She wakes up with warm lips against hers.
It’s not the worst way to wake up, Kelly reflects, smiling into the kiss and keeping her eyes closed. She’s woken up to knives pressed against her ribs (Uzbekistan) and centipedes in her hair (Utah) and, once, with a mule doing its damnedest to give her a hickey (Venezuela). She’d preferred the knife, honestly. At least then she’d known what to do about it. Being kissed awake is up there with being awoken by the smell of cinnamon rolls, or rolling into a warm patch of sunshine, or- no, she thinks. Being kissed awake, and being kissed awake by Annabelle in particular, is definitely the best way to wake up.
She keeps her eyes closed and hums softly, letting herself just feel for once. Annabelle’s hands are warm against her skin. She’s only wearing panties, and Annabelle is gently easing those off. Kelly sighs gently into Annabelle’s mouth, waiting for the next step, and then frowns when she feels panties being eased gently back on.
But she goes with it. Maybe Annabelle is trying something new today. Annabelle tends to be the more creative one in their relationship, but then, Annabelle tends to be the one who stays still long enough to be the more creative one. Kelly runs off and gets mule hickeys; Annabelle interviews Venezuelan peasants for new sex positions.
Her frown gets deeper, though, when Annabelle slides Kelly’s legs into a skirt. No, she thinks. This is definitely not right. Kelly is pretty good at sex, she’s been doing it with Annabelle for two years now, and with other girls for quite a while before that, and the clothes come off with sex, not on. She breaks the kiss and leans back, smirking.
“I’m pretty sure,” she muses thoughtfully, “that when seducing your girlfriend, the clothes are supposed to be slipped off, not on.”
Annabelle grins and kisses her. “And I’m pretty sure that you gave me a thorough lecture when I was slipping them off last night that you had an itinerary this morning that had to be kept, no matter what. I’m just helping things along.”
Right, Kelly thinks. The tattoo parlor and the zoo. Yes.
“Well,” she grins slyly, and flops back down on the bed, closing her eyes. “Don’t let me get in your way.”
It’s been two weeks since Polly and the rest of their friends rescued her from the Warehouse of Maximum Cliché, as Chelsea insists upon calling it. She’s been staying in one of Peaches’ safe houses, along with Annabelle and Polly (whose flat was set on fire, Kelly knows now, to her fury) and Peaches and Polly have collaborated to keep her indoors.
“It’s for your own good,” Polly said loftily, scowling at her over the top of her glasses.
“It’s for everyone’s safety,” Peaches said airily, flinging her hair over her shoulder carelessly.
Kelly thinks of them as her jailors, now. Scowls and Smiles, she would call them, if she were still out of the country, still on the run. She understands their apprehension to let her go, she supposes. She’s still healing from her interrogation, and healing while staying in one place is a luxury she’s done without for years now. To an extent, she enjoys it. And she knows that Peaches and Polly are keeping some secret from her, probably something to do with Kelly’s employers, to go by the looks they keep shooting her. It’s probably not safe for her or Annabelle to leave. But Kelly is back in England for the first time since she said good-bye to Polly, and she wants to see her country again. She wants to breathe her air.
Which is why, when Polly had idly mentioned going to the tattoo parlor and then taking the children to the zoo, Kelly had leapt at the chance to escape.
“I’ll go,” she says, letting her fork of spaghetti drift back down to the plate.
Polly doesn’t even look up from her salad. “No.”
Annabelle starts to laugh. “Oh, good luck, Polly. You may have forgotten, but Kelly’s a bit stubborn once she has her head wrapped around something.”
Kelly fights the urge to cringe. Polly has been rather touchy about any reminders of the years Kelly spent away from her side. She hasn’t responded well whenever Annabelle has tried to tell her how Kelly acts. She sympathizes. Annabelle is her girlfriend now, but Polly… Polly was everything, at one point.
Polly looks at Annabelle coolly, but merely tilts her head to the side, conceding the point. “All the same, you’re not coming.”
Kelly pushes away her plate, folding her arms on top of the table. “You’re getting a tattoo. I wasn’t there for your first one, but you were there for mine; it’s time you repay the favor.”
Annabelle’s eyebrows shoot up at the mention of Polly’s other tattoo. Polly doesn’t show it to everybody, the beautiful Hebrew characters on her hip.
“Plus,” Kelly adds, “I’m Hannah’s godmother, and I’ve barely seen her since I got back. I miss her.” It’s low, appealing to Polly’s love for the children, but Kelly knows that it’s this, more than anything, that will make her break.
Polly studies her for a moment, and then rises, smoothing her plain woolen skirt automatically as she walks away from the table, her salad left unfinished. Kelly reaches over and plucks a crouton off Polly’s plate just as Polly calls back, “Don’t touch my food, Kelly.”
Annabelle smothers a laugh when Kelly waggles her eyebrows and pops the crouton into her mouth. It makes a delightful crunch when she bites into it.
“You’re not expecting me to go, are you?” Annabelle asks, returning to her own plate of spaghetti. Kelly shrugs.
“Only if you’d like,” she replies. Annabelle doesn’t feel captive in this house, not the same way Kelly does, but she supposes Annabelle has done so much waiting in hotel rooms over the years that this must seem like nothing. She envies Annabelle’s patience. It’s what made her an ideal companion.
“I’d rather not, to be honest. The girls are sweet, but they’re not mine, not like you and Polly. If we’re to be released, I’d rather go visit my aunt.”
Kelly nods absently, reaching over to steal another crouton. Perhaps their enforced stay has been felt more keenly by Annabelle than Kelly had imagined. She hasn’t been complaining, unlike Kelly.
“Kelly Jones, I told you to leave my salad alone,” Polly reprimands from the doorway, glaring at Kelly. Kelly smiles at her and eats the crouton quickly. She hears Polly mumble something under her breath, but ignores her. If Polly were truly annoyed, she’d have lost a hand.
“After deliberation, Peaches and I have decided that it might be safe enough for you two to go out,” Polly says, returning to the table and sitting down. “I’ve made the appropriate arrangements.”
Annabelle raises her eyebrows again. “Arrangements?” she repeats.
“Kelly will be coming with me to the zoo, along with Chloe, Peaches, and Chelsea. Oh, and Chelsea’s new girlfriend, Yvette something or other.” Kelly knows that ‘something or other’ is Polly shorthand for ‘I know her last name but you won’t care, so I’m omitting it’ because Polly knows everyone’s names, regardless. “You, Annabelle, will be traveling to St. Trinian’s with Taylor and Andrea.”
“I didn’t tell you I wanted to go to St. Trinian’s,” Annabelle protests.
Polly spears a tomato with a genuine smile, finally looking at Annabelle with a warmth and affection that has been spotty for the past two weeks. “No,” she agrees blandly. “You didn’t.”
Annabelle smiles back at Polly, and something within Kelly eases. They’re all going to be all right. They just need time to relearn each other. They’ll get there, she decides, and steals another crouton from Polly just to frustrate her. She nearly gets a fork through her hand for her troubles, but that’s all right.
Annabelle dresses her in a gorgeous Alexander Wang minidress that Kelly can’t remember buying at any point in her life. “Peaches,” Annabelle says, rolling her eyes as she finishes sliding a black motorcycle jacket over Kelly’s shoulders. “She can’t bear to let her guests go out in anything other than couture.”
Kelly wrinkles her nose. “After three years of wearing whatever fit-”
“This seems a little extravagant? Yes, I tried to tell that to Peaches, but she just stared at me.”
Annabelle runs her hand down the front of Kelly’s coat, smiling faintly. For some inexplicable reason, Annabelle is dressed in jeans and a ratty t-shirt. Kelly frowns. “I feel betrayed. Why are you wearing jeans while I’m trapped in a dress that prevents me from bringing a gun, or even a knife?”
“Peaches assures me that her bodyguards will be with you at all times.”
Annabelle starts to laugh, and Kelly can’t help but smile back. Annabelle laughing is simply adorable. “It’s not that she can’t let guests out of her house wearing anything less than couture. It’s that she can’t let people be around her wearing anything less than couture.”
Kelly sighs. “You’d think she were royalty, rather than a mob boss.”
Annabelle leans forward and kisses her gently. “Enjoy it. Polly already looks anxious and will probably demand that you hide behind the curtains for another two weeks after this.”
Kelly sighs against Annabelle’s mouth and then kisses her again. For luck. “Enjoy your day at St. Trinian’s. Tell Miss Fritton I said hello.”
Annabelle smiles as she walks out of the room, waving her good-byes. “Stay safe!”
Kelly looks at the minidress Annabelle dressed her in one more time before scowling and shaking it off. There must be something else in the closet that won’t embarrass Peaches but won’t hinder her movement.
She finds, to her surprise, a large collection of clothes similar to the ones she wore at St. Trinian’s. She touches the white blouses and black skirts gently, feeling the familiar fabric shift beneath her fingers. They’re the clothes of her youth.
Kelly feels old.
She settles on a vibrant blue blouse over a flared black skirt, tugs on a pair of low heels, and rushes downstairs to meet Polly before her best friend can decide to leave without her. Because, knowing Polly, she would.
Polly is wearing jeans, apparently free from Peaches’ instructions for couture, with a gray suit coat over her black shirt. It’s a jolt to see her, as it always is now. Polly’s hair is cut into a sharp bob, a look that suits her, but is nevertheless odd to see. In all the years Kelly has known her, Polly has always refused to cut her hair. Kelly walks to her, automatically going to touch the soft ends of her red hair before remembering herself and running a hand through her own hair instead. Polly’s look is sharp, though. She does not doubt that Polly knows what she was going to do.
“Ready to go?” Kelly asks.
Polly gives Kelly a dubious look. “Are you?”
“I was told that couture was a requirement to be in Peaches’ presence. I’m now thinking Annabelle was pulling my leg,” Kelly scowls, feeling itchy without the familiar weight of her shoulder and ankle holsters.
Polly’s smile is faint but amused. “No, no, she’s quite correct.”
“Then how do you escape it?” Kelly asks.
“Oh, I didn’t,” says Polly airily, walking out the door. “Everything you see is designer- just not from the outfits they were intended.”
Kelly bursts into laughter and hurries to catch up.
There are several tattoo artists among St. Trinian’s alumnae, Polly informs her on the drive, but only one or two who can actually do the tattoo she’s intending to get today. For this, Polly explains, Erin Kennedy is one to trust.
Kelly doesn’t quite know why this tattoo is so important, but apparently it is, because not only do Peaches and Chelsea tag along, but so do Anoushka, Saffy, and Bella. Chloe has promised to meet them at the zoo afterward, although she too stated that she wanted to be there. Kelly feels somewhat suffocated by the number of Posh-Totties pressed in around her, despite the spacious limousine that Peaches has them all in.
A woman she has never met before, whom Kelly presumes to be Yvette, looks quietly bemused by the entire thing. She’s a short, fat woman with black hair like Kelly’s, her own piled up sloppily on the top of her head. She looks ill at ease in the outfit she is wearing, and Kelly guesses that Chelsea forced her into it.
“Not your clothes, I take it?” Kelly asks quietly, underneath the excited noise of Posh-Totties gossiping.
Yvette smirks. “Yeah, not so much. I like sweaters- jumpers- and jeans,” she says, her accent American.
“Date Chelsea long enough, and that will change,” Kelly advises, and then looks at Polly, who is sitting between Chelsea and Anoushka and looking far too comfortable. Polly had only dated Chelsea for about a week, and yet she’d come out knowing more about clothes than she ever had before.
The limousine rolls to a stop outside a filthy looking building in the East End of London. They’re only a few miles from where Polly grew up, Kelly notes, taking in the bustle of the streets, her bones singing with joy. She wants to be out of this ridiculous limousine, breathing the thick, smog-filled London air. She’s only seen London for a few minutes since she returned, right before she was captured. Or from her window while she recovered.
“Better let Kelly out before she breaks a window,” Chelsea laughs, and Peaches giggles her agreement, throwing open the door before her driver and bodyguard, John, can get there. Kelly shoves past the others and flings herself out the door.
It’s cool out, the air damp and threatening rain, but all Kelly can do is close her eyes and take a deep breath. There is no place like London. She’s been all over the world, in major cities and tiny villages that had fewer people in them than St. Trinian’s, and she still prefers London over them all. She’s missed this.
“Are you going to join us, or just stand there?” Chelsea asks, coming to stand next to Kelly. Her voice is amused and teasing, but Kelly thinks it’s probably a sincere question. She opens her eyes and watches Peaches, Saffy, and Bella disappear into the building. Polly lingers at the doorway, glancing over at them. Kelly catches her gaze and gives her a reassuring smile. Though it irritates her, the way Polly hovers, she understands it. Had she been the one forced to a standstill for three years, maybe she would hover, too, instead of feeling itchy with inaction. Polly smiles back, the familiar tight press of the lips that Kelly remembers fondly, and then slides inside. Behind her, Yvette and Anoushka have both lit up cigarettes. Kelly reaches out an expectant hand, and Anoushka grins at her, handing over her cigarette. Her lipstick is still on the filter. Kelly raises an eyebrow and puts it in her mouth. She’s bummed fags off people with far worse mouths in the past three years; she isn’t particular worried about Anoushka’s lipstick.
Kelly looks back at Chelsea. She’s a different woman than the one she left behind. This Chelsea is calm and confident. Kelly had seen glimpses, at the end of the Museum Heist, but this is different. Chelsea seems more at peace now. Like she isn’t frantically trying to be what others expect of her.
God, how she envies that.
“I just needed a moment,” Kelly says, smiling and exhaling all at once. Chelsea arches an eyebrow, and then loops her arm through Kelly’s.
“Good. Because I have heard rumors about this other tattoo of Polly’s, and I want you to tell me about it.”
Kelly laughs, dropping the cigarette and crushing it with her toe. “You mean you didn’t discover it while you were dating?”
Chelsea gives her a flat look and leads her inside. “Darling, if you think I managed to get her clothes off, then you don’t know Polly very well.” Kelly can hear Anoushka’s heels grinding her cigarette out, and the lopsided click of a person walking in unfamiliar shoes, which must be Yvette.
Kelly looks around the building with interest. From the outside, it looks dilapidated and ill-used, but the interior is clean and surprisingly comfortable. She imagines that Erin Kennedy must have a select clientele, to discourage walk-ins with a sketchy exterior. There’s a narrow staircase with an old but well cared for wood banister. The floor, too, is wood, the boards creaking under her feet. There don’t appear to be any rooms on the ground floor, no doors other than the one behind her. The windows are large, but curtains hide the outside view. She wonders if it is a security feature or a decorative one. The area has a few sofas scattered about, all rather worn looking, all within sight of the door.
Polly and the others have disappeared from her sight at this point, presumably up the stairs, but Kelly isn’t really worried. There is so much prep work that goes into getting a tattoo; she’ll arrive when the relevant parts begin. Instead, she turns and smiles politely at Yvette. “How did you meet Chelsea, then?”
Yvette smiles slyly and shoots a quick glance at Chelsea, who is rolling her eyes. “I picked her pocket.”
“And you’re still alive?” Anoushka asks dryly, glancing around and then striding off, heading for the stairs. Chelsea laughs and follows her, dragging Kelly alongside.
“She was very talented.”
“Not really,” Yvette says sheepishly. “I’m much more for conning people out of their money, but I was a bit desperate. Chelsea looked like an easy mark.”
Chelsea tosses Yvette a fond look. “And yet.”
“And yet, she had me flat on my back in three seconds,” Yvette says. “It was love.”
Kelly gives her an incredulous look, careful not to trip while walking up the steep staircase. She can only hope that Anoushka knows where she is going. Anoushka has at least three tattoos, though, so it’s probable. “You’re joking, right?”
“Sadly, no,” Yvette sighs, and speeds to grab the hand that Chelsea doesn’t have around Kelly’s arm. “She quoted Dickens.”
“‘But death, fires, and burglary, make all men equals,’” Chelsea quotes, smiling at Yvette.
“I was screwed. Didn’t have a choice, really,” Yvette says.
Kelly laughs, patting Chelsea’s arm lightly. “I’m glad you’re happy,” she says, knowing that it’s not half of what she wants to say. It’s the only thing she can say, though.
Chelsea glances at her, her smile to knowing. “Me too,” she says simply.
They reach the top of the stairs and there is a small room to the side where Polly is sitting in a chair, her arm outstretched. Peaches is sitting on one side of her, holding her hand, while Bella and Saffy are chatting amicably behind her. A tall, stern looking woman is holding the tattoo gun, already pressing against Polly’s wrist. Kelly frowns.
“That was fast,” she says. She remembers her tattoo taking much longer to set up and get done.
“We’re on a schedule,” Peaches says shortly. She is frowning in a way that is far more characteristic of Polly than herself. Kelly tries to think if she’s ever seen Peaches frown before. She’s seen her without a smile, certainly, but never with a frown. She wonders how much time Polly and Peaches have been spending together, if Peaches has adopted the classic Polly-frown into her facial expressions.
Polly smiles tightly at Kelly and jerks her chin. “Come on over, Kel. I know you’re dying to see this.”
Polly’s only other tattoo is on her left hipbone, a small, simple looking series of symbols that betrays a great deal about her. Kelly has seen it a thousand times, touched it a handful of times, and ever since seeing it, has wanted to know the series of circumstances that led to her having it. Polly has only ever said that her Grandmum Judith allowed her to get it when she was twelve, with no other explanation, and Kelly has contented herself with that for years. But now, presented with a calm Polly wincing slightly as she receives a new tattoo, Kelly can’t help but walk over and press a quick but solemn kiss to her friend’s forehead. This tattoo, she understands, is equally important.
Polly hadn’t said much about the modified Chinese symbol, but Peaches had explained it to her one day over tea. She had explained about the Posh-Totty language, about the story they all have on their skin. Kelly understands, now, that this tattoo is more than simple lines of ink. It’s an entire identity. It’s a key.
Peaches showed Kelly hers, briefly. Her tattoo means “I Am All”. Kelly doesn’t understand the story behind it, but she understands that she doesn’t have to.
“Maybe someday we’ll give you one, too,” Peaches had informed her. “We don’t give them out to just anyone.”
Polly’s says “My Beautiful Geek”. Kelly knows that it’s a mark of ownership as well as an identity, in her case. It’s a way for every Posh-Totty to know that Polly is theirs. And that anyone who harms Polly is subject to the wrath of Posh-Totties everywhere.
Kelly hopes no one has the stones to hurt Polly, ever. The Posh-Totties have an excellent network.
Polly’s tattoo is already half finished, given that it’s relatively simple. Kelly is a bit surprised to see that Polly is bleeding. “Is that normal?” she asks, pointing to the blood.
Erin gives her a cold look. “I’m sticking a needle into her repeatedly. What do you think?”
Polly lets go of Peaches hand and reaches up to grip Kelly’s shoulder. “It’s fine, Kelly. No worries.” Her hand stays there, resting lightly just over Kelly’s pulse.
“Done,” Erin announces a few minutes later, looking critically at Polly’s wrist. Polly smiles beatifically.
“Thank you, Erin. Your craftsmanship is, as ever, gorgeous.”
Peaches, Chelsea, and Anoushka take a moment to examine Polly’s tattoo critically before also proclaiming it to be excellent. Saffy claps loudly, Bella smiles broadly, and Kelly feels incredibly, inexplicably, left out.
Saffy and Bella make their excuses to avoid the zoo, but the rest of them pile back into the limousine. Kelly sits down next to Polly, tipping slightly so she can rest her head on her shoulder and stare out the window.
“Are you all right?” Polly asks softly, her tone low enough that only Kelly can hear it over the excited babbling of the Posh-Totties as they update each other on their news for the week. Polly’s hand slides down and captures Kelly’s in her own, giving it a brief squeeze.
“I’ve missed a lot, while I’ve been away,” Kelly says honestly.
“Oh?” Polly asks.
