Rachel's mood hadn't recovered by the time dinner was ready, which meant a handful of good things and a fistful of bad things. In general, Rachel wanting to cook was good because Richard held a doctorate in laziness. Between he and Eva he'd been the better cook by far, but that'd had less to do with good culinary instincts and more to do with basic math. Little girls were picky eaters and Richard hated doing things twice, so getting good at cooking had been a necessary skill. The fact that Eva hadn't been able to match that skill despite giving exponentially more fucks about it had been the cause of half of their brawls. You never have to try at anything, she'd finally snapped: a rare confession after hours of scrubbing down scorched skillets with baking soda. So much natural talent, and all you do with it is skirt-chase and binge.

Richard wasn't altogether sure what drove people to be competitive when it didn't net them something specific. He'd taken Judo at first to discourage his father from whaling on him and later because it was a good way to get out his own aggression, but the tournaments had always felt pointless. Tangible things – cash, gift cards, a kiss from a busty woman, a trip that got him out of town for a while – were worth expending effort for. Accolades were nice but didn't line his pocket or fill his stomach, so he'd never bothered to try when the reward was hypothetical. Time was valuable and the heat death of the universe was imminent, so not only was saving energy practical, it made him a hero of all living things.

Then Eva had walked out of their lives, and the need to cook no longer seemed hypothetically rewarding. Single parenthood and a slimmer budget and forced Richard to become a black belt in cheap rice dishes he could rearrange into Rachel's lunch without her noticing. Add that to a hike in living expenses and leaving Beika PD, and Richard had suddenly found that proficient cooking netted him very, very specific benefits.

There were plenty of things to take away from his failed marriage and maybe even some things he'd be willing to take the blame for, but Richard knew, deep down in the part of his heart that saw the least amount of light, that he'd never really forgive Eva for walking out on him when he'd been at his most vulnerable. They'd only struggled for a few months and Eva's child support had allowed him to feed Rachel without her noticing the budget crunch, but there'd been plenty of nights Richard had gone to bed on a few mouthfuls of rice and an anger that had slow-roasted his insides until his nerves were too scorched to sting anymore. Pride and two decades worth of fighting between them, and in the end, Eva had been able to fly away while he'd been left behind to sort through the wreckage of their war.

Either as a result of some hidden trauma from the ordeal or because she liked feeling useful, Rachel had taken over the kitchen by the time she'd entered high school. It'd quickly become apparent that while she hadn't inherited Eva's talent for disaster, she had inherited her love for experimentation. The meals were hits for the most part, and if sometimes the soup tasted a little too sweet or the hamburger meat got a little too spicy, Richard chalked it up to boredom and didn't begrudge her the fun. The results were edible and it beat having to go back to doing the cooking himself.

Seeing as both he and Rachel had mutually struck out that evening with assault and clinical gambling addiction, Richard figured he was hovering somewhere in the karmic middle. Whatever she'd scraped up from the cupboards was probably at least halfway sentient at this point, so he was prepared to keep the peace and not bitch too hard if the flavor was off. Food was food. If it blinked back at you, that only meant you had to eat it faster before it formed sophisticated defense programs.

He held on to this mentality all the way up to the point where he sat down and she served him his plate, at which point every other rationale fled from his head because the food Rachel sat down in front of him wasn't food. "What is that?" Conan breathed at his shoulder, horrified.

"Dinner," Rachel said curtly. "Take a seat, Conan. I'll be back with yours just as soon as I dish it up."

Conan didn't sit. For once Richard didn't bother to clobber him into compliance. Was it noodles? He leaned forward and then quickly backed away from the steam, but not before he caught something green and slime-coated in the middle. "I wish they'd make up their mind about the weather," Rachel said, glancing at the muted TV in the corner as she passed by it. "First they say it's going to be sunny, and all of a sudden it's storming all week. It's been so hard to plan anything with Serena."

He could feel Conan looking at him. "Uh," Richard said. He thought he could see an olive, but when he shifted the noodles aside he was relieved to see it was just additional nuclear waste. Olives ruined any meal, but added special and specific insult to a meal already designed to kill him.

"Sorry, I forgot the sauce." Rachel's voice floated from the kitchen. She emerged with a steaming pot and a ladle, which she used to carefully deposit a second helping of mutagen onto Richard's noodles. "Sit down, Conan," she added, throwing him a frown. "I said yours will be out in a second. Just be patient."

Conan was still looking at him as if urging him to act. Richard was having a hard time pulling his gaze away from the plate. Something about the trainwreck quality of Eva's cooking and her refusal to be poisoned by it while it'd taken down entire city blocks had created a permanent weak spot in him, the way Meguire's elbow bothered him when it rained and their old chief would fly into a rage whenever he heard the opening theme from 'Long Vacation'. "Are you really going to eat it?" Conan asked, well below earshot.

Richard's gaze shifted to the plants in the room without a lot of conviction. Something told him that if he introduced it to the soil the ficus would grow legs. "I won't tell if you throw it out the window," Conan said.

"How about you throw yourself out first and cushion the fall so I don't have to buy a new plate?" Richard said. "Shut up and sit down. If I'm going to die I'm doing it with company."

