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The Lies We Tell Ourselves (and Others)
In hindsight, there should never have been a first time.
Although I did my fair share of cases on campus -- a girl's got to eat after all -- I made a point of avoiding the law school. For a start, I didn't know many people there, which made getting information just by asking around difficult. And, since I was a student here, I preferred not to get information by misrepresenting myself. Too much chance of blowback.
Plus it was full of aspiring lawyers, who were just about knowledgable enough to know how to sue me, and unjaded enough to actually try.
A positively winning combination.
But the McShane agency was one of my best employers. Semi-regular work, not too badly paid and, best and rarest of all, a tendency not to give me jobs that left me feeling like I needed to take several showers afterwards. And Shaw, my contact at the agency, had been very insistent about this case.
The fact that he wanted me to handle it, rather than one of the in-house investigators, told me something. The fact that he reached for his wallet to persuade me rather confirmed it.
But, in the end, I took the case. It seemed fairly harmless -- find out why one of the law students, Veronica Simons, had dropped out of contact. I owed Shaw, for pushing work my way. (And, though I didn't want to admit it, even to myself, the look of honest worry in his eyes may have clinched it.)
That didn't stop me taking his money, of course. As I said: a girl's got to eat. Not to mention pay for accomodation, course books and other such staples of student life.
So this was what I was doing here, outside one of the lecture halls, canvassing the exiting students with photo in hand. I'd already struck out asking around her accomodation, so I'd been reduced to hoping I'd strike it lucky by trying her classes.
"Hey," I said as I stopped one of the many people walking past the entrance. Unlike most of the others I'd approached, she actually stopped.
"Can I help you?"
"Yeah, I'm looking for Veronica," I showed her the picture I'd been provided with. "We were supposed to meet up a few days ago, but no one seems to know where she is, and I'm really worried." I gave her my best brave with a hint of quiver smile.
It seemed to work.
She pursed her lips. "I've seen her around, but I don't really know her. I can ask around, though."
I moderated the smile to become more grateful. "Thanks. I'd really appreciate it." I fished out my orange notebook, scribbled down my phone number and email address and tore out the page. "If you hear anything, can you let me know?"
"Sure," she said, and took the proffered piece of paper, heading off as I pounced on another likely looking candidate.
And that was that. I certainly didn't give her a second thought, especially when I managed to find out that Veronica apparently had a boyfriend that she'd been keeping quiet about. Not quiet enough, though. I started hunting him down.
So, even though there was a first time, given our different circles -- and the fact that I should only have been a minor blip in her life -- there should certainly have never been a second time.
Alicia always did like to prove me wrong.
Dear Ms. Parveen,
We regret to inform you that your brother, Vijay, has run away from his foster home. If you know anything about his whereabouts, or anything that could help us locate him...
The second time came a couple of months later. I wasn't on a job. I wasn't even studying, though I probably should have been. I had just gotten that email from the foster home, and I was left feeling... unsettled. Unsure.
I did my best, was doing what needed to be done, but... It wasn't enough.
Of course, it wasn't anything that brooding would help with, so I didn't want to be alone, let the silence seep into my skull. Peace and quiet had hardly been a feature of my life growing up.
But I didn't really feel like interacting with other people either, so I hadn't sought out any of my occasional lays.
I decided to go to one of the local bars (one which wasn't too picky about IDs), gaze into the distance and let the noise wash over me and carry all the troubling thoughts away.
It didn't start off too bad. Sure, I had to dissuade a few of the locals -- politely; no sense in closing any doors for the future -- but most of them, miraculously, seemed to have gotten my mood and left me alone.
"Hey," came a voice from in front of me. Focusing, I saw an unfamiliar brunette standing there by the bar, a cautious smile on her face.
"Hey," I returned neutrally.
"I was just wondering if you managed to catch up with your friend." I blinked. "Veronica?" she asked in response to my somewhat confused expression.
The name was familiar, but I couldn't place it immediately. "Oh, yes," I replied anyway. Odds were, that was true enough.
"I was just wondering, since I haven't seen her in class since."
Oh, Veronica, I finally remembered. "It got a little complicated." That was certainly true enough. And Veronica, if she returned to college at all, would likely find herself placed in some institution halfway across the country from Georgetown and her 'unsuitable' beau. Assuming she still wanted funding from daddy dearest. I returned the brunette woman's smile, making sure to add an edge of embarrassment. "I'm sure you understand."
From her expression, she didn't, but she smiled gamely anyway, and stuck out her hand. "I don't think I introduced myself before. I'm Alicia Cavanaugh."
I shook the proferred hand. "Kalinda Sharma," I replied automatically.
"There's a group of us in the corner, if you'd fancy some company," she offered, her smile still reserved but perhaps a little warmer than it had been.
"Sure," I said before really thinking it over.
Oh well, I could always beg off if I felt the need. And not having enough contacts in the law school was what had prompted the problem in the first place, so it couldn't hurt to start cultivating some.
And if that all felt suspiciously like rationalisation, then it was rationalisation that was distracting me from the mood that had sent me here in the first place.
It was a group of three guys and four girls huddled into a kiosk. Curious eyes were raised in my direction as I swayed behind Alicia, introductions made and greetings exchanged. Absolutely nothing I wasn't used to. To my utter lack of surprise, most of them were law students and the couple that weren't had significant other written all over them.
Where that left me, I wasn't exactly sure. I wasn't white or middle class enough to fit in with them.
Maybe I was Alicia's charity case. It wouldn't be the first time and it never lasted long. And at least it was better than being someone's touch of exotic flavour.
(Not that I wouldn't and hadn't used that tack if necessary, but...)
"Hey," I said to the guy next to me, who had introduced himself as Will.
He gave me a grin that I was sure was meant to be charming. It may have even succeeded a little, but I had no intention of letting him know that.
"So, what's your major?" he asked. "No, wait, don't tell me." He closed his eyes and concentrated, before opening one eye again. "Math?"
"Really?" That was just a little too stereotypical.
"I'll stop you when you're close." I considered. "Maybe."
Across the table Alicia, leaning into the shoulder of her boyfriend Dan, gave Will a tolerantly amused glance and mouthed 'Do you want me to distract him?' to me.
I shrugged and shook my head. I was more than capable of taking care of myself if need be.
Will mostly gave up after about ten more attempts anyway, only sporadically firing off another guess every now and again after that. The rest of the time he and some of the others around the table were more than happy to regale me with stories about themselves.
Most people are, given half a chance. It certainly makes my job a lot easier.
Still some of them, Will in particular, were actually halfway decent storytellers. And Alicia pretty much added a silent commentary of her own - a shared amused glance, a bitten lip, a shake of the head all added flavour to the tales and by the end of the evening I found myself in a somewhat better mood.
As we left the bar, Alicia gently touched me on a shoulder and said, "You never did say what your major was."
I gave her my best enigmatic smile. "No. I didn't."
