Cara has always preferred working on her own, but circumstances change.
When a stranger called Richard Cypher, with a sweet face and boyish smile, tells her he's a 'criminal mastermind', she laughs at him. Then he gets her out of her air-tight, unbreakable, non-negotiable contract with D.H.A.R.A, and she isn't laughing any more.
She owes him.
Anyway, it's not like she's got anything better to do. She hits things, mostly people, and gets things done. It's the same whether she's doing it for Richard or for someone else. Cara doesn't care if Richard's plan is to help people, or whatever ridiculous idea he has that day, not as long as she gets her share of the profit.
She might as well waste some time watching the other members of his laughable team fall on their faces. What happens to them is all the same to her. Nicci, Zedd and Kahlan; aside from their particular talent at being annoying, they mean nothing to her. All she cares about is sticking around long enough to save Richard's ass whenever the inevitable crash and burn happens, so that they're finally even once and for all.
The trouble with having someone save your life is that it's hard to put a solid price tag on it.
A grifter, a hitter, a thief and a hacker, and then a mastermind to pull them together. It shouldn't work, but it does, even Cara has to admit that. Kahlan, Cara, Nicci and Zedd, they all have their areas of expertise, and Richard makes plans for how to put them to use. Not that Cara always enjoys the uses she's put to.
"Twenty-three minutes, Cara." It's Richard's voice in her earbud, and after twenty-three minutes of silence, while she crawls through cramped ventilation shafts in pitch blackness, Cara jerks in surprise from the sound and hits the back of her head on the wall over her.
"I'm going as fast as I can," she snaps.
For the hundredth time (that night) Cara decides that this is her last mission. As soon as she gets out, she's going to march right up to Richard and tell him to have fun with his ridiculous hero complex without her.
If she were on her own, there would be no one to tell her what to do, no trying to play nice with others, and most importantly, no ventilation shafts. Life would be infinitely sweeter.
Next, it's Nicci's voice in Cara's ear. "I would have been through already," she says. She sounds bored. Nicci does most of the time, when she's not in the process of climbing skyscrapers or jumping down elevator shafts. Nicci is the worst kind of thief: skilled, but completely out of her mind. Richard is crazy for trusting her - she used to be a nun and everyone knows nuns can't be trusted, that's like Crime 101. (But Richard trusts everyone, that's why he needs Cara. How someone manages to be so good at coming up with complex plans for breaking the law while remaining so stupidly naive is beyond her.)
"I would be faster if you stopped distracting me," Cara says.
If Cara were on her own, this is not the way she'd do this. Actually, if she were on her own, she wouldn't be doing this in the first place. She'd be on a beach, somewhere, or in the bed of a hot woman or two, or at least she'd be in the process of hitting people who needed a good punching.
Not in a ventilation shaft, that's for sure. And definitely not in a skirt.
It's all Kahlan's fault.
She's the worst of them all. Worse than Richard, with his savior obsession, worse than Nicci, with her crazy, thrill-seeking habits, and even worse than Zedd, with his painfully bad jokes about stuff Cara hasn't even heard of (she doesn't own a TV, or a computer, or an apartment to put things like that in. She doesn't stay in one place long enough for that to be an issue).
Kahlan is a grifter, a con-artist, and Cara might even respect something like that, if it weren't for Kahlan's unnatural desire to talk about things all the time. She also has an uncanny ability to know when someone is lying, which has come in handy more than once, it's just that Kahlan can't chill about it when they're not on a mission.
Cara doesn't like to talk, and if she sometimes lies, it's because she has good reason to. There is no reason for Kahlan to look at her as if she knows things.
Cara hates that about her.
It all comes to a head when Richard gets it into his head that they need to steal some kind of priceless jewel, melodramatically called 'the Stone of Tears', or some such thing ("the Stone of what?" "Of Tears." "Whose tears?" "It's just a name, Cara."). It's suppose to help people, somehow, somewhere; Cara doesn't really care why - if Richard wants the stupid thing, she'll help him get it.
They'll definitely be even after that.
Of course, things don't go according to plan (do they ever?), and they find themselves down one grifter.
"I thought you were supposed to be a criminal mastermind," Cara says, not even bothering to hide her annoyance.
