Robin and I spent part of the evening watching old movies with some of the other kids, but I found myself growing tired very quickly. I realized I hadn't broken the good news to Robin yet, but I figured it could wait 'til morning. I had to give her credit, Robin was surprisingly functional, even now, in ways I never had been. She sat crosslegged, couch pillow in her lap, between the two girls she shared a room with, giggling and pushing, and generally behaving like a normal 15 year old girl. I sat at her feet, largely silent.
It wasn't just that I was getting tired. I hadn't really had the opportunity to examine the day's events yet. I wanted to feel everything out, figure out just what it was that was blocking me from accepting someone that my sister was so comfortable with.
I had always been the shy sister. I had never been at a loss for friends, but I wasn't terribly close to anyone. I never really had been. I floated through high school and then college, letting people drift into my life, and then drift away just as easily. I never thought that was terribly odd, until I realized that Robin was so different from me. She did have friends, a very strong core of them. They had grown up together. And she was very good at integrating new people into her circle, making them feel just as welcome and valued as those who had been there since the beginning. I never had quite that kind of talent, maybe that's why I just floated through social circles. Easier to be the go-between than to have to manage one of my own.
So then I began to examine just what it was that made me so uncomfortable about Murdoc. And I came up empty. It wasn't a feeling I could pin down easily. He made me ill at ease, in a way that was different from normal strangers when they suddenly become a part of your life. And, to top it off, wasn't MacGyver just as much of a stranger, if not more so? I had only met him a week ago, after all, and it had been no problem for me to just offload my whole bag of issues at his feet.
I guessed that it all came down to the differences I had noted earlier between the two. The way they carried themselves. The way they each spoke. Murdoc was not an unattractive gentleman himself, if I had to admit it. Robin was right in her assessment. But that didn't mean anything. One can be devastatingly handsome and still be creepy, or socially inept, or rude. And let us not forget that that pleasant-ish face holds those creepy, hollow eyes.
But the moment of introspection was just enough to temporarily confuse me. Perhaps, just this once, I'd try to give him the benefit of the doubt. Even if his eyes did linger just a millisecond too long on a girl with wild red hair and shredded, acid-wash jeans.
The next morning, Phoenix awoke with a start. She suddenly remembered she would have to find clothes for her first day on the job. She dashed to the room Robin shared with her two new friends, and rattled the door handle.
A groggy Robin answered the door, running a hand through her short, ruddy hair. Phoenix burst into the room and began rifling through a drawer, handing her sister a t-shirt and faded jeans.
"What're you doing?" Robin asked. Phoenix pulled the pack of cigarettes she had hidden in her drawer out, and shoved them in the pocket of her denim jacket.
"Hey!" Robin insisted. "…how did you know about them?"
"I've lived with you for fifteen years. Don't tell me you thought you'd hidden them from me too?" Phoenix smiled. "It's fine. I mean… it'll kill you eventually. But you can do whatever you want. It's your life."
The sisters paused for a moment, sobered. Then Phoenix shoved Robin's ragged sneakers at her, and flopped onto the bed, tapping her fingers impatiently on the bedframe.
"Seriously, what's the rush?"
"You want to go shopping?" Phoenix asked, enticingly.
"Um, yes. These jeans were made for a twelve-year-old boy."
"I can't buy you a lot. But I have to get nice clothes. For work."
"You got a job? Like… a job job?" Robin asked.
"Yeah. What, you didn't think I was capable of finding a real job?"
"Well, that was fast."
"I know a guy." Phoenix smiled.
"You know a guy, and he just handed you a job?"
"And here you thought I didn't have any friends." Phoenix smirked.
"I guess." Robin was lacing up her high-tops.
And then Phoenix was pulling her out the door. Scanning the list MacGyver had scrawled for her on the back of a napkin, she stood staring at the street for a moment, and then began striding in one direction.
Two hours and seventeen-dollars-and-twenty-eight-cents later, the pair returned to the Challenger's Center, laden with bags.
"I cannot believe you spent a quarter of my money on one pair of designer jeans." Phoenix said, throwing her sister a look.
"I cannot believe you got all those ugly shirts for two-fifty." Robin retorted.
"They're not ugly, they're…"
"I was going to say 'conservative.'" Phoenix said. "Besides, I have to have a whole week's worth of clothes. I can't do laundry every two days."
"You could just wear the same thing. No one's going to notice. Didn't you say this place is supposed to be kind of big?"
"And now I know why YOU don't have a job yet…" Phoenix grinned.
"I don't have a job yet because I have to concentrate on my studies so I can get into a good college, so I don't end up like you." Robin grinned wickedly. Phoenix was not amused. Quietly, she broke off and opened the door to her room.
"Hey, I didn't mean it like that. I mean… " Robin protested.
"It's ok. It's true." Phoenix sighed. "Listen. Tonight's the night, I guess. So I guess I'm going to try and not look like a total slob. But just because I'm trying to be nice. For you. Because if it wasn't for you, I wouldn't be touching this guy with a ten-foot pole, ok?"
"You keep saying that, but you're the one with a bag full of make-up."
"That's for work!" Phoenix insisted.
"Sure. Mm-hmm. 'for work.' I'm sure." Robin smiled. "Hey, can I borrow some of that sometime? I met this guy right before spring break. I wanna look nice when I get back to school on Monday."
"I guess. Now can I go? I want to throw up far enough in advance that he won't notice, but not so far in advance that I'll be tempted to do so again when he gets here."
Phoenix didn't wait for an actual response.
