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Throw Away the Key

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There is a long list of reasons why York doesn't go out drinking much. These include, but are not limited to: being laughably lightweight, buying rounds of shots for the entire bar once tipsy, and on more than one occasion waking up on rooftops of public buildings. Which is a feat by itself, but considering the fact that he's been climbing up shit even after the accident that blinded him in one eye, it's even more ridiculous. But last night a couple of old friends were in town, so he figured a few drinks would be fine. York is a trusting individual, and Reggie and Butch are at least seven years his senior each.

So he isn't immediately concerned when he stirs on the couch, the sour taste of tequila shots on the roof of his mouth and the faint twitter of birdsong in his ears. At least, he’s not concerned until he hears a quietly furious unfamiliar female voice.

“Hands where I can see them,” she commands.

“Sure, sure,” he mumbles in agreement, rolling onto his back, “just as soon as I figure out where they are.”

York misjudges the width of the couch and hits the carpeted floor with a thud, slamming his bad shoulder onto the ground. With a groan, he maneuvers onto his back and opens his eyes.

And then goes very, very still.

A woman is standing over him, with bright red hair pulled into a tight ponytail and an athletic build; which would have been great (he has a weakness for girls who could throw him around) but then he registers the handgun she is currently pointing at him and swears to stop at his fifth shot of tequila from here on out.

“Was I really that bad?” he jokes. He has no sense of self preservation, after all, he took more than five shots of tequila last night.

The woman's stare intensifies. At least he thinks it does, he's staring at her upside down with only one fully-functioning eye and still feels a little tipsy.

“What are you doing in my apartment?” she snaps, gun steady in her strong hands, and York's facade falters.

“Uh,” he begins, “I'm not totally--”

The weapon clicks, and he's seen enough crime dramas to know the sound of a gun cocking. Holy shit. If he gets out of this alive, he's going to shove Reggie in front of a bus.

"I had a lot to drink last night, lemme think, lemme think!" It's getting hard to stare at her upside down so York closes both eyes and concentrates. He remembers the night in flashes, little disjointed dream-like memories of taking shots, laughing at Butch’s jokes, stumbling around in the warm dark of a July night. And now that he's focusing, he can feel the swirling nausea, pounding headache, and the telltale sting that climbing brick leaves on his palms.

“Is this 136 Haven Road, apartment seven?” he asks at last, opening his eyes.

The woman - she might be very pretty, but he's too distracted by her gun to judge - shakes her head. “No, but it's a couple buildings down.”

“There we go. I broke into the wrong apartment while drunk. Sorry. Mind if I sit up?”

She sighs and lowers the gun. He rolls carefully onto his side, then stomach, fights to remember what he's doing, and manages to get to his hands and knees.

“You broke into an apartment on the third floor while drunk?” she asks, and she doesn't sound incredulous so much as rather resigned. York is still staring at her cream-colored carpet, hating his life. To a lesser extent, as well, hating his choice of drinking buddies, but even he can tell when something’s his fault.

“I have friends that are personal trainers.” A fresh wave of discomfort washes over him, and York winces. “Can I use your bathroom?”

“No.”

He swallows hard, runs a hand through his sweaty brown hair as his mouth waters and his stomach churns. “Then I need to use your trash can because if not then I'm going to use your carpet.”

He hears a heavy sigh, and then the woman is hauling him to his feet by his upper arm and frog-marching him down a short hallway to an austere bathroom. The unfamiliar apartment spins on the edges of his vision, but her grip anchors him. Comforts him. Somehow.

“Sorry,” he manages again just before he vomits neatly into her toilet.

After a few minutes of emptying his stomach, York feels better. With the nausea  gone, he can focus on his headache and the fact that North is probably going to put him on house arrest when he gets home. Slumping to the side, York leans his scarred cheek against the side of the strangers tub, soaking in the cool feeling of tile. It's a little much to take in. He feels hyper-aware of everything, raw like an exposed nerve, but also detached at the same time. Like he's not attached to this miserable body and experiencing this moment through a screen.

“You don't make a habit of breaking into places, do you?” his hostess asks, an edge of humor sweetening the tartness of her voice. And, wow, that is a voice he wouldn’t mind obeying again.

York cracks his good eye open and stares at the woman in the doorway. She's put away the gun - glad to know that even hungover he can be disarming - and is leaning in the doorway with a cup in her hand. “Not criminally,” he confesses, “or at least not for a long time.”

Thankfully before he can say more, his phone buzzes in his pocket. York checks the caller ID and blanches.

“And this would be the guy whose apartment I was trying to get to last night.” He answers the call and lets his eyes flutter closed again. “Hey North, I didn't die,” he says cheerily. Or as cheerily as he can with the lingering taste of half-digested shots burning the inside of his mouth.

“Glad to hear it. I've been watching the news to see if your body was going to turn up in a ditch somewhere.” North isn't nearly as good at dark humor as his twin sister is. York can hear the panic behind his words, vibrating with tension like violin strings. “So where are you?”

“At your neighbors. Kind of by accident, really.” He contemplates, briefly, mentioning that she was holding him at gunpoint not three minutes ago, but he doesn't want to send North to an early grave. The guy worries enough for three people, which is great because it almost makes up for the apathy in the rest of his family. “I'll be over in a little bit.”

“Good,” North replies tersely, “because we're going to talk about things.” He hangs up to leave York alone once again, dreading the conversations to follow. He deserves all of them, anyway.

When he opens his eyes to slide his phone away, the woman is kneeling because him. She's holding out a cup of water, but he must still be a little drunk because he gets distracted looking at her face and God, she's got the greenest eyes he's ever seen. Postcard tropical ocean green, and he swallows like he’s already drowning in them.

Well, shit.

York breaks eye contact, reaches carefully for the glass and takes a grateful sip of water. “I take it you believe me now?” he croaks.

“Oh, I believed you before. I just wasn't sure you hadn't taken any of my stuff.”

He snorts dismissively. “You're not my type. To steal from, I mean. If I stole from people. Which I don't.” York takes a deep drink of water just to shut himself up. Cheeks burning, he hands back the empty glass and avoids her eyes. “I should be going.”

She helps him up and herds him to the door, her grip firm but not cruel on his arm, more like a polite escort than a bouncer. Once again, he feels that odd spark at the contact; no, not a spark. It's not that intense. It's more like a subtle awareness, like a patch of sunlight on his skin.

York gives her another winsome smile. “Thanks for not calling the police on me or anything,” he says once they’re at the door.

The woman gives him the barest hint of a dry smile. “I am the police.”

“Oh.” That would explain the handgun, but all he can really think to say are jokes about how she probably owns her own pair of handcuffs. York drags his hand down his face, reaching for the doorknob with the other.

“Anyway, sorry for the--” he pauses, too hungover to be eloquent. “Everything. All of it.” He says this with a flourish of his hand, and the woman leans backwards to avoid getting smacked in the face. He should probably leave before he digs himself any deeper.

She reaches past him to unlock the deadbolt. “Just don't make a habit of it. Your friend seemed pretty upset.”

“Yeah.” It's when he stands and turns in the hallway outside her apartment and sees her, really sees all of her, that he realizes she seems... familiar.  Something about the scolding set to her body, the crossed arms but the relaxed tilt to her hip, and the hint of laughter in her sea-green eyes.

But she’s already closing the door; as it clicks shut with finality, the moment dies. York shrugs and, one hand on the rail, starts to make his way down the stairs.

 


 

Evicting a hungover man from off her couch only cracks the top five of Strange Things That Have Happened’ since she moved to Fort Longshore. It’s in good company, though, alongside such incidents as “Sheriff Sarge” from the next town over calling for the arrest of their entire branch on account of the color of their uniforms. That being said, she’s seen enough unprofessional things happen that she doesn’t blame the man's vitriol.

Like tonight, in the final minutes of her shift, as she’s filling out paperwork to the rhythmic clicking of the broken ceiling fan and giddy voices of two of her co-workers swapping ‘sexcapades.’

“So I say to him,” and Tucker pitches his voice down in what he probably believes is a seductive tone, “I’d rather have some of your hard serve, if you know what I mean.”

Carolina could shoot herself for knowing what that means. This is the third time she’s heard the story on this shift alone, and represses a sigh as she keeps her eyes on the desktop screen.

His audience, Kaikaina, coos delightedly. “I’m a fan of milkshakes myself, but go on.”

“Anyway, so he just turns to his boss and says ‘I’m taking my fifteen minutes’ and he storms out from behind the counter, grabs me by the collar of my shirt--” a new addition, before the ice cream guy had just glared and Tucker had followed on impulse, “-- and just slams me against the wall in the solo bathroom. And then I just get my mouth all over the fucking guy because damn, Sis, he’s so hot, and he starts making all those good slutty noises--”

“I’m done,” Carolina announces, saving her progress and telling the computer to shut down. Tucker pauses to catch his breath.

“Damn, didn’t think you’d finish so fast. Bow chicka bow bow,” he adds, because it’s his catchphrase and the cops here have catchphrases. She could die.

But she doesn’t die, just gives Tucker a withering look and leaves the station. Maybe if she doesn’t think about it too much, the sanctity of ice cream will be preserved in her mind.

At least she’s got an errand to take her mind off things. Her brakes have been grating on her nerves for three days now, metallic screams clawing out of the belly of her sedan every time she slows down, and she happens to be on good terms with a mechanic in town. Her ex-roommate owns a little independent shop called the Mother of Invention and had offered to fix Carolina’s brakes for less than the fleet vehicle mechanic. She'd even promised Carolina that she could drop it by tonight at the end of her shift, rather than waiting until the morning.

But the shop looks less than lively when Carolina parks alongside the road out front. There's no one by the counter when she walks in, and the windowed lobby is empty of people. Passing cars and their headlights smear the shadows of tire displays and hard-backed chairs across the back wall. The only sign of life are the fluorescent lights in the workshop and the faint static of a rock song on the radio.

Though she's done with work for the day, Carolina's still in cop-mode and creeps across the lobby, eyeing the shifting shadows. As she gets closer, she catches the faint sound of a man singing along; under his breath and a little coarse, but he can carry a tune. What's odd is that his voice seems familiar.

“Niner?” she calls her friend by her nickname, letting her hand rest on her gun but not draw it. As she enters the workshop properly, she catches sight of a pair of overall-clad shins sticking out from under the front fender of a raised, slightly battered pick-up truck.

“Nope!” calls the voice cheerily, then the legs dig in their heels and crabwalk the rest of their body out on a low, wheeled board. “You must be Caro-- lina?” he asks, voice breaking on the last two syllables.

She has a moment of confusion, staring at his messy brown hair and the grease on his white shirt - and then he removes his safety goggles. Recognition clicks in, and he shifts from ‘unknown Caucasian male in his late twenties’ to ‘that guy that slept on her couch’ in her mind.

“It's you,” she says, and thumbs the handle of her holstered gun. He stares up at her with mismatched eyes - one blue, one blind - and a stunned expression. There's a beat of near-silence as they stare at each other with the radio blithely playing in the background. At last he braces his hands on his knees and stands, offering her a sheepish grin. The arms of his coveralls are tied across his hips, crossed as though in defiance to the idea of professionalism. She takes the hand, and realizes how cold hers is in comparison.

“You weren't kidding about being a cop,” he observes, nudging the cart back under the truck with the toe of his shoe as he heads for a sink against the cluttered wall. “Not that I thought you were lying. You're not here to arrest me, are you?”

She's tempted to draw her gun on him again, just for old time's sake, but instead she settles for a “where's Niner?” flung at his retreating back.

“She had a family emergency. An animal-y emergency? I'm not sure. Something came up, but she told me you were coming. Brake pad replacement, right?” Rinsing the grease off his hands, he throws her a look over his shoulder. She lets go of the gun to cross her arms and nod. “Lemme get the door open, then you can bring it in.”

“Which one?”

He waves to one of the back-facing overhead doors and Carolina retraces her steps, pulling out her phone to furiously text.

\\ thought you said you'd be here! \\ she fires Niner's way. A little trio of dots appears as she storms back outside, and a reply appears when she's buckling herself in.

//  raccoons got into the attic again. isnt york there? //

\\ the shady one-eyed guy? \\ she asks for clarification, and a little out of spite.

// stop thinking like a cop omfg //

\\ don't you 'OMFG' me its like ten at night and i've been giving tickets to angry north-side rich bitches all day. i'm tired \\

// then leave ur car with york and go home. he's good. and im busy //

“Good is very subjective,” she mutters to herself as she pulls her car into the back of the garage. York is standing off to the side, half-heartedly waving her in like he's still not sure if she's going to shoot him. And she isn't, because she hasn't had to shoot a civilian yet and doesn't want to mar her perfect record, but she's not going to tell him that. He broke into her apartment. He can suffer for a little while longer.

“It's York, right?” she asks as she parks the car and gets out.

“Yep,” he says, wiping his palms down the front of his thighs, smearing a fresh line of dirt across his coveralls.  “Spelled like the candy and the state. Rhymes with the utensil.”

Carolina can't tell if he's nervous or if he just likes to run his mouth, but the overall effect is enough to make her relax. He’s not much taller than her, either, and more importantly he doesn’t loom.

She tosses him the keys - too late, she realizes her mistake, but he comes very close to catching them before they hit the ground with a musical clatter.  “Sorry,” she says, with a pang of guilt. Of course his depth perception is off, with an eye like that.

“It's okay. Me too,” he adds as he stands up, keys in hand, and nods for her to follow him back to the front counter. “About the whole... breaking in thing. Is your porch door all right?”

“Little scuffed,” she confesses, “but I shouldn't lose my deposit over it.”

“Good.” He types at the register, and she takes a moment to study him; the milky blue of his left eye and the ugly lines of scar tissue from eyebrow to cheek, the way his fingers drag across the keypad like he's reading the numbers in Braille. The smudged dirt across his brow, the prickle of stubble along his jaw.

She doesn't realize she's staring until he looks up. “You can ask,” he says. “I don't mind.”

“What?”

York taps his left cheek. “Motorcycle accident, about two years ago. I don't wear a patch most of the time since I can still see out of it. Messed up my shoulder a bit as well, but I'm lucky to have gotten away in one piece.”

He tears off her receipt; their fingers brush during the exchange.

Understanding comes in a flash. “The glass visor of your helmet got crushed against your face. That's--” Carolina shoves the paper in her pocket without looking at it, suddenly self-conscious under the weight of York's stare. “That's how it happened, right?”

“Yeah.” There's another pause, and while she occupies herself with staring at a display rack of motor oil, she can feel him studying her. 

“Guess you're a really good cop, then,” he adds lightly, deflating the tension of the moment.

“I try.” She still feels off-balance, off-beat. At least she can always blame her job for that. “I'm gonna call a taxi or something, don't let me keep you.”

“Oh, you can borrow my car.” York slithers his hands into his pockets and, after a moment's fumbling, produces another set of keys. This one is a little heavier than her austere ring, weighed down with probably a dozen keys (most of which didn't look like they went with anything) and a leather oval with a triangle stamped into it. “I was gonna stay the night here anyway. It's the, uh. The old black coupe. The Chevy.”

Carolina accepts the ring and can't resist the urge to give him a skeptic look. “No wonder you got into my apartment so easily,” and she flicks out a skeleton key from the pack. York laughs nervously.

“Would you believe me if I said I just liked keys?”

“I wouldn't be a very good cop if I did.” But she selects the car key anyway and lets the rest settle back with a clatter. “You sure it's all right?”

“Sure, sure. Your car should be done by nine tomorrow. Come back sometime around then.”

“I'll aim for that. Good night, York.” She heads to the door and he follows her, just a couple steps back, an echo of their previous encounter.

“Good night, Carolina.”  And she can hear a smile in his voice as she shuts the door.

 

Chapter Text

To say that the chunk of wood and upholstery in the break room of Invention is a couch would be, at best, a misleading compliment. At worst, the furniture is a trap, with three loose cushions that stay plush for the first two minutes after you sit on them and then do nothing to soften the sharp-edged slats below. It slopes backwards, eats all manner of loose change, and is made of plaid-printed burlap in the exact colors of a regurgitated burrito.  And yet, York tends to sleep on said “couch” every couple weeks, whenever he gets too wrapped up in work to drive home in the dark.

There is exactly one perk to sleeping in the breakroom; the coffeemaker is within arms reach. It's the loyal machine’s happy burbling that wakes him up this morning, nearly suffocated by the back of the couch and every joint a creaky, miserable affair. One cushion had fled entirely, and there are crumbs stuck to his arm as York rolls onto his back.

Slowly, he connects the dots as to where he is and why he's here in his mind; and the realization, the remembrance hits him like a bolt from the blue. He leaps off the couch, sprints out of the break room and just barely comes to a stop before he steamrolls his boss into a old coupe that's missing all four tires.

“Good morning,” Niner says dryly, a smudge of dirt blending into her dark skin. “Sleep well?”

“Oh god I'm so sorry what time is it is the cop here yet is she going to--”

Niner silences him by shoving a breakfast bagel in his mouth - it's gone a little cold, but his nose tells him it's his favorite, cheddar and sausage and egg on blueberry - and passing him his keys on her way to the break room. “Carolina’s already come and gone. I was here in time to meet her. You did good.”

York sighs through his nose, pockets the keys and sinks his teeth into the bagel, tearing off a chunk and chewing as he follows Niner. She has a real name, but then again so does he, so he's just accepted calling her Niner and only remembers it's odd when talking to strangers about her. “You know her?”

“I said she was a personal friend, didn't I?” Niner steps over the escaped cushion and claims the canvas folding chair on the other side of the room. “I wasn't expecting you to give her your car, however.”

York puts the rest of his bagel - Niner’s promised payment for staying late and fixing the car overnight -  into the microwave to reheat and starts reassembling the couch. He notices a vicious twinge in his left shoulder and resolves to head to the Dakota’s as soon as he can. “Is that a problem?” he asks, trying to keep his voice level.

“And here I thought you'd try to haggle for a box of doughnuts or something.”

He pats his pockets, stalling for time. The lighter he always carries has slid out of his jeans - he fumbles under the cushions until he reclaims the cool metal shape and tucks it back inside.

Niner’s tone slips from amused to suspicious. “York.”

“Yes, my tiny grease goddess?” he answers sweetly as he pours himself a cup of coffee, keeping his left elbow tucked against his side.

York is good at a lot of things. Fixing engines, picking locks, knowing how long after the expiration date you can still drink milk. Keeping a straight face does not happen to be one of them. He can feel his ears turning red even before Niner speaks.

“Spill.”

Her word is God in the Invention. York could no more defy her commands than break the laws of physics. Even so, he hesitates.

“I… Might have broken into her apartment by accident last week.” He dumps in an indiscriminate amount of sugar and flavored creamer as Niner’s silence dangles over him, cool as steel. “She lives next door to the Dakotas, and I was really drunk and she had a gun but was still kinda nice, so I just… thought I owed her.”

When he turns, finally, Niner isn’t even trying to hide a gleeful smile. “Oh, sweetheart.” Somehow, the pet name doesn’t make him feel better. “You have a crush.”

“She’s very--” York stirs his coffee into a tiny brown-and-cream whirlpool, struggling for the least incriminating terms, “--attractive. And I wouldn’t, you know, mind if you told me if she’s single or into guys or something.”

“So you lent her your car to try to blackmail me into being your mole?”

It comes out with a little more force than he intended. “No. I lent her my car because it was the right thing to do, and.. I wanted to see her again.” Niner raises her eyebrows, and he continues playfully, “but I wouldn’t object if you volunteered to be my mole.”

He feels like he’d need all the help he could get; all he’s got is her home address, license plate and a bad first impression. Which is a lot, yes, but they’re all the wrong things. He wants to know what movies she likes, her favorite food, what she does in her spare time. Human things. Friend things. The crush he may or may not have can wait until they get to know each other.

“Nah, I’m gonna let this one play itself out,” Niner deflects, dark brown eyes sparkling with a delighted grin. “Go home and shower, you reek.”

“Thanks.” York shoves the bagel in his mouth and grabs his coffee each in turn, stepping out of the way as Niner takes his place. “I’ll text you,” is what he means to say, but it comes out more of a grumble. She waves goodbye as he slips out the back door and heads to the parking lot.

It’s a bit of a feat to get his keys out, especially as his shoulder is really starting to throb, but when York opens the car he sees a little post-it note stuck to his steering wheel.

“thanks for the ride.”

He transfers the note to the dashboard, out of his direct line of sight, and turns the keys in the ignition with a little secret smile.

 


 

The Dakota twins work at a gym on the north side of Fort Longshore, which York often visits to keep his shoulder and everything else in shape. He doesn’t have an official membership, so he texts South ahead of time to make sure one of them is there before he arrives late one afternoon, hair still a little damp from his shower.

He comes in the side door on the edge of a group of on-break college students, energetic frat boys and athletic types from the university on the east edge of town. The girl at the desk doesn’t stop him, and it’s not hard to find South once he’s inside.

Her blonde hair is in a drastic sidecut for the summer, short in the back and reaching past her chin on her right side; the neon purple tips matching her top as she spots a man who is clearly trying to bench-press too much weight. Visually, South doesn’t much resemble her brother - several inches shorter, for one, usually scowling for another - but York’s known them both long enough that he knows how similar they really are. North may have stopped wearing the lip piercing he got in his high school emo phase, but York has pictures that get funnier every year.

South catches his eyes from across the room, and York busies himself with inspecting the little five-pound dumbbells on the rack, listening in. There’s an exclamation, then the clash of weights hitting the floor, and York stifles a grin as South takes the opportunity to give the man a rather loud lecture on safety.

When she’s finished, she waves York into one of the physical therapy rooms. “Goddamn shit-brained idiot,” she mutters, her usually-buried accent emerging to stretch her vowels at the edges. “Should’ve let him crack his sternum. He’s worked with North, but of course he didn’t overdo it with North. Fucking asshole only thinking with his shriveled balls, trying to show off for the girls .”

“Good afternoon,” York replies simply, settling onto a low stool. South slips in behind him, running her hands down his shoulder. It’s still coarse with scar tissue in a few places, but her touch has always been oddly soothing. He trusts the twins more than he would a doctor. Being considerably cheaper than professional care also helps, so.

“Whose couch did you sleep on this time?” she gripes, gently rotating his arm.

He tries not to grit his teeth as the joint clicks in protest. “The one at work.”

“Dude. Just buy a cot already or something. Hell, sleeping in the backseat of one of the cars would probably be better for you.” South finishes her examination and braces her heel on the seat beside York, her hands cradling his elbow and holding it tight against his side. He knows what’s coming. And it hurts every time. The body remembers, even when the mind does not.

She grumbles in his ear. “Don’t tense up. You’ll just make it worse.”

“I know, I know.”

“Relax.” South’s hands slide back to his upper arm, massaging the stiff muscles there. “So why were you staying late at Invention?”

York knows she’s trying to distract him, and lets it happen. “Remember that girl I was talking about a few days ago?”

“The one whose apartment you were in? Yeah.” South chuckles, her fingertips skimming across his skin, cool and un-invasive. Friendly without being intimate. “North was so pissed.”

“Fixed her car overnight. She’s friends with Niner. I didn’t know when I said I’d do it, though, scout’s hon-- aaahhh !”

Cupping his elbow, South suddenly yanks back, shoving his arm into joint with a grinding click. The sound that he makes only sounds about sixty percent pained, and York rubs the top of his shoulder.

“You fucking masochist,” South snorts, slapping him on the other arm as she gets up. “Try not to look too smug on your way out. I have a reputation to uphold, you know.”

“That was a minute and a half, tops. I’m pretty sure it’d hurt my reputation just as much.” But he follows her back out on the gym floor, rubbing the offensive joint. Activity is starting to really pick up, and York finds himself blending in.

But South’s twin is conspicuously absent - his tall frame is usually as easy to spot among the machinery as a stalk of corn in a soybean field, even for someone with one bad eye. York inconspicuously wanders past the treadmills - he hates jogging, no matter how good it is for him - and heads to the massive windows overlooking the pool. There, at last, he catches sight of North working with a small group of elderly women.

It’s peaceful to watch North work, all careful movements and no doubt gentle words; and then something heavy and bittersweet catches in the back of his throat when his eye strays to the seniors. Without another word, not even one of goodbye, York trots down the stairs and out of the gym.

The sunlight that flashes on the store windows is just starting to turn rose-gold, the glare playing hide-and-seek between the low, old stone buildings still bright enough in his left eye to make him squint. His car is parked a couple blocks away in the strip mall’s lot but it’s a nice evening to be out walking, so it’s not like he minds. His thoughts are miles away anyway, to an empty house on the edge of town that he keeps avoiding.

Which is why, for once, he doesn’t check his blind side before stepping out into the crosswalk - just spares a glance for the walk signal. He gets about two paces out until there’s a screech of tires and something plows into him from his left. York stumbles sideways, legs buckling under the impact, and rolls off the hood onto the road. His right forearm slams into the pavement, catching his head from hitting it, and he lays there for a moment face down and winded.

Okay, so that’s what getting hit by a car feels like. Now he knows, and Wyoming can suck it next time he gets shitty with York for York’s miserable hangovers, because he’s actually experienced getting slammed by a vehicle.  And it is all kinds of terrifying and awful.

A car horn blares at him. York grits his teeth and commands his body to sit up. Even buzzed with adrenaline, his legs seem to laugh off the command, but he does manage to roll out of the way of oncoming traffic just in time for the driver’s side door to open.

“Oh my god,” gasps a distressingly young female voice, the edge of a lisp blurring her words, “are you all right?”

“Um,” he replies, contemplating a joke about being blind and useless on his left and for once deciding to hold onto it for later. “Hang on.”

In the oncoming lane, a van slows to a stop, flashing its hazard lights. York prays neither of the Dakota twins are on break as he pushes himself to stand on weak but not broken legs. At least he doesn’t think they’re broken, but they do not want to work for him at the moment. At all. They shake and threaten to give out on him entirely, flashing sirens of nope, nope and fuck you as he tries to convince them to bear his weight.

The driver of the car, a little brunette whose braces show as she breaks down into tears in front of him, seems to be in worse shape than he is. “I’m so sorry,” she wails, “I was turning right and I didn’t even see you, I didn’t think to look--”

“Hey,” and York bites the side of his tongue as he sits on the hood of her car with as much of a casual air as possible, feeling tentatively down his thigh with his left hand, the right one stinging, “I didn’t look either, just as much my fault. It’s not that--”

“--this for three weeks, and I’m going to go to jail and oh my god, my parents are going to just die--”

“Whoa, hey,” and he makes the mistake of raising both hands in a placating gesture. The driver sniffs, looks up and starts crying even harder, bawling into her own hands. In the other lane, the van’s driver rolls down his window as traffic starts to back up.

“You okay?”

York inspects his hands and finds a long shard of amber glass embedded in his right palm. Probably from a broken beer bottle - he picks it out with still-weak fingers and tosses it to the side.

“I could use a hand, but I’ll be fine.” That one he really can’t resist, but it doesn’t seem to help the situation. Really, York would much rather just slink home and lick his wounds there, but then he hears the distant sound of police sirens and he lets his eyes shutter closed. Takes in a deep breath, one that makes his side ache and tastes of sharp city air. Great.

The van drives on, but slowly, as do several other cars of well-wishers, wanna-be Samaritans and outright rubberneckers. York tries his best to ignore all of them and focuses on the driver, who has started in on the whooping gasps of exhausted, hysterical crying.

“Look, really, I’m gonna be fine,” he says, more from sympathy than truth. “I’m not gonna press charges or anything.”

“I could have ki-- ki--” she gasps, wiping her face ineffectually with her hands. “Killed you!”

“Well, yeah,” and he was planning on following that up with a comment on how it’s actually very easy to get killed, but the kid’s wail cuts him off. York almost drags his hands down his face but remembers his cut just in time, and instead levers himself off the hood of the car. Yeah, there’s something a little off with his left knee but so long as he doesn’t put weight on it, he’s fine. Probably.

If North doesn’t find out about this York will count himself very, very lucky. He carefully bends his right elbow, stopping short as a stab of pain shoots up his arm, and tucks the limb up against his side. Now he’s got two tender arms, and work tomorrow. The police car rounds the corner, pulling in front of the girl’s car; York waves cheerfully at the unseen driver. At least this situation can’t get much worse.

A sentiment he retracts the moment the officer steps out, bright red hair pulled back in a low professional bun, and he recognises her. It’s been a few days since he saw her last, but even if it had been years he thinks he would have known her. You don’t forget someone who points a gun at you the first time you meet that easily.

Slowly, he lowers his bleeding hand - their gazes hold, and then Carolina’s gaze sweeps over to the driver without a word. He swallows.

“Are you alright, ma’am?” she asks, patient and professional. York prepares himself to catch the girl in case she faints from distress; but instead the driver rallies herself and nods, passing over her license when prompted. Silently, he watches Carolina at work - the shadow of a gentle smile on her lips, the step-by-step instructions she gives as she takes command of the situation. And then she turns to him and something human slips from under that professional mask.

If he knew her better, he might say she could have been concerned over him.

“So what happened?” she prompts, and he rubs the back of his neck, only remembering his gash when it smears blood against his nape.

“Um, I didn’t check before I stepped into the crosswalk. She turned into me. I’m not-- well, I’ll get her insurance information but I don’t plan on pressing charges.”

Carolina nods. “Can you write with that hand?”

He flexes his fingers, feeling the sting of the gash as the skin stretches, and shrugs. She slips back to her car, and York moves to the sidewalk as the driver takes a few photos of the accident. But to his surprise, Carolina only comes back with one clipboard, which she hands off before turning to him.

“Go sit in the backseat, please. I’ll help you fill out the information when I’m finished with her, okay?”

“Sure,” he agrees, and then because he can’t help it, “been a long time since I was in the back of a cop car.”

Carolina gives him a look from the corner of her eye. York’s grin withers a little, and he slinks to her vehicle and lets himself in. The upholstery is a little discolored in places, but on a whole the car feels meticulously cleaned. York cradles his right palm carefully, trying not to get blood on anything as it dries and flakes off his wrist. He’s had worse, and while he’ll have the twins check him over later he really doesn’t want to sue. They’re both at fault and he doesn’t especially want the hassle of insurance claims and hospital visits on top of everything else in his life right now.

He checks his phone to pass the time and finds, predictably, a string of texts from South.

// shit man there is something going down at the stoplight //

// are u involved //

// u r arent you //

// fuck north wants to take his break and go ‘make sure everyones ok’ //

// brb ill hold him back //

\\ yes im involved \\ York sends back, one-handed. \\ keep him out of this i dont want his dad vibes making everything worse \\

Her reply is immediate. // send me pics //

\\ i got ever so slightly hit by a car \\ and he attaches a picture of the gash on his hand.

// nice nice nice. you gonna go get stitches? //

The click of the driver’s side door opening derails his train of thought - York fires back a \\ brb \\ as fast as he can and looks up.

“Where were you headed?” Carolina asks over her shoulder.

“The parking lot at Castle and Main.”

She starts up the car without another word, shifting it into drive and pulling away. York turns around to see the other car - with a slight dent in the hood and what could be a small smear of blood on the pale blue surface, whoops - doing the same. However, she does not head in the direction of the parking lot. At least, not the route he figured she’d take.

“So,” he breaks the silence, “are you arresting me?”

“Do you want me to arrest you?”

He can’t see her face and doesn’t know her well enough to tell if she’s kidding, or flirting, or threatening him. York regrets the whole chain of events that led him here even more. “Is there a right answer?”

“I’m taking you to MedCheck to get that cut cleaned up.”

Oh. York swallows hard. “What, this? It’s just a scratch, I’ll be fine. I don’t have health insurance.” Wait, no, he’s talking to a cop. “Well, I mean, I have the legal minimum. But I’d really rather not go to the doctor. Could you take me to my car instead?”

Carolina heaves a sigh, brushes her bangs to the side and flips on her turn signal. He exhales as well and slumps into the backseat, mindful of his injuries. It has certainly been A Day, and he just wants to go home. Or to what passes as home, now-- and he back pedals away from that train of thought as fast as possible.

He resists the urge to point out the turn to her and doesn't get the chance to give her directions to his car: she parks neatly beside his little Chevy Delta with cool, mechanical efficiency. Carolina reaches under her seat, grabs a tackle box and circles around to his side door before he's finished fumbling off another text to South.

“Hand,” Carolina instructs, kneeling and resting one knee on the edge of the car’s door frame. York blinks at her, then glances down. It's a first aid kit.

“Oh,” he says, and then, “I don't get a choice this time, do I?”

“I could always arrest you,” and if there had been any chance that he would have declined her again, it vanishes like the sugar he poured in his coffee this morning because she is smiling . It's not especially wide or bright and there's not even a hint of teeth but it's there .

Getting hit by a car is the best thing that's happened to him this calendar year.

York holds his right hand out, palm up, and hisses when she pulls it forward too sharply. “Watch the elbow,” he asks, and studies the rusty smudges of dirt and blood on his good jeans with great intensity. Fascinating. Red and blue don’t make purple after all.

Carolina’s grip tightens on his wrist and then she pours half a bottle of water on the gash - it runs down his wrist, curving around her fingers and splattering on the sidewalk. York resists the urge to pull his hand back, glad that now he can blame the spike in his pulse on pain. Not that it really hurts - even the throb in his elbow has faded to background noise, and he watches the back of her neck.

There’s a fire-bright intensity to the bow of her head, the furrow of her brow as she swipes what feels like antiseptic over the gash. He barely feels the burn of his wound, caught up in her laser-like focus in her task; caught up in her like a leaf in a storm drain, perfectly comfortable with letting her twist his arm as she works, trusting her implicitly.

The car radio bursts into static. Neither of them turn.

She presses a gauze pad against the wound and wraps it tight with a strip of self-adhesive bandage. He is a little disappointed that it’s over, if he’s honest. And York tries very hard to be honest with everyone other than himself.

“That should get you home,” she says, gripping the door to haul herself back to her feet. She’s close enough he can see a few freckles on her cheeks and the smudge of her dark eyeliner as she stretches her legs. “I think you should get stitches, but I won’t force you.”

She could, though. He makes a noise of what he hopes sounds like agreement, ignoring the angry vibrations of his phone in his pocket, and York doesn’t breathe until Carolina retreats to grab something from the front seat again.

“Still need your info.” Reappearing in his line of sight, she passes the clipboard over. It’s still rather painful to write, but at least he isn’t smearing blood all over the page. When he’s finished, he hands the clipboard back over and braces himself as her eyes fall on the page.

Carolina snorts. It's the first really human thing he’s ever seen her do, and later he’ll look back on this and feel charmed. But at the moment York has worse things on his mind. Like his legal name.

“My dad was apparently a big football fan,” he starts. “See why I don’t go by my first name?”

“It’s not… that bad,” she says; the smile is back and it’s worth the humiliation, if he’s honest with himself. “I know a Leonard the Second.”

“It’s bad when you’re introduced to old Jewish ladies who grew up with that TV show and they start singing the theme song. To your face. When you’re fifteen.”

She sounds unimpressed. “Yeah, yeah. I’ll get a copy of this to the driver. Don’t--”

“--let it happen again, look both ways,” York anticipates, levering himself up and out of the car. It’s like the rest made everything hurt worse, and his left knee buckles unexpectedly. He probably can’t make it to work tomorrow. Shoot. At least Carolina doesn’t seem to notice as he grits his teeth and leans against Delta’s door.

“Drive safe,” she says, and then she’s leaving him with a carbon copy of the driver’s contact information, pulling out of the parking lot, and York stays slumped against his car until she’s out of sight.

Yeah. He’s got it pretty bad.

Chapter Text

 

The morning after she drove York to the parking lot instead of the ER, Carolina had skipped her coffee. Which wasn't that unusual for her, really, despite usually sleeping in little four-hour sprints with brief but cold voids in between. Carolina only drinks coffee on the mornings where she argues with herself in the mirror that there are still things worth fighting for. She counts every time she wakes up in a cold sweat as a morning, which means that she goes through about eleven cups a week.

But she opens her eyes on her day off to her budgies burbling angrily at each other and a caffeine withdrawal headache that would make a bullet in her brain feel like a mercy. Maybe it’s time she dialed back on the beans.

Iota, the blue one, notices the movement of blankets and starts hopping on his perch, whistling happily. “I love you too,” Carolina mumbles as she sloughs off the blankets and woefully begins her day.

She creeps to the kitchen, pulling a box of crackers down from the cabinets to shove a handful in her mouth and heads to the bathroom. Her partner Maine - she doesn’t want to think of him as an ex-partner, still clinging to the hope of being transferred back once the dust settles - has been wanting to visit for months and she’s finally caved.  He’ll be stopping by today, so she has to get moving and prepare for her second guest ever. Not even her little brother has been allowed to see her apartment yet - and they’re on the same police force.

Funny that the first person to enter her apartment since she moved in was a drunk guy who passed out on her couch.

Carolina barely remembers not to crunch into the painkillers she tosses back at the sink, her mind superimposing the image of York half-curled on her bathmat as she wonders: how is he doing now?

It’s been a week since she got a call that a pedestrian was hit by a car. A week since she steeled herself to calling the morgue in the middle of her shift and watching them zip some barely-past-adolescence student into a body bag. Instead, she found someone she knew. Not well, but enough that it would have been harder to compartmentalize the memory of his corpse.

She remembers how he tried to hide the deep gash on his hand, smiling even as he could hardly stand. How even in his pain, he wanted to be kind.

One of the budgies screams from the next room over and she closes her eyes, gripping the sink tightly until the heat is leached from her fingers. York will have to fend for himself for a little while longer. She has her own things to worry about right now.

The first of which is getting laundry started before the afternoon rush. She takes a slow, tentative breakfast of water and buttered toast until she feels alive enough to move, then loads up a flimsy old hamper up with laundry and detergent, digs quarters out of the jar on her nightstand, and totes the whole thing downstairs.

The coin laundromat is just down the road and across the street, but the warm early morning sunlight is already being blotted out by pregnant clouds, grey and dense like dust collecting on an old painting. Carolina stands in the doorway of her building, waiting for the weather app on her phone to load as she listens to her neighbors scream at each other. She can tell it’s affectionate, so it’s mostly background noise to her - until something catches her attention.

“Did you put the drumsticks down on the list, North?”

Her eyes jump off the phone screen. Where has she heard that name before? Hamper pressed to her hip, Carolina shuffles forward until she can see the situation. A blonde woman with streaks of fuchsia in her short hair is on a balcony the next building over, shouting down to a man standing beside his car. He gives her a thumbs up.

“And the hair dye?”

Another gesture, a little less patient this time. Carolina frowns, calculating apartment numbers. Three floors up, same side of the building as her own… It’s possible.

“And don't stop by Invention on your way home again to check up on York! If there are crystals in my ice cream from melting and refreezing, I'm going to shove it spoonful by spoonful up your fucking asshole!”

York. The name rings in her head like a bell, resonant and golden. Better than his birth name, indeed.

“Will you stop yelling?” he calls back, cupping his hands around his mouth and matching her in volume. Carolina steps forward then, shoving her phone in her jeans pocket and brushing a few loose strands of hair out of her face.

“Excuse me,” she starts, too much of her Police Voice creeping into her tone. The man named North turns to face her, startled but almost immediately apologetic.

“Sorry about my sister,” he says with a sad, small smile. “We didn't wake you up, did we?”

“No. Might I suggest--” she cuts herself off, trying for once to be less professional. “Sorry, that's not what I wanted to talk about. You’re... North?”

His blond eyebrows furrow. “Yes?”

“York’s friend?”

North’s weight shifts and he slides his hand to his pockets - Carolina’s eyes follow the movement, ready to defend herself from a weapon, but he just puts away his car keys. “How do you know York?” he asks, a little less warmth in his tone.

She has to tilt her head back to meet his gaze, aware of the strength in his arms and the several inches of height he has over her, but not alarmed. She could still take him.

“We’ve run into each other once or twice,” and she matches the neutrality of his tone, then takes a chance. “I was called to the scene when he got hit by a car last week?”

“Oh!” Immediately North relaxes, shoulders slumping as he nods in understanding. “All right, yeah, okay. You’re the cop who lives here. I see your car all the time.”

“Yeah. How is he?”

“He’s good,” he says, in the fond tone of voice that Carolina expects to hear as he would show her pictures of York in his wallet, “I took him to MedCheck to make sure his knee was all right. I’m in school to be a physical therapist, but you can’t be too careful, you know?”

Idly, she recalls York’s hesitation to go under her care - but before she can follow that train of thought, North’s cell phone rings. He pulls it out with a puzzled expression, then his face falls and settles into unimpressed irritation. Carolina follows his gaze to the balcony and sees the blonde woman waving down at them. Her phone is pressed against her ear.

“Sorry,” North apologizes to her yet again, “but I should be going. Gotta get a grocery run in before work - you know how it is.”

She does. Carolina picks up her hamper once more. “Drive safe.”

“I will, ma’am.”

She leaves him to  his own chores, and hears his car pull away just as the coin laundry door shuts behind her. Carolina heaves her clothes into the nearest empty washing machine, and empties her mind of half-blind mechanics.

 


 

Visitors to her house was a rarity when she was growing up, but Carolina knows the basics. Clean, clean, and clean some more. She’s not a messy person by nature and doesn’t own knick-knacks or other dust traps, but the nature of owning birds means she has to dust and vacuum thoroughly anyway.

She likes her apartment, though. The little porch with its gauzy curtains and glass doors lets in golden-rose patches of evening sunlight, the exterior walls of stylish raw brick are an excellent excuse for her to not hang the pictures and posters she doesn’t have, the kitchen is well-stocked with chrome appliances, and overall it looks like something between an extra-nice hotel room and a magazine spread.

Just like her old apartment, and her dorm, and every other place she’s lived in since she moved out of her father’s house. It is clean and minimalistic and she prefers it that way, thank you.

She’s five ibuprofen deep and just blowing her nose from one last sneeze when her phone buzzes with a text; pulling on some flats, Carolina jogs down the stairs. There’s a man standing under the overhang of the building’s tiny porch, and she can make out the overlapping letters of the tattoo that cascades down the back of his shaved head and neck. He wouldn’t look out of place as a bouncer or a hit man for some movie mobsters, but she doesn’t hesitate for a moment to pull open the door.

“Hey, Maine,” and she dusts off her faded-soft gray t-shirt. “Any trouble finding the place?”

He shakes his head, wearing an echo of her smile, and follows her up the stairs. She opens the apartment door and steps to the side, pleased with the result of a half a day’s work; her furniture almost manages to match, and her kitchen counter is clean and bare. Cheerful chirping can be heard already, sounding especially excited, and the smile on Maine’s face only grows.

Carolina heaves an exaggerated sigh, secretly grateful for the distraction. “I swear you only visit to see the boys.”

She leads the way to the birds and immediately both budgies start whistling a song; Maine purses his lips and mimics the tune, airy and rhythmic. Reaching for the cage door, he holds out his finger. Eta, yellow and green, beats his roommate to Maine’s hand, for once being the more outgoing of the two. Carolina retrieves Iota a moment later, and rubs him on the side of his head as Eta shuffles his way up Maine’s arm to his shoulder, where he sits and looks pleased with himself.

“I’m trying to teach them to give kisses,” she explains, and holds Iota up to her cheek and makes a kissing nose. Iota obligingly headbutts her, rather than pressing his beak to her face as she's been encouraging him to do.

Maine’s shoulders shake in a chuckle and Eta burbles.

Carolina nudges Iota with her chin in affection scolding. “We’re working on it.”

Maine seats himself on the foot of her bed, reaching up to his shoulder and letting Eta step onto his finger again. He’s surprisingly gentle with her budgies; Carolina knows just how strong he can be from years of working with him in the capital. Watched those hands dislocate shoulders, tear open barred windows, haul trapped passengers free from half-crushed cars. They’ve seen some shit together.

Which is why it doesn’t surprise her when Maine gets to the heart of the matter. “The Felix hearing is next month.”

Carolina lets out a hard breath through her nose, feeling the all-too familiar tide of frustration rise at the mere mention of it. Iota presses his tiny beak against her cheek unprompted, and it helps her hold her temper in check. Even so, she feels her fingernails leave dents in her palms. “I should be there.”

“You could be,” Maine reminds her, still running a finger down Eta’s back over and over again. Caroline sits on the bed, careful not to jostle Iota as he creeps to her shoulder, burbling concern.

“As a civilian, maybe, not as a cop. Shit.” She presses the heel of her free hand against her cheekbone. “I should be there.”

“Texas--”

“I know what she said. I don’t care.” Iota preens the fine, wispy hairs at her temple, whistling the same tune as before. Carolina raises her head and turns in Maine’s direction, nearly knocking the budgie aside with her ponytail. “I had that warrant when I went in. I wouldn’t risk a mistrial like that. You believe me, right?”

Maine nods, slumping forward as Eta crosses around behind his neck, one tiny foot in front of the other, until the bird settles on his other shoulder.

Of course he does, but it doesn’t matter what Maine believes. Or even what Carolina herself believes; what she found in the alleyway or in the rich little bastard’s car. All that matters is she fucked up a murder investigation by being fifteen minutes ahead of the time stamp on her search warrant.

There’s nothing she can do about it for now; just wait, like she does in her patrol car every day. Wait for something else to happen. Wait to die, maybe. That’s a common trend in her family, at least.

“I’m off the rest of the day,” she says, forcing herself to change the subject. “What season did you last see in Bake Off?”

He holds up four fingers. Carolina affects an injured expression.

“You finished season three without me? So rude. You better not spoil anything. Come on,” and she coaxes Iota back onto her finger and brings him over to his cage. “I finally got the wifi here to work.”

 


 

But eventually Maine has to start the long drive back home, and she has to go grocery shopping - a mistake after watching a cooking show for three hours. Several times she finds herself looking longingly at desserts in the supermarket bakery, wondering if she could make that. But logic wins out in the end, brutal practicality that even if she could make an angel food cake with her fifteen-year-old hand-mixer, she’d have no one to share it with her. And that is a lot of cake to eat alone.

So she carries her shopping basket in one hand and umbrella in the other, the former absent of the spring-form pan she’d been eyeing, and unlocks her patrol car. She hates not having a second car for these kind of idle trips to town, but her apartment complex has a one-vehicle limit and she’d sold her spare to Niner. It takes some juggling to try to unload the basket into her backseat without dropping the umbrella, but Carolina manages, and kicks the door closed by reflex as she turns to put the basket back.

And the moment her heel impacts with the car door, she remembers placing her keys on the seat to free up her hand. Her reflexes are fast and she’s already turning - but her legs are stronger, and the double-click of the door thudding closed and locking seems to echo in the rain-dark parking lot.

She stands there, still holding her umbrella, as reality and cold water alike slowly soak into her skin. A few jerks to the handles on both doors prove futile, and she tries to keep calm. So there could be worse things, maybe, than calling one of her new co-workers or her baby brother to come unlock her car for her. Worse things than standing in the pouring rain in front of the supermarket, waiting for the streetlights to kick in and cast the parking lot in artificial gold, while everyone likely spectates. Worse things than having her first really noteworthy event in Fort Longshore being the police officer who locked her own damn keys in her car.

Optimism was never her strong suit, okay? Carolina pulls out her phone and, after a short breath to try to release some tension, she dials a number.

It rings once. Late summer rain patters against her umbrella, splashing on the asphalt and soaking the bottom hem of her jeans.

Twice. A mother and child pass by, and Carolina turns her back on them, avoiding eye contact.

Three times, and then a voice cuts off the trilling tone. “Hey, Carolina.”

“Niner. I have… a problem.” She jerks again at the car door, gritting her teeth around her next words. “Are you busy?”

“Well, I’m at work.”

“Are you swamped?”

“Not really. Well, not swamped with customers, but it’s pouring.”

Oh, great. Even worse rain is on the way. “I, um…” If she has a free hand, she’d be rubbing the bridge of her nose in tension. “I’m locked out of my car.”

There’s a rustling on the other end, and Carolina knows Niner a little too well to be fooled.

“Don’t you dare laugh, I am not calling the cops on myself. They already don’t seem to like me too much, I am not giving them borderline blackmail material.”

“Don’t be such a baby. They’re not going to--”

“Yes,” she hisses, watching the brake lights of another car cast long, crimson-edged shadows of her legs. “They would.”

“Fine, fine. Where are you?”

“Supermarket.”

Niner hums, maybe; hard to tell between the rain and the gentle distortion of the call. “Lemme make a couple calls, all right?” And then she hangs up.

Carolina shifts her weight, wiggling her toes in her wet sneakers, and for a brief moment allows herself the fantasy of having her firearm with her and just shooting one of the windows out. Aren’t her windows bulletproof, though? What would happen if she fired a gun at bulletproof glass from point blank range?

“Hello,” calls out an oddly familiar voice, and Carolina stiffens. Turns slightly, just enough that she can make out a man ducking into the shelter the nearest shopping cart corral across the lane, holding a phone to his ear. It’s York.

So he’s better than dealing with, god forbid, Tucker, but she is going to have words with Niner if this is her idea of help. She can’t make out exactly what York is saying, but his tone is good-natured - as though instructed, he turns to his right, then keeps turning until he catches her gaze. Even with the rain, she can see the way his expression brightens in perfect sync with the lights in the parking lot switching on. The sky shifts dramatically from muddy grey to dark amber, thrown in contrast with the bright yellow of the lamps as York pockets his phone and jogs over to her.

She holds her umbrella a little higher. Of course he doesn’t have one, and he ducks into the shelter she provides with a mischievous grin. “Niner says you’re locked out?” he asks, a laugh simmering under his words.

“Are you here to gloat, or help?”

“Easy, easy,” and he holds up his hands, the right palm sporting a narrow, barely there scab. “Just checking. Lucky I’ve got some stuff in my car. Follow me?”

She shadows him back to his little car, watching him pop the trunk and rummage for a second before she remembers to hold the umbrella out. He drags a toolbox forward, into her line of sight.

“Of course you carry these kinds of things around,” she remarks to fill the silence.

“I have a steady job as a mechanic,” he protests, but she can hear the smile in his voice. “You’re so suspicious. You that eager to get me in handcuffs?”

“It doesn’t sound like I’d be the first,” she deflects. York laughs, muffled a little by the clink of metal as he rustles through the toolbox. Carolina finds herself smiling in return and the umbrella drifting closer by accident. She fixes both quickly. If he notices a few drops of rain soak into the gap between his jacket and the tops of his jeans, where the barest band of skin is suggested, he doesn’t complain and emerges momentarily with a flat, long metal blade.

“Watch your fingers,” he warns - unnecessary, Carolina is careful to keep her hands to herself - as he shuts the trunk. In awkward tandem they return to her car, and York starts working the tool between the rubber seal and the window.

“So,” she starts, raising her voice to be heard over the rain as it starts to pick up. “You carry your bag of tricks around just in case some idiot locks their keys in their car?”

“Your words, not mine.” He doesn’t glance her way, but a fresh smile flickers across his face before he wipes it off with a few errant raindrops. Her umbrella isn’t really big enough for two adults. “I don’t know, I like to be prepared. Helping people is just a bonus.”

They lapse into silence again. Carolina fights to find the best angle for her umbrella as gusts of wind swat rain at them in little bursts, but by the time her car gives a satisfying click they’re both uncomfortably wet and she’s run out of things to say. Thankfully, he hasn’t.

“We have got to stop meeting like this,” York reflects as he withdraws the metal blade, inch by careful inch. “This is getting a little absurd. Like, bad soulmate romcom Hallmark movie levels of coincidence.”

“Not my fault if you keep breaking the law.” She’s a little surprised by the movie analogy, but decides against teasing him for his choice in films.

“I am bending it, at best.” Then his eyebrows quirk and he seems to reconsider. “Except for the first time, that was-- that was on me, sorry.”

“It’s fine,” she says with ease, opening her car and snatching her keys before she forgets. As she does so, she taps him in the knees with the door, which reminds her. “You doing all right?”

“Hmm? Oh, yeah, the accident. I got dragged to MedCheck after all.” He’s ducked out with the motion of her umbrella, so when she rises he’s wiping rain off his forehead with little luck. “Knee was a little out, but I’ve got it in a sports brace, so. All good.”

“Glad to hear it.” She raises her umbrella again, inviting him closer - but he shakes his head with a rueful grin.

“Thanks, but I’ve got errands of my own to run. Let me know if you ever want to grab lunch or anything? There’s a killer sushi joint on the north end of town, if you’re into that sort of thing.”

Before she can answer - and she was going to start with asking for his number - York takes off for the supermarket, jogging in the rain that slicks his brown hair black. And Carolina doesn’t want to stand there in the pouring rain with her one-person umbrella, waiting to see when the penny drops and he comes running back (maybe tripping once or twice, it seems like something that might be in one of those soulmate romcoms) because she has things to do, too.

But she wouldn’t... mind seeing him again.

She folds up her umbrella, ducks into the driver’s seat, and pulls away with only a brief glance at the supermarket in her rearview mirrors. They’ll find each other again. Probably.

Chapter Text

To his credit - if it really helps things, and it doesn’t, but he is a positive person so he pretends it does - York realizes his mistake six steps into the supermarket. Wet shoes squeak on the tile like cartoon car brakes as he comes to a stop, eyes widening as he mentally replays the end of their conversation. But he stands inside too long, too torn by indecision to catch her. By the time he resolves to go back out into the pouring rain, he can just catch a glimpse of her taillights pulling away.

He knows where she lives. Not that he’d take advantage of that fact, as tempting as the idea is of standing below her balcony blasting I Wanna Be Yours through his off-brand smartphone’s weak speakers. And she knows where he works, if she wants to find him. He can still kind of, sort of count their interaction as a victory.

So he goes through his shopping list, blinded by the stars in his eyes a few times and having to push his cart all the way back to the other end of the store to pick something up, and drives home with painstaking care. Kinda funny how the night he makes a point of telling a cop he’s on the up-and-up is the same night where he has to break the law by driving after sunset with one eye legally blind. At least he’s careful and knows the route like the back of his hand, so.

The apartment where he lives is on the edge of campus; when York pulls into the dimly lit parking lot, the only thing seperating the place from the perfect horror movie set-up is the distant but distinct sound of Ludacris from one of their neighbors. He’s on the fourth floor of a large, institutional looking brick building, with tall narrow windows framed by arches of brick; the whole place seems to judge him for being easily frightened by a flickering lamp post and a light drizzle, and for being too old to party with the undergrads. Whatever. At least the stairs are sheltered from the rain.

Outside door number 19 he jumbles through his keys and unlocks it - immediately, a silver streak shoots through the doorway and down the stairs. What was left of York’s good humor pops like a soap bubble.

“Really?” he asks the retreating figure of Washington’s cat, shoving the bags just inside the door and jogging after the animal. “Really. You’re going to do this today.”

Epsilon has got to be the most self-destructive cat he’s ever seen. He was a stray who got hit by a car or something; Washington patched up his leg for a class and ended up bringing him home. He’s a beautiful cat, and the first pet York’s ever had, but by God he’s a dick. The grey tabby is hiding in the neighbor’s hedges and hisses as York approaches.

“I know, I know,” and he winces as he falls to his knees, mud seeping into the second pair of jeans he’s stained in as many weeks. “You don’t really like me, but Wash loves you in his own weird way so please--”

Epsilon yowls as York grabs a handful of the loose skin on his back, pulling his roommate’s pet forward until he can wrap both hands around the cat’s body. The hedge scrapes along his arms and Epsilon digs his claws in as well, but York soldiers on and hugs the cat to his chest.

“I’m sorry, but this is not - ouch - good weather for you to be outside.”

Epsilon’s tail swishes angrily as York carries him back up the stairs, and nearly escapes when York tucks him into a football carry to open the door. But York wins in the end, and Epsilon leaps from his arms to hit the carpet with a thump. As fast as he arrived, he bolts, and York carries the groceries back to the kitchen with a slight shake of his head.

He finishs unloading the car without another incident, thankfully, and strips out of his now-soaked clothes in the bathroom. As he’s pulling on sweatpants, he hears Washington talking in his bedroom.

“Is Epsilon okay?” he asks, poking his head through the doorway.

“Hm?” Washington turns away from his laptop, where he’s talking with a woman around his age over Skype. Said cat is grooming himself on Washington’s bed, looking fairly unruffled for his frantic dash for freedom mere minutes ago. “He looks fine, what happened?”

“He made a break for it. Hey, Connie,” and he waves at the computer, only a little self-conscious about his half-dressed, damp state.

The girl in the screen leans forward, the dark of her hair nearly lost to the gloom of her surroundings. “Ohhh, is that York?” she asks, voice static-rough but warm. “It’s been a while. Good to see you.”

And that’s his cue. York steps forward and wraps his arm around Washington’s neck, pressing his scarred cheek against the side of his roommate’s freckle-spattered, rapidly heating face. “The one and only. Don’t worry, I’m taking good care of him. We sleep together and everything.”

Washington splutters. “We do not sleep together.”

“Except for when you fell asleep on me during the Star Wars marathon.”

“We don’t routinely sleep together.”

“Nah,” and York pulls away, ruffling Washington’s bleach-blond hair, “only on special occasions.”

“Glad to see I haven’t been entirely replaced,” Connie replies dryly, just as York steps out of earshot. “Take care!”

He waves over his shoulder, finishes getting dressed and starts dinner. Washington has turned out to be a pretty good roommate - doesn’t bring a lot of girls (or guys) home, not that it’d interfere with all the trysts York isn’t having - and he doesn’t even mind the cat too much. No, overall he’s pretty happy with things.

As York waits for a package of ground beef to thaw in the microwave, Epsilon slinks back into the common area, turning baleful blue eyes his way. He offers a small shrug in apology as the tabby leaps up onto the windowsill and stares out into the rainy night. His owner follows shortly, carrying his still-open laptop with him.

“How’s the paper going?” York asks.

Washington groans as he sinks into the couch, leaning forward to hook his HDMI cable into the side of his laptop. “Going is a very loose term, unless you’re talking about going to hell.”

“That bad?”

“I’ve written three words today. And backspaced probably a hundred. Do yourself a favor, man. Don’t go into grad school. Especially not for veterinary medicine.”

York makes a noise of pity as he shoves the meat into a skillet, raising his voice over the sizzle. “Sucks to be you, I guess. My day was great. Ran into Carolina again.”

“The hot cop?” Washington asks. And, ok, he’s not wrong, but part of York - the part his bubbe raised to be polite, especially to ladies - makes a face at that.

“Carolina,” York repeats, checking the back of the stove-top pasta box before setting it aside. Brown the meat, then drain the fat and add water.

“I wonder if the cop from the mall knows her.” A flash of grey in the corner of his eye tells him Epsilon has landed in his owner’s lap. “Get a job. Contribute to this household.” Yep, definitely in his lap. “You know. Hard-Serve.”

Ah, yes. The guy who keeps coming by Washington’s ice cream parlour with terrible sex jokes. After the third story, York asked if they were un-dairy-ably bad. The memory still makes him bite his lip around a grin. “Is he a real cop, though, or, like. Mall security.”

“He says he’s real.”

“So does everyone on CraigsList,” York reminds him, then pauses stirring. The same could kind of be said about Carolina. He doesn’t know much about her directly - Niner has been a proper smug snake and kept her lips tightly sealed - but he likes what he knows so far. And he’d like to know more. There’s nothing wrong with that, right?

Giving himself a mental shake, he resumes browning the hamburger. He’s allowed to meet new people, and he’s allowed to like them too. It’s fine. He’s fine. He picks up the Hamburger Helper box again, mouthing the instructions as he reads them for the third time in ten minutes. It's hard for him to focus tonight.

“What kinda movie are you in the mood for?” Washington calls. York shrugs, then realizes Washington probably isn’t looking at him.

“I don’t know. Something I don’t have to think about.”

The meat crackles in the pan, slowly turning from a marbled chunk of red into a crumbling, fragrant mess, and York looks at the box compulsively. God, how did he forget to give Carolina his number? He was right there. Right fucking there.

“So… Spiderman marathon? Tobey Maguire this time?”

York sets the box down again and throws a few paper towels in the pan to sponge up the grease. “Dude, what is it with you and superhero flicks? Got a spandex fetish?”

“A what?”

“Spandex. You know--”

“I know what spandex is,” and Washington’s mouse clicks sound especially heated. Stressed vet students are an easy target, which is great because York isn’t really known for his aim. “Why would that be a fetish?”

“Same reason anything is a fetish, probably.” York consults the box one last time - he’s still kind of damp and distracted, it’s fine - before dumping in water, pasta, and seasonings. “Spiderman is fine.”

Unfortunately, he’d forgotten the lead actress is a redhead; and Washington spends a third of the movie nudging York every time the character of Mary Jane was on-screen. He’s gonna have to find some romantic or sexual partner to bait Washington over as revenge.

Maybe he should look into this Hard-serve guy himself?

 


 

But all good things have to come to an end, and the glow from his little scene in the rain has worn off by the time York’s weekend rolls around. It’s a long drive to the south side of Fort Longshore, where the quiet old neighborhood has managed to cling tenaciously to the edge of the growing bustle of a college town, but he knows the route well. After all, it’s where he grew up.

So it’s hard to pull up to the little one-story house and be able to pick out the discrepancies from the driveway - the little bricks bordering the flowerbed are buried by a sprawling spread of summer greenery, with none of the tidy little islands of pansies and mums. The door has chips of paint missing and there’s a few faint green stripes of mildew on the porch siding, but the worst moment is always when he steps inside and hears nothing.

There’s no rustle of human movement, no gentle chatter of the radio or flicker of cartoons on the long-replaced CRT tv. There’s no clink of dishes or burble of something cooking on the stove. Not even, as in his bubbe’s final weeks, wheeze of the oxygen machine. There is nothing but empty stillness in the old house, and it hurts just as much as the first time he came home to start packing. She’s been gone for nearly two months.

York sets down the cardboard boxes he’s saved from his last grocery run and crosses the living room to reset the cuckoo clock. The buzz of the chains as gently hauls the pine-cone shaped weights soothes just as much as the tick once he taps the pendulum into motion. It’s like a tiny heartbeat that fills the room with life, the bassline for the melody of his cleaning and York settles himself into work again.

He doesn’t really want the house. It was left to him, and there’s nothing wrong with it, but he can't have it like this. Can’t have the terrible, went-on-clearance-sale-in-the-seventies floral top to bottom wallpaper in three rooms. Can’t have the overstuffed armchair she always sat in when she watched her game shows and darned socks, where she sat when he came in from work and found her--

So he spends his weekends there, just like he did when she was alive. But now he works alone, emptying her cabinets of dog-eared books and the little figures she collected.

One by one, York wipes off the tiny porcelain and resin birds and wraps them in newspaper for packing. He can’t keep all of them, not with Epsilon’s penchant for destruction and the crowded feel of the apartment, but he’ll keep a couple. Just to have something tangible, like his grandfather’s lighter. Some of the books he'll keep as well - the ones he remembers reading with her - and the rest he'll take to Goodwill. 

The last box is only half-filled with figurines when he empties the last bookshelf in the living room. Rising to his feet feels a little bit like coming up for breath after a long swim. York winces as the blood flow returns to his calves, locking his knees carefully (one’s still a little sore from the car accident) and reaching for his toes to stretch cramped tendons.

He picks up the empty cabinet and walks it to what used to be his bedroom; this room at least was spared the floral lace wallpaper treatment, and is currently acting as a massive closet. But, hey. As soon as he gets a drop cloth or something, the living room is ready to be stripped of wallpaper.

York makes a note of this on his phone - it’s already a little past eight, too late to make a run to the hardware store - and surveys the room. It’s odd to see the pictures gone, leaving behind little bright patches from where the years had faded the exposed print. He won’t take the clock down until the last minute, so he leaves it ticking gently and moves on to the kitchen.

Unlike the living room, he doesn’t have to unpack the cabinets in order to clean; but he’s in a packing mood and the amount of dishes in here is simply staggering. There’s the stack of fine printed china on the top shelf; his great-aunt will probably want those, or know someone who would. But before he gets those down, there’s an entire cabinet of cups in his way, so with a fresh box and another pile of newspapers, he starts packing.

He’s nudging aside some of the achingly familiar coffee mugs when it happens. A push a little too hard, a misjudge of how far something is from the edge. It’s not the first time it’s happened since he lost most of the vision on his left side, and it won’t be the last. But time seems to slow, just to mock him, as the cup topples out of the cabinet. York reaches for it but he knows - he knew, he always knew from the moment the back of his hand hit it - he can’t grab it in time.

So, with a crash that goes off like a gunshot in the empty house, the little mug hits the linoleum and shatters into red and white shards like peppermint candy, like a mouth full of broken teeth, and a little bit of York breaks with it. He took off his shoes sometime in the moving process so he moves slowly, edging past the mess with sock-clad feet and rummaging through the closet. Broom, broom, where-- ah, here it is, shoved behind the mop. No dustpan in sight, though, but if he tears up a cereal box he can probably make enough of a surface he can sweep up the pieces--

It was the Santa mug. The one he’d wanted so, so badly even though they didn’t celebrate Christmas. He doesn’t even remember how he’d talked her into it, but he had. And now it’s gone.

York tears the cereal box into two jagged, asymmetrical halves and shoves the flattest edge against the floor, bracing the broom against his shoulder as he brushes the bits and pieces of ceramic onto the cardboard. One glittering blue eye above three-fourths of a rosy cheek stares at him the whole time, and only breaks his gaze when he dumps the first pile in the trash can. He repeats the process again, and then just goes for sweeping the whole floor, guilt and nostalgia heavy in his stomach like a stone.

He almost doesn’t hear the knock at the door; his ears catch the sound, but it takes a moment for his brain to process it. York straightens, wipes the heel of his hand against his eyes (the scab scrapes his cheekbone as he goes) and heads to opens the door without looking first to see who it is.

“Oh,” says Carolina, the weak amber light of the porch highlighting the lines and folds of her uniform. “It’s you.”

His eyes sting in the face of her gentle surprise, in the subtle softening in her expression. York rallies himself with a grit of his jaw, shoving away the sentiments that have weighed him down all day and locking them somewhere deep and untouchable.

“Yeah,” and his voice is a croak, weak from several hours disuse, still tight enough to strangle his syllables. He leans against the doorway again with a wet sniff and an aggressive clearing of his throat. “What’s up?”

She seems to shake off her shock and regain her professional veneer. “I got a call about a possible burglary?”

York deflates against the doorframe and shoots a flat look over Carolina’s shoulder to the next door neighbor. He swears he sees the blinds rustle. “That would be my neighbor Beatrice,” he explains, voice raw even to his own ears despite his vehement denial. “She seems to have almost as bad of an impression of me as you do.”

Carolina doesn’t laugh. Neither does he. York pushes his hair back off of his face, gripping a handful and giving it a shallow pull before he is a little more himself again.

“This is my grandma’s house. Or it was hers, and it’s mine now. Beatrice just… isn’t used to me yet I guess.” It’s blunt even for him, but he’s just tired - bone deep tired of everything, in ways that no sleep can fix. “Sorry to drag you out here. Do you need to come in or something?”

“No, that’s--” Carolina purses her mouth in a line. York shifts to the side anyway, and after another second she steps inside.

He watches her take everything in, green eyes flicking over each detail, never seeming to linger too long. A professional’s look. By the time she turns to look at him, some of that cool edge is gone, and he pretends he can’t see her in his periphery.

“This isn’t the first time she’s done this, and it’s probably not going to be the last,” he explains, trying to deflect her attention from the sentimental mess sprawled out in the dimly lit living room. Or at least from the terrible wallpaper.

“Is she impaired? Does she have dementia or anything?” Carolina seems willing to ignore the proverbial elephant lurking in the shadows of the ancient, half-hidden couch, and if it was any other day he’d smile.

Instead, he shakes his head. “Nah, she’s just kinda old and doesn’t like me.”

“I see.”

She stands there for a few long moments, punctuated by the even tick of the clock, then turns smartly on her heel. York turns with her, still resting one shoulder in the doorframe as she trots back out to her car, and he gets a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach that this is the last time he’ll be seeing her.

“Have a good night, Carolina,” he calls after her, tone low and flat despite his best efforts to smile.

“You too.”

He closes the door and locks it, grabbing the broom and heading back to the kitchen. There’s one last shard hiding in the far corner and York picks it up by hand. Rolls it back and forth between his fingers until one edge catches the skin of his thumb painfully, and he tosses it in the trash with the rest.

York drags his other hand down his face, letting out a slow exhale as the cuckoo clock slides to a tick-tick-stop and fills the house with silence again. The knot in his chest loosens abruptly, and he slumps into the nearest chair, folding in on himself like fragile paper and hiding his face in his arms.

Chapter Text

 

Carolina is fifteen miles away from the little house with fifteen minutes left in her shift, but the radio can’t drown out the voice in her head that says, go back . And she knows why, soulmate movie cliches aside; she knows the look that hid like a ghost in the shadows of York’s expression, rimming his eyes with red as the rest of him tried to freeze over. Knows firsthand how dangerous it can be because it ate her father alive, rotting him from the inside out. There’s no saying that York is in any immediate trouble, but Carolina can’t help but care.

She slaps her hand on the steering wheel and hisses a curse between her teeth. Her palm accidentally hits the horn so she pulls over to the side of the road to give herself a moment to just-- to just be mad, at her pain-in-the-ass coworkers who she should have suspected knew something was up when they coaxed her to take the call. You’re in the neighborhood already. Maybe you’ll see some action, her ass.

Carolina all but rips the handheld off the radio and bites out a “Fort Longshore Station, come in.” She taps her fingers against the dash until his voice breaks through with a faint fuzz of static.

