Miranda has to find a better place to study.
There's sunlight sliding through the blinds, painting Declan's office in long stripes. She can see dust on his desk and heavy in the air. Declan himself is digging through a stack of long abandoned paper and talking rat-a-tat-tat about the mating rituals of the Borlabee people of the South African coast.
He's talking with his hand and his eyes, waving sheaves of paper about. Miranda's sitting on the couch with Mole curled up beside her and a textbook in her hands.
A laugh fills the room. Bright and cheery, it bounces in the summer sun, and Declan looks up and smiles. The woman - girl, really, Miranda thinks - is still laughing.
They're talking about ritual sacrifice now, Declan and this girl with her too-white teeth and her too-blonde hair and her too-perfect questions. ("Professor Dunn, do you have a minute?") She's the latest in a long string of under grads wearing CKOne, Vans, and flirty little tops; they show up and ask him for clarification on things using five dollar words she knows Declan has never used in class.
So they come and Declan crinkles his eyes and tangents wildly, and Miranda sits on the couch and listens to him as he speaks, the cadence of his words lulling her.
There's that laugh again, too bright, too much. Mole drops his head to her lap and moans, and she scratches his ears. "I know, boy," she says. "I know."
She's read this page in her book three times and hasn't processed a word. Declan's laughing now, sitting on the floor with papers spread around him, and the girl hunkers down and helps pick them up. Her hand brushes his four times.
This isn't working.
They're eating lunch in Peggy's office, Chinese from a little cafe that Declan found just down the block from the hospital. Peggy's talking about her latest patient and Declan's trying to pump her for information about multiple personalities versus actual possession.
Miranda's running equations in her head, fluid flow and string theory and love potion number nine, and nodding at appropriate junctions. Her chow mein is slippery between her chopsticks, and she remembers learning to use them in Hong-Kong. She was six and they were sitting on the deck of some fabulously expensive restaurant twelve stories up. Her father had been called away for a phone call, and she and her mother and brothers could hear his voice above the hum of conversation.
She laughed easier then, and she chased noodles and rice and vegetable across her plate while her brothers dueled with their chopsticks.
"So I won two tickets to the opera," Peggy says. "Carmen. Saturday night."
"Lucky," Declan replies, mouth full of chicken. "Who you taking?"
Miranda knows who she'll be taking. "Bizet," she says instead. Nods. "Nice."
"I know this is kind of last minute," Peggy says. "But the two of you didn't have plans, did you?"
Miranda's studying her chopsticks again.
"Nope," Declan replies. Sits forward in his chair and grins. "You know, I've never -"
"Miranda, would you like to go?"
Pause, rewind. "Me?"
"Unless Declan's changed his name since his last visit."
Oh. Declan's looking slightly nonplussed.
"Sure," Miranda says. "It's a date."
They're standing outside the theatre and the wind smells like rain. "Pretty good show," Peggy says. She's got her hair trailed up and her scarf catches in the breeze, purple trailing in the air and blazing in the streetlights. Sometimes, Miranda hates her, with her easy smiles and open eyes.
"It was okay," Miranda says, distracted. Her dress is a red so dark it might as well be black. "The one I saw in London was better."
Sometimes, her mouth says the things she doesn't realize her brain was thinking.
"You never talk about your family," Peggy says.
"Nothing much to say."
"Look, if you ever..."
"You should have brought Declan," Miranda says, hands in her coat pockets and the breeze kissing the back of her neck.
Peggy steps forward to stand beside her. "We're friends, right?"
And Miranda's head wants to snap around. "I guess."
"You guess. I know." She places a hand carefully on Miranda's arm. "We're friends, Miranda." Pauses as if for once, even she doesn't have the words.
Miranda says nothing, staring at the stars she can't see through the city lights.
"I would never do that to you," Peggy says. "And I know we've never talked about this, but -"
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"I know that you and Declan, you're not actually -"
"We're friends," Miranda says. Ducks her head. "That's all. If you want him, you should go for it."
Peggy sighs. "I'm not interested in him."
She's lying, but she's not the only one.