She looked at me a moment, then laughed, shaking her head. "It was nice meeting you properly. We'll have to do it again, some time."
"Sure," I said, fairly sure that this was code for never seeing them again, bar happenstance.
"See you around," she called, as we headed off in different directions.
Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, there was a girl called Leela.
When she was young, her parents were bad, so she and her younger brother Vijay were raised by the System, which wasn't a person, or even a place, but a pattern. A series of places that weren't homes, and people who said they'd look after her, but never cared.
Leela grew up to be a very angry girl.
And, really, that would have probably been that (no matter what Alicia later claimed) if a legal opinion wouldn't have proved useful on a case about a week or so after that, and Alicia's face happened to be the first one that popped to mind.
She might not have been a full lawyer yet, but she was in her last year and was the top of her class, wasn't she?
Whatever. I emailed her and asked if we could meet up again. A few hours later, I found a response in my inbox suggesting a coffee shop tomorrow afternoon. The opinion wasn't that urgent, and I didn't have any classes then so I replied in the affirmative.
I arrived a little early, and scouted out a good place where I could have my back to a wall and good access to the exit. Not that I was expecting trouble, but it just made me feel that much safer. It was a couple of minutes past the hour when Alicia walked quickly through the entrance to the coffee shop and approached my table, looking a little flustered and biting her lip gently.
"I'm sorry for being late. I got a little wrapped up in some research, and before I knew it..." she flicked one hand.
I allowed the trace of a smirk to cross my face. "Research, huh?"
"Yes!" she said, looking a little outraged. "What else... No! It wasn't anything like that!" she said, blushing a little.
"Of course not," I said blandly.
"You're... you're..." she took a breath, then looked at me, eyes narrowed. "You're teasing me, aren't you?"
"Never," I said, with a small smile.
"You are here asking me for a favour, aren't you?" she said archly.
"If you're still willing to give me one."
"I'm thinking about it. You," she said, pointing at me with one finger, "Are on my watch list."
"Could I get you a coffee to make up for it?" Not that I wouldn't be expensing it, but it was the thought that counted.
She smiled at me. "Sure."
I got her order, then outlined the problem, anonymising it as much as possible. She took me through it from the beginning, asking me things that I hadn't even considered, before giving me a summarised opinion.
Somehow from there, we moved onto other topics. She tried asking me a few things, but I managed to answer noncommitally enough and turn the questions back towards her. From there, we branched into matters of taste where I felt a little more comfortable (and caustic).
"Crap!" Alicia swore, looking out at a day that had seemingly inexplicably become night. "I have a report that I really need to hand in tomorrow that I wanted to do a final revision on."
I felt like echoing her sentiment. Between my course and my job, there would definitely have been better uses of my time.
"Look," she said, "If you want a more in-depth examination of your problem, I can write it up for you. But there's going to be a price."
"Okay," I said, mentally totting up how much I could ask the guy hiring me.
She ran a hand through her hair. "Dan's always telling me that I need to eat regularly, but I just don't have the time to cook at the moment and I don't have the money for takeout. Not to mention I have problems just remembering that I'm supposed to be hungry." She gave a slightly self conscious smile. "Deliver, say, five healthy meals, and make sure I eat them, and I'll email you a proper report."
I thought about whether I really needed it, I thought about bargaining her down, but in the end I went for another angle. "Your place have a kitchen I could use?"
"Deal." If nothing else, it would be good to make sure that I also had a healthy meal once in a while. She wasn't the only one with work issues.
She smiled. "Good. I'll try and get it written up for you as soon as I have a spare moment." She got up and took a few steps towards the door, before turning back towards me with a rueful look on her face. "Though it would probably help if you didn't speak to me too much. It seems entirely too easy to lose an hour or several otherwise."
I smiled back at her before I realised it. "I'll do my best."
It became a habit. About once a week, I went around to her place and cooked us both a dinner. Nothing fancy and usually involving a fair amount of cans, but a solid meal for both of us. And, though we did manage not to lose any more hours, the meal time provided me with a moment of calm, a place away from both my course and my job.
It always left me feeling obscurely guilty.
But a debt was a debt, and I had paid off ones with a far higher cost.
I'm sure that you'll be glad to know that I'm back in the tender mercies of Gladview. I'm just emailing you so you don't stress out even more. I can't believe that they haven't packed me off.
I don't suppose you've heard from Vidhya yet?...
"I'm sure that this must be more than your fifth time around here," came Alicia's voice from behind me as I was cooking pasta, in an amused tone. "People might start getting the wrong idea."
It couldn't be. I searched my memory. I'd made this deal... almost ten weeks ago? Even allowing for the occasional week I hadn't been able to make it...
My chest suddenly felt tight.
"Though, god knows, Dan could stand to learn a few lessons from you," she said a little bitterly.
She and Dan had been having their problems recently, I noted absently.
It couldn't be, I repeated to myself, and did the calculations again.
No mistake, I thought, and suddenly the scent of smoke was strong in my nostrils.
"Sorry, I didn't mean to distract you," she said, and I suddenly realised that the pot was boiling over.
Crap, I thought, but, luckily, the pasta was just a little soft. Not burnt, of course.
That would be far too simple.
I served a single dish and handed it to her.
"Can't you stay?" she asked, looking a little disappointed.
Her expression only tightened the bands on my chest.
I had to get out of here, now.
I forced a smile and shook my head. "Something's come up," I lied.
I managed to make it out of there without running, something that felt like a minor miracle.
I was in bad trouble, far worse than I thought.
I liked her. As a friend. I could have handled the other way, known how to act in the other way.
But a friend? Not an acquaintance, a contact, an employer, but a friend?
I didn't want one of those.
I didn't deserve one of those.
I rushed home, and avoided all contact with her for a week, until I could breathe again when thinking about her.
One turning point came when she went to yet another new place. There was already another girl in the room she'd been assigned, lounging on one of the beds.
The girl looked up and scowled. "Great. They're colour coding us now."
That wasn't the extent of her tampering in my life, of course.
I started getting regular invitations to go out with her and her friends.
Most of them I politely declined, but I attended enough to get the lay of the land.
Alicia and Dan always spent more time looking at everyone else than each other. Having problems, indeed.
Will's eyes had a tendency to trail Alicia, especially after a drink or two, and every time Dan noticed this, he made a point of touching Alicia, of marking his claim. It was the most couple-like I saw them, from his end anyway.
Whereas Alicia's gaze sometimes flicked quickly, guiltily towards Will when she thought no one was looking.
Me? I was always watching. It was what I did best.
I've got to say, you've changed since you went up to D.C. I half expected your email to make my eyes bleed, but it was just lots of words about how concerned you were?
You've gotten soft.
Not that I really expect it, but if you can make it down for Thanksgiving...
After a few weeks of observing this dance, I cornerned Will when he went to the bar to get the next round.
