Welcome To The Harem

House Of Mirrors by Sylvia Tremblay
Summary: Deslea's rec: "Take wonderful Doggett characterisation, a fantastic original character, and a story that takes a few DRR standard plot devices and turns them on their heads, and you get another lively, engaging piece from the queen of DRR."

Title: House of Mirrors
Author: Sylvia Tremblay
Rating: PG for language, adult situations.
Music Rating: PG-40. Persons under 40 may be unable to
decipher the musical references. Enter at your own risk.
Classification: S
Keywords: Doggett and Reyes relationship, Doggett POV.
Spoilers: Through Season 8 (including the finale)
Summary: A day at the funhouse.
Archive: Anywhere--I'm so easy! Just let me know, please.
Feedback: welcome at poutinette@canada.com.
Disclaimer: The characters of Doggett, Reyes and Scully and the
X-Files themselves belong to Chris Carter, 1013, Fox, etc., but
certainly not me. I am making no money from this bit of fluff.

Dedication: In honour of Ray Bradbury, a man who understands
the magic that lives in summer things, in funhouses and cotton
candy and the memories of childhood. And to Veronica,
a great lady who I belatedly realized was the inspiration
for Carmen.

Acknowledgments: Thanks to Jim and Kristine, who put up
with my "hey, read this, wouldja?" exhortations.

It's a hot Saturday afternoon and I'm standing in the middle of a
dusty, crowded midway. Music blares, lights flash and chase
one another on huge marquees advertising fun for a price, three
shots at your heart's desire for two bucks. Around me, hundreds
of screaming, ice-cream coated kids drag their worn-out parents
from one ride to another. They're all desperate to squeeze one
last drop out of summer before homework and 24/7 jobs suck
them back to reality.

Christ, I missed this.

The only person I know who could get me to a place like this is
stuffing her face full of multicoloured cotton candy. Catching
my eye, she offers me a wad of it. Some devil in me who hasn't
surfaced since I was a horny sixteen year old takes hold of her
wrist and pulls her hand toward my mouth. I watch her face
change, her pupils darken slightly as my tongue makes only the
lightest contact with one of her fingers. Then the mask comes
down and she's looking like nothing's happened. I let go of her
arm and it drops to her side as if she's no longer aware it's

"Aunt Monica! Can we go on this one?"

Carmen is one of the weirdest little girls I've ever met, which I
suppose is appropriate. I've never seen any pictures of my
partner as a rug rat, but Carmen has to be the spitting image of
her aunt at eleven. She's already racking up enough height to
intimidate the boys, with gangly arms and legs that are
outgrowing the rest of her. We were introduced Thursday in the
Hoover when Monica took her on a guided tour. Before I knew
it I was completely under her spell; she was calling me John like
we were old buddies and inviting me to spend the day with them
that weekend.

"Aunt Monica's taking me to a fair in Rockville. It's advertised
as a 'trip back in time' to the fun fairs of the nineteen-thirties
and forties."

"I hope the rides aren't that old," I joked.

The girl nodded seriously at me, as if she was the adult and I was
the juvenile. "Some of them are, but they've been restored, of
course. I imagine they're perfectly safe."

I stared at her for a few seconds. "That's good to know."

"You will come with us, won't you? You don't look like you
smile enough, and you have such a nice smile."

I looked up at Monica then for--I don't know what. At first I
thought I wanted to be rescued from this kooky kid, but then I
saw the unguarded expression in Auntie Monica's eyes for that
split second. It promised all kinds of things I shouldn't be
wishing for, and suddenly I wanted to spend the day with crazy
Carmen and her equally crazy aunt more than anything I could
think of. Besides, I'd spent too many Saturday afternoons lately
polishing my weapon. The one for shooting, not the one for fun.
Don't get any ideas.

"Which one?" Monica scans the midway, seemingly grateful for
an excuse to turn away from me. Meanwhile, I mentally slug
myself for making her uncomfortable--again. I'm making a habit
of it, and that isn't like me. At forty-one, it's way too late to
blame it on hormones. And I don't go around harassing women,
no matter how attractive they are in those damned cutoff shorts
she wears and sleeveless tops that show off the curve of her
shoulder. Since when do I get excited about shoulders?

"It's the little roller coaster."

