Not My Lover: Enigma *NC17* 3/?
Formerly Love Will Keep Me Alive
Deslea R. Judd
DISCLAIMER: Situations not mine. Interpretation mine. Deal.
ARCHIVE: Yes, just keep my name and headers.
SPOILERS/TIMEFRAME: Season 1-2; mytharc spoilers to Closure. This instalment is Alex's version of the events after Ascension to just before Colony.
CATEGORY: angst, mytharc, romance - Krycek/Marita (explicit), Marita/Other (historical), Mulder/Krycek (a little).
RATING: NC17 for sexual situations and language.
SUMMARY: Prequel to Not My Lover. The death of Marita's protector and a startling discovery about her past leads her to the brink of darkness in her search for the truth. But can she let in the one man who would stand at her side? Alex and Marita's account of Seasons 1 and 2.
NOTE: This story can be read without reading Not My Lover, but if you haven't done so, it will be helpful for you to know that the Dark Man is X, Maxwell Donovan is the Well Manicured Man, Michael Harrington is Deep Throat, and Diana Donovan is Diana Fowley.
DEDICATION: This chapter dedicated to the late Lee Burwasser, with whom I engaged in many spirited exchanges. Lee, your wit and fire will be missed.
MORE FIC: http://fiction.deslea.com
FEEDBACK: Love the stuff. email@example.com
AWARDS/ELIGIBILITY: Finalist, 2001 Spooky Awards (Outstanding Unfinished Work, Outstanding Krycek Characterisation, Outstanding Marita Characterisation, Outstanding Krycek/Marita Romance).
The story so far: When Alex Krycek was assigned to partner Fox Mulder, he attended the funeral of Deep Throat, Michael Harrington, hoping to get more information about the assignment. He met Mulder's ex-wife, Diana Donovan, now the daughter-in-law of the Well-Manicured Man. He also saw UN aide Marita Covarrubias, Michael's young fiancee and a child prodigy. Diana gave him access to information and directed him to a sex club owned by Michael and inherited by Marita. He learned of a faction within the group that was opposed to hybridisation - including Michael, Maxwell Donovan (WMM), Marita's mother Larissa, and Bill Mulder - but he was not sure why they were opposed.
Krycek and Mulder became lovers. He learned that Marita, as Marita Ekaterinberg, went to college with Diana and Mulder at Oxford (she knew the former but never met the latter); while an imposter went to Harvard and became a scientist. Krycek began emailing X, posing as Mulder, pumping him for information about the Covarrubias family - a fact X was aware of but chose to play along with. When Scully was abducted, Alex had to decide whether to co-operate or walk away. He co-operated because he had new information that might blow the work open: Marita and her imposter were identical. Now, Alex is on the run, living at the club, determined to find out the truth about the identical women.
Meanwhile, Marita – who had decided to find out what Michael died for - learned of the existence of a twin sister and, with her mentor, the Dark Man (X), decided to try to find her. X speculated that Elena had been surrendered with the hostages in 1973. Marita searched for the diaries of Samantha Mulder, a double agent who died by suicide two years before, as X seemed to think they might shed some light on what happened in 1983, when Marita was banished to England. Marita had balked at the idea of using The Den, the sex club she had inherited from Michael; but decided it was worth it to find her sister. Because she was inexperienced, X devised a plan to protect her (sexually) by making her a dominatrix; but Marita found over time that she was affected anyway. Diana counseled that it wasn't worth it, and, like WMM, warned her against searching for Elena. When Diana's husband, Edward had to leave the country, Marita needed a new "favourite" submissive, and when the Dark Man told her Krycek knew something about Larissa, she decided he might be a good place to start. It is clear now that Alex is writing in retrospect after the events of Not My Lover; but Marita's account is from her diaries at the time. Now, Alex takes up the tale.
No love story is complete without the first meeting.
That's what Mare says, anyway; and it has been a source of good-natured bickering for several days now. For myself, I remember our first meeting as a mildly amusing charade, in which we each gave a reasonable performance of knowing little about the other. There was curiosity, maybe a little attraction; but there were no longing gazes, and no precognitive flashes that, not too far down the track, she would be my world.
It was Gibson who finally broke the deadlock, suggesting that if Mare felt so strongly about it, perhaps we should transcribe her account of it from her journal. Well, she got it out and read it; then, a little shamefacedly, she admitted I was right. Score a small victory for the retrospective reporter. To ease the sting, I ask her where she thinks I should begin instead.
"That day in the spa," she says at once. And because I know exactly which day she means, I agree.
"What day was that?" Gibson asks with fascinated apprehension. He's afraid, in a way he wouldn't have been before the painful advent of adolescence, that the answer is something sexual. There's a perverse part of me that wants to jerk his chain a bit, and I would have done it once; but because he's my son now, I say instead:
"It was the day I called her Mare."
"It's a nonsequiter."
"What?" Diana said absently, taking aim. Her concentration was unwavering.
"It's a nonsequiter. Out of place." She squeezed the trigger, and in the same instant, a hole appeared in the cardboard target.
In the crotch.
She shot me a mischievous look, and I laughed, albeit with a slight grimace. I took the Sig from her and took aim.
"I know what a nonsequiter is," Diana said with a withering look. She nodded to the target. "What are you going for?"
"Groin. I'm gonna go straight through that hole you already made."
"Fucking showoff. What exactly is a nonsequiter?"
"It's something that's-"
"-out of place," she finished, stealing my line. "Stop being cryptic and tell me what you're blathering about." There was a residual British undertone to her voice that I found very appealing.
I fired. "The ice arena," I said, nodding to the building a little way off to the left of the shooting field. "It's out of place."
"Has it moved since we've been on the range?" she queried ingeniously.
"Don't be idiotic." I removed the empty clip from the Sig and put in a new one. "Try for a lethal spot this time."
"There are arteries in the groin, Alex. They're what make it possible for you to-"
"-rise to the occasion," I supplied. Diana had only a small number of punchlines, and by now I was acquainted with them all. "What's the feminine equivalent of misogynist?"
"No idea," she mused. "You think I'm one?"
"Fucked if I know. All I know is, you're having a grand old time shooting out the family jewels here."
"Fox had some Freudian theory about that."
"He would." I watched her curiously. "You're trying to distract me."
"From what? The ice arena? Look, if you want to play Ice Castles, go ahead." She took aim. "I'll go for the heart - happy?"
"I'd be happier if you stopped the ducking and fucking and answered the question."
"You didn't ask a question," she said, firing pensively.
"Implied question," I amended.
"Just because you imply, doesn't mean I necessarily infer." She handed over the Sig, her expression neutral. I didn't use it.
"Look, what do you mean, it's out of place?" she demanded in exasperation. "We run physical readiness courses for the Group. There's a pool, there's a gym, there's a track, there's indoor and outdoor firing ranges. Tell me why one more sports facility is out of place."
"It's not cost-effective," I pointed out. "What benefits are there, really, besides cardiovascular and muscular? Those are benefits you already get from the pool and the gym, without spending the gross national product of a small country every day in refrigeration."
"It's solar powered."
"Okay." The idea of a solar-powered ice rink struck me as pretty funny, but I didn't say so. I had bigger fish to fry. "But why bother?"
Diana sighed. She turned to face me, irritation evident in the lines of her face. "Look, if you must know, Michael built it for Samantha. When the Dark Man brought her here, she was miserable. No other kids and a lifetime of awful memories. So he built her an ice rink."
"Maybe he should have brought her her mother," I said in disgust. Had he really been as naive as all that?
"Maybe so." She nodded to the firearm. "You gonna use that thing?" I shook my head and handed it back to her. She turned back to the range.
"Diana?" I said after a while.
"What is it?"
"Why the hell are you living here? I'm sure you didn't envisage rearing your daughter in a glorified brothel."
She shrugged. "She's just a baby. She doesn't know."
"But it's not what you'd call ideal."
There was a pause then. At last, she said tightly, "It's convenient."
"No more convenient than your hotel in Baltimore. And you can't tell me money's an issue - that's my excuse."
"Marita asked us to stay. That's all."
"And what she wants, you do?"
"You knew we were friends."
"I know there's tension, too. If she just wanted a gossip partner, you wouldn't be here."
She made a sound of frustration. She turned to face me once more, one hand on her hip, the other by her side, Sig pointed at the ground. "Alex, you think too much. The woman's recently been widowed. She wants her friends around her. There's no mystery here."
"Yes, she's recently widowed. So what's she doing living here? Surely there were better ways she could live out his memory than holing up in his brothel."
"Recreational facility," she corrected, but the smile that flitted across her features was weak. "She says-" her brow furrowed.
"She *says* it's convenient," she said at last.
"But you don't believe her?" I queried, frowning.
She spoke slowly, as though choosing her words with care. "I believe that she believes it."
"What the hell does that mean?"
"It's a seductive place."
"Now, that's a nonsequiter."
I shot her a withering look, crossing my arms over my chest. "It's a weird place, Di."
"Don't call me Di."
"Diana. It's a weird place. It's too much of a resort to be a brothel, and too much of a brothel to be a resort. What the fuck is it?"
A sardonic grin flitted across her features. "It's Michael's ambivalence incarnate."
"Now who's being cryptic?"
She pursed her lips in irritation, raised her shooting arm, and emptied the clip into the tattered target's crotch without so much as a glance in the target's direction. Perfect shot. She was just fucking with my head now, and I didn't take the bait. I watched her steadily, and I waited. "Look," she said with a sigh. "Michael wasn't into this sort of thing, okay? He and Max came from very proper stock. It started out purely as a sex club, and then he started adding things. Things that made it more respectable. The sports facilities. The restaurant."
"Trying to redeem it."
"I guess." She held out the Sig. "Want to do any more?"
I shook my head, holding out my arm so she could see my watch. "Marita and Edward are expecting us."
She nodded, her expression weary, and we left the range together.
We were almost back at the main house when I aired the question that had been nagging at me.
"Level with me, Diana. What am I being drawn into?"
"I don't know what you mean."
"It's been nine days since the Dark Man introduced Marita and I, and my social life has taken a decided upswing."
"She's a social kind of girl."
"Bullshit. She's strictly a put-in-an-appearance type. Now suddenly she's doing dinner and evenings in the spa and friendly contests on the range. Peripheral figures come and go, but you and Ed and the Dark Man are always there. And Marita. Marita in the middle, even when she isn't there."
Diana snorted. "Marita in the middle? You better not start blathering about constellations, Alex. I'm still armed, you know."
I grinned at her amiably. "Can I have an eclipse?"
"No, you bloody well can't. Why are men so sentimental?"
We laughed a little, but then I said in a low voice, "I'm not a fool, Diana."
Her pace slowed, and she turned to look at me. "No, I very much doubt that you are."
I met her gaze. "I'm either being played or groomed. Which is it?"
"That's not for me to say."
"Did you suggest me to them?"
She hesitated; said at last, "No. The Dark Man asked my opinion of you."
"And what is your opinion?" I wondered with interest.
"That you're a sound man. That you're in it for the right reasons."
"You don't know my reasons," I retorted, but my voice was mild. In truth, I was flattered.
She shrugged. "True enough. Shall we say, then, I know you aren't in it for the wrong reasons."
"Okay." We began to walk once more. "Well, since the rules of the game are unknown, I've been working on getting to know my fellow players."
"I hadn't noticed," she said with more than a trace of sarcasm.
"Am I that transparent?"
"No - for a newcomer, you're rather good. I simply asked myself what I would do if I were in your place."
I laughed. "You and Ed are known quantities, at least as far as I need you to be for the time being," I mused, more to myself than to her. She didn't seem offended by the observation - I would have been surprised if she had. There was genuine fondness between us, but ultimately it was a friendship of utility, and she wasn't under any illusions about that fact. "But Marita is a mystery."
"Yes, she is," Diana agreed.
"You don't agree?" I challenged. I didn't really doubt her sincerity, but I hoped to draw her out.
We rounded the corner of the main house. "No, I mean it. She is - even to me. I don't think even Marita herself knows what drives her."
There didn't seem to be much to be gained from pursuing that line of discussion, so I made a noncommittal sound, and I let it go. I swiped my card and opened the door for her. "Walk with me to the spa?"
She shook her head. "Elizabeth's due to nurse. I'll meet you there shortly."
"All right," I said. "Tell me something, Diana."
"Are you keeping her with you because you're nursing, or are you nursing her so you can keep her with you?" It occurred to me just a second too late that that might be an intrusive question.
If she was affronted by me asking, she didn't show it. She looked at me, a little perplexed. "A bit of both, I suppose. Why do you ask?"
I shrugged. "I don't know. I just wondered."
She nodded. "I just - I miss Shane, you know? If I'd known when he was born how little I'd get to see him - if I'd known how far the work would take me from him - I just think I'd have - I don't know." She shook her head, frowning.
