As far as Creegan knew, it started with the pen. But of course it went further back.
It hadn't occurred to her that Creegan wouldn't know. He knew so much sometimes, that she wanted to handcuff him to a chair, sit down, and beat out of him what he had really seen on the Other Side, as he gleefully called it, accompanied by spooky gestures. A glance over the eyes and the hands of a suspect told him to pursue or relent. He read email messages and instead of written words he saw the dark, damning thoughts not put to page. So Branca assumed, when she walked into their shared office after meeting with Enright, that the wave of her betrayal preceded her in the door, and that he would know before she even passed the threshold. She'd prepared herself for the stunned rage, the vicious comments, and even, she speculated, for a certain amount of injured feelings.
But it didn't come. The same massive leak in his brain that allowed the tics, hugs, and tactless comments to flow freely made it impossible for him to hide the thoughts held within. Every gear in him was exposed, skinned nerves poked and prodded from every direction. Two years ago, when they'd first been partnered, she'd anticipated a screaming collapse of futile coping mechanisms on the horizon. Then, sitting at home alone one night, it finally came to her perfectly-functional mind that everyone felt the way he did.
But everyone else could hide it.
Branca didn't hide, not because she wanted him to know; she honestly thought there wasn't a point to trying. After three days passed and his open face divulged nothing, however, she realized with creeping disbelief that his spidey sense had finally failed. At first the blindness reawakened resentment towards his assumption of her status as a non-variable, a given. But she had never given him a reason to doubt her before, she reasoned, and it was unfair to expect it of him now. They clashed and disagreed daily, with the occasional perilous stab into personal territory, from which they both instinctively withdrew. One of his precious few accomplishments of tact was to always remain within the boundaries of their odd little pseudo-marriage. And now, she thought with frustrated irony, that precious, defiant measure of self-control was exactly the problem. Till death do us part…
Or a transfer.
Enright didn't support it, but he'd made no attempt to block it, either. The paperwork he supplied for her was filled out in one long night of shuffled papers and sleeplessness, and his eyebrows twitched slightly when the thin stack reappeared the following day. But he made no comment except to ask if Creegan knew or not. Not whether she had told him, Branca noted, but whether he knew.
It would take of a couple of weeks, naturally. There was a review board which handled these things, and they would ask Enright for his recommendation. She had no idea what he would say, how much or how little he would leave out, but instinctively she knew he was too politically astute to directly oppose her. He might plant misgivings and indirect reservations, but somehow she doubted he would even go that far.
So the only problem left facing her was David Creegan. Two weeks remained, and it took her the first one to accept with dawning horror that he didn't suspect her, and she would have to tell him. After the shock of non-discovery wore off, she tried dropping hints, building a pattern for him to notice. She played none of his idle games to pass the time, no tic-tac-toe while waiting for a suspect to come home. Their conversations she politely limited, leaving quips unanswered. And he, who read murderous intent in a misplaced eyelash, remained oblivious beyond a few sidelong glances. But after two long years of building and rebuilding the careful barriers between them, he was well-trained, and respected her privacy.
It set little tendrils knotting in her stomach and shoulders to sit by him in the conference room, across from Enright, who might end this fragile dance with a word. Before the meeting Branca imagined she saw the captain's blank eyes flicker in their direction, over Creegan's intent face still focused on the case review at hand, to her own withdrawn features. Enright was a weathered diplomat, and knew the slightest glance communicated volumes.
"Browder's lawyers went to the DA this morning with a plea bargain," he announced promptly. "Manslaughter, eight years."
Bodies shifted, sitting back in chairs. Beside her, Creegan dependably spoke up. "Hey, exactly one fifth the lifespan of his victim. That seems fair."
Enright's expression did not change. "They're arguing that he didn't intend for Bonnie Hammerson to die. He claims he planned to release her after a week like the rest. Add the previous charges of kidnapping and forced confinement, and he'll probably die in jail before he's ever released."
"He kept six people in a little box in his basement for a week each, and one of them suffocated," Bernal snarled, his bald head glowing with indignation.
"If the DA tries him for first-degree murder, they'll wave pictures of the dead brother around, claim that the company was criminally negligent in his death, and have Browder cry on the stand. I don't think I need to remind you what a good actor this guy is."