"I thought you were--that you didn't like roller coasters,"
Monica tells her softly, obviously not wanting to embarrass her
niece by talking about her fears in front of me.

"But it's not very big. I'd like to try it. Would you come with
me? You need an adult with you if you're under twelve."
Carmen rolls her eyes at the injustice.

"Uh--" Monica stutters, her gaze flickering over the ride, and I
fight off a grin. The woman who isn't afraid of ghosts, goblins
or little green men is afraid of heights. My hand reaches out
without my permission and touches her arm, and she jumps
about a foot. Her eyes swing toward me, fire burning in them.

"I'm not afraid," she hisses.

"I didn't say you were," I counter, and then it hits me that I had.
Just not out loud.

Man. Who knew I was spookier than Spooky?

"Look," I say, turning to Carmen, "I love roller coasters. Do
you think I could come with you?"

The kid smiles up at me as if I've just made her decade. "Thank
you," she tells me, and takes me by the hand. My heart dives
for my shoes at the feel of small, warm fingers curled in mine. I
look down, half expecting to see him.

I can do this. I can.

Monica isn't the only one who's scared, though it's not any
physical threat that's twisting my gut. I'm scared shitless of this
woman and what she's been able to do to me in the space of a
summer. When I first drafted her into the X-Files, the last thing
on my mind was sex. Seriously. I know us guys are supposed to
have our brains lodged somewhere near our John Thomases, but
it's never been an issue for me at work. To put it bluntly, I don't
crap where I eat. It's not that there aren't some very attractive
women in the field of law enforcement, but when your life and
the lives of your colleagues might be on the line, you don't want
to start messing around with the people who are supposed to be
at your back.

The thing is, I never really got to know her the last time we
worked together. The last time we worked together, an H-bomb
could've gone off beside me and I wouldn't have known it until
pieces of me started raining down on Fifth Avenue. But since
she's joined the X-Files, I've had a chance to see the real
Monica Reyes. And she's a nut. Certifiable. I'm sure she
believes in the Tooth Fairy. And she also has a heart that won't
quit and a wicked grin and the attitude that life is meant to be
eaten in big bites. She's not anything like the women who've
been able to tie me in knots before--not the least demure, or
delicate, or in need of my protection. Yeah, I know I tend go
overboard with that last one. It was a predetermined character
flaw--the minute I was born Southern and male. Nothing I can
do about it.

Believe me, I've spent a few sleepless nights lately trying to
figure out what happens to me when she's around. She's got me
half convinced I'm some kind of spoon bending freak. She
pushes me to do psychic exercises to hone my so-called skills. It
wouldn't surprise me if I'm reading tea leaves soon. But she's
also got me laughing and goofing off and going to fun fairs.
She's got me wanting to play hooky from this life I've made for
myself. And that scares me worse than the highest roller
coaster. Because it's safe where I am. Even if it is a cramped,
filthy fox hole that's rapidly filling with water.

Add to all of this the fact that I've been living like a monk since
my divorce, and, well, you've got a guy who's thinking with his
dick. I admit it; happy now?

Within a few minutes, Carmen and I are sitting in the ride. I
lower the bar over us both. The roller coaster is an old wood-
frame contraption built in the shape of a cube. The track
weaves through it and forms tight ninety-degree turns where it
hits the corners. I don't know if she's going to enjoy this all that

"I'm scared to death," Carmen states as if she's announcing the

"Do you want to get off?" I rubberneck, trying to find the

"No. It's past time to face my fears."

I can't help it. I laugh out loud. Then, realizing she might think
I'm making fun of her, I tell her, "I'm sorry, I'm not laughing at
you, Carmen." She stares at me, one eyebrow raised. She's not
buying it. Suddenly, I find my mouth forming the words, "I--I
was thinking somethin' similar just now, and it occurred to me
you're a lot braver than I am." I'm not sure why I feel the need
to confess this to her, but it's out before I know it.

She chews on this a minute. "I think you're the bravest person
I've ever met," she says finally. Her eyes bore into me, digging
up my soul.

"What makes you say that?" I start to get uneasy under her
assessing gaze, so much like Monica's.

"You seem older than you are. Like you've seen things, felt
things. Too much." She shakes her head. "I'm not describing it
very well; I'm a little preoccupied."

She's describing it well enough. My heart's racing like an Indy
car. "Has your aunt told you anything about me?"