“Never would have thought you’d be an honorary Posh-Totty, for example,” Kelly replies, trying hard to keep the bitterness out of her voice.
She doesn’t quite succeed, because Polly says, gently, “They’re our friends, Kelly.”
She bites back the urge to rage at Polly and point out that, no, they’re Polly’s friends, and that Kelly has been left behind, as she was too busy saving everyone’s life to keep up school relationships. It’s petty, and besides, it’s not quite true. These women love her, she knows. It’s just that she’s forgotten, a bit, what it means to be among them. For three years, it was just her, or her and Annabelle. She doesn’t fit with them, not yet, but she will. She hopes.
“I know,” she sighs.
Polly squeezes her hand again. “Not an hour went by when I didn’t think about you,” she says softly. Kelly closes her eyes and tries to relax.
The London Zoo honestly hasn’t changed all that much in the years since Kelly’s been away. She’s never been much of an animal person to begin with, only visiting for the misguided family outing or the soon-banned St. Trinian’s field trip. Apparently, though, exploring the zoo is one of Hannah’s favourite things in the world, and Hazel has an obsession with giraffes that borders on frightening, in Kelly’s book. She thinks it has something to do with Pickles, her stuffed giraffe that she carries everywhere.
Peaches has planned accordingly for taking her extended family and a former spy to the zoo. John is with them at all times, of course, but Kelly can see the other bodyguards in the crowd, her eye trained for spotting dangerous operatives. A majority of them are in civilian clothes, but a few are obvious, wearing suits and speaking into their wrists. Kelly suspects that Peaches has them doing that in order to make it clear to any potential threats that they are not to be bothered.
Chloe is carrying Hazel, who keeps demanding to see the giraffes, and smiling happily. The last time Kelly saw Chloe was in surveillance photos from the hospital she spent time in, after her husband tried to kill her. She’s carried that image in her head for years; it’s a relief to finally get a new one.
By the okapis, Peaches strolls up beside her and beams at her. “Aren’t they fascinating?” she asks, and Kelly rolls her eyes, turning to rest her arms on the railing to the okapi enclosure.
“Sure. I guess.”
Peaches’ smile flickers for just a moment, just long enough for Kelly to see the steel and concern hidden beneath. “Are you not enjoying yourself?”
“The zoo was never really my thing,” Kelly says.
Peaches raises her eyebrows high. “You’ve been craving your freedom for weeks, and now you complain? I’m beginning to think my hospitality isn’t appreciated.”
Kelly sighs and buries her face into her arms, ignoring Polly as she lifts Hannah onto her shoulders, ignoring the swift kiss that Chelsea gives Yvette, trying and failing to ignore John as he makes calm, steady circles around them, his eyes searching for threats and escape options, and Kelly finds it so sad and frustrating that she can barely pay attention to the children and her friends, but instead is watching the bodyguard, trying to see if he missed anything, if she missed anything, and this is her life now. She’s at the zoo with her best friends and godchildren, preparing herself for attack at any moment.
“It has nothing to do with your hospitality,” she says.
Peaches looks at her for a long moment, her look considering and even. “Planning escape routes?” she asks, managing to sound cheerful and nonchalant.
Kelly jerks up, startled. “How…?”
“Because contrary to popular belief, I am not an idiot unless I choose to be,” Peaches says lightly. “You don’t go to St. Trinian’s without coming away with a sense of what trauma looks like on a person.”
She flushes, feeling almost ashamed, but Peaches reaches out and grabs her arm. “Kelly. You’re safe now. I have almost twenty people here just to protect us. Let yourself relax.”
“It’s not that easy,” Kelly argues.
“I know,” Peaches says simply. “But for today, pretend it is.”
Kelly looks over at Peaches, who is looking at her so calmly, so kindly, that it hurts Kelly just a bit. She doesn’t want this kindness. “I’m not-” she starts to argue, then pauses. She tries again. “I don’t-”
“Of course not,” Peaches interrupts smoothly, somehow knowing exactly what Kelly was fumbling to say. “I know you’re just fine. But I’m telling you anyway: you’re fine. Allow yourself to enjoy something simple.”
As if from a distance, she hears Chloe say, “All right, all right Hazel! We’ll go see the giraffes.” Kelly looks away from Peaches and over to Chloe, who is looking harangued. “I’m afraid if we don’t go see the giraffes right now Hazel is going to revolt.”
Kelly looks around. Polly is smiling broadly, Hannah balanced on her shoulders and looking perfectly content. Yvette and Chelsea are holding hands and failing to hide their relationship from the world. Anoushka is standing nearby, trying to look bored and worldly and failing miserably as she stands and stares at the okapis with childish delight. John is glancing at Peaches every now and then, taking his cues from her. Chloe is holding a squirming Hazel and shaking her head in bemusement. Kelly looks back at Peaches. Peaches is just watching her.
“Giraffes it is,” she announces, and forces on a smile that she doesn’t quite feel.
It happens by the giraffes, of course, because karma is a bitch.
Polly has switched with Chloe on the walk over to the enclosure and is holding Hazel, pointing at the giraffes while Chelsea reads the placard and interprets it. Chloe stands next to them, her hand on Hannah’s head, smiling fondly. Anoushka has managed to sidle away and is lighting a cigarette, in clear violation of all the zoo’s smoking policies. Kelly is standing behind Chelsea and Polly, trying to appreciate the scene, forcing herself to relax. This is supposed to be a good day. It’s her first day of freedom, after all. She should be gleeful.
Yvette is standing next to her and, she is sure, can’t see anything at all, as Chelsea and Polly are so tall, but she doesn’t seem to mind. In fact, she seems to be looking around. Kelly frowns. Peaches, too, seems to be looking around. All of Kelly’s instincts go on red alert. Something isn’t right, her body screams.
Before Kelly can begin to react, she hears the gunfire, and she is being forced to the ground by John. She goes to grab Yvette, but Yvette is already down and is pulling a gun out from God knows where, and Kelly looks frantically at Polly, but Polly and Chelsea are down as well, arms wrapped around Hazel in a protective huddle that Kelly couldn’t possibly replicate, and Chloe is not only down and protecting Hannah, but she too has pulled a gun from somewhere, and she can see Anoushka pointing a gun and laughing, and Peaches is aiming her gun and firing, and Kelly does not have a gun, she does not have her fucking gun and this was just supposed to be a trip to the zoo, not a bloody siege.
She hears the screams around her as the bullets strike the ground, and she struggles out of John’s hard grasp, desperate to do something to help. She hears John yell something incoherent, but she’s already running, low and focused. She knows what to do in these situations, and that is to get the civilians the fuck out. She trusts her friends to take care of themselves; St. Trinian’s trains her women. It’s the men, women, and children nearby that she can’t trust.
Kelly tackles a clearly petrified man to the ground, yanking on the arm of a woman even as she does so. The man struggles beneath her, but Kelly snaps, “There are bullets, and you aren’t made of steel. Stay down.” The man listens, and the woman nods frantically.
“Why would anyone shoot up a zoo?” the woman asks fretfully, but Kelly can’t answer that. She can’t say, because I’m a spy who double-crossed her handlers, and she certainly can’t say, they’re here for me, because they don’t deserve that. They don’t need to know.
“I don’t know. Stay down, stay hidden, and you should be safe,” Kelly answers instead, and moves on to check on a nearby group of schoolchildren.
Their teacher seems somewhat competent, covering them as much as he can, so Kelly moves on. She continues to reassure the civilians and offer advice until finally, inevitably, the shooting stops. She wouldn’t even have noticed, except suddenly there is a hand on her arm and another hand blocking her instinctive punch.
John looks at her soberly and says, “We’re clear, Miss Kelly.”
Kelly stares at him, wild-eyed for a moment, and then shudders. John looks away, letting her regain her calm without comment. “Any casualties?” she asks, trying to sound casual even as she starts to walk quickly back to her friends.
“No, but ma’am…” John trails off, and Kelly shoots him a glance. He looks uncomfortable. She has known John since she was eleven, and not once in those ten years has he ever looked uncomfortable in her presence. She falters for a moment, her step hitching.
“We were ambushed,” he says. “After you went to ensure the safety of the civilians.”
Kelly’s gut clenches uncomfortably. She looks around wildly for her friends. She sees Anoushka, lighting up another cigarette, her hands shaking. Chloe is sitting on the ground, her children in her lap, openly crying and clearly struggling to gain control. Chelsea and Yvette are standing next to her, arguing. And Peaches is on the phone, looking more furious than Kelly has ever seen her.
Kelly whirls around. “Where’s Polly?” she demands.
“Gone,” John says simply, and Kelly’s world crashes down around her ears.
As John explains it, it happened like this:
Kelly broke free and made a run to protect others. Polly saw her run and went after her. Two men and a woman appeared from the crowd and grabbed her. John tried to shoot them, Peaches tried to shoot them, Yvette tried to shoot them, but the hidden gunmen laid down heavy cover fire, and they never had a chance.
Kelly didn’t even have her fucking gun.
“Call Annabelle,” Kelly snaps to Peaches, climbing into the limousine. “Recall her immediately.”
Peaches falters for a moment, and then pulls out her mobile and starts dialing. Kelly looks at Chloe. “Are the children all right?” she asks, fully aware that she sounds almost cold. She can’t find it in herself to care at the moment.
Chloe nods. “What do you need me to do?” she asks, and Kelly feels her respect for Chloe jump tenfold.
“Can you think of anyone who would have leaked information about where we would be?” It bothers her to even think about it, because only St. Trinian’s women would have known their itinerary. She doesn’t like to think that any one of them would betray each other.
“Not off the top of my head, but I’ll consider it.”
“Good. In the meantime, tell Saffy and Bella to watch their backs. No one is safe.”
Yvette and Anoushka have their guns drawn. Anoushka looks perfectly calm despite her shaking hands, as though this is something she does everyday, which is precisely why Kelly chose to trust her with her secrets for three years, even as she kept Polly and the others in the dark. Yvette looks a bit uncomfortable, but she’s clearly familiar with her gun, and so Kelly decides to leave it be.
She looks at Chelsea. “Are you all right?”
“Terrified,” Chelsea admits, “but fine.”
Peaches sets her phone in her lap. “Annabelle, Taylor, and Andrea are on their way back. They’ll meet us in about twenty minutes. They haven’t noticed anyone following them. But I’m not sure-”
“Annabelle would notice,” Kelly says. “If she says they’re fine, then they’re fine.”
She stares at her hands for a moment. Polly is gone. It was a coordinated attack, and Polly is gone. “They weren’t after me,” she says.
“No,” Peaches agrees, typing something into her phone.
“Then who were they after?” Yvette asks, frowning.
“They wanted Polly,” Anoushka says flatly.
“No,” Kelly corrects. “They want what Polly has. There’s a difference. I suspect you would have done in a pinch, Peaches.”
Peaches favors her with a bland look. “But we all know only Polly would have done.”
Yvette frowns further, and Kelly decides to spare her. She doesn’t know Polly, after all. “Polly has the list of St. Trinian’s criminals that Annabelle and I collected over the past three years. So does Peaches, but…”
“But Polly has a photographic memory,” Chelsea supplies.
“And she has the list on her,” Peaches says darkly.
This is news to Kelly. She looks over at Peaches sharply. “What?”
“Polly makes copies of all the important information she receives,” Peaches explains. “She gives me the master copy and keeps a redundant copy on herself at all times.” At Kelly’s look, Peaches hastily adds, “It would be near impossible to find, however. Unless we have a leak.”
“I can’t reach Keesa,” Chloe says suddenly, staring down at her phone.
Kelly looks over at Chloe in shock. Keesa was the Emo leader before her, the one that chose her. She was a wonderful person, one of the kindest and gentlest that she has ever known. She can’t imagine Keesa ever giving them up, let alone anyone from outside St. Trinian’s. If anything, Keesa took the St. Trinian’s code of ethics more seriously than anyone.
“She would never betray us,” Kelly says. She knows she sounds idiotic, but she can’t help it. She remembers Keesa, knows Keesa. She wore skulls on her skirt and a smirk on her mouth. She walked as if she were dancing. She was the best seamstress in the entire damn school. She told Kelly that she earned her role as leader. She believed in Kelly. She believed in Kelly well before Kelly really believed in herself.
“She’s an acupuncturist. And tattoo artist,” Chloe says, looking up quickly and staring at Peaches in horror.
“She wouldn’t betray us,” Kelly repeats stubbornly. There is a rushing sound in her ears that she tries to ignore.
“No,” Peaches agrees, looking at Kelly. “But she had a specialty in her field. And someone else may have forced her to give us up.”
Which is how Kelly finds out about Keesa’s side business of implanting microchips in her customers.
Annabelle is already at the safe house when Kelly storms in, shouting furiously at Peaches.
“You knew it wasn’t safe!” she screams, knowing she’s yelling at the wrong person. The person she wants to yell at has been stolen from her, though, and she needs to yell now. “You knew, and you let her do it anyway!”
Peaches trails after her, face fixed into a blank expression that Kelly knows all too well hides frustration and irritation. “Have you ever tried to tell Polly she couldn’t do something? She felt this was the best way, and unlike you, I trust her.”
That brings her up short, and she stares at Peaches, stunned. Annabelle looks between them and immediately steps in. “What wasn’t safe?” she asks, placing a hand on Kelly’s shoulder and squeezing.
Peaches sighs. “Polly didn’t trust computers, not fully. She always believed if she could hack protected files, then anyone could figure it out eventually. So she tended to store important information on herself.”
Kelly can feel her pulse in her ears. As soon as she finds Polly, she’s going to kill her for being so ridiculously stupid. Geniuses are not supposed to be stupid. It is against the rules, or something.
“I don’t understand,” Annabelle says, pulling Kelly back and forcing her to stand still. More than anything, this has been Annabelle’s job over the past two years. Keeping Kelly still. Grounding her. Kelly takes a deep breath and lets herself focus on Annabelle’s hand.
“Polly stored the list of Trinian’s criminals on a microchip, which she then had inserted underneath her skin.”
“That’s why we so urgently needed that tattoo,” Peaches explains, ignoring Annabelle’s horrified look. “To hide the evidence.”
“When did she get the chip installed?” she asks, working hard to sound calm. It used to be near impossible to get her to lose her control, but in the past, it’s nearly always been Polly who accomplished it.
Peaches purses her lips. “This morning.”
Annabelle frowns. “That isn’t possible. We would have noticed if Polly had any cuts on her.”
“Keesa taught Erin, didn’t she?” Kelly interrupts, thinking furiously. Polly brought up getting the tattoo about a week ago, but when Kelly suggested getting it that day, she had insisted that there were arrangements to be made first, and one did not just appear at a tattoo parlor. Kelly had thought it odd at the time, given that’s exactly what she did when she got her tattoo, but she’d chalked it up to Polly being Polly and being dependent on routine and plans. Now, though, knowing about the microchip, it makes so much more sense. “That’s what Polly had to arrange. She had to convince Keesa to part with her technique.”
“It was quite difficult,” Peaches says. “But Erin wouldn’t teach Keesa how to make a Posh-Totty tattoo, so Keesa had to teach Erin. She decided it would be less suspicious if Polly visited one tattoo artist rather than two, and that convinced her.”
Kelly nods. That sounds like Keesa. “That’s why Polly was bleeding so much. Because Erin had inserted the chip right before that.”
“Yes,” Peaches confirms. She turns away and starts talking on her mobile in a language that Kelly doesn’t understand. She suspects it’s Sinhalese. Annabelle probably knows. She’s always been better at languages than Kelly.
“Hey,” Annabelle says, tugging Kelly out of her thoughts. She rubs her hands up and down Kelly’s shoulders reassuringly. “Hey. We’re going to get her back.”
“I know we’re going to get her back, it’s ridiculous to think we won’t get her back,” Kelly says, trying and failing to hide the anger and frustration in her voice. “I’m just concerned about the shape she’ll be in when we get her back. Beth-”
“Beth may not be involved with this,” Annabelle says firmly.
Kelly gives Annabelle a flat look. “If they want Polly, then they want the St. Trinian’s list. Which means it’s Beth.”
Beth Hardwick was Kelly’s handler for three years, the one who gave her the assignments and collected the results. Kelly has wondered, sometimes, what a St. Trinian’s woman did to her, for Beth to hate them all so much. Beth could barely look at her, from time to time, knowing Kelly’s background as she did.
“They’ve found Keesa,” Peaches says, thumbing off the phone call. “She’s dead.”
Kelly nods, once. She suspected as much. It makes her feel sick, sad, angry, everything all at once, but she forces it down. Keesa was her friend, someone she respected, and now she’s dead. But she can’t spare the time to grieve, not just yet. She needs to focus on getting Polly before… she needs to focus on getting Polly.
“What’s the plan, then?” Chelsea asks, coming into the room. Behind her, Kelly can see Chloe and Anoushka, looking equally curious.
“Get her back,” Kelly says without thinking.
“Obviously,” Anoushka snorts, shouldering past Chelsea. “But how do we do that? We do not know who has her; we do not know where she could be. Where do we start?”
It is an excellent question, and for a moment, Kelly feels her panic overwhelm her. They have Polly, and Kelly has no leads whatsoever. The only thing she has is the knowledge of what her employers will do to Polly once they’re through with her. She remembers her own orders about the women she hunted, and what to do with them once they ceased to be useful.
“They killed Keesa,” she says numbly. She doesn’t finish the thought. They’ll kill Polly, too.
“The first thing we need to do is hack the CCTV network around the zoo and figure out what direction they took her in,” Annabelle interjects hastily. “We can probably trace them fairly well and narrow down our targets considerably.”
“Excellent,” Peaches says. “Annabelle, I trust you know how to do that?”
“Of course,” Annabelle says. “Find me a secure computer.”
Peaches leads her away, and Kelly shakes her head, desperate to find her composure. Chelsea gives her a concerned look.
“Shut up, Chelsea,” Kelly says, and follows Annabelle and Peaches.
She isn’t surprised to see that Peaches has taken Annabelle to the little office on the ground floor that Polly has claimed as hers. Polly spends a majority of her day in there, with its seven computer monitors and various specialized equipment. Kelly likes to sit with her, curled up in the armchair that she suspects Polly put in just for her, just like she did when she was the Geek leader in their school days, but she rarely pays attention to what Polly does. Kelly is smart. But Polly is a genius. She could never hope to understand half of what Polly does.
Annabelle sits down in Polly’s office chair and flicks a switch on the computers, bringing up all monitors at once. “One of the benefits of knowing Polly’s computer signatures and styles is that I can navigate her files fairly easily,” Annabelle says, typing and clicking away. “And if I know her, she keeps a feed of London’s CCTV handy.”
It only takes a few more heartbeats before the computer screens fill with thousands of little images. Annabelle squints at them for a moment, and then starts tapping away. Moments later, thousands of images are replaced with about ten.
“And now we’ll just rewind them to the time when Polly was taken…” Annabelle mutters. Kelly stands over her shoulder, squinting at the pictures. She reaches over and points.
“There. That’s her.”
Annabelle clicks on the image to enlarge it. Kelly watches as two men and a woman drag Polly from the zoo. She’s pleased to see that Polly is giving them a run for their money. They’re having to carry her, and at one point, Polly gets a leg free and kicks one of them in the face.
“That’s Beth,” Kelly says, focusing on the woman. Small height, slight figure, light brown hair and a smug smirk- yes, that’s Beth.
“Beth?” Anoushka asks from the doorway. “Is this the Beth Hardwick you have told me about?”
“Our handler, yes,” Kelly says. “She heads up my affinity group.” At the blank stares she’s getting, she clears her throat. “She was in charge of the operatives tracking St. Trinian’s women.”
“There was more than one?” Chelsea asks, sounding affronted.
Annabelle makes a noise, typing rapidly as she tracks Polly’s path through London. “We suspected at least two others. Possibly three. We never had any proof, really, but-” Annabelle pauses and squints at the screen. “That’s odd…”
“What?” Kelly asks sharply. She looks back at the screen.