That was, Branca thought, a veiled jab at Bernal, who had protested Browder's innocence at the investigation's initial stages. He'd loudly opposed Creegan's suspicions, though she bet that had more to do with Creegan than with Browder. She glanced sideways at her partner, who was busily pulling staples out of his case summary, probably to rearrange the pages. Sitting past him, Bernal was looking down at his own neat packet, tight-lipped. Antipathy rolled off of him, directed openly down the table. Before Creegan's arrival, Bernal's position of unexceptional reliability had gone unquestioned. The incident with Krakauer, however, and the subsequent dressing-down over both Bernal's ignorance and the ridiculously easy swiping of his handgun by his own partner, left him in limbo. There would be no advancement now, and Branca knew firsthand from a time not that long ago when she had (barely) received a promotion over Bernal what that meant to him. And out of all that ugly mess Creegan, the newcomer, the former mental patient, had emerged unscathed, credited with bringing Krakauer's act of vigilantism to light. He had known Krakauer all of eight weeks and seen what the man's partner of two years had disregarded.
It was little wonder that Bernal loathed him.
"Pen?" Creegan murmured to her. He'd laid the papers out in two irregular stacks before him and his eyes danced between the pages, drawing the lines only he could see. It was the routine question: in the two years they'd been partners, Creegan had never managed to carry a pen for more than five minutes. Before every meeting, interrogation, or witness statement, he pestered her for one until the request was abbreviated to one barely audible syllable.
Branca stared at the chaotic papers. In his mind, they made sense, just like a few behavioral tics from Krakauer sensibly indicated murder. To Bernal, it was indecipherable.
To her, it was indecipherable.
"No," she replied in a low voice, "not on me."
His hands stuttered and then stilled. Taken unawares, she almost looked at his face, but managed to catch herself and focus on Enright, mentally kicking her own ass. She hadn't thought before speaking, caught up in her momentary identification with Bernal. It was a bald-faced lie and they both knew it: after two fucking years, she was well trained. A whole box of pens resided in her desk drawer for his express use, presented with a snap before the word was even out of his mouth. One of their numbers rested comfortably near her suddenly over-active heart.
Well, she thought grimly, if you don't pick up on that one, I may rent out a billboard.
He was looking at her, unmoving. Enright, thank Jesus and Joseph, was wrapping up. "I'll be required to give testimony to the DA's office regarding Browder's sentencing," he said, standing. "I want all your notes on my desk by the end of the day."
And then his eyes flickered down the table again, at her and at Creegan. He'd seen her partner's face, and she wouldn't put it past him to have brought the meeting to an early end.
She stood up. "Captain, may I see you for a minute?" Too abrupt, dammit. Swopes glanced across the table at her. Don't look at Creegan, she thought at him fiercely. Don't see him start to figure it out.
Enright let her hang for the barest half-second, confirming the motive for his premature exit. "Sure," he said, flat eyes looking directly into hers. She gathered her notes up with one blind, efficient sweep and slid lightly from her position at the table. Escaped.
In the hallway, she fell into step beside Enright as he walked towards his office. "You have a concern?" he inquired blandly.
"I have my notes," she answered, handing them over as she calculated wildly. Enright's office, on the bottom floor, was just below the one she shared with Creegan, who would take time to gather up his jumbled notes.
"And?" Enright intoned impassively.
"And I was hoping to take a little personal time, sir." They'd reached the bottom of the stairs, and she turned toward him instead of passing onward with him to his office door. "The weekend is coming up and I was thinking of taking a trip up down the coast." Complete lie, utterly ridiculous, she hated driving along the vomit-inducing 101. "Considering that we've just finished a major case, I think the Center can spare me for a day." Up the stairs for your purse and out the door. Then what? Send him a note explaining it all and barricade the door of your apartment?
"You know," Enright said quietly as he examined the first page of her carefully inscribed notations, "you are going to have to tell him sooner or later."
Her quick thoughts came screeching to a standstill. It took her a few precious moments to reply. "Not here."
He twitched an eyebrow at that. "Is that concern for the general decorum of this office or for your personal standing within it?"
"Does it matter?" she shot back softly, her anger rising along with her anxiety. Dammit, she was trying to keep this from exploding in the center of their workplace, for Christ's sake, couldn't he appreciate that, whatever his previous friendship with Creegan was, couldn't he give her a goddamn hand…
Enright was watching her. She shut her thoughts down, pulled them inward around her.
