CHAPTER SIXTEEN: After The After The Crash
. . . .
. . .
Somewhat anticlimactically, Berman and his men showed up ready to kick the door in about two minutes after Carlton and Juliet hauled a completely pissed-off Hugo up onto one of the dining table chairs.
"I called Berman on my way home," she explained. "I had a feeling something was wrong."
Instantly, Carlton felt as if he'd been punched in the gut.
"You thought something was wrong but you still walked right in here and risked—" He stopped, trying to swallow some of his resurfacing fears. "My God, Juliet, you could have…"
He couldn't say more. He couldn't.
Now that it was over—now that there was time to see how damn close they'd been to death—no.
Juliet put her hands on his arms, drawing him away from the others for a moment and speaking almost in a whisper, only for his ears. "Look me in the eye and tell me you wouldn't have done exactly the same thing."
He couldn't lie, but he still felt sick.
"I didn't know for sure he was here. But I… felt something was wrong and I knew, coming down the hall, that I had to go in. I knew there was no way he'd kill either one of us without playing some kind of mind game first, which would buy the time I needed until Berman got here… and oh, Carlton," she said more softly, "I needed to know you were all right."
The expression in her dark blue eyes mesmerized him. She was fierce and loving and protective—and he realized with some wonder that he'd seen this look before over the years; perhaps not tinged with the same kind of love, but definitely possessing the same fierceness—and it made him want to carry her off and hold her for a hundred years.
Juliet smiled gently, stroking his arms. "I know you understand this, even if you don't like it."
All he could do was pull her close and hug her hard until Berman approached to interrupt.
They were taking Hugo in, he said, and were sending men to pick up Gus, whose whereabouts Hugo had grudgingly revealed: a cabin in the hills near Skofield Park.
"Be careful with him," Carlton said, although he wasn't willing to examine why. "He's… kind of a friend." He resolutely ignored the startled glance Juliet gave him.
Berman promised Gus would be treated like gold.
He told them to report to the FBI office first thing in the morning for a full debriefing, but shouldn't out themselves until they'd been officially notified by Chief Vick. "Another half a day of lying low," he added wryly. "Sorry, but we have a lot of plates in the air."
Carlton—who had nearly offered to fetch Gus himself just for the chance to get out of the condo— was suddenly glad he and Juliet would have some decompression time before the real firestorm started.
Juliet slipped her hand into his when Berman turned to speak to Fuller, and he knew she felt the same way; it was in her smile as well as her touch.
Hugo was led out, and the look he gave the two of them was curiously dispassionate. "Well-played," he said coolly. "I'll learn from this, you know."
"Write from prison and tell us all about it," Juliet said just as coolly.
Better yet, Carlton thought, die there of old age and don't write to us at all.
. . . .
. . .
Gus was fine. A little bruised from the flailing he'd done when Hugo plucked him from the Blueberry that morning as he began his route, but otherwise fine.
The FBI hadn't told him much, only that Juliet was assisting them with a case and the man who'd kidnapped him was trying to draw her out. Gus, Fuller remarked, seemed disinclined to ask further questions. But then Gus had always been a big believer in 'ignorance is bliss.'
Juliet was relieved for another reason: the less he knew, the less he could tell Shawn.
This didn't stop Shawn from coming to the condo in the afternoon and bellowing questions through the door.
They didn't answer, let alone admit to being home, and Carlton finally called Chief Vick directly and asked for someone to come remove Shawn from the premises (because Juliet wouldn't let him shoot through the door).
Karen turned up herself. They heard her tell him flatly to stop harassing the residents and move on.
She reminded him she was the frickin' Chief of the frickin' Police and if she had to ask him a second time to move on, her subsequent invitation would be for him to sit inside the squad car waiting for her downstairs.
"I just want to know what the hell Juliet was involved in which got Gus kidnapped!" he protested.
"And you will know, Mr. Spencer, but not today. Today you will leave here and go be with your friend. You know why? Because that's what a friend would do."
From the hall, silence. Eventually Shawn huffed and strode away, and a few seconds later, Karen knocked quietly.
