Secret Bird by PoliticX

Archive: Sure, as long as my name is attached
Summary: Monica throws a loft-warming party; Scully attends. It's a follow-up of sorts to 'Night Ride Across the Caucasus'.
Many thanks to my beta team, Kate M., Caeliste and Georgia, who have my sincere gratitude and to whom I'm severely in debt.
Author's notes can be found at the end.
This story is for the girl who stands on the perimeter of my dance floor, winking and laughing and pushing me back into the crowd. Her dance card is full, but I'm going to stick around for a while, just in case.

| Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 |

Secret Bird
Part 2

It was a hell of a sight, Monica in the midst of all the dykes, clapping, whooping. Dancing. God, she can dance. Even simple little moves like the shuffle look fluid and pretty when she does them.

I'm headed out of the dance area so that I can watch her more. I hope she and Stephanie will give me another show. There's nothing quite like two feminine women dancing together, and I've never seen anything like them. Stephanie's all long strawberry-blonde hair flying and pale skin flushed at her cheeks, a porcelain little doll. But Monica's bare legs, bare arms, and that magnificent bare back steal every bit of spotlight away from her friend. I wonder if they're lipstick lesbians or if they're bi. I wonder if they're two straight girls who like to experiment. They were twisting and tangling together like they've done it a thousand times, and the way Monica holds her says a lot about their relationship.

They've got something going, something more than friendship. I don't think it's sexual, despite Stephanie kissing her earlier. I think it's history. I think Stephanie is to Monica what Mulder is to me. I pass Stephanie and she slaps me on the back. "Sweet moves, baby." She grins devilishly.

She called me 'baby' and I didn't even punch her in the face, because Monica's right behind her, walking my way but not seeing me at all. Her eyes are moving over the people who are nearest to Stephanie, I see as I glance back. I wonder if there's trouble. Monica looks serious, and her walk is purposeful. But she smiles and her breasts brush my shoulder as she passes me. Her fingers brush by me as well, dangerously low, and catch my hand. She pulls me several feet, back to the dance floor. Oh, God. The Bee Gees. This is not happening.

She stops and turns around, grinning.

I'm shaking my head. "I can't dance to this, Monica." But my smile is going to split my face in half.

She leans and I catch a whiff of eucalyptus leaves, and her lips are so close to my ear that her breath sends chills down my spine. "Sure you can," she says. Her nose is in my hair. "Just follow me."

"No-"

"Look." One of her hands is already on the small of my back; the other is still grasping mine. She's using her height on me. "I bet you'd like to lead," she says. She pulls me in even closer, impossibly close, and once I wrap my brain around the idea that she may be talking about more than dancing, I cling to her like I'm lovesick, which I am. Still, I'm not known to cling. "But give me a shot at it." She pulls back and looks down at my face. "Okay?"

I wonder if she tries to be sexy or if it comes naturally to her. "You like taking charge, Agent Reyes?"

Her face bows, and I think she's going to kiss me, but she only murmurs, "Of you? Yeah."

Her eyes remain fixed on mine, and I've forgotten that we're supposed to be dancing until someone jostles me. "You think you can turn me into Stephanie?" I ask. "You think you can whirl me around and make me look graceful? It's not going to happen. Two left feet here."

"Follow my lead." Monica pushes me away, holding my hand with her fingertips and this is absolutely crazy. I'm not accustomed to being led. I'm not sure I like it. She draws me back in again. "Eye contact. Don't look at the floor. Look at me."

Why would I look at the floor when I can look at her? This is what I ask her, after she turns me - it's weird, being turned - and holds me to her. The look on her face is priceless. She's working her mouth, pressing her lips together and pulling the bottom one in to rub her tongue over it. Her cheeks are a nice pink, and she's so focused on me that I think I'm going to explode if I don't touch her. Why can't this be a slow song? I could run my hands up to her shoulder blades and scrape my fingernails all the way back down.

She pushes me out, turning me and then herself, drawing me back to her. She finally says something. She's off on a whole tangent, talking about a movie. Apparently, she's seen 'Saturday Night Fever' sixteen times and knows every move John Travolta makes. "Every turn of the hip," she says, stepping back to place one hand on her pelvis, gyrating, and pointing at Stephanie, who's several feet away, with the other. Stephanie sees her and breaks away from her own dance partner to do the same. They wag their fingers at each other and smile. This is one of the most hilarious things I've ever seen, and sexy as hell. "Every mop of the brow." She makes a dramatic gesture of wiping her forehead and slinging the sweat away. "Every smooth move." She looks cocky, pulling me to her as she turns. "Every dip of the girl," she says in my ear, and she's somehow manipulating me into this position. She has her hands on my waist and I'm finding myself being arched backwards, but I'm fighting it all the way, chuckling and protesting like the weak person I've become. She's dipped me so far backwards that the people are upside down, and when I think of how we must look, I start laughing uncontrollably.

Monica pulls me to her, but I can't stop giggling. She takes advantage of this and clowns around more, spinning me away from her so that she can do some solo moves. And the more I laugh, the more exaggerated all of these moves become, until I'm laughing so hard that I can't stand straight. Then her arm is around my waist, her hand holding mine tightly, and she's pulling and carrying me through the dance. "Stop," I beg her. My face is fire engine red.