Another shake of the head. "No."

"Then how--"

"Well, Aunt Monica thinks I have a bit of the gift. It runs in the
family--in the girl children. But I think I'm just a student of
human nature." Before I can tell her exactly what I think she is,
the car jerks under us. "Oh dear. Here we go." Her hands grip
the bar in front of her, the knuckles turning white.

I take my right hand and lay it over her left, warming the cold
fingers. "I've got you."

She looks over at me, and for an insane moment she's my kid.
Mine and Monica's.

"I can see why she's in love with you," Carmen murmurs, just
before the car starts rolling forward and her eyes screw shut.


I've been chopped into pieces.

The mirror in front of me bows in and out crazily, distorting my
image. There's a head, no neck, then another fragment starts
just below the shoulders and ends below my rib cage. The last
two curves carve up my legs into two equal parts.

"Hey! Try this one over here!"

Carmen, invigorated by her dance with death on the roller
coaster, is shedding energy like a blast wave. She weaves
between me and Monica, never satisfied, revisiting mirrors she's
already seen ten times. I'm not sure if she's looking for a new
Carmen or hoping to find herself on a funhouse wall.

Or maybe she's just being a kid.

I can sense Monica's gaze on me as I bend and straighten, then
flail my arms, watching the size and shape of the pieces change.
Then I go over to join her niece at her latest discovery. She's
twirling this way and that, presenting different sides to the
mirror. It gives her a huge head and tiny feet, tapering her into

"It makes me feel like I'm expanding into the universe." She
stretches her arms above her head and her fingers swell to the
size of summer sausages. Stepping back, she allows me some
personal time with myself. I try it out, understanding now that I
had the direction all wrong. Leave it to an eleven-year-old to
remind me to look up, not down.

"Imagine if this mirror were fifty feet tall, a hundred. You could
ride an elevator up it, and by the time you reached the top, you
could do anything. You'd step across oceans and climb Everest
in one stride." The voice is Monica's. I'm in a time warp; if I
turn around, we'll all be kids, running through summer at the
speed of reflected light. The walls dissolve as the three of us
gallop over the world in our new bodies.

"Wow." I'm not sure which one of us says it.

The sound of laughter back at the entrance to the funhouse
shrinks us back to normal size. Without another word, we
shuffle toward the exit.


Shadows are starting to lengthen as the afternoon wears itself
out. Monica and I haven't talked much today, but the silence
doesn't bother me as we sit on a bench watching Carmen on the
old-fashioned carousel. It's not a big surprise she didn't choose
one of the horses; instead, she waves to us from a wooden flying
fish. Strangely, I think about the guy who put all that effort into
carving those animals, long before any of us was born. I wonder
if I'll leave something behind that'll last.

Hell. Just--hell.

My arm's flung out across the back of the bench, and I can feel
the heat radiating off her. It's unusual to see her at rest like this.
She always seems to be in constant motion, like that wind-up
ballerina in a music box my sister had. I have to tell my fingers
not to burrow into her dark, silky hair, brush the back of her
neck. I want to know what she's feeling. I want to crawl inside
her and share some of that energy, that heat and light.

I turn my attention back to the carousel. Carmen shoots me a
look on her way by, as though she's read my mind. "She's a
neat--person," I hear myself say. 'Kid' doesn't seem to cut it

"She's a nut," Monica smiles, and I start at the echo of my own
thoughts. "That's why I love her so much."

"She's your sister's daughter?"

Monica nods and turns toward me. My hand grips the back of
the bench. "I used to see her a lot while I was in New Orleans,
but now that I'm in Washington..." She trails off, then lifts one
of her hands from her lap and drops it. "I'm afraid we're going
to lose touch."

"Is most of your family in Texas?"

"Tony's in Arizona, but yeah, my parents are still in Galveston
and so is my sister. I've got some aunts and uncles near San

"I'm sorry." Her face registers confusion. "I mean, I never
asked. I just dragged you into this thing."

Her features soften at my show of concern, and something flips
inside me. "Listen, I knew this job involved transfers. It's not
like I'll never see her again. And it makes our times together
that much more special." She glances at her watch. "It's getting
late. I've got to get some supper into this girl. She's growing as
we speak."

"Where are you gonna eat?"

"Home, I guess. I didn't have a chance to go shopping
yesterday, so I'll have to stop on the way home, after we drop
you off."

