Christmas Cannibal – Chapter Five

NOT EDITED

After informing Eddie’s parents about his death, Miguel had stayed in his cruiser in the parking lot for nearly an hour to cry, gain control of himself, and cry. Informing the family of a homicide was never easy, but tacking on that the victim was a three-year-old, that Miguel knew him and his parents, that he was Eliseo’s best friend–Well, that made it harder.

Once he had been able to keep control of his emotions for more than a few seconds, Miguel had gone inside to focus on paperwork, and he had stayed at the station until almost six that evening. Landon had texted him just before five to let him know his sister was willing to see Eliseo that night. Miguel had prolonged it for as long as he could, but even the detectives on shift that day had already cleared out of the station. There was no need for him to sit around and pull for overtime that hadn’t even existed for months.

With a sigh, he pushed his chair back and rose to his feet. He snagged his coat from the back of the chair and rolled it under his desk. Shoving his arms through the sleeves, he made his way down to the lab.

Jamal stood outside the door, head tilted back against the wall, arms crossed over his chest. “How can I help you, Detective?”

Miguel glanced up at his face just to make sure he wasn’t crazy. Nope. The man’s eyes were still closed. God, maybe he was a psychic too.

Well… there was no harm in asking. “What are you, some kind of psychic?”

Jamal chuckled. “No. Sometimes, I wish I was. Imagine the solve rate my department would hold,” he said. “I’m good with footsteps, is all. You walk with a relatively distinct heaviness on your right leg.”

“College football injury.”

“Aha.” Jamal opened his eyes, turning his head to look at Miguel. “What can I do for you?”

“I was just coming down to let Bo know I was heading out for the evening.”

Jamal nodded. “I’ll let him know. He’ll have a report on your desk tomorrow, I assure you.”

“Thank you for sending him out for this. And, uh, thank him again for agreeing to it.”

“I will, and my pleasure.” Jamal nodded toward the stairs. “Go on home, Detective. Bo has your number. If anything comes up that can’t wait until tomorrow, he’ll call you. Until then, go spend the rest of the night with your boy. You’re all he’s got.”

“Yeah,” Miguel whispered. He nodded, lifting a hand in departure as he turned back toward the stairs. It was still hard to wrap his head around just how true that statement was. He was all Eliseo had left. His mom was gone, his grandparents were gone–his maternal grandparents had more or less severed ties after the divorce. He had no siblings, one of his friends had been murdered, and he was a fucking psychic.

Jesus, what the hell was he going to do?

***

Miguel let Landon drive to his sister’s house. It was odd and uncomfortable sitting in the passenger seat, but he made due. All that mattered was getting Eliseo to this woman so they could figure out how best to manage his… powers?

Miguel turned toward Landon. “What do you call them?”

“Call what?”

“The psychic thing. Powers?”

“Ah. Depends on the psychic, I guess. My sister, she prefers ‘abilities’. She says a lot of adults do. Kid psychics tend to like the idea that they have some kind of cool superpower, but she says that can be dangerous.”

Miguel shifted to look back at Eliseo. The boy was sound asleep in his carseat, his stuffed lamb held to his chest. Miguel still remembered buying it for him. It had been one of the only toys in the hospital’s gift shop that wasn’t blue or pink, and it had been the cutest stuffed toy there. It had been an expensive first toy, but Eliseo had loved it from day one.

“Why is it dangerous?” Miguel finally asked.

“Kids associate superpowers with the ones their favorite superheroes have. Nora–my sister–knows of at least one kid psychic who, umm… thought he could fly after his parents told him what he could do were like superpowers. He managed to survive, but it hasn’t been an easy life.”

“Christ,” Miguel whispered. He turned back around in his seat, clasping his hands between his thighs. “What’s something good you can tell me about all this? About these abilities? Does any good come from them? Or is my boy going to live with nightmares his whole damn life with nothing positive to come by?”

“I think good things can come from them. My sister and I didn’t really have it easy growing up. Our dad was in a coma from a car accident for years, and our mom passed away within the first four days after said accident. Our grandparents raised us for a while, and then my sister took care of both of us. Our grandparents, they didn’t understand the psychic thing. They always thought it was bullshit, some crazy story our dad fed our mom to get her to ‘run away’ with him.” Landon shrugged. “They loved us, but they didn’t understand us, you know? That lack of understanding can really mess a kid up.”

Miguel closed his eyes. “What if I can’t grow to understand it? I mean, is it even possible to understand it if I’m not like him?”

“Yes. Think of it like any familiar condition a person can have. Anxiety, let’s say. You can understand what that person might be going through. You can understand the coping mechanisms they may have. Sure, you don’t know exactly how they’re feeling or exactly how bad their anxiety is. You don’t know which is their best shot at coming down from a panic attack unless they share it with you. But you can still understand the concepts, and it makes you… tolerant. Kind. Caring. That’s what he needs. Someone understanding, even if they haven’t experienced it themselves.”

“I guess that makes sense.” Miguel cleared his throat. “How much longer until we get to your sister’s place?”

“Not too much further now. We’re about ten minutes away.”

“All right.” Miguel tilted his head back against the seat, closing his eyes. “Thank you for this, Landon. I don’t know what I’d do without you when it comes to this.”

Landon remained silent for a long moment. “You’re welcome. I just want the best for Eliseo. He’s a good kid, and he shouldn’t have to suffer through life just because he’s a little different.”

“He can see the future in his nightmares.”

“Yeah, like I said, a little different.”

Miguel couldn’t help but chuckle. “I guess that’s technically true.”

“I’m excellent at technicallies.”

“They’re appreciated, especially after the day I had.”

“God, I can imagine. I don’t know how you do it, Miguel. They talked about it on the news. No pictures, of course, but they talked about it. I-I can’t even imagine what it was like to walk in there and see that poor kid firsthand.”

“Wasn’t pretty, that’s for sure,” Miguel said quietly. “But you learn to manage the way it makes you feel. You learn that you gotta be there if you want to find the monster that did this to a child.” He opened his eyes. “Speaking of.”

“Yeah?”

“You said that… monsters are real.”

“Yeah.”

“Does that mean this Father Whipper thing really could have killed this boy?” Miguel asked.

Landon cleared his throat, adjusting his grip on the steering wheel. “Anything’s possible. These things hide their true selves in the shadows to keep the, uh, ‘normal’ population blissfully unaware of them. It allows them to hunt and feed without much interference. But that doesn’t mean they’re the only monsters out there, and it doesn’t mean an actual Father Whipper is the only thing that could present himself as Father Whipper to your son.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means it could be anything. Anything can present itself as something else, especially in dreams. It could be a Demon or a ghost. It could be a Vampire or a Shapeshifter. Hell, it could be a regular old human with a fascination for cannibalistic lore.”

“So even if monsters are real, this could still have been done by a human?” Miguel asked.

“Oh, yeah. Absolutely.”

He let out a harsh breath. “I don’t know if that makes it better or worse.”

Landon shook his head. “Welcome to the club.”


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S. Carved – Chapter Eighteen

A/N: Sorry for the delay! I meant to post this yesterday, but my sleep schedule is sort of controlled by my exhaustion right now. Anyway, here you go!!

NOT EDITED

Chapter Eighteen

“So, they probably eat people,” Dallas said as he slid into the cruiser.

“Technically, they probably eat the organs of people.”

Oh, my fucking God, Ed groaned.

“Is there a difference?” Dallas asked.

“Of course. Which part of the cow do you eat before you say you’ve eaten cow?” Bo asked.

Dallas cocked his head to the side before nodding. “Okay, that’s fair. I’ll side with you on that one.”

I’ll fucking kill you both.

Control yourself. You’re already getting your fucking hands on a victim tonight. That’s all you get.

Whatever.

Dallas cleared his throat. “So if these people really do eat the organs of their younger members, and if those members agreed to this, what the hell can we do?”

“Cults are complicated, especially in the sense of the law and the court systems, but killing another human being is still killing another human being,” Bo said. “There are degrees, of course, but cults of this type don’t really fall into one of them. Regardless of any of that, you can’t convince a child to allow you to kill them and then argue that you had permission. It doesn’t work that way. We continue as we have been. We look for the people who killed this man, who brainwashed him into this. The worst that happens is we never find them. The best is we get them locked forever. Somewhere in the middle is a DA offering them a deal for community service to testify against one of the other members. As long as we avoid the worst, we’ve succeeded.”

“Success does sound like a good idea.”

Bo chuckled softly. “Yes, it often does.”

“Onto the next old best friend?”

The blonde nodded. “Take the first left after you get back onto the road.”

“Will do.”

***

The interview with Freya Thomas had been relatively mundane, though she had confirmed Robert’s third friend, Layla Torress, had been the one who told him about the cult. According to Freya, Layla had tried to talk her into the cult in high school too. Obviously, Layla had only been convincing enough for Robert.

Dallas had a good feeling that was because Robert had been a teenage boy confronted by a pretty girl.

It’s a shame how many pretty girls you robbed us of when you were still in school. Such a fucking prude, Ed said.

Dallas’s jaw clenched as he pulled into Layla’s driveway. His ‘prude’ status back in the day had everything to do with preventing Ed from murdering his classmates, especially the ones Dallas was fond of in any form.

“Ready to head on in, Bo?” Dallas asked.

After a moment, Bo shook his head. “Do you mind giving me a moment?”

“No. What’s up?”

“A moment… alone?” Bo asked, his gaze settled on something off in the distance.

“Not at all. Take your time.” Dallas pulled the keys from the ignition and climbed out of the car. Bo stayed in the passenger seat, face buried in his hands.

Aww, Tex. I think you pushed our poor little freak too far for one day. So many people, so much time out of the basement. Poor little guy.

Ed, I swear to God—

Oh, please. You hardly even believe there’s a God.

I believe there’s a God. I’m just certain he fucking hates me. Leave Bo out of your shit. I will not let you kidnap Spencer tonight. I-I would rather let him kill a girl than let you… satisfy yourself with another kill.

Ed cackled, the sound thundering in Dallas’s head. He squeezed his eyes shut, brow furrowed as he tried to force the noise out. Oh, Dallas. Come on, buddy. We both know you’d never purposely endanger a life just so you could prove a point to me. You’re still too busy clinging to the idea that you’re somehow one of the good guys.

Watch me.

“We have to prepare for the possibility that she may run, given the circumstances,” Bo said as he climbed out of the car. He closed the passenger door quieter than Dallas knew possible and tucked his hands behind his back. “If she does, what would you like me to do?”

“Long as she doesn’t have a weapon? Chase her. Unless I can grab her arm, there’s a good chance I’d need to jump her, and that’s probably not happening.”

Bo nodded. “Not without injuring yourself, yes.”

“You a good runner, Bo?”

Bo offered a small smile. “I would have been a heck of a sprinter if not for the older kids in track.”

“Good. Good that you’re a fine runner, anyway. The other part, well, fuck those kids.”

After a moment, Bo nodded. “Yes. Fuck them.”

Dallas snorted. “Come on. Let’s see if she runs or not.”

“Following you.”

Dallas led the way to the front door, adjusting the strap of his sling as he walked. He hated the way the damn thing rested most of the time, but he was stuck with it for a good long while. He felt like he’d been damned to eternity with it.

“You gonna hang out at the bottom of the stairs?” Dallas asked.

Bo nodded, hands tucked behind his back. “Yes. If she happens to run, I will too. But until then, following you.”

Dallas rolled his eyes, the good corner of his mouth lifting. He knocked on the door.

I hope she runs, Ed said. It’d be HILARIOUS to watch the little blonde try to tackle someone, wouldn’t it? God, I’d love that.

Shut up.

“Pardon?”

Dallas looked back over at Bo. “What?”

“You… you told me to shut up.” Bo offered a smile. “I’m pretty used to and okay with that, but it’s usually when I’m talking.”

Ed cackled. Oh, Tex. You stupid idiot. Oh, God. Gold. I love it.

Dallas shook his head. “Sorry, Bo. N-not to you. I’ve just got, umm… You ever have to tell the little voice in your head to fuck off?”

“Oh.” Bo nodded. “Yes, I can’t blame you there. That voice can be a real monster sometimes.”

I can’t believe you saved that. Kinda disappointed. Wanted you to have to come clean about the whole serial killer in your head thing. Then we would have HAD to kill him. Damn, I would love that.

The door opening saved Dallas from being forced to figure out a response or an adequate apology. “Hello?”

“Hello, Layla. I’m Dallas Silver with the LAPD. I need to ask you a few questions that tie into our current investigation. You knew our victim, Robert Sawyer.”

Layla’s eyes searched Dallas’s face for a moment far too long. “Who?”

“Robert Sawyer. You went to school with him.”

“I went to school with a lot of people.” Her gaze darted over to Bo before settling on Dallas’s face again. “High school isn’t a time I go out of my way to remember. I don’t want to be one of those people who believes those were the best years of their life.”

