"And there I did find the Duke of York and Duchess, with all the great ladies, sitting upon a carpet on the ground, there being no chairs, playing at ‘I love my love with an A, because of this and that’; and some of them, but particularly the Duchess herself, and my Lady Castlemaine, were very witty." – Samuel Pepys
March 4, 1669
"And there I did find the Duke of York and Duchess, with all the great ladies, sitting upon a carpet on the ground, there being no chairs, playing at ‘I love my love with an A, because of this and that’; and some of them, but particularly the Duchess herself, and my Lady Castlemaine, were very witty."
– Samuel Pepys
At 8:35 she dialed Brendan’s number, but hung up after two rings, feeling stupid. So he was late for breakfast. People ran late sometimes – not Brendan, Brendan was ridiculously punctual, but – still, sometimes there were circumstances beyond people’s control, and five minutes was nothing. Maybe her watch was just fast.
She ate the cantaloupe slice off her English muffin and fruit plate. She restacked the jams in the four sides of their carryall, separating them by flavor. She checked the time on her cellphone to make sure her watch was accurate, and then while she had it out, she went ahead and called him again, still watching out the front window of the diner and more than half-certain she’d see him coming up the street at any moment.
"It’s after 8:40," she said when Brendan’s voice mail picked up. "I was just...wondering where you were. You’re not going to have time to eat anything if you don’t hurry."
Lauren came by to refill her coffee, the waitress who – all right, one of the waitresses who had a crush on Brendan. "Where’s your friend this morning?" she said, flawlessly casual over a patter of maybe they broke up and single and probably never come back here again, just my luck.
Freya smiled gamely and said, "Just got held up, I guess."
"Oh, yeah, you know how traffic is," Lauren said vaguely, and moved on to another table.
But somehow that offhanded reassurance was more jarring than saying nothing would have been, because it just sounded so – wrong. If he were stuck in traffic, he would have called by now, if only to complain about the traffic. There were a thousand legitimate reasons that even a ridiculously punctual detail-freak could be fifteen minutes late, but only about a thousand nightmarish reasons that he wouldn’t call.
She dialed him back and said, "Brendan, pick up the phone! If you’re off sulking because of yesterday, I’m going to kill you, and if you’re in trouble, I– Brendan, where are you? Call me back."
She didn’t really think he was punishing her for yesterday’s fight – not really. Oh, not because he was above that kind of thing, but just because this wasn’t how he’d go about it. If he were still pissed about that, then today would just be a rerun of yesterday, ten hours of lofty, aggrieved silences and grumpy martyrdom. He wouldn’t want her to miss a single second of it, let alone fifteen minutes.
The newspaper was still laying where Freya left it, across the table by the empty coffee cup and rolled silverware. She wished she hadn’t even bought it on the way in, not if she was going to have to read it herself. It had been five damn years since she’d read the Times by hand; Brendan read it every morning over his eggs and hashbrowns, and Freya just took in the news and his commentary on it in a lump sum. It gave them something to argue about on the ride to the office, usually – the good kind of arguing, not yesterday’s kind.
Freya couldn’t even remember what had started her out feeling annoyed with Brendan yesterday, but once that feeling was in motion, it just gained momentum. Sometimes, after almost spending almost six years with the same person, day after day, the same weird habits, the same repetitive thoughts – God, sometimes she just wanted to kill him on general principle. He got ketchup on his shirt and had to change into his spare before his first coffee refill. He was short on cash and asked her to put down extra for the tip. He had "Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad" in his head for two hours before she finally snapped and said, "Do you have some kind of hearing problem? Do you actually not hear music correctly?"
"What?" he said, honestly confused.
"I can’t sing, either," she said, "but when I’m remembering how a song sounds, in my head, I actually do remember it in the right key."
"Well, congratulations," he said. "Let me just jot that down in the Big Book of How Freya Is Better Than Me."
"Don’t be childish," she said.
"What you need is a vacation," he said, but that wasn’t what he was thinking, not at all, and at that point she had to either leave or punch him in the face, so she stalked off to the ladies’ room and punched the door or one of the stalls twice and then shut herself in and cried, mostly because he wasn’t the only person in the office who thought that about her, and they probably weren’t wrong, but it wasn’t as easy to fix as people thought it should be. And the whole time she could hear Brendan from two halls down, whipsawing between you’re such an asshole, what’s the matter with you?, now look what you did and just so overbearing, it’s not fair, I don’t get a choice about what she listens to, but I’m always the one who has to apologize for it?
She washed her face and walked back into the bullpen, trying to avoid his eyes as she sat down across from him. He cleared his throat and said, "Listen, Freya...."
"You’re not sorry, so don’t apologize," she said.
"I’m not sorry, I’m just sorry you heard it," he said. "People think a lot of things that aren’t – that aren’t that nice, and– "
She laughed sharply down at her desk and said, "Oh, do they? Please, tell me all about that, I’ve never noticed."
I’m not a saint, he thought clearly. If you want to be in my head, sometimes you just have to live with what’s there.
"I don’t want to," she said. "You think I do this for fun? I can’t block you out."
"You block people out all the time!" he hissed.
"Not you!" she hissed back, all too aware of the covert attention they were beginning to draw from other agents. "Not anymore."
He leaned back in his chair, turning her words over with that watchful tenor to his thoughts that he used with all evidence. How long has that been true?
"I don’t know," she muttered. "Maybe a year."
I thought it worked the other way around – more practice, more control.
"Usually it does. You’re the only.... I don’t know. If I could explain it, I would."
Maybe it was no great mystery. What had started out as a fast and convenient way to work, answering Brendan’s thoughts without making him take the time to frame them in words, two sets of eyes to sift through the immense detail stored in Brendan’s encyclopedic memory – all too soon, it became habit, and then second nature. Now their minds ran in a strange kind of tandem, even when they disagreed, and it was as difficult not to listen to his thoughts as it was to stop thinking her own.
