== EXPLANATION THREE==

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(a little more serious)

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Pleasant day, Juliet thought, as she and Carlton waited in line at the street taqueria. She was standing in front of him, her hands behind her back, and he was stroking her palms and making her thrummy. Whispering inappropriate words in her ear.

She was surprised and delighted; they weren't that far from their usual lunch places and they might be seen. So far they'd kept their relationship under wraps successfully, behaving with complete professionalism (not counting text messages on their personal phones) during the work day… and total abandon at night. Good nights, she thought with feline wickedness.

The person in front of her walked away, and the vendor took Juliet's order without comment that she seemed to have forgotten many of her words. She could hear Carlton snickering behind her, and resolved to get him back later. She knew how to reduce him to babbling too.

She went on, with her tacos and cola, to a bench under a tree at the edge of the park, and in a minute he followed with his lunch. He was just a few feet away when a woman approached from the sidewalk.

"Detective Lassiter?" Her expression radiated hopeful interest.

Carlton stopped and looked at her, and his expression was surprise and… caution. "Yes. Rita, right?"

Juliet watched shamelessly. Rita was attractive, probably Juliet's age, and wore a wedding ring (not that Juliet was worried about the fidelity of her man; she was pretty confident Carlton was totally besotted with her, which was so very convenient given that she felt the same way about him), and she stood close to him now, smiling. "Yes. I'm so pleased you remember."

He glanced at Juliet, his blue eyes dark with something she couldn't interpret. "Of course I would." Gesturing to her, he said, "This is my partner, Juliet O'Hara."

Rita came closer and offered her hand. "Rita Francis. Your partner saved my life a few years ago."

"He's good at that sort of thing," Juliet said, and moved over on the bench. Rita demurred, but Carlton sat down, and for a moment, Juliet thought he looked as if he needed to.

"I won't keep you. I just saw you and had to come over." She was smiling again. "You did save my life, you know. His, too, in a way. Thank you."

"Please," he said quietly. "It was a long time ago."

Juliet was increasingly curious, but would have to wait to ask.

"The fact I'm standing here and it was a long time ago is exactly what I have to thank you for," Rita said just as quietly. "You did a remarkable thing, and I won't ever be able to make it up to you."

Carlton looked at her, obviously uncomfortable. "Just be well, and live well."

"You too, Detective. You too." She grasped his hand one more time, and then walked rapidly away.

Juliet studied her partner—her love—and couldn't decide whether to push or not. She opted to wait for a moment.

He leaned back against the bench, sighing. "I tried to forget all that." Glancing at her, almost warily, his eyes showed a mix of pain and wonder and memory, giving the blue a gray cast, but still intense.

"Would you… prefer I didn't ask?"

For a second, he looked grateful, but then he shook his dark head. "No, I'll tell you about it. Tonight after work. Okay?"

"Anytime you want," she said, and after a quick look around, kissed him gently on the cheek. His smile was reward enough for her patience.

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Mid-afternoon, and since the station's coffee supply was currently something which tasted a lot like sludge with a twist of grime, Juliet went out to fetch real coffee for herself and Carlton, deep in poring over forensic details from their current big homicide investigation.

He had offered to French-kiss her just for volunteering to make the coffee run, and she'd have taken him up on it if there had been any damn place in the wide-open station to make it happen (and although Vick was away for the day, somehow her office didn't seem like a very good choice).

Actually, she might take him up on it anyway, now that she'd had another few minutes to think about it. Surely they could squeeze into the janitor's closet for a quick—Juliet cleared her throat, hoping that would help clear her mind. Why the hell did Carlton have to be so damned attractive and sexy? She'd take that up with him later.

She was nearly to the coffee shop when someone called to her; turning, she spotted with surprise the woman who had approached them during lunch. Rita Francis. "Hello," she said politely.

