Actions

Work Header

Ends of the Earth

Chapter Text

Morning sunlight seeped through the slatted window shades over his bed. Max Evans had been awake for twenty minutes. He’d been awake for twenty minutes and alive again for five days. Five days ago he awoke to screaming, the sound of his siblings echoing off the vaulted curve of the cave hidden behind a twist in the turquoise mines. He had awakened like surfacing, shivering in the cold air, slippery and confused under Liz’s hands. He’d latched on to her, to the way her eyes filled with tears as she smiled at him. She was the only thing in focus.

The second day he’d woken to tears, tasting salt as he kissed Liz in the dark, clutching her close as she cried. She’d stroked her hands into his hair, thumb moving against his brow. She pet him like she was learning the feel of him by braille. She wet her lips, slow before catching her hair behind her ear and ducking to kiss him. He tasted her grief, her giddy disbelief, her unwavering faith. She held his shoulders with light palms, eyes never leaving his as they moved. He’d whispered the only word that mattered in that moment.

“Liz.”

Today, he woke to quiet; he woke to love. Today, he woke to soft simple light stretching against Liz with a tender touch. Her hair caught on her eyelashes where it fell over her face. She slept nearly face first in her pillow, exhausted and curled up so that her knees were pressed against his hip, her forehead was tucked against his shoulder. She’d stolen most of the covers during the night, tangling up and pulling them around her like a nest. He didn’t mind, simply stretched out on his back with his heels dangling over the edge of the bed and other arm trapped under the weight of her hair. He didn’t mind the way he could feel her so alive against him in the warm puffs of her breath. Max Evans was alive.

The fire had died down to a soft ember glow, ashes dusting away from the log when it popped and flopped down in the grate. His room was the same, covered with leather bound books with gilt edges that he’d started collecting during garage sales with his mother. He’d remember the way his father looked, leaned back at his desk and staring at something only he could see, leather briefcase open and the legal briefs stacked neatly. Max had learned how to love with a quiet intensity from Phil Evans and the way he would watch his wife make coffee in the mornings over the tortoise shell frames. He learned to love literature from the way his father would stroke a careful thumb over the spines in the law library at his office. Max learned by rote the simple way to take care of family in the way his father would pause and kiss each of them on the temple before he went out of town. It always felt like a promise. It felt like purpose.

“You’re not watching me sleep are you?” Liz muttered, not opening her eyes as she stretched a hand to settle on his stomach. She had a way of petting at his skin with each finger, one at a time that made his breath catch as he smiled helplessly at the ceiling. “Cause that would be creepy.”

“I wouldn’t want that,” Max replied, rubbing his face and letting his hand drop back to the mattress with a small bounce before he heaved onto his side, pushing a knee between hers and hefting her easily to tuck against him. She fit. She fit just under his chin, hips tight and stomachs touching as they breathed. She fit with her hairline just under his lips and he hummed into the beauty of it. “This is real?”

Liz Ortecho stroked up his back, dancing easy sleep numb fingers along his spine and then back down over the plane of muscle to tuck just under his thigh with a little rough voiced groan. She arched against him and he swallowed thickly as she pressed the word against his throat. “Yes.”

She was swimming in an old t-shirt of his, the soft silk of her panties sliding hot against his thigh. He closed his eyes against the way his mouth watered. “Good.”

“Such a way with words,” she teased, tilting her head back to bite at his chin. He glanced down, lost in her dimples for a few moments before he moved. His fingers carded into the mess of her hair, feeling the silky weight of it before tucking to massage lightly against the heat of her scalp.

“It’s early. I haven’t even had coffee yet. I call foul.”

“Quote me something.” Liz wrinkled her nose, pushing into his touch like a greedy house cat.

“Um.” He ducked, pressing a quick kiss against the corner of her mouth that she chased with a second softer kiss. “I love you simply, without problems or pride,” he quoted Neruda, breathless as she arched against him, reaching to pull his wrist between her thighs. He startled at the way her gaze went focused on him, the touch of her teeth to her bottom lip as she rolled against his knuckles.

“Max, please,” she whispered, tugging her shirt up and arching as her heels slipped against the sheets.

“I love you in this way because I do not know any other way of loving but this,” he muttered, breathing going tight as he ducked, pressing the words into her throat, the soft skin at the divot between her collarbones. “In which there is no I or you,” he managed, eyes gone wide before narrowing with purpose as he turned his wrist and hooked his fingers around the elastic of her panties. “So intimate that your hand upon my chest is my hand.” The bed shifted with his weight as he moved lower, mouth slipping between her breasts and down her stomach. Her thighs pressed against his wrist, trapping his fingers against the slippery heat of her. Max wanted, desperately and with intent. “So intimate- fuck, Liz you’re so wet.” He touched at her, wondering before finding his purpose in the soft breathed moan of his name. “So intimate that when I fall asleep your eyes close.”

Liz shook under his mouth, under his fingers. He loved her like this, all touch and emotion, welling and hot against his fingers. He liked to look up the length of her body as he sank to shoulder between her thighs. He liked to watch the way her chin would tilt, her mouth drop open. He loved the way she let him love her, sighing his name in small whimpers as he opened his mouth to taste. “Así te amo,” she managed, pushing both hands to tangle into his hair, keeping him against her. “Porque no sé amar de otra manera.” He could feel her thighs tremble as he sipped her, gentle and urgent. She would tug his hair even as she slipped another hand to cup the back of his neck.

The clock on the nightstand started to flicker, the electric feel crackling in the room. It felt taut, buzzing over his skin with a sweet heat. He was tugging her panties down over her knees and off, blind to anything but a need coiling tight in the way she was starting to tense, flushing under him. The lights in the hallway flared bright and then shut off as Max focused, tighter to the single point of contact, the copper penny tang of her against his tongue. He could feel the way she wanted him in the press of her thighs, the clench and release keeping his mouth to time. He could hear the circuitry sizzling, melting like he was under the intense heat and want. Liz had that effect on him, startling him to awareness. She was like licking a battery, sharp and stinging but sweet on the back end, addictive. She made him forget- forget the world just outside the space between her thighs, under his tongue and writhing under his hands. Loving her was a gentle storm gone roiling and wild. He could hear her, muffled but there. He could hear the way her moans were sliding longer, breaking and breathless as she flexed and clutched at him. She was close. She was close with his name on her lips and his fingers tight on her hips.

Max distilled to this: he needed her, he wanted her, and he had to have her.

She came like she'd been shocked, arching hard and fingers knotted in his hair as she pulled at him. It was urgent, pulling him up and away so she could smear their mouths together, growling into the aftershocks. Max felt the stunned wonder kick into need as he let her lick the taste of herself from his lips. She hooked a heel at his lower back and rolled, settling him deep with an ease that shorted his brain and set him into the stuttered helpless motion of moving in her, with her, for her. He rolled his hips in time with his name on her breath.

The only thing that didn’t seem affected by this was his wristwatch, ticking quietly without the electric need that was shorting his alarm, his phone, and the recessed lights in the hallway. He could hear the soft squeal of electric confusion as a fuse blew but he was curling his arms under Liz, hooking his hands at her shoulders to pull, toes scrambling in the sheets to shove deeper, get closer, be nearer. He focused on the ticking, losing himself in the endless count of time. He stretched into the space between seconds, overwrought and desperate, out of breath as he sought blindly for her mouth. He whispered against her lips, thoughtless endless words that he’d be embarrassed of later if he could remember anything but this and her.

He lost himself in the heat and shock of it. He went dark, short circuited and lost in the stuttering ache of loving her. It edged into too sweet, too good, too much.

The ticking reminded him to move, coming back to himself in breaths and pieces. The soft count of time just to his left on the nightstand. He turned, pressing his mouth against her jaw and loosened the rough grip he had on her shoulders as he took a slow breath.

“Did I hurt y-”

“No.” Liz touched light fingers down his spine, stroking him gently. “Did check out for a minute there, though.” She wrinkled her nose and he smiled, bumping his against hers. “I’ll just add that to my growing list of proof.”

Max managed to get his weight braced onto his forearms, touching light fingers to her face and watching her with soft eyes. “Proof?”

“That Liz Ortecho is amazing at the sex.”