She does, and I lean against her. My chest is still heaving from laughing so hard, and then I'm aware of her lips in my hair. She's kissing my head and holding me. "See how much fun it can be when someone else leads?"

I look up at her, slow motion stupidity, and I know I've been duped by this girl. There's nothing straight about her. Her eyes peer right down into mine, merry, winking. It's clichéd and trite, but I want to look into those eyes every day for the rest of my life. Her hand's on my bare back, where my blouse has ridden up, and her thumb is making lazy patterns on my skin. This is the woman of my dreams and she might even be coming on to me. I'm amazed.

The music has changed, even though I can't remember it changing, and it's about to change again, and Stephanie brushes by. She's singing, and I know it's Sylvester's song about feeling mighty real, and I know Stephanie's twirling around us, and I know there's a young man in her arms, and I know Stephanie's asking to cut in on the dance, but all I feel is Monica holding me greedily to her. All I see is Monica laughing and shaking her head. All I hear is Monica telling Stephanie "no way." I wrap my arms around her.

And the slow song I want begins.

I don't know what it is; I can't remember the title. But I do remember skating around the hardwood floor of the roller rink when I was thirteen years old to this song. I went there every week for one entire summer, just to watch the other girls skating, especially the older ones, the ones that could skate backwards. I remember watching the girls with their boyfriends. I remember the sound of the skates on the floor, the soft flash of disco lights, how the rink went dark at the perimeter, and how I kissed a girl for the first time in that darkness. She was taller than me, a cheerleader. Brunette. Brown eyes.

Monica's smiling. "Are you okay?"

I nod.

"You disappeared there for a minute."

She looks spectacular tonight, in her piece of a blouse and piece of a skirt. Monica's the kind of person who looks different from outfit to outfit. Wearing red makes her look older and more serious, both blue and yellow soften her and make her seem more vulnerable, and she's like a chameleon in black, either hip or all business, depending on the cut of the outfit. And in brown she looks devastating. Brown suede jacket over a beige ribbed cashmere turtleneck. I've seen her in this outfit only once, but it was all I could do to keep my hands off her, even though the circumstances at the time were much too dire for me to have been thinking about sex. I swear, one day I'm going to walk into that basement while Doggett's at lunch and I'm going to push her chair back from her desk and push her chair back and push her chair and push her and push and push and push until I'm inside and she's wrapped tight around me.

"Dana."

She's breathtaking. I don't know who I'm kidding. It doesn't matter if she's gay or bi. She can have anyone in the room and she doesn't even know it. Her complete lack of guile makes her all the more beautiful and all the more wanted.

"Do you need to take a break?"

Yes, I need a break. Feelings are overwhelming me, and I don't know how to deal with them. Monica's looking at me with such gentle concern that I'm not sure I can stand it. I'm not accustomed to such a caring person being up close or in my face or holding me. I pull away from her a bit abruptly. "I need to sit this one out, Monica." I try smiling, but it's more of a grimace.

"Are you okay?"

I nod, but she's the woman of my dreams, and I've waited my entire life for her, and this is too good to be true. I've got to get out of here before I find out that I'll have to love her from afar. She watches me go.

It's air I need, but I head to the kitchen instead, where the alcohol is. I find a woman emptying the refrigerator. She removes a bottle of vodka and a twelve-pack of Heineken to grab something from the back. She places the items on the counter, and even though she's turned away from me, there's no one else here with long, strawberry-blonde hair. "Hi," I say, taking the cold bottle of vodka and pouring myself a shot.

Stephanie stands with a lime in her hand and studies me. "Hi yourself. How ya doin' there?"

"Fine."

Her eyes run all over me, like they've done before, and she proceeds to cut the lime in half. "Look." Stephanie seems to search for words. Here comes the warning. "Monica thinks the world of you, you know." She rummages around in a lower cabinet and pulls out some tequila and a rather large shot glass.

I cut a glance at her and down my shot.

"She's a special girl. I don't want to see her hurt." Stephanie pours salt on her hand, licks, drinks, and bites the lime. She doesn't even flinch, which makes me think that she must drink her tequila this way just for the drama of it.

I pour myself a vodka tonic. I need to be numb, and I need it pretty quickly, so the gin I've nursed all evening won't do, because I can't drink gin very fast. Vodka is a different story. "I won't be getting close enough to hurt her."

She rolls her eyes at me. "If I had a dime for every time I've heard that." Her voice is bitter and her face is hard. She seems to size me up, to be judging whether or not I'm worth her effort. "Have you seen her place?" She waves her arm out. "I mean, really seen it?"

"I've seen most of it."

"Yeah, but have you *seen* it?" Stephanie picks up a small stone statue from the counter. It rests very close to the gift I brought with me that Monica has yet to open. "Well, this is a bad example because I don't know who it's from." She replaces it and picks up a ceramic jar that's nearby. "See this?" I move over to her and look. "A woman who lived near Teotihuacán -" Stephanie slurs the word horribly - "Did this for Monica when she was in the hospital for so long that time." The jar is pretty and simple, blue with little white birds etched in. "There are things like this everywhere." She replaces it and pours another shot.

"When was she in the hospital? What happened?"

She turns to me and touches my arm. She seems to soften a bit. "Jesus. You're in love with her and you don't know a damn thing about her."

I'm not going to acknowledge this.

