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as for praise and worship

Chapter Text

 

 

As for praise 

And worship, I prefer the latter. Only memory

 

Makes us kneel, silent and still.

 

Jericho Brown, "Psalm 150" 

 

 

It’s still dark when George buzzes into the police department, so dark he can see the cherry of his cigarette in the reflection of the glass door. On the other side, there’s a young woman with a shock of pink hair tapping away at a computer. The night shift secretary. When she looks up at him she does it with a start, like she hadn’t been expecting some scary fuck silohuetted against the Floridian heat. 

 

 She opens the door instead of inviting him in, and—in an unexpected European accent—says, “Can you put that out, please?”

 

“Right,” George says. He looks around for a cigarette receptacle, and then he looks around for a slew of concrete, but all he finds is dirt and plants. He resigns himself to stubbing it out under his shoe. The secretary doesn’t say anything. 

 

“Follow me, follow me,” she says, and clasps her hands together tightly against her chest as she walks back behind her desk. George hears the doors snap shut behind him. “You’re the British detective, aren’t you? How was your flight?” 

 

“Oh, fine,” he says, the nerves under his skin jutting out under the mandatory suit. It was not fine. He’d stopped in Amsterdam and barely made it to D.C., and then he’d had to fly into Orlando the same night, promised accommodations he wasn’t looking forward to. “I, um, had enough time to speak with the Art Crimes unit before they flew me into Orlando. Beautiful city.” 

 

“Just don’t make smalltalk about Disney World and I’d agree with you,” she says. She clicks into a list of records, and he sees the time flash on her monitor—a quarter to five, and it’s still inky and dark like the bottom of a swamp. “Our Chief of Police would have preferred to introduce you to the precinct himself, but—well, we’re not all early birds.” Her eyes flick up at him. “Lieutenant Baker is overseeing an interrogation, but—”

 

“There’s no rush,” he says. “I could always come back in the morning. I haven’t actually set my—”

 

The metal archway hiding the rest of the precinct opens with a buzz, and a girl with a frazzled braid rushes out, cradling her arms close to her body as she shoulders George out of the way.

 

 “I already told the detectives this, but since this place is apparently run like it’s the fucking 1800s and I have to be released into my father’s custody, I don’t need anybody to pick me up and I’ll be kindly on my way. Thank you.” She steps back and runs a hand under her snotty nose, sending George a look. “What the fuck are you looking at?”

 

“Miss, our biggest priority is making sure we can get you home safe,” the secretary says, and her printer spits something back at her in agreement. She hands the papers to the girl, who snatches them close to her body. “These are the reports from your drug test and a copy of your written testimony, and there’ll be a cab—”

 

“Sure,” she says hurriedly, and her spine arches up like a worried cat. “Who’s this and why is he looking at me?” 

 

“I didn’t mean any disrespect,” George says. 

 

She leans into him. Her eyes are wide, close to bursting from the corners of her eyelids. 

 

“I like your suit,” she says. “Notched lapel. Only slightly crumpled.” She leans forward and runs her fingers along the edge of his suit jacket. “Pratt tie, too.”  

 

“Your cab is outside, Arla,” the secretary says, and turns to tug gently at the girl’s arm, but she swats her away and raises her eyebrows at George, stalking away with her shoulders still set tight as if tied together by invisible string. The secretary, in an unnecessary type of embarrassment, waits for her to leave before clearing her throat politely.

 

“I’m sure you… understand how victims react to unfamiliar people,” she says, and George nods, but he’s still watching the frame of the girl shrink through the glass. There’s always the rush of shame when he watches investigation units help people who need it—and that wasn’t to say that the Americans were saving the lives of every girl with a catlike spine, but he looked for paintings. One of those things was better than the other. “Here. I’ll show you where our investigators work.” 

 

The air is just as thick in the Criminal Investigation offices. At the center, there’s a large chestnut table where a man with a line of old stubble is dozing off, and the secretary clicks her knuckles against it as they speed past, startling him out of his sleep. She peels through the door and George sees the Lieutenant with his fingers pressed against the window.

 

Inside, there’s a boy with his hands cuffed against a chair, head tilted to the side as if he’s extraordinarily bored. “Look, I don’t know, Jesus Christ, it’s just my car,” he’s saying, and the detective inside scribbles something onto a legal pad. 

 

“It was your car,” he agrees. “And how exactly does a drug dealer come in possession of a car that was never reported stolen? I certainly would’ve expected—”

 

“Detective Davidson,” the Lieutenant says, and rushes forward to clamp his extended hand in both of his own. He has a harrowed face and clean teeth, dark hair clumped up over his head in thick clouds. “It’s such a pleasure to meet you. Welcome to Orlando. I hope your flight was pleasant?”

 

“Yeah, yeah, not too bumpy,” he says, and looks back through the tinted window. 

 

The Lieutenant nods. “Good to hear. I’m Lieutenant Baker—Michael Baker. I’d love to introduce you to my team if you’re—”

 

The boy shoves his knee against the underside of the table in frustration, grating against George’s attention. 

 

“Oh, come on, you really want me to report my truck stolen at— this fucking place?” He says, and juts his shoulder out again as if to signal the entire building. “I walk in and that—fucking secretary just goes, like, Oh, there you are again —would you even believe me, if I’d have bothered? It’s not the end of the world. It’s a fucking Ford.”

 

“I hope I’m not interrupting anything,” George says. Baker shakes his head.

 

“Just a scheduled interrogation,” he says. 

 

“A Ford Ranger,” the investigator tells the boy. His tie is left untied around his neck. “That model has a lot of cargo room, you know? The battery pack is under the seats instead of in the trunk.” He leans forward again. “Just enough room for—”

 

“I don’t know where it fucking went!” The boy says loudly, and that startles the secretary into a squeak that has her nodding herself out of the room. The Lieutenant grimaces and goes to say something through the heavy door, leaving George to watch the boy and his bobbing shoulders. Like there’s something under the table he’s being reeled to catch.

 

“One moment,” Baker tells him, and George watches the detective haul the boy by the handcuffs. When he comes closer to the window, George can make out the stripe of blood on his bottom lip. 

 

It crackles again when he comes face-to-face with the Lieutenant, who watches him with a frown working its way down his face. “Enjoyed the show, Dad?” He asks. George looks at him. He has to lift his head up. 

 

“Have Niki order him a cab,” Baker tells the interrogator. The boy scoffs.

 

“I can drive,” he says. “If—you don’t have to shove me around , prick—if this fucking idiot uncuffs me, I’ll be fine. Dandy.” He runs his tongue over his lips and then spits blood on the ground. It hits George’s shoes. When he smiles up at Baker again it’s worked into his teeth. “See? All clean.” He looks over at George, then. “Sorry, man. I wasn’t aiming for you or anything.”

 

“It’s fine,” George says. 

 

“You’re drunk,” Baker says. He compacts himself to stand taller than the boy, his son. “Niki will order you a cab, and you can come and pick your car up tomorrow morning. I expect not to see you in my station again.”

 

“Yeah, lookin’ forward to it,” the boy says, but he hasn’t pulled his eyes away from George. He tilts his head like a curious animal. “Who’s the new guy?” 

 

“Clay—” Baker says tightly, but George takes over with a, “I’m with the British police. Detective Davidson. Art and Antiques Unit.”

 

“How fascinating,” the boy says. George scrubs the sheen of spit off of one of his dress shoes with his heel. “It’s for those stolen Backus paintings, isn’t it? It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Detective Davidson. I know the circumstances, are, um, less than ideal, but—” 

 

“I’ve heard enough from you,” Baker finally breaks, and the other investigator starts shoving the boy through the door with tiny grunts, and the boy just calls, “I’ll see you, detective!” And they leave George alone in the room, studying the dust on manila folders and the hiss of useless ventilation. 

 

He has just enough time to catch his breath. His office back home is closed to the world, but the Orlando PD is a gaping mouth of artificial newness. He would’ve much preferred to work with the Art Crime team back in D.C., but they insisted he was needed as a specialist in the hotspot. 

 

Baker comes through the door again. He’s holding two cups of coffee, and he motions with his head towards the table in the center of the room. George follows.

 

He can see the early gleam of light against the high windows, the steady bustle of early voices. “I’m—so sorry about my son,” he says. “He’s—well, I won’t make excuses on his behalf, but I will apologize for his behavior. Come. Do you take anything in your coffee?”

 

“Black is fine,” George says, and accepts it thankfully. He can feel the packing of dry heat onto humid heat when he gulps it down, watching Baker tap papers into place. “Fill me in. You have a chain of murders linked to my art robber?”

 

“More than that,” Baker says. “So—God, where to begin?” 

 

George supposes it started—like all things seem to—with the Narcotics unit. He’s uncomfortably familiar with how much they pry. And that’s not even to mention the lengths the Americans take: prodding about with their tetanic forceps overseas to the point where George’s supervisor heeded to the warnings and sent him on a wild goose-chase completely on his own. 

 

Not completely on his own. He has his passport. And he’s meant to do weekly check-ins—both with the Art & Antiques unit back home, and the FBI with the tiny tracker they slipped into the body of his loose tie.

 

 Blocks from Tate Britain, a couple had been stabbed and left alive in a dumpster long enough to die in each other’s arms. The BBC called it the Sweetheart Murders. It chided the media over for a few weeks, enough time to shed tears about anonymous newlyweds, but then David Hockey’s Going Up Garrowby Hill was reported stolen and the bloody trail of fingerprints peeked its way through the door. 

 

Then there was the Peacock Murder—a blue-haired woman in her family vacation home—the Hack-And-Slash Murder—the man with a grim smile etched across his face—and then the names became useless and the murders became plentiful, specific yet untargeted, gruesome yet wholly uninspiring. Just enough edge to keep housewives glued to their screens long enough to miss the editorial in the paper about the Samuel Palmer piece that had gone missing from the British Museum. 

 

George almost wishes they’d stuck to smaller names. He’d go as far as to doubt the news would have reported a stolen art piece if his Chief Constable hadn’t demanded they give something—anything—to the press, and—he remembers with bitterness—the international public had drawn their own conclusions. 

 

Kingpins are known for their inclination for stolen masterpieces, but George has never thought of it as an issue for Narcotics. They’ve taken enough cases out from under the Specialist Command’s nose; it’s rare enough for Art & Antiques to be in the spotlight without the media shifting focus to things that are easier to talk about. 

 

Which drugs are. They’re easier to talk about. There’s a morbid fascination, George figures, with a reality that doesn’t belong to you. His throat throbs with pain when Baker slides a laminated copy of the dead security guard, his skin muggy and blue.

 

“You look a bit pale,” Baker says. Even in the light. No surprise there. “Have you—worked with Homicide units?” 

 

“Oh,” George says. It’s less the gore and more the pins and needles in his neck. “When I was in Basic Command, yes. It’s not that. It’s—you’ve a stolen Backus, and you’re aware of it? Usually the murders precede the theft.”

 

The investigator George had seen in the interrogation room slides into the seat in front of Baker. He rubs at a streak of brown blood on his palm. “They wouldn’t have flown you out for a copycat, detective,” he says. He leans forward, hand outstretched. “Darryl, by the way. It’s such a pleasure to meet you.”

 

“Likewise,” George says, taking it. “I didn’t say it was a copycat. But if he changes his pattern when coming to America, we wouldn’t be able to—” 

 

“We’re very strict with monitoring changes in his pattern,” Darryl says. There’s something very comforting about the sharpness of his voice. He’s very kind, for someone who already seems done with George’s shit. “That’s why we requested—support, I guess. Or why the Lieutenant requested support.”

 

“I’d rather have a professional on the case if we’re dealing with an—organized team, as we seem to be,” Baker says roughly. He eyes Darryl again, as if this is a conversation they’ve had in the past. George studies his coffee carefully to avoid becoming a part of their mind game. “They can live without their head, but—they can’t run around without any legs.” He taps his fingers against his paper cup of coffee. “It might be a change in pattern, but that only serves to confirm what we already know about it being a group effort. And—the stolen paintings still haven’t made it to the press.” 

 

“But, the, um,” George says, struggling to find a way to define the bloke in the interrogation room without calling him Baker’s son. It already seems like enough of a painful reminder, based off of the way Baker’s eyebrows wrinkle. “The—boy from earlier?”

 

“Yes,” he says. “He’s—I wouldn’t worry about what he knew. He runs in seedy circles. Are you staying nearby?”

 

“An Airbnb,” George says. Against his own volition, he’d been booked in a suburban house suspiciously similar to the set of the Brady Bunch. “Hopefully my suitcases have made it before I do.” He looks out of the window again, and Baker follows his eyes, the sun orange and dirty. The precinct wakes up alongside it, but George’s exhaustion is so harsh and immediate he doesn’t even bother with an excuse for trying to find it. “I—hope I can join you tomorrow morning?”

 

“Absolutely,” Baker says, and then it’s another round of shaking hands and holding coffee and finding bright hallways that all look the same, roguelike and confusing, until Darryl grabs the back of George’s elbow and says, “Here, I’ll walk you to your Uber.” 

 

They don’t talk much. “Feel like my brain’s made out of fucking sludge,” George murmurs, and then Darryl, unexpectedly, laughs. The corners of his eyes even crinkle up. It’s quite healing, after having dealt with the pound of his blood against his ears for the past twelve hours of travel.

 

“Heat’ll do it to you,” Darryl says. 

 

“Less the heat and more the getting here,” George says. This time, as they walk into the direction of the archway closing against the secretary’s hallway, he’s almost shouldered by women holding folders and men in beat-cop uniforms, all giving him an identical smile. He grimaces away from them and looks at his feet instead. “You’ve a good unit here. How big is your team?”

 

“I’m sure you’ll meet them all tomorrow, but there’s five of us,” Darryl says. “Excluding our beat-cops and the Baker.” He looks at George again. “That’s just—what we call the Lieutenant. He’s a good manager and all, but—he can be a hardass.”

 

“Looks like it,” George says. A bespectacled man is sitting at the desk where the secretary had been earlier in the morning; he’s put a potted plant on the table and smiles at them when George pushes out of the door. Too many smiles for his liking. “Was that really his kid in there?”

 

“Clay,” Darryl says, as an explanation. “Yeah. He’s—a fun one.” Before George can start looking around for his car in the first inches of dewy light, Darryl takes a step back, shielding his eyes from the reflection of the sun. “Listen, I have to get back. But, I mean, I’m—really looking forward to working with you, man. You seem like you actually know what you’re doing.”

 

“I don’t,” George says. He shakes Darryl’s hand again. “I’ll see you.”

 

A car with a loud radio is idling at the end of the street. George closes his eyes against the gasoline fumes and undoes his tie, unwrapping it from his neck and picking against the lining so he can find the bug. It’s a tiny square chip, metal arms clinging to the thread of his tie, and he rounds around the corner of the precinct building before he drops it to the floor and crushes it with his heel. 

 

He smears electronic guts behind him when he walks down the sidewalk, looking at the soil and how the building roars to life on the inside; outside, the street is completely silent. In an odd way, it’s probably the safest street in Orlando: early in the morning and outside the police department, empty of people but with cops just close enough by.

 

He doesn’t see anyone a good distance away, so George ducks against the row of shrubbery concealing the garage exit of the police department, locking his feet against the broken sidewalk. He digs for the pill bottle in his coin wallet and finds it sufficiently unrattled.  

 

A reality that doesn’t belong to you , he thinks again, and props it under his arm so he can find his Altoids tin. He crushes one of the Xanax tabs with the knuckle of his forefinger, blowing the dust back against the metal, and he’s just about readied it for sniffing when he hears, “Detective Davidson?”

 

He freezes, his heart hammering in his ears. It’s not a cop. It’s the Lieutenant’s son, which is almost worse; he’s grinning ear to ear, and it’s such a pathetic smile, like he’s just discovered something only he’s happy to see. 

 

 “Detective Davidson ,” he says, and walks closer.

 

“What,” George says.

 

Clay blinks at him, very slowly. George wonders if it’s because he towers so dramatically that all of his motions seem altered. “‘ What’ ?” He repeats, voice working too quickly for George’s working theory. “I just played dumb in an interrogation room for, like, an hour, so I think I know what you’re trying to do pretty well.” He snaps the pill bottle from George’s fingers. “You smuggled this overseas, huh?”  

 

“It’s prescribed,” George says.

 

“If it was prescribed, you wouldn’t be snorting it,” Clay snaps back, with just as much intensity. George shrinks against it, snatching the bottle back and tucking it into his coin wallet before he can do something stupid like offer him some so he’ll quiet. “I’m not gonna kiss and tell, detective, come on. Among the human vices, he considered cowardice one of the first , right? Bulgakov? Whatever. Don’t worry about it.” He picks at the wound on his bottom lip. “Just wanted to say hi. You’re working on the art stolen from the Fort Pierce museum, right?”

 

“How did you know that?” George says. “I doubt it’s because you’re the Lieutenant’s son.”

 

Step son, first of all,” Clay says. “But, yes. No. It’s not because I’m his—I just know where to ask my questions, is all. And it’s not just my Art History professors.”

 

“Right,” George says. It’s not that he’s in any position to question the legitimacy of some bloke’s course of study, but the bruise on his face and the stupid way he’s grinning at George—like a wolf with human teeth—do not exactly scream reverent scholar . “What was your name again?”

 

“Dream,” Clay says.

 

“Not Clay,” George says. 

 

“No, not Clay,” Clay says. “And you’re—”

 

“George.”

 

“Not—”

 

Not Detective Davidson, yes,” George says, the frustration ebbing in his skull. It would’ve been gone by now, and he’d have been able to doze off in his Uber already if this bloke—Dream—knew when to keep things to himself. It’s almost odd to him that he’d even bother coming to talk to George when he could’ve just—used his stupid habit as some sort of leverage. “Look, do you need anything from me? Because I’ve been travelling for God knows how long and I’d love to be in bed right now.” 

 

“With your pills,” Dream says helpfully.

 

Yes , with my pills,” George says. “I’m a specialist for the Yard, so yes, my fucking pills. I’d ask you not to go tell on me to your father, but—”

 

“Oh, come on,” Dream says. “That’s not what I wanted. Listen. I’ve been—these cops have never gotten anything done. All right? You’re better off working somewhere like New York if you genuinely want to catch these people in what they’re doing.”  

 

“They’re not in New York,” George says. 

 

“I’m willing to bet the Met is next on their hit list,” Dream says. “I know they’re working small for now, and that’s very smart and everything, but don’t you have a bad feeling? I’ve been following this case for a while. I don’t want them stealing any— Rembrandts , or anything.” 

 

“A bad feeling,” George repeats. His mouth feels dry at that. “I don’t work off your bad feelings. You should go.” 

 

“It doesn’t seem to me that you work at all, detective,” Dream says. “Not without your pick-me-up.” There’s a terse beat. “I can help you.” 

 

George snorts at that, digging for his cell tucked into his back pocket. “It was great chatting with—”

 

“No, don’t ,” Dream says desperately, and grabs the back of his arm from where he turns to move away. “Listen, man, come on. I don’t know who’s behind the murders—or the theft, or anything like that—but God, there’s so much shit my father couldn’t tell you.” His eyes scale over George’s face. “If you ever have questions, I’m—I can help you. Really.” 

 

“You don’t owe me anything,” George says.

 

“This isn’t about you,” Dream says. “My truck got stolen and they found cocaine in the trunk, and then that security guard is found dead with it in his system after being clean his entire life. And they called my girlfriend in about it, thinking they could get an upper hand over me. Do you see what I’m getting at? This shit is going to ruin me.”

 

You’re going to ruin you,” George says, rattling his phone in his hand. He thinks back on the girl he saw in the hallway. If she hadn’t made him look down at his tie, that bug would be watching him have this conversation. “I don’t need your help—you don’t get to play detective when it’s convenient for you. Just stay out of the way and you won’t get in trouble. It’s not difficult.” 

 

“If only that worked,” Dream says, and then grabs George’s hand. He tenses up, clenching up his fist and trying to jerk it away. Dream uncaps a pen with his mouth.

 

“I’m a spoken ‘n accounted for man, d’tective, s’no friendly phone-calls,” Dream says, voice muffled by the cap between his teeth. The ballpoint pen stretches over the back of George’s skin, massaging against the veins on the back of his hand. “That’s a one, by the way, not a seven. If a dude goes missing and my dear old dad doesn’t say anything about it because he’s already arrested him twice, you know who to call about it.” 

 

When Dream leaves, George tries to rub the ballpoint pen off of his skin. It doesn’t lift off and barely smudges.

Chapter Text

George remembered that once, when he was little, his mum had asked him if you could ask God a question, what would you want to know ? And he couldn’t remember what he’d answered. Or if he’d answered at all. But it was a good question—he’d never wanted to know much. He wasn’t naturally curious. 

 

But he was stubborn. Very fucking stubborn. Linking stolen art together was an art form within itself. Both the Backus and the Hockey were landscapes, several eras of artistic styles apart; the murders were harder, only able to be linked post-mortem when pathologists eliminated suicides as a possibility. Which—Darryl had informed him—they almost never did. 

 

“It’s always cleaner to rule out the murders,” he tells George, as he wheels out the whiteboard they’re using to prop up crime scene photos. “Cleaner, better for the media. Well, not better—the more murders the Orlando Sentinel gets to report on, the easier it is to tide them over. But it makes it harder for them to call us useless and crooked. Hank! Did you get my bagel?”

 

“I got you a bagel,” Hank says, dropping a brown doggie bag in front of him. Darryl opens it excitedly, but he burns his fingers on the tinfoil and drops it on the table. “They didn’t have chicken salad, but I got you a bagel. Oh, George, here’s your tea.”

 

“What?” George says, turning around in surprise. Hank raises his eyebrows and hands him the disposable coffee cup—black tea with milk and no sugar. The same order he’d asked for yesterday, when Hank introduced himself and asked him for his coffee order. It’s almost romantic. “Oh. Thank you, mate.”

 

“No problem,” Hank says. “Where’s the Lieu?”

 

“Recuperating,” Darryl says, sucking on his burnt finger regretfully. They share a look that implies a lot of heated history. George busies himself with sorting through a testimony he doesn’t recognize so that he can yawn in peace. He’s not very good with fixing his jetlag, and he knows that’s slightly more understandable than Baker not timing his overtime well, but he’s still full of a jittery urge to prove himself as up and active. “Sarge isn’t here yet either. Give it a few. They really didn’t have chicken salad?”

 

“I mean, they did, but I didn’t want my car smelling like it,” Hank says.

 

“One sacrifice,” Darryl says. “One sacrifice for the greater good.”

 

“Your bagel isn’t the greater good,” Hank says. “Did you get consent for the car search last night?” 

 

Darryl rolls his eyes and rocks back in his spinning chair, threading a pen between his fingers. George looks at the back of his hand; the ballpoint is faded, from when he showered last night. He had just enough time to input the number into his phone. “No. McKenna’s getting us a warrant. Morning, Sergeant.” 

 

“I talked to him about a warrant yesterday evening,” Alvarez says as a greeting, knotting her dark hair into an effortless bun on top of her head. She hadn’t introduced herself to George properly, as she’d been late to a rapist’s arraignment court because she was running a case to Cyber Crimes while discussing a cold case with a pathologist who’d found an inconsistency. All while somehow having the time to talk to a lawyer about a search warrant. George isn’t sure if the stressors she places on herself are admirable or worrying. “Go check on the progress, Noveschosch.” 

 

“Great, okay, on it,” Darryl says, and sends George a look as he gets up out of his seat with his sad bagel in hand. George’s fingers itch for progress; all he’s done so far is settle in and answer a call from the agent who’s supposed to be working him through this case. He knows the real reason was because he stomped the bug into the ground, but he didn’t get any questions about it. 

 

“How much progress have you made on the museum crime scene?” George asks. Alvarez cocks a hip against the whiteboard. Her skin is darker, but the circles under her eyes are the color of white bacon. 

 

“It’s closed off to the public and we’ve already swabbed it for evidence,” Alvarez says. “Our specialists are working on a reconstruction back in the lab. Alyssa’s down there overseeing the secondary survey. Harris, if you—”

 

“Secondary survey?” George interrupts. “Of the entire museum? Already?” 

 

“To tell you the truth, detective, the crime scene for the murders is our top priority,” Alvarez says, which—of course. He doesn’t miss the edge of elitism in her voice, though he isn’t sure if his subconscious brain is accidentally searching for it. 

 

“There’s a reason I was called here, Sergeant,” George says. “I’m going to need your blood spatter analysts on the scene, and I need the parking lot and surrounded streets closed.”

 

Alvarez’s eyes jut from him to the table, then back again. She nods, tersely, instead of opening her mouth to ask, so Hank pushes himself out of his seat and clears his throat loudly instead. There seem to be certain circumstances where she’s fine with people asking questions for her.

 

“Why do you need blood spatter analysts?” He asks.

 

“When one of the artworks from a museum in the North was stolen, the brown ink and glass varnish residue that dripped on the floor had a similar consistency to blood,” George says. The truth was that it was mostly a mistake: one of the inspectors had called in the incorrect analysts, who told them that the patterns were indicative of a rushed job, the same way you’d carry a bleeding person. “We’ve kept an expert on the scene since.” 

 

“Alla prima,” Alvarez says.

 

“Yes,” George says. 

 

“The Backus gallery only holds dead paintings,” Alvarez says. “It was very clearly targeted because it’s easier to get away with art that’s already lost to the ages. I wouldn’t worry about possible residue.”

 

“It’s not the residue I’m worried about,” George says. Maybe he’s too perfectionistic. He smiles at her, but her face is set in fine embroidery. “You should make some calls.”

 

** 

 

Hank offers to drive, because George still hasn’t gotten the hang of driving on the right side of the road. “I can’t believe you got the Sarge to let you bring in new faces on the scene,” he says. “She’s a bulldozer. Always wants people in their dedicated places. Seriously. Respect.”

 

George just snorts, looking down at his phone. There’s a tremor in his hands from where he’s missing the clutch of his fingernails against skin—from where he’s missing the feeling of a tab in his blood, but he’s never let it endanger his performance and he’s not going to start right now. Not when he’s a continent away. “It’s—quite literally the only thing I’m good at. So.”

 

“I doubt that,” Hank says. “What were the first few cases like? Before you guys got the hang of how to work your crime scenes, that is.”

 

“Stressful,” George says, thinking back. It’s very easy to lose himself in cycles of what he could’ve done better, back when the thefts were region-specific and the asshole wasn’t fleeing overseas. “We had to try and convince the Crown there was a link between homicide and our art theft case.” He rubs at the spot over his eyebrow that's pounding dramatically. “It got handed to Narcotics for a while, which was stupid and unnecessary.” 

 

“What is it with giving all of our cases to Narcotics?” Hank says. “Like they’re going to find a serial killer with their K9 units. Half of the department moonlights as TSA.”

 

“Explains a lot,” George says. He finds Fort Pierce quiet at first, but when they slow to a halt in front of the museum he finds that it’s because the nearby streets have been closed down with yellow tape. There’s a casino, the sign proclaiming its name darkened. A few grocery store employees idle confusedly, their main entrances closed off to the public. “Shit. She works fast.”

 

“Bulldozers can be fast,” Hank says. He exits out of the car, and George leaves his cold tea in the cup compartment before he follows him inside.

 

Alyssa, one of their investigators, is talking animatedly to a woman in a lab coat when George nears. The calmness of her voice is such a harsh contrast to the bustling air around them, George finds it easier to wait to ask his questions.

 

“Hank, Detective,” she says, nodding at them both. “Where’s Thing Two?”

 

“Playing hide-and-seek with Judge Spirov,” Hank says. George takes a step back to survey the museum: untouched paintings cover the walls not unlike tacked-up pieces of evidence, the faint pinks and honeydew yellows of Backus skies. It seems like less of a museum and more of a very decorated nursing home. “George was actually the one to request blood spatter analysts from Alvarez. Something about brown ink?”

 

“Long story,” George says. “Listen, before I explain that—the security cameras from that grocery store have been checked, yeah?”

 

“Oh, back on the first day we launched the investigation,” Alyssa says. Someone taps her on the shoulder to show her a clipboard, and she marks it off with a pencil before furrowing her brow back at them. “Unsurprisingly, they were broken. The casino across the street has theirs pointing on the inside, so we never bothered to collect the footage. Are you the one that closed down the streets, too?”

 

“Yeah, I am,” George says, growing increasingly puzzled with how gentle their voices go. Either he’s a much stronger steamroller than he’d expected to be, or investigations are scarce and quite phony here. “I’m sorry, did I—this is an international case. If it seems like I’m going too far—”

 

“Oh, nonono,” Alyssa says quickly. “Don’t misunderstand. We just haven’t had a murder need so many resources in the department for—a long time. It’s a welcome change of pace, but it feels very—”

 

“Baker likes it, is what we’re trying to say,” Hank says. “Baker likes it, and Alvarez—I mean, she doesn’t really like anything. They’re being stingy with what they’re allowing us to investigate ‘cause they figure the money from the state and the money from the press is going to chide us over until the robbers run away to California or something.” 

 

And against his better judgement, George remembers Dream. There’s so much shit my father couldn’t tell you . “That’s… not my problem,” George settles on, and takes a step back from them both. “I really doubt the casino owners didn’t see anything, if it was late at night.”

 

“They claim to have been closed,” Alyssa says grimly.

 

“And you can’t issue a witness summons?” George asks. “A warrant for the cameras?”

 

“...We could,” Hank says, after a beat. George crosses his arms, waiting for the inevitable explanation, but all he gets is Hank scratching his neck uncomfortably. “People don’t usually—the casino’s always had an agreement with the department, is the thing.”

 

George laughs, without meaning to. “Are you joking?” When Hank’s face remains unchanged, he feels his smile go dull off his face. “You’re serious? What kind of agreement could you have with a casino that puts them above the law?” 

 

“I can talk to Alvarez about it,” Alyssa says, and raises a hand against Hank’s open mouth. “I got it, Hank. She likes me best anyway, so it’ll be better if it comes from me. Excuse me.”

 

“Bit fucked,” George says, when she walks away. “You let them get away with a lot or something?”

 

“It’s not like that,” Hank says, and then catches the way George smirks at his feet. “I mean, I don’t know. Maybe it is like that. All I know is that they’ve never closed down the shady shit that operates in their basements, and when Darryl and I went to ask them some questions they had us backed into a wall pretty quickly.” 

 

There’s a bitter taste in George’s mouth. “And that’s when people they know question them.”

 

“Yeah,” Hank says. He stops snapping on his rubber gloves to catch the look on George’s face. “Whatever you’re thinking—”

 

“I can wait for the warrant,” George says. He doesn’t know why that isn’t the natural conclusion they’d draw—if they’re dealing with an underground art theft ring, he feels like the first step would be to look at whatever threatening force seems to be looming over the department to this extent. “We should check damage from the employee entrance.”

 

Hank spent a while walking him through evidence they’ve already marked off, but the employee entrance is an anomaly. They’re alone in the back entrance, hands gloved but not touching anything. “It’s mostly the damage here I’m wondering about,” George says. He runs a finger over the side of the wall; there’s two matching cracks on opposite sides of the panelling. “Damage here, and then—back here, near the fence. Was that there before?”

 

“The door, I’m not sure, but the fence—apparently not,” Hank says. “I can call a few CSIs in. I don’t know about you, but that looks like just enough space to park a car to me.”

 

“I didn’t want to say it,” George says. Nobody appreciates a rush-job. “Forensic engineers could be helpful. I know we have a visitor list from the past month, but could we compile a list of cars? Even if it’s somebody who wasn’t here during the day—” 

 

“No, that’s a good idea,” Hank says. “I’ll talk to Eric. You can ask the receptionist.”

 

“Sounds good,” George confirms, but lags behind after Hank jogs inside. The museum shields him from the midday sun, and he has enough time to press the cold tips of his fingers against his eyelids. He’s probably on the run. He’s probably overseas. He’s probably in Miami. He pulls his phone out of his pocket before he can stop himself—the only unlabeled number in his phone is Dream’s.

 

He waits, a passive few beats, watching a bird across the street drink from a puddle. “Who is it?” Dream asks, after the fourth ring. His voice is throaty and unpolished. 

 

“Tell me about the casino in Fort Pierce,” George says.  

 

He hears the rustling of sheets. “I can’t.”

 

“You can’t,” George repeats coolly. “So you can’t help me at all.”

 

“No, it’s—” Dream says, and huffs. “I can , but I wouldn’t want to be a narc. You know? So whatever I tell you, it doesn’t come from me.”

 

“I figured that was implied,” George says. “Just tell me.” 

 

“Fine,” Dream says. “Fine. They—allegedly—are one of the fronts for the drug peddlers that function off the Miami harbor. And, I mean, you know how shit is in small towns. Baker won’t do jack-shit about them because they’re allegedly funnelling money to him and his boss. Allegedly.” He pauses. “Why are you asking?” 

 

“They might’ve seen something,” George says, after a second. He isn’t sure of the best way of appeasing Dream without completely betraying the entire department he’s not a part of. “But they won’t talk to us. I reckon a subpoena is the best way around that, but—everyone’s hesitant.”

 

“Good luck with that,” Dream says. “You should come with me. Tonight.” 

 

Come with you?” George says. Dream huffs out a laugh in a way that makes the receiver crackle with sound.

 

“I’m supposed to be there tonight,” he says. “I might’ve—I mean, I might allegedly owe Saint Don a few thousand… hugs. And I have to go down there and give him what I’ve made so far of his. Hugs.” 

 

“You must give great hugs," George says. "Saint Don?” 

 

“So it’s settled!” Dream chirps, completely avoiding his question. “I’ll see you in front of the gallery tonight at twelve. Don’t wear purple. He doesn’t like it.” 

 

I wasn’t planning on it , George thinks. He has to shake his head to clear it: what the fuck is he thinking , talking to someone like Dream like this? The son of a police lieutenant who gambles his money away and sleeps until noon. 

 

“I’m not coming with you to a casino ,” George says. “I’m here as a formality . I’m a—detective of the law.”

 

“Oh, fuck off,” Dream says. He hangs up.



Chapter Text

George doesn’t wear purple. He finds a black suit jacket he hasn’t worn already and crumples up the collar of one of his white dress shirts so he doesn’t look too much like a cop. Which he has to remind himself he is, even though he’s technically not authorized to be undercover.

 

He supposes he must be: he’s working under British jurisdiction, for one, and he has the FBI stamp of approval to peruse the self-proclaimed whatever means necessary . That doesn’t bring him any further comfort, when he ends up outside of the A.E. Backus Museum and Gallery for the second time in a day.

 

He can feel the security cameras burning red holes into his back while he waits, but his heart is so uncomfortably alive in his chest he has to smoke. He’s nursing his second cigarette by the time Dream makes an appearance.

 

He’s wearing a black shirt with a denim jacket, and his drying hair hangs in thin shrivels over his face. George looks at his mouth and then looks away. His busted lip is healing, slowly.

 

“Looking good, detective,” Dream says. “The Crown deck you out like that or what?”

 

“Fuck you,” George says. He watches Dream’s teeth flash when he smiles again, his thumb running over the pink sliver of his bottom lip. Getting to drop the formality around him is comforting, until George reminds himself who he is. “Do you need a cover story in here for what?”

 

“You can be my friend,” Dream says.

 

“No,” George says.

 

“Jesus, fine,” Dream says, affronted. “You don’t have to be a bitch about it. You being a detective won’t freak them out, but it might be easier if we just say—I don’t know. You being British might freak them out, for obvious reasons. One of my classmates writing your thesis on Backus? I’ll drop you some fun facts if you get too itchy around the collar.”

 

“I think I can hold up fine,” George says irritably. “I don’t think it’s a great idea for me to do a lot of talking in the first place. I’ll follow your lead.”

 

“Good move, detective,” Dream says. “I’ve got a great lead.” 

 

His lead ends in George getting patted down for weapons before the entrance to the poker tables. Dream waits for him, patiently, and he’s stuttering off about Saint Don enough that the bouncer nods them through without much argument. 

 

The casino—drenched in a finite type of darkness—is difficult to navigate. Pool tables and trays of cocktails bump into George’s thighs before he can bump into them. He resists grabbing Dream’s arm so he can be dragged through the maze. He finds the curtain at the back of the room, where the gentle jazz music drowns out conversations easier.

 

“Just—careful,” Dream tells him, before he pulls it aside. And then he steps through.

 

There’s a staircase that winds down into the basement, with walls of brick and purple tapestry. The basement is cooler, and there’s more women: some in lingerie, some frowning, some tapping cards against pool tables. Surprisingly, some of them pull at Dream’s arm as he threads through barstools. Unsurprisingly, Saint Don likes them young. 

 

“The cop ling,” George hears, matching his smile to the hearty laugh immediately. At the end of the basement, Saint Don is sitting at a pool table with a young man and a cards dealer. He’s an older man, with a robust, happy face: his cheekbones rise higher in tempo every time he breathes. His shirt looks closer to a nightshirt, and it’s a dark, rich purple. “What’d I tell you about comin’ back here before you’s gotten my money, copling?” 

 

“Maybe I do have your money,” Dream says.

 

“You know I gotta doubt it, Dream,” Saint Don rumbles, leaning forward. His hum lifts into his voice. If George weren’t in the stomach of his casino, he’d probably find him comforting. Like a rough kiss on the cheek. “I really wish I didn’t have to, they call me the Saint for a reason, y’know? But you’s haven’t been that clean about givin’ me what I’m due before.”

 

“I know, I know, and I’m trying to fix that,” Dream says. He smacks a wad of money onto the table, but Saint Don doesn’t break eye contact until one of his lackeys leans over and starts thumbing through it.

 

“One-k down, boss,” he says.

 

“Well,” Saint Don says, leaning back in his seat. George turns around, watching the way Dream picks at the skin around his thumb until there’s a bubble of blood. “Halfway there already. ‘S it my fucking birthday or what? I’m proud of you, Dream. C’mere and sit down. Who’s your friend?” 

 

“Oh,” Dream says, and steps to the side. His shoulders relax under his jacket. “This is, um, George. We’re studying together—he’s writing his thesis on Backus.”

 

“George,” Saint Don repeats. And then he looks at him , and George feels glued into place until he looks back up at Dream as he settles into the seat across from him. George follows. “You an art-historian-to-be?”

 

“Close to it,” George says, finally. “Was hoping to make some money here tonight to pay off those loans.”

 

“Five-And-Dime’s good for that,” Saint Don says agreeably, and runs his fingers over his deck of cards. His fingernails are dirty and lined in brown, and he reaches up with one of them to scratch under his eye. “That accent. What’s with the accent?”

 

“Studying from overseas,” Dream says, as an explanation.

 

“Let him talk, let him talk,” Saint Don says, and Dream quiets so quickly George can’t help but think it’s a good look on him—his eyes widen and his mouth thins out like a cartoon character. “Where you from?”

 

“London,” George says. He fidgets in his seat uncomfortably as the dealer drops a bundle of cards in front of him. He was not briefed for this. “I’m writing about the landscapes of Southern American artists. I’ve just, um, finished my section on Jerry Bywaters, actually.” 

 

“That Texan fuck,” Saint Don agrees. “Hope Orlando does you well, then, George . Who’s foldin’? ‘Cause I’m wiping the floor with all y’all asses.” 

 

He’s merry on his own long enough for George to lean over and whisper to Dream. “You shouldn’t be playing if you’re already in debt,” he says. 

 

“What are you, my fucking mom?” Dream says. George doesn’t miss the small way his voice trembles over the vowels. “Fuck off. I’m folding.” 

 

“What made you choose artists from the South?” One of the lackeys at Saint Don’s side asks. He’s in wire-rimmed glasses and he’s obsessively running his fingers over one of his chips, head tilted to the side. 

 

George shrugs. “Always figured they were the—fathers of folk art.”

 

“Damn right,” Saint Don says. Dream pushes his foot against George’s under the table—he must have said something right. “Backus is a genius. Shame we didn’t keep that painting for ourselves.” 

 

They don’t catch the way George’s hands flutter over his cards. He splits up a handful of chips to himself, but Dream is quick to kick him again and tap his knuckles against the table. One, two, three. He pushes the chips into the center. 

 

“You had a Backus?” George asks, disinterested. 

 

“Don’t know where you got that from, but Lord would I love to,” Saint Don says, and only when George looks back up at him does his sly smile split over his face. “You raising, George? Didn’t know you Brits had such a death wish, but all right, all right. Nah, we ain’t had a Backus. Once again, they use me for my brute force, don’t they, boys?” 

 

“You could just get one any time you wanted, I bet,” Dream says. “Museum’s right there, after all.” 

 

“Sure, sure,” Saint Don says. “But the fun is in the chase, isn’t it? Gettin’ ‘em back overseas. Say, George, if you’re ever back in London anytime soon—” and he elbows the dealer, who shares a laugh so artificial George wonders if anyone else can identify it. 

 

“What, the stolen Backus is there?” Dream asks. 

 

“No idea,” Saint Don says.

 

“Guess George didn’t have to fly all the way out, then,” Dream says, eyeing him from the side when he makes Saint Don belly-laugh. The blood from his thumb pools over into the skin of his knuckle. 

 

“I’m going to the bathroom,” the man in the wire-frames says. 

 

George feels the pocket of his trousers. The security guard hadn’t even batted an eye when he said his pill bottle was for his anxiety; a lot of people must get anxiety betting away their life savings, after all. “D’you mind if I do this here, or should I—?” He asks, pulling it up out of his pocket. 

 

“Table back there,” the other one of Saint Don’s men—a Disciple, evidently—says. Before Dream can do something stupid like pull him back down, George scoots out of his seat and speedwalks to the man in the wire-frames before he can lose him in the crowd.

 

He has just enough time before the man has finished talking to a woman in a pink slip to follow him into the bathroom. The man turns a head over his shoulder, eyes widening when he realizes George has locked the door. There’s two stalls and a dirty sink, and George can’t see himself in the mirror.

 

“You—” he says, and George says, “Sorry, mate. I just wanted to take a tab before I started betting too much.”

 

“I get it, man,” the man says. “You want a line?”

 

“No thanks,” George says. There’s a terse silence as the man watches him turn his back to him and tap his Xanax out into his palm. He could crush it—it would’ve been easier to explain going into the bathroom if he crushed it—but he pops it into his mouth instead, rinsing his mouth out with water. The man waits again.

 

“You really studying Art History?” The man asks. His voice breaks in odd places like a wafer, and his hair falls in dry, cracked brittles over his head. “Dream’s never mentioned you before.”

 

George runs his fingers under the tap again. The water is lukewarm, not enough of the cold shock he needs to think, burrow a way out of the situation. “I have an… interest, certainly,” he says. “But me and Dream, we’re just—just wanted me to come along, is all.”

 

“He was nervous?” The man asks.

 

“I suppose,” George says. He shouldn’t have locked the door. Someone bangs against it, and he looks up at the mirror to see the man crossing his arms, barely startled by the sound. 

 

“Dream’s been here a ton of times and he’s never brought anyone else around,” the man says. “Just that girlfriend with the tiny tits. What’s the real reason you’re here, huh?”

 

Not great. Certainly not great. “The stolen Backus,” George says. He turns, steadying his hands on the sink, and watches the way the man’s face reddens. It’s so immediate it’s like a slap of red paint onto his scraggly face. “Is it on the market now?”

 

The man dangles him precariously again before he answers, bringing the tension to a scream into George’s throat. He doesn’t have his gun, and he knows the man must have a gun. “Who’s asking?” He says. 

 

“I’ve been with them since the heist in the British Museum,” George says. It’s going to take a heavy veil of bullshit to maneuver his way around this, based on the way the man’s hand is inching against the protruding linen of his suit jacket. “And what I can’t figure out—for the fucking life of me—is why they wouldn’t just stay in Europe. Keep selling the art to the United States, like they had been before.”

 

It’s his working theory, and the fact that the man relaxes his hands is as much of an indication as ever that George is on the right track. The satisfaction is so thick and immediate that he can’t help but confuse it with the slow thump of the blood into his brain. “The murder in Orlando was convienent for them, man,” he says. “They don’t follow the art.”

 

George opens his mouth to say something else, but someone bangs against the door again. “George!” He hears, and then another harsh thump. He closes his eyes against it and gives the man an apologetic look, opening it to find Dream with his fists poised against the door again.

 

There’s a sheen of sweat on his forehead and his hair is mysteriously tousled. “Hey,” he says lamely. “You guys peeing in here or what?” 

 

“What is it?” George asks. 

 

“Um, we should go, I think,” Dream says. “It’s late and—you know how these things go. One thing leads to another, and I’m another two thousand dollars in debt, so let’s—we have a long drive and everything.”

 

“George and I were just talking,” the man says. “You should’ve told Don he was part of the heists in the UK. You could’ve used him here.” 

 

“I didn’t know,” Dream says, shortly. If the man looks at him apologetically, he doesn’t catch it, because Dream is dragging him out of the bathroom so forcefully he can hear one of his pills rattle to the floor, and the burn of Dream’s hand pulling his arm out of the socket is so conscious and painful all he can focus on is going back to get that pill. He imagines the man with the wire-framed glasses stepping a heavy shoe above it on his way back to the pool table. He imagines the dust being sweeped up by a girl being kissed into the bathroom.

 

When Dream shoves him into the back alley, he says, “You want a tab?” 

 

“What?” Dream says. His throat lights up with the streetlight. “No, I don’t want a fucking tab. What the fuck with all of the questions? You want me banned from there for life?” When he doesn’t answer, he speaks again. “And going into the bathroom with J.G.? You didn’t have to—”

 

“What did he mean?” George asks. Dream pauses. “When he said You could have used him here . What did he mean?” Dream doesn’t respond again, bringing his thumb up so he can lick away at the blood. George doesn’t know why he doesn’t just find a bandaid, or wrap it around in the cotton of his shirt. He also doesn’t know why he grabs the collar of Dream’s shirt and pushes him up against the wall.

 

Woahwhatthe —” Dream starts, and then George snarls, “What the fuck did he mean?”, banging his head against the wall. He does it again, for good measure, watching the way Dream’s face contorts and he grimaces against George’s hands.

 

“I don’t know , man,” he says. 

 

“Tell me what he meant , you stupid fucking prick,” George says, and shoves his hand against Dream’s throat. Dream closes his eyes, nose scrunching up as his hands scraggle up to George’s.

 

“You’re—fuck—stronger than you look,” he says, and George can feel the way his voice struggles against his throat. “Jesus, I—I knew it was my car! Fuck. Obviously I knew it was my car. I gave it to them. I didn’t have another—I didn’t have another choice. Can you please let go now please ? Your rings are fucking killing me.” 

 

George slackens his hold, but only so he can fasten his hands back into the collar of Dream’s shirt and push back up into his neck. He doesn’t feel safe letting go. “You gave them your car?”

 

“It was more than two thousand dollars, at first,” he says, as explanation. “I don’t know what they used it for. That much is true. But my gut tells me—”

 

“Fuck your gut,” George says. “Why would you offer to help me? I could turn you in right now, get your fucking dad to put the handcuffs on your wrists, and it would be entirely your fault. Entirely.” It feels, strangely, like giving him a piece of advice. “I told you you were ruining yourself.”

 

“Who are you ,” Dream says, “To talk about ruining yourself?” 

 

George doesn’t loosen his hold. He’s had worse thrown at him, but at least then it was aged—with none of the newfound rawness of Dream’s hoarse voice. “Fuck you.”

 

“Fuck you ,” Dream says. “You don’t know me. You don’t know what I fucking need. Because guess what, George? You’re entirely in my debt now. You didn’t owe me anything, and now you’re here and you owe me much more than you have.” He can hear the spit working around Dream’s mouth. “You dialed my number, didn’t you?”

 

George wants to say something like, I didn’t know you’d answer . Something like, I don’t know what the fuck is going on and it hurts so badly I’ll do anything to know. Something like—something like, “Why are you doing this?”

 

“I need out,” Dream says. His eyes are desperate and cage something violent. “Just as much as you do. Just as much.”

 

“Out of what ?” George snaps.

 

“Does it matter?” He asks. “So when my fucking step-father asks you how you know everything you know tomorrow morning, my name stays out of your mouth. Completely. Now let go. We seriously need to leave before we get into even more shit.”

 

George has worked with Narcotics before—they have little empathy for drug addicts, if any at all, but that’s for the people with needle marks on their arms and white powder around their noses. Someone you can arrest; visible realities. But he’s never been noticed. If anything, working with Art & Antiques has made it easier for his habit to fly under the radar. 

 

It’s very difficult to become invisible if you have, at one point, been on full blast to the world. The way Dream is—lit up like a flashing casino sign, like a streetlight, like the thick throb of a fresh wound. George has worked with Narcotics, and he spent years in Basic Command, interviewing victims and finding hair samples and working himself up a precarious ladder with sharp, plentiful needles that prick his skin. It’s not his fault that he found the bandage. 

 

He’d just thought he’d stopped there. It was just the pills. he wasn’t backhanded and slimy like the rest of his coworkers—who slept with prostitutes they arrested or let off old friends on speeding violations—because he was clean in everything else, sterile and spotless, fucking spotless. America didn’t have to change that. Running some fucking fool’s errand overseas didn’t have to change that. 

 

He has a duty to report. He has to keep reminding himself that when he pulls his hands away from Dream and runs them along his shirt, feeling the scab of gravel and the imprint of Dream’s jaw. He needs to arrest Dream right now, bring him into the station and drop him in front of the interrogation room and he’ll be able to sleep well tonight knowing he’s done his duty to not only a country he doesn’t serve, but the modern ideal of justice.

 

He knows this well. He knows this well when he says, “Fuck. Fuck, fine. Let’s go.” He knows this just as well when he gets into Dream’s beat-up Rent-A-Car and watches the way the Floridian palm trees whip against the dark sky like leather belts.



Chapter Text

The investigation team doesn't believe him. He can tell because of the way Alvarez stares at them all, with her fingernails scratching through even lines already in the table. Like she’s daring them to agree with him. 

 

“And where did you hear this, exactly?” Alvarez says. 

 

“Does it matter?” George asks. My name stays out of your mouth. 

 

Yes ,” Baker says. George doesn’t want to look at him, for fear that he’ll see Saint Don somewhere on his face. “If the judge couldn’t have been convinced that we had probable cause for a warrant, any other way around their testimony is—I’m sure you’re aware how witness summons are usually undertaken here.”

 

“I am,” George says. Arguing his case is less useful than just telling the department what they need to do if they want to appear on the surface treading water. “I—it was a coincidence. My source divulged more than I was expecting.”

 

“Making friends, detective?” Alvarez says dryly. George doesn’t look away from Baker, who looks like he’s trying to balance a difficult equation in his head.

 

“I wouldn’t want federal agents in your department unless absolutely necessary,” George says. It’s a threat he’s seen work on his supervisors previously, and Baker scratches at his neck uneasily. “And I hate to inform you I’m working under their authority as well as my home country’s. I think this could be a step in the right direction, and I’m—frankly confused as to why you haven’t investigated this thread before.”

 

“Most of our efforts have been dedicated to the overdose,” Alvarez says, forcing George to look over at her. Baker nods alongside her words, but it does little to actually elevate them. “Three days undercover in Miami has… fared worse on better men.”

 

“I consider that an insult,” Darryl says. 

 

“It was an insult,” Alvarez says. “Davidson, I can’t—”

 

“This is a formality,” George says. He doesn’t know what he’s doing, playing nice with the Orlando department. Asking for permission, memorizing coffee orders, turning small-talk into later conversations—he’s already gone to dinner once with Darryl and Hank, and the worst part is that he enjoyed it. “I don’t need your permission.”

 

Alvarez shares a look with Baker again. She may speak for him, but he wields her power thinly. “One car,” Baker says, finally. “One car, wires, and you’re bringing Noveschosch and Harris with you.”

 

“Only two of you are to be undercover at one time,” Alvarez adds. She turns away from George, which he appreciates, because otherwise he might’ve done something ridiculous like gloat in her face. Alyssa is left pouting into her palm when Baker retreats back into his office and Alvarez says something about the bathroom.

 

“So you’re all going to spend three days in Miami while I interview every single person who’s been to the Fort Pierce museum in the past week and owns a pickup,” Alyssa says, as Hank and Darryl fist-bump. “Great. That’s cool. I’m not fuming or anything.” 

 

“It’s for work, Alyssa, come on,” Darryl says. “We’re going undercover to find a drug peddler who might be housing stolen art. Where’s your professionalism?”

 

“It’s for work, but we can still make it a boy’s day,” Hank says, wheeling his chair around to look at George. He hides his smile with a cough into his fist. “Am I right, George? Boy’s day?”

 

“Boy’s day,” Darryl agrees. Alyssa drops her face into her folded arms and fakes a sob. “Oh, come on, Alyssa. We’ll bring you a knickknack or something.”

 

“One of those bottles full of tiny shells,” George says. 

 

“I don’t want a bottle full of tiny shells,” Alyssa says.

 

The three-hour drive is peppered with enough gas-stations to fill an entire gift basket of useless trinkets. George picks out a taxidermy alligator head and Darryl finds a teddy bear wearing a University of Miami shirt, so Hank is left to scour the rest stops for bottles full of tiny shells. By the time they check into their hotel, George has little energy to head out to the South Beach.

 

“The earlier we get out there, the easier it’ll be to convince people we’re there every night,” Hank tells him, as they tip three police-mandated suitcases into their measly motel rooms. George, luckily, has his own bed to sleep on, but it does little to make up for the herds of partygoers that spill out of the neighboring rooms. “Just don’t wear— that .”

 

“What’s wrong with this?” George says. It’s not that different from what he’d worn to the casino, other than being dark blue. Slightly more festive, for the brightly-hemmed nightlife of Miami.

 

“You don’t own a button-up or anything?” Hank says. He’s wearing a leather jacket so smooth it keeps slipping down his wrists. 

 

“I mean, I do—” George says, and Hank leans in and says, “Then put it on. Darryl’s going to stay in the car, so it’s just me and you tonight. See you in the car, handsome!”

 

Him owning a button-up is kind of bullshit, because the only one he packed is covered in black flowers and he has to cuff the sleeves up to his elbows. He leaves the first few buttons open, and against his better judgement, finds a cross necklace in Darryl’s suitcase. It comes with as much mockery as expected.

 

“Nowhere to fucking park,” Darryl huffs, squinting against the artificial light at the front of the street. The only space in front of them is illuminated in harsh pink from the nightclubs around them, which is barely enough to see the screeching groups tripping in front of their cars. 

 

“Can you find a parking lot or something?” Hank says. “Even if it’s employee parking—” his voice is abruptly cut off by George’s shrill ringtone, the one he’s assigned to his supervisor in the Art & Antiques unit. He huffs and watches the ID flash.

 

“Can you drop me off here?” George says. They both stare at him. 

 

“What, you don’t want us to hear?” Hank says. It’s a joking tone, he thinks, but George still feels his face flush with his implied superiority complex. 

 

“It’s not that,” he says. “It’s just—I don’t know what it’s going to be.”

 

“Okay, whatever,” Darryl says, after a beat. “Hank will come down the street once we park and meet you in front of the—whatever convenience store that is, with the boarded windows. Auntie Lucy’s? Weird name for the area, but okay.” 

 

“Maybe Auntie Lucy likes to party,” Hank says, and Darryl’s laugh is the last thing George hears before he picks up the phone and steps out of the car. Wallace’s voice is strained from the other end, and George knows that’s on him—he doesn’t like being left on a ringtone.

 

“Evening, Davidson,” he says. “Holding up well?”

 

“As well as I can be, sir,” he says. He doesn’t know if they suggested the FBI bug him, or if that’s something they came up with independently. It’s less the fact that they needed to do it—it’s more than he wishes they’d asked. The investigation team in Orlando isn’t as dirty as the entire department is, and he has to wonder what else they must already know if they think they have to be listening in. “I had… some difficulty convincing Alvarez and Baker that going undercover was necessary, but—it wasn’t an issue when I reminded them what I was here for.”

 

“Good, good,” Wallace says. “Are they giving you a lot of trouble? If you need the FBI—” 

 

“It’s fine,” George rushes to say. He props his phone up between his shoulder and his ear so he can find his cigarettes in the pocket of his coat. “Thank you. I just wanted to ask, um—do you have anyone named Saint Don on your radar?” 

 

“He’s not on the suspect list in Art & Antiques,” Wallace says. Just as George had suspected. He closes his eyes and flicks at the wheel of his lighter until his thumb goes numb. It takes him a few tries to light the cigarette, just enough to organize his thoughts.

 

“He owns a casino in Fort Pierce,” he says. “Directly across the street from the robbed gallery. One of his men—I was there, um, unofficially, and one of his men told me that the robbers don’t follow the art. Which could only lead me to believe they follow the murders. I’m not sure of their degree of involvement. Saint Don called himself the brute force.” 

 

There’s too much noise around George for him to hear the deafening static on Wallace’s end. “I’ll look into the name,” he says. “Thank you, detective. That’s—extremely helpful. I’ll update the Chief Detective in Art Theft. What are you looking into now?”

 

“I’m following the thread,” George says. “I don’t know how great of an idea updating Proctor is.” He can feel his confidence melt away. “Did you know they bugged me?”

 

Wallace doesn’t say anything, for a while. “No,” he says. “You’re certain?”

 

“Positive,” he says. “I found the chip of a transmitter in my tie. I crushed it on the first day, but—I don’t know how worried I should be. I wouldn’t want to sound paranoid, but why do you think they’d need to listen in?” 

 

“I don’t want you to think about that, George,” Wallace says. The use of his first name is as terrifying of an indicator as ever. “Let me handle it. Follow your thread, and I’ll keep you updated on whatever else I find out.”

 

“Cheers,” George says. Wallace hangs up, and he immediately calls Dream.

 

He doesn’t pick up, the first time, so George calls him two more times, ashing his cigarette with his thumb over his shoes. When Dream does finally pick up, it’s with a shout—“Jesus, George, what ?” 

 

“Am I bothering you?” George asks. He can hear loud voices and muffled club music. 

 

Kind of , yes,” he says. “What? Make it fast.”

 

“What clubs does Saint Don own in Miami?” George asks.

 

“Oh, fuck off,” Dream says. “What are you doing in Miami?” 

 

“Chasing the lead you so kindly introduced me to,” George says. He shifts his weight onto his opposing foot as he looks up, blowing smoke against the electrical wires above his head. “It’s kind of time sensitive.” 

 

“I—hold on,” Dream says. He muffles his audio, and when George hears his voice again it’s louder, the voices behind him reduced to a hiss. “Fuck, I don’t—where are you?”

 

“The South Beach,” George says.

 

“Well, obviously,” Dream says. “But—I need to know where.” 

 

“What?” George says. “No. I’m with—some of the detectives. From the department. I’m not alone.”

 

“You’re never going to make it in there without me,” Dream says. “I’m not telling you the names of any of the clubs if you don’t tell me where you are.” 

 

“I can ask around,” George says, and almost hangs up until he hears Dream’s voice screech again.

 

No !” He says loudly. “No, you’ll—it’s not as easy as asking can I talk to Saint Don , Jesus Christ, you’ll get the shit beat out of you. Just—try the Glacier. Just don’t go to the Knockout. Okay? Pick one and stick to it.”

 

“Pleasure doing business with you,” George says, and hangs up. It’s a dice roll from there. There’s something very identical about such over-the-top nightlife, so he doubts there would’ve been any difference in experience if he and Hank choose the Knockout. It’s mostly been like that for him because he doesn’t drink. Hank doesn’t give him any shit for it.

 

“That’s smart,” he yells over the music. A Robyn song. “I wish I had that much self-control. Okay, well, we’ll split up, okay? I can head for the Glacier if you take the employee exit here!”

 

George gives him a thumbs-up before they lose each other in the crowd. He was never a firearms officer, so the gun pushed up against his side is a constant, painful reminder—it feels like it’s going to go off every time someone bumps him in the shoulder. 

 

Gun, handcuffs, radio, cigarettes—but no pills. He hadn’t taken his pills. They’re stuffed in a pair of socks in his suitcase, somewhere, under a heaping pile of clothing. He doesn’t know why he uses that thought to orient himself against the glazed eyes of Miami partygoers. 

 

At the bar, he catches sight of a head of wispy hair—and then he loses it again as it bobs within the crowd. He tries to follow J.G. until he realizes he’s being led down the hallway into the bathrooms, which are full of enough smoke to make his eyes water. He grabs J.G.’s shoulder before he can convince himself not to. 

 

He turns around, and his eyes start at George’s shoes. He’s not wearing his glasses and his face is pink like candy, not one inch of his skin left white. He smiles loosely, clapping a hand over George’s shoulder.

 

“Dream’s friend!” He says against his ear. George nods and pushes away from him, craning his neck to see down the hallway. “What are you doing here?”

 

“I’m supposed to meet Dream here,” he says, even though it’s not true. “What about you?”

 

“I’m just making the rounds for Saint Don,” he says. “Making sure everything is in working order. Listen—I wouldn’t get your hopes up about him meeting you here. He’s a bit preoccupied in the back, to tell you the truth.”

 

“Preoccupied?” George asks. He had sounded preoccupied—that much is true. “Doing what?” 

 

“I wouldn’t worry,” J.G. says. “He’ll be fine.” He pushes two fingers to his forehead and then salutes George before he leaves, and George is sprawling his way down the hallway immediately, fingers sticking against the suspiciously wet walls. 

 

J.G. must have assumed that he knew how things went, around these types of places. Which George does. But he also has a bit of an obligation to push through the blocked-off door at the end of the hallway. It’s locked, and he rattles the handle in frustration. 

 

“Who are you?” He hears behind him. When he turns around, he sees Arla—the girl from the first day in the police department. The catlike spine. The only reason he’s not bugged at the moment. He’d thank her, if she wasn’t looking at him with her eyes narrowed and sharp.

 

“Is Dream in there?” He tries instead. It doesn’t work as well as intended in lowering her defenses.

 

“Yeah,” she says. “They’re in the middle of something.” She pauses. “You’re that fucking cop, aren’t you?”

 

“Is that a bad thing?” George says. She rolls her eyes and tugs a key from the arm of her jacket instead of answering. It’s too big on her.

 

“It’s a fantastic thing,” she says under her breath, and then pushes through the door. He follows her before he can convince himself not to, and when she closes the door the rest of the nightclub quiets considerably, the walls softening the blow of music. 

 

He expects—a lounge, to be honest. It wouldn’t have been out-of-sorts to expect Saint Don to create one in every nightclub he watches over. Instead, George sees Dream backed up against a wall covered by a dirty white sheet, a gun pressed to the underside of his chin. He’s smiling like a sick man on his deathbed.

 

“I didn’t think—” he starts, and the man holding the gun to his head shifts it closer, making Dream mewl out and squeeze his eyes shut firmly. “ OhGodOhGod okay. Sorry. Jesus. Sorry .”

 

“You really don’t, do you?” The man says roughly. “You don’t ever think .” He cranes his neck to look at George. “Who’s the dude, baby girl?” 

 

“Some friend of his,” Arla says, voice dripping with a surprising amount of contempt. Dream’s eyes lock to him, and he opens his mouth to say something else, but then the gun digs into his skin again. George can feel his own echoing the same motion into his side. “Wanted to enjoy the show.”

 

“George—” Dream says. 

 

“Shut up ,” the man says. “That was the last time we were asking you, Dream. Final fucking warning. If it wasn’t real money, you were a dead man walking.”

 

“I can get it tomorrow, I swear,” Dream says. “I know I said—I know what I said, but please, I know I can get it this time. Really. Fuck.”

 

Arla moves closer. George watches her shift like a chess match, moving only when the man shuffles his arm to pin Dream in an even more uncomfortable angle. From the sleeve she didn’t slide the key down from, he can see the protruding of a thin metal pipe.

 

Before he can yell at her to not be a fucking idiot and get the man to set off the gun, she slips it into her palm and hits the man over the head, the crack of metal against his skull reverberating through the room. He falls to the ground in a thick heap of bricks, his gun flying to the side. Arla kicks it away in disgust.

 

“Oh, thank fuck,” Dream breathes. “Thanks, Arla.” 

 

Fuck you!” Arla says loudly, and raises the pipe again as if in warning. When Dream flinches away from her arm, she turns around and flings it at the wall, kicking firmly against the man’s side so she can get a good position. They look down at his body together, and she slams her foot against his face. Once, then again, for good measure. George watches the bones of his nose snap through the black blood. “What the fuck is wrong with you, Clay, seriously? How many times am I going to have to do that for you until you learn to stop messing with these stupid fucking pimps? Jesus fuck!” 

 

She stomps away from him, scratching her hands down her face, and pauses before exiting the door. George is right where she’d left him, standing slack-jawed as he stares at the imprint of her shoe on the man’s face. There’s dirt in the places his teeth lift from his gums.

 

“What the fuck are you looking at, cop?” She snarls. “You want to be next or what? If I’ve got one piece of advice for you and the bug you had hidden in your suit—stay far, far away from whatever fucking advice this moron gives you.” She spits on the ground. “Far, far away.”

 

She shoves through the door again. George listens to the way the man’s vocal cords fry out, making his breaths hoarse and labored.

 

“Is he going to die?” He asks.

 

“I don’t think so,” Dream says. “She’s never killed them before.” 

 

Where to fucking begin. “She does that for you a lot?” George says, and moves closer, crouching down to his knees so he can see the damage even closer. He grimaces and pushes the man onto his back, sliding his eyelids down. “We should—”

 

“It’s fine,” Dream says. “Don’t—we don’t have to call anyone. I just need to tell J.G., I think.” He pauses. “I told you not to come. You shouldn’t be here.”

 

You shouldn’t have had a gun to your head, you fucking idiot,” George says, and Dream coughs out a pitiful sob. 

 

“Don’t start,” he says. “Don’t fucking start, please , don’t fucking start. I’m already going to get it from Arla. Just—what are you doing here?”

 

“Snooping,” George says. “But under Baker’s permission, this time. If you know anything—”

 

“About what?” Dream says, and raises his arms. “Obviously know a little bit too much about certain things, don’t I? So you’re going to have to narrow it down.” They look back down at the man again. “God, I—owe her so much. Really. I’m such an asshole.”

 

“Is she your girlfriend?” George says. 

 

His hesitation should be a greater indicator than his words. “No,” he says. “Not really. She’s just—that’s what we’ve been telling people, for a long time. To explain why she came back to Orlando with me.” His eyes dart to meet George’s and then away. “I can’t really say anything else.”

 

“Despite what she said at the door, Dream,” George says, “I’m not actually your friend. In case you’ve forgotten.” 

 

“I don’t have to explain myself to you,” Dream says. George wonders if he’s imagining the tension in his shoulders, the one rising to the surface of his face. “You’re not—”

 

“I’m not what?” George says. “A cop?”

 

“You keep saying that,” Dream says. “You keep saying you could arrest me at any time, that you have all of this control over me, but—what?” He waves a hand around the room. “Would you even have been here to find the missing painting if it weren’t for me?” He turns, and looks down. The underside of his chin pinks over with the circle of the gun. 

 

George imagines cuffing his hands behind his back. Bringing him into a Miami cop-car that would’ve usually been reserved for a drunk uni student. The drive back to Orlando. The face he’d make in front of Baker. The thumb prints. The files. The interrogation. The testimony. “The missing painting is here?”

 

“Not here , you fucking idiot,” Dream says. “But you know where it is.” 

 

So do you , George wants to say. You keep appearing where you shouldn’t be, whenever I get so close I can taste it. And then you stop me. There’s no other explanation. There’s nothing else I can think of. 

 

“I don’t know,” he says, and steps away. “I don’t fucking know. God. I’m never going to know, am I?”

 

George ,” Dream hisses. “Think, man.” He grabs the small of George’s wrists in his hands, squeezing his fingernails against his veins. “If they don’t follow the art—if they follow the murders—you’ll know where to go.” 

 

“No,” George says. He can feel his head rushing past possibilities faster than he can consider them: the dead security guard. Dream’s stolen car. The pickup truck in the museum. What J.G. and Saint Don knew. “If they didn’t—there’s murders every day.”

 

“They’re not always like this ,” Dream says. 

 

“What do you mean, like this ?”

 

Dream’s eyes search his face. “We should get something to eat,” he says. 

 

**

 

It’s a uniquely American experience, to sit in the booth of a diner. George has always had a fascination with the ability to have a burger and milkshake at twelve in the morning without much judgement. Dream orders him coffee and orders himself sweet potato fries.

 

“Why’d you start gambling with him at all?” George asks.

 

Dream shrugs loosely. He runs a spare coin across the rim of the dirty table, sticky with lemonade. George’s phone is still humming with notifications from Hank, but he’s too tense to answer them without telling him everything he knows—he’s relying on Darryl to relay him the message of got a lead, will keep you updated

 

“Needed money,” He mumbles. “Now you tell me yours.” 

 

“Tell you my what?” George asks. 

 

“Your problems,” Dream says. “Your pills.” 

 

It’s freeing, not having to tell Dream to lower his voice. George sorts through the reasons he’s made up and the stories he’s identified as the genuine source. 

 

“It helps,” He says, finally settling on an explanation. “It’s hard otherwise. Loud.” 

 

“It’s quiet now,” Dream says. Behind the bar, a waitress is cleaning a plate over and over again, eyes shifting to an electronic clock on the wall. George can hear the hiss of the water running from her tap, the slide of cloth against glass. Dream’s teeth work against his sweet potato fry. His fingers rub against the vinyl table. 

 

“For you,” George says. “It’s always loud, once you start noticing things. Everything makes noise.”

 

Dream doesn’t say anything. “There’s a reason the department lets Saint Don pay them off. He’s more trouble than he’s worth.” He bites at the skin around his fingers. “I think the team knows that, too. They gravitate towards people who are bigger than them.”

 

People who are bigger than them—people who haven’t been invisible in a long time. Not like they are. George leans his chin against his palm. “The team?”

 

“That’s what Don called them,” Dream says. He looks around again, but there’s nobody to watch them have their conversation. Across the diner, there’s a young couple with a child who seem to have been on a road trip. “He just called them the team. He didn’t say what they needed the Backus for, or if they’d committed the murder, or—anything. Said they needed a getaway car and they’d split the money they made with him. Not evenly, but 60/40 is good enough for him. He’s a saint, after all.”  

 

“The getaway car was yours, wasn’t it?” George asks. “They used it to steal the painting, and then they left the security guard inside with the cocaine so they’d only use it in their murder investigation.” Dream turns his face away. “Dream. Come on. Look at me when I’m talking to you.” 

 

It works. Dream’s eyes dart back to his a second later, and his face floods with color. George can feel his skin prickling against the silence between them. “Your truck. That’s what they used.” 

 

“...I didn’t know that’s what it was for,” he says belatedly. “He said it would get rid of the ten-thousand I already owed, and I—I mean, that just makes it easy, doesn’t it? When he says it like that.” He leans forward to gulp down his soda. “I didn’t know about the cocaine. Honestly. I don’t do that hard shit.” 

 

George raises his eyebrows.

 

“Sorry,” Dream says.

 

“No, it’s not—” George says, huffing a sigh through his teeth. “Whatever. What else? Is that all you know?”

 

“That’s all I know,” Dream says. “Really.” He leans against the booth with his soda, playing with the fingers on his free hand. 

 

“And Arla?” George asks. “What does she know?”

 

“That’s a question for her, I’d think,” Dream says. 

 

“You said she came with you,” George says. “To Orlando.”  Dream fidgets uncomfortably. “Jesus, you’re a shitty liar.”

 

“It’s not that,” Dream says. “It’s just—okay. I don’t know her deal. Back there, with that guy who worked for Don? I told her he was looking for me, and she said she’d handle it and an hour later her tongue was in his mouth long enough that he didn’t notice when she knocked him out. It’s always been like that. I have problems, and she cleans them up.”

 

“It seems like it,” George says. “She—I saw her in the police department. She left before you. She was complimenting my suit, which is basically the only reason I saw the audio bug on my tie.”

 

“Sounds like her,” Dream says. “She knows a lot. I think she’s—I don’t want to say things that aren’t true, man, but it would make sense if she knew something I didn't. We met in Los Angeles.”

 

“What the fuck were you doing in Los Angeles?” George says, but it doesn’t surprise him. 

 

“California’s far away,” Dream says, as an explanation. “But my mom missed me, so I came back. I owed money to new people, different people, and Arla was—I don’t know. Just there. She said she had a stop in Orlando and I never found out why.”

 

“A stop in Orlando,” George repeats.

 

“Whatever you’re thinking—” Dream says, but George stops him.

 

“Where is she?” He asks. “I need to talk to her.”

 

“At two in the fucking morning? She’s probably in bed,” Dream says, pushing at George’s elbow as he moves to get out of his booth. “How are you surprised about the entire world being so fucking loud? Just stop moving. You know how kids learn to cry themselves to sleep? Jesus. Give it a minute. Drink your coffee.”

 

George drinks his coffee. They don’t say anything, not for a long time.

 

Chapter Text

George sets his alarm early the next morning, early enough that he’ll be able to regroup with Hank and Darryl without pissing them off even further. They’d stayed up for him, and then they’d fallen asleep the minute he’d finished explaining what he’d heard. They didn’t even ask where he’d found out that some girl they’d arrested once weeks ago was a notable suspect. 

 

“We’ll talk about it tomorrow, man,” Darryl had told him. Hank hadn’t said anything. That was almost too much for George to handle. He wakes up with a bitter taste in his mouth and then looks across the room to see Dream sitting on the armchair across from his bed. Without thinking, his hand scrambles for his nightstand for his gun, but if it were different circumstances—it would already be too late.

 

“Don’t bother,” Dream says dismissively. “I unloaded it before you woke up.” 

 

“Fucking hell,” George mutters, sitting up in his bed and feeling the bedsheet snap under his back. He’d pulled off his shirt sometime before falling asleep, so all he’s wearing is his sweatpants. “What the fuck are you doing here? You didn’t spend the night, did you?”

 

“No,” Dream says. “Spoken and accounted for, remember?” 

 

“No you’re not,” George says. 

 

“No, I’m not,” Dream agrees. He’s still dressed in what he’d worn the last time George had seen him, which is to say he’s visibly sweaty. He pushes at George’s open suitcase with a foot absentmindedly. “That’s not to say Arla and I were never together.”

 

“Great,” George says. 

 

Dream leans forward and starts palming through George’s suitcase with more vitality. George watches him warily. “We hooked up a few times in California, and—I mean—you know how much easier it is for people to believe you when you pretend you’re all lovestruck?” He says. He throws a pair of George’s socks across the room. “I could’ve done anything to anyone, man. We used to lie and say we were newlyweds to get upped to first class.”

