May 5, 2004

She tried to keep her voice neutral as she said it, with no preconceived idea as to how he might respond.

"The whole office thinks we're fucking, Creegan."

First, a bark of laughter. Not expected, but not surprising. Then, "Not the whole office."

She tightened her hands around the steering wheel of her parked car. "Oh, well that's fine, then."

"Even the ones who think that don't really think that. They just get their jollies from office gossip."

She turned to look at him, slouched carelessly in her passenger seat, mutilating a paper clip he'd dug out of her ashtray. He looked singularly unlike himself in the suit and tie he'd been forced to wear for their court appearance. Shaved, hair neatly combed... she wondered how long it had taken him to put himself together that morning; felt a pang as she imagined him standing before his grimy motel room mirror, head cocked, staring at a familiar stranger.

Maybe it was the fact that, at least to outward appearances, he wasn't entirely, officially her Creegan today that had even allowed her to broach the topic. Her Creegan. She slid over that thought and onto the next before it could trip her up as it often did.

"This doesn't bother you."

"Nope. Why should it?" he asked absently, focusing on bending the wire into a coil. "Hell, I'm flattered. You, on the other hand... I can see why it would bug you."

"It bugs me," she said, before he could introduce his own theory on the matter, "Because it casts doubts on our professionalism."

He laughed again, and tested the tension of his makeshift spring between his thumb and forefinger. "That's not exactly high up on my list of worries, Branca."

She bristled, and yet her gaze wouldn't move from his hands. "Right. Of course. Unfortunately, I don't have that luxury. I have to care about my career." My career, how will this affect my career, if everyone thinks we're...

He shrugged. "It doesn't affect the job. The rumors, I mean."

"Not the job," she corrected. That was different. On the job, they fit together in a way she no longer questioned. This... wasn't about the job. "My career. I have to worry about that."

He tossed the mangled paper clip through the open window into the parking lot and turned his full concentration on her. "You're really bothered by this."

"Another brilliant observation," she muttered, breaking his gaze. "Let's go." She reached toward the ignition to turn the key, ready to discard the matter, but he stopped her hand with his own.


The unexpected physical contact jarred her out of her intentions for a moment, and she froze--but only for a moment. "You're right, it's nothing. Rumors. Let's go," she repeated. Still, she didn't move to free her hand.

"It isn't true," he told her, as if it that had somehow been in doubt. "I know it's not, you know it's not, and Enright knows, too. So don't worry about it. It's just something people with no imagination entertain themselves with over crappy office coffee, to distract themselves from their own crappy lives."

"Okay." She nodded a little, and he dropped her hand. As she started up the car and checked her mirrors, he scrubbed at his scalp, restoring chaos where there once was order. She pulled out of the parking lot, and he worked on freeing himself from his necktie. When they hit the highway, he held it out the window, watched it stream in the wind for a few seconds, and then simply let it go.

When she next glanced over, he was himself again. He went for the radio, tuning through the static until he reached the classic rock station. "I love this song." He turned up the volume, beat out the rhythm on his thighs and tried, unsuccessfully, to sing along. "At least, I thought I loved this song. Do I even know this song?"

She couldn't quite place it herself--thought it might be Bad Company--but that didn't matter. He favored her with one of his open, unfiltered smiles, and she knew that this was half an act. He was trying to entertain her, because he knew he could. It half worked. She smiled, and she laughed in spite of herself. But.

Everyone thinks we're fucking, Creegan.

'Fucking Creegan' was something she'd mumbled before answering her cell phone at three in the morning, but it was also--to be honest--somewhere she'd allowed her mind to drift more than once, in the safe stillness of her apartment, after a few too many sips of Hangar One vodka had slid down her throat.

That someone else was thinking about it, idly speculating about the two of them in that way, left her deeply uncomfortable. She muted the stereo. "It doesn't upset you just a little bit that people are taking this," she didn't bother to explain what 'this' was, "and turning it into something sordid?"

He threw his head back and groaned, pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes for a few seconds, and then rolled his head toward her. "That hurts, Susan. I'm deeply hurt." He laid his right hand over his heart to demonstrate the depths of his faux sincerity. "Just because we're sleeping together doesn't mean it has to be sordid."

She pressed her lips together to hold back a smile, and rolled her eyes at him as she'd become so accustomed to doing. Later she might consider what it meant that she'd used the word 'fucking' and he'd said 'sleeping together'. "All right, let's drop it."

"Do you want me to take out an ad? I can do that. How about skywriting? A plane trailing the words 'I am not screwing Susan Branca.' Or maybe just an interoffice memo. Or would you like me to call everyone personally?" He reached into his pocket for his cell phone.

"Okay, Creegan, I said let's drop it." 'Screwing.' She'd liked 'sleeping together' better. "I get it. It's just a stupid rumor that ultimately means nothing. I'm rising above it as we speak."

He exhaled sharply, suddenly serious. "Hey."

She answered with a quick turn of her head, a raise of her eyebrows, shorthand for 'Hey, what?'

"I know it's different for you. Because you're a woman, and because you're you." She almost interrupted to ask him what he meant by that, but he continued. "I'll take down the next asshole that says anything, how's that? Better yet, you take him down; I'll watch."

And at that moment, she gave in. Her shoulders shook with laughter. Creegan grinned at her, and slumped triumphantly in his seat. He turned the radio back on, and she rolled down her window, glad to feel the wind on her face. At the next stoplight, she watched his fingers drumming lightly on the armrest.

Everyone thinks we're fucking, Creegan.

But it wasn't true.