remembered that off the top of your head? ...God, that's sexy."

At once, he presses Carlton into the wall for a firm, but short kiss. The grin he wears as he pulls away is wild.

"Okay, now we should definitely leave. I have a plan to lure and catch Moncrief—but first, Lassie, we need to get you a Santa suit."