 

“What do you want , Dream?” George asks. He’s still not very used to people he doesn’t know appearing in his room to talk—at an extraordinarily high volume for nine in the morning—about their kind-of-ex-girlfriends. Partners-in-crime. Whatever.

 

“Skipping the pleasantries, I see,” Dream says. “I need a favor.”

 

Of course. 

 

“It couldn’t wait until I was out of bed?” George mumbles.

 

“And I lose you to Miami for an entire day? I don’t think so,” Dream says. “Maybe you should’ve thought about me waking you up before you gave me the key to your motel room.” 

 

“I didn’t—” George starts, and Dream raises his hand. The bright metal of the keys in his hand flashes with the sunlight. George grunts and throws his forearm over his eyes as he burrows back into the bed. “Oh, fuck off. I thought I lost those.” 

 

“You were in a rush , George,” Dream says, as if that’s enough of an explanation. He stands up, planting a foot into the messy laundry at the bottom of George’s suitcase. “I’m basically doing you a favor, which is why I deserve one in return. Listen, those two fucking cops are awake— them , by the way? You know how many times I’ve been in the back of Noveschosch’s car? I haven’t heard him swear once . The dude’s freaky.” 

 

“They’re good people,” George says. Wouldn’t stomp a bloke’s face in. Wouldn’t look at me like that. “Wouldn’t steal my motel keys.”

 

“It’s not stealing if I’m giving them back,” Dream says. “Listen. I think we can agree I’m the only reason you haven’t been shipped back off to Her Majesty’s yet. And I don’t know about you, but I’m a tit-for-tat kinda guy.”

 

“You offered your help to me, first of all,” George says. He walks over to his suitcase, and finds a shirt that doesn’t have Dream’s dirty shoe-print on it. “I’m not doing anything illegal.”

 

“Misdemeanors are basically legal,” Dream says. Before George can say anything else, he continues: “Word’s kind of—gotten around that I’m, um, a teensy bit late on some debts. It’s not that I don’t have the money, it’s just that it’s, like—I’m a procrastinator, you know? Is that a crime? Lock me up and throw away the key, then, right?” When George doesn’t laugh, he just sighs heavily. “I need you to come to a club with me tonight so I can flash your badge.”

 

Dream ,” George says. 

 

“Not in a narc way,” Dream rushes to assure. “Just—okay, the Pink Panther’s kind of new in the running, and they’ve always tried to stay super cushy with police, so—best of both worlds, I think.” He must think back on what he’d said. “I should probably mention that I owe them a grand.” 

 

“They haven’t memorized your name yet?” George asks. He worries himself, sometimes, with how easy it is to convince himself to do things he doesn’t want to do. He doesn’t know where the line blurs. 

 

“New in the running,” Dream repeats. He’s unbuttoned the flannel he’s been in since yesterday night, revealing a white shirt and a heavy chain necklace. He rubs at his elbows with his opposing palms, and that’s when George sees it—the worried crease between his eyebrows. The puffy bags under his eyes. “You’re free to say no, man, but I’m also free to march down to Detective Noveschosch and tell him all about your—”

 

Without thinking, George reaches forward and snaps Dream closer by the chain around his neck. He launches forward with a huff, head lolling like a bobblehead.

 

 “I’ll go to your stupid fucking club,” he says. Dream gulps, and George feels his Adam’s apple throb. His heartbeat fits in George’s fingers. “But if I find out you warned your girlfriend that I’m on my way to talk to her, Saint Don’s not going to get to you. I’ll kill you myself.” 

 

He lets go. Dream blinks at him, opening his mouth to say something before closing it to shake his head vigorously.

 

“I’ll be here at eleven,” he says. 

 

** 

 

Then comes the effort of explaining why one of them has to return to Orlando. Hank empties a sugar packet into his coffee and doesn’t look up at him as he tries to explain why Arla could already be on her way back—why she’s a flight risk, might have headed to a new museum hotspot already, that if they start monitoring high-profile murders, they need to start monitoring flights just as seriously—and lets Darryl talk to him instead.

 

“She didn’t really—raise any red flags the last time I talked to her,” he says. 

 

“What did you bring her in for?” George asks.

 

Darryl pulls his sunglasses off of his face so that they push back a handful of his hair. They’re sitting underneath an umbrella tacked into the center of a picnic table, wedged directly in front of the motel complex. Two girls are tanning on lawn chairs in the only patch of sun on the cement.

 

“We asked her to come down to the station to ask her some questions about her boyfriend’s car,” he says. “Clay’s. You know, Baker’s kid.” 

 

“I know Clay,” George says. The name feels odd in his mouth. 

 

“She was fine with answering, but then she just kind of—I think I hit a nerve or something,” Darryl says, shrugging faintly. “Said she wanted to leave. I had her write out her testimony and then she was on her way.”

 

“She’s a good person,” Hank says, unprompted. “She used to be a waitress at the Water Hole. Listen, George—I don’t want to accuse you of anything, but I have no fucking clue where you could get this information from unless you did something last night that we didn’t agree you’d do.”

 

And there it is , George thinks. He looks down at the panelling on the picnic table and messes at his hair. He can feel sweat dripping through his scalp. “Like I told you. I was at the Knockout, and I found her and one of Saint Don’s guys at the bar.” He doesn’t wait for them to say anything else. “He recognized me first.” 

 

“From the casino,” Hank says dryly. “I hate sounding like Alvarez, but you can’t just come into our department and—expect us to agree with everything you do. I don’t know how you do it back home—”

 

“I was there off-duty,” George says. He’s nowhere close to losing his temper—it’s more shame than anything, something like the red-hot shame of being brought up to the front of the classroom to admit a transgression. He can never explain what he was thinking at the time. “I just—wanted to see what it was like. I didn’t gamble, I didn’t fuck with anyone. One of Saint Don’s men started talking to me, and it’s easy to loosen them up when they don’t know who you are. People like talking about themselves, you know?” 

 

He’ll stick by his own defense, but agreeing to helping Dream scare off some fucking godfather—he doesn’t know what’s happened to his self-control. Rather: he knows what the problem is. He always has to quit something. He taps his cigarette into the ashtray uncomfortably.

 

“You mean that?” Hank asks, finally. He looks at George, this time, straight in the eyes. George knows how important it must be in a field where you always have to trust the people around you—but his highest possible degree of honesty is so, so fucking corrupted. 

 

“Yeah,” he says. “Sorry if it looked like I was being secretive. I’m just not used to—I’m never sure if it’s something you lot will want to hear.”

 

“I just don’t think we’re used to people bothering with Saint Don,” Darryl says, perking up. It’s comforting to see him drop the problem—forgive and forget—but Hank seems slightly more guarded on that front. “At this point, he pays off Baker like it’s a monthly rent to keep the casino running. And we all deal with it because the department’s close to collapsing at any point in time.”

 

“He doesn’t need our dirty laundry,” Hank murmurs.

 

“I know what that’s like,” George says. He tries to get Hank to look at him again, but he’s ripping up a receipt that he’d found blowing around in the hot wind. “I work in Art & Antiques, dude.”

 

Hank smiles, then. It feels like enough. Especially because—even when it hurts to admit—George wouldn’t trust himself either. There’s a beautiful irony in how the only person who he knows who’s told him the entire truth, lately, is the same person who eats sweet potato fries off of the floor. “I’ll stay with you. Darryl, if she already remembers you, it’ll be easier if you and Alyssa interrogate her together.”

 

“Not a bad idea,” Darryl says. “Then—if you can find anybody else who knows her in Saint Don’s clubs, we could rack up the character witnesses. People who could tell you about where she’s moved from and to, whether she’s been to England. Going to the Water Hole later might be helpful too.” 

 

“That sounds good to me,” George says. “And I’ll keep you updated, Hank. I swear.”

 

“I appreciate that, man,” Hank says. Some of the tension has left his face. “Seriously.”

 

George doesn’t know how the fuck he’s going to get out of this. 

 

** 

 

“You can’t dress down all of your work clothes,” George says, when they meet in front of the motel. Past the picnic tables and the tanning chairs, there’s a dead garden surrounded by a cheap, tetanus-infested railing. The entire complex reminds George of the backyard of a trailer park. Like the allure is purely in the individual rooms. 

 

Hank runs his hands along his suit jacket. “What, it doesn’t look good?” He asks. At this point, George thinks he would throw a party if he saw Hank in anything other than the fucking black suit. “Not all of us own four different variations of the same piece of black fabric.” 

 

“That doesn’t hurt as much as you think it does,” George says. He knows it’s not exactly his highest priority, when most of the night-time prowlers of the South Beach wouldn’t notice if had his dick out or if he was in Armani, but it’s the principle of the thing. “It looks fine. Let’s go. I’m not driving.” 

 

It’s generally a bad idea to text people who are in trouble with the law, because George can guarantee that he’ll one day see his messages up on a monitor in a courtroom as Dream turns against him on the witness stand. Even so, it’s the only thing he can do when he and Hank get into the car. He can’t exactly call.

 

can we reschedule for tn?

 

The response is immediate.

 

What

No

 

I have work 

 

You think I’m not fucking busy I have to make time to pay off this fucking debt too

Which isn’t just a me thing btw

You also have a debt to repay

Except its to me

It feels nice to have someone in my debt and not the other way around ngl

Anyway its at the pink panther I’ll send you the address

 

George puts his phone back into his pocket, but he peeks at it again when Hank gives him a look at the insistent buzzing. 

 

George this isn’t something either of us get to decide

We do things for each other now

Because u need me 

 

I have to be at one of St Don’s tonight

depending on how the night goes I might be able to make it

don’t get your hopes up

 

You’re going to regret this  

 

Like he doesn’t already. “There,” George says. He points at the Glacier, whose flashing neon sign bears a broken cliff of ice. A long line of people idle in bodycon dresses and skinny jeans. George looks down the line at the bouncer, who doesn’t show any indication of it being a slow night. 

 

Even so, when he does get patted down the man’s hands barely skirt at his sides, pulling the ankles of his jeans up briefly to feel for weapons. George’s heart still pounds against his throat, even though the pancake holster against his ribs is secured with an extra layer of duct-tape. It’s a bitch to pull off, but Hank told him that if he wore a loose fitting shirt and they stayed calm, it would be like walking into the club unarmed. So he does just that. He’s seen people sneak worse in phone cases and contact lenses. 

 

Hank knows where to go, once they’re allowed inside. Cheap fluorescent lights dangle down from the ceiling like icicles, and the air is icy-hot, cold for only a second before it’s warm. He’d been talking to a bartender yesterday night, apparently, one who was a little too excited to talk shit about her boss to the only person who would listen. If she’s on shift, they don’t find her.

 

“This place is a free-for-all,” Hank says, into his ear. When he moves his mouth closer to George’s ear he can see the flash of blue breath mint on his tongue, but when he turns again a girl next to them licks a strip of white paper, and next to her the linoleum cracks under the pressure of their combined feet. 

 

Hank is the only exception; George doesn’t count as an exception. There’s not enough space left in him for guilt because it’s too taken up by the insistent paranoia. Whenever he goes to clubs he thinks about rat kings—the way rats’ tails will get covered in adhesive and they’ll stick together and die at the same time, from infection or starvation or just the constant closeness. The suffocation. “Tell me about it. Do you want me to take an exit?” 

 

“You can stay here,” Hank says. “I’ll go look around.” 

 

“Wouldn’t it be easier for you to stay?” George asks. Mostly he’d like to call Dream. Or maybe smoke a cigarette in the bathroom. “You know what she looks like—she might come back while you’re gone.”

 

“You’ll know what she looks like,” Hank says dismissively. “Red hair and has a tattoo of a flower on her arm. Just keep her preoccupied long enough and call me or something. I have my phone on.”

 

George can feel his face warming again. “Why does it feel like I’m in time-out?” 

 

“That’s not what this is,” Hank says. What George hears is, I don’t trust you . “I just—I know this place better than you do, for one. I’ll be back soon. Stay here.” 

 

George ambles around the bar like a hawk waiting for a free seat. He catches sight of two girls who had been sitting on each other’s laps hopping out of their spot, and he rushes for it, sliding against the bar before he can convince himself to follow Hank. He’s very close to it. He pretends to be very preoccupied looking through his wallet and feels a hand on his shoulder.

 

His first thought is that it’s a bouncer—the hand feels bigger than his—so he clutches fingers around the emergency fifty in his wallet and readies an apologetic look, but when he turns he sees Dream , grinning at him as his eyes track the people behind him.

 

“Found you,” He says. George wonders how foul his smile must taste. He thinks about the message pinging his phone— you’re going to regret this . Dream is not dangerous as much as he is a magnet for people who are. “Can I buy you a drink, detective?”

 

“I don’t drink,” George says. 

 

“Me neither,” Dream says. 

 

He leans in closer to say something else, but George steadies himself by grabbing hold of the back of his neck. “You need to leave,” he says into his ear, and Dream cringes at the volume of his voice. “If my partner sees you—” 

 

“What’s he going to do?” Dream says. “Am I not allowed to be here or something? Come with me.” 

 

Dream tries to yank him away, but George stays firmly rooted in his chair. “I’m waiting for someone.”

 

“Who?” Dream says. 

 

“The bartender,” George says. “If I can get Hank talking to her, I’ll—figure something out. They already don’t trust me, Dream, I’m not going to let you fuck this up for me.”

 

“Like I did anything,” Dream says. When he pushes away, George’s fingers run along the fine strands of hair at the back of his neck. “Are you talking about Vica? The one with the red hair?”

 

“I must be,” George says.

 

“I know who she is,” Dream says persistently. He digs his fingers into George’s forearm. “Come on. She’s probably on her break. I’ll let you talk to the other detective, if that’s what you need to do, but you need to come with me.” 

 

When Dream drags him across the dance floor, his hand slides down George’s arm, fingers crushed around his palm like they’re just terrible at holding hands. He only lets go when he pushes through the main exit, flashing a tiny smile at the bouncer. The hot air pools around George until he’s standing near the dumpsters with his phone in his hands. 

 

“Cameron better let me back in,” Dream says under his breath. At the curve of the intersection, in front of the broken parking meters, a woman with red hair is talking to a group of people. They all laugh at something she’d said. “Oh, thank God.”

 

“You know the bouncer, too?” George asks.

 

Dream side-eyes him. “I know a lot of people here. Why do you think I told you to go to the Glacier instead of—basically anywhere else?” He blows air out of his mouth, face relaxing into another easy smile. “I know Cameron a little better , though, if you catch my drift.” 

 

“Right,” George says.  

 

“Vica!” Dream calls. She turns around, and George immediately walks into a cloud of cotton-candy scented smoke. When she smiles, it leaves the gaps of her teeth like exhaust fumes through a drain. 

 

“Dreamie!” She squeals, and collapses her face into his chest in a hug. George looks at her friends, trying to tamp the suffocation in the back of his throat. Their faces all look the same and their tails are all stuck together. 

 

Before anyone else, he focuses on a girl with pink hair. Niki lowers a wine glass down from her face and looks down at the ground, backing up against the sidewalk. The night shift secretary. George has to ask Dream what the fuck everyone is doing in Miami. 

 

George looks at Dream as if to make sure what he’s seeing is real, but he’s too busy maneuvering Vica out of his grip. “I wanted to introduce you to my friend,” he says. “He’s visiting from England. Very exotic.”

 

Shit shit shit shit . “It’s nice to meet you,” George tells her, and Vica’s long eyelashes curl upwards as she sticks a hand out so he can shake it. “Mostly I just needed a light.”

 

“Oh, I don’t smoke cigarettes,” she says. The flower tattoo on her arm says Young and Beautiful on it in script. “They taste like shit. Have you ever thought about switching? I bet it could do wonders for your mouth. You know how people get hairy tongues?”

 

“Um, I’ve… never thought about it, no,” George says, bewildered. He looks at Dream for an explanation, but he has a look on his face that says she’s like this all the time . He still would’ve appreciated a warning. 

 

“Why the fuck are you talking about hairy tongues?” A different boy says drowsily. “I got you, man.” George wrestles out a cigarette that he accepts a light for gratefully. He pinches it between his forefinger and middle finger when he lowers it down from his face, turning to the side so he can look at his phone without much interruption. No texts from Hank. 

 

“I didn’t know you were still in town, Dream,” the same boy says, as part of an ongoing conversation George is lost to. “You disappeared so quick last night!” 

 

“Oh, well—you know how it is,” Dream says. George’s eyes dart around him—the dumpster overflows with black garbage bags, the club flashes alongside a Lady Gaga song, the doors close against the stifling heat. He doesn’t know where Hank is. And when he turns around, he doesn’t know where Niki is. “Shit comes up. I just wanted to—” 

 

George reaches down and squeezes Dream’s wrist while he’s talking. He doesn’t know what it means. Before anyone else has time to notice, he slips between Vica and the wall she’d been leaning against and follows the bob of pink hair down the street.

 

Niki stops before they get too far away—a drunk man passed out on a nearby bench gives a hearty snore. She crosses her arms at him, resting the wine glass on an elbow. “I shouldn’t be talking to you,” she says tersely, and turns to walk back down the street. From what George can see, they’ve barely noticed who’s left. 

 

“I’m not going to say anything,” George blurts. “Just—hold on. I just have a question.” 

 

She definitely looks different. Instead of being clipped back, her hair falls in messy waves around her head, tousled with throughout the night. She’s wearing dark eyeliner and a tennis skirt and a hoodie that’s too big to belong to her. It reads Sussex . “What?”

 

“Arla,” George says. He studies the way Niki’s face buzzes to a halt. “Do you know her?”

 

“So many names,” she says. She takes a nervous sip of her red wine. “So many faces.”

 

“What you do outside of your job isn’t my business,” George says. There could always be more than one Arla. And—as much as he hates to admit it—the Arla he does know might not even be the right suspect. She’s close to it—but nothing is ever set in stone until the final court date. And he’s inching towards that date quite desperately. “And—vice-versa, I think. It’s just—I’m here with Hank.”

 

“Detective Harris?” She asks, her face paling against the pink blush on her cheeks. 

 

“Yeah,” he says. “It’s—work-related. You should definitely leave before he comes here, but before that—just—if you know anything about her, I need you to tell me.” He isn’t completely attached to the rawness his voice takes on. “Please.”

 

She’s quiet for a moment. “You’re here with Dream,” she says. “He called you his friend.”

 

“He’s not really my friend,” George says.

 

“I know,” she says. “Are you sleeping with him?”

 

“What? Not that, either. Jesus.” He watches the man on the bench toss and turn onto his side. When he thinks back on it, he hadn’t ever seen Niki speak to Dream—they could’ve talked when he’d left the interrogation room, for all he knows. When she was supposed to call him a cab. “He… I really can’t talk about it.”

 

“I’d be careful, if I were you,” she says. “There’s this saying in German. Mitgefangen, mitgehangen . Caught together, hanged together.” She drinks her wine again. “Would it be asking too much of you to not bring this up at work on Monday?” 

 

“If you tell me what you know,” George says. 

 

She takes a deep breath and closes her eyes. “You think she’s the thief.”

 

“What makes you say that?” 

 

“It would make sense,” Niki says. “They thought Clay did it. He cannot do it alone. She was in the interrogation room before him, and left crying. What else would I think? They’ve always ran around each other like a moon and a planet.”

 

“Have they,” George says. Think about her on the stand. Think about her in prison.

 

“They moved back here, together,” Niki says. She shifts all of her weight onto her opposing foot, mouth pouted open in dismay. “He told everyone they met while he was studying in California, and his mother—she was so happy. But he was only there for a few months—he told me. He was travelling, until then.” She runs her fingers underneath her eyes. “Gambling away his money and his phone and his clothes.” 

 

“Wait,” George says. “You know him?”

 

Her laugh is a wet, bitter noise—like it’s full of repressed tears. “ Know him?” She asks. “I’m the only person that knows him. How do you think I got that job? We were friends when we were young. I was there for his mother when he left. And when she married Michael—he took a liking to me. Offered me a position while I studied.”

 

“I didn’t know,” George says, after a pause. It’s not like Dream would ever tell him anything like that. But then again—when has he ever wanted to know? “What was he doing travelling across America?” 

 

“Not just America,” Niki says. “They were in Spain. Greece.”

 

George’s blood runs cold. 

 

“With her, I assume,” Niki continues. “They’d track each other to the end of the world if it meant she could keep cleaning the mud off of his shoes.” She gives her head a slight shake, running her fingers through her hair. “I’m sorry, I—this stays between us, right? I’ll stay quiet if you do. You’ll stay quiet, right? I really need this job.”

 

“Yeah, I—I get it,” George says. He takes a step back. “I’m sorry I kept you here.”

 

“It’s okay,” she says. “Can you give this to Vica for me?” 

 

She gives him her wine glass. She steps back, looking at him a final time before pushing her head down and finishing her trek down the street. George watches her for a while before pulling out his phone. He calls Hank.

 

“Before you say anything,” he says, the minute Hank picks up, “I know I moved from the bar, and I’m sorry, but—I talked to one of Arla’s friends.”

 

“What?” He asks, valiantly keeping from yelling at George. “Where are you?”

 

“Outside,” George says. “When you leave from the entrance—there’s a turn into the back alley, with the dumpsters. Your bartender is here.”

 

“My—bartender,” Hank says with a scoff. George knows how to set the honeypot. “Okay, okay—good. I’ll come outside. Are you still talking to them?”

 

“I have to walk one of them back to their car now,” George says, eyes focusing on Dream. He’s running his hand through his hair, tongue prodding against his teeth as he smiles. “Don’t be surprised if I’m not there, he’s—drunk. I haven’t actually spoken to Vica yet. I’ll leave that to you.”

 

“Okay,” Hank says. “Okay. I’m coming.”

 

George walks back towards Dream as he listens to Hank make his way out of the loud club, arriving at the group again to hand Vica the wine glass and stub the cigarette out on the brick wall. “Come on,” he tells Dream, crushing the ashes with his foot. He slips his phone back into his pocket.

 

“What, now?” Dream asks.

 

“Yes, now,” George says, when he catches the way Vica and her friends’ voices lower. “You’re on a bit of a tight schedule, aren’t you?”

 

Dream’s eyes search his face. “Right,” he says. “Okay, great. Um—I’m gonna dip, everyone, but I’ll see you later, okay?”

 

They shout goodbyes at him even when George grabs his arm and drags him down the street again. Dream manhandles his way out of his grip, and then they’re just walking next to each other amidst crowds of loud drunk people. It’s not much different from every other situation he’s been in with Dream. Except.

 

“Why did you tell me to come here yesterday night?” George asks. “Was it because of Vica?”

 

“What? No,” Dream says. “I didn’t even know what you were looking for. I just—I know this place better than the rest of the shitholes you would’ve stumbled into. And it’s not the Knockout.” 

 

“Like any of these places are different from each other,” George says. He wants to ask, do you think animals can tell their burrows apart, when they hibernate for the winter? Or is every patch of tunneled-out dirt the same? But he doesn’t want Dream to laugh at him. He’d understand—but he’d still laugh. 

 

From the corner of the turned street he can see the faint light of the Pink Panther. No clubs surrounding it. “Is that it?” He asks, pointing up at the street. 

 

“We have to take the back exit,” Dream tells him. George’s favorite—suspicious circumstances. “It’ll—it’s going to be fine. I’m just going to ask for another few days, because that’s when the thousand dollars is getting wired into my account, and you’ll be there, so it’s going to be fine.”

 

“Don’t talk to me ,” George says. “I’m not the one getting intimidated by a casino called the Pink Panther.” 

 

He doesn’t understand the intimidation until he’s forced to stand by Dream’s side as they’re walked into the casino boss’s office. He can feel the pressure of the two bouncers breathing heavily at their backs; their breaths sound as labored as his, with the same hiss of tobacco. The boss—a woman their age with a cloud of wavy hair puffing up from her shoulders—waves them away easily.

 

“This won’t take long,” she says, and rattles at a cabinet in her desk. George closes his eyes for a moment at the rattle of bullets. Loud clubs are exhausting, but quiet casinos are death wishes. Dream gives a weak laugh and shoves his hands against the back of his neck.

 

“Right,” he says. “Lindsay, you know I appreciate all of the exceptions you’ve given me.”  

 

“Do I know that?” She asks. Her eyes finally catch onto George, unassuming as he picks at his nails. “Who’s this?”

 

“Friend,” Dream says curtly.

 

“Does the friend have a name?” She asks. George doesn’t realize what she’s insinuating until he watches the way one of her long fingers prods at the straw on her cocktail. It’s a very professional setting to lose a thousand dollars in.

 

“My name’s Clay,” George says, just to be an asshole.

 

“You’re such a fucking prick,” Dream says, under his breath. 

 

“Clay,” Lindsay repeats, ignoring him. “I like it. What can I do for you and Dream?”

 

“He wants you to give him a few more days to give you the money,” George says, and walks forward to drop a hand onto the desk. He doesn’t miss the way Lindsay’s eyes trail from his hand, to his arm, to his shoulder—and then land perfectly onto his mouth. “It’s meant to be wired into his account later, apparently. Dream’s quite bad with time and his money, as I’m sure you’ve gathered.”

 

“I love your accent,” she says, instead of answering. “Are you from London? I lived there for a semester when I was in college.”

 

“Yeah, but I live in Brighton,” George says, and then Dream says, “Monday morning. I’ll come here and give it to you—in cash. All of it. No funny shit.”

 

“No funny shit indeed,” she says, still looking at George. “Can I get you something to drink, Clay?” 

 

George looks at Dream when he answers. “A vodka tonic would be lovely,” he says. 

 

“A man after my own heart,” Lindsay says. 

 

“It’s just a grand,” Dream continues desperately. George wants to send him a look, something like, I’ve got this for you, what the fuck are you doing , but he’s either completely ignoring the way Lindsay’s eyes harden or he genuinely thinks he’s making some kind of dent in her morale. “I’d give you five hundred tonight, but I know you’d want it all at once, so—”

 

“I know what you’re thinking, Dream,” she says. “The ink on the rental papers is still drying, so you think it’s easier to play me. I get it.” She ducks a hand back into her desk. Rattles around. Her fingernails sound like pills. “I always think people like you need to be scared into shape, don’t you agree, Clay?” 

 

She raises from her seat but without thinking, George slides a hand between the buttons of his shirt and feeds his handgun out of the holster. The weight is unfamiliar, hurts the inside of his fingers. Her mouth falls into a circle and George points at it, like she’s a bulls-eye.  

 

“He’ll give you the money on Monday morning,” George says. Calmly. Caught together, hanged together . As much as he doesn’t want to be remembered like this—by Dream’s side, out of all people—it’s a sacrifice too easy to make. “In cash. I’ll make sure of it.” There’s a tense silence. “Do we have a deal?” 

 

And then the silence passes. “Parker!” She barks, and one of the pieces of hired muscles tumbles out of the door, without a gun but with his fists at the ready. George lowers his gun back into his side before he can do anything, but that backfires because the man aims, launches, and punches him in the face. A car with an old exhaust would backfire less. 

 

“Move, you fucking idiot!” Dream yells at him, pushing at his back so that he’ll leave the door. His body pounds everything into the front of his face. The other man hired for security is nowhere to be found, and George looks up at the man and shoves him in the head with the butt of his gun. He stumbles backwards, and George panics—hitting him again and again and then turning on his heel, watching him groan, following Dream down the hallway and then out of the exit.   

 

If the man follows them, they lose him. If Lindsay followed them—they probably would’ve been in deeper shit. Dream stops by a park and artifical turf they’d walked past earlier, resting his elbows on his knees, panting so heavily that even George—whose nose is probably broken—stares at him.

 

“What the fuck was that?” George yells at him, against his own volition. it feels like there’s something inside of him, something hammering at the inside of his stomach, stinging him over and over and over. It’s two in the morning. Hank hasn’t called him yet—not once. The air smells like George’s blood. “Why wouldn’t you just let me do what I was—” 

 

“Did you hit him back?” Dream asks, against a gasp of his own breath. George touches his nose with his hands, and his nerves all explode at the surface, forcing him to shut his eyes against the pain. “Come on. Did you?”

 

“Yes!” George snaps at him. He flashes his knuckles at Dream in response. “You should’ve just let me flirt with her so she’d have let you off the hook—are you actually an idiot?”

 

“Why were you talking to her like that?” Dream asks. His voice is hoarse. The sentence is so unexpected that George just looks at him, trying to match the throb of his knuckles with his nose. Something in Dream’s eyes looks like a bomb about to go off. “Now she’s going to ask me about you on Monday. Are you fucking kidding me?”

 

“You care more about that than the fact that I pulled a gun on her?” George asks. He almost expects Dream to burst out laughing, but his face is set in stone.  

 

“I was waiting for you to do that from the beginning,” Dream says. “But I didn’t want you to fuck her in front of me. That would’ve been weird.”

 

“But me killing her wouldn’t have been weird,” George says. It’s so absurd it’s almost enough to calm him completely. “Great. Fucking great. Where did you park?”

 

“Across the street,” Dream says. He watches George groan again when he nudges his nose with his hand. “Fuck. I definitely won’t have bandages in that stupid car. It’s rented.” 

 

“Looks like you have to find a drugstore, then,” George says. “Let’s go.” 

 

Dream all but drags him into the backseat of the car, fishing for his car keys before piling him against the seats. He digs in the back for anything that can be improvised into a first-aid kit, but the only thing he finds is an old t-shirt with a tear down the middle.

 

“I could bring you back to my room,” he offers. Like George wants to spend a night in his hotel. He’s barely containing himself from making the drive back to Orlando. “I have bandages.”

 

“Just drive me to my motel,” George snaps. He ducks down, checking his phone for any messages from Hank. Still none. He swipes a droplet of blood away from the glass with his thumb.  “I can figure it out from there.” 

 

“Okay,” Dream says, and leaves one of the doors open as he nestles himself next to George, wiping his hands at his sides and starting to touch at his nose gingerly. All of the bones are in the right places, but the blood flowing from his nostrils is thick and dark. The only thing he can think about is that it wouldn’t have hurt as much if he was on something. Anything. 

 

 He shouldn’t have moved his gun away. He shouldn’t have gone with Dream in the first place—any of the times. 

 

“When were you going to tell me you’ve been to Spain?” George asks. 

 

Dream freezes. “What?”

 

“Spain,” George says. Femme au repos de creux . Gargallo . Dream folds the cloth over itself and wipes over his throat. “And Greece.” Portrait of a Greek Priest. Kantounis . The blue bruise under Dream’s chin is yellow now, round and pale like a crop circle. 

 

Dream pinches his nose and tilts his head back to stop the bleeding. “Did Niki tell you?” He asks, wiping the gravel away from George’s knuckles.

 

 “Who else?” George says irritably, voice thick and nasally. “Oh, fuck, that hurts.” 

 

“Stop being a baby,” Dream says. George looks down at his hands. His knuckles aren’t bleeding anymore, but they’re not scabbing over either. Dream moves to start wrapping the free piece of cloth around them.

 

 “I didn’t know you were so close,” George says. 

 

“You never asked,” Dream says. 

 

George tilts his head forwards again. He scrunches up his nose and sniffles, but it’s not bleeding—just sore. “I never knew to ask.” 

 

 “I was having a hard few fucking years, okay?” Dream says, finally. “I was in—California, you know that, but—I don’t know why, but I thought if I left with Arla, everything would just fix itself. Okay? I was in Spain, Greece, Portugal. Thailand. Vietnam.” 

 

“What was that meant to fix, exactly?” George asks.

 

“Just—” Dream says, and pushes his hands into his hair like he’s going to tear at it in frustration. “Everything was fucked. My mom was getting remarried and I dropped out and I lost my job and—it was just so, so fucked. I didn’t think it was relevant to tell you about the lowest point of my life, to be honest. Not like I make you tell me about your drugs every two fucking seconds.” George’s breath catches in his throat. “...Sorry.”

 

“Aren’t you always,” George says. He doesn’t really know what else to do with the tension, so he speaks again. “You know how it looks. You know what my priority always is.”

 

“I know,” Dream says. “George, I’ve—I’ve known Niki for a long time.” 

 

“She told me,” George says. There’s something relaxing about imagining it. He’d like to think he’s quite ambivalent towards Dream, if not outwardly antagonistic, but thinking about him when he was younger—not bouncing all over the place like a flicked rubber band—is oddly calming. “Something about how—Baker got her her job, right?”

 

“Right,” Dream confirms. He sits back. “Yeah, we, um—I don’t know how old I was when we met. Eight, I think? So she must’ve been six or seven. She didn’t even speak English, when she first moved.” He brings his feet up, crossing them onto the seats. He tracks dirt onto the material. “But, I mean, you know how it is. I’m difficult. What did she tell you?” 

 

“That you traveled,” George says. He wants, desperately, to leave it at that. “And that you gambled away your money.”

 

“Of course I did,” Dream says. George sees himself somewhere in the way Dream says that like it’s obvious—which he supposes it should be. Like knowing you have a problem is supposed to make up for said problem. “Well, not— all of it. California and Texas, I paid off. Portugal, too.” He seems to think back. “I’m legally dead in Las Vegas, so I don’t have that problem there. Don’t look at me like that. I make a lot of money, too.” 

 

George would ask him how much he still owes, but he hesitates. It’s less because it would be impolite and more because it would feel like jumping down a rabbithole he’s unequipped for. “How much?”

 

Dream busies himself with tearing up the collar of the shirt. “I get really lucky at slots,” he says. 

 

“Right,” George says. “Because gambling isn’t a complete scam manufactured to milk you for everything you’re worth. Did you like claw machines when you were little? Should I ask Niki?”

 

“If only I could think of something else that milks you of everything you’re worth,” Dream says. 

 

George sets his mouth in a thin line. He doesn’t feel like arguing. He’s fine with fighting, but arguing would require defending his position—and there’s nothing he can tell Dream that would make his head make sense. 

 

“Come on,” he says. Even if the drugs whittle him down, he doesn’t remember the last time he was completely there anyway. “How much do you really think I’m worth?” 

 

Dream opens his mouth to say something, but he closes it at the last second with a loose shrug. He licks his thumb and tries to wipe away the dried blood on the back of George’s hand. When it barely scrapes off, he raises George’s hand to his mouth, says, “Don’t be weird,” and wraps his mouth around his knuckle. He’s barely there a second, but it’s long enough.  

 

“Your blood tastes like mine,” he murmurs. George’s knuckles are clean. They itch where Dream’s mouth had been. 

 

Don’t be weird his fucking ass.

 

“Same blood type,” George says. Dream warned him, in retrospect. He told him he was going to regret this.

 

“I guess,” Dream says. “I know you can’t trust me, ever, but I still want you to know, that, like—whoever this guy is—” he wraps a piece of the fabric around George’s hand, “It’s not going to kill you if you never find him.” 

 

“I guess,” George says. 


It’s not going to kill me , he thinks, watching Dream tuck the edge of the makeshift bandage around his thumb, but it’s going to kill you .

Chapter Text

George wakes up late, but it’s still earlier than Hank. He spends a good few minutes banging fists against the door of his motel room until Hank opens it, light refracting against a tiny wedge of his face. 

 

“Give me a minute,” he says—voice gravelly like a layer of beaten road—and closes the door again. George leans back on his heels as if physically pushed against the chest. 

 

He isn’t sure what he’d been expecting, after bailing on Hank for an entire evening, but it most certainly was not this. He twiddles his thumbs for ten more minutes, looks through emails he’s already answered, and debates calling Wallace. He hasn’t gotten any updates on what they know about Saint Don—or how important the FBI trying to listen into his conversations is. He taps his fingers along the edges of his phone. He feels like there would’ve been easier ways to go about bugging him; Lord knows he’s already filled his phone up with enough evidence. 

 

He tries to think back on who he’d talked to, that day. Wallace and his detectives, all older than him and with the same concern that he wanted to be in Orlando alone. A secretary. The intern that told him his rooming arrangements. Hank opens the door before he can slip too deeply into his brooding.

 

“Did you bring your key back?” Hank asks. 

 

“What?” George says. “Yes.” 

 

“You should get your suitcase, then,” Hank continues, voice tight.

 

“Oh,” George says. “I mean, it’s just in my room.” Hank blinks at him, passively. “I’ll… go get it, I guess.”

 

When he comes back to the front of Hank’s room with his suitcase, he watches a flash of tan skin exit his hotel room, carrying her heels in one hand and pulling on the oversized shirt she’s wearing. George freezes in his tracks and looks at the tattoo on her arm. Young and Beautiful

 

Hank grabs her arm to stop her, so George busies himself with trekking to the car. The hood’s unlocked, so he yanks it open and starts manhandling his suitcase next to Hank’s. He slams the trunk shut again, but the noise does little to bring their attention to him. 

 

He looks at himself in the dark glass of the window while he waits. His nose still feels tender, and the red slash of bruise is turning a dark pink. He prods at it gingerly. When he’d gotten to his room he’d tried to find something cold to press against it, but the most he could find was lukewarm bottles of water. 

 

“Enjoying the view?” He hears Hank say from behind him. When he turns around, Vica is nowhere to be seen, and Hank avoids his eyes as he walks to the driver’s seat. George gives himself a moment to laugh at him before he’s following him into the shotgun seat.

 

“Don’t tell me you did what I think you did,” George says. Hank smells like licorice. He puts his hand on the back of George’s headrest as he backs out of their motel parking spot. 

 

“I may have,” he says, after a moment. “Vica was—helpful.”

 

Especially helpful,” George says. Hank shakes his head, huffing a laugh through his nose.

 

“It wasn’t like that,” he says. “I mean, we—we didn’t really—it didn’t get that… far. But I have. Her number. So.” 

 

“So what I’m hearing is that you want another night in Miami,” George says. Hank looks at him in the mirror like he’s gone insane, and George remembers who they’re supposed to be for a moment. Miami’s wrung him out to dry, certainly, and he knows he and Hank are both people meant for closed-off rooms with an AC on full crank, but there’s so many people here. And so many of them are linked by thin, invisible strings.

 

“Definitely not,” he says. “I think we’ve gotten enough. Darryl called me last night. The car warrant went through, and right now they’re processing samples from the steering wheel and some fibers they found on the inside of the seatbelt.”

 

“Nice,” George says. “D’you know how long it’ll take?”

 

“It won’t be more than a few days, I hope,” Hank says. “Alvarez said that she’s going to call Forensics once we’re back in Orlando. Alyssa’s been out questioning the group the security guard worked for. Paragon USA.”

 

“Haven’t heard of them,” George says. “What’s she found out so far?”

 

“Guess we’ll find out, won’t we?” Hank asks. “Vica told me some things.”

 

Like that isn’t intimidatingly ominous. Especially when paired with Hank’s prevailing silence. “About what?” George says. 

 

“She moved to Orlando to be with Clay,” Hank says. “Everyone knows that. But—the two of them—Vica’s known them a while, but not well. Friend-of-a-friend type thing. She said the two of them have been planning to leave for a while. Keep traveling.” He looks at George in the mirror. “I don’t know what you’re thinking, but the timing seems too perfect.”    

 

“It does seem too perfect,” George breathes. He shouldn’t be surprised, in retrospect, that Dream doesn’t know how to keep his mouth shut—but he’d expected more, coming from Arla. She seems smarter in every regard. “So, what? We want him too?”

 

“It wouldn’t matter if we wanted anything from him,” Hank says. He sounds bitter. “We could bring him in for questioning, sure, but Baker would never let it get around that his son’s a suspect in a drug and homicide investigation.” 

 

“It never seemed to me like Baker cared,” George says. If anything, sometimes it seemed like Dream was compensating for something. Getting himself into deeper and deeper shit as if to test the limits of the Orlando police station, including his father’s reaches. “That first day—he was watching the interrogation.”

 

“So he could keep it quiet,” Hank says. “We can’t touch him. Even before I was in the department, the stuff I’d hear about him doing—typical teenage delinquent bullshit, but he knew nobody was going to stop him. Darryl fucking hates him.” 

 

George can empathize with that.

 

They get drive-through coffee on the way. George gets tea. It’s a wholly pleasant experience until they walk into the bullpen of Orlando’s Violent Crimes section. It’s buzzing with flocks of beat cops, all chattering insistently, splayed out against evidence or pushing through doors. Alyssa is explaining something vehement to a group of borrowed Narcotics experts from Special Enforcement. 

 

“What in the—'' Hank says, but a female cop rushes past his side with a stack of files and makes him twist in a sudden feat of whiplash. “Jesus! When Darryl said Alvarez wanted reinforcements, I thought it meant—the D.E.A. or something. Okay. Whatever. Let’s find the Baker.” 

 

George feels—very suddenly—out-of-place. He hovers his to-go cup over the head of a man who ducks against his side to get to the exit. The door to the lieutenant’s office is open, so Hank pushes inside easily. He doesn’t lock it behind him, so George follows. 

 

“Baker!” Hank says cheerily. Alvarez, who’s standing across from them next to Baker as she points something out on his document, looks up at them in surprise. Hank ignores her as he plants his hands against Baker’s desk to get his attention. “What. Is going on .” 

 

“Harris,” Baker says, standing up. “Detective Davidson.”

 

“Nice bruise,” Alvarez says. 

 

“Thanks,” George says.

 

“I’m sorry about the commotion,” Baker continues smoothly. “And thank you for your tip about Ms. Lowery—I suppose it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that she’d peddle for—Don, but I can’t lie that I’m disappointed in the type of company that gravitates around my step-son. She’s in custody at the moment.”

 

“Custody?” George blurts. That was not the intention of sending them into Arla’s direction. He’d been expecting an interrogation—something that would let her explain why she’d dragged Dream around the continental United States and ended up in Orlando. Something about how it was Saint Don all along, that she’d been in the club because she was nothing but a messenger for him, that he was running the ring of art thefts that has plagued George’s life for the past year, but—it would’ve been too clean. Of course it would’ve been too clean. “Did she apply for habeas corpus?” 

 

“Yes,” Baker says. “We’re working on the grounds of drug trafficking and distribution.” He looks pained, and Alvarez crosses her arms at them. 

 

“We’re not holding her because of the homicide,” she says, as an explanation. The air is stale and tense and George looks over at Hank to see if he’s the only one between them that noticed, but Hank’s eyebrows are knitted together in a similar way. “It’s not because of your case either, George. Special Enforcement is going after Saint Don.”

 

What ?” Hank says, and looks over at Baker. 

 

“They haven’t before?” George asks. He knows the answer, but he wants it from Baker. 

 

“No,” Alvarez says. George is still looking at Baker, and Baker is looking back at him, but his mouth is a firm line and he looks less like he wants to answer and more like he knows exactly what George is thinking about. “They’ve been on the department’s radar for years, but we’ve never had enough probable cause to—issue a warrant for a search of the casino, for example. You mentioned you met a man at the Five-And-Dime who was with Arla. Pale, tall, skinny?” 

 

“Yeah,” George says. Baker is still looking at him. “J.G., I think.” 

 

“Right,” Alvarez says. “He does a lot of logistics for Saint Don. Hired his security detail. Was entirely willing to speak to Alyssa and Darryl about how involved he was in ensuring the safety of the casino—making a good impression on the police and all that. Paragon USA—does the name mean anything to you?”

 

“Holy shit,” Hank says. Alvarez nods at him, and only then can George can see the spiderwebs of brown-red in her eyes.

 

“Alyssa and Darryl can catch you up,” she tells Hank. “They’re in the break room. You might have to wake them up. George, can I speak with you for a second?” 

 

“Oh,” George says. “Sure.” Mostly he’d been planning to stay back and ask Baker a few more questions about what exactly they’d been gaining from Don all of these years, but if Alvarez is going to question him he’s going to have to shift his mental gears away from being an active combatant. Alvarez picks a lighter up from Baker’s desk and motions for George to follow her outside.

 

They make it all the way to the garage exit of the department, where Alvarez motions for him to stand next to a group of bushes until she unearths a pocket of cigarettes from her back pocket. George watches her light it in silence. She offers it to him in a gesture of goodwill, but he shakes his head.

 

“I don’t really smoke menthols,” he says. 

 

“They’re better for you,” she says.

 

“I don’t think that’s true.”

 

“Of course it’s not true,” she says. “It makes you feel better, though, doesn’t it?” 

 

George supposes it does. He takes it from her hand and puts it to his mouth. It’s nicer to smoke, but he doesn’t like how cold the inside of his mouth feels. 

 

“What were you doing at the Five-And-Dime?” She asks, finally. Like that had been what this was leading up to. George blows smoke against his shoes and watches it part to the sides of his head before he hands the cigarette back to her.

 

“When I was in Fort Pierce, I asked Alyssa why nobody ever questioned the owners of the casino even though they were so close to the museum,” George says. “I didn’t really get a good answer. I just wanted to find out why.”

 

Alvarez takes a drag before she answers. “You were curious,” she says. “I can respect that. If you didn’t do anything illegal.”

 

George wants to tell her that it was less curiosity and more frustration. He certainly wouldn’t have gotten away with less back home, but it was more that he’d never had to do as much when investigating in England. Even when he was in Basic Command, he’d go undercover when authorized and he’d keep his partner informed—his unit was crooked, but it wasn’t dirty to the core. “I didn’t.”

 

“I don’t know what else I’m supposed to do,” she says, “Baker, he—I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, but he’s known Saint Don for a long time. He’s been cat-and-mouse with the Orlando P.D. ever since HIDTA left Fort Pierce. I’ll give you a wild guess as to how Don got away with that.” 

 

“Can’t pay them off,” George says. “Did he—hide?”

 

“Bingo,” Alvarez mumbles. She takes a deep breath into her cigarette. “He’s generous with giving people time to pay off their debt, I’ll give him that much.” George thinks about the gun against Dream’s neck. “That’s why they call him that. Saint. But that also means that when he does get his money, it piles up, and then he knows how to use it. Stay quiet and don’t get caught, right?”

 

“That makes sense,” George says. “So—what? You all just knew Baker was taking money from him and didn’t do anything about it?” He doesn’t mean for it to sound contentious, but he doesn’t know how else he’s meant to talk to Alvarez. If anything, he hopes she appreciates the matter-of-factness. 

 

“It’s not just Baker,” she tells him. “Special Enforcement finds it easier to lock up single moms caught with weed than to go after drug peddlers that ship out of Miami. Especially when they’re not central to Orlando and know who to pay off. But now that you’re here—” she takes a heavy puff, “They have no other choice.”

 

“Maybe I need that security detail more than fucking Saint Don,” George says. He’s not particularly worried, but he knows it’s going to make his life difficult now that the rest of the department knows he’s the asshole moving shit out of place. Not to mention when Saint Don finds out he’s being investigated.

 

“Maybe,” she says. That worries him a greater amount. If he’s shot in his sleep, he doesn’t know who’s going to feed his cat. Certainly not Karl, who’s been feeding her ham while she stays with him. 

 

“I was kidding,” he says. “So… what? Why are you telling me this?”

 

She pauses. “I wanted to thank you.”

 

Thank me?” George repeats. 

 

“It’s hard to get things done around here,” she says quietly. “I know everyone calls me a bitch, but I don’t know what else to do. I moved here thinking it would be a better department than Atlanta, and—the detectives are smart, driven—but they have nothing to work with. If they’d never sent you here, we’d still be chasing leads that get ripped away from us anyway.”

 

“I didn’t do anything,” George says. He can’t wrap his head around Alvarez thanking him for something. “You’re juggling fifty things at any given point in time and you do Baker’s job. You would’ve figured out a way around it even if I’d never come.”

 

“That’s the point,” Alvarez says. “I didn’t have to figure out a way around it. I owe you a drink. Or twenty. I know it’s not your investigation, but I need your help on questioning Lowery. We just got her out of holding and into the box, and I think you could be helpful.”

 

“Oh,” George says. Logically he knows that Arla might rat him out the minute he steps inside, but there’s also some things he’d like to ask her that he feels like she’ll be forced to answer if Alvarez is also standing there glaring daggers at her. Unless she asks for a lawyer. She might not say anything about him if she has a lawyer. “Sure. Earlier—Baker knows Arla?”

 

“Of course,” Alvarez says. She stubs the cigarette out under her shoe and then turns on her heel to enter the building again. “She’s Clay’s girlfriend. Or was. I don’t know. It’s definitely going to make Baker’s department party a lot more difficult than it usually is.” George speeds up to match her brisk pace. “I should probably mention he’s going to announce that soon.” 

 

“Department party,” George says. He didn’t think he’d stay in America that long. “I wouldn’t expect to be invited, if it’s for the department.”

 

“Oh, trust me, he’s going to want you there,” Alvarez says grimly. “It’s the yearly opportunity for him to show off whatever renovation he’s done to his McMansion. Doesn’t take no for an answer. Watch. He’s going to do it later today.”

 

“I’ll look out for that,” he says. When they reach the interrogation room, he peeks through the tinted window to see Arla sitting against the chair, face downcast and sullen. “Should I… are you going to do it alongside me, or…?”

 

“Just follow me,” Alvarez says hurriedly, swooping up her file before pushing through the door. George follows her, trying to take his time in a way that’s tired instead of suspicious. When he closes the door behind him gently, he watches Arla’s eyes flick to him. 

 

She doesn’t say anything.

 

The relief crashes against him like a wave. He almost has to give himself time to realign all of the useless panic as Alvarez weans her way onto the offensive.

 

 “Arla,” she says, not unkindly. “I hope you haven’t been waiting for too long.”

 

“Three fucking hours,” she spits. “Three fucking hours in this piece-of-shit chair with these piece-of-shit people. Is this how you always run this place?” 

 

“You won’t have to stay for much longer if you cooperate with our questions,” Alvarez says, tapping a stack of papers into place. Arla sighs, deeply, digging her sneakers against the ground and sliding her back down her chair.

 

“If I just cooperate ,” she says crisply. She rattles the handcuffs against her hands. “If I just cooperate, I won’t be cuffed like I’m some fucking dangerous serial killer, huh? Me not lunging over this table and stabbing you in your little pig throat is a sign of my constant and unyielding cooperation.”

 

“Great,” Alvarez says. “So it won’t be too difficult for you to tell me what you had to do for Saint Don.”

 

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she says. 

 

“Your friends at the Five-And-Dime ratted you out,” Alvarez says softly. “You’ve been Saint Don’s link to the Orlando area for months. Since J.G. got promoted to his underboss and moved to Fort Pierce.”

 

“This pains me to say,” Arla says, “But I want a fucking lawyer.”   

 

Alvarez leans back from her seat. “That can be arranged.” She’s legally not allowed to say anything else, but she opens her mouth anyway, and at that moment George hears the rap of knuckles against the window. The door opens, and Baker shoves his head inside.

 

“Alvarez,” he says. “My office.” 

 

“Stay here,” she tells George, and leaves the room with a relative amount of grace, having been called into her boss’s office. George stands from where he’d been leaning against the window and turns to look at his own reflection, but then Arla speaks from behind him. 

 

“Get Dream here,” she says. Quietly.

 

“What?” George says, turning around. The paranoia prickles at his skin—anyone could be listening in, watching them, watching him talk to her and figuring out an entirely new way to make his search for the paintings a living hell. 

 

“You know him,” she says. “Tell him I’m being interrogated. He’ll get me out.” 

 

She says it so calmly, comprehensively, like it’s something that George is supposed to hear and absorb. He barely keeps from stumbling against his own feet trying to work out the words. “ Excuse me?” 

 

“Oh, so you’re a member of the law-abiding class when it’s fucking convenient now? Go get Dream before I tell that hot cop everything I know about you,” she says.

 

“You don’t know anything about me,” George says.

 

“Don’t make me fucking laugh,” she hisses. “He’s always wanted a cop under his thumb. And you’re so fucking easy. You’ll do whatever it takes to find your little paintings, and he knows that. What’re you going to do when they bring J.G. in as a suspect and he rats you out immediately?” 

 

“You need to stop talking,” George says. The panic is inching into his voice. Before he’d left and he’d dropped his house-keys off at Karl’s apartment, he’d said, don’t get yourself into any deep shit, okay? and George had said, I won’t. Of course I won’t.  

 

“They’re going to seize your investigation and charge you with police misconduct, fuckhead,” Arla says. “Ship you off to some British prison. Can’t be that bad there, though, can it? Or is the fish-and-chips not fresh enough behind bars?” George doesn’t say anything. “He can make sure people stay quiet about you. It’s good having friends on the inside, detective. I wouldn’t suggest you break your loyalties.”

 

Because that’s who George is now. He can feel Dream’s voice around him, inside his head, throughout his body, reminding him what he has to do, what he’s already done.  

 

“He can’t do anything to get you out,” George snaps at her. “Baker doesn’t listen to him.”

 

“That’s not how it works,” Arla says. “Just find him.”

 

George can almost imagine the smirk on her face when he turns on his heel and leaves. He slams the door loudly to remind her where she is, but he knows it doesn’t work. People like Arla are never pawns. He pushes through the herds of beat cops until he’s through the hallway, rushing to make his phone-call before anyone can notice he’s gone. 

 

He finds Alvarez’s smoke spot in record time. He means to open Dream’s unlabeled contact, but he’s stared at it on his phone long enough to have memorized it, so he types it out and then calls him. Dream doesn’t answer.

 

“Come on, come on, you fucking asshole,” he hisses, and calls him again. He still doesn’t answer—of course he doesn’t answer, because it’s the middle of the day and he’s three hours away in Miami, so he’s probably asleep. George tries three more times until he finally answers.

 

Ugh ,” Dream says, as a greeting. 

 

“You need to come here,” George says. He closes his eyes against the hot wind. “Arla’s in holding. They’re investigating Saint Don. She told me to tell you.”

 

“What?” Dream says. “They’re—” He sounds incredibly flustered in a way George hasn’t heard before. “I’ll be there soon. Three hours.”

 

George wants, desperately, to know what Arla is to him to the point where he’d drop everything to help her. “I don’t owe you anything, Dream.”

 

“Where did that come from?” Dream says.   

 

“I don’t have to help you anymore,” George says rigidly. He looks around him for other people, but the garage exit is secluded enough from onlookers to feel relatively safe. “I don’t care what she says, I don’t have any—fucking— loyalties to you. I don’t have to do anything to help you. Ever again. If I don’t want to.”

 

Dream still doesn’t say anything. George drops his voice to a harsh whisper.

 

“If you try and take me down,” he says, “I’m dragging you down with me. I don’t care what you think you can do to me—I can go to jail, but someone’s always there to finish my job for me. To find out what she has to do with the stolen art. To find out what you’re fucking hiding.” He skips a beat. “I don’t know if you can say the same.”

 

“I was never planning on taking you down,” Dream says, finally.

 

“I don’t care what you were planning,” George says. “This ends now. I’m sticking to my job, and you’re sticking—to—whatever it is you fucking do. Stay in Miami if you want. I’m not helping you anymore. This is the last time.” 

 

“I’m not your pills, George,” Dream says. 

 

“Yes you are,” George says. 

 

He doesn’t realize what he’s said until he hangs up. It’s true, in a twisted sort of way. He walks back to the bullpen before he does something stupid like scream. Or call Dream again. He blocks his number as he walks. 

 

He looks out at the sea of unfamiliar faces sprawled against the increasingly-familiar squadroom, but he doesn’t catch sight of Hank or Darryl or even Alvarez. He realizes, with a start, that they still must be gathered in Baker’s office. He forces himself inside before he can think of an excuse of why he left the interrogation room.

 

“George,” Baker says, catching sight of him immediately. He’s pacing around the tiny expanse of his office, and Darryl and Hank are sitting in matching uncomfortable positions. Alvarez looks especially irritable. “You, um… can I help you with anything?”

 

“I... still haven’t gotten updates about how questioning Paragon USA went,” George says, lamely. He’d be able to think of a better excuse if he didn’t feel his heart jumping out of his skin. 

 

“Right,” Baker says. “Um—Alyssa. Show George the field report.”

 

“He has a right to know,” Alyssa says. 

 

“Yes,” Baker says. “That’s why I—”

 

“No,” she interrupts forcefully. She’s sitting on an armchair in the corner of Baker’s office, picking at the leather skin of the arm. “About the agents. This isn’t his department, he’s a visiting specialist, but he has a right to know.”

 

“Right to know what?” George asks, looking at her, but she ducks her face away from him before she can respond. A foul taste rises to the back of his mouth—keeping secrets from the visiting specialist is the trick of the trade, but if it’s something Alyssa would speak up for, he might have a bit of a problem with being kept in the dark. 

 

“I just got a call from Lionel Proctor, the Chief Detective in the FBI’s Art Theft unit,” Baker says. 

 

Great. Great. Fucking great. George can feel the muscles in his hands tensing. Even when he moved up from Basic Command, it was with a certain type of reluctance; mostly he didn’t want to be the federal agent that every constable hated seeing in their stations. He can feel an identical kind of dread at the thought of the FBI intruding upon a department that’s already rotted brown and black like a spoiled fruit.

 

“What did he say,” George says faintly.

 

“They’re combining our local investigation with theirs to create a task force,” Baker tells him. “Your supervisor has apparently signed off on it as well.” 

 

“Wallace?” George says. “Shit. The bug.”

 

“The what ?” Alvarez says sharply. 

 

George grimaces. He hadn’t meant for it to slip. 

 

“The—on the first day I was here—there was—a bug,” he says jerkily. He itches at the back of his hand and watches his nails dye fine red lines against his skin. “On my tie. An audio bug. I didn’t notice until it was pointed out to me. It was stuck inside, like—between the stitching.”

 

Alvarez stares at him. “They bugged you?” 

 

“I don’t know why,” George says. “But—that was weeks ago. I doubt they didn’t notice I’d found the bug early on. I don’t know why they’d want agents down here so late.”

 

“Hold up, hold up,” Darryl says. “They… put an audio bug in your tie ? And you found it ? You have a phone right there!” 

 

“I really can’t explain it,” George says uselessly. He thinks about telling them that Arla was the one that saw it, but he doesn’t know what that would have to do with her interrogation. Maybe she just has good eyes. 

 

And maybe George is the fucking Queen. 

 

“If they… truly believe they have to keep an eye on our department to such an extreme degree, there’s nothing I can do to stop them,” Baker says. “The most I can do is—tell you all to be on your best behavior, of course. I wouldn’t want to make a bad impression.” 

 

The irony is not lost on George, but he doesn’t say anything. He waits for Alvarez to point something out, or even Alyssa, but they both avoid saying anything at all. George wants to close his eyes and never open them again. 

 

“I suppose it’s good you’re here, George,” Baker says, breaking the tension. “I meant to tell you. My fifteenth year with Violent Crimes is next week, and every year, I throw a bit of a get-together and invite the entire unit. You’re invited this year, of course.” 

 

Of course . Like it’s some sort of necessity. “Oh, wow,” George says, instead of looking at Hank and Darryl, who are now smirking at him as if hoping he’ll refuse. “That sounds great. I’m so flattered you’d invite me, I’ve been here for such a short time—but, um, thank you. I’ll definitely make it.” 

 

“I think it could do you some good to mingle,” Baker says encouragingly. “My wife makes an excellent chocolate souffle.” 

 

“I love Mrs. Baker’s souffle,” Hank says. Darryl hits the back of his head. 

 

George becomes Alyssa’s problem after that. She leads him to a corner of the room, where an electronic screen bears a few security stills of a man he can’t identify. “So I heard you’re the person I get to thank about leading me into J.G.’s direction,” she says. 

 

“I guess so,” George says. “I didn’t really do much. I wasn’t really authorized.”

 

“I can tell by the—all of that,” she says, waving a hand around her face. She clicks something on the computer screen open against the table, and the picture slides to another security still George doesn’t recognize. “But, I mean, even so—you may as well do everything you can until Art Theft comes in to leash us all back in. Especially the fucking Baker. The thought of federal agents in his precious little fifteen-year department is a bit too much for him. You recognize this guy?” 

 

“Not at all,” George says, squinting at the screen. “Who is he?” 

 

“His name’s Carter Page,” Alyssa says. “So when I went to go talk to J.G. to ask him about the cameras, he told me that we needed to talk to the casino’s bouncer. But oh, what a shame, they’d recently let him go. Which led me into the direction of Paragon USA. They’re the agency that supplies bouncers around the area.” 

 

“I’ve heard,” George says. “So—did this help with the dead security guard?” 

 

“He was employed at the same agency as the Five-And-Dime’s bouncers,” Alyssa says. “They supply for some shady people, as you can see. But apparently, Conrad Lennox’s boss had never worried about him getting in trouble with the wrong people because he’s, you know, a big guy. Super tall. Pathologist said the cocaine needed to kill him was the largest amount she’d ever seen.” 

 

“How fascinating,” George says.

 

“Isn’t it,” Alyssa says, evidently missing the dryness in his voice. “The club he used to work at is closed now, but when Special Enforcement did investigate it, they didn’t find anything suspicious. Just drunk people gambling their money away, which you can get anywhere. But—if drunk people are gambling their money away there , they’re not gambling it away at other places.”

 

“You mean at the Five-And-Dime,” George says. “Shit.”

 

“Yeah,” Alyssa says grimly. She waves a hand around at the rest of the department. “And when they kill off a bouncer and make sure we don’t know it’s a murder, that gets to that other casino’s owners, right? That if other casinos don’t back off from Saint Don’s business, they can do all of that and worse. I looked into some numbers—three new buildings for rent downtown. You know what they were formerly? Casinos.” 

 

“That makes sense,” George says. Something else is itching at him. “It’s just—the stolen painting. I know it’s not your highest priority, but when Art Theft comes in, I don’t want them fucking up your homicide invesigation.” 

 

“I appreciate that,” Alyssa says. “So—what?”

 

“The pickup truck he was found in,” George says. “It was stolen, yeah? And at first it made sense to me that it would only be used as evidence for the murder, but—the art museum had a hole in the fence. We know Saint Don is involved in both the murder and the theft. What if they just wanted you to look for proof of the homicide, instead of also looking for remnants of the painting?”

 

Alyssa stares at him for a second. George waits for her to tell him he’s completely off-base, but she doesn’t do anything of the sort. 

 

“Holy shit,” she says. “Alvarez!”

 

** 

 

When George unlocks the door to his Airbnb that night, he can almost feel the phantom brush of his cat against his legs. He’s tired. So tired. He’d spent the rest of his workday painfully explaining the intricacies of investigating the crime scene of an art theft to a group of newbie police officers, and he doesn’t want anyone asking him what a forensic graphologist is ever again.

 

He lugs his suitcase back into its original position of the corner of his bedroom, and kicks it open with a flourish. He digs through his clothing to find his pill bottle, trying to decide what type of night it is—does he want it to hit faster or stay for longer? He’s tired enough to want it fast, but he’s stressed enough that it might be better to take two. 

 

He’s filled with the same longing he would have if he was coming home to a partner, which is kind of pathetic, but he doesn’t have much time to lick his own wounds because he can hear thumping at his front door. 

 

He looks at the clock. Nine. It would be technically socially acceptable for Hank or Darryl to be at his door right now, as long as it’s not a work-related reason. He pads to the door, undoing his tie as he does so. He opens the door expecting to see one of his coworkers but instead sees Dream.

 

“Hi,” he says.

 

Seven hours. They couldn’t go seven hours. 

 

George moves to close his door again, but Dream puts a hand between the doorframe and the door. “You blocked my number,” he says, like that’s a perfectly acceptable reason to show up to the house that George has never given him the address to

 

“I said I wasn’t helping you anymore,” George says.

 

“You can say whatever you want, but I’m not going to keep helping you if you don’t help me,” Dream says. “What happened to tit-for-tat, man?” 

 

“I don’t need—” George says, and then lowers his voice and looks across the street. the people that live around him don’t know him , but they certainly know Dream. “Jesus, get inside. You can’t just show up to my fucking house. I don’t need your help.”

 

“Oh, bullshit,” Dream says, letting George pull him inside and watching him bolt the door shut. He looks around idly. “This place looks like the set of the Brady Bunch.”

 

“I know,” George says. He crosses his arms, watching Dream toe his sneakers off and trapeze to his couch—not his couch. This isn’t George’s house. It’s a temporary place for him to live. “What is it?” 

 

“I just wanted to make sure you were alive,” Dream says, throwing himself onto the couch. “And I figured I’d update you on Arla. She’s back in my house safe and sound, but she kind of won’t let me in right now because she’s pissed off at me and thinks I ratted her out. So.” 

 

“She’s not letting you into… your own house?” George repeats.

 

“I get it as much as you do,” Dream says. “It’s fine. I can wait a night. I kinda miss my cat, but I can wait a night.”

 

“You shouldn’t have gotten her out,” George says tiredly. “She’s being accused of drug trafficking. She could’ve—if she’d told the truth about not being involved with Saint Don until he needed her for the art theft, it would’ve made everything so much easier. They’re going to look for her now.”

 

“You thought it was going to be that simple?” Dream asks, craning his neck to make his head comfortable on the arm of the couch. “She’s a lot of things, but she’s not a snitch. And you don’t have to worry about anyone looking for her. The night shift can sleep well tonight knowing she’s safe and sound in a cozy bed and they’re five hundred dollars richer.” 

 

You really shouldn’t tell me about bribing police officers like I’m not going to tell anyone , George thinks, but knows he isn’t going to tell anyone. “You shouldn’t be here.” 

 

“You really like telling me what I shouldn’t do,” Dream says, “So I think I’m going to tell you what you shouldn’t do. What you shouldn’t do is block my fucking number so I have to stake out the police department and find out where you’ve been staying this entire time. What you shouldn’t do is pretend like you can get anywhere in Florida without me.” 

 

“Art Theft is creating a task force here,” George says, instead of responding. Something else he shouldn’t do: tell Dream how the investigation is being run. “I don’t need you to get me in deeper and deeper shit just because you think it might have something to do with my case. I can figure it out on my own from here.”

 

“Saint Don knows,” Dream says. 

 

“What?” George says. “Saint Don knows what?” 

 

“That you’re interrogating Arla,” Dream says. “Only problem is that he thinks it’s about the art theft. What he doesn’t know is that Special Enforcement’s going to start investigating his drug trade. Not to mention the murder. He doesn’t know what kind of shit is about to hit the fan.” He sits up again to grab at the throw blanket over George’s couch. “Use that. Play into what he doesn’t know.” 

 

“How the fuck am I supposed to know what he doesn’t know?” George snaps.

 

“From me,” Dream says. He yawns heavily, dropping his head against the couch. “Hope you don’t mind if I crash here tonight.” 

 

“That’s fine,” George says, a moment later, but Dream is already closing his eyes. When his face is calm and gentle he looks like some kind of impressionist portrait, like he’s made of thin, faint lines. George thinks Monet would have made him bolder. Brighter colors. 

 

He walks back to his hallway and back to his bed and moves to open his pill bottle, but the thought makes him feel sick, and then he remembers how much he’d wanted them—the same way he’s wanted to solve this case so much it ached—and he’d thought Dream was the pills but he’s not, because he’s so much worse. So, so much worse.

 

Chapter Text

The first person George meets is the intern. He doesn’t remember him, but he certainly remembers George.

 

“Nick,” he says, jutting a hand out and waiting for George to shake it. George is running a stack of dashcam footage to Alyssa, so he has to awkwardly shuffle it under his arm as he takes Nick’s hand, watching him shake it furiously. Impressive grip. “Nice bruise, dude. You look like a mobster or something. It’s sick.”

 

“Oh, right,” George says. He’s trying not to think about the bruise too much. When he’d woken up Dream had still been on his couch, but he’d been wearing a hoodie George didn’t recognize and his eyes had been crusted over and bleary, and he’d walked over, touched George’s nose, and said, “You look so fucking stupid with that bruise. Seriously. You don’t own foundation or anything?” And George had said, “Why the fuck would I own foundation,” and Dream had said, “I don’t know. Maybe it’s a pansy cop thing.” And then he’d found a box of butterfly bandages in the medicine cabinet and stuck one over the bluest part of the bruise. George still thinks he looks stupid, but it helps close tiny cut in the shallow. “Yeah. It’s just—it’s kind of a long story.”

 

“All good,” Nick says cheerily. The first thing George notices about him is that he’s not sweating. George has been in a constant state of perspiration since Miami, and this random intern from New York is handling the heat better than he is. “Do you need to take those anywhere?”

 

“These?” George asks. “Yeah, I—I’m just running them to Alyssa. It’s for the homicide case.”

 

“So unrelated to my work responsibilities,” Nick says. “Awesome.”

 

Before George can bid him an uncomfortable farewell Baker steps to the front of their main whiteboard and clears his throat loudly, stepping aside to make room for Proctor. He’s shorter than Baker, with darker skin and closer-cropped hair, but their expressions are virtually indistinguishable to George. 

 

“Okay, everyone,” Baker says loudly, clapping his hands together to get the attention of the floor of beat cops. George drops the stack of files against the table Baker stands in front of, shoving his hands into his pockets, willing himself to stay awake through the speech. “I’m sure many of you have noticed the changes we’ve been making to the department prior to the arrival of the Art unit at the F.B.I.—for those of you in Special Enforcement, this is less related to your focus on Saint Don than it is important for you to share your information with Proctor and his team, and of course my Homicide unit should know the degree of involvement…”

 

“So fucking boring,” Nick breathes from next to him.

 

George has to hide his tiny smirk with a cough into his fist, and Nick gives him a self-satisfied look. It’s a lot of talk for very little purpose. 

 

George knows why Baker is giving the speech: he wants Proctor to think they’ve managed to get anything done in their impending arrival other than panic. Proctor watches on with an enlightened smile in George’s general direction, never once looking over into Baker’s vicinity.

 

“Thank you, Lieutenant,” Proctor says, when he finishes. He doesn’t give him a second before he’s cutting off his voice. “My team and I are honored to work with the Orlando division for what will hopefully be a short time as our combined resources help us finally nail this bastard.” He looks over at the sheep-eyes of the crowd. “Although I would still like to mention that—although we appreciate the work that’s already been done here—I do hope that you will all keep in mind that federal jurisdiction trumps the decisions made by city-centric divisions. This is the cornerstone of our justice system and it’s my hope that our guidance in our Art Theft case will improve the course of the Special Enforcement and Violent Crimes units. Thank you.”

 

The rest of the room claps confusedly as Proctor shakes Baker’s hand again and starts whispering feverishly to one of his detectives, who nods wildly and types on the laptop she hasn’t left for the past few hours. George stands there for a second, and then—against his better judgement—looks over at Nick.

 

“What the hell was he even saying there?” He asks.

 

Nick shrugs. “They can do whatever they want and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

 

George was not expecting that. “That’s what you got from his speech?”

 

“He makes it all the time,” Nick says, as an explanation. “I’ve been his PA since he was head of Cyber Crimes.” He studies the look on George’s face. “Not like you have anything to worry about, though. Aren’t you a specialist?”

 

“Yeah,” George says. He could talk at length about how being a specialist for Orlando hasn’t made his life any easier—rather, he’d argue that he probably should’ve stayed in the U.K. and made some long-distance phone-calls, if they’re going by situations that have given him an unhealthy amount of worry.

 

 The depressing part is that he can’t deny this is the most progress they’ve made in a long time. He should’ve guessed the F.B.I. would make a guest appearance the moment he told Wallace to put Saint Don on his radar. 

 

They’re going to seize your investigation and charge you with police misconduct , he thinks. He’s not going to forget what Arla told him so soon—unless he solves it before Wallace finds out. “There’s been some good parts, but it’s mostly… it can be constrictive, here.” 

 

“If you really think that, I’m sorry for what Proctor’s going to do to you,” Nick says. “I’m getting the fuck out of here the minute I figure out what I want to do with my life, mark my words, but until then—I don’t know. I guess I’ll be watching everything burn down alongside you.”

 

“Nice,” George says. “Looking forward to it.”

 

His first thought is that he needs to check on Arla. Dream had been out before he’d woken up, he knows that much, but he forgot to ask whether he’d snuck Arla back into holding or if Violent Crimes needs to lead a witch-hunt. Before he can head towards the cells, he catches Hank trying to wave him over desperately, so he caves and turns on his heel. 

 

“George,” he says. “Lowery’s in the interrogation room. Proctor’s detectives just finished their interrogation, and they’re letting us go next. Did you read the transcript?” He pauses from where Alyssa is seething next to his arm. “Alyssa’s not handling it well.” 

 

“She’s my suspect,” she snaps, brushing her hair away from her face in poorly-concealed frustration. "Special Enforcement’s, too. If she has anything to do with the theft, it’s only going to be knowing about it. They’re that determined to charge her with accessory?” 

 

Wait ,” George says. And nobody had fucking told him? “They’ve questioned Lowery already? I just got here!” 

 

Hank shrugs at him, but before he can say anything else George rushes past him, pushing into the locked door that precedes the interrogation room. Proctor and the detective with the laptop are waiting inside, watching Arla and her lawyer knock their hands together. 

 

“Proctor,” George hisses immediately, but he only flicks his eyes over to glance at George for a moment. He puts a hand up, motioning his head towards the room, but George’s anger is already bubbling up to his skin like seafoam and he can barely contain himself when he says, “This is an international case. If you’re interrogating her about the Backus, I am to be involved in the conversation.”

 

“Detective Davidson—” the woman with the laptop starts, but George steps closer to her before he can convince himself to ignore the flaps of red cape. 

 

“I realize this specific stolen art is under American jurisdiction, but England hasn’t had a lead for this case for months ,” George says. Something he probably shouldn’t admit, knowing the heaping superiority complex the F.B.I. has, but it seems relevant. “ I’m the reason Baker’s team has even managed to get her into the box, so if you genuinely think—”

 

“Detective Davidson,” Proctor says again. Coolly. He points at the window. “She’s been telling Noveschosch that J.G. has set her up.”

 

George freezes. He can feel his nerves clenching against his throat, pushing out of the corners of his eyes, and he opens his mouth, turning to look through the window, but Proctor speaks before he can say anything else. “Based on what I’ve heard so far, we’re left to believe it’s mostly unwarranted, but it’s still good to hear the entire statement first.” 

 

“She—” George says, and watches Arla wipe an imaginary tear from the underside of her eye. Her lips curl against her hand like a snake’s tail. “My source told me everything. About how she’s travelled across the United States but stopped in Florida for—God knows what. She’s Saint Don’s link to the Orlando region and I’ve already confirmed with Wallace that he’s involved in the theft—what the fuck am I missing?” 

 

“She’s claiming he worked out a deal to implicate her on the theft,” Proctor says. “A very interesting twist on a he-said-she-said indeed. She’s willing to work with us on what she knows about the theft if they drop the drug trafficking charge.”

