Pete meant well. Really, he did. He and Helena had been working side by side all day with neither incident nor need of intervention, and Myka even felt safe letting them sit beside each other on the airplane while she took the window seat next to a dozing man with tattoos and a beat-up copy of The House of Mirth. But then Pete stepped in it.
“Those were some killer moves you whipped out today,” he said. “You’re really spry for an old girl.”
“Somewhere underneath the jest and colloquialism, I believe there was buried a compliment.”
Pete laughed. “Yeah, it was impressive. I’m not much for history, you know, but it’s good to know there was at least one interesting lady back then.”
Helena froze, and Myka squirmed in her seat.
“What do you mean by that?” Helena asked.
“Well, nowadays you can find a girl to talk to about just about anything: sports, TV, comic books, even girls! Back in the 1800’s, it was all dresses and dinners and girl stuff. I mean, it must have been kinda boring, for…”
“Agent Lattimer, the fact that my skill set is considered male does not in any way make it more interesting or worthy of attention. I knew a woman in my day, a housewife consumed by society and homemaking and ‘girl stuff,’ as you so elegantly put it, who was so perfectly attuned to social cues and practices, so adept at reading the people around her, that she was functionally psychic. And I assure you, Mister Lattimer, she wielded her power like a warrior and an artist. So insult me and my time period as you will, but do not ever insult the women of my day!”
After Helena’s rant reached a certain volume, Myka had reached between the seats and put a hand on her arm, but while Helena had concluded in a harsh whisper, she refused to be stopped. Really, Myka hadn’t wanted her to.
Pete kept his mouth shut for the entire flight, and only spoke to Myka in the car. She wasn’t expecting his screw-up, which had made Helena quiet and distant, to be something she was grateful for.
“Who was she?” Myka asked later. “The woman who was psychic. How did you know her?”
The two of them had retired to the quiet of Myka’s bedroom to read. Myka was settled on her little couch, watching Helena skim the overflowing bookshelf for something to start in on. Helena smiled a little.
“Her name was Nettie, and we were lovers.”
In the silence that followed, Helena pulled a book loose with two elegant fingers, flipped it open in her hands, and stood reading for a moment. Then she settled on the couch and began searching for the first page; she didn’t look up as she murmured, “I was given to understand that such things were more acceptable these days.”
Myka grinned. “In most circles, yeah. Sorry, I was just…” She picked her way through words, searching for ones at once approving and innocent. “It was sweet.”
Helena gave her a half smile and turned the page of her book. Myka convinced herself that she was seeing Helena in some sort of new way, and so it was perfectly fine to look at her for a moment. Of course, being bisexual changed nothing about Helena; it wasn’t even surprising, really. There was a shamelessness in the way she’d pressed into Myka’s space, challenged her resolve and stared her down until Myka couldn’t move forward without looking away, strategies at least partially designed to hit at sexual weakness. And Helena had never questioned that the appeal would work as well on Myka as it had on Pete. Rather than coming off as a ploy, though, Helena’s confidence was ultimately just acknowledgement of a fact: she was staggeringly sexy.
And Myka was staring.
Helena turned another page, and Myka rubbed the back of her neck and wondered if telling herself “no” would work any better with this woman than it had with Sam. The mystery of Helena’s sexual preferences had been helping, but with that gone, there was only the usual disbelief that anyone would want her. Sam had worked hard to disabuse her of that assumption, and now that she needed it, it wasn’t as firm as it used to be.
After all, Helena was here with her instead of tinkering with Claudia, working at the Warehouse, or reading alone. Helena had sought her out in good times and bad, even when the risk was enormous, just to see her.
She was looking again, and Helena’s eyes weren’t moving across the page.
“What are you thinking about?”
“Girls,” Myka replied, and Helena laughed. It was worth all the risk that quip had entailed to hear Helena do that. And what came after that sound didn’t matter; Myka remembered how much it had meant to her in high school, just finding other girls like her. Helena had been alone for so long.
“Are you implying, Agent Bering,” Helena asked, “that you’ve tipped the velvet in your time?”
“See, I know what that phrase means, but what is it talking about? What’s the etymology?”
“It compares a woman’s tongue to an old velvet hat.”
Myka shifted on the couch to give Helena her full attention, and in the process, moved distractingly close to her. It was an interesting experience, she thought, to be invading Helena’s space instead of vice versa. Helena didn’t seem to notice, though, or care; she was watching Myka’s face, eyebrow raised, as if waiting for her to get the punch line of a joke.
“But where’s the connection? What do hats have to do with kissing?” Myka asked.
Helena shrugged. “What does baseball have to do with petting parties?”
