A/N: I know I have not yet posted the last two chapters of "Achilles Heel." This story demanded to be written and now that it's done, I will finish "Achilles Heel." Apologies to those who have been waiting for it.
ab ovo \ab-OH-voh\, adverb: From the beginning.
"When I invited you to lunch, I had intended a more…" Michael paused, reconsidered what he'd been about to say.
"A more suitable location?" Marella supplied.
"I appreciate dining al fresco as much as anyone," Michael replied, waving one hand to encompass the warm sun, the brilliant blue sky, and the smoke gray fumes from the traffic stacked up on Constitution Avenue. "I had, however, thought we would be sitting down at a table, with wait staff," he concluded, eye twinkling. "Not that these hot dogs are anything but what you promised."
"Best in D.C.," she said, taking a bite into the hot dog he'd bought her from the street vendor on the corner.
One dog, with everything, she'd said, and so she'd received. Never one to back down from an obvious dare, he'd ordered the same, but now, leaning back against a corner of the Hart Senate Office Building, Michael looked a little more doubtfully at his hot dog, obviously wary of dripping mustard, relish, sauerkraut and hot sauce on his pristine white suit. Marella pushed a few of the napkins she'd grabbed from the street vendors cart into his free hand and he nodded a dubious thank you, choosing to lean forward, over the sidewalk before talking a bite. A wise decision, she thought, as bits of relish and sauerkraut tumbled to the pavement.
It was good to see him. With her schedule she hardly had time to miss anyone from California, family included, but she suddenly found herself feeling unusually homesick for the first time since she moved to the East Coast.
It was a beautiful spring day in the nation's capital, that perfect and all too short time of year in between the damp cold winter and humid summer. Marella spent so much time indoors -- in the lab, in her office or in meetings - that she'd jumped at an excuse to get outside, to get fresh air or what passed for fresh air in this densely congested section of DC where vehicles clogged the streets and pedestrians hurried by, either frantically busy and important or at least wanting to impart that perception.
"What brings you to DC?" she asked, after sorting through a number of safe opening inquiries that didn't venture into areas she knew would be off limits. She'd kept her TS and SCI level clearances, her new position required it as much as her old, but most of Archangel's ops were need-to-know and she no longer had that need.
Mouth full of hotdog and toppings, he jerked his chin at the building behind them and then towards the Capitol building across the street. As he turned his head back to give her a shrug, Marella spotted mustard at the side of his mouth threatening to drip onto his suit jacket. Without stopping to think, she leaned forward and wiped it away with a napkin. It wasn't until the same corner of Michael's mouth tipped up in a small smile that she realized that her actions might be construed as something other than instinct. Archangel's staff took liberties with their boss, adjusting his ties, brushing lint off his suits, even biting the end off his occasional cigar before lighting it for him, all tiny invasions of his personal space that he either encouraged, ignored, or was completely indifferent, depending upon which staffer's analysis one believed. That Michael Coldsmith-Briggs was possibly biggest flirt Marella had ever met left her convinced that he encouraged it. The habit was ingrained, even if her position had changed.
Gaze still on her, Michael swallowed his mouthful. "Thank you," he said, the same small smile in place as he wiped his mustache with a different napkin.
Marella almost apologized. Instead, she met his smile and raised it a notch.
"How is the internment going?" he asked, mischief written all over his face.
Definitely the biggest flirt she'd ever met. Fortunately she had years of experience in playing at words with Archangel.
"Internship," she said, looking up at him through lowered brows. "And it's still a little overwhelming, there's so much to learn."
She missed the height advantage her heels had given her. She hadn't missed the once-over Archangel had given her when they'd met. She'd considered wearing white, as a lark and because her wardrobe had a considerable amount of choices in that color, but settled for gray silk blouse tucked into pale blue trousers and low-heeled pumps. Attending the morning's seminar at GW wearing head to toe white would have the older doctors jumping to assumptions that she was a nurse.
"Locked up in an institution, working eighteen hours a day or more, severing all ties with family and friends and ceasing all social activities?" Michael laughed. "I stand by my description."
"I made time for lunch," she argued, knowing in advance that taking fifteen minutes out of one's day to meet her former boss and devour a street vendor provided lunch before he raced on to his next meeting and she headed back to her lab only strengthened his argument. Pursing her lips, she reached for a sure win. "Working eighteen hours a day without time for friends, family or social activities? That sounds very familiar actually."
Studying the stump that remained of his hot dog, Michael just shook his head. "I apparently have a different recollection of our dining choices than you do. Travel, adventure, fine dining, excellent wine." He tossed the remainder of the hot dog in the metal trash bin on the corner, just missing a passing bike messenger who flipped him the finger but kept moving.
"It sounds like you're recruiting, sir," she replied, pleased that she provoked an immediate wince.
"You no longer work for me, Marella. You might want to consider using my given name."
She had, in her head, for some time. Out loud, in person, she hesitated.
"I'm still a Firm employee," she countered, lowering her voice. With the noise of the traffic, it would be difficult for someone to overhear but it was DC, and the playbook stated clearly to always assume you were being watched in DC. Or in this case, assume Archangel was being watched. "And you are still a Deputy Director."
"But you never used to be a coward. I see you've soaked up some of the environment here since you moved."
Provocative bastard, she thought, trying to stop herself from laughing.
"I let the devious Deputy Director of an unnamed agency buy me lunch, despite the consternation of my current boss that 'said devious individual' was doing so to pry details of our research out of me. Does that sound like a coward to you?"
Michael laughed again, wiped his mustache and then his hands with the remaining napkins. "God forbid, it sounds like a bureaucrat in training." He thumped his chest and grimaced. "Said devious individual is going to have indigestion for the rest of the day. If it were anyone but you, I might suspect it was done intentionally."
Only Archangel could wrap an insult, a complaint and a compliment together and have it sound charming.
He glanced at his watch and gave her a look of regret. "It pains me to eat and run, particularly," he glanced around at their surroundings with a wry smile, "as the company more than makes up for the cuisine, but I've a one o'clock with Senator Harney."
The sense of abandonment was immediate and completely out of proportion. She'd forgotten how much she enjoyed simple conversation with him.
"It's good to see you," she said, meaning it. "I'm glad you called."
The bright blue gaze held hers for a long charged moment, a time that passed slowly with increased awareness of every physical sensation as she waited for one of them to break the spell, but afraid to do so herself since she didn't know what the next step should be.
"I'm glad you could fit me in," he said, playful again, all intensity gone. "But next time, I pick the restaurant." A raised eyebrow asked for her agreement.
"All right," she said, although to what exactly she was agreeing, she wasn't entirely sure. A quivering sensation in her stomach reminded her of junior high school and first crushes, which seemed absurd in the current situation. She tried for confidence. "Next time, you choose, I'll buy."
He leaned forward and kissed her lightly on her left cheek. "That's not how it works, Marella," he said softly.
With a final smile, he turned and disappeared into the Hart Senate Office building, leaving her spellbound and speechless and entirely unsure if what she thought had just happened had actually happened.