 

Like George hasn’t heard that before. “That seems too good to be true.”

 

“I agree,” Proctor says. “That’s why we’re going to make sure her statement is backed up before we make any snap judgements. But depending on what she says—the department should be prepared to drop her as a suspect.”

 

“Alyssa isn’t going to like that,” George says, looking down at his shoes. He looks back at Arla’s self-indulgent little grin as she leans back in her seat. Her eyes are bloodshot and her hands are still cuffed, and she still manages to look cocky. That interrogation chair does incredible things to people. 

 

“Of course, once we get J.G.’s statement, it should be enough to clear you of any wrongdoing,” the female detective adds, lifting her head up alongside George’s to try and make eye contact. “Unless there’s anything you’d like to admit to right off the bat.” 

 

If they knew anything , George tries to think, they’d have held it against you by now. He rubs at his nose lightly, feeling a shock of pain through the bruise. He tries to tamp down his thoughts just in case they can read anything off his face.

 

 “Nothing comes to mind,” he says. He’d thought it was going to be easy to ward off a J.G. interrogation, but Arla had seemed to know that too. “Um—I know the—extradition will be difficult.”  

 

Proctor and his detective share an amused look. “Assuming he has legal citizenship in the U.K. as well, yes,” he says. George doesn’t know why this irks him. “This will be one of the most infamous charges of theft of major artwork in America, detective. That’s not something to be taken lightly.” 

 

“I didn’t mean to—dilute—the importance,” George says, voice rigid. Like it’s their case. Like they’ve been slaving over it for a year, uprooting their entire lives, breaking the fucking law for it. “The Backus is yours. But the Palmer is mine.”

 

Proctor holds the eye contact. A second passes.

 

“That sounds reasonable,” he says carefully, as if making sure his words aren’t legally binding. “I’d prefer we interview J.G. before Special Enforcement or Violent Crimes implicates him on anything.”

 

“Let me handle it,” George tells them, and pushes away back into Alyssa’s general direction. He isn’t sure if he missed them making her the lead detective on the murder investigation, or if she’s just taken too much responsibility into her own hands. 

 

It’s a good idea, the art investigation notwithstanding. If Saint Don doesn’t know Special Enforcement is going to start investigating his casino, it’ll be much easier to push his attention to trying to cover up the homicide. He may have money, but George doubts he’s going to be able to cover up all of his weak spots. And that gives them an in.

 

The only hard part is trying to translate that for Violent Crimes. No amount of bottles full of tiny shells is enough to convince Alyssa that her murder investigation ranks underneath matters of artistic fraud.

 

“No matter if J.G. is arrested for the homicide or because of his involvement in Saint Don’s circle, it’s not going to be because of your paintings ,” she tells him. The harshness of her face fades, and she rubs at the spots under her eyes. “Fuck. Sorry, George. I just—you can’t genuinely expect me to prioritize a museum over a human life.”

 

“I don’t,” he says, vaguely embarrassed. The guilt is everywhere, always, but he can’t tell her that. “It just—if you let them interrogate him first, you never know what he’s going to admit if he thinks you’re not onto the murder.”

 

“But then the reverse,” Hank says slowly. “If we interrogate him first, Art Crime is just as likely to find an in as we are. And he’s less likely to run from our case.” He catches the way George’s face drops, but doesn’t rush to defend anything. Darryl taps his fingers on the desk, and they look over at him.

 

“I just don’t know how well this is going to go over with Baker, George,” he says, trying to keep his tone light. That digs deep—Darryl is the one person George always expects to play devil’s advocate against his own side, if only to keep any further conflict from bubbling over. George looks away. “And I know they tried to tell us Art Crime takes precedent here, but—J.G.’s not even a confirmed suspect for them. We have greater grounds in our investigation than some faulty rumor from Arla Lowery. I vote we talk to him first. All in favor?”

 

Alyssa’s hand is up first. Hank’s is next—slower but steady. George crosses his arms and looks back at the interrogation room, where he can see Proctor and his detective’s bodies silhouetted against the stained glass of the door. 

 

“I was supposed to convince you to give him to them,” George mutters. There’s something oddly fanatical about the rush for J.G.’s interrogation. He feels like they’re all pulling at three parts of a wishbone—the painting, the murder, the drug trade. He has to rush to remind himself that he’s here for the art. He’s here for the art, not the friends or the drugs or the boys. 

 

“They’re still going to be able to convict him, George,” Darryl tries to say. It’s not as impactful when he’s rushing to clip his belt onto his badge and rush out from where Alyssa slips away. “As long as we can find out what he knows about the homicide, they can do whatever they want afterwards.” He pauses from ruffling the collar of his shirt. “Just give us this. Okay?”

 

“Okay,” George says, finally, and watches them leave. For a long time. He’d told Alyssa he didn’t want Art Theft fucking up her homicide investigation, and he’s realizing quickly why he shouldn’t be making any promises. If J.G. comes back to the department under a conspiracy charge, he’s going to be a dead man walking.

 

He finds Proctor yelling at Nick after that. He can tell because there’s a tiny sliver of nerves between his eyebrows and he’s gritting his jaw so tightly George can carve it out with his fingers. “Proctor,” he says hurriedly, partially to catch the look of relief on Nick’s face. “Violent Crimes is moving in on J.G., but it isn’t something to—”

 

“I’m sorry,” Proctor says, putting a hand in and leaning closer. “The same J.G. you just promised you’d assure us for our interrogation?”

 

“It’s...” George says, and watches his voice trail off before he notices it’s gone. His throat feels like waxy parchment paper; he can feel the spit sliding down, and he has to step back, remember where he’s supposed to be. “It’s going to be fine. It’s not going to endanger anything about our questioning. As long as Special Enforcement stays away—”

 

“Davidson,” a voice says from behind him. The female detective with the big eyes and the laptop. “Your Chief Detective just emailed me—Wallace, right? It’s something I think you should see.”

 

He looks over at Proctor, desperately. “Go,” he says tersely. “I’ll handle Special Enforcement.” 

 

Disconcerting, but not disconcerting enough to make George rush to the aid of the Orlando Narcotics unit. He doubts Proctor is going to tell them to stand by in a way they haven’t already considered. He leans down to look at the detective’s monitor as she clicks out of a few tabs.

 

“Proctor wanted an open line of communication with the U.K., obviously, but that’s mostly just been updating our files with information learned on either end,” she says, and George nods. He’s made his own share of frantic faxes this past month. “But this—when I read up on field reports, I saw that his full name is John-Gabriel, right? But look. We just found his British passport. Gabriel John.” 

 

George skims the passport. He’s not wearing glasses in the picture, and his hair is longer, bangs spread over his forehead in a way that makes his face look thinner. “And he has a charge for drug distribution,” George says grimly. “Did Wallace tell you how he found this?”

 

“He was the only result for a search for Saint Don’s legal name in the database,” the detective says. “Which raises some difficult questions about extradition, as you mentioned. And it didn’t even show up in the field for his name. Only here—the last known address. Donatello Garcia Road.” 

 

“Of fucking course,” George says under his breath. His head pounds against the computer screen, so he pushes away before he starts feeling nauseous. “How much are you willing to bet they do that on all of their passports to identify each other?”

 

“Who?” The detective says uneasily.

 

“Does it matter?” George snaps. “The art theft team, Saint Don’s drug dealers—one and the fucking same at this point, aren’t they? This should’ve just been Special Enforcement’s investigation, not—an excuse to pile more onto the lives of Homicide detectives. It’s sick.” She’s still blinking up at him, completely not asking for George to unload all of his anger onto her, so he has to recollect himself. “Sorry. It’s—sorry.” 

 

He has to distract himself after that. He breaks the first rule of remaining high functioning, which is snorting half of a pill during his lunch break, and then he pours over the warrant for the car search and makes a few notes for things he’s going to have to add. If he’s going to cause problems for Violent Crimes, he may as well ask Baker for a more in-depth chemical analysis. 

 

He goes to the crime scene with Proctor and then makes sure his detective shows Alyssa and Hank and Darryl J.G.’s passport and then the day is over. His veins are still buzzing with the tension of keeping himself on his feet the entire day. 

 

He leaves at a normal time that evening, which is both rare and weirdly unwelcome. George is expecting the tension, but what he doesn’t expect is the conversation Hank and Darryl have alongside him in hushed voices. Like it’s something George won’t want to hear—or, worse, something he’s not allowed to hear. He stands by Darryl’s car with his hands in his pockets.

 

“—be okay,” Hank is saying, before he turns to George and gives him a flimsy smile. “Sorry, man, we just—it was a hard day. Got a lot done, though.” 

 

“All good,” George says. “What did you find out?”

 

They share another look. George speaks before they can think of some kind of excuse. “If you can’t tell me, just say that instead. Jesus Christ.”

 

“It’s not that,” Darryl says. “It’s just—I don’t know. You seemed kind of on edge today.”

 

“We just didn’t want to say anything that would stress you out too much,” Hank adds. “That’s all.”

 

He’s more than stressed. He’d woken up this morning and he’d gone to take a pill for his headache, but he’s running dangerously low and he’d had to crack one in half and deal with it on the way to work. “You shouldn’t be thinking about what’s stressing me out,” George says. He wants to tell them he only feels productive when he’s detoxing, physical ailments and all, but that would require a much longer explanation than he has time for. “I didn’t catch whether you brought J.G. in.” 

 

“We did,” Hank says. “You can read the report on Monday. You’re still coming to Baker’s thing on Saturday, right?”

 

George exhales deeply. “Shit. I completely forgot.” It would be easy to get out of going—he could probably just travel back over the Atlantic if he doesn’t feel like going—but if he wants Hank and Darryl to think he’s still a functioning member of society, he’s going to have to do a lot of shit he doesn’t like. “Yeah. I’ll be there.”

 

“It’s gonna be fun,” Darryl adds in the silence. “There’s… finger-foods. Someone’s always playing the cello.” The look on his face tenses up. “Maybe it’s not that fun at all. Whatever. You still have to come.” 

 

**

 

George doesn’t start drinking at Baker’s soiree, against Hank’s advice. They’re in the backyard of Baker’s Winter Park house, and it hasn’t surprised George in the slightest yet: it’s smaller on the inside; the stone it’s made of is very obviously wallpaper; the bedrooms are locked from the inside and outnumber the tenants three-to-one. 

 

If he’d known it was a McMansion, he wouldn’t have brought a bottle of wine. Darryl and Hank had advised him not to, but they weren’t the ones who had been singled out for an invitation. George had spent a stressful morning trying to find a suit jacket he hadn’t already drenched in vodka in Miami, and then he figured he’d be able to make up for seeming so disorganized if he bought really, really good wine. 

 

But there was, of course, no need to seem organized, since he and the department aren’t the only ones at the party. There are business owners and housewives with pearl necklaces and hired help in black dresses, and politicians Baker invited to schmooze. 

 

George had seen Proctor and the female detective somewhere at the front entrance, strangely enough, but avoiding them wasn’t too difficult. Hank and Darryl are still busy pouring themselves champagne inside, but there are so many people he’ll have to introduce himself to in there, and the backyard really is lovely. There are bushes of tiny blue flowers, and there’s a raised platform where a shitty band is playing classical music. No cello. There’s a pool house overlooking an empty pool.  

 

That’s where Saint Don’s money goes. Paying for a backyard so open George can make out the finger-paint stains in the purpling sky. 

Behind him, he hears a loud sniffle. When he turns around, there’s a girl and a boy—young, but different ages—looking up at him with peering eyes. They’re both in fancy dress but the boy’s mouth is smeared with chocolate.

 

“Um,” George says, because he doesn’t really know what else to do. Tell them to go play hide and seek or something? Jingle his keys as a distraction? “Hi there.” 

 

“You’re British,” the little boy says. “Like Peppa Pig.” 

 

“If she was a police officer, yes,” George says. Or if she had a giant fuck-off bruise on her nose.

 

“Have you ever seen a dead body?” The girl asks. 

 

Oh , what are you—don’t bother Detective Davidson,” he hears a voice say. He hears the tinkle of fine jewelry before he recognizes Baker’s wife—Dream’s mother. She places a gentle hand on the top of the boy’s head, stroking at his hair. “Don’t you two want to go back inside and play with Niki again?”

 

“I don’t want to play with Niki,” the boy says. “I miss Clay. It’s so boring when Clay’s not here.” 

 

The girl nods along—she’s older, but the boy must be saying exactly what she’s thinking, because she looks just as unexcited. “Why isn’t he here, anyway?” She asks her mother, who presses her lips together thinly.

 

“Clay… couldn't make it, tonight,” she says. “Hurry along, now. I’d like to have a word with the Detective, all right?” The kids scurry off, shoving at each other but somehow not tumbling onto the grass. Mrs. Baker watches them with a tiny smile, which she turns onto George.

 

“I’m sorry about them,” she says. “They can be very—excitable.”

 

“Oh, it’s completely fine,” George says. He misses his sister, out of nowhere. “They’re adorable.”

 

“They’re usually easier to contain when their brother’s around,” she says. He expects her to look as distraught as Baker at the memory, but her face just softens as if hit by a ray of sunlight. “Clay. My oldest.”

 

“I don’t think I’ve met him,” George says. He’d met Baker’s wife earlier in the evening, when Baker had led him to her for a brief introduction. She’d been the one to accept his wine and kiss him on the cheek at the price tag. 

 

“No matter,” she says. She places a hand on his forearm. “Come. Let me show you around the house. I’m so fascinated by the fact that you work in Art and Antiques—my son is studying Art History, just like I did, so just hearing about the stolen A.E. Backus struck such a chord with me…”

 

 It’s easy to make small talk with Mrs. Baker because she knows how to fill empty silences. She tugs at his arm with gentle excitement, offers him those tiny cream-cheese sandwiches topped off with cucumbers, makes affected noises when he tells her about the stolen Spanish sculpture—she’s a good hostess, but still pleasant to talk to. It’s better than listening to the band or talking to Proctor.

 

Inside he finds Hank and Darryl. They’re standing next to Niki, who Mrs. Baker greets with an air kiss to her cheek. They all fake a laugh when she makes the expected comment about her pink hair being spunky. 

 

 She’s in a black dress, and Hank and Darryl aren’t wearing ties, but they still all manage to look opulent. George doesn't think it’s worth it to learn that kind of casual elegance they all carry themselves with, but he still tries to keep his back straight. He finds a flute of champagne to hold and not drink. 

 

“I definitely hesitate to define post-Impressionism, yes,” Mrs. Baker is saying. The dining room has had its chairs pushed to the side to give guests room to mingle, and the high ceilings are coated in a warm glow from the icicle chandelier. George looks up at it. It doesn’t look much different from the one in the Glacier. “I do agree with Rewald’s argument that the term is more convenient than it is accurate. The parameters that expound the descent into Fauvism are a lot looser than the ones that followed Van Gogh, don’t you agree?”

 

“Oh, yes,” Niki says agreeably. George watches Darryl cover his laugh with his hand and has to do the same. 

 

“I have a wonderful original Friesz oil painting in my office,” Mrs. Baker tells George eagerly. “You must remind me to show it to you.”

 

George opens his mouth to respond, but then he catches sight of a dark silhouette by the main entrance, easily available from where they’re cramped in a corner in front of Mrs. Baker’s painting. Dream is wearing a black suit jacket and a tie as white as his teeth. 

 

“Oh, no,” Darryl says. 

 

The music doesn’t stop. Why does George expect the music to stop? The violin is shrill, stabs like the pinpricks of rose thorns, and Dream steps forward again, plucking a glass of wine away from the tray of a disorientated waiter. He looks around the room, and when eyes catch on him they don’t pull away—like pieces of skin snagged against a nail—and then there’s pairs and pairs of eyes glued firmly on the way the wine trickles over his bottom lip. He pulls the glass away from his mouth. And then he smiles. 

 

“I’m sure you were all worried I couldn’t make it,” he says. His voice is quiet, but it reverberates anyway, with the way voices around him silence as if muffled by cotton. “Don’t worry. I wouldn’t miss one of Lieutenant Baker’s parties for the world.”

 

“Oh, God,” Mrs. Baker says. “Come with me, come—” She grabs Niki, and they both hurry away into his direction, and George watches everyone around them hastily descent back into conversation, so he makes a show of turning his back to them before he starts talking to Darryl and Hank. The conversation starts back up again, but he doesn’t miss how frazzled they both look.

 

“I should’ve guessed,” Darryl says grimly. 

 

“Guessed what?” George asks.

 

He waves his flute of champagne around in irritation. “That he’d find a way to worm himself back under Baker’s skin,” Darryl says. “You can tell everyone knows what he’s here for.”

 

“I’m guessing it’s not the souffle,” George says.

 

Darryl shakes his head. “It’s been happening for years. Last year, when he was—away, Baker didn’t have anything to worry about—no spiked non-alcoholic champagne, no band canceling at the last minute, no very public fistfights with politicians. I’m pretty sure they both made an effort to ban him this year, but—” he nods towards the empty entrance. “People don’t tell him what to do.”

 

George wants to tell them he’s never found it hard to tell Dream what to do. But then again—Dream’s getting awfully too comfortable with wielding him like a weapon. Maybe he only listens to people that he can use. 

 

And he’s wearing a white tie,” Hank says unnecessarily. “He must have a death wish.”

 

God forbid someone wears a white tie. They talk for a little while longer, but then the dark sky beckons down at them—it’s the color of George’s suit—and the band stops playing classical music, switches to something more lively. He thinks it’s Billie Holiday. Someone drunk is singing along.

 

George ambles about looking for something to eat, and finally unearths a plate full of tiny tomatoes skewered with tiny pieces of mozzarella. He leaves his wine somewhere where it won’t bother him anymore and watches a member of the City Council make idle small talk with Baker. He can’t hear the conversation that well, but they keep saying funds . Or maybe they’re saying fun .

 

It doesn’t matter, either way. “You look good in a suit,” Dream says, in his ear.

 

George twists around so quickly he’s glad he’s cloaked by the Earth’s five-o’clock shadow. Dream tilts his head at him as if waiting for a response, hands clenched behind his back, but George just moves his body away. He’d rather people think he just stands uncomfortably close to people instead of assuming he’s Dream’s friend. 

 

“You shouldn’t be talking to me in public,” George says. 

 

“When did we establish that ?” Dream asks. 

 

“You shouldn’t be here, either,” George says. “A little birdie told me you were banned.”

 

“Banned,” Dream scoffs. “Banned, I mean—did Baker technically tell me, like, a few months ago, that I was not to come to the department party under any circumstances, and if I did he’d have me brought into the station on the charge of being a public disturbance? Yes, he did tell me that.”

 

“That… sounds like being banned,” George says, after a pause.

 

“My mother , however, promised I’d be welcome back home that night for leftovers if I felt like it,” he adds, looking very self-satisfied. “Not my fault if I just happened to forget what time the party actually ends. And I’m still going to stick around for leftovers. I’m breaking no rules.” 

 

“What’s there to see?” George asks. He already feels like going home. “Everyone is only politely drunk and they’re singing Ella Fitzgerald.” 

 

“Sue me for wanting to get a little dressed up,” Dream says, affronted. “Or wanting to see District Attorney Catherine Sanchez dressed up, am I right?” George gives him an unimpressed look. Dream sighs. “Okay. Tough crowd. I get it. I just think there’s some things people around here need to hear.”

 

“Like what?” George says. And then: “Oh my God, Dream. Should I be worried?” 

 

“Worried?” Dream says. “About me? The angel? No. Never.” He thinks about it. “If anything, you should be excited. I’m going to be doing you a favor.”

 

“What?” George says, and then just sighs. “Did you just come here to find me?”

 

No ,” Dream says. “Just a happy coincidence.” He skips a beat. “You also weren’t home.”

 

“So you just figured I’d be here,” George says. 

 

“I’m not a total idiot,” Dream says. “You don’t have anything else to do on a Saturday, so.” He looks around the backyard disinterestedly. The band’s singer is crooning a ballad, and he moves his head slightly to the music. “I’ve had to have the last Saturday of September marked off in my calendar for, like, the past five years. Oh—watch this. Watch.”

 

Baker steps up to the singer and says something in her ear and she nods, patting him on the arm as she steps down from the mic. He taps it a few times, clears his throat, and the crowd peeks up at the platform in a sudden gathering that George doesn’t expect. He steps away from Dream, watching him wiggle his way to the front to look Baker straight in the eyes. 

 

Baker says something about how happy he is that everyone was able to arrive. If they’d enjoyed the food. If they could give a brief applause to the wonderful band. In that brief intermission, Mrs. Baker steps up next to him, and he kisses her on the cheek. Dream clutches his glass so tightly it creaks.

 

He talks about how pleased he is that so many people he loves can be together in one room. “My beautiful daughter, and my wonderful son,” he says, and the crowd turns into Dream like a magnetic force, the eyes and the voices clicking on again. He doesn’t have to say any names, because everyone knows who he means. “My fantastic department, whom I’ve had the pleasure of working with for the past fifteen years. The visiting Art Crime unit. Our incredible Police Chief. The Honorable Justice Brian Scott…”

 

He drones on lists of names—all political suitors who funnel more money into police funds than education—and then he finishes, beaming against the waves of applause. But before the crowd can dissipate around him, Dream clears his throat.

 

“Are you taking any questions, Lieutenant?” He asks loudly, raising a hand as if in a classroom. George freezes, but the look on his face is so completely diegetic. And Dream knows it: his entire display is meant for public consumption. Even for George. Especially for George. “Because I have a few I’d like to get out of the way before Your Eminence Justice Brian Scott downs one too many vodka tonics.”

 

Voices shush each other and cry out in surprise, like insulted, clucking hens. “Why, I—” a voice says in the crowd—probably the aforementioned Justice Brian Scott—but Baker is gritting his teeth and shoving the microphone back in its stand, the noise ringing out from the speakers dug into the grass. 

 

He pushes himself off of the stand, and Mrs. Baker follows him, trying to pull for his suit jacket even as he grabs the front of Dream’s jacket and pulls his face closer. “You stupid, spoiled little imbecile ,” he snarls, and then Dream says, “You’ve told me a lot worse than that, Dad,” and pushes away. He faces the crowd, hands outstretched.

 

“I know how much it hurts to see your melodrama on display,” he says. “But I have a question—no, Lieutenant, I have a fucking question , and you’re going to answer it. Why have you been letting Saint Don pay you off?” 

 

George feels his mouth form Dream’s name, but no sound comes out. Stop him , his senses are screaming, stop him right now—hit him or push him away or pull out every single person’s eyes so that they can’t see what’s going on, but stop him, stop him, stop him. 

 

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Baker says fiercely. Voices chatter insistently around him, fill George’s mouth like chewing gum, like nicotine, like saliva. 

 

“Don’t I?” Dream sneers. “ Don’t I? Everyone knows what’s been going on inside Violent Crimes. Ten-thousand dollars each month so you can renovate the kitchen and upgrade the yacht, and—for what price? You toss and turn a little more in your sleep?” 

 

“Clay,” Mrs. Baker says, “ Please —”, but he doesn’t listen to her. 

 

“You have no idea what I live with every day,” Baker says. “You’ve never worked a day in your goddamn life . I’ve dragged you along for years and years, and—and I get—this insolence . This complete and utter disrespect.” He wipes his nose with the back of his hand. “You’re a fucking curse on me. You’re a fucking curse on this family , Clay.” 

 

Dream’s face slits in half as if cut by fine glass, but he doesn’t stagger backwards. His feet remain firmly rooted. “You’ve never been my fucking family.” 

 

And then one of them hits the other. George can’t tell what happens, because the violinist lashes out at his strings in shock, and they almost look like they’re ballroom dancing, the way Baker’s hands grasp around his face and Dream’s mouth bursts like a pricked fruit in a loud arc of red. He hears people scream, people run, but nobody moves to pull their bodies away, so he slashes forward, grabs Dream around the waist and tugs

 

Mrs. Baker is next, bringing Baker to his feat as he stumbles to a halt, touching against his busted, sensitive face. Bodies crowd around them, and Dream is still lunging against the grip George has on his body, so he moves his mouth closer to his ear and says, “Stop, stop it, Clay,” and strangely—magically—he listens .

 

He can feel Dream’s throat breathe against his hand, and he moves away, wiping Dream’s bloody spit from his palms. Dream looks at him, and opens his mouth. His teeth are dyed over and his tongue is bitten through. His eyes are glassy but not tearful when he turns and runs towards the pool.

 

George looks at the group of people—all people he doesn’t know, but good people, so detached from a world they can’t help but profit off of. He almost feels the pity of watching an animal nurse a wound it’s given itself when he sees them crowd around Baker.

 

He should stay here. Hank and Darryl must be in that crowd. Alyssa, too, if she’d finally made it. These are not his people, but they’re people , and they’re afraid, probably think Dream is going to hurt them or yell at them or kill them, but—he’s not. 

 

The pool house is cold, the A/C cranked in a way that gives George a half second of solace before he sees Dream. Dream sees him in the mirror, watches him close the door gently behind him. 

 

Dream ,” George says immediately. “You can’t just—God, I should’ve known you do whatever you fucking want. I should’ve known.”

 

“Whatever I want?” Dream says, suddenly. He flips around, and for a moment he looks terrifying, with blood in his mouth that isn’t George’s. “Are you a fucking idiot or what? How could you ever think—that was for you, you asshole. That was so that when you go back to work on Monday and ask to go undercover in Saint Don’s clubs again, or question him about the fucking theft, or the murder—he’s going to say yes. Of course he’s going to say yes. How is he going to say no , with all of those people—” he points a distrustful finger outside of the window of the pool house, “—watching his every move, from now on? He might deny it, but they’re never going to forget what I said about him. He’s stained.” Dream spits on the floor. “Like the rest of us.” 

 

“That shit back there wasn’t for me ,” George says. In a twisted sort of way, he can understand Dream’s explanation, but that’s when he reads it with all of the barbed wire curled over it. “That was for you . That was because you’re a sad little fuck with an obsession for revenge.”

 

“Fuck you,” Dream says, stepping forward. 

 

“Fuck you ,” George pushes back, with just as much malice, watching Dream’s proverbial ears twitch downward as he relaxes his body from its permanent fighting stance. “You can say… you can say that it was to help me, but we both know that’s not the first reason you did it.” 

 

“Like you know,” Dream says. 

 

It doesn’t make sense, otherwise , George wants to tell him. “I thought you were all about the tit-for-tat.” 

 

Dream’s face flickers over with a flush. “Whatever,” he mutters, looking down at his shoes, and rubs at his mouth again. George doesn’t know what to say from there, so he leans forward and grabs Dream’s arm, dragging him over to the sink across from the mirror. He can’t see himself from here, but he can see Dream. He runs a washcloth under the tap.

 

“What’re you—” he says, and then George muffles his voice with the washcloth. He blinks.

 

“Don’t talk,” George says. “Open your mouth.” Dream does. “Just a little bit. Jesus.” He wipes away the blood, enjoying the way Dream grimaces whenever he pushes too hard at the cut. The blood swirls down the drain between their prolonged silence.

 

“Rinse out your mouth,” George says. He watches Dream push his hair back and duck his mouth under the sink, swishing it between his cheeks before he spits back out into the tap.

 

“Your bruise looks better,” Dream mumbles, when he lifts his head back up. 

 

“Still hurts like hell, though,” George says, and leans forward to touch at Dream’s lip. “Does it hurt—here?” Dream nods, but George doesn’t move his hand away. “Yeah? It’s not too deep. It’ll scab over quickly.” 

 

“It’ll be fine,” Dream says. He runs his tongue over his inflamed lip, prodding against George’s pointer finger, upper lip closing over it for just a second—a second George can count out, identify. “We can match.”

 

Before George can say anything else, he hears the door tilt open again. He expects it to be Baker, so he snatches his hand away guiltily, but they see Niki instead. That’s even worse for being caught with his fingers in Dream’s mouth. Caught together, hanged together. She’s holding her heels in one hand and an ice pack in the other, swaying awkwardly.

 

“I came as fast as I could,” she says, padding over to them on bare feet. She pauses, studying Dream’s face. “You look… cleaner.”

 

“He took care of it for me,” Dream says, eyes darting back to George as if testing whether Niki knows his name. She gives an understanding hum and walks closer, slamming the ice pack into his hands.

 

“I should tell Arla about this,” she says sternly. “I should, but I’m not going to, because she’s under enough stress and this isn’t going to make it any better for her.”

 

“I’ve never known you to make Arla’s life easier for her,” Dream says.

 

“Maybe I’ve just had a change of heart,” she says. “Or maybe I want to make your life more difficult specifically. Please be more careful, Clay. Will you promise me you’ll be more careful?” 

 

“Yes, I promise you I’ll be more careful,” he says irritably, and Niki narrows her eyes at him. 

 

“And you aren’t just saying this for me,” she says. “You know this. You know who else you are saying this for.”  

 

An uneasy look takes over Dream’s face. He steps away from George. “I know.” 

 

“When you’re finished, come speak to your mother,” she says, but pauses before she opens the door to leave again. She looks at George, giving a slight incline of her head. He responds with his own nod in her direction.

 

“Like she’s a fucking messenger girl on horseback or something,” Dream says, when she’s left. “She’s right, though. I should go apologize to my mom. And her husband. Unfortunately.”

 

“Unfortunately,” George echoes. His brain won’t quiet. There’s only one way to ensure people will always talk about you. “What did she mean, when she told you to be careful?”

 

“It’s nothing,” Dream says. He slides past George in an attempt to get to the door, but then George grabs his shoulder, making him freeze in his tracks.

 

“Tell me,” George says. “Does she mean with Baker? Or with—” 

 

Me?

 

Dream looks at him. “Please don’t ask me questions I can’t answer,” he says, in a quiet voice. “I’m too scared I’ll answer.”

 

The door squeaks shut behind him.

 

Chapter Text

George has his first press conference a few mornings later, when his bruise has healed enough that he just looks slightly tired from a distance instead of like he’s been punched in the face. He’s holding a manila file of documents Wallace faxed him just in case they’re useful to look through, but it’s mostly so that he has something to tap his nails against as cameras flash against his face.

 

The only good part is that they don’t know his name. He was never in the foreground, even back home—he likes melting against backdrops and whispering words into his supervisors’ ears, not talking loudly about things he doesn’t understand.

 

But this isn’t his department. He doesn’t know the press here, doesn’t know their cameras or the chattering words between their teeth, and they don’t know him—which means they’ll do anything to find out who he is. They’re sharks everywhere and George hates them everywhere. He keeps his head down until he finally hears someone say his name.

 

“Detective Davidson!” A young man with tired eyes and stubble calls out, finally, and George snaps his head up, mentally wishing he’d let Alvarez take over. The mumble rises to a painful halt as the rest of the journalists catch on, and then it’s a stampede of Detective Davidson Detective Davidson , his title then his last name, until he looks over at Baker and he gives him a slow nod.

 

He stands up. “Order, please, or I’ll be asking Detective Davidson to leave.” He stands and bangs his hands onto the desk loudly, from where they’re sitting at the raised platform of the press conference room. “Thank you. If you have any questions, you can direct them to Sergeant Alvarez and the rest of the investigators on the murder investigation.” 

 

“Detective Davidson, do you have any comments on why you refuse to investigate high-profile murders in other states?” The same young man says. George snatches his eyes towards him, feeling his pulse rise to his skin. They shouldn’t know that. 

 

They shouldn’t know anything , when he thinks about it, because any publicity on the murder investigation’s front is bad publicity, no matter how much the Art unit thinks it will distract Saint Don, for the time being. “How did you know that?” He asks sharply, even as Alvarez and Baker give him an identical judgemental look. The young man looks taken aback.

 

“It’s all over the British news,” he says. “Do you have any comments to make on the matter?”

 

“I’m a specialist in Orlando until it comes time for the investigation to move,” George says tiredly, and they fall onto each other into another tirade. He should’ve seen it coming, really—the F.B.I. saw Baker get swallowed whole at his dinner party, and the only way he can bounce back is by making sure his department gets their shit done. So far, it seems to be only for the good—last George was updated, Darryl had cracked some cold case the Lennox murder had opened up for him. Other things are not so fantastic for Baker, but George figures he had it coming.

 

He feels his thumb glide over his phone obsessively, but when he checks it, it’s still empty of messages. Dream hasn’t tried to call him or text him since the party, and he hasn’t been in his house either—he’s gone with the fucking wind, as far as George is concerned. He doesn’t know why his head aches at the thought. 

 

Just one message. It’s not hard. Even if he’s asleep, or back in Miami, or in jail—it hasn’t stopped him from trying to reach George before.

 

He could be dead in a ditch, and then George—he’d be just about as dead in a ditch. He can feel Dream’s fingerprints on him every time he shifts in his seat. First step to fixing a problem is admitting you have said problem and all of that. 

 

 He looks over at Baker. His face has paled into a white sheet.

 

“The department’s collision with organized crime is pending investigation,” he keeps saying. That’s what he’d said the other morning— pending investigation . Like it was necessary; like it’s a recent thing that’ll impact his life. He even says it with the affected snivel. The department’s been filthy for so long that trying to fix anything would be like trying to pry off an infected nail with rusty pliers. 

 

Alvarez is the one to call the end of the conference, and she does it with a tug at George’s elbow. “I want you in the box for J.G.,” she says into his ear, but he flinches away from her mouth before he can think of an excuse to not go inside. He keeps thinking about the way the journalist had looked at him: like he would be an idiot to not know what he was talking about.

 

“I need a second,” he tells her, even when he trails behind her into the entrance to Violent Crimes. It’s just as overrun with their worker ants, who George has come to sort of be endeared by—sometimes they think he’s a fellow beat officer and hand him paperwork to shuffle to Alyssa or Hank or Darryl. He usually does it, just because it’s always better than being badgered by the Art unit. “I think—I think I have to make a call. I’m sorry, I just need to find out what they’re saying back home.”

 

“It’s fine,” she tells him. “I’ll try and find a recording. Let me know what Wallace says.”

 

It kind of feels like a peace treaty, when he walks outside and lights his cigarette and picks up his phone. Or like being let off the hook by a teacher. He tries to focus on calling Wallace, but his eyes keep catching on the horizon, on the tongues of cars swerving down the winding street—because he swears one of them is slowing down, a Range Rover he recognizes quite plainly.

 

 It looks like Niki’s car. He’s seen it parked outside of the department every time he’s walked out and passed her with a goodbye. But he’d know if it was Niki’s car. He’d see Niki, and the little mushroom decal she has on her window. And if it’s Niki’s car, that always leaves the margin of possibility—no matter how small—

 

The car speeds up and turns at the corner. George doesn’t want to feel the— disappointment , but he has no other word for the anxiety digging holes against his throat. Like every time he swallows his own spit he’s scalding himself. 

 

He inhales smoke until it stops hurting and tries not to think about Dream, but it’d be easier to die.

 

His mental strength is on strong enough legs to find Wallace’s contact. They’re in constant communication about the case, which is why he doesn’t know why Wallace wouldn’t tell him about what they’ve leaked to the press. “I hope I’m not interrupting anything,” he says immediately, when Wallace picks up the phone. The commotion George hears behind him clues him in on Wallace still being in the office.

 

“You’re fine, you’re fine,” he says. “I hope everything is going well, Davidson.”

 

It’s going spectacularly , George wants to tell him. Just being bugged and followed around by federal agents and getting rammed by the Violent Crimes unit and obsessing over a gambler who doesn’t care if I live or die. I’m having the time of my life. “I can’t complain. Listen, I’m sorry to skip the pleasantries, but I’m interested in what you’ve broadcasted to the press? As I’ve just been questioned by American news about—things completely out of my control.”

 

“Trust me when I say there was no broadcasting involved,” Wallace says dryly. “After we started looking into links with drug cartels, it’s become—chaotic, around the unit.” When George doesn’t say anything, he keeps talking. “You have to understand that we had no other choice. This manhunt’s been at the forefront of national news for months , and the newshounds were getting antsy. You know what it’s like. We had to say something. Especially now.”

 

“Okay,” George says. 

 

“This is a good thing, George,” Wallace says. “I know it might make the local investigation difficult, but the F.B.I. is insistent in making sure high-profile murders are properly investigated. This could be good for you. We could get you out of Orlando.”

 

George doesn’t say anything. “I’m not finished here.” 

 

“If the Backus isn’t still in the state—” Wallace says, but George cuts him off. “I’m not finished here, Wallace.” 

 

He hangs up after that. He realizes he hasn’t ashed his cigarette yet, and when he does it burns his fingers. He’ll move when the case requires him to move. Not when Wallace decides he’s had enough of only interacting with George through the phone. It might be shitty, and he might have to pull his feet out of the dried cement, but he’s done harder things. 

 

He tries to spend a few more minutes outside, but even he can tell he’s testing Alvarez’s patience. When he finally goes back inside, reeking of smoke and pity, he sees Alyssa, who gives him a tiny nod into the direction of the interrogation room. He doesn’t look to see who’s inside before pushing in.

 

“—travel? I mean, come on. I’m a free man, I’ve got a right to travel,” J.G. says. He doesn’t look over at George at first, and Alvarez sends him a look, something like, this dude fucking sucks , which George empathizes with on a fundamental level. “And I had no idea that street wasn’t legit. On God. I just wrote down what my British nana told me. Bless her heart.” 

 

“So you’re claiming it’s a complete coincidence the street where your grandmother lives has the same name as your boss?” Alvarez asks sharply. J.G. groans like it’s something they’ve been over before. His lawyer, a woman with a bun of dark hair, is completely silent. 

 

“I’ve been telling you, lady, you need to make sure that’s his real name before asking me that,” J.G. says. “He’s a slippery dude. Slippery, slippery.” He looks over at George, and his mouth curls into a smile. “Oh. It’s Dream’s favorite.” 

 

George doesn’t have time to watch Alvarez react, so he just says, “If you know anything about the murder, it’s in your best interest to tell us now before Art Crime moves in.”

 

“Woah, woah, woah,” J.G. drawls. He rustles at his handcuffs. “You’re a cop now? Don’t break my heart and tell me you were a cop all along, George, we’ve had so many good times together, man. And you don’t want to break Dream’s heart, do you?”

 

“What is he talking about?” The lawyer says sharply. 

 

“I don’t know what he’s talking about,” George says impatiently. He slams his hands down in front of the desk. “I’m going to say this once and I’m going to make myself quite clear. Based on our murder investigation, and based on what my colleagues in the F.B.I. have told me about you, the only way you can avoid the charge of theft of major artwork would be to tell Sergeant Alvarez everything you know about Paragon USA.”

 

J.G. doesn’t say anything. And then his lips curl like a split muscle. “Really?” He says, looking around them all as if waiting for a punchline. “I’m supposed to take offers from you , when you’re full of so much shit it’s leaking out of your mouth? Fucking please. What were you saying, doll? Do you never smile or what?” 

 

“He’s right,” Alvarez says quietly. There’s no doubt in her voice, none in either J.G. or in George, which is the truly surprising part. He’s going to get decimated outside. “The art investigation is separate from the murder charge, but the Orlando department itself has its priorities.” 

 

“I’m sorry, why is he even being accused of stealing the A.E. Backus painting?” The lawyer snaps, her patience obviously waning. “Arla Lowery’s evidence about my client being the thief is inherently flawed. It assumes he not only orchestrated the theft, but he used the same car for the murder as—what, some strange attempt at covering up his tracks?”

 

“I’m not smart enough for that,” J.G. adds unhelpfully. 

 

“Arla Lowery is a witness, not a suspect of the investigation,” Alvarez says. George snatches his head towards her at the same time that the lawyer sends her a look—that’s news to them both, certainly. “She was the reason we were able to identify you as a British citizen, and the U.K. is working to link you to the theft as we speak. We only have two tiny issues in our murder investigation—we can’t be sure about Carter Page, and we can’t be sure about the cocaine. It’s a simple decision for you, John-Gabriel.” 

 

He looks at them. The laughter has drained from his face. “I don’t know,” he says, voice quiet. “I don’t know. I really don’t know.” 

 

“You’ll give us a moment,” the lawyer says, in the pause where George can hear J.G.’s heavy breathing. Alvarez inclines her head and stands up, motioning towards the exit. George has no other option but to follow her—cursing J.G., cursing the crooked department, cursing himself. They watch the lawyer whisper frantically for a while for a while before Alvarez speaks again.

 

“I think we got him,” she says. 

 

“You’ve really let Lowery off the hook?” George asks her. She couldn’t have—she wouldn’t . Everything was riding on convicting Arla Lowery—everything still rides on her being the one with her fingers on the puppet strings. Losing her as a suspect feels like a mirage George has lost in the desert. “I know—I know it’s her. I can feel it.” 

 

“You can’t feel it,” Alvarez says. “You’re supposed to know it. Without a shadow of a doubt.” She waits for George to fight back, but he feels too small and he feels too sick. “Who told you she was behind the art crimes?”

 

“No one,” George says. “I mean—my—the person I was talking to. He didn’t tell me anything outright, but he said she’d traveled a lot and that she had a stop in Orlando.”

 

“I don’t know how much they told you about the passport,” Alvarez says, “But it was an anonymous tip.”

 

That’s even worse. He wants to tell her how much he dreads the thought of convicting someone with even less leads than her, that they should trace the tip and find out who’s so desperate to break Arla out of holding—even though he has a few guesses of his own. “So someone’s looking out for her.”

 

“It’s not a bad thing,” Alvarez says. “It makes things easier for us. Especially when J.G. gets involved.” 

 

“But, I mean—when you think about the fact that I saw her in one of Saint Don’s clubs, and the fact that I heard Saint Don talking about transporting the art—” George doesn’t know where to go from there, head pounding against his words. “What the fuck else was I supposed to think?”

 

“You’re keeping your ear pretty close to the ground, George,” Alvarez says, instead of responding. “Almost too close.” 

 

“I don’t know what you’re saying,” George says. 

 

“I’m saying —” she starts, but then her face drops and she shifts her entire body, turning her face into his, eyebrows furrowed spectacularly, “—That if you’re fucking around with Saint Don’s boys, if you’re keeping in touch with them or if you’re befriending them or if you’re sleeping with them, God forbid, you ought to be very, very careful. Very fucking careful.”

 

“I—” George sputters, voice catching in his throat. “I’m not—”

 

“I don’t know what you’re doing,” Alvarez says, turning back around to look through the window. “I can’t be sure. None of us can be sure. Hank and Darryl might believe you when you tell them you’re abiding by the law, but Hank and Darryl get to move on to another case once this one goes cold, and they get to forget who you are when you go back to England. You and I don’t have the luxury of pretending like everything’s okay.” 

 

And it hits George in the chest like a battering ram. “I’m just doing what I have to do. I can promise you that.”

 

“Me, too,” Alvarez murmurs, eyes unfocused and glazed over. “I haven’t been completely honest with you. Or anyone.” She shifts her face over to George again. “But I think that’s okay. As long as we both know we’re keeping secrets.”

 

“Yeah,” George says, even though he’s sick of secrets. “Yeah, that’s fine. I… in there, when he said I knew Dream—”

“I don’t know who that is, and I don’t want to hear about it,” Alvarez says abruptly. “Even if he’s some bystander you’re scalping for information. Even if he’s helping you get your job done. As long as you remember to use and forget—I have no room to tell you what to do. And neither does the Baker.” She laughs a little, to herself. “Him, least of all.” 

 

So he’s not the only one who’s been sneaking around under the department’s nose. Even so, he doubts that Alvarez has been spending her evenings with the same criminal nights in a row. “I’m being careful.” 

 

“Good,” Alvarez says. “That’s all I ask for.” They watch J.G. lift his cuffed hands over the table; they’re rubbed pink where the metal meets his skin. “I’m not a bad person, George. I wouldn’t tell you that J.G. is at Carter Page’s apartment tonight, even if I knew that he was.”

 

“What?” George says. “How do you know that?”

 

“And I wouldn’t even ask any questions if you talked to him, outside of work,” she continues, like he hadn’t even spoken. This feels worse than George’s regular sneaking around—this feels like plotting. This feels like something she could use against him. “I wouldn’t even know if you did. I wouldn’t ask you to update me.”

 

George would like to think he has two decisions in this situation, but he doesn’t, really. He can’t ignore Alvarez. He can’t ignore any of them anymore. “Noted.” 

 

“They’re taking a long time,” she says, and looks at him. “I’m going to go back inside.”

 

George doesn’t follow.

 

**

 

Of course he listens. Of course he fucking listens. Because all he does is let people yank him around, tell him what to do, solve their mysteries for them for a smidge of gratitude. He should be embarrassed by it, really, by how obsessed he can get with problems that aren’t his, but that’s the result of having a fucked-up brain that he fucked up himself and can’t stop fucking up—

 

“Are you sure you want me to drop you off here?” Hank asks.

 

“What?” George says, and looks down at his phone to match the address with the apartment building. It’s closer to Hank’s than the house he’s staying in, which is why he didn’t think it would be a problem to ask for a ride, but there’s always the part where he has to explain himself. “Oh. Yeah. It’s cool. Proctor just wants me to check something out.”

 

“I could wait for you, if you want,” Hank offers, but George waves him off instantly. 

 

“It’s already late,” he says. He’d stayed a bit longer to help Darryl type up a report, so the orange sky has already dulled dark. Perfect for the rest of his night, if it goes well enough that he’ll want to remember it. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll call an Uber or something. Hey—did you ever talk to that girl again? From when we went down to Miami?” 

 

Hank looks confused, for a second, and then his face clears up with the memory. “You mean Vica,” he says. “I mean… no. She lives in Miami, George.”

 

“So?” George asks. “Not like you’re never going to go there again.” 

 

“Right, but she— lives in Miami , you know?” Hank says, putting pressure on the words. He taps his fingers against the steering wheel nervously. ““I don’t know. She’s kind of a wild card, I guess. And it’s not that I’m judging her or anything, but—I’m so over not dating for stability. Maybe I want the fucked-up fantasy where you live in an affordable apartment with a dog and you don’t cheat on each other and everything is really nice.” He doesn’t speak for a moment, evidently thinking about something, something distant from George that will continue even after he leaves. “And she just—doesn’t. And that’s okay.”

 

“You can still be attracted to her, though,” George says. That’s always been his argument—about most things, when he thinks about it. There’s always shades of gray. “It’s not like it flushes all of your morals down the toilet. It’s just—you think she’s pretty. Like, really pretty. And even when you think about her a lot, it’s, like—so what? It’s one memory. Imagine how fucked up people would be if they thought they were in love with everyone they had a good memory with.” 

 

“I mean, yeah, people don’t do that,” Hank says. “Which means that… when they stop thinking about the memory, they stop thinking about the person. Your thing sounds kind of different.”

 

George is silent. “I didn’t think about that.” 

 

“Caught you,” Hank says, looking supremely pleased with himself. “What’s her name?” 

 

“I’m not talking about anyone,” George says, and he isn’t even lying, because Dream doesn’t count. He’s barely even comparable. Thinking about him is a matter of necessity. “Or—it doesn’t—it’s not really the same. Okay. I’m digging myself into a very deep hole here.”

 

“This conversation isn’t over,” Hank says, and unlocks his doors pointedly. “10-23, detective.” 

 

George waves a goodbye at his car until he’s sure Hank doesn’t see him break into the back exit. In his defense, it’s not technically breaking in because the door to the basement is left propped open, and an older man carrying groceries nods at him when he slips into the elevator. It’s definitely against some building code, but the bigger problem relevant to him would be finding the fucking apartment.

 

He looks at himself in the reflection of his phone—he’s taken off his tie, but his eyes are still bloodshot and streaked over with veins like he’d been crying. He rubs at them furiously until the elevator dings onto the third floor.

 

It’s a gamble from there, ambling through the stairwell in a way that will make him seem less suspicious and more in a rush to do something important. When he’s finally up on the fifth floor—out of six, thankfully—he peeks down the hallway to the sight of his first open door, a dirty white sneaker peeking out from the corner. It vanishes quickly, and he adjusts at his hair nervously before walking down.

 

The cheap carpeting rustles under his feet, and he grimaces, lifting on his tip-toes so that the person won’t hear him. He stands next to the door, the two voices whispering at each other clearing up as he flattens his back against the wall. 

 

“You really think this is a good idea?” An unfamiliar voice asks, tense with contained quiet. J.G. gives a grunt, and his white shoe peeks out of the door again: it’s filthy, with brown gunk deep in the creases. 

 

“I don’t think it’s a good idea, but it’s the only one we’ve got,” he says. “I’m tellin’ you, man. Cops are gonna start sniffing around soon.” 

 

“You don’t know that,” the voice says. “God, how long has that old fuck been letting Don pimp out his mansion for him? I say it’s a test of loyalty. If nobody comes around to ask questions about the casino, we’ll know the Lieutenant’s on our side no matter what.” 

 

“Real romantic,” J.G. says. “We’re not the only ones with friends on the inside, you know.”

“Oh yeah?” the other man says. “Who else?” 

 

“There’s this fucking cop I’ve seen around the club before,” J.G. says. “Some guy that hangs with Dream. I don’t know who’s playing who, but I’m thinkin’ about telling my lawyer what I know about him.”

 

“Go for it,” the other man says. “Especially if Dream knows. He’ll probably back you up. You’d think he hates that department more than anyone, for some reason.”

 

“Damn right,” J.G. says. “Nah, I don’t know. He got kinda bitchy about it. Told me to stay out of his business. But when have I let that fucking dude push me around before?” 

 

The other man laughs. “S’long as he’s staying quiet and he’s doing what people tell him to do, I don’t care what Dream does.” 

 

“That’s my problem, though,” J.G. says. “You never know who he’s going to lead to the clubs. The casinos. One cop, I get, but then they’re gonna start piling up—and then when they do come around and start to figure shit out, then what?”  

 

George knows what.

 

“Don’ll do what he always does, man,” the other voice says. 

 

“Yeah, but then what?” J.G. says persistently. “They might be off our asses for now, but if their Lieutenant goes missing, what happens? They come in, they find out what we’ve been doing, we get fifty-to-life for murder and art theft and drug trafficking. Is that what you want?” 

 

Holy shit. Holy fucking shit. “You’re fucking with my words, J, and you know you are,” the other voice snaps back, ending on a grunt as he must move something heavy. “They won’t find out about the art. You’re stressing too much. That wasn’t even our business , man, we was just—close enough to help. Pay cut wasn’t too bad either.” 

 

“Y’know the feds are here,” J.G. tells him. “And it’s just for that. That stupid fucking painting.” 

 

The other man snorts. “The feds could come retire in a suburb in Jacksonville for all I care. They can’t figure out jack shit about the art while Baker’s cops run their way around this god damn murder. And they need our help for that. They’re not going to do anything stupid.” 

 

George wants to bang his head against the wall. He’d almost prefer it if Proctor spit in his face and said I told you so . Even so, he can’t help the edge of doubt that creeps into his thoughts—they may let their guards down about the art crime, but there’s no reason they’d loosen up about their drug trade. 

 

That shouldn’t be his problem. But the drug trade is the center of everything they are, and if they actually manage to put Saint Don in prison for that, it’ll be a good thing—not just for the people fucked over by his dealers, but for the people fucked over by him personally . Very personally. Personally to the point of leaving their cars as gambling collateral, for example. 

 

It’s not like Dream would do the same for him, but he can’t be bothered with feeling pathetic. Especially when he’d already admitted to himself that he has a problem. 

 

“That’s the thing,” J.G. says. “We don’t know what they’re going to do. So let’s just plant the coke, make sure his body’s in the same place, and be on our merry way. All right?” 

 

“Fine,” the other man says gruffly. “This better work. I’m gonna be real pissed off if it doesn’t work.”

 

“It’ll work,” J.G. snaps. “That lady lawyer told me I gotta admit I know Page is dead soon. And once I help them match the shipment of this coke to the one in the car—it’ll be real easy to make them think he did it.” He lets out a laugh. “God damn. Look at me. I’m some fucking bootlicking cop-helper now. It’s kinda fun.”

 

“You like being a citizen of the law, J.G.?” The other man asks, and then they keep up their negging for a few minutes longer, treading around the apartment in their dirty white shoes. George sniffs the air, but it doesn’t smell like a dead body. And it doesn’t smell like coke, either, the heavy metallic smell that comes with those giant shipments of it. 

 

“If you’ve got this handled, man, I’m gonna be off,” The other man says. George’s heart rate spikes, and he heads down to the stairwell immediately. He busies himself with pretending to have just undone his tie when he first catches sight of the man.

 

He’s heavyset, powerful, and he gives George a tiny nod when they pass each other on the stairwell, as George goes up a level and listens to him stomp his way down to the exit. He doesn’t recognize him from anywhere, and he doesn’t want to. He resigns himself to heading back down to Page’s apartment until he hears the elevator start chugging. 

 

He knows what Alvarez said about ignoring gut feelings, but it’s impossible to ignore the curling in his stomach. He waits until the elevator comes to a loud halt, and he hears extra footsteps on the carpet. Either the person isn’t trying to hide that they’re going inside—which is pretty good news for George and the cases he’s currently blowing out of the water—or even George’s footsteps were that loud.

 

J.G. doesn’t say anything. All George sees is the closing of the door behind him, as he traps himself in with the cocaine. He waits, in a trembling silence, for the anonymous man to make himself known—but he doesn’t. He closes his eyes and listens instead of looking. 

 

He thinks he hears the man grab the doorknob. He thinks he hears him go inside, because J.G. starts to say something loudly, quickly muffled by a sudden cry of pain. George opens his eyes and moves out of the stairwell hurriedly, walking towards the open door, pressing himself against the wall again. 

 

It’s not anything about his case, but it’s something he’s going to want to listen in for.

 

“I’m—fucking—ow!” J.G. yelps, and the new man says, “Shut the fuck up, I don’t want to hear it,” and George realizes with a start that he knows that voice. He’s heard that voice. He thinks about that voice when his mind goes empty. The only question now is what the fuck Dream thinks he’s doing here, in a stranger’s apartment building at eleven o’clock at night, making J.G. make those sounds—sounds George shouldn’t be surprised by. 

 

He doesn’t think Dream’s a rough person. He’s never given George any indication that he’s a rough person. But maybe—and just maybe, because he doesn’t know how much he wants to accept it—that could be a lie. And if that’s a lie—

 

No , something in George’s mind thinks.

 

It fills him with the same fear that he had the first time he tried the pills. The first time he snorted instead of swallowed and it filled his veins like it was his natural state of self—calm and loose and free, so completely free, free from the thoughts and the things and the people. He’d thought this is going to ruin me and the tiny voice had said no. It’s not. Or—if it does—you’re not going to mind at all .

 

He hears it again when Dream hits J.G. again, and he must shove something in his mouth, because his cries go quieter and quieter with every loud thump of Dream’s shoe against his stomach. 

 

No , the voice says again. He needs to move. J.G. isn’t just his suspect—he’s multiple people’s suspect, and they could nail him for so many charges he’ll have to snitch on every last person he knows just so he can still breathe fresh air when they put him in jail, but he has to be alive for that. He can’t be in prison if he’s a pile of guts and bones. He can’t speak on the witness stand if he’s gargling his own blood on the ground. George tries to move, but something pushes him against the chest. 

 

He’s stopped Dream before. It would take one word. And Dream would listen to him because nobody else speaks to him like they expect him to listen. But still—even so—George steps back against the wall and pushes his sleeve against his mouth. 

 

“I fucking told you—I told you so many times, and what do you go and do?” Dream spits. Maybe his voice hadn’t been so familiar after all. It sounds like he’s injected it with something. Something harsh and painful. “You try to rat him out. Well, try this, motherfucker—if you ever, and I mean ever , so much as speak the first sound in his name, I’m going to rip you apart limb by fucking limb until you forget what God you’re supposed to pray to.” J.G. gives a pitiful moan in response. “Am I making myself clear?” 

 

“Fucking—fucking piece of shit,” J.G. coughs out, his voice ending on a high-pitched squeal when Dream kicks him again. “ Fuck ! This is why—nobody will ever fucking love you, Dream, you stupid fucking—obsessive little—Don never should’ve—“

 

“What? Don never should have what ? Helped me?” Dream says. “I never needed his help. I just knew he would be useful to what I needed to do. And look—it looks like you need his help a lot more than me right now.”

 

“They ought to rid the fucking world of you, I swear,” J.G. wheezes. “Three billion women on this Earth and you’re kicking my ass for some British fuck who doesn’t—who doesn’t even know your fucking name . You think he cares about you at all, Dream? He’s a fucking cop. He’s been a cop the entire time. Yeah, he’s been a cop this entire fucking time, and I bet you didn’t even know.” Dream doesn’t say anything, and J.G. gives a pitiful laugh—it sounds like it hurts him. “Or, maybe you did know, and you’re so fuckin’ desperate for someone to just look at you like you’re normal for once that you’d—settle for anything . He’d make you beg at his feet for his attention and you’d do it.” 

 

“You don’t know the first fucking thing about me,” Dream says. George realizes, with dawning horror, that his voice has gone smaller. Like he’s listening. He shouldn’t be listening. He should be knocking J.G.’s teeth in. 

 

“Everyone can see it on your face, y’fucking moron,” J.G. says. “The way you bring him around everywhere like he’s going to protect you. Well, guess what? Welcome to the real world, where cops only care about cops and putting people like you and me in jail. You’ll never mean anything to him.”

 

“George is my friend, shithead, Dream snarls. “You think I’d settle for a cop ? Are you fucking serious? You really don’t know me at all.” He pauses, and then spits. J.G. gives a huff of disgust. “He’s a better person than you’ll ever be, that’s for sure.”

 

“Oh, who gives a shit if he’s fucking Mother Teresa? We’ve got the same fucking job—me and you and him. We’re all swindling innocent people who just don’t deserve the treatment they get ,” J.G. says, putting on an affected snivel that’s rudely interrupted by Dream kicking him in the stomach. “ Fuck , you fucking asshole! What, it hurt too much to know you’re ruining the world? Well I’ll fucking tell you because he won’t—“

 

“I wanted this to be easy,” Dream says. “I wanted this to be so, so easy for you, John-Gabriel. I’d make my point, and we could move on like nothing ever happened. You’d pretend you didn’t know anything, and we could go back to eating burgers in the back alley of the Glacier.” 

 

“You’re such a little prick,” J.G. says. “I wish I’d never gotten to know you. You’re going to Hell, Dream, ‘m gonna fucking—“ he coughs again, “—make sure of it.”

 

“Hope that works out for you,” Dream says. “I really didn’t want to get other people involved.”

 

“Oh, yeah?” J.G. sneers. “Like who?”

 

“Like Miss Margaret O’Conner who moved into your studio recently,” Dream says. J.G.’s labored breathing goes impossibly thicker. “Aw, what’s wrong, J.G.? You don’t like it that I know her name?” 

 

“Your problem isn’t with her , you piece of shit,” J.G. says. “It’s with me. You think you’re such a big man with these pristine fucking morals, you leave my wife out of this.” 

 

“Oh, so you finally tied the knot?” Dream says, with mocking delight. “Why wasn’t I invited to the wedding? You know who I would’ve brought as my plus-one?” He does something that makes J.G. hack out a wet cough. “I don’t think she’d like it if you died.” 

 

“Saint Don wouldn’t like it so much if I died, either,” J.G. says. 

 

“He wouldn’t mind if she died, though,” Dream says. “He wouldn’t mind if I put a bullet in her skull. He wouldn’t even know. Unless they’re still fucking when you’re out in Miami?” 

 

“Fuck you,” J.G. says. “It was once. Fucking once. Margie loves me.” 

 

“She does?” Dream asks. “That’s so cute. I’m so happy for you. And you can’t live without her, right?” 

 

“Stop,” J.G. says weakly. It sounds like he’s fading. “Stop what you’re—“

 

“And it would be so, so hard to continue on in this world if she wasn’t on it anymore, right?” Dream interrupts, voice dropping to a stage-whisper. “And you wouldn’t know what to do with yourself if she died, right?”

 

Enough ,” J.G. chokes out. “Oh my God, enough , Dream, enough. You’re a sadist. You’re a fucking sadist. God… Jesus, if you’re… if you’re listening…“

 

“Oh, I’m not a sadist, trust me,” Dream says. “Quite the opposite, if we’re talking about the things we like. ‘Cause this hurts me to do , J.G. I told you I didn’t want to do this. But when you come into the club, talking about how Dream’s friend’s been a cop the entire time and snitching on him just might be your way out, what else am I supposed to do?” 

 

“You’re supposed to side with the guy who’s been helping you the entire time,” J.G. says. “Who’s been doing your dirty work for you.”

 

“That’s what I’m doing,” Dream says. “Glad we could agree.” J.G. doesn’t say anything. “So we’re good? I won’t have to kill Margie in front of you?”

 

“Don’t call her that,” J.G. gasps. “Fuck, I’m—fuck you. Fuck.”

 

Dream kicks him again. “You’re gonna stay quiet?”

 

“As a mouse, man,” J.G. says. “As a mouse.” 

 

“And don’t think Don doesn’t know about this,” Dream says. “You can try and tell him who beat your face in, if you want, but don’t be surprised when he says he already knows.” He clears his throat. “Good luck cleaning yourself up in here.” 

 

“I hope you bite that cop’s dick off when you suck it,” J.G. says. 

 

Dream laughs, and then walks outside. He closes the door. He sees George.

 

His nails have been clenched into his palms for so long that when he looks down at his hands there’s red bruises in his palms. The wall digs into his shoulder-blades, and when he lifts his tongue out of his mouth he tastes blood on his lips, his teeth streaked over with it and his brain bleeding with it. 

 

Something happens. One of the side of George’s brain stops fighting. He can feel it lowering its defenses until he’s filled with the same guilty acceptance he had the first time he used again after rehab. You didn’t stop him , he thinks numbly. It wasn’t fight-or-flight. It wasn’t fear. You didn’t stop him because you didn’t want to stop him .

 

“George,” Dream says, finally. His eyes are glassy. George realizes they’re filled with tears. 

 

“Fuck,” George says quietly, and turns around. He walks down the hallway, up the spiraling staircase he’d started at earlier, pushes through the door to the roof, and walks out. He doesn’t ever turn to see if Dream is behind him, because he knows he is. 

 

It’s not as humid outside. The night’s cooled, albeit slightly. It’s finally October, and the air kind of smells like grass. George shoves his hands into his pockets and finds his box of cigarettes. He’s down to three in his carton. He unearths one from the box and flips on his lighter, shielding it from the barely-there breeze, lighting the tip until it stings at the places where he’s bitten through at his lips.  

 

He’s not a violent person. He’d thought he’d come into this job because he’s a good person. He’d thought there was still something left in him he could save by himself. He ashes the cigarette over the roof, until Dream gives one tiny, pitiful, “ George —“ 

 

“Why did you do that?” George whispers, to himself. If there was still something good left in him he could save, he wanted to do it by himself. He wanted it to be something he could be proud of. He wanted to nurture it and raise it and flaunt it to the world. I am inherently good. “Please don’t tell me it was for me, Dream.” 

 

Dream doesn’t say anything. George squeezes his eyes shut.

 

“Please don’t tell me it was for me,” he says, voice raw. I am inherently good. “Please don’t tell me you threatened a woman’s life for me.” 

 

“That’s not what that was,” Dream says. “It wasn’t. I swear.”

 

And then he turns around. Dream blots at his eyes with his palm and then drops his arms at his sides like that’ll keep George from being able to tell what he’s doing. He walks closer and ashes on Dream’s boots; they’re covered in J.G.’s blood. He thinks he sees a tooth nudged between the laces. “You wouldn’t do something like that for me.” 

 

“It wasn’t for—“ Dream says, voice ending on a quiver. “Not like you think. It wasn’t—what he said in there, it’s—he’s a piece of shit, all right? He was just saying whatever it took to get a rise out of me. I’ve never thought about you like that.” 

 

“Okay,” George says.

 

“I swear,” Dream says persistently. “I barely even think about—dudes like that. Point is, he was trying to—he was trying to mess with you, okay? And I can’t afford that. At this point, if you go down, I’m going down too. I’m just trying to save my own ass.” 

 

You could do whatever you wanted to to him , the tiny voice tells him, and George has to shake his head, bring his cigarette up to his mouth. “He said he helped you.”

 

“I didn’t know what he was talking about,” Dream says. He’s lying. George doesn’t know how he’s never noticed it before. The way his teeth don’t show up all the way and point out in tiny fangs; the way he tilts his head to the side and brushes a trembling hand over his hair; the way he picks at the nail at his thumb with his forefinger. “I swear.” 

 

George puts a hand on his cheek. His skin is soft and feels like velvet. 

 

“Dude, what are you doing ?” Dream squeaks. 

 

George runs his finger along the underside of his eye, catching the wetness of his tears. “You were crying.”

 

“Not crying,” Dream says. “Just—I—I didn’t want you to see me like that. I wasn’t expecting for you to be here, is all.” 

 

“I was,” George says. Just say whatever you want to say to me. Just say it. I need to hear it so I know what to do next. I need you to prove what I think I know. “I heard a lot.” 

 

“I don’t know what you think you heard—“ Dream says, but then George brushes his thumb over his bottom lip, and Dream stops breathing, there, and he lets George slip his thumb between his lips, run it along the bottom of his mouth where it’s wet and dark. 

 

He pushes down, and Dream slackens his jaw wider, wider , until George says, softly, “Stick out your tongue,” and Dream listens. 

 

He takes a final hit of his cigarette, dampens it out on his thigh, and then puts it out. He’s not gentle, but he doesn’t screw it in. When Dream grimaces, he moves the cigarette to a different spot, and then another one and another one and another one, until it’s wet and he drops it under his foot and tramples it into the ground.

 

“Ow, first of all,” Dream says. There’s burn marks on his tongue that make his voice thick, but they hadn’t hurt him. George isn’t a total sadist. Unlike some people.

 

“You have to fucking stop letting me do these things to you,” George says. “I’m serious. This is so bad. This is so bad for you.” 

 

“I’m not an idiot,” Dream says, even as he touches at the places where George had fucked up his tongue. “I can tell when things are bad for me. I could stop— this —anytime I wanted to.”

 

George’s laugh sounds more like a dry sob. “Is that what I sound like when I say those things?”

 

“Say what things?” Dream says, and then realizes. “Fuck , George, that’s not what this is.”

 

“It sounds like that’s what this is,” George says, voice bordering on hysterical. “It sounds like you’d listen to anything I said. It sounds like you’re pulling this bullshit for me even though I didn’t ask for it.” 

 

“I didn’t ask for it either,” Dream says desperately. “I don’t even know what the fuck I’m thinking . At any point in time.”  

 

“What was he talking about in there?” George says. If he and Dream are this close to jumping off of the roof and saying goodbye to their normal lives forever, he may as well go all out. “You were helping him with something. You were helping him and Saint Don. You’ve been lying to me.”

 

“Jesus fuck, I haven’t been lying to you,” Dream says. “I just—please, please don’t—“

 

“Tell me what he was talking about,” George says fiercely, and Dream shakes his head.

 

“You know I can’t tell you,” he says. “God, please don’t make me tell you, please. I’m so close to it, I could—if you ask me, I’ll tell you, and I can’t tell you. Please don’t make me tell you.” 

 

“Just tell me,” George says. “I won’t tell anyone. Ever. I’ll keep it to myself. I promise.”

 

Dream squeezes his eyes shut. He opens them again. 

 

“I helped,” he says. 

 

“You helped with what?” George asks. 

 

“I can’t—“ Dream says, and then looks at him again. “Oh, fuck you. Stop looking at me like that. I shouldn’t even—I have to leave. I have to leave and we have to never talk again.” 

 

George grabs his wrist. “Please.” 

 

Dream’s eyes search his face. “The drug hit,” he says, voice barely dipping above a murmur. “It was supposed to be one job. I’ve—helped a bunch of different times, but I’m in debt , man. You wouldn’t know what that’s like unless you were actually in debt with someone like him. And they said it wouldn’t be messy. I could just—do what I usually did, but it would be for a dead body, this time. They didn’t tell me anything about it.”

 

I just knew he would be useful to what I needed to do. George wants to tell him he knows he’s lying, but Dream’s eyes are so full and George’s skin is engulfed in so many flames he thinks he’d believe anything Dream told him. “Okay.” 

 

Dream’s face changes. “ Okay ?” 

 

“Okay,” George repeats. Dream’s eyes never leave his. “Fine. You helped kill someone.”

 

“That’s not—“ Dream says, but George cuts him off.

 

“And I’m not going to tell anyone,” he says. “It’s not my investigation.”

 

Dream still doesn’t look like he believes him, and George doesn’t blame him. All they do is lie to each other. “You don’t have your code of honor or whatever?” 

 

“Don’t talk about that,” George says, and then breaks eye contact and steps away from him. “Come on. I’m taking you home.”

Chapter Text

It’s hard to sleep, when George knows Dream is awake. He can hear him prowling around the living room like he has some point to prove about being left to his own devices. He’s busy typing up a very heated response to an email chain by the Art and Antiques unit, because even though his eyes are falling shut and even though he could just lock his door so Dream won’t smother him in his sleep, he can’t stop thinking about what an idiot he’s being. The self-loathing is almost as bad as the shame.

 

Dream knocks on his door. “George?”

 

“Mm,” George says, eyes still glued to his screen. 

 

“I can’t sleep,” he says, and walks over. He plops himself onto George’s bed, and then moves his laptop out of the way and drops his head onto his lap. George kind of doesn’t know what to do from there. 

 

“What are—“ George says, and then Dream mumbles something inaudible and ducks his head into the inside of George’s thigh, shutting his eyes. “Okay. Hi.” 

 

“Hi,” Dream says. “Did you ever believe in God, when you were little?”

 

“What?” George asks.

 

“I like thinking about it, when I can’t sleep,” Dream says. “It’s kind of comforting, I guess. Especially when you’re sleeping alone and stuff. That there really is something way bigger than you that cares about you a lot.” 

 

George’s hands are still hovering awkwardly over his head, so he just kind of drops them on top of Dream’s hair, fingers fitting against the strands. “That email was important.” 

 

“What was it about?” Dream asks. 

 

“Got an anonymous tip for my investigation,” George says. “My department doesn’t want it investigated. I think it’s suspicious.” He watches his own fingers push Dream’s hair off his forehead against his own volition. “I probably shouldn’t tell you anything else.” 

 

“Cool,” Dream mumbles sleepily, like he hadn’t even heard. “Don’t bother, man. They’re not going to send you a tip again if you try’n find out who sent it.”

 

Frustration bubbles into George’s stomach. “You don’t know that.” 

 

“I do know that,” Dream says. “Drop it. C’est la vie. Live your life. Did you believe in God or not?” 

 

George gives an incredulous laugh, against his better judgement. “I don’t know,” he says. “I didn’t really think about it.” He remembers something: his bedroom, the foot of his bed, a rosary hanging from his lamp. “My mum would make me pray, and she said that if I had any questions for Him, I could ask. But I never had any.”

 

“Sounds like she just wanted you to leave her alone,” Dream says. 

 

“Did that too much, really,” George says. He doesn’t think Dream hears, but he breathes like he does. “I think she just wanted to hear me talk.” 

 

“You never had any questions for God?” Dream asks, a moment later. “Really?” 

 

“Nah,” George says. “Thought I’d figure them out eventually.” 

 

“What about the—the fucked-up ones?” He asks, through a yawn. “Like, why do murderers exist and shit?” 

 

George realizes where he is, for a second—in a bed that isn’t really his with a boy that really isn’t his, a boy who could turn on him the way he turns in his sleep. “I think you could answer that one for me.” 

 

Dream doesn’t say anything. “You really like asking me questions, for someone who doesn’t like talking to God.” 

 

“I know you’ll answer,” George says. “I don’t know if He’ll answer. Would be messed up if He answered me instead of old people asking why He gave them cancer or something.” 

 

Dream hums out an affirmation. “He’d just call them His strongest soldiers or whatever. I don’t really know anyone who’s religious anymore.” 

 

“I guess it’s kind of hard to be,” George says. “Based on the people you hang around.” 

 

Dream twists his head to send him a judgemental look. “Like you’re flawless,” he says, but there’s not enough malice to keep his head stable so he just shifts it back into George’s lap. “Nah. It’s not ‘cause it’s hard. There’s just no point. They’ve already got a Saint.” 

 

George brushes his fingers against his hair again. “ You’ve got a Saint.” 

 

“He’s nothing to me,” Dream says. “The same way Baker’s nothing to you. I’m sure you do things for him that you wouldn’t want to do otherwise.” 

 

“Not really,” George says. “I kind of do what I want.” 

 

“But you don’t,” Dream says, and turns his head around so that he’s looking George in the eyes. “Do you? You don’t really expect me to believe that— this is you doing whatever you want. Like you wouldn’t do more if you had the chance.”

 

A chill runs down George’s spine. “I don’t know what you mean.”

 

“I mean ,” Dream says, and twists his hand out over George’s ankles to keep him pinned down, “You’ve seen so fucking much, George. You’ve seen what it’s like to— actually do whatever you want. And you’re still telling me this is the life you prefer?” 

 

George laughs, again, and Dream looks at him, peering into his eyes like he’s trying to look for something he’s lost. He fidgets, uncomfortable under the hand Dream has against his leg, but he doesn’t push it away. Not ever. 

 

“It is the life I prefer,” he says, instead of anything else. “I’d rather help people. And not die in the process.” 

 

Dream smiles at him. “It’s not like that, if you know who to stay with.” 

 

“I doubt that,” George says.

 

“No,” Dream says persistently. “It’s—okay. Look. I remember, once, there was this sermon I went to with my family, when I was really little, and they were talking about Sodom & Gomorrah, and—you know the story, right? There’s stealing there and killing there and fucking and dying there, but people fuck and die everywhere . That’s all people know how to do. And I remember thinking, like, well, what’s the point of using them as an example? What’s so special about them that’s different from fucking Jerusalem or whatever? Why doesn’t He strike down any other fucked-up city-state? And then I figured it was because they didn’t care. They knew God was watching and they did whatever they wanted.” He leans his head back against George’s knee, closing his eyes. “ That’s doing whatever you want, George. Not listening to a bunch of cops make you some promises.” 

 

George doesn’t speak, for a while. He doesn’t think that’s what happened to Sodom & Gomorrah. He touches Dream’s neck and feels his Adam’s apple bob against the back of his knuckles. 

 

“Having morals is important to people,” George says. “I know you think it’s not, but it’s important to people.” 

 

“I have morals,” Dream says, still with his eyes closed. “Don’t kill kids and don’t fuck with people who haven’t fucked with you first. If you choose a few, it’s easy to live your life without feeling too stifled.”

