She comes to him late in the day, when the sun is setting and the temperature's perfect. He's out on his sort-of balcony, eating yogurt and looking over the rooftops, when he sees her.
She's obviously lost by the way she casts about and constantly refers to a scrap of paper in her hands. She looks scared, too--her eyebrows furrowed, her eyes wide.
"This isn't a good neighborhood to be walking around in," he calls to her, slightly amused by the way she jumps when she hears him. "Especially not at night." Especially not for a teenage girl, he wants to say, but doesn't.
"A-are you Michael Westen?" She stammers. He's surprised he can't hear her heart pounding.
"No," he says, and turns away. The last thing he wants is some teenager wanting him to aid her in whatever petty fight she's in.
"Please," she cries as he starts to leave. He pauses involuntarily, glances at her. Immediately he wonders why. Maybe it's the desperation in her voice. Maybe it's the fact that he can see her hands trembling even from the distance between them. Maybe it's the way she's looking at him like he's her salvation.
"I need your help," she says. He wants to tell her to get lost, but he can't say the words.
"I won't do it if--" he begins, but she interrupts him.
"I have 2,000 dollars," she blurts out, reaching into the bag that's slung over her shoulder. "I know it's not that much, but it's all I have. I can't make any more." She trusts her hands out to him, the bills clutched in her fingers, crinkling under her nervous grip.
He stares at her. She doesn't take her gaze from his, doesn't drop her hands. Her eyes are deep and pleading.
Something inside him breaks, and he asks, "What do you need?"
She blinks as if surprised. It takes her a moment to get her bearings, but she finally manages to say, "My boyfriend--"
"Uh-uh. No. I am not going to go spy on your boyfriend just because you think he might be cheating on you," he says harshly. She flinches visibly under his eyes.
"It's not like that," she mumbles. "He... he got into a fight with the wrong guy, and now he's got this whole gang after him. I'm..." She pauses like she's never going to finish the sentence. He looks to see her eyes downcast, her shoulders hunched. "...scared. I'm scared."
Don't do it, he tells himself. "Get the police to handle it," he finally says gruffly, turning away again.
"They'll kill him!" She yells, the first time she raises her voice since he saw her. He turns in surprise. She's looking at him, still pleading, still desperate. Still looking like he's the only thing that can help her.
He sighs and his shoulders sag in defeat. "Fine," he says through gritted teeth. He walks down the stairs to her. "Tell me everything."
It's not hard to scare juvenile gang members. All you have to do is know what they're going to do before they do it, show them you're always one step ahead of them. And the best thing about teenage gangs is that they're really very predictable.
Michael goes to every place the gang meets, watches them from behind the tinted windows of his car. They see him once and ignore him, but by the third time, they get suspicious. Satisfaction builds in his chest, and he decides to lay low for a while, let them think they're safe.
The girl comes to see him every other day or so. She always wears long sleeves, he notices. The weather hasn't gotten cold yet.
"How's the job coming?" She asks whenever she sees him. He tells her it's fine, repeats that it'll take about a week or so of observation and scare tactics before he can manage to chase them off for good.
They're sitting on his balcony, the silence between them heavy and awkward. She sighs and pushes up her sleeves reflexively, responding to the heat that presses down on them.
He notices the bruises. There are a few on her forearms, but they're fading, almost gone. The most recent one is on her wrist, circling it, a bracelet of protesting flesh.
"What happened?" He asks her. He needs to know if the gang came after her; if they did, it's far more serious than he thought.
"What?" She replies, confused until she sees that he's focused on her arms. Immediately she pulls her sleeves down and looks away. "Oh, I just--I fall down a lot." She pastes a smile on her face and keeps her eyes down.
A good spy can tell when somebody's lying. A great spy can tell when not to call them out on it.
He nods and returns to staring out at the street. A few moments later she leaves, quiet as a mouse.
Relationships aren't easy, especially when it comes to teenagers. But just when you think you know all about it (you're an adult now, and you think you know because you've been there before, and experience makes you a god among mortals), something happens that flips your notions right on their side.
He's staking out the boyfriend's house when he sees them fighting.
It doesn't seem mutual--the boyfriend's yelling, but the girl has her hands up in a placating gesture. She looks as if she's trying to soothe him, looks patient and gentle. Michael watches through his binoculars, curious.
It seems as if she's winning, because the boyfriend turns away. After a moment of standing still, she reaches out, and touches his shoulder.
He whirls and punches her across the face, devastatingly, inhumanly angry. The movement is so sudden Michael barely catches it, even with the spy training behind him. The girl falls to the floor, body limp, a puppet whose strings have suddenly been cut. Michael throws his binoculars down, sick to his stomach.
When Michael can muster up the will to look again, the boyfriend's kneeling before the girl, pressing his forehead to hers. He focuses on their lips.
I'm sorry, she seems to be saying. Over and over again, those two words.
When she comes out to the backyard, Michael's there, leaning against the wall of the house. She's crying silently, wiping away the tears as fast as they spill out of her eyes. Michael intentionally moves, and she whirls, wiping her face hastily.
"Are--are any of the gang nearby?" She has to clear her throat once or twice before her voice comes out normal, steady.
He stares at her, and in the way her eyes darken, in the way she pulls down her sleeves, he can tell she knows he saw the fight.
"Why are you doing this?" He asks finally, her shame a palpable weight on his tongue.
"Because it's usually not this bad," she whispers. She doesn't say what he knows she's thinking:
Because I love him. Because I keep hoping he'll stop.
He hears the words anyway.
If you want to get a gang away from their target, just pretend you're the leader of a stronger gang, and they're trespassing on your turf. They'll run like rabbits.
He chases them off after the first week, knows they won't come back again. The next day she comes to him, the bruises on her face already gone. "How's the job going?" She asks, just like always.
"You're both safe now," Michael replies. She nods and stands next to him.
"I have your money," she says after a moment, reaching to the bag at her shoulder. Michael stays her hand with his; she freezes.
"Keep it," he says. A small but brilliant smile plays across her features--the first time she's smiled since this ordeal began--and he can't help but smile back. He tells her he'll walk her back to her boyfriend's house; it's late, and despite himself, he doesn't want anything to happen to her.
They stop at the corner, her boyfriend's house the only one with lights on. He watches her look down, watches her fidget uncomfortably.
"I should--" he begins.
"Thank--" she says at the same time.
She flushes, and he gestures for her to speak first. "Thank you," she murmurs, looking him straight in the eye.
"You're welcome", he replies, but thinks, I didn't do you any favors. She nods. He looks away.
Before he knows it she's hugging him, her tiny body pressing to his, her arms crushing his waist in a surprisingly strong grip. Michael blinks at her; she's so small compared to him, small and delicate and fragile. He reciprocates the motion after a second of stunned silence.
She lets go and he misses the feeling of knowing that she's completely safe in his arms--despite him wanting to stay unattached, despite him hoping he won't care. A part of him wants her safe.
She turns away, and he says, "He's not going to change."
She turns back to him. "I know," she whispers, her smile broken, her eyes hollowed out by pain and filled with things like sadness and regret.
She leaves him then, and after a moment he goes too, already trying to forget her. But later, she'll find a slip of paper in her jacket pocket containing several phone numbers. One will be the Domestic Abuse Hotline; one, the police; and another, a shelter for battered women.
And there'll be another number, one that will be unmarked (she'll know whose it is anyway). A few words will be written underneath it:
In case he goes too far.