Welcome To The Harem

Mean Reds by Shahara Zade Part 2 of 2
Summary: Deslea's rec: "Monica, Marita, Krycek and Vic are back with a very inventive explanation for Existence. Brilliant exploration of Monica's descent into Krycek's world." Once A Thief crossover, sequel to Hitchcock Blonde.


I never hear Mac's 'drunk' on the phone, only a tired, frightened woman, stressed out from having to pretend that everything is okay all the time. She doesn't want to recall and repeat the information she has agreed to give us, any more than I want to record it.

It must leave a bitter taste in her mouth too, because as soon as she makes her report, we find other diversionary topics; speaking quietly, without the urgency or peaks of emotion. We focus on the normal things in our lives. How her mother once dated a drummer who played with Muddy Waters. How quitting smoking is the hardest thing in the world. How chicken mole is better cold, the next day. Everything. Anything.



Victor is kind of proletarian for a secret agent. He drinks beer. Drives a pick-up truck, determined in his normalcy. In summer, when I was growing up, Mama and I would sit under the buzzing a/c watching her soaps. During the commercials, she'd let me switch over to The Avengers, or The Saint. Those old TV shows are what I think of when we talk. I hum the Mission:Impossible theme song at him, and he just laughs. I can almost see that quick grin and duck of the head. He is a point of sanity in the madness, this violent brutal life. He embraces the mundane, almost in defiance of the terrible end towards which we must all be hurtling. Or maybe I've just seen too many damned soaps.

I can call from my place now. Alex has taught me how to sweep for listening devices and secure my line with bits and pieces of stuff from Radio Shack. I have found three bugs. When I ask who might have planted them, he shrugs, uninterested. Maybe he considers it a rhetorical question.

Sometimes I can hate him. When he mentions Marita in passing,as if she were simply a mutual friend and not a hostage - what she's said about the elections, or some joke she emailed him - I can hate him then. Those times I want to put a few slugs into him and worry about Karma later. Except that it would hurt her, and I couldn't do it. Most of the time, I can forget anyway.

Alex is not so hard to read. He sees the world in terms of 'us' and 'them'. I have the dubious distinction of falling into the 'us' category, along with Marita, Fox Mulder, and Dana Scully. We the living, we who Alex has left alive, because we are somehow his people. God help us.

At least I have good news for Victor. I saw Marita today.

* * *

I'm squirming in the hard plastic chair at the Continental terminal. He is even more fidgety than I am, disassembling the free promotional ballpoint pens he has liberated from the Hertz desk, re-combining the springs and caps and tubes into spindly stick figures. Inside-man-cum-assemblage-sculptor. Who knew?

"You make miniature chairs of out Champagne tops too, don't you, Alex?"

He hands me a pen-man and winks, but doesn't smile. I don't think he much likes airports. Then I see her approaching, gold hair and black suit, briefcase in one hand, black leather tote bag flung over her shoulder. Just another day at the office.

She's alive. She's okay, and I throw my arms around her, I can't help it. It's an airport - no one will notice anyway. She seems shocked at my display, stiffening, but doesn't look displeased when I kiss her cheek. I feel like a great, slobbering golden retriever, giddy and whimpering and practically wagging my tail. The sentiment is, of course, out of place. My sentiments usually are.

I step back, releasing her. The corners of her mouth twist and there's a wry scratch in her voice when faces him and holds her arms open. "Well? Alex?"

He hesitates for a fraction of an instant, as if he is unsure of his welcome, and then he embraces her too, muttering, "When in Rome, dawlin'".

I step back, watching the way that, as he pulls away, he grabs her hand, seeming unwilling to let her go. Then he turns back to me, gone cold again. "You have five minutes." He accepts the envelope Marita offers and disappears.

She stands before me, elegant and soft and somehow fearless. "Are you aware-" I begin.

"Yes." She sighs. "Yes. Of course. Again, I am sorry. But...look after him...if you can. Could you do that for me? You currently have better access to him than I do, and I'm just...very concerned."

"Look *after* him? Are you serious?" In some other universe, some other frame of mind, her request might have been a bittersweet moment. In the context of my world, it is just one more surreal occurrence.