"Given more?" I said gently.
Diffidently, I asked, "Do you regret having them? I mean, knowing what you know?"
"No. But sometimes I wonder if they'll regret me." She shrugged. "Still, that's one of those things you can't afford to think about if you want to stay sane. What's any of this for, if not for the children?"
I stopped, took her hand, turned her to face me, and kissed her cheek. She drew back, her expression a blend of pleasure and confusion. "Whatever was that for?"
"For being in it for the right reasons."
I laughed at her expression, released her, and I left her there.
A wrinkle of distaste rippled through me, but I suppressed it before it reached my face. I zipped my pants. "Hello, Luis."
Cardinale strode up to me purposefully. If he slapped my arm I thought I might have to kill him, but he didn't. "What you doing here?"
I shot him a withering look. "Same as you, asshole." I turned away from the urinal and washed my hands.
He called over his shoulder, "I thought this place would be a bit too heterosexual for your liking."
I looked him up and down in the mirror. "Well, there's not much male talent today, so I figured I'd walk on the wild side." I shook the water off my hands and headed for the door.
He zipped up and followed me out, catching the door behind me. He nodded to a couple in a corner and whistled. "That, my friend, is a walk on the wild side."
Dutifully, I followed his line of vision to a man in his thirties and a woman in her twenties. They were sitting together in one of the hot tubs, the man holding the woman across his lap. They were only kissing, but I saw what he meant. There are some people, I thought, who exuded steam.
For once, Cardinale had had an insight.
This was rare enough an occurrence to warrant a thawing in relations. "Not bad," I agreed. Who knew? If I were agreeable enough, maybe he'd go away. Miraculously, he did, mumbling something about the sauna. I waved him off absently, making a mental note not to go in there for a while. The thought of Cardinale naked was just too horrible to contemplate.
I turned and scanned the room. It was sparsely populated, though it would fill up as the afternoon wore on. A handful of people were congregated around the bar, about half of them house girls. In a corner sat Marita Covarrubias, her languid form stretched out over a luxuriously overstuffed armchair. She was in trademark black leather, blonde tresses tumbling in waves over her shoulders. Just for a moment I thought of the restrained young woman I'd seen all in white three months earlier. The contrast between then and now was marked.
I moved towards her, and as I did so, I saw that she was watching the same couple Luis had pointed out to me. Watching her in profile, I noted the way her lips were parted; saw the fast, shallow rise and fall of her breasts in time with her breathing. Her eyes were wide and bright. Watching the couple was erotic, in an oddly detached sort of way; but watching her watching them was hypnotic. I was transfixed.
I was just about to go over to her when Richard Matheson came around the bar and made a beeline in her direction. I wasn't in any mood to deal with him, so I retreated, my back to the wall. That wasn't a bad policy when Matheson was around in any case. Besides, I figured Marita would be pretty eager to drag him to her room herself in her current state. Mentally, I turned over polite ways of explaining her absence when Diana and Edward arrived.
That didn't turn out to be necessary. When Matheson touched her arm, Marita flinched, pulling away, crossing her arms over herself in an unconscious gesture of protection. Her whole body was stiff, and while I couldn't hear her, it was clear from her body language that his attention was unwelcome.
I watched the moment unfold with growing bewilderment. She had responded to him far differently to how I had expected her to. She was hot as hell - she ached to be touched. Her whole bearing had said so. Yet the moment Matheson had done so, she'd just shut down. I was willing to accept that her connection with him was based less in sex play and more in the exchange of information; nonetheless, with a certain sexual comfort zone between them, I had - without any prejudice whatsoever - expected that she would draw on that in her current state. There was something profoundly wrong with the whole picture.
I was debating whether to break the moment when she spotted me. Her features flooded with transparent relief. "Alex, dear!" she said in a high, clear voice. I didn't think she'd called me 'dear' before - or anyone else, either - but I took it for what it probably was, a gesture of favouritism to me, exclusion to him. I came over to the other side of the chair and sat on the arm, leaning over, intending to kiss her cheek. I found her lips on mine instead, and she lingered there a little longer than necessary.
I pulled away and nodded to Matheson. "Richard," I said by way of greeting. "Are you joining us?"
"Richard was just leaving," she said crisply before he could reply.
"Another time, perhaps," I said, not very enthusiastically.
"Indeed," she said with a winning smile at him, shifting close to me.
"I'll see you later, Marita," he said with a deferential nod. "Alex."
We watched him leave, and when the men's locker room door banged shut behind him, she relaxed visibly. She shifted away again with an apologetic look at me. I just laughed, and she laughed a little too.
"That guy gives me the creeps," I said before I stopped to think about it, then cursed my tactlessness. I waited for her to defend him - creep or not, he was still her submissive, and she was his protector.
She didn't defend him. "Me, too," she admitted. She turned to look up at me. "But how are you, Alex? Edward and I missed you this morning."
"I was out shooting with Diana. She'll be along shortly."
Marita nodded. "How'd it go?"
"On the range? I've discovered a deep-seated fear of castration."
She laughed. "Diana was in fine form, then?"
"Did I hear my name taken in vain?" The voice of the woman in question resounded behind us.
"Diana!" Marita's voice was suffused with warmth. "How's Elizabeth?"
"Sound asleep," she said, coming around to stand before us, arms folded across her body. "It's so nice to know that the nanny will be able to spend the afternoon watching the soaps."
I snorted. "I'm sure she's filled with sympathy for your plight, what with all that time in the hot tub and all."
"Pure torture, Alex, dear. Speaking of which-" she waved a hand in the direction of the spas.
Taking the hint, I nodded to them both and headed towards the locker rooms to change. I half-turned at the men's door, expecting to see the women at the door to my left, but they were still where I'd left them, engrossed in conversation. I wondered what they were talking about.
I wondered if it was about me.
Shaking off a ripple of apprehension, I left them there.
"Have you given any more thought to my suggestion?"
"The physical readiness training?" I wondered. The water bubbled delightfully against my naked skin. The waiter had just topped up our wineglasses, and I was agreeably mellow.
"Well, I know you have your FBI training, but there are certain deficiencies in what you've been taught - hand-to-hand combat, for one." Diana drained her glass and set it on the side of the tub. I studied her with open interest. She still had some of the pregnancy curves, but she seemed unselfconscious about the fact. I liked that. It showed confidence.
"That's probably true," I agreed. "All right - I'll do it. Just tell me where and when." Before us, the women's locker room opened, and Marita stalked out, swathed in a bizarre tight black lycra-lace-and-latex number. She strode over to the bar, seemingly oblivious to the attention she had aroused.
"I'll see to it," Diana said. "I'll pair you with Karen. She's the best trainer we've got."
I nodded, not really paying attention. "Unbelievable," I murmured.
"What, Alex?" Edward enquired with interest.
I nodded in Marita's direction. "Look at those guys watching her with their tongues hanging out," I said with a wave of my hand. "They're so busy drooling over the catwoman getup, they've totally missed the fact that she's showing less flesh than you'd have seen on the beach fifty years ago." She turned away from the bar, drink in hand, and started walking in our direction. "She's the only woman here who won't strip off, and not one of them realises it." Diana watched me with a look of admiration. It didn't occur to me at the time, but I think now that I'd just passed a test in her eyes.
"Are you saying she's not erotic?" Edward was saying.
"I'm saying she's clever."
"Who's clever?" Marita said, perching herself on the side of the spa. She slid in, heels and all, and sidled up to Edward, draping herself theatrically over him on his free side.
"Only you, darling," Diana said tartly. I recognised her tone - it was the one I'd dubbed Gushing Socialite, reserved solely for such contrived situations as this one. With some irritation, I wondered when my role would become clear. This house bullshit was fast becoming tiresome. I didn't mind putting in the hours and the work, but the politics pissed me off. I decided to put a good face on it for the duration, but damn it, I was going to pin down Diana tomorrow or the day after at the latest. I wanted answers. I wanted things to start moving.
I settled my attention on Marita. The display she had put on earlier for the benefit of our onlookers was forgotten. She was listening to Ed, sipping delicately at her wine. While the others (and I) were well on the way to being pleasantly quiffed, she was stone cold sober. Sitting there, smiling faintly while Diana and Ed roared laughter, she epitomised restraint. She should have seemed out of place in such an unrestrained setting, but she didn't. In any environment, I thought, Marita would be its master. It was fascinating.
"...what do you think, Alex?"
I came to myself. "Sorry, Ed - I tuned out for a second. What was that?"
"Oh, it doesn't matter. Marita and I were disagreeing, and Diana was playing mother wolf. I was looking to you for some solidarity, but I guess I'll have to stand on my own." He gave a mock look of martyrdom, and I laughed.
A look of irritation flitted over Marita's features. "Diana's a mother wolf? So what does that make me? A cub?"
"A mare," I said after a moment's thought.
"I remind you of a breeding horse?" she said coldly, but the corners of her eyes were creased with merriment.
I gave her a withering look. "Wild and untamed."
"Wild *and* untamed? Isn't that redundant?"
"Where's your sense of romance?" I flicked water at her with my hands.
"She ate it for breakfast," Diana snorted.
"I'll have you know I have the heart of a poet," Marita retorted coolly. Diana looked contrite, and Marita, perhaps sensing the tension, added mischievously, "Or I did, until I ate that for breakfast too." I laughed uproariously then, less because of her words and more because for just a moment, I thought I had caught a glimpse of the woman beneath the facade, and I liked her very much.
"Okay, Marita's a mare," Edward said. "Diana's a she-wolf. What about Alex?" I sat back, interested.
"A rat," Diana suggested with a grin.
"There's nothing wrong with rats," Marita mused. "I had a pet one growing up."
"I'll bet Larissa loved that," Edward laughed.
"She didn't know."
"So was your rat like me?" I quizzed.
"Some. He had this scruffy hair on top." She yelped laughter when I splashed her.
"Not like your mane, *Mare*."
"Don't call me that."
"I'm sorry. I won't do it again. Mare."
She splashed me back, and Edward made a show of ducking. "All right, time out." We splashed him, instead.
There was a sound, a clearing of throat, and we turned. The Dark Man was standing in the doorway.
"Darling," Marita said, holding out a hand. Fleetingly, I wondered what she called him in private. He had to have a name, after all, even if it was just a working alias.
He nodded by way of greeting. "I won't stay, Marita. Connie asked me to let you to know that Maintenance have finished with your suite."
"Not another renovation, Rita?" Edward said reproachfully.
She ignored him. "Thank you for letting me know. Come and join us."
The Dark Man smiled - or at least, he did whatever it was that passed for a smile in his case. "Just for a moment." He took two glasses of wine from a passing waiter and brought them over. He handed one to Marita and sat on a chair next to the tub at her side. He looked comically overdressed. So did she, but she could pull it off.
"Thank you, darling," she said, sipping at her glass delicately. She sat back a little, shoulders back, body pushed forward. "I was just quizzing poor Alex here."
I felt my chest tighten, just a little. The sudden change in stance, the dropping of her innately reserved carriage was pronounced. There was something pretentious about her tone, and Marita wasn't a pretentious woman. I had the feeling that I had suddenly been dragged into a performance. Whatever I had been groomed (or played) for, it was going to happen now. I had been waiting for it, but I felt apprehension, too.
"Is that so?" the Dark Man enquired with interest.
"I don't know that I'd say that," I said in a mild tone. I'd play along with whatever charade they had planned, but I was going to make them work for it, too.
"What do you want, Alex?" Marita queried, ignoring my previous words completely. Unless I actively contradicted the script she had planned, she would probably continue to do so. The only way I could regain control of the situation, I thought, was to get up and walk away. Did I want to do that? I decided I didn't.
"I don't understand," I said with absolute honesty.
"You don't come here for the sex," she said calmly. "In fact, we five might be the only ones here who don't." The other three exchanged looks. "What do you want?"
If it had been just she and Diana, I might have told the truth; but I wasn't prepared to put myself at the mercy of the Dark Man or our spectators in that way; so I said mildly, crossing my arms, "You."
And at once I knew it was true.
The others watched with frank interest, and Marita nodded calmly, her gaze holding mine. "Hmm," she mused, nodding, as though thinking it over. She rose in a fluid movement, water falling from her form in a rush. She held out a hand and pulled me up. The water level was to my waist - a small mercy, because I was hard as hell. She walked around me, stopped behind me, and laid her mouth on my shoulder blade, sucking my flesh there for a long moment. She said in an autocratic voice, "Come with me."
I forced out a laugh. "I'm not one of your submissive-" I stopped short as understanding dawned. She came around me to face me again, watching me steadily. If it was an act - and I suspected even then that it was - then it was a damn good one.
"You can't have me, Alex," she said coolly. "But I can have you."