“He was one of your best friends. I still remember my best friend from high school, and unlike you, I didn’t talk mine into joining a cult. So I think he might stick out in your memory.”

“A cult?”

“We already have multiple accounts of that, Layla. We know it’s true, and we know you talked him into joining the cult. I can’t exactly arrest you for his murder, but I can certainly talk to you about the people who committed it.” Layla pulled a gun from the back of her waistband, and before Dallas could even think about grabbing his own, she held it to her own head and pulled the trigger.


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A Bensen Short – First Valentine’s Day

A/N: Happy belated Valentine’s Day! If you haven’t read up through the ending up book five of the Bo Austen series (The White Rose Butcher), it’s suggested you skip this for now to avoid spoilers.

Otherwise, I hope you enjoy the very first Bensen Valentine’s Day 🙂

NOT EDITED

Tuesday: February 14, 2023

The moonlight shining through the window was minimal, but it was more than enough to give Bo a good look at Jensen’s face. The younger man was sound asleep, his head on Bo’s chest. His expression was calm, peaceful. Bo enjoyed that more than he enjoyed most things nowadays. The calm, the peace. Sometimes, Jensen’s calm and peaceful demeanor wore off on him and gave him the smallest pep in his step for the day. It was something Bo deeply appreciated on those days.

Jensen shifted, fingers tightening around the front of the shirt Bo had thrown on after their shower. “I don’t know,” he whispered. Bo grunted as Jensen scrambled to get away from him. Before he could even attempt to wake the man from his nightmare, Jensen fell off the bed. “Goddamn.”

Bo leaned over the edge of the bed, laying a hand on Jensen’s knee. “Are you all right?”

“Yeah. Caught myself before I smacked my head.” Jensen cleared his throat. “Sorry.”

“What on Earth do you have to be sorry for?”

“Waking you.”

Bo shook his head. “I was already up, Jensen. You didn’t do anything wrong.” He pulled his hand back, holding it out to Jensen instead. “Come on. Get your butt back up here.”

Jensen grabbed Bo’s hand and crawled back into bed. Tucked under the covers again, he laid his head back on Bo’s chest. “Why were you awake? It’s early.”

“You know me. Recently sober or not, I still haven’t exactly evened out my sleep schedule.” Jensen nodded, but he didn’t respond. “Do… you want to talk about what happened?”

“Nah. Just a bad dream.”

Bo chose not to push it. He and Jensen weren’t anything more than friends with benefits, and he didn’t want to risk losing him to a bit too much prying. Jensen was a good man, one who had single-handedly carried him into sobriety, one who had done everything in his control to help Bo through the grief that had swallowed him whole after the death of his girlfriend.

He wouldn’t do something to chase him away, even if only for a few hours.

“Are you tired?” Bo asked.

“No. Are you?”

“Not even a little. Would… you like to come make fudge with me? I have a new caramel swirl recipe I’d like to try out.”

“Gah, would love to.” Jensen pushed himself up on one elbow and leaned down to kiss Bo. “Let’s go make some kick-ass fudge.”

***

Jensen snagged another square of fudge from the plate on his lap and popped it into his mouth. Bo always cut them into bite-sized pieces whenever he planned to share them with Jensen, like he knew how much Jensen loved snacks he didn’t have to take in more than one bite.

Seated on the couch, Jensen sat between Bo’s legs, leaned back against his chest. While Jensen waited for his newest game to finish downloading, Bo was busy dicking around on his phone, free hand occasionally moving over Jensen’s chest.

“Do you have any plans for tonight?” Bo asked.

Jensen snorted. “What kinda plans would I have that don’t involve this house?”

Bo shrugged. “We both know I wouldn’t tattle on you if you ditched for the night, found someone to have fun with.”

“I have fun with you. I don’t need anyone else for that.”

“Are you sure?”

“Positive.”

“Mm.” Bo pressed a kiss to his shoulder. “I’m… rather happy to hear that.”

Jensen couldn’t help the heat that rose to his cheek. He’d had a crush on Bo for a long damn time. Confirmation that Bo felt any kind of attachment to him felt incredible. “Why… do you ask?”

“I just wanted to know if I was making supper for one or for two tonight.”

“I can cook supper. I don’t mind.”

Bo cleared his throat. “I, umm… Jensen, I’m trying to ask you to be my date to a homemade Valentine’s Day dinner.”

“Oh,” Jensen whispered. He tilted his head back against Bo’s chest and reached up to lay a hand on his cheek. “Of course I’ll be your date. I always will be.”

Bo smiled faintly, that little lift of one corner of his mouth Jensen loved. “Thank you.”

“ ‘Course.” Jensen lifted his head, turning just enough to meet Bo halfway for a kiss. “What’s for supper?”

Bo snorted. “Wouldn’t you like to know.”

“Rude.”

Bo patted his chest. “You’ll survive. It’ll be a nice healthy boost for the both of us after we go most of the day without any sleep. Me working, you stalking me through the station.”

Jensen chuckled. “The usual.” He cleared his throat, shifting against Bo. “Umm, speaking of sleep… I’m not keeping you up, am I? You were already awake? Really?”

“I was already awake, I promise. Was thinking about you, actually.”

“Oh, yeah? What about me? How cute and funny and charming I am?”

Bo rolled his eyes, but Jensen didn’t miss the smile on his face. It was faint, but it was definitely there. “Not quite, although I do generally find those statements to be true, as well. I was thinking about how calm and peaceful your expression is while you sleep, how thankful I am that–on occasion–that calmness and peacefulness seep through to me and give me a bit of pep in my step.”

Jensen smiled, turning away before Bo got a good look at him. Bo made him all kinds of flustered and bubbly inside, but the longer he managed to hide that, the longer he and Bo could continue their friends with benefits arrangement. He was certain letting Bo know how he really felt would ruin it, and he wasn’t ready for that. “I’m glad I can help like that, Bo. You deserve that extra pep in your step.”

“Thank you.” Bo grabbed a little fudge square from the plate. “Your game downloaded.”

“You sure you don’t mind me playing by myself?”

“I’m sure. I’m catching up on a few forensic articles I’ve missed.”

“Like what?”

“Development of techniques, developments in on-scene gear… Simple things, but interesting things.”

“Cool. Well, if you get bored, you gotta let me know. Then I’ll switch games and we can, like, kill some zombies together.”

Bo chuckled softly, stirring the ever-present butterflies in Jensen’s stomach. “I’ll keep you posted. Until then, have fun.”

***

After Jensen played his game for a few hours, Bo got up to make breakfast and get ready for work. He made a little plate of scrambled eggs for Acamas and Hati–his cat and dog–and set them on the floor near their food dishes. He carried two plates of scrambled eggs, hash browns, and toast into the dining room, setting them down as Jensen came into the room.

“What’s wrong?” Jensen asked.

Bo shook his head. “Sometimes, living in her house is… difficult.”

“I can imagine. Did something happen?”

“I had to grab a new butter container from the fridge. I found one of her sticky notes in the drawer.” Bo offered a smile, but god, did it hurt. “A reminder to me to restock anything I used all of while baking. She wasn’t much of a baker herself, but I went through quite a bit of sugar and butter and…” He caught his bottom lip between his teeth, looking down. “I still can’t believe she’s dead, Jensen. The first woman I ever loved, and she was ripped out from under me like… like she was never there in the first place.”

Jensen rounded the table and laid a tentative hand on Bo’s upper back. “I can’t even imagine how it feels to lose a partner, a-and I hope I never have the experience to imagine it, but I am so sorry you have to suffer this grief, Bo. I wish there was something more I could do to help, t-to make it better, to make it go away.”

“Being able to talk to you about it helps more than you can imagine.”

Jensen wrapped Bo in a hug and pulled him close. Bo closed his eyes, breathing in the bodyguard’s cologne. Jensen had done more to help him through the grief that had enveloped him after his girlfriend’s murder than any one man should be expected to. Hell, he had helped Bo through it more than any one man should be capable of, but Jensen had always been there for him. Assigned as a bodyguard to keep him alive, Jensen had gone above and beyond, and Bo would never be able to find the words to express his gratitude.

He hoped finally working up the balls to ask Jensen to be more than friends with benefits would be the first step of many in expressing it.

Bo stepped away from Jensen. “Thank you for the talk. And the hug.”

Jensen smiled. “My pleasure, Bo.” He brushed a thumb over Bo’s cheek as he leaned down to press a kiss to his forehead. “Let’s get some breakfast in your system, yeah?”

Bo nodded. “Sounds like a plan to me.”

***

Jensen pulled open the back door of the car, free arm tucked behind his back. Bo slid out of the seat, lifting his satchel over his head. “Got everything?”

“Mmhmm.”

Jensen closed the door and locked it before pocketing the keys. He tucked his hands behind his back as he walked with Bo up to the station. In their time as friends with benefits, he had found that busying his hands was about the only way he could guarantee he wouldn’t try to hold Bo’s hand or touch his back. The goal was to never set off any red flags that he had violated the rules and slept with his boss. Bo had agreed it was the right call. It made sure Jamal wouldn’t pull him off Bo’s bodyguard detail and assign him to someone else.

“Jensen?”

Jensen stopped walking. Speak of the devil… He turned toward Jamal. “Yes, sir?”

“I’d like a word.”

Jensen swallowed as Jamal disappeared into his office. “You don’t think he knows, right?”

Bo shook his head. “He couldn’t, I promise. Take a deep breath and keep your head up. You’ll be fine. I’ll be in the lab, okay?”

Jensen nodded. “Yeah. Catch up in a few. Long as he doesn’t kill me.”

Bo snorted, rolling his eyes. “I’ll see you in a few, Jensen. Just play it cool.” He patted Jensen on the arm and headed toward the stairs.

Jensen let out a breath and walked into Jamal’s office. He closed the door, eyes landing on the elderly black man. He stood behind his desk, hands tucked behind his back as he stared out the window. Jamal had been the LAPD’s chief of police for years, still managing to keep the position after rumors of his corruption hit the media and spread like wildfire. The original rumors had been twisted time and time again, like some horrible game of telephone. Only a few were actually true, though they couldn’t be proven as such.

Jamal Pitman worked for the mob, he ran his own army of highly trained bodyguards and assassins, and he used his position as police chief to keep his men and fellow mobsters out of prison.

“How’s Bo?” Jamal asked, still facing the window.

“What do you mean?”

“How is he? How’s his state of mind?”

“Oh. He’s good, sir. Although I do believe living in Miss Decker’s house isn’t serving his mind well.”

“Has he said that?”

“No, not blatantly. This morning, he told me living in her house is sometimes difficult. He found a note she had left for him in the fridge at some point.”

Jamal nodded. He finally turned around and, after a moment, lowered himself into his chair. “I’ve suggested he leave Miss Decker’s home, but he says he isn’t ready for that yet. He still pays her phone bill so he can text her. I suppose the house is another layer of coping.”

“You think it’s a good way to cope?” Jensen asked.

“I don’t know. I’m not known for my excellent coping mechanisms.”

One corner of Jensen’s mouth lifted. “That’s fair.”

Jamal let out a breath. “Is he still sober?”

“Yes. Not a single drop of alcohol in months.”

“Good. Do what you can to keep it that way.”

“Of course, sir.”

Jamal waved a hand toward the door. “That was all. Thank you. You’re dismissed.”

“Of course, sir.” Jensen walked out of Jamal’s office and headed down to the lab. “Hey.”

Bo glanced up at him. “Hello. Everything okay?”

“Yeah. He just wanted a progress update.”

That one garnered Bo’s full attention. “Why?”

“Well… because you’re, umm… my job, Bo.”

“I know that. I wasn’t aware he asked for progress updates.”

“I think it’s more to make sure I’m doing my job than it is to make sure you’re, umm…” Jensen cleared his throat. “I think it’s to make sure I’m not a fuck-up. He just wants to know he assigned the right guy to you. I don’t think it’s about you or ‘progress’ in relation to you. You know?”

Bo nodded. “I suppose you’re right. At the very least, I’ll do my best to believe you are.”

Jensen shoved his hands into his pockets. “Can I get you anything? Coffee?”

Bo’s shoulders relaxed. “Coffee would be excellent. Thank you.”

Jensen smiled. “ ‘Course. Back in a jiff.”

***

The work day had been long, but it had been relatively easy. There had been no crime scenes for Bo to work, and he had found himself thankful for that. A crime scene usually led to a late night, and he didn’t want a homicide or a robbery getting in the way of supper with Jensen.

While Jensen set the table in the dining room, Bo added the final touches to supper. He laid the thin strips of steak atop the goulash sauce–one of Jensen’s favorite sauces in existence–and carried both plates into the dining room.

“God, that smells amazing,” Jensen said.

“Thank you.” Bo set the dishes down and pulled out Jensen’s chair. “Sit?”

“I thought pulling out chairs was my job.”

Bo smiled. “You’re officially off the clock.”

“I like the sound of that.” Jensen lowered himself into the chair. “Thank you.”

