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.
“Just spread them on the other table.” I called out to the technician from over my shoulder, my gaze still fixed on the papers in front of me. I was trying to make some sense of the schematics, and failing. It wasn’t from lack of trying – in fact, I was in full support of the Department’s plan to attempt an infiltration of the embassy itself. The surveillance of the conference had yielded no leads, and a study of the personnel records had found insufficient matches to identify one single suspect as our traitor. A dozen potential similarities among the staff, yes – but it had been difficult to maintain a watch on all of the people concerned, all of the time.
I turned my attention back to the mission briefing in front of me, with the knowledge that there would be no change to its main agenda. But there were critical flaws in this plan – there were omissions, most serious in nature, in both resourcing and logistics. There was my concern that there was an inadequate exit strategy. There was my rapidly growing disbelief that a professional department could have misjudged quite so much, quite so comprehensively…
There was also a loud cough behind me.
“Hey,” came a low drawl. “Most guys at least offer me a drink or two before demanding I spread ‘em on a table.”
I whirled around. He stood in the doorway, hand gripping the edge of the frame, braid hanging loosely forward over one shoulder and brushing at the buttons of his denim shirt. The top three were open around his throat.
He raised an eyebrow. I cursed inside, not knowing if I cursed myself or him. “Maxwell.”
“Uh-huh,” he nodded. “Just who were you expecting?”
I bit my lip. “The technician should be arriving back with the archived floor plans to the embassy.” Why was I explaining myself to him?
He grinned. There was a light in his eyes like a predatory animal’s. “So that’s the kind of guy who rings your bell? Lights your fuse?
I shook my head; I wouldn’t be baited. “Just leave if you’ve nothing constructive to offer. I have to review this plan as soon as possible, the infiltration is planned for tonight.”
Maybe I didn’t expect him to go. I felt the usual disturbance that his company brought me. Just didn’t have the time to handle it.
He didn’t leave, anyway. His eyes flickered to the rolls of paper in front of me and back to my face. Then he pushed away from the door and came forwards into the room. “And?”
I frowned. “And - what?”
He sighed. “You should see your face, Yuy. Either you’re blushing from my witty, sexual innuendo or you’re mightily pissed about something. That’s either gonna be me, or the hapless technician, or the shitload of circuit diagrams you have there. And as you don’t do the Human Resources issues too well, I’ll bet on the third option.”
I watched him approach. He looked tired; his clothes a little crumpled. It was early for him to be at base. “Are you scheduled for this part of the mission?”
He yawned and rubbed a hand across his forehead. “Schedules sort of pass me by for much of the time. Do I need some kind of security clearance to talk to my colleague now?”
I grimaced. “No. I just asked. You can be deliberately obtuse, Maxwell.”
“Uh-huh.” He nodded again. “Thanks for the reference, but the Commander already has it on file.” His grin was only half-hearted, and his listlessness surprised me. I wondered if he were sleeping properly – then wondered why it bothered me.
However, he seemed determined enough at the table. He put his hand on the diagrams, pinning down one of the curling edges, and studied the information. He stood at my side, half a foot away. I was conscious of that grace of his, that smooth, almost feral movement, his limbs stretching and resettling into each pose.
Always moving; always distracting.
He smelled of soap, coffee and charcoal. My nose wrinkled. When he yawned and sniffed a little, I spoke. “Heavy night?”
He turned his head slowly, to look directly at me. It was a challenge of sorts.
“Burnt toast for breakfast,” I said, shrugging. “Strong black coffee.” That’s what I’d guessed from him.
His eyes widened. The pupils dilated; a deep, lustrous darkness. Suddenly, I wondered if he’d be angry. It had genuinely not occurred to me before – that I’d been rude. Then his face seemed to relax and his mouth opened in a wider smile.
“Shit, Yuy, you are one weird guy sometimes. A secret talent for the HR issues, after all, eh?”
“Am I right?” He made me smile, too. We faced each other, both grinning.
He twisted his slender body, leaning himself in closer to me. His hip brushed against mine. He looked into my eyes very carefully and the goose bumps rose at the nape of my neck. “You want to know what I really have for breakfast?” he said, softly. “Come and find out for yourself.”