"What makes you so sure?" I demanded, horribly aware of the scrutiny of the others.
"Because you just told me." My brow creased as I recognised the truth of her words. "You can say no, of course," she pointed out. "Every submissive can do that."
"And if I say no?" I demanded.
"Then it all ends." She shook her head a little, tossing her damp hair aside. She was hypnotic. It was a fascination that went beyond the erotic - it was bigger than that, and I couldn't begin to make sense of it.
"It never began," I pointed out. I was vaguely aware of the others, watching, waiting to see which of us would win the showdown, but they were insignificant. My mind was filled with her, as though she surrounded me in a fog.
"It's your choice, Alex." She drew my name out in a hiss - the only crack in her veneer - and I breathed out, shakily. "Take it or leave it."
She had me, and she knew it. They all knew it.
But it was still my choice, damn it, and I was going to hold onto that. In any domination/submission relationship, the submissive has the power - I'm sure I read that somewhere. And I was going to do my best to hold onto mine.
I gave a single nod, and she turned her back to me; but not before I saw her look of satisfaction. "I accept," I said evenly, close to her ear, and I felt her flinch as my lips brushed her there.
That was when I knew I had the power, after all.
When we reached her room, the charade ended.
Marita opened the door, and I went in. She entered after me, closed the door, and turned the lock. Then a very strange thing happened. Her whole bearing underwent a radical transformation.
The cool Mona Lisa smile faded from her face, leaving solemnity. The unflappable ease with which she carried herself was replaced with irritation. She yanked her strappy stilettos off her feet, strode up the stairs of the dais and threw them in the bath. They made a wet slapping sound against the ceramic. She nodded towards the bed, where I saw clothes laid out. She said tersely, "Put something on."
I looked down at the jeans and shirt. "These are mine."
"The Dark Man got them from your room. Don't worry, nothing else was touched." She went into the ensuite and closed the door.
Frowning, I removed my towel from around my waist and, after a moment's deliberation, threw that in the bath, too. There was no underwear, so I pulled on my jeans. They chafed uncomfortably against my still-damp skin. I heard more wet slapping sounds from the ensuite. Presumably, Marita was stripping off the catwoman gear.
When she emerged, she was pleasingly rumpled - face nude of makeup, hair pulled back and caught in a band at the base of her neck, feet bare, body clad in track pants and a cotton shirt. Of all the Maritas I'd seen to date, I thought this one was probably the closest one to the real thing. She didn't have the clinical eroticism she'd had a few minutes earlier, but I liked her better now.
"Drink?" she said, moving to the bar, and I nodded. She poured me a Benedictine without being prompted, and I mentally raised an eyebrow. If she knew my tastes, that meant I had been studied and chosen. Definitely groomed, rather than played, then.
I kept my expression neutral when she handed it to me, and when she nodded to the overstuffed armchair at her bedside, I dropped into it without protest. She sat on the bed, not perched delicately on the side, but cross-legged like a child, leaned against the bedhead. There was a casual ease about her that I liked very much.
She watched me with open scrutiny for a few moments; said at last, "This room has been swept for listening devices just a few minutes ago. We can speak freely."
"That whole thing downstairs was a smokescreen?"
"Of course it was," she said briskly. "You don't really think I'd recruit a sub so publicly?" She drained her drink.
"Why?" I wondered. Now we were getting somewhere.
"We have a lot to talk about, you and I. We need time and space. Posing as lovers has intimate overtones that we need to avoid, but a dom and a sub? The kind of equity that conspirators require is anathema in that relationship. Spender would never suspect that."
"Okay, wait. Since when are we conspirators?" I demanded; but my voice was mild. We'd become conspirators the moment I'd walked in the room.
She didn't bother to dignify that with an answer. "Being my sub will do wonders for your working conditions, Alex. That homophobic shit Cardinale will think you're God's gift."
"You've had me investigated."
"I didn't need to. The Dark Man already knows everything there is to know."
"He doesn't know as much as you might think," I said grimly.
"On the contrary. He knows much more than firstname.lastname@example.org bargained for." Fuck. He knew about the emails. "What does that stand for, by the way?"
I broke into a sudden grin. "Spender is a second-rate asshole."
She laughed then, genuine sounds of hilarity, and I laughed too. I felt some of the tightly-wound apprehension of the last half-hour dissipate. It was a relief.
Finally, we grew quiet. "You know," I said, "I know enough to make his life very difficult." There was no threat in my voice - it was a statement of fact.
"Alex," she sighed, "do you know what the Dark Man did before he joined the group? He was a troubleshooter for an extremist anti-apartheid pressure group. He could kill you with one finger using fewer calories than it took you to breathe in my ear - and that was a nice touch, by the way," she added with a deferential nod. She went on, "You don't want to make an enemy of the Dark Man."
"No," I relented, "you're right. I don't."
"So what do you want? Why have you been asking about my mother?"
I settled into the chair, half-turning to see her better. "I want to know how one woman can attend two universities at the same time."
"That's quite a conundrum," she said coolly.
"You managed it quite successfully. Bet it was hard explaining concurrent degrees from different continents on your resume."
Her brow creased, forming a little arc over her nose. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"I think you were Marita Ekaterinberg," I said pensively. "You and Diana have tension between you, but definitely friendship of long standing." I was showing my hand to some degree, but at this point, that seemed to come under the heading of acceptable risk. "That means someone else was the Harvard Marita."
She sat back and breathed out in a rush. She was silent for a long moment, expression solemn. She seemed to reach a decision; said, "No games, Alex. Tell me what you know." Her brow flickered. "It's important."
"To you personally? Or the group?"
"I don't know. Maybe both."
For a moment, I considered playing does-she-know-what-I-know, then decided against it. I didn't know enough to play it well, and if I played badly I'd play myself right out of the game. So I told her what I knew, pretty much straight down the line. I told her that another Marita had attended my alma mater. That this woman had studied eugenics. That I suspected it had been done with the blessing of Larissa and Michael - her mother and her fiance.
She was silent for a while, but then she said quietly, "The woman is my twin. Elena Ekaterina Covarrubias - at least, that was the name she was given at birth. I don't know if she's known by that name now."
"Your middle name and your alias."
"My mother isn't very imaginative." She passed a weary hand over her forehead. "Alex, I only learned of my sister's existence a couple of months ago."
"I don't understand."
"I believe she was surrendered to the alien race in 1973. I was two at the time. I was never told I had a twin growing up. I found out from some papers after Michael died." Her throat contracted visibly - whether from grief or the sting of betrayal, I wasn't sure.
"If she was surrendered, what's she doing here?"
Marita frowned. "I'm not sure, but it's not without precedent. Other hostages have come back. Spender and Teena bartered for Samantha Mulder, for instance."
"Diana told me. She said she lived here - and that she died a couple of years ago." I thought of Mulder, and I felt a fleeting pang of sympathy.
"That's right. She was a resistance double - working the hybrids for Spender and Strughold, and reporting back to us. Strughold has been holding out on us - they're a lot closer to a hybrid than he'd had us believe. Samantha and Diana found out. I guess it pushed her over the edge. She committed suicide."
"Damn shame. I hear she was quite an asset."
"She was. Decent woman, too, according to Diana." She shrugged. "Anyway, if Samantha came back, there's no reason to think the same couldn't be true of Elena - particularly in light of your information. The Dark Man thinks - and I'm inclined to agree with this - that she's working on something for the resistance faction. My mother, Maxwell, and Diana all know about it, but they aren't talking."
"And you want to find her."
She suddenly looked very vulnerable. "She's my sister."
I didn't really know what to say to that, so I said, not unkindly, "There's someone I should let you meet sometime."
"Fox Mulder?" Her earlier, brisk manner returned as quickly as it had gone. "I gather you and he are not on the best of terms these days."
"Touche." I stretched out in my chair. "So why should I help you?"
"Because whatever my sister is doing, you can probably use it to get further in. That's what you want, isn't it?" Her eyes glittered with genuine curiosity - she was playing ball, but she also seemed to truly want to know.
I spread my hands expansively. "I'm just your run of the mill assassin, trying to stay alive."
"Bullshit. If that were true, you'd have turned the Dark Man in to Spender long ago."
There's something very appealing about someone who won't let you get away with anything. I grinned at her with real amusement. "All right," I said with a nod of concession. "Say I want in. Say I dig my way into whatever Elena's doing. How do I know I'm not going to get myself killed? There's knowing enough, and knowing too much. If they're keeping it even from you-" I didn't finish.
She sighed, weariness apparent in the slight droop of her shoulders. "Don't be fooled by my position, Alex. I'm, shall we say, the crown princess. Privileged, but sheltered. I'm not much further in the loop than you are," she admitted, "but I don't mean to stay that way." Her gaze held mine, her expression solemn. "I think we could help each other."
I thought about it. Whichever way I looked at it, she was right. If I said no, I would stay where I was now. That was tantamount to accepting the status quo - and that was something I wasn't prepared to do. If I did that, I may as well have gone home to Daugavpils months ago, with far less blood on my hands. "All right," I said at last. "So what's the game plan?"
"The only person we can think of who might know anything - besides the people involved - is Samantha Mulder. She kept journals all her life. She lived here in 1983, when I was bundled off to Oxford and you say Elena went to Harvard. If we can find those diaries-"
I nodded in understanding. "I presume you've checked her suite?"
"I've stripped the rooms pretty thoroughly. I don't think they're there, but I'll check again."
"I'll help with that. Do we have any other leads?"
"I didn't before tonight. Now, though, it seems to me that Elena's time at Harvard might be another angle. Might be worth a trip to Boston - see if we can track her movements from there."
"Good thinking. Can you act?"
Sudden flash of a smile. "Did you see me downstairs?"
I laughed. "Good point."
"You're thinking I could play her?" I nodded. "I don't know how she speaks, her mannerisms - I don't know." She shrugged. "Maybe."
"Then Harvard might be your department. I'll do some orientation with you before you go. I suspect it's quite different to Oxford."
"Okay," she said, rising. She took my glass from me, and her fingers brushed mine. It felt good, and it occurred to me that I hadn't been touched for a long time. Too long. "Any other questions?"
"Yeah," I said, dismissing these thoughts. "Codes of conduct. Limits. You're the top here. I'm going to be following your cues."
She looked at me blankly for a moment, but then her expression cleared. "You mean for downstairs?"
She poured us both another drink, and I got to my feet and followed her to the bar. "Well, in the general areas, we just act normally. You should be a little deferential - open doors, let me walk ahead of you, that sort of thing - but no extremes. You will be just a shade over-attentive, and I'll be just a shade detached." She held out my drink.
I took it, leaning against the bar. "What about the minimalist zones?"
"In the minimalist zones, I own you. If I tell you to come, you come. If I tell you to rub my feet, you rub my feet. If I tell you to get on your knees-" she let the words hang in the air.
"I get the idea."
She favoured me with a smile. "I like you, Alex," she said, without a shred of artifice, and I smiled too. "We get along fine, and I imagine we'll continue to do so, the more time we spend together. For that very reason, it's important that our roles be exaggerated. There will be times when I will be detached to the point of boredom. Don't take it personally. For this to work, it has to be pure play for you, pure power for me. Any hint of genuine familiarity and our cover is gone."
"That's not how you behave with Edward," I pointed out. I had doubted the truth of her apparent affair with Diana's husband for a while.
"I've known Edward since I was a child. That sort of dynamic would have seemed contrived. Besides, I wasn't covering up a connection with him - I was just shoring up my position. He's a prop, nothing more."
"As is your tension with Diana."
Marita looked away. "No, that's real," she admitted, "but it stems from her refusal to tell me about my sister. We're friends, as you know, but we argue about that. A lot." She gave a short, sharp laugh. "Like most people in my life, she believes she's protecting me."
I thought on this. "Does she know that's what you want me for? To help find your sister?"
"No. She believes I'm merely putting together an informant base, under the guidance of the Dark Man."
"So we're hiding in plain sight. On all fronts." I wondered whether I minded deceiving Diana, then decided I did not. Not for this.
"Basically." She drained her drink. "As for limits - I won't be asking you to do anything overtly sexual. The sexuality of our roles will be implied rather than explicit. That's fairly usual in D&S, anyway."
"So I've heard."
She came around the bar to face me. "How's your workload with Spender at the moment? Do you have much freedom of movement?"
"I'm on call. As long as I stay within a couple of hours of DC, I can do what I like."
"Good. I'm fairly flexible myself at the moment - the man I'm an aide to at the UN is on a tour of duty in Chechnya. I'm up for a promotion in a few months' time, but for now..." she trailed off. "Can I trouble you to help me search Samantha's rooms over the next week or so?"
I nodded. "Sure. Anything else?"
"Not right now. You want to call it a night?"
"Yeah," I said. "I'm at saturation point."
