Disclaimer: "noun: a statement, document, or assertion that disclaims responsibility, affiliation, etc.; disavowal; denial"—in other words, I claim no ownership of psych.

Rating: T

Summary/note/thing: This story comes to you because of 1) Lawson227, whose two marvelous Karlton tales inspired me to write my own (YES, that's RIGHT, Lassiet-haters: this really is NOT a Lassiet!) and 2) My current desktop wallpaper, which features an especially delectable bearded Tim Omundson. The plot? Lassiter going undercover causes a change in his relationship with Karen Vick.

Note: while searching for an appropriate law enforcement agency, I discovered the fictional California Bureau of Investigation used in The Mentalist, so I'm stealing that, too.

'Nother note: I wanted to wait until Lawson's current lovely Karlton (Safety In Numbers) was finished to begin posting this, but she essentially harangued me into obeying her whim. So. Here.

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"Well, I won't keep you," he said, and there was something in the quality of his voice which made Karen think ending the call now would be wrong… and that she'd regret it.

"You're not keeping me. Iris is with her father this week so I'm not at the mercy of a six-year-old."

He paused. "What… what's she like?"

The question seemed one of genuine curiosity, and Karen was oddly moved by it. By the fact that he was the one asking.

"She's a mini-me, my ex used to say. She's no-nonsense about what she wants, usually when it's something there's no way in hell she's going to get. But she is such a squooshy little girl about everything else, from ponies to teddy bears to big-eyed dolls in pretty dresses."

"Is that also like you?" He sounded amused.

Karen had to laugh. "Well, it's nothing you'll ever see from me at work, but maybe, just a little. I have been known to tear up at Hallmark commercials."

"She was beautiful," he said abruptly. "When she was born."

She remembered looking at him as he held Iris—held her before even she did, let alone her husband—and seeing the wonder on his face, in his startled blue eyes.

That was kind of beautiful too, she wanted to say. "I'm sorry I was so rough on you, you know."

Carlton laughed. "You were in pain and I was out of my league. Yelling at you was a stupid move. I think we can call it a draw."

"Nonetheless, I appreciated you being there, staying with me even though you so desperately wanted to run like hell."

"That was only because it was you. My boss. Not because you were having a baby. I mean, of course no one wants to watch a woman have a baby; good Lord, I don't know how doctors and nurses do it, but mainly I was freaked because you were my boss. My boss who… didn't like me very much. It was the last place any man was going to feel comfortable."

She thought about that time in their professional relationship and he was right, except she hadn't disliked him; she'd merely been wary of him. "I came into the job with a lot of strikes against me. Woman, pregnant, not your mentor, not part of the old school mentality. I couldn't afford to like anyone."

"It didn't help that I put a huge black mark on my own record," he said slowly.

He meant the outing of his affair with his former partner. But actually, that admittedly unprofessional and problematic little issue had served to humanize him. She'd known about his hard-ass reputation before stepping in as Interim Chief, and they'd crossed paths a few times in normal police work before she came to power. Finding out that the unbending, unyielding, by-the-book and trigger-happy detective once described to her as a "crime-fighting robot" was struggling with a failing marriage and yet able to find some measure of intimacy—however doomed, however inappropriate—had allowed her to see him as a person beyond his reputation. Besides, she knew something of Lucinda Barry indirectly, and as she understood it, for Lucinda to have gotten involved with her partner meant there was something there which others might not be able to readily see. Or, more accurately, be allowed to see.

"Those were interesting and complicated times," she said just as slowly. "We've all come a long way in terms of how we relate to each other and even how we do our jobs. I'm happy with the way you do yours, Carlton. Well, I could stand fewer discharges of your weapon."

"I'll work on it." He was wry more than defensive, and this too was a measure of how much things had changed over the years. "I only have two guns at home now, by the way."

"Down from eight! I am impressed."

"So am I, actually. I think maybe the therapy I've been forced to undergo now and then has actually helped me a little. I'll never admit that at the station, of course."

"Understood," she said with a laugh. "It'll be our secret."

"Thank you. I can't have anyone thinking I've gone soft." Carlton cleared his throat. "Anyway, I guess I'd better let you go. I'll check in tomorrow, unless you don't—"

"No, tomorrow's fine," she interrupted. "I want to hear what's going on from you instead of filtered through Decker."

"He's a good guy," Carlton assured her.

"I know, but he's not you." It occurred to her this sounded… well, so what? "He doesn't know you like I do." Do I know you at all? "I trust my Lassiter-translation skills better than his."

"You should," he admitted. "Okay, I'll talk to you tomorrow."

Good, she thought, and then… but why am I more interested in talking to you than getting your report?

Don't think about it, Karen. Just let it go.