Juliet stood back while Carlton let her in and thanked her.
"My pleasure." Something about her smile made it clear she was exceptionally sincere. "Congratulations on a job well done. Berman and his superiors are very pleased with you."
"I'm just glad we can finally get back to reality," Juliet admitted, not that she knew what reality was any more (except any version of it would include Carlton at her side).
"That, and out of this damn condo," Carlton added with feeling.
Karen leaned against the table. "In the morning, Berman and I will send a joint memo out to the station explaining somewhat vaguely your involvement in an unspecified undercover op. I expect to be fielding questions all day. Oh, and you'll both need the standard post-undercover psych evals, which I've taken the liberty of scheduling for Friday afternoon. I'll send you your appointment times later."
Juliet bit back a laugh as Carlton muttered, "Peachy."
"I knew you'd be pleased. Anyway, pending happy reports from the doctor, you should be able to return to work on Monday."
"Seems like forever to wait. And maybe not long enough." Juliet knew the road ahead would be a bit like a minefield. "Would you… if you don't mind… would you let us know how everyone reacts to it tomorrow?"
Karen obviously understood her concerns. "I will, but I can tell you now what they'll be." She smiled. "They'll be relieved, and confused. They'll be happy to know Carlton's not blind and that you didn't cause the wreck. They'll be happy you're coming back."
Carlton's expression was all skepticism. "You mean they'll be happy Juliet is coming back."
"No, I mean you too, Carlton. Everything—and everyone—has been in a state of semi-chaos the past two weeks. I've let it slide because I knew it was short-term, but your management of the squad has been missed. You have been missed."
He flushed a bit at her emphasis, and Juliet wanted to kiss his cheek but opted not to freak the Chief out.
Karen stood up. "I'll CC you on the email. The FBI won't release your names when they admit Damski's not dead, but even if you're never tied to any of this, the press will certainly figure out that the blinded head detective and his drunken partner… aren't, and weren't. The SBPD will issue a statement to the effect that you were involved in a federal undercover operation which of necessity we cannot comment on, etcetera."
Juliet felt uneasy. "It's going to be very complicated, isn't it."
"Yes it is." She crossed her arms and studied them both. "Now, about your personal relationship."
Carlton immediately flushed again and Juliet stopped resisting the urge to take his hand. "Chief…" He stopped, and calmed a little when she curled her fingers around his.
"We already talked about this, and I haven't changed my mind. I know you'll conduct yourselves professionally. However, I do urge you to keep it quiet for awhile until everyone's absorbed the first set of shocks."
This was very good advice. Juliet glanced at Carlton, and he nodded, his color back to normal. It was if, making it a project of sorts, he could better handle the eventual public revelation of their involvement.
Involvement, she scoffed. Love. The ultimate partnership.
"By the way," Karen added before she left, "if you have any more problems with Spencer, please call me before you shoot him."
"I won't shoot him," Carlton said with a moderate eye-roll.
"Oh, I didn't mean you shouldn't. I just want to be here to see it." She grinned and let herself out.
. . . .
. . .
Propped on one elbow, head in her hand, Juliet traced gentle lines across Carlton's face. From the frequent-frown area between his dark eyebrows and down the bridge of his nose, across the almost imperceptibly freckled skin under his ocean-blue eyes, along the line of his lips—now smiling—and across to his temples, where she skimmed his hairline and slid her fingers into his soft black and silver curling hair.
"What are you looking for?" he murmured.
She leaned in and kissed his warm cheek. "Nothing. I'm just treasuring what I have."
He turned his head and smiled, and the ocean was beautifully calm.
This Monday morning they were returning to work, and these moments were likely the least stressful they'd have all day long. The momentary plan was to go for a run together—get back to a routine that they now could share—but then again, lying here quietly was much preferable.
Carlton rolled over and eased her into his arms, against his furred chest, and Juliet felt she might be purring. "We're going to be fine, partner."
She hoped he was right. It wasn't like him to be optimistic—he'd say so himself—but she knew he shared her core feeling that together, they would be able to get through anything. Together.