"She was in an accident when she was seven. She has problems with her back all the time." She repeats her tequila routine. "Damn bum back."

"What sort of accident?"

Stephanie shrugs. "Never would say. You know, the chick's wide open, but there are a couple of things she just won't talk about. Sometimes I think she has a lot of repressed stuff going on." She puts away the tequila, rinses her glass and tosses the lime in the garbage under the sink. "I mean, she's the most together person I've ever known, but she's got some issues she's never dealt with." She stops short while returning the Heineken to the refrigerator and eyes the vodka and then my vodka glass with raised eyebrows. "You finished with this?"

I shake my head, no, and I don't want to ask, but I do. "What kind of issues?"

"This isn't Monica Reyes 101." She reaches into the refrigerator and pulls out a Corona. "Look around some. Most of the little knick-knacks and stuff you'll find were made for her by her friends." She smiles. "She has a ton of friends. There are people from here to Mexico that love that woman." Her smile broadens. She looks proud. "You need to check out the wool tapestry hanging in her bedroom - a little blind boy did it for her. There's something about Monica. Everybody wants to give her gifts of love." She nods toward the gift I brought and begins walking away.

"Like the Cheron?"

Stephanie freezes for a split second, then turns back to me. "Yeah, like Marty's wolf. Most of his art was for her."

"He died, right? Motorcycle accident?"

"Yeah. A few months ago. It was bizarre." She's still looking at me, and she takes a step forward. "She didn't tell you, did she?"

"What?"

"Marty died a couple of days before your son was born."

I nod, but I don't understand what she's trying to tell me. "And?"

"It was a huge loss for her." She punctuates this statement with a pause. "Everyone expected her to be at the funeral, and she wasn't there. Everyone expected her to investigate his death, and she didn't."

Ah, I get it. "Because she was with me."

Stephanie nods. "That's right."

"And you hold this against me?"

Stephanie studies me. "Hold it against you? No. Expect you to live up to that kind of devotion? Hell, yeah."

"Why did you need her to look into his death? What happened?"

She shakes her head. "Like I said, this isn't a history lesson here. It's Monica's story to tell. She'll have to tell you." She waves her hand. "All I know is that it was awful and strange, and that he's dead and it shouldn't have happened." She's still staring at me. "You need to be good to her. If you're half as good to her as she is to you, I won't complain. But if you ever hurt her, I'll drive seventeen hours just to kick your ass."

She swigs her Corona and leaves.

------------

Twenty minutes later, I'm still nursing my vodka, and I'm finally growing numb. I took Stephanie's advice and looked around at Monica's things, and I think this experience anesthetized me more than the alcohol.

She was right, there are tokens of love all over the loft. Pottery, poetry, a tapestry, wooden carvings… more things than I could believe possible. But it's the photos that get to me. They're everywhere, with different people in each one. Her friends are so varied in age and race that I can't even begin to discern which pictures are of her parents, if any of them are. There are some lucky people who get to be framed more than once - Stephanie and Raney are the ones I recognize. There are several more, and two of them haunt me.

One is a child, dark-haired and dark-eyed, who looks to be not quite old enough for school. She's in many pictures, from her birth to the one that's apparently the most recent - it lies without a frame on a stack of bills on Monica's massive desk. I try not to study it too carefully, because it's similar to the pictures of Monica from her childhood, and this alarms me and reminds me that I know nothing about her past.

The other person who worries me is a man. He's captured in almost as many pictures as the girl. He's dark-haired and dark-eyed, too, and looks to be of Native American heritage. His thick, straight hair touches his shoulders and he's at a football game with Stephanie, Raney, Monica, and some other people who appear to belong to their group, and his arm is around Monica's waist, and she's laughing so hard that her eyes squint closed. He's in another photo in black and white, seriously staring off into space, his white shirt a nice contrast to his deeply tanned skin. Desert is the background for this one. And then he's rappelling down the side of a mountain, and I know it's him, because there's an inset of a close-up.

The oldest picture is from their college days, and Stephanie - who looks incredible in jeans and a sweatshirt, no makeup, dark blonde hair pulled loosely in a ponytail - holds one blonde toddler and Monica another, and the dark man is staring at Monica with pure love on his face.

There's another photograph, and this one is strange. It's late afternoon, and there are several people standing on the wooden porch of a small white cottage. Two tall, lanky teenagers stand off to the side. They have long, blonde hair and cigarettes dangling from their hands, and they're very pretty boys, but in a very unkempt way. They're trying to come across as nonchalant, staring at the grown-ups in the picture, but both appear nervous. One of the adults they're gazing at is Stephanie, who's their mother, I'm thinking, because I see a resemblance. She's turned to Raney with her hands on her hips and a strong look of concern on her face. Raney seems to be trying to placate her, his arms open. The dark man is standing in front of the porch, his hand pushing his hair back. He, too, seems to be worried about something. His brow is wrinkled and he's frowning. And all of this is bizarre enough - especially when I wonder who the photographer is and how that person came to capture such a strange moment - without Monica being in it. But she is in it, and something inside of me crumbles. I think it's my heart breaking.

Monica's leaned against a column, placid, her eyes closed. She's wearing jeans and a loose blouse, and her hair is long and pushed back with a headband. There's a laceration on her face. It's small, but noticeable. The dark-haired little girl has on a colorful dress, and her arms are wrapped tight around Monica's legs, but this doesn't mean the child is hers. The child clings to her and looks at the camera fearfully, but this doesn't mean the child is hers.

