Conversation Hearts

Back in the day, I was fully on board with Shules, but something about seasons 7 and 8 rubbed me the wrong way. Now I only see the outstanding chemistry between Juliet and Lassiter. Set roughly in season 4/5ish, whenever they're both unattached (not for long).

It was probably just as well Juliet didn't have plans for dinner this Valentine's Day. A call came in on a homicide around three in the afternoon, which she knew would occupy them late into the evening. Considering they'd spent all day cooped up at their desks, Juliet found it a welcome reprieve to get back out into the field – as long as she didn't dwell on the reason.

Carlton straightened his tie as they headed down the hallway toward the exit, his stride purposeful. He'd been quiet all day, not unusually so, but even after years of working side-by-side with the man, Juliet still had trouble reading his moods anytime they involved more nuance than plain anger.

She glanced at him obliquely. "I hope you weren't busy tonight."

He scoffed. "Are you kidding?"

"Well, is it really so crazy to think you might have a date for Valentine's?"

Carlton stopped in his tracks to stare at her. "You tell me."

"I think you don't give yourself enough credit." She breezed past, flipping a casual glance over her shoulder to catch him with his mouth agape.

He caught up to her outside, where she waited by the passenger door of the Vic. For a moment, he hesitated, seeming to give something great consideration. Then he grasped her hand and pressed the keys into her palm. "You wanna drive today?"

Surprised enough to drop the keys, she backed up and bumped into the side of the car. "What do you mean?"

He almost rolled his eyes. "I mean, do you want to drive?"

"Are you sick?" Juliet took a closer look. Was that why he'd been so quiet?

"No, I just thought you might like to take the wheel. You don't have to." He bent over to pick up the keys, but in this, Juliet's shorter stature was an advantage. Just as her fingers touched the metal, still warm from his pocket, his hand closed over hers.

They froze, suddenly cognizant of their proximity. Juliet felt his breath against her cheek.

"So you'll drive?" he said, his voice a low rumble in her ear.

Juliet nodded, not trusting herself to speak. He straightened, a little stiffly, and stepped back. Scooping up the keys, she trotted around the rear of the Vic to the unfamiliar driver's side, heart racing.

The ride to the crime scene was uneventful. Other than a moment where Carlton, seemingly unconsciously, braced his foot against the baseboard as if trying to brake at a yellow light she cruised through, he offered no commentary on her driving ability.

They'd ended up near the pier, close enough that Juliet could see the edges of tourist attractions: a tour bus dropoff point, kiosks shilling postcards and other trinkets, a line of food trucks farther down. The varied smells of the latter wafted by, hot dogs and definitely something fried.

Neither immediately moved from the vehicle. Juliet collected her thoughts and notepad. Beside her, Carlton seemed restive.

"Why don't you take the lead on this one?" he said, studiously looking out the window.

Immediately suspicious, she asked, "Why?

He scratched the back of his neck, and in the process, conveniently turned his face away from her. "No reason. I'm just finishing up a lot of paperwork from our last case, so I figured you might want to take the reins here."

"Will you change your mind if I assign you all the crap work?"

His head whipped around. "I don't assign you all the crap work!" Sheepish under her pointed glare, he amended, "I don't always assign you all the crap work."

She couldn't be angry, not after his two obvious attempts to please her. "That's better." She smiled. "Thank you, Carlton." She wanted to ask, almost got the question out, but he opened the door and slipped out before she could speak. What's all this for?

She refused to entertain the idea that it had anything at all to do with the date. Impossible. He hated Valentine's Day, argued that it was nothing more than an over-commercialized excuse to convince people to spend money on crap to try to convince someone they loved them. Instead, she got out of the car. In deference to her leadership, Carlton had held back until she could take command at the scene.

On the way inside the building that was marked off with caution tape, she sighed, sending a plea to the heavens. "Don't let this be a jilted lover murder. Please."

"Why's that?"

"I just don't need anything to ruin today. Is that too much to ask?"

He shrugged. "If you start out miserable, there's nowhere to go but up."

She shook her head. "Always the optimist."

They found their way inside, and Juliet took up a post at the entrance of the apartment to assess the situation. The uniform on the scene only paused in front of Lassiter for a moment before shifting to deliver his report to her directly. She assigned tasks and then approached the body for the field examination.

For the next couple of hours, they processed the crime scene, from the removal of the body to generating a list of potential witnesses. Juliet loved watching Carlton at work: it was where he seemed most at home. He was methodical, thoughtful. Whenever he uncovered a potentially valuable piece of information, he returned to her side to lean his head over her shoulder, murmuring into her ear. With the direction her thoughts were going, it was a little distracting.

She spent half of the afternoon pondering over the case and half her mind on the puzzle that was her partner.

Could it be as simple as Carlton wanting to be kind to her? In general, not on this particular day? Though she still had to occasionally thump him over the head to warn him of his insensitivity, he'd grown much mellower in the past few years of their partnership. He treated her as an equal now, except in those few but meaningful areas where he'd deferred to her today – like driving the Crown Vic and leading investigations. The former was pure alpha male instinct, she knew, and the latter because he feared her dragging in Shawn Spencer the moment she had an ounce of control.

Big risk, then, for him to cede that option to her on the most romantic day of the year. And yet, Juliet felt no strong urges toward the psychic. She'd tried going down that road, with Shawn, and it didn't work out. She wasn't one to linger on lost loves – Scott Seaver notwithstanding – so she moved on.

By the time they wrapped things up, Juliet was starving. Outside on the street, she cast a look down the boardwalk, searching for an appealing sign. She caught Carlton's sleeve. "Do you want to grab dinner at one of the food trucks?"

