Welcome To The Harem
Not My Lover - Enigma by Deslea R. Judd Part 4 WIP
Summary: This is a WORK IN PROGRESS. The death of Marita's protector and a startling discovery about her past leads her to the brink of darkness in her search for the truth. But can she let in the one man who would stand at her side? Alex and Marita's account of Seasons 1 and 2. Prequel to Not My Lover, but stands alone.
THIS CONTINUES CHAPTER 3.
"Have you given any more thought to my suggestion?"
"The physical readiness training?" I wondered. The water bubbled delightfully against my naked skin. The waiter had just topped up our wineglasses, and I was agreeably mellow.
"Well, I know you have your FBI training, but there are certain deficiencies in what you've been taught - hand-to-hand combat, for one." Diana drained her glass and set it on the side of the tub. I studied her with open interest. She still had some of the pregnancy curves, but she seemed unselfconscious about the fact. I liked that. It showed confidence.
"That's probably true," I agreed. "All right - I'll do it. Just tell me where and when." Before us, the women's locker room opened, and Marita stalked out, swathed in a bizarre tight black lycra-lace-and-latex number. She strode over to the bar, seemingly oblivious to the attention she had aroused.
"I'll see to it," Diana said. "I'll pair you with Karen. She's the best trainer we've got."
I nodded, not really paying attention. "Unbelievable," I murmured.
"What, Alex?" Edward enquired with interest.
I nodded in Marita's direction. "Look at those guys watching her with their tongues hanging out," I said with a wave of my hand. "They're so busy drooling over the catwoman getup, they've totally missed the fact that she's showing less flesh than you'd have seen on the beach fifty years ago." She turned away from the bar, drink in hand, and started walking in our direction. "She's the only woman here who won't strip off, and not one of them realises it." Diana watched me with a look of admiration. It didn't occur to me at the time, but I think now that I'd just passed a test in her eyes.
"Are you saying she's not erotic?" Edward was saying.
"I'm saying she's clever."
"Who's clever?" Marita said, perching herself on the side of the spa. She slid in, heels and all, and sidled up to Edward, draping herself theatrically over him on his free side.
"Only you, darling," Diana said tartly. I recognised her tone - it was the one I'd dubbed Gushing Socialite, reserved solely for such contrived situations as this one. With some irritation, I wondered when my role would become clear. This house bullshit was fast becoming tiresome. I didn't mind putting in the hours and the work, but the politics pissed me off. I decided to put a good face on it for the duration, but damn it, I was going to pin down Diana tomorrow or the day after at the latest. I wanted answers. I wanted things to start moving.
I settled my attention on Marita. The display she had put on earlier for the benefit of our onlookers was forgotten. She was listening to Ed, sipping delicately at her wine. While the others (and I) were well on the way to being pleasantly quiffed, she was stone cold sober. Sitting there, smiling faintly while Diana and Ed roared laughter, she epitomised restraint. She should have seemed out of place in such an unrestrained setting, but she didn't. In any environment, I thought, Marita would be its master. It was fascinating.
"...what do you think, Alex?"
I came to myself. "Sorry, Ed - I tuned out for a second. What was that?"
"Oh, it doesn't matter. Marita and I were disagreeing, and Diana was playing mother wolf. I was looking to you for some solidarity, but I guess I'll have to stand on my own." He gave a mock look of martyrdom, and I laughed.
A look of irritation flitted over Marita's features. "Diana's a mother wolf? So what does that make me? A cub?"
"A mare," I said after a moment's thought.
"I remind you of a breeding horse?" she said coldly, but the corners of her eyes were creased with merriment.
I gave her a withering look. "Wild and untamed."
"Wild *and* untamed? Isn't that redundant?"
"Where's your sense of romance?" I flicked water at her with my hands.
"She ate it for breakfast," Diana snorted.
"I'll have you know I have the heart of a poet," Marita retorted coolly. Diana looked contrite, and Marita, perhaps sensing the tension, added mischievously, "Or I did, until I ate that for breakfast too." I laughed uproariously then, less because of her words and more because for just a moment, I thought I had caught a glimpse of the woman beneath the facade, and I liked her very much.
"Okay, Marita's a mare," Edward said. "Diana's a she-wolf. What about Alex?" I sat back, interested.
"A rat," Diana suggested with a grin.
"There's nothing wrong with rats," Marita mused. "I had a pet one growing up."
"I'll bet Larissa loved that," Edward laughed.
"She didn't know."
"So was your rat like me?" I quizzed.
"Some. He had this scruffy hair on top." She yelped laughter when I splashed her.
"Not like your mane, *Mare*."
"Don't call me that."
"I'm sorry. I won't do it again. Mare."
She splashed me back, and Edward made a show of ducking. "All right, time out." We splashed him, instead.
There was a sound, a clearing of throat, and we turned. The Dark Man was standing in the doorway.
"Darling," Marita said, holding out a hand. Fleetingly, I wondered what she called him in private. He had to have a name, after all, even if it was just a working alias.
He nodded by way of greeting. "I won't stay, Marita. Connie asked me to let you to know that Maintenance have finished with your suite."
"Not another renovation, Rita?" Edward said reproachfully.
She ignored him. "Thank you for letting me know. Come and join us."
The Dark Man smiled - or at least, he did whatever it was that passed for a smile in his case. "Just for a moment." He took two glasses of wine from a passing waiter and brought them over. He handed one to Marita and sat on a chair next to the tub at her side. He looked comically overdressed. So did she, but she could pull it off.
"Thank you, darling," she said, sipping at her glass delicately. She sat back a little, shoulders back, body pushed forward. "I was just quizzing poor Alex here."
I felt my chest tighten, just a little. The sudden change in stance, the dropping of her innately reserved carriage was pronounced. There was something pretentious about her tone, and Marita wasn't a pretentious woman. I had the feeling that I had suddenly been dragged into a performance. Whatever I had been groomed (or played) for, it was going to happen now. I had been waiting for it, but I felt apprehension, too.
"Is that so?" the Dark Man enquired with interest.
