DISCLAIMER: The characters herein are used without permission. No infringement intended.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
FEEDBACK: To Tamoline[at]gmail.com
SPOILERS: for much of season one.
One step, two steps
I reach the edge of the platform.
And I can't make this messy.
I've always liked this coat.
And these shoes.
They were gifts from Paul.
I don't want them with me, when....
So I take them off.
And I have to make sure that there isn't any question about who I am.
I can't lead anyone in the direction of my family.
So I take my handbag off, and put it down on the ground next to them.
A memorial, of sorts.
A rumbling, rising to a screech.
The way forward seems so clear.
Something out of the corner of my eye catches my attention.
A genetic identical.
Not one I recognise.
It's not important.
I turn and walk towards my destiny.
"No," she shouts from behind me.
But, with a sharp tug, I'm falling.
And everything is moving so slowly...
As the lights of the station and the train rushing past me pinwheel...
And then everything stops as my head hits the concrete.
And then there're just snapshots.
Vomit, pooled underneath me, flecked with half-digested pills.
"No, no hospital," my voice is saying. "No hospital. No more tests."
"Not home. Please, not home."
The lights of the city, seen through a taxi window.
"Look, Fee, I didn't have anywhere else to take her."
A man's voice. "If you could kindly throw up into the bucket beside the bed, I'd be exceedingly grateful."
"Who *are* you?" a woman's voice murmurs.
"Oh great. *You* can take my bed sheets down the laundrette in the morning."
"Open your eyes for Uncle Felix. Reassure us that you haven't died," accompanied by a blinding light.
I'm in an unfamiliar bed, and my mind is feeling a little clearer.
Even if my head is still a little sore.
Not helped by the ringing phone.
My phone is ringing in another room.
I roll out of bed and the room spins around me. I manage to catch myself on a wall before I hit the floor.
Apparently, alcohol and pills and a blow to the head do not mix well.
In the next room, there's a woman and a man.
Vague wispy memories identify the man as Felix.
The woman... I don't know her name, but I know her all the same. Family.
They look over as I enter.
"Your phone's going," Felix says, a little unnecessarily.
My handbag is on a low table in the middle of the room.
I take a breath, and push away from the wall.
The room spins alarmingly.
But I carry on.
A hand steadies me. My identical's.
"I'm fine," I tell her.
Because I am.
I have to be.
"Yeah," she says, smirking a little. "I could see that."
Irritation threatens to break through my emotional ice.
I take another breath, and try to remember that I *owe* this woman.
I'm not sure it helps.
I give her a tight-lipped smile and, with her still steadying me, I reach the table.
The phone has stopped ringing by this point, but I can tell from the number it's Katja.
My other phone tells me that Art has been trying to get in contact with me and...
And I'll have to handle that too.
But first things first.
I call Katja back.
"Where are you?" she asks in her accented voice. "We were supposed to meet an hour ago."
"Something came up," I tell her tersely.
I can hear her cough over the phone. "I'm outside your apartment at the moment. Shall we meet there?"
A kind of muted panic seizes me. "No," I say. "Let's meet at..." I try to think of a good place. It's something I'm usually good at, but right now it feels like I'm trying to dig through cotton wool.
"Where we met the second time?" she suggests.
"Yes. There." It's out of the way, and we're unlikely to be overseen or overheard. "I'll be there in three hours. Bring the briefcase."
That should give me time to get back to the apartment, shower, change and drive out there.
I blink and realise that Katja's hung up.
"You really think you're up to going anywhere?" my identical asks sceptically.
I clench my jaw.
I'm going to have to be.
Because I've got far too much to do, and far too little time to do it.
Like Art and the hearing.
She shrugs, lets me go and I topple sideways. "Sure you're up to it?"
I stare upwards at her. I attempt balefulness, but I'm not quite sure I manage the requisite emotion.
"Watch me," I say, and start to push myself up.
The room greys a little around me.
"Hey," she says. "Hey. Haven't you thought of the obvious solution? I can go in your place."
I look at her for a moment.
Of course she can.
This has the feeling of a really bad idea, but I can't seem to find any good arguments against just at the moment.
Of course she can go.
And I really don't want to move just yet if I can help it.
I collapse back onto the floor. "You'll need a car. Take mine. It's just outside my apartment." I tell her where the key is, and outline the meeting point. "Get the briefcase, and bring it back. And thank you."
She bends down. "Don't go back to sleep just yet. Let's at least get you back to bed first, since I've gone to the trouble of turfing Felix out of it."
"Hey!" Felix says as she helps me up. "And a thank you wouldn't go amiss," he calls after us.
"Thank you," I murmur.
"Beth?" she asks as I collapse back onto the bed. "We look so much alike. Is there a reason..?" she asks a little tentatively.
"We're family," I say into the pillow. "I'm supposed to protect you."
"Yeah, well, I don't exactly need protecting," she says tartly.
"'S my job," I murmur as darkness claims me once again.
This time it's loud banging that awakens me.
"Felix!" someone shouts. "Felix! Where is she?"
"She's not here," Felix calls. "I haven't seen her for almost a year." From the volume, it's fairly clear that he's decided that having a barrier between him and the other man to be the safer course of action.
From the increasingly loud slams coming from the other room, it appears that the other man disagrees.
My identical may not be here, but it's clear that she values Felix.
And he has been good enough to look after me since...
I might have to return the favour.
I roll out of bed.
From the way the room *doesn't* blur around me, I must be feeling a lot better.
The ground is even stable beneath my feet.
My clothing is rumpled, to say the least, but there's not very much I can do about that now.
I stick my head my head out of the bedroom to see Felix over by the front door.
Or at least what approximates for a front door in this apartment.
Felix waves frantically in what I assume is an instruction for me to hide myself.
I roll my eyes, and do my best.
It would be a lot easier if the apartment wasn't so... open plan.
There's always under the bed, but that would leave me in a bad position if I *am* discovered.
In the end, I settle for concealing myself behind some canvasses in the bedroom.
I just hope whoever it is doesn't do much more than a cursory inspection.
The thumping is getting louder, and it's starting to be accompanied by some splintering.
"All right, all right," Felix says and there's the sound of metal rasping against metal.
All of a sudden the other man's voice is a lot clearer.
"I know you're hiding her," he says, and there's the sound of something crashing.
"Be careful!" Felix says, then mutters, "Maybe if you weren't such an abusive dick, she wouldn't have run out on you."
I can hear footsteps approach the bedroom, and then the canvasses are wrenched aside.
"There you are, you bitch," the man says, a semi-snarl twisting his lips. He's thickset, well-muscled, with a bloody bandage on the side of his head. "Give me my fucking coke."
I don't really have time to consider his words at the moment, because he's reaching towards me, and he doesn't look like he's going to be reasonable about this.
Adrenaline hits my system, and everything slows down.
He's bigger than me, probably stronger.
I can't afford to turn this into an endurance contest.
A palm strike to his throat slows him down long enough for me to pick up a canvas and hit him in the head with it, edge on.
This gets him down on his knees. I don't have my shoes on, but a couple of heel strikes to the rib serve to get my point across.
"Get out of here," I tell him as he clutches his side and wheezes on the floor. "I don't want to see you again." I look over at Felix, who regarding me with a certain amount of deliberately unaffected amusement. "Help me get him out of here."
Between us, we manage to drag him out of the apartment.
"And don't come back!" Felix calls as we close the door and lock it behind him (with a screwdriver).
Felix takes a few steps away, and looks me up and down. "Well, you *do* seem to be feeling better, don't you?"
I shrug. I don't feel bad at the moment, but I'm probably going to after the adrenaline leaves my system. "What was all that about?"
He looks at me for a moment. "Sarah's ex-boyfriend. Drug dealer and general git."
The name rings a bell.
Sarah Manning. The first name I'd come across when looking for other identicals. I'd made a few, very careful inquiries. I'd been told that she had left the city a few months prior.
I have to admit that I hadn't tried very hard.
She'd had a criminal record for petty fraud, assault, shoplifting.
A few other things.
Not exactly someone I'd want to trust with any level of power over me.
And here I'd given her my hand bag, my cards, my life.
She's not like Cosima, not like Alison.
Not like me.
Not family at all.
"So she's decided to get into the business herself?" I ask Felix with a hard edge to my voice. Because drug charges hadn't been a part of her rap sheet, as best I could remember.
He blinks, then narrows his eyes. "How about less of the judging from over there? She not only saved your mangy life, but she dragged you back here because you didn't want to go home and you didn't want to go to a hospital. And she didn't even ask any questions. You know why? Because she's *been* there. She's *needed* that. And you, you in your nice clothes and your comfortable apartment and your bloody middle class life - can you say that you'd have done the same thing?"
Heat suffuses my cheeks and I can't meet his eyes. Because, no, I wouldn't have done that. I've seen too many people ripped off to trust someone with a record that much.
"Thought not. And she's out there, looking after your business. So how about you give her a little less lip and I'll let you wait her until she gets back." He looks at me, his lip curling. "And why don't you have a shower while you're doing that. Because, frankly, you stink."
I don't engage, and just keep looking away, not meeting his eyes.
And I keep quiet as I shuffle into the bedroom area.
Because, yes, he's right. Sarah did save me from... From.
And she did look after me.
But, judging from her boyfriend, she's not above stealing even from people she's living with.
And I, *we*, need what's in that case.
I just hope that she doesn't throw it away when she finds out it isn't anything valuable. To her, at least.
And I keep quiet because staying here, staying close to Felix, seems like the best way to make sure that I see her again.
And I keep quiet because he's right. I do stink.
The shower gives me time to relax.
The shower also gives me time to think.
With... with last night, I'm not sure that either of these things are a good idea right now.
Especially not with the effects of the pills winding down.
Especially not here.
But would elsewhere really be any better?
Elsewhere like the apartment.
I take a deep breath, trying not to notice that it's shuddering a little.
I don't know, I tell myself. I don't have proof.
I've got other problems anyway.
One thing at a time.
One step at a time.
I get out of the shower, dry myself.
Felix has scrounged some clothes from somewhere. They're very... Sarah, from what I've seen of her. Not me at all.
Unsurprisingly, they fit.
I head for the living room.
Felix, already resident on the sofa, looks up briefly. "Bloody hell," he says. "If I didn't know better..."
I feel my face tense a little, because comparisons to Sarah are really *not* what I'm looking for right at the moment.
He rolls his eyes ostentatiously, then looks away.
I sit down next to him.
The silence is awkward, to say the least, but neither of us seems inclined to break it.
The landline, when it rings, comes as something of a relief.
Felix grabs it, holds it to his ear.
"What!" he says, then twists to look at me. "Yeah, she's right here." He hands me handset. "Here. You can deal with this."
I take it. "Hello?"
"You didn't mention that you were a cop," an identical's voice snaps at me. It takes me a moment to realise who this is, who this must be.
Whatever else she may be, Sarah is an *excellent* mimic.
"You didn't ask," I return automatically. "Also, it isn't as though we've really had time to swap life stories." For instance, about your drug dealing ex-boyfriend who came around looking for the product you stole. "Why is this important?"
"Because I've only been grabbed by your partner. Apparently there's a small matter of a hearing you were supposed to attend today."
My blood runs cold.
How could I have forgotten about my hearing?
I get a close-up of my knees, and realise that I've started rocking sometime in the last... however long.
Let's break this down.
"You're at the precinct now?" I ask.
Let's see how much trouble I'm.
Let's see how I can try and salvage this.
"In the toilets, no less."
Well, I'm not going to be able to get there in time.
Even if I could get into suitable clothing, which I can't.
"There's no way I can coach you through this in the time we have."
"I thought as much. Look, would you have any problems with me just getting this whole thing called off for today?"
That's pretty much the only thing I can think of. "How?" I ask cautiously.
"Oh, I've got an idea or two," she says, and I can almost see the grin on her face. There's a noise in the background. "Damn. Got to go. Trust me, okay," she says, and hangs up.
