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A Weird Symbolic Leaf

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Six days have passed since the incident on the Bounty, and I’m at my desk, going over Constable Turnbull’s latest guard duty report. One of these days, I swear, I will make him understand that he doesn’t have to file a report for every guard shift he has—not unless there’s criminal activity, obviously—but today is not that day.

Today, Turnbull has made a comprehensive list of every species of animal he spotted while he was on duty. I have finally, after three pages of reading, come to the end of the list:

Dogs (husky) – 6
Dogs (poodle) – 3
Dogs (other) – 59
Cats – 4
Squirrels – 20-30 *
* Pls note some may have been same squirrel. Difficult to tell; apologies! :)

“Squirrels,” I mutter, removing my glasses and rubbing my eyes.

“Sorry, d’you just say ‘squirrels’?”

The sound of another voice, in a building I’d thought to be empty, startles me. I look up, and there’s Detective Ray Kowalski, standing in my doorway.

“I did indeed,” I reply, smiling as I regain my composure. “I’m afraid Constable Fraser is out on an errand. Would you like me to let him know that you stopped in?”

“Nah,” he replies, and saunters into room, hands in his pockets, so aggressively casual that it sets my teeth on edge. “Actually, I dropped by to see you, not him.”

I blink at him, genuinely surprised. “Me?”

“Yeah.” He grins as he reaches my desk. Bracing a hand on a pile of folders, he leans over. “You free for a chat?”

I stand up. He’s in my space, and I can’t say I much care for it. Pointedly checking my watch, I reply, “Five minutes. And then I have a phone call to make.”

There’s no such phone call, but I don’t want to be alone with Kowalski longer than necessary. I don’t like him. I don’t dislike him either; it’s simply that I don’t know him. Ever since the day Harding Welsh invited himself to the Consulate with Kowalski in tow and introduced him, with a flick of thumb against nose, as “the new Vecchio, if you catch my drift,” I haven’t been able to figure out what to make of him. He’s jumpy and unreadable, and there’s something volatile behind his eyes.

“You got it,” he says. Despite these words, and the nod that accompanies them, he widens his stance and crosses his arms over his chest. It’s a posture that says, quite clearly, I’m not going anywhere.

Men. Honestly.

“Four minutes and forty-five seconds,” I tell him with a raise of my eyebrow, resting my fingertips on my desk. My desk, is what I mean to remind him. We are on my territory here. In my country. “If you have something to say, then say it.”

“Oh, I got something to say,” he replies, and gives me a cocky grin. “You bet. And here’s what it is. You gotta stop messing with my partner.”

“I’m… I’m sorry?”

“Fraser,” he says, as if that is the part that needs clarifying. “You’re all, ya know, hot and cold at him. And that’s fine, that’s cool, we all do it—hell, I do it plenty, plenty of people do it to me, it’s whaddya-call-it. Human nature. But we’re talking about Fraser here. You see what I’m getting at?”

“No,” I tell him, absolutely meaning it. “I have no idea what you’re getting at.”

“Oh come on,” he says. “With the kissing on the boat, ah, ship thing. And that thing where you’re always checking him out, which, yeah, okay, everybody does that, who can blame you, he’s Mister Perfect Handsome Guy. But the kissing, right, and—oh!—couple months ago? When you wanted a baby and you had him thinking you were asking him to—”

“He told you about that?” I interrupt, my hand flying to my cheek in alarm. It was an unfortunate misunderstanding we’d had, Fraser and myself, about the possibility of my adopting a child. But it happened months ago, and I’d largely managed to put the incident out of my mind. Apparently it was too much to ask that Fraser afford me the same courtesy in return.

Kowalski smirks. “Who do you think told him to bring you flowers? He was all set to get you a weird symbolic leaf or something, before I stepped in.”

I pause, entirely unsure whether Kowalski is exaggerating for effect. But it’s Fraser we’re discussing, so he may very well not be. Either way, Kowalski takes advantage of my hesitation and presses on:

“Point is, you’re giving him mixed signals. And Fraser, you know, he ain’t a mixed-signals kind of guy. He’s all in or he’s all out. Black or white, day or night. That’s just who he is. And he likes you, you know.”

“Did he tell you that, too?” I can’t help the unpleasantness that edges into my tone. I don’t enjoy Kowalski knowing this much about my personal life.

