Chapter 1: Nochevieja
Chapter One, in which Julia spends New Year's Eve breaking-and-entering with a known international criminal.
"And again, she slips through our fingers!"
Julia Argent doesn't look away from the photographs in front of her. She tilts her head slightly while analysing the craggy slope of a face, the curve of a wry smile, the blurb about life, love, and lost youth below it.
"Ms Argent! Do you hear me?"
"Yes, sir," she murmurs, still not turning to Devineaux. "But all of the photographs are accounted for."
"And yet there were three reported stolen this morning! Our crimson ghost must have lost her nerve when she heard we were on her trail. Doubled back, replaced them, disappeared into the festivities."
"I do not think the theft was Carmen Sandiego's doing," Julia replies, but she doesn't know why she bothers. They've had a million variations of this same conversation a million times. Interpol, ACME, it doesn't matter - Chase Devineaux will never see the truth unless it literally bites him.
Maybe not even then.
"There are paper remnants near the exhibit entrance," she reminds him. "The same type of origami throwing stars we encountered in Mumbai. Carmen Sandiego does not use such things."
"Ah," Devineaux grumbles, "and here this is again. You suspect Ms Sandiego of fighting off the paper-loving thief, losing, chasing them down, and returning the stolen goods? Inutile!"
It's pointless. Julia knows it's pointless. And yet - "Devineaux, I think it is high time you listen to logic. In all this time we have chased Carmen Sandiego through the world, she has never stolen something that wasn't returned within days."
"...Perhaps she is bad at her job?" It is said sheepishly, which Julia takes as a heartening development.
"So bad that we still have not caught her?"
Devineaux makes a dismissive noise and takes the mints from his pocket, aggressively chewing on two before grunting, "There is nothing to see here but boring photographs - I am returning to the hotel."
"Of course," Julia hums, quite pleased that the man is leaving her company so early. "Have a good evening, sir."
"And you, Ms Argent," he returns as he walks away.
He's an idiot, but Julia can't help an odd fondness for the man.
Perhaps he's growing on her.
Perhaps it's the coworker equivalent of Stockholm syndrome.
Either way, Julia leaves the Mats Staub collection of portraits and stories. Her heart flutters, anxious and excited, with each step she takes out of the vault room, out of the Centro Conde Duque.
Once the barrack-style museum is behind her, the young woman traces a path away from the hotel she should be retiring to. The sounds of laughter and excitement fill the crisp air. Julia skirts between a handful of revellers who are no doubt heading toward Puerta del Sol.
It's Nochevieja, after all.
Julia thinks about tracing their steps, following them, blending in. It'd be nice to spend New Year's Eve in a grand sort of way - she's never done that before. But her feet keep on their trek around the bustling centre of the festivities, ducking through small alleys, behind bars and night clubs.
She finds what she's looking for after a thirty-minute trek. Along the way, dozens of locals gifted her little things - glasses of cava, small fried dough balls, heady-smelling slices of meat. But the chapel at the end of her journey is empty, silent, and small - much smaller than Julia expected. It stands surrounded with bare trees and frosty hedges. Julia shivers a bit in her blazer, wishing she hadn't been too frazzled to remember her coat this morning.
But perhaps it isn't the cold. Perhaps it's the knowledge that Carmen Sandiego might be watching her. Waiting for her.
It's silly. This entire thing is silly. Julia shakes her head at herself, pushing her glasses up the bridge of her nose - more in annoyance than any need for adjustment. Of course Carmen Sandiego is watching - she's the one who slid the note under Julia's apartment door this morning.
Nochevija and Goya...match made in heaven?
The red letters were enough to give her away - as was the fact that no one else in Julia's small life enjoyed cat-and-mouse games.
Julia took to Google - naturally - and was fully prepared with a personal itinerary when she received the call from Chief.
"Agents intercepted chatter inferring that Carmen Sandiego will be in Madrid tonight - as will a new batch of photographs for a Centro Conde Duque exhibit. We assume that is where she will be. I already charted a plane, Agents Devineaux and Argent -- do not let me down again."
Julia smiles slightly, loitering outside of the closed grounds. The domed towers aren't so tall as to make her head spin when she looks up toward the bell tower, but she still feels insignificant. Small. Lonely amid the distant sound of revellers.
"Quaint, isn't it?"
Julia's spine prickles when that voice hits her ear. She doesn't turn to look at the figure who silently slid beside her; she doesn't have to. That voice... "I thought it would be bigger," Julia confirms; she's surprised when she sounds nonchalant.
"Even so, I hear the frescoes are otherworldly."
"It's too bad we cannot see them." And then Julia glances over. Carmen's parka is crimson - of course it is, Julia thinks, biting her lower lip in amusement - and fitted, hitting her mid-thigh before giving way to tight black jeans and slender leather boots.
Carmen raises a sculpted brow at her; Julia could drown in that simper of hers, the way her lips tilt, the way her eyes light.
Goodness, she's gorgeous.
Carmen doesn't bother glancing around before hopping over the low wall between the street and the chapel. "You know, most people don't even know Goya is buried here," she says, reaching over to Julia, palms up, waiting.
"It's sad," Julia murmurs, furrowing her brows at the hands. "So many artists disappear into the dirt, unknown and unvisited."
"And yet Goya is here, on full display, and still even some locals have no idea," Carmen finishes for her. She tilts her head; her fingers wiggle, a gentle reminder. "If we're sneaking in, we should probably do it now while no one is looking."
"Sneaking in?" Julia repeats as if she hadn't realised this was Carmen's goal from the moment Carmen left the note in Poitiers. She takes a little breath, glances around to ensure no one is near enough to see, and then places her hands in Carmen's.
The thief helps Julia over the wall and keeps hold of her while she smoothes down her suit jacket, adjusting her collar. "Do you have a friend at the chapel, Ms Sandiego? Someone to let us in?"
"Not at the chapel, no," she grins, taking Julia's hand and pulling her along. They slide around the side of the building, across a small garden path, and then toward a nondescript door. Carmen pauses, pressing a hand to her ear and murmuring, "Did you work your magic, Player?" The person on the other end must confirm because Carmen's smile widens. "I owe you. Going silent."
The door opens even though there is no handle that Julia can see. "How many people do you have on your payroll?" Julia asks.
"No shop talk, Jules," Carmen chides. Her hand is warm when it finds Julia's. Julia tries not to shiver but fails. Luckily it probably seems like she's just cold - which she is, but the cold is secondary to Carmen's proximity.
The interior is dark and full of clerical things - desks and file folders, towering stacks of boxes. They carry on in the near-dark, and then through a door. It opens into the museum that was once a chapel.
Julia stops in her tracks, suddenly overcome with the open-aired chamber, with the eerie feeling of being watched by some power she can't begin to fathom.
"Be right back," Carmen murmurs - and then her hand is gone.
Julia makes a noise of protest. "Ms Sandiego-" but her voice falters. Was she going to protest the trespassing in which she is so blatantly engaging? Or was she about to tell the woman not to let her go?
Soft light comes from her left. And then another small flicker. And another. Candles, Julia belatedly realises. She looks around, the light slowly pushing back the gloom. The arches are pure white, blinding clouds of stone leading up to the domed ceiling.
When Carmen joins her, Julia meets her stormy eyes and opens her mouth. To say what, she doesn't know. Carmen merely smiles, a candle in one hand and a second pressing into Julia's. And then the thief makes quiet steps toward the middle of the chapel.
Goya's work is otherworldly. Standing here in the flesh, a candle held aloft, Julia can't help the overwhelming urge to cry. The ceiling fresco coils - St Anthony's ethereal glow lights everything, a beacon. She can't see each brushstroke, not this far away, but she can imagine them.
"It's..." Julia's words fail her. Here, in the near dark, alone, her voice the only audible thing, it's...
There are no words.
Carmen slowly makes a round of the room, analysing carvings and statuettes. She admires the frescoes and architecture, never touching anything. But, even from a distance, Julia can see her eyes holding it all.
"Do you do this often?" Julia finally asks when she's sure she won't cry from the strange weight of it all. Of the chapel. Goya. Carmen.
"No shop talk," she reminds her.
"It's hardly shop talk if you do it after hours."
Carmen chuckles, moving back to the altar of candles. "Do you want to light one?" she asks.
"I-I'm not...I don't practice."
"Neither do I," Carmen admits, "but I figure that, seeing as we broke in...might as well offer a little penance in the form of a sacrament."
Julia, though never religious, finds this explanation more than fitting. She joins Carmen, placing her candle in a groove - the other woman offers Julia the taper she used to light the wicks. Swallowing down a feeling of unsettled reverence, Julia puts the light to the tip of another, watching it catch and flare.
She lets out a soft breath; the flames flicker. There's something delicate about it - something beautiful. She feels lighter...not in the presence of divinity, but close. Carmen lets her stand, lets her reflect, without a word. The thief is a welcome, comforting warmth at Julia's elbow.
"This is..." Julia again can't find the word she wants, so she settles on, "as close to a higher power as I have ever felt."
"Beauty has a way of doing that," Carmen replies. Her voice is low, reverent, and it makes Julia fully turn her gaze on the other woman.
"Why did you ask me here?"
Carmen shrugs, her trademark grin returning. "I thought you could use a nice night out."
"This has been...quite nice."
"The night isn't over yet, Jules," Carmen gently scolds, offering her hand again. "Ready for location two?"
"Does it involve trespassing?"
"Believe it or not, no. But, be honest...would you say no if it did?"
God, that smile does terrible things to Julia's insides. "I am an ACME agent, Ms Sandiego."
"Yes," Carmen acknowledges, "and yet you still haven't cuffed me."
Julia takes a breath, and then she uses that breath to blow out the candles. Before the smell of spent smoke can choke her, she takes Carmen's hand and lets the woman lead her out.
"Nearly midnight," Carmen murmurs, checking a watch on her left wrist. "Luckily we're not going far."
Julia knows better than to ask for a location - Carmen enjoys her secrets. Julia, stupidly, enjoys them, too.
They hop the low wall after a couple passes by, drunk and in love. They cross the little street and duck into an unmarked, cramped doorway. It's a small eatery - one that is very obviously closed.
"I thought you said no more trespassing?"
Carmen winks and knocks on the door, calling, "Ramos?"
A man comes to the door in no time at all, beaming. "Carmen! Finalmente!"
"Lo siento mucho. Dile a Blanca que lamento la interrupción."
"No es nada. Disfruta Nochevieja!" He smiles at Julia, refuses the money Carmen offers him, and lets them inside.
Carmen, seemingly knowing where to go, leads Julia through the restaurant, into the kitchen, and then around the back toward a slender set of stairs. They climb until they reach the roof access - Carmen presses through and the cold night hits Julia like a personal assault.
The air is colder up here, the wind whipping through with more force than Julia is prepared for. She shivers as she follows Carmen to a small but laden-down bistro table. "Perhaps inside might be better?"
Carmen turns to her; the thief's face falls, but more in concern than hurt. "You must be freezing - doesn't ACME give you a coat or something?" Even as she says it, she undoes her parka and places it around Julia's shoulders as if it's nothing.
"You'll freeze," Julia weakly argues, all the while burying her face into the woollen neck of the too-large coat. It's warm and smells like Carmen - something sweet and spicy, a faint undercurrent of sweat that only makes it more intimate.
"I run hot," Carmen explains with a little shrug. She doesn't seem affected by the cold even though her fitted turtleneck can't offer much in the way of protection. "Is it warm enough? We can still move inside if you'd rather."
"No! No," Julia repeats, less insistent this time. "It's...perfect."
Carmen's smile takes on that sneaky quality, the one that says she's overly pleased and overly amused. "C'mon; it's almost midnight."
They sit at the table. A bottle of cava waits along with two glasses and two bowls of something. Upon closer inspection, Julia realises they're grapes. "Ah!" Julia exclaims, surprised and delighted. "I've never tried this tradition before. You eat the grapes at midnight, yes?"
"One for each stroke of the clock," Carmen replies, pouring cava. "It's more difficult than it sounds."
"It sounds quite difficult," Julia admits, taking the offered glass and dutifully sipping. The white wine is excellent, sparkling across her tongue and making her eyes close in pleasure. "Are there rules? To this tradition, I mean."
Carmen laughs, the sound rich and ringing just for her. "Don't choke?"
"That is a good rule." Julia finishes her wine; Carmen pours more. Julia takes her time on the second glass, shyly watching Carmen's wistful face as it gazes across the rooftops and toward Puerta del Sol. "I always wanted to go to Time Square for the new year," Julia says suddenly, unsure why. "I hear it's the best place to spend it."
"I've heard the same...but Madrid isn't so bad."
"Not at all!" Julia says quickly, worried she's offended the woman who's done so much for her tonight.
"Next best, then," Carmen grins. "Maybe we can squeeze in New York next year."
Next year. Julia swallows and drinks her wine to give herself something else to focus on. She needs to say something. Anything. Anything that doesn't make her sound like a lovesick puppy. "Why did you invite me here?" Julia tries.
Carmen doesn't move her head, but her eyes flick toward her. "I've never spent New Year's Eve quietly. There's always been some kind of gathering or party or caper. I thought this might be nice - just some wine and grapes on a rooftop."
"That does not answer why you invited me."
"I thought it was obvious," Carmen shrugs, finishing her glass of wine and pouring more, topping Julia's glass. "I wanted to spend some time together."
"You -- but I am chasing you."
"I like being chased. It makes things more interesting." Carmen rechecks her watch, straightening up and pushing one of the small bowls toward Julia. "Almost time."
Julia swallows, feeling their night slipping away. "Why are you running from us? From ACME? I know you aren't part of VILE. - you've all but yelled the fact."
"And yet your boss still sends you out with the intent to capture me." Carmen turns in her chair, fully facing Julia. Julia expects a change of topic, but Carmen flashes a grin that shows her teeth. "I'm chasing people, too. They, however, don't like being chased. They like me taking their ill-gotten gains even less."
"VILE?" Julia presses.
Carmen reaches out with her free hand, the one not holding the wine glass. Julia takes it without thought, gripping her fingers. "Please, just tell me," Julia rushes out. "I can help you. ACME can help you."
"I don't trust your chief, Jules, and she doesn't trust me. Nor does your partner - who I see got reinstated, by the way. How'd he manage that?"
Julia opens her mouth, but Carmen's phone chimes. "Ah," Carmen chuckles, the sound slightly sad. "Time's almost out." She takes her hand back and prepares her bowl of grapes.
Julia can't let it end like this. She knows Carmen will disappear soon after midnight, that she'll spirit away like a spectre. She knows this might be her last chance.
The first toll of midnight strikes - bells through the city ding and clang. People in the square nearby let out cheers. There's a roar that might be the revellers in Puerta del Sol.
Julia rushes to fit the grapes in her mouth, hurrying, trying to maintain pace and not choke. She gags a little, but she manages to swallow the mass of chewed pulp in her mouth as the final bell tolls.
Carmen, on the other hand, is already finished. She, unlike Julia, took a more direct approach by tilting the bowl back and guzzling them.
"How?!" Julia exclaims, wiping juice from her lips while Carmen giggles - giggles.
"I'm pretty good with my mouth," she explains as if it's nothing, as if Julia doesn't flush the second her words come out, as if she didn't just put very uncomfortable thoughts in the woman's head.
Not for the first time, of course, but.
"I suppose we should say bonne soirée," Carmen murmurs with an apologetic smile.
"Or we could stay awhile." Oh, that was bold. Where did that even come from?
Carmen looks surprised by it, too - and then remorseful. "I, unfortunately, have some business to attend to. And your partner might get suspicious if you come in too late."
"Not anymore." Carmen stands and then reaches out. Julia takes her hand and follows - down the steps, through the shop, and onto the street. Julia begins to shrug out of Carmen's parka, but the caramel-skinned goddess covers her hands, stalling her. "Keep it. It's getting colder."
Julia wants nothing more. "Devineaux would notice it. There's only one woman we know who wears red, after all."
Carmen half-heartedly smiles. "Keep it hidden and safe for me, then. Next time I'll have a blue one for you."
Next time... "Blue?"
"Just a hunch, but I think blue might be your colour...though red suits you."
And then Carmen leans in, pressing her lips to Julia's icy cheek. "A bientôt."
She's walking away before Julia can comprehend what's happening. Carmen slips out of view; Julia wants to follow, but she knows that she'd just find an empty laneway.
Julia huddles into the coat and calls a cab, trying to calm her frantic heart.
walking in the night sky
I'm always on your side
Chapter 2: Sweet Music
Chapter Two, in which Julia has an unexpected visitor.
Julia doesn't get sick.
She never missed a day of class - even at university under the excessive amount of stress she shouldered. She's never missed a day of work, either - even when she dislocated her shoulder in an ill-thought attempt to catch Carmen Sandiego six months ago.
And yet here she is - curled up on her couch, a chenille throw around her shoulders and a box of tissue within easy reach. The television fills the dim room with flickering colours - the movie quietly playing can't hold Julia's attention, but her brain is too sodden to focus on anything else.
She doesn't like what she has to do...but she doesn't like a lot of things she has to do.
Julia clicks her ACME pen, tossing it onto the floor and watching the call connect. Chief appears in her blue hologram, a brow quirked. "Agent Argent, is something-" and then she pauses. "You look like hell."
"I'm sorry, Chief," she groans - her voice comes out mumbly. "I am beginning to think I can't make it in to work tomorrow."
"I can see why you'd think that," she hums, glancing around the room. Julia always wonders how much she can see through her hologram. Everything? It certainly seems so, given that Chief's eyes linger on the coffee table. The tissues, cold medicine, vitamin C packets, and water bottle. "Stay home until you're well enough - the last thing we need is your partner pushing you into another wintry canal and giving you pneumonia."
"It was accidental," she winces.
"Even so. I am beginning to wonder why I brought him back on the payroll." She sighs, seemingly realising that Julia isn't the right person to relay the information to. "Anyway. Get better, Ms Argent. Sleep is your friend."
Julia - about to thank Chief for her understanding - is interrupted when Chief's sharp eyes narrow, looking past Julia. "Are you expecting a letter?"
Julia turns, raising a little over the couch back. A note sits, unassuming and nondescript, just inside the apartment door. Julia's heart begins to pound as she stammers, "Ah, I...I'm late on rent! It's probably, em...my building superintendent asking for payment."
Chief's brows furrow. Julia knows what she's thinking - there's no way that Julia Argent is late on her rent. But instead, she says, "If you need an advance, Agent Argent-"
"N-no, no," she says quickly, getting to her feet, stumbling when her legs get trapped in the throw blanket. "I have the money, I just have been..." Oh God, she's a terrible liar. "Busy. Sick. Busy and sick."
Chief doesn't seem to buy the excuse, but she lets it go. "Get rest," she repeats, and then the hologram is gone, the pen becoming just another pen.
Julia slips her way across the wooden floor, hopping over the single step that leads up from the sunken living room. She grabs the note, flips it open, and her heart stalls.
She doesn't bother reading it. What's the point? She knew what it was the second she saw it - the cream-coloured paper, the delicate crease down the middle. The red lettering.
Julia throws her door open, tearing through the hallway and out into the night. "Ms Sandiego!" she shouts, surprised at herself.
A shadow, about fifty paces down the street, turns. Retraces its steps. Comes to a halt under a streetlight, smiling up at Julia. "You heard me? I must be losing my touch."
"I - I happened to be by the door," she half-lies. She stands in the cold, wishing she brought her throw blanket, and stammers out, "Are you -- that is... W-would you like some coffee?"
Carmen doesn't hesitate, doesn't look around to see if anyone is watching. She climbs the dim walk-up, coming to a stop two steps below Julia. "Some tea if you have it."
"I do," she replies too quickly, turning to open the building door before she can get too lost in Carmen's gaze. She returns to her apartment, creeping past her super's entry, and lets out a little sigh of relief when the light-sleeper doesn't come out to gripe at her.
When they're both inside the tiny open floorplan, Julia realises that Carmen Sandiego is in her apartment, kicking off her trainers at the door and hanging her jacket on a hook. Carmen moves as if she's been here before - as if she's entirely at ease in a space she's never occupied.
Julia fills the electric kettle and clicks it on, clearing her throat while she prepares two mugs. The kitchen light is too bright, making her wince, but she carries on as if she's feeling well. Carmen will probably take off at the first sign of contagion.
