The door comes off the hinges in January.
Not literally – not that Chuck has much doubt that she’s entirely capable of taking a door off of its hinges, and that’s not even when she’s in a bad mood – but for all intents and purposes it’s just as startling.
One minute his biggest worry is the trying to uncork the wine bottle in his hands and the next Carina’s standing in the living room of their suite, dressed all in black and somehow minus a coat despite the falling snow outside their window. Vail in the middle of winter turns out to be a very cold place, fireplace or no.
“Uncle Sam’s looking for you,” she says, nudging the door shut with her heel and crossing her arms. Bryce has handguns lined up on the table beside him, cleaning them even if they haven’t been used in a little over a week, and the dismissive flick of her eyes over them either shows that she’s trusting or shows that she thinks she’s faster.
Carina isn’t a very trusting person. Or a trustworthy one, for that matter.
There are worse alternatives.
“Yeah? In Vail?” Bryce challenges.
“Denver, actually. The CIA and the NSA put together a task force about a month ago. Looks like you two left a paper trail to go with your dead bodies.”
“How do you know about it then?”
“I have friends.” Her smile is cutting. Chuck’s fairly sure that’s not the word she’s looking for. “Those friends will be here soon. I suggest you get on the first flight out of here.”
“What about you?”
She shrugs. “Like I said, I have friends.”
He looks to Bryce but Bryce won’t lift his eyes off of Carina’s form, like he’s hoping to find something in the sway of her hips as she walks towards the door.
(Chuck met Bryce in the back of a black town car, four years after he’d been recruited into the CIA during his senior year of college.
Sitting in that chair in Professor Fleming’s office at Stanford, passively listening to his plans fall through in favor of something bigger, in favor of something that can’t be brushed away with a simple ‘no thanks, I like my life just fine’, had been terrifying. Quite possibly the most terrifying experience he’d ever been through since he got a letter in the mail that might or might not have been his acceptance letter, sealed on the kitchen counter and his fingers refusing to move.
And then he got in that car with a man whose picture had been put in front of him in conjunction with the words rogue agent not two months earlier, a man who held a gun in his hand, a charming smile on his lips, and promises that he only wanted to talk to him and he could walk away if he chose to.
He never walked.
That’s the part that the CIA, NSA, and every other three letter governmental organization focuses on. That’s what earned him the same label.
But it’s the part that gets thrown by the wayside that’s especially interesting, because there had been a woman in Bryce’s hotel room that night who shook hands with him and told him her name was Maria, who grabbed Bryce’s arm and pulled him outside onto the terrace for just a minute, I swear, flipping glossy dark brown hair and speaking in an heavy Spanish accent.
When he met her the second time, her hair was strawberry blonde, her accent was gone, and her name was Carina.
Bryce never said a word about her change in alias.)
“I hear Bali’s nice this time of year,” serve as her parting words. The door clicks closed softly; it’s somehow still the loudest thing in the room.
Walker keeps him waiting for ten minutes.
“Sorry,” she says, but only half means it. When she settles down in the seat next to him, her skirt rides up an inch or two on already bare legs. Business meeting formal, with just enough skin to get her what she wants from those so inclined.
He’s not one of them. Then again, she doesn’t need him to be.
“All my stuff’s still in boxes,” she adds, cordially; “I haven’t unpacked yet.”
“We’re apprehending rogue agents, not attending the Governor’s Ball,” he replies, coolly. Her mouth twists into something unkind. If anything, he invites it. Casey’s been around the block a few too many times; he tires easily of putting on shows for the sake of office politics. “Try to keep that in mind.”
“No wonder Agent Forrest spoke so highly of you.”
“I was the one who requested the transfer.”
“Yes, you were.”
She rummages through her purse, presumably for a lipstick, or so he thinks. Instead, she’s pulling out a Blackberry. It’s only notable because he’s seen her phone and that’s not it. “Trading up?”
“In a sense.” She weighs it in her hand for a moment but never turns it on. Carefully, she puts it back in its case and sets the purse down next to her, turning to look at him. “Let’s just get this done and then we can go our separate ways.”
For once, he agrees with her.
Bryce only waits as long as it takes Carina to get on the elevator, the ding and the slide of the doors audible from their suite, to start packing. It’s not frantic – there’s a smoothness to everything Bryce does, a grace that follows him everywhere whether it’s in the way he moves through a crowded room or the way he holds a gun – but there’s a sense that time is of the essence.