"Hi. You're Detective Lassiter's partner, right? Was it Juliet? Sorry, I don't remember your last name." Rita smiled, and this close to her, Juliet judged her to be in her late twenties.

"O'Hara," she supplied, "but you can call me Juliet. What can I do for you?"

"I…" Rita hesitated, and pushed her long brown hair over her shoulder. "I could tell you didn't know what I was talking about before, and maybe it's not my business to tell his business, but I really… I really just think it's important that someone knows what he did for me."

Juliet considered stopping her. She probably should have. But Carlton had promised to tell her the story tonight, and it wasn't… really… an invasion of his privacy.

It was a moot internal discussion anyway, because Rita seemed quite intent on telling her story. She was urging Juliet to a bench outside the shop, in the shade, tempting aromas of fresh coffee wafting from inside as others went in and out.

"This was a few years ago, and I'll get to the point: I was in a worsening relationship. My boyfriend Bryan and I had been together since college. I was in grad school and money was tight and I was spreading myself too thin between school and family and Bryan—and two jobs to pay for school. My family was helping, and Bryan didn't like it, because he had his own financial troubles and couldn't contribute. He wanted me to drop out of grad school long enough for us to put some money back, but I was so close, just a couple of semesters—" She stopped, catching her breath. "Too much back story."

"It's okay," Juliet assured her. "Cops like the big picture."

Rita smiled, relaxing a little. "Anyway, my family clued in before I did that he was slowly cutting me off from them, or trying. They'd never been terribly keen on him so I thought it was just natural family disagreements, but after a while I realized they were right. Bryan was… isolating me from the herd. He didn't like me seeing them. He didn't want me taking their money. He made every effort to monopolize my free time, even questioning who my friends were. You get the picture." Deep breath. Then another. "Well, I decided that rather than drop out of school, I'd drop out of the relationship for a while. We met for dinner and drinks one night and I told him. I promised I loved him and we'd be together again but maybe it was time to concentrate on finishing my degree and paying down some debt and when that was all behind me, we'd take it up again if he was still interested."

Juliet could see in Rita's dark eyes that this had been a difficult conversation. "He didn't take it well."

"Uh, no. He threw money down on the table, grabbed me by the arm, said fine then I'll take you home right now to get your stuff, and we started walking." She took another breath. "I was starting to get scared. After we passed my car and kept on another few blocks, I was terrified. I kept asking him to slow down, and he was hurting my arm, but he had this look… this look I'd never seen in his eyes before, and…" She put her head down for a second, her hands clenched. "It was so long ago but I still remember the terror."

Instinctively touching her arm, Juliet murmured, "It's okay. You can… gloss over if you need to. I get the idea."

Rita looked up, and the sun on her face and a brief smile showed she was all right. "He took me down an alley and I had no idea what was going to happen except it was going to be bad. And then, just like that, your partner showed up. He was behind us, and he didn't even bother with making excuses for why he was there. He just told Bryan to let me go."

"Carlton can be very… persuasive," Juliet suggested, thinking of how commanding he could be, and how many criminals had caved merely from the sound of his voice.

"And how. And those eyes. They could have cut steel. For all I knew he was worse than Bryan but right that second I didn't care."

Juliet smiled slightly. "He's a straight-up good guy."

Rita nodded. "That became obvious fairly soon. Bryan got in his face, and Carlton got right back in his, and they fought. Bryan was vicious. I'd never seen him like that before but Carlton took every blow and met it with equal force. But I… I noticed something. I don't know why, but I noticed Bryan was only using body blows on him. He never hit him in the face, and for some reason it called to mind every domestic abuse movie I'd ever seen, where the guy learns early on not to leave marks on his wife which anyone else can see." She sighed. "Bryan had never hit me before but he did have a temper, and I knew his father had been an abuser, and suddenly…" She reached in her handbag for a tissue.

Juliet waited a moment while Rita collected herself again. "It's okay, you know. You really don't have to say more if you'd rather not."