Max laughed and dropped his forehead against hers. “I can’t feel my toes.”

Liz fist pumped. “The best at the sex.”

There was a heart stoppingly perfect moment when she was laughing, eyes closed and smile bright that he could only stare at, wondering. “I may need more proof.”

“Greedy.” Liz wet her lips, frowning momentarily before patting at his lower back. “I need you to move. I do not want you to move. However, my teeth feel fuzzy and I can’t... well, brushing my teeth becomes necessary when I think about how many people I will be talking to at work today.”

“Your breath is pretty spectacular,” Max agreed, face gone serious as he shifted off of her, rolling to the side with a soft hiss. He didn’t protest the pillow to the face, understanding his part in the action. “So violent.”

“You deserved it.”

“No argument.”

“Right. I knew I liked you.” Liz smiled cheekily at him over her shoulder, the bottom hem of his t-shirt scandalously flashing the bottom curve of her ass at him when she started walking out of the room. “It’s Rosa’s first day back on the floor. I don’t want to be late.”

Max rolled onto his back, smiling helplessly at the ceiling before reaching to grab his watch. The clock on his nightstand blinked a solid twelve oclock at him. The watch was an antique from his father, gold face and roman numerals with a small window to the phase of the moon. It had a soft brown leather band with gold clasp. Max frowned, taking a moment to tap the watch face where it had stopped in the night. He wound it absently, rolling out of bed and padding after her as he buckled it to his wrist.

“Shower?”

“Shower.”

**

Rosa decided that she was a Mazzy Star song. Not a specific one, just the vague emotional tangle that followed listening to one on her back on the roof, focused on a constellation she had never heard of before Isobel Evans took her hand. She was standing in front of the wide jukebox at the end of the line of booths in the Crash Down, caught in her reflection in the glass. She looked the same, eerily and exactly the same from the mole under her eye to the way she’d pulled her hair half up for health code, and sighed under the wobbly antenna headband. She wanted to get high, not full blown fucked up and unrecognizable, just a little stoned on the edge of the roof and daring the world to try and kill her again. She wanted to take the edge off.

The problem was the edge was an entire decade where she was dead. And she didn’t remember being dead; she was just dealing with the aftermath of being alive again.

Sanders Salvage Yard wasn’t the scene of resurrection she would have planned for herself, but it’s what she’d been given. She’d been handed a gift by the same hand that had taken her life. Rosa had stared at where Isobel Evans was laid on the ground, the way Maria had scrambled out of the bunker hole in the ground to hover over the blond. She watched, arms crossed over her chest as Kyle fussed, checking her pulse. Michael Guerin and Alex stared at each other across the fire. She’d watched it from the outside, wrapped in flannel and forgetting.

Rosa wasn’t used to being forgotten, but they’d all had ten years of practice.

Liz was the last one out of the hole and Rosa finally took a breath, mouth dropped open as she took a half step back. This wasn’t her place, not anymore. To her left, Hunter Manes had moved between Davi and Cerin and where everyone was standing. The other man, Levi, was watching where Isobel was stretched in the dirt with quiet curious eyes. The men moved like they lived in each other’s pockets, covering the rear while scanning the route ahead. Rosa felt the prickle of other that crawled along her spine and took a half step to the right, closer to the fire.

She’d watched in the firelight, alone until her sister peeled off from the group and found her with careful eyes and a low question. “You okay?”

“Does it matter?” Rosa gave her a small smile and widened her eyes. She sniffed, pulling the blanket tighter around her shoulders. “Did it work?”

“I hope so.”

“I want to go home, Liz.” Rosa knew she sounded small, plaintive and childlike. She was feeling thin, loose and watery like she could shiver right out of her skin and right out of this surreal life. She was sure she would wake up at any moment, but she wasn’t sure if she shouldn’t just go back to sleep, back to the dark.

“Do you think you can wait for li-”

“No.” Rosa reached out, interrupting and grabbing at Liz’s hand. “I can’t.” Rosa felt herself breaking. It was there at the surface, trembling in the way her throat went raw and rasping, closing around words she didn’t let herself think, let alone speak. “We’re only as sick as our secrets. We’re only as sick as our secrets.” The Salvage Yard felt small, closing in around her and she took one breath, another. She let out a breath and looked up, finding a place inside that was brave. It felt like Jim Valenti. “I can’t just grow up overnight. I don’t get to drink this away anymore. I can’t smoke myself stupid. I can’t bury it in alcohol and weed and I can’t go numb again. Every time I close my eyes, it's terrifying. It’s so fucking scary because it’s like being gone again and I don’t have anything but you guys. You’re it and you keep running off and there’s blood everywhere. I need help and I need a meeting. I need to be able to go for a fucking walk and to try and catch up.” She bit her lip, tilting her head back and closing her eyes. The heat of a tear tracks fast over her cheek and she can feel it all, all of it clawing at her throat. She wants to drown it out, waving a hand around the group in a tight circle. “It all kept moving and I’m still back there and you’re all here and everything is different and I’m just supposed to keep up and I don’t even know where to start?”

“Rosa-”

”Liz, sólo quiero ir a casa. Quiero ver a papá.”

She watched her sister hesitate, but the moment of indecision was brief. Liz was always best with a plan, with something in front of her to be done. Rosa could count on one hand the times she’d been able to lure her little sister away to do something wild. There was the one bright shining afternoon she’d checked her out of high school for a fake dental appointment. She’d smiled brightly at the school secretary, widening her eyes and hustling Liz out the door around the whispered protests.

“I don’t care about your test,” Rosa said as they walked down the front sidewalk to where her battered Celica was sitting, still running. “You can make it up.” She dropped her mirrored aviators on, twirling to walk backwards, arms out to encompass the day. “This day? Only happens once.”

Liz had frowned, glancing back over her shoulder and clutched her gathered books tighter to her chest before giving in. That moment, the moment she had relaxed and let herself shake loose with a laugh, that moment was Rosa’s favorite. She grabbed the passenger door, tossing her purse into the back before waving her sister into the seat with a grand gesture. “You’re sure?”

“Nope.” Rosa had shrugged and shut the door. “That’s the point, Liz. Live a little.”

Rosa felt the realization hit her like a blow: Liz had lived. Liz had lived a whole life outside of her for a decade. It wasn’t a theory, it was the reality surrounding her. Rosa had gone away and Liz had been alone, living a life without someone to make sure she walked outside, made sure she remembered to be silly, to be selfish, to be human. Liz had learned to survive without her. Rosa was a ghost in her own life, she was haunting her friends.

The Salvage Yard went dark, the fire starting to bank and gutter, the embers glowing heat. She watched Maria hover over Isobel Evans with a frown. She watched Michael Guerin and Alex gravitate towards each other. She watched Kyle Valenti help the girl who killed her. She watched because that’s what ghosts did. She felt unmoored, like she could just drop the heavy blanket around her shoulders and drift away caught like light thistle on the breeze to bounce and tumble into the distance, forgotten past the wish made on her passing.

She let Liz bundle her into the passenger seat of her rental car. She leaned her head against the window, watching the dark scramble past in the bits and pieces visible on the shoulder. She glanced over when Liz pulled off the road and took a long slow breath. She’d spent so many hours driving these back roads, zigzagging aimlessly from one side of town to the other. Restless, irritable, and discontent: that’s what Jim had called it. That feeling that sat just under her skin and made it impossible to sit still, to stay put. She was always trying to get away. She had carefully cataloged each exit from this town, each way to drive. She could go north and hit the endless straight away that fell flat until it hit Colorado. She could drive south and find the bridge she and Frederico had hid under, giggling into the well packed bowl and the sound of something like escape. She could drive East and end up in Texas with it’s endless lolling prairie that led nowhere, but no one ever escaped. She could head West, head to Los Alamos and the addiction recovery center Jim had suggested. She could fall into the six month inpatient, but in the end she’d never been able to outrun the problem.

The asphalt took a turn before stretching straight to the horizon again. The headlights caught three white shapes in the dark.

“I have to, um.” Liz wet her lips and gripped the steering wheel, staring ahead at the crosses on the side of the road.

“I can do it.”

