Cassie clenched her fists with the effort to stay put in her chair as students filed out of the lecture hall. She always left firmly in the middle of the pack—never first, never last—as if surrounding herself with moving bodies and lively conversation somehow meant that she fit, that the anonymous young women with their casually swept-up hair, the men with ironically studious glasses, were any more her friends because she felt their messenger bags catch her in the back of the knees as they climbed the steps out of the lecture theater. Even contemplating leaving the room and walking the halls alone made her fidgety and nervous, and that anxiety fueled her on—she had been stabbed, once for real and once again, Rosalind Devlin was still out in the world, she wasn’t going to be afraid of a university campus. Of her own stupid thoughts. So she waited, and walked out of the lecture hall on her own, into the green campus, and tried not to look over her shoulder.
Cassie loved her psychology lectures, loved how many miles away they were from her time in DV, loved being surrounded by people who cared about why. When the stern-faced counselor Cassie had been assigned to see once a week after the end of operation Mirror had first suggested that she should really go back to school and finish her degree, Cassie had laughed in her face. Enough to be stamped as living proof that women couldn’t handle Murder, without trying to wrangle her way back as a profiler, a job already regarded by men on the force as being built on a combination of soft-sciences and feminine intuition. When the counselor had said, “you don’t seem like someone who walks away from a challenge just because of what people will say,” Cassie had stood up and left. But in the weeks after, fidgeting behind her desk as the series of complainants and victims and abusers blurred into one unending carnival parade of misery, she thought of it more and more. Her boss had been more than willing to grant her leave, enough that she suspected he was relieved not to have to wonder any longer whether she was ready to disappear again. And for the most part, she was happy with her decision. She was used to missing Murder, like a tug just below her heart, always pulling her just a little off-balance, and she was prepared not to be taken seriously. She hadn’t expected the hard part to be the hours she sent on Trinity’s campus.
Three times now, when the lecture had been particularly absorbing and she was still mulling over some new revelations, Cassie had found herself walking to the far right corner of the parking lot, under the ancient oak tree, where she expected the shared car to be parked, and feeling a flash of annoyance that Daniel and the others weren’t waiting for her. Once she had spun around, ready to storm in and pull Rafe away from where he was doubtlessly charming his tutorial group and protest that she was hungry and tired and ready to go home.
That day she had sat down hard on the pavement, leaned back and let the asphalt imprint itself into her palms, and let herself cry--hating the tightness in her throat, the realization that other people could see the redness of her eyes; there was a difference between lying and saying mind your own fucking business and she couldn’t do either with that lump in her throat--just for five minutes, just until a nervous undergrad had swerved hard to avoid her and spilled half of his warm coffee onto her arm. Fucking stupid, she muttered to herself as she walked away. Home these days meant the single-story brick house she had bought--not rented—with Sam, meant low-energy meals at 8pm and laying her head on Sam’s lap as they shared a glass of red wine, shouting at house hunting couples on the hgtv channel neither of them would admit to paying for. Home was someplace she could turn over half-asleep without unplugging her hidden mic. Home meant laughing with Sam, Sam who never pressed her too hard, who listened so well that her throat clogged up and she didn’t know what to say. Who would listen, would hold her through everything—and maybe that was the problem, the stupid thing that froze her and kept the words from spilling out. Home was safe, safe in a way that few places had ever been, and she was not going to shatter that by speaking her fears and her pain aloud.
So she smiled at Sam, and he poured her a glass of wine and said nothing about the tightness around her eyes, and she never said that those were the good days—days when being a student reminded her of Whitethorn house. There were other days, when a face casually turned away from her as she passed slammed her back into the library and women she used to count as friends leaving the room because she had entered it. Days when she scanned the students lounging picturesquely in the quad and sorted them out—potential buyers, potential dealers, potentially dead by the end of the year because of product she had sold them.
There were days, Sam thought, when he hated the roster system. Not most days: usually he appreciated at least the illusion of fairness, that a case went to whoever had the time for it instead of the barely-concealed bidding wars for high-profile cases he had experienced in other squads. Today he hated it, wanted more than anything to tack his attention-grabbing current case, with its beautiful victims and their beautiful house to the wall of the large office and see who was willing to trade him for it. Maybe for a couple of drug overdoses, a mugging gone wrong. But it didn’t work like that, not in Murder, so Sam held the thick folder of notes as far from his body as he could without dropping it, and went to meet his team in the spacious ‘best’ incident room.
