Chapter 1: Your Mission
Valse di Fantastica
Jim Miller knew the Dvali owned half of Prague and had their tendrils in most of Europe, but that their overseas operations were comparatively lackluster, so when he was given a report indicating they had made their presence known in the United Kingdom, disconnected as it and several other nations had become from the European Union, “surprised” didn’t begin to cover how he had felt. Further reading let him to something even more interesting, necessitating closing and locking the door to office just so he could focus on this new information.
The first thing was a name: Radich Nikoladze. Once the leader of the Prague branch of the Dvali smuggling operation, he had been forced out after Agent Jensen’s machinations, per the request of one Otar Botkoveli, took out all his remaining power and put him on the run. A small-time manhunt had been organized to try and find him, but the police had more – or less, depending on how much money they received – important things to do. Interpol hadn’t wanted to spare manpower just yet, and Task Force 29 didn’t consider him a high priority.
Except for... now, it seemed.
Miller fanned out the documents on his desk and studied them carefully, ignoring the bustle outside his door, muffled by the tight seal. Nikoladze had been found in London, of all places – probably using the huge city outside Dvali territory to get lost, and counting on London’s location on the global “beat” to be useful – and had been caught by one of the city’s many surveillance networks. That had been the start, but what had truly kicked it off was information fed by a mole inside the city’s criminal network, indicating that Nikoladze was about to make himself well-known.
Miller slid out a full-color image of the Shard, the tall glass pyramid that had long ago changed London’s skyline, and scanned the attached memo. Located roughly one-third of the way up and running to the fifty-second floor, bought from a Chinese company in the mid-Twenties and remodeled by the Santeau Group under contract, was one of the most expensive and grandiose hotels in all of London, and here, in its grand ballroom and broad hallways, there was a meeting of corporate and financial elites to be held. Worse yet, these weren't just famous philanthropists, CEOs, and shareholders – no, it had long been confirmed that suspected and exceptionally powerful criminals would also be present.
He hesitated before continuing, nerves getting to him. The Shard was some distance from the Apex Centre, but felt too close for comfort even still. It was probably visible from the upper floors, what with the Centre’s distinct, twisted golden towers and ultramodern geometric design. Though London had a task force division all their own, even as the youngest of the European branches, Joseph Manderly – that wombat of a bureaucrat, whose perfect suit and unsmiling, pudgy face drove him up the wall in ways he tried not to let Auzenne know about – had ordered Miller to provide the agents to go.
First Dubai, now this. At least this time was discreet, but he was still beginning to wonder.
But not now. It was not the time for wondering.
His concerns were answered by the next piece of paper, indicating that Manderly had asked Prague’s branch because they had already extensively dealt with the Dvali. Flimsy, he thought, but he had already tried arguing, and though he made himself too useful to get rid of, he didn’t want to risk the wrath of the faceless men and women who puppeted his fate, and could decide at a whim to cut him off. No oversight. No checks or balances.
He kept reading. No. Not a meeting – a gathering. A “white-tie affair”, all silk suits and evening gowns, where men and women in platinum jewelry would fawn over each other and prattle on about how wonderful they were. There would be expensive cars and valet parking. He knew the type, and couldn’t stand them.
Scheduled for “two weeks” from now, it required special entry badges – procured by their mole, of course – and expensive clothes. This wasn’t a place for business-casual or blue-collar workers. No, this was a place where a woman’s dress was expected to reach the floor while showing off her decolletage, where a man’s suit could have real gold threads woven into its lapels and no one would bat an eye, where a necklace of blue diamonds inlaid in palladium would get an adoring look, and a bracelet of gold would get a shrug.
Further down, he found the expected budget. Two weeks. Two weeks to prep his team. A maximum of four agents could be sent, and they had to be ready to mingle. Nikoladze was expected to be at the party, but in order to remove him, they would need to find him in his suite afterward. Which would mean going through guards – the building used Tarvos and several other private contractors – and heavy security. Which meant stealth. Which meant...
The photo of the Shard creased in his grip. Which meant Jensen, by far their finest agent whenever he needed a scalpel to keep things quiet. And he couldn’t go alone. If Mac stayed behind again, he would be furious. But then, at an event like this, there was no way two men wouldn’t stand out, particularly when one was an Aug. While anti-Aug sentiment had dimmed a little in the wake of the Human Restoration Act’s failure, it hadn’t died.
There weren't many women in the branch who had the skills needed. The only active female field agent in the CT unit was far too abrasive, lacking the tact needed to take on such a job.
He hesitated. No, not the only. She was one of two now, the other having finally been transferred less than a week ago, and her warm demeanor hid steel nerves. A former Marine, the best marksman they had, and, in spite of her augmented arm, she had the harmless appearance that would make it easier to mingle with the millionaires. She had, after all, been itching for a chance to be out on the field, with the London op having been a bit short.
But would she be able to pull off what was essentially an infiltration op? Could she be counted on to back up both his senior field agent and sole augmented stealth expert?
No, Aria Argento was a lot of things, but from what he knew of her, a fool was not one of them. Though she was a marksman first, she was adaptable enough that he knew she could fill the fourth slot without question. He would have to double-check her file, or just ask Auzenne, to be certain, but he felt no real concern.
But what of the fourth agent? Who else could he spare?
The door to his office hissed open, briefly letting in the perpetual dull roar of the outside, before shutting again. With that came the click-click of heels on the hard floor – a sound that absolutely did not belong in this office, he thought, but without even looking up, he knew who they belonged to. She always walked the same way, carrying herself as though she glided down a red carpet under admiring stares, and had an easy smile that affected even him.
“Doctor Auzenne,” he muttered, “what brings you in?”
“Ah, look at you, back with your witty little rhymes. Got something else from Joe, I see?”
He tried very, very hard to scowl at her, but when he looked away from the papers and found her large, dark eyes smiling down at him, he found it as difficult as ever. “Nothing I can’t handle.”
“Is that going to be your go-to response, Jim?”
Seeing she wasn’t going anywhere in a hurry, he set the Shard photo down and gave her his full attention. Auzenne was one of the very few who dared use his first name on a frequent basis, and the only one he couldn’t get himself to tell her off for. Today, she wore a canary-yellow top with black trousers, and on anyone else, the ensemble would look ridiculous, but on her, somehow, she made it work.
“Only when you interrupt me,” he muttered, but couldn’t hold what little semblance of sternness he had. “Did you need something from me, doctor?”
“Jim, can’t you just call me ‘Delara’ once in a while?” She stood just on the other side of his desk, one hand in her pocket and the other holding what looked like a glass of iced, milky coffee. For a moment, she swished it around, then took a sip and savored it before saying, “We never got to talk much after London. Makes me feel... like a dentist. Or...” She raised an eyebrow. “...as I’ve been agreeing with Jennifer, a gynecologist.”
Miller didn’t quite understand the context for that, but figured he probably didn’t need to. Whatever it was that would make women reluctant to visit a gynecologist, he didn’t want to know. “I said I’d come in when I could. I almost died, Auzenne, and I need some time to get my head on straight.”
“No, you’re avoiding me.” Bending at the waist, she waved the hand holding the glass. “Come on, I swear I won’t bite. I’m nice, I promise. I know we got off to a bad start–”
“Look, doctor, I’m very busy, so–”
He almost forgot what he was saying. “What?”
“Delara.” Her tone was that of talking down an argumentative child. “I have a name, you know.”
For a long moment, he stared at her. He always tried to maintain an air of perfect professionalism on the job, tried to keep everyone at arm’s length... but even he slipped up, calling Aria by her first name, or Fletcher by his nickname. “Actually... Delara, you might be able to help me.”
“Ooh, sounds fun.” Moving to the corner of his desk, she sat and crossed her legs. “Hit me.”
In the quiet, the sound of ice clinking against glass seemed obscenely loud. “I just got a report indicating we need to send some agents to London, again, to capture an ex-Dvali member.”
With a mouthful of coffee, Delara made a sound of recognition, waved her hand again, and swallowed. “Yes, right, Radich Nikoladze, right? Joe sent me some information. Not much, but a little. Guess he thought I could help.” The glass half-empty in her hand, she propped her chin on the other and raised both eyebrows. “Bet I can guess. You’re trying to figure out who to send, right? Who’d work out good and all?”
“That’s exactly it. I’ve already decided on Jensen and MacReady, but I wanted to send two women. Do you think Aria is up to the task?”
“Oh, certainly.” Delara didn’t sound at all concerned. “She’s eager to please, and there’s a lot of skill wound up tight under that skin of hers. With two Augs, it’ll be easier to get Adam in and out of that place. It’s a... party, right?” She used one hand to spin the photo of the Shard around and studied it a moment. “Heard it’s a view to die for up there. Anyway, yes, Aria should be fine. She can provide great backup in a tight spot.”
“Then that leaves the question of who goes with Mac. Ideas?”
Delara’s brow furrowed. “Well... hmm.” She blinked and settled her chin back in her palm. “Well, I’ve talked to almost everyone here, and there’s not... many. Most of the women here are great analysts and hard workers, but I, ah, don’t think they can pull off the ‘slinky evening’ look, no offense to them.” A brief, wry smile reached her lips. “There’s a few good agents from Cybercrime, but... I don’t know.”
Miller felt as though someone had flipped a switch. “What about you?”
Delara blinked and looked at him as though he had grown a second head. “Ah... I mean... I probably cou... Wait, I’m not even under your jurisdiction, not technically. I’d have to clear it with Joe, and...” Her mouth twisted, but then, some of the tightness fell away. Her eyes closed. “I’ll talk with Joe, but... sure, I can probably do it. Sounds dangerous, but maybe it’s time to get out from behind a desk.”
“Good. You’d need an evening dress and all the rest of the details. Let me know.”
“This is quite an.... extravagant affair.” She looked away. “Do you have any idea how much a suit would cost, let alone a dress that could pass muster for a place like this?”
“I know how much Mac likes his expensive suits, and I’ve heard him go on about their four-digit prices more than once. Proudly, I might add. Not that I really have anything to say.” Miller looked down at himself rather pointedly, at the tailored ASOS suit that wasn’t on the “ridiculous” end of pricing, but enough that he could remind everyone around him that he was the one in charge. “And I’ve heard him talk about four-figure suits more than once, so, I suppose so. But I haven’t the foggiest on a dress.”
“A good dress will cost a pretty penny, as the saying goes, but it’s worth it. Aria might not be tall, but she’s still in great shape. She’ll turn heads. Throw me into the mix, and, well...” With a twitch of one brow, she took another sip of her coffee and smiled. “Look, Miller, I’ve been told all my adult life that I’m considered, well, attractive, even beautiful. Put me there with her in a nice dress, and we’ll have no trouble at all.”
For a moment, he imagined her in a fine evening dress – something to emphasize her narrow waist and long neck, maybe – before pulling those thoughts back in. “Fine. Talk to Manderly and see what you can do. I’ll let the others know we can start getting things scraped together for this little expedition. You’ll be going out of the country, and...” With a soft snort, he looked back at the Shard. “Well, it won’t be easy.”
“It’ll be fine. It’s like an old-timey spy movie. Handsome men, expensive drinks, and... caviar.” She wrinkled her nose at the word, almost making him smile. “Well, no harm no foul, as long as I don’t have to eat it. Foul stuff. But, I digress, again. I’m bad at that.” Fabric rustled as she slid off the desk, then looked down into her coffee, as though it hid innumerable secrets within its depths. “Well, I should get going. Talk later?”
“Eventually,” he told her, injecting as much firmness as he could manage.
One tiny smile was all he needed to know it hadn’t quite worked. “I guess that’s fair. Don’t work too hard.” And with a dull thunk, the door slid closed, and he was alone once again.
Don’t work too hard. In the aftermath of feeling like someone had poured ground glass through him, witnessing his life slowly wander before his eyes, and having to take bedrest for days and renew all the vital nutrients lost as the Orchid had wreaked havoc on his body, those words had a different connotation altogether. Burying himself in work had been the best way to forget everything – the divorce, his daughter, superiors pressuring him eternally from behind mirrored glass – but now, bearing an awareness of his own mortality...
It was strange, staring briefly into the void yawning before him, at the stark line of his body’s death, and suddenly wanting to grasp every thread of life he actually had.
Whatever lay beyond that end, he had decided during recovery that he wasn’t ready to face it yet.
It’s like an old-timey spy movie.
This was an undercover operation, throwing three agents and a puzzlingly mysterious psychologist into unknown danger, where they would have to mingle with powerful elites over thirty stories in the air, smack in the middle of a city that was so huge that it hid innumerable secrets... and yet, at the memory of her words, he smiled a little.
It would be a tough operation. It would take all their skill, finesse, and bravery. But to say it wasn’t a little ridiculous and sounded as though it had walked right out of a pulp novel would be lying.
Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all.
Two weeks later, and five weeks after the “Stormsurge” op, it was nearing Christmas in Europe, and the continent had begun to behave appropriately. In the mountains and inland locations not warmed by sea-winds, snow fell, sometimes piling atop that which had already fallen, coating the mountaintops in blankets of white that disappeared into low clouds. A light dusting of snow coated the streets of Prague, dry and not even ankle-deep, accompanied by a bitingly cold breeze and just-below-freezing temperatures. Even in places where the snow did not fall, the temperatures plunged, exacerbated by shifting climates, even bringing snow-rain mixes into the lower elevations.
London had gussied itself up for the annual holiday, eagerly dressing in bright colors and a rainbow hue of lights lining the streets, the streets bearing a fine powder-coat of white snow that blew around at the slightest provocation. The air had gone crisp, but not unbearably so, cool enough to bring a sting of red to one’s cheeks, but not enough to bring numbness to exposed skin. Perhaps encouraged by the season, anti-Aug sentiment seemed to have plunged, at least for a while, with no one seeming to care that there was an Aug dressed as Santa working tonight. Even the shop windows proclaimed their acceptance of Augs and pleaded for “peace on Earth”.
At least everyone seemed to have the right idea. It was hard to knock them for it.
From the mid-story suites at the hotel they had been put in, Aria Argento could just see the Shard, glittering in the failing light, above the skyline. Much of London had been rebuilt over the past decade or so, adding ultramodern skyscrapers and residential towers, bringing the cramped global city fully into the modern age. The longer she gazed at it, the more nervous she felt, but she couldn’t quite pry herself away from the window.
A week ago, she and three others had been brought to the briefing room, the doors sealed behind them, with only Jim Miller there to talk. None of them had been given any prior hint as to what it could all be for, leaving them instead to look at each other in puzzlement before Miller began to explain himself.
She could still remember the surge of adrenaline and nerves as he began to outline what was expected of them. At first, Miller made it sound like Stormsurge, a snatch-and-grab that might involve firefights and sneaking around. It was only when he had told them there were four, and only four, agents going, and that it would involve a party and one of the most elite hotels in the entire city...
Only then, when she thought of satin dresses and silk suits, of thousand-credit champagne and platinum earrings, had she felt her stomach drop through the floor.
Miller hadn’t given them as much as she had hoped for, only passing around copies of a memo and bringing up an image of the Shard on the main screen. Its glass-pyramid edifice was awe-inspiring and beautiful, encapsulating so many different types of businesses that it made her head spin. Taking up the thirtieth through thirty-fifth floors was the Zen Hotel, rebuilt by Santeau Group through a joint operation with a powerful Chinese company out of Hengsha. This was where they would need to enter, mingle, and find their target before the party ended. Afterward, they would need to enter the suites and find Nikoladze, take him out, and get him out of the building without alerting security.
At first, Aria had balked. The idea was exciting – spy pulp novels brought to life, infiltrating an elitist party while wearing expensive clothes – but the execution terrified her. She could run, follow orders, shoot better than anyone in the Prague branch, but wear a dress costing thousands of credits? Mingle with billionaires who had a trophy wife on their arm? Carry herself with absolute confidence and take on the stress of the mission at the same time?
“Horrifying” hadn’t begun to cover it.
But then, sense had slowly returned. She had never personally encountered the Dvali, and never made a name for herself outside TF29. In a sea of silver spoons, she would be a harmless-looking unknown, as Miller described her. Beyond that, Mac was joining them this time, and he already looked the part in his daily choice of sleek black suit and tie. It was the addition of Delara that really intrigued her, since the woman wasn’t under Miller’s direct report, but had somehow gotten dragged into this and didn’t look at all concerned.
And beyond all of that was their fourth agent, who had spent most of the briefing standing off to the side and looking vaguely bewildered, even through the ever-present mirrored eye-shields. Always dressed in the expensive, fitted coat that made it very difficult not to notice the body underneath, doing nothing to hide the wide shoulders and sturdy build she had never before seen in action, Adam Jensen looked the part, too, and though he hadn’t said much beyond muttering snark Miller had glared at him for, at least he had taken it mostly in stride.
Mac had then made a point of telling “the two Augs” that they had to stay together, or it would look “downright odd” to outside observers. After all, with the men in nice suits and the women in sleek evening gowns, all of it costing a pretty penny, doing anything else would only draw attention to themselves. In a post-Incident world, pairing a Natural with an Aug was frowned upon at best and caused riots at worst. At the very least, it usually led to accusations of fetishism, which, while not totally out of place in a gathering like this, just wasn’t worth it.