“I’d always be glad to come in you, baby. Bow chicka--”

She’s not in the mood for Tucker’s antics today. “Shut up and put Church on.”

There’s a pause again, and then her brother’s voice comes through. “What is it, C.C.?”

“Was that the first time someone’s made a burglary call in at--” she checks her notes, “--6549 Noshery lane?”

“Yeah, no.” Not that she’s surprised. Church isn’t even apologetic for sending her on a wild goose chase, he’s just sorry he got caught. “It’s this pain in the ass lady who’s been calling in about once a month. We gotta check it out each time, but it’s just somebody’s grandson checking up on her. Why? Was it actually a robber this time?”

“How long’s this been going on?”

“I don’t know, about a year? I don’t have the goddamn file up, why does it matter?”

She doesn’t know, but it does. Or worse, she knows and doesn’t want to face that problem just yet. “Never mind. I’m clocking out for the night.”

“Want some company?” Tucker cuts in. “I get off in a couple hours, and I’d love to get off with--”

Carolina turns off her radio for dramatic emphasis and pulls back onto the road. She can’t go back like this, though - even if she could make a joke about Hallmark movies, she doesn’t trust her delivery.

Neon signs catch her eye, and Carolina flips on her turn signal on impulse. Speaking of delivery…

 


 

The smell of the Chinese take-out is surprisingly mouth-watering, but Carolina dreads the idea of essence of orange chicken clinging to the inside of her car for days afterward. She closes her passenger side door with a swing of her hips - keys safely in her pocket this time, thank you - and approaches the house with a paper bag of cheap food in her arms.

When York answers the door this time, his eyes aren’t quite as glassy, and he blinks rather owlishly at her. “You’re-- you’re back?” he asks, voice a little cotton-thick and rough, and swallows hard.

“I’m off work,” she offers, like an apology. She doesn’t know what she’s doing, really, just that she wants to help. “Have you eaten yet?”

“I--” York stares at her, then back over his shoulder. “I was just about to, but I’m-- yeah, come in?”

Carolina shifts the bag in her arms and York steps back, letting her in for the second time in an hour but with none of the carefully manufactured casual air. He follows more than leads her through the living room, with its narrow paths to other rooms between boxes and shelves pulled away from the walls, to the yellowest kitchen she’s ever seen. The floor is creamy-tan with age, the walls a gentle pastel with black countertops and an off-white fridge. There’s a bowl of cereal on the low table and a faint smell of expired milk seeping from the upturned jug in the sink - York grabs both bowl and cereal box and moves to one of the counters under the mustard-painted cabinets. For all the overwhelming sense of age in the place, Carolina feels oddly like the color suits him.

“Out of milk. I’ve been living off leftovers from well-wishers, but that ran out last time I was here.” He pours the dry cereal back into the box, a few flakes escaping despite his best efforts. Carolina sets the bag down and busies herself with unpacking it - three little paper cartons, a wad of napkins, three fortune cookies, a small tub of egg drop soup and two pairs of chopsticks. She doesn’t have much of a plan, really, but she’s done something like this before. Nothing like hot food and company to drag someone from the clutches of memory.

She just hopes York is willing to come. ( Bow chika bow wow unintended.)

He brings a couple clean bowls, pulls up the chair across from her and peers into the first carton. “We’ve got orange chicken,” she relates, studying his expression as he takes a shallow sniff that sounds much less congested than before, “General Tso’s fried tofu, and beef and broccoli. Plus soup.”

“All sounds good to me,” he confesses. “Except… I don’t think I’ve ever had fried tofu?”

“Really?”

“Tofu kind of freaks me out when I see it in the store. I’ve had it plain once.” He shivers, but it’s for comedic relief - she can see him relaxing by inches, adapting to her presence. “It tasted like nothing. Kind of creepy.”

“I’ll take the tofu, then,” and she edges the carton towards her chair and takes a seat. She’s glad she came back. “You’re welcome to try some. Want to split the beef?”

“Sure, sure.” To her surprise, he picks up a pair of chopsticks and goes for it - albeit with a rather focused look. She pours herself a small bowl of soup and takes a few sips between bites of spicy tofu, studying him. His eyes are a little puffy and his hair’s a mess, but she doesn’t see anything that points to a serious problem. She lets herself relax as well, stretching out her legs under the table and taking another chewy bite.

The toe of her shoe knocks lightly against his shin. Neither pull away.

“So,” he says, swallowing and meeting her eyes for the first time since he let her in, “tell me a bit about yourself? It’s been a long day, so I reserve the right to forget half the things you tell me, but. Might as well, right?”

She chews on a particularly bouncy piece of fried tofu, nudging the carton in York’s direction. Swallows, shrugs, and obliges him. “Carolina Church, six-year police officer. Recently transferred here from Chorus because politics are an absolute bitch. I have--” she falters with her family on the tip of her tongue, and redirects. “--two budgies. Oh, and Niner and I roomed together for a year in private school.”

York holds his chopsticks too tight and the little tofu cube bounces out of his grip. Undeterred, he skewers it with a swift stab and takes a bite. His eyebrows jump, but he chews anyway. “Spicy,” he manages, “and still tastes like nothing.”

“Deep-fried nothing, though.”

“True.” He clears his throat. “You know my name and my profession already, so I feel a little cheated. Um, I’ve been working with Niner since I moved here about a year ago - before that I was an IT guy at Charon. Weird we never met.”

“Charon?” she asks sharply, alarm prickling across her shoulders, thinking of slimy lawyers and smug little bastards hiding behind their daddy’s money. York pauses chewing.

“Big building that takes up like two city blocks in Chorus? Heard of it?” he asks, more to tease than anything.

“I’m--” Carolina weighs professionalism and police etiquette for a moment, and then decides to fuck it like it’s fucked her. “I got transferred because the CEO’s son ‘allegedly’ murdered someone.”

York’s eyes go wide. “Holy shit. I heard about that. So are you, like, out here for witness protection?” He leans a little closer; from concern or curiosity, she can’t tell.

“Hardly. There was a mix-up with a search warrant. I’m stuck out here for now.” Caroline picks at her tofu, some of her appetite gone. “Still haven’t given up going back, but until further notice I’m a glorified meter maid.”

“Ouch,” York says, with no small measure of sympathy in his voice. And it sounds like he means it, too - no aggressive defence of Fort Longshore, no saccharin warning that maybe she should have been more careful. Just acceptance.

They resume eating in silence, and Carolina ruminates on the rest of his information. No need to ask why he moved back here, not with the information Church gave her. Even so, she’s lost in thought and comes back at the sound of his voice.

“Sorry?”

“I said I have my roommate’s cat.” York picks out a piece of chicken and fumbles it into his mouth. “Doesn’t like me too much, but I don’t think he likes anyone. I also have Delta, but you met him already.”

She raises an eyebrow.

“My car,” he clarifies.

Taking another bite, she nods. “You seem like the type.”

“Are we talking about types now?” and there’s the flirtatious note she was waiting for, having tried to coax it out for most of the evening. Now he’s back to what she gauges as his baseline self, and she relaxes around a concealed smile as he grins back at her. “Careful, you might give a guy the wrong idea.”

“And what idea would that be?”

“That when you read your horoscope in the newspaper, you take it seriously.” York pops another piece of chicken in his mouth, glowing with pride as he seems to get the hang of chopsticks.

Carolina snorts before going in for a cautious sip of soup. “I don’t like generalizations.”

“So everyone who reads their horoscopes is…?”

She ignores his obvious set up and glides into her next conversation topic. “So other than cliched, made for TV romance movies, what kinds of films do you like?”

“I don’t think I like any specific genre. Well, aside from horror. I hate horror movies.” He’s starting to empty the beef and broccoli carton - she makes no move to stop him, content with her tofu and soup. “I like good movies. I like bad movies. Happy ones, sad ones. Kids films. Adult films when the mood strikes.” At least he has the decency to blush at his own joke. “How about you?”

“I like historical films, to a degree. Action films. Mysteries, but not police ones.”

“So, less Sherlock Holmes and more--?”

“-- The Prestige . Tarantino movies, definitely. But I also really like cooking shows, so-- I’m not all serious, all the time,” she adds, half-heartedly trying to make a good impression. Even though she’s kind of threatened him one way or another every other time they’ve met.

No wonder she hasn’t dated anyone seriously in years.

York reaches for the broccoli again and stops short, nudging the container her way. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to eat so much. I don’t think I ate lunch today? It’s been a bit of a blur.”

“It’s fine.”

“Still,” he goes for the soup instead, pouring a bowl with more grace than she would have expected and raising it to his lips. “Cooking shows?”

“It’s an art,” she defends. Watching it with Maine is the closest thing she has to any kind of social tradition. “I like art.”

York shrugs. “Never thought about it like that. I don’t pay that much attention to what I eat, honestly, so long as it’s filling. There was one time,” and he pauses to take a reflective sip as she picks out a strip of beef, “that I ate pizza crust from the garbage.”

Carolina inhales sharply and coughs on her food. Spluttering into her closed fist, she pounds her chest and waves York down when he starts to get up. “ What ,” she croaks between coughs, “the fuck .”

“Okay, in my defense, it was on top of the garbage in the dorm and still in the box. I was in college on scholarships and it was-- all right, it was kind of soggy because it was a greasy pizza that had been left out all night--”

“Stop,” she wheezes, feeling a little green at the gills. “No more details. Oh my god. That’s disgusting.”

“I was desperate.” He takes another drink of soup, deeper this time as the broth cools. “I don’t make a habit of it, I promise. And I can cook, just. Box mixes.” His shrug seems more apology than dismissal. “Nothing fancy. My grandma cooks a lot, though, and she’s raised me since my mom didn’t--”

York’s pause is heavy, enough to weigh the mood down. “... Anyway. Kind of wish I’d paid more attention to what she cooked, now.”

Carolina studies him as he studies his soup in turn, swirling the bowl around, his eyes chasing the movement of the flakes of egg in broth like clouds in a windy sky. The officer in her wants to ask if he wants to talk about it. But she hesitates because she’s starting to feel like she’s his friend, too - a feeling that snuck up and is ambushing her now, over a meagre spread of Chinese take-out in the kitchen of a recently deceased woman.

“Did she keep any recipes?” she asks at last. York’s gaze flicks up like he forgot she was even there.

“I think so.”

It’s a little presumptuous, maybe, but-- she wants to try. Not from a sense of obligation from having seen sentiment eat someone alive before, or a sense of duty as a cop.

Carolina stares at the rice in the bottom of her carton, shoving around the sticky white grains.  “I could probably help you, if you ever needed a hand. I’m no Gordon Ramsey, but if you wanted…”

“Yeah.” She looks up and he’s smiling gratefully across the table at her, eyes a little extra-bright in the incandescent lighting like all the ice he tried to arm himself with has melted. “I might take you up on that. Thank you,” and he hesitates for just a moment, “Carolina.”

“You’re welcome,” she replies, her words seeming too light for the weight of his statement, but for reasons she can’t explain she has trouble meeting his eyes.

Another silence, this one as warm as the decor. Carolina shifts in her chair, ears catching the distant tick of a clock, and she checks the time on her phone. It’s nearing ten, and she’s been awake since five am.

“Shoot. I should be going. I've got work in the morning.” Even so, she's loathe to move; to break the gentle quiet spell cast over the golden kitchen and go home. But the world still exists outside this little bubble, and she belongs in it.

“Oh,” and at least he sounds as disappointed as she feels, but reaches under the table. “Right, what do I owe you for dinner?”

Her reply is automatic, an afterthought as she stands and starts combining cartons of leftover rice. “Don't worry about it.”

York pauses, watching her closely. “Are you sure?”

“Yeah.” She leaves him the main container of soup and drains the last dregs of her own mug. “I owe you for unlocking my car the other day.”

And if she's honest, she rather expects to meet him again; by chance, by fate, by statistical probability or whatever whim drives the creators of romance media. They can always square up next time. Maybe if her tire goes flat on the side of the road some dark and dreary night.

He doesn't seem satisfied. “And I owe you for this,” and he holds up his right hand, “and I'm pretty sure everything started because I broke into your place. Please.”

He stands and holds out some folded bills - much more than his half of the meal cost - and Carolina reaches out with the intention of pushing it away. But when their fingers meet, so do their eyes, and she is struck with the earnestness of his expression.

“It really means that much to you?” she asks. York tilts one shoulder in a shrug, but doesn’t look away.

She sighs, wraps her fingers around his hand and pushes it towards his chest. “Get me a pen, I’ll do some math.”

His relief is audible in a soft exhale, curving around a small satisfied grin as he turns away to rummage through the drawers of a nearby cabinet. Carolina fishes out her receipt and waits patiently until York passes her a pen.

Writing down some numbers, she passes the thin slip back. “This is what you owe me for everything.”

She watches his expression shuffle through gently pleased to horrified to a combination of both, plus a hint of red on his cheeks. “This is a phone number, right? Not a bill.”

“Yes.”

“Yours?”

This gets a little crack of a smile out of her. “Yes,” she assures him. York fumbles out his wallet again, and as she leans in the doorway to the kitchen he counts out exact change.

He clears his throat. “So,” and this time she accepts his money, not because she needs it but because he needs her to take it, “I’ll… see you?”

“Hopefully.” Carolina smothers a yawn with the back of her hand. “Not tomorrow, though. But text me, all right?”

“Yeah.” Then, as though he’d read her mind before, York adds, “don’t wanna use up all my luck too soon.”

When she walks down his sidewalk for the second time in one night, it doesn’t feel as familiar as it might have. Because something between herself and York had changed, and she’s not quite the same person she was when she left before.

For better or for worse.

Chapter Text

Carolina locks her jaw as tight as it will go as the full weight of her sentence falls on her shoulders. Full transference to a new department. Taken off all her open investigations. Booted out like the family disgrace, swept under the rug and out of the way.

“You should be grateful I’m not slapping you on desk duty for the next two years,” Texas says, blonde hair pulled back in a tight bun. Texas the prodigy, who’s never done something wrong a day in her life, bestowing a small mercy on the groveling masses. Texas the Captain, and the Chief’s obvious favorite.

Carolina breathes in, then out. “When do I leave?”

“As soon as possible. You’re headed out to Fort Longshore, few hours south--”

“I know where Fort Longshore is,” she cuts in, too pissed to fear further punishment. “I have family down there.”

Texas narrows her eyes, but lets the interruption slide. “Good to know. Try to have your desk cleaned out by the end of the week.”

“I’ll have it done by the end of the day.”

“Good.”

“Fine.”

Carolina spins so fast her ponytail almost hits her in the mouth, eyes stinging, chest stinging. It hurts. It isn’t fair. She bullies her expression to hold fast as she marches out of the captain’s office.

But Texas’ voice stops her with her hand, dramatically, on the knob. “Carolina.”

She waits, but doesn’t look back.

“This is for your own good.”

Carolina turns her head just enough to see Texas in her periphery, to look up and catch the faintest echo of her reflection in the glass windows of her office.  She wants to ask, is it? Or is it just for the good of the department?

But snappy comebacks are for books and children, and Carolina keeps her tongue behind her teeth and leaves. The whole of the department goes silent when the door opens, sharp and obvious like an intake of breath; and just as conspicuous, everyone resumes what they had been doing moments before. To an onlooker it appears that she ignores them all, her shoulders tense and head held high, proud as a defeated general facing execution, and heads to her desk.

Maine and C.T. are waiting for her, falling into her wake of movement as she passes them, and they shield her from the rest of the office as she starts to open up drawers.

“What’s the verdict?” C.T. asks, her dark eyes heavy with worry, little cherub mouth a thin line. She’s in such contrast to Maine, tall and pale and shaved bald, a sparrow beside one of the stone statues in the park. But both of them are her friends, and they deserve to know.

“Getting transferred to some--” her breath catches on a curse, one she doesn’t voice but mouths anyway, “little nowhere town south of here. Fort Longshore.”

“Getting buried,” Maine concludes, and of course he’s right, that’s what they’re doing. But it doesn’t hurt any less to hear it confirmed.

Carolina dumps one of her drawers entirely on her desk; keyboard drowning in a sea of old paperwork, pencils, and other office supplies. Her friends linger for a moment or two as she sorts, making piles to file or recycle, then C.T. speaks.

“I can ask my old roommate if he’s knows the best places to rent. I finished my undergrad there not too long ago. It's not too bad of a place, an old college town with a bit of history and a lot of character on the southeast side--”

“Thanks,” Carolina manages, “but can. Can you just leave me alone for a bit?”

“Sure,” and C.T. backs away - Maine pats Carolina’s shoulder, just once, before he follows her. Carolina doesn’t have time for self-pity, though, and steels herself to work while she figures out what to say to her brother.

 


 

“You should be grateful,” says Church two weeks later, seated across from her in the tiny Fort Longshore police station. Carolina barely reigns in the urge to slam her pitiful box of personal items on the empty desk, the last thing left to unpack. “She could have benched you.”

“I know what she could have done,” she lashes out. Unprofessional, but the only other person in the office is playing fetch with a massive rottweiler on the other side of the room. The scrabble of the dog’s claws on the linoleum grates on her nerves just as much as her little brother does. There’s a reason they’ve barely spoken in years, and it has little to do with him being a massive underachiever wasting his training in the middle of nowhere.

But now she is, too.

He looks entirely unimpressed, entirely too much like their dad as he shoves his hands in his pockets. “I’m just saying--”

“That’s all you’ve ever been good at, isn’t it? Just saying things.” She dumps her mechanical pencils into a little jar beside the old desktop. “Well, I’m not much in the mood to listen to you say things and I’ve got to go on patrol in fifteen, so if you could fuck off, I’d really appreciate it.”

Church raises his hands and back away, body language stiff and still aggressive. “Fine. Have fun getting the town tour with Tucker. And for the record, I hope just as much as you do that you don’t stick around.”

But he leaves her there to sort her things out in silence, having dragged the dog and the other cop out of the office, and everything really starts to sink in. She’s just signed on to rent an apartment in the far side of town and finished unpacking the bedroom last night; laid awake on a familiar bed in a strange room, listening to her birds rustle nervously like leaves. It shouldn’t be happening - not to her, not when she’s worked so, so hard to get where she is. And then, just that easily, it’s all been taken away.

Carolina rests her chin in her hands and exhales, hard, like she can let all of the resentment in her body out with the air. And it works for about ten seconds before a man throws open the door to the office, grinning brightly.

“Are you a target, baby? Because I’m about to take you the fuck out.” He jogs across the room to meet her as she stands, slowly, heavy with regret. “Welcome to Blue Team! The name you’ll be screaming later on this evening is Tucker, by the way. Lavernius Tucker, really, but Tucker’s easier to remember.”

She has seldom wanted to taze someone so badly in her life. “Officer Carolina Church, sir,” she grits out. “You said you’d take me to pick up my new squad car?”

“I’ll take you a lot of places, b-- oh…” Some of his bravado dissolves when she pointedly rubs her thumb over the gun on her hip. “...Kay. Rain check on that, then. Follow me!”

Tucker is obnoxious but as far as she can tell, pretty harmless; she buckles in beside him and emotionally prepares for a lot of harassment, par for the course in her field. Surprisingly, he’s a good driver, able to chatter on about himself and his life while still obeying all the traffic rules.

“Got any questions?” he asks at one of the few intersections with a spotlight. “Because if not, I’m gonna take you to Mother of Invention to get your car. I gotta pick my kid up from his other dad. It’s my week with him.”

“You have a kid?” Carolina doesn’t bother to conceal the implied ‘I wouldn’t trust you with a goldfish.’ This is all temporary. There’s no need to make friends. She has to believe that.

“Yeah.” Tucker actually digs out his wallet and flashes her-- pictures, Olan Mills style staged photographs from a professional. Little two by three inch rectangles of a tiny copy of Tucker, with brown skin and vivid blue eyes. Who the hell even carries pictures around anymore? “His name’s Junior. These are a little old, but--”

“Light’s green.”

“Shit,” and he fumbles with the pictures, shoving them in the cupholder. “Yeah, anyway, that’s my son. He’s so big now, like, it’s really freaky sometimes. Kids grow up so fast. Sounds cliche, but they do.”

It stings a little bit, the quiet charm of a happy if unusual family, but Carolina doesn’t have time to dwell on it. Tucker’s already pulling into the gravel parking lot, blowing his horn and startling a guy taking his smoke break out back, and she has to be present to give her driver a disapproving stare.

“Hey, Brady,” and Tucker unrolls the window to bellow instructions at the man, “go get your boss!”

The guy perfectly emotes a whole host of emotions - recognition, resignation, and resentment - with a tilt of his head and a slump of his shoulders, but he snuffs out the cigarette and slips in the back door anyway.

Tucker leads her inside the mechanic’s without much fanfare or patience, following the same route as the smoker, who rings a bell at the counter as he passes by. Carolina lets her eyes track him, watches him rub his left shoulder and duck back under a car like an insect scuttling for cover. She pulls out her phone to have something to do and ignores Tucker's spiel about the mechanic's shop. 

But then a woman's voice startles her out of staring at her weather app; one that she swears she knows.

“Well, damn, if I’d known it was gonna be you, I wouldn’t have put Chad in charge of fixing your patrol car up.”

Carolina turns, then glances down at a tiny woman with close-trimmed hair and enviably smooth, inky-black skin. “Niner,” she blurts, then mentally kicks herself. “Sorry, I mean Eli--”

“Niner’s fine. I gave up on trying to use my hair or heels to be tall. As you can see.” Her old private school classmate crosses her arms and looks up at her with a sharpness to her smile. Aside from the haircut and the confidence that she wears as comfortably as her coveralls, so little about her has changed. “What are you doing in a dead end like Longshore?”

That’s the million dollar question, isn’t it? Carolina presses her mouth into a line as Tucker lights up on the edge of her vision.

“Oh ho, man, it is some bullshit . She--”

“Go pick up your kid, Officer Tucker,” Niner blows him off with a wave of her hand. Impressively, he fucks off with little more protest than a raised-eyebrow directed at Carolina and a smothered snort.

When Niner gestures to her office, Carolina shakes her head. “I’d rather not talk about it yet.”

“All right.” Her eyes are keen, taking in Carolina's feature, but she doesn't pry. “I’m not gonna try to be your therapist or anything, but we should get coffee sometime. Catch up.”

“Sure,” she replies automatically, crossing her arms as Niner goes to fetch the keys.

There’s a radio playing somewhere in the back, tune low and melancholy; something about a funeral, maybe, or an ex-lover, and one of the men in the back occasionally sings along. It’d be charming if it didn’t feel like the universe was really hammering home how Texas has buried her out here, covered her up and left her in the middle of nowhere to rot.

“I mean it about the coffee, okay?” Niner presses as she hands the keys over. “I know a really good place.”

Carolina wraps her fingers tight around them until the cool metal digs into her palms. “I’ll see if I have time. See you around, Niner.”

The smile she cracks feels like something might be breaking, crushed under the weight of her shame and disappointment, but Niner lets her go. They both know they won't have that coffee break any time soon.

Chapter Text

He has no idea what he’s doing.

Which isn’t as common as some people (read: North) might think. York is very capable of planning things out, but he’s also able to roll with life’s punches and learn on the go. Take his current job, for example. He’s had no formal training with working on cars; Delta was far from new when York got him and most of his skills were born from trial and error as he did most of the little fixes himself. Everything else he learned in a frantic two-day intensive study session before his job interview, and he’s had no problems yet.

But he’s met Carolina for coffee once since she showed up at his bubbe’s house, and York has no idea if he can say they’re dating. If he should say they’re dating. If it really matters at this stage because he’s just happy to text her when he’s supposed to be inspecting the underside of this truck that hit a deer last week. She doesn’t reply as fast - // i won’t waste taxpayer money and text when i’m on shift, york // - and he can’t always tell when she’s being sarcastic but it’s… nice.

Coffee was also nice, since she’d tried a sip of his pumpkin spice latte and he’d been so caught up thinking about indirect kisses he’d scorched his tongue. Especially since she’d smiled at that. Not a big one, but he’d seen it seeping out behind the edges of her cup and into the corners of her eyes.

But that was Tuesday, and today is Friday as he’s in the middle of texting // id say ‘i know where you live already’ but that does not come off right // when the toe of a shoe lands on his creeper, dangerously close to slamming painfully down on his junk. York lifts up his heels just in time for Niner to drag him forward, hands on her hips.

“You’re texting again.”

If he wasn’t already flat on his back mere inches from the floor, York would have wilted. As it is, his shoulders inch into an apologetic shrug as he offers her a sheepish smile.

“I’m just trying to solidify my plans for when my shift ends?”

“Put your phone where I can see it,” and Niner points to the bare floor beside the truck, “or I’m going to personally make sure the only jacking you ever do again is the kind that raises cars.”

Fair enough. Niner boots him back under the truck, and he has to scrabble to a stop before the creeper rolls out the other end, but York places his phone in easy view and refuses to touch it the rest of his shift. It buzzes a few times from texts and a little part of him withers and dies not to check if it’s Carolina, but he likes his job. Really likes it. Especially the part where it helps pay his rent.

Thankfully, the truck isn’t too badly damaged from the impact - a few parts were loosened, sure, but nothing needed replacing - so he doesn’t have to stay overtime. Which is great, because he is headed to Carolina’s apartment as soon as he gets home and showered.

York snatches up his phone and has just enough time to see a string of texts from Carolina before she’s calling him. He makes for the break room as fast as he can, pulling one sleeve of his coveralls up to his shoulder. “Hello?” he asks, a little breathless.

“York? Are you all right?”

His mind stalls, shifts into reverse and tries to think back on all their interactions today. “Um… yes?”

“Your text got cut off and then I didn’t hear from you.” A brief pause on both ends - York pins the phone between his cheek and shoulder as he ties his coveralls around his waist again. Which is a little redundant, since he’s about to clock out and drive home but they were sliding dangerously low and he can’t afford to piss Niner off again. “Were you texting at work?”

“You were worried,” he breathes, completely ignoring her.

“I’m a cop. I wouldn’t be any good if I wasn’t suspicious--”

“Awww, you do care!”

“--off and don’t respond to-- whatever. Are we still on for dinner?”

He can let her off the hook for this one. Satisfied with his clothes, York picks up the phone again and smiles, even though he knows she can’t see him. “Of course! Did you want me to bring anything?”

“Do you even have things that don’t come from a box?”

He ponders this. “I have potatoes. And some fruit. Do bananas count as being in boxes?”

“I was kidding.”

“Oh.”

“Just bring yourself. In one piece if you can manage that.” And he thinks he can hear a hint of teasing in her voice. “And don’t text and drive.”

“I promise to always keep one eye on the road,” and he mimes crossing his heart for good measure. “I’ll see you in about an hour.”

“Sounds good. Tell Niner I said hi.” A gentle click as the connection ends, and York allows himself a little air-punch from sheer excitement. He can’t get home and into the shower fast enough.

 


 

If he’s honest, York doesn’t think he could still drive if it wasn’t for Delta. He’d kept the car from sentimentality when he’d gotten his motorcycle - and then when he’d gotten clipped by another vehicle and crashed, he’d been too shaken to so much as walk along the road at night for weeks. But he knows Delta; knows all the blind spots, knows how hard to push the gas to get that perfect steady speed. So even with his left side a blurry mess he can watch his mirrors and get around town.

Besides, he knows the route already. North had insisted on having him over nearly once a month when he’d first moved to Fort Longshore, and while their tradition had tapered off with the mess of the funeral he could give directions to get there while drunk. And he has, but that’s irrelevant. What matters is he watches his speed, makes it there only a little late, and even parallel-parks Delta along the road.

Shouldn’t really be driving at night, though, but for dinner at Carolina’s he is willing to make an exception. Especially because they’re taking their friendship to the next level and he’s going to meet her birds .

It’s a crisp night, and he’s got a zippered Star Wars sweatshirt tucked under his arm just in case as he fires off a quick text to Carolina, telling her he’s here. The image of throwing a pebble at her window does cross his mind, though he doesn’t think she’d appreciate the gesture. Instead he fishes out his lighter and flicks the lid open and closed a few times as he waits. The weight is reassuring, the metal warm from his pocket and the etched words faintly rough against his thumb as he strokes it. It won’t light when he strikes it. No fuel.

He’s still staring at her window, trying to mentally backtrack and figure out exactly how he climbed up to her balcony while black-out drunk, when the door on the ground floor opens.

“Hey,” she calls, not that it’s really necessary - he’s already turning when he hears the sound of the latch, already smiling, but he’s glad to hear her voice anyway. Her hair’s down in a relaxed ponytail, a loose teal blouse worn like a jacket over a black tank top, with slightly faded jeans and bare feet; the arrow in his mind between date vs. not-a-date wobbles indecisively.

Yet there’s a brief moment, when the red of her side-swept bangs catches the pale light of the streetlamps and flashes white-purple, where he wants to kiss her hello. Just a little press of his mouth against hers.

“Hey,” he echoes instead, pockets his lighter and follows her up the stairs. His knee is stiff and tender with every step, his grip on the handrail a little tighter than usual to compensate. Maybe he checks out her ass a bit on the way up, and the way he thinks he can see the muscles in her thighs flex through her jeans, but he’s only human and he knows not to touch the masterpieces.

“So what are we doing for food?” he asks, averting his gaze to the handrail and wondering if he should have bothered wearing his eyepatch. It’s uncomfortable, but better than being gawked at in public.

Carolina tosses her words over her shoulder as they reach the top of the second flight. “Well, I was going to have a roast already done, but I kind of forgot to get the meat out to thaw before work, so. There is always pizza.”

“What a delicious constant,” York remarks offhand, and then she’s letting them into her apartment and he’s taking it in with sober eyes. It’s magazine clean and minimalistically pretty - creamy white furniture and floors, sleek appliances, a coarse wall of brick - but York feels tense even as he toes off his shoes and leaves his sweatshirt on the back of the couch.

He follows Carolina to the bedroom where he can hear chirping already through the closed door.  Here, there’s a bit more of a mess of clothes and the occasional feather, but he doesn’t have time to drink it in because there are the birds, in a large cage beside her dresser. Tiny, brightly colored little things, much more friendly and attentive than the ones he’s noticed in the pet store - they twitter excitedly as Carolina approaches, shuffling along their perches.

“This is Iota,” and she indicates the blue and white one with a gentle boop of her finger, “and Eta,” she gestures to the green and yellow one. “Do you want to hold one?”

“Oh man.” He wipes his palms against his jeans. “How… how would I?”

In reply, Carolina unlatches one of the cage doors and reaches for the blue one. Iota steps immediately onto her finger, and she brings him out, holding him expectantly towards York. “Here, just like I did.”

York mimics her action and holds his breath when tiny little feet step onto his finger, walking up his wrist. Automatically, he levels out his arm as Iota starts to climb up his forearm, whistling a tune.

“Is that the song from Kill Bill?” he asks, voice barely above a whisper as the budgie settles on his shoulder.

“I taught it to them.” Carolina whistles a couple bars and this time Eta joins in, hopping on his perch. “You can whistle to them if you want.”

“I, um.” York can feel himself blushing. “I can’t, actually.”

“Can’t what?”

“Whistle.”

Her eyebrows raise.

He squirms a little under the weight of her stare, tilting his head away as Iota does something along the edge of his ear that tickles. “I just… can’t do it. I’ve looked up Wikihow articles and everything.”

“Well, that is the extent of human knowledge on the subject.” Carolina opens the cage and retrieves Eta - this one seems a little more hesitant to come out, but seems content to to sit on her finger and receive gentle scratches to the back of his head. York would, too, really.

To make a point, he attempts a whistle and gets it about half-right. There’s a lot of air and it’s whispery, maybe a little out of tune, but Iota shuffles into his line of sight and cocks his head sideways.

“I’m good at enough things, statistically I have to be bad at something.” He hopes she takes the incredibly obvious opening, even as he’s enraptured watching Iota shuffle up and down his raised arm.

She does, but not in the way he expects. “Like how you can survive getting plowed by a car?”

“Mmm, plowed,” and his grin only grows as Iota settles and starts to preen himself. “Nah, that’s more of a luck thing than anything. Which I also have in spades, but that’s-- oh.” Iota shakes his feathers all over, turning briefly into a whirl of white and blue. “Is he supposed to do that?”

“Yeah, you’re fine.” He glances back in time to see the fond smile Carolina gives the little bird on her hand as she strokes down the tiny green breast. “You can pet him if you want.”

“I’ll… I’ll pass for now,” he confesses. “I’ve never really-- I don’t have much experience with birds.” Or animals in general, really, and they’re just too tiny. They’re adorable but he’s afraid to touch - they’re so light and fragile, like they’re made of pipe-cleaners and the hopes of sick children.

Carolina shrugs, reaching up to adjust something under her shirt collar. “So. Dinner. Pizza?”

“That’s fine with me. Or if you wanted, I could help you cook? I’m good at following orders and doing things with my hands.” He passes her a winning smile that’s a little crooked on the left side, but South said it made him looking dashing. Or, okay, to be accurate, South said it made him look like the kind of bad boy all the good religious parents warned their kids about, which is hilarious all things considered, but. It’s a pretty good smile, if he says so himself.

Whether or not Carolina agrees, he can’t tell. She keeps a calm exterior as she places Eta back in his cage, and Iota begins to screech in York’s ear as he hides beside his neck. “It’d take probably an hour before we’d be ready to eat,” she elaborates. “Still willing?”

On one hand, he’s not eaten since lunch around six hours ago. On the other, he can have pizza anytime. “It’s fine,” he says, and he tilts his head away from Iota’s beating wings as Carolina coaxes the budgie onto her finger.

“Don’t be rude,” she mutters to the bird as she retreats, petting him placatingly before reaching into the cage. Iota walks up her wrist in the opposite direction of the perch, and as she makes faces and tries to coax the budgie back into his cage, York takes a moment just to drink it in. There’s a few loose strands of red hair spilling out of her ponytail on her neck, the closest thing to untidy about her - her green eyes are sharp and vivid but not unkind as she reaches both hands into the cage, biting the bottom edge of her lip as she--

Okay, that’s twice in one hour. York makes a point of turning around to check out the living room, shoving his hands in his pockets as he waits for Carolina to wrangle her birds. He’s known her a little over a month and needs to tone it back before he skids out of control, like sprinting across a sheet of ice. Little steps. Little victories.

Like how she brushes by him on the way to the kitchen and he can tell it’s deliberate, the way her fingertips skim along his forearm and coax him to follow. He does, because he’s already kind of gone on her and that’s okay. He can work with this.

“Peeler’s in that drawer,” she points, “and knives are on the counter. I assume you know how to cut up sweet potatoes?”

“I know how to do normal potatoes.”

“Sweet potatoes are a little-- tougher,” Carolina finishes after a beat, as he fumbles his way through her drawers - her cabinets , her kitchen cabinets, god he’s not a teenager why does his mind delight in jumping to outdated inappropriate jokes? - and finds the peeler. “Don't cut your fingers off.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he says, half to be contrary.

Three minutes later he is pressing the heel of his hand into the blunt top of the knife so hard he’s getting lines in his palms, and he’s glad for the warning. The amount of force he has to apply has him second-guessing his haphazard skill.

“Am I--” the knife thunks against the cutting board with guillotine finality-- “doing this right?” he asks.

Carolina, bless her heart, checks. “Yeah. You could make the cuts like--” and she plucks the knife from his grip, scores some guidelines down the back of the potato half, and hands it back.

“Thanks.”

It gets a little easier as he gets used to it, and he's careful to keep his fingers clear of the blade but eventually he finds a rhythm. Lets himself relax and tap into the pulse of activity in the kitchen, half-listening to the clink and clatter of Carolina preparing the roast behind him. It feels natural, like he’s falling into a familiar track, and he catches himself humming under his breath.

The unmistakable scent of pepper hits him in the back of the throat, and York pauses on his last potato half to twist around. Carolina’s riffling through a sea of brightly colored spice jars in the cabinets, most of them mismatched and only partially filled. It’s the only thing in her apartment that actually looks like it’s been used.

“Yes?”

York blinks and meets Carolina’s curious gaze. “Oh, I just-- wanted to see what you were doing,” and he stumbles over his words for reasons he can’t explain, rubbing the side of his neck with a hand faintly rough with starch.

“Checking out my spice rack?” she asks, with a wickedly pleased expression, and York barks out a startled laugh as his mind goes blank as paper. Mark him up for imaginary kisses numbers three, four, and five, since she might actually be flirting with him.

“Your words, not mine,” he says a beat too late as he turns away, and very nearly chops the tips of his fingers off.

Once he’s finished, however, he makes a point of watching her mix herbs, salt and oil into a thick paste - he’s out of elbow range and tries not to hover, but he’s eager to watch her work and she lets him. Then as she’s spreading the paste on top of the roast, she grabs a bottle of oil and shoves it into his hands.

“You’re gonna drizzle this over the potatoes,” she instructs, already turning and ducking to get a long, shallow pan out of a drawer, “along with some salt and pepper.”

“How much oil?”

“About a tablespoon. I’ll help you eyeball it.”

Easy enough. He spreads the potato wedges out as evenly as possible, watches Carolina draw a swift zigzag across the swathe of slices. Mimics her actions with a little less grace and accidentally flings a bit of oil on the counter, but she doesn't comment about it. Just hands him the salt and the pepper and watches him make several passes with each until she waves him aside.

“How do you know how much to use without measuring?” he asks, as she slides the potatoes in the bottom rack of the oven, below the roast.

“Experience.” Carolina cracks open the fridge. “What do you want to drink? I've got milk, orange juice, beer--”

“Are you encouraging me to drink and drive, Carolina?” he taunts, enjoying the feel of her name in his mouth. “I’m scandalized.”

She doesn’t even look at him. “I’m not working tonight. If you get smashed off ten proof, you’re not my problem.”

So he’s not expected to stay the night. York sighs, and lets out a bit of tension he didn’t realize he was carrying in his shoulders.

“Beer‘s fine.” He follows her example and washes his hands as she gets a couple bottles from the fridge.

“We’ve got a good half an hour before the potatoes are done, so.” Carolina backs up and plants her palms on the countertop; for a second he half expects her to haul herself up onto it, but she just leans against the cabinets. “Ever seen Ratatouille?”

“Um… no?” He’s not even sure he heard her right. That doesn’t sound like a word.

“You like children’s movies?”

“Sure.”

“We’re starting Ratatouille.”  She grabs the beers and leads him into the living room, sitting down on the left side of the couch. York hesitates, a little unsure if he should say something, but Carolina’s barely settled before she puts the drinks on the coffee table and scoots to the right. “Sorry, I didn’t-- Your bad side--”

“It’s fine.” Because it is. “You’re fine.” Because she is. “It’s all fine.” Because he can’t seem to shut up at the first sign of conflict, sinking into the cushions a hand's breadth away from her.

She’s flipping through the menus with a pensive, focused look; if he knew her better, he might wonder if she was nervous. He’s learning about her, though, trying to get a read on her likes and dislikes, the buttons of hers he can push and the ones he can’t.

“Is this good with you?” Carolina asks - it takes him a beat to look away from her to check the movie description on the screen.

Rats in Paris, huh? “Sure,” he says, and she taps the play button, settling down against the cushions. Her hand brushes his as she adjusts, a come-and-go as smooth and light as a bird flitting from one branch to the next, but it’s enough to yank his focus away from the opening credits and keep it captive for what feels like several minutes.

York folds his hands in his lap, rubbing his thumb over the fading cut on the other palm, and wants to smother himself in her pillows because for a moment - just one - all he really wanted to do was hold her hand. Which is pathetic, and it’s nothing, but.

It would have been something to him.

Chapter Text

 

 

Carolina sinks into the upholstery seat of her car, marinating in the September sunlight. She’s been parked out by an alleged ‘speed trap’ and she’s deeply suspicious that her co-workers are messing with her again. So what if she hasn’t endeared herself to them, except maybe the canine unit who was thrilled to hear she had birds? It’s work. She takes it seriously.

That being said, there’s very little to do out in Longshore. The biggest case she’s witnessed so far has been the baffling rivalry between the police station and the sheriff's department to the south in Blood Gulch. It is next level petty bullshit and it makes her miss her old job.  Carolina can handle stolen cars and drug busts and the occasional murder, but there is no training for receiving an evidence bag of animal feces labeled ‘ suck it, blues !’

A car rolls by, her radar gun reading it just below the speed limit. Carolina heaves a deep sigh, the inhale flavored with dust, heat, exhaust and stale orange chicken. She might have to get the car deep-cleaned to get rid of the smell; by now, she doesn’t want to eat takeout for the rest of the year. Which is a pain, since it cuts into her options for the lunch breaks she steals with York. In a stunning display of low standards, their twice-weekly shared meals at various fast food joints might be the best part of her transfer. It gets her out of the office, keeps her mind off her work, and every once in a while his wise-cracks and puns manage to be funny.

As Carolina rubs the bridge of her nose, skin damp with sweat, she wonders why she’s bothering befriending him anyway. Pity, maybe. Desperation, more likely. It’s nice to be around someone who doesn’t expect anything more out of her than the occasional joke, even if she knows she’ll leave him behind in the end.

A gust of wind sends a puff of dust through the open windows of her car, and she savors the breeze. Until her radar gun informs her the car was going a good fourteen miles per hour above the speed limit.

“Finally,” she mutters, turning on sirens and engine in turn.

The car is nothing special, a pale green sedan with long-faded stickers clustered in the back window and on the bumper, and Carolina is almost disappointed when it pulls over without incident. Thankfully, the attitude of the driver makes up for the rest of her boring shift.

“Hello, ma’am,” Carolina says, taking in the driver. It’s her next door neighbor, the blond woman with the bright dye job. “Do you know how fast you were going?”

The driver’s mouth is set in a tight, irritated line, pale blue eyes firmly fixed on the road ahead. “Yep.”

“And you… realize that’s not a good thing, right?” Okay, so maybe she’s baiting, but she’s had a very boring day and you never know. She’s unfazed by the pure hatred in the glare the driver throws her way, and Carolina can see her considering throwing her license directly into Carolina’s face. But the driver studies her a little more and passes the plastic card over without incident.

A little disappointed, Carolina slips back to her vehicle to check the driving history. Dakota Erlin, aged 24. Two previous speeding tickets, no prior arrests, etc.  In case of emergency, contact Dakota Erlin.

She checks the records twice to make sure she’s right. When it clicks, Carolina drops her forehead against the edge of the steering wheel. At least that explains why they go by North and South; their parents gave them the same first name.

“What is it with this place and terrible names for children?” she asks the licence in her hand before she grabs the ticket pad and a pen and starts filling out info.

Ms. Erlin is surprisingly chipper when Carolina returns, a gleeful grin in the corners of her eyes that makes the back of Carolina’s neck prickle. “You’re York’s girlfriend,” she starts, beating Carolina to the punch. “You have to be.”

“He calls me that?” she asks, coating her words generously in suspicion and disdain.

South waves her hand in a dismissive gesture. “Not exactly. But he likes you. A lot.” This is accompanied with an eyebrow-wiggle straight out of high school. “Then again, he tends to want to kiss a lot of his friends, so.”

Carolina resists the urge to slap something - herself, this car, York, it doesn’t matter - and just heaves a massive, world-weary sigh. “You’re still getting a ticket.”

“Oh, come on! Don’t you like him, too?”

“That’s irrelevant.” There is a brief, terrible moment where South’s eyes light up with uncanny little-sibling glee and god , why is this happening to her, she is a fucking adult and is always extremely unfazed and professional. “You are a habitual speeder and if you try to blackmail me, I’m going to send you back to driver’s ed.”

“You couldn’t.”

Carolina raises an eyebrow, lowering one shoulder and tilting her hips until she is five feet and seven inches of try me, I dare you.

South’s shoulders droop in defeat and she slams her forehead into the steering wheel in an uncanny imitation of Carolina mere minutes ago. The blare of the car horn is ear-splitting and mournful, and South sticks her hand out.

Passing the ticket over isn’t exactly satisfying - it’s her job and she’s already getting a local reputation as a bit of a hardass - and once South pulls away, Carolina loosens her morals a bit and fires off a fast text to York.

\\ you doing anything after work? \\

It couldn’t hurt. Just in case.

 


 

York is busy that day, but a couple days later Carolina caves and brings her car by Invention to get it cleaned as the first half in a two-part excuse to hang out.  At the moment, all she can see of him is one shoe, balanced on the concrete as he wrestles cheerfully with the shampoo-suction hose. While the inside of her car is drying, they’ll be running an errand; paint and wallpaper stripper for York, potted porch plants for Carolina. She has every intention of being unsatisfied with their selection, however - she’d rather not put down roots here, even if it’s just repotting some petunias.

“You know,” Niner starts, appearing at Carolina’s shoulder, “if you wanna check him out you could wait in my office. I’ve got windows.”

“Don’t be crass.” Carolina flips another page in her slightly-outdated fashion magazine, not paying much attention to the latest nail colors for spring. She’d run home to change and even brushed on a little bit of makeup since she didn’t have time to shower. Not exactly dressing to impress, but enough effort to look alive.

“Just trying to give you options. He’s got a nice Dorito thing going on.”

She raises her head and lowers her magazine. “What?”

In answer, Niner traces an inverted triangle in the air with her fingertips. “You know. Dorito.”

Carolina opens her mouth to protest - she’d not really noticed - but at that moment York steps out to stretch and… yeah, alright, she sees the comparison of his broad shoulders and narrow hips. And the appeal, too.

“Shut up,” she mutters into the spine of her magazine as Niner cracks a laugh and lets her stew in her own shame.

Several minutes of feigned interest in the fashion faux-pax of celebrities later, York pops into her field of vision, coveralls and filthy white tee swapped for more casual street clothes and an eyepatch draped around his neck. “Ready?” he asks, delight seeping through the cracks of his laid-back facade.

“I suppose,” she replies, matching his tone as she uncrosses her legs and puts the magazine back on the rack. Following him out back to his ancient little coupe, watching him toy with his keys, she wonders if she should offer to drive. If it’d be rude to assume he has trouble with his bad eye. If it’d be rude to assume he doesn’t.

He beats her to the punch; dusting off the passenger side seat and hastily yanking a faded post-it note off the dash. “Here you go,” York offers, and he even holds the door open to her.

“Such chivalry,” she notes dryly.

His only response a brief grin and a raise of his eyebrows before he twists around in his seat to check every mirror and angle before easing the car onto the highway.

“So did you find any orange chicken in my car?” Carolina says, once they’re on their way. A safe topic, far from anything Niner might had said to him before they left. York shrugs, eyes not leaving the road for a moment.

“Not really. There was a stain that mighta been sauce, but I didn’t really feel like burying my face into ambiguous brown-red spots in a cop car.” His grip on the wheel is firm - not white-knuckled, but not far from it either. A little tense, but not panicked. “How was your day?”

“Fine.”

“Nothing interesting?” he presses.

“Not really.” Carolina studies her expression in his side mirror and finds herself frowning. She’d never really noticed how York tended to guide their conversations, filling in the silence, until he’s too focused to do so. She digs a topic out of the back of her mind. “Well, Eta and Iota were upset I left so soon after getting home. I’ll have to wear them out when I get back, or they’ll wake me up early out of spite.”

“They’d do that?”

“They might.” She settles a little deeper into the seat, watching the old storefronts flicker past in a stream of glass windows - some lit from within and flashing movement and color, some empty like a missing tooth. “Birds are pretty smart. Mine are no exception. I wouldn’t put it past them to know I don’t work tomorrow.”

York chuckles, and she catches his smile in the corner of her eye.

“I’ve never really had pets. My b-- uh, my grandma was kind of allergic and my scholarship kept me in dorms most of my time in college. I remember my mom had a dog she kept in the backyard, though.”

Carolina turns a little too fast to look his way. It’s the first time he’s mentioned his mother, and he seems aware of it too, in the way that he sounds way too enthusiastic when he pulls into the parking lot of the hardware store and says “hey, look, there’s not a lot of people here. Guess we picked a good time to stop by!”

She remembers to stick by his right side as they enter the store, and the ink is still drying on the mental stamp of approval on this plan when York turns.

“I told you we’re meeting North here, right?” he asks, slipping the eyepatch over his bad eye.

For her credit, her pace doesn’t break. It cracks a little bit, knocking her off her stride, but he doesn’t appear to notice. “No,” she says, trying to keep the disappointment out of her tone. “You didn’t.”

“Oh, well, uh. He knows a lot about paint and apparently a lot about plants when I mentioned you, so. Guess you’ll have to share me for a bit,” he concludes with a mischievous glint, and grabs a shopping cart from the row inside.

On a better day, Carolina might have tried to grab his wrist, pull him down a couple inches until he’s eye level, whisper in a husky voice that she doesn’t like sharing. But today is not a better day, and she’s too busy panicking about what kind of plant she’s going to have to buy to make any sort of snappy comeback in time.

North is waiting for them inside the door, and he gives York a warm smile with the handful of paint chips he hands over for approval, already starting a spiel on his choices. Left on the edges of their conversation, Carolina takes in her surroundings; it’s ordinary enough, big and impersonal and flipped-image familiar in the way most chain stores are - the light fixtures are where she remembers lumber being at the Chorus branch, and she pretends to study the signs until York speaks to her.

“Hey, what do you think?” He spreads out a sampling of paint in front of her - there’s about six variations of beige, and Carolina meets his eyes. The patch hides the worst of his scars, but it also makes him look a little bit like a comic book villain. More absurd than charming, really. Discreetly, she bites the tip of her tongue.

“It’s for the living room,” York explains. “North says to go with neutral tones.”

“Um,” she stalls, a little surprised he’d ask her opinion, “I guess which color name do you like the best? They all look about the same, so.”

He throws North a look edged in triumph. “I like her,” he says, with a decisive air like he dares North to disagree with him, but Carolina can’t help but reflect on her run-in with South earlier that week. He likes her. God, this is juvenile.

As a loose group they head over to the paint aisle, where York putters around the wallpapering section as North sorts through even more off-white shades of paint samples. Carolina makes a show of flipping through the blues, skimming past names like Sea of Flowers, Church Windows, and Devoted Denim. Her apartment is just fine the way it is, but she wants something to do with her hands as the silence stretches out, long and uncomfortable.

A prickle of suspicion drips down her back like a drop of water, cold and unnerving. York drifts further away, caught up in his own mission; beside her, North takes in a breath.

“He’s a very good friend of mine,” he starts, barely above a whisper, and she freezes because that is an ex-boyfriend tone of voice, oh no. Oh no. She is getting the Talk from her not-boyfriend’s gay lover slash best friend. No one at the police station can ever know. She comes back to herself quickly, shoving aside the panic to listen.

“...doesn’t act like it, but he really does put his all into anything he does. Relationships, too.” North puts away a slide of nearly-identical colors and picks up a new one. “So just… Don’t jerk him around too much. He’s been through a lot.”

Part of that stings; the defensive knee-jerk assumption that her life has been a walk in the park, or that she aims to toss York aside like garbage. But she also understands the sentiment of wanting the best for her friends, so she can’t blame him.

Still. “All due respect,” and she bites off the bitter sir that wanted to show up at the end of that, “I take things seriously too.”

North looks a little uncomfortable, and she lets him be, keeping her eyes down when York returns with several spray bottles in obnoxious red and a couple putty scrapers.

“I have reason to believe there’s more than one layer of wallpaper,” York explains, seemingly ignorant of the tension as he dumps the items into the cart. “And that is going to suck to take off.”

He looks up at her first, then aside to North, and back again. Carolina turns back to the paint samples and picks up a strip with Lightning Field, a bright teal-aqua shade. She runs her thumbnail down the edge of the card. A nice color, but not one she’s sure most people could live with all the time. Too strong, too imposing.

“Did you pick a paint?” North breaks the silence, voice sweet and mellow, inoffensive like Vanilla Ice Cream or Grecian Marble white.

She hasn’t found a color for York’s voice yet, but it’s engaging and forgiving. If he knows he’s taking bait, he doesn’t care. “Yeah, I was thinking Creme Brulee? Interior eggshell, right?” he checks.

“Sounds good. I think you’d be good with two gallons. Maybe some primer, too. Drop cloths?”

“Can’t I just use trash bags?”

“I… You know, I'm not sure. I might have our drop cloth in my parent’s storage locker. I’ll look into it for you tomorrow.” North pauses. “In the meantime, I’ll go ahead and get this mixed up for you.”

She moves on to the yellow section, thinking back on York’s kitchen, a twist in her chest tightening her jaw. Honey Whiskey, Soak Up The Sun, Lemon Drop.  He was raised by his grandmother, her by a steely ex-military father. They’ve all got their own scars, don’t they? Does she need to add to them?

York’s elbow knocks gently into her side, and she glances his way as he rests his forearms on the handles of the shopping cart. “Hey. You okay?”

“Fine,” comes out automatically, and she wonders if she shouldn’t be asking him that. “A little bored,” she adds for honesty’s sake.

He seems to relax, shoulders dipping as he leans further onto the cart. “Anything else you want, while we mix up the paint? Other than plants, I mean.”

“You know me, I always need more--” she glances down the aisle at the nearest sign, and her dry tone nearly breaks as she concludes, “ropes and chains.”

York’s reaction is worth everything. “Really?” and he throws her a look that would have been seductive if he hadn’t been holding back laughter. In response, she tilts her chin, flicking her thumb back and forth against the edges of New England Gold yellow. She can feel the tension lingering in her shoulders, the irritation prickling her skin, and takes a deliberate breath to relax.

“I can’t tell if you’re actually into that kind of thing,” Carolina murmurs, just loud enough for him to hear, “or if you just think I would be because I’m a cop.”

“W-well, I,” he shifts his weight, throwing a glance at North’s oblivious back, “I mean, I haven’t had the pleasure myself, but it seems, um. I can see the appeal, I guess? Are we really talking about kinks in Home Depot?”

His voice pitches up at the end, and she hides a smile. “So, not so much an exhibtionist,” she teases, because North is taking a conspicuously long time to return and York is just so expressive .

“I just don’t want you to threaten to arrest me for public indecency. Bondage?” His eyebrows jump, a smile tugging at his scar. “Okay. Jail?” An uneasy slant to his mouth, a weighing-his-options wave of his hand. “Less okay.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.” She tucks the second swatch of colors under the first and brushes her bangs behind her ear as she turns to give him the full force of her smile. But of course, North picks that exact moment to return, and some of the warmth building between them vanishes with his cough.

“What kind of plant were you thinking about getting?” North asks, almost painfully polite. “It’s a little late in the year for your typical window-box ones, but there’s always mums. And indoor plants, too, of course.”

“Not sure.” She hadn’t put any thought into this really, other than the vague idea of being around someone outside of the police station. “I know they have to be non-toxic, since I have birds.  Any suggestions?”

“Let’s see what they’ve got in stock.”

York surrenders the cart when North tugs it out from under him, falling back to match Carolina’s pace, almost close enough for their arms to brush. “Any better?” he murmurs, just loud enough for her to hear.

“A little.”

Without looking, and under the guise of gently pulling him away from a display on his left side, Carolina takes his hand. She can feel a bit of color - Antique Rose, maybe - seeping into her cheeks, but York doesn’t call her out on it. Neither does North a couple minutes later, when she tugs York after her as she finds the cacti section especially interesting.

It’s not much, but it’s something. And like the little peperomia plant she eventually takes home, it’s something she likes.

 

Chapter Text

 

“So,” York prompts, peering over the top of his menu at what he can see of Carolina with one eye covered, “is it weird, being a police officer off duty?”

“Is it weird?” She lowers her menu just enough for eye contact and the arch of a scarlet brow.

It’s York’s break and Carolina’s day off and they’re having a late lunch at a local diner. Carolina’s been subdued since they sat down, which isn’t what York was hoping for with this. He likes her best when she’s playing off him, bright and warm and hypnotic.

“You know. Do you still have your cop senses?” and he wiggles his eyebrows, feeling the eyepatch twitch with the motion. “Like, can you just sense when crime is happening?”

Carolina shifts her menu to the side and rests her elbow on the table, cradling her chin. “What about you?” she asks, with a bite to it. “Is it hard to drive when you’re a mechanic off duty? Can you hear someone pass you on the interstate and wish you could pull them over to fix their muffler?”

York sits back in his seat. “Okay,” he says, cautious this time of the nerve he’d apparently hit. “I guess that did sound a little condescending.”

“Sorry. I get it a lot.” She settles back against the cushions of the booth, the fire in her eyes dying to a smoulder. “I mean, I’m always keeping an eye open, but it’s nice not to be in uniform. When I am, it’s like a beacon for people to come air their grievances.”

He shrugs, accepting her apology. “That happens often?” he asks, clinging to the conversational thread, frail as it is.

Her menu rises between them, hiding her face like the walls of a fortress. “It happened more often in Chorus.”

Shut down again. York chases the ice cubes in his water with a straw, only half-reading the menu. He’s been here before, he knows what he wants, and Carolina’s always been more interesting. He doesn’t pick at her this time, however, and waits for her to break their silence.

Which doesn’t happen until the waitress comes over. “You folks ready?”

“I’ll have the blue cheese burger with fries.” Carolina passes her menu over, and York follows her in turn.

“Pancake stack, no sides.”

“And is this together, or separate?” the waitress asks.

“Separate,” York says, at the exact moment Carolina cuts in with “together.”

He throws her a surprised look across the table; one she catches and holds. “Is that what you want?” she asks, face unreadable.

“I--” Somehow, he feels he might be saying the wrong thing, “whatever’s easiest for you.”

“Separate,” Carolina agrees to the waitress. “It’s easier to change later.”

She raises her glass to take a sip of iced tea, eyes still glued to the table. York occupies himself by flipping through the specials, pretending to be interested in the pecan pie. It’s approaching an uncomfortable silence, which is probably their first. Not that he’ll admit to paying attention to firsts or anything like that, because it’s not like he cares. Or he cares, but just--

He rests his chin in his hand and stares at the specials, self-conscious as he tries to not over-analyze the situation - it’s something he knows he does, but he can’t help it. He’s a curious guy, and if he fucked up he wants to know how, and how to fix it. More fun to focus on her problems than his, anyway.

“You like my birds, right?”

York looks up at Carolina and blinks. “Do I like your birds?” he repeats, cautious.

“Yeah.”

“Um… Yeah, from what I’ve seen of them.” Two entire encounters isn’t much, but they are hard to dislike. Tiny, bright, loud little things that so obviously adore their caretaker - he may not be a bird person, or a pet person in general, but they’re cute.

Carolina clears her throat, folding her fingers together and resting them on the table. “Would you be willing to check in on them when I’m gone next week? It’s just for a couple days.”

He jerks his eye away from her hands to her face. “Oh. Uh,” This feels like too much responsibility, but before he can remind himself he’s never taken care of anything more complicated than a houseplant on his own before, York’s mouth is answering for him. “Of course.”

“I can pay you, if you want.” Untangling her fingers, she takes a sip of tea and sets the glass back down, rubbing her thumb up and down the side of her glass, leaving a faint stripe through the condensation. He has to take another drink all of a sudden, as his mouth goes a little dry. “You’re the only one around here they’ve met.”

“Really?” Pleased, he bites down a smile.

“Yeah.” Her nose wrinkles in the briefest frown. “It’s not like--” Carolina cuts herself off and tears open her straw wrapper. “Anyway. You’re fine with this?”

“Sure. Are you gonna give me a spare key, or should I just try to break in again?”

This time, his joke is rewarded by Carolina blowing the rest of the wrapper at him. It bounces off his forehead, and York rocks his head back with the impact, letting the grin infect his entire body when he meets her eyes again.

“I’ll get you a spare key,” she promises, jabbing at the ice cubes in her drink with the straw. “I’ll be leaving on Monday and I should be back by Thursday. That work with you?”

York flicks his eye towards the ceiling as he mentally checks his schedule. “Yeah, should be fine. Can you write down a chore list for me?”

The waitress returns at that moment, sliding their plates in front of them, along with a little pitcher of syrup for his pancakes. York flashes a smile in thanks.

“There’s not much you’d need to do,” Carolina assures him, as she tears into her silverware.

“I’d still like the list, just in case.”

She shrugs and stabs a bundle of fries with her fork. “Not a problem.”

He watches her with a sense of horror as Carolina takes a delicate bite of skewered fries - the first imperfect thing he’s seen her do, who the hell eats fries with a fork? - but only opens his mouth for pancakes.

Maybe she was just hungry, or stressed, but a few comfortably silent moments later Carolina’s foot nudges him under the table. “So,” she starts, “I ran into one of your friends a while back. The girl twin.”

“Oh, South?” That’s true, they’re neighbors with Carolina. “Yeah. she’s cool.”

“She was speeding ,” Carolina says, and takes a bite of her burger.

York bites down a self-deprecating smile, fails to come up with a satisfactory criminal joke, and instead settles on, “like I said. She’s cool.”

Carolina coughs, hiding her mouth with her hand, and composes herself “Anyway,” and she hesitates, just for a second, before slinging a question at him that hits him in the stomach, “she said something about you kissing all your friends?”

York freezes.

“That’s not… Well, you’re not wrong,” he starts, running his free hand down his face, wishing he could smother himself. “It’s not like that exactly?”

His voice is cracking on the edges and he knows, he knows he is going red and this isn’t exactly the time and place he pictured for this conversation. But Carolina is watching him, with that guarded-curious look on her face that makes her eyes sharp and her mouth tight in one corner, so he gives it the old college try.

“I don’t really do casual sex, and I’ve stayed on really good terms with all my exes.” There’s more to this story, terms he’s picked up by being best friends with a pair of gay twins, but that's not a topic he's ready to approach yet. “South is awful. I love her, but she is awful and you have to take everything she says with a grain of salt.”

“So, you didn’t kiss her?” Carolina’s voice is steady, but he can still imagine a question mark curving up the pitch of her words.

“Not recently. We dated in college a bit. Do I need a lawyer or something?”

She presses her mouth into a hard, uneasy line. “I’m prying, sorry,” she says, coldly, and takes another bite of her sandwich.

Well, shit. Back to square one. “Nah, it’s all right. I like talking about myself,” York assures her. He flips over a chunk of pancake, shoving it around until it drowns in syrup and falls apart. “Back to South. She’s a lesbian and we were just kind of. Arm candy for each other.”

Carolina takes a minute to chew. “And North?” she asks after swallowing.

He tries not to make a face at that memory; sophomore year of college was, to put it lightly, a mess. “Not when I was dating South, but. Yes. Why  do you--? Oh no,” and he looks up, fear as cool as the ice water she’s sipping crawling up his spine because he knows North, “he said something to you at Home Depot.”

“Nothing bad,” she says, but she’s not smiling. “I was just following a hunch.”

“Oh.”

Carolina turns back to her food, apparently satisfied, as York presses the side of his hand against his mouth and pretends to stare out the window. If this was a test, he’s not sure if he passed, but at least he was honest.

He doesn’t notice how far his thoughts are wandering until he realizes Carolina said something. “Sorry?” York asks, taking a hasty sip of water and missing the straw the first time.

“I said, you have good taste.” The interrogating tone is gone, replaced with easy amusement. “They both seem like they want to look out for you.”

Slightly inaccurate; North looks after everyone, whether they want him to or not, and South prefers to watch the world burn.

“Yeah, they’re pretty cool,” he concludes, and meets Carolina’s gaze. She may be done, but he isn’t. “It doesn’t bother you if I’ve... been with a guy?”

“Been with?” Her eyes are sharp, deep like the ocean, narrowing as she frowns.

For once her attention feels unpleasant; the sexual mess of sophomore year is not an experience he wants to relive, especially not on an idle afternoon in late September. “Sexually,” York clarifies, forcing himself to maintain eye contact.

Carolina tilts her head to the side, rolling her eyes. “No, I got that. I meant been with as in… been with, past tense?”

Oh. Ooooh. Relief is as warm as the sunshine breaking through the clouds. “Past tense, yeah.” A brief pause, and York decides to show his hand. Get it all over with now, the messy bandage-rip before she tries to hunt him down on social media and finds his glasses-and-braces high school photos.“I’m not dating anyone right now. You?”

“No,” and she takes a decisive forkful of fries.

York is dying to ask her what her preferences are, if she’s even looking in the first place, but his pancakes are going cold and he has to get back to Invention in twenty minutes. This - a comfortable moment, the booth warming in the sudden late-morning sun, Carolina’s cool stare as he swipes a fry off her plate - is enough.

He trusts she’ll tell him, in due time.

 


 

The weather is starting to turn, so the air that drifts in through the open windows in his bubbe’s house a couple days later is edged in crisp cool. York’s hands are sweating inside his rubber gloves anyway as he digs the wallpaper scraper into the soggy floral print, gouging a hand-sized chunk of paper off the wall. Slops it in a trash can, scrapes and repeats.  It’s hard not to do it in a musical rhythm, as the radio South brought sings a static-tinted jewelry store jingle.

This time, possibly the fifteenth iteration in the last two hours, North chimes in and attempts to harmonize. “Vic’s Dia-monds, makes you wanna buy-a-monds,” he sings, voice steady enough to carry a tune and much more pleasant than the spokesman’s warble.

“Not buy a bunch ?” York asks.

“Monds and bunch doesn’t rhyme.” North’s calm reply is punctuated by wet wallpaper.

He pretends to take offense. “It’s a slant rhyme. It could work.”

“It’s a terrible goddamn commerical, ‘s what it is,” South complains from his blind side, still unable to drown out the chipper voice on the radio. “God, he’s on every channel too.”

It’s true. There is no escape from Vic’s Diamonds. It is omnipresent, on every FM station that Fort Longshore can pick up, and yet York is tempted to look up the lyrics to the jingle. “What is a mond even supposed to be?”

“You’ve seen Vic on the billboards. Does he really seem the intellectual type to you?” North pushes back, stretching on his toes to reach the wallpaper near the ceiling with his scraper blade. Show off.

York considers flinging soggy wallpaper at him. South would take his side, but there’s also the chance that it would hit some nerve and North would stalk out in cool silence. He’s been a bit frosty for the last couple weeks, probably from mid-term stress. God knows Washington has been wound tight, smuggling home extra ice cream toppings from his shifts in plastic baggies and stress-eating tiny peanuts at his computer. York finds himself rooting for the Hard Serve guy, if only because Washington seems the type to benefit from sex as a stress relief.

He flicks some wallpaper at North anyway; it arches through the air and falls harmlessly short, splattering on the drop cloth with a punctuating wet slap just as the commercial ends. York whips back to his work, resumes scraping under North’s disapproving stare and finds his nonchalant whistle carrying a familiar tune.

Damn Vic and his catchy jingles.

“Hey, York,” South chimes in, and he can just make out the blur of her movements, bright and indistinct like watercolors, “you’ve got a holiday coming up, don’t you? The new years-y one?”

“Yom Kippur.” He digs a little too deep with his putty knife and catches a bit of drywall. York rubs the chalky indent with his thumb. “Not sure if I’ll have time to go. The deer are really active this time of year, especially on some of the back roads, and Niner’s looking to teach me how to do body work.”

Of course, North catches on. “You’ve never gone without your grandma, have you?” he asks, voice gentle, as if his question is a press of fingers against a new sprain and he’s testing if the bone is broken.

“Nope,” York replies, keeping his voice light. If it hurts, he won’t let it show. Nothing anyone else can do about it. “It’s a long drive, anyway. I’ll fast though, since-- oh,” and a smile curls at his lips, “guess who’s getting Carolina’s spare key this weekend?”

South snorts. “Literally anyone other than you.”

It is worth the extra effort in turning to give South a flat look with both eyes. She meets him head on with a raised eyebrow, fearless in the face of his bluff. They both know he knew it was coming.

“Isn’t this a little fast for you?” North’s still got his physical-therapist, tell-me-where-it-hurts tone on, and York rolls his eyes.

“Man, did grad school just suck all of the fun out of him?” he asks South without turning.

She bites her bottom lip around a delighted grin, peering around York. “Oh, getting sucked would be a huge improvement for--”

“Let York share his news,” North cuts her off, suspiciously fast. York raises an eyebrow at South, stores the information away in the back of his mind, and accepts the bait.

“I’m bird-sitting for her,” he explains, misting a bit more solvent onto the wallpaper, staining the lime-and-white kitchenware sketches with runny blue. “She’s gonna be out of town for something up in Chorus, and asked me to stop by a couple times a day and take care of her budgies.”

To his surprise, neither of them are that enthusiastic. 

“Since when do you know anything about birds?” South asks, dropping down to sit on her heels as she sprays more wallpaper remover down by the baseboard.

“Carolina’s leaving me a chore list, and I’ve been looking up how to care for them.” On his phone while on shift once or twice, when a sudden issue crosses his mind, but never long enough to Niner to call him out. York can be sneaky when he wants to be.

“It’s on the opposite side of town from Invention, isn’t it?”  North offers. “I could take care of them for you. Save you the gas.”

Not quite the reaction he was expecting. “What, you think I can’t handle it?” he asks, keeping his tone playful. The pause before either speaks says more than enough.

York bites the inside of his lip, stung, and lets his voice drop into a drier, harder tone. “Really savoring the vote of confidence here, guys. I’m floored by your emotional support.”

North fidgets. The blur on York’s left moves in what he assumes is a shrug as South speaks first.

“You better be prepared, is all. I’m not bailing your ass out if one gets loose.”

Okay, that’s a bit more like it. “I promise, I won’t.” Her hum of satisfaction solves one variable; York taps the edge of his scraper on the side of the bucket and waits for North to speak.