"I don't know that I'd say that," I said in a mild tone. I'd play along with whatever charade they had planned, but I was going to make them work for it, too.
"What do you want, Alex?" Marita queried, ignoring my previous words completely. Unless I actively contradicted the script she had planned, she would probably continue to do so. The only way I could regain control of the situation, I thought, was to get up and walk away. Did I want to do that? I decided I didn't.
"I don't understand," I said with absolute honesty.
"You don't come here for the sex," she said calmly. "In fact, we five might be the only ones here who don't." The other three exchanged looks. "What do you want?"
If it had been just she and Diana, I might have told the truth; but I wasn't prepared to put myself at the mercy of the Dark Man or our spectators in that way; so I said mildly, crossing my arms, "You."
And at once I knew it was true.
The others watched with frank interest, and Marita nodded calmly, her gaze holding mine. "Hmm," she mused, nodding, as though thinking it over. She rose in a fluid movement, water falling from her form in a rush. She held out a hand and pulled me up. The water level was to my waist - a small mercy, because I was hard as hell. She walked around me, stopped behind me, and laid her mouth on my shoulder blade, sucking my flesh there for a long moment. She said in an autocratic voice, "Come with me."
I forced out a laugh. "I'm not one of your submissive-" I stopped short as understanding dawned. She came around me to face me again, watching me steadily. If it was an act - and I suspected even then that it was - then it was a damn good one.
"You can't have me, Alex," she said coolly. "But I can have you."
"What makes you so sure?" I demanded, horribly aware of the scrutiny of the others.
"Because you just told me." My brow creased as I recognised the truth of her words. "You can say no, of course," she pointed out. "Every submissive can do that."
"And if I say no?" I demanded.
"Then it all ends." She shook her head a little, tossing her damp hair aside. She was hypnotic. It was a fascination that went beyond the erotic - it was bigger than that, and I couldn't begin to make sense of it.
"It never began," I pointed out. I was vaguely aware of the others, watching, waiting to see which of us would win the showdown, but they were insignificant. My mind was filled with her, as though she surrounded me in a fog.
"It's your choice, Alex." She drew my name out in a hiss - the only crack in her veneer - and I breathed out, shakily. "Take it or leave it."
She had me, and she knew it. They all knew it.
But it was still my choice, damn it, and I was going to hold onto that. In any domination/submission relationship, the submissive has the power - I'm sure I read that somewhere. And I was going to do my best to hold onto mine.
I gave a single nod, and she turned her back to me; but not before I saw her look of satisfaction. "I accept," I said evenly, close to her ear, and I felt her flinch as my lips brushed her there.
That was when I knew I had the power, after all.
When we reached her room, the charade ended.
Marita opened the door, and I went in. She entered after me, closed the door, and turned the lock. Then a very strange thing happened. Her whole bearing underwent a radical transformation.
The cool Mona Lisa smile faded from her face, leaving solemnity. The unflappable ease with which she carried herself was replaced with irritation. She yanked her strappy stilettos off her feet, strode up the stairs of the dais and threw them in the bath. They made a wet slapping sound against the ceramic. She nodded towards the bed, where I saw clothes laid out. She said tersely, "Put something on."
I looked down at the jeans and shirt. "These are mine."
"The Dark Man got them from your room. Don't worry, nothing else was touched." She went into the ensuite and closed the door.
Frowning, I removed my towel from around my waist and, after a moment's deliberation, threw that in the bath, too. There was no underwear, so I pulled on my jeans. They chafed uncomfortably against my still-damp skin. I heard more wet slapping sounds from the ensuite. Presumably, Marita was stripping off the catwoman gear.
When she emerged, she was pleasingly rumpled - face nude of makeup, hair pulled back and caught in a band at the base of her neck, feet bare, body clad in track pants and a cotton shirt. Of all the Maritas I'd seen to date, I thought this one was probably the closest one to the real thing. She didn't have the clinical eroticism she'd had a few minutes earlier, but I liked her better now.
"Drink?" she said, moving to the bar, and I nodded. She poured me a Benedictine without being prompted, and I mentally raised an eyebrow. If she knew my tastes, that meant I had been studied and chosen. Definitely groomed, rather than played, then.
I kept my expression neutral when she handed it to me, and when she nodded to the overstuffed armchair at her bedside, I dropped into it without protest. She sat on the bed, not perched delicately on the side, but cross-legged like a child, leaned against the bedhead. There was a casual ease about her that I liked very much.
She watched me with open scrutiny for a few moments; said at last, "This room has been swept for listening devices just a few minutes ago. We can speak freely."
"That whole thing downstairs was a smokescreen?"
"Of course it was," she said briskly. "You don't really think I'd recruit a sub so publicly?" She drained her drink.
"Why?" I wondered. Now we were getting somewhere.
"We have a lot to talk about, you and I. We need time and space. Posing as lovers has intimate overtones that we need to avoid, but a dom and a sub? The kind of equity that conspirators require is anathema in that relationship. Spender would never suspect that."
"Okay, wait. Since when are we conspirators?" I demanded; but my voice was mild. We'd become conspirators the moment I'd walked in the room.
She didn't bother to dignify that with an answer. "Being my sub will do wonders for your working conditions, Alex. That homophobic shit Cardinale will think you're God's gift."
"You've had me investigated."
"I didn't need to. The Dark Man already knows everything there is to know."
"He doesn't know as much as you might think," I said grimly.
"On the contrary. He knows much more than firstname.lastname@example.org bargained for." Fuck. He knew about the emails. "What does that stand for, by the way?"
I broke into a sudden grin. "Spender is a second-rate asshole."
She laughed then, genuine sounds of hilarity, and I laughed too. I felt some of the tightly-wound apprehension of the last half-hour dissipate. It was a relief.
Finally, we grew quiet. "You know," I said, "I know enough to make his life very difficult." There was no threat in my voice - it was a statement of fact.