But he shakes his head. “He didn’t have to. I can tell. He likes you, and he’s, you know, open. To possibilities. But then there’s those mixed signals. And I’m here to tell you, you gotta stop dicking my buddy around.”

I can feel myself bristle. “I’ll thank you to watch your tone with me, Mr. Kowalski.”

“That’s Detective Kowalski, Ms. Thatcher.”

Oh, two can play at this game. I give him a close-lipped smile. “Or perhaps I can just call you Stanley.”

He sees my smile and raises me a toothy grin. “Hey, at least I’m not named after the worst prime minister in the history of England.”

I roll my eyes. “Ten points for originality, Detective. I’ve never heard that one before.”

“Really?” he asks.

No, not really,” I reply with a laugh. “And for your information, I wasn’t named after her. It’s simply an unfortunate coincidence. Honestly, how young do you think I am?”

He opens his mouth, then closes it again—and just like that, I’ve won. Kowalski has to either compliment my looks or admit that his math was wrong, and judging just by the perturbed expression on his face, neither option sits well with him.

“That—that’s beside the point,” he says.

“Oh?” I say smoothly, and sit down in my chair again. Now that I have the upper hand, he looks uneasy. His arms are no longer crossed, but instead shoved once again into his pockets.

“Yeah,” he says, and shifts his weight a little, as though trying to regain the momentum he lost a minute ago. “Yeah, yeah, okay, listen. Just… tell him if you want a thing with him, okay? Or if you don’t. And I’m not saying this in any, like, official capacity, right? I’m saying this as his best buddy, because someone’s gotta watch out for him. S’not like he’s gonna do it himself.”

I reach up to rub, with two fingers, at the bridge of my nose. Tell Fraser definitively whether or not I want to be with him. That’s what I’ve been trying to do, isn’t it? Ever since the incident atop the train, I’ve been trying to push him away—and to pull myself away, too. But there’s something magnetic between us. Something that keeps causing me to second-guess my own hard-won instinct about workplace relationships and how destructive they are.

Oh, good lord, Kowalski’s right. I have to stop being wishy-washy about Fraser. It’s not fair to myself or to him. And he isn’t a mixed-signals sort of person.

Except how does Kowalski know that?

I peer up at him. He’s still waiting for my reply, eyes dark, shoulders slightly hunched. I frown. “All in or all out.”

He nods, just once. “That’s what I said.”

“Indeed you did. But how do you know that’s how he operates?” I lift my chin a little. “From experience?”

He grins again, but it’s a little bit darker this time. “You read the Metcalf case file, same as I did. And then there’s… you know. There’s me.”

“You?” I say, drawing my head back in surprise.

“The partnership thing,” he clarifies quickly. “You know. He didn’t know what the hell was going on when he met me, but I showed him I was a good guy, and he decided he believed me, and that was it. He was all in. Right from day one.”

I can feel my frown deepening as I consider this.

“My five minutes are up, I bet,” he says, shifting his weight again. “But think about what I said, okay? For him, not for me. If you’re into it, then cool. If not, just… just let him know, so he can… ah…”

Kowalski reaches up to rub at the back of his neck. There’s me, he just said. And before that, Mister Perfect Handsome Guy.

Oh.

“So he can what?” I ask quietly.

“You know,” he says, not meeting my eyes. “Whatever. Whatever he wants.”

I can’t say that I know what it is Fraser wants—but in that moment, I know with absolute certainty what Kowalski wants Fraser to want. And I must admit, I honestly hadn’t seen that coming.

“I understand,” I say.

His eyes snap up to meet mine again, and all at once his odd vulnerability evaporates. There are hard lines around his mouth, and he’s glaring at me quite defensively. “Oh yeah?”

I nod, and when I speak again, I do it carefully. “I understand that you care deeply for Constable Fraser, and that your request was made with his best interests at heart. I’ll give serious thought to our conversation, Detective Kowalski.”

He squints slightly, as though he’s trying to ascertain how serious I am. But I am entirely serious, and eventually he seems satisfied of this, because he takes a deep breath, nods to himself, and says, “Good. Okay, yeah, good. I’ll just be, uh—I’ll just be…” He points awkwardly toward the door.

“Thank you for your visit,” I say politely, and pick up Turnbull’s report again. I’ve nothing left of it to read, but Kowalski takes the dismissal for what it is. He heads for the door and, after a moment, I hear him leave.