"You like her," I said without preamble.
He blustered a little. "Who?"
I tilted my head a little, and looked at him.
He deflated somewhat, and smiled crookedly at me. "That obvious, huh?"
I held my thumb and forefinger a little apart.
"Well, it's not like everyone else in our circle doesn't already know. Alicia and Will, the greatest love story never told," he said a little bitterly.
"Whenever she's out of a relationship, I'm in one. And vice versa."
"Why not make a play for her now?" It's not like her relationship with Dan was making her happy. And maybe this would.
I shouldn't care, but I'd already crossed the Rubicon on that matter.
"I couldn't do that to her. She'd never forgive herself."
I gave him a quizzical look, tilting my head slightly.
"She's managed to find some real jerks in her time. In particular she has a history of being cheated on. She's very sensitive on the subject. If she was the one to break it off with Dan, especially to go out with someone else..." He shrugged, then gave me a half smile. "If nothing else, I'd like a proper chance at a relationship with her, and a guilty Alicia would poison that quicker than anything else I know."
"So, you're just going to wait?"
"I'm not quite that much of a martyr. Life carries on, regardless." He gave me an appraising look. "Would I have any chance with you?"
I gave him a slight, sultry smile. "Maybe," I said, leaning in close to him. "Some other time." I leaned in closer still. "But not yet," I breathed against his ear, then moved back.
His smile was unrepentant. "So I'm in with a chance then."
"There's always a chance." But I didn't know the dynamics of this group anywhere near well enough yet, and I wasn't willing to risk upending it. Especially for a liason I could get elsewhere. "The drinks, then?"
When we returned to the table, Alicia's eyes flickered over me as well, before moving on again.
Despite this inauspicious beginning, the girl (whose name was Vidhya) and Leela became the best of friends. A little too good friends, if you asked the people who looked after them. Both girls were trouble makers, and the two of them together were worse.
They kept on being seperated, but managed to keep on finding each other, keeping in touch over the miles. And they shared everything, from all their secrets to Vijay.
Until Miss Bowen entered the picture.
I was actually on a case a few months later when the call came. Good old fashioned detective work, lurking in my rust bucket of a car, camera in hand, waiting for just the right moment to make the shot. Part luck, but mostly having enough patience to endure the dull monotony.
My phone vibrated and I fished it out. It was Alicia. I fumbled in the glove compartment for the spare handsfree set (easier than rooting around in my handbag, and it meant I didn't have to take my eyes off the building my target was in) and plugged it in.
"Hey," I said.
"Can I come over?" Her voice was rough and uneven, and it took me a moment to realise that she was crying.
This. This was why I didn't have friends. I had a job, and it needed to be done tonight.
"Can you give me half an hour?" I had a few crazy ideas about how I could wrap this up quickly. And I really hoped they worked, otherwise all my work to date would likely have been wasted.
"Mmmhmm," followed by a fresh jag of crying.
"Look," I said, a little awkwardly. "Are you at home?"
"Shall I come around instead then?" If she didn't fancy being at home, I could always take her out somewhere.
I just didn't like the idea of her wandering around outside in tears.
"That'd be great, thanks."
"Do you want me to pick anything up?" I seemed to remember that icecream kept on popping up in pop culture as traditional.
Not that I had ever used that.
Not that I'd really ever had the opportunity to use it when growing up.
But it seemed the thing to do.
"That's alright," she said. "I just... I just someone to talk to."
And for some reason, she had chosen me. Because I was clearly the most comforting person she knew.
Now there was a troubling thought. How low did you have to go?
"I'll be there as soon as I can," I said and rang off.
I closed my eyes for a second, and concentrated on thinking like a private courier. Then I opened them and got out of the car.
Time to throw the dice.
I buzzed her place.
After a few moments, "Kalinda?" came from the intercom.
"Or a good impersonator."
The lock clicked open, and I entered the building.
When I got to the door of her apartment, the door was cracked slightly.
"Hey," I said softly.
The door opened to reveal a red-eyed Alicia.
"Thanks for coming over."
"Don't mention it." Really.
She ushered me into her living room. I moved to take a chair, but she just looked at me and indicated the sofa next to her questioningly.
I just looked at the empty space for a moment. There was absolutely no way that I'd sit there for anyone else. (There was no way I'd even be here for anyone else.)
But for her...
I gave an internal sigh, and sat down gingerly next to her.
Alicia leaned into me.
Great. Just great.
I somehow managed to avoid flinching, but couldn't bring myself to do something like rest my arm across her shoulders.
I had my limits, even for a friend.
"He dumped me."
That had been my favourite theory.
"Dan, I mean."
I certainly hoped so, unless I had missed an awful lot in the last few days.
She looked almost angrily up at me. "He didn't even do it in person. Just sent an email."
How... thoughtful of him.
She looked down again. "He even took the time to list the reasons why it wasn't working out for him. Apparently I wasn't committed enough to the relationship, and there were too many other people in it."
That might explain why he had waited until Will had started another relationship before doing this.
Really, Dan had just been too thoughtful.
Though if Will had been free, he'd probably have been here instead of me.
I was surprisingly ambivalent about that.
It was almost nice that someone, Alicia, trusted me enough to confide in me like this.
Though it probably didn't hurt that I was one of few members of the circle who wasn't also one of Dan's friends.
But Alicia was looking up at me. "Do you think that this was all my fault? That I was a bad girlfriend?"
"No," seemed to be the answer required. I considered for a moment. "This is all his fault." Not quite accurate, in my opinion, but from the look on Alicia's face, it seemed to be the correct response. "Definitely his fault."
"Though I don't know why you hadn't dumped him before now," I was compelled to add.
Maybe not the most tactful comment, but honest.
She looked down and, for a moment, I thought she was going to start crying again. "I was trying to make it work," she said quietly.
And this, this kind of self delusion was why I didn't do relationships.
"You're too good for him," I told her. That was certainly true enough.
"Thanks," she said. "Do you mind if we talk about something else for now?"
She looked up at me from my shoulder. "So, what were you doing before I interrupted you?"
"Another case for Kalinda Sharma, P.I."
"Of which you're naturally going to tell me nothing," she said, smiling a little.
I shrugged the shoulder she wasn't balanced on. "It's for your own good. You should know that."
"It will make it harder to defend you in the inevitable trial."
"I'll try to make sure that I'm never caught."
As she smiled and relaxed still further against me, I thought that there were far worse places to be.
And I'd even managed to get the evidence I needed without waiting with camera poised for a few hours.
Miss Bowen was another turning point in Leela's life. Leela had just been caught vandalising (again) and so she was moved (again). When she went to her new school, and was mandated to see yet another school counsellor, she didn't expect much. What she found was a small woman with intense brown eyes, who actually, somehow, made Leela want to talk. Although Miss Bowen didn't say much, what she did say had a way of making Leela think.