So, the Augs were to be paired up, which would at least cut down on the dirty looks.
Which had, of course, done nothing to help her confidence. Whispers of Aria harboring a poorly-hidden attraction to the branch’s only other augmented agent went around regularly, though no one was ever cruel enough to say anything directly to her, or outright anywhere else. Though Adam was always calm and kind to her, that didn’t make her more comfortable in the ways she needed. Oh, no, it only made her more nervous, knowing that the scary-looking man bristling with military-grade augmentations was just... nice.
And the thought of him in a sleek, fitted suit tied her stomach up in knots she couldn’t undo. There was something about a sharp-dressed man that could get her going, but seeing how good he looked just in his normal clothes only made her think that she wouldn’t be able to form coherent thought if he looked any better.
Mac had to know something was up, just by the steady side-eye he gave her while Miller droned on a bit longer about this or that. Aria had tried to focus, but her hands toyed with each other, metal fingers entwining with organic ones, over and over, knowing it was stupid and doing it anyway. He was just a fellow agent, doing a job, dragged out on an op he certainly hadn’t asked for, and he would do it, even if a little grudgingly.
But, though it was slow going at best, they were beginning to get to know each other a little better. From the moment she had laid eyes on him, she had been drawn to his appearance – like a knight, she thought, dark and mysterious, a protector and a shield – but gotten to know him by stumbling a lot. A lot. Beyond the pretty face and warrior’s body, she had found a kind, calm man who didn’t speak willingly of himself often, but still gave her small pieces of himself, now and then, always with that same gentle tone.
Being paired with him on an op was one thing. Having to go to such a high-class event, both of them dressed to the nines and under the watchful eyes of the event’s security, though, was quite another.
Aria squirmed, shifted from foot to foot, and closed the blinds, forcing herself to stop staring at the Shard. They were only booked for a single night in this hotel, which was significantly less ritzy than the Zen, and had arrived early enough in the morning via a supersonic jet that she had been able to spend what few precious minutes she could get sleeping the edge off... and it hadn’t helped, her mind consumed by so many thoughts that she couldn’t parse them.
One that was foremost was that of her dress.
Resisting the temptation to open the blinds again, she instead turned her back and stared at the gown, hanging on the wall to show off its brilliant color and fine fabric. Made of satin, it had felt beautifully light and airy when she had tried it on to have it tailored, but it exposed so much skin...
She swallowed and rubbed her temples. She was going to this op with a colleague. A colleague. Not a date. He wouldn’t be at all affected by her, brown-haired and pale Aria Argento, showing more of her body than she was remotely used to. If anything, he was far more likely to be distracted by Delara, whose grace and elegance made her feel mousy in comparison, and who would probably look like a queen in her floor-length, navy blue evening gown.
Just a colleague. Just a colleague.
But the mantra, unsurprisingly, didn’t help. Instead, she just looped endlessly through the idea of the man she was, beyond all doubt, attracted to, in a fine suit she hadn’t seen yet, much too close to her when she was baring far more skin than she was used to. Whether he took notice or not, just the thought of a hand landing accidentally on her bare shoulder, or drifting too close to her waist, made her feel... pleasantly nervous.
Colleague. Colleague. Colleague.
Aria looked through the open bathroom door at Delara, who was currently invested in perfecting her makeup. Once she was done, she had agreed to help Aria do hers, since she hadn’t done it herself in so many years, and certainly never tried to do anything special enough for such an extravagant event. Nervously, she eyed the red gown on the wall, almost feeling as though it would pounce on her.
Delara wasn’t wearing her gown just yet, working in only her underwear and a shirt for the moment. “Just another minute. I need to spray this down, and you’ll be next. Don’t put the dress on yet, okay?”
She groaned. “Why not?”
“Because I don’t want to risk getting anything on it. It’s satin.”
Again, she eyed the gown. Despite herself, though, she had loved the feeling of its skirt swirling around her legs when she’d given it an experimental spin. In order to wear the thing properly, she would need to wear a strapless bra and seamless underwear, since the dress was tailored to fit like it was painted on, which had the weird effect of making her feel both rather naked and... oddly sexy.
“Alright, did you put on the bra?”
Aria sighed. “No. Gimme a minute.” She removed her loose travel clothes and replaced them with the items that had been set aside for her, finding the fabric smooth and soft. For a moment, she stared down at herself, wondering why it had the effect of making her feel so... female. She liked it.
Moving into the bathroom, she waited patiently, not allowed to see herself in the mirror just yet, as Delara laid down several prep layers before smoothing her skin tone with a concealer that felt light and cool. Only after painstakingly preparing the rest of her face did she move on her to her eyes and brows, which took the longest, with two different brushes and multiple dips into a palette that went from a shimmery off-white to the deepest black she had ever seen. Eyeliner, shadows, and mascara, all applied with a masterful hand that never wavered or lingered too long.
“Almost done,” the other woman muttered as she applied two different colors to her lips, neither of which she saw more than a glimpse of, then stepped back to admire her work. When Aria tired to turn her head, however, Delara stopped her before she got far, then told her to shut her eyes and hold her breath. A few sprays of a cool mist later, a bit of mussing about with her hair, and she was told to open her eyes and look at last.
Aria didn’t quite recognize the woman in the mirror. Her skin tone smoothed out and touched with blush and bronzer was enough, but Delara had spent the most time on her eyes. A sheer rose-gold in the near corners of her eyelids faded into a shimmery silver in the center that became near-black at the far corners. Above each eye, transitioned smoothly into the wings, a misting of dark gray and translucent shimmer completed the look. Her eyebrows had been filled in and tapered slightly, drawing immediate attention to her eyes.
She kept staring, vaguely aware of Delara looking pleasantly smug beside her. “I have... you.... bedroom eyes? Really?”
“Well, yes. I mean, you are going to quite the gala.”
Biting the inside of her lip, she leaned a little closer. It was her, still plainly visible, but her face had been skillfully done up with an almost come-hither sort of look that belonged on a film starlet more than her, yet she couldn’t deny made her feel beautiful. Her lips had been done up with a combination of a pale rose color with a touch of reddish-brown. Almost instantly, she felt a surge of confidence, and as she glanced between herself and Delara’s makeup, which used a similar but lighter technique of several dark layers to emphasize her larger eyes and much longer lashes, she wondered if maybe she wouldn’t be under the other woman’s shadow.
“Adam will be pleased to have such a beautiful woman working with him tonight.”
The concealer barely hid her flush, though her ears turned pink, and some of her confidence immediately deflated. “What does he have to do with this?”
“It’s okay, Aria. Don’t worry. Still, Adam looks good in just his normal wear. He’ll look perfectly at home in a suit.”
She forced a nod, trying not to think of him in a suit. “Okay, then. Can I put the dress on now?”
“We should probably do that, actually.”
Aria wandered back out into the main area in a bit of a stupor, wondering how fifteen minutes of makeup work could so transform both her look and how she felt, and picked the dress off the hanger. Carefully, she slipped into it, the cool folds of satin like a dream against her legs, and pulled her augmented arm through the single sleeve. The dress was simple, made of red satin and cut to floor-length, with a slit up one side to the hip, exposing much of her leg. Her natural arm was bare, the dress cut to loop under that shoulder. Far more skin than she was used to, indeed.
Thankfully, it fit perfectly and held up without a fuss, though she felt strangely lopsided when she took a step. The hem was off the ground even when she stood flat-footed, since she had opted for flats instead of heels, brushing her ankles with every small movement she made.
Grinning to herself, she grasped the fabric beside the slit and gave a quick spin. The red satin billowed out, exposing her entire leg in the process and making her stop suddenly. Even though it had been cut in such a way that it easily held itself up of its own accord, she still felt as though it would just drop off at any second. It made her feel feminine and undeniably sexy, but the tradeoff was the shock of cooler air up to her nethers, which felt very strange indeed.
By the time she had begun strapping a pistol to the leg hidden under the dress, Delara had gotten into her own dress and let her hair fall around her shoulders. Her dress had a square opening in the center that plunged down to just below the highest point of her ribs before stopping, a few inches wide at most. It also had a slit on the leg, but this one was on the left and only reached her knee. The only adornment on the fabric was a small grouping of tiny synthetic diamonds on her left hip that gathered the fabric in an asymmetrical design emphasizing the line of her body.
Aria shook her head, grateful that she had been able to wear a bra at all, and tightened the straps for her pistol until it felt comfortable. Being the type of party it was, no one would be bothered by a small sidearm, or so their intel had told them, and she wasn’t about to take any chances. Their dresses had been very specifically selected to look like high class while also emphasizing their feminine traits, and as long as she kept that in mind, she would be fine.
Last was the jacket to keep London’s cold air off her shoulders, which she looped over an arm for now, as it was far too warm indoors to put it on just yet. With her pistol’s straps hugging her thigh and the simple, comfortable shoes on, lacking heels – unlike Delara’s, unsurprisingly – she finally felt the part.
“The boys will meet us in the lobby. Ah, and we’re ahead of schedule, perfect.” Delara looked at her. “Well, are you ready to see what they’ve got up their sleeves?”
At the thought of Adam in a suit, she almost stuttered, but caught herself. “Didn’t I hear something about... Armani?”
“I think we did.” The other woman smiled. “Let’s get going.”
“Sooner, the better,” she muttered to herself, and switched off all the lights except for a small, dim one in the corner for when they returned. The door automatically clicked shut behind them; Delara tucked the keycard away to somewhere she didn’t see and led the way down the wall. The plush carpet underfoot dulled their steps and deadened most of the other sound, and she heard nothing from any of the other suites they passed. The men had shared a suite on this same floor, much as they had, but she’d forgotten the number.
The hotel was relatively new, built in the current fashionable style of straight lines, soft accent lighting, high ceilings, and glass panels. Every suite was secured with the most current security measures, while heavy doors covered in white enamel and laser-etched with geometric designs blocked any malicious attempts at entry. The lighting was white and soft, provided by recessed sources hidden along the edges of the ceiling. Their floor was the third one, so both opted not to take the elevator and just use the stairs. Made of marble and traced with a silver banister, they were so shiny and perfectly smooth that it felt like blasphemy to even set foot on them.
When they entered the spacious lobby, the only other people there was a family of four checking in and the receptionist, their fellow agents nowhere in sight. Delara sighed and took up a spot on one of the loveseats, crossing her ankles and pulling her phone from somewhere Aria didn’t care to know about.
After a minute, she sat next to her and propped her chin on one hand. She couldn’t imagine any reason these two men in particular could've taken longer than them to arrive. Unless... maybe something had happened? Maybe they had gotten into some sort of trouble, or caught up in an argument? While cordial enough, she knew their personalities clashed at just the right angles, which led to arguments, Adam’s voice taking on a dangerous tone that scared any observers quite a lot, and Mac’s irritated, raised voice in response.
Which Adam sometimes found amusing, he had once admitted to her, which in turn Mac picked up, which only made things that much worse for them when it happened.
They only sat there for a few minutes, but to Aria, it felt like hours. While Delara contentedly tapped away at her phone without much expression, she amused herself with thoughts. Mac wore a suit on the daily, sometimes without a tie and sometimes with, usually with a white undershirt, and always in an understated style that belied how incredibly high the price tags really were. He probably wouldn’t vary far from that, maybe using a darker color or slightly different style, but there was little true mystery there, so her mind wandered off.
Adam only wore his expensive trench coat every day, usually over a skintight shirt that was completely practical, so all she could do was guess at what he would show up in. She thought she had heard the “Armani” brand mentioned in passing, as she had told Delara, but she had also heard a few others tossed about, so whatever had ultimately been selected was a complete mystery to her... and the wait was killing her.
She stood, shook out her skirt, dropped her jacket on the loveseat, and turned to look through the floor-to-ceiling windows at the darkened sky and brightly-lit streets. Not all that long ago, she had been briefly aware of London speeding by under the VTOL as they had made their way to the Apex Centre, but hadn’t had much chance to take in the skyline from the upper levels or appreciate the scenery before the entire thing came to an abrupt end. They had been hustled from the Centre shortly thereafter and flown right back to Prague. This was the first time she saw London proper.
Seeing it on television, or in movies, or on a mission brief, just wasn’t the same as being down in the grit of it.
After a few moments, she grew dimly aware of voices coming from the stairwell and turned to look. It only took a moment longer to register one of them as very clearly Mac’s, his strong accent and – as much as she would never, ever want to tell it to his face, or to anyone’s – rich tone echoing down effortlessly and instantly filling the lobby. He wasn’t speaking all that loudly, but that particular tone could get anywhere.
Then came the responding voice, and she felt a tiny spike of adrenaline and nerves, right before both of them came into view from the second level and down the stairs.
Mac, not to her surprise, had donned a suit not radically different from his usual selection, this one was silver. There was no tie, only a deep blue undershirt to break up the sea of shimmering fabric. Judging by how it moved with his strides, it was probably made of wool, which would work great in the chilly weather. He looked perfectly at home in it, and his gait was somehow both purposeful and a little bit lazy, as if saying look how awesome I am.
Most days, she could only stand him so much, but even she had to admit he looked good.
Then her gaze shifted to the other man, and one hand gathered a handful of her dress, not really knowing how else to react. Adam always looked good – always, even when just in his body armor and looking ready to go headfirst into a firefight – but this was on a whole different level. He had been given a black suit that shimmered in a way different from the way Mac’s did, with a black undershirt of matte fabric, and there was not a spot of color to be found otherwise. The cut drew her eye top to bottom, inviting her to look, to appreciate the length and lean strength of his body, and the way he moved made her realize that, while not completely at ease, he wasn’t having a difficult time.
She managed to remember to open her hand and let the dress fall once more. The way it fitted drew her attention to the line from shoulder to hip, then back up. The black fabric, in combination with his dark hair, gave him the sort of “tall, dark, and mysteriously handsome” look that made it seem he’d stepped out of a spy novel.
Until they reached the lobby floor, both men were more interested in each other and making sure they didn’t stumble down the oddly-cut steps than the people in the lobby. “Why can’t you just do it? The only other people there with sunglasses will be bodyguards. We can’t have you doing it, you dumb git.”
“Is it really that important?” Adam sounded exasperated, and finally looked away when he reached the floor. Though she couldn’t see his eyes, she knew, instinctively, that he was looking at her, and it made her feel self-conscious, but not in an entirely unpleasant way. Suddenly painfully aware of the slit up her leg and the bared shoulder, she resisted the urge to hug her arms closer to her body, caught between wanting to try and cover herself with everything she had, and stand there, chin raised and shoulders back, looking the part she needed to play.
“Well, look at you.” Mac walked straight to her and stopped a few feet in front of her, giving her a once-over and ending with a pleased look on his face. “Marvelous. You’ll fit right in, probably. And you, Delara... what, are we going to a party, or to some fancy premiere at the cinema? What is with that getup?”
“I’m glad you approve, Duncan.” Delara rose from the loveseat and moved closer, smiling. “You look amazing.”
“I know. Are you ladies ready to get on with this?”
Adam had stopped at the bottom of the stairs, but now approached her, moving with the sort of graceful gait that sent too many mixed messages for her to parse. “I’m... kind of glad I didn’t get to see what you’d be wearing before this all went down.” Above the shields, one eyebrow rose. “You look beautiful.”
It took her a few beats too long to realize he was talking to her, and her alone. “Thanks. Same to you.” Pause. “I mean... you look good. Good in a suit. Never seen you in a suit, and it...” She took a breath. “Thanks.”
“Jensen,” Mac grumbled, “shields. Off. Now.”
Adam gave him a sidelong glare. “Are you just used to getting your way, or you doing this for show?”
“He has a point, Adam,” Delara told him. “I know you’re used to keeping them up, but for our purposes, you should leave them down. Don’t worry, you won’t be seeing these people ever again.”
Silence followed her words, while an expression of vague disgust crossed his face. “You’re not letting this go, are you?”
Delara opened her mouth, but Aria cut in without thinking. “I’ve never seen your eyes.”
The look of disgust vanished; he pursed his lips for a moment, and then, with a faint snick, both shields retracted into the sheaths on either side of his eyes. Cybernetic replicas, the irises dark with a gold ring around the pupil, framed with short, thick lashes darker than his hair, met hers. “Alright, fine,” he muttered, “you all get your way this time. Are we going to stand here all night, or can we leave now?”
Aria studied his eyes a moment. They were deep-set under finely-arched brows, and though she had thought they would be unnerving, they were anything but. Rather, they were beautiful, and she had a hard time looking away. Only when they met hers again did she realize she had begun to stare, but looking away felt like admitting to some terrible crime, so she just kept looking back at him, giving him a slight smile.
To her relief, the lines of his face relaxed, and she thought she spotted a faint half-smile of his own.
“Are you two done?”
Aria tore her gaze away so fast, she wouldn’t have been surprised to get whiplash. “Are you?” she muttered, moving away to snatch her jacket off the loveseat.
