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TLC (tender love + complaining)

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Hot steam curls around Beth’s body like a fog as she steps out of Rio’s shower, the evergreen towel incredibly soft and fluffy against her skin. She sighs and uses a washcloth to wipe the condensation off the mirror, her eyes traveling over her slightly pink skin and freckled shoulders. She looks up at the ceiling as she hears soft thunder starting to rumble outside, a storm brewing—the feeling of uneasiness too familiar as she thinks about this meeting with Veto tomorrow.

She leans against the counter, closing her eyes and counting to ten so her heartbeat doesn’t start skipping too fast. She really can’t worry about this thing until it happens—it’s not like Beth can cancel the meeting and if Veto decides to take his business elsewhere, then so be it. They can’t make the cars magically appear by tomorrow night.

Beth pulls the towel from her body and uses it to dry her hair best she can, slipping on a pair of underwear and tugging on a sports bra right after. Just because she just started keeping a few things here doesn’t mean she’s not sleeping in Rio’s shirt, however, and pulls that on afterwards and breathes in the scent of laundry detergent.

She tosses the towel into the hamper before opening the door, a soft shiver traveling down her spine as the cool air from Rio’s apartment settles on her still damp skin. She licks her lips as her feet pad against the wooden floor, taking her to his bed where he’s lying on his stomach under the sheets, propped up by his elbows.

Her eyes trace down the long planes of his back, settling on a barely-there scar that’s along his lower side—you’d almost miss it if you weren’t looking for it and she’s suddenly entranced in wanting to press a kiss there. It’s from Carlita, she’s sure of it and she hates that she’s thinking of her before bed. She hopes after the meeting tomorrow she won’t be thinking of Carlita or Veto as much as she has been in the past few months.

Rio turns his head to look at her, a soft smile tugging the ends of his mouth as his eyes drink her in. His phone is on his pillow, screen awake, painting his face in the softest blues, “Carlita confirmed the meeting at the warehouse where we all first met, guessin’ he wants to store the cars there.”

“You mean the warehouse I almost got shot at?” She asks, only a slightly teasing tone to her voice as she crouches down to dig lotion out of her purse. She squeezes a little out into her palm and rubs her hands together before rubbing it into her left leg.

He clocks the movements, licking his lips as he watches her, “Yeah, that’d be the one…probably won’t happen again though.”

She laughs, just a little, “How comforting.” She switches to her other leg before sitting down, facing her pillow, “We going to tell him about Ronald?”

Rio looks back at his phone, his eyebrows drawing together for a moment before he nods. He then sets it down on his nightstand, his hand running over his face before massaging his one temple with his fingers.

“You got a better idea?” He asks, though he’s not looking at her.

Beth sighs and tries to wrack her brain for one but shakes her head, “No…but Carlita has to be sure.”

“She will be.” His voice is softer, a little distracted and she looks over at him still rubbing at his forehead.

She frowns and reaches her hand over to settle on the back of his neck, his own hand pausing as he feels her touch. She moves a little closer in bed, curling her one leg under herself as she begins pressing her thumb into the tense muscle there.

“You still have a headache?”

He shrugs his one shoulder but he dips his head forward to give her administrations more access. “It’s nothin’.”

Beth tried to get him to take something for it an hour ago but he’s stubborn. She’s not surprised; he’s been staring at his phone having a texting conversation with Carlita about this whole Ronald thing and it was bound to give him a headache on frustration alone. She’s not sure if Carlita’s putting them down to the wire of this meeting on purpose or she’s having trouble coming up with evidence but it’s stressful to say the very least.

“You say it’s nothing but I hate that pained look on your face,” Beth scrunches her nose a little, moving to tip his chin so he’s looking at her. She very purposely runs her thumb between his eyebrows where the skin is crinkled. “I worry about you.” She admits, almost like it’s a secret.

He smirks and takes her hand off his face, pressing a kiss to her knuckles, “You worry about everyone ma, it’s cute—really.”

She rolls her eyes, taking her hand off him before tugging the sheets back a little further so she can crawl into bed. His gaze is on her, slinking up her thigh and pausing on her torso, making heat gather right at her center. She hates that he can do that so easily, touch her without even using his hands.

“You goin’ to bed like that?”

Beth looks down at herself and she can’t help the little bubble of a laugh that leaves her throat because seriously? She knows how he’s looking at her, turning on his side to give her an even better view of his naked chest and…that’s just not fair.

“Stop…looking at me like that,” She smiles and tries to push on his shoulder so that he’ll fall on his back but he won’t budge, his own hand catching her wrist. “Your son is literally right across the apartment. Ironically for someone who had plenty of things to hide, it's a lot of open space. What do you got against doors?”

“So I’m under the impression you…don’t want to make me feel better, or?” He pouts, his lower lip deliciously distracting and once again, not fair; Beth decides in that moment that she really hates him.

She scoffs out a soft sound before nodding, because if he wants to play dirty then fine—she reaches up and under her shirt and maneuvers her sports bra off and over her head. He shakes his head as she throws it at him, the fabric hitting him square in the face.

He groans, taking the fabric in his hands and squeezing it, eyes tracing over her shirt where he can the see the outline of her nipples— “You’re a tease, Elizabeth.”

She grins, feeling satisfied when she lies down, facing him as she turns the nightstand light off. “Well, I hope you feel better now.”

Rio doesn’t hesitate in grabbing her, his arm wrapping around her waist and tugging her against his chest. Still after all this time, Beth’s surprised at how easily their bodies line up; her legs lacing with his own as she presses up against him. His hand squeezes her hip before disappearing under her shirt to feel the skin of her back, a soft sigh leaving her lips as she tucks her nose in his neck.

She can feel his strong and steady pulse, her lips brushing along the feathers of his bird tattoo, a soft kiss just because she can on the hollow of his throat. Beth closes her eyes, Rio’s lips resting against her forehead as she allows sleep to take her.