Annabelle frowns and rewinds the video. “Well, look at this. They enter this building with Polly here, yes? Fifteen minutes later, Beth leaves. Then we have this long period of nothing, and then suddenly one of the men that carried Polly in comes bursting out of the door, here,” she says, pointing. Kelly watches. He looks anxious and furious all at once, looking everywhere. Seconds after that, the other man, smaller and more compact, comes jogging into the frame, shaking his head.
“She got out,” Kelly says.
Peaches gives her a sharp look. “What do you mean?”
“That is the look of two men who were given the job of watching over someone and who, moments later, lost her. Polly’s out.”
“Of course I’m out,” Polly says from behind her, sounding incredibly irritated. “They only left one man to guard me, it wasn’t hard. Did you expect me to enjoy their hospitality? It was lacking, I assure you.”
Kelly spins around, along with everyone else in the room. Polly is standing just behind Anoushka, scowling furiously. She looks fine. A bruise on her face, and her wrist is bleeding, but she looks remarkably unharmed.
“Are you all right?” Kelly asks, her voice sounding choked even to her.
Polly gives her a sharp look. “I’m fine. Furious, but fine. I can’t imagine how they found out about the microchip. Keesa has only ever used it on St. Trinian’s women.”
“Keesa is dead,” Kelly says.
That seems to cause Polly pause. Her face goes blank, and she blinks. “Dead?”
“I had some people in my organization go check on her once I realized you were missing,” Peaches says. “She was killed in her home. Two shots to the heart, one to the head.”
“Mozambique drill,” Annabelle says automatically.
“Then there is a trail of dead bodies leading to her. Or we have a leak,” Polly says flatly. She walks into the room and pushes past everyone, pausing only for a moment to squeeze Kelly’s arm in reassurance. She looks at Annabelle and at her computers before flashing a swift smile. “Not bad, Annabelle. Excuse me.”
Annabelle swiftly gets out of her chair and moves to stand next to Kelly. Her hand slips down and grabs Annabelle’s. She finds it reassuring to know that they’re all there, and safe. For the time being.
Polly pulls up a series of text files, staring hard at the words. It looks like it’s in code. Kelly would be able to read it were she closer- she knows all of Polly’s codes, always has- but she’s content to just watch her and wait for her conclusions.
“She used the microchip technique on five other women in the past. Peaches, do any of these names have any significance to you?”
Peaches leans over and scans the names. She tilts her head to the side and purses her lips, pointing to a name and tapping it. “That one. She died… two weeks ago, I think. Lady Mary Smith. It looked like heart failure.”
“She was forty-three,” Chelsea says, looking affronted.
“It’s happened to younger women,” Polly says absently. She turns to look at Peaches, frowning thoughtfully. “Lady Smith had some sort of governmental post, didn’t she?”
“She did something with the SIS,” Peaches replies.
“Nothing official, though,” Chelsea points out. “She just consulted from time to time.”
“She clearly had something to hide, if she was going to Keesa,” Polly says dispassionately. “And if she worked for the SIS, it’s possible she mentioned it to someone in MI7.”
Kelly sighs. She understands the need to figure out the leak, but this is pointless. “Which is all well and good, but she’s dead. So is Keesa. Their problems are over.”
Chelsea looks at her, affronted, but Annabelle nods. “If they have the list, we have fifty women who are now in a great deal of danger.”
Polly’s face is grim when she turns. “Let’s start calling, then.”
The only people who actually know how to reach everyone, however, are Polly, Peaches, Chelsea, and Annabelle. They divide the list between the four of them and get to work. Kelly offers to help, but she doesn’t know any phone numbers, any addresses, and half of the names are codenames anyway. She knows a few of the women on the list, of course, just by virtue of going to school with them; others she knows by tracking them down in various countries. Nevertheless, Peaches sends her out of the room.
She doesn’t quite know how to pass the time. Andrea and Taylor are sitting in the kitchen with Chloe and the children when Kelly walks in, intending to look for either chocolate or alcohol.
“Help me make supper?” Chloe asks, taking one glance at her. Kelly pauses, frowning slightly, and Taylor snorts.
“Don’t take a genius to see that you’re ready to get piss-faced. Then you wouldn’t be any good at all.”
“I don’t like not being able to help,” Kelly confesses. Chloe nods smartly.
“Which is why you’re going to help me make supper. We’ve had a long day, and even if you don’t need to eat, my children do. So we’ll make lasagna.”
“No,” Kelly says, shaking her head. Chloe gives her a confused look, and Kelly lets herself smile for the first time in three hours. “We had spaghetti a few days ago. Let’s make chicken.”
Andrea takes charge of watching the children while Kelly, Chloe, and Taylor putter about the kitchen, passing spices and sauces and arguing about side dishes. It isn’t quite as useful as actually calling people, but it keeps Kelly from running out of the house and trying to track Beth down to shoot her in the head. Occasionally Peaches wanders in, or Chelsea, dipping their fingers in the sauce and making appreciative noises or stealing a carrot. Polly stops in long enough for Kelly to force her into a chair and wrap a bandage around her wrist.
“I’m sorry,” she says softly, staring at the bisected tattoo.
“It’s my fault,” Polly replies, shrugging a shoulder. “I wasn’t careful enough. Now, get back to work. I expect that salad to be superb.”
Not surprisingly, supper is finished well before the others are done calling. Andrea and Chloe force them to take a break, and drag them to the table.
“We’re making progress,” Polly says, carefully cutting her chicken into even squares. “I’ve reached almost everyone on my list so far. We’re directing them to Peaches’ safe houses if they’re in the area.”
“And if they aren’t?” Chloe asks.
“Sending them money, passports, other contacts,” Annabelle says. “Getting them out of the country, if possible.”
“It’s the best we can do right now,” Peaches says. “We don’t know where MI7’s focus is, so we can’t really do better right now.”
The rest of dinner is conducted in silence. There isn’t much to say.
Afterward, Annabelle, Peaches, Polly, and Chelsea go back to their phone calls. Kelly helps Andrea wash the dishes, and then stares helplessly at the frothy water as it drains down the sink. For a moment, she wishes that she had bothered to talk to all the women they met over the years. It was Annabelle who spent time with everyone. She met local businesspeople, local criminals, local families, and of course, she met the women they were hunting down. Kelly was always too busy working on the logistics of keeping them alive and looking like she was doing her job to take tea or breakfast or whatever with people. She never kept their contact information herself, in case MI7 realized what she was doing. Now, though, her lack of contacts is doing her a disservice. She can’t do anything. She’s completely useless.
“Jones,” Anoushka says. Kelly turns around. Anoushka is standing in the doorway of the kitchen, shuffling cards and smirking. “I believe you owe me poker game. You were cheating last time.”
“I would never,” Kelly says, affronted, even though that is a total lie. The only way to win against Anoushka is to cheat, and so Kelly does, every time.
“Come, we are starting a game in the living room. Let us see if you can win without cards up your sleeve.”
She can’t, as it turns out.
It isn’t until four in the morning that Polly, Annabelle, and the others walk back into the room. Kelly immediately sits up from where she was lounging on the sofa, watching, of all things, Lilo and Stitch, because Chloe insists that it’s a favourite.
“Did you reach them all?” she asks immediately.
Annabelle comes and sits next her, flopping down and putting her head on Kelly’s shoulder. Kelly watches Polly pause briefly and change direction to stand next to Taylor.
“No,” Peaches says. “Though we did most almost everyone.”
“Three left,” Annabelle says. “Three with no updated contact information, three with no one we can contact to get it.”
Polly pulls a sheet of paper out of her pocket, staring blindly at it. Kelly suspects she’s long past seeing at this point. She’s seen it happen before, where Polly spends so long staring at words that her eyes just give up. “Minji Mondell is located somewhere in Chile, but her mobile has been disconnected and her email just bounces us back. She’s a drug dealer, though… if I were MI7, she’d be rather low priority.”
Chelsea throws herself down in an empty armchair, flinging her legs over the arm. “Julia Eisenberg works out of Haiti, but she’s an art forger. Of potential threats to the United Kingdom, I would rate her negligible. Annoying, perhaps, for them, but not a threat.”
“I reached all of my contacts,” Peaches says. “I’m fairly sure I convinced them all that they needed to move immediately.” She looks at Annabelle and, suddenly, looks uncomfortable. Kelly wonders what that is all about.
“And the third?” she asks.
Peaches looks at Annabelle, and her gaze slides over to where Polly is standing. Kelly frowns. There is something wrong, and she doesn’t know what it could be.
“Najwa Khan,” Annabelle says blithely. “Pakistan. She’s a fixer, of sorts. The village people come to her with requests, and she fixes things for them. I heard about her, from time to time, when we were in school.”
Kelly isn’t listening to Annabelle anymore. Instead, she is looking at Polly, feeling her stomach plummet.
Years upon years ago, Polly and Najwa were close friends. Najwa mentored Polly. Najwa fought for Polly’s right to join the Geeks a year earlier than she was supposed to. Najwa was the one who taught Polly Arabic, and Polly taught her Hebrew. She was important to Polly, probably one of the most important people in her life.
Years upon years ago, Najwa disappeared, and Polly could never find her.
One of Polly’s many talents is that she is superb at being still. Kelly has always felt an instinctive need to move, but Polly is just the opposite. Where Kelly needs to stand and pace and fidget and run, Polly goes still. She does it now, the surest sign of how upset she is. She doesn’t freeze all at once. It’s more like her body just slowly shuts down. Kelly shuts her eyes.
Polly was never supposed to know.
“Najwa was not on the list of criminals,” she says, her voice calm and so incredibly cold that it pains Kelly to hear it.
“No,” Annabelle says, not seeming to notice the tension in the room. “She has a pseudonym. You’ve probably heard of her- they call her Anaa. The Grandmother.”
There is a long silence in the room. Kelly opens her eyes and sees Polly staring at her, dead-eyed. “Excuse me,” she says, and turns on heel to walk out of the room as swiftly as possible. Kelly stands up, dislodging Annabelle’s head from her shoulder.
“What’s wrong?” Annabelle asks, looking startled.
“Najwa was one of Polly’s mentors and closest friends at St. Trinian’s,” Peaches says softly.
“And you just informed her that our nation considers her a notorious terrorist,” Kelly snaps, unable to help herself.
Annabelle flinches. “I didn’t know,” she says, her voice hoarse, eyes wide with shock. “I mean, Polly mentioned her occasionally, but never… never in the personal sense. She just said she was the Geek leader, or that there was a Geek who got bullied a lot. I didn’t know.”
Kelly rubs her forehead, deflating. “It’s not your fault. I didn’t tell you. Excuse me,” she says, heading for the door. She can take care of Annabelle later. She walks out, following Polly as fast as she can.
“Polly, wait!” she yells, not caring who hears, not caring if she wakes the children up. Polly doesn’t even pause, her shoes silent on the floor. Kelly sighs and runs to catch up. She grabs Polly’s arm when she reaches her. Polly shrugs her off.
“We aren’t doing this here,” she says tightly. Kelly nods. There isn’t much else she can do.
Polly walks up the stairs to her first floor bedroom. She gestures Kelly inside, and shuts the door behind them. Kelly hears the lock turn, and her gut seizes for a moment, but she forces herself to calm. This is Polly. An angry Polly is frightening, but not dangerous. Not to her.
“How do you know where Najwa is?” Polly asks quietly.
“We…” Kelly begins, and then stops. “I don’t want to hurt you.”
“I think that hurting me is rather inevitable at this point,” Polly snaps, and then immediately stops, looking down at the floor and leaning against the door. She’s the very picture of misery.
“I’m sorry,” Kelly says.
“How?” Polly asks again.
Kelly sighs. “Annabelle and I were running from a mission gone wrong. We crossed from Afghanistan into Pakistan, and were wandering around the mountains, completely lost, when we stumbled upon this village. It was small, with very few of the modern conveniences, but they had food, and a place to sleep. They took us in, for some reason. The next day, Najwa greeted us. She was the leader of the village, it turned out.”
Polly lets out a slow, measured breath. “And you’re telling me she’s The Grandmother.”
“It’s not that simple. She’s… a fixer.”
“People come to her and ask her to fix things. Things like teaching their children to read, or digging a new well, or-”
“Or raiding a military convoy, or stealing weapons.”
Kelly falters because yes, Najwa does that. Najwa has never made any secret about the fact that she hates the military presence of the West in Afghanistan and Pakistan. On the news, the Grandmother is simply known as a terrorist who disrupts military procedures, but Kelly knows it’s more complicated than that.
“She raids the convoys for medical supplies, food, clothes, things the villagers need. The weapons aren’t for offensive attacks. They’re for defending themselves. They aren’t radicals, they’re just… people.”
Polly’s stare is cold. “Your concept of justice has changed over the years, Kelly.”
“More like yours, I should think,” Kelly says bitterly. “You’ve never trusted the government.”
“I’ve never thought it was so black and white,” Polly corrects. “So you stayed with her?”
“For two weeks. Until we felt safe again.”
“You knew where she was. And you didn’t tell me.”
Kelly runs a hand through her hair and begins to pace, desperately trying to find the words that will make Polly understand why it was all so necessary. But she knows it wasn’t. There was no reason for her to make sure that Polly never knew the true identity of the Grandmother. Except that she couldn’t help but fear that Polly might run off to Pakistan to find her.
Which is ridiculous, of course. Even when Najwa disappeared to begin with, Polly didn’t try to hunt her down. She accepted that Najwa was gone, after a time.
But Kelly remembers the quiet tears, and she’s never really forgiven Najwa for that.
“I was angry. That she never told you where she was going. That she left you.”
Polly’s head snaps up. In careful, measured steps she walks across the room and sits down on her bed. She looks at Kelly for a long, hard moment, and then lays down, shutting her eyes.
“Get out,” she says softly.
Kelly blinks. “What?”
“I said, get out. We’re done. I’m done. Get out.” Kelly starts to protest, taking a step toward Polly, but her eyes snap open and they’re so blazingly furious that Kelly stops. “Get out. Now.”
By the time she gets back downstairs, the living room is empty, everyone having finally gone to bed. Kelly takes a brief look around, and then heads for the kitchen. She needs tea.
To her surprise, Peaches is already there, pouring hot water from the kettle into a tea cup. “Do you want Earl Grey, or…” she pauses, looking through the cabinets. “Older Earl Grey?”
“Earl Grey sounds fine,” Kelly says. She watches Peaches pour a splash of milk into both of theirs, and accepts hers gratefully when Peaches comes to sit at the table with her. They sit in silence for a long time, Peaches adding a teaspoon of sugar to her cup, Kelly carefully blowing on hers in a futile attempt to make it cool down.
“Did you know that attending St. Trinian’s gets you on the watch list immediately?” Kelly asks suddenly. Peaches doesn’t say anything, just sips her tea. She doesn’t need to ask which watch list Kelly is talking about.
After a moment, Peaches asks, “What do you remember about Najwa?”
Kelly remembers Pakistan. She remembers the hot days, with dirt blowing around her and trying not to cough. She remembers leading Annabelle into their tent and tugging her down on top of her as she fell backwards onto their blankets. Annabelle always complained that it was too hot during the day, but her protests died away eventually every time. Kelly remembers the nights, cold, and how Annabelle never protested then. She remembers the village Najwa lived in, and struggling with Pashtun, and she remembers Najwa laughing as she mispronounced yet another word. She remembers the comforting feel of Arabic, and the soothing glide of a Qur’anic phrase, the only way she could communicate. She remembers Najwa’s hands, gentle and scarred from her St. Trinian’s years, as she adjusted Kelly’s hijab.
“I remember these two Posh-Totties always stole her hijab,” she tells Peaches. She doesn’t want to tell her the rest. Those are secret things. They belong to her.
“Gina and Allison,” Peaches says. “Is that all?”
“She was… smart,” Kelly says finally. “I mean, obviously, she was a Geek. She got bothered a lot by the other students. She almost always had bruises. She and Polly fought a lot, but Polly adored her.”
“Yes, she did,” Peaches agrees.
“And she left. She disappeared.”
“Yes,” Peaches says softly. She raises the teacup to her lips and takes a long, thoughtful sip. It’s one of those things that Kelly has always found amusing about Peaches. She manages to imbue the most mundane actions with meaning. “I imagine that you and Najwa have a lot in common.”
Kelly blinks in surprise. She thinks about it for a moment, and then shrugs. “I suppose. Maybe. I’ve never really thought about it. We were never close, Najwa and I.”
Peaches drains her tea and stands up, raising her eyebrows. “Think about it,” she says. “I think maybe then you’ll understand why you were exiled to the kitchen.”
She walks out of the kitchen, giving Kelly an enigmatic smile not at all similar to her usual irrepressible grin. Kelly watches her for a moment, and then realizes that she doesn’t know who Peaches is anymore. Not at all.
She can’t help but wonder if that’s true of Polly, too.
The next few days are painful. Everyone is busy, putting people on planes and boats, bribing officials, preparing contacts in different cities. Kelly begins to feel like her mobile is going to grow tentacles and attach itself to her face. She’s speaking in languages she barely remembers, languages she barely learned to begin with. She can’t even remember some of the people she’s talking to, but Annabelle assures her that they met, they spoke, and that they’re trustworthy. Kelly doesn’t trust them, but she trusts Annabelle. Annabelle was the one who got to know people while they were away; Kelly just used them.
Her friends refuse to leave, though. Taylor snorts and rolls her eyes; Andrea points out that their connections to London’s petty criminals may come in useful. Peaches jerks her chin at John, still on her mobile, summing up her entire argument in one gesture. Chloe insists that she’s low enough on the list that they won’t bother with her just yet.
As for Polly, well. Polly isn’t speaking to Kelly, so it’s rather a moot point.
“We’ve had fights before,” Kelly says, tugging Annabelle closer to her and hiding her face in her neck. Kelly is grateful to finally have a moment alone with Annabelle. The others are downstairs, preparing lunch and taking a break from their phones. “But then we’d steal each other’s notes, or blow something up, or at one point, I set her bed on fire. We act. We don’t just stop speaking.”
Annabelle twists slightly and looks down at Kelly, her eyebrows raised. Kelly resists the urge to kiss her. It’s difficult. One of Annabelle’s greatest traits is how kissable she is.
“You set her bed on fire?”
Kelly reaches up and kisses her then, lightly, on the mouth, giving into temptation. Her lips are dry and slightly chapped. She’s been licking them a lot lately. Nervous, Kelly knows. Frightened. She pulls back and smiles at her, remembering the look on Polly’s face when she came into the dorm. It’s a fond memory, despite everything.
“I did. In our sixth year.”
Annabelle sighs. “Should I even ask why?”
Kelly laughs. “She stole my cigarettes, took all the tobacco out, and replaced it with dried grass clippings.”
“Which may be awful, but you set her bed on fire!”
“Poetic justice, I thought.”
Annabelle gives her a long stare. She looks fond, and sad, and so, so tired. “I wonder sometimes if I’ll ever know all your stories.”
From downstairs, Chelsea shouts that lunch is ready. Kelly sits up and grins. “Darling, I don’t even know all of our stories. I shouldn’t expect you to know them. Lunch?”
Annabelle yawns and shakes her head. “You go on. I think I might take a quick nap. Tired and all.”
Kelly gives her a fond look and leans down, kissing her on the forehead. “I’ll save you a sandwich. Sleep well.”
She joins the rest of them in the kitchen. They try to eat supper in the dining room, but informal meals like this are almost universally eaten in the kitchen, at the small table or on top of the counters. The radio is on in the background, and everyone is slowly putting together their sandwiches, passing lunchmeats and condiments among them. It’s shockingly domestic, and Kelly lets it wash over her.
At the kitchen table, Polly looks up from her sandwich and Kelly can see her mouth twitch into a frown, just for a moment. Then she nods, and points to the empty chair next to her. It’s an invitation, the first one she’s been given in four days. Kelly nods back, hoping that Polly can still read her mind, and goes to make her sandwich.
