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Someone I Used To Know

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"Excuse me."

Barbara looked up with a frown. The guy leaning towards her table had the sort of face she privately categorised as military-generic: strong but unremarkable features, stern mouth, close-cropped hair fading to grey at the temple. He seemed vaguely familiar, and she dredged up a memory of standing next to him, once, in line for coffee.

"Can I borrow that for two minutes?" His head was inclined towards the pen at her elbow.

"I need it back," she said automatically, already turning back to her laptop. There was the pinch of an incipient headache between her eyes, and she found herself scanning uselessly over each line of math with rising frustration. She knew the mistake was there—and it was an easy mistake: a misplaced variable, a mistyped equation—but instead of letting her in, tonight the equations were pushing back against her, as blank and impenetrable as a brick wall.

"Thanks," she heard. In her peripheral vision the guy was handing back her pen. The algorithms for calculating the instantaneous cost and observation distributions for the top-level Markov chain all looked right, so maybe the problem was in the chain itself. But she couldn't see a mistake there, either, so maybe it was the search space definitions. Or any of the definitions. Her brain throbbed.

"What are you working on?"

"What?" She'd forgotten his presence. She frowned at him.

"What are you working on?" the guy repeated. He rested his elbows on his knees as he leaned forward, and she noticed the strong line of his forearms, the heavy slope of muscle on his shoulders. The kind of meathead who spent his non-Iraq time trying to bench-press three times his own body weight.

"Pattern recognition software," Barbara said shortly, waiting for the inevitable look of blank disinterest, the defensive comment: Well, ain't that a waste of a pretty face.

But he surprised her by saying, instead: "Machine learning's a growth industry." His eyes flicked up to her laptop screen and rested there for a moment, intent. "There's an error on line sixty-eight."

Barbara looked at him sharply for signs of mockery, but he turned his head to regard her with that same intensity, cool and unreactive. His expression threw her, demanding something other than the caustic reply she'd had ready, and she could only say, stupidly, "How do you know?"

He looked at her steadily. "Because it's wrong."

She gave a surprised huff of recognition. She knew the feeling: that particular mental clarity that sidestepped reasoning and illuminated everything with an indefinable sense of rightness or wrongness. The flash of genius that, just for a moment, made the world fall open so you could see the perfect shape of the mathematics that lay beneath.

Tonight, though, she'd read each line so many times they'd devolved into a junk mash of abstract symbols, ridiculous and meaningless. Line sixty-eight especially, with its recursive phrases and—

"Shit, I'm so stupid." The electric thrill of realising the mistake wasn't enough to swamp the frustration of having missed it, over and over. Tears needled behind her eyes, stupid, stupid, and the embarrassment was blindly energising, propelling her fingers over the keyboard faster than she could coordinate, gutting and rebuilding the offending line with quick sharp strokes.

A touch on her shoulder made her jump. The guy caught her look and the corner of his mouth moved slightly, not quite a smile. "Not stupid. Just tired." His hand on her bare skin was shockingly immediate. He squeezed gently, standing up, and said, "See you later."

Her shoulder was warm where his hand had been. She realised she was tired; tired enough that a stranger's kindness felt like more than it was, like something she wanted. She pushed the thought away abruptly. Not fast enough, though, because like his touch, something about it lingered.

***

Barbara liked the anonymity of cafés, the embryonic peace of working within the white-noise hum of an uninterested humanity. There were a dozen or so other regulars at the Starbucks opposite her office, a loose community of familiar faces with an unspoken agreement of friendly but unacknowledged coexistence. White-collar professionals, a few students, a blonde-haired girl in a service uniform. She registered their collective presence as part of the environment; when any of them were missing, they fell out of her thoughts as though they'd never existed.

Now, though, it was different. A connection formed from an acknowledgement, a touch. It made him real in a way the others weren't. It directed her eyes to him when he was there; made her miss him when he wasn't. She noticed the way his t-shirts pulled tight against his chest and arms, the well-worn fit of his khakis. He read pop psychology and fiction, not Tom Clancy or Robert Ludlum but the classics: Shakespeare and Dostoevsky, Flaubert and Sartre, never bringing the same book twice. Sometimes she saw him watching her, the same way she watched him. She wondered what he thought of her, whether his half-frown was registering her crows-feet and the multiplying freckles on her neck and forehead. Whether he could tell just by looking that her freezer was full of Slim Choice frozen dinners, that all her underwear was stretched out and beige.

It was two weeks before she saw him up close again, standing ahead of her in line at the counter. His proximity felt surreal. He had another novel in his hand; apparently he'd moved on to modern literature. The cover was a somber grey line drawing of two men staring at each other with unfriendly faces. Amsterdam.

She could feel him watching her out of the corner of his eye, waiting.

"Thanks for the help the other day," she said. She had to resist the urge to touch him familiarly on the arm, as though all her looking had made him hers already.

He looked down and gave her a half-smile. "No problem."

There was a giddy flutter in her stomach. His closeness made her realise just how physically imposing he was, a slab of a man who made her feel breakable in comparison. "Where'd you pick up programming?" He was more Delta Force than DARPA, and the thought of him squeezed into a fluorescent-lit office cubicle, khakis and combat boots exchanged for shirt and slacks, seemed ridiculous.

"I'm just good with numbers," he said easily. He stepped forward and pulled his wallet out of his pocket. "What do you want?"

Barbara smiled at him, the giddy feeling kicking up a notch. "What are you getting?"

"Double venti organic sugar free Cinnamon Dolce latte, no whip."

For an awkward fraction of second she couldn't tell whether he was joking or not, but then the corner of his mouth tipped up, just slightly, and she laughed. "Delicious as those four hundred calories sound, I might just get a tall Americano, thanks."

"Two hundred and thirty calories," he said, mouth still tilted.

Someone cleared their throat behind them, shaking Barbara back into the moment. The guy turned to order, only to be cut off by the cashier, a familiar-looking girl with black hair scraped back under a green sun visor, who looked at them both with obvious recognition and said dryly, "Two usuals, nine eighty."

"Wait, your usual is a Cinnamon Dolce latte?"

He looked at her sideways. "Yes."

She winced, embarrassed. "Right. I guess I didn't figure you for that type."

"Why not?" He didn't seem offended, just curious.

"Just—" she made an up-and-down gesture that encompassed his hair, his practical clothes in practical colours. "I mean. Army?"

"Used to be." He handed the money to the cashier. "Medical discharge."

She had to look away to prevent her eyes from moving involuntarily over the shape of his body under its clothing. "Oh. I'm sorry."

"You can't see it," he said, in the unconcerned tone of someone who was used to explaining himself. "An IED exploded under my vehicle when I was on patrol. They had to remove half my skull because of brain swelling. Replaced it with a steel plate."

Her stomach turned, followed by an equally nauseous flush of guilt at the reaction. "Jesus." But the puzzle pieces were clicking into place: the slight off-beat of his conversation, the blank affect. He'd been unusually lucky, she thought uneasily: there couldn't be many who came through traumatic brain injury with nothing more than that.

As though sensing her thoughts, he said mildly, "Least I'm alive."

