Hashtags & Homicide – Chapter Seven


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,” 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



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.”


“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… 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?”


“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.


“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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Christmas Cannibal – Chapter Two



Landon Clark cracked open an eye, turning his head just enough to scan the half-darkness of his bedroom. He was still mostly asleep, but he was certain he had heard a voice. “You can either tell me who you are and what you want help with, or you can wait until I wake up on my own.”

The voice giggled. “You’re so grumpy.”

Landon pushed himself up on his elbows, brow furrowed. That wasn’t just a voice. That was a child. He rolled over to his back and sat up. Eyes scanning his room, he reached out to turn on the lamp on his nightstand. “Yeah, sorry about that. I, umm, I’m Landon. What’s your name?”


“Eddie. Nice to meet you. Can you come out so I can see you?”

A little boy manifested near the foot of the bed. His shirt was soaked with blood but was otherwise pristine. A deep and bloody cut peeked out from beneath the collar of his shirt. Landon couldn’t help but wonder how far that wound ate into his abdomen to cause as much blood as it had.

Landon cleared his throat. “What’re you doing here, Eddie?”

Eddie lifted his shoulders. “I dunno. A nice lady led me here and said you would help me.”

“What’d she look like?”

“Like you, kinda. Reddish hair. Greenish eyes. Lots of freckles.”

Landon nodded. His sister. She was dream walking again. “That’s my sister. She’s right. I, uh… I’m pretty good at helping kids in your situation.”

Eddie cocked his head to the side. “A dead situation?”

“Oh. Okay, so you know you’re… That’s something. Do you know how it happened?”

“Sorta. Bits and pieces.” Eddie looked down as he ground the toe of his bloody slipper into the carpet. “Do we have to talk about it?”

“Not if you don’t want to.” Landon turned toward his nightstand as his phone rang. “Do you mind if I answer that?”

Eddie shook his head. “That’s okay. I don’t have anywhere else to go.”

“Yeah,” Landon whispered. He grabbed his phone, staring down at Miguel’s name on his screen. Though a phone call or a text from his boss always made him a little warm and giddy inside, he had a feeling the reason for that morning’s phone call was standing at the end of his bed. He glanced back at Eddie before accepting the call and pressing his phone to his ear. “Morning, Miguel.”

“Morning.” Miguel cleared his throat. “I hate to ask on such short notice, but are you busy today?”

“Not really. What’s up?”

“I got called in for work. I, umm… Eliseo needs a sitter for a few hours.”

“Yeah, no problem. I’ll be over in… fifteen?”

“Fifteen works. Gives me enough time to shower. Thank you, Landon.”

“Of course. See you soon.” Landon ended the all, unable to help the little smile that came to his face. Despite the fact that it usually meant someone had died, Landon always enjoyed when Miguel called him before he took his morning shower. It almost always meant he’d get a nice look at Miguel’s chest for a minute or two before he got dressed.

Miguel was about twenty years older than Landon and would likely never be interested in him, but that didn’t stop Landon from looking.

“I have a babysitting job to get to. How do you feel about hanging out in the living room and watching as much YouTube as you want? Or as many cartoons? Up to you.”

Eddie smiled, and for a moment, it was almost easy to ignore the blood and visible wounds peeking out from beneath his clothes. It was almost easy to picture him as a lively little boy instead of a dead child. “That’d be cool.”

“Awesome. Come on. Let’s go find you something to watch.”


Scrubbing at his hair with his towel, Miguel headed to the front door. He unlocked the doorknob, a frown on his face. The door only had one lock. When he had lived alone–save for his allotted weekend every month with Eliseo–that hadn’t been a problem. Now, with a three-year-old in the house that could reach the doorknob, it didn’t seem like the safest option. He made a mental note to stop at the hardware store after the crime scene and pick up another lock. Maybe three.

He tacked on a second mental note to make it well-known that the new desire for locks had absolutely nothing to do with the homicide coincidence and everything to do with Eliseo’s safety.

Miguel pulled open the door. “Thanks for coming on such short notice. I wasn’t supposed to work today, but…”

“Crime never stops,” Landon filled in. Not for the first time, those sparkling brown eyes dragged over Miguel’s bare chest before settling on his face again.

It was always a nice little boost to Miguel’s ego, a twenty-something finding him attractive enough to catch his bottom lip between his teeth for a split second as he gave him a nice once-over. Miguel wasn’t exactly oblivious to Landon’s good looks or charm, either, but he had no intentions on acting on it. Truthfully, he didn’t have the balls to. Even after he had admitted to himself he was gay–after the divorce and the fallout that had come with it–he had never worked up the courage to be with a man. He wasn’t sure he ever would.

Landon often made him wish that he would, though.

Miguel cleared his throat. “Sure doesn’t.” He nodded toward the kitchen and stepped back from the door. Landon walked inside, closing the door behind him. “Eliseo’s still asleep. He had another nightmare this morning, so he might be a little jumpy, and he’ll probably be a bit groggy.”

Landon nodded. “Anything we should avoid today?”

“If you happen to know where he heard about Father Whipper, then yeah, avoid that.”

“Father… what?”

Miguel offered a shrug, hoping it came off as nonchalant as he intended it to. It was nice to pretend that the murder of a three-year-old the same exact morning his son practically predicted it didn’t bother him. It was nice to pretend there weren’t a million questions, what ifs, and concerns swimming around in his head.

It was nice to pretend it was just a normal Sunday in December.

“Father Whipper. He called him some French-sounding name too, but I don’t remember what it was. I was planning on checking to see if that monster show added some new fucked up villain character.”

Landon shook his head. “Not that I know of. I always sit here and watch it with him.” He chuckled. “Their newest villain is actually a nod to the Winchesters from Supernatural. Flannel shirts and everything.”

“It’s good to know that’s a bit more child-appropriate than this Father Whipper thing.” Miguel let out a breath. “Back at square one.”

Landon smiled. “I’ll see if I can get any info out of him today. Sometimes he likes talking about the nightmares while he colors. Maybe I can find out where he heard about Father Whipper.”

“Thank you. I appreciate the hell out of that.” Miguel cleared his throat. “I’m gonna finish getting dressed, and then I’ll be on my way. Hopefully I won’t be gone all day.”

“Well, take your time. I’m here today as long as you need me.”

A smile tugged at one corner of Miguel’s mouth. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d heard that. It was such a simple phrase, such an easy one to put together, but it felt warm and kind and caring. Especially coming from Landon. “Thank you. Don’t know what the hell we’d do without you.”

“Oh, it’s no problem. Eliseo’s a good kid. The least I can do is try to help take away some of the scariness of the bad dreams.”

“It’s appreciated.” Miguel took a small step back. “You know the drill. Coffee’s in the kitchen, food’s in the fridge. Make yourself at home.”

Landon nodded. “Sounds good.”

Miguel turned and headed back to the bathroom. He closed the door and leaned back against his, dropping his head to it as he closed his eyes. He allowed himself to pray the dead toddler was a coincidence one more time before he went about getting dressed.


While Miguel finished getting dressed in the bathroom, Landon walked back to the bedroom to check on Eliseo. The boy lay sound asleep in the middle of his toddler bed. Landon always found himself surprised that the boy was able to sleep at all. His sister had started seeing things in her dreams pretty early on, and she’d had insomnia practically ever since. But Eliseo took the nightmares in stride and just kept pushing forward. He was a strong kid, that was for damn sure.

“That you, Landon?”

“Yeah, buddy, it’s me.” Landon crossed the room and knelt down beside the bed. “How’re you doing?”

“Okay. Daddy protected me from the bad guys in my dreams.”

“Yeah? Your daddy’s pretty strong like that.”

Eliseo nodded. “He is.” He shoved a little hand under his pillow, eyes meeting Landon’s. “Are you gonna tell my daddy you like him?”

Landon smiled. “Maybe someday.”

“You always say that. It’s code for ‘never’.”

Landon scoffed. “Is not.”

“You’re a chicken,” Eliseo whispered.

“Maybe I am. Or maybe I just like you and your daddy too much to risk my job here.”

“Maybe,” Eliseo agreed with a little nod. “Are you babysitting today?”

“Yeah. Just gonna be you, me, and some cartoons for a few hours. Your daddy got called in for work.” Landon combed Eliseo’s light brown curls away from his forehead. “But if you’re tired, you can go back to sleep for a little while. I’ll be here when you wake up.”

“And… you’ll protect me from the bad guys while I’m asleep?”

“Oh, of course. The best I can.”

Eliseo nodded. “Okay. Wake me up when my monster show is on.”

Landon chuckled softly. “You got it, buddy.”