"Take tomorrow off."
Branca snagged her purse and was gone.
Branca wondered reflectively, as she pushed a lump of chocolate cake against the top of her mouth with her tongue, how long it would take her neighbors to call the police after Creegan arrived outside her apartment. It was still pouring rain outside, and mentally she pictured his wet, irate figure rushing in out of the watery darkness to scare the shit out of Mrs. Anders.
Branca sighed and pushed away the empty plate, smiling pointedly to the waiter. She had been careful, gone to a restaurant that he would not know, ordered nothing that might disagree with her, and sent back the drink a nice-looking guy at the bar sent, with the regretful message that she was taken. Eating out was a rare indulgence, and she stretched the simple pleasure as long as she dared, measuring in mouthfuls how long he would take.
She overestimated slightly.
Pausing at the top of the stairwell, she listened to the voice echoing off the empty walls. He was singing, recklessly loud and unbelievably flat. "26 bottles of beer on the wall, 26 bottles of beer… take one down, pass it around, 25 bottles of beer on the wall." Branca sent up a quiet prayer that the lyrics were not meant literally, and stepped into the hallway.
The singing stopped instantly and the following silence was every bit as hostile as she'd feared.
"Where," Creegan said savagely from his seat on the floor, "have you been?"
"Eating dinner. It's a funny habit I've developed. I brought you a doggie bag."
He ignored the extended paper sack and stared up at her, blue eyes on a dark face. He wasn't drunk, thank God, not that it mattered much. A drunk Bernal was less difficult than a stone-cold sober Creegan. The doorway to her right moved slightly. "Shall I call the police, Susan?" Mrs. Anders inquired.
Branca dropped her arm, imagining what she must look like offering takeout to the intense, disheveled man at her feet. "No, Laura, it's all right. Thank you." After a moment, Mrs. Ander's door clicked discreetly shut, though she no doubt remained on the other side, cordless phone in hand.
"Well," she said at last, "are you going to let me inside my apartment?"
Creegan leaned backwards and rested his head against her front door, eyes narrow. "Are you going to let me in with you?"
"Can I stop you?"
"You know you can, Susan."
That was a cheap tactic of his, to suddenly use her first name in the middle of an argument. She never knew who to be angrier at, him for doing it or herself for responding. She chose him. "Will you please get up before my neighbors decide that I need to be rescued from another lunatic? They still remember a half-naked man who got shot in my apartment not that long ago."
That did the trick: if he was going to be cheap and call her Susan, she was going to drag out the dead body of her former lover, lying shirtless and bloody across her mattress. Sometimes she thought the memory bothered him more than her. She'd thrown away the sheets, moved her bed away from the window, seen a psychiatrist, and sobbed into her cereal. And two years later, it was Creegan's eyes which grew shadowed, and he climbed wordlessly to his feet.
Her apartment, thank God, was faultlessly ordered. The smooth lines and blank space of this home, her territory, clicked her mind instantly into the calm mode she needed for this little faceoff. Turning into the kitchen, she dropped her purse and dripping umbrella onto the table and said casually over her shoulder, "If you don't want the chicken, I'm putting it in the refrigerator. Do you want something to drink? I have some Scotch."
"Oh really? Been saving it for this occasion?" He was angry again, filling the kitchen doorway with crackling air.
She set a glass on the counter and poured some of the ruddy liquor into it. "Why don't you ask me," she said quietly as she pushed the glass across to him, "what you really want to know?"
He came over and stood on the other side of the counter, staring straight into her eyes. She wished for four inches of height. "When did you apply for the transfer?" he asked, equally quiet.
Four inches did not appear, and instead of engaging in a neck-straining staring contest, she plucked the doggie bag from the counter, walked across to the refrigerator, placed it delicately on the top shelf next to her pudding collection, and turned to face him with the whole space of her kitchen between them and the kitchen sink at her back.
She'd expected him to shout, to swear viciously with characteristic wildness. Instead, he reached out, picked up the glass of Scotch, took a sip, and set it back down, following its path with his eyes.
Then he looked up at her again.
She had seen mothers of murdered sons, bruised children, rape victims. Broken people.
"Why?" he asked. The word held more hurt than any she'd heard in her life.