“Mmhmm.” Bo pressed a kiss to Jensen’s temple and gave his shoulder a good squeeze. Bo’s heart pounded in his chest, constricting his breathing more than he thought the heart was capable of. He rounded the table and sat down across from Jensen. He took a sip of his pop as Jensen dug in.

God, Bo, this is amazing.”

“Thank you. I’m glad you like it. I know how much you like goulash, especially with my mother’s recipe for sauce. When I saw the steak on goulash sauce recipe pop up on my timeline, I knew I could substitute theirs for Mom’s.”

“Well worth it,” Jensen assured.

Bo looked down at his plate, cutting off a small square of steak. “Jensen?”

“Hmm?”

“I was… wondering if I could ask you something.”

“Yeah, of course. What’s up?”

“You’ve been very good to me. As a bodyguard, as a friend, as… as a lover. I can’t even begin to thank you enough for that.”

“It’s been a pleasure, Bo, really. And the bodyguard thing, umm… just doin’ my job. The other too, though. It’s been a pleasure.”

“I’m glad.” Bo looked up at him without lifting his head. “I was wondering if you’d be interested in taking this a step further. Maybe instead of friends with benefits, we’re… we’re partners with those same benefits. O-or, you know, boyfriends?”

Jensen coughed, lifting a fist to his mouth. “What?”

Bo’s heart skipped a beat. God, how many times did he have to go through this with a man before it worked?

“Did you just ask me out?” Jensen asked.

“Yes?” Bo questioned, his voice small.

“I, uh, I don’t think that’s a good idea, Bo.”

“Oh,” Bo whispered. “Okay.” He stuck a forkful of steak in his mouth, hoping to play it as cool as he could.

“I-I like you, Bo. I really do. I just—”

“It’s okay.” Bo chuckled, shaking his head. “This isn’t my first rodeo, Jensen. My advances have been rejected before. You don’t have anything to explain.” He set his fork down and pushed his chair back. “If you’ll excuse me for a moment?”

Jensen searched his face. “What’re you gonna do?”

“Sit in her room with Acamas and Hati for a moment, ground myself.”

Jensen only nodded.

***

Watching Bo walk away from the table damn near tore Jensen in two. He loved Bo. Loved him. But, Christ, he had never expected Bo to ask for anything more than what they had, especially after the post-it note he’d found from Bridget just that morning.

Jensen pushed his chair back and headed back to Bridget’s bedroom. He hated calling it that. He and Bo slept there together almost every night–though they never had sex in the bedroom–and he still had to refer to it as Bridget’s room. It was one of many reasons Jensen knew Bo wasn’t ready for a relationship. Not a healthy one, anyway.

He knocked on the open door to the room. “You okay?”

From his place on the floor, Bo nodded. He lifted his head, offering a smile. “I admittedly wasn’t expecting a rejection, but I’m fine. I’m sorry if I read into anything too much, Jensen. I really didn’t mean to make things awkward. I just thought this was something you wanted, and I…” He lifted his shoulders. “I’m sorry. I hope we can get past any weirdness this leaves between us.”

“Can I come in?”

“Yes. Of course.”

Jensen walked into the room and sat down beside Bo, Hati between them. “I do want this, Bo. You didn’t read too much into anything.”

“Then… what is it? Is it because I’m technically your boss? Because I can tell Jamal. I can tell him I don’t need a bodyguard anymore.”

“I’ve gotten over that. Got over that pretty much the first time we slept together,” Jensen said.

Bo snorted. After a moment, he leaned to the side, dropping his head to Jensen’s shoulder. “Me too.” A pause. “So what is it? If you’re comfortable telling me.”

Jensen let out a breath. He dropped the back of his head to the bed. “I don’t wanna date you as a rebound.”

“My relationship with… with her has been over for quite some time. It’s been over a year.”

“Her death didn’t end your relationship, Bo. You still love her.”

“Is that what it is? That I still love her?”

“Partially.”

“I’m always going to love her, Jensen. People generally fall out of love with living people because those people age and change and grow, sometimes grow apart. But she isn’t aging or changing or growing. She’s gone, and there’s nothing she can do to make me fall out of love with her.” Bo lifted his head, and Jensen forced himself to meet Bo’s gaze. “But the heart–according to Jake–can love more than one person at a time. I believe that to be true, as well. Especially… since the heart doesn’t love. That would be the brain, and the brain is capable of quite impressive feats.”

Jensen grinned. “I love it when you talk all nerdy to me.” He laid a hand on Bo’s cheek. “If you ever change your mind, even for a moment, and you realize you’re not ready for this, I want you to tell me. I won’t be mad or upset. But I don’t want you breaking yourself to try and make something work when it can’t. Okay?”

“Okay. Deal.”

“Then… yes. I would love to take this to the next step.”

Bo smiled. He leaned up and kissed Jensen. “Thank you for giving me a chance,” he whispered.

Jensen chuckled, closing his eyes as he leaned their foreheads together. “I could say the same to you. You have just become my first boyfriend.”

“If it helps, you’ve just become mine. We’ll figure it out together, just like we’ve figured out everything else in this relationship.”

Well, Jensen liked the sound of that. “Sounds perfect.” He kissed Bo again. “What do you say we go back to the dining room and enjoy that awesome fuckin’ meal you made for us, huh? Before it gets cold.”

Bo smiled. “Okay.”

Jensen rose to his feet and held out his hands. Bo grabbed them, allowing Jensen to pull him to his feet. “Grounded?”

After a moment, Bo nodded. “Yes, grounded. Grounded and very, very happy.” He squeezed Jensen’s hand. “Lead the way.”

***

After supper, while Jensen was on the phone with Jamal, Bo washed dishes. Though her house had a dishwasher, Bo preferred hand washing. It gave him something to do, something to keep his hands from holding a beer. That would always be a good thing.

Jensen came up behind him and wrapped him in a hug. “Hey.”

Bo smiled. “Hello. Everything okay?”

“Yeah. One of his men has picked up some chatter about drawing out Jamal for an attack, and he just wanted me to know. Make sure I keep extra close tabs on you.” Jensen kissed his neck. “Should be pretty easy.”

“Jamal will be okay?”

“Oh, yeah. Has guys working around the clock to make sure of that.”

“Good.” Bo set the last dish in the dish drainer and turned off the water. Drying his hands, he leaned back against Jensen. “Do you happen to have any ideas on how you can keep extra close tabs on me?”

“Got a few.”

Bo tilted his head back as Jensen peppered his neck and shoulder with kisses. “In the hopes you would say yes, I reserved a hotel room for us tonight. Paid in cash, booked it under ‘Eli Taylor’. I’m hoping that eases your concern that Jamal will hunt us down and find out you’re sleeping with the boss.”

“A little. ‘Eli Taylor’ is also… I dunno, but I fuckin’ love what it does to me.”

Bo smiled. “I’m glad. I figured our first Valentine’s Day together deserved a bed. The living room couch had gotten… repetitive.”

“A bed sounds nice.” Jensen slid a hand up to his chest. “We good to go now?”

Bo chuckled. “Yes. I packed a change of clothes for us both so we only have to come back here in the morning to feed the animals before going to work. I asked Mom to let Hati out in a few hours, as well.”

“All kinds of prepared, huh?”

“I tried to be.”

“You did good,” Jensen whispered. He kissed a spot beneath his ear. “Let’s get that change of clothes and get our asses to the hotel.”

Bo rolled his eyes, but he couldn’t help the smile on his face. “Sounds like a plan to me.”

***

Jensen followed Bo up to the reception desk, keeping his head bowed just a little. Despite Bo’s efforts, he couldn’t fight his paranoia. If there were cameras, he didn’t want them to get a good angle on his face.

“How can I help you?” the woman behind the desk asked.

“Hello. Reservation for Eli Taylor?” Bo asked.

God, hearing his own last name paired with Bo’s middle name was a wonderful thing. It practically affirmed the fantasy in his head, the one where he had already planned out a wedding with Bo an unreasonable number of times.

“Of course, sir. Room two-sixteen. Here’s your card.”

Bo grabbed the card and smiled. “Thank you.” He stepped away from the desk and held out his free hand. “Come on, darling.”

Jensen grabbed his hand and followed him to the elevator. Bo pressed the call button. “Darling?”

“I didn’t want to set off your worry by calling you by name.”

It warmed Jensen’s heart to know how much attention Bo had paid to his worries and concerns. “Thank you.”

“My pleasure.” Bo’s thumb moved over Jensen’s knuckles, caressing them without hesitation. “What we do is up to you. Lover’s choice and all that.”

“Like… I can choose anything?”

“Within reason, but yes.”

“I’d like you to top.”

Shh. Jesus, not in public.”

Jensen smiled at the flushed color of Bo’s cheeks. “Oh, so you’d like me to wait until we’re in our room, huh?”

“Preferably, you perv.” Bo tugged him into the elevator, pressing the button for the second floor until the doors closed. He pulled down on the sleeve of his shirt, clearing his throat. “I can, but… but not for the whole time.”

“Can you tell me why? You’ve never actually told me why you wanted to stop topping me. Do you hate it?”

“I don’t know how to explain it.”

“Can you try?”

Bo let out a breath. “When I was with her, I never experienced… pleasure from, umm… that type of sex.” He stepped out into the hall when the doors opened. Jensen followed Bo to the room. He hoped silence was the right call. Bo didn’t want to discuss anything suggestive or sexual in public, and Jensen was more than capable of adhering to that rule. Once they were in their room, Bo flipped on the light and kicked off his shoes. He tossed the keycard onto the little table by the door and crossed his arms over his chest.

“You don’t gotta tell me if you don’t want to, Bo. I don’t wanna push you,” Jensen said. “I’ll top. I like sex no matter how we do it.”

“I want to tell you. I’m just trying to find the best way to.” Bo cleared his throat. “When I was sleeping with women after she died, I always felt this… darkness. I don’t know what that darkness was, but I experienced it every time I topped with you, as well. I-I was worried it would make me too rough, like it almost did the first time we slept together. I was worried it would make me hurt you.”

Jensen laid a hand on Bo’s cheek and leaned down to kiss his forehead. “I don’t wanna force you to do something you don’t want to do. But for what it’s worth, the first time, when I asked you to slow down, you did. When I said I needed something other than penetration for a few, you gave that to me. You didn’t say no. You didn’t tell me it didn’t matter. You listened to me. You took care of me. Whatever that darkness is, it’s not gonna hurt me. As long as it doesn’t hurt you, I’ll be okay.”

“It won’t hurt me,” Bo said after a long moment. “But I’d like my Valentine’s Day gift to be you, umm…”

Jensen raised a brow. “Topping?”

Bo’s cheeks flushed. “Yes. At the end.”

“Deal.”

Bo leaned up and kissed Jensen. Jensen groaned, closing his eyes as Bo’s hands fell to the buckle of his belt. He undid the buckle without any issue and moved onto the buttons of his shirt. “Now that we’re dating, I’m taking you shopping for jeans.”

Jensen snorted. “Why’s that?”

“Suits and pajamas being your only two options for clothes is… not ideal. When we’re alone together, you deserve to be able to be comfy without having to change into your PJs.” Bo pulled Jensen’s button-up free from the hem of his dress pants. “We’ll get you some jeans, sweats, t-shirts, maybe a hoodie or two… Whatever you want.”

“Where are we gonna put those?”

“My closet isn’t nearly as full as you seem to think it is. I think we’ll be okay.” Bo tugged at either side of Jensen’s suit jacket. “These go.”

Jensen smiled. “Can do.” He shrugged off his suit jacket and shirt while Bo did the same with his flannel. Jensen loved Bo’s purple flannels the most, but the pink-blue-maroon tri-color one he had on today wasn’t bad either. Truthfully, he liked Bo in just about anything.

Bo sat down on the bed, setting his shirt down beside him.

Jensen’s brow furrowed. “Bo? Everything okay?”

Bo lifted his head, a little smile on his face. “Yes. I just don’t get as… aroused as you do.”

Jensen dropped his belt to the floor and crossed the room to sit down beside the blonde. “What about it?”

“What if there’s something wrong with me?”

“Wrong with you?” Jensen lifted a hand and tucked Bo’s hair back behind his ear. “What would be wrong with you?”

Bo offered a shrug, eyes focused on his hands. “I never felt pleasure from sex with women. I only feel pleasure from sex with men if it’s one of two ways. Even though I find you attractive, I have to think about sex and an erection to make it happen. It doesn’t just occur like it does for you, like it does for everyone. So, like I said, what if there’s something wrong with me?”

“You’re different than me. That doesn’t mean something’s wrong with you, Bo. It just means sex is different for you than it is for me. It’s different for everyone, one way or another.”

“So it’s normal?”

“It’s normal for you. That’s all that matters.”

Bo turned his head to the side and kissed Jensen’s shoulder. “You’re too good to me.”