Miguel pulled up to the yellow crime scene tape and shifted into park. He cut the engine in the cruiser and pulled the keys from the ignition, hands falling to his lap. He wasn’t ready for this scene, not really. The mutilated corpse of a toddler wasn’t something anyone wanted to see, something anyone could ever be prepared for, but there was something he had that the other detectives didn’t.

A toddler son at home. A toddler son who most likely knew the dead kid. A toddler son who was most likely friends with the dead kid.

He let out a slow breath, closing his eyes. The longer he put it off, the longer he’d simply build up the dread, the worry, the fear. The longer he put it off, the longer the idea that this wasn’t some kind of coincidence had to ferment in his brain. He didn’t want to allow the thought to take root. He didn’t want his daily decisions based upon some damn legend he’d never even heard of.

Miguel flinched at the knock on his window. He forced his eyes open and turned to the cop standing outside his cruiser. Miguel let out a breath. Might as well get it over with. He pushed the driver’s side door open and climbed out of the car. “Morning, Justin.”

Justin nodded. “Morning.” He cleared his throat. “It’s a real fuckin’ mess in there, Miguel. If you can’t do this—”

“I’ll let you know once I see it. For now, let’s go see if we can’t find anything that tells us who murdered a little boy, okay?” Miguel asked.

Justin nodded. “I-I’ll take you to the door, but I can’t go back in there.”

“That’s fine, Justin. I sure as hell can’t blame you for that.” Miguel pocketed his keys and closed the door. “Take me up.”

Justin turned and headed for the butcher shop. Miguel followed, hands shoved into his pockets. “Watch your feet and all that good shit. We’ve had both of our analysts in there, and neither could handle it. Chief is calling in outside help for it, so… be careful.”

“I will. I’ll just stay in the doorway if I’m worried getting over to the body without stepping in or on something will be impossible.”

Justin reached out with a gloved hand and pulled open the door of the shop. The little bell above the door jingled, celebrating the arrival of a homicide detective rather than a customer.

Miguel stepped through the doorway, avoiding the broken glass on the ground. “Is the broken glass from us or the killer?”

“Us. The door was locked.”

Miguel nodded. “Any idea who Chief is bringing in?” he asked

“Heard her mention Pitman’s name.”

“L.A. Pitman?”

“The one and only.”

Miguel glanced up at the ceiling. “His glory analyst still that Austen guy?”

“I think so.”

“So… Chief’s going to call and ask Pitman to send in a forensic analyst that was in the news, like… last year for being charged with, what, three homicides?”

Justin offered a shrug as he stopped at a door near the counter. “The charges were dropped during the trial. I don’t think Pitman would fire his star dude over a wrongful accusation.”

“Yeah, or Pitman had something to do with his release,” Miguel said.

“Possible. But the guy’s good at what he does. If any analyst is going to be able to stand in there and take pictures… it’d be him.” Justin cleared his throat. “Speaking of, this is as far as I go. Kid’s through that door.”

Miguel stopped in front of the closed door and let out a breath. “Is it bad because it’s a kid, or because of what was done to him?”

“Both, but I’d still have a hard time going in there if it was an adult.”

Unfortunately, Miguel wasn’t sure if that was better or worse than whatever answer he had been expecting. He drew in a breath and held it as he opened the door. The moment his eyes landed on the boy, he averted his gaze, focusing on the floor instead. He watched his step as he made his way over to the body. He stopped at the drain on the floor, unable to draw himself away from the blood that had pooled around it as it slowly dripped through the drainage holes.

Swallowing, he forced himself to lift his head.

The boy hung right side up on a meat hook shoved between his shoulder blades. He’d been cut open from his groin up to his chin. Miguel wasn’t certain of which organs had been left behind and thrown on the table behind the boy’s corpse, but there were at least three of them.

He lifted the back of his hand to his mouth, looking down as he took a small step back. The boy was a kid from Eliseo’s daycare. Eddie Something. They’d had a couple playdates here and there, and Eliseo enjoyed playing make-believe Pokemon games with him.

“Fuck,” Miguel whispered. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”

“Pareja?” Justin asked from outside the door.

“I-I’m here.”

“Just making sure.” Justin cleared his throat. “How’re you doing?”

“Not great, but I’m managing.” Miguel turned away from the boy and made his way back to the door. He walked into the main part of the shop, and Justin closed the door behind him. “Who found the body? How did they find the body?”

“Somebody heard screaming inside and called us. I and two other patrol cops responded to the dispatch and found, umm…” Justin nodded toward the door.

Miguel nodded. He lifted his hands to his hips as he bowed his head, doing what he could to keep his thoughts strictly case-related. “Do we have the name and address of the caller?”

“Yeah. Gal who owns the bar across the street. She lives right above it, so she was at home when she heard the screams and called us. I’m sure Dispatch has a first name for her.”

“All right. I’m gonna take a little break and then head over there to talk to her. I want the owner of the butcher shop found and taken to the station for questioning. Put him in interrogation three and give him coffee and breakfast. Not the coffee at the station. Actual good coffee. I don’t want him thinking he’s a suspect right now.”

Justin nodded. “Can do, Pareja. See you at the station.”

Miguel offered a terse nod and walked out of the shop. He headed for the cruiser, pulling his phone from his pocket as he walked. He pulled up Landon’s number from his contacts, called it, and pressed his phone to his ear.

“Miguel? Is everything okay?”

“Yeah, everything’s fine. I just need you to, umm, to do a favor for me.”

“Sure. What’s up?”

Miguel pressed his free hand to the hood of his car, bowing his head. “Go into Eliseo’s room and check his windows. Make sure they’re closed and locked.”

A pause. “Are you sure everything’s okay?”

“Of course. It’s just a little chilly out this morning. Wanna make sure I closed his windows and that he can’t open them.”

“Okay,” Landon said slowly. It took little more than a minute for him to come back with, “All of them are closed and locked.”

“Good,” Miguel whispered. “The front door and the one that leads to the backyard. Locked?”

“I’ll go check.”

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” Another pause. “Both are now locked.”

Miguel closed his eyes. “Thank you, Landon.”

“Of course.”

“I, uh…” Miguel cleared his throat. “I’ll hopefully see you soon to relieve you from spontaneous babysitting duties. Got a couple people to question, but once I’m at the station, I can come get him and have him there with me.”

“No worries, Miguel, seriously. Eliseo’s a great kid, and my day’s free, anyway. I’m here for as long as you need me.”

“Thank you.”

“Mmhmm. I’ll see you when I see you.”

Miguel nodded, though the younger man couldn’t see him. “See you when I see you.”

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S. Carved – Chapter Seventeen


Chapter Seventeen

Dallas pulled up to the curb and shifted the cruiser into park. “Do we know anything about this guy?”

“Other than his name and address?” Bo asked from the passenger seat. “No, not quite. Though I’d love to be allowed to research every suspect, witness, or person involved in a case—”

“Yeah, it was a stupid question, huh?”

Bo snorted, shaking his head. “No, I’m serious. I would love to, but Lieutenant says we don’t have the funds to provide for it.”

“Paying you the hours, I imagine?”

“Yes, I suppose. Most likely paying for the things I could access with a bit of hacking, as well.”

“No shit. You hack shit?”

“It’s an enjoyable pastime, though I try not to do more than dabble in it. My adoptive mother assures me she didn’t raise a criminal, and I suppose that’s a jab at my not-so-legal hacking.”

Dallas laughed as he undid his seatbelt. “Why, Austen, I didn’t know you were a rule-breaker.”

“I’m a rule-follower with minor exceptions.”

Dallas practically cackled, pushing open the driver’s side door. “Man, I am glad we’re friends.”

“Officially, I do believe I’m your babysitter.”

“Mm, pretty sure we agreed on ‘partners’.”

Bo cracked a small smile. “I recall that being something I offered to refer to you as that in front of witnesses.”

“I… unfortunately recall much of the same.”

Ugh, you do this shit with Xavier too. Don’t start talking like the guy. Please, for the love of God, don’t start talking like him, Ed said.

Dallas bit back an eyeroll. If you hate the way he or Xavier talks so much, maybe you should find someone else’s head to be bound to forever.

Ed laughed. Yeah, maybe I should, Tex. Maybe I should.

Dallas cleared his throat, nodding his head toward the house. “You’re coming in with me, right? Partner?”

“Of course. I don’t plan to do much talking, if that’s all right.”

“That’s fine. I’d like to test my hand at a homicide witness interview. But if I get stuck…?”

“I’ll step in, just like I did at the beach. I’ve thankfully hung around enough to know my way around an interview. I just find there are less problems with things the less I talk,” Bo said.