Karen Vick's joint email with Agent Berman to station personnel on Thursday morning had been brisk and uninformatively informative. She called them in the afternoon to say her prediction of its reception was accurate.
Buzz, she told them with a smile obvious in her tone, got the sniffles and had to excuse himself for a while. Patricia Allen had clutched her crystals, beaming with joy, and took a long lunch to go light extra candles and visit her spiritualist (whom, she assured Karen, would probably already have 'sensed' this turn of events). Dobson and Miller high-fived each other and the station manager went out to personally buy an extra round of doughnuts for the day shift.
Woody looked confused and said he thought he'd imagined the whole thing anyway.
Stroking Carlton's shoulder and sighing against his so-warm skin, Juliet couldn't help but remember in detail their Friday morning "conversation" with Shawn and Henry.
Since their individual psych evals were scheduled for the afternoon, they'd discussed reluctantly the need to address the problem head-on, and decided to ask Henry if they could come see him—and Shawn.
Juliet made the call, keeping it short. Henry, who'd heard the news, was equally short, but agreed to get Shawn over there before lunch.
She was glad now, in this cool pre-dawn, for the comfort of Carlton's hands moving on her back, and his kisses to her temple.
Standing in Henry's house, Shawn was outraged and cold. Henry was more practical. Not that he was promoting a group hug or anything, but he was clearly a little on edge about having been cut from the loop despite his ex-cop's understanding of how necessary it had been—and probably embarrassed to some degree about his visit to Carlton and later 'stalking' of Juliet.
In contrast, Shawn played it as if he understood nothing, as if they had deliberately set out to hurt him and only him by their exclusion, and that merely doing their jobs wasn't enough reason for the deception.
His cool hazel gaze remained fixed on Juliet the whole time. She and Carlton were seated together on Henry's sofa, but not too close, and Shawn didn't even like that.
He'd said abruptly, "So was anything true? When you were yelling at me and Victoria?"
Juliet heard Carlton's intake of breath—and shared his annoyance—but willed him to keep silent.
"We yelled," she said patiently, "because you and Victoria were out of line. You should never have brought her there, and you know it. It was intrusive and… and condescending."
"I was trying to help," he snapped.
"You were thinking of yourself," Henry said with great calm. "I know it, and I wasn't even there."
Shawn was unfazed. "And then you got Gus kidnapped! If you'd told me about any of this, I could have helped!"
Carlton's jaw clenched, and Juliet once again gave up trying not to touch him: she reached over and claimed his hand out of his lap, because if these two men—of all people—didn't already know where her heart lay, then this was as good a time to make it clear as any.
"Thank you, Henry," Carlton said, surprising her with how calm he sounded. "Thank you for coming to see me in the hospital. I told you then I appreciated it, and I meant it."
"And thank you for trying to offer some advice in the bar," Juliet added. "If I'd been able to tell you the truth, you know I would have."
"And thank you, Sp… Shawn." Carlton cleared his throat, and his fingers tightened around hers, proving at least privately how difficult these words were. "We may not understand your true motives or your way of handling things, or, really, any damned thing you do, but if we take it at face value, your concern was real and you took the time to show it."
Way nicer than I would have been, she mused. Certainly nicer than Shawn deserves. Maybe Carlton could run for office some day, if he can be that politically correct.
Nah. He'd challenge his first debate opponent to a duel and then arrest everyone who showed up to watch.
Shawn blinked. He hesitated. Then he mumbled, "It's cool."
Juliet tried to find her own words, but Carlton's were best. "That goes for me, too."
He slouched against the wall, hands in his pockets, gaze on the carpet now. "Okay."
We can build from 'okay.'
Carlton ran one fingertip down her spine, here now in their bed, and she shivered. "What are you worrying about?"
"Whether you have time to make love to me before we get up."
"Oh, I think I can—" He couldn't finish, because she kissed him, a long lovely intimate kiss accompanied by her leg moving all by itself to drape over his hip.
"I know you can," she moaned when his hand moved between them and began tormenting her.