I'm left looking at the handset, and wondering if I'm still going to have a job tomorrow.
Sorry, Art, I think, sparing a thought for my partner who has done so much for me. And who probably thinks that I've gone mad.
I'll be better tomorrow.
I put the phone down, and turn to look at Felix, who has been regarding me with a raised eyebrow and a faintly outraged air.
"And you didn't mention this to me before - why?"
I shrug. "Don't worry. I'm not vice."
"Well *that* makes me feel a lot better, thank you very much."
I just look at him impassively, and he shakes his head. "Mrs S would bloody kill me if she knew that I'd been offering aid and comfort to one of the filth."
"Thanks," I say dryly. Then I shake my own head. I really am being something of a shit about this. "Look, I really am grateful for this." Even if you did both get to see me when... I wasn't at my best. "Don't worry, I'm not going to mention anything that I might have seen here."
"It's the least you can do," he says, sniffing a little, then cracks a grin. "And I guess I did get to see Vic being beaten up quite professionally. That's worth something." A cautious look crosses his face. "You're not going to turn him in, either, are you?"
I hadn't been planning on it - Vic had too many ties to Sarah - but I adopt a neutral expression. "It's my job to. Why?" I ask.
"He's a dick, but he doesn't deserve that," he says. "Besides, you heard him. Sarah stole from him, and she can't get involved in any investigation. Not now. You owe her at least that much."
His face closes. "You're going to have to ask her about that, I'm afraid."
Nice to know. "Okay," I tell him. "My lips are sealed."
"Really?" he asks, looking more than a little doubtful. "Simple as that?"
"Simple as that," I say. "You're right. I owe you."
"Thanks," he says, smiling a little.
"Not a problem."
And, really, at this point, not telling someone in Vice about Vic is the least of my sins.
The things I must do, to keep my family safe.
The things I have done.
The things I have to keep on doing.
If only there was an end in sight.
After that, conversation happens.
He tries to probe me about my life - and especially about any link I might have with Sarah.
I tell him a little - a little - about the former, but just give him an even look and say the latter is something I'm going to have to talk over with her first.
And then I return the favour.
He's likewise reticent, but he does tell me about growing up in the UK foster system, that he and Sarah were adopted then later taken to Canada.
Some of it I already know. But now I've got an excuse for that knowledge.
And, in any case, silence at the moment would be harder.
This way I don't have to face last night.
This way I don't have to fret about what Sarah is doing to my life right now.
This way I don't have to worry about where she is *right now* and why she hasn't made it back or been in contact *already*, damnit.
And then the phone rings again.
This time I'm the first person to reach it, pick it up.
"She's dead," she says, almost sobbing. "Katja's dead. She's dead."
Her words hit me like a slap.
For a moment, the pain overwhelms everything.
Vivacious Katja, who'd seemed so full of life when she'd first contacted me.
Katja, who'd told me only a few days ago that her time was running out.
Then I suppress my feelings, ruthlessly pushing them down into a little box and locking them away.
I've still got a job to do.
"Take a breath," I tell her.
I hear her inhale, then exhale. There's the sound of the car running in the background.
"Okay. What happened?" I ask.
"She was shot. We were talking in the car, and a hole appeared in her head. Then they tried to shoot me, but I ducked out of the way."
This is my fault.
This is all my fault.
I'd known that there were hunters.
If I'd been there...
That's not important at the moment.
"Are you still in danger?"
"No," she says. "I don't think so. I drove away, and I can't see anyone following me."
I think. "You were in a car - my car?"
"Are you still in it?" Changing cars wouldn't have been an unreasonable thing to do, even if it would cause problems later. For me.
I look out of the window.
It's getting dark.
That's good for some cover, but anyone who gets too close might still see the bullet holes.
"Where are you at the moment?"
She reels off her location. I recognise it as one of the city's less trafficked industrial districts.
"Find an alley or side street - preferably one without streetlights - ring me back with the location and then wait. I'll be there as quickly as I can."
"You want me to just wait around until you arrive. With a dead body in the car. Isn't there *something* I could be doing in the meantime? Anything?"
I think. "We'll need to clean the car. You could start on that."
"Okay. I can do that," she says, and rings off.
I look over at Felix, who has clearly been listening in on at least my half of the conversation.
"Was that Sarah?" he asks. "What happened?"
"Do you have a car?" I ask, ignoring his questions for the moment. "Failing that, how quickly can you get hold of one?"
"You're completely bonkers if you think I'm letting you leave this car without either a bloody good explanation or me in tow," Felix tells me as he parks the car in the general vicinity of Sarah's bolthole.
I purse my lips. I know Sarah took me to him last night, but there's a big difference between trusting him with that and literally letting him know where the bodies are buried.
"It's dangerous," I say. "It's dangerous and I'm going to have enough problems looking after Sarah without adding someone else into the mix. Do you want to risk her like this?"
"You still haven't told me what's so dangerous."
"You can ask Sarah. Later. When she's out of danger."
He glares at me. "If you let a single hair on Sarah's head come to harm, I'll make sure that you regret it forever. You *owe* her."
"I know," I tell him tiredly. "I know."
Sarah's waiting outside the car when I get to the alley. For a moment, I almost don't recognise her - she's obviously raided my wardrobe and is wearing her hair in a far more professional style than I remember.
She notices me, and marches in my direction. As she gets closer, I can see that she's also wearing far less makeup and has even dyed her hair back to its natural colour.
It's not such a surprise that Art thought she was me.
"What the *hell* have you got me involved in?" she asks.
"I don't have time for this at the moment. I've got a body," Katja, "to deal with. Felix is over there," I point over in the direction I came from. "With a car. We can talk tomorrow." I go to reclaim my purse that she borrowed earlier, but she steps back.
"You don't think that I'm going to let you off that easily, do you?" she asks, eyes narrowed slightly.
I try to not let my shoulders slump. She'd only take it as a sign of weakness. But I really don't need this, not tonight. "Please, Sarah. Can I just handle this first?"
Then the explanation, again.
Then the hearing, assuming that's still an option.
Then finding whoever did this.
I drag myself back to the present.
There's no point dwelling on the future.
Just take this one step for now.
The rest will come later.
Sarah's been looking at me whilst I was briefly spiralling, an odd expression on her face. "You don't have to do this alone, you know."
I blink. "What?"
"I could help. And maybe then you could give me some kind of fucking clue what this is all about."
I don't know what to say.
I don't have help.
Not for things like this.
It just doesn't *work* that way.
"It's not like I'm stupid or a fuck-up, you know," she says, apparently taking my silence for rejection.
"Okay," I say. "Thanks. I'd... appreciate that." I pause for a moment. "You'd... better let Felix know that you're going to be staying then."
She nods, passes me the purse, starts in Felix's direction, then stops, turns around. "You'll still be here when I get back?"
I nod, jerkily. "Yeah. I'll be here."
She gives me a small smile, then turns back and is on her way.
It isn't until she's disappeared, it isn't until she's gone, that I realise that my face is wet with tears.
And I'm not even quite sure whether it's because of Katja or...
Or something else.
It doesn't matter.
I turn back towards the car.
She's been pushed into the foot well of the back, but the front passenger seat still has the bloom of her passing on it.
Something of it, anyway. Apparently Sarah took my advice about the cleaning.
There's a bullet hole in the windscreen to match it, as well as a few more, but I check her body just to make sure.
Her sightless eyes stare at me as I take a closer look.
I have to be sure, as sure as I can be.
She had met with Sarah and she had died.
No sign of powder burn. No sign that she was killed in any other way than by a long range shot.
I want to trust Sarah.
But I have to be sure.
I purse my lips.
I'll get the location of where Katja died, and I'll check it out.
There are other things I have to do tonight.
First things first.
I climb into the driver's seat, and grab the metal briefcase in the passenger side foot well.
The lock's clearly been tampered with.
Inside, the samples still look present and intact. Hopefully Cosima will be able to tell for sure.
There's more, though. Photocopies of the European identicals' passports.
But there's also Allison's address as well.
I rub my face.
Allison has enough on her plate already.
I'll... I'll find out if there's a problem.
And deal with it if necessary.
I stow the briefcase back in the foot well, and perform a quick check on my purse.
Everything *seems* to be there - though I might have a few less notes in my wallet than I used to - but it would if she's competent.
It's not important, not tonight.
Sarah can rip me off tomorrow, if she chooses to.
As if summoned by my thoughts, she appears at the mouth of the alley and walks quickly towards the car. She veers towards the passenger side when she sees where I've seated myself.
"So," she says as she opens the car door and plops down next to me. "Where to first?"
"Somewhere the body won't be found for some time."
There are advantages to being a detective. One being that I know all the *best* places to hide things.
"What the hell's up with the three of us?" she asks abruptly after I've been driving a minute or so. "Were we identical triplets separated at birth or something?"
"If only," I say. "There're more than three of us. And I knew my parents." For what *that* had been worth.
"Knew?" she asks, and I can see her looking at me from out of the corner of her eye, though I can't read her expression.
I inwardly curse my slip of the tongue. "We don't speak any more."
For as long as I'd known him, my father had been an ultra-type A manipulative, abusive bastard.
And my mother had been so tranquilised on pills she hadn't given a damn. She never could protect me. From anything.
Truly I'm a triumph of nurture over nature.
And cutting my ties with them had probably been the best thing I'd ever done.
"So what *are* we?"
"Genetic identicals. Or so I've been told," I tell her. "Clones," I add when she doesn't seem enlightened.
"What? *Clones*?" she says, disbelief lacing her voice.
I have problems caring, this night of all nights. "If you have a better explanation, I'd love to hear it."
"How many of us are there?"
I shrug. "Three of us in the North American cell. Katja was the only contact with the European cell I had. There were more there. Less now. We're being killed off."
"Like Katja," I say tonelessly. "And she was good. Trained in surveillance and counter-surveillance." I don't know the history behind that. She'd never offered. I'd never asked. And now I never would.
It wasn't chance that the hunter had taken her out before they'd taken a shot at someone they thought was me.
She's silent for a moment. "You think I led them to her."
I want to close my eyes, but I can't. Instead I just focus on the road. "No. I did. If I hadn't-" I cut the sentence off before I can say anything more.
"Oi," she says, her words laced with genuine anger. "I can own my own bloody fuckups, thank you very much."
"You didn't know. I didn't tell you." Though I don't know what she could have done, even if I had.
"I didn't exactly give you much of a chance, did I?"
"True enough," I say. "True enough."
"If we're clones, who made us?"
"If anyone knows, they haven't told me yet."
"And who's killing us? The same people who made us?"
Maggie Chen's face flashes in front of me. Abomination, she'd called me, before I'd pulled the trigger.
"I don't think so," I say softly.
Sarah shoots me a quizzical glance.
"Intuition," I tell her. "Maybe I'll be able to find out more tomorrow. What else can you tell me about the incident?"
She stiffens for a moment, then slowly, grudgingly, starts to give me details.
The process takes long enough that we get to where I'm heading for.
"Nice location," she says, looking around.
"That's the idea." I get out and open the back door. Getting the body out isn't as easy as it looks. "If you're going to help, I'd appreciate a hand here." Rigor mortis has started setting in. This would make it easier to carry her, if she weren't wedged in the foot well.
In the end, the spade serves double duty.
And not for the last time.
It's not Katja, I tell myself.
Now it's just meat.
"What are you doing?" she asks with a kind of horrified fascination as I raise the spade above my head,
It's just meat, I tell myself again as I drive the edge into Katja's chest.
"Making sure the corpse doesn't dig itself out again."
It's just meat, as I sever her fingers.
It's just meat, as I smash her teeth.
"No dental records."
In the end, it's hard to identify her as anything else.
In the end, it's all she has left.
Digging the grave itself is a relief after that.
And if the exercise makes my muscles burn?
It feels something akin to penance.
Sarah's quiet as I get back in the car.
"It was necessary," I tell her, tell myself.
"Yeah," she says, then, "I know a place we can give this car a proper wash."