And on this black and white picture is blue ink handwriting that I think I recognize as Monica's: "The last time."

As disturbing as this picture is, there's one that bothers me more. The dark-haired, dark-eyed man is on a large horse with Monica, her hair long and her face radiant. His arm comes from behind, circling her waist and reaching up, and his palm is over her heart. I stare at this photo for a long time before moving on.

I know who he is. His artwork seems to be concentrated in the living area, and it's what I see people admiring time and again, not for its form, but with the awe that comes from touching something that the dead have crafted. This man is Marty Cheron, and his arm circles around Monica's waist and snakes up to her heart and holds her.

And now I'm numb. I'm watching Monica visit her friends, laughing and talking. She can't belong to one group of people without someone tugging at her to join them. I'm not sure I've ever witnessed such popularity, so I prop against the kitchen counter and watch her from this almost hidden vantage point.

Stephanie's pulling at her this time, and they're on the dance floor again, and Monica has Stephanie by the waist. Stephanie is bending backwards, backwards until she's arching up in the most beautiful way, and suddenly it seems very sexual. The way that Monica holds her, propelling her up and then back again, causes my blood pressure to skyrocket; my face is aflame. I'm so jealous that I could march out there to the dance area and separate those two in one very swift move. I pull out the vodka instead, and pour myself another drink and breathe. And I pull a beer out of the fridge and open it, and I'm about to go interrupt them, but my hands will be full, so there's no danger of me embarrassing her.

They're still dancing, but Monica sees me and stops short. Stephanie whirls around at the look on Monica's face, then pats her butt. "Later, 'gator," she says and she's gone.

-----------

Dana's gaze is direct and intense. "Having a good time?" Her voice is tight. She's holding a beer and what I guess is another gin and tonic.

"I should be asking you that." I squeak. I'm in high school. I'm the dorky yearbook editor and I'm talking to the Beta Club president, who also happens to be Homecoming Queen. My hands feel clammy.

Dana nods. "Nice people. Nice place." She hands me the beer. "Nice host." My hands shake as I take it. Her fingers brush mine. "I'm going to get some air. Care to join me?"

I don't think it's a question at all. I don't think she's going to allow "no" for an answer. Part of me wants to test this theory. It's not the part of me that has a voice, though. My heart is thudding. "Sure."

She walks to the front door, and I walk behind her, feeling very much like a schoolgirl. I stop her at the closet so we can get our coats, but she shakes her head at hers. "I won't need it."

"It's colder than -"

"I won't need it," she says tersely.

I put mine on and we walk out my door and into the hall. She's heading to the front of the building, but I touch her elbow. "Come this way," I murmur. I lead her up a wide staircase to the roof.

A cool breeze slaps us when we push the heavy door open. I smell smoke, and not just cigarette smoke. Somebody's brought weed up here. I could stand to be taken down a notch, my nerves calmed, so I inhale as deeply as I can without Dana noticing.

She glances back at the crowd suspiciously as we move to the opposite side of the roof. "Stephanie's friends, mostly," I tell her. They're actually her exes - three of them, anyway - but I'm not going to tell Dana this. Stephanie never dates anyone for long, and it's always about sex, never love. There's only one person she loves, and he's a preacher man, and she thinks she's so unworthy of him that she tries to prove this to him over and over again. He won't ever leave her side, though, that's what she doesn't get. He's in love with her, too.

"You went to college together - you and Stephanie?"

I nod and lean against a short wall. The roof is lined with these parapets, giving the old school building an almost fortress-like appearance. "I met her in college. She was different from anyone else I'd ever met. She had two kids in diapers when she started. She's your age."

Dana raises her eyebrows. "That's some feat."

"Yep. She's determined." I swallow hard. Whatever's bothering Dana is electrifying the air, and I'm afraid to breathe.

"She seems to care about you a lot." She drains her glass and sets it on the wall.

"It's mutual."

Dana nods silently. We're both lost in thoughts, and there's an uncomfortable silence. The tension is heavy. When we finally speak again, it's simultaneously.

"So, is she gay or what?" Dana asks.

"Do you have a tattoo?" I ask. I hear her question too late, and it's lost under the flurry of my words. "'Cause I think I saw one peeking out from under your blouse tonight."

"Is she gay?" Dana asks again. Her body is turned to mine, and I suddenly realize how close we're standing, as if we're huddling in the cold.

"No." I'm trapped in her scrutiny. "Why?"

"Because I was wondering if she's your date tonight."

My skin flushes hot and sweat breaks out under my arms. "No, I - I don't have a date tonight," I stutter. "We're friends. She's … Stephanie dates men and women, but not me." I can't look at her, so I turn away. Her body's still angled to mine, though, and I feel her watching me. I force a smile, trying to be braver than I feel. "She's kind of crass sometimes, but she's a great friend. Always looking out for me." Dana touches my arm. It's just a touch, but I'm nervous, and I start babbling like an idiot. "You know that book - 'What Color is Your Parachute?' She wrote a play in college called 'What Color is Your U-Haul?'"