"No, I'm almost done." She pushed her hands through her hair again. "I thought, my God, this is what's ahead for me if I don't help this stranger stop Bryan. But Carlton went down. Bryan kicked him or… I don't know what, but I knew he'd broken something, maybe his arm. Carlton was white as a sheet. I screamed and tried to pull Bryan away, and he punched me in the face. He came at me, and I thought… I thought I was dead. I thought Carlton and I were both dead, and I didn't even know Carlton's name."

Passing traffic, the tinkle of bells from the coffee shop door, and an oddly-out-of-place burst of laughter from the patio punctuated the brief silence, and Juliet heard none of it.

Rita braced herself and continued. "Bryan raised his fist to hit me again, but Carlton somehow got to his feet. I don't know how. He had a two-by-four and he swung it hard at Bryan. Hit him in the head. Bryan collapsed, and I cried for joy. Pure joy. Felt guilty about it for months afterward." She smiled faintly.

"Hope you got past that," Juliet said emphatically.

"Oh, I did. Anyway, there was your partner, swaying on his feet, about to pass out, and me with a bloody nose, and Bryan bleeding on the ground. Carlton told me to call 911, and told me who he was."

"He didn't identify himself as a cop when this started?"

"No. He explained he was off duty. He didn't have his badge or his gun or even his phone."

Juliet frowned. All three of those details were very odd. "Where did this happen?"

"A few blocks from Donatelli's Pub."

That was a couple of miles from where he'd lived four years ago—she'd already made the connection about his mysterious broken collarbone—and no explanation for why he'd be out without gun, badge or phone.

"Anyway," Rita went on quietly, "he asked me not to give his name to the police or EMTs. I asked why; I said he'd saved my life, and he just said please. Please don't tell them. So I didn't. I said a Good Samaritan had come to my rescue." She looked earnestly at Juliet. "I don't know how he walked away, how he got home or to a doctor, but he came to see me after a day or so. And Bryan. I got Bryan into the hospital and then I left him when I knew he was going to be all right. He actually suffered a little brain damage, and Carlton was horrified. I could see he was sick about it. There he was with a broken collarbone and he felt guilty about what he had to do to save my life, but I didn't have any guilt. None. And the thing is, that brain damage actually helped Bryan. It seemed to take the edge off his anger. He didn't remember one thing about what happened and he didn't understand why I was leaving him but I couldn't take the chance and I knew we were over. There was no way our relationship could recover from that night."

Juliet studied her face. "And now?"

Rita smiled, a little brighter than before. "I finished grad school. I got out from under my debts, and I married a great guy. Bryan got therapy and returned to as normal a life as possible and he's engaged now. I think he's okay and will stay okay. And none of that would be possible if Carlton Lassiter hadn't come down that alley."

"Why… did he say what he was doing there?" Carlton skulking in alleys after hours sans weapon was mystifying.

"He only said he thought he knew me. That at least from the back, he thought I was someone else, and he could see I was in trouble."

Victoria, Juliet thought. She'd only seen photos of his ex-wife, but like Rita, she had long brown hair. And four years ago, he was still separated and very much struggling with it. If he'd seen Victoria leaving a restaurant with another man, he might have been in the frame of mind to follow her.

"So," Rita said, winding down, "that's the story. Your partner saved my life. On his own time, and maybe for his own reasons, but he saved it all the same. I've followed his career in the papers and I know he's a good cop. Maybe the best. No matter what the Mirror says. That paper's a rag," she said with disdain.

Juliet put out her fist, grinning, and Rita bumped it. "Thank you for telling me all this. He never said a word at the time, except that his collarbone was broken. Never said why, and… well, now I know why there weren't any bruises on his face after a fight like you described." She felt a little sick thinking of how he must have ached. "He's pretty private, but yes… he is the best cop."

"You're with him," Rita said abruptly. "It's none of my business."