--

Beth feels the bed shift before a loud cracking of thunder startles her fully awake. She turns a little, letting out a slow breath before running a hand over her face. Rain pelts noisily against the windows, a bright flash of lightening as clear as day filling the room for a brief moment. Her arm reaches for Rio but it’s then she notices that he’s moved, her fingers making contact with slept-on sheets.

She sits up just a little, propping herself on her elbows, and even in the dark of the room she can make out another shape on Rio’s side of the bed. It has to be Marcus, mumbling something to his father and Rio sighs sleepily in response.

“What’s up, pop?”

“My nightlight turned off.” His voice is quiet, yet very obviously tense.

A yawn sneaks out from Rio’s lips as he reaches for the nightstand to try his light but nothing happens.

“Looks like the power’s out.”

Thunder booms and it’s loud enough that it feels like it’s in the room with them, making Beth sit up further to lean against the headboard. A shiver works its way down her spine, her arms wrapping around herself—even if she’s never been afraid of storms, she can see why someone might be. These sounds are positively terrible, reaching under her skin and sizzling like live wire.

Another flash of lightening gives her a better look at Marcus, standing there and clutching onto his stuffed raptor with the missing eye. It’s the same one he gave her for bad dreams and her heart clenches in her chest as she remembers when he visited the dealership, admitting he was afraid despite not wanting to be. He did his very best to be brave and she gets where he’s coming from, can’t deny that she hasn’t been there herself—Rio sometimes appears so fearless that it’s intimidating.

Beth reaches for her cell phone to use her flashlight so that the room isn’t submerged in darkness, even with the dim light she can see the tear tracks on Marcus’s face. Rio pulls his legs out of bed, leaning forward as he sits to gently tug his son closer.

“What I tell you, hmm? Everyone’s afraid of somethin’. It’s okay.” He cups his cheek and wipes some tears away with his thumb.

Beth smiles gently at Marcus as he looks her way, their past conversation probably ringing in his mind. “Your dad’s right, sweetheart.”

“You’re not afraid of nothing.” He says softly, wiping his face messily with the head of his raptor.

Rio laughs softly, just a little, “That’s not true…definitely afraid of those raptors.” He shivers comically, making a smile appear on Marcus’s face. “They’re fast.”

“Twenty-five miles per hour,” Marcus says confidently and Beth smiles at how well Rio is able to distract him from being scared.

That is, until another bang of thunder shakes the apartment.

Rio runs his hand through Marcus’s hair and settles it on his shoulder. “C’mon, let’s find you a flashlight and get you back to bed.”

He goes to pick him up but Marcus pushes the raptor against his chest to stop him, his lower lip wobbling, “I wan sleep with you.” He hiccups, the sentence a little distorted because he’s on the verge of tears again.

The rain picks up speed outside and Beth sees the struggle on Rio’s face. He wants Marcus to be able to handle things that scare him on his own, wants him to be brave enough to learn how to cope…yet at the same time, doesn’t want to upset him. Beth gets it—Jane was scared of a fictional alligator monster that lived under her bed for a whole four months, spending way too much time in-between her and Dean for his liking. But when your kid is scared? What else are you supposed to do?

“He can sleep with us.” She offers gently, not wanting to overstep but needing to say it. “He can fit.”

Rio looks over his shoulder at her, Marcus sniffling into his raptor. There’s a slight hesitance on his face as he holds her gaze before he finally nods. He turns to look back at his son, cupping the side of his head again before standing up.

“Aight, c’mere.”

He hooks an arm around Marcus, slowly turning him over his body to plop him right into bed between the both of them. Beth smiles, turning her cellphone light off to set back on the nightstand while everyone gets comfortable.

“Don’t be kickin’ Ms. Beth, you hear me?” Rio says, face already muffled by his pillow.

Marcus nods his head and shuffles into his dad’s chest, raptor clutched to his own as he hides his face in his neck. Beth pulls the covers up over both of them, lightening sneaking in through the windows once again, just long enough that she can see Rio’s face. She places her hand on his cheek, stroking her thumb along his cheekbone before pulling back, lying down in bed.

She sighs, rubbing Marcus’s arm a few moments as Rio stretches his arm over both of them, his hand coming down onto her hip and giving her a brief squeeze.

And the storm’s a little easier to sleep through.

--

It’s not unusual that Beth wakes up first, as an early riser she expected she would.

She’s just glad that the power came back on sometime in the night, otherwise she’d have to run out for breakfast—she’s never been one for cold cereal.

Making her way into his kitchen, she’s luckily been around Rio’s apartment enough that she knows where things are; tea, fruit, an assortment of oatmeal, tableware and containers. If he’s anything, he’s organized, and compared to what she’s had to deal with in the past, well, it’s a blessing. She did love Dean at one point in her life, of course she can admit that, he was her world, her center…but she can honestly say that she never loved that he’s messy, disorganized and a disaster to live with and clean up after.

So no, it’s not surprising that she’s up early. But it is, however, rather odd that Rio doesn’t wake up to the noise of her making tea, breakfast and getting Marcus ready for school. His son luckily knows the routine by now and tells her things he needs, so it’s a breeze—definitely simple compared to getting four kids ready at once and Lana shows up at his front door to pick him up.

Marcus makes a quick dash across the apartment to kiss Rio on the forehead and Beth smiles at the action because all he does is let out a soft noise before turning over in bed. The sheets definitely go up and over his head.

“You want to come in?” Beth turns her attention to Lana, her voice a soft whisper. “I made tea.”

Lana shakes her head, glancing inside before putting her hand on Marcus’s shoulder. “No, I got to get him to school before I head to work. Christopher still asleep?”

She nods and sneaks a look at the bed again, expecting to maybe see him gone, like she’s missed him getting into the shower. But all that greets her is Rio lying down on his stomach, his breathing deep and even as he sleeps and…she can’t find it in herself to wake him. He has to be tired; in all the time she’s known him he’s always been on go—maybe this is just his body catching up with him.

“Bye Ms. Beth.” Marcus hugs her around her middle, pulling her from her thoughts. She smiles and ruffles his hair before he pulls back, already heading down the hall.