They’ve got tonight. Most of tomorrow morning. Then things get dicey.
“What do you think she meant when she said she had friends?” He’s resigned himself to sitting on the edge of the bed, holding whatever Bryce hands him as he packs – every article of clothing’s perfectly folded and they leave so often that they’ve got packing down to a fine science. They could write how-to books, save some people valuable time. Of course, at the rate they’re going, they would probably have to do it from prison, but it’s the small details that always get them in the end.
“She’s in with the people after us.”
“You think she’s meeting up with them?”
Bryce nods. “It fits. Even Carina would want to get the hell out of dodge if something was going down. Which means she’s either lying or she needs to keep up appearances.”
“Couldn’t she just be leading them right to us?”
“No. I have too much dirt on her; she can’t turn on us without consequences and she knows it.”
Chuck draws nothing but blanks on that. He’s been hooked up with Bryce for a while now but there are still reserves of information that Bryce likes to keep locked away. It catches people off guard and keeps others close. Keeps Carina from screwing them over, apparently, which goes a long way to explaining why Bryce is so quick to listen to her, if not trust her. Only problem is it catches Chuck off guard too.
He’s clearly not sharing tonight, and it’s not the right time to ask why. So he lets it go instead. “So where are we going?”
Her phone rings almost as soon as they land.
Sarah slows her pace, deliberately enough that Casey notices. He turns on her, ready to give her crap most likely, and then he frowns when she raises an eyebrow. Nods. He slows to match her pace. “I’ve had better.”
“I have a present for you,” Carina says, cutting right to the chase.
“There’s a coffee shop down the street from your hotel. Meet me there at nine.”
She checks her watch. No one’s getting much sleep tonight.
“You can bring the NSA suit they strapped you down with. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen Casey.”
“I wouldn’t want to miss that reunion.”
“Then I’ll see you at nine.”
There’s a click as she hangs up and then Casey’s looking at her expectantly before she can really do anything but repeat the information back to him. “Carina Miller – that contact I have with the DEA – wants to meet with us. Says there’s a coffee place near the hotel.”
He grunts but remains otherwise silent on the matter.
“You two have a history?”
“Really? She said it’s been awhile since she’s seen you.” Sarah doesn’t have it in her to let this go, only because her desire to make him squirm outweighs her desire to end all communication with him entirely. “Seemed like a pretty significant piece of information.”
“We have the same clearance.”
“Get a move on, Walker. I’d like to sleep at some point.”
It’s a horribly obvious way to switch topics on her but she quickens her pace and drops it anyway. She can interrogate him later, when she might actually get answers out of him. Or better yet ask Carina.
She’s never been one for keeping secrets unless it’s her ass on the line.
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Chuck leans in close when he asks, covering the distance the table puts between them as much as is decent. He feels the need to whisper everything, wants to look over his shoulder every two seconds, because it’s eight-thirty in the morning and they’re sitting in Royal Cup Coffee, not in Vail, but in Denver. Where people are looking for them. Granted, it’s also where the international airport is, but chilling in a coffee shop just feels way too much like tempting fate.
They’ve been up since sometime after five. It’s possible he’s also sleep deprived and not thinking clearly. He’s not entirely convinced he slept for more than a fifteen minute stretch at a time. Bryce, however, slept like a baby. A baby with a gun on the nightstand next to him.
These are the times that Chuck knows with absolute certainty that Bryce was cut out for this, while he just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Or wrong place at the wrong time. One of those. It depends on the day, really.
“It’s coffee,” Bryce replies, raising his cup while simultaneously turning the page of the newspaper in front of him. They’re talking about war games on the front page, while Germany’s tightened airport security gets a few column inches on page three. They won’t be flying there anytime soon. “And this isn’t a small town.”
He reads upside down in peace for a few minutes, drinking scalding hot coffee and smiling over Bryce’s shoulder at the little girl climbing all over her father while he tries to keep up with the conversation on his cell phone. She smiles back, missing front tooth and all. He still watches the door. And it’s by virtue of the fact that he does watch that door so closely that he gets the jump on the Fulcrum agent who walks in, before they can become anything other than friendly patrons of the local coffeeshop.