"Yeah," she said. The inadequacy of her response rang unpleasantly in the following silence. Her eyes flicked to his temple. Lacking purchase on a scar or obvious imperfection, they slid away again. "So," she said. The pause ached and stretched. "So," she said again, withering under the burn of self-consciousness. "You're here a lot."

He turned his head then, looking at her directly, and smiled. The expression transformed the strong angles of his face from generic to handsome, every ounce of his odd intensity focused on her, just her, in a way that made her breath catch with a sweet painful stutter in her chest. "Waiting for you," he said.

The barista called from the other end of the counter, "Venti Cinnamon Dolce latte, Tall Americano."

Distracted, she watched the shape of his hands around the paper cups. No wedding ring, no mark from one hastily slipped off. He took a swallow of his own drink as he passed her the other, and she found herself transfixed by the smooth movement of his throat, the press of his lips on the rim.

A sharp burn in her palm suddenly made her gasp and drop the coffee cup back onto the counter, where it bounced and sent up a jolt of hot liquid.

His head snapped around. "Are you hurt," he said, strangely urgent.

Embarrassment stung more fiercely than her burned palm. "It was just hotter than I thought," she said inanely, turning away from the barista's pointed look. She looked at the puddle spreading on the countertop. "Can you grab me a napkin so I can get this before it goes everywhere?"

He frowned. "That's not important." Her breath sped up as his fingers, warm, brushed hers; curled around her hand and gently spread it open to expose her palm.

It was hard to hold herself perfectly still against the unsteadiness of her breath. He was close enough that she could smell the faint traces of his aftershave. She watched the line between his eyebrows, the downcast sweep of his lashes, as he inspected her skin. Wondered if he was turned off by smart women, if he was the kind of guy who'd cut in whenever she talked about her work, if he'd make jokes about her six-figure salary, her house, her BMW. "What's your name?" she asked.

"Vick Chamberlain," he said, looking up. He let her hand go.

She knew she'd see him again, but the thought of him leaving then, after that moment of artificial intimacy, filled her with a panicky feeling of loss as intense and painful as her earlier excitement.

"Do you want my number?" she blurted. She was acutely conscious of her end-of-day appearance: the creases in her clothes, smudged makeup.

He didn't react for a second, and she felt her smile falter. Fuck. Too fast, too pushy, and she knew how she came across in situations like these: too smart, too uptight, not funny enough, not young enough. Who was she kidding, chasing some small-town quarterback type who'd probably joined the Army straight out of high school, the kind of guy who fantasised about the hot blonde girl next door, a sweet little thing who laughed easily and didn't mind having sex with the lights on.

"You know what." Her voice sounded shrill in her own ears. "Nevermi—"

"Yes," Vick said, cutting her off. "Yes, I do want your number."

She looked up at him. His eyes were clear hazel, steady and unjudgemental, and when he caught her looking he smiled.

Barbara bit her lip, then reached into her bag and handed him one of her business cards. "Call me."

He looked at the card. "Barbara Mann," he said, and the sound of him saying her name made her shiver. "Count on it."

***

The engine of the SUV cut with a low grumble. Vick's hand was resting gently on the gearstick, close enough to drop easily onto Barbara's leg, smooth and naked under the silky fabric of her dress. He didn't, though, just gave her a half-smile as he looked across at her and said, "I'll walk you to the door."

He was different from the other guys she'd dated, she thought. He was interested in her work, interested in her, unthreatened by all the things that made the others bluster and criticise—her intelligence, her commitment to her job, the fact she earned twice as much as they did. She tried to dampen her excitement, but rational thought seemed insignificant compared to the sweet tug of anticipation.

"You don't have to do that," she said, to give him an out. She watched him from under her lashes. He'd swapped his urban military look for soft, faded jeans and a white button-down shirt with the sleeves pushed to his elbows, and she found her eyes drawn to his bare wrists and fingers, wondering what they'd feel like stroking upwards along her ribcage, or downwards along the outside curve of her thigh.

"A lot can happen in twenty yards."

"Like what? LA isn't Iraq," she teased, feeling a lightness expanding in her chest.

"No, it's not," Vick agreed, but he got out anyway, walking her up the driveway to her front porch. The neighbour's security light flicked on behind the intervening foliage, casting a shifting succession of shadows onto her lawn. He seemed distracted by the movement, but when she touched his hand he just looked at her and said, "Nice place."

At the door Barbara smiled at him and said, "I had a great time tonight."

He touched her arm lightly. "Me too."

"Do you want to come in?" She felt her cheeks flame. Her heart was beating fast, turning her anticipation into a muddy feeling of anxiousness, and she wondered how he saw her. Sexy, wanton, or just thirty-six and desperate.

But there was nothing like pity in his face as he said, "Yes."

Inside the hall she turned to him, interlaced their fingers, and when he didn't resist slid her hand along the heavy muscle of his arm and rested it on his chest. There was a hyper-masculinity to his solidness, a novel thrill in feeling the bulk of him standing unmoved by her weight against him. When she kissed him he took her in his arms and kissed her back—restrained and careful, a patient press of lips and tongue that built slowly until the underside of her skin ran electric with wanting. She felt him stroking her hip through her dress, his touch transmuted into the teasingly impersonal sensation of fabric sliding over skin.

The realisation of how much she wanted him shocked her out of the moment. Breaking the kiss and pulling back, she said awkwardly, "I'm sorry." She turned so she didn't have to see the inevitable query on his face.

"What for?" Vick's voice was calm.

Barbara could hear her own pathetic undertone of pleading as she said, "I'm sorry, but I just—I don't want to screw this up." It was easy to remember the others, the ones she'd slept with on the first, second date and never heard from again. Even though she hadn't even liked most of them, had slept with them out of loneliness and because she'd wanted to feel wanted, the memories still stung. She could hear the litany of their voices in her head: too intense, too needy, just give me some space. She said, hesitantly, "What do you want? Now, I mean."

She half-expected him to try and convince her to continue, or maybe make some tired joke about the unfairness of leaving a guy hanging. But he considered the question with a seriousness she hadn't thought it deserved, then gently touched the corner of her mouth with his thumb. "Whatever you want."

She knew what she wanted. Instead, she said, "Maybe—I guess it's a good idea for us to take it slowly. Just at first." She cringed at her own uncertainty. "I'll see you later?"

Vick smiled at her. When he kissed her again, it was almost chaste: a bare press of lips against hers. He said, "I'll call you."

Barbara closed the door, feeling her insides starting to sink under the growing weight of doubt. She shut her eyes and breathed against it until an uncontrollable spasm of yearning made her tear open the door again. He was still at the curb, getting into his SUV. In another second he'd be gone, and all she could think was that this might be the last she'd see of him. Another rejection: nothing personal. The fear filled her with a cold, shapeless terror. She wanted to call him back, tell him she'd changed her mind. But as she stood there, suddenly the scene twisted until, for one heart-stoppingly cruel moment, she saw herself from the outside: a desperate, pathetic woman begging not to be left by some man she'd only just met.

Feeling heartsick, she let the door close. The viciousness of her own emotions made her eyes sting.