"Please." She takes my hand, hot and sweaty, between her cool ones. "He isn't...doing so well. Between these new replicants and your death prophecy-"

"What? Marita, I never...I don't know what you mean."

"Your reading. Whatever you call it." There is a kind of agitation, barely visible under the surface of her collected exterior. A slight heightening of her breathing. The gentle increase in the pressure of her grip on my fingers.

"Oh." More of his comments and actions begin to make sense. "When the Orisha mounted me, I lost consciousness. He wouldn't tell me what it said. He's going to die? I mean, they lie sometimes...or speak in metaphor...their messages are always open to interpretation." I wish I could reassure her more. I wish I could promise to somehow save Alex from himself. But I'm caught between them, helpless, grasping at hope that isn't there.

"There are more immediate problems, Monica. These replicants, they are sort of soldiers...seemingly indestructible. We are working on counter- measures. I wouldn't ask if there were any other choice..."

Marita's eyes are round and blue-green and she doesn't look away, and I'm so angry...but not with her. Stupid, Alex. You never needed your fists and terror routine. You should have just made her ask me.

* * *

Reasonable people in New Orleans spend Carnival season secluded in their ski cabins in Aspen. I often go with my AD, Gwen Freitag and her husband Ronald, who is a social worker. None of us actually skis, and people tease us that the real reason we go is to avoid the office's "Diversity Awareness" week.

Most of the time, Gwen speaks in a manner suggesting she attended the same schools as Marita Covarrubias. Towering behind me this morning, her Creole accent slips out as I am closing a database that should have included documentation on certain British Colombian residents. It doesn't and that leaves me jumpy. Paranoid.

I click the mouse one last time and spin around in my chair to face Gwen. "Hey, thank God it's Freitag!"

She doesn't grin back at me. "Monica, you need to handle some things. Fast." She presses a business card into my hand and brushes past me. The card reads:

'Eileen Reynolds, Ph.D. Trauma Recovery. Life Transitions. Substance Abuse. Somatic and Jungian Dreamwork. Feminist.'

As if I didn't have enough problems.

I begin seeing a therapist on Thursday afternoons and it is really just one more stressor. More lies. Talking to my dead mother is perfectly fine in this environment. Investigating ritual crime at work and then going home to ritual mayhem with an ex-fellow agent...well, Dr. Reynolds just wouldn't understand.

I have to couch it all in safe language. In this shorthand, Alex becomes an overly controlling boyfriend. We talk about co-dependency and smart women and their foolish choices and how I never knew my father, blah blah blah. This is after all, the macho South. It is still a 'don't ask, don't tell' world.

We don't talk about the mezcal at all, even though it must be beginning to show. Gwen could tell, or I wouldn't be here. Eileen just nods and makes notes. I find myself wondering if she bleeds green sometimes. I end up missing a number of appointments and then stop making the sessions entirely and Alex must have worked his own brand of bureaucratic magic, protecting my position, because no one says a word.

* * *

Victor's people think Alex wants to be my mentor. Maybe they're right. After the FBI digs up Fox Mulder, Alex starts fucking with John's head. John tells me about it himself. He tells me the things he's been reading in the X-Files and some of those stories match ones I've heard already.

"Why?" I ask Alex, impotent, wringing my hands. "Why mess with John? You never do anything without a dozen ulterior motives!"

He just smiles, and I want to slap him. Fucking Alex. Sooner or later the Invisible World will get you too and I want to be there.

I talk with Dana Scully periodically, because Alex thinks it's a good idea. She is tough and genuine and laughs at my jokes. I hate lying to her, and after a while I'm hearing the same stories again.

It is like being able to view an object simultaneously from all dimensions. I feel almost omniscient.

* * *

Alex asks a strange question one night, surprising me. "Where do you think the power - what we're doing - comes from? Why do you suppose it pays attention to us?"

"Twins are automatically consecrated to the Loa. But you should know that. You're the one who bought all those books stacked in the crates I have to step over to get to the washing machine." I gesture towards the laundry room with mild irritation. It is one of those forgetting moments between us.