. . . .

. . .

The California Bureau of Investigation had sent two agents to talk to Karen a few weeks back. Agent Penn Decker had gotten right to the point: they wanted to borrow Carlton Lassiter for a long-term undercover operation.

She immediately had a very bad feeling about it and told them plainly that while she could vouch for Detective Lassiter's excellence in nearly every aspect of police work, even he wouldn't list undercover assignments as one of his strengths.

Agent Decker was not impressed with either her logic or her personal experience with Lassiter. "Chief Vick, the CBI doesn't request assistance from local authorities without doing its homework first. We need a crack shot, a fisherman, someone who knows the woods, someone who isn't known to the locals, and oh yeah, a damn good cop. Your head detective fits that description."

The assignment was deceptively simple: they wanted a man to occupy a cabin in the forest and keep an eye on their targets, who were known to be running a drug operation nearby. All he had to do was observe, fish like he knew how, not interact with anyone, and, you know, skulk around at night on the property of the suspects, taking photos, collecting data, eavesdropping, all that good stuff. They'd been watching the targets for a while but needed someone closer, someone the targets had no reason to see as a threat. Once he could give them a clear, up-close picture of their general operations, manpower and schedules, they could move in.

Karen quite reasonably asked why they couldn't put one of their own men in place, and why—if they had all this data already—they didn't just move on the targets now.

Here, Decker was reluctant to admit the truth: they suspected one of their own was tipping off the targets. He and his partner— Agent Donnell, sitting silently at his side—were the only two agents in their regional office outside of its director who knew they were here after Lassiter.

"He's going undercover, and frankly, so are we, from our own people."

She pursed her lips, because this was the heart of the matter. "You also want him to find out who the targets' inside man is."

"Well, yes."

"Won't that person check Lassiter out in return? With more resources than the average person? In other words," she asked icily, "aren't you making it more dangerous for my detective, if you don't even know who he can trust on our side?"

Decker had the grace look slightly abashed, but not for long. "We will be ready to take him out of there the moment it becomes necessary. Besides that, we have an excellent background story and accompanying documentation prepared and with all due respect, Chief, it'll have to be Lassiter himself who makes the call."

Jurisdictionally, they had bigger guns than she did, so despite her misgivings, Lassiter was brought in, told of the mission, and naturally—as if there were any doubt—accepted.

She knew better than to try to talk him out of it, but she did take him aside in the days which followed to advise him to go easy on the 'acting' when he did encounter others, and use his poker face for everything else.

Juliet had similar concerns, and wasn't comfortable that Karen couldn't step in and stop this. She admitted to having voiced her objections to Lassiter, but he would not change his mind.

And now, a month later, things seemed to be going pretty well.

He had taken up residence in a secluded rental cabin on property close to the targets' land. When he wasn't fishing, he walked the property in daylight often enough to know it by heart when he walked it in darkness. He was collecting the desired information about manpower and layout of the operation the CBI wanted to take down, and so far hadn't seemed to attract any undue attention, although he had set various little traps which established that the targets were also scoping him out.

Checking in with Decker and Donnell daily, he had originally only called Karen once every few days for a businesslike rundown of his activities, but today, late in the third week, sounding relaxed, he'd commented as to the beauty and peace of the woods, and it had led to the most casual conversation they'd ever had.

She had been on her way out of the station when Lassiter called her cell, and ended up sitting in her parked car… chatting.

And… enjoying it.

Who chatted anymore?

She'd been divorced most of a year, but even before that, when she thought she was happy in her flat-lining marriage, there was work, there was Iris, and there was sleep. There could have been more and once there had been more, but about the time she figured out her husband had totally lost interest in preserving the marriage, she lost her energy to fight for it. They shared custody of Iris, who was taking it well enough (though who really knew?).

It was starting to get boring, being A Divorced Woman. The novelty had definitely worn off, and it wasn't all that much fun to begin with.

Maybe talking to Carlton about nothing in particular was just a little tonic, she decided; nothing wrong with a little tonic.

. . . .

. . .

She was already at home when he called the next night. Standing in front of the fridge contemplating what frou-frou delicacy to have for dinner—tuna salad, leftover Chinese, or maybe go crazy and nuke a frozen chicken and pasta dish?—she decided popcorn was the answer.

But the phone rang first, and she snatched it up, surprised at how much she hoped it was him and not a call back to work.

"Karen," he said, almost apologetically. "You're probably at home. I was going to call earlier but my dinghy sprung a mystery leak, and so my check-in with Decker took longer."

"I'm home but that's good. Less distraction." She grabbed the container of tuna salad and a fork and carried them to the table, where she put her feet up on one of the chairs to get comfortable. "What was up with the boat?"