It felt unfair, like being punished for just wanting what everyone else had.

***

Barbara stood in front of her BMW, parked in her driveway with its hood up. She'd spent a ridiculously long time on the studied casualness of her outfit: a cute top and nice-fitting jeans, hair pulled back, deliberately bare feet. The itchiness of her special-occasion underwear provoked a frisson of excitement low in her belly, the anticipation of his touch.

"I just noticed it the other day," she said to Vick. "I don't know how long it's been going on."

Vick surprised her by pulling a Powerbook and long cable out of his backpack. She'd expected mechanical tools—but of course cars were more electronic than mechanical, these days. Smiling wryly, she found she wasn't sure whether she felt chagrined or disappointed by the erroneousness of her mental image of Vick in overalls, his arms smeared up to the elbow with engine grease.

It was a sunny blue day, not too hot. Someone's dog was barking in the distance. Three houses over, a handful of kids ran wild with multi-coloured balloons. Vick's presence amongst all this perfect ordinariness breathed life into a delicate quivery feeling inside her, a hope for something she didn't want to put it into words for fear it would break.

"Hold this." Vick handed her the laptop, plugged in one end of the cable, then leaned over the engine block to plug the other end into something deep within it. He was wearing his usual khakis, but he'd taken off his jacket to reveal a worn Lakers t-shirt that pulled across his chest when he straightened up. His fingers brushed hers as he took the laptop and said, "Turn on the car."

Used to his awkwardness in social situations, she marvelled at him here: cool, competent, quietly commanding in a way that compelled instant response. She wondered if he'd been like this in Iraq; how much of his personality was caused by Iraq, by the metal plate in his head. Wondered what he'd been like before, and whether she would have liked that Vick more or less than the one she knew now.

She went and turned the key in the ignition. The engine's normal purr was overlaid by a fast regular beat, like an overstressed heart.

When she came back Vick had the laptop balanced against the front of the car so he could use both hands to type. One side of the screen was filled with fluctuating curves in various colours; the other was a quickly scrolling interface of what looked like raw data streaming in from the car's engine. She watched his fingers, sure and precise on the keys, typing even faster than she did as he entered numbers, symbols, complex commands. The whole image was embarrassingly incongruous: a soldier turned mechanic, his hands used to weapons and blunt instruments, so evidently comfortable in her domain. It felt like a silent rebuke.

"The engine's knocking." Vick's eyes scanned the raw data streams as he typed. He was making real-time changes; she could hear the changing sound of the engine, the revs rising and falling. Without taking his attention from the screen, he said, "Knock occurs in internal combustion cylinders when spontaneous ignition occurs outside the normal combustion flame front. The noise is the result of shockwaves from the additional detonations."

"Which means—?"

"Pressure spikes will stress the cylinders and pistons beyond their design capacity. Extreme knock can cause catastrophic engine failure." Vick looked at her sideways, giving her a faint smile. "But this isn't an extreme case."

"I just bought this car," Barbara said, resting her hands on her hips. "And I kind of expected that for a hundred gra—" She stopped abruptly, her annoyance deflating into the familiar sinking feeling of a faux pas. She could guess what Vick earned each month as a mechanic, what his military pension was, and together they were probably less than what she'd spent having her second bedroom redone. She finished, lamely: "I mean, I was just kind of expecting something that didn't break in the first six months."

"It's not broken." If he'd noticed her slip, he hadn't taken offense. He was typing again, and she could see the curves of the graphs flexing in response. "Increasing the air-fuel ratio, reducing the compression ratio, and re-calibrating the ignition timing schedule are all effective knock-prevention measures."

The engine revved with a fading chatter, then fell back. Vick tilted his head, listening, made a few more quick keystrokes, and then leaned across the engine block to unplug the laptop cable.

"That's it?" She listened carefully.

Vick straightened up, handed her the laptop, and closed the hood. "I've restored normal performance, and there wasn't any lasting damage." He took the laptop back, stowing it in his bag. "But to prevent recurrence you should consider switching to a high-octane fuel."

"High-octane?" said Barbara. There was a dark smudge along his forearm. She found her eyes drawn to it, her mouth suddenly dry.

"Premium."

"Oh."

In the kitchen she brought him a glass of water and watched him drink it. When he set it down she kissed him, and he let her push him back against the table. She ran her palms over the thick muscle on either side of his ribcage, pushing up his t-shirt until he lifted his arms so she could take it off. As she traced the shape of his shoulders and chest, she could smell the familiar maleness of him: deodorant, shaving cream and the faint saltiness of summer and car oil. When she leaned in he turned his head to kiss her again, his hands coming up around her waist. Against his lips she murmured, "Bedroom."

In the bedroom Vick efficiently removed the rest of his clothes and placed a condom on her bedside table. His body was blunt and utilitarian, perfectly proportioned from the breadth of his shoulders to the size of his cock: a soldier's body, but unscarred. Looking at him sitting on the edge of her bed, Barbara felt a rush of desire. The presence of a man in her bedroom, waiting for her, felt alien and at the same time, achingly normal.

Feeling self-conscious, she closed the blinds before taking off her own clothes. Even then she couldn't help saying uncomfortably as she pulled her top over her head, "I keep meaning to make it to more spin classes, but they're all on so early and work's kind of crazy at the moment—" A glance in the mirror showed the unhappy disjunction between her pale, freckled, ordinary-looking body and the underwear selling its perpetual fantasy of thin, desirable womanhood.

Vick just reached for her, touching her cheek before moving downwards to follow the contours of her ribs and waist. His hands spanned the breadth of her hips in their ridiculous lace panties, framing her. "You don't need to feel bad about your body," he said, with the same matter-of-factness he'd used to describe her engine knock. "You're beautiful." He pulled her closer and kissed the hollow of her belly next to her hip. Feeling a surge of reassurance, she pushed down her panties as he undid her bra so she was standing naked in front of him. He looked at her calmly and said, "What do you want?"

The directness of the question made her blush. She was outrageously aware of his fingers spread gently around the curve of her ass, intimate yet still somehow politely distant. The ache between her legs was idea enough of what she wanted, but when it came to articulating it she found herself tongue-tied. The unwavering focus of Vick's expression suggested there was nothing in his thoughts at that moment but her—naked, exposed, shameful in her wanting—and the intensity of it made her squirm with embarrassment and arousal. She said, awkwardly, "You know. Whatever. What do you want?"

He smiled and pulled her onto the bed. He kissed her stomach, fingers trailing up her leg from her ankle, and her mind extrapolated the teasing upwards motion until all her senses converged desperately on the insistent beat between her legs. She held her breath as he kissed her hipbone, her pubis; let it out in a gasp as he slid lower on the bed and licked her. Her entire body clenched in revelation at the slide of his tongue, and as she pushed breathlessly into the sensation she heard herself making soft, involuntary sounds of appreciation. She let him continue until the initial burst of pleasure turned into its normal slow build, then touched the soft-spiky grain of his razored hair and said, "You don't have to."