Wonder why? Ed mumbled.

Dallas shook his head. If he managed to get rid of Ed in the next five minutes, it still wouldn’t be soon enough.

Dallas and Bo walked up to the door and, as expected, Bo hung back while Dallas lifted his good hand to knock. “What’s his name again?”

“Joseph Harper.”

“Do I tell him I’m an officer or a detective?”

“I’d personally go with neither. One’s a lie and one unfortunately sounds less official when investigating a homicide. People pick up on that with their level of cockiness. You work for the Homicide Department of the LAPD. You don’t have to give him a title,” Bo said.

Dallas nodded. He figured that was easy enough, and not admitting he was an officer being forced to do a detective’s job for less pay would always be nice. Or… some form of ‘nice’, at the very least. “Sounds good to me. Ready to head up?”

“Ready when you are.”

If you entertain the blonde’s bullshit for even a MOMENT in there, I will ruin this interview for you.

He isn’t even planning on talking. I’m not sure there will be any ‘bullshit’ to entertain.

Ed chuckled darkly. Well, let’s hope for that, then.

Dallas rolled his eyes. He really needed to re-adopt his policy of never responding to Ed’s dumb ass.

At the door, Dallas lifted a hand and knocked. “Name?”

“Joseph… Harper,” Bo said slowly. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I just feel like I’m tiptoeing around a migraine.”

Ed snorted. Wow, good cover, Tex.

“Well, I hope the tiptoeing helps you avoid it completely,” Bo said.

One corner of Dallas’s mouth lifted. “You and me both, man.” Dallas lifted his head as the door opened. “Joseph Harper?”

The man’s brow furrowed, but he nodded. “Yeah. Wh-what’s going on?”

“You aren’t in any trouble. It’s okay. We’d just like to speak to you about a homicide investigation.”


Dallas laid a hand on his chest. “I’m Dallas Silver from the LAPD, and this is my partner, Bo Austen. We’ve been told you used to be friends with Robert Sawyer. Is that correct?”

“Yeah. What’d he do now?”

“I’m afraid he’s our victim.”

“Oh,” Joseph whispered. He nodded. “They carve him up?”

“What makes you ask that?”

Joseph crossed his arms over his chest and leaned his shoulder against the doorjamb.  “Rob was really, uh, into some cult shit. For a while there, before he officially joined or whatever, he tried convincing me to join with him, so I know more about it than I’d care to.”

“I can imagine. Mind telling us a bit about what you know?”

“They’re freaks. That’s what I know. They carve themselves up with symbols of strength and health so when the ‘ritual’ is complete, they can kill the youngest member and the old bastards can eat the organs they need to replace. Fucked up liver? Kill a fifteen-year-old and eat his. Lung cancer? No worries, the sixteen-year-old who just joined has perfectly healthy ones for the taking.”

And you think I’m fucked up, Ed said.

Dallas chose not to dignify him with a response. It was rare the bastard deserved one in the first place.

“Rob’s the one who told you this?” Dallas asked.

Joseph nodded. “Yeah. With less disgust, though. Fucker was, like… proud of it, even before he joined. Thought it was amazing, that it gave life purpose or some shit.” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “I’ve got a fiance, a kid, and two dogs. They give my life purpose. Carving myself up so some old fucker can cut me open and eat my kidney or my heart? That’s not a purpose. It’s fucked up.”

“Can’t disagree with you there,” Dallas said quietly. “Did you ever meet any of the members of this cult?”

“No. Rob said I could only meet them if I promised I was going to join, if I swore to it. Don’t get me wrong, I considered lying to him and swearing on it, but I was afraid of what would happen if I didn’t go through with it. Figured they’d probably still kill me, just without the organ-eating since I hadn’t been through the ‘ritual’ or whatever. But, God, I wanted to meet those bastards. I wanted to meet the monsters who brainwashed my best friend, who turned him away from sports so he could never risk breaking a leg or arm. I wanted to meet the guy who turned my best friend against everyone who didn’t want to be like them.” Something in Joshua’s eyes shifted, life sparking in the previously unfocused brown of them. “That cult, they aren’t gonna go down easy, not without a fight. When Rob joined, he took his father’s gun. That was one of the, like… conditions? Requirements? Hell if I know. Point is, they’re armed, they’re dangerous, and they are not going to let anyone take their supply of young, healthy organs without one hell of a fight.”

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Hashtags & Homicide – Chapter Five


Theodore awoke to an empty bed. He rolled onto his back and sat up with a yawn. In the bathroom, he could hear the shower running. “Monday,” he whispered. Of course. Russell had to go back to work. Theodore had time off until Wednesday morning, something he had planned ahead of time so he could spend at least some of Vera’s winter break with her for more than supper each day.

Scrubbing his hands over his face, he did his best to bite back another yawn. Though he felt well-rested, the part of his brain that liked yawns seemed to disagree. He wrapped a hand around his cane and rose to his feet.

By the fish tank, he couldn’t help but smile. He still couldn’t believe Russell had gotten him a tank or the fish to go in it. He couldn’t believe the detective had kept them for a month to get them assimilated to the tank. Christ, most days, he could hardly believe Russell existed at all. Even the days where they exchanged little more than good morning and good night texts were more than he had ever gotten from Shane.

In many ways, Russell still seemed too good to be true. Theodore did his best not to focus on that lurking feeling in the back of his mind. He did his best not to let his mind convince him that Russell was hiding something from him, but it was difficult. As far as he could tell, it always would be difficult.

But he planned to keep working at it regardless.

After feeding his fish–his little goldfish included–he rapped two knuckles against the bathroom door. “How much longer are you gonna be in there, Russ?”

“Just rinsing off now.”

“So long enough for me to change out here?” Theodore asked.

“Yep.” The water shut off. “I’m gonna dry off, but I’ll stay in here until you’re dressed.”

Theodore let out a breath, one corner of his mouth lifting. “Thanks for understanding, Russ.”

“Always a pleasure, Teddy.”

After getting dressed, Theodore gave the a-okay for Russell to come back into the room. With a towel wrapped around his waist, Russell walked over to his duffel bag on the floor. Theodore had grown relatively used to Russell’s post-shower shirtless figure, but the scar on his back was something he hadn’t noticed before.

“What’s that?”

Russell looked up at him. “What’s what?”

“The scar on your back.”

“Ah. Remember the, uh, car accident I told you about?”

“The one in high school? Yeah.”

Russell nodded. “The scar’s from the reconstructive surgery they did on my lower spine. I’ve got ones near my hips and on my legs too.”

“Jesus. Do… do they ever bother you?”

“Like, confidence-wise? Not really. They’re, umm, different than the scars you have from your surgery, y’know?”

“Yeah.” Theodore knew exactly what Russell meant. Russell knew for a fact that the kid driving up on the sidewalk specifically to hit him with his car hadn’t been his fault. Theodore, however, had always believed winding up in the hospital was his fault. If he hadn’t dated Shane, if he hadn’t married Shane, if he hadn’t responded to Shane’s drunken arguing that night. If he hadn’t, he wouldn’t have fallen down the stairs. He wouldn’t have needed a hip replacement. He wouldn’t have the scars.

Yes, he knew exactly what Russell meant.

Russell’s curled fingers beneath his chin pulled Theodore from his thoughts. “Where’d you go?”

“Thinking about my surgery scars and… why they’re different.”

“It will never be your fault.”

“Part of me knows that.”

Russell smiled that soft little smile of his, the one Theodore had only ever seen him use around him and Vera. Theodore’s heart always fluttered at the thought that maybe he and Vera were the only ones who ever got to see that calming and reassuring smile. “I can’t pretend there will come a day where every single part of you knows it wasn’t your fault, just based on how I feel after everything with my father, but I can tell you that we’re gonna work damn hard to convince as many parts as we can that it’s not your fault.”

“You’re sweet. Not that that’s anything new.” Theodore leaned up and kissed him. “Get dressed and… meet me in the kitchen to help with breakfast?”

“Gladly. Be with you in a few.”

Theodore patted Russell’s bare chest, hand lingering for just a moment. Sometimes, he wished he could do more with Russell than sleep in the same bed with him or kiss him. He figured Russell would like something more, given that the man used to sleep around with men and women in between his homicide cases at work, but Theodore couldn’t deliver.

He wasn’t sure when he’d be able to or if he’d ever be able to deliver again.



“You disappeared again, got all distant-looking.” Russell brushed a thumb over his cheek. “Is everything okay?”

“Yeah, I’m just… thinking.”

“Wanna share?”

Theodore let out a breath, bowing his head. “It’s a little, umm… embarrassing.”