"Alex," she sighed, "do you know what the Dark Man did before he joined the group? He was a troubleshooter for an extremist anti-apartheid pressure group. He could kill you with one finger using fewer calories than it took you to breathe in my ear - and that was a nice touch, by the way," she added with a deferential nod. She went on, "You don't want to make an enemy of the Dark Man."
"No," I relented, "you're right. I don't."
"So what do you want? Why have you been asking about my mother?"
I settled into the chair, half-turning to see her better. "I want to know how one woman can attend two universities at the same time."
"That's quite a conundrum," she said coolly.
"You managed it quite successfully. Bet it was hard explaining concurrent degrees from different continents on your resume."
Her brow creased, forming a little arc over her nose. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"I think you were Marita Ekaterinberg," I said pensively. "You and Diana have tension between you, but definitely friendship of long standing." I was showing my hand to some degree, but at this point, that seemed to come under the heading of acceptable risk. "That means someone else was the Harvard Marita."
She sat back and breathed out in a rush. She was silent for a long moment, expression solemn. She seemed to reach a decision; said, "No games, Alex. Tell me what you know." Her brow flickered. "It's important."
"To you personally? Or the group?"
"I don't know. Maybe both."
For a moment, I considered playing does-she-know-what-I-know, then decided against it. I didn't know enough to play it well, and if I played badly I'd play myself right out of the game. So I told her what I knew, pretty much straight down the line. I told her that another Marita had attended my alma mater. That this woman had studied eugenics. That I suspected it had been done with the blessing of Larissa and Michael - her mother and her fiance.
She was silent for a while, but then she said quietly, "The woman is my twin. Elena Ekaterina Covarrubias - at least, that was the name she was given at birth. I don't know if she's known by that name now."
"Your middle name and your alias."
"My mother isn't very imaginative." She passed a weary hand over her forehead. "Alex, I only learned of my sister's existence a couple of months ago."
"I don't understand."
"I believe she was surrendered to the alien race in 1973. I was two at the time. I was never told I had a twin growing up. I found out from some papers after Michael died." Her throat contracted visibly - whether from grief or the sting of betrayal, I wasn't sure.
"If she was surrendered, what's she doing here?"
Marita frowned. "I'm not sure, but it's not without precedent. Other hostages have come back. Spender and Teena bartered for Samantha Mulder, for instance."
"Diana told me. She said she lived here - and that she died a couple of years ago." I thought of Mulder, and I felt a fleeting pang of sympathy.
"That's right. She was a resistance double - working the hybrids for Spender and Strughold, and reporting back to us. Strughold has been holding out on us - they're a lot closer to a hybrid than he'd had us believe. Samantha and Diana found out. I guess it pushed her over the edge. She committed suicide."
"Damn shame. I hear she was quite an asset."
"She was. Decent woman, too, according to Diana." She shrugged. "Anyway, if Samantha came back, there's no reason to think the same couldn't be true of Elena - particularly in light of your information. The Dark Man thinks - and I'm inclined to agree with this - that she's working on something for the resistance faction. My mother, Maxwell, and Diana all know about it, but they aren't talking."
"And you want to find her."
She suddenly looked very vulnerable. "She's my sister."
I didn't really know what to say to that, so I said, not unkindly, "There's someone I should let you meet sometime."
"Fox Mulder?" Her earlier, brisk manner returned as quickly as it had gone. "I gather you and he are not on the best of terms these days."
"Touche." I stretched out in my chair. "So why should I help you?"
"Because whatever my sister is doing, you can probably use it to get further in. That's what you want, isn't it?" Her eyes glittered with genuine curiosity - she was playing ball, but she also seemed to truly want to know.
I spread my hands expansively. "I'm just your run of the mill assassin, trying to stay alive."
"Bullshit. If that were true, you'd have turned the Dark Man in to Spender long ago."
There's something very appealing about someone who won't let you get away with anything. I grinned at her with real amusement. "All right," I said with a nod of concession. "Say I want in. Say I dig my way into whatever Elena's doing. How do I know I'm not going to get myself killed? There's knowing enough, and knowing too much. If they're keeping it even from you-" I didn't finish.
She sighed, weariness apparent in the slight droop of her shoulders. "Don't be fooled by my position, Alex. I'm, shall we say, the crown princess. Privileged, but sheltered. I'm not much further in the loop than you are," she admitted, "but I don't mean to stay that way." Her gaze held mine, her expression solemn. "I think we could help each other."
I thought about it. Whichever way I looked at it, she was right. If I said no, I would stay where I was now. That was tantamount to accepting the status quo - and that was something I wasn't prepared to do. If I did that, I may as well have gone home to Daugavpils months ago, with far less blood on my hands. "All right," I said at last. "So what's the game plan?"
"The only person we can think of who might know anything - besides the people involved - is Samantha Mulder. She kept journals all her life. She lived here in 1983, when I was bundled off to Oxford and you say Elena went to Harvard. If we can find those diaries-"
I nodded in understanding. "I presume you've checked her suite?"
"I've stripped the rooms pretty thoroughly. I don't think they're there, but I'll check again."
"I'll help with that. Do we have any other leads?"
"I didn't before tonight. Now, though, it seems to me that Elena's time at Harvard might be another angle. Might be worth a trip to Boston - see if we can track her movements from there."
"Good thinking. Can you act?"
Sudden flash of a smile. "Did you see me downstairs?"
I laughed. "Good point."
"You're thinking I could play her?" I nodded. "I don't know how she speaks, her mannerisms - I don't know." She shrugged. "Maybe."
"Then Harvard might be your department. I'll do some orientation with you before you go. I suspect it's quite different to Oxford."
"Okay," she said, rising. She took my glass from me, and her fingers brushed mine. It felt good, and it occurred to me that I hadn't been touched for a long time. Too long. "Any other questions?"
"Yeah," I said, dismissing these thoughts. "Codes of conduct. Limits. You're the top here. I'm going to be following your cues."
She looked at me blankly for a moment, but then her expression cleared. "You mean for downstairs?"
She poured us both another drink, and I got to my feet and followed her to the bar. "Well, in the general areas, we just act normally. You should be a little deferential - open doors, let me walk ahead of you, that sort of thing - but no extremes. You will be just a shade over-attentive, and I'll be just a shade detached." She held out my drink.