Vick broke off, causing her a moment of private despair. Looking up, he said, "I want to make you feel good." He didn't look away, just watched her steadily as he circled his thumb over her. The slick, almost sensationless glide made her bite her lip and arch to chase it, greedy despite her self-consciousness. She thought she saw a flicker of a smile at the corner of his mouth as he let her take a shaky breath, then slid a finger inside her with unbearable deliberateness. "Do you want me to stop?"

"No," she said, drawn-out and gasping. "No." Her whole body was alight, burning under the heat of his unflinching regard as he slid another finger beside the first, a welcome pressure that she twisted her hips into, panting. She was sweating, self-consciousness forgotten but tense with concentration, and Vick's fingers were cool and perfect as she pressed her feet into the bed to angle herself against him. "No." He watched her for a few more seconds then lowered his head again. She groaned as he balanced her between the twin pressures of his tongue and fingers, tightening her thighs to chase that elusive pivot point of sensation, slick and slippery and wonderful and nearer and nearer and almost there and she gasped as she closed in on it, too fast, "Oh, stop—" He stopped and that was wrong, she could feel it about to slip away and she cried out, "No, go, go, don't stop—" chasing the feeling, catching it and grinding down on Vick's fingers into the full-body shudder of her orgasm, a ragged rediscovery of breath while the sensation peaked and faded until she was left gasping, "Ah, ah, stop," against the suddenly ticklish intensity of it.

She flopped back onto the bed, and when Vick said, "Was that okay?" she laughed and tugged his arm until he moved over her. He made love to her with surprising gentleness, supporting his weight on one arm as he kissed her. He was in perfect command of his body—nothing like the others, who'd grunted and sweated and come before she was even getting started. When he hit the right angle she told him breathlessly, "Like that—" and he slid into her over and over, strong and patient, and when she came she pulled him tighter against her and felt him shudder, controlled even in the way he kissed her neck as he came, one small quick intake of breath but otherwise silent. He touched her mouth afterwards, tender, and smiled down at her before getting up to dispose of the condom.

When he came back she cuddled against him. Held in his arms, hearing his steady breathing, she felt a burst of sudden, bright happiness: yes, this.

***

When Vick moved in he brought with him a computer, some clothes, a box of miscellaneous mechanical equipment, and his SUV. "People have far more possessions than they need," he said.

"Do I?" she asked, teasing.

Without looking around he said, "Yes." When she made a face at him he said immediately, "I'm sorry."

She laughed. "You don't even know what you're apologizing for, do you?" There was something about him that always made him seem like a visitor from another country, another planet, someone feeling his way through misunderstood social niceties one after the other. She knew what that was like, to be on the outside looking in.

That evening, sitting next to him on the couch, she felt a bone-deep contentment: a certainty of a future in which the two of them were together, just like this. She nudged him and showed him her laptop screen. "Any mistakes?"

He looked carefully at the editor. "Line fifteen."

"Really? What should it be?"

Vick said, "I don't know." When she shook her head with a resigned smile he said, as he always did, "I just know what works and what doesn't."

His facility with numbers always awed her, a talent that lay somewhere between autistic and otherworldly. It reminded her of the articles she'd read about savants who could see the shapes of numbers in their minds, the combinations of the originals forming the new shapes of the solutions. Her awe was shaded by a slight jealousy: math came to her more naturally than most people, but never as easily as it did for him.

He said, "Calculation is easy. For the kinds of problems you're working on, intuition is the far more valuable ability." He looked at her sideways. "Lots of people can do what I do. But your mind is unique. Irreplicable."

She felt a pleasant, spreading warmth at that, as though he'd coaxed a flame from the red embers inside her. "Yeah, intuition is great as long as you don't mind working to its schedule. Sometimes I'd rather have what you have." Now that he'd mentioned it, she could see the problem with line fifteen. An alternative was already quivering unformed in her mind, teasing her like a word on the tip of her tongue. She touched his thigh and said, "I couldn't do this without you. You're my barometer."

Vick smiled and pressed a kiss against her temple. "Yes, you could."

It was late when she finally closed her computer and stretched her feet along the couch into his lap. He touched them absently, attention fixed on the TV. Watching him there, solid and permanent, she felt a powerful surge of affection. She sat up and put her head on his shoulder. "Love you." Looking up for his response, she found him still absorbed in the program, a drama rather than one of the Discovery Channel documentaries she filled the TiVo with but never got around to watching. "Do you love me?" she prodded. She knew she shouldn't ask—men would either say it in their own time, or not at all. But her embarrassing, insecure, innermost self wanted to hear it, to take the chance he'd say yes.

Vick said, "We're in a relationship."

"People can be in a relationship for any number of reasons. Look at my parents."

Vick looked down at her. He had his blank thinking expression on, and she said more sharply than she intended, "It's not a pass-fail question."

His expression didn't change. Finally he said, "I don't know."

Her heart sank as he put his arm around her and turned back to the TV. The familiar warmth of his body against hers was articulate in its own way, a physical demonstration of love that should matter as much—more than—the words, and she felt silly that it didn't. She told herself she should leave it alone, but after a while she couldn't help asking, "How can you not know?"

Vick shrugged.

She said, "Well, you want to be with me, don't you?"

"Yes."

"You want me to be happy."

"Yes."

"You don't want me to be hurt."

"Yes."

"You'd die for me." She'd meant it to be playful, but as soon as it came out it sounded more serious that it should have.

Vick just said, without any greater hesitation, "Yes."

"So there you go," said Barbara, feeling buoyed. By the time the program finished she was half-asleep. Vick turned off the TV and she felt him shift, settling her closer. He reached down and gently traced the outline of her mouth with his thumb.

"I love you," he said, and she smiled.

***

It was past nine when they made it to her office, later than usual because she'd made him stop for an açaí juice from her favourite place in North Hollywood. "You don't always have to drop me to work," she'd told him, teasing, when he started their routine, but he'd just kissed her and said, "I want to." She was glad: she liked his easy companionship during the drive downtown, and the way their extra moments together felt stolen from the rest of the morning.

As they walked towards City Hall from the car, Barbara made out the usual huddle of journalists on the front steps. "Oh, for—if we want to be able to compete with all the other global high-tech centers, of course it's going to cost money!"

But when she looked up at Vick he seemed preoccupied, glancing across at something she couldn't quite see. "Did you hear what I said?" she said, squeezing his hand. "First they complain that jobs are going to India, but then when we start designing all this new communications infrastructure they think it's going to happen for free"

She saw the flash at the same instant Vick barked, "Get down!" The air seemed to flex, then the entire world crunched into an explosion of glass and flame. In her next conscious thought she found herself down low, Vick crouched around her, and she instinctively knew it was his body protecting her from the blast. Safe, she thought, dizzied. Safe in the tiny pocket of stillness he'd created for her, as though she was the eye in the storm of heat and fury surrounding them.

When it subsided all she could hear in the silence was a soft clinking, like a flag stirring in a mild wind. Vick was still crouching motionless, his arms cradling her, the two of them breathing each other's air inside their own little bubble of calm. His eyes were closed, and blood was seeping onto his skin and spotting through his t-shirt from underneath.