There was a buzz in the air, and a warmth in the room bouncing between the bodies of the junior detectives and several extra floaters O’Kelly had added to the team after the photographs of strikingly lovely Moira Connolly and her angelic five-year old daughter Bethany hit the news that morning. It hurt, somewhere deep in his chest and almost but not quite numb, that they fought harder for justice when the victims were rich and lovely. Sam hung back in the doorway, taking his bearings. He recognized most of the people in the room, ran through their names. A few new floaters, he would try to meet them one-on-one as soon as possible. In the back of the room, wearing a well-fitted grey suit, looking older somehow, Rob Ryan turned around and looked up at him with such an expression of surprise on his face that Sam smiled at him before he remembered not to. Something about his face, the sliding and unhinging of time, set Sam’s ears ringing.
People often commented on Sam’s steadiness, some more kindly than others, as if he worked hard at it. In truth, he wasn’t sure how to be any other way: he believed in evil, how could you not in his job, but he also believed in Good, capitalized, shining a guiding light over his head, warm and steady under his feet, triumphant in the end, real. Only a few things shook Sam, really shook him. Cassie, again and again, when she kissed him, when she bit him on the nose instead, when she stood in a too-large t-shirt with an enormous mug of coffee, or fell asleep with her mouth half-open in a big blue chair. Not because she was less good but because she was more, vivid and imperfect at moments, throwing him into a kind of happiness different and brighter than he had ever imagined happiness looking. Cases like this one threw him, too, differently. Seeing Rob standing there, holding a picture of the dead child in his hand, looking like he was about to say I’m sorry, which was ridiculous because Rob never said sorry.
Family. The word had been running through Sam’s head all day, in varying tones and levels of anger and pain, but he thought it differently this time. Family like how Rob opening the door to Cassie’s flat, reaching out his hand for the bottle of wine Sam had brought, felt like going home. Like the warmth of whiskey and leaning his head against Rob’s knee and how Cassie had laughed, a different laugh than he had heard in more than a year. Like how once he had gone home, lightheaded with exhaustion, and been unable to get the phrase Munchausen’s by Proxy out of his head, and he had called at three in the morning and Cassie and Rob had put him on speakerphone and then forgotten, and talked to each other late into the night as he fell asleep to their voices. Family like how Bethany Connolly had never been to a friend’s house, ever, and how Cassie had poured bottles of sherry and prosecco out of her window into the courtyard because they were Rob’s drinks, until the downstairs neighbor had shouted something about calling the police and public urination and Cassie had ducked down under the windowsill, shoulders shaking, and like maybe she was laughing. Rob looked away first, and Sam thought coward and didn’t quite feel sorry for thinking it. He tried address the room like his heart wasn’t in his stomach.
“I’m assuming most of you are familiar with the background at this point,” the room settled as soon as he started speaking, mouths shut and bright eyes focusing. Rob shifted on his feet, and Sam tore his eyes away, gaze dancing over the crime scene photos. “While obviously we’re still looking into other leads,” he gestured toward the left side of the room, where a few new faces had appeared on the board, “chances are we know our man on this one. We just need to prove it.” He pointed at the glossy phot of Declan Connolly, the official portrait that appeared on his real estate agency website. He wore a subtly pinstriped grey suit—not unlike Rob’s, Sam thought with a shiver—and an open, charming smile. He looked good in the picture—good: handsome, poised, happy; good: kind, harmless, happy. It made Sam’s teeth hurt.
“Habitual abuser—psychological, emotional—of them,” Sam pointed at the photos of Moira and Bethany, smiles frozen too wide. He looked around the room, almost hoping to catch the eye of someone who would say that wasn’t proper abuse. He wasn’t someone who went around making trouble with his co-workers, the opposite, but this case made him want to shout at someone. Maybe worse. “According to what we can get from the few friends Moira was allowed to see, she was finally planning to leave him, and taking their daughter. That’s backed up by her bank statements: she had been quietly funneling her earnings out of their shared account into one of her own for the last few months. Working hypothesis is, he found out and killed them before they had a chance to escape him. Trouble is—man has an alibi. Three work friends, all interviewed separately, say he was out drinking with them at the time Moira and Bethany were stabbed to death in the family home. So, we’ve either got to find another viable suspect,” some murmuring, skeptical expressions, “or we’ve got to break alibi that down.”