"Okay." She walked towards the door, and I followed. "Oh, what you called me downstairs - Mare - don't call me that. I can be informal with you, but you should be formal with me."
She turned the lock on the door. "I was thinking of calling you Alexi. Diminutives for men can be a power trip, you know? It might be effective-" she turned back to face me, and then she stopped short. "Alex?" she said. "What is it?"
"Nothing," I said, working to keep my expression neutral. She stared at me, clearly unbelieving, and after a long moment, I said reluctantly, "No-one's called me that since my mother died."
The clinical demeanour vanished. Her face flooded with empathy. She took my arm. "Alex, I'm sorry. I had no idea. I don't need to call you that."
I shook my head, but I didn't brush her hand away. "No, it's okay, Marita. You just threw me for a moment. Really, you can call me that if you think it helps."
"I only meant - well, pet names are like ownership, aren't they? But it isn't important." She let go of my arm. Ridiculously, I wished she hadn't.
"Marita, I said you can do it if it helps. It's up to you." I opened the door. "Night."
She gave a little smile. "Night."
I was still grinning like an idiot when she shut the door behind me.
I wiped my forehead. "All I know now that I didn't know before you left is that Samantha had unusually large feet."
Marita laughed. "Take a breather. I got takeout."
"Thanks." I took the brown paper sack she offered, and sat down on the lounge. She shrugged out of her jacket and slung it onto the table, then took her place at my side.
"So why isn't the Dark Man helping us with this?" I asked between mouthfuls of gyoza.
"He and Samantha were close. It's difficult for him." She set down her sack and chopsticks on the coffee table and stretched out a little, black lace stretching over her curves in a way that was agreeable to the eye.
I gave a wry laugh. "Ah, sex. Every man's downfall," I said, thinking of Mulder - not so much with pain as mild regret. That ache was easing.
"I don't think they were lovers, but I know what you mean."
I backpedalled. "Oh, I didn't really mean that quite the way it sounded."
She turned to look at me, openly amused. "Alex, I'd hardly expect you to be opposed to sex."
"I didn't mean that, either. It's just got to be the right person."
"You're a closet romantic," she accused. There was laughter in her voice.
"No, just realistic. It's the way we're made. We people weren't meant to be alone, Marita." I paused to eat. "Don't you feel that? I mean, six months ago you were ready to get married."
She shrugged. "Michael and I weren't really like that. What you're talking about. It was simpler than that. He was...benign."
I stared at her in disbelief. "Benign?" I echoed. "You were prepared to marry benign?"
"I was very young," she said mildly. "And it really isn't any of your business."
"You're right, it isn't. I'm sorry."
She shrugged. "S'okay."
I gathered up her trash and mine, and took it to the bin behind the mini-bar. I changed the subject. "You know, Marita, we don't know what we're getting into here. Maybe you should look into learning how to protect yourself. Can you shoot?"
She nodded. "The Dark Man taught me."
"Know how to bug sweep?"
"The tech side of things won't be a problem. It's the hands-on stuff I need help with." I held up a bottle of juice and a glass in silent query, and she nodded. She leaned back on the lounge and closed her eyes.
I told her about the hand-to-hand training Diana had suggested. "It's private," I said. "You could do it with me."
She shrugged. "Why not?"
I came around the bar and walked back towards her. Her lace top had ridden up a little, baring just a sliver of flesh along her waistline, and I felt a heady wave of heat wash over me. I breathed out in a rush, set her glass on the coffee table, and sat away from her. My life was complicated enough as it was. No point in making it more so for the sake of a quick thrill.
Fortunately, she was oblivious to my discomfort. "Thank you," she said, opening her eyes and sitting forward. Flesh covered again. I gave a sigh of relief. I drank from my glass gratefully, looking straight ahead, determined not to look at her until the worst of my arousal had subsided.
When, finally, it had, I turned to look at her, and saw that she was watching me with a thoughtful expression on her face. "What is it?" I wondered.
"Nothing," she said, blinking. "Just thinking."
"Oh," I said. "Okay."
She rose, still looking at me with that watchful expression. "Let's get back to work." She held out a hand, and I took it, letting her pull me up.
The door opened. "Marita?"
We both turned, and I pulled my hand guiltily away from hers, as though our visitor, seeing it, might glean my rather-less-than-pure thoughts. It was, of course, the Dark Man, rather than a janitor or a security guard - proof positive that God is just as much a fan of B-grade drama as the rest of us.
"What is it?" Marita wondered, stepping between my body and the coffee table to get to him. She pressed against me in the process. Jesus, it just got better and better.
He glanced at me, then addressed her. "Edward's been recalled to Tunisia."
"He was recalled nearly a fortnight ago," she said. "I thought he was leaving Thursday."
The Dark Man shook his head. "No - he's been recalled now. Right now. They sent a charter for him."
Marita and I exchanged looks. "What's going on?" I demanded.
"I don't know, but I intend to find out. Can you two handle things here for a week or two?"
She nodded. "We'll be fine. Good luck."
The Dark Man nodded, turned, and opened the door. He paused. "Marita?"
He glanced from her to me, then back again. "Be careful while I'm gone."
Her shoulders straightened, just a fraction. She said ingeniously, "Absolutely."
The door snicked shut behind him, and I said, my voice tinged with affront, "He *didn't* mean-"
She turned and pressed two fingers to my lips. "Of course he did." She was smiling.
We burst out laughing.
The voice came thin and high, distorted through the mist. I skidded to a stop and turned, peering through the thick white fog. I made out first a slender shadow, then black clothes and blonde hair. Marita.
I glided over. "What are you doing here?"
"Diana said I might find you here. I didn't know you skated."
"I wouldn't be much of a Russian if I didn't, would I?" I stepped off the ice, treading over the rubber matting to the stands, and sat. I started to unlace my boots. "What can I do for you?"
"I just wanted to let you know Karen can fit us in week mornings at eight, if that suits you."
I eased my boots off my feet, first one, then the other, and flexed my ankles a little. "Sure."
"It's not too early for you?"
"I'll cope. Pass my shoes?"
She complied. "Okay. I'll let her know."
"Have you heard from the Dark Man?"
Marita shook her head. "Not yet. Diana hasn't heard much, either - she says there's talk of an unidentified UFO, but nothing else."
"What do you mean, an unidentified UFO?" I wiped my skates free of ice and packed them into my bag.
"I mean one we don't recognise. One that isn't authorised by us, or apparently by the Colonists either."
I looked up at her in query. "I don't understand."
"Neither do I." She shivered. I suddenly realised she was wearing only a thin top and trousers.
"Jesus, Marita," I said, standing, shrugging off my jacket. I reached around her and put it over her, and she slid her arms into it without protest, smiling up at me with real warmth. I ran my palm under her hair, over the back of her neck, and gently tugged her hair free of the collar. I straightened the collar at her neck and ran my hands down the lapels. My gaze lit on hers.
We stayed that way for a long moment, gazes held on one another. Her smile faded, and she suddenly looked very unsure. She slipped a hand up between us, resting her fingertips on my jaw. The only sound was that of long, deep breaths. Bursts of white air floated up between us, gathering and scattering in the space of moments.
Her features softened, and for a moment I thought she was going to kiss me; but instead, she whispered, "Alexi, I should go." She touched my lip with her fingers, dragging them over my flesh there, and somewhere within myself, I felt something primal stir. I was hard, of course, but it was more than that. Some part of me called to her, and I felt a stunning sense of loss when she pulled away.
I stood there, shell-shocked for a long moment, watching as she hurried off. Her shoulders were hunched, and she hugged herself, pulling my jacket around her, leaning her cheek into the lapel. I was still watching when she reached the door and turned to look at me, but when she saw me looking at her, she looked away.
Unsettled, I turned and picked up my bag. I went to my locker and opened it. I bundled the bag into the locker and tried to fight off the real grief that rose in my chest. You're an idiot, Alex, I told myself; she just left the goddamn rink, it's not like she died or anything. And then I heard her call me Alexi again, and the loss washed over me all over again, and I leaned my head against the cold metal door in frustration at my own stupidity. I stayed there for long minutes, my consciousness a maelstrom of Marita and Elena and Mulder and Samantha and my mother and...well, everything. I felt very tired.
The idea hit me all at once, so hard and fast through my consciousness that my stupid angst evaporated, forgotten. My eyes flew open, and I pushed back from the locker with a start. I turned and headed for the door in a run.
I had to see Marita.
She must have run off.
She was at the house before I caught up with her. "Marita," I called, running up the staircase behind her. She turned to look at me, still holding my jacket around her despite the temperate conditions; but her usual calm was restored.
"What is it?" she said, one hand resting delicately on the hand-carved banister.
I caught up with her, stopping at her side to catch my breath. "Back there, at the rink-"
She cut me off. "I don't want to talk about it." She started off towards her suite.
We rounded the corner. "No, it isn't that. I had an idea-"
"You fucking whore!"
The shouted epithet made us both pause. A stream of obscenities followed, punctuated by sobs. Female sobs.
We both turned in the direction of the suite on our left. I shot a look at Marita. She was already fumbling with her keys - looking for a master, I supposed. She rapped on the door. "Who's in there?"
The door opened after a long moment - just a fraction. A middle-aged man appeared, his robe loosely belted at the waist. A heavy gold chain lay nestled in the rather scraggy-looking thatch of graying hair on his chest. He peered out at us. "Sorry. We'll keep it down." His words were conciliatory; his expression was anything but.
"Sorry doesn't cut it, I'm afraid, Senator," Marita said calmly. "Who do you have with you?" She attempted to peer over his shoulder, but he pulled the door to bar her visibility.
"Nobody. Nobody!" I opened my mouth to speak, then decided against it. This was Marita's fight.
"You have a lady with you, Senator," she said severely. "That's hardly nobody. Who's there?" she called, raising her voice a little.
"It's - it's me, Miss Covarrubias. Chanel."
"Come out, please, Chanel. I need you downstairs."
"I haven't finished with her," the man said angrily.
"As a matter of fact, you have," Marita said. "You've finished here altogether. You're barred. Indefinitely."
Now he really did look conciliatory. "Now, surely we can negotiate," he said with a winning smile. But looking at Marita, I thought it was too little, too late.
"There's nothing to negotiate, Senator," she replied, smiling too. "Nobody calls my ladies whores."
"Oh, come on, Marita," he smiled, still sure he could win her over. "It won't happen again."
"No, it won't," she smiled back. "Come along, Chanel."
The girl came past the man, a little nervously. She was holding her ripped negligee together with her hand, arm crossed over her body. He made no move to let her pass, but Marita glared at him, and he moved just a little. The girl had to brush up against him to get through, and she flinched. Marita opened her phone. "Connie? Send security to room 13 on the fourth floor, please. Senator Wells is to be escorted from the building."
Satisfied that the man would be no more trouble, I started to manoeuver the bedraggled Chanel towards the stairs, then stopped, turning to look at Marita for a long moment. We couldn't bring the girl through the public stairway like that. "My room," she said, folding the flip.
"Come on, Chanel," I said, turning and motioning for her to do the same.
"Lynette," she corrected miserably. "It's really Lynette." I nodded and guided her down the hall. Marita went ahead of us and opened the door. She motioned for us to enter, came in herself, then closed the door behind us.
The girl sat down on the bed and cried steadily for quarter of an hour.
While we waited for her to cry herself out, we busied ourselves. I poured us all some brandy. Marita went to her wardrobe and got out a floral dress with a Laura Ashley tag on it. Maybe four hundred dollars' worth, I thought; but she didn't seem to give that much thought. A set of underwear from a shopping bag, still with the price tags, clearly just purchased for herself. French lace, I supposed. Another two hundred. She laid them out on the bed near the girl and settled back on the armchair. Since the only remaining chairs were a pair of iron stools on the dais, I settled for sitting on the arm of the chair at Marita's side. I handed her her drink, and she took it, looking up at me, resting a hand on my thigh. "Thank you," she whispered.
It was another five minutes before the girl was calm, and in that time, I was very aware of the two women. The impersonal appeal of the girl, pretty and vulnerable and oh, so sweet; and side-by-side with that, the other, the woman silhouetted in the warm light of the room. The adolescent attraction of weakness and the adult attraction of strength. And as I looked down at Marita, her cheek softly illuminated, I couldn't help wondering what it would be like to touch her.
With a slowing progression of sniffles, the girl grew still. I nodded to her drink on the bedside table, and she drank from it gratefully. "Thanks."
"You okay, Lynette?" Marita said gently.
"Yeah," she sniffled. "He'd just had too much to drink."
"Why did you go in with him if he was drunk?" she asked, not unkindly.
"Oh, he wasn't drunk. I mean he wasn't aggressive. He'd just had enough to drink that, you know." She took a long sip of her drink.