Lana offers her a kind smile and waves before turning on her heel after her son, rushing to scoop him up and make him laugh before they reach the stairs.

Beth closes the door and makes her way back into the kitchen to clean up and make another cup of tea for herself, not wanting to glance at her phone to see if she has any messages but knows she probably should. With Veto’s meeting tonight and her fractured relationship with Dean, she’s bound to have something to take care of.

She leans against the marble island counter and curls her hair around her ear, chewing on her lower lip as she brushes her thumb over messages. Dean’s left her a few texts about where Kenny left some sports equipment, if Jane’s dubby could be put into the dryer and a question about dinner—all fairly civil, so color her surprised.

And then: Please call me when you get a moment.

From Veto.

Beth licks her lips and pinches the bridge of her nose; she knows this is her fault, she hasn’t been answering his texts but she’s not quite sure why she has to call him if they’re going to meet tonight. Better to just get it over with.

She hits the call button and waits for him to pick up, “Elizabeth, good morning.”

“Veto,” She clears her throat, unsure of what to say, “Can I help you with something?”

There’s background noise that she can’t identify, cars moving, metal clanging, a door opening and shutting before, “You haven’t been answering my texts—if I didn’t know any better, I’d say you were avoiding me.”

Beth plays with the handle of her mug, twisting the ceramic on top of the counter. How does she tell him that it…wasn’t exactly intentional? “A lot has come up recently, but I apologize…that’s no excuse to ignore a business associate.”

He’s smiling, she can hear it curl around his words. “Speaking of business associates, can you tell me why Carlita is looking into a ‘Mr. Ronald Sheffier?’”

Her back straightens a little as she instantly recognizes the name, her blood running cold. Shit. She has no idea what to say—does this mean Carlita went to Veto and told him about what happened to her dealership? Was she involved? Was this her plan all along? To throw them off balance?

“I’m quite disappointed to hear that you’re having trouble and didn’t think to call me.”

“Uhm,” Is all she can somehow say in that moment…maybe she should be glad he seems to be worried about his ego, but still, Beth thought they’d be able to address that tonight at the meeting.

And then she thinks about the fact that Veto probably likes how she’s squirming over the phone, maybe even scared about the prospect of having to discuss this tonight with everything out in the open—nothing to hide. She doesn’t appreciate being split open and put under a microscope, for him to observe her like this just for his enjoyment. Something bubbles under her skin, heat rising like someone turned a flame on inside her—

This reminds her too much of what it was like to speak to Warez.

“I didn’t realize Carlita would tell you that before tonight,” She admits, “Did you have to put your hands on her so she’d tell you?”

Beth’s voice hovers in the air a moment, just long enough where she thinks he’s hung up the phone but suddenly he laughs, light and amused.

“People I work with don’t get a second chance to lie to me, Beth.”

She closes her eyes, shaking her head because Rio was right. Of course he was. She feels like such an idiot for wanting to think Veto was somehow better than other men she’s dealt with in this line of business.

“And that means you put your hands on her?”

“I should have suspected she’d run to him about that,” He continues on as if she hasn’t spoken, his voice changing suddenly, softer, as if he pities her, “She really has him wrapped around her finger, doesn’t she.” It’s not a question and Beth swallows down a sour taste in her mouth, turning off the tea kettle as it starts to steam.

Beth doesn’t quite have the nerve to hang up on him, despite wanting to, and she clears her throat to end the conversation. “I’ll see you tonight.”

“Seven,” He confirms, “Don’t forget to bring the books, yes?” And hangs up before she can say anything else.

She tosses her phone onto the counter, albeit a little noisily and it almost tumbles right into the sink. Beth can’t let what he’s saying throw her off balance; they’re already going into this meeting without the full deck of cards at their disposal. She trusts Rio and she has to believe in where he’s coming from, that his shared history with Carlita is a good thing in this instance if Ronald really was the one who broke into Boland Motors.

What Veto said about Carlita having Rio wrapped around her finger was to shake her resolve, to put more doubt into her partnership with Rio because they’re all connected at this point. Every single one of them—and they’ve come too far to be thrown off by comments made just to do that.

She turns towards the bedroom after pouring tea into her mug to see Rio making his way into the kitchen.

Beth didn’t even hear him get out of bed, her mouth opening a little to say something to him but…catches the expression on his face. He looks tired, to say the least but it goes a little deeper than that, the way he’s holding himself, a bone deep exhaustion that pulls on his skin. He’s pulled on a pair of black sweatpants and a white t-shirt and it’s not until he looks at her does she notice there isn’t that stark contrast between his tan skin and the fabric of his shirt that there usually is.

He’s a little pale but maybe it’s just a bad trick of the fluorescent lighting.

“Yo,” He says, taking a short breath in through his nose as he moves towards the tea kettle. His voice is still streaked with sleep, a little more raspy than usual. “Who was that?”

“Veto.” She shakes her head, crossing her arms over herself as she lifts her tea to her lips. “Just…reminding us about the meeting tonight.”

“Like we could forget.” Rio mumbles, pulling a tin of tea closer to him to get the lid off. Then he pauses, turning to look at her over his shoulder because he’s just finally realized, “What time is it?”

Beth chews on her lower lip, “Little after eight; I got Marcus up and ready to go. Lana got him around seven-fifteen.”

Rio sighs and runs a hand over his face, pinching his eyes for a moment, “Why didn’t you wake me?”

“Because you seemed exhausted,” She takes a step closer to him, her fingers coming down on the side of his neck. “Still do.”

He gently pushes her hand away, pouring hot water into his mug. He grabs the string of the tea bag, his wrist moving in a fluid up and down motion to encourage steeping before he leans his back against the counter.

“I need to take care of some errands before tonight, so I can take you home but it’s gotta be within the next hour.”

Beth hums, curling her hair around her ear. It’s probably for the best; she can maybe relax herself by tending to some plants in her backyard, have a glass (or two) of bourbon, finish Jane’s bee costume.