“No, you d-”

Rosa pushed out the door before the protest could find her and keep her in place. She was tired. She was so tired of being reminded that there was something off, that something was wrong. She was tired of the bits of a life lived around her. She wasn’t a fucking memory anymore. She was right here, standing on the side of the road in the bright headlights. She wondered if she was washed out and pale, sharp contrasts in combat boots as she stared at her name painted on white wood. She heard the door alarm dinging where the car sat, running.

The crosses were well taken care of, better treatment for the team of outright bitches that were kept in memory sweeter than they’d ever been in life. Hers was battered and a little broken. It seemed right. It seemed fair that she’d been remembered as she was, a little broken and a little battered but well loved. She snagged the bracelets from the cross and then fought a rising urge to stomp and kick, break it and scream. She fought the need to smash what was real and simple reached and plucked the white picket memorial from the ground and tucked it under her arm with a smile.

She started laughing, welling and ebullient as she scampered back to the car, throwing the cross in the back and slapping her hands against the dash. “Go. Go. Go.”

Liz coughed a startled chuckle, caught up in her enthusiasm and the back end of the rental fish tailed slightly, flinging gravel into the dark before catching and speeding around the curve to the straightaway. “What?”

“Danger raid your own death,” Rosa was beaming, heart pounding as she realized that this was her life now, realized that she had a second chance. She unrolled the window, howling into the dark before starting to sing the Third Eye Blind song that had been stuck in her head. She turned, smiling and reaching to cup the curve of Liz’s shoulder, watching the way her dark hair flipped and coiled in the wind from the open window. “You want to know how deeply my soul goes?” Rosa was free, a melody loose in the dark. “Deeper than bones. Deeper than bones.”

She managed to distract herself with humming for the rest of the drive, sinking low in the seat and propping her feet on the dash. She watched the city start to pepper into her view. It started with a sign then a suburb. It melted from houses to the strip malls and from the strip malls to a few abandoned buildings near the train tracks and then finally the line of scrubby oak trees that mark the quaint downtown. She tracked the two and three story federalist row brick buildings with the pale mouldings until her eyes caught on the familiar neon of home.

The Crash Down cafe had been a local breakfast spot since 1918, but had only been in their family since 1994. She knew the side alley and the specific smell of the second floor. She knew that her clothes would always smell just slightly of french fries and chocolate milk. She knew that the second floor opened from the back stairwell to a hallway that had five doors and one small alcove with battered overstuffed chairs covered in mismatched blankets. The bathroom was at the end of the hall with a second master cannibalized out of what should have been a guest room. Her parents, her father’s room was on the left and she and Liz had shared a room until she was 14 and demanded her own space. Her Dad had moved his small office to a filing cabinet and a laptop he kept tucked between the chairs in the alcove and moved Liz into the smaller bedroom. Rosa kept the room with the windows that opened to the fire escape.

“What if it didn’t work?” she heard herself ask, wetting her lips and staring at where the paint on her stencil graffiti was flaking and old. She’d painted it last month. Ten years ago last month.

“Then we tell him the whole truth.” Liz shrugged, grabbing the rear view mirror after she parked, fixing her hair and checking for blood before looking over at where Rosa was staring at the fading flying saucer.

“Right.”

“Rosa?”

Rosa looked over and frowned at the obvious concern on Liz’s face, frowned at the way it made her look older. “I’m good.”

“We have to take down the shrine first.”

“There’s a shrine?”

“You thought there wouldn’t be?”

Rosa looked down sharply, picking at the cuticle on her thumbnail thoughtfully before giving a small shrug. “I wasn’t easy like you.” She took a long breath, looking up again at the saucer on the brick. “And I wasn’t really his.”

“That-” Liz cut off and Rosa glanced over, surprised at the sudden venom in her voice. Liz had bitten her bottom lip, eyes flashing as they welled. Liz started again, voice tight as she tried to keep her words even. “Es lo más estúpido que has dicho nunca. Te quiero, but that was unbelievably selfish. That man? That man is your Father. He is our Dad. There is no way anyone else could ever. He.” She cut off, tilting her face up and blinking quickly. “He is your Dad. Nothing could ever change that. Nothing. Not even Jim Valenti. Not our mother. Nada.”

Liz.”

Her sister dashed at her eyes with quick fingertips and took a breath, smiling quick and sharp without a hint of dimple. “So. We clean up the evidence. Get rid of the shrine. And get you inside and home.” She paused, reaching and touching the end of Rosa’s hair. “Okay?”

“You’re not the boss of me.”

“I’m older than you now. So, I kind of am.”

Rosa narrowed her eyes, considering. “Debatable.” She sniffed, turning forward and nodded. “If we don’t do this right now I am going to lose my shit.”

“Wouldn’t want that,” Liz agreed, muttering as she pushed the door open.

The interior of the cafe hadn’t changed, it was still her handwriting on the wall proclaiming the menu. She swallowed thickly, walking in automatic soft footsteps and grabbing Liz before she stepped on the wobbly board just past booth five. She nodded, taking a small side step and turned the corner, coming to a full stop at the swinging door to the back of house area. She and Liz were plastered all over the wall, pictures just tacked to the corner. She was smiling, laughing against Liz’s shoulder at Prom. There was a picture of her wearing the antenna as a little girl, front tooth half grown in and too large for her face as she held her sister in an awkward bony hug. She saw her mother in profile. She saw Liz in two, no, four graduation caps. She saw her Father and Liz smiling together somewhere outside the grand canyon. She could reach up and touch the moments she’d missed, but instead her fingers found the program from her funeral.

It was soft well worn paper, good quality and a picture of her in the middle. She hated that picture. She looked like a good girl. She looked like a sweet girl. She looked like the kind of girl a father would want and not the kind of girl she had been. She traced the edges of it and glanced back to where Liz was starting to pull down candles and beads, bits of a history that had been caught like a fly in amber, ageing only on the outside, but trapped forever in possibility that would never come. She tugged the program down, folding it up and shoving it in her back pocket. “Where else?”

Liz pointed through the swinging door to the stairwell that led up to the overhead apartment. Rosa nodded, climbing the stairs carefully as she had her entire life. She was so used to sneaking in, to sneaking past, that she didn’t realize she was falling into old habits until she was at the top of the stairs and looking at a small shrine to the Mother Mary with her picture in a frame and countless candles melted down and into each other, melted to keep her safe. She stared at it for a moment, wetting her lips before picking it up and turning to put it in her room. She’d managed to make it three steps down the hall when her Father’s door opened and she had a panicked second to bolt into action, taking the last three steps to push the door open and throw the wax covered box into the room- the picture clattering off the bed with a bounce to break on the floor. She winced.

“Mija?” She heard the quiet hope in her Father’s voice. “Do you know what time it is? Li- Rosa?”

“Yeah, hola papá.” She turned, biting her lip and trying to look casual even as her heart seized up in her chest, twisting at how much older he looked. He was going salt and pepper, laugh lines creased deeper into his face and a soft sadness around his mouth that hung just below his eyes in tired circles. “I’m home?”

“Oh.” He looked lost for a moment, blinking and taking half a step forward like she would run, she would disappear if he reached for her. His eyes welled and she was going to lose it. She was going to puddle completely if he cried. She had been trying to be so strong. She had been so strong and so scared and her father- ”Te he echado de menos.”

Rosa’s face crumbled and she shook her head a little. “I’m sorry I was gone so long. I didn’t-” she cut off, wetting her lips and twisting her hands together as she managed a tight full shrug. “I didn’t mean to. Nunca quise irme por tanto tiempo.”

He nodded and opened his arms even as she launched herself at him. She was home. She was safe. She thought she was safe.

It only took a week to prove her wrong. She was surrounded by a world that turned without her, remember her in passing. She’d heard the whispers when she walked down the street. She’d ducked her head and taken a deep breath when a woman had stared at her in the grocery store, talking loudly into her cell phone. She didn’t want this life where he father smiled through the casual racism. She didn’t want the world that painted slurs on the front window for her Dad to soap off in the early morning light before breakfast rush. She didn’t like that she’d left and it was angry but she’d come back to violence. The world seemed to explode overnight with something that had simply been simmering under the surface when she’d gone dark.