It's cold outside, winter setting in with a vengeance. There's snow on the evergreens, all over the ground, and in the ankles of her boots. On her way across campus, she walked into a snowball fight, so there are flakes across her coat and in her hair.
She wanted - almost wanted, wants to want - to join in, but the memories of a girl who loved to drop snow down her brothers' backs are faded like an old photograph.
"Declan," she says as she blows into his office. Stops.
He's asleep on the couch with a ratty afghan thrown across his feet. He's snoring, just a bit, and his hair is mussed. Mole a furry lump curled up on his lap.
"Miranda?" Peggy asks -
- and Miranda didn't hear her come in, hear the click-clack of her heels.
Declan stirs, and she realizes that she's been standing there, melting on his floor for ten, twenty minutes.
She's out the door before he's had time to do more than blink.
Peggy doesn't try to stop her, and her feet are loud on the tile.
She wishes the photography of that girl wasn't so faded, so maybe she'd know how to be what he wants.
Declan's working at his computer, tapping at the keys to the CCR he's got blaring from its tinny speakers. It's a day like any other day - the hinges on his door still need oiling and it snaps shut behind her. He looks up and blinks twice. "Hi," he says.
She drops into a chair and curls her legs beneath her. "Hey," she says. Doesn't look at him as she digs a ten-pound textbook from her bag and lets it flop open. Mole hops up beside her and nudges her elbow with his wet nose until she moves to accommodate him.
"He missed you," Declan says.
"I've been busy," she says, not meeting his eyes. "I have to work on my degree occasionally, you know."
She sees him wince out the corner of her eye, but she refuses to be sorry. Refuses to go all melty on the inside at the way his eyebrows crinkle when he turns back to his work. She's spent the last few days thinking, and the only thing she's figured out is one she really didn't want to admit.
This isn't working.
She couldn't be that girl for her mother, the one who wears pink and green and sunshine smiles. She's tried so hard, tried so long, and she knows this for sure:
She could be that girl for Declan.
She could be that girl, and it would be great for a while. They'd go out and meet people and smile at them, and she'd ask about their dogs and their children and laugh at their jokes; and it would get harder each day until one day it started getting easier.
And that day is the one she'd know she was being replaced with this girl she was supposed to be.
He's watching her, and she knows this because she's gotten pretty good at looking at him out of the corner of her eye. It doesn't mean she doesn't want him. It doesn't mean she doesn't care, or that it's not killing her.
He opens his mouth to say something, and she flips the page. He stares at the screen, starts typing, click of the keys no longer in sync with the bass. The song ends and he hits a few more keys, stops typing. She can hear the computer beep as it shuts down.
The sudden silence is deafening, and her book is heavy on her knees.
"Miranda," he says. "Look, we need to..."
There's a girl at the door, red hair and blue eyes and freckles. "Professor Dunn?" she asks. Miranda's already shoving her book in her bag. Mole growls as she dislodges him.
The girl's smiling slowly, and Declan's got his hands in his hair. "Miranda-"
"Do you have a minute?"
It would be so easy. Just walk out that door. Miranda's done it before - not this exact door, but the same - idea twenty times, thirty.
Thing is, she's not sure that that's who she wants to be either. She's on her feet with her bag in her hands; Declan's saying her name and the student at the door is blinking slowly with doe-like eyes. Mole butts at her calf, and she bends down to scratch his ears.
So, maybe there are no freeze frame photographs of ways for her to be. There's no equation that she has to follow.
She walks to the door, and Declan drops his arms.
"Sorry, he doesn't," she tells the student, who opens her blue eyes wide as Miranda shuts the door.
"Right," she says under her breath, and drops her bag. Strides across the office to Declan (because she doesn't know what he's going to say, how this is going to go and she wants to have this, at least) and kisses him.
He touches her face and smiles. "He's not the only one, you know," Declan says. "Mole. He's not the only one who missed you."
And she knows he's not just talking about the last few days, since she ran out of his office. Knows he means -
"I was looking for the photographs," she says with her forehead on his shoulder. "I couldn't find what you needed me to -"
"Don't do it again," he says and kisses the top of her head. "I kind of miss you when you're gone."