But all of that was hard to say, and even if she did feel guilty about it, Freya had never been above reserving for herself the privacy that Brendan hardly ever got around her. So they spent the rest of the day talking about nothing but work, their thoughts grinding along in muted grumbling. He still fully expected to drive her home, but she grabbed her coat off her chair and said, "I’ll take the subway; I like the quiet."
"Fine," he said, and thought, so high-maintenance, completely exhausting sometimes. "I’ll see you tomorrow." Like having the world’s nosiest wife, with none of the good parts.
"Fine, tomorrow," she said.
He hadn’t called that night for any of the usual reasons – one-thing-we-forgot-to-ask-that-guy or here’s-the-part-I-keep-coming-back-to or hey-what-are-you-having-for-dinner. She hadn’t expected him to. But breakfast was different. Breakfast was every day, unless one of them had to be out of town for some reason, which happened about twice a year. He would never – no matter how annoyed she was with him, no matter how fed up he was with her, Brendan would never just not be there. If he’d ever even once considered standing her up when she was expecting him to be somewhere, she’d know about it. And then he wouldn’t be Brendan.
Just as she reached for the phone again, the text-message beep went off. A number she didn’t recognize had sent her a text and an attached photo. She opened the picture first, already digging through her handbag for cash to leave on the table, and then almost dropped the phone.
The picture was obviously taken in bad lighting, too dark and washed-out at the same time, but it was clearly Brendan, lying on his side on something dark, his eyes shut and a gag in his mouth. The text said FIND HIM.
Freya bolted out of the café so quickly she was almost surprised she didn’t smash straight through the glass door, and then she was standing uselessly, helplessly on the sidewalk in bright sunlight, with people in every direction and no idea what to do next. She started to dial the number back, but then her phone rang, and she pressed talk with shaking fingers. "Who is this?" she said, lowering her voice to her best gruff, don’t-fuck-with-the-NSA register.
"Have you missed me, Freya?"
Half-rational relief made her sag against the same box where she’d bought the paper on her way inside half an hour ago. Psychos were always easier to deal with than hardened professionals, and this particular psycho.... "Andrew," she said, trying to keep her voice steady and serious, "you shouldn’t have done this. I can’t help you if you– "
"You don’t want to help me," he said waspishly. Andrew’s voice was always soft, always just that slightest bit querulous, even sweet – even when he was being snappish. Even when his thoughts were iron-hard and dark. "You tried to have them lock me up."
"For everybody’s safety," she said. "Including yours."
"Hmm," Andrew said. "Well, I think we’re past that now, aren’t we, dear-heart?"
"It’s not too late. If you haven’t hurt Agent Dean, then– "
"Oh, Agent Dean," he said, sounding bored by the subject. "Yes, yes, I’ve been gentle as a lamb, I know how you are about him. Although I must say, getting to know him a little better hasn’t done a thing to help me understand why that is. Deep underneath all that shallowness, there’s a vast, untapped shallowness."
Getting to know him better? Well, that was one way to fucking put it. "Stay out of his head, Andrew," she said, louder than she’d meant to. She pulled herself together just a little, digging the nails of her free hand into her palm, and said, "Let me talk to him."
"No," Andrew said shortly. "No talking. Thoughts only. I’ve given him the address, all you need to do is get close enough to hear it – however close that might be."
"Is this – are you testing me? My range?"
"Well, how else am I going to learn, Freya?" he said reasonably. "I think the government and I have said all we intend to say to one another. I’m on my own now."
In spite of everything – in spite of everything...when she thought of Andrew, she still always saw him the way he was when they first met, his red hair falling into his sad eyes, collar buttoned up to the top, his cold hands always fidgeting, his mind darting furiously back and forth in its cage. "You didn’t have to be," she said.
"I still love you," he said in that soft, tentative voice. He was two years older than Freya, but that was impossible to remember, more often than not. He always sounded so young.
"I know you think you do," she said.
"We could have had the most remarkable life together," he said wistfully. "We could have been something truly unique in all of human history. When I look at him and realize what it is you really want, how you’d rather I was? It breaks my heart, Freya. Of all people, you should be above the idealization of mediocrity that seduces women into thinking that a well-groomed empty shell like Agent– "
"Don’t," she said shortly.
There was a long silence. Finally Andrew said dispassionately, "Come and get him, then. But if you don’t come alone, I’ll kill him," and hung up on her.
Freya was dialing the office as soon as he did. "I need a warrant on Andrew Scoville," she said when she got her own department. "I need one right now."
"Andrew Scoville?" Lydia repeated blankly. "Scoville went off the grid eight months– "
"Let me worry about finding him," Freya said grimly. "He just called me with a death threat against Agent Dean. I want detectives at his old address with an arrest warrant, and I want a SWAT team on standby."
"What about Dr. Welles?" Lydia said. "Should I call him?"
Freya hesitated a moment, and then said, "No. No, not yet." If Michael still wanted him, then Michael was more than capable of intervening down the road. She wasn’t going to count on that either way.
"Do we have a 20 on Agent Dean?"
Failing to wave over yet another cab, Freya gave up and tried stepping in front of one. She flashed her badge before the driver had time to roll the window down, cutting him off mid-rant. "I’m going to get back to you on that," she said, and hung up.
She didn’t have a car and Andrew knew it, so unless he expected her to take the subway all over town – did he? Was he using the subway lines as a kind of measurement for this test of his – did he have Brendan underground somewhere? No. Andrew was a midwesterner; he’d never really cared for the subway, or for cabs, drove himself everywhere. He’d count on her driving, so he’d make sure she had a car. He’d leave her Brendan’s.