His hand settles on Bryce’s arm and Bryce’s eyes follow the curl of his fingers, clearly labeling this as something they don’t do in public and maybe not in private either before he sees the urgency in Chuck’s eyes. “We have somewhere to be?”
“We do,” Chuck replies, and it’s all Bryce needs to get up and go.
She hits him square in the chest with his phone when he gets out of the bathroom, steam from the shower following him.
Casey growls but he catches it all the same. “What are you doing in here?”
In here as in on his bed, perched on the edge of it in street clothes, and not in her room, doing whatever it is he thinks she does when left to her own devices. She reads a lot. Spends time in the gym if there’s a nice one on the premises. She heard the one here is from the guy at the front desk but they don’t have the time for that. “Testing your reflexes.”
He levels her with a stony expression that says he both doesn’t believe her and doesn’t find her funny. She gives him a wry smile to spite him and waits until his back is turned to hit him with why she really came here.
“Your daughter called.”
And suddenly, he’s all ears, turning the phone over in his hands like he’s tempted to check whether she’s lying or not. The amount of trust they have in each other is just staggering.
“She wanted to know why you weren’t at dinner last night.” She stretches her legs out in front of her, making sure she keeps her feet out of his way should he start moving about the room again. Tripping him would just take up more time in the day than they have, should he actually manage to injure himself in the process. “It’s hard to picture you at some casual family dinner. Just the three of you. Sounds cozy.”
“There’s a lot you don’t know about me, Walker.”
“Apparently.” He checks his gun and then slips it into the waistband of his jeans, to be concealed by his jacket. They don’t exactly need to be armed for this but she’s never known him to be without a weapon. “Speaking of the three of you, we need to do something about – ”
He doesn’t hesitate to cut her off. “We’ll deal with that when we get back.”
“Fulcrum agent,” is the first thing Chuck manages to get out. It serves merely as a confirmation to what Bryce already knew, even if they both had to keep their mouths shut about it while they calmly got up, left the coffee shop – after Bryce had taken his sweet time folding his newspaper like he had nothing better in the world to do – and crossed the street to their rental car.
Now the engine idles in the background, the radio on low playing some commercial for a tanning salon in between sets.
“Markov. The one from Moscow who used to work with Stavros. I don’t think he saw us but it was definitely him.”
Their parking spot allows for a perfect view through the coffee shop window and he watches Bryce search for the man’s half-remembered face through barely tinted windows and a swarm of patrons. He knows when Bryce finds him because his hand moves to rest gently atop his gun on pure reflex. “Good memory,” the other man remarks, sounding almost faintly amused.
Right. That’s the function he serves here. Bryce has the mind for tactical planning and Chuck has the near perfect memory. Never mind their aim; that’s only half of the battle.
“Looks like we have a change of plans.”
Sarah figures out that Carina’s slept with Casey in under a minute. It’s in the way he won’t quite make eye contact with her and the way Carina’s lips stretch into a mischievous sort of smirk that always means trouble.
The only part she finds surprising is that she hadn’t heard about it before now. Carina’s always played the role of the seductress well – maybe it’s in her nature or maybe they can teach that sort of thing like they can teach her how to put a bullet between someone’s eyes with only a second or two to line up the shot – and if anyone could be Casey’s undoing, temporary or otherwise, it would be her.
But for the past month he’s been the stony-faced, pain in the ass, by-the-fucking-book agent that she has to pretend she likes for official reasons, and this is the strongest evidence she has to the contrary of that. To prove he’s human, somewhere under there. He has a daughter who she’s only ever talked to twice and never met, and probably never will for that matter, and now he’s avoiding eye contact after doing the horizontal tango with her sometimes-friend, and it’s all very odd when meshed together with the John Casey she shares an office and a job and half of a life with.
Carina hands over a manila envelope that effectively pulls her out of her own head. “I think you’ll find something of interest in there.”
A few photos spill out when she opens it. Not glossy photos either, just developed at the nearby drugstore. These are on regular printer paper, grainy digital prints that still get their point across no matter how dark or how pixilated. Bryce Larkin looking out a window. Two men with similar heights and similar builds as their two rogue agents entering a hotel. Chuck Bartowski exiting the same building, phone pressed to his ear, eyes slightly widened and definitely looking for something.
Casey’s over her shoulder in an instant.
“Where did you get these?”