The diamond jingle returns, as obnoxious as ever. York takes another dig at soggy wallpaper, slops it in the bucket again, and finally meets North’s uncomfortable gaze. His friend’s shoulders are tight, uneasy as he works with short, tentative scrapes.

“Talk to me, North,” he says. He doesn’t have to promise he won’t get mad, because they both know he won’t take it out on them. But there’s still a miserable little twist to North’s expression that warns York he should be the one who’s worried.

“You really like her, don’t you?” North asks, at last.

He’s not sure what he was expecting, if not this, but York has to deal with an unwelcome blush. It’s something he’s still sorting out. “I really like a lot of people. It’s kinda my thing, you know?”

Not so much as a smile in response. On the edge of his vision, York would swear that South was shrinking. Or at least, retreating to a safe distance. Dread, resentment start to seep into his mind, beading through the cracks in their once-broken trust.

North turns back to the wall, tracing the outline of a solvent-soaked illustrated bowl. “Do you remember that summer right before senior year, when your mom suddenly got back in touch with you?”

York’s heart sinks into his stomach, the sudden weight driving the breath out of him, and there’s not enough air left in his lungs for a snappy remark. Beside him, North soldiers on.

“You were so delighted that after all this time she wanted to see you, that you left here at five in the morning to drive out to meet her all the way in Sidewinder for breakfast? And then--”

“I remember,” York cuts him off. Bittersweet flashes of memory; the honey-smooth tone of her voice, the crinkle of the fast food wrappers. The sirens outside his house when he got back, days later. “You know they’re nothing alike.”

“I don’t know that, and neither do you. But I know you, York, and you’ve not changed that much since then.” North heaves a sigh that seems to settle on York’s shoulders, and he fights the nervous tension in his back by picking at the wallpaper. “I just want you to be… careful, okay? She’s just here for witness protection, right? Who knows how long she’s gonna be here?”

“Who knows how long any of us are going to be here, North?” he asks softly, rhetorically, as he peels away another three-ply thick layer of wallpaper he remembers his bubbe gluing up when he was in middle school. And then, in unstated forgiveness, “I’ll be careful.”

There’s no point in arguing with North. He means well, as usual, and by the weight of his words he assumes he’s right, also as usual.

“That’s all I want,” North says, which is probably a lie, but South is clearing her throat and the radio station has gone back to playing music. So York lets the matter settle, pretends he still has an appetite after smelling wallpaper remover all afternoon when South asks him to chime in on pizza.

 


 

The instructions Carolina leaves on the otherwise blank fridge - seriously, who has a fridge that clean? Not so much as a take-out mascot magnet to liven up the austere chrome surface - are pretty straightforward. Top off their food from the yellow square bin, give them fresh water once a day, and talk to them if you have time. No, that part doesn’t worry him. He knows what he’s supposed to do.

But knowing is only half the battle. The other half is bracing himself to reach into a cage with fluttering, angry, delicate little scream machines and pray to God that nobody involved loses limbs.

“You guys are supposed to be kinda similar to lizards, right?” York mutters as he tries to psych himself up, armed with a tiny half-full scoop of pellets and Carolina’s faith in him. “So if somebody loses a wing, it’d grow back?”

The blue one smacks into the bars, grabbing with tiny pinkish feet and hanging upside down. It shrieks bloody murder at the man who dares to try to replace his mother.

“Yeah,” York replies to himself in a pitched-up voice, imagining the bird’s vicious threat, “but yours won’t when Carolina tears your arm off and beats you with it.”

The cage is equipped with long wooden perches, a couple dangling wooden toys, two dishes each of food and water, and what York is sure is too many doors. There’s the large one on the front that he knows how to work from watching Carolina, along with little sliding doors that lift above the food containers. They’re held shut with tiny clips and look tricky, but York gamely attempts to use one to refill the food bowl.

The first scoop he attempts to pour into the bowl doesn't quite make it in - the blue one, Eye-something, makes a frantic dash for freedom and knocks the cup askew, spraying pellets all over the floor of the cage and the carpet. Thankfully, the bird stays inside his cage.

York takes a step back to assess the situation and makes a face when pellets crumble under his foot. “I can do this,” he reminds himself, and goes to hunt through Carolina’s things for cleaning supplies. It feels rude to rummage through her apartment at best, dangerous at worst. She’s a police officer. She would know if anything was out of place.

Then again, if he found a secret sex torture dungeon or something, he might just tease her for not inviting him into it sooner.

York shakes his head to derail that train of thought before it can build up too much steam, and keeps looking. He checks closets that range from half-filled to entirely empty, behind doors, in cabinets, pre-emptively wincing at finding something personal, but there’s just so little stuff in her apartment, and even less that looks sentimental.

He stands up in the kitchen, having found but a colander and some potatoes under the main sink, and casts a fresh eye around the room. She doesn’t have so much a picture frame up, and aside from the birds the place looks empty. Hotel room empty. Like no one lives there, but is just stopping by.

One of the birds screams from the bedroom and snaps him out of his thoughts. York pries a tall, narrow cabinet open and finds a matching broom and dustpan set. Thus armed, he returns to the bedroom to see the green bird scrambling up and down the bars, yelling. Alone.

York closes the bedroom door, presses his back against it, and tries to convince himself all the windows are closed. The bird couldn’t have gotten far. He just has to find the little bastard.

“I can do this,” he says again, louder this time. “Things will be fine.”

Unfortunately, York had been so thoughtful as to leave several of the cabinet doors open

He checks the bathroom first, and has a little moment of amused, uneasy memory of puking in it weeks ago, and once he’s checked every possible corner twice he lowers the toilet bowl lid and pulls the door closed behind him. One room done.

With every cabinet, corner and drawer York searches, the gnawing fear at the back of his mind grows. Yes, he’d looked up how to take care of budgies - optimal temperature, no drafts, he’d even brought South’s radio from his bubbe’s house and played it in the bedroom for a couple hours while he ate dinner next door. Yes, but. What had happened last time he’d been tasked with keeping something alive?

York shuts the closet door with a bit more force than necessary. No. It’s not the same. He’s fine. The bird will be fine.

His phone buzzes in his pocket; for one sickening moment, York wonders if it’s Carolina, somehow sensing his distress and ineptitude. But the display shows him a message from North.

// have you heard from carolina yet? //

“Do those damn big brother senses work through walls or something?” York gripes, nudging the box back into approximate place and ducking out from inside the cabinets.  One crisis about being responsible for the death of an animal is bad enough, he doesn’t need to stack his panic levels by examining just how serious his crush has gotten with North again.

\\ you really think a cop is gonna text while driving? \\ he fires back, then presses his cheek against the linoleum floor to try to peer behind the fridge, using his phone as an ersatz flashlight. This, at least, isn’t pristine - clumps of dust and maybe a spiderweb in the back. Could a budgie have even fit between the wall and the fridge?

Something flutters from the living room. York jerks upright so fast he almost puts out his good eye on the corner of the counter, but he barely feels the impact. Guiding himself by touch, fingers trailing along the table and the back of the sofa in turn, he stalks out as light as he can.

Silence. Wetting his lips, he tries to whistle the tune Carolina always twittered at them; it comes out airy, coarse, more like a dry controlled splutter than anything. But after a moment, he hears a little response from behind the TV table cabinet.

And low and behold, there the damn thing sits - a little dusty but still bright eyed and June-morning blue, hiding between the wall and the furniture. As York watches, it fastens its little beak onto a cord and tugs.

“No no no no,” he stammers, “don’t do that. Hang on. Shit.” York doesn’t dare to turn his head to look around for objects that might help dislodge the bird. Maybe, if he tilted the cabinet a bit, he could funnel the budgie towards him?

It’s tough to move it on the carpet, but York isn’t shy of some heavy lifting. He pushes and pulls the cabinet by agonizing inches until it’s flush with the wall on one end and a hands width away on the other. The bird pauses in its cord-pulling; York tries to push the cabinet that last tiny centimeter and it jumps forward instead, overcoming some unseen obstacle on the carpet. He freezes; so does the bird.

And it is at this exact moment that York remembers that his depth perception is shit.

“Wait,” he says, at the exact moment that the budgie darts forward and makes a break for freedom. Wings beat at York’s face and he grabs blindly - literally - for the bird. His fingers close around a couple tail feathers, and it’s enough. Just enough.

York pins the bird’s wings to its sides, gritting his teeth as the budgie screams and bites as much of York’s hand as he can reach. “Sorry sorry sorry,” he grits, rushing back to the bedroom. Inside the cage, the other bird adds to the chaos at a new, impossible volume.

The cage door takes a century to open, but at last the little blue budgie is freed to throw itself against the back wall, fluttering its wings as it climbs up the wires to hang, trembling from a back corner. York flexes his own unsteady hand - no blood, at least. Well, maybe a little, but nothing dripping.

He almost flops down on Carolina’s bed, veering off at the last moment to hit the carpet instead, flat on his back. A few pellets of food are still stuck to the bottoms of his feet as he stares up at the ceiling. It’s okay. He did it.

York sits up, resting back on his hands, and studies the cage. Both birds are calming down now, chattering away at each other. Shit talking him. Pulling his knees up, he rests his cheek on them and checks his phone again.

// i’m sure she made it there okay // North has replied, and York’s considering a reply when he hears the patter of feet against wooden perches.

Both budgies are scooting towards their food dish, having gone quiet; York notices the unlocked little door just above it. “You clever little bastards,” he swears, getting to his feet, and he catches the door just as the green one looks ready to lift it with his beak. It’s the work of a moment to clip the door closed again, and he swears the birds retreat to mutter among themselves over him.

“You motherfuckers,” York labels them, then amends his statement. “Mothercluckers.” Dusting pellets off his feet, he repeats the process of feeding them again - cautiously, successfully this time - and slips back to the living room to fix the furniture.

The thin curtain over the glass porch door is lavender with the urban evening glow; during all the chaos, the sun had set and it’s officially Yom Kippur. He didn’t even notice. Too late for a cigarette now, or a stiff drink; he’ll observe the fast at least, even if he doesn’t go to the temple in Armonia.

York stands by the end of the couch for a few minutes more, just listening to the birds more musical noises as they settled down from all the excitement. He sweeps his gaze over her apartment again, and at last finds something flawed. Something that sticks out as personal.

A little plant with thick, round leaves in a square dark green pot - seated on a small cream dinner plate on top of a short stack of boxes under the window. Above it, the curtains have been held open with a hair clip. The care tab has been wiped clean and placed next to the dish. Peperomia obtusfolia. The plant she brought with him at the hardware store.

York traces the edge of a patterned leaf and presses a fingertip to the top of the soil. Faintly moist, it yields under his touch, and he wipes the dirt off on his jeans. She’s trying to take care of it, even if it sticks out from the rest of the calculated decor. Carolina didn't plan for it, but she took it home anyway and made a place for it in the fragile morning sunshine.

It shouldn’t feel significant. It’s just a plant. 

One more time, he checks his phone. No new texts from Carolina; just the one she sent yesterday afternoon, when she left. He taps on the new text box as stares at the keyboard until the letters blur, then shoves his phone in his pocket and locks the apartment behind him.

When he reaches his car he texts back \\ me too \\ to North instead, flips on his high beams and starts the long drive back to Washington’s apartment.

 

Chapter Text

 

Coming back to Chorus is an unsettling experience. The scenery is all familiar, with the same storefronts and long stoplights, but there’s something different about it. Maybe it’s because she’s in a civilian car she’d borrowed from Niner, and she’s used to the traffic yielding to her fleet vehicle like soap cutting through grease. The city feels like it’s healed around whatever void she created when she left - that there’s no longer a defined role for her to fill. She’s only been gone four months, but it doesn’t feel like coming home.  

Parallel parking in front of the courthouse, she has to wait for several minutes for traffic to clear enough for her to open her door without it getting torn off. After the last car desperate to make the yellow light snarls past, Carolina squares her shoulders, lifts her chin, and walks up to the courthouse.

She’s there early, and not there as a cop; her black suit feels like a disguise rather than a tailored fit as she ducks through the maze of hallways, her footsteps echoing off the wood-paneled walls. The Chorus courthouse is a war museum in all but name, with shining bronze plaques under every painting that lists some long-past crime and punishment. The crowds are thin and peppered with unfamiliar faces until she spots Maine. He’s with another co-worker, a tiny brunette woman who sees Carolina first and waves.

“Good to see you again,” she greets as she accepts Maine’s handshake, taking his palm between both of hers. “You too, C.T.”

“Bet you didn’t miss Chorus traffic, did you?” C.T.  teases, crossing her arms after Carolina steps to Maine’s side. “I figured you’d be here a little earlier.”

“I got a little stuck.” There’s no shame in the confession - it happens to all of them. But she’s got more pressing matters weighing on her mind, and changes the subject. “Have I missed much?”

“Well, there was a domestic disturbance that involved a goat and four plastic--”

“About Felix,” Carolina interrupts.

Whatever enthusiasm C.T. had been building up with her domestic disturbance story evaporated, and her face fell into a flat look. “Not a peep. He’s been following the rules of his house arrest pretty much to the letter.”

“What about his associates? There was that one guy, L-something.” His name escapes her, but his face lingers in her memory, strong-jawed and green-eyed. “I know we started to check in on his history but--”

Maine clears his throat, but it’s C.T. that speaks. “You do know that the department can run without you, right?” she asks, a little bit of a bite to her tone.

Stung by the comment and the gulf between them even as they stand in the hallway of the court office - her friends in their uniforms and her in civilian clothes and civilian role - Carolina hisses a barbed reply. “Don’t patronize me, Connie . Of course I know. That doesn’t mean I can’t still be concerned about an active case.”

C.T. narrows her eyes, glances over Carolina’s shoulders, and straightens. “Captain Texas, ma’am.”

Even her own pride can’t stop her from glancing over her shoulder at the austere woman who sent her to Fort Longshore; if Felix and his lawyers are a rock, then Texas is the hard place, pinching Carolina with her dark blue eyes. Carolina meets her superior’s gaze with her own steely expression, but Texas glides past with a tilt of her head.

When Texas had signed the transfer papers to throw Carolina out of Chorus with her tail between her legs, she’d said not to take it personally. How the fuck else was she supposed to take something like that? How else should she feel when her boss sided with crooked lawyers and a suspiciously unsteady judge and banish her to some backwater college town? She may hide the sting for the sake of trying to be professional, but the hurt still festers - and the mere sight of Texas is enough to make her burn fever-hot.

It takes Maine nudging her in the side for Carolina to snap out of her thoughts. Just in time, too, as a crowd of reporters and security surge and crash against the glass doors of the courthouse in a tidal wave of humanity. She steps away from her friends as they step in, moving to join those in the center of the chaos and lead the suspect along.

Felix Hargrove is skinny and lithe like a mosquito, with a long face and a longer laugh she remembers pelting her on the way out of a fruitless interrogation session. He’s rich and white and friendly, his practiced smiles just enough to be charming as he declines comment after comment. The public loves him.

“I’ll see you after?” C.T. asks over her shoulder, headed where Carolina can’t follow. After Texas.

“See you,” she echoes, sharing one last look with Maine before she turns away. It’s the civilian section for her, and if she wants a seat she’ll have to get going.

Carolina steals a patch of wall in the back of the courtroom, wedged between a wooden pillar and some amateur photographer who keeps taking pictures with his phone. Her heels give her a bit of a height boost, but it’s still a stretch to see - all she can catch is the occasional flash of his weaselly face, the barest murmur of conversation as Felix and his lawyer confer before the hearing starts. There’s some measure of relief as she sees the prosecutor who’ll be working the case come forward. Vanessa Kimball isn’t the kind of woman to be bullied or bought.

The only thing Carolina can think of as the charges are read is that she should be down there. She shouldn’t be back here, in her stupid dress shoes and her fluttery blouse. She should be on the side of the law, pinning that rich little bastard like an insect on display, forever labeled a murderer.

But she isn’t. All because of fifteen minutes.

He’s allowed to stay at his house with an anklet and officers standing by, but the brittle self-control Carolina has built up starts to crack when Felix grins at his lawyer. It’s a familiar smile, magazine-pretty and movie-star smug. One of absolute certainty.

The judge enters, and Carolina’s unease grows. Judge Aiden Price is one of the hardest judges to read; he’s cool on his good days, cold-blooded on his bad, and more than once he’s thrown out some of her arrests for the pettiest of issues. He settles like a shadow, clad in his officious black robes, and the hearing begins.

From the moment Kimball speaks, she has the room’s full attention. Not just for her looks - she’s striking, with icy-blue eyes and freckles on her brown cheeks, though the ring on her hand keeps Carolina’s appreciation professional - but from her voice.

Kimball speaks with all the skill of a weaver, of the classic Grecian storyteller. Every scrap of evidence, every odd circumstance, seems to crank the tension in the room tighter and tighter as she brings it to light. When she’s finished, the picture she paints is unmistakable; Felix Hargrove stalked, assaulted, and murdered a woman for no greater reason than a power trip. If Carolina had brought her gun, she might have been tempted to shoot the bastard right there.

Then it’s time for the defense. The man who stands is one that she recognizes from somewhere - broad shoulders, dark hair barely brushing them - but the name doesn’t ring a bell. Samuel Ortez speaks in such a low voice, Carolina can barely hear him at first. With each word comes a weight and a certainty, tone uniform and unshakable as he constructs not a painting, not a hypnotic dream of what could have or should have happened, but a wall. A fortress that seems impossible to scale.

One that Carolina, for once, begins to doubt they could knock down.

Judge Price takes a recess to mull over his decision; no sooner has he turned his back than the whole room stands, a sudden ripple of low voices droning as the defense files out of the courtroom. Carolina stands up on her toes, squaring her shoulders as she’s jostled by the crowds, looking for Felix.

The media parts for just long enough for her to catch his gaze as he passes; his eyes skim over Carolina without so much as lingering before he turns to his lawyer, leaning in and cupping a hand over his mouth as he whispers in the man’s ear.

Felix doesn’t even know who she is. He ruined her life and her career, possibly for good, and she’s nothing but furniture to him. The bitterness comes in a rush, filling her body until she’s choking on it. Carolina fights her way through the crowds, storming down the courtroom halls until she stumbles across a small women’s restroom. No one stops her. No one follows her. No one cares.

At the sink, glaring into the mirror, she digs her fingernails into the edges of the porcelain sink and wills them to crack before she does. On thin ice, Texas had once said, and she’s fighting for traction even as it splinters underneath her, the void of failure hungry to drown her, but she will hold steady.

Carolina has had her share of bad cases before; they’re as inevitable as the crimes themselves. There’s something about this one that’s gotten under her skin, and as impossible as it seems she can’t help but feel like the smug, murdering bastard is laughing at her.

The stall door behind her opens; Carolina jumps back and bites her tongue as a mousy, nondescript woman washes her hands and leaves without a word. In the mirrors, every stall lies empty. Carolina snatches a paper towel and starts tearing it into shreds, then smaller ones, little snowflakes of recycled paper pulp snowing beige in the garbage bin.

The door opens, and in strides Texas. Cornered, caught, Carolina takes a step to the side before she can catch herself.

“Do you have a minute?” Texas asks.

“Do I have a choice?” Carolina pans back, burying her rage and crossing her arms. Her hip rests against the side of the sink - the cold seeps through her dress slacks and grounds her.

Her once-boss presses her mouth into a displeased line, but mimics Carolina’s posture and leans against the nearest wall. “How’s Fort Longshore been?”

“Fine.” Niner and York aren’t quite enough to make up for all the petty, useless, unprofessional conduct she’s been mired in for the last four months. “Small. Why?”

Texas pauses. “I’ve heard you’ve not been settling in well with your other co-workers.” Carolina takes in a sharp breath, shoulders rigid with outrage. but Texas continues. “No formal complaints, but…”

“So you want me to play nice with the other kids at daycare, is that it?” Carolina lashes out. Because they are kids; their K-9 unit head Caboose she barely trusts to drive, her little brother is as temperamental as he was in middle school, the only other girl is raunchy and right before she left Carolina walked in on Tucker getting head from from a civilian in the station’s guest bathroom. “I haven’t done anything wrong.”

“No, but you could try talking to some of the other cops.” Texas holds her gaze and Carolina studies her in turn; strong, crooked nose, the smattering of what could be grey hairs at her temple, the empty holes in her ears from old piercings. It’s a face she knows well. “You’re a natural leader, with good instincts. Longshore could use someone like you to help get their act together.”

“What are you trying to say?” she asks, even as the back of her mind is already bracing itself for the inevitable. Texas has always been a lot of things; the kindly mentor has never been a side Carolina has seen. She doesn’t trust this new, supportive side. Not after everything else Texas has done to shove Carolina under the rug.

Texas looks away, shifting her weight. “You heard Ortez’s case in there. It’s a good one, and your misconduct charge hit us pretty hard.”

“Don’t tell me you believe--” Whatever hope she had feels like it’s been slapped out of her. “You know what I’m like. You know I wouldn’t have searched his car without--”

“It doesn’t matter what I think.” Those blistering grey-green eyes are back on Carolina’s face, the exact shade of a sky before a tornado strikes. “It matters what the judge thinks.”

Carolina can feel her hands starting to shake from anger, but forces her voice to be as calm as possible. No matter what, Texas is still her boss. “And what does the judge think?”

“He doesn’t see you coming back in the near future.”

They’re not talking about the judge, or the case anymore. Texas’s words hit her like hollow-point bullets, blossoming in her chest and stopping her heart. Without giving herself time to think, Carolina throws open the bathroom door and storms out.

“This is for your own good, Carolina!” Texas calls, but she doesn’t call her back. The words ring in Carolina’s head as she steps out of the courthouse, heels like the clicking of an empty magazine.  She had always known - always assumed - that her transfer was temporary, just for a few months as the smoke cleared.

Texas doesn’t want her back, siding with the court in a case that feels so bought that Carolina expects it came with a receipt. Those fifteen minutes between her search and her warrant are costing Carolina her career. She’s shaking with rage when she pulls into traffic, and she still knows the town well enough to know how to find the nearest liquor store.

She never should have come back.

 


 

Carolina gave up trying to sleep around seven in the morning and instead turned the TV back on, still hiding under the sheets as the pale, blue-tinted flickering light filled the room. There’s a near-empty bottle of pink moscato on the bedstand - she drains it, swilling it around in her mouth to wash away the bitter taste of sleep, and peels open the foil on the second bottle while she hunts for cooking shows.

Her phone still displays a flurry of unread messages; three or four from Connie, asking where she was and if she was all right, and one from Maine stating that Felix would go to trial after all. A small victory, but by the time she’d seen the messages Carolina was already invested in the show she was watching, about ordinary people suddenly waking up with superpowers. The marathon had run well past midnight, and the four or so hours of sleep she had stolen had been punctuated with nightmares of bloodstained school lockers rooms and clocks.

Sobering up while watching a cheerful black woman talk about sushi makes Carolina feel a little more like herself again. Not enough to actually get out of bed, but by the end of the show, she’s at least browsing the room service menu and considering getting some real food.

Not that she’d pay these prices, but.

Her phone goes off again, and Carolina’s surprised to see it’s from York. This is the first time he’s texted her since she left for Chorus. Swiping her phone open, she reads the message.

It’s a photo of Eta and Iota in their cage - Eta is almost out of the frame, a blur of green and yellow, but Iota is perfectly posed and in focus.

// they miss you // is under it, and she wonders if York debated putting a ‘we’ in there instead.  She has her suspicions - Carolina’s not blind, she’s seen the way he’ll look at her before pretending to be focused on something else - but not enough to push the topic.

\\ How are my boys? \\ she replies instead, propping her upper body up with pillows as she waits for a response.

// well everyones in one piece still so i think thats a success //

\\ Glad to hear your standards are so high \\

He doesn’t reply immediately to that, so Carolina loses herself in channel surfing; flipping past commercial after commercial and even a few infomercials before her phone buzzes on the blankets beside her.

// having fun? //

Once again, she weighs her options; debates blowing off his query and assuring him everything is fine. Instead she props up her upper body with pillows, checks the prices for the hotel mini-bar, and sends back something simple and honest.

\\ Not really \\

This time, his reply is immediate. Miles away, she can picture him standing in her bedroom, holding his phone and typing at lightning speed.

// shit im sorry, you wanna talk about it? //

\\ Maybe when i get back \\

// id offer you a hug if you wanted it. if i was there i mean //

Her fingers are still a little unsteady from sleep and moscato, but she manages a smile as she replies. \\ Thanks for the offer \\

// and here i was trying to set you up for a “what else would you do if you were here” joke //

\\ I’m not going to sext with you, york \\

// well yeah obv youre having a bad day i just // and there’s a moment's pause between that text and the next, a little pop-up of an animated ellipsis as he types. // never mind do you want more bird pics? //

\\ Absolutely \\

// ok hang on //

Carolina thumbs the cork on the second bottle of wine. Morning drinking feels fitting for her status as a washed up, failure of a cop, but she sets the bottle down instead and tosses the sheets aside. The TV has switched to an infomercial for a high powered blender while she gathers up the clothes she’d flung around the room when she’d come back to the hotel in an aching, righteous fury.

Eventually, her phone buzzes again with a video message from York. Carolina mutes the TV and presses play.

“--kay,” starts Video York, panning the camera across the cage. Iota is nibbling at one of the toys dangling from the ceiling - one she realizes is new, and that York probably went out and bought for them - and Eta is sulking on the perch furthest away from the camera, “do you boys wanna say hi to your mom?”

Iota, in reply, grabs the rope string studded with wooden beads and shakes it vigorously, ringing the bell on the end.

“Oh, now you’re gonna be quiet? I swear--” the video rustles with his sigh as York focuses more on Eta. “Are you gonna be any better?”

Eta drops his wings as if in a shrug, then opens his beak - a rush of static is all she hears, and Carolina bites the inside of her lip as she imagines the shrill scream York just endured.

“And that’s probably as good as they’re gonna be for me today. Hope that--” his voice is drowned out as Iota shakes the bell again; the camera whips back to the little blue budgie, who ruffles his feathers in a satisfactory manner and burbles happily. “Hope you get to feeling better,” York concludes, his voice soft at the end as he lowers the camera, and she catches the blurred tip of his sock just as the video ends.

She doesn’t realize York’s waiting for a reply until his text pops up in the middle of her third viewing. // did u get it? //

\\ Yeah \\ She contemplates adding an emoji, but just feels old instead. \\ Did you buy that toy for them? \\

// oh yeah i hope thats ok. i did some research to make sure i got something safe for them //

\\ It looks good \\ and then, because she can’t resist, \\ I’m going have to take it out every night before I go to bed though \\

// ahahah whoops //

She can’t think of anything else to reply to that, so instead she asks C.T. if she wants to meet up for lunch. Thirty minutes later she’s freshly showered and headed out the door, feeling just a bit lighter than before.

 


 

Carolina decides to drive home that afternoon instead of the next morning, like she’d initially planned. As the traffic clears once she’s out of the city, so does her mind; if she wants to come back to Chorus after the Felix case is resolved, she’s going to have to work extra hard to endear herself to certain people; which bites, no question about it, but it’s doable. Annoying and frustrating and she never should have needed to do any of this shit, but life isn’t fair and Carolina is well used to having to make the most of things.

She makes good time back to Fort Longshore, parks her car, and hauls her little wheeled overnight bag up the stairs, suitcase thumping with every step. Good enough time that she doesn’t notice the little black coupe outside until she unlocks the door and startles York.

He looks up from writing something on a post-it note, and it feels symmetrical for her to surprise him while he's sitting on her couch again. “I didn't expect you back so soon. Everything all right?”

“Yeah,” and she hangs up her coat and keys in turn, “I just forgot to text when I was leaving.” Which is the relevant stuff; she doesn't want to go into the gritty details of politics and law enforcement, especially not when she's spent the greater part of the day driving.

Carolina is tired enough that she absently ruffles his hair as she walks past him, dragging her suitcase into the bedroom and greeting her birds with a whistle. Eta is chewing on one of the wooden beads on their new toy, but Iota bounces to the nearest wall and starts whistling back.

“Did York buy you something new?” she asks, aware that he’s followed her but stopped short in the doorway, just like last time he came over. Iota is all too eager to come out and perch on her finger, chattering happy nonsense as she gives him gentle head-scratches.

“It's okay for them, right?”

Carolina takes another look at the toy; natural, unvarnished wood and what looks like sescia rope, plus an open bell. He must have done his research. “Looks great. Where did you get it?”

“Oh, there's a little indie pet store downtown. Mostly birds and fish. Niner’s got a tank in her office she got from there.” He leans against the doorframe, his eyes on the birdcage. “Man, they really did miss you.”

She raises Iota up and presses a gentle, noisy kiss on the top of his wing. “How can you tell?”

“Well, for one, they’re both making happy sounds.” York rubs the back of his neck and glances away, a blush coloring his cheeks. “Getting the toy helped Iota feel better, but Eta seemed madder than ever.”

“He could be jealous that you only got one new toy,” Carolina contemplates, as Eta shakes the rope bell with vicious enthusiasm. “He's always been a little more destructive than Iota. I wonder if it's because I got him later.”

“They’re not brothers?”

She shakes her head, letting Iota flutter from her hand to her shoulder and start playing with her fringe. “Same breeder, same age. But I had Iota by himself for a couple months before the breeder called me and said Eta hadn't sold and was getting lonely. So I got a bigger cage and took Eta as well, and they've been inseparable ever since. Eta never got socialized like Iota was, so he's a little…”

“Standoffish?” York offers.

“I was gonna say a little jackass, but that works too.”

He flashes a grin her way, his hair still a bit of a mess from where she played with it. It’s odd; for all that she’s mentally and socially exhausted, he’s comfortable to have around. “Have you had dinner yet?” she asks.

“No.”

“Do you want to-- ah, stop it,” she scolds Iota as he nibbles along the edge of her ear in an affectionate but ticklish way, “do you want to order some delivery and watch a movie?”

“Uh, yeah? I mean,” he clears his throat, voice dropping a bit on his second try, “that sounds great. You don't wanna unpack or anything?”

“I want to eat, York,” and she puts Iota back with another kiss; immediately, he hops over to where Eta is gnawing on the bell toy and grabs one of the other beads to follow suit in gleeful destruction. “Pizza sound good?”

“Sure. I'm fine with pretty much anything on it, except meat.”

That’s not what she expected, from someone who seems to have so few food standards, but honestly? Carolina’s too tired to care, especially if it means she can get her favorite flavors.

“Even if it has red pepper and pineapple on it?” she asks, giving him one last out.

He gives her a wry look. “I ate pizza from the garbage. I think I can handle some peppers and pineapple.”

She’ll forgive him his bad tastes for this, just once.

“You’d be the only person I know who would share this pizza with me, you know.”

“Really?” He follows her back to the living room and leans against the back of the couch, but not before balling up his note and shoving it in his pocket. She only got a glimpse but it seemed a little on the long side, and wonders what he could have been writing out. “Is it that bad?”

“I don’t think so, but it’s…” she pulls up the website on her phone. “An acquired taste.”

She expects him to make some crack about the pizza reflecting her personality - and she’s already prepared to agree, break down his analogy ingredient by ingredient, the sweet and the spicy alike - but he just heads into the kitchen and gets down a couple of glasses from the cabinets.

“What do you want to drink?”

“Water,” she instructs, settling on the couch and pulling up the delivery website. York joins her after a minute, the clink of glasses telling her he’s placed them on the table. When his weight settles beside her, Carolina lets herself slouch those narrow few inches to the side so that her head rests on his shoulder.

From this close, she can feel his short intake of breath - can smell the lingering traces of machinery, citrus and sweat clinging to his skin. As if on cue, York apologies. “I didn’t have time to shower after work, sorry--”

“It’s fine.” If she admits she doesn’t mind,  he’d tease her about it. “I’ve been breathing in city air for two days.” Not much of an excuse, but he seems content.

Or at least distracted as he shifts beside her, relaxing - or at least lowering his shoulder so she can rest easy. Pizza safely ordered - large, red pepper and pineapple, with marinara sauce for dipping - she turns on the TV.

Netflix suggests a few romance films right off the bat, and she can’t resist nudging him.

“Got a favorite?”

“You’re never gonna let me forget that soulmate thing, are you?” he laments, then holds a hand out. She passes him the remote, and he starts flipping through the movie selections. “Let me see what they have. I'm not ashamed of my movie tastes.”

Carolina half-watches as he flips through film after film in a comfortable silence. She doesn’t realize she’s falling asleep until York moves underneath her, pulling her back to the moment.

When he turns his head to speak, she can feel his breath on her forehead. “You alright?” he asks, voice nearing a whisper.

“I’m fine. Put on Good Eats.”

She lets her body relax and doesn’t watch so much as listen to the gentle click of York navigating the menus. Her mind is still attentive, but her body is sore from sitting in one position all day; she shifts on the couch until her legs are on the cushions beside her. This may not be what platonic friends do, but it’s comfortable and York is melting next to her, relaxing in sync.

“A cooking show?” he prompts when he finds the series.

“I will make you care about what you put in your body,” she pledges, breathing in exhaust and grease and dirt. York hits select, and with heavy eyelids she listens to Alton Brown discuss popcorn. He’s like the Bill Nye of food, from what she remembers from her childhood of the friendly scientist, and seems like the kind of show York might like.

It seems he does. Carolina has several minutes of peace before York speaks.

“Reminds me,” and his voice is still low, careful. “Halloween’s in a couple weeks. I’m hoping to pass out candy at the apartment. You’re welcome to join and just binge on candy corn or something. If Wash can get his act together, he’s probably gonna bring Hard Se-- uh, this guy he flirts with at work.”

“I’ll think about it.”

She’s seen this episode before, so she doesn’t flinch at York’s soft protest of “I can’t believe he’s pouring milk over popcorn, and you gave me shit for used pizza crusts” a few minutes later.

“Think about what you just said,” Carolina murmurs. “Used pizza crusts.”

“I was recycling .”

“It was in the trash.”

“On. On the trash.”

“You are terrible,” she assures him, sitting up to stretch and groaning as she pulls at a stiff muscle in her shoulder. “And you are not gonna appreciate this brilliant pizza, either.”

He’s gotten the knack of being a pillow, it seems, when she leans back against him and has to shift a little to find the perfect position. “I will try my hardest to remember the things the rat taught me,” York promises.

“Rat?”

“Remy, from the movie. Ratatouille?”

Carolina hums a reply. If she presses her ear against his shoulder, she thinks she can hear his heartbeat, a little faster than hers. Intent on listening, she almost misses his next words.

“...believe in that kind of thing?”

“What?”

“Soul mates. Past lives. That kind of stuff.” York gestures with his left hand, a blur of movement on the edge of her vision, and she thinks she hears his pulse pick up. “Do you believe in them?”

“I don’t know.” Not that she hasn’t thought about it before; her father’s single-minded dedication to her mother, the parallels between him and his children. Her inexplicable run-ins with York that brought them here. “Do you?”

“I can see the appeal,” and his voice is careful, honest, like a confession. “That things will just work out because they’re meant to. If not for you, then for some other version of you, I guess? Not to get into a whole debate on free will versus determinism,” York adds, lightening his tone, “just. You know. Something that lasts more than one lifetime.”

Carolina shifts to sit up, chewing on the side of her tongue as she thinks. It’s a silly question, to be sure, but it’s nice to focus on something engaging and theoretical.

“If I had a past life,” she says at last, “I’d rather forget it. I’d want to make my choices because they made sense, not because I made them before.”

York’s shrug feels unsatisfied, but he stays silent. She lets him stew until the episode ends and then nudges him.

“I can hear you simmering.”

“Sure it’s not the cooking show? All right, all right,” he relents when she elbows him again and sits up. The least she can do is give him her full attention. Sleepy as it is.

“Yeah, I just thinking that…” York chews on his bottom lip, and Carolina wonders how long he’s been meaning to say this, as he interlocks and unlocks his fingers and tries to hold her gaze. “Whether or not soul mate stuff exists, I'm glad I met you.”

If it were anyone else, she’d probably try to call bullshit, but she feels like she’s getting to know him and he seems to mean it. So she accepts it at face value

“I'm glad, too. Though I kind of wish it had been under less criminal circumstances,” she teases, and is rewarded with York’s laugh.

“Oh, come on. It makes for a good story, doesn't it?”

“That’s irrelevant.” With a fresh yawn, Carolina tucks her feet up on the couch and settles against York’s side once more.

“Nah, man.” His cheek rests on the top of her head, just for a moment. “A good story is the best part of anything.”

Chapter Text

Nothing good ever comes from hearing someone start a conversation with “I need a favor.” If York had known how the chain of events caused by this statement ended, he would have skipped a few steps and thrown himself in front of a bus. As it is, when Washington speaks, York pauses the cooking tutorial he was watching and pops out one earbud.

“Hit me,” he offers.

His roommate is a rather sheepish looking silhouette, backlit by the light from the kitchen and the purple-and-orange ones strung up in the living room. “So, you know Tucker?”

York frowns. “I’m not great with names.”

“The guy I’ve been seeing?” Washington repeats.

“Oh.” York has a brief memory of a rather attractive - and extremely, radiantly smug - black guy leaving their apartment just as he was getting home a few days prior. Specifically, he remembers having to open a window because the apartment had poor ventilation and the entire place reeked of sex. “Yeah.”

If the lighting was better, he could see Washington nervously rubbing at some of the lingering hickeys on his neck.

“He asked me on a date,” Washington says.

“And that’s… good, right?” York tests.

“Yeah,” He says with enthusiasm, and then after a pause, “no” with just as much conviction. “I don’t know that much, um. That much about about him, really?”

“Mouths are busy whenever you guys hang out?” York jokes. “So, what. You want me to make up flashcards for you?” The fact that he has dated less people than Washington has is irrelevant. This is funny.

“No, I’d like you to--” Washington waffles, shifting his weight and throwing twitchy shadows across York’s bedroom floor. “I don’t know, it’s kind of stupid.”

“Liking someone always makes you feel kind of stupid.” He would know; there have been countless occasions when York has regretted his latest terrible joke the moment it’s out of his mouth. “Come on. Spit it out.”

“Can you like, shadow my date and just show up in case things get a little awkward?”

He can’t help raising an eyebrow. “What, are you fifteen and need a chaperone?”

The reaction is immediate. Washington’s shoulders drop, then draw in with a defensive hunch, and he starts to walk away. “I said it was stupid.”

Well, shit. York mentally curses his tendency to cross the line when kidding around and gets up. “Hey, no, I’m sorry,” and it’s his turn to lean in the doorway as Washington makes himself busy with the dishes in the sink. “I was kidding about the fifteen year old thing.”

“Yeah?” And there’s such a note of hope in Washington’s voice, in his eyes when York catches his shoulder and turns him around. Enough that York keeps his ‘ I’ve never seen a fifteen year old as sexually active as you ’ to himself.

“Yeah. You want me to keep an eye on your date and whisk in with icebreakers, no problem. I get off early a lot this week, so as long as it’s after five…”

“Great. Bring a friend it you want, just… Be there, okay? Nine pm, this thursday at Valhalla.”

York claps him on the back for emphasis. “No problem! I know just who to bring.”

 


 

Carolina is a little less enthusiastic about the whole ordeal.

“For someone who keeps joking about getting in trouble with law enforcement,” she details over the rim of her White Russian, “you have the worst idea about what cops actually do.”

“So you’re trying to tell me you’ve never done a stakeout?” York pushes back. He has picked the perfect seat in the bar where he can keep an eye on the door from the corner of his eye. You're supposed to watch the exits in these kinds of operations, right? South was always super into shows like CSI.

“Not really. And this isn’t a stakeout.”

He looks away from the door long enough to throw her a challenging look with his good eye. “How would you know if you never went on one?” and he takes a sip of rum and coke to punctuate his question. It had come with a little gummy bat, on his request.

“Because anyone can tell you that you don’t drink on a stakeout.”

She takes a sip through the tiny straw, looking up at him through her eyelashes, and for a moment he forgets why he’s there. He gets tangled up in Carolina dressed up for a night out, with her red hair cascading down her back like silk. She’s gorgeous all the way to the toes of her boots, and the realization that he wants her to drag him across the table and kiss him so he can taste cream and Kahlua on her tongue punches him in the gut.

“That seems like a terrible waste of a good stake out,” he says, voice a little strangled as he thumbs the strap of his eyepatch. He’s not felt this way about someone in a long time, so it’s understandable if he’s a little out of practice. If his defenses are a little low. And he’s been drinking, just a little bit, so he’s-- fine. Everything’s fine. He’s got this.

The icecubes chatter in her glass as she stirs. “I don’t drink on the job,” she reminds him.

“Thank god neither of us are working, then,” and he nudges her glass with his in a little toast.

They have another couple sips together in a comfortable silence, and he glances back to the bar. Washington is just walking in, blending in with the sports decor with his grey and neon yellow Longshore Lancers t-shirt. Right on time for the plan, which reminds him.

“So, cover story?”

“We’re on a date,” Carolina replies without hesitation, like she’s been lying to him and has totally done this kind of stake out before.

York blinks. “I… was gonna say something more complicated, but--”

“Did you think out character motivations or something?”

He takes a guilty sip and studies the wood grain in the table.

“Oh, no,” she says, with a hint of a laugh in her voice, “you did.”

“Not character motivations, just--” he rests his hand in his chin, too careful not to miss that it doesn’t feel natural. “Oh, hey, it’s Tuesday and we figured the bar wouldn’t be too busy, and then we could walk around town afterwards. What a cool coincidence that we’d meet you guys here.”

“But no roleplay.”

“I wouldn’t say no if you wanted to be, like.” York pauses, going through a list of some of his favorite movies. “A fatally ill pr-- dancer who fell in love with a penniless, naive writer.”

“Moulin Rouge,” she says, eyebrow cocked as if daring him to deny it.

From her tone, he can’t tell if she liked it or not. York shifts his weight, unwilling to apologise for his guilty pleasure. “You’ve got the hair color for it.”

Carolina shrugs. “I don’t have the body for a corset,” she says casually, and he wants to both blind his mental eye and memorize every imaginary detail of it because yes, she does. She totally does, if she wanted to wear it.

“Everyone looks good in a corset,” he teases, regretting his remark the moment it leaves his mouth so he takes a drink before he can blurt out anything else. “Want a sip?”

Carolina swaps their glasses across the table, and York takes a sip from her straw without thinking. By the time it’s in his mouth, he’s already committed and is a fucking sap who gets fluttery about indirect kisses, and as she presses her lips to the rim of his glass she doesn’t seem to mind, either.

“Not my style,” she confesses once she pushes the glass back. “Thanks, though.”

“Sure.” Hers is good; creamy and sweet with just a hint of coffee. York takes a breath in through his mouth to taste it better - another thing Carolina’s taught him - and inhales a gust of cigarette smoke from the open door. It hits him with a stab of need like an ice pick in the chest, and he bites the inside of his lip as hard as he can to brace himself. It’s been a couple months since his last smoke, and he’s been okay, but habits are hard to break.

He’s already slipped his hand inside his pocket to play with his lighter when he catches Carolina’s eye again. Her gaze is sharp, penetrating and professional. It shouldn’t be attractive, but it is a little intimidating.

“I, uh.” York pulls out the lighter and slides it across the table to her. “I used to smoke. Occasionally. Not a lot, but I picked it up back in high school and…”

“It sticks with you.”

“Yeah.”

Carolina picks up the aluminum lighter, turning it back and forth. “It looks pretty old.”

“It was my ze-- my grandpa’s. He brought it back from the war. Some French nightclub. Got it engraved when he got discharged after a mine took his leg.”

She flips it over and has to squint to read the engraving. “Better lucky than good ? Is that a… family motto?”

“If it is, it’s one of many. And my favorite.” York accepts the lighter when she passes it back, the metal a little warmer from her gentle hands, and flips the lid open with his thumb. “I mean, I get it. Good is always checking your blind spots when you turn. Lucky is surviving when some dick t-bones you after running a red light.”

“Is that how you--” Carolina taps her left cheek, where the scar lies on his own face. He shakes his head.

“Not quite. A car clipped me when I was riding my motorcyle late one night. They were passing me and got a little too close.  My bike flipped and threw me in a ditch, apparently. It’s kind of a blur.” He remembers enough to want to lighten the mood. “And I’m not talking about my vision this time.”

“Oh. I’m sorry.”

He rests his chin and bites the edge of his lip, because he know this conversation will end with a roll of her eyes or a bruise on his shin and he can’t help it, he loves it. “‘s okay, it’s taught me how to keep an eye out for passing cars.”

A bark of laughter escapes her mouth - she claps a hand over it but it’s too late, the sound has already slipped out and York’s heart soars. “Don’t--” she starts, green eyes still bright with amusement, and he misses the rest of that statement with his own delighted cackling.

“You think I’m funny,” he gloats when he gets his breath back, his face tender from smiling, his sides tender from laughing, his heart tender from the overwhelming sentiment of please don’t change your mind about me .“You think I’m hilarious .”

“I think you think you’re hilarious,” Carolina counters, and he can almost see her looking for something to throw at him. Thank god someone already stole the salt and pepper from their table. “And that’s funny.”

“I am a delight,” he says, hoping if it says it enough times it’ll be true, and not even the prospect of chaperoning his roommate's gay date can ruin this night for him now. She laughed .

She drags her drink back to her side of the table and looks away. Maybe it’s the light but he could swear she’s blushing.

York rests his chin in his hands, pressing his knuckles against his mouth, and just drinks the moment in. The reassuring roar of a myriad of conversations competing with the music on the radio, the lingering taste of cream on his tongue, the way her hair catches the light as she adjusts her bangs and looks away, her eyes flashing wide.

“Shit,” and Carolina hunches over, presumably ducking out of someone's line of sight, “it's one of my co-workers. Tucker. The black guy in the teal shirt, mid-twenties.”

York adjusts the strap on his eye-patch as he glances up and over. He finds the guy - not because he’s in eye-catching bright clothes with his hair done in thick, meticulous braids. But because York recognizes him as Washington’s fuck buddy.

Which wasn’t terrible as a concept, even though Carolina doesn’t sound pleased to see him. No, the trouble comes when the guy heads over to Washington’s table with a wave and a bright grin, and Carolina switches from mildly put out to stunned.

“Oh my god, that’s the guy who gave Tucker oral in the station bathroom,” she declares, loud enough a couple tables look their way, and York is glad he wasn’t in the middle of drinking otherwise he would have spluttered rum and coke all over her white shirt.

Carolina throws him a glare. “You didn’t tell me your roommate was dating a cop,” she hisses.

“I had no idea,” but his apology comes out with a shocked laugh, bubbling over despite his efforts. “He never told me.”

His hands are a little unsteady as he takes a sip; women being angry at him isn’t exactly new, but in this context it’s not much fun. If Carolina really wants to chew out Tucker, that’s her business. On the other hand, Washington is his friend, and therefore his business.

Texting Washington a // if your cop-fucking ruins my slow burn courtship im gonna piss in your coffee for the rest of the year // is neutral enough to excuse, and he taps it out as covertly as possible.

“What was this about walking in on…” York starts, dragging her attention back to their table with a mental wave of a bullfighter’s red flag. Even if it means discussing public sex in loud, angry voices, he needs to keep her from interfering.

She takes the bait and relaxes back in her chair. “That’s not the weirdest thing that’s happened to me since I moved here,” she admits, biting the straw and taking a shallow sip, glare lingering in Tucker and Washington’s general direction.

“Really? Including--”

“Including you breaking into my apartment and sleeping on my couch, yes.”

His mouth puckers into an impressed expression, and York takes a moment to follow Carolina’s gaze. From the looks of things, Wash is gamely trying to make some kind of joke and Tucker isn’t following - the former is all forced grins and awkward hand motions that get aborted halfway through.

“And I thought I was bad,” he mutters, taking a sip of rum and coke that turns noisy as he drains the glass, suction rattling the ice cubes. When he turns back, Carolina has followed his example and is watching the proceedings with a frown.

“You’re serious about chaperoning this, aren’t you?” she asks, her tone careful. York thumbs his jawline, where the elastic of the eye-patch is digging in a little too tight.

“He wanted my help,” and then he offers a somewhat bitter smile. “Apparently he needs it. Why do you ask?”

Carolina stirs her drink. “It’s stupid.”

“What, from you? Never.”

She flicks an unimpressed stare his way, one he counters with a grin. He’s half joking, after all; she’s one of the sharpest people he knows.

“I thought you were making this up to ask me out on a date,” she says, and drains the last of her White Russian. By the time her glass hits the table, York could swear most of the blood in his body is in his cheeks and ears.

“Really?”

“It seemed like something you’d do.” And she sounds so sensible about it, like she’s talking about the weather. He can just see her shift enough to picture her crossing her legs under that flashy teal skirt, his heartbeat stumbling and he swears he can feel a breeze from the world’s biggest missed opportunity as it goes flying by.

“Well,” he stammers, unfortunately out of rum and coke to have an an excuse not to talk, “that’s-- I mean, I’m a little hurt you think I’d have to trick you into dating me.”

“Oh,” and her voice turns playful, “you think you could trick me?”

“I-- am regretting saying that, Officer Carolina,” he says, wiping his palms on his thighs under the table. Weird that his cup would have had so much condensation on it, right? “I’m gonna go, um. Get us more drinks?”

“Cherry long island, please, on my tab,” she says, and when she turns back to watch the lovebirds her body language is pure triumph.

He repeats her order to the bartender, “another rum and coke and…” Fuck it. “A shot of Three Wise Men.” More expensive than he likes, but Wyoming and Florida had picked up most of his tab from the last time he went drinking, so he’ll forgive himself a little something extra. Just this once.

It’s one thing to admit that he’s in love with her to himself, when he’s having a minor mental breakdown over houseplants in the privacy of his own bed at three am. It’s another to have to live with that admittance hovering in the back of his mind, making him him nervous. Is he looking at her too much? Not enough? Does she know? Does she care?

York downs the shot, lets it burn like he’s swallowed a star and settle bright and warm in his stomach. One drink in each hand, he returns to the table, eye drawn briefly to the strip of bare skin between the top of her boots and the hem of her skirt before he sits down and passes her the glass.

At least he has the excuse of watching Washington make a fool of himself to keep from staring at her. He knows what it’s like to have someone interested in you when you’re not into them; he’ll do what he can to spare ther that.

“Can I try something?” Carolina asks, snapping his attention back to the moment. York doesn’t even think before he nods.

Unfortunately, she doesn’t lean in for a fake kiss to sell their cover story or anything along those lines. She just takes one last sip, hops off the stool and heads towards Tucker and Washington.

He’s already getting off his chair when he catches the words “I didn’t recognise you without your mouth all over Tucker’s body.” And then the horror sets in, sobering him to the soles of his shoes, but by then it is too late. Tucker and Wash are both just as speechless, like the silence after a hurricane, and Carolina’s free hand is still extended towards his roommate in greeting.

Well. Time to start looking for a new place to live, or just an empty plot in the cemetery because he is dead to Washington. And he deserves it, too. York had one job this evening, one job , and he blew it worse than screaming confessions at a rich duke.

And then the laughter starts.

“Oh my god, Carolina,” Tucker wheezes, “you do have a sense of humor.”

York throws a swift look Carolina’s way; one that she meets with a little sly twist of her mouth and an arched eyebrow that says this was her plan all along. Which is… well, it’s one way to break the ice.

He can feel a giggle of his own bubbling in his chest as he throws his arm across Washington’s shoulders. York can work with this. He can follow her lead, and have fun doing it.

“It’s nice to meet Mr. Hard Serve in person,” York says, and the arm keeps Washington from making a break for it. “I’ve heard a lot about you. Or at least, I hear your name all the time when Wash is showering.”

“You are the worst friend ever,” Washington grumbles from behind his hands, “of all time.”

“In the shower?” Tucker’s grin is infectious, beautiful even, but York’s heart lies elsewhere. He leans across the table towards Carolina’s coworker, dragging Washington with him.

“So I’ve heard Wash’s version of how you two met, and his is boring--”

“It’s probably more accurate,” Carolina warns him.

“--and I wanna hear your side of the story.” He lets Wash break free, watches him pretend to fix his hair, and steals a chair from a nearby table.

Tucker spreads his hands across the table, setting the scene with his gestures as much as his words, and York gives him his full attention.

“Right, so. It’s mid fucking June, and it’s hot as hell. A little bird told me this cute grad student worked at the local Cow Palace…”

A warm press of someone’s arm against him jolts his focus. York turns his head as little as possible to see Carolina leaning next to him, taking a casual sip of her drink. She’s on his blind side and it should make him uncomfortable. Maybe it’s the alcohol or the atmosphere, or maybe it’s just her but he doesn’t mind her there, on the side that’s been torn and scarred and crippled.

So he takes a sip of his own, leans into the touch, and listens to Tucker speak.

 


 

“All right,” says Tucker, or he more or less shouts it into Washington’s neck as the latter tries to hold him up right. “We’re going to go fuck in Wash’s car.”

“We are not,” Washington replies firmly, first to Tucker than to York with a bit more desperation. “Seriously, we aren’t.”

They’re standing in the parking lot of Valhalla, finished drinking for the evening and soaking up the unseasonably warm night. It’s been a great time, and York is a little sad to see it end. But Washington has class in the morning, York and Carolina have work in the afternoon, and Tucker’s been throwing obvious i want to have sex with you looks at Wash across the table for the past half an hour. If he hadn’t been concerned about giving Carolina the same treatment - whiskey makes him frisky, and he’s not actually ready to kiss her - he would have found it all hilarious.

York raises his hands in a placating gesture. “Dude, if you gotta bring it by Invention later to scrub jizz stains out of the upholstery, I won’t judge. Just don’t do it during my shift.”

“If anyone’s driving anywhere,” and Carolina fumbles around in her purse, emerging with a device around the size and thickness of a smartphone. “Breathe into this.”

“You’re such a fucking cop, oh my fucking god,” Tucker swears, then huffs into the device. It beeps and Carolina gives him a stern stare.

“Give Washington your keys.”

“I’ll give him more than my keys in about five minutes.”

Washington passes the test; which is surprising, considering how much he’d been chugging at the start of the night. “I’ve got a good metabolism,” is all he says, trying but not trying to keep Tucker’s hands out of his back pockets.  “And, uh, York?”

“I’ll stay out for a couple more hours,” he promises, and waves goodbye as the pair of them stagger - Tucker from being drunk, Washington from drunk Tucker hanging on him and trying to eat his face off - towards the parking lot.

Carolina clears her throat. York turns towards her, sliding his hands in his pockets and running inventory by touch. Wallets, keys, phone, lighter - all there. Jacket over his shoulders, taking the edge off the October chill.

“My turn?” he nods to the breathalyzer.

“I figured we might as well finish our so-called date.” Carolina swaps the breathalyzer for a loose scarf, settling it around her neck. “Tucker gave me a tour when I first moved here, but he’s Tucker . The high point of the trip was this place.”

To his credit, he thinks he keeps his face pretty calm, even if internally he’s pumping his fist. “Yeah, all right,” he agrees, all casual. “I can do that.”

York clears his throat and affects his best tour guide voice as he leads her down the sidewalk, flanked by stone-and-brick buildings that look more like an abandoned 1920s movie set than a modern, thriving city. “So we’re on the historical side of Fort Longshore, which was founded in the late 1800s probably by some white guy with a bunch of money and a twirling mustache.”

“I can tell you’ve studied your local history.”

“The cool part about this side of town,” he continues, breezing past her insult and watching her out of the corner of his eye, “is that even during the school year it’s not swamped by drunk undergrads. You’ve got your cool mom-and-pop restaurants down here too, a karate dojo, a feed and seed store--”

“Out here in the city?” she interrupts.

“Lots of people on the south side have hobby gardens. Flower beds. Even with that hardware store up on the northeast side, it does a decent business.”

They walk along the sidewalk together as he continues to wrack his mind for factoids, their hands brushing once or twice. The streets are still peppered with people, even as it’s approaching midnight, so they’re not alone but they’re anonymous like fish in a school. It’s nice.

In the middle of a tangent about parking meters in front of the local Denny’s, Carolina slips her hand in his, coaxing him out of the way of a fire hydrant. York’s mouth goes dry, and he doesn’t think it’s just from all the talking.

“--And that’s why most of those meters are out of order. S-so, um,” he says, stumbling over his words. “Did you know we do have a lake here?”

“A lake?”

“Well, a pond maybe. A really big pond. It’s about five acres. Is that still a pond?”

She gives his hand a little squeeze and he feels like he’s twelve again, crushing on the prettiest girl in school except all his raunchiest fantasies about drink sharing have already come true. “Show me.”

‘A sight you’ve never seen before?” he adds, more for his benefit than hers.

“Sure.”

He leads her along side streets and across a drugstore parking lot - “as the crow flies, Carolina” “you can just say you’re lost, you know” - and he runs into a vehicle once, but they jog away from the car alarm and York laughs enough for the both of them. And then they’re at the park.

It feels like it’s on the edge of town even if it’s technically not, but the scattered hundred-year-old oaks and sycamores make it feel like it’s own separate world. There’s a line of chain and faded rubber swing sets and the worn wooden see-saw that gave York his first concussion, and beyond them the lake shimmers like a heat mirage.

“When I was a kid we’d feed the fish at the docks here, so they got used to nibbling your toes,” York narrates, softening his voice now that he doesn’t have to compete with the rush of cars. “Which sounds scary, but they were just little-- bluegills or something, i don’t know. Nothing with any serious teeth. They just kind of,” and he makes a few soft popping noises with his mouth, trying to put to words the the feeling of delicate pinching suctions on ticklish appendages.

She’s the one who finds the park bench, though, settles onto it and sighs into her breathalyzer. It makes him crave a cigarette, sudden and strong like a punch to the gut, but he made a promise and he’s trying to keep it. Even if he misses the heat of it, how it’s smooth going down but rough coming up, the airy taste on his tongue--

She says something, and he catches the end of it. The lilt of a question.

“Sorry?” he asks, caught reaching for the lighter in his pocket, and sits beside her. Carolina’s head shifts like she’s giving him a look, but the street lights are faint out here and his night vision is kind of shitty.

“I asked, have you ever seen Jaws?”

“No. Thank god,” he adds. “Have you?”

“Yeah.” Her shoulders shake, from cold or quiet laughter. “My little brother and I snuck in when I was in second grade.”

York shivers in sympathy. “Ouch. I’m guessing you find fish nibbling at your toes--”

“Off putting.”

“I was gonna say pants-shittingly terrifying, but-- hey!” he laughs when she elbows him in the side and he flops over for dramatic effect, draped over the arm of the bench.When he sits up, his eyes have adjusted to the darkness enough to see that she’s smiling, and he he can’t look away. The laugh peters out in the back of his mouth, and he swallows the remains as his heart flutters in his chest. Frantic, like a caged bird.

God, he wants to kiss her.

York has been lucky for a long time. Lucky that in the past when he’s dated, he’s not lost them as friends; lucky that he was able to find a job to support him in a new field not once but twice. Lucky that he broke into a stranger’s apartment and didn’t get arrested.

But the thing about luck is that, eventually, it has to run out. Like relationships that have to end in one way or another. What makes his heart race now isn’t just affection but fear; Carolina means a lot to him, and he doesn’t want to lose her to circumstances or some vague destined lovers bullshit. He feels selfish, inexcusably selfish, for being this close to someone like her and having it not be enough.

So he smiles, and he doesn’t kiss her - just throws his arm over the back of the bench as he turns to stare across the lake. It’s a cheap imitation of the endless vault of sky above them, dark and purple, peppered with the glow of streetlamps around the shore instead of the stars, but it’s beautiful anyway.

“I’m glad to be here with you,” York says at last. It’s a fraction of what he wants to say, but it’s something. It’s a step in the right direction. “You have fun?”

“Best fake date I’ve been on,” she says, then adds in a softer voice, “best night I’ve had since I got here, maybe.”

Oh, that’s not too good for his heart, the poor overworked thing. He has to clear his throat before he can speak again. “Sorry I couldn’t get the town in better shape before you got here. No one knows how to use a turn signal, and some assholes don’t even look twice before crossing the street.”

“And old ladies keep speeding on their way to the grocery store. They’re the worst people to ticket.”

“Oh god, Marjolaine.” He can’t help stifling a laugh. “I know exactly who you’re talking about.”

They stay out there until the nearest streetlight flickers and burns out, and York trips once on the way home.

 


 

“...Therefore, I’m the best date she’s had in at least a few months,” York relates to his captive audience of rubber hoses and grime-covered wires as he works under the hood of the sleek SUV. “Even if it’s still, technically a friend date. Legally a friend date.”

It’s a few days before Halloween and the living room is so close to being wallpaper-free York can taste it. But not literally, because decades-old soggy wallpaper is toxic. The Dakota twins have been helping on their days off, and Carolina as well; hell, even Wash and Tucker came over as an apology for the scene at the bar, and between the three of them they almost made as much progress as York would have made by himself.

He’s been thinking a lot about how lucky he his to have the kind of people he has in his life; people who want to be around him with no familial ties, no genetic obligations. The car he’s giving an oil change to is a very good listener.

“Which was a lot of fun, but I’m still not ready to try asking her out yet.”  He wipes his hands on the back of his knee, bending the joint to better scrape off dirt and grease by trapping his fingers. “Just being around her makes me happy, and I don’t wanna ruin that by going too fast.”

The memory of too-eager hands on his skin, hard enough to bruise, muffles his joy. York bites the inside of his lip and shoves the thoughts aside. He won’t let long gone exes ruin something this good.

“But how can you be sure it could ruin things?” York imagines the car to ask, with an affected German accent to buoy his spirits. “If you leave it too late she might move on, and leave you behind.

“A-hem.”

York has the composure not to jump and slam his head on the hood of the car, but he does throw Niner an uncomfortable look.

“How long have you been standing there?” he asks, a hot flush spreading over his cheeks.

“Long enough to know that you’ve not been on your phone again this shift,” she says, and it’s not fair that someone who stands under five feet tall can still hold themselves with such authority. “Which is a nice change.”

The discomfort deepens from shame into guilt; especially as his focus is more from having a low phone battery tonight than anything else.

“Hey, I’ve been doing that way less--”

“Don’t give me the kicked puppy look, I’m not mad. You’re still a good worker.” Niner has to go on her tiptoes to sling an arm around his shoulders, and he tilts to the side as she weighs him down. “No, I’m here to talk about Carolina.”

“Ah,” he says, because while this is a better topic than losing his job, York still has his reservations.

“She’s a good person.” Niner releases him to lean against the car, content for the moment. “Little prickly, but a hard worker. I think you’ll be good together.”

He’s torn between suspicion and the inevitable, childish glee at the merest hint of approval. In the end, the latter wins out as he resumes his work, multitasking. “How so?”

“Your sense of humor, for one. They’re similar brands of terrible. And as much as you like to act otherwise, you’re just as determined as she is to do a good job. Most of the time.”

He looks away, savoring the warmth of the comparison. The thought of being with Carolina is still new, but an exciting kind of new. “Thanks.”

“Plus, you’re so smitten with her it’s adorable. It’s like… a duckling that imprinted on a cat and thinks the cat is its mother.”

“Um. Okay.” That feels less like a compliment, but more like the Niner he knows, so he’s content to let it slide. “You’re not gonna… say anything to her, are you?”

“What, that my favorite employee has a crush on her that can be seen from space?”

“I--” he cuts himself off, touched. Niner counts as good people, too, even if she ranks over him as his boss.  “I’m your favorite?”

“Okay, second favorite.”

“You have like five employees. Maximum.”

Niner hauls him down again, her friendly arm turning into a choke hold. “Are you gonna take the compliment or not?”

“All right, all right,” he wheezes, tilting his head away from her flat chest, “I’ll take it like a good boy.”

“There we go. And no, why would I tell her?” She lets him go, and this time he does clock his head on the hood when he stands up. “This is the best shit I’ve seen in weeks.”

York rubs the back of his skull as she walks away, summoned by the bell at the front of the store. “Glad to know my life is so entertaining,” he mutters under his breath, though he does keep his head up for a little bit just to make sure it’s not Carolina, here to get that oil change. He’d even promised he’d teach her how to do it, give her a refresher after years of having fleet mechanics do everything.

But it isn’t, not that time nor any of the other times someone enters Invention for the rest of his shift. York lingers off the clock an extra hour, puttering around the back and making a nuisance of himself before he’s sent home.

“Drive carefully, York,” one of his co-workers had called from his own car. “Lots of deer out this time of year.”

“Yeah, I know.”  York twists in his seat to check his blind spots as usual before pulling out onto the road - moments before he merges with the traffic, his phone goes off. It galls him to wait, but York restrains himself from checking until he’s mingling with the flow, keeping his eyes on the road as he fumbles his phone out of his pocket.

From Carolina:
// you wanna get breakfast tomorrow? i’m on…

He doesn’t have to read that to know the answer is yes. He’s itching to answer but the sky is fading fast from mellow amber to ink, stained with the darkness of a new night, and he is technically breaking the law. He suspects Carolina might know if he replies now. With a private grimace, York settles his phone back in his cup holder, and flicks a glance at the post-it note on his dashboard.

Soon. He’ll be home soon. Then he can text his not-girlfriend to his heart’s content; hug a pillow and squeal into it, for good measure. South can never know. North shouldn’t know, but North is astute and had given him that wistful, pitying look when he’d last popped out his shoulder scraping wallpaper.

The vicious sting of someone’s high beams in his eyes snaps York out of his thoughts, and he flexes his fingers against Delta’s wheel. “Asshole,” he mutters, flipping the radio on just in time to catch yet another one of Vic’s Diamonds commercials.

To his left, the shadows of half bare trees smear across the darkening sky, their trunks and branches flashing pale like bones. To his right, empty cornfields have replaced the scattered businesses of the edge of town, peppered with broken stalks. If his mind was as empty, he’d be able to focus more on the road, but York has a dozen things on his mind, not the least of which is Halloween. Washington’s got orange and purple lights strung up in the living room, two massive bags of candy hidden under the sink (which York had immediately found, but he respects the sanctity of the holiday) and the landlord’s cleared the building for handouts. With every minute that ticks by, he gets closer to the favorite holiday he never celebrated as a kid.

It's not a long drive back to his apartment, but it's longer when he avoids downtown; long enough that by the fourth commercial in a row, the sky has gone velvety-blue with a slash of orange on the horizon. A witching sort of hour, he thinks to himself; and like everything else that happens in the last few notes of the radio’s nasal jingle, the thought is seared into his mind for months.

Something flashes across the road in an arc of movement, leaping out of his blind side. York has time to suck in a breath and slam on the brakes before the impact hits him. The seatbelt is a brand across his chest as he’s flung against it, a sudden pain in his head bright like a flash, and his mouth tastes of burned rubber and dust and chemicals and blood. The next breath won’t come.

York’s mind is spinning so much he can’t even tell if his car has come to a stop - if he’s in one anymore, or if he’s back in Chorus years ago, lying in a ditch with his shattered helmet visor buried in his eye. All he knows is that, if Carolina’s real, he prays she’s not the one who finds him.

Chapter Text

 

The thing is, she’s had a good day.

Eta and Iota were quiet until almost 8am, which is common enough that she didn’t fly into a panic and call the vet. The two worst traffic lights between her apartment and the police station were both green before she started to brake for them. And most surprising of all, Tucker had brought her coffee for the third morning in a row.

Church had noticed, and some distorted version of their double date at Valhalla is making the rounds because Kaikaina wanted to know if Tucker got lucky again in the bar’s bathroom.

“He didn’t,” Carolina assured their co-worker, then had caught Tucker’s eye from across the room and added, “but they might have done stuff in Washington’s car.”

“Car sex doesn’t count as public sex. It’s private property.” Kaikaina had thrown Tucker a look of her own. “Lame.”

So, yeah, it’s been a good day. And it sucks to get the call about someone hitting a deer on State Road 28 at the end of her shift. Yet she hops in her car and flips on the sirens anyway, because it’s her job.

That’s the thing about good days, especially when they come in a string like pearls on a necklace - smooth and even and precious. Too many in a row and you start to forget what a bad one feels like. Which is why it doesn’t occur to her that York’s off work and hasn’t replied to her texts yet until her headlights catch on the twisted, mauled edges of an old black coupe.

The sheriff's department and ambulance are already there, pulled to the side of the road as traffic crawls by. It’s a nasty wreck; the windshield bows inward, cracks cobwebbing across the surface, and the deer lays on the edge of the road. Carolina parks her car and sits for a moment, trying to get her thoughts under control but they’re bullet-fast and just as painful. She checks her phone one last time. No reply, just the time blinking back at her over a wallpaper of Iota.

She buries Carolina and steps out of the car as Officer Church, glass crunching under her boots as she storms to the sheriff's car.

“What’s the situation?” she demands of the first man in uniform she sees. He’s tall and thin, and he goes pale at the sight of her.

“Um,” he gapes, mouth flapping like a fish, and hits his partner with his clipboard blindly.

“What the fuck? Oh,” and his partner deflates, crosses his arms. “Yeah, some guy hit a deer. It’s pretty nasty. Broken ribs, shoulder, stuff like that.”

“Name?”

The two deputies blurt out different names at the same time. Officer Church closes her eyes and inhales when she realizes they’re introducing themselves, and she stalks off without another word. Useless. Better to check the situation for herself, and find concrete evidence whether or not it’s York.

The little halo of light from her flashlight flickers across the ground, taking in the tire treads and the shards of windshield that glitter like earthbound stars, and at last landing on a post-it note in the middle of the road.

Kneeling, she turns it over.