 

“I’m not stifled,” George says. 

 

“Based on the way you touch my mouth, I’d think you’re the most stifled person I’ve ever met,” Dream says. 

 

George thumbs at Dream’s bottom lip. Dream smiles up at him, moving his head back to the side.

 

 “I’m not letting you off the hook,” George says instead of responding. He just has a nice mouth. That’s all it’s ever been. “I’m not going to let you explain away what you did.”

 

“I’m not explaining anything,” Dream says. “If you get anything out of the bullshit I say, that’s your fault.” 

 

That much is true, George supposes. “They’re going to get you in the interrogation room soon. And then you’re going to have to tell me what you know about the art theft.”

 

“Okay,” Dream says agreeably, and sits up. “But promise me you won’t send me to jail. I’m too pretty for jail.”

 

“I won’t send you to jail,” George murmurs, kind of ahead of himself, because he knows Dream has the ears of a fucking trickster fairy and what he hears is an honest-to-God promise and not George talking to himself on three hours of sleep and four hours of Dream. “But you have to stop getting in trouble. I’ll have to bring you with me or something.”

 

“Bring me with you?” Dream says, and leans in, a little. “So you can keep an eye on me? Make sure I’m being a good boy?” His mouth is so close George can feel his breath on his teeth like the cold pinch of ice water. “That’s how you want to spend your time?” 

 

“You couldn’t be good if your life depended on it,” George says. 

 

“It does, sometimes,” Dream says, but before George can throw everything he’s been saying out of the window and bite his mouth Dream’s phone rings in his pocket and he shuts his eyes, sucking air in through his teeth and wrangling it out of his pocket.

 

“That’s not—” George says, not recognizing the shitty phone as the one he’s seen Dream have previously, but Dream just puts a finger over his mouth and stands up off the bed, answering it quickly. George still sees the flash of the caller ID. Don

 

“Hey, man, no, I’m not busy,” Dream says, but George stands up and follows him to the doorway, grabbing him by the shoulder and motioning for him to pull his phone down. Dream sends him a death glare, but he listens anyway, wrangling it from his face and clicking the button to put it on speaker. 

 

“—keep our relations tidy, so I’m hopin’ you’ll accept an apology on his behalf,” Saint Don says, his voice crackling against the receiver. “It’s always been a pleasure doing business with you, lil’ copling. I wouldn’t want some idiot shit-for-brains to fuck up what’s so far been a very lucrative business connection.” 

 

“Yeah, me neither,” Dream says, a moment later. His voice is shaky. “And don’t… worry. I’ve said what I have to say to J.G., and everything’s good. We’re on the same page now.”

 

“I’m happy to hear it, Dream,” Saint Don says. “Hey—how’s this: ditch the cop, bring the coke, and come down to the beach house for our celebration on Friday night.”

 

“What’re you celebrating?” Dream asks. Saint Don barks out a laugh until he realizes Dream’s not joking.

“Eh, pre-Thanksgiving or somethin’,” Saint Don says. 

 

“I don’t know,” Dream says, eyes darting from his phone to George’s face to somewhere at the back of the room. “I kind of—”

 

“Need I remind you what you owe me?” Saint Don. Dream grimaces. 

 

“I mean—okay,” he says, a moment later, and George thinks about telling him he shouldn’t, but that’s a conversation they’ve never had because he knows how it’ll go.  “Yeah. Sure. I’ll make it.” 

 

“Love to hear it,” Saint Don says. “Godspeed, brother.” He hangs up before Dream can, and then Dream is just looking at George with his burner phone still in his hand. He slips it into the back of his jeans awkwardly, looking down at their shoes. 

 

“Before you say anything,” Dream says, “I know what he said, but—you know you’re going to be there anyway, so you may as well come with me.”

 

George scoffs out a laugh. He had been thinking about going, until he heard ditch the cop , because that always means that Dream will either have to ditch him or they’ll ditch George themselves. With a gun. Probably. “He did everything but threaten my life. I’m not going.” 

 

“Listen,” Dream says tightly. “I told you to work with what he doesn’t know. J.G. isn’t going to say anything about you, I made sure of that, but now they’re going to try really, really hard to cover their asses about this fucking murder, so this is your chance to get suspects in for your art investigation.” He waits for George to say something, but he doesn’t. “I’m serious.” 

 

“You mean you’re trying to cover your ass about this fucking murder,” George says.

 

“Fuck you,” Dream says. “I drove the car and I bought the cocaine because otherwise he would’ve killed me . I don’t kill people. Not outright.” 

 

“You’re sick,” George says, but then Dream pushes his face closer and says, “You’re sick too. You’re fucking sick too. You’re just as much of a fucked-up, perverted, depraved fucking junky as I am, but you get to hide it because you’ve got the badge and you’ve got the smile and you’ve got all of the people who believe you. I don’t believe you. And I’ve never fucking believed you—not for a second.” He narrows his eyes and wets his lips with his tongue like he’s ready to eat George alive. “You should thank me for that.”

 

“Why should I thank you?” George spits.

 

“Because you get to do this ,” Dream snarls back, and grabs him by the front of the shirt and slams his back into the dresser, where George can feel knobs digging into his hips. George grabs him around the throat right back, and then Dream is smiling at him, teeth digging into his lip, nails digging into George’s skin. “You get this. You get me.” 

 

“I should thank you,” George says, pulling him closer by the neck, “Because I get to have you?”

 

“A lot of people aren’t that fucking lucky,” Dream says, voice tight, heartbeat beating thickly against George’s fingers. “And trust me—” he wrangles himself out of George’s grip, “—once I figure out how to stay away from you, you’re never going to hear from me again.”

 

“Asshole,” George says, and pushes him square in the chest. Dream doesn’t look bothered.

 

“So when I ask for one thing, one fucking thing, you stop being a little bitch and you actually listen to me for once,” Dream says. “Please just be there. It could help you too.” 

 

“It’s a fucking party, Dream,” George says. “It’s not the first or the last time he’s going to have one.”

 

“Please,” Dream says. “Please, George.” 

 

“Stop begging ,” George says.

 

“Why?” Dream demands. “Scared you’ll listen?” George doesn’t say anything, after that. He feels like the answer is obvious. “ Please . You have to trust me.” 

 

“I can’t,” George says. “You know I can’t.”

 

“I know,” Dream says. “But I—I think it’s important, this time.”

 

George tries to work it out. So far, every time Dream has told him not to go somewhere, it’s been because he’s witnessed something that would incriminate him beyond belief—but then again, he hasn’t exactly used anything he knows against Dream at any point. Yet. He supposes there’s always that element of waiting. But even so, if Dream is actively asking him to come somewhere, that must mean that there’s something that can help him, instead. Something that can clear his name. He looks at Dream again. 

 

“Why is it important?” He asks sharply.

 

“It just is,” Dream says, after a beat. “I don’t want to tell you when you can just come and find out yourself.”

 

“I can’t promise you anything,” George says, and Dream purses his lips and steps backwards, pushing a handful of hair away from his face. The air between them dulls to nothing like a power outage. 

 

“Fine,” he says. “Fucking fine. If you want to be difficult, you can sleep on the couch tonight and I’ll take your giant-ass bed to myself. Thanks.” He pauses, before he can turn back into George’s bedroom, and points a finger in his face. “And since you’re too proud to ask God, I’ll answer the question, since you’re thinking about it—people kill people because they have to.” 

 

I don’t have to kill anyone,” George says, between gritted teeth. What a fucked up way to think , he wants to tell Dream, but the more he thinks about it, the more it makes sense, with a dawning kind of horror. He’s definitely spending too much time with him. “He had a family. He had people who cared about him.”

 

Dream’s eyes flicker. “I know.”

 

“And you took him away from them,” George says. “Because you thought you had to. You didn’t have to do anything , Dream, don’t you get it? You’re saying you can do whatever you want, but—”

 

“You don’t get it,” Dream says. “You’ll never get it.”

 

“So I guess that meant you wanted to kill him?” George challenges.

 

Stop ,” Dream says frantically. “I didn’t want—you—you make this shit so fucking difficult for me, God, you—” And then he’s turning his back to George and slamming the door to the living room shut in his face, and George says, “Dream, come on ,” but the door is already locked, and George says, “It’s my fucking house ,” and Dream says, “Fuck off,” and the conversation is over. Like that. Like magic; like divine intervention. 

 

** 

 

George is pretty sure Dream is still in his house when he goes to work the next morning. He’s only fine with it because he won’t have to deal with him for the entire work day, because he’s too busy dealing with other things—like explaining away more information he’s learned under illegal means. In all honesty, he thinks he’s getting quite good at it.

 

“Seriously, if I’d found out in a way that was—less than ideal, I wouldn’t be telling all of you at all,” he tries to explain, against Darryl and Hank’s matching death glares and Alvarez’s annoyed, repeated looks in his direction. He tries to get her attention a few times—convince her to lend a helping hand for once—but she’s doing her best impression of being just as annoyed at him for going to Carter Page’s apartment unauthorized as Hank and Darryl are. “I was just at the apartment. Hank, you were there too. You can ask Proctor if you want—”

 

“Oh, I’ll be asking Proctor, all right,” Alvarez interrupts sharply, and George tries to keep himself from looking too relieved. “If he thinks he can send his detectives gallivanting around our investigations—” 

 

“It wasn’t his detectives,” George says. Darryl and Hank don’t look too placated. He doesn’t know if he’s overreacting. “It was just me.”

 

“Still,” Alvarez says. “I’ll have a word with you later, Davidson. You can tag along with Hank and Darryl as they survey the updated Page crime scene first.” 

 

“We’re surveying the updated Page crime scene?” Hank asks.

 

“Yes,” Alvarez says curtly. “Go.”

 

They take a cop car from the garage entrance. Hank tries his hardest to maneuver his coffee cup into the cupholder which is stuffed with a handful of receipts. “Goddamn rookies,” he says under his breath, and George snorts from the shotgun seat as he watches him tamp down the receipts with his fist. “I swear, they treat these cars like they’re the fucking—shitty Ford Pintos they’ve got at home. Jesus Christ. Anyone else feeling bagels?” 

 

“Do we have time?” Darryl says. George clicks on his phone.

 

“It’s only ten,” he says. “Are we on a time limit?” 

 

“Nah,” Hank says, twisting his hand up to check his mirrors. “Alvarez is just sending us away so she can have that screaming sesh with Proctor, I bet.”

 

“I almost wish we’d stayed,” Darryl says. George can’t even muster up a fake laugh because of the impending shame in his stomach. “Still, though, Alyssa would have told us to come down if there was something that needed checking. But I guess it’s not a bad idea to keep ourselves updated.”

 

“I’m hearing no bagels,” Hank says.

 

“For the record, I’m voting bagels,” George says.

 

“You’re both bad people,” Darryl says distastefully. “God, George, I don’t know how it’s going to be around here when you leave.”

 

Hank makes a tiny sound of affirmation, but George can’t help but take his lighthearted tone of voice as something harsher—something that’s meant to dig a little deeper. “What do you mean?” 

 

“Just—I don’t know. I guess you’ve made things easier?” Darryl says. “For me, at least. Maybe it’s just people being on Baker about results for once, so he’s not too crazy about checking up on us, but—and I know that we’re not supposed to admit to it or anything—it’s nice, not having to explain everything you do.”

 

Great , George thinks. You ruined them . “That wasn’t really the intended experience of my being here.” 

 

Hank snorts. The worst part is that they don’t even mean it with all of the negativity George hears. “I didn’t think it was,” he says. “Listen, man, it’s just, like—it’s gonna be weird, when you leave. If we’re lucky, Baker will remember everyone being on his ass and he’ll actually give us money to get shit done, but that’s the best case scenario. Normal case scenario is that we go back to business as usual, you know what I mean? We’re not really used to shit like this. So. You have to be patient with us.”

 

“I’m not really used to it either,” George says uncomfortably. “I didn’t mean to—I’m not like this all the time. I’m not a—a steamroller or anything.”

 

“Never said you were, man,” Darryl says, and claps him on the shoulder from the backseat consolingly. “But still. You get shit done. That’s what we’re not used to.”

 

He really is a bad person. 

 

They get their bagels and then go to the crime scene, but before Hank can pull into the cop-car-infested parking lot of the apartment complex, George catches a flash of straw-yellow in his peripheral vision. “Wait,” he says, interrupting Darryl and Hank’s conversation abruptly. “What’s—is that J.G.?”

 

He’s wandering around the back entrance of the complex—where there’s less cops and more interested onlookers—wearing dark sunglasses and a backwards snapback. Clothing that’s conspicuous only in its attempt to be inconspicuous. George almost wants to slam his back into his seat from the sheer absurdity of the situation, but he’s distracted by Hank saying, “Shit. Yeah. It is.”

 

“What in the—” Darryl says, and swallows his mouthful of bagel so his voice isn’t muffled. “Pull over, what are you waiting for?”

 

“Shit, shit, shit,” Hank says, and pulls over the car—slowly. He rolls down his window and George pushes his head back and closes his eyes, palming his face with his hands. J.G. still hasn’t seen him yet—he could still back out of every promise he made with his blood-filled mouth and tell Hank everything he knows, but then again, George knows what he’d do about that, in a fucked up way. He’d probably tell Dream. “J.G.”

 

J.G. pulls his sunglasses down and steps closer to the sidewalk. George turns his head, and their eyes meet, and he watches the way J.G.’s mouth slackens, how his face bleeds into a white sheet. There’s a fine blue bruise on his cheek, and his lip is still busted from where Dream’s boot meshed it with his bottom layer of teeth. George can see the stitches.

 

He’s not going to say anything , George thinks, and the guilty satisfaction rolls over him like a wave. 

 

“Detectives,” he manages, eyes never leaving George’s face. His eyelid twitches, inflamed with some kind of infection that hadn’t been there before. “What are you—”

 

“You on a walk?” Hank asks him, smoothly. George knows his voice is a front because he watches the way he clutches the wrapper of his bagel and runs his thumb across it obsessively. “Checking out the crime scene or what?” 

 

“I just—wanted to know what was going on,” J.G. says stiffly. “Full honesty. That’s all it is.” 

 

“Listen, we were just on our way out, actually,” Darryl pipes up, so easily George can’t help but send him a look through the rearview mirror. “Why don’t you hop in with us and we’ll give you a ride to wherever you’re headed? Maybe stop at the station for a sec first.”

 

“I can walk back,” J.G. says. “Thank—thank you, detectives, but I’ll manage.”

 

“Wasn’t an offer,” Hank says. “This is good for you, J.G. Don’t make things too difficult for us and let us ask you some questions.”

 

He looks at George again, and—with a newfound type of confidence—George looks back at him. J.G.’s proverbial ears flatten against his head, and the red flush in his face pales again like a thermal blanket, and he nods, quickly, like his head will fall off if he nods for longer. 

 

“Just a few questions?” He asks again, shakily.

 

“Just a few questions,” Hank confirms. J.G. doesn’t ask many other questions after that.

 

It isn’t a few questions. They get him in arraignment court the same day they lock him as a suspect, because Judge Spirov makes some special exception that has to do with media interest—something George is too distracted to understand. 

 

Power isn’t meant to drip from fingers as rawly as he’d felt it in the car. And it hadn’t been because he’d done something to warrant J.G. being afraid of him—he’d just been associated with someone. With Dream. Caught together, hanged together . Something he can’t avoid, because Dream is stuck against him, dyed onto him, carved into him with a fine blade. He may as well start readying the fucking noose.

 

Proctor and Baker are talking about something at the head of the meeting table. George is watching Nick the intern make a paper crane out of a gum wrapper. “The court case itself may be scheduled for a few months in, but there’s nothing stopping Spirov from bumping it closer to a few weeks,” Baker is saying. “This has been at the forefront of Floridian news for God knows how long. Since the Backus went missing.”

 

“Plus, which one do people care about more?” Alyssa adds, neatly ignoring all of the annoyed glances the Art unit sends in her direction. “Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the work you do, Agent Proctor, but there’s only so much value we can place on a picture of a field.”

 

“I beg your pardon?” One of Proctor’s detectives says acidly. Proctor has to put a hand out to calm her, which is kind of creepy, in a cult-leader kind of way. Nick must notice, too, because his eyes dart up and he and George share an exhausted smile. 

 

“I understand where you’re coming from, Detective, but if this department continues trying to tamp down an international case in favor of a local investigation, I may have to get the Commissioner involved,” Proctor says, still staring bullets into Alyssa’s eyes—and everyone hears what he says. I’ll have your job. I’ll have all of your jobs . George looks around for Alvarez, and he watches Baker do so, too, but she isn’t here. They realize at the same time that this is something Baker will have to do on his own.

 

“There’s no need to rush to—such measures, Agent,” he says desperately, physically stepping into the gap between Proctor and the table. “I’m sure my Detective didn’t mean to undermine your investigation. Please, don’t misunderstand our worry as a reason to tamp down the Page case. We simply care about bringing a murderer to justice.”

 

Proctor relaxes like a calmed wild cat. “I didn’t mean to imply that I don’t,” he mumbles. “But you have to understand. A murder charge is a permanent stain on a man, but he’d prefer it over the international havoc that the art charge would create. You need to let us have this first.” 

 

“Plus, he admitted that the murder was a cover-up for the art theft,” one of the other federal agents pipes up. “No matter if the murder was manufactured as a cover-up or if the thieves used it as an opportunity to strike, that’s a concrete admittance of his involvement in the theft. He literally said, they can’t figure anything out about the art while they’re investigating the murder. This is huge.”

 

“Why can’t we nail him on both the art theft and the murder?” Darryl asks, frustrated. Proctor sends him a look like he’s being moronic, but it doesn’t seem to faze him. “We don’t know what he’ll admit to yet. He could admit to both.”

 

“He’s not going to admit to both,” George tells him hollowly, because he knows it and they all know it. Saint Don will force him to admit to the murder to cover up the art theft, because he doesn’t want anymore federal attention. They can get him on both, but one of them has to go first—and George can’t let the murder investigation go first. He just can’t. “Proctor is right. You’ll always have him on the murder, but… our investigation isn’t going to get this chance again.”

 

“George,” Hank says thinly, readying himself to convince him to change his mind, but George just looks away. 

 

“I’m sorry, but this isn’t fucking fair,” Alyssa says, standing up and punching her fists again the table. “Our investigation into Saint Don has been ongoing for years , cold or not. Longer than your fucking case, I’m sorry to say it, George, but—you don’t even know if he did it, for God’s sake!” 

 

“Saint Don might find a way to pin it on someone else if we don’t convict J.G. first,” Proctor says. “You don’t know how fast we have to act, Detective.” 

 

“Things are different for federal organizations,” one of Proctor’s detectives says, and George watches Hank and Alyssa ready themselves to scream at him, but Baker just hisses air through his teeth and says, “We understand that, Agent Harwood, but there has to be a middleground,” and Proctor says, “I’m afraid there isn’t, Baker,” and Darryl says, “Oh, come on,” and Baker says, “Quiet, Detective—Agent Proctor, I—” and then the voices devolve into finely-tuned, official-sounding rounds of screaming that George has to sit between and watch, knowing he contributed to it.

 

It’s not like he could’ve done anything else. It’s not like he could’ve walked away and left the murder investigation to the Orlando team, but—his stomach gnaws at him obsessively, telling him that he should’ve, telling him to make something up, prove some kind of point about J.G. being innocent in the art theft. 

 

This is what he wanted. This is, by definition, the lead they’ve been waiting for for months. But it doesn’t feel right. It feels like teeth in his mouth that don’t belong to him. 

 

Here’s a fucking question for you, God, he thinks bitterly and stands up from the table, feet tracing the steps to the garage entrance easy as breathing. He tells himself he’ll go out for a breath and a cigarette but that’s not what he’s going to do. He’s going to do something stupid like snort a handful of pills in plain view of police officers. 

 

Something stops him before he can lose himself in the blinding-white hallways. “Yo, hold on,” he hears behind him, and Nick the intern jogs up to him with a smile, completely unaffected by the happenings of the hellish room behind them. George looks around them as if he’s referring to someone else, but it’s obvious he’s the only person in the hallway. He stops walking.

 

“Um, hi,” he says. “I was just—gonna have a smoke. So.”

 

“Oh, that’s cool,” Nick says. He scratches at the back of his head with a free hand. “I don’t smoke, but I’ll join you anyway.” 

 

“Okay,” George says, after a beat, and then they walk side-to-side down the hallway. It’s not bad. It’s kind of nice—calming, when compared to the alternative, which would be staying in the conference room. “Um, can I help you?” 

“Nah, I just—kind of wanted to get away from all of that, I guess,” Nick says. “I don’t know if you knew, but—Proctor was meant to start training me as a Detective before this entire Backus theft explosion. So I’ve kind of been his assistant for a really long time.” 

 

“Oh, shit,” George says, and gives him a once-over. He can’t be older than twenty, but that’s not much of a reason to not believe him. He was getting trained at twenty, too. “Sorry about that, I guess.”

 

“Nah, it’s all good,” Nick says, with a look on his face that makes it seem like it really is all good. “More hands-on experience, right? Point is, though, I’ve seen Proctor at his worst and at his best, and as much as I don’t like him at either, I know when he’s dead set on something. We’re going to get J.G. on the Backus theft.”

 

“I know,” George says, but hearing Nick say it does solidify his worries, in a cruel way. “Thank fuck. I might be able to get back home for a little bit if we solve this case. Or at least I’ll get moved away from Orlando to follow a different murder.” Only when he says it does the reality of his words set in. Moved away from Orlando—moved away from the Orlando Police Department with its shitty coffee but really good bagels, from Miami nightlife and his Brady Bunch Airbnb and Alyssa and Darryl and Hank and Dream. 

 

Moved away from Dream.

 

“Not that we can be sure he did it,” George adds, and feels filthy to the bone. 

 

Some kind of relief melts into Nick’s face. “That’s what I wanted to tell you, actually,” he says. “I don’t know, it just—all we know is that Saint Don and his boys helped steal the painting, right? We can’t be sure of their connection to the international case. Who hired them or whatever. I know I’m just a lowly intern, but—”

 

“No, I know what you mean,” George says uneasily. “It’s—I don’t know. I really don’t know. It’s something I’d have to discuss with Wallace.”

 

“I wouldn’t take it that far,” Nick says. “It’s just messing with me, I guess. I don’t want to grasp at straws here, you know? If we just hold on a little longer, I bet there’s evidence that’s— so much bigger, out there. But nobody’s going to fucking believe me if I say that, so.”

 

George snorts out a laugh, rocking on the heels of his feet. They haven’t been walking towards his smoke spot for a long time, but maybe that’s a good thing. For him, at least. “I know what you mean.”

 

“Okay,” Nick says, shoulders relaxing. “Okay, good. I just wanted to feel like I wasn’t crazy, I guess. I’d talk to Proctor, but you saw how he was in there.”

 

“I’ll help you,” George says. “If you want.”

 

“What?” Nick says. “For real? I wouldn’t want to—”

 

“No, I think it could help, if we brought it up,” George says. The possibilities already flash in front of him—if they don’t progress the art investigation, they might be able to get undercovers in to find out more about the theft straight from the source, and then they might be able to trace the painting itself. It means he’ll stay in Orlando for longer, but—maybe he needs to stay in Orlando for longer.

 

You want to , George’s brain tells him. Important distinction .

 

“I think so too,” Nick says. “But—not right now, obviously. And we probably shouldn’t admit we talked about it at all. Or, like—I should probably just stay completely silent the entire time is what I’m saying.”

 

“If only I could stay completely silent,” George says sorrowfully. “Yeah, I—I think it’s important to talk to Proctor about it. And I’m not his agent. He’ll have to listen to what I say if I get Wallace involved.”

 

“I hope he does,” Nick says. “I really fucking hope he does.”

 

** 

 

The Conrad Lennox case closes the next night like a thumped Bible. He was a security guard murdered by a vengeful drug peddler who didn’t want competition towards his casinos, so he used him as an example—something Alyssa calls a capitalistic hamartia and something George calls a bullshit excuse. Carter Page was thought to be the killer, but he was not. 

 

“If we can finally find Carter Page, it’ll be a day to fucking rejoice, I swear,” Hank says, as they lead each other through the exit towards his car. George is still following them because it’s not like he can hang out with Proctor and Nick and Baker, but it’s not like he’d been invited to wherever they’re heading to. He just figured he’d been invited, because he’s a selfish fucking idiot. They don’t say it, but he knows they think it. 

 

He still really hopes they don’t say it. 

 

“We’ll find him,” Darryl says easily, and they stop at Hank’s car, and George turns around to head back to the entrance of the station because he doesn’t really know where else to go and he’s home alone tonight, so he wants to get home quickly and fall asleep before Dream stumbles back home on an eight-ball and a bottle of Jack Daniels, but then he hears Darryl say, “Hey, where are you going?”

 

George turns around. They all watch him in quiet fascination. He juts a thumb back towards the station. “I was just kind of, um, thinking I’d head back,” he says awkwardly, not mentioning that he’d thought about asking Nick for a ride home so he wouldn’t bother Hank, but Darryl just furrows his eyebrows.

 

“What are you talking about?” He says. “I know our departments have their—differences, but that’s work, man. You’re still our friend.” George doesn’t say anything. “Come on—we haven’t gotten to celebrate a case in a long time, and no matter what happens, you’re gonna close up yours soon, too. Come out with us.”

 

He looks at Alyssa.

 

“Yes, I want you to come, idiot,” she says, with what George thinks is fondness. “I won’t yell at you. Promise.” 

 

“Me neither,” Hank says.

 

“You couldn’t yell at me if you tried,” George says, forcing himself to loosen up. Hank’s face splits into a smile.

 

“I could and I totally would,” he complains loudly, and they erupt into a comfortably domestic conversation as they pile into Hank’s car and start for somewhere George doesn’t recognize. He’s been out a few times with Hank and Darryl, but downtown Orlando is nothing like Miami. He knows this even when they pile out into a bar that Darryl tells him is actually pretty chill .

 

It is pretty chill, if he’s a person who’s allowed to decide that type of thing. It’s nestled somewhere in the stomach of downtown Orlando, the exact location Hank had warned him to never go clubbing in, but that apparently hasn’t stopped them as a group yet.

 

 It’s late enough to be cozily packed, slow bodies writhing against purple barstools and seductive lighting. The ceilings are low and the floors are graffitied over in colorful lettering, and George can feel sweat sticking his clothes to his body immediately, the smooth temptation of the club worming somewhere inside him. It’s too dark to know what he’s doing but it’s too tepid to do anything but sit in a booth, so they sit in a booth.

 

“You could still get a Coke or something,” Alyssa suggests, as they watch George pick at his bowl of peanuts in something they must mistake as misery. 

 

“Nah, don’t worry,” George says. “It’s not something I miss. Me and my peanuts are fine.”

 

“I know it’s not polite to say it out loud, but—I really do admire that you don’t do that sort of thing,” Hank says, eyes watching George’s reaction carefully. “It’s a lot of self-control, so. Props to you.”

 

That almost makes George laugh again. “Thanks, man,” he says, because he can’t say, I have things I like more than drinking and if I drink while doing those things I’ll die . “It’s a health thing, kind of. Not really a good idea for me to drink.” 

 

“Amen,” Darryl says, and lifts up his beer. “To never dragging around Hank’s drunk and decaying body around again.”

 

“I’m insulted,” Hank says, but clinks their glasses together anyway. “Do you think Baker updated Alvarez on what progress we made today?”

 

“Ah ah ah, no talking about work,” Darryl says, but nobody listens to him.  

 

“God, I hope so,” Alyssa says. “I really want to know what she thinks about the whole thing. If she’d been here today, I know she would’ve—” but she doesn’t get to finish because Darryl clamps a hand over her mouth and shushes her. 

 

“I said , no talking about work!” He says loudly, making Alyssa hymph and drown her sorrows into her cocktail. A moment of silence passes until he can’t hold it in any longer. “God, I do really wonder where she was today, though. I swear she hasn’t taken a sick day the entire time I’ve been with this department.”

 

“Yeah, it’s weird,” George says, but he doesn’t say why—the reason being because the last time he spoke to Alvarez one-on-one she’d been convincing him to break the law and he doesn’t know if they have that same reason for finding her absence so strange. Especially knowing she’s been sneaking around under Baker’s nose just as much as he has. He doesn’t want their questioning to turn into genuine worry, so he changes pace. “What I also find weird is that Hank hasn’t called his girlfriend since he left her in Miami.”

 

“Hank has a girlfriend in Miami ?” Alyssa says, voice filled with glee, and they’re chided over for a good hour or so. It’s easy enough to see how steadily the bar fills in the timeframe, until a group of barhoppers is practically crowded into their booth and George is picking at his peanut shells. 

 

“Is it always this full?” He yells at Hank, who just shakes his head in bewilderment.

 

“Nope,” he says. “I think tonight is weirdly packed. Look at the entrance—a shitton of people are out, for some reason.”

 

George cranes his neck to find the hole-in-the-wall door of the bar, which is perpetually held open by a bored-looking attendant as people pour inside. “That is a bit odd,” he murmurs, leaning back into his booth to continue peeling at a peanut shell. “Is it a holiday or something?”

 

“If a Saint Don party is a holiday,” Darryl says. “It’s kind of an open secret that when he decides Orlando’s in need of a party, he throws a party.”

 

“Makes sense, for it to be Don,” Alyssa sighs. “I wanted to tell myself it was some Wall Street Plaza celebration, but—you’re right.” She swings back a gulp of her drink and grimaces at the flavor. “It’s weird he’s being so open about it. Usually he doesn’t want cop attention at those parties.”

 

George frowns, a feeling inching its way into his gut like water torture to the scalp. “He doesn’t want cop attention?”

 

“I mean, usually, no,” Alyssa says. “I only found out what he had planned tonight ‘cause I overheard some witnesses talking about it at Page’s apartment.” 

 

“I heard about it, too,” Hank says, but doesn’t note who told him so George won’t make fun of him about Vica for another half-hour. “Obviously he’s not keeping it quiet.”

 

“Obviously,” George echoes, looking down at the table. “That’s…” 

 

“Don’t say it,” Darryl says. “No work talk.” George sends him a look. “ However . My cop radar is kind of going off.”

 

“God, I didn’t want to say it out loud, but I was thinking about it, too,” Hank says, voice spilling out like he’d been holding it in. “It’s messing with me. I don’t know if you guys remember, but before he worked out that deal with the Baker, he was really, really fucking good at weeding out undercovers. Like, really good.”

 

George twitches uncomfortably in his seat. He doesn’t like what that means, because if Hank knows, that means Dream knows, too. That means he wanted George there for a reason.

 

He wouldn’t do that to me , George thinks, but he doesn’t know, because he doesn’t know what Dream would do. He doesn’t know him. It hurts to hammer in, but he doesn’t know him. Rather—he shouldn’t know him. 

 

“I don’t know about his cronies, but he’s always been weirdly good at recognizing people as cops,” Hank continues. “But the only way he’d be able to do that would be if he was in the same location as them, which isn’t always possible with his clubs and shit, so—he had a lot of parties. Do you remember?”

 

“I wasn’t here, but I heard about it,” Alyssa says, as Darryl chews on his lip next to her. “God, don’t tell me we have to go check that shit out. I’m officially declaring myself off-duty. I cannot deal with this right now.”

 

“We don’t have to go anywhere,” Hank says coaxingly. “But won’t it bother you if we don’t figure out why he’s—”

 

“It will not bother me,” Alyssa says dutifully, “Because he knows us and he knows it’ll bother us and I’m not giving him the satisfaction of being right.”

 

“I guess you’re right,” Hank says, seemingly dropping the topic. “Some people definitely need that satisfaction of being right, though.” 

 

“Yeah,” Darryl says. And then: “Wait.”

 

“Wait,” George says. 

 

“No,” Alyssa says, after a painful halt. “She wouldn’t.”

 

“It sounds like her, though,” George says. “ The satisfaction of being right . Tell me that doesn’t sound like her.”

 

Alyssa holds his glance.

 

“I’ll call her,” she says.

 

**

 

Alvarez doesn’t answer. Not on the first ring and not on the sixth call. 

 

It cuts their festivities short, to say the least, because it turns into George racking his messages for the address Dream has definitely implanted into his phone at some point—he finds it easily, left in his Notes app from where he must have passed out while they watched Kitchen Nightmares sometimes this week, because that’s something they fucking do now. He tacks his phone up to use as a GPS while Darryl continues the rapid-fire calls to Alvarez’s cell.

 

“Straight to voicemail,” he says, fingers of his free hand so tight on the grab handle on the ceiling of the car they go white. “I bet it’s dead. Should I call Baker?”

 

No !” Alyssa says, at the same time that Hank goes, “Jesus fuck, no! Let’s just—we’re going to have to go inside, but they’ll definitely recognize me and Darryl. We’ve been doing fucking interrogations for the past week.”

 

“I could go in,” Alyssa suggests. Hank hisses air between his teeth from the driver’s seat as they catch sight of the winding road of cars pulling up to Don’s luxurious driveway. His mansion isn’t fenced in, surprisingly, and the front lawn opens up to something comparable to a sideshow attraction—artificial palm trees open up like praying palms against the sky, and lights scatter the seafoam walls of the modern-light mansion. “I’ve been overseeing the crime scenes for a while. I’ve barely even met any of your suspects.”

 

“That sounds good,” Hank says distractedly, eyes darting over to George in the rearview mirror. “If you’re down to go in, George, it’d probably be better to have two people inside looking for Alvarez. They definitely won’t know who you are.”

 

“Yeah,” George says. “Definitely.” 

 

He doesn’t argue. He doesn’t know what he could say. He resorts to combing back his hair and pulling off his zip-up hoodie and rolling up his sleeves. He looks through the window: grand balconies hover precariously over the hordes of partygoers, so different from the old-money guests George had seen at the Baker mansion that it almost scares him. 

 

“We don’t have wires, so just—Alyssa can call Darryl, and you can call me,” Hank says quickly, working them into machines at the front exit of the Baker mansion. “We’ll be able to hear everything you’re doing.”

 

“Yeah, yeah, that’s fine,” George says. He and Alyssa have about twenty seconds to jump out and into the party before the person behind them starts honking, but George still doesn’t feel ready. He feels like an idiot for not taking anything, but he jumps out anyway. 

 

It’s kind of a beautiful way for everything to end: it’ll blow up in his face like the fireworks Saint Don’s gaggle of Playboy Bunnies are letting off in the backyard. “Let me hold onto your arm,” Alyssa tells him, and George says, “What?” And Alyssa says, “Don’t fucking ask questions. Let’s just—get inside, and we’ll split up onto the floors. Meet at the pool that’s off-grounds in half an hour. Okay?”

 

“Okay,” George says. 

 

Getting inside is the easy part. 

 

George knows, in the logical part of his mind, that Baker’s parties are for networking. They’re for finger-foods and whispers between politicians and art nouveau and Baroque women. There are no Baroque women at Saint Don’s mansion: there are strippers and models and prostitutes and angels, blonde angels and brunette angels with pale skin and dark skin and tiny smiles and long legs, all wearing artificial halos and artificial wings tacked onto their backs. It’s so phony it’s almost endearing and it’s so suffocating it’s almost enough to make George sick.

 

He knows Dream is here.

 

It’s not a Miami club, either, and now that George has seen the place, he doesn’t think he can imagine Dream anywhere else. He sees people lick ecstasy out of each other’s mouths and he sees men push girls against pool tables and he watches spilled blood go ignored and moaning mouths go obeyed. Pure Wildean hedonism. 

 

They do whatever they want. Of course Dream would like it here; of course he’d want to show George what it’s like. He doesn’t know if he’s being naive, convincing himself that that’s the real reason, because the alternative is so eerie, so shrouded, that it’d be easier to accept anything else. Fucking anything else.

 

The panic sets in. He’s been peeking his head inside the numerous grand bedrooms, and even though he hasn’t seen a dangerously familiar face at any point yet, he also hasn’t found Alvarez. He looks out the window at the pool—it’s lit up by the fireworks going off in the sky and covered by people, so it must not be the one Alyssa was referring to. 

 

He desperately wants to know what Alvarez is looking for, here—if she’s looking for anything—but he doesn’t want to ask her, when he finds her. If he finds her. He hopes, selfishly, that she’ll tell him on her own volition. 

 

George rattles at the door handle of one of the unexplored bedrooms, finding it suspiciously unlocked. When he sees it’s empty, he readies himself to turn back and keep searching, but a gleam of blue light flashes against the stained glass of the sliding door against the balcony. Someone giggles; shushes another person. The voices are distinctly female. He clicks the door shut behind him. 

 

“What are you doing?” Hank asks from the other side of the phone.

 

“I’ll call you back,” George says, and hangs up. 

 

He steps forward, willing himself to move closer, but Alvarez does it for him. “Hello?” He hears her call, and she walks off the balcony and back into the bedroom, voice catching on her breath when she sees him. Arla walks behind her. 

 

They both look different. Alvarez’s hair is down, protruding over her back in a sea of black ink; she’s wearing flashy jewelry and a tight dress and bright, smeared lipstick, lipstick that draws attention to her mouth like a beacon. “ George ?” 

 

“Are you fucking kidding me?” He asks, and watches Arla’s fingers inch themselves over her shoulder to hold her closer. Alvarez goes so easily George thinks she’s on something, for a moment, but her eyes are sober and alert. “No way. No fucking—”

 

“Don’t say anything,” Alvarez pleads, and her iron resolve isn’t even crumbling in front of George; it isn’t there to begin with. She’s someone different. “Please, George, I’ll explain everything, just please don’t—”

 

“You’ll explain everything ?” He asks. “There’s shit to explain here? Do you even—what the fuck is going on here?”

 

“Don’t talk to her like that,” Arla says, and then George says, “I’m sorry, who the fuck are you to her again?” And Arla says, “Her girlfriend, actually,” and George says, “No the fuck you are not ,” and Arla says, “I’m pretty sure I am, and you shouldn’t be saying anything because you and my ex-boyfriend have been running fucking circles around each other for the past two months,” and Alvarez says, “Can both of you just—shut the fuck up for one fucking second and let me talk? Jesus Christ. Just—give me a second, okay, babe? Let me talk to him.” 

 

“Okay,” George says, cutting off his own argument abruptly. He’s so angry he feels like directing it all onto Arla. He’s so angry it feels like he’s looking at himself, and he may as well be—he may as well fucking be. “If you want to talk to me, Alvarez, you can talk to me.” 

 

She takes a deep breath. “She is my girlfriend,” she says, and watches the way George rises to the surface before continuing. “But she’s not—let me explain, okay, George? I know you think she’s this evil person, and I know I should think that too, but—that’s not what happened, okay? Things don’t go to plan. You know things don’t go to plan.” 

 

“Don’t tell me what I know,” George says between gritted teeth, just to watch her wilt.

 

“You have to understand,” Alvarez says, “She hasn’t done anything wrong. And when I say that, I’m speaking as your Sargeant, not as her girlfriend. She’s a witness , George. In your investigation, for God’s sake, not even mine.” 

 

“Did you send in the tip?” George demands. 

 

“What tip?” Arla asks, but George doesn’t pay her any attention. 

 

“No,” Alvarez says. “That wasn’t me.” 

 

“But you’ve done other things,” George says. Arla making it out of overnight holding suddenly makes sense. “To help her.”

 

“That doesn’t matter,” Alvarez says, even though it matters. Even though George can’t stop thinking about how neatly everything lines up now that he knows she’s hooking up with Dream’s ex-girlfriend. Not even hooking up with —dating. She’s fucking dating her. Not as casual as a hookup but not as serious as a marriage; the perfect in-between for eventually stomping her under her heel. “I’ve never interfered in her investigation, ever , and she’s never tried to extort me for anything. I promise you.”

 

“You’re lying,” George says, and Arla must be sick of it, because she says, “Aren’t you , Detective Davidson?” 

 

“Stop,” Alvarez tells her quietly, and she listens. She turns back to George. “We talked about this, George. We both have our methods for keeping an ear to the ground.” She squeezes Arla’s hand. “Mine just ended up a little more complicated than expected.”

 

George’s mouth tastes bitter. “You weren’t answering your phone,” he tells her. “We’ve been trying to reach you all night. Me, Darryl, Hank, Alyssa—she and I are here to look for you, even though we shouldn’t be. Even though we were somehow warned that Don uses these parties to weed out undercovers, but your girlfriend somehow forgot to mention that you probably shouldn’t be here as a fucking cop.”

 

“She’s not here as a cop,” Arla bites back. “She’s here as my plus-one. You’re seriously implying I’d let Don put a bullet in her skull?”

 

“That’s what he does to us?” George asks.

 

“You wanna fucking find out?” Arla says, but Alvarez just says, “Shit, George, I’m so sorry—my phone’s dead. I’ll—I’ll call them right now. You said Alyssa’s here?”

 

George manages to tear his eyes away from Arla’s face. “Yeah, looking for you,” he says forcefully. He doesn’t know why he’s so disappointed, when he’s pretty sure he’s done worse things than her. It feels selfish to use her as his gauge for the morality of his actions, but at this point, maybe he should fucking admit he’s a selfish person. “I’m supposed to meet her out back, if we find you. You need to leave.”

 

“Okay,” Alvarez says, quietly. “Okay. Yeah. We really should go anyway.”

 

“Don’t just fucking listen to him, Mira,” Arla tells her, but Alvarez shakes her head.

 

“They’re not safe, if they’re in here,” she says, “And they’re not going to leave if I don’t leave. It’s okay. We can just go back to my place, if you want to come with me.”

 

“Of course I want to come with you,” Arla says. “Fine. Jesus. And you , Detective—I expect you’re going to stay quiet, if you don’t want the entire world finding out the shit you’ve been getting at behind closed doors.”

 

“Trust me, I’ll be quiet,” George says, but doesn’t look at her. He looks at Alvarez. “Really. I mean it.” 

 

“Thank you,” she tells him.

 

“This conversation isn’t over,” he calls behind her, as she and Arla leave the room and leave him feeling like a disappointed father. Like he’s ,at any point, the mature person in this equation—but at least he’s not selfish enough to act upon his desires. 

 

He calls Hank again. He’ll let Arla create her own cover story; he doesn’t think he can make anything up that would make sense when his heart is already beating out of his mouth. 

 

“Hey,” Hank says. “Everything good?”

 

George clicks off the speaker and brings the phone to his ear, opening the balcony again and walking out. The air streaks over his skin in its sudden humidity, and he looks down at the pool. There’s an overflowing fountain at the center topped by a statue of a cherub, and pink dots of people dot the water like cocktail umbrellas. 

 

“Everything’s fine,” he finds himself saying. “I found Alvarez—she’s on her way back home, I told her to call you. I need to tell Alyssa, but—”

 

“Oh, holy shit, thank God,” Hank says, and George hears Darryl say something near him. “Okay, cool. We parked kind of—off-grounds, but if you move through the pool Alyssa saw earlier you’ll see where we are.”

 

“I’m on my way,” George says, and hangs up. He knows he’s selfish because he gives himself a moment to think. He clutches his phone to his chest and watches the people in the pool invent a new type of gluttony. He knows they’re not hungry, but they keep eating like they’re starving. 

 

He goes downstairs, after that, and thinks about finding Dream, but the fucked up part is that he knows Dream will find his way back to him anyway. He’ll need somewhere to crash tonight, and George will need someone to look at. 

 

George has to walk through an archway topped by two honest-to-God marble angels to get to the pool, which is definitely more tacky than it is impressive. A gaggling group of people jump into the pool in their swim trunks, splattering waiters carrying serving trays. Some of them head towards a closed clearing between the shrubbery, so George follows.

 

He doesn’t know how Saint Don seeds out his undercovers, but following the twitchy people who trail after waiters must be as good of a way as ever. Some of the servers go off into employee entrances, but George’s attention is quickly drawn to the artificial palm leaves closing off a glowing square of white he has to strain his eyes to see. 

 

He walks closer, splitting through the palm trees and letting the shrubbery cut at his ankles. The first thing that hits him is that it’s completely secluded: it must be Saint Don’s private pool, because there’s only one person inside it. The second thing is that it’s not white; it’s turquoise, brighter than the contrived dark blue of the rest of the pools. It's always easier to see the blues, and through the colors blurring George's vision, Dream goes off like a flashing neon light.

 

He doesn’t give himself time to see who’s around, because the pool is secluded enough to make him seem completely alone. Completely alone with fucking Dream , who’s humming to himself and bobbing in the water in what looks like the same suit he’d worn to Baker’s party.

 

George walks closer, shoes clicking against the tiles. The purpling night dyes the floor under his feet pink, and when he looks around the colors darken the edge of his vision, the greys of the palm trees and the deep purples of their shadows—and the eternal, completely perpetual teal light of the pool. When Dream sees him, his smile goes so big George almost doesn’t recognize him.

 

George !” He says joyously, and swims closer to the edge, pulling himself up so that his elbows rest against the edge of the pool. Dream peeks up at him, eyes reflecting every color, colors George doesn’t recognize. He’s completely drenched, so George slips his phone and wallet out of his pocket and kicks them to the side before Dream does something stupid like touch him. And then he touches him. “You came. Holy shit. You came .”

 

“I didn’t come for you,” George says, and tries to kick his foot out from where Dream grabs at his ankles. The wetness that seeps into the leg of his pants is only somewhat refreshing. “I had to—Alvarez was here, okay?”

 

“I know,” Dream says.

 

 “Is that why you wanted me to come here?” George snaps at him—if his irritation at Arla had been repressed, the way he talks to Dream must be borderline despicable. “Because you knew Saint Don keeps an eye out for cops? Is that why you were so obsessed with making me come?”

 

“What?” Dream says, blinking chlorine out of his eyes. His nails digging crescents against George’s exposed calf. “That’s— no . I told you to come here so you could get your friend out. Alvarez.”

 

What ?” George says. “How did you know she’d be here?” 

 

“Arla,” Dream says. “They’re—”

 

“Yeah,” George says. “I know. But—”

 

“I’ve done shit for Saint Don,” Dream says, “But honeytraps are—I don’t do honeytraps. And this shit—” he unattaches his hand from George’s leg and drifts back for a second, spreading his arms out as he treads water, “—Is the fucking Alfafa honey of Saint Don parties. I mean, seriously. He has Playboy Bunnies here.”

 

“I saw,” George says. It’s good Dream tells him the party’s a honeytrap, because he definitely would’ve realized that too late; especially considering that this is his ideal honeytrap. Dream, alone, looking up at him with the pink of his mouth on full display, so pink it makes a perfect heart from where George looks down at him. “Are you?”

 

“Am I what?” Dream asks.

 

“Trapping me,” George says, like Dream will give him an honest answer. Dream must know it’s a ridiculous question, too, even though he looks like he’s already chugged a bottle of his liquor of choice, because he swims closer and pushes himself up at George again.

 

“Always,” he says. “And one day I’ll have you right where I want you and you’ll never be able to leave.”

 

“That’s what you want?” George says. Dream tilts his head like he’s thinking about it. His hair is streaked back from the chlorine.

 

“No,” he decides, finally. “I don’t want you at all.” 

 

“You—” George says, but his voice turns into a shriek because Dream gives a sudden yank at his leg, and he goes tumbling into the pool, face-planting directly onto water that feels like shards of glass. He watches Dream swim at him under the surface, laughs turning to bubbles under the water as he rises back to the surface, coughing incoherently.

 

Dream what the fuck —” he starts, but then Dream giggles and places a finger against his lips, says, “Shhh, you don’t want us to get caught, do you?” And George says, “Are you—not— meant to be here?” And Dream says, “That doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. Isn’t it so fucking nice?”

 

“Isn’t what nice?” George gasps. He’s in his dress shirt and slacks, so the water weighs down on him, and that’s not even mentioning the way he’s still struggling for air from being flung into a pool

 

“When shit doesn’t matter,” Dream says, smile still big. His face is pale like the white marble cherubs, and the turquoise water draws faint blue lines under his eyes. “ This is what it was like for those people God killed, George. This is what it was like. This is why he hated them so much.”

 

“Maybe he fucking should’ve,” George bites back. “Maybe it—fuck—maybe this isn’t— good for us, Dream, God. This isn’t good for you.”

 

“I know,” Dream says. “It’s so bad for me. That’s why I do it in small doses.”

 

“What?” George says. “What do you mean?”

 

Dream just shakes his head. “There’s so much I want to tell you,” he says, and his feet kick George’s under the water, his voice echoing against the secluded tiles. “Is that fucked? That there’s so much I want to talk to you about?”

 

“So fucked,” George says. Get out of the pool . “Me too.”

 

“You too?” Dream asks. His breath tastes like whiskey. 

 

“Me too,” George says. “I do want to talk to you about things. I think—I think you’re smart. And I think you could—help me, with some things, but we could never—you know this could never—be anything. Right?”

 

“What?” Dream asks, and has the nerve to look confused. “Why not?” 

 

“Are you serious?” George says. “You can’t be serious.”

 

“Why can’t I be serious?” Dream says.

 

“You killed someone,” George says.

 

“No,” Dream says, and catches the way George’s eyes flick over his face. “I mean—it’s—I told you that I want to tell you things, but I can’t. This is one of those things I can’t tell you.”

 

“What?” George says. “You—Dream, did you help with the Lennox hit or not?”

 

“Hmm,” Dream says, and doesn’t answer. He swims towards the wall of the pool, and George follows, finally getting the chance to catch his breath when Dream just watches him pant against the railing he grips. 

 

“You can’t just not answer,” George says desperately, clinging to the railing of the pool. “I have—this— image of you, you know, you can’t just—you don’t get to fuck with the way people think about you, Dream. I think about you in one way. Can we keep it to one way? One fucking way?”

 

Dream just shakes his head. “I don’t have to answer because you’re going to find out what I mean at some point,” He says. “I promise, okay? You’re going to know everything that’s going on and maybe—maybe then you’ll realize that—there’s still a chance.”

 

“There’s zero fucking chance, Dream,” George says, but he has no energy to put force into his voice. 

 

“You want me,” Dream breathes. “So badly it hurts. Tell me I’m wrong.”

 

A beat passes; the air leaves George’s mouth like he has to slice it to bloody shards with his teeth. He watches their breaths mingle into pink fog in front of his eyes, thinks, his blood must taste like mine, too , says, “Not in the way you think.”

 

“What way am I thinking?” Dream says.

 

“In the dangerous way,” George says. “I don’t want you in the dangerous way. I just want you in the stupid way. It’s not dangerous yet.”

 

“Yet?” Dream asks hopefully.

 

“Don’t you understand?” George says, voice breaking. “I’m not going to kiss you, I’m not going to fuck you, I’m never—you really don’t fucking get it? Nothing. Can ever happen.” 

 

 “Things happen whether you want them to or not,” Dream says. “Something’s fucking happening to you and you’re ignoring it.”

 

George squeezes his eyes shut. He’s cold and wet and he knows, without kissing him, that Dream tastes like blood and chlorine. “You don’t know anything.”

 

“I wish it was different,” Dream says, instead. “I wouldn’t have done the things I did if I got to have you in the end.”

 

“What things did you do?” George asks him, but Dream just breathes out, ducks his head against George’s glance. 

 

“Stupid things,” he says. “You’d be mad, if I told you.”

 

“I wouldn’t be mad,” George says, and he’s so close to knowing he can taste it, feel it, because maybe, foolishly, Dream will tell him. “I promise I wouldn’t be mad.”

 

“Okay,” Dream says. “Okay. Listen to me.”

 

“What?” George says, moving closer, and Dream moves a hand to his cheek, wet thumb brushing against his face, and he drops his voice and says, “I’ve hid you long enough. They’re going to come ask me if I’ve seen you, and I’m going to say no, but only if you fucking book it to your car. Okay?”

 

“What?” George asks.

 

“Okay?” Dream repeats, with fervor, and George says, “Okay,” and scrambles out of the pool from the edge, sopping wet clothes dripping water into his eyes and into his mouth and against his phone and his wallet, and before he cuts through the clearing he turns around and watches Dream kick off into the pool and float on his back, look up at the sky, and he realizes, with a start, that he owes him all over again. 

Chapter Text

Hi

i know you’re at work but plz answe

answer*

Where do you keep your rubbing alcohol

lol

 

????

Why??

dw about it

just tell me 

tell me why???

Are you in my house??

Dream

 

Dream doesn’t answer. Unsurprisingly. George fires off the texts under the table in the bullpen, texting with one hand and tapping his nails against the wood with the other, but then Nick leans over and says, “Who’s that ?” And he snatches the phone away and shoves it back into his pocket. 

 

“Nothing,” he says uncomfortably. He looks over at the hangman they’ve been playing on the corner of Nick’s yellow legal pad. He scratches a Y onto the paper, but Nick ignores it. His stick-man’s only missing two legs. 

 

At the head of the table, Darryl pauses in what he’s been talking about and raises an eyebrow at him. It’s hard not to feel guilty while interrupting Darryl. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to—”

 

“No, now I’m interested,” Darryl says, and cocks a hand on his hip. “You still haven’t told us her name.” 

 

“Or his,” Alyssa adds. A row of unfamiliar eyes turn on him. George closes his eyes.

 

“Not all of us are as interested about the girl Detective Davidson is sleeping with,” Alvarez says crisply, and George looks down the table at her. He’s been trying to line up the way he saw her at the party with the pristine view he has of her most of the time, and he’s been wholly unsuccessful. Every time he thinks about her face, it’s a Schrodinger’s cat on whether she’ll be holding Arla’s hand or standing by Baker’s side as his right-hand man. “As you were saying, Noveschosch.” 

 

“Right,” Darryl says belatedly, as all of the eyes turn back on him and the whiteboard he’s been scribbling on. “Um—well, I was really almost finished wrapping up the Lennox murder, but I just wanted to mention that if the Art team stays in Florida, I think some boundaries will have to be drawn on what’ll be reported from what they find undercover. For the Narcotics case.” 

 

George frowns. “I didn’t think that would be a problem,” he says, looking down at the other side of the table, where Proctor is standing and pacing behind Hank’s seat. Hank drops a pencil he’s been trying to balance on his fingers and stretches uneasily. “Unless—”

 

“It’s less of a problem and just something I can’t promise,” Proctor says. The conversation with him hadn’t been fun; George had to threaten to get Wallace on the phone three times instead of once, which was a record high for him. “The fact that we’re staying in Orlando for even longer than we need to means we can’t lose any precious time working with your drug team.”

 

“Right, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to—tell Narcotics if you find anything,” Darryl says uncomfortably. 

 

“Since when do you report to the Narcotics unit, Noveschosch?” Harwood asks. 

 

“Catfight,” Nick says, under his breath. “ Meow .” 

 

“I don’t, but—” Darryl starts, and one of the Narcotics beat-cops says, “It’s still a valid question, Saint Don’s basically the heart of the Orlando underground,” and Harwood—in all of her gum-chewing, shoe-tapping, Proctor’s-favorite-detective glory—says, “I’m sorry, but who the fuck are you?” 

 

“Oh, God,” George says, against the rising tension. He looks back at the hangman, and to his surprise, Nick’s written the Y onto the second empty space out of the five letters. LY G, it now reads. He writes an M. Nick draws a leg onto the stick-man. 

 

“Last chance, man,” he whispers. 

 

“The most I’ll allow is having a Narcotics detective go undercover with Davidson and Harwood,” Proctor says loudly, cutting through the frenzied conversation with such certainty that people quiet around him. “I would’ve made exceptions for the Narcotics team before, but we’re running out of time, and to be completely frank, Special Enforcement only has Violent Crimes to blame for us not cooperating.” 

 

George writes an N; Nick fills it in. 

 

Hank and Alyssa stare bullets at him. George cracks his knuckles, looking away from them and back at the Narcotics beat cops whispering frantically between themselves. Proctor looks entirely too self-satisfied for his liking—like stirring the pot isn’t just necessary, but some kind of revenge. 

 

“Our department,” Alvarez says, standing up, “Is not to blame , Lionel.” 

 

The noise shrivels up like a dehydrated plant, and George watches reactions blur together in real time: Nick’s hand tightens around his pencil; the beat-cops’ tongues freeze in their mouths; the whiteboard squeals away from Darryl’s hand on squeaky wheels. Proctor just looks at her. 

 

“Your department is self-serving and completely and totally inefficient,” he says. “You were better off solving the Lennox case by yourself.” 

 

“Bro,” Nick says. 

 

“You’re lucky Munoz isn’t here,” Alvarez says, deathly quiet. “Because he would’ve kicked your ass by now for talking to his detectives like that.”

 

“O-kay,” Darryl says loudly, stepping forward and clapping his hands together. “As I was saying! We should probably go over how the undercover investigation’s going to go, right? We could give you guys some tips? We’re all friends here, Alvarez, Agent Proctor, no need to… um…” 

 

Alvarez stands up and leaves the room. George’s eyes flick around the bullpen to see Baker’s reaction, but he isn’t even here today—and neither is the head of Special Enforcement. Nick nudges him, and when George looks back over at him, he raises his eyebrows and juts his head towards the exit. George looks at the hangman. 

 

LY NG

 

“Lying?” He whispers. Darryl’s droning on, albeit uneasily. George should stay here to listen to what the detectives are going to have to do while undercover. It’s just hard to pay attention when he’s not going to be doing anything. “About what?”

 

Nick just shakes his head. “Just go, George.” 

 

He stands up, his chair squeaking noticeably, but Darryl doesn’t say anything when he leaves. He probably knows George is better equipped to be undercover than most of them, at this point. The only problem is going to be that he’ll be surrounded by other cops who aren’t as inclined to let him out of their sight. He finds Alvarez outside.

 

It’s been a long day. Her hands shake when she tries to light her cigarette, which blooms her face in light against the greying air. George opens the box, and finds her like this: putting on a front she hates like a delicate keratin shell. 

 

“Hey,” he says, uncomfortably. She doesn’t turn around, shoving the lighter back into her pocket as she hollows her cheeks against the cigarette. “I’m… back there—” 

 

“I don’t give a fuck what he could say about me , George,” she says, but her voice trembles. She’s shaky like he is. “But to call my department— my department—self-serving? I’ve made this shit out of my blood sweat and tears —I’ve spent every single day at this job making them better, trying to fix this fucking—this fucking stain Baker’s left on Violent Crimes. And he tries to tell me—”

 

“I know,” George says consolingly, and when he walks forward she flinches. His nostrils fill with smoke. “Really, he’s—Proctor’s a fucking prick. Like, genuinely. I’ve always thought so.”

 

“Biggest fucking prick on Earth,” she says, frustrated. “But—I don’t know. Maybe he’s right. Maybe Art Theft should’ve moved in first. The murder was always here for us , but—” 

 

“Oh, come on,” George says. Everything around him is a reminder that he could be wrong—could always be wrong—yet a reminder only able to disturb the subliminal parts of him. He watches her ash the cigarette at their feet, and the fire crumbles into dark grey. “Don’t think like that, that—he could maybe be right. Anyone could maybe be right at any point in time. But we’ve already made our decisions.” 

 

She doesn’t say anything. “Arla hasn’t been texting me back.” 

 

“Oh,” George says. 

 

“It’s not putting me on edge or anything,” she says. “I’m reasonable enough to put her on the back-burner, but—” and she looks over at him, and he can see, very quickly, how fast and how hard she’d fallen. “Have you—I don’t know if I should ask, but—have you been—?” 

 

Dream’s not a good texter. He only answers when George spams him, and George hasn’t been spamming him. “A little,” he tells Alvarez. “He’s back home. Do you want me to ask if he’s seen her?” 

 

“No,” she says. “I just wanted—I just wanted to make sure. Okay. That’s fine.” She looks over at him again. “I haven’t thanked you properly yet, have I?”

 

“What?” George asks. “For what?”

 

“Getting me out in time,” she says thinly, like it hurts to say. “Don wasn’t happy he couldn’t find any cops; Arla told me. He was sure someone would be there. He started asking around after I left.” 

 

He’s always going to be in this fucking invisible debt, isn’t he?

 

 “I’m not the person you should be thanking,” George says.

 

“Who should I be thanking?” She asks, and it clicks. “...Oh. I didn’t even know he was there.” 

 

“It’s okay,” George says. He watches her toe at the ash under their feet. The smoke pricks at his tongue—mixes with the exhaust fuel from the busy street, mixes with the heat emanating from the sidewalk slabs. “I didn’t know your name was Mira.” 

 

Zel mira,” she corrects. “It means brilliant one .” 

 

She looks over at him. Her face is soft at the jagged edges, and she laughs a little, and he’s light enough to smile back.

 

** 

 

When George is back home that night he checks the status of his rubbing alcohol: only half-used, which doesn’t look much different from the last time he had to use it to clean up a wound. It only placates him slightly as he changes into sweatpants and walks into his kitchen. Dream is cutting up fruit, and George can’t tell if he’s trying to keep his presence unknown or not. 

 

“You have your own house, Dream,” he says, and walks closer. Dream just hums and keeps cutting up strawberries to toss into one of George’s only clean bowls. 

 

“Yeah, but your fridge is the only reason I’m being kept alive right now,” he says, and licks his thumb clean of juice. “You have, like, fruits and vegetables. I made a salad earlier. And I put croutons in it.”  

 

George walks closer and puts his hand on top of Dream’s over the knife. “Are you gonna be here tomorrow night?”

 

“Nah,” Dream says. His hand keeps working like George’s isn’t even there. “Got stuff to do. Why?” 

 

George freezes. He has to choose his words very, very carefully here. “ Stuff to do?” 

 

“Yeah,” Dream says, a moment later. “Driving down to Miami in the morning to pick up some... special surprises.” He studies George’s face. “Why are you being weird?” 

 

“I’m not being weird,” George says. “So when do you think the casino’s going to be active? After you pick up your— whatever ?”

 

“I mean, it always gets a little crazier when everyone’s loaded up on eight-balls, so yeah,” Dream says. “But, I mean, you never know. If I were you, I wouldn’t be focusing on a specific time for… whatever it is you’re planning on doing there.” 

 

“That’s not why I’m asking,” George says, instead of, God fucking damn it how did you guess are you fucking kidding me? Again? “And anyway, the department’s not going to be going undercover for a while. Narcotics’s just trying to plan some stakeouts.” He studies Dream’s face. He looks like he believes him. “People know a cop got in, remember? I shouldn’t be going undercover.”

 

“Yeah,” Dream says, and winces a little bit—it’s barely noticeable, but it’s there. “That’s good to hear. Hey—what’re you doing for Thanksgiving?” 

 

“Thanksgiving?” George repeats. He doesn’t remember the date, but he knows it’s soon. A week or so. Darryl had been talking about seeing his family. “I dunno. Using it as an off day. Why?” 

 

“That’s sad,” Dream says. 

 

“I’m not American, idiot,” George says. “Are you planning something? Am I gonna have to wear a sweater vest?” 

 

“Like you own one,” Dream says. “No. It’s just—I wanted to know. You’ve been here a really long time.” 

 

He has. And he could’ve left earlier, if he was a person with high moral standing. “The investigation’s taking a long time. Speaking of—Alvarez couldn’t reach Arla today.” 

 

He doesn’t miss the way Dream pauses, drags his fingers across the cutting board before finally letting George pry the knife away from his hand. He turns around and leans his hands against the counter, faux-casual. “And what would I know about that ?” 

 

“I don’t know,” George says, and lays the knife flat on the counter. “Maybe where she is , or what she’s doing. Since Alvarez and the head of Art Theft got into a fight about the stupidest shit ever and I’d like to tell her something that would actually make her feel better about her girlfriend not answering her calls.” 

 

“It’s honestly better for her this way, man,” Dream says. “Arla’s not—I mean, she hasn’t told me anything in particular , but she’s kind of this—void. You can tell her you love her a million times and she just absorbs it but never does anything about it.”

 

“You told her you loved her?” George asks sharply.

 

“How did you get that from what I said?” Dream says. “No. I didn’t. Does that make you feel better?”

 

Yes . “No. It doesn’t make me feel anything, actually. Just—just get her to call Alvarez or something. She’s not stupid enough to ghost a sargeant for the Orlando Police Department.”

 

“Oh, yeah?” Dream says. “Like Alvarez is gonna do... what? Threaten to shoot her for ignoring her texts?”

 

“I should shoot you for ignoring mine,” George says.

 

“Clingy,” Dream says. “Whatever. She’s whipped. I can tell. And I doubt Proctor’s gonna be that mad about whatever fight they had.”

 

“Proctor?” George repeats, and Dream freezes. His shirt rides up when he clutches the counter behind him, swings himself upwards. George, still standing in front of him, moves a hand towards the counter to push the knife into the sink. “I never told you his name.”

 

Dream doesn’t say anything, and George’s ear is close enough to his head when he tilts closer against the kitchen cabinets that he can hear his breath catch. “I… I knew it already,” he says, a moment later.  

 

“You knew it already,” George repeats, and pulls away. “You do your research?” 

 

“Since when is that a crime?” Dream asks.

 

“Since your ex-girlfriend became a suspect,” George says. 

 

Whatever ,” Dream says again, this time with feeling. He leans backwards onto the counter until he’s pushed himself into a sitting position with George still standing in front of his legs. “My stepdad’s the lieutenant. It’s not like I don’t know what’s going on over in that merry station.”

 

“Since when do you talk to your dad?” George asks. 

 

“I don’t exactly talk to him,” Dream says. “More like listen in on.” He eyes him warily. “Why does this feel like an interrogation?”

 

“Because I’m interrogating you,” George says. He doesn’t feel like defending himself. “Just so I know I’ve gotten this right—you heard Baker mentioning Proctor’s name and position and what he’s doing in Orlando completely by coincidence?” 

 

“Yeah,” Dream says. “And I haven’t talked to her today. I swear.”

 

“Alvarez?” George asks. 

 

“Not… Alvarez,” Dream says, and then George says, “Then who ?” And it stresses Dream out enough that he pushes his face into his hands and takes a heavy breath. He looks at George between his fingers.

 

“Don’t look so fucking pleased with yourself,” he says, and drops his hands to his sides to claw nails against his leg. George leans over and circles a hand around his wrist to push it away. Also completely by coincidence. 

 

 “You know you’re not fair,” Dream says. When he pulls away from George’s grip, plants his hands behind him, George’s fingers scramble for solace onto his thighs against his own volition. “To me,” he adds, like an afterthought. 

 

“In love and war,” George says wryly, but his heart is still pounding and he still feels twitchy. He’s holding himself back so intensely it hurts; he could paint everything around him with the desire congealing under his tongue. He looks down at his hand from where he’s still grabbing hold of Dream’s thigh and squeezes. Someone could put a noose around his neck and he still wouldn’t stop. 

 

“Just—just please tell Arla to call her,” he says. Dream’s face is still blank and kind of pained, but he hasn’t pushed away yet, and his knuckles are white from where he’s keeping himself stable against the countertop. “Will you?” 

 

“Yeah,” Dream says faintly, and his eyelids flutter like the pages of a scripture. George feels, suddenly, like he’s descreating something, because he looks touched. The way prodded flowers and sculpted metal looks touched, inert. “But I can’t—”

 

“Promise me anything,” George says quietly, and dips a hand back down around his leg. Dream hasn’t complained yet; they haven’t even brought it up. Like it’s something that’s happening against their conjoined will. Victims of the same force. “I know.”

 

Dream huffs a laugh. “You know .”

 

“I know,” George repeats. “You’ve never promised me anything. You can’t. But you still tell me you’re not going to do things and do them anyway, so I haven’t really been listening for a while.”

 

Dream flinches. “That’s not true.”

 

“It’s kind of true.” 

 

“You’re being fucking ungrateful, if that’s the case,” Dream says spitefully, and pushes himself further away from George’s grip. George’s hand slips from his thigh, and the incarnation shatters. He leans his head against George’s kitchen cabinets. 

 

“I’m not ungrateful,” George says. It’s definitely unfamiliar to put what he’s thinking into words, but he knows he isn’t a talker. That’s always been a problem. He stumbles over his words and doesn’t think about what he wants to say and slips on the vowels. But when Dream goes quiet it’s easier to speak out loud, knowing his eyes follow George anyway. “I’m really grateful. Really, really fucking grateful.” 

 

“Well—it—it isn’t bad for a lady to wanna hear it,” Dream says, but his voice is too shaky and his words don’t land, stuck somewhere in the zero-gravity between them. “God, George, I don’t know what you’re doing, but if you’re not going to kiss me I need you to get the fuck out of my face.”

 

George’s nerves try to jolt him back but he stays in place, glued down and permanently in front of him, permanently staring Dream in the mouth and his gaping, hungry eyes. “We already had this conversation.” 

 

“I’ll have it again,” Dream says. “I don’t mind.”

 

“You’re incorrigible,” George says. 

 

“You said you thought I was smart,” Dream says, and leans forward to wrap a hand around his elbow, tug him closer so George is still scouring through his options but much closer to his mouth. “That you wanted to ask me things. To help you. And I’m telling you that you have a royal flush in your hand and I’m betting everything I have. This could be good for you. Like, really, really fucking good for you.” 

 

“Incorrigible,” George says again. He knows too much—and that, there, is the root of the problem. He knows too much. They can both sense it the way animals can sense natural disasters, and George’s self-preservation is keeling over in misery, because Dream knows things George doesn’t know, and he’ll never tell him what they are, and George still forgives him. He’ll forgive him time and time again. 

 

“It’s okay to do things you want to do,” Dream says, voice tiny and heated, his Tesla coil skin sparking against George’s arms, the hairs sticking up. “Are you scared?”

 

George gulps down dry air. There’s a tornado in the distance, air still and filled with debris. “Scared of what?”

 

“Of me,” he says. 

 

The closest he can get is under his jaw, so George steps forward. He pushes his lips against the skin of Dream’s neck where he can feel his heartbeat—cold to the touch like bronze—and until it sparks against his mouth, shocks his tongue into a compliant stiffness, makes him ache, makes him selfish. “Terrified.” 

 

**

 

“You’re very distracted,” Hank says, from the driver’s seat.

 

“Hmm?” George says, picking at the skin of his bottom lip. He’s peering out of the window with one of the Art Theft detectives to his left and Darryl to his right, operating under Narcotics jurisdiction mostly because he’d have felt guilty if he didn’t. He was the one to start the whole issue, after all, and Munoz—head of Special Enforcement, which includes the Narcotics officers—didn’t want to hear his apologies, so this is just a different form of one. “Yeah. Sorry. What were you…?”

 

“Just wanted to make sure you know how to work the radio once they’re inside,” Hank says. “You good with the updated ones?” 

 

“I think so,” George says. He taps the communicator he has synced up to Darryl’s audio input; it’s like a bite-sized radio with a built-in mic in case he has to say anything into the earpiece Darryl has hidden against his ear, in his hair. “Alvarez messed with the volume for me before I left. It should be fine.” 

 

“Excellent,” Darryl says. “I don’t know. Maybe I’m paranoid. That tip seemed like one of those too good to be true situations, you know?” 

 

“It wasn’t,” the Art Theft detective says dismissively. Harwood, George thinks her name is. That shocks them into a bit of an uncomfortable silence, until Darryl is the one to pipe up, “Um… how do you know?” 

 

She looks up from her phone, her blasé, bony face striking fear into George’s poor little heart. “I would’ve thought it was too good to be true if I hadn’t heard Davidson talking about a cocaine shipment coming in tomorrow. Needing a refill on drugs is a pretty good indication of how good business has been for Don lately.” 

 

That does seem to placate Darryl slightly, but Hank scoffs. “I don’t think that was quite hearing ,” he says. “More like listening in .” 

 

“Let me know when it fucking matters, Hank,” Harwood says. 

 

“Zoinks,” Darryl says. 

 

George doesn’t really dare to breathe until they’re parked in the lot freed behind the museum. He only offers it as a spot because he remembers the caved-in fence, and once Darryl and Harwood get out of the car, they test the range of the audio. It doesn’t scratch as much as expected, so he considers it a success.

 

“Remember, you’re newly engaged,” Hank reminds them, as he adjusts the sensor clipped against the flipped-over collar of Darryl’s dress shirt. “Visiting from Ohio and just loving our Southern charm. They’ll love you because they’ll try and swindle you and you’ll let them.” 

 

“I know what the cover is,” Harwood says irritably. “As long as Noveshosch sits there and looks pretty I’ll be able to get anything out of anyone.” 

 

“I prefer Darryl, actually,” Darryl says. She looks at him once and he shrivels up again. They both slink into the night: Harwood with her tall, elegant posture, and Darryl still trying to make gentle conversation.

 

“They look weird together,” Hank says. 

 

“Tell me about it,” George says. 

 

The radio crackles. “I heard that,” Darryl says, the audio clear and warding away the rest of George’s paranoia. He laughs, adjusting the audio to run a bit louder even when a faint buzz comes out from the radio. He props it up against the car dashboard. 

 

Then begins the process of waiting, as timeless as it is long. He listens to Darryl and Harwood enter from the basement entrance, move stealthily through the bar and its low-stakes jazz music, give the password—‘white rabbit’, which was definitely put into place because of George—and finally, finally , make their way into the basement. The longer they idle, the more George wishes he could tell Darryl to leave it to Harwood. They didn’t go there to mingle. They’re supposed to be listening in for any information about the Backus, but he’s talking about cars. And about how the basement’s less crowded from the last time he was here. That’s not their agreed-upon plotline. 

 

“Give it a rest, Darryl,” George says into the mic, once Darryl launches into an intimate conversation with a guy who introduces himself as a bartender. Saint Don’s benefactors aren’t exactly a friendly bunch. It’s hard enough to listen to Darryl when the small talk he launches into doesn’t go well, but when he’s dropping the cover story to give details about the case—someone has to draw a line. 

 

He doesn’t say anything in response, continuing the conversation smoothly. George sighs and nods off against his headrest. “At least make it relevant.”

 

“Made it hard to get inside for a while, but, you know how it is,” the bartender is saying. There’s a swish of air as he must deal some cards. “You got a pest problem, you deal with the pest problem.”

 

“Pest problem?” Darryl asks.

 

“Yeah,” the bartender says. “Long story. We weren’t allowed around for a few days, and mind you, I’m here practically every night, so it was already hard enough, but get this—they’d let some cop in. Fuckin’ crazy. Don’s so good with the cops and then all of a sudden one slithers its way straight in.”

 

George would have just kind of preferred if they burned an effigy of him at the door. He can feel Hank looking at him, but he ignores him, pressing his fingers to his pounding skull. His head feels like he’s dipped it in fire.

 

“You’re kidding,” Darryl says, sounding—to his credit—genuinely interested. “How’d a cop get in?”