She reached up and touched his neck. "You're bleeding," she said wonderingly, feeling a clench of something impossibly tender and caring at the thought that he'd risked himself for her. For all that she couldn't conceive of a world in which he wasn't there to protect her, she found she could hardly bear to see him hurt.

"Marry me," she blurted, startling herself. Vick's eyes flicked open and he stared at her blankly, as though she'd said something unexpected and amazing—and it was like that, and she felt crazy and free with it. She laughed then, her voice shaky with near-hysteria, held safe in his arms against the ashes falling softly over them like an artist's macabre imagining of the end of the world.

Vick was still looking at her, his gaze the only thing about him that had moved since the explosion, and he said, "Yes."

***

Vick came in with the mail, leaning down to kiss her as he handed her a letter. Barbara felt herself relax as she inhaled his familiar after-work smell: solvents, car oil, metal. "Thanks, baby," she said, smiling up at him.

Vick took in the slew of papers around her on the couch. "Are you working on something new?"

"Oh—" She shook her head and tossed down the document she'd been reading. "One of the drawing-board projects got the green light for development. They're calling it ARTIE—automated real-time traffic information exchange. They're trying to get one of us to take it on, but—god, we all know it's going to be a nightmare. It's only just been announced and the privacy lobby's already started a campaign against it. The funding could go at any moment, and, well—I mean, traffic." She laughed. "It's just not that interesting."

"Traffic is interesting," he said, going into the kitchen. "It's a rule-governed system that's extremely resistant to mathematical modelling. The first traffic engineers assumed that traffic flows were analogous to fluid flows, and could be solved using standard fluid dynamics. But none of those early models were successful, because traffic is fundamentally about the ways people think about and interact with the world."

Barbara called after him, "You sound like the guys at work, trying to get me to take it."

He said, "Maybe."

***

When Barbara got home Vick had already cooked dinner: one of her guilty favourites, chicken risotto with too much butter and cheese. "How was work?" he said, pouring her a glass of wine.

She sank down with a sigh. "You mean apart from the game of pass-the-hot-potato that's still happening with that stupid ARTIE project?"

"Who are they going to give it to?"

"I'm worried it's going to be me. They're still pressuring me to take it." She wanted to bare her teeth at the memory. "Funny how City Hall's willing to throw its only female departmental manager to the sharks."

Vick said, "Residents of the United States spend the most time in cars of any members of the developed world, and suffer the highest rate of traffic fatalities. The number of cars on the road is growing faster than at any previous point in history, with no commensurate increase in physical infrastructure. Improving traffic management systems is a prerequisite for maintaining national economic growth and individual well-being. It's an important project."

Barbara gestured dismissively. "We're in LA—of course everyone thinks traffic is the most important issue in the whole damn world. But when you really think about what the rest of the world needs right now, it's not better roads and less traffic jams—it's better communications infrastructure. Look at the uptake of cellphones in Asia and Africa, even in the poorest countries. All those places are years away from needing the kinds of traffic management systems we already have here, but they'll be customers of cutting-edge communications technology now."

"But there are already other people working in telecommunications, doing the same things you're doing. You should be using your skills to develop something unique, something you'll be remembered for."

She knew he didn't understand, but it still felt like he'd reached out and stabbed directly into the tender, flinching place where she kept everything she'd done and hoped to do. She said sharply, "In ten years, do you think they're going to look back at the person who designed a traffic management system and say that she changed the world? Maybe you don't know, Vick, but I'm actually working on something I'm good at. I know there's a lot of competition in the field, a lot of innovation, but I look at my projects and they're real things, actual things that people use, and I made them! I don't want to be sidelined or shunted off into another project and have some boy wunderkind step into my work and take credit for what I did." When she took a breath, it tasted thick with her own hurt. "I know you don't care what other people think of you, sweetie, but I care what people think of me. I want my projects to succeed, and I want people to know what I've done."

With Cassandra-like clarity, she could see her future after ARTIE: entangled in an ever-lengthening string of minor projects, watching from the sidelines as a parade of breezily confident young men came up through the ranks to claim the opportunities she could have had. Of researchers encountering her early work in the city archives and wondering, whatever happened to her?

Vick regarded her steadily. "What happens if you keep refusing, and they still insist?"

"I don't know. They could push me out. Take my current projects from me."

He said, "Then you should take it."

"I just—I hate feeling like I don't have a choice. All the other managers get to decide their own paths; why shouldn't I get to decide mine, too? I'm going to fight it. I'm not going to let some backstabbing assholes make my future."

"I don't think that's a good idea, babe."

"You know what? Fuck them." She didn't have to present a cool professional face to Vick, and she felt herself coming apart into ugly, angry tears. Somehow it hurt more, rather than less, every time she revisited the memory of her colleagues' self-congratulatory smirks and glances, their smug expectations of victory. "It's all a game to them. A goddamn game, and whoever gets the ARTIE project is going to end up with their career down the toilet." She said, stronger than before, "I'm not going to take it. I'm going to make my own decisions about what I want to do."

She looked out the window while Vick started clearing the plates, but the only thing she could see was her own reflection frowning back at her from the dark.

***

Vick was watching a reality show when she came home, the shrill voices of TV people raised in some kind of tearful denouement. Barbara scooped up the remote, silencing them with a suddenness that left the room twanging, and crowed, "How do you feel about Geneva, baby?" She kissed him triumphantly and handed over the invitation. "Do you know how this feels? Everything I've done on communications, being noticed. Finally!"

But he took too long reading it. "The top ten female computer scientists in the world, Vick," she said, feeling the first pang of uncertainty. "I thought—I thought we could both go. The awards committee will cover travel and accommodation for both of us, and I've got more than enough vacation time—"

Vick interrupted, frowning, "I can't go. I can't fly."

Something in her chest lurched sickeningly. Iraq. She'd forgotten Iraq—all those news articles she'd skimmed past years ago, about planes and helicopters falling from the sky with their smashed human cargo. But Vick had been there. He'd known people who'd died; he'd nearly died. Even remembering the bare fact of it made her shudder with a visceral dread of what could have been: Vick, lost before she even knew him, just another war statistic she'd have paged past in the newspaper or ignored on TV. She hadn't wanted to remember, and now—horribly, guiltily—she realised she'd just assumed that Vick had forgotten, too.

"Sweetie, it's been—Iraq was nearly five years ago. And you never said anything, so I thought it was all in the past for you—" When his expression didn't soften she tried spelling it out for him in the way she knew he often needed, "This means a lot to me. I want to go, and I want you to come with me. We can find something, some kind of medication—something to make this work. Please, Vick."

It should have been impossible that the sheer weight of her wanting couldn't sway him; he never refused her anything. But this time he only repeated, "I can't go."

Barbara stared at him for a long moment, disappointment wicking up inside her like an ugly stain. She snatched the paper back, throat aching, and stalked into the kitchen to drop it crumpled into the trash. "You know what, just forget it. It doesn't matter."

Despite her best efforts, her resentfulness lingered for the rest of the evening. There was no point blaming him—she knew why he was the way he was—but she couldn't help the hurt: a selfish, ungrateful hurt that made her feel like it was her fault for asking, unfairly, for more than he could give.

