FROM BOTH SIDES NOW
Word count : 27,001
1x2x1, 1=2, drama, some lemon, alternating POV
Usual disclaimers – this is only fiction, and only my own.
I was tolerably content with the airline seating arrangements. After all, everything had been arranged at a moment’s notice. We needed to be back at the Department as soon as possible, and we’d been ordered to take the earliest available internal flight.
But to an outsider, it must have looked like a deliberate – and uncomfortable - mismatch of passengers.
I watched him try to settle in the seat by the window, wriggling to get his long legs comfortable. He played with the window blind; flicked impatiently through the in-flight magazine. Restless, like a caged animal. I had the aisle seat, where I had to place my own legs carefully to avoid being caught by the refreshment trolleys that rattled along periodically.
Between us sat a young woman, on her own.
I saw her gaze flickering over us. Since takeoff, she’d seemed to shrink into her seat. Her elbows clenched in against her sides.
I thought her reaction excessive. Neither of us was that intimidating individually. We weren’t in uniform or even armed. Well, not so as she – or airport security - might notice.
“Hey, man, can have your pack of those little pretzels?” His voice was a sudden burst of boisterous energy across the seats. “Like last time? You know how I crave the salty stuff.” He leaned forward over his arm rest and grinned straight into my face. The girl between us pressed back into her seat cushion. She was very pale.
“Stop that.” My voice was harsh. “Sit back in your seat.”
He grimaced at my tone. “Don’t get pissy. You don’t ask in this life, you don’t get. Am I right, or am I right?” He twisted his head at the last moment, suddenly directing his question at the girl. His body leaned over hers, his arm draped over the backrest of the seat in front. She jerked with surprise and her empty plastic cup skittered off the edge of her table, catching my thigh as it tumbled.
“I …” she said, her voice choking in her throat. She looked quickly at me, then back at him, obviously unsure as to whether we really knew each other. “I don’t like pretzels either, if you want them.”
His eyes softened, like I’d seen happen many a time. For other people, of course. “Thanks, you’re cute. Sorry to seem so rude.”
I also turned directly to her. For a second, in her young, grey eyes, there was the panic of a cornered mouse.
“He can’t help it,” I said, abruptly. She didn’t seem to know which of us to look at. “He’s disadvantaged that way.”
“Hey!” Dark blue eyes flashed indignation at me. “So who the hell are you to say that?”
I ignored his protest. “I said to stop it - hitting on passengers. Harassing people.”
He sighed, rich with exaggeration. “I’m not hitting on anyone, man. Just being friendly. What’s your problem?”
“You are,” I replied quickly, my voice low but clear. “You think you can have what you want, when you want.”
His eyes narrowed. “We talking pretzels here, or something else?”
As the girl moved her head back and forth between us, I felt the slight breeze from her soft hair. It was much finer than his. Perfumed with something very feminine, not damp with sweat or carrying the tang of cordite.
My back ached a little, wedged in the uncomfortable economy seat.
We’d been called back into the mission approximately 48 hours ago, with barely two hours’ notice. The analysis had been run on the data we removed from the embassy, finding that one particular itinerary had been viewed more often than any other. In case there was a threat planned against this particular route, we’d been sent to track through it all, in advance of any official party. The time since mobilisation had been frantic, intense and exhausting. We’d not slept for the last 36 of those hours. At least, I hadn’t. It would surely not have been a surprise if my tolerance levels were now strained.
And we’d been so very close to finding our mystery traitor.
The evidence seemed to suggest that the spy was passing over details of a forthcoming diplomatic round table meeting - the itinerary we were checking out was the official route for the delegates to that meeting, covering all main points of travel across many states. Any disruption to the talks would be viewed with mistrust, and would jeopardise our government’s credibility in the meeting. If the embassy was truly harbouring a subversive faction, this would be an ideal opportunity for them to cause political trouble.
Last night, we thought we’d found the source of that espionage. Our intelligence bug had intercepted a hasty and poorly-encrypted message from an embassy department, calling for a meeting with someone not listed on the embassy staff. The location was set for an old, deserted library building. It was near enough to the route of our itinerary for it to be suspect – it seemed to the Commander that the spy was seeking contact with their controller. Maybe they had new information about the diplomatic meeting to pass over; maybe they were just running scared. That’s when we were put on immediate alert; that’s when we diverted to the library ourselves and prepared to capture our target.