Mac looked both amused and slightly irritated. “We’re ahead of schedule, so the sooner we get moving, the more likely we’ll get there before anyone notices. We need to go over the plans one more time.” He led the way out the front door, where the surprisingly cold air nipped at her skin, reminding her to slip the jacket on. “Delara, how are you walking in those heels? And how are you not cold? That’s a lot of skin to be showin’ off.”
“What, is that you, Duncan MacReady, worrying about me?” The teasing note in her voice was impossible to miss. “And is that also you appreciating the dress I was given?”
He gave her an utterly deadpan look. “Don’t psych me, Auzenne, I don’t like it. It’s an observation.”
Aria smirked. “Sounds like she struck a nerve, Mac.”
This earned her a glare from him, but she just grinned back.
After a minute of standing in silence, he muttered something and dug around in his suit jacket before pulling out a phone and bringing something up. Delara just stood next to him, looking amused, one ankle crossed behind the other and hands on her hips.
“Too bad coming to London is just for a job,” Adam murmured at her shoulder. “It’s a beautiful city. Kind of reminds me of Detroit, back in its heyday. Would be nice to have a chance to see more of it.”
“We kind of will tonight,” she said. “I heard the views from the Shard are absolutely incredible.”
“And London’s doing better than Detroit.” He made a thoughtful sound. “Here’s hoping this all goes off without a hitch. It seems like a bad idea to get into a fight that far above the ground.”
She shrugged. “Then, let’s just not get into any fights.”
He snorted. “Easier said than done.”
An automated taxi pulled up to the curb then, opening its doors without being prompted. All four of them got in, finding comfortable seats with soft material and a mostly bare interior in the rest of the car. The door closed, and the car moved off into London’s perpetual traffic, expertly weaving its way along.
“Alright, one more time.” Mac had sat in front and now twisted in his seat to face the others. Delara, sitting beside him, turned as well. “We’re here for Radich Nikoladze. He’s staying in one of the suites, but we don’t know which one yet, and we aren’t snatching him until the party’s over. It’s supposed to run until midnight, and it’s just nineteen now, so it’ll be a long one. Don’t turn your back on the drinks, and don’t let the Tarvos guards bother you.”
“Tarvos, huh?” Adam sighed. “They’re popular.”
“Because they're good, ex-Belltower or not. First, we need to find Nikoladze and get a tracker planted on him. From what we know, he likes women. A lot. Delara will deal with that part.”
“I was volunteered,” she sighed. “Getting up in the face of a dangerous criminal doesn’t sound fun.”
“Then, we need to make our rounds and gather all the info we can about the security situation. Drugging the guards isn’t off the table, but no matter what, Nikoladze will not be easy to get to. Expect trouble.”
“That’s why we’re here,” Aria said.
“We’re going as couples,” Delara said. “I’ll be with Mac, and you and Adam are together. You don’t have to say you’re a couple, of course, but it’s going to draw the least suspicion. I guess Mac and I will just... need to play up the ‘bickering couple’ angle, right? Since we get along so well.” She patted his arm.
Mac made a face. “It’s best. Two Naturals, two Augs. If anyone asks, play it up. No one should recognize our faces, but be careful anyway. Keep the suspicion off.”
“Do we know anything about the suite?” Adam said.
“Yeah, we got the works. Pressure sensors, laser tripwires, cameras. Can’t do anything about the cameras, tied as they are to the hotel’s security desk. That thing is watched around the clock, so no getting in. Any attempt to cut the cameras will set off the alarm. Per what we got from the hotel’s audits, they need to store video data for three years before it can be purged. Any interruption will be noted, and our faces will be there a long time.”
“Unless we get it scrubbed,” Aria pointed out.
“Sure, but that takes time, what with all the red tape, so keep your heads down and play it cool. With any luck, absolutely nothing will go wrong, and we’ll walk out with this ratbag without a fuss.”
Adam sounded like he spoke from too many years of experience when he muttered, “Because that always happens.”
Mac gave him a quick glance. “If anyone asks, remember your aliases?”
“I know he’s Derrick Walthers.” Aria nodded at Adam, who returned her nod with his own. “I’m Rosa Romano.” Pause. “Well, it isn’t terrible, at least. But it does make me think of cheese.”
“It’s not like we drew them out of a hat, but it sure feels like it, doesn’t it?” Delara shook her head. “And I’m... Abigail. Did anyone actually give me a last name?”
“Of course we did,” Mac said. “It’s Blanchard, remember?”
“That’s a terrible name,” Aria muttered.
“I wouldn’t have picked it,” Delara admitted with another soulful sigh. “Abigail Blanchard. Quite a mouthful there.”
“And why do you get to keep your first name, Mac?”
“Because it’s common enough that no one cares. But I got slapped with ‘Hemingway’ as a surname.”
Aria looked at him for a long moment. Of all four of them, Mac happened to get the least ridiculous name, and the one that sounded the most like it had come from a spy novel. Of course he had. Silently going over the names again, she settled back in her seat to watch the scenery go by while Mac fiddled with his phone, then tucked it away.
“Almost there,” he said after a minute. “Let’s get this done and go home.”
Adam said, quietly, “This should be interesting.”
Chapter 2: Part II
At the base of the Shard, the main street ran past a venue with a queue of cars, only a dozen for now, while people just stepping out of taxis and buses crossed between the cars and into the ground floor lobby. Aria didn’t know too much about cars, but she could tell from their elegant designs and lack of chrome details they were incredibly expensive. The only one she recognized was the distinct Mercedes star, perched atop the sloped nose of a sedan that seemed to dwarf their taxi and dressed entirely in shiny black paint, complete with tinted windows.
Beside her, Delara whistled softly. “Look at those cars. There’s some that are a decade or more old. Aria, you’re looking at possibly millions of credits in cars.”
“They sure do look expensive,” she said. “What are they all?”
“Let’s see...” Delara hesitated until the taxi stopped and opened all four doors, allowing them to climb out into the chilly air once more. Once the doors closed again, she pointed to a large, dark green car that hunched down as though it were a sprinter at the starting line. “That right there is an Aston Martin DB12. Worth a quarter million credits at one time, and only twelve years old. It’s in good shape, too, for being an older luxury car. Hmm...” She lowered her arm and looked down the line. “Jaguars, another Aston... and is that a Citroen?”
“A what?” She’d never heard the name even in passing.
“Citroen. Oh, it is. See the double chevron logo?” Delara sounded rather like a small child, almost grinning as she indicated the car in question – a big, low-slung beast of a machine painted in a deep burgundy. Aria didn’t understand the significance of the car, but it certainly made Delara happy.
“Right, ladies, try to stay focused, if you would.” Mac walked right between them, though he was enough of a gentleman to squeeze through instead of pushing them aside. “Yes, there’s pretty cars, now eyes up.”
“Why is there a Renault,” Delara muttered, “who drives a Renault to something like this?” Pause. “And... is that a Deval?”
“Del– Abby, if you would!”
“Oh, pardon me.” Delara looked momentarily sheepish. “This is just, ah... a little distracting.”
“I’d never pin you as one for cars,” Aria said.
The other woman shrugged. “Well, I happened to live with a family and in a place where this was a... frequent occurrence for me. I know enough about cars to recognize the majority of European brands, at least.” She cleared her throat, then took a step forward and looped her arm around Mac’s. “Anyway. Shall we?”
Mac stopped dead and looked between them, gaze lingering on their entwined arms. When he leveled an unimpressed look at her face, however, Delara only smiled mischievously and quirked an eyebrow.
“Sure,” he muttered, and they walked on.
Aria looked back to see Adam standing behind her shoulder, looking vaguely uncomfortable, but obviously making a valiant effort at hiding it. For a few moments, she just stood there, tugging the jacket a little tighter around her shoulders. They had to go in eventually, and they had to play as though they were together, but his discomfort combined with her knot of feelings toward him made it impossible for her to make the first move.
Then he looked at her, momentarily raising an eyebrow. “We should get moving. You look cold.”
She forced herself to release the jacket. “A little.”
“Can’t have that.” The lines of his face relaxed enough to reveal a small smile, and the sight of it pushed some of the stress out of her body. “Mac said to act like we’re together. Guess we’ll... have to figure that out as we go.” The smile faded as he shook his head. “Won’t know how far is good enough until then.”
“Right, of course. Can’t have anyone thinking it’s actually a thing.” Shrugging, she raised a hand toward him, then stopped, hovering in midair a moment before letting it drop. “Uh... we should go before Mac starts making a scene.”
“Doubt he will.” He raised a hand to the back of her shoulder as they moved forward – a light, probably unconscious touch, but it landed on her bared shoulder, and through the fabric of her jacket, she felt the light press of his fingertips. “Delara will keep him busy for a while. He needs it.”
“She seems to like him... or pretends to, anyway.” She flashed a grin. “They’ll do fine.”
“Yeah, I noticed that.” They quickly crossed the gap between two cars and walked into the hotel lobby. The heat had been turned up enough that she immediately shrugged off her jacket, giving it a bit of side-eye and wishing it wasn’t too warm to keep hiding her shoulder from her... whatever he was. Not a date, anyway.
To her pleasant surprise, a bellhop took her jacket with a smile, attached a tag with her name to it, and took it into a back room before coming back out and collecting more from other arrivals. Now left without absolutely nothing to hide her bared skin, she felt extremely self-conscious, but it wasn’t necessarily because of the slit up her leg or the fact that she felt like her dress would have a wardrobe malfunction any moment. It was more because she wasn’t sure how to act, nor how much glee to take in feeling sexier than she had in years.
“Aria.” Adam’s voice was firm and came from just above her shoulder. “You’re tense. Problem?”
“Ah... not one you’d understand.”
He grunted softly. “You’d be surprised. What’s wrong?”
“Uh... well, I’m trying to... figure out how to feel.”
Pause. “Feel?” He sounded puzzled.
“Well, I haven’t worn anything like this in...” She thought a moment. “Closest was a prom dress, and neither of my parents wanted me in anything that showed a lot of skin.” The hotel lobby was long and wide, blue-lit, with a polished marble floor and interesting potted plants in the corners. As they walked, she was grateful for the all the pretty distractions. “I don’t know if I should stay professional, or...”
“Or enjoy yourself a little? Have fun with the role?”
She looked at him. “Yeah.”
“Think about what we’re here to do.” They reached the elevators, where Delara and Mac were waiting for them. She still had her arm looped around his, while he was doing his absolute best not to look more than vaguely put-upon. That said, at least he seemed relaxed. “Everyone has a role to play. Do what helps you play yours best.”
“But we’re supposed to be together, Derrick.”
Another pause. “Yeah, that’s.... true.”
“So, tell me... just how much fun should I have?”
Now he looked her dead in the eye. “Don’t go overboard, Rosa.”
“Wouldn’t dare,” she murmured, and smirked at his shake of the head. They stood shoulder-to-shoulder in front of the elevator, the doors of which appeared to be made of simple metal overlaid with a transparent white sheet of a material she didn’t recognize on sight, and combined with the ambient lighting, it made the doors look like they glowed with a soft inner radiance.
Delara looked positively red-carpet material next to Mac, and her “date” looked just as fine, complete with the full-of-himself attitude she had come to expect from him. Though he did his best not to look at her, Aria noticed he kept glancing over at Delara, and his gaze did wander down more than once.
Delara looked at him right in the middle of one of these appreciative gazes. “I guess the dress is doing its job,” she said with a very wide, very knowing sort of smile.
Mac looked her right in the eye. “Isn’t that what it’s for? For looking?”
“Hence...” She waved a hand over her chest and turned the smile into a smirk. “...the comment about it doing its job. At least I know they’ll like what they see, if you can appreciate it so much.”
“You keep telling yourself that, Abby.”
“Oh, but Duncan, my dear, you used to tell me I was all you liked to see. What came between us?”
Aria tried very, very hard not to giggle at Mac’s face, twisting into a wonderful mix of befuddlement and irritation. “Oh. Oh, that’s how it’s got to be, is it? You’re going to just drag... our... personal life into this?” Though he was doing a good job of hiding it, she could still hear the reluctance in his voice.
“I figured seeing me in this... ensemble would encourage you to... rekindle our passion.”
Aria feigned coughing into the crook of her elbow at Mac’s severe look. “Abby, I swear on all that’s good, if you try one thing that counts as ‘public indecency’, I will make you regret it.”
Delara’s smirk widened. “Promise?”
“Oh, for the love of...” The doors slid open then to an empty car, and he went in, half-dragging the still-smirking Delara in with him. Aria went in ahead of Adam when he stepped aside, and he was the last one in before the doors hissed shut and the car began to ascend. “Not another word. It’s hard enough”
“And when you say that, you do mean your attempts to not stare, and not something else, right?”
Aria could no longer hold in her laughter, though it came out as more of a snort, and even Adam looked like he was doing his best not to smile. Mac rubbed a hand over his face. “Look, I’m wearing a wool suit that’s a bit tight ‘round the ‘nads and looking at you and her in those showy dresses. You would know if it was ‘something else’.”
“Cheer up, Duncan,” she said, jabbing him lightly with her elbow. “Have some fun.”
He swore under his breath. “Need more alcohol for that.”
“Should be plenty of that, MacReady,” Adam told him. “Just... don’t get drunk, because I’m not helping you.”
“Sure,” he grumbled, and stared at the elevator doors a moment before adding, “and how long does this go on for? Are we goin’ up a tower, or ascending to space? What’s it on about?”
The elevator picked that moment to stop and open its doors, greeting them with a small sky lobby. The ambient lighting had been turned low, giving the lobby a dreamy sort of mood, and the warm golden glow made her feel as though she were about to walk into some grand palace. As they moved away from the elevators, she took a longer look to find bamboo in the corners and waterfalls between panes of glass, lit from below with more golden light.
Then her eyes continued on to find that the lobby’s exterior walls were made entirely of glass, and through it, free of any distortion, she found the sprawl of London surrounding them, all aglow with more color and blanketed in such beautiful, geometric buildings than she had ever had the pleasure of seeing. The Thames cut through the city just below, with pools of bright light rippling on the surface, and she thought, though it was a little hard to tell, she could see the beautiful residential towers of the Apex Centre across the water.
Aria moved to the window to look as far down as she could. Beyond the floor was a sheer drop tens of stories, and it was only a short hop to the edge of the river from there.
Turning around, she examined the interior walls a moment. They appeared overlaid with sheets of gray and brown stone from bottom to top, causing the golden glow to cast odd micro-shadows and reflect the light in interesting patterns. A pair of large doors stood in the middle of the wall, marked with “Zen Main Hall Entrance” on frosted glass, with handles that glittered as though made of diamond.
“Someone coughed up a load for this,” Mac muttered from her right, and continued under his breath when she walked forward and touched one of the handles. It was perfectly smooth against her fingertip.
“Right through here, right?” Adam sounded thoughtful. “Security check?”
“Yeah. Got your badge on you?”
Adam idly patted a section of his suit. “Getting me in is what I’m worried about.”
“Just don’t make a fuss and don’t glare at anyone, mate, and you should be fine enough,” the other man told him. “They can’t fear what they don’t know, and that ID you’ve got doesn’t say you’re packing heavy weapons in your body. So just smile – or something close enough for you – and don’t make sudden moves.”
Aria thought a moment. “And you’re sure they won’t care about my pistol?”
Adam looked at her. “You’re packing? Where?”
“Fair question.” Mac looked curiously at her. “Dare we find out the answer?”
“If you’re thinking it’s somehow in my bra–” She paused to give him a stern look, which he returned with a raised eyebrow. “–then, sorry to disappoint, but it’s here.” Patting her covered leg, she thought a moment about the fact that she would need to lift the entire dress to get it out. Hopefully, it wouldn’t come to that.
The corner of his mouth twitched. “Well. If that leg looks half as nice as your other one, then you’ve got three deadly weapons on you. Could come in handy, considering what we’re up against.”
Aria opened and closed her mouth, then settled for glaring, prompting a smirk from him. Though she had long been aware of having nice legs – they had certainly been commented on enough times, whether in dress blues, slacks, or a skirt – it was quite another think to have him comment on them.
“Alright, we should get moving.” Delara spoke this time, and Aria noticed she still had her arm wrapped around her fellow agent’s, though he no longer looked tense. Maybe the dress was working as intended.
Through the frosted-glass doors was a hall that ran the length of the floor to the left and right. A security checkpoint had been set up here, and men in the prim, gray uniforms of Tarvos Security watched as the foursome drew closer. Beyond the checkpoint, she spotted another, frosted-glass door, beyond which she saw a cascade of lights and dim shapes. Aria grew very aware of the pistol on her leg and prayed it didn’t get them in trouble.
“Please hold a moment, sir,” one of the guards said in a strong, firm voice. Waving Mac forward through the gate, he then ran through a basic checklist and performed a very quick scan. Picking up nothing of interest, and finding his badge sufficient, they let him through.
Delara also had no trouble, passing through even quicker than her partner. When it was Aria’s turn, she swallowed and stepped through, bracing herself for the scanner.