"Why don't you have supper with me?" Her eyes meet mine,
hold them. "Both of you. There's a fresh air market not far
from my place. It doesn't have any horse meat, but I think we
can find something."

She smiles at the reminder of our Montreal case. I still dream
about the day we spent there, buying tomatoes and pasta like an
old married couple. They'd be pretty damn boring to everyone
else on the planet, but when you've given up hoping for a
normal life, those dreams are as exciting as any X-rated fantasy.

"Sure," she tells me finally, her voice low and quiet. "I think
Carmen would enjoy that. She's gotten attached to you, you

How about her aunt? I ask silently. My fingers reach out, but I
turn coward before I can connect. We stand together to collect
Carmen from the carousel as it slows.


They've found my Otis Redding CD. I hear muffled voices,
then the opening horn attack of "Shake" pours from the stereo at
full tilt. Carmen comes boogieing into the kitchen, arms and legs
tossed carelessly in all directions.

The laugh cannonballs out of me. "Girl, you've got 'bout as
much rhythm as a frog in a blender."

"OTIS IS GOD!!" she screams, gyrating frantically.

I load up another skewer with chicken, peppers and onions, then
dump it into a marinade of lemon juice, olive oil and spices.
Monica pokes her head in the doorway.

"Is it safe yet?" she asks.

"Out!" I holler. "You're gonna ruin my tough guy image."

"Give it up, John," Carmen jiggles. "You're a marshmallow."
She pirouettes over to the stove. "Spanish rice, yet. What a

"Yeah, well, I'm barbecuing. Over an open flame. That's got to
be good for somethin'."

"A hundred bonus points," Monica drawls, inspecting the rice.
She sticks a fork in it and gives it a taste.

"You sneak any more tabasco in there and you're askin' for

An evil grin splits her face. "I thought you good ol' boys liked
the hot stuff," she challenges. Then her eyes widen as she
realizes what she's just said.

Jesus. Intentional or not, I feel like I've been gut-punched.

"Hoo boy," Carmen exhales, flapping at her face with an
imaginary fan. "There's enough hormones in here to jumpstart
me into puberty. Feets don't fail me now." She boogies out
again, leaving me, Monica and my dick to carry on a
conversation. Unfortunately for me, my dick probably has more
to say at this moment.

Monica, flushing a little pink around the cheekbones, leans
against the counter as far away from me as she can get. "I, ah,
where did you learn to make souvlaki?" she asks, pitching her
voice way above the sound of the stereo and wincing at the
excessive volume. Oh well, at least we're back in high school

"Democrat Hot Springs' only restaurant was Greek. How the
hell the family ever ended up there I'll never know. When I was
about ten the grandfather came over from the Old Country. He
took a shine to me--all his grandkids were girls. He couldn't
speak a word of English, but he taught me a lot of the recipes,
sort of passing them on, I guess. I was the only boy in fifth grade
who knew what phyllo pastry was." I shake my head,
remembering. "That kitchen smelled like twelve kinds of
heaven. I think my dad worried about me until I joined the

When I look up from skewering she's studying me with those
bottomless brown eyes. "Every time I think I know you a little
better, you show me I don't know you at all."

"Is that a good thing or a bad thing?" I ask lightly, glad she can't
hear my heart pounding.

"Definitely a good thing. Keeps me on my toes."

As I try to decipher that comment--as cryptic as a mash note
from the brainy girl in biology class--Carmen yells from the
other room, "Some of us are getting hungry! For food!"

Monica points toward the doors leading to the patio. "I'll check
on the coals." She takes off, jet-propelled.

I return my attention to the cubes of cold chicken as Otis slides
into "She Put the Hurt On Me." No shit, Sherlock.


Carmen lies unconscious on my patio swing, totally oblivious to
outside stimuli as Monica, standing beside her, pushes the swing
gently with one hand on the back of the seat. I've wondered a
hundred times why I bought it; it's built for two, what's the
point? But tonight I know it was worth every penny.

I take another sip of my spiked coffee and watch them. She's
been out cold for a good twenty minutes, plenty of time for
Monica to make her excuses and run like a scalded cat, but for
some reason she hasn't yet. It's as though a spell has descended
over my back yard and holds us all suspended, and I stay silent
to keep from breaking it. I like it here, like the peace that crawls
into my pores while I observe the open look of love on Monica's
face as she rocks her niece. She's no stranger to the efficient,
professional expression that Scully and every other woman puts
on at work, but she sheds it a lot easier.

