Let Me In
The smooth plastic of the Up button on the lobby elevator at Headquarters lit beneath Scotty's fingertip the next morning. While the aging lift lurched its way down, he fished his phone from his pocket and scrolled mindlessly through the sports headlines, sipping from a cardboard cup of coffee and waiting for the dull throbbing in his head to cease and desist. That headache was the first thing he'd been aware of upon awakening, no doubt the result of a bit of overindulgence last night when he got home from Jones's.
Rapid-fire footsteps, in perfect time with the pulsating pain, approached from the right; he knew without even turning around whose they were. Sure enough, Lilly soon appeared next to him, her blonde ponytail looking a bit less polished than usual. She was late, too; by her standards, at least.
It wouldn't take a detective to figure out why.
"Morning, Scotty." Her expression was gracious, but guarded.
"Hey," he replied, but she'd already turned her attention back to the phone in her left hand and the Starbucks cup in her right. A private smile played on her lips, one that suggested her brief foray into the universe Scotty inhabited had come to an abrupt end.
It never used to be like this. They'd been partners, friends—though even that word seemed too shallow for a connection that ran soul-deep—for six years now, and though she kept most everyone at arm's length, he'd somehow managed to get closer to her than anyone else. Even during her previous relationships, that closeness hadn't changed. They'd still talked, laughed, and joked just as before. Still had entire conversations in a single glance. Sometimes, they hadn't needed to talk at all.
But since Saccardo crashed into their lives, with his flannel shirts and his appletinis, those cozy silences now had frost lacing their edges. Lilly was friendly enough, but it was clear that her inner circle had room for only one, and Scotty was no longer that one.
Maybe that was why he couldn't stand the guy.
The elevator dinged and they stepped in, Lilly to the right and Scotty to the left. A handful of others filtered in between them, knocking away a few strands of tension. Taking another sip of coffee, Scotty nodded his greeting to a couple Major Crimes detectives he recognized, then turned his attention back to the sports headlines on his phone.
When they reached the Homicide office, their co-workers in the cold case unit were already stationed at their desks.
"Well, well." Donut in hand, per usual, Vera greeted Lilly with a jovially leering smile. "Looks like someone got a little…undercover action last night."
Scotty's back teeth clacked together; a small fire ignited behind his breastbone.
Lilly glanced up from where she was calmly sliding her laptop from her shoulder bag. "A lady doesn't kiss and tell, Nick."
Vera shrugged. "Maybe not. But you're, uh…you're missin' an earring." The twinkle in his eyes suggested he had his own theories as to how Lilly had lost it, and where.
"I am?" Lilly's fingers flew to her earlobes. Scotty's gaze quickly followed. Sure enough, her right ear was bereft of the twin to the small gold knot in her left. "Oh, it, uh…it must've fallen out on the way to work."
"Sure it did." Vera smirked, then took another bite of donut, the suspicion Scotty had seen written on his colleague's face confirmed by the two spots of color high on Lilly's cheekbones.
Fortunately, Stillman chose that moment to emerge from his office, his blue eyes sharp and businesslike behind wire-rimmed spectacles, a small sheet of paper in his right hand.
"Morning, everyone," the lieutenant said. "Just got off the phone with CSU."
"They got somethin' for us, Boss?" Lilly asked, strategically arranging a couple wisps of hair to cover her naked earlobe.
"Narcotics tossed a crack house in Kensington last night; one of their guys found something. Didn't say what, exactly, just that they thought it could be of interest to us." He handed the slip of paper to Lilly. "They asked specifically for you."
Lilly gave the note a cursory glance and shrugged."I'll go check it out."
"Take Scotty with you," Stillman instructed. "See if this amounts to anything."
"Sure thing, Boss." Folding the note in half, she stuffed it into the pocket of her blazer.
With a satisfied nod, Stillman started to turn back toward the office, then stopped. "Oh, and remember, the Policeman's Gala is Saturday night."
"Blue Ball," Vera corrected around an obviously fake cough, drawing grins from the other detectives.
The lieutenant fixed them with his stoniest stare, though Scotty could tell he, too, was fighting a smile. "Don't let the commissioner hear you call it that. It's our biggest fundraiser of the year."
"Policeman's Gala," Kat scoffed. "That's just sexist."
"Yeah, Blue Ball is much classier," Jeffries retorted with a smile.
"Well, whatever you want to call it, attendance, and therefore donations, have been down the last couple of years." Stillman eyed them over the rims of his glasses. "So Commissioner Ryan wanted me to make it crystal-clear to all of you that if you're not on duty Saturday night, you're expected to attend."
Scotty stifled a sigh. It had become his tradition every November to don a tux and spend the evening in a stuffy hotel ballroom sucking down drinks and sucking up to the bored rich housewives from Chestnut Hill. He didn't particularly enjoy it, but he was good at it, and, truth be told, he was also usually on thin enough ice with his superiors that putting in an appearance at the Blue Ball was a smart political move. This year, though, he hadn't pulled anything that'd get him in hot water, so he'd thought maybe he could get away with skipping.
"That means you, too, Nicky. Will." The boss's steely gaze landed first on Vera, then Jeffries, both of whom were famous for their staunch avoidance of the yearly bash.
"Gotta love corporate optional," Jeffries muttered.
Vera wadded up the napkin that had contained his donut. "If they think havin' more cops there's gonna fix the donation problems, they're barkin' up the wrong tree."
"Yeah, no joke." Kat reached for her coffee mug. "They know what we get paid."
The boss held up a hand. "Look, I'm not any more excited about it than any of you are. But if I have to be there, then so do you."
"Guess we gotta just…find a way to be on duty Saturday night, then," Jeffries said with a sly smile.
"Maybe we'll luck into a triple." Vera pinged the crumpled napkin into a nearby trash can.