"Here we are," Rachel announced, returning with two plates before Conan could answer. "There would be more, but somebody decided to feed the horses before he fed his kids."

"For the record, I have one kid, and that kid knocked both my eyeballs into the same socket about an hour ago," Richard said. "How about you slide right on off your horse while you're at it? I already told you I'd get the money back."

"What I did was an accident," Rachel snapped, but her neck flushed and Richard knew she still felt guilty about it. "What you did was on purpose. It's not even close to the same thing."

"Are you guys fighting?" Conan looked excited. "I should probably go so you can work it out, right? I'll just head over to Amy's and give you guys some space."

"Sit down." Rachel's hand was firm as she dragged Conan back, but her voice softened a bit for him. "I know it's not much, but it was the best I could do with the ingredients I had. You have to eat, Conan. You're so little. You need food to grow."

"Yeah, eat, Conan," Richard said, and the glare Conan turned on him was forged in the fires of hell. "In fact, it's only fair that you have my portion too, seeing as this entire thing is my fault. Give me your plate, I'll make sure you grow."

"There's enough for all of us, thank goodness," Rachel sighed, intercepting his hand over Conan's panicked squawk. "Come on, let's just eat. I'm tired and I want to get the dishes done before I go to bed."

Truthfully speaking, Richard was enough of a masochist to be pretty curious at this point. There was actually a decent chance that Rachel still thought she was asleep and had concocted the meal with dream physics, which would account for her faith that something that looked like a warning from the mafia would somehow taste better than it smelled.

Ignoring Conan's incredulous stare, he twirled the noodles into a knot with his fork and watched the oil on them shimmer. He lifted the glob off the plate, jostled it a bit to dislodge some of the sauce, and shoveled it into his mouth, eyes trained toward the ceiling in concentration as he chewed.

The world swooped out from under him, and Richard Moore saw the infinite cosmos and its countless, starlight ellipses trailing off into the far reaches of space. By the time he swung by Venus and landed back inside his own body, he'd forgotten his own name and his fork was empty, which meant the food had slithered down his esophagus independently and was probably already colonizing his stomach. "… for the last time, Conan, you're not going to Amy's and you're not skipping dinner to do your homework," Rachel was saying, exasperated. "Look, I even brought home cookies for dessert. You can have some if you clean your plate."

"Hey, Rachel." The normalcy of his own voice surprised him. "You mind grabbing me some pepper?"

"Pepper?" Rachel looked a little taken aback. "That's a first. You always ask for salt."

"Trying to watch my blood pressure."

The flicker of Rachel's expression told him that bullshit hadn't gone unnoticed, but she played along enough to ask, "You don't think it'll be too much with the sauce?"

"Nah, I think it'll bring out its natural flavor. You think so too, don't you, brat?"

Conan had been goggling at him. At this he jerked in surprise. "Huh?"

"Pepper. She should go get some. To bring out the flavor."

"I don't think that's really gonna—" Conan trailed off when he read Richard's expression. "Oh, right. Right! Pepper! Mm, yummy. I love pepper."

"See?" Richard told Rachel. "Would you mind snagging it for us? I'd do it, but I'm feeling kind of sore for some reason."

Once again her expression spoke volumes, but the crime was ultimately too new for her to be able to blow off the guilt trip. With a sigh, she pushed away and stood. "I think it's up in the cupboard somewhere," Richard said helpfully. "Top shelf, behind all the spices."

"I know where the pepper is, Dad." Rachel's tone was curt. She crossed the room, sidestepping Conan's book bag, and disappeared into the kitchen. A moment later the cupboard door opened and bottles began rattling.

Conan was still incredulous. "You're not really gonna eat this, are you?" he hissed.

Richard was on a mission from St. Jude. He scooped up his plate and hid it behind the TV, then came back to wrestle the fork out of Conan's hand. Before Conan could react, Richard picked up his plate and dumped the contents directly onto the kid's head, muffling Conan's horrified shriek behind a waterfall of noodles. "There, I just saved your life," Richard said. "Go take a bath, shrimp."

Conan emerged with a sputter, clawing the mess from his eyes. "You could've just thrown it out the window and pretended I spilled it!"

"Yeah, but then I wouldn't have gotten to smash dinner on your face." Richard was already striding to the kitchen. "Don't get noodles in my tub."

Rachel was still half-hidden in the cupboards when he came in, on her tiptoes as she noisily sorted through the array of bottles on top. Richard stood like an asshole directly on the other side of the door until she closed it and turned to smack directly into him. "Hey, let me tell you a story," Richard said. "It's a really good one. It's about a successful businessman who was actually a private detective, and he lived somewhere around here, and his name is 'Dad' and he's in the kitchen, and dinner is gross."

"Dad, for the last time, I'm sorry you don't like it, but it's all I could do," Rachel said, exasperated. "Just take the pepper and use it to cover up the taste if it's so bad."

"I would, except pepper was a diversionary tactic. Dinner escaped out the window on three legs just a second ago."

"You threw it out?"

"It was child abuse. And elder abuse. Let's just order—"

Rachel let the pepper shaker fall to shatter on the kitchen floor and turned to bury her face in her hands.

