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Escape Velocity

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They're no closer to figuring out who the murderer is at the end of the day than they were at the beginning, but all the time spent reading files, looking at crime scene photographs, and following up leads in the scorching heat of an Arizona summer day has been enough to keep her from dwelling too much on the past. Five years ago on this day, Michael committed suicide.

She's been far quieter than usual today and though she's sure Creegan has noticed, he doesn't comment on it or ask her if everything's all right. She has no doubt he knows why, too, despite believing his claim that he hasn't read her file. If he's astute enough to piece together the vague behavior patterns of a murderer who's left a trail of dead bodies in three states, he's certainly capable of figuring out why one day out of the year, she's more introverted and introspective than usual.

Neither of them speak on the way back to the hotel from the Phoenix OSC field office. Branca brings the government issue sedan to a stop in the parking deck before shutting off the engine with a deliberately slow twist of her wrist, though she makes no attempt to remove the keys from the ignition or open the door.

Creegan is staring out the passenger side window at a moth that drifts too close to the large electric bug zapper. The insect fries on contact with a hissing zzzzt of sound.

She studies him for a long moment while his head is turned away, trying to think of the best way to put her question and she thinks she's finally got the words straight in her head when he quietly says, "You can ask me whatever you like." It's the same thing he said to her eighteen months ago on a flight to Denver a couple of days after they'd met, when she was still trying to gain a marginal understanding of the strange man who'd been made her partner.

Caught off guard, she inhales in reaction and when he looks at her, his gaze is so clear and steady that her carefully formulated thoughts scatter like dandelion seeds on a windy day.

"I'm just saying, the offer's still open. It'll always be open," Creegan says with a slight smile, drumming his fingers on his thigh and turning his head to stare out the front windshield. "For you, anyway."

That afterthought is spoken in a voice so quiet that she almost doesn't hear it. She has to force herself to steer clear of any implied meanings his simply words spoken may or may not possess. Susan leans back in the seat and then speaks hesitantly, "Do you remember what you said to me about a month or so ago, when we were walking along the boardwalk by the ocean…"

"Yes, I remember," he interrupts.

She shifts in her seat, pulling her hand away from the keys to hook her fingertips over the steering wheel. The cheap black vinyl feels warm to her touch. "You said something about how it wasn't so great there, or you wouldn't be here."

"No, what I said was, 'If I thought it was so great there, I wouldn't work so hard here.'" He speaks the words using the exact tone and inflection as he did when he first said them that seaside day.

"Yeah." She brushes a stray swath of hair away from her cheek and blunders onward, "But if you meant it, then…" The word hangs in the air for a moment before she asks the question that's been at the forefront of her mind all day, "then why would you try to kill yourself four times?"

"Five times, actually," he corrects her, tilting his head to gauge her reaction to that admission.

Susan blinks. "But, your file said…"

"My file doesn't mention the fifth time because no one knew about it but me." That half-smile quirks the corner of his mouth again. "Well, until now, obviously."

Taken aback, she can't help herself from asking, or at least starting to. "How…I mean, how did you…?" She stops herself from saying more, but it doesn't matter because he's already answering.

"That time? Anti-depressants and painkillers, among other things."

Branca flinches and bites her lip, shutting her eyes to block out the image of Michael's slumped form in a tub of bloody bathwater. On the edge of the sink are two empty pill bottles next to a glass of cooling rum and coke. She's certain he saw her reaction but it doesn't stop him from continuing.

"That time, which ended up being my fifth and final, was—wait." He holds up one hand, "Wait, before I go on, let me say something for the record. Getting shot in the head will give you some of the worst headaches known to man, especially for the first year or so afterwards," he informs her very seriously.

A giggle pushes aside the sob that's stuck in her throat and emerges in between one ragged breath and the next. "Is that so?" she somehow manages to ask.

"I know, right? Crazy." Creegan shakes his head ruefully and goes on, "So I've got this headache, and it's gotten worse and worse until it's just killing me—pardon the pun—and it finally reached the point where I was willing to take anything to make it go away. Or everything, actually," he admits with a shrug, staring off into space.

It's a few moments before she trusts her voice enough to speak. "What happened then?"

"Hm? Oh. I crammed my hand down my throat until I threw it all back up." His eyes meet hers and he says, "My point is, for the most part, it wasn't so much about me trying to kill myself or trying to go back there." His slight emphasis leaves little doubt as to where he's referring to. "It was more that I couldn't stop myself from doing things that could kill me."

She notes his choice of words, and repeats part of what he said back to him. "For the most part?"

Another bug incinerates in the bug zapper and he turns away from her as he admits, "Yeah. You see, there was this belief, this utter confidence in the fact that once I recovered physically from the gunshot wound, that everything would be fine and it'd all go back to normal. I was getting that line from everyone I knew, the people I worked with, my father, Holly…that as I healed, I could just ease back into my life, my home and my family." A short and bitter laugh escapes him. "Only problem was that wasn't my life. Not anymore. And I knew it. I tried to tell them. And when I tried to… I tried to explain, I tried to make them understand…I…" He closes his eyes and swallows, the muscles in his jaw clenching.