I took it, leaning against the bar. "What about the minimalist zones?"
"In the minimalist zones, I own you. If I tell you to come, you come. If I tell you to rub my feet, you rub my feet. If I tell you to get on your knees-" she let the words hang in the air.
"I get the idea."
She favoured me with a smile. "I like you, Alex," she said, without a shred of artifice, and I smiled too. "We get along fine, and I imagine we'll continue to do so, the more time we spend together. For that very reason, it's important that our roles be exaggerated. There will be times when I will be detached to the point of boredom. Don't take it personally. For this to work, it has to be pure play for you, pure power for me. Any hint of genuine familiarity and our cover is gone."
"That's not how you behave with Edward," I pointed out. I had doubted the truth of her apparent affair with Diana's husband for a while.
"I've known Edward since I was a child. That sort of dynamic would have seemed contrived. Besides, I wasn't covering up a connection with him - I was just shoring up my position. He's a prop, nothing more."
"As is your tension with Diana."
Marita looked away. "No, that's real," she admitted, "but it stems from her refusal to tell me about my sister. We're friends, as you know, but we argue about that. A lot." She gave a short, sharp laugh. "Like most people in my life, she believes she's protecting me."
I thought on this. "Does she know that's what you want me for? To help find your sister?"
"No. She believes I'm merely putting together an informant base, under the guidance of the Dark Man."
"So we're hiding in plain sight. On all fronts." I wondered whether I minded deceiving Diana, then decided I did not. Not for this.
"Basically." She drained her drink. "As for limits - I won't be asking you to do anything overtly sexual. The sexuality of our roles will be implied rather than explicit. That's fairly usual in D&S, anyway."
"So I've heard."
She came around the bar to face me. "How's your workload with Spender at the moment? Do you have much freedom of movement?"
"I'm on call. As long as I stay within a couple of hours of DC, I can do what I like."
"Good. I'm fairly flexible myself at the moment - the man I'm an aide to at the UN is on a tour of duty in Chechnya. I'm up for a promotion in a few months' time, but for now..." she trailed off. "Can I trouble you to help me search Samantha's rooms over the next week or so?"
I nodded. "Sure. Anything else?"
"Not right now. You want to call it a night?"
"Yeah," I said. "I'm at saturation point."
"Okay." She walked towards the door, and I followed. "Oh, what you called me downstairs - Mare - don't call me that. I can be informal with you, but you should be formal with me."
She turned the lock on the door. "I was thinking of calling you Alexi. Diminutives for men can be a power trip, you know? It might be effective-" she turned back to face me, and then she stopped short. "Alex?" she said. "What is it?"
"Nothing," I said, working to keep my expression neutral. She stared at me, clearly unbelieving, and after a long moment, I said reluctantly, "No-one's called me that since my mother died."
The clinical demeanour vanished. Her face flooded with empathy. She took my arm. "Alex, I'm sorry. I had no idea. I don't need to call you that."
I shook my head, but I didn't brush her hand away. "No, it's okay, Marita. You just threw me for a moment. Really, you can call me that if you think it helps."
"I only meant - well, pet names are like ownership, aren't they? But it isn't important." She let go of my arm. Ridiculously, I wished she hadn't.
"Marita, I said you can do it if it helps. It's up to you." I opened the door. "Night."
She gave a little smile. "Night."
I was still grinning like an idiot when she shut the door behind me.
I wiped my forehead. "All I know now that I didn't know before you left is that Samantha had unusually large feet."
Marita laughed. "Take a breather. I got takeout."
"Thanks." I took the brown paper sack she offered, and sat down on the lounge. She shrugged out of her jacket and slung it onto the table, then took her place at my side.
"So why isn't the Dark Man helping us with this?" I asked between mouthfuls of gyoza.
"He and Samantha were close. It's difficult for him." She set down her sack and chopsticks on the coffee table and stretched out a little, black lace stretching over her curves in a way that was agreeable to the eye.
I gave a wry laugh. "Ah, sex. Every man's downfall," I said, thinking of Mulder - not so much with pain as mild regret. That ache was easing.
"I don't think they were lovers, but I know what you mean."
I backpedalled. "Oh, I didn't really mean that quite the way it sounded."
She turned to look at me, openly amused. "Alex, I'd hardly expect you to be opposed to sex."
"I didn't mean that, either. It's just got to be the right person."
"You're a closet romantic," she accused. There was laughter in her voice.
"No, just realistic. It's the way we're made. We people weren't meant to be alone, Marita." I paused to eat. "Don't you feel that? I mean, six months ago you were ready to get married."
She shrugged. "Michael and I weren't really like that. What you're talking about. It was simpler than that. He was...benign."
I stared at her in disbelief. "Benign?" I echoed. "You were prepared to marry benign?"
"I was very young," she said mildly. "And it really isn't any of your business."
"You're right, it isn't. I'm sorry."
She shrugged. "S'okay."
I gathered up her trash and mine, and took it to the bin behind the mini-bar. I changed the subject. "You know, Marita, we don't know what we're getting into here. Maybe you should look into learning how to protect yourself. Can you shoot?"
She nodded. "The Dark Man taught me."
"Know how to bug sweep?"
"The tech side of things won't be a problem. It's the hands-on stuff I need help with." I held up a bottle of juice and a glass in silent query, and she nodded. She leaned back on the lounge and closed her eyes.
I told her about the hand-to-hand training Diana had suggested. "It's private," I said. "You could do it with me."
She shrugged. "Why not?"
I came around the bar and walked back towards her. Her lace top had ridden up a little, baring just a sliver of flesh along her waistline, and I felt a heady wave of heat wash over me. I breathed out in a rush, set her glass on the coffee table, and sat away from her. My life was complicated enough as it was. No point in making it more so for the sake of a quick thrill.