When she’s done, she finds that Polly has saved her seat, proving that perhaps their friendship isn’t ruined after all. She sits down, hooking a hesitant foot around Polly’s ankle. They used to sit like that all the time, in school.
Polly looks down at her plate, smiling faintly. “‘I have hurt you, my dear/I have torn your soul’,” she recites softly.
Kelly smiles back, thinking ahead into the poem. “‘You among all beings/have the right/to see me weak.’” She wraps a hand around Polly’s wrist, feeling like maybe it’s safe to touch her now. “I thought you’d forgotten.”
“I wasn’t the one who forgot,” Polly says. It hurts to hear, but she suspects Polly is right. She’s suspected as much for weeks now. Whenever she looks at her friends and sees strangers. When she looks in her closet and doesn’t recognize the clothes, or when she looks out the window and can’t figure out where she is.
“I did,” she admits, hating to say it out loud. Her voice sounds strange, like it’s cracking.
Polly gives her a sharp look and twists so that she can hold Kelly’s hand. She interlaces their fingers and squeezes. “‘You among all beings/have the right/to see me weak’. Don’t forget that. Don’t hide from me, Kelly, not anymore.”
“I was so scared,” Kelly says, knowing what Polly means. “I turned around, and you were gone, and I couldn’t protect you.”
“I’ve taken care of myself for three years now, Kelly. I know how to protect myself. And I don’t need you to decide from what you must protect me. Why didn’t tell me about Najwa?”
Kelly looks down at their hands, thinking hard. She isn’t quite sure what to tell Polly. None of it made any real sense.
“At the time? Because letting you know about Najwa wasn’t as important as just getting names to you,” Kelly says slowly. “But later, I forgot, and then… I think I was scared. That you would leave me, for her. That I’d wake up one day, and you wouldn’t be there.”
Polly looks angry again, but the swift flash of fury in her eyes fades almost immediately, buried underneath her habitual sharp look. “She’s dead,” Polly says.
Kelly frowns. “No, she isn’t. I saw her a year ago.”
Polly shakes her head and points at the radio, where the others are gathered, ignoring the table in favor of standing around and listening hard. “They announced it, twenty minutes ago. British forces finally found the Grandmother; she blew herself up rather than be captured.”
She says it so blandly that most people wouldn’t be able to hear the pain in her voice. But despite the years, Kelly isn’t most people. “I’m sorry,” she says simply.
Polly shakes her head. “The radio is saying that it was the military, but given what we know and the events of the past few days, we think it’s more likely that MI7 found her. We’re going to try to call the rest of the list this afternoon, see if they’re still all right.”
“They might be monitoring your phones,” Kelly points out.
Polly’s grin is ghoulish. “Nobody can hack my security. I’ve made sure of it. Now finish your lunch. We have an errand to run.”
Kelly raises an eyebrow, letting go of Polly and picking up her sandwich. “And what’s that?”
“We need to go tell Harriet what’s happened,” Polly says.
Kelly instantly feels sick.
Kelly has always conceptualized Polly’s relationships at St. Trinian’s as rather limited, though of course that’s ridiculous. Polly had two best friends- Kelly herself and Harriet. She had many, many other friends and mentors and mentees and girlfriends, but in her head, Kelly tends to think only of herself and Harriet.
Of course, the trouble with Harriet is that she was also close to Najwa, and that she, unlike Polly, did try to find Najwa when she disappeared. Polly was willing to let her go after some time, but Harriet never could. Kelly has always liked Harriet well enough, but she doesn’t relish having to tell the girl that she knew where Najwa was, and now she’s dead.
“She deserves to know,” Polly says, not taking her eyes off the road as she drives to the building where Harriet is apparently rehearsing. She’s in her first year of University and is, according to Polly, studying music.
“Composition, mostly, but conducting as well. She’s thinking of being a conductor who writes in her spare time,” she explains, turning a corner and pulling into a parking space. “She’s brilliant, actually. I’m hoping that, with some help from our networks, she’ll be able to do whatever she wants.”
Kelly follows Polly into the building. She’s been here before, Kelly thinks, because she walks through the halls with confidence, not once stopping to consult the signs on the wall or someone else for directions. Students are milling about, carrying instruments and music, most of them looking distracted. Kelly wonders how they manage not to run into people, as little attention as they’re paying. She thinks it’s a music person thing. Maybe an artist thing.
“In here,” Polly says, pushing open a door.
The room is an auditorium, rows upon rows of seats that eventually end at the front of a stage. On the stage there is a grand piano, and at the piano sits Harriet Bamford, looking dwarfed by the instrument. She’s playing something, a simple lilting tune that Kelly doesn’t recognize. It’s haunting in its simplicity, actually. The hairs on the back of Kelly’s neck stand up.
Polly reaches the front of the stage and lifts herself up onto it in one smooth motion. She’s positively beaming, at least for Polly- she’s smiling widely enough that Kelly can see her teeth. She walks right up to the piano and stands in the curve. She doesn’t say anything, just watches Harriet as she continues to play.
Harriet hasn’t changed much in the years since Kelly has last seen her. She’s a small woman, very petite, and she’s dressed in a simple blouse and skirt. Her hair is in a bunch of braids, falling over her face, and despite the fact that she hasn’t changed much at all, she still seems different to Kelly.
She plays one last sad, lingering chord, and then lets her hands drop. She looks up and smiles at Polly. “Hey, Pol.”
“It’s been a while,” Harriet says, standing and walking to give Polly a quick hug, which Polly accepts stiffly.
“Not that long,” Polly protests, pulling back. “A few months.”
“That’s all? It feels like longer,” Harriet says, laughing. “What brings you to my corner of the world?”
Harriet seems happier, Kelly realizes. That’s why she looks different. In school, she always looked hunted and somewhat pinched. She didn’t smile much. She was a serious girl, very focused, but so obviously scared that it hurt Kelly to look at her. But now she’s smiling and relaxed and open.
She doesn’t seem to have changed much, but in very important ways, she has.
“Harriet, you remember Kelly,” Polly says, gesturing down at her. Kelly hauls herself up onto the stage, not nearly as graceful as Polly, and smiles awkwardly at Harriet. “Hey,” she says.
Harriet’s eyebrows shoot up. “Last I heard, you’d disappeared off the face of the planet.”
Harriet glances up at Polly, briefly, and then looks back at Kelly, suddenly intense again. “Well, welcome back, then.” Her eyes are chilly, boring a hole through Kelly. Kelly frowns. She always considered Harriet a friend.
“Are you available for tea?” Polly asks, not seeming to notice the sudden tension in the room. Harriet turns back to Polly, smiling.
“For you? Of course. Mind if I-”
“Call Bianca? Not at all. Tell her to meet us at Celia’s place.”
Celia’s teashop is crowded this time of day, with customers milling around and looking at the strange assortment of decorations and merchandise that Celia has stashed around the edges. Kelly hasn’t been to Celia’s before, and is fascinated by the fact that, while there are many normal customers, it would appear that a majority of her customers are St. Trinian’s women. She doesn’t remember all their names, but she recognizes them, vaguely, and she’s seen photographs of a few.
“Celia’s is sort of a meeting place for St. Trinian’s women,” Polly explains, weaving between the chairs and tables. “Most everyone meets here at least once.”
“I thought Celia had to stay at Peaches’,” Kelly asks, confused. Harriet frowns up at her, but Kelly ignores her. She doesn’t want to explain the whole attempted-assassination thing, not just yet. Besides, Polly was always better at making everything sound reasonable, while Kelly would just wind up making people panic.
“Peaches wanted her to stay, but Celia pointed out that a teashop full of St. Trinian’s women was probably just as safe as a mansion full of them. Bianca, hello!” Polly says, redirecting her attention to Bianca, who is sitting at a corner table. She leans down and pecks Bianca on the cheek, shifting swiftly so Harriet can sit down next to her.
Bianca looks good and, much like Harriet, better than she did at St. Trinian’s. Bianca never looked half as miserable or stressed as Harriet did, but Kelly could see a strained look come upon her at times, and she knows Bianca was involved in whatever Polly was setting up in their final year. Now she looks relaxed, her hair pulled into a sloppy bun and wearing a cute dress. Kelly envies her ease. She feels an itch between her shoulder blades.
Kelly sits down across from them, turning her chair so the back is against the wall, and nods at Bianca, who lifts her chin quickly in greeting. Polly gives them all a vague smile, and says, “I’ll go get a kettle. What tea do you all want?”
They give her their orders, and Polly walks away. Kelly watches her go, feeling suddenly nervous.
“Now there’s a sight I ain’t seen in years,” Bianca says, laughter in her voice. Kelly looks over at her sharply. Harriet and Bianca are sitting side to side, their hands laced together on top of the table.
“What?” Kelly asks, confused. She looks down at their hands, studying them. She had wondered if they would ever get together. She wonders when they did, and what part of the world she was hiding in when she missed it.
“You, looking after her. You always had one eye on her at St. Trinian’s. Could never tell if it was because you wanted to see if she was watching you, or if it was because you couldn’t bear to look away,” Bianca says idly, smirking. She has a knowing look, and Kelly doesn’t like it.
Harriet gives Bianca an amused look, and then turns her smile on Kelly. It’s dimmer than the one she once offered Kelly, but it’s considerably warmer than her greeting at the University. “Ignore her. How’ve you been, Kelly?”
“Oh, you know,” Kelly says, shrugging. “Better question is where I’ve been.”
“Gone, that’s all we need to know,” Bianca says.
Kelly feels like there is a secret conversation going on that she knows nothing about. Between Harriet’s frosty greeting and Bianca’s liquid mood, she knows that something is going on that she isn’t aware of. She made an excellent spy because she had a spy’s instincts, and they’re all screaming at her right now. Something is wrong.
It seems like something is always wrong since she came back.
“Polly never did tell us why you left. She just said you had to go,” Harriet explains apologetically. She gives Bianca a sharp look, and Bianca sighs.
Kelly shifts, glancing over to watch Polly for a moment. She’s chatting with Celia at the counter, looking at ease. Celia was one of Polly’s best friends, too, she remembers now. They always worked together on plans. Polly seems to be taking her time, so Kelly looks back at Harriet and forces herself to relax. She knew these two. She considered them friends. She kept an eye on them.
“Polly tells me you’re studying music, Harriet?” Kelly says, knowing the moment it’s out of her mouth that it isn’t an elegant way to change the subject, but it will have to do. Thankfully, Harriet brightens instantly.
“Composition, mostly, but my adviser tells me I have a gift for conducting, too. I’m to be the guest conductor at our concert in a few days,” Harriet says, grinning. She turns to wink at Bianca. “Bianca is dreading it, of course. She hates Romantic music.”
Bianca wrinkles her nose. “Doesn’t make sense, is all. I’ll still be there, cheering you on.”
“Just don’t bring the sign this time. It isn’t a footie match,” Harriet teases.
Kelly raises her eyebrows. “She brought a sign?”
Harriet starts giggling, a charming sound that Kelly had forgotten. She laughed so little, and when she did, she was always swift to hide it. Kelly likes this new Harriet, the one that doesn’t cringe away, the one that has fewer reasons to be angry. “She did! My first orchestra concert, I had a solo, and right as I begin to play, this hideous, glittery sign pops up in the first row. I was mortified.”
“You loved it,” Bianca snorts.
“I couldn’t get glitter out of my clothes for a month,” Harriet corrects, but she squeezes Bianca’s hand anyway. Kelly smiles at them.
“And what are you doing right now, Bianca?” she asks. She shoots a quick glance over at Polly, but she’s still talking with Celia. She isn’t smiling anymore. She looks irritated. Kelly frowns, but Bianca sighs loudly, dragging her attention back.
“I work in a bookstore, if you can believe it,” Bianca says, rolling her eyes. “It’s temporary.”
“She’s working on a record,” Harriet adds.
“I’m gonna be the next Ms. Dynamite,” Bianca says proudly. “My producer says so, anyway. I think she’s just hoping I will be so that she can actually move out of her rubbish flat.”
Kelly doesn’t think she actually knows any of Ms. Dynamite’s music, so she just nods. “That sounds like fun.”
“Blud, sounds like hard work! But I’m up for it. We’re almost done recording, and then we’ll start showing it to the labels, see if any of them want me.”
“Do you do any collaborations?” Kelly asks, gesturing at the two of them. “I mean, you’re both writing music…”
Harriet opens her mouth to say something, but Bianca bursts into laughter. “Have you heard any of her stuff?” she demands. Harriet gives Bianca a look, but Bianca ignores her.
“No, not yet,” Kelly admits. “Does Polly have any recordings? I could-”
“Polly should have a few mp3s,” Bianca interrupts. “Listen to ‘Zero One One Two Three Five Eight’. Then tell me how I’m supposed to collaborate.”
Harriet huffs out a laugh. “She’s ridiculous,” she says to Kelly confidingly, as if Bianca weren’t sitting right next to her, as if Bianca didn’t have one arm tossed casually over her shoulders. “And easily intimidated.”
Bianca lets out a squawk of outrage, but then Polly is standing at the table, holding a kettle and looking furious. Kelly starts to stand up, worried, but Polly glares at her quickly, one sharp look, and she sinks back down.
“Were you going to tell me that you spoke to Najwa this afternoon?” she says sharply.
Kelly looks up at Polly, astonished, but Polly is focusing entirely on Harriet, scowling. Kelly turns her chin to look at Harriet. She… doesn’t look shocked. Or repentant. Or anything, really, because she’s suddenly blank, and Kelly forgot Harriet could do that.
“Of course,” Harriet says evenly. “Bianca needed to be here.”
“She’s alive,” Polly says.
“MI7 has its own agenda,” Harriet agrees. “And they have the ear of the government, and thus, the media.”
Kelly squints at her. “Why do you know this?” she asks. She shouldn’t know any of this. She shouldn’t know about MI7, but she says it casually, as if she’s known all along. Kelly looks over at Polly. “Did you tell her?”
Polly’s scowl is ferocious, but it’s Harriet that answers. “Of course not. Polly told me nothing for three years. Najwa called me this afternoon and explained everything.”
Polly slams the kettle down on the table. Kelly sees Celia look over, but she waves a hand, trying to let her know that they’re fine, that Polly isn’t going to explode and destroy the entire teashop. She hopes.
“Over an unsecure line?” Polly hisses.
Harriet stares at her for a moment, and then stands up. She’s a tiny woman, was a tinier girl, and Polly is almost six feet tall, so she looks even smaller. But she gets up in Polly’s space, shoving between Polly and the table and looking just as furious as Polly. “You listen to me, Polly. I may not a tech genius like you, but I know how to secure a line when a woman I haven’t seen in years contacts me and says she’s in danger. She taught me better. You taught me better. St. Trinian’s taught me better. Now do you want to hear her message for you or not?”
Kelly smirks down at her lap. Harriet and Polly’s friendship was always founded on constant arguing. It’s good to know that some things never change.
Polly stares down her nose at Harriet, and then takes a very deliberate step back. “I… apologize,” Polly says slowly. Everyone looks at her in surprise. Polly almost never apologizes. “It’s been a rough week.”
Harriet nods once and then sits back down. Bianca throws her arm back over Harriet’s shoulders, looking disturbed. Apparently she didn’t know about Harriet’s phone call either. Polly lets out a deep breath, and then sits next to Kelly. Celia appears seconds afterward, smiling brightly and passing around teacups.
“If you need anything, like, just call me over,” Celia says. She smiles at them all, pats Polly’s hand, and then walks swiftly back to the counter to greet a new customer. Kelly reaches over and grabs the kettle. She figures she might as well pour. She has nothing to add to the conversation yet.
“You tapped my mobile,” Harriet says, nodding her thanks to Kelly.
Polly shrugs one shoulder. “You’re on a list. We tapped them all.”
Now Kelly has something to say. She puts the kettle down. “She’s not on the list. Annabelle and I were never based in England.”
“You knew you weren’t the only operative keeping an eye on Trinian’s criminals,” Polly says cryptically. “Your list was about fifty women. I found other names while I was combing through MI7’s database a few weeks ago. When we add the other lists, there are maybe one hundred and forty. MI7 getting your list was just… the cream on top.”
Kelly wants to question her about these other operatives that she apparently knows enough about to get their lists, but Harriet says, “I resent being called a criminal.”
“Yeah, ain’t nothin’ criminal ‘bout what we do,” Bianca says. “Not much, anyway.”
“I didn’t say there was,” Polly says, spreading her hands out. “But the government is… less than pleased. Perhaps.”
Kelly looks at them in disbelief. “What in the world do you do that could get you on that sort of list?”
Harriet’s smile is sharp and edged, and Kelly realizes, quite suddenly, that Harriet’s relaxed demeanor comes through practice and acting, not truth. “We’re activists,” she says simply, and Kelly knows that at least four or five of the women on her list were activists, too. But their agenda didn’t coalesce with the government’s, and so they were relabeled. Often as terrorists, but then, Kelly worked on an international level.
“Did she tell you how she escaped?” Polly asks, dragging them back on track.
“I didn’t ask,” Harriet says. “It didn’t seem relevant. She said she was in danger, that we all were, and that rather dominated our discussion.”
Polly glances at Kelly, but Kelly shakes her head. This isn’t her conversation. This is for Polly and Harriet, clearly. If Najwa wanted to talk to her, she would have found a way. Polly taps her finger against the table once, twice, and then picks up her teacup. “What was her message to me?”
Harriet frowns. “She said ‘Chrome and Steel always give way to sand and dust’. I have no idea what that means.”
Polly looks down at her teacup, furrowing her brow in thought. Kelly glances at Bianca, who looks utterly bored at the entire thing. Kelly knows Bianca well enough, however, to know that she’s just covering her confusion at the entire thing. This is Geek business, and she and Bianca, despite their best friends being Geeks, were never Geeks themselves.
“Chrome and Steel was an old term for Hi-Tech Geeks, while Sand and Dust represented the Lo-Tech Geeks. It was used in the seventies, when that sort of thing was popular with the Geeks. Najwa taught it to me, a long time ago,” Polly explains.
“Oh!” Harriet says, lighting up. “I just always thought it was some sort of code you two used around me. I never understood what it meant.”
Polly’s frown deepens. “It was a code, of sorts. And I think she’s using it as a code now.”
“Not a very good code, innit?” Bianca says, waving her teacup around, tea sloshing over the sides. Polly and Harriet give her a look, and Bianca sighs. “I would have thought it really obvious. If Chrome and Steel are Hi-Techs, who were always a sort of symbol themselves of technology and computer nerdery, and Sand and Dust are Lo-Techs, or old-fashioned ways of learning and less tech-y interests, then doesn’t it stand to reason that Najwa is saying that technology will fall to the old ways?”
Harriet and Polly just stare at Bianca blankly. Kelly grins at her. “That’s brilliant, Bianca.”
“Everyone always thinks I’m dumb, just ‘cause I ain’t from the right part of town,” Bianca grumbles. “Swear down, mate, it’s fuckin’ annoying.”
“Bollocks,” Harriet breathes.
Polly jumps to her feet, nearly upsetting the table. Kelly stands up too, alarmed. She looks at Bianca, who looks bewildered. Harriet is grabbing her coat and tugging it on.
“Call Peaches,” Polly orders tightly, running toward the door. Celia sees her and scrambles over the counter, shouting an order to one of her baristas. “Tell her to get everyone out. Now.”
Kelly yanks her mobile out of her jeans, hitting speed dial five. She lifts her mobile up to her ear, running after Polly. She ignores the sound of the phone ringing. “What’s wrong?”
“It was a code,” Harriet says from behind her. Kelly glances over her shoulder. Harriet is following them, one hand wrapped around Bianca’s wrist. “Najwa was telling Polly they’d been compromised somehow.”
The phone rings out. Kelly shoves it into her jeans in frustration as they run through the crowds of people on the sidewalk, trying to get back to their car. They’d parked almost ten blocks away. She feels like she’s back in San Ignacio. “No answer,” she shouts to Polly, who is several people ahead of her.