She found herself nervous, which wasn't unexpected. It was why she was nervous that was unexpected. She suddenly found herself wanting to make a good impression, which was incredulous. As if she wanted him to insist on spending even more time with her. In truth, the vast majority of her just wanted to get this evening over with. But a tiny, almost imperceptible part was very concerned about what would happen if she had been wrong.
When he came to collect her that afternoon, he did not simply come in as he usually did. Instead, he rang the front desk, as if she were a VIP in some sort of fancy hotel, instead of a vagabond in a spartan hostel. Phoenix was perplexed. This was, after all, supposed to be a casual encounter, was it not? She tottered to the front desk on a pair of low heels, hoping no one would see how scuffed they were. There he was, looking much the same as he ever did. Again with that expression, as if he were somehow caught off guard by her very presence. Again with the careful arrangement of features.
"You look…" He began.
"I got new clothes." She interrupted quickly. "For work."
"You found a new job?" He asked.
"Yes, I… Yes. A real job, for once." She thought it better to not mention that she was, in fact, capable of making friends. She just wanted to go and get this whole bit over with.
"Your sister has been worried about you." He said, leading her to a cab waiting in the street. "She says you're usually alone. It's not good to be alone all the time."
Phoenix stumbled into the cab, the tiny heels still foreign to her. Murdoc shut the door, and climbed in the opposite side. It occurred to Phoenix that she hadn't ridden in a cab in at least a year.
"Where are we headed?" She asked.
"Somewhere we'll be able to talk." He said, flashing what she assumed was trying to be a disarming smile. It was strange how little a smile suited his brooding face.
They ended up in the smoky darkness of a quiet café a few miles away. Phoenix had never been in this part of town, and she was ashamed to realize that that made her nervous. Not because she had never been there before, but because she wasn't exactly sure how she would get back home in the event that she had to make some sort of quick getaway. Somewhere inside, she knew this was a ridiculous notion, but it popped up anyway, and refused to abate.
She sat, picking at a spinach pie and sipping tea, attempting to make something other than awkward small-talk with the man across from her.
"Phoenix, I won't pretend I know anything about psychology, but I do worry that your withdrawal is not a healthy one. Your sister tells me you've gone to great lengths to avoid social interaction."
"I just like taking time for myself. She worries about me too much. She's fifteen, and everything is a huge deal to her." She replied, testily.
"Fair enough, but you've lived through a crisis. You both have. Don't you want someone to lean on sometimes?"
"And you expect that person to be you?"
"I wouldn't necessarily say that. But you don't see anyone else willing to be there, do you?"
"Look. The last few weeks have been hard. A lot harder than I expected. But it's nothing I'm unprepared to handle. I don't need anyone swooping into my life and sweeping away the hard stuff. I can do that for myself."
"That isn't my point." Murdoc insisted. "Sometimes, you just need to trust someone else."
"…Sometimes you just need to trust someone else." I looked up from my spinach pie, skeptically. I expected to see some approximation of an emotion that didn't quite exist in his face. What I saw instead actually shocked me. Sincerity. Real, honest sincerity hiding somewhere in those hollow eyes. I began to falter. Perhaps I had been wrong after all. I cast my eyes back down to my spinach pie and began to push bits of crust around my plate. Maybe this was what he was talking about, and maybe I did have to let my guard down sometime. But what was I going to find behind it?
Murdoc leaned his head back, tendrils of wild hair tickling his neck as he slowly made contact with the wall. It was such a dismal, dark little room. He thought back to the evening's events. Something about that girl… girl? Woman? What exactly would you call her? Something about her was maddening. He was never quite prepared for her face, it seemed, and that made it extraordinarily difficult to not give away the true feeling behind his carefully arranged expression . She was stubborn, he was certain of that. He didn't quite understand what was happening. It had been so easy to manipulate people before. He was not only a master of disguise, after all, but a master of persuasion. He could persuade just about anyone to believe anything. Indeed, he had played this role before, he thought pensively, shutting his eyes a moment. The pervasive red glow of darkroom bulbs, dim though they were, followed through his eyelids. He had played this role before, and gotten burned, quite literally.
"Penny Parker." The words came as a shock out of the darkness, even as they burst from his lips. Penny Parker, that little twit, wherever she was, had been beautiful, and earnest, and yes, she had some sort of talent in there somewhere. And he had gotten quite tangled up in her. And, perhaps, if he had to be completely honest, (but when was he ever completely honest?) it had hurt him. It wasn't supposed to be that way. She was supposed to be a pawn. A stupid, brainless pawn in a plot to get rid of MacGyver once and for all. What he hadn't counted on was her absolute, earnest sweetness. Whatever it was that had duped MacGyver into coming to her rescue over and over, letting her crash into his sphere more times than one could count, whatever that was had completely entangled Murdoc as well.
Well… not completely. He had still threatened to kill her after all, but it would have been an awful shame. Then again, things that beautiful and good didn't really deserve to exist anyway, when they only existed to the detriment of someone with true vision. Murdoc attempted to smooth back his unruly hair, the distant sound of trickling water periodically breaking into his train of thought. At length, he stood, approaching the long row of darkroom counters and fishing a pair of prints out of their rinse. He looked at them appraisingly. It was a wonder they had turned out at all, having been taken in such low light. He clipped these up to dry, and stepped out of his darkroom, flicking off the red light and squinting momentarily as the sun-filled room beyond dazzled.
What was past was past. This woman, Phoenix, had no part in any plot. At least not one that was still any of Murdoc's concern. She was just lovely, and he found he felt a distinct weakness in her presence. She would come around eventually. He was certain of it.
And if not… well, he supposed her sister wasn't going to be missed by too many others.