“What kind of errands?” She asks because she can’t help it.

Rio fixes her with a look, bringing the mug of tea up to his face. The steam gently caresses his skin, “The kind I run without you bringin’ about the Spanish Inquisition.”

She huffs out a sound, “Okay, two questions, maybe three, does not make an inquisition.”

“How bout ten?” He asks, shrugging his one shoulder. “We both know you’re capable of ten.”

Beth’s about to do something ridiculous like stick her tongue out at him when he pulls the mug away from his face and brings up his elbow to sneeze. She blinks because…it’s not once, but twice, the second almost making him bend at the waist and he has to put the mug on the counter so he doesn’t spill it.

She puts her own tea down and moves until she’s standing in front of him, “Bless you.” The closer she is the easier she can see the sheen of sweat on his neck and along the beginning of his hairline. “Hey are you…”

“M’fine.” He sniffles, rubbing the side of his nose with the middle knuckle of his finger.

Beth hums a little because no, he isn’t, but he’s stubborn so this is what she has to deal with. She has four kids and she knows the signs by now when one of them is sick and still wants to play outside, regardless of needing bedrest. Though she doesn’t think she’ll be able to trick Rio with homemade soup and letting him watch a movie he usually doesn’t get to in order to lay down.

“Says someone who has a fever,” She tuts, trying to touch his forehead but he slips away from her grasp, taking his tea with him.

“Hate to disappoint but I got allergies, ma.” He’s moving towards the bedroom, trying to keep busy and keep her off his tail but she follows quickly, not intending on letting this go.

“Allergies when you haven’t even stepped outside today?” She presses, watching him slip into his closet to pick clothes out.

He shrugs his one shoulder, setting his tea down on a dresser across from his shirts, “It’s all the rain.” He takes his time to grab a navy-blue button down and a pair of black jeans from his racks.

She feels a soft smile tug at the ends of her mouth, reaching for his wrist to turn him to face her. Beth lets out a long sigh, her thumb running along the tree of veins on the soft underside near his palm.

“Rio, you’re sick. You’re really going to make me have the same conversation you had with me about running yourself ragged?”

He looks down at her, licking her lips as he tries to figure out what to say. The words are brewing under his tongue, she can see it, the way he wants to push past her and do what he needs to do despite how she feels. They’re different now though, they actually communicate (although a little messy at times) and Beth can see the wheels turn behind Rio’s eyes as he forces himself to have this conversation instead of bolting.

“While this in-house nurse thing is really workin’ for me,” He curls her hair around her ear, just enough of a distraction to grab his tea and walk past her, “I got shit to do.”

She lets out a soft sigh, turning on her heel to follow him back into the bedroom as he puts his clothes onto his bed, “Okay, if you’re so confident then let me take your temperature.” Beth smiles at him prettily when he looks at her again, batting her eyelashes just for show. “It’ll take two minutes and I’ll put my shoes on, you can take me home and run the errands you won’t tell me about.”

He rolls his eyes, taking another sip of his tea and sets it on his nightstand. “You’re not gonna let this go, are you.” It’s not a question which just makes her smile.

“No,” She walks over as he sits on the edge of the bed, slipping between his legs. He looks up at her, neck extended just a little, his back straightening as he sets his hands on her hips and gives her a soft squeeze. “Besides, as handsome as you are—you look terrible.”

He pouts very purposely, his lower lip jutting out, which Beth runs her thumb over. She then leans in and presses a kiss to his hairline, the skin hot to the touch. She already knows he has a fever, a soft sigh leaving his lips as his eyes close.

“Thermometer?” She asks, pulling away.

Rio clears his throat and motions to the nightstand drawer, “Surprised you didn’t know since you were a pro at goin’ through my shit.”

She smirks and shakes her head, taking the thermometer out of the case. “Never going to let that one go, are we?”

Beth cups his cheek, once again running her thumb along his lower lip so he opens his mouth. He makes a show with biting the tip of her finger before allowing her to slip the indicator under his tongue. It beeps a few moments later and she takes it out of his mouth, Rio’s grip on her waist firm as he pushes her back a few steps.

He brings his elbow up to sneeze again, turning away from her. She lets her hand settle on the back of his neck, massaging gently as his back shudders with one more. A soft groan leaves lips and he sniffles, her other hand grabbing a few tissues to hand him before she looks at the temperature readout.

“101, but thanks for proving my point.”

And maybe she’s looking for a bit of control with this meeting with Veto hanging over her head like a little black cloud, but taking care of someone who’s sick? She’s good at this. Rio’s not too far gone that he can’t bounce back with a little extra TLC and hopefully he’s got orange juice.

“You need to eat and sleep.”

Rio blows his nose and stands from the bed, pushing her away because literally every muscle in his body is screaming no. Typical; she doesn’t know why she’s surprised. He goes into the bathroom to wash his hands, pointedly ignoring her as she leans against the doorframe.

“Advil and more tea wouldn’t hurt either.”

“Elizabeth,” He sighs out, his voice a little too low to sound like a proper warning. “You know I’ve been sick before and clearly survived.”

Her one hand falls to her hip, watching as he dries his hands on a towel. “Now that I think about it, you lied to me when you said you had a great immune system.”

A soft laugh tumbles out of his lips but it just turns into a cough that sounds like it hurts. “Mama I lie all the time, you just don’t catch it.”

Beth sighs, refusing to let him pull her into that distracting conversation before reaching forward to tug on his t-shirt. “Get in bed. I’m getting you some things.”

Rio smirks, a little too amused for her liking, but it does seem like he’s going to listen for once. He wanders out of the bathroom and sits back down on his side of the bed, adjusting pillows so that he can lean against them at the headboard.

She can feel his eyes on her, trailing up her bare legs to the shirt of his she’s still wearing as she wanders into the kitchen. “Remind me, you always been that bossy or is that the fever talkin’?”