Jensen bit back the initial response: he was good to Bo because he loved him. Though it was true, he wasn’t willing to scare Bo away with such a declaration. “You deserve it. You deserve someone to be good to you. You’ll always deserve that.” He laid a hand on Bo’s upper back. “We can just lay here and cuddle if you want. That’s more than enough for me. It’s not a good first Valentine’s Day if only one of is happy with the whole sex thing.”

“I don’t want the hotel room to go to waste.”

“It’s not a waste. Getting to cuddle with you is never a waste.”

Bo smiled. “Thank you,” he whispered.

Jensen wrapped an arm around Bo’s shoulders and pressed a kiss to the top of his head. “Wanna change into our jammies and rent Love Actually?”

Bo chuckled. “Sure, Jensen. Sounds like a plan to me.” He pushed himself to his feet. Laying his hands on Jensen’s freckled cheeks, he offered a little smile. “I’ll make up for it next year.”

“You have absolutely nothing to make up for. Cuddling with you is always gonna be a damn good holiday.” Jensen kissed him. “I’m lookin’ forward to a hotel room, a cheesy movie, and a cuddle session next year.”

Bo’s smile widened. “Me too.”

It was the happiest Jensen had seen Bo in a while. The near joy on his face at being validated, at being understood, was heart-breaking. Jensen didn’t know much about relationships, but he planned on using his with Bo to make sure the man experienced so much validation and understanding that that became his normal.

“Oh, I almost forgot. I don’t want to freak you out, but I do have something for you if you want it. I found it a couple months ago, and it made me think of you, but I… didn’t want to push the bodyguard-only, friends with benefits thing.”

“You have the something with you?”

Bo nodded. “Yeah, it’s in my overnight bag.”

“I-I’d love it.”

Bo smiled. “Okay. Just a sec.” He walked back to the door and squatted down in front of his bag. He came back a moment later, a little box in his hand. He sat down beside Jensen and handed it over.

Jensen dropped his head to Bo’s shoulder. “I unfortunately don’t have anything for you.”

Bo combed his fingers through Jensen’s hair. “That’s okay. I wasn’t expecting anything. I was just saving this for when we started dating or when we were just friends, no benefits. I don’t need anything in return.”

Jensen shifted just enough to kiss Bo’s shoulder. He pulled the lid off the box and grabbed the ball inside. He couldn’t help the nerdy, excited gasp that fell from his lips. “Oh, my God, Bo.”

The black and white pokeball in his hand had a clear top. Through it, he could see a little sleeping Pikachu atop a tree stump.

“I know you… like the little yellow guy the most. And there’s a switch on the bottom that turns on some little fairy lights hidden in the flowers and plants in there. Since… you don’t really like the dark, I thought it could be like a nightlight.”

“You are so damn sweet,” Jensen whispered. Pokeball clutched in one hand, he turned and wrapped his arms around Bo. “Thank you.”

“My pleasure.” Bo hugged him back. “Did I do okay?”

Jensen laughed, giving him a tight squeeze. “You did fucking perfect.” He pulled back, set the pokeball in his lap, and moved his hands to Bo’s face. “You are amazing. Thank you.”

Bo smiled. “I’m glad you like it.”

“Love it,” Jensen whispered. He leaned forward and kissed Bo before leaning their foreheads together. “Valentine’s Day tradition. Ready?”

“Ready.”

“You, me, a hotel room, small gift exchange, jammies, cuddles, cheesy movie, and pie.”

Bo chuckled, nodding against Jensen’s forehead. “Deal. I already love it.”

“Then let’s move onto the jammies part.” Jensen pulled away, hands still on Bo’s face. “Happy Valentine’s Day, Eli.”

The smile came back to Bo’s face, cheeks flushing. “Happy Valentine’s Day, Jensen.”


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Christmas Cannibal – Chapter Four

NOT EDITED

Miguel took a sip of his coffee before pushing open the door to the interrogation room. The man seated at the steel table lifted his head. “Morning, sir,” Miguel greeted.

“Morning,” the man said quietly. “I-I can’t believe what happened at my shop.”

“I can imagine. It’s hard to think about a homicide in your town in general. Thinking about one in a place you own is even worse.” Miguel set his coffee cup on the table and pulled a chair out across from the man. “What’s your name?”

“Jordy. Umm, Jordan.”

“Jordan,” Miguel echoed. “I’m Detective Pareja. I just have a few questions, and then you’re free to go for the day. We might need to bring you back in for questioning throughout the duration of this case, but that doesn’t mean much. I don’t want you to panic about it or worry about it. We want this closed as soon as it can be, get some justice for this victim, get some closure for the family, and get your shop back open. Sound good?”

Jordan nodded. “Yeah, sounds good.”

***

The interview with Jordan hadn’t given Miguel much to go off of. No one else had keys to get into the shop, and all of the doors were locked every night as the man closed the shop before heading home. He had two cameras in his butcher shop, but both were in the main area of the building, not in the actual butchering part.

Miguel hated that he considered himself thankful for that, but when it came right down to it, watching that kind of footage in hopes of catching a glimpse of the killer sounded like the kind of thing that would drive a cop into–at the very least–alcoholism.

After refilling his coffee for what felt like the millionth time, Miguel headed back to the butcher shop to meet up with the forensic analyst from Los Angeles. He waited in his cruiser for just under half an hour before a black car pulled into one of the parking spaces at the front of the shop. Jamal Pitman slid out of the back of the car, and a moment later, a short blonde followed. Jamal closed the door and smoothed his hands over his suit jacket.

Miguel couldn’t believe it. Pitman was, by far, Los Angeles’s most daunting figure–a police chief accused for years of corruption but still in the position of power. A police chief rumored to have a hand in mobs, cartels, and gangs throughout the United States. A police chief with more power hidden in the snap of his fingers than most people could gather in their whole body in an entire lifetime.

And he had showed up to Illinois to escort his lab geek to the crime scene.

Miguel climbed out of his cruiser and stuck out a hand once the pair was close. “Detective Miguel Pareja.”

Jamal grabbed his hand. “Jamal Pitman. Pardon his silence, but this is Bo Austen, my forensics guy. If he reads you as polite enough, he might be willing to speak to you, but otherwise, his information will be given through notes, reports, and me. Sound good?”

Miguel nodded. “Whatever it takes to get this boy back to the morgue. The sooner he can be buried respectfully, the better.”

“I’m glad we agree. Where is he?”

“This way.” Miguel led the way into the butcher shop, ducking under the yellow crime scene tape stretched across the broken glass door. “That door there leads to the freezer. It’s pretty bad in there. You’re just about our last hope on this one, Mister Austen.”

Blue eyes focused on the floor, Bo offered an ‘okay’ symbol with his hand and walked to the door. Before Jamal could follow him, Bo came back out and held out a hand.

“You don’t want me in there?” Jamal asked.

Bo shook his head. “Very bad,” he whispered.

“You’re sure?”

Bo only nodded.

“Okay. I’ll be out here if you need me.”

Bo disappeared into the room without another word.

Miguel cleared his throat. “Has… your guy always been a selective mute?”

“No. I’m sure you saw what happened in Minnesota. The midwestern states seem to report on each other more often than elsewhere.”

“The homicide?” Miguel asked. “Yeah, I heard bits and pieces.”

Jamal nodded, crossing his arms over his chest. “I’m sure you can imagine how difficult watching the murder of your girlfriend is. Healing has been quite the task.”

“Jesus,” Miguel whispered. “Yeah, I can, uh… I can imagine. Can’t believe he’s still willing to work.”

“Sometimes, neither can I. But I can understand it. It gives him something to do. It keeps him sane. Working a murder will always be better than sitting in silence, listening to and rewatching the one in his head,” Jamal said.

“I… Yeah.” Miguel shifted his weight between his feet. “My little boy–I, umm, don’t know how much he saw, and I don’t really know all the details, but I know he was found in the backseat of my ex-wife’s car parked outside of where she was found dead. Don’t know if he saw it. Don’t know if he heard it. But I know he I don’t remember him having nightmares beforehand.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. How old is he?”

“Three.”

Jamal nodded. “That’s rough. For him and for you, but you might luck out. If he did see it, he might not remember it. They say the majority of memories we form are implicit until we’re seven or so. That’s what that childhood amnesia thing is. Being unable to recall even important events from your childhood.”

“I pray for that luck every damn night.”

“Can’t blame you there. Two of my children witnessed the death of a parent, and I still hope their luck will turn and they’ll simply forget about it.” Jamal nodded to the freezer doorway. “I wish his luck would turn, too. I pray for that boy to be able to forget what happened in Clinstone every damn day.”

Miguel couldn’t believe it. He was practically having a heart-to-heart with Jamal Pitman.

Jamal. Fucking. Pitman. What kind of crazy person gave Jamal Pitman information on their life?

“I’m going to go check on your analyst. He’ll be okay with that?” Miguel asked.

“Yes, he’ll be fine. He’s pretty used to it.”

“All right. Back in a few.” Miguel shoved his hands into his pockets and walked back to the freezer. Seeing the boy’s body wasn’t any easier the second time, but at least he was prepared for it. That was almost a positive. “Hey. You managing okay?” Miguel asked.

Bo lifted his head. After a moment, he nodded.

“Do you mind telling me if you’ve found anything yet?”

Bo cleared his throat. “He died quickly. His throat was slit. I won’t have measurements until… I get to the morgue, but it appears to be quite deep. I have no doubt it was the first wound, and it would have killed him before the rest of… this began.”

“How long do you think he would have been alive for?”

“Both carotids have been cut. He would have lost consciousness within seconds. His heart stopping would have followed within a minute or so. Knowing he didn’t suffer is something his parents will most likely take comfort in.”

“Yeah,” Miguel whispered. He raked a hand through his hair, taking a step back toward the doorway. “Thank you for being willing to talk to me. Given Pitman’s introduction, I wasn’t so sure.”

“You’re welcome.” A pause as he went back to taking photos. “There was a time where I didn’t speak at all following… the event. I’m still warming up to people again. You’ve made the list because your body language is more relaxed than some of the detectives I have worked with.”

“Well, it’s appreciated. Based on what Pitman said, I don’t blame you for needing to ‘warm up’ to people again. I don’t know that I’d ever be able to again.”

Bo snapped another picture of the boy before lowering his camera. “Eventually, I suppose one has a choice to make. He either warms up to people again, or he lives in isolation. Strangely, I still know which of those I believe I prefer.”


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Hashtags & Homicide – Chapter Ten

NOT EDITED

Russell awoke to the vibration of his watch. The nights he spent with Theodore, he muted the loud beeping. On the off chance the man was still asleep, Russell wanted him to stay that way for as long as possible. That morning, unsurprisingly, the other side of Theodore’s bed was empty.

Russell let out a slow breath and pushed himself up on his elbows. The clothes Theodore had laid out over the chair the night before were gone, and the bathroom light was off. He’d already fed the fish and showered, so there was a grand chance he’d been awake for over an hour. Russell looked down at his watch. Six AM. At most, Theodore had gotten three hours of sleep. Since the end of November or so, those three-hour nights were few and far between.

He sat up and raked a hand through his hair. Sleep for Russell had been shitty since Christmas, but that was par for the course. It’d been that way since his undercover days. Theodore’s shift, though… Well, that concerned him.

After pulling a pair of sweatpants on over his boxer briefs, Russell made his way out to the kitchen. Theodore stood in front of the stove, all four burners going. One corner of Russell’s mouth scrunched up. He crossed the room and wrapped his arms around Theodore.

“Good morning,” Theodore greeted.

“Morning, Teddy.” Russell pressed a kiss to Theodore’s shoulder. “Looks like you’re having a feast in here.”

“I couldn’t sleep.”

“I figured. Wanna talk?”

Theodore turned around, and Russell stepped back. Theodore grabbed the sleeve of his hoodie and jerked it up past his elbow. “What’re these?”

Russell cleared his throat. “How, umm…?”

“You fell asleep on the couch. Your sleeve was rolled up. I noticed them when I went to wake you so we could go to bed.”

“You, umm, you don’t have to worry about them, Theo.”

“Really? Because I’ve watched enough TV to know they’re track marks.”

Russell stepped back until he found the counter. He grabbed the edge of it and gave it a tight squeeze. The pressure against his palm and the burn in his knuckles were bad signs. This wasn’t a dream. Theodore had found out before he had the chance to tell him. “They’re old.”

How old?” Theodore asked. “I let you into my house, Russell. With my daughter. With my child. I let a drug addict—”

“Recovered,” Russell said through his teeth.

Theodore practically jumped back, hitting the dials for the stove. “I’m sorry,” he whispered.

Russell shook his head so fast it made his head spin. “No. No, no. Y-you have every right to be worried, okay? You have a family. You and Shane, you… You deserve to be concerned. I just…” He let out a shaky breath. “This isn’t the conversation I thought we’d be having when I woke up. I was prepared for finding you a therapist, not talking about fucking heroine.”

Theodore swallowed roughly, but he nodded. “How old?”