 

“I dunno,” the bartender says. “Everyone’s saying it’s J.G. I mean, it just lines up. He showed up saying he had to talk to Saint Don about something important, then the next day he’s here covered in bruises not talking at all, and then poof—in holding. Don’s been quiet about it, too. Hasn’t used him as an example or anything.” 

 

“You can tell he’d go behind Don’s back, I figure,” Darryl says. “Always struck me as kinda slimy.”

 

The bartender barks out a laugh. “I’m with you, man. And hey, sorry you can’t stash up on the latest shipment. Hope you and your little lady can go without for a night.”

 

“God, I’m hopin’ so too,” Darryl says. His mic rustles like he’s leaning over, lowering his voice into the bartender’s ear. “But—I mean—while I’m here, and with my girl, too, I mean—come on. You really don’t know where I could get some… scrips, or anything? Just to tide her over for one day? One favor, man. Please.” 

 

George’s laugh is dry, after that one. One favor. Just once. I promise I’ll pay you back. Fuck, dude, I owe you one, really . He’s nailed the junkie dialect to a T. 

 

“What’s funny?” Hank asks.

 

“Nothing,” George says. They keep listening. 

 

The bartender hisses air between his teeth. “I can’t promise you you’ll get any, just ‘cause there’s a party in the game room right now, but if you walk in real quick and ask for Dream, he should be able to hook you up. S’long as you slip him extra.” 

 

George acts quickly, his mouth working before his brain, saying “ don’t ” so quickly into the mic that Darryl startles from the other side. He stiffens, back straight against the seat, heart pumping acceleration into his fingers, forcing his resolve  into an iron wall. Careful. Careful. Careful. Careful .

 

“Just—ask who that is,” George says thinly. 

 

“Dream’s in there?” Darryl asks, ignoring him. “He could help me?” 

 

“I think so,” the bartender says. “Just finished paying off that debt, so that’s his little bon-voyage party, from what I’ve heard. Dunno if he’ll keep selling after he doesn’t owe Don anything anymore, but I bet he would. Go ask.”

 

“Thanks,” Darryl says, and goes.

 

The iron wall deteriorates. George needs to say something. He feels the heat of Dream’s mouth around his fingers, the bump of his Adam’s apple, the way he turned his neck into George’s mouth like a key into an ignition. He does what he wants and he wants George. He wouldn’t leave without telling him. He wouldn’t.

 

“He’ll know who you are,” George blurts. “Don’t go in there, Darryl. Send Harwood. Please send Harwood.” 

 

Darryl stops walking. Hank leans in.

 

“You sound fucking crazy,” he says. “You know the dude they’re talking about?”

 

George shuts his eyes, and it flashes like strobe lights in front of his eyelids, Dream’s eyes and the curve of bone in his neck when he turns his head and the way his sopping-wet suit hung off his body in rivulets of black tears, and his head in George’s lap, saying ridiculous things he couldn’t mean entirely, because nobody speaks like that, like they want to be known so fucking clearly. And one day I’ll have you wherever I want you and you’ll never be able to leave.

 

He wouldn’t leave like this. 

 

“Yes,” George says faintly. “I know him.” 

 

“Fuck, George,” Hank says, sounding worried, but Darryl is on the move again, having found Harwood somewhere in the dimly-lit basement. George will confess he hasn’t been paying attention to her conversations, but then again, that’s Hank’s job. And he’s not been listening much either. 

 

“Party in the game room,” Darryl says, almost disinterested. “You wanna go?”

 

“Let’s do it,” Harwood says. 

 

“No,” George says. “No, no, no, I’m serious—don’t. Don’t go in there. I’ll go in there.”

 

“What?” Hank says, at the same time that Darryl says, “ What? ” and covers it up with a loud cough. 

 

“I’ll go in there,” George says forcefully. “If he’s really—if he’s going away, he would’ve—I would’ve known. That guy’s lying, Darryl. You have to trust me. It’s someone you know in there.” 

 

“Oh, come on,” Hank says. “Someone he knows? Who the fuck is this Dream guy?” 

 

“Someone you’ve arrested before,” George continues into the mic. “A lot of times, actually, so if he sees you, he’ll know we’re here and shit will get ugly. Either send Harwood or let me go inside.”

 

You can’t go inside,” Hank says, sounding rough. George looks over at him, and his mouth is set into a thin line, frustration so evident George’s guilt seeps back into him as if injected with a needle. “If this asshole is who I think he is, you definitely can’t go inside. Harwood, see what you can do.” 

 

Harwood doesn’t say anything aloud, but once she starts searching for the game room, George leans back in his seat again to look over at Hank. “What do you mean, he’s who you think he is?”

 

Hank doesn’t look at him again, and all at once, George sees himself through Hank’s eyes, a shitty British detective with an Art History degree who can’t even see the fucking paintings he’s looking for in more ways than one. He never should’ve gotten himself involved in Orlando’s affairs more than he already has. 

 

“It’s that person you’ve been talking to, isn’t it?” Hank asks forcefully. George doesn’t say anything. “ Isn’t it ? God, come on. Do you think we’re stupid? Obviously we could tell something was going on.” 

 

“I’m sorry,” George says.

 

“You’re not,” Hank says. “At least be honest with yourself. You may as well be, at this point.”

 

He’s right. George isn’t sorry.

 

The receiver makes a noise again. George leans in, hearing the rustle of voices and drinks, the laughter of old rich men drowning out classical music. “Okay, okay,” he can hear Dream saying, and he stiffens at his voice, the final nail in the coffin. “Fine, I’ll tell one more. But then I actually have to get going, all right?” 

 

Things start to break in two: what he knew about Dream before he found out that he’s still leaning between Don’s legs, and what he knows about Dream after. George’s skin numb from under him, the prickling at his jaw spreading from his face to his neck, his arms. Dream sounds calmer than George has ever heard him, happier, and George is made out of static.

 

“There was this one time that I actually found out what it’s like to be on the receiving end of one of Victor’s ass-kickings,” Dream says. People around him burst out in laughter, and he has to speak faster to make himself heard over their voices. “No, no, I’m serious! See, I ended up owing a lot more than I actually remembered owing—and I blame that all on Amy’s raspberry Cosmos, okay—and Victor had to come give me a bit of a physical reminder that I’d have to pay up soon.”

 

“Is he still in the hospital?” An unfamiliar voice asks. “Can’t believe you managed to give him such a beat-down, Dream, you and your scrawny ass.”

 

“Wasn’t me,” Dream says. “Should’ve seen his blood alcohol level, though, man. He was busted up way before he got to me. And trust me, I spent a while looking for the son-of-a-bitch who did it.” Everyone seems to believe him, but George doesn’t know why they wouldn’t. “I wish I could’ve seen him again before I left, but—parting is such sweet sorrow, huh?” 

 

“Son of a fucking bitch,” George says, between gritted teeth. He pries for his phone by his side, but he doesn’t find it, and then he goes looking for the gun he’s always supposed to have on his person, but can’t find that, either. “Son of a—” he slams his feet against the dashboard, pushing his face into his hands, feeling invisible sobs shock over his body. And he believed him. He believed him every time. 

 

Hank is staring at him, the only person with a front-row seat for watching him go crazy, but George ignores him as he leans forward to speak into the receiver. “Don’t talk to him,” he says. “Just listen. I need to hear him talk.” 

 

Harwood stays firmly rooted in place, so that George can still make out Dream’s voice from her wire. “I know what you’re thinking,” Dream says. “ How the fuck did you get yourself out of that one, you slimy bitch ? That, my friends, I’m not actually at liberty to tell you.”

 

There’s a round of bemoaning. “Come on, Dreamie,” George hears a girl say. “We’re all so curious. You’re leaving, now, too—I’ll pinky-promise you that I won’t tell anyone what you did.”

 

George frowns. He doesn’t know what the girl’s talking about, but he doesn’t think he needs to. “I’m getting out,” he says to Hank, as they wait for the conversation to clear up. He pauses, for a moment, expecting a fight, but Hank doesn’t say anything. He turns his glance away from George like a disappointed parent.

 

“Stay close so I can hear what you’re saying,” Hank says, now sounding like a disappointed parent. “You have your gun? Yeah? Go.” 

 

“I mean, twenty-thousand in two months?” Another voice perks up. “I’ve never seen anyone pull it off.” 

 

“Come on ,” the girl says again, her voice lilting, and that does it for Dream, apparently. George wills himself not to break his own hands from where he’s obsessively cracking his knuckles.  

 

“Do you know A.E. Backus?” Dream asks. 

 

“Did he just say—” Hank starts. 

 

“I have to get in there,” George says, and sends Hank a final apologetic look before he’s yanking himself through the door. He wonders why Hank is letting him go with so little information about what he’s about to do—but he supposes that could be part of the reason, really. He must know that George got himself into this mess, and he’s the only one who knows how to get himself out of it. 

 

He gets through the first bouncer with money, but the second bouncer takes some work-arounds. “Is Dream still having his celebration in there?” He starts, the irritation coming naturally once he actually finds it inside of him. The bouncer only looks startled for a second, shaking his head a little bit.

 

“No idea,” he says, and narrows his eyes. “You look weird. What’re you here for?”

 

Before George can say anything, someone shoves out of the entrance he’s guarding, unbolting the door from the inside and walking into the main room. 

 

“What the hell, man?” The bouncer calls from behind him. “You’re supposed to leave from—” but his voice trails off as a sudden wave of people slams against the locked door behind him. George steps backwards, watching them trail out with their eyes red and their tweaking hands flying all over the place. They collide with the regular people in the upper-half of the casino, and the bouncer’s too distracted trying to round them up like sheep to notice George slipping back into the basement.

 

It’s just as dusty and constricting as he remembers it being, and he has to grip the railing tightly so he doesn’t trip down the winding stairs. Someone’s turned the lights off. The only way he can work out where he’s stepping is through the red glow underneath some of the closed doors. 

 

People around him hiss air into his ears and smell like iron and burning markers. “Go, baby,” a man next to him says to a woman, and George stops him in his tracks, raising his arms before the man hits him in the face.

 

“Sorry, sorry,” he says, when the man opens his mouth to curse him out. “I just—what’s going on? Where’s everyone going?”

 

The man stares at him like he’s insane. “Dream told people to get the fuck out, so we’re getting the fuck out. You stupid or something?”

 

He shoves past George again, slamming him in the shoulder, and the woman goes, too, voice catching in a dry sob. George turns back to the rooms around him—all inked black in the tar of the dark basement like hidden portals to different worlds. 

 

He realizes, at the last second, that he has no way of contacting Hank or Darryl—shit, even Harwood. He has his phone, but he’s not exactly going to whip it out to make a phone call, and he has his gun—the dirty weight hidden under his dress shirt. Nothing else. He’s alone. 

 

He looks around the basement again. He’s usually fine with being alone. He’s never minded going on missions by himself, doing stakeouts and research and interrogations completely on his own, but it’s different when it’s so obvious, when anyone could look at him and see him for what he is: a cop with an obsession, but not for the art.

 

It hasn’t been about the art for a long time. 

 

He gives up on finding Darryl or Harwood. He wouldn’t have ever managed to make him out in the darkness anyway. There’s only one open door in the basement, pouring out red light like puke against the floor, and people stumble out holding their own poker chips and expensive furs and teeth. He waits for the space to clear and then pushes against the clearing.

 

Dream’s standing inside with his back to George. George can only tell it’s him because of the scraggle of familiar hair: he’s wearing a suit, his only suit, and his head is bowed downwards as if in prayer. 

 

“Dream,” George says. The Persian rugs under his feet crunch with the smell of dried vodka, and there are armchairs, tucked up into corners of the room and pushing up against the bar, with lines of coke lining the wool material. A thick curtain held up by the open door swings down when he shuts it. 

 

Dream turns around, then, but he’s not praying—he looks bewildered, a handgun hanging from his fingers like a dainty cigarette. “George?” He asks, like this is completely unexpected for him. Like neither of them knew the night would end like this.

 

“Drop your gun,” George says.

 

“I wasn’t gonna shoot you, idiot,” Dream says, and drops it. When George still doesn’t look convinced, he raises his eyebrows, giving it a kick with his shoe so that it flies somewhere underneath an armchair. He raises his hands. “Happy?”

 

George’s hand flies between the buttons of his shirt, and he clicks the safety off his gun. He raises it in front of him.

 

Dream stares at him. “Guess not,” he says.

 

“Get on your knees,” George says, and his voice shakes in his head, but when he speaks, it’s even and thin. He doesn’t know what else to do. He’s exhausted all of his options. He’s hated and he’s pushed away and he’s trusted and he’s pulled closer. There’s nothing else left for him to do. Dream keeps looking at him.

 

“I said, get on your fucking knees,” George hisses, and steps closer, fingers going white against the trigger. Dream’s tongue darts out to flick at his lips, and then he’s settling on his knees, still with his hands raised around his head. He still hasn’t broken eye contact, so George shuts his eyes first.

 

“Listen,” Dream tries, but George’s veins roar at him and he pushes forward with the gun instead of his body, pushing it against Dream’s forehead, watching him try and look up at it.

 

“I know A.E. Backus,” George says. “I know him very well.” 

 

“You going to shoot me, George?” Dream whispers, his voice dripping against George’s fingers. 

 

“Your truck in the back of the museum,” George says, brain moving fast. “You told me you gave it to them to pay off some of the debt. And then you told me you were slinging drugs just to pay off some of the debt. And then you killed that bloke to pay off some of the debt—but you were lying the entire time, weren’t you?” When Dream doesn’t say anything, he shoves the gun against his forehead again. “ Weren’t you ?” 

 

“Yes.” He spits it out, the word cut through his teeth, harsh and sharp like a meat grinder.

 

George knows something’s happening to him, then, because he laughs out loud. The things that are happening become harsher and harsher until they crescendo in front of his face.  

 

“And the fucking—that first time I went to the casino, with J.G,” George says. “He asked you—he asked you why you didn’t use me here, since I lied, said I was part of the heists in the UK. And then at his building—he said he was part of the thefts. He said he was. And the entire time—you—”

 

The entire time, he tried to paint Arla as the thief—Arla, the girl that’s been at the top of George’s suspect list as long as he’s known her. And Dream knew it, too: if he called her his girlfriend, and if he could see the way George looked at him, he’d know exactly what to do to get George’s suspicion off his back. He’d just turn it into jealousy, because he’s been smarter the entire time. Cat-and-mouse and cat-and-mouse and cat-and-mouse. 

 

“Look like you’ve got it all figured out,” Dream says dryly.

 

Had they even been dating in the first place? Was the tiny growl of possessiveness in George’s stomach completely unfounded—from a place of total fucking deceit? Put there artificially? Never taken out? “Who was that girl in the room with you?” George asks, voice even, and Dream only looks affronted for a second. And then he laughs. 

 

“Really?” He asks. “You’ve got me on my knees, with a gun to my head, with enough recorded evidence to put me in prison for the rest of my known life, and you’re asking about some fucking girl who was here ten minutes ago?” His teeth go sharp when he smiles again. “What do you want to hear? That I fucked her? You want me to make something up? Make you feel better?” He moves closer, tuning his voice into a hiss. “Make you feel right?” 

 

George moves so fast he barely recognizes himself, pushing his free hand against Dream’s jaw and forcing the gun between his lips, his stomach rushing with energy when he watches Dream blink up at him. 

 

But he knows what he’s doing, because this is a game, too. This is just as much of a way to fuck with George’s head as anything else is.

 

“So you wanna choose now to be a smartass, huh?” George says, hearing the gun clink against Dream’s teeth. “Shouldn’t surprise me. No—try it. See what I fucking do.” Dream narrows his eyes at him, relaxing from where he’s still leaning against the ground. “Anything else you’d like to say, Dream? No?”

 

Dream shakes his head, microscopically, and George is fucking high off of it. 

 

“And you thought I’d never find out,” George says. “Did you know I was in J.G.’s building, that night? Did you know I’d listen in? Did you pretend like you—like it was all for me , everything you were doing? Just because you knew I’d believe you if you told me it was?”

 

Dream shakes his head again. 

 

“Liar,” George snarls. Something gnaws at him. He doesn’t like how pliant Dream is. If he wanted to get out from George’s grip, he would’ve forced himself out of it already. He pulls the gun out from between Dream’s lips—the barrel wet with his saliva—and pushes it back against his forehead, letting him catch his breath.

 

“Not lying,” Dream says. “Not lying, George, I’m not lying. It was for you. He was going to—you heard him.” His voice gains some strength. “You’d be fucking dead if it weren’t for me.” 

 

George pushes the gun forward again, relishing the way Dream grimaces in surprise. “You’ll be dead in a minute because of me.”

 

“Like you could kill me,” Dream says, looking back up at him. “Don’t have it in you. I know you’d rather hurt yourself than hurt me. I’ve watched you. I’ve watched it happen.” He laughs again, his voice ending on a high lilt as he pushes himself against the gun. “Don’t have the fucking balls.”

 

“Fuck you,” George says. “So, what? Was the hit really just a fucking cover-up?”

 

“I told you I wasn’t a murderer,” Dream says. “And it’s true. I’m not. But I couldn’t tell you— what I was. What I am.”

 

“Tell me where it is, Dream,” George says. 

 

“What’s it ?” Dream asks wryly. “The painting, George? That’s still what this is about? Coconut Palms on the Florida Coast ?”

 

“Yes,” George says, and then—“No. No, it’s not just about that. It’s—you know . And you knew the entire time. So you—” and he should continue, tell Dream that he’d have to have known it would always end like this—if not with George, with someone else. Someone smarter. Someone who would have seen through him earlier. Someone who would’ve put a bullet through his skull already. “You need to tell me what you know.” 

 

“Make me,” Dream says.

 

George’s fingers stop shaking. They feel cold and thick against the barrel of the gun. It falls from his hand slowly—clatters to the floor and makes no sound against the carpeting. His brain beats against his ears. 

 

George remembers that when he was interviewing for Art and Antiques years ago Wallace had sat him down and asked him something: picture a dying art dealer and a stolen statuette. He could only save one and abandon the other. Which one would he choose?

 

He knew the answer was the fucking statuette, obviously, but that didn’t make the question any easier to answer, because he knew Wallace would be able to see through him, so he’d said, “It’d be kind of selfish not to save the person, I reckon,” and Wallace had looked at him and said, “Selfish? The selfish survive. Maybe if that art dealer had kept that statuette to himself, people wouldn’t know about it, and he wouldn’t have somebody pointing a gun at his head in the first place.” 

 

He wants to survive. George drops down on his knees and grabs Dream’s face in both hands, pushing his mouth against his. 

 

He tastes like guilt. Like filthy hands and gunpowder. Dream doesn’t react, for a second—George swallows his gasp, licks against his mouth, and then Dream’s moving forward, grabs George’s jaw in his fingers, lets George shove his fingers into his hair, feel the skin of his scalp. 

 

He doesn’t follow the logic, really, but he can’t stop thinking about it. That the selfish survive. That he can make it through if he does things like this —tear the skin of Dream’s hips apart with his fingernails, crack him open with his teeth, pull his tongue out of his mouth. 

 

He’s never thought about kissing anybody like this before. He doesn’t know if he’s ever kissed anyone like this before, like he’s trying to hurt them and they’re trying to hurt him back. Always on the offensive, forgoing all defense. Like he’s evened the playing field—like Dream’s had the upper hand, an invisible upper hand for the entire time they’ve known each other, but it doesn’t matter when they’re here. When Dream’s here. And his breath is hitching.

 

George pulls away. 

 

“I—” Dream says, but George grabs his face in his hands.

 

“Don’t talk,” he says. “Not one word.” 

 

“But—” Dream says, and George says, “I said don’t fucking talk,” and puts a hand around his neck so he’s shoving him downwards, crawling over his hips to push their mouths together again, until Dream relaxes underneath him, bracing himself with one hand and holding George up by the thigh with the other. He’s still kissing George like he can’t pull away from him, and George doesn’t think he can.  

 

George’s fingers scramble to his side wildly, and he feels them clutch around the gun, unattaching their mouths swiftly so he can push the muzzle underneath Dream’s chin. He feels Dream hold back his gasp of surprise, his skin vibrating under his palm.

 

“How did you know to kick everyone out?” He asks, deathly-quiet.

 

“That fucking agent,” Dream says. “The tall lady. With the brown hair. I knew that if she was here, you’d be here too.”  

 

George shoves his fingers into the back of Dream’s hair, tugging it backwards until he cries out. “How did you know who she was? Because I know damn well you don’t have a fucking cop radar.”

 

“I—fucking—let go,” Dream says weakly, but George doesn’t. “I just know. I’ve known for months. I’ve had to keep an eye on the department the minute we decided to pull a heist in Orlando—and it was easier in a lot of ways, sure, but you have no fucking idea how hard it is to work by request.” He winces again, George’s fingers twisting against his scalp. “No idea.”

 

“Tell me what it’s like, then,” George says.

 

“Maybe not when you have a gun against my head,” Dream says.

 

“Like I can’t feel that you’re fucking hard ,” George hisses, and Dream’s face flushes as he rocks forward, pushing his cock up against George, says, “Fuck you,” and George screws the gun in harder, says, “You think you were on top of the game the entire time, but I know things too, Dream. I know things too. And I knew that getting you like this—” he grabs Dream’s jaw in his free hand, pulling it forwards so he’s craning it against the gun, “Would be so, so fucking easy. Wasn’t it?”

 

“Fuck,” Dream breathes, pupils dilated. “I… you—” 

 

“Who requested the Backus?” George interrupts. “The Palmer? The Gargallo?” 

 

“I don’t know their fucking names,” Dream says, voice tight, and George leans forward and bites him, pushes teeth against the conjunction of his neck and collarbone, the spot he’s always wanted to mouth at the minute he saw it. He runs his tongue along the shivers that wreck Dream’s skin. “Fuck, it was some—I don’t—”

 

“Mobster?” George asks. “Some rich fuck who thinks he’s above the law? Hmm? You’re sure you don’t know any names?” He moves the gun to the floor again, making sure it’s close as he shoves his fingers around Dream’s throat again. “Can’t hurt to give a name.” He brushes his fingers against his crotch. “It’ll hurt less if you give a name.” 

 

“They—I don’t know,” Dream says, in distress, and George can feel blood rush to his cock at the red-hot desperation in his voice. “He makes—like—fake—something with fake jewels. And he has a penthouse in the city—in New York.” 

 

“New York,” George repeats, to himself. “Who else knows about him? Who else are you working with?”

 

Dream tries to laugh, but his voice is too dry. “Like I’ll—”

 

“Yeah, yeah, you won’t tell me,” George says. “Open your fucking mouth.” Dream does, so he spits. He closes Dream’s mouth with his hand, keeping it flush with his jaw. “Give me names.” 

 

“You know some of them,” Dream says, voice trembling. “He—I only worked with him once. He’s pretty far in as a mole. Made it as an assistant in the FBI.” He watches George wrack his brain for people. “Don’t bother thinking about it. He’s probably gone already.”

 

“Gone?” George asks. “Why would he be gone?”

 

“Same reason I’m about to leave,” Dream says. “It’ll be boring for you, won’t it? Now that you know who I am? Now that that element of mystery has worn off?”

 

“That’s not all I wanted,” George says. “You really think that’s—that’s all I wanted out of this? To know who you are? You aren’t why I’m here.”

 

“Mhmm,” Dream hums, and kisses him again. It’s softer, less harsh, like they have to re-teach themselves how to kiss every fucking time—and George rocks forwards, grips his face in his hands again. This is what he could’ve been doing the entire time, and it’s something he’s never going to be able to do again. 

 

Dream pulls away. “Before I leave—”

 

“Where are you going?” George interrupts.

 

Dream smiles up at him, and his face is so tender that it almost looks like wonder—the genuine type of wonder, like some priest receiving a vision. “You know I can’t tell you.”

 

“Just tell me,” George says. It’s hurting him, not knowing. It’s been hurting him all along.

 

Dream leans forward instead of answering, and they’re kissing again, mouths moving in an unfamiliar viscosity, the way honey’s always slow to spiral in on itself. The way turpentine hardens into resin. He pushes at Dream’s chest, still with their mouths attached, and tugs at the belt on his suit’s trousers. Dream props himself up with a hand, moving to undo it. It takes a while.

 

“Come the fuck on,” George says, and flips the belt out through the loop, yanking it away somewhere where it doesn’t matter. His own belt is next, and when Dream leans forward to touch him, he bats him away. 

 

“Don’t touch,” he says. “Sit back. You have no fucking idea—” he shoves his fingers into the waist of Dream’s pants, tugging them down his hips, “—how long—” he shoves up the white shirt under his jacket, pressing his mouth against his stomach, “—I’ve wanted to do this.” 

 

Dream laughs, a strangled noise, and tries to move his legs closed again, but George keeps them open with a hand pressed against his inner thigh. “Wanna bet I’ve wanted it longer?” He asks.

 

George scoffs, moving back up to lock his knee between Dream’s legs, pushing himself up with a hand to look up at him. His hair sticks against the carpeting and his eyes are blown out, huge—he looks like he’s just snorted a line. “How much are you putting on that bet?” 

 

“Twenty-thousand?” Dream asks breathlessly, just to fuck with him, and George kisses him again, and then bites, moving down from his lips to his jaw until he’s bruised pink all over his neck. 

 

“‘M good, I think,” George says, and thumbs at his bottom lip, slipping his fingers inside. Dream runs his tongue along them, and George preoccupies himself with working his dick out of his jeans, hiking one of Dream’s legs up around his thigh. “Wouldn’t take that chance. Know you’d love to lose it all again, work your way back up—that’s why you keep gambling all your money away and paying it back, huh, Dream? It’s fun for you? It’s a game?” Dream shakes his head, eyes still glazed over. “It’s a game, like this is?”

 

He pulls his fingers away to let him respond, and Dream scrambles upwards immediately, propping himself up on his elbows. “Not a fucking game,” he says, voice cracking when George pushes fingers down to circle at his exposed rim. “It’s not—fuck—it’s my job. You don’t know what it’s—” George plunges a finger inside, and he makes a tiny noise of surprise. “Oh, fuck, you asshole .” 

 

“Hurts?” George teases.

 

“Harder,” Dream snaps back. George complies. He moves their mouths together again, propping Dream’s legs around his waist so that he can deepen his fingers, grip a free hand around his hips. 

 

“So it’s a job, ” he repeats, shoving against Dream spitefully, watching him shiver. “If that’s your job, it’s my job to stop you.” 

 

“Sound proud of yourself for someone that hasn’t been able to do it yet,” Dream breathes. “You’ve gotten pretty close, y’know. Sometimes you’d get so close I’d actually get worried—and you know it’s hard to—it’s real fucking hard to worry me.” 

 

“When did I get close?” George murmurs, watching Dream’s arms fall to his sides as he squeezes his eyes shut against the thrust of George’s fingers. He reaches a hand forward, pushing his chin up with his fingers. “No, no, look at me—when was I close?”

 

Dream writhes against him again. “Greece,” he says. “The Nikolaos Kantounis painting. I was scoping out the aftermath at the Benaki Museum after we’d finished the job, and—you were tightening security on—on the building. I heard you say to check damage on the roof and I freaked out because I’d left our tracks in the basement exit on purpose. You were too smart. I remember. Do you remember?” 

 

Something quiet brews in the back of George’s head. He remembers the hot white-sand beaches of Greece, getting sent to take interviews at five in the morning, not buying the story about the basement exit—but he doesn’t remember seeing Dream. “Lift up your hips.”  

 

Dream listens. George grips a hand around the base of his cock, flicks over the precum soaking the tip, and runs it against the rim of Dream’s hole, pulling one of his knees back up to lock his legs between Dream’s. “Would have remembered seeing you,” he murmurs.

 

“I saw you,” Dream says, voice strangled. “Been at the head of my manhunt for years, haven’t you? I saw you when—oh, fuck, George. I saw you in Greece, that was the first time, but then I saw you in Spain and I went back to see you in England, but I’ve known since Greece—” he grits his jaw when George finally bottoms out, raises a hand to grab the back of George’s neck, pull him closer. “God, I’ve known since Greece.”

 

“Since Greece ?” George repeats, dumbly. That’s impossible. He hadn’t seen Dream. He was busy—he’d barely slept, both because of the jetlag and the stress, and he was always distracted and always had different things to worry about, more people to deal with. Greece had been long and arduous and a wholly useless trip. He would have fucking remembered. “Why didn’t I—”

 

“Made sure you couldn’t see me,” Dream says. “But I was always there. Wanted to be where you were. Pissed everyone off, but I had to do it.” 

 

Everyone ?” George asks. “Who’s—”

 

“Not telling,” Dream breathes. “Shut up and fuck me.” 

 

George sighs. He thrusts back up into him again, watching Dream arch his neck back, exposing the littered skin, and he runs his tongue along it again, burrowing his face into the curve of Dream’s throat. He doesn’t think he could want to be anywhere else. The warmth of him feels like bursts of gamma rays. 

 

Since Greece . For a year. Dream’s watched and thought and stayed away for a year, maybe promised himself he’d never touch, only look, and now he’s splayed on a dirty carpet with his suit jacket flung open, skin bruised with the shape of George’s fingers. It doesn’t make sense—he could’ve stayed away, but he didn’t. He dived headfirst into this mess and still swims in the wreckage. 

 

“‘S not fair,” George says, and digs his fingers against his stomach. “ You could’ve walked away. You could’ve stayed away.”

 

“You could have, too,” Dream says, lifting his legs up again to meet the snap of George’s hips harder. “Didn’t want to, though, did you? ‘Cause it wasn’t about the paintings anymore, and you don’t want to admit it, George, but you’re bored. You’re stuck .” 

 

George snaps forward, clutching a hand around Dream’s throat again to pull his head up, force uncomfortable eye contact. “I’m not fucking stuck .” 

 

And Dream giggles, holds on to the hand around his throat. “So fucking stuck,” he says, voice strangled, “that you don’t even realize we’ve already won.” 

 

And he knows, with a dawning kind of horror, that it’s true. He’s stuck. Dream works too well and has too many secrets. George will never get past the first few roadblocks. “Already won, huh?” He asks fiercely, not meaning to flare up with his irritation but not being able to stop himself, because Dream is fucking right and they’re both such terrible losers that he knows only one of them is going to make it out alive and it’s going to be him. “So you’ll leave me alone, then? You don’t need me to fuck you like this?”

 

“Like you don’t want to,” Dream hums, eyes falling shut. George screws a hand in the back of his hair and tugs until he grimaces. “Fuck—come on, George, don’t pretend like—”

 

“Look at you,” George teases, running his hand from the back of Dream’s head to the front of his neck again. “Getting more desperate by the fucking second. You close, Dream?”

 

“So—so close,” Dream says. “Can I—”

 

“No,” George says, and takes Dream’s cock in his hand, giving it a few pumps to watch him squirm, clench his leg tighter around George’s waist. “Wait. Because let me make one thing perfectly clear, sweetheart. If you think I’m ever going to do this for you another time—” he pushes down Dream’s hips with a firm hand, “—and if you think you’re ever going to make it away from these charges—“ he watches Dream’s eyes roll to the back of his head when he pushes in, “—You better fucking think again.”

 

“Fuck,” Dream says again, voice ending on a hot, frenzied laugh. He’s so docile it’s driving George insane, the fact that he’s managed to be a step ahead with everything he does, only to end up here. Like this part of him belongs only to George. “Please just make me cum, George, just let me—”

 

“Said fucking wait ,” George hisses, and his hips stutter. He drops a hand down to hover over Dream again, heat pooling in his stomach. “Nobody else gets to see you like this, do they?” He punctuates his words with a shove forward. “ Do they ?”

 

“No,” Dream sobs, fingers struggling for solace against the carpet. “Nobody else. Promise.”

 

George kisses him through his orgasm, pushes himself down and rides the wave until it fades, quick and hard like the comedown of a stimulant. His hand’s around Dream’s throat again when he manages to snatch away, pull his jeans back around himself, feel the throbbing at the back of his neck. Dream’s fingernails scraping his skin raw.

 

He looks over at Dream, panting and red-faced and sticky and wet. Pretty , he thinks, suddenly. He digs into the pocket of his jeans for a cigarette and his lighter. He’s on his last one. He hasn’t smoked in a while—he hasn’t done anything for a while, except this. When he stands up, looking around for a window, he can’t find any. They’re all covered by curtains. 

 

He remembers the stolen Palmer, the murder in the news and how it had turned England within itself, a frenzied cultural tragedy finally in the forefront of national news—and this had been the person behind it. Not just the muscle—the orchestrator. The person with his fingers on the strings. Sitting stretching out the crick in his neck and buckling his belt, eyes brimmed with the ghosts of wetness. 

 

And of course he’d have to be the same person George can’t stop thinking about. Pretty , he thinks again, and selfish , because he’s not the only one to blame, here. They’re both self-serving people with harmful ultraviolet light pouring out of every pore. Dream sits up, watching him bring the cigarette away from his mouth. 

 

“It’ll have to look like there was a struggle,” he says. 

 

“There kind of was,” George says. If you leave I’ll leave too , he wants to say, because he knows he’s going to have to. He’ll leave everything the way it was like he’d never touched it. It’s good, in a way. He can’t cause problems in Orlando if he’s not in Orlando. 

 

“I’m serious,” Dream says. 

 

“I know,” George says. “What? You wanna punch me in the face or something?” 

 

“Nah,” Dream says. He stands up and stretches out his arms, heading towards the other side of the room. He’s limping, a little, which is satisfying, but it very quickly stops being satisfying when he picks his gun up from the floor and tucks it back into the holster on his belt. 

 

He has to bend his neck to kiss George again, licking the ash from his bottom lip. When he pulls away, he says, “I have an idea.”

 

“What?” George asks. 

 

“You know that thing about how when there’s a gun in the room, it’s going to go off?” Dream asks. George narrows his eyes at him. “I’ve always thought it was true most of the time. Not just in books.” 

 

“Yeah,” George says. “Chekhov.” 

 

Dream keeps looking at him. “Are you still scared of me?” He asks it quietly, almost with a twinge of insecurity, like he’s hoping for a particular answer. George doesn’t know what it is. 

 

He’s not scared of Dream. Not really. He’s seen what he can do and it’s always ended in George doing something worse. “I’m scared of—“ he says, but he doesn’t know what to say without sounding naive, without sounding like he’s already back under Dream’s spell—without sounding like he’s forgiven him. He can’t forgive this. He shouldn’t forgive this. 

 

“I don’t know,” George says, a moment later. Nobody would do this to him and ask to be forgiven. 

 

“I hope you figure it out,” Dream murmurs. George watches their feet meet against the floor, and he turns his head up, bringing their mouths together again. 

 

Dream is still kissing him when he pushes away, puts a hand against his chest, heart beating in his ears. “Go,” he says, nodding towards the door. Dream blinks the kiss away from his face.

 

“Okay,” he says, breath hitching. “Okay. Yeah.” He has George’s hand in his hand, fingers against his knuckles, warm where George is cold. “George… I—“ 

 

“Don’t,” George says fiercely. He knows what he’s going to say, and it isn’t true. It never will be. “Go. Now .” 

 

Dream drops his hand and nods, turned away, head bowed downwards like a lovesick puppy. Like he’d been when George had first walked in. George watches him pry open the door, the basement dry and empty, his gun shining from where he’s pushing it into his hand. George doesn’t know what he needs it for. It doesn’t look like anybody’s outside. 

 

“It may not feel like it, but I really need you alive,” Dream calls, and then grips the body of his gun and squeezes the trigger. George thinks it’s heading for the window until it collides with his fucking leg , and then he’s falling to the ground in a heap, body thumping, blood rushing loud through his ears, watching the fabric of his pants rip open against the bullet, and Dream isn’t even in the doorway—he’s gone. So fast George can’t see his body in the darkness. He can’t see anyone. He thinks he sees Darryl, but he knows he can’t see anyone, because he’s alone.

 

He’s alone because Dream had shot him and he’s bleeding out on the floor. He’s alone because Dream had shot him and left. Dream had shot him.

 

Dream had shot him . In the fucking leg. 

 

“What was that ?” the darkness calls, and Darryl emerges, fast, looking around the room as if sniffing around for gunpowder, and then he looks down at George, barely supporting himself against the floor. “Oh my—”

 

“It’s not bad,” George says weakly, when Darryl rushes to attention and starts tugging the leg of his pants up over his knee. He doesn’t want to look at it, even though it hadn’t felt skin deep—but that doesn’t remove from the fact that Dream had shot him. Shot him, because he’d fucking known that people rush to the side of the wounded before looking around for the shooter. The selfish survive. He’d shot him because he knew it’d work. “No, don’t—get—Harwood or something, Hank, he could still leave—”

 

“Don’t talk, man, come on,” Darryl says, propping his knee up and running through an impressive array of first-aid procedures given the shitty fucking situation. “You’re delirious, don’t know what you’re talking about—God, look at your neck . Someone really did a number on you.”

 

“Not… like that,” George says. Dream had shot him. He needs to tell Darryl that Dream had shot him. “It wasn’t—he’s—” Dream had shot him and left. Dream had let him fuck him and let him think he’d be the one to make it out first and he’d blinked up at him with his pretty teary eyes and he’d shot him in the fucking leg . “Fuck. Get Hank.” 

 

“He’s coming, man,” Darryl says. “We were looking all over for you—still some people walking around, got confusing… come on, sit up. Can you sit up?”

 

He can sit up. He doesn’t want to sit up. Dream with his head in his lap, talking to him about God and women and art and death, like they could live amongst an unbrewed surface, safe and together and stupid and scared. He’d made George invisible promises and then shot him in the leg. He’d kissed George on the mouth again and again and then shot him in the leg.

 

George knows you can’t fall in love with a shadow. He tries to think about anything else—anything other than the way Dream had looked with that gun in his hand, face blissful but hesitant, always so quiet, sneaking up around him—but it’s hard, because his mind is razor-honing on one thing. One thing he can’t stop thinking about. One thing he shouldn’t stop thinking about. 

 

He has to go to New York.

Chapter Text

Everyone is loud, on the plane.

 

It’s so loud Dream can barely hear himself think. 

 

Sapnap is biting his nails, kicking feet against the airplane seat in front of him, trying his hardest to convince them all he’s not stressed out and failing miserably. “I’m just saying we don’t need to overthink it,” he’s saying, and Wilbur frowns and leans closer from the opposing seat, trying to flatten their map against the seat next to him. “Remember when the French sculpture ended up in Argentina at the same time we had that meeting with the diplomat? It’ll only be the second time we’ve had an intersection.”

 

“Two times is too many,” Wilbur says thinly, and leans back in his seat. He runs a hand through his hair, looking out the window, the lightening sky clueing Dream in on how much time he’d lost them. 

 

They were scheduled to leave the night before. Of course neither of them had wanted to go to his bon-voyage party—it wasn’t like Dream wanted to go, either, but he knew he had to. Wilbur had been in Miami and Sapnap had known it wasn’t a good idea. But Dream can’t disappear as easily as them. He has permanent marks on him.

 

He’d tried to drag Arla along, too, but he also didn’t want to lose an eye because he knew the only way she’d go along with it was kicking and screaming. Especially because she had her own loose ends to tie up in Florida. 

 

Had , he supposes. He’s not sure how well the talk with her girlfriend went. If it was anything like his, it probably raised a lot more questions than answers. 

 

The only problem left now is that he feels kind of homesick. Like there’s anything to fucking miss back home in Orlando other than—his family, basically. Even when he’d stay in Baker’s mansion, it was kind of nice to hang out with his siblings in the pool. Or drive by the high school and tell Arla about what he was like when he actually played sports. There’s things to like, but there are more things to dislike.

 

“What do you think?” Wilbur asks, but Dream’s not currently grounded enough in reality to pay attention to him. Wilbur juts out a leg and kicks him in the thigh.

 

Ow !” Dream says.

 

“Stop sulking,” Wilbur says. Dream’s always thought he was too smart for their situation: he’s well-spoken, quiet, which makes him both out-of-place and perfect for dissuading attention. They met in a bar when he was a runner and Dream was still sulking the streets, aloof and stupid and looking for work, and he’d seen the guy Dream had done a job for handing him over the cash, and he’d wandered over, lowered his voice, and asked, what kind of operation you running, mate

 

“Come on,” Sapnap says. “We’re out of Florida. I’m as far away from Proctor as I’ve always wanted to be. Don’t be such a downer.” 

 

“We’re out of Florida, but we’re not landing back in America,” Wilbur says firmly. “I don’t mind another flight, but it’s too big of a risk to stay here. No matter where we go in the country, it won’t end well to be in one of the main hotspots.”

 

“Everywhere’s a hotspot of the manhunt,” Dream snaps at him. “We could end up in Greenland and you’d still be bitching.”

 

“Prick,” Wilbur says, but there’s very little passion behind it. 

 

“Vote all you want,” Sapnap says. “I told Proctor I was flying back home. He’ll only realize I was lying in, like, a week, give or take, so we have that downtime to figure out where to go from here, and I’d much rather do that in New York than anywhere else.” 

 

“I’d rather it in Italy, if we have the opportunity to choose,” Arla says dryly, walking out of the plane’s bathroom clutching her towel tightly around her body. Her makeup trails down her face from where she’d been removing it, and she’s holding a toothbrush in one hand and a razor in the other, one of her legs covered in shaving cream. “What the fuck are you morons talking about?”

 

“We shouldn’t have left,” Dream tells her. He just found out what Orlando has been like for everyone else, and then he’d immediately had to leave, didn’t have any time to live the life he could’ve been having the entire fucking time. He and George could’ve gone to—the Everglades, or something. Or Universal. He doesn’t really like Universal, but he would’ve done it if George had wanted to do it. But George doesn’t want to go to Universal with him; he wants to put Dream in federal prison. “I would’ve been able to talk to him about—” 

 

“Can you stop being a pussy for one second?” She snaps at him, voice muffled when she stabs her toothbrush back into her mouth. “I can’t even hear Nick being an idiot. Usually that’s the loudest part of these plane rides.”

 

“Hey,” Sapnap says. 

 

“You fucked him already, Dream, you’ve done all you needed to do,” Arla continues, ignoring Sapnap, turning back around into the bathroom where she’s shaving her legs in the shitty plane sink. “Seriously. He’s a cop. Move on.” 

 

“What, like you did?” Dream asks.

 

“Yeah,” she says, her leg peeking out from the side of the door that doesn’t hide the rest of her body. “Like I did. Dream, we had an agreement. A plan . And we do not stray from the plan.” She peeks her head out from the side of the door. “What happens when we stray from the plan, Wilbur?”

 

Wilbur flinches, physically recoiling away from her. The jet’s small, so it’s difficult, especially when Dream can catch the way her glare hits his shoulders. “Stuff starts getting fucked up,” he says, voice even.

 

“Exactly,” Arla says, and takes her toothbrush out of her mouth, running it under the tap. “Stuff starts getting fucked up. Look—it was a gamble. I get it. You don’t know whether they’ll want to fuck you, you don’t know whether they’ll leave you first, you never fucking know .” She clinks her razor against the sink. “But once you figure it out—and, to your credit, you had it figured out pretty early on—you take what you know and you use it for yourself.”

 

“You don’t get it,” Dream says. “He knew things. He was getting really close. I couldn’t just—”

 

“Oh, they always know things ,” Arla snaps at him. “You think Zelmira didn’t know things? She was keeping secrets too. Things she couldn’t bring up yet because she didn’t know if they were true. And they were true—of course they were. My job was to make sure she thought they weren’t.” She crosses her arms at him, and Dream feels, very strongly, like a scolded student. “That was your job, too, but it looks like something went a little bit wrong, didn’t it?”

 

Dream has to grit his teeth at the tone of her voice. Nothing went wrong. In fact—their last night together notwithstanding—things seemed to be going well . George was believing him, listening to him, telling him important things, and Dream may have slipped a few times, sure, aroused a lot more suspicion than he probably should’ve about himself, but he always finds a way to circle back. He never would’ve let George get the best of him. His moments of weakness are scarce and always to-the-point. “It would’ve been fine if he hadn’t showed up.” 

 

“You were the one who told him you were going to be there, idiot,” Sapnap says.

 

“I didn’t!” Dream says indignantly. “I told him I would be in Miami! He’s the one that lied, told me that they weren’t planning to do anything that night.” Arla tilts her head at him from the door, and it makes him feel smaller when he realizes the crick in the logic. “Just because—just because I believed him doesn’t mean—” 

 

“Yeah, it does,” Arla says. “You’re weak . You’re fucking weak for him. We had to get you out of there before it got worse.”

 

“Fuck you,” Dream says. “I wasn’t—come on. I’m human. He’s human. We weren’t always—”

 

“Hey,” Sapnap says, standing up from his seat and pushing himself through Wilbur’s legs to get to the aisle. He bends down in front of the seat Dream is sitting in to put a hand on his shoulder. “Both of you shut the fuck up. Come with me for a minute, dude.”

 

“Like I’m a fucking dog?” Dream says irritably, but stands up anyway, letting Sapnap maneuver him to the opposing end of the private jet, away from Arla and Wilbur’s uncomfortable silence and even more uncomfortable facing-each-other seats. 

 

He pushes Dream down into a seat where he can’t look over at him, flopping into the one across from him. He digs a hand into his jacket. 

 

“Don’t listen to them,” he says coaxingly, and reveals a metal flask from an inner-pocket in his bomber, shaking it a little before opening it. He hands it to Dream, and he chugs it down desperately. Watered-down vodka but vodka nonetheless. “They’re both… y’know. Arla's pissed about her girl, Wilbur's just pissed in general. Nothing to do with you.”

 

“I know,” Dream says, frustrated. He knows Arla tries to hide it, but he could tell she really liked that girl—more than she likes the regular ones. “It’s… fucked.” He takes another sip before passing it back to Sapnap, leaning in to mask his voice. “Did you—?”

 

Sapnap’s eyes flick over his shoulder, and then he looks back down, nodding his head a little when he takes his own sip from the flask. “Yeah,” he says, voice going just as quiet. “Of course, man. He figured it out. Asked what I meant.”

 

A wave of relief crashes over Dream, so immediate it’s like a comforting blanket over the jumping bundle of nerves inside of him. “Asked what you meant?”

 

“Yeah,” Sapnap says. “Did a hangman thing. Was only missing the I . He asked me what I was lying about but then he just had to go—so I never answered. I think it was fine.” 

 

“Smart,” Dream says, leaning back into his seat. “Oh, thank God. Nobody saw?” Sapnap shakes his head. “Fuck. Good. I know you wanted to tell them, but—”

 

“It’s okay,” Sapnap says. “I know it was more of a thing to make you feel better. And listen, man—you say you trust him, I trust him too. As long as you’re honestly, one-hundred percent, totally and completely fucking sure he’s not going to fuck us over when we get to New York.”

 

Dream doesn’t know how to respond. He wants to reaffirm that George won’t say anything—that he’s loyal, can tell he’s loyal, because he wouldn’t have bitten Dream up like that and talked to him like that if he wasn’t promising to stay the way he was, honest and trusting even when he could tell Dream was someone he shouldn’t believe him. He knows the way he thinks. “I think he won’t.” 

 

“You think ?” Sapnap asks.

 

“I think,” Dream says. “I don’t know. I would’ve—I know that he would forgive me for the things I did, but—I did kind of—”

 

“What?” Sapnap asks persistently, and Dream leans forward to take another heavy gulp of the flask before he says anything. 

 

“I did kind of,” he says, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, “Shoot him.”

 

Sapnap stares at him.

 

“You what ?” He says.

 

“In the leg,” Dream says. His stomach’s twisting again and he knows it’s not the turbulence, because this is what always happens when he thinks about shooting George, what happened inside of the Five-And-Dime—he’d shot him and Noveschosch had come running from the shadows, completely as expected, and Dream had ducked away from him and concealed himself inside the rapidly moving crowd and puked in a bush outside. He couldn’t get the fucking image out of his head. He still had George’s spit in his mouth and he’d shot him, because he’d had to. He doesn’t know whether George would understand that he had to. “It wasn’t bad.”

 

“You shot a federal British agent in the fucking leg ?” Sapnap asks loudly, and Arla yells, “Wait, he did what?” and Wilbur says, “ Huh ?” 

 

“I had to!” Dream cries. What the fuck else was he supposed to do? Leave? Let George come after him? He would’ve told George everything if he was in there a second longer. He had to do something. “I didn’t want him after me! And I knew that’d get all of the cops out from the fucking corners, you know? Like cockroaches. Like bugspray.” Sapnap is still staring at him. “Come on. I had to do it.” 

 

“No, no, I’m not fucking complaining,” Arla says, walking closer. She pushes a leg up against the seat Sapnap is sitting on, continuing her shaving routine thoughtfully. “Actually—I don’t see why you didn’t tell us. Is he dead?”

 

“What?” Dream says, disgusted. “No, he’s not fucking dead. I was aiming for a limb. I wanted to make sure he wasn’t too hurt.” He looks up at her face. “What, you want him dead?”

 

“Wouldn’t complain if he was,” Arla says. “That’s all. I’m sure he’s a nice guy or whatever.”

 

“I think it’s good he’s not dead,” Wilbur says, walking closer. He drapes his arm on the headrest of the seat Dream is sitting against. “Bit of a good closing-off point, no? You basically affirmed to him that he means nothing to you.” 

 

“He does mean something to me,” Dream says, pathetically. 

 

“Sure, whatever, but at least he thinks he means nothing to you,” Wilbur says. “So he realizes he won’t be able to play you any longer. That’s good. No more weak spots.” 

 

Dream sinks back into his seat and doesn’t say anything for a while. He knows Wilbur’s right. But he doesn’t know what else he should’ve done. He can’t keep thinking for the team and himself and George—he can barely juggle thinking for both himself and the team. He shouldn’t be adding George to the mix. 

 

“Do you think it was a good idea?” He asks Sapnap eventually, when both Arla and Wilbur have evacuated the area. Sapnap’s put away his flask in the perpetual silence and had been staring out the window, thinking, which is never a good sign. He looks over at Dream again. 

 

“I think it was a really fucking stupid idea, but not because he—isn’t a weak spot anymore or whatever,” Sapnap says. “But shooting the dude you’re sleeping with never ends well, Dream. You’re a moron.”

 

“Fuck you,” Dream says, and closes his eyes. Sapnap’s right. He is a moron.

 

**

 

The first time Dream had been in New York he’d gone alone. He didn’t know Arla or Wilbur or Sapnap and he was scared out of his fucking mind—he’d been scared for a long time, really, and he’d thought that was because he was still in Orlando, directionless and bored and always, always fucking empty. Being empty made him scared. He didn’t have anything to do .

 

It wasn’t a move, but he stayed there for a long time. He liked how the streets smelled like sewers and how it was cold in December, how the ice turned black every morning like clockwork when the cars came out and started pumping exhaust fuel over the clean white layers of snow. He liked the expensive bars and girls who asked him where he was from. He liked the work, too. There was a lot of work in New York.

 

He was always moving, and New York moved a lot too. Orlando was sleepy and dead but knew sleight-of-hand, could rob him of everything he was worth with its torpid old-person casinos. He was the smart one in New York. Drug peddlers and mafiosos and pimps could tell he needed money, and Dream could tell that they needed him . It was always an even exchange.

 

He’d made a living there, for a while, and almost completely by accident, he’d made a name for himself—he was someone people knew. Someone people could go to for prescription pills or forged documents or a brawler if they needed to beat the shit out of someone who owed them money.

 

Doing everything for money kept him breathing—not just because he was barely staying afloat, jumping apartments and paying off his friends so he could sleep on their couches, but because he needed the rush , the new-thing-every-day, the guts and the kicking and the red-hot feeling of getting away with something he shouldn’t have done—it was more important than breathing. The rush was always there. It fed into the hunger until the hunger got bigger.

 

He had favorite jobs, though. Stealing shit was always the best. 

 

The first time he was hired to steal a painting he’d gotten paid off by a Slovakian pimp who had been staking him out for weeks to find out if he was trustworthy. “ The Alexander Calder for two-thousand, hlas pre ? ” he’d asked, and went ahead and gave him one-thousand straight-up, which Dream thought was an awful lot of trust to put in a nineteen-year-old with greasy fingers and nothing else. 

 

But it was a lot of money. And it was in cash. So he went to the Brooklyn warehouse the pimp had written on a napkin and he’d watched it, for a few days, watched the security guards fluctuate and move from their stations, watched moving trucks unload into the garage past the warehouse’s working hours, and he’d realized, quite suddenly, that people were really, really fucking careless. Like, really careless. Careless in a way they didn’t seem to notice. Ever.

 

But he still had to work slowly. Disable cameras over time; cancel the repairmen sent over to fix them; find the personal numbers of the security guards; find all of the cracks in the security, all of them, every last chink in the armor. It was hard to do alone, but he liked doing it. 

 

It was easy, from there. He’d rented a U-Haul, waited until one of the moving companies was done unloading another pretentious abstract piece by a Soho portraitist, and used their open garage exit to steal the Alexander Calder. He’d driven straight to the pimp’s townhouse downtown and delivered it and gotten the rest of his two-thousand and a wet kiss on the cheek from the pimp’s wife. 

 

The paranoia was still there. Dream doesn’t think it’s ever left. But it was never reported; if cops looked for the painting, it didn’t make the media. That did wonders for loosening his paranoia, sending him towards other paintings—other rich fucks who needed just as much of a rush as he did, just in the sense of owning a painting created by a master that was theirs and theirs only. Their own way of feeling on top of the world. Dream didn’t judge. 

 

He still checked newspapers whenever he stole paintings, but the stories always wavered, got weaker as cops chased invisible leads. They couldn’t find a pattern, and he knew because he didn’t have a pattern. Sometimes he’d stop and sometimes he’d go on sprees, only accept clients who wanted a no-name sculptor who they’d seen in a museum six years ago. There were a lot of artists in New York, but there were even more in the rest of the fucking world. 

 

He still met Sapnap in New York, though. He probably would’ve run into him in Spain, eventually, maybe even France, but somehow they met in New York, when Dream was in deep shit with a dealer who wanted him to peddle some ket to New Jersey. Sapnap was his driver. Trenton was only an hour away, but they’d talked a lot on that trip. Like, a lot. 

 

He knows he’s a bad influence. Sapnap (“don’t call me Nick, like—don’t, seriously”) had asked him how much he made, working for himself but doing everything people wanted him to do, and Dream had told him, “Like, fifty-thousand, maybe—or fifty-five thousand a month, I think,” and Sapnap had said, “Are you fucking with me?” And Dream had said, “Um… no, I’m not fucking with you,” and Sapnap had said, “Man, fuck being an intern for the F.B.I. What do you need me to do?” 

 

Dream didn’t want him to quit his job, because just that had given him ideas—new ideas, things he wouldn’t have been able to do without Sapnap next to him. Which ended up being most things. He was more than a guy whose job Dream could exploit, after a while, and he was smart, too. Smart in a way he wasn’t, and smart in a way Wilbur wasn’t, eventually, because they all bounced off of each other and made a shit ton of money.

 

Like, a shit ton of money. 

 

“Ah-ah-ah,” Sapnap scolds at him from the doorway, adjusting the lapel of his suit. “Micro-prints only when you’re wearing Givenchy.” He eyes the suit Dream is fidgeting uncomfortably in. “That doesn’t look like Givenchy. Dream, we specifically went to get tailored—”

 

“It’s low-contrast,” Dream snaps at him, looking at himself in the mirror again. They really only stay at the Baccarat because Dream figured out the hotelier was running for people in the hotel rooms, and he’d offered some services in exchange for a few free nights. That’s not something that can be forgotten easily. And thanks to him, the residents can enjoy their stays very, very opiated. “Look—the dark-gray dots match my shirt. What? It looks fine!”

 

“I don’t even have time to tell you how wrong you are,” Sapnap says, moving his hands up to flatten at his hair as he turns towards the doorway. “Put on your Givenchy and don’t ask any more questions. God.”

 

Dream sighs, waiting for him to slam the door shut before moving to his suitcase. He’ll always make fun of Sapnap for it, but he knows it’s important—they’ve been moving up to really high-scale clientele, people who won’t take them seriously unless Dream matches his micro-print with a Givenchy suit or whatever. He hasn’t memorized the rules yet. He changes into his suit and then looks in the mirror again. 

 

He hadn’t managed to sleep on the plane—they’d spent most of the two hours debating whether or not they should land in New York at all. Dream doesn’t know where else to go . They’ve been keeping an eye out for high-profile murder cases, but the media’s getting smart, too. It’s gonna take a little bit more digging than usual. 

 

He meets Sapnap and Wilbur in the foyer, an open room of smoky-white flooring and bright chandeliers—there’s a fire-place, too, but it’s tinted with something, because the air smells like fire and berries. “Where’s Arla?” He asks, ignoring Sapnap’s spiteful looks at his cufflinks. 

 

“Said she’s not coming,” Wilbur says cheerfully, evidently masking how they all feel about her not being there. She’s usually a lot better at making conversation with their clients, but Dream knows it can get exhausting. Especially with Alex. Mostly with Alex. “I’m assuming it’s because—”

 

“I know why it is,” Dream says. “Sapnap, it’s fine. They’re—”

 

“Dolce and Gabbana,” he says. “Yeah, I know. It’s tacky, Dream.” 

 

He bitches for a while longer about his cufflinks, but Dream almost thinks he prefers it once they take the exit and flag down their private driver. It’s much easier than making conversation about the situation they’re about to force themselves into purely to placate their own memories. 

 

He doesn’t think they’ve ever re-visited a client before. Too much interaction can cause a lot more problems than it’s worth. But he thinks Alex can tell something’s different about this painting just as much as they can—he hadn’t argued when Dream had offered for them to fly out to discuss their next steps

 

That’s what he’d called them. Their next steps . Because they have to do something, now, even though Dream’s not completely sure what that is. They try to talk about it in the car—they could offer Alex extra security, or maybe work out an agreement about a duplicated painting, something they’ve discussed before but never brought to fruition because Dream knows it could never end well. But it might be better than the alternative.

 

Something’s off about the drive to the house—there’s too much traffic for where they’re going. Alex had been banished to the outskirts of some mild suburb because he was getting into too much trouble in the city—which is why they’d met, actually, so his lack of presence around Manhattan had put a damper on Dream’s arrival. He really only comes back to catch up with the people he knows and have them shine him with praise. He’ll admit that without much of a fight.

 

The driver turns around in his seat and pushes his hand against the shotgun seat apologetically. “I’m real sorry, sir, but it looks like there’s too much commotion for me to pull into the driveway,” he tells Dream, who cranes his neck to look out of the window. 

 

“Oh, holy shit,” he says, snapping his head out of the window. The house is stripped to its core: black and charred by a fire Dream can still smell—smokiness, ash, tar. He can taste it, too. Cigarettes in the air. Cigarettes on his tongue. 

 

He has to shut his eyes for a second after that.

 

Sapnap hisses something foul through his teeth, and when Dream looks over at him, his face is blurred pale white. 

 

“Shit,” Sapnap says. “Shit. He didn’t—”

 

Dream knees the door open, stepping out into the grass of Alex’s house. It’s big, but it’s for comfortable living, something Alex now despises after his father took away his Jaguar and locked him inside of a Queen-Anne roofed dollhouse estate. 

 

An estate that’s now shattered into lines of black wood, explosions of wiring and glass crackling under Dream’s feet. A few of the officers idling around the entrance eye him, and he steps back impulsively, almost crashing into where Wilbur and Sapnap step behind him.

 

“Shit,” he says, as the older officer wearing dark lipstick steps over to them cautiously. “Shit, shit, shit—be cool.” 

 

“Move over,” Wilbur says, and Dream says, “Wilbur she’s coming over here ,” and Wilbur grits his teeth, elbows into Dream’s hip, steps in front of him, and says, “I know she’s fucking coming over here. Good afternoon, detective.”

 

“Excuse me,” she says, and tilts her chin over to the yellow tape blocking off the end of the driveway. “You’re not meant to enter the premises unless you’re—”

 

“We’re agents from the insurance company Vita Manhattan,” Wilbur says thinly, and the woman narrows her eyes at him. “Our client called us early this morning to start a new claim. I presume his health insurance policy has already been taken care of?”

 

“What?” She says, taken aback. “Are you here for the cars or house?”

 

“The cars,” Wilbur says, voice snappy as if he couldn’t bear to waste his time. Sapnap looks over at him, but Dream can’t make eye contact for fear of laughing. “We’ll be having a look into the garage as soon as possible, preferably.”

 

“I can’t guarantee you a time measure, sir,” she says, her voice going a little sharper. “The top priority will always be the house.”

 

“Of course,” Wilbur says. “You’ll let me know when you’re available to show us the damage.”

 

She looks taken aback for a moment, but nods carefully before stepping back, her hands behind her back as she continues back down into the main entrance.

 

“God, how do you always do that ,” Sapnap mutters, turning rapidly to the side so he can maneuver Dream and Wilbur towards the garage.

 

 Wilbur laughs, sounding a little hysterical with the stress of it, stepping against the former frame of a feature wall. “I started planning out my responses a while ago,” he says, when they walk past a slew of cops uncomfortably. “I figure when we’re visiting private residences only a few things can go wrong—someone’s got a gun, there’s a cop there, a tornado hits. Of course, there’s sub-genres, too; someone’s got a knife instead of a gun. There’s a fire instead of a tornado.” He points up at the cascading metal ceiling that barely conceals the damaged cars. “Worst case scenario is the right one, sometimes.” 

 

“Only sometimes,” Dream says, shielding his eyes from the reflective glare of the midday sun. “God, I just hope it’s not all the time. So, what? He’s not dead, is he? He called us before we left.”

 

“He wouldn’t just make us come here when it’s burned to the fucking ground,” Sapnap says. He looks over at the two men bent down surveying the dirt, and he steps away from them uncomfortably. He lowers his voice. “We should’ve just turned the fuck back and called him before doing anything else. Now—”

 

“Hey!” They hear behind them, and Alex pushes out from the seat of his Lamborghini, pushing at the hem of his beanie as he blinks sleepily at them. He comes to a walking halt, pausing before analyzing who they are. And then he smiles.

 

“Finally fucking made it,” he says, and Dream says, “Yes, we’re your car insurance agency and we made it,” and it gets a look from the investigators sprawled against the floor, but at least they don’t say anything aloud. Alex’s face relaxes, and he motions them over to the backyard of the house. 

 

He’s an interesting case. Textbook rich kid, but he actually seems pretty excited about taking over the family jeweling business—something Dream finds particularly unfamiliar since Alex spends most of his time having fun causing problems. 

 

“So sad, so sad,” he says, when they finally come to a halt near a dried-up swimming pool. He crosses his arms against the faint wind, winking slightly against the sunlight. “Electrical fire. You know how it is. Left my hair-dryer plugged in again.” 

 

“Yeah, man, I do that all the time,” Sapnap says, eyes still not completely stable as he takes in his environment. Dream doesn’t blame him; the only time he’s seen him look truly comfortable is when he’s getting his hands all over a painting. “But it really—I mean, you didn’t call 911 or anything?”

 

Alex blinks at them. And then he leans forward a little bit, face melting into a cocky smile. “I started it, asshole,” he says, and leans forward to jostle Sapnap on the arm. “Come on, man! You couldn’t pick up what I was putting down, huh? It’s cool.” He looks at the remains of the house again. “It’s cool. I mean, my dad was already planning to nuke it after I told him about the painting, so it just ended up being one of those things that killed two birds with one stone.” 

 

“The painting?” Dream says, surprising them all with how loud his voice sounds against the open air. “The painting burned down?” 

 

“Oh, yeah,” Alex says, as if just remembering. “Yeah, sorry about that, man. I know you guys tried really hard to steal it and everything.” 

 

“Fuck,” Dream mutters, but Sapnap shakes his head, a little, grabbing him by the wrist.

 

“Remember, bro, they can do whatever they want with it after they have it,” he says, dropping his voice. “I know it sucks, but—only thing we had to do was steal it. Nobody’s ever getting them back anyway.”

 

“I know,” Dream says, but he knows the frustration is still thick on his tongue. He can’t help it. He got into stealing paintings because it’s fun, and it’s exciting, and after a while it made a lot more money than anything else, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t value art . His mom’s an art historian. He’ll always be a little in love with everything he takes. “I know. Shit. What’s your dad hiding, Alex?”

 

“Can’t tell you,” He says cheerfully. “But know there is a lot of it and it is flammable. Did you see my actual car insurance guys anywhere?”

 

Wilbur stays back a moment to ask him a few more questions, but Dream naturally drifts back towards the garage, stepping through it to exit back onto the main lawn. He knows Sapnap is following close behind, but they don’t say anything to each other. 

 

He kind of knows that any other comfort Sapnap will try to give him will just make them argue. It’s probably their only point of contention. Sapnap just gets the job done, while Dream can’t bear the thought of one of the paintings going to waste—rotting in a warehouse where nobody ever sees it, hidden behind a curtain, burned down in a fucking house fire . He just wants them to go to a loving home. It’s not too much to ask for. 

 

“Dream,” he hears Sapnap call behind him, and he waits for him to catch up to his strides, standing against the gravel of the curved driveway. He shifts all of his weight on one heel, moving his mouth towards his ear. “Don’t think about it, dude. Especially now. When we gotta focus on—”

 

“It smells like—smells so fucking strongly here,” he says, rubbing the sleeve of his suit against his nose. Sapnap doesn’t say anything about the cufflinks. His throat is burning and his eyes feel dry. Stuffed with sawdust. “God, it just—fucking cigarettes. It smells like cigarettes.” 

 

“Cigarettes?” Sapnap repeats. “Like—”

 

“Not menthols,” Dream murmurs. He moves to explain himself, maybe, even though Sapnap is looking at him like he knows exactly why they recognize that smell, but then Wilbur bounds up in front of them, his cell placed against his ear.

 

“Calling another taxi,” he says, hovering his hand over the mic. “We’re driving back down to the Baccarat and sitting down with Arla to talk about what the fuck we’re doing next. Okay?” 

 

“Fine,” Dream says. “But we can’t—” He doesn’t know how to articulate his thoughts. A lot of things at once prick at his skin, compulsive and immediate like a deathly plague. He told George to go to New York, and they’re not going to find each other, here, but George will make his way to Alex’s mansion and he’ll find the remnants of a picture frame, and because he’s George, he’ll know what happened. And the investigation will kick into gears. Stolen Florida painting massacred in arson attack on suburban house— Dream can hear the headlines already, watch them shrink his team smaller than themselves. He can’t make that mistake again. The mistakes are getting worse. “We can’t keep doing this, Wilbur.”

 

Wilbur keeps eye contact with him for a second, nodding his head a little. He’s smart, but he’s human: he’ll take any chance to make more money. Dream just hopes they’re not the only two people who can see the risks getting bigger. “You’re right.”

 

“One last painting,” Dream says. “Then we’re stopping. I don’t give a fuck if we get a billion for the Mona Lisa. We need one more to keep them occupied—and then we’re shutting down. Forever.” 

 

“The way we talked about?” Sapnap murmurs, and Dream nods, a little, watching Wilbur call them their second taxi. 

 

“The way we talked about,” Dream says back.

Chapter Text

The wound on George’s leg gets stitched shut the same night Dream shoots a bullet through his flesh and makes it out through the other side. In a bittersweet way, George wants to thank him, for making sure the most he gets out of it is three weeks of immobilization and a shit load of Oxycotin.

 

 Not his drug of choice, but it’s starting to grow on him. Especially because when he’d gone back to his house in Orlando he’d checked the medicine cabinet and his regular prescription bottle had been stolen. Because of-fucking-course Dream couldn’t just shoot him in the leg: he’d also have to make sure George couldn’t recover for it the way he’d want to. Or maybe he just really knows how to push George’s buttons. 

 

He’s only allowed to walk around now on the principle that he won’t exert himself and open up the flesh wound again. (“Lucky whoever shot you avoided a vein,” the doctor had told him gravely, and George had said, “Yeah, fucking genius that he is, I’ll kill him in his fucking sleep,” and Darryl, who had been there, had said—in a perpetual amount of distress—“He’s on a lot of painkillers, doc.”) 

 

It’s easy enough not to exert himself, because everyone tiptoes around him for the few days before his flight out. He researches, mostly. Remembers some things that should have been obvious. And then he goes to New York on Thanksgiving.

 

George knows it’s Thanksgiving because the airport is stuffed full of people, families on last-minute trips to other states, and he has to sit next to a screaming kid on the flight there. He also knows because the New York news doesn’t focus on anything but the fucking parade.

 

It makes his job pretty difficult. He’s mostly alone in New York: Darryl and Hank stay in Orlando, a teary goodbye that had been pretty healing in how it reminded George that he managed to make actual friends in Orlando. Actual friends who miss him, the way people he’s known for years do. It’s only slightly unfamiliar. Alyssa goes to Miami, Baker stays in his mansion, and Alvarez—

 

Alvarez is standing next to him with her phone tucked under her ear. “I know, mom, but it’s for work,” she’s saying into the receiver, as they duck against the afternoon sun and its excess of November heat. “I know. Yes, I’ll bring you something back. Yes, and the girls. Whatever they want.”

 

George looks at his phone. An email from Wallace, a text from Hank, but nothing from the Orlando area code number that he’s still never saved under Dream’s name. 

 

He wonders what it would take for Dream to text him. And then he has to stomp out the thought, make sure it’s dead before fruition, tuck it away somewhere where he doesn’t have to think about it. Fucking pitiful, at this point.

 

 He’s getting over it. He can feel himself getting over it. He’d told the team what happened the minute he’d been able to, on one condition—he didn’t want anyone telling Baker. He knows it’s something that won’t end well around the station, but his relationship with Dream is kind of built into that conversation. 

 

He’d prefer not to tell Baker and Proctor that he fucked the now main suspect of their investigation. It was difficult enough explaining the mouth-shaped bruises on his neck to Hank and Darryl, who were still reeling from the explanation that the weird misfit kid they’d seen around the station sometimes was an international art thief who shot George in the leg. He’s going to have to think long and hard about how he brings that up to Dream’s stepdad.

 

The one thing he’ll give himself, though, and the one thing he didn’t do was tell the press—the way he promised himself he would if he ever found out who was stealing the paintings. 

 

Logically, he knows it would make the manhunt easier. It’s something that’s easy for people to fixate on: it’s easy to make conversation about stolen paintings, easy to feel pity, easy to spot someone you’ve seen on a twenty-four-hour news cycle. 

 

But there’s a problem. The problem is that when he’d opened his eyes in his hospital room the night after he’d gotten shot in the leg, he’d seen Darryl and he’d seen Hank and he’d seen Alyssa, Baker, Alvarez, Proctor, even Harwood, but he hadn’t seen Nick. Proctor’s assistant. 

 

They’d all told him he’d flown out for family issues, but George does have a few shreds of critical thinking remaining. He’d remembered the hangman. And he’d remembered what Dream had said, about someone that he’d worked with on a theft— he’s pretty far in as a mole. Made it as an assistant in the F.B.I.

 

And if that wormhole stretches even deeper than a gambler who needed a lot of money quickly, George can’t exactly open his mouth to the press. More people could be lurking, figuring out that he’s figuring things out. Not exactly something he can risk so late in the game.  

 

There’s another problem, too—a pathetic problem. A problem that shouldn’t be circulating around his head. The second problem is that he can’t bear the thought of other people seeing Dream the way he sees him—human, touchable, guilty. He doesn’t trust himself enough to relay that message without bias. Some versions of Dream should belong only to him. Forgetting him is worse than anything he’s had to deal with so far.

 

Alvarez hangs up and looks at him, motioning her head down towards the street they’ve been trailing through. “If we want to check in with the NYPD later, we should go to the penthouse now,” she says tersely, slipping her phone in her pocket.

 

George doesn’t say anything. He hasn’t really been able to have a conversation with Alvarez in a while—he knows they’d have a lot to talk about, but she doesn’t seem like she wants to talk to him. “Yeah. Hopefully he won’t mind us coming up uninvited.” 

 

He hadn’t had a lot to work with, but it had been enough. He’d called in with his credentials to ask the NYPD about jewelers they had on their radar. The only person they’d given located in the city had been an older guy they weren’t investigating particularly—the cop assigned to his case had told George they’d practically called it cold, because he’d been dealing with a fire and his assets didn’t ring any alarm bells. 

 

George’s alarm bells remain ringing. Though he figures they’ve never really stopped.

 

Alvarez is the one to buzz the ringer of the penthouse. It takes a while for somebody to answer. “Yo,” a boy’s voice rings out. “Who’s this?” 

 

Alvarez looks over at George, but her lips remain pursed together. “Um, hello,” she says, eyeing the label of the ringer again. “I’m Sergeant Alvarez with the Orlando PD. My partner and I were hoping to ask you a few questions about an art theft in Florida.”

 

“Art theft in Florida?” The boy asks, voice almost lilting into a laugh. “Oh. You’re probably here for one of my dad’s jewels or something. Whatever. I’ll buzz you up.”

 

He buzzes them up. Alvarez pushes through the door, letting George into the expensive foyer. “Might be a dead end,” she says quietly, as the doorman motions them into the slick elevator. “Kid didn’t sound that surprised.”

 

“It’s fine,” George says. His head hurts. “We’ll ask a few questions and leave if it doesn’t help. But I think it’ll help.”

 

“You think ,” Alvarez repeats dryly. And then George looks over at her.

 

“Yeah,” he says. “I think .” She doesn’t pay him any further attention, staring straight ahead at the electronic numbers blinking higher against the elevator panel. “What’s the problem?”

 

“There’s no problem,” she says, thinly. There’s another second of silence: they’re five floors away from the fourteenth floor. “Does seem like you’re believing a criminal who could be leading you on a wild goose chase, though.”

 

George keeps staring at her. He concentrates on trying to make the words fit together in his head for a while; the oxy makes things fuzzy around the edges. And then he remembers who she is and what she’s saying. “Excuse me?”

 

“I’m just saying I’d think things through a bit more, if I were you,” she says carefully. “Rather—I’ve been in your… position. And I regretted not thinking things through. So. There you go.”

 

“You’ve—” George says, and his voice freezes. “I wasn’t—Alvarez. What do you think I had going on with him?”