“Try again,” Celia calls over to her. She darts between a person with a stroller and a man dragging a rolling suitcase. Kelly envies her her small size. She obediently redials, though. Kelly has spent two years doing whatever Annabelle told her to do. Before Annabelle, there was Celia and Polly. They were her operators for six years at St. Trinian’s, for every single heist, scam, plan, and madcap adventure. It doesn’t matter that she hasn’t seen Celia in three years. Once an operator, always an operator, and following her operator’s command is an instinct by now.
The phone goes straight to voicemail this time. “Went to voicemail, no ringing,” she shouts. She runs around the corner where they’d left the car. Polly tosses the keys to her. Kelly catches them in one hand, giving Polly a questioning look.
“You’re better at dangerous driving,” Polly says, flinging herself in the passenger seat. Kelly gets behind the wheel and forces herself to smile.
“You do drive like an old woman, Pol,” she says, turning the car on. She checks her rearview mirror. Harriet, Celia, and Bianca are squished in the backseat, Bianca looking distinctly uncomfortable with squeezing her six foot self into such a tiny space.
“Maybe because I actually want to be an old woman someday,” Polly grumbles. “Now go.”
Polly calls Peaches eight more times while they drive through London, trying and failing to avoid the worst of the traffic. It’s early evening in London, and the streets are busy. Bianca tries to call Taylor, but her phone just goes straight to voicemail, too. Celia says Anoushka isn’t answering either. Kelly narrowly avoids hitting some pedestrian while digging into her jeans. She yanks her mobile out and tosses it into the back to Harriet.
“Speed dial one,” she says, not taking her eyes from the road. “Try Annabelle.”
Polly has started trying to reach Chelsea and Chloe, alternating between the two. They’re both going straight to voicemail as well.
“Kelly,” Polly says tightly. “The kids were at the mansion.”
“Don’t even,” Kelly says. She takes a corner too sharply, clipping the curb. She hopes Polly wasn’t particularly attached to this car, though she suspects it actually belongs to Peaches. “They’re fine. They’re all fine.”
She speeds up anyway.
“No answer,” Harriet says. Kelly glances at her in the mirror. She looks ill. Celia and Bianca don’t look much better. “Were they all… were any of them planning on going out?”
Polly shakes her head. “Peaches and I have been trying to limit how many of us go out at once. It makes it easier to keep track of everyone.”
“And easier to hit us all at once,” Celia says quietly. “We should have known.”
Kelly wants to yell at them, because no, they shouldn’t have. It was never their job to know. It was hers. Hers and Annabelle’s. She doesn’t know how they got lazy so quickly. She doesn’t know why they thought they were safe. She bites her tongue. Now is not the time.
Polly’s phone rings.
Kelly jerks the wheel and nearly mows people down on the sidewalk, but manages to pull the car straight at the last moment. Polly pushes a button and lifts her mobile to her ear.
“Peaches,” she says in greeting.
Kelly can’t hear what is being said, just that Peaches sounds stressed but still calm. Of all the Posh-Totties, Peaches was always the least prone to panic. Kelly thinks it had something to do with how she was raised. Assassination attempts tend to make a person less concerned about how many calories were in salad dressing.
“We’ll be there in a few minutes. Keep an eye out,” Polly instructs, and hangs up. She takes a deep breath. “The mansion was bombed.”
Kelly stomps on the accelerator.
Despite what Polly said, the mansion doesn’t look horrendous. Yes, one side of it is crumbling and on fire, but Kelly went to St. Trinian’s, and she has seen worse.
“The bomb was small,” Kelly announces as they pull up the driveway. She tries to examine the house, but it’s difficult to analyze bomb wreckage when one is driving. “Probably unidirectional. It was designed to scare, not kill.”
“Well, that’s great,” Bianca says sarcastically. “Good to know bombs have a purpose beyond murderin’.”
“We made bombs while we were at St. Trinian’s, Bianca,” Harriet points out quietly. “We were never going to murder anyone.”
Kelly stops the car. Polly is out the door before she even turns it off, jogging over to where she can see Peaches and the others gathered. Kelly watches her grab the kids and pull them into her arms. She gets out of the car and walks over to where Annabelle is standing, a few feet from the others.
“What’re we looking at?” she asks, trying to focus and ignore the fact that her friends are all there, covered in soot and looking decidedly worse for wear. She went away for three years to avoid seeing that. If she takes a look now, she knows she’ll fall apart.
Annabelle points at the side of the house that is still on fire, though it’s dwindling quickly. “The bomb was located in your bedroom,” she says softly. “I didn’t get a long look at it, but it was on a timer. Small. It wasn’t loaded with shrapnel or anything. Low explosive. Probably black powder.”
“Amateur?” she asks, squinting at the flames. She needs to get a closer look.
“We were meant to think so,” Annabelle says. “But how many amateurs can time it that perfectly? Or make sure that it would do so little damage?”
Kelly raises her eyebrows, gesturing at the house. “I wouldn’t call that so little damage.”
Annabelle shakes her head and crosses her arms. “It could have been a lot worse. No one was hurt. The fire did more damage than the bomb itself. Trust me, Kelly. I know bombs.”
She looks over at Annabelle, surprised, but she isn’t meeting her eyes. Kelly is almost certain that she kept Annabelle away from the bombs she had to defuse while they were on the run. She’s definitely sure that Annabelle was never around the ones she couldn’t defuse. And she knows, knows that Annabelle never saw the two bombs she built. She may have dragged Annabelle down with her, but she kept her as safe as she could. She kept her as innocent as possible.
But then, she left Annabelle alone for long stretches of time. She can’t really be sure of what Annabelle did during that time, or of what was done to Annabelle. She came back one too many times to find their hotel room empty, unconscious bodies on the floor.
“Everyone’s all right,” Peaches says, walking over. She isn’t smiling. It’s disconcerting. Kelly looks instinctively for Polly, but Polly is sitting on the ground with Hannah and Hazel in her lap, Chloe’s head on her shoulder.
“Good,” Kelly says. “The kids?”
“Terrified,” Peaches says dryly. “Where should we go next?”
Kelly sighs and rubs her head. She wasn’t expecting to have to deal with this. She should never have thought they were safe, but at the same time, it’s London. It’s England. She’d wanted to leave all this at the border. “I don’t know yet. I need- I need to inspect the site.”
She walks away, not wanting Peaches to see her face. She thinks she’s about to cry, and that isn’t helpful at all. She chokes back the tears and goes through the front door. The smoke is thick, so she throws open all the windows. It wouldn’t do to pass out from smoke inhalation right now. Once the smoke dissipates somewhat, she braves the stairs.
Flames are flickering on the walls, but Kelly has been through fires before. She has walked into burning houses before. She has set fires before. She isn’t afraid of this. She knows what she’s doing.
Her bedroom is destroyed, of course. The bed is fried, and there is a hole in the wall where the bomb punched through it. Pieces of the bomb are all around the room. Pipe bomb, which Kelly expected. She toes the wreckage of her dresser.
“God, took you long enough,” someone says behind her. Kelly doesn’t turn around. She doesn’t need to. She would know that voice anywhere. She rarely met the woman, but she heard her voice for three years over the phone. She took orders from her. She reported to her, and she lied to her.
“Hello, Beth,” she says.
Beth Hardwick was her handler. She’s also the woman that arrested her when she returned to England, intent on finally taking down MI7. She’s the woman that hit her, that spit on her, that hooked her up to jumper cables and went to town. Kelly isn’t likely to forget her any time soon.
Kelly stares at her bed, refusing to turn and give Beth the power. To her satisfaction, she hears a soft sigh and the near silent shuffle of shoes as Beth walks around until she’s standing just in front of Kelly.
Beth doesn’t look like anything special. She keeps her light brown hair in a pixie cut, which accentuates her narrow, vulpine face but doesn’t make her instantly attractive. She’s small, probably about Celia’s height, though she carries herself as if she were taller. Her face is dusted with freckles, which makes her look younger and more innocent, and Kelly knows that Beth loves that. When they were friendly, when Kelly had to swallow Beth’s casual sociopathy with a smile, Beth used to brag about how so many people underestimated her because she looked so fragile.
“I knew you would come running if I threatened your friends,” Beth says, smiling. She winks at Kelly and moves to sit on the incinerated bed. It crunches beneath her slight weight. “What I should have known was that getting a former Head Girl to turn against her schoolmates would be next to impossible. Shame on me.”
“You always gave yourself too much credit,” Kelly agrees.
Beth’s eyes flash with irritation briefly, but then she’s back to looking placid. “I still hold out hope, Kelly. Maybe I just didn’t give you the right incentive last time.”
Kelly snorts and crosses her arms. She doesn’t want to be talking to this woman. She wants to be back outside with Annabelle, discussing what to do next. She wants to sit next to Polly and put her head on the other shoulder. She wants to ask Peaches if she has any safe houses that are actually safe. Instead, she says, “Money was never going to get me to switch sides, Beth. St. Trinian’s girls have no loyalty outside each other.”
Beth’s soft smile turns shark-like. “It’s cute that you think that,” she says. “But I know that isn’t true. Anybody will turn if I offer the right prize.”
“And what do you think you could offer me, that would make me walk away?” she asks, curious despite herself. Kelly knows herself well enough to know that if she didn’t give up on her friends and her school after three years of nearly getting killed, nothing Beth could say would appeal to her, but she wonders what Beth has made of her. Beth is intelligent, and very good at reading people. She wouldn’t work for MI7 if she weren’t. But Kelly doubts that she could ever get a real read on her, simply because Kelly never showed her her real self.
“Your life,” Beth says.
Kelly laughs. “Oh, Beth. If you knew me even a little, you know I would die for my friends.”
Beth’s shark smile grows wider. “It was worth trying. I didn’t think that would tempt you, not really. You’re too self-sacrificing, Kelly Jones. Always willing to be the martyr. You gave all of yourself to that school, didn’t you? That’s why you became Head Girl. Because it was more important than you, in your head.”
“St. Trinian’s is important,” Kelly says. “It shelters girls and women that the world isn’t ready for.”
“It creates young terrorists,” Beth corrects.
“One man’s terrorist is another woman’s freedom fighter,” Kelly quotes. “A smart woman said that once.”
“A crazy woman. One that you love and admire,” Beth says. She stands up and walks back over to Kelly, looking up at her. “Here’s my deal, Kelly. You may care very little about your own life, and I actually respect that, but I sincerely doubt that you’re as blasé about your friends’ lives. My deal is that you come back to MI7, and I won’t kill them all, one by one. You come back and work for me, and I won’t have a sniper pick off Peaches from one hundred yards away. You come back, and I won’t poison Celia’s secret stash of tea. You come back, and I won’t cut the brake lines to Annabelle’s car. You come back, and Polly won’t wind up dead in a back alley. It’s that simple. Think about it.”
Beth smiles brightly at Kelly, and then turns and walks over to the door. Kelly turns this time, following her with her eyes. Beth pauses in the doorway and turns around. “Incidentally, do you remember that rogue operative I had you track down, what was her name, Lois Stewart?”
“She blew up a children’s school in Chile,” Kelly says. She still has nightmares about it. “She blew it up because I was chasing her, and she needed a distraction.”
“Oh, Kelly,” Beth sighs, looking pityingly at her. “Did you really believe that? Did you really believe the whole rogue operative story in the first place?”
Kelly blinks. “She- what? What do you mean?”
“That school was used for revolutionary meetings in the evening. MI7 needed it gone. We assigned it to Lois, and then we needed Lois to disappear. We are willing to go to any length to accomplish our mission. Any length at all.”
Beth blows her a kiss, and walks through the door. Kelly stares blindly at the space, confused and terrified. She remembers chasing Lois, a gun in her hand. She remembers Lois running through a school and pushing a trigger, and getting thrown back by the concussive force. She remembers Annabelle finding her and dragging away from the police officers and firefighters and the screaming, crying parents holding tiny bodies to their chests.
Kelly remembers tracking down Lois three days later and putting a bullet through her brain. MI7 training at its best.
Kelly looks up, the room blurry through her tears. She would know Polly anywhere, though. Crying, drunk, blind, or dead, she’d know Polly. She swallows three times and wipes her eyes. She knows what Beth is going to do next.
“Call Miss Fritton and tell her to evacuate,” she says, her voice harsh. “They’re going to blow up St. Trinian’s.”
Kelly stares. They didn’t use a small bomb this time.
The school is falling down, one entire side just… gone. The other half is on fire. The lawn is covered with screaming girls, crying girls, girls who aren’t moving. There are teachers scrambling, shouting orders. Some of the older girls appear to be giving orders, too.
There are no police, no firefighters.
They don’t come out for St. Trinian’s.
They’ve always had to rely on themselves.
Polly flings herself out of the car, running through the headlights. The sun is setting, and soon it will get cold. There are clouds threatening rain. Kelly hears the back doors slam and assumes that Bianca, Harriet, and Celia have gotten out of the car. If she looks in her rearview mirror, she’s sure she could see Peaches getting out of the limo with the other Posh-Totties and Annabelle, and behind them, Taylor’s banger car with her and Andrea. But she doesn’t look at them, because she’s too busy staring at the school.
Her school is burning down.
There is a sharp rap on the window. Kelly turns, startled. Miss Fritton is standing there, blood on one side of her face.
“We need you, girlie,” Miss Fritton says simply, and it’s enough to get Kelly moving. Miss Fritton needs her, and so does her school.
When she opens the door, she immediately chokes on the smoke. It’s much thicker here than it was at the safe house. It tastes different, too. This wasn’t a pipe bomb using black powder. This was something much bigger and much more sophisticated. She reaches back in the car and pulls out a bottle of water. She rips off a strip of her shirt, soaks the fabric, and wraps it around her face. She looks around, sees Anoushka, and tosses the water bottle to her. She’ll know what to do with it.
Kelly surveys the grounds, trying to figure out where to start. She sees Matron and jogs over.
Matron is holding one arm stiffly against her side, but she’s still leaning over a girl and wiping her face using her apron. The girl’s face is covered in blood. She looks maybe thirteen. Kelly doesn’t know her. She rips her eyes away from the girl and looks at Matron. “Where do you want me?” she asks.
Matron doesn’t question Kelly’s presence, never takes her eyes off the girl in front of her. “There are still girls inside,” she says, her accent stronger in stress.
Kelly clenches a hand. “Get someone to see to your arm,” she says, and then gets up and runs as fast as she can.
St. Trinian’s girls prepare for disaster. In their years they learn how to fight fires, how to stack sandbags against floods, how to prepare antidotes for poisons. St. Trinian’s girls build warning systems, create alarms, learn how to fight for their lives because they know that someday they may have to. St. Trinian’s girls keep gas masks by their beds and suitcases underneath them, always ready to get out. They’re survivors; if it wasn’t bred into them, they’re explicitly trained for it.
No one could have prepared for this; no one could have trained for it.
Kelly spots Polly sitting in front of a tiny redheaded girl, maybe twelve or thirteen. “There are still girls in there!” she shouts, and Polly turns, drops a kiss on the girl’s forehead, shouts something over to Taylor, and runs after Kelly.
The entrance is demolished, but the walls around it are gaping, and Kelly wiggles her way into the school, Polly and Taylor not far behind her.
“I’ll take the dorms,” she shouts to Polly and Taylor. “Taylor, take the first floor, Polly, the ground.”
She doesn’t wait to see if they’ll listen to her. She has three flights of stairs to climb, and she’s pretty sure at least one of them will be gone, blasted away.
She gets up two flights of stairs before she finally comes to one that’s mostly gone, and of course it’s the one that leads directly to the dorms. There’s another one that leads to the third floor, but it’s farther away and closest to what Kelly thinks was the blast site, on the side of the school that was mostly just offices and meeting rooms. She bites her lip, trying to figure out what to do, when she feels someone next to her.
It’s Annabelle. “If I lift you, you can just reach the part that’s still there,” she yells, her voice wrecked by smoke. Kelly nods, not wasting time talking or arguing. Annabelle laces her hands together, Kelly puts her foot in it, and she’s flying through the air. She grabs the edge of the stairs, the fire licking just a few feet from her hands, and hauls herself up. It isn’t graceful or pretty, but it works. Then she runs, because there isn’t much time left, and if there are girls still up there, there may not be any time at all.
The first three dorms are empty, an mp3 player somehow still playing on, the sound of Tinie Tempah squeaking out of the speakers. Kelly checks under the beds, in the closets, in the rafters, but no one is there. She heads for Dorm D as fast as she can, knowing if anyone is trapped up here, they’re probably there. Dorm D is the most isolated of the four dorms, the one that people forget.
She reaches the door, but it’s blocked by fire. Through the flames, she can see a probable fourth form and fifth form huddled together, crying loudly. Kelly yells, and they look up.
“Hold on!” she shouts, and turns and runs back down the hall to Dorm A. She grabs two blankets, and then darts over to the showers, soaking them in water. By the time she gets back to Dorm D, the two girls are standing as close as they can stand to the fire, looking anxious. Kelly chucks the wet blankets through the fire.
“Wrap those around you and run through,” she instructs. The younger girl gives her a terrified look, but the older one shoves one of the sopping blankets at her and begins to wrap herself up.
“You’ll be all right,” she just barely hears the older one say. “That’s Kelly Jones. She’s going to save us.”
Kelly hopes she’s right.
The girls wrap themselves up and then, one at a time, dart through the flames. They look shocked when they get through all right, but Kelly grabs them and hustles them down the hall. She can hear a groaning in the walls. The place is about to collapse.
She reaches what used to be the stairwell and blinks in surprise. Where the stairwell was there’s now a ladder. Annabelle is still standing on the floor below, wielding a fire extinguisher at any encroaching flames. Kelly shouts down to her, “I’ve got some kids with me!” and Annabelle nods, immediately setting the fire extinguisher to the side and bracing herself to grab the kids.
Kelly doesn’t give the girls time to think. She snatches the smaller one and shoves her as far down the ladder as she can. Annabelle reaches up and seizes the girl’s waist as soon as she can reach her, tugging her off the ladder. She puts the girl on the ground and points her toward the as yet unburned stairs. She turns and holds her arms up for the next one, and Kelly all but pushes her down. When Annabelle gets her on the floor, she thrusts the girl toward her friend, and then looks back up at Kelly, eyes wide.
Kelly grabs the ladder and slides herself down, an expert at getting down ladders quickly at this point in her life. She jumps the last two feet, landing next to Annabelle. Annabelle wraps an arm around her waist and drags her over to the stairs.
The groaning is getting louder.
“Polly and Taylor?” she wheezes. The fabric around her face has long since dried up, and it isn’t doing much to block the smoke anymore. She glances over and sees the girls hovering anxiously, holding hands and staring at her with desperation.
Annabelle shakes her head. “Taylor’s out, I don’t know about Polly.”
Kelly freezes, nearly knocking Annabelle over. “Polly’s still in here?”
“I don’t know! I came to find you!”
Kelly shoves against Annabelle, frantic. The school is literally sagging, and Kelly knows it’s about to collapse. If it collapses and Polly is still in here, she’ll never forgive herself. She needs to find her.
Annabelle spins her around and slaps her, hard. Kelly recoils, stunned, but Annabelle’s eyes are fierce. “She can take care of herself, and if you go after her, you will die. Now come on!”
Kelly hesitates, but Annabelle’s right. They need to go. She rushes to the kids and pushes them ahead of her, guiding them through the smoky maze of the school that she could still walk through blindfolded and drunk.
They stagger out of the school moments later, squeezing through the hole in the wall, and stumble out onto the lawn. There are still no police, though Kelly suspects they’ll start wondering about the amount of smoke coming from St. Trinian’s at some point. It isn’t the first time that St. Trinian’s has burned, but this has to be the worst yet.