Taken aback, Richard stopped mid-sentence. He expected her to apologize and run for the broom, but for once Rachel didn't seem to care about the mess. She continued to stand with her back to him, breathing deeply against the barrier of her hands, not moving as the seconds ticked by on the overhead clock.

Suddenly, terrifyingly, expertly aware that he'd fucked up something important, Richard lifted a hand to touch her shoulder and hesitated halfway there. "You're so awful, Dad," Rachel whispered. "All the time. All the time."

"Yeah, but usually…" He trailed off. He reached for her shoulder a second time, then chickened out, instead poking her gently in the spine. "Usually when I'm awful, you just clobber me back in time."

"I don't want to hurt you."

That struck him as weirdly poignant. Richard burned some rust off his mental gears as he stared at her back, trying to decipher the tone. By all rights Rachel should have sounded angry, but instead she just sounded tearful and exhausted.

Where did I, Richard thought, and lifted his hand again to ease her hair aside, a breath from making contact with her shoulder. When was it that I—

Rachel spun. Richard jerked with surprise, still half-expecting to get belted, but what Rachel did then was infinitely worse: she crashed directly into him, heels sending up a wave of pepper by their ankles, and buried her face against his chest to weep. "Oh, shit," Richard said.

Rachel was muffled. "Why couldn't you just eat dinner, Dad?"

He felt his arms move on their own, taking her up in them. It took him nearly a full minute to find words. "Because it was gross, hon."

"I don't have any ingredients left. We're out of everything."

"We'll order out."

"We don't have any money."

"You think I seriously keep my entire life's savings under the floorboards? Give me a break. We've got money."

"But you took the last of our grocery funds from the vent."

"We've got money. If you stop slobbering on me I'll go out and pull it from the account."

He heard her snuffle through a clogged nose. After a moment she pulled away slightly, examining him with a single suspicious eye. "Look, whatever you think of me, I'm kind of a handsome genius," Richard said. "And whatever you think of your mother, she knows how to throw money at a problem until it rolls over and barks. Just because you don't see the support doesn't mean it isn't there, all right?"

Rachel looked genuinely startled. "Mom pays child support?"

"You think I ponied up for you to go on that school trip to the aquarium? Get real. The only tail I'm interested in is walking by me on the sidewalk, not swimming in the water."

"Dad, gross," she snapped, but she was too focused to be thrown off the scent. "But why does she pay child support? I mean, you guys aren't actually divorced, are you?"

No? Sort of? Richard felt his temple start to throb. "Look, I'll stop stealing the grocery money. Okay? I promise. If I'd known it was going to make you snobble like this, I would've just rented out your room during the day for extra funds instead."

Rachel didn't respond. She turned her head until her temple settled against his chest, and once again her expression was hidden from view. "That was a joke," Richard said after a beat, just to clarify.

"I know, Dad." She sounded tired again.

"A funny joke. One of the ha-ha ones."

"Ha-ha."

He waited for milk to riotously squirt from her nose, then remembered he'd taken the grocery money and therefore there was no milk in the fridge, and also this wasn't funny. It was probably the direct opposite of that.

Instead he held her for as long as she wanted to be held, listening to Conan poorly hide a tirade of expletives under the noise of the bathroom fan down the hall, and wondered where exactly his day had swerved off the tracks and exploded. Looking back, he could barely recall what he'd even been trying to accomplish that morning. It all seemed murky in hindsight.

When he felt her stir, he let her go and stepped back, then nearly met an uninspiring death when his heel slipped on the settled layer of pepper. "I'm sorry," Rachel said, hastily catching his arm. Her face was splotchy, but the tear tracks disappeared under a brusque swipe of her sleeve. "I'll clean this up. Where's Conan?"

"Washing off his dinner in the bathroom." And swearing better than Richard had at that age, which actually angled Richard's opinion of him upwards a few degrees. "Don't worry about it."

Rachel had already been halfway across the room to retrieve the dustpan. She paused at this, mouth opening to ask, then read his expression and deflated with a sigh. "I'm gonna go grab some cash," Richard said. "You gonna live if I duck out?"

"Yes, Dad."

"You sure?"

"Why are you asking?" She needled him with an unpleasant look as she took a knee. "Are you going to help clean up if I say no?"

He obviously had no intention of doing that. Why was he asking? Suddenly stymied, unsure of exactly what it was that was holding him up, Richard stared down at her with a frown, rusty gears still turning.

Busy sweeping glass into the pan, Rachel glanced up and visibly softened at whatever expression was on his face. "Just get something while you're out, okay? Let's just skip the middle step."

"You don't want to order out?"

"It's the same thing, isn't it? Besides, if you factor in all the time it'll take for us to order it and the restaurant to deliver it, Conan will be late for bed."

"Right," Richard said. "I sincerely care about that."

"Good." The gimlet eye was back. "Me too. I like when we agree."

Richard took this as his cue to get the hell out. He paused at the doorframe, tapping it restlessly with his fingertips. "If the salt shaker comes seeking revenge for its fallen partner, shoot first and ask questions later. I'll help you bury the evidence."