I look at her for a moment, then get back out of the car.
"Please," I say. "Feel free to drive us there."
She drives for a little while in silence. "You said that there were three of you in the North American cell."
I think for a moment.
"Are you actually planning on sticking around, helping out after this? Because if you aren't, the less you know..."
She shoots me a sharp glance. "I'm helping out right now, aren't I?"
"I'm trying to give you an out here," I tell her. "Hopefully, the hunters think you were me. If you run now..." I shrug. "They should come after me first. Maybe I'll even manage to stop them."
"If you actually try and keep yourself alive long enough," she mutters, then gives me a quick, almost remorseful look,
The moment hangs between us, sharp and crystalline.
Then I give her a slight smile,
It's not as though she's *wrong*, after all.
Between the two of us, the cleaning goes quickly.
Better yet, it keeps us busy enough that neither of us feels the need to talk.
Then I smash the windscreen - to hide the bullet holes - and call for an emergency replacement.
The wait there is more problematic, but I fill my half by noting down all the details I don't want to forget.
Incriminating, yes, if any of my colleagues ever gets the chance to have a look at it.
But I need to get to bottom of this.
For all our sakes.
After the repair vehicle has been and gone, I turn to look at her.
"Where would you like me to take you? Felix's?"
She hesitates for a moment. "I could come home with you?" she offers.
"You don't need to do that." It's only as I say the words that I realise how fragile they sound.
She snorts. "Don't get me wrong. It's just your pad is far nicer than anywhere I've dossed down for a while."
"And you wouldn't believe how much Felix would complain if I came knocking at his door this time of night."
I make a sound that might be one of agreement, if it didn't sound so strangled.
"And, really, how much protection are you going to be if..." she makes an abortive movement with one hand. ?ou know what? Just forget I said anything."
I don't say anything - I can't say anything - but she doesn't ask to be taken anywhere else, and she doesn't complain when I pull up in front of my apartment.
I don't know what this is - I can't even begin to think about it.
I just don't have anything left.
All I can do is passively accept it, and see where it leads.
I enter the apartment cautiously. "Paul?" I call, just in case.
But he doesn't respond, and I can't see any sign that he's come back early,
One small thing to be grateful for.
I wave Sarah in.
"Want me to take the sofa?" she asks.
I shrug. "If you want."
Because I don't know what I want.
And it's not as though we have a guestroom.
But she follows me into the bedroom and doesn't leave even after I hand her a pair of pyjamas.
"Really?" she asks, holding them up.
"Why? What do you sleep in?"
She smirks a little, begins to answer, then abruptly seems to change her mind. "You know what? Your house, your rules."
"In which case, I'll have the first shower."
I go to the bathroom and get in, blasting myself with as much heat as I can bear.
It doesn't cleanse me, doesn't make me pure.
But I feel like I might be able to live with myself for a little while longer.
I pause in front of the medicine cabinet, but in the end I leave my pills alone.
After what I've done this evening, I don't feel like giving myself that out.
Not right now.
The morning, though. I'll need them in the morning.
I get back into the bedroom, to find her stretched out on the bed.
"The shower's all yours," I tell her.
"Thanks," she says and makes her way out of the room.
I lie down on my bed, in my usual position, and close my eyes.
Maybe I can be asleep by the time she gets out.
The day's events catch up to me, though, and I feel a pressure like a silent scream building up inside of me.
I can't let it out, though.
I can't remember the last time I was able to let anything out.
The shower stops, and I hear footsteps leave the bathroom and approach the bed.
This is how it's going to be.
There's the creak of springs and the pressure of her getting into the other side, but I keep my eyes closed and don't react.
Because, really, considering my normal over the last few months?
Lying in bed with someone I can't trust - or someone I can't bring myself to trust?
There's no difference.
No difference at all.
It's almost comforting in its familiarity.
I force myself to think of nothing, force myself to shove everything inside the smallest box I can imagine.
Just like normal.
Gradually my breath begins to slow and sleep seems almost achievable.
It's then that she rolls over, and breaths into my neck. "Don't trust me. Please. You can't trust me."
I don't know if she even realises that I'm still awake enough to hear her.
But it's those words that do it.
Those words that make everything real.
Those words that undo whatever hold I had on... everything.
I begin to tremble.
Begin to shake.
Shake hard enough that I start coming apart.
I still might not be able to bring myself to make a sound, but the tears rolling down my face mean *something*.
Mean more than... than I can remember allowing myself.
And maybe she did know, maybe she did know what those words would do to me.
Because she holds me all the while.
Holds me until the tears run dry.
Holds me until I stop shaking.
Holds me until I drift to sleep, more naturally, more empty this time.
In the morning, I wake up and she's gone.
As I half knew she would be.
It doesn't matter, though, because she was there for that one night.
And that one night was enough.
Enough for now.
And there's a note on the table my side of the bed.
'I didn't have a chance to tell you. Your hearing has been rescheduled to 10 am today, due to a stomach bug you came down with yesterday.
I'm taking your advice, and getting out whilst the going's good.
Good luck and goodbye,
My first response is relief.
I still have a chance at my job.
A chance at my future.
A chance to protect my identicals. Maybe even Sarah.
My second is a wave of panic.
I've got to lie to an inquiry panel.
I've got to convince them that it was just an accident, a tragic accident.
And I've got to do this without arousing suspicions. Without even too much chemical aid.
For a moment, I wish that Sarah was still here, that she could give me a quick lesson in how to do this.
Because these aren't the lies I'm good at.
They're lies of commision, not of omission.
I stumble to the bathroom, open the medicine cabinet and shake one pill into my hand, two.
I can't risk any physical symptoms today.
I look at myself in the mirror.
Slightly red eyes, with bags underneath. Maybe a little pale.
It'd do. With some makeup, it'd do.
But first, I need to just not *think* for a while.
So I change into my running clothes, and proceed to do just that.
Breathe in, breathe out.
Right foot hits the sidewalk, then the left.
Feel the burn start to take hold.
Keep my eyes focused forward.
Nothing else exists.
Not for the moment.
I see Art's car - see Art - before he sees me. He's lurking almost around the corner from my apartment, placed so he can watch anyone coming out of the entrance whilkst making it hard for them to spot him.
He jumps a little as I tap loudly on the passenger side window.
I can't say that his reaction doesn't please me a little. Even if he was way too focused on my building.
"How're you doing, dipshit?" I say loudly, almost cheerily, still glowing from the jog.
"I'd be feeling better if my partner wasn't trying to send me to an early grave," he says as he winds down the window, glowering a little.
I smile, almost involuntarily.
This small exchange feels like the most normal we've had since...
Since Maggie Chen.
It can't last, and it doesn't.
His face hardens slightly, and the moment is over.
My smile disappears, and I shoot for normality. "I thought that I still had some time."
"Just wanted to make sure that you weren't going to try and skip out on me again," he says, still with that slightly tight expression, then looks me over. "You must be feeling better."
"Twenty four hour bug."
"You actually ready for the hearing then?"
A surge of panic goes through me, only slightly muted by the pills.
"Sure," I say. "Just let me grab a shower and change my clothes."
"You do that. I'll stay out here, keep the car warm."
He doesn't say that it's his ass on the line, but then he really doesn't need to.
It isn't as though he hasn't said it enough already.
And the tension between us is worse today, worse than it has been.
Not that I can really blame him.
I flinch away, unable to keep his gaze.
"You want to come up and wait there instead?"
It's not much of an olive branch, but it's all I can offer at the moment.
Besides, maybe having him there will help keep some of the panic at bay.
He hesitates. "Paul won't mind?"
"Paul's away until the weekend, so I imagine he won't have an opinion on the matter."
"Okay, then," he says, untensing a little bit. "Mind if I grab some coffee while I'm there?"
"Sure," I say. "I'll show you where everything is."
And maybe it's only a start, maybe it's almost nothing at all.
But if I'm going to start to look ahead at all, it's going to be a real help to have Art there next to me.
The hearing... happens.
By the end of it, I'm not sure if I did well or not.
But I'm not escorted out of the room in handcuffs.
It's something, I suppose.
Possibly more than I deserve, some might say.
I can remember a time when I would have been one of those people.
I can remember a time when I believed in justice, in the law.
I can remember a time when I didn't have to wonder how many people in a given room would consider me human, if they knew.
But at least it's over now.
At least now I can start to look past it.
Win, lose or draw, the die is now cast.
Art's waiting for me when I emerge.
"Well?" he asks.
"I'll tell you when I know."
The parking lot where Katja died is utterly unremarkable, apart from that fact.
I didn't know her that well, but I can't help thinking that she would have appreciated the setting, in her own way.
A death in a grey lot, surrounded by grey prefab buildings.
Even with a briefcase of secrets to hand.
Much better than coughing up her lungs in a hospital.
Or, worse, reclaimed by whoever had made us, and spending her last days in a lab.
It hurts, a cold, aching pain, that I will never be able to talk this over with her, hear the black humour in her voice as she describes the ways that the scene could have been so much *better*.
I push it away.
I've got more important things to focus on right now.
Finding the spot where it happened isn't that difficult, between the notes I made yesterday and the thick black lines on the tarmac where Sarah must have screeched away. From there, it isn't too hard to figure out the rough location of where the shooter must have been. The buildings around here may be disused, but there's only so many windows that are missing their glass in approximately the right direction.
After forcing my way into the building opposite - the assassin must have either locked up after themselves, or used a different method of entrance and exit - it becomes a lot more obvious about which window was used. I could be wrong, but the one with stick figures drawn in a ring around it seems like the obvious bet. The scuff marks in the dust are also something of a clue, as is the table that's been moved in front of the window - presumably so the sniper had something to support their rifle, without having the barrel poke out of the window.
I dust for fingerprints fairly desultorily, but I'm not particularly surprised when I don't pick anything up. I can't imagine that anyone who is capable of setting this up wouldn't have been schooled in such elementary protocols.
Even if they are disturbed enough to leave their artwork.
Following the footprints in the dust, I find a window with boards that have been loosened. I manage to bag a few fibres though I'm not sure how much use they'll be - even if I manage to keep my job, I'm reluctant to risk myself by putting them through the system with nothing more than a 'just in case' scenario.
Finally, I go over the scene, to see if there's anything else I missed. And this is where I manage to actually find something that might be a lead - a spent cartridge that's rolled into a corner.
I pick it up and examine it. It looks a little like a .30-06 cartridge, but not quite. Maybe a little shorter, and it doesn't have a groove around its base. I bag it as well and, after a further search around the place is fruitless, I leave the building and go around the area, just in case I can find some traces of the assassin outside. The tarmac doesn't yield any clues, though, and, eventually, I call the search off.
Time to consult my firearms expert.
"What do you want now?" Maria says warily as I approach her desk. "And aren't you still supposed to be suspended anyway?"
"Just because I'm on leave, doesn't mean that I can't be asked for favours," I say. "And apparently even when suspended, it's easier to ask me than you for some people."
"So how is Art these days?" she asks dryly. "And why should I help him, even through the proxy of you?"
"Less than pleased with me. Disappointed, even," I say, the truth of my words cutting deep enough to obscure anything else. "And because you like me more than him. And because I bought you a chai latte."
She takes my offering, sniffing at it dubiously before taking a sip. "Okay," she says, apparently finding it acceptable. "What does he want me to do?"
I give her the bagged cartridge.
She picks it up, twirls it around in her fingers whilst studying it. "Huh. You don't see many of these around here." She looks back up at me. "It's a seven point six two by fifty-four mil R cal cartridge. Used in various ex-soviet bloc rifles. From the stamping on the case, this one," she says, looking back at the cartridge, "Appears to have been specifically manufactured for the Dragunov sniper rifle. For greater precision."
"So, what, it was used by a Russian sniper?"
"Ex-soviet bloc," she corrects. "That, or a hobbyist who knows their stuff."
Maggie Chen hadn't been in the country that long. And all the killings I'd heard about so far had taken place in Europe. So, maybe...