Dana erupts into laughter and I feel relieved. The tension between us begins to ease. "You need to get her to do her Forrest Gump take on her play." I'm terrible at imitations, but I try. "Well, you got your ButchDyke, your Lipstick Lesbian, your FemmeDyke, your GranolaDyke, your CrystalLovingLesbian, your DieselDyke who's also known as your BullDyke, your JockDyke, your DykeOnABike-" I'm babbling gibberish and I force myself to stop.

She's still chuckling. "And which one am I, Monica?"

I try to swallow, but my mouth's gone dry. I didn't know. I did know. I'm terrified. I'm elated. I'm shaking my head and shrugging my shoulders. She's none of them. She's freaking Xena in a dress. The Red Edition. Concentrated. A little goes a long way.

She touches my waist and I practically jump out of my skin. "So, what did you ask me earlier? If I have a tattoo?"

I nod and swallow the rest of my beer down in three gulps.

"I do. I have an ouroboros on the small of my back."

I know she just didn't say an ouroboros. The beer bottle clanks when I place it beside her glass. "Tell me you don't." I can't disguise the disdain in my voice.

"It's a symbol of completion, of the life cycle-"

"I know what it is. The Great World Serpent of Norse mythology. It's a snake eating its own tail." I sound like I feel - disappointed in her.

"What? Have I fallen off the pedestal you put me on because I have a tattoo?"

Oh, God, even Dana knows I have a crush on her. "It's a really negative symbol to carry around forever."

"What's so negative about it?"

"It's a snake, Dana. It's eating its own tail -"

"Yes, for nourishment, to survive. Dying and being reborn, that's what it symbolizes, the life cycle."

"Is that what you think? You think like Nietzsche - a 'self-sufficient Nature' - you think in black and white like that?" She doesn't answer, just looks at me like I'm something to laugh at. "I know there are a lot of philosophies that believe this. But dying at one's own hands isn't really dying, is it? It's suicide. I'll kill myself so I can be reborn." I make a sound of disgust. "There are religions that fanatic."

"It's a snake, for crying out -"

"Okay. There are a lot of cultures that held the serpent in high esteem - many had serpent gods. In Eastern lore, snakes might be seen as good luck, but the mythology around them is so varied, and the Western mythology in particular is so passionate… In the Bible, who tempted Eve? The serpent. Medusa had a head full of them and she'd turn you to stone if you looked at her, she was so evil." Dana looks amused. She needs to take me seriously. "What do you think of when you think of St. Patrick?"

She grins. "Green beer?"

I'm scowling and I know it, and I don't want to put her off, but she's taking this much too lightly. "He drove all of the snakes out of Ireland. Doesn't that speak to you at all? A saint ridding his land of evil? Snakes are often depicted coming from holes in the ground, thus coming from the underworld. What bothers me the most about the ouroboros is that for all of the positive connotations in various cultures, it's the greatest influence of all - the Bible - that portrays the serpent as the representation of evil. So, yeah, go ahead and say it represents the continuity of life if you want to." I wrap my arms around me. "I think it's at the very least a negative thing to have permanently etched onto your skin."

"It's just a tattoo." She says gently, placating me. She touches my elbow. "It's just a tattoo. Look at it."

She turns, but I stop her. There's no way I can see the tattoo in this light. "Wait." I'll get a candle from the crowd that's on the opposite end of the roof. Maybe I can take a hit off someone's cigarette and calm my nerves while I'm over there. "I'll be right back."

"Monica-" She catches my arm.

"Don't go anywhere."

I go to the candles and the people and take a deep draw off a cigarette. "Stardust," one of the guys says. He's had a crush on me for years, and this is one of the things he calls me, "Stardust." It's the least offensive thing he calls me. He, like all men everywhere, seems to think that pretty words and singing "Brown-Eyed Girl" will get me in the sack. I smile at him and return his cigarette. His group invites me to join them, but I have to get back to Dana. I have to see that damn thing on her back. No wonder her life is a catastrophe.

------------

Monica's gliding toward me like a ghost; her coat billowing behind her. She's cupping her hand to a candle, and between its glow and that of the moon and stars, she looks like an angel. Perhaps she is. I should have met her years ago, when I still believed in magic. No, I never believed in magic. I should have met her years ago, when I still believed in people. Maybe if I'd met her then, I'd be whole now. Maybe I'd be home.

"Let's see it," she says when she's before me. She lifts her chin. "Turn around."

Gladly. I love the command. I'd like more of them from her.

"Hold this." She hands me the candle and lifts my blouse. Goosebumps spread over my back, both from the cold air and desire. "Your slacks are hiding it," she says, pulling a bit at my waistband.

My slacks are riding too low to be covering the tattoo. Aren't they? The feeling of her fingers on my back at the waistband renders me incapable of logical thought. "Wait." There's only one button and I undo it. The pants still don't give very much - they're tight - so I move the zipper down a bit. "Okay."

She pulls the waistband slightly and I bend. I hope my legs don't shake. She takes the candle from me and holds it near my back. It's so close that it burns me, but I don't say a word, because I'm propped up on the parapet in the dark with a beautiful woman kneeling at my backside, candle in hand, pulling on my pants, staring at my tattoo. The smile on my face is very wide.

That is, until she starts tracing the tattoo with her fingers. Oh, this night. My legs do start shaking now, and I only hope that she doesn't spill wax on me, because I'll be in real trouble then.

"It's horrible," I think she says.

"What?" I twist, trying to see her.