Fortunately, she was oblivious to my discomfort. "Thank you," she said, opening her eyes and sitting forward. Flesh covered again. I gave a sigh of relief. I drank from my glass gratefully, looking straight ahead, determined not to look at her until the worst of my arousal had subsided.
When, finally, it had, I turned to look at her, and saw that she was watching me with a thoughtful expression on her face. "What is it?" I wondered.
"Nothing," she said, blinking. "Just thinking."
"Oh," I said. "Okay."
She rose, still looking at me with that watchful expression. "Let's get back to work." She held out a hand, and I took it, letting her pull me up.
The door opened. "Marita?"
We both turned, and I pulled my hand guiltily away from hers, as though our visitor, seeing it, might glean my rather-less-than-pure thoughts. It was, of course, the Dark Man, rather than a janitor or a security guard - proof positive that God is just as much a fan of B-grade drama as the rest of us.
"What is it?" Marita wondered, stepping between my body and the coffee table to get to him. She pressed against me in the process. Jesus, it just got better and better.
He glanced at me, then addressed her. "Edward's been recalled to Tunisia."
"He was recalled nearly a fortnight ago," she said. "I thought he was leaving Thursday."
The Dark Man shook his head. "No - he's been recalled now. Right now. They sent a charter for him."
Marita and I exchanged looks. "What's going on?" I demanded.
"I don't know, but I intend to find out. Can you two handle things here for a week or two?"
She nodded. "We'll be fine. Good luck."
The Dark Man nodded, turned, and opened the door. He paused. "Marita?"
He glanced from her to me, then back again. "Be careful while I'm gone."
Her shoulders straightened, just a fraction. She said ingeniously, "Absolutely."
The door snicked shut behind him, and I said, my voice tinged with affront, "He *didn't* mean-"
She turned and pressed two fingers to my lips. "Of course he did." She was smiling.
We burst out laughing.
The voice came thin and high, distorted through the mist. I skidded to a stop and turned, peering through the thick white fog. I made out first a slender shadow, then black clothes and blonde hair. Marita.
I glided over. "What are you doing here?"
"Diana said I might find you here. I didn't know you skated."
"I wouldn't be much of a Russian if I didn't, would I?" I stepped off the ice, treading over the rubber matting to the stands, and sat. I started to unlace my boots. "What can I do for you?"
"I just wanted to let you know Karen can fit us in week mornings at eight, if that suits you."
I eased my boots off my feet, first one, then the other, and flexed my ankles a little. "Sure."
"It's not too early for you?"
"I'll cope. Pass my shoes?"
She complied. "Okay. I'll let her know."
"Have you heard from the Dark Man?"
Marita shook her head. "Not yet. Diana hasn't heard much, either - she says there's talk of an unidentified UFO, but nothing else."
"What do you mean, an unidentified UFO?" I wiped my skates free of ice and packed them into my bag.
"I mean one we don't recognise. One that isn't authorised by us, or apparently by the Colonists either."
I looked up at her in query. "I don't understand."
"Neither do I." She shivered. I suddenly realised she was wearing only a thin top and trousers.
"Jesus, Marita," I said, standing, shrugging off my jacket. I reached around her and put it over her, and she slid her arms into it without protest, smiling up at me with real warmth. I ran my palm under her hair, over the back of her neck, and gently tugged her hair free of the collar. I straightened the collar at her neck and ran my hands down the lapels. My gaze lit on hers.
We stayed that way for a long moment, gazes held on one another. Her smile faded, and she suddenly looked very unsure. She slipped a hand up between us, resting her fingertips on my jaw. The only sound was that of long, deep breaths. Bursts of white air floated up between us, gathering and scattering in the space of moments.
Her features softened, and for a moment I thought she was going to kiss me; but instead, she whispered, "Alexi, I should go." She touched my lip with her fingers, dragging them over my flesh there, and somewhere within myself, I felt something primal stir. I was hard, of course, but it was more than that. Some part of me called to her, and I felt a stunning sense of loss when she pulled away.
I stood there, shell-shocked for a long moment, watching as she hurried off. Her shoulders were hunched, and she hugged herself, pulling my jacket around her, leaning her cheek into the lapel. I was still watching when she reached the door and turned to look at me, but when she saw me looking at her, she looked away.
Unsettled, I turned and picked up my bag. I went to my locker and opened it. I bundled the bag into the locker and tried to fight off the real grief that rose in my chest. You're an idiot, Alex, I told myself; she just left the goddamn rink, it's not like she died or anything. And then I heard her call me Alexi again, and the loss washed over me all over again, and I leaned my head against the cold metal door in frustration at my own stupidity. I stayed there for long minutes, my consciousness a maelstrom of Marita and Elena and Mulder and Samantha and my mother and...well, everything. I felt very tired.
The idea hit me all at once, so hard and fast through my consciousness that my stupid angst evaporated, forgotten. My eyes flew open, and I pushed back from the locker with a start. I turned and headed for the door in a run.
I had to see Marita.
She must have run off.
She was at the house before I caught up with her. "Marita," I called, running up the staircase behind her. She turned to look at me, still holding my jacket around her despite the temperate conditions; but her usual calm was restored.
"What is it?" she said, one hand resting delicately on the hand-carved banister.
I caught up with her, stopping at her side to catch my breath. "Back there, at the rink-"
She cut me off. "I don't want to talk about it." She started off towards her suite.
We rounded the corner. "No, it isn't that. I had an idea-"
"You fucking whore!"
The shouted epithet made us both pause. A stream of obscenities followed, punctuated by sobs. Female sobs.
We both turned in the direction of the suite on our left. I shot a look at Marita. She was already fumbling with her keys - looking for a master, I supposed. She rapped on the door. "Who's in there?"
The door opened after a long moment - just a fraction. A middle-aged man appeared, his robe loosely belted at the waist. A heavy gold chain lay nestled in the rather scraggy-looking thatch of graying hair on his chest. He peered out at us. "Sorry. We'll keep it down." His words were conciliatory; his expression was anything but.
"Sorry doesn't cut it, I'm afraid, Senator," Marita said calmly. "Who do you have with you?" She attempted to peer over his shoulder, but he pulled the door to bar her visibility.