“thanks for the ride,” it reads, in sun-faded, familiar script; the note she’d left on the steering wheel of York’s car, the second time they met. Her heart sinks to the heels of her shoes, and she plants a hand on the asphalt to steady herself.

The car - it had a name, what was its name? - is just a few feet away, empty and hollow as a broken promise. Blood gleams on the crushed windshield, ruby in the trembling beam of her flashlight. Inside, the air bags are draped over the steering wheel like exhausted ghosts, limp puffs of off-white that haunt the empty vehicle.

“York?” Her voice doesn’t break on his name; it splits, splintering at the end between anger and despair, professional and civilian.

Of course it’s him; it had to be him, for dramatic fucking irony. Losing her job hadn’t been enough, she’s got to have someone important ripped from her, too.

She doesn’t expect an answer. “Carolina?”

Her heart freezes. Wiping a hand across her eyes as a precaution, Carolina snaps back to her feet, whipping around to see a figure hunched at the back of the ambulance. Average height, Caucasian-passing male, short brown hair. York.

Officer Church locks her jaw tight and storms over, shoving the post-it note in her pocket.

“Hey,” York says, low and guilty, flinching as the EMT shines a tiny flashlight of his own into York’s good eye. “Guess I’m not so good about keeping an eye out, huh?”

She takes a moment to drink him in, back-lit by the glow of the ambulance interior - the indignant fluff of his hair, the crookedness of his scar-tilted smile, the strong shape of his jaw. A moment too long, and Carolina turns to the nurse.

“How’s his condition?”

“Oh, he’s peachy!” the EMT replies, “he's fine aside from the concussion, jarred shoulder and neck, and all the cuts and bleeding! He's lucky to be alive! I'm gonna take him in for a CAT scan and some more stitches to help the--"

“I’m fine,” York cuts in. There’s blood crusting down the bridge of his nose, and the sheepishness has faded into something careful and blank. He won’t meet her gaze. “I don’t need a CAT scan,” he continues, “or any stitches. I’ll be alright.”

Officer Church wants to slap him; drag him to the hospital and patch him up and demand what the hell he thought he was doing, driving at night with one eye nearly blind. Instead, she takes in a deep breath, closes her eyes, and thinks back on the last time she’d stumbled across York, bashful and bleeding after a different car accident.

“I can keep an eye on him. You can home-treat a concussion, right?” she asks the EMT. 

“Sure! Don’t take off those bandages on his arms too soon, though. I had a bit of trouble getting the bleeding to stop, so if those cuts gets opened up again, he might die!” The EMT starts building a stack of paper, pulling them out of various files from a small box. “Here are...” he says in a sing-song voice, adding a couple more to the stack, “your care sheets…”

Carolina holds out one hand, and the EMT nearly hits York in the face with his flourish.

“Don't forget to have someone check in on him every few hours, or he might suffer a brain hemorrhage in his sleep. Very painful! Don't forget the number for 911! I think it's ninety-one eleven!”

Losing her patience, Carolina spins on her heel. Whether or not York follows her is his business.

The deputies are waffling around like an amateur comedy routine when she cuts in. “I’m taking him home,” Carolina states, because fuck professionalism at this point. When in Rome. “Make sure the black Chevy gets towed and taken to Mother of Invention. Got it?”

“Yes, ma’am, all the paperwork is good to set so you’re go,” the tall one babbles in a rush, just in time for a second sheriff's car to screech to a halt behind him, sirens and what she swears is polka music blasting from the overhead speakers.

“Doc!” bellows the sheriff as he hops out of the vehicle, “get the body bags ready, it’s time to field-dress this son of a bitch!”

Carolina glances at the deer, then to the EMT jogging over with a pile of black plastic sheets in his arms, and turns her back on the scene. “Grimmons?” she asks the pair of deputies. “It’s Grimmons, right?”

“Simmons and Grif, actually,” the beefy one says, “but we get that a lot.”

“Forward copies of the report to the Longshore Police Station--” There’s a distinctive wet ripping noise in the background, and a muffled “god, let this just be the concussion” from York, but she soldiers on. “Please.”

Grimmons, or maybe Sif, nods as his partner waves along acurious car. It’s enough for her, and she tows York away from the scene as the smell of animal blood fills her nose. Comments on recycling can wait, she just wants--

York stumbles as her grip twists the gauze. Carolina releases him with the melodious pang of empathy and guilt and watches York carefully, slowly, fumble his way into the back seat.

Once the doors have locked and she’s buckling herself in, York clears his throat. “So are you… are we heading back to your place?”

“I said I’d keep an eye on you. And I meant that.” Doubt starts to creep in, and Carolina glances to the side. “Unless that’s--”

“No, no, it’s-- that’s fine. I don’t know if Wash is home or not anyway. Mind if I call him?”

She nods, turning the ignition as York dials. In the rearview mirror, he keeps his head down as he presses the phone to his ear.

“Hey, Wash? It’s York. I’m… not gonna be home tonight.” Headlights flash across the dashboard and he shifts on the edge of her vision. “No, that’s not-- Wash. Wash . I got in a car accident.”

She can’t make out the voice on the other end, but she thinks she hears it pitch up in distress.

“I’m fine, I’m fine,” and he sounds like it too, but Carolina tosses a look his way again at a stop sign. York’s almost curled up in the seat, the hand not pressing his phone to the side of his face snared in a fistful of hair. As she’s watching, another car rolls past, smearing bright lights across the windshield. This time, she sees him flinch. “No, I’m just-- D is a wreck but I’m fine. Just headed home with Carolina since I might have a concussion so. Yeah. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

York keeps his head ducked down as Carolina continues down the road home. Neither of them talk the rest of the ride.

She parks. Steps out of the car. He grabs the care sheets from the front seat and follows her like a shadow up the stairs, unusually silent. There’s a tension in her shoulders, in his, vibrating between them as they trek up each flight, boiling when she unlocks her door and bullies him inside.

It’s too late for coffee so she pours water in a small pot and pops it on the stove, heat turned up mid-high. Two tea bags, one in each plain white cup, awaiting the boiling rush. Officer Church fights not to split down the middle, too busy kicking herself for the pessimistic dramatics to break down. She will not cry over something that didn’t happen, no matter how tired she is.

The shadow of York easing himself onto the couch - his spot, tight against the left arm - beyond the halo of light of her kitchen is an easy distraction. Carolina sets a timer on the microwave so she doesn’t forget the tea and joins him.

Yes, he’s in one piece but he’s a mess, blinking as she flips all the lights on, flooding the apartment. In the bedroom, her budgies chatter themselves awake, but they can wait.

York closes his eyes when she grabs his jaw and tilts his head back and forth, studying the damage; he only opens them when she lets go. “Lucky break, huh?”

Carolina doesn’t believe in luck. “You’re staying here for the night so I can keep an eye on you,” she says, leaving no room for argument. She may not force him to go to the hospital out of respect, but she’s not above drawing lines in the sand.

“Okay.” He says, letting his head loll back against the cushions. His motions are still a little slow and careful - he’s in pain. “Dibs on the couch.”

She has the higher ground - or at least, the height advantage while he’s sitting - and she treats him to one of her most aggrieved glares. “You were in a car accident. You’re taking the bed.”

“Dibs is a binding contract,” he insists.

He looks exhausted, even if he’s smiling at her. It shouldn’t be hard to wear him down. “York .”

Carolina .”

She rests one knee on the couch because she’s tired, not because she wants to be a little bit closer to him. “Take the mattress. You should get some sleep.”

“You’ll have to wake me up to check on me, right?” He tries to raise an eyebrow, but it’s stopped short by the gauze and just wrinkles. Gravity pulls him towards her - he lists a little to the side, sinking into the cushions. “It’s in my instruction manual,” and he flaps the wad of papers against his chest.

Her knee is touching his leg. “You didn’t look up concussion care on WikiHow?” she teases, bracing one hand against the back of the couch so she doesn’t fall forward.

“Hey now,” he says, voice hollow and thin, brittle like an eggshell, “don’t mock the internet. Most of mankind’s history is in my pocket, it’s so cool.”

“So cool,” she echoes, and bites the edge of her tongue.

“The most cool.” York shifts until he’s resting his cheek right next to her hand, lips nearly brushing the back of her wrist. He blinks, slowly, like he’s fighting to stay awake, staring off to the side. “Besides, I don’t want to keep the birds up if I can’t sleep.”

“Priorities,” she chides. He pulls a smile that slides off a second later, like it hurts him to wear it.

And Officer Church gives up; gives in and presses a kiss, firm with intent, on the patch of gauze at York’s hairline. A seal, a promise, a plea that this memory is one she can keep, lock it deep where time and regret can’t touch it.

As soon as she pulls away, York turns to stare at her, blue eyes wide. She expects him to say something, but he doesn’t. So she has to fill in, even if she’s not that good at comebacks and one-liners.

“What, didn’t anyone ever try to kiss your wounds better?”

York swallows, gaze flicking a little below her eyes. “I-- yeah. There’s another one on-- on my jaw, I think--”

“I see it.” A shallow little nick, perpendicular to the bone. Carolina kisses that, too, and she can feel his pulse fluttering under her touch. Can hear him swallow.

And he finally, finally sounds like himself when he murmurs, “my mouth’s a little sore, too, if you feel like kissing that.”

She does.

It’s been awhile since she kissed anyone, and the mechanics of it aren’t flawless - the angle’s a little off, she’s still too tense - but it doesn’t have to be a perfect kiss. They’re not perfect people.

“Gentle,” he says when she pulls back an inch, his voice deep and soft, “just this once.” Before she can dwell on that he’s claiming her mouth again, a bit of force and finality behind it.

When it breaks, York nuzzles her neck and pulls her into an embrace. “Hope I didn’t scare you,” he says, so close and quiet she feels more than hears it. “Back there. With the accident and the whole almost-dying thing.”

Carolina huffs a laugh through her nose, more bitter than amused.

“Yeah, well,” she mutters into his shoulder, feeling his arms tighten around her back as she breathes in the scents of blood and smoke and industry. She was scared; still is, by the unexpected depth of that fear, like walking down the stairs in the dark and misjudging the bottom step.

But she can’t dwell on introspection right now, not when York’s breath catches on the inhale and shakes as he lets it out, rattling against his ribcage.

“I didn’t die, did I?” he asks, and he sounds so small. Fragile, bright and soft, like one of her birds. As small as she feels. “Because this-- this is kind of something I’ve wanted for a while now.”

The scar on his cheek is old, a furrow of dusty rose like a crack in sun-baked dry earth. He’s had it too long for a kiss to do it any good. She can feel it against the side of her face when she shakes her head.

“You’re alive,” she tells him. “I promise.”

York swallows and manages, somehow, to pull her a little bit closer. “Okay.”

 


 

They compromise.

Carolina’s bed is a double, so they shared it; each to their own side, limbs occasionally brushing as they adjusted and tried to sleep. She set a few alarms to wake York up and check on him, but never needed any. He woke up enough times in his own, gasping and shaking and stammering panicked phrases into his borrowed pillow. Then he'd remember where he was and fall silent, laying back down careful as glass and often turning towards her in the dark. A couple times she asked him things - stock questions about time and place - and once she let him wind his arms around her and bury his face in her hair.

In the end, they're both miserable and tired when her phone rings around 7am, and she leaves the bedroom to take the call.

“Hello?”

“Good morning Agent Carolina!” She yanks the phone away from her ear as Caboose’s voice bellows out of the small device. “I am at your door! Please come down and let me in!”

“I-- what?”

A short inhale is her only warning before Caboose repeats himself - but it’s enough to save her ear, and she can catch the edge of his words drifting in through the window.

“GOOD MORNING! AGENT CAROLINA! I AM AT YOUR DOOR--”

“Okay, okay, yes, I can hear you, thank you Caboose.” She grabs a fistful of her own hair and tugs on it, gritting her teeth. Last thing she wants is to be involved in a noise complaint. “Why are you here?”

“I was told by Church that you might be staying home today! So I brought you a casserole and a peace offering!”

That grabs her attention. Carolina chews on the inside of her lip, trying to translate Caboose. York emerges from her bedroom, eyes bleary and shadowed. So much for not disturbing him. He gives her a nod as he heads towards the kitchen.

“A casserole?” she asks, warily, ready to yank the phone away again.

“Yes! It is made with broccoli and cheese and lots of breadcrumbs for your birds! It is my favorite and I wanted to share it with you.”

She’s flummoxed as to why she might be missing work. But the more questions she asks, the higher the chances are that Caboose will start screaming again.

“Okay. I’ll be right down.”

“Do you need backup?” York asks when she hangs up the phone. He’s filling up a glass of water from the tap, watching her with the hint of an exhausted smile.

“You know, I might.” One could never tell with Caboose. He has his own way of doing things, and while she’d first thought him completely incapable as a person and a cop, she’s changed her mind. He’s only slightly incapable.

Hell, her brother still can’t shoot to save his life, and he’s been on the Fort Longshore police force for years.

York follows her down the stairs, still in his clothes from last night, which with the dirt and cuts and spots of blood pair nicely with his exhausted expression. Which isn’t an issue, since standing on the porch is the human personification of a sheepdog, messy-haired and delighted to see her. Caboose is dangerously juggling a cooler and some kind of foil-covered dish in a cozy, his hands shaking as he probably has to restrain himself from hugging her.

“Congratulations on the baby!” is the first thing he shouts - yes, shouts - and Carolina wishes she was more surprised. Maybe she’s getting to know Caboose a little too well.

After a beat, she turns to York. “You didn’t tell me you were pregnant.”

“I didn’t want to say anything until I was at least eight weeks along,” he replies, without an ounce of hesitation; and as he leans beside the doorway on the edge of her vision, her heart stops, caught in a rush of amusement and affection so intense she has to bite her lip to keep from laughing.

Caboose brightens and turns to York. “Hello new friend, I am Michael J. Caboose and I am an officer of the law! It is nice to--” He stares at his hands and stutters. On instinct, Carolina reaches for the casserole dish, which he passes off to her to extend a hand towards York. “It is nice to meet you! What is your name and how many pets do you have?”

“I’m York,” and he doesn’t react to Caboose’s strong grip, though he flexes his fingers when they’re free, “and I don’t have any pets, sorry.”

“Oh,” says Caboose, trying very hard to be polite though she can tell he’s disappointed. “That’s okay. When is your baby due? Ooooh, you should ask Tucker for baby advice! Junior is a very good baby! Tucker did a good job making him!”

York blinks. “That was a joke. Sorry. I’m not pregnant.”

The wilt is obvious in every inch of Caboose’s tall frame, weighing him down to be eye level with York. “Babies are serious,” he says, with a bit of an edge to it, and Carolina intervenes.

“He shares a cat with his roommate, Washington. You remember Washington?”

“Oh! Yes I do!” Caboose grins at York once more, some of the sparkle returning to his eyes.

With that sorted - though she guesses York is completely lost - she moves on to the main course.

“Um,” she starts, trying to remember how to speak effective Caboose, “why would either of us be pregnant?”

He takes a deep breath in. “Church said that you might not come in today, and he said that you weren’t hurt or out of town, so I remembered that has to mean maternity leave! Tucker said he spent most of his maternity leave eating, so I cooked you some food! And it doesn’t have any chicken in it, so your birds can eat too.” Thus explained, he looks curiously between them. “Are there really no babies?”

“No, Caboose.” She’s starting to put the pieces together, but assembly can come later. “York was hit by a car last night. Again,” she adds as an afterthought.

Caboose turns to look at York again, who waves in greeting but keeps his mouth shut. He reaches inside his cooler and pulls out a bag of frozen vegetables.

“This explains the peas offering,” Caboose says matter-of-factly, and presses the bag against York’s bandaged forehead. He hasn’t mentioned York’s eye yet, and she’s a little surprised, but Caboose has always tried to be nice. Maybe he’s just too polite to say something.

York appears pleased, if still lost. “Thank y--”

“Oh my god what happened to your eye?!”

There it is. Carolina adjusts her grip on the casserole and watches York hash out an answer.

“I was hit by a car. A third, totally unrelated time. I’m okay now, though,” and he shifts the bag of peas out of the way. Caboose leans down to get a closer look, his nose practically touching York’s, but neither pull away. He’s got at least six inches of height over York, and it’s comical to watch.

“Can I have some of Carolina’s casserole?” asks York after a beat, and Caboose straightens with a fresh, satisfied smile.

“I do not mind if you do, but you will have to ask Carolina.” He lowers his voice to a stage whisper, throwing her a wary look. “We are not supposed to take things from her desk. Or her car. Or her chair. Or--”

Carolina clears her throat. Immediately he snaps into a salute. “At ease,” she says, biting back a smile. “And thank you for the gifts, Caboose. I’ll see you this afternoon.”

As soon as they’re back upstairs, York folds himself up on the end of the couch. One heel on the cushions, he rests his cheek against his knee and heaves a sigh. The transition between bright and attentive to an amused glow is like someone turning the volume down in the middle of a song.

“So, Caboose is...” he starts, his back to her. Carolina assumes she’s to to chime in with a definition, some label to define Caboose’s Caboose-ness. It’s with a flicker of rebuke, like a spark of static shock, that she realizes she’s never bothered to ask her co-workers his story.

“...tall,” he finishes.

She frowns, setting the casserole on the table. “What?”

“Like, I’m not short, okay? I’m five nine. Ish. That’s above the national average.” Still facing the TV, York gestures for emphasis. “But there are so many guys in this town who are massive . North. The guy in the hardware store. Some dude at Denny’s. Now your cop friend.”

“I’m sorry?”

He flops to the side, vanishing from her line of sight with a huff.

“Should I have made a size-doesn’t-matter joke?” she says, trying to cheer him up. “Would that have been better?”

The “no” sounds a little muffled, and then, “but I appreciate the thought. I’m just tired.”

Carolina considers a number of things, then - most of them involving touching York in some way or another, but she hesitates, staring at the back of the couch. Just this once, he’d said. Kisses all his friends, he’d said.

Too eager to take the easy shot, Texas had once said.

Carolina clears her throat. “I’m gonna call work really fast, all right?”

She gets a thumbs up as she passes by, shutting the bathroom door gently behind her. There’s a gentle murmur of noise beyond the closed door - York’s turned the TV on - and Carolina waits for her brother to answer. She wouldn’t blame him if he didn’t. This is the first time she’s called his personal number in months.

“Hey, Carolina,” Church says, his voice worn and familiar like an old pair of jeans. Doesn’t even sound surprised.

“I suppose I should be thanking you for sending Caboose after me with food.” Closing the toilet, she perches on the cool seat, leans back against the tank. “Though I was planning on cooking with York a bit today. Nice to have some extra.”

“York?”

“Yes, York. He’s not that injured. He can still hold a whisk.” She finds herself holding back a bit of a smile. “Anyway, I figured I’d take you up on the offer to stay home this afternoon. It’s… sweet of you.”

“Oh. Uh.” It’s easy to picture him - looking to the side with a little perplexed frown, scratching the back of his neck. “Is that a good thing? Should I be… sweet?”

“It makes me a little suspicious, but I suppose you being nice isn’t the strangest thing that could happen.”

Church laughs, the static and the distance making his voice sound a little hollow. “Yeah, I guess I’m not the greatest brother most of the time.”

“It’s okay. I’m a shitty sister sometimes, too.”

“Only sometimes?”

That sounds a lot more like him. “Don’t forget, I’m on speeding duty today. Good luck with Marjolaine.”

“You know, I’m starting to regret this whole ‘being sweet’ thing.”

“Most people do. I’ll see you later, Leonard.” She hangs up before he can give much more than an angry squawk, and yeah. She’s definitely smiling.

Chapter Text

 

The tabletop of the bar is tacky under his fingertips, pulling at the skin of his wrist as York reaches up and adjusts his eyepatch. He’s never like wearing it since it blinds him even further, but it’s a trade-off to not catch the stares he gets with the jagged scars and the cloudy pupil. South keeps encouraging him to wear more military-green - “come on, you’d look like Big Boss!” - and maybe he’ll wear stuff like that to their gym and make a scene to mess with North. But he’s meeting a couple old-coworkers here and he’d rather just… be himself. In a t-shirt and old jeans because nothing he owns doesn’t have a few tears or grease stains by now. A far cry from his IT job at Charon, and his business casual look complete with 20/20 vision.

Not that he doesn’t love his job, or that he isn’t at least happy he has one. York is thankful every time something manages to fall into place. The lighter his zeyda owned is engraved Better Lucky Than Good and he couldn’t agree more. So he’s glad, okay?

But he’s just as glad to see the two men that enter the bar; familiar faces from the life he left behind. The one he’d actually, really wanted.

Butch is the first to see him, side-stepping patrons as Reggie follows. “Brady,” he says, warmth and intimacy pouring out of his voice, sweetening his already rich tones. “Have we kept you waiting long?”

The use of his first name makes York grit his teeth, but he returns the man’s smile. “Nah, I figured you’d get stuck in traffic. Driving in Chorus after work is a bitch. Any trouble finding the place, Butch?”

“Not at all!” Butch releases his companion’s hand to wrap York in a tight hug that lingers a little too long. York pats him on the back as he stares over Butch’s shoulder.

“Help me,” he mouths. Reggie shrugs, and York can’t tell if he’s smiling under his thick mustache or not before he steps to the bar and orders their drinks. Smug bastard.

“Sorry we couldn’t come to the funeral,” Butch gushes, oblivious to York’s discomfort as he rubs his hand up and down York’s back, “but Reggie was absolutely tied up. Couldn’t make it in time.”

“Uh, yeah, I know how Charon can be,” York assures him, half-assuming Butch is talking about work and half-praying his ex-coworker isn’t discussing his sex life in the same breath as York’s dead bubbe. “It’s all right. She was very-- there was a lot of people, it was--”

He’s not saying this right and Butch’s hand is circling around his lower back, why , so he takes a breath and tries again. “You’re here now, and that’s what matters.”

“We’ll always be here for you,” Butch gushes, and York knows that can’t be true but he also knows that Butch means it. The hug ends with a pat on his shoulder and Reggie returning with three beers and some pretzel bites, and York thanks God for the subject change.

“So did you hear about Felix?” Reggie says, sandwiching York in at the bar and dabbing beer off his mustache.

“I heard a little bit. Something about a murder investigation, but we don’t have cable and our local news didn’t care too much about it.” York doesn’t know how much else he wants to hear. It’s exhausting, somethings, just thinking about how awful people can be to each other. “Anything I should know?”

“Not officially. Hargrove doesn’t want us talking about it at work because it’s unprofessional, but--”

“--we’re not at work, so we can tell you they’re gonna buy their way out of it,” Butch finishes, flagging down a waitress. “Can we have a round of tequila shots for the table, please?”

“Gross,” York says, more about the situation than anything, and then the drink order settles in. “Hey, you’re not gonna try to get me wasted, are you?”

“No, no, just a shot for the nostalgia,” and Butch’s hand is back on his shoulder, rubbing up and down. “We’ll just drink together like friends and shoot the shit, for old time’s sake?”

The waitress comes back with the shots, the lime wedges, and a shaker of salt so York raises his glass in a toast.

“For old times sake,” he pledges, clinking his tequila against Reggie’s and Butch's before tossing it back.

 


 

York isn’t sure if Butch should be driving, but then again he isn’t sure where his hands are. Someone’s hands are on either side of his face as he rubs his cheeks, trying to get rid of the ache from laughing too hard at Reggie’s god-awful attempts at knock-knock jokes. They’re funny! How could he have ever doubted that?

“So it’s in the-- this thing,” and he waves out the window to the gated apartment complex where North and South live. He promised he’d come home to them tonight. Three am is still tonight. “Just drop me off here.”

Reggie is sitting bitch in the front seat, his hand rubbing the inside of Butch’s thigh. “You sure?” he asks, and hell yes York is sure. Booze might make him a little frisky, but he’s been third wheeling for two hours and being the filling to a Flyoming sandwich is not something York wants to experience right now.

“Yeah, yeah,” York mutters, stumbling out of the truck and rolling playfully across the road when he trips. Good times. “Bye!”

“You’re a little bit in the way,” Butch informs him. York heaves a sigh at the injustice of the world and crawls until he’s in the grass, then waves at the sound of the retreating car. Only then does he remember to pat down his pockets and make sure everything’s all there.

Pants, check. Phone, check. Lighter, check, and-- oh, a cigarette. He hasn’t smoked since the funeral, so where did it come from? Wait. He kind of remembers trading something for one from a cute girl. Eyepatch, un-check. Oh well. He’ll have to go get a new one.

Belly down on the grass, York runs his fingertips over the cigarette, inhales the faint smell of paper and tobacco. Wipes off the dirt that’s collected from being inside his jacket, holds it in his teeth and sits up enough to fish out his zayde’s lighter.

A few flicks of his thumb gives him sparks but no flame. Impulse seizes him, and his arm is in the middle of releasing the lighter when the rest of him kicks in with no no no no you idiot, that’s all you’ve ever had of him but it’s too late. Like a shooting star, the lighter arcs and lands, impossibly, on North’s balcony.

York stands and crosses the turf to stand beside the brick building - it’s coarse and cool when he lays his hand on it, but there’s enough of the bricks jutting out that he can haul himself up a few inches, catch the toe of his shoes on a lower one, repeat. Once he loses his grip, scrapes his palm and dangles for a moment, but York doesn’t even feel the sting of raw skin until he’s perched on the wooden rail of the balcony.

There his lighter lays, and he swings himself over the rail to take it and hold in in his palm. He takes a breath and some of the intoxication wears away, as if the air on the third floor balcony is clearer than the air on the first. His cigarette is gone, his bubba is gone, and his friends are in Chorus or have lives of their own. York is alone.

And so, for the first time since he came home and found his only real family dead in her armchair, he cries.

It hurts to think about her, and part of him wonders if it always will - if he’ll always get that brittle, fragile feeling in his chest like he’s made of ice and is terrified of someone pressing too hard, breaking through. Breaking him, and drowning in whatever’s left. If he can’t think about all the good times without being shaken that he’ll never have them again, that in fifty years they might all be gone anyway. Dementia is hereditary, right?

God, he doesn’t want to lose any of this. Not even the bad parts. He wants to keep all of this, every single moment, locked deep in his heart where time and disease can’t touch it. Sturdy and solid and real, like the lighter he grips so tight it leaves little dents in his palms.

Sucking a breath in through his clenched teeth, York wipes his eyes off with the heels of his hands and tries to quiet himself down. Tries to mutter self-soothing phrases under his breath until his tears run dry. And then he lets himself into the apartment through the porch door and falls face-down on the first soft surface he finds.

It doesn't matter. He won’t remember most of this in the morning, anyway.

 

Chapter Text

 

York doesn’t remember falling asleep on Carolina’s couch, so the gentle touch to his shoulder startles him awake. She’s leaning over him with a tiny frown on her face, maybe - it’s a little hard to tell when he’s looking at her upside down - and all he can do is blink up at her.

A hundred questions rise and die in his mind - where is he? why is his hand so cold? why is there something taped to his forehead? - as memories fall into place. Her apartment. The peas offering. The car accident.

“I didn’t think you were actually sleeping, sorry,” and Carolina retracts her hand. Yep, she's frowning.

He scrambles to sit up, makes it halfway and just drapes himself over the arm of her couch, watching her head to the kitchen, still too foggy with sleep to stop her in time.

“It’s fine,” he says, minutes too late, “I needed to get up anyway.”

There is a wide gulf of difference between needing and wanting, however, and York listens to the commercials babbling behind him as he watches Carolina move. Standing up on tiptoe to check the backs of cabinets as she searches, maybe runs inventory. The way the light of the fridge casts a warm glow on her face in profile as she pulls out a jug of milk, swilling the contents around the inside.

He needs to say something to her, too, about - York folds his arms and buries his nose in the crook of his elbow, fighting and losing to a blush - the kiss and everything else that’s happened in the last twelve hours. Main problem is that none of it feels real. It’s like he’s still waiting to wake up in a world where none of the bad stuff - or the good stuff - happened.

Even if his head still aches from the collision and the cut, and his heart twists with the memory of her mouth, he’s just so… tired.

Her voice pulls him out of his thoughts again, bright like a beacon through fog. “I don’t have enough milk for pancakes,” Carolina says, kneeing the fridge closed with a frown.

York props his chin on his elbow. “You could just use water, right?”

The look she gives him is downright scandalized. “No.”

“Coffee cream?”

Carolina starts, then stops with a thoughtful little frown. “No,” she repeats, less vehement this time. “I only have flavored.”

He means to thank her for all that she’s done, or even just quip that he’s eaten worse than Irish Creme flavored pancakes. Instead what comes out is “you don’t have to cook anything. I’m not hungry.”

She gives him a look again, one that’s that’s keen and blank; the cop stare she gets whenever she’s thinking too hard about something. “Okay,” and she closes the fridge.

? York shifts on the couch until he’s lying on his side, staring at the wall and the tv, pulling the nearest throw pillow into his arms. Everything’s a mess, tangled like string that cuts into his skin when he tries to tug it apart.

York is starting to slip back to sleep when a sharp, distinctive tap catches his attention. He blinks, sits up on one elbow to check the kitchen. Carolina’s doing something with her back to him - a brief sniff gives him a hint of coffee. The tap comes again.

He shoots a glance at the glass porch door, white curtains drawn. As he watches, a small round object, silhouetted foggy grey in the sunlight through the fabric, arcs through the air and bounces off the glass. Rolling to his feet and almost stepping on the forgotten bag of frozen peas, York pulls the curtains aside. His eyes have just enough time to adjust to the brightness outside when a fourth object pings against the porch door.

Someone is throwing Skittles at Carolina’s apartment.

Honestly, his life is so fucked up at this point he just accepts this. I mean, sure, he watched the local sheriff gut the same deer that had jumped in front of Delta and nearly killed him. Sure, his newest friend slash crush kissed him and let him wrap his arms around her while he slept like a toddler. Why shouldn’t candy be raining down on Carolina’s porch?

He finds Carolina at his shoulder, unlocking her porch door - his eye is drawn to the thin scuff marks around the dead-latch, the ones he must have left when he broke in - and snatching the next Skittle out of the air. She peers over her railing, hair catching the sunlight and glowing ember-orange, then gives him a flat look.

“It’s for you.”

He joins her and peers down to see South with a bag of Skittles and North with a bundle of clothes. It’s a real testament to how he feels that he doesn’t immediate sling a leg over the railing and give North a panic attack, and instead just plucks a candy off the porch and pops it in his mouth.

South gives her brother a look. “You said we should just use the doorbell.”

“It would have worked just as well,” North grumbles, or something like it - then he turns his face up and offers the laundry. “Your roommate called me and told me about the accident. I figured you haven’t been home yet, so I brought you a change of clothes. And the phone charger you left here last time.”

She’s on his blurry side, but York assumes Carolina throws him a look. “I stayed with them a lot when I first moved back,” he offers.

“Having tons of sex.” South adds from down below, with uncanny sibling timing. “With both of us. I mean, that's everyone's fantasy, right? A threesome with blond twins?”

He hunches his shoulders, trying to hide his face from the intensity of Carolina’s stare. “South,” he calls back down, “you’re a lesbian.”

“You dated a lesbian?” Carolina asks, failing to sound innocent.

York presses his forehead against the handrail. Forget heaven. If he really did die last night, there's a better chance this is hell. “Dating is a loose term, I-- fuck. Whatever.” Opening his eyes, he glares through the wooden bars at North, who is uncharacteristically slow at coming to his defense. “Just toss my clothes up.”

The first item, a rolled up shirt, unfurls like a sail at the apex of North’s toss. It blossoms a faded blue against the backdrop of the neighboring apartment building - York stretches out his hand and snatches it out of the air, the muscles in his left shoulder snapping in protest. Okay, so that’s out again. Have to get that adjusted later.

Next is a pair of pants in a throw that comes up a little short; his reach stunted by pain, this time his fingertips brush denim before it falls.

North catches them as South pops more Skittles into her mouth. On the second toss they soar, well above the porch railing and even York’s head - but this time when he misjudges the distance and reaches, another hand catches them before they can fall.

Carolina folds the jeans and drapes them over the railing; one hand bracing her weight, she stands on one foot and lunges for the phone charger when it comes moments later.

“Sorry,” North calls from below. York looks back in time to catch his boxers as North flings them upwards - albeit with a little fumbling. “Let me know if you need me to drive you to work or anything.”

He kind of expects South to toss the Skittles up next, but instead she just upends the rest of the bag into her mouth, waving as she follows her twin back to their building next door. Carolina nudges him in the shoulder; York turns to give her as much of his attention as he can.

“You all right?”

There’s a lingering sweetness in his mouth from the candy as he runs his tongue along the inside of his teeth. “I think so. Just… a little tired. Mind if I use your shower?”

She passes him his belongings. “I won’t make you go to the ER or anything, but…” Her mouth puckers on one side, like she’s biting her lip. York swallows. “You’re sure you’re just tired?”

“Pretty sure. Shower should help with that.” He bundles his clothes up, apathetic to how they’re wrinkling under such rough treatment, and ducks past her into the apartment.

The click of the bathroom door closing behind him is deafening in the silence; muting everything but the faintest chirps from the bedroom. York faces the mirror and peels the gauze and tape off his face first. The EMT had done a neat job of stitching up the gash along his hairline. He tries to cover it with his hair, wincing at both the look and how he swipes the tender flesh with his hand. Next to go is his shirt; he knew about the bruises from the steering wheel on his palms, the ones on his forearms studded with little nicks and cuts, but not the ones blooming across his chest. Seatbelt, probably - and he thumbs the mottled old scars on his left shoulder for good measure. Takes in a deep breath that catches and stings.

Everything else is just deep-tissue-tension sore, invisible aches that make his movements and mind slow. The cold splash of water on his skin is a welcome jolt, like Carolina’s hand on his shoulder or lips on his forehead, and as he soaps up York starts to feel real again.

Which is great timing, since that’s about when Carolina knocks on the bathroom door. “Can I come in? I need to grab something real fast.”

“Um. It’s your bathroom, so.” A bit of soap gets into one of his cuts, and York grits his teeth. “Sure. Come on in.”

Through the doubled curtains, she’s little more than sound and shadow; the bar of light striking across the back wall as she opens the mirrored cabinet, a gentle rustle of pill bottles and boxes. She takes just long enough that he feels brave enough to speak.

“I don’t know if I’ve said it enough, so. Thank you. For last night, and this morning, and just.” Everything that she is, and for sharing so much of that with him. “Yeah. Thanks.”

She’s quiet. York is tempted to check to see if she’s even still there, or if she ducked out already, squeamish about a naked guy in her shower. He’s halfway through reaching for the shower curtain when he catches her reply.

“You’re welcome.” Her voice is careful, professional. As cold as the water had been.

He swallows down the lump in his throat. “We should probably talk when we’re not so tired.” Then he flinches, kicking himself, and forces a joke. “Wow, there’s really no way to say this without sounding ominous, is there?”

She, too, sounds a little more human when she chuckles. “No, there isn’t. …York?”

“Yeah?” he asks, too eager. Way too eager.

“I didn't-- mind helping you last night. I’m glad you’re okay. And that you're here.” He hears the whisper of the door opening. “Don’t use all the hot water.”

“Right,” he says, voice hoarse despite the heat and the steam. Won’t let himself ask her to join him as the door clicks shut. Certainly doesn’t entertain thoughts of what that would look like, feel like, sound--

The shampoo bottle jumps from his hand, falling into the tub with a deafening clatter. York turns the water a little colder as impetus for hurrying and hides his hot face in the lukewarm downpour.

When he emerges, his new cuts tender and bared to the cool apartment air, York finds Carolina hanging up a bird toy with a bell in Eta and Iota’s cage.

“Shower’s free,” he says, keeping his voice soft.

She looks over, eyes meeting his before they skim over the rest of him - lingering not on the faded X-wing on his shirt, sadly, but on the injuries. Her mouth goes tight at the corners. He braces himself for a well-meaning flurry of aggressive concern.

“I plugged your phone in, by the couch,” Carolina details, turning away to pick up a small stack of folded clothes from the bed. “There’s bread and a toaster by the coffeemaker. A few different kinds of jams in the fridge.”

He follows her halfway to the bathroom, veering obediently into the kitchen. There’s a little tub labeled SUGAR beside an empty mug with a spoon, the TV playing a show about decorating cakes. Open invitations, like North’s little texts about arbitrary things, South’s light kicks under the table, the blanket Niner drapes over the back of that godawful couch. He thinks back to the curve of Carolina’s hip from where she’d laid next to him last night, dropping her shoulder to yield to his panicked touch.

So he accepts this, too, washes down the last taste of candy with coffee and buttered toast, and waits to see if Carolina to fill the space beside him on the sofa.

 


 

Seeing Delta was so much worse in the light of day, with the windshield half-crushed and part of the hood crumpled like paper, but York doesn’t give up easily. His shift on Halloween wasn’t anything too complex - broken muffler, dented hubcap, couple oil changes - and by the end of the day Delta’s inside as York cleans off bits of blood and hair from the unfortunate deer. If he hadn’t been laid up after the work South had done on him, trying to work his spine and shoulder back into alignment, he’d have been there sooner.

“Don’t you dare start work on that windshield tonight,” Niner says, the spare keys to Invention twirling around her finger. She’d painted her thumbnails to look like candy corn, fingernails to look like little ghosts - one of them grins back at York before he accepts the keys. “That’s a two-man team at least.”

“Gotcha.”

“I’ve already been in touch with Andy. He says you can swing by the junkyard and check for parts on Monday. Not a day sooner. Do not break in, or I’ll fire you.”

“All right, all right.” York pockets the keys and makes to return to Delta’s side, but Niner takes him by the arm and veers him toward a pick up truck with both doors missing.

“Got a gift for you, but it comes with rules. Since I know you’re gonna be an irresponsible idiot and stay way too late anyway.”

There’s a camping mattress and a blanket in the back, and Niner lowers the tailgate so she can lean on it. “Rule one; you get Wash to take you home every other night. Two: shower at least four times a week. You can whore-bath it out the rest of the time with Fast Orange in the back bathroom, I don’t care.”

York has stopped listening by this point, chest swelling with gratitude and laughter at once. “You made me a truck bed,” he breathes.

“Four. The suspension on this thing is amazing, but don’t wear it out. We’ll still have to return it once the parts come in and we put the doors back on.” For emphasis, she braces both spooky-manicured hands on the tailgate and bounces. “Which leads me to my last rule. If you get any, and I mean any, suspicious stains on that mattress you are eating it. I mean it. I will watch you cut it up like Texas sheet cake and--”

When the feelings burst he grabs Niner and hugs her - there’s a little over a foot of height difference between them, so even with him ducking down her face ends up crushed against his shoulder. “You are the best boss I’ve ever had,” York gasps, and hopes she gets how much he means it.

“Anything for my second favorite employee,” she mumbles - he half hears her, half assumes her words. It takes effort not to spin her around in delighted circles.

Once back on the ground, Niner recollects her poise. “Oh, and don’t try to pass out candy. Any kid that trick-or-treats at a mechanic’s does not deserve a Snickers bars.”

“Don’t worry, all these popcorn balls were for me anyway.”

She rolls her eyes and leaves him beside the truck, flipping off the lights at the front of the shop. York mimics her and bounces the truck bed up and down, more from boredom than actual scientific testing. The idea - sex with Carolina in the back of a truck - is of course interesting , but he doesn’t entertain it long. He has work to do first.

So York picks at Delta in the back of Invention for a couple hours or so - easing the hood open, cleaning out more of the perpetually falling glass, inspecting his car with tender familiarity as the setting sun glows amber at the front of the shop. \\ an auto-topsy \\ is what he calls it when he texts North and South in turn, and gets a // very funny // and a // delete my number // in reply. The radio is a gentle hum in the background, and just around eight there’s a distinct rap at the windows in the waiting room.

Digging in his heels, York drags his creeper forward enough to see someone standing there, looking at him. Burglary crosses his mind, but he’s already up and crossing the workshop and cupping his hands around his mouth.

“We’re closed, sorry.”

The man on the other side mimics his motions. “I know that, dumbass. Open up anyway, it’s Church.”

“Who?”

“Carolina’s little brother, the fucking cops, I brought pumpkin spice vodka, just let me in.”

Not bothering to hide the skeptical look on his face, York is followed through the glass all the way to the door he unlocks to let Church in. They’ve run into each other once or twice before - at his bubba’s house, when his neighbor tried to get him arrested - but never spoken at length. And now, Carolina’s brother is here .

At least he’s shorter than York. Small blessings.

“Pumpkin spice vodka?” he asks, focusing on the most important part of that introduction.

“Tis the season or whatever, okay?” Church says, jabbing him in the chest with the bottle. “You got a TV in here or something?”

“Yeah, there’s one in the break--” York steps to the side as Church pushes past him, still not sure if he should have let him in. “... Room. Make yourself at home, no it’s fine, you weren’t interrupting anything, I’m more than happy to have you.”

“Your sarcasm won’t work on me. It’s the first language of the Church family, followed closely by weaponized self-hatred.”

He rounds the doorway to see Church settling down, having plucked a popcorn ball out of the basket on top of the microwave. He’s watching  the TV suspended in the corner that's turned into one of the local channels, and York tries to find Carolina’s features in Church’s face. Smaller nose, but the same green eyes and hard set to a soft mouth. Maybe a few freckles, too, but he doesn’t want to make it weird.

Well, more weird than it already is.

“Turn off the light and sit down, already.” Church commands, eyes still on the TV.

York takes his time with making a cup of coffee. If he could whistle, he’d do it; instead he just hums a slow song over the chipper jingle of the commercials. Bites into a popcorn ball as loud as possible as Church seethes.

“Okay, fine,” and Church breaks before York can even pour his coffee, “I’m here because I’m avoiding Carolina and this is the last place she’d look for me.”

“So if I sell you out, I’ll get massive brownie points with her?” He dumps creamer and sugar into his cup, making sure to leave room for a shot of vodka. “Coffee?”

“Got any sweet and low?”

“Let me check.” York finds the box of sugar packets and digs a few out, passing them off to Church followed by his coffee. He watches Church dump at least three shots worth of alcohol into his mug and six packets of sugar substitute, and wonders if it’s his place to say something about impaired driving.

York drops off the basket of popcorn balls and his mug on the way to shut off the lights. When he turns back, Church is staring at him.

“Huh,” he grunts.

“What?” York asks, stepping over Church’s feet so he’s not sitting on his right side. “Scoot over, man.”

“You are way nicer than I thought you’d be.”

York pours a splash of vodka into his coffee, then a little bit more. “Why? Does Carolina say I’m not?”

“No, no, she’s not the kind to talk about that stuff. It’s, uh-- hey,” he snaps his fingers and points at the TV. “There. It’s starting. The pumpkin show.”

York gives him a sideways look but takes the bait and only opens his mouth to crunch down as quietly as possible on popcorn balls. It’s cute, a Charlie Brown cartoon that’s older than he is, but when Church talks again midway through a scene York doesn’t mind the interruption.

“So, I’m an asshole, right?” Church starts.

York pauses in the middle of trying to flick a popcorn hull from between his teeth. “Is that a rhetorical question, or just a loaded one?”

Undisturbed, Church soldiers on. “My girlfriend’s kind of a bitch. I love her, and I love it about her, honestly, but she’s a hardass. Carolina’s a bit of a bitch and a hardass, but you’re… nice.” The way Church says it is with a measure of disgust, or at least horror.

York takes another sip, stalling for time. “Thanks? I try to be nice? I mean, I can be a bit of a dick, too, don’t get me wrong, but--”

“Yeah, but this? I yelled at you through a glass door and you made me coffee. If I pulled that shit on Tucker he woulda laughed at my face. Caboose would have just shouted back for ten minutes.”

“I don’t know, I’m an optimist,” he says, feeling a little uneasy. It’s skirting too close to the age-old argument of ‘stop trusting people so fast.’ “Is this the part where you threaten me or something?”

“Christ, no, Carolina could snap your arm off if she needed to. It’s not my business who she hangs out with, and it’s not our dad’s either. I was just curious and kinda wanted a drinking buddy.”

“She could,” York echoes, almost wistful. He knows she won’t, even if that’s just his trusting nature, but the fact that she could does kind of get him going. He takes another sip of his coffee, a little fast this time, and once more finds Church staring at him. “What?” he asks.

“Never mind,” and Church’s face looks a little pinched, like he’s laughing at a joke he feels like he shouldn’t find funny, “I get it now.”

“Get what?”

Church turns back to the TV and nails his eyes there. “Show’s back on.”

Getting the hint, York resumes nibbling on candy-coated popcorn and watching the show. The animation and audio show their age, but it’s charming. Nostalgic, maybe, if he can say that about something he didn’t grow up alongside. So he’s getting into it, sympathetic for the plight of Linus even as Lucy cracks him up, and that’s when his phone rings.

It’s Carolina. York takes a sip of coffee to clear his mouth out, stands, stumbles a little when the alcohol kicks in, and is at the edge of the couch when he accepts the call.

“Hey, Carolina,” he says, more for the look of panic of Church’s face than anything else.

“Hey, ” and her voice is unsure, unsteady, “you’re at Invention, right?”

York fumbles with the doorknob to the break room with his free hand. “Yeah? Is everything alright?”

“I’m fine. Um. Could you… come outside really fast?”

“Uhhhh.” Church is stage-whispering furious questions, overlapping with the latest commercial for burgers, and York is having trouble thinking. “Sure. Be right there.”

The moment he hangs up, Church’s voice breaks with panic. “Are you gonna sell me out?”

“I don’t know. But I’m not gonna leave her standing out there.” York grabs a coat and makes his way back to the front door. Sure enough, there’s a cop car parked there, with someone leaning against the hood, watching the road. He can’t fight the little flicker of a smile or the surge in his heartbeat, but at least he’s composed himself somewhat by the time he slips through the door, careful to have his keys on him.

It wouldn’t do to lock himself out in front of her.

“Hi,” he says, shoving his hands into his coat pockets. It’s the first time he’s seen her since she dropped him off at Invention yesterday, both of them exhausted but full of Caboose’s casserole. They’d both been busy since. He shouldn’t have had missed her, but here he is, biting his lip around a grin.

There’s a grocery bag in her hands that rustles as she holds it out to him. “Sorry I’m working tonight, and can’t. Pass out candy with you or whatever you wanted to do together. I got you these.”

“Oh.” He’d kind of forgotten he’d asked her about her Halloween plans - so much happened in the last few days alone, it feels like months ago they talked about it. “Thank you.”

Her shoe nudges his, just barely, since Carolina refuses to get off her car but is leaning towards him anyway. “Open it, before you thank me.”

York unties the knotted handles and peers inside at a silver and blue bag of peppermint patties. “You’re kidding me.”

“I didn’t know if you had, like-- a peanut allergy or anything like that, and it was probably a stretch to assume you also like candy corn, so--”

“For the record,” he says, even as he’s pulling the bag out to make sure - yes, it really does have his name on it - “I’ve only had candy corn once, so I don’t know if I like it or not, but this is awesome and I love you.”

It takes a second for his ears to catch up with his brain. Another second for him to look up and see Carolina staring at him, her eyes owlishly wide. A third before his expression matches hers, all the blood in his body rushing to his cheeks.

“Shhhhit.” Not that he wants to take it back, he loves her, on a lot of different levels and in a lot of different ways, like he loves so many people in and out of his life, but she’s gone dead silent and he did not think he’d put that much vodka in his coffee. “I didn’t-- I mean--”

A car whips by them, well over the speed limit, but Carolina doesn’t so much as flinch. Her attention seems fixed on him, and he’s not sure if he’s been so intimidated since she held him at gunpoint.

It’s the truth, though. And she deserves to hear it, if nothing else than so that she knows what he’s been thinking since the car accident. Since the time she showed up at his bubbe’s house with food and a tentative smile.

“Do you want to go out with me?” he asks, finding his eloquence and charm at last and dusting it off. “It’s okay if you don’t, this is enough--” it’s so much already, it’s hard to ask her for more, even if it might make him ache when he sends her a goodnight text and falls asleep alone-- “but if you wanted, I’d want you, too.”

His night vision hasn’t been good for years so all he can see is Carolina’s silhouette against the golden streetlights above the interstate, the muddy bronze sky with a handful of stars glittering above the glow from downtown. Despite the chill of the October night, the bag crumples in York’s sweating hands.

“Too sudden, uh. If you want to take a couple days and think about it, that’s fine. It’s not like I’m going anywhere,” he says, his laugh hollow to his own ears. Maybe he can blame this impulse on the whole near-death experience thing. Like what the kiss must have been.

At last she moves, shadow shifting again to lean against the hood of the car. “Okay.”

The word hangs between them, suspended by the silence. “Okay, you’ll think about it?” York asks after a careful beat.

“Okay, let’s date. I’m,” and she kicks at the rough asphalt that acts as a sidewalk, digging out a stone and making it skip into the road. “I’m willing to try that. With you.”

Another car passes by, and in the heartbeat-long glow of the headlights he can see her; hands in her pockets, her eyes fixed on the broken road. As he watches she looks up and a smile starts to spread, twisting up the corners of her mouth. It’s dark before he can see the rest of it, but York feels the warmth of it spreading through his body.

He wonders if he looked the same way to her. Cautious but determined to try, because some things are worth being vulnerable for.

“Really?” It comes out shrill and he expects her to tease him, maybe to pretend to take it back, and he wouldn’t be that hurt. As his eyes adjust he can see she’s still smiling - a whole body one, too, in the way that her stiff posture softens at the shoulders.

“Yes, really.”

York wouldn’t be able to hide his delight if he tried; and he doesn’t. “Awesome. Do you wanna… kiss or something?”

“I’m on shift,” Carolina explains.

“Oh.”

But she’s getting up off the hood of the car, cupping his face with her cool hands, anyway. “I’ll make it quick,” she murmurs as he’s already leaning down, and it’s so much better than the first one, when he was so deep in shock and exhaustion he could barely kiss her back. It’s soft and light, sweet on his lips when she pulls back.

“You can be a little more,” how did his hands end up on her hips? When did he drop the candy? “…More.”

Another car passes by, slower than the others - Carolina flicks a glance their way, worry puckering her brow, as her hands slide to his shoulders. He hesitates, dread prickling the back of his neck. Too much, too soon?

“I mean, you don’t have to--”

Headlights vanish around the bend; as the light slips off the edge of her face he sees Carolina’s eyes snap back to him, dark and jungle green. Two shorts steps, a sharp inhale as he stumbles backwards, the subtle tension as she grips his shirt. Then Carolina shoves York against the brick wall of Invention and shit yes, that is just as good as he thought it would be. Worth the noise that escapes from his throat when she kisses him, hard and certain and just a little rough. His hands slide up her sides, catching on her uniform, and he can feel her heartbeat against his palm as his fingers brush the soft hairs at her nape.

He’s breathing hard when she pulls away, her hands on his shoulders keeping him from chasing her mouth and keeping him upright. York feels a little lightheaded, light-bodied, like he could float away delirious into the night. There’s not much blood in his brain to come up with anything too eloquent, too busy rushing around warm with alcohol and all the little -tonins and -orphins South claims are the chemicals of love.

In the darkness, she bites her lip and he bites his tongue.

In the shop, something that sounds like someone running into a stack of tires shatters the moment. York lets the back of his head hit the brick as Carolina jumps away, all business in an instant.

“What was that?”

“A ghost,” York offers, too dazed to bullshit properly. “It is all hollows eve.”

“Hallows. All Hallow’s Eve. As in hallowed saints.” Carolina throws the door to Invention open, and York follows her. “Who’s there?” she adds, in a voice loud and sharp like a whip crack, and he shouldn’t find that attractive either.

There’s another slap of body impacting vulcanized rubber. York flips on the overhead lights with a hint of an executioner’s glee, letting drop the metaphorical blade of the guillotine, and Church makes an indignant noise as he is doused in fluorescent light.

“You narc,” he accuses York, as Carolina plants her hands on her hips and glares at him. “I trusted you!”

A few half-formed comebacks bubble at the back of his mind, but all York can manage is an apologetic smile as he leans against the front door as Carolina and Church get into a fight about skipping work.

“--said you had the stomach flu!”

“Yeah, well, at least I’m not the one getting paid while I flirt with a civilian!”

Taking his cue to leave, he slips out to collects the bag of peppermint patties he’d dropped and takes deep breaths of the crisp air. And he totally, absolutely doesn’t shove his face into the bag and smile until his cheeks hurt, because that would crush the candy and be a suffocation hazard. But it does take him a couple minutes to come back inside.

By that time, Church has managed to fix the tire he knocked over in his failed escape, and Carolina is turning away from him, her hands still on her hips. Her eyes meet York’s, and her mouth twists up in a grin.

“Call me if you want to press charges,” she tells York as she heads for the door, and then with a little more tenderness, “or something.”

“Mmmm,” York hums in reply, and watches her drive off into the night. Behind him he hears Church gripe.

“Disgusting.”

Later, when recounting the night to anyone who will listen, York will leave out the part where he said “your face is disgusting” and stayed up long after Church left, falling asleep on the couch with the TV still playing. He won’t detail how Niner (and the stiffness in his neck) wouldn’t let him forget it for the rest of his shift, and his relief came when Wash picked him up and took him back to their place. And he doesn’t even tell them that Carolina had texted him “good morning” with a kiss at the end, one he looks at no fewer than seven times on shift.

He’s pretty sure they all figure that out anyway.

 

Chapter Text

Carolina checks that the parking pass York gave her is visible on the dashboard before she locks the car. Not that she expects that anyone would tow a cop car, not when she’s friends (or friends by proxy) with every automotive-related person in Fort Longshore, but she likes being prepared. Which is also why she carries a small box with her up the stairs to York and Washington’s apartment.

It’s raining at a dramatic angle, soaking into the concrete stairs and the shoulders of her hoodie. The November wind bites at her the whole ascent, flinging tiny sleet-like droplets at her face and stinging the hand she uses to knock.  The door opens a split-second later, and the air inside York’s apartment is as warm and welcoming as his smile.

“Come in, come in,” York says, the healing gash on his forehead a raw, red line. When he turns his back she can see that his hair’s still shower damp and curling, little ringlets at his nape. “It’s miserable out there and I don’t want Wash’s cat getting out.”

Oh, right. She’d forgotten about the third roommate, whom York had crowed over almost getting to pet once without Washington holding him still. A silvery feline shape glides out from behind the couch to slink down the hall, and Carolina rests her box on the furniture.

The place is charming in a haphazard kind of way. Unlit Christmas lights are draped over the bare curtain rod, the mini blinds raised to let in the slivers of grey sky that fight their way through the trees. There’s a quilt thrown over the back of the couch, another one over the arm, and the TV stand is a sheet of plywood held up by concrete blocks.

“You still wanna do this, right?” York asks; he’s leaning against the nearest wall, watching her. “We don’t have to--”

“I want to. It’ll warm us up on a day like today. Besides, I brought things to spice things up.” And Carolina shakes the box a little, just enough to let the contents clatter.

“Did you just--” he bites his lip, and she could swear he blushes when he turns away. “Damn. Come on. Let’s get started before Wash comes back.”

Carolina toes off her shoes and follows York across the carpet (still lined with tell-tale vacuum tracks) to the tiny kitchen. “He’s with Tucker, right?”

Maybe there was too much disdain in her voice - she likes the pair better than she did before, which means they’re crawling their way back to neutral - since York’s explanation sounds a touch defensive. “Yeah, he’s got Junior for the week so they were gonna take him somewhere cool. Movies, maybe?”

“Ah.” With a sense of horror, she realizes she can’t remember seeing a movie theatre around Longshore. Maybe Texas is right, and she needs to pay better attention to her new surroundings.

Starting with right now, as York darts past her to plug in the Christmas lights. they’re orange and purple, instead of red and green like she’d expected.

“Mood lighting?”

“It’s still the first week of November. I’m allowed to leave Halloween decorations up.” His words and tone say fight me but the grin he throws her way says kiss me , so she chews on the inside of her lips, does neither, and follows him into the kitchen.

York pokes his head into the fridge. “We’ve got, uh, hard root beer, hard cider, hard lemonade--” He swills a half-gallon jug of milk around, inspecting it. “We might have milk, if you’re feeling adventurous. We also-- oh. Do you like venison?”

“It’s been a few years since I had any.” A meal at some distant relative on her mother’s side, years ago. She barely remembers the taste.

“Do you want some? The sheriff said he processed the deer I hit and gave me a bunch of ground meat.” He steps back, revealing several white-paper-wrapped bundles. “I don’t really trust myself cooking it.”

Pride says she should try to cook it. Common sense makes her nauseous at the thought of eating an animal that had been hit by a car. “Pretty sure this counts as roadkill.”

“Does it?” York asks, tilting his head and staring at it. “I guess. Maybe later, then.”

He grabs a beer for himself - she declines having any for herself - and they face each other in the crowded kitchen, for once at a loss for words. An indecisive silence, and Carolina stares at the speckled tile floor at York’s socks. Her boyfriend’s socks, and the way he keeps shifting his weight on them as he leans against the counter.

“Come on,” she says, and nudges him in the shin with her own foot. “Let’s do this.”

“Yeah,” York agrees on a gust of air, part self deprecating laugh and part sigh. He plays with the beer bottle cap, eyes still somewhere on the floor. “Yeah, okay,” he repeats, sets the beer down and fetches a small box from on top of the fridge.

Carolina accepts it, her palms catching on the wood finish that had gone tacky with age, and carefully pushes the lid up. Inside is a forest of old file cards, punctuated by little green plastic tabs with labels scribbles on them in marker. Cakes, cookies, entrees, casseroles; “did you have one in mind?” she asks, poised to pluck out something from the pies section.

“Yeah,” and York flips through the tabs. “Matzo ball soup. I figured it’s soup weather, and I got a whole chicken, but I need some, uh, help with the rest of the instructions.”

With a flick, he presents her with a warped, stained index card covered in scrawling pen. Carolina sets down the recipe box and stares, and stares, and stares some more.

“... I don’t think this is in English,” she says at last, trying to wrangle the loops and lines into something that made sense. “Is that possible?”

“Bubbe was a second generation immigrant, so it’s-- my grandma was, I mean.” It doesn’t take a cop to tell that he’s disappointed and trying to hide it. “We could try something--”

“No.”

Carolina pulls the recipe closer to her, narrowing her eyes as she glares at it. This is important, damn it, and this is something she can do. It’s not much in the grand scheme of things but she will make this soup and spit in the face of whatever ambiguous power might be stacking the odds against her.

“Get your phone. We’ll just cross-reference other recipes until we figure something out.” A method she’s used before, when she’s been missing a few key ingredients. “Soups are forgiving. I’m gonna start the chicken stock, though. Pans?”

York’s already pulled out his phone. “Under the sink. Okay, let’s see, this one needs chicken, water, fresh parsley--”

Carolina wipes out the inside of the largest pot she can find. “I brought dried parsley, it’ll have to do.”

“Matzo meal, which I have, and. Ohhhh,” he cuts himself off, groan drowned out by the sound of water pouring into the pan. “That’s not gonna be fun.”

“What?”

“Estimated prep time is six hours.”

The chicken slips out of her hands and belly flops (or back flops, to be anatomically accurate) into the pan, a line of water splashing across the front of Carolina’s shirt.

“Let me see,” she demands.

York offers up the phone screen and she skims the recipe with narrowed eyes. “I think I can take an hour or two off that cook time with bouillon. But,” she says, “it’s bouillon. Might not taste as good.”

“Hey, I’m down with going the long way. Learning exercise, right?” He hands her his phone and steps back to take a swig of his drink. “But I’m also down with ordering Chinese in like half an hour because yikes .”

Carolina makes sure her hands are dry before she picks up York’s grandmother’s recipe again, squinting at the tangled script and trying to match terms from the one on York’s phone. “How well do you remember this soup?”

“Uh, pretty well. I know some of the veggies that go in it, and how to shape the matzo, but I’m lost on cooking times and spices.”

“It’s been years since I had this last, so-- with our powers combined,” she mutters back with dogged optimism, then adds, louder, “we’ll need to add some vegetables to the broth. Grab me a couple carrots, a stalk of celery, and an onion.”

York fetches the first two from the fridge and attempts to hand them off to her but Carolina steps back. “Nope. You said you wanted to learn. Rinse those off, then snap them in half and throw them in the pot.”

He stares at her; she stares back, raising one eyebrow, and he swallows. “Yes, ma’am,” and bites his lower lip around a smile as he turns away. Carolina slips behind him to steal a taste of his cider, switching back when he twists to keep her in his line of sight.

Forty minutes later, the whole apartment is starting to smell of chicken soup and Carolina is leaning against the arm of the couch, watching York ferry drinks, napkins and take-out boxes to the little coffee table.

“Sorry for the lack of real person furniture, we don’t entertain and Delta’s a little too small to move much furniture--” York hesitates with a paper folded box in each hand, hovering over the table. “--from the house to here.”

“It’s fine.” Carolina takes the space York offers, tucking one leg up off the floor as she reaches for her fried tofu and a pair of chopsticks. “My place came pre-furnished. Little more than I like paying for rent, but it was all I could get at the time.”

“When’s the lease expire? May?” he asks, turning to lean one shoulder against the back of the couch.

“Yep.” Back pressed against the arm of the couch she mirrors him, eyes once again drawn to the scars on his face; the new one angry and shallow near his hairline, the old ones down his left cheek furrowed like riverbeds in red clay. Two car accidents since she’s known him. What the fuck.

“In the interest of some deep and insightful dinner conversation” York starts, spinning some udon noodles around his utensils, “have I unlocked your backstory yet?”

“Have you what?”

“It’s a video game joke. Anyway.” He gives an encouraging gesture with his chopsticks.

Carolina takes her time chewing, buying for time as she contemplates opening up some old wounds. “It’s not a secret,” she says at last.

“I’ve heard pieces. I’d like the whole thing. I’ll start, if you want.” When she nods, York takes a drink of cider, clears his throat dramatically, and begins.

“So my mom was always a bit of a rebel, fought with my grandparents a ton and moved out when she was 18. Off doing whatever for several years until she came back, pregnant with me and wanted my grandma’s help. Stuck around for about a year, doing a couple part time jobs, then she left and my grandma raised me.”

He says it with a shrug and a twist of his mouth, playing it off. “She was great; little strict at times, and my grandpa died before I ever met him, but between her and the Dakota twins I think I turned out alright. Had a nice IT job at Charon before I had to move here; I was thinking about trying to get it back, but now…” York trails off, absently nudging his noodles around in the box, eyes locked on her.

“I can’t vouch for the whole company,” Carolina reminds him, turning back to her food, “but the CEO’s son is a piece of shit. Stalked and murdered a woman, but because I didn’t technically have a warrant when I searched his car, we can’t use the blood we found in there as evidence. And that’s pretty much all we had.”

“Oh. Shit, that’s--”

“Before that,” she says into her box of take-out, digging for the juiciest bit of tofu she can see, “Mom was Catholic and military, Dad was a Jewish cop. We were raised Catholic, though, boarding schools and all.”

“Oh?” He sounds pleased; she’s not sure if his smile is from their shared heritage, or if he’s picturing her in knee socks and a pleated skirt. Doesn’t matter; his amusement won’t last long.

“Mom went missing when I was in elementary school. We… never found out what happened. No body. No trace. It fucked my dad up, so in turn it fucked me and Church up. Mostly Church, though,” she admits. What else was an older sister supposed to do but to try to shield her baby brother from the worst of it, even if that meant screaming at him when she found out he’d done something stupid? “And then I did some fucking up in turn. I don’t talk about it a lot, since it’s kind of a buzzkill.”

Looking up, she sees that the smile makes a valiant attempt to revive itself on York’s face.  “Most of the time,” he says, voice soft “my ‘half-Jewish bastard ditched by both parents’ wins the tragic backstory lottery, but the trophy tonight goes to you. If I had one, of course.”

“I’ll take a rain check for--” something silver striped jumps into her lap, and Carolina raises her arms to make room. “Oh. Huh.”

Washington’s cat turns around a couple times in her lap, his claws pricking her skin through her jeans, and then he curls up in the hollow between her knees. Mere inches away, York chokes on his noodles.

“What the fuck,” he coughs after a moment. “He’s never even met you.”

Carolina shifts her legs a little, just enough so the limp cat can settle between them. “Maybe you’re too desperate,” she says, leaving the chopsticks in the tofu carton to free up one hand for a couple gentle, careful pets.

“I--” York starts, and then winces. “Yeah, you got me there.”

“Guess my pussy game is better than yours,” and she reaches over the cat to grab her glass off the coffee table. When she looks back, York appears to be smothering himself with a pillow. “What?”

A high pitched wheezing sound answers her, which is when she realizes he’s laughing harder than she’s ever seen him laugh. Which makes her crack a grin, too, trying to nudge him without disturbing the cat.

“God, it’s not that funny.”

York flops backwards, whole body shaking, smashing the pillow against his face. His muffled cackles are contagious, and she finds herself laughing - more at his reaction than her own joke. The bottom hem of his sweatshirt rides up, a hint of a bruise visible above his waistband. When he sits up, his wince can’t dampen his delighted smile.

“See, now I’m kind of tempted to ask if you actually have a pussy game, but I feel like I’ve coaxed enough personal shit out of you for one day.”

“If you insist.” Carolina rubs the cat behind his ears, and wonders how York would react to hearing how she’d almost lost her virginity to Niner.

 


 

A few hours later finds them back to back in the kitchen again, with Carolina chopping vegetables while York rolls the little balls of matzo dough. They’ve not quite mastered working around each other, with lots of little run-ins as they reach around the other, but it’s nice. Carolina suspects the last two times have been purposeful on York’s end, a gentle hip-check when she’d grabbed an extra bowl for the carrots and a lean against her back as he reached for the beer he keeps ‘accidentally’ leaving on her side of the kitchen.

She spins around the next time York reaches for something over her shoulder, their faces inches apart. “Hi.”

“Hey,” York answers, mismatched eyes dropping to her mouth before he looks up again. “Just getting a drink.”

“That’s all?”

“Scout’s honor, officer,” but he’s grinning now, teeth digging into his lower lip to stop it spreading. “But, seeing as I am right here…”

York leans in, close enough their legs slot together and her eyes are tempted to close, and lowers his voice. “Can I kiss you?”

“I guess,” Carolina says, and meets him halfway with a smile. It’s not long, but the kiss warms her all the way to her core. York swallows.

“God, I hope that never gets old. I did need--” and his attention slides behind her. Carolina crosses her arms, knowing full well she’s blocking his way, and decides to mess with him.

“Don’t let me stop you.”

York gives her a wry look, seems to steel himself, and reaches behind her. The weight of his chest against hers is warm, but Carolina blows a puff of air against the side of his neck and watches goosebumps break out on his skin. When York retrieves his beer he takes a drink too fast, a little bit dribbling down his chin.

He rubs the side of his neck with the heel of his free hand, fingers sticky with little bits of dough. “You’re making it hard to focus, you know that?”

“If you think that’s hard, I’m gonna get you into Cutthroat Kitchen.” There’s a fourth of the bottle left. Carolina holds out her hand for it, downs the rest in a few gulps and refuses to show she hates the taste. “Come on, keep working.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he says, the words saturated with his smile even as he turns back to his task.

They’ve barely fallen back into a rhythm at their respective work stations before there’s a knock at the door.

She puts down her knife. “I’ll get it.”

“Thanks,” York says, flexing his dough-sticky fingers, and Carolina opens the door on Washington and Tucker.

“Oh, shit, it’s my boss,” Tucker yelps, pulling away from the almost-kiss and yanking his hand out of the back pocket of Washington’s jeans. Were it not for the five year old boy at his feet, arms wrapped around a bright colored plush half his size, Carolina would have slammed the door shut for dramatic effect.

“Hello, Tucker.” She slides her cool gaze over to York’s roommate. “Washington, right?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Satisfied, she steps to the side and admits them.“Tucker and Washington are back.”

“Hey, Wash.” York pokes his head around the corner. “And the Tuckers,” he adds. “Soup should be ready in… half an hour I think? You’re welcome to join us.”

“You’re still cooking?” his roommate asks, taking off his shoes.

“Takes a long time to cook the broth right,” York defends, vanishing around the corner. Carolina follows him but still manages to catch Tucker’s comment.

“Yeah, soup takes a long time if you’re doing it right.”

If York heard it over the gentle bubbling of the broth, he doesn’t say anything. Carolina finishes her last carrot and waits for York to step aside to add it to the soup. She crosses her arms and leans against the counter, at a loss to what to do now with an audience - including a child - and nothing to do with her hands.

From behind her, York heaves a sigh of solidarity. “Thirty minutes until the soup’s done. I can start on the dishes, if you want to go out and socialize.”

Carolina throws him a look over her shoulder that turns dark when she realizes he’s teasing her. “No, thank you.”

“Still not a fan of Tucker?”

“He’s all right.” The fact that she can’t tell if he’s improved or if she’s just adapting to the eccentricity of the Fort Longshore Police Station sticks like candy in her molars, and she runs her tongue over her teeth. She can still taste York’s beer. Gross. “Better now that he’s with your roommate.”

“Yeah? I think so too. With Wash, I mean.” The warm look he wears switches to devilish when they hear a call from the living room.

“Who said my name?”

“I’m talking shit about you with my cop girlfriend,” York calls back, stepping past Carolina to lean in the doorway. “Oh. Sorry, right, Junior’s here. How was the movie?”

“Dude, you can totally swear around him. He knows what’s up.”