It was some comfort when she got out of the cab in the parking garage under Brendan’s apartment building and found his car in its spot, some small evidence that she still understood how Andrew thought, that he might not be playing a game that was too arcane for her to follow. It felt strange to unlock the driver’s door and slide behind the wheel; she had a key to his car and his apartment, but she’d never been in either one when he wasn’t there, and she’d never driven his car before. She barely drove at all – no more than the Agency required to keep her current on her license and to pass basic field tests. She activated the wiper fluid and the wipers trying to bring the headlights on in the dark garage, and muttered, "Sorry, honey, sorry about that," without being quite sure if she was speaking to Brendan or his car.
Brendan would do this better than she could, if their positions were reversed. He knew the city in intimate, medical detail, his unlimited recall every bit as strange and fantastic, to Freya, as her own abilities. She used to test him for fun, the two of them spending their coffee breaks in the satellite center, Freya choosing a random intersection and Brendan describing it – benches, hot-dog carts, awnings, peeled lettering on bodega windows, the doorman’s uniform, things Freya would hardly remember three minutes after being there – and then checking his memory by bringing up the surveillance footage from the orbital platform. It had been a while since they’d played that game. It didn’t seem as necessary or as fascinating, now that she understood her partner and his capabilities, now that she was blase about the nearly unlimited power of NSA technology, rather than intimidated by it.
But if someone had to comb a city of ten million people for one voice, Brendan Dean was the only person Freya genuinely trusted to do it right. She wasn’t even sure how to turn on the GPS in his car; they’d never needed to use it before.
No choice now, though.
All right, think. Andrew wanted to know how far away she could be and still hear her partner’s thoughts. She remembered Andrew asking her that question once, back when they were...friends. What did she say? She hadn’t answered him directly – hadn’t known the answer herself. They played games to test Brendan’s mind, but rarely Freya’s. That was all business; he never asked her to go for something unless it was something they needed, and he didn’t like being further away from her than sniper range in the field. Michael was the one with the scientific curiosity; Brendan didn’t like to be reminded that Freya was anything other than what he was – a smart and dogged agent with a few advantageous quirks.
So what had she told Andrew? That she didn’t know. That she could hear him at least a mile away, if she was listening for him, and maybe more than that. All right, then if Andrew had been expecting her to pick up Brendan’s car, to begin from Brendan’s apartment, then he would have Brendan at least that far away. Finally, Freya got the GPS to work and zoomed to the right distance to see what a perimeter around this building with a radius of one mile looked like. She would drive that circle, and then a block further out from there, and further out until she found him. Concentric circles. Simple as that.
Of course, that begged the question of how in the hell she was going to drive with her passive telepathy thrown wide open in a search pattern, filtering out half of Manhattan as she went. Just as she started to make a right turn, out of the dark garage and onto the daylit street, a nauseous, unsteady feeling came over her, constrictive and terrifying – the sense-memory of those early days, crushed under the weight of all those people, unable to find even her own thoughts in the chaos, let alone anyone else’s, any one voice separate from the hurricane. She felt like there was a wall at her back, nowhere to escape to, no friendly Alice or Mr. Toad or Anne of Green Gables to ease her back from the absolute unceasing–
"Stop it," she said out loud. Voices were good – real voices, physical voices were just different enough from the sound of thoughts to break up the in-rush. "You’re not crazy," she said. "You can do this. You’re the one in control." She wished she could turn on the radio, but she doubted she could handle even one more distraction, given how unbearably complex this task was going to be as it stood.
She had one mile to drive before she really had to start worrying, so she took those few minutes to ease herself in, letting her mind soften and unfold, malleable and expectant, sweeping her own thoughts, her fears and her frustration, toward the back of her consciousness, storing them there for later. Right now it didn’t matter what Freya thought. Right now her only job was to listen.
Well. Her only job was to listen and watch the road. Listen, watch the road, follow the course she’d mapped out on the GPS map, and sort through what she heard, discriminating between every stranger on planet Earth and the one man she listened to every day. Just those jobs.
Luckily, the traffic that always ratcheted up Brendan’s blood pressure and sent him snarling to his economy-sized bottle of ibuprofen was to Freya’s advantage. Nobody was moving quickly enough to surprise her, even with only ten percent of her focus on where she was physically, and the frequent stops gave her plenty of time to drag her awareness outward and then return it back in tight so she could move to the next stoplight. It was a slow, laborious process, but she needed the time – she was leaning out further than she would ever have done for a brute-force search; everything sounded garbled and indistinct so far out, bad reception just like a cheap radio, but she had all the faith in the world that at the faintest brush of contact with Brendan’s thoughts, she’d recognize him. That was all she needed.
She didn’t come close to crashing the car until her damn phone rang, six and a half miles from where she began. She slammed on the brakes, ten carefully held voices spinning in all directions out of her head, fumbling for her phone, thinking Andrew, Andrew, Andrew – but it was the office, and she barked, "No! I don’t have an update!"
"Agent Harper just wanted– " Lydia tried hesitantly.
"Tell him to hold that SWAT team until I call," she snapped, and hung up. He could fire her if he wanted to, Freya didn’t care right now.
It took hours – block by block, turn by turn, sound by sound, until Freya was sweaty and claustrophobic in the closed car, her body rigid and aching from her calves to the back of her neck, frustrated almost to tears – until all she wanted to do was call Andrew back and scream at him and then beg. Freya didn’t even want to think about what she might be inspired to offer at this point, if only she could be finished with this.
with an S, because she is superior....
Freya braked instinctively, her hands locking painfully around the wheel. Brendan’s voice – faint and flat and weary, Brendan at the end of a twelve-hour shift that had turned into a thirty-hour shift, Brendan bruised and wincing as he peeled off his body armor, smelling like sweat and gunpowder.
and I hate her because she is strident. Her name is Susannah. I took her to Schenectady, and I bought her a...sousaphone.
A sousaphone? Freya croaked out a laugh, giddy and relieved. Brendan had never been any damn good at shielding his thoughts, but he had a dozen little tricks to elide and evade her – Christmas carols and multiplication tables, nursery-rhymes and word games. This one was his favorite, an easy game to prolong more or less forever. She’d heard it a hell of a lot, their first year together.