Most of all, Miss Bowen believed. She believed in Leela, that she could make something of her life. She believed that Leela had a sharp mind, no matter what her test scores were. And she believed enough in Leela that Leela started to believe in herself too.
And that changed everything.
"Hey," I said, putting my books and things on the table and sitting down next to her.
She did a kind of double take. "What are you doing here?"
I flicked my eyes towards the books in front of me. "Studying."
"But this is the law library," she hissed, then stopped for a second before continuing, "You aren't studying law, are you?"
"Wouldn't you have noticed that?"
"So, again, what are you doing here?"
"I hadn't seen you recently."
She looked down, avoiding my gaze. "I've been busy."
"I'm almost missing the cheery invitations to go out with your friends."
She bit her lip. "So am I."
Oh. "What's happened?"
She shrugged. "Somehow, people keep on forgetting to invite me along."
"Maybe. I don't know. Does it matter?" she asked quietly.
Of course, Dan always had more time, because Alicia was bound and determined to come first in her class, and that took effort.
So, when it came down to it, if it was a choice between her and Dan...
I couldn't really blame the rest of them.
I completely blamed the rest of them.
"Will?" I asked.
"New girlfriend. I don't want to interfere." She sounded a little guilty just at the thought.
Mentioning that Will might not mind interference from Alicia probably wouldn't help, so I didn't.
"Well, you have me. On the rare occasions we're both free."
"Thanks," she said, smiling.
I somehow managed to avoid flinching when she moved her hand over mine.
I even managed to avoid flinching when I realised that I actually liked it.
"So," she said, looking over at the books I had stacked. "What are you studying? Since you've been so coy about the subject."
"Nothing to do with my major," I said with faint amusement.
"A clue! So your major isn't," her brow wrinkled slightly, "to do with... Literary Studies?"
"Nothing at all." I shrugged. "Unless I'm lying, of course."
She looked wryly at me. "Well, in that case, I need an investigator, don't I? Know where I could find one?"
"I've heard that there's a good one around."
"I have a case for them, if so."
"What is it?"
"I need to know what one Kalinda Sharma is hiding from me."
For a moment the air left my body.
I couldn't move.
I was frozen.
And then the moment passed, and I could breathe again.
It was just a joke.
She didn't mean anything by it.
The scary part -- the really scary part -- was that one small, tiny, part of me wanted to answer.
But that was never going to happen.
And I could even fake a smile. "Some things are just too difficult."
"Pity," she said, and sighed. "And now I need to get back to this."
I didn't say anything in response, just picked up my pen, and started leafing through my books. We worked together in companionable silence.
Leela had a plan. She researched the steps necessary and pursued them with single-minded dedication.
Her grades sharply improved. Instead of being at the middle, tending towards the bottom, she started getting near top grades. She started doing out of school activities that might improve her eligiblity for college scholarships. And she started keeping out of trouble, using the fresh start to impress the teachers at her new school.
I was half way through cooking dinner for the both of us some weeks later when I realised how normal this had become.
Not just cooking dinner, but being around someone else. The same someone.
It was nice. It lent structure to the day. And it meant that I had a regular eating pattern, as opposed to snatching a bite to eat whenever I surfaced from work and study.
"Hey," Alicia said, moving up from behind to lean against me. "That smells nice. What's in it?"
I turned to answer, and realised that our faces were far too close together, that I could feel her breath on my face.
And I realised...
That I wanted more. That I liked her as a friend, but I also liked her in the other way as well.
That what I really wanted to do right now was tilt forward and kiss her.
And, before my self preservation could kick in to stop me, I did just that.
It wasn't one of my normal kisses.
It wasn't demanding, controlling, sexual.
It wasn't hard, promising one night of pleasure and nothing more.
It was soft.
It was the kind of kiss that might promise things, other things.
And the harsh scent of smoke almost overwhelmed me again.
When my head cleared, taking a second, just a second, I was staring at Alicia's startled, confused, shocked face from half the kitchen away. I wasn't sure if she or I or both had moved.
It didn't matter.
I had to get out of here.
You know that you're always on at me to get better grades? Well, guess who got an A for their last Math test?
Maybe you could come down for Christmas to celebrate?
This time, we made it simple.
This time, we avoided each other.
No text messages, no emails, no calls for almost two weeks.
When one finally did come, it was almost innocuous, an invite to a group meetup at a bar.
I went, of course.
The masochistic part of me compelled me. It couldn't let me stay away.
It wasn't hard to spot the crowd of them. Dan wasn't there, of course, but most of the rest of them were. Will and his girlfriend. Alicia. And a man I didn't recognise, sitting next to her, arm around her.
As I approached, Alicia's eyes were on me and challenging.
I looked away first.
It didn't hurt.
"Hey," I greeted the group and grabbed a seat next to Will. His girlfriend glared at me, and I offered a slight smile in return.
"This is Chris," said Alicia. He waved his hand at me, and I gave what might loosely pass for a welcoming smile.
The conversation resumed, as I did my usual thing of sitting back and observing. I had formed an instinctive dislike of Chris as I had walked over, but he made my life so much easier by opening his mouth. He was loud, had a tendency to let everyone know what Alicia's opinion was for her (especially when he was wrong) and tightened his hand possessively on her every time another man so much as looked at her.
She deserved so much better than him it hurt.
He must have had his good qualities but, frankly, I couldn't see them.
So I just stayed quiet, and ignored the way that Alicia's eyes kept drifting in my direction.
She caught up with me later when I went to the washroom.
"This isn't about you," was the first thing she said.
I raised an eyebrow in her direction.
"I'm not gay."
"Never thought you were."
She continued on as though I hadn't spoken. "Not that I have a problem with people who are. My brother is gay. But I'm not."
"Glad we have that established."
"It was just a mistake."
That hurt. It shouldn't have done. It had been a mistake, after all.
But it did.
She stopped for a moment, looked at me. "So... are we still friends?"
I shouldn't have friends. If there was anything this mess should have taught me, it was that.
I wasn't that kind of person.
But... "Sure," I said.
She smiled, looking relieved. "Good," she said, bustling out of the restroom.
That was something I had to take at face value.
I didn't have an option.
Because if I even contemplated any other meaning to what she had said...
And, besides, no matter what she said, there was no way that she was going to invite me back any time ever.
You know what, Leela?
You always promised that you wouldn't abandon me, not like everyone else, but you're just the same.
As soon as you had a chance at something better, you raced off after it and left me behind.
And, no, emails are not enough.
So, I repeat: Screw you.
For once, I was right. Alicia didn't offer to see me any place that wasn't public, and I didn't ask.
It hurt, but it was a good pain.
It reminded me why I was here, and why I wasn't.
It reminded me why I didn't have any friends (again).
It reminded me why I shouldn't even dream of anything more. (Though the only dreams I remembered these days consisted mostly of flames.)