"Twins?" He frowns, apparently befuddled. "Oh. Right. If only it were that easy."

I gulp my drink and pour another for myself and for him. "Are you going to explain that now? I wish one of you would."

"I doubt he knows. And not yet. I don't want to think about that just yet."

Unbelievable. Some things even intimidate Alex Krycek.

* * *

The night the Charred Man returns, everything changes again. I have to contact John, I tell Alex. That vision of ashes means something.

"Of course your visions mean something, Monica," he agrees. "But you aren't going to John. You're going to the expert."

The expert should have been taller. Listening to Alex talk, Fox Mulder should have been ten feet tall and covered in twenty-four karat gold and smelled like roses. I am persistent to the point of pushy, insinuating myself. I ought to pity him. I ought to empathize with him, a fellow intuitive working in an analytical world. I can't.

I show him my sadness, my grief for Luke and for John. The best lies are the truth. I tell him life is full of patterns, things we see, but can't comprehend. I pile it on thick. I lecture him about open-mindedness, and it's so smooth, it's pure Alex Krycek flowing out of my mouth and I'm thinking, my God, it's happened. Alex has died. He has died and taken up residence in my head next to Mama.

Fox Mulder says, "You'll say anything, won't you?"

Only when I think I'm right. Only when Marita's life depends on me being right. For a split second, I almost see it, Alex's great and shinning warrior. And then I don't. I see a man, arrogant and snippy and getting on my last nerve.

[Not fair. You, after all are the one trying to con him.]

--Shut up, just shut up.-

[I call 'em like I see 'em, girl.]

Pompous jackass. It is not that blaming him for my predicament is logical or rational. But I do. I am concerned about Dana and the baby too, and he doesn't even know what's out there waiting for them.

By the end of the trip, I have looked John right in the steel of his narrowed eyes and spoken of honesty. I manage not to choke on the words. Poor John, who expects it to all make sense. I shoot a man, and it isn't so hard, really. You spend enough nights with Alex Krycek and these details don't phase you so much. It occurs to me that I could have put any number of bullets through his skull by now, and it would be over. But I know I won't.

* * *

When I get home to New Orleans and realize that I have not one, but two reports to make on the life and times of the various agents occasionally assigned to the X-Files, I decide I have had enough. It's time for full disclosure, one way or another. I have acquired too many masters to carry on at my current level of ignorance.

Alex is more cooperative than I expected, and this, in itself, is disturbing. "You will continue to need resources after...I'm gone," he says. "It's good you're maintaining dialogue with...ahem...my former employers." He pronounces the last words gingerly, as though they sting his mouth.

"Who are they, Alex?"

He smirks, without humor. "Step-children. Babes in the woods, forgotten by those who would have destroyed them."

He means those inter-conspiracy, inter-tribal conflicts again. He makes everything into a fairy tale, long ago and far away. Distanced. Irrelevant to him, or safer.

"You make him - them - sound like Sleeping Beauty."

"You could think of it that way, I guess."

"You're going to tell me the truth about him." It is not a question.

"I don't *know* the truth," he shakes his head emphatically, "but I have a theory."


"I just can't figure out who popped open the freezer."

The freezer. Where the hell is he going with this? "Um, Alex, I'm the one who took the blow to the head recently, not you."

"Right. Sorry."

This seems so difficult for him. Humiliating. Like talking about it is somehow showing weakness in front of me. Or fallibility. As if it mattered at this point.

"When I worked with Spender's group, there was a rumor among the lower tier operatives that these "insurance" clones were being quick grown. You know, for...um..." he gestures with his prosthetic, "spare parts."

My eyebrows must be touching my hairline.

"They were never supposed to be viable, not in the strict sense of the word. They were never meant to become living *people*. There is someone that could probably tell you more about it. She's retired with her husband outside of Tunis now."

"So that's it?"


"You aren't even curious to find out for sure?"

"Not really. But that reminds me, you have set up some kind of identity codes with him, right?

"Uh, yeah, Alex. Shape-changing aliens. Ice-pick wielding, shape-changing aliens. I've been paying attention. I would hate to make that kind of mistake."