She was getting used to being in the future, a stutter step to the right of where she’d left.

The steps of the fire escape were bubbling with rust under the paint, but they still creaked when she grabbed the hand rail and hauled herself to the roof. She’d found it mostly the same, the same view. The sign more worn, the paint flaking off the rail. She could sit up there and pretend that it was still ten years ago. She could close her eyes and pretend that tomorrow she was going to run away, run away and fix her life with Jim’s help. She found herself wishing she could text him. She found herself texting Kyle instead. She wished Maria would show up, smoke some peppery weed and forget for a minute that Rosa was sober now. She wanted to just take the edge off. Just. She wanted to smooth herself out.

Now, she frowned at her reflection, focusing in on the names of songs written sloppily in her dad’s slanting handwriting. She started to reach, finding herself in old patterns when someone reached past her and selected a song she’d never heard of: Hallelujah - Panic! At the Disco.

“Released in 2016.” Kyle Valenti held out a present, gift shop wrapped around loose shoulders and lifted eyebrows. “Has some definite wobble with it feels, so we can pretend that I’m dancing to save me the embarrassment.”

“You picked the song; you have to dance.” Rosa sniffed, taking the present and narrowing her eyes at him. “You know the rules, Valenti.”

He was wearing scrubs and two days of stubble, hair flat in the front with the weird cowlick he got from the surgical caps. “Open it.” He bounced once, tilting his head as the song started, a rumble of horns and scattering of drums that swelled. When it crested he flicked his eyebrows up and gave her a small wiggle of shoulders before pointing at the gift again.

“You didn’t have to.”

“No shit.”

Rosa snorted, tearing into the simple striped paper and popping the sticky ribbon on her head as she turned the plastic wrapped white box over in her hands. “You got me an...?”

“iPhone X.” He shrugged. “Time to get you caught up to the present.”

She wet her lips, thumbs tracing the shape of the logo with a soft reverence. “I can’t.”

“Too late.” He shrugged, reaching to push the box up and her head followed, holding his gaze. “Welcome back.”

**

There was a lazy moment when Maria turned, the sheets she lay in tangling like art around her hips. She was already amped hot, stretching in a shaking line. It wasn’t difficult to tilt her head back into the mouth on her neck, the soft lipped kisses that climbed her racing pulse to breathe hot little noises against her ear. There was a hand in her hair, a hand at her ribs, long fingers tracing the soft curve of her breast. Maria arched into the thigh between hers, arched into the sheer want that seemed to swallow her. She clutched, pulling the weight close, the slip of skin on skin hazy and heady, the white room pulsing once. Everything was blurry, indistinct and hard to hold. She wanted to open her eyes, wanted to wake into this touch fully. It was soft moans, breaking little noises that echoed around. Everything was just under too much, dampened and muffled in the aching white of it all. She groaned, a sweet throb between her thighs- aching and swollen as the mouth closed on hers and she shocked electric. It felt indistinct and lovely.

“Touch me,” she pleaded, reaching to card her fingers into the pale hair. It slipped through her fingers, fast and silky. She sighed, tightening her thighs around the press and hissing a surprised noise when the hand at her breast smoothed over her stomach and lower, curling tentatively to slip against her.

“Iso-” She cut off, startled and heart pounding as the blonde lifted her head, mouth kiss swollen and eyes heavy with want. “Shit!”

She startled awake, over hot and panicked, twisting away from the surprise of the dream. Maria flailed so hard she spilled out of the tangle of her patterned sheets and onto the rug under her bed. She stared at her ceiling, confused for a set of breaths, hair wild as she found her way back from the confused sex of the dream to the confused bleary wakefulness of her morning. She wet her lips, brows drawn together in confusion before going boneless and shaking her head. “Fired. Brain, you’re fired.”

Maria DeLuca lived in a loft apartment on the fifth floor of a federalist row walk up. Some days she regretted the choice when she panted her way floor after floor with bags of groceries banging against her thighs and weighing her down. The front door opened to the guest room and the last set of internal stairs. The two stories were functionally separate. She’d moved back into her old room when she’d moved her mother into the care facility. Mimi’s wandering making it impossible to let her stay in the bottom bedroom, too close to the door and the world that she was lost in. The stairs led up, one quick turn before opening to the attic loft. It was always a little too hot in the summers, a little too cold in the winters, but it had white painted exposed brick and windows all along the south facing wall. It was airy and bright, the ceiling pointed high and then slanting in fun shapes through the bedroom and out to the small patio tucked onto the back of the apartment- off the small open kitchen.

The hardwood floors were layered with colorful rugs, floor pillows, and small piles of shoes or stacks of paperwork. She’d created an office in the corner with a white filing cabinet and re-purposed vanity as the desk. The one door led to her bedroom and the verdant green of her plants. She kept the mattress on the floor, the ceiling slanting low in the north side- small rectangular windows slanting light around the room. She had her own full bathroom enclosed in her room and no recessed closet- just a rolling rack where she hung her nice clothes and an antique dresser filled with neatly folded laundry. The whole place usually smelled like soft incense and her perfume. It smelled like her life and she stared at the ceiling, legs still half on the mattress where she’d rolled out and sprawled.

It smelled like waffles this morning. There was a crisp browned sugar scent with the slight buttery tint sliding along the floor and filling the space. It smelled like mornings in her childhood. She’d grab the waffle from her mom, wrapped in a condensation damp paper towel as she ran down the steps and out to catch the bus that picked up at the corner of 16th and Walnut to make it to school on time. Mimi didn’t toast Eggo’s, making the batter homemade for her daughter every Wednesday. Waffle Wednesdays were a staple and Maria would smile into the bites on the bus, high backed vinyl covered black seats rumbling along the pitted city roads toward Roswell High. Rosa Ortecho had been her best friend for as long as she could remember. The other girl would flop into the seat next to her already talking. Maria would listen as she chewed, nodding in the appropriate breaks in the conversation. Later, when she’d be riding shotgun in the battered blue civic she would still smile into the waffles.

She hadn’t had waffles since two years after graduation when Mimi had started a batch and gotten distracted, drifting out onto the patio to stare across the city as she talked to herself about what it would take to save the planet with recycling. The waffle iron had been an older model found at a thrift store that didn’t shut off automatically and Maria had pulled the whole thing from the wall- smoking and charred- to throw into the sink in a panic when the smoke alarm shrieked. The billow of black smoke filled the apartment as she flipped the faucet to put it out.

She hadn’t had waffles in almost eight years. Someone was cooking waffles. The realization snapped through her with a white hot panic as she scrambled out of the sheets and stumble sprinted to the kitchen in her over large t-shirt and pair of folded boxers she slept in. “Mom, what are you doing?”

Mimi turned confused eyes on her as she flipped the waffle iron easily, popping it open and spearing the perfectly golden confection to settle onto the plate. “Is this a rhetorical question?”

Maria looked between her mother, the waffle, and the ceiling in a slow loop as she caught up with the reality of her life. She frowned, rubbing at her eyes and then tilted her head at where Mimi was watching her. The moment seemed to stretch into something vaguely awkward as she watched her mother start to realize that this wasn’t normal anymore. “Mom, no, it’s okay.”

Mimi cleared her throat and set the fork down. “What did I do?”

“It’s not impor-”

“Maria.”

Maria crossed the distance, silent on bare feet and took the plate, the waffle looking perfect and golden. The whole house smelled like the sweet sugar of childhood. “You got distracted and almost set the house on fire. You haven’t been allowed to cook on your own in about five years.” She shrugged, talking to the waffle so she wouldn’t have to watch her mom process the life she’d been living.

The kitchen was small, a line of cupboards and cabinets that started just a foot to the right of the stairwell and curled under and around the east end of the apartment. The door to the patio set between the stove and the refrigerator. She’d installed childproofing on most of her home over the years, used to thumbing the hitch down to get the drawers open and squeezing the special locking mechanism that was under the sink where she stored the dangerous chemicals. Mimi was wearing a soft flowing sundress in pastel florals with bangles at her wrists and a looping brown belt. She’d left her hair natural, haloing around her face as she cleared her throat and moved to make another waffle. Maria tried to ignore the small frown, the way her whole body went tense. “I didn’t forget the recipe,” she said after a long moment. “Eat, love.”