We’d been waiting for such a break for two weeks. Personally, I was very ready to bring the traitor in.
Maxwell had appeared almost vibrant with readiness.
But we’d underestimated our enemy’s preparedness. The library had its visitors, right on time, but they included company – and well-armed company, as we quickly realised. We dropped back into hiding without a single sight of our target. We were outnumbered and unacceptably vulnerable – and trapped with them all, in the same building.
Maxwell had been eager to confront them; to break our way out. We were also armed, though I doubted well enough. But in the end I’d had my way. Avoidance had been the better strategy.
We’d had to back off; to let the traitor go free again.
Instead, we crouched together in a basement archive of the library, waiting for our enemy to leave the building ahead of us. We stayed there all night, hidden and frustrated in our mission, but as yet undiscovered. We both understood the situation without verbalising it - it was the best we could do in the circumstances. We would sit it out, then report back. There was no rush to return with our message of failure.
Maxwell had been furious, though not particularly with me. He had no outlet for his anger, as we had to keep both silent and hidden for many hours. His frustration was physically obvious from the tension throughout his body. At one stage, I’d taken hold of his arm and held him forcibly from pacing the floor.
As the night wore on, and we could hear nothing but footsteps and the murmur of voices above us, I’d gestured for him to sleep. I’d been too wired to rest.
He complained with his eyes and his expressive hands, but in the end, his fury had exhausted him. He slept for an hour or more, collapsed on to my lap, his head in the crook of my arm. His hair had been all I could see, looking down on him. For that brief time, he relaxed into a childlike surrender of physical and emotional control.
He trusted me to accept it.
I didn’t move position for the first twenty three minutes, for fear of waking him. His tousled braid had brushed against my hand as his shallow breath ebbed and flowed.
By the time it was all clear to leave, we were stiff and exhausted; demoralised, too. There hadn’t been any conversation as we made our way back to our temporary accommodation. Hastily repacking for another flight back to headquarters, he’d caught my eye more than once. His grin was tight and tired. We shared the symptoms and the sympathy.
Failure was never tolerable.
He coughed now from his seat on the plane, and I came back to attention. He yawned and stretched carelessly; his video headphones slid swiftly from his lap to the floor. He fumbled by his feet, retrieving them, and then looked back at the girl, smiling. “Like I said, ma’am, I’m sorry for our rudeness. My friend is pissed because I fell asleep against him last night and put permanent creases in his oh-so-smart pants.”
She gave a nervous laugh, and flushed. Her breath sighed past me, fresh with minted tea. Last night, his breath had been thick with sleepiness, anger and rushed food, and coated with thick, sweet coffee. It kept him racing, he said.
I stared at him, seeing mischief sparkling in his eyes. “Don’t speak for me,” I said, sharply. “I can have you removed from the flight.”
He laughed softly and now his eyes were back on me. “I think not. Other passengers and crew to take account of, buddy. Air traffic schedules and all.”
I just looked at him. For a long moment we both stared at each other. I think the girl shivered.
Then he sighed and there was a glimmer of disappointment in his eyes. “OK, tough guy, I get the message. I was teasing, y’know? What the hell else is there to do on a plane journey?”
“Sleep,” I said.
He rolled his eyes. “Yeah. Sleep, eat, drink.” He placed a hand on the girl’s arm. “Chat to pretty girls…”
He ignored my warning tone. “… read a magazine, jerk off in the restroom …”
I felt the jolt of shock. The girl gasped. Her face was scarlet. The sing-song tone of an altitude announcement went unheeded.
He leant across her again, and now his hand brushed my arm. “Is that what you want to do, man? Don’t let us keep you here if you want to slip along the aisle and relieve that tension.” He had such bright eyes. They were always alert; always moving. They were relentless, too.
“Back off,” I said.
He sniffed. “Yeah, right. I saw you looking at me at the airport security check, y’know.”
I shook my head, but I could feel the muscles tug at the corners of my mouth. “You think you’re such a comedian.”
His voice was deliberately husky. “I slipped my shoes off, just as Security asked. Wriggled my toes on that rough old carpet. That’d give you burns, I reckon, wouldn’t it?”