He cracks a real grin and, frighteningly enough, I'm buying it. "Except that now, as Marita mentioned, we've got an entirely new brand of horror to deal with. Bullets don't work, I've tried. I doubt small nuclear devices would work. So, that leaves us with choices that require a more open mind."

[Here it comes, girl. Here's the pitch. He's finally gone over the edge. What are you going to tell him?]

--I don't kill unless it's self-defense. Not for Marita. Not for anyone. This is where it ends. Oh God. Oh Mama.--

"You want to hex the aliens, Alex? That's where this is going, isn't it?" I want him to be kidding this time, but I don't see a laughing man across the table, I see a desperate one. He has this feral, back-up-against-a-wall look in his eyes. Like maybe, if he were a different person, he could come apart right now. He has stopped masking his fear, and he is letting me see so much of him. We are approaching the end...of something.

"What would it take to exert control over a large group for a period of time. Days at least?"

[Are you going to answer the question? Make yourself accessory to murder as well as treason? Even if you aren't the one with the knife at the altar, that's what it will be.]

--He'll find out one way or another...--

"What you want would require a significant offering," I say, shocked I can form the words. "What you are asking for is a classic human sacrifice scenario, and don't ever *ever* bring it up again!" I rise, slow and careful from my chair, watching him. I know I have only a few precious seconds left, before things turn ugly. He is silent. His face is unreadable. The mask is back, because this is the end. I have set it all in motion, made the choice for both of us.

I turn and walk to my bedroom, fighting the urge to run, not looking back. He will follow, or not. He will kill me, or Marita for the sacrifice. He won't hesitate. I shut the door behind me and fall against it, pulse racing like a freight train. I am fighting waves of nausea and regrett. I have failed Marita and Alex too. So strange to think of it that way.

After a while, I hear footsteps in the hall. He's coming, and I am almost resigned. I feel the muscles in my face scrunched up, twitching, moisture drainning down the back of my throat. Me. He's here for me.

Okayokayokayokayokay...just so it doesn't...doesn't hurt...okay...me...and...not...her...okay...okay.

I slide to a crouch, arms covering my head, fingernails biting into my scalp. But he doesn't try to come in. Somehow I see, and I don't know how - his forehead is pressed to the door. His palm runs up and down over the wood. His eyes are closed.

He's herehere...okayokayokay...please.

"Please...Alex...whatever you're thinking...don't do it." I don't remember having taken the breath to speak. That there is lucid speech left in me isn't possible.

On the other side of the door, he breathes. In. Out. In. Something has changed again, another fork in the path. His voice is velvet and midnight. "Take care of each other."

"She'll never let me," I answer. I must be dreaming. Or dead already.

Finally, I hear him leave. It is the second to last time I see him alive, and it doesn't occur to me until much later that he didn't mean Marita.



The problem with talking shop in bed is that it inevitably leads to arguing in bed. On the other hand, the advantage is that it is almost impossible to be that disagreeable while naked. Usually.

Li Ann is sending Mac to North Africa, where there is a lead on someone who may be able to help us. For once, it isn't the details that seem to bother him, but the big picture.

"Accountability, Li Ann? We never abducted anyone! Lucy's cronies may have done things we don't approve of, but-"

"Next you're going to say we were just following orders," I interject.

"We don't owe anyone. Not on this. We've been victimized here too." His eyes fall on me and I look away. I certainly do not think of myself as any kind of victim.

"Which car did you drive over tonight in, Mac?" Li Ann asks. "The Jaguar or the Mercedes? What's the name on the label in your suits? They bought us, and we let them."

He rolls his eyes, dismissing her. "Lucy never gave us a choice."

"I did. You could have bailed at any time."

I don't like the direction of the conversation anymore. I close my eyes and rest my the back of my head on the headboard.

"That doesn't make us responsible-"

"If we are the only ones left, it's up to us to try and make it right."

"Oh, so it's our fault we missed the freakin' company barbecue?" He has been leaning against me, and I can feel the tension tightening in the muscles across his shoulders and down his arms.

"It's a point of honor, Mac."