She tried to will the blush away. "We… I mean it's not sanctioned by the department. We're…"

"Private." With a smile, Rita fist-bumped her again. "I understand, and I'll respect it. I watched him with you at the taqueria and I could see you were close. And he was happy. He didn't seem like a happy person back then, and yes, I know being in a brutal fight with a possible psycho doesn't make a person happy, but still. It was in his eyes. Before and after, when he came to visit me. And I didn't see that look today, so if you're the reason, you're a hero too." She stood up, and Juliet followed suit, touched by her words.

They shook hands, and Juliet thought Rita looked content. "Thanks," she said again. "He said he'd tell me about it tonight but I'm glad I have your side so I'll know what to embellish that he'll downplay."

Rita smiled. "Thank you for listening. And thank him again for what he did. It means everything to be here now and alive and… living. You know?"

Juliet did know, and was misty-eyed proud of her man for what he'd done.

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When he started to speak, they had been lying in bed just a few minutes. Juliet hadn't pushed him to say anything about Rita, and knew she never would, but he'd been quiet throughout the evening and she knew it was probably coming.

He was lying on his side, stroking her arm softly. It was almost a hypnotic touch, the light pressure of his warm fingertips on her forearm, with occasional forays to her palm. Sensual without being sexual… it was trusting. Loving.

"Rita Francis," he said.

Juliet couldn't keep her knowledge from him. "She's the reason your collarbone got broken."

He looked up; the bedside light was still on and his eyes were an incredible deep blue. "Yes, but how—"

"She talked to me when I went to get our coffee this afternoon. I'm sorry, I should have told you sooner, but I didn't want you to think I was rushing you into telling me about her before you were ready."

Carlton nodded. "Okay. Well, whatever she told you, dial back any praise on me about fifty percent."

"I will not. Why would I? You saved her life."

He sighed, seeming exasperated. "I did everything wrong, Juliet. Everything. There was no credit to be taken."

Juliet rolled onto her side to face him. "Why would you say that? She's alive. If you hadn't gone down that alley after her, she might be dead now."

"I wasn't a cop that night," he murmured, staring at the edge of her pillow. "I was just a stupid ass."

"Carlton, I don't understand this. Don't you see the good in what you did?"

"I see that I left a man with brain-damage." He was tense now, and she hated to have made him that way.

"Which changed his life, from what Rita said. How often does smacking a guy with a two-by-four turn out to be a good thing?"

"It should never have come to that. Never."

"What is this about?" she persisted. "Honey. Explain why you don't see the good in what you did."

"I should never have been there, O'Hara," he snapped, and calling her O'Hara was a sign he was retreating.

Juliet took a breath and slid closer; he lay on his back and she touched his chest, soothing him, feeling his heart racing and wishing she could calm him. "Tell me why," she whispered. "Why you were miles from home without your gun or badge or phone. Start there."

His sigh was profound and for a few moments she didn't think he would answer. "It had been a crappy day. Crappiest I'd had in a damned long series of damned crappy days. The highlight was a run-in with Victoria's parents and then a call from her demanding to know why I'd upset them and by the way she needed more money." He rubbed his face hard. "It was enough to drive me out of the apartment, because it was either that or drink down a new bottle of Scotch and I didn't want another night like that."

She kept up the soothing circles on his chest, her gaze on his eyes, his lean face, his expression of these memories.

"I just set out walking. I had my apartment keys but nothing else. No gun, no badge, nothing. I just walked. Ended up in a little restaurant district, and was this close to going into a bar and defeating the purpose of the walk when she came out of Donatelli's with him."

"Bryan."

"Yeah. There was something off about the way he was holding onto her. Something didn't look right. I followed them."

"Cop for life?"

"I guess. When he took her off the main drag, she was clearly freaking out and no way could I walk away from that. But I should have. I should have hung back and called the cops."

"They might have disappeared. You had to know where they were going."

He said nothing at first. "Maybe. Then he forced her into the alley and I had to step up. It got ugly from there. I guess she told you."