She felt worse when Vick, finally realising she was upset, touched her hand as he was loading the dishwasher and said, "I'm sorry. I know you wanted to go. We should go out to dinner, instead, to celebrate."

But it wasn't the same. She couldn't stop herself from comparing their familiar, special-occasion restaurant to the elegant European reception of her imagination, picturing herself slim and glamorous in a red-carpet dress, poised, surrounded by the appreciative murmurs of her peers. It was just a stupid fantasy, but enough to poison the occasion: her celebratory dinner turned into a bitter farce of what she'd hoped for. She picked at her fish sourly. Even Vick was less attentive than usual, his eyes sliding over her shoulder more than once. When she finally twisted around there was only one guy eating by himself and a pair of young women—two of LA's beautiful people, tanned, blonde, laughing.

On the way home Barbara found herself saying snappily, aware it was petty and irrational but unable to stop herself, "I wish you wouldn't look at other women like that."

"What?"

"Looking at those women! Behind me in the restaurant. Like you wished you were over there with them instead of me."

"I wasn't," he said.

Turning away, she said, "Why are you always like this? I know what I saw; don't make me feel stupid." She was thankful there were no interested faces outside, nothing but LA's bleak concrete infrastructure unspooling emptily in front of them. "Sometimes, the way you are, I feel like you don't want me."

Vick looked at her. "I do want you."

"You say that, but then there's stuff like this, and— It's like you're happy to be with me, but I don't—I don't excite you." She heard her voice breaking. "Like I'm always the one who has to ask for it, and it's just something you do, something to make me happy." She knew it was pointless being upset, that she needed to explain it calmly and logically, but her ballooning hurt had already stretched her into nothing more than a membrane of raw, flinching self.

"I thought you liked the way it's been."

"I do like it. I know I have so much to be grateful for. And I love you." She took a clogged breath. "I just—sometimes. I need to feel like you want me."

"I'm sorry," he said. In her peripheral vision he was frowning, quiet for the rest of the trip.

When they got inside he touched her face. She pulled away. "Don't. Don't do it like you have to." Her face was hot and sticky, makeup smeared, eyes puffy and red: no wonder he was attracted to other women. Poking at the wound, she said, "Do you think about other people when we have sex?"

"No," Vick said with an intensity that almost made her think he was angry, but Vick was never angry, "You never realise it, but you're beautiful. You're everything I want. I'll do anything for you."

Unfairly, viciously, she said, "Except Geneva."

Vick drew back, his face shuttered. "I explained it to you. I can't. I would, if I could. I want you to be happy."

But when she started to turn away, anger sloshing into guilt in her stomach, he reached out and captured her face again, more determined this time. He said, "I do want you. Maybe I'm not good at showing it, but I do."

When he kissed her, it was hard enough that she had to pull away to catch her breath. Her lips throbbed: an oddly thrilling pain. He pushed her back against the wall and she said, stupidly, "I need to wash my face—"

"Don't think about that," he said in her ear. He hoisted her effortlessly, pushing her dress up around her thighs as she wrapped her legs around him. Despite her frayed emotions, she could feel her body responding in its usual way to his intense physicality, to the flex of his chest and thighs against his dress clothes. She dragged his head down, fingernails hard against his scalp with the force of it, kissing him until he fumbled with his pants and slid into her. "You're beautiful," he said against her mouth, rocking into her until she gasped. She was already achingly wet around him, yielding willingly when he pulled her down against his upstroke until their bodies were hard up against each other, skin to skin where his shirt was loose at his waistband, his body as solid as the wall at her back. He was slick and perfect, hips pressing hard enough against her that she could feel a bruised glow blending with familiar slippery arousal, and when she finally came, clenching and shuddering around the intensity of it, he said, "You're the only one I've ever wanted."

Afterwards, sitting curled under his arm against the wall, she rested her head on his chest. The reason for their fight seemed distant and stupid—an irrelevance compared to the settled knot of worry in her stomach.

Looking down at their interlaced fingers, she said, "This ARTIE thing isn't going away. Everyone in the department is against me on it. But I—I just don't want this to be the end. Of everything I've done." She'd never seen the end before—never had the realisation that she had now, that maybe after this she'd never do anything again that would set her apart. It made her feel sick with helplessness, like she'd somehow missed the turn-off and her feet were already set on a single, narrowing path towards the future.

Vick said, "ARTIE will be important. You should take it."

For a moment she wanted to shake him. "God, Vick, would it kill you to take my side for once? I know you find traffic interesting, but you're a mechanic and this is big-picture stuff—" She caught herself suddenly, guilt blooming in her gut like a bruise. "Oh, baby, I didn't mean that." She touched his face, assessing him for hurt feelings. "I didn't mean your work is less important than mine."

"It is."

"Don't say that." His face was blank with—irritation? Upset? Her heart ached: even after all this time, she still couldn't tell what he was feeling. "If you're angry with me I wish you'd just say it instead of giving me the silent treatment. It's just that—there are a lot of considerations here, okay? I'm not saying I'm not listening to you. I just need to think it through, work out what's right for me."

His silence made her anxious, and she squeezed his hand. "Vick? Vick, honey?" When he finally looked at her she found herself pleading for reassurance. "Are we okay?"

"Yes," he said, coolly, getting up and helping her to her feet. "We're okay."

***

"Mrs Chamberlain?" The warm voice on the other end had the calm authority of someone used to dealing with chaos. Even before he spoke again, her insides were already freezing with a precognitive dread that left her trembling: "Ma'am, it's your husband."

She must have driven, but all she remembered was being there, staring in horror at a scene that could have been some kind of silent, staged play: traffic lights flashing amber, the churning red and blue lights of the police cruisers, and in the middle of it a compacted wreck of what might once have been two vehicles, doors hanging open in a wide circle of bloodied glass. She couldn't focus on the sight of it—found instead her mind tumbling uselessly over traffic sequences and trajectories and angles of impact, as if she could just understand what had happened then, somehow, Vick would be safe.

Someone was at her elbow, speaking in a half-familiar voice, "Mrs Chamberlain?"

Barbara jerked and said frantically, "Where's my husband?"

"Over there, refusing medical treatment." The medic touched her arm reassuringly. "He seems fine—it's a miracle he's not more badly hurt. Wish I could say the same for the others. I'd still recommend a full check-up and overnight observation, though, so see if you can talk some sense into him."

Vick was sitting in the open back of the ambulance in his undershirt. There was a smear of black on his shoulder and a mild red welt rising along the side of his neck. He looked up calmly as Barbara ran to him. A sudden wash of emotion left her crying and shaking with hysterical relief as she held him, touching his face and arms and torso, feeling him warm and solid against her. She didn't know what she'd have done if she'd been called here and he was— but her mind shied away from fully articulating the thought.

"Baby—stay here and let them look at you," she pleaded, but he just said, "Take me home."