"Is this you and your mom?" Carmen asks from the hallway. Julia knows which photo she's talking about - it's one of the only pictures in the apartment. Even so, she turns to glance at the auburn-haired woman.
"It is," Julia murmurs. She watches Carmen glide a pointer finger across the edge of the frame. No doubt her grey eyes are taking stock of the candid, the gentle-faced woman teaching her daughter how to play the piano.
"It's a great picture," Carmen notes, her tone soft. Slightly sad. "Do you still play?"
"I haven't in ages," she admits. "My mother still plays, but I never took to it." Carmen turns away, beginning to descend into the living. Without thinking, Julia crosses a line. "And your mother? Does she play something?" Julia immediately regrets it when Carmen doesn't answer. "I-I'm so sorry. That's personal."
"I don't know," Carmen replies. Julia is surprised that Carmen gave her that piece of information, that slice of the woman behind the persona. "I don't know anything about her. I'm trying to find out, but it isn't easy tracking someone who disappeared decades ago."
"Don't be." Carmen smiles; it's genuine and calms Julia's panic. But then the woman notices the coffee table. "Are you sick?"
Julia winces. "I...might have a bit of a cold."
"Jules," Carmen chides, coming to the other side of the bar. "You should be in bed."
"No." Her voice is firmer than she expects - than Carmen expects, too, given her quirked brow. "I can't sleep anyway. I can never sleep the first night back home."
Carmen nods a little. "I know the feeling. Hotels become more home than home does after a while."
"Where do you call home?"
Carmen makes a little noise. "No shop talk."
Julia hadn't realised that the question could be considered shop talk, but she supposes it makes sense. A thief who gives away her permanent location doesn't stay hidden for long.
The kettle burbles loudly and then clicks off. Julia retrieves the mugs and makes the tea, glad to do something with her cold fingers. She slides one cup across the bar and into Carmen's hand. And then she pauses, unsure what to do.
It's your home, Julia reminds herself. Stop being so timid! Julia takes a breath and leaves the kitchen, stepping into the living room and resuming her place on the couch. "What are you doing in Poitiers? I haven't heard anything about VILE activity in the area."
Carmen sits on the other side of the couch, angling toward Julia and tucking her legs under her. "You didn't read my note?"
"I was too busy running out the door to find you."
Carmen laughs, tilting her head a little. "I was asking if you would want to have breakfast tomorrow before I leave."
Leaving for where? Julia should ask. Instead, she pretends to sip her scalding tea so that Carmen doesn't notice her flush. "It would be unwise for us to have breakfast together, Ms Sandiego. Especially in Poitiers - Devineaux has an unhealthy addiction to bacon and croissants."
"This is a little unwise, too," Carmen reminds her.
She has a point. She has an excellent point. "And yet here we sit."
"Here we sit," she repeats. She grabs the throw blanket between them, moving it. "C'mere."
Julia hesitates, not sure what to do. "I could get you sick."
"I've got an impressive immune system." Carmen waits, the throw lifted like an invitation.
An impressive everything, Julia might have said if she wasn't so intimidated - if she was more like Carmen, more assertive. But Julia doesn't say that; she puts her tea on the coffee table and slowly slides across the couch. Carmen adjusts herself so Julia can slip under her arm.
I run hot, Carmen told her once; the chenille traps all of that heat in. Julia worms a little closer, cheek resting against Carmen's clavicle. For the first time all day, Julia's fingers begin to warm.
The movie is too quiet to hear, but Carmen doesn't complain. They sit together, Carmen's hand absently tracing gentle arcs on Julia's arm through the thick material. Julia tries to stay awake, but her eyelids are so heavy, and Carmen is so warm.
Julia jerks out of her half-stupor suddenly. Carmen stifles a laugh, murmuring, "Everything's fine - go back to sleep."
Julia blinks, confused, and then realises she was snoring loudly enough to wake herself up. Mon dieu, how are you so embarrassing? she thinks to herself. Except she doesn't think it - she says it very plainly, voice distressed.
"You are not embarrassing," Carmen rebukes, arm sliding under the blanket, fingers slipping between hers, squeezing gently. "You're tired and stuffed-up and charming."
Julia presses her face against Carmen's collar bone again, wincing and smiling and confused.
The first thing that Julia notices when she wakes up is that someone is in her apartment and they are humming.
The second thing she notices is that she's in bed, her skin prickled with sweat, and there's an imprint of someone else's head on the pillow next to her.
Julia fumbles for her glasses before scurrying out of bed. She slips on the smooth wood floor in her haste, and then nearly knocks over Carmen when she rounds into the living room.
"Hey," Carmen grins, immediately reaching out and placing a hand to Julia's forehead. "Oh, good! Your fever broke."
"Fever?" she repeats.
"You don't remember?"
"You started burning up, so I gave you some medicine and got you into bed. Then you had an entire conversation with me involving your theories around Leonardo da Vinci's spiral into insanity while tugging me into said-bed with you."
"I did not!" she cries, covering her face to keep the distress from bubbling out.
"You did, and your arguments were amazingly coherent, given your temperature." She leans against the wall, adding, "Go take a shower. I'll handle breakfast."
Julia is more than happy to escape the conversation, ducking into the bathroom to sort herself out.
She takes a long time in the shower and then considers her reflection for ages. She thinks about some makeup, just a dusting of powder, but decides it doesn't matter. If Carmen is still here after the snoring and god-knows-what during her fever fugue, then there's nothing a bare face can do to run her off.
She pulls a sweater and pyjama pants on, thick socks muffling her steps when she comes into the kitchen. Carmen has her phone playing a song that Julia immediately likes. Or she immediately likes the sound of Carmen humming to it, the sight of her shimmying to the beat.
Carmen stops humming and shimmying, saying, "You're going to have leftovers - I'm used to cooking for four."
"Ah - shouldn't have said that," Carmen laughs under her breath. "Pretend I didn't say that. I'm a lone wolf."
Julia smiles, fingers twining together in front of her. "I didn't hear a thing, Ms Sandiego."
"You could just call me Carmen, you know," she says. Her voice is light, but there's something else in the tone.
Julia opens her mouth and closes it. The name has almost slipped out more than once. She chides herself each time, reminding herself that there is that one, solitary thing keeping a healthy distance between them. If Julia allows herself to break that barrier...
"Alright!" Carmen announces before Julia can wrangle her thoughts, "Sit."
The moment to explain gone, Julia takes a stool at the bar and accepts the offered plate. It's some kind of scramble - spicy and fragrant and topped with a Mexican fried egg. "Oh," Julia says without meaning to, amazed. She knows for a fact that she didn't have potatoes in her pantry.
Carmen Sandiego went shopping for her.
Carmen pours some coffee and raises a brow, shaking a bottle of creamer. "Black," Julia murmurs, taking the cup and sipping. Good lord, it's incredible - not the instant coffee Julia is used to. "How do you do all the things you do, and also have time to learn-" she waves a hand at the spread, "this?"
Carmen prepares her own plate and adds creamer to her cup of coffee. "One of the best parts of my lifestyle is going around the world and eating. I mean, foiling evildoers is nice and all, but let's be real...the food." When Julia laughs, Carmen softens. "I try to learn as much as I can while I'm out there; food is one of those things."
The first mouthful that Julia takes makes her eyelids flutter of their own accord. "Are you bad at anything?"
Carmen bites her lower lip, trying to tamp down a smile. "I'm pretty terrible at keeping up on my Netflix queue." Julia rolls her eyes. Carmen tries again. "I'm a little too impulsive? Does that count?"
Julia is fairly sure her eyes are going to roll out of her skull. "A little?"
"Un petit peu," Carmen teases. And then she sobers a bit. "I have a long history of trusting the wrong people."
Julia bites the inside of her cheek, regarding Carmen. "Do you consider me one of those people?"
"No." The word is soft, but the tone is sure.
Julia's phone vibrates from the coffee table, bumping against the box of tissue; the angry buzzing intensifies. Julia sighs, sliding out of her seat and padding across the room.
"No," she moans when she sees the caller. She helplessly answers, placing a finger to her lips; Carmen ducks her head and quietly occupies herself with breakfast. "Yes, sir?"
"Ms Argent! Chief informed me you are ill."
"Yes, I am taking the day." Please don't offer to come over, please don't offer to-
"I will be there in an hour!" Devineaux announces.
"Sir, please," she almost whimpers, "I cannot look at one more case file when my head feels ready to burst."
"I am bringing soup!" he argues. "For your cold!" A pause. "And case files. I will be there in one hour!"
The phone goes dead in her hand. She closes her eyes and lifts her face toward the ceiling, cursing whatever higher-power might be laughing at her right now.
"It sounds like that's my cue to go," Carmen snickers, finishing her breakfast and turning to the sink to clean the plate.
"He is bringing me soup," Julia says, somehow still baffled by her partner. "He hears I am sick and taking the day from work. And then he decides that he should come over at ten in the morning. With soup."
Carmen laughs - the sound sends a shiver down Julia's spine. "Too bad your fever's gone, huh? You could have taken some nighttime flu meds and passed out while he talks himself to death."
"I might anyway," Julia mumbles as she walks into the kitchen, sourer than she knows she should be.
Carmen turns a quirked brow to her. "Listen to you being salty. I like it." Carmen puts the dishes in the drying rack before sighing. "Well...I suppose this is au revoir."
"Naturally. We can't stay away from each other for long." She passes Julia, pressing a kiss to her cheek before sliding into her shoes and jacket. "Drink water and take care of yourself today, alright?"
Julia takes three very deep breaths; her fists clench and unclench. She opens her mouth and says, "Carmen."
Carmen stalls at the door, hand on the knob. Julia's feet move before she can second-guess herself into submission. She goes on her tiptoes and wraps her arms around Carmen's neck, pressing a kiss to the thief's lips.
Julia thought it would be an easy thing to do - launching herself at Carmen. It would be smooth and romantic, just like in the movies. But her fingers tangle in Carmen's hair, tugging it. Their noses smash together, and Julia thinks she might have nicked Carmen's lip with her tooth.
But Carmen giggles into the fumbling. She wraps her arms around Julia's waist, leaning down to help her craning neck. She calms Julia's panic, evening out the kiss.
When they part, Carmen brushes her nose against Julia's, a fond bump. "It's about time, Ms Argent. I thought I might need to file paperwork to get your attention."
"Hush," she chides, pleased that Carmen's cheeks are darker than usual, graced with a flush. Seeing the unflappable woman flapped is like a triumph. Julia presses another kiss to Carmen's lips. And then another.
She isn't sure how long they've stood at the door, mouths unwilling to part. All she knows is that Carmen whispers, "I need to go," against her ear much sooner than she wants.
"You could stay. Nothing in my contract says I have to open the door to my bumbling, well-intentioned partner."
Carmen's eyes widen at that. "Julia Argent, you are full of surprises this morning." Carmen presses her forehead against Julia's, "I left you something on the bedside table, by the way."
"What is it?" Julia asks, immediately intrigued.
Carmen smirks and doesn't answer. "Talk soon, Jules," Carmen promises, slipping out of the door and into the hallway of Julia's building.
Julia waits five minutes - just in case Carmen forgot something, just in case she needs to come back - before darting into the bedroom. Her end-table is empty, but the one on Carmen's side - Carmen's side? Mon Dieu. - has a strange device on it.
A mobile phone, she realises when she picks it up. It's odd-looking and heavy in her palm, but it opens quickly and like a dream when she presses her finger to the print reader.
There is one number programmed, and Julia feels her face burn.
She thinks about sending a message to it - sorry if I got you sick - but she swallows her heart back into her chest and hides the phone under her mattress. Play it cool, she reminds herself.
She returns to the kitchen to finish her breakfast, blood singing with too many emotions to sort through.
be still my foolish heart
don't ruin this on me
Chapter 3: Phone Call
Chapter Three, in which Julia and Carmen face the realities of being a world apart.
Julia stands in the bedroom doorway, glaring at her mattress. More accurately, glaring at the phone hidden beneath her mattress
It's been a week. An entire week. Carmen slipped out, left a phone, and then didn't call it.
For a week.
"This is ridiculous," Julia announces. She returns to the living room and loiters there, not sure what to do now.
You could always call her, Julia reminds herself. She programmed her number for a reason. Surely she intended for you to reach her?
But what if she's busy? the other part of Julia chimes. You don't even know where she is! Perhaps it's midnight. Maybe she's on a caper. She could be...
There are a lot of scenarios.
Julia shouldn't call.
Julia crosses into her kitchen, picking her personal phone off of its dock, flicking through until she finds a number for Chinese delivery. She orders her Saturday afternoon usual, trying to convince herself that spring rolls will solve all of her exasperation.
Julia paces the small space, rearranging as she passes by - straightening her book on the coffee table, adjusting the lamp in the corner, pushing an errant cord behind the entertainment centre. She runs out of things to pick over rather quickly, the tidy apartment failing to offer diversions.
Grumbling, Julia turns the television on. The news plays - something about a crime spike in London - but Julia can't stop fidgeting. She gets up and paces again, glancing at the time on her wall clock.
It's only been five minutes.
"How are people supposed to live like this?" she blurts into the air. The reporter continues to talk about an uptick in stabbings in tube stations.
Julia turns the television off, casting the room into silence. She lets out a breath and slowly, methodically, arranges the couch cushions and throw blanket into some semblance of order.
One minute passes.
Julia goes into the bedroom, tosses the bedclothes aside and lifts the mattress, grabbing the phone.
It illuminates with a single press of her thumb. There aren't any notifications, just the programmed number. Julia's thumb hovers above it. She bites the inside of her cheek.
And then she turns the phone off. She carries it into the living room with her, though, setting it on the coffee table and staring at it.
Why hasn't she called?
Julia sits on the couch and picks up her book. She re-reads the same paragraph over and over, all while pretending she isn't thinking about that damned phone.
It's a relief when her door buzzer dings. She goes out, collects her food from the delivery girl, and takes it inside. Eating the rice paper rolls right out of the bag, hip against the counter, Julia stares at the clock.
It's 12:30 in the afternoon. It would be 6:30 pm in Hong Kong. In New York...6:30 in the morning? Yes, that would be right.
6:30 in the morning... if Carmen's in New York. She could be anywhere. She could be here in Poitiers, for all Julia knows.
Something about that upsets Julia - the not knowing. Having no idea where she is, what she's doing. The longer Julia obsesses over it, the more she wishes that she got a bottle of wine at the market.
She finishes the spring rolls, throws trash out, and makes a decision. She crosses into the living room, sits on the couch, and picks up the stupid phone.
She presses the number before she can convince herself otherwise. Placing the phone to her ear, heart hammering in her throat, Julia wonders why she's such an idiot.
What are you doing? Hang up!
Oh God, it's still ringing. It's still ringing.
What if you're getting her in trouble? What if she has her phone on and she's in the middle of a mission and someone is going to hear her and
"Jules," Carmen's voice purrs over the phone.
Julia opens her mouth, but no sound comes out. There are voices on Carmen's end, but nothing that sounds dangerous. Laughter. Teasing. A gruff-sounding man.
"...Julia?" Carmen asks, now openly concerned. "Is everything okay?"
"Y-yes, I..." she falters, throat going dry. "Sorry, I, ah...I didn't mean to interrupt."
"You're not interrupting anything," Carmen assures her. Julia listens as Carmen opens a squealing door and passes through it. She's outside - Julia can hear a gust of wind prickle through the speaker.
"Are you near water?" she asks.
"I am," Carmen replies; Julia loves how she can hear the smile in her voice. "Are you at home?"
"Yes, for the weekend."
"Any big plans?"
Julia doesn't want this conversation. She doesn't know what conversation she does want, but it isn't this polite nonsense. "No; I don't have much of a life outside of work, I'm afraid."
Julia laughs, unable to help it, and leans her head back on the couch cushions, looking at the ceiling. "I assume I haven't..." Julia hesitates. She doubts that Carmen left her a phone that could be traced or listened in on, but she isn't about to take the chance. "...interrupted trip planning?"
"Not tonight." She's walking, her shoes crunching through gravel or rocks. "We just got back."
"Where were you?"
Julia tries not to be frustrated by this answer. "And did you have a nice time there?"
"All things considered. We got the job done. It took a little longer than we thought, but..." Carmen's voice stalls, and then it softens. "How are you?"
Julia isn't sure how to answer that. "I got over my cold."
"Did your well-intentioned partner bring good soup?"
"I'm not sure. He forgot it on top of his car on his way over."
"That sounds on-brand," Carmen laughs. "It's amazing how some guys fail upward, huh?"
Julia smiles, pulling the throw blanket over herself. "I know you can't tell me where you are."
"It would be a bad idea for everyone if I told you."
"I know." It doesn't stop Julia from wanting to ask. "Are you near the ocean?"
Carmen is quiet for a moment. "Yes, but also no. And I shouldn't talk about it."
"You sound sad."
"So do you."
Julia licks her lips. The conversation keeps taking turns in the wrong direction, and Julia has no idea how to control it. "It is hard to be on the phone."
"Talking on phones is weird."
"No, I meant...it's hard being on the phone with you."
Carmen makes a strange noise. The gravel-rock-whatever shifting had stopped a bit ago, but it starts again.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean it as anything rude. I just..."
"Hold on just a sec, Jules," Carmen murmurs, voice muffled. Julia waits, unsure what is happening, and then Carmen says, "You're going to get a weird notification with a bunch of letters and numbers. Click on the 'F'."
"The letter F. F as in Foxtrot."
Julia pulls the phone from her ear, confused. There is a message bubble on her screen covered in jibberish. There's also a timer ticking down from 10.
Julia scours through the text and finds the hidden F, clicking it. Nothing happens for a moment, and then her screen fills with a video. It's dark and grainy, nighttime, but Julia can see the haze of Carmen sitting with water behind her. Not the ocean, though - it's too controlled. Lapping water against docks, not crashing waves.
"Try not to focus too much on my surroundings," Carmen murmurs, grinning. The expression is off, though - slightly nervous.
"You're at your headquarters?" Julia realises aloud.
"I never said that."
"But you are."
Carmen laughs, head dipping a little. "No shop talk."
"You know I am going to puzzle it out."
"I know. But try not to."
Julia blinks at the screen, at what she can see of Carmen's grey eyes. "Why do you trust me?"
"Why does anyone trust anyone?"
Carmen blinks, looking surprised at the firmness. "I just do. You've never given me a reason not to. Well - aside from that time when your ACME friends tore into the middle of my mission after you promised you weren't there to bother me."
"That was a terrible, terrible misunderstanding," Julia winces. "They thought I'd absconded to your side."
Julia knows she's flushing, and she knows the afternoon sun streaming through her windows is giving Carmen a perfect view of it. "W-where are you going next?"
"No shop talk."
"Will it be warm?"
Carmen's smile is everything Julia needed all week. The way her face shows each reaction, each emotion. She doesn't hide - not from Julia.
"Well, if you ever stop by Poitiers again..."
"You know I will." Carmen glances up and away from the phone, waving her hand in a shooing motion. "Sorry, Jules, give me a second." She tilts the phone away; Julia is left staring at Carmen's shoulder and the water behind. "I'm on the phone!"
The response is muffled, but Carmen's voice is not. "No, you can't talk to her. Go away." More speaking, a laugh, and then Carmen's back, rolling her eyes. "Sorry. I live with a pack of needy puppies."
"Someone wanted to talk to me?"
"I'm sure they all do, considering I'm risking everything to..." she pauses. "To talk with you."
The silence flitters between them. Julia struggles with the discomfort of wanting to say so much and having no words to do so. "What am I supposed to do when we run into each other at work?"
"You do what you need to," Carmen shrugs, but her tone is unsure, as well. "Just maybe try not to maim me too badly?"
Julia is too concerned to smile. "I can convince the Chief. I did it once before."
"I don't think she's willing to forgive me after what I did, Jules."
"She wasn't pleased about hacking into our network, but-"
"She isn't someone I want to be associated with, anyway."
Julia freezes. There it is again - that tone. "What did you find in the database?"
Carmen looks down at her feet. She chews her bottom lip. And then she murmurs, "No shop talk."
"Carmen, please. I am working with her - I need to know if she has done something that I cannot stand by."
"We've all done things," Carmen replies cryptically. "I've done things you probably couldn't stand by, either. Maybe it's best to be ignorant about the past."
"You don't believe that."
"I don't." Carmen's face shifts a bit, softening. "I'm glad you called."
"You could have called me."