We'll get back to running tomorrow, she decided, because the pleasure spasms he was causing her right now were surely exercise enough—and she had every intention of returning the favor as soon as she could think anything more complicated than oh my God more please more.
. . . .
. . .
Carlton buckled up and took a moment while Juliet did the same to marvel anew at how his life had changed so completely.
They weren't going to out themselves formally as a couple. But Juliet started moving her belongings in over the weekend, and they were going to drive to work together, and that was that. Discretion was one thing; deprivation was another, and neither of them was willing to try the latter.
He couldn't even remember what it was like to sleep alone, and it had only been a week and a half.
Juliet got a phone call from a cousin—her one call to her mother on Thursday had been enough to spread the news throughout her entire family and most of her friends—and he drove, feeling reasonably… okay… about the day ahead.
She laughed at something her cousin said and he flashed back to his phone call to Victoria. He hadn't wanted to speak to her directly but Juliet said he had to, and Juliet was rarely wrong about that people-skills crap.
He'd campaigned for the right to send a cordial email, and she frowned disapprovingly.
"I had to deal with Shawn; you have to deal with Victoria."
"But I was right there with you," he protested. "You can't be with me in a phone call."
She smiled tightly. "Well, first of all, you're lucky I'm not insisting you talk to her face-to-face, and second, if I'm ever in the same room with Victoria Parker again, only one of us is coming out alive, and you can bet your ass it won't be Little Miss Let Me Call You 'Carl.'"
Yeah, a phone call would work.
The conversation was brief and chilly: Victoria, much like Shawn, did not need to have it spelled out that while I apologize for the deception, I regret nothing I said to you because you sure as hell had it coming.
They agreed it was an unusual situation; have a nice life, goodbye.
Hello, he thought, glancing at his lovely, lovely Juliet. Hello to this, forever.
Their psych evaluations went well. The doctor spent more time talking to Juliet than to him, and Carlton had sat restless in the waiting room, worried for her, worried for… them. He would always have a little doubt about his worthiness as a mate, and although he hadn't spoken to the doctor about the change in their relationship, he had a feeling the man knew anyway.
And if he knew it, then one reason Juliet's session took longer could be that he was cautioning her against involvement with her partner. That partner. That partner he'd met with before.
The angry, distrustful, paranoid, hardline older divorced guy. Yeah, him.
But Juliet came out smiling and they had an early dinner out in public and then went home and boinked like wild bunnies until the wee hours, so…
He smiled. Yeah, him.
She finished up her call as he pulled the Fusion into a parking space at the station, and he reached over to take her hand.
"No. Well, yes. I'm ready to work but I'm not ready for…" She gestured helplessly. "The unknown."
Neither was he, honestly. They'd heard from many of their coworkers in the past few days, and it was all positive, and it made him nervous to entertain the possibility of so many people not actively disliking him.
"We'll get the strange parts over fast," he promised, hoping it was true.
She carried the small bag; he carried the large one. It was still early, before the main shift, but as they expected, Sergeant Allen was already at her station in Booking, and they stopped there first.
Her eyes grew wide, almost frighteningly so, and she scurried out from behind the desk and threw her arms around Carlton before he even registered her target. The scent of sandalwood, the sound of clinking jewelry, and the ooof he let out as his lungs were flattened were the three main sensations, until he realized she was sniffling and Juliet was trying not to laugh.
Juliet tapped on her shaking shoulder and offered her a small box (along with a thank-you note she'd insisted he write out himself), and a teary Patricia opened it up and was transformed into a child on Christmas morning: it was full of crystals from her favorite shop.
She hugged Carlton fiercely again and then went after Juliet (Carlton did not intervene despite her silent pleas for help), and when she turned away to blow her nose, they fled in silent agreement, down the stairs and around the corner…
… to Woody's lair.
Carlton steeled himself at the door. "Just so you know," he said evenly, "If Woody comes within five feet of me, I will draw my weapon."
"And if he comes within five feet of me, I will draw your weapon," she said just as evenly.
