Title: Even Thieves and Scoundrels
Summary: Waking in the middle of the night, Marita finds herself lured by thoughts of a simpler life.
In her dream the fingers
are her father's fingers, rising from the white surface of the bed
where he lies, the hand that anchors them palm up, as if cupping an
invisible object, or the essence of a question his raspy voice is no
longer capable of forming. 'Mija' is the only word that slips from his dry lips in
these final days: my daughter. It is followed by a pause. Eventually he sighs and shakes his head, resigned to his
inability to go on.
Light grazes the fingertips, tinting them a pale, indefinable color in the dark. They seem oddly distant now, cold and unmoving. Gradually Marita realizes that her eyes are open. She stirs, props herself up on one elbow, then slips carefully toward the edge of the bed and sits up in the close darkness. A long, irregular puddle of moonlight stains the carpet and crawls up the front of the dresser, softly lighting the objects on top: the side of a folded sweater, a small glass bottle shaped like a bird, the curved fingers of Alex's prosthesis. Behind it, in shadow, sits the jumble of harness he wears with it.
Marita stands, intending
to approach the window, but drifts past it and finds herself in
front of the artificial arm. Smooth and spare, the forearm section isn't much wider than the
area that would take up essential bone on a living limb. The hand is covered with a pseudo-skin glove that mimics
reality down to the occasional hair. It's nothing like the first hand, of too-smooth plastic that
resembled a lab glove, with a surface that stained and fingertips
that eventually cracked with wear.
So much has changed.
A muffled snort comes
from the shadows on the bed, Alex missing a breath--undoubtedly in
a dream--then pulling in air. After a moment he groans, rolls onto
his side and falls into soft snoring.
She smiles ruefully. They aren’t lovers in the normal sense. They're refugees, invisible survivors of a disaster that has yet to occur. Fate and circumstance have been their Cupid.
She crosses her arms and hugs herself against the chill of cool satin. After a moment she reaches for a shawl spread over the back of the room's only chair and pulls it around her. It is her grandmother's, one of her few personal mementos, a placeholder for the life that evaporated when she was fifteen and her father was unexpectedly sucked into the work of the consortium.
It is the second
It's become a
predictable pattern: Alex flies in after weeks or months out of the
country and they go through a wary dance, like dogs with their ears
pressed back, testing each other’s trustworthiness. If the concerns of the moment weigh particularly heavily--if
there's been a glitch in the production of the secret vaccine; if a
threat of exposure has come from some unexpected quarter; if he
arrives bearing news of yet another puzzling abduction in
Kazakhstan--then Alex retires to his hotel and she to her
But by the end of the second day the need to let down--to drink, to laugh in spite of the madness, to loosen burdens and clothing--gets the better of them and they end up in this secluded attic apartment.
A completely forgettable, ordinary garret, it sometimes seems to whisper to her of scenarios that can never be: a world where the planet is not an upturned hourglass counting down its last few minutes worth of sand; where life could be looked at as a ripening fruit to be tended and anticipated. A place where relationships are nothing more complicated than two people who meet and find themselves drawn to each other.
She turns away from the
dresser, gathers the shawl more closely around her and forces a
grim smile into the darkness. There are people who live by those simple dreams, but she knows
what their fate will be.
She pauses at the
window, considers for a moment her colorless, almost gaunt
reflection--a ghost of herself, just as she has become a ghost of Martín
Covarrubias' daughter, flitting behind the scenes, slipping in and
out of board rooms, of alliances, trading personas and truths in
the pursuit of a fragile plan for survival. She shivers suddenly from the chill coming through the glass
and returns to the bed where Alex is sprawled almost
diagonally. After a
moment she sits down on the edge.
The bed sags beneath her and warm fingers creep out to touch the shawl's fringe, then tangle in it, exploring. She sits up straighter, instinctively on alert. In spite of their growing intimacy, their interaction is complex, a dance of scorpions whose stingers cannot safely be ignored.
"Whaddizit?" he mumbles thickly. One eye opens, fixes on her and immediately closes again.
But this is night. He's half-asleep, maybe more, and still jet-lagged.
"A shawl. My grandmother's." She clears her throat.