There’s another response, softer and higher, that York asks to hear a second time before replying, “oh sure, let me grab it real fast,” and vanishing. Carolina starts up a load of dishes, breaking her self imposed rule that York clean up his own messes in favor of something to do while she watches the soup.

When York returns he falls into place beside her, drying dishes and tucking them in various cabinets - twice, something falls out and only once can it catch it - and they listen to snatches of conversation in the living room.

“Thanks again for your help,” he says, as he returns to her side after putting a bowl away. “I’m sure it’s gonna turn out great.”

Carolina finds herself unable to resist. “How so?” she asks, expecting some sappy exaggeration of her cooking talents.

“Because we’re sharing it with loved ones.” York isn’t looking at her, taking great care to dry a spatula. “So it’s just how she would have made it.”

For the second time in the space of twenty minutes, Carolina finds herself at a loss of what to do. The idea of losing a parent or guardian in such a way that left behind nostalgia instead of regret - or relief - is beyond her. Comforting someone has never been her strong suit; she’s not a pillow but a shield, a weapon. And she can’t protect York from memories.

A careful step to the side brings her arm in contact with his; she waits and, in time, he presses back and lets out a deep, uneven breath. Hands still submerged in dishwater, Carolina waits to move until he pulls away.

“Thanks,” he says, shooting her a warm look as he opens the cabinets, back to his buoyant self. “Now, come on. We can’t hide in here forever.”

“I’m not hiding,” Carolina huffs, burying her satisfaction under a layer of playful obstinate. “I’m working.”

York sets down four large bowls and one little, mismatched plastic one. “You’re always working.”

“Justice never sleeps,” she says, deepening her voice, and he snorts with laughter.  Carolina dries her hands on the towel and (because she might be hiding from Tucker) hauls York in by the collar of his shirt, stopping just shy of a kiss.

His breath fans across her mouth, eyes wide and dark.

It’s a good kiss, when she drags him down for it; rougher than the last one since it’s fueled by spite and affection both, and York is a fast learner. He braces his hands on the counter behind her while she wraps her arms around his neck, and Carolina finds herself smiling into the kiss.

She missed this. Affection, intimacy, the flutter of someone else’s pulse under her palms. It’s been a long time since she’s had a partner that existed outside of work. Since she had someone other than Eta and Iota to come home to.

“Oh my god,” calls Tucker from the other room, “get your hands out of each other's pants and come help us pick a movie.”

York’s hand slips, splashing the back of her shirt and bending her backwards. He jerks back, face going red. Unfortunately, proving a point is more important than kissing so she sidesteps York and stands, hands on hips, in the kitchen doorway.

“You,” and the finger she points at Tucker she aims like a gun, “do not get to bitch about PDA with me. Ever.”

Washington is sitting with his hands covering his face, but Tucker just laughs. “Knew that’d get you out here. But seriously, which do you wanna watch, The Fifth Element, Snatch or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off?”

She frowns, considers, then sneaks a look at Tucker’s son. Junior is engaged in some kind of handheld game. She’ll assume he won’t be paying much attention. “Snatch, I guess.”

“And York picks Fifth Element, so by popular vote Snatch wins. Hah,” and the other cop shoves his boyfriend in the shoulder.  “I win.”

Standing where she left him, York looks up from the sink and gives her a sheepish grin. “It’s one of my favorites. I like cheesy stuff. And.” His eyes flick up and down her body. “Also, might have a thing for redheads.”

“Would it shatter your world if I said I dyed it?” she asks, in a low voice.

“Not really.” But the “do you?” he tacks on sounds pretty invested; and after grabbing a glass of water she leaves both York and the soup to simmer in the kitchen.

Chapter Text

Whatever he was dreaming of is gone by the time York processes the sound of his phone. He works his arm out from underneath a solid four inches of blankets, truck bed creaking as he rolls over and answers with a sleep-hoarse “hello?”

“York? It’s Carolina.”

He sits up at that, shivering in the sudden cold of the Invention warehouse. “Everything okay?”

“I’m fine. Where are you?”

“I’m at Invention. I slept here.” He shakes his head, brain still trying to function after being jolted from sleep. “Why? And what time is it?”

“Little after 5am, and I just got a call from the station. There’s a reported break-in at your grandmother’s house.”

York rubs the bridge of his nose and tries to understand why that’s such a bad thing to be hearing. “Um.”

“So it’s an actual robber this time,” she says, too patient and understanding for five in the morning, and York swears into his palm.

“I can be there in like…. well, I can call a car and be there in 40 minutes. Maybe an hour.”

“I’m on my way, so just sit tight for a bit. I’ll call you when I know more about what’s going on. If it’s serious, I don’t want you in the way.”

“It’s my house,” he groans, already fumbling in the dark for his pants.

“And with your recent luck you’d get shot.” Some of the amusement leaves her tone, replaced with stark honesty. “Let the professionals handle it. Stay put until I call you.”

He can’t argue with her on that. “All right. See you around.” His breath catches in his throat, tongue already posed to say ‘I love you’ just in case, but she’s already echoing his “ see you ” and hanging up. The unspoken sentiment rushes out of him in a sigh, and York flops back down into the camping mattress.

Going back to sleep is a bad idea. He’s awake now, miserable, and the tension is already starting to inch down his spine with every moment he lays in bed, body and mind at war. Two minutes of indecision later and York scowls, dragging his pants underneath the blankets to shimmy them on.

He’s dressed for the day by the time his feet hit the cold concrete floor, burrowing into loosely-tied shoes as he heads to the break room. Heated and insulated, it welcomes him with the promise of coffee and the reminder that he had popcorn balls for dinner last night. York picks up the cluster of wrappers and sets up the coffee maker, all the while stuck on a mental hamster wheel of worry.

Once or twice he checks the call history just to assure himself that it’s real, Carolina is dealing with an active break-in at his bubbe’s house, and on the third time he texts Niner.

// hey can i borrow a clients car in an emergency situation? theoretically //

He sits on the couch, leg bouncing, channel surfing and settling on some poorly animated CG children’s cartoon. It’s inoffensive background noise, just like the whoosh and chuckle of the coffee maker, and when he turns it off mid-episode at the buzz of an incoming call York has no regrets.

“Hello?” he asks, not bothering to check the name of the call.

“What did you do,” slurs Niner on the other end of the line, and even though he knows she’s miles away York shrinks into the couch cushions.

“Nothing, I promise. Yet.” Coffee finished, he eases himself up and starts hunting for sugar with his free hand. “Apparently someone is breaking into my house as we speak, and Carolina’s there but--”

“You are dating the best cop in town, you fuckwit. She doesn’t need back up from you.”

“I know,” he says, then sweetens his tone. “Believe me, I know. But I might need to head out if it’s serious and I’m expecting her to call back soon, so. Is there a car here I can borrow?”

Silence, then another groan. “No.”

“Why not?”

“You were in a car accident a week ago. I’m not letting you borrow a client’s car. But I can be there in like.” A shuffle, where he imagines her checking the time, and he winces. “God. Fucking. Damn you and your awful, life changing crises. Stop having crises, York.”

“I’ll try,” he says.

“Okay. I will come drop off my car for you if you need it. Really, really, need it. But until then, I’m going back to sleep.”

“You’re the best.”

“Someone has to be, and it’s not you right now. Fuck. Five am, York.” She hangs up, and he heaves a resigned groan.

He doesn’t blame her, but now he can’t borrow a car and beg for forgiveness later. York stirs his coffee as he takes it out to the main shop, navigating through the darkness using his phone for light.

There’s a few lamps set up around Delta and he flips them on, one by one. Here, in the contrast of the handful of incandescent floodlights, every bit of crumpled metal and plastic stands in high contrast. York nearly cuts his hand when he tries to pry a piece of damaged bumper out of the way.

He’s not made much progress since they first brought the car in. Work, sure, he’s done lots of that -- a careful, uneasy dissection of ruined parts, a thorough cleaning of the interior to get all the bits of broken glass. He’s had other things on his plate as well, ones that he can deal with easier like brake fluid replacement and tire rotations and Carolina. God, Carolina. York presses his forehead against the side of the car, trying not to worry about the break-in. It’s probably his neighbor again, with her own pessimistic paranoia.

Unconvinced, he angles one of the gooseneck lights and tries to reach down between the frame and the car’s exterior. If he can get the outside off and get a better look, maybe he can see what else is wrong.

“Sorry to get under your skin, D,” he says, the joke ringing hollow in the empty garage, and when he pulls his arm back the jagged edges drag pale lines against his skin. Like a body fighting off infection, Delta seems to be clawing at him everytime he tries to fix him. It’s frustrating, miles out of his comfort zone and so, so important.

Without Delta, and the crutch of knowing a vehicle so well it feels like a part of him, he might never drive again.

His fingers catch on something - York closes his eyes and focuses on feeling around the edges of the object, trying to identify it. No luck. When they send off the Subaru today he’s gonna see about  getting some jacks under Delta so he can take a look at the underbody, see what else he needs to add to the list of repairs. A list that’s growing longer and longer, heavy as the parts themselves.

He’s on his knees, mini flashlight in his teeth, when he gets the phone call. There’s oil or something on his hands, and he wipes it off on a rag before answering. He doesn’t recognise the number. “Hello?”

“Hello York! It is Officer Michael J Caboose and I am here to take you home!”

“Of course you are.” York takes the part of himself that’s pissed that an airheaded cop can be trusted around a car but he can’t and flings it away with the rag. “And who gave you my number?”

“Church did!”

“Which one?”

“My best friend, Leonard Church!” A pause. “Are you hiding more Churches from me? Because that is mean and you should share.”

York heads to the front door where a cop car has stopped half on, half off the road. He’s already locked up and is about to get in when he notices the absolute biggest dog he’s ever seen in his lifetime inside the car. Every muscle in his body locks up and goes very, very still.

The front seat window rolls down, and Caboose waves. “Hello, York!”

“Hello, Caboose,” York says, eyes still trained on the back seat. “Who’s your friend?”

“This is Freckles!” The dog is black, with some golden marking on his face that York supposes could be spots. “He is my partner! Do you like him?”

“Is he staying in the back seat?”

“Yes!”

“Then I like him very much,” he says, and forces himself to get in on the front passenger seat. In his blind spot, he hears the dog’s heavy breathing, the soggy snap of its muzzle as it licks its lips. At least he’s not tired any more.

“Are you ready?”

“Go,” York says through gritted teeth, and leans as far away from the back seat as possible.

 


 

Caboose hasn’t even shifted the car into park by the time York’s shoes hit the ground. He swears the back of his neck is damp from the snuffling breath of Caboose’s dog, and puts as much distance between himself and the car as possible. Another cop car is parked in the driveway, lights flickering across the front of the house. For one anxiety-sick moment, he’s several months back and watching a body bag on a stretcher roll into the back of a silent, flashing ambulance.

Carolina’s silhouette stands stark against the light from his front porch, and he crosses the frosty driveway to meet her. “What’s up?”

“You weren’t told on the--?” she stops taking notes on her clipboard, smile slipping away as she studies him. “You look like hell, are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m--” The dog barks, and the rest of York’s words are swallowed in his flinch. “... Not a fan of dogs. Anyway. What happened?”

“One of your friends broke in through a window,” and she jerks her thumb over her shoulder to the little window above the bathroom, which has been wrenched open and has a few arching cracks in the lower pane. “She says she just yanked it open.”

“She,” York repeats, and turns to see South sulking in Carolina’s backseat. He swings his head back to look at Carolina and raises one eyebrow. “You know her.”

“A little.”

“Why is your neighbor in the backseat of your car?”

Carolina mimics his expression, lifting her chin in defiance. “She speeds a lot, and I wanted to make sure you didn’t want to press charges.”

Trying to put the fear of the law in her. York grimaces. This is not a fight he wants to end up mediating. Lightening his tone, he tries to play it off.

“I’ll admit,” he says, tilting his head to the side as he assesses the damage, “it is a little tempting.”

She starts to say something more and cuts herself off, deflating and turning away. “You should go talk to her. I’ll finish the report.”

He doesn’t know if he can call it a long day when it’s barely seven, but there’s a drag to his step when York heads over to the car. The window’s been rolled down a few inches, and South’s breath puffs out like smoke from a furious dragon.

“If this is some kind of foreplay between you two,” she hisses when York opens the door and scoots her over, “I’m going to strangle you.”

“Kinky.”

The joke falls as flat as his tone. South continues to glare. York changes the subject.

“So, bathroom window?”

She takes the bait with bitter, sibling enthusiasm. “North was all in a knot this morning because it’s going to get real cold this week and he was worried the pipes were gonna freeze, so I told him I’d stop by on the way to work--” South stops to crawl across York’s lap and shout out the window “thanks for making me late for work, bitch!” before steamrolling on. “--and I forgot the keys and knew you didn't have a real security system installed so I tried to pick the smallest, oldest window I could get in through. So you’re welcome for all the shit I did trying to make sure your house didn’t explode.”

He should be finding this whole situation funny. It's bizarre but par for the course for his life - and North was right, he had forgotten about the water pipes - yet York just sighs and lets the back of his head hit the seat.

“Go to work. I’ll handle the cops.”

“Don't have to tell me twice,” she says, and hustles him out. South throws Carolina a dirty look that the latter misses, and heads to her own vehicle.

Hands in his pockets, York hip-checks the car door closed and joins Carolina on the porch.

“I've got some painting tarps and duct tape still around,” he starts. “Think that’ll fix the window?”

“For a while.” Carolina hesitates. “I can do it, if you let me borrow your keys. You can head home and get some more sleep.”

He misses patting her shoulder on the first time, depth perception worse for his exhaustion. “I’m already up. I’ll get it.”

It takes a few minutes, stepping over piles of paint-flecked tarps in the near dark before York can chain together enough thought to assemble his solution. A few minutes more before he steps back into the living room and sees Carolina leaning against the door.

“I’ll finish it this week,” he says, gesturing at the last half-painted wall. “Been a little swamped.”

She leads the way outside, waiting while he re-locks the front door. “Home or work?”

“Uh, work. I should be starting my shift pretty soon, so…”

“I’ll take you home,” Carolina says, and he follows her back to the car.

The drive is quiet, and York tries to block out the tension headache that’s building at the base of his skull. Niner won't mind him taking the later shift, this morning was supposed to be slow, and South will recover. But he's keyed up anyway, thinking six steps ahead and hyper-aware that Carolina's still on the clock.

“Hey, so--” he starts at the same time she does, and he flashes her a grin in apology. “Go ahead.”

“Do you want me to apologize to South?” she asks, eyes fixed on the road ahead.

York nibbles the inside of his lip, considering. “Do you want to apologize?”

“Not really.”

“Then you shouldn’t. She’ll cool down in enough time.” Not like she’ll be in that much trouble being late to work; South is always there a few hours early anyway, burning off extra energy on the equipment.

There’s a beat of silence, one more comfortable than before. It’s hard for him to talk to her, sometimes; he’s her boyfriend now, and he wants to be the best one possible. That means thinking about what he says sometimes, instead of letting his mouth run.

This time, she speaks first.

“Probably isn’t the best time to bring this up, but, I’ve got you here and it’s on my mind.” Her hands shift on the steering wheel, tendons flexing as she seems to brace herself. “There’s some Thanksgiving substitute party that our police station holds every year with the sheriff’s department and-- since you already know most of the cops, I was wondering if you wanted to come.”

Carolina’s sideswept bangs are obscuring part of her face. He studies her, weighing whether or not to brush them aside, tuck them behind her ear. “If it’s a potluck, I’ll need to buy something to bring,” he confesses.

“Don’t worry about that. You’ll be my plus one. I’ll cover for you.”

It’d be romantic to reach out, sure, but too distracting to try while she’s driving. He’s had enough car accidents for the year, thank you. “When is it?”

“Day after tomorrow. Short notice, I know--”

“It’s fine. We’re past the worst rush, I think. I can see about asking for some time off.” So focused on the conversation, York doesn’t realize how close they are to his apartment until Carolina pulls off the road and parks.

She rests her forearms on the steering wheel and sighs, turning to give him a faint smile. “Keep in touch and… Go home tonight, okay? You’ve been staying here a lot.”

York unbuckles his seatbelt and then stops, car door already halfway opened. He turns back and sweeps her hair out of her face, drinking in the softness of her cheek under his fingertips. His mouth goes dry. “Thanks for the ride,” he says, and hops out of the car as fast as he can.

It’s enough to wake him up, at least.

 


 

Unfortunately, the day doesn’t improve from there.

York is called to Niner’s office near the end of his evening shift, through a text message that he pretends to have not seen at first. (He looks at all of them in the lock screen, but he doesn’t reply until he’s on break.) He finishes an oil change, washes up to his elbows in the back, then heads up the stairs to her office.

It’s small, perched on top of the break room, with a large window that looks out on the mechanic floor. The fish tank behind her cluttered desk is bubbling away, occupied by a few rasboras and a bright orange gourami. Niner is hand feeding them when York steps in, and she flicks freeze-dried worms off her fingertips when she turns.

“I got your parts order for car.”

“Oh. Good.” York takes a second look at her somber face. “Not good?”

She waves at the pair of chairs on the opposite side of the desk, and takes a seat on her own side. York follows suit, unease starting to gnaw in the pit of his stomach. He throws a look over his shoulder to the concrete, oil-stained floor below, still peppered with vehicles. Delta is off in the corner, his mangled hood propped open.

“You don’t need parts, York,” Niner says, heaving a sigh as she leans back in her chair. “You need a new car.”

“No,” he says, careful but sure. “I just need to fix Delta.”

“You can’t fix Delta.” Niner taps her fingers against the desk, mouth a grim line. “It’s a lost cause.”

Her words are heavy, thudding into his chest and dragging his spirits down to the floor. “I’m not ready to give up on him yet. He-- this car means a lot to me, and I can do it.”

Her mouth twists in an unimpressed line, and he presses forward.

“Or you can teach me to do it. We both know you’re better at this than me,” and that gets him a little wry raise of her eyebrow, “and I’ll work off the clock to help if you need me to, but I can fix him. I just--”

“No, you can’t. York,” and she smacks a piece of paper - one that he recognizes as the one with the parts list - on the desk and glares at it. “They don’t make a lot of these parts anymore, at least not for this model--”

“Then I can adapt it--” he pleads.

“You’re not listening to me.”

“No, you’re not listening to me!”

He doesn’t realizes he’s standing until he hears the chair behind him hit the floor. The sleep deprivation, the stress, the fear of being crippled again is getting to him, and York tries to pull himself back together before he flies apart.

“I can do this,” he says, staring out the window behind him to where his car sits in the back of the garage, in pieces. “I can fix him. I can make this work if you just--”

“Stop.”

His hands are shaking, throat closed tight with a blizzard of emotions that he is determined to power through. He can do this. Why won’t anyone believe him?

“You are my employee, but you are also my friend.” Niner’s voice is soft, almost gentle. It hurts more to hear her being kind. “And as your friend, I can’t let you sink thousands and thousands of dollars into fixing a car that’s so out of date it could have killed you.”

“Delta wouldn’t kill me,” he says softly, eyes still fixed on the floor below.

“Look at me, York.”

He can’t. He really, really can’t - not when he’s this mad and trying everything he knows how to do to keep it together. Niner doesn’t understand. No one does. Delta is practically a part of him, and he knows him like the back of his hand. And when half of his world is lost in a fog, knowing something - trusting something - is so important.

If he loses this car, he loses his ability to drive.

“Look at me.”

The vision in both his eyes is a little blurry when he turns to face her. She looks small, for once, on the other side of the desk, on her feet as well. In her hand, crumpled into a ball, is the list of Delta’s broken parts.

“It’s possible to fix this car, but it isn’t worth it. It’s gonna take a long time to get the parts you need, it’ll cost you three times what insurance will cover--”

“It's worth it. It’s worth it to me,” York insists, holding her gaze. He finds pity there, but no mercy.

Niner sets her mouth in a hard line. “Do what you want, York,” she says, “but that car is out of my garage at the end of the week. You wanna make it a pet project? Find your own space.”

He’s known her long enough this shouldn’t come as a surprise to him. It doesn’t, and neither does it soften the blow that threatens to cripple him. York drops her gaze and looks over to the fish tank, where there’s still a few worms drifting in the slight current from the filter.

“Mind if I clock out early?” he asks, the good humor in his voice strained to tear at the edges, revealing the raw underneath.

“Sure.”

With a short nod, York heads down the stairs and clocks out in a blur, barely remembering to grab his coat before storming out the back door. There’s a faint dusting of new snow on the ground, lost in the uneven tread of the gravel parking lot, and more flakes drifting down as he walks. York’s breath comes in short puffs, clouds that stream from his nose and out his parted lips as he tries to leave Invention behind him.

He hadn’t remembered this in the forecast. Shows how good he is at noticing the obvious things.

The door to the smoke shop is jingling open before he’s even decided to visit it. He sees all new stock on the edge of his good eye as he heads to the counter, orders a pack of the first thing his gaze can focus on enough to read, and is lighting a cigarette with a new matchbook before he’s two steps out the door.

It grounds him. That first hot pull of smoke in his mouth pulls York back to himself like the comfort of an old quilt, draped across his lap when he’s sick. When he closes his eyes, he can hear the voice of his bubbe murmuring comforting words, in between kisses she would drop on his forehead.

He’s okay. He’ll be fine. He can still fix this. He’ll talk to Niner in the morning after they’ve both had some sleep and they can figure something out. Compromise is something he’s good at. He grew up between the Dakota twins, after all.

His phone buzzes in his pocket, and York chooses to ignore it in favor of puffing another small cloud into the sky. He muffles a cough into the back of his hand and winces. He’s out of practice with this, too, and the third inhale stings. Still, it helps numb his anger and it’s better than nothing.

York goes through two cigarettes before he checks his phone with frigid fingers. It’s from Washington.

// gonna be an hour before i can pick you up sorry //

\\ its ok \\ he replies, already starting to walk. \\ i’ll meet you at valhalla \\

Might as well stack some vices on top of each other while he’s at it.

It’s a long walk to the bar, made harder by the cigarette smoke in his lungs and the snow slicking the sidewalks. He’s determined to soldier on, however, if only for one drink in the company of strangers who won’t care if he smokes in front of them. It’ll hide the scent on his clothes, too.

By the time he reaches the bar and grinds his cigarette butt under his heel, York is cold and damp and sore, bones aching from the strain of walking on concrete half of the day. He’s not looking up, either, when he shoulders the door open and almost walks blind into someone.

“Watch your step,” says the man, who is (once again) taller than York. Substantially so, with a dark brown ponytail and a darker look as he buttons up his coat. He blinks up at the stranger, trying to gauge if that was a word of concern or a threat.

The door swings back and hits York in his bad shoulder. “Sorry,” he mutters, and makes his way to the bar with a grimace

He orders a rum and coke, sliding onto one of the barstools near the corner; and yet, when he’s a couple sips in, someone sits down a couple chairs away in his blind side.

“Change your mind about leaving?” the bartender says to the blur in the corner of York’s eye. Whoever it is doesn’t reply, and the bartender moves on to the next customer.

They’re looking at him. Stares don’t bother him - he’s grown pretty calloused to it, after a couple years of living with facial scars - but this one makes him feel unsettled. Pinned, like an entomologist's specimen, and he shifts on the bench to remind himself he can move.

York ignores them as best as he can; they melt away in time with the ice in the drink he nurses until Washington arrives. He’s got a lot to think about. He doesn’t have room to worry about a stranger.

Chapter Text

 

Kaikaina Grif’s house is a two story affair in a suburb halfway between Fort Longshore and the neighboring town of Blood Gulch, with a dozen windchimes on the porch and a bird bath on the front lawn. York is already hopping out of the car as Carolina checks herself out in the mirror - she’d done her makeup half-asleep and thrown on a flashy scarf to draw attention away from day-old eyeliner. She shouldn’t be nervous, but here she is, triple checking the address despite the deputy sheriff’s car in the driveway and the lewd statues of gnomes in the flowerbeds.

“You look nice,” York assures, ducking in the back seat to gather some of the food. She’d brought a dish for each of them, and she watches him in the mirror.

“Thanks for coming with me,” she says. York looks up and meets her eyes in the reflection.

“Don’t thank me yet,” he replies with a grin, withdrawing with the pie. One last look at her messy braid and she follows him up the walkway, crackpot in hand, and rings the doorbell.

The chaos of voices inside raises to a crescendo as Kaikaina yanks the door open.

“Haaaaaay,” she drawls, arms up as though she’s ready to hug both of them on sight, crockpot and all. “Glad you made it. Agent Carolina--”

“I told you, I’m not an agent, I’ve always been a--”

“--And Brady Leigh Smith,” she finishes. “Thank god, someone who isn’t a cop.”

Carolina shoots a look over her shoulder to York, who is making a face at the use of his full name. He hands off the pie in time to be pulled into a headlock. His “hi” is muffled as he is sandwiched between Kaikaina’s biceps and her breasts.

“You do know that you’re a cop too, right?” she asks. Her host snorts in derision.

“Am not. I’m a cool cop. It’s different. Did you know I got called to this guy’s orgy?” Kaikaina asks her.

On cue, Carolina gives her boyfriend a dry look. He splutters, face red either from circulation issues or embarrassment, she can’t tell.

“It was not an orgy, the Dakotas were just helping me move some furniture--”

“Well it should have been an orgy! Two sweaty, tall blondes like that?” She squeezes a little harder and then releases York, who is grinning even as he rubs at the side of his neck. “ Me-ow!

“South is single, if you wanna try for one of them,” he teases.

“Which one was South?”

“The girl.”

“Nice. Yeah, I’d travel down to her border. Anyway!” Kaikaina suddenly remembers Carolina, who is juggling two dishes and already taken off her shoes. “Follow me to the kitchen! What did you bring?”

“Green beans. Vegetarian.”

“Boring.”

Carolina huffs, shoulders stiffening as she breezes past them into the kitchen. “I also brought pumpkin pie. If you don’t like it, don’t eat it.”

The two deputies from Blood Gulch are already in the kitchen; the fat one is standing by the stove, stirring something that smells sweet and spicy, while his beanpole partner hovers over him. The latter jumps back when she enters the room, putting a solid two feet of distance between himself and the stove.

“Did I hear you brought a vegetable? Thank god,” he says, and dodges the smack his partner aims at him with a spoon.

“Potatoes are vegetables!”

“They’re starches .”

“They’re from the ground.”

“So are lots of things. Like exhumed corpses .”

“That doesn’t discount my vegetable argument, you know.”

“Do you get it, now?” she asks York, sotto voce, when he appears as her side as she plugs in her crock pot and starts mixing seasonings together. “Why I wanted you here?”

“Yeah, but pretty much everyone here has come close to arresting me at least once, so,” and then York raises his voice to greet the deputies. “Hey, Simmons. Haven’t seen you at the gym for a while.”

At the stove, the skinny deputy goes very still. Grif, or so she assumes, shoots him a curious look. Meanwhile, York leans against the fridge and continues.

“It’s been, what, four months? Your nose healed up okay, right?”

“Wait,that’s what happened to your nose? You told me you stopped a robbery and got punched in the face.”

“Idiot,” Simmons hisses from between clenched teeth, “you know I hate conflict!”

Kaikaina enters the room then, waving her hands. “Wait wait wait. Start over. What happened to his nose?”

“Oh, it’s not much,” York says, but Carolina catches the look he shoots her way of pure, unfiltered delight. “Just that he used to come by the gym where North and South work, and one time he tripped on the treadmill. Pretty bloody.”

Simmons’ complexion is almost as red as his hair. Despite of this, or perhaps because of this, York concludes his story.

“I'm glad that North and I were doing pull-ups on the other side of the room so we could help patch him up. But, hey, you should come back sometime. We got the stains out of the carpet and everything.”

Grif elbows his partner in the side, knocking him off balance. “Dude, the fuck were you doing at a gym?”

“I was--” he throws a flustered look at York, who has turned away from their conversation and is peering into Carolina’s crockpot. “--doing some research. On things.”

“Research?”

“Just shut up.”

Grif snorts, and they continue their own private bickering. Which is unfortunate, because then Kaikaina gets bored and turns to the only other woman in the room.

“Lina, let me grab some drinks,” she says, and Carolina’s sidestep saves her from a hug, “and then we can all watch the game while the boys cook.”

“Uh, sure? I can help cook if you--”

“I don’t share my kitchen,” Grif interjects, and in the same breaths adds “Simmons, go grab the butter. Unsalted.”

York makes the decision for her. “Please, by all means, show me to your couch,” and he vanishes into the next room with Kaikaina, who slaps his ass as she leads him along. Carolina gives her side dish one last stir - and checks that it’s plugged in - before following.

The den is made for people fond of television. The couch is one of those extra long ones with a right angle in the middle, cup holders in a few places, and as Kaikaina demonstrates like a game show host, most of the seats can recline. The TV buzzes to life, loud at first, but softening to a low volume as she fiddles with the remote.

“I could fall asleep here and abandon you to all your cop friends,” York declares, cozying up next to Carolina in the corner. Behind Kaikaina’s back, he nuzzles the side of her neck. “I won’t, though.”

“Better not.”

He puts a polite distance between them when Kaikaina turns around, but laces his fingers with hers. “Promise,” he says, and were it not for her own strict laws on PDA (and also Kaikaina watching them) she’d probably kiss him.

“Drinks?” Their hostess asks, with a sly look, and points at Carolina.

“Water, for me. I’ll be driving.”

“In like, five hours. Wine,” Kaikaina corrects, and points her finger at York. “For you?”

“I’m gonna regret this, but surprise me. I mean,” he corrects, “don’t like, slip me any drugs you’ve confiscated but like. Mix me up something. Tucker says you make a mean sheep dip.”

“You sure? We’ve got some weed butter in the freezer, it’d take like forty minutes to make some--”

Carolina clears her throat dramatically, drowning out the rest of that sentence. If she pretends she didn’t hear it, she can pretend it’s just a joke. Kaikaina, somehow, takes the hint and drops the subject, vanishing back to the kitchen.

Meanwhile, York sinks deeper into the upholstery with a sigh, closing his eyes. There are deep shadows under them that suggest his sleeping problem has been going on for longer than just last night.

“Sure you wouldn’t rather have more coffee?”

“I’m awake, I’m awake,” he insists, cracking open his good eye while he stretches. “Look at me, I’m super alert and totally a functioning person right now.”

“No,” she laments, “don’t be that, then you’ll never fit in here.”

“If York’s having trouble fitting,” Kaikaina declares, re-entering the living room, “I have, like, seven different kinds of lube in my bedroom you can have. My sex life’s been kinda slow, so you can--”

“Thank you, no thank you,” Carolina says, elbowing York in the arm as she leans forward to accept the glass of wine. Its cheap and light, she can tell from the first sip, so she takes another, deeper drink. She’s got time to sober up, and maybe if she gets tipsy she can unwind a little around these people.

Maybe she can make them her friends, now that she’s got a couple others under her belt. Which might be a poor turn of phrase to use in regards to York, who is coughing after his drink and accusing Kaikaina of trying to kill him.

She’s glad to have him.

 


 

A solid half hour and two thirds of a glass of wine later, the front door opens and Carolina swivels around in her seat. Church has let himself in and is kicking the door closed behind him, hands full with two cases of beer. “ Ta-dai-ma , motherfuckers,” he declares, and peels off his shoes.

“If you’d moved the schedule around we could have driven you,” Carolina reminds him.

York joins her in peering over the back of the couch and adds a warm “hey, Church” with a pleased, punch-drunk grin. God knows what Kai gave him.

“No way, and don’t you ‘hey, church ’ me, you narc.” Church gives York a filthy look. “You sold me out for my sister.”

“Yeah, well,” chimes in Grif from the kitchen with uncanny timing, “he is what he eats.”

Carolina’s not offended. She thinks the joke is pretty funny, if only for the way that it makes Church go pale and then crimson with anger. She vaults over the back of the couch, yanks a beer bottle from one of the cases and holds it by the neck as she leans in the doorway of the kitchen.

“I didn’t catch that?” she says, as sweetly as possible, and Grif almost spills an entire stock pan of potatoes when he jumps backwards.

“Jesus rollerblading christ, Kai, you weren’t kidding when you said she was black ops or something.”

“I told you!” his sister yells from the living room, and Carolina pities York’s ears, “secret agent here to infiltrate us and report back to Chorus.”

Carolina checks the label of the beer, makes a face, and shoves it at Simmons. “But seriously, Church,” she says turning back to her brother, “it would have been easy to--”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever,” and he steps past her to put the beers in the fridge. His coat brushes her arm as he passes, the fabric cold from the chill outside. It’s not the first time he’s avoided her in the last couple of weeks, and she shrugs it off in favor of returning to the living room.

York is on the couch where she left him, starry eyed, his hands covering his mouth. “So cool,” he says, between his fingers. Pleased, Carolina basks in his praise for a moment longer before pulling his hand down.

It’s hard to tell in the dim lighting, but--

“Did I hit you?”

“You clipped me a little in the chin with your shoe, it’s fine--”

Hot shame washes over her, sobering her instantly. “Shit, are you--”

“It’s fine, it’s not even going to bruise.”

“Let me see it,” she insists. She’s stronger than him, or maybe he’s just not putting up a fight when she pries his hands away, tries to maneuver him into better lighting.

“You know what?” Church declares, and Carolina looks up from straddling York on the couch, hands still cupped on either side of his face where she’d been looking for any broken skin, “I don’t-- I don’t even care anymore. Every last one of you could die in a house fire, and I would not care.”

“Awww, thanks for your seal of approval,” York coos, settling himself underneath her. Flustered, Carolina does the first thing that comes to mind, which is to yank the blanket off the back of the couch and cover his (grinning, kissable) face with it.

She swings her leg off him and strides back to the kitchen, narrowly missing Simmons in the doorway with a pie.  He makes a noise that perhaps was meant to be words.

“Food’s ready,” quips Grif, following him with a massive platter of ribs. Carolina slips behind him to grab her green beans but gets headed off by Kaikaina.

“Grab a seat, hon, and get Brady out here.”

“York,” Carolina corrects, and backtracks to wave him into the dining room.

She ends up between York and Kaikaina at a table near overflowing with food; some traditional for the season, like a pumpkin pie she’d decorated like a jack-o-lantern with cinnamon and a massive amount of mashed potatoes. But there’s also pork ribs, sliced oranges, some kind of coconut pudding, seaweed and ham bundles, a haunted gingerbread-style house made of chocolate and six other varieties of pies including two meat. It’s enough food to feed twenty people, at least double what they’re expecting with a day-long tag-team of eating in between shifts.

At the head of the two pushed-together tables, Grif is already serving Simmons a stack of ribs. “No grace, just feed yourselfs. It’s been a long day.”

“It’s not ten minutes past noon,” snipes Church from across Carolina.

“A long day,” Grif repeats, and gives himself a heaping portion before passing them down to York, who shuttles it along to her without a word. Instead, he takes a helping of green beans.

The food is delicious, like nothing she’d ever think to try. A month ago, she might have been jealous or self-concious about her simple contributions; but instead she accepts a second helping and threated to subpoena the recipe for Grif’s potatoes.

“Ask Simmons,” Grif deflects, and his partner avoids her gaze.

She makes a point of trying everything; her favorite ends up being the apple pie and the seaweed-wrapped spam - the musubi - of all things. York gives her a hard time for the latter, citing her expensive tastes, and she switches between dragging him and defending him in turns as a discussion breaks out. For all its vitriol, it’s replaced with laughter when the subject of garbage pizzas is eventually broached. From there, she feigns nausea as the rest of the table relates the worst things they’ve ever cooked or eaten, and feels it for real when Church reminds her of the three-day food poisoning she’d gotten off bacon alfredo once.

Carolina doesn’t have a name for the feeling until stage one of the meal is winding down, and she’s helping Kaikaina carry leftovers to the fridge while Grif and Simmons prepare to head out. In the dining room, Church is breaking apart pieces of the haunted house and offering them to York, and Simmons smacks Grif in the face as he struggles into the sleeves of his coat.

“Get out of here, you greedy bastards,” Kaikaina hollers, shoving her brother out the door - it reminds Carolina of her childhood, of what she could have been with Church - and right on cue Carolina’s phone goes off in her pocket.

It’s her father.

Carolina doesn’t have a name for the warmth and security until it’s gone, draining all the color from the room and fading the background chatter into senseless buzzing.

Someone asks her a question, judging by the lift of their voice - she forces herself to answer. “It’s my dad. Um, is it alright if I step out--?”

“Sure, sure.” Kaikaina releases her with a wave of her hand, and Carolina shadows the deputies from Blood Gulch onto the porch. Simmons manages to nod goodbye at her, a motion she echoes as she picks up the phone.

It was the anniversary of her mother’s disappearance. She can’t believe she’d forgotten.

“Hello, sir.”

“Carolina.” Her father’s voice is rough, vowels twisting in his mouth like the chimes on Kaikaina’s porch. “How are you?”

“I’m doing-- all right. All things considered.” She raises her hand in half-hearted goodbye as Grif and Simmons drive away in a battered black jeep.

A huff of air. “Are you.”

“Yes, sir. I feel as though I’m making a difference here in Fort Longshore. This department is pretty unconventional, but,” she grits her teeth, struggling to find the right words even as she digs herself into a deeper hole, “we’re getting along well together.” She leaves out York. He’s a bright spark in her life that her father’s disapproval hasn’t touched, and she won’t offer him up for examination any time soon.

“And your brother?”

“He’s here with me. We’re having dinner with some of the officers from the next town over. Would you like to speak with him?” Her heart stops in her mouth; that had slipped out. She prepares a lie, just in case he agrees, and is halfway through making up an excuse when he declines.

“Not yet. I wanted to talk to you about the Felix case.”

“The Felix case?” Horror dries her mouth out, and she braces herself for the lecture she knows will come. It’s been playing in her head for months already, a variant of the commentary she’s heard for years. Hours of her faults rolled out in list form, while her friends carried on inside unaware. She shouldn’t have taken the call.

“Yes. I--” he pauses. Carolina waits for him to pull the trigger, eyes on the cloudy horizon as it swirls with dark clouds. “I wanted to know if you were all right.”

She didn’t account for his concern. “All right?” she repeats, stunned.

“Is the reception on your phone that poor?” he says, coldly, like the man she remembers.

Carolina snaps out of her slouch. “No. Sorry, sir. I’m just… a little surprised that this was what you wanted to talk about. On-- today, I mean.”

“Well, I just saw it on the news. Figured it was as good a time as any to see how you were taking it.”

“It was on the news?” Carolina asks, pressing her fingertips against her ear as the chimes clatter in protest. Dread is seeping into her bones, carried in on the accelerating wind. She feels like she’s standing in a dark room, hand on the light switch but can’t bring herself to flip it and face the scene in front of her.

“He gave an interview about how thankful he was that justice had been done by the case’s dismissal. Even included a little note on how he couldn’t blame the police department for their zeal.”

Her hand comes up to smother her mouth even though not a sound comes out other than a calm “how kind of him.”

“We can discuss how you could have handled the case later, but today I--”

The wind stops, leaving her bangs to fall on the side of her face, a crimson curtain between her and the cul-de-sac.  Under her feet, the texture of the concrete porch wobbles and swims.

“...I’ll let you get back to dinner.”

“Thank you, sir,” says someone else, and ends the call. Carolina sinks into the wicker furniture on Kaikaina’s porch, phone still held in her hands.

She lost the case.

She lost the entire department the case. Her mistake - a handful of goddamn minutes on a warrant meant that Isaac Felix Hargrove would walk free after assaulting and stabbing a woman to death. Not so much as a slap on the wrist.

Carolina has doomed another family to a life of emptiness, knowing that their loved one’s murderer is out there, somewhere, enjoying their day without a second thought of what they’d done. Worse is that it’s a public face, one that’ll be plastered everywhere for weeks at least under triumphant headlines, salt on the wound and acid on the foundation of the people’s faith in the law.

Her hands slide up to cover her face from the world, and she doesn’t look up until the door opens.

“That bad?” Church asks, when she sees him and feels the cold wind hit the tear tracks on her cheeks. Like an errant spark on gasoline, her sorrow turns to rage.

“Did you know? About Felix?”

He shuts the door behind him, face going as pale and grey as the stone beneath her feet, and it’s answer enough. They may not have been close in their later years, but Carolina is fluent in his body language.

She doesn’t think before she’s backed him up against the wall, digging her fingernails into her palms as she tries to burn him alive with her eyes alone.

“Why the fuck didn’t you tell me sooner? I had to hear it from our father ,” she spits the title into the space between them, and she sees the agony in his matching green gaze. “How long have you known?”

He presses his mouth into a line. “Remember when I got you the day off, right after York’s accident? I didn’t-- I didn’t know about him. I wanted you to have the day off to get your head in order after the news.”

She does some fast calculations; over two weeks. “That long?” she asks, and stares at him with her eyes prickling, the wind chimes voicing their protest as a fresh wave of cold air sweeps over them both. “Why-- why the fuck didn’t you say something?”

“Because you were happy . For once,” and Church’s glasses jostle as he rubs his eyes, shaking her reflection in the lenses. “For the first time since you got here, you were happy. I couldn’t take that away from you.”

Carolina loads her words and takes careful aim. “You didn’t have the right to lie to me. No matter the reason.”

“I didn’t lie to you. God, I was just trying to--”

“Don’t.” She jerks the door open and lowers her voice to a hiss. “Just stop trying. Stop pretending you give a fuck about anybody else or their problems. And go back to being the close minded selfish bastard I always knew you were.”

By the time she storms inside and grabs her coat, Carolina has schooled her expression calm.

York breaks off his conversation with Kaikaina to approach her, out of the range of her trembling arm as she shoves it through her sleeve.

“We heading out?”

“I am. You’re welcome to stay and catch a ride home with Church.” She doesn’t wait for his answer and leaves as fast as she entered. Her keys are in her hand when she hears the front door open behind her.

It’s York, holding the crock pot she’d forgotten, hurrying down the steps and fumbling with the door to the backseat as she stares at him. He meets her gaze over the roof of the car, momentum slowing to a stop, a question forming on his lips.

Caught, she ducks inside the vehicle, fixing her eyes straight ahead. York buckles in beside her without a word. No one else tries to follow them. A raindrop, fat and insolent, plocks on her windshield and rolls down.

In silence, Carolina starts the car.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Domestic calls are the hardest. Best case scenario, like the one tonight, is someone gets drunk and disorderly and she’s called in because somebody has confrontation issues. The worst will feel familiar, and she has to avoid seeing herself in a child’s blank gaze.

It’s summer, which means backyard grilling and brat-measuring contests between the families on the far west side. Having to calmly explain herself to some gap toothed potbellied boozy bastard makes inventing a reason to arrest him tempting, but she refuses to sink to that level and had issued warnings all around.

“Don’t worry,” one of her new co-workers said when she radioed it in ten minutes back, “you’ll get there one day.”

No, she will not. Carolina holds herself to higher standards. Even if it makes half the Chorus station call her a bitch, a stickler for the rules, or some academy-green brat she doesn’t care. She’s not here for them. She’s here for the people.

And then there’s nights like tonight where not even the folks who made the call are thankful for her work, and she grips the steering wheel with rage-white knuckles at the last stoplight out of town. The sooner she can get on the highway, the sooner she can get back to her apartment in the city proper and lock the door on every idiot who pays her meager salary.

Beside her at the red light, a man on a motorcycle tips his helmet at her in a nod. It’s the nicest thing that’s happened to her in three solid days. Carolina turns her attention back to the intersection, frown fixed in place.

Of all the officers in the Loon County-Chorus Police Department, her boss is her least favorite. Texas has an ego the size of her namesake and seems to have forgotten that Carolina is well out of academy, thank you, and consequently is not in basic. She’s a shrew, and a bitch, and is vicious towards Carolina in a way that’s made her draft fifteen different formal complaints in the last three months alone. She can’t file a single one, because everyone else is so deep up Texas’s ass they’ve hit her small intestine.

The light turns green and she lets the engine roar, surging forward through the intersection as it clears, daring anyone to hit her. She’s glad to leave the tiny town whose name she’s already forgotten behind.

Once she’s on the highway, Carolina forces out a sigh and eases back on the gas. The motorcyclist passes her; she lets him, mind already miles away and back home. Is this what her life is going to be like for the next thirty-odd years? Getting heat on all sides for just trying to do her job as best as she can? The thought makes her sick and exhausted, like waking up from a nightmare two hours before her alarm and knowing going back to sleep will just make it worse.

It’s what she’d wanted for years, as long as she could remember. She’s from a family of law enforcement, a cop mother and a military father; it’s what she was born to do. But instead of finding the work to be a perfect fit, Carolina feels like she’s chafing in her role and wearing down from the grind.

Her eyes are drawn to the headlights of a rapidly approaching vehicle before her mind can process why; and by then it’s too late to do anything but watch the weaving car swerve over the center line and clip the motorcyclist. Carolina slams on the brakes as the bike tips and spins out on its side, flinging parts a solid hundred feet as the rider’s body rolls in the opposite direction and topples into the ditch.

Carolina jolts back into her seat. The bike spits out sparks and finally stops. The other car speeds on.

Ahead of her, the otherwise empty road is a yawning void, already bored with the events that had just transpired. Fumbling for her radio, Carolina spits out the proper code for a hit-and-run and that she’s in pursuit, flipping on her sirens and pulling a U-turn in the middle of the road. The part of her that’s relieved to have something to do sickens the part that can’t stop seeing the bike glance off the side of the car, the wet red gleam of torn skin and broken bones, the shooting-star fragments of glass flying through the air. Driving away does little to leave that behind.

The other car doesn’t get far with Carolina burning rubber behind them, and she has her gun out before she even shuts her car door.

“Chorus Police! Step out of the vehicle!”

A hand waves out of the window, flipping her off, and a white man in his late 30s stumbles out. “All right, ya loud-ass bitch, I’m movin--”

“You are under arrest for manslaughter. You have the right to remain silent, anything that you say can and will be used against you in court.” Maybe she didn’t have to slam his face into the side of his SUV as she cuffed him, but she does anyway. It feels like the least she can do in the face of the driver’s refusal to stop, a small justice in the face of apathy.

 


 

Ten minutes later, as a couple other cop cars as well as a tow truck are pulling up, Texas storms down on Carolina as she’s helping hitch the tow hook onto the frame of the SUV.

“Where’s the body?” her boss demands.

“Mile and a half north of here.”

Texas recoils. “You left it there?”

“It tumbled into the ditch.” Defensive, she scrambles for cover. “Didn’t Officer Maine say he was going to set up traffic cones around the--”

“Did you check to see if the victim was still alive?”

Carolina freezes. “With all due respect, ma’am, it was a motorcyclist who was hit by an oncoming SUV. I didn’t think--”

“And that’s your fucking problem, isn’t it?” Texas lowers her voice down to a hiss, grabbing Carolina by the upper arm and dragging her to Texas’s car. “You’re too good to have to stop and think like the rest of us. Get in. We’re going back for him.”

The fight has fallen out of Carolina, sitting somewhere on the floor of the front passenger seat where her heart sits in her shoes. There’s no way he survived. No way. No way.

Texas drives in silence; parks in silence; jumps into the muddy, sloppy, fly-freckled ditch with her flashlight in silence. Carolina follows her, shutting the passenger side door as softly as she can, every footstep light and hesitant as she creeps across the road. The headlights of the idling car gild Texas’s shoulders, catching her blonde hair in their beams and bleaching it moonlight yellow.

Two words float out of the humid June night air.

“He’s alive.”

Carolina comes to the edge of the ditch, the beam of her flashlight shaking as Texas hops out, already on the phone canceling the coroner and demanding an ambulance. The man in the ditch is limp, his head glittering with broken glass from the shattered helmet and smeared with mud. Carolina slides down the grassy side, shoes wet from the sucking, saturated earth, and places her fingers against the side of his neck. It’s not necessary - she can hear him breathing, labored and afraid, left shoulder sagging to display a broken collarbone and more torn skin.

“Hang in there,” she says, soft as a prayer, and watches his head shift her way, one eye glued shut by gore. “You’re gonna be okay.”

She retreats back to solid ground, a smear of red on her fingertips that she rubs against her thumb. Texas is waiting for her beside the car, stone still and furious.

“I don’t need you to tell me what I did wrong this time,” Carolina says in a low voice that is anything but soft. She’s had a shit night and isn’t in the mood to take another verbal beating. “I know.”

Texas chews on the inside of her lip for a moment, looking Carolina up and down. She refuses to budge under the scrutiny, even as the motorcyclist’s blood starts to dry and crust on her skin.

“For someone who was at the top of her class, you sure are damn reluctant to learn anything new,” Texas says at last, words honed down to fine points that skewer Carolina as Texas ducks in the car to answer the radio.

Chapter Text

Something happened.

York isn’t sure what, or when, but the Carolina that pulls out of the driveway and flips on the windshield wipers at the first drops of rain isn’t the one that drove them there. He’s seen glimpses of this one, especially during some of their early interactions, and it makes him squirm.

He waits until they’re out on the highway, a long straight stretch of road peppered with the occasional car and framed by half-bare trees, to break the silence. “You okay?”

“I’m fine.” A lie; she’s trying to be fine. York can relate.

“Do you want me to drive?” he offers, side-stepping the issue.

“No.”

York’s eyes track the slow, metronome tick of the wipers as the rain starts to pick up. Carolina swats at the controls, turning them off, then too fast with another sharp movement. Her hands are shaking, white knuckled on the steering wheel, and concern piles on concern.

“Talking it out could help, you know,” he starts, channeling his best North. The car whips onto the shoulder so fast it jars his bad arm as he braces himself, closing his eyes; weeks later still anticipating the deer’s flailing body to break through the windshield and maul him.

“You want me to talk?” she snaps. “Fine. I’ll talk. I fucked up.”

He cracks one eye open, then the other, turning to face Carolina as she sinks her fingernails into the steering wheel. Her mouth twists like a pulled muscle, an aborted smile that dies before it hits the air.

“I fucked up and the case is dead. I got impatient, and careless, and I ruined someone’s chance at justice. At closure.”

Her hands slide down the wheel as she leans forward, slumping as the fight drains out of her.

“Felix Hargrove is going to walk free, and it’s because of me.” She blinks, expression fighting to hold its furious mask, but something drips down her curved nose and York is paralyzed. “So, no. I guess I’m not fine.”

He’s already unbuckling his seatbelt before he stops to think; already leaning in the space between them when he freezes under her stare.  When she doesn’t stop him, vulnerability slipping through the cracks in her facade and breaking his heart, York follows through his impulse and pulls her into a one-armed hug.

The mindless, comforting shushes he offers her are the one’s he’s heard a thousand times and never will again. York buries his face in his hair, tucking her into his shoulder as she pulls herself together little pieces at a time. A car rushes by, its wake making the car shudder, but Carolina doesn’t stir.

“I’m sorry,” he says.

“Me too.”

He’s not sure what to say. He’s just an IT guy turned mechanic, and he can’t fix this. Can’t reach inside her mind and undo all the knots and worry. All he has are his words, and what he knows about her.

And if there’s one thing he knows about Carolina, it’s that she’s a damned hard worker. “You did your best, right?”

“Yeah,” she says, the syllable spat out like a bite of rotten food. “But it wasn’t enough.”

York thinks about long days, longer nights, and the hum of the oxygen machine. “Sometimes it isn’t. But that’s all we can do. Our best. And you’re the best cop I know.”

“You don’t know that many cops.”

“Still.” York closes his eyes. He wants to do something right, something successful, something that matters for once in his life.  He wants to help so goddamn badly it feels as though it might break him in half.

Nothing comes to him, no soul-mending revelation or insight. Carolina pulls away, vulnerability retracting under an impassive expression as she shifts the car back into drive.

“Thanks,” she says, though York knows he did nothing, can do nothing, and is just along for the ride. His reply is the only thing he can give her.

“Anytime.”

 


 

It’s a short day at work, at least, the morning after he kissed Carolina good night at his doorstep and laid awake for hours. A short shift, and it flies by until the tow truck pulls up to the back.

York cleans out Delta for the last time, empties the trunk of his tools and the glove compartment of napkins and maps, and hunts one last time for the post-it he’d kept on the dash for months. It feels like part of him sticks to the hook he attaches to Delta’s frame, and it rips out of him when his car is dragged away.

“You gonna be okay, big boy?” Niner asks, nudging him in the side. Her body is warm against his before she steps away, and York shrugs too late in response. He isn’t - but he will be.

It’s North’s voice that pulls him back to earth.

“Ready to go?”

York jumps at the hand that lands on his left shoulder, but relaxes as North’s thumb strokes his bicep. “Go where?”

“We’re finishing painting your living room today. Remember?”

“Right,” he murmurs. “Okay.” The cacophony of Niner closing the large overhead doors is the final step, and York shakes himself. Lowering his voice so the noise masks his voice, he flashes North a smile. “Is South hiding out in the car?”

North’s hesitation is answer enough; unfortunately, Niner seems to get the gist of their conversation and comes up.

“She does know I’m not mad at her any more, right?” Even with the wry twist of her lips, York can see the echo of hurt in her eyes.

“Knowing and accepting are two different things,” North says to her. “Hiding from you is easier.”

Niner shakes her head and leaves them to make their way outside. Sure enough, South is hunkered down in the back of North's car, staring across the gravel back lot at the empty cornfields beyond. York lets himself into the front seat.

“You get cold, hiding out here?” he asks-- and no sooner are the words out of his mouth when South cuts him off.

“North sucked dick in the gym lockers today.”

York’s mouth drops open.

“That is--” North stammers, “--not true.”

“You’re blushing,” York points out, all too eager to distract himself by teasing his honorary big brother.

“I-- that still doesn’t mean--”

“I had to witness it,” South declares, leaning forward to turn the keys in the ignition as North continues to stare in horror. “Dude was, like, in his late 50s. Grey hair and everything.”

“SIlver fox?”

“More like aluminum bear.”

“Please stop,” North begs, pressing his head against the steering wheel as he shifts it into gear. “We were just talking .”

“I could see you inhaling his dick in your mind,” his sister says. “We’re twins. I know your every thought.”

“I am changing the subject now, or I am kicking both of you out of my car and you can walk home.” South goes dead silent. North stares her down in the rearview mirror.

York inches his hand down towards his phone.

“And you cannot text her for details.”

York puts on his most comedic pout but keeps his hands where North can see him. Even when his phone starts going off in his pocket, buzzing against his thigh as North tries to find a radio station that isn’t playing an ad.

The lawns is his bubbe’s neighborhood are spotted with white by the time they arrive, pale patches pockmarking the dying grass. A few lawns cling to their artificial green, but his bubbe’s is tufted with weeds in places, irregular and untreated. The snow is light enough to not obscure the driveway, and York lets them inside.

The twins brought some extra supplies - including real drop cloths, not the trash bags York has been using - and start to chatter as York sneaks to his bedroom to change clothes and check his phone.

In the other room, South makes a noise of complaint. “Oh, come on, North, there’s no way we’re going to finish this today.”

“Not with that attitude, we’re not.”

“Attitude has nothing to do with it.”

“Great, then you can keep yours to yourself and get to painting.”

Most of the texts were from South, ones he skims over to read later but catches lines like // i stg north drooled // and // think hes army or something // before finding one from an unknown number.

// hey its church please check on my sister today she pulls back when shes depressed dont let her //

\\ why are you texting me this? \\ he sends back, then adds \\ we’ve got plans for tomorrow night anyway should i be worried? \\

He waits a minute for a response, until South starts bitching about doing all the work for him, and he finishes changing clothes. His phone buzzes just as he’s sliding it in his tattered jeans pocket.

// she likes you better right now //

In the next room, there is the sound of someone mixing paint in a very passive aggressive fashion.

\\ is that different from how you two normally are? \\

// fine asshole dont take my advice just trying to help which is obv a HUGE deviation for me so i should just go back to sucking my cock and balls //

\\ you sound flexible \\

“York, get back in here before I drown our brother in paint!”

“Be right there!” he yells, typing frantically. \\ but thanks for letting me know \\ and then, after a moment's debate, \\ i wanna make her happy \\

The reply is quick in coming and to the point. // good luck //

Satisfied, York emerges to break up the pending paint war.

“Please, guys, I can’t afford to redo the carpet,” is his opening line, an appeal to South’s sense of thrift and North’s dislike of damaging goods. He blinks when he sees that it's North with his twin in a headlock, frog-marching her over towards one of the paint cans. “I thought you--”

“She got sloppy,” North states, tone cool and at odds with South’s hiss. She tries to stomp on his foot and misses.

York’s allegiance between the two will flip on a dime; they grew up together from middle school on, enough that their parents still call him their son and photoshop all three into their New Years photo cards they mail out from out east. Today he picks South.

“We should send someone out to get dinner before it gets too late,” he offers, and South’s arm shoots up.

“I’ll get it, I’ll get it. Jumbo wing platter from the good place out by the mall?”

North releases her and doesn't flinch as she digs the keys out of his back pocket. “Drive safe, and don't forget the blue cheese dip.”

“I won’t, I won’t!”

She ruffles York’s hair as she passes him by, jogging out the front door with a bounce in her step and a massive white handprint on her jeans.

“That handprint was self inflicted,” North defends, and bends to pick up his abandoned brush. York takes up South’s previous station and gets to work. Someone had started up the cuckoo clock while he was changing, and the soft metronome tick relaxes him.

“Sooooooo,” York drawls, and on his blind side the slap of the paint soaked roller against the wall sounds defeated.

“I didn't suck anyone’s dick. I just happened to have a very nice conversation with the-- with an older gentleman.”

“An aluminum bear.”

“Everybody has their preferences,” North says, tone mild.

York chuckles. “You get his number?”

“No. I don't think I’m going to pursue him right now. If he’s interested, sure, but I have other things on my plate. It was nice just meeting someone new.”

There's something implied behind those words. York turns, slowly, to face North.

“Oh my god you did blow him,” he breathes. North keeps painting. “South was right.”

“South has no proof,” he states, “and neither do you.”

York’s hands cover his mouth.

“But if I had, it was in the back of his car. Not in the gym.”

His laughing fit can be heard outside, infuriating the neighbor and ruining the relative peace of the evening. It doesn't matter. It's been too long since anyone laughed in this house, and if anyone calls the cops on him again he would welcome them inside with open arms.

But no one calls, or complains, and South arrives with food at the tail end of a discussion on North's final projects.

“Wings place went out of business,” she bitches, “so I got Chinese instead.”

With a jolt, York recognizes it as the same place Carolina had brought food from, all those months ago. That easily, his thoughts turn back to her and his good mood clouds with worry.

“Beef and broccoli, chicken lo mein, and szechuan chicken,” South details, passing out the entrees, “and fried doughnuts for the table.”

They pile up on the plastic draped furniture in the middle of the room, the boys on the sofa and South plopping down on the armchair before freezing.

“Shit,” and she gives York a look, already scrambling back to her feet. “I forgot--”

“It's not like it’s haunted, South,” he jokes, waving her back down. “Or steeped in dead people juices.”

“Still. It was Bubbe’s chair. You sure?”

“She’d be thrilled someone else was getting enjoyment from it. It’s fine, South.”

With a wary look, South eases herself back down. York turns his attention back to dinner, eating mechanically as they listen to the radio.

If there was something he could do to help Carolina; more than date nights and apologies, something substantial to help get what’s-his-name in jail. The Charon guy, from the place he used to work at in Chorus with Reggie and Butch--

Reggie and Butch--

“Excuse me for just one second,” York says, and it speaks to his distraction that he leaves his food behind in easy reach of either sibling, but his mind is on fire. Reggie and Butch still work at Charon, and maybe, just maybe, they might be able to find some damning evidence.

He makes his first call in the kitchen to Reggie; no answer, and he hangs up without a message. His call to Butch, however, is answered on the second ring.

Brady, my boy, how are you?”

“Oh, great,” he replies on reflex, getting right to the heart of the matter. “I've got a favor to ask you. Well, you and Reggie. There’s a cop friend of mine, my-- my girlfriend,” and he steamrolls past the excited gush on the other end, “and she’s invested in that one murder case. The one with the Charon guy.”

“Felix Gates?”

“I think that's right. Anyway, since you work there, and she’s pretty stalled at the moment, I was wondering if you could just, I don't know,” he waves a hand in the air, grabbing for words, “keep an eye open for anything suspicious he does. Just in case we can find something, you know? That woman’s family deserves closure, and justice.”

A pause. “ I'm willing to give that a try, sure. I don't know what I’d be looking for, but I’ll keep an open mind and an ear to the ground. Sounds rather exciting, doesn't it? I used to be in the military, you know. Still miss it. Hanging out with all those privates. And of course, who doesn't love playing with knifes?”  Butch laughs, a musical sound that chimes in tune with York’s surge of excitement.

“Great. I can’t thank you enough. Pass the request on to Reggie, if you can? I called him but didn't get an answer.”

He’s out of the country this week, but I’ll let him know what's up when he comes back. I can rope him into things easy enough.”

“Thank you. Thank you-- so much, I can’t tell you how much--”

“That's fine, dear, you can just tell me all about this girlfriend of yours. I'm just tickled to hear it. She must be very special.”

“She is. She’s-- incredible, smart and capable and has just the most amazing laugh, I--”

York sneaks a look into the living room, where North is very obviously and deliberately taking a bite out of York’s beef and broccoli while holding eye contact.

“--have to go, the twins are eating my dinner.”

Awwwwww . Have a good night! I hope we can call again soon!”

“Night,” he echoes, hanging up and storming back into the living room all bluster and feigned indignation.

“And here I thought you’d had enough meat today,” he proclaims, a weight lifted off his shoulders as South cackles behind him.

Maybe, just maybe, this is something he can help fix.

 


 

The bus ride home ends with him walking the last seven blocks and he’s beat, but York’s had this plan in mind for a solid week now (and the meat in the fridge since yesterday, soft red steaks shiny with Saran wrap and irresistible to poke every time he's in the fridge) so he has steak in the oven and potatoes on the stove when Carolina knocks on the door.

“C’mon in,” he coaxes, careful to keep an eye for Epsilon making a break for it - not that the damn thing would dare misbehave around his favorite person ever. Carolina meets his eyes but not his smile, slumping onto his couch.

“How was work?” she asks.

“Busy.” York catches a glimpse of the cat slipping into the living room and gives him a filthy look. “One of the guys is out sick with pneumonia so I’ve been picking up some of the slack.” And sleeping in the truck bed more nights than not, warmed by cigarette smoke and her ‘good night’ texts that are fading in frequency.

He tells himself he doesn't mind if she drifts, if she needs to focus on her own stuff right now, so long as she knows she can come back to him and he’ll welcome her with a smile.

Carolina leans into him when he sits next to her on the couch, a simple gesture that none the less makes his heart skip a beat. “Kaikaina keeps texting me pictures of the pie pan I left in her house.”

“Oh?” he prompts, sensing a story behind that. He is not disappointed.

She digs out her phone and starts showing him photos of tiny, intricately staged crime scene photos. It appears as though the last two or three slices of pie are representative of dead bodies, based on the little hand made evidence markers and the comical paper outfits on the spice jars surveying the scenes.

“Why can’t she put this much effort into her job?” Carolina laments.

York pulls her a little closer. “Kai is a mysterious woman,” he offers, and gets a grunt in return. “So, what, is the pan being held hostage?”

“It's ‘evidence’ that I can ‘leave my house and be a real person,’ or something. Is your roommate home?” she asks, sitting upright.

“Nah, he’s at Tucker’s.” Carolina settles down against his side and sighs, relaxing into a puddle. He shifts to accommodate her, soaking in the subtle weight of her body and lending his heat to the cause of thawing her out. A thought occurs to him. “Hey. You’re being a real person right now. What if we took a picture and sent it to Kai?”

Carolina grumbles. “I didn't shower this morning.”

York drops a little kiss on her temple. “You look fine.”

She holds up her phone, switching it to the front camera and adjusts her bangs. After a moment, she turns to fix his hair too, and he sighs under the affectionate touch.

“Thank you,” he says, amused.

“You’re welcome.” It takes her another minute or two of fidgeting, moving them around on the couch for ‘better lighting’ and a small selection of poses before she takes the photo. Soft, easy smiles with his arm across her shoulders, bathed in the yellow glow of the kitchen.

“Send me a copy, too?” York asks.

She’s already composing the message. “You gonna make it your wallpaper?”

“And usurp Subject Delta? I might.”

“You have my permission,” Carolina says, sending the text. “If you needed it.”

“I’ll take it for sure,” and she is just sitting up and turning around, her hand tilting his chin towards her, when one of the timers in the kitchen go off. York tries to lean into her anyway, only to be pushed back by a palm on his chest.

“Food first. Kisses later. I am starving.”

He swallows. “That’s a lot of pressure, for a guy who’s used to box mix meals.”

Despite her orders, Carolina kisses his nose. “I have faith in you. And I’m coming with to judge you, just in case.”

“Thanks,” York says drily.

“You’re welcome.”

To their good fortune, the potatoes are ready to be mashed and the steak is finished. Carolina improvises a gravy from the roast drippings and York watches her in silent awe as she measures nothing, throwing in flour and spices at random. He’s so focused on trying to understand how she does it that he almost dumps all the potatoes down the sink instead of draining them.

No sooner are they sitting down to eat at his ersatz Rubbermaid coffee table then his phone rings. “Uh, one second,” he says when he sees that it’s Reginald Ming and he steps outside to take the call.

“Hey, what’s--”

“You are a fool, Brady.”

York’s face falls. “What is it this time?” he asks, tone heavy with resignation. He’d not bothered throwing on a jacket, and the late November air nips at his bare forearms.

“Butch told me your little espionage plan. Who do you think you are, Bond?”

“I’d prefer to be Rusty from Ocean’s Eleven, but--”

“You’re going to get hurt, Brady. This isn’t a game.” York goes still at the genuine anger in Reggie’s voice. “You and your girlfriend aren’t heroes. You’re fools following a will o’ wisp, and I will not be involved.”

It takes York a moment to form a reply. “And what does Butch think?”

“Oh, he’s thrilled, adrenaline junkie that he is. I’m not worried about him. I’m not even worried about you . But I will not be stained by association. Do not talk to me about this again.”

Reggie hangs up before York can get another word in, and he’s left with a chill that has nothing to do with the weather. He shoves his phone into his pocket, fingers brushing against his lighter, and he pulls it out on reflex. A flick, a spark, and nothing else, but the motion makes him ache for a cigarette.

Maybe he should get it refilled, after all.

Chapter Text

 

Carolina wakes up in an unfamiliar bed, rolling over to find her phone on the nightstand; its blaring an alarm and reads a time of 4:00am. It must be Tuesday, when she has to be at work at six. That takes care of the when, but where is she?

She rubs her hand on soft flannel sheets and squints at her surroundings, illuminated by yellow-gold streetlights through the blinds. A sleek desktop computer, a bookshelf cluttered with electronics and photos and what looks like a prop divers helmet; it must be York’s bedroom. She’d been in the middle of her shift and got hit by a migraine so bad Tucker had to drive her here; she’s pretty sure she’d thrown up in the parking lot, too.

Whoever had tucked her in had left her a glass of water and a bottle of pills, and plugged in her phone to charge. The kindness should warm her, but it tastes as bitter as the bile in the back of her mouth.

Carolina rolls over, slow as to not crush any parts of his body. “Hey--”

The bed is empty.

She presses her mouth in a line and sits up, taking a cautious sip of the water, and heads out into the living room.

York is asleep on the couch, draped with a blanket. Such a gentleman. Carolina drops into a crouch, waits for her eyes to adjust and a passing car to light up his features; he’s drooling a little onto a throw pillow, dead asleep. The last time she saw him at rest had been the night after his car accident. Neither of them had slept much.

In the fleeting light of another car, she strokes the scar on his cheek.

As she watches, his eyes flutter open. “Hey,” he slurs, voice thick with sleep, and she yanks her hand back in guilt.

“Sorry. Didn’t mean to wake you up,” she whispers. He rolls over with a groan.

“‘S all right. I’m a light sleeper. What time is it?”

“Little past four.”

“Sunnofa bitch.” York’s good humor wavers. “Why are you awake?”

“I have to get back to my place. Shower. Get dressed for work.”

He grunts again. “Could shower here.”

“I…. could.” It’s a little unappealing to wear the same underwear twice, but she could do it. “Where are your towels?”

York rolls off the couch, hitting the floor with a thud. “I’ll get them,” he offers, pulling himself to his feet.

“You could have just told me--”

“Where they are doesn’t make much sense.” And he’s right - he pulls open some folding closet doors and yanks on a chain light to reveal what must be a utility closet, dominated by a massive water heater in the middle. There’s a rubbermaid box on a shelf - York grabs that, pops the lid and retrieves a towel.

Carolina lets out a soft ‘huh’ and gives it a subtle sniff check. No mildew smell. “Thanks.”

“Do you wanna borrow any underwear? Wash just brought home a new pack yesterday. They’re briefs for Tucker, but they might fit.”

“I’ll pass.”

He walks her to the bathroom, flips on that light as well. “Shower doesn’t get super hot, by the way, so go on and turn the dial all the way.”

“That’s fine.” Carolina drapes the towel over the rack, finding room between the other two, and starts to unbutton her uniform. She looks up; York is still standing there, yawning. “Are you expecting to join me?” she asks, tone neutral.

That wakes him up. York goes scarlet, eyes widening and mouth falling open as he splutters. “I-- I wasn’t trying to-- I was just-- uh--” He clears his throat, swallows, and seems to try very hard to lean against the door in a casual, seductive manner. It doesn’t work. “Is that an invitation, or a cue to leave?”