He finally saw Rachel's back jerk in a jolt of surprised laughter, but she primly kept her back to him so he couldn't see her face.

Feeling a little better about leaving her on her own, Richard threw on a jacket and scrounged up his keys, then detoured to the bathroom to pound on the door like a dick while Conan shrieked with fear on the other side. "Hey, bathroom hog, I'm going out," Richard called. "What do you want?"

"I wouldn't be taking it up if it wasn't for you!"

"Hurry up and tell me what you want or I'm bringing you home egg whites and cottage cheese."

There was silence on the other end for a moment. "Are you serious?" Conan said, sounding cautious and a little surprised. "You're asking me what I want? Really?"

"Three, two—"

"Okay, okay!" Something splashed, followed by a rattle and the slap of little feet on a damp floor. Closer to the door, Conan asked, "Can we get curry?"

Richard had fully resigned himself to picking up hamburgers, because Conan was seven years old and seven year-olds were contractually obligated to be boring. The choice pleasantly surprised him. "Noodles or rice?"

"Rice."

Hot damn. Between the swearing and the sophisticated palette, Richard could almost bring himself not to resent the kid he was feeding and housing for free. He drew out money at a convenience store three blocks down, then parked himself against the wall in the alley and worked his way through two cigarettes while the restaurant next door prepared the food.

He was shivering by the time they brought it out to him, having to force his stiff fingers to curl around the handles of the bag in order to carry it home. Either because they were weak from near-fatal poisoning or just exhausted from the trauma in general, Rachel and Conan were both head-nodding by the time they worked their way through their share. Richard sent them off to bed with his foot, generously consenting to dump the dirty dishes in the sink for one of them to deal with later, and retreated down the stairs to his office to finish the rest of the day on his own terms.

Normally a decisive slacker, Richard didn't uncover the flaws in this plan until he realized just how keyed up he was. He flipped between an action movie and a late-night talk show as his beer supply dwindled, too apathetic to scrounge up the channel guide to end his purgatory. By the time both shows were over, the headache from the previous day was back and his neck was itching badly enough that he was half-tempted to peel off his skin and rip out the nerves.

What, he thought, feeling crumbs scritch under his forehead as he set it against the top of his desk, the hell is wrong with me. Shellfish was the only thing he knew of that could mess him up this badly, and he hadn't been near one since he was in elementary school. Was he having a reaction to something from the take-out? Some kind of residual stress caused by the case?

He hadn't realized he'd successfully dozed off until he woke with a start somewhere near midnight. His shoulders and lower back muscles bawled as he shifted to rub the side of his mouth dry, angling his ear towards the ceiling to try to pick up the noise.

Sure enough the sound came again – a soft thump followed by what sounded like Rachel's voice, but then the crowd noise swelled from the television speaker, and once he'd muted it the noises upstairs had stopped. Most likely she'd headed out into the kitchen for a snack and had chipmunked it back into her room.

His back was aching too much to fall asleep again at his desk. Groggy, Richard fumbled for the remote and found the power button. The room plunged into darkness.

He could aim for his bed but had a feeling he would just splat on the stairs. Richard settled for a happy medium, staggering up enough to plummet over the back of the couch and land half-assedly on the cushions. The pillow was missing, but that's what elbows were for. He crooked one under his head, buried his nose in the nearest cushion, and let himself slowly sink back down into a doze.

Rachel's scream ricocheted down through the vents. "Dad!"

Richard's superhero reflex was to leap directly through the ceiling, which meant his mortal body tripped and crashed over the coffee table for the second time that day. This time he heard something snap and had a split second to think can that please not have been my fucking hip, but a sideways roll and a splintery shanking later he realized the leg of the table had broken off. He clawed his way out of the wreckage as another scream rent the silence, yanking open the office door and taking the stairs up to the apartment by twos.

The lights were on and Conan was already in her room by the time Richard made it in. His glasses were missing, his hair a chaotic nest of cowlicks. He was perched on the edge of Rachel's bed, shaking her shoulder and calling her name sharply.

Reflex moved Richard before he could think. He lunged forward, grabbing Conan off the bed and turning his own body just in time to shield the kid from a wayward fist. He then promptly dumped Conan out of reach, ignoring the yelp as he hit the floor, and turned to address her himself. This time he was ready, keeping an expert eye on her hands and deflecting the blows that came too close to his face, emptying his lungs so she couldn't knock the wind out of him with the others. "I tried to wake her up," Conan gasped from behind him, hovering in his periphery like a fruit fly. "I tried saying her name but—"

He didn't have concentration to spare. Rachel was as much of a black belt as he was and he wasn't particularly interested in having his nose relocated down his throat. Taking a chance, Richard deflected another blow before taking her face between his hands and yelled, "I'm getting you a puppy!"

The screaming stopped. Rachel hiccupped once, made as if to fight again, then without warning surged awake with a gasp. "A really fat, ugly one that chews on everything, but especially the stuff you love most, like the picture of you and Kudo," Richard said. "You'll hate it so much you'll have nightmares of me not getting rid of it."

"Dad," Rachel choked out, eyes wide with tears, and for the second time that day lunged up to throw her arms around him.