Without even thinking about it, she reaches out and rests her hand on his forearm and giving a comforting squeeze though his sleeve.

He draws in an uneven breath and says quietly, "That time, I wasn't trying to get back there, I was trying to escape everything here."

And there it was, the word that she keep coming back to and has off and on for five years. She mutters it under her breath, "Escape…" When he turns to look at her, she smiles tightly up at him, releasing a breath she didn't even know she was holding. "Escaping here."

"You think that's why he did it? To get away from you? From his life with you?" David asks, his gaze dropping down to where her hand still lingers on his arm.

The calm façade she's kept up all day is starting to crack now. She and Michael had had their share of problems—what relationship didn't?—but they were working their way through them, or so she'd thought. Things had seemed to be moving along an even keel. But in the end, it all came down to the fact that the man she loved had not seen her as someone worthy of sharing his burdens with, but of escaping from. "You said it yourself. What other reason could there be?" she asks bitterly. She starts to remove her hand but he covers it with his own, wrapping his fingers around her wrist to keep her from pulling it away.

He sighs, "Susan, what I said about escaping everything here, that wasn't entirely true."

She can't help giving him a look of sheer disbelief and says sharply, "Don't try to change the truth just to make me feel better. You never have before, so don't start now."

"Well then, can we just—can we just define the word 'everything'? Please? Humor me."

"Fine," she retorts and she'd cross her arms like a petulant child were it not for the fact that he's still holding her hand hostage.

He shifts in the seat to face her as he speaks, "When I say everything, I mean everything as in the world. Everything as in the universe. A teensy, tiny, itty bitty universe with only one thing in it. Me. Just me. Nothing else. Nobody else. Not Holly, not Lily, not Sam… Just… me. And the me I'm not, the one that I can't be anymore. The one on the other side of that wall I told you about. Do you understand, Susan?"

She's weeping silently now and closes her eyes, covering them with her free hand to hide her face because she's not used to her emotions being laid so bare before anyone. She doesn't have the voice to answer with anything more than a single jerky nod.

Drawing in a slow breath, he ploughs on, "And in the place I was at that moment, the world wasn't any bigger than what I couldn't do and couldn't be. And everything was just....too much and not enough. But it passed. The world got bigger. And instead of looking at what I'd lost, I looked at what I still had. And for me, that moment passed." He lifts his hand and gently tugs hers away to cup her damp cheek, brushing away tears with his thumb. "It was never your fault, you know," he informs her gently.

Susan nods reflexively, like she has for years.

His hand lifts her chin, wordlessly demanding her to look him in the eye. "Susan, it wasn't your fault. This isn't a choice that can be made by someone outside of that universe, because that moment isn't about anyone outside it. Believe me, I know. It wasn't your fault, alright?" he says again.

God, she wants to believe him, but she's carried this guilt for so long that she's not sure she can.

His sharp gaze notes her doubt and he says, "Just ask yourself this, ask yourself if I'm lying to you. Do I ever lie to you?"

There's only one answer to that question. David Creegan is many things, a liar isn't one of them. She closes her eyes and gives a minute shake of her head, whispering, "No." Trying to regain some semblance of control over her watery emotions, she inhales and exhales slowly with a deep shuddering breath.

A warm smile curves his lips at and he slides his thumb across her cheek one more time, wiping off the tears that linger there. When he pulls his hand away, the cloudy droplets collect on his skin and he tilts his hand to watch in child-like fascination as it rolls down to the tip of his thumb, dangling precariously. He brings it to his mouth and licks it off right before it drops.

Susan should probably be surprised, or perhaps even disgusted, but right now she doesn't have the energy for either. Sniffling, she wipes her eyes with her hand. The world is still not perfect. Michael has been dead five years. Her survival guilt isn't gone and probably never will be, but for the first time it seems lessened somehow.

He's still holding her other hand, and she gives him a grateful squeeze before pulling it free. He tightens his grip for a fraction of a second and then lets her go, but his attention is on his thumb. "Salty," he observes, and glances at her tear-streaked face again. "Needs fries to go with it. Maybe a cheeseburger. And one of those little plastic toys that breaks after ten minutes."

She can't help but shake her head at that, and distracts herself by digging in her purse for a Kleenex and dabs at her eyes. "A Happy Meal, then?" she suggests with a tiny smile when she feels composed enough to speak again.

David considers that for a moment and cocks his head. "Yeah, only it'd really be a Sad Meal, and if they called them that, then no one would buy them, right?"

The words tickle her memory and it's a moment before, somehow, she remembers where she's heard that before. "Pinky and the Brain? Seriously? You're quoting Pinky and the Brain, now, of all times?" she asks with utter disbelief.

"What do you want to do tonight, Brain?" he asks in a high-pitched cockney accent. "Narf!"

Laughing weakly, she replies, "The same thing we do every night, Pinky," and then makes a minor change that is spoken in a more serious tone. "Try to save the world."

He nods once and turns to study her face again, commenting in a normal voice, "Hmm. I seem to remember that line going differently."

"Yeah well, it's close enough," Susan responds, pulling the keys out of the ignition and dropping them into her purse with the rumpled tissue. She opens the car door and gets out.

"It's close enough," he agrees.