“Petting par…” Myka shook her head and sighed. “Never mind.”
“A well-loved velvet hat is touched often, darling, as should a woman’s tongue with one’s own, or with more intimate regions.” Helena smirked. “Not the most transparent connection, perhaps, but quite a vivid one. Now, as to your feminine train of thought…”
“Yes. I’m… uh,” Myka hesitated a moment, uncertain where to begin. It occurred to her then how old Helena really was, how far removed she was from modern sexuality. Not as far removed as she could have been, obviously, and Victorians weren’t as prudish as people thought, but still.
Helena’s eyes narrowed, as if she could see what was making Myka stall if she squinted. But she waited.
“I’m pansexual. Pan being all.”
“And ‘all’ implying more than two.”
Tracy, Myka’s sister, had the power to verbally roll her eyes. Disdain could be heard, seen, even felt in the air if you could read the human body as automatically as Myka could. And Myka had had this conversation with people like her sister.
Helena’s mouth was slightly open, her eyes were fixed. The air between them stirred as she leaned, almost imperceptibly, forward. She was curious.
“Yeah, I mean, when is there ever really just two of something? Biology is way more complicated than that, even on a chromosomal level, and then when you add neurology and psychology…”
“The possibilities are nearly endless,” Helena sighed. “I had an odd experience early on in my exploration of biology. There was a mouse, ostensibly male, but when I looked inside the body, I…”
Myka threw her hands up, declaring, “Stop! No, no dead animals. My first dissection, I puked on my lab partner.”
“But you considered being a doctor!” Helena protested, “How can you not…”
“People are different. There are regulations and consent forms, and animals don’t get that. No dead animals.”
“Righty-ho, then,” Helena winced. The apologetic touch of her fingers on Myka’s thigh was so brief Myka couldn’t respond before it was over. “So tell me more about these genders.”
For a while, Helena was so engaged with this that sexuality seemed to have shifted out of focus entirely. But then she asked, “And is your pansexuality applied or only theoretical?”
“More or less applied.”
“And what, pray tell, was your most enjoyable application?”
Myka nudged Helena with her foot, laughing, “I think I’ve shared enough for an evening. How about a little quid pro quo?”
Her foot was still on Helena’s thigh, and Myka refused to move it or look away. Maybe if she pushed against that goddamn wall of sexual energy Helena built up when she wanted to control a situation, she could actually find her footing with the woman.
After a moment, Helena shoved Myka’s foot away and scoffed.
“You want to know about my most pleasurable romp, do you?”
“No,” Myka said. “I want to know about your most embarrassing one.”
Helena tried to glare without laughing; failing that, she shook her head and looked away.
“That would be with my Nettie. She had warned me upon arrival that she was quite engaged with her duties, answering mail, planning a party at the house, an endless list of things, and she couldn’t possibly waste a moment alone with me. I assured her I could behave myself, and so she let me sit on her writing desk. And under her desk. I’d worked my way entirely under her skirts without reproach when a maid came in. My darling girl, as promised, carried on her business with the woman without a thought for me, stifling under all that cloth. Absurd, the whole ordeal. I couldn’t move an inch for fear of rustling her skirts. It was so bloody hot, I ended up with a bead of sweat simply torturing the end of my nose. And dear god, she smelled wondrous, but there was nothing to be done for that, either. I’ve served eight years as a Warehouse agent, and I have never in my life had so much soreness in my muscles. I was stuck there for twenty minutes, at least! I nearly suffocated, truly I did, and all Nettie ever said of it was that it served me right.”
Myka was in hysterics, and when Helena tried to look her in the eye, she dissolved as well. She clapped a hand to Myka’s shoulder, as if clutching to her would help the two of them breathe.
“I can’t decide if that’s the funniest thing I’ve ever heard,” Myka finally wheezed, “or if it’s just way too late at night.”
“And is it really so terribly late, or are you trying to weasel out of reciprocation?” Helena teased.
Her fingers wandered from Myka’s shoulder to the ends of her hair, tugging on a curl and watching it spring when she released it. The mirth in her face gave way to a fascination that made Myka stare, again. When Helena looked at her, the affection was so unexpected that Myka almost started laughing again. Helena giggled, and Myka pointed at the clock across the room.
“It’s definitely late.”
“Then I shan’t keep you,” Helena said.
She closed her book and slipped it back on the shelf. Myka stood beside her open door, hands in her back pockets.
“Good night,” she said.
There was a certain tangible air quality that Myka had learned to sense. It was like the pressure between two magnets being forced together at the wrong poles, in that moment before one of them flipped and closed the distance.