Scully. There was a time there--I thought--I don't know what I
thought. Somehow my brain managed to conveniently block the
fact she was, is, and always will be Fox Mulder's soul mate. I
never used to believe in that Harlequin Romance crap, but
seeing them together was a blow to my world view in more ways
than one. Even then, I couldn't see them as a couple; frankly, I
didn't think he was the kind of guy she needed or deserved. At
times he still seems like an overgrown kid to me, the pretty boy
genius whose mamma always told him he was better than
everybody else. But in some respects, I'd have to say his
mamma was right, and I can't deny he worships her, just not in
any way I'm used to. That's worth something in my book.

The hell of it is, Scully's the type of woman every Southern man
would die defending, would drown carrying across mud puddles.
She's Scarlett O'Hara in pantsuits, a fire-breathing, gorgeous,
compact feminine package. Add her pregnancy on top of that
and I found myself chomping at the bit some days to keep from
sweeping her into my arms and protecting her like some half-
assed Rhett Butler. I remember when that bat-thing was trying
to strip the hide from my back, all I could hear was my daddy
shouting, "You keep that girl safe, y'hear?" over and over. That
nightmare could have eaten me alive and my last thought would
have been: I failed her. Is that love or instinct? I still don't
know. And I'm not planning to waste any time trying to figure it
out. That chapter is closed.

So is this one, if Monica has anything to say about it. On our
last case, she made it crystal clear even to this thickheaded
cracker that she wasn't interested in anything I might be selling.
And I was too stunned at discovering I was even interested in
being a salesman again to put up a fight. She told me she's been
burned by an FBI type before, some idiot who tried to make her
into something she wasn't. I can relate to that fear, because I'm
flat-out terrified every time I think of how she's changing me
from what I am into what I was.

She's performing a miracle of resurrection as incredible as
Mulder's and she doesn't even know it.

When Carmen began to wind down, I switched the music from
high-powered R&B to more mellow jazz. Now Ella is crooning
"Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" and just under the
powerful vocals I can hear Monica humming along. The
vibration stirs the air around me and before I realize it I'm
walking toward her. She isn't aware of me until I'm only inches
away, and even then she doesn't raise her head. But the
humming stops.

Have I ruined it, broken the spell? Too late to worry about that.

"May I have this dance?" I take care not to make any move
with my hands or arms, as though she's a wild mustang, easily

She looks up at me then, and her eyes hold a reflection of the
emotion she was giving Carmen a moment ago. Even knowing
it's not meant for me, the glimpse into her open heart has me

"I don't think that's a good idea," she tells me, her voice husky.

I shake my head. "You're right. It's not." I'm sure she must be
able to smell the need on me. Any second now she's going to
bolt, gather up Carmen and I'll never see either of them again.
Not like this; she won't allow it.

Instead, she just nods, clears her throat. "As long as we're both
clear on that." Her left hand settles on my shoulder and her
right hangs expectantly in the air.

When I touch her, it all caves in on me.

Jesus jesus jesus. The feelings swamp the leaky liferaft I call my
sanity before I even know I'm in the water. I thrash around,
trying to get to safety. Pieces of me fall off and drop away,
leaving raw, exposed flesh. I sense another presence in the
water, and think of sharks.

But instead of tearing into me, her touch soothes, offers warmth
and light. Her hand's on me, pulling me to shore.

In spite of all the exercises I've done, I can't begin to sort out
the blurry images and emotions bombarding me. I'm not even
sure which are hers and which are mine. I try to reach out
mentally like she taught me to do, to get closer to her, and she
jerks in my arms. "What are you doing?" She furrows her
brow. "I mean--I know what you're doing. Do you?"

"I think so," I mutter, a kid caught with his hand in the cookie

"I can feel it, a little." Her eyes light up, the tension between us
forgotten for now as she shifts into teacher mode. "Try it again,
but focus on a point this time. Make your search physical.
You're moving to reach that point."

"What point?"