"Yeah. Why didn't you tell him you were a cop?"

"He didn't look to be the kind of guy who'd take me at my word," he said dryly, "and I had no proof."

"Your air of authority alone," she said lightly, "should have done it."

He shook his head. "I had none. Just my fists."

"And when it was over? You asked her not to tell anyone you were there. Why?"

"Like I said, I did everything wrong. I should have called the cops before I went after them. I should have told him I was a cop. I should have seen that she was safe before going after him. I shouldn't have had to stop him with a two-by-four. I shouldn't have been there at all. I only followed them in the first place because—" He stopped, and closed his eyes.

Because you thought it was Victoria. "Carlton, only you could find a way to feel guilty about saving two lives. If you hadn't followed them, Rita might be dead. Or seriously injured. Or still in an abusive relationship. And if you'd had your gun, you might have had to shoot him and he might be dead. If you hadn't hit him upside the head, he might be terrorizing some other woman right now. No matter how badly you think you handled things, the truth is you had to be there and do exactly what you did for things to have turned out so well."

His eyes were still closed, and she resumed the slow circles on his chest until he caught her hand and stopped it over his heart. "Maybe," he whispered.

"No maybes."

"I just can't let go of the idea that if I hadn't thought it was…"

"Victoria," she supplied gently.

Carlton looked full at her, surprised. "No. Not Victoria."

Juliet stared at him, wondering at his wonderment.

"Rita was blonde back then, Juliet. I thought it was you. I thought it was you coming out of that bar and being threatened."

Her heart skipped a beat. "But… I don't… why would you… what?"

He gave her a small, slow smile. "I was letting Victoria—that is, the idea of saving my marriage, which honestly I didn't even want anymore—control my waking hours, but the truth is, I pretty much gave it up to you just about the first time you smiled at me." He paused. "Well, maybe the first time you cuffed a perp. But early on, yeah."

She couldn't believe what she was hearing. "Carlton, you mean to tell me you—wait, what are you telling me?" They had discussed their feelings for each other before, but she'd never asked him how far back his went. She'd always assumed she was just the green junior partner he was often impatient with those first few years.

For the first time since lunch, he seemed fully relaxed, at least judging by his grin. "You heard me. It wasn't anything I was ready to admit to myself at the time. But after a hellish Victoria-related day I got out there and saw you, my partner, with a guy who was obviously threatening you, and I knew you could take him down if you had to—but you weren't, and I couldn't leave you on your own just in case, so even without a badge or a gun I had to keep going. For you."

Juliet made a fist out of her hand and thumped him lightly. "And what if it had been me? Hmm? Would you still regret how it went down if I were the one thanking you for saving my life?"

Carlton met her gaze, blue eyes wide for a second. "Dammit, woman, stop changing my view of the world… of who I am."

"No," she said smartly. "Because your view of who you are is dark and depressing and wrong-headed. I love you, and I couldn't do that if you weren't the finest man I've ever known."

In under two seconds he had rolled on top of her, wrapping his arms tight around her body and squeezing. "I don't deserve you."

"Sure you do." She kissed his face, his chin. "Because I'm the finest man you've ever known." She grinned at him, delighting in his low rumble of laughter.

"Yes, you are," he agreed, nuzzling her lips. "Yes, you damn well are."

For a precious few seconds she kissed him back. "So is that the whole story of the broken collarbone?"

"Yeah. It really is." He slid his fingers into her hair, sighing. "Maybe I should have told you a long time ago."

"Maybe it's okay you didn't. I kinda like this right here, right now." She wriggled a little underneath him, making him catch his breath.

"I guess it's not so bad, is it?" He pressed down against her, his meaning clear.

She parted her legs… her meaning clear.

Carlton sighed, his blue eyes reflecting his desire. "I love you, Juliet."

She said it back, and showed him how much.

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(Got your own theories? Post them!)