Chris didn't improve on further exposure, but showed no signs of going anywhere. If anything, he seemed fixed like a limpet to Alicia, though that was possibly just when I saw them.
And, after a few months, Will lost his girlfriend again.
How positively careless of him.
And so, as though Will being on the market again gave her permission, the dance of Alicia's eyes started again.
Only this time, their targets were both me and Will.
And whenever their path crossed me, it felt like fire.
After a few weeks of this, I collared Will after we had left the bar one evening.
"You need to make a move on Alicia," I informed him.
If she was with someone she wanted, she'd stop looking at me like that.
She had to.
He looked defeated. "It doesn't work that way with her. I told you that."
"He's wrong for her."
"At least there's something we can agree on," he said, grinning a little, but his eyes weren't laughing. They were full of... what? Want? Longing? Something else?
All for Alicia.
I moved my face close to Will's, tilted up to look at him.
"What?" he asked, but I could read in his dilating pupils that he knew.
"You're a good looking guy, you know that?" I breathed.
He was, but that wasn't why I was doing this.
"How did we get..? What're we doing here?" Will this screw things up with Alicia, I could see him think.
Alicia, Alicia, always Alicia.
"What I'm doing is very simple." I went up on my tiptoes and, very slowly, kissed him, giving him every opportunity to stop me.
"I don't do relationships," I told him. "I'll have sex with you, or I'll have sex with someone else. Your choice."
But I wanted him, as I pressed another kiss on his lips, slow and deep and hot.
I wanted to have sex with the part of him that was forever Alicia's, the part I had seen shining in his eyes, the part that was going to be the closest I'd ever get to Alicia.
"And tomorrow?" he asked a little breathlessly.
"Tomorrow can take care of itself. This is just one night."
Nothing like this happened for Vidhya. They were still best friends, and, over the course of one glorious summer, became something more before Vidhya was moved again. But Vidhya was learning other skills, more practical skills. Always watchful, because of the life they lived, she taught herself how to be more proactive, how to find things out, how to piece facts together and how to put them to use.
In an apparently unrelated happenstance, Vidhya and Vijay were moved to the same town as Leela during this period, and weren't moved again, even after Vidhya was caught acting out again..
In the next few months, it turned out that there were a fair few just one nights.
The familiar sounding gasp caused me to break off kissing Will.
It had been one of those nights out, and I'd needed something to distract me, to drive unwelcome thoughts from my head. So I'd pounced on Will as soon as we were alone, and dragged him out of the way.
Apparently not out of the way enough, looking at Alicia's shocked face.
"I'm- I'm sorry," she stammered, then disappeared.
Will looked at me. "Do you want to go after her?"
I looked back at him. "Do you?"
"I don't think Chris would appreciate me doing that. What's your excuse?"
I didn't think that Alicia would appreciate me approaching her away from everyone else. But I couldn't say that. So I just shrugged. "We're not that close."
I could see Will's internal debate about whether or not he was going to ask, but in the end he just nodded. "Are you okay, then? You were pretty adamant about no one else knowing about us."
I only cared about one person knowing, and, well, there was nothing to be done about that now.
And even she shouldn't matter.
So I smiled, reached forward and gently stroked Will's cheek. "I like you, Will. But there is no 'us' for anyone to know about."
I didn't want to lead him on, have him expect anything from me. This was just an interlude, until... until Alicia finally wised up and ditched Chris. Then she could have Will, and I...
I could feel whole again.
A look flitted across Will's face, but was gone before I could decipher it. I could probably guess, anyway. "So, Alicia?" he asked.
"It was just two people kissing. I'm sure she'll get over the embarrassment." I didn't know what else either of us could do anyway.
Will seemed unsatisfied, but didn't say anything, so I guessed that he didn't have any better ideas either.
"So, shall we move some place where no one else will trip over us?" I asked him.
Now more than ever I needed the distraction.
He held up his hands. "Sorry. I think the magic of it is gone for the evening."
"Fine." It wasn't as though I didn't have other options open.
"Do you want me to walk you back?"
I gave him a tight smile. "I'm sure I'll be fine."
"Don't you think that you should see who is banging at your door?" Maria whispered.
I kissed her softly. "You've no idea how hard it is to leave you just now," I told her, before levering myself up and wrapping my dressing gown around my body.
Maria was sweet. She made it so much easier to feel like Leela again, after time spent... not.
And, especially now, I needed that.
I took a deep breath, let it out, and arranged a smile on my face before opening the door. "Yes?" I asked.
It was Alicia.
An Alicia who was looking over my sex-rumpled appearance with dawning horror and flushing cheeks.
"Kalinda?" she whispered.
I couldn't say anything, couldn't move, couldn't even think.
"Oh, god," she said, almost squeaking. "I can't believe that I've done this to you twice in one night."
I knew that I had let slip where I lived, but...
Her, here, now, unprepared...
I wasn't sure how to act, caught in transition.
"Did she call you 'Kalinda'?" asked Maria. She shuffled up the door, having apparently pulled on a long t-shirt, and looked out curiously, wrapping an arm around me.
Leela always was much more tactile than Kalinda.
Alicia's expression shifted from shock towards anger.
Both she and Maria spoke at the same time.
"Is she one of your cases?" asked Maria.
"I can't believe that you'd do this to Will," Alicia spat. And then, "What do you mean 'one of your cases'?"
Oh god, I just about had time to think.
Maria was nice, but she had very little filter, and she knew entirely too much from when I was still navigating between openess and, well, being Kalinda.
"She only goes by the name 'Kalinda' when she's investigating," Maria said brightly. "The rest of the time..."
Alicia's face went pale and angry. "So that's it? I'm a case? And you think that you can just string Will along, before going home to..." She gestured wildly at Maria, then shook her head and marched off down the corridor.
I raced after her, heedless of the fact that my dressing gown was flapping open. "You don't understand..." I said, grabbing her by the shoulder.
She spun around, throwing my hand off and glaring daggers at me. In far too level a voice, she said: "And I don't care to. You're a liar and a cheat, and I want nothing to do with you. Just leave me alone." She then turned her back on me and walked out of the building without looking back once.
Maria came up and tried to put her arm around me. I flinched away and started walking back to my room.
"Leela?" she asked. "What's wrong?"
I stopped. I should open up, talk to her about it, but I couldn't.
It was Kalinda's business, not Leela's.
And it was Alicia, who was still tied up in a knot around my heart.
I just couldn't.
I looked back at Maria, and gave her the best smile I was capable of just now. "I'm sorry. I'm just really tired all of as sudden."
Maria frowned, looking concerned. "Are you sure? I've never seen you all closed off like that."
I shook my head. "Nothing that a good night's sleep won't cure."
She still seemed unconvinced, but she didn't push it further. That was one of the reasons I liked her. "Well, if you're sure. I'll just grab my things..."
She dressed quickly in my room, then studied me closely, clearly giving me the opportunity to unburden myself, if I wanted to.