“Are you sure you don’t mean ‘when did I get these’?” Carina leans forward ever so slightly and Sarah keeps a firm grip on the folder in front of her. It’s not that she thinks she’s going to take them back, it’s just that there’s always a catch and always a price for these things. “The only where you need to know is where they were taken.”
Fine. She’ll let Carina call the shots on this. “When?”
“Where?” Casey chimes in.
“Vail. Hotel called The Lodge. Executive Suite, best I can tell from their floor plans. And I’m sure if you show their pictures around you’ll find the locals very cooperative.”
“In exchange for what?”
Casey’s face belies his confusion, a frown mixed with hesitation that creases his brow. So he’s slept with her but hasn’t made deals with her. Rarely does Carina want anything up front; she’d much rather keep people in her back pocket.
She says, “An IOU.”
The other woman nods in agreement.
“We take these and I back you up the next time shit hits the fan.”
The handshake is nothing but a formality. This was never not the way it was going to go down.
The sound of the car door swinging open very nearly leads to Bryce with a gun in his face and one hell of an unhappy accident. Bryce is prepared and his hand beats Chuck’s to the gun he already knows is there.
“Someone’s jumpy.” For a moment, their hands stay like that; Bryce’s resting atop Chuck’s, cold atop warm, and then they separate and Bryce slides into the car, pulling the door shut behind him. “Our guy still in there?”
“Yeah. And he’s taking an awful lot of phone calls.” True to form, Markov’s still on the phone. Chuck thinks that must mean he’s not here alone. He’s been there for forty-five minutes, doing nothing but talking on the phone and barely drinking his coffee; his gut feeling is that Markov’s waiting for someone else to join him. “There’s something else going on too that you might want to take a look at.”
“Those three.” He points to the back corner of the coffee shop. Two people facing them, one facing away. Two girls and a guy. “The first two showed up five minutes after you left. The other one – I don’t really know where she came from.”
“What’s so special about them?”
“Saw the second girl pass an envelope to the first two when they sat down. Seems like they got pretty chatty after that.”
“Could be blackmail,” Bryce offers, like that’s the pleasant solution. “Could be a private investigator or just someone who keeps photos in suspicious looking envelopes.”
This is one of those times where it would be handy to have binoculars. And not be trying to do this in broad daylight, on the other side of the street. “Did you get the tickets?”
Bryce pulls a pair of them out his pocket, waves them just long enough for Chuck to get a glimpse of the destination, and then sticks them in the glove box for safe keeping. Or safer keeping. They’re probably going to end up killing Markov and that means blood and it would helpful if blood didn’t get on things like airplane tickets. It’s a long shot but it’s them – more specifically it’s him – and these things happen.
“Our friend the diplomat owes us.”
“Yes. Yes he does.”
“It doesn’t leave until two so we’ve got,” a quick glance at the clock, “three hours if we’re pushing it. Security’s still tight.”
“So what’s the plan?”
“And the other three?”
Bryce shrugs. “Not our problem.”
“You’re sure about this?”
He’s second guessing her, tone just this side of condescending. It makes her want to hit him. It makes her feel the need to remind him that Carina may be her friend but she’s not the one who jumped in bed with her.
She doesn’t do any of those things.
He puts the car in reverse.
Chuck watches Markov get into his car, four spots ahead of theirs, buddy in tow. He watches him check the mirrors and carry on the better part of a lengthy conversation with the unidentified man. It does nothing for his anxiety, as he taps his fingers against the steering wheel to the beat of music that’s only in his head.
“We have to do this, right?” Bryce looks over, sharply. “We have to take him out. Them out. Wait, is it him or them?”
The other man fishes a pair of sunglasses out of the console, the sun rising higher in the sky and blinding them thanks to the snow on the ground. He grew up in California; he’s not used to this. He might never get used to this. Bryce should be though, Connecticut born and raised and all, and maybe that’s why he’s prepared.
That doesn’t explain why Chuck’s the one driving on thankfully well-plowed roads but of all the things he feels like questioning, that’s not one of them.
“We can’t leave witnesses and for all we know that guy’s Fulcrum too.”
Markov pulls out. Chuck follows suit.
(It’s important to note that if Chuck hadn’t been so focused on the road, he could’ve looked out the window to see the gruff man and his blonde companion as they drove in the opposite direction.