Richard absently lifted a hand and settled it on her back, staring at the wall as his mind raced. He heard Conan puttering around behind him, flipping on lamps and string lights where he found them, flooding the shadow out of the room. "You're alive," Rachel whispered.

"Why wouldn't I be, huh?" He turned his head a little, caught Conan's eye, mouthed 'water'. Conan nodded and ran off. "Just a dream, kid."

Rachel didn't respond, burying her face deeper against his shoulder.

Richard wavered between worry and exasperation as he tried to think of a way to soothe her out of this latest paranoia. Conan eventually returned with a glass, nearly tripping over the threshold and creating a new ocean in his haste. "Here, Rachel," he said, recovering, and held it up for her to take. "Drink this. It'll make you feel better."

"You didn't have to fill it to the brim, you moron," Richard said.

Rachel disentangled herself from him. She wiped her face with both palms and summoned a watery smile. "Thank you, Conan, that's sweet."

"Are you okay?" Conan asked. Richard noticed he'd had taken the time to grab his glasses sometime between the dash to the kitchen and back, which struck him as odd considering Conan's urgency earlier. "That must have been some dream."

"Yeah, I guess so." She laughed a little against the surface of the water before taking several quick, tremulous sips. "I'm sorry if I scared you."

The silence sat a minute while they both watched her drink. Eventually Conan withdrew a bit to bounce on his heels, stealing an expectant glance at Richard. "What?" Richard said. "What are you looking at me for? You want me to break out the monster-be-gone spray? Should still be around here somewhere."

"Dad, don't tell him about that," Rachel snapped, flushing. "Conan, I'm fine. Don't listen to him."

"It was a can of air freshener," Richard told him. "I literally just slapped a post-it note on it and markered-in 'Monster-Be-Gone'. She wouldn't even let me go near the light switch until I treated the whole room."

"Dad, knock it off!"

"Rachel." Conan's expression was serious. He looked like a tiny psychiatrist in his glasses and one of Richard's old oversized white shirts, standing attentively at the side of her bed. "If you need to talk about it, we'll listen."

"I don't need to talk about it." Rachel curled a bit around her water. Her thumb ran up and down the glass, making streaks in the condensation, before she abruptly set it aside on her bedside table. "It was just a nightmare. They don't mean anything anyway."

"Who says? You're always telling me it's okay to be afraid of things. Why not talk to us while we're here? Maybe it'll make you feel better."

"What's this 'we' business all of a sudden?" Richard said, irritated by Conan's casual command of the situation. "Why are you even in here? Did you fall out of your crib or something?"

"She was screaming and it's not like a real man was around to do anything about it, so I stepped in."

Holy shit. Richard promptly forgot his earlier intention to protect the kid from Rachel's karate and grabbed him with the intention of Judo-throwing him out the window. "Dad, stop it." Rachel pried a squawking Conan out of his grip. "I'm fine, you two. It was just a dream. Honestly, it's already hazy. Let's just all go back to sleep."

"Sure." Wide-awake with his blood pressure cranked up to 180/explosion. He'd be lucky to be asleep by next Christmas. "Make sure and shut all these lights off so you don't jack up the energy bill. I'm going back downstairs."

Rachel lunged forward to grab his arm as he tried to walk away, nearly yanking it out of his socket. "Wait," she stammered. "You're not staying up here?"

"Kid still reeks of rotten noodles and avocado mutagen. I'd be twofloors away if I could swing it. Just stomp if you need me."

"Dad, please don't go back downstairs. It's late. Can't you sleep in your room?"

"Why do you care? You just said it was only a dream. Shake it off."

Rachel's fingers tightened on his arm when he tried to walk away. This time Richard stopped and looked at her, really looked, and she shrank under his scrutiny. "Unless this is something else, and we've got something else to talk about," he said.

Rachel's eyes flickered to Conan. Too bad. If this was actually something serious, he could care less about Rachel wanting to look tough in front of an audience. "No," she said softly.

Fine. Though if he was being honest with himself, the reminder that Conan was still there, watching their interaction with the sudden silent intensity of an owl, kind of threw him as well. Sometimes it was impossible to avoid tripping over him and other times it was just as easy to forget he'd become a semi-permanent fixture at their feet.

Suddenly painfully aware that maybe his daughter deserved more than a fluid ounce of compassion from a water glass someone else had fetched her, Richard cleared his throat and reconsidered his hard-ass stance. It really wouldn't cost him anything to offer to watch a late night program or something with her to take her mind off it. There was probably a bag or two of popcorn holed up somewhere. They could even invite the brat, and somewhere in this whole abnormal stupid mess, something normal might emerge if he squinted hard enough for it.

Before he could suggest any one of these things, Rachel blurted, "Would it be okay if I slept in your room tonight?"

His compassion died with a scream. "Rachel, you're not ten. Just let it go."

"Please, Dad. We sleep in the same room all the time when we're on vacation. I'll bring in my blankets, I'll sleep on the floor—"

"You had a bad dream. Nothing's going to get you. Look, why don't we all just—"

"I'm not," Rachel blurted, then deflated, fiddling with her fingers in her lap. She suddenly couldn't seem to look at him anymore. "It's not me I'm worried about monsters getting."