I smiled fondly at her. "I liked having you over and I'm sorry we had to cut it short. See you in classes tomorrow?"
She scrutinised me for a moment longer, then returned my smile. "Sure," she said. "See you tomorrow." And, with a kiss on the cheek and a wave goodnight, Maria took her leave.
I just about managed to shut the door behind her before collapsing in tears.
Being Leela was always good for that.
Vijay, it's complicated. I'd really love to come and see you.
I just can't. I don't have the time or the money or the...
I just can't.
In the end, it was Will who called me the next day.
"Have you seen Alicia?" burst from my mouth, quickly followed by, "How is she?"
It revealed entirely too much, but I couldn't help myself.
There was a dry laugh from the phone. "She's... it's complicated. Do you have time to meet up?"
No. I had a class that I was on the edge of failing, but...
"Sure. When and where?"
He gave me the name of a coffee shop. "Meet me there in an hour?"
"See you then."
Will had dark circles under his eyes, as though he hadn't slept all night. He nodded to me as he arrived, but headed off the counter to order a large espresso before coming over.
"You look like hell," were the first words out of his mouth.
"Thanks. You don't look so hot either."
"Yeah," He blew on his drink, then took a series of sips. "Alicia turned up at my place last night. Apparently you were cheating on me?"
I looked at him levelly. "I never said that we'd be exclusive."
"I tried explaining that to her, but... She wasn't in the mood to listen. I'm fairly sure that there's something else, but she was being remarkably tight-lipped about the whole thing. She did ask me if I knew about your name?" he said, looking at me questioningly.
"That's what she said too." He leaned back in the seat, and flexed his shoulders a bit. "There's... it might not be politic to see you for a while. Sorry."
"Chris phoned up when she was at my place. He wanted to know where she was. Needless to say, he wasn't happy to find out that was with me, even though Alicia told him she was 'comforting me after I had been cheated on by my girlfriend.'" He rolled his eyes a little.
"Yes, well, things degenerated. There was shouting, there was screaming, and by the end of the phone call, she had broken up with him. Which is a first with Alicia."
I had a sick feeling that I knew where this was going.
He rubbed his head with one hand. "So there was talking, and hugging, and crying, and, yeah. I now actually have a girlfriend." He didn't sound as happy as you might have thought, given how long they'd had that tension thing going.
Maybe he was just tired. Maybe he'd have preferred better circumstances.
This was what I wanted, right?
Not like this, not with Alicia so angry at me, but...
It shouldn't hurt so much, should it?
He looked at me, consideringly, for a moment. "Look, what is the deal with you and Alicia? You two have been more hot and cold with each other than I've seen either of you with anyone else."
"Does it matter?" I asked rhetorically.
"You're my friend, Kalinda, and she's the person I've loved since..." he threw a hand up in the air. "I don't want to get caught up in whatever drama you two have going between you, but I do care about the both of you."
I couldn't take any more of this. There was a cold searing pain inside of me, and Will... Will was getting too close and I couldn't handle any more of it.
I stood up, and gave him the best non-committal smile I could at that point. "Don't worry about it," I told him.
Maybe now, with no one to drag me back into contact with Alicia, I'd be fine.
And if I hurt, a sea of pain, then it was no less than I deserved.
"Take care of her," I told him. "Take care of yourself too."
I gave him a small wave, and left the shop as quickly I could without making it look like I was fleeing.
Please forgive me. Just, please. Forgive me.
There was a knock at my door. Short. Sharp. Loud.
I considered ignoring it. I was in the middle of revising for a test, and the facts were just refusing to stay in my head
But... I really shouldn't. I stood up, and made an effort to relax, compose a soft smile and opened the door.
The smile became a little more fixed when I saw it was Alicia.
She did not look overly happy to be here.
I briefly wavered between Kalinda and Leela, but this was Leela's room.
"Can I help you?" I asked as pleasantly as I could.
Alicia just looked at me for a moment, hard. "My boyfriend thinks I should give you a second chance," was what she finally said.
My heart, traitorously, foolishly, leapt in my chest. "Really?" I couldn't help asking.
She pressed her lips. "Just one, though. Explain."
"Would you like to come in and sit down?" I asked.
She nodded and entered my room, taking the chair I offered whilst I took the bed.
I took a breath, and let it out. "Now, what would you like me to explain?"
"You. What that girl meant, when she said that you're only Kalinda to your cases. Why you're acting so differently at the moment. Why have you been lying to me?" She said the last sentence more passionately than the rest, as though it was being squeezed out of her.
I looked down at my lap. "This may take a while."
"I have the time."
I wasn't sure I did at the moment, glancing briefly at the work on the table.
This was Alicia. And she was giving me another chance. Even if it felt like giving her any more of me would just let her hurt me that much worse if (when) she rejected me.
I had to take the chance.
I told her my fairytale, suitably edited, of a girl called Leela growing up in the system, constantly shuffled from place to place, rarely even seeing my brother. Of Miss Bowen, who had made such an impression on me, inspiring me to try and become a child psychiatrist, to be able to help other children like myself.
"I'm still a long way from it," I told her shyly. "But I'm slowly getting there."
"So why did you tell me your name was Kalinda?" she asked.
"I still need money to cover what the scholarship can't. And, well, I have a talent for finding things out, putting things together. Becoming a private investigator seemed a natural extension of that. But the work often gets... complicated. It might require going above and beyond to get the information or the proof that the client wants. And it's the kind of thing that might not necessarily look good when looking for further scholarships or work in this field. So, I made up a false identity: Kalinda Sharma." I shrugged. "I first met you when I was on a case, looking for someone, so that's how I introduced myself."
"And why do you seem so different now?" she asked, as though suspecting a trick.
"This is who I am. It's just... As Kalinda it's useful to keep more of a wall between myself and the outside world." Less taxing. It was exhausting feeling so open, so exposed. And I didn't want to empathise too much with the people I talked to as Kalinda. Like I had to with the people I talked to as Leela. "And, like I said, you met me as Kalinda."
She looked at me for a long minute. "So this is who you really are?"
This is who I want to be. Even if sometimes I think that there's so far still to go.
She pursed her lips. "I'll have to think about this. But I don't understand why you couldn't have told me this before. I thought that we were friends. I thought that I-" she bit the end of the sentence off. "I'll have to think about this," she repeated, then stood up.
"Will I see you around?" I had to ask.
"I'll let you know," she said, and left.
A couple of days later, I got a text message from her inviting me out to a meetup. When I got there, Alicia and Will were sitting together. When he spotted me, Will smiled and raised his glass to me. Alicia raised her head from its position on Will's shoulder and gave me something approaching a smile, before laying it down again.
I relaxed into a chair and faded into the background like I'd never been absent.
Alicia didn't look at me after that once all night.
It hurt. But it had been what I wanted.