Sam gathered his papers, hated carrying that smiling portrait of Declan, couldn’t just leave it, and looked up with a start at the warm feeling of someone sharing his space. Rob stood quietly, with that stillness Sam had forgotten he was capable of. He had forgotten a lot, blanked Rob out because Cassie missed him enough, forgot him enough, was furious enough, for both of them.
“I didn’t realize it was you,” Rob said, something caught in his voice, his smooth burnt-sugar voice that Sam had/had-not forgotten, “I can leave. Or, you know, you can ask them to transfer me. That might be better.” Over Rob’s shoulder, Bethany Connolly grinned from one of the board, in a blue dress on a swing set, halfway down the arc. Controlled falling. Rob didn’t like cases with dead children, Sam remembered without wanting to. Nobody did, but it was worse for Rob. Who was still waiting, unmoving as people scurried around them. Sam realized he had not answered.
“I don’t know.” Sam was a great believer in the bravery of admitting one didn’t know the answer, most of the time. This was not one of those times, this was not brave, it was strange and unfair and totally necessary. “I have to—” He didn’t say, I have to ask Cassie. He didn’t need to. Rob nodded and started to turn away.
“Just let me know,” he tossed over his shoulder, as if it didn’t matter.
As if didn’t matter, as if this wasn’t the place Rob’s world had come crashing down around his shoulders. He had brought his world down, he amended, giving himself bonus points from the cutout of his childhood therapist he sometimes imagined was watching him with a pencil in hand—taking responsibility, Ryan, have a sticker. Adult therapists probably didn’t give out stickers but, well, maybe if they did more people would go. Rob looked around the incident room. The big one, for the headline cases, where they had been during the Katy Devlin case. He had been back in Murder since then, of course, working with detectives who didn’t know him or who did and pretended they were doing him a kindness. He wasn’t sure, had gotten worse at reading people, really wasn’t sure if they thought they were being kind or they knew they were rubbing it in his face. Cassie would know.
Was this a joke, he wondered, some bored sadist in the scheduling office deciding it would be fun to put Rob on an echo of the case that broke him—that broke them—a child-murder lead by, not his partner, but. Sam would be, perhaps, a junior partner if he and Cassie were a law firm. Maddox & Ryan. Maddox & Ryan & O’Neill (sort of.) Of course they were Maddox & O’Neill these days, after dissolutions and mergers and those stories Rob had heard third-hand about Cassie’s stint back in undercover (how could she, he closed his eyes, tried to shut off his mind, how could she do that to herself?) He had thought for a moment, when he first stepped into the room, that Sam had asked for him, a gentle kind of forgiveness, a kind kind of something. But Sam’s smile had flickered, his eyes had gone blank, he had not quite said yes but almost said yes when Rob asked if he should leave.
He felt eyes on him, wouldn’t it be fun to see Ryan break down again, shut up they probably don’t even know you, shuffled through the closest stack of papers, which turned out to be the coroner’s report. The killer had put a pillow over the little girl’s face, not to kill her gently, but to muffle her screams as he stabbed her with a serrated kitchen knife, seven times. The killer. Her father. Fuck, he realized, Sam must hate this case. He wasn’t sure what it was about family killings that shook Sam so badly—maybe, perversely, something to do with how much he loved his own family. Rob wanted to ask, wished he had asked when he had the chance, when he had almost deserved an answer. It doesn’t matter, he told himself, trying to focus on the word in front of his face, Sam would get over his instinctive politeness and Rob would be gone by tomorrow.
Cassie had her feet up on the couch, drinking a mug of the caffeine-free tea Sam had bought from that fancy tea place to help them both sleep better, toes poking through the holes in a pair of green-and-purple striped socks she refused to get rid of. She had a book open, propped up on her knees, and the hand holding the yellow highlighter was just barely shaking. She looked up and smiled as he came in the door, that echo of a smile he had imagined would fade with time—either grow more real or grow tired of him. He remembered Cassie smiling differently, before, but perhaps they all had.