Conan was looking at him again, hard-eyed behind the glint of his glasses.

What. For god's sake, he was trying. It wasn't his fault everyone in the world had suddenly reverted to using baseball signals instead of human speech. Rachel had been terrified of ghosts as a kid, sure, but once he'd cooked up the monster spray thing that'd mostly fell by the wayside. This was vastly outside the realm of his personal parenting skills. "You know, I was kind of spooked going to bed tonight too," Conan said abruptly. "Would you mind if I slept in here with you, Rachel? It'd sure make me feel better."

Startled, Rachel blinked red-rimmed eyes at him. "Really?"

"Sure. It can be like we're camping. I can bring in my blankets and sleep right next to your bed. We can even keep one of the flashlights on so it won't be so scary."

Richard watched Rachel slowly brighten, the glitter of tears in her eyes disappearing with another swipe of her palm. "That sounds like a great idea, Conan," she admitted, laughing with relief. "But come on, there's no need to sleep on the floor. The bed is more than big enough for the both of us. Here, come on up."

The color dropped out of Conan's face. Before he could dodge, Rachel had hooked her hands under his arms and hefted him up beside her on the mattress, rearranging the blankets to include him. "There!" she said cheerfully. "Isn't this cozy? Like a slumber party! That way neither of us will be alone."

Conan turned a wide-eyed gaze to Richard. In some distant part of his brain that wasn't explosively pissed at this detour, Richard reflected that Conan hadn't looked half as terrified when they'd been stranded on a boat full of murderers. "Comfortable, brat?" Richard growled.

"Eh heh heh," Conan said. He looked like he desperately wished to be anywhere else.

"We're all comfy now, Dad, thanks." Rachel wriggled down with satisfaction under the covers and repositioned the pillows, giving Conan one for his own use. "Good night."

Richard continued to glare at Conan. "Good night," Richard said between gritted teeth.

"Good night," Conan whispered, somewhere from the abyss.

Richard went downstairs and tried to get wasted on the remaining two cans of beer in his study. By the time he realized distraction was futile and nothing could help him, it was halfway to morning and his office felt like exile rather than escape, which defeated the purpose. He thumped back upstairs to find Rachel's door still slightly ajar, moonlight spilling from the crack to pool in the hallway.

He needed to catapult himself in the direction of his bed pretty urgently, but he had enough agency to stop at her doorframe, leaning against it to check and see if she was all right. When his eyes finally adjusted, he realized that he'd partially mistaken the source of light. Conan had worked his way out from under the sheets, leaving a flashlight nestled next to Rachel in his place. He was sitting on the end of her bed, legs dangling, face tilted towards the uncovered window. His glasses were perched on his knee, his face open and tired under the slant of the moon.

There was something starting to churn in his stomach that wasn't cheap beer. Richard stood there in the hallway for a long time, watching an abandoned seven year-old keep watch over his seventeen year-old daughter. When Rachel stirred in her sleep, making a soft sound in his voice that sounded halfway between wait and something like Jimmy, the little hand moved, resting atop her ankle over the cocoon of blankets. Conan didn't say anything, but a few seconds later Rachel had calmed again, shifting enough so that the beam of the flashlight fell on the opposite wall.

When staying vertical proved too much of a challenge, Richard pushed himself off the doorframe and stumbled the rest of the way to bed. His neck itched something stupid.


.

So several thoughts were going through Richard's head while the formerly sweet, busty amnesiac Maya strangled him to death from above with a wire. The most prevalent of which was this actually isn't a bad way to die but also prevalent was the recurring thought, so what the hell is wrong with my daughter anyway.

He didn't make a habit of butting into Rachel's affairs so long as they didn't involve drugs or sex. She was old enough to fight her own battles, and the ones she didneed help fighting she tended to tell him about. Her not being particularly interested in doing either was something he hadn't encountered before, which meant his list of options was at once fairly short and terrifyingly infinite.

He'd pretty much blacked out by the time Maya dropped him, so it was a pleasant surprise to find out later on that he'd lived through the ordeal. The police came, arrests were made in the case, nobody died, and one of the officers drove the family home for free, which really was the cherry atop any day.

Feeling pretty good about most things, Richard celebrated by binging at his desk and crashing in a philosophical heap on the couch while Rachel did her homework upstairs. When the evening had wound down and both kids were getting ready for bed, Richard's buzz had faded and reality was back on his plate, which meant he had to clear the table to make room for the rest of his plans.

He braced himself with a drink stiff enough to peel paint, spent time dawdling on the toilet, and sat back down at his desk to call his wife. "Well, I don't know about you, but I feel this is progress," Eva purred, reassuringly bitchy on the other side of Beika. "You know what they say: embracing your faults builds strength of character."

"You want to talk about strength training, how about you get off your hams and find a gym somewhere instead of letting your mouth do all the running for you?"

"Thanks for your concern, but I got all the exercise I ever needed running away from you. Does this call have a point? I'll have you remember that I don't make a habit of taking pointless cases."

"If I thought you were any good at winning, I'd stop only sending the clients I hate," Richard said. "Look, I don't want to be on the phone any more than you do, but we've got business."