Clearly, that was the end of the sentence, and Marita looked bewildered. "He couldn't sustain an erection," I supplied clinically. Marita's expression cleared, and I wondered why she didn't know that. Lynette nodded, and I hazarded, "And he blamed you."
"Most of them do," she said morosely. I nodded in sympathy. I'd seen it happen.
"You do know that you have the right to refuse to see any man, don't you?" Marita said. She spoke softly, as though to an injured child.
Lynette shrugged. "I know about the policy, but it doesn't work like that. We lose shifts if we refuse men."
"Is that right," Marita said grimly. I couldn't help wishing I could be a fly on the wall at her next meeting with Connie Francis.
Lynette nodded. "Lisa - that's the one they call Bardot - she refused a guy last week. He stank like hell. Miss Francis said she'd have her little girl's place at onsite daycare revoked if she didn't get in there."
I breathed out heavily. "Jesus, that's low."
"It certainly is," Marita said in a tight little voice. I shot her a look. Part of me was angry at the goddamn privilege of her - how could she not know that these women were weak, and that that weakness was held over them? - but a bigger part felt pity. She had inherited this awful place with very little idea of what she was getting into, and she was doing the best she could. She could have sent for the girl's clothes, but she had given her six hundred dollars worth of her own, instead. I knew women with far more who would have given far less.
We sat there in silence for a while, but finally, I rose, taking all our glasses back to the bar. "Lynette," I said, "there's a bathroom through that door there that you can use."
"Thank you - both of you," she sniffled, picking up the clothes. She padded across the room like a bedraggled kitten, went in, and shut the door behind her.
Marita was watching me with a strange expression, as though she'd learned something new about me - something she liked. I held her gaze for a long moment, wondering what was on her mind, but then I drew myself up and sighed. "I should go," I said with regret. "She's probably had enough men in her personal space for one day."
"Okay." She got up and crossed the room to meet me. She caught my hand. "Will you be around today?"
I nodded. "I could meet you in the restaurant when you finish up here."
She gave a wan smile. "I'd like that." She drew me close and kissed my cheek. "Thank you," she said, lingering there, warm breaths drifting across my skin.
"For what?" I asked, pleasantly surprised.
She shrugged. "For letting me handle that guy. For being kind to that girl. I don't know. Just...thank you."
I squeezed her hand, still entwined with mine. "Okay."
"See you downstairs."
I made my way down to the restaurant and ordered a coffee. I sat there reflectively for a while, trying to get my thoughts into some kind of order. And again and again, they coalesced around Marita.
If this were a dimestore novel, I suppose I would have struggled with my growing attraction to her at this point; but it wasn't really like that. I didn't feel stricken or apprehensive. I felt peaceful - almost complacent. I wanted her; I had wanted her all along. The fascination that teased the outer fringes of my consciousness seemed like the most natural thing in the world. In that moment, if someone had predicted that she would become my wife, I would have nodded with serene agreement: "Of course. Of course she will." No doubt in my mind whatsoever.
That would come later.
I looked up at her. "Hey," I said by way of greeting. "Take a seat." I rose, then sat again as she joined me. She sat, not opposite me, but at right angles to me, at the closest chair. She looked troubled.
"Lynette okay?" I asked, at last. It seemed as good an opening as any.
She shrugged. "She'll be okay. I'll be glad when she goes, though."
"Goes?" I echoed.
"She's only got a few months left 'til she finishes med school. Just as well - she's not cut out for this, Alex. Some women turn hard and some women get out, and she needs to get out."
I nodded slowly. Then, suspicions growing, I said with feigned casualness, "I suppose you're going to fire Connie Francis?"
"My authority doesn't extend that far, I'm afraid," she said grimly. "But she's been cautioned."
"I thought you owned the place," I said mildly.
"Legally. But there are, shall we say, other stakeholders."
She shot me a look. "That's right." The lines of her jaw were set hard with distaste.
"You hate it as much as I do," I said in wonder.
She gave a tight little smile. "Probably more."
I reached for her, my hand finding hers on the table impulsively. "Mare," I said gently; and then I realised what I was doing, and I pulled away abruptly. "I mean, Marita - I'm sorry -"
She shook her head. "No, Alexi, it's-" she broke off. She seemed to recognise what she was doing then, that she was accepting an overture; and her expression turned thoughtful. She watched me, a slight furrow in her brow, before she went on hesitantly, "You can call me that. If you want."
"I'd like that," I said mildly; but I had to smile. Just had to. Looking at her and seeing that slight softening around her eyes, that softness that was for me, I couldn't do anything else. And the corners of her lips turned up, too - just a little. It was a very comfortable moment.
"Mare?" I said at last. I liked how the name sounded; how it felt, passing between my lips. It was equal parts address and caress.
"Why didn't you know what she meant? About the drinking?"
She shrugged. "Well, you know, Michael wasn't much of a drinker. And in case you hadn't noticed, I'm not much of a madam, either. The pragmatics are Connie's department - a situation I mean to remedy."
She was preoccupied with her anger at Connie - so much so that she seemed oblivious to what she revealed. I stared at her. "Michael's the only man you've been with," I said, feeling shock and recognition in equal measure.
A look of affront flitted across her features, and for a moment I thought I'd made a mistake in saying so. But then, suddenly, her expression cleared. Her jaw firm, her voice tinged with an undertone of pride, she said with heartbreaking simplicity, "Yes."
I felt a flush of affection. Quite aside from any fascination, any desire I felt for her, in that moment I discovered that I genuinely liked her. It wasn't just her unexpected inexperience or any lingering innocence I might have imagined she possessed as a consequence. In that moment, without a trace of artifice, she revealed herself as someone who had nothing to prove. There are so many moments down the years that I have fallen in love with her, again and again; but if pressed to identify the first, that would be the one. Right then, I loved her, and had the waiter not interrupted us to clear the table, I might very well have done something stupid like telling her so.
"So what did you come after me for, anyway?" she asked as the waiter moved on. "You said you had an idea."
I stared at her, aghast at the extent of my own distraction. "God, I forgot all about it with the Lynette thing." She watched me, her brow furrowed in query. "What if we've been on the wrong track all along? What if Samantha's diaries aren't in the house?"
"You mean in storage? A safe somewhere?" she queried.
"In a manner of speaking," I said, mentally riffling through fragments of information in my mind. "Michael built the ice arena for Samantha. Marita, they have lockers at the ice arena."
Her eyes widened, and she rose, taking me by the hand.
"Lorena? I need the locker master keys."
A middle-aged woman peered down at us over the top of a pair of ample breasts. "Sure," she said agreeably, coming down the steps and leading us into the office. She went to the desk and rummaged in a drawer. "I see you found your friend okay," she said, nodding to me.
"Yes," Mare said absently, taking the keys the older woman held out. "We - oh, the club room lockers, not the day hires."
"Oh, okay," Lorena replied, rummaging again. "Is everything okay?"
"There's been a product recall on the lock mechanism. Only some serial numbers were affected. We have to check each one."
"We've had them eight years. They seem fine."
"Yeah, I know," she said, feigning weariness. "But if we don't comply with the recall and we have a theft, our insurance won't cover it. A locker with two pairs of custom skates could cost thousands."
"I suppose. Do you want me to do it?"
Mare waved a hand. "No, I'm going in there anyway." She held out her hand expectantly, and the woman handed the keys over without protest.
"That was easy," I commented after we had left her. We walked side-by-side along the boards.
"House employees are just regular people. The only ones with any idea what they're dealing with, besides security and the defense trainers, are the courtesans."
"What the hell do they think this is?" I wondered.
"Country club for the elite and influential. We make a big show of warning them about privacy and the paparazzi. The fact that we have a few politicians around helps our cause considerably."
"Fair enough." We slipped past the Zamboni. "Have you ever skated?"
"I did a bit of ice racing at Oxford - Magdalen College had these recreational group outings. Strictly amateur, stand on the pond and hope the ice doesn't give way. Diana couldn't bear to watch. Said she had visions of fishing me out."
I laughed. "That sounds like Diana." We reached the clubroom, and I stopped, waiting. She opened the door and nodded for me to enter ahead of her. I did so, and she followed, locking the door behind us.
I looked around, taking in the noticeboards and the test application forms and the abandoned skate guards and all the usual paraphernalia. I inhaled the faint scent of mildew and feet. It was mildly unpleasant, but also familiar; and I felt sudden nostalgia. It was a strains-of-childhood moment.
Mare was leaned against the wall, her arms crossed, watching me with open amusement.
"What?" I asked mildly.
She shook her head, smiling. "Nothing. I can just see you here - or somewhere like here. Struggling with compulsory figures or something. What were you, twelve?"
"Fourteen. And I like figures. They still the mind. Good discipline."
"Rubbish. No-one likes figures."
"What would you know?" I demanded disdainfully. "You were an ice racer. Where's the skill in that?" I fought the turning up at the corners of my mouth, but it happened anyway.
"Bastard," she said with high humour. "Come on, let's check these lockers."
I watched as she used the master keys to unlock the first bank of lockers. I experienced a moment of doubt. "Even if she had a locker, Marita - what's to say it's still here? Samantha's been dead more than two years."
She shrugged uneasily, but she shook her head. "Michael and the Dark Man kept her rooms like a shrine. I'm betting they didn't send a memo down here to empty her locker."
"That's true," I conceded with reluctant hope. What had made perfect sense earlier in the day now seemed like a long shot, but it was the best idea either of us had come up with to date. I opened the top left locker, while Mare attended to the top right. "Brad Pitt."
Marita peered at the poster pinned to the inside of the door of hers. "Wilson Phillips. Who the hell's that?"
I closed my locker. "I've heard the name on the radio. She's pretty recent."
"After Samantha's time, then," she mused, moving on, and at the next locker, a skin mag tumbled out, landing neatly at her feet. She picked it up with apparent amusement. "I'm betting this one's a guy."
I shrugged. "Women read porn too. Especially women with psychosexual dysfunction," I added, remembering that Samantha had been a prostitute.
"True," she conceded, flipping through. She held it up, open at a centerfold of two men. "Probably more up your alley than hers, though." She grinned and returned it to its place.
I took it with good grace, saying wryly, "I prefer the real thing, myself," and passed on to the next locker. "Anything?"
"Random urine drug report on a twenty year old male. Must be competing."
"You gotta wonder with the quad jumps now," I mused, moving on. "When I was skating they said it couldn't be done."
"Well, some scientist proved the four-minute mile was a mathematical impossibility once, too. People grow." She opened another locker. "Nice custom boots," she mused. "Wilson New Gold Seal. More money than sense."
I frowned. "Let me see that." I went over to her, looking in as she stepped aside. I pulled out one of the skates for a closer look. "They stopped making these blades in the mid-eighties. I remember because I was really pissed about it. Look at the position of the toe pick-" I broke off at her blank expression. "Forget it, it doesn't matter. What matters is, these are old blades. They could belong to someone who started skating in 1979."
"These lockers have only been here since-" she counted back on her fingers "- 1986."
"There'd have been other lockers before that, or she might have kept them in her room. The point is, the dates fit." I handed her the skate and got out its mate. I reached further back into the locker and felt a large, bulky object with irregular edges. I drew it out impatiently. Marita took it from me before I could identify it. I brushed the dust from my hands and looked down at the thing in her hands.
"Diaries," she said with awe. She was picking at rubber bands that bound a dozen or so notebooks of varying size. "Is anything else in there? We still don't really know it's her."
"I imagine the diaries would clarify that question," I said thoughtfully, still groping around in the locker. The metal door fell in a way that blocked the glow of the electric light; I was working blind. "Sharpening stone," I guessed by feel, "skate hook...what's this?" I ran my fingers over the towel lining the bottom of the locker. There was a slight irregularity at the back, and I lifted the towel and drew out a small pile of photographs. I flipped through them. "It's her," I said at last.
"Let me see," Mare said anxiously, putting the diaries down on the bench. I handed the snapshots over in silence. I waited.
"It's Samantha," she said, after long, long moments. "And me."
"And Elena," I corrected.
"Yes," she whispered, blinking back sudden tears. "And Elena." Then, with compassion, "They were lovers."
"You don't know that," I countered; but my voice was mild, because I knew she was right.
"Look at the way they're holding each other. That's not best girlfriends. It's...intimate."
"Yes - I suppose it is."
"They look happy." I thought I heard a trace of envy in her voice.
"Yes, they do."
"That means she's a Consortium widow too. They do say twins' lives mirror each other." She sounded bitter.
She looked up at me suddenly, breaking into a smile. "You know what? I'm missing the point. She's here. She's alive, and she's here." She hugged me impulsively, drew back, and kissed me lightly on the mouth.