Driving back, still shaky with adrenaline, she kept snatching sideways glimpses of him for reassurance. But the next time she looked over there was blood running down his arm from underneath his sleeve. She thought she must have screamed; horns were suddenly blaring from behind, and she realised she was standing on the brake. Vick just followed her gaze downwards, looking at his arm neutrally before clamping his hand over his shoulder. He said, "It's fine. Keep driving."

When they got home he vanished into the bathroom and came back with the first aid kit. He set the contents out on the kitchen table in front of him, then peeled off his t-shirt. It hit the floor with a slap. His bare arm was gory to the wrist, shoulder torn open in a long, jagged gash. Barbara let out a small cry of horror.

Ignoring her distress, Vick handed her the tape and a pair of scissors. "Hold these." He reached up and held the edges of the wound together. Blood oozed over his fingers, drawing a fresh stripe down his arm. "Cut one-inch strips of tape, and use them to hold the flesh together."

Struggling to obey, her hands shook so badly that she tore the tape. The idea of him being in pain filled her with a visceral agony so intense that it felt like her lungs were being crushed. Breathing shallowly, too fast, she placed the first strip across the rent in his shoulder. "Good," he said. "Pull it tight." Her hands came away slick with his blood, coppery with the odour of a butcher's shop. When she went to place the second piece of tape she thought she saw something gleam inside his shoulder. Metal. She looked away quickly, feeling her gorge rise. Titanium pins from Iraq, and somehow the sight of them made her feel even more sick than if it'd been bone.

"Vick, baby, you have to go to hospital and get stitches—" she begged. It seemed wrong to be sticking him back together with plaster at the kitchen table. But Vick shook his head and she thought, upset: if I'd been to hospital after Iraq and had as much metal put in me as he had, I wouldn't want to go back, either.

That night she lay awake, Vick still and silent beside her, and she couldn't shake the terrifying feeling that he could be dead and she wouldn't even know. As if sensing her discomfiture, he turned his head to look at her, but there was something unreassuring about his gaze in the dark.

She said, "What's the matter, baby? Do you want me to get you another Vicodin?"

"This is your fault."

Barbara recoiled. "What?"

Vick said coolly, "Nothing." He turned his back to her, leaving her staring dumbly at the bandage on his shoulder, stained dark with drying blood.

When she finally fell asleep she dreamt of him torn and bleeding from a roadside bomb, pinned back together with metal—metal gleaming bloodied and silver through his skin, and he turned to her, half man and half machine, and said, "This is your fault."

Her first thought upon waking was pure, simple relief: Vick next to her, whole, alive. She reached over and touched him through the sheet, suddenly desperate to feel him. Yesterday he could have died—would have died if not for blind chance, and for an awful second she saw the future: a flash of his side of the bed, empty, and all she could do was shudder at the cold terror of it.

Vick woke, his eyes flicking open silently.

"Baby, what you said last night—" she said. Her nightmare still coated the back of her mouth with a sandy, exhausted horror. "What did you mean?"

Vick looked at her steadily. "You need to take the ARTIE project."

"You think if I had taken the ARTIE project, yesterday wouldn't have happened? Yesterday was a freak accident."

"I could have died, and you still don't even want to try. Do I mean that little to you?"

Barbara looked at him, stricken. "I—that's not fair. How can you say that?" Tears welled with the immediacy of a slap. She stalked to the shower, vision blurring, and when she finally managed to turn on the taps she cried until her throat ached.

She was still crying when Vick came in, naked except for the bandage on his shoulder. He stood on the other side of the glass for a moment, watching her, then opened the door and stepped in. When he moved to embrace her she resisted, then let herself be held. Cradled in his arms under the water, shaking with residual sobs, she watched his bandage slowly soaking through. Even knowing what had happened to him in Iraq, she'd always looked at his smooth, unblemished skin and thought him somehow invulnerable. But now, remembering the sight of his skin laid open in front of her, his blood coating her hands, she thought: he can be hurt. I can hurt him.

She stared at his shoulder, avoiding his eyes. "I never mean to hurt you," she whispered. "I always do, but I never mean to."

"Take the project," said Vick softly, and kissed her.

***

Barbara was used to the ways that projects grew, in stops and starts but always moving reassuringly forwards. ARTIE, though, was different: an alien tangle of dead ends that left her defeated at the end of each day with nothing to show for it but a whiteboard of useless equations. Her frustration made her tense and short-tempered. Had it been any other project, she thought, she'd have given up long ago. But then she'd look up and see Vick moving around the house, still off work after his accident, and she'd remember with something halfway between guilt and resentment: this is for him.

Over dinner, toying with her wine glass, she said, "I sit and stare at those damn equations all day, and nothing ever changes. They don't work. I can't make them work. I'm starting to feel like this is an impossible project."

Vick refilled her glass. "You just need to persevere."

"You think that's the solution to everything." The wine was bitter in her mouth: frustration. "That's how you do things. One problem at a time, one after the other. But I can't do that. It's not how I work; it's not how this project is. It's all connected, and until I understand the structure of it— Like no matter how much I pretend to work on it now, all I can do is wait, just hoping that one day I'll wake up and suddenly understand. And what if I don't? What if the answer never comes?"

"It will."

His certainty sent a surge of irritation through her. Looking past him, she found herself staring at the overflowing laundry hamper at the door of their bedroom. The sight was aggravating beyond all proportion, and even the knowledge of being irrational wasn't enough to prevent her from saying accusingly, "Didn't you do the laundry today?"

"I was busy," he said mildly. "I'm sorry. I'll do it later."

"Busy doing what? Sitting on the computer all day?" She knew she was being unfair; couldn't help herself. "Have you at least been to the doctor yet, to see when you can go back to work?"

"Not yet."

"Not yet? Jesus, Vick, I understand that the accident was hard on you, but sometimes I feel like you don't even want to try. Are you really happy like this, sitting around all day doing nothing?"

He looked at her, blank.

Infuriated, she snapped, "This is exactly— This is what I mean. Whenever I try and get us to talk about this, about you going back to work, you just sit there are look at me. This is your future, but sometimes it's like you don't even care what happens." At moments like this she was unsettlingly aware of the gap between them: him standing passive and unconcerned on one side, and her on the other, still desperately grasping at the last remnants of her fragile, soap-bubble ambitions.

"Do you want me to get angry?" he asked, curious rather than threatening, and through a burst of hot rage she was distantly aware of the crash of wine glasses. Vick's head stayed turned to the side, a faint mark visible on his cheek where she'd struck him. Guilt throbbed worse than the pain in her hand, and suddenly she was crying with it. "Oh god, Vick, baby, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."

She couldn't face him, stumbling instead into the kitchen for a dishtowel for the wine. She heard him leave the table, and then he was behind her, his arms coming around her to take the cloth as she cried and heaved and said, "I hate this project. I hate it, I hate it."

Vick put the cloth down and pulled her back against him. As his chin came down to rest on her head she felt his sphere of strange, silent emptiness enveloping her, insulating her. She cried until she was exhausted, resting against his chest. "Shh," he murmured, rocking her as though she were a child, then said over and over like it was something she needed to know and he could only get her to understand by repeating it: "I'm here, babe. I love you."