The rain outside drummed steadily on in the dead silence. She took an unsteady breath, beyond speech or thought. It must have shown on her face, because he turned away suddenly. Dragging out a bar stool, he sat down, simultaneously pulling off his sodden overcoat and letting it fall to the ground; when he raised his eyes again they shone with poorly controlled rage. She knew this look, she could deal with it, but his first response had so shaken her that it took a moment to realize he was speaking, in a low clipped tone.
"Were you hoping that I wouldn't figure it out in time? That all the paperwork would go through and you'd be out the door before I knew what was going on?"
"I was trying," she responded, regaining her voice, "to avoid a scene."
He gave a short bark of mirthless laughter. "Jesus Christ, is that all? After all the shit that's gone down between the two of us in the break room, did you think a little more would have mattered?"
"Yes." Her back was rigid. "I suppose you know everyone assumes you and I are in some stage of a… dysfunctional romantic relationship."
"Oh, yeah. Bernal told me. Highlight of his week, the prick."
She couldn't help but bristle. "He's not a prick. He's a decent cop and a decent man."
He set the glass down a bit harder than necessary and stared at her. "Are you defending him to me?"
"Yes, I am. I've known Bernal for five years, before you ever came to the OSC." This was coming out wrong, but she plowed ahead. "He's always been a mediocre detective, but he does his job and he works hard. Can you really blame him for being pissed off at getting shone up every day by some guy who comes in out of the blue? He's a good cop, but he's not brilliant; he's average, he's… pedestrian, and he knows it."
"Are you saying that I should feel sorry for doing a better job than Bernal?"
She squared her shoulders, holding his eyes with an effort. "I'm saying that I know how he feels."
Another long moment of silence passed. He rolled his neck on his shoulders, then stopped mid-stretch and gazed at her with his head tilted to one extreme side. "Is that what this is all about? You feel left out and wanna get in on the crime-fighting action?"
"Don't be childish."
He straightened instantly, eyes blazing. "This, from a woman who spent an entire week sticking her fingers in her ears and giving me the silent treatment."
Her teeth hurt where they involuntarily clenched together. "I've been trying to be discreet."
"Well done, Susie Q," he snapped.
He used his pet name for her, something he'd done maybe half a dozen times over two years, and then only with the greatest gentleness; Creegan flinched instantly at his own mistake. The sound of it, spoken in anger, touched a nerve just above her stomach, and crystallized there.
"I don't expect you to understand," she ground out. "I read your file: even before your injury," she gestured sharply at his head, "you were an exceptional detective. You've never known what it's like to sit in the shadow of someone and know that you're inferior. You've never had to be satisfied with working as a minor member of the team. You've never been disposable!" She spat the word out. "Bernal knows. I know. We're extraneous. We're invisible. You make me invisible, without even meaning to do it. It took you a whole week to notice that I was trying like hell to distance myself from you. A robot could do my job, Creegan, all you need is for a little metal thing on wheels to follow you around, with a tape recording of my voice saying 'Stop that' and 'We have to follow procedure,' and handing you some motherfucking pens."
She stopped when she realized she was shouting. Closed her eyes. Took a deep breath, held it, blew it out slowly. Felt the weight of her words descend upon her, squishing the anger down until it leaked out of her toes. In its place a heavy sadness fell, the burden of two years' silence. Inadequacy and discarded hopes combined to roll around her chest, a cold little ball of poison; when she spoke again, her voice was hollow.
"I'm a crutch, David. Nothing more. I'm something you occasionally lean on. I'm not blaming you. I'm not saying that you shouldn't be what you are. There's enough darkness and enough twisted psychos like Browder in this world, we need every extraordinary cop we can get. But I had ambitions once. I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to be extraordinary." She swallowed hard, keeping her eyes shut. "And before you say it, this isn't just about promotions and recognition. It's about me. I see the same shit you do every day, horrible people who do horrible thing, and I want to stop them. It's the only way I can from getting… lost, to believe that I'm doing something to drive it back. And I can't, because you've already done it for me.
"You told me once that I should learn to trust my instincts more. I haven't. I've learned to trust your instincts. I've learned to depend on you to be brilliant for me. When you said that Browder was our man, I believed you instantly. Not because I thought that he was, or because the evidence pointed to him, but because you said so, and in two years I've learned that you're worth listening to. But I can't do that, David. I'm sorry. Please, please believe when I say I haven't done this to hurt you. But I can't be your crutch anymore. I can't go on being disposable."
