The heavy doors swung loudly shut as Michael strode through them, his eyes on the woman marching angrily away from him. His legs, longer than hers, allowed him to catch her easily as she descended the large stone steps before the Courthouse.
“V, it’s alright. Everything will be fine.”
This was apparently the wrong thing to say. She rounded on him, her eyes angry and worried, her voice quiet but sharp.
“Fine? Michael, in ONE week we will be back here. I’ll be trying to prevent you being thrown in jail, but if you keep acting the way you are there’ll be nothing I can do about it! This is utter stupidity, Michael!!! I don’t know what you’re trying to do, but –“
She broke off with a muttered curse, fumbling her heavy briefcase and case notes, which were clutched awkwardly in her arms.
“Here, let me help.” Michael said gently, pulling the briefcase from her grasp, allowing her to rearrange her notes to a more comfortable position. She eyed him with irritation, then said curtly, “Thanks.”
Michael smiled at her tone, then followed as she continued down the steps and resumed her lecture. Her harsh words did not hurt him- in fact he agreed with her wholeheartedly. But he had a path to follow, and he would stick to it to the very end. Someday she would understand, but right now she was merely very angry with him. Of course, her anger was only a mask for her concern; she loved him like a brother, just as he loved her like a sister.
He could see she was beginning to run out of steam; she halted suddenly on the bottom step, turning to face him.
“Just promise me you won’t do anything stupid,” she asked, her voice suddenly pleading.
“Fine. I promise,” Michael answered, too quickly. Veronica’s eyes narrowed and Michael, tiring of the lecture, turned and stepped quickly onto the sidewalk. He felt a body collide with his and responded instinctively, dropping the briefcase and flinging out his arms to support the person crushed against his front. He looked down to see a pair of warm brown eyes flick up to meet his. He froze, staring at the woman clutched in his arms. A blush spread across her cheeks and she righted herself abruptly, stepping quickly away, putting distance between them.
“I’m so sorry, I didn’t see you! I’m really sorry-“ her voice burned with embarrassment. Recovering, Michael cut her off.
“No, no it was completely my fault. I should have been more careful.”
The woman looked down, saw the briefcase at his feet. The latch had opened, sheets spilling onto the sidewalk.
“Oh god, I’m sorry!” She said, crouching to gather the pages together. Michael stared uncomprehendingly for a moment before quickly crouching as well.
“It’s fine, it was an accident. Here, I’ve got it.” Michael collected the last few pages and they both stood, eyeing each other with mixed emotions.
Embarrassment still coloured the woman’s cheeks but her eyes were bewildered. Breaking Michael’s intense gaze, she glanced over his shoulder, her expression changing slightly. Meeting his gaze again, she nodded brusquely then brushed past him, walking determinedly away.
Michael turned, his eyes following her until she was out of sight. Not once did she look back.
Sara walked quickly, her mind racing and her face burning. Turning a corner, she spotted a bench and made her way over to it. She sat, running her hands through her hair- she hadn’t quite yet remastered coherent thinking.
Taking a deep breath, she tried to calm her emotions; though the embarrassment was fading, the strange, unfamiliar feeling was growing stronger.
She also felt ridiculously stupid; why hadn’t she been watching where she was going? He must think she was such an idiot. Not that it mattered anyway; the cutting glare directed at her by his companion clearly showed he was already off limits.
Disappointment flared, sudden and surprising. She forced it away; she had no claim to him. He was a stranger, one whom she just happened to run into in the street.
She would not think about the feel of his muscled chest under her palms, or the smell of his aftershave, or how good he’d looked in that suit... shaking her head, she cursed herself. She felt like a teenage schoolgirl, obsessing over a man whose name she didn’t even know.
Extremely irritated with herself, she stood, and started searching for a cab.
“Aren’t you coming? I’ll give you a lift.” Veronica offered, opening the car door.
“Thanks V, but I really feel like a walk at the moment. Got to make the most of that fresh air,” he said with a wry smile.
Giving him a look, she slid into the car and started the engine.
“I’ll see you next week, Michael. Try not to get into any more trouble before then.”
Michael simply smiled and raised a hand in farewell. She accelerated quickly out of the park, and was gone.
Shoving his hands in his pockets, Michael strolled casually back down the street. He knew it was almost definitely a pointless endeavour; the woman was surely long gone by now. Still, he headed in the same direction she had gone, keeping a surreptitious eye out for that dark hair and slim build.
