Beauty and the Brain
Written May 2001
Synopsis: Birkoff and Madeline form an unlikely friendship.
Disclaimer: The characters within are property of LFN Productions, Warner Bros., and USA Network. The song coming from the weight room is “Flowers Bloom” by Mandalay on their Solace album and was written by Nicola Hitchcock and Saul Freeman. No infringement is intended.
A Youtube version of the song can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3HdobaPG-HY
Birkoff ignored the growl of his stomach as he weaved his way to the kitchen. The ‘midnight munchies’ had struck an hour late, so he was forced to fend for himself. Everyone in Section was either home or sleeping, and the halls were eerily quiet. Since he had grown up there, the silence did not bother him and went mostly unnoticed.
As he approached the weight room, he heard faint music from inside. Who would be working out at this hour? he thought curiously. The slightly upbeat music intensified as he stepped inside.
Sometimes the reflection I see
Bears no resemblance to me
Sometimes I look around the place I live
And wonder how I came to choose the things I did
One female operative occupied the room, her back turned to the door. She was lifting two dumbbells in time with the music, alternating arms with each beat. Her dark hair was swept up in a high ponytail, and her black tanktop and tight shorts revealed her well-defined muscles. Birkoff smiled slightly. Walter had been giving him pointers about dealing with women, and now was the perfect opportunity to test them out. He walked across the room, smoothing the wrinkles out of his shirt, his heart beating in anticipation. If she looked half as good from the front as she did from the back… He cleared his throat. “Do you need someone to spot you?”
Startled, the woman dropped her weights, spinning around and kicking out her leg in one swift motion. Birkoff cried out as the ground came crashing toward him.
“Stop!” he yelled, covering his face. The attack did, in fact, cease, and he slowly uncurled from his fetal position. He didn’t see the operative’s face, but he did notice her outstretched hand. Tentatively, he took it, and she helped him to his feet. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have snuck up on you like–” He looked her in the eyes and jumped back in shock. “Madeline!”
His superior was considerably less stunned. “My apologies, Birkoff, but you’re right. You shouldn’t have surprised me. I should have heard you coming.” She looked disappointed, and Birkoff realized it wasn’t directed at him.
Forgetting the reasons he had initially stopped by, he asked, “What are you doing here at this hour?”
“Lifting weights,” she answered simply, walking to the panel on the wall to stop the music.
Birkoff shook his head at the stupidity of his question. Of course she was lifting weights; he had watched her do it. “But you’re not on active agent status.”
“Always be prepared.”
He nodded in agreement, watching her gather her belongings. “Well, I was on my way to the kitchen to get something to eat.”
“A midnight snack?”
“Yeah, except it’s after one.”
“Is it?” She seemed genuinely surprised.
He regarded her curiously. He had caught her with her guard down, and it appeared she was having trouble getting it back into place. He never imagined she would have that sort of trouble. Suddenly empowered with a sense of good-doing, he asked, “Do you want to come with me?”
Now it was her turn for puzzled observation. After a moment, she replied, “I don’t think so.”
“Of course not,” he said quickly. “It was wrong of me to ask.”
“But I’m free for lunch tomorrow,” she continued, as if she had never been interrupted. “Are you familiar with Le Petit Café?”
“Uh, yeah, I know it. I don’t know if I’m free tomorrow…”
“You are.” She smiled slightly as she strode past him for the exit. “Two o’clock.”
He turned to watch her leave the weight room without a glance back. He frowned. Did he just make a date with Madeline? He didn’t even have to use any of the pointers that Walter had given him. Walter. Oh, he would certainly be interested in hearing this one.
Suddenly, reality sank in, and he felt a bit foolish and a lot nervous. Lunch with his boss? Something told him he’d better not be late.
Birkoff spent that morning glancing obsessively at the clock. He couldn’t concentrate. He hadn’t seen Madeline at all. Typically, she could be seen in the Perch with Operations, but the head of Section One was alone.
The time was now one-fifteen, which would give him ample time to reach Le Petit Café. All he had to do was take the monthly log file to Walter, and he was free to leave.
“Hey, amigo!” Walter greeted cheerfully.
“Here’s the May report.” He handed him the disc. “Make sure you examine the cataloging procedures; there’s been a slight alteration to reporting the numbers.”
“And don’t worry about the new layout for Medical; it was proven to be less effective than the current design, so Operations rescinded it. We didn’t have time to take it out.”
Walter raised his eyebrows. “Why are you so nervous?”
“I’m not nervous,” he replied with a sigh. “Okay, I am nervous.” He leaned on the workdesk. “I’m meeting someone for lunch at two.”
He grinned, inching closer to Birkoff in mock secrecy. “Who is it? No, wait, let me guess.” He paused thoughtfully. “Julianna from Systems?”
“The new blonde operative?”
“Yeah, that’s the one.”
“No.” Oh, how embarrassing…
Walter smiled. “Well, it must be someone very special if you’re wearing cologne.”
Birkoff straightened. “It’s not cologne; it’s aftershave.”