Kelly looks around her. She sees Taylor, lying on the lawn with Andrea kneeling by her, crying and trying to wipe the soot from her nose and mouth. If she looks around, she thinks she sees Tania and Tara carefully directing a bucket brigade, fruitlessly trying to put out the fire. She sees Peaches yelling at someone on her mobile, carefully tucked between her ear and shoulder, even as she presses her hands against an older girl’s chest, her fingers covered in blood. Miss Fritton is a ways away, her dotty smile gone and replaced with a grim frown as she points and yells and generally keeps people moving, forces them to have a purpose so they can’t panic.
She doesn’t see Polly.
“I can’t-” she croaks, her voice shattered. She looks desperately at Annabelle, waving a hand at the crowd.
Annabelle knows what she means. “She’s here somewhere,” Annabelle insists.
“Kelly! Annabelle!” someone shouts through the huddled masses, and Kelly can just make out Celia heading toward them. Kelly waves an arm, coughing as she moves. She presses her hand to her mouth, trying to muffle the sound.
Celia walks up to them, wiping a hand over her forehead. She looks exhausted. Kelly imagines that only twenty minutes have passed since they arrived, but this is enough to wear anyone down.
“We need you over with Matron,” Celia says. “She’s, like, dealing with the worst cases. You two have triage experience, right?”
Annabelle immediately nods and goes to where Matron has managed to set up a little tent out of what looks like pieces of the shed and people’s blankets. Kelly hesitates.
“I’m- I don’t know as much as Annabelle,” she confesses, because while she can manage some things, she isn’t sure she’d know what to do with massive bleeding. Especially when the blood is from a little girl who wears a St. Trinian’s uniform.
“I don’t care if you don’t know as much as Annabelle,” Celia says bluntly. “You know enough to keep these girls together until Peaches can convince the emergency services that this isn’t a prank call. Now go.”
She has no idea how much time passes. Annabelle, Matron, and Miss Cleaver take all the girls who are bleeding badly, but Kelly knows how to splint bones well enough, so she gets them. She doesn’t know what happened at St. Trinian’s, how the bomb exploded or where everyone was, but she can figure some of it out. They’d been able to reach Miss Fritton before the bomb went off, so they must have been evacuating when it happened. Looking at the scrapes and cuts, Kelly thinks the bomb- more accurately, bombs, now that she thinks about it- was loaded with shrapnel. Glass, mostly, she determines. She’s pretty sure that most of the bombs were on the ground floor, but at least two were specifically placed, one at the stairs to the third floor in order to trap girls in their dorms, and another by the door, to trap everyone else.
She forces those thoughts to the side and instead focuses on smiling and looking confident for the crying children around her.
She’s worked on too many girls to count when she hears sirens and sees flashing lights out of the corner of her eye. She ignores them, focusing on the pale Emo girl she’s kneeling in front of, trying to figure out how best to set a shattered patella. She’ll walk with a cane, at least, after today.
“Kelly,” Chelsea says in her ear. Kelly ignores her, hands hovering over the knee. “Kelly, come on. The ambulances are here.” Chelsea reaches for her, and Kelly swats her away. If she doesn’t do this right, the girl will be using a wheelchair for the rest of her life instead of a cane. “Kelly. Stop it. Come on.”
“Fuck off, Chelsea,” she snaps, unable to help herself. The Emo girl smiles weakly at her and grabs her hand.
“It’s all right,” she says softly. “You can go. I’ll be all right.”
Kelly stares at her. The girl smiles again and nods. Chelsea puts her hands on Kelly’s shoulders, and it’s enough to make Kelly want to scream. But she can’t, because an Emo girl who is probably sixteen or seventeen is trying to be brave for her, so she needs to be brave for this Emo girl.
“Okay,” she says. “All right.”
She stands up, nods at Matron, and walks out of the makeshift tent. She can hear Chelsea following her, but she doesn’t really care. She just keeps walking. The air still smells like smoke, but now she can smell blood, too, and she can’t get the smell out of her nose, even though she’s walked out of the tent. She presses a hand to her mouth and runs. She manages to get to the edge of the lawn before she leans forward and throws up, bracing her hands on her knees.
She throws up again and starts to fall forward, but Chelsea is there and reaches out to catch her before she can fall into her own vomit. Chelsea lowers her down gently, pulling Kelly against her, and she drops her head into her hands.
“Fuck,” she says. She closes her eyes and takes a breath. Everything still smells like blood and smoke and vomit. “Fuck,” she says again, because it’s the only thing she can say.
“St. Trinian’s fell,” Chelsea says, voice empty. “While you were working. Just collapsed.”
“She was already groaning when I was inside,” Kelly says. “I’m not surprised.”
Chelsea doesn’t say anything for a long moment, just holds Kelly against her. Kelly tries to synch her breathing with Chelsea’s, but fails. She can’t seem to catch her breath. She suspects she should probably see one of the EMTs, but she can’t bring herself to drag their attention away from the real victims.
“Do you know,” Chelsea says suddenly, “in my final year at St. Trinian’s, I ended up doing a lot of research into St. Trinian’s history. This school- this building- has been around since 1792. It’s been remodeled a dozen times since then, of course, and there were several years where the school had to use another building, but still. This school has been burned somewhere around twenty times. It has been besieged. It has flooded, been struck by lightning, nearly been blown over by freak winds- but it’s still stood. It’s weathered it all.”
“And now it’s fallen,” Kelly whispers. Tears prick her eyes, but she refuses to let them fall. If she cries, that will be Beth’s victory, and she won’t let her have it.
“We’ll rebuild,” Chelsea says softly, pulling Kelly closer. “We always do.”
They sit quietly for a while, until Kelly remembers how to breathe again. Chelsea doesn’t say anything else, just sits with her and watches the night light up with ambulance lights and fire.
They sit like that for a long time, and then Bianca flops down next to them.
“They’ve been able to run a report,” she says. Kelly twists her face to look at her. She looks exhausted, and her clothes are filthy.
“How bad is it?” Chelsea asks.
Bianca sighs and rubs a hand over her face. “Five teachers and seven students killed. Way too many injuries to count, but most of them are expected to make it.”
“Anyone we know?” Kelly asks. It doesn’t matter. They’re still dead. But it would be good to know if she knew the faces. If she sat with them and talked. If she blew off their classes. For grieving purposes.
“Miss Heferton and Miss Wilson. Miss Maupassant. I didn’t know the other two.” Bianca pauses and clears her throat. “Georgiana died. And Grace and Irene.”
Kelly didn’t know any of them particularly well, but she did know them. She looks at Bianca, who is swallowing almost convulsively. “You knew them, didn’t you,” she says. It isn’t a question.
“Georgiana was in FAR with me and Chelsea,” Bianca explains. “It was… a student activism group we started the year after you left. Grace joined the next year. She helped us build the Genealogies of Silence memorial- she was wicked smart with rock. Irene joined too. I worked with them a lot. They were- they were great girls.”
“They died helping others escape,” says Polly, wedging herself between Kelly and Bianca. Kelly wrenches herself away from Chelsea and yanks Polly into an awkward hug.
“Oh, thank God,” she says, forgetting to not cry. “I didn’t know- Annabelle couldn’t tell me-”
“I’m all right,” Polly says, hugging her just as tightly. “I’m right here. I’m safe.”
Kelly knows, right then, what she has to do. She looks over Polly’s shoulder and sees girls holding each other up, the older ones putting on a stiff upper lip, the younger ones trying and failing to mimic the older ones. She can see Matron sobbing into Miss Fritton’s shoulder, covered in dirt and blood and soot, generally looking like she’d been through a war zone. She can see Miss Cleaver holding up the Bursar and a first former, spine straight and chin up. Beyond them, she can see police and firefighters and EMTs doing their job far, far too late.
She presses a swift kiss to Polly’s temple, taking a deep breath. She still smells like Polly underneath all the grime. “I need to go do something,” she says, and lets go. She stands up and walks away.
In all the chaos, no one notices her get into the car and drive away.
Kelly may have decided that now was the time to destroy MI7, and she may have tossed her old mobile, but she never forgot Beth’s phone number, and she knows that Beth knows it. Given how obvious it is that Beth found a way to hack them, she isn’t surprised when Beth answers the phone with a gentle, coy, “Thought I’d be hearing from you, Miss Jones.”
“Cut the shit, Beth,” Kelly says, cradling the mobile between her ear and shoulder as she navigates the country roads. It’s been a long time since she’s driven through Barchester, let alone Barsetshire. The roads are long and winding, surrounded by farmland on every side. “I’m accepting your deal.”
“Yes, I thought you might. Where are you?”
“By Puddingdale,” Kelly says.
Beth sighs softly over the phone, a gentle huff of air. “That’s, what? An hour from London?”
“An hour and a half, but I’ll make it in forty-five minutes,” Kelly says. “Where do you want to meet to discuss the terms of my contract?”
“Trafalgar Square,” Beth says instantly. “By Nelson’s Column.”
“Fine,” Kelly says shortly. She just wants to get this over with.
“Your country appreciates your sacrifice, Kelly,” Beth laughs, and the phone goes dead. Kelly momentarily considers screaming at the silence, but settles instead for throwing the phone against the other side of the car. It hits the window with a sharp crack, and falls to the passenger seat.
It rings forty-three times on her drive to London. Kelly ignores them all.
Trafalgar Square is never empty, but there aren’t many people wandering around at ten pm, so Kelly settles on a bench and waits.
She doesn’t want to go back to MI7. She knows without a doubt that Beth won’t just release her as a field agent again. She’ll be kept close, with minders, forced to work on very specific things. With Beth watching just over her shoulder, Kelly doesn’t know how she’ll be able to skew information. Beth was never unintelligent. She was just far enough away to fool. It’s much easier to lie to someone thousands of miles away than someone attached to your hip.
But Kelly knows that she’ll be able to keep everyone safer if she goes back. Because right now, Beth is blowing up schools in order to get to her, and Kelly can’t protect them from that. She’s beginning to wonder if she was ever able to protect them from anything. If they even wanted protection.
She forces the thoughts aside. It’s too late now. In a minute, Beth will be here, and Kelly will be back at MI7, their St. Trinian’s woman sent to hunt down other St. Trinian’s women.
The night air is chilly, the clouds above still threatening rain. Kelly wraps her arms around herself, trying to keep warm. A minute passes, and then another. She frowns. Beth has always been very punctual. Normally she was waiting for Kelly, on the few occasions they met.
Kelly’s skin prickles with gooseflesh, and it isn’t the chill making them rise. Something is wrong, she knows suddenly. Beth was always waiting for Kelly. She was the sort of woman who liked to have the upper hand by getting there early so she was always first. She was in London already when Kelly called; there is no reason she wouldn’t already be here.
Kelly flings herself down to the ground as two things happen simultaneously: a gunshot rings out, the bullet embedding in the bench where she was just sitting, and a limousine comes roaring into Trafalgar Square, swerving erratically over to Kelly.
There is a second gunshot, but the limousine is suddenly in the way, the door swinging open. Peaches reaches out and grabs Kelly’s arm, yanking her in and yelling “Go, I’ve got her!” at John. Peaches covers Kelly with her body, keeping her low as bullets ping against the limo, the muffled sound of John cursing the only other noise.
After a long moment, Peaches rolls off of her but doesn’t bother getting off the floor of the limo. Kelly lifts herself up on her elbows to look over at Peaches. She has her hands over her face.
“Peaches-” Kelly begins, but Peaches raises one vicious finger.
“Don’t speak. I’m trying very hard not to lose my temper, and if you speak, I won’t be able stop myself from yelling at you.”
Kelly closes her mouth obediently. She drops off her elbows and just rests her forehead against the floor. She focuses on breathing.
After a moment, Peaches asks, “Do you even have your gun?”
Kelly hesitates, lifting herself back up, because she knows Peaches will not like the answer. “No. I didn’t- we were just going to see Harriet,” she replies. She can’t believe that was only this afternoon. It feels like days have passed, what with the two bombings. But in fact it’s only been about seven hours.
Peaches sighs and pulls her leg up to her chest. She tugs her trouser leg up, revealing an ankle holster and a gun. She unbuckles it the entire thing, holster and all, handing it to Kelly. “Here. If you go anywhere without it, I won’t be responsible for my actions. Or, better yet, Annabelle’s and Polly’s!” Her bright smile is terrifying.
Kelly rolls over and sits up, putting the ankle holster on. She pulls out the gun and inspects it, wrinkling her nose. “A Glock?” she asks.
Peaches sits up as well, running a quick hand through her hair to get it back in place. “Don’t you dare criticize my taste in firearms.”
After a moment, they both drag themselves into the seats. Kelly can feel Peaches studying her, but she ignores it. She licks her lips and waits for the inevitable dressing-down. She made a ridiculous mistake. She deserves it.
Instead, Peaches says, “I’m furious with you, but I’m glad you’re all right.”
Kelly relaxes slightly. “How did you find me?”
Peaches snorts. “Polly hacked into the GPS on your phone. I convinced her and Annabelle to finish evacuating the school so that they didn’t kill you right after someone else tried. I admit I came close. It was a near thing.”
“Thank you,” Kelly says softly, looking down at her hands. One knuckle is bleeding. She must have scrapped it against the ground when she ducked. There’s blood underneath her fingernails. She ignores it.
“I would die for you, Kelly,” Peaches says fiercely. Kelly really doesn’t have anything to say to that, so she doesn’t say anything at all.
They sit in silence for a while, and then Kelly realizes that they aren’t heading back to St. Trinian’s. They’re on the wrong roads. She frowns and glances at Peaches. “Where are we going?”
“My house,” Peaches says.
Kelly blinks. “Your house was blown up.”
Peaches looks at her, her smile fixed back in place and full of mischief. “No, no. My real house.”
Kelly thought their last house was huge, but it’s nothing compared to the monstrosity of this place. She stares at it in shock, and then looks at Peaches. “You live on Upper Belgrave Street?”
Peaches lets out a pleased laugh. “The entire Kaluwitharana family has lived here since the fifties. My great-grandmother really made the family fortune and turned us into respectable, upper-class criminals. I think she just got sick of dock smell.”
Peaches gets out of the car, stopping to talk to John. Kelly sees her give him a hug out of the corner of her eye, but she’s too busy staring at the house. Kelly came from a fairly affluent family herself, and she’s no stranger to money, but they still lived in a modest house in Wembley. She’s fairly certain her house could fit inside this one.
“Come on,” Peaches says, walking over to her. “Just because I didn’t kill you doesn’t mean I want to miss out on what Annabelle and Polly are going to do to you.”
“You’re a good friend, Peaches,” Kelly says, and she means for it to sound dry and sarcastic, but it comes out sincere instead. Peaches just looks at her sideways, flips her hair over her shoulder, and walks up to the front door, pulling out a key and letting herself in. Kelly follows after her, conscious that John is behind them both, watching everything, one hand on his gun.
The inside of the house is just as lovely as the outside, but Kelly doesn’t pay much attention to that because it’s loud inside. She watches as a group of girls run past, one girl still streaked with dirt, and glances at Peaches.
“They had nowhere to go,” Peaches says, shrugging and smiling. “It isn’t like we didn’t have the space for the ones who aren’t in hospital.”
Kelly starts to reply, but before she can she sees a blur of brown hair, and then Annabelle is simultaneously hugging her and yelling at her. Over Annabelle’s shoulder, she can see Polly standing a few feet away, her lips pinched into a straight line.
“You stupid, stupid bint,” Annabelle says, pulling back and shoving Kelly away. “You stupid- what were you thinking? You could have been killed.”
Kelly rubs the side of her nose, closing her eyes tight. “Beth made me a deal.”
“And you believed her?” Annabelle says incredulously, and she shoves Kelly again. Kelly takes it. Annabelle could hit her, and that would hurt far more than angry but gentle shoves. “I swear to God, you left your brain at the border.”
“I- yeah,” Kelly admits. “Maybe.”
“Jesus fucking Christ,” Annabelle breathes, and pulls Kelly into another hug. “If you ever do that again, I’ll kill you myself. You don’t get to run off by yourself, Kelly. You have a team. You’ve always had a team.”
Annabelle lets her go and rubs at her eyes. She looks wrecked, and it’s obvious that none of them have cleaned up since St. Trinian’s. Kelly looks over at Polly, who is standing straight and tall and very, very still. Kelly takes a few steps over to her, a bit frightened. A still Polly is an upset Polly, and she’s never seen her so unmovable.
“I’m sorry, Pol,” she says softly.
Polly stares at her for a moment, and then jerks her chin down and to the side. “We have to discuss our plan of action,” she says to the floor. “Go wash up. I’ll gather the others.”
She walks away before Kelly can say anything else.
Peaches brushes past her, John following and nodding as she issues orders and makes commands, and Annabelle comes to stand on Kelly’s side. “Come on,” she says. “Let’s go get a shower.”
Kelly follows her. There isn’t much else she can do.
Peaches has them gather in what she calls the parlour, but it looks like it could have a bloody tennis court in it if she wished. Kelly supposes it’s appropriate, though, considering how many people are gathered.
Andrea and Taylor are curled up together in an overstuffed armchair, Taylor looking distinctly bruised and Andrea’s hair still sopping from her shower. Chelsea, Chloe, and
Anoushka are pressed side to side on a loveseat that shouldn’t be able to hold all of them but somehow is. Yvette is sitting on the arm of the loveseat, draped around Chelsea and looking ill. Kelly imagines that she didn’t ever plan to deal with the St. Trinian’s level of disaster. Peaches and Polly are conferring in the corner, Polly gesturing sharply and Peaches smiling blithely, as though Polly weren’t verbally decimating her. Celia is handing out cups of tea to everyone, ever a hostess, while Harriet and Bianca sit huddled together on the sofa, plenty of space to spread out that they aren’t using.
In addition to the usual suspects, Miss Fritton is sitting ramrod straight in a wingback chair, looking empty and strangely old. Tania and Tara are sitting on the ground, Tania with stitches on her bared arm, Tara with two black eyes. There are two other girls sitting near them, girls that Kelly doesn’t recognize. One is slight and blonde, wearing the remains of a negligee and so probably a Posh-Totty. The other is even smaller, hair in a cloud of curls and frizz. They’re quiet, but the second one is whispering to the first, pointing with her chin at various people.
“Who’re they?” Kelly whispers to Annabelle, who is standing next to her.
“The blonde is Jemima, the Black girl is Alex,” Annabelle tells her. “They’re- third formers, by now, I think. They’re smart girls- they were instrumental in finding the Shakespeare manuscript.”
Kelly nods and smiles at them. They nod back at her, strangely serious for girls so young. Then again, Kelly thinks as she sits down next to Bianca, their school was just blown to pieces.
“Is that everyone?” Polly asks, looking around the room. She nods, apparently satisfied. “Let’s get started, then. Peaches?”
Polly cedes control of the room over to Peaches, moving to lean against the wall behind her. Peaches pauses for a moment, clearly thinking, and then nods to herself. “All right. For those of you not aware, MI7 is a governmental agency, much like MI5 and MI6. Unlike MI5, which specializes in domestic threats, or MI6, which specializes in the international, MI7 rather combines the two and tracks domestic groups that have been labeled international threats.”
“So, St. Trinian’s,” says Alex, tipping her head to the side. Kelly smiles to herself. Annabelle wasn’t kidding when she said the girl was smart.
“Precisely,” Peaches says. “St. Trinian’s alumnae are apparently just one of the groups that they track, but they are a significant one. Significant enough that they’ve had three operatives, that we know of, gathering intel and working against alumnae. One of whom was Kelly.”
Kelly allows herself to zone out while Peaches explains Kelly’s and Annabelle’s roles as double agents over the past three years, instead watching Polly. Polly is studying the ground, for the most part, occasionally nodding at something that Peaches is saying. She looks pale, much paler than usual. Paler than anyone else in the room, and Kelly thinks they probably all look a bit drawn at the moment. Kelly desperately wants to hug her, wants to tell her it will be all right, that she’ll fix this- but she thinks Polly would just wind up punching her at the moment. She wouldn’t blame her.