Carmen bites back a smile. Julia thinks she might see a twinkle in her eyes. "I would have, but I keep that phone's mate at H.Q."
"So if I called earlier this week?"
"It would reroute to a randomly selected restaurant's reservation line."
"Our network's a little extra."
"I can see that," Julia smiles, awkwardly shifting on the couch. Julia wishes she could express the fluttering in her belly, how much she misses the rogue, how all she wants is ACME to stumble upon one of her missions so that Julia can see her.
"I should let you sleep," she settles on.
Carmen nods, though she looks torn. "Probably. Haven't done much of that this past week."
Me either, Julia almost admits. "Bonsoir, Carmen."
"A bientôt, Jules," Carmen promises. And then she blows a kiss, winks, and disconnects the vid-call.
Julia groans through her flipping heart and tremoring hands, trying to understand how Carmen knows exactly what strings to pull.
can you blame me for wanting
a little more of you
Chapter 4: Strawberry Fields
Chapter Four, in which Carmen gets sloppy, VILE gets lucky, and Julia gets angry.
She's actually going to kill me, Carmen realises a little too late.
It's always been a possibility. VILE's sent Tigress after her before, but Tigress never really seemed to be a significant threat - not like some of the bruisers. Carmen could skirt away from Tigress, the woman would chase, and Carmen would elude her.
But not this time. This time, Carmen's side is slashed and wetting her coat. She keeps her elbow tucked in against it, blocking Tigress' kick to the injury. Grabbing Tigress' leg and twisting, she sends the woman to the ground with a hiss.
"You're gonna lose your balance, wobbling like that," Tigress calls. The platinum-haired woman is up again, balancing on the balls of her feet as if she isn't on a rickety scaffolding six storeys high. "Might as well hand yourself over. It's either that or your pretty face gets torn to pieces right here." Tigress flexes her fingers, the sharp claws catching in Manhattan's midnight glow.
Carmen puffs out a breath. Player is in her ear, alarmed, begging her to get out of the situation. She spits blood from a split lip and reaches up, clicking the earpiece to silence.
It's stupid. It's so stupid. Player could guide her getaway. Player could coordinate Ivy and Zack. But Carmen can't focus when Player gets worried. He's usually unflappable, but the edge in his voice tonight...
He realises Tigress might kill her.
Tigress grins when Carmen doesn't move. "Good. I didn't want to take you back, anyhow." She launches herself at Carmen, ducking under an uncoordinated fist. She comes up, a hand vicing on Carmen's oxter and shoving her back.
Carmen flails, barely managing to stay upright, catching herself on the thin scaffolding rail. She twists away from another attack, sidestepping and slamming her elbow down onto the back of Tigress' head, and then a knee to her belly. Before Tigress can get her bearings, Carmen tries to flip the woman over her hip - it fails spectacularly when Tigress, vicious as ever, grabs Carmen's torn, bleeding side.
"Bye-bye, little Black Sheep," Tigress whispers; her breath is hot on Carmen's face when she clenches her hand, claws digging further in.
The pain is...incredible. Carmen might have admired it in any other situation, but not now, now with Sheena - Tigress - staring at her through those stupid goggles.
Carmen digs down with her elbow, smashing it into the wrist that twists the claws further inside of her. Tigress hisses and tries to pull away, but Carmen grabs her hair and refuses to let go, yelping in pain while keeping the woman close. Another hit to the woman's wrist. Another. A flailing attempt to stay away from the other set of claws. A palm-shot to the goggles.
Tigress breaks free, taking a handful of Carmen's coat with her. And skin. And blood. Carmen's head swims when she sees all of that red.
Tigress shoves her. Carmen can't prepare for it - her head is reeling, her vision blurring around the edges, the adrenaline wearing thin.
Carmen topples against the railing. Another push sends her over it, shouting, fingers scrabbling to keep herself from plummeting. Tigress returns, not willing to let her up, and Carmen exhales a pitchy laugh.
This can't be it.
Tigress raises a foot, spiked boot poised to come down on Carmen's right hand. She prepares, takes a hot breath in, and pulls her right hand away.
She nearly falls, but her left arm hooks around the railing, catching herself. Tigress' foot slams into the metal; she curses, twisting to go for Carmen's arm, but Carmen grabs her ankle and pulls.
Tigress slips on her stupid heeled boots. She's beside Carmen now, clinging to the railing for dear life, hissing out curses while she struggles to pull herself up. But she can't - her stupid heeled boots can't find purchase, and neither can her stupid spiked hands.
With Tigress preoccupied, Carmen refocuses. Breathing raggedly, she wrangles her dangling arm. She gets control and fires her grappling gun at the nearby building's roof. She removes her left arm from the railing and prays to whatever God there is.
Carmen slams into a fire escape on the building across 54th, muffling a howl through clenched teeth when her injured side takes the brunt of the hit. Dear lord, she's going to blackout. She pulls herself up, leaning heavily against the brick wall.
Every time she comes to New York, she gets injured. It's getting worse each time, too, which isn't ideal.
She reactivates her comm, whispering, "Player, I need to get out of here."
"Jesus!" he yelps over the connection. "Don't disconnect-"
"I'm hurt pretty bad. I need an extraction."
Player quiets for a moment, his fingers flying across keys and clacking in her ear. "Ivy's got an ACME tail on her. Zack's about twenty minutes out. Can you hold on for twenty minutes?"
"If I stop almost falling off buildings," she groans, looking up at the sky. She wishes the light pollution wasn't blocking the stars. "And if Tigress keeps off my back, which. You know. Might be wishful thinking at this rate." She winces, her side throbbing.
"You're six blocks south of Central Park. Can you get there?"
"Oof. I know it's bad when you're using my name," she tries to lighten the mood and cover the fact that her breath is coming out harder than it should. Carmen sets her grapple gun, securing it around the fire escape, and hops over the edge. It feels like daggers slicing into her while she carefully lowers down the side of the building.
She pretends she doesn't see how much blood is on her coat.
Carmen makes it through the streets relatively quickly, skirting through dark alleys. She nearly gets hit by a car without its lights while crossing 59th, but she manages to roll over the hood.
She probably left blood on his bonnet, she thinks absently.
Oh well. Serves him right for not having his lights on.
Carmen chuckles weakly, pausing at the outskirts of Central Park and collapsing onto a bench. "Does Ivy still have the painting?"
"Red, you gotta keep moving."
"Just...just a second," she gasps, holding her side. "I just need a breather. Where's the painting?"
"Carmen, the painting's fine! But you need to get up. You're going to go a kilometre north. Okay? Keep going north. You're going to run into a memorial - Strawberry Fields."
"Like the song," Carmen smiles absently, forcing herself to her feet. She stumbles; now that her legs stopped moving, they don't want to work anymore.
"Keep talking to me," she requests, glancing around. No one that she can see. No VILE, No ACME
"Ah...yeah. Yeah, Strawberry Fields is a memorial site to John Lennon."
"The good ol' Beatles," Carmen wheezes. She's sprinting - sprinting isn't fun. One of her sides is sliced to hell, and the other one is getting a stitch.
"...There's a mosaic there, dedicated to Lennon. It's based on his song Imagine."
"Excellent song." Player's voice can't feign interest; he sounds close to panic. Or he's already at the panic stage and trying not to sprial.
Carmen's vision is going fuzzy. She stumbles in a dip in the grass but manages to roll back to her feet with only the mildest vertigo. "Not bad, Sandiego," she compliments herself when she has the breath to do so.
"You're almost there, Carmen."
"Beatles fan, Player?" Carmen puffs. She sees a thick stretch of foliage ahead. She can hear traffic from the nearby road, but a screen of trees keeps her in shadow.
"Hard not to be. They're iconic."
"Play Strawberry Fields Forever."
"Just play the damned song," she whimpers when she finally makes it into the trees.
There's silence - and then, softly, the opening refrain. It calms her. She isn't sure why, but the familiar tune makes the aches in her tired limbs lessen. It's sombre and slow and beautiful.
In the back of her mind, Carmen wonders if Julia's out here, too. If she's one of the people tailing Ivy. If she's following Zack. If she's wandering by. If she'll find Carmen dead.
"Carmen, you need to keep moving."
"You have to. You're so close. Zack is almost there, okay? Just go about 200 metres to the west; stick in the trees, but be close to Terrace Drive. ...Carm?"
"I hear you," she whispers, tilting her head back against the trunk of a tree. God, she's so tired.
"You're not moving."
"I'm working on it."
She pushes off of the tree, stumbles, smacks into another trunk, and rolls off of it. She counts her paces. 200 metres. That's nothing. 200 metres.
She doesn't realise she's humming along to the song until her voice breaks and refuses to come back. Things go extra quiet around her. The sound of traffic filters through and out, barely registering.
She sees the road through the trees. She sinks onto her hands and knees before curling up on the ground.
"He's almost there, Carmen."
Carmen rolls over to look at the sky; the trees block it. The light pollution prevents it.
What a terrible way to die. Bleeding out on the ground, her best friend in her ear and begging her to hold on. Her accomplices, her friends, out there somewhere on the streets.
The woman she loves might be out there, too. She has no idea what's happening. She has no idea Carmen's going to...
But it's all alright -
That is, I think it's not so bad...
Carmen closes her eyes. "Player? Can you turn the song off?" When it's silent, she murmurs, "Can you connect me to her?"
Player goes quiet, keys clacking. She hears ringing. The ringing keeps going until someone picks up the phone.
"Selamat siang, apakah anda mencoba memesan tempat untuk makan malam?"
Player disconnects; Carmen wheezes out wry laughter. "What restaurant did we get connected to?"
"Sana Sini Restaurant in Jakarta," Player says softly. "I'm sorry, Red."
"It's all for the best," she smiles at the trees. "I'd probably just ramble like an idiot. About how much I love her eyes. And the way she lights up when she talks about things she's passionate about. And how I wanted to stay there and take care of her when she was sick. And how I want to call her every night, tell her where I am, what I'm doing..." she trails off. And then whispers, "She's good, Player. Really, truly, honestly good."
Player makes a noise. Is he crying? Surely not.
"Hey," she murmurs. "I love you guys."
"It's okay. It doesn't hurt anymore." She can't feel anything other than cotton in the back of her throat, the tears in her eyes, how her fingers are so cold they're going numb.
"Carmen, stay with me. Keep talking. Focus. Focus on-" he stalls, "Hey! Sing Imagine. It's a great song."
"You'd regret it if I did."
"Yeah, you're not too great with staying on pitch."
Carmen laughs, winces, and closes her eyes. "When you guys tell her what happened...can you tell her that I loved her?"
Player doesn't answer for a moment. And then, voice breaking, "Sure thing, Red."
Carmen closes her eyes and lets it all slide into the dark.
Julia doesn't make sure that Devineaux is snoring in his room. She doesn't ensure that Agent Zari isn't watching the lobby. She runs through the hotel, into the crisp night, and onto the curb. She hails a taxi by running in front of it and holding up her hand. She ignores the fact that the driver curses at her, sliding into the back seat and shouting, "NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital!"
Julia's eyes widen. "Pardon?"
"There's, like, a hundred locations, lady. Which one?"
"I-I don't..." she fumbles in her pocket for the odd phone, the one she just turned on five minutes ago. Julia calls the 18-digit number that contacted her.
"Julia?" the voice asks.
"Which hospital?" she demands.
"Ummm -- here we go! Lower Manhattan; 170 William Street."
"170 William Street!" Julia shouts at the driver. The driver lets out a sigh as if she's inconveniencing him, pulling into the late-night traffic.
"She's okay," the person assures her. "She woke up an hour ago with stitches and lots of fresh blood."
Julia doesn't care - she ends the call and snaps, "Will you hurry, please?!"
"Do you not see this traffic?" he replies as if she's mad. "I don't have a flying car. Jesus."
The encrypted phone buzzes again. Julia winces, realising how rude it was to hang up on Carmen's secretive associate. She answers it, but before she can say anything, a heavy accent asks, "Hey, this is Julia, right?"
"Yes," she rushes out. She recognises the voice - Carmen's copper-haired friend. "Yes - is she-"
"She's fine," the other woman assures her. "She's just, ah...laid up. Listen - Player said you're on your way? Gimme a call when ya get here. Visitin' hours're over, so I'll bring ya in a back way."
"Of course, yes, I'll..." she breaks off, her brain a mess of bees. She can't think; the adrenaline and panic are making her hands buzz.
"She's alright, Julia," the woman repeats. "Call me when you're here, right?"
"Right." Julia murmurs, ending the call and wringing her shirt with her fingers.
The hospital food smells fantastic - Carmen doesn't expect that. Even so, she doesn't eat it. She pushes the wheeled table aside, freeing up her lap, and reaches across for her phone. She recoils, letting out a horrified noise when pain spikes through her. It feels like poison in her blood, lancing out through her veins, overwhelming each pain receptor with more heat than she understands.
Ivy knocks on the door with her usual four-rap rhythm. Carmen opens her mouth to beg Ivy to get her out of the hospital as soon as possible, but it isn't Ivy who steps through.
"Jules!" Carmen beams. Player must have contacted her.
Julia stomps toward her, face flushed and brows furrowed. She looks angry. Carmen is definitely not prepared for angry. "Jules-"
Julia punches her shoulder.
Carmen recoils, holding her upper arm. "What the hell?!" Carmen asks, more shocked than mad.
"'What the hell'?!" Julia repeats, her voice rising. "You have the nerve to sit there and ask me 'what the hell'?!" She lashes out again, rapping Carmen's collar bone.
"Jules!" Carmen snorts, covering her chest with her arms, preparing for the next half-hearted strike. "Has anyone ever told you that you have a terrible bedside manner?"
Julia's face crumbles; she collapses onto the bedside, angled toward Carmen. "What happened?" she whispers.
"I got sloppy. VILE got lucky."
Julia watches her for a moment before murmuring, "Are you planning on letting your guard down anytime soon?"
"Are you planning on hitting me?"
Julia reluctantly smiles. "Not unless you upset me again."
Carmen drops her arms; Julia worms in beside her, head tucked into the crook of her neck. "You're cold," she murmurs against Carmen's jugular.
"I'm still relearning how to keep my blood inside of me." Carmen pulls Julia closer even though the angle makes her side scream. "Were you out there last night?"
"Yes. Devineaux and I were trailing your associate. Ivy."
Carmen furrows her brows, not understanding. "How did she get away?"
"I took a wrong turn."
Carmen goes quiet for a moment, realisation dawning. "You let her go."
Julia doesn't move, doesn't look up at her. "I am chasing Carmen Sandiego, not her mechanic or driver."
Carmen pulls back. It takes a few moments, but the detective finally raises her dark eyes. Carmen tilts her face up, pressing a kiss to her lips.
Once the contact occurs, Julia springs up to her knees, seemingly forgetting everything else. She leans over Carmen, pressing her into the pillows, hands to either side of her head. Carmen winces and giggles and tries not to cry when her side flares in a fury. "Jules-" she tries between Julia's frantic kisses.
"Do not do that again," Julia warns against Carmen's mouth.
"This is way more hostile than I was expecting."
Julia is undeterred. "If I ever get another call that you have put yourself in a hospital-"
"They told you I was attacked, right?"
"-then I will not come visit you."
Carmen tries not to laugh, but Julia is crying and furious and charming and so loyal that Carmen can't help a giggle.
"Don't laugh!" Julia's voice raises a bit, offended.
Carmen bites her lower lip and reaches up to brush a wisp of hair from the woman's face. "Hey." She could admit that she's somehow in love with her. She can tell her that she was the person Carmen thought about at the very end. The almost very end.
Instead, Carmen wipes the tears from Julia's cheeks. "I'm glad you came to visit me," she settles on.
"You are very fortunate you're attractive," Julia rebukes without heat, settling herself down onto the bed with Carmen.
Carmen ignores the painkiller drip and deals with the flare of anguish when she wraps her arms around Julia.
It's worth it.
let me take you down 'cause I'm going to
Chapter 5: Weekends
Chapter Five, in which Julia receives something she should pay more attention to - but instead focuses on Carmen.
Julia opens the front door, gathering her bathrobe around her camisole and boyshort combo, trying to look stern. "This is highly inappropriate."
"Nonsense! We are partners! Partners work overtime together," Devineaux explains, trying to pass through into the apartment.
Julia stands her ground, shaking her head. "Partners listen to one another. I need you to go back home and not call me unless something pressing and urgent happens. The weekends are not meant for work according to the ACME regulations." She made this last bit up, but she has discovered that Devineaux has no idea what ACME regulations are.
"Agent Argent, what do you have that is more pressing than catching-" He's looking above and around her, unabashedly inspecting the small apartment. And then he stops talking, his face taking on a strange, pinched expression. "Oh."
Julia crosses her arms over her chest, not turning around, not backing down. She puts each ounce of rigidity in her stance, every ounce of authority in her voice. Sometimes he buckles if she's firm enough. "Devineaux, I applaud your work ethic. However, I must insist-"
"I see you are busy," he interrupts. Is he flushing? He might be flushing. "I will see myself out!" He shoves a case file into her chest and turns, briskly walking out of the building.
Julia closes and locks the door, holding the file to her frantically beating heart. She turns, leans against the wood, and takes in the state of the apartment.
The first thing Davineaux noticed, if Julia had to guess, is the empty merlot bottle on the easily-viewed kitchen counter. And then his eyes were probably drawn to the two wine glasses on the bar, unobstructed and sparkling prettily in the mid-morning light. The dish that held a charcuterie spread is still on the bar, as well, sitting beside a bowl that held homemade hummus.
Julia was too busy falling in love to clean up last night.
And then there is a pair of unremarkable trainers by the door next to Julia's flats.
Maybe he noticed the hair-elastic on the entry table, but probably not. Hopefully not.
Not that her being a lesbian would bother him, she thinks. Tilting her head, she tries to imagine the reaction. It'd probably be something along the lines of Devineaux saying a lot of words that barely fit together. Blustering attempts to assure her that he doesn't care about that kind of thing.
It would probably be extremely awkward.
Definitely awkward, she decides, pushing off of the door. She leaves the case file on the entry table and moves to the bedroom.
Carmen slides out from under the bed, wincing a little when she gets to her feet. "Thinking about it now, I probably should have just hidden in the shower."
Julia grins, not able to help it, and lifts Carmen's over-large nightshirt, analysing her wound. "You haven't bled through your bandages, at least."
"Wonder of wonders that I didn't tear the stitches." Carmen leans down, pressing her forehead to Julia's. "What's the plan for today?"
"The plan is the same now as when Player allowed this vacation to happen."
"Yes, he allowed it," Julia returns, gently guiding Carmen backwards and sitting her down on the bed. "You are going to rest, recover, and not cause problems."
"You fed me wine and Chinese food and cured meats last night, and now you expect me to believe you're going to follow Player's mandates?"
Julia knows she's flushing guiltily. Don't let her eat a lot of sodium, Player warned. It slows down recovery time. No sugar. No alcohol. And do not ask her to reach, crawl, or - heaven forbid - run unless the alternative is imminent death.
"I am not about to go against any more of your doctor's orders."
"Player isn't my doctor."
"Dr Franklin was, and Player is repeating her orders."
Carmen pretends to be annoyed, leaning back on her hands. "Zack and Ivy would let me crawl under a bed if I wanted."
"Then I suppose you should go spend the week with Zack and Ivy."
Carmen's eyes widen at the rebuke, a surprised grin overtaking her face. "You're not going to let me get away with anything, are you?"
"Never," Julia says, knowing full-well that there is very little she won't let Carmen get away with. Julia presses a chaste kiss to her forehead, retreating to the bathroom before Carmen can convince her otherwise.
Julia prides herself in making it into the bathroom without a single glance over her shoulder. It doesn't stop her every bone from wanting to rebel, to crawl back into bed and tuck her face against the hollow of Carmen's neck. But she behaves. She showers and finishes her daily routine, leaving the bathroom with a song on her lips.
It stalls out when she finds an empty bed with perfectly tucked-in sheets and comforter. "Sérieusement?" Julia groans as she leaves the bedroom.
She finds the woman, messy-haired and wearing Julia's slippers, reaching for a mixing bowl. Before she can chastise her, Carmen folds to the side, hissing sharply, her hands hovering over her sewn waist.
"Carmen, s'il te plaît," Julia scolds.
"No one said anything about not making breakfast," she says as if she doesn't know what she's done. When Julia's reaction is an unchanging mask of disappointment, Carmen bites her bottom lip. "I'm sorry," she soothes, properly chastised.