She finished without opening her eyes, knowing that if she did they would spill over, hating her weakness. Beyond her closed eyelids, the stillness went on and on until she imagined he had left somehow in complete silence, transporting out of the room like a genie poofing away in a cloud of smoke.
His voice, hardly above a whisper, said clearly, "Are you kidding me with this shit?"
Her wet eyes snapped open instinctively, gone beyond pride in a heartbeat. He was there, real, earthen, sitting at her kitchen counter beside a half-drunk glass of Scotch.
"You're serious?" he asked, and there was no trace of sarcasm in his voice. She gaped back, her thoughts in complete disarray, but managed somehow through the thick of her confusion to nod. He stared at her a few seconds more. Then, from somewhere deep inside his chest, he began to laugh.
It was a real laugh this time, filled with wild-eyed hilarity. It began as a chuckle, but flowed up out of him until his head was thrown back and his entire body vibrated with amusement. She watched him, unable to look away.
This was always such bewildering country, and her map had just gone up in smoke.
"Oh, God," he said finally, his voice still full of mirth, though he rubbed a tired hand over his face. "Oh Jesus. That's funny. That's really fucking funny. Disposable, inferior, and a crutch. God." He downed what remained in his glass in one hit, wincing as he swallowed. "And meanwhile, I'm exceptional, brilliant, and extraordinary. Jesus, what's the weather like on your planet? Have you met me before? Have you met yourself? God, Susan… Okay. Answer me this: what happens to a crippled man when you take his crutch away?"
He stood up, and came around the counter and leaned against the other side, folding his arms. The light above him cast odd shadows on his face, especially around the scar on his forehead. The skin of his face seemed suddenly drawn, as though he'd just passed through some terrible, nameless grief.
"He falls down, Susan," he informed her quietly. "He falls down on the ground and stays there, because he's crippled and can't walk on his own. Look at me. I can't remember to carry a motherfucking pen, for Christ's sake. I have to put numbers on my dresser drawers so that I won't come to work wearing my underwear on the outside of my pants. I've hit you a hundred times with shit that came out of my mouth, and that right there proves that I'm never gonna be able to stop it from happening, because if I can't stop myself from hurting you, Susan, then there isn't a single fucking person on this psycho-infested rock who's safe. Hell, I stay away from my girls just so I won't say something to completely screw them up." His face echoed the same, heart-stopping hurt. "I keep away from my own children because I'm afraid of what I would do to them.
"But you say I'm brilliant. Okay. Fine." He shook his head disbelievingly. "If you really think so, I'll go along with that much. But then you say that you're inferior and mediocre, and quite frankly my dear, you're a fucking lunatic. Do you have any guess why in this whole week I didn't question you? Because-"
He broke off abruptly and didn't speak for a while. It occurred to her that she was staring, numb and mute, at his right elbow. She raised her eyes to his face, then looked away quickly. The elbow was easier to bear. After what might have been five minutes or two days, he sighed quietly and went back around and sat down again on the stool.
"Why didn't I read anything into it." he said again, and his voice seemed to come to her distantly. "Because I can't, Susie Q. I can't doubt you. I won't survive it. I'll fall down and stay down this time. It's taken me two fucking years to get this far, when you finally make sense to me. I know you. I know when you're upset, I know how far I can push you, and I know that when you stop arguing with me is the most dangerous time of all. I know when you're sad, and I know," he said, raising his eyes to hers, "when those times come, you need me to call you Susie Q. You're the one thing, the one person from the world where my kids and everybody else lives, that I get. I'm alone in the dark with a million murderers, except for you."
She was shaking, badly, a deep trembling that originated in her stomach and radiated outward. "Anybody else…" she started, but could not finish.
He laughed shortly, and this time it was a hard, grim sound. "Who? Bernal? Yeah, I'm sure. He'd hang me out to dry in two minutes. Or how about Krakauer? Yeah, that would have been fun. We could have self-destructed together, done a male rendition of 'Thelma and Louise'. Give Enright some credit. He knew what he was doing when he made us partners. Did it never, in two years, occur to you that anyone else would have given up long ago? Christ, it amazes me that you're still here, that I haven't driven you away yet. You've given me two years of your life, two years for me to lean on you. If I'm extraordinary, if I'm fucking brilliant? Then it's because you made me that way. You let me be that way."