"Look, we can't go up against the U.S. military industrial complex and win. That's what you're talking about isn't it? We don't have those kinds of resources." He looks old suddenly, gone from Peter Pan to Peter the Great in a matter of months. Crows' feet crinkle around the corners of his eyes. I have a urge to kiss each one. I run a hand down his chest, but he shrugs away, impatient. "It's impossible, Li Ann. The Agency teams are small, precision instruments. How do you kill an elephant with a fly swatter?"

She smiles for the first time that night, but it is not a warm expression. "First, you unbend the wire end of said fly swatter. Then, you punch holes in your elephant until it bleeds to death."

Mac snorts. "Yeah, and then PETA fire bombs your ass."

Something in her words, the ease with which she answers, chills me. "Remind me to *never* piss you off, Li Ann."

She turns to me with lowered eyelids, wetting her bottom lip with her tongue. "Don't ever piss me off, Vic." I shiver and close my eyes again.

"Li Ann," Mac says, "you're playing a dangerous game, here. Your people would follow you into hell. But they're young. Too young maybe. They trust you to save them, not from the bad guys, the monsters you're training them to catch, but from themselves. Do you really want to risk them for the sake of your conscience? Do you understand that we'll be lucky if we *only* die doing this?"

"I have to try anyway. I'm committing my people, all of us, because it is the right thing to do. Mac, I will understand...if you can't follow me...this time." Her downcast eyes betray her a little, as does the hesitation in her delivery. She is afraid he will take her up on her offer, but is determined to settle this.

"You *know* I could never leave you! Either of you." He moves so that he is kneeling beside her, eyes wide and shining with too much emotion. Then he looks away. He hates the way she can pin him. "Yes, damn it, I'm in. There's never been any question. You've always had my life for yours. Now you know you have my life for your conscience too."

Li Ann sighs audibly, placated. She leans in to kiss him, but he slips off the bed and begins pulling on his pants. "Sorry. I can't. I still have to pack."



I dream of Marita in that sky blue convertible, and we're headed south, towards Tijuana. I start to kiss her, but she holds out a rose-patterned satin pillowcase and there is crying from inside of it that sounds like a baby. "I just need to know, Monica," she says.

I call Victor when I wake up, still trembling. "Seen any good movies lately?"

"Yeah, Vertigo."

He wants to send someone, or disobey his Director and come himself. He is concerned and unaccusing and the clip of his speech dissolves the last of the nightmare. He doesn't exactly say 'about' like 'a boat', but it is different from the common twang you hear in Louisiana. He always mumbles the ends of his sentences, as if he has run out of either oxygen or gumption.

I'm calmed enough to mention that he doesn't seem to exist in any of the databases to which I have access. He just laughs and I find the courage to hang up and do what must be done.

When John contacts me, I am already in a cab in D.C. I have come to tell him. To warn him. While I have been waffling, it has begun.

I am not shocked to see Alex in the garage. "Drive carefully," he says. I don't think they notice.

We nearly run over the thing that looks like Billy Miles. Congratulations, Alex. You are now only number three or four on my scariest shit of all time list. Just don't ask me to hurt Dana Scully. Don't ask. I'd have to put a few bullets through your skull and fulfill your fucking prophecy myself.

I am flying down the highway with someone else's beautiful woman. Story of my life. I try not to think too much or stop too much. I learn that I hate the service station ladies' rooms that require a key, but are self-locking. I always forget and leave the key on the sink and then lock it in. It's all Monica's Law. Murphy is just too damned optimistic.

There are things you can do to spiritually cleanse a space. One is to burn white candles. I light as many as I can find. Another is to pour salt in all of the corners of the room, beginning at the front and ending at the back door. The more hardcore choice is to make a solution of your own urine, a few spoonfuls of brown sugar, and a couple of drops of bay rum. You mop the floors with the mixture. Maybe this tradition is rooted in animal territorial marking. At any rate, I don't think Dr. Scully would approve. It is difficult enough to distract her from the rituals I do perform. I try to make her laugh. I try to tell her how beautiful she is, that I won't let anything happen to her.