Kelly is a smart woman. She isn’t as smart as people like Polly or Harriet, of course, but she’s clever and cunning, and what she lacks in immediate book smarts she more than makes up for in her ability to weave together plans and read people accurately. She was an excellent spy for those very reasons. But she’s messed up more in the past week than she has in three years, and she can’t figure out why.
She knew she wasn’t safe. She knew Beth would come after her again, eventually, and everyone else knew it too, or they wouldn’t have been living in safe houses. But she keeps walking into traps that she’s too blind to see, and it’s bothering her. She couldn’t do anything about the bombs. She couldn’t have predicted that. But she could have predicted that Beth would rather kill her and tie up a loose end rather than allow Kelly back in MI7. She’d as good as said so when she met her at the house.
She’s been running on panic and desperation, and it’s compromising her judgment. She’s run on it before, but watching Polly stare at the ground makes her think that the quality is different now. There’s a lot more to fight for. There’s a lot more to lose.
“We think that MI7 managed to circumvent our security measures using the simplest, lowest tech possible,” Polly says, looking up. Kelly forces herself to focus on the conversation again. It appears to have reached new information. “We think they talked to the neighbors.”
“Really?” says Andrea. “You think it was something that simple?”
Harriet raises her hand awkwardly, and Polly smirks, nodding at her. Harriet clears her throat. “It was- Najwa said that Chrome and Steel would fall to Sand and Dust. She also used to emphasize the importance of talking to people directly, and that talking to people was the Lo-Tech, or Sand and Dust, way. I mean, your neighbors had to know that there was suddenly a large number of people living there, yeah?”
“They could have followed Polly after she escaped,” Taylor points out. She looks apologetically at Polly. “No offense, Polly, but it’s true. It’s a good way to figure out where someone lives.”
Polly shrugs one shoulder. “No offense taken. But they didn’t follow me. They never got the chance.”
“I think they were planning on blowing up St. Trinian’s for a while,” Kelly says slowly, trying to think. Everyone looks at her. “It was something Beth Hardwick- my handler- said to me. They’ve blown up a school before, because revolutionaries were using it at night for meetings. She said they would go to any length at all to accomplish their goal.”
“And if their goal is the elimination of the threat of St. Trinian’s women, it would stand to reason that someone might just be crazy enough to think that blowing up the entire school is a good idea,” Annabelle finishes. She nods. “It sounds like Beth.”
“But that doesn’t make any sense,” Harriet interjects, looking frustrated. “That sounds more like the endgame of your plan, not the middle part. Why would you bump up the final act?”
“If something forced you to move sooner than you wanted,” Alex says. “If the other side makes an unexpected move, and your endgame is shot to pieces.”
“Maybe not shot to pieces,” Polly says slowly. She walks over to the laptop on the coffee table and taps a few things into it. “But maybe better used to trap your opponents. The Grandmother used bombs in a lot of her attacks, and they all had a specific signature.” She clicks a few things, dropping to her heels in order to be in front of the computer. Kelly’s gut twists, because she thinks she sees where Polly is going with this. She thinks she knows MI7’s plan.
“The signature is the same on the bomb that hit the house and the one at St. Trinian’s,” Polly says finally. “And it’s the same the Grandmother used. They’re trying to frame Najwa.”
“But the world thinks she’s dead,” Celia points out. “Why would they resurrect her?”
“Maybe they didn’t,” Peaches says. “Maybe she resurrected herself and they were forced to change their plans. It makes sense. Why they would suddenly make St. Trinian’s just another move rather than their coup de grace? If they could frame one of the most notorious St. Trinian’s women ever for the bombing of a children’s school. It’s perfect.”
“It’s awful,” Miss Fritton says harshly, speaking for the first time. “They murdered children. Children.”
“They don’t see us as children,” Jemima says, looking over at her headmistress. She has a strong lisp. “They see us as terrorists.”
There is a long silence after that. Really, there isn’t anything they can say.
“So,” Kelly says finally. “MI7 figures out that Najwa is still alive. Maybe they genuinely thought she was dead, maybe it was just a political ploy, but whatever. Najwa’s alive, they know she’s alive, they need to figure out what to do and they decide to frame her for their crimes.”
“Precisely,” Polly says, picking up where Kelly left off. She gives Kelly a tight smile, the first real recognition she’s gotten from Polly in an hour. “They were probably going to kill Kelly and blame that on Najwa, too. A government employee, killed by the Grandmother. It makes her list of apparent crimes that much more impressive that no one will protest when they kill her.”
Harriet flinches, and Bianca says, “You really think they’re gonna kill her?”
“They have to,” Polly says. “That’s the real endgame, now. It’s the only way this story can end.”
“What do we do, then?” asks Chelsea, glancing around the room. “How do we stop it?”
“We can’t,” says Peaches. “Not with what we know right now. For all we know, they have a lengthy list of crimes and murders to pin on her. Or they could be done and moving into the final stages right now. We can’t know.”
“What we need to do is get someone on the inside,” says Harriet.
“We need to kidnap someone,” Taylor says, nodding at Harriet.
“So we need to set up a trap,” Polly concludes. “We need to lure them out where we can get them. We had the perfect opportunity when Kelly went to meet Beth, except she didn’t tell anyone what she was doing.”
She says it calmly, with no real emotion behind it, but Kelly can hear the hidden sharpness, the anger. Polly becomes more clipped when she’s making a point.
“I get it,” she snaps. “I fucked up. I’m sorry.”
“I don’t think you do get it,” Polly snaps back. Then she very visibly reins herself in and says, “But that’s neither here nor there. Kelly won’t work as bait anymore. MI7 will know we’re on to them.”
“Which leaves Najwa,” Harriet says. Polly glances at her, and Harriet raises her eyebrows. “That is where you were going with this, yes?”
“Yes,” Polly admits.
“Why Najwa?” asks Chloe. “Why can’t we pick someone else on the list, someone we actually have contact with?”
Peaches sits down on the arm of the loveseat next to Anoushka. “Because MI7 has two real objectives right now- Kelly and Najwa. They’re the two big names. Everyone else is either just out of their reach or too small to be bothered with just yet. With Kelly off the table, that only leaves Najwa.”
Chloe nods slowly. “I suppose it makes sense. How are we supposed to reach her, though?”
“Better still,” says Yvette, “how are you going to convince her?”
“She’s a St. Trinian’s girl, Yvette,” Anoushka says. She looks over at Kelly, gaze steady. “St. Trinian’s girls have no loyalty outside each other.”
It is, word for word, what she told Beth at the house. Kelly gives Anoushka a sharp look, but Anoushka only smiles enigmatically at her. She stares at her for a moment longer, but then Anoushka deliberately turns her head back to where Polly is telling Harriet to call Najwa.
“This isn’t going to work,” Annabelle says softly, so that only Kelly can hear her. “Even if Najwa will work with us, even if we manage to kidnap someone, they’re never going to speak with us. Not willingly, and I don’t think they’re really prepared to torture someone for information.”
“We don’t do that,” Kelly says harshly. They have both killed people in order to survive. Kelly has even executed a few. But they don’t torture people. They don’t. It’s her line in the sand.
“That’s exactly my point, Kelly,” Annabelle says.
Kelly ignores her. She doesn’t want to talk about this right now. One step at a time, and right now they have to find out if Najwa is on board.
“She’ll do it,” Harriet says, hanging up the phone.
Well. There’s that sorted.
Everyone settles into Peaches’ house. Kelly finally meets the famed Nimala Kaluwitharana, former head of the Kaluwitharana Syndicate and Peaches’ mother. She’s a charming woman, with a sharp sense of humor and canny eyes. Her husband, Suresh, is much more vacant behind his eyes, but Kelly thinks he’s just absentminded, not stupid. She also meets Grandma Punya and Grandpa Dharma, and Great-Grandmother Yuvani. Apparently, no one leaves the Kaluwitharana homestead until they die. Peaches’ brother, Chandra, is thankfully off at school.
“It’s an honor,” Kelly says, somewhat tongue-tied at meeting three former Syndicate leaders and two of their husbands. These women are legends; anyone with any knowledge of London crime knows about these women. And yet Yuvani doesn’t have any teeth left and refuses dentures because she claims they’re too expensive, and Punya knits ugly scarves out of cheap yarn, and Nimala flirts boldly with her husband in front of everyone, and suddenly they aren’t legends, they’re just people.
“The honor is ours,” Punya says, not looking up from her knitting. “I sent my Nimala to St. Trinian’s, and they housed her for seven years. It is only right we do the same for them.”
After everyone is squared away, tucked into beds and guards set, Peaches announces a planning session so that they can figure out how, exactly, to capture an MI7 operative. Kelly starts to follow them into the kitchen, but Polly stops her.
“Not you,” she says. “You and I have other things to which we must attend.”
Kelly thinks that they’ll be working on something related to their current situation, but instead she finds herself sitting on a bed across from Polly as she signs things at her.
“What did I just say?” Polly asks, setting her hands down.
“I really don’t think now is the time to brush-up on my BSL,” Kelly points out, but Polly glares at her so ferociously that she just sighs and says, “Something about houses?”
Polly lifts her hands and signs it again. Kelly squints at her hands, trying to follow the motions, but even though Polly is clearly going slowly for her, it’s too swift for her to catch more than one in four words.
“You have a house and a home?” she hazards, and Polly tips her face up to the ceiling in exasperation.
“I said, ‘I have four houses but only one home,’” Polly explains.
“I was close,” Kelly says.
“Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades,” Polly snaps, angry again, and Kelly is sick of this. She drops her hands in her lap in frustration.
“Are you ever going to just tell me what’s wrong, or am I supposed to guess? I know I fucked up earlier, I apologized, can we just move on?”
Polly looks incredulous. She, too, drops her hands into her lap, but unlike Kelly, she folds them together neatly. Kelly can see the white of her knuckles. “You expect me to move on? After you ran away from us and toward certain death? Yes, Kelly, that sounds exactly like something I would just forgive so easily.”
“But I didn’t run away from you!” Kelly argues. “I was trying to protect you! I’ve always just wanted to protect you!”
“I didn’t ask to be protected!” Polly snaps back. Kelly jumps to her feet, too angry to sit still. She doesn’t know how Polly can look so placid when Kelly just wants to wring her neck.
“You don’t have to ask! You aren’t supposed to ask. It’s just- it’s something I have to do. It’s important to me, protecting you. I’ve always done it. I always will.”
“I can protect myself, Kelly,” Polly says tightly. “I’ve been doing it since well before I ever knew you.”
“But I’m here now, and you- you’re just- let me do this, Polly. For you,” Kelly says. There are so many things she wants to say, but none of them are right. Polly has always been better with words than her. Annabelle is better with them, too. Kelly can twist words, can make them dance for her, but only when it doesn’t count. Only when it isn’t real.
Polly twists on the bed, dropping her feet to the floor. She stares at Kelly for a long while, not saying anything, and then she shakes her head slowly. “No.”
“No?” Kelly parrots back. “What do you mean, no?”
“I mean,” Polly says, standing up and walking over until she’s standing in front of Kelly, close enough that they’re practically touching, “No. You aren’t going to protect me. Not anymore. I won’t let you.”
Polly is only four inches taller than her, but she uses that height to her full advantage, looming over Kelly as best she can. And Polly may be taller, but Kelly is stronger, and she shoves Polly backwards, hard. Polly stumbles back, but remains upright.
“You don’t get to decide that,” Kelly says. “You don’t- you don’t get to just- you can’t-”
“I can,” Polly says calmly. “Because it’s my turn to protect you. Because you are going to get yourself killed in this stupid attempt to protect me, and I won’t allow that.”
And that is so patently ridiculous and ludicrous and utter bollocks that Kelly can’t stand it. She has spent three years running around the globe, trying to save St. Trinian’s women, but mostly just trying to save Polly. A hacker like Polly was never going to be spared, anyone with brains could see that, and Kelly couldn’t just stand by and watch her best friend- more than her best friend, so much more- die. And now Polly is standing there, so calm and righteous and determined to let herself die anyway, despite everything that Kelly did for her, and Kelly can’t handle it anymore. She hears herself whine, back in her throat, and then she flings herself at Polly, kissing her desperately, trying to make her see, trying to make her understand.
And, miracle of miracles, Polly kisses her back.
And then shoves her back, looking frantic and distressed.
“No,” Polly says again, this time the meaning completely different. “No, Kelly. No.”
“But,” Kelly says, surprised. “You- you kissed me back.”
“I know,” Polly says, shaking her head. She runs a hand through her hair, so much shorter now than when they were children. Kelly misses her long hair. “I know, and- it was a mistake. I’m sorry.”
Kelly stares at her, shocked. Even though she’s never acted on it, even though she’s never said anything to Polly, she always thought that when she finally did, Polly wouldn’t say no. Everyone knows about Kelly and Polly. Polly and Kelly know about Kelly and Polly. They’re the worst kept secret ever. She never expected Polly to tell her no.
“Fuck,” she says softly, and drops her head in her hands, trying to steady her breathing. “I never- you- you’re-” and God, she never stammered this much when they were kids. She always knew precisely what to say, but staring at Polly now, there aren’t any words. It feels like the one stable part of her world, the one part she trusted in and believed in and knew with absolute certainty would always be there, is gone.
She waited too long, she realizes.
She lost Polly.
She doesn’t know what she looks like, but it must be bad because Polly sighs and pulls her into her arms, hugging her tight. She shuffles them over until they’re sitting on the bed.
“I’m sorry,” Kelly says, sounding choked. “I’m sorry. I just can’t- I need to hold it together right now.”
“Strong people are allowed to fall apart, Kel,” Polly whispers into her hair.
“You never do,” Kelly says bitterly, because it’s true. In all her years, she has never seen Polly truly fall apart. She’s seen her cry, from time to time, because everyone cries when they’re young, over stupid things and small things and huge things and, really, everything, but she’s never seen Polly just collapse.
“No,” Polly sighs, “but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t.”
Kelly doesn’t try to pick that apart, just focuses on breathing. She leans against Polly, matching their breathing, listening to and feeling the customary hitch in Polly’s inhalation, the legacy of broken ribs when she was a girl. Polly strokes her hair gently, humming quietly under her breath. It sounds familiar, like something she’s hummed for Kelly before. It’s calming, and she’s able to find words again.
“I recognize that,” Kelly says, taking one last deep breath and sitting up. Polly smiles tightly.
“It’s a lullaby my grandmother used to sing to me.”
“Did you sing it before? When we were at St. Trinian’s?”
“Only once. I’m surprised you recognized it. It was when you had the flu, our fifth year. You were so pathetic and miserable, you wouldn’t stop clinging to me. The only thing that got you to calm down was when I sang that song.”
“And in return, I gave you my flu bug. Some friend I am,” Kelly snorts, falling into a recognizable rhythm, a pattern of conversation that feels like an old blanket being tugged safely around her shoulders.
Polly shrugs. “You read me A Wrinkle in Time. It evened out.”
Kelly sits and picks at a thread on the bedspread for a moment. She definitely feels better now. More in control, less likely to collapse at a moments notice. But she still needs to know.
“Do you love me?” she asks, her voice small and she wants to kick herself for sounding so pathetic. She is not having a good night. She needs to go to sleep, try again tomorrow.
Polly gazes at her. Kelly recognizes that look. She’s thinking, she’s ripping universes apart and putting them together all within her head. That is her calculating look, the one that makes plans and solves puzzles.
“Kelly,” she says finally. “I love you. I have loved you since we were children. I don’t think I’ll ever stop loving you.” She stands up and brushes her skirt off, and then turns and looks down at Kelly. “But Annabelle is downstairs, and I will not watch you break her heart.”
She leans over, kisses Kelly on the cheek, smiles sadly, and walks out the door.
It takes Kelly a long time to fall asleep.
Breakfast is an awkward affair, which has nothing to do with Polly. There are forty-nine children and eleven staff members staying at the Kaluwitharana house, not to mention all of Kelly’s friends and the Kaluwitharanas themselves. The St. Trinian’s girls are subdued, quiet, and could probably be considered well-behaved, but the Kaluwitharana cook isn’t used to feeding so many people all at once, and there just isn’t enough food.
Nimala looks at the scanty sausages and calls a nearby hotel, demanding takeout.
Nobody says much, just picks listlessly at the food. Kelly wants to talk to Peaches and Celia and Annabelle, try to find out what plans were made, what their next move is, but she is seated between an Eco and a Rude Girl, everyone else scattered around the table and living room so that they can help the girls as best they can. She stabs her kippers in irritation. She doesn’t even like kippers.
“Thank you,” the Rude Girl says suddenly, her voice soft. Kelly looks at her, surprised. So far, her feeble attempts to draw either of the girls into conversation have failed. The only thing they’ve said to her so far is their names, which Kelly forgot three seconds later.
“What?” she says, confused.
The Rude Girl looks up from her poached egg and says, “Thank you. For saving us.”
Kelly swallows. “I didn’t save you,” she says, struggling to get the words out.
“Yes, you did,” the Eco says. She doesn’t look up from her food, just keeps eating as though she hadn’t said a thing.
“You’re Kelly Jones, right?” the Rude Girl demands, a spark of what Kelly suspects is her true self bleeding through. Kelly nods. “Yeah, well, Alex and Jemima told us what you did. That you went away and tried to fight the bad guys. You saved us. So, y’know. Thanks.”
Kelly wants to argue with her, wants to point out that if she’d saved them, they’d be asleep in their beds at their school, not holed up in a criminal’s house like refugees, but the girl is glaring at her so intensely that Kelly can practically feel the faith rolling off her in waves. Far be it for Kelly to shatter someone’s faith, especially now, when they need it most.
“You’re welcome,” she says instead. The Rude Girl nods, satisfied, and they don’t say anything else for the rest of the meal.
After breakfast, Miss Fritton, her staff, and the girls return to trying to reach their parents. Many of them insist that their parents really won’t care what becomes of them, but Miss Fritton insists that they call anyway, because the last thing she needs is a kidnapping charge. Nimala flits about, passing out tea and snacks and generally keeping everyone occupied so that Kelly and the others can discuss the new plan.
It’s a really flimsy plan.
“Seriously, the plan is for Najwa to be seen?” Kelly asks, incredulous.
“MI7 needs to think she’s getting careless,” Annabelle explains, her patience clearly slipping now that she’s explained this three times already. “If we set a big trap and have her just appear, they’ll be suspicious. If she appears, briefly, a few times in advance, it seems like she isn’t being as careful and they’ll go after her when she seems stationary.”
“But that’s the plan? That’s all? What if they send an army?” Kelly argues.
“They won’t,” Polly says firmly.
“They can’t,” Celia adds.
“Not if they want to finish framing Najwa for all the crimes they’ve committed,” Harriet finishes. “If they send more than one person, which I doubt, it will be a small strike force meant to neutralize her, probably capture her so they can make a production of killing her later.”
“What if the one person they send is a sniper?” Kelly argues.
“We’ll have people on all the roofs,” Peaches says. “The entire Syndicate is on alert.”
“What if they don’t send anyone?”
“Kelly,” Annabelle snaps, patience gone. “We have gone over this again and again. We were up more than half of the night working on this. We have planned for everything. Let us do our jobs.”
Kelly sighs and rubs her hands over her face. “It just seems too easy. We’re missing something.”
“It is easy,” Polly says. “Which is why it will work. Not everything needs to be complex. Simplicity itself often trips people up.”
Kelly thinks about it. She does trust them, of course. Annabelle was her field operator for two years, of course, and Polly her remote operator. Celia and Polly were their operators for almost everything while they were in school. Harriet’s a Geek, and Polly trusts her, which is enough for Kelly, and Peaches runs an entire crime enterprise- managing one small trap isn’t a struggle for her. They’re the best.
Screw the rest.
“All right,” she says. “Call her.”