Freya. Freya. That snapped her into focus – that wasn’t Brendan’s tired, wandering mental voice. That was the one he used to pull her attention onto him, when he had something important to say. He gave me the address. It’s 235 West Candlewood, on the third floor. He gave me the address. It’s 235 West Candlewood, on the third floor. There was a pause, rustling and muffled, a shifting of gears where his thoughts were changing so softly and fluidly that she couldn’t catch hold, and then the urgency was gone, the exhaustion back. I love my love with a T, because she is tenacious...
Freya’s throat closed painfully as she punched the address into the GPS. God, he’d been doing this all day, all day long, broadcasting a message without knowing how long it would take her to hear, trying to protect his private thoughts from Andrew’s resentful intrusiveness. She couldn’t stand to think of how exhausted he must be, how much stress and fear and anger he’d been packing down, crushing under the weight of a simple child’s game.
and I hate her because she is...terrifying. Her name is Terri. I took her to Timbuktu, and I bought her a ten-speed. Freya. Freya. He gave me the address.
"I know, I know," she muttered uselessly. "I’ve got it, Brendan, I’ve got you."
third floor. He gave me the address. It’s 235 West Candlewood....
There it was, lit up in red on the screen in front of her. He gave me the address....
He gave me the address.... What an strange way to phrase it, Freya thought. Literal. Brendan was a details-man, yes, but that was so distinct, so constrained. Of course Andrew gave him the address; he’d probably been unconscious at least part of the way there, he wouldn’t know on his own where he was, and anyway that was the whole point of the exercise, wasn’t it?
Her name is Ursula. I took her to Uzbekistan, and I bought her a unicorn. Freya. Freya. He gave me the address. It’s 235 West Candlewood, on the third floor.
He gave me the address. He gave me...this address. This is the address he gave me. Freya turned it over and over in her mind as the GPS reeled off directions.
on the third floor. I love my love with a V, because she is valiant, and I hate her because she is vile. Her name is Valerie. I took her to Virginia....
Not, this is where I am. He gave me the address. He gave me the address, he–
"Oh, God," she said softly. "That’s not where you are, is it, Brendan?" It was only the address Andrew gave him – the place Andrew wanted her to go. And Brendan knew it, or he suspected. It was a fucking trap, and he couldn’t tell her, or Andrew would hear it and know that she knew.
Her name is Wanda. I took her to Wisconsin, and I bought her a Winnebago. Freya. Freya. He gave me the address.
Carefully, she pulled off the road, into a church parking lot and picked her cellphone up off the passenger seat. "Lydia," she said, running her fingers through her hair and fighting to keep her voice calm and professional, "I think I have a 20 on Scoville."
"Agent Dean, too?"
Freya hesitated a moment, then said, "I don’t think so. I’m not sure." He gave me the address. Was that Brendan’s way of saying he wasn’t at that address, or just a refusal to play along with Andrew’s game? It could be pride or protectiveness or just simple stubbornness, keeping him from saying anything that would sound like he was asking her to come rescue him.
He gave me the address. It’s 235 West Candlewood, on the third floor. I love my love with an X, because she is xanthocroid. Freya almost choked on a little sound, a laugh or a sob. He always used the same one when he got to X. And I hate her because she is xenophobic.
"Scoville is at 235 West Candlewood, on the third floor," she said, with all the authoritative certainty that she didn’t feel. "Get a team into position quietly and take him down fast, because I still don’t know if he has Dean there or not." If you don’t come alone, I’ll kill him – but that could be a bluff, he could easily be miles from Brendan, misdirecting her away from the bait and into Andrew’s control, exactly where he’d always wanted her.
Comforting thought...but of course, he’d done something to convince Brendan that he had the power here, or Brendan wouldn’t consent to send her even an evasive message. "Take him fast," she told Lydia. "Don’t give him time to do...whatever he thinks he’s doing. I’ll meet the SWAT team there."
She got to the 200 block of West Candlewood before the SWAT team did, and she parked one block over. It was a vast relief to shut the engine off and unbuckle her seatbelt, peel her hands off the wheel and stretch her arms out as far as she could. Now that she had Brendan’s voice, she didn’t have to listen for it anymore; it was just there, as omnipresent as if he were sitting across a table from her, pouring ketchup on his hashbrowns. I love my love with an L because she is lovely, and I hate her because she is larcenous. Her name is Lola...she was a showgirl... Freya laughed and said, "You’re slipping, sweetheart."
She could feel that flutter again, his mind trying to slip its leash, not quite succeeding, and she realized that it wasn’t funny at all. If he thought about what he was doing, even once – if he wondered whether she had heard him, whether she knew what he meant, whether she was safe or not, then Andrew would hear that, and God knew what would happen then. Her chest ached with sympathy for Brendan. All day long, it must have been just like this: word after word, steady as she goes, and no room for error. Oh, fuck, no wonder he sounded so painfully tired. I took her to Latvia, and I bought her a lhasa apso. Freya. Freya....
Freya hung back during the takedown, at least as much as she could. Brendan would have read her the riot act if he’d been there to see her pelting up the stairs thirty seconds behind the second wave of the team, her sidearm still holstered, and of course he’d be right – she was not only in danger but dangerous, under everyone’s feet and in the way, but there was no way, <i>no way</I> she could stand around waiting for news, and she was no more capable of cracking into Andrew’s mind than he was hers. She’d have to look him in the eye and make him answer her the old-fashioned way.
They had Andrew down on the floor when she got there, three armed and armored men holding him and more crashing through every room in the apartment. "Where’s Brendan?" she yelled, and somehow her voice cut across all the rest of the yelling, the radio static and the crack of locked doors being smashed out of their frames. "Goddammit, Andrew! Where is he?"
Andrew bent his neck with some difficulty, looking up at her with his glasses askew on his nose and a strange expression of mingled annoyance and beseeching. "I just wanted to see you, Freya!" he protested. "I just wanted to talk to you, face to face...."