 

“I’m not blaming you,” she says, voice quiet. “We all fall victim to—”

 

“I’m not a victim ,” he says. “Me and him, we—”

 

“Everyone’s been in love with someone they shouldn’t have been in love with,” she says, keeping her voice level. The elevator comes to a halt. She pushes at the button to open the doors. “I’m a cop, George, but I’m a reasonable person. I realize people can sometimes be manipulated by—”

 

“I am not in love with Dream,” George says. Firmly. Like he’s reminding everyone in attendance, including the people cycling around in his head. He is not in love with Dream because he’s working on becoming a less selfish person. He couldn’t be in love with Dream if he actually flew out to New York to track him down, put him in prison. And that’s what he’s doing—tracking him down. Putting him in prison. That’s not what a person in love would do. “It’s not my fault if you were in love with her.”

 

Definitely something he should’ve kept to himself. 

 

Alvarez nods, a little, as they finally step out in front of the elaborate front entrance into the penthouse. She raps her knuckles against the door, and they hear the boy inside call, “Coming!”

 

The silence stretches on. George can feel the boy thumping closer. Before he opens the door, Alvarez turns to him, and says, very clearly, “Fuck you, George.”

 

The boy opens the door. “Hey!” He says happily, and steps aside so they can make their way into the main room. He’s wearing a heavy black beanie covering most of his hair, and he’s holding a tall champagne glass full of a dark liquid. “You’re the detectives, huh? Come inside. Come inside.”

 

‘Thank you,” Alvarez says, cautiously making her way into the living room, and George trails behind, feeling worse by the minute. Her voice rattles in his head. He’d thought asking her to come along would make things easier, purely because she has to know exactly what he’s going through—but maybe she just doesn’t give a fuck what he’s going through in the slightest.

 

Fine. He won’t give a fuck either.

 

“Um, so, my dad’s not around,” he says, walking backwards as he raises his glass to leave it against the bar opening up into the living room. George looks up at the high ceilings, gauging the price of the place. Definitely fit for a scamming jeweler. “You guys want anything to drink? No? This is just rum and coke. The drink, don’t worry.” When neither of them laugh, he sighs. “Bad joke. Sorry. I’m Alex.” 

 

“Um, we’re actually not here to ask about your father’s jeweling business,” Alvarez says, settling carefully on the corner of an armchair. Alex hums, working carefully at the bar as he mixes substances together. “We’re investigating a painting stolen from a museum in Florida. Coconut Palms on the Florida Coast by A.E. Backus. We’ve traced it down to your residence. Do you know anything about it?” 

 

George watches, carefully, straining his eyes so firmly it’s almost painful—and then he sees it. The pause in Alex’s hands. The twitch in his eyebrows. He looks up at them, his mouth opened half a second too early. 

 

“Never heard of anything like that,” he says, voice just as cheerful as it had been at the door. Barely fazed. If Alvarez notices anything, she doesn’t say it, so George basks in the details alone. “Wouldn’t surprise me, though. My dad likes paintings. He likes them copied, though—can’t have them straight from the museum, so we get them copied. You know the Entombment of Christ ? That one was one of his favorites. He paid a bunch of money for the artist that re-made it for him.” 

 

“Caravaggio’s style is pretty hard to imitate,” George says. 

 

“Yeah, whatever,” Alex says, ducking down out of sight to pull something back onto the top of the bar. “Anyways, you’re probably looking at the wrong people here.”

 

“Do you know a Dream?” George asks, and the boy laughs.

 

“A Dream ?” He repeats, still out of view. “Like, a specific… dream? I do have weird dreams, if that’s what you’re talking about. Like I had one about—” 

 

George sighs. “Never mind.” 

 

“I don’t know any Dreams,” Alex says. His voice kind of sounds like he’s actively trying not to make fun of them. “I’d ask whoever copied it for us. They might know the Dream you’re looking for.” 

 

“Well, who copied it for you?” Alvarez asks. Alex looks up again.

 

“No clue,” he says. “You’ll have to ask my dad. I’ll leave you his number.” She sighs, nodding as she rises from the chair. “Listen, though—I’m not sure if he’ll remember. Our copy of your Florida painting just burnt down in a house fire, so you won’t be able to check the signature.”

 

“Oh,” George says, tilting his head a little. “I’m sorry to hear that.” 

 

“Yeah, it was an electrical fire,” the boy says boredly, topping the drink he’d been making at the bar off with another shot of vodka. “Left my hair-dryer plugged in again, very sad story. Either of you want a Cosmo?”

 

“We’re fine,” Alvarez says coolly, sending a look down at George. “We’ll actually be leaving now, if my partner’s ready.” 

 

Before he can stop himself, George leans forward and leaves one of his business cards on the coffee table in front of him. “We’ll be sure to keep in touch.” 

 

“I’ll definitely relay the message over to my old man,” Alex says.

 

“No,” George clarifies. “With you.”

 

“Oh,” Alex says. “Cool. That’s fine. I’ll call you if I remember anything.”

 

“Thanks for your time,” Alvarez tells him, standing up from her seat. 

 

“Thank you for yours, Sergeant,” he calls after her, and then they’re back out into the hallway, George looking down at his trembling hands. 

 

“Told you it would be a dead end,” she says, and George has to look over at her. 

 

“Dead end?” He asks incredulously. “You don’t seriously believe the things he was saying, do you?” 

 

She scoffs at him. “It’s an individualized explanation, George, and his father didn’t set off any red flags with the NYPD. I wouldn’t chase the first trail that seems like it makes sense when there’s a few holes in the story.”

 

“That’s ridiculous,” he says, and steps in front of the elevator. She takes a heavy breath.

 

“Let me into the elevator,” she says.

 

“No,” he says. “We’re going to talk about this. Right now.” She narrows her eyes at him. “Do you think I’m doing this because I’m in love with him?”

 

She clears her throat, running her hands across to her opposing elbows. Her eyes are darkened over in frustration. “Yes.” 

 

George had expected to feel a bit lighter at the confession, but all it does is make his skin flush. Of course she’d think that. It’s the rational assumption. And she hasn’t known him all that long—she barely knows the type of person he is. Even so, not turning her entire story around back to her is proving really fucking difficult. “I’m not.” 

 

“Okay,” she snaps. “You’re not. I’m not, either, but you don’t believe me, do you?” 

 

George realizes, with severity, that he doesn’t. She’d seemed in love. He’d seen her in love, the way it made her happier, the way it made her prouder of her work. “No.”

 

“Exactly,” she says, voice crisp. “I’m telling you how I see you, George. You can tell me how you see me. Both of our judgements are really, really fucking clouded, and we both should’ve pulled off this case the minute we realized there was a conflict of interest, but we didn’t. So when I’m telling you to keep being careful and stay vigilant—I mean, who the fuck else are you going to listen to?” 

 

“You’re right,” George says, voice lowering against his own will. His eyes study the doormat placed in front of the penthouse’s door. “I just—I don’t want him to get—”

 

“Hurt,” she repeats, quietly. “I don’t want her to get hurt, either.” 

 

George doesn’t know whether it’s better to be alone, in this situation. But he supposes it’s a matter of taking what he can get. He still has stitches lining his leg and he still has Dream in his mouth, drying his tongue out like tar and opiates, and he knows that no matter what he does, he’s never going to get away. And if Alvarez needs someone like herself, there’s nobody better than him for that fucking role. “Let’s go talk to the NYPD.”

 

**

 

“You saw him?” Dream repeats.

 

Alex groans, throwing his head back over his armchair as Dream puts his hands on his hips in front of him. “ Yes , man. I’m telling you, that’s why I asked you to come over fast. Which you didn’t.”

 

Dream’s pretty sure his brain has been rendered numb. It has to be some psychological thing—thinking, thinking, thinking, then having it come true. And if that’s true, he has to be a lot more careful about the things he thinks about from now on. “But I didn’t—how would—it’s a holiday .”

 

“Oh, yeah,” Alex says, as if remembering. Behind him, Wilbur is cautiously prodding at an untouched Cosmo on his bar, and Sapnap is prowling around the penthouse in its infinite darkness. Arla is drinking. Alex had called at three, but they’d been glued inside their hotel room planning, and Dream had only seen the message at eleven. That’s eight hours for George to do fuck-all in the same state as him. “Happy Thanksgiving, guys. I’m really not grateful for any of you.”

 

“Vice-versa, fuckface,” Arla says. 

 

“Ouch,” Alex says. “Don’t worry, by the way, Arls. Talking to beautiful women is still a struggle for me. I barely said anything to the cop that was with Dream’s boyfriend.”

 

“Who’d he bring with him?” Dream asks, ignoring the other half of his sentence.

 

“Sergeant… Alvarez, I think,” Alex says, and Dream doesn’t miss the way Arla’s head turns to him, even as she tries to put on the front of casual aloofness. “She was very tall and very hot.”

 

“Keep your fucking mouth shut, twerp,” Arla snaps at him. 

 

Dream can’t bring it to himself to make up any questions about Alvarez. He can’t pretend like he doesn’t want to ask the questions circling around in his mind. He tramples his pride, pretending Sapnap and Wilbur aren’t in the room, and looks down at Alex again. “Did he say anything about me?”

 

“Oh my fucking God,” Wilbur calls at him, but Dream doesn’t turn around to look at him. Alex pouts out his lips, leaning his head back against his chair again.

 

“He asked if I knew a Dream,” Alex says. Shit. So he is onto them. That wasn’t particularly Dream’s intention. “I said, no, of course, like you told me to. Or—how Wilbur told me to.” He looks over at Wilbur. “Thanks for the coaching.”

 

“You told him the cover-up word-for-word, right?” Wilbur asks, the stress rendering his voice thin. He comes out from behind the bar, stepping up into Alex’s space next to Dream.

 

“Yeah, man, of course,” Alex says. “Everything. Even the—the painting you told me to bring up. The lady looked like she bought it, but—I don’t know. I don’t know if he did.”

 

Dream can feel Wilbur staring bullets at him. He takes a step back, clearing his throat to call for their attention. “Um, that’s fine, I think,” Dream says. “You did fine, Alex. No worries on that front. But—um—Sapnap! Come over here. Just for a second.” 

 

Dream trails them all closer to the window. It opens up from the floor to the ceiling, the silver ink of the New York buildings spilling into the creamy lighting of the penthouse. He has to take a moment to put his thoughts together—he’d wanted George in New York, but he’d tried to be careful with what he told him about New York. He just wanted to know what he did next. That’s all. 

 

“Um—I should probably tell you guys something,” he says. They stare at him. And then Dream takes a deep breath. “I told him to come to New York.”

 

The reaction is pretty much what he’d expected: Wilbur turns away, stabbing hands in his hair as he looks out of the window, and Arla stretches her neck out at him like a confused bird, blinking rapidly in his face. She speaks first, too, voice ringing out over the hiss of air between Sapnap’s teeth. “Clay, you fucking didn’t .”

 

Dream winces. “I just—how else was I gonna make sure he was under my thumb, Arla?” 

 

“Oh, gee, let me fucking think,” she says, voice rising at the same time as the blood in her face. “You could’ve been careful about what kind of relationship you were getting into. You could’ve stepped back for a second, thought, oh! Maybe I’m not the only person in the fucking world, so maybe I should think about the things I’m doing—

 

“But I fucking didn’t , though, did I?” He says loudly, ignoring the way Alex startles from where he’s sitting on his chair. “I didn’t, and that’s in the past now and it was in the past then , so I thought ahead while I still had the chance. I needed to make sure I knew what he was doing.” 

 

“You should’ve told us,” Wilbur says. Turning around. And there starts the worst part.

 

“Um…” Sapnap says, looking away from Dream’s guilty eyes. “He… he told me.” 

 

They’ve been together for a long time, and once Dream knew it was going to be a more permanent venture, he’d been the one to suggest some ground rules. So he can’t even mock the flush of betrayal he sees in Arla’s face. Never straying from the plan and always sharing everything with each other—it’s the only way they can really survive, together and apart. He braces himself against the impact.

 

“You told Sapnap,” Arla says, voice careful, “And not—”

 

“I didn’t know what you would say,” Dream says, only slightly panicked. “I’m—okay. I’m admitting this to you guys now, off the record, and I don’t want you—I don’t want any smart-aleck comments.” He waits until they’re all looking at him again. “I’m compromised.”

 

“You’re compromised?” Wilbur repeats.

 

“In love,” Sapnap says, translating. “He’s saying he’s in love with the dude.” 

 

“That’s not what I’m saying,” Dream says tersely, looking over at Sapnap in irritation. “I’m saying that he—has a certain— hold over me. That I’ll admit. He has the potential to manipulate me. If the need ever arose. On his end.”

 

“That kind of sounds like… you’re in love with him,” Wilbur says.

 

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Dream says. He swiftly moves on. “Look, the only way to go is forward. I vote that we pretend I never said what I just said.”

 

“I’m pretty sure we’ll all vote against you, idiot,” Sapnap says. “Listen, it wasn’t anything—bad. He was just nervous to tell you guys. And every time we moved to do something, I made sure to clear it with both of you. Like when we chipped him.” 

 

“Arla told him about his chip, though,” Wilbur says. “That’s what we agreed on, right? That he’d know who to trust? Who to turn to?” 

 

“Plus you told us you chipped him when he came to Orlando,” Arla adds. She blinks her eyes, clearing the haze away from them. “Jesus fuck, did you chip him in D.C., Sapnap? How did you know ?”

 

“I’ve known about him for a long time,” Dream says. The truth of the matter was that it hadn’t surprised him when he’d met George outside of the police station. He’d known exactly what he was doing, tracking his press appearances in England and paying for eyes to tell him which detectives were flying out to Florida. He’s been digging his own grave for a while. “I really don’t—I really don’t want to talk about it.”

 

Arla turns her eyes down to the floor. And then she looks back up at him. “You better know that keeping that shit from us has consequences,” she says, voice firm. “I am hanging on to this by a fucking thread , Dream.” 

 

“I know,” Dream says. She has to know that this was never something long-lasting; no get-rich-quick scheme is. Especially not the ones that work. “I know it’s all on me, but—that’s why this has to be our last one.” 

 

She shakes her head, face twitching away from him. “I can’t believe you,” she says, moving her head over to look over at Sapnap. “And you , Nick, God. I don’t know why I expected better from you.”

 

“For the record, I didn’t,” Wilbur pipes up. “It gets pretty obvious when they’re lying about something.”

 

“And you let us?” Sapnap asks.

 

“What else was I supposed to do?” Wilbur bites back. “Sometimes it’s just better to keep your mouth shut, yeah? I’m pretty lucky this isn’t as big of a problem as it could be.”

 

“For now,” Arla says, turning around. “Okay. Look. If we really do manage to follow the murder we were looking at in Milan—we have to clean up this mess first.” She looks back over at Alex, who hasn’t been trying to look like he’s keeping to himself at all. She motions her head towards him. “The entire mess.”

 

“Milan sounds fun,” Alex says. Dream closes his eyes.

 

“Okay,” Wilbur says. “Listen. We know where he’s going to go from here. They’re going to investigate the house fire and realize it’s pretty much a textbook arson case, which might get a lot more media attention than we want right now, so—what?”” 

 

“We have to make sure he doesn’t find anything out,” Arla says, continuing from his train of thought slowly. “But when do they start thinking it’s arson?”

 

Sapnap looks over at Alex. “Yo, why’d your dad burn down your house?”

 

“Some drama with his business partner,” Alex says apologetically. “I don’t know all the details, but, um, fake diamonds get damaged when you set them on fire. It’s pretty awesome.” He seems to notice the way they’re looking at him. “Look, the hair-dryer thing wasn’t even a lie. I just may have been told to leave it there purposefully. For a very long time.”

 

Sapnap sighs, looking back over at them. “Unless they know to start investigating this dude’s business partner, they’re in the clear. It only starts getting suspicious the second time he burns down a house.” 

 

“Guess that time with Proctor did you well,” Dream says. “Okay—so we don’t have to worry, then. Alex sure as shit isn’t going to talk.”

 

“About that,” Alex says. “Um… you said the guy’s name is George, right? He did kind of… tell me that he’d be in touch. With me. Specifically. So. I don’t know if that’s important or not.” 

 

“You speak any Italian?” Dream asks him. He does kind of enjoy the fear that strikes into Alex’s face.

 

“Italian, Spanish, French,” he says. “You know what—I’m good where I am, thank you. Don’t need to go to Milan or anything.” He eyes Dream warily. “But I’m really flattered you thought of me. Grazie .” 

 

“Not something you get to choose, unfortunately,” Dream says. Alex looks over at Arla. 

 

“I won’t talk, if he tries to talk to me,” he tries to rationalize with her. She doesn’t look like she’s paying attention to anything he’s saying. “I swear, you guys. Obviously I’m not gonna fucking say anything, or they’ll put me in jail too.”

 

“Doesn’t matter,” Arla says dryly, her arms crossed. “If you don’t talk to him, he’ll make you talk. It’s better for us to know where you are.” 

 

There’s a tense beat, but Dream knows Alex is going to agree. They’re all staring at him pretty intensely, and they have guns. He doesn’t have anything. Except an only slightly worrying amount of pyromania.

 

He sighs, suddenly, surprising them all. “Should I pack sunscreen?” 

 

From there, it’s a lot easier to put everything back in its place. They leave Alex back at his penthouse overnight and head back into the hotel. All they have to do is make sure George doesn’t get to Alex. It should be easy enough. Usually Dream would take it upon himself to cut off that thread immediately—if he still had George in person, he could lure him back to Alex’s penthouse, maybe, have him overhear a fake conversation that proves Alex is innocent. But he can’t do anything from a distance. 

 

He and Sapnap tread back up to their room. Once they’re back inside, they have to start the long-winded process of stuffing the bottoms of the door and all of the windows shut with towels. 

 

“It’ll be fine, man,” Sapnap’s telling him. “Seriously. You’re overthinking.”

 

Dream scoffs. He beats at the corner of the door, where the towel doesn’t stick against the edge. “It’s okay to overthink if it’s kind of my fault it happened.”

 

“It’s not your fault,” Sapnap says. He stands up away from the door to slide shut one of the windows that leads out onto the hotel terrace. “It was never—sustainable, Dream. It’s just coming to an earlier halt that we expected. That’s nobody’s fault.”

 

“I didn’t have to follow him,” Dream says. He feels terrible. He can’t even pretend to swallow the things Sapnap is saying to make him feel better. “I didn’t have to—never mind. I just should’ve stopped while I was ahead.” 

 

“It’s okay,” Sapnap says. “If it makes you feel better, I do forgive you.” 

 

It does make him feel kind of better. “Thanks, man. We probably should’ve told Wilbur and Arla that you told him you were dirty.”

 

Sapnap shakes his head. “If he’s figured it out at all.”

 

Dream kind of hopes he’s figured it out. He remembers wanting George to know—because if he knew how deep the rabbit hole went, Dream hoped, selfishly, that he’d stay quiet. “If he’s figured it out, that would mean he wouldn’t say anything. To the press, at least.”  

 

“I mean, looks like it worked,” Sapnap says. “Knock on wood.” He looks at Dream curiously. “Just don’t—don’t—call him, or anything, Dream. I know you think it’ll make things easier, but—seriously. Stay away. It’s gotta be out of your system by now.”

 

“You’re probably right,” Dream says. “Don’t worry. I won’t call him.” 

 

“I’m gonna shower,” Sapnap tells him, and Dream sends him a flimsy smile before he’s turning through the bathroom door. He waits until the water starts running and then tugs his phone out of his pocket. 

 

He’d had to leave his old phone, but it’s not a problem for him—he’s had George’s number memorized for a long time. It’s fine , he tries to think. If he convinces himself, it’ll be a lot easier to convince Sapnap he didn’t do anything. Just—it’s just to hear his voice. It’s to make sure he’s okay. It’s important we both still know the other person’s alive. I kind of owe him that.

 

He dials the number and waits. And waits. And waits.

 

George doesn’t pick up. 

 

He sends a look towards the bathroom door, but the water’s still running and he can smell Sapnap’s shampoo. George might not pick up on the second ring, either, so maybe it’s not that much of a risk. He tries to call George again. 

 

He picks up on the fourth ring. “Hello?” 

 

Dream waits again. His voice feels thick and unmoving in his throat. 

 

 “Who is this?” George says again, voice confused. And then it clears up, clouds open and smooth against a blue sky. “...Dream?” 

 

Dream realizes, belatedly, that he probably should’ve thought about what he was going to say. He didn’t exactly write down a script, especially not of things that can be said at a normal volume without getting Sapnap’s attention from the other room. 

 

He shuts his eyes, leering hotly off of the sound of George’s voice. It’s more of a solace than anything else that could comfort him. He waits for him to keep talking.

 

“Of course it’s not you,” George says, voice going soft. “That’s stupid.” He doesn’t say anything for another beat, breath catching vaguely against the receiver. “I’m being stupid.” 

 

He hangs up, then—wordlessly. Like there had never been a phone call to begin with. Dream looks at his phone between his fingers, unnecessary messages buzzing the surface. He drops it at his legs, sinking down to the floor in front of one of the two beds in the room.

 

He sits there for a while. It’s hard to make himself do things when he knows how close he is to George. Sitting there, he has to force himself to admit that that might be the root cause of most of his problems—if he knows George is there, he can’t help but turn in that direction. All compasses point north. It has to be something built into his nature, at this point.

 

He digs his phone out again, opening up into the private jet listings they always revert back to. It’s usually less hassle than commercial flight, and they always get there fast—something he figures he’ll always have over George and the rest of his cops. 

 

He thinks about George’s mouth on his neck when he books their flights to Italy. He still has bruises there.

Chapter Text

Dream stares up at the statue of Federico Borromeo. Federico Borromeo stares back. 

 

He thinks it’s beautiful. He’d steal it for himself if he had somewhere to hide it. The difficult part has never been the removal—he can imagine laying out the plan now, the lever-and-pulley system they’d work out and the careful excavation process Arla would pull off flawlessly, with her quick fingers and sticky grip. 

 

It would almost be worth the trouble. It would definitely be worth the headlines , waking up to see the news alight with pictures of the Cardinal’s missing body and his empty stand. Dream’s adrenaline bursts at the thought, the thick satisfaction that always comes with seeing his work on a screen. 

 

Not that they’ll figure it out the night afterwards; they never do. Italy is reeling from the unfortunate murder of a internationally-beloved supermodel, a woman Dream only recognizes by name. Sebastiana Castiglione—tall, accented, murdered in a hit-and-run. She’s been at the forefront of the Milan police’s investigation for a few weeks, now, so it’s the perfect time to work. 

 

Months ago, before he’d gotten himself tangled up in Orlando, they’d gotten contacted by an Italian politician who spoke to them anonymously, cloaked under a heavy veil of corruption. Had a taste for extorted young men, Dream kind of guesses—he wanted a painting stolen from the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana to give to his wife as both a gift and an apology. Judith and Holofernes . An Israeli woman tearing off the head of an Assyrian general. Pretty brutal.  

 

Dream tried not to pay attention to the entire story. He always sends Arla or Wilbur to talk to their clientele first, but they always ask to speak to him eventually, and then comes the endless fucking exposition about what they want out of the theft. They want the painting by Saturday; they want it by tomorrow; they want it flown, mailed, shipped over, hand-delivered. They always want it for their wives. They always want it for their art collection.  

 

Dream never asks, but they always tell him more than he needs to know, which has proved helpful on the rare occasion that they have to remind somebody to pay up. He doesn’t think Tore Marchesi is going to give them any problems, though. If he wants Judith and Holofernes , Dream will get him Judith and Holofernes . It’s a deceptively simple job for someone like him, especially when they’ve done their proper research and timed their work. 

 

He looks down at his watch. Four forty-four in the morning—angel numbers. He hopes it’s a good sign. He looks up at the rays of heavy moonlight jutting their way through the windows’ pediments. He can imagine a Renaissance painter looking through them to watch the grey-tinted waters of Milan. The communicator against his ear crackles to life.

 

“Window’s open at eight o’clock,” Arla says. Dream allows himself a breath of relief. 

 

 “Sapnap, I need you making sure the Napoleon exhibit’s clear,” Dream instructs, still making eye contact with Federico Borromeo. He looks knowing—knowing and completely undeceived. Dream almost wants to keep looking up at him to prove a point. I know what the fuck I’m doing , he wants to say, even though he knows it would be directed towards a statue built in the seventeenth century. I know what I’m doing and you wouldn’t understand, so I wouldn’t even bother explaining it to you. You wouldn’t understand .

 

Cardinals are simple, is the thing. Catholics are simple. The only glory Federico Borromeo got in his life was a statue erected after he’d died at sixty-seven, even after founding the first fucking public library in Europe. He’d fed the poor during the famine of Milan, took part in eight papal conclaves, and all he’d gotten was this—forced to watch his library dismantle under his ever-omniscient eye. 

 

Screw him. If this was truly his only shot at glory, Dream figures he should be flattered at how relevant his library remains in the twenty-first century. Turned into a museum, and now houses the most Renaissance works Dream has ever seen. It’s like Heaven. He loves the Renaissance, but he’s glad they’re not entirely Renaissance. They have Romantics. They have a Hayez.

 

They have his favorite Hayez, actually, a watercolor copy of his most well-known and his most beautiful. Il bacio —The Kiss. 

 

The last time he’d seen it, he and the team were in Italy again, sometime after his father’s party, still deciding whether to take up the Marchesi offer. He knew George was worried about him because he’d kept calling. And since he’d been calling and Dream had been in Italy, he’d remembered something, something they’d talked about before everything went to shit and they’d almost kissed on J.G.’s roof. 

 

They’d been talking about art because it was one of the only things they could talk about without fighting too much, and he’d asked, what’s your favorite painting, if you’re such a scholar, and George had said, easy. The Kiss. Francesco Hayez , and Dream had said, why? and George had said, if you have to ask, you haven’t seen it .

 

“I’m in the southwest wing,” Sapnap says, voice low and echoing lightly against Dream’s ear. “Opening the library entrance soon, Dream. Are you there?”

 

“I’m there,” Dream says. “Just—give me a minute. Arla, we’re clear on the cameras inside the library?”  

 

“Radio static,” Arla replies, voice catching lightly with exertion. “Shutting off the ones in the northwest wing now. Do we still have eyes on the Vermiglio?” 

 

Dream waits, for a second, but Alex doesn’t say anything. He sighs. “Alex, you have to press your—” 

 

“I got it, I got it,” Alex says, voice bursting loudly into his eardrum. Dream winces, but there’s no way to turn the volume down on their earpieces. “Yeah, I’ve been staring at this shit for ages now. She’s actually really ugly. Can someone pick me up?”

 

“Keep staring,” Wilbur instructs suddenly, voice tense and resolute. His audio’s a little clearer, a little quieter from where he’s sitting in their car and obsessively studying the cameras they all have stuck to their foreheads. Dream’s tried to be in his position a few times, but he always gets too antsy not being within the action. 

 

“I mean, come on,” Alex says. “Nobody’s going to steal it before you guys do. The whole place is empty. You didn’t have to just dump me here—you know I could actually help?” 

 

Dream dulls the bickering into background noise, and sends a final look towards the statue. Federico Borromeo doesn’t blink. 

 

They’ll build statues of me, too , Dream wants to tell him. It almost hurts to keep the words inside his mouth. And they’ll be bigger and made of gold. 

 

And then he’s slipping through the entrance easily, the alarms around him quiet and dead. Orienting himself against the shadowy, high ceilings is a feat within itself. He pulls his flashlight out of his belt, tightening his black gloves around his wrists. “Okay, I just made it through the main entrance. I’m heading—” 

 

“Left,” Wilbur says.

 

“I know,” Dream says. “We do all have the map memorized, Wilbur.”

 

“Even Alex does,” Arla says.

 

“Yeah, even I do,” Alex says. “Okay, to be honest, I’m feeling a little snubbed by the fact that I don’t have a cool codename. I have a few in mind.” Dream pushes open the door that opens into the library gingerly; it’s all complete guesswork, but it’s guesswork based off of the architectural plans Wilbur got them. “You guys listening? I was thinking Quackity.” 

 

Before Alex can launch onto another tangent, Dream clears his throat, pushing himself against the wall to inch across the darkness. If everything goes to plan, he should end up in the grand library that’s closed to the public early in the evening, and Sapnap should meet him on the upper level that houses more copies of Roman statues. From there, they just have to make their way to what’s marked as the twenty-seventh room, where Alex has been waiting. Simple as that. “I made it to the library. Sapnap?” 

 

There’s the brief rattle of a doorknob, and he hears Sapnap’s heavy exhale. The walls surround him in books, the heavy smell of mold and paper, and he has to make sure he doesn’t bump into the glass exhibits to the sides lit up by artificial white light. 

 

“Sapnap?” He repeats, eyes tracing over the ceiling. He walks closer up the staircase, and the statues track his movement. They surround the ceiling in hollow pediments, shadows dipping down from their chins and from the hollow between their legs. It feels like a crowd watching him put on a show. Half of them circle around the grand staircase, a careful array of marble and stone that makes no noise under Dream’s careful steps. “Can you hear me?”

 

“Yeah,” Sapnap says. “Sorry. I—the door’s locked, from here.” 

 

Locked ?” Dream repeats. They always make sure to stake the place out beforehand: Wilbur had gone last week, Arla had gone the week before, and Dream had gone yesterday, spent his morning making sure the doors they had to use had their locks loosened with utility hooks. There’s no way he missed a door. How could he have missed a door? “There’s no way.” 

 

“Fucking fuck , Dream,” Arla says. “Didn’t I tell you to—”

 

“I did,” Dream says, panicky. It still doesn’t make sense. He tries the knob of the dual doors, high at the end of the staircase, and they budge against his grip, opening up into the. He checked all of the doors they needed—he never forgets. It’s not like it’s the first time he’s broken into an art museum. “I swear I checked all of the doors. I always do.” 

 

“Okay, well, the only alternative is that someone else is prowling around and locking all of the doors after you open them,” Sapnap says. “And, I mean, come on . I’d pick the lock, but I don’t have my—”

 

“Kit,” Dream says miserably. “Me neither. Listen—it’s fine. I just have to get onto the next floor another way.” He could retrace his steps, but there’s a reason they set aside time for navigating the museum. “I might have to make a circle around.” 

 

“That’ll lose us too much time,” Wilbur says. “We need those twenty minutes to turn the cameras back on afterwards. Sapnap, go alone.” 

 

“I can’t go alone,” Sapnap says, scandalized. “You know I can’t steal a painting alone.”

 

“You won’t be alone,” Wilbur says. “You’ll be with Alex.”

 

“That’s, like, completely above my paygrade,” Alex says. “Sorry, man.” There’s a moment where they all get lost in their own heads. “Okay, you can ignore this if it’s totally ridiculous, but I swear I thought I saw a gap between the rooms on the building plans. They connect in another way, not just through the doors.”

 

“Yeah, through the roof, moron,” Arla says. “Everything is connected by the roof. That’s kind of how buildings work.” 

 

“Wait,” Wilbur says, and there’s the frantic rustling of paper. “He—he might be right, actually.”

 

What ?” Arla says.

 

“Nice,” Alex says, pleased. Dream is not as pleased.

 

“The skylight that opens up onto the roof is split between the two rooms,” Wilbur says. “If you—if you scaled through it, made your way across the room, then dropped into the second exhibit, you could meet Sapnap and continue to the Vermiglio.” There’s a second of silence where they all absorb the change of plan. “Dream’s got his grappling hook.”

 

“That’ll take just as long,” Arla says. “He’s not dropping out of a fucking window when nobody’s there to spot him. No way.”

 

“Sapnap’s there to spot him,” Wilbur says persistently. “And he’s done it quickly before. He can get down in—what, ten minutes? What do you think, Dream?”

 

“I don’t know,” Dream says. “It might leave a mark.” 

 

“Come on, man,” Sapnap says. “I’m not wasting any more time on—stupid, time-wasting bullshit. I told you guys that we needed to work with a crew in Milan, told you a million fucking times, but Dream —” 

 

“I needed to do this one alone,” Dream snaps at him, but looks up at the skylight anyway, watching the illumination of the paintings around him. Mary Magdalene Penitent eyes him from the side, tortured and straw-pale. 

   

“I still don’t get what the big deal was,” Sapnap says. “You were fine with the crew in Orlando.”

 

“Different,” Dream says. He was fine with the muscle in Orlando because they knew who he was, and they wouldn’t do anything to snitch because most of Saint Don’s firing squad has known who he was since he started gambling at sixteen. 

 

They were all so surprised . He’d brought Sapnap and Wilbur and Arla along with him, and they’d all watched in the first perpetual silence Dream had ever seen out of them as he explained their plan. He remembers the cool glow of Saint Don’s eyes on his back every time he turned around, the steady, awed response—and he remembers the way Saint Don had turned to him, kind of smiling, and told him—like it was a secret— proud of you, copling

 

“How?” Sapnap says. “Were you that desperate for them to see what you became?”

 

“No,” Dream says. It had felt warm, something that could sink against him while remaining firmly solid. Not many people were proud of him. Not many people are proud of him now . “I—no. That’s not…” 

 

“Just go,” Wilbur says tersely. “We don’t have time to talk about Dream’s daddy issues.” 

 

“Thanks,” Dream says. He goes. He’s not worried about scaling towards the skylight—he’s worried about the locks. 

 

The ceilings are tall, so he has to move closer to the doors, feel against the stucco pediments. The detailing juts out from the wall, and he traces it with his eyes, following it to the fire alarm, the doorknob, the nailed frame of a painting. He can already feel the burning of his muscles, based on the closeness of the skylight. He’ll have to stretch out, fling himself upwards, end up on his two feet.

 

Doable , he tells himself. This is doable . He sends a silent apology to his mom for the damage he’s about to cause on a stained-glass door, looks down at his shoes—scrubbed dry to avoid slipping and heavy shoeprints—and starts.

 

Finding his footing is the easy part—he doesn’t bother turning off his mic, so he knows the team can hear his frustrated grunts, but maybe that’s an indicator that they have to stop putting him in these situations. He’s not even the person with the most balls and upper-body strength to scale into a skylight. That would be Arla. 

 

He reaches his hands towards the window, a foot trembling precariously on the frame of the door as he presses his other one flat against the wall. He undoes the clasp, quickly, and shoves the glass away. The humid air pushes against his face.

 

He works against the breeze, reaching up to hook an elbow onto the other side of the skylight—Arla may be good at wriggling her way through tight spaces, but he’s finally grateful he has the height to get himself nudged against a structure like a fish hook.

 

He shoves another hand through, next, and there’s another burst of dread somewhere deep in his throat when he feels his foot go numb, break out from its grip against the doorframe. He cranes his neck away from the ceiling, ducking it through the skylight. 

 

“I’m hanging like a fucking—icicle, or something,” he snaps to nobody in particular, and writhes his torso upwards, ignoring the screaming of his muscles. He doesn’t know how much time he has left, or how much has passed, and nobody’s said anything, yet, like they’re waiting to see if he’s going to fall. 

 

He’s not worried about falling. He’s not worried about anything. He knows what would happen: the team would get his body out of the museum and they’d leave without stealing the painting, continue existing without him, and his reign of terror would end just as quickly as it started—and people would never know what happened. They could guess, but they’d never know who he was. Only what he’s done. 

 

It’s on his final thought that he manages to lift himself up through the skylight fully, his legs finally meeting the flat top of the roof. He gives himself a second to face-plant against the tile, breathing heavily, ignoring the burn. 

 

“Are you… okay?” Alex asks, timidly.

 

“I need to work out more,” Dream says. God , it’s a fucking burn.

 

He stands up and looks out from where the roof overlooks the streets of Milan. He can see a spattering of residential property and the clear scenery that presses against the museum. The statue at the entrance is still dyed blue by the twilight. Down the walkway, he can see the empty parking lot and the stone pavings that litter Italian streets, where Wilbur and their uncomfortably conspicuous Range Rover are parked in wait.

 

Weird. They’d agreed he’d park near the back exit. Dream reaches down to close up the skylight, moving to the other side quickly. He still hasn’t made sure his grappling hook is intact. It can’t exactly fall out of place from his utility belt, but it’s the principle of the thing.

 

He looks down at the second half of the skylight, and Sapnap looks back up at him. He waves.

 

Getting down is always easier, so he’s barely thinking when he unhooks the skylight and finds his grappling hook, wrapped in its own rope and tucked against his hip. He makes a rapid motion in Sapnap’s direction, and he runs to the side, letting Dream unfurl the rope so it can fall into the exhibit room. He makes sure the hook is tucked against the roof tiles.

 

“Coming down!” He calls, ignoring the screaming of his second thoughts—it’s nice, ignoring his impulse control. Definitely kind of freeing. He grabs the edge of the rope and shoves himself through the skylight legs-first. 

 

It stops being nice when his gloved hands slide quickly down the rope, and he ends up smacking against the floor flat on his back, wheezing out into a fit of coughs. He closes his eyes against the sight of the swaying rope, and Sapnap steps over his body.

 

“Eight minutes,” he says wryly. “Not your best time.” 

 

“You’re such an asshole,” Dream says, but lets Sapnap help him up anyway, placing a hand against his spinning head as he tries to orient himself. The room’s smaller, but the ceiling is just as high, speckled with a frieze of Latin lettering almost identical to the one in the opposing room. He lets Sapnap tackle getting the grappling hook out of the roof. 

 

“I can’t believe you didn’t die,” Alex says. “I’m still waiting, by the way. I’ve been staring at it for so long it’s getting kinda creepy.” 

 

“We’re on our way,” Dream says. “Wilbur, why’d you move the car? We said you would stay on the street behind the library. I know it’s cramped, but—”

 

“What?” Wilbur asks. “I’m in the same place.” 

  

Dream freezes. There’s no windows to look back out over the roof, but he couldn’t have imagined it. Nobody imagines a car in the distance. “I didn’t—” he says, but he knows how big of a problem another car can cause. He’d love to ignore it, but they don’t have that luxury. “Never mind. I don’t know why—I thought I saw a car.”

 

“You couldn’t have,” Wilbur says. “Unless—I don’t think you could have seen a car.”

 

“Leave it,” Sapnap says, decidedly. Dream looks over at him, and he has his arms crossed tightly against his chest, hat pulled taut over his eyes. His eyes are darting around the room in contained nerves. “We’re behind schedule and we don’t know when those fucking night-shift guards are going to wake up. Arla?”

 

She doesn’t say anything. Dream frowns, touching his earpiece again. It doesn’t even hiss with static. “Arla?” 

 

“Leave it,” Sapnap says. “She probably lost signal. It’s happened before. Let’s go.” 

 

“Okay,” Dream says, a beat later, and follows the slink of his shadow out into the hallway. 

 

They have to pass through the Napoleon exhibit to make it to the right room, and Dream badly wants to stay to look at some of the Da Vinci manuscripts, but he knows they have a time limit. Sapnap’s on an even harsher one in his mind, apparently. 

 

He catches sight of a door left slightly ajar—probably where the Vermiglio is waiting for them. Dream knows Alex is stuck inside, but his earpiece remains silent. He frowns, using his elbow to push the door open wider, but when he shines his flashlight against the painting, he catches no sight of Holofernes’s head. 

 

He sees the Hayez, the watercolor version, the lovers collected together into a circle against the yellowed canvas. “What the fuck?” Dream says, walking closer. Sapnap shushes him, almost inaudibly, but closes the door behind them anyway, making sure it doesn’t click shut. “That’s not—”

 

“Where’s Alex?” Sapnap whispers.

 

“This isn’t what we need,” Dream says. “This is—I think this is the wrong room. This isn’t what we’re looking for.” He flicks his flashlight on, tracing the gentle slopes of color. He drapes it over the canvas in—wonder, maybe. He doesn’t think he’d ever define himself as experiencing wonder .  

 

He doesn’t envy the Romantics. He knew George was full of shit the first time he heard him call Southern artists the fathers of folk art —complete bullshit. He can’t even talk about art without talking out of his ass, trying to appease everyone in the room.  

 

The detail is Neoclassical, crinkled and stable and firm, but the shadows—the touch—the fucking kiss. He can sense the Baroque. The sublime. He knows it’s something his mom would say—she’d talk about the embrace of the lovers, the gentle hand on the girl’s face, the way the scene blurs between a goodbye and a greeting—

 

Something he’d ignore, if he finally didn’t understand what she meant. What George meant. 

 

“Dream?” Wilbur says, in his ear. He jolts upwards. “Can you hear me?”

 

“Yeah,” Dream says. “Think we lost connection for a second—Arla? Can you hear me?” She doesn’t say anything, and he can hear the vague echo of his voice from Sapnap’s earpiece. “Shit. Do you think she’s still disconnected?” 

 

“I dunno,” Wilbur says. “I dunno, mate.”

 

Dream turns his glance back onto Sapnap, who’s still frowning down at his shoes. They’re pretty in tune with each other, so Dream catches the twitch in his eye. Sapnap isn’t going to steal anything unless everything goes to plan. His indecision hasn’t been a secret today. 

 

“You’re right,” Dream finds himself saying, voice lowering against his own volition. He steps away, gleaming his light away from the painting. They’ve only had to abandon a mission once, and it was mostly a false alarm—an alarm system reboot during their first Gargallo attempt. He doesn’t think this is something they could try a second time, considering how difficult it’ll be just for Arla to get all of the cameras running again. “Yeah, this isn’t—we need to go. Where’s Alex?” 

 

“Also not responding,” Wilbur says. “Something tells me we’re about to be in very deep shit.”

 

“Don’t say that, man,” Dream says, voice tight. “Okay, let’s—we should probably go find them, right? Then head back?”

 

“Fast,” Wilbur says. 

 

Shit ,” Dream says, but he doesn’t even have time for the frustration as he pushes past the door again, making sure it’s shoved shut behind him. He and Sapnap make their way through the corridors—sticking close to the walls, breathing the same air. 

 

As good as he is at walking quietly, he knows they have to rush. There’s no way it could be police—the only way the cops would be roused from their distractions would be if something went terribly, terribly wrong, like if they set off some sleeper alarm that notifies the authorities immediately or something. As well-protected as Renaissance art is, his team’s smarter than the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana’s funding.

 

The only other alternative would be—someone else keeping a secret, maybe. He’s willing to keep their secret if they keep his. 

 

 “Do you know what room the painting’s usually supposed to be in?” Sapnap whisper-yells at him, and Dream shakes his head. They’re not far from the room that houses the Hayez watercolor, and he recognizes the Titian pieces and marble busts that line the walls. They’re heading towards the back exit—exactly as planned. If they had the painting, it would be a perfect execution. 

 

“I thought it was supposed to be in that room,” Dream tells him, and then flicks his communicator back on again. “I really have no idea. We have to go. Alex? Can you—” 

 

His communicator crackles, ringing loudly when Alex pushes through a heaping of double doors, running towards them to fling himself against one of the columns in the middle of the room. He gasps, looking up at them, pointing a finger upwards.

 

“They’re—there’s—I just saw Arla leave,” he tells them, but his voice is still wreaked with heavy panting. “I was waiting in the room like you told me to and I heard her walk past even though she was trying to be quiet and I watched her walk to—”

 

“Wait, wait wait wait,” Sapnap says. “Slow down. You saw—” 

 

“Arla,” Alex repeats, eyes wide. “She left from the front exit.” 

 

“She what ?” Dream says acidly, looking back down at the end of the exhibit. He rounds his glance back to Alex, who does look genuinely flustered—he knows he’s not a sleeper agent, but nothing else seems to be adding up. “Okay—it’s fine. Let’s not freak out about this. She probably—she’s probably just trying to get to Wilbur alone. She did lose connection.”

 

“No,” Alex says. “You don’t—no. She tried the door of the room I was in, Dream. I held it shut and she tried it like she was making sure it was locked. Or she was trying to go inside.” 

 

Dream shuts his eyes, pushing his face against his hands. “No, no, no.” He and Arla have been together a long time—not together, but working towards the same goal, always with the same idea in mind. He likes her, and she’s been a good friend to him, but he knows what their relationship is, in her mind. They’re coworkers. It’s always been about the paintings. “Okay, head towards Wilbur. Both of you.”

 

“Dream,” Sapnap says. “Please be—”

 

“I know what I’m fucking doing,” Dream snaps at him, but Sapnap doesn’t back away—he moves closer, grabbing the sleeve of Dream’s shirt. He tugs him forward.

 

“I’m serious,” he hisses. “ Be careful . None of us know what the fuck is going on right now, so above all—whatever fucking happens—remember the plan. Okay?”

 

“I know that ,” Dream says, snatching his arm away.

 

“No,” Sapnap says. “Ours. The one they don’t know about.”

 

“The what now?” Alex says.

 

“You’ll remember it?” Sapnap asks him, ignoring Alex. “If worst comes to worst?” 

 

“Sapnap, of course I’ll fucking remember,” Dream says. He can’t believe Sapnap would assume he could forget that type of thing, when it was his idea—the plan was his idea, and he’s the one who would suffer the most as a result. Of course he’d remember. “Just—get to Wilbur. I’ll be there soon.” 

 

Sapnap nods at him, and they both turn around and continue down into the other exhibit. Dream braces himself and starts retracing his footsteps, pulling his earpiece out to better listen for the echo of Arla’s footsteps—but of course she doesn’t make any noise. She’s like a cat.

 

Before he can start turning for the front exit, he looks out the window—the sun hasn’t risen quite yet, but he can see the faint gleam of twilight. He squints, again, and walks closer, because when he focuses his eyes hard enough he can see more than the single Range Rover. There had been two. Three .

 

He steps back as if shot. Three cars, and none of them are Wilbur’s. There’s too many options for what he could do next, and he doesn’t think any of them end well. He’s already gotten himself into very deep shit, turning away to look for Arla instead of running back to their getaway car

 

Finding the Hayez when he’s actively searching for it is a lot more difficult than stumbling upon it by complete accident, but he still manages. He pushes back through the door and comes face-to-face with the canvas again. He picks it up gingerly, feeling the weight—it’s light, thankfully. There’s a lot of reasons he prefers the watercolor version, and the easiness with which it fits under his arm contributes to those reasons.

 

He should’ve stolen the Vermiglio, but he can’t force himself to care about anyone else when he looks down at the Hayez, still smelling the watercolor. He makes sure it’s solid under his arm and not smearing from his jacket when he turns away and heads towards the back exit.

 

He doesn’t know what he’s going to do with it, but he supposes everyone knew it had to end like this. He’s never stolen a painting for himself. When he was still a petty thief, he was tempted, but he never liked anything enough to keep it for himself. He’s always liked giving presents. 

 

The back exit is for employees only, and he can tell Sapnap and Alex found it easily because the door is flung open. Sloppy. He slips through the gap and makes sure it’s bolted shut once he walks out into the employee exit, looking up at the windows that still surround him. Arla better not be looking down at them from there.

 

“It’s cops, in front,” Alex tells him breathlessly, leaning against the side of the car—still catching his breath. “I just ran up to check. They’re all idling and a few of them are trying to go in from the front but they can’t get through the door. And that—that female cop is here. The one you know. I just saw her leaving.” 

 

“The one I know?” Dream asks, and his heart jumps. Alvarez. Which means— “Is George there?”

 

“I don’t know,” Alex says. He eyes Dream again. “Oh my God, what do you have?” 

 

“Just—” he says, and sheepishly moves so they can see the painting under his arm. 

 

“Oh my God, Dream, what did you do ,” Wilbur says, instantly, head poking out of the car window the same way it had been an hour ago. Dream shakes his head, wordlessly, and lets Sapnap pull the painting from under his arm, face falling in defeat when he notices what it is.

 

“It isn’t even the right one,” he says.

 

“You think I don’t know that?” Dream says. Why doesn’t anyone believe he knows what he’s doing? He starts unhooking his utility belt, making sure everything that could be used to implicate him is shoved into the backseat. “It’s not—I don’t give a fuck about Marchesi, right now. Sapnap—just—can you make sure it gets to George? Please?”

 

“I—okay,” Sapnap says. “Okay, if that’s what you want. It’s for him?”

 

“It’s always been for him,” Dream says. 

 

Sapnap holds his eye for a second longer, but he ends up nodding, because of course he does. Dream hopes he feels guilty, a little bit. He’s the only one who really knows what’s going to happen. 

 

He watches Sapnap load it into the back of the truck before he says anything again. “I’m gonna go in front and let them see who I am.”

 

“What?” Wilbur says. “Are you insane ?” 

 

“No,” Dream says. He knows it couldn’t have ended any other way. “That’s always been the plan—me and Sapnap’s plan, at least. The cops really have no idea whether I’ve been one guy or a team, all along, and if they only manage to catch me, I’d never turn you guys in.” Wilbur blinks at him, and Dream leans in through the window. “Jesus, Wilbur, can you just fucking take what I’m offering right now? This is literally a get-out-of-jail-free card.”

 

“That’s not—but it’s not fair,” Wilbur says. “We’ve all contributed. We’re a team. If one of us goes down—”

 

“It’s fine,” Dream says. He doesn’t know why Wilbur is so surprised. A part of him always knew it was going to end like this—it’s part of the reason why he’s liked watching George work so much. He knows he’ll get that final, anticipated burst of satisfaction when he finally sees Dream in handcuffs. And he’ll be happy for George, truly, because he knows how badly he wants it—and really, he’s only ever had one flaw in his logic. “I never said I would go to prison.”

 

Wilbur blinks, for a second, and then understands. “Dream—”

 

“You’re really smart, Wilbur,” Dream says, instead. He steps backwards from the car, back towards the museum. “You can’t keep living like this. You’re too smart.”

 

“Just be safe,” Wilbur says back.

 

“Wait,” Alex says. “You’re actually fucking leaving ?” 

 

“Seeya, Quackity,” Dream says, and opens up the back door again before he bursts into a run.

 

He narrowly avoids the glass exhibit containers, watching the artwork flash together into smears of color, and once he finally reaches the front exit, he starts hearing the gentle murmuring of voices. They’re talking about how they can’t open the door because they found the security guards passed out. At least Arla didn’t fuck them over on that front.

 

He’s always liked it when people look at him differently—because there’s always that shift, with people who know him. They’re always surprised. They realize he’s a different person, that he’d been lying—that he’s full of untapped potential and secrecy and skeletons and power , full of so much power he has to hide it so it doesn’t hurt them. There’s nothing better than drinking in their fear. He puts his hand on the doorknob and pushes through.

 

When he opens into the front of the museum, the hot light of the sunrise reflects off of Federico Borromeo, glinting into his eyes and forcing them into a squint. He puts up a hand to ward away the orange glow. 

 

He doesn’t know if Wilbur and Alex and Sapnap managed to drive away, but he’s really hoping they did. The Range Rovers—undercover cop cars—are parked messily, all in different positions, and Italian cops pour out, staring at him like he’s the axis mundi. His skin heats with content.

 

Nobody’s ever stolen from the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana; someone tried to in the 1800s, but they didn’t manage and they ended up tightening security. But these cops now, they’ll remember this forever. He’ll only die when they die, too. 

 

Ciao !” He calls at them, and they rush at him immediately, telling him to get down and drop his weapons and tell them who he is. Probably. He doesn’t speak Italian. He looks around for George, but he can’t see him under the spread of the morning sun. He doesn’t see Alvarez, either, or any of the cops from Florida that he kind of expected would follow George to Italy, but he does see Proctor—Sapnap’s boss. He’s walking next to an older man Dream doesn’t recognize, either. 

 

One of the Italian cops cuffs him, saying something Dream still doesn’t understand, so he keeps looking around. Other cops conglomerate around him, blocking his vision, forcing him to turn his head downwards. “Okay, okay,” he says, jutting his neck backwards as one of them steps into his space. “Okay, I’m—cooperating. Jesus.” 

 

“Our thief,” Proctor says, walking closer to survey him for the first time. Dream doesn’t squirm under his look; he doesn’t look impressed, but Dream’s good at reading people. He knows he’s surprised. He’s going to love lying to Proctor. “We meet at last.”

 

Enchante ,” Dream says. He yanks his wrists back towards his body, trying to work out the crick in his arms, but the cop at his back is holding him too tightly. “Ow—can you tell them to stop yanking me around like that? I’m cooperating.”

 

“You have the right to remain silent,” Proctor continues, as the people at his back give him a shove towards the cars. “Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to—”

 

“Yeah, yeah, an attorney, this ain’t my first rodeo,” Dream says, wincing as he almost trips over the walkway. Goddamn Italian street pavings. “Where’s Davidson?”

 

“Excuse me?” The man next to him asks, his accent British. 

 

“Detective Davidson,” Dream repeats. “Art and Antiques.” He looks at the cars again, watching a man step out of one of them. Always yielding to the sound of Dream’s voice. “George!” He calls, and watches him turn his head, but the man next to Proctor steps in front of his space, meeting him with another cool look.

 

“How do you know Detective Davidson?” The man asks, but Dream doesn’t answer. The cops behind him freeze, watching George walk up to them, his hands firm in his pockets.

 

He looks like hell. His hair’s longer, in disarray, and Dream can still see the bandages under his leg, the dress trousers he’s wearing lifting slightly from his ankle. He comes to a halt in front of Dream and watches him, cautious.

 

It’s been a while. Dream’s only been surviving on the memory of his voice for two months. And he’s still not saying anything, still staring at Dream like he has to be careful with the way he looks at him. Like Dream’s going to hurt him again—like they’re going to hurt each other.

 

“George,” he says again. He still hasn’t said anything. It’s a lot worse when he doesn’t say anything. “You’re—you’re here.”

 

“You have the right to an attorney,” George says softly. Dream feels his throat go numb. He doesn’t know what he’d expected—maybe George would yell at him or something. Or he’d make some dramatic I-trusted-you comment that Dream could laugh at. In a better world, in the world where they’re normal and there’s no rules and secrets, he would’ve kissed him. But he doesn’t do any of those things. “If you can’t afford an attorney, one will be provided for you.” 

 

“What?” Dream says. “I know that. I know all of that. Is your leg okay?” 

 

“Do you understand the rights I have just read to you?” George asks. 

 

“Did you miss me?” Dream asks. He wants an answer. He wants the right answer—he wants George to say yes. “I missed you. And I know you missed me.”

 

“Do you understand the rights I have just read to you?” George repeats, and Dream laughs, a little, looking at Proctor and the other man like they’ll be just as surprised as he is—but they’re not, of course. They’re federal agents. They’re trained to keep that look on their faces. 

 

“Yeah,” Dream says, instead. It won’t be a problem, if this is how George wants to play the game—he just has to re-learn the rules. But that’s easy. Easy as breathing. “Yeah, I understand. Do you?”

 

George doesn’t say anything, watching as the cops shove him into the back of one of the unmarked police vehicles, almost bumping his head against the roof. Dream knows he isn’t surprised—he’ll always play by the rules George makes up for him. 

 

But if he really thinks Dream is going to let them send him to prison, he doesn’t know Dream at all. 

Chapter Text

Dream’s face is everywhere. He makes it to The New York Times, The Washington Post, the gossip magazines lining the check-out lines at pharmacies, the Daily Mail and the British radio and billboards outside of small towns and television screens in department stores: art thief apprehended, museum robber caught , his stupid face smiling down at George from every angle, in handcuffs and being led into cop cars and squinting against the bright flash of cameras. Notorious art thief refuses interviews. Art thief attends arraignment court hearings

 

He’d thought finally seeing Dream arrested would be the final nail in the coffin—it would change his mind, maybe, remind him of the fact that he needs to distance himself from Dream completely. He’d tracked him down from that painful phone-call, found out he was in Milan, gathered the Italian police, made sure to get Wallace and Proctor in the country, and it was all just for himself. George can’t touch him if he’s behind bars, and maybe that’s a good thing. 

 

He sees him in the lobby of his hotel room in Italy; he sees him scrolling through his phone in the morning; he sees him when Darryl calls him on behalf of the Orlando department, tells him to look at the news, and George says, “Yeah, I fucking know,” and hangs up before thinking about what an asshole that makes him, but there’s nothing he can do about sounding like an asshole. He does fucking know. He doesn’t want Darryl reminding him. 

 

Dream’s locked away in a holding cell, so George flies back to London for a while, mostly because he’s worried his mum will have a heart attack if he doesn’t. He still hasn’t been back to Brighton. It’s a nice break from the torture that’s become his daily life, especially when he enforces the rule do not talk to me about my job, ever

 

It’s nice. It’s an improvement. Especially when Dream’s not there.

 

And then Wallace calls him. He’s at dinner with his mum and his sister when his work cell starts ringing, and they send it hesitant looks that imply that they really, really want to ask what’s going on, but instead of explaining, he excuses himself and takes the call outside. Wallace sounds busy.

 

“Where are you?” He asks.

 

“London,” George says, after a beat. Like he’s been for the past five weeks. “I’m on—”

 

“Sabbatical,” Wallace says. “Yes. I remember. I hate to interrupt you when you’re on a break, but the team’s just continued interrogations on the bastard and he’s refusing to speak to anyone but you.”

 

Unsurprising. Frustrating, but still unsurprising. “He’s refused to speak to anyone but me for months now.”   

 

“Yes, but we’re getting impatient,” Wallace says. “You don’t have to come to Milan—it would make things easier if you did, but you don’t have to. The most I’ll ask of you is that you formally explain the nature of your relationship. Completely off the record.” George doesn’t say anything. “We need something to use against him, George.”

 

“The nature—” George repeats, and stops himself. If he knew, he’d have told Wallace already. But he doesn’t know. “I already told you everything.”

 

“Everything,” Wallace repeats—voice dripping, a little, with something George can’t identify. “If what you told me truly was everything , I suppose we’ll just have to ask him why he’s so insistent to speak to you.”

 

“Don’t do that,” George says. “Don’t—just—don’t mention me at all. Please.” He can’t speak to Dream again. He’s already seen him again—he’s seen him every day, watched him bare his teeth and bat his eyelashes and flash across screens and never speak—he’s never spoken. People have fallen in love with him all over the world purely because he’s never spoken. “If you want to take me off the case, fine—if you want to bump me down to a desk jockey, that’s fine too. Just don’t… I’d really rather not be involved.”

 

“Okay,” Wallace says, after a pause. “I’m… disappointed that you wouldn’t want to remain a principal on this case.” George doesn’t say anything. He’s pretty sure it’s illegal to fire somebody while they’re on sabbatical. “I’ll give you a few days to think.”

 

Great. George has managed to lose his high-ranking position and his own self-respect in one three-minute phonecall. He should get some kind of award for that.

 

He spends a few more days back home in London licking his own wounds, eating his mum’s home-cooked meals and dodging calls from Orlando. He stays for Christmas and thinks about what everyone else is doing. He knows Baker’s working overtime, going to murder trials and making up for Alvarez’s absence. But he doesn’t know what Dream could be doing, other than capturing the heart of the nation, apparently. 

 

He only goes back home to Brighton because he misses his cat. Usually, he’d use it as an opportunity to up his pills, but it doesn’t feel as satisfying to pop them anymore. But if he doesn’t buy them, he gets bitchy, and if he gets bitchy, people stop trying to talk to him, and that’s about when the calls from Orlando stop.

 

His first day back in Brighton, he goes out with Karl and a few friends to a pub playing a constant loop of news showing Dream on the steps of a courthouse. His lawyer talks to reporters, and Dream runs his tongue along his teeth and looks at the camera. George leaves pretty soon after that.

 

Karl gives him back the keys to his apartment, and he opens the door to his flat with an unfamiliar type of nostalgia. He feels like he used to feel, making his way back home after work to eat leftover takeout with his cat on his lap. He can almost convince himself things are the same. 

 

He smells the painting before he sees it. The watercolor canvas flutters against the wall when the door slams shut behind him. He stares—and stares—and keeps staring, even when the painting doesn’t move, remains propped up against the edge of the wall of his living room. 

 

Not even nailed against the wall. The least Dream could do was be courteous, he supposes. He walks closer—thinks about how the fuck he even managed to get in here. Thinks about Dream sneaking through his window, the Hayez ducked under one arm, the careful way he would make sure the paint remained intact, the paper stayed unwrinkled. He’d be careful. He’d be careful because he knows it’s George’s favorite, his own personal definition of a masterpiece. 

 

Of course he’d remembered, even when he’d acted like he didn’t understand what George was talking about during that—stupid, embarrassingly lovestruck conversation. George walks closer, and once he’s close enough to realize that the painting’s real he falls into a puddle, legs split in front of the painting as he reaches out to touch it until—he doesn’t. His hands feel too filthy.  

 

The couple embraces, distant from him in both time period and opportunity. He’s not bitter that they get to kiss. He’s bitter they get to stay like that forever, immortalized, no matter if the moment was short or not, and he doesn’t , because he has a job and a duty to his country and he can never have anything he wants, never again, because he was selfish for one moment and now he’ll be selfish for a lifetime. He did this to himself. Nobody else did this to him.

 

Fuck ,” he says, to himself, his voice shaky and a little wet like he’s about to cry—and he could, if he wanted to. But he still doesn’t feel alone, and he can only ever cry if he’s alone. 

 

He pushes his chin onto his knees and looks at it again. Caught together , he thinks. Someone knocks on his door.

 

He gets up, wiping at his face fiercely before he palms at his doorknob, trying to position his body so that he’ll hide the whole of the painting. He doesn’t know what he’s going to do with it, but he can’t keep it. He doesn’t know if he has it in him to give it away, either. A girl’s standing in front of him.

 

He blinks. Opens his mouth. “Niki?”

 

“Hi,” she says, voice breathless and the tip of her nose pink. It’s started getting cold in the U.K., and he knows how abrupt of a change it can be, transitioning from Orlando. The way water turns to ice. “Can I come inside?”

 

“Um,” George says. “I actually just—”

 

“I know about the painting, George, it’s fine,” she says. “Let me in, please.”

 

He steps aside, letting her walk in to unfurl the scarf she’s wearing and drop it onto his couch, which still smells faintly of dust and mildew. She smiles, ducking down on her knees to look down at the painting.

 

“It’s beautiful,” she says. He ducks down next to her, crossing his legs. “He said you would like it.”

 

“I do like it,” he murmurs, and watches her rustle at her hair, still gazing down at the artwork. The warm shadows of the sketchwork construction echo in her face. “What are you doing here?”

 

“I forget how cold Europe is, sometimes,” she says, instead of answering. Her hair has dulled to a yellow-pink with time, and she’s wearing golden jewelry and a thick, white sweater. She looks a little lighter than she usually does. “It’s mild usually, really, but when you come from Florida—it can be very cold. Very cold.”

 

“What are you doing here?” He repeats, still looking down at the painting. He doesn’t want to talk to Niki. It’d be nice to be alone for a while. 

 

She turns her head at him. “I’m moving back home. To Germany.”

 

“Oh,” he says. “Why?”

 

“Why are you taking your break?” She asks. “It’s an office job. I wasn’t really happy there.” 

 

“As a secretary?” George asks.

 

“Not as a secretary,” she says. “I mean, I have an interview as one in a hospital in a few weeks. I just mean—” she sighs, then looks over at him and shakes her head. “And I have friends, yes, but—I don’t know. I missed my family, I think. Do you miss your family?”

 

He did. He hadn’t realized it until he saw them again. “Yeah. That’s why I went home.”

 

“So you understand,” she says. They keep looking at the painting together. “And Orlando? Do you miss Orlando?”

 

“No,” he says, and it’s true. “I, um—I really—I appreciated meeting all of you, don’t get me wrong, and it’s a beautiful place, but I don’t think it was—it really wasn’t good for me. You know? Stressful.”

 

“Stressful,” she agrees. “There’s so many people. All the time. And for me, being stuck in these two worlds, you know. I couldn’t just leave one of them. It never would have worked.” 

 

George knows what they’re talking about, between all of the slight words and the uncomfortable subtext. They’re talking about the mess they’ve both gotten themselves into. Niki before him, but George can’t blame her—he can’t blame anyone, now, for the way they follow Dream around by the coattails. It’s only ever out of love or hate. He just has to figure out which angle the media’s spinning, now, because his feelings are usually the opposite. “Have they been talking about him?” 

 

“That’s… actually what I came here to ask you,” Niki says. George frowns. “It’s so complicated, flying in investigators from Greece and Spain and everything. Everyone wants to tie up their own loose ends, but it’s difficult. Especially because he’s keeping his mouth shut.”

 

“For once,” George mutters.

 

“For once,” Niki agrees, and she smiles, a little bit—she definitely has fonder memories to look back on than George does. “That’s why… um… listen, George, I really want to be honest with you. Baker told me to stop in London because everyone in Orlando wants me to convince you to help with the case. But—”

 

George barks out a laugh before she can continue, standing up to walk into his barebones kitchen. He definitely doesn’t have any food, but he has enough willpower to flick on his coffee maker and shove open his faulty window, which opens up into the City Center. Niki follows close behind him. “Yeah, good luck with that.”

 

“That’s what I said,” she says, lingering in the doorframe. “I told them that he’s been terrorizing you for so long , obviously you would want to take yourself off of the case before things got real, but—”

 

“Oh, it’s fucking real,” he says, and turns around. “Rest assured I know things have gotten real. That’s not the reason—God, do I have to spell everything out for you people? Have you really not figured me out yet?”

 

Niki steps back as if stung. “What?”

 

“Come on , Niki,” George says, his blood burning against his skin. “I’m not exactly a good liar. And it’s not like your people are, either—the Orlando department’s so fucking filthy that the shit Dream and I did barely even compares to—what goes on when I’m not even there. So shouldn’t they be grateful I’m detaching myself? God knows they can finish this investigation on their own. They don’t need me.” He looks out of the window again. “Who fucking does, at this point?”

 

Niki doesn’t say anything. When George looks back at her again, she has her arms crossed like she’s trying to understand something he hasn’t managed to articulate. He’d thought he’d articulated himself pretty well.

 

“What?” He snaps, because the look on her face is pissing him off and the fact that she’s even giving him the time of day is pissing him off. He really needs to be alone.

 

“You’re an idiot,” she says. “I don’t know why I thought you weren’t as big of an idiot as Dream. Really. You’re such a fucking idiot.”

 

Excuse me?”

 

“I don’t care if you hope he’s dying of a terminal illness,” Niki says. “I don’t care if you secretly married two weeks into knowing each other and now pine for each other’s touch across the fucking Atlantic—I really don’t care how you feel about him. None of us do. He’s my friend, he always will be, but he’s also an international art thief being chased by every corner of the fucking world and the only way I can survive that—shit, the only way you can survive that—is if you make a decision. You can’t—keep everyone in this eternal fucking limbo . It’s selfish.”

 

“Maybe I’m selfish,” George says. He feels filthy. “He shot me , Niki.”

 

“Then put him in jail for attempted murder,” Niki says. George opens his mouth to say something, but she doesn’t let him continue. “You don’t want to? Then don’t. But stop living in this ridiculous fucking neutral territory between loving him and not loving him. It’s ingenuine.” Her voice catches, and she turns her eyes down away from him guiltily. “And pathetic,” she adds, in a quieter tone of voice. 

 

“It’s not that easy,” George says. 

 

“Of course it is. Look,” Niki says, and her eyes go a little softer, her voice losing its edge. George doesn’t think he’s ever heard her raise her voice, but she’s always been clever. She’s always known exactly what to say. “I didn’t mean to shout. Look—you know what this has been doing to you. We can all tell that this case has been... hard on you.”

 

“What?” George says. It’s the way that she pauses—the way that she holds her words back as if she’s unsure about the phrasing—that reminds George of his mother; his mother and his sister, both with careful glances that could catch him in lies back when he promised he’d get better and then didn’t. “What do you mean?”

 

“You said you’re not a good liar, right?” Niki says, and George can feel his face flush but he doesn’t say anything. This feels dangerously close to pity. “Come on, George. We’ve known for a while.” 

 

“How long of a while?” George demands.

 

“Since you told us you didn’t drink,” Niki says.

 

Months. Months of Hank and Darryl and Alyssa, all people he thought were his friends, knowing about his problem—a problem general society doesn’t know how to deal with, a problem that probably fucking fascinates them, the way all obsessions fascinate people—and tiptoeing around him, keeping their own slews of secrets. Because people only watch him like a circus attraction. He absorbs himself, and people watch; he lets himself be consumed, and people fucking watch . He’s not a sideshow. “You need to leave.”

 

“What?” Niki says.

 

“I’m serious,” George says, and steps closer to get her to back up, herding her towards the front door. “I don’t want your pity and I don’t want your help. You need to—”

 

“Wait, wait, come on ,” Niki says persistently, locked against the living room with her hand on George’s arm. “We didn’t—George. Come on. Nobody pities you. We just want to—”

 

“I’ve got it handled,” George says. “I haven’t used in a while. I haven’t—it’s been hard, but I knew that whenever I used too much I’d make mistakes and I’d—I’d get sloppy , so I stopped using, so you can stop trying to help me. I’ve got it handled. Thanks.”

 

“That’s not what I’m worried about,” Niki says. “What we’re worried about. You’re—it’s never been just the drugs. You know that, we know that. It’s him and it’s the fact that you can’t catch him. It’s been driving you insane.”

 

“That’s not true,” George says.

 

“It is,” Niki says pleadingly. “George—”

 

“No,” he interrupts fiercely. “It’s not, because—I’m—I caught him. I could call him, Niki. I tracked down where he was in Italy through his phone. I could call him right now and he’d find a way out to come see me no matter what it took.” Niki pushes her hands against the back of her neck. “But I can’t—I don’t know how—I don’t know how to keep him. I keep letting him go.” 

 

The way you free a bug from a glass cup. Niki turns around, sitting on the edge of the couch in front of him. “You didn’t tell anybody.”

 

“Of course I didn’t tell anybody,” George says. “It’s—”

 

“I love him too,” she says. “But I have to look out for myself before I can even think about seeing him ever again. But you—” she sighs, placing her hands on the side of the couch. “Only you know what your best option is. I knew that I wanted to leave, so I left, and Alvarez knew she wanted to stay, so she stayed. Whatever you choose—I’ll understand. The only hard part is choosing.”

 

He knows he has to choose. He’s known that for a long time. And he knows, logically, that if he marched into the Italian police department Wallace would accept all of his apologies in exchange for him finally helping take down Dream, once and for all, and he could go back to his good-paying job and he could go back to London and he could go back to dating people—dating normal people, specifically, ones who won’t try to shoot him in the leg. 

 

But if he did all of that—if the bug goes free—his life would slow to a fraction of itself; the way movies end with cheerful epilogues, the way history rewrites itself through the eyes of the victors. He’d never see Dream again. He’d heal. He’d detox.

 

“Alvarez stayed?” George repeats. Slowly.

 

Niki frowns at him. “She didn’t tell you?”

 

**

 

The Italian cop says something. Dream kind of assumes it’s in Italian.

 

“He’s asking if you want water,” Wallace says, and Dream shakes his head, rattling his handcuffs when he slides his back down his chair. His lawyer—a jittery middle-aged man with longer hair than Dream guesses is actually allowed in a courtroom—is taking a piss break, so they’re legally not allowed to question him any further until he comes back. They’re going to anyway, of course, but that’s something Dream can use during his actual trial. If he makes it that far.

 

“It fascinates me how long you were able to hide from us,” Wallace says. Dream isn’t paying attention: he looks out of the window, works out the white clouds against the dark grates of the interrogation room windows. It’s cold in the room, but the only thing keeping him warm is the fact that it’s colder outside. 

 

And besides—they’ve tried to freeze him out before, but it’s never worked. He’s been on the receiving end of an interrogation room too many times.

 

“I mean, since this time two years ago,” Wallace says, leaning in closer. “You’ve made a name out of yourself in two years . You must get some kind of pride out of that. I certainly would, if I were you.”

 

“It’s okay,” Dream says. 

 

“Okay?” Wallace repeats. There’s a pause where he expects Dream to continue, but he doesn’t. “I must admit that I find you fascinating. I think we could all learn a lot from you—about the type of operation you were running before you were caught.” Dream narrows his eyes. “Because you were caught, weren’t you?”

 

He and Sapnap had a plan for this type of thing. If they were ever in an interrogation room, separate but being questioned for the same crime, they’d stick to the only approach that worked—nothing. Give them nothing. Ignore the digs and don’t get cocky.

 

But God, he wants to—it hurts not to. He wants to scream into Wallace’s face that the pigs wouldn’t know how to catch him if he glowed with luminescence and had a radar clipped to his belt. He wants to tell him that every investigator that’s ever been assigned to his case—every sorry asshole wage-slave and every Liv Benson who thinks they can save the world from crime—is always too busy holding their dick in their hand to think outside of the box, to find a way to find him no matter what it takes. Because it takes a lot. Wallace knows it takes a lot. That’s why they’ve never found him. 

 

“I guess,” Dream says. 

 

Wallace studies him for a moment longer, and then sighs. He gets up and leaves the room, the door swinging shut behind him. Dream studies the doorknob and thinks about how he would pick it. There’s nothing else to think about.

 

They send Proctor in, next. Dream doesn’t know if they’re working in shifts or if interrogating him is first-come-first-serve. He has to admit that Proctor is his favorite: he’s poised, serious, and he’s not good with mind-games. He probably isn’t good with any games, by the looks of him. He takes his seat quietly and crosses his hands in front of Dream. 

 

“Do you want some water?” He asks.

 

“Stop asking me if I want water,” Dream says. “I don’t.”

 

“What is this?” Proctor says. “Some makeshift dehydration-strike? You can’t go for more than a few days without water, Clay. You’ll cave eventually.”

 

Dream shrugs. “Okay.” 

 

He can see, from the faint twitch under Proctor’s eye, that it drives him absolutely fucking nuts when Dream responds like that. He’s mostly working out of spite—whenever people react to him with nothingness, he’s ready to ramp up the velocity until he’s screaming at them. He doubts Proctor is much different from him. 

 

Wallace opens the door again, peeking his head inside. “Davidson’s on his way.”

 

Dream jerks so quickly in his seat at the sound of George’s name that the chair squeaks, and they both look over at him, at the delightful break in his composure. He shoves his nails into his palms. It feels like someone’s ripped his camouflage off. 

 

“George Davidson?” Proctor repeats, carefully, but neither of their eyes leave his face as they wait for him to react again. He won’t let that happen—they won’t set him off. Nothing can set him off. “Where is he flying in from?”

 

“London,” Wallace says. “He’s just sitting in on procedures. He won’t be present at interrogations.”

 

Dream opens his mouth, but then he bites it shut, shaking his head to himself. It’s a clever play. They almost got him. 

 

“Clay?” Proctor prompts again, like he’s an exceptionally quiet child. “Did you have anything to add?”

 

“No,” he says. The places where his nails bite at his palm start to throb with pain. And then: “But I already said—”

 

“We know,” Proctor says. “You’ll only talk to him. I’m afraid that’s not a possibility unless he’s entirely willing to sit in on questioning.”