“That’s okay. You don’t have to tell me anything you don’t want to.” Gently, Russell lifted Theodore’s head again. “I’ll meet you out in the kitchen when I’ve got more than a towel preserving my dignity, okay?”

Theodore chuckled. “Okay. See you in a few.”

True to Russell’s word, he made it out to the kitchen before Theodore even finished pulling everything out of the refrigerator. “What’re we making this morning?”

“Scrambled eggs with peppers and hashbrowns.”

“Oo, an interesting turn from pancakes.”

“I want to start getting back into actual cooking again. I still want to take it easy on the hip, even though it’s much better than when we met, but… I don’t know. Actual cooking is some sense of domestic normalcy for me. The fresh peppers are a step in the right direction.”

Russell smiled. “Well, I’m all for domestic normalcy. Peppers it is.” He pressed a kiss to Theodore’s lips, reaching behind him to pull a knife from the block. “I’ve got the peppers covered, yeah?”

Theodore nodded, a small smile tugging at either corner of his mouth. “I was thinking much of the same.”

“Awesome. Let’s get this breakfast party started, huh?”



After Russell left for work, Theodore retreated back to the kitchen to wash dishes with a little help from Vera. She sat on the counter, taking the clean dishes from him and carefully placing them in the dish drainer.

“When do you go back to work, Daddy?”


“And… then I stay with Grandma and Grandpa while you’re at work?” Vera asked.

“Mmhmm. Unless you have plans to stay home and clean the whole place for me or something.”

She giggled. “Maybe next Christmas break, Daddy.”

“Okay, I guess that’s reasonable. I can wait another year.”

“Are you excited to go back to work again?”

“I like being able to work, but I also like being able to spend time with you.” Theodore smiled. “I’m glad I planned ahead to make sure we’d have a couple weekdays together after Christmas. That’s enough for me right now.”

Vera nodded. “Me too.” She took a plate from Theodore, staring at it for a moment before setting it with the others. “Do you ever think about what happens when Father gets out of prison?”

Theodore stiffened, clearing his throat as he did his best to relax. “Umm… sometimes. Do you?”


“What do you think… is going to happen?”

“I don’t know. Him… coming back?”

Theodore handed the last dish to his daughter and rinsed off the washcloth. “I, umm… Before he gets out, I planned on having us move. I don’t want it to be that easy for him to find us.”

“We can do that?”

He nodded, shutting off the water. He grabbed a towel from the counter. “Of course we can. Heck, baby girl, if things keep going well, by then, we might be living with Russell.”


“Really,” he confirmed. He wasn’t something he allowed himself to think about often, but he knew there was truth to it. Russell wanted to settle down. He wanted a partner, a family. Theodore didn’t know how long it would take before moving in with Russell was something he was comfortable with–nor how long it would take before Russell felt it was okay to talk about–but he sure as hell hoped it didn’t take ten whole years. He was damn sure even Russell wouldn’t wait that long.

“Russell… would want to live with us?” Vera asked.

“I can’t speak for him, but I’m pretty sure Russell would be ecstatic to live with us.” Theodore smiled, reaching out to brush Vera’s hair back behind her ear. “Russell cares so much about you and me. He wants us to be safe and happy. When Shane gets out of prison, Russell will make sure absolutely nothing happens to us. I will make sure absolutely nothing happens to us. I made sure Shane never hurt you, right?”

Vera nodded. “Yeah, you kept me safe.”

“And I always will.”

Vera smiled. “Okay, Daddy.” She jumped off the counter. “We can go play on the Xbox?”

It never ceased to amaze Theodore how quickly Vera could switch between topics, regardless of how scary or serious one was in comparison to the other. “Yeah, sweetheart. We can go play on the Xbox. Let me change back into comfier clothes while you pick a game?”

“Okay. You’ll be okay?”

A smile tugged at one corner of his mouth. “I’ll be fine, sweetheart. My hip’s a lot better, remember?”

Though her eyes shifted to his cane, she nodded. “I remember. I’ll be in the living room.”

“All right, baby girl. I’ll catch up in a few.”

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Hashtags & Homicide – Chapter Four

**A/N: Unrelated to this book, but just got back from the vet’s a bit ago and can confirm Roxie DOES NOT have the kidney failure her symptoms led us to fear she did. It’s nice to finally be able to breathe again**


“Where’d you put them?” Theodore asked the exact moment he stepped foot into his house.

Russell chuckled, reaching back to close the door. “They’re in your room.” He kicked off his shoes as Theodore sat down to take off his own. Russell took Vera’s coat and hung it up on the hook on the wall. “If you don’t like one of the fish, let me know, okay? I’ll take it so you can just have the ones you genuinely want. They’re a Christmas present, so I want you to like all of them.”

Theodore lifted his head, a smile on his face. Russell couldn’t help but smile right back at him. He loved every damn smile that tugged at Theodore’s lips. It was the simplest and most obvious sign that Theodore was comfortable and safe. “Russell, you bought me fish. I don’t care if they’re a bunch of Barbs or an Angelfish. I already love ‘em.”

“Fingers crossed.” Russell grabbed Theodore’s hand, helping him to his feet. Vera walked out of the foyer first, more than happy to lead the way to the tank of surprise fish. She stood on her tiptoes to turn on the light and rushed over to the tank.

“Holy shit,” Theodore whispered. “Is that a fifty-five gallon?”

“Yeah. Best I could tell from the pictures, your old one was, too. It fit pretty well on the table here, so… figured I guessed correctly.”

“You did. I-I can’t believe you got a fifty-five for me.” Theodore pressed a hand to the glass as he sank down to Vera’s height, free hand still held in Russell’s. “Mollies, Guppies, Platies…” Theodore shook his head. “Russell, these are amazing.”

Russell squatted down beside him, pressing a kiss to Theodore’s temple. “I wanted to do what I could to match at least some of the ones you used to have. I figured that was the easiest way to know you’d be happy with them.”

Happy? Russ, I’m ecstatic.”

That, Russell knew was true. He could see it shining in Theodore’s eyes, a nearly childlike excitement that pulled at either corner of his mouth and blushed his cheeks. “I-I’m glad to hear that. Glad to see it, too.” Russell rubbed a hand up and down Theodore’s spine, smiling as Theodore dropped his head to his shoulder. “What do you think, Vera? How’d I do?”

Vera grinned. “You did really good, Russell.” She tapped a finger to the glass. “Lots… and lots of fishies. You did good.”


After watching a movie, Russell carried Vera to bed and tucked her in while Theodore took a shower. Now, after checking the locks on the doors, Russell headed back to Theodore’s room and climbed into the bed. It wasn’t long before Theodore came out of the bathroom, checked on the fish, and slid under the covers.

“I can’t even begin to tell you how much those fish mean to me, Russell. Thank you.”

“My pleasure.” Russell rolled onto his side, wrapping an arm around him. “They’ve been in my office for, like, a month to assimilate them to the tank and stuff. I was so worried I’d forget to lock that door and you’d get adventurous, look around.”

“I don’t like snooping. I’ve been, uh… warned against it.”

Russell pressed a kiss to Theodore’s shoulder. “For what it’s worth, you can snoop in my house all you want. I sure as hell won’t be mad.”

“I know you wouldn’t. Most of me knows, anyway. But I think no snooping is still, like… a positive quality.”

“Yeah, I’d have to agree there. I’ve dated people that have gone through my phone and shit the moment I leave the room. It’s not like I keep anything shifty on there or like I’m texting other cute boys, but I just enjoy my privacy on my own phone. You know?”

Theodore nodded. “I don’t blame you there. I like mine too. It’s been one of those things I got back after Shane was, umm… arrested. It’s been nice to have that privacy again.”

“I can imagine so, Teddy.” Russell closed his eyes. “Unrelated, but, uh, I’d like you to meet my sister and my niece sometime. I want you to meet my brother and my mom eventually, but for obvious reasons, my sister and my niece are less… scary for, umm, everyone involved.”

“I would love to meet your sister and niece.”


Russell felt Theodore nod. “I’m assuming they’re not against us dating?”

“No. My niece has been really excited to see the cute bookstore cashier I’m dating ever since we, uh, started.”

Theodore laughed. “Did you tell her I was cute?”

“Duh. I would’ve been lying if I said anything different.”

“You’re sweet.” Theodore laid a hand over Russell’s, threading their fingers together. “Do you know how you want me to meet them?”

“I was thinking we could host a little supper or something. We could do it at my place so it’s somewhere familiar to you but so that no one else finds out your address. I’ll obviously take care of most of the cooking, with some hand-holding from you, of course.”

“You know me too well.”