The guard stopped at mid-thigh. “Ma’am, there appears to be a small sidearm on you. Is this accurate?”
“Yes... sir,” she said, trying not to sound nervous.
The guard proceed to run her through a dozen or so questions while another examined her badge. After a lot of back-and-forth between them and squinting at a screen she couldn’t see, they eventually waved her through, and she took up a position next to Delara. The two women exchanged a look, but neither of them spoke. They didn’t need to – she could guess the reason why a private security firm like Tarvos wouldn’t blink long at a small sidearm, and knew she wasn’t going to be the only one packing tonight.
Adam, though, brought the entire checkpoint to a halt at the first scan. Forced to stand still, and looking mildly irritated, he waited while the guards again went back and forth, much longer than they had with her. His badge was run thrice, and each time, she saw that it brought up several lines of text on the one screen she could mostly see. One of them she recognized as okaying him for heavy augmentation, and another, though hard to read, she knew assured the reader that he was properly regulated and chipped like a good little Aug.
This seemed to be enough after a good five or so minutes, though the guard who had stopped him didn’t bother to mask his reluctance as he waved him through. “Your augmentations have been properly tagged and suppressed, sir, but please be aware that you are still considered a possible danger, so the other guests may be nervous. Please keep them concealed at all times as best you can, and enjoy the party.”
Adam gave him a sidelong look. “Wouldn't dream of doing otherwise,” he said, and moved to the other side of the checkpoint, close to her. Aria exhaled in relief, then snapped back to reality when she realized that, if he got half an inch closer, his arm would be pressed flat to hers.
Getting into his role, probably. Or maybe he was... nervous?
“Well, here we go,” Mac said, breaking through her musings. “Infolinks on, and do try not to get handsy.”
Aria noticed he had taken to looking at her for that last word, prompting her to raise an accusing eyebrow. He held the look a beat longer before holding his arm out for Delara, who slipped her own around it with a small, satisfied smile. “Beyond what we need to do, of course. Alright, let’s get on with it.”
The doors swung inward silently when Mac leaned on them, without resistance, slowing to a stop before hitting the wall on either side. Aria couldn’t help but look all around to take in the scenery: a huge ballroom with a low glass ceiling, ringed with tasteful blue light, with soft white light emanating from random spots above the glass. All walls but the ones behind them were made entirely of massive, seamless glass panels, overlooking a patchwork of light and color that was the London skyline. A stairwell on the far side split in two and disappeared above the ceiling, lit in gentle pinkish light alongside the white, and all the banisters and décor seemed made of brushed silver.
But what really drew her eye beyond the incredible skyline was the crowd. In flurries of color and winks of light off expensive jewelry, men and women in designer suits and dresses milled about, some of them engaging in some lively dancing in the center of the floor. They lined up at a bar on the right side of the room, leaning on the black marble counter to toss back drinks with bright colors, talking and laughing among themselves. At the end of the bar, lined up against the glass wall, a buffet table blanketed in a rainbow of delightful colors had been set up on an elegant metal table.
Everything here screamed “made for millionaires”.
“I don’t belong here at all,” was the first thing out of her mouth.
She felt Adam nudge her gently with an elbow. “None of us do, but we’ll be alright.” A pause; she looked up at him to see... was that shyness in his eyes? “Ah, Aria, do you... mind...”
She took the arm he offered. It felt strong and warm around her own, and a smile strained against her lips as she fought very hard to keep it back. The suit’s texture was as sleek as it had looked, feeling nice against her palm when she curled her arm enough to bring it to just below his deltoid. “No,” she said, imbuing her tone with as much innocence as possible, her smile turning into a grin she still refused to let slip.
“Alright, you two, don’t get too excited.” Mac shot her a look, which she returned without hesitation. “First thing’s first, and try to stay focused.” With that, he descended the short staircase to the floor, Delara matching him step-for-step and looking totally unfazed by anything that was going on around them.
Aria finally allowed the grin free. “Let’s go,” she said, and tugged him with her as she went down into the crowd. Her companion kept up fine, though she heard him sigh.
A few sidelong glances and mutterings followed them through the crowd, dampening her mood a little. Both of them being Augs would be enough to silence anything louder, but no doubt someone out there was quietly accusing her of fetishizing him, an increasingly common insult to any Naturals who were involved with Augs. “Did you get hanzer’d today?” was a question she’d heard once before, thrown at a man and his augmented female companion, which had made her blood burn, but there hadn’t been a thing she could do.
Instinctively, her grip tightened on his arm. Beneath the sleek fabric, she felt the twitch of synthetic muscle, far more refined than her own, before he said, “You okay?”
“Fine,” she said, too quickly, and swore under her breath. “It’s nothing. What are we doing, exactly?”
“Making the rounds.” The words were barely audible, and she looked up at him to find him having bent close to her ear so he could be easily heard. “The other two will find what we’re looking for, but right now... huh.” Still with his steady gait and keeping her close to him, he peered over the crowd. “Mingle.”
“You done this before?”
One eyebrow twitched as he returned his gaze to her. “Not... recently.”
The smile returned, straining against her lips, before she finally let it go free. “Then, we’ll just wander, okay? Here, let’s see if there’s something worth eating at the buffet.” With her right shoulder, she made her way through the crowd, and Adam kept up easily. The table simply looked more magnificent the closer she got, and when she finally stood in front of it and could see the details, the smile became a grin.
The first thing she noticed was that she stood in front of the “desserts” section, and that it didn’t just contain sweets. No, she saw chilled exotic fruits and assortments of breads she didn’t recognize. Strawberries had been arranged on the outside of a large plate, in the center of which sat a spiral of fruits ranging from peaches to odd, spiky things she pegged as dragonfruit. The next thing she noticed was the existence of multiple types of dips, ranging from milk chocolate to something off-colored with the consistency of yogurt.
Almost immediately, her stomach growled at her, and she pressed her free hand to it, remembering that she’d been so nervous that she hadn’t eaten in hours.
“Ar– Rosa, can you stay focused and do this at the same time?”
Giving him a mock-hurt look, she plucked a fat strawberry off the plate and bit into it. The flesh was icy cold and more sour than sweet, the juices gushing behind her teeth and sending her nerves prickling. She recoiled from the shock, but it left her in a familiar high. “Strawberries... um, Derrick,” she muttered, biting the flesh off the rest of the fruit before she finished chewing the first one. “You think I can resist all this?”
He pursed his lips. “You haven’t eaten in a while, have you?”
Lightly dropping the leaves into a bin, she reached for another. “No.”
His arm slid out of hers, leaving her skin cool in its wake. “Just... don’t make yourself sick, okay?”
“I won’t,” she insisted, looking up through her eyelashes at him. He looked back at her, and for a moment, she searched his eyes, trying to figure out what he was after. Those eyes were artificial, and a little unnerving at first glance, but the way he gazed at her from under slim, well-arched brows was incredibly distracting.
And he had thick lashes that framed his eyes in lines of black, making them stand out even more.
“Um...” Shaking herself, she looked out at the skyline. “Mingle.” Popping a peach slice in her mouth, she gave him a sidelong look, then held out her arm, lips forming a sly smile. The corner of his lips quirked as he took her arm once more, and together, they began to wander along the outer rim of the crowd.
As they walked, however, reality slowly dawned on her. While Aria had never said anything aloud to anyone, her attraction to Adam had never gone unnoticed. Sometimes a slave to exhaustion and her hormones, she had thrown lingering glances and flirtatious smiles his way more than once. The worst moments were when he seemed to react, some of his careful, cool control slipping a bit and giving her a glance of the man underneath.
She was here, in a sleek evening gown and showing a lot more skin than she was used to, under the pretense of being his date, while he had so callously dressed in a suit that left little of his strong, lean body to her imagination. Her heart was beating a little too fast, and her ears felt too warm.
And if they were here, and had to pretend to be a couple, maybe she could finally find out what he thought of her.
With a suddenness that startled even her, she moved to stand in front of him and took both of his hands. They were warm and of an odd texture, but nowhere near unpleasant.
“Dance floor,” she said, nodding in the direction of said area. “Shall we?”
Both of his eyebrows shot up. “Look, I know–” His mouth twisted, but she soon realized he was battling a smile. “We haven’t had much time together, have we? I mean, it’s been so long since I saw you last and we could just... spend time together. Yeah, we’re here. Why not?”
Aria decided she could roll with that story. “Good! Now, come on.”
The song right now, being played by a band that was half synthesizers and half real instruments, was slow – a waltz, she figured out quickly. It had been a few years since last she’d danced a waltz, but told herself she would do it the best she could, because she was here to do a job, and she was going to do it well.
“Makes it easier,” he murmured, and she caught the double meaning in his words as he took her hand, then slid the other around her waist, pulling her a step closer. Her heart hammered in her chest – so close, so close, so close – but she retained her poise and, after a moment’s stutter, found the rhythm. Now was not the time for fantasies, though she found it difficult to keep her thoughts reined in with his hand on her waist, so she gathered her dress in her left hand, lifting it enough to expose some of that leg, and moved with him.
She bit the inside of her lip before remembering to stop. His hand found the curve of her waist so perfectly.
Of course it does, you idiot, her rational mind told her.
“Like what you see?”
Aria again snapped back to reality to find him looking past her into the crowd. “Yes,” she said, half-hoping he wouldn’t catch her double meaning, but he did look incredible, and she was finding it increasingly difficult to suppress the desires and hormones surging into her blood. “It’s beautiful.”
Now he looked back at her, one eyebrow rising slowly, so she just looked back at him and brought herself a little closer, testing his boundaries. “Think so?”
“Yeah.” she shrugged one shoulder. “A little expensive, but this place is still nice to look at.”
Adam had made no move to give their bodies any additional distance, and she might have felt his hand move a little further down and back, further toward the back of her hip and base of her spine. Whatever he was after, she wasn’t complaining, though she wasn’t sure what to do about how her body reacted. Well, as long as it didn’t betray her by weakening her knees or making her blush furiously, she was probably okay.
“Stop with the eye-sex, you two, for the love of all that’s good!”
Aria gritted her teeth, her irritation reflected in Adam’s downturned mouth. “Don’t remember asking your opinion,” was his murmured response. “Besides, weren't you the one saying we needed to pretend–”
“Don’t go convincing me it’s real, alright? Haven’t had nightmares in months.”
Aria groaned. “Remind me to slap him when this is over.”
Adam looked at her a moment, then rolled his eyes, accompanied by a slight shake of the head. The gesture was so unexpected that she flashed a grin.
For the moment, Mac left them alone, and she let the rhythm of the music seep into her, trying to divert her attention to the crowds. Nicoladze might have changed his hair color, or done something else to alter his appearance, but still, she searched for the shock of white-blond hair that would betray him. His psychological profile pinned him as arrogant, so the likelihood of him actually having done much to cover his tracks wasn’t great.
But as she searched, she snuck glances at her partner. The suit shone in the ambient light, silk threads glittering faintly, while the stronger white light filtered through his hair, turning it various shades of coffee brown tinged with gold. The fit of the suit made it impossible to ignore the long lines of his arms and legs, the perfect curve of his waist that betrayed the hard strength underneath, and before long, she ended up biting her lip.
It wasn’t until she heard him snort that she realized he was looking amusedly down at her. “Getting into your role?”
Now she was blushing. “Sure,” she managed, narrowly avoiding a stutter.
“Good, because we’re being watched.” His lips barely moved as he spoke; she locked her gaze with his, immediately understanding what he was saying. “Tarvos has been watching us since we got here, and I caught a couple funny looks from what look like some tough guys, too. They might know who I am.” That eyebrow went up again, and the ease and grace with which it did made her momentarily forget to pay attention. “We’ll draw attention being professional.”
“Because they might know you, from the last op?”
His brow furrowed a second before softening again. “That’s exactly it, yeah. We need to be careful.”
The music had moved on to a slower song of a slightly different type. As she readjusted to match the new rhythm, both of his hands came to her waist, and the pressure of his fingertips below her ribs made her spine prickle as she fought to ignore how it made her feel.
Then, she saw it. “There he is,” she murmured. “Your ten o’ clock. Brunette on his arm.”
Without breaking rhythm, he turned both of them enough to let him get a look in that direction. “Yeah, that’s him. He didn’t even change his hair.” He snorted again, then continued, “Duncan, you see him?”
“Got him,” came the response. “Now it’s time for Abby to work her psychological magic. Hope you’re as good as you think you are, or we’re all sunk. No pressure.”
“It’s fine, Duncan,” was her reply. “Here we go, then.”
“Come on,” Adam told her, and took her hand, leading her off the dance floor to the wall. It took a moment for her to realize it would let them stay off to the side and play the part of the couple, while also letting them see Nicoladze as the other two agents began to play their part. The crowd parted enough for them to pass, but she wasn’t sure if it was out of distaste or something else.
Aria leaned against a smooth, glass pillar, barely jutting from the wall, and tucked her hands behind the small of her back to rest on them. The last piece was to move her left leg outward, through the slit in the dress, enough so that when she bent her knee and brought her foot back a little, the dress hung off it, exposing quite an expanse of skin. Adam moved in front of her, leaning on his shoulder against the wall.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Delara approach Nicoladze, smiling her warmest possible smile, but there was an edge to it that seemed... dangerous. Or seductive, she wasn’t sure which.
“I’ve been hoping to run into you.” Delara spoke across an open Infolink frequency, allowing the two agents across the room to listen in. “My name is Abby Blanchard, and this is Duncan. You must be Radich Nicoladze. I’ve heard you can get anything and find anyone, is that right?”
“Tarvos is eyeing us again,” Adam murmured, “and I think our quarry just looked.”
“I’m open to suggestions,” she told him, turning her head slightly away while letting a sly smile creep onto her lips. It wasn’t completely inappropriate, she knew. After all, they were playing a part, and the better it was played, the easier time of things they would have. The smile itself was still half-fake, though, as she felt a familiar tensing in her muscles that told her she was on a battlefield of sorts.
“Got one.” The words came out without his usual firmness. “Just... don’t hit me.”
The only possible scenario she could think of made her skin flush with heat all over again, pulse picking up a notch or two, as he closed the gap between them and rested an arm beside her shoulder, against the wall. When he began to lean in, she had a moment where she forgot how to breathe, her lungs suddenly strangling each other in her chest until it felt tight, heart leaping up into her throat and tongue suddenly knotted in her mouth. She had read enough romances to know it was a cliché older than she was, but had no idea it could actually happen.
His mouth came to hover close to her jaw, and just as she regained control of her breathing, he pressed his cheek to hers, shutting off that part of her brain all over again.
“Uh...” Words formed okay in her head, but toppled out like baby birds kicked out of the nest.
His beard felt softer than she had expected, and his skin slightly weathered, but pleasant against hers. She turned into him a little, breathing in the scent of a pleasant cologne and the faint tinge of roses laced in his skin, and raised her right hand to his chest, sliding it up to his shoulder. He felt so warm, so solid, and didn’t shy away, instead moving his other hand to her waist and encircling it with the sort of slow gentleness that belied his warrior’s nature.
“Tell me if I need to stop,” he whispered.
It was really difficult to remember they were working. “Yep,” she mumbled. Public displays of affection, no matter how fake, usually made people look away out of discomfort, herself included. If Tarvos or anyone else was eyeing them now, it was probably because they had a kink for it.
Nicoladze had been droning on for a bit, and when she risked a look his way, she noticed he had straightened and kept sneaking glances at lower sections of Delara’s dress. “Are the two of you together?” he finished just as she managed to pry her attention away from Adam for a few seconds.
“We are, and have been for a while. Things have been a little rough for us lately, but, hmm, we manage. There’s ways to get that sort of frustration out, isn’t there, Duncan?”
“Right, of course.” Mac sounded slightly caught off guard.
Adam’s lips brushed her jaw – tentatively, as though the shyness had returned – and her head reeled. He had to know what he was doing to her, and she also knew her body was betraying her, breathing deepening and heart still pounding, though not as fast as before. When she turned her head toward him, not really thinking about the action, she found his mouth close to hers a moment before he gave them a little distance. That realization sent her lips prickling, a sensation that quickly spread. Her body definitely expected a kiss, which just made her blush again.
“What...” she breathed. After a moment of gazing back at him, eyes locked, she regained control of her voice. “How much of this is pretending, Derrick?”
One eyebrow twitched slightly – all the answer she needed, even as he said, “Enough.”
Her eyes wandered to his lips. They were the color of a pale rose, surrounded by perfectly manicured, dark hair, framing a wide mouth that was just a little too much so for his face, but in an endearing rather than unpleasant way. Full, she thought, and inviting. How many times had she watched his lips as substitute for not being able to see his eyes? How many times had she wondered how they might feel?
“I’m not sharing my girlfriend, Nicoladze.” She barely heard Mac’s voice, so she let her eyes fall to Adam’s chest to pry her attention off him. “Besides, it looks like you’ve already got one. I don’t– Abby, what are you up to?”
“Jealous, are we, Duncan?”