To import a rifle legally should be fairly easily traceable, and shouldn't take too much time to check out. Even when on suspension, if you knew the right people to flash a smile at.
Illegally - well, it'd probably be easier to source a rifle locally than smuggle it from Europe. Especially in the kind of time scale I was thinking about. And I had a good idea about which local dealers might have a specialty weapon like this and and be willing to... be a little lax when it came to paperwork.
"Thanks," I say. "You've been a real help."
"Yeah, yeah," Maria says, waving me away. "Now leave me to enjoy my drink in peace, before it goes completely cold."
It's gone seven by the time I get back to the apartment. Between avoiding the lieutenant and fluttering my eyelashes at Raj, I've managed to confirm that no one outside an authorised dealer has brought a Dragunov into the country within the likely timeframe - and certainly not from Europe - but by that point, rustling up the local dealers would be more effort than it's worth.
There's always tomorrow.
Besides, there's a meeting of the club over at Alison's at ten - to turn over the briefcase to Cosima among other things - and I'm aware how much Alison prefers me to be out of my work clothes.
I like to do what I can for her.
The first sign that something is wrong is the light leaking out from under the front door to the apartment.
My heart stops, then starts racing.
I know there's a hunter after me - possibly more than one.
But surely they wouldn't-?
Not *here*. Not so obviously.
I stand to one side as I open the front door, my hand resting on the non-existent gun at my side.
"Paul?" I call as I push open the door. "Is that you?"
"Who else is it going to be?" comes his voice from the living room.
And suddenly my heart is pounding for a completely different reason.
And I still haven't...
I still don't know...
And I still have no idea what to *do* about that. About him.
I don't even know how I *feel* about him.
"I didn't think you were going to be back until Saturday," I say weakly as I walk into the apartment.
"I thought I'd come back and surprise you," he says as he gets up from where he was sitting and comes over towards me.
And, as ever, his words ignite a small flame of hope within me.
Maybe he does care.
Maybe we're going to be alright. This time.
(Maybe he really does want me.)
"How did the hearing go?" he asks as he hugs me.
And, at his touch, the counterflow begins.
Because this is how it always starts.
There's always a show of affection at first.
It's like he forgets, after a while.
Something just rings false - a word, a look.
Nothing that I can ever quite put a finger on.
Nothing that I can point to.
Nothing that stops me looking like a bitch when it sets me off, either hot or cold, anger or retreat.
As it always does, eventually.
I've got more reason than ever to suspect him.
I've actually got a reason to doubt him.
(But still, there's the little voice within me, telling me that I've been so wrong so many times before. That there's a reasonable explanation behind this. That it's just me being crazy, being emotionally unavailable. That I don't deserve him. That, if I finally manage to drive him away, I'll be alone forever.)
(Because if he doesn't want me, then no one else ever can.)
(Because, maybe, I deserve it, deserve all of it.)
The conflict within me, the back and forth, is enough to make me freeze under his touch. "I don't know," I say. "I guess I'll find out."
He tenses slightly, and looks down. I can see him studying my eyes. Doubtless trying to figure out if I've been using again.
I step away from him, and he lets me go without a struggle.
"Stop judging me," I say tightly.
Because if it wasn't for him, I might not have...
But I did, or at least I tried.
And that's on me.
But if he has been spying on me...
If this has all been a lie, every single day spent with me.
Then that's on him.
That's definitely on him.
(But there's still a part of me - a large part - that doesn't want to find out if it's true or not.)
(Not because I might have been wrong - again. Not because I might just be a paranoid freak.)
(But because I might be right.)
(And I'm not sure that I know how to go on from there.)
"Look," he says, in a conciliatory tone of voice. "I know that this has been hard on you. And I'm sorry that I couldn't have been with you for this. It's just bad timing," he says, so reasonable.
Always so very reasonable.
"I'm fine," I bite out. "You needn't have bothered."
And then, of course, I feel like a complete bitch.
It's not Paul's fault that... that so much has happened in the last couple of days.
It's not his fault that I'm all over the place. That it feels like tears are starting to well within me again, and I can't - I *won't* - let him see me break down like this.
And it's not his fault that I'm going to have to come up with an excuse to leave in a couple of hours.
I give him the best smile I'm capable of right now, which isn't saying much. "Look, I appreciate this - I *do* - but the last couple of days have just been damn rough on me. I'm going to go out and exercise until I can get my head together. If you're up when I get back, maybe we can talk properly then. When I'm being less of a freak."
He looks me over again, then nods slowly. "Sure," he says. "Whatever you need."
But I can't help noticing that he doesn't say I'm not a freak.
In the end, I make it as far as the car before I can't go any farther.
I rest my head on the steering wheel, and just collapse there for... I don't know how long, not moving at all.
Normally, I couldn't do even this much *here*, in public.
But I don't have anywhere else at the moment.
And I need to get my head together, for the meeting tonight.
I can't let Alison or Cosima see me at anything other than my best.
I can't let any cracks show.
Because they're counting on me to protect them, look after them.
Not fail them like I do everyone else.
In the end, it's a tapping at my window that disturbs me.
And, to my shock, it's Sarah standing there, holding a paper bag. Looking... almost uncertain.
Even more shocking is how much relief I feel upon seeing her there.
"Hey there," I say as I wind down the window. "I thought you were getting out while the going was good?"
"Here," she says, handing me the bag. "This is yours."
Inside is what looks like tens of thousands of dollars, neatly stacked and bound, bank style.
Also a set of house keys, all shiny and new and freshly cut.
They look suspiciously like copies to the keys to my apartment.
I'd bet that seventy-five thousand dollars are in this bag.
I can't say that I'm surprised.
It's the kind of thing that I thought would happen.
What else could you expect from someone with Sarah's record.
Albeit not as much I would have thought it might.
I can't trust her.
I knew that I couldn't trust her.
"I see," I say, unable to look her in the eyes.
"I didn't go through with it," she says.
But what I have for her is a bounded mistrust.
I can know the limits, the parameters.
And she's already helped me so much more than I could have thought she would.
She saved my life, for a start.
Took me in, even for a single night.
And she came back.
She came back.
Maybe it's just the way I am, some defect within me.
But surely that is worth a second chance.
"Yeah, well. I'm about as surprised as you are. But, well, I found something worth staying around for. And it isn't like running helped Katja much, is it?"
I raise an eyebrow. "Something worth staying around for?"
Her eyes flinch away for a moment. "I want to be better. For my daughter."
"You have a daughter?" slips out of my mouth.
"An actual daughter? That you gave birth to?"
"Is there something wrong with that?"
"I couldn't- we couldn't- I thought none of us could have children."
She looks at me for a moment. "Yeah, well. I definitely could."
This- this changes *everything*.
I abruptly remember where we are, which building we're outside, *who* is inside, and might come out and see Sarah and I at any moment.
"Get in," I say. "We've got a lot to talk about."
"Okay," she says as soon as she's settled in the car. "So talk."
I busy myself for a few moments starting up the car and driving away.
She has a daughter.
And then it clicks smoothly into place.
Her daughter has to be protected.
Sarah, too. Even if I still can't quite make the idea of her being one of us fit in my mind.
"Is that why you took me to Felix's two nights ago? Because you didn't want me around her?"
She cocks her head. "I thought you were going to be the one doing the talking."
Not quite a question. Not quite a demand. A little bit of both.
I spare her a thin smile. "I don't know what gave you that idea."
"Yeah," she says, rolling her eyes. "Guess I should've known better."
Should have expected this from a *cop*, is the very loudly unspoken subtext. I ignore it.
"No!" she says. "That's not why I took you there."
There's an uncomfortable silence. I wait her out. I'm good at that -- it goes with the territory. Sure enough, she shoots me an aggravated look before finally breaking.
"Why's this so important to you, anyway?"
Because there are hunters out there, and I need to keep you both safe, I don't say.
I may not have known Sarah long, but I'm pretty certain that line would *not* go down well.
So, instead, I shrug and say, "Need to know where I can get hold of you, if I need to."
"Yeah, well, maybe you can spring for one of those little pink phones. Then I can *tell* you where I am. If I think you need to know."
Okay, so *that* line hadn't worked much better.
"Okay, I'll get one for you tomorrow," I say, hoping to de-escalate. "Where do you want to meet?"
She drums her fingers on the dashboard, shifting restlessly in her seat as her eyes scan the car, the surroundings. Me.
"Your apartment's fine."
I hesitate for a moment.
"It's not?" she asks, stilling.
"Paul came back tonight," I say. "There's always the chance he'll still be around tomorrow."
"Your boyfriend Paul?" she clarifies.
"Does he know about..." she gestures between the two of us.
"No. No one does, outside myself, Alison, Cosima and now you." Something passes across her face. "Unless you've told someone else?"
"Felix," she says. I can't honestly say I'm all that surprised. "It's not like he didn't already know something was up, though."
Thanks to me.
Even when I thought that I was being neat, had cleared everything up...
Well, to be completely fair, it isn't as though Sarah doesn't seem to have a talent for making things... messy.
"Fine," I say. "But no one else can know. Can you make sure Felix understands that?"
"Trust me," she says. "Me and Fee know how to keep our mouths shut."
"Good." I take a breath, pushing that worry aside for now. "So, where can I meet you tomorrow?"
The look on her face sours slightly. "Felix's. You know how to find that, yeah?"
"I think I can remember the way. Anyway, you left his phone number in my cell phone."
There's a brief silence. This time I'm the one to break it. "If you're staying with Felix, where does your daughter live?"
"Why are you being so bloody persistent about that?"
"I'm a cop." That may not help the mulish look in her eyes, but it's the truth, despite everything. And maybe it'll make my next statement easier to swallow. "I need to know where everyone is. Just in case."
"Because the police have brought nothing but joy to my life." The edge on her voice could cut glass.
"I'm on your side," I try.
"Yeah. I've heard that before, too. Look, *I* may be a part of this, but she isn't. She just isn't, okay? So leave her the hell alone."
"Okay," I agree and leave it at that.
Because I'm afraid that our enemies, both hunters and anyone else interested in us, aren't going to agree with Sarah on this one.
The girl's her daughter.
I can't see how she won't become a part of this.
I become aware of Sarah looking at me, studying me. Scrutinising me, it feels like.
"What?" I ask, a little irritably.
"You didn't look so great when I arrived."
I compress my lips.
I don't want to talk about that.
I don't even want to *think* about that.
"It's nothing," I say shortly.
"Bullshit," she says, matter-of-factly. "Or did you forget that I know you tried to top yourself a couple of nights ago?"
All of a sudden my vision dims and I'm having trouble breathing.
Somehow, I manage to pull over and stop the car safely.
I don't start shaking.
And I definitely don't cry - not in front of her, never in front of her.
But it comes flooding out of me anyway.
The good times.
The times when I don't feel anything from him.
And the times when he just won't let me go. For better or for worse.
And the uncertainty - always the uncertainty.
Does he still love me?
Did he ever love me?
And - worst of all - the most recent fears on top of all of that. The inconsistencies that I've caught. The niggling fear that he's only with me because of what I am.
That he's a watcher. That he's working for Them.
Whoever They are.
Sarah just listens, looking at me with shadowed eyes.
"Why are you still with him?" she asks bluntly, when I've finally run out of words.
I scrub at my face with one hand. "What if I'm wrong about this? What if I'm on the verge of throwing away the best thing in my life because-"
Because I'm a worthless, paranoid mess of a woman undergoing yet another breakdown.
"He doesn't sound like the best thing in your life."
"Is that him, or is that just down to me? Because, really, who else is going to find *this*," I indicate myself, "Attractive?"
Her mouth opens as if she's going to say something, but no words come out and she closes it again.
Just as I thought.
"There's got to be some way you can figure out if he's up to something," she says eventually. "Be good to know *that* much, at least."
My jaw tenses, but I don't reply.
"You're the detective," she says, apparently taking my silence as a lack of ideas. "Prove it," she adds, with a challenging glint in her eyes.