"Agent McAllister!" someone yelled from an interior room. "You better come see this!"
Most of the team was interested in the pieces and parts of things strewn around Andrew’s workroom, and Freya could easily understand why: they were certainly bomb components. But what she cared about was the computer screen, with the streaming, time-stamped video of Brendan. He looked like he was in a warehouse or a factory of some kind, with his hands cuffed to a rail above his head and his shirt pulled open at the top to show a dark collar of some kind around his throat. A small bulky something nestled in the hollow of his throat, and he held his head tipped back and his chin tilted to the side to accommodate it more comfortably. His eyes were slitted half-shut.
because she is pernicious. Her name is Penny. I took her to Peoria...
There was a headset plugged into the computer, and Freya put it on before she could think of any of the many reasons she maybe shouldn’t. "Brendan!" she almost shouted into it. "Can you hear me?"
There was no doubt that he could, from the way he jerked at the sound of her voice. His eyes flew open and he surged ineffectually forward the inch or so that his cuffs would allow. Freya, he thought, the single word freighted down with relief and the agonized skepticism of someone who wanted to believe too much to trust his own ears.
"It’s okay, it’s okay," she babbled. "We’ve got him, we’re going to come get you right now. Are you okay? Are you hurt?"
A little knocked around. I’m okay. If you could bring me about a liter of Gatorade and a bomb squad, I’d be happy as a clam.
Bomb squad. Of course Andrew would– "Brendan, is that a bomb around your neck?"
Woof, woof. It’s set to go off from vibrations in my throat. Guess I’m not supposed to be calling for help from anyone but you.
"Do you know where you are?"
I think so. I was out cold for a while, but.... I’m not sure, I don’t know, I tried counting turns and I think I know how fast we were going, but I could be wrong, I might not–
"Hey, hey, hey," she said firmly, trying to pull his thoughts back to her. "Don’t tell me you’re lost, I won’t believe you for a minute. You know where you are."
A ripple of weary humor, and then he thought, I’m sure I came to on the Triborough Bridge, and we got off on Harlem River Drive...I think. I’m almost positive, and if I’m right about that, then I know we went as far as Inwood – industrial, not residential, so – Sherman Creek. 207th...I think. I was pretty groggy at first, so I could have gotten confused, but I’m...pretty sure.
"Inwood," Freya said over her shoulder. "Somewhere on 207th Street. And we need a bomb detail."
She could see a little of the tension seep out of him, and he seemed to relax as far as his position would allow. But you’re coming too, right?
"Of course I’m coming," she said, the need to cry with relief finding an outlet in irritation. "What’s the matter with you? I’m on my way right now."
Andrew called her name over and over as she ran back through the front room and out the door, but her head was too full of everything else, and she couldn’t even look over at him, or else she’d lose it, she really might come apart.
And of course 207th Street was exactly where he was, because no one knew Brendan’s city like he did, and the closer Freya got, the more irresistible his thoughts were, drawing her in like a magnet. Free of the need to protect his thoughts from Andrew, Brendan’s frustration and discomfort were running out of control, firing complaints scattershot in every direction – hungry, thirsty, sore, this was taking too long, he wasn’t sure, he couldn’t completely believe Freya was safe until he could see her, his throat hurt, his shoulders hurt, he was embarrassed by how easily a science nerd like Andrew had taken him prisoner, just because he wasn’t watching for anything like that, in his own apartment at six in the morning–
By the time she got to him, she was really pretty ready for him to shut up for a minute, or even go back to Copa-fucking-cabana.
But then she crawled through the window and there he was, large as life, and he looked like hell, and she felt his surge of fear, and then the deepest, almost uncontainable relief she could imagine, as soon as he recognized her. If he’d been able to speak he probably would have ragged her for not getting there faster, but all he had were thoughts and nothing else to hide behind, and all he seemed able to think was Freya.
She crouched down and put her fingertips on the small bomb; he flinched away from her touch and thought, Are you out of your mind? Be careful!
"Shh, it’s okay," she murmured. It was so good to be able to talk back, finally – to know that he could hear her, too. There was a smooth buckle behind his neck, rubbing raw spots on his skin; it was a dog collar, just like it seemed to be. "I’m being careful, just stay quiet."
You should wait, you should wait for the bomb guys. Freya – please. Be careful.
He meant it, and she supposed she could understand why his nerves were shot. Reluctantly, she let go of the collar and touched her fingers to his warm, stubbled jaw. He’d been abducted before he’d had time to shave this morning. Freya could feel his pulse racing by her thumb, hear the thready pulse of delayed panic running under his scrambled thoughts. "Shh, shh," she whispered, leaning in to put her cheek against his, wrapping her hands around his quick-moving ribs. "I’m here now. I found you."
Saved me, he translated. How many times does this make now?
"Oh, about ten times a year, six years..." she joked, her breath moving the hair over his oddly pointed ear.
If you make it to sixty-nine, you win a prize.
"If you can hit on me, then you’ll be fine," she said wryly and pulled away from him, but that just meant that she could see his face – meet his eyes. She’d learned to expand the scope of her gift way beyond what she could see, but eye contact always intensified everything.
She kissed him, and his arms jerked hard against the cuffs, followed by a short, vicious mental curse. He’d forgotten. She laughed softly against his mouth, and he tilted his head forward, kissing her back. His mouth was warm and hungry on hers, matched to the warm and hungry images that cascaded from his mind to hers – a feverish blend of memory and fantasy, his hands on her breasts, her back arching hard as his nails raked up the sides of her thighs, her face hovering over his, her dark hair swaying against his pale skin.
She broke away with a gasp that sounded strangely loud and echoing against the walls of the warehouse, skittering clumsily backwards on her hands. He blinked muzzily at her and thought, Way to go, Dean. Start something with your partner, that always works out really well.
"No," she said unsteadily. "That was my fault."