"Pretty sure the leak was manmade," he said flatly. "It probably means they needed to be sure I wouldn't float their way today or tomorrow."

Karen felt a prickling down her spine. "So you'll be looking around tonight, I presume."

"Yeah. There's been more activity over there for a few days."

"They could be watching you watching them." She didn't like it.

"It feels more preventative than threatening. I know they've been around here snooping while I'm out fishing, but there hasn't been anything to find and I've been damn antisocial to boot. I think they just want me either staying on my own property, or driving off into town to see about repairing the boat."

"You have to be careful," she reminded him.

She could almost see him rolling his eyes. "I will be. There are times when it's good to be as paranoid as I am, you know. Plus I probably look a little scary with this beard."

She'd forgotten about that. "You probably don't. I imagine you're as well-kept out there in the woods as you are here on the job."

Carlton laughed. "Wrong. Plaid and denim are the order of the day and my hair's the longest it's ever been. Plus as you know, I have an impressive scowl."

"You do," she agreed. "Very impressive. It even almost works on Spencer sometimes."

"Spencer," he muttered. "I keep expecting him to show up and blow the operation."

"He knows nothing. O'Hara and I have completely stonewalled him and we've locked down every possible access to any way he could find out where you are or what you're doing. Even if he's hovering outside my door listening to my end of the conversation, he doesn't know anything. You can relax."

"Like I can relax…" He paused, and then said with some bemusement, "Actually, I can. I have to say, this assignment has been the perfect vacation for me. I'm getting to fish and be a cop at the same time."

He had been sounding at ease of late, not a concept one normally associated with him. Karen smiled. "I'm glad you're having a respite before the storm."

"Me, too. When's the last time you took a vacation?"

The question surprised her, as it implied he noticed this sort of thing, but then, people did tend to forget exactly how observant he really was. "It's been awhile. Even when I don't have Iris, I'm usually tied to the station."

"But what was it? What was your last good vacation?"

"Oh, let me think." But she didn't really have to think about it. She remembered; it was when Iris turned three and she and her husband took her up to Colorado. They were happy, Iris was an angel, the scenery was grand, the whole trip was perfect and relaxing and damn, that had been nearly four years ago. She gave Carlton an edited version, but he must have heard the "good memory" tone in her voice.

"That's too long," he said quietly. "I know your life is different now but you should take some time. Soon. Recharge."

Karen smiled into the tuna salad bowl. "Am I actually being advised to relax by Carlton Lassiter? The same man who has well over a year of unused leave time?"

"It's different for me," he said, practically. "I don't have children, friends, or a life. You have all of those things and you need to be a whole, healthy person to take care of both your daughter and your job."

Ignoring the advice, she couldn't help but take up for him. "Carlton. You have friends."

He said nothing.

"You have O'Hara." Right?

Carlton cleared his throat. "I'm talking about the kind of friends who give a damn what you do outside of work."

Her mouth hung open and her heart hurt for him. "Carlton…"

"And even if that still included O'Hara, she's part of a package deal now with Spencer and Guster." He became brisk. "It doesn't matter. I'm responsible for my life being the way it is. You know that saying—it may be the purpose of your life is to serve as a warning to others?"

"Yes, but… you're not exactly a lost cause. You wouldn't be so good at your job if you were."

"Except I've let the job become everything." He sighed, impatient but most likely with himself; she knew that feeling in her own dark hours. "That's why this assignment has been such a good thing."

I'm starting to think you're right, but maybe for selfish reasons. It was damn nice to talk to a man… an actual man… about things other than work or child custody.

"But don't worry," he said dryly, "I'm sure I'll fall back into my Angry Old Man ways as soon as I get back to the real world."

Karen laughed, because that was absurd. "You are not an Angry Old Man. You're my age, for one thing, and I am definitely not old. So really you're just an Angry Man, and honestly I think you've mellowed a little over the years."

Skepticism infused every syllable. "Me? Mellowed? Is this Karen Vick? You do know who you're talking to, right? And no, you are definitely not old. But then again, according to my sister, I was old when I was eighteen."

"Maybe you were, but it wasn't your fault." She knew only a little of his upbringing, because he was so private, but what she had heard suggested he hadn't had much choice about how fast he had to grow up.

"Well. Long time ago, anyway."

"Listen, Carlton. I want you to be very careful tonight while you're skulking around, okay?"

"I will."

"I mean it," she repeated. "And it's not just your boss talking."

"Yes, yes; Decker and Donnell and—"

"No. I mean it because… because you do have a friend who gives a damn about you outside of work."

He drew in a breath, but was silent.


"Yeah," he said hesitantly. "Yeah. Thanks."

No… thank you. Thank you for opening my eyes.

. . . .

. . .