“Years. I got addicted while I was undercover. I had a hard time coming out of it. When I was sober, all I could think about was the shit I’d seen or done. But I haven’t touched it since I got sober, Theo. It’s been years. I have my damn sobriety chip in the overnight bag I bring. I take it everywhere I go.”

Theodore searched his face for what felt like an eternity. “Can I see it?”

“Yeah, yeah. O-of course. Give me just a second.”

“Uh-huh.”

Russell made his way back to Theodore’s bedroom, both hands buried in his hair. Jesus Christ, he couldn’t believe this was happening. A brand new year was going to start with his boyfriend discovering he’d been harboring a drug abusive past like the dirty, shameful little secret it was? Shameful that he’d caved to the abusive personality coursing through his veins. Shameful that he’d shot it up again and again, knowing he’d need it even more than the time before once he came down from the high.

Shameful that he’d told so much to Theodore yet continued to hide the needle scars with long-sleeved shirts and hoodies.

Russell squatted down and pulled the chip from the front pocket of his bag. Before he could even stand up, Theodore laid a hand on his shoulder.

“I could’ve found a better way to ask you,” Theodore said, his voice quiet.

“I could’ve not hidden it from you.” Russell held up the chip. “Coulda not shot up fucking heroine.”

“They put you undercover in a gang full of rapists, murderers, and drug slingers. What were you supposed to do? Stick out like a… like a narc?”

Russell let out a breath. Much as he hated it, he didn’t exactly have a good response to that one.

Theodore took the wooden chip and slowly lowered himself to the floor. “What’s… this on the back?”

“The Serenity Prayer.”

“That thing they do on TV for AA meetings?”

Russell nodded. “Yeah. They do it in real ones too.”

“So… are those what you attend?”

“No. I, umm… I attend NA meetings.” Russell licked his lips. “I’m addicted–I was addicted to narcotics. I wouldn’t have a chip if it was AA. I still drink. I’m just not… decidedly addicted to it.”

Theodore laid a hand on the side of Russell’s head and guided it to his shoulder. “Wood for… five years?”

“Yeah. Like the…”

“Wedding anniversaries,” Theodore finished. “That’s a nice idea.”

Russell nodded, closing as his eyes as Theodore smoothed a hand over his hair. “I was gonna tell you, Theo. I swear to God, I was gonna tell you. This is still just… so new, and I just thought… I don’t know. I didn’t wanna risk losing you and Vera so damn soon.”

Theodore stayed silent for a long moment, but his hand never stopped moving. Russell managed to bring himself to find comfort in that. “I think that fear is reasonable. I don’t know how much you knew about Shane or the filing, but there were about three years at the end where he was going out with coworkers to do lines of coke at their parties.”

“No, I-I didn’t know that. I’m so sorry, Theo.”

“It’s okay. It’s not your fault.” Theodore cleared his throat. “I worry that I’m able to say this with such confidence,” he said through a little laugh, “but I know you’re being genuine. I know you really did have every intention of telling me. I’m sorry I saw them before you were ready.”

Russell shook his head. “Give me a day or two. I’ll be damn glad you saw ‘em.” He couldn’t help but smile. “I won’t have to wear long sleeves once it stops snowing.”

“Oo, wonderful silver lining.” Theodore moved his hand to Russell’s shoulder. “Now I get to see your arms for more than a few seconds when you’re wrapped in a towel.”

“Mm, what I’m hearing is that you love the look of me in a towel.”

“Just because I can’t bring myself to have sex doesn’t mean I don’t know when my boyfriend’s hot and still a little bit wet from the shower.”

Russell chuckled, lifting his head. He laid a hand on Theodore’s cheek. “I’m gonna tell you somethin’ a little scary, Theo.”

“Oh… kay?”

“I love you.”

Theodore blew out a sharp breath before swallowing. “You, umm…? Me?”

“You,” Russell whispered.

“That is a little scary,” Theodore whispered back. “What do you want me to say?”

“You don’t have to say anything you don’t want to. You don’t have to say anything at all. I just can’t keep biting it back every single time that you say something or do something or smile in a way that I’m absolutely in love with.”

Theodore leaned in and kissed him. “I don’t know when I’ll ever be ready to say those words to someone again, but in the meantime? I love hearing them.”

Russell smiled. “We make a damn good pair, then, ‘cause I love saying ‘em.” He brushed a thumb over Theodore’s cheek and pressed a soft kiss to his lips. “What do you say we put my chip back in its little pouch, and then you and me go finish whatever four-course meal you’re making for breakfast?”

Theodore laughed, shoving Russell’s shoulder. “Deal.”


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Hashtags & Homicide – Chapter Nine

NOT EDITED

Just as he and Vera finished setting the table, Theodore heard Russell’s car pull into the drive. He smiled down at his daughter. “Do you wanna go let Russell in?”

“Yep! Make sure it’s him before I open the door?” Vera asked.

Theodore nodded. “Always double-check.”

“Okay. Back in a second, Daddy.” It wasn’t long before the front door opened. “Hi, Russ!”

“Hey, sweetheart. How’re you doing this afternoon?” Russell asked.

“Good. Daddy and I have been baking all day. We got a thing of cookies ready for you to take to work with you!”

“Wow, really? It’s like you guys read my mind and knew I was seriously craving some cookies.”

“You’re always craving cookies.”

Theodore snorted.

“You know, you’re not wrong,” Russell agreed. “Come here, you monster. You’re lettin’ all the cold air inside.”

Theodore lifted his head as Russell walked into the kitchen, Vera on his back, her arms wrapped loosely around his neck. Theodore smiled. “Good afternoon.”

“Afternoon.” Russell squatted down, and Vera dropped down from his back. “So, we got everything here? Need help carrying anything out of the kitchen?”

Theodore shook his head. “Vera helped me carry everything to the table. Unless you want something other than water, everything’s here.”

“Water’s good for me.” Russell pressed a kiss to Theodore’s temple and pulled out his usual seat at the table. “M’Lord?”

“I’ll whack you with the cane.”

Russell smiled, teeth on full display. “I’d like to see you try.”

Theodore snorted. “I’m sure you would.” He patted Russell’s hand and slid into the seat. He hooked his cane on the back of the chair as Russell and Vera sat down at the table. “So… how’s work?”

“Slow. I’m a paper pusher right now. I’ve been assigned a cold case, but it hasn’t moved forward for over a decade. Everyone in Rustin knows who did it, but their trial resulted in a not guilty verdict. It’s been an open case ever since.”

“So what do you have to do?” Theodore asked.

“The same thing all the other detectives have had to do. Check the witness statements, speak with any of them that are willing to speak, go over the evidence again, so on and so forth.” Russell stuck a forkful of spaghetti in his mouth. With the back of his hand covering his mouth, he added, “I’m not gonna make progress on it or anything. We can’t try the guy again without new evidence, and there is no new evidence. Christ, this is the second time I’ve been assigned this specific case.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, Russ. In the least disturbing way possible, I hope something comes along that allows you to be less of a paper pusher.”

Russell chuckled. “Thanks, Teddy. In the least disturbing way possible, I hope you’re right.”

***

New Year’s landed on a Sunday, and at midnight, Theodore moved to straddle Russell’s thighs and kissed him. A soft moan fell from Russell’s lips, his hands sliding up Theodore’s back. Theodore pulled back after what felt like an eternity and leaned his forehead against Russell’s. “I’m sorry I can’t do more with you, Rusty,” he whispered. “I-I’m sure you’ve started off a couple new years with something more than a kiss.”

“I have no problem waiting until you’re ready, Theo. What I have or haven’t done to start off a new year doesn’t matter. What you and I do is all that matters. Comparing it to my past relationships or flings doesn’t do anything to help us,” Russell said. He laid a hand on Theodore’s cheek, thumb caressing the arch of it. “Teddy, I care a whole lot about you, and the last thing I want is for you to feel like you’re robbing me of something in this relationship. Us dating doesn’t mean I’m entitled to sex. It doesn’t mean you’re required to give it to me. I like you. You can throw sex at me when you’re ready for it.”

“What if I never am?”

“Then you never are. Teddy, I’m on meds that greatly inhibit my libido. So are you. I don’t have some insanely high sex drive that needs to be satisfied every damn day. I get all the intimacy and more that I need from you. If you never want to do more than this—”

“I want to. I think. But I can’t. That’s the problem.”

“Sorry. I’ll rephrase,” Russell said softly. “If you can never do more than this, that’s okay with me. We don’t need to be naked and screwing for there to be intimacy here. I mean…” He waved his free hand between them. “Look at us now, Teddy. You don’t think this stance is intimate?”

Theodore looked down for a moment before clearing his throat. “I, uh… I-I guess it is.”

“Exactly. We’re fully clothed. That doesn’t have to change for there to be intimacy here. Sex isn’t the only form of intimacy, Teddy. It’s important to me that you know I believe that with every fiber of my being.”

“I believe you,” Theodore assured. “Gina told me that same damn thing, you know. That, uh, that intimacy isn’t only sex. But I guess it’s still a hard pill to swallow.”

Russell’s brow pulled together, that look of pure understanding on his face. Theodore loved that expression more than he ever thought possible. Someone else understood him, understood his feelings, understood his triggers. It had been downright impossible to believe in the beginning, and even now, it seemed unbelievable more often than not.

How the hell was it possible for people like Russell to exist when people like Shane were allowed to exist too?

Theodore blinked, eyes focusing on Russell’s face again.

The detective cocked his head to the side. “Where’d you go?”

“I still can’t believe you’re real. I still find myself waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

“I’m not perfect, Theo, I promise you that. I’d be an alcoholic if I didn’t have to make sure my mom and siblings were taken care of.”

“You can say that all you want, Russ, but you have more self-control than you give yourself credit for. I was right there with you while you were working Vince’s murder. You wanted to die, Russ. Genuinely wanted to die. And you were still in control of the majority of your alcohol intake.”

“I had to be. I still had to pay the bills, make sure everyone was safe, had a roof over their head. I… I had to be.”

“ ‘Had to be’ is something we tell ourselves to prevent ourselves from being allowed to fully enjoy our accomplishments,” Theodore said.

“Who told you that?”

“My dad.”

“He’s a smart guy,” Russell said with a soft chuckle. “He’s probably right about that, you know. If there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s dumbing down my achievements or accomplishments. It was drilled into my head as a kid that nothing I did would ever be good enough. I’m sure you know all about that too.”

Theodore nodded. “I do. It’s unfortunate that that’s the sort of thing we relate on.”

One corner of Russell’s mouth lifted. “I know. We relate on all kinds of other stuff, though, so it’s okay.”

Theodore smiled, thankful for the change in topic. “What kind of stuff?” he asked, arms tightening around the back of Russell’s neck.

“Well, we both really like Nurse Jackie. We both love a good book.” Russell smiled, reaching up to brush Theodore’s hair from his forehead. “We both think Vera is by far the greatest little girl in the world.”

“She really is, isn’t she?”

Russell nodded. “She gets that from you, Teddy.”

“Being the greatest… little girl in the world?”

The detective snorted, shaking his head. “No, the qualities that make her the greatest. Curiosity, bravery, kindness, imagination, generosity… You name it. She got it from you.”

Theodore shook his head before kissing him. He had no words left to say anyway. There weren’t enough ‘thank you’s or ‘you’re amazing’s built into the whole damn world for Russell Steele.

He pulled away, hands moving to Russell’s face. “You really wouldn’t care if we never had sex?”

“I wouldn’t.”

“I mean, like, never ever. Like, if we were old and sitting on the porch while our great-grandkids played in the yard, you wouldn’t look over at me and resent me for never being able to trust you enough for sex?”

A soft smile tugged at either corner of Russell’s mouth. “Theo, you just painted me a life where we grow old together and have kids, grandkids, and great-grandkids. In your ‘worst case scenario’, I’m already living the dream.” He rubbed his hands up and down Theodore’s arms before stopping just short of his shoulders. “Sex is not going to be what turns me off of this relationship. It’s not a requirement for this relationship. I enjoy sex. I can admit that, and I’m willing to admit that. But even when I was single and occasionally screwing around, it was just that. Occasional.”

“Even… even with your partner? Before she started dating Sam?”

“Even with her, yeah. At most, we slept together two or three times a month, and normally out of boredom and lack of case progress.” Russell squeezed Theodore’s arms. “I don’t need sex to be happy, Theo. I promise you that.”

Theodore searched the detective’s genuine eyes. “And you’ll tell me if that ever changes?”

“You’ll be the first to know.”

“Promise?”

Russell smiled. “Well, the second to know. I’ll be the first. So to you being the second to know if anything changes? I promise.”

“Good enough for me,” Theodore whispered. He pressed a kiss to Russell’s lips before leaning their foreheads together. “I can’t believe you really do seem to be in this for the long haul. It blows my mind every single time I think about it.”

“It blows my mind that you’re in it too,” Russell said.

“It does?”