I always say the wrong thing. I'm fifteen again, and Rosa Deblanc and I have taken her father's old Lincoln Continental out midnight joy riding. We wear matching purple muscle shirts and frosted blue eye shadow and we're blasting Joan Jett and sharing a pack of menthols. The first word is "I" and the last word is, "you" and she is silent for a minute. Then she giggles, "Oh my gawd, Monica. You are so weird." I turn up the radio and never say it again. That is, I never hold out on anyone. I never hurt anybody by not saying it. But I cheat a little. I say it in Spanish, or change "you" to "ya", or add "too" to the end as appropriate. I don't just drop it on people.

Finally, we run out of time. We are surrounded by replicants, and William arrives. Ready or not. When they simply turn and leave, I almost laugh at the improbability. Howl at the wild absurdity, because he has done it. Alex has killed someone and worked the trick. Petition granted. We have invented zombie-aliens, and Alex Krycek is their zombie-queen.



The phone rings as Li Ann and I are working through another crate of archives.

"S-seen any good movies lately?" She is crying. Shit.

"Yeah. Vertigo. What's happened?"

"She's all alone now. She's alone and I should have done something! It happened so f-fast...Dana and the baby are fine, but Walter Skinner shot him-"


"Doesn't matter. He's gone. She's taken...taking his ashes to Chernoye More...the Black Sea. Oh God, Victor, I don't think she's coming back..."

"Hold on, Monica. I'll be there as soon as I can."

"Wait, I'm in D.C., I have a meeting with Director Kersh in a few hours...and you can't. It wouldn't be safe-"

"I'll meet you back in New Orleans, I promise. I'll be there."

I hang up and feel Li Ann's hand on my arm. I don't know what to say.

"Go." She says. "Go on, before I have a chance to think about it."

I hug her and she smells like cinnamon. I care for her so much, so fiercely, and I have no words for it. I can't see around it, or even remember it most of the time, but it's always there. Sometimes, I catch the faint cinnamon smell of her, and then I remember. Li Ann is Good. I wish hopelessly that I could be like her. Compass-point right.



I must be dreaming again, because Marita has come back to me. She hovers over me in her black suit, hand between my legs, tracing lazy circles over my clit with the pad of her middle finger. The sculpted nail scratches lightly, sending shivers down through my thighs.

I'm begging her to kiss me. Fuck me. Do something, please. She does, but it doesn't feel like her anymore, and she's whispering, "Aren't you glad? Aren't you glad?" I close my eyes as the first spiraling currents begin, hotter and hotter. I want the softness of her mouth. "Kiss me," I say, and she does and it isn't soft at all.

Smell of candle wax. Smell of leather. It doesn't taste like her and I'm afraid to open my eyes. I feel heat. Impossible heat and wetness between my legs. Climax sears through me again and I'm thinking, I know you, I know you...and then darkness eats everything.

Someone...Victor, is rocking me, saying, "Monica. Monica, it's all right. He's gone."

No. It is not all right. I sag against him, having surfaced from one nightmare and found another. I let him wrap me in his arms. "It's my fault. I let him die. I wanted it."

"God. God, we let him hurt you. I'm sorry. So very sorry. Li Ann was right, we are the Consortium. The monsters." His voice cracks, as if he would cry with me.

I hold onto him, letting it all go. I stood with my chin held high in front of Alvin Kersh and his giant teeth. I have discussed in depth what happened in Georgia. I held it together. I didn't crack. Didn't start raving about tricks and conjures and sacrificial suicides. I was a good little double agent through the end. His arms are my shelter.

When I can speak again, it's confession. Weird confession. "You know, my mother used to define a 'friend' as a person you could call in the middle of the night to bail your ass out of jail. Funny thing, I might have called him. If I had known his number."

He sighs. "I will bail your ass out of jail if you ever need it. Even use my real passport."

"You *have* a real one?"

"Actually, I have about seven *real* ones."

This has to be about the funniest thing I have ever heard, except that I'm crying again. For Marita and for Alex, that weary sorrow like an open sore. Like a virus you catch from extended exposure. Then, slowly, I feel the alchemy. Grieving-ache morphs into something else.