“Look, I’m not jealous. I just don’t like you going...” Another pause; Aria glanced their direction to find Delara resting a hand on Nicoladze’s shoulders. The man had dressed in a charcoal-colored suit that worked surprisingly well with his hair and played nicely with Delara’s dress. “Now, you wait just–”
“Oh, come now, Duncan.” Delara spoke as though the whole thing were perfectly rehearsed – and perhaps it was, though Aria thought she caught hints of genuine annoyance in Mac’s tone – and moved her hand from Nicoladze’s shoulder to his arm. “It’s... well. It’s Radich Nicoladze. You can’t blame me for wanting just... a few minutes of his time, right?” Imbuing her voice with genuine-sounding awe, Delara tugged on his arm. “Just a few, okay?”
Mac sounded as though he were on the edge of reacting unpleasantly when he said, “Just a few, and I’ll be watching.”
Aria raised her eyebrows. “I honestly can’t tell if he’s for real.”
“Hard to tell with him. Should we move?”
Without thinking, she crossed her wrists behind his neck, making him have to move slightly closer. “Can see better from here,” she murmured in his ear as he once more pressed his cheek to hers. “Besides, we’re pretending, right?”
“Are you actually pretending?”
Startled by his serious tone, she pulled back enough to look at him. “I–”
“Ever since I came... here, you haven’t been able to take your eyes off me. You’re always kind, but you always seem to find a way to spend even a little time with me.”
Cold water replaced her blood. “Ad– Derrick, I didn’t... mean–”
A notch appeared between his brows, and he raised a hand to cradle her jaw. “I’m not bothered, Rosa. Really. And, hey, if it doesn’t make it hard for you to do your job, then there’s nothing anyone can say, right?”
She lifted her hands enough to slip her fingers in his hair, soft and warm. Everything about him was soft, she realized, and so very, very warm. Watching from afar and doing her best to dig up bits and pieces of him had been interesting enough, but here, for some reason, tonight... he seemed to reciprocate. If he was only pretending, he was doing such an amazing job that she had a hard time thinking it was in any way untrue.
Faking it or not, she had him in her arms, and he wasn’t trying to stop her. Quite the opposite, in fact, making her forget she was getting paid to do this.
His hand lingered a few beats too long, prompting him to lower it again while blinking rapidly a couple of times.
Another possibility came to her mind. “Are you okay?”
“Fine,” he muttered, but he wasn’t looking at her. “Just... try and stay focused.”
“I can’t see, you know. Bad angle.”
“You don’t have to, because I still can. Just, uh, not well.”
Beneath her fingers, she felt a shiver pass through his body. With a soft inhale, she wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled him close to her, feeling herself shaking when she did – just a job, just do your job, you’re pretending – but instead of pulling away or protesting, his arms wrapped around her waist and held her close. The front of her body was pressed to his, so solid beneath the sleek black fabric, flooding her with a warm, pleasant sensation. “Can you see now?”
“Yeah.” His voice was gentle in her ear. “Can see just fine.”
“What did I say about getting handsy, Romano? You’re going to give me nightmares.”
Through gritted teeth, she said, “Shut up, Duncan.”
“There’s getting into your role, and then there’s whatever you two are up to.”
She buried her face in Adam’s shoulder, shutting her eyes tight. “I am definitely slapping him later.”
Radich Nicoladze wasn’t a complicated man, Delara knew. He was like any arrogant criminal mastermind, thinking of himself before anything else, but in turn, that meant he lacked any real finesse. From what she knew, he had commanded the Dvali through fear, whereas Otar commanded through respect. Neither man was completely good, of course, but Otar was the lesser of the evils. Using the psychological profile dredged up both by herself and a few contacts, she had crafted an image of the man she danced with now.
She would never dare say Nicoladze was foolish, though. Arrogant and short-tempered, sure, but no fool. Poking his head out here was certainly questionable, but his face wasn’t well-known outside Europe. Even the Council hadn’t paid him any heed, finding his criminal empire not worth using for their own ends just yet.
Delara had carefully palmed the tracker out of a hidden pocket in her dress, tucked into the folds gathered up on her hip, and now held it behind his shoulder as she moved with him. It was a tiny chip that could be tucked between threads of fabric and forgotten, and the dark gray color would certainly help hide it, but she needed to find a way to get it in that wouldn’t end up with the chip on the floor and trodden upon.
“So, you and your... boyfriend, there,” the blond was saying, “have been together how long?”
“Almost a year now.” Her left hand gathered her dress, allowing it to sway around her legs as she moved. As long as she kept a smile on her face and her concentration on his words, she would be able to tug him any which way she wanted. If she played everything right, he might even take her to his room...
But no, that wouldn’t work. Mac had already made it quite clear he would be displeased, and from what she could tell, he wasn’t entirely pretending.
“He looks a little possessive. Too bad for him.” Nicoladze had a hand on her waist already, but now it crept further toward her spine. It didn’t concern her much – she had certainly encountered worse. She was beautiful, she knew it, everyone she met knew it – even when they didn’t agree, they could concede it was probably true – and that fact was always going to attract undue attention. “What is it about him?”
“He keeps me happy and satisfied,” she said firmly, “and I believe that’s all that matters, don’t you?”
“Yes. My women do that, and I take good care of the ones who do it best.”
For a moment, her mind flitted to the description Adam had provided of the Prague theater’s inner chambers, where evidence existed of these women being restrained for days in small, dimly-lit rooms, and she shivered. The Council and their subordinates did what they could and used whomever they could to accomplish their goals, but even she had to recoil at the idea of being kept in such an environment.
“Are you sure you wouldn’t want to talk in private, Miss Blanchard, away from your boyfriend?”
“Oh, he worries, but he means well. Besides, he’s quite good at what he does.” True enough – perhaps not in the way Nicoladze would be taking it, but she meant it all the same. She didn’t plan to find out firsthand if Mac actually was as good in bed as he sometimes boasted, after all. “Still, you are... quite stunning. It’s a tempting offer all the same.”
“If you insist, he could always come along.”
It took genuine effort to keep the smile on her face this time. “No, thank you, Mr. Nicoladze.”
“As you wish, and please, call me Radich.”
With a shift in the music came a change in the dance pattern; she moved her hand toward his collar, feigning having to hang on a bit, and the chip slipped through her fingers with a flick of her thumb. She felt it catch on the threads, and when it didn’t move any further, relief flooded her. It was done.
When they moved so that she faced Mac, she flicked two fingers up – the sign he acknowledged with an offhand nod, his eyes wandering elsewhere as he did so.
“If you insist,” she murmured, feeling quite pleased with herself, “Radich.”
Chapter 3: Part III
Really, really sorry about how long this one took to finish! That being said, I feel like I have a better handle on the flow of the fic now, so I expect things to go better from here on. Enjoy, and let me know what you think!
As the song changed to another one with a faster pace, Delara felt Radich move his hands further down her back, the sensation nearly snapping her concentration. Focusing on keeping a friendly face, she took his wrist with a gentle tug and moved it back up to her waist, then did the same with the other hand. The movement soured his expression, but she didn’t let it get to her, instead just smiling a little wider and adding a touch of cheekiness for good measure.
It wasn’t the first time she had needed to get almost uncomfortably close to a man to do her job, but she always tried to keep what happened next on her own terms. No one had ever succeeded in taking that away from her.
The chip was planted. That had been by far the hardest part, and she’d done it.
As she glanced at Duncan, she noticed him making his way toward them. “I’ve enjoyed this, Radich,” she said, “but it looks like my partner is a little... perturbed. It was–”
Radich’s grip bit into her waist. “What does his opinion matter?”
Immediately, she felt her expression darken, the smile disappearing. “A little pain goes a long way,” she said, “but not in this instance. You really don’t have much–”
“I’ve seen how you behave around him. Don’t you th–”
“That’s enough of that, thank you,” was Duncan’s addition to the conversation, shouldering his way between them. Before she could react, he gripped her arm and forced her back, doing the same to Radich. Once he had pushed them to the ends of both arms, he glared between them, his dark eyes fierce.
Delara hesitated, thoughts and words dying before they could get any further. Duncan was supposed to be pretending they were together, and he could be convincing, she could already tell, as long as she steered him when he faltered.
Could he also fake that look in his eyes?
“That’s quite enough, Nicoladze,” MacReady growled at the other man. “She is not for sharing.”
“Duncan, please...” She tugged, finding his grip light enough to easily slip out of, and noted that wasn’t true for the other man. “I could have taken care of this. You always do this.” She injected as much venom as she could muster into her words – an easy task, as some of it was very real. Though she had only spoken to him twice before, one of which had been a debrief after Apex Centre, they hadn’t exactly come away as friends.
“I’m always doing this?” Duncan slung back around to glare at her, but didn’t release Radich. The blond man had a severe look she didn’t like. “Are you daft? You’re the one always going on and trying to get me jealous! You’ve not a mind as to how I feel about all of it, so why don’t you just leave this to me and let me deal with it?”
Delara quickly parsed the words and tone. The double meaning was buried, but it was there. “And this is what I mean. You can’t just let it go, can you? I already told him no. We’re in the clear, so it’s... fine, okay?”
A brief softening of his brow told her he understood. “Now, look–”
“Duncan, don’t make a scene, not in public.”
That at least made him hesitate, before he continued in a quieter voice. “Oh, is that what this is about? Is that it? You want to wait until there’s no one watching before we start in on each other? Well, sorry to be the–”
“Duncan, take your frustration out on me later, please.”
Immediately, he stopped mid-sentence, mouth hanging open a moment longer, before it shut, and he looked back at her in unreadable silence for a few beats.
Her partner’s eyes were in a permanent squint, lined by weathering and age, crow’s feet and evidence of hard living etched into every inch of his face. Those eyes, though, were fierce and full of feeling, the intensity in their depths impossible to read. He didn’t have what she would consider a conventionally attractive face at all, but as she gazed back at him, it would be an outright lie to say he was actually unpleasant to look at.
There were, at least, far worse people she could have been partnered with. He was the least of the evils.
Without meaning to, she said, “Duncan?”
He released Radich at last and seized her hand, pulling her deeper into the crowd on the dance floor. She went without hesitation, grateful for any excuse to get away from their target. His hand felt strong against hers, a welcome flash of warmth in a difficult situation. Though this wasn’t the first time she had gone undercover to deal with a priority target, or had to navigate the intricacies of the high-society social sphere, it was always good to take moments here and there to reassess her environment.
“There a reason you’re looking to get yourself in trouble?”
Delara looked away from him, narrowly keeping the full extent of her exasperation off her face. A twinge of it tracked with the appearance she was going for, but letting too much slip through would spell trouble. She knew the Tarvos guards were watching all of them, and wondered if they recognized her partner from Apex.
“You need to relax,” she told him firmly.
“That...” He snarled out a word that would have made a sailor blush profusely, and made her snap her attention back fully to him. “Look, I know what you’re getting at, and what you’re trying to do, but he doesn’t need to be involved. You danced, you flirted, he groped, we’re done, right?”
She sighed. “We’re done,” she said, somehow keeping the rhythm of the dance up even while she glared at him.
He squinted. “And what’s that look for, now?”
Under that withering visage, her ferocity faltered. “Thanks for getting me out of that. It’s... appreciated. I could’ve handled it, but, you, ah... you made it easier to get away.”
A pause hung between them a moment before he finally said, “Sure.”
As they moved together on the floor, she let her gaze wander around the room, taking in her surroundings, yet not being able to help keeping one eye on her partner. Her previous meetings had cast him as an unpleasant, taciturn man who held too much near the surface. It all painted a picture of a yes-sir military sort harboring a lot of resentment. Seeing him play this part so well, convincing Radich – and herself – that his jealous concern had been completely real, made her think there had to be more than she had initially perceived with him.
She found a Tarvos guard in the far corner and caught him looking at them; she tried not to be obvious about not meeting his eyes, but couldn’t ignore the way her skin prickled with nerves.
Duncan ducked his head close to the side of hers. Remembering the appearances they had to keep up, she let him do it. The feeling of his arm around her waist was strangely comforting – maybe just as a reminder that she wasn’t alone, or maybe it really had been that long since she’d been anywhere near a man’s arms.
“They know something we don’t, Abby?” he murmured.
Her brow twitched as she watched the other guards out of her peripheral vision. “You saw too, huh?”
“Yeah. How’re the other two getting along?”
With a flicker of curiosity, she turned her attention to the other pair of agents. Not to her surprise, she saw them still in the corner, and still in each other’s arms, though not as close together as they had been before. Aria’s behavior around Adam had been obviously affectionate from the first time she’d seen them interact, and Adam’s behavior in turn had been rather shy. Any outside observer with half a mind toward skill could see the chemistry prickling between them, but it never went anywhere, content to snap in the air between them forever.
Until tonight, it seemed, where pretense could cover their awkward attempts to satiate the longing.
She had long filed all of this away for later use. If it ever came down to it, their relationship, whatever it was, could be used as leverage to exert pressure. Adam was still only human, and this, combined with all the other knowledge she had of him, could be useful when the time came.
But all she said in response was a nonchalant, “Well enough, looks like.”
“Then we keep on.” In a single smooth motion, he spun her out and moved away from the center of the crowd, drifting toward the far side closer to the buffet area. Delara had years of classical and ballroom dance training under her belt, having found it useful for the high societies she normally worked, so she immediately recognized the easy grace as evidence that he, too, had plenty of practice, as well. Something else to surprise her.
“Security, right.” She breathed words just as she brushed past him again, only to find his hand moving down her arm and across her waist – part of the dance, of course, hardly unexpected. “Guards in every corner,” she added as she faced him again, a hand in his and the other on his shoulder. “The Shard has a lot of them tonight. And something else.”
One eyebrow twitched. “Yeah?”
“I don’t think Radich is alone.” Shifting her gaze again, she scanned the crowd, aware of the still-open Infolink channel that let Adam and Aria hear everything they said. “Someone like him wouldn’t be here alone. Did we have any info on that?”
“Just that it’s possible, but it would make a lot of sense.”
“That makes this more complicated.” As the weight of knowledge pressed down on her, she felt her expression sour for an instant before catching it again. “After this song, I need some refreshment.”
“That...” A pause, then, with obvious restraint, “...man has been watching you this whole time. He’s quite taken.”
“He can look all he wants, but you still have my heart first, of course.”
Duncan looked unamused. “Of course.”
“What exactly is your issue with Radich? He obviously bothers you.”
“He’s...” Her partner’s lips worked a few moments, as though struggling to find and hang onto words that were appropriate for their surroundings. “Men like him are never good news to have around, and excuse me if I feel like being a gentleman around my lady. That alright with you?”
That answer didn’t totally satisfy her, but it would do for now. “Whatever you say.”
The song finally ended, and as it rolled into another, she led him off the floor to the buffet. Some of the food had been replaced, while a few empty plates waited patiently to be taken away. At the sight of a beautiful arrangement of ice-cold fruits, she released his hand and focused instead on the clean snap of peach fibers under her teeth, letting the bright wash of flavor clear her mind long enough to quiet her nerves.
“Not a bad selection.” Duncan studied the plate for a while before plucking a strawberry from the outermost circle, turning it over, and biting into it up to the stem. She watched, amused, as he chewed, swallowed, looked pleased, and went for another. “Feels good to be back in London.”
“Come from here originally?”
“No, but you knew that already, or didn’t I tell you?”
“Ah.... right. Yes, you’re right, I forgot.” It had been a while since she had last opened his personal file, but she could still remember a few details she hadn’t shuffled away. “Just... trying to make small talk, here, Duncan.”
“But we’ve moved far past that point, haven’t we now?”
She lifted an eyebrow. “A long time ago.” She could keep up the narrative all night, if that’s what it took, even if some of the images it conjured in her mind weren't entirely welcome ones. At the very least, he was behaving himself, and there were worse people she could have partnered with for this – like the stone-faced Aug in the corner, for example, who seemed to exist for the sole purpose of annoying her.
A waiter in a beautiful waistcoat passed her, offering a tray of champagne out to her. Her tolerance for alcohol now very high, she knew one or two wouldn’t do much to her anymore, so she took a glass with a quiet “thank you” and inhaled its scent. An expensive, quality brand she recognized from years of social gatherings and parties for the exceptionally wealthy, one that felt sweet on her tongue and smarted with the kind of gentle bite she liked.
As she scanned the crowds, she saw Radich looking her way, the brunette on his arm apparently forgotten. The champagne felt a little flat on her tongue at the sight, but she kept her face blank.
Beside her, Duncan had a neutral expression, but she could see the irritation in his eyes, knew he had seen Radich, and by now, she couldn’t blame his reactions. The sensation she got in Radich’s presence was nothing good, and she could tell from the way his eyes roved that he had nothing honorable in mind. She could handle herself, but the idea of unwanted hands in sensitive places made a chill creep down her spine.
Across the room, the other two agents had finally untangled themselves from each other and now stood close together, but not touching anymore, looking out over the room. They certainly made a visually appealing pair, with Aria’s flowing red dress and Adam’s sleek black suit.