This time, he laughed. “You’re shaving?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Was that an insult to his youth? And what was the aftershave comment for anyway? Was he wearing too much?
Walter patted his back. “You have a lot to learn, Birkoff, and I would be more than happy to teach you–later. Right now, you’d better get going.”
“Right.” He hurried off, leaving his friend still chuckling.
A light summer breeze floated through the city as Birkoff hurried to Le Petit Café. It was almost two, and he didn’t want to keep Madeline waiting.
The café came into view, a small corner shop with tiny tables on the sidewalk. He sighed. What was he doing? And why? Madeline wasn’t exactly well-liked among Section operatives. She was cold, distant, unemotional. He’d even heard some of them call her “evil” and “not human.” On occasion, he agreed with them, but last night she seemed like a different person. Otherwise, he never would have been as direct with her as he was. He only hoped she was still forgiving today; he had a bad habit of speaking before thinking when he was nervous.
He noticed Madeline right away–the only patron dressed entirely in black. She was scanning the menu with casual interest. He pulled out the other chair at the table and sat down. “Hi.”
She smiled pleasantly. “Hello.”
He sighed, finally able to rest from his rush to meet with her. “Have you been waiting long?”
“No, I just got here.”
He nodded, uncertainty rendering him silent. He grabbed his menu and was pleased to note it was in English. “So, uh, what are you having?”
“A spinach salad with sliced almonds. You?”
“Cheeseburger and fries.”
When the waiter arrived, Madeline ordered for them. Her French was flawless, and her voice seemed made for the language. Birkoff listened appreciatively.
“That was great!”
Madeline placed her napkin on her lap delicately. “What?”
“You speaking like that. Are you fluent?”
“How many languages do you speak?”
“Fluently or conversationally?”
He laughed. “I didn’t realize you categorized them.”
“There’s a significant difference.”
“I think that’s what makes it funny.” He stopped chuckling when Madeline didn’t join in. “So how many?”
He raised an eyebrow, duly impressed. “How many fluently?”
“That was fluently.”
“You speak eighteen languages fluently? That’s amazing!”
“Not really. Take the Romance languages, for example. French, Italian, Spanish, Romanian–they all stem from Latin. Once you learn Latin, the others come easily.”
His head swam with the implications. “Just out of curiosity, how many do you speak conversationally?”
Before she had a chance to answer, the waiter arrived with their drinks.
Birkoff eyed his root beer gleefully. He’d gone without it for too long. He was trying to cut back on his caffeine, but it was more difficult than he had anticipated. He put the straw between his lips and sucked until all that remained was ice. Then he leaned back in his chair, satisfied. He noticed Madeline looking at him strangely. “What?”
“You could have ordered a pitcher.”
He studied her face intently. “You’re laughing, aren’t you?” There was a slight shake of her body. “You are!”
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone drink that much that fast,” she said, smiling softly.
The amusement in her voice made him grin. “I’ll take that as a compliment.”
The waiter brought the food to them, placing an enormous plate in front of Birkoff and the medium-sized bread bowl before Madeline.
Birkoff picked up his burger hungrily, taking a bite. Juice dripped onto the plate, soaking a few of his fries. He frowned at them. A glob of ketchup splattered down, taking a pickle with it. He knew what was coming next.
Madeline watched as half of the condiments slipped off the sandwich. She raised an eyebrow and gracefully sipped her tea.
The walk back to Section was spent in quiet. Birkoff shoved his hands into the pockets of his cargo pants, occasionally glancing in the windows of the shops they passed. Madeline took the side closest to the street.
He had grown more comfortable with her as their lunch progressed. She had even laughed–well, chuckled really–at one of his jokes. She seemed to have relaxed, too, and Birkoff came to the conclusion that she wasn’t so cold and unemotional after all.
As they approached a pet shop, he grinned excitedly. “If you had a choice, would you want a dog or a cat?”
“A plant,” she replied lightly, glancing at him.
“Oh, you don’t like animals?”
“I do, but plants are easier to care for.”
He stopped walking and faced her, his back to the shop. “How so? You have to feed them, groom them…”
“Yes,” she began, leaning toward him slightly. “But plants don’t bite.”
He laughed. “Come on, let’s go inside.”
“For what purpose?”
“I think you’ll change your mind about plants after playing with that adorable little guy in the window there.” He knew she had been eyeing the puppy, and his belief was confirmed when she looked at it again. “Come on.”
She followed him into the store, and they used the bacterial disinfectant in the dispenser on the wall to clean their hands. The shop was devoted entirely to purebred dogs, which played in oversized baby cribs with their brothers and sisters.
Birkoff absently pulled Madeline over to a set of German Shepherds. “This is the kind of dog I’d have. Loyal, protective, and big. And they’re so intelligent.” He rubbed the closest pup’s head affectionately. “What kind do you like?”
She smiled, leaning against the railing of the crib. “I don’t know.” A dog jumped up, licking her jacket. She gazed at it, a look of childlike wonderment on her face.
Birkoff picked it up and tried handing it to her. “Here.”
