Teasers & Deleted Scenes
J. Edgar Hoover Building, Washington, D.C., October 2008
Someone touched Nikki's hair, hesitantly, a stroking motion that would have been soothing if it hadn't roused her enough to become aware of the hard flat surface of her desk indenting her cheek. Whoever was touching her felt safe, inside the bubble of familiar people her subconscious awareness maintained, but the smell was unfamiliar--leather and... creosote bush? The hand rested on her shoulder now, cool and calming.
When she opened her eyes, squinting against the bullpen's harsh light, she saw long brown fingers, ringless, a shirt-sleeve rucked up by being too short for the arm that wore it, and the bones of a large, gaunt, birthmarked wrist.
"Nikki," Chaz said softly. "Hey. You okay in there?"
She lifted her head, moaning protest at the stiffness of her neck. His hand slid off her shoulder. Suddenly selfconscious, he twisted his fingers together and she tried not to look. "Urgh. Must have fallen asleep over the Oregon file. What time?"
She could have craned her head to catch a glimpse of the wall clock, or wiggled her screen saver off, but his eyes weren't blurry and his neck wasn't stiff from sleeping stupid. "Six," he said. "Falkner will be in soon."
"Yearg." And then, despite her discomfort, her head did snap around. "You're back? You're back. Are you staying?"
If she'd been awake, it wouldn't have come out that way, and she flinched as soon as she'd heard what she said. But if it bothered him, he hid it. "I'm back," he answered. "I just had to get my head on straight. By myself."
"It's your head," she said.
He nodded and ran fingers through his hair. The gesture bared his right wrist again, showing the brown spot she'd taken for a mole in better light. She blinked to clear her eyes, but the Han character stayed the same. "Your wrist says 'chong'. You got a tattoo? Oh, man, I hope they didn't tell you that meant 'party hearty' or something."
His turn to blink. "And here I didn't expect you to read Chinese any better than I read Spanish. I figured it was Duke I'd be hiding it from."
Awake now, and getting awaker. She pushed herself up, hands flat on the desk, trying not to feel the tingle of her scalp where he'd touched her. He followed her as she walked towards the kitchenette. Coffee was already on, a cup missing from the pot, which made her wonder how long he'd let her sleep. And how many times he'd tried to wake her with his voice before he'd resorted to gentle shaking.
"Well, I learned it in college," she said. "Mandarin. Noni and Papa didn't teach their kids, and I think Mom has some, but she never uses it. So I decided to reclaim my heritage and stuff when I was a teenager... and my accent is terrible." She shrugged. "I know you researched that. Because it would be sad for one of my team-mates to wind up on Hanzi Smatter."
He had to fall behind for her to pass through the kitchenette "'Chong,'" he said, tones all over the place. By force of effort, she didn't wince. "'Sufficient.' Sorry to swipe your cultural heritage like that, but I--"
"--Wanted a little opacity?" She bumped him with her shoulder. "In my role as a duly appointed gatekeeper to Chinese culture, I absolve you. But you owe me sopapillas in trade."
He smiled and tugged the sleeve down to cover tattoo and scars. "So why were you sleeping on your desk, if that's not too forward a question?"
"Oh, gawd." Fumbling, she found a coffee mug and the half-and-half. "Would you believe my kid brother drunk dialed me at one A.M., and I couldn't get back to sleep? So I came in. He's quitting the Air Force Academy. Just wanted me to know."
"You have a kid brother?" He had somehow smuggled his own coffee mug in, and reached past her to pick up the pot when she had set it back on the heater pad. "I would have pegged you for an only."
"Only girl," she said. "Driven, right?"
He nodded, studiously not looking at her. "How many?"
"Three brothers," she said. She turned and started walking out, Chaz at her heels, but stopped in the doorway. "Timmy's the youngest. And apparently he's washing out. Wants to go tour with a folk music group or something. Jugs and rubber bands. I don't know. The military life is not for him." She sighed and rested her head against the door frame. "He wanted my advice on how to break it to Dad."
He was right there, beside her, an ambient sort of presence except for the new cologne. Or maybe not new, but definitely something he didn't wear often. "Because you didn't go air force either?"
When she started moving again, he drifted in her wake like a cloud. Comforting. Out of the way. "It'll be worse for Tim," she said. "He's a boy. And at least I went for a Fed. It's almost like real work, in my Dad's eyes."
She dropped into her chair and looked at him. "I told Tim to blame it on me."
"Double yeouch." He met her gaze, though, mismatched eyes level. "That's going to make for a few brutal Thanksgivings."
The silence stretched between them while she considered how to answer, considered how wistful he sounded even for a family that fought all the time. At last she knew, and grinned, caging her hands around the coffee mug. "Oh, come on. What are the odds of my kid brother doing what I tell him to?"
"Touche," he said, and turned away. Then turned back. "You know, if you need an ear to bend--"
Very interesting, the way the fat globules broke and congealed on the surface of the coffee. "Likewise," she offered. When she looked up into his silence he was pulling out his chair. "Hey. I'm glad you're here."
He dropped into his place, coffee on the desk before him, and reached left-handed for the mouse. "Me too," was all he said.