"Isn't it your usual bingeing hour? Should I be flattered that you found the time to contact me during the six o'clock brews?"

… that jab was pretty lame considering Eva's ability to stab him through the bone, which meant she was relaxed enough to consider this play. Most of their interactions reminded Richard of wolves gnawing on each other's necks to assert dominance before something larger came along to break them up. It'd been good foreplay back in the day and cause for noise complaints when it got too good, but other times it was awkward and mean and hard to figure out if first blood meant a win or a loss.

He recalibrated his approach. "Calling to check in on a few things. You got time or not?"

"I've been meaning to discuss something with you, actually. I suppose this is as good a time as any. Are you alone in the room?"

"Yeah."

"Put me on speaker so you can concentrate."

Richard toggled the function, then leaned back to fish his cigarettes out of his desk. Eva waited with uncanny prescience while he lit up, waiting until he blew out his first plume to speak again. "I've been thinking about that little boy you asked me to research last month," Eva said. "There was one question I never got the chance to ask you. Why was it you were so interested in him, if I may ask? Did you notice something unusual about him?"

"That's the big question you've been sitting on all this time?"

"You have to admit it was unusual for you."

"Just curious."

"Richard, for god's sake, no you weren't," Eva said. "Unless a mystery is skirt-shaped or breast-shaped, I can promise you that you're not actually invested in getting to the bottom of it. I want to know why that was the exception."

"Hey, I solve things," Richard said. "Why are we even talking about this? You trying to pick a fight?"

"I'm trying to get a real answer from you. Heaven forbid you actually cooperate."

"Look, it's not a crime to make sure I'm not throwing the kid back into some kind of war zone, all right? Rachel already got attached anyway, so it wasn't like she was gonna let me kick him out either. My hands are tied."

"If you're so concerned, call social services on them. I'm assuming you got the contact information from the parents when they came to—"

Richard watched the cigarette smoke waft to the ceiling and dissipate with a few hard strokes of the ceiling fan. "Wait a minute," Eva said. "What do you mean, your hands are tied? He isn't still there, is he?"

Richard tried to figure out if a square-shaped mouth could blow a square-shaped smoke ring. "Oh for heaven's sake," Eva exploded. "Richard, what were you thinking? Are you out of your mind?"

"Listen, it's not a big deal," Richard said, bored. "The kid's just hanging out here for a while. He'll get fed up eventually and run home on his own. He says he's Agasa's relative or whatever anyway, so at least somebody knows he's here."

"If he's Agasa's relative, he needs to be staying with Agasa. You can't possibly be drunk enough to think this is acceptable. This is someone else's child!"

"Yeah, looks like they're real eager to get him back, doesn't it."

"That doesn't matter. You know how this looks. How could you be so stupid?"

"Look, you wanna tell me they don't know exactly where he is with Agasa in the loop? You think I'd be doing him a favor throwing him back to people who don't even care enough to pick him up?"

"I think he deserves to have a shot through the proper channels, with the proper procedure, and it shouldn't be up to you to decide what support he receives and doesn't receive. You didn't find some lost kitten in the woods, Richard. This is a human child."

Cornered, abruptly angry, Richard smashed his unfinished cigarette down in the tray and braced his forehead in his hands. He spared a thought for whether or not the conversation might be traveling up through the vents, but he could hear the faint thrumming of the shower overhead and remembered that he shouldn't care if he was being overheard anyway. His apartment. His agency. His life. "Richard, regardless of whatever inspired this… frankly uncharacteristic compassion from you, it's misplaced," Eva said, making an audible attempt to be the reasonable party. "You know what you have to do. He needs to be with his family."

"Shut up." He didn't lift his head. "You're not even here. What the hell do you know."

"I know about law and procedure and how brutally the courts will savage you if they think you've been keeping him there against his will."

"Sucks to be me."

"Richard, for once in your life, please set aside your ego and understand that I'm trying to help you," Eva said. "Tell me what I'm missing. Why haven't you contacted social services? What are you waiting for?"

Richard didn't answer for a while. That really was the question it all came down to. What are you waiting for. He wanted to cut Conan out like a cancer and get back to living life in remission. Except deep down, packed away in the memories of what it was like to be afraid of everything and too small to do anything about it, he knew that he had zero intentions of throwing Conan back if he wasn't reasonably sure it was safe. Conan didn't exhibit the traditional signs of abuse, but it didn't matter. A month later, it wasn't so easy to just kick the kid out the door and forget about it. Now there were… complications. Or at least, now things weren't so clear-cut.

Eva's voice had gone soft. "Richard, talk to me."

"I don't know."

"You can't keep this up."

"Doing all right so far."

"The longer he stays, the harder it'll be on him and Rachel. And you."

"I'll deal with it."

There was a long, long silence. Richard could hear his wife's soft, even breathing, but her office was quiet around her. She must have shut the door sometime during the call. "Fine," she sighed. "Keep your cards to yourself. I'll start up the search again and call if you something turns up."

"Thanks."

"Don't expect me to bail you out if this goes south. This is all on you."