“Absolutely. I’m so used to be shoved aside because I don’t immediately tell people I’m bisexual, like the fact that I also enjoy a woman’s body or that I also enjoy a man’s body is some disgusting sin I’ve personally created against every straight or gay person in the world. But you don’t care about that. You don’t care who or what I like. You only care that I like you, and I still have a hard time wrapping my mind around that. It means the world to me, reminded me that the people that throw a fit aren’t the majority of our community. They’re just an unfortunately vocal part of it.”

“Every group has its assholes.”

Russell chuckled. “Exactly.” He laid a hand on Theodore’s side, fingers toying with the seam of his shirt. “What’s our plan for today?”

“We could go to sleep or watch Netflix. I don’t have to work in the morning, and you… took the day off, right?” Theodore asked.

“I did. Just in case you wanted to do anything, and if not, that’s also okay. No pressure either way.”

Theodore smiled. Russell’s ‘no pressure’ relationship took a world of weight off his shoulders. Sure, he was still nervous and waiting for something to go wrong, but the idea that there was no pressure for him to jump into anything he wasn’t ready for was a relief in many forms. “I think we should start our new year with you and me curled up on the couch with something on Netflix.”

Russell chuckled. “Sounds like a plan to me, Teddy. Let’s go browse.”


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Christmas Cannibal – Chapter Three

A/N: Just finished this chapter this morning, so here’s a slightly belated chapter three!**

NOT EDITED

After collecting himself from the sheer panic that had coursed through his veins at the very idea that his doors and windows were unlocked, Miguel bought himself a coffee and headed to the bar across the street from the butchershop. He twisted the doorknob, finding it unlocked. He walked into the bar, the little bell above the door dinging to signal his arrival. Miguel closed his eyes for a moment. He was almost certain that damn ding was going to haunt him for the rest of his life.

“Hey.”

Miguel lifted his head, eyes landing on the woman seated at the bar. “Hello. I’m Detective Pareja. Are you the gal who called the police about screaming at the butcher shop across the way?”

“Yeah, that’d be me.” She pulled out the barstool next to her and patted the seat. “You wanna drink with me, or just talk?”

“I’m unfortunately on the clock,” Miguel said. Truthfully, he’d love a damn drink. Anything to distract his brain from the constant loop of the child in the butchershop. But he needed his wits about him. He needed to be able to focus everything he had on the case at hand, and he couldn’t do that if he was busy getting buzzed or drunk.

He cleared his throat and walked over to the counter. He lifted himself onto the barstool. “What’s your name?”

She took a sip of her drink before crossing her arm over her chest, hand outstretched. “Mary St John.”

He shook her hand. “Fancy.”

She snorted. “I normally get ‘religious’. Fancy is more fun. Thanks.” She wrapped her hands around her drink. “What do you need to know?”

“Before I start asking anything, do you mind if I record this? Just the audio.”

Mary shook her head. “No, go ahead. Do your job.”

“Thank you.” He pulled his phone from his pocket and opened up the voice memo app. After pressing record and introducing the date, time, and interviewee, he took a sip of his coffee. “Walk me through your morning, Mary. What was going on before you heard the screams?”

“I was watching TV. Or, I guess I was watching Netflix on the TV. I thought I heard something, but it didn’t seem too loud. Figured it must’ve just been background noise from the show. But it got louder and… and more fearful.” She paused, taking a long sip of her drink. “I paused the show I was watching, and I could still hear the screaming. It got quieter when I walked toward my door, but it was a hell of a lot louder as I walked to the window. Butcher shop’s across the way. I couldn’t see any lights on, but I didn’t see anyone outside, and those alleys aren’t really a blindspot for murder.” She closed her eyes, dropping her forehead to rest in her hands.

“Take your time,” Miguel said, his voice soft.

“I wanted to go outside and check, but I was too scared to. I-I called the police instead.”

“That was a good choice. We could be looking at two bodies instead of one if you hadn’t.”

“Yeah,” she whispered. “I never saw anyone out there. I couldn’t see anyone moving inside the building. I never saw anyone walk down the street or hurry out of one of the alleys. I watched the whole time I was on the phone. I never saw… anything, even after the screaming stopped.” She turned to look at him. “Can you tell me who died?”

“No, I can’t release a name or anything right now, I’m sorry.”

She nodded. “Do you think I would have been able to save them if I had gone over there?”

“No. I really do think that would’ve endangered you, too.”

“That’s not just something you tell to witnesses who can’t stop thinking they should’ve done more?”

Miguel shook his head. “My ex-wife always told me I was terrible at hiding how I really feel about things. If I thought there was any chance you could have stopped the crime scene I had to walk into… I think you’d know.”

Mary blew out a harsh breath before taking a sip of her drink. “Is this feeling, like… common? Do people who call in deal with this insane form of survivor’s guilt?”

“Sometimes. I’ve seen it pretty often in my time as a detective. Generally, people care about people to some degree, and when we see another person struggling or in pain, many of us feel inclined to help them. Some of us even feel a sense of responsibility to help them. It makes sense that, even when there’s nothing you could have done, you’d feel guilty in some way.”

“Well, then I wish I was a worse person,” Mary said.

Miguel couldn’t help the little snort of a laugh that escaped him. “I can unfortunately understand that one too. I wish it on myself more often than I care to admit.” He cleared his throat. “I don’t want to eat up any more of your time than I have to. Do you happen to have any cameras on the outside of this building?”

“One. I have one of those, umm, Ring Doorbell things. It’s supposed to send a notification to my phone if it senses movement, and that didn’t happen this morning. It only records if I’m live reviewing the footage or if something activates the motion sensor thing.”

“So no footage.”

Mary nodded. “No footage. Sorry about that.”

“God, no need for that. This isn’t your fault, not in the slightest.” He tucked his notepad away, clearing his throat. “Thank you for your time, Mary. I’m going to leave you with a business card in case something comes to you that might be important. Otherwise, try to enjoy your day, Mary. It’s okay to feel guilty, but you did everything right.”

“Thank you,” Mary whispered.

Miguel nodded as he slid his business card over to her. “Take it easy, Mary.”

“You too, Detective.”

***

Miguel couldn’t help himself–before heading to the station to interview the butcher, he headed home. He unlocked the front door and walked inside. Landon made it into the foyer before Miguel could even close the door. “Where’s my boy?”

“Asleep on the couch,” Landon said, his voice soft. “God, you look…”

“The homicide of a toddler will do that to you.”

“I am so sorry, Miguel. That’s… horrible. I’m sorry.”

“Me too.” Miguel chewed on his bottom lip, gaze shifting to the back of the couch. “It’s a boy Eliseo knows. Daycare, couple playdates. I just…” He shook his head. “I know it sounds crazy, but when he woke up from that nightmare, he told me this Father Whipper thing was gonna kill his friends a-and chop them up, sell ‘em as meat or somethin’. That boy was… carved up pretty damn good. Harvested. Butchered. I wanna believe it’s a coincidence, but the more I think about it, the harder it is to believe.”

He expected Landon to tell him he was crazy, but he didn’t. Instead, when he met the man’s brown eyes, Landon simply looked… understanding. “Before I say anything, I need to know which way you want me to respond to that. Do you want me to tell you that it’s a coincidence? Or do you want me to tell you what I actually think?”

Miguel blew out a harsh breath. “That sounds like a question I don’t want to answer.”

“I can understand that. I’ll phrase it a little differently. Do you believe in ghosts?”

“Yes.”

Landon nodded. “My sister and I come from a long line of psychics on our dad’s side. About a year ago, when I was babysitting Eliseo for, umm… for your ex, I told my sister about one of his nightmares and sent her a picture of him. Your baby boy is… is a psychic, Miguel. My sister says she’s been able to sense him for a while.”

Miguel swallowed roughly. “You’re…?”

“Yes. I am, she is, and so is he.”

Miguel took a step back until his hand found the door. “I just, umm… I need a sec.”

Landon nodded, shoving his hands into the pockets of his dark blue jeans. “Take as long as you need. I’ve got all the time in the world today.”

Miguel crossed his arms over his chest and leaned back against the door. “What can you do? Read minds and shit like that?”

Landon shook his head. “I can’t, no. My sister’s abilities are more… wide range than mine. I can more or less mind-control people, but I don’t really do that often. It was cool when I was a kid, but it feels wrong as an adult. I can see the dead, help move them on… Stuff like that.”

“Nightmares?” Miguel asked.

“Sometimes, but I never have them from living people. I only see stuff from the dead, spirits who need help moving on from the Veil.”

“So you see, like… murders and shit? From people who have died?”

“On occasion, yeah. But it isn’t just people who are murdered that need help moving on. People who die naturally need help sometimes too.”

Miguel uncrossed his arms, burying his fingers in his hair instead. “What does your sister do?”

“A hell of a lot more than I do. Nightmares pre- and post-life, dream walking, mind-reading, auras… She pretty much does it all. She’s the strongest psychic I know.” Landon wrapped his fingers around Miguel’s forearms and pulled his hands from his hair. “I think you should meet her. You and Eliseo. She can sense psychics, sense what they’re all about, what they can do. She can help you work through this, uh, new territory.”

“Work through it? What do you mean? Like, get rid of it?”

Landon shook his head. “No, I’m sorry. But she can help you figure out how the hell to raise a boy with psychic abilities. It can be scary, Miguel. You’ve been experiencing that all day. My sister and I–I don’t know. Maybe we can help make this easier for you and Eliseo. As ‘easier’ as it gets, anyway.”

“Why the hell would you wanna do that? Why would you…? Why would you want to put your time into me and my boy?”

Landon searched his eyes for what felt like an eternity. For a moment, Miguel allowed himself to imagine that Landon was working to prevent himself from admitting he found Miguel attractive or liked him in any capacity. Unfortunately, the thought of his son being a psychic and facing horrible nightmares and real life murders quickly knocked that imagination of falsities out of his head.

“I want to help you because you’ve been a great boss, and Eliseo has always been a good kid. And if that’s not enough for you, I want to help you because I know how hard it can be for kids like Eliseo to grow up with a parent that just doesn’t… that doesn’t get it. And that isn’t your fault. It’s not your fault that you don’t get it. It’s just something he was born with and you weren’t.”

Miguel looked toward the living room again. “I just want Eliseo to be okay. I want him to not have to deal with any of this.”

“Well, I…” Landon cleared his throat. “I-I don’t know if all psychics are the same or not, but with my family, the abilities are controlled by tumors in the brain. If it’s done when he’s young, removing them will be, umm, easier. When my grandfather got them removed, he lost a part of himself he’d had for, y’know, six decades. He was never the same.”

“Cutting my son’s head open and letting some surgeons cut into his brain in hopes that it removes the nightmares.”

“It’s not ideal. I know.”

“Fuck,” Miguel whispered. He crossed his arms over his chest again, nails biting into his bicep. “Would I…? How would I meet your sister?”

“She lives about an hour away, give or take. If you’re interested, we could visit her as soon as you’re free to. She doesn’t leave the house much anymore, so we’d have to go to her.”

“This psychic thing has made her a shut-in?” Miguel nodded toward the living room. “So if I don’t get these tumors cut out of his head, then he’ll close himself off from the world?”

Landon shook his head. “No. I mean, I still, y’know, hang out in the world. And my sister’s husband, he does too. Nora, she just, uh…” He cleared his throat, looking down as he shifted his weight between his feet. “She just prefers helping people online nowadays. But if I vouch for you, she’ll meet you guys in person. I think it’ll be better that way.”

“Okay,” Miguel whispered. “I-I still have to talk to the guy who owns the shop we found the body in. We’re having a forensic analyst flown in from Los Angeles, so… so I need to be there for at least some of that, and I still need to notify the boy’s parents. But tonight? Tomorrow?”

“I’ll call her, see if tonight works. I’ll text you when I know for sure?” Landon suggested.

Miguel nodded. “Yeah. That works.” He let out a breath. “S-so if… if Eliseo is a psychic, and thinks this Father Whipper was going to kill his friends…”

“There’s a good chance that’s true.” Landon cleared his throat. “I looked into the Father Whipper thing while Eliseo was asleep. It’s what one might call, umm… supernatural.”

Miguel snorted. “What, like, vampires and shit?” Landon unfortunately didn’t crack a smile. “Oh. You’re not joking.”

“I wish I was.”

“The supernatural isn’t real, Landon. Ghosts are one thing. Werewolves and vampires and shit–that’s a whole other topic. It’s folklore, myth.”

“Folklore comes from somewhere, Miguel. Where better than reality?”

Miguel shook his head. He didn’t want to deal with this now, not in the slightest. “I need to get back to work. Let me know what your sister says.”

Landon let out a harsh breath, but he nodded. “I will. Don’t, umm, don’t work too hard.”

“Yeah. Take care of my boy.”

“Always do. I’ll take extra good care of him today, I promise.”

Miguel nodded, reaching back to open the door. “Lock this the moment I close it. Don’t unlock it for anyone. I have a key.”

