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’d been watching him for only fourteen minutes. I hadn’t spoken a word. Just watched.
His hands moved swiftly and confidently over the tangle of wires and burnt casing. Steady wrists; supple shoulders. The tang of charred electrics still lingered in the basement air. He nudged apart a mangled mess of wire with dextrous fingers; his eyes searched the melted plastic, seeking the trail of discovery through the devastation. It was very revealing – his consummate skill; his commitment to this job.
I’d only been paired with him for a few weeks. It hadn’t been my idea in the first place – I worked best on my own - but the Commander had been insistent. I confess that I found his attitude a challenge, and his reputation in the Department was… interesting, to say the least. But maybe I was finally seeing what genuine skills he brought to the team.
He couldn’t resist some cursing, though.
“Son of a bitch... The hard drive should be fried, by rights. The unit took a direct hit. Looks like a pile of fucking spaghetti with melted cheese on top.”
I shifted my feet, though it wasn’t an awkward move. He had enough sense to keep his voice low, in case we were overheard. I didn’t need to comment, but I did. “It was necessary to break in. There was no time to disarm the security codes.”
He let out a small breath. “Sure. The end justifies the means, right?” It was a rhetorical question, or so I inferred.
The building we were in was a small industrial unit on the outskirts of the city. We’d had its owners – a governmental agency from a country other than our own – on surveillance ever since they opened an embassy based in the city. When potentially hostile governments talked about outsourcing, we might have assumed they meant data input, or office cleaning. In this case, it meant confidential records being maintained and secured off-site: records that might hold subversive information, and definitely held information that we wanted to know and assess. The government in question was a volatile one with a history of terrorist action against us.
The building was nondescript and well hidden amongst genuine commercial units. It had taken us some time to track its location down – some additional time to find a way in. It had been a pity that our time had then run out, and we’d also underestimated the security measures in place. Our situation now was far from ideal.
I continued to watch him at work, the tension almost palpable, the air in the ill-lit storage room humid with our sweat and controlled breath. We’d taken refuge here, relying on a few more minutes before inevitable discovery. We were both coping with the tension in our own way.
He hunched uncomfortably over the bare metal table and his tongue was between his teeth, the tip of it just inching out, his whole manner caught in rapt concentration. He cursed again under his breath, something nonsensical that I didn’t catch properly. “Don’t know if I can save it. We can manage without it, right?”
“Right,” I replied, calmly, though my heartbeat increased. It had taken an hour to locate the necessary computer room: then our forced entry had set off a booby-trap. The hard drive we were seeking had suffered in the explosion and an alarm had been triggered almost immediately, seriously reducing the time we had available. There was no other choice - I’d just picked up the damaged box and we’d run with it.
Now he didn’t think he could save it. I prepared to think through the alternative options. There weren’t many to choose from.
He grunted suddenly and his hand jerked sideways; I saw that he’d cut himself on a raw edge of metal. A tiny tube of cable sprang away from the table, bouncing off the edge on to the floor. He raised his palm to his lips and sucked quickly at a creeping track of blood. He sighed. “Yeah, I know. We can’t manage. Or at best, it’ll hold up the whole mission. We need access to the personnel information at the embassy; we need to find the traitor in amongst all this shit.”
I grimaced, but he never saw me. There had been a slight but steady leak of information about diplomatic events to a terrorist group, proved to have strong links with this foreign country. The source had not yet been found, but we believed the embassy was sheltering a spy. We were hopeful that a link would be found between their records and our own intelligence about the terrorists. The embassy refused to allow us access to their records voluntarily – therefore the Commander had deemed it necessary for us to obtain that information in other ways.
I was distracted by the sound of his boot scraping against one of the table legs as he crouched down further. His back stretched athletically; he moved with a masculine grace that I found fascinating.
He was always distracting; it was the main thing I’d discovered while we’d been working together. And always fascinating.
I had yet to understand why that should concern me.
My eyes didn’t leave his body. After another two minutes, his wrist tightened and he peeled apart two final wires. He let out a sharp breath. Apart from me, I don’t know who else might have recognised the slight relaxation of his muscles; the loosening of his shoulders. I relaxed too – I knew the change in his body language meant some success.
“Back off with the watching me,” he growled, suddenly. He stood up again abruptly, though he didn’t turn to face me. “Distracts
“No it doesn’t,” I replied. The similarity to my own thoughts was unnerving. My voice sounded very sharp in the damp, thin air, but he’d startled me. I thought my scrutiny had gone unnoticed. “I sincerely hope it’d take more than that to distract you from your job.”
His shrug was negligible. “True. I’m a lively, talented, multi-tasking kind of guy; can cope with it all. Always got plenty more distraction on my mind than a microchip or two, off duty, too.”
I frowned. “We only have a minute and a half to clear the building before the emergency security procedures initiate and the whole place shuts down on us. We mustn’t be found here. We don’t have time to discuss the many and outrageous methods you choose to… distract… yourself off duty.”
He grinned, then. I could see his profile clearly, even in the dim, fractured light from the high window. I could see the corners of his mouth curling: sweat glimmering in the dip of his upper lip.