She stands, but stays behind me, still looking at the tattoo. I twist more. I think that's disgust I see on her face. "It's horrible," she says. Her body is angling toward me now, and my back's going to break if I don't turn around. But I'm very aware that my pants are still unbuttoned and that her hand still rests on the tattoo and I don't want it anywhere else. For now. "Evil," she whispers.

I think I detect a glint of mischief in her eyes, but it's hard to tell in the dim light. "Yeah? Well where the hell were you five years ago when I was picking it out?" I manage to turn a bit, sort of facing her.

Her thumb traces the ouroboros. "You should have it removed."

Her hands are occupied - one on my tattoo, the other holding the candle - and mine are empty. I could take her before she blinks her eyes. I could have my hands up that skirt, in that small blouse. I put them on her hips instead and turn completely to her, and we're so close that our bodies touch.

"All that evil follows you," she murmurs. She holds the candle between our faces, and I blink at the sudden light.

I need her so badly that I can't breathe. "What do you want, Monica?"

Her eyes close and reopen slowly, and even in candlelight, I can see the blush cross her face. She rubs her bottom lip with her tongue.

I put my hand on hers and draw the candle closer to my face. We hold it, my hand over hers, near her breasts, cupping the candle so that I won't get wax on her. I blow the candle out and set it on the parapet. And now my right hand's in her hair, the left on her waist. Her thumb's still tracing my tattoo, but faster now, the tiny circles. "Tell me." I whisper.

The awful thing about being short is that you can't just kiss a tall woman nonchalantly. You have to reach up on tiptoes, hold her for support, stretch your back and crane your neck. It never looks suave. It always looks desperate. And that I am. I look up at her eyes and wonder if I dare stand on tiptoe and make the bold move.

I do dare. I reach up to kiss her, but she draws back, and I say it again. "Tell me what you want." She utters something, but it's so low that I don't hear her. I pull her neck down with one hand and run the other up her side, close to her breast. "Hmm? What?"

"You're just…" Monica's trembling.

I nudge my knee between her legs and press her against the low wall. I place her hands on my hips. "I’m just what?" Her lips are moving closer to mine, but not close enough. I go bolder with my hand, move it up to her breast, and rub her blouse there. Her eyes flutter shut and she moans. "I'm just what, Monica?" Her breath catches, and my hand's inside her blouse, teasing her nipple. "I'm just what?"

Her eyes are closed and she shivers. "You're…" Her tongue runs over her lips.

I press closer, touching her cheek, moving my other hand from her breast to her face, to her mouth, tracing her lips. I want to kiss her so badly. I run my fingers through her hair, down to her neck, pulling her down, down-

"You're playing me."

The words hit me like a ton of bricks, and I jerk back, away from her. Her eyes open slowly. "What?" I whisper. Surely, I'm misunderstanding something. "What are you talking about?"

Monica blinks and looks sad. "I know what you want." She looks down. "It's not what I want."

I try to breathe, but I feel like I've been punched in the stomach. What have I done? How could I have misunderstood? "I'm-" I swallow. "I'm sorry, Monica." Oh, God. The overwhelming feeling earlier - the panic that I would have to love her from afar - returns. But this feeling's worse. She's so sensitive. I've embarrassed her, embarrassed myself, and tears are filling her eyes. Oh, what have I done? "I'm so sorry." I back away from her and then turn and zip my pants and I have to get the hell out of here.

I'll make it to my car. I'll make it to my car and I'll drive out of here. My legs are numb and I'm hurting so badly that I have to lean against the stairway door to open it, grip the handrail as I move down the steps.

I make it to the underground parking deck before I realize that my coat is at her place. I'd leave it if it weren't for my keys. No keys, no money, no cell phone on me. No way to get home from here, and it's much, much too far and cold and dangerous to walk.

I'll just have to get myself together and go back. I need to breathe. Everything's okay. Everything's exactly as I expected; I didn't think I had a chance with her anyway. I'd already thought of this likely scenario - rejection - and I'd already decided that I could love her from afar.

I've waited all of my life for her, and the knowledge that I've found her is enough. I'll never be less than grateful for her existence, because my feelings for her have forced a mirror in front of me, and suddenly I know all of the things I am. I know that I'm more than my job, more than a mother, more than a daughter, a sister, a friend. I'm someone who's been asleep for ten years, and I'm waking up, a newborn. I'm emotions, tender and fragile, but they're pure. I know that I'm capable of selfless love. I know the woman of my dreams exists and she's close enough that I can be a part of the background noise in her life. I can be her fan, silently cheering her on.

It is greater to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. Yes, I know this as well.

I square my shoulders, gather my courage, and march back up the stairs. I'm a rock, impenetrable, silent and unmoving. But her face appears, unbidden, and I clutch at the handrail and stifle a sob. It's not my love for her that breaks me; it's the knowledge that I'll never love anyone else.

-----------

Dana left.

Stephanie's been riding me for half an hour, wanting to know what happened, what I said to upset her, why she left. There wasn't much to say. Dana wants what everybody wants. Sex. Instant gratification. I'm disappointed in her, but what's worse is how disappointed I am in myself for reacting so strongly. What's wrong with wanting sex?

What's wrong is I want more. I want love.