There was a voice in the corridor outside; the slam of a door upstairs. The papers on the table crinkled away from our hands and started to roll themselves back up.
I felt the muscles of my shoulders twitch. I’d never known that feeling except before a mission initiative.
Then the expression in his eyes cleared and his gaze shifted away from me. He turned back to the table and slapped a hand back down on its edge. “Anyway, this plan isn’t worth the paper it’s scrawled on, right?” he said. “It’s pure, unadulterated shit.” His bold voice sliced through the tension. “We both realise that.”
I did. We did. No point in denying that his evaluation was as sharp as my own.
“You need to flush out the traitor one way or another,” he continued. “But this’ll never work the way it stands. There’s not enough time to bypass the security controls before the alarm sounds. There are eight floors to cover before you can exit the building and no obvious distractions to cover you - you’ll be out in the open; a sitting duck. The exit strategy sucks, and that’s in addition to the lunacy of placing reliance on a single agent.”
“It’s solely to plant surveillance equipment.”
“Yuy,” he said, sharply. “Your expertise is in the fireworks department. It’s guys like me who deal with the pretty coloured wires. You need support from at least one other operative.”
My mouth felt dry. I should have been offended at his ridiculous description of our career resumes, but I wasn’t. “Are you volunteering?”
He shrugged. He turned away again and stretched out his neck, to one side then the other. My eyes followed the movement, captivated.
“We’re meant to be working together on this mission. Would you be surprised if I was volunteering?”
I breathed carefully. This wasn’t entirely the Maxwell I was used to. “No. But according to the schedule, you’re not on call tonight.”
“The schedule,” he mocked, gently, but it didn’t seem to be directed specifically at me. “I need to talk to the Commander about that, I guess.”
I kept my voice low and calm. “You don’t need to.”
“There’s that need word again, Yuy. You think I’m not up to this?”
I looked him up and down. “I’ve seen you look better.”
He grunted, but it seemed it took more than that to offend him. “Just a hangover, that’s all. You think that’s going to slow me down? Is that the real issue – you don’t think I can help you? You don’t need me?”
“No,” I said. The denial came more easily to me than I’d have imagined. “I’m just saying it’s not your problem.”
It was another break in the tension. He laughed out loud and I watched the vibration of it at his throat. “The day I let you tell me what is and what isn’t my problem, I’ll make coffee for you, just as you like it!”
“I don’t bother –“ I began.
“No,” he interrupted. ”Not like it is here, stale and bitter from the pot. But like you take home on a Friday night from the coffee shop across the block; extra strength, twist of vanilla, one teaspoon cream.”
He must have read the shock on my face as clearly as I read the mischief on his.
“Am I right?”
I turned away. I didn’t answer directly - as I remembered, neither had he when I attempted to read his lifestyle. He amazed me; he unnerved me. And it seemed he watched me, too.
I wanted time after this mission to consider that further. I wanted time to consider him further.
“Look. After all this …” He waved an expansive hand over the strewn paper. “After all this, we should have an evening out. Burn off some tension; let down some hair.”
I felt a frisson of shock, that his train of thought had been similar to my own. “That’s your assessment?”
“Maybe we will, then,” I said. His eyes widened, briefly, and it looked like he wanted to say something more, but I continued. “Meanwhile, we’re expected at the briefing at ten.” That was why we were here – what we were meant to be doing.
He smiled, as if to himself. “OK,” he said. “So let’s rummage through this pile of crap and rebuild a strategy that’s going to keep the skin attached to all our bones.” His hands went down on the papers again, smoothing them out for us to examine together. He picked up a pencil and started to make some initial notations.
As we both reached around the table, his hip nudged carelessly at mine again. I felt the pressure for seconds after he moved away. His eyes were firmly set on the diagrams as he spoke, but the wide, easy smile was clearly visible.
“You got a problem with this, Yuy?”
“No,” I said.
“Good,” he said. His mouth twisted with a mischievous quirk. “And if you ever let me tell you what is or isn’t your problem, you can ask for that coffee for breakfast.”