"The answer to your question," she huffs impatiently. "You
weren't listening last Wednesday, were you? We talked about

Wednesday. Wednesday. Oh yeah. She was wearing a wicked,
fitted green suit that brought out these hazel flecks in her pupils
I'd never seen before. I got lost in contemplation of that topic
for several minutes. Must've been somewhere in there.
"Guilty," I smile.

"OK," she breathes, unsurprised. "Just--try it now."

A physical search, huh? I'd like to do one of those.

Concentrate. I need a question. A question.

All right.

What do you feel when you think of me? Do you only feel what
this Brad moron taught you to feel, or is there room in there for

Wait, that's two questions. Oh, hell, I'm no good at this.

She can sense my frustration. "Wait, don't tense up. Relax.
Here, I'll meet you halfway." Her eyes bore into me and I try to
open up. Then I turn up the volume, the hand on her waist
moving up to the skin of her upper arm.

That makes a difference. The increased contact drags a small
gasp out of her, but I ignore it and tighten my hold slightly.
Explosions go off in my brain, but I ignore those too. God, if
this is what it's like when I'm touching her with only my hands,
what would it be like to--

Her eyes widen. Careful, Johnny.

"You're not there yet," she tells me, her voice almost a whisper.
"Try to send me something instead, an image or a phrase.
Maybe something that happened today that'd still be fresh in
your memory."

I think for a minute, and then I latch onto it. Debating with
myself for all of a hundredth of a second, I decide it won't reach
her anyway.

--The roller coaster car jerks under us. "Oh dear. Here we go."
Carmen's hands grip the bar in front of her, the knuckles turning

I take my right hand and lay it over her left. "I've got you."

Carmen looks over at me and murmurs, "I can see why she's in
love with you."--

Monica jumps away from me like she's been electrocuted.
"Mother of God," she breathes. Her hands are shaking, every
part of her is shaking.

It takes me a few seconds to recover. "You got all of that?" I

"I could see her. It's like I was sitting there beside her."

"Monica," I begin, not sure what I'm going to say next, but
thankfully she cuts me off.

"Why did you send me that?"

"I guess it's pretty fresh in my memory," I lie. Truth is, I'm not
sure why I did it. It's not right to confront her when she's told
me to back off.

"You have to understand Carmen. She says outrageous things
for effect."

"I understand."

"It's not as though she and I had some sort of heart to heart chat
in our bunny feet pajamas while curling each others' hair."

"You got bunny foot pajamas?" I ask her, smiling in spite of the

"John," she sighs, blushing slightly. God, I want to touch her
again so badly it's giving me the shakes, too. How did this

"We should go," she says, heading into the house to gather their

I stand there for a second, stunned.

"Don't just gape at her like a trout."

I spin toward the bench. Carmen hasn't moved, but one brown
eye is fastened on me. I groan inwardly.

"Go after her, you dope."

"Thanks for the advice. You want to suggest what I should say,

"There isn't time. Just stop trying to figure out how she feels
and tell her how you're feeling."

I shake my head at the irony of the whole thing. She's got
it all figured out at eleven. When she's twenty, there won't be a
man on the planet who can keep up with her.

I tell my feet to move before she can command them.

Inside, Carmen's aunt is tearing around my living room, looking
for some article that's gone missing. I stay in the doorway.
"Monica. Don't go this way."

She speaks, but her head's still down, searching tables, chairs.
"John, I can't do this. Maybe I'm a coward, but I told you why
in Montreal, and I hoped you'd understand."

The shame washes over me at her soft words. "I do understand,
and you've got to believe it isn't like me to do--what I've been
doing." That sounds so damn pathetic. "I don't force myself on

"Oh, for Gods' sake, John, don't get all Tennessee Williams on
me. I don't think you've been forcing yourself on me. We have
this connection--I've never experienced one this strong before--
and it's new to you, and you can't help--"

"Wait a minute," I interrupt. "You've never experienced this
kind of--connection?"

She stops and looks up at me then. Damn, but I love the fight in
her that overpowers even her biggest fears. "No. And while I
think it has the potential to make us an extremely effective team
in the field, I also think it could--lead to other consequences."

Such as the most incredible sex I could ever hope to participate
in. Such as falling for her even more than I have already. "Such

She worries her lower lip, then catches herself doing it.
"Complications," she states finally.