Beth smirks but ignores him as she gets to work, making him another cup of tea even though he has one over on his nightstand. This time she’s making ginger turmeric because it’s supposed to strengthen the immune system and it might help his sinuses from getting too congested. She then makes oatmeal, a little bit of brown sugar and honey and puts it on a tray along with Advil and orange juice.

When she carries it over to him, Rio’s drifting against the headboard, covers not all the way up yet and he’s got goosebumps on his arms—which tells her the fever is making him sweat and now he’s cold with how he keeps his apartment. She can grab him a sweatshirt before he sleeps, moving the cold cup of tea and replacing it with the tray.

He clears his throat when he feels her sit on the bed next to his legs, blinking at the display because, “You didn’t have to do all that.”

Beth chews on her lower lip, cheeks tinting a soft pink. “I wanted to.” She eyes the tray with interest, however, because he doesn’t move to grab anything off of it. “Stuff isn’t getting any warmer, though…”

Rio rolls his eyes and says something in Spanish under his breath but at least he’s picking up the oatmeal and eating it with no argument. She smiles and spills a few Advil into the palm of her hand to give him with the orange juice. Beth waits until he puts the food down and gets through about half of his tea before she mentions something that’s bound to upset him,

“So…”

He shakes his head, “Don’t even think about it.”

Her mouth snaps closed but she narrows her eyes; damn, he really is good at reading her. “You’re sick.”

“And there ain't no way you're meetin' Veto by yourself tonight.” Rio licks his lips, setting the tea down on the tray. He stares at her a long moment and she almost thinks he might fold but…he’s not budging. “It ain't gonna happen.”

“It’s not like I haven’t done it before.”

Rio coughs, running a hand over his scalp a moment. “That was different, I was outside, not absent.”

Despite her better judgement, she says, “He’s not going to hurt me.”

Then he laughs, something short and a little cold. “I bet you’d like to think that. I dunno what this thing is goin’ on between you two but it won’t stop him from doin’ what he wants to get what he wants.”

Beth takes in a long breath, letting it out through her nose, nice and slow so she doesn’t say something she regrets. He’s got a lot of nerve saying something about her and Veto when there’s still so much unresolved tension between him and Carlita. Despite the fact that they’ve had their differences, that there’s so much time they were apart, that she literally stabbed him in the back—he still cares about her because that’s what history does.

It’s the same way that Beth still cares about Dean, despite everything.

But she doesn’t say that, instead, “There’s no ‘thing’ and you know that.”  

Rio holds her gaze for a long moment before nodding, course, he does know that. She gets he doesn’t feel well and tension is mounting for tonight but still, there’s no reason for him to say things like that. And really, what choice do they have? This meeting still needs to be taken care of. He brushes his fingers along her knee, just a little, before leaning further back against the headboard.

“You need to sleep this off. If you do what I’m suggesting, you should feel a lot better tomorrow.”

He smiles just a little, amusement dancing along his lips, “That a fact, doc?”

Beth hums, her eyes dancing down his body because suddenly…suddenly she has an idea. What was that line he’s fed her before? About sweating a fever out? Seems only fair since he’s helped her feel good so many times without reciprocation.

“You could let me take care of you for once.” The sentence itself is so loaded with double meaning and it seems to take Rio a moment to catch on that she’s talking about something other than his health.

He shifts against the bed, drawing his lower lip into his mouth a moment before, “How you gonna do that?”

Beth licks her lips and pulls the covers back a little more down his waist, lifting his shirt so she can see the expanse of his stomach. Rio watches her, eyes a little dark, as she leans down and kisses right above his belly button. His hand laces through her hair, curls it around her ear and she feels butterflies erupt into her stomach as she slowly undoes the string of his sweatpants.

He helps her pull the waistband as her hands move to tug the material down at his sides, his cock resting lazily against his stomach, only half hard. She glances up at him through her eyelashes, his gaze never leaving hers, face a little flushed at his cheeks.

She’s not sure she’s ever seen him look that way, always so in control, but not now—not under her administrations. She’s going to help him fall apart.

Beth starts on the top of his right thigh, just because she can, pressing soft kisses and working her way up. Her fingers grip the base of his cock, taking him into her palm, stroking him and following his vein down his shaft with her thumb. A sharp intake of breath sounds from above her and she bookmarks that reaction for later, pressing one more kiss to his navel before she takes him into her mouth.

The reaction is instant, a guttural moan leaving his lips as his head leans back against the headboard, breathing picking up as her tongue curls around the head. She pulls back, wants to see him, the wings of his bird tattoo fluttering with his quickened pulse. Her fingers work his base, precum beading the tip of his cock as she takes him back into her mouth.

She quickens her pace, her tongue working down along the length of his cock, his hips rolling into the sensation as his hand finds her hair again. She lets him tug, just a little, her hand falling onto his thigh and squeezing before rolling his balls in her palm.

Beth can feel him reaching his climax by the way his body clenches underneath her and when she pulls back to look up at him, his mouth is open, eyes shut, gentle moans leaving his lips as she continues with her hands. She leans up against his chest, presses her lips against his neck, sucks at the skin there as he says her name, quick and heated and Elizabeth as he’s cumming.

She pulls him into a kiss, something short and sweet because she can’t help it, his skin too hot and clammy from his fever. Beth pulls back after a moment, pressing their foreheads together as he comes down, the center of her body pounding with heat at seeing him so turned on only to fall apart under her. She hums, just a little, forcing herself to pull back and cleans him up so he can pull his pants back up.

Between the last bits of euphoria working its way through Rio’s bloodstream, exhaustion tugging on the muscles and bones of his body and the inner workings of his cold, he allows her to push him down into bed.

She works the covers up over his shoulders, putting his dirty dishes onto the tray but leaving the Advil and the orange juice on his nightstand in case he needs it. Beth cleans up his kitchen, a soft sigh leaving her lips as she turns the lights off and stretches her arms out over her head.

When she walks back into the bedroom, Rio is asleep on his side, facing his nightstand. His forehead is pinched just a little, sweat gathering in a way she doesn’t like along his temple. After brushing her teeth, she crawls back into bed and shuffles closer to him, spooning him from behind as her arm slides around his waist.

