Scotty's fingers danced, in irritated fashion, over the keys of his laptop. Filled line after line of blank white space on the screen with the interview report he was spending the lunch hour of his second day in Northwest rewriting. After years of doing reports in first person, as was the norm in Homicide, he'd forgotten that the regional detective divisions always used third. A fact Mendoza had taken just a little too much pleasure in pointing out.
In a stomach-punch of irony, he remembered Lilly having essentially the same talk with him during his first week in Homicide, only in reverse. "It's gotta be in their words," she'd said. So, grudgingly, he'd spent his lunch hour rewriting interview reports, just as he was doing here. Six years older. Six years…wiser? Well, maybe. The jury was still out on that one.
The confession was a total duck. Couple punk kids named Kevin O'Connell and Javy Espinoza. Scotty's runaway imagination had hoped for a gang connection, maybe, or some Irish mob involvement, just to keep things interesting. But these two dumbasses were just the standard strung-out junkies needing money for their next fix. Game, set, and match. Cases like this one had been a dime a dozen in Narcotics.
A familiar voice broke through the angry clicks of the keys. "Hey, guapo."
"Yeah, yeah. Third person. I know. Workin' on it."
"Good. But I ain't here about that." Scotty glanced up to see Mendoza jerk her thumb toward the lobby. "Couple lowlifes here to see you."
"Yeah. The tall one says you'll vouch for them, and the shorter, fatter one speaks mostly in grunts."
"Okay…" Scotty paused in his typing to mentally scroll through all their open cases for any witnesses or suspects that fit her less-than-flattering description.
"Oh, and they're both wearin' cheap-ass suits," Mendoza offered, with a twinkle in her eyes. "That tells me the dress code outpaces the pay scale."
Realization dawning, Scotty broke into a grin and lowered the screen of his laptop. "Send 'em in."
Mendoza turned toward the small hallway that led to the lobbyand put her fingers in her mouth for a whistle so shrill he winced. "Oye, chicos! Come on back! El Guapo will see you now!" Chuckling at her own joke, she bustled off toward the break room.
A moment later, Jeffries and Vera appeared; their curious gazes darted around the small office Scotty now called his professional home.
"Nice place you got here," was Vera's droll assessment.
"What up, fellas?" Scotty rose from his seat to exchange a hearty handshake with Will and a fist-bump with Nick. It was almost embarrassing how glad he was to see them.
"You eat yet?" Vera asked. Without waiting for a reply, he produced from behind his back a large sack from Geno's and withdrew one of the familiar paper-wrapped sandwiches. A grinning Jeffries held up a cardboard drink holder, bowed in the middle from the weight of soda-filled plastic cups.
Scotty's stomach reminded him that no, in fact, he had not eaten. He pounced on the delicious-smelling sandwich. "You're the goods, Nicky." Motioning toward a couple empty seats from nearby desks, he lowered himself back into his own. "Those guys are out on the street. Go ahead. Pull up a chair."
Above the din of dragging chairs and unwrapping of additional sandwiches came the clearing of a throat, followed by a snippy question from Mendoza. "Geno's, huh?" she asked from behind Vera. "You bring one for me?"
Without so much as blinking, Vera dug into the bag for another sandwich, which he held over his left shoulder.
"Wow. I was kidding, but…damn, that smells good." She glanced over at Scotty with an uncharacteristically warm smile. "Your friends are good people, guapo. They can come visit anytime. Long as they bring snacks." Sandwich in hand, humming quietly to herself, she retreated through the door to the break room.
Scotty's eyes lingered on his new partner's retreating back for a moment, only because he knew when he shifted his gaze to his friends, they'd be staring at him, amusement twinkling in their eyes and tugging at their lips.
"Guapo?" Vera asked. Sure enough, Scotty had correctly predicted his expression.
"Long story." Scotty took another large bite of sandwich in hopes of warding off further questions.
But Jeffries' amusement, it seemed, was focused on Nick. "Automatic extra sandwich? Looks like someone's got you well-trained."
"Shut up," Vera groused.
Chuckling, Will reached for the cup of soda perched on the corner of Scotty's desk. "So how's life treatin' you out here?"
Scotty shrugged. "Can't complain." He really couldn't, all things considered. Steady paycheck, he was still with the department, and he didn't have to watch Eddie Saccardo cram his tongue down Lilly's throat. So, while it certainly wasn't his dream job, he could just as certainly do worse.
"Already closed my first case," he added. "Full confession. Just typin' up the report when you guys showed up."
"Awww, someone run off with the piggy bank?" Vera asked.
Scotty arched a brow. "Jewelry, actually. And the vic is none other than Gina Newman."
"Gina Newman? Really?" Vera's face lit up with perverse amusement as he started to gyrate in his chair. "Bow chick-a wow-wow…"
It was Scotty's turn to order him into silence.
"Scotty." Will's voice was rich with compassion. "Was this really what you wanted to do?"
Scotty reached for his Coke. "Took one for the team, Will. Someone had to."