Russell nuzzled Theodore’s neck with his nose. “I know you just well enough, Teddy. Helps me not accidentally overstep boundaries, too.”

“I know. I love it.” With a little grunt, Theodore rolled onto his bad hip and laid a hand on Russell’s cheek. “I’d love to help you make supper sometime for a little get-together at your place. Vera gets to be there?”

“One hundred percent. I want that little girl in my life just as long as I want you in it, Theo.”

Theodore smiled before pressing a kiss to Russell’s lips. He pulled away, eyes still closed. “You don’t know how much it means to me that you care about her, Russell.”

“I’ve got a pretty good idea.” Russell leaned his forehead against Theodore’s. “She’s part you, Teddy. How the hell could I go around without caring about someone that’s part you?”

Theodore sniffled, but he didn’t respond.

“Sorry,” Russell whispered.

“Don’t be. I just… Christ.” Theodore opened his eyes, pulling away to wipe at his cheek. “I-I hate that I don’t feel worthy of this.”

“I know.” Russell laid a tentative hand on Theodore’s cheek. When he didn’t pull away or brush his hand off, Russell wiped a tear away with the pad of his thumb. “Theo, I wasn’t even abused by a spouse or a significant other, and I still have days where I feel like I don’t deserve any of the good things you say to me or good things you do for me. And it sucks. We don’t wanna feel this way. We don’t wanna be this way. But… but someone tore us down and picked apart the pieces of our brains that know we deserve love and care and respect, a-and it can take… a real long time to find those pieces and put ‘em back together.”

Theodore let out a little laugh, closing his eyes as another tear raced toward Russell’s hand. “We’re supposed to be sleeping, not crying.”

“Ah, my life mantra for over a decade.”

Theodore laughed again. “I don’t know what I’d do without you right now,” he whispered.

“You’d continue healing. Just… without me.” Russell cleared his throat. “But for what it’s worth, I’m glad I’m here for it.”

“Me too.” Theodore kissed him again, soft and sweet. “Hold me?”


A smile on his face, Theodore rolled back onto his good hip. Russell scooted closer, wrapping a protective arm around the shorter man. “Night, Russell.”

Russell smiled against his shoulder. “Night, Teddy.”

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Christmas Cannibal – Chapter One


Sunday: December 5, 2021


Miguel Pareja’s eyes shot open at the high-pitched squeal of his son’s voice. Before he could even push himself off the couch, the toddler sprinted into the room and jumped up with him. Miguel grunted, laying a hand on the back of the boy’s head as he buried his face in the blanket half-draped over Miguel’s chest. “Mijo, what’s wrong?”

The boy lifted his head, his blue-flecked hazel eyes filled to the brim with tears. “Pere Fouettard is gonna kidnap me a-and all my friends and kill us to sell with the pork!”

Miguel was almost certain he’d heard that wrong. “Pere who now?”

“Fouettard! Father Whipper!”

Mijo, I don’t know…” Miguel cleared his throat, looking down at his watch. “Buddy, it’s three in the morning. I think you had a bad dream. A… a really bad dream. But I promise you, Daddy’s right here. I’m gonna keep you safe from this Father…?”

“Whipper!” Eliseo exclaimed.

“Right. I won’t let this Father Whipper hurt you or your friends. No one’s taking you anywhere.” Lightly, Miguel tapped a fist against the boy’s cheek. “You’re my little boy, mijo. You’re safe with me.”

Eliseo sniffled, rubbing his eye with the heel of his palm. “Felt too real to be a bad dream, Daddy.”

“They usually do, bud. That’s part of what makes them so bad.” Miguel sat up on the couch and hugged the boy to his chest. “I’m sorry you were so scared, mijo. Bad dreams are never any fun.”

Eliseo nodded. “Can I sleep out here with you?”

“I think the couch is too small for both of us. How about I set up a sleeping bag in your room, huh? Like a little sleepover of our own.”

A smile came to the boy’s face as he sniffled. “Sleepover sounds fun.”

Miguel pushed himself to his feet and moved Eliseo over to his hip. The boy wrapped a hand around the front of his shirt, head falling to his shoulder. Miguel closed his eyes for a moment before turning to press a kiss to the top of the boy’s head. Things had been difficult the last six months, when Miguel’s ex-wife passed away and he was given full custody of their son. Eliseo had been riddled with nightmares nearly every night, and Miguel spent most of his work days exhausted.

Eliseo’s nightmares usually told grand tales of monsters of all kinds. Krampus, Bloody Mary, ghosts, Demons, Vampires. But this one, Father Whipper or whoever, was new. The others, well, at least Miguel had heard of those. He could always understand where Eliseo may have heard of or seen the other monsters. There had been recent movies about Krampus, ghosts, and Demons. One of the shows he watched on television focused on monsters as the main characters, though in their world, ‘monsters’ were the normal thing to be.

But Father Whipper was new, and Miguel had no damn idea where that had come from to haunt his son’s nightmares. Maybe he’d check that monster show Eliseo liked, just to see if they had added a villain with a far too disturbing backstory and motive.

Miguel grabbed the rolled up sleeping bag from inside the coffee table ottoman and carried Eliseo back to his bedroom. Six months ago, it had been the master bedroom, which he always gave to Eliseo when he visited on weekends. Now Miguel had retreated to sleeping in the living room full time until he could find and afford a place with two bedrooms.

His neck and back hoped he could find a place far sooner than later.

Miguel set Eliseo on his bed and unrolled the sleeping bag on the floor. “All right, mijo. Do you need anything before we get tucked back in?”

Eliseo shook his head. “Mm-mm. Feel safe now.”

Miguel smiled. “I’m glad to hear that, bud. I’ll always keep you safe.”

“I know, Daddy. You put away the bad guys.”

“I do. Always will. Especially if they’re after you.” Miguel kissed the boy’s head and tucked him back into bed. “I love you, mijo.”

“Love you, Daddy.”

Miguel smoothed a hand over the boy’s dark hair. Eliseo was one of the only good things that had come of his marriage, and it killed him inside that he was unable to take away his bad dreams. He’d move mountains for the boy if he had to, but he couldn’t stop the nightmares. It was a kind of hell all on its own.

He laid down in his sleeping bag and closed his eyes, but sleep never came. Unfortunately, that was usually the case after one of Eliseo’s nightmares. No three-year-old deserved to be haunted by images of some ‘Father Whipper’ murdering and butchering him and his friends. The very idea that his son had seen something so horrific in his sleep made Miguel’s stomach twist and flip a million different ways.

But there was simply nothing he could do about it.


According to Miguel’s watch, it was just after six when his phone rang. With a groan, he rolled onto his stomach and crawled out of the sleeping bag. In an awkwardly light jog, he made his way to the living room. He grabbed his phone, accepted the call, and pressed it to his ear. “Pareja.”

“Hey, Miguel. Was worried you weren’t gonna answer.”

“Yeah, sorry. I was halfway across the house.” Miguel cleared his throat. “What’ve you got?”

“You’re our last detective on call today. Already tried everyone else.”

“No answer?”

“No, I… I got an answer. Just, uh… No one’s been able to handle the scene just yet.”

Miguel scrubbed his free hand over his face. “What kinda scene are we looking at?”

“A dead three-year-old. Looks like he’s been butchered. It’s a tough fuckin’ scene, Miguel. I understand if you don’t wanna do it either.”

Miguel’s heart skipped a beat. “I, umm… Let me call my babysitter and grab a shower. Text me the address.”

“Will do, Miguel. Good luck.”

Miguel ended the call, free hand covering his mouth. A three-year-old dead and butchered. It was just a coincidence. It had to be.

A/N: I still need to come up with a description for this one, so the ‘back to book details’ currently doesn’t have a link, but I’ll get to it as soon as I can!

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Hashtags & Homicide – Chapter Three


At his parents’ house, Theodore leaned back against the refrigerator, one hand wrapped loosely around his cane. His mother was still in the process of making food, and though she wouldn’t let him help, he still liked being in the kitchen. The warmth the oven put out always felt good on his hip, if nothing else.

His best friend, Gina, was in the living room with her son and Vera. Though she had already seen the fish tank and the fish inside, she had refused to tell him anything about it. As it stood, Theodore was choosing to hold that against her until she caved and spoiled the surprise.

Tragically, he had a feeling she wouldn’t.

“I heard you and Gina talking about a fish tank?” his mother, Bonnie, asked.

“Yeah. Russell, umm… For Christmas, Russell bought me a fish tank and some fish. Gina helped him move it into the house, so she’s seen it and everything in it, but I haven’t yet.”

“That’s… very sweet of him. You told him about the old one?”