"Bugging his workplace and his car seemed like a good first step," I pause for a moment. "There's a surveillance kit in the boot."
She gives me a look, and I glance away, unable to hold her gaze.
I'd thought about it.
Even made a plan.
But *doing* it, putting it into action...
It had just made it all too real.
"Fine," she says. "Run me through how to use it, and I'll handle setting it up."
I look at her doubtfully. "Really?"
"Oh yeah. *This* I can handle."
"He's away from work until the weekend," I caution.
I can only hope that's still the case.
Having him here...
It's not helping.
She thinks for a moment. "Okay. I can roll with that."
And, all of a sudden, it's like there's a weight off my back.
She can roll with that.
She can do this.
She can check Paul out.
And I... I don't have to.
I'm not quite aware of how much that means to me until I realise that my perspective has changed - tilted. That I've slumped down so I'm resting on her shoulder.
"Thank you," I whisper.
Thank you for not making me do this for myself.
She looks down at me, mouth twisted into a wry smile. "Hey. I'm not dead weight in this. You're not alone."
I'm not alone.
I'm not alone.
I press deeper into her shoulder, then fall into her body as, just for a moment, she wraps her arm around me. And, somehow, it feels more like I'm being held together than just another sign that I'm falling apart.
I'm not quite sure I can believe it.
But, just for a moment, I can tell myself.
I'm not alone.
I take a quick glance around.
I can't see anyone else around here. Aside from the two of us, the street seems deserted.
Just as I'd expect from Suburbia after dark, but it pays to be careful.
"Remember," I say. "Act normally, like there's nothing strange in us being together."
Sarah spares me a scornful look. "Trust me. I've had a lot more practise at this kind of thing than you have, *copper*."
"How could I forget?" I ask dryly as I get out, then lean back in to grab the briefcase.
"Scarborough," I hear her mutter as she follows me out. "I can't believe you've brought us to bloody Scarborough. I can't believe I've *let* you bring us to bloody Scarborough."
Her accent makes the name of the place sound alien and strange to my ears: Scar-bruh. Rough and hard-edged. A little like her, at least at first.
Then she jolts me out of my musings by linking arms with me as though... well, as though we've known each other a long time as I march us towards Alison's house.
It's not unpleasant.
She's even managed to make me relax a little by the time we enter Alison's yard.
I have to admit that she does manage to seem utterly at ease - possibly even more so than me - and, with some quick arranging of her hair and a pair of sunglasses she produced from somewhere, she's managed to make herself look far less recognisable from a distance.
I can't help thinking that I could probably learn a few things from her, if she's ever in the mood for sharing.
I knock on the door. Moments later, Alison jerks it open.
"Beth," she says, smiling in a way that seems to light up her whole face. She looks towards my companion, and the smile dials down a few notches toward something more neutral. "And you must be Sarah." She glances downwards, at how we're standing, and her expression flickers again, resolving itself into yet another smile. This one is somewhat more plastic-looking than the first, and her eyes are like pebbles, hard and bright.
She raises her arms in a sharp motion, holding them outstretched as if to give me a hug.
And I can't help wondering if... *that*, if what I tried to do is written over my features that clearly.
Can she really know?
I just wanted to protect you and your family.
I hope you can understand that.
I slip out of Sarah's loose grasp, and step into Alison's arms.
She holds me tightly, briefly, then lets me go.
"Well, come on in," she trills, glancing at Sarah before performing a sharp about turn into the house. "Cosima's waiting."
"So, those are the other two," Sarah says once we're in the car afterwards.
"That's them," I say, almost surprised to find a faint smile on my lips.
Despite everything, it's... nice to be reminded of the reason why I'm doing this. Part of it, at least.
"Alison's... a little uptight, isn't she?"
My smile disappears. "She's a good person."
"Sure," she says, shrugging. "And a little territorial."
"You're new." It sounds like an explanation, if not a good one.
I've never seen her act quite the way she did tonight.
If she *could* tell... what I almost did a few nights ago, she didn't say anything. But then she might not - she's too polite to bring up something like that in company.
I really hope she doesn't know.
I wouldn't want to add to her burdens like that.
"I guess," Sarah says, a little doubtfully, then pauses for a moment and changes the subject. "Would you have even told them about Katja's death if I hadn't brought it up?"
I grit my teeth a little. "I'm still not sure what good it did to mention it. Cosima's going to Minnesota, and Alison isn't a trained investigator. The fact that there's a killer out there is just going to worry them."
"Yeah, well, speaking for myself, I'd want to know." There's a movement in the darkness beside me, and what looks like her pale face turns towards me. "There *isn't* anything else, is there? Something you haven't told me yet?" she asks sharply.
I hesitate a little too long.
"What?" she demands.
"Maggie Chen," I say, defeated. "It wasn't... I panicked. She was a hunter, following me, watching me, asking the wrong kind of questions." My chest starts to tighten, so I stop and make myself take a deep breath, sucking the much needed oxygen all the way into my lungs before continuing. "So I confronted her. It went wrong."
I hadn't meant to shoot her.
It had just happened.
"She'd recently flown in from France, paid for everything in cash. Her only phone calls had been to French cell phone numbers, but they didn't seem to go anywhere - recently acquired burner phones as far as I could tell. No leads, nothing."
And maybe, maybe she'd only managed to find me.
If I was gone...
Maybe the others would have been safe.
"The only thing I know for sure is that she called me an abomination." I attempt to give the windscreen a smile. "I'd guess that would suggest a religious motivation. Certainly it implies that she wasn't with the people who made us."
Sarah's been listening to me quietly throughout this, and I slowly become aware that at some point during my ramble she'd placed a gentle hand on my leg.
I'm not usually a touchy-feely person, but it's oddly nice. And seeing my identicals and Sarah together tonight...
I trust Alison and Cosima. I do. I love them like the sisters I never had, but always wanted.
But what I feel for Sarah isn't anything like what I feel for them.
Maybe it's the threads of trust and distrust, layered and welded together so tightly that I have difficulty telling one from the other these days.
But what I feel for her has a different tenor entirely.
"Hey," she says. "You can talk to me now." She grins suddenly. "And you can spare me the shite about trying to protect me. I don't need that from anyone. Not even you."
It's difficult, but I nod my head. "I'll work on that."
"Yeah," she says. "Do that. And maybe think about clueing the others in at some point. They deserve to know too."
"First things first, Sarah," I say, a little tartly. "First things first."
The morning dawns bright and early.
Paul groans in the bed next to me. He'd stayed up until I got back last night.
And we'd talked.
But it had been easier than it had been for a few weeks. The relief of knowing that I'm going to do *something*, maybe find out a little about him. And even just the relief of having told someone about it...
It had made it easier.
It makes it possible to lean over now and kiss him. "I'm off out soon," I tell him softly as I reset the alarm for him.
"I thought you were still on suspension," he mutters into his pillow.
"That doesn't mean that I'm going to let myself get soft," I reply, almost cheerfully.
He rolls over and blinks sleepily up at me. "Hey," he says. "It's good to see that you're feeling better."
It's times like this - quiet moments when everything feels just right - that remind me of why I fell in love with him.
Maybe it's going to be alright, I tell myself.
Maybe we were just going through a rough patch, and now it's all going to work out.
Maybe there is nothing else after all.
I lean over and give him a proper kiss.
"Have a good trip," I murmur. "See you on Saturday."
It's actually almost refreshing to be doing some basic, old-fashioned, boots-on-the-ground police work. Even if it isn't exactly by the book. I can feel my mind starting to kick into gear, maybe even recovering some of its former sharpness, as I make a circuit of some of the city's less-reputable gun vendors, tracking down the information I need.
The first couple of vendors I hit claim that they haven't sold any of the requisite type of rifles for a while now, and I tentatively believe them.
For the moment.
Anyway, if I don't hit any leads the first time around, I can always come back.
The third place doesn't sell rifles at all.
But that's not why I'm there.
One quick transfer of cash later, and I've got a somewhat illegal - if clean - handgun and a few boxes of ammunition.
If Sarah's determined to try to help me, then I'm going to make sure that she has something to protect herself with. As well as some training to go along with it.
"Hey," she says when I pick her up outside Felix's apartment.
"Morning," I reply as she slides in next to me. "Look in the glove compartment. Your phone's in there, with a hundred dollars of credit on it."
"Thanks for letting me decide what model-" she starts to say, then stops dead and looks back up at me. "Did you know there's a gun in there too?"
"That's going to be yours," I tell her. "After I've made sure you know how to use it."
"Yeah," she says. "Guns aren't really my thing."
"Yeah," she says, looking at the glove compartment again. "They certainly do. For one, I can't believe that I'm actually trusting a copper. For another, I can't believe a copper's enabling me."
I smile tightly. "Try not to make me regret doing this too much more than I already am."
She turns and squints at me for a moment. "Actually, that's a good point. Why *are* you enabling me? You're police. Why aren't you just trusting to the System?" She manages to invest the last word with a sizable amount of contempt.
The old pain flares up again.
The cold and bitter hole in the substrate of my existence.
Why have I helped to set up an illegal, if small and mostly powerless, conspiracy?
"You mean apart from the fact that if the clone thing ever came out, it would pretty much ruin any of our lives?" I choke out a laugh. "When Katja first contacted me, I seriously thought about doing just that. But over a few drinks, I got a prosecutor I'm friends with talking about the subject, at least in hypotheticals."
"Yeah? What did they have to say?"
"That human cloning's just that - a hypothetical. That there isn't any precedent about whether a clone - especially if they've been modified in any way - is counted as human or not. If it ever went to court, it'd probably go our way. Probably. But it's not a certainty. And how can I trust in a system that hasn't even decided if I'm human or not?"
Sarah snorts. "Welcome to my world. With a record, I'm not exactly first among equals at the best of times."
"Yes," I say, with an expression that's more a baring of teeth than a smile. "Well. Enough chat. Shall we get on with this?"
"When are we going to get to the point of me actually shooting a gun?" Sarah asks with a disgruntled tone in her voice.
"When I'm convinced that you won't be a greater danger to me than any opponent you might face," I respond coolly before continuing with the exercise.
Given much of the reason we're doing this is the not-unlikely event of Sarah having to actually use a gun, my lesson is starting off with a small course on gun safety. Constant awareness of what she's pointing at, trigger discipline, keeping the gun unloaded except when she intends to use it - that sort of thing. I'm trying to use the same kind of structured lessons that I was taught with.
From the expression on her face, I'm fast approaching the point of negative returns.
It's probably time to move to the shooting practise section of the lesson.
I just hope that I'll have time to instruct her further before we have to test these skills in the field.
"Okay," I tell her and hand her a pair of ear muffs. "Put these on," I say before putting on my own pair.
"Finally," she says and follows suit.
I toss her a magazine. "Let's see you load the gun."
I'm glad to see that at least this part of the lesson seems to have stuck as she does so smoothly.
She even remembers to point the gun well away from me as she raises it and aims towards the targets I set up earlier.
Maybe I'm not going to die due to overenthusiastic friendly fire after all.
She's got completely the wrong posture, of course, and that's the next thing to correct. "Move this leg forward a bit," I say, patting the offending limb, then stand back a moment. "No, no, stand more like this," I say, demonstrating. We'd already been over this, but...
"That's good," I say. "Now remember to hold onto the grip tightly with all your fingers *except* the index and..."
There's a loud retort as she fires the gun.
She misses the target, of course, but the technique isn't bad for a beginner.
"Good," I tell her. "Now try that again."
She's a quick study - just like I was, just like Alison was - and only has a few bad firing habits that I have to break her of.
It's in the middle of that, when I'm standing behind her, molding my body to hers in a last ditch attempt to correct the posture she keeps on adopting after that first shot, that I become abruptly aware of the body pressed against mine.
This isn't like it was with Alison.
It's not like that at all.
I almost spring away from her, my face flaming.