Carolina pauses undressing. He looks indecisive. Frightened, maybe. He’s backpedaled out of things like this before, and right now they’re both too tired to discuss why.

“I’m teasing you,” she decides. “Shower sex is a serious slipping hazard.”

“Safety first.” He drops her gaze, coughs. “I’ll leave you to it. Call if you need something. Wash sleeps like the dead.”

Once he’s shut the door she strips, glad to be out of the clothes she’d slept in, and turns on the water. Her headache is a lot better but still there, lurking in her temples; she checks the cabinet behind the mirror for painkillers and pops an extra-strength acetometaphin, swishes the sleep out of her mouth with a little splash of mouthwash. Checks out last night’s smeared makeup in the mirror while she waits for the water to heat up, and makes a note to shape her eyebrows tomorrow.

She checks the two soaps to see which one is York’s - it’s hard to tell, so she goes with the ocean scent rather than mountain pine - and uses a little too much of the color-treatment conditioner, but the last of her ache is gone when she steps back out, squeezing the water from her hair. It only got a few degrees above lukewarm, and she wonders how he lives like that.

Half into her panties, Carolina has a change of heart. “York?” She wraps the towel around her torso, creeping out into the hallway and shivering. “York, I changed my m-mind. Where’s the briefs?”

The light in the kitchen is on; York rounds the corner when she does, followed by the unmistakable smell of coffee. “Oh, I’ll bring those to you. Go, go, go,” he shooes her back to the bathroom, and she locks herself back in. The mirror isn’t even fogged. A pair of underwear, still taped into a tight roll, is tossed in moments later, alongside some socks.

When she rejoins him in the kitchen, he’s already got a piece of toast in the toaster. “We’ve got butter, strawberry jam and a little bit of apricot jam. I could also--” he yawns again, “make some eggs.”

“You didn’t have to make breakfast,” she says, still trying to get her hair dry before she walks out in the cold. “I can’t stay. The police station is a good thirty-five minutes from here.”

“Oh.” York pauses, then reaches above the refrigerator to grab a thermos and pour a cup of coffee into it. “Take this, then?”

Carolina takes a little sniff - its got more sweetener in it than she likes, but she doesn’t have the heart to correct him. “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.” He’s starting to say something else as she’s stepping away; Carolina waits. Light and swift, like a bird, York swoops in to give her a little kiss. “Have a good day at work.”

“I will. Try to go back to sleep.”

“All right.”

She leaves the door unlocked behind her and hurries down to her car, warmed to the core already by the little thermos in her hand.

 


 

Tucker and Caboose are on the morning shift with her; this is deliberate, whether Church schedules her to be with them or not. Someone is always willing to switch so she can avoid Church. Alternately, no one is willing to tell her no.

There’s a frosted doughnut waiting for her on her desk when she walks in. Freckles is drooling watching it, but keeps his obedient seat on the other side of the room. There’s a card beside it; Carolina slits the envelope with her thumb and opens it.

“Sorry that you fucked up your own case and feel guilty about it?” she reads, too tired and too baffled to be angry.

At his desk, Tucker shrugs. “Figured you could use the pick-me-up.”

A further inspection reveals an unexpected detail. “This card came pre-printed with this message.”

“What can I say? It happens in the department a lot.”

Carolina folds the card and presses her thumbnail in the middle, prepared to rip it in half but hesitating. Caboose is watching her with as much hopeful interest as his dog, and even Tucker is being considerate by shutting up. The card is insulting, salt on the wound, but…

She shoves the card back in the envelope, grabs the doughnut, and heads to her patrol car.

Traffic duty gives the best gift yet; that of peace and quiet. Even the chatter of Eta and Iota has been getting on her nerves lately, and she still hasn’t replied to York’s  // have a good day <3 // text he’d sent right after she left. Carolina just wants--

She wants--

Carolina slams her fist into the back of the passenger seat, sending up a puff of dust that smells of orange chicken. The card on the seat catches her eye, shoved back in its envelope like shrapnel in a jagged wound. They’re mocking her for wanting to be better than they are; for not settling for less like they do. Whatever misguided attempt at empathy that was only embitters her to them.

A car speeds past her parked vehicle, setting off her radar with a blare of alarm. Carolina revs the engine and peels after it, flicking on the siren and bottling up her rage. 17 above the speed limit still isn’t worth endangering civilian lives with reckless driving. Less than a mile down the road, the car pulls over.

Carolina is on foot and six steps away from the car door when she recognizes the driver. All at once the fury hits her, igniting her like the hammer in a gun striking a bullet

“You bastard!” She shakes with the force of it all, unmoved by the spectators that drive by. “You fucking asshole. I don’t want anything to do with you.”

Church scrambles to get out of the car. “Oh, so when it’s you avoiding your problems, it’s fine, huh?”

“Don’t even start to go down that road. I am not our--”

“Damn right you’re not Dad, and neither am I. Would you just listen to me?” He grabs her arm and she tells herself it’s reflex to grab his wrist and slam him facefirst into the side of his car. “Ow! You bitch!”

“You have the right to remain silent. Anything you--”

“Are you Miranda Rights-ing me right now? Is this happening?”

“Anything you say can and will be used--”

“I’m your motherfucking boss! And your brother!”

“Then act like it next time!” Carolina shoves him harder against the car and storms away.

In the reflection of her windshield, she sees Church wipe the back of his hand across his face and shake it out; she sees him turn to stare at her and his face go blank and cold.

“You, first!”

She stops. Takes another look at the glass and sees Leonard Church the second dusting himself off and turning his back on her, getting into his car and driving away. And for one nauseating second, Leonard Church the first looks back at her.

A gust of wind from a passing car stirs up the dust; Carolina coughs and storms back to her car, checking the radar gun. Four over the speed limit.

She buckles herself in, turns the car around, and sets off in pursuit.

 


 

The next day off she gets, Carolina sets up a lunch date.

It’s the same diner she’s met York at on several occasions - a small, independent, retro place with comfortable seats and well-cleaned windows. It’s not a favorite spot, not yet, but she’s got a free afternoon after a day of vigorous cleaning and the last time she had a pretzel bun burger that was amazing.

But today she isn’t meeting York. Niner is already seated at a booth when she walks in, on her second glass of soda. Carolina imagines her legs swinging, too short for the seats. Few things in the world are made for someone under five feet tall.

“Hey,” Carolina says as she takes her seat, “thanks for coming.”

“I should be thanking you. Nice to get out of Invention every once in a while. Hang out with someone who isn’t a guy.” Niner looks tired; or maybe she just looks her age, and Carolina didn’t pay attention the last time they met. It’s hard to tell. Niner’s always been a good actor. “So. Is this lunch hour therapy, or did you actually want to hang out?”

“God, please don’t make this therapy,” Carolina laments. “I don’t want one more person trying to pity me--”

“Okay, okay.” Niner raises her hands. “Sheesh. Was gonna offer, since that used to be our thing once. I’d rant to you about stupid white girls while I popped pimples in your back. Good times.”

Carolina picks up her menu. “Tell me about your day.” She can feel Niner staring at her, so she adds a pithy remark for old times sake. “Or should I ask the waitress for a booster seat first?”

“That’s more like you.” Niner rolls her shoulders. “You’re as bad at small talk as you are at singing. I’ll get you caught up on my life, though. College was fun at first but was glad to be out at the end, my aviation degree ain’t got me shit so I switched to cars, and dated York’s almost sister for a few years. Life could be better on the grand scale, but my day-to-day is pretty good. You?”

“Criminal justice was good. Working in Chorus was… amazing.” The thrill of high-profile cases, even with the exhausting downswing of all the people she couldn’t help… “It was nice to feel like I mattered. Then I came here and it’s been. Fine, I guess.”

Niner whistles. “He’s that bad in bed?”

Carolina stares. Across the table, the tiny lesbian mechanic rolls her eyes and makes a crude gesture.

“No, no no no, it’s not--”

“So he’s good?”

“He’s irrelevant, is what,” and she doesn’t realize how bad that sounds until she hears how loud the word is in the quiet diner, how Niner’s face goes blank. Carolina bites her tongue and backpedals. “He’s… I like him. A lot. But I never planned on--”

That, too, is a road she doesn’t want to go down; a thought she can’t complete. Instead she steels herself and tosses back something light and mildly insulting to change the subject. “God, we are failing the Bechdel test, aren’t we? Tell me about your thing with South, instead. That’s been long ago enough you can talk about it, right?”

“We’re putting a pin in the York thing,” Niner warns her. “But you’ve had a shit week, so I’ll let it go for now, and let you in on our sordid sapphic love affair. First, food.”

Waving down a waiter and letting Niner talk over her until she’s agreed to try the Straw-Burger feels a little more natural, at least, even if her stomach’s been stirred up by the discussion. Carolina is going to have some decisions to make by the time her lease runs out in May; none of them feel like good ones, either.

Niner takes a dramatic sip of her coke before starting.

“It was back, uh… six years ago I think. Five? … Right, yeah, it was five, and I was out here for the summer interning with the guy who used to own this place. Some old family business he’d never wanted. Black Jimmies. You can guess why I changed it when I bought it from him.”

Carolina winces. “Yeah…”

“He claimed it was a liquorice thing. Anyway, I met South because she’d been day-drinking and had run herself off the road and called our place. I came out with the truck to pull her out, and--” Niner shakes her head. “God, this guy was with her and maybe it was York, I don’t remember, but-- fuck, he said something about if afterwards her and I wanted to hook up , just this godawful pun, and I gave her my number.”

She’d nearly choked on the pun and now she's coughing on her water. “That worked? I made bad jokes at you all the time and we never hooked up!”

“We were also in a very strict Catholic boarding school, if you remember right, and you were so tight-laced you were like--” Niner gestures with her straw-- “the human embodiment of a corset. You didn’t get slutty until you hit high school. Anyway, back to me.”

“We ended up hanging out a lot over the summer, and when I moved back to Bear Valley we kept in touch. Then my old boss’s wife got sick so next summer he started talking about selling it, and I moved in with South to be there to make an offer. It was good, kind of-- we’re both intense people, so we’d fight, sure, but we had so much fun together too.”

It’s with a touch of guilt that Carolina recognizes the emotion in Niner’s words as longing. She’d been looking to talk about someone else’s problems for once, and now she feels like she stirred up something she shouldn’t. And her and York both had encouraged Kai to pursue South, too.

She feels like a therapist with her next words, but maybe that’s what Niner needs. “It sounds like you miss her.”

“I don’t know if I do or not. We broke up over the stupidest thing, in a horrible fight.” Niner sighs. “We didn’t talk for ages, and then when she asked me about giving York a job… Don’t get me wrong, I hired him because I thought he could do it, but-- I really did it because I wanted South to just talk to me again. I hoped I could help him out for her and bury the hatchet. But shit didn’t work out like that. And that’s that.”

Carolina fidgets in her chair. “I’m… sorry.”

“Not your fault. But… thank you.” Niner smiles. “Nice to get to unload on someone, you know?”

Their food arrives, and Niner seems to cheer up at the sight of it. She’d gone for a classic burger while Carolina’s is decked in fries, onion rings, and fried green tomatoes.

Carolina gives Niner a withering glance. “How dare you.”

“Honey, if you're worried about weight, it's just gonna give you more cushion for the pushin’.” Her grin says she knows what she did.

“This is a monstrosity of-- is the patty chicken fried?”

“Just put it in your mouth, I promise it's good.”

“I hate you. We are not friends anymore. This is--” Carolina snaps her mouth shut as Niner leans across the table.

“The final straw?”

At a loss, Carolina splutters; and as Niner holds her grin, she finds she can’t keep up the charade either, and bursts into laughter.

“God,” she says eventually, “can we switch?”

“Of course, of course,” and Niner swaps their plates around, thrilled to shove the golden brown monstrosity in her mouth. “You should try a bite, it's good.”

“I’ll pass this time.” She does steal a fry or two from the overflow on Niner’s plate with a muttered “taxes” and crunch on them. Shoestring, her favorite. Still not worth fried green tomatoes. “The smell is horrible.”

“It’s the sauce that pulls it all together.”

Carolina takes another look at the rejected sandwich. “What’s in it?”

Niner drops her voice into an excellent ghost-stories tone. “No one knows.”

Carolina rolls her eyes and takes a massive bite of her burger. “No wonder you and York get along. You're like-- you’re like dogs. You eat garbage and expect me to scratch you behind the ears for it.”

“This is at least 100% foodsafe and sanitary, thank you. Your man once tried to eat deli meat he’d left for a full day in his car. In August.”

She wishes she could make a pithy comment about the inside of his car smelling like corned beef and corned jokes when she’d borrowed it, but she had preemptively rolled all the windows down when she saw some trash in the backseat.

“Speaking of York-- no, it's something else,” Niner assures her when Carolina’s spine stiffens, “it's about his car. You know I had him sell it for scrap last week, right? Has he been… taking it hard on your end?”

She splutters her water, and it's Niner’s turn to bark a laugh. “Shit-- I didn't meant it like that. I meant, from your perspective.”

“He seems--” eager to make her laugh, attentive to her wants; he spammed her phone with cookbook photos on his last shopping trip, comparing her to their authors and asking which one was her in disguise, “-- like he usually does. Why? His car was broken, right? Totaled.”

“Mm-hmm.”

“So why does it matter?”

“He’s half blind. And I think that’s the only car he’s ever driven.” Niner takes a nibble of tomato, expression as bitter as her food. “Feel kind of bad that I took it from him. Even if it was the right thing to do. Sometimes being right sucks.”

The revelation, said so casually, crushes Carolina. Of course. No wonder he’d been so distraught after his accident; had he even been able to see the deer coming until it was too late? She thinks back now to how carefully he reaches for anything in her house, and how much confidence he’d need to have in a car to drive through downtown traffic.

In the present, Niner continues on.

“I don't know. If he seems fine, then maybe he is fine? You’d know him better than I would.”

“Really?” Carolina asks, feeling like she doesn’t know him at all.

“Hell yeah. You’re his girlfriend . I've seen how much he texts you on his breaks or whenever work is slow. The twins tend to talk over him, but you seem to listen. I think he needs that.”

“I haven't in a while.” A lot of their interactions recently have been her ranting about work or traffic or anything else of a long list of infuriating shit in her life, while York steadily chops vegetables or browns meat, empathizing. She kisses him in thanks each time, but in the light of this it doesn't feel like enough.

“You said his car got sold for scraps, right?” she asks, chewing on the end of her straw and an idea. “That means there’s still parts that could be used, right?”

“I guess.” Niner grimaces. “There's so little left in that thing that couldn't be replaced with something better--”

“But he loves it. He needs it.” Carolina sharpens her expression. “Would it be possible to build or modify a car with some of Delta’s old parts? So it’s at least… familiar?”

She looks thoughtful; mouth opening and closing once or twice as she thinks. Carolina sits and lets her work, watching her frown and at times seem to sketch something on the table.

“... it wouldn't be easy. Or cheap. There’s no way his insurance would cover a custom job like this.”

“I’ll cover it.” She takes a sip of her drink, feigning nonchalance as Niner stares at her. “You know how rich my dad is. It’s fine.”

Niner sighs and shakes her head. “I won't make any promises about results, but I’ll talk to Andy. You realize I'm gonna have to do most of this at home, right? Keep this a surprise from him? He’s working full time here now that the weather’s starting to get bad.” She points a fry at Carolina. “I'm gonna charge you so much for labor.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.”

“And you know he’s not going to let you buy him a car when you’ll have been dating… three? Four months? It’ll have to be from both of us. And he can work off his debt with me.”

“That's fine,” Carolina says, putting on her cop voice to assure Niner he won't have much of a choice.

Across the table, Niner shakes her head. “I must not know you any more. I could have sworn you weren't that serious about him.”

Carolina freezes.

“I know you. Or I did. You never seemed the type to fall in love like this.”

“When did you get so sappy?” she pushes back, trying to ignore the churn of her emotions over such a simple phrase.

Niner presses the heels of her hands against her eyes. “I don’t know. It's horrible. None of my employees can ever know.”

“Ooooh, let me get my phone out so I can record this moment--”

“Get bent.”

Their conversation lapses again, this time in comfort and ease. Carolina pauses in the act of pulling out her phone and catches sight of York’s text message from the day before. She’d never really replied to it; went to bed too early and too angry to respond, and been busy all of this morning.

// have a good day //

\\ i didn’t yesterday, but i’m having one now \\ she sends back, and then with a moment of hesitation more, adds one last detail.

\\ < 3 \\

Chapter Text

“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?”

York freezes, caught in the middle of draping a blanket over the break room couch. Niner had revoked his truck bed, seeing as there wasn’t a Delta for him to work on anymore, and he’s missed his last bus home. He’d hoped to crash here overnight, maybe take the first bus back to his apartment before his afternoon shift, and Niner was supposed to have gone home already. Instead, here she is standing in the doorway, catching him red-handed.

“I… was tidying?”

“I know how you live, York. You’re not a man who tidies at the end of a long shift. At least not off the clock.” Niner advances on him. “Are you planning on sleeping here again?”

“The buses stop early on Sundays,” he explains. “Chad needed me to cover, and I didn’t think about… What are you doing?”

Niner is holding her phone to her ear and staring him down. He hears the muffled ring of her phone a few times before it’s answered.

“Hi, Carolina?”

York freezes.

“Yeah, wanna come down here and pick up your man? He picked up a closing shift and was going to spend the night on the couch here. … Yeah, the same one. I know!” Unmoved by his pantomimes for mercy, Niner continues on. “Thanks. See you in twenty.”

They stare at each other for a long moment, a softer echo of their last big confrontation. Once again, York is the first to break.

“... The worst part, is I can’t even be mad at you for this.”

“That’s the spirit.” Niner reaches up to punch him in the shoulder. “Take tomorrow off. Weather’s supposed to be shit and you’re almost out of hours.”

“You gonna be okay?” he asks, already starting to make plans for his free time.

She gives him a dry look. “I'm sure I can keep myself busy, thanks. Lock up when you’re ready to go. And shave .”

York reaches a hand up to thumb the stubble forming along his jawline. “What, you don’t like it?”

“Not when I know it's from you running yourself into the ground for two weeks - or two days of skipping showers. If it wasn't November I’d threaten to blast you with a water hose.”

“That's still a threat.”

Niner waves her hands in defeat. “Just go! Go home and have a day off where you’re not sleeping in a truck or trying to catch a bus. Go home and fuck your girlfriend.”

Thankfully, she leaves while York splutters and doesn't stick around to demand an answer on why that flustered him. Truth is, York isn't sure that he could give her any.

He tidies the break room to pass the time and prove Niner wrong, then bundles up and heads outside for a smoke. York is trying to not let it become a habit again, and can already smell the smoke starting to cling to his jacket, but sex is a painful topic for him and needs an anesthetic.

It looks like tomorrow’s snow storm is starting early; there’s a dusting of white on the gravel back lot and tiny flakes are continuing to fall. York blows a plume of white smoke into the air, jacket half-zipped, and watches it drift away in the still night.

// so I have tomorrow off // he texts Carolina, too late remembering that she’s a cop and she’s driving. He fires off another one, condensing what he’d planned to be a much more eloquent and roundabout suggestion. // if you’re free too we should hang out //

No sooner has he typed it out when his phone buzzes with an incoming call; York clears his throat before answering.

“Yeah, I wasn't thinking, sorry.”

It's all right. I'm hands free, sorry if there’s road noise. I work the night shift tomorrow, so I'm open as well.”

“Great,” he says. “Or is the night shift not great?”

It's with Caboose; the guy with the dog. So it shouldn't be too bad. You wanna spend the night?”

York’s mouth is agreeing without consulting with his brain. “Sounds great! I haven’t showered in a couple days.”

“That… doesn’t surprise me as much as it should. I need to pick up some groceries at the store. We’ll get you a change of clothes and you can watch my Netflix while I’m at work if you get snowed in. Sound good?”

He shakes ash off the end of his still-lit cigarette.  “Great. I’ll see you soon. Love you.”

“Bye.

She doesn’t say it back. That’s okay. York knows she cares for him. He can see it in all the little things she does, the softness and sweetness and humor that he’ll sometimes share with Tucker to hear the dramatic disbelief. (“I swear to god, the one time I saw her smile was right after she’d used the taser on someone.”) At least that’s what he tells himself as he puffs through as much of the cigarette as he can before he spots the headlights veering into Invention’s parking lot.

“I thought you quit,” she says as he walks up, her nose wrinkling at the smell. His heart does a flip.

“Yeah, I picked it back up. Nice way to keep warm when you’re not around,” and he finishes it off with a wink, hoping she doesn’t make it an ordeal like the twins have.

Carolina gives him a once-over with her eyes that feels more like a sterile pat-down than an appreciative stare. “I’m not interested in cigarette breath kisses,” she concludes. York deflates, clutching his heart.

“Damn. I’ll get some gum at the store, then. Cheek kisses?”

“Mmm.” She tilts her head to the side ever so slightly, and he plants one on her, taking in a whiff of her detergent and shampoo. “Buckle up. I want to get there before the store gets emptied out.”

“There’s still going to be food left, you know. It’s just a snowstorm. Something in that store will be edible.”

“Trash. Pizza.”

“It wasn’t trash pizza, it was crusts, and they were in a box on top of a crash can in the hallway of the dorm--”

“Trash,” she repeats, twisting in her seat to back up. There’s a little smile on her face even as she grills him, just the barest twist of her lips and he can’t help but grin back at her. “Pizza.”

“Didn’t the rat movie say something about how being picky might mean you starve?”

“And now you’re admitting to taking dietary advice from rats? Smooth, York.”

He plays up his offence. “I am a survivalist.”

“You’re going to get dysentery one day, and I will play the Oregon Trail funeral music over your grave.”

“You know Oregon Trail?” York stares at her, delighted.

“I went to school in the 90s and my entire family was tech nerds, yes I played Oregon Trail. More the second one than the original.” She shrugs. “I was way better than my brother at the shooting mini-game, but he was better as risk management than I was. I tried so hard to float my wagon alone down every river and auto-locked my pace to grueling.”

“How did you even win like that?”

“I shot so many rabbits on the prairie.”

“God, I love you.”

Another little victorious smile, visible in the flash of light from a passing car. “Yeah,” she says. “I know.”

He’s not over this revelation by the time they arrive at the supermarket and he hops out of the car. “I have to get you into video games. I don’t have time for them any more but there’s some really, really good ones. I almost want to start you on Bioshock since it’s a pretty easy shooter, but the story and setting is just so damn good everything else is gonna be a bit of a downgrade.”

“Mmm-hmm.”

“Depends on what you’re into, though. If it’s story then I would recommend the early Fallout ones. And New Vegas. Probably some Bioware stuff too. And then I got my name from Deadly Premonition…”

He takes a moment to let it soak in that he has a cop girlfriend, just like the Agent York in the game, and has a moment of utter panic at the parallels. Oblivious to this, Carolina is continuing to walk forward, grabbing a cart and hauling it free. The clash of metal on metal shakes him out of his trance, and York forces those thoughts and images as far down as he could. Carolina would never. She’d never be--

“Hey. You all right?”

“Uh-- yeah, I’m fine.” York catches up to her, knocks his shoulder against hers to try to ground himself. “Just, do me a favor? Anyone offers you any red seeds, run the other way. Or shoot them.”

She sounds disappointed. “But I love pomegranates.”

“Different red s-- never mind.” He runs a hand through his hair, too late remembering how greasy it’s getting. “Let’s just-- grab our stuff and get out of here.”

The amount of Christmas decor in the store is approaching nauseating. There’s cut outs of peppermints and presents suspended from the distant ceiling, red and green cardboard displays every few feet, and a steady pipeline of recycled tunes looping over the murmur of crowds, clatter of carts, and distant beeping of price scanners. York slips into the arcade to grab a gumball while Carolina waits, the picture of patience, but once again refuses his kiss.

“No PDA.”

York pouts. “I can’t believe I got this gumball for nothing,” he says, seconds before blowing a bubble in her face. She rolls her eyes and starts to wheel the cart towards the produce section; in a fit of juvenile excitement and a sudden sugar rush, he steals the cart from Carolina and making a beeline towards the opposite end of the store.

She catches up to him in the meat aisle, grabbing the other end of the cart and backing him up. “I'm getting kale,” she says, “and there is nothing you can do about it.”

“What’s kale, again?” he asks,checking over his shoulder so they don't run into anything.

“Dark green leaf. Usually steamed since it's thick and a little tough. Very good for you.” She leans forward, both hands gripping the metal basket of the cart. “I'm going to keep you alive if I have to baby-bird you nutritious things.”

“Hey,” he protests, flustered under the intensity of her gaze, “I never said I was a picky eater. I'll take anything you give me.”

“You’ll take it,” Carolina says with a grin, “but can you handle it?”

York’s heel catches the edge of a banana display, and he avoids falling and swallowing his gum. He rubs his hands over his scarlet face, heart racing. “Oh my god, what is it with you and the innuendos in public?”

“Low hanging fruit, I guess. You’re kind of easy like that, York.” Her words should sting, but the way she says his name makes him wonder how it tastes in her mouth to make her smile like that.

He leans on the handle of the cart and smiles back at her, resting on the metal under the weight of his affections.

“So long as you’re having fun,” he concedes, and blows another bubble.

“I am,” she agrees, and then seems to pull herself together, back into the calm capable Carolina he first met four months back. “This,” and she picks up a dark green leafy bundle, “is kale.” There’s not much of it left. Other, more paranoid shoppers have already swept through and lowered the stocked fruits and vegetables; the apples especially are down to a few dozen instead of their usual gleaming piles.

“Okay,” he agrees, still wearing his smile. Carolina bags a couple bundles of produce and deposits them into the cart, tugging it and York along after her.

She keeps her attention on the list on her phone, occasionally pulling the cart back on track when York rabbit-trails to look at something (in order: a rather phallic shaped gourd, peaches, Lofthouse sugar cookies, and the 79 cent frozen entrees that terrify her by their ingredient list) he doesn’t need. He collects a few things anyway, a small bunch of green bananas and some sourdough bread, and watches Carolina giving a longing look at the seafood case.

Too late, York thinks up an ideal fish related pun; they’re already in the next section. Undeterred, he tries to apply the thought process to their festive surroundings. Sure, his weakness might be Carolina making suggestive jokes but he is pretty sure the spectacularly awful humor is hers. It’s hard to think when he’s watching her stare down cuts of meat, quite literally weighing her options with a little purse to her lips and a wrinkle in her forehead, but he tries.

They’re halfway through the dairy aisle, cart loaded up with seasonal vegetables, some discounted near-expiry chicken and festive sugar cookie dough, when York starts the set up.

“So. What if there was this battle in like, medieval times? Lord of the Rings, Charlemagne kind of times?”

“Uh-huh,” Carolina says, digging through the half-gallon whole milk for a better expiration date.

“And it was like, a five way battle between a bunch of different mercenary groups, and all these foot soldiers are just-- going at each other.” Some of the flavored yogurt is on sale - York watches her clear out the last of the key lime pie flavored ones and drops a couple chocolate ones of his own in the cart. If she sees him do it, she doesn’t stop him, already back to the list.

“Uh-huh.”

“But you. You were the only one with a mount, like… a chevalier. Is that the right term?”

“Close enough.”

“So you have this huge advantage over everyone else, and you’re just,” he adds some whooshing sound effects as he follows her down to the orange juice. “Really going at it, mowing them down.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Would you call that… a one horse open slay?”

Carolina pulls the cart forward a couple more steps before she stops dead. York bites his lip around a reckless, giddy smile; her eyes stare unseeing at the juice before her before she slowly, eerily turns her head in his direction. Her expression is blank.

When she grabs his jacket collar in both hands and yanks him down, he has come to terms with the punch. He regrets nothing, shoulders already starting to shake with a laugh. But instead, she grabs a handful of his hair and kisses him, hard and tender all at once. He barely has time to register it, to start to reciprocate before she’s gone, back to looking at the orange juice as if nothing ever happened.

Internally, York drapes himself over the shopping cart in a swoon. Externally he blinks, swallows, tries to pull himself together and make some kind of witty joke. Carolina beats him to it.

“You need to shower.” She plonks a juice blend into the cart and blows a pale pink bubble. “Your hair felt gross.”

“Mm-hmm,” he mumbles, following her as she tugs the cart along, and he can’t tear his eyes away.

 


 

York is fresh into a brand new plain black shirt and sweatpants when he rejoins Carolina in the living room. Their joint attempt at a vegetable soup is heating up on the stove, a discount loaf of sourdough bread ready to be toasted and dunked into it, and he is starving. It’s good to be clean, and better still when he sits down beside his girlfriend and she runs her fingers through his towel-dried hair.

“Much better,” she concludes, and pulls him in for another kiss. This one she takes her time on, slow and warm like a cup of coffee, and York’s hands cup her cheeks. When she pulls away, she doesn’t go very far.

“While you were checking out your stuff at the store,” she says, green eyes dark and excited, “I grabbed some condoms. Do you want to put them to use after dinner?”

York shuts down. “I--” His hands slide down her shoulders, her arms. “I don’t know if--”

She waits, pulling back enough to let him breathe. That frown is back, the cop look, and he wants to want this, to want her to have sex with him, but…

It wasn't supposed to happen like this. All the times he’s rehearsed this conversation in his head to imaginary therapists, the carefully coined phrases are dissolving as Carolina searches his gaze.

“I never slept with North,” he starts. “He-- he wasn’t who I--”

York pulls away from her, hating himself at every inch. His speech comes back to him with the distance, but as the heat in his body fades his heart sinks and hardens, anchoring him to the moment as his mind travels backwards.

“Sex wasn’t that high on my priority list when I was in high school. I was kind of a nerd, and North and South felt like all I needed. Sure, I had crushes and kisses but nothing I really--” He makes a vague gesture that not even he can understand, but when he looks back at Carolina she’s sitting back, watching him. Less of a girlfriend, more of a police officer and a trusted authority figure. He’s not sure why it helps.

“After South broke up with me for good to go after Niner, there was this… this guy. He was in one of my burner classes, some film theory thing.” York fidgets on the couch, pulling a pillow from behind his back and clutching it in his lap. “He was funny, crazy smart, came up with the coolest shit, and was into me. I found out because North dragged me to some gay thing on campus-- gay, like, LGBT, not-- not like gay as in bad.”

“I knew what you meant,” she says softly.

“So I went over to his apartment, and we started drinking, and kissing, and I-- I didn’t--”

He sinks his fingernails into his palms, pressing the pillow down hard against his thighs. “I didn’t want it. But I didn’t say no.” Too scared, too proud to back out once he started. He’d limped home in silence, drunk and numb. Hours later, North tried to kiss him and York broke his nose in a blind, terrified rage. It had taken them months to patch things up after that. “It was the first and last time I’ve had sex with someone. And I don’t know if I could… again.”

York won’t cry. It’s been a few years since it happened that it doesn’t hurt to recall it in the abstract sense, doesn’t panic him to remember insistent hands in delicate places. He mourns it like he does his ruined eye and he tries to work around the scars. Not dating since had been easy enough - he had his IT job in Chorus and then his dying bubbe to keep him busy. He’d never expected Carolina to love him back.

He stops studying the pillow to look at her again; and the first thing he notices are her fists. Clenched so tightly he can see the veins, the little flecks and dashes from old cuts of her own. He raises his eyes to her face and sees the woman he first met, the one who aimed a gun at him and would have pulled the trigger.

“Did you press charges?” she asks, staring out the window.

He’s been asked this before.“No. Like I said. We were drinking. And I didn’t-- I didn’t try hard enough to stop him.”

She nods, like she expected this as well, then punches the back of the couch so hard the frame shuddered. Carolina finally, finally looks at him, her eyes gleaming green and sharp and broken like glass bottles.

“I’m sorry,” she says. “I’m sorry that happened. And I’m so sorry the system failed you. You deserved justice, York. So many people do, and I wish I could give it to them.”

York won’t cry. Those dried up years ago, leaving scar tissue like on his shoulder and around his eyes. Part of him wants to take it back and spare her the burden of knowing, but it was inevitable that she’d find out.

“Sorry to kill the mood,” he finishes, forcing a weak laugh. Carolina shakes her head.

“I’m glad you told me. I mean,” with a little shake of her head, a bitter twist to her mouth. “I’m glad you trust me, and… you told me no. Don’t worry about the mood. A lack of sex hasn’t killed me yet.”

“Maybe later we could. I don’t… I don’t know. Maybe with you, it’d be better.” He wants to want her, and he thinks he might. But not tonight.

She sighs, gets up and strokes his shoulder on the way to the kitchen. “I’d certainly hope I’d be better,” she says drily. “Get the TV set up. I started a new mystery series recently. You down for that?”

His ready joke of ‘I’m down with anything’ dies in his mouth, and swallowing it is bitter enough to kill his appetite.

God, he wants to want her. The space between them on the couch, the tense line between Carolina’s eyebrows, the awful minutes years ago he’d spent at the mercy of a selfish sexual partner; all of these are so frustratingly small, a pebble in his shoe, but they are enough to cripple him tonight. York keeps his hands and apologies to himself, misses half the mystery, and lays awake on Carolina’s couch for hours in the dark.

Chapter Text

 

Carolina doesn’t sleep well, either.

She wakes up before her alarm and stares across her bedroom at the vague shape of her desk along the wall. It’s for the best that York took the couch last night; there are papers everywhere, as numerous and pale as the snowflakes falling outside, overflowing off her tiny desk to sprawl on the floor. If he had come in, he would have seen them, the hard copies of all the case notes and court transcriptions from the Felix case.

She doesn't trust him to understand why she’s read them so many times the pages are growing soft at the edges, underlined passages like “a history of flaunting regulations in the name of crude insight and selfish pride” and “her own department sent her away” and “a case formed by a bitter, vengeful egotist.” York is too kind, too forgiving, and doesn't know how to be hard. Not on himself, not on anyone else.

Carolina stares at the papers, willing herself to pick them up as she shifts through the mess in her head. Should she have noticed the signs sooner? The way his dirty jokes sounded like empty promises, how he leaned into her kisses but kept her hands well away from his hips? The way he doesn't look sometimes at North, and how North looks at him?

Was there enough evidence there, too, and once again she was too blind to see it?

The distinct plastic clatter of someone dropping her nesting bowls on the floor jerks her out of her stupor; on cue, Eta and Iota start chirping demands for attention. Carolina rises, drapes a zippered hoodie over her shoulders, tends to their needs and steps out of her bedroom.

York is in the brightly lit kitchen, cracking eggs into a bowl. He looks up when she emerges, his face falling.

“Did I wake you up? I'm so sorry. I was hoping to surprise you with pancakes.”

“I was already awake. And I am surprised.” Carolina pads forward, putting her arms through the sleeves. “Keep going. I’ll make coffee.”

Out of the corner of her eye, she watches him work - peek through cabinets to the ingredients he needs, lips occasionally moving as he follows instructions on his phone. His focus is charming, enough to enrapture her in turn, and Carolina nurses her coffee and pretends to check her phone on the other side of the kitchen counter.

“It's one of my bu-- my grandmother’s recipes,” York explains as he unhooks her frying pan from the rack above the island.

“You can call her Bubbe. I know who you mean.” Carolina takes another sip of coffee. “There’s coconut oil in the spice cabinet. You can use that to grease the pan if you don't like butter.”

“Thanks,” he says, and drops a generous dollop of coconut oil in to heat as he goes back to whisking batter. “It's been a while since I made it and her handwriting is hard to read in a picture.”

“I didn't see you put in a cup of salt, so I think it should be all right.”

His smile is lightning quick, flashing across his face as he works.

“But I'm out of maple syrup,” she confesses, and stifles a smile at how much his shoulders drop in comic dismay.

“Should I ask North for some?”

“No,” and it's her turn to switch moods on a dime, the syllable too sharp in the soft morning light. “No, I have frozen berries, we can just-- make a sauce from that.”

“All right.” That fast, he’s forgiven her, conceded to her plans and started pouring little circles of batter in the pan. It baffles her, and she goes back to studying him.

They've been dating little over a month, been friends for four, and she’s known him for five. Not much time to understand anybody. She’s oversimplified him into her sweet, Jewish mechanic boyfriend and she owes him more than that. So Carolina watches him cook and returns the smiles he throws her.

“Why do you love me?”

The question shocks York as much as it does her when it slips out of her mouth. He freezes in the middle of flipping a pancake, wide eyes blinking before his brow furrows in thought. God help him, he’s taking it seriously.

“When we first met,” he starts slowly, “I broke into your house and threatened to throw up on your white rental carpet. You had a gun on me, but switched it out for a glass of water.”

He flips the pancake, hand trembling just enough for her to spot. “You could have shot me. You would have had the right. But you didn't. You’re tough and capable and could do whatever you wanted, but you chose to be nice. That’s…”

The words seem to die in his mouth as he looks at the pan, then, finally, up at her. In the early morning light she’s struck by how blue his eyes are, one light and one dark.

“You’re something special, Carolina,” York finishes. “And I kind of have a thing for girls who can kick my ass.”

That doesn't make any sense. “You’re nice, too.”

“I grew up with an overprotective bubbe and two blond twins with no understanding of boundaries. I never learned how to be anything but nice,” he points the spatulas at her, “and I gotta rely on people like you to be mean for me.”

Resting her chin in her hand, Carolina quirks an eyebrow. “So you’re using me for my guns?”

York makes a show of flexing. “Aren't you using me for mine?”

Lucky she isn't drinking at that moment, or she would have spat coffee all over the table. Maybe she laughs a little too loud, a little too hard, but it’s a relief to see that he’s all right. That they are all right, despite the cold turn they had taken last night.

Carolina’s giggles peter out and she sees York watching her with a soft, almost misty eyed expression. He snaps out of his stupor to flip a pancake, but he wasn't fast enough. There's a rosy cast to his ears, a hint of color on his cheeks.

“I’ll start the sauce, then?” she offers.

York clears his throat. “That’d be great.”

Back to back in her kitchen, Carolina relaxes to the gentle beat of her spoon against the bottom of the pan, the sizzle of wet batter on a hot griddle behind her, the occasional chatter of her birds in the bedroom. She peers over her shoulder to see a neat trio of pancakes set on a plate, a fourth joining them.

“You're pretty good at that for someone who claims he can’t cook,” she teases.

“I have a lot of experience with Bisquick.”

“Not latkes?”

“Those too. But you don’t cook ‘em like you do pancakes. It’s closer to deep-frying.”

Carolina adds a little bit more sugar to the frozen strawberries. “Show me sometime?”

“Sure.”

Over the clatter of the wooden spoon against the bottom of the pan, and the hiss of cold batter hitting hot oil, Carolina hears York clear his throat. Out of the corner of her eye, she watches him wipe his face and shake his head. She can guess where his thoughts have gone.

She can’t decide if she envies him or not. Her mother died when Carolina was too young to have many memories of her; all she knows is the void she left behind, an emptiness that turned Leonard Sr into something cold and hard and impersonal. If her father died tomorrow, all she might mourn is what he could have been. What is it like to have been loved so much, and then to have them go?

“Hey.”

Carolina glances over her shoulder. “Yeah?”

York turns, just enough to catch her eye, and smiles at her. “I love you,” he says, simple and sweet, and her heart flips in her chest.

“I--”

The moment seems to hang in midair, like a movie stuttering mid-play. He means it. He’s always meant it. This isn’t anything extraordinary. And yet--

“I love you too,” she echoes, transfixed even after York’s smile broadens and he turns back to his cooking. At last she turns away, pressing her fingertips first to her cheeks and then to her neck. Shaking herself, Carolina forces herself to focus on the strawberry sauce until time is moving at a normal pace again.


 

Three days later, fueled by four hours of sleep and pure spiteful willpower, Carolina drives to Andy’s Used Car Emporium in a stormy mood. It’s been snowing off and on since York’s day off, and the spike in traffic accidents is keeping them both busy. They’re just dents and scares, little more than bruises or bad moods inflicted on the drivers, but like the precipitation and everything else in Carolina’s life it’s starting to pile up.

She checks her phone one last time - the lock screen shows only a picture of Eta and Iota - and slams her car door on her way out.

If Niner has any smart remarks about how sex might improve Carolina’s disposition, she keeps them to herself.

“I hate car shopping too,” she offers, along with a thermos of coffee, as Carolina crosses the parking lot to meet her. They’re meeting up over Carolina’s lunch in secret for this, having claimed to all ears they were getting pedicures. “But I made Andy promise to keep his goons off us, so we should be able to kick the tires in peace.”

“That's fine.” She doesn't know enough about cars to help decide anything. “I'm just a checkbook with legs today, so you’re gonna be doing all of the kicking.”

“And all the car work too. You're really making me do everything for your man’s Christmas present, huh?”

“He’s Jewish,” Carolina reminds her tartly, “and it's not a present . You said you’d let him work it off.”

Niner raises her mittened hands. “Okay, okay. Guess I should have put some Bailey's in that coffee, huh?”

She lets that one hang in the air, eyes down as she follows Niner to the used car lot. Most of the snow from a couple days past has been cleared, but there’s still piles of white under the cars hiding from the coarse green-tinted salt.

She keeps replaying little scenes from Tuesday in her mind; for once more good than bad. The revelation about his assault makes sense and it grieves her to know that he’s someone else who’ll never know justice, but in the light of that pain it makes his love for her so much more surprising. Even after that, he'd still--

Carolina snaps back to the present as Niner scrubs frost off the hood of a little silver car.

“You know they stopped making York’s car model like… thirteen years ago?” the mechanic explains. “Straight up stopped? Not even the name exists anymore.”

“It… did look kind of boxy. And old.”

“Chevy Lumina coupe. Possibly the ugliest car ever made.  And old enough it woulda been in high school.” Niner moves on to the next car. “We’re not gonna find anything in that line. And we’re not gonna try, either.”

Carolina catches the eye of a salesman across the way, waving enthusiastically. She turns her back on him. “So… what are we looking for, then?”

“A car with a similar size and handling. He drove as well as he did because he was so used to the, uh…” Niner whips out a measuring tape and hands Carolina one end. “Hold this at the back tail light.”

“Careful not to scratch it?”

“If you want. Andy is the one guy in town with a junkyard, but a raging asshole. He’s a necessary evil and I don't care if we scuff the merchandise.”

Regardless, Carolina holds the tape measure against the plastic taillight lens, mind slipping back to a warmer morning.

She’s had significant others before, and most of them were pretty cool. Couple messy break ups, sure, and that one time she threw an entire hamper of laundry out the window, but she’s always been able to stay practical about it. Keep her head, a sense of perspective, and know when it’s better for everyone to end it.

York? She has known him for five months and she’s helping buy a car for him, for a holiday he doesn't even celebrate.

This time, when Niner kicks a tire, Carolina follows suit.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Niner yelps, “I said you could scratch it a little by accident, not dent the hubcap . What's wrong with you?”

“Nothing,” Carolina snaps. “I'm helping.”

Niner pauses in taking a picture of the car. “You’re pissy this morning. Everything okay with York?”

“York is fine. York is great. We’re great. I just--” she grasps, frantic, for something concrete to be angry about this morning, “I-- I hate car shopping.”

“Yeah,” Niner says slowly, staring at her. “We established that already.”

“Well, I still hate it. Let’s keep going.”

“Oh-kaaaay.”

Carolina marches onwards, leaving Niner to finish her note-taking. She takes another sip of coffee without tasting it, and forces herself to pay attention to the cars around her. Tries to envision York’s old car and find something similar.

“How about this one?” she asks, gesturing to a small, black car.

Niner barely looks up, already interested in another vehicle. “That’s a sedan. York had a coupe.”

“I thought you said he had a Chevy?”

“No, that’s like-- the brand of car. A coupe is a model of car with two doors. That one has four. Means it’s gonna be too long.”

“Oh. Right.” She should have known that. Probably did, but just forgot it. Carolina shakes her head and falls back behind Niner, mind miles away.

York had texted her that he’d be working all day today, and his message of // niners out so im like her substitute since I'm a key holder please call me eighter // had made her smile. The memory of it now just makes her frown deepen. It's not even that good of a joke. She’s giving him too much credit.

A dramatic gasp makes her jump, hand grabbing for her hip where her holster usually sits. Niner has both hands over her mouth, eyes wide.

“What?” Carolina snaps, every nerve wired.

“You’re so pissy because you caught feelings ,” Niner gushes - and worse than that accusation is that she’s right. Carolina’s face floods with guilty heat, and she fears it's going as red as her hair.

“What are you talking about?” she bluffs, trying to save face.

Undeterred, Niner continues. “You've been emotionally constipated your entire life--”

“Hey! I have not!”

“--and now you're finally giving a shit and don't know how to handle it!” Niner claps her hands together and leans forward. It’s the happiest Carolina has ever seen her. “Holy shit.”

This is starting to sting her ego. “I care about things! And people! If you haven’t noticed, I work very hard to try to keep order and protect--”

“It’s different. Your job and community don't-- I mean, this one could, but they don't care for you back. Not like York does. It's all personal and intimate and shit.” Mercifully, Niner turns back to the next car as she talks, leaving Carolina to have a crisis in peace. “And you weren't like that at all when we were in school together.”

“That was ten years ago. Of course I'm different-- and I am not constipated.”

Niner measures the width of the trunk herself. “Uh-huh.”

Carolina takes another deep drink of coffee that settles in her stomach like gravel. York does care, and so much; not for sex or prestige or any other ulterior motive. He thinks she's nice, for fucks sake. Carolina hasn't been called nice in years. It's different. It matters. Nothing in Longshore was supposed to matter.

“Hey, do you think he’d like this one?”

Halfway across the lot, Niner is scowling at a car that looks almost as old as York’s had been. As Carolina watches, she leans in to read some of the details.

“On second thought, I’m not sure if this thing has airbags,” she concludes, dusting some snow off the hood.

Carolina bristles. “Is it legal to sell a car like that?”

“You’re the cop. You tell me.” She hums. “Wouldn’t mind seeing that arrest. Probably won’t help his explosive temper, though.”

“I-- Hang on.” Reaching for her phone, she’s already typing the question into the search bar when York’s penchant for doing the same crosses her mind. She’s seized by the sudden urge to lob the damn thing as hard as she can, but then she’d have to go get a new phone by the end of lunch and she’s pretty sure her smartphone insurance won’t cover that. “I’ll look that up later.”

“Boring,” Niner sulks, and retracts her measuring tape with a metallic warble and a snap.

 


 

The used car lot ended up a bust - Niner took some photos for consideration but neither of them were impressed by the selection. They might have to try another lot in another town for the right match, but that’s another day. Today she has to give up, chow down on the granola bar stashed in the dashboard, and try to work around construction to get back to the station.

“Who starts construction in December?” she laments, staring at an orange striped barricade as she turns, listening to her GPS scramble to reroute yet again. If there’s a bright side, it means that she can take in new Christmas decorations on people’s lawns. Might not be dark enough for them to be lit up, but Carolina still finds the wire-frame skeletons of deer and the nylon pools of uninflated snowmen interesting. There’s a single string of white lights drizzled on top of her TV stand that she forgets to plug in half the time, and that’s all the decor she ever plans on doing. Doesn’t stop her from remembering marveling at the lights at night as a child, however.

A car, parked on someone’s lawn, catches her eye; Carolina eases her foot off the gas, giving it a second look, and slams on the brakes immediately after. She’s out of her vehicle in seconds, leaving it running on the narrow shoulder with her hazard lights on as she crosses the empty road.

She uses her sleeve to shove the inch or two of snow obscuring the car, revealing a cardboard FOR SALE sign under the windshield. More scrubbing as the cold sinks into her forearm - dark red hood, patchy from a poor paint job. Two doors and a short trunk, just like York’s old car.

Carolina shakes her arm, picking at packed snow matting her canvas coat, then she’s back at it, scanning the car for any visible defects. Tires look a little flat from sitting, upholstery in the back is stained in a disconcerting manner. But the bones of a good car all seem to be there, and she fumbles her phone out of her pocket.

There’s a flicker of movement on the edge of her vision. Carolina turns in the middle of calling Niner and sees the curtains shake. On a whim, she storms through the snowy lawn to the sidewalk, banging on the door as she waits for Niner to pick up.

The door opens a fraction, and a child’s face appears seconds before a man blocks their view. “Can I help you, ma’am?” he asks, tone flat and uneasy.

“Hi, Niner? One second.” Carolina flashes her badge on instinct, already halfway through the motion before it occurs to her to leave it in her pocket. “Good afternoon, sir. Do you have a tape measure?”


Chapter Text

He’s supposed to be helping Washington day-before-Christmas-shop for Tucker, but York’s mind is miles away, years away to some distant hopeful future as they wander through the home appliance section of the superstore.

“Is it weird,” he remarks as he comes out of a misty daydream of making Carolina waffles in bed with a sparkling new four setting waffle iron, “that this section makes me a little thirsty?”

“It's certainly not helpful,” Washington gripes, pouring over a wishlist on his phone. “Church is useless at this. I told him to take pictures of Tucker’s new place so I know what he needs, and everything he sent me is either out of focus or in horrible lighting. Like this!”

A phone is shoved in York’s face.

“This! What is this?”

“Uh…” York squints at the screen, trying to decipher the shape there, and even goes so far as to lift up his eyepatch. It's dark, and possibly square, and maybe is sitting on a kitchen counter. Tiles, for sure. Nothing else jumps out at him. “You know you're asking someone who’s half blind, right?”

His roommate sighs. “Yeah, but you would have taken a better picture.”

“I am very good at following orders.”

“Don't be gross, York.” Washington taps at his screen. “It's just-- I wanna get this right, you know? It's Christmas.”

“So then ask him what he wants?” York offers, eyeballing a large stand mixer, the last in stock. He’s tempted until he sees the price tag. “Ouch.”

“I want it to be a surprise . That's the point of wrapping paper.” Washington makes a noise of disgust as he spots another picked-clean display. “I shouldn't have waited so long.”

“Probably.”

He gets another dark look for that, but it doesn't bother him. It doesn’t last long before Washington is moving along down the next aisle.

“How’s the house-selling thing going?”

York exhales. “It's all repainted. Mostly vacuumed. Kind of redecorated. I’m getting an agent and having it listed for real in the spring.”

“You sure you wanna sell it? It’d be cheaper to stay there then try to pay both shares of rent after I move out.”

He blinks. “... what?”

Washington pauses in inspecting a toaster. “When I graduate. And the current lease runs out. In June.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah. Unlike your weird not-siblings, I don't plan on staying in school forever.” Dissatisfied, he sets the appliance back down and moves along.

York follows him, struck dumb by this new train of thought. He’s been busy with everything else, part of him had forgotten about the house and his plans for the new year. It’s hard to plan for the future when each day is enough of a struggle to get just a couple things done. If he can’t get an apartment to himself, what then? Could he really go back and live in that empty, empty house?

He takes another look at the kitchen appliances, of the advertisement above them of a family cooking breakfast in a sunny, white kitchen. A stab of want hits him hard enough to knock the wind out of him, a bone deep need that roots him to the spot. It’s not until Washington taps him on the arm that York comes back to the present.

“You okay, dude?”

“Yeah.” York swallows. “Yeah, yeah I’m fine. Just… thinking about things.”

“How novel,” his roommate drawls.

The buzz of his phone in his pocket breaks York’s train of thought, derailing any witty comebacks. A quick glance at the caller ID tells him it’s Butch - his heart skips a beat.

“I have to-- go to the bathroom,” he blurts, already turning to jog down the nearest empty aisle. Nearly drops the phone trying to take the call, and York presses his fingers to his other ear to drown out the dissonant cover of Jingle Bell Rock over the store radio. “Hello?”

“Brady! It’s me.”

“Hey, Butch. How goes it?”

“Very well. For you, at least. I’ve kept my ears open at work, taken some opportunity to dig, and I found some very interesting financial records.” His ex-coworker seems delighted, but York’s never seen Butch as anything but perfectly pleased with his circumstances. “I’ve got them on a flash drive. Back up ones, too. I know this work is pretty clean compared to what I used to do back in the day, but it does make me feel very dirty.”

“Does it now?” Too late to stop himself. York settles for making a face.

“Oh yes. And did you know, I may have discovered someone sympathetic to our cause? There's a man named Locus who says he’s been keeping an eye on the Gates for a few years now, and wanted to know what I had found. I think he’ll be a real asset.”

It makes sense that someone else might be upset by the dismissal of the murder trial. Doesn't help the sudden spike of anxiety that lances through him. Getting Butch involved was enough - more people could mean more risk, more of a chance that someone gets arrested. And wouldn't that be a way to go?

York turns his back when he catches a mother’s eye, lowers his voice. “That’s great. Really, really great. Can you send that stuff to me so I can take it to Carolina?”

“Through the mail?”

“Uh--”

The woman is still there, watching him. York hurries down a few more aisles until he’s stooped down among the shoe racks, pretending to put a shoe on.

“In person? Is that better?”

“Well, Locus says he has some business to attend to next month down there. I’ll see about sending the intel with him? Maybe by that time he’ll have made all the arrangements he said he needed before consulting with his authorities. If he checks out, of course. If not I might have to k--”

“Sounds great,” York grits, and tries putting the shoe on the correct foot this time. “Listen, I-- I should go. I can’t thank you enough, but I’m at the store, so--”

“Oh! Of course! And can I just say, I’m honored to have given you a hand with this job.”

“You’re-- welcome?”

I do love me a bit of good old fashioned subterfuge. We make a great team. Pity you never wanted in on that threesome. I think it could have been--”

“Oh, whoops, going through a tunnel, bye!” He can't hang up fast enough to escape the mental image. Butch, maybe, if he was drunk enough and over his PTSD, but Reggie? Absolutely not.

York stares at his phone, trying to pull himself back into his body. Now that the call is over, the whole scenario - that he’s investigating a very well connected man, the heir to his old employer - feels surreal. It helps that Butch is doing most of the work. The history he alludes to sometimes, when York gets him drunk, would imply that he knows what he’s doing playing with powers like this.

He rubs a thumb over his screen, smearing fingerprints across his reflection. At least one of them feels confident in their work.

Washington gives him a side eye when York saunters back up. “Enjoy your bathroom break?” he asks.

York shrugs.

“Whatever. I'm going with the crock pot. My mom always said it didn't hurt to have more than one.”

Something occurs to him. “You're getting Tucker a gift, even though you're not sure if you're going to stay together after graduation?”

 

“I'm here now,” Washington says, “aren't I?” and he snatches the last box off the shelf with a huff. “I'm headed to menswear. I need more socks.”

Washington settles the box in their cart amidst the cereal and crackers and canned soup, and drives away. York follows, lost in thought.

A set of mugs catches his eye as he passes; a little matched pair of Santa and Mrs. Claus. On impulse, he snatches a set off the shelf and tucks the box under his arm. The hard edges digging into his bicep and the chill ceramic faces under his fingers keep him grounded for the rest of the trip.

 


 

There’s not time to wrap it in anything but fast food napkins from the glove compartment of Washington’s car, but York tries his best to make the little package look nice. Maybe it smells a little bit like leather and french fries, but it’ll get washed anyway. He cradles it in his free hand the whole way up the stairs to her apartment, reciting a script in his head. One that, predictably, flies out the window when Carolina opens the door.

Her hair is braided and draped over one shoulder, the blue of her sweater drawing turquoise tones in her eyes. Behind her, the apartment is cast in warm, gentle light from the string of holiday lights around the TV stand and the line of candles on the coffee table. He takes in a breath, lost for words, and catches the unmistakable scent of fresh bread and beef stock.

“Mer-- Merry Christmas,” he says, a half-minute too late. “I got the list you sent me.” And he raises the bag of groceries into her line of sight.

Carolina’s arched eyebrow goes even higher. “Are you going to come in, or--”

“Yeah, I just--” he tries to take off his coat but finds something in the way. “Oh, here, this is--”

His grip on the paper slips. York has just enough sense to feel the package escape his grip but not enough to catch it on the way down, and his heart falls with it. He closes his eyes, flinching from the inevitable crash.

It doesn’t come.

“You can take the eye-patch off, too,” Carolina suggests, and as he opens his good eye he sees her set the wrapped package on the kitchen table. She caught it, and continues on like nothing happened. “I’ve never liked how it looks. You should get a nicer one.”

“I-- absolutely agree with you.” York eases out of his coat and hangs it up beside the door, draping the cheap felt eyepatch on the next hook. “But I kind of traded my nice one for a pack of cigarettes back in, like… June. Haven’t gotten once since.”

“Cigarettes?”

“Not my proudest moment.” It takes him a moment to get used to seeing with both eyes again, and as he does Carolina’s apartment seems more real. The candles are all mismatched, the lights are slumping off to one side of the TV stand, and there’s a hole in Carolina’s jeans; but it charms him further. “I was pretty drunk.”

He takes another look at the table, the row of nine candles with the tallest in the center. Tilts his head to the side and wonders if it's supposed to look like a menorah. Not that he’ll ask.

“Apartment looks nice.”

“Thanks.”

York slides back over to the table, where the package sits. Carolina is doing something with the soup, scowling at the pot, and he wants to rub her wrinkles with his thumbs until she finally relaxes. She’s been tense like this for weeks now. His meeting with Locus can’t come quick enough.

In the meantime, he nudges the package towards her. “Here. Merry Christmas.”

She pauses in her harried stirring to study him, then flicks a glance down at the napkin wrapped bundle. “That?”

York feels his face heat up. Too late to change his mind about it now. “Well, yeah.”

“I thought you didn't celebrate it.”

“I just-- saw it. And thought of you. Which is why it's wrapped in napkins.”

She hums and finishes pouring tomato soup into the pot, tapping the can against the side. With no further ado, she tears the napkins away, revealing the boxed set of Christmas mugs.

“One for me, one for you. See?” York offers, feeling unhelpful as always. Carolina stares at the package, touching each painted face gently, then sets it down with a scowl. His heart sinks. “You don't like it?”

“No,” she snaps, but her face is going bright red. “I mean, yes. I--I like it. It's cute.”

“I could keep them at my place?”

“No,” she repeats with more fire, snatching the box up and taking them to the sink, ripping them out of their cardboard confines and rinsing out the inside of each. “They're mine. They're staying here. See? You can’t take them back now.”

York blinks, studying her for a moment longer. Then her bashful actions click, and he gets it.

“Can I kiss you?” he asks, heart in his throat. She’s so goddamn cute, it's going to kill him; the weight of it so heavy he has to grab the edge of the kitchen counter to stay upright.

Carolina tuts, drying the mugs. “I guess so.” But the way she tilts her head up to meet his kiss says volumes.

“Merry Christmas Eve,” he whispers.

“That's not how it works,” she replies, just as soft.

“It isn’t? But South said--”

Carolina doesn't ask for permission this time, but as she rests her arms around his neck, York can't bring himself to care.

 


 

As requested, York arrives at Invention early, catching a ride with Carolina on her way home from the night shift. She follows him in, muttering something about coffee, and York heads to Niner’s office.

It's open, and his boss is feeding her fish by hand. “Want me to clock in?” he asks.

“Not yet. I want your opinion on something first. Where did Carolina go?”

“Break room, I think.”

Niner makes a face. “Last thing that woman needs is coffee. Well. Anyway.” She cocks her head as she walks past and York follows her to the garage floor.

It's pretty clear of cars - he’d picked up a lot of hours over the holiday so that others could celebrate it with family - but there's a coupe in the middle that wasn't there last night.

“That?”

“Yeah. Want you to take a look at it.”

York studies the outside with a practiced eye. It's a modern model, around five years old. “No body damage,” he concludes as he circles the little dark red car. “Tires look good from here. Maybe a scuff mark on the bumper.”

“Of course,” Niner mutters. “Go on.”

He pops the hood, studies the engine. “Do you want me to, like, read you the specs, or--”

“Nah, that's fine.”

Mystified, York continues his examination. Everything looks to be in solid running condition - even the oil seems to have been changed recently.

“It seems fine?”

“Check the interior,” Niner says. Over her shoulder, Carolina emerges from the break room, holding a styrofoam cup. The quizzical look he throws at his girlfriend is met with an impassive stare.

He opens the car door and kneels on the seat. Upholstery looks good, dash seems fine, and the steering wheel--

York freezes. Reaches out to trace the symbol in the center, and his thumb just catches on a trace of adhesive from a post-it note that sat there for weeks, long ago. Slowly, his heart starts to beat again.

“Oh, I forgot something.” Niner pulls something out of her pocket and slaps it on the hood - a bright green bow. “Merry Christmas.”

“No,” he breathes, shooting her a terrified look. “Niner, there’s no way I can--”

“You can work it off if you want, but you are taking this car. It's the same size as the last one and everything.” Niner’s stare softens. “No one else is gonna want a Franken-car with a fifteen year old steering wheel, so you have to have it.”

“...Okay.”

“So stop crying.”

“Okay.”

She doesn't protest when he hugs her, but she does kick him in the shin when he lifts her off the ground. “I am your boss . Let me have some dignity.”

“Thank you--” he chokes, careful not to hug her too tight.

“Now, share some of those hugs with Carolina. It was her idea, and she helped buy most of the parts.”

Across the garage floor, Carolina goes rigid. She meets his gaze like a deer in the headlights, and as Niner slithers out of his slack grip, Carolina’s expression narrows.

“I told you not to--”

“Yeah, and since when have I ever listened to you?” Niner slaps him on the thigh, startling him out of his stupor. “Go. I bet she won't care if you cry all over her.”

Carolina watches him to cross to meet her, fidgeting with her cup. “I'm sorry about-- Delta. That you couldn't fix him. I hope that this one can work as well, or close to as well.” Her words and body are stiff, awkward. As though she’s afraid of her own words as they come out.

Realization is like the turn of a key, like coming home. It doesn't matter how good or bad either of them are at what they're trying to do for each other. Nothing can ever replace Delta. Nothing can bring that murdered woman back to life.

“... York?”

What matters is doing what you can.

Carolina’s mouth tastes familiar in the kiss; he assumes it's because she’s been sipping on the same coffee he has near every morning, which splashes on the ground seconds before she wraps her arms around his neck. His probably tastes saline but he couldn't stop crying now if he tried, heart beating hard enough to burst.

“Thank you,” he gasps, when he has to breathe. “Thank you for-- for everything.”

“Well,” and it's so unlike Carolina to fumble, but it makes him weak in the knees to see her blush, “you’re welcome. Happy hanukkah.”

“That's not how it works,” York whispers, grinning, trembling with the force of everything.

She opens her mouth, but is beat to the punch.

“If you're done over there,” Niner complains, “one of you is gonna have to get the mop.”

Carolina peers around York with a furious look that he ruins with a kiss on her cheek.

“Go home,” he soothes. “Get some sleep. I'll clean up here and-- if I have time after work I can come by?”

“I’d like that,” she admits, a trace of her frown still lingering so he rubs her forehead with his thumb to smooth the wrinkles out. Another kiss, this one her idea; as if from years away, he hears Niner scoff. Then she is gone, door jingling shut behind her and a cup of spilled coffee cooling in her wake.

A long silence, where York presses the side of his fist against his mouth, mind and heart a million miles away. Niner clears her throat again.

“We open in twenty,” she reminds him. “Clean up the stain, and then go park your new toy out back. Gotta get the floor clear, we've got a couple SUVs coming in today.” Another pat on the back, this one higher up to clap him on the elbow. “And no more hugs. That's two in the last two months. I have a reputation, you know.”

“Yes, boss.” York wipes off his face and heads to the cleaning closet. However this investigation with Felix Gates ends, he’ll see it through. For her.

Chapter Text

One of the strictest rules about being a police officer is to never complain about a boring shift. Sure, the time might creep by and leave room for hours of self doubt, the memories of the Felix Gates case revisited so many time they’ve worn thin, but that means that people are safe. That's better than anything else, in her book.

But those treacherous thoughts have been drifting across her mind of late, that need to prove herself. The need to win. And there's not a trace of regret when she gets the call on the radio.

Aaaaa-ttention all units! We've got reports of a robbery in progress at the Munch Pump down on Gramercy Road. Who wants dib--? ” Kaikaina crows. She hasn't finished speaking before Carolina is sitting up in her seat and snatching her radio.

“Officer Carolina Church, I'm on my way.”

We know which one you are,” Tucker reminds her, a jab she ignores.

Still a toss up which one of them you’d rather fuck, though.” If Kaikaina is trying to come to Carolina’s defense, she’d rather go back to when no one at the station liked her. It’s wildly unprofessional, but now is not the time for another lecture on taking their jobs seriously.

“Do we know anything else about the robbery?” she asks anyway, rubbing her forehead to get rid of her frown. “Is the perp armed?”

Silent alarm.” Her brother’s voice this time. His words are careful, a reminder that the bruises are still there.

I am in the area! With Freckles! I am going to meet you there, Miss Officer Carolina!”

She winces. “Uh-- okay, Officer Caboose. Just-- sit tight until I get there, okay? And keep your sirens off, but use your lights.”

Okay!”

The gas station is only seven minutes from her current task of issuing parking tickets. She makes it in four and just barely catches Caboose on his way in the back, no vest and no gun.

“Wait wait wait wait,” she hisses. “I'll go in first. You-- watch this back door, okay?

He responds with his usual enthusiasm - and volume. “Okay!”

There's a murmur of movement inside the gas station. Carolina draws her gun but keeps the safety on, and slowly eases the door open.

It's a forgettable place, some mom and pop gas station that can't have more than a hundred bucks in the register, and the man with the mask and gun looks slender enough she could break him over her knee. Nothing like some of the brutal, efficient jobs she’s seen in Chorus. Her guard slips, then she meets the eyes of the cashier and is back in her element. Crime is crime, and it is her job to keep it in check.

“Freeze!”

No one ever freezes. She doesn't know why she bothers to snap the command as she steps into the line of sight of the burglar, circling around the short aisle of junk food and confronts the young man with the gun. Poorly, as it seems. He’s out the door in a flash, and she hesitates too long for a shot.

Texas would have her badge, but Texas is miles and miles away. She can still fix this.

Holstering her gun, Carolina snaps out orders to Caboose on her radio as she takes off on foot down the snow-speckled sidewalk.

“Suspect is armed and fleeing on foot. I'm in pursuit headed south down--” a glance at a street sign-- “Decorate?”

Decatur ,” her brother offers from the station. Useless as usual.

“Caboose, secure the gas station. I think the suspect was working alone but we need to be sure.”

Yes, Officer Carolina! ” Dumb but oddly dependable. He’s got a dog for backup, if nothing else.

He’s fast and knows the streets better than she does, but Carolina used to do track in high school and jogged every day through college. If she can just get him to something like a parking lot, she should be able to outpace him.

It feels a little like working back in Chorus. Here the sky is brighter, a true winter blue, and the air tastes cold and clean. It's enough to make her grin as she tries for another burst of speed, and thank god there's not many people around on the street to see her like this. She’s almost having fun.

The robber tosses a trash can in her way; Carolina leaps over it, her only thought being how she can’t wait to tell York about that later, and keeps sprinting without breaking stride.

“Heading down Vintage Ave--”

Vitner --”

“Who names your roads?” she barks. “Where I'm from, they’re all numbers and letters and they make sense .”

Old white guys. As fucking usual.” Tucker this time.

“I don't care, it was rhetoric-- ahhh !”

Everything seems to happen at once. Her suspect turns a corner, leaping over a patch of sidewalk. She's close enough to reach out so she puts on a last burst of speed, only to have her feet yanked out from under her. With a sharp cry, Carolina slips, landing hard on black ice.

Pain shoots up her arm and hip, stunning her. She meets the eyes of the robber as he rounds a corner; gone before she can catch her breath from where it was knocked out of her. Face hot, she tries to get up. Putting weight on her wrist only makes the pain worse, fierce enough she has to stop halfway to her knees.

Her radio, somehow unscathed, is shrieking at her. “ Carolina? Carolina, are you okay?”

“Yeah,” she manages, struggling to her feet on the second try. Her knee threatens to give out. She ignores it, hobbles to the alley where the robber had run. Not a trace of him. He’s gone. She’s failed. Again.

Her hand shakes as she presses the talk button. “Caboose, need you to-- take a statement from the cashier. I'm... I lost him.”

Her brother shouts over half of Caboose’s reply. “ Okay, Miss Off--” “Fuck, what happened? I'm calling an ambulance--” “--let Freckles play?”

“I'm not-- bleeding,” she says, ignoring the little ruby flecks on her palm. “And sure. Freckles, fetch or whatever. He does non-lethal, right?”

He gives great hugs!”

“I'm up on the north side, headed your way to back you up.” No bow-chika this time from Tucker. He much be worried, too. “ You want that ambulance?”

“No,” she growls, the ache seeping into her ego. “I'm driving myself there. It's just a sprain.” If she’s lucky, it’s a sprain and not a fracture.

You slipped?”

Carolina winces. “Yes.”

A brief pause, then Tucker’s voice, surprisingly calm. “ It happens. Maybe if you bitch to the mayor about how tiny our budget is for salting sidewalks, he’ll listen to you.”

They still laughed at her. No way that they didn’t. But the grace at which they’re willing to sweep her mistake under the rug makes her shoulders slump with relief.

“Thanks.”

No problem.”

Church stutters in response. “ Uh, no, there's still a problem. Several problems. I--”

“Shut up, Church.” Carolina turns her radio off as she starts to walk back to the gas station, forcing herself to hold her head up and hide her limp. Maybe Freckles can track the thief. Maybe a dog would be better at her job than she is.

The cold hurts her face; the fall hurts her hip with every step. She refuses to do much as cradle her wrist, even when she hears sirens behind her.