“No. Vera did, and then he eventually asked me about it. I told him about some of the fish I used to have, showed him some pictures. I guess he was planning this that whole entire time.” Theodore smiled, shaking his head. “He’s really in this for the long haul, Mom.”

“I’m glad, baby. You deserve a good man who’s in for the long haul.” After wiping her hand on the towel draped over her shoulder, she reached out to touch his cheek. “I’m so glad to see you happy, Theo.”

“I’m glad to be happy. I-I’m still nervous about a lot of things, and Russell says I probably will be for a long time, but I didn’t think I’d ever get to actually be happy again. But… thanks to Russell and Vera, I do get to be happy again.” Theodore shook his head. “I still can’t believe it. Feels like some sort of dream sometimes.”

“I can only imagine, sweetheart. I wish so badly that I could take away everything that man did to you, but I don’t envy the hand you were dealt.”

Theodore nodded. “Yeah. I don’t want to credit anything to Shane, but at least I finally learned that not all people are good, that it’s… naive to think everyone has some sense of genuine goodness in them. Might’ve had to wait for someone even worse if I hadn’t met Shane first instead.”

Rather than telling him it was stupid to feel that way or that he shouldn’t think of that way, she gave his hand a tight squeeze. That, Theodore appreciated. Being able to share how he really felt without being told it was the wrong way to feel about the thing that happened to him drove him up the damn wall.

If nothing else, his first Christmas with his parents in years was off to a good start. His first Christmas without Shane made it even better.


After lunch, Theodore helped his mom separate leftovers between containers for Gina, Theodore, and his parents. “I’m really glad you and Vera came out here for today, Teedie.”

He turned to look at her, but her back was to him. “I’m glad we came over too. It was nice.” Theodore cleared his throat. “Everything’s still a bit… weird for me, but I really do want you two in my life. You and Dad, I mean. I want you both in Vera’s life, too. I hate that Shane made sure… you guys weren’t really involved much, but I wanna do as much as I can to fix that, even if it’s a little weird for now.”

“Your dad and I want to fix it, too. So if there’s anything we can do to help things be less weird, let us know.” Finally, she turned to face him. “Okay?”

Theodore smiled. “Okay, Mom. If I think of anything, I’ll be sure to let you know.”

Bonnie smiled back at him. “Good. Great.” She slid a small stack of Tupperware over to him. “When Russell gets here, you let him know to get his butt in her for a slice of pie and to carry those out for you.”

“I can do it, Mom.”

“I know you can, but he’s less likely to drop all the lovely food I just separated out for you.”

Theodore snorted. “Well… True.”

“Daddy!” Vera shouted as someone knocked on the door. “Daddy, it’s Russell’s car!”

“You can let him in, baby.”

It wasn’t long before Vera hurried into the kitchen, tugging Russell behind her. Dressed in a pair of dark dress pants and a nice sweater, Russell looked much different than he did in the other two main outfits Theodore had seen him in–his suits for work and his go-to hoodie and sweatpants for every other time of day. In his suits, he looked confident. In his New York Law hoodie and RPD sweats, he looked comfy. In his sweater, he looked like the family man Theodore had always craved.

He looked absolutely gorgeous.

“Russell, it’s good to see you again.”

Russell flashed that megawatt smile, the charming one Theodore had seen him use on cashiers the few times they had bought groceries together. “Good to see you too, Bonnie.”

Bonnie grabbed a small plate and held it out to Russell. “Saved you a slice of pie. Theo wasn’t sure what you liked, so I went with cherry.”

“Ah, cherry’s great. Thank you.”

“You’re very welcome.” Bonnie held her hand out to Vera. “Come on, sweetheart. Let’s go say bye to Gina and Boyd.” Once the pair walked out of the kitchen, Russell leaned back against the refrigerator and stuck a forkful of pie into his mouth. He closed his eyes for only a moment, a little smile tugging at either corner of his mouth.

“You don’t have pie often, huh?”

“For holidays? God, no. Not since Mom stopped being able to host them. My sister doesn’t do much baking or cooking either. If we have pie for a holiday, it’s one of those little box ones from, like, McDonald’s.”

Theodore’s brow furrowed, but he hoped Russell hadn’t caught sight of it. Maybe he should have sucked it up and invited Russell over for lunch anyway. “What about food?”

Russell shrugged. “Depends. Chicken nuggets and macaroni today.”

“When was the last time you had… a Christmas meal?”

“What’s your definition of ‘Christmas meal’?”

“Something that takes more than twenty minutes to make for the entire meal.”

Russell stuck another bite of pie into his mouth, chewing as his eyes drifted up to the ceiling. “I dunno. Mom didn’t do the big family shit after she managed to get us all away from my father. Most of our ‘family’ was on Dad’s side, since he made sure to cut her off from her side of the family. You know how people are. They don’t understand how hard it is to get out of an abusive relationship. So when she finally did, it was too late, as far as they were concerned. Still hasn’t managed to patch things up with most of ‘em, last I knew. So… over a decade, I guess. Probably over two.”

“I-I’m gonna make you a belated Christmas supper as soon as my hip’s better.”

Russell smiled. “You don’t have to do that, Teddy. I’m still with my family, even if it’s… at different times of day and in different buildings. That’s all that matters to me.”

“I’d still like to give you an Eckart Christmas when I can. Maybe you could even help, and we could do it sooner?”

“I think I’d be more in the way than helpful for any big meals.”

“Maybe, but I’d rather you be in the way with a spoon in your hand than never there at all.”

One corner of Russell’s mouth lifted. “Me too. When do you wanna do our Eckart Christmas supper?”

“We could do it for… Valentine’s Day? We could spend the whole day cooking and baking together, and for supper, we have everything we made together. You, me… some candles?” Theodore asked.

“I do like the idea of not having to go out to some fancy restaurant and pretending that’s the only way to show someone you care about ‘em.” Russell cut off another little piece of pie. “I’d like that. You, me, and an Eckart Christmas supper for Valentine’s Day.”

Theodore smiled. “Aw-awesome. We’ll plan for that, then.”

“Awesome.” Russell forked the last bite of pie into his mouth and set the plate on the counter. “Those Tupperware for your house?”


“Sweet. I’ll carry ‘em out to the car. You go ahead and say goodbye to everyone. Take your time. I’ve got time.” Russell pushed away from the refrigerator and curled two fingers beneath Theodore’s chin, tilting his head back. “Merry Christmas, Teddy.”

Theodore smiled, heat rising to his cheeks. “Merry Christmas, Russell.”

Russell kissed him, soft and sweet. “I don’t wanna intrude, so I’ll be in the car. You and Vera come out when you’re ready, no matter how long that is from now. Then we’ll get you home and see some fish, yeah?”

“I like the sound of that.” Theodore smoothed a hand over the front of Russell’s sweater. “Thank you for being so… understanding with the distance and all of that. W-with my family, I mean.”

“No problem, Theo. When you’re comfortable with me joining in on family holidays, I’ll be here, but I’m perfectly fine waiting until you’re comfortable with it, no matter how long it takes.”

Warmth flooded Theodore’s face again. He couldn’t help it. Russell made him blush more than anyone he’d ever met. He leaned up and kissed the detective. “Vera and I will meet you in the car in a few.”

Russell flashed that soft, charming smile of his. “Sounds like a plan, Teddy.”

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Hashtags & Homicide – Chapter Two


After Theodore and Vera left, Russell had gone home and gotten Theodore’s new aquatic friends ready for transport. Now, with the tank set up in Theodore’s bedroom, Russell and Gina–Theodore’s best friend–worked to move the fish back into their tank.

“This is so damn nice of you, Russell. He loved the hell out of those fish before that fucker killed ‘em all,” Gina said.

“I know he did.” Russell gestured to the goldfish in the fishbowl on the computer desk, the one and only fish Theodore had gotten since leaving his ex-husband. “He loves that goldfish, talks to him every morning while he feeds him. I did my best to get him some of the fish he used to have based on the pictures, but there were some damn expensive ones in that old tank.”

“Yeah, Theo went out of his way to get some of those pricey ones. One of them was a gift from a kid we went to high school with. Rich kid who was a little bit in love with Theo. Shane fuckin’ hated that, even though it was before they started dating. He wanted that fish dead from the start. He just used their fight as a reason to finally take a fucking baseball bat to the tank,” Gina said through her teeth. She shook her head. “Sorry. I-I get… a little heated.”

“I don’t blame you. This fire burns inside me every time he says Shane’s name, every time he flinches, every time…” Russell cleared his throat. “I do everything I can not to let it show in my responses to him. I don’t want him to think I’m angry at him.”

“I do the same.”