Delara looked at Duncan’s well-tailored silver suit, admiring the craftsmanship. The cost of it had to be sky-high, and he wore it well, as though he had done this countless times.
“He doesn’t suspect anything, I think,” he muttered, “but I wouldn’t push our luck.”
“Agreed,” she said, “considering what’s left to do here.” She swished the champagne around a moment before taking another sip. “There’s a lot of couples almost dangling off each other around here. We’re... kind of standing out by not doing any of that.” It was true, as she found many couples with arms around each other or close together all around, whether it be for the night or forever. “I guess there’s a reason, though.”
Duncan looked at her from the plate of fruits and cheeses, all cut into appealing shapes and arranged prettily on the well-polished dinnerware. “Might be good to change it up, yeah?”
She reminded herself this was a job, first and foremost. “Might do well for our relationship, sure.” Waving a hand, she directed him toward the far end of the buffet. Numerous other couples were standing near the wall there, but all spaced out just enough to give each other a semblance of privacy.
She turned off the open channel on the Infolink and stepped close to her partner, still holding the glass cupped in one hand while she lowered her forehead into his shoulder. He didn’t react, which she took as a good sign. At the very least, he felt solid – an anchor to reality. “So, what’s left that we need to do here? The hard part is done.” This close together, they could easily talk without being overhead.
“Hard part, you say. No, the hard part is dealing with the suite. If he’s got watchdogs, it’s a problem.” When he spoke, his voice resonated through his chest and into her own body, the strong, deep tones quite appealing. At least she could blame it on the champagne. “I don’t think we’re doing this quietly.”
“Oh, I agree.” Lifting her head, she looked up through her lashes at him, hoping he got the hint. When his hand encircled her waist, she knew he had, giving her the opening she needed to turn her head and rest it against his shoulder, a little higher than before, face turned toward him. “If we try to drag him out of here, it’ll be a mess. The guards will be all over us.” Her free hand smoothed up and down his arm.
The sensation of wiry strength and twitch of tendons beneath the suit didn’t surprise her, considering what she knew about him, and the suit felt sleek and pleasant against her skin. Even the sound of her hand traveling across the fabric was nice to hear, so she kept at it for a bit, using it to cover their speech a little more.
“Been thinking about that, actually. Got to be another way.”
She closed her eyes. “You said security is totally centralized, so we can’t just do that, right?” He encircled her waist with both arms now, and then, seemingly unaware of it, swayed a little to the music. “We might have to take on the entire floor.”
“Easy enough once we track him to the suite, yeah. Got the tracker here. Just have to pass the time until he finally gets a mind to leave. Could take a while.” A pause, then, “He’s looking again.”
She sighed. “He can look all he wants.”
“You sure you can handle him?”
“More than sure, Duncan. Let’s just say this... how does the saying go? Isn’t my first rodeo?” Lifting her head, she looked at him again. “I’ll say this, though: us being together won’t faze him at all, but we might be able to use that.” Woven into the threads of the suit was a warm, earthy scent, somehow being exactly the type of cologne she’d expect someone like him to wear. Maybe the champagne was getting to her, after all. “He’ll probably try to drag me off to his suite.”
“Which doesn’t do us a lot of good now,” he muttered. “And there’s no way I'm letting that happen.”
She frowned. “He’s not... you’re worried about him doing ‘something’, then?”
“Better safe than sorry with men like him. Besides, getting close isn’t necessary anymore. We got the first part done.” He glanced to his left. “Oh, good, he’s coming over here with that trophy hanging off his arm.”
Delara took another, longer sip of the champagne, then set the glass down and wrapped both arms around her partner’s neck.
“Abby, glad to see you’re still around tonight.”
She looked at Radich and sized him up. He looked a little more lively than before, and had turned all of his attention to her. Instinctively, she dug her fingers into her partner’s suit, if only to restrain herself from saying or doing something that could give them away. While she was no agent, she had enough skill to stay out of trouble, but unveiling that skill could disrupt the narrative she had been feeding to the entirety of TF29.
“For a while longer,” she said, offering a small, polite smile. With so many choices of alcohol around, she knew he had to have ingested more of it just in the span of time between now and their last encounter. While that didn’t make him exactly dangerous, it did mean he had started approaching a point of no return, where increasingly impaired judgment could end up compromising their entire operation tonight.
“Good.” He looked between the two of them. “My companion, Sasha, and I were just admiring the atmosphere. So many interesting things to see, and so much beauty. You two have been very entertaining.”
Sasha smiled. “Are you enjoying yourselves?”
“I can see what you’re after,” Duncan said before she could, “and the answer hasn’t changed. No sharing.”
“Sharing is the best part of a gathering like this. Besides, you aren’t on the same page. That much is very clear. Wouldn't you rather spend time with someone who enjoys what you like, Abby?”
She fell back into the narrative. “Half the fun is in the clash. We have a reason to make up later.”
Duncan’s arms tightened. “Don’t you have something else you could be doing?”
Radich looked amused. “Yes, I do. I simply want her to join.”
The hint of a dangerous undertone came through when Duncan said, “No deal.”
She looked at him, startled by what she heard. This, she could tell, went beyond just playing a part. For one reason or another, Duncan had a personal issue with Radich, one he refused to let slip to her. Maybe later, when this was all over and she had to debrief, he would be willing to tell her. For now, her curiosity gnawed at her, triggering the analytical part of her mind to dissect his every word and action.
Their quarry interrupted her wanderings with a humorless bark of a laugh. “That makes it more interesting.”
“Maybe later,” she offered, leaning back a little from her partner.
“There won’t be a later.”
Her eyes returned to his. “Again with this. Why can’t you just–” Then, she cut herself off, instead letting herself sigh as though deeply annoyed, and looked back at Radich. “Tell you what, Radich. You tell me the suite number, and I’ll discuss it with my partner here. Does that sound like a good deal?”
Not to her surprise, he looked quite pleased. “Thirty-eighth floor, room 205. I plan on retiring soon, so don’t disappoint me.” He patted Sasha’s arm. “Or my companion here.”
Duncan had a blank expression she found amusing, but she focused on Radich and nodded. “I’ll be there if that’s what we decide to do. Should I just knock, then?”
“Yes. If you’re up to it, come by in about two hours.”
Half of her couldn’t believe their good fortune. While they still had to deal with security after the fact, and of course the initial issue of getting Radich to begin with, they now had an easy way into the suite – and better yet, she wouldn’t be going in alone, instead taking a highly-trained agent in with her.
“I’ll be there if I can convince my jealous partner here to opt in,” she said with a smile.
Their quarry gave her a smile that came off predatory. “I look forward to hearing the good news,” he said, and walked off again with Sasha still attached to his arm.
The moment he was out of earshot, she groaned and dropped her head against Duncan’s chest.
“Everything about that is bad,” he muttered, “but I have to say, good job on actually accomplishing that. Still leaves the issue of getting back out, but at least now we have an in.”
Lifting her head, she gave him a tired half-smile. “That just begs the question of what to do once we get there.”
“That chip might still be useful, yeah.”
She nodded. “If he slips away, at least we’ll be able to follow him. Now, we just have to wait.” Opting to leave her champagne where it was for now, she faced the dance floor, but kept her arm around his waist, the other hand resting on her hip. Nothing would faze Radich, unfortunately, but at least they blended in better under the watchful eyes of the Tarvos guards that shuffled their way around the outer perimeter of the room. Leaning against Duncan’s torso, she took a moment to toy with her hair, running her fingers through it.
She felt something lightly tug a piece of it away from her ear and tuck it behind; she looked at her partner to see him gazing back at her, utterly stone-faced. “You should wear it down at work,” he said. “Looks good.”
To go with her deep blue dress, she had laid down a layer of nude lipstick and blended into it a creamy pink liquid lipstick, giving her lips a two-tone look that made them look a little fuller than they were – easy to do, being as they were already a bit unseemly for her tastes. When she smiled at him, she knew it looked good, and wondered if she had managed to find just the right combination to break through even his barriers.
“Thanks. It’s usually just easier to leave it up, but, ah... maybe I will, one of these days.”
She felt a slight tug as he wound a piece of it around his fingers – not tight, but enough that she could feel all of it. “Not all that thick, but lots of it. Good for holding onto, yeah?”
The makeup couldn’t totally conceal her blush. “Yes, I’m... I’m sure it serves that purpose, too.” Pause. “Actually, last I checked with you, it served that purpose all too well.” For a moment, unbidden, the image of him doing exactly what he was insinuating wandered into her head before she shoved it back out. Under no circumstances was she prepared to let that thought incubate longer than it needed to.
“And will be again, and hopefully not with that...” His mouth worked a moment before he opted for, “...man.”
“The only man who will be pulling on my hair is you, Duncan. Don’t worry.” She smirked, enjoying the uncomfortable look that flitted across his features, but noted curiously that it didn’t linger as long as it had before. He really had settled into his role, then, and done it far better than expected.
Then he bent toward her, momentarily surprising her, and tipped her chin up toward him. “He better not.”
And before she could think of a single reason this was a thing that shouldn’t happen, his mouth landed on hers, sending every square inch of her lips and tongue prickling in response. Though she quickly gathered her thoughts, she let it happen, and even responded – for show, of course – by applying just a little pressure in return. For the briefest of moments, her lips parted, deepening the kiss, before he pulled back.
It had lasted a few beats longer than strictly necessary, yet she couldn’t help feeling a little disappointed. It had been a long, long time since she’d been kissed, and they always did feel so good.
Even, she thought grudgingly, coming from him.
“Because I’d really rather not go sharing,” he continued, dropping his hand away from her face. “And if I have to pry his hands off you, I can’t guarantee he gets to keep them. Haven’t forgotten the theater.”
The pit of her stomach turned over. “Neither have I, Duncan,” she murmured. “Believe me. Neither have I.”
Aria had to hand it to her eternally-irritable team leader and the psychologist who had been assigned to accompany him. The part they were playing felt entirely convincing, and if she let her mind drift long enough, she could almost feel the prickle of real chemistry between them. Such a thing wasn’t possible, of course. From what she knew of them, there was no way they could ever mesh well together. It would be a disaster slow in coming, the two of them too strong-minded and too analytical to ever be able to turn it all off for the sake of fun.
Still, she had to admit they looked good together, and, strange as it was to see, she enjoyed watching MacReady loosen up enough to actually look as though he had finally relaxed.
“Not sure they’re pretending.”
She looked at Adam, feeling her brow wrinkle. “They are,” she said. “They’re just really good at it.”
He shifted his weight, moving closer to her. “Yeah, right. So, you see the Tarvos guards? Notice they’ve been looking over here a few times tonight?” Another shift of his weight, and his arm brushed hers; she wound her own around it, happy for any excuse to be close to him again. “Think they recognize me.”
She stretched up on her toes to reach his shoulder. “So they might recognize him, too. Are we in trouble?”
“Don’t think so, but I wouldn’t let my guard down if I were you.”
“Wouldn’t think of it.” She toyed with her dress a moment, trying not to let her mind drift again. Whenever it did, all she could think about was the sensation of his arms around her waist, the brush of his lips against her jaw, heat and strength and the feeling of a man she hadn’t known in so long. “Should we go back out– oh, wait, here they come.”
Circling around the dance floor came Delara and MacReady, arm in arm, both of them looking far more relaxed than when they had first arrived. Her deep blue dress, with its cluster of glittering diamonds at the hip, combined well with the sleek, soft silver of his suit, looking as though the two of them had stepped out of an old film from long ago. It didn’t surprise her that Delara could look so elegant, but MacReady still amazed her with how well he cleaned up and fit into a setting like this. Sure, he wore an expensive suit every day to work, but that was one thing.
He looked like he was used to this sort of atmosphere, like it didn’t faze him to be surrounded by untold riches and the nose-in-the-air sensation of millionaires and billionaires.
What kind of upbringing had he experienced that could put him so at ease here?
A question for another day, she figured.
“So,” Delara said as she stopped in front of them, speaking in a voice low enough to hide under the din from anyone but the four of them, “I have good news. Radich invited us to his suite, and gave us the number for it. All I, or rather ‘we’, have to do is knock.” One eyebrow went up. “I think he’s expecting a foursome with that woman, Sasha. He’s not going to get it.”
“Not the way he hopes, anyway,” was MacReady’s comment.
“Then that takes care of hunting down where he’s at,” Adam responded, “but still leaves the problem of what comes after. We can get in, but getting him out...” A sigh escaped him as he shook his head. “Every floor is going to be under heavy surveillance, and there will be Tarvos everywhere. We have to play this right.”
“Can’t go off half-cocked on this one, yeah,” MacReady said. “First, got to get into the suite. Probably have some goons in there, so got to take them out first. If you watch the exit, and he makes a break for it, catch him. He gets out anyway, we track him.” He patted a pocket on his suit; Aria assumed it held his pocket secretary. “We also need to be careful with the cameras. They’ll be everywhere. Intel indicated at least one at each end of the corridor.”
“And they’re no doubt high-res.” Adam ran a hand across his hair.
“Right. You and Ar– Rosa here take care of the cameras and guards. We’ll have to time it all, or by the time we leave the suite, every alarm in the hotel will be going off. Interpol or not, it’s a mess. The London division will need to play good cop when we’re all done no matter what, but let’s not add collateral damage, yeah?”
Adam gave a wry smile. “Not unless they shoot first.”
“No casualties. They’re just doing their job. Assume Tarvos isn’t the bad guy here. Nicoladze is.” He looked over his shoulder at the crowd. “Once Nicoladze is in custody, we need to extract him to the parking garage. There will be an agent waiting there to take him to the London HQ. Not worried about Tarvos, but if he’s got any private guards, they’ll do what they can to stop us, obviously, and can’t say I blame them.”
Adam nodded, then glanced between them. “Delara, can you handle yourself in there?”
The brunette nodded. “This isn’t my first rodeo, as the saying goes. I’ll be fine. You worry about whoever tries to stop us, because at the very least, they’ll have to go through Duncan.”
“And he does hit pretty hard,” Aria said with a small smile. “You’ll definitely be fine. So, what now?”
“Now...” Delara sidled up a little closer to her partner, hand resting perfectly on his forearm. “...we just need to kill an hour or so, until Radich finally leaves. Though, if he’s smart, he won’t get drunk out of his mind, just a little tipsy. Enough to add a little spark to the, ah, last of the night’s festivities.”
Aria nodded, then thought of something. “What’s the suite number? We can scope it out.”
“Not a bad idea,” her partner offered, and she smiled again.
“Two-oh-five,” MacReady said. “That puts him two floors above us. Be careful, though – if you’re not supposed to be up there, and the guards or surveillance catch you snooping, there’s going to be trouble. TF29 already discussed all of this with Shard security, but I can’t guarantee they disseminated everything down properly.”
“We’ve got this.” For a moment, she felt his fingers twine with hers, and though the sensations she felt with her synthetic arm weren't on par with her organic one, it still triggered a feeling of pleasant anxiety. When his fingers closed around her hand, she reminded herself it was for show. When this op was over, they would go back to being friends and colleagues, and it would be like none of it ever happened. “We’ll go up soon.”
“Good. Feed me the intel. Delara, stay patched into the frequency.” This close together, and with so much noise around them, using real names wouldn’t hurt. “Give me everything you can find when you do.”
“We’ll make a pass by the buffet again, and then I’ve got an idea for getting into the hotel. Should keep suspicion off us as long as we need.” She tugged on Adam’s arm, drawing a brief and curious look, to which she only smirked. The expression dripped with mischief, and only half of it was put on. “Come on and trust me, okay?”
Again, he sighed, but not in a malicious way. “Wouldn’t dream of doing otherwise,” he murmured, and followed when she led him away from the wall and across the floor.
Chapter 4: Part IV
The buffet extended from one side of the massive gathering hall to the other, filled with dishes from all over the world, and some Aria had never seen before. Temperature-controlled plates bore hot foods over small, open flames, or kept others frozen among ice that rippled with discreet, color-changing lighting. A huge plate bearing some of the most beautifully-wrapped dumplings she had ever seen drew her eye, and she momentarily forgot that she dragged her partner along when she went straight for them.
Only when she stopped and plucked one up with a toothpick – or skewer, she wasn’t too sure which – did she hear Adam snort in amusement beside her.
“I haven’t eaten in hours,” she offered as explanation, then took a bite of the dumpling. It was cooked perfectly, still being plenty warm enough when she bit into it, containing minced vegetables and a spiced meat that seemed to melt on her tongue – a perfect storm of flavor that sent every nerve briefly tingling.
He slipped his arm off hers, momentarily disappointing her, but that only lasted until she felt it loop around her waist, as casually as though he had done it a hundred times. The shiver that shot up her spine was one that embarrassed her, but she forced that aside to instead focus on the actual moment. The crushing power she knew hid bound up in that arm was totally at rest, applying only just enough pressure to cradle her at his side, and it felt soft, gentle, a caress of sleek fabric and the heat of his augs. Protective. Affectionate.