“Hey,” he knocked her feet off the sofa, grabbed the textbook before it hit the floor, and settled down next to her. She capped her highlighter and snatched the book back, muttering under her breath about Sam sabotaging her education. He leaned back, looked up at the ceiling. Wanted to draw out this moment, hold it for as long as possible before they had to have the conversation that came next. “How was school?”
“Not enough milk and cookies,” Cassie replied, shaking her head. “but yeah, it was good.” She wasn’t lying, Sam thought—not about either thing, Cassie was constantly snacking, she would be nothing but delighted if universities handed out milk and cookies in lectures—but not about the good day either. She has happy, Cassie, much happier than she had been in the days after she came back, after they bought the house and she came home from Domestic Violence watching him come home from Murder. He hadn’t been sure their relationship would stand that, the way he had what she deserved. She was better since starting lectures, would talk sometimes about her plans to be a profiler, would glance over his case notes even though she wasn’t allowed, and then hand them back to him without that sharp pain in the corners of her eyes.
But there was something, still. In the way she always told him she was okay, was doing well. Not a lie but not the whole truth. He never pushed her, not since their fights during operation Mirror, he just refilled her mug and waited for her to tell him. She never did. He couldn’t help thinking that she would never have told Rob she was okay, just to spare his feelings.
“How was work?” Sam took a breath, unsure if he could make himself talk about the Connolly case without shaking to pieces, unsure what the rules were. Could he break down in front of Cassie when she made such an effort not to break in front of him? Should he grab her a snack?
“Cass,” she glanced up sharply, immediately noticing the change in his tone, “I have to ask you something.”
“Grim,” she said, voice a little tighter even as she tried to lighten it, “I didn’t do it, but I probably don’t have an alibi. Or, you know, it’s you.”
“Yeah,” Sam said distractedly, barely remembering to smile. “The thing is. I’s a big case, and they assigned me floaters. And, Cass, Rob’s there.” She went stiff beside him, tapping the highlighter held between her fingers against the back of the couch. Sam hurried on, “I can tell him to fuck off, no problem. I just…should I?”
“No,” Cassie said sharply, immediately. She sounded angry, not at Sam, just tightly wound, tense, breathless. “Not for me. And that’s why you’d do it, isn’t it, otherwise you wouldn’t have come home and asked. I’m not that fragile,” she accidentally dislodged the cap of the highlighter as she twisted it between her fingers, resumed tapping on the back of the couch. There would be a mark later, Sam thought vaguely. “I’m not that…that person. Keep him around. Talk to him, or not, just. Don’t send him away because of me. I’m not having this be my fault.”
“I wasn’t saying—” Sam started, not sure what he wanted to say, except that he wanted to say he had never thought that of Cassie, had never thought anything of her but admiration, laughter, love.
“I know,” she cut him off, “I know you weren’t. But, if we did what you’re suggesting then you would, you’d have to, because it would be true. I’m not having it be true. Fuck!” Cassie had glanced at her hand, finger stained with yellow ink. She jumped up, kissing him on the forehead as she ran to the bathroom to wash her hands. End of conversation.
They fell asleep that night as usual, wrapped in Sam’s grandmother’s handmade quilt, Cassie’s breath tickling Sam’s ear. But when he woke up at 3am from a dream in which Declan Connolly was trying to sell him a house where the staircase ran like a waterfall made of blood, Cassie was sitting up, arms wrapped around her knees, face toward the blank wall, as still as he had ever seen her.
Rob found it harder to be still, this last year. Alone in his new one room basement flat, he didn’t have to pretend to be asleep. When he moved out, he told Heather it was because of his new, lower salary. Really—he was getting better at confronting things like this in the middle of the night with all the lights up bright—after the Devlin case he couldn’t stand to share space with anyone, to hear anyone move or breathe or make coffee. No one who wasn’t Cassie.
He got up, circled the room twice—fourteen steps—and sat back down on the single bed. Single beds are for children, he had read earlier, in a book that wasn’t at all about him. And yet, defensively, he found himself replying that he was short on space, thank you very much. He reached for the book again now—his newest guilty pleasure was paperback crime novels where people said absurd things like “no one ever commits murder without a good motive.” If he could mock the paper detectives in their paper jackets, complain that their solutions were too ridiculous to guess at, maybe he could convince himself he wasn’t missing much.