"We can work on that another time," I say quickly, almost babbling. "Just... just try some practise shooting by yourself for a while."
Sarah gives me a long look - lowering her gun to point at the ground first - before returning her attention to the targets and starting to fire.
Leaving me to my embarrassment, my humiliation.
Because this isn't right.
It isn't right at all.
And I can't believe that the first time I've really felt aroused in... in *months* without serious effort and... and...
It isn't Paul.
It isn't anyone I can actually *have*.
It isn't fair at all.
To my utter relief, the flash doesn't recur, though I make sure to minimise any contact, just in case. After the shooting lesson is one in the basics of surveillance and counter-surveillance. Both what I'd learned on the job and the extras that Katja had passed on.
In general, she shows good awareness and quickly learns the principles of on foot surveillance, including some truly remarkable skills at quickly breaking up her profile with clothes, posture and adornments.
Really, it's a pity that most of the people we'd really want to follow are probably going to know what we look like.
Though that should be useful in losing a tail.
Still, there's only so much I can impart in one afternoon and certainly only so much I can teach before I start reaching her boredom threshold.
And I haven't even touched the techniques she'd have to use whilst in a car. Maybe, if I do manage to return to work, I can get her up to a point where I can sign myself up for a refresher course in offensive and defensive driving and have her attend.
It'd certainly be useful to have a second person with that set of skills.
"So," she says, panting a little after the chase I just led her through. "What's next?"
"Now I use the remnants of the day to pursue some leads on the shooter. I don't know what you want to do." I can't help smiling a little. This last part has reminded me a little of tag, in its own way.
It's been almost easy, just being here with her.
She thinks for a moment. "Any chance you can drop me off near Paul's workplace?"
Even if it's not me doing this, just the thought is enough to rid my of any good humour I might have. "You want to do that now?"
"What better time for his doting girlfriend to arrange a surprise for when he gets back on Monday?" she asks. "Which reminds me - what would make a good gift?"
I think for a moment, back to a time when we did get each other little spontaneous presents, just for the joy of giving.
That hadn't been true in too long. Now a gift meant things - like an apology or a metered out obligation like a birthday or an anniversary.
Sarah raises her eyebrows. "Really?" she asks in a tone of some amusement.
I bite back a defensive retort of 'Is there a problem with that?' because, really, given that we're planning on bugging his office, it'd be more than a little hypocritical. Instead, I content myself with, "You asked for a present."
"Sure, sure," she says. "A few arrangements of red carnations coming up."
I pull up near the office, but she pauses rather than get out immediately.
"I'm going to see my daughter tonight, for the first time in ten months," she says, looking away from me.
I resist the urge to ask for more. "Is there anything I can do?"
"Nah," she says. "Just... just thought you should know."
I can't help feeling warmth flood through me. "Thanks," I say. "And good luck."
I blow into the apartment a little after seven.
"Paul?" I call.
Thank god. I don't know how I'd cope if... if.
Of course, he's going to be back tomorrow in any case. And I'll deal with that... with the waiting to see if surveillance turns up anything... somehow.
Just thinking about it drives me to the bathroom, and my pills.
Just enough to take the edge off, help things become a little blurry.
Make everything not hurt as much.
I don't even want to think about how I'm going to live with him, with this.
And I still haven't managed to get anywhere with any of the dealers that I visited this afternoon.
I slump onto the sofa, switch the TV on and turn the channel to... some reality program or other.
Just something to have on in the background.
Something to make the time disappear.
I jump when the phone rings, disturbing me from the trance I'd fallen into.
The pink phone.
I hope I don't sound as bleary as I feel.
"Sarah," Felix says. "Vic's here and he's got a gun."
"What?" I say, a little dizzily. "I'm Beth."
There's some shouting in the background that I don't quite catch.
"He's getting really insistent about those drugs you stole," he continues loudly, as if he hadn't heard me. "He wants either them back or the money."
Oh, I think, as the world slides back into focus. The fuzziness doesn't fade completely, but the edges sharpen a enough to let me process this.
Vic. Ex-boyfriend. Drug dealer. Trouble.
I really don't need this. Especially not on top of everything else.
"How much does he want?"
"He's not going to be satisfied with anything less than the fifteen grand they totally weren't worth," Felix says, then, "Ow! It's not my fault if they were complete shite!"
"Tell him I'll be there in... half an hour." I'm not tracking perfectly, but if I splash my face with some cold water, I should be good to drive.
"Sooner the better," he says before I ring off.
What do I do?
I can't help wondering if Sarah is really worth this, despite... despite everything.
If she's going to cause more trouble, even if I manage to solve this crisis.
I'm finding it hard to care about that, though, and I don't think it's just the drugs talking.
She's important to me.
And she has a *daughter*.
Fine, then. It's decided,.
First step - get rid of Vic.
I guess it's just as well I've still got all that cash here.
"Babe!" Vic shouts as soon as Felix's door slides open. "You came!"
He's got a gun, pointed in my direction.
Well, at Felix actually, but Felix was the one to open the door, and Vic's hand is distinctly shaky so...
It's as good as pointed at me.
The phrase 'sloppy trigger discipline' drifts through my mind, a remnant from earlier.
I'd feel more scared, but the pills are at least helping with that.
"Of course I came," I say.
"What's with the accent?" he asks, then shrugs. "Tell me later. I need the cash right now."
"Here it is," I wave a full envelope, and walk slowly, slowly towards him, keeping an eye on his weapon as it bobs and weaves all over the place.
"Thanks, love," he says as he takes it off me. He then leans in and presses a kiss against my lips, which I endure.
The drugs help.
"Maybe I should get you to do this for me full time," he says, grinning, as he counts the cash, always keeping an eye on me. And then his expression freezes. "There's only fourteen grand here," he says, a threatening tone entering his voice.
The shortfall was part of the plan - but all of a sudden, it doesn't seem quite so smart anymore.
If only I could think more quickly.
"That's all I could get for it so soon," I say. Confronted with an angry Vic armed with a gun, it's not hard to put a note of panic in my voice, even through the numbness.
"I need that money. Babe," he says, pocketing the cash. "I don't think you understand how this works," he adds, raising his free hand as if he's going to strike me.
I just need him to be distracted for a moment.
But he never takes his eyes off me.
"No, Vic, you *arsehole*, I don't think *you* understand how this works," Felix says.
He's now over by his bedroom, and he's pointing the gun I gave Sarah earlier calmly at Vic.
I'm fairly sure that the safety's on, but you'd never know that from Felix's eyes.
Vic raises his hands, a placating smile now plastered over his face. "Hey, Felix. You know I was only messing about, right? I wasn't really going to hurt her."
As soon as his attention is off me, I have my own gun unholstered and pointed at Vic.
And my safety is most definitely off.
"Put the gun down, Vic. Slowly," I say.
"Whoa," he says. "Let's just keep calm here."
"Put it down *now*, Vic."
He puts his gun down on the floor.
"Now step away."
This is more according to the script.
I can handle this.
"The fourteen grand is all I got, Vic. Chalk the rest down as a loss. So just turn around and walk away. I don't want to hear from you again. I don't want to see you again. Because if I do, things are going to get unpleasant. You don't want things to become unpleasant, Vic."
"Do you really want to throw away what we had?" he asks, now with a pleading tone in his voice. "Because we were good, babe. We were really good together."
"I don't care, Vic. It's over. It's time to walk away and not look back."
He takes a step towards me, slowly arms outstretched as if he's going to hug me.
I pull the trigger.
Deafening noise fills the apartment.
The person in front of me drops to the ground.
Abomination, echoes in my ears.
The body - Vic - is holding his hands over his head with a continuous stream of expletives issuing from his mouth.
He's not even hurt.
I fired over his head.
I just about manage to retain my grip on the pistol, but it's too heavy to do anything other than point at the ground.
Felix inches over, and toes Vic in the ribs.
"C'mon, Vic. Time to get your bloody carcass out of here."
I can't help following it with, 'Before it becomes a bloody carcass,' in my mind.
It's not funny, not funny at all, but I have to stifle a giggle anyway.
Vic looks upwards cautiously.
I manage to twitch my gun slightly in his direction.
He goes even paler than he already is, and scuttles for the door.
Felix walks after him, and I hear the door open and close again.
"Come on love, let's get you settled," he says, before slowly and cautiously putting his arm around me. When I don't react, he guides me towards the sofa and gets me to sit.
I've still got my gun in my hands.
I slip the safety on, and take the magazine out.
"Give me Sarah's gun," I say, and do the same for that as well.
After I've put the guns down, Felix pokes his head into view and examines my face.
"You are *completely* fucked, aren't you?"
I try to smile. "I think I'll need to stay here for a while, if you don't mind." God only knows how I managed to drive here without an accident.
"That sounds like an excellent idea." He waves a hand around vaguely, gesturing at the surroundings. "Mi casa est su casa, and all that bollocks. Is there anything I can get you from my bounteous selection?"
"What do you have that isn't alcoholic?"
Alcohol... Alcohol seems like a bad idea at the moment.
He wrinkles his face in distaste. "Eh, water?"
"I'll be fine," I say and sink against the arm of the sofa. "I'll be completely fine."
He appears with a blanket and tucks it in around me. "Thank you for riding to the rescue like that. Especially given the state you're in."
I manage an actual smile. "Sorry about that. Messing things up, I mean."
"So your execution was a little off. Happens to the best of us. Nice instincts about the money, though."
"Yeah, well. If Sarah was too good about coming up with the cash, he'd be back for more."
"I imagine that we've headed *that* off." He looks at me for moment, musing. "You're a good egg, you know that. Never thought I'd say *that* about a cop."
"Thanks. Appreciate that."
We lapse into silence for... a while.
At some point, Felix disappears from view, but I don't really remember when.
The next point of clarity is Sarah opening the door and entering the apartment.
She blinks. "Beth?"
"Hi," I say.
It's still hard to muster up much emotion.
Far easier to drift.
"What are *you* doing here?"
"Vic turned up here with a gun, looking for compensation," Felix's voice announces from the direction of the bedroom. Your white knight tore over here, despite being half blitzed, to sort everything out."
Sarah glares at Felix, then looks at me with something approaching worry. "What happened?"
"Vic has been paid off, mostly, and sent scurrying away with his tail between the legs," Felix continues. He mimes a walking motion with his fingers, then clasps his hands together in an exaggerated pleading gesture. "*Please* don't spoil all our hard work by getting back together with the git after this, will you?"
If looks could kill, Felix would be an ex-friend right now.
"I had to shoot him," I say. "Shoot over him, I mean," I correct.
Oh, Sarah mouths, eyes round and concerned. "Fee," she says, hardly sparing him a glance. "Can you lose yourself down the pub for an hour or two?"
"Very well," he says, all pouting and dramatic indignation. "I know when I'm not wanted." He grabs a coat and winds a scarf around his neck. He pauses by Sarah, resting one hand on her shoulder and leaning in close. "Be careful with her," he murmurs, so quietly I almost can't make his words out.
She briefly grips his hand, and just nods without looking in his direction.
Once he's out the door, she comes and squats in front of me. "Thanks for looking after Fee," she says, resting one hand gently on my arm.
"I had to," I say.
"No," she says, and it almost looks like her eyes are wet. "You didn't. But you did. You took care of my mess." She bites her lip for a moment, then leans forward and gently presses a kiss to my cheek.
I almost feel something.
And then, "I almost shot him," I whisper. "I thought I had, for a moment."
"You did the right thing," she says, fiercely. "You were protecting Fee, protecting us." She pauses, then goes on. "Just like you did the right thing before. Maggie Chen was dangerous. You were protecting Alison and Cosima and even me. Even though we didn't know each other yet. You were still protecting all of us."
And, somehow, that's exactly what I need to hear.
What I've needed to hear.
All this time, ever since the shooting, people have been telling me that it wasn't my fault, that it was just an accident.
But all those words had been worth precisely shit. Because it *had* been my fault, it *hadn't* been an accident.
I did the right thing.