I register a few things almost simultaneously. First, that Victor showed up to comfort me at great risk to himself. Second, that because I was dressed for bed when I started in on the mezcal, I am wearing only a tee shirt and panties. Third, that there is metal between my lips. His earring. Oh.

I should be mortified, and I am. But my tongue loops through it anyway. Because I never learn. I'm tasting the skin of the one person in this whole mess who has been truly decent to me. Because he's been there. Because he knows and he hasn't judged me. Because I am incapable of letting anything remain pure.

He makes a low sound in the back of his throat and places all over my body tighten and it is delicious. His arms stiffen. His breath is completely still. I bite the flesh where his jawbone meets his neck. His hands skim over my back.

"Monica...Monica, you know how fucked up this is, right?" His voice is hoarse. "You *have* to know how fucked up this is." He sounds desperate, pleading with me. I pull back to look at him. He's all ivory and emerald. Too beautiful.

"When you're the one still finding cat bits under the microwave, then we'll talk about fucked up, okay?"

The corners of his mouth jerk upwards in a sort of half-smile, and I can't stand it. I am shattering all over again and I kiss him to make it stop. He seems frozen; he lets me do it, but doesn't kiss back. I kiss down his throat, and I'm the one pleading.


Then his mouth is on me, small, fast kisses across my shoulders, warm through the fabric of my shirt. My back arches.

"You know," he murmurs against my ear, "I promised myself I would never do this again."

I have to laugh. We are so much alike, it's a wonder we don't cancel each other out, like two negatively charged particles. "Me too," I breathe.

He gathers me up and carries me to my bedroom, and I'm not sure whether to swoon or to mail back my NOW membership card with a long letter of apology enclosed.

[Come on now. Lie to everyone else if you must, but not to yourself. You've got just as bad a Cinderella complex as the next little girl. You want that white knight to rescue you. Sick, twisted little tramp. Villain and hero mesh into one and you really aren't complaining are you? And you know all too well, that wasn't Marita in your dream. Not really.]

We tumble onto the bed and he reaches out in the dark and catches the hem of my shirt, tugging it over my head and tossing it aside. Emotion flows over his face. Tenderness, need, guilt, fear. Me too, Galahad. His clothes slide away and I'm almost frantic, pulling him down into me.

He's so gentle, and I'm whimpering, harder. Harder, because this isn't sex at all. It's exorcism. Harder. Please, harder. Pain cauterizes. Pain purifies. If I am a user, then I am, but I can't drown anymore. Harder. Every thrust pounds into me, until I can feel it in my chest.

Afterwards, he pulls me against him, and we stay like that for a long time, his body still tangled with mine. The room is a mass of rhythm. Heartbeats. Breathing. Rain striking the window glass.



The bed engulfs the room in delicate floral ironwork. It would be kind of ethereal, except for the mounds of unfolded laundry she seems to use instead of blankets. She wears the bruises on her heart like comfortable old sweats. We have done this to her. Or at least added to the damage.

[Lean in close and I'll tell you a nasty little secret, it's the bruises that are so erotic, isn't it Vic? Always so contrite after the fact.]

Tonight, my conscience speaks in Lucy's voice. I was just going to hold her, wipe away her tears. She was hurting so much.

[You didn't push her away, did you? You certainly didn't tuck her into bed with a glass of warm milk. You could have said no, but you didn't.]

That overwhelming protectiveness turned into something else pretty fast. Damsels in distress. God.

She shifts against my shoulder. "Some wake, huh?"

I run my hand over the slight sheen between her breasts. "I think the hardest part about having someone die is forgiving them, Monica. I mean, you can love them or hate them, but when they die, it's like they got the last word and you can never even the score."

I wait for her to answer, feeling her tears hot on my skin. "Unless, of course, their ghost comes back to haunt you..." My effort at levity falls flat. She sniffs and kisses the corner of my mouth solemnly, then snuggles down against my chest.

She says, "This bed is crowded with ghosts."


Thanks to my wise and generous betas: Sue, Heather, and Deslea. And to Mary for her friendship and support.