 

“Did you tell him I’m—” Dream says, and then closes his eyes. Rephrase—careful. Loaded guns. Landmines under your feet. If you misstep, everything dies . “Okay.”

 

“Is there any particular reason why you’ll only speak to Davidson?” Wallace asks, even though he knows—even though they all know. They’re stupid, but they at least know how to take advantage of Dream’s weak spots. Landmine , he thinks again. If you say one wrong thing everything explodes and everything dies. 

 

“He just gets it,” Dream says. Maybe, in an odd way, that really is what it all boils down to. “That’s all.” 

 

Wallace and Proctor both look at him wearily again, and they remind him of divorced parents very ashamed that their child’s gotten into trouble. A little bit like his parents, who aren’t divorced but hate each other—and him—nonetheless. 

 

His lawyer pushes through the door, leaving a moist handprint on the doorknob. “Okay, now—oh,” he says, coming to a pause towards his unopened briefcase as he catches sight of Wallace and Proctor. “Hello again, investigators. Wow, it’s full in here—hey, let’s not get too rowdy, huh?” 

 

They both ignore him. “There’s nothing less discreet than a person in love, Clay,” Proctor says, and walks out of the room. Dream’s frozen in place.

 

He waits until he’s alone in the room with his lawyer settling in next to him to knock his leg into the table, angrily shoving himself back into place. He slams his knee forward again, his painful fucking handcuff-shackles digging into his wrist, and he needs to get out of here. He needs to go home. But this is the only way George will talk to him without everything ending in shellfire and explosions. 

 

“Are you okay?” His lawyer asks, and Dream doesn’t answer. 

 

**

 

He spends a few more days in his cell and a few more days dozing off into the interrogation room before they finally let him see George. He supposes, with a crippling type of finality, that this is what it must feel like for prisoners who only see their loved ones in visitation rooms. He hasn’t even been allowed to do that , so he supposes he should be grateful he gets an in-person interaction, at least.

 

“Hi,” Dream whispers, but George doesn’t seem to hear him—he settles into his seat and opens up his yellow manila folder. He’s cut his hair short again; Dream imagines the buzz of his scalp under his fingers. His jaw’s shaded in stubble and he’s wearing a silver ring. 

 

“Nothing you say in this session will be recorded,” George says, eyes still scrolling over his papers. Dream squints his eyes to make out the letters—it’s his record, the one that he hasn’t really updated since he was seventeen and spray-painted cop cars. He almost wants to laugh at the absurdity. “And you’ve chosen to speak without your lawyer present, correct?” 

 

“I mean, he’s supposed to be outside if I implicate—” Dream starts, but George cuts him off.

 

“Correct or incorrect?” George adds. He sounds a little bored.

 

“Um… correct,” Dream says, only vaguely bewildered. George nods. He pushes his manila folder to the side. 

 

“Now,” he says, and drops the act. “What the fuck is your problem?”

 

Dream startles. “What—”

 

“I said,” George says, and slams the folder shut, “What the fuck is your problem , Dream? You can’t keep doing this to my life. I know you don’t care about fairness, so I won’t talk about fairness, so think of it this way, you fucking asshole—you cannot have me. I don’t belong to you.”

 

“I never said—”

 

“You never said I did?” George snaps back, leaning forward on his forearms. “Don’t argue semantics. You made me feel like I did, and I was so desperately in love with you I would’ve done anything to make you stay, but what you failed to realize is that nobody is quite as taken with the sad puppy act as I am.” 

 

“You were—” Dream says, but he’s too hung up on the past-tense. He can’t think about anything else—all he can smell is George’s aftershave and the orange gum he’d been chewing and the cold press of his hands, how they’d fit against the hot bruises of his palms. He blinks the feeling away. “You were in love with me?”

 

“Yes,” George says. “I was.”

 

It’s the matter-of-factness with which he says it that wedges itself deep into Dream’s gut. “And you’re—” He tilts his eyes towards George’s. “You’re not—anymore?” 

 

George doesn’t respond, for a moment. And then he leans forward, rocks on his forearms, and grabs ahold of the collar of Dream’s shirt, tugging him forwards to push their mouths together.

 

He hasn’t kissed George in a while. He hasn’t kissed George since November. And now they’re days away from January, days away from the new year, and George’s mouth is on his mouth again, and he keeps forgetting how good it can feel when it’s someone he cares about—because the girls and the boys who replaced him afterwards, he’d have let go so easily— I’m here forever , he thinks, woozily, and it kind of feels like the picking of a lock, the bloody knuckles of a won fistfight, the afterglow of a stolen painting. Where else is it okay for me to be? 

 

George pulls away, face neutral against Dream’s panting mouth. “No,” he says, still with his fingers wrenched tightly into Dream’s shirt. “I’m not.”

 

He shoves his fingers against Dream’s chest and shoves him backwards until he’s tumbling back into his seat, the handcuffs clanking against the rough metal of his chair and scraping against the pink of his wrists. 

 

“So now you’ll tell me where the teenage boy with the Backus painting has gone,” George says. 

 

Hot shame bubbles up into Dream’s throat, colors his face red with humiliation. He can imagine Proctor and Wallace and—hell, probably Baker, watching him lose. He can imagine Baker calling him weak in devastating, picture-clear accuracy, sneering down at him and busting him out of cop cars and dropping him off back at the mansion— weak and pathetic. Weak and pathetic like a fucking girl like your mother .

 

And Dream wants to call George’s bluff, but he can’t. He doesn’t know how to when they’re lying to each other. “I don’t know.”

 

“You don’t know ?” George says. “Don’t treat me like one of your bullshit cops, Clay.”

 

“Don’t call me that,” Dream says, and George says, “What? Clay?” with that twisted, morbid satisfaction, and since he’s already prematurely happy with himself, Dream gives him what he wants—he slams his knee against the desk, rattling it under his manila folder. George looks up at him.

 

“Yeah,” Dream says. “You don’t call me that, ever, so don’t start now.”

 

“I can call you whatever I want, Dream,” George says. 

 

“And yet you just called me Dream ,” Dream says. “You can call me whatever you want, but you don’t, because you don’t want to call me anything else. You like my name and you like everything about me because you’re in love with me.”

 

“Jesus,” George says. “I’m not in love with you.”

 

“You should’ve told me when you were,” Dream says. “The minute you thought about it, even if it was too early, you should’ve—you should’ve told me.” He tries to get himself to shut up by imagining his lawyer looking in at them, but it doesn’t work. “I wish I’d gotten to hear you say it at least once.”

 

George is staring at him now. “Don’t try and guilt me into staying,” he breathes.

 

“I’m not guilting you,” Dream says. “I’m just—”

 

George cuts him off by thrusting a hand in front of himself. “Don’t say anything. In the museum, the Italian museum, we found the remnants of dirt on one of the doorframes—why? Who in your team left it there?” 

 

“I worked alone,” Dream says. Ironically, his answer wouldn’t even be wrong in what it implies. “Why would it be—why would it be guilting you? I’m trying to be honest. Because it’s important for me to tell you—”

 

“The truth?” George prompts. “Is that what you were going to say? If it’s the truth, tell me about the dirt—there’s physically no possible way for you to have broken into that museum and stolen the painting yourself all of those other times. Thirty fucking times , Dream.”   

 

“I’m telling you the fucking truth,” Dream says. “Come on, this isn’t—I don’t want to talk about this with you. I haven’t seen you in so long.”

 

George leans in, clearing his throat before he lowers his voice. “Does this look like a catch-up?” He asks. “Let’s catch up, then, Dream. Who are you working with?”

 

“Nobody,” Dream says. “My turn. Is your leg okay?”

 

George grits his jaw and leans back in his seat, a little. When he runs his hand against the back of his neck, he says, “You know how everyone tried to cheer me up? By telling me that at least you didn’t shoot me in a place other than my leg.” He looks up at the ceiling. “You should’ve been there. I wished you were there the entire time.” He looks back down. “Your turn.”

 

“I’m sorry I shot you in the leg,” Dream says. “I didn’t want to and I didn’t—I know it’s ironic now, but—I didn't want you to get hurt. But I knew seeing you again was a bad idea. I needed to make sure that you’d—”

 

“Finally die?” George asks dryly.

 

“No,” Dream snaps. “You’d stay away, idiot. You’d just stay away for good and never get hurt on my behalf again.” 

 

“You sound like a cult leader,” George says. “If you wanted me to stay away, why’d you ask to speak to me? If you’re that dedicated to me not getting hurt on your—”

 

“Because I’m a selfish idiot and I’m in love with you, dumbfuck,” Dream says, without even realizing what kind of an exclamation that would be even in a normal circumstance. 

 

They sit, motionless, for a second, George’s frozen finger pointing into space, and Dream closes his eyes and bares his palms against the table. Landmine, boom , he thinks wearily.

 

 “If this is what it is,” he adds, without thinking. “If this is actually what it’s supposed to feel like, then I don’t—I don’t know.”

 

George seems to switch his strategy. He leans forward, bringing his fingers together on the table, pushing his leg forward until his heel collides against Dream’s ankle. “Do you know where Alvarez is?” 

 

“No,” Dream says. “How the fuck would I know where Alvarez is?”

 

“Because you know where Arla is, and chances are they’re probably together,” George says. 

 

Dream frowns. “I don’t know where Arla is, either.” That part’s only half a lie: he’s spoken to Sapnap and Wilbur through a burner he bought off of one of his cellmates, and all they’ve told him is that she’s in Cuba. He has not asked why she’s in Cuba for his own mental wellbeing. “And either way—”

 

“Fucking Christ,” George says. “So they both left? Really? They’re both just allowed to leave without any repercussions or anything even when it’s—inconvenient? When was that established as a possibility?”

 

“Nothing to do with us, George,” Dream says. Maybe it’s because he and Arla have gone AWOL with each other enough times that he understands the situation as something that will always fix itself; there’s a certain type of trust they’ve always placed in each other, and he’s never had a reason to doubt that level of trust. He’s never wanted to. He’s not going to start. “I really doubt it has anything to do with us.”

 

“Because you know?” George snaps. “You don’t know —fuck. I don’t know. I really don’t know anything, Dream. I’m hanging on by a fucking thread here.”

 

“I know,” Dream says, and watches George wilt: he pushes his head down against his palms, relaxing his elbows against the table. He looks tired. He looks spent. Dream wants to touch him, for some reason—like that’ll fix every problem they’ve ever created for themselves. He reaches forward and pushes his foot against George’s ankle. “I’m sorry.”

 

George laughs—bitter, hollow, a little bit like a person who’s used to giving apologies but not receiving them. “For what?”

 

“I don’t know,” Dream says. “That we can’t just be—like—that it has to be like this, I guess.”

 

“Like what?” George asks. “This is the only way it was ever going to be.” 

 

“You don’t know that,” Dream says, and he wonders if it comes off insincere or obsessive, naive or grating—he doesn’t know what he wants to sound like, to George. He just wants to sound like a person worth praise. “We could’ve been—”

 

“You sound like a fucking moron,” George says, and pushes himself away from the table abruptly, facing the one-way glass. Dream flicks his eyes over at the window, and he’s glad, prematurely, for the fact that they can’t hear him—they may have just watched George kiss him, but maybe he’s finally at his breaking point. Maybe there really is nobody on the other side. He’ll only know once George leaves the room. He turns around again. “What makes you think—”

 

“Calm down,” Dream says, and tries to stand up, but he is, of course, padlocked to his chair. He wouldn’t be if he hadn’t tried to bash himself against a window that one time they were escorting him through buildings, but he is now a threat to public safety . Go figure. “Okay, I know it seems like—I know it seems like everything was fucked from the start, but if we’d tried, and if we’d realized earlier—”

 

Tried ?” George hisses at him. “I tried every fucking step of the way, Dream.” He leans in again, fists pressed against the table, waiting for him to crack just as much as he has already—but Dream knows one of them has to stay composed during every interaction. They take turns. “I made up lies for you and I listened to your bullshit and let you shoot me in the fucking leg —don’t tell me I didn’t try. I tried everything.”

 

“You never told me,” Dream says.

 

“Never told you what ?” 

 

Dream doesn’t think it’s naïveté. It’s a matter of simple logical reasoning—trying to figure out why God would put George here, with the curve of his mouth and his gentle eyes picking Dream apart like meat against bone, and not let Dream touch him. That’s what he’d ask. If he had to ask God the stupid question. Why is George here, and he can’t fucking touch him

 

“That you loved me,” he says, finally. 

 

“I’m telling you now,” George says. “I love you.” 

 

Dream peers up at him again. George’s face shifts.

 

Loved you,” he corrects. “I—I loved you, and—” his face falls again, a second later, and his shoulders collide against the back of the chair. “Fucking fuck . I need a smoke.” 

 

“I need to get out of these handcuffs,” Dream says, but George ignores him.  

 

“What the fuck does it change , Dream?” George says. He looks deep in thought. “It doesn’t change anything now and it wouldn’t have changed anything then.” 

 

“I don’t know,” Dream says. Nothing. It wouldn’t have changed anything. Puffs of gunpowder and nothing else. “But I would’ve—I did so much for you and—you can lock me away, if you want. I’ll know why you did it and I’ll still feel the same. God, I remember, once—” he pauses, running a tongue over his teeth as he grins at the memory. “You were there, so you’ll remember. J.G., he said something, like—something about how I’d get on my knees and beg for your attention if I had to, and I remember thinking, so what ? Maybe you’re worth begging to, you know?” He watches the way George’s face falls. “I still feel like that, George. I’ll feel like that forever.”  

 

George doesn’t speak, for a second. “I really—”

 

“It’s fine,” Dream says, feeling his face burn. Worthless fucking chemicals in his brain. He’d almost thought he was in the clear. “You said we’re not being recorded, right?”

 

George shakes his head. “I wouldn’t want to remember this conversation. Dream—just—” he reaches out a hand to pull at Dream’s until he realizes he can’t touch him. It flops against the table like a dead fish. “Just please tell me where Arla is. Please. I need something before I go out there and I have to leave you behind again.” 

 

Dream gulps, looking down at his lap again before turning his face back up to George’s. He avoids eye contact, playing with his fingers, but then he sprawls them forwards again, meeting Dream’s glance with careful eyes.

 

“Don’t look at me like that,” Dream says.

 

“I’m not trying to,” George says.

 

Cuba. CubaCubaCuba. Read my mind so it won’t count. It’ll be like I didn’t tell you anything. “Is it just for you?” 

 

“I just need to find Alvarez,” George says. Quiet. “I know they’re together. It’s all I need.” 

 

If it’s just for him—

 

If it’s all he needs—

 

“Cuba,” Dream breathes. Like it’s penance. “She’s in Cuba.” 

 

George doesn’t kiss him. Dream doesn’t know why he expects him to. They both think about it instead, and Dream knows George is thinking about kissing him because his teeth dig against his lip and he’s messing with his silver rings and his eyes look glassy and Dream can feel the heavy thump of the bruises on his hands, and his brain is telling him to find a way, because this may be the last time, finally, and that’s the real reason he’d wanted to talk to George again just once—he knows it’s the last time, and he can’t have that be their last kiss, so he opens his mouth to say something, but before he can try to phrase his exclamation Wallace and Proctor and his good-for-nothing lawyer barrel through the door.

 

“Davidson, I hate to break up your little reunion, but you’re late to an arraignment,” Wallace says. 

 

George presses his hands against his eyes. “I know. I’ll leave now.” 

 

He doesn’t turn to bid Dream goodbye; he straightens his back and whispers something to Wallace and Proctor that makes Dream’s lawyer’s face compress. Dream can’t hear what he says, but Wallace and Proctor reply. 

 

He doesn’t bid him goodbye, of course, and Dream doesn’t particularly expect him to, so George turning out of the room isn’t the problem—the problem is that Proctor remains, with a dirty smirk on his face and his arms taut against his chest. His lawyer sighs heavily, moving to take the seat back to Dream.

 

“You were so good at keeping your mouth shut, man,” he says, and Dream’s chest tightens impercibly. 

 

“What?” He asks. 

 

“Arla,” Proctor says, and the air constricts against Dream’s throat. “Who’s Arla, Clay?”

 

And it all explodes into shrapnel in his fingers.

 

——

 

San Vittore’s a lovely change of scenery, really, the loud construction and the tiles of mysterious gunk and the stale air in the meeting rooms notwithstanding. Dream’s spent most of his time pretending to read Infinite Jest and trying not to get the shit beat out of him by his cellmates, who only speak Italian and are all very old. He has to get by using Alex’s frenzied phone-translating, but it seems to have placated them thus far, so he’s sticking with his new routine. 

 

Or he will stick with it until he gets moved to a federal prison, probably, or until they fly him over to Rikers or Attica or the USP Florence. Or until Sapnap and Wilbur finally get their asses on the fucking plane and get him out of Italy , which really the only scenario he’s planning on living to fruition. 

 

They’ve been planning it for too long. His phone-hogging and under-breath-muttering is starting to get suspicious. There’s a certain point after he’s still talking to Sapnap after lights-out and his cellmates are all trying to sleep that they all rattle the legs of their bunk-beds and yell their own regional variations of ‘ shut up, American ’ that Dream stops trying to micromanage the way Sapnap works and just hangs up the call. 

 

He doesn’t know how involved he’s supposed to be. He stops calling Sapnap and Wilbur for a while, during the lead-up to his interrogation with George, but by the time he’s back in his cell and numb from being probed for hours and hours about things he’s pretending not to know about—things he’s now trying to wipe from his brain—he doesn’t care about the stai zitto, Americano! and he doesn’t care about how much Sapnap thinks he’s overthinking the whole situation. He doesn’t care. He needs to get out. 

 

He calls the number while sitting on his bunk with his head almost pressed against the mattress of the bed above him. “Sapnap.”

 

“Close, but no dice,” Alex says, bright and bubbly. “I’ll give you a hint: six-foot-four and a gigantic, huge—” 

 

“Alex, I swear to God, if you don’t pass the phone to Sapnap right now I’m going to be in prison for ripping off all of your arms,” Dream says.

 

“I have more than two ?” He hears, before Wilbur yanks the phone away from Alex abruptly. Dream can tell from the brief sound of bickering that he hears from the other end. He misses them.

 

“Sapnap’s talking to the pilot,” Wilbur says. “What is it? Did you see the news?”

 

“What?” Dream says, eyebrows furrowed. “Of course not, I’m in—” the only cellmate in the room with him grumbles something, so Dream flicks his arm to get him to fuck off. A universal symbol. “—I’m in jail. What is it? Is it still about me?” 

 

“Hasn’t stopped,” Wilbur says. Dream smiles to himself. “Some sort of message definitely needs to be sent to the middle-aged women who find you ‘ charming ’, but—regardless. They’re running a story about how they’re making some sort of breakthrough in your case. It’s on the BBC.” 

 

“Are you fucking serious?” Dream says. The dark side of media fame, he supposes. “They’re not. I can assure you they’re—well...” 

 

“Oh, no,” Wilbur says. “What did you do?”

 

Dream really only has two options, here: telling the entire truth about George—which is the easier option because it’s a story they’re all intimately familiar with—or saving his own ass by spiralling down another chain of unnecessary bullshit. He closes his eyes. “So—I don’t know if you know, but—George is in… Italy.”

 

There’s silence on the other end. “ George ?”

 

“Like, your George?” Alex asks.

 

“Mother fucker ,” Dream says, feeling his face flush. “Was I on speaker? Warn me , please, will you, Wilbur? I don’t want to talk like that if anyone else is listening. Jesus. Yes, my George. He’s in Italy and he interrogated me and I think I got myself into very deep shit. Can you come now?”

 

“What?” Wilbur says.

 

“Can you come now?” Dream repeats. “In the next few days? Not next week?” 

 

“I meant the other thing,” Wilbur says.  

 

“I—” Dream says, and tries to force himself to slow down. “He… I thought he was—the conversation went in an entirely different direction than expected, okay? He said stupid shit and I said stupider shit and then I was just looking at him and I told him Arla was in Cuba.” He pushes his hands against his eyes. “And then they interrogated me about Arla for six fucking hours . I haven’t even given them any names except for hers, Wilbur. I messed up. He tricked me.” 

 

“Oh, Jesus,” he says. “This is…” He pauses, and Dream can hear the heavy pump of a plane mixed with the drills of the outside of the prison. He has to shut his eyes. It’s too much noise. “I don’t know if we could make the date much sooner, Dream. We’re, like, already testing Koleno’s patience pushing it to next week.” 

 

“No,” Alex says. “That’s the thing, though. Only you and Sapnap have talked to him.”

 

“For the last time, no ,” Wilbur says, evidently picking up on a conversation Dream isn’t privy to—a conversation he is definitely not bitter about missing in the slightest. Not at all. “Negotiations are— careful . It’s not just, like, some light-hearted debate with a mobster that always ends in—”

 

“I know that,” Alex says, a little snappily. “C’mon, man, give me some credit here. I’m the heir of an international forgery ring that’s basically set my kids and my grandkids and their kids for life. You’d be surprised what that does for the little ol’ name I’ve made for myself.”

 

“If Alex actually manages to get through to Koleno and Wilbur doesn’t, I’ll fuckin’ turn myself in then break my way out,” Sapnap says, but his loud voice comes to a halt as he sits down amidst Wilbur and Alex. He says something else, something muffled and quiet that ends in a laugh. “Either way, we’re set for the meeting in Paris. How’re you, Dream?”

 

“What meeting in Paris?” Dream asks.

 

“About that,” Wilbur says. “Um—Sapnap, we might need to make a brief—here, Alex, hold the phone.”

 

They wrangle their cell between themselves for a minute longer, so Dream waits. He can’t find it within himself to be bothered because he knows half of this— most of this— all of this—is his fault. Even so, it’s still better than the alternative. If he’s going down, he’s going down the biggest he can get. “Hello?” 

 

“Hey,” Alex says. “Quick change of plans. Everything is normal and good and we’re going to pick you up—um—Tuesday.” There’s a beat where Dream processes the information. “Don’t worry about Koleno. I’ve got that handled, man, I promise.” 

 

“The day after tomorrow?” Dream says, very quickly dumbstruck. “That’s… I mean… okay. Okay, yeah. The earlier the better, I guess.” 

 

“You remember everything, right?” Alex asks, hurried. “You’ll break the phone like we told you to?” 

 

“They’ll beat my ass, Alex,” Dream says.

 

“You look fine with a black eye,” Alex says. “Bye, Dream, hugs and kisses.” 

 

Dream hangs up. His cellmate gives him the stink-eye from where he’s splayed out on the opposing top bunk, and the outside of the prison still buzzes with construction. 

 

**

 

Koleno’s from Slovakia. He’s short, stocky, with no hair and golden dentures covering up his two lines of rotten teeth. When Sapnap had gotten everyone in New York again—missing two vital members, but at least he kind of knew where they were—they’d immediately headed for the townhouse address Dream had scrawled for them on a napkin weeks ago and figured out who he was. Dream’s first client, and the client who’s owed him a favor for years. Sapnap’s heard the stories. 

 

It would’ve been nice to know about such a favor—it definitely could have helped them in other situations—but Sapnap’s not stupid: he knows Dream’s been living a double life much longer than he has. He’s just the one with a low-paying office job, really—nepotism drone pretty much set from the beginning of his life to go into federal work. He’d never chosen it for himself, and if he ever gets caught, the only thing he’ll have to say for himself is really, like, what the fuck did anyone expect? I don’t want this job. I don’t want this life. I hate Proctor and I hate Orlando and I don’t know what else to do with myself other than keep it interesting, so I may as well keep it interesting, right?

 

Getting out of the F.B.I. has been nice. Now that he’s felt the perpetual freedom of private jets and physical cash, he doesn’t think he could go back to anything else. So when he hears Niki has left as a secretary, he dials his boss’s phone number and asks to resign, effective immediately. Says it’s a family thing. And since everyone knows his family, Proctor buys it. 

 

Well, Proctor buys it, sure, but when Sapnap turns to Wilbur during the evening of their first-and-final Tuesday in Milan and says, “Oh, I quit the F.B.I, by the way,” Wilbur chokes on his drink and says, “ What ?” 

 

“I quit the F.B.I.,” Sapnap repeats, studying his face. Wilbur thumps his fist against his chest, trying to clear his throat as Alex furrows his eyebrows at him. “I’ve been meaning to for a while and now’s the perfect time, don’t you think? We never have to work again and my dad’s starting his campaign. They’ve been asking me to help work on it for years.” 

 

“No way you quit working for the fucking feds so you can help your dad get re-elected,” Alex says.

 

“I’m not gonna help,” Sapnap says dismissively. “It’s just an excuse.” 

 

“Still,” Alex says, as Sapnap ducks his face into his Caprese salad. The bar owner had to kick out a drunk couple to get them the seats close enough to the roof to see the plaza, and it took more than groveling—it took a pretty sizable chunk of cash. Bribery expenses , as Wilbur calls it, but Sapnap’s just glad he doesn’t know how much the money is exactly in dollars. He likes the view from the Piazza Missori enough to risk the conversion rate. “That’s the biggest downgrade ever .” 

 

“Wasn’t like I was a cop,” Sapnap says. “They’d never make me one. No way. My resume’s just, like, super impressive, so they needed to do something with me.” 

 

“Thirty-six pieces of stolen art yet four years of no background checks,” Wilbur says dryly, and when he leans back his elbow knocks against the railing of the rooftop bar, his cocktail glass clinking against the old concrete. “That is weirdly impressive. We should leave soon.”

 

Sapnap looks at his watch. “I thought we were still meeting on the—”

 

“Roof,” Alex fills in behind him, and flicks his head to the stairs trailing through the employee entrance. Sapnap purses his lips, trying to make out the roofs of white-stone buildings against the night and the tinkling bargoers. “Yeah. We are. Did you guys know how many people die in helicopter crashes every year? I didn’t.”

 

“Relax,” Sapnap says. “Our pilot’s been certified for years. You should be more worried about what we have to do when we actually talk to Koleno.” 

 

“That’s the only part I’ve got figured out,” Alex says, and Sapnap does the unthinkable—he looks over at Wilbur, raises his eyebrows, and shuts his mouth. When he’d put Alex on the phone to decipher the frenzied Slovak-English on the other end, Koleno had ended the conversation laughing and saying that everything was under control , which was both gratifying and slightly worrying. So Sapnap’s trying to trust the process.

 

They’re forced onto the only other helicopter landing in Milan, a giant green dot placed firmly against the roof of one of the buildings in the warehouse district. When he topples out of the exit with a hand still firmly stuck to the helicopter door-handle, Sapnap can see the heavy gust of industrial smog clouding the thick evening sky. It’s only ten; according to Dream, the prison’s finishing serving up dinner and escorting prisoners back to their rooms. 

 

“Where even is this thing?” He asks Wilbur loudly—screams it, really, since the helicopter whirls behind them noisily. Wilbur’s too busy paying off their pilot to reply; he smacks a wad of bills into his hand, they exchange a nod, and then he turns back into Sapnap’s direction.

 

“What thing?” He yells back. “The prison? Give it a minute—you’ll see it once we get out of the industrial district. Where’s your friend, Alex?” 

 

Alex doesn’t answer, rapidly texting on his phone. Its light reflects against his skin as the helicopter takes off again, much quieter and much slower than it had been on their journey to the center of Milan. Message received. Alex looks up at them again. 

 

“He says he’s waiting at the door, and to— put on the hard-hats near the stairs so we won’t get any questions, ” he asks, inflection of his voice implying he’s reading something off his screen. He frowns, walks closer to the arched door and kicks aside the door stopper. The exit swings open, revealing a wall of used construction equipment and the staircase that trails down to the main part of the building.

 

“Bingo,” Alex says. He motions them closer as they start to dress in other people’s orange shirts and sweaty grey gloves. “This guy’s name is Techno, by the way. I don’t know him, but Koleno says he knows you guys. So.” 

 

“Knows us ?” Sapnap repeats, as he looks in the reflection of the heavy metal door to try and make out whether the hat on his head is even. “Where would he know us from? Do you know him?” 

 

I don’t,” Alex says. “Koleno says he’s directed Techno in your guys’ direction before, so if you don’t know who he is, I’m assuming Dream does.” 

 

Or Arla , Sapnap wants to add, but he’s still too hesitant in himself to voice the thought aloud. He knows they have an unspoken agreement that if one of the members of their team isn’t present, they definitely don’t want to be interrupted in whatever they’re doing—it’s been true for when he’s been at work, when Wilbur’s been visiting family, and when Dream’s barricaded himself in George’s house so he can sigh or yearn or beat him up, or whatever it is they do with their time. 

 

He shouldn’t call her, no matter how much it feels like an exception. But he certainly can’t call Dream . If everything’s gone to plan, he should’ve disposed of his phone already. But Arla—she won’t be happy about it, but she’ll always take the call. 

 

They pass through the quiet warehouse, making their way through the loud churning of the repeated machinery. Sapnap tries to crane his neck to catch sight of the production line, but Wilbur and Alex force him forward. He’s pretty sure they’re making calendars. 

 

They take the employee exit and end up on the busy Italian streets. Around them, young couples share ice-cream cones and children parade down the gravel in fits of song, chattered language surrounding Sapnap’s ears but never directing itself towards him. A few older men give them nods, so Sapnap nods back, even as he flattens himself against the wall.

 

He hates the disguises. He hates when they have to be outside , faking themselves through a situation they don’t deserve to be in. He’s not a strong, hard-working construction nine-to-fiver worthy of the nods of old Italian men who seem to really respect his craft—he’s a scam artist. Anyone can be a scam artist, if they erode their morals enough. 

 

“Okay,” Alex whispers at them, pushing his phone into Wilbur’s hand so he can wriggle out of the bright orange safety vest. “He’s supposed to pull up with three new pairs of protective gear so we can replace the ones we took. So they don’t find hair or fingerprints or anything.” He looks at them triumphantly. “Smart, right?” 

 

“Smart, if we didn’t have to walk all the way back up to drop them off,” Wilbur says. 

 

Alex deflates. “Oh, yeah.” 

 

And then the car pulls up—not one of Koleno’s sleek Volkswagens, but a stocky little Fiat. Sapnap knows he’s a little spoiled by the painting money when he involuntarily winces when Techno wheels down the window and looks at them.

 

“Get in,” he says boredly. He ducks a thumb towards the backseat. “The clothes you wanted are in the backseat. One of you better run them up.”

 

Alex runs them up—it had been his idea, after all—but soon after that they’re successfully cramped into the Fiat, which ends up a lot better at navigating the bumpy streets than expected. Sapnap doesn’t know why he always traverses the Italian streets late at night—it’s the only time when he doesn’t feel out-of-place. He’s too used to arid cities and annoyed young executives to be comfortable, here. He really only knows they’re entering the prison’s district when his skin stops itching. 

 

“Before you fuckers do anything, I’m just the driver,” Techno says, and quickly parks next to the crane nudged against the visitor entrance of the prison. Half of the parking lot is overwhelmed by construction vehicles and tiny cars, but Sapnap doesn’t catch any sight of their workers. 

 

“Where’s—” he says, and Wilbur says, “Three, two, one,” and the workers begin to erupt from the side-entrances, pulling themselves out of the dirty sheets hiding the scaffolding at the sides of the prison. Some of them hold cigarettes, and some of them wring sweat out of the bottom of their protectively thick shirts. Sapnap makes eye contact with Techno in the mirror.

 

“I’m just the driver,” he repeats firmly, as if trying to convince himself. “You’re not wrangling me into another one of your messes like that girl did. No way. I’m staying parked right here.”

 

“What?” Sapnap asks. “What mess?” 

 

“And what girl?” Alex says, as he unlocks the door. “I can assure you these virgins don’t know any girls. Come on, you guys.” 

 

“See you,” Techno says, but Sapnap leans forward and clasps his headrest, drawing his attention to Sapnap’s hand near his neck. 

 

“What girl?” He asks again. 

 

“We’ve got a three-minute window before everyone gets into their cars and sees us talking in here,” Wilbur says snappily. “Get a move on.” He slams his side of the car doors shut, but Sapnap ignores him, too. He doesn’t like letting go of his gut feelings. 

 

“That girl—God, what’s her name,” Techno mutters to himself. “Arla. Told Dream she needed something, he asks Koleno, Koleno asks me. Pulled a few strings and got her some passport she needed. John-Gabriel something. Thought it was weird, but she didn’t pay me enough for me to care.” 

 

Sapnap’s mind races—that passport had been instrumental in clearing Arla as a suspect and replacing her with J.G., but he figured it was something the Art Theft unit found on their own volition. If anonymous tips can be counted as their own volition . It makes a little bit more sense, out of nowhere. “Did she tell you what she needed it for?”

 

“I’m just the driver, man,” Techno says, and unbuckles his seatbelt so he can hide out in the backseat before they need him to drive again. Sapnap watches him for a second longer, working out the thoughts in his head.  

 

“Get a move on, Sapnap!” Wilbur yells at him, from where he and Alex are walking closer to the building. Sapnap yanks himself away from Techno guiltily, jogging to make up for his lost time. 

 

The workers don’t really acknowledge them; they walk back to their cars and to the delis farther down the streets, shiny I.D. cards hanging from their waists. Sapnap eyes one wearily.

 

“You’re sure we don’t need one of the ones they have?” He asks.

 

“Positive,” Wilbur says, not sounding positive at all. He motions down towards his pocket, where one of his fake IDs is hanging from his pocket just enough to microscopically glint white. “I’m positive, but—just in case—you should probably do some praying.” 

 

They move closer to the building so that they can walk through the sheet hiding one of the tunnels of high scaffolding. “Kitchen windows or administrative windows first?” Alex asks. 

 

“Kitchen,” Sapnap says. He never wants to deal with employee entrances again. “Are you fucking crazy?”

 

The kitchen windows are some of the only windows on the left side of the building that aren’t padlocked by heavy bars. Most of the scaffolding is far from the prison windows themselves, but Sapnap can still see the bony faces of prisoners watching them scale the edges of the building. He doesn’t know how the normal construction crew does it every day.

 

He doesn’t need to know, either—a few members from the normal construction crew follow closely behind them, calling each other’s names and requests for equipment and vague, ignored instructions. “Hold on, hold on hold on,” Wilbur says, and freezes. One of the construction workers yells something at him.

 

Cosa ?” He yells back. Sapnap leans closer to him, a gloved hand gripped around the edge of a pole keeping his feet firmly in place, but Wilbur bats him away with a hand. He starts to move towards the construction crew.

 

“It’ll look weird if the three of us go together,” he whispers, to the both of them. He’s flicked the headlight of his helmet on. “Just—head towards the kitchen. I’ll meet you at the car at ten past eleven—just like we said.”

 

Ten past eleven. It sounds easy enough.

 

Alex leads the way: he’s nimble enough that he makes walking through the scaffolding look easy. Sapnap feels like he’s going to splat onto the distinctly Roman pavement every moment his feet struggle to grip the foot. Even so, eventually, they make it close enough to the double windows heated with steam. The lights are off inside. 

 

“Empty,” Alex whispers. They climb down onto the ground to better hook themselves against the window. “Thank God. Here. Hold—” he shoves his heavy gray gloves into Sapnap’s hands, revealing his thin black ones as he pulls out a pick-hook set. Sapnap has to command his lock-picking for a while, but he’s getting good enough that he doesn’t really have to micromanage. 

 

It’s still another eight minutes of lost time, though. Sapnap times it. He’s not Wilbur, who goes crazy if they’re a minute off-beat, but it is an added and unnecessary level of stress. He’d like this mission to go well, since the last one ended so… not well. 

 

The plus about this mission, though, is that it is, in theory, in and out. There will be no door-locking issues and there will be no running through dark hallways and there will be no Georges. That’s probably his favorite part—there will be no Georges. Nobody to take up Dream’s priorities the entire time. He rides on that high until they stop their frenzied whispering to the sound of somebody folding the plastic curtain behind them upwards. 

 

Sapnap turns around, catching sight of—of course—George. He hasn’t seen him in months, and he hasn’t really wanted to; he’s a fine person on his own, but he’s like catnip to Dream’s fragile little heart. Because he is fragile: if he’s a person who can bend so easily to somebody else’s will, he’s fragile, in Sapnap’s brain.

 

“Oh, shit,” Alex says.

 

“You two,” George says, sounding tired. He’s holding a cigarette, and it hotboxes the entire length of the plastic curtain. “Why am I not surprised?” 

 

Sapnap can’t help the bubble of frustration in his throat. “Don’t bother with the—sly comments, man. Either try to arrest us or get back out.” 

 

“Ouch,” George says, unfazed. “Once you get him out, because I know that’s what you’re doing, can you tell him—”

 

“I’m not telling him anything,” Sapnap says. He’s out of patience: he knows Dream is a sucker for the way George talks, so somebody else has to be his eyes. Somebody else has to frantically detonate the bombs he’s setting off. “You snitched first.”

 

“Snitched?” George asks. “I didn’t snitch about anything. I said some things so that they wouldn’t be on to me , but that’s all.” He looks at them curiously. “What did Dream say?”

 

“What do you think?” Sapnap asks.

 

George shakes his head. “It’s okay. I’ve—I’ve made my peace with not seeing him again. Here—” he walks closer, and pushes his cigarette towards their faces, raising his eyebrows to tell Sapnap to take a puff.

 

“I’m good,” he says uneasily.

 

“No,” George says. “For the smell. You’ll want to smell like someone else. And you don’t want to go through the windows—the kitchen doors are locked.” He pushes his free hand into his pocket, unearthing the glinting ID card they’d seen on the construction crew. “Take my visitor’s pass and go through the main entrance.” 

 

Sapnap doesn't say anything—it doesn’t feel like a trick, but maybe the genuineness in George’s eyes is the same convincing factor that’s gotten everyone else. He remains with his jaw set firmly in place until Alex puffs the nicotine, coughs, and takes the visitor’s pass from his hand.

 

“Sweet,” he says. “Thanks, Detective.”

 

George looks at him. And then his eyes widen. “Oh, shit. You’re—”

 

Alex darts away before he can finish his sentence, and Sapnap watches him go, just for a moment. He pauses before he continues behind him, tilting his head at George begrudgingly.

 

“Well?” He says.

 

“Well what ?” George asks.

 

“What do you want me to tell him?” Sapnap asks, voice strained. “Obviously after this I’ll owe you, so—”

 

George laughs. “You and Dream with your— owing ,” he says, a little bitterly. “Just tell him I’ll miss him. That’s all.” He steps away from Sapnap, back pressing against the curtain. “Get out of here.” 

 

Sapnap pauses. He thinks. He doesn’t have to be happy about the things that make Dream happy—that’s not what being a friend is. He’s just trying to keep him safe. That’s all. They’ve always done that for each other, and it doesn’t feel right to stop for some random boy—some random detective , no less, but—

 

He pushes a hand into the pocket of his jacket, hidden by his safety vest. He has to rustle around lighters and pencil stubs to find his three loose business cards, which his dad made him as a congratulations for making assistant—they haven’t really had a use until now. Maybe this is keeping him safe. Maybe keeping Dream safe means keeping him happy. He evens one against his knee so he can frantically scribble the address of the harbor that’s meant to continue their mission.

 

He hands it over to George resentfully. “Be at this address tomorrow at six a.m.,” he says, a little reluctant still. George blinks at him confusedly. “We’re getting Dream out of the country. You can tell him yourself.”

 

“Thank you,” George says, but Sapnap doesn’t hear him—he turns around and continues behind Alex’s silhouette. They’re dangerously off-schedule. 

 

Getting through the main entrance is simple, once he’s with Alex—he even manages frenzied, accented smalltalk with the employee who recognizes him as a foreigner and directs them towards the bathrooms. Apparently they’re doing renovations on the pipes. Sapnap waits until they’re in the clear to go in the complete opposite direction. 

 

Cell 54L. Cell 54L. Cell 54L —they have to go up another level before Sapnap knows they’ve found the right cellblock. Eyes scan them through the bars like hungry wolves, but the bodies of the prisoners are frail and almost lifeless in the dark. He only knows they’ve finally found Dream by the shout of relief.

 

“Oh, thank God,” he says, and runs up immediately to grip the bars even as his cellmates growl quiet obscenities at him. “It’s eleven o’five. You had to be here—”

 

“I know, I know,” Sapnap says hurriedly. “Alex, you know how to get through the bars, right? Go get through the bars.” 

 

“On it,” Alex says, and rushes down the cellblock. Sapnap doesn’t question it, turning back to Dream.

 

“You said the cameras are taken care of?” He asks.

 

“They don’t work on this level, and I threw a fit until they’d let me move closer to the bathrooms,” Dream says. “I’m very good at convincing Italian cops I have IBS, apparently. Where the hell is he going?”

 

“He knows what he’s doing,” Sapnap says.

 

Cercando di dormire !” Someone in the cell says loudly. 

 

“That’s not something I’d usually say about Alex,” Dream says, ignoring the exclamation. 

 

Sapnap shrugs. He’s ashamed to admit it, but they’ve all severely underestimated him. “He’s actually really smart, you know?”

 

Alex comes back with an old man in identical prison garb to Dream’s. They’re speaking in Spanish—Sapnap can only tell because of the fast, natural way it flows from Alex’s tongue. He says something again, and the old man gives a hearty chuckle and pushes them all out of the way to work against the bars. 

 

When he’s finished, Dream walks out—still cautious. When he steps into the light, Sapnap can finally make out his busted lip and the heavy bruise that continues against his jaw. 

 

“Woah,” Sapnap says. “What’s with—”

 

“I broke the phone like you told me to, but unsurprisingly, I got punched in the face about it,” Dream says. “More importantly, who the fuck is that ?” 

 

“Be nice,” Alex says. “He’s in here for money laundering. He worked for Pomellato—you know, the jeweler company? My dad’s cozy with a few of the European manufacturers. I guess Koleno knew that. I didn’t.” 

 

The man says something else, ending on an accented rendition of the word Quackity . Sapnap turns to him.

 

“Did you tell him your name is Quackity?” He asks, exasperated.

 

Alex shrugs. “I think it’s catching on.”

 

They leave the old man behind to speak to the people left in the cell, as they all seem to be negotiating for him to let them out, too. Sapnap didn’t plan a prison break, exactly, but he’s not going to complain if they find a way to distract from Dream’s busy escape. He looks at his watch. It’s ten past eleven, but he does technically have Dream in his possession. 

 

He turns to both Dream and Alex. “We need to fucking book it to the car.”

 

They speed themselves up to a fast walk, then a jog, then a quiet run as he tries to shed himself of his safety vest. They pause in an empty corridor so they can reinvent a few new identities: Dream gets Alex’s shirt and a visitor’s pass; Alex gets Dream’s inside-out shirt; Sapnap ties his jacket around his waist and puts on a different hat. And then they’re back to a sprint.

 

“Wait,” Sapnap says, before they can leave from the main exit. They’re smack in the middle of the cafeteria, dark and smelling of some obscure sauce. “Let’s not—let’s go from the kitchen window. George could still be waiting there. It didn’t look like he was leaving.”

 

Alex nods, and they turn to continue through the locked kitchen double-doors, but Dream remains frozen in place.

 

 “You said George was here?” He says rigidly. 

 

Sapnap pauses, turning his head over his shoulder. “I… saw him, yes,” he says, a little lamely. Damn it. He’d actually thought he was doing a nice thing for once. “He said… Dream, it’s not what it—”

 

“He’s the reason the news is talking all of that shit about my imminent demise or whatever,” Dream says. “Next time I see him, I’m kicking his face in until he’s begging for mercy.”

 

“Intense,” Alex says. “Let’s get—”

 

“Do you mean that?” Sapnap asks Dream.

 

“Guys,” Alex tries again. “We really need to—”

 

Dream shakes his head, but his eyes are glazed over with the thought of it. Sapnap doesn’t like it when he gets violent. “I don’t mean it, but I’ll learn to fucking mean it.”

 

“That’s... “ Alex says, during the pause. “It’s eleven-fourteen. Stop being dramatic fucking assholes and get through the kitchen.”

 

He says it a little more loudly than Sapnap is comfortable with, but he supposes that’s his fault for taking up their very little time. 

 

Once they’re back underneath the dirty scaffolding, still dripping remnants of chipped wood, Sapnap pushes the curtain upwards to let both Dream and Alex through. Techno’s Fiat is parked smack in front of the part of the building they’d left Wilbur behind in; Alex and Dream come to a casual speed-walk, opening the doors quickly to let themselves in. Sapnap follows.

 

Only when they’re inside do they have time to breathe. “Oh, holy fucking shit ,” Wilbur says, the strength coming back to his voice as it no longer strains against their time-limit. Sapnap closes his eyes, leaning his head against the shotgun seat as he hears the sound of their quiet greetings, the gentle claps on the back, Dream’s familiar laughter. 

 

He very badly wants to turn around, hug him, and tell him that he can’t do this shit anymore. None of them can. The give-yourself-in-to-the-cops idea was always a backup plan: back when they were first starting, he never thought they’d reach that level, the level that actually requires much more self-sacrifice than he has to offer. 

 

If anyone between us was a martyr , he thinks, it never would have been me

 

They drive past the expanse of the curtain to get onto the main road. Sapnap keeps an eye out, but he doesn’t see George anywhere. 

Chapter Text

George squints against the reflective light of the cruise ship, shielding his eyes from the glint of it against the water.

 

He’s never been on a cruise ship, and he’s never been this early for something where he’s supposed to be surrounded by people. The clock had hit six the minute he stepped out of his taxi to walk across the trembling dock, devoid of people and covered in seagull shit and cigarette butts. He’d like it a lot more if he wasn’t alone. 

 

But then—he’s not alone. Technically. This thought seems to be punctuated with the person driving the cruise ship giving a loud honk of the signal horn. “Shit,” George mutters, and looks behind him at the empty street looping across the dock. 

 

The taxi he’d taken here is gone, and he doesn’t have anywhere else to go. So he goes.

 

It’s an easy trail: all he has to do is walk the low steps leading up into the ship, balancing himself on the handrails as he waits for someone—anyone—to tell him what the fuck to do. It kind of feels like he’s breaking imaginary rules by being here, but then again, what the fuck else is he supposed to do? The only direction he’d gotten was to be at the dock and early. And now people are honking at him and yet he’s alone. Like he’s going fucking crazy. 

 

The inside of the ship is ornate. It’s on the smaller side, he would have guessed that much, but it’s apparently not small enough to spare a moonlight-white pool, artificial palm trees, an empty bar playing gentle ukulele music. He frowns, stepping further into the boundary. 

 

He has to be doing something wrong—it doesn’t make any sense, but at the same time, it does make a lot of sense. George doesn’t know Sapnap well, but maybe he’s the type of person that would shove him onto a cruise ship and then ship him across the world.

 

He’s still chewing on that thought when the cruise ship gives a final honk of warning, and there’s the sound of metal grunting from behind him as the stairs close within themselves. George turns around, eyes wide, and Dream is staring at him.

 

George ?” he asks, sounding completely bewildered. He has dark sunglasses perched on his head and he’s holding a margarita. 

 

George’s shoulders relax. Look at how nice it feels to not be alone , his brain scolds, but it’s a ridiculous thing to fixate on when his main problem with Dream has never been that he hasn’t been enough. “Get those stairs back down. I just need to speak to you and then I’ll be off.”

 

“No can do,” Dream says, and then loses his balance for a moment as the ship gives a lurch forward. George swears, moving backwards to balance himself against the bar—which is full of drinks, because Dream is a bastard who’ll do anything for dramatic effect. “We’re—damn it—we’re headed for Cuba now, baby. I’m getting dropped off in the southwest then making my way to Havana.” He studies George warily. “And I guess you are, too. What the fuck are you doing here?” 

 

“I thought—” George says, but his mind is working too fast for his mouth. “Sapnap—he told me to—he told me to come here at six. I just wanted to tell you something.” 

 

“Okay,” Dream says. His thumb strokes against the lime perched against the edge of his glass. “What is it?” 

 

Everything , George thinks. I want to tell you everything forever. I want to spend the rest of my life talking to you .

 

“I’ll miss you,” George says, and Dream’s eyes soften. “You meant a lot to me. Can you let me off now?” 

 

“I just told you I can’t,” Dream says, and it’s about then that George’s eyes focus on the blurry waters over the sight-line of his shoulders. He runs over to the railings over the side of the ship, watching the propellers kick the blue into white foam. 

 

“What do you mean you can’t ?” He hisses, and when he turns around Dream is standing next to him, leaning an elbow on the railing. “Go down there and tell him—tell the captain you need to turn right back around.” 

 

“Oh, come on,” Dream says, sounding too comfortable in their situation for George to call his bluff. “You know I can’t do that. You said Sapnap told you to come here?” 

 

“He did,” George says, catching the humor in his face. “Why?” 

 

“It’s just interesting,” Dream says. “After what I said I’d do to you.” 

 

“I’m pretty sure you’re kidnapping me,” George says, and turns back around so that he doesn’t have to face him. He doesn’t know what Dream said he’d do to him, but he knows it can’t be anything good. 

 

“Do you feel like you’re being kidnapped?” Dream asks patiently. 

 

“What kind of a fucking question is that?” George says. 

 

“If we’re speaking in technicalities—which I’m sure you’d prefer anyway—a kidnapping would be if I forcibly took you away from a location for some kind of illegal purpose,” Dream continues, even though he hadn’t answered. “Like a reward. And I don’t want a reward. And I’m pretty sure you don’t feel like you’re being kidnapped.”

 

He’s right. George doesn’t feel like he’s being kidnapped. He feels like he wants a cigarette and a dip in the pool, if anything. “I don’t. But I know what you’re fucking doing. The law of international waters doesn’t mean you can get away with everything , Dream. They can still—”

 

“Arrest me,” Dream interrupts, and turns around so that he’s looking at George with both of his elbows against the railing. “I know. I’m a fugitive. But—I am also a fugitive on a foreign boat in international waters, and I also don’t fall under any of the criteria for the United States’ assertion to overseas jurisdiction.”  

 

“That’s ridiculous,” George says, feeling his face flame. “You fall under all of them.”

 

Dream cracks a smile at that. “Name one.”

 

“You’re a citizen of the prosecuting state, for fucking one ,” George snaps at him. “You also threaten the vital interests of the prosecuting state, the offense occurred in one country but affected another, and you—you—you’re a citizen , Dream. Do you really have the nerve to be an idiot right in front of my face?” 

 

“Remind me what I’ve been charged under,” Dream says, “In American jurisdiction.” 

 

George stares at him. “What?” 

 

“Not Italian,” Dream says. “I’ve only been charged with one count of theft of a major artwork in Italy.”

 

“Okay, and you’re—” George says, but the argument trickles between his fingers before he can bring it to fruition. “You’re not an Italian citizen.” 

 

No, non sono ,” Dream says. “Do you want some of my margarita?” George narrows his eyes at him. “No? Listen, George, don’t get me wrong—I know they’re going to try and charge me in the U.S.”

 

Try ?” George says, and his throat feels scalded. He knows Dream takes sugar on the rim of his glass instead of salt and he can almost taste it off his mouth. “What do you mean, try ? They are going to charge you.” 

 

“Aren’t you sick of pretending like that’s what you want?” Dream snaps at him, evidently on his last nerve. George coils away from him in response. “Sorry. But—it’s true. They’re going to try, but it’s not going to work, because the only way they’ll be able to prove I did anything is if they find anyone on the team. And if anyone on the team talks. Do you think they’ll talk?” 

 

Wordlessly, George shakes his head.

 

“Exactly,” Dream says, and leans back with his head tilted upwards against the sky. George’s blood sizzles at the sight of him—throwing back his drink and running fingers over his sun-kissed hair. He’s managed to catch a tan , in the time that George has been running around Europe. He looks like he’s been having the time of his fucking life aboard his little cruise ship. 

 

“It’s an Italian ship,” George says, at his last-ditch attempt at proving Dream wrong. He only manages to prove Dream wrong when he puts actual effort in, but the problem is that a part of him wants to take advantage of the fact that they are, apparently, untouchable.

 

But he can’t. He shouldn’t. And anyways, it’s an Italian ship, so they’re not untouchable.

 

Dream barks out a laugh, unexpectedly. “Did you actually think I’d be so stupid as to use an Italian ship? We’re flying under a Cuban flag. I’ve never committed any crimes in Cuba.” He frowns. “At least I think I haven’t.”

 

“You’re—” George says, but he doesn’t know what else he could say. They’re already losing sight of the harbor, which has blurred purple-brown against the horizon. There’s nowhere for him to go, he realizes faintly. Nowhere but to Cuba . When he turns around, Dream is still behind him. “How long are we going to be on this fucking boat, Dream?” 

 

“Twenty-two days, give or take,” Dream says, and then sees the look on his face. “If I’m being honest, I expected a lot more excitement about that from you. Didn’t you see the pool?” 

 

Wordlessly, George pushes past him back into the sliding doors of the inside of the cruise ship. Fuck the fucking pool.

 

**

 

Dream’s been on bigger cruise ships, which should, in theory, mean that this one should be a lot easier to navigate, but he still manages to get lost in the bottom levels for a few days. The grandiose pool at the top is balanced out by a few levels of small, orange-lit rooms, all stocked with candy-smelling air fresheners and clean sheets. No housekeepers in sight, though he supposes there’s no actual passengers, either.

 

He’d definitely gotten some questions when he’d booked his journey to Cuba—more than a few questions, actually. They’d laughed him off the phone-call, initially, but then he’d smartened up and figured out that he had to start the conversation with his money before anything else. 

 

It had been Koleno’s idea. He’d known of a cruise ship line that was really good at transporting people who needed a quiet way to a different country that still meant they could live in luxury. Dream’s gotten a little too reliant on luxury, but that’s not really his fault. Why not take advantage of it, if it’s always readily available to him? 

 

The problem with the cruise ship only makes itself known when he realizes he hasn’t seen George in a while. He worries, for the first three days of no-contact, that he’s maybe flung himself overboard. It wouldn’t be unlike George. He could’ve drowned himself in the pool, for all Dream knows. 

 

But then he walks into one of the rooms he’d chosen to sleep in and finds his closet flung open, three of his shirts missing from their coat hangers. He doesn’t know if it’s a fuck you or a I’m still here —though he supposes it could be both—but he also doesn’t know if it’s worth disturbing the peace to deal with.

 

He knows that once they land in Cuba, the best plan of action would be to meet Arla where he has to meet her and leave George behind. And in order to make that easier, they may as well just ignore each other the entire trip. It’s not hard; there’s multiple bars, on the top level and on the bottom. Lots of places to smoke, too, though there’s only one designated spot on the roof of the ship. 

 

That’s how he knows he’ll only find George in one place. He’s the only asshole who would go on a cruise ship empty of people and make sure to only smoke in the designated spots. 

 

“You know nobody’s going to stop you if you smoke in your room,” he says aloud, and watches George startle from in front of him. They’re on top of the platform that rises above the restaurant and pool, and it’s late at night; dawn of the fifth day. Seventeen days to go. George is still pale as a sheet. 

 

“It just doesn’t feel right,” he mumbles, and turns around so that Dream can watch the smoke leave his mouth.

 

Like George is all about doing the right things. 

 

“The only thing I’ve ever fucking wanted from you is that you don’t lie to me,” Dream says, very suddenly. He doesn’t mean to say it; he thinks it, and he’s already drowsy on enough sunlight and alcohol to feel like he could say anything and he wouldn’t have to cloak it under some made-up fucking demeanor. Only George is around to hear him—why shouldn’t he say what he thinks? “That’s what we always—that’s all I wanted. And you looked me in the fucking face and told me you wouldn’t tell anyone what I said and then you went right back and told them.”

 

What ?” George says, and Dream says, “Don’t play hot and dumb with me, okay? I know you told them what I told you.”  

 

“I haven’t a fucking clue what you’re talking about,” George says, and Dream strides forward and plucks the cigarette out of his fingers, crumpling it under his shoe.

 

“I watched you , asshole,” he hisses, eyes tracking every foreign twitch of George’s face. “The minute you stopped interrogating me, I watched you lean over and whisper some bullshit into their ears. And you really think you can just—”

 

“Dream,” George says, but his voice is moving too fast, so it doesn’t work.

 

“—lie to me and get away with it, because I’m weak for you,” Dream finishes, and steps back to watch George cross his arms. Doesn’t even have the fucking pathos to cry , or something. “You make me weak. Don’t even fucking comment on that part because we both know it and you’re the one who uses it to your fucking advantage.” 

 

“You don’t know—” George says, and Dream says, “Don’t tell me what I do and don’t know,” and then George leans forward and places a hand on his jaw, clamping his mouth shut with one hand.

 

“Are you going to keep talking, or are you going to let me explain?” He says thinly, and Dream narrows his eyes at him. George’s hand feels like a medical brace keeping him solid. “When Wallace walked in and I leaned in to talk to him, I said, that didn’t mean anything . Do you want to know what he said back?” 

 

Dream can’t reply, so it’s a dickhead move to make him talk, but then again—George is kind of a dickhead. He nods his head. He could move away from his clenched grip if he wanted to, but he doesn’t want to. He likes the reminder of George’s hand too much. 

 

“He said, that’s fine ,” George says, voice steely. “And then Proctor said, we found out who sent us J.G.’s passport.  It’s the girl .” 

 

Dream’s mouth fills with ashes under George’s fingers all over again—he can smell the impending smoke of a volcano eruption, only close to him in the way George has always been. He blinks, and when George moves his hand away his head cranes down to the ground. It’s the girl. It’s the girl. It’s the girl . “He meant—”

 

“Arla,” George says quietly. “They always knew she had something to do with you. They still have no idea where she is—only I do.” He looks down at the same spot where Dream is staring and kicks at the discarded cigarette. “I was really just trying to save my own ass, Dream. You really have that little faith in me?” 

 

“Well, what the fuck else was I supposed to think?” Dream says, his head already twisting back into its original place—because only George could completely and utterly destroy his fucking brain and then put it back where it belongs. “You talk to me, then talk to them, I—how did they find out about Arla?” 

 

George hesitates. Dream rolls his eyes.

 

“You’re not being tried for anything in the U.S., moron,” he says. “And your spit’s been in my mouth already—do you really think answering that question is going to be what takes you down?” 

 

“Harsh,” George says, “But fair. They found out because they traced the anonymous tip. Like you told me not to. You remember that, right?” 

 

“I—” Dream says, but he doesn’t know what to say to defend himself. Or if defending himself is worth it at all. “Yeah. But that was just so you wouldn’t—”

 

He finds that George doesn’t let him say anything at all. He shoves past him when he barrels to the lower level of the cruise ship.

 

**

 

George hasn’t taken a break in a while, even though that’s what his sabbatical was— is —meant to be. He wouldn’t have forgiven himself for relaxing during that period of time. It would’ve felt like giving up, especially when Dream started dominating the news cycle. It’s hard to relax when a newly recorded clip of the guy who’s been ruining your life interrupts your nightly viewing of Jeremy Kyle. 

 

Still—George has to admit that being in closed quarters with him is a lot better than knowing he’s halfway across Europe wreaking a different kind of havoc. At least here he can contain the mess. 

 

Or add to it himself. 

 

 On the fourth day, Dream had started to pump music from the speakers flanking the sides of the ship. George didn’t know how the captain—or whoever else is stuck in this fucking prison with him—dealt with the eclectic playlist burrowing its way into his brain, but however he’s continued dealing with it, he’s going to need some tips. 

 

It’s on the sixth day that he starts playing something else. George’s ears perk up at the lack of Italian music, and when he takes the stairs to the surface of the ship—thinking, for some reason, that Dream’s given up—he’s met with the sound of a news broadcast. A radio broadcast.

 

He sees Dream mixing a drink at the bar from the corner of his eye, but he doesn’t focus on him. He has all of the time in the world for that. Two weeks and then some, to be precise. 

 

“Italian police assured the public that they’re doing everything they can to apprehend the suspect,” he hears, and then, “But this has provided little comfort to museum curators around the world.” 

 

The announcer says something about how everyone’s scared of where Dream is going to strike next. She says that Dream’s unpredictable and intelligent and far-reaching and works—to the best of their knowledge—alone.

 

George pauses, craning his neck to look up at the mounted speaker pumping out information above him. There’s one on top of the entrance into the lower half of the cruise ship, and there’s a few more littering the rest of the ship, filling their portion of the Mediterranean Sea with noise. 

 

Alone. They think he’s been working alone. George can’t help scoffing out a laugh at that declaration. All of the progress they’ve made—tracking down Arla, finding Alex, breaking Dream in the interrogation room—and they’ve finally caved and believed him. 

 

Because that’s what he said, isn’t it? He said he was working alone. No detective in their right mind would believe that a twenty-one year old with grubby fingers could pull off the best art heists in history, but they’re so desperate for any ins that they’ve gone ahead and believed him.

 

“Fucking morons,” he says aloud, and Dream laughs. George turns around to see him hidden under the shadow of the bar, which stretches in a semicircle around what seems like half of the ship. He’s trying to open a bottle of ginger ale without it exploding.

 

“You’re tellin’ me,” he says, when George walks closer and sits at the bar. “Can’t say I’m not happy about it, obviously, but I kind of wish they’d tried a little harder. It would’ve been fun to get interrogated a second time.”

 

George can’t help the burst of frustration in his chest. “Some of those people are fucking up their own lives trying to take you down,” he snaps at Dream, and then realizes that’s what he wants. That’s why he’d played the stupid radio station over the speakers—the radio station that’s now talking about some mayoral candidate’s scandal. He’d wanted George up here again, and it had worked. “You should—I mean—I don’t care if it’s a game to you. You should at least respect the rules.”

 

“Oh, I’m very respectful of the rules,” Dream says, and bends under the bar to grab something from the stock. “D’you like this station? Figured I’d give you a break from that playlist I made. Even though I know you’re refreshing your phone trying to figure out what they know about me and stuff, so you’ve probably heard all that already.”

 

“I don’t do that,” George says. Dream looks politely incredulous. “Can’t I just come upstairs and see what you’re doing instead of refreshing my phone?”

 

“It’s different,” Dream says. “And it’s not like you’d want to.”

 

He’s right. George doesn’t want to. He sits watching him drop a bag of maraschino cherries on the counter. 

 

He’d known what Dream would think, when he whispered to Wallace and Proctor and then left the room. He’d think that George lied to him—that he’d pledged his loyalties, meant what he said, meant what he’d spit with all of that unfamiliar bitterness. He didn’t, of course, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was what Dream would do about it.

 

He didn’t know this is what Dream would do about it. Torture him with distant mocking and shitty Italian music. The worst part is that it’s not even Dream’s fault—it’s Sapnap’s, if George wanted to argue semantics. Dream is just taking advantage of the fact that he has George at his fucking mercy, here. 

 

“You’re right,” George says, instead of anything else. He knew fucking with Dream’s head would be a bad idea, but it only seems fair, after what Dream’s done to him . And it’s not like he’s going to get a chance to do it again. “I don’t want to.” 

 

He reaches forward to grab a maraschino cherry from the plastic bag, and smacks it between his lips. Dream stares at him, his fingers still catching against the clean counter.

 

“Wait,” he tries, when George turns around to leave the level of the cruise ship, but it doesn’t work. He keeps making his way down.

 

**

 

The problem isn’t that Dream doesn’t respect the rules. He does respect them. He’s had them committed to memory for a long time.  

 

The problem is that he wants to win. 

 

**

 

“Cuba?” Alvarez says, on the other side of the phone. “Why would I be in Cuba?”

 

“No reason,” George says, looking up at the ceiling. God damn it. He doesn’t know why he asked. “I was just—I didn’t know where you were.” 

 

“I’m trying to take it slow for a while, I think,” Alvarez says, after an uncomfortable pause. George hadn’t expected her to answer, but according to Darryl, she’d finally started picking up her phone. “Seeing my family and everything.” 

 

“That’s good,” George says. Her voice helps assuage some of his worry. The darkness around him is tinged with blue humidity, and rain patters down on the top of the ship. 

 

“Um, okay,” she says.  “I figure I should tell you now.” There’s another beat, where she must gather her confidence. “I asked to be taken off of the case.” 

 

George closes his eyes. He wonders if anyone else still working on taking down Dream remembers that there is a case; there is an end goal, no matter how it keeps getting yanked away from their hands. It may not be his goal anymore, but it’s still someone else’s. “What did Baker say?” 

 

“I couldn’t ask Baker,” she says. “He’s not involved, either. Conflict of interest. But my request got approved, so—it’s back to shakedowns and traffic stops for a while.” When George doesn’t say anything else, Alvarez clears her throat. “It’s a good thing, George. You shouldn’t be on this thing anymore either.” 

 

“I’ll think about it,” George says, even though she didn’t offer him anything. He hangs up a few minutes later and keeps listening to the rain patter against the swaying pool. 

 

He needs to talk to Dream.

 

He’s alight with it, all of a sudden—he needs to talk to Dream because he knows exactly what to ask, now. He’s going to ask him what Arla is doing in Cuba and he’s not going to leave until he gets an answer. He’ll do anything for an answer except kiss him.

 

It’s time to end this , he tells himself firmly as he walks to the top of the cruise ship. It’s time to end this, and I’m not going to be able to end this if I kiss him again. Kissing him resets everything. It puts us back on square one .

 

Dream isn’t on the deck—he knows because he walks a full circle, letting the rain drench his clothes and his hair until he’s sick of looking. He knows where Dream’s room is, but he’d been hoping he didn’t have to talk to him there , so he checks the restaurant, next—and then he checks the kitchens, and the bathrooms, and the showers.

 

He checks everything but the fucking captain’s quarters, and there’s nowhere else for him to check. He doesn’t knock on Dream’s door; he just barrels in and assumes he’s uninvited.

 

Dream looks up at him in surprise, pushing himself away from his laptop. “What the—”

 

“I have to ask you something,” George blurts. Dream blinks at him, closing the lid of his laptop and pushing himself upwards to move it to one of his side-tables. “And you’re going to— properly answer me, because I’m not doing this anymore.” 

 

“Okay,” Dream says, a moment later. “Why are you wet?” 

 

Ask him what Arla’s doing in Cuba , George instructs himself, ignoring his question as he takes a step inside the threshold. Ask him. Ask him now. Get it over with

 

“Why—” he says, and then—not fully aware of what he’s doing—corrects his own train of thought: “—Why did you do it?” 

 

Dream stares at him. “What?”

 

George takes a seat on the corner of his bed. The answer to all questions, he thinks bitterly. It would be ridiculous to think Dream being honest with him now would solve every problem, but that’s what it feels like. “The paintings. Why’d you start?”

 

He doesn’t answer for a moment, and George cranes his neck to look at him. He knows he’s drenching the covers of Dream’s bed in rainwater but he can’t be bothered to move. “Why’d you start stealing them?” He insists, when Dream just curls his fingers together on his lap. “Come on, Dream, just—for once in your life, answer the fucking question.” 

 

“It’s not that I don’t want to,” he breathes, still looking down at his lap. “I don’t—I mean, nobody’s ever—asked me.” 

 

It’s a good point. George doesn’t know who would. “I did.” 

 

“I know,” Dream says, but his brow is still furrowed as if he’s thinking, struggling for an answer. “I—why does anybody—it was easy. If you could walk into a bank and get free money, you would.”

 

“I wouldn’t,” George tries to say, but then Dream cuts him off with a, “Oh, come on, of course you would. Anybody would. People need money, and people don’t want to be—comfortable. They want to be happy. And they’re only happy when they have more money than they know what to do with.” 

 

“That wouldn’t make me happy,” George fires back. 

 

“You weren’t asking about you,” Dream says. “You were asking about me.” He seems to notice how George is stuck with his hands still stiff against the bed. “But you’ll be happy to know it worked.” 

 

“What worked?” 

 

“Making more money than I know what to do with,” Dream says, after a moment—kind of pitifully. Like he’s mocking himself. He sighs, inching away from the pillow of his bed so that he’s closer to George. “For a little while. Long enough. And it’s a rush, you know? You’d know.” 

 

“How would I know?” George says, and then chews on it. As if he has to at all. Dream laughs—like he can see straight through him—and puts a hand on his chest.

 

“Oh,” George says a moment later, when he can feel Dream’s fingers curling into his skin, over his heart. Of course he knows what a rush feels like. He realizes it early: he’s not going to be able to stop anything Dream does to him. “Dream, don’t—”

 

And then Dream kisses him, tilting his head to the side with a hand while the other one stays gripped in his shirt.

 

 George opens his mouth against him, working his tongue against a layer of familiar teeth, his wet fringe dusting over Dream’s forehead. He raises a hand on top of Dream’s shoulders like he’s trying to push him away but he just pulls him closer instead, curls fingers around the back of his neck. 

 

He’d counted on kissing Dream in the interrogation room as being the last time he’d allow himself to slip up like that, but denying himself his own nature is—painful. Obviously it was going to end this way. Dream’s tongue in his mouth; Dream’s fingers in his hair. Running through him with a fine-tooth comb. 

 

George pulls away first, and grabs Dream’s jaw in both hands before going in to kiss him again. It’s the first time Dream has kissed him first, and usually—if they were anywhere else—he wouldn’t have kissed him again. The rules of the game don’t let him. They’re supposed to only kiss once, and it’s supposed to be guilty and harsh like it’s a punishment, like it's an abasement. 

 

George pushes Dream away with his hands, keeps him solidly in place as he watches how his skin glints with rainwater. “You keep fucking with me,” he says, his voice thick in his own ears. “You keep—we keep fucking with each other. And nobody ever comes out on top.”

 

“I know,” Dream says. And he waits, again, like George is meant to say anything else, even though George is still fisting his shirt in his hands and waiting for an answer. “Can I tell you something?” 

 

“Yeah,” George says.

 

Dream leans forward and puts his mouth over George’s—but he doesn’t touch, hovering in the gray zone like he’s trying to scope out if it’s dangerous or not. “I still win,” he whispers, and then leans forward, says, “I still win,” again, and then he laughs before he kisses George on the mouth. 

 

He has to mean it. George considers this even as Dream’s mouth devours against his own. Obviously he has to mean it, because the only time Dream would let something go is if he was forced to, at gunpoint—and this is as good as gunpoint. 

 

George tries to shove him backwards against the bed; it doesn’t work, because Dream is too sturdy, so George’s tooth slices against his raw bottom lip. Dream winces, pulling away from him to blot at his lips with the side of his hand. 

 

“Shit,” George mumbles, and brings his face away so he can prod gently at the budding wound. It blooms under his fingers with more blood, and before he can convince himself not to, he brings his thumb to his mouth and licks it off. “Sorry.”

 

“It’s okay,” Dream says. “I’ve forgiven you a lot.” 

 

“For what?” 

 

“Preemptively,” Dream says, still running a finger under his mouth so he can catch the blood that collects at his inner lip. “Just in case you—I don’t know. Just in case anything happens. I was really pissed at you for snitching, and then I—I guess you didn’t, really, even though I have no reason to believe you, so now—I don’t know. I just forgive you, just in case you do anything to fuck me over.” 

 

“I won’t,” George says. “I’m sorry.” It’s not the right order of interaction: the approval, the apology. He slams another hand down Dream’s chest so that he’s tipped backwards onto the pillow. And then his hands find his belt. “I’m really sorry, Dream.”

 

“Woah,” Dream says, before correcting himself. “I—it’s okay. Come on—you know I’ll always forgive you. I told you that a while ago.”

 

“I’m sorry,” George says again, and bends down to kiss at the gap in his throat, hollowed out with fingers and thumbs like a ceramic bowl. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry—” and he brings his mouth down to Dream’s stomach, hiking his shirt up over his abdomen. He kisses him there, feeling Dream’s breath hitch him upwards. “I’m really, really sorry.” 

 

“You’re—I think—I think I got it,” Dream says, strangled, and when George cracks a smile and looks down at his waist again his cock is rapidly hardening against the leg of George’s jeans. 

 

Good , he thinks. I made you like this. 

 

He could tell Dream what he’s thinking—it would probably make more sense than staying completely silent—but there’s too much going on in George’s head to articulate. The only thing he can pick out from the tangle of thorns is the obvious. Minemineminemine . Like it’s a cry for help. 

 

He takes off his shirt. And then he grabs Dream’s cock through his jeans. “Mine,” he says, and bends down and kisses him again, feeling the chain around his neck dangle to hit Dream in the throat. When he pushes back away, he leaves a hand propped up against the pillow as the other one works to get Dream’s jeans down his legs. “All fucking mine.” 

 

“You don’t have to say it,” Dream breathes, eyes darting away from his face and back. “I know.” 

 

“I don’t give a fuck what you know,” George says, and when Dream’s pants are already sprawled into a pile at the foot of his bed he starts working on his own. “Take off your shirt.” Dream rushes, tugging off his t-shirt to expose his bright expanse of unmarked skin—close and touchable and his . George’s. George feels woozy with it. 

 

“Say it again,” Dream blurts, even as he has to twist his body so that his crotch is still pressed against George’s. 

 

“You’re mine,” George says, even though speaking it aloud doesn’t always make it true. It only does when Dream meets his hips with the pads of his thumbs. “Always been, haven’t you?” He works his way down again, kissing his neck and kissing his hips and kissing the trail down to his stomach, ending at his cock, fisting the length of it with his palm. He plants a kiss on the head, too, just to watch Dream mewl. 

 

“God, just—get me a little collar with the bell if you’re that fucking insistent,” Dream says, but it comes out in a rush of words because George is pressing his palms against Dream’s ass again.  

 

“You think you’re really funny, sweetheart,” George says. “Not funny to me. Not funny at all. Really, I should just carve my name right here ,” he says, and grabs Dream’s thigh, “So you don’t fucking forget who you belong to.” And then before Dream can say anything else—and before he can think about the words out of his mouth—he narrows his tongue onto Dream’s cock. 

 

He tastes like sunburned skin, like ocean water and bitter soap, everything distant enough from George to be the perfect object of his obsessions. He feels Dream keel, legs clenching around his head so that he can work George’s mouth down his length. 

 

Not that George’ll be having it. He works a hand between Dream’s thighs and pushes them down over the sides of the bed, working his nails into his thighs. He screws his eyes shut, feeling Dream’s hands in his hair, tugging him back by the scalp. 

 

“George, if you keep going ‘m gonna—” he says, voice sending shocks of dizziness through George’s head. He nods, but still gags forward as he feels Dream’s cock hit the back of his throat again. He likes seeing what he can do.  

 

But when he looks up under his eyelashes, watches the way Dream shuts his eyes and clenches a hand over his mouth—running red lines down his jaw with his nails—he realizes that he can’t keep holding out on himself, either. 