Maria turned, leaning a hip against the counter and smiled down at the breakfast. “Thanks for making breakfast.”

“It’s my job,” Mimi said, voice tinting a little bitter. “Taking care of you.”

“Mom.”

Mimi sighed. “We can start cleaning up the bar,” she said after a moment, closing the waffle iron and flipping it into the locked position. “You can take a day off. Just relax for awhile and I can see what our regul-”

“Mom.” Maria wet her lips.

“They’re going to be so surprised!”

Mom.” Maria reached over, curling a hand against Mimi’s thin wrist, birdlike and delicate under her palm. “There’s so much we need to talk about.”

“We can talk about it over shots.” Mimi smiled, nodding with a bright surety.

“The Pony was shut down.” Maria had wanted to talk about this when her mother was paying attention, when it felt like the right time. This wasn’t it. This was blurted over breakfast and she watched Mimi’s face crumble in confusion before shaking her head in denial and circle back to surprise. “Just... just for a little while. I’ll fix it. I just need to figure out how to pay for it.”

“What? No. That’s not.” Mimi took a step back. “You were doing so well. I remember that much. We were doing well enough that-”

“Mom,” Maria swallowed. “We don’t have to talk about this right now. I’m working on getting it reopened, but there’s so much you missed.”

“I didn’t go anywhere,” Mimi muttered, angry and pulling her hand away. “I didn’t go anywhere. I was right here.” She stalked across the floor, pacing in a quick back and forth.

“You were gone.” Maria threw her hands up. “You might have been here, but you were gone.” She set the plate down, rubbing a hand over her face and pushing the sudden hot anger back into a small box. “You didn’t mean to go. I know that. I know you were trying to protect me.” She had gotten so used to gentling her mother, raising hands and slipping into a soothing tone to get her in the door from the dark, in the door and into shoes. She was used to driving along certain familiar back roads and stopping on the curb when the headlights caught the gauzy white of her dress in the dark. She was used to taking things away that hurt her, used to being forgotten, used to simply sorting through what was being said for a shred of the woman she knew. She was used to talking to a mother who was a fractured reflection of the woman she had known. “Mom, I’m sorry. It’s oka-”

“Don’t handle me, Maria.” Mimi frowned sharply at her, aware and present.

Maria blinked, unconsciously mimicking her mother’s face. “I’ve been taking care of you for the last five years.”

“I have been taking care of you your entire life.”

“I don’t want to have this conversation right now, Mom.” She closed her eyes, taking a long slow breath. “I don’t want to fight. Please.” She lifted her chin, going soft and small as she stared at her mother. She wanted to just have a simple morning of waffles and pretend. Just one morning that wasn’t full of anything but her mom and love and hope. Maria just let herself be a kid for a brief second, breaking and trembling in front of where her mother was already in motion- gathering her up and hugging her close.

“Okay, baby.” Maria let herself be held, held up and comforted in their apartment.

**

Michael woke up in a strange bed. It wasn’t an unusual experience, but it was usually paired with a blinding headache, the swollen sticky feel of yesterday’s drinking under his skin, and the vague discomfort of wondering where he’d left his shoes, his pants, or his truck. This bed was made with simple white sheets, a blue and gray quilt, two pillows, and the smell of something that felt like home. It smelled like cheap two in one green shampoo and Alex’s skin. Michael wet his lips and smiled slowly, tilting his head back on the pillow even as he reached back to grab the wrought iron bars of the bed frame and stretched. The bed wasn’t large, but it was empty, the side closest to the window gone cool, but the sheets tugged straight and folded like the bed had been made around him. He had a vague memory of being told to go back to sleep, the press of a smile to his forehead, and the surety of not being alone sinking into his skin.

Alex’s bedroom was small, functional, and tidy with the bed placed in the center, the closet tucked at the end with folding doors and a bathroom to the left. There were textured rugs spaced around with a yoga mat unrolled between the left hand side of the bed and the wall. Over the door to the kitchen was a hang bar installed in the door frame. Michael wet his lips and made a mental note to watch the next time Alex woke up.

There was a motel room off of Route 17 that had a cheap nightly rate and most of their memories together. He knows that Alex stands up, stretches in a slow shift of golden skin and lean muscle before folding forward to press his palms flat on the floor. Michael knows that the fold is followed by Alex stepping back into plank and pushing through long slow sets of push-ups that leave him flushed and shaking. He knows because some mornings he’d wriggled to the opposite edge from where he slept and reach to trace the two good fingers of his left hand down Alex’s spine. His skin was always so warm, slippery and Michael would have to roll onto his back and push a hand under the sheets, whispering Alex’s name as he spread his thighs.

Michael now wanted a new place for memories. He wanted to sit with his back against a pile of pillows and watch Alex do reps of pull-ups on the bar between the kitchen and the bedroom. He wanted to watch and not have to wonder how long he had. He wanted to slow it down, slow it down and savor it because Alex was coming back to bed, back to him. Michael wanted.

It was sometime past dawn, but not quite the full soft light of morning. Michael woke up early and stayed up too late, sleep was something he’d always treated as necessary yet frowned upon. He’d pull himself out of bed and pull on his pants before heading out into the morning air for work. He could sling his leg over the seat of a four wheeler to head out over the rolling plain to catch the early edge of the cattle to start steering back to the paddock or sling a leg over the rolling stool at the auto shop as he pushed from one toolbox to the other to switch from the us to metric depending on the type of car. He wanted to sling a leg over Alex’s hips and watch the way he’d smile and then go soft, wondering as he let his palms settle over Michael’s thighs.

Michael sighed, pushing up and bouncing a little as he flipped the sheets back and swiveled his feet to the floor. He fingered the sleep from the corner of his eye, tilting his head left to right before bending with a hiss of stiff muscles to snag his jeans from the floor. They were still a bit damp as he stepped into them, hitching them up his hips. He gathered his courage and faced the day and the possibility that things said in the dark would disappear in the light again. He was hopeless that way. He grabbed a shirt from the floor and ducked into it, popping out the top with a huff as his shoulder caught on the doorway.

“Alex?”

“Out here.” He sounded further away than the living room and Michael padded into the kitchen.
It was empty, but the coffee was brewed with a mug waiting on the counter. He touched the handle with light fingers and a soft smile before turning to edge around the table and walked into the living room. The front door was open, cool morning air pebbling on Michael’s skin. He reached over, snagging his faded plaid button down from the back of the captains chair and slinging it on as he moved out onto the porch.

Alex Manes was sitting on the steps in a well worn sweatshirt over plaid flannel pajama pants. He had two crutches leaning on the steps just to his left, right shoulder against the post. He was messy hair and a careful hopeful smile as he looked over at Michael as he settled next to him.

“Hey.”

“Hey.” Alex ducked his head, smiling at his lap before turning to look at Michael again. Michael felt himself smiling in return, giddy and a little foolish as he sucked his teeth and looked out at the lawn. Alex’s beagle, Wentz, was doing a long lazy lap, tail high as she loped. She would pause, going curious as she dropped her nose and walked in determined little marches until something distracted her and she’d run in another wild circle before pouncing forward and following a new scent trail. “So, you got a dog.”

“I did.” Alex wet his lips, gaze flicking down to his lips before he looked away from Michael to watch the beagle fondly.

“That mean you’re planning to stay awhile?” Michael scratched at his jaw with a thumb, trying for light and casual but failing spectacularly. He leaned back, braced on his palms and let his legs sprawl out in front of him as he tried not to stare at Alex’s profile.

He was never ready for Alex to look back. He thought about it, silent and hopeful as he cataloged the planes of his cheekbones, the curve of his brow, the soft downy cowlicks of his hair, the darker rash of stubble on his top lip. He knew Alex in brief moments, in carefully caught millimeters of skin. He was used to looking, but when Alex looked back it was like he stopped breathing, locked in the intensity of it. “Yes.”

Michael could have stopped a sunrise more easily than his smile, slow and genuine. “Okay.”