Richard doesn't let that affect his relentless optimism. "Sometimes things don't go according to plan," he says. "That's why we have back-up plans. We'll get Kahlan out."
"Fine. But I'm not rappelling down buildings this time." Cara shoots a glare Nicci, who just sneers back, looking very pleased with herself. Nicci's suggestions rarely mean good things, least of all for Cara.
"Don't worry," Richard says. "You definitely won't have to rappel down any buildings."
Richard and Zedd both smile brightly at her, and Cara is suddenly very afraid.
Rothenberg, vice president of Keeper Inc.'s Midland branch, is an ass. He also happens to need an assistant.
It's the way in they need to get to Kahlan, Cara has no problem with that, she just doesn't understand why all the most undesirable jobs have to fall on her.
Cara stops on the street outside the corporate headquarters, looking up at the building with dread. "Why couldn't Nicci do this part? She likes wearing skirts."
She can hear Richard sighing in her earbud. "You know Rothenberg has already seen Nicci. It needs to be someone he hasn't met."
"He hasn't met Zedd, has he?"
"I've seen Zedd in a dress. You have better legs."
Kahlan is kept in the basement of the building. After Cara gets the key from Rothenberg (it involves golfing ("It's a graceful sport, Cara, don't hold the golf club like a baseball bat"), typing ("I told you we should have sent Zedd.") and some good old-fashioned exploitation of the way her legs look in short, pink skirts) and after crawling through miles of ventilation shafts, she finally gets there. Only problem is, Kahlan is gone.
Cara finds her three corridors down, crouching, all focus on the elevator's locking mechanism. There's blood on her white blouse, but Cara is fairly certain it doesn't belong to Kahlan. "I'm here to save you," Cara says. "It's kind of rude of you not to wait."
"Then don't take so long next time." Kahlan turns her head to look at Cara, a slow smile spreading across her face. "What are you wearing?"
Cara crosses her arms and resists the urge to squirm under Kahlan's gaze. "It's a skirt. I'm sure you've seen one before."
"Not on you," Kahlan says.
Cara cocks her head. She's not planning on indulging Kahlan's curiosity regarding her choice of outfit. "I'm impressed," she says instead, with a nod towards the the two burly security guards on the floor between herself and Kahlan. One of them stirs, and Cara walks up to him, aiming a quick high-heeled shoe to the side of his head. Not hard enough to do much damage, but enough to make sure he won't be bothering them for awhile longer.
Kahlan shrugs a little, before turning back to the locking mechanism on the elevator. "You're not the only one who can throw a punch."
The basement is sealed off with some kind of anti-earbud tech (Zedd explained, Cara hadn't particularly listened), so she can't ask Richard, but she is fairly sure he is going to want them to stick to his plans. "We're supposed to go back through the ventilation up to floor three."
"Just give me a moment and we can take the elevator."
Cara furrows her brow, glancing between the corridor behind her and Kahlan. "Richard said--"
Kahlan turns her head around, eyebrow rising. "Don't you ever think for yourself, Cara?"
It sounds suspiciously like a challenge. Cara tenses, eyes narrowing. "I do whatever I want to."
"Do you?" There's a click, and then the elevator doors slide open at the same time as Kahlan rises to her feet.
Cara steps past Kahlan into the elevator with three forceful strides, before turning around to face Kahlan again, flipping her hair back. "Are you coming?"
The elevator stalls. Of course it does.
It's probably Kahlan's tinkering with the locks that has triggered some kind of emergency protocol - or maybe it really is just a coincidence. The elevator starts smoothly, then there is a loud banging noise, and the elevator halts with a jolt.
There are probably worse fates than being stuck in an elevator with Kahlan, but Cara can't think of any.
Kahlan is eying her with curiosity, looking cool and collected as if this kind of thing happens to her every day. "Are you claustrophobic?"
Cara gives her a look. "Did you hear the part about me crawling through an entire building worth of ventilation shafts? No."
"It's very warm in here."
Kahlan smiles, pushing a lock of dark hair away from her face. "Are you afraid of being alone with me?"
"Don't be ridiculous," Cara says, straightening her back. "I'm afraid of nothing."
Kahlan keeps looking at her, and Cara fights down the restlessness that builds inside of her. She doesn't like the way it feels as if Kahlan can see right through her. Not that Cara has anything to hide. She's open book, made of violence and sex and that is all.