She drew back, but we both stopped just an inch or two apart; and I could feel her warm breath on me. She suddenly looked frightened. She said in a low, imploring voice, "Oh, Alex, please don't."
I didn't, but almost in the same breath, she did; leaning in diffidently and gently taking my lips between hers. I kissed her in turn, sliding my hands up to her neck, holding her face gently between them, suddenly filled with reverence. And then I felt her hands on my arms, not pushing them away, but holding me to her.
Encouraged, I teased her lips, going slow with her until she opened for me, drawing me in, claiming me. Her eyes were gleaming, tinged dark with longing; and they were open, fixed on mine. I liked that. I didn't want her lost in blind sensation. I wanted her lost in me. For long, vibrant moments, it seemed that she was; but at last, she pulled away, and broke free of my arms. She moved a little way away, her expression nervous...hunted.
Frowning a little, I went to her, stood at her side; but did not attempt to touch. Gently, I said, "Mare, did you...did you not want me to do that? Because I thought you did." Never mind that I knew perfectly well she did, never mind that I could feel her wanting coming off her in waves, because I could also sense her fear. There was something very fragile about her just then, and I didn't want to scare her off.
"No, I did," she admitted at last. She looked at me; that was a good sign. She said hesitantly, "I just...I'm afraid."
"Of me?" I said quietly, unbelievingly.
That seemed to derail her. "No," she said vaguely. Then, with more resolve, "No, not of you."
She said with utter lack of guile, "I don't know."
We stood there watching each other for a long moment; but at last, I nodded. "Okay," I sighed. "However you want it, that's how we'll play it, Mare."
She laughed sourly at that. "Nothing in my life is how I want it," she said with bitterness.
"This is," I insisted, taking her by the shoulders and looking into her eyes. I repeated for emphasis, "This is."
She watched me, and at last, nodding, she came to me; and she let me hold her in my arms.
We stood there holding one another for a long time.
"'I miss the Dark Man.
"'I wish he was here, and I wish I could talk to him about Elena. Michael was very clear about the need for secrecy, but I wish he'd let me tell the Dark Man. I feel very unsure of my ground without his guidance. Michael means well, but his attachment to Larissa Covarrubias clouds his judgement sometimes.' That was in May 1984." I turned to Marita, who lay at my side. "I wonder why he didn't want the Dark Man to know about Elena?"
"I've given up wondering why Michael did anything," she said morosely, still staring at the ceiling. She kicked off her shoes, moving a little on the bed to do so. It was the first time she'd moved since we'd returned to her suite with our bounty. She'd sat on the bed and then sank back, still wrapped in my too-big jacket like a child. But her peaceful stance belied her cloudy gaze. Mare was troubled.
"That's understandable," I said thoughtfully. Actually, I had wondered why she hadn't shown any bitterness towards Michael sooner. The man had loved her and sheltered her, that's true; but he had also deceived her profoundly. Still, I supposed, death was the great redeemer.
Mare said abruptly, "Go back to where she and Elena met." She rolled onto her side and took her drink from the nightstand where I had set it down an hour earlier. She looked at me over the top of her glass, and I saw that the cloudiness was gone from her eyes, replaced with a purposeful gleam. Whatever shocked paralysis had gripped her, it was gone now, and she was ready to get down to business. I was relieved.
"Okay." I started flipping pages. "That's the red notebook." I set the one I was holding down and took the one she offered. "Here it is. 'Michael came to see me tonight. Thank God he called ahead, or he'd have found me with Matheson.'"
"Jeez, that scum gets around," Mare said irritably. "How old is Samantha here?"
"Nineteen, I think."
"Thank God for small mercies. Go on."
"'Matheson had some interesting information about the cloning project, by the way, but I daren't write it here. It's been recorded safely and given to the Dark Man in the usual manner. He asked where I got it, and I said he didn't want to know. He looked upset. I have a horrid feeling he knows what I do here. I never wanted him, of all people, to know that.'" Mare's cheek twitched a little. She swallowed hard. Frowning, I continued, "'Michael had a girl with him. Twelve or thirteen - she wasn't precisely sure herself. Apparently he found her at a UFO crash site. She wouldn't tell me her name, but Michael says it's Elena.'"
"She stowed away," Mare mused. "Or they were taking her somewhere. Michael gets the call, and because she looks like me, he knows who she must be. That all hangs together. He either told the group she died, or never said there was a survivor at all."
I checked the dates. "This could be Groom Lake," I said thoughtfully. She looked at me, askance. I elaborated, "We studied it in political ethics. The Air Force seized close to 100,000 acres of land without due process. There was a congressional enquiry into the matter in 1984. The Air Force guy said, basically, that no, they didn't have any legal right to do it, but the decision had been made at a much higher level. He demanded, and got, a closed session before he would explain further. No-one outside that hearing knows what the justification was for the seizure, or why it was ordered at such a high level."
"Sounds like a UFO crash," Mare agreed. "So Michael tells Mother that he's found her other daughter. She wants to get to know her, and she doesn't want anyone to find out. Or maybe she's worried I'll be mistaken for Elena - by the Colonists, or by Spender or someone. Maybe all of the above."
I turned onto my side to look at her. "So she pushes you to accept the Oxford offer and says she'll take care of the paperwork refusing your Harvard offer. Then she sends Elena to Harvard as you."
"In a science program," Mare said grimly. "She was grooming her to go into the work - which she probably did. But where?"
"Spender's camp - as a resistance double, probably. That was what Samantha was doing, after all. She studied cloning and eugenics - she was preparing to go into hybrid research, but Michael and your mother had her reporting back."
She stared at me, brow furrowed, rising up on one elbow. "But that would mean half the Consortium knew she was recovered. Why would they keep it from me?"
I shrugged. "Maybe your mom thought you'd be angry about the lies. Maybe she thought it was best left alone."
Mare thought on this for a moment, her expression dubious, but then she shook her head. "No. My mother and I aren't on those terms. There must be something else." She knelt up and leaned over me to get to her drink, her hand on my hip, seemingly oblivious to my proximity. "Maybe the Colonists don't know she was recovered - maybe that's the reason for the secrecy, rather than anything to do with me."
"What were you told when you were shipped off to England?"
She pulled away and settled back down into the bed, drink in hand. "That my mother had done something that put her in danger. That it was important for me to stay hidden - hence the alias. But don't ask me why she didn't keep me as me and give Elena the alias - surely that would make more sense."
I shrugged. "Maybe she thought that the Colonists would suspect the switch. Maybe she thought sending you away was safer than keeping you there." She held out her empty glass, and I took it from her and put it on the floor beside the bed.
"That would mean she was prepared to put Elena in the firing line to shield me." She swallowed hard. "It's not a nice thought."
"But understandable. She'd raised you. She hadn't seen Elena in eleven years."
Remorse washed over her features. Her head drooped suddenly. "God."
I set the diaries aside and slung my arm over her side, teasing my hand over her shoulder blade. "Mare, you haven't done anything wrong. It isn't your fault."
She shook her head. "God, Alexi," she sighed, "what a mess."
"We're going to fix it, Marita," I said. "Whatever the hell they did, we're going to make it right."
She pulled away, a weak smile playing around her mouth. "Do you know, no-one's ever said that to me before?"
"What?" I asked, uncomprehending.
"That we're going to fix it. They say, 'I'll fix it, Marita. Don't you worry about a thing.'" She laughed, a wounded sound of irony. "I like it, Alex. It feels good to be a grownup."
"I never saw you as anything else."
She gave a wry grin. "You're in the minority."
"Marita, you are smart and funny and clever and capable and strong and - and beautiful. You don't need them, or your sister, or me to be okay. I'll help you with this, but this is your fight, and I know that, and I know that you're going to win."
She looked unaccountably close to tears. "Thank you, Alexi."
I reached out to stroke back her hair, but she stiffened. "Don't," she said in an undertone. I drew back, and I tried not to look hurt; but I mustn't have succeeded, because she reached out for my hand. "No, Alex, I don't mean it like that," she said, tugging me close to her again.
"Then how did you mean it?"
She started to speak, then stopped a couple of times. Finally, she said, "Alex, I don't always know what I want."
"Don't you?" I demanded. "Or is it that you've never been allowed to have what you want?"
She was very pale. "I don't know. Maybe."
We were silent for long moments. "Is it about what I do, who I work for?" I asked finally. "Because Marita, if you want some nice ordinary man who'll give you three kids and life in the suburbs, I can understand that. I'll back off, if you want me to."
"No," she said sharply. "No, don't do that. It isn't that." Then, hesitantly, "Could you just give me time?"
She leaned in and kissed me, slow and tender, and I held her close, cradling her shoulder with my palm. It was a gentle kiss, soft and reverent, giving and taking with almost chaste adoration. It was long and deep and wet, and, easing her back, I thought I could kiss her that way forever.
Our bodies, however, had other ideas.
The ache for her hit me thick and fast, and I felt warm threads of desire spiraling out through me like a drug. The gentle kiss turned fierce and hungry. She shook with need; her breaths came quick and shallow, and her hips pressed against mine, searching for me with an instinct as old as time. It was the irresistible pull of body to body, flesh to flesh, and it washed over both of us with stunning force. Our legs were entwined, and our hands searched blindly, grasping for whatever fabric or flesh they could. With an agonised gasp of longing, she pushed me away, and she said with a ragged sigh, "Please go, Alex. Please."
Mutely, I nodded, unable to speak, and I rose, moving a little unsteadily on my feet. As I reached the door, she took my hand in hers and squeezed it - such a harmless gesture - and then we were in one another's arms all over again. My mouth was on her neck, finding warm flesh there and taking it between my lips. She made high, keening sounds of need, cradling my head there with her hand. "I want you," I sighed against her. The feel of her was so bright it hurt; and the idea of ever being without her was cold.
"God! Alex," she sighed, almost on the point of weeping. "I want- I want-" and then the words were lost in her cries of need. She thrust her fingers through my hair, urging me on against her throat. She cried out, "Oh, God, please go, please go now-" and then there were tears streaming down her cheeks.
I tasted salt. I pulled back at once, shocked and bewildered. "Mare?" I said breathlessly, and I smoothed away her tears with my fingertips. "I'm so sorry," I said, and I had no idea what I'd done wrong, but I was. It hurt to see her like that.
She smiled weakly through her tears. "It's not you - I swear it's not you. Just leave me, please."
Perplexed, I kissed her forehead, and I left her there.
I didn't sleep well that night. My body ached with need, and my heart ached for Mare. I was able to attend to one ache with my hand, but that left just the other, and that was somehow worse. Every time I closed my eyes, I relived her pulling me to her and pushing me away, weeping that she wanted me and weeping that I should go. I drank and I smoked and I tossed and I turned, and I woke feeling no more refreshed than when I lay down.
I rose at dawn and headed down to the rink. I skated off the worst of my tension, but my disquiet remained. Stroking around the rink in laps, I ticked over the events of the last twenty-four hours. They were suggestive, but what they suggested was painful to contemplate. I felt physically hurt, physically ill at the possibilities presented in my mind.
I wasn't sure whether she would be at training, but she was there, looking tired and pale, her hair pulled back in a severe ponytail. She wore my jacket, but she didn't offer to give it back. I was glad.
We warmed up in silence for a while, but at last, she spoke.
"They made a pact."
I looked at her questioningly.
"Samantha and Elena. They made a pact when Elena first got there that they would both try to infiltrate the hybrid project and bring it down. That they would work on a weapon against the alien invasion."
"You stayed up reading the journals?"
She shot me an agonised glance. "I couldn't sleep."
I admitted, "Neither could I."
Bright pink spots rose in her cheeks, and her eyes grew moist. Her voice tinged with humiliation, she began, "Alex-"
"It's okay," I said. "Don't." I stroked her cheek with the back of my hand, and she leaned into it, eyes closed. She gave a long, shuddering sigh, then nodded.
We heard footsteps, and she pulled away, wiping her eyes. She managed a wan smile. Karen rounded the corner, her booming voice several steps ahead of her. "Come on, people. We all warmed up?"
"No-one should be that happy this time of the morning," Mare muttered, getting to her feet, and I laughed. A little cautiously, she laughed too. She held out a hand and drew me up.
"Do it, Alex!"
I stared down at Marita, thrashing beneath me.
"Do it!" she shouted again, pushing against me. I held her down, her arms stretched out over her head; but her legs were working me hard. She was strong - damn strong.
"Work her, Alex," came the firm voice of our trainer. "You're not doing her any favours by going easy."
I turned my head and hissed, "I'm not, damn it!"
Marita used the opportunity. Her knee pounded into my crotch, and it exploded in white-hot agony. She threw me over onto my back and held me down. I'd been aroused earlier on, but now that adrenaline was driven into more basic instincts. I pushed back, pushed her hard, slammed her hard into the mat and held her fast. She pushed back, wrists thrusting my hands upwards, and I fought to hold her. "Do it," she said again. "I need-" she was labouring for breath.