Rob lay back on top of the covers. He had misplaced his knack for doing nothing, somewhere along the way. Now he was always thinking. It was exhausting. He was thinking now, unbalanced by seeing Sam, by the case, by the sounds of the students in the flat above tramping in and out and shouting to their friends. Sam, like a doorway to everything that he missed, the stupid way Rob’s mind spiraled every time he had come into the incident room that day, wanting to touch his arm because Cassie had touched him there, too. Not wanting at all to follow that thought through to its conclusion, thinking it anyway. Kissing Sam wouldn’t be like kissing Cassie. (Kissing Cassie wouldn’t be like kissing Cassie had been, desperate and falling apart. It would be different, would have been different, laughing on her couch, laughing in a way that didn’t feel like breaking. Kissing Cassie, kissing Sam.)
When he had called, he had picked up the phone meaning to congratulate Cassie on her engagement, to say, I’m happy for you, he’s good for you, I get it. Had heard her voice and couldn’t say any of that, mouth more honest than his brain sometimes. Often. Had tried so hard to keep himself awake, to not miss a minute of her breathing. Of her breathing next to Sam. He closes his eyes when he can’t sleep and he’s there with them, and Cassie is as happy as she sounded that night, and maybe that means Sam needs to be there, too. A hundred years ago, awake late and drunk on Cassie’s floor, If you had to pick someone from Murder, who would it be? And she’s not flirting, she’s not asking him pick her, he doesn’t think about picking her, not for more than a moment. What are we, Maddox, twelve-year-olds at a sleepover? But I mean, obviously O’Neill.
And he knows, he’s good at self-deception, maybe a master, but he knows it’s weird and messed up and still he falls asleep wanting. They only know each other, any of them, because of Murder. Sam would be alright, but where would people like him and Cassie be if there was no evil in the world? He’s immature and selfish and dizzyingly lonely, and Cassie is never out of his mind, and Sam is bright and warm and magnetic, and they use the same laundry detergent, and he’s pretty good with paradox.
Some interrogation rooms, you weren’t supposed to be able to breathe. The smaller rooms, with weird smells and stains on the carpet that really should have been pulled out years ago, initials carved into the tables. This wasn’t one of those rooms, and yet Sam felt his throat tightening. It was one of the nice rooms, where they talked to people they wanted to feel secure. People like the merchant banker who was currently leaning back in one of the nice chairs, sipping water from a bottle he had brought himself, and lying through his teeth to provide a fake alibi. Sam had long stopped using neutral language in his head, there were no other suspects—Declan Connolly had murdered his wife and daughter and all these well-dressed men with thousand-euro watches were helping him get away with murder. Sam was starting to see spots in front of his eyes, stood up too fast from the table and knocked his chair to the floor. He faintly heard Rafferty say to the tape, detective O’Neill has left the room, but his hands were shaking as he closed the door and braced his hands against the wall and let his head fall forward.
“Are you alright?” someone said behind him, loud enough to break through the buzzing in his ears. He wondered how long he had been standing there. Rob stepped forward as he turned around, and their shoes knocked together before Rob pulled back, sharply, but didn’t run. “Umm,” Rob said, and offered him a Styrofoam cup of coffee. Sam took a sip, grimacing at the combination of station house coffee and whatever sweetener Rob had mixed in—he didn’t remember Rob taking his coffee with sugar. Maybe he had made the drink for someone else, or his tastes had change. Sam took another sip, made for one of the empty rooms along the corridor, and sat down shakily in a plastic chair. After a moment, Rob followed, hovering between the table and the door. Sam stared down into the coffee, wondering if he could make himself go back into the interrogation room without throwing up.
“That might get him to confess,” Rob said, mouth turned up in a half smile, and Sam realized he had voiced that last question aloud. He laughed, a little hysterically. Rob, making some internal decision, nudged the door mostly closed with his foot and sat in the chair across from Sam.
“Why do the family killings get to you so much?” Rob’s voice wasn’t accusatory, but it wasn’t exactly sympathetic either. Just, curious. Just, Rob was a detective, and for some reason that made Sam want to answer.