**

Kyle knew Arizona was going to kiss him the moment she turned and tossed her purse back into her ridiculous Econoline. He knew because she had been quiet for most of the ride back, singing along to Creedence Clearwater and nervously pushing her hair behind her ear. Arizona was talkative; she was sharp edged humor and sly smiles, but Kyle liked this side of her better. He knew because he'd wanted to kiss her from the moment she'd heaved the engine back to life and tilted her head at the passenger seat. He knew because it had been electric and tense between them as he listened to Cerin and Davi chatter aimlessly about whatever TV show the teens had missed that night, speculation and fondness tinting their tone warm. Levi left with Hunter to start tracking Flint before the night got too far ahead of them. Kyle spent a long tense gaze corralling the teens into the back of the Econoline with a quiet thank you to Arizona as the door slid shut.

Kyle knew she was going to kiss him when she hopped down from the driver's side and ducked out of her bag. She'd felt the edge of the strap thoughtfully before looking up at him and tossing it inside.

"It wasn't just the hiking gear," she murmured, aware of the way they had gone quiet behind the soft tense feel of the air in the moonlight. "That was a bonus, but it wasn't the whole reason."

He wanted to lean his shoulder against the side of the van, but settled into a slow step forward instead. He tilted his head, watching her. In the dark she was deep shadows and soft gradients, the sharp smirk softer and hopeful as she wet her lips. He wished he'd had some gum, a toothbrush, anything other than the half flat mountain dew he'd swigged just before hopping out and waking the sleeping teens in the back to send stumbling across the lawn to different trailers. Kyle Valenti knew what was happening; it had happened so many times before. She lifted her chin and looked at him and Kyle knew he was going to kiss her the moment her mouth dropped open slightly.

"There are easier ways to get me-"

"Just kiss me already."

"So pushy," he murmured, watching his fingers card into her hair, lifting the waves slightly as he turned his gaze back to her eyes in the dark. She looked her age then, younger than him and wary of the teasing. He found himself hating and loving the uncertainty on her face: hated because it meant someone had told her she wasn't good enough and loved it because he could fix that. Kyle liked to fix things.

"Ky-"

"I like it." He reassured her, breath warm as he ducked to press the words carefully into her lips, against the way she inhaled sharply and pushed tight against him. He wanted to smile at it, the easy want, but touched his tongue, tasting the soft sigh instead. He had time. He'd make time for her, for this.

The small community was quiet, a TV somewhere in the distance muffled and indistinct. There was one orange street light next to the pavilion in the center that tried to reach them, but fell just short and spread soft blue shadows instead. The moon was waxing, gibbous and wobbling behind the fast moving clouds. It was just them in the dark, just the sharp line of her petite frame pressed against him, the cut of her jaw cupped between his palms as he kissed her. Kyle knew he was going to kiss her the moment she'd settled in the bar stool next to him at the casino. He'd known he was going to kiss her and had been waiting, waiting for the right moment that would fit just like this between his palms. He had wanted her to sigh and go soft for him, because of him. He wanted it to feel unhurried and deliberate, methodical and utterly charmed by the way she was making soft little noises now and pushing up onto her toes while wrapping both arms up and over his shoulders.

Kyle liked to kiss like he was an act that could never be followed.

He’d wanted to kiss her palm when she’d flung her hand out to him, glancing at the wrist cuff of her coat and then back at the road. The communication silent and the intent obvious. He’d laughed, shaking his head as he gripped the edge of the cuff and watched her tug and twist out of the leather jacket, the buckles on the sides jangling quietly under the music. Kyle tugged the jacket off and folded it, settling it between them on the console that had an air freshener, a prickling of random pens, and a leather bag cinched tight. He wanted to lean over, unbuckle the seat belt and push her hair back to make room for his mouth just behind her ear. He shifted instead, turning to watch her drive. She kept the seat leaned back, arm straight with her wrist draped casually proficient over the steering wheel.

Arizona glanced over at him, wetting her lips and pretending confusion. “What?”

“Nothing.” He liked that she didn’t wear a bra. He liked that she wore at least seven silver rings and huge hoop earrings. He liked a lot of things about her, the small bits of herself she’d let him collect up and touch thoughtfully.

Kyle Valenti wasn't above pulling her out of the driver's seat if they'd park at the side of the road and kissing her until she writhed in his lap. He wasn't above necking like teens in the plush captains chair seats. She smiled, wrinkling her nose and reached to snag the soda to take a sip. "I'll drop them first, if that's okay?"

"Seems like a good plan." He nodded, thrilled that she was giving him a chance at being alone. Thrilled at the possibility of touching her with intent.

She looked over at him. "So, you're really a doctor?"

"Surgeon." He tilted his head back, slanting a look at her out of the corners of his eyes. "My dad helped people. I'm not good with guns, not that guy, you know?" He huffed a breath. "I thought I was lining my life up to be something awesome- big house, big car, big life." He reached, taking the soda from her and sipping once. "Turns out life had other plans for me. Do have the house and the car, though. That part is taken care of."

Arizona nodded. "Big house, big car." She shook her head. "Totally should have lifted your wallet."

"You just wanted to feel my ass, don't lie."

"Can't a girl do both?" She grinned at the highway, flushing slightly and leaned to twist the dial of the music louder.

He'd wanted to kiss her, feel the flush heat her skin. He knew she wanted to kiss him when she flicked her eyes over, lingering on his profile before flicking down to his mouth.

Reality was always better. He'd forget things like the way she could drag her teeth over his bottom lip or break apart to pant before mouthing his chin. He'd forget simple little things like the way her teeth sounded on his stubble. He'd forget what it felt like to have her fingers tug urgently at his hair. He'd forget that his back would ache just slightly under his shoulder blades because he had to hunch down just a little to taste deeper. He'd forget what it felt like to have someone exhale his name against the shell of his ear and how it always throbbed directly to his dick. Reality wasn't just some glossy long kiss that sipped and ached into itself. It was hands that didn't quite know where to settle, the feel of a hard nipple under fabric slipping against his wrist as he touched along her collarbone. Reality was the sound of cicadas and the crackle of a television playing late night movies in the dark. It was the way the whole van creaked when he turned, reaching low to slide both palms over her ass to hook just under the curve to pull her hips flush against where he was starting to go hard in his jeans.

"Is this okay?"

"Yes," she breathed, turning to chase his mouth, chase the consent with another kiss. She pulled back suddenly, blinking at him in the dark. "Is this okay with you?"

He’d messed her hair, strands hanging around her face and wild against the dark. The thing with nighttime was that it was never really dark, just blurred and soft edged while his eyes adjusted. He thumbed along her right eyebrow and carded his fingers into her hair, tightening with a small tug that hitched in her breathing. “Yes.”

Kyle wanted to kiss her, to keep kissing her until he had his hands under the thin cotton of her band t-shirt to brush the edge of his thumb over where her breasts were pebbling in the cold, in her want of him. He wanted to kiss her until her mouth was swollen and red. He wanted to kiss her, her neck, her collarbone, the hollows between her ribs, the soft smooth skin just at the inside of her thigh where they rubbed together when she walked. He wanted to keep kissing her but he was stroking over her scalp, the tangle of black hair warm and lovely.

“But?” She leaned back, blinking and focusing in on him sharply, fingers twisting into his shirt to push knuckles against his chest. “There’s a but. I can taste it.”

He nodded, reluctant and unwilling even as his better judgement kicked in. “I want to take my time. I want this to be right.” He shrugged, ducking to kiss her soft, just a bare press of lips and breath. “I want you.”

“There’s that but again,” she managed, voice cracking as she pressed her forehead against his.

“But,” he smiled against her temple, fingers sliding down the line of her spine to settle at her hips, gripping quick and going soft. “I need sleep. I need to go home. I work in the morning. If I’m tired? I could kill people.”

She ducked, taking a breath that lifted her shoulders before pushing both hands against his chest and taking a deliberate step back. “Right.” She chewed her bottom lip, eyes closed and head turned away. “Got it. Okay.” She sighed, shaking her head. “I really wish you were just a stock clerk at Walmart right now.”

"I never thought I would agree with that sentiment," Kyle laughed, startled and shocked at the sound as he gestured down at where he was uncomfortably hard. "And yet here we are."