Usually it lasted longer than this. But in the split instant after Myka felt the pressure and before she could break it, Helena was kissing her. And Myka was so focused on how, exactly, that was really happening that she missed it.
“Good night,” Helena whispered, and Myka felt it on her lips like an echo.
Helena walked across the hallway toward her room, and Myka was damned if she would miss anything else about her. She watched every step, every motion it took for Helena to grip the door handle to her bedroom, turn it, and slip inside. She saw Helena’s hands shutting the door as gingerly as possible, to avoid making any noise at this late hour.
And she saw Helena’s sheepish smile, the glance she threw across the hall before the door clicked shut.
“So what was that about?” Myka asked the next morning.
Helena tugged the protective mask off her face and gestured widely with the FISH fixer, that enormous baton Artie had been wielding on Myka’s first day here. “It’s a beautiful day. Don’t you wish we could spend all our time out in this weather instead of indoors?”
Myka’s gaze swept the Badlands, red and jagged under a perfectly blue sky, and really, Helena was right.
She was also a menace with that FISH fixer. Myka dodged it for the third time in five minutes and snatched it out of Helena’s hands. It pulsed and hummed when she settled it over her shoulder, and the glass cylinder gave off heat next to Myka’s ear. The large disk near the top rattled a bit. Helena had claimed she could repair that, but it probably wouldn’t need repairing if she would stop waving it around. It was delicate, and cranky. They’d spent half an hour holding the loose pieces just so, begging it to work.
“Don’t change the subject,” Myka scolded.
Helena sighed and ran a hand through her hair. “I take it you’re referring to that kiss I gave you.”
Myka didn’t answer. This wasn’t going well, and from the guilty look on her face, Myka guessed Helena knew that, too.
“I’m sorry, Myka. Recklessness is not one of my shining aspects.”
“So it was a mistake?”
Helena was twisting her work gloves in one hand and her locket in the other when she repeated, “I’m sorry.”
Something was wrong.
But Helena was at the door to the Warehouse in an instant, sweeping down the umbilicus into Artie’s office. Myka barely kept up with her.
“Could I get the schematics for this fixer?” Helena asked Artie. “Something’s off with it, I’d like to take a look.”
Artie opened his mouth to argue, but Myka interrupted, suggesting, “They’d be in the library, right? I mean, there isn’t an aisle for the FISH like there is for Farnsworths.”
“The two of you may have a look together,” Artie growled. “And if you break it…”
“I built a time machine!” Helena exclaimed. “I think I can manage this.”
For a moment, Myka looked back and forth between them and tried to imagine any possible way to intervene. But then Artie shrugged.
“Fair enough. Go, fix.”
Helena softened, too, once Artie had turned his back to them. She thanked him almost gently before striding out of the office.
Deep in the stacks on the East side of the Warehouse, between the inventions of Nicola Tesla and the early designs of Ada Lovelace, was the H. G. Wells section. Helena had built a little workshop among the shelves; ladders made of old planks and spare brackets led to scattered bins of brass nuts and bolts, slots filled with sheet metal and glass, and two stories of peg board adorned with tools both new and old. A long orange extension cord snaked its way up from the ground floor to the precariously narrow shelf that housed Helena’s worktable, one half of a desk that had once been in the Bed and Breakfast, before an artifact mishap had incinerated the back.
Helena unrolled the blue prints for the FISH fixer, ran her fingers along the silvered lines on the page, then called Myka over to help her pin it to a cork board in front of the work table.
“Let’s have a look at you, then,” she muttered when the device itself was on the table before her. She pulled a swing arm lamp over the device, then began running her hands along the shaft, searching for the lever that would open the casing.
Myka clung to the upright of a nearby shelf as subtly as she could. The whole structure shook when Helena strode across it, gathering tools and a roll of copper wire. It was terrifying, but she had been ordered to watch, and she might be helpful, as long as she could help while still clinging to the upright, and Helena wouldn’t bring her up here if it weren’t safe, right?
In answer to her unasked question, Helena clipped a carbineer to Myka’s belt as she passed, then nodded up to where it was tied off to the shelf above her. It wasn’t ideal, of course, but it was still comforting. Myka gave the rope a tug, then followed Helena freely across the narrow workspace to the desk.
“And you’re not wearing something like this, why?”
Helena shrugged. “I’m not afraid.”
“Reckless,” Myka muttered. “Right.”