As he was approaching the corner he began to have doubts. He slowed, half turning to look back the way he had come. He paused, debating with himself. Shaking his head slightly at himself, he continued around the corner.
“How much to 25th Street?” Sara asked the cabdriver. His answer had her frowning; she never carried much in cash. It was commonsense, especially when you were a woman out alone. Normally she would have simply walked home, but today she just wanted to be home- and away from here- as soon as possible.
She swore quietly under her breath, and was about to turn to leave when a hand entered her vision, passing the amount to the driver. She spun quickly, and for the second time that day found herself looking into the eyes of the man in the suit. She stared at him mutely for a moment before remembering how to speak.
“That’s very generous of you, but I’m sorry, I- I just can’t accept it,” she said, the words coming out in a rush. She felt her cheeks heating again, and cursed him and the physiological reactions he evoked. He smiled wickedly, causing her heart to beat erratically in her chest.
“It’s no trouble at all,” he insisted, a trace of amusement in his smooth voice. “I’m heading that way anyway, if you wouldn’t mind me riding with you?” His eyebrows raised incrementally, a smile still upon his lips.
Sara glanced down for a moment, debating whether or not to refuse. She quickly realised there was no choice to it; she couldn’t just walk away. She looked back up at him again, an answering smile on her face.
“Thank you. It’s very kind of you.”
The man grinned, reaching for the door and gallantly holding it open for her. She slid onto the seat as gracefully as she could manage. Closing the door behind her, he rounded to the other side of the cab and folded himself sinuously through the door. He turned to smile at her, his eyes capturing hers.
“I’m Michael, by the way.”
“Sara,” she replied, her eyes still on his. The cab pulled out onto the street, weaving expertly through the traffic. Sara didn’t notice.
“Nice to meet you, Sara,” Michael said, holding out his hand. Sara shook it, ignoring the jolt she felt at his warm touch.
Searching for a distraction, she asked the first thing that came into her head.
“So you’re a lawyer?”
Michael chuckled. “Yeah, something like that.”
“What happened to your briefcase?”
“I... gave it to my colleague. So she could go over a few files for a case.”
“Your colleague?” Sara asked, trying to keep the hopeful note from her voice.
Michael nodded. “The woman I was with on the steps. We’re working together on this case.”
“Ah,” Sara said, attempting to affect polite disinterest. A twitch at the corner of Michael’s mouth indicated that she may not have been as successful as she would have hoped.
“So,” she said, “what’s the case? Or aren’t you allowed to discuss it?”
“It’s fine,” Michael smiled, “we’re defending a man charged with Armed Robbery. Although it’s most likely that he will go to jail.”
Sara looked troubled. “What? What is it?” Michael asked, his eyes boring into hers.
“It’s just that, in my experience, most of the people who commit those kinds of crimes do it for a reason. It might be a cry for help, or they felt they had no other option...” she trailed off, looking embarrassed. “I’m sorry.”
Michael simply gazed at her, his eyes fascinated. Her eyes met his then quickly looked away.
“Don’t apologise,” he said, “I completely agree.”
Their eyes met again for a long moment. Suddenly the driver spoke up, breaking the silence.
Sara tore her eyes away from Michael’s.
“What number is the building?” The cab driver asked, his voice impatient.
Sara was silent for a moment, debating. A single woman in a big city, she was always cautious. Telling the cabdriver the number of her building would mean that Michael, a near stranger, would know exactly where she lived. She glanced across at him. In his eyes was understanding; he knew what was in her thoughts and wouldn’t judge her for not trusting him. Yet, she realised with surprise, she already did.
“Number 326. Just near the corner,” she directed the driver. Then, turning back to Michael- who was again smiling at her in that knowing way- she asked, “So, you live around here? Or were you headed somewhere else?”
“I live just a few blocks from here, actually,” he replied. As he spoke, the cab began slowing, the driver pulling over to the curb in front of a large apartment building.
“Number 326,” the driver said, looking over his shoulder at them. Michael reached into his wallet, pulled out another note.
“Wait here, I’ll be one minute.” Stepping quickly out of his door, he was around the other side of the cab and opening Sara’s door for her before she could unbuckle her seatbelt. Looking up at him incredulously, she exited the cab, taking care not to brush against him in the process. Michael shut the door behind her, then gestured towards the entrance of the building with a wry smile. “May I?”
Sara stared at him for a moment, nonplussed, then nodded unsteadily.