All too soon, the end of their last year in the System, their last year in school loomed. Leela had managed to get a scholarship to Georgetown and, as much as she loved Vidhya, both of them were aware that her chances would be better if Vidhya wasn't around.
This didn't stop Vidhya trying to pass on as many of her skills as she could. And didn't stop her promising that if Leela ever needed anything, anything at all, all she'd have to do is phone Vidhya up and Vidhya would move heaven and earth to do it.
Everything went as well as could be expected until the party.
Will and Alicia seemed happy, content, relaxed. Alicia's eyes didn't stray, tended to avoid me completely, and Will never seemed possessive, unlike both Chris and Dan. So I wasn't quite sure what to expect when Alicia said "Could I have a word with you for a moment?" at the end of one of the collective meetings out a few weeks after that.
"Sure," I said, and waited expectantly.
She looked at me for a moment before pursing her lips in frustration. "Would you- would you like to come around for dinner some time?"
My eyes immediately looked for Will, but he had already disappeared. "Sure?" I said, my uncertainty making it a question.
"Not like that," she flushed. "It's just- I owe you for all the meals you made me."
I wondered just how much Will had to do with this invitation. This olive branch seemed very un-Alicia like.
"Okay," I said, and then, "Thank you. Would you like me to bring anything around?"
"Just yourself," she said, then smiled thinly. "And maybe Leela."
I almost backed out right then. Being just Kalinda or just Leela I could probably handle. Both?
But I couldn't stop myself from nodding and saying, "Agreed. Thursday?"
"Thursday," Alicia said, then walked quickly off, not looking back.
That didn't bode well, I couldn't help thinking.
I debated about who to be as I knocked on Alicia's door, but in the end Kalinda won out. It was who I was more used to being around Alicia.
Besides, if everything went badly, I'd feel less exposed.
Alicia answered the door with a smile that seemed only slightly slightly fixed. She looked into my face for a second, but I wasn't sure whether or not she found what she was looking for there.
"Come on in, then," she said, in any case.
There was no sign of Will in her apartment. I had half expected him to be there, but apparently it was just going to be a meal for us girls. I wondered how much Alicia had told him about me, about us. He hadn't been treating me any differently, but she was going out with him. Surely she would-
"Are you just going to stand there," Alicia called from the open plan kitchen, "Or are you going to help me prepare dinner?"
"I thought that you were going to be cooking for me," I murmured as I moved past her to the chopping board.
"Things got a little out of control," she said. When I just left her words hanging, she added, "I got caught up in coursework, okay!"
I smiled slightly. That was pure Alicia alright.
"How have you managed to survive without me cooking for you?" I couldn't help asking a little teasingly.
Alicia froze for a moment, and I thought that I'd made things worse again, but then she laughed a little. "Badly."
I almost said something like, 'Can't let that happen again' but it was too soon, far too soon, so I just concentrated on chopping onions.
For a while, we were stiff together, conversation a little stilted, making sure that there was at least a foot between us at all times, but things started to relax a little.
Then the meal was served, and it was so almost like old times that it made my heart hurt. But I kept that all buried deep down beneath my mask where it couldn't show.
I'd been Kalinda all evening, and I thought that I'd gotten away with it until, when we were washing up, Alicia asked, "Why are you like this all the time, even when we're alone?" There was a note of frustration in her voice, but underneath that she just sounded hurt.
I took a breath, then relaxed. "It's... easier being with you as Kalinda. More relaxing. I thought... I thought that you liked Kalinda."
"I do!" Alicia grimaced. "It's just... I feel like you're shutting me out when you're like that, now that I know about this other side of you."
I offered her a wan smile. "If it helps, sometimes it feels like I most myself when I'm with you like that." Even though I really shouldn't, and I was a bad person for feeling that way.
"Really?" Alicia asked, a note of hopefulness in her voice.
"Really," I said.
You have no idea of the effect you have on me, I couldn't help thinking.
And then it was time to go. For a moment, Alicia looked like she was contemplating hugging me, but thankfully didn't.
"Shall we do this again some time?" she asked, and rolled her eyes a little. "After all, who's going to look after me if you don't?"
"Sure," I said, and offered her a bright, sincere smile straight from the part of me that was Leela.
After that, things were better between us.
There were the group meetups in which we tended not to interact that much, and though she didn't actively avoid me, she didn't look at me either. It still hurt, a little, seeing her with Will, but it salved some part of me, just seeing her.
And then there were the dinners, just the two of us. Things, if anything, were even more relaxed than before. Most of the time, I was Kalinda, snarky and good at listening about the woes and stresses of Alicia's life. But occasionally I could be Leela, and tell her about my course and my hopes.
It worked. It shouldn't have. It should have felt like it was tearing me apart, but it didn't.
It actually helped, and that was the most bizarre things about it.
And if, at the dinners, she occasionally looked... I didn't say anything, didn't disturb the peace.
Nothing was going to happen.
She was with Will, and that had to be making her happy.
I couldn't let myself even think about anything else.
Even, as the weeks went on, when Will started looking less and less happy just to be with Alicia, as though there was something wrong.
So it shouldn't have been a surprise when Will met up with me to tell me that he was breaking up with Alicia.
But it really was.
"I've been the other man in enough of her relationships to know the signs," he told me, looking morosely into his drink.
"Oh?" I asked, not wanting to think about what this might mean.
"Yeah. She likes someone else. And I'm not going to play the part of the boyfriend. It always sucks."
"Will..." I said, not knowing what else to say.
"I kept hoping but..." he shrugged. "Maybe it was never meant to be. Maybe the fantasy was all that was ever between us." He took a gulp of his drink, as if trying to wash the taste of his words out of his mouth.
I didn't want to believe that. I couldn't.
"Maybe you're wrong about this."
"She couldn't look me in the eyes when I confronted her about it last night. Kalinda, I'm not going to be able to be there for her about this. I'm not that much of a martyr. I know that you looked after her after Dan. Do you think..?"
I looked down at my drink. Had I been the problem here? I couldn't quite let myself believe it, but I felt the guilt anyway.
Alicia should have been happy with Will. That was the way it should have been.
Anything else was dangerous. Especially this.
But. This was Will. And this was Alicia.
There was only one answer.
"Sure," I told him.
And I was. There for her, that was.
As a friend.
I held her as she cried, reassured her when she doubted that she'd ever be able to hold down a relationship.
It burned like fire, it froze like ice, but I did it all with a smile on my face.
And, though it seemed like forever, over the days she got better.
Soon, we re-established our usual meals together.
Though maybe a little more frequently.
Though maybe our kitchen dance got a little more intimate as she seemed to lose her inhibitions about getting too close to me.
And she started looking. Even I couldn't deny how she was looking.
Though I did try my best.
It meant nothing, I had to tell myself after every meal we spent together.
She meant nothing by it.
I couldn't allow myself to think any differently. I couldn't stand the thought of losing our time together again.