"Then go sit and let me handle the kitchen."
"I don't like being a burden."
"You know that you're not."
"I feel like I am."
"That may be so, but you need to behave if you ever expect me to let you stay over again. This house isn't toddler-proof, after all."
"Hey!" Carmen laughs. She pretends that she doesn't flinch at the motion, but she doesn't cover it well enough.
"Take a painkiller," Julia suggests even though she knows Carmen's reaction.
"It's not that bad," she says, but Julia can see it in her eyes. She tweaked the injury while diving under the bed when Devineaux came calling.
Carmen forces a smile that doesn't reach her eyes. "Maybe I should sit down and leave breakfast to you?"
"Please," Julia breathes in relief. Carmen moves toward the couch. There's a slight leftward lean to her gait; her elbow tucks in close, protectively hovering over the wound.
Julia considers crushing up a pill and adding it to Carmen's tea. She immediately pushes that thought aside, appalled that it even occurred to her.
But then Carmen lets out a whimper that makes Julia whirl in concern.
"I'm fine," Carmen insists. "Just forgot how cushy this couch is."
The thought about drugging her girlfriend - girlfriend? - enters her brain again. This time it takes a little longer to leave.
May is usually an unpleasant affair, Julia told Carmen while Player made flight plans to Poitiers. It will no doubt rain most of the time - and, even when it isn't raining, it will feel damp and cold anyway.
To which she then added, Not that you will be going outside.
Carmen knew Julia was serious about that - the woman was never going to let her leave the apartment, especially not in her current condition. Even so, Carmen is going completely stir-crazy by four in the afternoon.
"Is there roof access?" she asks when the rain peters off, perking up on her end of the couch and regretting it immediately. Her side flares; she bites down on her tongue to keep the pain quiet.
Julia, luckily, hasn't noticed. Her eyes are still scanning across a book. When she finally glances up, Carmen has composed her face into a placid mask. "What?" the raven-haired woman asks, her cheeks taking a bit of colour.
"Nothing," Carmen decides to reply, forgoing the pointless request for outdoor-time. "Just admiring the view."
Julia's blush kills her. Carmen feels everything inside of her turn to mush when the pale freckles on Julia's face stand out amid the vivid pink. Carmen's smile widens, and that only makes Julia's cheeks flare hotter.
"You are ridiculous," Julia mumbles, raising her book to block her face. But she's grinning, pleased, embarrassed.
"What're you reading?" she asks.
Julia's head lifts a bit to regard her over the book. "The same thing I was reading twenty minutes ago when you last asked."
"I forgot. Blame it on the painkillers."
"I would love to, but you refuse to take them." Carmen shrugs, nonplussed, and Julia lowers the book, sighing, "You aren't interested in my book."
"You did, the moment you heard I was reading Camus."
"He was a downer."
Julia chuckles, setting her book on the coffee table and leaning forward a little. Her legs unfurl under their shared blanket; one goes to the floor while the other delicately rests against Carmen's inner thigh.
"Is this alright?" Julia asks.
Carmen's belly flutters with warmth at the touch. She tries to keep herself in control, but she's reasonably sure that it's her cheeks colouring now. "Perfect," she replies even though her heart has moved its residence to her throat.
Julia leans in a bit. "So, if you have no fondness for Camus, what literature interests you?"
"You'll have to narrow it down for me."
"That's way too difficult."
"Hmm. Favourite French author, classic or modern?"
Carmen thinks about it. "Voltaire. Wait, no," Carmen interrupts herself, glancing toward the corner of the room, deep in thought. "Zola."
"You sound surprised."
"No! It's just...I suppose it makes sense," she smiles a little. "He was an impressive man. He risked his career and freedom to stand up to the government and the church."
"To stand up for a man wrongly convicted," Carmen continues. "And the corruption that kept him that way."
"You know what happened to Zola, do you not?"
"Of course," Carmen's smile turns wry. "He died from carbon monoxide poisoning."
Julia's frown deepens. "Because a chimney sweep blocked his flue."
"There's no definitive proof that someone assassinated him."
"There was an admission from the chimney sweep himself. Zola had enemies. Powerful enemies who could easily pay the man to commit the act."
"He was a hero who stood up for the truth, the people, fairness, and the rule of law." Carmen closes her mouth when she realises that Julia's getting more upset the longer she argues. "Jules..."
"You don't notice the correlations, do you?"
"Don't worry about me - I never use fireplaces."
Julia swallows and looks away. This was not the reaction Carmen hoped for. "Jules, Zola wrote a very public condemnation. He basically painted a target on his back; I work in the shadows."
"And you nearly died in the shadows."
Carmen winces, but not because of her throbbing, healing wound. Julia must realise it because the smaller woman clears her throat. "Alright, you enjoy Zola. I enjoy Camus."
"Camus was pretty vocal, too."
"He died in a car accident."
"Seriously?" At Julia's nod, Carmen whistles. "Don't let Devineaux drive."
Julia lets out a reluctant laugh, inclining her head. "He isn't allowed to operate ACME vehicles anymore."
"Thank God. Alright, new topic. Favourite place? Ancient or modern."
Julia settles back into the couch, seeming less flustered with the new topic. "What if there's no real proof it existed?"
Carmen scrunches her nose. "Are you about to say Atlantis?"
"No!" Julia giggles. Carmen melts. "The Hanging Gardens of Babylon."
"Oh, an ancient Wonder; I like it. Tell me about it."
"Well," Julia begins, leaning forward a little, "No one knows if it even existed. And if it did, it is very probable that it wasn't in Babylon." She's suddenly on her feet, gliding across the small room and taking a book down from the floor-to-ceiling bookcase. When she returns, she sits on the coffee table right next to Carmen.
"Here," she murmurs, turning the book around and pointing at a picture. Immense layers of individual steppes lead up to the sky. And on each level, trees and flowers burst and bloom with gorgeous colours and fruits.
"Wow," Carmen murmurs, gently passing a finger across hanging lattices of twining flora.
"There are many interesting things about it," Julia continues. She sounds wistful. "Perhaps the garden wasn't in Babylon itself - Babylon translates to 'Gate of the Gods,' and many places in Mesopotamia were called that. Maybe it was just a myth carried down through time.
"Perhaps it was irrigated in a way that we cannot begin to fathom now - something lost to time. The architecture itself was supposedly breathtaking," she adds, eyes scanning the painting of it. "Kilometres and kilometres of year-round fruiting trees, flowers, birds and small fauna."
Carmen studies the picture a bit closer. There are a man and a woman in it, arms entwined. "Who are they?"
Julia blushes a bit, but it doesn't seem embarrassed. "In this interpretation, they credited Nebuchadnezzar II for the garden. According to this speculation, Nebuchadnezzar built the garden for his queen. She was from a mountainous, flourishing area. The deserts around modern-day Iraq were so different from her home that she became depressed and ill. Nebuchadnezzar loved her deeply and hated seeing her like that, so he began building the garden."
Carmen isn't sure if it's the sweet story or the way Julia's voice takes on a note of longing, but it makes her throat close up a little. She never tears up at legends - no matter how cute or fanciful - so it has to be Julia's doing. "What was her name?"
Julia doesn't even have to consult the book. "Queen Amytis." Julia looks up at her; her face is a mix of emotions. "Even though this story was all but disproven - given that Nebucchanezzer left many documents from his time as King, and none mentioned the gardens - it's still my favourite."
Fairytales. Julia likes fairytales. Carmen tilts her head, considering the new information. "I like it, too."
"You don't even know the other theories," she laughs.
Carmen shrugs. "Not yet. We have all weekend for you to tell me."
Julia's cheeks flush with pleasure. "You want to hear all of this?"
I'll listen to anything you say, Carmen thinks. She reaches out to tuck a stray bit of Julia's cropped hair behind her ear. "You're not the only one who likes history, you know."
Julia sets the book aside, clearing her throat. "If you could live anywhere, where would you choose?"
She thinks about it for a moment, and then she shrugs. "I don't know. Everywhere has it's good and bad. Although," she draws out, carefully adjusting herself so that she's facing Julia, feet planted on the carpet, "I do like places that teach me something unique."
"Such as?" Julia asks, leaning in, eyes sparkling and excited.
"I learned to read palms in Romania not too long ago." Carmen raises a brow at her, putting her hands out. "Want a reading?"
Julia eagerly offers a hand. Carmen, grinning, pretends to analyse the lines, thumb tracing patterns that make Julia shudder and stifle laughter.
"You're going to have a long, happy life," Carmen murmurs. "No car accidents so long as you don't let your partner drive."
"You have no idea what you're doing, do you?" Julia grins.
"Shhh, I need to concentrate," Carmen faux-shushes her, leaning in a bit more. "I see you with a really hot woman, too. Redhead. Sound familiar?"
"You are incorrigible!" Julia giggles, pretending to pull her hand back.
Carmen tightens her grip, gently drawing Julia closer. "Somewhere exotic and secluded."
Julia expression softens. "That would be...nice."
"In your immediate future," Carmen continues, tugging Julia onto her lap and biting her tongue to keep from shouting in pain, "I see you and that redhead getting a bottle of wine and reading theories about an ancient garden that may or may not have existed."
"You're not supposed to have sugar or alcohol," Julia chides, but they both know she's as interested in the idea as Carmen.
Carmen leans in and secures a kiss. Julia relaxes into her, a slender hand smoothing across her collarbone, neck, and then into her hair.
Carmen doesn't even care that her side is on fire; she reclines into the cushions, dragging Julia along with her.
on weekends I have no room
for anyone else but you
Chapter 6: Case File
Chapter Six, in which things become more complicated.
The morning rain is oddly refreshing to listen to, Carmen thinks while she moves through the small apartment. She puts dishes in the washing machine and tidies the couch - they're just going to upset it all over again, but Carmen needs to do something while Julia isn't watching her every move.
She isn't used to be babied and, while she understands the reasoning, it's beginning to make her skin crawl. And itch. But that's probably more to do with the mending gouges on her side.
Carmen collects the mail from Julia's letterbox, careful not to make a noise and draw the attention of Julia's superintendant. He's already come round once to ask them to keep the noise down. Carmen still isn't sure what noise he reprimanded them for - seeing as they had been napping at the time - but she isn't about to cause another awkward moment of 'Who is this, Mlle Argent? You cannot have a roommate unless they are on the lease!'
'This is my friend,' Julia assured him at the time, her cheeks so flushed she looked sunburnt. 'She's here for the week.'
'Spring break,' Carmen added with a little smile.
Carmen sighs in relief when she makes it back inside the apartment. She sets the letters on the entry table but pauses, noticing a nondescript file folder she hadn't seen before.
"Jules-" but Julia is in the shower. Carmen glances around, trying to weigh the pros and cons of snooping. On the one hand, snooping is a valuable resource for someone in Carmen's profession. On the other, snooping on Julia would be...
A breach of trust.
Carmen slips into the bedroom and places her ear to the bathroom door, listening for a moment. The water is still running; Julia is humming, distracted.
One little glance can't hurt, right? More than likely it's a mishmash of contradictory information on her or VILE. Or both, knowing ACME's love for roping them into the same team.
Carmen takes the folder and flips it open, scanning through. And then she freezes, not comprehending what she's seeing.
She drops the folder and runs into the bedroom, grabbing her phone and calling Player.
"Seriously, Red?" Player grumbles.
He was asleep, a part of her realises. It's only three in the morning for him. Even so, there are more pressing matters. "Player, where's Shadowsan?"
"Did you forgot you promised to be on vacation and not bother the rest of us until those stitches dissolve?"
"Is he in Jordan?"
Player goes very quiet for a moment. She can hear him throwing back the bedcovers, and then his fingers on keys. "How did you know that? What's going on?"
"Get him out," Carmen says, shaking her head even though he can't see her. "ACME's on his trail - you need to get him out now. I don't know how they're tracking him-"
"Wait, they're in Jordan right now?"
"I don't know where they are," Carmen snaps, her irritation turning to pure panic. "I don't -- I saw a case file here at Julia's. It has photos of him, an itinerary from Seattle to Qatar, information on a car rental, intel saying that car was heading toward Jordan yesterday morning."
"Did Julia-" he breaks off, obviously trying to find a diplomatic way of asking. Did Julia know?
Did Julia know? What was the file doing in her apartment? Why wouldn't she have said something? "No way," Carmen replies. "I'll deal with things on this end - you focus on getting Shadowsan back to H.Q."
"If ACME's on him, then we can't send him to H.Q."
"Figure it out, Player." Carmen returns to the bedroom, shuffling through her backpack and finding a clean pair of jeans and a tee. "Tell me where you're sending him, and I'll catch a flight there, too."
She expects Player to argue, to remind her of her injuries, but he says, "Stay safe."
"Yeah," she sighs, ending the call but slipping her earpiece in. She dresses quickly, gathers some things, and then paces the living room. Her entire body feels like it's full of bugs trying to tear though. The wound on her waist is agonising - she makes sure she hasn't torn stitches and then pushes down her hesitation.
She crosses to the kitchen, grabs the pill bottle, and dry-swallows a painkiller.
When Julia emerges from the shower - smelling like coconuts and asking her about lunch preferences - Carmen interrupts, "Did you know ACME was onto us?"
Julia's eyes widen; she immediately looks around the room. "Us?"
"My team," Carmen expounds, sliding the file folder across the bar toward her. "They're tracking one of us right now, and with way more intel that they should have."
Julia grabs the folder and opens it, eyes scanning. They widen with each page and image - and then they turn up to Carmen. "N-no, I had no idea -- Devineaux brought it yesterday and I just... I-I assumed it was another-"
Carmen's earpiece beeps; she turns her back to Julia, pressing the connection button. "Talk to me, Player."
"I got in touch with Shadowsan - he's fine, but he's agreed to call off the mission. I have him booked for a flight back to Seattle."
"Good," Carmen murmurs, running a hand through her hair. "I'll get a flight out-"
"Already taken care of. You leave from Poitiers-Biard at three-fifteen; private plane under your new civilian name."
"Perfect," she breathes, but her insides are fluttering even though her brain feelslike it's softening with each passing second. At least her side isn't on fire. "Thanks, Player. Keep me informed."
Carmen disconnects the call. She turns to find Julia sitting heavily on a barstool, glassy-eyed, uncomprehending. "How did they...how did they not tell me? I am one of the lead detectives!"
Carmen wants to believe her - does believe her. But this isn't the first time that Julia gave her one set of information while ACME worked with another. You need to be sure. "Jules, are you sure that..." she begins, voice halting.
"I had no idea!" she insists. "I would never..." she swallows and looks away from Carmen.
Carmen nods to herself. "Yeah." She goes into the bedroom and collects her bag, putting it by the doorway. "I have a flight in a few hours."
"I can drive you."
"I don't think that's a great idea."
"Carmen-" Julia tries, but her mouth closes around whatever else she planned to say. "Are you returning home?"
"I shouldn't talk about where I'm going."
The words sting Julia so much that she physically recoils from them. "I...I see."
"Right," Julia whispers. She won't meet Carmen's eyes. Carmen's having a hard time not breaking down - everything is getting too fuzzy, too emotional. The hydrocodone is making everything more complicated, more unstable.
"Julia, I know..." she trails off. What does she know? That her heart feels like it's slowing. That her blood feels lethargic. "I know you wouldn't intentionally hurt me. But if they know about you and me, then maybe they're somehow-"
"They have no way to know," she argues, the fight coming back.
"In New York - is it possible someone saw you go to the hospital?"
Julia freezes. "No. No, they couldn't have. They were...I-I..." Her face crumbles and Carmen can't keep herself away anymore. She goes to the other woman, wrapping her arms around Julia's shoulders and drawing her into a tight hug. She doesn't notice the pain in her side past all of the weightlessness.
"You're right," Carmen soothes. "If they knew about us, then they wouldn't let you keep galavanting around with their equipment. They would have fired you, mind-wiped you - whatever it is they do there."
"What do we do now?" Julia asks against Carmen's neck.
"You sit tight. Play it cool. Try to figure out if my crew got sloppy, or if ACME knows more than they've let on, or...I don't know." She's mumbling. It's so hard to formulate the words.
Carmen smooths a hand over the back of Julia's head. Her hair is so soft. She blinks through the painkiller haze and whispers, "Things happen. So long as S -- so long as my team makes it out safely, we'll figure it out."
"I can call Devineaux-"
"No," Carmen quickly replies. "No - act like you don't know anything. Act like you never opened the file. It was the weekend, you had a nice time with an old college friend, and then you came into work on Monday. Right?" Julia nods, though she still looks nervous.
Carmen thinks she's going to pass out. She pulls free from Julia, eyelids fluttering. Dear lord, the label said to take two, and Carmen only took one. "No wonder there's an opiod epidemic," she murmurs to herself, placing a hand to her forehead. "I need to sit down."
Julia leads her to the couch. Carmen's eyes close the second she's lying down, her head in Julia's lap.
Carmen throws her arms around him when they're safely inside his hotel room. Shadowsan, obviously unprepared for the action, stiffens in her grip. "It is good to see you," he gruffly mumbles. One arm wraps around her shoulders; the other hand awkwardly pats the top of her bun.
"What happened?" she asks when she pulls away. "How did they find you?"
"I do not know, but I am sure they spotted VILE, too," he replies, taking a seat at the room's desk, clicking through files on his computer - the files Deineaux gave Julia, and then Julia gave Carmen. "It seems Coach Brunt herself showed her head for this one. Devineaux no-doubt has memories of her that are near impossible to forget, so it stands to reason she caught their attention."
"You both happen to be there at the same time, so ACME put two-and-two together."
"Inaccurately putting things together is kind-of their M.O.," Carmen murmurs. She doesn't smile, but she does scratch at her arm absently while thinking. "Julia isn't involved."
"Carmen," Shadowsan begins, voice halting.
"She's not involved," Carmen repeats, a little firmer this time. "I know her. I trust her."
"Of course," Shadowsan ducks his head, acknowledging, but she knows the sceptical look on his face - she saw it over and over again as a child. "Even so, perhaps you should keep a safer distance for now."
Carmen wants to argue even though she came to the same conclusion on the plane. "Did you see Brunt?"
"I did, from a distance. She looked more...frustrated than usual."
"Did she see you?"
"No, or else we might not be standing here together right now."
"And the vase?"
"I called in a bomb threat to the museum - if nothing else, it will add security and cause more frustration for VILE."
"We can always steal it back," Carmen says - more to herself than Shadowsan - even though she doesn't trust the accuracy of that statement. Things have gotten more complex since Shadowsan defected to her side. It became more personal for the instructors and more dangerous for her team.
"Player said we have a flight to Cleveland and then a red-eye to San Francisco?" she verifies just to say something, just to block out her suddenly ringing ears.
"Yes," Shadowsan replies, seeming just as eager for the topic change. "A car waits for us there - we will drive it to Reno, change cars, drive to El Paso, and then take a private flight to San Diego."
"The joys of being on the run," Carmen sighs, carefully sitting on the couch. She thinks about the bottle of painkillers in her backpack. Her side prickles with an itch she can't begin to scratch.
She's supposed to keep a distance. She's supposed to avoid all communication outside of their paired phones.
But her phone is at headquarters, and she's still in Seattle. But she's in pain and lonely. But it's three in the morning, and Carmen can't sleep because the hotel pillows don't smell like Julia's shampoo.
She climbs out of bed and quietly collects her burner phone. She hesitates for a long time, considering the stupidity of what she's about to do. But she can't stop herself from dialling a French mobile number she memorised over the weekend.
It rings. And then she answers. "Allo?"
Carme blurts, "I miss you."
Julia doesn't reply. Carmen closes her eyes and listens while Julia excuses herself from the room she's in. Her shoes click smartly, leaving an echoing hallway to what can only be a bustling sidewalk. Finally, Julia whispers, "This is too dangerous."
"I know," she murmurs back. "But I had to hear your voice."
Julia makes a sharp noise; a choked sob, barely muffled. "Is your friend safe?" she asks after a deep breath.
"He's fine. We're all fine." Another muffled noise from Julia. Carmen leans against the wall, sliding down the surface and gritting her teeth past the agony of the motion. "I trust you."
"Where should we go?" Julia suddenly murmurs. Before Carmen can question, she continues, "On our holiday to somewhere exotic and secluded?"
Carmen smiles, leaning down to rest her forehead on her knees. "Where do you want to go?"