I'm not sure if I believe it, not yet.
But I needed to hear it.
Oh god, I needed to hear it.
"Thank you," I say, and realise that I'm crying again.
But this time, in front of her, it doesn't feel so much like a mistake.
I slowly fade back into consciousness.
I'm a little cramped curled up on the sofa, but I don't hurt as much as I expect.
Not where it counts.
Slowly, slowly, the events of the previous evening come back to me, and my calm starts to fray.
My mistakes. My weaknesses. How they'd fucked everything up.
The gun. The shot. How I'd almost done it again, but not, quite.
Talking with her. *Crying* in front of her. How I'd let my guard down in front of her, exposed myself, made myself weak.
I can't help feeling like the last set of sins should bother me more. But they're not - instead I keep circling back to the first, the pills, and how I hadn't been in a fit state to do *anything*.
I'm going to get myself killed one of these days.
But the thought doesn't carry as much black humour as it used to, because now I'm afraid I'm going to take someone else with me.
I just hope hanging on to that is going to be enough to keep me from the edge.
And, ironically, I could really do with another pill right now.
"Hey," Sarah says. "Are you up to talking, or do you feel like pretending you're asleep for a while longer?"
I open my eyes and *glare* at her. I'm not exactly feeling communicative right now, but there's no way I'm going to back down in the face of a challenge like that.
"Do you have anything you want to say, or is this just the way you treat all your guests?"
"It's not like you're *my* guest," she says, shrugging fluidly. "I don't even live here. But, yeah, there're a few things I'd like to talk about."
I cast a glance towards the bedroom, where Felix is sprawled extravagantly over his bed, apparently still asleep.
"Yes?" I ask cautiously.
She squats down, so she can look me directly in the face. "You..." she says, then appears to change her mind. ?ave any plans for the day?"
Not getting any more sleep, apparently.
I push myself up into a sitting position, giving myself some time to think. There are certainly some things that I *should* be accomplishing.
I do a quick internal audit.
Do I actually feel up to doing them?
The answer comes back... yes, surprisingly.
I really wouldn't have given good odds that I'd be up to anything after last night.
But I think I am, after all. And having something to concentrate on would be worlds better than sitting around brooding.
"Continuing what I started yesterday."
She raises her eyebrows. "More gun lessons?"
"Maybe later." I sigh and rub my face. What the hell. It's too early to circumlocute my way around this. Besides, maybe talking about it with her would help. "The rifle used to kill Katja was fairly unusual. I'm trying to find out if any of them were sold recently."
"How's it going?"
"I haven't managed to find anything yet. And I'd be a lot happier if I could lean on my badge." Though I guess I can always make another round if my suspension ends. When. *When* it ends. Please, when.
She looks at me thoughtfully for a few moments. "Want to see if a different approach works?"
"What do you mean?" I ask cautiously.
"If you've got a list of people you want to hit... well, I have a talent for getting people to talk to me."
No kidding. Even if I hadn't seen her rap sheet, the fact that *I'm* talking to her as much as I am certainly says something.
On the other hand, it isn't as though she's a trained investigator.
"I don't know..."
"If I don't get anything, you can always try your way later," she points out. "You can just say you were working undercover. The other way around, not so much."
As much as it offends my more control freak sensibilities, she has a point.
"Okay," I say. "Let's give it a shot."
"I *will* need some money, if I need to loosen a few tongues..."
I give her a flat look. "Apparently you should have several thousand dollars around, from selling Vic's drugs. Maybe you should think about using *that* instead."
She winces. "Good point."
"And I wouldn't mind having anything that's left afterwards. Since I *did* pay your ex off for you."
"Hey, I need that money to survive. Unless you're willing to start paying me for being your little helper."
I bite back my automatic response, that what we're doing here is helping to save her life too.
Because she's right as well. She *does* need to survive. And I can see a time, when I'm back at work, that having someone who doesn't have those kind of commitments could be invaluable.
"Fine," I say, running a hand through my hair, trying to massage it back into some kind of order. And... euch. I *really* need a shower. And a change of clothing. Even aside from Sarah's dubious fashion choices, I know for a fact that what I'm wearing hasn't been washed since I spent a merry night digging. "On that note, I'm going to go back to my apartment." I pause for a moment, then a little reluctantly offer the olive branch of, "Do you want to come back with me?"
If nothing else, it'll mean that I don't have to return to pick her up.
"Depends. Going to make breakfast for me?"
I aim a jaundiced look at her. "I'll give *you* the opportunity to cook for *me* whilst I clean up."
She makes a face. "Split the difference - pick something up on the way back?"
I smirk at her. "Deal."
Sarah raps on the car window, looking intensely smug. "Found someone," she says as soon as I wind it down. "Bought a modified Dragunov plus ammunition about a week ago."
Finally, a purchase within our timeframe. It had only taken much of the day, between the remaining people on my list, and suggestions Sarah'd managed to obtain from them.
I could get used to working with her.
"What details did you get?"
She opens the passenger side door and slides in next to me. "Well, he paid in cash, so no name. But I did get a description. Dark, curly hair. In his fifties. Sunken eyes. Foreign accent, though the guy wasn't sure what country. Was wearing black clothing."
Huh. When I get off suspension, I can try and bring a sketch artist around for a better picture. In the meantime, though...
"He has to have a surveillance camera. Can you see if his records go back that far?"
It's a long shot, but worth it.
She makes a face. "Give me half an hour. Don't want to look too desperate."
"Fair enough. Did you make a note of exactly which time and day the purchase was on?"
"I did, in fact, manage to smooth talk that out of him," she says. "Tuesday the eleventh, three-thirty-four, according to his book."
"Thanks," I say, then open my door and get out. Time to canvas the rest of the near neighbourhood, and see if anyone else has any useful camera records from that time.
I manage to strike it lucky.
The footage is grainy, and, unlike in CSI, I don't have access to a magical program that will enhance the image to crystal clarity. Pity. But it's enough to identify a man in black clothing, carrying a case of approximately the right size at the right time, coming from the right direction. The view includes a nearby parking lot, where it shows him handing the case to another figure on a motorcycle, smaller, slighter. That figure straps the case to the bike and rides off.
The man then walks out of view.
"Thanks," I say to the shop assistant at the convenience store. "You've been a real help."
I walk down the street in the direction that the bike took off in.
Bingo, I think, as I approach the next junction.
A traffic camera.
And I know just the person who can help with that.
"Hey, Raj," I say.
"Sarah," he says, and even over the phone I can tell he's smiling. "How're you holding up?"
"Spinning my wheels until they let me back to work."
"It can't be long, now that you've had the hearing."
He's trying so hard to be encouraging, he's always so friendly...
"I can only hope. Listen, if you wouldn't mind, there is something you can do for me."
It makes me feel guilty about using him like this.
I just feel like I don't have a choice.
"Is it something to do with Paul? Have you managed to find out if he's cheating on you?"
My smile wobbles. Not that he can see it, but I force it up into its proper position before answering anyway.
"Not yet. I still haven't managed find out one way or the other. But this is actually a work thing. I need to pull footage from a traffic camera."
"I thought you were still on suspension."
"A case or two may have come up in conversation whilst I was at the station. And I'm going mad doing nothing. So..."
"Okay, okay. Give me a ring with the details on Monday, and I'll have a look when I get a moment."
My heart sinks a little. That's the day after tomorrow, but...
It isn't as though I'm in a position to press here.
And I'm asking enough of him as it is.
"Thanks," I tell him. "I owe you one."
"Always a pleasure, detective," he says.
"Did the dealer have any useful footage?" I ask when I get back to the car.
Sarah shakes her head. "He deletes it at the beginning of each day."
"Well, that's as far as this lead goes until Monday then," I tell her, and explain the situation.
"So, what now, copper?"
"*Now* we carry on moving down the list, just in case we get another hit."
"You really know how to brighten up a girl's life, don't you?" she says, giving an exaggerated groan.
"What are your plans for this evening?" she asks on the drive back, when we've finally managed to go through the list.
"Paul's back," I say, and the thought is like an ice block on my stomach.
It's not that I don't love him - I do.
It's just that it's so much *easier* spending time with Sarah. Our relationship may not be exactly simple, but I know where the complexities lay.
And I don't have to wonder if...
If everything that's wrong between us is all my fault, or because he never loved me in the first place.
And I'm not even sure which possibility is worse.
Sarah gives me a long look, but I can't spare the attention to try and analyse it. "You're going to be alright?" she asks.
"I'll be fine," I say. "He always likes to try and reconnect after he's been away." Though the thought doesn't lift me as much as it normally does.
"That's not..." she shakes her head. "Look, you've got my number. Just in case, yeah?"
At that, I do sneak a glance in her direction, because there's no *way* she meant that literally.
She turns her head away as soon as she sees me looking. But that was concern in her eyes.
I can't help feeling a little warm.
"Sure," I say. "Just in case." I find myself smiling, widely, genuinely for once. "Thanks."
"Don't mention it," she mutters. "Really." But despite her words, I can see her smiling as well.
I drop Sarah off at Felix's, then drive to the gym.
An hour of pushing myself as hard as I can go is good for a couple of things.
It helps clear my head, driving... *everything* away for a while.
"Sarah," Paul says when I get back to the apartment, as he comes over to give me a hug. "Where have you been?"
And, after a shower, it gives me an excuse.
"I just needed to get out of the house for a while," I say as I lean into him. It's surprisingly easy, despite everything. It always is. "How was your escape from Toronto?" I ask, looking up at his face.
"Well, work went well enough. Clients schmoozed, deals sealed. But I spent half my time wishing I was back here with you," he says, then leans in for a kiss.
And just like always, I'm not quite sure whether he's being sincere or not.
Or if it's just that I'm so broken I can't even tell the difference.
I try to lean into the kiss, to lose myself the way I used to, but something must show because he pulls back and looks at me.
"How many pills have you had since I've been gone?" he asks.
I can't hold his gaze because the answer is: too many.
"Hey," he says. "I can help you through this, if you'll let me. Just like before."
And, at that, I can't help it. I push him away, and, holding my face, holding my stomach, I crack up.
Because, yes, Paul has been here.
Oh *yes*, Paul has been here.
And he hasn't been helping this time.
Not at all.
He and this apartment of his, this apartment that he furnished, has been with me every step of the way.
Helping to shape my world so the only way I could see was...
And, really, whether he cares for me or he's just watching me for, well, whatever reasons.
Then the fact that he helped drive me to *that* is funny.
It's so very funny.
It's goddamned *hilarious*.
When the laughter slows, I look up to see him watching me with the *oddest* expression, and I almost start laughing again.
"Are you alright?" he asks.
I shake my head. "Oh yes. I'm fine. It's just... It's just been a crazy week without you."
"I'm here now," he says, in what I'm sure is supposed to be a comforting tone of voice. "I'm here now."
I give him a smile, trying for sincerity.
Yes. Yes, you are.
Paul hardly lets me out of his sight for the rest of the weekend.
So *so* that I have to sneak a pill here and there, just to keep from collapsing, just to keep on going.
Not enough to show.
Not enough to slow me down, too much.
But enough to take the edge off.
It's actually a relief when he kisses me goodbye Monday morning, and I immediately hate myself for the thought.
Because what kind of bitch feels that way about their boyfriend, who has been devotedly spending the weekend looking after her?
Still, it's Monday.
Raj will be in the station today.
I slip in, hoping to avoid attention when my phone goes.
My pink one.
Immediately everyone in the room looks towards me.
"Childs," calls the Lieutenant. "In my office."
"Sir," I say, and walking in his direction, surreptitiously turning my phone off on the way - no point in letting anyone know I've got a burner phone.
Art scowls at me as I near his desk. "I thought that the idea was you were going to try and keep your nose clean."
At this point, there really is nothing for it but grinning and hoping for the best. "You mean a nice friendly visit to see how you're all doing without me *isn't* keeping my nose clean?"
He practically growls at me, but gets up after I pass anyway, backing me up.