"But it didn't have to be you." Jeffries sought his gaze. "I've been thinkin' about retirement, Miller had her reasons…"
"You musta had a reason, too." Vera's voice was overly casual.
Scotty bit off a reply. "I did."
Will's eyes took on a teasing gleam. "That reason…maybe have somethin' to do with an undercover Narc with a taste for barbecue and appletinis?"
Vera turned his smug grin in his partner's direction. "C'mon. Pay up."
Muttering under his breath, Will reached into his shirt pocket and extracted a couple bills, which Vera pocketed with a triumphant chortle. Scotty rolled his eyes. They had a bet riding on this. Of course.
Vera potted his pocket fondly. "Does Lil know how you feel about her?"
"Yeah." Scotty gritted his teeth against the memories of last night. Of the way he'd confessed his love. Of the ferocity of his lips on hers. "She knows."
Desperate for a distraction, Scotty turned the tables. "I figure…Miller knows how you feel about her, too?"
The look on Nick's face was priceless. Even more so when Will motioned with his fingers and the shell-shocked Vera finally reached into his pocket, retrieved his just-won cash, and slapped it in the palm of a gleefully chortling Jeffries.
"So you and Kat. How'd that happen?" Scotty asked around another mouthful of his cheesesteak.
Vera reached for a chip. "You sure you wanna know?"
He wasn't. Not really. But Scotty was genuinely happy for his friend, and genuinely in need of something to think about besides how wrong it had all gone with Lilly. If Vera and Miller could find happiness, with each other…well, then maybe there was hope for him, too. Someday.
Scotty summoned a grin. "C'mon. You and Miller? That's gotta come with a story worth hearin'."
"It's actually a lot more boring than you'd think," Vera replied. "My sister had to work late one night and needed me to pick up my niece from ballet class. Turns out it's the same one Kat's kid goes to. So we're sittin' there, all awkward, and then she makes some wise-ass comment about me in a tutu...and the next thing we know, the girls are comin' out of class, and we're nowhere near done talkin'." He grinned. "Didn't take too long after that to figure out we had somethin' goin'."
Scotty reached out and gave his friend a brotherly slap on the shoulder. "That's great, man. Happy for you."
He hadn't intended to sound wistful, but from the look on Will's face, it seemed he'd managed it anyway.
"Lil and Saccardo won't last, Scotty," Will said. "Take it from one who knows. What they got? That ain't real, man."
Scotty attempted a grin. He supposed it was a sort of comfort, knowing he most likely wouldn't be standing there in an uncomfortable church pew someday, dying inside as he watched a beaming, achingly beautiful Lilly glide down the aisle to pledge herself to Eddie Saccardo, 'til death do they part. Knowing that, eventually, Saccardo would fall by the wayside, and Lilly would be single again, and things would get back to normal.
Except they could never be normal. Not anymore. She wouldn't turn to him for comfort this time. He'd slammed that door and locked it shut. He'd left. Done the same thing to her everyone else had. He wouldn't blame her a bit if she never spoke to him again.
Leaving hurt. But staying would've hurt worse.
"Thanks," he finally said.
The crumpling of wrappers and the squawk of a straw against a nearly-empty cup filled the air as Vera and Jeffries rose from their chairs and shrugged into their coats.
"Gotta get back," Will said.
"Yeah," Vera agreed. "Much as I might wish otherwise, those damn murders aren't gonna solve themselves."
"Tell Miller I said hi," Scotty said by way of a mischievous farewell.
"Will do…guapo." Vera smirked over his shoulder as he and Will wove their way through the Northwest squad room and headed for the exit.
Goddammit. He missed them. He missed the murder cases.
He missed Lilly.
And he realized, as his suddenly stinging eyes fell on his laptop screen, that he apparently missed doing his interview reports in first person, too. Because, though he could've sworn he'd fixed his earlier mistakes, the lines that filled a page and a half were still riddled with "I" and "me," not "he" and "she."
Shaking his head, he sighed, closed the document window, and pulled up a fresh page.
He'd get this damn thing right if it killed him.
Lilly drained the last of her coffee, slid a couple bills under the saucer, and took a final glance around the art-deco all-night café in which she'd just spent the last three hours. Just sitting. Savoring a bottomless cup of coffee and a leisurely rereading of her worn, dog-eared, newly-autographed copy of Rifles and Rings. Drinking in the well-loved words with a newfound appreciation—and affection—for the man who'd penned them.
New York was the city that never slept, and right now, Lilly liked that about it. It was just past midnight, but judging from the colorful, energetic stream of humanity she melted into on the sidewalk as she slipped out into the chilly night air, it might as well be the middle of the afternoon. After the morning's conversation with Rick Rodgers, she couldn't face going home yet, so she'd cashed in some lost hours, turned her phone off, and wandered the streets for the rest of the day. Ducked into shops and cafes. Poked around to see what she might find. Watched people pass on the sidewalk and imagined their life stories. A too-rare slice of time where she didn't have to work and could just be.