"Somewhere with sun. I could use some sun."
Carmen closes her eyes. Like this, she can pretend they are together. "You know, there's this spot I read about a few years ago. It's in Cuba. Lush forest, close to the Caribbean Sea, private cabins…"
"Yes," Julia replies, tone resolute.
"We should go. Soon."
Carmen feels her throat close for a moment, breath choking her lungs. "Jules, it isn't safe for you to be around me right now."
"It is hardly safe fo you, either."
"I can take care of myself," Carmen gently argues. Julia doesn't respond; Carmen winces. "I'm not downplaying your impressive level of badassery, Jules. It's just...VILE is ruthless. Devineaux got lucky during his brief run-in and I can't...I can't let that happen to you."
"What are we?"
Carmen furrows her brows, raising her head in confusion. "What?"
"What are we? Are we...together?"
Carmen opens and closes her mouth. God, she's not prepared for this. She considers hanging up, tossing her phone, and forgetting all of this. But she doesn't. She doesn't because Julia deserves better. "I don't know. I'd…"
Tell her no. Tell her that it was just for fun. Tell her that you're not interested in that. Making out, talking for hours without stopping, and otherwise falling in love isn't synonymous with dating. End this. End it for her.
"I want to be," Carmen says.
"Then why are you pushing me away?"
Because I love you and I can't let something happen to you. Because you're too pure for this world and certainly for me. Because I can't think when I'm around you. Because I can't think when I'm away from you.
"Because I'm finally scared."
"All the more reason to keep me around, wouldn't you say?"
Carmen straightens up, heart hammering. "Jules…"
"You said it yourself months ago," Julia says, voice calm. "I've practically switched sides already." Julia goes quiet for a moment before whispering, "Let me help you. Everything ACME has - anything I can get my hands on - is yours."
"It's too dangerous, Julia," Carmen replies, hoping her use of the name might have an effect.
It does, but the effect is a firmness in the woman's voice. "Ms Sandiego, are we partners or not?"
Carmen's throat is on fire with emotion. "We are."
tell me we both matter
Chapter 7: "Alone"
Chapter Seven, in which Julia and Carmen's secluded, exotic vacation includes an alibi-related third wheel.
"How ya doing, Red?" Player asks through her earpiece.
Carmen is close to losing her mind, is how she is doing. The tourists behind her keep trying to talk to her, the bus is bumpier than her fluttering stomach can handle, and she's sweating for no logical reason. "Peachy. Nothing weird about this. Or unexpected. Or terrifying."
"Are you sure this is a good idea?"
"I'm never sure that anything is a good idea, that's why I'm so exciting," Carmen teases, glancing up as a road sign goes by. Twenty-four kilometres to Santiago de Cuba.
Carmen checks her compact. Her lipstain is still flawless, but her eyeliner needs a little work. She'll have to fix it before getting to the cabin. She also has to pick up wine. And flowers? A gift?
Dear God, this level of panic could kill a person. People do this all the time, Carmen assures herself. You deal with actual danger every week. What's the worst that can happen?
You can make the biggest ass of yourself.
"I think I need a month-long vacation; just me, the ocean, and tequila," Carmen mumbles, only half-joking.
"I've been telling you that for ages," Player chides and then yawns.
"And I've been telling you to go to bed for hours. You've been up since yesterday afternoon."
"This is way more interesting than sleep," he retorts.
"You're about to ask me to leave the comm open, aren't you?"
"Nah. I mean, yeah, if you want to - I'm sure it would be hilarious to eavesdrop on. I am pretty curious about this living situation."
"Player!" she snorts. "None of your business is an understatement."
Player sighs. "You know I didn't mean that. I obviously know what you and Julia's living situation is going to be."
Carmen flushes at that, clearing her throat. "Then you're curious about our alibi-guest?"
"Yep. Where's she staying?"
"The other room. Right next to ours."
"Totally not weird."
"I guess I'm hoping that things will be magically effortless and not at all mood-ruining?"
"Your life has become so weird," Player muses.
"Like it wasn't before?"
"Honestly? This is way weirder. You're dating someone. You."
"You're mean when you're tired."
Player laughs, but it turns into another poorly-stifled yawn. "A'right, Red. Don't do anything too cringey."
"I'm so glad I can come to you for sympathetic emotional support."
"You know you're going to be fine - you're good in every social situation." He's right, and the reminder makes her smile. "I'll have the line open, but I'm heading to bed," he continues. "Let me know if you need me."
"I always do. Night, Player."
Carmen lets out a soft sigh, clicking her earpiece to silent. She looks out the window, at the sun slowly sinking.
Twenty kilometres now.
This is fine.
She's not nervous.
Carmen Sandiego doesn't get nervous.
Carmen closes her hands on themselves, ignoring that they're shaking a little.
This is fine.
She's just a little peckish.
Carmen Sandiego doesn't get nervous.
Not even when she's meeting her girlfriend's mother with a mere 12 hours' notice.
Carmen parks the rental car outside of the tiny cabin, sitting with the engine still running, considering. She considers leaving - pretending there is a crisis she needs to attend to. She considers having Player call her in twenty minutes with a fake emergency.
"Just your stupid lizard brain," she repeats for the tenth time. "This is fine. Totally fine. Your girlfriend's mom is going to love you. You're smart and funny and good-looking. That's way more important than the fact that you're a criminal."
She checks her makeup in the visor before grabbing the bottles of wine. Trudging up the overgrown path to the cabin, Carmen practices her flippant smiles.
When she makes it to the porch, the door flies open. Carmen freezes, preparing for an onslaught of maternal curiosity, but it's only Julia.
"Hey," Carmen greets with a grin that appears so quickly that she wonders why she practised.
Julia comes up to her, hands clenching her thin over-shirt, and pulls her down into a kiss.
"Wow," Carmen chuckles, pulling back for a breath. "I can't believe I thought about running for the hills."
Julia gives her a look - the one where she scrunches her nose in a mild pout, disapproving in the cutest of ways. "We have not seen each other in two months, and this is how you greet me?"
"I brought wine?" Carmen smirks, waving the bottles.
Julia rolls her eyes and pretends to pull away, but Carmen wraps an arm around her waist, tugging her close. "I pretend I'm smoother than I am when a pretty girl surprises me."
Julia can't keep a smile from tilting the corners of her lips. "How are you feeling?"
Julia huffs at her, but her cheeks colour at the comment. "In regards to our guest."
"Would you believe me if I said I wasn't worried at all?"
"Smart," Carmen nods. "I've never done a 'meet the parent' routine, but most people like me, so," she shrugs as if her heart isn't hammering. She leans down and steals a few kisses, shifting a wine bottle onto the deck railing. The freed hand caresses the side of Julia's cheek and down her bared neck to her mostly-bared arm.
Julia pulls away, flushed and wide-eyed. "We should, ehm…"
"Stop before your mom notices us?"
"Too late," Carmen grins, pressing another kiss to Julia's cheek, pulling away and putting a confident smile on her face.
Julia turns, wincing when she sees her mother in the doorway, watching them with a raised brow. "I am hoping you're Carmen Wolfe and not a wine deliverer?" she sounds curious while she glances her up and down.
Carmen hopes her smile doesn't twitch. The new civilian persona of hers is still odd to hear. "That's me. It's nice to meet you, Mme Argent."
Carmen gets through the first act of your girlfriend's mother is very curious with flying colours. It helps that Julia anticipated all of it and Carmen had a long flight to memorise their verbal jukes.
So, Carmen. Where are you from?
I was born in Argentina, but I grew up in the Canary Islands.
Were your parents in the military?
No; my dad died when I was small. His estranged family raised me.
Mon Dieu...I don't mean to be insensitive -
-but how did he pass?
Maman, s'il tu plaît!
It's okay, Jules. He was murdered in a home invasion.
And your mother? Is she…
I'm not really sure - I don't know anything about her.
Maman, perhaps we should talk about something else? Oh - do you still want to go to the beach? Or would you like a lie-down?
I suppose I could be a little cheerier, couldn't I? Julia mentioned you're an archaeologist?
Yes! A historical archaeologist. It sounds more intense than it is - I basically recover artefacts for museums.
She is modest. She has recovered so many priceless things! And now they are in the world for all to admire.
You are a fascinating woman, Carmen. I suppose you'd have to be - I've never seen Julia so taken with someone.
Oh hush, Julie - you blush like a schoolgirl around her.
C'était une mauvaise idée.
How did you two meet? Julia was oddly evasive.
Oh. Well, we've tried to keep our relationship quiet. It's a little…unconventional. Frowned upon.
My partner and I responded to a theft.
And I was there when it happened.
You witnessed the crime… and Julia was a responding officer.
No wonder you've tried to keep it under the radar.
My superiors would not be pleased if they found out.
…Carmen Wolfe, you are a fascinating person.
You have no idea, Maman.
Did I hear something about a beach? Because I could use some sun after that flight.
Act II of their first episode is a little harder to navigate. Carmen prepares herself when she takes off her cover-up and displays the cherry-red monokini Ivy helped her pick out for the trip.
And, in doing so, she displays her bared side.
Oh, mon Dieu! Carmen! What happened?
Believe it or not, the bear came out on the losing side.
It was a small one.
The things I run into during my artefact capers are unbelievable.
That is the only full lie they tell her mother - that it was a bear, not a tiger, that sank her claws into Carmen with the intent to kill.
It's horrifyingly hot, and Julia is sweating in most places on her body. Somehow she never realised that the back of her knees could sweat. She now does, though, because they are uncomfortably sticking to the leather booth.
The dance club isn't as small as she expected, and it isn't as crowded. She anticipated multicoloured lights and pulsing beats so loud that even shouts couldn't be heard. But it's the week before America's summer breaks begin, so the island is enjoying the calm before the storm.
She barely sees Carmen through the dim lighting until she's at the table, setting down a tray of shots.
"Did you take a part-time job as a server?" Julia hopes out loud. Surely she doesn't intend for them to drink all of this.
But Carmen wiggles her brows and shoots one of them with only the faintest flinch.
Julia shakes her head, amazed and amused. She has no idea how Carmen expects her to keep up - she gets tipsy over two glasses of wine, and there are twelve shots.
Ten now that Carmen shoots another. "Your mom loves me," she says. "I figured that's excuse enough to get a little drunk."
"She seems impressed," Julia verifies, trying to act cool when she takes a shot of rum in one swallow. She winces and covers her face, coughing a little. She is not cut out for this.
Carmen smiles and takes over the conversation while Julia composes herself. "I thought it'd be harder to skate around the truth, but it's pretty easy when no one in the world expects their law-enforcement daughter to be dating a criminal."
Julia's chest is already warming, but she takes a second shot and deals much better with it this time. "Criminal sounds so much worse than what you are."
"And yet, a criminal I am." Carmen takes another shot before reaching for Julia's hand. "Danseras-tu avec moi?"
Julia, intent on living the night as Carmen Sandiego - Wolfe? - would, takes down another drink, barely feeling it. The cilia in her throat probably burned off somewhere between shots one and two. Julia takes Carmen's hand and is surprised when her feet don't give out beneath her.
You're more nervous than drunk, she assures herself. She doesn't know how true that is, but it lets her square her shoulders and feign confidence.
The person near their booth - a bouncer? Oh, Julia is so out of her realm - closes off their private table behind them. Carmen slips him some pesos as they pass.
If there is one thing to say about Carmen, she knows how to cut loose and give her date an experience.
For one, the dress. Julia hadn't realised that she had been ogling a dress in one of the boardwalk windows; not until her mother announced, "That is a bit different from your usual, Julia."
Carmen, of course curious, joined them. She admired the fabric, the drape, and then said, "You should try it on."
"N-no, that's n-not -- I have nowhere to wear such a thing."
"We can change that."
Julia knows she flushed all through the unexpected shopping trip. After trying on the dress and seeing the effect it had on Carmen, it was inevitable; Julia owned a navy dress that rose high on one leg and draped down the other.
Carmen, though, gives everyone a run for their money. It's unsurprising; it's hard to notice anything other than her when she enters a space. She straightened her lengthy hair, tying it into a plait that transitions to a high ponytail. It swings around her cropped top and high-waisted pantalons, drawing attention to the slender strip of bared midriff.
"Ready?" Carmen asks, pulling Julia close.
"I never learned any Latin dances," Julia admits. The shots loosened her shoulders, but it didn't give her much confidence in the dancing department.
"We don't have to do anything fancy, Jules. I can show you a few steps, and we go from there?" Carmen glides to her side, a hand guiding her around so that her back presses into Carmen's front.
Julia freezes in her arms. She didn't have enough rum for this.
Oh goodness. Carmen's voice so close to her ear, purring like a contented cat. It's been two months since they've been in the same space. Alone. As alone as the salsa club can be…
She shivers in the heat; the hand on Julia's side tightens slightly, responding, and Julia nods a little too eagerly.
Carmen's hand smoothes lower, thumb settling against her hipbone. "How about a little warm-up?"
Julia is already lightheaded. "I am going to fall on my face."
"I won't let you." Julia's glad that Carmen can't see how her eyelids flutter at that. "It's pretty easy to sink into the rhythm if you close your eyes."
"If I close my eyes, Ms Wolfe, then I can't see what my feet are doing."
"That's why you let me lead, Ms Argent." Her thumb thumps against Julia's bone, and Julia moves. The hand tightens, leading her hip into a swing. Carmen's leg slides in beside her, pelvis rolling, spurring her into the next step.
Julia feels as if she's on fire; Carmen's hands have somehow overridden her desire to learn something new. She can't focus on the moves - as simple and toned down as they are - that Carmen creates for her.
"Loosen up, Jules," Carmen whispers against her temple.
Julia snorts out a laugh. Carmen moves her hand to Julia's, spinning her out and bringing her back - this time so that they're facing one another. "If you get lost, follow my hand motions," Carmen murmurs; her leg slides between Julia's thighs to support a dip. "I'll show you which way to go." And then her right hand motions - something quick, something subtly beckoning - and Julia prepares for the tilt and spin.
After a few false-starts, Julia finds the pace, mimicking Carmen, letting the hand on her hip control the motions. She focuses on Carmen's free hand too much, watching for the direction instructions, so she begins to panic when the song changes and Carmen steps in closer, both hands on Julia's waist. "Want to spice things up a little?" the redhead breathes, eyes sparkling in the dim glimmer of lights.
I can barely keep up as it is, Julia thinks helplessly, but she nods.
Spicing things up means something a little different to Carmen because her motions aren't hastening, they're slowing. Her hands go lower on Julia's waist while she guides her into tight spins and short dips.
The fingers slide lower again, caressing over Julia's backside to grip her upper thigh. Julia nearly chokes on her tongue. Carmen pulls her into a sharp lean, guiding Julia's bared leg high over her hip as the song ends.
No one is watching them - no one circles them to applaud their magically beautiful dance. Hell, Julia's reasonably sure she made a mess of everything. But it doesn't matter because she and Carmen are together and laughing and buzzing and
Julia is oddly quiet on the drive back to the cabin. Carmen isn't sure why - maybe she's hungover? She seemed fine ten minutes ago during the last call, but hangovers have a way of sneaking up on people.
And then Julia straightens up and murmurs, "Can you pull over, please?"
Carmen does as asked, easing onto the narrow edge of the road. "Are you feeling sick?" she asks, already concerned. They drank too much - granted, it was over many, many hours, but still. Carmen should have known better than to feed Julia so much alcohol. Julia isn't used to post-caper drink-offs-and-karaoke with Zack and Ivy, after all.
"A bit," Julia murmurs. Her voice is so soft, torn. "But not because..." she trails off, glancing out her passenger window to admire the crashing waves.
Carmen abruptly cuts off the engine. She unbuckles her seatbelt and turns as best as she can to look at the dark-haired woman beside her. "Jules?"
Julia moves. Her seatbelt goes off, and then she's climbing over the centre console, awkwardly depositing herself onto Carmen's lap. Her elbow hits the horn, her head hits the roof, and her dress is entirely askew from the waist down, but she is single-minded in her determination.
Carmen's hands go to her waist, pulling her into a bruising kiss. One of Julia's knees hits her in the side when she adjusts, but Carmen doesn't even care. Her hands slide up Julia's back, vicing her close, dipping down to trail open-mouthed kisses along her throat.
Julia's fingers tug at her hair, pulling her in so close they might fuse in the sticky heat. Her nails twine through the strands, her other palm easing its way beneath Carmen's shirt.
Carmen jolts a little, unprepared but more than willing. She nips Julia's frantic jugular, and then another nibble to her lobe; the girl mewls in response.
"Carmen," Julia pants.
"Hmm?" she returns, a hand moving to Julia's bared thigh, sliding up, gripping her waist beneath the dress.
Carmen's other hand falters on its way to the curve of Julia's neck, to tilt her chin up and pepper her collar bone with kisses. She glances up, meeting Julia's gaze. "Repeat that?"
Julia's cheeks are flushed - Carmen doesn't know if it's embarrassment or excitement this time. "I am in love with you."
Carmen's lips find hers again; her hands move, forgetting their aroused paths, and slide into the short, feather-soft hair. "I love you, too," she whispers when their mouths part, when their foreheads press together.
Carmen is breathless and lightheaded when she whispers, "Je t'aime aussi."
Julia giggles, sounding relieved - as if she thought Carmen had any chance of not being completely infatuated with her. As if Carmen didn't remember Sweden, didn't remember the sincerity in Julia's eyes, the overwhelming trust. The fear radiating from her when she thought Carmen Sandiego was dying - from exposure, of all things.
Or every other moment after that. New Year's Eve. Julia's apartment. Each time they saw one another at 'work', wanting to go to the other but unable to do so.
Julia's hands go to Carmen's hair again, bumping her way into more kisses, tongue sliding across Carmen's lower lip. Carmen can't help herself, coercing Julia's mouth open a bit more, coming in for the metaphorical kill.
And then a voice buzzes in her ear. "Um, Red?"
Carmen freezes; Julia blinks, confused by the tinny voice coming from Carmen's ear.
"I think you might have, uh...hit the comm button?"
Julia's cheeks are so red that Carmen almost worries she might explode. Carmen, for her part, can't stop laughing, pressing her face against Julia's temple, the silky hair that smells like alcohol and sweat and her shampoo. "Sorry, Player."
"Yeah, weirdest wake-up call ever. Maybe take the earpiece out?"
"Done," she assures him, disconnecting and pulling the device from her ear, dropping it in the cupholder. Julia, though, is still covering her face in mortification, the mood ruined.
"Hey," Carmen murmurs, gently pulling her hands from the smudged glasses, "how about we go home?"
Carmen bites her lower lip. When did Julia become her idea of home? "The cabin," she corrects, not willing to make this any more complicated at the moment.
tu me quemas
vuelves y me enrolas
Chapter 8: Red-Handed
Chapter Eight, in which Agent Chase Devineaux and Ms Julia Argent have a conversation.
Julia is surprised to hear a knock on her door mere minutes after returning home. She goes very still and very quiet, listening. It has to be the super, checking in to make sure it's her back from vacation and not someone else.
"Jules?" Carmen asks sleepily from her end of the call. "Do you need to go?"
"I should. I have work in an hour," she admits. "Be safe on your trip."
Another knock on the door - this time louder.
"It'll be quick - home by tomorrow morning your time."
"Ms Argent!" a shout comes from the other side of the front door. Julia winces; Carmen laughs.
"Is that Devineaux?"
"Of course it is." Julia looks up at the ceiling, smiling wistfully. The extended weekend in Cuba wasn't nearly long - or private - enough for either of their tastes, but there's always next time, Carmen promised between goodbye kisses at the airport.
"Get rest," Julia bids her.
"Je t'adore," is Carmen's farewell.
Julia hides her phone and goes to the front door. She opens it right as Devineaux raises his hand to knock again. "Ah!" he announces, taking a small step back. "Did I wake you?"
"No, I just got back," she replies with a tired smile. "I was not made for red-eye flights. Give me a moment; I'll finish getting my things together." She leaves the door open for him; Devineaux dutifully steps in, loitering in the small entry.
"How was your trip?" he calls while Julia straightens her tie and slides into her blazer.
"Relaxing," Julia responds. "It was nice to spend time with my mother."
"That is good," Devineaux replies. She can hear him moving into the kitchen. Luckily it's been a while since Carmen has been over - God only knows what Devineaux would do if he noticed red lip-stain on any mugs or glasses.