I'm back at the loft, hoping to catch Dana, hoping to make things right, but she's not here. So once I shake Stephanie off, I head back to the roof. Some of my buddies are still here, and I don't want their company, but I need a cigarette so badly that I'll pretend everything's okay long enough to smoke. The door creaks open and I drift toward the candles. The air is thick with marijuana. I'll take any kind of buzz I can get, so I'm inhaling even before my cigarette's lit. Raney's one of the people out here. I think he's keeping an eye on those smoking pot, because this isn't his group, and he wouldn't normally spend so much time away from Stephanie. I light up immediately and stand apart from the others.

"You okay?" Raney's soft voice asks. I can barely hear him above the night noise; however, I can smell the alcohol on his breath.

I nod, but a tear spills down my face. It's cold out here, but I'm colder. The tear will freeze.

"Girl troubles?"

I nod. As long as he asks 'yes or no' questions, I won't have to talk. I won't have to tell him that it upset me to realize that Dana only wanted what everyone else has always wanted. "You're too sweet," Stephanie always tells me. "Men think 'sweet' means easy." Apparently, so does Dana.

Maybe my body language confused her, but all I wanted was to hold her. I just want to be in her presence and talk to her. I want to hug her to me and let her know that the world is really an okay place.

Raney smiles, takes a candle from the table and brings it near my face. The warmth is weak, but I'll take it. "You have that tragic look about you."

I draw deeply on the cigarette.

"It's Dana, isn't it? Your friend from the FBI."

I remain silent, but finally nod.

"Thought so. I'm sorry." He sighs. "You're not the only one that's hurting, though."

Oh, no. I hope Stephanie hasn't done something mean to him. His eyes are sad when I look into them. His heart is broken, I can tell, but he blinks and turns away. "She's hurting, too, I think." He nods toward the lawn, and I look.

Dana's there, small and beautiful. I move to the parapet, my head swimming. The brick is rough under my hands, but it steadies me. I thought she'd left. Maybe she needed to cool down before she got in her car to drive away. She must be angry, not getting what she came here for. She turns to look at the building, and her eyes stop at the roof. She sees me and freezes on the spot. I'm transfixed. She doesn't take her eyes from me but she slowly backs away as if I pose a threat to her.

I shake my head. Don't go. Don't tell me all you want is sex. Don't let me believe that.

I don't realize I've spoken aloud until Raney places his hand on my back. I've always thought his hands have healing powers, not because he's a preacher, but because he cares so much about people that love practically radiates from him. "Why don't you go talk to her?" he says.

My voice is hoarse. It gets like that when I'm upset. "She's leaving."

"She's going the wrong way, then."

And she is. She has turned from us now, and continues to walk the grounds, away from the building. She's faraway iridescence in emerald, silver and gold, shimmering on the dark green lawn, and I love her so much I can't bear for her to be this distant.

It's not supposed to happen like this. She's supposed to be in my life. She has to want more than sex. The sensation of her hand on my breast still makes me shudder. I want sex, too. But I want more. I want everything.

Maybe she'll fall in love with me one day, but it won't happen if I don't fix things right now. I hand Raney my cigarette and he smiles his encouragement. This man can see right through me. He always has. "I can't hold my feelings in," I say to him. They're spilling out of me. I can't contain them.

He nods. "Never does any good to try. You'll die that way." He wags the cigarette in front of my face. "Before you die this way."

His words propel me toward the stairway door and I jerk it open and stumble down the stairs. I can't cage my emotions as if they're a secret. I'll make her understand that love is not lust, and it doesn't flash in the night like a firefly, only to disappear at daylight. I hurry; I rush. I can't cage my love. I slip this gray, concrete, smoke- heavy world. I sprint. I fly.

I'm running down the steps of the building, and Dana continues to stand in the dark, cold green grass. When she sees me coming, she takes a step backward but then stands, still as a statue. I'll frighten her with my emotion, but I charge her anyway. I won't believe that she's incapable of loving me until I see it in her face or hear it in her voice. I will not keep my secret trapped inside, and I won't allow us to remain trapped in this emotional desert, either.

"I love you," I say before I'm near enough for her to hear me. But when I am that close, close enough to see her face, all words leave me, and my heart leaps with hope. She cares about me. I knew she did, but I didn't realize how much. She's trying to hide her feelings behind a mask, and she's not succeeding.

And even though my throat's closed tight and my teeth are clenched together, I can't hide my feelings either; they're pouring out of me. They're streaking down my face.

----------------

She's stolen my breath away, standing on the roof, looking for all the world like an otherworldly creature - a spirit, a ghost, a witch, a vampire. But she's the antithesis to these things. She's merely a woman.

She comes out of the main entrance, down the former school steps, her long coat flapping behind her. I know she's running, but everything's slow motion and she's ethereal. Monica has made a fool of me already, and she's only going to hurt me again, but whatever it is, whatever she says and no matter how my heart breaks, it will be worth it to have her close one last time.

She doesn't slow down until she reaches me. "Don't go," she says between breaths.

"You looked like a ghost just now, with your coat blowing behind you." My voice sounds just as fragile as I feel, and it cracks. "Beautiful, like a princess witch from a fairy tale."

"Dana." Her face is wet, her makeup streaked. Oh, God. How could I have hurt her? I reach up and tilt her chin toward me. The pain I see makes me so sad that my eyes blur with tears. "I'm sorry," I say, knowing it's not enough. "I didn't mean to hurt you."