"What do you need?" I panted.
"I need to know," she whispered. "How far I have to go."
With all the strength I had left, I forced her wrists back down. "Not far," I gasped out. I collapsed against her, breathing heavily, relief radiating through my body. I half expected her to make a last stand, but she didn't.
"And that's a wrap. Good work, team. See you tomorrow." I waved half-heartedly at Karen, and I felt Mare do the same. I bowed my head to her shoulder. The door snicked shut, and then we were alone.
At last, after long, long moments, I lifted myself up onto my elbows. I met her gaze. We held each other that way, her eyes sea-green, clear like cut glass, staring up at me unblinkingly. She didn't smile, or frown, or speak with her eyes or her lips. She just *was*, ageless and perennial.
And how I wanted her.
I'm only a man, after all; and my body was alive with her. She'd been held against me, her presence engulfing me, her energy pulsing all around me. For long, long moments, we had been one together, feeding on one another's adrenaline, caught in parallel rays of trust and power in a way that was oddly like mating. And now, looking at her, it was like being inside her.
We stayed there, gazes held for a long, long moment; and then I closed my eyes, my breathing harsh with need. I could imagine her leaning up to me, and taking my face between her hands. I could imagine moving her body with mine; sliding hands over her body and plunging them into her hair. I could imagine her rolling me, raising herself up over me, kissing me hard, taking control. I could imagine sliding into her. And when I looked down at her once more, her eyes were shining.
"I should get off you," I said. My voice sounded ragged.
"Yeah," she breathed. She blew at a stray tendril of hair that had caught in her mouth. It didn't move, and I brushed it back, my fingers brushing her cheeks. She shot me a gorgeous smile, and that undid me.
I touched her cheeks once more with my fingertips, searching the oh, so smooth lines of her face, as if to reassure myself that she was real. I traced from the edge of her eyebrow down to her jaw, leaning in a little. She turned her face to mine, her lips parted a little, classic position to kiss and be kissed; but neither of us did so, only staying there, exploring one another in the heat of a shared breath. Last night, there had been fiery passion; but right now, I wanted only to cherish - to revere, rather than to plunder. Her hand was rising from the floor, tentatively finding my side; and when she touched me, when she breathed my name, I was glad.
"Mare," I said in wonder. "Oh, Mare."
She moved, just a fraction, soft garnet lips seeking mine.
And then I heard footsteps.
I sank my head back against her shoulder with a groan of frustration, and I heard her curse softly as the door opened. I rolled off her with a sigh. We lay there, side by side, flushed and resigned as Diana rounded the corner.
"Oh, Marita, good. Karen said I'd find you here. Heavy training session?"
I suppressed a smirk.
"Just finishing up. What is it?"
"I just wanted to talk about Elizabeth's baptism. If this is a bad time-"
Marita shook her head with a sigh. "It's fine. Just give me a few minutes to shower and change, okay?" She rose, and I took the opportunity to sit up, cross-legged like a schoolchild, my crotch concealed by my loose track pants. I wasn't hard, but I wasn't really soft, either, and there was something a bit disconcerting about having an obvious hard-on in the presence of your beloved's best friend who was also your ex-lover's ex-wife.
Mare just read this over my shoulder. She thinks it's the funniest thing I've said in ages.
"I'm beat," I said, because it was a moment where it seemed something should be said. "She gave me a run for my money."
Diana was frowning. "I'm surprised she's doing this, actually. Marita can be funny sometimes."
"I don't know...about being safe, I suppose."
I thought about it. I remembered the locker room at the ice arena, and what had happened last night, and I thought that made sense. "Well, she hasn't got much to worry about," I said dryly. "She's strong...strong as a man. Maybe stronger."
The animation suddenly left Diana's face. "Don't tell her that," she said sharply. She looked ashen.
"Why not?" I demanded, confused.
"Because -" she hesitated, her expression softening. "Because Rita should learn not to be so safe. She needs to learn to take risks sometimes."
I watched her dubiously. I didn't doubt the basic truthfulness of her words, but Diana Donovan wasn't the sort to casually discuss anyone's psyche with a third party. She was more discreet, more circumspect than that. I had the uncomfortable certainty that I'd missed something important. It couldn't have been clearer if she'd had the words "THAT WAS CLOSE" tattooed into her forehead.
She seemed discomforted by my scrutiny, because she looked down at her hands and started fiddling, twisting her wedding ring compulsively. I felt momentary pity, and I saw no value in pursuing the matter for the moment; so I said, "I think that's probably true."
Diana looked back up at me nervously. She nodded, slowly regaining her normal composure. "Listen, I'm sorry about coming in when I did."
So she had sensed it after all.
"Forget it," I said with resignation. "It's probably just as well."
"What do you mean?"
"It would be a mistake. She's too young."
"I was married at her age. And you're only a couple of years older."
I held her gaze. "I'm not talking about years, and you know it."
Diana's features were softer than usual, compassionate and warm. "She has a woman's heart, Alex. If she has a child's fears, it's because she's been encouraged to do so by people who wanted her to be helpless for reasons of their own."
I looked up at her, my brow furrowed; and at last, I made a decision. "She wants this," I said with certainty. "But she's scared to death." I sighed; then, with great reluctance, I gave voice to my growing fears. "Diana, was she raped?"
Diana bowed her head, her shoulders slumped sadly; and for an instant, I believed I was right. Exquisite pain crashed over me in waves, lodging deep in my belly and radiating out; but then she shook her head. "I understand why you ask, Alex, but no. Not to my knowledge, and I think she would have told me if she was."
The pain lessened, just a little. "What, then?"
"Well, Marita didn't have the healthiest of experiences."
I nodded, thinking it over. "So what do you think I should do?"
Her shoulders drooped. She suddenly looked very old. "Do I look like an expert to you? My first husband was gay and my second husband is Consortium, for Chrissake."
"Sorry," I mumbled. I was suddenly quite sure she knew about my affair with Mulder. They were divorced, but it still had to bite.
She sighed. "No, I'm sorry. I'm in a foul mood and it hasn't got anything to do with you." I shrugged in acceptance of this backhanded apology. "Look, I don't know what you should do. What I do know is that you can't decide on the basis of what you *think* is best for her. Do you really think she needs yet another protector?"
"And what about you?" I flared. "Aren't you protecting her? Whatever it is that you're not telling, do you really think she's that weak?"
She laughed at that, a little sadly. "Marita?" she scoffed. "No. But I am."
"You're one of the strongest people I know."
"You don't understand," she burst out. "You damn men don't understand anything." At another time, that might have offended me; but I had the sense that the comment wasn't really about me. "My parents are dead. Fox-" she broke off, shrugging helplessly. "Rita is the only one left who - who-"
"Who knew you before?"
She nodded, pain etched into her expression in harsh lines. "I don't know if I can hurt her the way I'd have to hurt her to tell her what I know."
"She needs to know, Diana." Then, deliberately, I challenged, "Do you really think she needs yet another protector?"
I expected anger, but instead, she gave a crooked little smile. "She could do worse than you, you know, Alex," she said amiably. I smiled back - the genuine companionship in her expression was infectious. But then her smile faded, and she said grimly, "But do as I say - not as I do."
She turned then, and left me to consider.
"What happened to you?"
Mare looked at me blankly for a moment, closing the door behind me, but then her expression cleared. "Attack of the balding assassin."
She sat on a stool in front of the dresser and began to brush her hair. "Have you come across a guy named Fordham?"
"Once or twice. He's quite mild-mannered, as assassins go."
"Well, he also has a hair fetish." I shifted uncomfortably. It was the first time she had spoken of what she did here in this room with her - submissives? Bottoms? Clients? What the hell did she call them, anyway? "But he didn't have the skill to be a hairdresser, so he figured he'd go kill people for a living instead."
"He did quite a number on yours," I noted. "Give me that." I took the brush from her and began to tease out the odd-looking braid.
"Thanks," she said, settling back. I pulled up another stool and sat down behind her.
"What do you do in here with them, anyway?" I asked hesitantly.
"As little as possible," she said with a twisted little grin that I could see reflected in the mirror. It was odd, seeing her reflected that way, her features swapped around the opposite way. It was like looking at a different person. Odder still to think that she saw herself that way all the time. "I stalk around in leather with a riding crop with Matheson. He sits on that wooden chair on the dais and jerks off, while I threaten to whip his hide if he doesn't tell his latest homoerotic fantasy with sufficient enthusiasm."
"He'd love that," I grinned.
"Yeah," she said, with just a trace of disgust. Her mouth curled into something hard and hurtful. "So are you going to ask me to do that for you, now, Alex?"
I kept my expression neutral, but I felt anger - and hurt. Was that what she thought of me? How fucked up was that? But I watched her in the mirror, saw the rigid way she held herself, the fear in her eyes, and then I understood, at least a little. What she'd asked wasn't really about me. It was about how she was accustomed to being treated. One way or another, Mare had been used her whole life.
I shook my head, not looking at her, deliberately keeping my attention on her hair. "I wouldn't do that to you, Mare. Not when it's not what you want." I felt her shoulders go slack and the lines of her body soften. With feigned carelessness, I wondered, "What *do* you want?"
"I want to be a woman," she said fiercely. "I don't want to play these bullshit games in this ridiculous room. Look at it, for God's sake. There's a tiled platform for a bathroom. If you use it, you're visible from every vantagepoint in the room. It's a fucking altar for prostitutes, made by men who see women as things. It's disgusting."
I agreed with her, but I didn't say so, only nodding as I worked on her hair. At last, she said in a much mellower voice, "You know, I get the creeps when that guy touches my hair."
I let go of her hair abruptly, mumbling an apology; but she turned in her seat. "No, Alexi. It's different when you do it. You don't want anything from me."
I smoothed back the hair from her forehead. "That's not entirely true, Mare. I do want you."
"But that's not why you're brushing my hair."
I shook my head. "No."
"That's the difference. It's a gift." She picked up the brush and handed it back to me. "Would you? Please?"
I love to listen to her speak.
Back then, as now, it was not something she did often. Mare has an economy with words, and in those days she revealed little. When she did speak, what she had to say was always important, always honest. I understood why she spoke so little: she had little capacity for deceit. Her silence was her only protection.
But she spoke to me.
She spoke of her upbringing, of being sheltered and loved; but also of being used and controlled. She spoke in facts, not in feelings; and yet her eyes flashed emerald when she was happy, and - far more often - aventurine when she was not. There was a simplicity about her account that was deeply moving.
It wasn't often that she spoke in this way. But somewhere along the line, brushing her hair - something that began as a mere gesture and became a ritual - somehow that became a time of rest...a safe space in which she would talk. Brushing her hair was mating without mating, intimacy without the terrors that intimacy held for her. Sometimes we would sit there, her resting back in my arms for hours, talking not to each other but to each other reflected. It might not have been the fodder of romance novels, but it was adoration and reverence, and in those moments, I felt peace.
I made no attempt to draw her out, but let her tell me whatever she chose. Her bewilderment on being exiled to England. Her loneliness, her fear and distrust of the older men there, her very private homesickness to which only Diana had been privy. She spoke bitterly of the arranged engagement into which Larissa had coerced her. She spoke resignedly of Michael's ongoing deceit about the work, and wistfully of his almost fatherly kindness. Hesitantly, she spoke of his gentleness in those early days of their relationship; of him taking her virginity when she was eighteen, and how she had feared that she would not be able to live with their relationship anymore after that. I developed an unwilling respect for Michael as she spoke; a sense that he had brought her through the fire of confusion and youth as well as anyone could have in the circumstances she lived with. Side-by-side with that was a lazily growing hatred for him, for Larissa, for the Dark Man. Little wonder fear and compromise and sex had gotten twisted up together in her mind.
"You know, I don't want pity," she said one day. I never knew what sparked that comment; but she must have seen compassion in my expression reflected before her more than once. "I'm a wealthy woman with a loving family. If I've had crosses to bear, that makes me no different to anyone else."
I wondered if she really understood how radically she had been used; how radically compromised her experience of normal relationship or sexuality or companionship had been. I don't think she fully understood that until we had children of our own. Lacking that foreknowledge, though, I only nodded noncommittally; said, "I don't pity you, Mare."
"Then what do you-" she stopped.
"Feel?" I challenged lightly, laying a hand on her shoulder. She looked at me in the mirror and gave an oh, so cautious nod. "Affinity," I said after some thought.
She put her hand over mine and turned her head a little, leaning her cheek against it. She didn't speak, and she didn't move for a long, long time.
I wondered if anyone had had affinity with her in her life.
Language is the mirror of the soul.