She shakes her head knowing full well he can't see the gesture. She gazes at him in the shadows: on his stomach now, a fine line of stubble accentuating cheek and jawbone, the stump of his missing arm lost in a jumble of blankets and darkness, giving the illusion of a man perfectly whole. She glances up at the close, sloping roof and back and imagines him an ordinary man--a Felipe to her Paloma, Mikhail to her Katya--a man with a commonplace job delivering packages or selling stock or climbing power poles for a utility company. And herself a girl working in an office, or arranging flowers at a florist's.
"Did you like her?"
His voice startles
her. She feels her
face flush and turns away.
loved her. The words sound maudlin, even in her mind. Or perhaps they simply reveal too much. When she ventures a look in his direction, she finds his
eyes open and makes herself nod. "She was an exceptional woman. A strong woman." A good woman. Years ago, before this madness overtook her family, it would
have seemed only right to say so. Now the sentiment seems naïve and irrelevant.
Alex scoots back, rolls onto his side and lifts the covers. "You're shivering, milaya," he says matter-of-factly. "Come in."
Instead she stands and goes to the window, stops close and watches her breath make delicate fog on the small panes of glass. It's pointless--potentially disastrous--to think about what can't be, to dream of a soft, illusory world when strength and toughness are critical to your survival--to the potential survival of countless human lives.
She pulls the shawl closer around her shoulders. Its soft, almost weightless fibers settle near her neck and throat, spreading welcome, gentle warmth, and she finds herself lured into childhood memories: her grandmother greeting her, a festive table set for a family dinner, a roomful of people clapping in time to the music of her uncle's lively guitar. She starts involuntarily when a hand closes over her shoulder.
"What is it, Mare?"
She shivers at his unexpected touch and stares at the darkened city shapes beyond the glass. Finally she notices the eyes of Alex's grayish image peering at her from behind her own pale reflection. She looks away. "Silly things." Childish things. Her lips part, then pause. "Ordinary people. Ordinary lives."
Alex grunts softly. The hand leaves her
shoulder and she listens to him cross to the small bathroom, hears the
sounds of splashing in the toilet followed by a flush. The squeaking of the door moments later announces his
"You know, it's the same for them," he says, coming up behind her. His voice is gritty, she can't tell if from grogginess or some emotion. "You don't have one crisis, you have another."
"Then there's no escape."
"There never was, milaya." His arm comes around her shoulders from behind; his body is warm at her back. "You need your rest," he says. His breath on the back of her neck sends a shiver down her arms. "Fatigue leads to slip-ups and you know we can't afford that."
know, she thinks as he
moves away, leaving her cold with his absence. She listens as he returns to the bed and crawls in between
the covers, then reluctantly loosens her grip on the shawl and let's
it slip from her shoulders. She returns it to the chair, spreading it carefully across
the back. In
bed, she plumps up the pillow and settles on her back, pulling the
blankets high around her neck.
Marita closes her eyes, listens to the room's silence, to the sound of Alex's soft breathing. In her mind's eye she pictures her rigid position as if looking down on herself from above. Two allies in bed--for now. Someday they could find themselves working at cross-purposes. There's no certainty--not in life nor in the links and relationships that form its fragile, patchwork surface. Though he could have used her opening just now to score a point in the ongoing thrust-and-parry that often characterizes them. That he didn't leaves her immensely grateful.
Alex shifts beside her,
his chin coming to rest against her shoulder. A moment later he moves again, reaches out and she finds
herself being turned and gathered in against him, enveloped in the
simple comfort of skin on skin. She slips an arm around
his waist, wraps her legs around one of his. He grunts in satisfaction.
"Sleep, krasavitsa," he murmurs into her hair.
Gradually she relaxes, lulled by the muffled thump-thump of his heart beneath her ear. In the morning they will once again be their daytime selves--sharp, wary strategists beset by the nagging tension of their shadow campaign. But night seems to bring with it a necessary, unspoken truce.
Even thieves and scoundrels need shelter from the rain, hija, her father used to say when she'd notice some ragged stranger being fed in the family's back kitchen. The words come to her now in her father's own inimitable voice, strange but comforting after his years of absence. Her arm tightens around Alex and she breathes in the close heat and soap scent of his body.
As the conscious world begins to dissolve around her, she feels light fingers trail through the hair above her temple, stroking the softness there. He's saying something in Russian, though she's too far-gone to grasp the words. His voice, low and mellow, seems to carry the cadence of poetry.
Thanks: as always, to Spica for the very best in conscientious beta