"Nobody. Nobody!" I opened my mouth to speak, then decided against it. This was Marita's fight.
"You have a lady with you, Senator," she said severely. "That's hardly nobody. Who's there?" she called, raising her voice a little.
"It's - it's me, Miss Covarrubias. Chanel."
"Come out, please, Chanel. I need you downstairs."
"I haven't finished with her," the man said angrily.
"As a matter of fact, you have," Marita said. "You've finished here altogether. You're barred. Indefinitely."
Now he really did look conciliatory. "Now, surely we can negotiate," he said with a winning smile. But looking at Marita, I thought it was too little, too late.
"There's nothing to negotiate, Senator," she replied, smiling too. "Nobody calls my ladies whores."
"Oh, come on, Marita," he smiled, still sure he could win her over. "It won't happen again."
"No, it won't," she smiled back. "Come along, Chanel."
The girl came past the man, a little nervously. She was holding her ripped negligee together with her hand, arm crossed over her body. He made no move to let her pass, but Marita glared at him, and he moved just a little. The girl had to brush up against him to get through, and she flinched. Marita opened her phone. "Connie? Send security to room 13 on the fourth floor, please. Senator Wells is to be escorted from the building."
Satisfied that the man would be no more trouble, I started to manoeuver the bedraggled Chanel towards the stairs, then stopped, turning to look at Marita for a long moment. We couldn't bring the girl through the public stairway like that. "My room," she said, folding the flip.
"Come on, Chanel," I said, turning and motioning for her to do the same.
"Lynette," she corrected miserably. "It's really Lynette." I nodded and guided her down the hall. Marita went ahead of us and opened the door. She motioned for us to enter, came in herself, then closed the door behind us.
The girl sat down on the bed and cried steadily for quarter of an hour.
While we waited for her to cry herself out, we busied ourselves. I poured us all some brandy. Marita went to her wardrobe and got out a floral dress with a Laura Ashley tag on it. Maybe four hundred dollars' worth, I thought; but she didn't seem to give that much thought. A set of underwear from a shopping bag, still with the price tags, clearly just purchased for herself. French lace, I supposed. Another two hundred. She laid them out on the bed near the girl and settled back on the armchair. Since the only remaining chairs were a pair of iron stools on the dais, I settled for sitting on the arm of the chair at Marita's side. I handed her her drink, and she took it, looking up at me, resting a hand on my thigh. "Thank you," she whispered.
It was another five minutes before the girl was calm, and in that time, I was very aware of the two women. The impersonal appeal of the girl, pretty and vulnerable and oh, so sweet; and side-by-side with that, the other, the woman silhouetted in the warm light of the room. The adolescent attraction of weakness and the adult attraction of strength. And as I looked down at Marita, her cheek softly illuminated, I couldn't help wondering what it would be like to touch her.
With a slowing progression of sniffles, the girl grew still. I nodded to her drink on the bedside table, and she drank from it gratefully. "Thanks."
"You okay, Lynette?" Marita said gently.
"Yeah," she sniffled. "He'd just had too much to drink."
"Why did you go in with him if he was drunk?" she asked, not unkindly.
"Oh, he wasn't drunk. I mean he wasn't aggressive. He'd just had enough to drink that, you know." She took a long sip of her drink.
Clearly, that was the end of the sentence, and Marita looked bewildered. "He couldn't sustain an erection," I supplied clinically. Marita's expression cleared, and I wondered why she didn't know that. Lynette nodded, and I hazarded, "And he blamed you."
"Most of them do," she said morosely. I nodded in sympathy. I'd seen it happen.
"You do know that you have the right to refuse to see any man, don't you?" Marita said. She spoke softly, as though to an injured child.
Lynette shrugged. "I know about the policy, but it doesn't work like that. We lose shifts if we refuse men."
"Is that right," Marita said grimly. I couldn't help wishing I could be a fly on the wall at her next meeting with Connie Francis.
Lynette nodded. "Lisa - that's the one they call Bardot - she refused a guy last week. He stank like hell. Miss Francis said she'd have her little girl's place at onsite daycare revoked if she didn't get in there."
I breathed out heavily. "Jesus, that's low."
"It certainly is," Marita said in a tight little voice. I shot her a look. Part of me was angry at the goddamn privilege of her - how could she not know that these women were weak, and that that weakness was held over them? - but a bigger part felt pity. She had inherited this awful place with very little idea of what she was getting into, and she was doing the best she could. She could have sent for the girl's clothes, but she had given her six hundred dollars worth of her own, instead. I knew women with far more who would have given far less.
We sat there in silence for a while, but finally, I rose, taking all our glasses back to the bar. "Lynette," I said, "there's a bathroom through that door there that you can use."
"Thank you - both of you," she sniffled, picking up the clothes. She padded across the room like a bedraggled kitten, went in, and shut the door behind her.
Marita was watching me with a strange expression, as though she'd learned something new about me - something she liked. I held her gaze for a long moment, wondering what was on her mind, but then I drew myself up and sighed. "I should go," I said with regret. "She's probably had enough men in her personal space for one day."
"Okay." She got up and crossed the room to meet me. She caught my hand. "Will you be around today?"
I nodded. "I could meet you in the restaurant when you finish up here."
She gave a wan smile. "I'd like that." She drew me close and kissed my cheek. "Thank you," she said, lingering there, warm breaths drifting across my skin.
"For what?" I asked, pleasantly surprised.
She shrugged. "For letting me handle that guy. For being kind to that girl. I don't know. Just...thank you."
I squeezed her hand, still entwined with mine. "Okay."
"See you downstairs."
I made my way down to the restaurant and ordered a coffee. I sat there reflectively for a while, trying to get my thoughts into some kind of order. And again and again, they coalesced around Marita.
If this were a dimestore novel, I suppose I would have struggled with my growing attraction to her at this point; but it wasn't really like that. I didn't feel stricken or apprehensive. I felt peaceful - almost complacent. I wanted her; I had wanted her all along. The fascination that teased the outer fringes of my consciousness seemed like the most natural thing in the world. In that moment, if someone had predicted that she would become my wife, I would have nodded with serene agreement: "Of course. Of course she will." No doubt in my mind whatsoever.