Carolina gives Tucker the flattest look she can muster as he pulls his car up beside her. “ What .”

“Come on, Iron Maiden.” He pats the passenger seat. “That arm doesn't look good. I'll give you a lift.”

“Gonna brag to everyone on how you picked me up?” she forces through tightly clenched teeth.

“Nah, I've got Wash for that. Or your brother.” A wink.

Carolina bites her tongue and lets herself into his car, settling into the seat. “Just drive.”


 

York and Church are lucky that they don't arrive until she’s on painkillers and nearly ready to be released. Otherwise she might have tried to throw them out of the hospital herself, splinted wrist and all.

“Not to put too fine a point on it,” York persists, “but I've done hospice care. And recently.”

“I'm her next of kin.” Church jabs him in the chest with his finger. “She's coming home with me. Her brother, not her boyfriend.”

“I'm not dead,” she gripes, wadding up a sheet from the care instructions they've given her and throwing it at them. Even with the drugs, it scores a perfect bulls eye on Church’s cheek. “I just need a car ride home.”

“You've having a slight reaction to the painkillers,” York reminds her, voice gentle. “You're supposed to be kept under observation.”

“Also because you're a stubborn bitch and we don't trust you not to lift furniture with that arm.”

Another sheet, bouncing off his nose. “Fuck off.”

York gives Church a side look. “Her aim’s really good with her left.”

“Ambidextrous,” he admits, picking up the paper wads.

“Cool.”

Church flings both paper balls back at her, missing horribly. “Get in the wheelchair before I break your legs so you actually need the damn thing. And get rid of your boyfriend.”

“Aren't you supposed to be at work?” York asks, tone almost playful.

“Aren't you?”

“Shut up. Just-- shut up. You're ruining my painkiller buzz.” Carolina aims a finger gun at her brother. “You. Take me to the pharmacy.”

“Eat my ass , pretty boy--”

“And you--” she aims the gun at York. “You can stay with me tonight. Go wait at the Dakota’s. I'll text you when I get home.”

The look York throws her brother is worth a thousand smug, smug words.

Without waiting for their input, Carolina slings her legs over the edge of the bed and slumps into the wheelchair. “Push me.”

Behind the chair, there's a rustle of movement, then she's jolted forward. “I got you, ‘Lina,” York soothes. “Church is gonna go get the car.”

Church echoes him in a nasal, high pitched fashion,“ Church is gonna go get the car,” complete with hand-puppets on the edge of her vision. Carolina reaches for the gear she’d left on the hospital room chair - her phone, radio, wallet and most importantly her taser. “Fuck, okay, I'm going.”

York helps her collect her things and starts to wheel them down the hall. Tucker took her gun when he left her here, the release papers are signed; all that's left is to pick up a prescription on the way home and then rest. Or, to be accurate, sleep off the painkiller buzz and wake up depressed in the middle of the night.

“How's the car?” she asks, relaxing into the seat, determined to enjoy the moment.

“Hmm? Oh. Mine. Yeah, it's working out pretty well. Still hate parallel parking and it's slow going, but-- I didn't think I could do it. I think I'm gonna name him Sigma.” His words are soft and carry the weight of sincerity. “Thanks for believing in me.”

“And buying you a car.”

“And buying me a car,” he echoes, dropping a kiss on her forehead. The doors open automatically for them, ushering them into the lobby. A daytime talk show is playing on the far side of the room, and the blue afternoon has gone white and grey with a gentle flurry. Carolina stares out the glass doors as York stops short, watching the snow fall.

“You really are incredible,” York murmurs.

She makes a face. “Tell me that when I didn't nearly fracture my wrist on the ice.”

He laughs. Which reminds her--

“I did vault over a rolling trash can,”  she tells him. “It was some video game shit. Like-- Donkey King.”

“Donkey Kong?”

“Whatever.” He's laughing again, louder this time. She finds her last sheet of care instructions and swats blindly at his face. “I'm tired, okay?”

“I know, sweetheart, I know.”

Sweetheart, huh? She rolls the endearment around in her head, examining it from all angles. She can take that one.

York wheels her over to the waiting area, turns her chair to face a seat and settles down. He looks a little tired too, slumping to one side, resting his chin in one hand and watching her. No eyepatch today.

“Church said he’d thought you’d been shot,” he says softly, which explains a lot. Carolina nudges him in the shin with her good leg.

“Paranoid.”

York’s smile is so broad it's infuriating. She wants to kiss it off him. “Which one?”

“Both of you. You're paranoid.”

“Mm-hmm.”

A thought occurs to her; she lifts her chin in triumph. “Paranoid. A pair of ‘noids.”

Something shifts in his expression; something breaks, snapping his good mood in half, the opposite of what she’d intended.

“You--” His voice drops to an urgent pitch. “I love you so much, you know that?” he asks. “So much. And I’m gonna find a way to pay back all you've done for me. I promise.”

There's something there, behind his eyes and under his words, that sets off alarms in the back of her mind. Hard wired police officer instinct that warns her he’s going to do something incredibly stupid. But the drugs in her system are slowing her thoughts down, and by the time she’s fully aware of that look the doors are sliding open, ushering her brother in with a draft of cool air.

The moment melts like snowflakes on her skin. York hauls himself out of the chair and stands, giving Church a raised eyebrow.

“You better take her to her place,” he warns. “Don't make me get your home address from Tucker.”

“Yeah, whatever.”

Church wheels her out to his car, which is flashing hazard lights as it sits in the pick up lane. She manages to get herself into the front seat without assistance, and catches York’s eye as they drive away. He stands alone, with the empty wheelchair, one hand raised in goodbye. Then he's gone, and she has no excuse any longer to ignore the elephant in the police car.

Over the metronome of the windshield wipers, she can hardly hear her own voice. “Sorry about… the yelling. About our dad.”

Church grunts.

She fidgets in her seat. “I mean it. You’re… not him. Not really. No more than I am.”

“The hell I’m not,” he agrees; more warmth than heat behind his sharp words. And that's about that. If he forgives her, it will be on his own time.

Carolina closes her eyes for a moment, and the next Church is shaking her awake, expression tight. “Hey, hey, don't go to sleep on me now.” The car has stopped. She must have passed out.

“I'm not in danger of a concussion,” she slurs, swatting at him. “Don't look so panicked.”

“I'm not worried, dumbass, I just can't go in and get your Vicodin for you. Up. Out. And watch your step.”

Despite his growling, he drapes her arm around his shoulders and helps her in, frowning the whole while. They make a detour for crutches first, and he rips it out of the package before they hobble up to the counter. It's hard not to give him a flat look about destroying something before paying for it, but she manages.

The drive is quiet, quick; she dozes again, forehead pressed against the window, hoping the chill from the glass will keep her awake. It works, but in a miserable way that she dangles over the edge of sleep for twenty miserable minutes, listening to slow music on the radio. Not what Church ever listened to around her. She wonders if he found the station just for her.

He hovers all the way to the apartment, a half step behind her again. She gives in to her impulses and steps on his toe with her crutches when they’re at the foot of the stairs.

“So you are related,” comes a voice from above. Both Church and Carolina look up to see York sitting in front of her door.As they watch he rises, stretching like he's been sitting there the whole time.

“You were supposed to be with the Dakotas,” Carolina reminds him, stumping up the stairs.

“Lucky you weren't long, then, right?” And he grins down at her, with no remorse at all.

“You shouldn't rely on luck,” she chides.

“I don't. But I rely on you.”

Her foot misses the next step. Behind her, Church snorts.

“Can you at least wait until you’re in your apartment to fuck? Seriously. I am right here.”

If she had blinked, she would have missed the way York’s smile slipped. He recovers fast, offers her a hand up the last stairs. Which is perfect, because then she has a hand to throw a crutch at her brother.

“Don't be crass,” she snaps.

Church yips like a startled dog as the crutch sails harmlessly past him. “The hell was that?”

“Side effects, I think,” York offers, and trots down the stairs to retrieve the crutch.

“Yeah, well, I hope you break your other wrist or something. Or break one of York’s. Either is fine.” It's superficial anger. She can tell with how Church stands, hands in his pockets, and looks at them both. Just a moment, just a flash of a smile. Then he turns and heads back to his car, out into the falling snow.

Her eyes turn to York as he joins her at her doorstep. “Surprised you didn't try to pick the lock,” she teases.

“Not quite ready to have you chain me up,” he replies, planting a kiss on her forehead. “Gimme your keys, and  try not to fall over.”

That answers one question, and begs a million more. She passes him her keys and stares at the side of his face, the scars that furrow across it.

“You look so familiar, sometimes,” she mumbles, a memory pressing against her mind, shapes in the fog. It's not a pleasant one.

York pushes the door open for her, turning back with a smile. “Past lives?”

“That's your shtick, not mine.”

“I'm happy to focus on the life I have now,” he says, closing the door once she’s hobbled inside. “Since you're in it.”

It's sweet. He’s sweet. Everyone in her family is sour, so he’s a nice change. Carolina limps to the kitchen, intent on coffee, but reaching for the tin in the cabinets makes her drop a crutch. In the next room, her birds start to screech, startled by the clatter. She winces.

“Hey, hey,” York soothes, picking up her crutch and handing it to her on his way to her bedroom door. “It's okay, boys, it’s alright, we’re okay.”

To her surprise, they settle, their alarmed shrieks fading into more conversational noises. She picks up a few garbled words between them - “it's boy, good night, kisses, hello.” They must be getting used to him. Softening up.

“You want help?”

Carolina blinks, shaking away her smile. “No, I think I got it. Coffee.”

“Uh, you sure that's okay to have? It's five in the afternoon and you still look pretty high.”

“Well, I want something hot. Do I have tea?”

York goes up on his toes to fumble through her cabinet. “I found some chamomile.”

She rests her forehead against his back, taking in a deep breath. Little bit of grease, little bit of smoke, little bit of soap and a whole heap of familiar. She’s softening up, too.

“Guess it’ll do,” Carolina closes her eyes on a sigh. She can feel him reaching around, hear the clatter of a pan and the rush of water as he tries to prepare her tea without moving too far.

“Aren't you tender?” York asks as he turns around to place the pan on the stove. Carolina leans her forehead against his collarbone instead, determined to lean on him.

“I'm tired .”

He rubs her shoulders, her back, and if her body wasn't starting to throb with pain she could have fallen asleep.

“I've got you,” he promises. “Let’s go lay down. Couch or bedroom?”

“Couch. I think there’s a new cooking show on Netflix.”

He extricates himself from her so she doesn't trip on her way to the living area. “So there's tea. You hungry?”

“No. Could you feed the boys for me?” At the mention of their names, Eta and Iota start warbling broken English again, punctuated by Iota’s whistling.

“Couldn't you have taught them something more cheerful than the song from Kill Bill?” He heads over anyway, and Carolina rests her cheek on the arm of the couch, watching him walk. It's a nice view, to be sure.

When he returns, he stops halfway there with a puzzled smile. “You look happy.”

“I can feel joy, sometimes,” she drawls.

“When drugged.”

She makes a helpless face and pats the couch. He finds room to sit when she forces herself up, and he encourages her to lay back down with her head on his shoulder.

“What's your favorite kind of chocolate?” he asks as he flips through the selections on the TV.

“Don't know. I like white. I like dark.”

“Truffles?”

“Oh, yes.”

“Flowers?”

Carolina cracks one eye open. “This is an interesting string of questions,” she says, drily.

“Valentine's Day is next month,” York reminds her, and she's too relaxed to keep her next words slipping out.

“So is my birthday.”

This close, she swears she can hear his heart skip a beat. “Really? What day?”

“The 8th.” She’s jostled as he reaches for his phone. “What are you doing?”

“Nothing,” he says, even as she watches him type in a long string of words and scroll, frowning. Carolina shifts to peer at his screen and spots a logo filled with astrological symbols.

“Are you looking up our compatibility?” she presses. York pulls his phone out of her line of sight.

“Maaaaybe.”

“You're absurd.”

“I'm a Cancer, actually, and…” A telling pause. His shoulder slumps under her cheek.

Carolina pats his leg. “You shouldn't have looked.”

“It's not all bad,” he insists. “We just have to be very good at communicating. Our differences could mean that we just balance each other out. Your practicality, my sentimentality…”

“Opposites attract, or--” she yawns, winces again. “Can I lay my head in your lap?”

“Yeah, just-- let me get your tea first, okay?”

She sits up to free him, and her gaze lands across the room. On a little stool sits the plant they’d bought at the hardware store together, just beside the glass door.

There's an abandoned cup of water on the table from last night. Carolina struggles to get on her good leg, one hand on the table, and pour what's left into the little pot. It's been slow to grow, but still alive. It may never thrive, but it's still here. Like her.

She doesn't get back to the couch in time. York watches her make faces of pain as she sits back down, and he places mug, bottle of honey, and spoon on the table.

“I could have done that, if you’d asked.”

“I got it. I'm all right.” Meaning to apologize, she loops her arms around his neck and kisses him, closed mouth and a little careless.

“It's okay to let people help you, sometimes,” he murmurs, so close she can feel his words on her lips.

Carolina sighs, all but collapses on his lap, dizzy-drunk on narcotics. “I know,” she gripes. “Don't be a dick about it.”

“I would never,” he assures her. She rolls over onto her side, letting her eyes close. She listens to York flip through selections and choose a documentary on the ocean.

Two minutes in, she snatches his hand from the arm of the couch and places it on her head, where her hair is already starting to tangle on top of his thigh. “You have permission,” she explains. “I could feel you thinking about it.”

His touching her scalp is gentle, inexperienced. She wonders if he’d feel the same during sex. “Ambidextrous. Indestructible. Now psychic. Is there anything you can’t do?”

“Handle painkillers, apparently,” she sighs. For the moment, she’s content to make light of her own shortcomings. Indecision, guilt, and frustration can wait.

All she needs now is peace.



Chapter Text

Washington says cleaning helps him when he's nervous. York suspects he might just be trying to get York to do more cleaning, but he’s willing to try anything at this point. So here he is, on his knees in the kitchen scrubbing the floor with a sponge he stole from work because he can't find the mop anywhere.

He’s meeting this Locus person tonight, and Carolina after. He doesn't know what to expect with the former, but Carolina has been distant for the last week. Church’s warning that she pulls away when she’s upset didn't fall on deaf ears, and tomorrow they’re gonna spend all day together - a joint birthday and Valentine’s Day thing. Hopefully, it’ll help.

She’s been clamming up in the quiet moments they usually share, any time her mind isn't occupied by conversation or activity. He’d talked over half the last movie they watched, just trying to keep her in the moment, but in the end York still had to go to work and leave her there to fester. Alone, in that artificial apartment, with no sign of life except a little houseplant and the chatter of her budgies.

He can't do much. But he can hope that, tonight, he’ll manage to do a little more.

York spies a stain between the fridge and the wall -- what might be the culprit for the persistent ketchup smell -- and without thinking he twists to reach it. A little too far, a familiar click and the burn of pulled muscles, and his old shoulder injury rears its head.

“Great,” he hisses, carefully extricating himself from the narrow space, and cradles the elbow. A couple little jolts on his own don't seem to help, so York levers himself upright. Kitchen was just about done anyway, and South should be at the gym. He has time.

It takes him longer to get on his jacket than it does for him to lock the door and scramble down the stairs. The roads are clear, lined with empty fields of brown grass and topped by a miserable grey sky -- all the worst parts of winter in one -- but driving is easy. York only struggles with twisting to watch the rear as he backs out, over-correcting and just avoiding scraping the van next to him.

“What is your name gonna be, buddy?” York asks the car at a stop sign, drumming his fingers on the dash. “Subject Sigma? Keep with the Bioshock theme? You can't be Sinclair,” and he recalls his motorcycle with its smooth lines, the manifestation of years of work and idolatry and the reason he lost his vision, “maybe Eleanor? You've got a little Delta in you.”

Names are important. York tests out a few more female names. “Diane? Jasmine? Jolene? Ooooh, Jolene.” He hums a snatch of a song that plays on the radio at Invention sometimes with the same name, but nothing seems to stick. He’s named every vehicle and computer he’s ever had, and a few appliances. Names are important. And like important things, sometimes they take time.

The gym doesn't look too busy from the parking lot, but York sees South’s car so he shuffles through his toolbox in the trunk for his lockpick set. What Carolina doesn’t know he owns won’t hurt her; he only uses his power for good. Or for things like breaking into his friend’s workplace for super cheap medical attention, which is completely understandable in today's economy.

He slips in the employee entrance, avoiding the front desk which would demand the membership he doesn't have anymore, and heads straight to South’s favorite place. It's a dance studio on the top floor, one wall lined with mirrors and a roof dashed with skylights, but used primarily for yoga or kid’s classes. Should be empty on a Sunday afternoon, yet as he rounds the corner in the stairwell he hears voices. South’s, of course, but someone else’s, too. Tense and low and deliberately not yelling, not yet.

York is about to round the corner when he realizes it's Niner. He nearly trips flinging himself back into the shadows, pressed against the wall and listening. It's impossible to make out what they’re saying; the acoustics of the room distort their hushed words, but he gets the gist. Personal stuff.

Even he knows when not to push his luck, so York retreats to the hall one level down and waits by the vending machine for the sound of footsteps. Niner almost misses him until he waves at her, and the rest of her reaction is just as disappointing.

“She's not changed a bit,” Niner says.

“Maybe you should have waited until after Valentine’s Day?” York asks, rolling his bad shoulder. It clicks like like a socket wrench and stings when he stops, so he doesn't try it again.

“I was in the neighborhood,” and she keeps walking, waving over her shoulder. “Have fun and see you Tuesday.”

Disappointed, York slips back up the stairs to where South is rolling up yoga mats. At least she’s  a little more reactive.

“What-- what the fuck are you doing here?” she yelps, spotting him in the reflection of the mirror.

He taps his shoulder.

She rolls her eyes, face red. It’s cute. Or it would be cute, if it weren’t South, who is over six feet tall and almost has broader shoulders than he does. “How long have you been here?”

“Just long enough to see Niner on the way out.” No sense in lying. He’s horrible at it, and she’d punch him for it. Unfortunately, she punches him anyway, and now he’s sore in both arms.

“Was this you?” she asks, a little softer as York touches the spot. Still mad, but curious too.

“I don't even know what she said,” he protests, “so… maybe? I could have inspired her, somehow. I'm very profound.”

South snorts. “Shut up and get your arm ready.”

It pops back in with a click, but York supports his elbow with his hand anyway, resting the aching muscles. He expects another punch, but it doesn't come. Instead, South crosses her arms and faces him.

“I hope you and Carolina work out. In the long term.” She glances away, watching their reflections in the glass - maybe thinking about how different they are now, compared to the childhood they all spent together. “North doesn't like to admit it because he doesn't like being wrong, but you two seem like a good match. You're cute together. It's gross,” she adds, disgust too shallow and too late to be effective.

York cooes at her, nudging her in the shin with his shoe. “Look at you, with your consideration for other people and general compassion. My little big sister is growing up!”

“I have almost six full inches of height on you. And several months of age.”

“So precious .”

York gets his second punch.

 


 

He's meeting Locus in Fort Islic, a town about half an hour outside of Longshore. Bigger and closer than Sidewinder, it used to be a big shopping destination, but the outdoor shopping mall doesn't draw many people this time of year. The winding country roads to get there are slicker than York would like, but he doesn't swerve off into any trees and arrives at the appointed diner right on time.

Window spot, just inside the door; like in his usual diner with Carolina. York orders a coffee, too nervous to eat, and settles in to wait. The sun is low and golden, horizon tinted cream as the afternoon starts its descent into evening, reflecting on the patches of melting snow. It's pretty but fleeting, and every few minutes that York checks the parking lot for new cars, the light retreats further.

York unclenches his jaw and smiles at the waitress the next time she passes by. “Has anyone named Locus arrived?”

Her mouth purses as she appears to wrack her brain. “I… don’t believe so. I could ask my manager?”

“No, no, don’t worry about it.” He stirs another packet of sugar into his coffee absently. “Just-- I’m waiting for a friend.”

“Okay, sir. What’s your name?”

“Yo-- Brady,” he corrects himself. “He’ll be looking for Brady.”

Twenty minutes pass. He sends Locus a text asking where he is and doesn't get an answer - delivered but not read. York gets a second coffee, leg bouncing under the table as the sky darkens, a few clouds rolling in with their bellies aflame with red sunlight. He has time until he promised to meet Carolina, but maybe he should have told more people about this. Florida knows the why , Washington knows the where , Carolina the when . A delicate balance between being safe and getting people involved in something that could still be dangerous. Or maybe he just grew up watching too much CSI.

The door opens and a man in black walks in, and York’s heart leaps in his chest with visions of armed robberies, of the waitress being held hostage; but he lingers in the doorway not to pull a gun but to hold the door for his wife and three children. Biting his lip, York looks back outside. The sky is rose red, dipped in indigo and trimmed in saffron. The colors remind him of the box of chocolates in the car he has for Carolina.

Forty minutes late, now, and three cups of coffee in. The caffeine isn't making things better, and his calls to Locus have gone unanswered after one ring. No voicemail. Florida is quiet as well, but Wyoming texts him // You’re a fool, Brady. Not a hero. // and that sets him from nerves to anger.

It's not about being a hero, it's about helping someone he loves. \\ something YOU should understand \\

No reply. Maybe a little bit is about being a hero.

York has spent most of his life at the mercy of others. Leaning on his bubbe after his mother abandoned him, hiding behind the Twins in high school, bullshitting mechanic experience with Niner when he moved back. The only time he took care of anybody, that person died within eleven months of being in his care, and he knows it wasn't his fault but can't shake that if it had been someone else it might have been twelve, or eighteen, or even more years. Any amount of time more with her would have been worth it.

In the present, York lifts up his menu and steadies his breathing.

An hour and a half. He can't even be a go-between right, a messenger, a middle man delivering an anonymous tip to the police. Something went wrong, and now he has to go explain to Carolina what happened. That he might have gotten someone else hurt from this. That Wyoming, of all people, was right.

York pays his bill and drives off, just in time for the sun to wink out of existence and plunge the night into smoky blue darkness.

The roads are empty. Any traffic must be taking the interstate in and out of town, but York used to come here a lot in high school and college and got used to this route. The narrow bridge over Muna Creek, the tree-lined long stretch of Sherry Road, all these are familiar to him even in a strange car. Even on slippery roads.

The headlights that swerve into his lane, however, are not. York reacts on instinct, yanking his wheel to the left and veering the nose of his car off the road, screeching to a stop. He's dangerously close to the ditch, saved by the narrow shoulder and snow tires Niner had put on his car. The other car has skidded to a stop in front of him, headlights on high.

On shaking legs, York steps out of the car. “Hey!” He’s madder than he should be, but this is the third close call he’s had involving traffic in eight months. He's allowed to be a little pissed. “What the hell?”

The other driver gets out. It's hard to see, with the glare of the headlights and the dark of the world around them. The belt of trees on the other side of the road obscures any lingering light with streaks of black, and the car door thumps closed behind the tall figure. Shoes crunch on snow, and the silhouette raises an arm.

“Brady Smith.”

York feels his heart sink even before he hears the metallic click of the gun. A million regrets, a million unfinished sentiments wash over him in the space of a second; and the loudest of his final wishes is that Carolina isn't the one who finds his body.

“My name is Locus.”

His mouth answers without input from his brain. “I figured.”

“Close your eyes, and listen.” Locus takes another step forward, his headlights reflecting off the gun. York still can't see his face, the nose of his car pointed towards the ditch, reflecting off the thick sheet of filthy ice below. “If you don't, I will shoot. Are you listening?”

He's going to be shot anyway. York swallows, sick to his stomach. “Make no promises if you start monologuing on me, buddy.”

The gun jerks to the side. A silenced bullet rips past his ear, vanishing into the fallow fields behind him.

“Are you listening?” Locus repeats.

York nods, closing his eyes tight against the glare, fists forming at his sides. He won't let his fear show. Not here. Not for this shadow.

“I'm going to give you a flash drive. On it are years of proof of the illegal activities of the Gates-Hargrove family, with every source except one. Myself.” Locus takes a step closer, snow and ice crunching under his heel. “And you will keep it that way.”

Another step. York couldn't open his eyes even if he wanted, body starting to shake.

“Turn around.”

He pivots, slowly, on the icy road. The barrel of the gun presses against the back of his head.

“If you ever come back to Chorus, even to testify, I will find you. And I will mail your body back to your loved ones in pieces. Starting with your head,” he taps the back of York’s skull, “and your girlfriend Carolina Church.”

A hand is thrust in his jacket pocket, then withdraws. He hears footsteps receding, the open and close of a car door, the sound of tires in slush and ice. A full minute of dead silence before York opens his eyes and collapses onto the hood of his car.

“Holy shit,” he mumbles through numb lips. Reaching into his pocket, he finds the shape of something small and plastic, pulls it out to inspect it.

A flash drive.

York rests his forehead against the hood of the car, slowing his breathing like North does in his yoga classes. It might be working. He's not sure. But it's going to take him a long time before he can move again.

Chapter Text

A knock on her door, twenty minutes after York was supposed to arrive, gets Carolina off the couch. She's not texted him yet on principle - no texting while driving - but if she's honest she's been looking forward to tonight and tomorrow. She doesn't expect sex, but he’s been dropping little hints all week of special plans, and she knows it's going to be good. A mid-week weekend with her boyfriend, and she's finally off her painkillers and allowed to drink. That alone ensures she’ll have fun.

“Finally,” she says, as she unlocks the door, “I was about to open the wine--”

She freezes.

“Hey,” York says, pale and tense. As she watches, his eyes go glassy. “S-so, I'm an idiot.”

He steps inside and she closes the door behind him. “What happened to you?” she asks, watching him stagger to the couch. He’s shaken by something. “Not another car accident?”

York shakes his head, falling into a sitting position on her couch, like his legs gave out. “No. Just-- come here?”

Carolina approaches, and is pulled suddenly into a hug. He buries his face in her neck, shaking all over. She embraces him back, staring over his shoulder.

“York, what's wrong?”

“Please just-- give me a minute? I'm fine, I promise, I'm not hurt, I just--” he squeezes her tighter, which does nothing to stop her racing thoughts. “Just wanna hold you for a second.”

His words would break the resolve of a softer woman, but Carolina has spent years forging a spine of steel. “Talk to me, York,” and there's an edge to her words, a warning. Her officer voice.

He takes in a breath, then another. The shaking stops.

“I've been talking to a friend of mine who works for Charon,” he says, slowly. “About Felix Gates. And he wanted to do some digging, and-- we found some things. We found some one .”

Carolina pulls slowly out of his arms. York lets her go, his eyes on the floor. He’s wearing his eyepatch, the one he wears when he goes out in public. Dread seeps through her body like the chill she leached from his coat; a sick inevitable feeling, drowning by inches.

“He said he had some information on the Gates and Hargroves. I met him tonight. I didn't-- I didn't see his face but he had me at gunpoint and he gave me this.”

Reaching into his pocket, York raises his eyes and his hand up for her inspection. A small, inconspicuous flash drive rests in his palms. Carolina stares at it, envisioning the scene; York, somewhere, alone in the cold and dark. And what could have been, snow gently falling on his frozen form as he bled out alone.

Fear ignites into blind, violent fury. The flash drive  goes flying across the room as she slams his arm against the back of the sofa, pinning his wrist to the cushion. “You did what ?” she demands, even though she heard every quiet word perfectly, eyes burning into his face

“I know. I'm sorry. I didn't want to tell you until--”

“Until you were dead in a ditch somewhere? Until you disappeared? ” She grabs him by the chin and forces him to look at her. “Until it was too late for me to stop you from doing the single stupidest thing I have ever seen anyone do, in all my years of law enforcement?”

His eyes are heavy and hurt. Not hurt enough. There’s surprise in there, sure, but guilt, too. He knew the risks and did it anyway. That might scare her worse.

“Carolina--”

“Don't ‘ Carolina ’ me. Don't even speak.” She lets him go and stares him down, arms shaking as she composes herself into Officer Church. If she stayed Carolina, she thinks she would fall to pieces. “There is nothing you can say that excuses this. It is a miracle that you're alive, and if you want to stay that way, you’ll shut the fuck up and go next door.”

She spots the flash drive on the floor, storms over. Snatches it up with her braced hand and fumbles it into her pocket. Doesn’t look at him. She’s afraid of what she might do if she does.

“I'm going to take this in.” Carolina pulls on her coat, shoves her feet in her boots. Thank god she hadn't changed into her pajamas. “Lock the door when you go.”

She slams the door on his “wait--” and flies down the stairs, carried by the momentum of her rage. Anger is good. Anger is motivating. It’ll wake her up for the long night ahead as she tries to make sure York hasn't been given a computer virus.

Her hands are shaking on the wheel and she flips on her sirens. How dare he go behind her back like this? How dare he dig this up? The last person in her life who didn't know, didn't care about the mistakes she left behind, getting involved like this?  He could have been killed. He could have vanished. He could have--

Carolina shakes her head and steels herself from that train of thought. No time to focus on what he didn't do. She needs to know exactly what he did.

She blows through a red light, weaving around an SUV who tried to outrun her, almost slowing down to ticket them out of spite. He said he had a friend in Charon - what could they have found? Nothing on the murder, surely. What evidence could there be inside his father’s company for that? The crime wasn't committed anywhere near Charon Tower.

When she pulls into the station parking lot, the siren dying, so do her thoughts slow down. He said ‘Gates’ and ‘Hargrove.’ The father and the son.

Suddenly, the flash drive in her pocket seems a lot heavier.

Carolina leans back in the driver’s seat, letting the implications wash over her. Texas had warned her not to chase this case too hard, had told her not to expect much of a prosecution. She’d assumed it was just because he had a strong alibi. But if there were more - if the whole family, the company, was involved in something illegal...

She turns her head, spotting the other cars in the parking lot. Tucker and Caboose are in tonight, the former probably sexing York’s roommate while the latter plays fetch with his dog. Something this big could be too much for their resources. Could swallow them whole. Could put more people in danger, too. Kaikaina. Her brother. York.

Carolina closes her eyes and punches the seat next to her, relishing the pain that shoots up her injured wrist. Once again, she's powerless. Once again, she can't do anything. Once again, she's going to have to rely on someone else to clean up her messes.

With a heavy heart, Carolina shifts her car back into drive and pulls out of the parking lot. She's going to need a lot of coffee if she's going to make the drive to Chorus tonight.

 


 

Carolina had hoped - had expected - the police station to feel like home when she came back to it, early in the morning. But it doesn't. It feels too big, too impersonal, and the person who greets her at the desk doesnt know her from Adam. It’s nice not to be known as a disgrace, but it would have been nicer to have been known at all.

Once she gets deeper into the station, it’s different. C.T. looks up from her desk and seems ready to sprint across the room to greet her, but Carolina is already opening the office door. The lion’s den. Better to get it all out of the way now. She’ll see her on the way out.

Texas looks as impeccable as usual, blonde hair pulled back smooth and sleek under her captain’s cap. Carolina stands behind the opposite chair.

“You don't have to stand to attention.”

“With all due respect,” Carolina says, “I've been sitting for the last seven hours.”

Texas shrugs. “Suit yourself.”

She takes another moment to brace herself, and swallow years of resentment. Carolina reaches into her pocket and eases the flash drive onto the desk. “I have been told that there is significant criminal evidence against the Gates-Hargrove family on this,” she dictates, the speech she practiced in the car coming out as smooth as testimony, “and I think it should be investigated here. The Fort Longshore department does not have the manpower or resources to investigate this further.”

Texas picks up the flash drive, face impossible to read. “So… you trying to bribe your way back here?”

“No.” The accusation stings with truth; she thought about that several times on the way up, as well. “I just--”

It's four in the morning. She's been driving all night, and it's given her a lot of time to think. Time to burn herself out with all her anger, leaving ash and regret in the wake of it.

“Someone-- someone dear to me was held at gunpoint to get this information. All I want is for my department to be left out of this.” It hurts to speak, hurts even more not to. This is bigger than her, and her pride has always been too big to swallow. “They shouldn't be involved. I'm here only to deliver an anonymous tip.”

Texas meets her gaze, steely blue with defeated green.

“And you haven't looked at this at all yourself, right?”

Carolina shakes her head. “I was concerned about computer viruses. I can’t-- even be sure it’s worth it. I just need it… away from them. And me.”

Her old captain heaves a sigh, and places the flash drive back down on the desk.

“So if I run this for fingerprints--”

“Brady Leigh Smith. And mine.”

Texas nods, then shakes her head in a bitter laugh. “Go home, Carolina. Get some sleep. I’ll do what I can to keep them off you.”

She nods, and turns to go. Maybe the relief will come later. Right now, all she feels is shame.

“And, Carolina?”

She stops. Texas has taken off her hat and is watching her. From here, with the months they've spent apart, she's able to see the flaws in Texas’s appearance; the dark circles under her eyes, the streaks of white hair mixed with the blonde. She almost looks human.

“Don't blame yourself forever. Keep the lessons, not the pain. Okay?”

Carolina saves those words for later, for when she's not running on coffee and misery, and can reflect on them properly.

“Sir.” She dips her head, brief and sharp, in respect. Texas pulls herself back into the captain Carolina remembers, and dismisses her.

True to expectations, C.T. catches her just outside the office. “Hey, everything okay? Maine’s gonna be let down he missed you. You didn't even call ahead, and your arm’s--”

“I'm okay.” Carolina shakes her head. “Or-- I’ll be okay. The wrist is a sprain from last week. I just needed to get something... off my chest.”

“Do you have a place to stay?”

“I was going to drive back home,” she admits, rubbing her forehead. She’s getting a headache from tension and caffeine, but feels awake enough to do it.

C.T. doesn’t seem to agree. “You sure? You just got here.”

“Yeah, I'm sure. I have the day off tomorrow-- today,” she corrects, remembering what today is; and then all of the fight drains out of her like a lanced cyst. York. They had plans today, joint birthday and Valentine’s Day ones. And she just…

“And I left someone behind I shouldn't have.”

C.T. stares at her, then takes her by the arm and leads her down an empty hallway.

“You okay?” she asks, low and urgent.

“Yeah, I'm fine.” Baffled, Carolina reads the fear and concern on her coworkers face, blinking rapidly. “Oh,” and she feels a tear roll down her cheek, “I'm just really tired.” She’d assumed her vision was swimming from exhaustion, but here comes another.

“Carolina--” her once-coworker starts, and she hates being on the receiving end of that tone of voice, so she pulls herself together. Or she tries.

“I'm fine, he just-- he could have died, could have been murdered, and I might never have even found his body.” Her voice is cracking, and the hand on her upper arm is a welcome one. “God, I could have shot himself myself. I'm so angry.”

“Your… brother?”

“No, my boyfriend. He--” she waves her hand and rallies. “He's just an idiot and did something incredibly dangerous. For his pride, maybe. Or for me. I don't know which is worse.”

C.T. strokes her arm, up and down, up and down. “Okay. Can you drink some water for me first?”

“Only if you stop using your trauma care voice,” Carolina snorts, wiping her eyes on her sleeve and giving herself one last shake. God, this isn't like her, and she hates it. Feeling so many things at once. Feeling them at all . “I'm fine. Really. Just tired.”

“I'll stop using my trauma care voice as soon as the real Carolina comes back.” But there's a smile in the edges of her mock frown, and the slap on Carolina’s back has real weight to it. “I'm taking fifteen and you're going to eat my breakfast before you go.”

Sheepish, Carolina lets herself be herded into the break room and waits for C.T. to dig a bagel and a bottle of orange juice out of the fridge. She eats, mechanical at first, and then as her hunger kicks in she chows down in record time, filling up too fast and resting her head on her crossed arms as her stomach aches.

“So.”

Carolina tilts her head to the side, enough to eye her companion. C.T. is watching her, too sharp to be ignored. An interrogation in all but name.

“You gonna tell me what happened?”

She shrugs. “Ask Texas.”

C.T. raises an eyebrow.

“You can't scare it out of me,” Carolina reminds her. “I taught you that look.”

Just as quickly, she jumps to a wide eyed, pitiful look. “I thought we were friends, Officer Church. I looked up to you. I respected you. I--”

“And you learned that one from Virginia.”

C.T. pouts. That face isn't an act, or if it is it's the best one she's seen yet.

“I want to tell you, but… I'm trying to protect someone.” Gates, Hargrove. If this case is as big as she thinks, they need to keep this as tight as possible. “He's an idiot, but… he's got a good heart. One I might have broken.”

“So you wanna get back now,” C.T. concludes, “and make sure he's okay. I get that. More than you might think.” And she holds up her left hand, spinning a diamond ring to catch the light.

“Oh. Congratulations,” she stammers. “Did-- when did that happen?”

“Midnight. But Happy Valentine's Day to me, I still had to work the rest of my shift.”

“Don't we always,” she agrees, and sighs. “God. I'm tired, but I really-- I have to go. Thank you, for listening and not prying, and-- don't tell Maine, okay?”

C.T. crosses her heart. “Sure, sure. Just come back and visit us sometime when you're not having an emotional breakdown. It gets old.”

It's getting old on her end, too. “At least you're getting paid for this one.”

C.T. walks her back to the car, giving her a squeeze goodbye. Her short hair tickles Carolina’s chin, and she tightens her grip. Despite how harsh she can be on the job, trying to live up to the legend of Captain Texas and insisting on by-the-book perfection from her fellow officers, this woman cares about her. Many people do. It's strange to only get a sense of it now, when she's leaving the place she lived and worked for seven years as a visitor. The Chorus skyline is unchanged as it shrinks behind her, but she's not the same Carolina who came in this morning in a blind, cold rage.

She has seven hours to sort out her words. Maybe with this head start, she’ll know what to say to York when she sees him.

 

 


 

Carolina stands in front of the twin of her apartment, willing herself to knock. It's nearly noon on Valentine’s Day; she's so tired she could throw up, but there are some things she has to do first. Part of being a responsible person. A good girlfriend. A reasonable cop.

All the rationale in the world isn't enough to make this easy. She's still mad, livid even, but time has tempered her anger and reminded her that York did the wrong thing for the right reasons. Or at least with the right intentions. It's her job to do dangerous things in the name of shielding others, not his, and he's not prepared to do it right, but she gets it. The need to be a hero. Especially if he's always been the victim. She's been a hypocrite for criticizing him for caring about an injustice, for wanting to take something into his own hands and do his part to help.

The door opens and startles her out of her thoughts. North nearly runs into her, and as she pulls her hand away from her taser his eyes go cold.

“York,” he calls across the room, and steps to the side. She takes in the place at a glance - a cluttered, brightly colored and overflowing copy of her own spacious one-bedroom - but her eyes lock onto the man on the couch playing video games. The game chirps as he pauses it, head falling backwards against the sofa and listing to the side.

Carolina swallows. York's eyes go wide.

“Hey,” she says, eloquent as always, and he scrambles off the couch, controller dropped onto a pile of games and cords on the carpet.

“Hey,” he echoes, looking small in a borrowed sweatshirt and his mismatched socks. But those eyes, those unmistakable eyes, are clear and kind and overwhelming.

“Do you wanna come over to my place? We can… watch some TV. Or nap,” she fumbles, “I don't know. I'm pretty tired.”

“A nap sounds great. Here,” and York starts to struggle out of the sweatshirt, passes it back to North. “Thanks for staying up with me. And tell South that, too.”

“Tell her yourself when she wakes up,” he replies, nothing but warmth on his face. “It was good spending time with you. We’ll finish saving Termina another day.”

She takes York’s hand as they head down the stairs - or he takes hers. It's hard to tell who reached first. He smells like cigarette smoke and she's grateful for how the faint scent of smoke grounds her, even if she hates the habit. It's overcast and just starting to snow, a hush falling over the world that doesn't break until they're back in her apartment.

It's cleaner than she left it.

“I shouldn't have done it. You were right. I… I was just trying to be-- important, I guess.” He's stopped, two steps in the door, still holding onto her hand. “It was stupid. And reckless. I know.”

Carolina steps around to face him. “Yeah. You could have done all that better. But… if you had, maybe things would have been worse. Maybe I would have chased the lead too far. I don't know.” She lets out a harsh breath through her nose, forcing the words out. “I don't care. I… I shouldn't have yelled at you like I did. I would rather--”

It hurts to admit it. Terrifies her. But not as much as the idea of seeing his body in a ditch does.

“I would rather be with you than be right.”

From this close, she hears his breath catch and can see all the little ways joy and relief surge through his body. It starts in his chest as he inhales, eyebrows lifting from a guilty furrow, and as his breath whooshes out, tense shoulders falling and his lips twisting into a smile.

“I was so scared,” he confesses, taking her hand in both of his. “I thought I would never see you again.”

“Yeah, well, looks like we're stuck together. Fate, or past lives, right?” She means to tease him, to get him to laugh and stop looking at her like she's the one who nearly died. Instead he drops her hand to grab her face and kiss her, and she will swear up and down that it's the caffeine and sleep deprivation that makes her light-headed. Not the kiss. No kiss could be that good. Even if it didn't taste like smoke.

“I love you,” he whispers against her mouth, so soft it's hard to hear around the pounding of her pulse.

“I-- love you, too.”

York presses their foreheads together, rubs the tip of his nose against hers. “You said something about taking a nap?”

“God, yes. Let’s wheel the bird cage out of my room and we can sleep in there.” Carolina tilts her head up for another kiss, and backs away. “The boys will keep us up, otherwise.”

The cage is on wheels and on a plastic mat, so it goes easy enough for the first couple feet. Carolina holds Eta and Iota as they chatter in alarm while York slowly pushes it out and around the corner.

“It's okay, boys, just moving it. Mom is tired and needs to sleep.”

“Does that make me-- Daddy?” York asks from the next room, poking his head around the corner. If her hands weren't full, and if there weren’t a lingering tension, she might have thrown something at him.

She tries to follow the script anyway, the easy response to his sexual joke. “Not on your life.”

York sighs and returns, picking up the cups of food and water and the toys. With a screech of outrage, Iota flies across her room to land on his shoulder. York freezes.

“Easy easy easy,” she soothes, striding across the room as Eta scolds them both. “He won't hurt you.”

“Which one of us are you talking to?” York asks, his head turned away. Iota ruffles his feathers and whistles.

“Both of you. Give me the toy.”

He passes it over, a little rope with lots of different sized bars of wood sticking out of it. Iota’s favorite. Her bird follows the toy, fly-hopping back to her as it changes possession.

“There we go. You're fine.” York eases out of her way and lets her rearrange the cage to how the birds like it. They settle down quickly, or forgive at least. Iota immediately starts climbing on the rope ladder the moment she puts him in the cage, whistling cheerfully.

“Still can't believe you taught them that song,” York comments. “So spooky.”

“I liked the movie, okay?” She stares at his hand, unsure if it's okay to reach out. Unlikely he's gotten over it all, so soon.

He bumps her with his shoulder in the doorway. “Come on. I'm dead on my feet, and I think you are, too.”

They take off their shoes and climb into her bed. With the blinds drawn and the door closed, it's passably dark inside, leaching the color from her laundry hamper and her sheets. There's a couple pellets of birdseed stuck to her sock; she picks them off and flings them across the room.

York settles across from her this time, his back to the wall. Their knees touch, and he lays his hand over hers.

“I'm glad I didn't die. Again.”

“Yeah, please stop doing that.” She won't be able to sleep like this, but she hooks an ankle around his. “It's getting old.”

He smiles, a soft laugh buried in his sigh. “I'll try.”

There are more things they should talk about. Maybe. She's exhausted, right now, and glad to be home in her own bed, with her own boyfriend.

“I just wish there was something I could do to pay you back,” York whispers. “For everything you've done for me. The car, the food that time when I was alone, and… so many things.”

So that's why. Carolina scoots a little closer to him, folds her hands around his.

“The second time we ever met, you gave me your car.”

“I didn't give you--”

“You gave me the keys to your car so I could drive home. The third time, you unlocked it for me.”

“Fourth. I think. I'm pretty sure the third was when I got run over in that intersection by the gym.”

She squeezes his hand. “Stop doing that, too.” It's her turn to smile, against her will. “Let’s just… try to be the best versions of ourselves.”

Even in the dark, his smile is bright, taking up half of his face. “What does that mean?”

“I don't know! It just means we're both kind of insecure about stuff and need to be more secure. About ourselves.” She shakes his hand. “I went to a therapist once, okay? I'm trying.”

“I know. You're always trying.” York pulls their hands up to his mouth and kisses her knuckles. Her heart does a backflip in her chest, and she makes a face. This. She almost lost this .

“This case has taken so much from me,” she says. A simple truth but a heavy one.

“Kind of gave you things, too, though.”

Carolina stares at him in the dark. His smile has faded, leaving contentment only in the shadows of his face.

“It did.”

York heaves a sigh and moves even closer, so their legs are a jumbled mess and his forehead is nearly touching hers.

“If you're still mad in the morning, let’s talk then. Or… in the evening. We probably won't sleep that long.”

“We won't. The boys will wake us up by dinner time.” And with the same surety, she knows she won't be mad forever. The Carolina who used to live in Chorus might have, but this one won't. She’ll make sure of it.

 

Chapter Text

Carolina takes him by surprise at the end of his shift. His eyes slide right over her on the first pass; sitting in the waiting room with her hair down, brushing her bangs out of her face every couple magazine pages.

“Your hand’s out of the brace,” he says in lieu of a proper greeting. She looks up with a grin, slapping the magazine back on the table.

“And you know what that means?”

It’s the happiest he’s seen her in days. He plays along, eager to keep her going.

“You can masturbate with both hands now?”

Carolina pauses and gives him a look; a more playful mirror to the one that Niner shoots him as she stands behind the register, customer receipt in hand. York holds his smile.

“It means,” his girlfriend educates him, taking him by the hand - her palm is warm against his and she doesn’t care about the grease, York throws a prayer of thanks skyward - as she leads him outside, “that we’re going to the gym.”

Nooooo-- wait,” and he cuts off his own howl of remorse, “you mean, South and North’s gym?”

“Mm-hmm. I got a membership. And this.” She offers up a grocery bag.

“Are those… my clothes? Did you break into my house--”

Carolina nudges him towards the parking lot. “I had Tucker grab them for me from your place. And don't sound so excited .”

“Is it even breaking in if a cop does it?” he asks, and leans in for a kiss.

Her fingers on his lips cut him short. “When was your last cigarette?”

“Couple hours before you got here. And I carry mints around now, too, see?” He pulls the tin out of his pocket, gives it a little rattling shake.

“How many things do you carry around now?” She slaps him on the ass, over the lighter in his back pocket. He stiffens.

“Oh. Hey,” Carolina’s voice softens. “I didn't mean to-- you okay?”

Just like that, she’s back to that awkward carefulness. She’s been like this all week, ever since she got back from Chorus. And here he’s gone and fucked it up again.

York shakes out his shoulders and offers her a smile. “Yeah. I'm all right. Just-- warn me next time? You got me on my blind side.”

She gives him a searching look. Coming from her, it's almost a dissection; eyes green like surgeon’s gloves, mouth hard and sharp as a scalpel.

“If you let me turn on your siren,” he deflects, “we’ll call it even.”

“What do I do with you?” she asks, a little too soft to be teasing, but lets him take shotgun in her car. It's nearing dinner time, and the days are only just starting to lengthen.

Going in the front entrance with a pass is strange. York hides behind her as they head into the lobby, avoids looking at the man at the desk and stares at the pool beyond the glass. North is teaching his aerobics class with his back to the lobby. He's tempted to pound on the glass and get his attention, but Carolina is already halfway to the lockers.

York changes quickly into the basketball shorts provided for him. The crude t-shirt that is definitely not his, however, he leaves in the bag, and sticks with the plain white one he’s worn under his coveralls all day. It's a little off-white by now, but if he ends up sweating anyway, what's the problem?

The problem becomes apparent the moment he steps out of the locker and sees what Carolina is wearing. Short shorts, tank top, her hair in a tight ponytail. He’s looking. So is everyone else as he follows her up the stairs, self conscious about his own disheveled look. As always, he’s one step behind her, but at least it's a nice view.

They pick a free space on the second floor, next to the stationary bikes and the windows overlooking the pool. Carolina starts a routine of stretches that York copies, striking up conversation to try to deter some of the appreciative looks she’s getting.

“So how was your day?”

“Sucked. But I didn't get shot, so it wasn't too bad.” She twists her upper body in a way that makes his mouth dry, and he forgets to mirror her movements. “I've gotten a lot of paperwork done, though. Even started updating their system for them.”

“If you want a hand with tech stuff, I used to do IT,” he reminds her, slow to stretch his left arm. “Could help you out if you need it.”

“Might take you up on that. I'll have to ask--” she grunts as she reaches for her toes, wrapping her arms around her calves. York’s breath catches. “--Tucker if we could hire you for that. Or if there’d be conflict of interest.”

Carolina unbends and gives him a curious look.

“You okay?”

He's not okay. “I'm okay. Just… kiss me, please?”

She frowns. He knows she hates PDA, but before he can walk his plea back her expression softens, and then she’s leaning up to give him a chaste little peck on the lips. Like she's apologizing for something.

“Better?”

“Yeah.” And yet, somehow worse. At least people aren't staring anymore.

They stretch some more, work muscles York doesn't even think about, like the ones that go tight when he wraps his fingers around his thumb and tilts his hands forward like he’s playing volleyball. Carolina scolds him for risking tendonitis or carpal tunnel, being so haphazard with his body.

“If it ain't broke, don't fix it.”

“The point is to fix it so you don't break it in the first place.”

With a little grunt, Carolina slaps the gym mat. “All right. Ready to hit the pool?”

“Uh. No?”

“What, you can't swim?”

“I can swim. But I don't have a swim suit.”

Carolina frowns. “There wasn't one in the bag?”

York shakes his head. Her shoulders slump, visibly defeated.

“Hey, hey,” he soothes. “It's okay. I can just watch you swim from up here, it's fine.”

“Are you sure?” she asks, chewing on the inside of her lower lip. It's clear she's desperate to swim - a hobby he didn't know she had, a new fact to store away in his mind - and he coaxes her on.

“Sure I'm sure. Besides, swimming is good for rehab, right? Something something low impact, something something resistance? It’ll be good for your knee. And your arm.”

Carolina sighs. “Okay, but-- only for half an hour. And then we can go.”

Through the glass, York can pick Carolina out of the school of swimmers below; her hair is dark but distinct, and the bright teal of her two piece shimmers beneath the water. He puts no effort into his own exercise, lazily pedaling as he tunes out the talk show playing on the TVs.

It's been a week since he met Locus, and he’s hardly had an hour to himself since. Carolina insisted he stick to public places or be with someone with a gun until they know he’s safe. It's taken a little adjusting to go from so many quiet closing or opening shifts at Invention to having Church tail him home and Tucker keeping Washington up half the night, but it's worked. He feels safe, knowing that he's keeping his side of the bargain, and Carolina’s promised to keep him in the loop with what she can of the case. Things are starting to go back to normal.

“Hey!” South slaps him on the shoulder. York nearly falls off the stationary bike in shock. “Get back to pedaling, or you're gonna lose even more of your nice ass.”

“I was born with this ass,” he fires back.

“Hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard,” she snaps backs, and dials up the difficulty on the bike. “Faster. Break a sweat. Work off your winter weight.”

That part she's right about. Carolina’s helped him cook better, so he’s been eating more. It's a subtle change, and he's not worried, but it does sting his ego.

York falls into the pace she sets, and as he watches Carolina swim laps below, he starts to enjoy it. It's the same satisfaction he gets when he figures out a problem in an engine, when Carolina improvises a recipe. Using your own strength to overcome an obstacle. In this case, a simulated hill.

Below, Carolina slaps the side of the pool and comes up for air, tugging her goggles down her neck. She wipes the hair out of her eyes, tilts her head up to the observation deck. York waves. She waves back.

When she goes back to swimming, York takes a break to drape himself over the handlebars, face burning. “How can someone so tough be so cute, too?” he whispers. She’s been stuck in cop mode since she came back from Chorus, but those little soft moments keep slipping through as well. If only he knew the best way to be soft for her, too, now that they're on thin ice. Can't buy her things with all his unpaid bills, can't help her with anything. Can't even have sex.

South slaps him again. “Come on, keep going! You're not gonna improve unless you move. So, move!

York gives her a dirty look but puts his feet back on the pedals and resumes biking. She's right. And that's what he hates the most.

“Hey.” No slap from this sibling. York is pulled from his thoughts easily, and tilts his head to look at North. “Can I borrow you for a second?”

“Sure.”

York follows North off the floor, down to the first level and into the break room. The sudden silence as the door shuts behind them feels heavy, dark despite the white walls and the fluorescent lights. North fiddles with the coffee maker, quiet at first.

York pulls up a chair. “What is it?”

“I want to know how the house is coming along.”

Guilt and understanding are immediate. He tries to play it off. “What house?”

North throws him a flat look.

“It's… been slow. With the holidays and the car wreck and the Locus thing--”

“You could have been looking for a realtor from home. Or asked someone for a ride out there to keep working on cleaning it up.” He's not even looking at him anymore, just fixing a late afternoon coffee, and still he manages to shatter every excuse York has prepared before he can voice it. “You can't avoid it forever.”

“That sounds like a challenge.” Even that falls flat. The silence returns, with only the faint scrape of the coffee stirrer against the styrofoam cup for company. North’s back is as unyielding as the painted concrete walls.

“It's so empty,” York says at last. “So quiet. Like-- every time I step inside, it feels like the morning after she died. When I came home and…”

No oxygen machine. No outdated TV shows, or radio, or clatter of construction in the kitchen. No cuckoo clock.

York sighs. “Not like there's a rush on it right now. I just checked the pipes a couple days ago, and it's supposed to stay above freezing all week.”

“School year’s ending in a couple months,” North reminds him. “Your roommate is moving, right? And you don't have another place lined up yet, so it makes sense to move back there.”

It does. And yet-- “I could move in with Carolina. Her place is closer to town.”

At last, North turns. His expression is flat.

“Do you really think she’s going to stay here?”

A jolt of fear shoots through him, sharp and painful. Anger bleeds out of him in its wake, but York keeps his words soft. “Why wouldn't she?”

I'm not staying.”

All thoughts of Carolina, his bubbe , or anything else shoot out of him with his exhale. Words fail him. He stares across the table at North, steady and dependable North, stirring his coffee into a nervous little vortex in his cup.

“What?”

“I-- I got the internship at Vail. I'm moving out in June.”

“When did--”

“Just yesterday. I was gonna swing by your work tomorrow and tell you, but… I got lucky I guess.” He doesn't look like he feels lucky. York knows he doesn't. He feels like he's stumbled into some bad timeline, made some critical mistake down the line, and wishes for some mystical reset to take him back in time and let him do whatever he needed to prevent this from happening.

But as he stares, the feeling passes. Acceptance settles in, paired with a different kind of denial; one that insisted that North wouldn't be gone forever.

“I'm happy for you.”

“No you're not.” North says, blank faced. Intuitive bastard.

“I am,” he insists. “Or I will be. In like, two minutes. Or whenever I get that magic phone call from Charon where they ask me personally to return so they can give me a raise and a big boy job.”

North cracks a grin, and York does too-- his best attempt at being happy for him, even as he recoils at the idea of North moving. Vail is even further away than Chorus, further than North’s parents moved in their retirement. Closer than death, but.

“Anyway.” North looks away, taking a sip of coffee. “I just wanted to tell you that. It’ll be a few months, so don't panic or anything.”

“I never panic,” York lies, leaning back in his chair. It starts to rock backward and he grabs the table top to stabilize himself, playing up the risk of falling. It works; North's smile returns, widens.

It fits him, better than the one York is wearing. At least one of them has a career in their future.

They share a coffee and swap stories until North has another class to teach; they break apart in the hallway and York heads to the stairs. Something stops him.

“York?”

He turns around. Carolina is jogging over to him, her hair drying in uneven clumps, patches of wet staining her clothes. She’s pale, and as she catches up her expression slowly ices over.

“Where did you go?”

“You were looking for me?” he asks. It's obvious, now that he takes her in. She must have thrown her clothes on right out of the pool.

“Yes,” she states, cementing his status as idiot. “You vanished, and I didn't know where--”

York takes a gamble. He steps in and wraps his arms around her, pressing his nose against her shoulder. She stiffens. The smell of chlorine drowns out everything else as he closes his eyes.

“Thank you for looking for me,” he says.

“I-- you--”

She splutters, but doesn't fight. York hugs her a little tighter, as though he can anchor her in place forever. Keep her here with him in this shitty little town.

“You're welcome,” and it doesn't sound like her. Lost. Soft. He strokes her back in apology, forgetting to be shy around her in favor of being warm.

“You're so wet,” he jokes, and swears he feels the heat flood her face seconds before she steps on his foot and breaks the hug.

“You--” she points her finger at him, all bluster and anger like a fluffed up cat. Cuuuuute. “I got out of the pool for you--”

“I know, I know. And you can wear my shirt on the way home since you soaked yours.”

She harrumphs, but doesn't dispute the fact. Even lets him hold her hand all the way back to the lockers, but doesn't let him kiss her. “You get one PDA per week,” she insists, and when he comes out wearing the tight-across-the-shoulders ‘My Other Ride Is Your Mom’ tee Tucker sent him, she pulls out her phone and furiously texts the whole way to their cars.

“I bought him coffee for this errand,” she hisses.

York nudges her with his arm, as best he can when he worries he’s going to tear the shirt. “You didn't just threaten to taze him if he didn't?” At least his jacket covers part of the words.

“I'm trying to be diplomatic,” she plays along, not looking up.

He's about to get into his car when he makes a decision. “Hey, Carolina.”

She stops, door open. “Yeah?” and she twists around to face him.

“After this,” he starts, fingers drumming on the roof of his car, “whose place do you wanna crash at and eat ice cream?”

“Depends.”

“On?”

She gives him a flat look. “If you still have an extra shirt at my house or not.”

He doesn’t. It got mixed in with her laundry and he refuses to take it back now, not after he’s seen how his X-Wing shirt compliments her hair.

York flashes her his broadest smile. “I could always just take this off and leave it off.”

“Not in March you won't. Too cold for that nonsense.”

“Don't wanna warm me up?” he teases back, resting his elbows on the roof and cupping his face in his hands. She mirrors his pose on the other side of the car, their faces only a hand apart.

“I do want to get you out of those clothes,” she says, tone dry. Cautious, maybe.

His heart skips a beat. “Wouldn’t that really be PDA if we--”

There's a screech of tires from the other side of the parking lot, and York wishes the sound of two cars crashing into each other wasn't so familiar. Carolina’s face falls, and he can't help but laugh as the tension snaps between them.

“You gonna get that?”

“It's my day off,” she mutters. Then, meeting his eyes again, “it's you, isn't it? You're cursed with car accidents. They just happen around you, don't they?”

“It is good for business,” he jokes, slapping the roof of his car. “Let’s at least go see if we can help.”

 


 

“I've not really been in your bedroom before,” Carolina comments from the doorway. He’s rummaging through his clean clothes bin, looking for a shirt. Maybe Tucker didn't sub in his own out of spite, but in necessity.

“Oh?”

“Not while I was conscious. I slept in it once.”

He ducks to hide a smile at the memory. The pillow had smelled like her the next night. “Oh, yeah. Well, uh… it's not much.”

“It's more than my room.”

He has to agree with her there. His room is almost its own apartment within an apartment; large desk to hold the computer he rebuilds every few years, bookshelves overflowing with books and games and collectibles, piles and piles of things gathered over the course of his life.

“I like-- keeping things. We didn't have much when I was a kid, so; reuse, recycle, stuff like that. And I'm a sentimental sort of guy.” Too late, he worries if he’s coming across as a pack rat. Or worse, too clingy.

“Is that why…” he hears her snap her fingers as she thinks, and tries to discreetly sniff check a flannel shirt. “The keys?”

“Oh. Yeah.” He yanks off Tucker’s shirt, trying to pretend he didn't hear something rip, and struggles into a twice-worn white tee. “I've kept every key I've ever had. School locker, dorm room, bike lock…”

“Don't you lose some of your deposit in an apartment if you don't turn in the keys?”

He shrugs his way into the flannel shirt. “Never happened to me.”

Carolina shakes her head, first downward in disapproval then lifting her chin to toss her bangs out of her eyes. “That could be considered stealing. Lucky you're dating a cop.”

“I am,” he agrees. “Very, very lucky. You ready for ice cream?”

“I was born ready.”

As they sit side by side on the couch, her in one of his few clean sweatshirts, York ruminates on how lucky he is. A girlfriend this beautiful, this driven and talented and compassionate and capable, who also craves eating ice cream when the weather is cold? He should start going back to synagogue to thank God for these blessings.

“About what happened in the parking lot,” she says, in a quiet part of the action movie they’re watching. “Can we talk about… your boundaries?”

“Parking l-- oh.” When she slapped his ass and be froze like a deer in headlights. “Yeah. Yeah, okay.”

God, this is not a conversation he wants to have now, with cookie dough going soft in his bowl, but she asked. She needs to know.

He sets his bowl down on the Rubbermaid table and pauses the film. She's always turned on the couch to face him. He mirrors her as best he can, one foot on the floor and his other leg crossed on his lap. “Kisses are always good. A little hair pulling or heavy petting is nice, too. I like that. And jokes, those are fine. Always.” The concept has never bothered him.

She nods, eyes picking him apart again. He loves her and trusts her, but sometimes she makes him so damn nervous.

“But when that guy-- ...he grabbed me a lot by the ass, so I'm not big on hands being,” and he gestures around his hips. “Not by surprise, at least. ...Bet that's the most inventive way you've heard someone say they can't settle for a handjob, right?”

His nervous chuckle peters out quickly. York swallows. Her face is unreadable; damn cops .

“I don't need pity,” he adds, gentle. “Just patience. I'm working on it.”

“I know. Just wish I could taze him for you. In the balls.” She sighs. It sounds suspiciously wistful.

York winces. “Wow. Thank you?”

“You’re welcome,” she says, then leans forward to kiss him. “... Do you wanna try anything tonight?”

His heart skips a beat. In a good way, maybe. “I could. What did you have in mind?”

From here, he can smell the chlorine in her hair, feel her lips brush his cheek. “I could sit in your lap while we make out. No hands.”

“Oh.” Yeah, a good way.

Ice cream forgotten, York turns on the couch so she can straddle him, his legs stretched out on the short couch and toes buried between the cushions. He's scared, but not of her. Scared of his own scars, of chickening out now and ruining what's left of the night.

“I won’t hurt you,” Carolina promises, one leg on the floor, eyes so green, so deep, so beautiful. “Not on purpose. Put your hands here,” and she places them on her shoulders, “so you can push me off if you want. Sound good?”

“God, you're such a professional,” he marvels, meaning to tease, and one hand brings her face down for another kiss.

These are deeper, slower than before. Carolina’s hands slide through his hair and he moans into her mouth. His fear is melting by inches, body relaxing under her attention, and the hand on her shoulder starts to ease down her body to rest on her hip.

When they break to breathe, he finds himself panting against her mouth.

“Good?” she asks. He nods, licks his lips.

“Yeah. It's good. More?”

He’d meant continue, but Carolina slips her tongue in his mouth and something lights up in his body, little electric sparks down his spine. Without thinking, he pulls her closer, feeling her breasts crush against his chest and her knees on either side of his hips.

“Like that?” The lilt in her voice suggests she’s asking more to gloat than to check his mood.

“How’re you so goddamn hot?” he asks, pulling away to look at her. “At the gym, every eye was on you, but you’re here. With me.”

“Unfortunately, I love you,” she deadpans, then wipes his mind blank with another searing kiss. How long has she wanted this too? How much has she been holding back for his sake? God, he wants--

“How do you want me?” he whispers, finding himself sinking further down the couch, heart pounding in his chest.

Carolina pauses, sits up so he can catch her face in the light. Her lips are plush, pink, and he wants them back on his immediately.

“I want you willing, York,” and her voice is low, rough, burning him alive. “I want you to want this. I want to be good for you. You deserve it so much.”

So does she. So, so much. If he was able to help at all with his deal with the devil, it's worth the new nightmares of dying in a ditch. But he can't say that, because his arms are too busy yanking her back down for more kisses.

Her hips are flush against his, rocking into him once before she jerks them away. “Sorry.”

“No. No, that--” --didn't trigger him at all. “Felt good. I don't know why it works, but. Again?” he asks, plaintive. He can feel bad about begging later. Right now, finally,  he’s not afraid of this intimacy.

In response, Carolina settles back in his lap, flush against his hips and her hands cupping his face. She’s got to feel how warm his skin is, how rough from a missed day of shaving. Maybe she likes it, too, and all he can do is pray that the unsteady circles he’s tracing into her lower back feels half as good.

“I love--” he gasps against her mouth, “I love you so-- much.”

Carolina rests her forehead against his. “I love you, too.”

He could go further, maybe. But not tonight, he decides, holding her there and catching his breath.

They’ve got time.

 

Chapter Text

“You're texting again.”

Carolina forces herself to pocket her phone. “My boyfriend almost died ,” she reminds Tucker. He tsks.

“It’s been over a month. You don’t get to use that excuse any more.” Perched on the edge of her desk, he gives her an arrogant look.

“I wasn’t texting, I was just checking--”

“You’re on the clock!” He throws his hands in the air and appeals to the only other living thing in the station, Freckles. “What happened to her?”

She bites her tongue and shoves her phone under a stack of paperwork, forcing her eyes back to the computer monitor. It’s not what’s happened - it’s what hasn’t.

A month. And nothing. Maine and CT reply to her questions with cryptic non-answers, swerves and promises that they’re still alive. Silence from the media, too. It feels like the silence before a storm, an oppressive emptiness where even the animals are muted. No news is good news, to a point, but Carolina is not a patient woman.

The office phone rings. Carolina snatches it up and spins her chair, turning her back on Tucker, Freckles, and the pile of papers that flutter onto the floor.

“Fort Longshore police station, Officer Carolina speaking.”

“Hello, I would like to report some suspicious activity,” whines a familiar voice - York’s hyper reactive neighbor. “The address is 6549 Noshery lane.

“Would you define suspicious, ma’am?” she asks.

“There is a strange man in the house, and I believe I can hear movement inside. I think it might be a burglar.”

Carolina is tempted to dismiss it as York again, but as she turns around she sees her blank phone sitting on the desk, cold paranoia settles in. “Understood, ma’am. Please stay in your house. I’ll be right there.”

She hangs up and opens her desk drawer, takes out her gun and checks it. Tucker finally gets off her desk. “You’re on desk duty,” he protests.

“It’s York’s house. I’m going. I'll just call it my lunch.”

He opens his mouth, then shuts it with a click. “... Yeah, okay. Have fun. Don’t shoot first.”

“I haven’t yet,” she replies, holstering her gun and heading out the door.

York’s car gleams like a pearl in the late morning sun, sitting content in the driveway of his grandmother’s house. Carolina parks on the street and gets out of the car, gun drawn but lowered. No sign of anyone else, but her heart is pounding underneath her Kevlar vest and light coat.

She raps her knuckles on the door, swallowing before she can speak normally. “York?”

A pause. Then, footsteps, and York appears, rosy-cheeked and chipper. “Hey, what’s-- oh,” and he goes pale, glancing down at her hand. “Whoa, what?”

“It's nothing.” Carolina holsters her gun and tries to ignore a twinge of disappointment. “Just a call from your neighbor again. Covering all my bases, in case…”

York nods, brows furrowed. “All right then,” and he leaves the door standing open as he strides past her to the house next door.

His knock startles Carolina out of her stupor on the porch - she pushes his door closed but not latched and follows his footsteps.

“I know you're home, Beatrice,” he adds as they wait on her doorstep. The blinds rustle, and Carolina eases her hand back onto her gun.

At last the door opens an inch, constrained by a chain. “Hello,” comes a croaking female voice.

“You remember me, don't you? Zahava’s grandson. Brady.”

A watery eye peers at him through the gap in the door. “You don't look a thing like her.”

If she hadn't been watching him so closely, she might have missed how York tenses. “Yeah,” he says after a beat. “I know. But I'm still her grandson. And this… this is my house.”

Beatrice turns her gaze to Carolina, whose hand rests on her gun; not from fear, or an intent to use it, but to remind this woman that calling the police shouldn't be done lightly. She shifts her weight and lets her stare go cool and harden. The woman drops her gaze and coughs.

“Well,” she snaps, “if you're going to be living here you had better get that flower bed in order. It's an eyesore, with all those dead things clustered around the sidewalk.” And she slams the door.

York's shoulders drop. Then he shakes himself and starts to head back to his house.

“Wanna come in, real quick?” he asks over his shoulder. “Since you're here and all.”

She’s on the clock. “Real quick,” she echoes, and resigns herself to working a little extra off the clock on paperwork to balance out the karma.

When she’d last seen the living room, it hadn't been decorated since the 60’s. Some elements are the same - a few photos on the wall, the same couch, same cuckoo clock ticking away - but it's clean and new, crisp white walls and only a few scattered boxes.

“Are you? Staying in the house?” she clarifies as he turns to present it to her with a flourish.

“Not yet. But… It’d be a waste not to. With the whole Felix Gates thing, it's not like I'm gonna get my old IT job back at Charon.” He laughs, but she can see the sadness in there. The loneliness. The square on the carpet where an armchair used to sit.

It's not obligation this time that makes her want to linger. Not the concern of leaving a depressed man alone in an empty house, with nothing but his thoughts and a rope.