He very nearly responded with something ruinous. It took everything in him to keep the anger down where it'd lived for the past ten years: boiling his blood and searing his stomach until the point he could temporarily quench it again with his next drink. He managed to suppress it by the barest of margins, but the near-miss of apocalypse made him shake.

He grabbed another cigarette to calm his nerves. "Anyway, was there something you needed to tell me?" Eva asked.

"Yeah, don't hang up. Got one more thing to talk to you about."

"Let me guess: you scraped up another abandoned runaway off the streets."

"Sure," he said. "Or we could talk about the kid you abandoned and keep the narrative short."

He instantly felt the room on the other end plunge into an iced-over hell. "Don't start with me," Eva said, very quietly.

"Fine." It'd been below the belt anyway. "You wouldn't have happened to have spoken to her this week, have you?"

Another brief, infuriated silence. He knew what it cost her to admit, still stiff and still deadly, "I haven't had time to call her this week yet. Why?"

"She had a little episode last night. The uh…" Richard rolled his eyes up to the ceiling for a while, trying to land on phrasing that wouldn't have his wife immediately coming over via rescue helicopter. "Bad dream kind. It's been a while, so I wondered if she'd said anything to you."

"She had a nightmare?"

"Last night, but she's been weird all week. Look, if she hasn't said anything, never mind. Forget I asked."

"Damn it, Dick, you won't be coy about matters involving our daughter," Eva snapped. "Rachel hasn't had nightmares since she was a little girl. I told you it wasn't good for her to be exposed to all this violence."

"Look, that's not necessarily the only thing bothering her. It could be something else."

"What else could it possibly be?"

"Kudo."

He could feel the momentum of her anger derail instantly. Jimmy was at the top of the very short list of things he and his wife agreed on. Neither of them put much stock in their parenting, but they were both fairly sure they'd at least taken a better stab at it than the Kudos. Richard had lost track of the number of times Jimmy had crashed over at the agency during middle school because his parents had nabbed some red-eye to Portugal or Egypt and had forgotten to make accommodations for their underage kid. With Jimmy recently turning seventeen, the neglect had become merely shitty instead of criminal, which meant it'd taken them nearly two weeks to notice Jimmy was missing at all. "He hasn't turned up?" Eva asked quietly. "I've been checking the news, but the only articles have been editorials about how you're 'taking his place'. Nothing to show that anyone's actually concerned about him."

"Dipshit calls her to keep her on the hook, but he hasn't been in school in a month. Something about an overseas case."

"So he is calling," Eva sighed. "That's something, at least. How does he sound on the phone?"

"I don't talk to him."

"But Rachel does? How does she look after he calls?"

"I dunno." Happy? Depressed? The whole situation gave Richard a migraine. It was the stupidest shit he'd had to deal with this year, and that was saying something. "Up and down. She's been taking it one call at a time."

He heard Eva's pen working against her desk: the distinctive clack of the tip being depressed over and over. "I'll take her out to lunch this weekend," Eva said abruptly, decisively. "It's about that time anyway. I'll bring it up to her and see what I get."

"Thanks. Just let me know if it's something I can deal with on this end."

"I have a few ideas to start. Maybe… oh, I don't know, shielding her from the day-to-day violence? Like the sight of her father nearly dying of asphyxiation?"

He was interested despite himself. "You heard about that?"

"Yes, and I was jealous I didn't think of it first," Eva said. "You really are a reckless idiot, Richard. Thank god you had Joseph to back you up."

"Hey, I solved that case, not him. And in case you forgot, I did it with an assassin's wire wrapped around my goddamn throat. I think the most duress you've ever been under while closing a case has been cramps."

"And I'd still prefer being strangled with wire, which tells you something about being a woman," Eva said. "Just go to bed. I can smell the booze on you from across the city. Did you at least have dinner?"

"Why? You're not thinking of sending something over, are you?"

"And why not? It's been a while since Rachel had her mother's cooking."

"Yeah, which is exactly why she survived into her teens," Richard said, frowning. "Don't give her more shit to wake up screaming over."

"And to think I was just starting to forget exactly why I'm over here and you're over there. Thank you for reminding me. I'm hanging up. I'll contact you later."

"G'night."

"Go to bed, Richard," Eva said as he was preparing to pull the receiver from his ear. Her voice had grown inexplicably soft again. "Not your desk. Not the couch. Go upstairs and sleep."

The butt of the cigarette was perilously close to burning his fingers, but he suddenly couldn't seem to summon up the energy to move. He felt strangely exhausted, as though this had been a marathon instead of a fifteen minute phone conversation with his wife. As if the mention of it had reminded it of its job, the mark on his neck where Maya's wire had dug in began throbbing again in time with his heartbeat. "I don't," Eva said, "particularly feel the need to see that kind of report about you on the evening news again. Please try to be more considerate in the future."

"Okay," he said blankly.

She hung up with a soft click. Perplexed, Richard listened to the dial tone for a while as the shower faucet finally squeaked and shut off overhead. When the cigarette started burning the sides of his fingers, he dug it into the ashtray and went back upstairs to watch the season three premiere of Torrential Hearts.


Thanks to CloudyDayJoy for the lovely review on the last chapter, and thanks to those reading/reviewing via my cross-post on AO3. I cherish all feedback!