La femme rogue?! Here?! Julia smirks at her reflection, adjusting her glasses before returning to the living room. She zips her boots up her calves, shifting her feet around to readjust to them. She misses being barefoot in the sand.
"Ready?" Devineaux asks.
Devineaux drives. He doesn't drive too terribly when he isn't in a high-speed chase, she guesses, but it still surprises her that ACME gave him heavy-equipment priveledges again. "How have things been on the Carmen Sandiego front?"
"Ah, not good. There was a theft from the Louvre three nights past. And another from the Rosengart two days before that."
"Were there any signs of Carmen Sandiego?"
Devineaux glances at her for a moment before going back to the road. "Ms Argent, may I ask you a question? Why did you and your mother go to Cuba? I only ask because you have no family there and your mother has never left the country."
Julia furrows her brows at him. "Have you been studying my family?"
"Of course not!" Devineaux exclaims, having the audacity to look hurt after he asked her such a question. "Agent Zari mentioned it!"
Julia likes that even less than if Devineaux were the one snooping. "My mother and I always intended to go to Cuba, and we happened to find a decent trip package."
Devineaux nods, letting it go. "Well, I am glad you both had a lovely time. And I am thankful that you are back."
Julia's a little touched. "Really?"
"You are my partner, Ms Argent," he says, giving a firm nod to accentuate his point. He then adds, "And Agent Zari terrifies me," which almost shatters the warm, fuzzy feeling in Julia's chest - but not quite.
While Devineaux parks around the corner, Julia goes to their building, scanning her keycard at the door. Nothing happens - no click to tell her that the door is open. The handle doesn't budge.
Julia feels the first prickles of fear in her heart, but it's lightened when Devineaux comes round.
"Merde, I forgot," he grumbles, removing a smooth keycard from his pocket. "We have new security badges and pens. Agent Zari has been all over me for losing two."
"Two?" Julia repeats.
"I am sure it is in my house, but..." He opens the door for them, holding it so Julia can pass. "Ah, zut! We should have gotten coffee. I knew I forgot something."
"We can go out a bit later," Julia assures him, sliding into their briefing room, turning back to see Devineaux's expression. "You said something about a new spot near the river? With cheddar croissants?"
Devineaux looks sheepish, closing the door behind him. "I am surprised you remembered."
"You already went there, didn't you?" she guesses.
"I was near there this weekend and the smell alone... parfait."
Julia shakes her head and turns to find Agent Zari waiting for them, hands behind her, standing perfectly straight and perfectly still.
"Do you stand like this everywhere?" Devineaux asks - not for the first time.
As usual, Zari doesn't answer. She does, however, tap a finger to her comm and murmur, "She's here."
Julia goes very still. Devineaux does not, moving to his desk and continuing to talk about the importance of good posture, but too much of a good thing might be harmful. You look as though your spine is completely straight! Spines are supposed to curve, Agent Zari!
The door opens behind Julia. She doesn't want to turn - she knows what will be waiting for her. Standing how she is, looking at Zari's expressionless face, Julia is Schrodinger's cat.
"Ms Argent," Chief's voice comes from behind her. Julia closes her eyes and then turns. Chief, in the flesh, stands there, eyes hard.
"Chief!" Devineaux announces, flustered and confused. "W-what-"
"Agent Devinueaux, if you'd please take Ms Argent's keycard, pen, and cellular device?"
"What is the meaning of this?" Devineaux asks, turning his gaze between all of them.
"The meaning, Agent Devineaux," Zari begins softly, "is that Julia Argent works for Carmen Sandiego."
"Who she met with while in Santiago de Cuba," Chief finishes.
"Imposible. Ms Argent, tell them!" Julia turns to meet Devineaux's confusion. She reaches into her jacket and removes the pen and key card, holding both out to him. "Non," he repeats. His disbelief turns to regret. His expression shifts from defiant to hurt.
"I do not work for her," Julia says into the hushed room. "I am in love with her."
"Agent Devineaux, please return to Ms Argent's apartment and scour it for signs of their involvement. Confiscate her computer and any other devices. Agent Zari, please secure Ms Argent's cell phone and show her to the interrogation room."
When the Chief enters the room hours later, Julia sits up a little straighter. She squares her shoulders even though she's terrified. Even though she knows that this is the end. She isn't positive how it will happen, though; as far as Julia knows, this is the first time in ACME's history that an agent switched sides.
Perhaps they'll kill her; that'd probably be easiest. Or maybe they have mind-wiping capabilities. According to Carmen, VILE does. Or perhaps they'll just let her go, as they did with Devineaux.
The makes her want to smile, to laugh. Devineaux was let go due to incompetence, not falling in love with a criminal. Not covertly passing intel to 'the enemy'.
"All this time..." Chief murmurs, sitting at the table across from her. "Was anything you told us true?"
"I never lied to you."
"And yet the biggest lies are those we don't voice."
Julia wants to look at her fingers, at the desk, at the floor, but she keeps her eyes trained on Chief's. "Carmen Sandiego is not the person you think she is."
"So you've tried to convince me time and time again," Chief replies, voice clipped. "And yet you promised to bring her in, promised that she was on our side-"
"Then why did she break into our server, Ms Argent? Why didn't she come to me and ask for whatever information she needed? Why didn't she go to you, at the very least, and ask for a meeting?"
Julia shakes her head. This doesn't please the Chief. The silence stretches until Chief snaps, "Damnit, Argent, why did she break into our network if she isn't against us? Give me something in your defence!"
"I don't know what she was looking for!" Julia finally breaks. "We don't talk about our work."
"Unless you are feeding her intel when we're on her trail."
Julia swallows. "Yes."
Someone knocks on the door. Devineaux pushes through with Julia's laptop and the hidden phone. He places both on the table so quietly that they barely make a click. "This is all I found," he says, but his voice holds something else in it.
Chief waves him out of the room; he goes, and he doesn't look at Julia.
"I assume this is programmed to open for only you?" When Julia doesn't answer, Chief picks up the phone, analysing the exterior. She then takes Julia's hand and presses her thumb to the reader.
The phone flares to life. There is only one capability on the phone - a programmed number. Chief smiles; she taps the digits and places the mobile to her ear.
Julia's heart stammers in her heart. It stalls out when the ringing shifts to a voice.
"Tony's - we deliver twenty-four hours a day. Whaddaya want?"
Chief blinks, not understanding. "Excuse me?"
"You called Tony's. What do you want?"
"I want to speak to Carmen Sandiego."
"C -- who am I speaking with?"
"Is this a prank call?"
Chief blinks, confused, before pulling the phone away from her ear. She ends the call, continues to blink rapidly, and then looks at Julia. "What was that?"
Chief's lips purse. She clicks the number again, placing it to her ear.
"Adakah anda memerlukan tempahan?"
Chief pulls the phone away, ending the call. She does this dance four more times. She's progressively more dismayed each time she realises that she's speaking to another restaurant somewhere else on the globe.
Chief finally stops trying the number. "I assume this is a one-way communication device, then? So if I wait long enough, Ms Sandiego will call me. That sounds like an easier option, anyway." Chief stands and stretches. "You must be starving. I'll run and get us some lunch, shall I? Sit tight." She smiles like she made a good joke, striding out of the room with the phone and laptop under her arm.
Julia closes her eyes and drops her head onto the table, the cold metal soothing her flushed face.
The chief plans on using her as bait.
It makes sense.
It'll work, too.
Julia is almost asleep, using her jacket as a pillow, when the door opens. She blinks, blearily feeling around for her glasses. Once they're on, she can see Devineaux as he enters and sits across from her.
"Devineaux, what are you-" she begins, but he holds a hand up to cut her words in half.
"When did you discover that you had...feelings for her?"
Julia isn't sure how to respond to that. "I...I suppose I knew I was intrigued by her when we met on the train. I knew I felt more than fascination during the fashion show in Milan."
"When she beat four supermodels senseless?"
"...It was slightly more complicated of a situation than that, but...yes."
Devineaux watches her, his face a complete blank. "Continue."
"I knew I was..." she clears her throat, "infatuated with her on New Year's Eve."
"This New Year's Eve?" Devineaux asks, brows raising. "That is impossible! You were with me on New Year's Eve. We were in..." he pauses and then wryly chuckles to himself, running a hand through his hair. "Did you two make a habit of scheduling dates around her misdeeds?"
"She only steals from the thieves at VILE," Julia argues. "You know this! Devineaux, you were one of the finest inspectors at Interpol once - why was that?" When he doesn't answer, she presses on, "Because you were excited and wide-eyed with wonder. You loved the work. You loved seeing the puzzles beneath the facade. Please - listen to me."
Devineaux lets out a heavy sigh and waves his hand to prompt her into continuing. "VILE is the organisation we are after - that much is true. But Carmen Sandiego is not one of their operatives." She takes a breath and lets it out. "Anymore."
"Écoute-moi," Julia repeats, shushing him into compliance. "She was one of them as a minor, but she left when she discovered what they are."
"Then why disrupt our network? Steal files?"
Julia opens and closes her mouth. "I. I don't know. She said she does not trust the chief. Something in the server reinforced that wariness."
"Convenient of her to not tell you this one crucial detail."
She's losing him. Julia slams her fist on the table, jolting him back. "Do you trust me, Chase?" When he doesn't answer, she demands again, "Do you trust me? You said that you did before - has that changed? Have I ever given you any reason to doubt my dedication to the truth?"
That does something - something shifts in his gaze. It's only a flash, but it's there.
Devineaux sighs and stands, regarding her warily. "I will send Agent Zari to escort you to the restroom. Would you like some tea?"
Devineaux grunts a response, an awkward grumbling noise, and opens the door. Julia closes her eyes so that she doesn't have to watch him leave.
like a secret
you'd lie to keep it
Chapter 9: Change of Scenery
Chapter Nine, in which the Chief, her agents, and Julia prepare for a flight to America.
The Chief enters the room with two iced coffees in hand, a pastry bag beneath her arm. "Good morning, Ms Argent -- did Zari not bring you a blanket? It's freezing in here," she grumbles, setting the drinks and bag down. "I thought I asked Devineaux to turn the temperature up."
Julia doesn't bother straightening up - she continues to lean in the uncomfortable chair that may have fused to her skirt. "Has Carmen called?" she asks.
"No, your little phone is still quiet as ever," the Chief sighs, sliding one cup toward Julia. "Was she supposed to call?"
Julia doesn't know what the point of lying is - at this juncture, nothing she says will confuse or throw the Chief off. "Sometime today."
"Good!" Chief exclaims, genuinely looking pleased. "Then I can tell her that I have some American agents on the way to her headquarters as we speak."
Julia gets to her feet - if the chair wasn't bolted down, she might have upended it in her haste. "What?!" she demands.
"You two got careless," Chief shrugs a little, sitting opposite. She opens the pastry bag and removes two massive croissants. "Agent Zari mentioned you and Devineaux like getting breakfast together. Liked, I suppose. He doesn't seem too pleased about these developments."
Julia watches the Chief set a napkin out. Once the woman places the cheddar-scented pastry onto it, Julia asks, "How did you find her?"
"We took your personal cell phone," Chief says, tearing the corner of her croissant, chewing thoughtfully. "Oh, this is good. We might have better coffee in Seattle, but this? This is gold-standard baking."
She's gloating - so pleased with herself. Julia's mouth is so dry; she desperately wants to sip the coffee in front of her, but she remains defiant.
"A few months ago, you received a call from an unlisted phone," Chief continues, patting her lips with a spare napkin. "A burner, I suspect. The problem is, even burner phones use cell towers. So, this call that you received...it came from Seattle. The cell tower is close to Elliott Bay. Does any of this sound familiar?"
Are you near the ocean? Julia had asked.
Yes, but also no, Carmen had answered.
A bay would make perfect sense. When Julia spoke to Carmen over vid-call the first time, Carmen was sitting in front of water - calm water, not the rushing of the ocean. It was dark - Julia had already realised Carmen was in America, somewhere on the west coast.
Julia sits heavily, staring at the iced coffee in front of her. There's condensation - probably from being outside, from the heatwave rolling through Europe. Certainly not from this freezing room.
"You spoke for forty-seven minutes and twenty-three seconds," Chief continues. "On a burner phone. On a phone that she should never have used. But she did." She doesn't sound smug this time - she's legitimately interested. "What did you talk about?"
What did they talk about? There was a lot of silence. A lot of words left unsaid. They both knew exactly how the other felt, and so it seemed pointless to even try at that moment.
They both laid in their beds and pretended to be in the same room, breathing the same breaths. Carmen mentioned always wanting a cat. Julia laughed at that, surprised that she wouldn't want a dog.
I don't really live a life conducive to having a dog.
You could have that life,Julia replied.
I could, Carmen murmured, but they both knew it was a well-intentioned lie. They pretended nonetheless.
"How dangerous our situation was," Julia finally says. And then she chuckles, dipping her head, staring at her intertwined fingers. "Gardening, I think?"
The Chief tears another piece of croissant, munching in silence. "You know something, Ms Argent? All of this time, I never doubted your dedication. Not once."
"I'm sorry to disappoint you."
"Oh, I'm not disappointed - we haven't lost anything we can't regain, after all. And, if nothing else, this entanglement of yours has led us right to her. I suppose I should thank you."
A knock on the door, and then Devineaux presses his head through. "The device rang."
"Did you answer it?" Chief groans.
"Of course not! But she might try to call again soon."
"Good." She leaves her coffee and half-eaten croissant, crossing the room toward the door. "Call Agent Zari back in."
"S-she just left for the hotel."
"She can sleep on the plane - I'd like to be on-site when Carmen Sandiego and her VILE associates go into handcuffs."
"And what of Ms Argent?"
"She will be returning to America with us. We'll decide what to do with her on the plane."
Devineaux pales. "W-what to do with...?"
Chief's laugh is sudden and all-consuming, warm and wonderful. "We're not going to kill her, Devineaux! We don't just kill people! Who do you think we are?" Still chuckling, Chief presses through the door and past Devineaux.
Devineaux, again, will not meet Julia's gaze.
Julia ate both croissants and drank both coffees, and now she needs to pee like no one's business. She knocks on the door until Agent Zari arrives; her face is both annoyed and sympathetic. Mostly the former. "What is it, Argent?"
"I need to use the restroom," Julia says.
"You know the drill."
Julia offers her wrists; Zari cuffs them before stepping aside. "Let's go."
Julia scans the hallway. Everything is as quiet as it always is, and the restroom is only two doors down from the interrogation room. She doesn't have much time to find a way out, and she has even less time to act on it.
But the place is spotless, seamless, impenetrable. As usual. As always.
The door to the briefing room is open a crack; Zari mustn't have closed it all the way when she came to Julia's aid. Julia glimpses Chief on a vid-call with an agent elsewhere - America, she assumes.
Julia also glances Devineaux, still pale, gnashing his teeth on mints.
Julia goes into the bathroom and does her business - awkwardly, given the handcuffs and Agent Zari's proximity. She washes her hands for much longer than necessary - staring through the mirror and trying to find something that can be used as a weapon.
And then her eyes land on the toilet. More specifically, the toilet's tank lid. She can probably grab it even when cuffed. It will be clumsy and unwieldy, but --
A sudden sequence of beeps fills the air. Julia stiffens; it's the phone. It's Carmen.
"Oh, hell," Zari mutters, striding across the floor. She shuts the water off and grabs Julia's elbow. "Come on. I don't want to miss this."
The phone is ringing.
Carmen is calling.
And Julia misses her chance to fight her way out.
Julia rarely cries unless it's out of frustration. Needless to say, Julia begins crying the second Zari deposits her into the interrogation room. It is an embarrassing affair; one that lasts much longer than she wants or expects.
You need to find a way out, she tries to convince herself for the following hour. You need to come up with a plan. What would Carmen do?
But there is nothing she can do, so she rests her head on her jacket and dozes, exhausted from the tears and tension.
The door opens at some point, and Julia blinks up at Devineaux. "Chase?"
Devineaux closes the door behind him, a single stride bringing him to the table. "Give me your wrists," he says, producing a pair of cuffs.
He meets her gaze. His eyes are steely, and his jaw sets into a sharp line. "Wrists. Now, Ms Argent."
She could hit him. She could duck around his gangly limbs. She could run for the door. She could get out.
"Faites-moi confiance, Julia." Trust me.
Julia swallows. She offers her wrists.
He clicks the cuffs into place and helps her to her feet. He keeps hold of her elbow, saying, "Quiet, Ms Argent. Not a single word."
She nods. Devineaux eases her toward the door. He glances into the hall and around before pulling her out after him.
They're passing the empty briefing room when Agent Zari scales the steps in front of them. She stops in her tracks, brows furrowing. "What are you doing?"
"Ah, there you are, Agent Zari! Ms Argent needed the restroom, and I could not find you."
"...Because I was getting lunch. As I said."
"Ah, yes, of course. And yet, here you are! Back so soon."
Zari steps toward them, her expression shifting. "What is this?"
"I need the restroom," Julia repeats, walking forward. "Too much coffee. Would you mind escorting me?"
Zari's gaze flickers from Julia to Devineaux, and that is when Julia strikes. She ducks under, shoving her shoulder against Zari's sternum; she lifts, following through with the motion and tossing Zari against the wall.
Devineaux curses behind her, fumbling in his jacket for his gas gun. Zari regains her senses, using a well-timed sweep to take Julia's feet from under her. One of her knees slams down into Julia's belly, pinning her cuffed hands at the same time.
Julia shouts and struggles, kicking uselessly, trying to unpin her arms. Zari reaches up for her earpiece, opens her mouth to say something, and then Devineaux is there. He shoves the blonde, upending her - apologising to Zari and the virgin mother at the same time - before spraying her in the face with the sleeping gas.
Julia rolls out of the way, covering her nose and mouth, her eyes watering. Zari slumps to the ground. Devineaux tosses the weapon, his badge, and then his pen onto the floor. One hand covering his face and the other pulling Julia to her feet, Chase Devineaux leads them into the muggy heat of Poitiers.
"What is happening?" Julia asks when Devineaux opens the door to a late-model hatchback and ushers her into the backseat.
"There are clothes there," Devineaux says as if he hasn't heard her question.
"We do not have time for this!" Devineaux announces, chewing a handful of mints before tossing a nondescript phone into the backseat with her. "There are clothes there on the floorboard. Change while I drive."
Julia doesn't want Devineaux driving anywhere in his current state; his hands are shaking. His eyes dart around them, and his foot doesn't seem to understand the concept of gradually breaking and accelerating. But she shrugs out of her creased ACME clothing. Devineaux picked out a simple blouse and slim, dark trousers - not bad, given that he obviously pays no attention to fashion.
Just as she notices another bag under the canvas tote with her clothing, the phone beside her rings. Julia looks up at Devineaux through the rear-view mirror, but Devineaux focuses on the road.
"Answer it," he says after it rings three times.
Julia's fingers are trembling when she flips the phone open. Over the cheap, tinny speaker, she hears, "Jules?"
The tears are overwhelming. All she can do is huddle over her own knees, trying to breathe. "They're coming for your headquarters. There might be agents th-"
"Baby," Carmen interrupts, "everything is okay. I keep my paired phone at H.Q. So, if I was at H.Q. that night, why would I have used a burner?"
A choked noise breaks through Julia's thundering heart. A laugh? It might be a laugh. "You're not...you're not in Seattle?"
"We shouldn't stay on the call for long," Carmen intervenes. Her voice is smooth and calm, entirely in control. Everything is fine, Julia tries to assure herself. If Carmen isn't worried, then Julia shouldn't be worried, either.
Carmen is still talking, still reassuring. "Player's working everything out. You're going to spend the next two days in airports, though, so...it won't be pleasant, but we need to make sure no one can trail you."
"Chase has paperwork for both of you, so memorise your new details." Julia isn't sure what to focus on first, and Carmen doesn't give her time to figure it out. "I have to go - destroy the phone."
"Of course," Julia repeats. It's too much. There are too many questions and not enough time.
"Hey," Carmen murmurs, voice stalling for a moment. "I love you."
Julia closes her eyes and lets out a breath. "Je t'aime."
"I'll see you soon."
"Soon," Julia repeats, clicking the phone closed. She removes the battery and snaps the plastic casing in half.
Julia looks up in time to see Devineaux glance at her through the rear-view mirror. "When she called earlier," Julia begins, "you answered it, didn't you?"
"Of course I did," he huffs. "She is the torment of my entire life - how could I pass up an opportunity to tell her we won?"