“I know the world’s not a fair place,” Sam said, choosing his words carefully, “whatever people say about me, I do know that. I know things aren’t nice all the time. But there are—there should be things you can rely on. Just a few. And I know parents make mistakes, and don’t always do what’s kindest, and that most people don’t have a family like mine. But…your mom and dad. The people who brought you into this world. That should be the one place where you’re safe, where you can know you’re safe. They shouldn’t—it’s wrong, and I know lot of things are wrong, but he was her dad and she ran into his arms and he stabbed her. Again and again and again. And that shouldn’t happen. It shouldn’t be allowed to happen. And why the fuck are we using that photo?”
Sam heard his voice break on the last word, horrified to realize that he had tears in his eyes. Making speeches about order, about safety, forgetting for a moment that he was talking to someone who had learned in a way he couldn’t possibly understand that children are not safe, that parents cannot protect you in the way they should. But Rob didn’t look angry. He looked…sad. Wistful. Then he smiled, just a little, and shook his head.
“I’d like to live in that world,” Rob said, like he meant it. They sat in silence, Sam blinking at the wall until he was sure he wasn’t going to cry, Rob staring at the place where the overhead light reflected off the lacquered table. After a long time, or a time that felt long, Rob stood up and pushed his chair back under the table like a kid leaving Sunday lunch. “Come to the incident room when you’re ready.” He said it like he was in charge, but for a minute Sam didn’t mind.
Fifteen minutes later, when Sam had been briefed about the interviews—no one had changed their story—he entered the crowded incident room. The grinning, real estate brochure photo of Declan Connolly was gone, replaced in every instance by the few low-resolution candids they had found on is wife’s phone. Each picture showed Declan scowling, furious, and not at all compelling. Sam still wanted to punch his face right through the wall, but now maybe everyone else would, too. He found Rob, lingering in a corner like he always seemed to do these days, and smiled at him.
Cassie used to do grocery runs by herself all the time. She knew this, she knew it, but Lexie had sat in the back of the car next to the bags, had sided with Rafe to persuade Abby that two dozen freeze pops on a buy-one-get-one sale would be a more money-conscious purchase than milk and eggs. Lexie knew every meal that was planned that week, knew which one had onions in it and grumbled about it all day even though it was kind of cute to watch Abby tear up from the smell, squeezing shut her eyes like a kitten. These days, Sam usually shopped, claiming it helped his mind unwind and make the shift between work and home. They crowded together in the kitchen of the house they now shared, the counters slightly too high for Cassie’s stature, made saffron rice and green market stir-fry. Sometimes Cassie had to sit down, had to put her hands over her ears because the smells, the space, Sam, reminded her too much of another life. One where someone else stirred pasta sauce, dabbed tomato paste on her nose, screwed up the recipe until Sam knocked him out of the way and Cassie stole his wine glass. She had racked up so many lives, over the years, collecting them like trading cards.
Half-thinking, Cassie swiped a box of Rainbow Flaxe from the top shelf—Daniel was going to lecture her tomorrow morning on eating habits, on not consuming twice the daily recommended quantity of sugar in one breakfast. Shut up, Daniel, she thought, unconsciously sticking her tongue halfway out, you don’t know anything, you’re—dead. Daniel was dead, was shot and dead and vanished, because Cassie-Lexie-Daniel had killed him. Because Rob hadn’t—because Justin had stabbed her, because Daniel had shot her hadn’t shot her had asked her to shoot him, suddenly there was no one to tell her not to wreck her teeth on colorful kids’ cereal.
The wonky wheel on her cart chose that moment to freeze up and she executed a sharp and completely accidental left-hand turn, whacking into the broad side of another shopper’s cart. The owner of the cart started slightly, but didn’t turn around. He was bent almost in half, comparing a series of cans on a low shelf. Cassie glanced into the stranger’s cart—dry pasta, red wine, coffee grounds, the same tinned tomatoes she always bought.