Arizona narrowed her eyes at him, taking a slow slinky step forward and cupped him through his jeans. "The pity I have for you. So large. So deep." She squeezed him once, daring, and tipped up to smile against the corner of his mouth. “Poor thing.”

"God damn it."

"That's the spirit."

They'd driven back down the mountain in silence, Kyle's hands wandering to find her thigh, the soft skin at the inside of her elbow, the delicate bones of her wrist. They'd driven back in silence that settled heavy between them as he laced his fingers between hers, watching her in profile as she navigated the lazy switchback with a deft surety. She was a fine boned woman with an animated face and warm hooded eyes. He was planning to kiss her again. He knew he would. He wanted to kiss her now, unbuckle and lean over to mouth along the line of her neck, feel her duck her ear against his hair with a sigh as her fingers went tight and purposeful on the wheel. He stayed where he was, careful in his seat as he counted the knuckles of her right hand one at a time with the pad of his thumb.

"You have my number."

"I do."

"I have yours."

"You do." She didn't look away from the road, ducking forward to peer out the tall windshield before easing off the back road and onto an ill maintained section of route 48.

This part of New Mexico was stunning with rock outcroppings jutting through the long expanse of the plain. The trees going richer, verdant and nearing a grove instead of the singular spikes of twisted pine or the shambling reach of old weary oaks. He could almost taste the running water. He could watch the mountain slope out and sigh smooth as they drove. The dirt road that led to the cabins at the base of the mountain was almost invisible in the dark. He’d had to park somewhere off the side, Beamer tilted slightly on the grade before starting the trek to Granalith on foot through the back country. There was a low lake that was fed by the icy runoff of snow melt and in turn fed the quick running stream that ducked from one side of the road to the other as they humped over a low makeshift bridge.

Arizona was curling in on herself and he held her hand, feeling her put up the walls in the way she stretched her fingers and kicked her wrist to pluck her hand back, curling it over the steering wheel when his car caught the headlights. She pulled to a stop, leaving the engine running and he unbuckled, reluctant and tired- exhaustion starting to seep into his bones, into a sick feeling under his skin.

"This was fun, th-"

"So," Kyle interrupted, turning to face her with the door hanging open and the overhead light a soft pale glow that cast shadows around the interior. He could see how mussed her hair was, the soft red patches on her jaw that had been rubbed raw by his stubble. He could see his kisses on her mouth. "I don't know where you are going," he continued, undaunted. He gestured between them. "And who taught you that you need to hide?"

She turned, face carefully blank and eyes sharp as she watched him. There was a wariness and a rage there that he wanted to kiss and smooth away, but he didn't have time just then. He needed time. She didn't answer, just blinked at him, eyes dark and careful in the dome light.

He sighed. "But I'm not him. You don't know me very well." He smiled at the way her eyebrows flicked up in quick involuntary agreement. "But, I used to be an asshole. Big time. Very large. Make out and dip out. Frat parties and walks of shame." He shrugged, competent and aware of who he was, wearing it like loose clothes that he could stretch to let her duck under and into, caught tight against his chest and warm against his skin. "That's not this. I don't want that. I want to kiss you. I've wanted to kiss you for awhile. I want to touch you. I want to know you. I want to take you to dinner. I want to watch you go flushed on both cheap and expensive wine. I want to watch you eat creme brulee. I want to taste you. I want to hear you whisper my name in the dark." He shrugged. "Am I making myself clear? Because that's kind of important. To set the intention?"

"You know that's not what boys do." She glanced down, out the window, across the ceiling and then back to him.

"Good thing I'm not a boy." He tilted his head. "Call me. Or I will call you, like the seventy year old man I am, apparently."

She choked on a startled laugh and relaxed, careful in inches and reached to touch his mouth. She watched him kiss her fingertips and nodded once. "Text. We text now, grandpa."

"Fine."

"Fine." She darted forward, catching his mouth with a soft sweet noise that made his skin light up again. "Now go." She leaned back, wiping her mouth and waved him out the door with a small quirked smile as she watched him.

She'd actually texted him back when he sent the simple opening volley of: [sms] home safe

{sms} new phone, who dis?

Kyle had huffed a laugh at the ceiling and dropped his phone on the nightstand. It vibrated once, text flag reading simply:

{sms} go to sleep handsome. i know where to find u

**

Sheriff Michelle Valenti was a sharp edged woman with a no nonsense way of speaking that tended to leave Max wishing he was a better man even when she was giving him praise. He'd knocked two knuckles on the frame of her office, wary and bashful as he kept his white hat tucked under his arm and his worry like an over large shirt. He hadn't holstered his weapon on his utility belt, both it and his badge in his left hand as he glanced nervously at her.

"Don't stand there expecting to be kicked, Evans," she said, voice carrying easily. "Get in here and explain yourself. I was down an officer already before you decided to simply drop off the face of the planet. You better have a serious and revelatory explanation."

"Alien abduction?" He tried, voice careful as he attempted a small half smile at her, wilting at the withering glare she turned on him as she glanced up from her report work.

"Do I look like I need jokes, Evans? Is there something in my demeanor that says this job is a joke? That my position as Sheriff is funny?"

"No, ma'am." He replied, straightening and nodding a few times, earnest.

"Do I look like I am amused?"

"No, ma'am."

"You have five minutes to explain yourself before I ask for your badge and your weapon." She clicked the laptop shut, folding her arms out onto the desk and lacing her fingers expectantly. There was a pause, the air conditioning kicking on and shoving stale air into the room, ruffling the feathered fronds of her fern. She tilted her wrist, checking her watch. "Starting now."

Max paused, muscle in his jaw working as he let the silence settle for a moment, a ticking to his right from the wall clock as it tapped out seconds. "All I can tell you is that there was a family emergency, Ma'am." He nodded once. "My sister-" he cut off, voice cracking and he startled at the way he seemed so sincere just then, convincing as he kept speaking. He watched himself tell the sheriff about a domestic disturbance, about Noah Evans raising his hand in violence. He watched himself stand and deliver in a quiet urgent way a story that painted desperation and need. He watched her listen and felt himself reach, just a little, and startled when the world slowed, the ticking moving into half time and then slower.

This was new. This was heady and slippery edged as he paused her with a thought. He felt a small vibrant ache of triumph, of pleased hissing excitement at the possibilities that were sprawling out from this one soft edged moment caught tight between the tick of seconds.

Sheriff Valenti sat frozen at the desk, watching him with soft brown eyes and a stain of weary worry that seemed constant in the crow’s feet, the thin line of her mouth, the way her skin pulled taut over her cheekbones. She seemed severe even as the world went hazy and soft, light pulling long streaming pastels that ducked down from the fluorescent lights in the ceiling, glowed through the venetian blinds in the windows that separated her office from the rest of the deputies. Max kicked into motion, a slow amble that felt comfortable and at ease with this small imposition, just a little twist for the greater good.

He was doing the right thing. He watched her, ducking his mouth next to her ear, feeling the way excitement and prickling power bubbled into his chest, filling his lungs with a delighted effervescent instinct. He felt powerful. He liked it.

"Believe me," he heard himself whisper, words sibilant as he reached and just tilted her into acceptance.

She was so tired. She needed the help. She would relent. Max startled and slammed back into the present- slammed back into his body. He heard his voice from the outside, trailing off in a soft apology as Sheriff Valenti blinked slowly, shook her head a little and looked at him.

The office was simple with a wide wooden desk covered with a leather protector and home to the bulky laptop that was probably two years out of date. There were two wood backed chairs set on the opposite side and a fern placed in careful light on top of a black filing cabinet behind her. The office was mostly windows, the venetian blinds rattling in the bluster of the AC. Max felt his worry slip out from under his skin and evaporate in the cool air. He was sure it had worked, uncomfortably pleased. He kept his focus on her, giving her the space to find her way back into the moment, back into her own mind after the small edit he’d made.

"Fine." She thinned her mouth. "I believe you, Evans. But you are on thin ice. One more mistake and I will have to suspend you." She looked down, checking the time on her watch again and Max could hear the wall clock again, loud like the ticking was echoing in his head, pressing against the nauseous headache that flared behind his eyes. "Understood?"

"Yes, Ma'am."