Cara presses back against the wall that's furthest from Kahlan. "Taking the elevator, what a fantastic idea."
A slight smirk quirk Kahlan's lips, as if she's trying to figure something out. Cara tries to ignore it, focusing on keeping her shoulders relaxed and breathing even. "What happened to your knees?" Kahlan says then.
Cara looks down; she hadn't noticed before, but her knees are scraped and a little sore. It's nothing, hardly worth mentioning, but Kahlan is looking all concerned for some reason. "You try crawling through ventilation shafts in a dress this short," Cara says flippantly.
Kahlan scrambles through the pockets of her jeans until her face lights up in a look of triumph. Cara raises an eyebrow when Kahlan holds up her find. "You brought band-aids?" Cara says.
"You never know when you're gonna need them."
"Were you a girl-scout in a previous life?"
"I just like to come prepared."
Kahlan gets to her knees in front of her, one hand grasping Cara's thigh, maybe a little higher than strictly necessary. "I'll put them on myself," Cara says, but it doesn't come out like she means it to. It barely even sounds like a protest.
The band-aids are bright red with smiling cartoon fish on them. Not only are they completely ridiculous, the color also clashes violently with the pink of Cara's skirt. But Kahlan is on her knees in front of her, fingers lingering on the bare skin of Cara's thigh, and when Kahlan looks up, there is something on her face that seems almost nervous. Cara's gaze is drawn to the curve of Kahlan's lips, and when Kahlan darts her tongue out to wet them, Cara feels her heart start pounding faster in anticipation.
There is no mistaking the look on Kahlan's face as she slowly rises. "I've never seen you out of your leather before. Did you put on a skirt for me?" Kahlan asks. She doesn't step back, remaining so close that Cara can feel Kahlan's breath on her face.
"I did it because Richard asked me to."
Kahlan grips her elbow, and then her mouth is on Cara's. She pulls Kahlan closer by the hip without hesitation. This, she knows. This is the good part, the one that puts a stop to all those annoying thoughts that she doesn't want to have.
She pushes forward until she can turn them over and press Kahlan against the wall, leaning into her. Kahlan yields, body softening to the press of Cara, and Cara pushes harder with her mouth and hips. She can feel Kahlan smile against her lips suddenly, and when Cara pulls back, Kahlan's eyes are sparkling with amusement.
"What?" Cara asks.
They're on a mission and there should be no distractions, but Cara hates the way Kahlan smiles as if she knows something Cara doesn't.
Cara grips Kahlan's waist and grinds her hips against Kahlan's, leaning in closer to slide her tongue over Kahlan's lower lip. It makes Kahlan's eyes flutter close, a small groan escaping her, and Cara feels much better.
Kahlan's hands run up and down Cara's back as Cara settles one on Kahlan's breast, feeling the contour of a hard nipple through her blouse. She buries her face in the crook of Kahlan's neck, mouthing the skin there and breathing in the scent of her hair. Unbuttoning Kahlan's blouse, she slides her hands underneath it, palms over skin, and rubs Kahlan's nipples with her thumbs through the fabric of her bra until Kahlan is squirming against her.
Cara hadn't intended to let things go this far, but she loves this part, the power of it. Touching someone until they writhe and pant under her hands and mouth and body. It's fast and a little bit rough; Kahlan is soft and hard and Cara has spent enough time studying her that her body feels almost familiar under her hands. Kahlan wraps a long leg around Cara's thigh, pulling her closer, and Cara uses her body as leverage to push Kahlan harder into the wall. Kahlan's hands tighten on Cara's back as Cara undoes the buttons on Kahlan's jeans.
Cara likes to keep things simple. Sex is easy and effortless, with everyone except Kahlan. Richard and Kahlan have A Past, A Complicated Present and probably A Future too, which makes her the only woman in the world whose panties Cara should not slide her hand down.
Once more, Cara promises herself that this is it. When she's got Kahlan out, that's enough. She'll settle her debt with Richard some other way and return to being her own master, the way things should have always been.
It's hardly the first time Cara has had her fingers inside a beautiful woman (it's not even the the first time in an elevator), but there is something seductively addicting about making Kahlan moan like this. Cara feels like she can't get enough of it. She needs to be closer, nearer, more skin and more of everything. Unfortunately, quick elevator sex is not conducive to either of those things, and though she wants to taste Kahlan's mouth again, that would mean not being able to watch any more. Cara can't tear her eyes away from Kahlan's face, as her mouth goes dry and other places significantly less so.