So it came as a complete surprise when she kissed me.
Long, dizzying, deep. I felt like I was falling and had to cling onto her to keep standing.
I hadn't felt like this since...
Then my instincts kicked in before I could even smell the scent of smoke and I was kissing her back.
Finally we parted for breath and reality kicked in. I felt my eyes widen and I couldn't speak, couldn't move.
"You have no idea how long I've wanted to do that," she said in a low voice, breathing heavily.
You have no idea how long I've wanted to do that to you, I thought but couldn't say.
She finally seemed to notice my silence. "Are you alright?" she asked, then added a little nervously, "Are we alright?"
Her incipient panic broke me out of my internal deadlock. "Sure. We're good." I snorted. "More than good. Just... a big change in how I've been trying to think of you."
She laughed a little, seemingly in relief as much as anything else, and ran a hand through her hair. "Trust me, it's not a change in how I've been thinking of you. No matter how much I've tried to deny it to myself."
"So you're not planning on running away again for two weeks to find the first guy who'll have you?"
She winced. "I don't know. Are you planning on cutting contact with me for a week or two yourself?"
I laughed. "Not this time, I guess."
I'm already in far too deep for that.
"So..." she said.
"Are you planning on asking me out?"
"Why do I have to be the one to do that?"
"Because I'm the one who gets asked out."
I shrugged. "I'm not really the asking out kind." Her gaze sharpened. "But, sure. Would you do me the honour of going out with me? I might not be able to take you somewhere fancy, but I'm told I cook a mean stir fry."
She leant in and kissed me again, just as heartstoppingly as the first time. "I'd love to go out with you," she murmured against my lips. "Even if that was the most inelegant way to ask me out that I've heard since high school."
"Did say that I wasn't the asking out kind," I said, then kissed her back. "But... exceptions can be good."
"I'm glad to hear it," she said. "Now, about that meal..."
I gave her a half grin and a final kiss, before starting work chopping up the vegetables.
The rest of the night wasn't nearly as surprising, but was just as pleasant.
The next few weeks were spent defining our new relationship.
It never quite stopped feeling wrong, but also always just felt right at the same time.
I buried the confusion five fathoms deep, and refused to let it show. It wasn't fair to Alicia.
Sex happened almost incidentally one evening after teasing Alicia with how I ate spaghetti turned to making out turned into something more.
Afterwards, though, almost turned into our first fight.
"Aren't you staying the night?" Alicia looked at me with sex-tousled hair as I started pulling on clothes.
I gave her a slight smile. "I've got to get an early start."
"'Salright. I don't mind setting the alarm early."
I clutched my arms to myself a little. "I have some work back at my room I have to do before bed."
She propped herself up with one arm, and looked at me with narrowed eyes. "You're evading. What aren't you telling me?" A touch of hurt entered her expression. "I thought that you trusted me."
I bit my lip, hard, and closed my eyes, before opening them again. "We've just ha... made love for the first time. I can't talk about this now." Especially now. The first time sex has meant something to me since... "Can we just leave it for tonight?" To my shame, a note of pleading had entered my voice.
Alicia looked at me for a moment more, before coming over and hugging me. "You're shaking," she said.
I couldn't think about it right now. Couldn't think about the clouds of smoke, or the flickering flames, so I just concentrated on Alicia's arms instead, on her hand that was stroking my head gently, on her voice that was telling me that I didn't have to say or do anything if I didn't want to.
And before I knew it, I was actually asleep, despite that being the last thing I wanted.
It was their last night together. Tomorrow, Leela was going to fly to Georgetown and start her new life there. Vidhya was going to stay here with (what she claimed) was her far more practical business.
They'd gotten drunk on the outskirts of town, in an abandoned house that they'd been using for most of the year as a place to hang out, to make out and to have sex in.
Vidhya had gotten in one of her moods, and started ranting about how none of this was going to be the same, that she wasn't going to be the same, and that she might as well burn everything down.
The next thing Leela knew, she was choking on smoke, because Vidhya had done it, and she couldn't see. She barely made it out and, by the time she had recovered enough to stand, the place was ablaze and Vidhya wasn't coming out.
Vidhya didn't ever make it out.
Leela missed her flight, but managed to make it to D.C. a few days later, even more determined to succeed and save some children.
To make it all worthwhile.
I woke abruptly.
For a moment, I couldn't move, couldn't breathe, and I struggled for freedom before realising where I was.
"Are you... are you alright?" was the first thing I said.
"Are you?" Alicia asked, looking pale. "You were choking, gasping."
I closed my eyes and shuddered, before telling her the end of fairy tale, the part I had never told anyone else except myself.
How Vidhya had died.
"Oh, Kalinda," Alicia murmured, approaching me slowly, gently, as if I was a wild beast that might spook. She slowly placed her arms around me. "Is this alright?" she asked.
It was nice.
It was far better than I deserved.
But I couldn't help relaxing into it. Even if accepting it damned me still further.
"It wasn't your fault," she told me,
"Vidhya made her own decisions."
"There was nothing you could have done."
We stayed like that through the night, until she'd fallen asleep against me, and the dream started playing itself again, despite my best efforts.
The smoke was too thick and choking and I couldn't see the door, couldn't see anything apart from the floor beneath me as another coughing fit took me.
I was going to die here, and it was all my own fault.
Suddenly I was being lifted up by one arm.
She'd come back for me.
We stumbled off in some direction, guided by her, and the door appeared through the smoke.
A few more steps, and we were outside, laying on the grass, letting fresh air back into our lungs.
Slowly our coughing subsided.
Only... Only hers wasn't subsiding.
If anything, it was getting worse.
I rolled over to look at her.
Her coughing had become wheezing, and her hands were clawing at her throat as she struggled, futilely, helplessly, to breathe.
"Leela," I rasped. "Please, no. Leela."
I crawled over to where she was, tried anything, everything, but none of it worked.
In the end, all I managed to do was hold her while she died.
But she shouldn't have died. She would never have been in that house if it wasn't for me.
She was the one with the future, the one with the plan about how to make things better.
Me? I was just a leftover. Worthless.
I should have died.
So I decided to do the only thing I could for her.
The university was expecting a brown girl from our state, and they'd get one. It wasn't as though anyone there would know any different.
I'd carry on her dream.
I'd complete her course, even if I was nowhere near as smart as she was, even if I was only barely pass the exams.
I'd help the children in the system, because she believed it could be done even if I never did.
I'd look after her brother, even if he could never see her again, even if he hated me.
I'd destroy myself, and try and remake her out of my inferior parts.
And now I was here, in Alicia's arms, and I still wasn't good enough.
I shouldn't be here. Will, or someone else real, should. Someone who could make her happy.
But until then, I'd do the best I could, even if she thought my name was Leela or Kalinda.
Because Vidhya was dead and buried and gone.
Alicia always did like proving me wrong.
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