He looked horrified. "I'd rather eat raw sewage." His mouth snapped shut, as if he immediately regretted his words.

"Don't be ridiculous. I'm sure we can find something good." She hooked an arm into the crook of his elbow, trying to nudge him in the right direction.

Heels dug in, he resisted. "I didn't realize you were so eager to catch food poisoning."

"Oh, come on, Carlton. Thousands of people eat at food trucks every day. I think we'd know if they all got food poisoning."

"That's because you never hear from them again," he said darkly.

"Carlton. I'm hungry. You can either eat with me or watch me eat. Those are the two choices."

"Fine," he said, resigned. "It'll probably be our last meal."

"Well, then, I'm glad we can have it together." Somehow, this seemed to be the right message to placate him. He allowed her to half-drag him by the arm without further argument.

They settled on bratwurst on pretzel buns (sausage is already made up of meat waste, so it fits right in on a food truck, Carlton grumbled). Despite his resistance to the whole idea, he stepped forward to pay, and Juliet sidled off to a newsstand a few feet away. A display had caught her eye: conversation hearts, the little candy hearts that came out only around Valentine's. She bought a box and made it back to Carlton's side just as he held up a squeeze bottle of spicy mustard, hovering indecisively over the brats. She nodded, and he added a line to both.

Carlton led her to a bench overlooking the water, scaring off a couple that were about to sit down with one steely glare. They sat with brats and waters, eating together in contented silence. Juliet watched the horizon deepening to pink with the sunset. Of course it had to be pink.

Something brought her memory back to an afternoon long ago, when she found Carlton eating lunch on a bench outside the station. They were so new to each other then, and she quickly learned that he cared only about monitoring the beach for crime. She looked over at him now, and he turned to her at once, a cautious smile coming to his face. A smudge of mustard dotted the side of his lip, and she lifted her napkin to clear it away.

"Thanks," he murmured, his eyes widened in surprise.

She only smiled in response.

After they finished the brats, Juliet pulled the candy hearts out of her pocket, rattling the box a little.

"What's that?" Carlton asked.

She smiled. "Remember these? I like to pick some up every year. Reminds me of being a kid, exchanging valentine's cards covered in cartoon characters and silly lines with all my classmates."

Carlton eyed the box speculatively. "Yeah, I was more like Charlie Brown, waiting by the empty mailbox for a valentine that never comes."

"Well, you're getting a valentine now." She spilled a few hearts out onto her palm, scanning the messages until she found a good one.

Sweet Pea. No need to scare him off. It didn't matter, anyway – he popped it into his mouth without looking. "Hmm. If I wanted to eat chalk, I'd go back to school."

She scolded him. "You have to read it first!"

He paused, watching her uncertainly as she picked out another heart. Before she could offer it to him, he gently took the entire box from her hand and sifted through them until he found one of his own.

Juliet handed him her selection, and this time he read it.

Hug Me.

Carlton obliged, wrapping her in a warm embrace so quickly that at first she was startled. Then she melted into it, enjoying the feel of his body against hers. As she rested her cheek on his chest, she felt his chin gently touch her head. She wanted to believe that she felt a soft kiss land on her hair. Eventually, he set her back on the bench, but closer now, and he seemed to be searching her face for approval.

She was more than happy to keep him within reach, her arm still entwined with his.

"Tell me the truth now," Juliet said softly. "Why are you doing this? The driving, the case, and everything."

Lifting a shoulder in a sort of shrug, he looked away. "I tried with Valentine's Day. Flowers, wine, romantic dinners."

"Cash?" she asked archly.

"Cash," he acknowledged. He took a deep breath and turned back to her. "There's this saying, 'show, don't tell.' I wanted to show you what you mean to me. How much I value you."

Tears welled in her eyes. "You did, Carlton. You really did." She patted his arm. "You know, you can tell me, too. I promise I won't mind."

Suddenly shy, he dropped his gaze downward. "Okay," he said, regaining his courage quickly enough. "Juliet, you mean the world to me."

He passed her the conversation heart he'd picked out, and she lifted it to read its message.

Only You.

She smiled, eyes still damp, and leaned into his shoulder. "There's no one I'd rather spend Valentine's Day with."

Carlton glanced at her, surprised. "Well, you need your head examined, then."

Gently rubbing his arm, she said, "You're welcome to give it a close study." She raised her eyes to look steadily into his. "You should be really thorough. Especially with the lips."

His eyes darted down to her lips and back, uncertain.

"Do you want me to find you the heart that says Kiss Me?"

He needed no further prompting. One hand lifted to cup her cheek, fingers sliding into her hair, as he brought his lips to hers. Gentle, almost tentative at first, he soon deepened the kiss, intensity building as she responded in kind.

Her hand slid around his back, under his blazer, pulling him closer. As if this encouragement was all he needed, he slid his tongue against hers, nearly lifting her into his lap. Taking her advice, he examined her neck with his lips, back to her ear, down to her lips again. He was methodical in a way that made her feel as if he'd studied what would give her the greatest pleasure, and she somehow knew that he knew.

A detached part of her mind suggested that things were getting a little steamy for a public place, immediately followed by the desire to move to a less public place. But maybe not right this second.

They pulled apart, panting, but not far. Forehead touching hers, Carlton gazed into her eyes, and she could read in his the love that he couldn't yet speak aloud.

After a moment, Juliet caught her breath. "I guess you had a date for Valentine's after all."

"I couldn't have asked for a better one," he said, leaning back in for another kiss.