That particular pearl of wisdom came from my rhetoric professor, a man well-versed in the eloquence of his craft. He was a Jesuit priest, equal parts icon and heretic, and he had captured my imagination in a way no other philosopher had. He'd been on loan from Harvard Divinity School, and the faculty was in no hurry to give him back.
But if language was the mirror of the soul, I was in trouble. Because in my own mind, never before had I had a term for the sexual act. I had euphemisms by the truckload – 'wanted him', 'had her', 'needed it' – but never a term that fitted my perception. 'Fuck' was crass. 'Intercourse' was clinical, bordering on silly. 'Make sex' - a term coined by a Jordanian friend in high school - appealed to my sense of humour; but that didn't fit either. My reserve was, undoubtedly, a hangover from my mother's reticence on the subject; but that knowledge didn't bother me. There were worse parental legacies, most of which I'd been spared.
What bothered me was the thought, unbidden, that I wanted to make love to Mare. A troubling thought, because never before had I had used that phrase in the silence of my heart. But 'making love' were the only words that fitted what I wanted with her, though I had only a vague idea of what that might really mean. Wanting Mare was not a bad thing, though it complicated things more than I cared to admit. Even loving her, if it came to that, was not a bad thing: she was a woman of strength and character, and while I could do worse, I doubted I would do better. But the idea that she changed me – actively changed my perceptions – that was troubling. It was an intrusion, much like the intrusion of being penetrated – not unwelcome, but always exposing. No-one had ever touched me that way before – not even Mulder. Part of me relished it, like a breath of fresh air through my soul; but I was still troubled.
Watching her now, talking to Diana at the bar, it occurred to me that maybe I could heal her. It was a conceited thought, of course, and part of me recognised that even at the time; but still, the idea wouldn't leave me. Soft-focus images arose in my mind of laying her out in cushions on her bed, of going slow with her and pleasing her until her fears evaporated.
I shook my head a little, amused by my own naivete. Mare was right. I was a closet romantic - and an adolescent one at that. Pity about that whole hired killer thing on the side.
Cardinale intruded on my thoughts, slapping me hard on the back. Asshole.
"Hello, Luis," I said. I suddenly felt very weary - not an unusual response to the appearance of my so-called partner.
"You here to see the Mistress Marita?" he said, nodding to the bar.
"Something like that."
"Pretty piece of ass you got there, Alex. Pity you got to share it with Fordham," he said with a cackle, hands at his hips, giving a little thrust.
To this day, I don't know why it bothered me the way it did. Maybe it was the contrast of his vulgarity with the beauty I'd imagined just seconds before. Maybe it was the cumulative effect of similar incidents. Maybe in that moment, I saw in him what she lived with and why she had the demons she did. Whatever the reason, I saw red, and I hauled off and punched him across the jaw. "You're not fit to eat the dirt she walks on," I spat, grabbing him by the lapels and pushing him to the wall. He pushed back, and next thing I knew, we were on the floor.
"Boys, boys, boys." Shit. Marita.
We looked up at her. She stood there over us, legs apart, hands on her hips. She lifted a shapely leg and nudged us apart with her toe. I lay there on my back, Cardinale at my side, suddenly conscious of the onlookers. So much for staying emotionally detached from her in the public sphere. I hoped Marita could get us out of it, because I had no fucking idea.
Marita rested her foot on Cardinale's throat, her heel nudging his adam's apple. It moved frenetically, bobbing up and down in time with his breathing. She bent down to face him, as though to chastise a naughty child. "Now, Senor Cardinale, let's get one thing straight. The only person allowed to discipline Alexi here is me. If I catch you on my turf again, I'll rip your fucking throat out. Do I make myself clear?"
He nodded. "Yes," he gasped, "I got it."
She took her foot away and straightened in a fluid movement. She turned to me, her expression stern. "As for you, Alexi, someone hasn't been playing nicely with others."
I stared up at her. "No, Marita."
"I can't have you boys having your petty squabbles in my house. You understand that, don't you?"
"Yes, Marita." I felt humiliation well up in me, less from Marita's scolding and more because Diana, behind her, was clearly fighting an attack of the giggles. Fuck. What a fucking mess.
"I'm going to have to punish you, Alexi. Get on your feet." I complied.
Marita nodded to the door, and, my cheeks bright with embarrassment, I followed her.
When we got to her room, Marita broke.
She leaned against the door and laughed, both hands over her mouth, tears streaming down her cheeks. She sank to the floor, head buried somewhere between her knees. I watched her, perplexed.
"I can't believe you got into a fight over my honour," she sputtered, lifting her head to look at me at last.
I felt my cheeks flush with mortification. "It was a stupid thing to do."
She wiped her eyes with her hands. "The Dark Man will have some choice words, I'm sure."
"I'm surprised you don't think it was macho and presumptuous." I felt like an idiot. Of all the stupid-
"No-one's ever defended me before, Alex. I liked it."
Okay, maybe not so stupid. Anything that could make her smile like that couldn't be all bad. I managed a smile of my own; even managed a chagrined laugh when she started sputtering again.
At last, she got ahold of herself, and by then, I was sitting on the floor at her side. She sighed. "Are you okay?"
I said ruefully, "I hurt my hand."
She laughed. "Poor Alex," she said, and she got up on her knees and straddled me. She took my hand in hers, raised it to her mouth, and kissed my knuckles, taking each one between tender lips and releasing it, then moving on.
"I want better for you than this place," I said, stroking my free hand down her arm. "I don't want people looking at you like that. You're so much better than that."
She put my hand down; asked diffidently, "Are you asking me to stop doing what I do here?"
I shook my head. "No. But sometimes I wish there was another way." Her head was bowed, and I used my fingers to lift her chin so that she faced me. "We both know this isn't how you want things to be."
"I don't know how I want things to be," she said in a low voice.
I squeezed her fingers between mine. "I think you do."
She watched me for a long, long moment, her eyes thoughtful; and at last, she nodded. Hesitantly, she leaned forward and touched my face with her free hand, her brow creasing with a thousand hopes and fears, her breath hot on me. I opened my mouth – whether to speak or kiss her, I wasn't sure – but I stopped myself. Too many people had made decisions for Marita, overridden her when they should have given her freedom, and I wasn't going to be one of them. It had to be her decision.
So we stayed there, poised excruciatingly on the edge of something bigger than either of us, breathing in rhythm, gazes locked on one another. Entranced, I touched her, tracing a thumb over her eyebrow, then down her cheek, over her jaw to her chin. "Oh, Mare," I whispered, my voice thick with longing.
Her breath caught in her chest, hitching; and then she breathed out shakily. She was trembling, just a little; but it was not with fear – not this time. This time, it was desire, barely contained, overtaking her with its intensity. "Alexi," she breathed, and the sound of it was like a caress against my skin. And at last, she bridged the wafer-thin gulf between us, closing her mouth on mine, tentative, questing, yet oh, so purposeful and deliberate. Her lips were soft and warm between mine, and yet they seared against me, burning me, marking me, blazing a trail of exquisite fire across my need.
I kissed her in return, first tenderly, then ravenously; and she met me with need of her own, taking my head in her hands, pressing herself closer against me, swamping me. It was delicious. I reached up to her, my palm in the middle of her back, and I pulled her closer still, bringing her down, pressing her body against mine. I was hard, and she brushed me as she settled against me, and she gasped, pulling away for only a split second before pressing herself down against me once more.
She lowered her face to mine, ravishing my mouth with hers. I slid my hands up beneath her shirt, dragging my palms over her flesh possessively, and she shuddered, moaning into my mouth, something I felt rather than heard. I slid my fingertips over her skin near the swell of her breasts, deliberately avoiding them, and she moved impatiently, pressing herself into my hands, shifting agonisingly in my lap. Still we kissed, drowning in one another's need. Her hands were on me, sliding over my chest and my arms, gently, inquisitively. They were just palms, just warm flesh, no different to that of the handful of others who had touched me this way; and yet it was like being touched for the first time.
She rocked against my lap, her hips moving with mine, mouth sliding over my flesh. I wanted her naked, but I didn't want to let her go, so we stayed there, bodies moving together, clutching at one another, sighing one another's names. Somehow I got her shirt open, and she gave a long low moan as the air hit her there, and she pressed herself against my chest. Her mouth found my ear, my jaw, and I choked out her name. She had my shirt open and my jeans unzipped, and, God, she was touching me there for the very first time.
I slid a hand under her skirt, ripping her stockings with my fingers. I ran them over the thin satin that cradled her sex, then slid a finger under the elastic, pushing the damp fabric aside. With a cry of need, she pressed herself down into my lap; and then we were two bodies on the edge of becoming one, just a teasing stroke away from it. We were nestled together, cradling one another's faces, cherishing one another, her body opening up for me, ready to draw me in.
At last, she broke away, her face flushed with desire, and I looked at her, my eyes bright; but then my exhilaration faded. Her expression was grave...haunted. I knew what was coming next, even before she stammered, "I-I can't." Damn it, she was shuddering for me, she was slick and ready against me, her pupils were dilated with uncompromising need; but she could sit there, her warmth still pressed against my aching, questing need and say that she couldn't. I understood, but against all my better instincts, I felt real fury. It would take just a single movement to make her mine anyway, and I thought that she would probably allow it if I pressed her; but if I did that, I would lose her. I would be one more person taking from her, and I couldn't do that.
She watched me, watched me wrestle with my own darkness, and she must have seen me come back to the light, because she relaxed against me. "I'm sorry," she said at last, grief etched into her features; and looking down between us, I saw her open shirt and the way my jeans were wet with her and I felt like screaming with frustration.
I knew I should say something comforting and reassuring, but I couldn't. I didn't have that much generosity in me in that moment. I nodded, lifting her off me as gently as I could, fighting for neutrality. I went to the bathroom and stripped off my damp jeans and pants; and I stayed there, bringing myself to a miserable, unsatisfying release, until I had some semblance of self-control once more.
When I was done, I rummaged around the laundry hamper. I'd changed in her room after combat training more than once; there was bound to be something. At last, I found an old pair of track pants. I pulled them on and opened the door quietly, hoping against hope that she would be gone. I really didn't think I could deal with her just then. But she was there, lying on the bed, her eyes closed, rumpled skirt and panties lying discarded on the floor, just her shirt pulled around her, covering her to her thighs. One hand was held hard between closed legs, moving almost imperceptibly; the other she held across her body, sliding it lightly over her shoulder, hugging herself with the tenderness of a lover. She was otherwise almost totally still, her every response taut and restrained, and it occurred to me that she must be so tired of living like that. She was close, I could see it in the lines of her; but still she betrayed nothing. Her moans were almost inaudible, yet their pitch was keening, almost like grief; and then I realised she was weeping.
"Alexi," she sighed miserably, "oh, Alexi."
In that moment, all my anger melted away; because however I grieved for her, she grieved for me, and herself, much more. I finally understood just how deep her fear and her conflict ran, and I think a lot of my hope died in that moment.
She came, my name on her lips, and that should have excited me. Instead, I felt aching sadness. There was something deeply troubling about her fruitless attempts to console herself, to be her own source of comfort. What I felt was beyond pity, beyond compassion, and how I wished she would let me in. She lay there, very still, pulling her shirt around her, her eyes still closed; and I went to her, settling on the bed at her side.
"Hey," I whispered, touching her hand.
"Hey." She didn't open her eyes, but she turned onto her side, facing me. When she finally looked at me, her expression was regretful, yet resolute. I was grateful for that – I couldn't have stood it if she'd offered an apology, like she'd run her trolley into mine at the market. It was as it was, and I wasn't sorry it had happened. I only wished-
"Are you angry?" she asked diffidently.
"No." I stroked her hair back from her face. At her disbelieving look, I admitted, "I was. It's passed." She nodded pensively, and I ran a thumb over her lips. She kissed it, her expression thoughtful.
"It's never been just me before," she said at last, so quietly that I had to strain to hear. "It was my mother, and at school it was Diana, and then there was Michael. I've always had a protector. To be cut adrift like this-" she broke off.
"It's frightening," I supplied.
"Yes, it is," she agreed. "But it's also...compelling."
I nodded slowly. "I don't want to take any of that away from you, Mare." I ran my hand down her arm, slid my fingers between hers. She held them tightly. "I just want to be with you." There it was, naked truth, and it was more than a little frightening; but after all I'd seen, it was not in me to play pointless games with her, scoring points, engaging in strategy. I wanted her, ached for her, and to tell her so cost me nothing. And it could give so much.
She frowned a little, but didn't respond; and nor had I expected that she would. Instead, she turned away, and I waited sadly for her to rise and leave me; but she didn't do that, either. Instead, she pressed her body against mine, moulding herself to me, letting me spoon myself around her. And when I put my arm around her, she slid her hands over my own. "I want that too," she whispered at last.
But I no longer believed that was something she could do.