I'd give him a smile for that, but he likes to pretend he doesn't have a heart under that gruff exterior.
"I've got some bad news," Hardcastle says, and my heart judders painfully in my chest before he continues. "The board's finally made up its mind. You're going to be reinstated tomorrow."
My feelings are... a lot more mixed than I had thought they'd be.
I have the job back, everything that I've sweated and struggled for, held on tightly to, despite... everything.
It's good news.
But it's also returning to the place which reminds me that everything I ever believed in is a *lie*. That I've *become* a lie - that I've broken the law more than once, that I'm going to continue breaking the law, all so Sarah and my identicals can go on living.
So we have a chance of finding out what the hell we're all about.
It's a silent scream rising within me that I suppress beneath a smile. "Great! Thanks, sir. Sure I can't start today?"
Not that I want to, not that I don't feel like I need the extra day just to become acclimated to the idea of being police again, but...
It's what the old me would have said.
It's what they'll expect.
"Don't push your luck," Hardcastle warns. "And try not to give me any more ulcers for a while."
"Yes, sir," I say, then turn towards Art as I leave the office. "Looks like your brief period of freedom is over, dipshit."
"I'm savouring each and every single hour until then, trust me," he says, but I can see him relax at the news.
I just hope that I can still be the partner he deserves.
I turn the pink phone back on as soon as I'm out of sight. The call was from Sarah, and she sent me a follow up text message.
'Call me when you have a spare moment.'
Doesn't sound immediately urgent.
Well, might as well finish what I'm here for first.
Hopefully I'll be wanting to talk to her after that anyway.
Luckily, Raj doesn't prove too hard to track down.
"I heard the good news," he greets me.
Christ. The grapevine in this place is unreal.
"Fancy helping give me a head start?"
"What do you need?"
I give him the junction, time and day and he pulls up the footage. Sure enough, I see a motorbike passing, case attached. The rider's features are concealed beneath the helmet, but - importantly - I get a good shot of the number plate.
"Can you look the bike up, see where it's registered to?"
Raj types a few keys, then reels off an address.
"I take it that the bike hasn't been reported stolen?"
"Thanks," I tell Raj. "You've been a great help. Buy you a drink, sometime?"
He grins at me. "Maybe tomorrow, celebrate your first day back at work?"
"Sounds good. Assuming nothing goes too crazy."
And really what are the chances of that around here?
"What's wrong?" I ask as soon as she picks up.
"Beth, we..." she says, then takes a breath. "Shite. Can you just come over to Felix's?"
"Can't you just tell me over the phone?" I ask, dread knotting up my stomach at her tone, her words.
"I think I'd really prefer to do this here," she says.
"Okay," I say. "Hang on. I'll be there as soon as I can."
I knock on the door to Felix's apartment.
Felix answers the door, already wearing a coat and scarf. "Good morning, detective," he says.
"Felix," I say. "Will you tell me what the matter is?"
He looks at me with something akin to sympathy. "Apparently, I'm being banished for this next part," he says, then moves past me. "So, toodles for now, I guess."
Sarah's inside, pacing by the sofa. A laptop is open on a coffee table in front of her. She looks over and smiles, tensely, as I enter. "Beth," she says. "Hi."
She looks like she's in good health. Just worried.
So why have I been called over here?
I open my mouth to repeat the inquiry, but she manages to get there first.
"The bugs in Paul's office. We've managed to overhear something. Listen." She presses a key on the computer.
'Paul Dierden,' Paul's voice says in his phone answering voice.
'This is a reminder that there's a check-up tonight. Make sure that the subject is fully sedated by midnight,' a male voice I don't recognise says.
They're talking about a subject, I think numbly.
'Understood,' Paul says, clipped.
It could mean...
It could mean anything else.
'And since we'll be doing an extended check-up, please ensure that she ingests it all,' the man adds a little sarcastically. 'We don't need her waking up mid-trip.'
He said her.
He means me.
He really means me.
I'm the subject.
I'm Paul's subject.
'I'm a professional,' Paul says. He says something else, but I don't hear the rest.
Paul's a professional, I think, feeling sick.
He's a professional, and I'm just his subject.
"It's a lie," I murmur. "It's all been a lie."
There's a presence, there's pressure surrounding me.
It means something.
But I'm can't pay attention to it.
Because there's a pressure inside me too.
And it's tearing me apart.
"Of course he's a professional. Of course I'm his subject. Why else would someone stay with me? Why else would someone say they want me?"
I always have been.
I always will be.
There's a sharp pain, and suddenly there's something to focus on.
Sarah's in front of me.
She's staring at me like she's shocked, covering her mouth with one hand.
"Shit," she says. "Sorry. I didn't mean to... Fuck, I'm so sorry for that. I just... I just didn't know what else to do."
She slapped me.
Sarah slapped me.
And, at some point, she must have guided me to the sofa and sat me down.
"It doesn't matter," I say. "I probably deserved it anyway."
Isn't that what father used to say when he lost his temper?
He apologised, and then he said it was our fault anyway.
"No," she says fiercely. "No, you didn't deserve this. You didn't deserve any of this. You deserve a boyfriend who isn't so much of a complete wanker. And you... you deserve a me who doesn't make such a fuckup of things."
"You're not a fuckup," I say, equally as fiercely.
I may not trust her, not completely.
But she's not a fuckup.
She's not that.
"And you're wrong about the other thing too," I say with a sharp and bitter smile on my face. "I can't think of another reason someone would want me," a stupid, frigid, broken bitch like me, "If it wasn't to just use me."
She just looks at me wordlessly for a moment, then brings our lips together in a desperate kiss.
"*I* want you," she murmurs against them. "*I* think you're..." she trails off, then brings one hand down to brush against my breast. "Fuck words," she says. "I'm much better at actions anyway."
She presses me down against the sofa, shifting back to get greater access to me. She glances up at my face, to gauge my reaction as she starts undoing the buttons on my shirt, but I can't say anything, *do* anything.
I've never thought of her as one of us, one of the identicals, and never less than right now.
I don't think of her as my sister.
Not at all.
And I want her - I can feel my body reacting, starting to catch fire as she slides a hand underneath my bra, grazing a nipple, for the first time in ages, in months.
And still there's something wrong, so wrong with this.
"Say something," she says, almost begs. "Tell me if you want this."
"I do," I murmur almost mechanically. "I do want this."
It isn't until she's slid my trousers down my legs, until her fingers are moving between my legs, that it's really starting to get hard to think, that the similarity hits me.
This is what it's like with Paul.
This is how it's always been with Paul, even when it was good.
This is why I'm reacting the way I am, following the patterns that I even now can feel my body tracing through.
I've done this before.
She wants something from me.
I *know* this.
I've *always* known this.
I just can't quite bring myself to believe that she wants me as well.
And with that realisation, it all makes sense.
With that realisation, I know what to do.
With that realisation, I can start working towards the real business, a hopefully functional orgasm and making her think she's... accomplished whatever it is she's aiming for.
She stops a few moments later, narrowing her eyes as she looks down at me.
"This isn't working, is it?" she asks.
I try for a smile. "I'm just not that good at sex," I say.
It's one of the reasons no one would want me.
She frowns. "But I thought that... It *was* working for you... Is anything wrong?"
Oh, *there's* a well with no bottom. But what slips out of my mouth is a small, "You don't want me."
She just looks down at me for a moment, mouth slightly agape. Then she snorts. "*I* don't want... You really have no bloody idea, do you?" She gets up, shimmies out of her top and jeans and stands in front of me, naked. "Here," she says, taking my hand, and guiding it towards her crotch. "Can you tell how much I want you, just from what I've been doing so far?"
She's wet. Gloriously, slickly, dripping wet.
I swallow. "Oh," I say.
"C'mon," she says, taking firmer hold of my hand and tugging me up. "Let's go desecrate Felix's bed whilst I show you exactly *how much* I want you."
She wants me.
She *really* wants me.
And, suddenly, I really can't wait to continue this.
Maybe I'm not so frigid after all.
As I skim my fingers over her skin, it's like a connection opens up between us, filling me with fire. I move one hand up to cup her breast, tracing circles over her nipple with my thumb, delighting in the way it hardens at my touch. I slide my other hand down, my fingers sliding easily through her slick folds, brushing her clitoris lightly.
"Fuck," she breathes, a sharp exhale.
"That's the idea," I murmur back. I hope. I bend to kiss her thoroughly anyway, slipping my tongue inside her mouth as I ease a finger inside her.
She gasps into my mouth, arching against me. "I can't... can't believe you thought I didn't want you. That... that you hadn't noticed..."
I find myself smiling, then proceed to trail a line of kisses down her neck. Sensitive skin, by the way she shivers and pants. I imagine what it would be like to have her do that to me, and I swear I can almost feel a phantom echo in my own neck.
"You're starting to convince me," I murmur back, nipping lightly with my teeth so that she moans and bites at her lower lip.
"Only starting?" She laughs a little breathlessly. "What more do I have to do?"
I don't even have to think about my answer.
"Come for me," I say, working my fingers swiftly and surely between her legs, the sound of her soft cries, the feel of her tensing around my fingers, almost bringing me to the brink myself. "Come for me," I breathe, my voice low and husky and almost unrecognisable to my own ears.
I want her.
I want her so much I can barely think right now.
I want her more than I've ever wanted anyone in my life before.
And I really want her to come for me.
And finally, with a cry that seems to go right to my very core...
"Fuck," she says again, when she *can* speak again, and I'm sure I must be smiling like the cat that got the cream.
"Was that good for you?" I ask, unable to resist skimming my palm lightly over her breasts.
"*Fuck* yeah," she says emphatically, and then starts to lever herself up, a determined glint in her eyes. "My turn now."
"Uh-uh," I hear myself saying, pushing her back down into the bed before I've even made the conscious decision to move. "I'm not done with you yet."
She laughs, the sound a little ragged around the edges. "It's a fair cop, guv," she murmurs, the sound turning into a moan as I take one of her nipples into my mouth.
Eventually, I do let her have her turn, and then I'm the one writhing as her touch seems to leave trails of fire on my skin. And it isn't until she's doing wonderful things to me with her hands that I realise I've been unconsciously waiting for the soreness, for the initial awkward almost-pain before things really get going. But that doesn't work like that, not for her.
All I feel is delicious friction, warmth building within my core, spreading through my body.
Something I haven't felt in far too long.
Certainly not like *this*.
Sarah laughs the expression on my face, and then does something with her fingers that makes me cry out and writhe beneath her.
"If this is coming as such as surprise..." she drawls, "Have you considered the possibility that maybe it's just that *Paul's* shite in bed?"
I don't know why, but something about that, about the way she says it, just strikes me as so unbelievably funny that I start laughing. After a moment, she joins in, and the sound of it just does something to me, deep inside.
My skin tingles, pressure building in my like a tidal wave. My whole body starts to shake and I...
Afterwards, when I'm just laying there, almost unable to move through the languor, she huddles up next to me, and starts pressing kisses against my shoulder and neck.
Firm kisses, with just a hint of teeth.
"You can't leave me now," she tells me. "Not after this. You can't leave me. Don't you even *dare* think of leaving me."
Oh, I think.
That's what she wants.
Now it all makes sense.
"I won't leave you," I say. "I won't..." I grit my teeth, admit to myself what I did and force the words out, "Try and kill myself again. I promise."
"Good," she says. Though she doesn't sound completely satisfied.
And she's right.
At the moment, they're just words.
They don't *mean* anything.
Just the first step along the way to the rest of my life.
The second step will be setting up surveillance on the apartment of the motorcyclist, to try and find out more about the people who killed Katja.
The third... the third will be going back to Paul's apartment tonight, to use my body as bait, so we can learn more about the people he's working for.
And then there'll be many more steps after that.
Always more steps.
With Sarah. With the others.
It's the way we know we're alive.
What matters is the actions we take, the company we keep.
And I intend to stay alive.
I've made a promise, after all.
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