Taking a risk, she turned toward him, briefly pressing her forehead to his jaw. His beard was silky soft and perfectly manicured, just like the rest of him, and felt wonderfully inviting against her skin.
“Now we blend in,” she muttered.
She heard a soft huff of amusement. “So tell me, what exactly did you have in mind?”
Acutely aware of their proximity to the partygoers, she quickly dug back into the narrative. “The rooms are supposed to be real nice, and very private. Soundproofed and everything.” The corner of her lips quirked before she suppressed the smirk and took another bite of the dumpling. After swallowing, she continued, “I want to take a look before we decide where we’ll stay for the evening. You know, if you can keep your hands off that long.”
The pause that followed her words hung heavy with some emotion she couldn’t quite figure out, right before he turned his head and murmured against her temple, “No promises.”
It took a second for her head to stop swimming. “Try, anyway,” she teased, then finishing off her dumpling. The memory of questioning how real all of this was rang in her mind, but she forced herself not to dwell on it.
The only belief she could cling to while keeping her sanity was that he was just very, very good at pretending.
She dropped the toothpick-skewer in a bin of used ones, then looked back at him in time to find his face hovering very close to hers. For a moment, no words would come.
Thankfully, he spoke first. “You’ve got a thought on how to do this?”
She pulled him close enough that his chest came within inches of her own; his right hand smoothed up her natural arm and left a trail of heat in its wake. “I do,” she said, keeping her voice low and their faces close. Through some miracle, she kept her wits, and her eyes fixed on his. “If the rooms are soundproofed, you know what they'll be used for. This is one of the nicest hotels in London, and we’re at a gala with an excess of alcohol and, well...”
“Amorous couples. I get it.” His voice came out much softer than she was used to, and she could feel the whisk of his breath over her skin. He was so close. “You want an excuse to go up?”
Again, she was thankful for the foundation dampening her blush. “I’m not planning to actually do anything, but at least it’ll make a good cover for going up there.” Pause. “Well, I take that back. We’ll have to do something to make it look like we’re going up there for a reason.”
His hands tightened on her waist, pulling her even closer to him. With their bodies now together, it was awkward to keep their faces at the same angle, so she looked up at him, still staying close. Her eyes drifted to his mouth, still so close to hers, tantalizing in ways that made her skin prickle.
There was no point in denying, not to herself, how much her body craved a kiss.
“Then... I have your permission?”
“To...?” The word escaped her as she understood what he meant, and now her lips were prickling. Telling him he had what he sought would mean the line between pretending and not would blur even further, and maybe they risked it vanishing altogether. But if this was going to work, treading carefully wasn’t an option. “You do,” she said, and exhaled, feeling a weight lift off her shoulders. There. No more guessing games.
Then her mind wound itself up into a maelstrom when he dropped his head to her neck, nuzzling the skin there and sending a flood of pleasure through her body. This time, it was hard to claim “pretense”, not with the way he explored like a starving man, how his arms enveloped her waist, how his hands moved up her back.
With surprising effort, she pinned down her thoughts. Tipping her chin to bring her mouth close to his ear, she said, “It makes people uncomfortable and gives us reason to wander off together. Think anyone recognizes you?”
“Had that thought, actually.” This close, he could keep his voice dangerously low, lips brushing her neck; she gritted her teeth to stop the inappropriate noise that would no doubt accompany any exhale. “Been all over where Tarvos pulls security detail, so I know they’ve seen me. Like in the Blade. Obviously, got different clothes on, shields down, but... it’s a risk.”
That was enough to remind her of the stakes. “And Shard security?”
“Wouldn’t count on it.”
“What, you think Tarvos might be dirty?”
The derisive huff of breath against her neck was all the answer she needed. “Interpol talked with them, but I’m not gonna count on backup, and neither should you. That’s not even going into the last time we were here.”
Remembering the extensive debrief and all the gritty details he had shared with her, she looked around the room a moment. Any of the guards could be dirty, and she doubted Nicoladze would travel without a security detail.
Her first instincts had been correct – this was a battlefield, unusual though it was.
“Okay, well...” Though she didn’t want to, she applied a little pressure to his chest, and he immediately made space between them, one arm dropping away while the other stayed on her waist. “Best keep an eye out, I guess.” She didn’t move out of his grip as she turned back to the buffet, practically forcing him to stay with her, but he didn’t seem to mind. When she glanced at him, she noted alert eyes and an expression neutral on the surface, but tinged with warmth over the top of a layer of careful watchfulness.
Those cop instincts continued to serve him years after the fact, it seemed. She understood the feeling. It wasn’t something that could just be turned off. It led to always facing the doors and windows, constant awareness, hyper-vigilance in crowds, wariness of narrow spaces.
The only reason she had any trouble now lay exclusively in her attraction to the agent in the sleek black suit, and if she wasn’t careful, it could cost them both.
Aria turned back to the buffet and exhaled, getting a grip on her bearings.
Eventually, his arm slid off her waist, and he joined her in perusing the foods on offer. Having grown up completely middle class, she surreptitiously watched those around her to see how she was supposed to eat, feeling relief once she saw that most of them piled up their plates and ate however seemed best. Using a plate she knew had to be made of real silver, she chose more of the dumplings, a salad she couldn’t fully identify, a small bowl of cold noodles, and strips of grilled fish marked as “Chilean sea bass”. The amount of wealth on display everywhere – from the silver plates to the skillful arrangements to the expensive food – made her feel a little nervous and out of place.
When she noticed a plate of beautifully cut, brightly-colored fruits interspersed with pink-hued diamonds, she felt even more out of place than ever. She didn’t know or care enough about gemstones to know what pink diamonds were worth, but seeing them so casually tossed on a plate made her wonder if they weren't that valuable.
She bumped into someone in a floor-length red gown, deeper and richer in color than hers, and apologized, receiving a practiced smile and “you’re totally fine” in response. Only then did she step back and start picking through her meal, trying not to eat too quickly, but also feeling hunger gnaw at her, reminding her once more how long it had been. She hadn’t been able to keep much down ahead of time, but now that her anxiety had faded, she wanted nothing more than to eat.
Her partner stood beside her, also with a loaded plate. “I almost hate to eat it,” he muttered.
“It’s too pretty to destroy, right?” She smirked and gently elbowed his waist. “Rich people food.”
He picked up a dumpling and examined it a moment before taking a bite. The crunch of veggies accompanied the motion; he momentarily stopped, looking puzzled, before pulling back. Bits of the dumpling fell back onto the plate; amusement filled her at the sight of his irritated glance.
As she proceeded to dig into the noodles, the band finished off their song, and a bit of applause from across the room drew her interest. The applause spread, polite and genuine, until almost everyone in the crowded room had gotten their fill. At the top of the stairs they had come down earlier stood a man and a woman, both of them light-skinned and dark-haired, but their features hard to make out at this distance.
“You’re kidding,” Adam muttered beside her. “That’s Talwar and Oshiro.”
The names sounded familiar; it took her a moment to recall what they were famous for. “Palisade,” she said. “And of course they’re dressed impeccably.”
True to their status, both of them were dressed in a manner befitting the massive wealth she knew they had. Oshiro wore a sleek suit in a contemporary Japanese style, while Talwar wore a floor-length, jade-green dress splashed with gemstone blues that trailed behind her as she moved. While momentarily surprised at their appearance, she dismissed that thought right away. This was a party for the wealthiest of the world’s elite, and it would be a surprise for them not to show up and rub elbows with other elites.
Aria tilted her head as they came closer, practically parting the crowd and no doubt heading for the buffet. They shook hands and made obeisance as they moved, with polite smiles and the glint of light off jewelry. Beside Delara, she’d already felt rather mousy, and before the older, elegant woman striding toward them with such confidence, she felt as though she didn’t belong in the same room.
That thought must have somehow manifested physically, because she felt her partner’s arm around her waist again and the faint pressure of a reassuring squeeze.
To her mild surprise, she watched Nicoladze move forward out of the crowd, the brunette still on his arm, and shake hands with both of them. Maybe here, the lines between “the elite” and “criminal masterminds” were totally blurred... or maybe they didn’t want to be hypocritical, if even half of what Adam had once told her – quietly, away from everyone else, with a low voice and back turned to the crowds – was true.
She noticed that the two had their arms linked, and Talwar stroked her husband’s arm with the sort of subconscious sweeps of the hand that told her it was completely natural.
“I haven’t decided yet.” Nicoladze spoke with an air of self-importance dangling off his words; she distracted herself by going for another dumpling. “It all depends on... other circumstances outside my control.” They came right up to the buffet; she sidestepped instinctively, and Adam moved with her, his grip tightening. “I’ll let Palisade know as soon as I do. Ah, you two were talking to Abby and Duncan. Have we met?”
Aria looked up at him. “We haven’t,” she said. That, at least, was perfectly true. “You’re Radich Nicoladze, right?”
She didn’t like the way he looked her over, eyes bright with some devious thought that made her tense. “I am. Will you two be joining us this evening?”
“Not tonight, no. Thanks for the offer, but we...” She glanced at her partner. “...have our own plans.”
“I remember those days.” It was Talwar who spoke this time, and when she looked, she found the other woman gazing back at her with a soft smile. “Masaaki and I certainly had our share of delightful evenings.” Again, she stroked his arm, and he leaned a little closer with a soft chuckle. “I should probably introduce myself. Ashani Talwar, CEO of Palisade Property, though you probably already knew that. Our likeness is plastered all over Palisade Square.” She laughed quietly. “And you are, if you don’t mind?”
“Ah... Rosa, and this is Derrick.” She gestured, then took Talwar’s hand when it was offered. The other woman didn’t even seem to notice the augmentation.
“Derrick and Rosa. You make a lovely couple. How long together?”
This time, Adam spoke up. “A little over a year,” he said, fingers stroking the curve of her waist.
Talwar smiled wider, and it didn’t look the least bit fake. “This is a lovely party, but why are you two wasting your energy down in it? I can already tell you’d rather be anywhere else, as long as it’s together.” She looked at her husband, then back at them. “I’m sure you have a suite. Make use of it.”
“We will, soon.” Her partner snorted softly. “Very soon. Looking forward to it.”
“Sasha and I will have our own fun tonight,” Nicoladze interjected, indicating the brunette by sliding his hand up and down her side. She smirked at him, blue eyes full of mischief. “And you two, as well?”
“We have an executive suite we’ll be making use of, yes.” Oshiro spoke this time, reaching out to a tray to snag a glass of champagne. He drank from it before continuing. “First, we have to make the rounds. Part of the job. More money than we know what to do with, and the first time we’re free to enjoy it.” He half-smiled before taking another sip. “We left our kids at home under care. This is the first time we’ve been able to be on our own in a long time.”
“In far too long,” Talwar said with a nod, before leaning over to plant a kiss on his lips. Aria looked on with curiosity – it reminded her of her parents, a long-established and comfortable sort of love between two people who were well-settled and had entwined their lives as fully as was possible in this world.
In her heart, she stilled longed for that, and as she approached her mid-thirties, that hope had grown a little raw, but it was one she’d never let go of.
“It was good to see you again, Radich,” Oshiro said then. “Please, let us know the moment you determine what you want to do.” After a quick bow – not very deep, she noticed, offering only the most basic respect – he led his wife away, and she followed with a faint, knowing sort of smile.
Nicoladze looked at them now and said, “Are you sure you don’t want–”
“Very.” Adam’s tone was level, but frigid.
The blond glanced at him as if seeing him for the first time, and he gave a tight smile. “I see. Then, you two should enjoy what’s left of the evening. We’ll be making our way out very soon. Derrick, Rosa? Good evening.” And with that, he moved away, the brunette still anchored to his arm, her champagne-colored dress swishing around her knees as she walked.
Aria caught the flash of red soles and quickly distracted herself with the last dumpling.
Adam moved closer to her and bent to her ear. “We should get moving before he finishes up.” A pause, then, “Think he’s paying for her, or she’s just a decoration he brought from Prague?”
She coughed as a piece of dumpling caught in the back of her throat, then dabbed at her lips and smirked. “Could be both.”
His voice dripped with irritation when he said, “Wouldn’t surprise me.”
As they worked through the plates, she let her eyes wander. Most of the crowd had paired off, with men in sleek suits and women in shimmering gowns, while the band had started up once more and the guards continued to wander unobtrusively around the perimeter. On the far side of the room, near where they’d been left, she saw Delara and MacReady, standing close and talking while looking out into the crowd. The two of them were the picture of pure class, even with her revealing dress and his vaguely stern expression.
She saw Talwar extend a hand in greeting to someone, and on her wrist dangled a silvery bracelet that shimmered a little differently from the gold on everyone else’s – platinum, if she had to guess. Maybe palladium. The streak of darkness visible even from here made her think of carbon fiber, still expensive despite being in extensive use. Talwar was drenched in downplayed wealth – nothing flashy, but all of it of good quality and expert craft.
She looked down at herself and the folds of her dress. The fabric fell prettily, she had to admit, accentuating her features and clinging to her waist, while allowing the eye to be drawn to her legs in a final sweep to the floor. She lacked Talwar’s copious show of status, but to say she was completely out of place would be a lie.
She finished off her plate and set it in a bin of dirtied utensils and dishes, and once her partner had done the same, a sharp-dressed waiter came by in graceful silence and took it away, while another replaced the bin.
Aria folded her arms before remembering it didn’t look right, going for clasping her hands instead. “Alright. I think we need some time away from the crowds, like Talwar said, don’t you think?” Fighting past her flash of anxiety, she pulled him closer with one hand and kissed the line of his jaw, letting her mouth linger there when she said, “Sooner we get going, better things’ll be for the other two.”
He made a soft sound in his throat, then cleared it. “Right. We should get... on that.”
Her head swam for a moment before she wrestled her concentration back. Locking her arm around his and pinning herself to his side, she grinned and made a show of hurriedly leaving the room. No one gave them more than a cursory glance, and even the guards ignored them. She caught sight of a few knowing looks, mostly from older couples, before the ornate doors swung shut behind them and they were back in the hall.
They went through the security checkpoint quicker than before and returned to the elevator. This time, she selected the second floor of the hotel itself, and as the doors slid shut, she wondered if there would be any attempts to stop them from entering. Most hotels had tight security preventing unauthorized access, for obvious reasons, and with a gala like this going on and Tarvos on hand, she suspected it wouldn’t be easy.
She took a deep breath and closed her eyes. “Think they’ll try to stop us?”
“Depends on what we find,” he told her. “One step at a time. Let me talk if we get stopped.”
Her eyes opened again. “You’ve got point.”
The doors opened and deposited them into a dark-paneled hall that stretched to the far side of the floor. Directly before them was a small landing, with globes of soft white light dangling from a chaotic silver fixture in the corner and providing most of the illumination. An ivory carpet graced the floor, while a ceiling crisscrossed with what looked like etchings filled with gold leaf capped off the view. Along the floor, recessed, blue-white lighting gave the whole place an intimate, sleepy atmosphere that took the edge off.
They both stepped out onto the landing and looked around. Not a guard in sight.
Adam glanced the ceiling. “Camera,” he muttered, and she looked to see a tiny black dome, barely visible but for the shiny plastic, poking out from the elaborate patterning. He repeated the word, nodding toward one hall, then again down the one that ran to the left of them.
“And no guards. Weird.” She looked down both halls and spotted only suites. Everything looked relatively new – the Shard had once hosted a hotel owned by a Chinese corporation some years prior, but it had been bought out and renovated since then. The new owners had spared no expense, and it almost felt like blasphemy just to walk on the carpet alone. She couldn’t imagine touching any of the fixtures or disturbing a plant.
He tugged gently on her arm and headed down the left hall; she kept up with ease, seeing the numbers quickly count to the one they had been searching for. Further down, another junction led straight ahead or to the right; she kept one eye on it while Adam stopped in front of the door to the suite and examined it.
When she took a risk and glanced at it, she spotted a keycard lock mechanism, deceptively simple from what she knew about it. “Can you...?”
“It’s wireless, I think.” He leaned closer, then bent toward the lock. He raised his left hand, and a section of the metal opened with a faint snick, exposing a glowing blue device she assumed to be some sort of transmitter. For a few seconds, he flexed his fingers, then went still, a look of pure concentration on his face.
Again, she looked around. While she didn’t doubt that his hacking augmentations were top of the line, that they could bust through security did little to assuage her dislike of staying in hotels.
The lock clicked, and the light on the reader flicked from red to green. He straightened. “Alright, looks like–”
The sound of someone clearing his throat down the hall immediately silenced him; they exchanged looks, and his hand went to the door handle. Judging from the sound, the guard was just about to turn the corner and enter their section of the hall, which gave her maybe a split second to make the decision.
Gripping his lapels, she yanked him to her, nearly crushing his mouth on hers, then slinging her left arm around his neck to pin their bodies together. The surprised sound in his throat quickly gave way to one of genuine pleasure, lips parting and arm wrapping tight around her waist. Her head immediately swam; she felt her body rock back, but he held onto her, mouth exploring hers, the sensation of his tongue on her lips, between her lips, wrenching a most inappropriate sound out of her.