She can feel him shaking and she rubs his arm, up and down in what she hopes is a soothing motion. She tucks her face against the back of his neck and shoulder, dozing into a light sleep as Rio works through his fever.

--

Beth only goes home when she has to.

She stays for most of the day at Rio’s apartment, getting some other work done with what she has for the dealership but mostly just checking on him in case he needs anything. He only wakes up a few times, drenched with sweat and Beth makes quick work to help him change his shirt and rest a cool washcloth on the back of his neck. He doesn’t say much, half asleep and a little delirious, mostly saying things to her in Spanish that she doesn’t understand. Beth wonders if that was his first language, his brain clicking over to something easier and more comforting than English.

She knows it’s typical for it to get a little worse before it’s better, sometimes things like this just have to work a course.

Still, seeing him like this? opens up something in her chest. She’s so used to him being in control, always having an answer for something, taking care of problems, but he’s…quiet and vulnerable. It just adds another layer to who Rio really is.

The meeting is at seven but she still has to stop home before heading to the warehouse and…while she doesn’t want to leave him or go to this thing by herself, despite being able to handle it, she’s not about to drag him out of bed. He needs to be sharp and that’s the last thing he’ll be with this cold cottoning his brain. Not to mention it’ll disrupt his healing process and she’s adamant about hitting this thing head on—he’ll feel a lot better tomorrow if he stays in bed and practically IVs the orange juice.

Beth takes one more look at him over her shoulder before quietly leaving his apartment.

--

She runs her hands nervously down her blouse before stepping out of her car, staring at the outside of the warehouse for a long few moments. The structure is just as cold and unforgiving as she remembers but a good place to either make fake cash or, in this case, store drug filled cars. Rio once told her that Veto is the type of man that rarely lets anyone in on his system, so she vaguely wonders if this is all smoke and mirrors—that it looks like they might stash the cars here but he really has something else up his sleeves that he’s not telling them.

Either way, she needs to get this meeting over with.

Beth makes sure she has the books in her oversized purse, curling her hair around her ear as she begins to walk towards the large metal door that’s pried open. A sleek black car is near the entrance and it reminds her of something Rio drives but this looks a little more expensive, the dark panel windowing not giving anything away inside.

She closes her eyes for a just a moment to gather her nerves before she straightens her back and walks forward into the warehouse space.

There’s a room to her left when she walks in; looks like an office from the outside but the windows are caked in dust and dirt from lack of use, she can’t quite see inside other than the movement of shadows. Someone’s in there.

Other than that, the space is vacant except for one table that Veto is seated at with muscle. He reminds her of Aviles but taller, somehow, with the way he’s standing. His hands are clasped in front of him but she knows just by looking at him he’s capable of moving very violently, very fast. Veto smiles upon seeing her, dressed in a pair of grey slacks and a peach colored dress shirt. He’s effortlessly very handsome, hair swooped back and eyes piercing as he clocks her movements.

“Beth, right on time.” He looks behind her, as if he expects Rio to come in late. “Just you?”

“Rio couldn’t make it.” She clears her throat, setting her purse down on the table in front of her. She teeters on telling Veto his personal business but then figures it’s probably best to make sure he knows Rio isn’t missing this because he doesn’t care, “He’s sick.”

Veto hums softly and runs a hand through his hair, “Pity.” He smiles up at her, “I’m sure he knows you’re more than capable of taking care of business.”

Beth holds his gaze for a long moment, feels like that’s some sort of a challenge, but nods her head. “I am.” Because she has to appear confident even if she doesn’t completely feel it.

He smiles slowly, standing up from the table he’s at. “Good.” He waves his hand to someone behind her, encouraging them forward, “Mind telling me what this is about, then? We didn’t get a chance to finish our conversation.”

She doesn’t need to look over her shoulder to know what he’s talking about, ice seeping into her bloodstream as she hears the office door she passed bang open. She closes her eyes a moment before turning, one of Veto’s men dragging Ronald who’s bloody and bruised to place him in front of her. He collapses into a heap, fabric tied around his mouth and hands bound together.

She swallows thickly as their eyes meet, Ronald’s going wide as he recognizes her. He tries to speak but it’s too muffled, Carlita coming up behind him and kicking him in his ribs so he quiets. She smiles at her, slow and easy, that bruise on her cheek covered up by makeup to the point where she can barely see that it’s there.

“Nice to see you again, Elizabeth,” Her eyes trace down her body like she’s memorizing, trying to piece together her quirks. “I believe you know Mr. Ronald.”

Beth feels her heart slam into her ribcage because she’s caught off guard and out of everything she pictured happening tonight, this wasn’t one of them. She feels so out of her depth, trying to get her brain to catch up to what’s happening in front of her so she can make quick decisions. This is something Rio’s inherently good at, thinking on his feet and acting. She’s working on that, has done it beautifully in the past, has had guns shoved into her face and she’s saved her own life more than she can count on her one hand.

But for some reason that’s not this, that’s not another man’s life.

That’s not Carlita standing there with perfectly manicured fingernails, black jeans that hug every curve and a white blouse that somehow has no blood on it, waiting for her response.

“Rio said you’d have proof.”

She smiles and takes her phone out of her back pocket, “Is that all he told you?”

Beth refuses to step up to that bait, no matter how much she wants to, and waits for Carlita to show her something on her phone. She takes a step closer as the screen is tilted towards her—the missing video footage from Boland Motors that shows Ronald, clear as day, breaking into the back door and messing with the cars on the show floor.

He doesn’t even try to hide his face from the cameras; an amateur move.

She closes her eyes after a moment, Veto clearing his throat from behind her. “I don’t appreciate you reaching out to my business associate to take care of a problem for you. Seems incredibly dishonest.”

Beth bites her tongue as Carlita puts her phone into her back pocket again but does turn to look at him. “I was rattled,” She admits, hoping to play off of his emotions, just a little. “The dealership isn’t just where I filter in the cars but it’s also my business.”