That would come later.
I looked up at her. "Hey," I said by way of greeting. "Take a seat." I rose, then sat again as she joined me. She sat, not opposite me, but at right angles to me, at the closest chair. She looked troubled.
"Lynette okay?" I asked, at last. It seemed as good an opening as any.
She shrugged. "She'll be okay. I'll be glad when she goes, though."
"Goes?" I echoed.
"She's only got a few months left 'til she finishes med school. Just as well - she's not cut out for this, Alex. Some women turn hard and some women get out, and she needs to get out."
I nodded slowly. Then, suspicions growing, I said with feigned casualness, "I suppose you're going to fire Connie Francis?"
"My authority doesn't extend that far, I'm afraid," she said grimly. "But she's been cautioned."
"I thought you owned the place," I said mildly.
"Legally. But there are, shall we say, other stakeholders."
She shot me a look. "That's right." The lines of her jaw were set hard with distaste.
"You hate it as much as I do," I said in wonder.
She gave a tight little smile. "Probably more."
I reached for her, my hand finding hers on the table impulsively. "Mare," I said gently; and then I realised what I was doing, and I pulled away abruptly. "I mean, Marita - I'm sorry -"
She shook her head. "No, Alexi, it's-" she broke off. She seemed to recognise what she was doing then, that she was accepting an overture; and her expression turned thoughtful. She watched me, a slight furrow in her brow, before she went on hesitantly, "You can call me that. If you want."
"I'd like that," I said mildly; but I had to smile. Just had to. Looking at her and seeing that slight softening around her eyes, that softness that was for me, I couldn't do anything else. And the corners of her lips turned up, too - just a little. It was a very comfortable moment.
"Mare?" I said at last. I liked how the name sounded; how it felt, passing between my lips. It was equal parts address and caress.
"Why didn't you know what she meant? About the drinking?"
She shrugged. "Well, you know, Michael wasn't much of a drinker. And in case you hadn't noticed, I'm not much of a madam, either. The pragmatics are Connie's department - a situation I mean to remedy."
She was preoccupied with her anger at Connie - so much so that she seemed oblivious to what she revealed. I stared at her. "Michael's the only man you've been with," I said, feeling shock and recognition in equal measure.
A look of affront flitted across her features, and for a moment I thought I'd made a mistake in saying so. But then, suddenly, her expression cleared. Her jaw firm, her voice tinged with an undertone of pride, she said with heartbreaking simplicity, "Yes."
I felt a flush of affection. Quite aside from any fascination, any desire I felt for her, in that moment I discovered that I genuinely liked her. It wasn't just her unexpected inexperience or any lingering innocence I might have imagined she possessed as a consequence. In that moment, without a trace of artifice, she revealed herself as someone who had nothing to prove. There are so many moments down the years that I have fallen in love with her, again and again; but if pressed to identify the first, that would be the one. Right then, I loved her, and had the waiter not interrupted us to clear the table, I might very well have done something stupid like telling her so.
"So what did you come after me for, anyway?" she asked as the waiter moved on. "You said you had an idea."
I stared at her, aghast at the extent of my own distraction. "God, I forgot all about it with the Lynette thing." She watched me, her brow furrowed in query. "What if we've been on the wrong track all along? What if Samantha's diaries aren't in the house?"
"You mean in storage? A safe somewhere?" she queried.
"In a manner of speaking," I said, mentally riffling through fragments of information in my mind. "Michael built the ice arena for Samantha. Marita, they have lockers at the ice arena."
Her eyes widened, and she rose, taking me by the hand.
"Lorena? I need the locker master keys."
A middle-aged woman peered down at us over the top of a pair of ample breasts. "Sure," she said agreeably, coming down the steps and leading us into the office. She went to the desk and rummaged in a drawer. "I see you found your friend okay," she said, nodding to me.
"Yes," Mare said absently, taking the keys the older woman held out. "We - oh, the club room lockers, not the day hires."
"Oh, okay," Lorena replied, rummaging again. "Is everything okay?"
"There's been a product recall on the lock mechanism. Only some serial numbers were affected. We have to check each one."
"We've had them eight years. They seem fine."
"Yeah, I know," she said, feigning weariness. "But if we don't comply with the recall and we have a theft, our insurance won't cover it. A locker with two pairs of custom skates could cost thousands."
"I suppose. Do you want me to do it?"
Mare waved a hand. "No, I'm going in there anyway." She held out her hand expectantly, and the woman handed the keys over without protest.
"That was easy," I commented after we had left her. We walked side-by-side along the boards.
"House employees are just regular people. The only ones with any idea what they're dealing with, besides security and the defense trainers, are the courtesans."
"What the hell do they think this is?" I wondered.
"Country club for the elite and influential. We make a big show of warning them about privacy and the paparazzi. The fact that we have a few politicians around helps our cause considerably."
"Fair enough." We slipped past the Zamboni. "Have you ever skated?"
"I did a bit of ice racing at Oxford - Magdalen College had these recreational group outings. Strictly amateur, stand on the pond and hope the ice doesn't give way. Diana couldn't bear to watch. Said she had visions of fishing me out."
I laughed. "That sounds like Diana." We reached the clubroom, and I stopped, waiting. She opened the door and nodded for me to enter ahead of her. I did so, and she followed, locking the door behind us.
I looked around, taking in the noticeboards and the test application forms and the abandoned skate guards and all the usual paraphernalia. I inhaled the faint scent of mildew and feet. It was mildly unpleasant, but also familiar; and I felt sudden nostalgia. It was a strains-of-childhood moment.
Mare was leaned against the wall, her arms crossed, watching me with open amusement.
"What?" I asked mildly.
She shook her head, smiling. "Nothing. I can just see you here - or somewhere like here. Struggling with compulsory figures or something. What were you, twelve?"
"Fourteen. And I like figures. They still the mind. Good discipline."