They looked at each other, and—also in silent agreement—switched sides so she'd have easier access just in case.
Woody looked up from a tray full of bones. "Oh, hello." He counted out a few femurs and then asked pleasantly—for after all, he was always pleasant—if he could help them with something.
Carlton debated saying sorry, we have the wrong room. Juliet read his mind and gave him A Look.
He sucked it up. "We wanted to thank you."
"Oh! How nice." He beamed. "For what?"
Juliet took over when she realized Carlton was flummoxed. "When you came to visit last week. That was nice of you."
He was a child, really. A toddler. Maybe an alien toddler. Carlton sighed. "You brought pizza and an eyeball."
"Pizza! Wow, I would really love a pizza right now."
"It's seven a.m.," Juliet pointed out carefully.
"Yes, but there's no wait at this hour. The delivery guys are just praying for customers."
I… I got nothin'.
"We wanted you to have this," Carlton said, fighting not to show the impatience he felt whenever he was in Woody's presence too long. He thrust out the gift bag, which contained the plush eyeball.
Woody took it excitedly. "How thoughtful!"
Juliet glanced at Carlton and shook her head. "It saved our lives, you see. Carlton was able to kick it at the guy who about to kill us, and the distraction allowed me to get the upper hand."
The man actually gasped. "Oh, my God! Someone was about to kill you? Did you make it out okay?"
Carlton had no words. In fact, he was pretty sure his brain was beginning to melt.
Juliet bit her lip. "Yes. We're fine."
"Thank heavens." Woody put his hand to his chest, profoundly relieved.
"So, uh, we thought this eye could sort of watch over you here in the lab." Her smile was bright. "We hope you like it."
In actuality, Carlton had made it clear to Juliet that he would set the damn thing on fire rather than have it roll around in his condo even one more day. No matter where he stashed it, it always seemed to end up in his path. Juliet swore she wasn't moving it. He mostly believed her, until Sunday afternoon when they were leading each other to the bedroom for a little 'nap' which would not involve sleep, and the big blue eyeball was sitting squarely on his pillow. He looked at her sternly; she dissolved into giggles; he gave her a good talking to (naked, half up against the wall and the rest on the floor, and mostly via moans and gasps), and they'd hatched their regifting plan together.
Woody pulled the eye out of the bag, seemingly euphoric. Then his expression changed and he looked up at them in wonder. "It's all coming back to me now! And wow! This is exactly like the one I gave you!"
Without missing a beat, Juliet said, "Yes. Yes, it is."
That's it. Leaving now.
He turned away without waiting for Juliet, but Woody's anxious voice stilled him.
"Lassie! I just remembered about your eyes. Did you ever get your vision back?"
Carlton opened his mouth. He looked at Juliet. He looked at Woody. He closed his mouth.
Juliet was frozen, caught in her own what-the-hell fugue state.
Deep breath. C'mon, Lassiter. You can do this.
He said briskly, as if Woody weren't a wingnut, "Not yet. Soon, though. Couple of weeks, tops. Nice bone collection, Strode."
Juliet caught up with him at the bottom of the stairs, laughing and laughing until he pulled her around into the alcove and put his arms around just to help her settle down.
"We pay this man," he said wonderingly. "We pay him actual money."
"Is it the chemicals?" Juliet asked just as wonderingly.
"Not the ones from the job." He tilted her head up, caressing her soft cheek. "By the way, you're beautiful."
She blushed and squeezed him hard.
"But regrettably, we do have to go upstairs now."
She sighed, then took a quick look around before leaning up and kissing him quickly. "For courage."
He stole a kiss of his own. "For my own courage."
It was hard not to take hold of her hand as they went up the stairs. Sgt. Allen would have had time to alert everyone to their arrival, and sure enough, as they reached first floor, it started.
At first he couldn't process what was going on. There had to be some other… thing… going on. He even looked over his shoulder to see if someone else was coming up the stairs behind them, but no.
An intake of breath at his side reminded him he wasn't alone—and what was going on was probably mostly for her.