Veto hums and nods his head, slowly moving around the table to where she’s standing and leans against it. He seems unconvinced but then, “Well, you can take care of this problem right now.” He motions to Ronald, “And we can move forward.”

Her mouth opens, just slightly because what? she understands what Veto is asking her to do but she can’t just…she can’t just take out her gun and kill Ronald. That’s not who she is, that’s not how she takes care of situations.

She can hear Rio’s voice in her head from when he retaught her how to use her gun, You can’t hesitate when you shoot and you can’t be afraid of what you’re gonna hit—but that situation can’t apply to now.

Rio would probably shoot him, take his gun out of his waistband and take care of this situation quickly, without much forethought. That’s how he took care of Warez, that’s what he said would happen to Ronald if he learned he was responsible. Despite how soft and warm he can be, she knows that this right here, in this moment, is who Rio is too; he weighs his options, he makes calculated decisions, his darkness blooms in situations like this.

But she can’t just shoot him in cold blood, regardless of his role in destroying her dealership.

Beth knows, vaguely, that this is a test…but it’s not one she can pass. She shakes her head, once, but doesn’t say anything and Carlita instantly picks up on her hesitance with a Cheshire cat smile.

She takes a few steps towards her, licking her lips, eyes trailing over the purse on the table next to Veto and knows that’s probably where her gun is. She doesn’t reach for it though, just encroaches into her space, her gaze caressing her face.

“Come on, we both know he taught you how to use a gun.” Beth swallows, keeping her gaze on Carlita. She knows Rio taught her because it sounds like she’s speaking from experience. “If Rio was here, Ronald would be dead already.”

That’s a shot at her lack of experience but Beth refuses to let her dig under her skin because that’s what she wants. Despite how much she has in common with him, she’s not Rio and she won’t let Carlita knock her off balance in front of Veto.

She squares her shoulders and takes a deep breath, “Well he's not here, I am, and that's not how I do business.”

She scoffs, unimpressed, taking a step back from her with a clearly disgusted shake of her head. “Well that would explain why he was alive to fuck up your dealership in the first place.”

“Carlita, enough,” Veto says, sounds bored, “Take him to the back, get rid of him.”

Ronald looks up at Beth, whines through his gag as one of Veto’s men drag him back to the office. She opens her mouth to—say something? Though she’s not sure what. If she steps up for Ronald, if she tries to argue that they shouldn’t hurt him she’ll be back at square one. Besides, she unfortunately knows that if he’s not taken care of now, Rio will handle it later.

Carlita smiles a little even though she’s not pleased at being dismissed but turns on her heel to go back into the office and slams the door closed. Beth lets out a breath she didn’t realize she was holding, Veto gently turning her to face him and puts his hand out.

“Let me see the books.”

Beth’s hands are shaking as she takes it out of her purse, opening up to the appropriate pages that show the last few months.

“You can,” She clears her throat, starting again, “You can see the influx of cars here.” She points it out to him, “These eighteen were the ones we had at Boland Motors before…”

Beth trails off as she hears a gunshot, the sound echoing and digging under her skin. It hurts, somehow, being that close, an ache starting in her chest and threatening to bury her. Veto is looking up at her expectantly, not bothered that a man has just been shot in their vicinity, eyes encouraging her to continue.

She has to, she can’t flounder, not now. “We have seven good cars to still contribute. We’ll need time to fix the others.”

He sighs, doesn’t seem as impressed as he was the last time he had a meeting with her. “If I’m being honest, I don't appreciate the lack of transparency, Beth.” He closes her book and hands it back to her, “If you were having trouble, you should have told me.”

“I wanted to figure it out on my own, we weren’t trying to lie to you.” That’s not something she’s making up because, yes, they didn’t tell Veto right away about what happened in the dealership but…her and Rio were taking care of it.

Veto holds her gaze for a long moment before nodding, “So how long will it take for you to reach the cars you promised, plus a little interest?”

Beth glances down at the book she has in her hands before putting it back into her purse. “End of the month,” She can guarantee that now, she’s studied the projections to know well enough that she’s not promising something she can’t deliver.

“No other roadblocks.” Veto adds on, trying to make sure she’s understanding what he’s saying. As in: he won’t accept any other setbacks. “And don’t lie to me again.”

“No other roadblocks.” She repeats and confirms, shaking her head, something cold reaching into her chest and chilling her from the inside out.

Veto smiles softly, tilting his head at her before gently touching her chin to lift her head a little higher, eyes caressing her jawline like Rio would do before kissing her. Veto doesn’t, however, and lets his hand drop.

“I can see why Rio is so taken with you. You’re quite a businesswoman…but you’re not like anyone else in this business.” He smirks suddenly. “You still have your standards, things you won’t be swayed on—it’s very impressive. A breath of fresh air.”

There’s something about the way Veto compliments her that, despite her better judgment, makes her feel good. It’s not a surprise that Beth likes to hear when she’s impressed someone, when she’s proved someone wrong, when she demonstrates her worth that she does fit into this business despite being a housewife and a mother.

“Thank you.” She clears her throat, squeezing the strap of her purse a little tighter than necessary.

He nods, his mouth opening a moment but the words don’t come right away. He’s considering something before he says it and then, “I think we should check in before the end of the month, maybe go over your projections. Let’s do lunch, alright? I’ll be in touch.” He squeezes her arm before motioning to the muscle behind the table. “Get the car.”

Beth’s lets out a breath she doesn’t realize she was holding as the meeting comes to an end, turning on her heel to leave the warehouse. Right before she makes it through the giant metal door, Carlita comes out of the office to her right. Her blouse is open, untucked and unbuttoned, exposing her nude colored bra—though she doesn’t seem to notice because she’s too busy cleaning blood off her hands and out from under her fingernails.

Beth pauses; almost stunned with the sight as her feet come to a halt. She must have taken her blouse off to kill Ronald so that the blood spatter didn’t ruin her shirt, the idea spinning like a top in her mind as Carlita looks up at her.