It’s important to note that if Sarah hadn’t been so focused on not looking at Casey, at looking out the passenger side window, she could’ve leaned forward and had a good look at her targets as they drove by.
It’s important to note that no one ever saw Carina leave.)
They make it there in two hours time. Carina leaves them with an address to go with the photos and they manage to avoid traffic but hit every red light on the way. Casey’s impatience turns to agitation shortly, and she occupies herself by checking to make sure her gun’s loaded, safety off.
As much as the fantasy part of undercover work had appealed to her when she first started, getting to be someone else for a few hours or a few weeks, the bloom fell off that rose fairly quickly. If nothing else, it tends to be incredibly inconvenient, especially when it forces her to find new hiding places under skintight dresses and in fancy updos. Here, she’s just an agent with a gun. And a knife. Always a knife.
“Backup’s on its way,” he says, tucking his phone away.
Sarah takes a long hard look at the expanse of the hotel in front of her, picturesque in the snowy town with the mountains just beyond. It’s huge but they’ve got a room number and a head start and whether or not she likes Casey there’s still a reason why most people in their line of work know not to fuck with him. “Screw it, we don’t need them.”
“Risky move, Walker,” he observes. And then starts forward. “I like it.”
“Hey. Yeah, over here. Hi. Do you happen to know how to get to the airport from here? The street signs are kind of confusing and my girlfriend is – ”
A thud. Unnamed buddy crumples to the ground, revealing Bryce behind him, gun in hand. Only he didn’t shoot him, he just knocked him unconscious.
“You didn’t let me finish. I had this whole spiel about the King Tut display at the art museum and –” Bryce makes a strange waving motion with his hand that he initially takes to mean come here, when in fact it actually means Markov’s coming.
He swallows the rest of his response and tries not to watch Bryce drag unnamed buddy back by the dumpsters – and this has got to be the shadiest part of the city that they could possibly find, so of course the bad guys would choose to do business there.
Rinse and repeat. “Hey. Yeah, over here. Hi. Do you happen to know how – ” and then, because this is a case where they actually have to act fast since Markov’s actually seen them in the not so distant past, he’s down on the ground too. “I’m never going to get to finish that.”
“Do you recognize either of these men?”
The hotel clerk’s eyes jump between the pictures she slides in front of him, nervous demeanor that’s turned all of his movements jumpy and uncoordinated ever since she flashed her ID and Casey flashed his gun. “Yeah, I think so. These pictures are kind of grainy so it’s hard to tell but – ”
“You think so or you’re sure?”
“Um,” he goes over them again; she bites her tongue and fights to hold onto the little remaining patience that she has left. She’s not usually like this. But, then, she doesn’t usually have solid leads on her hands that turn out to be wrong or a partner who she swears keeps looking at her like he could’ve told her this would happen and saved them the trip. “Yeah, I think I’m sure.”
She puts on her most charming smile and tries not to focus on the uncomfortable way it stretches and pulls at the corners. “I’m going to need see your security footage. And your manager.”
Without a second’s pause, the guy is off, darting through the door to the office behind him and disappearing from view. She spares a glance in Casey’s direction. Glum and relatively unimpressed, Casey holds up his walkie. “Building’s clear.”
They make it to the airport early.
Chuck’s spent more time in airports – and on airplanes – than most people spend in their entire lives. Possibly combined with their children’s entire lives. Unless they’re pilots or flight attendants or work in airports. Basically, he’s spent a lot of time in them and there becomes a point where the sound of final boarding calls over the PA serves as a comforting sort of white noise that almost puts him to sleep, much in the way of a favorite lullaby or that song you love that mellows you out.
Not Bryce. Bryce wants him awake, so much so that the hand that kept nudging him awake is now a permanent fixture on his person, thumb against his wristbone and fingers that sometimes move along his hand almost absentmindedly. It’s got to be the most distracting thing in the entire airport, and that’s with the man in full clown get up by the coffee vendor.
Also with the threat of having an entire taskforce descend upon them at any given second. Which is why Bryce wants him awake in the first place.
Still, it’s distracting and it makes him think, something he hasn’t done much of outside of strategy and planning since Carina showed up at their door. And then it makes him talk. “So. What we were talking about last night, before – ” a woman passes them by, rolling luggage behind her, and her eyes find the point where their bodies connect with some disapproval; neither of them moves but Chuck’s voice gets a little higher and a little tighter, “before our friend showed up – do you maybe want to talk about it now?”
