Here’s how it goes down:
There’s a string of bank robberies down the coast. The thieves have started in San Francisco and made their way from city to city. Santa Barbara’s the next logical hit, so Karen gives him a call that she’s sending O’Hara down to work with him.
There are few things that make him as happy as seeing her standing in his office, ponytail and pink button down, too cheery smile still plastered on her face. For a moment, nothing’s changed.
“Chief,” she says, and Carlton can’t help but smile.
She looks the same; a little older, maybe. Maybe more worn. But that million watt smile is the same as always, brightening up the room in a way Carlton never quite understood.
O’Hara and Brannigan get on like a house on fire, which isn’t entirely unexpected. They’re both smart, capable, and crack shots. Brannigan even offers to let O’Hara conduct the sting with him, taking a backseat in her own turf.
The set-up is easy; they know the group is set to hit a high profile target. Brannigan leans on one of her informants with that quirky accent and big doe eyes, and the guy spills everything. The bank is wired, locked down and ready to go. He and O’Hara play tellers, Brannigan mumbling some Minnesota proverb in their ears about the patient turtle getting the worm, or something else he doesn’t care about.
It goes perfectly until it doesn’t. Until one of the perps gets too nervous, too sweaty. There’s a gun and scramble behind the desk, and the man’s reach proves longer than O’Hara’s. He swings with the pistol, the butt striking her face with a horrifying sound, and Carlton doesn’t hesitate. He hits the perp in the leg, taking him down, as officers swarm the building.
The rest are in handcuffs, stuffed into squad cars, and O’Hara is dabbing blood off her forehead and insisting she’s fine.
“You hit the ground pretty hard, you should go to the hospital.” It’s Brannigan who speaks up, gently guiding O’Hara through the lobby.
“Really, I’m alright-“
“It’s not worth it, Juliet.” Brannigan squeezes her shoulder, gestures to the ambulance waiting outside.
O’Hara glances back to him, as if asking for permission. Like she still needs it; like there’s anything left for him to teach her.
“I’ll go with you.”
She smiles, and he reaches out to take her weight from Brannigan. It’s familiar, to feel her lean against him, crane her neck against his shoulder. He can count on one hand the number of people he could ever feel comfortable holding like this.
“Betsy-“ O’Hara stops as they’re loading into the ambulance, something occurring to her. “Will you, uh, call my husband?”
The word feels foreign to Carlton, and for half a second his mind goes blank, before everything clicks into place.
He wishes he could have been there. He should have been there, should have been next to her when she said I Do, should have threatened Spencer all over again that if he did anything, anything-
“We should get her to the hospital now, Chief.” The EMT helps O’Hara up and into the back, and he slides in alongside her.
“Jules!” Spencer’s voice booms down the hall, echoing through the room as if he’s right there next to them. “Jules! Juliet!”
O’Hara sits up straighter in bed, and Carlton doesn’t miss the way her whole body seems to relax as Spencer and Guster trip into the room. Shawn beelines for her, pressing kisses down her face and grabbing at her hands.
“One, two, three, four...” he mumbles as he lifts each finger, and O’Hara chuckles.
“Seven, eight, nine, ten.” He kisses the back of her hand, and again she laughs like a schoolgirl. For a second, Carlton feels like they’re all hanging out in the station on an early case. Like nothing’s changed.
“Shawn, I told you on the phone, I just got scraped up.”
He nods quickly, then drops his hands to her stomach, fingers gentle against the hospital gown.
“And did they check- is it okay? Did they do a....uh, uh, Gus, help me out here-“
“Ultrasound.” Guster pipes up, and Carlton feels like someone’s dumped a bucket of ice straight on his head.
“Yeah. How does it sound? Baby rocking out in there?”
“Fine. We’re both fine,” Juliet sighs, and she glances at him out of the corner of her eye. Gauging a reaction, maybe.
He can’t believe he didn’t catch it earlier; she had turned down his two offers for coffee, couldn’t even touch the donuts in the station. Hell, he should have known something was up when she showed up wearing black loafers instead of her trademark heels.
Spencer’s whispering something he can’t hear, but she giggles again, head leaning back against the pillow. Carlton feels out of place, suddenly, intruding on a moment meant for husband and wife and husband’s best friend, who’s currently swiping the untouched jello off O’Hara’s bedside table.
“I should, uh-“ Carlton stands, and Spencer glances over as if just seeing him in the room for the first time.
“Hello, Spencer. Guster.” He gives them each a nod- the informal one, reserved for more than acquaintances but less than Marlowe and Lily.
“Thank you for saving Jules, man. And Starfish.”
“Just think about it for a little longer, sweetie. It really rolls off the tongue.”
O’Hara rolls her eyes, but the smile on her face doesn’t waver. Some part of Carlton’s chest feels tight. He gives her a final look before heading out of the room, the sound of Guster asking who her doctor is and does he need any referrals fading away softly in the background.
Carlton pulls out his phone in the hall, fingers automatically scrolling to Marlowe’s name. He thinks of calling before he remembers how late it is. Far past Lily’s bedtime. He can’t keep her up late again, she’s already waking them up at the crack of dawn to go hiking in the park or watch the sunrise over the beach. Real outdoorsy kid. He couldn’t be more proud.
Footsteps echo down the hall behind him.
“Lassie!” It’s Spencer, jogging after him. Carlton pauses, watches the other man catch up with a pained expression on his face.
“Wow, you really got those long legs, huh?” Spencer heaves out an over dramatic sigh. “Thank you, again. For Jules, and everything.”
“Just doing my job.”
Shawn’s eyes narrow a little, and he shoves his hands in his pockets. “Yeah, still. Thanks.”