Everywhere they looked, people were smiling at them. Uniforms, detectives, administrative staff. Buzz, looking like he might still be as sniffly as Karen mentioned last week.
Carlton and Juliet advanced further, slowly… and then the applause started.
He stopped; Juliet went a step beyond, but then she stopped too.
Karen Vick came out her office—and she applauded along with the others.
His heart was pounding, like he was some kind of rookie out for his first bust. He glanced at Juliet and she was pale, but becoming pinker each second. Her hand went to her lips, as if to conceal their trembling, and she looked back at him with misty eyes.
So damned beautiful.
He started applauding too.
Juliet gasped and the tears escaped, and despite their audience she rushed into his arms and hugged him, hiding her face from everyone—but never her heart from him.
Carlton laughed and soothed her, and Karen approached, all smiles for both of them. "Good morning, detectives! It is very nice to have you back."
Composing herself, Juliet stepped back from Carlton and wiped a tear off her cheek, still flushed. "Thank you, Chief. It is very very nice to be back."
This generated a fresh round of applause.
Karen gave an indulgent glance to the rallying troops behind her. "I don't suppose there's a chance in hell of getting any real work done today, so come on into the conference room and let's get this doughnut party started."
That generated several actual cheers, and they were swept along in the tide of goodwill.
For the next hour, Carlton heard one inexplicable remark after another: so pleased you're all right; we really missed you, man; the place wasn't the same without you; my wife told me to man up but I almost didn't want to be a cop if you weren't here.
He stared at Buzz, who was completely sincere, since it was physiologically impossible for him to be otherwise. "I…" He floundered a moment, and chose the truth. "Thanks, but it would be a damn shame for you to leave the force. We need more dedicated, hard-working officers like you."
For a second he thought Buzz was going to pass out.
Dial it back. He's used to you being a bastard.
But before he could bring Buzz down to earth with a well-placed harsh word, Juliet approached with a cup of coffee and a smile which lit her eyes and warmed her heart.
"If we time this right, we can party until lunch time."
"If we time it better," he countered, "we can swing home at lunchtime."
"For lunch, you mean." It was a challenge, but a quirk of her eyebrow said she knew exactly what he had in mind.
"O'Hara, what else would I mean?"
"That 'innocent' look doesn't work for you, Irish." She stood a little closer, her voice dropping. "At least six people made a point of telling me they were enormously relieved you're all right and back to work." Sipping her coffee, she added slyly, "And I see that blush."
Carlton shifted uncomfortably. "I admit to having a problem with… praise not related to my actual work."
Before Juliet could do more than roll her eyes, Karen Vick called out to get everyone's attention. "All right, I think it's time we at least pretended to get back to work, and certainly we've saved a lot of it for our returning heroes. Detectives O'Hara and Lassiter, please join me in my office so I can bring you up to speed on our current cases."
She went out first, and Carlton stood to follow them, but Juliet paused in the wide hall, looking at their desks, at the walls which had surrounded them all these years.
"It's like I was gone forever," she murmured.
With a smile, she sipped her coffee. "None. As far as I'm concerned, this was the best assignment ever."
He slid his hands in his pockets lest he give in to the urge to touch her. "Hell yeah. Thanks to you, DiMera and Nardi and their operation are officially kaput."
Juliet pinned him where he stood with a stern look. "It wasn't just me who did that, and it isn't them I meant." She relaxed, and her smile now was a balm, like always, only now he felt it was only for him. "When are you going to marry me?"
Carlton blushed down to his feet. "As soon as you let me."
Karen tapped peremptorily on the glass pane of her door and they started moving again.
"We'll talk," Juliet said with a little smile.
"Soon," he agreed.
"Over 'lunch,' maybe?"
"After 'lunch,'" he corrected. "I doubt I'll be able to talk with my mouth full."
Now it was Juliet who blushed a deep pink, and as he closed the door behind them in the office, Carlton knew one thing for certain: as long as he lived, and as long as she'd let him, he would stand at Juliet's side.
And later, over their 'lunch,' Juliet's whispered words of love left no doubt that she felt exactly the same about him.
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