Her eyes once again flutter to her cheekbone before looking over her shoulder at Veto and back, “You don’t have to work with him you know,” She attempts to be civil. “No one is worth working with if they don’t respect you.” 

And in a way that reminds her too much of Rio, Beth can see Carlita’s hackles go up, her hands squeeze the rag between her fingertips, “Did I say I needed you to look out for me, soccer mom?”

Beth sighs and doesn’t quite roll her eyes even though she wants to and just nods her head before turning to leave. She barely makes it over the threshold because Carlita throws an imaginary knife right into her back by saying, “How’s Marcus doing?”

She stops again, turning to look at her because…Carlita knows about Marcus? Beth hates that she’s not controlling the expression of surprise on her face, that Carlita wants to knock her off balance by mentioning Rio’s son but she can’t help it. Suddenly she can’t help but think about what Lana said about being both involved with his son and his business? That Rio must care about her.

But what does that say about Carlita—if he also let her have a hand in both of those things.

Carlita pauses, her hands falling to her sides as she licks her lips, a fake innocence as she says, “You didn’t think you were special just because Rio lets you spend time with his kid, did you?”

Beth swallows; won’t allow her to dig up and under her skin like this. What Carlita’s referring to is the past and it doesn’t matter now for her present with Rio. It just doesn’t—she can’t allow it to. She won’t stoop to her level to argue about who matters when she’s the one using a key to get back into his apartment; she’s the one going home to him.

“You’ve got blood on your blouse.” Is all she says, fingering the collar of her own to show her where she’s made a mistake and leaves to walk back to her car.

--

When Beth lets herself into Rio’s apartment, he’s not in bed where she’s left him. A soft, tired sigh leaves her lips as she sets her purse down on the ground, her keys slipping between the book and her gun. She runs a hand over her face, looking at the kitchen counter to see he’s been back in there to make another cup of tea.

As she approaches the bedroom, toeing her shoes off at the couch, the bed is remade and she wonders if he stripped the sheets. She can hear him in the bathroom, steam curling out from under the door—a shower definitely would help him feel better. Beth makes her way into his closet, tugging off her clothes to pull on a comfy pair of gray shorts she’s kept in his dresser and one of his t-shirts.

She pauses as her eyes catch the picture of Rio and Marcus as she closes one of the drawers, Carlita’s voice ringing in her head like a gong—too loud, too bold. She pushes those thoughts away as she turns the light off to go back into the living room. Beth should probably eat something; she hasn’t really had anything since breakfast with Marcus but her stomach protests at the idea. 

She hears the bathroom door slide open and Rio walks into the living room a few moments later, her eyes tracing over his black sweats paired with a long-sleeved black t-shirt.

He sits on the couch, pulling the sleeves of his shirt up to expose his forearms. “Leavin’ when I’m passed out is kinda cold.” His voice is raspy but for some reason, it almost sounds good like that.

Beth pauses, her hand on the back of the leather chair next to the couch. “Well it’s not like this is the first time I haven’t listened to you, so, shouldn’t be that shocking.”

He smirks just a little because, good point, and leans further back against the couch. Beth takes a moment to let her eyes wash over him; his nose is a little red from sneezing but overall, he looks better, definitely not as feverish as when she left him.

“You look better.”

Rio chews on his lower lip and opens his mouth to say something but then pauses, clocks an expression on her face that she’s not hiding very well. He sees her, like he always does, right down to the bare bones and synapses and reads between her lines without words being exchanged. He can tell she’s upset just by the way she’s holding herself.

“Wish I could say the same to you.” He reaches his hand out to motion her closer and when she does, he pulls her to sit on his lap.

“That bad?” She asks, because the words must be printed right on her skin. She tries to smile but it doesn’t feel right on her face.

Rio runs his thumb along her jawline, tracing a crease that’s formed at the side of her mouth. “What happened?”

Fatigue settles over her shoulders like a wet blanket and suddenly this meeting is the last thing she wants to talk about. She runs a hand through her hair, biting down on the inside of her cheek. “The meeting itself went fine. He wasn’t happy that we reached out to Carlita for the dealership stuff but…the books spoke for the cars we had and we made another deal for twenty, plus interest, at the end of the month.”

He nods his head, his hand slipping from her face to rest against the back of her neck, his thumb rubbing circles there. “Doable now that the guys I’m workin’ with have their shit together.” He mumbles and pauses because…there’s something else; she can tell that he knows just by the way his chin dips, trying to catch her gaze.

Her hands start shaking again, just a little, distracting herself by playing with the fabric of his shirt that she’s got on. “Ronald’s dead.”

Rio lets out a slow breath, his hand sliding down her back before it settles onto the arm of the couch. She doesn’t know why she’s surprised when she looks at his face and it’s unchanging; he expected something like this to happen. She wants to be…upset or angry or something and words brew under her tongue like am I the only idiot who didn’t see this coming?

But instead, “Veto wanted me to take care of him but I couldn’t.”

He nods, putting the pieces together before she’s able to say it, “So Carlita did.” But he doesn’t sound disappointed or frustrated; it’s almost like he’s accepted that she can’t do things like that, that it isn’t a part of her.

Rio sits up a little and cups both sides of her face with his hands, forcing her gaze to meet his own.

“You did your best, yeah?”

She chews on the inside of her lip so she doesn’t cry, nods her head before her own hand settles against his jawline. Her fingers stroke the scruff of his beard and she sniffles, pulling back from him so that she can shift against the couch. Beth moves so she’s lying down on her side, facing away from him, her head coming down onto his lap. The side of her face cushions itself onto his thigh, his one hand finding her hair and threading his fingers through it.

The other settles on her shoulder, rubbing up and down in a soothing motion as he curls her hair around her ear. She tries not to think about it, about the gunshot that rang out in the warehouse, still echoing against her eardrum—but it visits her anyways. She closes her eyes against the onslaught of tears but some leak down her cheeks and slip into the material of his sweatpants.