Travis approached Wes’s car in the hotel parking lot. He tilted his head, hesitated, then took his cardboard box filled with things from the hotel room stakeout, and carefully set it on the hood.
He stood back and surveyed his handiwork, then tilted the box to sit just slightly nearer the edge. Perfect. Wes would blow a gasket, which would get them back on an even keel.
Travis had felt awkward sharing about his foster homes and how they’d taught him not to get attached. Now back to the good stuff: teasing Wes! Then he wouldn’t have to put up with any tact from his partner. A tactful Wes was almost worse than no Wes at all. And far, far worse than a pissed off Wes.
Travis surveyed his handiwork and grinned. He turned at the sound of jaunty whistling and blinked at his partner. Wes carried the other box and walked from the hotel, looking smug. He carried himself like he’d just won the lottery—which in Wes body language, meant he’d got one over on his partner.
Travis’s eyes narrowed. "Why are you whistling, man?"
"I’m not." Wes stopped, and his gaze landed on the box on the hood. "Don’t scratch the hood," was all he said.
"It’s cardboard. It doesn’t scratch metal. Kind of the other way round."
"Hm." Travis unlocked the car and put his box in the trunk. "Hurry up."
"What are we hurrying for?" Travis eyed his partner.
"I’m hungry. Aren’t you?"
"Yeah, yeah, I’m hungry." Huh. Wes was sending clear signals he, too, wanted to get past their moment of apology. But also with the smugness. Travis eyed his partner. "You sure nothing’s going on?"
"Nothing," said Wes in his calm, flat, utterly assured voice. But he was almost smiling. Travis turned the key and the engine roared to life. "Listen to that purr."
Travis gave an irritable, distracted little twist to his head. He frowned, still watching Wes. "Man, you are just doing that to irritate me, aren’t you?"
"Acting happy. You can’t possibly have got one over on me in—" He stopped. Wes hesitated, just for a second, but enough for Travis to note. "You did. You changed that temperature back!"
"I don’t know what you’re talking about." Wes pulled the car quickly onto the road.
"Man, I am gonna go and change it back." He made as if to open the door. "Pull over and let me out."
Wes’s car picked up speed. "You’re being stupid, Travis."
"Oh, I’m being stupid?" demanded Travis, crossing his arms. "Just how stupid is it to wait till my back is turned to change the temperature? When you’re not even going to be there? I can’t believe you!"
Wes turned a big, quick grin on him. "Well believe it, partner, because I won."
Travis gnawed on his lips, trying to keep back a smile, but it proved impossible. Then a laugh escaped him. He shook his head at the sight of his partner. Wes was actually tapping his fingers on the steering wheel, instead of gripping it like it was a snake he wanted to strangle.
"You sure are something else."
"Thank you." Wes gave a regal little nod. "At least I don’t do a whole victory dance." His hands stilled on the steering wheel, but he still looked happy.
"No, but you do... you do your own thing, man." Travis quickly abandoned the idea of telling him exactly what he did. He’d probably try to change his tells, and then Travis would have to learn a new set.
"So you want to grab something to eat?" asked Wes.
"Chicken parmesan?" asked Travis, perking up.
Wes laughed. "No thanks. I’ve done enough cooking for a while. I was thinking some good, old-fashioned pizza... without any notes concealed in it."
"Unless they’re from the pretty girls who work behind the counter." Travis smiled thoughtfully. "Yeah, I could go for some pizza."
"Are you kidding? How many pizza places have you been to that hire pretty girls? Unless you’re counting oh, underage high school students?"
"Nah, man, I wasn’t—"
Wes shook his head slowly. "My partner, the pervert. You know I’d have to report you."
"Hey, man, I would never—"
There it was. There was that grin again. Travis stopped arguing and sat back, crossing his arms. "You know your dimples are showing."
That wiped the smile off his partner’s face. If there was one thing Wes seemed to hate, it was how human his smile made him look—and the fact that he had dimples.
Travis gave his partner an affectionate look that, fortunately, his partner didn’t see. When they could get past sabotaging and torpedoing each other like something out of Mad magazine (Cop vs. Cop, maybe), they had a good partnership.
Sometimes, he even thought Wes was going to be permanent. Those moments gave him a strange feeling in his chest, like he could stop steeling himself against the inevitable.
It was just like foster homes. You couldn’t spend your whole life growing up one way and then expect to change overnight. Considering yourself attached permanently to anyone or anything took a big adjustment. So was not having to hold yourself back to keep safe. Or keep to surface friendliness, or banter or teasing. His partnership with Wes was the closest he’d come to permanence so far.
But sometimes, Wes was just really, really easy to tease.
"And you know what I’m gonna do after we have pizza?" asked Travis in a cheerful, fake-excited voice.
"What?" Wes replied with equal fake enthusiasm.
"I am going to go back to that hotel and change the temperature to 77!"
"You—" That took care of Wes’s smile. He gripped the steering wheel. "That would be extremely childish, Travis."
"Oh, what, more childish than what you did?" His gaze twinkled at his partner.
Now Wes’s mouth was getting that tight look to it. He shook his head. "They wouldn’t let you in. The hotel will be rented already. They’re always busy there. They’ll clean up and send the next guests right in. Right on in."
"Then I’ll use my ninja skills and break in." Travis raised a hand and laid it on his chest, shaking his head slightly. "Mm-mm. You know I got ‘em. Who’s the one who goes in to place bugs—because he won’t get caught, unlike his crazy-ass, suit-wearing partner? See, Wes, I blend in. You don’t. You stand out almost as bad as those feds did."