Cara knows that she's skilled with her hands, among other things, and Kahlan is responsive in a way that gets under Cara's skin. Too soon, Kahlan flops her head down and presses her face to Cara's shoulder, whimpering as she comes. Cara presses her nose into Kahlan's hair just for a moment, until Kahlan starts breathing normally again.
Kahlan leans her head back against the wall, and Cara withdraws her fingers slowly, bringing them up to her mouth. Eyes intently trained on Kahlan, she licks them clean, one by one, focused on Kahlan's dazed eyes, the way her pale skin is flushed and the slight sheen of sweat above her top lip.
Cara grins, and it might be a little smug, but she's earned it.
"There's a hatch in the ceiling," she says, voice low. "We can climb up through the shaft."
"Yeah," Kahlan says, and Cara can't help but take delight in the breathless quality to her voice. A small smile grows on Kahlan's face as she gently pushes Cara forward until she has her back against the opposite wall of the elevator.
Apparently Kahlan has plans other than escaping. It's not something that Cara particularly minds.
Kahlan kneels slowly in front of Cara, and it's enough to make Cara's breath hitch. There's no point in denying that she's wet and aching for it, and that the idea of Kahlan's mouth so close to her sex makes a hot pulse race down her spine, settling between her legs. Kahlan wastes no time; she pushes Cara's skirt up a little and shifts her underwear to the side, and then she puts her mouth just where Cara wants her.
Turns out, there are upsides to wearing short skirts: easy access.
Cara closes her eyes and leans back, shifting her legs wider apart. It's easy to forget about everything else, because all that annoying talking has obviously been good exercise for Kahlan's tongue.
Before things can get really good, though, Kahlan sits back, and Cara groans at the loss of Kahlan's mouth. Her hands find Kahlan's shoulders to urge her closer again, but Kahlan resists. Fingers go up to stroke Cara instead, and then they dip inside, starting a rhythm that's frustratingly slow.
Kahlan looks up at her, eyes burning with something Cara is a little too short of breath to process. "Why are you still here, Cara?"
"We're stuck in an elevator, in case you forgot," Cara says between breaths, even though she knows that's not what Kahlan is asking.
Kahlan ignores her answer, curling her fingers inside and dragging them down slowly. "You're not as hard to read as you think," she says.
"There's nothing to read," Cara gasps.
Kahlan moves closer again, her mouth finding Cara's clit, licking and sucking until Cara can barely catch her breath. Cara moves one hand to play with her breast through her shirt, pinching a nipple, while the other tangles in Kahlan's hair and pulls her closer. There's no teasing any more; Kahlan's fingers move at a perfect pace and angle and her tongue is right there. Cara's hips lurch forward as she comes, and her head snaps back so hard the impact against the wall has her seeing stars for a second.
When Cara opens her eyes again, Kahlan is standing up, buttoning her white blouse, all business now. "I'll stand on your shoulders," she says.
It takes Cara a little longer than she'd like to admit to realize that Kahlan is talking about the hatch in the ceiling.
Kahlan shoots her a crooked smile, and Cara crosses her arms. "Don't think this means anything," Cara says. "I still don't like you."
It just makes Kahlan's smile wider. Cara wishes she hadn't spoken at all.
Getting involved with women who knows when you're lying is just asking for trouble.
Later, when Cara is back in her usual leather, Richard drags her to a bar and she gets him drunk on cheap beer.
"I have a new plan to get the Stone of Tears," Richard says.
"I am not rappelling down buildings, crawling through ventilation shafts, or wearing any more skirts," Cara says.
"Don't worry," he says. "You definitely won't have to do any of those things."
Cara sighs. The new plans probably involve other unpleasant tasks for her, because Richard is nothing if not imaginative on that front. She thinks of Nicci and Zedd, the infuriating way Kahlan has of smiling at her, and Richard's stupidly naive ambitions.
Keeping things simple is hard when the others are all so complicated. It makes her life a tangled mess too, by association, and that's the last thing Cara wants.
She's definitely leaving. Tomorrow.
(Or the day after that.)