"Rubbish. No-one likes figures."
"What would you know?" I demanded disdainfully. "You were an ice racer. Where's the skill in that?" I fought the turning up at the corners of my mouth, but it happened anyway.
"Bastard," she said with high humour. "Come on, let's check these lockers."
I watched as she used the master keys to unlock the first bank of lockers. I experienced a moment of doubt. "Even if she had a locker, Marita - what's to say it's still here? Samantha's been dead more than two years."
She shrugged uneasily, but she shook her head. "Michael and the Dark Man kept her rooms like a shrine. I'm betting they didn't send a memo down here to empty her locker."
"That's true," I conceded with reluctant hope. What had made perfect sense earlier in the day now seemed like a long shot, but it was the best idea either of us had come up with to date. I opened the top left locker, while Mare attended to the top right. "Brad Pitt."
Marita peered at the poster pinned to the inside of the door of hers. "Wilson Phillips. Who the hell's that?"
I closed my locker. "I've heard the name on the radio. She's pretty recent."
"After Samantha's time, then," she mused, moving on, and at the next locker, a skin mag tumbled out, landing neatly at her feet. She picked it up with apparent amusement. "I'm betting this one's a guy."
I shrugged. "Women read porn too. Especially women with psychosexual dysfunction," I added, remembering that Samantha had been a prostitute.
"True," she conceded, flipping through. She held it up, open at a centerfold of two men. "Probably more up your alley than hers, though." She grinned and returned it to its place.
I took it with good grace, saying wryly, "I prefer the real thing, myself," and passed on to the next locker. "Anything?"
"Random urine drug report on a twenty year old male. Must be competing."
"You gotta wonder with the quad jumps now," I mused, moving on. "When I was skating they said it couldn't be done."
"Well, some scientist proved the four-minute mile was a mathematical impossibility once, too. People grow." She opened another locker. "Nice custom boots," she mused. "Wilson New Gold Seal. More money than sense."
I frowned. "Let me see that." I went over to her, looking in as she stepped aside. I pulled out one of the skates for a closer look. "They stopped making these blades in the mid-eighties. I remember because I was really pissed about it. Look at the position of the toe pick-" I broke off at her blank expression. "Forget it, it doesn't matter. What matters is, these are old blades. They could belong to someone who started skating in 1979."
"These lockers have only been here since-" she counted back on her fingers "- 1986."
"There'd have been other lockers before that, or she might have kept them in her room. The point is, the dates fit." I handed her the skate and got out its mate. I reached further back into the locker and felt a large, bulky object with irregular edges. I drew it out impatiently. Marita took it from me before I could identify it. I brushed the dust from my hands and looked down at the thing in her hands.
"Diaries," she said with awe. She was picking at rubber bands that bound a dozen or so notebooks of varying size. "Is anything else in there? We still don't really know it's her."
"I imagine the diaries would clarify that question," I said thoughtfully, still groping around in the locker. The metal door fell in a way that blocked the glow of the electric light; I was working blind. "Sharpening stone," I guessed by feel, "skate hook...what's this?" I ran my fingers over the towel lining the bottom of the locker. There was a slight irregularity at the back, and I lifted the towel and drew out a small pile of photographs. I flipped through them. "It's her," I said at last.
"Let me see," Mare said anxiously, putting the diaries down on the bench. I handed the snapshots over in silence. I waited.
"It's Samantha," she said, after long, long moments. "And me."
"And Elena," I corrected.
"Yes," she whispered, blinking back sudden tears. "And Elena." Then, with compassion, "They were lovers."
"You don't know that," I countered; but my voice was mild, because I knew she was right.
"Look at the way they're holding each other. That's not best girlfriends. It's...intimate."
"Yes - I suppose it is."
"They look happy." I thought I heard a trace of envy in her voice.
"Yes, they do."
"That means she's a Consortium widow too. They do say twins' lives mirror each other." She sounded bitter.
She looked up at me suddenly, breaking into a smile. "You know what? I'm missing the point. She's here. She's alive, and she's here." She hugged me impulsively, drew back, and kissed me lightly on the mouth.
She drew back, but we both stopped just an inch or two apart; and I could feel her warm breath on me. She suddenly looked frightened. She said in a low, imploring voice, "Oh, Alex, please don't."
I didn't, but almost in the same breath, she did; leaning in diffidently and gently taking my lips between hers. I kissed her in turn, sliding my hands up to her neck, holding her face gently between them, suddenly filled with reverence. And then I felt her hands on my arms, not pushing them away, but holding me to her.
Encouraged, I teased her lips, going slow with her until she opened for me, drawing me in, claiming me. Her eyes were gleaming, tinged dark with longing; and they were open, fixed on mine. I liked that. I didn't want her lost in blind sensation. I wanted her lost in me. For long, vibrant moments, it seemed that she was; but at last, she pulled away, and broke free of my arms. She moved a little way away, her expression nervous...hunted.
Frowning a little, I went to her, stood at her side; but did not attempt to touch. Gently, I said, "Mare, did you...did you not want me to do that? Because I thought you did." Never mind that I knew perfectly well she did, never mind that I could feel her wanting coming off her in waves, because I could also sense her fear. There was something very fragile about her just then, and I didn't want to scare her off.
"No, I did," she admitted at last. She looked at me; that was a good sign. She said hesitantly, "I just...I'm afraid."
"Of me?" I said quietly, unbelievingly.
That seemed to derail her. "No," she said vaguely. Then, with more resolve, "No, not of you."
She said with utter lack of guile, "I don't know."
We stood there watching each other for a long moment; but at last, I nodded. "Okay," I sighed. "However you want it, that's how we'll play it, Mare."
She laughed sourly at that. "Nothing in my life is how I want it," she said with bitterness.
"This is," I insisted, taking her by the shoulders and looking into her eyes. I repeated for emphasis, "This is."
She watched me, and at last, nodding, she came to me; and she let me hold her in my arms.
We stood there holding one another for a long time.
CHAPTER 3 CONTINUES IN PART 5