Together they crossed the sidewalk and climbed the steps to her doorway, Michael slightly behind. Sara paused at the door, her hand still resting on the stair rail. Michael stood on the step below, placing their eyes at the same level.
“Michael... thank you, again...” Sara began, but Michael held up his hand.
“Please,” Michael said, then paused with a sigh. He looked down for a moment, and when his eyes lifted again, Sara thought she detected in them a hint of regret. He smiled again, but it was a different smile to before; this one seemed thoughtful, almost sad.
Her brow furrowed slightly as she tried to understand his inexplicable change in mood. He gave another small sigh, then gently, tentatively, he placed his hand over hers on the rail.
“I’m glad to have met you, Sara,” he said quietly, his eyes locked on hers.
Then suddenly he turned, and in a few quick strides was beside the cab. Opening the door, he raised a hand in farewell, then slid inside, pulling the door closed.
Sara stood motionless, staring after the cab as it pulled away from the curb and started down the street. It was not until a minute after it had disappeared from sight that she remembered how to move.
Blinking rapidly, she pulled out her keys and headed up to her apartment, her head spinning the entire way. She let herself in, then closed the door behind her and leant against it. She had never before experienced such a strange, incredible meeting.
She pushed away from the door and stood for a moment, running her hands through her hair. She was still having difficulty thinking clearly.
Walking into the kitchen, she opened the pantry and gazed unseeingly inside for a moment. With a huff of frustration, she closed the door again and walked out of the kitchen into the lounge room.
Sitting heavily on the couch, she rested her head on her hands. She’d been in such a rush to get home; now she wanted desperately to get out.
Michael blew out a sigh and leaned back, resting his head against the seat. He was fascinated by Sara, and the attraction he felt toward her. But to have come at such a bad time! He was surprised by the bitter disappointment he felt at the thought of never seeing her again. Yet there was nothing he could do; starting any kind of relationship now would be stupid, risky, and pointless.
If all went to plan, he would be behind bars in a week’s time. Still, he couldn’t help but wonder... smiling at his thoughts, Michael didn’t hear the driver speak to him at first.
“Where am I takin’ you? Or are we just gonna keep drivin’?”
“Oh, um...” Michael considered briefly for a moment. He could go back to his empty studio apartment and sit alone on his couch, or he could spend the little freedom he had left doing something enjoyable.
“Could you take me to the nearest park?”
“There’s one just around the block,” the driver stated, pulling a left turn.
A minute or so later they pulled up to a lush green park. As Michael watched, several people of all ages went past into the park; families, joggers, businesspeople, teenagers.
“This is perfect. Thanks,” Michael said, passing over the money. Stepping out of the cab, he drew in a deep breath, taking in the scene around him.
Following a young couple into the park, he began to wander aimlessly under the trees, taking the time to appreciate the beauty around him. He was only beginning to realise that he’d taken so much in his life for granted. After this week, he would never have a hope for a normal life. For the first time since creating his plan, he felt a tiny twinge of wistfulness and regret.
He found a spot of lush grass and sat, gazing out over the park at the families and children playing and laughing. It was unlikely that he’d ever have a family, or fall in love. The thought saddened him more than he would have expected.
He sighed, then shrugged out of his suit jacket, tossing it carelessly beside him as he laid back on the grass. How he felt didn’t matter. His life didn’t matter.
All that mattered was saving Lincoln.
Sara walked purposefully, though she hadn’t the slightest idea where she was going. All she knew was that another minute alone in her apartment was more than she could bear. Out of the street, there were people, distractions. At home there was nothing to drown out her thoughts, nothing to dispel the vision of Michael’s face from her mind. She rubbed her hand absentmindedly; she could still feel the phantom warmth of his touch.
Seeking a distraction, she began studying the faces of those she passed, trying to guess their job, their name, their life stories. It was several minutes before she realised she was searching for a particular face, a particular set of broad shoulders in a dark suit.
Exasperated, she turned the corner, seeking a new distraction. She suddenly realised she had wandered unintentionally to one of her favourite places; it was a place that had always been a sanctuary for her when she felt unhappy and alone. Stepping into the park was like coming home; it was one of the few places she felt truly happy. The beauty of the park and the laughter and joy of those within it were always able to make her feel like she wasn’t really alone after all.
Walking the familiar paths, she smiled as children rushed past her, chasing each other through the trees. A couple with a stroller walked past, their faces joyous and proud, a gurgling baby with a tuft of dark hair smiling out at her from inside the stroller. She paused as they passed, looking after them; then with a wistful sigh continued along the path.