After a few minutes, Helena waved her closer and pointed at the guts of the FISH fixer. Piece by piece, she walked Myka through it, tracing her finger along the blueprint, then pulling apart the physical bits, revealing all the little loosenings that had appeared over the years. She started then to propose the minor improvisations to hold them more firmly in place. She sketched as she talked, with an other-worldly precision of line and angle. An hour of drawing, some inventing, some tinkering, and only a few curses later, the work was nearly done. When she handed the tools to Myka and stepped aside, her instructions were enough to guide Myka through the last of the repairs. Helena stepped close when Myka declared herself finished, hummed approval, then snapped the FISH fixer closed.
Helena was streaked with machine oil and beaming. And she was painfully close.
“Why was it a mistake?” Myka asked, and Helena put a grease-stained hand to her face and groaned.
“Because, Myka, when I kissed you last night, I hadn’t thought it through, and I don’t think you have, either. I know what I am to you. My books on your bookshelf, so well loved. I won’t hold up to your visions of me.”
The sentiment was so absurd that for a moment all Myka could do was stare. Only Helena, she thought, with her peculiar brand of ego and self-deprecating mistrust, could accuse her of hero worship and school-girl crushes.
“That is ridiculous!” she finally laughed. “Helena, I’ve watched you brush your teeth and sneeze and almost blow up a microwave. I’m pretty sure you’re human.”
Helena frowned. “What does my sneezing have to do with anything?”
“You do it every time you go out in the sun, and always in prime numbers. And, the only reason you can sneeze seven times in a row is because they’re the tiniest mouse sneezes I’ve ever heard.”
Myka was grinning, but Helena looked torn. She sank down onto the floor of her workspace, feet dangling over the edge; Myka’s rope was too short to join her, and she couldn’t see Helena’s face.
“I still haven’t thought this through. I can’t…” Helena ran a hand through her hair and sighed. Her words came out in clumsy chunks of phrase, a bit too slow to stick together the way they should have. “I can’t have this changing anything. Our friendship, the truce I’ve made with Artie, these are not things I wish to trifle with. But there were times, before, when I could be waylaid on occasion. Some of the best days I remember were the ones when Christina would come dashing in calling, ‘Mummy, Mummy!’ and botch my entire schedule. It never did much harm, and she was always so happy.”
Somewhere in the middle of her speech, she had started to cry. Myka unclipped herself from the rope and sat gingerly beside Helena at the edge of the plank. The drop made her stomach turn, and no power on earth could compel her to release her death grip on the ledge, but she managed to edge her hand to the side until it overlapped Helena’s.
“Sounds worth it to me,” she said.
Helena wiped her face with her free hand and looked to Myka, waiting for something more.
“I don’t usually play fast and loose with friends,” Myka continued, “but if that’s what you need, I get that. Seems like a fair compromise, anyway. I mean, if my choice is some or nothing…”
“That seems a bit risky for your usual taste,” Helena said.
Myka shrugged. “What can I say? You’re a terrible influence.”
She kissed Helena’s cheek and started making her way down the rickety ladder to the floor. By the time they were both on the ground, Helena was smiling again, and her sense of personal space seemed to have been left behind on the workbench.
They agreed to hold back as often as possible, and move slowly; Myka knew without asking that this would give Helena time to think, adjust, decide. She would have had more time, of course, if they had been better at keeping their hands to themselves.
It started the night of their agreement, when they knocked their teeth together in the middle of a kiss.
“We are seriously out of practice,” Myka had grumbled, and Helena had suggested that there were wonderful ways of fixing that. They had fixed it by the time they went to bed.
A week later, they were spending another quiet evening on Myka’s bedroom couch. Myka was straddling Helena’s lap, pulling her head back by the hair, and biting her neck behind the hinge of her jaw. Helena’s uneven fingernails scraped along Myka’s jeans. When Myka ran her fingers down Helena’s chest to the limit of her shirt, Helena’s leg twitched; Myka grinned and nipped Helena’s ear, reveling in the fact that Helena was struggling as much as she was to keep her hips still. She pulled Helena forward by her shirt, pressing the woman against her body and keeping her head held back; the height difference from this position was considerable, and the angle she had to maintain in Helena’s neck in order to kiss her was drastic. She released Helena’s hair after a moment, and Helena immediately pressed her lips to Myka’s collarbones. Her fingers crept along the hem of Myka’s shirt. Myka guided them under and along her sides. The touch made her relax, pushing Helena back into the couch.
Her hand slid down from Helena’s shoulder, Helena ran her nails up Myka’s back, and Helena’s breast was under Myka’s palm before either of them could think. It sunk in slowly, and reason fought with natural reaction until they were finally still.
“We need to stop, don’t we?” Myka said.
Helena’s head lolled back, and she let out a groan that probably had a yes in it somewhere. Myka clambered out of her lap and announced that she was going to brush her teeth. When she came back, her room was empty.