“Maybe it would,” I said, calmly. “Depends what you were doing on it. I believe you’d know better than I.”
He continued as if I hadn’t replied. “Then I pulled my belt from its loops, nice and slow… did you watch that, too? My jeans easing down my hips. Hanging low, button slipped, just as you like it.”
The girl’s eyes were locked on his face, stunned. We could both see the provocative invitation in his eyes. There was a strangled sound in her throat.
“Some things aren’t to joke about,” I said, evenly.
“You wish,” he replied quickly, but evenly, too.
I didn’t answer.
He shrugged. The girl looked from one of us to the other: her breathing had quickened. “You two want to sit together?” Almost a whisper. A possessive gleam in her eye.
He stared at me and I met the look. It was wistful.
That was surprising.
“Nah,” he said. He straightened himself up, quite swiftly. “I like the window, and Mr Tight-Ass there has to sit on the aisle so he can steal extra pretzels for me. I get unruly without regular food.”
“That’s obvious,” I murmured. Our eyes met again over the girl’s head. This time, we smiled.
“Sorry, honey,” he said, but he was looking at me as he spoke. “More rudeness from us. It’s a game we play, you see.”
I nodded. “Just a game.”
There was the twang of the announcement for snacks. He let his gaze drop back to his folded table.
I looked away, too. It was strangely satisfying that I wasn’t the first to do so.
“Was I right? Maxwell, did you hear me?”
I was deeply huddled in my airline seat, munching on my second pre-packed slice of cake of indeterminate variety and catching two words in ten of a sexy, cult French movie. I was pretty happy with the status quo, and not quite so keen on interruption. His voice roused me from a rather pleasant – and culturally provocative - reverie.
I glanced to the aisle – we were alone in the bank of three seats. The girl had gone seeking an attendant, all of them as elusive as a yeti and only half as handsome.
“You may well have been right, Yuy. Just exactly what minute in the last decade were you referring to?”
He sighed with irritation. “About the suspect.”
I yawned. “Sure. You were right. You recognised the voice too?” He nodded. “So we got a fraction more than fuck all out of that surveillance after all. A stroke of luck we’re on the same flight back …”
He shook his head. The dark hair fell awkwardly over one ear – he’d had no time to wash it properly since our uncomfortable night in that dank basement archive. Thick, lustrous hair like that needed regular care. I knew those kinds of things.
“Not luck. I listened to the tone of their voices while we were trapped there; measured their footfalls. You did, too.”
It wasn’t a question, but he was right. “Yeah, it’s standard procedure. So we could report how many there were; male or female, whatever. Who the target may have been - where they may have been headed.”
He nodded. “So when I heard her behind us in the airport, it was the confirmation I needed.”
“You knew she’d been there with us.” I wasn’t questioning him – I’d known there was something about her as soon as I heard her speak. You don’t hear much conversation through the thick ceiling of a library archive, but there’s a cadence that still seeps through.
“You fixed the flight? Got us the seats together?” Despite myself, I was impressed.
Give him his due, he didn’t seem to want to bask in it. “It was easily done.”
Yeah, right, I thought, with a grin to myself. “Do you think she’s the one? Or just someone on the fringes…”
He shook his head. “She’s the one. Her voice was one of the most noticeable. She was reporting; she was demanding response from her contact.”
“You think she’s losing her nerve?”
He shrugged. “Her behaviour on board has been unusually nervous to date.”
“Whose wouldn’t be,” I murmured. “With us around.”
He frowned at me, but there was a spark of excitement in his eyes. I guessed it was from the chance to salvage something for the mission. What else would thrill him in the same way?
“I’ll contact the Commander as soon as we land,” he said. “Now we’re sure she’s the target.”
I nodded. I was going to ask him if he had any more food, but decided it probably wasn’t his idea of a departmental priority. “Got to go to the rest room.” I peeled myself out of my seat and he let me clamber out into the aisle.
He followed me, which was mildly surprising. We both paused outside the toilets, up by the galley. The area was temporarily deserted as they took round the drinks. There was one toilet cubicle free.
