You think of her as Amanda.
You never say it to her face. It’s always “Ems” this or “Ems” that, “kitten” or “Mary Sunshine,” increasingly ridiculous pet names designed to push her limits in this one, small way. (You don’t dare push them in larger ones.) She never rises to the bait, just looks you dead in the eye and says, “Nolan,” steel-voiced and calm and you remember her saying, "I don’t panic," and yourself thinking that makes one of us.
It’s the night after your takedown of Conrad Grayson. (“Separately?” you’d asked. “I’ve got bigger plans for Victoria,” she’d responded, “She’s the Judas in this equation.” You’d held her gaze and tried not to shiver.) You’re grabbing dinner together at a newly opened upscale restaurant, French-Vietnamese cuisine, sublime. She’s got an unusually manic gleam in her eye. You grab the check and decide to push your luck.
“Drinks at my place? I’ve been told I make a killer martini.” You try for a charming grin, but you’ve never been any good at it. People like you for your hacking skills or for your money, which usually means they don’t really like you at all. Despite all appearances to the contrary, you think Amanda might be an exception to this rule; money, yes, hacking skills, definitely, but for something more as well.
“Killer, ha ha, very funny. Surprised you haven’t bought yourself your own comedy show by now,” she says. “And told by whom? You only ever hang out with me.”
Amanda tosses out barbs like Good Samaritans toss out smiles and like you toss out checks with strings of zeros, so you learned to ignore them long ago. Even when they sting. Especially when they sting.
You slip your arm through hers as you walk a half block down the street to where your limo’s been illegally parked, waiting for you. She’s in the dominant position in this physical entanglement but, fuck it, she doesn’t mind and neither do you.
It’s November, early evening, the air just turning crisp. Amanda’s honey-blonde waves whip around her face in the wind and for a moment you’re surprised, as though you’d expected them to be just as unruffled as the rest of her.
Your driver comes around to open the door and you decide to push your luck once more, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear before you unlink arms to climb inside. She gives you just a hint of a smile and permits the touch.
The car pulls away from the curb smoothly and the skyscrapers pass by, not quite as much of a blur as you’d like. Even those richer than God can’t find a way to beat New York City traffic. You’ve been living in the city for a couple of months now, summer days in the Hamptons long past, and home no longer means your whitewashed mansion of glass but a penthouse suite.
It’s still inside the limo, car horns and evening chaos fading away behind sound proofed windows. Amanda’s looking up through the skylight, city lights reflecting off her lambent eyes, and you can’t take your eyes off of her.
She starts humming, quietly, and you wonder if she’s not half drunk already. You’ve never heard her voice sound like this before, soft and lulling, and you do your best not to interrupt, lest you break the moment.
She turns to you, sly and bright, and says, “How ‘bout we test out the pool?”
You had it installed over the summer, second guest bedroom transformed into a pampering paradise: hot tub, infinity pool, and spa. You’ve teased her about using it to relax but you never thought she’d take you up on the offer. You try not to stumble over your words as you rush to agree and largely fail.
On a normal day, she’d raise an eyebrow at you, give you that crocodile look that says, I’m judging you, mere mortal, but tonight she just ignores your gaffe. The unexpected run of tact is making you dizzy.
You don’t dare take her arm as you walk into your building. You lead the way, attempting to regain your composure, but pause at the elevator, patting your pockets as you search for your code card. She pulls it smoothly out of her purse and swipes it through herself, keying in the numeric password underneath, all forms of security futile against The Great Amanda Clarke. Figures.
On the elevator ride up, you talk about nothing at all, the food, her shoes, the look on Conrad’s face. She’s standing closer than she usually does, smiling wider, and her eyes sparkle. Not that you can’t appreciate the whole cold-hearted warrior act - in fact, you love it, it fucking turns you on as much as it scares you - but you can’t help thinking that this is a good look on her.
Inside the penthouse, she disappears around a corner as you head for the kitchen. “Give me a sec, just grabbing my suit,” she calls. “You pour us drinks!” She’s taken to keeping a small cache of clothes in your guest bedroom. All night plotting sessions can only go on for so long before even the seemingly animatronic need their rest. It comes in handy now.
At the bar, your fingers finally stop shaking, back on familiar ground. You decide to forgo the martinis, somehow they don’t fit the mood, and are stuck on what to grab instead. There’s some absinthe in a high corner; you’ve been saving it for a special occasion, but right now it feels like too much of a cliche. In the end, you pick out a simple white wine, grabbing a bowl of strawberries to go with. You power on the hot tub, leave the drinks by the edge, and leave to go get changed yourself.
You put on your trunks - lavender, brand new - and don’t let yourself look in the mirror.
When you come out, she’s sitting on the edge of the tub. She’s wearing her plain, navy one-piece, hair still down around her shoulders. Your breath catches in your throat.
“You just going to stand there, minion, or are you going to get in the water?” she says, face inscrutable as always.
You think, slightly hysterically, pet name, term of endearment!, and sit down next to her on the pool’s rim. The water burns and you wonder how she can stand it. You turn to face her, planning on bitching about the temperature, but she catches you by surprise, leaning forward and pulling you into a kiss.
It’s short, smacking. You don’t even have time to taste her beyond the last remnants of the evening’s lipstick before she pulls away and hops fully into the tub without an explanation. She breaks back out of the water quickly, shaking her hair out and complaining, “Hot!,” before jumping back up to the pool’s edge.
“No kidding,” you say.
You’ve always prided yourself on a sharp mind - sharpest one you knew, before you got to know Amanda - but it’s wheeling now, spinning in overdrive, fizzing like the steam rising off the water’s surface. You’ve never been able to figure out how she feels about you. You’re sure you’re more than an accomplice at this point, not just a lackey, as much as she protests, but as for anything more than a kindred spirit...
For one hazy moment, you think what would David say, but the thought floats away, eclipsed by the smooth lines of her calves, the way her feet flick through the foam bubbling up from the vents, toenails painted an unexpected hot pink.
“Amanda,” you say, hushed.
She flicks water up at your hair - good thing you already have an appointment at the salon tomorrow - and reaches out, sliding her hands down your bare shoulders. Your heart rate jumps another speed.
“Nolan,” she says. Her voice is warm and she pushes and you’re sinking down, under, scalding water shocking your system, warm all over, warm right through.
When you break the surface, you hear her laugh, pure and true. She sounds like she’s nine years old again and, for a moment, you can picture her before she ever responded to anything other than Amanda.