Russell offered a smile. “Maybe we can blow up at each other on occasion, then.”

Gina laughed. “Yeah, maybe.” She lowered the last fish into the water before pouring in the rest of the water from its bag. “So… they’ll be okay?”

“According to the internet, yeah. The water in each of their bags was from the tank they’ve been assimilating to at my house.” Russell squatted down just enough to look into the tank at eye-level. “I think they’ll be okay. I did everything the fish blogs told me to.”

“You read fish blogs?”

“ ‘Course.”

“There are fish blogs?”

“There are blogs for anything people love. Mm, and anything they hate.” Russell smiled at her. “I just wanted his fish to be okay. He deserves something to go right. A whole bunch of fish are…” He shrugged. “Well, I think it’s Theo’s definition of ‘right’.”

“Yeah, probably. He does love the slimy little buggers.” Gina pushed away from the fish tank, turning to where her son sat on the bed. Despite the fact that Russell knew the boy and Vera were biological siblings, their similarities surprised him every single time he saw the kid. They both had Theodore’s nose and Gina’s eyes, though Vera’s were closer to green and Boyd’s were closer to brown. They both had Theodore’s freckles, though they were heavier on Vera’s cheeks than Boyd’s.

“You ready to head to Christmas at Grandpa’s, buddy?” Gina asked.

“Yep!” Boyd grabbed Gina’s outstretched hand and jumped off the bed.

Gina looked back at Russell. “Come on. Grab anything you need so I can lock up again.”

“Sure thing, Gina.”


After handing over his cell phone and any other personal effects that the staff deemed ‘dangerous’, Russell walked into the visitation room. As he usually did, his brother sat by the window in his wheelchair, hands folded in his lap. Russell crossed the room and laid his hand on the man’s shoulder.

He lifted his head, a smile spreading across his face. “Hey, baby brother.” He squeezed Russell’s hand. “Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas,” Russell echoed. He sat down on the edge of the couch, clearing his throat. “How’re you doing, Grant?”

“I’m good. I-I feel good. I’m in a bit of expected pain, but I’m sober again. That’s about all I want anymore, Russ.”

“Yeah.” Russell squeezed his brother’s hand. “Are they working on your walking?”

“Little bit. We’re, umm, working on figuring out ways for me to push through the pain in order to take more than a couple steps with the walker. I’m in less pain in the chair. I might…” Grant shrugged. “Being in a wheelchair isn’t the worst thing in the world, y’know? I could’ve died instead. I’ve still got my life. I’ve still got my health. Most of it.” Lightly, he smacked Russell’s leg. “How’s that boyfriend of yours?”

“He’s good.”


Russell nodded, unable to stop himself from smiling. “Yeah, he’s good. We had breakfast and opened presents with his daughter today before they headed to his parents’ place.”

“Did you move those fish into his place?”

“I did.”

“Has he seen ‘em yet?”

“Not yet. He’ll see ‘em tonight, though. I’m hoping to be there when he sees them, but I guess we’ll, uh, see.”

Grant chuckled. “I’m glad you found this guy, Russ. You’re a lot happier since you started seeing him. A-and I was worried about you for quite some time. Seeing you happy is a damn good thing.”

“Thanks, Grant. I, uh, I like seeing me happy, too.” Russell raised an eyebrow. “What about you? Got eyes for any lucky ladies?”

His older brother snorted. “Ah, in this rehab facility filled with drug abusers? Yeah, my mind’s reeling with the possibilities.”

“To their credit, you’re also a drug abuser.”

Yeah, which is why I know I don’t wanna date one.”

Russell chuckled. “You’re a dumbass.”

“Whatever. You love me.”

“Yeah, but I’m ashamed of it every single day.”

Grant laughed, turning back toward the window as he raked a hand through his dark hair. “Thanks for visiting, Russ. You’re the only person from outside of here I get to see anymore.”

“No problem, Grant. Hell, I don’t know what I’d do without you in my life, anyway. If I never visited, you wouldn’t be in it.”

“Yeah, I know, but… still. Sis swears up and down that she loves me, but I never see her. Haven’t seen her since I came back to this place,” Grant said.

“She does love you. She does. She’s just a little scared of being around a bunch of drug addicts, no matter how long they’ve been sober.” Russell circled a hand in the air. “This runs in our veins, Grant. Depression, suicidal tendencies, substance abuse… It courses through every single ounce of our blood. She’s scared of this influencing her to be… to be like our father or Mom o-or you. Fuck, even like me. Unlike us, she’s got a little girl to take care of. She says she can’t risk it. But she does love you.”

After a long moment, Grant nodded. “I believe you, mostly. Just have a hard time fully wrapping my head around it, y’know?”

“I do. I understand. She’s your sister, so it feels rude, intentional. It feels like betrayal.”

“That about sums it up,” Grant agreed, his voice quiet. He looked back at Russell. “Since your boyfriend’s got a kid to worry about and he’s letting you hang around her, I’m assuming he doesn’t know you used to shoot up, huh?”

Russell cleared his throat. “He knows… I was in a bad place, and he knows I have a problem controlling my alcohol intake, especially on bad days.”

“What part of ‘bad place’ does he know about?”

“I watched those people murder children, Grant. That’s what he knows about. He knows about the alcohol and therapy, too.”

“Just not the heroin, huh?”

Russell closed his eyes for a moment. “Can we please just talk about something else? Christmas or… something?”

“Sorry, Russ. I don’t get much gossip in here. Christ, I don’t get much of anything in here. I barely know how to speak to another human being without it being a therapy session, either for my legs and back or my head,” Grant said.

“I know. Think you’re gonna leave anytime soon?”

Grant lifted his shoulders. “I don’t know. The last time I was outta here, I eventually fell back in. I don’t think I have enough knowledge on how to balance my pain yet to stay sober again without their help.” His brow furrowed. “I’ve still got enough money to keep covering this place, right?”

“Yeah, yeah. You’re good, man, promise. I just miss having you around,” Russell said.

“Yeah. I miss a lot of, uh, well, everything. Late night gaming with you, owning the hell out of a courtroom, going on early morning runs, choosing my own meals.” Grant shook his head. “As soon as I think I can, I’ll come back home. I just wanna make sure I’m equipped to handle it this time. I don’t wanna end up in here again. Next time I’m out, I want it to stay that way. I need it to stay that way. I can’t keep living back and forth between sober, fucking up, and this.”

“Well, you take all the time you need, okay? I want you to have the tools you need to survive outside of this place again, and I don’t wanna rush you in your journey to find them. I’ll still be here when you get out, and I’ll visit as often as I can in the meantime.”

“Thanks, baby brother.” Grant smiled, reaching out to squeeze Russell’s hand. “Don’t know what the fuck I’d do without you.”

“Guess we’re even, then, ‘cause I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

Rather than responding, Grant squeezed his hand again. Russell knew it spoke much more than words ever could, anyway.


For the second time that day, Russell had handed over all of his personal effects and been patted down before being allowed to sign in. He followed one of the staff members down the quiet hall, stopping at his mother’s door. “You can head on in whenever you’re ready, Mister Steele.”

“Thank you.” Russell waited until the woman had started back toward the lobby before he knocked on the door.

“Come in.”

Russell opened the door, a smile on his face. “Hey, Mom.”

His mother lifted her head, a smile coming to his face. “Oh, my baby boy.” She pushed herself off her bed and held out her arms. “Come here, sweetheart.”

Russell’s shoulders relaxed as he crossed the room and wrapped her in a hug. They had switched her medication again several months ago, after she had lashed out at Russell during their last visit. The new meds must’ve done her some good. “How’re you doin’, Ma?”

“I’m good.” She pulled away, hands moving to his face. “How’re you doing?”

“I’m okay, Ma.”

“Good,” she whispered. “I’m so sorry about last time, Sully. I said some very nasty things to you, and I am so sorry.”

“Thanks, Ma. But I get it. Those last meds weren’t working for you anymore. It happens.” Russell smiled. “The apology means a lot, though, really.”

She smiled before hugging him again. Russell closed his eyes, wrapping his mother in a hug once more. It was certainly an improvement from last time. Two hugs in one day was a hell of a lot more than he expected, that was for sure, and he planned to treasure every damn second of it.

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S. Carved – Chapter Sixteen


Chapter Sixteen

Monday: February 11, 2008

Dallas awoke in the living room, his good arm hanging over the side of the rocking chair. Clearing his throat, he lifted his hand to rub at his eyes. Time?

Little after four, Ed said.

Why’d you wake me up?

I didn’t. This one’s all you. Sometimes normal people wake up at random times all by themselves. Welcome to the experience.