Wes shook his head gently but firmly. "Travis, you do not blend in. You have spent your life not blending in. You can’t just switch it on and off."
"You can’t. The only reason you went in with the bug is because I’m better at working the technical issues—like, oh, say, communications? The earpiece you didn’t even remember to put on?"
"Oh, you mean the one that failed?"
"Failed? It did not fail. And that was a really stupid joke."
"Are you kidding? That was hilarious. Classic stakeout humor. ‘What? What? I can’t hear you!’"
Travis’s mouth tightened. "If you ever have real technical problems, you’ll be like the little boy who cried wolf. You know that, don’t you?"
"The little boy who— Seriously? That’s the best you can…?" He raised a hand, waved it. "Nah, you know what? I’m not worried. You’d be there."
"Of course I would. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s not a smart thing to do."
Wes pulled into the parking lot next to a pizza place.
"We’re there already?" Travis looked around. "Hey, I like this place!"
Travis bounced out of the car and headed towards the building, rubbing his hands together.
Wes clicked the lock so on his keys so the car beeped. He caught up with his partner. The two men fell into step.
"So…" said Travis. "Pepperoni, right?"
"You know I like olives."
Travis pursed his lips, pretended to contemplate. "Yeah, but olives are like a salad food." He glanced over at his partner to see the reaction.
There we go—there it was! Just that little clench of the jaw. Next would come the wrinkling on his brow that Wes was totally unconscious of, then the little vein on his temple, and finally the subtle fist clenching at his sides. The sighs. The eyerolls. The less-than-perfect posture as he slouched, as if wanting to disappear while Travis embarrassed him in public.
You know what? Skip all that today. It’s not worth it for pepperoni.
You know what? Skip all that today. It’s not worth it for pepperoni.
"Yeah, you know, olives do sound good today," said Travis suddenly.
Wes blinked. "Really?" His brows rose.
"Really." Travis stepped forward to the counter where a teenage girl with skin problems waited, looking bored. He gave her his nicest smile, the one designed to boost her self-esteem without making her fall for him. He glanced at her nametag. "Hi, Cindy, we’d like to order." He leaned on the counter. "One large pizza, with olives. And extra cheese. And those dipping sauces…"
"With an order of bread sticks," interjected Wes, standing next to him, still a bit suspicious, probably thinking that Travis meant to change the order at the last minute.
Travis shot his partner a look. "Really? You’ll have room for breadsticks?"
"I’m extra hungry today, okay? All that running? Saving you?"
Travis held up his hands. "Okay, hey, no offense. I’m just surprised is all, because…" He hesitated, as if holding back from an awkward declaration.
"Because what?" demanded Wes, glaring at him suspiciously.
"Because, well, you got that little bit of a gut going on lately. But I guess you didn’t notice, so never mind."
"I have a gut? I have a gut? I’ll have you know—"
"You work out a lot? Yeah, I know. That’s good. Keep away the ravages of age and too many carbs for as long as you can. I support that." His gaze twinkled at Wes, daring him to blow his top.
Wes clamped his mouth shut, gave Travis a hard, level stare, and didn’t say one word.
When the breadsticks arrived, Travis snatched the first one, still hot, and ate it right then and there, grinning at his partner.
Wes’s lips compressed.
"I do not have a gut," he grumbled in a low voice on the way out to the car, Travis carrying the hot, wonderful-smelling pizza and the breadsticks, Wes digging out his keys.
But all the same, Wes glanced at his reflection in the car window as he walked. He also seemed to be… tightening his stomach muscles.
Travis shook his head slowly. "Man, you are too easy to tease!"
Wes got into the car without another word.
Travis got seated with the hot pizza box on his lap, burning through his jeans. Once in a while it got too hot and he shifted it. He opened the lid partway and began to ease out a piece of pizza.
"Do not eat that in my car!"
"Don’t be grumpy, Dimples. Have a breadstick."
Travis raised a warning finger. "If you hand that to me while I’m driving, you’re going to be sorry."
"Here, I’ll feed it to you. Open your mouth. Go on." He moved a warm breadstick towards his partner’s face.
"Do you want to ride in the trunk? Because I will pull this car over."
"Oooh. Never mind, then. I’ll just eat it myself." Holding a hand under it, he took an exaggerated bite.
"Not in the car!"
Travis chewed and swallowed slowly. "Mm, it’s good, man. You sure you don’t want a bite?"
Wes’s hands tightened on the steering wheel. "Tomorrow you are vacuuming out this car."
"What? I didn’t even make a mess!" He finished eating his breadstick while Wes pointedly ignored him. "Mm, that was good. Tell you what, you find even one crumb in here and I’ll vacuum your precious car, okay?"
Wes nodded, looking a bit mollified. "I’ll hold you to that. But don’t think you’re going to start eating in my car all the time, because you’re not."
"Don’t worry." Travis stretched a bit. "Now, whose home are we going to eat at? Your sterile, impersonal hotel room? Or my homey, friendly little place?"
Wes refused to rise to bait. "Yours. It’s closer."
Travis pretended to think about this. "Mm, yeah, but you got those nice dishes at your place. And you’d do the cleanup afterward. I mean, it’s kind of the rule. Your place, your cleanup. And you’re so good at that. So, maybe…"
"Travis," said Wes. "Shut up."