“Okay, Miguel. I won’t, I promise.”

“Thank you.”

Landon only nodded.

***

After Miguel left, Landon locked the door and checked on Eliseo in the living room. Satisfied that the boy was still asleep, Landon headed into the kitchen. Leaned back against the counter, he pulled his phone from his pocket and called his sister.

“You’re nervous,” Nora said after the third ring. “I hope that doesn’t have anything to do with the boy I sent your way?”

“No. I mean, well, sort of.”

“Sort of,” Nora echoed. Do you want to explain, or do you expect me to do the heavy lifting and read your mind?”

Landon couldn’t help the little chuckle that fell from his lips. Nora always had a way of making him laugh, no matter how upset or nervous or stressed out he was. “So, umm, a few things. One, I told Miguel that Eliseo is a psychic.”

“Oh. How’d that go?”

“I’m not sure. He handled it without telling me I was a freak or a liar, and he didn’t kick me out of the house or ban me from babysitting. So that’s… something.”

“Definitely something. What made you decide to tell him? I know how worried you’ve been about how he would react once he found out, so I can’t imagine you just decided that’d be a fun way to spend the weekend.”

“God, my heart was fucking racing. I’m still a little shaky, honestly. But, umm, I didn’t have a choice. Eliseo, he had a nightmare this morning that some thing was going to kill his friends and sell them as meat or something like that. I’ve only gotten the details from Miguel so far. Anyway, the boy you sent my way this morning? Wanna take a guess at who he is?”

“Oh, God. Eliseo knows him?”

“Seems like it. His name’s Eddie, and he’s the homicide Miguel is working this morning. He told me about the nightmare, about the homicide, about how it didn’t seem like a coincidence. I couldn’t let him think he was stupid or crazy for putting those pieces together,” Landon said.

“You’re a good man, Landon. You risked your relationship with the man and your babysitting gig to try and give him some comfort. I’m proud of you.”

“Thank you.” Landon closed his eyes for a moment, letting out a slow breath. “I was wondering if you’d be willing to meet him and Eliseo tonight.”

“What’re you hoping I’ll be able to accomplish?”

“I don’t know. Anything, I guess. Helping Miguel understand the psychic thing a little better or finding a way to help lessen the severity of Eliseo’s nightmares. I think Miguel would accept any layer of help at this point. He just wants his little boy to be healthy, happy, and safe.”

“A reasonable desire.” A pause. “Yeah, I can see them tonight, and I’ll see what I can do. Just let me know what time you plan on swinging by so I can make sure the kids are either busy or asleep.”

“Thank you, Nora. Really.”

“You’re welcome. In return, you can tell Miguel you think he’s hot so I don’t have to listen to you complain about how unfairly hot he is.”

“Absolutely not.”

“Then no deal.”

Landon scoffed. “Whatever. You wouldn’t do that to me.”

After a moment, Nora laughed. “Unfortunately, you’re right. Seriously, though, maybe when this horrible homicide case is over… You know?”

“He’s in his forties, Nor. He’s not interested in me. And with the way things ended with his ex in public, I can’t even imagine how much shit he took behind closed doors. I doubt he’ll ever want to screw around with anyone ever again.”

“I think you’d be surprised, maybe on both fronts. But that’s all I’m gonna say.” Nora cleared her throat. “I’ll see you tonight, Lan. Let me know.”

“I will. And no more being all suspicious and shit about what you know.”

Nora snorted. “You don’t own me. I’ll be as suspicious and coy as I want.”

Landon rolled his eyes. “I’ll see you tonight. No more dream walking in the meantime.”

“It was technically astral projection. Basically. It doesn’t destroy my immune system nearly as much as dream walking.”

“Comforting.”

“I thought so. See you tonight.”

Landon nodded. “See you then. Bye-bye.”

“Bye-bye.”

He pulled his phone back and ended the call. Nora being willing to see Miguel and Eliseo was good news. She didn’t get out much anymore, and she met up with new people even less. Of course, Landon was pretty sure it had something to do with her desire to force him to tell Miguel that he’d wanted to jump his bones for at least the last six months, but he’d still take the win. Even if it was more fueled by a sisterly desire to score him a date and less about a sisterly desire to be helpful. He’d take what he could get.


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Hashtags & Homicide – Chapter Eight

NOT EDITED

Russell woke up as Theodore slid out from under his arm and sat up in bed, legs hanging over the side of the mattress. Russell cleared his throat, scrubbing a hand over his face. “Morning.”

“Good morning.” Theodore’s voice was still quiet, but he sounded better than he had the night before. Russell figured he could chalk that up as a plus. “Sleep okay?” Theodore asked.

“Not too bad. How’d you sleep?”

“No nightmares.” Theodore smiled at him over his shoulder. “You musta scared them all away for me.”

“Ah, that’s what I’m here for.” Russell sat up behind him. “I… want to kiss your shoulder, but I don’t want to risk that being too much.”

“Shoulder should be safe.”

Russell leaned forward and pressed a kiss to Theodore’s shoulder. The shorter man lifted a hand, pushing his fingers into Russell’s dark hair. “Thank you for letting me come over last night.”

Theodore nodded. “Thanks for agreeing to come over. I was hoping having you here would help with the nightmares. Night before, I was riddled with them. I knew I couldn’t handle another night of that, especially not on my own.” He patted the side of Russell’s head, standing up as soon as Russell lifted his head. “Do… you mind taking me to work today?”

“Not at all. I’m more than happy to. Do you want me to take Vera to your parents’ place too?”

“If you’re okay with that.”

Russell nodded. “Totally okay with it. Her car seat’s in my car and everything.”

Theodore smiled. “Thank you.” He nodded toward the bathroom. “Shower’s yours if you’d like it. I’m gonna take a few to feed the fish and then start breakfast.”

“You sure you don’t need a morning piss?”

Fingers tightening around his cane, Theodore laughed. The sound was like music to Russell’s ears. Sure, it wasn’t nearly as loud as usual, but it was there. It was real. “I’m good. The biggest part of my brain and routine are still set to, uh, Shane’s… habits and routines. When I’ve had a heavily focused Shane day, that gets a little stronger. It was Shane’s bathroom until he left the house for work, no matter what. I-I’m a little stuck to that right now.”

“I won’t push you on it or force you outside of that comfort zone. You pee when you gotta and I won’t complain.” Russell leaned up on his knees, hands moving to Theodore’s face. “But for what it’s worth, on a day that’s less Shane-focused, I’ll never stop you from walking into the bathroom when I’m in there showering or shaving. My father was the same way. I get it. It’s a hard habit to break. But whenever you wanna break it, know that I’ve got your back.”

Theodore’s smile was soft and warm. “Thank you.” He touched the very tips of his fingers to Russell’s jaw and pressed a kiss to his forehead. “By the time you start showering, I’ll be in the kitchen. Holler if you need anything.”

“Okay, Teddy. Same goes for you.”

“Oh, really? Even if you’re in the shower?”

“You underestimate how many crime scenes I’ve attended with conditioner still in my hair.”

Theodore snorted. “Then I’ll holler if something requires assistance.” He stroked Russell’s cheek with his thumb, head cocked to the side. Russell would give anything to know what he was thinking, but he didn’t want to push him. On his good days, he found himself willing to ask once, just to see, but with Theodore still a little on the ‘bad day’ side of the scale, Russell knew it was best to keep any questions about where his mind was to himself. “Can I ask you something?”

“Of course.”

“Even now… do you still have triggers from growing up with your father?” Theodore asked.

“Yes,” Russell said after a moment. “They’re not as easily triggered as they used to be, but I do still have them. Some of them used to be so… heavy that I could be set off by someone touching my shoulder or my back. Therapy eventually helped me settle those a little bit, which I’m thankful for.”

“I’m starting Vera in therapy next week. I, uh, I’ve considered trying to find a way to get myself in it, and I figured you might know more than, you know, my parents or Gina.”

“I love that you feel safe asking me,” Russell said. He turned his head to the side to press a kiss to Theodore’s palm. “There’s a therapist just outside of town that offers discounted or free appointments for people who genuinely need them. I don’t see any reason why you wouldn’t qualify for that. As long as you’re comfortable accepting that form of help, I know you’ll qualify for it.”

“I don’t know that I’d be able to accept doing it for free. I think I’d feel… wrong for that. But I might be okay with the discounted rates.”

Russell smiled. “There you go. That’s a step in the right direction, Teddy, I promise.” He laid his hand over Theodore’s, curling his fingers beneath the other man’s. “We can schedule you an appointment online or over the phone. Hell, if you want, I can take you there so you can see the place first, and then we can schedule an appointment in person.”

“You’d… do that for me?”

“Absolutely. I know how hard all of this can be, how anxiety-inducing it can be to even think about getting help. If I can help make any part of it less stressful for you, I will.”

“Thank you,” Theodore whispered.

“No problem.” Russell pulled Theodore’s hand from his cheek and pressed a kiss to his fingertips. “I can take you on my lunch break. Today, tomorrow, a week from now. Whenever you want. We’ll go at your pace, just like always.”

“You’re too good to me, Russell.”

Russell shook his head. “No. You deserve any and all of the good that comes your way. If I’m some of that, great. You absolutely deserve it. I have no doubt in my mind about that.”

Theodore smiled before leaning in to kiss him. Russell kept his hands to himself, settling for giving Theodore’s hand a little squeeze as he kissed him back. Theodore broke away and patted Russell’s cheek. “Take your shower. I’ll let you know more on the therapist stuff when I figure it out myself.”

“Sure thing, Teddy. Be with you in a few.”

***

A text from Theodore had come in right as Russell was preparing to leave the station for lunch.

Theo: I’d like to wait until after Vera goes back to school, if that’s okay with you? I took a couple days off so I could spend them with her, and I already gave one up yesterday so I could have a breather. Ended up having to take today off for a mental health day anyway, so I’d like to spend it with her.

Russell: That’s fine with me Teddy. Like I said, I wanna take things at your pace. Not mine, not your mom’s or your dad’s, not Gina’s. Yours.

Theo: Thank you.

Theo: Do you still want to meet up for lunch? Vera and I are cooking now. Should probably be ready by the time you get here from the station.

A smile tugged at one corner of Russell’s mouth.

Russell: I’d love that. On my way.


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Hashtags & Homicide – Chapter Seven

NOT EDITED

Theodore had still felt shaky and unsteady after his first shower. He’d still felt Shane’s hands on him after his second shower. He’d still cried during his third shower. Shower number four, however, had been… okay. He had been out of tears to cry, and his skin felt so raw that he wouldn’t be able to recognize Shane’s touch even if it actually was there.

Dressed in his pajamas, Theodore lowered himself to the edge of the bed and leaned his cane against the nightstand. A part of him, the Teddy part, wanted to text Russell and let him know he was okay. The much larger part knew he didn’t have it in him to bullshit any questions Russell asked afterward. Everyone he knew asked questions if they witnessed one of his events. What triggered it? What did it trigger? Did Shane do this? Did Shane do that?

He wasn’t ready to handle that from Russell too.

So instead, he lay down with a pillow hugged to his chest and prayed for sleep to come nightmare-free.

***

The night had not been nightmare-free. Theodore had tossed and turned for hours, watching Shane kill him a dozen different ways in his mind.

Theodore grabbed his phone and opened up his message thread with his mom.

Theo: Do you think you and Dad could watch Vera today?

Mom: Is everything okay sweetheart?

Theo: Yeah, everything’s fine. I didn’t sleep well, and I don’t want to risk taking that out on her. I’m already in pain. I just can’t.

Mom: Okay baby. I’ll send Dad over to pick her up. You let me know if you need anything today okay?

Theo: Okay. Thank you, Mom.

Mom: You’re welcome Theo. Dad’ll be there soon.

Theodore locked his phone screen and slid the device onto the nightstand. Closing his eyes, he rolled onto his back and hugged Russell’s pillow to his chest. He didn’t think he could handle seeing Russell anytime soon, but it didn’t mean he didn’t want to smell the man’s shampoo and conditioner. Thankfully, the pillow still smelled like that oh so familiar Russell scent.

Anything was better than the Shane scent embedded in his mind, but anything directly tied to Russell reminded him of safety and comfort. He needed it then more than he had in… quite some time.

***

Theodore lifted his head at the quiet knock on his bedroom door. “You up, bud?” his dad asked.

“Yeah. You, uh, you can come in.”

Jenner opened the door and cleared his throat. “Vera let me inside. Are you sure you want me to take her and go?”

“What… would the other option be?”

“I could babysit her here at the house. You know, in case you change your mind and decide you don’t wanna be on your own today.”

“I’m just tired, Dad. I didn’t sleep well.”

Jenner walked into the room. Hesitantly, he sat down on the edge of the bed and laid a hand on Theodore’s arm. “Theo, bud, I raised you. I know you’re not just tired. I knew as soon as your mom showed me your texts and asked if I could come get Vera. You don’t have to tell me what’s wrong if you don’t want to, but I don’t want you to feel like you have to sit here and suffer alone to protect us or to protect Vera.”

