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It's Erica that breaks first. She doesn't know if that's what the marshals expect - Lloyd's a weasel and Shea's out for himself, or that's what they think, and she wonders how they only see a woman so desperate to get her daughter back she'll do anything. But she guesses the marshals don't know dick about how loyal she is, how loyal she's been to this team, to Ray, to the job. How loyal they've all been. Then again, Ray wouldn't be in this position if the other marshals knew dick about loyalty of any kind. All they know about is climbing the ladder, advancing their own careers on a good man's broken back.

Thing is, the thing the marshals don't know about aside from how tight this team has become, any of the three of them could be a criminal mastermind. Their incarceration has only made them sharper, more focused. You might say they were goal oriented. And with outside distractions taken away, well, planning their way out of this one is almost fun.

It's Lloyd that insists she get her name on paper first, and Shea backs him up. Seems they've grown as people, or some shit like that, because if this goes sideways they want her life with her daughter to be iron-clad, or perhaps guaranteed in terminology that doesn't remind them of prison. And Shea makes Lloyd turn next, because Lloyd can't handle himself in prison without protection, by which Shea does not mean oven mitts and duct tape. And frankly, it would be suspicious if Lloyd didn't roll. Shea's an entrepreneur, and that kind of guy gets so connected in the big house that sometimes they don't see any point in wanting to leave. Big fish in a little pond, all that.

But eventually they turn him too. Or so they think, those rat-fuckin'-bastards. And the whole time, Ray and Jules dig up dirt, and they find plenty. They know where all the bodies are buried, so to speak, so when the river is dealt and the hand plays out, they're holding all the cards they need. And the pot is so, so sweet.

Those corrupt marshals look as shitty in prison orange as everyone else.

***

You'll never be father of the year, Ray thinks, but it's funny how killing a man for your daughter can make your ex-wife see that you've got more parenting skills than a hamster. And you know all about how shitty hamsters are at that, on account of the time Theresa tried to breed them for a science project. Your then-wife dried your daughter's unending tears while you got to hose out the cage, you lucky bastard. 

It wasn't the first time you noticed your little girl inherited your crap relationship with the universe. When life fucks you it's always over something huge, and you're grateful it's always been small potatoes for her. Until Damien. That made you think, this is what happens when life whammies you both together. You thought, after, would be for the best if you stayed a million miles away to keep her safe. 

You go into private security with a line into kidnap and ransom because it's like a calling now, to help other people going through what happened to you. And Theresa, she bounces back somehow like you don't think you could if someone did to you what that prick did to her, but she's got a light in her that just won't go out and she says she gets that from you.

You're still waiting for the other shoe to drop on this peaceful fuckin' existence when your little girl, all grown up, brings her dad lunch at work, just because it's something sweet to do, and you see a little pair of pink rubber cups on elastic cords in card-backed packaging sticking out of the shopping bag.

"Oh yeah, aren't those funny?" she says. "Elbow-savers, you put lotion in them. Thought I'd give them a try."

You bust out laughing, because it looks like the universe finally grew a sense of humor that doesn't involve putting a cosmic cigarette out in your ass. And if those fucking elbow-savers let your little girl down, you know where to send the complaint.

***

Shea straightens his tie, tugging the knot snug. Smoothes his suit, checks himself in the mirror. Sharp.

He's a kid from the street who made good, like the kind from an After-School Special he used to laugh at as a kid, a secret thread of bitterness under the laughter. His hot girlfriend is his hot wife now, got a couple of kids, spoiled, bratty little fuckers that always have the newest basketball shoes and clothes and will have any damn car they want the minute they're sixteen, all spinning rims and bling if that's what they ask for and Shea doesn't care for a minute what Lloyd says about that shit.

His kids are going to have what he never had.

But that includes safety, and security, and rules, because he's seen what happens when those basic foundations go unfounded. Yeah, his kids are spoiled and probably even entitled but the minute they step out of line, all that privilege goes away, because Shea knows it's kinder if he takes it from them before life does, or before it takes away one of their lives. He's been there, he knows, and he will never let them forget what he can't forget himself.

His phone beeps, a text from his secretary, the box of party favors has been sent by messenger. He wishes he could take it himself, but it was hard enough to block out time to go to the wedding. Elbow-Savers made him his first million, and he's honored Lloyd and Jules thought of them when they decided on wedding favors. Lloyd is the best friend Shea never thought he'd have, and he can't wait to wish them the best.

***

It started with a pen, a red, assertive, angry pen and Lloyd didn't like the tone of that at all. It was not quite enough to drive a man into the arms of his toothless cell mate, thank heaven for small favors.

It ended with a pencil that she gave him when the deal came through, except it was another beginning, really. A beginning pressed into his hand by hers and one of them or both of them was shaking as she told him how she was moved by how brave he was, how loyal, qualities he never considered himself to have but realized then that he did. He's never really stopped shaking and it's been wonderful.

It began again with more pencils stuffed into little white paper gift bags alongside Elbow-Savers and lotion to go with and other little knickknacky things that mean something to them. Tiny toy badges to remember Charlie, other things with meanings more secret, and a tiny bottle of bubbles. At the wedding the guests blew bubbles over them instead of throwing rice and Jules threw her arms out and spun and danced and he's never loved her more, except for how he's loved her just that much every day before and since.

There were some pens. Endless forms for the doctors. The kids didn't come easy for them, but they came eventually, and when they did, Lloyd gave out pencils stamped with It's A... because who wants to smoke cigars and die of cancer after all that work? Not him. And the pencils he gave out, well, some were pink and some were blue, because where they had none now they had two. IVF works that way sometimes.

Lloyd and Jules name their son Charles for Charlie, and their daughter is Jules Jr., and together they are happy forever and always. Their favorite things are the pencil jars the kids made at school, slathered in finger paints and fuzzy with glued-on bits of felt.

***

The sun beats down on wide country blacktop as Erica reluctantly takes the passenger seat. Her daughter's almost a woman now, sweet sixteen this summer and got her learner's permit just the second she could. Which was this morning, actually. Erica's scared shitless in a way she's never been. All the years since she got her life and her baby girl back and happiness still feels like an unknown quantity.

But the engine roars to life and her baby flashes her a grin that she knew from her own young face before life got bad, and she knows now that life will never be that way for her daughter. Life is an open road, stretching out before them, and it ends somewhere for each of them but now, the sun is shining and the wind is blowing and this car can take them anywhere they want, and when they're done, it will take them home.