"And yet we didn't win. And you are helping me get back to her."
"We are partners, Ms Argent. Partners listen to one another." He clears his throat and waves a hand toward the bag under the canvas tote. "There are some personal items there, as well as the passports your femme rouge made for us."
"Carmen - not la femme rouge, not the scarlet ghost. Carmen."
Devineaux doesn't reply, and Julia doesn't press. She opens the duffle bag and finds a folder with paperwork and passports. Beneath it is Carmen's parka - the one Julia failed to give back for the sheer fact that she wanted a piece of Carmen within arm's reach.
Julia pulls the coat free and presses her face into it, closing her eyes and trying to assure herself that everything will be okay in the end.
on the nights you feel outnumbered
baby, I'll be out there somewhere
Chapter 10: California, Pt. 1
Chapter Eleven, in which Devineaux and Julia face the realities of their choices.
Thanks to Vanquish123x for the request to see a scene about the Devineaux/Carmen phone call (prior to his saving Julia). It wasn't even a thing I considered, so thank you so much for suggesting it! 💜
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Carmen is in the middle of toasting a bagel when she calls Julia. She hums to herself while she waits for the answer, grabbing a knife for the cream cheese. Ivy and Zack's voices come from the gym, but she can't tell what they're bickering about. She can tell Zack is on the losing end, though.
The phone picks up, but it's not the voice she expects. "La femme rouge, je suppose?"
Carmen freezes, gripping the butter knife with enough force to turn her knuckles white. "Chase, right?" she asks, voice soft.
"What have you done to Ms Argent?"
"I think that's my line, actually." Devineaux doesn't say anything for a moment. That's unlike him, given all that Julia has said - and all Carmen has seen. "Is she okay?"
"Worried about your asset, are you?"
"I'm worried about my girlfriend." A long stretch of silence. Carmen gently places the knife onto the kitchen island, barely making a click. "Is she okay?"
"She is fine."
"How long will she stay that way?"
"You are the only one we want, Ms Sandiego. You and your VILE compatriots."
"You know that Julia isn't lying when she says I work on my own, right? Surely you do. She wouldn't trust you as much as she does otherwise." More silence. "You're her partner, Chase. She loves you. You irritate her, but she loves you. And trusts you to do the right thing."
"And what is the right thing? Allowing you to continue your rampages?"
"Let her go. She doesn't deserve whatever your boss has planned for her."
"Ms Argent says you do not trust the Chief. That you found something in the server to corroborate your concerns?"
Carmen isn't sure how to answer that, so she goes for the most straightforward option. Truth. "She killed my father."
"He used to work for VILE-"
"And here is the truth!"
"-but he got out. He and my mother made plans - a whole new life for all of us. A real, normal family. And then your Chief came to our home and shot him." Carmen listens to him breathe, listens while he shuffles around, and then while he loudly chews something. "Do you trust Julia, Agent Devineaux?"
"With my life."
"Then trust me."
"Is it?" she presses, voice softening again. "Think about it, Chase."
"It is Agent Devineaux to you, Ms Sandiego."
"Think about Julia."
That makes him go quiet again. More chewing - more aggressively this time. Finally - "We would never make it out of headquarters even if I believed you. And getting out of France? Hah. Don't make me laugh."
This is Carmen's chance. She pounces on it, speaking calmly but quickly. "I can get you out. Both of you. Or you can stay, fake Jules breaking free and knocking you out or something."
"This is ridiculous."
"One of my associates will call your cell in twenty minutes. Be alone."
"You do not have my number!"
"Let us handle it from here, Chase."
Carmen hangs up. She's shaking, adrenaline making everything sharper.
"Ah, jeez, Carm," Zack complains when he walks in, waving a hand in front of his face. "You're gonna burn the place down!"
Only then does Carmen remember the bagel. She pulls it from the toaster oven, scorching her fingers but barely feeling it. She blinks at the charred bread, clenches her fingers, and then proclaims, "We need to set up a new bedroom."
"Say what now?"
She turns to him. His face screws up in concern - her expression must be as anxious as she feels. "I need to call Player. You and Ivy do some shopping for me."
"Shopping?" Ivy calls, popping into the kitchen as if personally heralded. "Got another hot date planned already?"
"Furniture shopping," she corrects, grabbing her earpiece and sliding it into place. "We might have some new roommates soon."
Julia shoulders her duffle bag and follows Devineaux out of McCarran International Airport. The late-night air is chilly, which Julia didn't expect from Nevada. She shivers in her short-sleeved blouse but keeps her discomfort to herself. She doesn't actually think that it's the air temperature making her shudder, anyway.
If ACME plans to ambush them, it will be now.
But the terminal is mostly quiet. The shuttles idle, waiting for passengers. The police officers and airport security sip coffee and keep guard, but even they seem lethargic. Julia lets out a small breath and allows her fingers to unfurl their vice-grip on her bag.
The long-term parking lot is where Carmen waits for them, sitting on the hood of a gorgeous red car. She slides off of the metal when she sees them, her smile tilting her lips. "Welcome back to America."
Julia breaks into a run, hurtling herself into Carmen's arms. Carmen coughs a breath out, arms folding around her. "Hey there," Carmen whispers against her temple. And then, completely unnecessarily, she adds, "Your hair smells like ginger ale. Did someone spill ginger ale on you?"
Julia pulls back, frowning at her. "If you do not kiss me right now, Ms Sandiego-"
Carmen doesn't hesitate to oblige, tilting Julia's chin up and pressing kisses to Julia's mouth until she goes lightheaded.
Devineaux clears his throat. Carmen departs, her grip loosening, but one arm remains around Julia's waist, keeping her close. "Hi, Chase. Glad to see you're feeling better than the last time we were face to face."
Julia glances up to see Devineaux's face. He stares at Carmen, brows furrowed. It's taking everything within him to keep from shouting at her, trying to apprehend her. But then his eyes meet Julia's and his shoulders slump. "I still do not trust you," he tells Carmen.
"Yes, you do."
"Excuse-moi?!" his voice raises. Carmen doesn't react to the sudden shout, maintaining her cool.
"You said that you trust Julia with your life. It stands to reason - since she's putting both of your lives in my hands - that you'd have to trust me to make it this far."
"You talk too much," he informs her, cheeks flushing from her composure, her words, the fact that he is in a predicament he never anticipated.
"I've been told it's part of my charm," Carmen replies, her simper making Devineaux scoff.
Even on the numerous flights through the world, even in every terminal, Julia doesn't think he realised what he was doing until this moment. He has been working on sheer adrenaline this entire time, and now he's face-to-face with the torment of his life.
"You can come with us, or you can disappear. I have some money and clothes in the trunk if that's your plan."
Devineaux looks at Julia and Julia gives a little smile. A hopeful one - one that tries to persuade him. Devineaux looks away, toward the airport, toward his chance at a different life. Normalcy.
"And if I do come with you?" he presses. "What will you have me do?"
"What you were best at - investigating." She grins and offers her hand. "And helping us take down VILE"
Devineaux opens his mouth - probably to shout about her being a part of VILE, if Julia was to guess - but then he lets out a disgruntled sigh. He takes his mints from his pocket, crunches on three of them, and then grips Carmen's hand in his.
Julia wakes up when the car turns off the highway and glides into a gas station. She keeps her eyes mostly closed, watching through her eyelashes while Carmen turns off the engine and grabs her wallet from the centre console. She then leans over to press a small kiss to Julia's forehead before whispering, "You don't have to pretend to be asleep, you know. You'll get the kiss either way."
Julia cracks one eye open, ignoring that her cheeks are guiltily flushing. "You could have pretended you didn't know."
"Where's the fun in that?" she grins. She deposits another kiss before sliding out of the front seat. Leaning back in, she adds, "Do you want anything? Coffee? Snack?"
"Coffee, please. Devineaux-"
"He took an Ambien and passed out an hour ago. I'll get him some water and crackers for the come-down."
"Do you make a habit of carrying Ambien with you?"
"No, but Player figured Chase would need one if he came along."
Julia laughs and watches Carmen close the driver's side. The redhead stretches and fiddles with the pump, getting the gas going. And then she walks into the convenience store, the hood of her jacket up over her hair.
Julia feels a prickle of fear hit her somewhere in the pit of her stomach. What if ACME is here? What if VILE is here? What if she's watching Carmen requisition snacks, and then she witnesses her getting shot or jumped or --
Julia closes her eyes and counts to ten. She's been doing that a lot since she attacked Agent Zari.
Carmen purcheses their drinks and snacks; no one bothers her. She carries the items back to the car; no one bothers her. She opens the door, leaning in to pass the coffee to Julia.
And then a crack shudders the car so loudly that Julia yelps.
But it isn't a gunshot; it's just the gas pump's handle clicking off.
"Jules?" Carmen asks, concerned.
"It's nothing," she insists, forcing a wavering smile. Devineaux is still asleep, breathing deeply. Julia, on the other hand, feels like her heart might burst. "I-I just...I'd rather be in a bed."
Carmen knows she's lying, but she nods, putting the coffee in the cup holder and the bag of drinks and food in Julia's lap. She then goes to the pump, finishes up, and slides back into the car. Carmen adjusts her seatbelt and presses the car forward, turning back onto the freeway.
Once they're cruising through the quiet scenery, Carmen reaches her hand over the centre console and places it on Julia's knee, a comforting weight.
Julia grabs her fingers and holds them like a lifeline.
The first blush of light begins to colour the bay when Carmen pulls the car around the building's back and into a garage rife with equipment. The vehicle glides between a sedan and an SUV - both red, of course. Devineaux is beginning to stir in the backseat, muttering to himself in half-coherent French. Julia, on the other hand, has been awake since the gas station.
Carmen cuts off the engine and turns around to look at Devineaux. "Last chance to nope out of this situation, Chase. Once you're out of this car and inside HQ, you're part of the team."
Devineaux blinks at her - and then Julia - before groaning. "Mon Dieu, I thought it was a bad dream."
Carmen raises a brow at Julia; Julia lets out a little sigh, turning to stare at her partner. "M Devineaux, you are being obstinate; it is unbecoming."
"Way to tell him, Jules," Carmen chuckles.
Devineaux runs a hand over his face. "What choice do I have?"
"You always have a choice, Chase. I can give you another Ambien and drive you out to a random airport."
Devineaux's hand drops to his lap. He glances between them, seeming to weigh his options. To determine if he can win the personality conflict on sheer will alone. Wisely, he decides he cannot. "I will not sleep on the couch," he alleges, opening the car door and getting out.
"Zack and Ivy set up a bedroom for you," Carmen replies, sliding out of the vehicle. Julia follows suit, tired and muddled to the point that she nearly forgets her bag.
Carmen leads them through the garage and into the wide-open space that her team calls home. It was a warehouse at one point, Julia realises, but retrofitted to be a high-vaulted, gorgeous living space.
"Chase, you're going to be on the second floor," Carmen says, voice echoing. "The room's at the end of the hall. It's pretty spartan at the moment, but you don't really seem like someone who cares about aesthetic, so." Devineaux waits, expectant. Carmen raises a brow at him. "Did you…have a question?"
He opens his mouth and then goes very still. He looks as if pieces are falling into place, and then he flushes, blustering, "Nothing! Nothing, I merely need the restroom. Where is it?"
"Upstairs. The second door on the left."
They watch Devineaux leave at a near run, long limbs taking the steps two at a time. Julia frowns. "What do you suppose the issue was?"
"Based on that level of awkward? I'm guessing that he didn't realise we're sharing a room." Carmen turns, expression shifting from amusement to concern when she notices Julia's cheeks flaming. "...Unless you want your own room? Which isn't a problem, of course-"
Julia smacks her shoulder, making Carmen's eyes widen, her face splitting into a disbelieving grin. "I ask you to live with me, and your response is to break my arm?"
Julia smiles and leans into Carmen, face pressing against her collarbone. Her legs feel so shaky. Carmen holds her up, though, gently smoothing hair from her face. "You're exhausted. You need to sleep."
"You are the one who drove all night," Julia argues weakly.
"Which is probably why I'm exhausted, too."
Julia doesn't want to move. If she moves, she has to consider things other than how warm Carmen is.
"Mon Dieu!" Devineaux suddenly shouts from upstairs. "This view! C'est incroyable!"
"The view is incredible," Carmen confirms against Julia's temple. Julia smiles and finally has the strength to pull away. She follows Carmen, her gaze sweeping through and around, analysing as much as she can in her exhausted state.
Carmen's room is sprawling and filled with art from all over the world. Busts. Trinkets. They're all reproductions, nothing original, and that somehow makes everything better. Carmen doesn't take anything from her capers; she only takes shadows of them - memories.
And then there are the floor-to-ceiling windows that look out over the bay and, beyond that, the ocean.
"Oh," Julia breathes. "Incroyable."
"Yep," Carmen hums, passing to the other side of the room. "A little obnoxious at morning, though, so-" she flips a switch by the bed and blackout curtains slide over the wall of windows. The darkness is nearly absolute. Thrust into the gloom makes Julia's skin crawl. She's been in light for so long. Cuba. The flight to Poitiers. The interrogation room. The trips through the world. The terminals. The car's bright dashboard of gadgets.
Julia closes her eyes and counts to ten. She relearns how to breathe.
"Just a bit disoriented," she forces a laugh. It sounds normal - sleepy, maybe. Stunned. Both of those things make sense.
A light flips on to her left. Carmen stands in the doorway leading to a bathroom. "Shower? Bath? Straight to bed?"
Julia knows she needs a shower; a bath sounds lovely. But instead, she begins to shrug out of her blouse, shimmying her shoulders as she unbuttons.
Carmen raises a brow, obviously trying to understand what is happening. Julia's only response is to kick her flats into the corner. Her jeans follow her shirt's path, falling straight to the floor.
"Jules," Carmen begins, trying to sound firm. Julia ignores her and turns, retreating to the bed. She thinks she hears Carmen let out a relieved sigh, but it could be from Julia's own throat when she slides under the sheets. She barely remembers to remove her glasses before shoving her face into the most comfortable pillow that she's ever felt.
"Do you want some tea? Or water?" Carmen asks, still loitering in the lit doorway.
"Viens," she mumbles, patting the bed for emphasis.
Carmen moves without any further prompting, shedding her outerwear and sliding in behind Julia. Julia sinks into her embrace, finally feeling her muscles begin to relax.
you don't ever have to be stronger than you really are
when you're lying in my arms
Chapter 11: California, Pt. 2
Chapter Eleven, in which Hook, Line, Sinker ends.
Huge Thank Yous To:
World of Fantasy for the suggestion for a Devineaux/Julia conversation! I had a lot of fun writing it. 💜
Vanquish123x for letting me know said-dialogue got a little *too* testy, so that's been softened up a bit. 💜
Oxygule for pointing out that I failed to address Shadowsan/Devineaux and the kidnapping fiasco - that's been updated, too!! 💜
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Each time Julia wakes up through the day, Carmen is nearby. Twice, she's at the desk in the corner, typing away and quietly talking - to Player, Julia assumes, given Carmen seems to be researching.
The third time, Carmen is napping beside her. Julia takes that moment to analyse her face. She's done it before - every night they've been together, really - but she always notices something else to file away in her mental map. Today, it's the fact that there's the smallest of scars on her jaw - a slender strip of slightly-paler skin. It's old, well-healed, and precision-perfect.
Julia wants to reach out to touch it, but she stays where she is, closing her eyes and trying to fall asleep again.
It works, because the next time she wakes up, it's to a too-dark room. There's a flash of panic that flares up from the pit of her stomach, but Julia swallows it down. She counts to twenty, and then grabs her glasses and gets out of the bed.
She stumbles across the room and toward the bathroom, carefully feeling her way. Luckily the rug sits perfectly on the wooden floor or else she probably would have fallen straight into a display case featuring Emporer Meiji's bust.
The light floods the bathroom. Julia gulps a few breaths and steadies her trembling fingers - everything is fine. Everything is perfect. She's in America, not stuck in an endless loop of airports. She's in California, not Poitiers. Not an interrogation room.
The bathroom seems newly-cleaned; Julia wonders if that was one of Carmen's tasks while Julia slept. There's a fresh towel folded neatly next to the glass shower, and some clothing. Julia lets out a breath. Everything is fine. Everything is perfect.
She showers, half-guiltily trying out three different body washes and two different shampoos. There's one that smells like Carmen - something foreign, a little spicy. Julia passes over that one and goes for the softer scents.
The strangness of the new surroundings extends to the bathroom counter. It's lined with more products than Julia has ever seen in a personal bathroom. Granted, a lot of it is for her hair; curling creams, frizz smoothing oils, heat protectants, split-end serums... Staring at all of it makes Julia very, very happy in her choice to keep short hair.
She dresses in the supplied tee and leggings. The tee would be too large even on Carmen - as it is, it hits Julia mid-thigh. The leggings - tight enough to not make her look like a child dressing in her mother's clothing - are soft and fleece-lined, perfect for the chilly warehouse-turned-home.
Julia noses around a bit more, checking under the sinks and poking through towels and hair devices. Julia shakes her head, baffled at how difficult it is for the woman to maintain her hair. It's gorgeous, though, so Julia makes herself a promise: never mention how bizarre and tiring Julia finds it all.
When she steps out of the bathroom, she finds Carmen on the bed with her legs folded beneath her. The track lighting along the ceiling spills warm light, pushing the oppressive shadows away. Carmen glances up from the laptop she's working on, and then abruptly hops off of the mattress. "Come on; you have to see this."
Julia has never been a fan of the 'come look at this' trope, but Carmen's eyes are sparkling with mischief. Carmen presses a finger to her lips and opens the bedroom door.
They don't go far - just to the lip of the living area. The television is on and playing some kind of sitcom. On the couch, Devineaux is laying with his arms around a throw pillow, mouth open in an unabashed snoring fit. His long limbs sprawl up and drape over the arm of the couch.
Julia has to cover her mouth in the mix of emotions. Somehow the sight of her always-moving partner so vulnerable is adorable and hilarious in equal measures. It's even better that he's drooling a bit. "He looks so calm. And ridiculous."
"I already took pictures," Carmen whispers, biting her lower lip and trying not to laugh. "I figured we could use them at some point when he gets too much. Embarrass him into silence."
Julia nods, uncovering her mouth enough to reply, "It would work."
"One more thing," Carmen adds, nodding for Julia to follow her. They pass through a large metal door - something that used to be for receiving shipments, she guesses - and into a sunset.
"Oh," Julia whispers, overcome for a moment. She's seen the sunset over the ocean before, of course. There was Cuba. There was Blockhouse Herbaudiere the summer before university. She and her mother ate sandwiches on the beach - promptly getting bombarded by seagulls - and watched the sunset. It didn't look like this one, though. It was dark and intense, harsh blues meeting bursting reds and orange.
Red skies at night, shepherds' delight. It's a good sign, Julie, her mother had said even though there was no proof to make such a statement.
Julia wonders what her mother would say about this sunset with its pastels, the blues turning to purple, to pink, to muted orange.
"Welcome to the west coast," Carmen says, crossing the pavement to the bulwark, hopping down onto the small patch of silty bank. Julia follows her to the water. They sit quietly on a rock that looks out of place. Something Carmen put out here, probably, considering she vid-called Julia every night that she was in San Diego.
"No more video calls," Julia realises aloud.
Carmen glances at her, a grin tilting her lips. "I mean, I could vid-call you from the other room if that's what you're into."
Julia looks up at the sky as if asking for patience. She loves it, though, and Carmen knows it. The auburn-haired woman wraps an arm around her back, pulling her in.
Just as the sun sinks below the water, Julia's stomach protests the lack of food. Carmen starts, surprised, and then laughs. "Chase had a similar reaction when he woke up. I picked up some pizza, but it's definitely cold by now."
"Cold pizza is fine," Julia insists, getting to her feet and scaling the breakwater.
Carmen trots ahead and into the kitchen, always one to do everything herself. The pizza boxes are half-decimated; Devineaux's doing. Julia doesn't care that the cheese is congealed and the thin crust is a bit soggy in the middle. Anything aside from aeroplane food is close to a delicacy at this point.
Carmen cleans up the leftovers - for something to do, no doubt - and Julia watches. She makes coffee in an industrial-sized maker, puts leftovers in the fridge, and then cleans the mostly-spotless counter for longer than necessary.