Heading to her favourite place in the very centre of the park, she left the path and began winding her way through the ancient trees, under the canopy of their widespread branches. She rounded a particularly large-trunked tree, and froze in her tracks.
Barely a few metres ahead of her he lay, the light filtering though the branches above to cover the ground in spots of dappled light. His eyes were closed, his hands behind his head, the suit jacket balled up as a pillow. He was barefoot; his socks and shoes lay nearby, as if he’d carelessly kicked them off. His tie lay on the ground beside him; it, too, had been casually tossed aside. The sleeves of the shirt were rolled back, exposing strong forearms covered- surprisingly- in an intricate design of tattoos to the wrist. Most breathtaking of all, the top buttons of the crisp white shirt had been undone, exposing more elaborate tattoos covering his broad, muscular chest. There was a faint smile upon his lips; staring, Sara stood transfixed, unable to look away.
Suddenly, Michael drew in a deep breath and sighed heavily. His eyes did not open, but it was enough to break Sara out of her trance. Slipping quickly back behind the tree, she leant against its trunk, trying to steady her breathing. Darting a quick glace around her, she was assured that no one had witnessed her embarrassment; thankfully, there was no one in sight.
Pushing herself away from the trunk, Sara considered her options. She could just turn and leave. She should leave. But she found herself hesitating. What if she did stay? She barely knew Michael, but for some reason it felt as though she did. And she was definitely attracted to him; god knows, she hadn’t felt like that about a man in a long time.
She had nothing to lose by staying, and if she left now, she’d probably never see him again. She’d probably always wonder what would have happened if she’d stayed... taking a deep breath, she made her decision.
Michael sighed heavily, shifting slightly on the grass. It felt good to relax; since he hadn’t had a chance to slow down in weeks, he was relishing the quiet moment. He was also enjoying the opportunity to think- playing his meeting with Sara over and over in his mind. He smiled, remembering how she’d mistaken him for a lawyer. He could hear her voice as she said,
“So this is how lawyers spend their free time.”
Michael froze, his mind racing. She hadn’t said that.
His eyes flashed open, focusing immediately on the figure standing barely a metre away.
“Sara?” he exclaimed in surprise, sitting up quickly. He moved to stand up, but Sara held up a hand.
“Would you mind...?” She asked, gesturing at the grass beside him.
“Oh. No, not at all. Please, sit,” Michael said, the words coming out in a rush. He grabbed his suit jacket from behind him, offering it to Sara to sit on. She smiled at him, but shook her head, sitting comfortably on the grass. For a moment they sat in silence, staring out over the park. It was Sara who spoke first.
“Have you ever been here before?” she asked, still not looking at him.
“Well, no,” Michael replied honestly. “I realised that I didn’t want to go home. So I kind of just... ended up here. I like this place. It’s so beautiful. Peaceful.”
Sara turned to face him, her eyes pensive. Then she smiled, “I know exactly what you mean. I come here a lot. It’s the place I come to think, and relax,” she said, and sighed. “ It’s easy to lose track of reality while you’re in here.”
“Reality, hmmm?” Michael mused, secretly fascinated. “And what would your reality be?” he studied her, continuing, “You’re obviously well educated, you dress well, you live in a nice neighbourhood... I’m guessing something to do with helping others. Perhaps a doctor, psychologist, or social worker? Am I close?” he smiled at her, and she grinned in response.
“Very impressive detective work,” she joked, “And you’re right. I’m a doctor. Just about to start a new job, actually.”
“Really? Congratulations. And how lucky for me; if you were busy saving lives, I’d have never met you, and my day would have been remarkably less interesting.”
“Glad to be of service,” Sara replied coyly, and they both laughed.
“So did you study here in Chicago?” Michael asked after a moment.
Sara nodded. “I went to North Western, graduated in '01.“
“Two years after I did, at Loyola. Hey, maybe we’ve met before. You know, drunk, at a bar somewhere.”
"I would have remembered.”
“That a compliment?” Michael joked.
Sara laughed. “Sure.”
Michael laughed too, then looked into her eyes.
“I would have definitely remembered.”
There was silence for a moment, before Michael launched into his next question.
“So, have you lived in Chicago all your life?”