“No,” Bryce replies, nonchalantly.
“No. Okay.” The weight of his hand changes over from comforting to suffocating. It triggers whatever fight Chuck has left in him. “No. Not okay. Not okay at all. This isn’t something that we’re just going to ignore. This is us.”
It’s the first time Bryce really looks at him since he started talking. Since after he hit him in the arm with the back of his hand as they gave the final boarding call for Atlanta, a solid five seconds of eye contact that asked if he could please just stay awake until they were in the air. Chuck had sighed but he’d stayed wide-eyed and Bryce’s hand had settled. “It’s us.”
“That’s what I said.”
“You’re talking in circles.”
“No, you’re talking in circles.”
The phone on the armrest between them rings. Unknown number. It’s just as dangerous to pick it up as it is to let it ring.
Bryce hesitates. “I should – ”
The other man’s eyes are searching, begging him to understand cold hard facts that Chuck’s already come around to accepting years ago. This isn’t just their job anymore, this is their life, and everything else is secondary.
Even the urge Chuck sometimes feels to close the space between them or Bryce’s disregard for physical boundaries as the months pass. Even something that could change something as integral as their partnership.
So Bryce picks up.
“Hate to ruin that little moment,” Carina says into the phone, watches Bryce react to her words instantly, eyes scanning the scene in front of him and head turning. His eyes never lock on her form. They never even come close. “I just thought I’d tell you the coast is clear.”
“Is this another one of your tricks?” His tone carries a note of humor, of amusement, as does his smile, but then he also knows she can see him. “Because after Lisbon – ”
She cuts him off. “This isn’t Lisbon. And the coast is clear.”
“Why the courtesy call?”
“Because I know about the Intersect.” Carina watches him stiffen, spine turning rigid. “And if I know, then there are other people who know.”
“And your friends?”
Chuck’s looking for her now too, based just off of the gestures Bryce is making in his direction. He almost gets up but Bryce pushes him back down.
She smiles. “Have a nice flight.”
The couch cushion sinks next to her and her head lolls against the back of it, her hand, fingers wrapped tight around a glass, the only part of her that’s still holding steady.
She spent the first half of the flight angry. The second half an unequal mix of bitter and contemplative. Then the wheels touched the ground and she decided what she wanted most of this night was a drink so she could stop feeling anything at all.
Twenty-four hours ago, she would be having that drink in her apartment or in a bar or anywhere else but here, on Casey’s couch. There are guns on the coffee table and her shoes are by the door, feet curled underneath her. She doesn’t know where her keys are. She doesn’t care.
This loss is on her.
Her friend. Her decision. Her failed lead.
To his credit, and despite all the disappointed looks he sent her way in Colorado, he hasn’t said a single word to that effect.
But then he doesn’t have to.
“What the fuck kind of business does the DEA have with a pair of hitmen?” Casey muses aloud.
“I don’t know,” and she doesn’t, she doesn’t know anything except that Carina’s information, in the past, has been fairly credible. Until today. “They don’t deal with drug smugglers. Neither of them were ever affiliated with that agency and they’ve never killed anyone who was.”
“No, just CIA,” he interjects.
“And civilians,” she continues. “There’s no connection.”
“Maybe it’s not them.”
“You mean maybe it’s her?” She’d be naïve to not have considered that possibility. Carina’s always been somewhat of an enigma and, even if Sarah’s known her for the better part of a decade now, there are too many blanks to fill in about her past and her personal affiliations.
She twists her body around and angles her head so that she’s looking right at him. “She knew what flight we were on and I didn’t tell her.”
“You think she’s working with them?”
“I think I can’t rule that out and that’s what bothers me.” Her eyes flutter closed on a sigh. “And I let them slip through because I wanted this one. I wanted it and I just…went for it. I should’ve stopped to think about why she’d just come to us with that information.”
“It could’ve been an honest mistake, Walker.”
Sarah frowns at him. Maybe the alcohol makes him softer. Maybe he’s tired too. Or maybe this is just what he’s like when you strip away the context of business and the overall mission. “I can’t tell if you’re trying to placate me or actually make me feel better, but you should probably stop before I start to actually like you.”
One corner of his mouth turns up, just enough for her to notice, and it’s oddly comforting.
She closes her eyes again.