That night she watched him sleep, distant and unmoving on the other side of the bed. Her stolid, uncomplaining husband: endlessly patient, always there. Uneasily she thought: I push and push him, but I never think he'd actually go.

Suddenly consumed by anxiety, she pressed herself against him, waking him. "Do you hate me?"

Vick turned his head to look at her. "No," he said. "Go to sleep, babe."

***

"Jessica Peck's trying to shut down my program. Again." Barbara stalked into her office and flung Peck's card down. The sight of the whiteboard, permanently grimy with its geological layers of erased and rewritten equations, made her want to scream. "I can't take this. These fucking lobbyists! Flinging their money around, hiring people like goddamn Jessica Peck to make my life difficult, and—I mean, what's their actual problem? They want their privacy back? Because if that's all it is, they're too fucking late."

Vick said, "You need to get City Hall to take action against her."

Barbara laughed, bitter. "They always knew this was going to happen." Taking a deep breath, she said, "No. I can handle it. I just need to—to talk to the lobby, or something. Convince them that they've got it all backwards. I mean, what do they think, that I'm deliberately trying to make the world a worse place? It's a traffic management system, for god's sake. It'll save lives." Remembering, she touched his hand. "It'll make the roads safer. It will."

"The privacy lobby is fundamentally opposed to all forms of automated data collection. It won't be convinced by the argument that such collection is necessary."

She jerked her hand away from his, irritated. "Why are you always so certain you're right?"

"Jessica Peck is the obstacle to you successfully completing the project. She's putting you behind."

"She's not the only obstacle. And I'm trying. Just—let me deal with it, okay?"

Drawn back into her work, she heard him leave and put the kettle on in the kitchen. When he came back he set a cup of coffee on her desk and started massaging her shoulders. She leaned into his touch, sighing tiredly. "Thanks, baby." But when she opened her eyes again, Peck's card was still at her elbow, silently mocking.

Despite her sleeping pills, she dreamt of indecipherable code and harassing calls from a string of half-familiar voices: a nebulous anxiety that persisted through the day. Even after she realised she hadn't had a phone call from Peck in weeks, any relief she felt upon waking disappeared the moment she walked into her office and saw the whiteboard covered with the same intractable equations she'd left there the evening before.

Vick started to have difficulty sleeping. She'd wake in the dark to a moment of cottony, pill-confused terror at his absence, only to see his familiar shape standing motionlessly against the window. In the mornings he seemed distant and withdrawn, asking after the project with a focus that made her uneasy. It was the project that was causing all of this, she thought helplessly. She should be doing more to help him, but she didn't know what else there was apart from the project—the project that she couldn't finish, no matter how hard she tried. She had the distressing sense that the world was shrinking around her until it contained nothing else but herself and Vick and the project. No escape because nothing ever changed, nothing could change, and she thought she might suffocate with it.

The next time he asked she found herself snarling at him, "If you're so invested in it, you do it."

He just said, "I can't."

Her anger faded as quickly as it had come. She said, dully, "I don't think I can, either. I can't finish. I just feel like it's become a monster, this horrible thing between us. Ever since I started working on it, you've been so—" She had to break to stave off sudden tears. "I don't mean to blame you. I know it's been hard for you, too."

"Finish it." Vick cupped her face, stroking his thumb along her lips. The familiar warmth of the gesture prompted her into a watery smile, half-reassured. "I know you can do it."

Claustrophobia was spreading through her life like a slow malignancy, its disturbance expanding outwards from the house and into the bright light of day. Stepping out on errands, Barbara couldn't shake the feeling of being watched. LA was full of people, she told herself; it was natural she'd never be alone. But paranoia, or perhaps some kind of primal instinct, pricked the back of her neck with fear.

"I think someone's following me," she finally confessed to Vick. Said out loud, she'd thought it would sound comfortingly ridiculous, but instead it just sounded stark and real.

Vick looked up from his computer. His expression was calm, practical. He said, simply, "Tell me."

"Who could it be?" she said afterwards, frightened. "Do lobbyists do things like this? Are they allowed to? Should we tell the police?"

Vick took her hand, squeezing it comfortingly. His matter-of-fact attitude was contagious, and she felt herself relaxing despite her worry. "Let me take care of it."

When he came back the next afternoon there was a rent in the elbow of his jacket and a scrape on his cheek. She looked at him in alarm, feeling the emotion escalating dangerously towards panic. "What happened? Are you hurt?" Her voice was shrill.

"I'm fine." Vick touched the scrape and examined the trace of blood on his fingertips curiously, as if he hadn't realised it was there. "I found your stalker. One of those obsessed anti-tech activists. He got violent and pushed me when I tried to talk to him, that's all."

Barbara cried out and reached for him. "Vick—"

He said calmly, "I'm not hurt. I called the police, and they arrested him. You're safe now." He took her into his arms, resting his cheek against hers. "You're safe."

***

"Babe." Vick turned off the TV and took Barbara's hand as she passed by.

"Not now," she said. "There's stuff I need to do."

But he pulled her down to the couch, more persistent than normal, and caressed her waist, her breast.

"Vick," she said again, half-heartedly.

"You've been working so hard," he said. He touched her hair, then continued, "I thought we could go to Tahiti after you've finished this project. I bought us tickets today."

"What?" Barbara looked at him in disbelief. It was so implausible that for a second her brain couldn't process the individual words into a coherent statement. "You bought us tickets to—Tahiti?"

He smiled at her. "I know these past few months have been difficult. I thought you'd like to get away from it all for a while. Nobody else has to know where we are. Not City Hall, not the lobbyists. Freedom. How does that sound?"

For a moment she was breathless with wonderment. "Sometimes it's like I don't know you at all," she said, laughing. "What about your problem with flying?"

He brushed his lips over the shell of her ear. "I'll do anything for you." She shut her eyes through a wave of grateful emotion as he kissed her cheek, the corner of her mouth. "You're so close."

"How can you tell? I can't even tell. Sometimes I don't even know if I'm heading in the right direction."

He said, "I just know," and with a thrill of nostalgia she remembered something she'd almost forgotten: he's my barometer.

***

When Vick came in he found her crying over the keyboard.

"What's wrong?" he said.

For a moment she couldn't speak. "It's finished," she said, choked with an emotion so strong it felt like she was being disembodied by it, stripped until she was nothing but the raw, shaking quick of herself. "It's finished," she repeated, and she couldn't and did believe it—had to believe, for the first time since the start of it all, in the promise that their lives could return to normal. "It's finished." She stood up, smiling at him through her tears. "I finished it."

For a moment Vick was silent, and she thought she saw something wondering in his eyes. "I'm so proud of you, babe." Holding her, kissing her, he said as she cried desperately against his chest, "I'm so proud of you. I love you."

"I did it for you," she said, sobbing, and she found she was crying simultaneously with the terror of how close it had come to breaking them, and crying with wrenching, bone-deep relief.

Vick touched her face lovingly. "You did it for all of us."

Leaning into his embrace, she realised she'd never felt this particular happiness before in her life. The project was behind them; it was someone else's now. She wanted to go to Tahiti with her husband, and fall in love with him all over again, and the whole future was unrolling in front of her like fresh start.