I didn’t see the actual moment he came out of the building; I’d been distracted by a flickering security light on the fifth floor and the muffled background clamour of an alarm. This damned mission seemed to be one long series of alarms. My last radio message to him had been terse, but it had done its job, warning him to get the hell out of there. Our visit had been discovered a little ahead of time, unfortunately, although a couple of my pet computer worms let loose in the security system had done a pretty good job of smoke-screening.
My eyes hurt from staring too long at the vague shadows of the street and the darkened glass in the lobby over the way. Yeah, this was a hell of a Saturday night treat. Huddling in a cold, damp, recessed doorway, and staring for my supper. Wasn’t usually a problem, to be honest. A couple of hours’ surveillance and support I could always cope with.
It was the last ten minutes that had been pure horror.
The getting into the building had been fine. I’d planted the bugs like the good little intelligence insects they were, hacked quickly through the closed circuit system for any local information that might help us, and then we’d been happy to leave.
Well, I had. He went back. Something about needing to hide our traces where we broke in from the utility chute. I knew his methods would involve something with detonators and that was fine by me – but time was in short supply, and as things inevitably go, it ran out. Familiar story, eh?
The gloom by the lobby door shifted, creating the figure I recognised. He moved quickly over towards my hiding place, his boots light-footed on the pavement. My body shivered with a strange relief. His clothing was tight-fitting; black; dusty from the night’s exercise. The expression in his eyes was dark and sunk deeply, like the shadow of a shipwreck under the sea. The pupils glittered exhausted tension; they glared determination. They trapped me, like the proverbial headlights.
Yeah. Seemed I couldn’t get away from the eyes.
I made a movement to catch his attention. Of course, he’d seen me already.
“As we thought.” He stepped into the shadows with me, both of us hidden from any superficial view. His words were muttered; the bare minimum. “Place is a technological fortress. There must be some internal security alert that got through your work on the system. The eighth floor is overrun by guards.”
“You didn’t need to go back,” I said, sharply.
“The timing was tight, that’s all,” he countered. “We both knew that.”
“But you cleared the scene? Made it look like a chance burglary?”
He grunted slightly.
“Huh? What the hell does that mean, Yuy? Did you or didn’t you..?”
He nodded. Nothing more.
“Remind me not to take you into any Chat rooms,” I sighed. “Unless I need the extra sleep.”
He frowned at me. “And was your task any more rewarding? Did you find anything new?”
I growled a bit. “I don’t know. There was plenty of recent activity on the embassy calendar, where they log visits from other heads of state; official receptions and diplomatic conferences. We may be able to find out the IDs of those who’ve been accessing it – identify anyone inappropriately interested. I planted a false ID of my own and a remote access, though it’s only into the shared diary.”
He nodded. I couldn’t tell if he were impressed, annoyed, or just plain tired. “You ready to go?”
There was a muffled thud behind us, as if something collapsed and fell within the building. Something fairly substantial. Hopefully nothing load-bearing – I wasn’t sure the Department could cope with the political crisis that demolition work might bring.
I glanced at him quickly but there was no clue in the dark irises of his eyes. I thought of the havoc he must have left trailing in his wake, and I grinned. “You’re the trouble, Yuy, aren’t you? I never saw it quite that way before.”
“It’s difficult to see anything in this darkness.”
I raised an eyebrow. I was aware of the way he stood – so very still, yet poised for movement. Strong body; sharp mind. A disturbingly sharp mind, or so I’d discovered over the last few months, and witty, too, when he chose to be. “Yeah, right, very amusing,” I said. “For you, at least.”
He shifted slightly. “Does that mean you think I have no sense of humour?” The tone was deadpan and – like I said before – the eyes weren’t giving anything away.
“Oh shit, no, I know you do.” Plenty of time together in the last few months to establish that. “Just, it’s a little dry, usually. Passes some people by.”
“You mean it passes you by?”
Had he moved closer? I wasn’t usually one for the personal space issue - hell, I invaded it enough times myself – but my skin felt sensitive to him, as if things had been peeled open and left raw. The image was ludicrous; I kicked its ass. “No, not me. I’ve learned to spot your understatement as clearly as any other guy’s slapstick.”
He gave a quiet grunt; perhaps he was annoyed. Somewhere in the distance was the sound of running feet. “Sometimes you pretend it does.”