And so it went for the next three weeks.

Every day, after he checked in with Decker, Lassiter called Karen. It was usually as she was on her way home from work, and sometimes she spent up to half an hour in the car in the parking lot, to the point it became embarrassing to have uniforms tapping on her window to be sure she was all right.

Finally she asked if he wouldn't mind calling later, after Iris was in bed. She felt rather… bold suggesting it, but she was able to justify it to herself under the heading of protecting his undercover status by not talking to him during the workday. Technically she shouldn't have been talking to him at all; Decker would be appalled. But as Carlton's supervisor she felt she had a right to know, and as his… friend… she wanted to know.

She wanted to know a lot.

Funny how you could work with a person for seven years and really not know a thing about him. Each conversation provided some sort of discovery, and she was sure he'd make the same comment about her.

From food likes to musical tastes to just comparing notes about City Hall bigwigs, from arguing about politics and gun control to speculating about how long it would take Juliet to figure out Spencer wasn't ever growing up, they seemed to have plenty to discuss. Including squirrel control, though she was of the opinion it shouldn't be something he felt murderous about. ("Agree to disagree," he'd joked, making her laugh, and she was far too happy about how nice it felt.)

He asked her what was going on at the station, and she knew without asking that he'd only been in sporadic contact with Juliet. On the one hand, that was the protocol she herself should be following. On the other hand, she felt a strange and very personal pride that Carlton was breaking protocol for her.

And it wasn't only pride Karen felt, as she lay on the sofa every night, feet up, glass of wine in one hand and phone firmly in the other.

No, it was far more than pride, but maybe not something she wanted to put a name to just yet.

She did know one thing: she was going to miss this when it was over.


Why does it have to be over?

You can still be friends. You'll just have to make time outside work to be friends. Other people do this all the time.

We're not other people. He's… he's not other people. And neither am I.

Until one night he said, voice low and intimate in its sincerity, "I'm going to miss talking to you."

She felt her heart thudding in her chest. "You don't have to miss it."

He didn't say anything.

"Don't go quiet on me now, Carlton," she warned.

"Sorry," he murmured. "I'm just assuming that when I'm home again, and things go back to normal—"

"This is normal now. I don't mean we're going to have tea time in my office every day; I am your supervisor and can't show favoritism, but this… these conversations… they're normal now." She took a breath. "And I don't want them to stop."

I don't ever want them to stop.

It seemed to take forever for him to respond, but she felt his sincerity keenly. "I don't either, Karen."

Tears stung her eyes—but they were good tears. Tears of hope. "Okay then. It's settled."

She could hear the smile when he agreed, and when she went to bed later she felt pretty damn good for no sensible reason at all.

The next night, he didn't call.

. . . .

. . .

She lasted until noon on Thursday, which marked over forty-eight hours of no contact. Calling Agent Decker's direct number, she simply inquired briskly as to the status of the operation. (Unless she was asked point-blank to reveal the extent of her communication with Lassiter, she wouldn't volunteer it.)

"I was just about to call you," Decker said, interrupting her request for information. "To let you know they took him."

Karen felt herself freezing. "What? What do you mean they took him?"

"They took him. Best we can tell, they snatched him out of his boat Tuesday afternoon. We'd asked him to fish closer to their property because it looked like they were getting ready to move on a big deal."


And: a one-syllable word meaning don't you screw around with me, not about this. Not about him.

He hesitated. "His dinghy was recovered downstream by other fisherman."

She had somehow gotten to her feet. "And?"

"We don't think they killed him. There's marks on the bottom of the boat which make it look like it was dragged ashore, probably with him in it, then pushed back out."

Everything was going a little black, a little hazy. "Just because they dragged it ashore doesn't mean he's not…" She couldn't say it. The word would not pass her lips. Probably because it was afraid of the way the room was spinning.

They could have pulled the boat ashore just to remove his body.

Decker pushed on. "If they made him, it could only have been because of our mole. If that's the case, no way would they kill him, because the mole knows his own days are numbered no matter what. They're probably just holding him until the deal is done, and then they'll move on."

"And then do what with Lassiter?" She sounded strangled. She felt strangled.

"Look, Karen, it's too early to know anything. We have ground ops in place now. We have them surrounded and based on the info Lassiter was able to provide, we think we have the mole isolated as well. There's no reason to think this won't have a happy ending."

Karen felt her legs giving way, and weakly sank into her chair, but managed to spit out, "You're a lying son of a bitch."

"I'm doing my job," he shot back. "And so was he. We all knew the risks and he signed on fully informed of those risks. Now we are all going to do our best to him back to you in one piece, so you just need to sit tight and wait for an update." Click.

But you said "was."

Dammit, you said "was."

. . . .

. . .