She's nervous, and that makes Julia nervous. "W-where are the others?" Julia asks just to put something in the air. "Ivy, Zack, Player, and..." she baulks on Shadowsan's name, realising that she knows very little about the man. Carmen has always been secretive about him.
Carmen clears her throat. "Shadowsan. He's out...they're all out, actually. Well, Player doesn't live here, but the others are out. They figured that you two might need a night to...adjust."
There's something else there, an awkwardness to her tone. Julia furrows her brows. "Is something the matter?"
Carmen glances up, a deer in headlights. She fakes a smile - it's too bright and involves too many teeth. "No! No. I was just thinking - I should probably give you a tour, right? I mean, you've seen most of the fun places, but we have a gym! And a garage -- but you saw that. We could watch a movie? Not out here, obviously, because of Chase. But we could in my bedroom?" She hesitates, blinks. "Our bedroom."
Julia is getting progressively more worried. "Carmen, what is it?"
Carmen bites her lower lip. "I guess I never really expected any of this..." she waves her hand around, "to happen. You. Here."
"And certainly not Devineaux?"
"That is an understatment."
Julia doesn't know how to feel about the admission. She's torn between being hurt and being understanding. Julia hardly believed this would happen, either, but she doesn't understand the panic buzzing behind Carmen's eyes. "I can have my own room if-"
"No, no," Carmen shakes her head; the panic seems to be rising. "It's not that. I'm just...new to this."
Julia finishes her pizza; it's sitting like a rock in her belly. "We should watch a movie," Julia smiles, trying to keep the sting off of her face. She's always been too expressive.
Carmen lets out a little breath and nods. "Right. Um...if you want to go pick something out on the computer? I'll get the coffee."
Julia escapes the tension in the kitchen, sliding onto the bed and pulling the laptop toward her. Part of her expects to see a series of documents pulled up - webpages, research, communication between herself and her team. Instead, it's the home screen. Julia admires the picture, the ancient scrawled paintings along a cave wall in France.
Carmen enters the bedroom with two massive mugs, setting Julia's on the end-table before going to her side. Wiggling onto the bed beside her, Carmen glances at the screen. "Ever been?"
"Lascaux? No," Julia sighs, looking at the shapes of lumbering beasts with longing. "I would love to see it up close. Can you imagine how many generations added to these paintings? Ages and ages." She glances at Carmen; the redhead is less tense now, but her shoulders are still tight, her gaze still guarded.
Julia shifts a little closer; Carmen stiffens a little more.
And then Julia realises what's happening. Carmen is usually excellent at hiding her anxiety, but her control has slipped considerably around Julia. Julia can hear her breath when it softly hitches. She notices the way that Carmen's fingers twitch on the bedspread. The way Carmen's eyelids hood over her stormy eyes.
Julia closes the laptop; the snap of it makes Carmen jolt, eyes raising again, surprised and confused.
"I have a different idea," Julia begins, the words coming out even though she isn't sure if she wants them to. She closes her eyes and tries to think of something to cover with - let's go to the gym? - but they won't come.
Working out won't help this kind of tension. This tension is entirely because they're living together, sharing the same space, and yet they've never...
It all makes so much sense that Julia lets out a soft laugh. Every time they've spent the night together, something came up. Julia being sick. Carmen being injured. Julia's mother interrupting their romantic holiday. Exhaustion that Julia is beginning to suspect was more nerves than anything else.
Julia gets to her knees, her brain warring with what she should do. She ignores the way her fingers start to tremble and how dry her throat has gone. She ignores how strange Carmen looks - confused, terrified, hopeful.
Julia pushes Carmen back into the short headboard, straddling her hips and pulling the woman into a kiss. Carmen reacts immediately, and it's by placing her hands on Julia's waist, tugging her closer, her mouth seeking and overwhelming.
"There are too many clothes," Julia whispers when she pulls back from Carmen's lips, while she pulls the tent-sized shirt off of her and shudders in the chilly air. Carmen's eyes leave Julia's, and her expression is enough to make Julia's flush go from awkward to smug in a second. Carmen looks out of her depth but entirely okay with it.
Julia's quite enjoying this table-turning. When she leans down to secure another kiss, Carmen's fingers - so warm, so firm on her back - skim up her spine, sharply drawing her in.
The table-turning doesn't last long; Carmen re-enters the situation with an ease that puts Julia to shame. She flips Julia over with a simple leg motion, rocking her hip and tossing Julia over the other. Julia lands and blinks at the ceiling for a moment, trying to catch her bearings.
"You need to teach me how to do that," she says finally.
Carmen's laugh is more like a purr when she descends onto Julia, mouth tracing a path from her lips to her jaw, neck to collar bone, her hands mapping out Julia's body with caresses and tweaks. Julia thinks she might die before the woman loses her shirt. "Too many clothes," Julia repeats, but it comes out breathy and overwhelmed.
Carmen bites her lower lip, trying to suppress her ever-growing smile. "You sure? It almost sounded like you wanted a sparring lesson."
Julia scrunches her nose at the woman, trying her best to sound displeased but failing. "If these leggings are still on in ten seconds-"
Carmen steals more kisses, one hand supporting her while the other sweeps downward.
A yell wakes Julia, forcing her out of bed in a panic. The yell turns into an annoyed shout, and then laughter. More laughter. Boston accents, the sound of scrambling feet. It sounds like something is forcefully hurled against a wall somewhere in the main room. More laughter. A burst of music.
Julia catches her breath before sinking back onto the bed. Zack and Ivy - because it can only be them - abruptly change from bantering to singing. Julia blinks at the door, both curious and reluctant to discover the goings-on.
It's an entirely new life. One she never prepared for.
First step. Glasses. Julia has to clean them for longer than usual, the stubborn smudges taking much more effort than expected. Julia never had that problem before Carmen rolled into her life like a tsunami. The thought makes her grin.
Next step, she tells herself, clothing. She finds her discarded shirt and leggings at the end of the bed in a crumpled heap. And then a pair of slippers that Julia decides she's 'stealing' when she feels how soft they are.
Taking a deep breath and steeling herself for a very awkward reunion, Julia opens the door. The music is coming from the kitchen - so is the singing. Julia stands a little taller, heeps her chin up, and strolls toward the noise.
Zack is the first to notice her when she comes around the corner into the sprawling kitchen. "Hey!" he announces from where he is putting breakfast egg rolls together. "She is alive!"
"She had a long day yesterday, leave her alone," Ivy scolds. Her smile is a little too knowing, and Julia reads between the lines of what she's insinuating.
Carmen glances over her shoulder from where she is sautéing things at the stove. Her grin softens when she meets Julia's eyes. "Zack, you're up to bat; season these and keep them moving," she announces, tossing the spatula toward the man.
"Carm!" he grunts in anguish, trying to grab the spatula, tripping over his own feet. He nearly hits his head on the counter, but he catches the utensil. That's something. "Ah-hah!" he announces triumphantly, holding the spatula aloft.
"You're such a moron," Ivy informs him before turning back to Julia. "So, you're here! Kinda weird, huh?"
"A little," Julia admits. She's about to thank Ivy and Zack for being so accommodating with the sudden situation. Before she can, Carmen takes her hand and spins her to the music, pulling her back into an airy sway of her own creating.
"It's too early in the morning for this much sap," Ivy laughs, but her tone is anything but displeased. She turns to the stove, hip-checking Zack out of the way. "You're gonna burn 'em! Who manages to burn vegetables on low heat?"
Julia would definitely burn vegetables on low heat, but she keeps this to herself, instead shyly grinning at Carmen.
"Morning," Carmen says, spinning her in a tight circle, drawing her in so that her back is to Carmen and Carmen's arms envelope her waist.
"Good morning," Julia replies, feeling her ears heat. She turns her head to bump Carmen's nose with her own.
"Oh, God! Zack, how much salt did you add?!"
"Carm said to season it!"
"With real seasoning, bro! Salt ain't real seasoning!"
Julia bites her cheek to stop from laughing and ruining the moment, but Devineaux takes care of that for her. His footsteps on the stairs result in the siblings going silent, curiously and hesitantly turning their attention away from the stove.
Carmen, for her part, loosens her grip on Julia. Devineaux stops on the top level, taking in the proximity the two have, and sighs. "This music is terrible," he announces before continuing his path. He is stiff-limbed, uncomfortable in his new surroundings, but he still flaunts unearned confidence like a cloak.
Carmen spins Julia out again; this time, she releases her hand so that Julia is face-to-face with Devineaux when his feet hit the main floor.
Julia blinks at him, and then at Carmen. Carmen winks and returns to the stove. "How's -- oh God, why is the cabbage so dark? How did you burn it on low heat?"
"That was all Zack. You passed him the flippy thing."
"Ivy was distracting me!"
A cacophony of noise breaks through the space; a clatter of pans, a splash of something upending, and Ivy moaning, "Oh my God, can we make it through one morning without me gettin' goop on my socks?"
Devineaux stares at Julia, and Julia stares at him. Finally, she murmurs, "We should...talk."
Devineaux looks toward the kitchen. Now that the siblings have noticed him, they are eyeing with scepticism. He seems to decide that Julia's uncomfortable talk will be better than the one in the kitchen. "It sounds as if breakfast is delayed, anyway."
Julia turns toward the living area, sitting down and angling toward Devineaux when he relaxes on the other end. "We haven't exactly spoken since..."
"Since we turned our backs on everything we stand for?"
Julia frowns at him. "Sérieusement? You intend to keep this up?"
"I am keeping nothing up!" He seems to realise how absurd the response is because he waves his hand and continues, "I am here now; I may have no choices, but that does not mean I don't have opinions, and I will voice them!"
"Arrêté!" Julia begs a little too loudly. It stuns Devineaux - it evidently stuns everyone in the kitchen, too, because Ivy clears her throat and someone turns the music louder.
"You are being stubborn, arrogant, and you won't listen," she continues, emboldened.
"Why did you even come here with me if you planned on being such a bull?"
"You are my partner, and I could not let you run headlong into danger!"
"I'm not in danger!"
"And how was I to know that?!"
"Because I told you so!" she groans, voice breaking. Devineaux blinks at her, stunned; she lowers her voice, trying to catch herself from going too far. "You say we are partners. You say you trust me with your life. And yet, the moment-" she pauses to maintain her cool, to breathe. "The moment Carmen is mentioned, you fly into another manic episode."
He doesn't answer her. Julia composes herself before asking, "What is it about her that makes you this senseless?"
"She is the torment of my life," he finally mutters.
"Well, she's possibly the love of mine," Julia mumbles. Her cheeks feel hot, and she's so glad that the music in the kitchen deafens the others.
Devineaux shakes his head, looking toward the windows, toward the view of the bustling bay, the ships hovering, loitering. "This is not easy for me, Ms Argent."
"No one is asking you to fall in love with this situation, but I am asking you to hear them out. I am asking as your partner." She reaches out to cover his hand with hers. "And, as cliched as this is - I am asking as your friend."
Devineaux scoffs, but the sound is soft, stifled.
"You promised to be my mentor all that time ago - do you remember? To take me under your wing?" she presses. "If you meant that, then be here for me...just as I will be here for you."
Devineaux's Adam's apple bobs with a thick swallow. He finally meets her gaze. "For you, I will go along with this insanity for a while longer." He gives her hand a small squeeze, one of the few moments of real emotion he's shown her, before getting to his feet.
"This music is terrible!" he shouts.
"So's your bedhead, but we didn't say anything about that!" Zack calls back.
Julia covers a laugh while Devineaux sputters, Ivy turns the music down, and Carmen collects plates from a cabinet.
A blur of motion on the stairs catches Julia's eye. A man, wraith-silent, comes down the steps, his lined brow creasing further upon seeing her. "Julia Argent," he says, voice rumbling. It sends a pleasant chill down Julia's spine.
He stares at her for a moment before giving a deep nod of his head. "I have heard much about you. It is good to finally meet."
"A-and you," Julia stammers out, unable to come up with something better. He's quite intimidating in spite of wearing a pair of slacks that look designed for a round of golf.
"I believe I heard your partner shouting?"
Julia winces. She somehow forgot about the impending disaster that might erupt when Devineaux lays eyes on Shadowsan. "You did. I think he's calmed down now, but..."
"He will no doubt change that upon seeing me."
"Probably, yes," Julia offers a weak smile. She isn't ready for another shouting fit. "He is in the kitchen."
Shadowsan raises a brow at her - it's a very Carmen expression, and Julia has to wonder if she picked it up from him during their time with VILE. "Would you like to come along?"
Julia thinks about it and then gets to her feet. Why the hell not? It's not like sitting out here will save her from the shouting. "Of course."
It doesn't take that long to come into view of the airy kitchen, and it takes even less time for Devineaux to go red. "You!"
Shadowsan crosses his hands behind his back, watching while Devineaux gets to his feet and gapes. "Inspector Chase Devineaux," Shadowsan murmurs.
"Shadowsan!" Carmen groans as she turns from the crackling oil on the stove. "You promised you'd let me handle the introductions."
"I was hungry, and you were taking too long."
Carmen purses her lips at him, brows furrowing. Shadowsan is impassive. She rolls her eyes and offers Devineaux a reassuring smile. "He's a turncoat, too, Chase."
"He abducted me!"
"With very, very good reason?" Ivy tries, wincing as the words leave her mouth.
"Yeah! I mean, VILE kinda thought you were workin' with Carm, so..." Zack trails off, eyes turning from his sister to Carmen. Imploring.
"Bonne raison?!" Devineaux sputters.
Julia steps beside Devineaux - who is now clenching his fists. It's a common thing for him, a reaction that Julia can read with little problem. "Zack, would you mind helping Carmen?" Julia asks, easing him away from Devineaux, giving the man room to breathe.
He's panicking. She's never seen him quite so agitated before - he is face-to-face with one of his kidnappers, though, so she supposes it makes sense. "Sir," Julia presses gently, stepping slightly closer. When he doesn't react, she places a hand on his elbow.
"I apologise for how things happened," Shadowsan murmurs. He is at ease - Devineaux's stance doesn't concern him. Considering what Carmen has told her about her mentor, Julia supposes it makes sense. "I had no intention of hurting you."
"And that beast of a woman you were with? Did she also have no intention of hurting me?"
"She had every intention of hurting you." Devineaux's eyes narrow a little more, but one of his fists loosens. He's listening; Shadowsan gives a small nod, perhaps a motion of acknowledgement, of thanks for his posture loosening. "Coach Brunt intended to bring Carmen back to the island and re-train her. Repurpose her, perhaps."
"Repurpose?" Julia asks.
"Shadowsan, not now," Carmen murmurs.
Julia casts her open incredulity at the redhead. "Not now?"
"She would be mind-wiped," he replies, eliciting a groan from Carmen. The redhead returns to frying breakfast, but her stance is rigid. "Placed back into the community, but imprinted with a code phrase. Possibly a custom-recorded soundwave, something impossible to duplicate. With that, she could be reactivated in the event VILE had..." he pauses. His face is blank, but his jaw sets in a sharp, displeased line. "In the event that they had use for her again."
"Impossible," Devineaux replies, but Julia knows him better than that. She knows he believes it somewhere beneath the years of corrosive scepticism.
"They've done it before," Carmen murmurs from the stove, still not turning around. Using tongs, she removes the egg rolls from the pan, setting them on a rack to drip and cool. "My best friend from VILE. They tossed him aside."
Julia hasn't heard this story, which is strange. She assumed she heard about all of Carmen's close relationships. "Is he...?"
"As far as I know, he's still a regular 20-something in Australia."
Shadowsan's hawk-eyed attention has not shifted from Devineaux. "I intended to join Carmen the night she escaped, but things...became confused. We thought you were an ally of hers, given your knack for interrupting VILE's missions and the obvious closeness between Carmen and Ms Argent."
Julia blinks. In retrospect, she supposes she did have a weakness for the woman from the getgo. Thinking about it now, she's surprised Devineaux never noticed.
"Say that I believe you," Devineaux presses. "Say that this implausible story is correct. Why did you not free me?"
"I was there for Carmen first and foremost. I would not have allowed Brunt to hurt you if I could help it, but I was not about to let Carmen slip away from me a second time."
Julia's eyes go to the redhead. She's watching Shadowsan with a peculiar expression on her face, but it slides away when she clears her throat. " Chase, I know this isn't...great. I know you don't trust any of us-" Devineaux gives a wry laugh, "-but we aren't going to hurt you. You're one of us now, come hell or high water."
"Or if you backstab us," Ivy adds. Her arms are crossed over her chest, and her tee shows off the muscles cording through them. "In which case..."
"No threats during breakfast, please?" Carmen weakly begs. "Look! I made breakfast egg rolls! Who doesn't like breakfast egg rolls?"
"Breakfast!" Zack proclaims, waving a hand at the food. "Breakfast is way more important than this chest-puffing!"
"I have something else to say," Shadowsan intones.
Carmen blows a piece of hair from her eyes with unadulterated exasperation. "Shadowsan, please, not now? Can't we just-"
But Shadowsan continues, his unchanging gaze focusing on Devineaux. "I appreciate all you have done for Carmen in bringing Ms Argent here. I appreciate all that you gave up in a moment of selfless compassion."
Julia is surprised at this - she really expected him to -
And then he does what Julia expected. "However. I will not fully trust you with Carmen until you prove yourself to me. Until you do that, you will go nowhere near Carmen's missions."
Carmen makes a huge show of plating the breakfast rolls and loudly depositing them on the island countertop.
"You will assist me on my mission until I deem you worthy of working beside her during run-ins with ACME."
Devineaux sputters. "She is a thief!"
"Hey!" Ivy snaps.
Carmen physically inserts herself between Devineaux and Shadowsan. "Cool it." Julia isn't sure which of them she's talking to, but both men go quiet. Shadowsan is as peaceful as a stream; Devineaux is red-faced and ready for a fight. "We're all on the same side - right, Chase? We're all going to be a big happy crime-stopping squad?"
Devineaux says nothing.
"And you trust my judgement, right, Shadowsan? Until the end of the line?"
Shadowsan gives a deep nod.
"So everyone calm down, enjoy the gorgeous morning, the uplifting music, and have egg rolls."
"This music is terrible," Devineaux mumbles.
Carmen raises a brow at Julia; Julia dutifully steps in, gently thumping Devineaux's upper arm. "You're being a bull."
"I like her," Zack grins, loading a plate down with small, fried rolls. "I like you. You're gonna fit in just fine."
"'Course she is," Ivy says from where she's leaning against the countertop. She reaches over and snags a roll from her brother's plate, turning the song up with her free hand. She and Carmen proceed to loudly serenade each other while Devineaux - grumpy but acquiescing to his new teammates' requests - reaches for a plate and an egg roll.
The jetlag is terrible; Julia is still feeling it later that week. Even so, Julia manages to rouse from a mid-day nap when Carmen prods her. "You awake?"
"I am now," she helplessly moans. She presses her face into the pillow and grumbles; Carmen laughs and leans in, nuzzling her cheek. "I want to show you something."
"Is it another sunset?"
"Nope - something more tangible."
That piques her curiosity enough to get out of bed. She finally went shopping, so she slips into a new outfit. It's nice to be in something that fits properly after three days of wearing Carmen's clothing.
The air is sea-scented and thick with mid-summer. Julia walks alongside Carmen, not sure on the etiquette of public affection. They've never talked about it - never had to. It was a given that they keep their relationship as quiet as possible.
But she supposes it doesn't matter anymore.
Carmen seems to read her mind because her fingers lace with Julia's, thumb rubbing against her knuckles. Julia glances at her feet and bites her cheek, too pleased to speak.
They don't walk far - about four blocks - before they come to a corner park. It's relatively small, but freshly-planted bushes and flowers spring up around the exterior. In the middle of the park are large planters of new sprouts and trellises.
"A community garden," Julia realises aloud.
"I thought it would be a little more practical than a private Babylon on our roof. The trees would probably draw some attention."
Julia can't focus on Carmen's quips. "You did this?"
"Why do you think I kept asking you to ask your mom for gardening tips?"
Julia swallows and takes in the surroundings. Count on Carmen Sandiego to take on such a task for her community. And for Julia. "C'est parfait," she whispers, her heart choking her throat. Oh, hell, her eyes are burning. "If you make me cry, Ms Sandiego-"
Carmen tilts Julia's face up and dutifully distracts her from the overflowing love crowding her heart.
so many reasons I would fight to stay
take a look at what we've made
💜Thank you for reading!💜