"Oh, c'mon," Lilly protested. "It might be fun."
Wait a minute. She thought Blue Ball would be fun? She, who put in only the most cursory appearances on those rare occasions when she bothered to show up at all? Who was she, and what had she done with Lilly Rush?
"Hmmm." Kat arched a brow in Lilly's direction. "Spoken like someone who's got herself a date."
Oh. That'd explain it.
Lilly flashed a cryptic smile and reached for her coffee cup. "Maybe."
Scotty's desire to attend, which had been hovering around zero, plummeted to well below that number.
Vera turned toward Kat, looking suddenly interested. "Take it this means you're goin' stag."
"Just don't tell my mom," Kat replied with a slight roll of her eyes. "Only thing that'd make this less fun is havin' to bring that guy from church she keeps tryin' to set me up with."
"Yeah, no joke," Vera agreed. "I ain't gonna waste a decent chick on this."
"Amen, brother." Ignoring the scathing glare Kat was shooting them, Scotty extended a fist, which Vera bumped.
"Well, now, I didn't mean for excitement over the Blue Ball to take over our morning," Stillman admonished with a slight grin.
"He's right." Lilly pushed back her chair and looked toward Scotty. "Ready?"
"One sec." Sliding open a desk drawer, Scotty rummaged around for the bottle of aspirin he kept buried in there somewhere. Fishing it out, he tossed a couple pills down his throat and washed them down with the lukewarm remnants of his coffee.
A frosty car ride with Lil sure wasn't going to help his headache.
He could only hope the aspirin would.
It was a long, cool car ride to Kensington, despite the warm air blowing in from vents Scotty had turned mostly in Lilly's direction. That was his custom when the weather turned cold, just as she returned the favor in warmer temperatures. It was just one of the little unspoken kindnesses they shared, one of the thousand little mini-rituals that made up their day.
It was things like this that kept Lilly's anxiety mostly pushed to the edges. Scotty was still there, as always, but there was a disapproving chill from him that even the heater in the Taurus couldn't dispel. She suspected it had something to do with Saccardo, though she couldn't fathom why, and she wasn't about to ask him. Their conversations encompassed a wide variety of topics, but not their respective love lives. She had no interest in hearing about the litany of leggy, curvy brunettes her partner was undoubtedly bedding, and before a couple months ago, she wouldn't have had anything to talk about, anyway.
But whether or not she'd sussed out the reason for it, there was no denying the prickly distance Scotty had suddenly put between them. And though Lilly was loath to admit it, some of those prickles were long enough, and sharp enough, to penetrate the thick walls she'd built around her heart. Deep enough at times to hurt.
Less than two years ago, they'd filled the miles between Philly and Nashville with laughter and pleasant conversation. But now, laughter was scarce, and conversation had become strained and difficult. This morning, it seemed Scotty hadn't even wanted to make the attempt. Before they left the parking garage, he'd turned the radio to the classic rock station and filled the awkward silence with zippy commercials and overly perky deejay banter, followed, as always, by "Hotel California."
The buzz of Lilly's phone in her pocket punctuated the canned, slightly mildewed tune, and she retrieved it quickly, expecting some update from Stillman or whoever was on the scene in Kensington. Instead, it was from Saccardo. A photo of a large, ancient-looking canvas bag of rice filled the screen, along with an accompanying message.
Think this'll go with that gunny sack of yours?
Simple as it was, that text was a ray of pure sunshine, piercing the morning's clouds.
"That from Saccardo?"
Her partner's voice doused the warmth with icy water, and she glanced up, surprised. She'd never heard Saccardo's name from Scotty's lips before; if he ever dared broach the subject, Lilly had always imagined it would be Harry Potter style: He Who Must Not Be Named. Surprise radiated from Scotty's dark brown eyes, too; it made Lilly wonder how many other times he'd been about to ask her about her relationship and thought better of it.
Well. There was no reason to lie.
"Yeah." Lilly snapped the phone closed and held it in her hand for a moment, looking out the window, hoping something would bring the sunshine back.
"What's up with those…boots of his?"
Brows knit, Lilly turned to study her partner. "What do you mean?"
He shrugged. "Sayin'."
"He's in Narcotics." Lilly looked out the window again. "It's their thing."
Scotty gave a short, bitter laugh. "I was in Narcotics. Never wore Timberlands."
Well, maybe Eddie's too busy doing his job to read GQ cover to cover every month. That was what she wanted to say, but she knew it wasn't fair; Scotty worked as hard as the rest of them. Biting back her irritation, she flitted her eyes over her partner's face, trying to figure out what he was really saying, but he showed her his profile before she could get any kind of good look. A mask dropped over his chiseled features, hiding everything but the rhythmic twitch of his jaw and the white knobs of his knuckles on the steering wheel.
Her phone buzzed again in her hand, and she rocketed her attention to it. As she'd hoped, it was another text from Saccardo.
BTW, got a nice surprise for you!
Once again, she flipped the phone closed and turned toward the window, hoping she'd get a moment to enjoy her smile before Scotty tried to scrub it from her face.
But instead, he pulled up to the curb behind a large white CSU van and threw the car into park. "Looks like this is it."
Lilly stifled a sigh of relief and unfastened her seat belt, scanning the crowded sidewalk and dilapidated buildings and hoping that whatever CSU had rooted out in here would lead to a case. She and Scotty were both at their best when on the job, when their joint passion for justice drowned out whatever other noise was going on. A murder to investigate wouldn't completely heal the awkwardness, but it'd at least apply a thick salve over the top of it. And maybe, just maybe, they'd have something to talk about on the way back to Headquarters.
She certainly hoped so. Because if she had to hear "Hotel California" one more time, so help her, she'd put a bullet in the radio.