“Oh, no, I don’t–”
“Come on, he likes you!” He thrust the dog into her arms, grinning. “Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone at Section.”
For a moment, he thought he had upset her; she looked stunned. Finally, she spoke. “Agreed.” She held the puppy close to her chest, and it licked her chin. She smiled, and Birkoff noticed her teeth were showing behind her pale lips. That, in itself, was a rare occurrence.
They visited the dogs for another half hour before leaving. Madeline’s black outfit was coated with various colors of fur. She tried brushing it off to no avail.
“Your laughter is not helping, Birkoff.”
He finished his chuckling. “I know, I’m sorry. I’m just trying to imagine what Operations will say when he’s sees you.”
“Hopefully I’ll have it off before I meet with him this evening.”
True to her word, by the time they reached the elevator that would take them down to Section, her clothing was mostly fur-free. They entered the lift and began their descent.
Birkoff couldn’t stop smiling. He had had a fantastic time with Madeline. The parts of herself that she revealed were completely opposite of the way she portrayed herself in Section. He wished he hadn’t been so blind before; he should have befriended her a long time ago.
“I had a good time today,” he mentioned suddenly, his eyes fixed on an invisible point in front of him. “Thanks for coming.”
“Thank you for inviting me.”
The doors opened, and they walked through the short metallic corridor that led to Section. Beyond the door, at the crossroads, he knew they had to go in separate directions, but he couldn’t think of a single thing to say. Did she really enjoy herself, or was she just being polite? Should he ask to see her again and risk rejection, or should they part amicably, leaving him to wonder if he hurt her feelings with his silence?
He didn’t have to do either; Operations was waiting for her in the hallway. “The team’s just returned from Nepal. They brought in a Red Cell operative, who needs your attention in the White Room.”
“Is it Prithvi?” she asked, joining him as they headed to Containment.
“Yes. Are you prepared?”
“I’ve studied the file, and I think…” Her voice faded as she and Operations vanished around the corner.
Birkoff sighed, leaning against the wall to give them a respectful head start. After all, there was nothing else for him to do but wait.
A few droplets of water dripped from Birkoff’s body as he stepped out of the shower and wrapped a towel around his waist. A hot shower was just what he needed to relax. He slipped on his fogged-over glasses and began drying himself off. He retreated to his bedroom and found a pair of black pants and a white undershirt to wear. He wasn’t tired enough to go to sleep, even though it was late. Instead, he stuck a CD into his computer and hit play. Wordless techno beats filled the room.
He almost didn’t hear the knock on his door. He yanked it opened. “Madeline!”
“I’m sorry, did I wake you?”
“No, of course not. Please come in.” He winced when he said it, remembering the disheveled state of his room. “I wasn’t expecting any company, so it’s kind of…messy.”
She entered, stepping around the mounds of clothing, then turned to face him as he closed the door. “That’s all right; it gives me ideas for a training course.”
“Ha ha.” He smiled. “So how did the interrogation go?”
“Very well. Prithvi broke right away. I didn’t even have to call in Henry and Elizabeth.”
“Wow. What’d you say?”
“Nothing. The moment I walked in, he began sneezing violently, a situation that could only be remedied by my absence.” At his puzzled expression, her eyes twinkled in amusement. “Mr. Prithvi is severely allergic to dogs.”
Birkoff laughed out loud. “No way!”
“He was more than happy to cooperate, so long as I left the room. Michael handled the questioning.” She held out two bags, one of which she handed him. “So as a token of my gratitude, I brought you something.”
He looked at her, pleasantly surprised, before accepting the package. It was moderately heavy. He peeked inside and pulled out the gift. It took a moment to register, and he chuckled softly.
Madeline smiled. “Maybe you’ll change your mind about dogs and cats.”
“I hope you’re going to teach me what to do with this thing,” he said, eyeing his gift curiously. “What kind is it?”
“A juniper. It will make a beautiful bonsai.”
He shook his head. “Oh, no. I am not very artistic.”
“You don’t have to be artistic.”
“I’ve seen your office,” he replied, still shaking his head. “I don’t know the first thing about plants or bonsai pruning.”
She took a step closer to him. “But, Birkoff, bonsai pruning is no different than, say, caring for a German Shepherd.” He snorted at that. “You feed it, and you groom it.” She handed him the other bag, which included many pieces of equipment for pruning and caregiving. “It won’t bark or bite, but it can be a good listener.”
“A plant can be a good listener?” He chuckled, setting the tree on his desk. “Thank you.”
She smiled warmly at him. “You’re welcome.” There was an awkward silence as they stared at each other. “Well, I’ll leave you and your tree to get acquainted.”
He opened the door for her, and she started out. “Hey, Madeline?”
She turned. “Yes?”
It was now or never… “Is there a chance we can have lunch again sometime?”
An imperceptible smile crossed her lips. “Of course.” With that, she walked away.
Birkoff closed the door, leaning against it. He looked at the tree, which would undoubtedly require his attention. He had no idea what he was getting himself into, but he was determined to make the best of it–and make it last.
“And what a delight it is to make friends with someone you have despised!”