Dallas rolled his eyes. He wasn’t ever in the mood for Ed’s bullshit, but he was even less so at four in the damn morning.

He looked over to Bo, who was thankfully asleep and alive on the couch, the rise and fall of his chest and shoulders far more noticeable without a blanket pulled up to his chin. I was exhausted tonight. You could’ve taken over without trouble.

I know.

Dallas closed his eyes for a moment. Thank you for… not taking over. Thank you for just letting me sleep.

Ed chuckled softly. Aww, you’re very welcome, Tex.

Dallas pushed himself to his feet and flipped off the light on the end table. Grabbing his phone, he made his way back to his room. Just in case Ed had taken control, Dallas opened the door to Xavier’s room and peeked inside. Since Xavier slept in only a pair of boxer briefs with the blanket pulled up to just past his mid-thigh, checking his breathing from the doorway was easy. His shoulders and upper back moved with every inhale and exhale. He was alive. He was okay. Ed hadn’t taken control and hurt him, either.

Letting out a slow breath, Dallas closed the door again. He needed to get his sleep under control, though it was far from easy with Ed at the wheel of dreamland. Often riddled with violent nightmares–some of Dallas killing people, some of his father killing him–sleep was generally hard to come by and hard to stay in.

Tex, we’re still taking Spencer’s life today, yes?

Dallas closed his eyes, forcing them open as he walked into his room. “Yes,” he whispered. “But I have to get through an entire workday first, and the less you screw around with my head, the less time I’ll have to spend at the end of the day trying to catch up on what I missed. You got me?”

Mmhmm. But we both know you wouldn’t punish me by not nabbing Spencer. The man’s a danger to those poor, innocent civilians, and you surely couldn’t risk having their blood on your hands, right?

Dallas rolled his eyes. Unfortunately, Ed was right, and even worse, the bastard was absolutely certain of it. “Punishment or otherwise, I won’t have the strength or energy to ‘nab’ Spencer if you don’t just let me get through today. Let me sleep, and let me work the damn case. Afterward, we’ll grab him, and we’ll take care of it. Please.”

Ed inhaled sharply. Oh, I don’t know, Tex. Sounds like a lot of work on my part.

Dallas sat down at the foot of his bed and scrubbed his hands over his face. “It’s a lot of work to just shut the hell up for, like, ten hours?”

Ed laughed. Incredibly difficult, yeah.

With a sigh, Dallas lay back, arms stretched out to either side. “You make me consider some very dark options, Ed.”

Oh, please, like I’d let you off yourself. Do you know how easy you’d be to take control of if you were bleeding out? Suffocating? Drowning? I’d take control, save your life, and then STAY in control. Surely you wouldn’t want that.

Dallas crossed his arms over his chest and rolled onto his side. “I hate your fucking guts, Ed.”

Ed chuckled. Welcome to the club, Tex.


Dallas woke up far more tired than usual. He’d managed less than an hour of sleep after he’d gone back to his room. Ed had been about as helpful as he’d promised to be. Dallas wasn’t exactly surprised, but he was pissed off. Most days, thanks to Ed, ‘pissed off’ was nothing but his usual state of being.

With a sigh, he hauled his ass out of bed, despite how desperately he wished to stay beneath the covers forever. After a shower and a quick change from pajamas to a suit, he felt almost alive enough to go to work and face the world. If nothing else, he considered himself lucky his only ‘partner’ at the station was Bo. From his experience with cops, he’d be asked a million questions the moment he sat down from a homicide partner.

Why was he so tired? Did he get much sleep? Why didn’t he get enough sleep? Was something going on?

Bo, on the other hand, wasn’t much of an asker. He wasn’t much of an answerer, either. Questioning and answering on a personal, human-to-human level pushed the boundaries of what he was comfortable with to maintain a relatively low profile.

Today, Dallas planned to use that to his advantage and simply be thankful for it.

By the time he made it out to the kitchen, Bo was already pouring coffee into his own little travel mug. “I made it just the way you like it. Strong roast and disgusting.”

Dallas snorted. Bo’s willingness to take a jab at his distaste of sugar, creamer, or milk in his coffee was a damn good sign. It was human, normal, friendly. Bo was coming out of his protective shell more and more. “Thank you.”

Bo nodded rather than responding.

Ed, however, chuckled. There’s always a chance he knows what you are, Tex. Maybe he simply hopes you slip up enough to let him catch you.

Analysts don’t really doing the ‘catching’, dumbass. And if he is befriending me in hopes I tell him everything? I say let him.

Ed grunted.

Christ, Dallas couldn’t believe that had worked. All this time, and all it took to silence Ed was one more reminder that he’d rather be in prison than let Ed continue to control his life? Continue to soak his hands in the blood of others? The more often that reminder tactic worked, the better. Even a few minutes away from an Ed were a blessing, and when he had to go to work, those few minutes were even better.

“What’s the game plan today, Bo?” Dallas asked, grabbing the coffee pot as soon as the blonde held it out to him.

“I’m not sure there is a game plan, per say. But I suppose starting with speaking to the victim’s friends wouldn’t be a terrible way to go about it.”

“Solid plan. You comin’ with me?”

“ ‘Course he is. Going with you is one of his duties as your assigned babysitter.”

“First of all, that’s rude,” Dallas said, pointing back at his brother. Xavier only smiled.

“He technically isn’t wrong. I am your assigned babysitter.”

“I would much rather you be called ‘partner’.”

“He has way more experience than you do,” Xavier said.

“He absolutely does not.”

“I… absolutely just might, Dallas,” Bo said. He smiled. “But I suppose I’ll tolerate the rookie calling me partner. It’s less embarrassing than ‘babysitter’ if a witness were to ask.”

Dallas scoffed as Xavier held up a hand for a high five. Truthfully, it was hard to pretend to be offended by the comment. His baby brother and his new friend—

Shield. Innocent, non-murderous shield.

friend were joking and having fun. Christ, they were high fiving each other. How could that not be the biggest improvement he’d ever seen in either of them? “You,” Dallas said, turning back to Xavier. “Go get dressed so we can have breakfast and get your ass to school.”

“Aye aye.” Xavier pushed himself away from the island and, in an odd stage whisper, added, “He’s such a grump in the morning.”

“Pfft, you’re a grump.”

I am actually quite pleasant,” Xavier assured. He saluted his brother before turning around and heading back to his room.

Bo leaned back against the counter, lightly drumming his fingers against the side of his coffee cup. “My friends, Bridgette and Keon, they’ve made me feel like it’s possible for people to care about me without an ulterior motive.”

Dallas waited a moment, scared that a response would silence the blonde. “Yeah?”

He nodded. “It’s still hard to wrap my head around much of the time, but I am aware that people can care for me. I know it’s possible. But your brother makes me feel like… I finally fit in. It feels like asking for trouble to say that aloud, but… I imagine that was why you wanted me to meet your brother, so… congratulations. Your prediction was correct.”

“Partly for you, partly for him,” Dallas said after a moment. “I’m glad you feel like it’s possible for you to fit in somewhere, Bo. Everyone deserves that feeling.”

“Have you ever felt that way?”

Dallas nearly choked. “Of course. Why wouldn’t I?”

Slowly, Bo cocked his head to the side. “Because… you were abused? Surely I am not the only one scarred by such an event.”

Dallas let out a nearly nervous chuckle. “Yeah, yeah, of course. I struggled with it from time to time for a while. I still do on occasion.”

Ed laughed. God, Tex, so jumpy, so on guard. If you aren’t careful, he’s gonna figure out what you are.

Dallas touched a hand to his ear, wishing like hell that that booming laugh didn’t rattle every damn nerve in his body. “Sorry, man. My brain hasn’t really woken up just yet.”

Bo nodded, looking back down at his coffee. “Sometimes I wonder what that must feel like. Having to be awake for X hours or Z minutes before your brain seems to function at its full capacity. Mine never shuts off. It never… stops.”

“That must be nice sometimes. Waking up at three for a crime scene and being on your game right away.”

“I suppose, though it’s far less helpful when the detective at three AM hasn’t fully woken up yet and you still have to attempt to help him understand the crime scene without ‘dumbing it down’ so far that it suddenly becomes condescending.” Bo offered a smile. “I hate it.”

“Being able to identify that you hate it could be considered a good thing. Not because it’s how you’ve been made to feel, but because it means you’re more than capable of recognizing your own feelings and emotions.”

“I suppose,” Bo repeated. He cleared his throat. “Do you need help with breakfast?”

Ah, there was the topic change. “No, I’m good.”

“Okay. I… will be in the living room until you’re ready to head out.”

“Sure thing, Bo.”

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