He backed off then, gave her some physical room. Branca realized that she was gripping the edge of the counter behind her and relaxed her sore fingers; she listened to Creegan shrug into his coat, talking casually as he did so.
"I know a few things, Susan, and you can trust my instincts on this. I know if you leave, you'll find everything you want. You'll have a brilliant career on your own terms and bravo for you. And I'll be back in a mental institution in a month." He stilled his movements and Branca could feel him looking at her; she didn't look up. "It's selfish," he said quietly, " and there's nothing in me that deserves to ask you to stay here and keep me sane. But I don't have any shame, so I'm gonna ask anyway; hell, if you want, I'll beg. Whatever you do, though, just remember that you're not disposable, Susan. You never were."
He had just enough pride to leave then, silently scooping his coat up from the floor. She was in no condition to try to stop him even if she wanted to. She stood for a long time in the kitchen's dim light, staring at the space he had occupied and the glass he had drunk from. Then she put the Scotch back in the cupboard, put the glass in the sink, and went to bed.
Enright was mildly surprised to see her, but only mildly. "How was the coast?"
"Vomit-inducing. I get motion sickness. Can I speak with you privately?"
He nodded to the junior agent present, who slid awkwardly from the room, disappointed at being left out in an endearingly juvenile way. Branca had no time for endearing juveniles.
"So. How'd it go?" Enright inquired politely as a way of opening.
"With all respect, sir, I don't see how that's any of your business."
He sat down, glancing out his window at the eruption of greenery outside his many windows. Branca had always envied him that view. In fact she had always envied everything in this office, including him. "Anything that affects the operational status of this Center is my business," Enright replied flatly, reclaiming her attention. Resting his palms together, he examined her with a hooded gaze. On her good days, Branca could return that expressionless gaze with one of her own, revealing nothing and observing everything. "How did it go?" he asked again, and his tone was no longer polite.
This was not one of her good days. She remained standing, back rigid and feet planted, fighting her pride. "Not quite how I expected," she said at last.
A twitch of the angular eyebrows. "And that means?"
It means I'm not what I thought I was, and neither is he. "I think I need to withdraw my request for a transfer."
There was a delicate pause, and she realized that she had at last surprised him. "You think," he enunciated heavily.
Jesus, he was asking her to explain. Of course, she'd provided reason for the transfer, why not for its cancellation as well? Branca licked her lips, fighting to keep her thoughts hidden through her weariness and failing miserably.
Slipping through the careful defenses against memory, Creegan's face came to her again, frozen in the look of utmost anguish. Stay an overlooked crutch to a crippled genius? Or leave him to the wolves and his own scrambled brain? Enright was still watching her, and the eyes were now sharp. How much could he see, she wondered. Did he see a cold night spent parked behind a crack house, listening to Creegan hum Christmas carols? Did he see Creegan lying sobbing on the ground, outside the house of a broken woman and her dead son?
Did he see the girl, one of so many victims, whom Branca had completely failed to protect, dumped in a rubbish heap with her smiling eyes gouged out?
Creegan's face came again to her mind. He was gazing down at where she crouched, frozen, over the mutilated body of the young woman she couldn't help anymore. He had knelt beside her and put his warm face next to her numb, tear-streaked cheeks. C'mere, Susie Q, he'd murmured, for the first time.
I've got you.
"I think," Branca said carefully, "that my concept of career satisfaction has changed."
Enright hesitated, then said with equal care, "Are you sure about that?"
She remembered, as a child, staring at the picture of a beautiful young woman, examining the elegant turn of her cheek and neck until some minor detail caused the picture to jump and be replaced by an old crone. Enright expected her to go through with the transfer; she saw it as suddenly as an old woman emerged from youth. Staring at his lined, square face, she thought, You, even you. You were his friend, or something close to friendship, and you would have left him by now. After Hinks you would have abandoned him, according to duty and procedure. You could have seen his face last night and still turned away, knowing what it would do to him. You could have spent two years with him, crawling in the dark with a million murderers, and left him there.