"Things are complicated now." Just do it. Say it. "I'm starting
to feel again. I mean, I'm starting to feel things besides anger,
and disgust, and indifference." I chuckle softly. "Indifference.
That's the wonder drug. After the anger and disgust, I couldn't
get enough of that." I'm inside the room now, moving like a
caged animal.

"And at the same time, it's simpler. I can laugh without feeling
guilty, be around kids without feeling this crushing--weight"--I
suck in a harsh breath--"on my chest, and I can look at you and
think how great it feels to be alive instead of wishing I was half-
dead like I've been for five years."

Her eyes are brimming with tears. She opens her mouth, then
closes it. I hold up a hand.

"Look, I have no right to expect anything from you, and I don't.
It seems that way now, but it's just the reflex reaction of a guy
who had systematically severed all of his nerve endings, and
wakes up one morning to find them healed. I'll get used to it.
Even though you're the reason this happened, I don't dream
we're going to live happily ever after, or that you have to go on
being my nursemaid. You've reminded me that life is meant to
be lived, and I'll always be grateful to you for that. It's not
going to interfere with our work, and that's a promise."

Dad's voice haunts me. Never make promises you can't keep,

I can. I will. For her. I won't lose her because I can't keep
Junior in my pants.

But that's not all it is.

"Is that it?"

"What?" My attention takes a second to refocus.

"I said, is that it?" Her hands are planted on her hips. She looks
like a tall, dark goddess. War is definitely her specialty. "You
confess I've completely changed your life, but you'll get over it,
thanks ever so?"

"No. Yes. That's what you want, isn't it?"

"How come I'm so easy to get over? What the hell's the matter
with me?"

I gape at her like a trout.

She starts some pacing of her own. "This is wonderful. Just
when I find out how you feel, and you turn my insides to
oatmeal, you calmly tell me you'll get over it. That's lovely.
I've tinkered with you and fixed you without even meaning to,
and now you're ready to live again. I'm glad to have brought
your reflexes and nerve endings back to factory specs. I'm sure
you'll put them to good use, with a new bimbo every night."

My head's spinning. "Who said anything about b--" I trail off,
rewinding her words. "Oatmeal?" The pit of my stomach
plunges for my shoes, then bounces back. I'm across the room
in two strides and my hands are gripping her upper arms before I
realize I've reached for her. "Dammit, Monica, what do you

She shakes her head miserably, not meeting my eyes. "I don't
know. I don't know."

Throwing all my upbringing out the window, I fold her in my
arms. I'm stacking the deck, but I don't care. "This Brad

She breathes into my neck. "You're not Brad. Not even close."
Her hands find purchase on the waistband of my jeans, over the
small of my back.

"You're right I'm not Brad. I'd flatten anybody who tried to
change you."

She chuckles, the vibration tickling me. "I'll do the flattening,
thank you."

"Too late," I murmur into her hair. She raises her head then,
and the brown depths of her eyes pull me in. "You already
have." Watching every minute change of expression on her face
to make sure this is all right with her, I reach up slowly to cup
her jaw. I stroke the curve of her cheek with my thumb, and she
turns her head into my palm. That's all the sign I need to bend
slightly and bring my mouth to hers. The kiss is easy, and gentle,
and it makes my heart grow in my chest.

Not wanting to scare her, I end it sooner than I want to. We
lean in and touch our foreheads together.

"Now I'll never get over you," I tell her. "Happy now?"

She laughs. "Happy. Scared. Amazed. Have I missed

"Nope. That about covers it for me, too."

"Can I make one request?"

"You can make a thousand."

"Go easy on me."

"Aw, Jesus, Monica," I whisper. Wanting to kiss away
everything that bastard ever did but knowing that's not what she
needs, I console myself with plunging my hands in her warm,
silky hair. It's so fine to the touch, it's like it's not of this earth.
"That's a promise I can keep."

"Make that two requests."

I try not to let them, but my limbs stiffen anyway. "Sure," I

"Cook for me again? I found out tonight the sight of you in the
kitchen is an incredible turn-on."

I let out the breath I didn't know I was holding, and pull her
close again. "You're crazy," I laugh.

"Is that a no?"

"Darlin', you can stick me in my skivvies and chain me to the
stove if that's what you want." She punches me in the shoulder,
then returns my hug. The energy of this connection we share
hums through me. When I relax my hold to look into her eyes,
the reflection I see is startling, and at first I don't recognize the

But I'll get used to him.