That was when the bomb squad and the paramedics arrived, and both of them were glad of that for oh, so many reasons.
They cut him out of the cuffs and got him out of the collar. Every muscle in his body complained when he stood up, and Freya moved instinctively to his side, supporting him with her arm around his back. After a momentary twinge of awkwardness, Brendan decided not to think about anything except how this was what partners did for each other. He looked down at her and said, "We’re good?" – thinking, I can’t take any more fucking surprises today.
"You need water," she said, and his gratitude almost rocked her off-balance.
There were water bottles in the ambulance, plenty of them, and he drank three on the way to the hospital while she prodded at him, pushing aside the blanket they’d wrapped around his shoulders so she could get a better look at the welts on his wrists and the back of his neck, the crusted-over cut on the side of his head. Quit poking me he thought, but she was pretty sure it was something he would have said out loud if he’d meant it wholeheartedly.
Michael met them at the hospital, and he went right to Freya and hugged her hard, as if she were the one who’d been in danger. Brendan, sitting behind her on his hospital bed in his ridiculous paper gown, thought derisively, Her master’s voice. Christ, she’s got the worst taste in men. She threw him a nasty look.
She told Michael the whole story, and he stroked her cheek and listened with obvious pride, but sobered quickly when she asked what happened now to Andrew. "That may depend on you, to some degree," he said.
"I think it’s bullshit to keep saddling Freya with some kind of fake responsibility for Andrew Scoville," Brendan said. "He’s a psycho. Just because he’s a telepathic psycho with a creepy fixation on Freya doesn’t mean she needs to do anything about him." You’re supposedly her big protector. When are you going to *protect* her?
"I want to be involved," Freya said. "I don’t need protection."
"I need you to tell me the truth," Michael said seriously. "Do you think he’s a lost cause?"
Freya looked over her shoulder, and then quickly looked away from Brendan’s flat, dark glower. His thoughts were nothing more distinct than a low grumble of mistrust and resentment – for Andrew, and quite possibly for Michael, too. He’d never been too fond of Michael. "I...don’t know," she said. "He wasn’t always.... He learned to control it on his own, so he’s...stronger than I was. He’s strong in a lot of ways, but I can’t totally blame him for.... It got to him. We didn’t realize how much until it was too late, and I can’t help feeling like that’s our fault. Don’t we owe him...something?"
No, Brendan thought. Michael’s thoughts, as always, were safely, coolly inaudible. He stroked her hair one last time and said, "He’s safe in custody now. We have time to decide."
Brendan’s injuries were minimal, and after he made his statement to Harper (kidnapping of an NSA agent fell under NSA jurisdiction – de facto, if not de jure), he was free to go. "Your car’s still in Sherman Creek," she said as he buttoned his shirt.
"I’ll get it tomorrow," he said.
"Will you be okay at home?"
"I don’t know. Do you have any more ex-boyfriends who might stop by?"
She fought down a spike of anger, because it wasn’t fair to expect anything much from Brendan right now. He’d used up all his mental reserves protecting her today and he’d earned the right to be a little bit difficult. "If you want to stay the night at my place, you can," she said.
He looked up sharply. Stay the night – meaning? Is she worried about me, or does she – are we – God, I can’t, not again, but.... I don’t want to be alone tonight.
"Just come on," she said tiredly. "You don’t want to be alone right now."
Brendan called for three large pizzas in the cab, and when she raised her eyebrows at him, he shrugged and said, "Lunch tomorrow, too."
"Lunch all week."
"Wanna bet?" And knowing how hungry he was, no, she really didn’t.
The pizzas came while Brendan was in her shower. Freya stacked a few slices on a plate and set it on the table with a glass of Sprite and four ibuprofen, then went upstairs to change out of her work clothes and into track pants and a tank top. When she padded back down, she stopped on the curved stairs, watching him hover over the food, eating before even taking the time to sit down. He’d put his boxers and t-shirt back on and his hair was a mess, still dripping water down his back, leaving dark track marks on his white shirt. He heard her and looked up, eyes narrowed in that investigative, on-duty way, but what he was thinking was, What the hell does she want, here? I wish I knew what she was thinking.
She smiled at him and said, "Go on and eat. You’re hungry."
"No lie," he said, and perched on a bar stool to devote his full attention to the pizza. She came around to the kitchen side of the bar and helped herself to one slice out of the box, enjoying the relative peace of Brendan being entirely focused on food.
"What’s your take on the Scoville situation?" he said when he’d eaten his way through the first pizza, sans the piece she’d gotten to first. He sounded causal, but she could feel the thrum of tension underneath.
"I don’t know," she said, avoiding his eyes. "It’s...complicated."
"Freya, I don’t – how can you trust him? You know he’s unstable. That’s being charitable – unstable."
"So was I," she said quietly. "You don’t know what – before Michael came along– "
Oh, Jesus, Michael and Andrew, Andrew and Michael. Two pains in my ass for the price of one.
"Don’t be like that," she snapped tiredly. "I needed Michael. And now Andrew needs someone to believe in him, too."
"You didn’t need him."
"You don’t understand!" God, how could he? She was so helpless, so trapped, and all her fighting and fighting had only been enough to keep herself breathing, to work her way through lines of print on a page, to remember that one of the words screaming inside her head used to be her own name. "I did need him," she said. "Before him, I...."
Brendan leaned over the counter and met her eyes. You don’t need anyone to be who you are. I know who you are. You need to back away and take a hard look at who Andrew is.
"And you need to understand how he got that way."
"Everyone’s got a story. And okay, maybe you’re right, maybe Michael saved your life. But you were <i>you</I>. It doesn’t mean you can work miracles on Scoville, I don’t care how much he wants– you."
Freya smiled humorlessly at him and said, "The gentleman routine is a little pointless; I do get the uncensored version, too, you know."