There was a pause as she simply exhaled and looked up at him, small crease between her brows before she reached, flipping the laptop back open and turning it to face him. “Good. Put your badge and your weapon on. There’s a body out near the turquoise mines that needs to be picked up, the area tented. Meet the CSI boys out there to make sure they don’t get distracted like last time. I want the whole area annotated properly. No mistakes, Evans.”

He glanced up from where he’d been slipping the badge back into the pocket just under his name tag and smiled at her. “We know anything about circumstances?”

“Just an anonymous report phoned in and a location. Escort the body to the coroner, I want a full report. The last thing this town needs is another body.”

“Another?”

“Hank Gibbons was found dead and dumped in the Wild Pony dumpster.” Sheriff Evans tilted him a look. “Which you would know if you’d shown up for work. Probably best to get moving and not remind me of your absence.”

Max pulled his bottom lip over his teeth, running a hand through his hair as he took the pointed criticism with a small flare of anger. He could fix it, but he leaned back, turning out the door and found his desk. The small succulent that Isobel had gotten him was starting to look withered, sharp points of its leaves turned up and the plump petals desiccated. He considered watering it for a moment, glancing over at the completely empty desk across from his where Cameron should be. He pulled the drawer of his desk open, snagging two pens to put in his shirt pocket and the small leather bound notepad his father had gotten him when he’d joined the force. He’d water it later, he had a murder to investigate.

He glanced at Cameron’s empty desk again, narrowing his eyes at the complete lack of personality, papers, pens, sarcasm, and his partner. He tucked the investigation folder under his arm and rapped his knuckles against the smooth spot where she’d worn the wood glossy and soft with the way she’d rub a thumb over the left edge while she thought. It was his fault she’d lost her job. She’d been protecting him. She’d been doing what any good partner would do. She had lost her job protecting him and his secret. Max Evans was a good man and as he glanced back to where Sheriff Valenti was sitting, head bent as she read, he made a decision.

Max Evans was going to make it right.

The drive out to the crime scene was arduous and oddly familiar. Max had slid on the mirrored shades halfway out to the cruiser, plugging the coordinates into the GPS and starting the menial paperwork annotation that was the largest part of his job, careful note taking and constant monitoring. He’d checked in with the comms unit and started the drive. It took about half an hour, sliding out of downtown and out into the open country roads toward the mess of abandoned mines that seemed to riddle the foothills outside the plains. It seemed that every hill, every mountain, every gulch or slab of cut out sandstone was pock marked and hollowed with caverns, wash outs, and man made mines. He turned off the road at mile marker 245 and bounced through the gully and up the ridge to rock through the lolling nearly invisible dirt road. It was the closest he’d come to riding a horse in a long gallop, the way the SUV would buck and roll over the pitted earth a long endless see saw.

The mesa started standing up on the right, picking itself up with a yawn and turning into soft foothills. This was familiar. This was something that sat just on top of a moment of fear and rage. He could feel the way his palms started to sweat, a prickle touching light clammy fingers to the back of his neck as his shoulders tensed. Max was starting to get a strong feeling of dread and deja vu, the patches of scrub brush and sage flattened here and there like it had been clipped by a car. He’d been here. He knew where he was. He pulled to a stop at the base of a scraggly path, a small flow of mud dried into a smooth slide that cut down the side of the rolling foothills.

“Shit.” He threw the cruiser into park, staring out the front windshield and then up the side of the hill. There was a downed tree, broken by drought and time to a silvered log that sat in the middle of a clearing. Noah had sat there. Noah had sat on that log, waiting with a quiet tailored patience.

“Shit. Shit shit shit.” He grabbed his personal phone as he leaned out the door and half stood, ducking up to hold the top of the door as he dialed Isobel. The phone clicked over and before he could process the sound of her voice, the light arrogance of her tone he was speaking. “Iz? We have a problem.”

The line of soft mesquite along the ridge line looking at him, waiting expectantly. He could hear the sound of his heart and the way the cruiser’s engine was ticking in the soft dry cold of New Mexico in winter. Forty feet away, Noah Bracken’s body was waiting to be found.

“Max,” Isobel was saying on the other end of the line. “We always have a problem. I’m starting to thi- wait. You’re being serious?”

“Iz,” Max started, pulling his service revolver and walking carefully with one hand on the phone, the other weighted at his side, safety under his thumb as he paced forward. He glanced up, checking the ridge line again and then scanning around the vista. Someone had found the body first. Someone had called it in. Someone knew. “We just found Noah’s body.”

There was a silence on the line and Max closed his eyes against the sudden sick feeling that rolled through him. It wasn’t his. Isobel’s emotions shoving at him, pushing him into a sudden wave of panic that he had to throw up quick walls against. He felt them snap into place, the cut in the flow between he and his sister sudden and refreshing. “Max?”

“I’m on it, Iz. I just need you to be ready.” He cleared his throat and turned to stare up the side of the hill, the patches of scrub looking like scabs on a barely healed wound. “Okay?”

“Okay.” She paused, a soft murmur of voices in the background before it all went muffled with the scrape of something against the microphone. “Be safe.” And there was the real Isobel, the soft care under the layers of scorn and bravado. He felt himself smile.

“Got it.” He hung up, tucking the phone into his back pocket before lifting the pistol and holding his wrist with one hand, elbows bent, as he started pacing forward quietly. The sun was smearing a watery winter white across the desert, the sagebrush a pale bluish green and cottonwoods in the distance a lank lackluster green that shuffled through each breeze.

Max felt like he was walking in his own footsteps, each slow careful move forward mirrored in his mind by footsteps in the rain, dragging the weight behind him. He’d felt giddy then, morbid panic burbling in his skin now. The sunlight felt false, a fractured mirror of the strobing flashes of lightning that lit the way in the dark as he pulled the body behind him.

He’d dumped Noah here. He’d dumped the body face down in the mud so that no one would know what they’d done. He’d tried to leave the secret in the dark, in the night that felt so long ago. He’d felt over full, buzzing and electric. It had felt so unnecessary. It had felt like an afterthought, throwing away trash to burn.

Max had dumped Noah in the desert and forgotten to mourn. He crested the hill and found the body by smell first. The desert had not been kind, buzzing with fat black flies and swollen with rain and then frozen at the edges. It didn’t look real anymore, soggy and wet edged like rotting bread. Max choked, turning his head instinctively and covering his mouth and nose with the inside of his elbow. This was horror. This was his actions come home. He reminded himself that it was self defense. He could hear the buzzing, the slow lazy hum of it as the flies picked up in a grumpy swarm and settled again, flickering and flitting over the sag of skin slipping off flesh.

Noah wasn’t recognizable any longer, barely more than the hint of a human body, melting in the time between death and today. Clumps of hair were puddled on the ground around the flay of skull, fingers mushy and curled. The clothes the only identifiable parts. He wasn’t handsome anymore, black haired and hawkish but faded into pale bits of a person, hair gone light and brittle in the late morning light. Something had caught him and dragged his corpse, nibbling and pecking. There weren’t eyes anymore, just gaping holes in what had been a handsome face. There wasn’t a soft lipped mouth, just two rows of teeth and the wreck of a cheek.

Max stared, horrified before turning and retching into the dirt. He panted, stomach turning as the smell wandered close and then whipped off in the breeze again. His heart was loud in his ears, pounding in tick tock time, racing faster as he let the fear settle into his veins. He holstered his pistol pushing both palms against his knees where he was bent, panting in his panic. Noah Bracken was dead. Noah Bracken was a body now, rotting meat and swollen waterlogged limbs like he’d been underwater instead of dumped in the New Mexico desert. He was still wearing the soft gray suit, the black shirt he’d been so elegant in while he danced with Isobel at the opening of the Emporium. He was missing one shoe, socked foot turned out. Max pushed to his feet and stared before wetting his lips and taking off the broad brimmed hat and pushing his hair back to straight.

He settled his white hat back on his head and turned, stumbling down the side of the hill back to his cruiser to call it in. The radio crackled to life, squawking through the exchange. Max had half an hour to think. He had half an hour before the CSI team would bounce down the dirt road to park next to his cruiser. He had half an hour with the body. Max Evans was a good man. He’d fix everything.

The clock was ticking. He could almost hear it.