The knowledge pressed down onto her collarbone and narrow shoulders; but it was no longer a burden of self-doubt. She lifted those shoulders and met Enright's impenetrable stare, knowing that his eyes mirrored her own.
"Yes," she said, and her voice was clear, "I am very sure."
Creegan was in their office, seated again on the floor, encircled by notepads, newspapers, and candy wrappers. He looked up when she came in, and back down. "Thought you had today off," he said with complete casualness, as though he had never stood in her kitchen and offered to beg her not to leave him.
Of course, though, such a thing wouldn't matter much to him.
"I'm a dedicated public servant, we don't take days off. Are those your Browder notes?" she asked, indicating those pages among the mess which bore his scrawling hand. It had taken months of careful study for her to decipher his writing. "I thought Enright asked for those yesterday."
"Deadlines are for mindless bureaucratic drones. I'm an artist."
"Aha." She dumped her purse in a chair, recalling long hours of proofreading his work before submission. "Speaking as one of the drones, I'll take bureaucracy over bohemianism. There's less dirty underwear. Do you want some help?"
He cocked his head sideways at her. "Depends. You got plans tonight?"
A prickling at the base of her spine informed her just how much he was asking. "Can I move a few of these," she indicated the papers around him, "or will it screw up whatever you're working on… what are you working on, anyway?"
"Paper-mache. Easter is coming up and I was thinking of making a couple of big colored eggs to put on the conference table."
Deftly clearing a small space while moving as little as possible, she sat down facing him. He watched, not bothering to hide it. He never did. "What," she asked again with infinite patience, "are you working on?"
"Enright wants my notes ordered chronologically. I've been using headlines to figure out the dates. I was thinking that maybe I could remember the day I did something by what I remember being in the news that morning."
He usually relied on her notes to help him sort his own. "How's that going?" she asked, glancing around at the jumble, a little spurt of fear welling up inside. Maybe they had both been wrong, maybe he could cope on his own…
"Fine." Abrupt, head lowered, eyes focused on the page in his hands; it wasn't working for him at all.
Her heart steadied. "Do you want help?"
"No, I'll be alright. You go out and shop at Ikea like a good little drone." His tone was light, but also politely dismissive. Take the hint, Branca.
She groaned and reached out, taking the paper from his fingers, flipping it around to read. "This… what is this? 'Broken window, shouting, blood driplets… driplets? Droplets. Droplets in the grass… oh, this was Hammerson's neighbor, the one who made the domestic disturbance call about the – What?"
She'd glanced up and seen his face.
"You're staying," he said, and his quiet voice was full of gleeful shouting. "You just made The Branca Noise. You aren't going to get the transfer."
Branca sat back a little bit, uncomfortably enveloped in the glow of blue eyes and not sure where else to look. "Noise? What, um, what noise?"
"The Branca Noise. It's a cross between a sigh and a grunt."
"You – – I grunt?"
"Yes, you do. Only when you're pissed at me, though. It's completely involuntary, and also kind of cute." Beaming did not come close to describing his face. "You haven't made it in a month. I've missed it."
Embarrassed laughter rose up out of her throat, and she shook her head. "I have a Noise. That's – that's fantastic to hear. Just wonderful. Tell me, do I make any other involuntary sounds?"
"Oh, sure, plenty."
"Like what?" she demanded, horrified in spite of herself.
"Damned if I'm going to tell you. You'd probably try to stop them. I shouldn't even have told you about the Branca Noise, now I'll probably never get to hear it again. You're staying, aren't you?"
The light in his eyes had dimmed slightly, and he was studying her intensely. It used to frighten her, how deeply she could look into him. To see straight down to the bottom and view all the little fears, instinctual doubts, and uncertainties. Then she recognized that everyone felt the way he did, that he wasn't alien or insane. He was human, and he belonged to this world. Now if only he would learn it, then he might be whole again.
There was so much fear in him, even now, sitting comfortably in a well-ventilated office building with a woman who was not going to leave him after all.
We're all afraid, David. We're all human. But some of us hide it better, and some of us, Thank God, don't.
"This is March 3rd," she said, giving back the paper.
Then she reached into the breast pocket of her suit, pulled out a standard-issue round point Bic pen, and handed it to him as well.
The faint smile lingering around his mouth grew until his entire body was singing with relief.