“That discussion disturb you, Yuy?”
My turn to shrug. “Maybe. I don’t give it much thought.”
He straightened out his left hand, cracking stiff, sore knuckles. “You should do. The things we do – we need release from it all. Both of us do.”
I made a show of looking at the fading light outside. The evening was swiftly escaping from us. My heart was beating quickly again. “Not now, Maxwell. I don’t need to know what you do for personal gratification, and I don’t need to talk about my own entertainments. I don’t need –“
“You don’t need,” he broke in. “That about sums it up. No person, no thing. You’d have been happier if you could have done this all yourself.” He sighed and stretched, and turned around fully at last. We were a foot apart, no more; we were virtually face to face. His eyes were shot with the glint of the deteriorating light; his limbs trembled slightly with what I knew was tension. I’d seen it before. I’d watched it before.
“Time to go,” I said. I had no time for watching, now – no time for frivolous fascination.
“Yeah,” he said, softly. He was watching my face. “I know how you feel. But we’re stuck together for a while, right?”
I stared back at him, slightly harassed by his proximity and disturbed by the knowledge that he was just as physically aware of me. “Did you salvage anything in the end?”
He nodded. He reached to the back pocket of his jeans and drew out a slim, flat box. It was scratched and a little dented on one corner, but appeared otherwise unscathed.
I pursed my lips. “Good. I need to get that – and you - out of here, right now.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Something you need, Agent Yuy? Involving me, too. That must be most …”
“Perturbing,” I said, my voice deliberately steady. “Yes.” The distraction had a lot to do with his wit, I knew. Inappropriate at times, but always sharp. I had always appreciated that.
He smiled at me. “Yes, indeed. I don’t like to see you perturbed. I can only hope you get over it.”
I smiled back, and for those seconds there was genuine warmth and amusement in the room. “And I will.”
He lifted his lean body away from the table and turned towards the open door. I felt the breeze of his confident movement; the warmth of his hand as it brushed carelessly against my arm. “Daresay you will,” he murmured, nodding slightly. “Whether anyone tells you to or not.”
I followed him quickly from the room, pulling the warped door closed behind us. He stood in front of me, his eyes flickering around the deserted corridor. I heard the groan of air past a broken lock; the echo of more alarms on an upper floor. There were sirens in the background, outside the building, sweeping through the industrial site itself. I doubted they were friendly law enforcement.
“Probably less than a minute now to get out, right?”
His eyes darted quickly over me. His face contorted slightly, expressing a conflict I didn’t fully understand. “Just you and me here, eh?”
I’d only started to nod again when he reached out and tapped my arm. “Tag!” he grinned.
Then he turned and ran for the exit ahead.
It’d been a long, cold night. Hell, it’s not as if I hadn’t suffered more than a few of those on this mission. On tonight’s agenda – joy of joys - had been bugging the city conference centre. We couldn’t get into the embassy itself yet, but there was a diplomatic conference being held this week, and we hoped it might tempt our quarry to seek some new, juicy tidbits of information to pass on to their outside contact. And, incidentally, give us a lead to the spy itself. We were tightening the noose around this suspected traitor and I could feel the virtual rope burning my palms. It was none too soon for me. I didn’t have a lot of sympathy for a guy – or girl – who’d sell their scruples to the enemy.
Strike that. I had none. I wanted this bastard caught, and soon.
Did I mention it was cold? The embankment was chilled to freezing, this time of night. Deserted, too, except for me, keeping watch and covering up our tracks. Call me Agent Tidy.
It was no surprise to me when my new partner jumped down from the damp brickwork and landed on firm feet in front of me. He was, of course, the only other guy out so late, and moving about so stealthily. He brushed off his hands and ran one through his dark hair to settle it; buttoned his heavy jacket back around him. All the movements were very efficient, though I never saw him work any other way. I might have told him it was a treat to watch him in action, but he’d had some adjustment issues with my sense of humour, and the comment would probably have been misconstrued.
Then again, maybe not. He was a very smart guy, and maybe the adjustment was on my part, too. He’d fascinated me from the start. OK, so he was something else in the looks department, and I’d assumed it was a lust thing. I’d been my usual blunt self, making my tentative interest known more than once – and he’d blown me off every time, colder and sharper than this night could ever be.
But occasionally there’d also been a sparkle of amusement in his eyes.
“So here we are again, eh?” I blew out my cold breath; warmed up my lips again. “This is one critical mission. Busy, too. We’re moving in closer by the day.” I shifted myself against the railing, trying to get my ass more comfortable against the damp metal. Should’ve worn the thicker coat, out on an icy night like this; should’ve remembered a hip flask; should’ve read the damned briefing notes a little more closely and realised I’d be freezing my balls off through night duty. Hell, I should’ve stuck with my comfortable office posting in the first place, with the joy of central heating, air conditioning and polished chrome furniture, and even more joy from cute little rookies making me coffee and staring lustfully at my braid.
‘Should’ve’ would head up my list of potential epitaphs. I knew why I was here, and it suited me.