"It’s none of my business," he said, low and grudging, his head full of how could she, he’s a slug, he’s nothing, he’s a million miles beneath her, how could she ever touch him, what possessed her to ever give him any part of her, she obviously still cares about him, he wants her more than anything, does she still want him, too? Would she fuck him again, even now, even after this? Why – just because she thinks he’s like her, because he can do what she can do? Is that what she needs – someone who can read her mind?
"Let it go, Brendan," she said. "I broke up with Andrew a long time ago."
"You think – you think I’m jealous? Of him?" Somehow, he was managing to be genuinely shocked and offended.
"Brendan! I can read your mind!"
You think for one fucking second I’ve ever forgotten that?
She could hear it as clear as day – he wanted her to hear it – but she still didn’t know quite what it meant. Roughly, Brendan ran his hands through his hair and said, "I wouldn’t care what you did with your personal life, if it was just – if you would just pick – someone decent. That’s all I ask: someone I don’t have to loathe, please. As a favor to me."
"What do you want me to say? I broke up with him a year and a half ago! I can’t go back in time and dump him earlier than that!"
"I want you to pick up the phone and tell Michael you’re done with him and he can rot in prison for all you care. I want you to stop thinking there’s some way you can save him from himself."
"Well, I can’t do that! He’s still...." He was still something to her. Not a lover, not even a friend, but...something. Maybe not even something real, but a distorted reflection of her own life was still something, right?
After a short silence, Brendan said dryly, "Well, he’ll be just thrilled to hear it, I’m sure," and it wasn’t the words that hurt, but the images. Seeing her own body through Brendan’s eyes, scribbled over with bitterness and helplessness and anger, turned into something for Andrew to corrupt, something for him to own and leave worse than he found it– Her face felt hot and her skin prickled and there was a sharp, awful taste in the back of her mouth – even worse when she couldn’t keep herself from thinking about that afternoon, and how she looked to Brendan then.
"Stop it," she said hoarsely. "I don’t want you – thinking about me like that."
"He thinks about you like that all the fucking time. I don’t have to be a mind-reader to know that." But that was Andrew, and Brendan was something else entirely. Brendan had always been entirely, entirely his own situation in every way. He reached out and grabbed her wrist; she tried to pull away, but when he tightened his hand, she didn’t do what it would have taken to break loose. "Freya, you don’t know people as well as you think you do. You see so much, you know every nasty, twisted, crazy thing that goes on in people’s heads, but you’ve never been able to tell the difference between normal nasty, twisted, and crazy, and actual crazy. I want you to listen to me, I want you to trust me. The reason Scoville needs you is because he knows you’re better than him, and he needs to drag you down where he is. That’s how he can justify all the fucked-up shit he wants to do with his power – if he can get you to forgive him for it, or better yet, if he can get you to join in. He needs me dead, and he needs you to believe you could have stopped it but didn’t – that’s what today was about, that’s where everything was going. If he can make you guilty, he can make you small, like him. He’s smart as hell, and he’s using you. He doesn’t love you. He’s a predator. Please, for God’s sake, please just believe me on this. I’m trying to be your friend, here."
And she knew that part was true, but she didn’t want to face it, couldn’t stand the way that hearing the truth in the last sentence forced her toward trusting the truth she could hear in the rest of it. So she pulled her hand away from him and said, "How can you know him so well? You don’t even know me." His thoughts flashed surprise and hurt, which she tried to ignore. "If you did know me, you wouldn’t be so damn sure that I slept with him," she said, surprising herself with her own bitterness.
He was silent for a moment, his thoughts tumbling over each other – didn’t she? She must have, they dated for – how long? Months, a lot of months, and she seemed so happy at first. Why – if she didn’t – why wouldn’t – ? Of course she was young before she was hospitalized – she was in high school, right? And she was a good kid, of course, I bet she was a good – Jesus, obviously, of course she was a virgin, should have realized she wouldn’t want to jump right into bed with just any– His thoughts stuttered to a hard stop, blank with shock, and Freya felt herself run hot and angry and embarrassed.
"You didn’t sleep with Andrew," he said slowly. She was a virgin. I didn’t know – I should have–
"Good for you, great detective work," she snapped to cover her sudden, terrifying feeling of vulnerability. "Just you."
"Just me," he echoed. "Freya...why didn’t you tell me?"
"I thought you knew."
"Is that a fucking joke? Of course you knew I didn’t know!"
"Okay, I knew," she sighed. "Look, does it matter now? I didn’t want to have a big conversation about the story of my life, I just wanted to...."
Just wanted to be the thing that made him unravel – couldn’t bear to tell him to stop, or even to ask him to look away from her, not when his thoughts were so white-hot and pure with desire. She didn’t know if she was remembering it herself, now, or if she was breathing it in from Brendan’s memory, but given how clear it was, she suspected the latter. Her own memories of that night were jittery and desperate and confused, but not Brendan’s, of course – never Brendan’s. He remembered everything, every button her fingers twisted off his shirt, every hitch of her breath as he touched her stomach, every little stumble as she walked backwards up the stairs, kissing him and leaving clothes everywhere for them to slip on. He remembered landing on the carpet an arm’s length from the bed and how they still couldn’t go any farther, how her face felt cupped between his hands, how she flung her arms out on the carpet and twisted her legs around his sides while they kissed. He remembered the size and shape of her breasts filling up his hands, and the way her nipple went hard as he laved it with his tongue, and her fingernails tugging at the small of his back, her voice gone drunk and dizzy as she chanted bed, bed, Brendan, come on.
"Does it matter now," he repeated in exasperation, as if he were talking to some invisible third party. "I don’t know, maybe not, but don’t you think it mattered then?"
"Why?" she demanded, even though she wasn’t sure where she stood, exactly, on that question. "So you could’ve been gentler, so you could’ve treated me like some precious, fragile little thing?"
Yes...would be the wrong answer? "I don’t know," he mumbled.