She momentarily split her attention to fumble for the handle.
Vaguely, she heard someone nearby – muttering, maybe, she wasn’t sure and she didn’t care – before the door swung open. The suddenness of it sent them both stumbling into the room. The door swung closed behind them; she lost her footing and went backward, falling over something, and after a split second of hanging in midair, her back collided with something soft that stopped her fall. Adam landed on top of her, and the impact broke the kiss.
She had just enough time to take a breath before desire claimed her again, and she pulled him back down to her, taking his mouth with hers one more time, much more slowly, knowing it had to end but dragging it out as much as possible, trying her best to imprint every tiny sensation of him on her own body, terrified to lose it. This was their one chance, their one chance to indulge in the chemistry that ceaselessly taunted them without anyone watching, without their TL eyeing them, without the psychologist being able to say a word.
Adam’s kiss was that of a man who hadn’t experienced such a thing in far too long, tender but somehow fierce, the warmth of their connection filling her body and making every nerve flare like fireflies. She heard him breathe in, long and deep, and exhale across her cheek, a caress that sent a shiver up her spine, felt him cradle her head and hold her close to him, lingering on the capture of her lips between his, content to go no further, nor to let go, for a few precious heartbeats.
Then, with the softest sound, he separated from her, though not pulling away, keeping her close to him for a long period of deep silence. She waited, giving her pulse time to calm again, for him to make the next move.
“Sorry,” he whispered against her lips.
Pulling back a little, she offered a tiny half-smile. “Won’t tell if you don’t.”
“Yeah, probably... probably best.” Skin visibly darkening, he pulled away and stood, offering her a hand. Feeling the dress fall away from her legs as she swung them over the side of the sofa that had broken their fall, and watching his eyes briefly flick downward to that flash of skin and lean muscle, she took the hand and rose to her feet.
“Well, we’re here.” They still had a job to do, and dealing with their little interlude would have to wait until they were off the battlefield again. “Let’s see what we can find and get out of here.”
“Yeah.” She might’ve imagined it, but his voice might have been trembling a little. Just a little. “Let’s go.”
Delara watched out of the corner of her eye, warily, as the CEO and CTO of the Palisade group made the rounds, dressed in the greatest finery their countless millions could buy. A small part of her, buried deep and usually forgotten, despised them, and she felt it flare when she lost control of her concentration for just a moment. Oshiro’s technological genius had been hard at work for weeks, most of his cybersecurity team dedicated to mending the lavawall breach, and every day, it became that much harder for the Council to get anything from inside that Blade. Soon, they would have to go back to smiling threats and gentle warnings, and would still be at the mercy of Talwar.
The two rarely bent their knee willingly to the Council. She knew patience was running thin for them, but Lucius constantly held them back, telling them “these things take time”. Delara, of course, knew better. She could see where it was going, and how it could all end up, but she had long ago said her piece, and knew to hold her tongue, for now.
The beep of a connection in her Infolink brought her back to the present. “We’re inside.” Adam’s voice, roughened by a connection no doubt burdened by the Shard’s security network, came through to her, all business as usual. “Gonna try not to disturb anything. Tell me if he starts up here.”
“Will do.” She heard her partner through the connection as he subvocalized the response, then a click of the channel closing again. Duncan looked at her just as she looked at him. “Hope he’s getting smashed.”
She glanced at Radich to see him knocking back yet another glass of champagne. Since the other two agents had left, he had down three glasses, plus at least one shot of something else. Unless he had an augmentation to keep his blood alcohol levels in check, he would be blind drunk by the time he made it upstairs.
“He probably holds his liquor well,” she muttered. His type of man usually could. “I wouldn’t count on it.”
Duncan’s irritation was clear when he said, “Probably.”
The band finished its current song, a moderately-paced waltz; she looked to see them talking among themselves and the lead musicians standing close together in deep discussion. She also spotted Oshiro and Talwar, having stopped altogether and now chatting among several well-dressed men and women, and wondered why they were here. Sure, it was a vaguely holiday gala for the rich and famous, but London? Why so far from Prague? Czechia was where their entire livelihood resided, and they rarely left the country as a result.
Regardless of the reason, she doubted it was just for vacation purposes.
Radich picked up another glass of champagne, then turned in her direction, smiling lopsidedly. The look dripped with barely-repressed lust; she felt very aware of her plunging neckline and the exposed curve of her waist, but kept her shoulders back and spine straight.
And even if he tried anything untoward, while she didn’t know all of Duncan’s backstory, she did know he had hand to hand training, and was apparently very good at it.
As he approached, she felt Duncan’s grip on her waist tighten. “Can you dance?”
“Of course I can dance,” she said. “I’ve been taught a number of ballroom dances, as well as some... less traditional ones. If you lead, I’ll follow. Did you have a particular style in mind, Duncan?”
He leaned toward her and dropped his voice. “Hope you know how to tango.”
A chill prickled down her spine to the tips of her fingers. Either she needed more champagne, or having any to begin with had been a very bad idea. “I... do. Several styles, in fact.” She lightly touched her dress – the slit wasn’t as high as Aria’s, so she would have to be careful. “I know what you’re planning. I’m... not convinced it–”
“All it has to do is keep him here five more minutes,” he muttered close to her ear. “We just have to convince him we’re... in the mood.” He said the words as though they pained him; she felt a quiver of amusement at his quiet groan.
“Let’s see what plays next and go from there,” she said, patting his arm, then looked across the room at the stage to see the band settling back in. Couples dotted the dance floor; she gave a slight tug, and he led her out into it. She gave a significant look toward their quarry, inviting him closer with a quirk of the lips, taunting him with a tightened grip on Duncan’s arm.
If he was the type of man she suspected him to be, he wouldn’t be able to resist.
The band struck up a new, faster-paced tune; she felt him lead her into the start of a tango and went with it, the soft fabric of her dress brushing her legs as she took the quick, wide opening steps he pulled her into. The unspoken agreement meant they drifted into an Argentinian style, one she’d only used a handful of times, and all of them had been at least several years ago. She imbued it with a little of the energy of the American style, but stayed close to him all the same. At the very least, they could converse without being easily overheard.
What got her attention, though, was that she had little choice but to keep her eyes on his, splitting her movements between following his lead and tracing a path he was forced to keep up with, hands gripped tight and bodies drifting close together at regular intervals. Already alarmingly aware of his very, and hardly unpleasant, proximity, she could feel that knowledge growing with each brush of the hand or warm flash of skin.
“And of course he’s watching,” he murmured close to her ear; she blinked, impressed with both his knowledge of the style and the skill in his technique. More than ever, she wanted to know his background. Where would a man like him have learned to dance like this? “Looks a little gloomy about it.”
“He just wishes it was him instead,” she told him, flashed a grin, and pulled their bodies close together as she caught their target’s eye. She could see the flash of some feral desire in his icy eyes; she smirked, but felt her stomach drop into the floor. She knew that look. It wasn’t a good one.
Around them, other couples had waded into various other tango styles, many of them choosing ones that only shared a passing resemblance. Oshiro and Talwar indulged in an intimate and graceful style that, much to her chagrin, highlighted the reality of their relationship: they were powerful, irritants to the Council, fought and exchanged sour words, but at the end of the day, they were settled into a comfortable love part of her admired.
He pulled her in tight against him; they were so close that she felt his sleek suit against the exposed skin of her chest, and while she had no qualms about exposing what was needed for their purposes, the sensation of someone else ending up there sent a prickle across her skin. Maybe it had been too long since she’d allowed anyone to get close to her. She reached out and touched others as part of her job, counting on it to create intimacy, but it was always friendly. She never did it for her own sake. It was not something she allowed.
Duncan wanted to touch her. That much was clear. And he, unlike her, didn’t have the excuse of even a drop of alcohol to blame. And worse yet, she wanted him to touch her.
But it was so amusing to tease him, to pull on threads of ingrained biology and force him to respond. She could disconnect her own biology from the proceedings just fine. Unlike her clueless partner, she could do whatever she wanted and feel nothing for it but–
And quite suddenly, he pulled her close, forcing her to bring her leg up through the slit as far as it would go, just brushing the inseam of his trousers with the movement. The only reason her head suddenly swam with thoughts unbidden was because she hadn’t expected it, and she could feel the music thrumming through her blood, filling her with sensations she could only blame on circumstance, and certainly not on–
Her eyes wandered without her intending them to.
The suit left little to the imagination, letting her see the lines of long, lean muscle on both arms and across his shoulders – evidence of real power and years of training, a hard-lived existence as a part of some military or another for the majority of his life. There was nothing soft about Duncan MacReady. He was pure steel, beginning to end. There were no cracks to peer through and not a single door he left ajar to see a snippet of what lay beyond.
The messages he sent tonight were mixed enough to drive her mad.
Delara felt her patience snap. There was a reason many left nightclubs and dancehalls arm in arm with someone they’d just met. The whole point of this was to give a sensation of “chemistry”, that what they were indulging in was real, but they had no chemistry. They barely spoke to each other at work. When this job was over, they would return to Prague, debrief, and go their separate ways once more.
She looked at his face to see his eyes on hers. They were brown and even darker than hers, hardly the color she would have expected to see on a man like him. For a long moment, as the music wound down, they stood with foreheads touching, and she found it difficult to look at him this close. She wanted to, but didn’t. He was utterly foreign to her, an unknowable quantity who had always refused to come anywhere near her. Even getting him down for the initial readiness intervene had taken days, until Miller finally had to threaten him outright.
Delara planted her hands on his chest and dug her fingers in. The pressure was enough to break the spell and warn him off from going any further.
Whatever madness had fallen over them this evening, it had started with her teasing him and getting under his skin, and made it all the way to not being able to keep their hands off each other. Maybe it was the champagne buzzing in her blood, or the proximity, or the music, or the pleasant scents and beautiful colors, or the intimacy of the dance. Maybe she needed to go back to the shallows for a while when they got home. Feelings could flare bright as the sun in a single evening, and fade by the next day. When they got home to Prague, Delara and Duncan would be Dr. Auzenne and Agent MacReady once again, and that would be the end of it.
She heard him murmur, “Sorry.”
“It’s... it’s fine.” She stayed close as she looked over at Radich. Her skin felt flushed from the dance, pulse slowing in her chest, still painfully aware of their proximity to one another. Everything was wrong. She felt out of control of her body in a way that made her deeply uncomfortable, yet she couldn’t deny the hint of some pleasant feeling alongside it all. She didn’t like it and forced it down and out of sight to deal with later.
When she got home to her apartment, with good food and a glass of sake, then she could relax and forget everything about tonight. For now, she had to focus.
The Infolink came on again. “MacReady, I think we got a problem.”
The terseness in Adam’s voice turned her focus to the job at hand as her partner responded, “What’s going on, Jensen?”
“We found a stash here of what looks like cash and weapons. Can’t be sure, but he might be smuggling them, or something else might be going on. Looks like he has some Palisade stuff here, too. He’s definitely up to something.” Adam made a soft sound, akin to irritation, before continuing, “Something’s... not right here.”
“Can say that again, mate, but we knew that already. Think Tarvos might be in on this?”
“Wouldn’t put it past them. Keep him for a couple more minutes, then we’re out. The stash is under the bed – keep him out of the bedroom if you can.”
Duncan visibly winced, but said, “We’re going to have to make this quick when it happens. Don’t go far.”
“Yeah, I think that’s a bad idea, too. Jensen out.”
The two exchanged looks before turning their attention to Radich, who closed the gap between them. Sasha no longer had her arm wrapped around his, instead leveling them with a neutral look and keeping her hands folded behind the small of her back. Something in their demeanor was different – almost imperceptible – but to Delara, it flared bright as a star. Whatever had changed, it put her on full alert.
She slid her hand down Duncan’s arm to his hand. The skin was weathered and slightly callused; he returned the squeeze of her fingers and seemed to understand the unspoken warning.
For a moment, she couldn’t help but notice how much larger and stronger his hand felt compared to hers.
Maybe she’d consumed more champagne than she recalled.
“So.” Radich smirked between them. “Are you two feeling more ‘up to’ the night’s activities?”
Curling her hand tightly around his, she pulled herself close to Duncan, pressing her torso to his, and rested her cheek on his chest. “We’re feeling up to something,” she ventured, giving the other man a suggestive smile. “Do I have time to get a little more from the buffet before we go?”
“Of course.” He reached out and stroked her shoulder; it took every fiber of willpower she had to keep from flinching away, instead tightening her grip on her partner. Duncan responded in kind and gave Radich a nasty look, but said nothing, though she could feel his pulse pick up a notch against her cheek. “Your kind of... cultured beauty is well worth waiting around for. Between the four of us, we’ll have a good evening, I think.”
“We’ll wait near the stairs,” Sasha said. She hesitated, then looked at Duncan, allowing her gaze to wander from head to toe and back again. “That suit looks good on you, but I think it will look better on the suite floor.”
“Trust me, it does.” Duncan spoke with an air of arrogance, and like he meant the words exactly as they came out.
“I’ll accompany you to the buffet,” Radich said suddenly, getting a brief sidelong look from Sasha. “Duncan, why don’t you spend a little time getting to know Sasha?”
Taking a quick breath to steady her nerves, Delara smiled and stepped away from Duncan. “Sure, why not?”
Radich looked at her partner, gave a quick smirk, and slipped his arm through hers. Together, they moved back toward the buffet, while Delara reminded herself not to consume any more alcohol. Keeping their heads on straight would be the most important thing tonight, and she couldn’t risk slipping. Once Radich was in custody, she could relax again, and she would need a large amount of sake after all of this.
“You and Duncan seem to have such a complicated relationship. So charged, so energetic, yet from the moment you came in here, he’s chafed under your more... liberal approach.” He wrapped an arm around her waist; one slight shift in her gait later, and he had to remove it again. “Having second thoughts?”
“You can’t always fondle the merchandise before it’s ready to be sold, Radich.” His touch was unpleasant to her, making her skin feel as though it crawled at every tiny brush of his own against it, and she longed for distance, for something other than the siren song of another person’s body to call to a dazed mind she was having too much trouble controlling.
“You were the one who chose to wore that dress.”
“And you’re the one who chooses to let it get the better of your good sense.” Smiling widely at him, she made it to the buffet first and quickly chose several food items that would take a few minutes to finish.
“Well,” he muttered, “don’t overeat, or you’ll have cramps.”
She offered a polite laugh before starting in. The selection of fibrous vegetables, juicy chunks of fruit, and bread pudding helped soothe her nerves and quiet her stomach enough to focus better. Champagne on an empty stomach was never ideal, and it had been long enough that she had managed to forget that.
“What do you see in him, anyway?”
Caught off guard by the question, she took advantage of the mouthful to formulate a response. “Plenty,” she said, “not the least of which being his... technique.” Looking him dead in the eye, she popped a grape in her mouth and cut it neatly in half with her front teeth before chewing. “He’s a pain to be around, but he makes up for it in a lot of ways.”
“He’s ex-military, isn’t he?”
Delara kept her expression blank. “Hmm. What makes you say that?”
“The way he talks, moves, that haircut...” Radich snorted. “Military types can be some of the worst to be around, yet women like you always praise them. I assure you I'm better than him.” He raised an eyebrow. “Don’t eat too fast, Abby. We don’t want a difficult evening, now.”
“I’ll take your word, for now, that you’re better.” Smiling again, she took a few minutes to finish off the plate, drop it in the bin, and clean her hands before turning back to him. “Are you sure you’re ready to leave the party?”
“I’ve got a busy schedule ahead. I’m very much prepared.”
Remembering Adam telling them about the stash, and hoping it had been long enough for the other two agents to escape, she returned with him back to Duncan and Sasha, finding them standing beside one another near the stairs. Sasha looked completely at ease, while Duncan maintained a stern, all-business expression.
At her approach, though, he looked at her. “I think we’re finally ready.”
The meaning was clear. “I’m glad to hear it.”
“So, Sasha talked you into enjoying the evening with us, did she? Good.” Radich smirked again and took her arm before she could come up with an excuse not to. “Let’s go, then.”
Delara felt her skin prickling as she walked alongside the criminal mastermind. Keeping Duncan was a good idea, as they went into the viper’s nest now, and the unknown. Four agents versus Radich Nicoladze and whoever else was on his side, all enclosed inside a suite they knew little about and surrounded by the questionable nature of tonight’s security. Anxiety rose inside her, but she slapped it down before it could get too far.
She sensed Duncan at her elbow and felt a prickle of relief at the knowledge that he was nearby. Her pride could never stand in the way of appreciating that someone with much greater skill and strength stayed with her, and had already demonstrated a willingness to protect her at a moment’s notice.
When all this was done, she would have to dig into him more and find out why he despised Radich so much.
For now, though... they had a job to finish.
And as they ascended the stairs back into the main halls, she remembered the change in demeanor, the whispered warning in the back of her mind, the rigidity of her partner’s expression, what Adam had found in the suite, and all of it combined in a low rumble, that of an approaching hurricane, and she knew something was about to go horribly wrong.