 

He works his mouth off of Dream’s cock, watching the way it twitches against his bottom lip, smearing his spit down his chin. “You’re bleeding, baby,” he murmurs, when Dream finally moves a hand away from his face and works himself to a position where he’s sitting up, at least somewhat. He leans forward and kisses him again—tastes the stripes of blood still dotting his lip. 

 

Dream makes a noise against his mouth, and he turns his head, wiping at his face with the back of his hand furiously. “Fuck,” he says, strangled. George grabs his jaw so he’s looking straight into his face, but his mouth is still striped over with the sickly pink of a mouth wound. “You’re getting it everywhere.”

 

“Not trying to,” George says. Mineminemine —is there a better way to solidify who he belongs to? “I like it.”

 

“Freak,” Dream says, but doesn’t look all that bothered.

 

“Makes you look badass, or something,” George says, even as he grabs the base of his cock and lifts himself up to sit on Dream’s hips. He grabs his chin, sticking two fingers inside his mouth. “Spit.”

 

Dream rolls his eyes. And then he spits, letting it drip down George’s fingers. The excess runs down his jaw and George doesn’t look at it because he knows if he does he’ll lick it off. 

 

“Good,” he says, and starts to bring his fingers closer to his hole, wincing at the burn in his thighs as he forces himself upwards. It’s not long after that that he starts to work the head of Dream’s cock inside him, mostly because he can’t stand the way Dream is blinking feverishly and biting at his mouth. He can’t force himself to tease, anymore—they have time for that. They have two weeks for that.

 

He realizes it with a type of incredulity—they have two weeks to do this, and maybe when they finish, he’ll have finally fucked this obsession out of himself. But he likes to think Dream runs a little deeper than that. 

 

It’s about then that Dream digs his nails into the bedsheets. His eyes hungrily scan over George’s body. “I don’t need blood in my mouth to make me look like a badass.”

 

“You’re right,” George says, and then starts to painfully lower himself onto his cock, the ache in his thighs forcing him to accept the hiss of pain inside him. He feels Dream’s hips shift, a hand raising to grab loosely at George’s waist. “You need mine, don’t you?” And then he leans forward, cranes Dream’s mouth open so that his tongue is sticking out, and spits.

 

Dream’s still smiling when he swallows, bottom lip arching into his mouth. “You’re fucking sick,” he says, and almost hits his head on the headboard as George starts to shift his hips, positioning Dream’s cock deliciously deep inside him. 

 

“So are you,” George snaps back, the malice not as harsh as he prefers it to be—but it’s all he can muster. Especially when Dream is still looking at him like that , eyebrows furrowed as he gasps against every bounce of George’s body. 

 

Very suddenly, he can’t stand the way Dream is grabbing onto him—like he’s not going to get the possibility to touch him again. George knows where he got that idea—he knows it very well—but it’s not as true as it used to be. If things end well, it won’t ever be true again. 

 

“Don’t fucking touch,” he says, and shoves Dream’s hands off of his waist and above his head. He has to bend down to do it successfully, gripping both of his wrists in one hand. “Don’t make me tell you again.” 

 

“Okay,” Dream says, and his voice cracks a little bit. 

 

It’s easier, from there—easier to hold himself off from an orgasm when Dream isn’t staring him in the eyes, leaving bruises all over his legs. He pushes forward again, watching the way Dream’s face contorts. “You’re so pretty,” he says, and runs a hand down the side of Dream’s face. He nods, nuzzling into the grip, but then George grabs his jaw in his hand and forces his face forwards. “Now tell me how close you are.”

 

“If you—if you let me I’ll cum right now,” he says, voice throaty and raw. He’s working tears out of his eyes, and he has to squeeze his eyes shut and tilt his head backwards so they don’t run down the side of his face. “You feel—so fucking good, George. Whenever you tell me, I—I will.” 

 

“Want you to cum when I do,” George says, and then rounds a hand around his throat—he doesn’t know how he’s kept himself from doing it before. It feels like holding his heart in his hands, feeling the thump of blood and life against his fingers. “Can you do that for me?”

 

“Yes,” Dream says. “Yes, of course— yes . Anything.” 

 

“Good,” George says. “Good. You know I want to—” and he knows it’ll sound ridiculous after the fact, but he says it anyway: “—I want to do this forever. I’d—fuck—I’d spend the rest of my life fucking you if I could.”

 

Fuck ,” Dream chokes out, voice broken and scalded dry. George doesn’t know why it turns him to shreds. He turns his body to the side as if he’s trying to pull his hands away from George’s grip, but it doesn’t work. And George isn’t particularly strong. “You promise?” 

 

“I promise,” George says, and leans down again. When he pushes their mouths together it’s less of a kiss and more of the sealing of a pact. “I do, I really do,” he says, against Dream’s mouth, ignoring the way Dream’s groan melts into his lips. “Want you to cum for me—can you do that? Can you cum for me?”

 

“Uh-huh,” Dream says. “ Fuck , I love you.” 

 

“I love you too,” George says back, and so what if he’s fucking sick? So what? People live and die in their own depravity. He doesn’t understand, anymore, why he’s not allowed to. It’s something that hurts to think about. 

 

I want it to end like this , he thinks. He wants it to end with sunlight and he wants to have Dream in the end. He feels Dream’s length tightening inside him again, and he bends down with his hand around Dream’s throat before he’s slowing the movement of his hips and finally, finally , letting Dream cum. He doesn’t stop himself at that point, either.

 

But then—per usual—when he’s finished digging himself into the deepest hole of his lifetime, there’s the matter of catching his breath. Feeling Dream’s skin pulse under his palms. When George blinks the fog out of his eyes and tilts his head up, Dream is still panting heavily, his face red and cum oozing over his abdomen. 

 

He brushes a hand over Dream’s cheek anyway, feeling the rapid cooling of the tear-tracks down his face. “You’re really fucking good at that, by the way.”

 

“Fuck you,” Dream says, with no malice. His hands grip against George’s thighs as if keeping him in place. “Get off.”

 

George does get off—and then he feels the burst of hot pain in his leg where he’s not supposed to have set it into a ninety-degree angle for a prolonged period of time. Or something; he only started paying attention to physical therapy when he flushed his pain meds. “God damn it,” he mutters, and reaches down to tug his clothes back on. When he turns back around, Dream is studying him carefully.

 

“What’s wrong?” He asks.

 

“It’s just my leg,” George says. “I’m not supposed to be exerting myself.” 

 

“That’s what cruise ships are for,” Dream says, and leans back coquettishly. He’s looking at the fine trails of redness he’s left on George’s thighs like he hasn’t done enough damage to his legs already. “I really—when I shot you—”

 

“Oh, God,” George moans, and drops his face into his palms, elbows balanced on his knees. He’d just told the dude who shot him in the fucking leg I love you . “It’s like if John Lennon fucked that shooter.”

 

Dream laughs, but he stops laughing when George cuts his eyes at him. “I didn’t want to kill you,” he says, which George feels like he’s heard before, even though he hasn’t. “I just wanted to—”

 

“I know,” George says, face flaming. “And I didn’t want you to get in any shit about Arla, but you still did. Can we call it even?”

 

Dream’s eyes search his face again. Sick . If George is sick, Dream is on his fucking deathbed.

 

“Yeah,” he says quietly, and moves closer to the foot of the bed so that his legs rest against George’s. He picks up his arm and kisses him on the back of the hand. “We can call it even.”

 

**

 

Dream likes winning. And he’s good at it, too—he’s good at gloating without being too annoying about it. It would almost suffice it to say that the whole reason he’s kept himself publicized is because it’s much easier for people to realize you’re the winner when they can see what game you’re playing.

 

If they can tell what game you’re playing, that is. His first mistake was probably assuming that people are smarter than they are. He knows it’s ungrateful, to think all of those people protesting in his name are ridiculous, but he’s never been a—martyr. He’s never wanted to be a martyr. None of them are. 

 

But he’ll play any part. He supposes it’s the difference between him and Sapnap, who’s always told him that he had a backup plan nobody was allowed to hear about, not even Dream. 

 

Winning’s never been a part of any plan—it’s always just been implied that Dream would come out on top. But at some point—

 

Especially now—

 

He’s in George’s room instead of his own, for once, mostly because they both needed a change of scenery. George is taking a phone call and a cigarette on the roof, so Dream is still laying in his bed deciding whether or not he should call Sapnap again.

 

He could. Sapnap wouldn’t hang up on him, or envelope him in any meaningless conversation. He’d tell him what was going on with the team—how Wilbur’s been helping him cover up his tracks, how Techno has taken Alex under his wing—and he’d ask how Dream was doing, on his little getaway. If he misses the headrush or if he’s realized he needs the stability. 

 

It wouldn’t even be uncomfortable. But that’s mostly the problem—he’d be able to hear about how selfless his friends are, doing needless favors for him and expecting nothing in return. Not even devotion; that’s something Dream doesn’t give out often. 

 

George would tell him that they’re getting their cut of the money, in return, which he’s described as not even close to enough for dealing with your scrawny ass, whatever the amount is , but it still doesn’t feel like it would compare. 

 

Obviously he’s going to spend the rest of his life paying off his dues. He just didn’t realize they run so fucking deep .

 

He’s still running his fingers over the grooves on his phone case when George emerges into his bedroom, slamming the door behind him and leaning his back against it. Dream tenses. He hasn’t changed out of what he was wearing since they saw each other the night before—his flannel, Dream’s shirt. Both of them smell like artificial tangerine. 

 

“Hi,” George says jerkily, and Dream starts to say Hi back, but before he can open his mouth George pounces on him, collecting legs around his thighs and shoving their mouths together.

 

He’s not kissing like he normally does—he’s kissing Dream like he’s still desperately looking for gold, cracking open hiding places with his back teeth. “Woah,” Dream says, when their mouths disconnect. “Woah, just—wait. George. Wait.”

 

George tugs himself backwards, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “What is it?”

 

“It’s—nothing,” Dream says. He looks afraid of something. He’s rolled down the sleeves of the flannel like he’s too hot but when Dream strokes a hand underneath his shirt, feeling the plane of his stomach, he’s covered in goosebumps. “It’s—are you okay?”

 

“Yes,” George says, but Dream knows what he looks like when he means it. The cruel circles under his eyes have paled in response to their catnaps and twelve-hour evenings but they’re still purple, purple-red like decaying figs.

 

“George,” Dream says, but George just snaps, “ Yes , I’m okay, Dream, God. What, you’ve never seen a little—you’ve never—you’ve never not known what to do with yourself?”

 

“George, come on,” Dream says, because all he’s ever done is look for a place in the world for himself. He’s had to carve his own niche , for God’s sake. Nothing had been enough until he learned how to play poker and then that hadn’t been enough once he learned why people steal, and now—well—that’s not enough, either. “You know I know what you mean.”

 

George’s face flickers. “You don’t even know me .”

 

Dream grimaces. He’s still holding George in place over his thighs, his knees jutting into the inside of his leg, bony and alive. “I—”

 

“I’m sorry,” George says, a minute later. “I shouldn’t have—I don’t know why I said that. There’s nothing for you to know, really.” 

 

Dream wants to say I’m like you—we’re like each other, just like each other and he wants to say I’ve memorized the parts of you that are inside me and he wants to say I think this is how you’re supposed to love God but all he says is, “Don’t talk like that.”

 

“I—” George says, but Dream clutches him around the elbows and tugs him closer so that he can push the cold tip of his nose into the curve of his jaw and say, “Don’t talk like that, please. I love you. Don’t talk like that.”

 

George’s fingers scratch gently at the back of his head again. “I love you .”

 

Dream lets the words follow the throb of his wrist against the back of his neck, so he doesn’t say anything, for a while. There’s something nice about the tightness of his fingers. He doesn’t remember how his hair felt without George’s hands in it. 

 

George moves to kiss Dream again—the flight of his mouth from the corner of his jaw fast and familiar—but all he does is breathe against his open lips, eyes still open. “I’m pissing everyone off,” he says. It’s a secret, Dream realizes. Something only he’s allowed to hear. “I’m getting off of… I’m getting off of the pills and it’s pissing everyone off. They don’t want to deal with me.” 

 

“They do,” Dream says.

 

“They don’t,” George says. “They don’t know what’s wrong with me. They’ve always known something was wrong with me, but I don’t—I don’t want anyone to know. It’s my world. It’s not theirs.” 

 

Dream leans backwards, but even when his hipbones jut into George’s thighs he doesn’t say anything. “They knew what they were signing up for.” George scoffs. “Come on. I’m serious. You’re—you go after the things you want. You’d think that… it’s surprising, really. Not a lot of people do that.” 

 

“Yeah,” George says. “They don’t.” He seems to think about this, tapping an unsteady beat onto where he’s clutching one of Dream’s shoulders, holding him in place. As if he has anywhere else to go. “Thank God.”

 

And he cracks a smile, so Dream does, too. “Thank God,” he agrees, because he can tell they’re both thinking about the same thing and he can tell George just wants to find beautiful art, too, just in a different way. And he wants to keep it. Dream wants to keep it, too.

 

“This is for the right reasons,” George says. Sternly. Like he’s telling him off. “Okay? Because you’re the type of person I can’t stay away from, which I would usually stay away from, but I didn’t, so we’re here. So this has to be for the right reasons. Otherwise—”

 

“Dunno about the right reasons ,” Dream says, but George says, “Shut up. Otherwise—otherwise, that’ll just mean that—I—I don’t know.” 

 

“George,” Dream says. “Come on. You don’t need to give me a reason for why you’re here. You can use me all you want,” he adds, because he doesn’t understand how George can’t see that. Sometimes it really is that simple. Sometimes that’s all there is. 

 

George looks back at him. The first time Dream saw him in Greece, he remembers thinking that there was something wrong. Not because he looked like that —even though that is still part of the reason—but because he seemed like he knew what he was doing, which was completely surprising, given the cops that had been on Dream’s tail until that point. 

 

Sapnap had noticed, too—he’d said something about that “fucking David-whatever cop getting too involved in jobs in other countries like he’s in fucking MI6”, which Dream had agreed with, but in a much nicer way. 

 

“Why?” George asks. With genuine confusion.

 

“Because I want you to?” Dream says back, mimicking his tone. “God, sometimes this just happens. All I do is take risks on shit, George. This is one of the only ones I kind of figure will pay off.” 

 

George nods. He moves his arms away from Dream’s body, closer to his torso as if trying to keep himself in the right state of mind, but he quickly succumbs again. His hands find Dream’s hands like a lifeline.  

 

“I took a lot of risks,” Dream says, “To get to you.” 

 

He would’ve done anything. This is just what it took. 

 

**

 

“We can make it work in other ways,” George says. They’re in the middle of the twelfth day. Not that it’s particularly distinct from the tenth and eleventh. George doesn’t stay away from him now, because Dream doesn’t try to keep him away. Not that he ever did. But at least now he’s a lot more obvious about it. He’s bobbing in the deep end of the swimming pool with his arms crossed against the edges so that he can watch Dream mix a vodka tonic. “It was fine before.”

 

“We weren’t on good terms before,” Dream points out. “To say the least. I’m just saying that—for our two situations—I mean, you do kind of have the easier extraction.”

 

George is still staring at him through narrowed eyes, shielding his face from the sun with a hand. “In what sense?” 

 

“In… the sense that… all you have to do is ask to be taken off the case,” Dream says, and even though his nose has been sunburned for days George still watches the blush work its way across his face. He resists the urge to—coo, or something. “Isn’t it a law that they have to take you off if you ask them to?” 

 

George stares at him for a moment longer. And then he sighs, pulling himself up across the edge of the pool to drag himself to one of the many bar-stools in Dream’s vicinity. 

 

“Maybe I want to stay on the case,” he says, once he’s firmly implanted onto a seat.

 

Dream’s face drops. “ George .”

 

“You do a really fucked up thing,” George says, “I love you, but—that’s—other things happen alongside that.” He doesn’t bring up the shooting-in-leg thing. “I can love you and still think you deserve time in federal prison.”

 

“Rude,” Dream says. “Listen. You know I love the art.” 

 

“Jesus Christ, you wouldn’t be going to prison for not liking art,” George says, and has to lean up against the bar to make himself eye-level with Dream’s height.  Dream’s still not looking at him, so he raps his knuckles on the counter rapid-fire. “Hey. Look at me. You realize you go against everything I’ve ever wanted to do with my life.”  

 

“Mhm,” Dream says, but his eyes are busy tracking over the length of George’s throat to the delicate parting of his lips, like he’s letting something go with his words. George’s attention shouldn’t have been brought here. Dream leans forward and kisses him. “I figured that was half of the appeal.”

 

George lets himself kiss back. And then he pulls away abruptly. “Why the fucking art , Dream? Why not banks?” 

 

“There’s such a thing as too easy ,” Dream says. George tilts a chin on his hand, elbow resting on the bar; he’s drawing faint circles on Dream’s arm using his chlorine-wet finger. “As you know.”

 

“As I know,” George repeats. 

 

“At least it’s not people,” Dream adds. George makes a face at him and stops moving his finger, and only then does Dream seem to realize he’s being unhelpful. “What? Come on, George, you can’t tell me you prefer me killing people.” 

 

“I thought you did, for a while,” George says. 

 

“In my head, the Hayez was the last one I’d ever steal,” Dream tells him. George’s eyes harden, but he can’t help the rest of his body—one of his hands squeezes at Dream’s wrist where it’s resting against the counter. “It’s been getting dangerous.”

 

“How much money have you made, so far?” 

 

“Fifty million,” Dream says. 

 

What.

 

What ?” 

 

“Fifty million,” Dream repeats, and even though he’s built so beautifully he looks like he would break to the touch George kind of wants to punch him in the face. Fifty million dollars. “It’s on the lower end. Larry Salander made—”

 

“I don’t give a fuck about Larry Salander,” George says. “Eighty million is—Jesus fuck.” He’d also babysit Dream across countries and art museums if it meant he got to cash out eighty million dollars. “ God . I would’ve stopped at ten.” 

 

“Paintings sell for ten,” Dream says dismissively, “And that’s not even counting—the split between all four of us, protection fees, transportation, all of that shit.” George’s skin feels weirdly cold. Dream frowns at him. “This better not be going back to Wallace.”

 

“It won’t,” George says. “No point.”

 

There’s no point because there’s nothing else for them to do. It’s business as usual in the Orlando department, even though they’re a lot more careful around Saint Don now; Proctor’s pretending like he’s not looking for the next big thing to chase; Wallace has to be on the verge of a breakdown, if his last email was any indication. They know this can’t end with Dream behind bars: he’ll just slither through the cracks over and over until they get sick of locking the door.  

 

“The reason I told you you should get off the case is because—I already know how I’m getting out,” Dream tells him. “It wouldn’t be fair to keep you running this manhunt when I’ve already—”

 

“When you’ve already won?” George fills in dryly, but Dream’s mouth just quirks up at the word won because there’s nothing else that’s as important to him. George has started to find it endearing. “Don’t give me that look.”  

 

“Not because of what you’re thinking,” Dream says.

 

“Asshole,” George says, but he’s secretly pleased. He leans forward. “I should probably tell you that I’m asking to be taken off of the case. I’ve a phone call with Wallace tomorrow morning.” 

 

“You are?” Dream says, but George doesn’t repeat himself again, even with the elated hitch of his voice. If he’s taken off of the case, and Dream pulls off whatever he wants to do—“You are.” 

 

“I am,” George says. “And you? How are you going to make it out alive?” 

 

It’s always been easy for Dream to tell him things he’s not supposed to. So he does. 

 

**

 

The first thing that George says when he pulls out is, “You know it’s a gamble, right?” 

 

Dream’s not paying attention: his head is flung out over the pillow, and he’s still drooling a little bit, his legs hanging loosely around George’s waist. Once he starts to absorb the words, he starts blinking away his haze so he can sit up. “A gamble ?” 

 

They’re on George’s bed and they only have a week left—not that Dream is counting or anything, except that it’s impossible not to. And it’s impossible not to look at George when his skin contrasts the white comforter with every inch of bitten redness. “Yeah. A gamble. Isn’t the golden rule that if it’s too good to be true, it is or whatever?” 

 

“No,” Dream says haughtily, and stretches out so that he’s still trapping George in place with his legs. He reaches for a cigarette anyway, even as he leans his lower back against the footboard so he can keep facing Dream. “The golden rule’s not to gamble anything you can’t afford to lose.” 

 

“Like your freedom,” George says. “For example.”

 

“Oh, come on,” Dream says. “I’m not going to be locked away in some shed, George. You know, I figured you’d kind of like this idea, since you’re the one who wanted to put me in jail.”

 

“I did,” George says. He seems to have accepted the fact that it wouldn’t work; Dream’s proud of being the poster child for white-collar criminals who would go into prison and come out completely unreformed. “I’m just worried.” 

 

“About what?” Dream says. “That it wouldn’t work? If I can find an in, it’s guaranteed to work. You know how good we are at following the murders.” 

 

“Fuck,” George says, and tucks his cigarette back into the box, shoving it off of the edge of the bed. Dream watches it go. “And if you die?” 

 

“I won’t die,” Dream says. “Not actually.” 

 

“You’re doing a shitty job of dissuading my worry,” George says, and Dream sits up again and crawls over so that he’s pulling George down by the shoulders, pushing him into the softness of the bed, hovering over him with two hands planted at the sides of his head. 

 

“You shouldn’t be worrying,” Dream says, and leans down and kisses him, “Because—” he kisses him again, “It’s going—” and then again, “To be fine.” He finishes by leaving a kiss in the crook of George’s neck, but when he comes up again George still has that look on his face. The I’m-scared-of-what-I’m-feeling look. Dream’s mouth usually does the trick for getting rid of it, but not tonight, apparently. “I don’t know what else to tell you.” 

 

Dream knows that if it were anyone other than him, they wouldn’t be able to pull it off—not for lack of trying, but for lack of balls. He’s always been lucky and he’s always been good at laying out his cards. George has had to learn these things, which means he thinks about them, long and hard—but Dream’s never had to. And he’s glad.

 

 “You could let me help you,” George says, out of nowhere. 

 

“Help me?” Dream asks. “How?” 

 

“For starters,” George says, and writhes away from his grip so that he can grab his clothes off of the floor, “You need to tell your friends. They’re smarter than you give them credit for and you don’t have to do this entire thing alone.”

 

“I wouldn’t be doing it alone,” Dream says. “Sapnap’s helping me.”

 

George sends a pointed look in his direction. “So alone. Look—get them on the phone right now. I won’t say anything. See what they say.”

 

“Fine,” Dream says. He knows Wilbur and Arla and Alex better than George does, obviously, and he knows what they’ll say. They’ll tell him to deal with his shit alone, because even this is too much for people who are already too deep in the game to try and get a different player out. 

 

He and George go to the only place where there’s good enough cell service—the patio of the restaurant—and squint in the hot sun. He calls Arla, but she doesn’t pick up, so he calls Wilbur. He expects a screaming match. He expects disagreements. But he’s only met with— 

 

“I hate to sound supportive of absolute dumbassery, you've had worse ideas before and they’ve worked out,” Wilbur says. He’s somewhere quiet and calm—there’s the hum of a television on the other side of the call, and he can hear Alex’s voice—and Dream is happy for him. For all of his friends. “When are you thinking about doing it?” 

 

Thank you,” Dream says, and turns to  give George a triumphant look over the phone screen before he starts to study the implications of Wilbur’s sentence. This wasn’t meant to be a situation where he’d involve them, too. This was supposed to be easy for them , not him. “Wait. Wilbur.”

 

“Battle but not the war, babe,” George says. 

 

Dream ignores him. “You know you don’t have to help,” he tells him, and Wilbur’s quiet for a moment before giving an incredulous snort.

 

“Of course I’m going to help,” he says. “You know the best part? It’s not technically illegal.” 

 

“I guess,” Dream says, because Wilbur’s indifferent enough that Dream can’t tell whether he’s being made fun of. Or, worse: being wholly supported in his endeavors. 

 

 Alex butts in. “I think it’s cool.”

 

“Thanks, Quackity,” Dream says warily, “But I’m serious. I just wanted to tell you that—that’s what I’m going to do. I was expecting more of a fight, if we’re being honest.”

 

“We don’t fight,” Wilbur says, which Dream has to acknowledge is true. “Dream, I don’t think you realize that—we’re not fighting you on this because we want it to end, too. And it can only end with you.” 

 

Dream thinks about this. And he continues thinking about this when they give their gentle goodbyes, hang up with a promise to speak to Sapnap in person to hear all of the details Dream may have missed in his explanation. 

 

George looks at him, the smugness gone from his face, and says, “That wasn’t the answer you wanted, was it?” 

 

It wasn’t, but Dream can’t explain why, so he stays quiet. George pushes one of his feet up against Dream’s ankle, and then works his way up his calf, his leg, finally running his heel into his knee. 

 

“Fifty million,” George says, speaking in the silence again. “Not to mention the other things, but fifty million dollars, Dream. They owe you a lot of favors, too.”

 

Dream doesn’t have the heart to tell him that they don’t, really. He’s never liked playing the dealer; he’s not good at shuffling the deck. 

 

**

 

On the twenty-second day, Dream is feigning sleep. He’s curled up in a beach chair with a white shirt sprawn over his shoulders so he won’t get a sunburn and he only opens his eyes because he feels gentle fingers scratching at his leg. When he turns his head over, blinking away the sunlight, he sees George sitting at the foot of his lounger wearing a stupid bucket hat and no shirt.

 

“Wakey wakey,” he says. 

 

Dream makes a noise that sounds like “ Hnn ”, but then George flicks water at him from where it’s still left over on his fingertips and he winces and sits up, pressing his peeling back to the chair. “I hate that hat.” 

 

“Keeps the sun away,” George says. He leans forward and brushes the droplets away from his under-eyes. “Get up. I want you to call Arla and make sure you know how you’re getting out of here.”

 

“What do you mean?” Dream says, his voice a gravelly buzz from where he has to force himself to speak. “I know how I’m getting out of here. She’s meeting us at the shore in a blue Mazda. Just discreet enough that we’ll blend in. Smart, right?” 

 

George is still frowning. “ Us ?” 

 

“Yeah,” Dream says. He only properly realizes, then, that they haven’t had this conversation yet—the conversation about getting out. He’d almost been hoping they’d never have to. Maybe they’d end up stranded somewhere on the Aegean and they could spend the rest of their lives here then get fed to the fish or something. A pretty common daydream, in his opinion. “You’re coming with me, right?”

 

“I don’t know if… that’s a good idea,” George says. 

 

“It’ll be fine,” Dream says. This part he knows—he’s never had to double-check with Arla for anything. He’s not going to start now. 

 

“I booked a hotel,” George says. 

 

“Where?” Dream asks, but then he corrects himself. “I mean—no. You didn’t. If you’re with me , you’re not sleeping in a fucking hotel. We rented a house here.” 

 

“From where?” 

 

“From Arla,” Dream says. She’d decided to look into houses here a few months ago—coincidentally, right when she’d met the girl that George works with. She’s gone, too, but Dream doesn't think she’s in Cuba. Unless they’re planning something he doesn’t want to ask about. 

 

George rolls his eyes, but still leans forward to kiss him. “I’m gonna make sure my stuff is in order,” he says, their mouths still close together even as Dream’s ends in a pout. He shifts his hand away from his jaw. “Put on sunscreen. You’ll burn.” 

 

The feeling of the cruise ship bobbing to a halt feels unfamiliar, all of a sudden. Dream’s met with the smell of hot sand and the feeling of his land-legs when the stairs begin to open down on the shore. The people on the deck look up at the high staircase in fascination, so it must be particularly confusing when only two people walk off.

 

One person, really, since Dream stays behind to have a chat with their captain. It involves a lot of underhanded money-passing and frantic thanks for not asking any questions. 

 

Since he’s so distracted with paying off his debts, by the time that he’s meant to run down and find the car Arla’s parked in, George is gone. Dream waddles out into the shore and squints at the harbor, rows of gray-brown wood peeking out into the sea. He has to turn completely clockwise to find the trail leading into the loading port. 

 

There’s a few cars littering the lot, but there’s only one blue Mazda. The windows are tinted, but he can still see two bobbing forms on the inside like the workings of a lava lamp. He opens the door.

 

Saint Don meets him with a gun in his face.  

 

Things happen very quickly, after that: he says, “Um,” and then George leans forward from the backseat and tugs him into the car, sending him barreling forwards, and when he’s sitting he leans forward and slams the door shut, his shoulder pressed into George’s chest. There’s still a gun in his face.

 

There’s still a man in his face, the same stout greasy-haired and greasy-faced pimp that’s been riding his ass before he even started stealing the paintings. Before he does anything else, though, he cranes his neck at the driver’s seat. Arla. 

 

“Um, what the fuck is going on here,” he says, and Saint Don clicks the safety off of the gun. The blood in Dream’s ears starts buzzing. He looks at George from the corner of his eye.

 

“Thank God,” Saint Don says. “Finally tracked you down. You’ve caught a tan, copling. Twenty days on that ship did you good, huh?”  

 

“Yes,” Dream says, because there’s really no point in lying, but he would’ve lost no matter what he responded because Saint Don thrusts the gun forward again and snarls, “Don’t say anything. Now—your little lady promised me you’d sit quiet and listen to what I had to say. You gonna listen?” 

 

“I’m gonna listen,” Dream says. Fucking Arla. 

 

Saint Don must see the look on his face. “I don’t want you to think I’m not happy about you paying off that debt,” he says, before anything else. “It’s real impressive. But you know that already, don’t you? Me and you, we like to gloat. It’s natural. It’s normal. And it makes sense, when you’ve done the shit we’ve done with our short lives.”

 

Dream still feels stiff and statue-like, pressed against the backseat like a dried flower. He wants to tell George to close his eyes and he wants to tell Arla to drive their fucking car off of the harbor and he wants to tell Saint Don to blow his brains out, already, because it kind of feels like that’s what he’s going to do. “Right.”

 

“Right,” Saint Don repeats, his eyes tracking Dream’s face. “Short but beautiful lives. There’s one thing you have to understand about me, man—I’ve built Orlando from the ground up. Every stripper and drink and cute little Five-And-Dime knockoff is there because of me . You understand that?”

 

“I understand that,” Dream says. 

 

“So when my livelihood is messed with ,” Saint Don says, and punctuates his point by pushing the gun closer to his face, pressing it to the underside of his nose, “There’s nothing I can do but make sure it stays right in its place. Much like you. You’ve had your fair share of people trying to mess with your business.” 

 

He doesn’t look at George, but Dream knows he’s talking about George. He can see George’s fingers curl against the leather seating of the car. “Sure, man. Sure.”

 

“I’m glad you paid me back that money,” Saint Don says, “But now that I know what else you can do, it’s only fair you can assure me that my business is gonna stay safe. We have to look out for each other in this city, Dream. Only me and you know what it’s like.”

 

Only me and you know what it’s like , Dream thinks again—and then he thinks about how that sentence would’ve been his Holy Grail, a while ago, because he wouldn’t have wanted anything more but to be some rich guy’s lapdog. Happily accepting his scraps. 

 

“I guess so,” he says, just so he doesn’t piss him off. “What do you want?”

 

“What do I want ?” Saint Don repeats. “What I want is for your dear-old-dad to fuck off with his investigation into my work. God knows we’ve allowed each other the bare minimum of respect for so long.”

 

“Okay,” Dream says. Maybe it’s because he’s got a gun to his face, but it sounds doable. “Get Baker to lay off of investigating you. Okay. I can do that.”

 

“Don’t care how you do it, either,” Saint Don says, “As long as you do it. And if you don’t, well—we know each other. We respect each other. You know what’ll happen if you don’t.” 

 

Dream nods again—a little entranced—and Saint Don gives another catlike grin and leans forward, grabbing his face in both hands and pressing a smacking kiss to his temple. The gun grazes against his neck. Dream thinks about it going off for a while, even as Saint Don opens the door and leaves. 

 

Dream swears and slams his head on the back of Arla’s seat, grabbing the headrest to orient himself. “What the fuck was—” he says, but it doesn’t sound genuine enough for the circumstance. “What the fuck did you do , Arla?”

 

“He said he had to talk to you,” she starts desperately, and turns around in the driver’s seat to face them both. She’s chopped off all of her hair to the shoulder and the humidity is making it frizz and stick against the seat. “And I—I owed him, Dream, he’s the reason I made it into the country. And got the house.” 

 

“He’s what ?” George says acidly. 

 

Arla turns her eyes on him. “I’m not gonna listen to what you have to say about it. We all do things we don’t want to do.” 

 

“I was going to sleep in a hotel,” George says, but Arla doesn’t seem to be listening. She makes a face at Dream like she’s waiting for him to respond, but he’s still running the situation through in his head.

 

“We need to get the Orlando department to lay off him,” he says, brain working fast. “And the only way we can do that is if—what? We distract them?” 

 

“Or convince them Saint Don’s too untouchable,” Arla adds. “Like there’s no point in even trying.” 

 

“Good,” Dream says shortly. “And the only way they’ll stop investigating—the only time they’ll realize it’s a lost cause is… when…” 

 

That’s where he’s out of ideas. Dream can’t think like a cop—at least not like a cop functioning in the long-term. 

 

But he knows who can.

 

He turns his eyes over to George very, very slowly—to the point where it takes George a second to meet his eye, raising his eyebrows when he realizes what Dream wants. “No,” he says, and then Dream says, “Come on,” and George says, “No. Don’t bother. I’m not even here for this conversation. I’m pretending I’m still on the cruise ship napping in the sun.” 

 

“Well, you aren’t,” Arla says, sounding extraordinarily self-satisfied. “You’ve been smack in the middle of this shit for quite a while, Georgie. How do we convince the department to lay off?” 

 

George crosses his arms. “I can’t tell you that. They’re my friends.”

 

“Okay,” Dream says, trying not to twinge his words with frustration. “Okay, then—then don’t. What would you do in our situation, then? If you heard that entire conversation, and now you can use it to take him down. What would you do?” 

 

George waits a beat. “I’d have recorded it, first of all,” he says. 

 

“Recorded it,” Dream says. “Well, we didn’t.”

 

“Thank you, love, I know that,” George says. 

 

“Did he just call you love ?” Arla asks. Dream shrugs. 

 

 “And then—I don’t know,” George continues, like she hadn’t even spoken. “God, I really don’t know. Do you want me to—tell you the worst-case scenario? The least moral scenario?” 

 

God , yes,” Arla says. 

 

George leans back in his seat. He’s gritting his jaw very tightly. “I’d trick him,” he says. Bluntly. It’s a good look on him. “I’d get him exposed for a federal crime. Because, I mean—at that point, Baker’s department isn’t even allowed to get involved.” 

 

One of Dream’s favorite parts about making plans with the entire team has always been this: the moment of realization. The moment the puzzle pieces fit together, and all he has to do is smother them in hot glue to make sure they never shift out of place. “Like a murder,” he says out loud, and George’s eyes lock with his. “For example.”

 

George’s face pales in understanding. “Dream.”

 

“You know it makes sense,” Dream says defensively. “And—listen—I told you that all I needed was an in. This is as good of a way to get the ball rolling as anything else.”

 

George doesn’t say anything else, for a moment. He swings his legs up on the seat and reaches forward so that he can grab Dream’s wrist in his hand. 

 

“If it works out,” he says, “You’re coming with me. I’m not letting you out of my sight ever again.” 

 

——

 

When George finally wakes up on a couch he doesn’t recognize in Cuba, groggy and jet-lagged and with Dream’s head in his lap, the TV screen is still lit up with three smirking clips of Dream’s face—and he figures, idly, that he can’t blame anyone for being in love with him. 

 

He looks nice. There’s one of him being led away in handcuffs, his eyes narrowed slyly and accenting the gentle pinkness of his mouth; and there’s two of him from a distance, an officer’s body trying to block his height from the cameras. 

 

And he won’t stop smiling in any of them. As if looking polite is the thing that’ll keep people off his back. George looks down at where Dream is still asleep and scratches at his messy hair. He does everything but purr, humming in his sleep and leaning back into George’s stomach. 

 

He leans forward to turn on something else—not because Dream will freak out if he sees himself on TV or anything, but because he’ll like it too much and insist George keeps it running. But when he tries to switch onto the next news channel, they’re still showing Dream. Or—more specifically—something that’ll stroke his ego a lot more: a bunch of people gathered around a radio station office, pleading for his innocence.

 

George continues watching a little sullenly. To most of his instincts, it’s ridiculous; they obviously don’t care much about making sure he gets off on all charges if they’re appealing to the fucking radio instead of the cops. And he’s sure everyone has to know that he’s not in Italy, by now. 

 

Not that it’s clear, but he’d left enough hints. Certainly enough for George to have figured it out. 

 

But then again—he knows they can’t help it. He’d like to think he’s of a higher moral standing, but he doesn’t know what he’d do if he was one of the nameless gatherers outside of the radio station who’d only seen Dream’s face and didn’t know much about the repercussions of art theft. He might’ve done the same thing.

 

He’s doing the same thing, stroking Dream’s hair away from his face and taking advantage of the warmth of his skin. They’re both still days-of-sunlight-warm but the house in Cuba has a loud A/C and George forgot his hoodie in the taxi. He runs his hand over Dream’s stomach. 

 

“This witch hunt has gone on for long enough,” A woman on the screen says, in broken English. She’s holding flyers but they’re flapping too rapidly in the wind to be caught by the cameras. 

 

Dream turns over in George’s lap and opens his eyes, his cheek pressed against his thigh and his hair still brushing against his sweatpants. 

 

“Good morning,” he says, when George brushes his finger against his bottom lip. “Do they like me or do they not today?” 

 

“We’ve spent too much time on a man whose name we don’t know,” the woman adds, tapping the flyers into place neatly. George watches her, wholly distracted by the cheering crowd until the scene cuts back to the newsroom. 

 

“I think they like you,” George says. It’s a fair question. They’re either protesting the amount of resources poured into him or praising him for bringing art back to the public . Yeah, right. “I wonder what they’ll say when you die.” 

 

Dream looks over at the screen. “Harsh. Don’t tell me you’re actually watching this.” 

 

George doesn’t know why this irks him. “You like it.”

 

“Of course I like it,” Dream says. “You liked it, too, when you had to do all of those press conferences.” When George still doesn’t say anything else Dream sits up, and grabs his thigh so that he can tug him between his legs. 

 

“Don’t lie,” he says, even when George squirms and shoves his fingers between his ribs. “ Ow . All of those people saying your name, knowing who you are—it’s enough to get in anyone's head.” 

 

“It’s just a bit odd to me,” George says. Knowing he’ll always be linked to Dream, even in the public’s eye. But then again—that means that Dream will always be linked to him, too. “At least I don’t get off on it.” 

 

Dream smiles. “Nobody said anything about getting off.” 

 

“You’re getting off easy for sure,” George says.

 

“Only ‘cause you’ve got your eye on me, detective,” Dream says. 

 

“We’ve received confirmation that lead investigator George Davidson has resigned from the case,” the newscaster says gravely. George ignores this by leaning forward and kissing Dream. 

 

He expects it to be a temporary relief, but when Dream kisses back—still only a little ferocious, like he’s still yet to be broken-in—George finds himself looking deeper into him, tongue working against the current of Dream’s teeth. 

 

“You’d be surprised about how hard it is,” he murmurs, “To keep my eye on you.” For the most part, it’s true: Dream stays a little too still, something he’s known since he blended into the background of that diner. “It would be a lot easier if you were in the same place as me all the time, asshole.”

 

“What, like a house?” Dream says, after kissing him again. And then George freezes.

 

“I suppose,” George says, and his voice cracks. A house. Them in a house—together. Definitely the definition of moving too fast. “I mean—no. Not a house. I don’t know.”

 

“I don’t know either,” Dream says, and leans in.  

 

He shoves his hands into his hair and tugs until Dream opens his mouth wider, wider, and George can taste what he tasted like before , like airplane-air and gas station beer. They’re still kissing when the back door hammers open. George only realizes this when he leans back to get a better grip around Dream’s throat and he sees Sapnap looking down at him disapprovingly.

 

Dream furrows his eyebrows at him when he sees his expression, and when he cranes his neck to see who’s behind him he all but shoves George off of his lap. 

 

“What the—” he says, and Sapnap says, “Good morning, Dream.”

 

“Good morning,” Dream says, and raises to his full height in front of the couch. George clears his throat and stands up, too, but he’s not in any position to be looking impressive. He hasn’t shaved in weeks and he’s pretty sure he’s forgotten how to tie a tie. “What’re you doing here?” 

 

“What, we can’t come down to Cuba for a visit?” Alex says happily, emerging from behind Sapnap and snapping plastic gloves off of his hands. He hops over the length of the couch and grabs Dream in an embrace, which goes from being awkward to endearing really quickly.

 

“That’s not what I said, man,” Dream says, and when Alex breaks away he rustles his hair. “I just—I thought I told you—”

 

“I know, but there’s been a teeny tiny change of plans,” Sapnap says. 

 

“I’ll take my exit now,” George says, and Dream gives him a look that he’d like to take as a thank you as they huddle together to have a quiet conversation. George isn’t particularly willing or interested to get involved, so he brushes up into the rest of the house.

 

He doesn’t know why he keeps calling it a house—it’s bigger than anything he’s ever lived in, that’s for sure, but he doesn’t know if it’s quite on the level of Dream’s parents’ new McMansion. It’s a good in-between, with clean wooden floors and comfortably low ceilings that touch against half-walls separating the rooms.

 

He brushes along some of those half-walls, looking for the kitchen but ending up somewhere near Arla’s room—another one of the guest-rooms, which are sprinkled throughout the house in uneven places. 

 

It’s a nice house. He doesn’t know how Arla’s going to leave it behind. 

 

George pauses, peering through the door left slightly ajar, but he’s very quickly met with one of Arla’s stink eyes. Instead of closing the door, though, her foot plants itself between the gap and she gives it a tiny shove open, keeping it from creaking.

 

“You,” she says bitterly, and George says, “Me?” Before she grabs ahold of his arm and tugs him inside.

 

He hasn’t been allowed in her room before, so it’s a pretty meaningful step forward in their relationship. He doesn’t say this aloud, given the fact that she’s still looking at him with her upper lip curled towards the ceiling. She shoves her phone into her back pocket.

 

“Are they here?” She asks.

 

“Who do you mean?” George says.

 

“My friends,” she says, tone dark and irritated like he’s being extraordinarily thick. George feels like he’s being a lot kinder than he should be, considering the circumstances. “I told them to come. Are they here?”

 

“Oh,” George says. “Yeah. They’re in the living room, if you want to—”

 

“No,” she says, and closes the door. She walks towards the window, which is opened to the long stretch of yellow-white grass on the outside of the house. The house seems better fit for a family and kids; not Arla and nobody else. “I need your advice.”

 

“My—” George says, a second too late, because he doesn’t know what kind of advice he could ever give Arla , who he’s never spoken to in his life. 

 

“You still owe me for that chip, so I don’t want to hear it,” she snaps at him, eyes still tracking around the room like she’s distracted, and it isn’t surprising, ultimately, but it also isn’t very necessary. Of course he’d give her advice. He’s in deep enough that she’s a little bit more human than she used to be. “Mira’s off the case, right?” 

 

“Yeah,” George says. It strikes him then that this is where she’s supposed to be. They’re both the type of person that would take off the case very, very seriously. Arla turns to him like the answer’s not what she expected. “Why do you ask?”

 

“She—” Arla says, and paces backwards again. She runs a hand against the fringe still messy against her forehead, looking a little bewildered. “I thought—I thought she was, but she didn’t tell me she was. Why didn’t she tell me?” 

 

“I don’t know,” George says. 

 

She stares at him for a moment longer. She slinks over to the bed, thighs falling against it in a very un-Arla-like display of weakness. “God damn it.” 

 

“She’s—” George tries to start thinly, but she just scrubs her hands against her cheeks and says, “Save it. I just don’t understand why—it’s fine for you two. Dream gets whatever he fucking wants no matter how long it takes. But—the rest of us—” her eyes snap up towards him, and she brushes her thumb over her lip. “Never mind. You should leave.”

 

“Arla,” he says, but she just shakes her head. He’d leave, here, but he tries to think about his situation—she couldn’t force him out. She would threaten to bash his head in, maybe, but she doesn’t currently have the resources to do it. He sits down next to her. 

 

“What are you fucking doing,” she says.

 

“You can get whatever you want, too,” he tells her. “Once Dream pulls off what he’s trying to pull off—you’ll have no obligation to him, really. You could move across the world and never talk to him again.” 

 

She keeps staring at him.

 

“Unless you want to,” he says meekly.

 

“I don’t want to,” she says. 

 

They look at the floor together, at where his sneaker is only a few inches from being nudged into her boot. She crosses one of her legs over the other and leans both hands behind her. “Nah, I couldn’t. It’s not that easy.”

 

George thinks about Alex and Wilbur and how Wilbur had said, we want it to end, too , and says, “Yeah it is. You guys are smart. If you wanted to stay in this life, you could, but if you wanted to get out—the only obligation you have is to each other. People owe you favors. You don’t owe anyone anything.” He eyes Arla from the corner of his eye. “Unless you do?” 

 

“I don’t,” she says, “But—you need to know that Dream does. He’s been paying off people for a long time. He isn’t very easy to deal with.”

 

“Oh, I know,” George says. He wants to remind her that he’s one of those aforementioned people , but at the same time, he can’t remember anything Dream owes him. They’re a heavy twisting cycle of clove hitches and he can’t remember what Dream owes him even though he’s supposed to. 

 

“You may think you do,” Arla says persistently, “But you don’t. It’s not going to be easy.”

 

George wants to tell her I’m not interested in easy but he’s sure that she’s thought that before, too. There’s always a point where he’ll start getting interested in easy. He looks away from her. “I know that.”

 

“Of course you do,” she says, and when he looks back at her she has her eyes closed, her thumbs pressed against her fluttering eyelids. “I don’t know how you keep surprising me, George, but you keep doing it. I keep thinking nobody’s ever going to want to deal with him again, like I don’t, but—” she stops herself, turning her face away. “You can leave now. Thanks.”

 

“Oh,” he says, and then, “Um—thanks,” even though he doesn’t know what he’s thanking her for, and she looks at him when he leaves the room, eyes wide and curious and searching. He feels stripped to the bone once he closes the door behind him gingerly. Dream is waiting for him, rocking on his heels.

 

“What were you doing in there?” He asks, and George lets go of the doorknob and walks away, faster. He waits until they’re closer to the bathroom, closer to the end of the hallway to say anything.

 

“Nothing,” he says, and Dream furrows his eyebrows.

 

“You disappeared in there for nothing?” He asks. 

 

“Yes,” George says. And then they’re just looking at each other, Dream’s hands coming up to rest against his hips.

 

“Okay,” he says, a moment later, and George thinks about what he’s risking, here, and what he’s risking it for. He hasn’t really sat down to think about it for a while. He loves his parents and his friends, but he doesn’t know who else he’d do anything for; who else he’d be caught with, hanged with, swing with from the tree. He leans forward and takes Dream's face in his hands.

 

“What’re you—” Dream says, but George just kisses him, clutches his cheeks closer against his palms. When he leans away, Dream’s eyes are still closed. He flicks his tongue over his bottom lip.

 

“Okay,” he says. His voice is only slightly hoarse. “I love you too, man.” 

 

George can’t stop himself from grinning, so he doesn’t try. “I just wanted to tell you that I’m not going to leave,” he says. “I’m locking it in. I’m not going to leave, whatever it is you’re going to do, because—”

 

Dream stops him by kissing him again, and George is glad, because he doesn’t know what else he would have said.

 

**

 

And then, on the first of June, Dream dies. 

 

It’s not as stressful of an endeavor as George had expected: they fly back to Orlando together, and then a few days before he’s meant to fake his own death, Dream wishes him farewell and tells him that it’ll all work out at the end. “It’s never not worked out,” he’d said, flashing a barely-chagrined grin and smacking a kiss against George’s temple before he’d left because he didn’t want Sapnap to laugh at him.

 

He didn’t seem worried, is the thing, so when George shows up to the department to pick up his things, suffice it to say that the dead silence of the room is slightly unexpected. He walks in with a crate in both hands, but stops when he sees all of his former coworkers crowded around the TV in the breakroom. 

 

He leaves his crate on the table gingerly, walking closer to the crowd to hear the newscaster. It’s the same journalists who he’d had to deal with at press-conferences months ago.

 

“—dead on arrival in the country,” the woman on screen says gravely, folding her hands on top of her shuffled papers. “Sources say that the group that helped smuggle the convict back in the country is centralized in our very own Orlando area. Donatello Garcia, owner of the Five-And-Dime Casino—”

 

“Oh, shit,” George hears Hank mumble, and he bites a nail as they all continue looking up at the screen. He tries to remember the last time that he saw Saint Don’s name on the TV, but comes up blank.

 

“Is—” George starts to say, even though he doesn’t need it confirmed. He knows what he’s supposed to look like: he’s not surprised, per se, but that’s more because he knew that it was going to happen. Not how it was going to happen. And then everyone hears the sound of his voice.

 

A lot of them hush at the same time: beat-cops and secretaries who he’s never met before widen their eyes, clap hands over their mouths, and Alyssa comes rushing out of the crowd first, grabbing George by the shoulders.

 

“Oh, fuck ,” she says, and tugs George closer into a hug. George’s hands hover around her for a second, but he’s quickly hugging back. 

 

“That’s…” George says, and without thinking, searches out Hank in the crowd. He’s frowning, deeply, rubbing at a spot over his eyebrow. He’s a little greyer, a little bulkier with muscle. And then he nods, and it confirms everything to everyone else.

 

People fall back into whispered conversation, rushing to George and rushing to separate corners of the room, sliding hands over his shoulders and lowering their voices when they pass by him. 

 

“I really am sorry,” Darryl says, and his eyes are low and sad. Knowing Darryl, it must be at least a little genuine. “I mean, he’s… he’s Baker’s kid, first of all. The guy’s going to be devastated.” 

 

“Finding out there’s an international manhunt for your kid, and then he fucks off and dies, you mean,” Hank says, barely looking flustered even as Darryl shoots him an angry glare. “God, is it bad I’m doubting it?” 

 

I’m not doubting it,” Darryl says. “It’s over, man. If this kid is really dead—that means it’s over.” He frowns, looking down at his feet. “Bane of my existence when I was a rookie. He was always spray-painting outside of the Five-And-Dime.”

 

“Shit,” Hank says, agreeing. They both haven’t made eye contact with George yet. He tries to imagine it: growing up in a tiny town, seeing some loveable asshole grow up terrorizing everyone you know, and then watching him die at the hands of your local playmaker. Like watching the Sun get shot into pieces instead of burning out. “Someone needs to check on the Baker.”

 

“I will,” Darryl says. His eyes are twinged in red, and he pushes his glasses up with his knuckles to rub at them. “I think I’m… I think I’m going to leave. Go talk to his parents. See how they’re feeling. But—George—I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. We’ll never really know what was going on there—”

 

“Never mind that,” Hank corrects fiercely, and George doesn’t even know how to thank him. “Whatever was going on there, man, I know it has to hurt.” 

 

And in an odd way, it does hurt. It definitely feels like something’s dying. He can’t back out from this again. He can’t use this as leverage; he can’t mention this the next time Dream leaves dishes in the sink or something. 

 

“It doesn’t feel real yet,” he says quietly, and he feels sick even though it’s not a lie. It doesn’t feel real because it isn’t real. Simple as that. “I think… I think I’m going to sit down, for a minute.”

 

He’s supposed to catch the last flight out of Orlando tomorrow. He has just enough time to get his affairs in order and pack whatever will fit in carry-on to meet Dream in England, which means that when it happens, like always, he’ll have to say his goodbyes, move on to a place without a prewritten history. 

 

“I need to grab my stuff from my desk,” he tells Darryl blankly. “I’m leaving tomorrow morning, I think.” 

 

“Tomorrow?” He says again, and looks back at Hank as if for confirmation. When he gets it, he turns back around to face George. “Wow. It’ll be like the end of an era, huh?”

 

“I guess so,” George says. In the end—he likes who he became here. “I don’t know how I’m going to work without you guys.”

 

“You’re gonna make me cry, man,” Hank says, and leans forward to slap him on the back of the shoulder. George smiles back, trying to keep his eyes from filling with tears. He doesn’t want to leave that type of mark on Orlando.

 

Though he supposes he’d be giving himself too much credit to imply he left any sort of mark on Orlando. Really, it marked him; he got faster, smarter, better at talking, better at picking out bagel places and better at knowing which boys to stay far-but-a-little-too-close from. “I really am going to miss you,” he says, even though he feels like he’s said it already.

 

“We have phones,” Darryl says. His eyes are a little teary and his nose is a little red, but they all dutifully pretend they haven’t noticed. “Hank’s girlfriend finally convinced him to buy a better one. It can actually send texts now.” 

 

Girlfriend ?” George says, as Hank waves his words away with an abashed look.

 

“She’s—okay, well, she is my girlfriend,” he admits, and drops his voice a little as he leans into George’s space. “I think you remember her. Vica?” 

 

George can’t exactly wipe their conversation from his memory. “I do remember, actually. Had a change of heart?”

 

“Something like that,” Hank says. He’s looking at George with his head tilted. “I guess we’re all idiots when it comes to that stuff.” 

 

There’s a few more delayed goodbyes, exchanges of phone-numbers, teary hugs and pats on the back and long eulogies from CSIs and investigators George doesn’t know. Really, he doesn’t need to—he’s gotten warmer with his goodbyes ever since Florida. And then he remembers. 

 

“Where’s Alvarez?” He asks Darryl, once a beat-cop-in-training releases him from the chokehold of some crime scene story he missed. 

 

Darryl’s face doesn’t change. “I guess nobody told you,” he says. “She transferred over to Narcotics.” 

 

“She’s really putting in the work over there, too,” Hank adds. “Brought Alyssa with her and everything. I mean, now that Saint Don’s on TV, what else do they have left to be afraid of?”

 

Hank’s not stupid. Obviously he knows it’s going to take a little bit more effort than that, but that doesn’t mean he can’t acknowledge the parts that they’ve already accomplished. George sees it all in a flash: every museum, every eyewitness account, every track left behind, all culminating in a dead boy whose body they haven’t seen and a body they’ve seen a little too much.

 

“Yeah,” he says. “Hey, I’m going to go find her, all right? I need to talk to her.”

 

He says need instead of want because he knows it’ll make Hank and Darryl not ask any questions, which they don’t, stepping away to let him pass by them wordlessly. 

 

He hasn’t needed to make any trips to Narcotics recently, but he still remembers how to find his way around the station. People he doesn’t recognize send him faint smiles and stop talking when he walks by, which he supposes he should start getting used to. 

 

The door to the Narcotics offices is closed, so he knocks as a courtesy then opens the door anyway. It’s bustling—a lot busier than he’s ever seen it—so it’s no surprise when he looks to the head of the conference table to see Alvarez hunched over a slip of paper, speaking wordlessly.

 

“Alvarez!” He calls, but he’s only met with a few confused looks, so he walks up to her. She still doesn’t hear him. She barely notices him until he taps her on the shoulder, and she swivels around with all of the papers clutched in her grip flying to the floor.

 

“George?” She gasps, and then looks down at the floor. “Oh, shit—”

 

She bends down to pick them up, and he quickly follows, gathering the ones that ended up under the table. He doesn’t pay them any attention because she reaches forward, quite suddenly, and grabs his wrist.

 

“We need to talk,” she hisses, still crouched into a squat on the floor. And then she brushes her hands over her files and lifts them back up onto the table.

 

“Talk,” he echoes, looking at her. She nods. “Okay. About what?” 

 

“Let’s go outside,” she says, and then whispers something to the girl standing next to her before leaving all of her files and speed-walking to the door. George follows her.

 

He’s only ever talked to Alvarez in one place, so when they’re back towards the garage exit with her menthols and his empty hands he finds himself nostalgic for something akin to cluelessness. Of course he’s going to miss what it was like before; when he didn’t know Dream and the ache of it didn’t hurt.

 

“What is it?” He says patiently, when she strikes a match and lights a cigarette and then drops it under her shoe. She takes a drag and then offers it to him, but he shakes his head. 

 

“How worried are you about Saint Don making it to the Orlando Times ?” She asks neutrally, in a voice like she really cares about his opinion on the matter. George shrugs half-heartedly.

 

“I dunno,” he says. “Not really something I’m involved in anymore, is it?”

 

She doesn’t respond. “When you asked me if I was in Cuba,” she starts, but George just shakes his head and says, “It’s okay.”

 

He knows what she’s going to say. He’d left the case because he’d gotten too attached to parts of it; Alvarez left because she’d gotten too detached from her main goal. She ashes her cigarette with her thumb. “I never even thought I’d get close enough to Saint Don to do anything.” 

 

“Does she know that?” George asks, even though he knows the answer. 

 

Alvarez is quiet again. “She knows that my job is important to me,” she says slowly, working out the words somewhere from the back of her mouth. 

 

“Always figured you had some white whale I didn’t know about,” George says. It makes sense. Alvarez loves her city, and she loves taking care of it. She’s always been the head to Saint Don’s tails.  “You need to tell her, Mira.” 

 

Because at this point in time, Arla doesn’t know that Alvarez is off the case because she’s busy unthreading Saint Don from the country’s consciousness. Arla thinks she’s off the case because she’s gotten what she wanted, but she hasn’t. Alvarez grimaces. “I know that.”

 

“I mean tell her now ,” George says. “And like you mean it. People like her like to hear the passion in your voice when you say it, you know.”

 

“People like her and Dream, you mean,” she says, and he squints at her. It dawns on him then—he doesn’t remember an apology or a murmured assent or even a teary side-glance. Either she doesn’t know anything or she knows too much. The tilt of her head is enough of an answer.

 

“I know how people like them react to things, thank you,” she says. “But I guess current events have made reactions hard for us all.”

 

George’s stomach clenches. “Where is he?”

 

“He’s safe,” she says immediately, and side-eyes their surroundings in paranoia. “He’s flying to England. He wants you to meet him there. He said it’s something you talked about.”

 

“I never talked about England with him,” he says, and Alvarez just shrugs.

 

“I don’t know,” she says. “All I know is that he owes me. Big-time. He wouldn’t have gotten out of this mess if it wasn’t for me.”

 

And George doesn’t know why he asks her, but he asks her. “Why did you help him?” He says, thinking about what kind of answer he wants—any answer that’ll reflect itself in him. Any answer as to why the fast become the slow and the good become the eaten. 

 

“Because he would have torn everything apart if I didn’t,” Alvarez says. Simply. “We promised we’d put down the dog that bit too much. We just didn’t realize that...”

 

“The dog wouldn’t die,” George says.

 

“The dog wouldn’t die,” she repeats softly. “Or that it’s too hard to kill. People don’t have to find out, George. We’ve managed to hide a lot up until now. And you know damn well people wouldn’t turn him in. They’re in love with him.” 

 

George just nods and doesn’t say anything, because he’s scared if he opens his mouth he’ll say If I had never met him and we had never been anything would I have seen him on the screen and noticed him for a second and then never again? Did it have to happen this way? 

 

She sees the look on his face. “I think you see something in him that you want to protect,” she tells him gently. “That’s not your fault. No matter how you would have met, you would have had that instinct.”

 

And a pitiful part of him, the self-aggrandizement—the very human quality of complete self-aggrandizement—agrees with her. 

 

He’s glad it happened this way.  

 

**

 

“Well,” Sapnap says, when he lets go of the final box, “I think you’re good to go.”

 

Dream surveys the room. He’s always lived in basements: his parents ended up converting the game room to his bedroom when he was younger, and for a while in the city he and Wilbur had to bunk in the back of a Chinese food place, so the darkness has never gotten to him. This one isn’t musty, either, which is usually a given. And its top level is an art gallery.

 

Not a legitimate one. Obviously. That would be too on-the-nose for even Dream, and he prides himself on the level of ironic consistency he’s managed to achieve in his life thus far. 

 

It’s Saint Don’s. He probably should’ve seen it coming: the European passport, the street it’s located on being listed under his namesake. The fact that there’s two ways to enjoy art—either consuming it or being consumed by it—and Dream could never imagine him in any other position than the latter. 

 

It was almost funny, then, that dawning realization in Saint Don’s face that Dream had been his downfall. He’d cooperated so easily Dream doesn’t know how he didn’t see it coming. He’d been the one to provide the body, for God’s sake: Dream had promised him repayment in the form of Baker’s subservience, and the only price he had to pay was a body. Anyone would’ve taken that deal. 

 

But of course, he wasn’t just dealing with Dream. Just getting a body wasn’t hard. The hard part was where the team came in—disfiguring the face, getting Techno in to fake the death certificate, forging medical records—to shift Dream onto a dead guy. 

 

Killing him, in a way, since he isn’t technically alive, according to the United States. There’s something freeing about it. Especially because it meant that no matter how much Saint Don tries to tell people that no, Dream’s alive, really, he tricked me into doing this, see, tricked me into getting on this plane with this dead guy so that you’d think I did this fucked up thing, and I didn’t, I swear I didn’t, it’ll never work. 

 

(Dream’s parents identified the body. Of course it wouldn’t work.)

 

As far as new places to live go, there’s not much to be desired in his new place: he’s chock in the middle of a comfortable town with enough missing-person cases and unsettlingly esoteric robberies to let him fly under the radar. And he’s basically drafted his own will and testament, at this point, so he can stay here until his time runs out.

 

Funnily enough, Arla didn’t warn him of that. The only thing she said when she left was “You have a good thing here, don’t mess it up,” and when she said mess it up what they both heard was mess him up , because Dream is still the type of person that has the potential to destroy everything good in his life by taking on more than he can handle. 

 

Alvarez, though—she knew what to tell him to make sure he’d never forget the sight of her freckled fucking face. “For the past few months, I’ve thought the purpose of my life was to see you die in a jail cell,” she’d told him, very matter-of-factly. “It isn’t, obviously, but I thought it was, and that’s a problem. Please never waste our resources again.” 

 

“Except for this one time,” he’d said. It had been late on the tarmac of Orlando International and he’d gotten the full celebrity treatment, the police cruiser to his jet, mostly because he was scared she’d chop his balls off if he didn’t cooperate. She didn’t look amused.

 

“This isn’t a waste of resources,” she said blankly. “I’m actually being pretty smart with them, I figure. We can’t afford to keep looking for you, Dream, but I have no idea what Art Theft’s budget looks like. I’m assuming it’s pretty big.”

 

That’s what he’d assumed, too, until he watched Wallace give a heavy-hearted speech about moving forward as a department with this new learned experience and realized that not everyone was going to believe him. He could already tell that the only way they’d continue looking for him is if he decided to emerge from the surface one day completely unprovoked. Not that he plans on it.   

 

Good to go doesn’t sound quite right,” Dream says, and turns to watch Sapnap kick dust out of an old couch they’d moved to the basement. It’s kind of built like a studio apartment—they pushed his bed into one of the corners, and it’s surrounded by old easels and an armchair and a TV monitor from the early 2000s. “That makes it sound like I’m leaving.”

 

“You are leaving,” Sapnap says.

 

“Don’t cry, man,” Dream says, even though Sapnap barely looks chagrined. “I was gonna have to leave the nest eventually. And you still get weekends.”

 

“Shut up,” Sapnap says. “Not for the next few months, I don’t. Not until Wilbur and Alex figure out what they’re going to do about their newfound empire.” 

 

Dream cracks a smile, unable to figure it out himself. To the surprise of absolutely no one with even the briefest talent in hindsight, Alex’s dad is on the run and has poured his entire empire onto him through some shady backdoors and inheritance laws, and that’s not exactly something he can run himself. Which is when Wilbur comes into the equation.

 

“I’m not worried about them,” Dream says. Wilbur is smart and Alex is smarter than they give him credit for. The only problem, really, is that they’re still not at their permanent fixtures. Neither is Dream. Neither is Sapnap. They’re lucky if they spend the rest of their lives looking for one. “I’m worried about me.”

 

Sapnap sighs. “Of course you are. Well, this is always where the plan ended, man.”

 

“I know that ,” Dream says. He’s not worried about work, is the thing—he’s had job opportunities lined up for as long as he started conning, shady deals and remote gigs and people who owe him a lot of favors. But he won’t love it as much. It’ll be a job instead of entertainment. “Wanna guess what Koleno’s having me do up here?” 

 

“Stealing paintings,” Sapnap says wryly, and Dream says, “No. Shitty guess. Come upstairs.”

 

He flicks on a light in the stairs that lead up to the higher floor, which is dark and smells a lot more like dust-bunnies than the basement does, and makes his way upstairs. Sapnap follows. The upper-floor looks like a grandmother’s living room—old couches, golden statuettes, a thick rug—but in front of the door, there’s a high brown table and a cash register.

 

Sapnap makes a face. “You’re kidding.”

 

“I don’t know his deal either,” Dream says, “But that’s—I mean, I asked him if he had anything for me to do that was a little more low-key, and this was his solution. What, you don’t like it?”

 

“Are you, like, fifty-seven?” Sapnap says.

 

“Funny,” Dream says. “I don’t know if it’s an actual store or a way for him to keep a property in England. But I’ve actually found I don’t give a fuck.” 

 

“Good,” Sapnap says. “I’d be worried if you did.” Then they’re facing each other in the foyer of a— house , Dream thinks, this is his house , in a weird way—and Sapnap’s eyebrows curl up like he’s going to cry so to stop him from crying Dream leans forward and hugs him.

 

“I’m still gonna come here as often as I fuckin’ can,” Sapnap says, voice muffled into his shoulder. The hug doesn’t seem to have really worked, since when he moves his head back he’s blinking rapidly. He drags the back of his hand under his nose. “At least after—I’m going back to Texas for a little, did I tell you? My sister had a baby.”

 

“So you’re a law-abiding uncle now,” Dream says.

 

“God, I hope so,” Sapnap says. Thank God they’d never needed to martyr him. “I’m sick of it. I know we’re not supposed to say it out loud but I’m sick of it. And, like—I know that it’s going to be hard to figure out from here, but—I don’t know. Just don’t find me if I’m in Antarctica or something, okay? I’m probably hiding.” 

 

“I get it,” Dream says. “I don’t know what I’m going to do either.”

 

“You’ll figure it out,” Sapnap says. “I say figure it out from here or die trying.”

 

——

 

“Let me get this straight,” Karl says. “You—you didn’t know it was him?”

 

“Oh, I knew,” Dream says, and George rolls his eyes as he sits back in his seat. What a dickhead. He couldn’t have even lied about not knowing. “It was about proving a point.”

 

Karl laughs out loud, and then stops when George glares at him. He turns his glance onto Dream. “What point was that?”

 

“Don’t look at me like that,” Dream says dismissively, and takes a long drink of his coffee before responding. “He thought he’d finally gotten the upper-hand, you know? And I was kinda pissed because he had , so I was, like, you know what’ll wipe that smirk off his face ?” 

 

“You’re such a dick,” George says. 

 

“You put me in jail ,” Dream says. 

 

Karl’s steady laugh comes to a wobbling close when he hears those words. “Jail?” He says. George leans back in his seat. They’re outside a cafe and the sky is uncomfortably overcast, so nobody else is around them, but there’s always the hint of the workers coming back to ask if they want to pay. “Wait, I’m so confused—how did you meet again?” 

 

“He’s—” George says, and Dream interrupts with, “I’ve been—in-and-out of jails a lot, so it wasn’t, like, personal. I mean, we met because I was getting interrogated in Orlando. Pardon the irony.” 

 

“Oh,” Karl says, and relaxes, but a second later, his eyes narrow. It’s Karl, and George loves him, but he gets the same reaction as everyone else. They always pick up on something oddly familiar—even though Dream’s hair is longer now, even though he wears the fake glasses and stupid clothes he hates. “Makes sense, I guess.” 

 

Dream shrugs, and shifts in his seat as he looks up at the clouds. George feels the windchill on the back of his neck. “Was that—rain, or am I crazy?”

 

“Oh, fuck,” Karl says, promptly dropping the subject. George’s stomach calms, too, and he stops digging his nail into Dream’s wrist under the table, catching the way Dream’s mouth purses into a tiny grin. This is the part he likes the most: getting away with it over and over again. 

 

They go inside to pay. “Oh, don’t worry, you just paid for my lunch here the other day,” George says when Dream reaches for his wallet, even though it’s mostly a way to make fun of him. Oh, please, save your fifty-million for our next cruise to Cuba type thing. He turns to the girl at the register. “How much was it?” 

 

The girl looks at their bill. Then she looks up at Dream, then back at the bill, then back at him. She smiles. 

 

“On the house,” she says.  

 

They escort Karl to his car before he has to deal with the worst of the rain, but of course George had decided to take the train so they’re stuck walking the rest of the way to Dream’s place, trying to duck from the rain and failing. At a point, George just lets it submerge him.

 

When they finally reach his house Dream struggles with the key, forcing them both through the front entrance before the first clap of thunder can hit. When it does, he jumps, and George laughs and deadbolts the door behind him. He doesn’t bother switching the sign.

 

“God, finally,” Dream mutters, ripping off his fake glasses and working the buttons at his collar. “I hate this fuckin’ shirt. It’s way too tight.”

 

“Don’t be rude,” George says, and walks over to start unbuttoning it for him. Dream kisses the side of his hand mindlessly. “It’s not the shirt’s fault you have the dexterity of a toddler.” 

 

“Well, the buttons are too small, that’s the fucking shirt’s fault,” Dream says, and cranes his neck around when George finally frees his throat. “ Ugh . Thank you. Are you staying here tonight?”

 

George frowns. “Kind of have to, given the rain. Plus we have that—” He looks out the window, meaning to punctuate his words with the proof of the weather, but instead his eyes catch on the sleek car parked across from them. Another thing that’s too familiar. “—dinner, tomorrow. Dream, that’s an unmarked cop car.”

 

Dream looks out through the window with him. “It’s been there for days.” 

 

George winces. “Dream—”

 

“They’re trying to figure out if I’m a real store,” Dream tells him. He closes the blinds against the window. When he turns around his wet hair sends droplets cascading down George’s face. “And I am , as that girl at the cafe can kindly inform you.”

 

“Well, I know that’s because you always tip more than the bill there,” George says dismissively. “You can’t exactly do that in your own store. Or to a cop.” 

 

“Relax,” Dream tells him, and walks forward to take his face in his hands and kiss him. His mouth is still wet and George is still risking everything for it. “I tip every person in every store in this little fucking town. You don’t think they remember that more than the face?” 

 

“Guess so,” George says, knowing that he hates long stakeouts and he’s more likely to believe residents when they’re content instead of suspicious of something they can’t define and small towns are quiet , always, and things can go wrong, but that always unveils slowly. Because Alvarez is still in Florida, and Arla is still in Cuba, and Saint Don’s still in prison—and God knows where Wilbur and Sapnap and Alex are. God only fucking knows. Things always unveil slowly. “My clothes feel disgusting. I need to shower.”

 

“Not if I beat you to it,” Dream says. George’s phone beeps. “Uh-oh.”

 

George works it out of his back pocket, wincing at the streaks of rainwater against the screen. A text from his boss. He looks up at Dream to apologize, but he’s already sighing dramatically, walking backwards to flop onto the couch in the corner of the room.

 

“Don’t even tell me,” he says, flopping his arm over his eyes. “Duty calls. Justice needs you. It’s like they don’t even care your boyfriend’s gotten three days off in a row—” 

 

“You’re right, I don’t think they care,” George says, and walks over to sit down on the floor next to him, crossing his arm against the cushion to face him. “Sorry, Dream. Maybe the next time you get three days off in a row.”

 

“You’re such a prick,” Dream says, but he says it appreciatively, pulling his arm away from his eyes. His hair is curling from the rain. “Which case is this?” 



“Still the art forgery,” George tells him, stroking his hair away from his forehead. “We can’t figure out if the couple’s lying about it being a Picasso or not. My boss just told me they found some prints.”

 

“Exciting,” Dream says. “If it’s a Picasso he’ll have signed in pencil. Tell them to check.”

 

“I will,” George says. “You have about ten minutes to shower and drive me to work before I get fired.” 

 

“Jokes on you, I want you to get fired,” Dream says, but he says it while standing up and running his hands through his wet hair to dry it, so it loses some of its bite. He leaves, but George waits until he can hear the water running to open the blinds again—quietly, because every sound reverberates through this place. 

 

The car is still there, but that’s still not enough of a look. His stomach is still churning. So—even with the wrath of God pouring down on him—he opens the door, stepping outside into the rain. 

 

The car doesn’t move. The truth is, he knows he’s never going to be rid of it, this abominable loathing, the fear , but—if he’s being quite honest, he thrives on it. It gives him something to exist for while he’s back at his fucking nine-to-five. Him and Dream, this is the only way they can work. With this fear and with this—togetherness. 

 

He grabs his elbows with his opposing hands and takes another step into the rain, another, even as his teeth start chattering. He shields his eyes to stop the rain from falling into his eyes and strains them again, trying to look into the tinted windows. And then, without warning, the car gives a low hum.

 

He jumps a little—thinking for a minute it’s going to try and run him over or something—but the car doesn’t leave quickly: it purrs, giving him a wide berth wherein he can see into the front seat from the back window of the car. He doesn’t miss the head of curly hair and the second person in the passenger seat. 

 

He’s pretty sure they wanted him to see.

 

He smiles to himself and looks up at the rain, letting it get the rest of his clothing that wasn’t sufficiently soaked. I’ll never be rid of them , he thinks, and then, I’ll never be rid of it , though he doesn’t know quite what it is. The prospect is revitalizing. 

 

He goes back inside before Dream can catch him, because their ten minutes are certainly over already—not that George thought he’d make it back to the station in time. He goes downstairs and spends a fruitless few minutes looking for a change of clothes before he finally decides on a pair of his sweatpants and a shirt and jacket that belongs to Dream. Dream comes out of the bathroom with a towel wrapped around his waist. 

 

“I’m not letting you get to work that wet,” he says. “You’ll catch a cold. What’ll they think of me?” 

 

“That’s a good question,” George says, and Dream laughs at him.

 

“Go in, quick,” he says, and he’s always been too beautiful for his own good, too— anything , for his own good. “You’re gonna be late, George.” 

 

And George knows he’s gone because he hears the sound of his name out of Dream’s mouth and feels—still. So still, as still as sinners can be at the altar. 

 

And he knows he’s gone because he thinks about telling Dream about the car, but he doesn’t. He’ll figure it out. And if he doesn’t figure it out, they’ll always be back for him anyway. That much is a given.