“Have you been trying to move the couch by yourself?” she asks, words loaded with suspicious.

York shrugs with one shoulder.

Carolina pulls the radio off her hips. “Hey, Tucker? All’s well. I'll be back in twenty.”

Have fun! ” Mercifully, he doesn't say anything more - no further jokes, doesn't even get on her case about slacking off. They've come a long way since she threatened to taze him on her first day.

She rolls her shoulders and stretches out the tendons in her wrist. “All right. You've got four minutes, or eleven if I abuse the siren. Let's move some furniture.”

York’s grin infects every part of his body, and not for the first time she wishes she could kiss him. But they have work to do, and she shouldn't even be here.

“Okay. Help me move this couch about… three feet back?”

“I'll follow your lead.”

They each grab an arm and lift the old couch, shuffling it backwards. It's a lot heavier than she had expected. “This a hideabed?”

“Yeah. Wouldn't recommend you sleep on it, though. Super old mattress,” he puffs, guiding them to the new spot on the rug. “Not very comfortable. But neither are the cushions.”

“Why keep it, then?”

York makes a face that she reads immediately as ‘ I'm sentimental and also kind of broke’ and nods.

“Yeah, that's fair. My brother might have some furniture in storage.” Actually, the furniture is hers, her apartment came pre furnished, but York’s made enough comments about her buying him a car she feels like she should lie about this. “I could ask him if he wants to pass it along.”

“What about you?”

Carolina pretends to fluff the pillows. Did he see through her that quickly? “What about me?”

“Did you renew your lease?”

She freezes. Looks up at him where he’s leaning on the other arm of the couch. It's almost more of a loveseat - she can practically count his eyelashes from here. See the little scar on his hairline from where he’d hit the deer, all the furrows in the darkened skin. The stubble on his chin.

“Not… not yet. I have a couple weeks.”

So close, she can hear him swallow. “I have a spare bedroom.”

It's funny. For all he talks about what she's given him, York has offered her so much more. Love without reservation or judgement, first as friendship and now blossoming into this. Letting her see his strengths and weaknesses in equal measure, and overall his kindness. Looking at him before made her think of the sun, but now what she sees is the clear blue sky, endless and open; and how she’d sink her fingers into the grass as a child from sudden vertigo, terrified of falling into the void.

“Can I think about it?” she asks, voice small in comparison to the infinity of him.

York makes a face and becomes human again, brings her back to earth. “No, I want you to sign a legally binding contract right now. Of course you can. Take all the time you need. I don't mind waiting.”

“At least one of us doesn't,” she teases back, trying to get the dryness out of her mouth.

Her lunch is over too soon. She helps him hang a couple pictures - “I’ve only got one good eye how am I supposed to tell if something’s straight?” “That’s your excuse?” “Okay, fine, I also have a very bad gay-dar. Ba-dum-tsh. Better?” “Yes.” - and then she has to head out. He follows her to the door, blocking her exit with one arm.

“Do you think, if I kissed you right here, on the porch, it might stop Beatrice from calling the cops on me?” he asks, leaning in anyway.

Carolina halts him with one finger on his lips. “I’m working ,” she reminds him. “I have to be professional.”

Under her finger, York pouts. She settles for a quick peck on the nose but hurries back to her car immediately after, cheeks burning like a schoolgirl. Her rules on PDA are getting more lax by the hour .

Worst of all, she can’t find it in herself to stop.

 


 

It shouldn't feel like cheating to come home from work and pop a TV dinner in the microwave, but it does. Somehow. Carolina tries to reason with herself that at least it's better than cereal for the third meal in a row, and sets the pot pie in to cook. She’ll make a real meal tomorrow, when she has a shorter shift.

She’s halfway out of her second shoe when her phone rings. It's a number she doesn't recognize, but the area code is Chorus. Immediately, her appetite vanishes.

“Hello? Officer Carolina Church, speaking,” she adds, stumbling over her words, stiffening to attention in the middle of her kitchen.

Good evening, Carolina. I'm sorry to call you after hours, but I figured sooner is better than later. It’s Vanessa Kimball. District Attorney?”

“Yeah, I remember you.” They’d almost been friends, back before Felix Gates ruined her career. It’s nice to hear from her again. “Are things going all right?”

Depends on your definition of all right,” Kimball says, dry and exhausted. Carolina can almost picture her pinching the bridge of her nose as she so often did while stressed. “ I’ll make this quick since it’s getting late.”

“What can I do for you tonight, ma’am?”

I'm working on the Gates-Hargrove case, and…” an uneasy sigh. “ To make a very long and messy story short, the Chorus police department has found it low on staff members. Several officers are being investigated for corruption.”

Carolina grabs the kitchen counter as her legs start to give. Her friends were involved. People she had spent years seeing every day, ones she trusted to have her back in dangerous situations. “Who?” she asks, too stunned to be angry.

I can't name names. Not yet.” Kimball’s voice is bitter, as hurt as Carolina feels, but after a breath she seems to rally. “ I called you and you specifically because Captain Texas intends to resign, and we need good cops in the station while we try to find her replacement. I know you. I trust you. And I know for sure you’re clean on this.”

Carolina collapses to her knees on the tile, all the wind knocked out of her by that revelation. Texas? Quitting? Texas is a pit bull of a person, who sets her teeth in something and never lets go. Impossible.

“She’s leaving?”

Retiring. For personal reasons. Rest assured, her legacy of service will remain unstained.”

That’s not what worries her. In fact, a small and bitter part of herself wishes her old boss had been found guilty of something. Anything. Maybe it would make all the slights she’d received at Texas’ hand more bearable.

“That’s not the truth, though, is it?” she asks, keeping her tone flat.

Kimball hesitates. “ Between you and me, I think this investigation got a little close to something too big for her bosses to handle. On paper, though? It's because she’s protecting her informants.”

Informants. Like Carolina herself, and York. That doesn't match the image she has of her overly critical boss. Texas is nobody’s shield, just a sword. One that cuts, and hacks, and bleeds.

She shakes that train of thought off and goes back to an earlier one. “And to help replace her… you want me to come back to Chorus?”

We can cover the cost of canceling your lease if you’ve already signed for the next year. We’d need you out by the end of May. Or sooner, if you want.”

She presses her hand to the floor to cool it, then to her forehead. “You want me ?”

Yes, Officer Church. I do.” She can hear the smile in Kimball’s voice. Then she clears it. “ Or, to be a little more accurate, the governor does. You're the best fit and the cleanest cop we have right now.”

“I'm the best,” Carolina echoes, leaning back against the fridge. She feels as lightweight as one of her birds, and nowhere near as caged.

“Yes,” she says out loud. “Yes, I want this. I can come back by the first of June.”

Perfect. Captain Texas will hold her position until the end of the month. We haven't really told the general public yet, but watch the news later on this week. And… please don't discuss this with your formal colleagues in Chorus yet. Internal Affairs is still working the rest of them over.”

“I understand.”

A sigh. “ I wish I did. There’s so much about this that I--” Kimball clears her throat. “ I look forward to working with you again, Officer Church. And I think you’d make a great Captain.”

“Thank you,” Carolina says softly, staring at the island sink.

“Have a good night.”

“You too.”

The apartment is silent when Carolina ends the call. No hum from the microwave, no chatter from the birds. As though the whole world was holding its breath with her as she lets everything sink in.

They want her back. After all this time, she really was right. The revelation is bittersweet: people in her own department had been involved. They’d known, and let her take the fall.

She wraps her arms around her knees, conspiracies swirling in her head and ruining her appetite. How deep did this corruption run? Was Maine in on it? C.T.? Texas? Her trust in everything but herself feels shaken, and she doesn't think she could stand right now if the house was on fire. She checks her phone to make sure the call had really come through, and is tempted to call the number back to make sure there wasn't a mistake.

But that, too, passes. Carolina tilts her head back and lets herself imagine what it would be like to be Captain of the Chorus Police Department. To take over that imposing office, be on the other side of the desk. Her stomach flips at the idea, and she's not sure why. Maybe if she gets some food in her she can think a bit better. Talk to York about it all and--

Halfway through pulling herself to her feet, the realization hits her. York. He can't come with her. Even if she asked him to, and she won't because she won't have time for a boyfriend, he couldn't go. Not without putting him in serious danger while the investigation is still hot.

Carolina gets to her feet, checks the food in the microwave. Cold. She puts it in for another minute and starts up the coffeemaker, feeling cold and hollow.

It won't break her. She’s gone through so much worse. But it twists in her stomach, aching like hunger, and the food she eats mechanically does nothing to help.

 


 

Several days later, the reality of it all has sunk in. She’s not let a word slip to anyone about the move, finding more and more excuses to cancel plans with York and put on headphones in the station to avoid idle conversation. It’s not until she finds another card sitting on her desk that she realizes how long she’s been avoiding everyone.

This one is simple - a Missing Persons flyer, following all the proper format, including photos they’d lifted off her inactive social media plus a recent once taken from what she believes (judging by the angle) to be her brother’s desk.

She throws him a flat look from across the room. “It’s really been a week?”

“It’s been longer than that,” Church gripes. “Your boyfriend tried to deliver you some flowers, but Freckles ate them.”

“When?!” Carolina yanks out her phone and frantically starts scrolling through her texts with York.

“Nope, I lied. Just trying to see if it was boyfriend troubles eating you.”

She stops. Collects herself and aims her most deadly glare across the room. On the edge of her vision, she sees Tucker slowly sink down in his chair until he’s hiding behind his desk. Her brother is, sadly, immune.

“You been ghosting him, too?” he asks, feet up on his deck, boots shedding little flecks of mud all over his paperwork.

“I’ve been working some things out.”

“What, are you pregnant?”

She makes a face. “No. Just busy.”

Church shrugs. “Work faster, then. Tucker said Washington said he’s been worried.”

“I know. I’ll-- take him out tonight.” Carolina catches herself. “Why do you care about him, anyway?”

“Because I know what he was like before you started dating him. I was the one who always got called to his house.” Church sits up and puts his feet on the ground. “And you’re my sister.”

“Awww,” Tucker starts, only to retreat again once both siblings whip around to face him. “I’m not here, I’m not here.”

Carolina gives her brother one last look. “When did you get so good at questioning?” she asks, letting her anger ebb away.

“No idea.”

She keeps her word, though. The text she sends to York - \\ valhalla tonight? snacks and maybe a couple drinks? \\ - gets an excited reply seconds later. But an entire shift on traffic doesn’t feel like enough time to know what to say.

She’s playing with a napkin and watching one of the muted TVs in the corner. It’s some reality show, something cringe worthy and over edited, but her eyes are fixed on the news crawl underneath. Looking for a sign.

“Been waiting long?” York asks, taking the seat next to her. If he's upset he doesn't show it; not that he flaunts his negative moods unless it's a playful facade, but she doesn't sense anything under the surface. He’s happy to see her, nothing more nothing less.

Somehow that makes it worse.

“No,” she says quietly, eyes fixed on the TV. Her appetite wanes. “You can order for me.”

“Ooooh, that's a lot of pressure.” He's trying to be funny, but she can't spare him the attention. Not yet. “Trying to guess your refined tastes.”

“I trust you.”

That shuts him up; Carolina glances to the side to see him rub his thumb along the strap of his eyepatch, smiling softly. It's a new one, a little more sturdy than the one before. Less like it came from a Halloween costume.

Menus appear. She picks up one and gives it a cursory once-over, not in the mood for much more than whiskey and maybe some sex.

He hums. “Do you like potato skins?” he asks after a minute.

“Sure.”

York sets the menu aside and catches her gaze. “Penny for your thoughts, Lina bean?”

“Oh, I just--” she stalls, trying to find a good excuse. Can't talk about the case yet. As she thinks, his phrasing catches her attention. “Wait, what did you call me?”

“Lina bean. You know, Carolina, Lima bean.” He holds up his hand and mines pushing the two phrases together.

It's adorable. “Lina bean,” she deadpans. “So, does that make you--”

Carolina frantically runs through a list of food in her mind.

“Egg York?”

He sputters, then laughs loud enough that the neighboring table throws them a curious look. “Holy shit,” he gasps, “are you bad at pet names?”

“I am good at everything,” she insists, leaning across the table to sell the act, fighting a grin to match his, “you just have a terrible name to nick.”

“I am named after a candy, Miss,” he fires back. His smile has infected his entire body, and she feels it spreading through his.

“Okay. So I'm Lina Bean and you're Peppermint Patty.”

York gives her a look across the table; judgement ruined by how transparently happy he is. “Like the Peanuts character?”

“Maybe.”

He shakes his head and it's her turn to smother a laugh. The waitress arrives, and Carolina loses herself in studying York as he gives their order. Rose-tinted glasses, indeed, watching him in the warm hued lighting of the bar.

That cold feeling is creeping back like frost on glass, and she looks up at the TV again. On cue, a news scroll down at the bottom reads the headline:

CHORUS POLICE DEPT SHAKEN AS GATES SCANDAL CONTINUES.

So it's real. The Texas resignation. All of it. She’ll be heading home after all.

“What are you looking at?” he asks. She points. On the edge of her vision, she sees him lift up the eyepatch and lean forward, struggling to read.

“...oh.”

Yeah. Oh.

York takes her hand. “Hey.” He nods to the TV. “That's good news, right?”

“If you can call political corruption good.”

He shrugs, picks up the menu and strains to read it. Carolina regrets sitting so far from the bar now; their corner is dimly lit, and he's only got one working eye.

“You sure you wanna eat here?” he asks. “It's more of a bar than a restaurant.”

“It's fine. I like it.” It's a little loud, a little flashy, but she welcomes the chaos. It hides the maelstrom in her mind, the dread of the conversation to follow. “I thought you liked this place.”

York pulls her hand up to his mouth, one eye glittering green in the golden lights.

“I like you more.” And he kisses her knuckles right on the scar she’d gotten a few years back punching through a window. She yanks her hand out of his grip, teeth clenched. His kindness hurts like warm water on frostbitten skin.

So does his expression. “Right,” he murmurs, “no PDA.” Goes back to his menu and his own personal space. Under the table, Carolina cradles her hand in the other, and tells herself that she doesn't need his hand back.

Their food arrives and Carolina eats to be polite. They're both quiet, nursing their drinks and pretending to watch the TV. It's not working. The tension is there, in her shoulders and jaw and the air between them. Aches, but this isn't the time to tell him.

“Epsilon’s been good,” he says. Carolina tries to recall the name and comes up blank.

“Who?”

“The car. Delta’s replacement.”

Him and his names. His sentimentality. Will he be angry when she tells him she's leaving? “Oh. Good for you.”

His expression crumples into a frown.

“What's eating you?”

Carolina sinks her teeth into a potato skin. “I don't want to talk about it.”

Doesn't want to hurt him. Of course her words come out too harsh and do that exact thing. She can see the tiny flinch in the corner of his eye, his mouth.

“What,” and his teasing tone rings empty as his glass, “you don't trust me?”

“I don't. I mean, I trust you, but…” Not here. Not yet. “Just give me more time, okay? I can't tell you right now.”

He studies her. “Work stuff?”

“Yeah.”

So easily, he relaxes. Melting into forgiveness, sympathy, understanding. The depths of his heart are vast and frightening, and Carolina finds herself unconsciously clenching her napkin. “Hey. No sweat. I'm here for you, okay? I always will be.”

He might. But she won't.

A few more bites of food that she washes down with beer, but she still chokes on her words. “How did your grandmother die? How did you--” her own question surprises her, but she presses on. “Was it sudden?”

It's not a flinch this time. Surprise, confusion, then a little half-smile that he flashes whenever he’s trying to play off his own pain. She's seen it a lot. “She was 94, so… not a surprise. She had dementia and she was forgetting important things, like taking her medication and locking the door and where she was going when she was driving. Neighbors helped her with what they could, but then she got some kind of upper respiratory bug and couldn't really shake it. So I moved back to…”

York shakes his head, running his fingers through his hair and giving it a brief tug. “In hindsight? I think the doctors just wanted me to be with her. They knew it was her final days. I hoped-- I tried to help her recover, but she just. Faded.”

Carolina can’t relate. Her own father is still in excellent health, as are the rest of the family that communicates with her. If he was to die, this week, she isn't sure how much she would miss him. Stings to consider that, too.

“Are you glad you knew ahead of time? Even though you had to watch her go like that?” she asks. Never could help but dig, even when the questions hurt. It's part of her job, part of her self .

York rests his chin in his hands and looks past her, into some alternate future.

“Yeah. I think I am. It gave me time to pray and explore and accept a future without her. It… gave me closure. I miss her. Every day.” York gives himself a little shake. “But, in the next life, I'll see her again. Why? Your dad is okay, right? Your brother?”

“They're fine. I promise.”

“... your mother?” he asks softly, and it's not fair for him to know her so well, to reach out and pluck the perfect heartstring and threaten to unravel her entirely. “Hey, hey, no, it's okay,” and his hand is on top of hers, warm as his gaze. “Don't say anything. You’re doing your job. Don't let me stop you.”

In the moment, Carolina lets herself forget last night; closes her eyes and focuses on the comfort and warmth of his touch. Such a simple thing, to hold her hand, and the table is cold and a little sticky under it but it steels her. Braces her. Gives her some of that same closure he talked about moments ago.

“When we’re done here,” she says after a beat, “do you wanna walk around outside for a bit?”

“Sure.”

She didn't taste the first half of the meal, and she doesn’t remember much of the second. Their cars are parked in a garage a few blocks away, but it's a beautiful evening; perfect spring weather, the first in weeks, and a perfect peach sunset.

There’s a lot she can’t tell him, and not just because she doesn’t have all the details. But she’s been thinking about what he said. About closure: how she’ll never have it with her mother, how it helped him with his. And maybe it’ll be the last thing she ever gives him, but it’s something she can do.

“Hey, York?”

She takes one last second to seal the moment in her mind, the colors and the feelings. The peace around them, radiating from his profile as he walks beside her. Locks it in her mind as proof for later down the road that she was happy, here, once, and made him happy too.

“Yeah?”

“I need to tell you something.”

Chapter Text

“I need to tell you something.”

“You're pregnant,” he deadpans before he can stop himself and read the situation; how the cool tones of dusk mute the red in her hair and the fire in her eyes to ash and ember.

She shakes her head and twists her mouth into a smile. It doesn't fit her right and falls away a moment later.

“With whose kid?”

“Mine. Somehow.”

The banter is easy but flat, hollow. Drywall over empty space. “Immaculate conception jokes? I thought you were Jewish.”

“Doesn't mean I don't know about Jesus. He's everywhere .” He lets the moment hang between them, a pause for breath and thought. “So what is it?” he prompts.

It's like the whole world goes underwater, all slow and blue and quiet. He treads water in the moment, waiting, holding his breath.

“There's an opening for Police Captain in Chorus,” Carolina says, “among other things. And I'm going.”

York sinks.

“Oh,” he says, the sound slipping out. For one panicked moment, for some reason he wishes life was just like a video game and he could restart from an earlier save. End up in a world where this wasn't happening.

York takes in a deep breath.

“So you’re leaving?”

Carolina nods. Maybe. She's on his right side but he still can't see her, too stunned to be aware of his surroundings.

And, at last, York drowns.

“You're leaving me?” Damn his voice for splintering at the end as he turns to face her, the empty park behind her spattered with street lamps like caged stars. “All of us?”

Carolina doesn’t look back. It’s Officer Church instead, and that aches more than anything. “I’ve made up my mind.”

“I know.” That’s what scares him. That’s what hurts him. “I’m not…”

York shakes his head and takes a moment to pull himself back together. To plaster over the gaping wound in his chest and focus on what’s happening right now. She’s still here. “Why? I mean-- what happened to the old Captain?”

Her shoulders soften. “She… resigned. Because of the Gates case.”

He laughs, but doesn’t feel it. “You’re kidding.”

Her brows twitch in a frown.

“No, I just… I really am the reason you’re going. It’s not you. It’s me.” He does it again, and the sound comes out wrong. Aching. Sinking. York turns his back on her, peeling off his eyepatch and rubbing his face. No crying. Not now, not here, not ever. He’s cried enough this year.

“Are you happy?” he asks. Without looking, he can hear her bristle.

“It's not about being happy,” she says, summer in the air but winter in her voice. “It's about doing my job. Finishing what I started.”

“And after that?”

He can feel the weight of her stare, and his train of thought derails again. He's going to miss her so, so much, but he doesn't have to mourn her yet. They still have time. They have right now.

“After the case is closed,” he says, turning back around. It's okay if he cries. It's worth it to see her as much as he can. “Will you be happy?”

Carolina stares at him. “I thought you’d be mad.”

“Mad?” York ruminates on the word, comparing it to the chaos inside him. “... guess not, no. Just… wish you weren't going.” An understatement, to be sure, but--

Officer Church lets out a breath and with it becomes Carolina. York stores the realization, the horror of the moment, away -- that she was not angry but bracing herself for him to hurt her -- and puts his eyepatch in his pocket.

“Hey,” he says softly, reaching out to lay a hand on her shoulder. “I guess I should-- be congratulating you, right? Captain Carolina?”

“It's not official. Don't jinx it.” She lets him rub her shoulder for a moment, then wraps an arm around his waist to lean in closer. “York?”

He blinks, reining himself in, and clears his throat. They start to walk, entwined and unsteady, down the winding path. “Yeah?”

“I'm sorry. I have to chase this. I have to finish this case.”

“After that?” he prompts again.

“I don't know. I haven't decided yet. I'll tell you when I do.”

And that's all he’ll have. He pulls her closer, locking the moment in his mind. The heat of her body, the chill of the night, the little hint of her voice in her sigh.

“How long until you go?” he asks. He’s struck with a memory from high school of reading A Tale of Two Cities. The end they’re approaching as they walk to the parking lot is nowhere near as final... and yet.

“A month.”

So little, and yet so much. “I'm going to miss you,” he whispers, eyes still closed, trusting her to guide him just a little longer down their shared path.

“Yeah,” she says, and it sounds like ‘I love you’ all the same.

 


 

Three weeks spin by in a blur of work; the end of April and the first couple weeks of May, as students near graduation and summer vacation, mean that everyone wants their cars in good shape. It's one of the few times York has hated being busy, because his time with Carolina is running out like water through his fingers.

Relief comes in the form of Washington up-ending his backpack in the middle of his bed, shaking out paper and pens and crumbs alike.

“Gross,” York comments, slouching in the doorway. His hair is still drying as he plays with it, feeling it fight to curl. He should have had it cut before today.

“Look me in the eyes and ask me if I care about your opinion,” his roommate deadpans, giving him a flat look from eyes so sunken from sleep deprivation he looks like he’s been punched.

“I'm guessing no?”

“It's a no.” Washington starts shoving clothes in the backpack instead. “I am going over to Tucker’s house,” as he reaches under the bed to a shoebox that he opens to reveal a staggering amount of condoms, “and I'm going to get laid and sleep for four days.”

“Cute,” York offers, and then: “you think you two can live together?”

Washington shrugs, and stuffs a bunch of socks into his backpack. “Won’t know until I try. Only thing I'm worried about is if E is gonna get along with his kid.”

“I could take him.”

That gets him to stop. “You hate my cat.”

“I have never hated your cat. We just have a mutual…” York looks to the ceiling for answers. “Distant respect. It might be nice to not have to come home to an empty house, is all.”

“Oh.”

The moment stagnates. York knows he’s being pitied and lets it sit before changing the subject. “So, you’ll be back…?”

“Yes.”

York doesn't move out of the way when Washington tries to leave. “When?” he presses. Washington pressed back, literally.

“When I wake up. Don't know. I'll text you when I do if it makes you feel better.”

He’s knocked aside easily, body relaxed enough to yield with the nudge from his roommate’s shoulder. “It will. Bye-bye!”

York waits for the door to close, the deadbolt to screech locked, and counts to about fifteen before he whips out his phone. \\ okay he's gone come over \\

The reply comes back suspiciously fast, and with a distinctly different tone of voice.

// sounds like a booty call!! ;P //

York stares at his screen for a moment. \\ kai give carolina her phone back \\

// no i confiscated it bc she ws texting on the clock!!!!!! //

// why dsnt she hve any nude pictures of u brady????? //

// send nudes //

\\ kai \\

// im bored //

\\ kai please \\

// nudes //

York pulls down a box of pasta and snaps a quick picture, tagging it with “noods” and waits for the fall out. It takes about three minutes.

// Sometimes, I wonder if you two deserve each other //

\\ how’d she get your phone unlocked anyway? \\

A longer pause this time. He leaves his phone on the counter as he busies himself with tidying the apartment. The chirp of s message has him trotting across the room in sock feet.

// No idea. I should be there in an hour //

Privately, he suspects Carolina has been looking forward to tonight as much as he has. They’re tackling dessert cooking together with one of his bubbe’s few American recipes; cherry pie. Three different kinds of shortening are sitting on his countertop, and five different pounds of butter in the fridge. He’s getting better at cooking, but it’s good to be prepared. Good to make the most of the time they have left, rather than wasting it by shopping.

Not that York has considered any of the time he’s spent with her to be a waste. Not even the silences as they sit next to each other in a car, on a couch, at a restaurant; content to be quiet with the other. He’s savored every second, and counting the ones he has left. Lucky for him, Carolina arrives fifty minutes later, red cheeked from jogging up the stairs.

“Hey,” he says, and smothers the impulse to kiss her before she’s even in the door.

“Hey.” She’s carrying a couple grocery bags of frozen fruit and darts around him to shove them in the freezer. He follows her, hovering in the doorway of his own kitchen, as she catches sight of all the shortening.

“How many pies are we making today?” she asks, turning baffled eyes on him.

“There were a lot of different brands,” he defends, “and I can just return whatever we don't use. It's fine. I've also got lots of butter.”

“Shortening makes a lighter crust. Usually. Or lard.”

“Lard?”

Carolina starts opening his cabinets, hunting for the flour. She’s so at home here, owns the space with such grace and confidence like she does with so many of the things she does he can't help but fall just a little more in love with her. “Pig fat. Not bacon fat, or grease, but-- something like that, I think. I don't know how it's made.”

That's his cue. York pulls out his phone and is halfway through typing the phrase into google when Carolina calls out to him.

“Hey, hey, this is a joint effort. Come here.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he agrees, joining her in poring over the grease-spattered old recipe book, her hip warm against his.

They opt to divide and conquer, but Carolina makes him work on the crust while she takes the much easier job of making the filling. At least she helps him read the recipe so he knows how much of what ingredients to add, but once he starts cutting the shortening into the crust she turns her back on him to start pouring frozen cherries and sugar into a pot.

Something occurs to York as he kneads the pastry dough, and it's out of his mouth before he’s aware of it. “We never had sex.”

At the stove, he hears Carolina freeze and turn. “What?”

“I mean, that's not your fault or anything, but--”

“Did you want to?”

York swallows, trying to get his racing heart to return to his chest. “Eventually, it would have… been nice.” He makes a face. ‘Nice?’ Really?

Do you want to? Today?” Carolina asks again, and York gives up any hope of relaxing for the rest of the day.

There's a miasma of feelings involved with the idea of sex, some good and some bad. And over it all, for better or worse, is the idea that they’re running out of time and that a leap of faith is better than waiting and regretting the unknown.

“Yeah,” he says, his fingers caked with shortening and flour. “I… I want to. Should we finish something here, first?”

“Good idea. Let’s try to get the, um, pastry chilling, and I’ll try to finish this filling.”

The next minute of York’s life is torture. He is hyper-aware of everything around him: the unusually loud clatter of Carolina’s spoon against the sides of the pot, the soft texture of the in-progress pie filling, the smell of flour and butter and cherries. But most of all, he’s aware of Carolina standing with her back to him not eighteen inches away and the box of condoms under Washington’s bed down the hall.

“Can you check this?” he asks, a millennium later. “I think it’s done.” He thinks nothing of the sort -- doesn’t think anything at all -- but steps to the side so Carolina can inspect the pastry dough.

“Yeah,” she says. “Let’s wrap it up and let it chill.”

They upend the dough ball onto a sheet of plastic wrap which Carolina takes as York washes his hands. She even remembers to turn off the stove before pulling him down into a kiss that tastes like relief.

It feels like a dance; York leads Carolina down the hall between kisses, and she leads him in turn. She throws him a shocked look when he stops in front of Washington’s bedroom.

“You want us to fuck on your roommate’s bed? Where he’s--”

“No, no no no no, no,” once he starts he can’t stop, a horrified babble of denial. “He has condoms. I’m stealing his condoms.”

They’re already in his bedroom and Carolina’s about to take her shirt off when he finally gets the idea for a proper cop joke about that. Unfortunately, he attempts making it anyway.

“Hope that’s not an arrest-able offense, Officer.”

Carolina stops with her shirt hem at her waist. “... What?”

It’s not funny. He knows it’s not funny. His delivery is too shaky to sell it even if it wasn’t a full minute late. “Stealing condoms.”

His girlfriend turns to fix him with a dry look. Two months ago, he wouldn’t have been able to spot the laughter buried in her eyes. “I’d be more concerned if you were planning on returning them afterwards,” she murmurs.

His snorted giggle helps relieve some of the nervous tension in the room. Then Carolina takes off her shirt and it all comes back at once. He thought he’d had a sense of her body before, through her clothing and whenever they were pressed up against each other in private.

“Too fast?” Carolina asks, concerned. From behind his hand, York shakes his head.

“Not that. You’re so… beautiful.”

She looks away, tilting her chin in the way that he knows means she’s pleased and a little embarrassed. “I’m still me,” she reminds him. “It’s still just us. And if you need to stop--”

“I’ll tell you. I promise. But right now, this is good. This is okay.” He hesitates a step before coming closer, cupping her face in his hands. “If you want this, I do too.”

Her cheeks are hot under his hands. “You know I do,” she says, gentle but sure. “And… you don't have to just look.”

He knocks their foreheads together. “Right. Yeah.”

“You've really never been with a woman before?” she asks, sweet and curious. There's a laugh buried in there, maybe, but he knows it's not at his expense.

“Nope. Never did much of anything with South. Why?”

He pulls back, arms sliding down to her shoulders, and is struck by the intensity of her eyes.

“Some people would find that very attractive,” and her voice is low, sweet, dark like wine. It kicks him in the pit of his stomach like alcohol too, and he has to swallow.

“Are you some people?”

Carolina shrugs. The motion slides his hands a little lower on her bare arms, thumbs catching on the straps of her bra. Her silence says enough.

This is a different kind of nerves, now, as he guides her to sit on the bed. Performance anxiety and anticipation make the hand that skates along her ribs tremble. The dip of her waist, the contour of her muscles and skin, and the firm skin of old scars. He stops dead when she makes a sharp noise.

“What?”

“Don't do that so lightly.”

His grin feels like it's going to crack his face in half. “You're ticklish?”

Carolina draws her arms sharply in to her sides. “I will break your fingers,” she snaps, and he knows it's all bark. Or at least mostly bark.

“Okay, okay. Can I kiss you there, though?”

“Sure.” Carolina falls on her back on his bed like she owns it, body relaxed in clear invitation. If she's nervous too, she's better at hiding it.

York ends up with one knee on the bed, between her thighs, pressing a kiss to a comet shaped scar on her ribs.

“What was this?” he asks.

“Barbed wire, I think. From childhood.” She runs her fingers through his hair in the way he’s found he loves, scritches his scalp. He moves to another one. “Uh… bullet graze for that one. Too low for my vest.”

He stills, reminded of the danger of her job. She knees him gently in the side.

“I'll trade my bra for your shirt,” Carolina offers, lips and voice tilting up in a smile.

York lets her sit up and, taking a breath, yanks off his tee in one go. When he opens his good eye, Carolina is holding her loose bra to her chest, staring.

“You like it?”

“I have never loved your siblings until today,” Carolina breathes, “but I'm so thankful you have friends who work at a gym.”

He knows. “Yeah? Looks good?”

Carolina bites her lip. She doesn't think she means to do it, because she’s looking down and lowering her aqua blue bra, but it sets him on fire.

“How do you want me?” She meets his eyes, naked from the waist up and as confident as though she’s still in her bulletproof vest, and York forgets the entirety of the English language.

“Uh…”

It's her turn to look smug, and Carolina starts to let down her ponytail, shaking it out as she goes.

“I, uh…”

“What position?” she asks, all sugar and laughter as she revels in his shock, and he's not even upset.

“Top? You on top? Since you-- know how to, uh, you know what you like.”

“You won't feel trapped?”

York shakes his head. “No, I was face down that time.” Carolina’s expression cools, and he hurries to change the subject. “I'm good, I'm good, I promise.”

He kisses her again to prove it, and lets his hands settle on her bare waist because it's there and he’s allowed and that feels good, too. When she loops her arms around his shoulders and presses her naked chest against his, the good skyrockets to amazing and he’s pretty sure he moans into her mouth.

“Green means go, yellow means slow down,” Carolina whispers, “and red means stop.”

“I know?” York blinks. “I can drive?”

“Here, I mean.” With a push and a pull on his shoulders, Carolina tosses York on his back on the bed. “Green, yellow, or red?”

“Oh. Greenish yellow? This is good, but-- I want a little more foreplay first.”

“God, I love you,” Carolina marvels, straddling him carefully and leaning down to kiss him again. Her hair brushes the skin on his collarbone and sends a ripple of pleasure across his flesh. His hands are on her waist, again, like they belong there, and stroke her sides up and down, up and down.

Carolina nibbles gently on his lower lip. “You can touch me anywhere you want, you know.”

“Where do you want me to touch?” he asks, his voice going rough before he clears it.

In answer, she guides his hand to cup her breast and sighs gently against his mouth. “Like this.”

He’s careful, gentle, but it feels like everything he does is right. If he wasn't listening so keenly for every little sound, every subtle shift, he might have missed the signs of Carolina melting on top of him until her hips started rocking against his.

“This?” she asks, moving her mouth down along his jaw.

“Y-yes. Green,” he adds when he hesitates. “Very, very green. Vermillion. Or is that a red?”

“If you can use words with that many syllables, I’m not doing my job,” and Carolina scrapes her teeth along his jawline and turns the rest of his sentence into jelly. “Oh? You like my teeth?”

“I do.” She does it again and he writhes under her. “You can leave hickeys if you want. I would-- I want them.”

A little hum, almost more of a purr, and she sinks the edges of her teeth into where his neck meets his shoulder and sucks. Forget worrying about being turned on enough for sex; now he’s worried he won’t be able to last.

“How’re you doing?” he asks, trying to match her slow, sporadic rhythm above him.

She pulls off his skin with a wet pop. “Good.”

“How am I doing?”

“Fine. Keep touching me,” she adds, dragging her lips up his neck on her way to his mouth, barely out of range for a kiss. “And making all those little sounds.”

“Sounds?”

They’d left the lights off in his bedroom. Carolina’s smile is lit on one side by his bedside lamp and on the other by the late afternoon sun through the blinds. “Don't stop,” is all she adds, and finally lets him kiss her again.

She said touch, she said be loud, so York tries both; burying one hand in her hair while the other creeps down to her hip, coaxing her to move against him. When she licks her way into his mouth he lets her swallow his groan and doesn't try to hide the way that even the lightest touch makes him breathless.

“Pants?”

“Yeah,” and as soon as her hands snap down to his belt and start unbuckling it, he switches gears. “No, wait, let me do it.”

Carolina rolls off him all the way to the floor, her back to the window as she shimmies out of her clothes. He’s so distracted trying to see if her panties match her bra that he’s caught with his jeans halfway down his legs.

“Coming?” she asks, one knee on the bed as she leans over.

“Hopefully not yet,” he gasps, and closes his eyes to finish stripping.

When he opens his eyes, Carolina is watching him. “You don't like hands around there, do you?”

He shakes his head. She nods, then straddles him again.

“You're clean, right?”

“I showered to-- oh.” He didn't think his face could get more red, but there it goes. “Yeah. I'm clean. I'm kind of a virgin, remember?”

“I didn't forget,” she murmurs, then eases herself down so she’s pinning his cock between them, hips resuming their slow grind and with every now-slick stroke York swears he’s going to lose his mind.

“Oh, ohhh--” is this what she meant about noises? He couldn't stop these with both hands over his mouth. “--ahhh, Caro--”

“Good, huh?” and she lowers her mouth to suck another hickey into his skin.

It's more than ‘good,’ so much more, but as she works him over in silence he becomes aware of the laundry on the foot of his bed, the cracks in the ceiling, and the last time he was intimate with someone.

“I like your voice too,” he says, kneading her chest with a gentle touch until he hears her moan. “Talk to me?”

“Talk?”

“Yeah, I know. That's usually my job.” He’s hard as hell, but-- “I need to know it's you for sure.”

Carolina makes another soft noise he wishes he could keep in a jar, like fireflies by his bedside on a summer night, and sits up to study him. She’s so beautiful in the contrasting light, he could swear this was all a dream -- which doesn't help his PTSD.

“Talk,” she echoes again, and she rests her hands on his chest and studies them. “So you know it’s me.”

Her pause stretches on as she struggles for ideas. York wiggles under her, body eager to resume.

“So long as you don’t start reading me my Miranda rights, you’ll be fine.”

“See, now I’m tempted,” she retorts, and that doesn’t sound like her at all. It sounds like him. Even if he can't give her hickeys, he’s left a mark on her in another way.

His body wants so badly to rock his hips and bury himself inside her, but his heart isn't ready for it yet. He strokes up and down her legs. “I believe in you,” he says, half as a joke, but it seems to strike a chord in her.

“You do,” she agrees, all soft and tender as she starts to move again, so slowly he can hardly feel it, “and that's something that makes you special. You believe in so much that I don't; in God, the good in people, and me.”

“You once said that you loved me because I was so kind. So are you, but--” she brushes her hair to lay over one shoulder, shaking her bangs out of her eyes. “You also have so much hope. I was raised by cynics, work with cynics, and then there you were. Drunk on my couch and giving me a car in exchange a day later, because you trusted me enough to return it.”

His heart feels as though it could burst out of his chest. “And I was right,” he breathes.

She guides his hand to her chest again, this time pressing it over her heart.

“You were,” and she rocks her hips and almost, almost takes him in. “God, you want the strangest pillow talk.”

“I'm already easy enough, gotta make something a challenge for you,” he wheezes once his words come back.

Carolina leans over him, grinning broadly, her hair spilling over them both and glowing in the slats of sunlight. “I like a challenge. You ready, York?”

Is he? It's hard to say. He wants to be, and that's the difference between last time and this. Wanting it. “Yeah.”

She reaches over and somehow, miraculously, finds the condom he’d tossed on the bed earlier. Her hands are on him without warning, and York jumps.

“Wait wait wait yellow--”

Carolina freezes. York bites his tongue and wants to punch the pillow.

“I'll do it,” he says, reaching for the condom. “Sorry. Give… give me a second.”

He closes his eyes and tilts his head back, giving himself a few wet strokes to try to bring himself back to full mast but he’s spiraling, fast. If Carolina offers to stop he’s gonna lose it entirely.

What she says isn't as bad, but still hurts. “You don't have to rush,” the words soft, soothing. “We have time.”

“No we don't. You're leaving.” He wishes he hadn't meant to say it like a slap to the face, but in the moment he does. And just as fast, it passes, leaving him with his eyes shut tight less to block things out and more to keep things in.

“Come here,” she says, the toughest words but in the kindest way, the voice she uses for her birds, and she's holding his face in her hands and kissing him. “I've got you. For just a little bit longer, but I've got you.”

“I'm okay, I'm okay.” And he feels it, too. Like coming home after a hard day.

“I know.” She moves her mouth to his cheeks, the corners of his eyes. “We can do this. I believe in you.”

York wraps his arms around her and holds. “God, I love you.”

Carolina sits up, hands finding each of his own and threading her fingers through them. “Love you too.” She settles back on top of him, starts up her slow and gentle grind again. “Whenever you're ready. I'm on birth control, so we don't have to worry.” Her head does that smug little tilt again, the one she gets whenever she solves a problem that stumped someone else, and he wonders if he picked up on that too; if he’ll carry around a piece of her after she's gone.

He holds his hands above his head, and as she leans down he meets her in the middle for a kiss. “You sure?”

“Are you?”

York closes his eyes and knows even before he opens them how he feels. “Yeah. Yeah, I'm good.”

She shifts a little and so does he, and then he’s sliding into her by slick, hot, velvet centimeters and all twenty four years of his life vanish like snowflakes on skin. He is only this moment, this feeling, this connection between two people in love.

“You still with me?” Carolina asks, a little breathless herself but sounding very, very pleased. York fights to un-roll his eyes and focus on her shape above him.

Unable to fully speak, he nods. She does something that takes him in a little deeper and tighter and he squeals.

“Fuck, York, you feel amazing, you know that?”

He's heard those words before, in this situation, but they're no more than hail on the windshield because Carolina believes in him. York bites his lip and tries to match that little chin-tilt she does. “Worth the w-wait?”

She hums, hips shifting on and around him as she settles, squeezing his hands. He almost loses it entirely when he realizes he can feel her heartbeat through their connection, his face flooding with heat.

“Good,” he proclaims weakly, licking his lips. “So are you.”

Carolina strokes his hands with her thumbs. “I can do better,” she promises, and he doesn't think anyone possibly could, but then she starts to move -- raises herself up, up, up, then drops back down, taking him in even deeper than before. It's electric and he jolts under her, groaning again without meaning to.

Resting her weight on their hands, Carolina starts to settle into a rhythm, a slow but steady rock that with every motion sets off fireworks behind his eyes. Distantly, he hopes the occasional bucks of his hips are doing something for her because she's doing everything for him.

“So good, so good,” he gasps, eyes fluttering open to watch her move, the flex of her thighs and stomach, the way she keeps tossing her head to keep her bangs out of her eyes. She meets his gaze with a grin.

“Only ‘good?’”

“No, not only. You're so perfect and amazing and I--” she does something, somehow, that changes the angle and York’s back arches. He lets go of her hands to yank her down for a kiss, bring her somehow closer as their every motion seems to be stripping something in him away.

“Carolina,” he whispers into her mouth, “Carolina, Carolina,” like he's going to forget how to say her name if he doesn't practice it now, like his tongue hasn't memorized the shape of her consonants into a four syllable prayer, the double tap of the L and the N in time with his heartbeat. “Carolina, I love you.”

“I--” her breath catches when he digs his heels in, tries so hard to meet her halfway. The sound she makes, the little moan like one she’s made sinking into her couch after a long day or biting into something delicious, goes straight to his heart and he would die to wring it out of her again. Now he knows what she mean about his noises.

Everything is going to his heart now -- whatever isn't going to his cock, that is -- and as Carolina’s arms entwine around him in turn, he knows he’s reaching some kind of end. Not just to this, not just an orgasm, but something more. It's not just sex anymore. It's making love, for the first and final time.

“Come with me, please,” and he wishes it could be her saying this because he’d follow her. He’d have gone anywhere if she’d asked, faced down Locus and oblivion all over again just for a few more days at her side. He’d have quit his job and stayed home with the birds to cook and clean and be a proper housewife. If only she had asked. If only she would ask. “I don't wanna do it alone.”

“You won't, you won't, I’m--” the sound of her voice in his ear, breathless and rasping with want, pushes him that much closer to the edge. But it's when she sits up, changes the angle, that he catches her gaze.

The things he wants to say but needs to keep silent swarm to his tongue. York bites it instead, so desperate not to cry, but in that shared breath she sees right through him.

“I love you too,” she says, and in that moment he knows neither of them will ever be the same. That this moment, this relationship, however fleeting it was, it mattered.

Once again, York breaks.

If all his other orgasms were rain, this is a thunderstorm, all noise and lightning, shaking him to the bones. He can only hold Carolina’s gaze for a second before it overtakes him, shorting out his senses with a downpour of pleasure. As much as it floods him, it drains him, and he clings to Carolina as he empties himself into her. She is his anchor, tethering him to reality by his fingertips digging into her back, and he has seldom loved a person more.

Slowly, York drips back into himself, aftershocks of sensation rippling through his body. He's barely aware of Carolina still moving on top of him until she isn't, and she’s squeezing him everywhere and making soft noises into his shoulder that will haunt him for months. York tries to rally, not wanting to miss her orgasm, but he can't do much more than crack open his good eye and watch her bowed back tremble.

Fingertips run up and down her spine of their own accord, his own breathing just starting to even out. York sniffs, blinks a couple tears out of his eyes, and lets out a watery, trembling sigh.

“You okay?” he asks.

With great effort, Carolina sits up, easing herself off his cock with a hissed breath and back down into his lap. Her expression is hard to decipher as she presses the heel of her hand to his forehead, weaves her fingers through his hair.

“I should be asking you that,” she says. “Did it hurt?”

“Not this time,” he murmurs, thinking of what lies ahead for them. “You were amazing. Thank you.”

Her shoulders sag with her sigh, and his heart breaks all over again to know that he won't be able to help her carry that weight in the future.

“Good,” and she rolls off him entirely to stand and reach for her clothes. A little sound of disgust. “I'll be right back, okay? I promise.”

“Okay.”

Carolina staggers out of the bedroom, clutching someone’s shirt to her chest. York turns his head back to the ceiling, looking for familiar patterns in the cracks as he wipes away a few more, fresh tears. A chill is sinking into his skin as the afterglow fades, and he struggles to make himself roll over to get dressed as well. To follow her example and move on.

York’s feet have just hit the ground when Carolina comes back, holding his shirt in one hand. “Sorry, sorry, I was dripping everywhere thanks to-- you okay?”

She’s staring at him, staring at her. He sits up, pulling a bit of blanket into his lap.

“I’m fine?” he asks, a bit of a wheeze in his voice, his heart beating way too fast considering what he just went through.

Carolina crosses the room and nudges him back to lie down again, cozying up to his side. “What, you think I'm gonna go back to baking so soon? It took me months to get you naked. I wanna enjoy it.”

“Mm-hmm,” he agrees, too distracted and happy to listen. York tucks her under his chin and lets his eyes close, a new optimism buoying him up. The last thing he’s aware of before he drifts into a light sleep is Carolina messing around with his alarm clock.

“Forty minutes,” she declares, and he wraps an arm around her in agreement. It's not long, but it's what they have.

 


 

It's a beautiful morning when Carolina leaves. The sky is an endless, blank slate, early gold sunlight bleeding into blue as the sun rises higher, above the other apartment buildings in the complex, to make her new old car glitter blue like twilight in the road.

“Did you miss it?” York asks, crawling into the back seat to shove a bag of laundry into a gap behind the driver’s seat. It's the same car she had when she first came to town; Niner hadn’t resold it yet and simply signed it back over to her.

Carolina passes him another box. “I never thought about getting attached to a car before I met you.”

“And now?”

She waits for him to step out and give a brief stretch. “I feel like you should name it before I go. Give it a blessing.”

York grins and rubs his palms over the roof of the car, closing his eyes. “Hmm… I feel like it's a girl.”

“Okay,” she says, amused. On the sidewalk behind her, one of her birds shrieks in anger in their carrier.

“I'm feeling… Eve, maybe? Eleanor? But that's the video game fan in me.”

“Maybe Marina? Because she’s blue?” Carolina suggests, packing a duffel bag into the front seat.

He gives her a look. “You suck at pet names,” he reminds her. Without missing a beat, she pulls the bag out and swings it at him, harmlessly smacking him with the soft-stuffed luggage.

“Yeah, but I bet your next suggestion for a name was going to be Zelda.”

She’s right. York gapes like a fish before defending himself. “It's a classic name,” he babbles. “It's Jewish .”

“And you're predictable.”

He sticks his tongue out at her, just to see what she will do, and is rewarded with another smack from the bag.

There's not much left to pack. The apartment had been pre-furnished, and Carolina lives sparsely. They're only quiet for a couple minutes and two boxes from finishing when Carolina speaks again.

“I like Allison.”

“Allison?” York shoots her a curious look. It's not the name he would have chosen, but there's a softness to Carolina’s expression, a wistful distant look, that keeps his mouth shut. “... it's a pretty name.”

“My mother’s name. I hated it growing up, but I like it a little bit better now.” Carolina sighs, blowing a few escaped locks of hair out of her face and turns to the last piece of luggage. “Okay, boys. Time to go.”

There's a flutter of wings in the carrier, a flutter in York’s own heart, as she packs the last piece of her life into her car and shuts the door. The sidewalk is back to being empty again, and if he climbed up to her second floor balcony and slipped open the lock, the apartment would look almost the same as it did when she lived there. It's not fair to think about how little of an impact she appears to be leaving behind, when to him Carolina has changed everything.

She’s standing with her back to him and her palm resting on the hood of the car when the words finally escape.

“I don't want you to go.”

Carolina stays still. York takes a step closer, places his hand on top of hers.

“But I'm not going to stop you. I won't ask you to stay.” Her hair is pulled back in a bun again, just like it was the first time. “You need to go. I understand. I…”

York leans down to press his forehead against the back of her head. “I just wish you didn’t.”

Their fingers twine together on the roof of the car. Behind them, the sun continues to climb.

“This is how it goes in movies, right?”

York blinks as Carolina steps away, turns to face him. There's a shine in her green eyes that reflects the ache he’s been carrying locked away. “Boy meets girl, boy gets girl, girl moves away?” she continues.

He can't tell if the warmth on his hand is from where he had held hers or from the sun on the car, but he smiles anyway.

“Yeah. And I’d watch it again any time.”

Carolina wraps her arms around him in a hug, hiding her face in the crook of his neck, and holds him. A car drives by, buffeting the loose strands of hair that surround her bun like a halo of fire. She doesn't even flinch.

It's not until she breaks away and they share one last kiss that the idea hits him.

“Hey,” and she stops on the other side of the car, door already open. “I have something for you.”

York places something on the roof of the car and slides it across to her. It catches the sunlight as it spins, scattering prisms across the dark blue surface.

Carolina catches it, turns it over to inspect it. She throws him a surprised look.

“You're sure? I know what this means to you.”

“Sure, I'm sure.” As he watches, she flicks open the lid. A metallic rasp, and a blue-gold flame leaps to life. “It’ll make me drop the habit if you hold onto it.”

Carolina slides the engraved lighter into her pocket. “I'll take good care of it.”

He can't resist stepping around the car for one last look at her, buckled in with a houseplant tucked in a cup holder and a few new freckles on her cheeks. He’ll forget what she’s wearing in a couple months, but in the moment he revels in how her shirt makes her eyes look turquoise.

And then she’s gone, and he’s standing in the road with one hand raised until he can’t see so much as a navy smudge flashing between the buildings as she winds her way out of the complex. Then his hand lowers, slides into his pockets, and fishes out his key ring. With a jolt, he realizes he still has a little brass-plated plated one in his pocket, a twin to the ones North and South carry, and everything comes out of him in a rush.

But not even pain can last forever. York rubs at his eyes, feeling the scar chafe his left one, and heads to his own car. He needs to head home and shower before his afternoon shift at Invention, and after that he’ll need to finish his own packing to move back into his childhood home. It's not an ending. Not to everything.

York sits in his car and rubs his thumb over the center of the steering wheel, recalling a little post it note that sat there months ago.

Thanks for the ride.

He turns the key and starts the car and knows, somehow, he’ll see her again.

Chapter Text

 

Underneath a truck, inches from the cool concrete floor, York lets his mind drift on auto pilot.  His hands are sure in their task and free to act on their own, his body fed and as comfortable as can be on the hard wooden surface of the crawler, his good eye seeing without seeing the work to be done in the engine above him. He could do it in his sleep - has done mechanical work in his dreams, usually under distressing circumstances - and his mind is on other things, anyway. Namely a trip to Chorus.

It's been off and on his mind all summer as the Felix Gates case finally ran to a close. Settlements have been paid, sums in the hundreds of millions, and a handful of arrests have been made for high ranking Charon officials. Names he used to know in another life, plates on doors he walked past. And Carolina seemed to be settling in.

They’ve stayed in touch, the amount of messages ebbing and flowing with no real pattern. Both busy adults, and York’s been promoted to full time at Invention so he’s kept busy. Moved, in the sense of living in a new location, and continued to grow, but he wouldn't call himself “moved on.” And though the case is over, the man with the alias of Locus was never caught, so visiting Chorus is only something to daydream about when he’s changing someone's oil or balancing their tires.

Grease drops onto his forehead, blending with the sweat welling there, and he smears it with the back of his hand. There's never much of a slow season at Invention. Summer brings vacations and road trips, in spring and fall the town is overflowing with students, and winter necessitates peak car condition for everyone’s safety. Even if he could visit, there’s hardly a full week when Niner or something else doesn’t need him. It’s the same for Carolina, 400 odd miles away.

Six months is a long time, almost as long as they’d known each other, but he still jerks his head around at every flash of red or aqua or navy blue. It aches him to be cut off from her, kills him to wonder if she’s found someone else, but he clings to hope with bulldog tenacity. Equal parts optimism and stubborn denial that the last time he saw her will be just that; the last.

A pair of feet step into his view, and a fist pounds on the top of his car. York digs his heels in and walks the creeper backwards, wondering if somehow this will be the time that those legs belong to--

“It's a slow day,” says his boss. “I'm sending you home early.”

He knew feet that small couldn't be anyone else, and yet he feels a touch of disappointment. “Thanks, Niner.”

She nudges him with the toe of her shoe. “Don't look so happy when you thank me,” she drawls, sarcasm dripping off her like sweat. It's an unseasonably warm day in late October, sluggish in every sense of the word. Kind of her to send him home. “I'm closing the place tomorrow to get the A/C fixed. Stay home then, too.”

“The A/C died?”

“An hour ago. You didn't notice?” Niner is aghast. York shrugs. “All that for nothing,” she mutters, then kicks his creeper. “Go. Leave. Now.”

“Okay, okay,” he relents. “Lemme just finish what I'm doing.”

He shuffles back under the truck and listens to Niner stomp off. She’s right. He should have noticed how quiet and hot it is in Invention. Maybe he can blame it on being close to what would have been his anniversary with Carolina. What might be. He thinks they’re still dating, or at least he isn't looking for anyone else and she hasn't mentioned it, but the last time they called and talked was a month ago. Stayed up all night telling her about how things were going, small town gossip spiraling into ethics and philosophy and both of them bitter about politics. It was cathartic, even when they ended the call an hour before his morning shift, but since then it's been occasional texts. No sustained conversation, just little “saw this and thought of you” snippets, which he loves just as much, but it's not enough.

If she didn't hate surprises, York would drive there tonight and pick up flowers on the way. She likes cut ones more than potted and carnations more than roses and he’d find someone willing to put cute little ghosts all over a fall colored bouquet, but she's busy and he’s dirty and he’ll just have to have them sent to her apartment and eat cheap for a week.

At last, York shuffles out from under the truck, clocks out, and heads home. It's mid afternoon, heat of the day, and he rubs his thumbs along the hot steering wheel. Epsilon’s A/C system is considerably better than Delta’s ever was, and as much as he’ll miss his little black coupe he has to admit this one is an upgrade. Nearly nudged bumpers a couple times when parallel parking, but with a couple extra mirrors in place the drive back to his house is easy. He eyes the grocery store on the way but decides to wait until he’s clean. Ratty once-white tank top, no eye-patch, and a streak of dirt on his brow he can't rub away is not a good look.

But there’s a police car in his driveway with the lights off, and as he pulls up he can't stop his heart from racing. Fear and hope and fear of hoping too much bubble up in his throat, and York gets out of the car shaking. A figure standing on his porch turns to face him, her red hair wine dark in the shadow of the porch.

She’s holding a silver bag of candy.

He doesn't remember running, only the way her smile spreads across her entire face before their bodies collide on the porch - “Careful, you're gonna crush your gift.” “Who, the candy or you?” - and he buries his face in her neck. It feels like coming home, still, after all this time.

“Why are you so damp?” she asks, a laugh buried in her question.

“A/C broke at work.” He probably should let her go; this might count as PDA, and he has to smell awful but his arms aren't obeying him. And her arms are still around him, too, free hand scritching gently at his back. “Got sent home early.”

“Oh.”

He really doesn't want to let her go, but he does anyway, steps back and winces at the smudge of grease on her shirt. “Ah, shit, sorry. Come inside; my laundry is inside my place and free now.”

“How exciting,” Carolina plays along.

Her fingertips brush his as he unlocks the door; she's just behind him, on his good side, and they step over the threshold together.

“Want a tour?” he asks, gesturing to the new old house.

“Absolutely.”

Most of the rooms, like the den they used for storage, weren't ones she really saw before, so he focuses more on what she would remember. He shows her the kitchen, all yellow and white like an over easy egg, the new fridge and the re-painted cabinets. The living room with the couch from his apartment, a mounted flat screen from South trailing cords to a couple consoles and a DVD player. Sensible grey walls and light blue curtains from Butch and Reggie instead of twenty year old wallpaper and yellowed mini blinds. An actual coffee table. And surrounded by photos of both blood and found family, the cuckoo clock ticking steadily away beside the kitchen doorway.

Last is the bedroom. All of his favorite old furniture is in here, filling the room with clumps of mismatched dark wood against three cream walls and one bright, light aqua blue.

“It's supposed to be an accent wall. I don't know if I pulled it off. North said it's too intense--”

He means to say more but there’s something vulnerable in her expression as she stares at the wall, and he gives her a second to see if she’ll come back by herself. The color reminds him of her, of her eyes and her scarf and how he wants to drown himself in her. Whether she gets it or not, and however she feels about it, no explanation could help now.

“I never got you anything as a housewarming gift,” she says softly. 

“Hey, hey,” the last thing he wants is for her to be sad again, not when he’s finally close enough to do something about it. “It’s fine. You’ve been really busy. And you brought me candy.”

Carolina looks at the bag in her hand. Back at him, and he smiles back. She breaks first, shaking her head.

“How,” but she never finishes the thought, just hands the bag over with a long suffering sigh and the hint of a bitter smile. York bites his tongue and changes the subject. What would his bubbe say?

“Have you eaten yet?”

“Not since this morning.”

“Oh. Shit. Well.” York glances at the kitchen, trying to remember the contents of the fridge and cupboards without opening any of them. “I do have food. Not a meal, but food. Would you be OK going somewhere instead?”

“Sure. You wanna change first?”

York grins. “What, you wanna join me in the shower?”

She blinks. He falters.

“Too soon?”

“I didn't bring a change of clothes,” she says.

“Oh,” and he’s not sure if he should offer his own or if he should just take that as a polite no. “I'll just get out of my work clothes, then.”

His pants are fine so he just changes out of his grease-stained, sweat damp shirt and tries to not let her see him deliberate what shirt to wear. Thankfully, she says in the doorway and chats while he looks for his favorite Star Wars one, the one North says makes his shoulders look broad.

“Where did you wanna go?” she asks. “The usual place?”

“Sure.” He finds it on the floor, dirty, and has to settle for the next one he sees - black with skeletons, one in pieces, and the caption I Got Your Back. He combs his hair with his fingers, styling it in seconds without looking. “Want me to drive?”

“Yeah. I borrowed my brother’s car to get here.”

“Borrowed?” York echoes, grinning.

That brings a bit of the Carolina he’s used to back, and she gives him a dry look.

“He wasn't using it.”

“You know,” and he follows her back to the living room, “if you're having trouble with your car, I know a guy.”

“Do you.” But there's a smile in her voice, in the corners of her eyes, and York feels himself falling just as deep into love with her as he was six months ago.

“I do,” forgetting to be teasing about it, and Carolina looks away quickly. York doesn't take it back and waits, instead, with one hand on the front door for any sort of rebuttal.

“When we get back, I want a full tour of the house,” is all she says, and she lets him lead the way to his car.

 


 

He still has the smudge on his forehead when they sit down in their usual diner. Carolina meant to say something earlier, but was too surprised to see her favorite color on his bedroom wall to bring it up. She doubts he knows, she never brought it up and it's not something her brother would have shared even if asked, but something about that bright, unapologetic flash of color had stirred her. For a moment, she wondered what it would be like to wake up to dawn spilling pink and gold sunlight all over that bed, casting purple shadows on the blue-green wall.

But the moment had passed, and she didn't want to distract him while driving, and now Carolina is sitting across from him wondering if water on a flimsy paper napkin would get the stain off.

He's not even trying to read the menu, resting his chin in one hand and watching her with the softest, warmest expression she's seen in months -- six months to be precise -- and maybe she doesn't want to clean him up. Maybe she likes him like that, maybe she wants to join him in the shower later, but there are things she needs to say first.

Her order, for one. The waitress is wiping down tables a couple booths away, the diner sparse in the late afternoon. And she really, really is hungry.

“When did you get in?” he asks. Carolina tries to keep her eyes on the menu.

“Very late last night. Or very early this morning.”

“Ouch.”

“Yeah, traffic was rough. I slept at Church’s last night and then… I asked Niner if you were working.” She skips over the local special of the Straw-Burger with a little grimace. “She said you were, but it was a short shift.”

York laughs. She dares to look up and has to hide behind her menu again, eyes closed to preserve the image of his smile.

“I wasn't supposed to have a short shift. She sent me home early. I bet the A/C wasn't even broken.”

“What?”

The menu does nothing. She can hear how happy he is, just in his voice. “Oh my god, did she turn it off to try to sweat me out? That's incredible. I don't deserve her.”

“You do,” Carolina says quietly. “You deserve good friends.”

York sighs and, she assumes, settles back against the back of the booth. “I certainly have them, don't I? So. How’s Chorus?”

Carolina waves over the waiter. “Food first. I’ll take a number… 11. Iced tea.”

“Quarter-pound burger, no cheese, no mayo. And a coke, please.”

The waitress takes their menus. “Is this together, or separate?”

Her gaze meets his on reflex. He’s got one arm thrown over the back of the booth, a leg crossed in his lap, and the late afternoon sun catches the side of his face -- gold like precious metal, yellow like caution lights.

“Together?” he asks. “My treat.”

She doesn’t come up with a rebuttal in time until it’s too late, and there’s nothing left to hide behind. She takes the initiative instead, mimicking his pose from earlier.

Your treat?” It’s harder to talk when her chin is in her hand, but she’s committed. “What makes you think I’ll let you pay when dinner was my idea?”

“Because you’re visiting. And I got a promotion.” His eyebrows raise in a challenge, making the smudge on his forehead jump. “Try to stop me. You don’t have jurisdiction here.”

“Don’t I?” she asks, baiting him.

In answer, York leans across the table, so close her breath catches in her throat. He makes a show of frowning, probably trying to make a ‘cop face,’ and tilting his head back and forth. She holds his gaze until she catches his hand sneaking under the table and pins it to the table with her own.

“No looking it up on your phone,” and she tries to sound firm but York’s expression melts and he laces their fingers together.

“Didn’t realize I was supposed to be studying the law while you were gone,” he says, maybe; she doesn’t process his words at first, too caught up in the warmth of his touch that spreads up her arm to her cheeks. By that time it’s too late for a pithy reply, too late to do anything to hide the effect he has on her.

She tries anyway, a haphazard attempt to keep the conversation going. “I’d rather you study it than break it.”

York strokes her hand with his thumb and she swears his touch burns her skin. “Nah,” his smile hasn’t left his face since they sat down, just waxed and waned like the moon. Now it curls into a playful smirk. “I promise I’ve kept out of trouble. Well. Legal trouble.”

“Good.”

One of the reasons why Carolina doesn’t like PDA is because of how much it affects her. She is numb to cruelty, to neglect, to horror and abuse. Her childhood and profession gave her that armor. But she has no defense against kindness, against the open and honest joy in York’s eyes just by having her there. Nothing else.

She eases her hand out of his and wishes she hadn’t. “What did you say about a promotion?”

York sits up, rolls one shoulder. “Niner’s moved me to full time. Better pay, insurance. I just have to put up with her a few more hours a week.”

“Congrats.”

“Thank you. It’s a longer drive, now, but Epsilon’s a great car. Which,” the smudge twitches again with his expression, “is also why dinner is my treat.”

She can’t argue with that.  And she really can’t wash his face off now. “All right. I won’t fight you.”

“Because I’m right?”

“Because I’ll win,” she insists, “but I’ll let you have it. This once.”

York slides the dessert menu over to her. “Perfect. Now look through this.”

“Don’t push your luck,” she says as she flips through it anyway, glad to be distracted. If she keeps looking at him looking at her like that, she doesn’t know what she’ll do.

“And how is the Captain of the State Police Department?” he asks, and she freezes. No way out, now.

“I…”

Carolina closes her eyes. Takes in a deep breath. Reminds herself of every reason she has to be here.

“When I left yesterday,” she says slowly, “he was doing just fine.”

York’s smile drops. “What?”

She sets the menu down and faces him, lets him search her face again for truth, confusion blooming into anger on his face.

“After all that,” he snorts. Carolina braces herself. “And they didn’t pick you?”

“They did.”

The confusion is back, and York leans on the table, voice low and gentle. “... But?”

“But…”

It’s hard to describe what these past months have been like; how she’d settled into her new role immediately, how proud she’d felt and how hard she’d worked even with so many familiar faces gone.

“It was everything I’d wanted, but it wasn’t… me anymore. It's hard to describe.” The paranoia in the wake of C.T.’s internal affairs ties, of Maine’s past bribery, of how much money had replaced evidence in the trial. The frustration against the system, now that she was high enough to understand how poorly it worked and how impossible it was to improve anything. The depression of being so far away from anyone who cared about her as a person. “So, I resigned.”

“When?”

“Couple weeks ago.” It had been York’s phone call that had done it, a gentle voice that had triggered an avalanche. “New guy is a little jumpy but I think he’s gonna do fine. He knows the Attorney. I trust him and had to help him get settled before I left.”

She can’t look at him anymore. Even so, she knows exactly how he feels from his tone alone. “What are you going to do now?”

“I’m on leave right now. After that…” Carolina sighs, hiding her face in her hands and burying her fingers in her bangs. “After that, I don’t know. I might need a break. But I’m not going back to Chorus.”

A gentle silence settles over the table, broken only when the waitress returns with their drinks.

“I feel like… like I quit. Like I gave up.”

“Hey, no,” and he’s leaning across the table again, just short of reaching for her hands. “It's not quitting to get out of something that's hurting you. You tried for six whole months. That's more than most people would have stuck with something they didn't like.”

Carolina stares at the table, at York’s hands tense with worry and the tears of condensation that drip down the side of her glass.

“I know how much it hurts to give up on a dream. When I left Charon to take care of my bubbe it felt like… like I had failed myself. I was gonna be this brilliant programmer who worked out how to create a living, feeling AI, and then I was fixing cars.”

She hadn't known that about him. Her eyes raise to his face and any bitter, spiteful push back about their differing situations dissolves in the face of his raw, desperate empathy.

“And then what happened with Delta. I loved that car so damn much, and having to sell it for scrap was… awful. But then you and Niner stepped in with Epsilon, and it works just as well. Better in some places, even if I still can't parallel park.” A self-deprecating chuckle, and he runs his fingers through his hair. “Maybe… it's the same with being Captain. I would have been so proud if I’d have fixed D when everyone else said I couldn't. But if I had, and then I got into a car accident… I don't know if I would survive it. Hell, I had to do the same thing with my motorcycle, Sinclair, after I lost my eye.”

The setting sun is gold and yellow and suddenly the pale amber of a flashlight, illuminating a bloody face behind a crushed helmet in a ditch. Carolina sucks in a sharp breath, recognition at last falling into place, and a soft horror. The man she had left for dead, chasing justice.

He doesn't remember her. If he did, would he forgive her so easily? Love her so freely?

“I don't blame you for leaving,” he says, answering everything she couldn’t bring herself to ask.

“Sorry for the delay, but your food is here.” Plates are set in front of them, the clatter and the smell bringing Carolina back to the present where two faces are regarding her with worry. “Ma’am?”

“I'm-- I'm all right. Thank you.” She stammers, blinks, and steels herself in seconds. God forbid she cry in front of a stranger.

The waitress excuses herself and leaves them alone at the table, York with his quarter pounder, and Carolina with her--

“Is that a Straw-Burger?” he asks, and as she looks at the stack of country fried steak, fried green tomatoes, and flavored mayo, Carolina thinks about how the things she wants have changed in the last two or so years.

“I missed it,” she says. “Awful as it is, I missed it. And I missed you.”

“Well,” and York tears the paper off the end of his straw, sliding it over to her, “you're welcome to practice your aim.”

Her eyes drop down from his face to the half wrapped straw sitting on the table between them, then back up. She picks up the straw, places it to her lips; with a silent wish, she blows a puff of air and shoots the wrapper at York’s face. It bounces off his nose and when he grins she feels herself smiling back.

They take their time eating, with York teasing her about the burger -- “Not even I will eat that, and I have eaten actual garbage.” “So you admit --” -- and Carolina teasing him about his job until the evening bleeds rose red across their table, glittering like rubies in the ice of their empty glasses. It’s the happiest she’s felt in a long time. No deadlines. No expectations. The luxury of being in the moment with someone who makes her happy.

“It’s getting dark,” she says on their way to the parking lot, the world around them violet-tinted as their shadows melt into the asphalt. Too early for the street lights to come on, too late for more than a few shards of amber sunlight to flash between the trees and buildings. “I’ll drive.”

York passes over the keys without hesitation but she follows him to the passenger side, climbs in after him. “Hello…?” he asks but he spreads his legs to let her place a knee between them, balance herself over him and finally, finally kiss him.

When they break apart she presses their foreheads together, her thumb stroking his cheek. “Let’s go home,” Carolina says, though home might be here with her shoulders brushing the roof of his car, the lingering taste of soda in his mouth and his hand on her hip.

“Anywhere,” York agrees, “as long as I’m with you.”