I looked at him, but there was no reaction beyond caution. “It’s been an experience, Yuy, hasn’t it? You and me on this mission. Together all hours of the day and night. Hey, people will say we’re dating.”
His breath steamed in the night air. “I doubt that. Dating presupposes an element of mutual interest.”
I shrugged. My eyelashes felt frosted. On a night like this, it was kind of fun to provoke him. “You can run and hide from it, man, but you can’t lie about it. You work with me because you want to.”
He shook his head, more in frustration than denial. He was a frighteningly literal guy sometimes. “In your dreams, Maxwell. I believe it was you who requested the placement, not me.”
I shrugged. “You agreed to the schedule, I believe.”
He pursed his lips. I watched his teeth flash white against the dark flesh. “The schedule is the Commander’s doing, not mine.”
“You mean I don’t figure in your schedule? Personal or otherwise?” I produced a mock pout, but he scorned it. Of course.
“I mean that just because I work with you doesn’t mean I want to.”
“You don’t want to?”
“I didn’t say that either.”
“Come on, you must swing one way or the other.”
“Drop it,” he said curtly. He pulled his jacket more tightly around him. “It’s too cold for your word games. My preferences are not the issue here. Nor yours, for that matter.”
“No,” he said, anticipating my track. “Nor my schedule. Like I said.”
We stared at each other for a moment, his dark eyes catching a glint from the water below our sidewalk. They were fascinating eyes; eyes to drown in. I was in some kind of fanciful mood tonight – must have been the brain-freeze.
My sigh broke the tension at last. “Just a joke, man. Need to lighten the mood. I’ve frozen my rocks into ice cubes here, watching your back.”
“Sure, just a joke,” he said, though his eyes didn’t relent. “Maybe I don’t always find the same things amusing.”
Like I said. A literal sort of guy. I coughed in the chill air and turned to make my way back to find transport. He fell into step beside me. He seemed a lot warmer than I was, though maybe that was only when his hip brushed against me. I had some problems walking straight when he did that; my feet must’ve been numb from the cold.
No other reason, of course.
“So… any complaints about the mission tonight?”
He shook his head. “It was successful. Everything’s in place for surveillance. There should be no complaints if the planning has been thorough.”
“Uh-huh.” My grunt was a little fractious. “Of course it was thorough: it was mine. I’m just trying to make conversation here. Checking you’re OK with it all.”
“I’m good.” His reply was firm.
I grinned, then. That was so not his phrase! Maybe my company was rubbing off on him. “Any complaints about me, then?”
His step slowed and I was unconsciously matching him, so I slowed too.
“Well, I can be kind of scary to work with.” I tried to catch sight of his expression. “So they tell me.” Amongst other things.
Repetition seemed to be his equivalent of banter, but his tone was careful rather than unimaginative.
“You know. Provocative. Maverick. Downright insolent, so I’ve heard the Commander say.”
“We’re both on the mission, we both know the score. She expects us to work together.” His voice was very low. Wasn’t sure he’d answered my question at all.
I persisted. “But this is kind of a new relationship. I never worked with you before.”
He made a sharp noise of frustration. “You’ve been with the Department for years. That’s enough of a reference for me.” He didn’t say it, but his expression did. What’s your point?
“But we’ve not worked together in the field.” My skin prickled a bit. Other thoughts – other memories - nagged at me, though they had nothing to do with tonight. “I mean, it’s fine by me. But there could be conflict. Maybe we have different attitudes to it all.”
Silence for a while, except for our footfalls on the paving. There were lights from the city ahead of us; warmth; food; the unsuspecting citizens’ reality. I lost my footing for a second and bumped against him; his grunt sounded disapproving.
“Sorry. So what do you really think about it all, Yuy?”
His voice was sharp. “Why the hell do you go on about everything, Maxwell? Talking for the sake of it.”
“Hey … just saying I’m very different.” I knew I was provoking him. Didn’t stop me. “Seems to me you’re overreacting. Afraid after all that I’ll corrupt you?”
He was looking down as we stepped over uneven stones, glistening with evening frost, and his sudden laugh was as surprising as it was soft. “Such a melodramatic word. I’m not easily corruptible, Maxwell. Not easily scared.”
Something caught inside me, like a fabric snag on a rusty nail. My gut stirred.
“And melodrama isn’t something you need, is it, Yuy? Hell, I’ve never even heard you swear. Or rant. Or use hyperbole.”
He stopped completely then, and I pulled myself up from two steps ahead. Turned back to face dark eyes and a slow smile, half-shaded by his upturned collar.
His smile was always a surprise; often astonishing. It looked good on him.
“Just drop the verbal rambling and find a vehicle, Maxwell. The Commander expects us back within the hour.”
I shivered; I pretended it was from the cold. In reality, I hadn’t had such a good time for ages. The evening had been cold, risky, stressful – and stimulating.
“And the Commander’s a truly scary person, right?”
He laughed, this time a startlingly rich sound, his breath steaming towards my face. “Sure. And that’s something neither of us needs right now, wouldn’t you agree?”
And then, as I searched for an appropriate riposte, he strode on past me towards the city.