Carlton nods. While they’ve seen each other a few times since Spencer moved up to San Francisco -O’Hara’s accommodation, Guster’s wedding, even a admittedly surprise visit when he was in the hospital- it’s Juliet who he’s kept in contact with. Spencer is her plus-one, a presence he can never quite eliminate from his life. Truthfully, maybe he’s stopped trying.
“How’s Marlowe? And Lily?”
“Great. Marlowe’s back teaching. Lily’s starting first grade in the fall.” Out of habit, he reaches for his wallet and the fold out pictures he keeps on hand at all times. The three of them fishing, camping out back, building the bomb shelter in the basement. Lily picked the dark red color for the bunk beds down there.
“Oh, wow.” Spencer chuckles at the picture of him and Marlowe at last year’s reenactment banquet, so Carlton snaps the wallet shut.
“She won most authentic boots,” he brags, and Spencer raises his eyebrows.
“Wow, that is.... that’s really.... Good for her,” he manages, and Carlton’s surprised he’s not struggling to comprehend a convoluted reference to an ill forgotten 80s sitcom right now.
“Do you need something?” He snaps.
Spencer shoves his hands in his pocket, looking uncharacteristically unsure of himself.
“No, I just... I- thank you. Again.” Spencer almost seems at a loss for words, the first time Carlton thinks he’s ever seen that emotion play out on the man’s face.
“Congratulations,” he offers, because there’s probably a reason he’s still standing there. Even if, in true Spencer fashion, he seems determined to skate around the topic as quickly as he can.
His face lights up momentarily, familiar smile breaking out. “Thanks.”
“Starfish is a terrible name.” Carlton tells him truthfully, and Spencer let’s out a snort.
“We wouldn’t really call it that.”
“Yes, you would.”
Shawn chuckles again. “Yeah, maybe I would. Jules would never let me. I think she’s got a better baby name brain, anyway. I suggested Kevin-Costner, hyphenated, like three times.”
Carlton tries to resist the urge to groan.
“But I guess, uh, if you have a second- I mean, before we head back home, I wanted to…. uh, to ask-“
“Thomas is a strong name. I was always partial to Leonard, as well. Marlowe and I thought about Thaddeus for a while, but don’t let anyone call him Thad. That’s out of style.”
Spencer stares at him for a long moment, before quickly shaking his head. “No, I don’t mean.. it’s not about the names. Uh, we’ll cross that bridge later, probably.” He pauses, like he’s thinking of something else. “And I’d rank Kevin hyphen Costner above Leonard.”
“Spit it out, Spencer.”
Shawn runs a hand through his hair (less styled, less kept than Carlton remembers it being).
“How do you do it? How do you just go out there and-and operate in the world, knowing anything could happen to them?”
Oh. Oh. Of all the things he ever expected to give Shawn Spencer (a citation for disturbing the peace, a good old fashioned knuckle sandwich, a decent pair of shoes made before the year 1987,) parenting advice wasn’t really on the table.
“I mean, you work all day, and you see these horrible, horrible things that people to do each other. And you know your child is going to grow up and see them too. And you can just handle that?”
Carlton remembers all too well the fear that struck him deep in his gut when Marlowe held up that little picture. The worry that no matter what you’ll do, it’ll never be enough. It’ll all be wrong.
“Jules goes out and kicks ass every day, and I’m so proud of her. And I can’t tell her to stay home, she’d go crazy, and it’s not fair, but-“ Spencer cuts himself off, pinching the bridge of his nose.
Carlton knows, because he’s fairly certain he was the third call they made from the hospital last March, after Henry and Maryanne. He remembers hearing the shake in O’Hara’s voice as she told him to hold off on ordering that Westchester rifle plush he’d found online. That they wouldn’t need it anymore. He remembers the sound of her holding back a sob, the way he drove to the shooting range and fired off clip after clip, thinking of how the world isn’t fair and good people experience horrible things. The way he hugged Lily a little longer that night.
“I’m sorry,” he says, and Spencer shakes his head.
“It’s nobody’s fault,” he gnaws at his lip, looking more like the young kid who stumbled into the police station 15 years ago.
“But I’m so... Terrified. That something’s gonna happen to her. Or the baby. And I won’t be- I can’t protect them.”
Carlton hates how much familiarity he sees in those words.
“And I don’t- I know she can take care of herself. Jules is, like, the most badass person in the world. I’ve seen her with a crossbow, y’know? She can really take care of business. And it’s hot. Like, really sexy-“
“I just- I don’t know. I’m scared.”
That admission feels wrong; comforting Spencer feels wrong, but Carlton knows the words that come next.
“If something ever were to happen, it would feel like your fault. Because you weren’t there.”
Spencer glances back up, eyes dark. “When does that stop?”
“Oh, never,” he shrugs. “Every day I wake up and I worry about Lily. Every time she goes to school, every play date, every second she spends out of my sight.”
Spencer looks a little sick.
“But that can’t stop her from living her life. And I’m just grateful to be a part of it.” There’s something cheesier, something mushier floating through his mind, about unbounding love and family and fulfillment, but he figures he’ll let Spencer wander into that one on his own.
The other man nods, and there’s a stillness about him, an understanding.
“Uh, Shawn?” Guster pokes his head out of the room at the end of the hall, face looking a little queasy. “The doctor’s trying to give me pictures of some white baby.”
“My white baby, Gus. Mine! Which makes it at least a quarter yours.”
Guster clicks his tongue, and Shawn turns back to face him. The question that comes next is unexpected, but maybe not unwelcome:
“Do you want to see?”
Carlton feels a smile creep across his face.