He barely took his eyes off her as she answered; there was something about her that fascinated him, and he found himself wanting to know everything about her. He had so many questions; what were her likes and dislikes, what was her childhood like, what music and movies was she into... his list was endless. His questions didn’t seem to make Sara uncomfortable; she, too, had questions for him.
It was not until Michael noticed that the daylight was almost gone that he realised how late it was. He and Sara were still lounging on the grass, in the middle of discussing the orphanage Sara had established in India. He knew he should leave, but he couldn’t bring himself to part from her entirely just yet.
“I think we lost track of time,” he laughed, gesturing at the darkened park. Sara blinked, focusing on their surroundings for the first time in hours.
“Oh my god. I didn’t even notice!” Sara exclaimed, surprised. Then she paused, and with a note of disappointment added, “I really should be getting home.”
“Yeah, me too,” Michael agreed, his voice resigned. He pulled on his shoes and socks, then grabbed his jacket as he stood. Standing above Sara, he offered her his hand. Smiling, she took it, and he helped her to her feet. The movement brought them quite close, causing them both to freeze. Recovering quickly, Michael swiftly stepped back.
“Come on. I’ll walk you home,” he said, pulling on his jacket. Together they set off through the park, which was now empty but for a pair of teenagers kissing passionately on a nearby bench.
Michael looked sideways at Sara; she looked back, and rolled her eyes. They both laughed quietly and continued toward the exit. They left the park and made their way along the street, back towards Sara’s apartment.
“So....,” Michael began after a minute, breaking the silence. Sara looked up at him expectantly, waiting for him to continue.
“So... is there a Mr. Sara?” he asked, trying- futilely- to sound politely disinterested. He’d been trying to broach the topic all afternoon, but had been afraid of what her answer might be. Yet during their entire conversation, not once had she mentioned a partner, and that fact gave him the courage to ask.
Sara laughed in response, a knowing look in her eyes.
“No, there’s been no-one lately. I’ve been really preoccupied, with finishing up my job and everything. How about you?” I’ll bet the ladies are all over you.”
They turned the corner onto Sara’s street, nearing her apartment.
Michael looked down at her, his eyes guarded.
“Not really. I’ve been pretty preoccupied lately too... with the case and everything.”
“I would have sworn the woman you were with this morning was your partner- the look she gave me when I ran into you! I could almost feel the hate,” she said, laughing. Michael laughed too, but shook his head.
“She was angry with me, not you. We’re... taking different approaches to the case,” he explained, smiling. Looking up, he realised they’d reached her building. Climbing the steps, they paused again at the door.
Michael hesitated for a moment, then pulled a pen from his jacket pocket. Grasping her hand gently, he wrote his number on her palm, then pocketed the pen.
“Goodbye, Sara,” he said, his hand brushing a loose strand of hair behind her ear. Then he turned and jogged down the steps, pausing on the footpath to look up at her.
“Goodbye, Michael,” she said quietly, just loud enough for him to hear. He gave her a small smile, then began walking back to the corner. Within minutes he was in a cab and on his way home.
Sara closed the door behind her, breathing for the first time since they stopped at the door. She looked at the number written on her hand, her palms slightly damp. Michael seemed to have that effect.
Hurrying to her apartment, she grabbed a notepad and copied it down before she could accidentally smudge it. She sat at the table for a moment, holding it in her hands. That’s exactly what he’d done; he’d put it in her hands. It was up to her now- she could throw out his number, and never see him again, or she could call him, and... well, she didn’t know where that would lead. The idea of it sent thrills through her stomach.
Smiling, she tore out the page and took it to her bedroom, placing it upon her nightstand. She didn’t stop smiling as she went to the kitchen to make dinner- she hadn’t realised how hungry she was- and the smile stayed in place the entire time she was eating. After having a leisurely shower, she changed and fell contentedly into bed.
Lying on her side, she gazed at the paper on her nightstand. She would call him; she knew that already. But when? Too soon and she looked desperate, not soon enough and he might think she wasn’t interested. It had been a long time since she had been in this kind of situation and she had no idea what the etiquette was.
Tomorrow was a Saturday... would he be working? Maybe calling that soon would seem too eager. Perhaps she should wait until Sunday. That thought had her frowning; she disliked the idea of having to wait two whole days before hearing his voice again. With a sigh, she put down the paper, and turned out the light.
The heavy doors swung loudly shut as Michael strode through them, his eyes on the woman marching angrily away from him. His legs, longer than hers, allowed him to catch her easily as she descended the large stone steps before the Courthouse.
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