Well. Be…and think. Because she sure as hell couldn't do that in Philadelphia. She'd been here all day, walking and thinking, and still the very idea of returning to her hometown filled her with a near-paralyzing anxiety. That made it clear. She couldn't go back until she'd made her choice.
She had a choice. She was still trying to wrap her mind around that fact. Still trying to let it sink in that Scotty, her loyal, steadfast partner, her friend…he loved her. Loved her like that. Her toes curled within her shoes at the memory of his lips on hers. The heat of his hands. His ragged breathing and glittering ebony eyes. His flushed cheeks and the slight tremors in his body, tremors that spoke of the effort of his restraint. The ferocity of his love for her. God. Her blood warmed, her heart raced just thinking about it.
Okay. So there was no question that she wanted him. And there was no question she had feelings for him, either. Ever since the Blue Ball, a strange tenderness toward him had taken root. A want—no, a need—to be near him as much as possible. At work, off work, it didn't matter, she just wanted to be by his side. His steady, comforting presence, his penchant for saying exactly the right thing at exactly the moment she most needed to hear it, the way her heart leaped within her when he flashed that grin…she was growing to crave those things.
And then that kiss. That raging inferno of a kiss had scorched off the locks on the deepest part of her heart, awakening even more feelings for him. Feelings so fierce, so powerful, she couldn't put them into words. Feelings that flooded her heart and pressed against its walls so hard she feared the damn thing would break wide open.
There was the rub. Her heart could break. Because Scotty Valens had the power to break it.
She knew, because he'd done it when he left.
He'd told her why. He'd finally been honest with her. And she supposed, in his mind, his decision to transfer out made perfect sense. But he, more than anyone, knew how badly it would hurt her. He knew. And yet he'd done it anyway. Despite his claim to not even be able to picture life without her. Despite his promise to always be there. He'd left, without even a backward glance.
She ached for the joy being with Scotty would doubtless bring. But she wasn't sure she could handle the pain he had the power to cause.
And then there was Eddie. Fun-loving, free-wheeling Eddie. She couldn't deny a certain fondness for him. For the way he'd swept into her life, turning her annoyance into attraction, picking up her carefully-ordered universe and shaking it, but doing it so smoothly she couldn't even complain. For the way he'd put a smile on her face at a time in her life when she wondered if she'd ever smile again.
She liked him. She really did.
But Scotty was right. Eddie Saccardo didn't make her feel like this. Any of this. His kisses didn't set her on fire. His grin didn't make her heart do flips. His wisecracks didn't bring an automatic smile. His presence in her life wasn't as essential to her as breathing.
And his absence didn't make her feel like part of her had been ripped away.
He didn't have the power to break her heart, because she'd never given it to him. She'd never told him of her deepest pain. Of her worst days. He'd never seen her near death, bleeding from a bullet in her chest. He didn't know the truth behind that slightly swollen ridge on the right side of her jaw. He hadn't come to her apartment the day her mother died, laid his hand on her shoulder, and reminded her he was there for her.
Part of this was exactly what drew her to Eddie. With him, she could be whoever she wanted to be. She didn't have to be the fucked-up wreck of a person Scotty would always know she was. Eddie would never ask the hard questions, but neither would he answer them. She didn't know a damn thing about him, really. Didn't know about his childhood, about his family, about the events, both good and bad, that had shaped him.
Maybe Scotty was right. Maybe her relationship with Saccardo did have a limit to its depth. But his assertion that the relationship also had a ceiling? That might not be the case anymore. Because Eddie had offered to stick around. To stop going undercover—leave a job she knew he loved—so they could be together. Have a real chance. And if he did that, if he were around more, if he were there, in her life…perhaps the relationship could deepen naturally.
But was that really what she wanted?
Lilly sighed and shoved a lock of hair behind her ear, momentarily envious of Rick Rodgers. He'd been so certain Ellie would come back to him. He was secure in her love. He didn't have to guess. Didn't have to wonder. What must that be like?
Maybe she had a chance to find out. Maybe, if Saccardo were around, if they were able to have a normal relationship, if they both took the leap and gave it a good honest try, then…maybe she'd know. Maybe she'd learn. Maybe they both would.
Or maybe they wouldn't. Maybe it would crash and burn. But if it did, she could take comfort in the fact that it wouldn't hurt her as badly as Scotty's sudden departure from the squad had. She wouldn't feel the searing, white-hot heartbreak, followed by the icy emptiness of being alone. Her heart would remain protected. Intact. If the relationship failed, she knew she could emerge on the other side still strong. Still whole.
And as for the fire Scotty had lit in her soul? Well. Deprived of fuel, that fire would, in time, die away. She was almost positive. Besides, if she ever found herself missing the pleasure he'd given, there was always the pain that came with it to remember him by.
At that, Lilly nodded. The turmoil was muted. The chaos was ordered into calm resolve. Resolve that finally allowed her to walk the seven blocks to the train station, buy a ticket, and board a train back to Philadelphia. Back to safety. Back to security.
Back to Eddie Saccardo.