Theodore sat up in bed, Russell’s pillow still hugged to his chest. “Last night, Russell accidentally… triggered something. He touched my neck, and I could feel Shane’s hands around…” He swallowed. “I don’t know how to recover from that. I don’t know how to go back to our normal after that. He triggered it, saw the look in my eyes, heard the shake in my voice, saw me panic, saw me back away from him like I was scared of him. I don’t know what to do.”

Jenner dropped his hands to his lap. “I’m sorry you had to go through that, Theo. I’m sorry you feel some sort of shame that Russell saw it, too. I don’t know how much it helps you, but if anyone is going to understand what you’re going through, it’s Russell.”

“I know,” Theodore whispered. “I don’t even… think it’s shame I’m feeling. I just hate that he had to be the one to trigger it, that he had to see the fear in my eyes. I hate that, even for a second, he might’ve felt like I feared him.”

“I can understand that. You really like the guy. Of course you don’t want him to think you’re scared of him.”

“That makes sense to you?”

“Of course it does. You’re nowhere near as stupid and illogical as Shane tried to make you believe you were. You’re a very bright kid, Theo. You always have been. Marrying Shane didn’t invalidate that. You’re still just as smart as you’ve always been. Hell, probably even smarter now.”

“You think so?”

“Yes. You have more… life experience now. That adds on in intellect and wisdom.”

Theodore shifted and scooted close enough to lay his head on his father’s shoulder. “I’d like you to stay here to babysit Vera.”

“I can do that.”

“Thank you.”

Jenner wrapped an arm around his son’s shoulders and pressed a kiss to the top of his head. “You’re welcome, kiddo.”

***

After tucking Vera into bed that night, Jenner had brought a plate into the bedroom for Theodore and headed home. With food in his system, Theodore grabbed his phone and finally checked the message Russell had sent him earlier that afternoon.

Russell: We don’t have to TALK talk yet if you don’t want to, but I just want to know you’re okay, as long as you feel all right responding.

Theo: I’m okay. Dad came over and took care of Vera today, made sure I ate.

Russell: Good, good. I’m glad you’re okay. Glad your dad was there too

Theo: Yeah

Theo: Are you okay?

Russell: I’m all right. Been worried about you, but I know what it’s like for someone you care about to trigger something. I didn’t wanna push you out of your comfort zone or anything. Just wanted to make sure you had time to exist without feeling crushed by me.

Theo: I appreciate it, Russ. Thank you.

Theo: Do you wanna meet up for lunch tomorrow? I can’t promise I’ll be in perfect me condition, but I don’t want to be in a Shane-funk forever.

Russell: Only if you’re sure. Because if you are, I’d love like hell to see you for lunch.

Theo: I’m sure.

Russell: Okay. Let me know if you change your mind, even if I’m already sitting outside the bookstore, okay?

Theodore tapped a finger to Russell’s name and called him instead. He pressed his phone to his ear and leaned back until he hit the mattress.

“Hey.”

“Hey,” Theodore said quietly. “I just wanted to say ‘thank you’ in person. Or… over phone call. Voice-to-voice is harder to fake, and I wanted you to know I was being genuine.”

Russell chuckled that soft chuckle of his, a little flutter of butterflies erupting somewhere just left of Theodore’s heart. “I appreciate that. It’s good to hear your voice.”

“It’s good to hear yours too.” Theodore cleared his throat. “How’d your game launch go? Did I throw off your groove?”

“No, I used it to distract me from worrying about you too much. I wanted to text you all damn night and morning, but I didn’t wanna send it too soon. The game was a good distraction. Having Emey and Andrew talking in my ear for a couple hours was good too. Kept me away from anything unhealthy, which… if I had turned to that, it wouldn’t have been your fault. That runs in my blood.”

“Thank you for the clarification.”

“No problem.”

“I’m glad having the game and your friends helped you stay away from anything unhealthy.”

“Me too,” Russell said softly. “You gettin’ ready for bed?”

“Yeah.” Theodore closed his eyes. “Do you wanna come be my big spoon?”

“Would love to. Be there in thirty, Teddy.”


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Hashtags & Homicide – Chapter Six

NOT EDITED

“Steele.”

Russell lifted his head as he shrugged on his coat. “Hey, Loo.”

His lieutenant nodded. “I have a genuine question for you, and I want you to answer it truthfully. We’ll test out your answer for a bit and reassess afterward.”

“Okay?”

“If you have the option to work by yourself or with a partner, which would you prefer?”

“I-I’m actually getting the choice?”

Again, the man nodded. “Yes. You did a damn good job working Vince’s case, no matter how hard it must’ve been for you. Finding out two of our own cops planned to kill him and your partner…” He cleared his throat. “You did well despite… all of that. If you believe you’ll work better one way versus the other, then I want to stick with the way you think will go over better for you.”

“I think I want to continue working without a partner. I don’t know that I’d be able to focus on a case if I was working with someone. I… I think I’d be too concerned with making sure I wasn’t growing attached to them and with making sure they weren’t going to die on me,” Russell said.

“I figured that would be the case. I’ll let you continue working without one, and we’ll look at this again in a couple months, okay? As long as your performance stays up and you don’t ram our insurance premiums all the way up, I’ll let you make that choice every time.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“You’re welcome, Steele. Enjoy your evening.”

Russell nodded. “You too, sir.” Once the man had walked away, Russell zipped up his coat and stuffed his phone into his pocket. He had supper plans with Theodore and Vera, and having good news to share about work was exciting. It had been hard to get excited about anything at the stationsince Vince’s murder. The man, a former cop with Rustin PD, had been a mentor and father figure to Russell. Losing him had been hard, and adjusting to the station with the knowledge that he’d never see his favorite retired detective inside the building ever again had been… difficult.

Having good news to share was good. He’d take little, miniscule victories over bad days any damn day of the week.

***

After showering and changing out of his suit, Russell drove over to Theodore’s place. They often flip-flopped on whose house supper took place in, but Mondays were almost always Theodore’s place. Russell figured Theodore liked the guaranteed consistency of it. That, he could understand without any issue.

Russell knocked on the door and took a small step back, waiting. It wasn’t long before the door opened and his eyes landed on Vera. He smiled. “Hi, sweetheart.”

“Hi, Russell.” She stepped back, allowing him into the house.

“How was your day with Daddy?” Russell asked as he closed the door.

“Good! We maked brownies together and played a game together and drawed together.”

“Wow, busy day, huh?”

Vera nodded, grabbing his hand. “I have so many drawings to show you.”

He chuckled. “Let me see if your daddy wants any help with supper first, okay?”

“Okay.” Vera let go of his hand and ran back to the living room.

Russell smiled to himself, shaking his head. Over the past two months, Vera had become one of his favorite people. She made him feel like the father he had wanted to be for years. She was an absolute sweetheart, always wanting to show him all her drawings, always wanting him to read to her, always wanting him to play with her dolls with her. She made his heart nearly as happy as her father did.

In the kitchen, Russell stepped up behind Theodore and wrapped his arms around him. “Evening,” he greeted, pressing a kiss to the shorter man’s shoulder.

“Evening. How was work?”

“Good. Spoke with Loo. He asked me if I wanted a partner or not, left that decision up to me so it wouldn’t be forced on me instead.”

“Hey, Russ, that’s great.” Theodore wiped his hand on the towel on the counter and pushed his fingers into Russell’s dark hair. Russell closed his eyes, giving himself a moment to simply revel in Theodore’s touch. “Do you know why he’s letting you choose?”

“Because of how well I did with Vince’s case.”

“Good. You deserve at least some recognition for your work with that. You were so darn strong while you were solving that case. I’m still so proud of you.”

Russell sniffled, a smile tugging at one corner of his mouth. “Thank you,” he whispered.

“No problem, Russ.” Theodore patted his head twice before reaching out to wash his hand. “Does your mom have a cute nickname for you?”

“Like?”

“Like… my mom calls me Teedie.”

“Mm. That’s cute.” Russell lifted his head, resting his chin on Theodore’s shoulder. “Sully. Mom calls me Sully.”

“Does… anyone call you Rusty?”

“No.”

“Can I call you Rusty?”

Russell smiled, shifting just enough to kiss Theodore’s cheek. “You sure can. I like you a little too much to get too picky on what you call me.”

Theodore leaned his head against Russell’s for a moment. “Are you spending the night?”

“Not tonight. I’ve got a game thing planned with Andrew and Emey. Game launches at midnight.” Russell nuzzled the crook of Theodore’s neck with his nose, earning a soft chuckle from the auburn-haired man. “You like gaming with anything that isn’t, like Zoo Tycoon or Minecraft?”

“In college, sure. I played some shooters with my roommates.”

“If you ever wanna invest in a PS4, I could hook you up with the gaming crew. Adult interaction and conversation without ever leaving the house.”

Theodore laughed. “That does sound nice. Maybe someday… soon? I’ve been saving a lot of money on gas since Gina won’t let me pay her for it.”

“She just wants you to worry about bigger things, like Vera and keeping clothes on her back and a roof over her head. I bet she’ll let you pay her back someday.”

“I hope she will. I don’t wanna feel forever indebted, best friend or not.”

“I sure can’t blame you there, Teddy.” Russell pressed a kiss to the top of his head and stepped away from him. “Do you want help with supper?”

“I want… to handle as much of it as I can on my own. But, uh, I’ll let you know if I need help?”

“That works for me. I’ll be in the living room with Vera, okay? She’s got some drawings she wants to show me.”

“Okay. Thank you.” Theodore leaned up and kissed him. “My hip’s sore today, so I’ll you call in when food’s ready to help carry plates, if that’s okay.”

“That’s more than okay. Prioritizing your hip is always going to be okay with me. Call me back whenever you need me. I’m not far.”

Theodore’s pale, freckled cheeks pinkened. “I will.”

Russell pressed a kiss to his forehead and headed into the living room. He sat down on the couch beside Vera and kicked out the footrest. “All right, sweetheart. What kind of cool drawings do we have today?”

Vera snuggled up to his side and opened her little sketchbook on his lap. “I’m gonna show you the one Daddy and I did together first.”

He chuckled, wrapping an arm around her shoulders. “Go for it. Show them in whatever order you want, sweetheart. You have my full attention.”

***

Russell rinsed off the last plate and set it in the dish drainer. He shut off the water as he heard Theodore’s steps behind him. “Hey.”

“Hi.” Theodore wrapped his arms around Russell, resting his cheek between Russell’s shoulders. “Thank you for washing dishes.”

“No problem. Vera go to sleep okay?”

“Mmhmm.” Theodore slid his hands up to Russell’s chest. Russell smiled, drying off his own hands before laying one over Theodore’s. “She was really happy that you let her show you all those drawings.”

“I love her little sketches. I’d let her flip through that damn sketchbook for hours if she wanted.”

Theodore stepped away from him, allowing him to turn around. Theodore pressed his hands to Russell’s chest again. “This thought scares me, but I think you should know it. You… are acting like the second dad she never got to have, and that means the world to me. It means so much to Vera too. I-it scares me that when I saw you in that sweater on Christmas, my first thought was that you looked like the family man I always wanted, but I want you to know it.”

Russell smiled, heat rushing up to his face. He laid his hands on Theodore’s cheeks, gently tipping his head back until their eyes met. “I’ve been looking for a family person for as long as I can remember. Once I figured out I liked men too, including them in the equation made things… scary and complicated, simultaneously narrowing my options and expanding them. But for what it’s worth, I want you to know that you’re the family person I’ve been looking for this whole fuckin’ time.”

Theodore leaned up and kissed him, hands wrapped around the front of his shirt. Russell let out a soft sound, one hand sliding down to Theodore’s neck. Theodore pulled away like he’d been burned, a hand jumping up to his throat.

“Teddy?”

“S-sorry. I’m…” Theodore cleared his throat, taking a step back. “I’m sorry.”

“You didn’t do anything wrong, Teddy. You have absolutely nothing to be sorry for. I am sorry for touching your neck. It didn’t even cross my mind that could be one of your triggers. I’ll make sure to avoid that in the future. I’m sorry.”

Theodore nodded. “I-I need a shower. Enjoy g-game night.”

“It doesn’t release until midnight. I can stay till then, Theo. Or if you need me here, I can cancel, put it off till tomorrow.”

Theodore shook his head, backing into the island. “Nope. No, no. You go, have fun. I just need a shower.”

“Okay.” Russell stepped to the side, giving Theodore the space he needed. “I’m sorry, Theo.”

“N-not your fault.”

Russell fought every urge he had to pull Theodore into a hug or wipe the lone tear from his cheek. He knew what it was like to have a trigger set off by someone you cared about, and he knew it was far from pleasant. “I’ll go. Text or call me as soon as you’re ready, okay?”

Theodore nodded. “Mmhmm. N-night, Russ.”

“Night, Theo. Take care of yourself.”


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