I was going to do that whole show of looking at my watch – we ought to have been making ourselves scarce. But of course, there was little enough light for watch-peering, too.
“Sometimes I do, yeah.” I laughed softly, and saw his arm dart out. I almost flinched, thinking it was coming my way – then he steadied himself against the wall behind me. His head was close up against mine.
“Just my way, y’know.” I said, wondering why I was breathless. “Can’t let you have the last word.”
There were definite movements in the building now; shadowy figures in the lobby; a raised voice in the background. Whatever devastation had been wrought inside had served its purpose, distracting the security force from any interference with the computers.
“Doesn’t mean I can’t try, though, does it?” he murmured.
“Huh?” Looked like I’d been distracted, too.
“To have the last word,” he persisted. He moved to stand in front of me and I didn’t know if he were protecting or intimidating me. It was an odd feeling, not knowing – though not unpleasant. We were of a similar height; his breath steamed quietly in the cold air. That close up, I could see the different shades of black in his clothing; in his darkened hair; in his pupils.
“You get hit by your own aftershock, Yuy? You’re acting kind of weird.”
He scowled, but his eyes stayed on mine. Indigo eyes. Hot eyes. All about the eyes again. “So where do we go now?”
I swallowed; my throat felt kind of dry. “Where’d you want to take me? I’m easy –“
“We all know that,” he replied, swiftly. Was he smiling? “You must have told me that a thousand times.”
I bit my lip. “Hell of a time to discover hyperbole, Yuy.”
Yeah, he was smiling! “I thought you might appreciate it.”
I wanted to laugh. He was stirring me up – and he knew it. What with him and the tension and the cold nagging at my toes, I was so stirred up I could have sucked the fictional Dorothy – Toto included - up and out of
I bit my lip to hold back the retort. This wasn’t the time to linger, swapping our light-hearted banter, was it? “So, OK, we need to be on the north highway, pick up the transport in the next half hour. I want you out of here before they drag in the forensics team and find your calling card in one too many places.”
“They won’t,” he said, softly. “It’s clumsy enough to pass as a common break-in.”
I felt his slight shiver. “That must have broken your heart,” I said, mischievously. “To be clumsy.”
His eyes glinted like reflections on a switchblade. “Enough. It’s time to go.”
I nodded. “Like I said, I want you out of here -”
He interrupted me. “And do you always get what you want?”
I grinned. If he wanted to play it that way, provocation was my favourite game. “Yeah. No. Whatever. Depends what it is. Depends how much I want to go for it.”
He nodded slightly, but it was like he agreed with something in himself, not my facile words. His attention was off me for that second; he looked unguarded. It was all the more fascinating. For one blinding moment, I wondered what he’d do – how far he’d go – if there was something he really wanted.
And of course, this was no game. I knew that better than anyone.
The last ten minutes had been the worst, didn’t I say? It was eight minutes and forty seconds, actually, pre-fucking-cisely, if anyone wanted to be pedantic. Eight-odd minutes beyond the planned schedule, when he’d gone back into the danger zone against all sense – when I wasn’t sure if he’d come out or not. Alive, or in pieces. Here with me –
The plan had been deficient in so many areas; gaps the size of the
My world had stalled on its axis for every second of that short period.
“Maxwell, you’re staring at me. I don’t recall that in the plan.” His voice broke in, his tone bemused.
Fucking plan, I thought with some viciousness. If I had the fucking plan on paper in front of me now, I’d ball the damned thing up and shove it down someone’s throat until they choked, for putting us – him – in that position…
I could feel his eyes on me. I coughed, needlessly, looking for something to say that wasn’t as provocative as my thoughts. “Just evaluating, y’know? I can do that as well as the aggressive, all-action-hero stuff. “
He frowned. “Evaluating?”
I nodded: smiled to break the tension I could feel throughout my body. “Wondering how far you’d go to get what you want. And what that might be.”
Even as I spoke, I knew I’d probably regret it.
“Don’t you know that already?” he hissed. “What I want?” Something sparked in his eyes like blue flame, but it was far from cold. “It’s the last word!”
And then he gave the widest grin I’d ever seen on his face, and he turned and darted out of the doorway.