“Your shopping looks a lot like mine,” she said, to kill time as much as anything as she attempted to disentangle with wheels of their carts. The man stood up, and the movement of his body was familiar in a way that made her stomach ache, and then he turned around and it was Rob and she thought I didn’t recognize him, and that more than anything knocked the air from her lungs. He looked the same—not how he had looked the last time she saw him, shaky and pale and broken, but the way he had looked when they sat at right angles, playing Worms, griping over paperwork. The way he looked in her head every time she blinked to make the image disappear. Like she had pulled him from the air, to join Daniel and Abby and Rafe and Justin and Lexie as they hovered around her, just out of sight. Like maybe she hadn’t really woken up from the series of brutal, miserable, nostalgic dreams she had had last night, like Sam speaking Rob’s name to her for the first time in months had called him into being.
Rob opened his mouth and Cassie thought, wildly, I could run.
“Hi,” Rob said, sounding slightly dazed. Cassie didn’t run. If Rob was going to act like an adult about this, she sure as hell wasn’t going to be the one to bolt and hide behind the seasonal candy display. He stuck out his hand to shake hers, and they both stared at his fingers. He dropped his arm at the same moment Cassie finally gathered enough strength to reach hers out, their fingers almost brushed as they missed each other in the air. Rob chuckled, the self-deprecating laugh he used to put strangers at ease.
“Hi,” Cassie replied, after too long. “Shopping for dinner?” Shit, you must some kind of detective, said Rob in her head, a constant echo around her ears, and to imagine the murder rate has gone up in recent years, with people like you on the job.
“Yes,” said Rob in real life, “pasta and sauce.”
“Oh,” Cassie said, almost choking with disappointment. Really? Said Rob in her head, hoping for some verbal abuse with your shopping? Kinky.
“Yes,” said Rob. You’ve expanded your vocabulary since I knew you, said Cassie in her head, two whole words. Have you been taking a course?
“How are you?” Said Cassie. I’m dead, actually. Gunned down in a blaze of glory, Rob said in her head, like the time she had texted him ‘don’t get shot’ and he had taken the time to cut fake bullet holes and pour ketchup on an old t-shirt just to text her a picture.
“Fine, yeah,” said Rob, “all good.” Don’t lie to me, Cassie shouted in her head, startled by the sharpness of her anger. It was how he talked to Heather, to O’Kelly. “You?”
I’m not in prison, said Cassie in her head, I’m not dead. I’m not a detective. And I’m not sure how I feel about any of that.
“Good,” said Cassie. This conversation was giving her a migraine. She had never, not her life been this polite to Rob. He would rather have said aloud in the squad room that he was an English spy that be this polite to her. He smiled, and it felt dizzyingly like someone had taken the real Rob and photoshopped a socially acceptable expression into his face. Suddenly she didn’t think she could take this conversation another second. “Listen,” her voice sounded a little wrong in her ears, “I have to go now. But. This was nice. Good to see you.”
She gave her cart a tug, failing to dislodge it from Rob’s. Oh well, she didn’t need the shopping, not urgently. Abandoning both the cart and Rob’s stuttered goodbyes, she bolted for the door. For a flash, she envied Rob his height---much easier with long legs to look like you were striding purposefully, instead of looking like one of those small dogs struggling to keep up with their oblivious owners.
“Wait!” Rob sounded almost panicked. Cassie shouted at herself, don’t stop, didn’t listen, turned around to find Rob, also sans cart, framed between a rack of fresh greens and a careful pyramid of apples. Cassie imagined picking up a head of purple cabbage beside her and hurling it, softball-style, at Rob’s face. Would a head injury keep him from saying whatever it was he was opening his mouth to say?
“Are you still undercover?” Rob asked. A woman with a young child on one hip, who had been squeezing avocados, looked up at them curiously.
“What?” Cassie asked. What the fuck, Ryan? She thought, how is that any of your business? “What the fuck, Ryan?” she said, “how is that any of your business?”
“It’s…” Rob grimaced, shifted on his feet. She could feel him almost pulling back, half turning away, and then he spun back to her, “you have to stop!”
“I—” Cassie sputtered, at the one person in the world who least deserved to give her orders, “how the hell is that up to you?”
“It’s too dangerous. You can’t—you need to stop. You keep risking your life, and you didn’t even tell me. Cass, you already got stabbed!” How the fuck do you know? Cassie thought, knocked off balance, before she realized he was talking about small-time drug-dealer Lexie and not English student Lexie. She felt her self-control snap, not caring if she looked like a child having a tantrum in the fresh produce aisle.