"Well, that’s not what I wanted. I wanted – what happened." Wanted Brendan, wanted the slick sweat on his back and his teeth sinking into the shell of her ear, wanted his hands wrapped hard around her hipbones and his ragged noises as he fucked her, wanted him to fill her head with finally, finally and yes. "I didn’t need you to keep me from breaking. The last thing I need is one more reason for you to be scared of me."
She’s scary as hell. I love her anyway, though.
"I know you do," she said, and took one moment to selfishly enjoy the startled and abashed look on his face; this was the kind of conversation that shouldn’t be embarrassing to just one party, after all. She smiled gently at him and said, "Did you forget about that thing?"
He smiled back, lopsided and uncertain. "That thing where you know everything about me? Not so much, no." I never forget. I know you wish I would, but it’s probably never going to happen.
"I don’t care about that," she said, and for once she really meant it.
The stairs were a major obstacle again this time, until finally Freya pulled away from his mouth, muttering curses, and just sat down on one of the steps. She put her hand on his waist, half under the hem of his t-shirt, and felt him suck in a harsh, tight breath, and then a second one as she contemplated the outline of his cock tenting out the front of his boxers. She was pretty sure she could learn everything she needed to know about blowjobs from Brendan’s head – his imagination wasn’t quite as detailed as his memory, but it wasn’t too far behind – but she’d have to wait on that. He crouched down on a lower step and rested his elbows on her thighs, taking hold of her arms and pulling her down to kiss him again. His hand gathered up half her hair and held it off her neck, then kissed the bared skin, and behind her ear, and the soft, sensitive point under the hinge of her jaw. She dragged her fingernails through his hair, and when he turned his head to lick a delicate stripe over the inside of her wrist, she went suddenly weak all over and tipped forward, almost knocking them both down the stairs.
"Danger, Will Robinson," he mumbled, wrapping his arms around her ribs and lifting her up to her feet with him. "One hospital visit per day, all right?"
"Bed," she grated out. Deja vu. She ran her cheek roughly against his jaw, which was stubbled enough now to be almost painful – and yet sharply, intensely pleasurable, too. It might leave a mark on her skin. She thought she might want it to. "Bed," she repeated shakily, digging her fingers into the back of his neck so hard that he hissed and pried her loose by the wrist. "Sorry," she mumbled, recalling the abrasions there.
They made it to the bed in one piece, with no need for medical insurance. Brendan sat down on the bed and Freya climbed onto him immediately, straddling his lap and lifting his t-shirt up over his head. When he was rid of it, he flopped down to his back, his eyes on her fingers as they combed through the hair on his chest. He’d let his arms fall casually up over his head, one hand cupped in the palm of the other, and Freya leaned up and carefully wrapped her hands around his wrist, a very light pressure where the cuffs had hung around his wrists. He sucked in his breath, a little tremor sweeping his body, and Freya raised her eyebrows slightly. Do it, do it, hold me down, do me his mind babbled eagerly, while his hoarse voice just said, "I just hope you never go supervillain on me, or I’m in serious trouble."
"Do you think it’s possible you already are?" she said lazily, tugging his boxers down the very little bit necessary to free his cock, smooth and thick in her hand.
"Nah," he panted. "I think I’m good right now."
She didn’t trust herself with his chafed wrists, so she just locked her fingers with his and held onto his hands when she climbed on top of him, holding his hands still while his hips thrust up, driving into her desperately, gracelessly. She’s so strong, she’s so good, she’s unbelievable his mind sang at her. Freya – Freya – take anything you want, there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you.
"I know," she said softly, and his eyes came open, startled but sex-fogged, just puzzled enough to make her laugh.
Coming wiped his mind clean for one almost spooky second, and then he sucked in a breath and let it out in a long, sensual groan. When his thoughts flickered back to life, they were full of her scent and the anticipated taste of her, kneeling over him. For a moment she was a little intimidated by some ingrained fear of rejection, of going too far, but then she figured, what the hell, it was his idea, and she leaned forward and pressed her hands to the wall for balance while she moved up his body.
"Oh, now, this is very cool," he said in a hoarse, groggy voice. "I apologize for every time I ever complained about my hot, mind-reading girlfriend. That was...incredibly short-sighted of me." She snorted, then spread her knees farther apart and lowered herself to his tongue, and then immediately tried to take a gouge out of the paint on her bedroom wall with her fingernails, as he licked a slow, haphazard circle around her clit.
"You have kind of a kinky side," she observed when they were both too wrung-out to move. She moved in tighter against Brendan’s side, still playing with his post-five-o’clock shadow with the edge of her thumbnail.
"What, you didn’t know that?" he said, and his voice was teasing, but his thoughts were honestly a little surprised.
She thought that over for a second. "I know you think I’m a little overwhelming. I know you’re attracted to me. I guess I just didn’t realize there was a causal relationship there."
His hand found the small of her back, under the tank top she was still wearing, and he rubbed his knuckles there in soothing circles. We weren’t wrong the first time. There are still a lot of reasons not to...go forward with this. It’s not magically any less complicated than it was before.
"I know that. But it make some things easier, too, doesn’t it? So maybe it...balances out?"
"What does it make easier? I mean, more fun, I definitely grant you. Easier? I don’t know."
"Well.... You can drive me to breakfast in the mornings," she offered.
"Ladies and gentlemen, the comedy stylings of Freya McAllister," he said to the ceiling, while he thought, I’m talking like I have a choice, but I’m not sure I do, I’m not sure I could give her up twice, I didn’t know I could ever want anything this much. That’s love, isn’t it? Is that what love means?
"What are you asking me for?" she said. "You don’t think I’ve been in love before, do you?"
"I actually wasn’t talking to you," he said, as loftily as he could manage while naked and sticky.
She smiled against his shoulder. "Sorry."
Brendan heaved a sigh and said, "We’re going to keep working on the personal space thing," but inside his head, he was singing "Lady Marmalade" off-key, like he always did on all his happiest days.