I glanced at him. It had been a crap couple of days. We’d chased our tails across state; suffered a crippling night in imminent danger; failed to catch our target. And hell, I knew I hadn’t been an easy companion. But now we’d got back on the case in triumph, all thanks to this guy. He’d salvaged something from a grade A disaster. It didn’t happen every day and I felt generous.
“You want to go first?”
He shook his head slightly. “I can wait.”
I stared at him, startled. “Huh?”
He met my gaze calmly. “Your performance back there in the seats. With the girl. It was over the top.”
I shrugged. “It got us what we wanted.”
“Your suggestion as to what entertainment I could seek in the rest room … it was outrageous, Maxwell, even for you.”
”Get your head out of your ass, Yuy. You’re no prude.”
I grinned. “Really. And my performance gave you time to take her picture, right? Gave you a full, clear profile of her outrage and – dare I say it – girlish fascination, at the thought of you lusting after me like that.”
His hand moved instinctively to his pocket - to the small camera he could palm so discreetly.
I raised an eyebrow. “And you got her plastic cup, too?”
He nodded. “Yes. I’ll get a sample of her fingerprints from that back at base.”
I smiled, smugly. My point was made. And the winning nomination is …
“But your offensive groping of her as she sat there –“
I waved his disapproval away. “Had to be done. I got to check her out, too. Not armed.” I grinned at him. “That’s everything we wanted, right?”
“Yes, of course.” I’m sure he wanted to smile. Just his damned tight-ass mouth wouldn’t let him.
I stood at the doorway of the vacant cubicle, watching that mouth. “So, hey, maybe my disgraceful hitting on passengers has its uses. You worried I’ll try it on you?”
He raised an eyebrow. “I’ve told you in the past that I’m not easily scared.”
“Or corrupted, I think you said.” I don’t know what made me do it, even though the temptation had been so long in my mind it had become part of the furniture. I reached a finger to his collar and trailed it along the rim. He didn’t flinch. His skin was hot: the pulse at his throat was strong. “Can’t tempt you in here with me to test that out? They call it the mile-high club, you know.”
He did smile then, very slightly. “There’s barely room to piss in there, let alone –“
“ - test anything out, as you say.”
What the hell kind of an answer was that? I grasped the handle, ready to slide the door open. “OK. Guess you have some kind of special immunity, after all.”
“From you?” One might have said his voice was playful. It gave me pause.
“Don’t get cocky.” I was piqued. “Thinking you’ve got the better of me. There’s not many in that club.”
“I can imagine,” he said.
I started to sidle in through the folding door. He was right; not a lot of space in there at all. I was aimlessly considering the physical discomforts of a horny, mile-high clubber, when his low voice cut across my thoughts. “You must realise that I don’t have the time to spend on personal interests, Maxwell.”
“Sure.” I understood that, in its way. I didn’t turn around. The movement of the door had popped on the light and it was shining right into my eyes, presumably interrogating me about my lustful intentions.
“But I would if I could. Like watching your toes wriggling on a poor quality industrial floor covering.”
That made me halt. “Huh?”
“Or listening to the hiss of a supple leather belt sliding from the loops of your jeans. Your pants hanging low … button slipped …”
Whoa. The hairs lifted on the back of my neck.
“Or seeing the way that the security guard spent far too long on patting you down.”
I smiled, my eyes still blinded. “Lingered a little, didn’t he?”
“Yes, he did.”
I turned around then. “You noticed, Yuy.” Noticed a lot of things, I wanted to add.
He shook his head, dismissively, but his steady eyes met mine. “No time for it, Maxwell. Not now, anyway.”
“No. Like I said.”
“Yeah,” I said, quietly. “Like you said.”
He seemed to release a breath. “I don’t need the facilities, anyway. You go relieve your tension. I’ll see you back at the seats.”
My tension -?
He turned abruptly and strode back down the aisle to our row. I looked at the set of his broad, muscled shoulders, and over them, into the startled eyes of a guy I didn’t know. There was a rapidly growing queue for the rest room.
I grinned at the waiting guy; held my hands up in a kind of surrender. “I was over the top, he says!” There was a shifting in the queue, a nervousness, like I might have some kind of rest room rage. Perhaps I did. Various parts of my body complained of a certain increase in stress.
I stepped in and slammed the door shut behind me with a fine display of disregard.
I’m not sure who it was fooling, of course.