“Okay, first, nobody gets to tell me what to do with my life. You know why, cause it’s mine and my choices are mine and I’m not anyone’s…I’m not yours, Rob. Not fucking anybody’s but very specifically, not yours. What the hell, what the absolute fuck gave you the idea you could tell me what choices to make? Tell me to take care of myself? You---you’re not my partner. You’re not my anything” At some point Cassie had closed her eyes, to scream better, to make sure she didn’t fucking cry. She blinked them open, saw Rob staring at her. His surprise—he was surprised—fueled her anger. “You’re worried about me getting hurt. Too bad. You don’t get to worry about me anymore. You don’t get to care. If you remember, you gave up that right a long time ago. So just—”
“Just what?” The stunned blankness was gone from Rob’s face, or not gone but pushed into second place. She wasn’t used to seeing Rob angry, not with her, not like this. He wasn’t shouting now, his voice gone cold and quiet instead. “Just stop caring? What if you had died, Cassie?” His voice half-broke on the word. If she didn’t know Rob didn’t cry she might have thought those were tears in his eyes.
“What if I had? We wouldn’t have talked any less,” she snapped. The anger was fading, replaced by an utter exhaustion that weighed down her limbs. She just wanted it to stop.
“That’s not.” There was something wrong in Rob’s face, he didn’t seem ice-cold anymore. He seemed confused. “That’s. You would be gone. And. What’s the world without you in it?”
What’s the world? Rob was still, Rob was always, watching her like she wasn’t real. Like maybe he had never seen the real her, and suddenly, cold and empty and shaking, she wanted so much to be seen.
“I killed someone, Rob.” She said, she said it, she couldn’t take it back. “Do you get that? No one in the wide fucking world should be concerned about how I’m doing when my friend is dead!” She took a breath. She would not cry, would not cry, she was definitely crying, fuck.
The automatic misters to Rob’s left turned on, and he flinched at the sudden sprinkling of cold water. The world had narrowed, for a moment, just to the two of them. It opened again as they stood there, breathing, and Cassie was suddenly vividly aware that they had been shouting at each other in the middle of the fresh food section. There was a rudely shaped turnip to Cassie’s right, and without thinking she picked it up and waved it at Rob. He laughed, a shaky sound that came out more like a sob.
“Fuck off, dickface,” Rob said, and suddenly they were in each other’s arms, being gently sprinkled by the automatic produce misters, laughing or crying of something in between.
In the wake of their shouting match, a green-smocked store employee who surely wasn’t being paid enough for this had tactfully encouraged them to leave. Giggling, they had moved to sit on the rough concrete curb at the edge of the parking lot, talking about everything and nothing until Cassie checked her watch and said, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, “Shit! We should get home.”
“But what about your rainbow cereal?’ Rob had asked, wondering if he had imagined the we, but Cassie had turned a punch in the arm into grabbing his hand and dragging him to her tiny car.
Now they stood in front of the one-story, blue-painted house, and Sam opened the door from the inside while Cassie was still searching for her keys. He caught sight of Rob, took in his still slightly damp jacket and Cassie’s messy hair, seemed to think it over for a moment, and nodded. He opened the door wider, stepped back, and led the both to the kitchen. There were two wine glasses already on the counter, and Sam reached up to grab a third from a high cabinet.
“Doesn’t seem fair that Cassie can’t reach the glasses,” Rob said. There was a moment of silence, long enough for him to regret everything he had ever said, and then Sam laughed and Cassie swatted his arm and everything seemed to settle into place.
“Connelly’s alibis are still holding to their stories,” Sam said, the laughter fading from his voice as he poured them each a generous glass of red wine.
“He must be paying them well,” Rob felt the whole case, his sorrow, Sam’s pain, layer itself over the giddy happiness he felt like it might take years to get used to.
“He’s going to get away with it, isn’t he?” Sam asked, not really asking, maybe wanting to be contradicted. Rob took a sip of his wine, let himself lean sideways to lay his head on Sam’s shoulder. Cassie set down her glass, snuggled herself into his side as though she had fit there forever, reached over and laced her fingers through Sam’s.
“He probably is, yeah,” Rob said, and it was horrible and unfair and evil, and he was happy and safe and in love. Everything was paradox, he thought, everything worth doing.