She presses her face into my hand. "It's my fault."

"No, it's not your fault, it's mine. I should have talked to you. I thought…" I try to find words. "I think I've misunderstood some things."

Monica nods. I wipe her cheek with my fingers. "I can't." She breaks down.

"I know." I whisper, trying to soothe her. I cup her face and rub her arm. "I'm going home, okay?" I keep rubbing her arm. "I'm glad you invited me here. I’m glad I came. Your place is wonderful, your friends are great." I look up at her and smile. She breaks my heart. "And you're amazing." I catch her hand and press my forehead to it, a servant begging her forgiveness. I press my lips to it, a peasant begging her love.

"Dana," she says, and she finally looks me in the eye. "Don't leave." It comes out broken in her chattering teeth. "Don't go."

"I have to, Monica." I wipe her face again. "But it's okay." She's so sad, and I didn't imagine that I could hurt her so. "Everything will be okay. It'll be fine." I remember last Saturday, how she'd worried that I was leaving town. "We'll still work together." I squeeze her hand. "I'm not leaving you."

"No." She shakes her head.

I'm rubbing her arms. She must be freezing with her bare legs and bare back, even with the coat, but I don't need an excuse to touch her. Or maybe I do; maybe that's the whole problem. "You need to get inside." Tears roll down her face. "It'll be okay," I promise. I move past her, but she grabs my arm and turns me. "Don't," I whisper. She's leaning to kiss me, but I pull away. My frustration is a sob. "I don't know what you want."

"I think we want the same thing."

"Stop playing word games, Monica."

She flinches. Her lashes are wet, blinking. "I want you to love me."

"Oh." It's a moan, a small cry. Time's trapped me here on this lawn, and I need to leave, because things can only get more painful for both of us. "I think you're confused," I say at last.

She shakes her head. "Not any more." She touches my face. "I didn't know."

"What?"

She whispers something about a secret and a bird, and leans down and kisses me with cold, cold lips. It's so slow and sweet that I think I'm dying. I don't know that I've ever been kissed like this. How can she show so much emotion when our mouths aren't even open? It's just her lips and my lips, and she's undoing me. I catch the lapels of her coat so that I don't fall at her feet.

Her lips kiss the corners of my mouth, my cheeks. She rests her forehead on mine. "Love is everything, isn't it?" I'm struck mute, still reeling from her kiss. She kisses my brow and pulls back, looking very seriously into my eyes. "I want everything."

And oh, I want to give it to her. I don't tell her this, of course. Neither do I tell her that I love her. Telling her that would be opening myself more than I can.

She runs her hands through my hair, letting them catch and tangle. "Oh, God," she murmurs. Her hands tremble as they trace my cheekbones. I close my eyes to the display of emotions on her face; her feelings are too much for me to accept right now.

She kisses me again, and it's as sweet as the first. It's still just her lips on mine. I'd like her tongue in my mouth, but this is so tender and loving that I want to cry. I clutch her coat like a lovesick child. I think I'd take my shoes off and walk a mile over broken glass, in the freezing cold, for this kiss.

But then she opens her mouth to me, and I know I'd crawl.

-----------------------

Somebody's shouting at us, but I'm trying to ignore him. Dana's kissing me, and I'm melting into a million pieces. It's one of the gentlest, most affectionate kisses I've ever experienced, and it's made all the sweeter because the predatory look on her face is gone, and her hand is not inside my shirt, and her knee is not between my legs. She's clutching my coat, and her eyes are closed. When I pull out of the kiss to stare in wonder at her, she tilts her face up for more, and I oblige. I think she must love me.

"Monica!" The man shouts again. I pull away from Dana's mouth reluctantly, extremely annoyed until I realize it's Raney.

"Your adoring public," Dana murmurs.

But something's wrong; he's stumbling toward us. "Stephanie," he says, breathing hard, his hands on his knees. He takes a moment to look up at Dana and me, still in each other's arms, and happiness crosses his face, but I see tears shining in his eyes.

"What about her? What's wrong?"

He wheezes, his breath coming in whistles. Dana turns and looks at him. "Spit it out," she barks.

He shakes his head. "Nothing." He looks up. "Sorry, shouldn't have interrupted you."

I know what's wrong - he's drunk. "Raney," I say softly, because he's crying. I walk over and embrace him. He's my height but seems smaller in my arms.

He's still shaking his head. "She's in there with some girl."

"Dammit," I mutter. He doesn't need to say more; I know what she's doing. She's been doing this forever, showing Raney how ugly she can be. I don't know what's worse, how she treats him, or how he lets her. His heart has been breaking for fifteen years.

Dana clears her throat. She looks uncomfortable. "I'm going inside," she says. Her arms are crossed and she must be freezing. I nod, and she walks away. My eyes track her until she disappears in the shadows of the building.

I rub Raney's back like I've done before, soothing him with my silent understanding. And like I've done before, I'll call a taxi for him, because he needs to leave soon. He doesn't drink often, but when he does, he goes overboard. I'm beginning to believe it's the only way he can be near Stephanie.

Stephanie is a good person; she's always been good to me. But she hates herself, and this hurts me. Raney and I love Stephanie more than anyone else; more, even than her family, than her boys. And still we have trouble dealing with her self- loathing. It taints every aspect of her life. It taints us.

------------------------------

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