They spend two days sitting in the Kaluwitharana home, watching Najwa pop in and out of CCTV feeds all over the city. It’s random and sporadic, enough to let MI7 know that she’s there, but not enough for them to follow her, and quick enough that they won’t be able to mobilize people before she’s gone. In those two days, most of the St. Trinian’s girls go back to their homes, though several have to stay there, either having no homes to go back to, or simply refusing to go. Alex and Jemima both refuse, no matter how much Harriet argues with them.
“We don’t want to go into the field, but you could use us here,” Alex argues.
“You’re thirteen,” Harriet says.
“When you were thirteen, you rebuilt Dorm D,” Jemima points out.
“I didn’t hunt government assassins, though!” Harriet says, but Polly looks over at her from across the top of her laptop, and Harriet sighs. “All right. But you stay here. You don’t follow us.”
“We’re just going to be your- what did you call it, Miss Polly?” Alex asks, and Kelly hides a smile behind her hand.
“Remote operators,” Polly says, not looking up from what she’s typing.
“We’re going to be your remote operators,” Alex says, nodding.
“Miss Polly?” Kelly whispers to Annabelle.
“Alex thinks she’s the best thing since sliced bread,” Annabelle whispers back, and of course she does. All Geeks wind up looking at Polly with a mixture of awe and terror. In fact, Kelly is pretty sure Harriet is the only Geek who was never cowed by Polly.
But most everyone else goes, and the staff leaves too, except for Miss Fritton and Matron, who remain behind to take care of the girls.
“Besides, where would I go? St. Trinian’s has been my only home for years,” Miss Fritton says sadly. Kelly is struck by the fact that Miss Fritton just looks old these days, and while she was obviously an older woman even when Kelly was in school, she never felt like it. She was always too whimsical, too carefree, too… mad as a bag of gerbils, really, but it made her seem timeless. When Kelly looks at her now, she can see her wrinkles, can see the white in her hair.
It hurts, looking at Miss Fritton.
Taylor and Andrea are off somewhere, preparing their kidnapping area for holding a recalcitrant MI7 operative. Polly, Annabelle, Celia, Peaches, and Harriet spend most of their days sitting in front of computer monitors, Peaches with a mobile practically surgically attached to her ear, giving orders to her many people in the city.
Once again, Kelly feels useless. When Polly isn’t staring at her laptop, she’s forcing Kelly to practice her BSL, which seems so incredibly frivolous what with everything else going on.
“You should practice,” Celia says, not looking up from her notebooks. Polly and Kelly have been arguing about the lessons for near twenty minutes now, neither of them getting very far.
“You really should,” Peaches adds, putting her hand over her mobile and holding it away from her ear. “The more people Hazel can speak with, the better.”
It’s a low blow, mentioning Hazel like that, but it works. Kelly trudges upstairs to sign about houses and animals and cars and colours. It is the most frustrating language work she has ever done because her life doesn’t depend on it.
Two days pass relatively quietly.
And on the third day, they move.
The plan is that Najwa will appear on the CCTV near Celia’s teashop. She will be sloppy, get caught several times heading in that direction. Polly will enter the teashop just as Celia closes it, giving her a reason to be there, and the two of them will wait.
For a week now the CCTV closest to Celia’s shop has been facing the backdoor, so there’s no chance they’ll miss Najwa breaking in. Once she’s in, she’ll wait with Polly and Celia (probably have some tea, if Celia has any say in the matter), and the rest of them will look for whoever comes for her.
It is a ridiculously flimsy plan, but two days listening to Polly and Annabelle talk about it over and over again has left her with the impression that it’s flimsy, but it’ll work.
“We’ll be on the headsets,” Alex says, watching them get ready.
“We’re hacked into all the feeds already, so we’ll let you know about anybody who shows up,” Jemima adds.
Polly smiles tightly at both of them, slipping her earbud in. “I’m sure you’ll do wonderful. I have absolute faith in you.”
The girls preen a little, and Kelly can’t help but smile. She doesn’t really remember being that young anymore, but she knows she was, once. She remembers desperately wanting the Head Girls to notice her, wanting her Clique leader to acknowledge what she was doing. She supposes this is the same thing, really, except on a grander scale.
“Are you ready?” Annabelle asks, running her hands down Kelly’s arms. She looks worried and tense, and Kelly leans over and pecks her swiftly on the lips.
“This isn’t San Ignacio,” she says.
“Thank God,” Annabelle replies, a smile tugging at the corner of her lips. “You called me a cheap hooker in San Ignacio.”
“It saved your life,” Kelly protests, and Annabelle laughs.
“Taylor and Andrea are in position,” Peaches says, walking into the room. “Najwa just showed up on the third camera. It’s time to go.”
They’re heading out the door when Miss Fritton appears. Her hair and makeup are done, and she’s dressed herself. She looks a bit like her old self. Kelly pauses in the doorway, the others stopping behind her, and looks expectantly at Miss Fritton, anticipating one of her grand speeches.
Instead, all she says is, “Come home safe, girls,” but that’s more than enough.
Kelly watches as Najwa jimmies the lock open to Celia’s teashop. She’s across the street, tasked with watching the backdoor as the person most likely to recognize another MI7 operative. If she looks hard enough, she suspects she would be able to see Annabelle racing across rooftops like an insane acrobat, or Harriet in the coffeehouse across the street, sipping cappuccinos and pretending to be involved in something on her computer, or even Peaches, in the beater car she borrowed from Jess Agombar. But she doesn’t look, because she needs to focus.
Polly and Celia are in the line of fire if she fucks this up.
Najwa slips inside, somehow managing to be both inconspicuous and yet totally visible at the same time. Kelly doesn’t know what the trick is, but she doesn’t care. Najwa is inside, and now the real plan starts. She settles in for the wait.
In the planning stages, Annabelle and Polly predicted they would have to wait for at least an hour. That would give MI7 enough time to confirm that Najwa wasn’t leaving immediately and time to figure out whom they were going to send. Kelly is rather impressed when, at an hour and five minutes, Alex’s voice comes on over the comms.
“One man, middle-aged, sneaking toward the back,” she says softly.
“Sneaking badly,” Kelly hears Jemima add in an undertone. She smiles a little. God, were she that young again.
She shifts, trying to wake her legs up. She hears the man before she sees him, the soft shuffling sound of someone desperately trying to avoid making noise. She frowns. This isn’t a trained operative. At least, not trained the way Kelly is. If this person works for MI7, they aren’t a field operative.
“Roof is clear,” Annabelle’s voice says over the comms.
“No one approaching the front door,” says Harriet.
“Alleys clear,” adds Peaches.
That’s it, then. It’s just this man. Kelly grits her teeth. Something is wrong. MI7 wouldn’t send an accountant to deal with the Grandmother. Especially when they made it fairly clear that Polly Hopkins could also be caught.
When the man comes into view, though, Kelly knows him. She was both right and wrong. This man isn’t a field operative, and he certainly isn’t an accountant. He’s Beth’s right hand man, the only person she trusts with everything. Kelly knew him when she first met him, standing by Beth’s side and staring at Kelly with so much venom it had actually taken her aback.
Polly will know him too. And Peaches. In fact, anyone in her year will know him, because he was their history teacher once. He was also a plant for the Ministry of Education. They all remember Mr. Alexander Ansdale.
“It’s Ansdale,” she whispers into her microphone, and starts slinking over, careful to stick to the shadows. Ansdale carefully opens the door to Celia’s teashop and slides inside, glancing briefly behind him.
“Ansdale?” Peaches asks, skeptical.
“He’s Beth’s assistant. He’s trained in all manner of weapons. He sneaks poorly because he still walks with that limp we gave him from the piñata incident,” she hisses, running and keeping as low to the ground as she can.
“Bloody hell,” Peaches says softly.
There isn’t any response from Polly or Celia, but Kelly knows they’ll have heard her. They’ll know what to do.
“Who’s Ansdale?” Annabelle asks. Kelly ignores her, knowing that Peaches or Chelsea will explain it. One of the girls, at any rate.
The door is still ajar, so Kelly just slips through and closes it carefully behind her. The backroom is dark, with just enough light spilling in from the main room that Kelly manages to avoid tripping over the canisters of tea that Celia has stacked haphazardly all over the place. She can hear soft voices, two of them alarmed, one irritated and cocky. The fourth voice is silent. Polly is probably too busy calculating to speak.
Kelly approaches the doorway carefully, not sure where Ansdale is standing. She peeks out carefully, ready to throw herself back into the shadows. But Ansdale has his back to the door. Najwa and Polly are sitting at a table, Celia standing just behind them. Najwa looks furious, Celia terrified. Polly is just staring right at Ansdale.
Probably because he’s pointing a gun right at her face.
“We’re taking her with us,” Ansdale is saying, jerking his chin at Najwa, “but there’s no need to keep you two around. I remember you, you know! You covered me in honey and dropped me on fire ants! And you! You thought you were so clever, trying to be my friend, but you were really just trying to make me lose confidence in myself. I hate you- all of you- so much.”
Polly doesn’t take her eyes off Ansdale, but Kelly sees her hand twitch. She frowns, confused, but Polly does it again. She’s signing, Kelly realizes. I see you she says.
“I’m also the one that figured out you were a plant to begin with,” Polly says coolly.
Ansdale twitches, raising the gun a little higher. “Oh, you were? So I suppose it was your idea, the torture?”
“As a matter of fact,” Polly says, smirking, “yes.”
“Polly, don’t,” Celia whispers, and Kelly can’t help but agree. They’re completely off script now, and they didn’t anticipate having to deal with someone that knew them. An unknown assassin would be easier.
“He deserves to know, Celia,” Polly says. She looks over at Najwa. “You remember Mr. Ansdale, yes?”
“Of course,” Najwa says slowly. “Rubbish history teacher, I always thought.”
Kelly knows for a fact that Najwa never had a class with Ansdale. He taught the younger students only. But Ansdale is too spun up to remember that, apparently, because he turns red.
“I was an excellent history teacher!” he snaps, the gun wavering for a moment. Kelly knows, right then, what Polly intends to do. She looks down at Polly’s hands, waiting for her signal.
“You were atrocious,” Polly sniffs. “I knew more than you did, and I was twelve.”
“Polly!” Celia hisses.
“I’m sorry, Celia, but it’s true! That man stood in front of our class day after day, spouting nonsense and falsehoods.” She pauses, and grins suddenly. “The only reason you lasted as long as you did was because we figured you were too stupid to be a real threat. Look at him with that gun, girls. I bet he doesn’t even know how to use it. Give a boy a gun and he thinks he’s a man.” She stands up, one hand resting on the table, the other down by her thigh. Ansdale doesn’t raise the gun, looking at Polly with shock and hatred all at once. It remains level with her ribs. “A woman, though,” she continues. “Women don’t need a gun to annihilate someone. After all, look at you. We brought you down when we were school girls. Some man you turned out to be.”
Ansdale screams in fury, jerking the gun up. At the same time, Polly’s hand jerks upward in the clear BSL sign now as she grabs at Ansdale. Kelly’s moving before she even has time to think about it, slamming into Ansdale’s legs and knocking him over onto Polly right as the gun goes off.
Kelly hears Celia screaming and Najwa cursing loudly, but she doesn’t hear Polly. She slams an elbow into Ansdale’s face, and he goes down, hard.
“Are you all right?” Kelly demands, looking at Celia and Najwa. They both nod, staring down at where Kelly, Ansdale, and Polly are sprawled. Kelly shoves Ansdale to the side, forcing him off Polly. Polly is on her back, glasses askew, and Kelly immediately starts patting at her arms and chest, trying to figure out if she’s been hit.
“I’m fine, I’m fine,” Polly says irritably. “He’s a terrible shot, I’m all right.”
Peaches, Annabelle, Chelsea, Harriet and too many others burst in behind them, guns drawn. Kelly doesn’t want to know how they all managed to get those guns. She’s pretty sure that Harriet, at least, doesn’t know how to use hers. Kelly waves a hand at them, pulling back into a crouch next to Polly, tugging her so she can sit up.
Polly reaches over and grabs Ansdale’s gun, clearing it quickly and efficiently. “Let’s go. They’re going to figure out something went wrong soon enough.”
Kelly takes another moment to reassure herself that Polly is all right, and then glances over to Najwa.
“Bloody hell,” she snaps, and runs.
Catching up with Najwa isn’t an easy task. She’s a short woman, but she’s strong and fast, and used to running over rough terrain. Kelly’s no slouch, though; she spent three years running for her life. A few alleys in London aren’t really a problem for her.
She finally catches up with her about five blocks from Celia’s teashop, around the place where Polly’s flat used to be, before MI7 blew it up. If she turns her head, she can see the burnt out husk. She remembers lying on the bed there, feet in the air, trying to force a smile, trying to pretend she wasn’t going to walk away from everything she knew. She swallows convulsively, and bites back her instinctive scream when an arm shoots out from behind the dumpster and yanks her behind it.
“Hush,” Najwa says, eyes hidden in the shadows.
“You ran,” Kelly says angrily, though she’s careful to keep her voice down.
Najwa crouches close the ground, the trousers of her shalwar kameez puddling in the filth of the alley. Kelly drops down next to her, balancing on the balls of her feet. “Of course I ran,” Najwa scoffs. “You asked me to be seen; you didn’t ask me to be caught.”
Kelly rubs her eyes. She hasn’t seen Najwa in a year. This isn’t how she imagined meeting her again, crouched in a disgusting alley with McDonalds wrappers fluttering about their ankles. She imagined them in Pakistan, maybe, watching the sun come up over the mountains. Or maybe meeting in an airport, Kelly watching while Polly and Najwa met again for the first time in forever. Not this. Never this.
“You need to come back with me,” Kelly says. “We can protect you.”
Najwa’s eyes have always been a little too knowing. “Like you protected St. Trinian’s?”
Kelly slaps the dumpster angrily. “Don’t you fucking dare blame that on me.”
“I’m not,” Najwa says. “I am pointing out that you couldn’t protect school girls who are mostly harmless. I’m not harmless, Kelly, and they’re coming for me. They need me. I’m a danger to you.”
“I’m a danger to Annabelle and Polly.”
That brings her up short. Kelly has never had any trouble walking into danger herself. But she would never invite it upon her friends, not if she had a choice. Her friends are brilliant, capable women who can protect themselves- but they shouldn’t have to, and if Kelly can do the protecting, then she will.
Najwa reaches out and grabs her hand. Her hand is warm, calloused, and painfully familiar. They weren’t friends in school. They barely spoke. Their only connection was through Polly. But in those weeks in Pakistan, they spent as much time together as they could. At first it was because they were a flimsy reminder of home, a shared history that meant everything to people who had nothing, but then it became a real friendship. Kelly knows her hand. She would know it anywhere. Same as Annabelle’s, same as Polly’s.
“This is my fight, too, Kelly,” Najwa says. Her eyes are gentle and calm. She looks sure of herself in a way that Kelly admires. “I am not leaving until this is over.”
“But you can’t join us,” Kelly says, knowing it’s the truth.
“Not yet,” Najwa agrees. She stands up, tugging Kelly with her. She reaches out, puts a hand on Kelly’s cheek, and swiftly kisses her on the other. Her smile is bright, suddenly, in the darkness, all teeth and mischief. “Tell Polly- London’s calling,” she says, and takes off before Kelly can say anything else.
For a moment, Kelly considers going after her. She considers running, just getting away from all of it. But she doesn’t. She has a mess to clean up, and Kelly always cleans up her messes.
The plan was to meet at the place where Taylor and Andrea keep their kidnap victims, so she goes there. It’s obvious that everyone has already gathered there. There are cars parked outside on the lawn and on the curb. Kelly recognizes Anoushka’s parking abilities all too well.
She slips in the front door, trying to stay as quiet as possible. She never actually asked what the plan was when they captured an MI7 operative. She didn’t want to know. She just left it to Annabelle and Polly and the others. If they need to torture him, really torture him, she wants to at least pretend, for a little while, that she had nothing to do with it, that it isn’t her fault.
Bianca is standing by the door as she closes it carefully behind her. Her eyes bug out comically, and then she’s grabbing Kelly and hustling her into another room.
“You might wanna get out of here, blud,” Bianca says in hushed tones. She glances over her shoulder as she shuts the door. They’re in what looks like a work room, a place where Taylor and Andrea can rest while working with one of their victims. Kelly wrinkles her nose. They don’t even have a bedframe, just a mattress on the floor.
“Why?” she asks, toeing a pile of laundry that could be dirty or clean, who knows.
“Because Polly’s gonna take your fuckin’ head off, that’s why,” Bianca snaps. She flings herself down on the mattress dramatically, apparently not caring that there appear to be dirty panties on the pillow.
Kelly frowns, confused. “Why would she be angry with me?”
“For a super spy, you ain’t too smart, are you?” Bianca says. “Because you ran off. Again. Without letting her know where you were going. I think that poor Ansdale bloke is more scared of her right now than he is of Taylor, and Taylor is pretty fucking scary, mate.”
Kelly spins, looking around the room in a desperate attempt to turn this conversation toward something else. She can’t spend her entire time thinking about Polly’s feelings. Not now. Not now. She can spare Polly’s feelings, or she can spare her life, not both.
“God fucking dammit,” she curses under her breath. Bianca snorts behind her.
“Gotta remember you got a team, Kelly,” she says, her voice surprisingly gentle. “You ain’t the only one out there anymore. If there are people to run after, maybe let one of us do it for once.”
“I don’t have time to worry about her,” Kelly says, feeling like she’s making a grand confession. “If things need doing, I need to do them.”
“You’re a fucking pillock, Kelly Jones,” comes Polly’s soft voice from behind her, and Kelly turns to see her standing in the doorway. She didn’t even hear her come in. Her face is a picture of calm fury, the only fury that Polly has ever been any good at. She looks over at Bianca and nods, once. “Bianca. You may wish to leave.”
“No shit,” Bianca mutters, and dives through the open door. Polly closes the door and then leans against it, crossing her arms in front of her. To anyone else, she would appear perfectly at ease, but Kelly can see the tension vibrating up her spine. She can see her fists clenched, white knuckles just barely showing.
“You’re a goddamn fucking wanker, and I cannot believe I wasted three years of my life on you,” Polly continues, words so sharp they’re like needles going in underneath Kelly’s fingernails. Kelly winces. She doesn’t want to hear this.
“Three years, Kelly Jones. Three fucking years where I sat in front of my computer compiling data, frantically looking for the key to saving you, to saving Annabelle, and you come back and you want to throw all of that away.”
Polly pushes herself up off the door and stalks toward Kelly, getting in close to her. Kelly looks at the floor. She wants to scream, but she can’t. She won’t.
“Your life isn’t yours anymore, Kelly. It’s mine. You don’t get to bargain with it,” Polly hisses.
And it’s that, really, more than anything else that makes Kelly snap. “Fuck you, Polly,” she says, just as calm, but she can feel that calm swiftly disappearing. “I spent three fucking years looking for the key to saving you, so I’ll fucking do whatever I want with my life. It’s my life, not yours, it was never yours, and you don’t get to fucking order me around like we’re First Years anymore. If I want to risk my life, that is my choice! Mine! It was never your choice to begin with!”
She’s yelling, by the end, and pushing Polly backwards. Polly moves with it, as she always has done, but then she ducks underneath Kelly’s arm and swings around, shoving Kelly against the door so quickly that she doesn’t even have the chance to think about it. “I never fucking asked you to save me,” Polly snarls, slamming an arm across Kelly’s shoulders and pinning her. “I don’t know how many times I have to say that before it gets through your thick skull. All I ever asked was for you to come home. Give up this martyr rubbish and learn to live with what you have.”
Kelly tries to push back against Polly, wants to send her flying, wants to push her to the floor and punch her like they were children again, tussling over some inconsequential thing that they’ll laugh about later. But Polly just pushes back, one arm locked over her shoulders, the other steadying her against the door. “Get off me,” Kelly yells, swinging an arm to hit Polly. Polly lets go of the door, falling against Kelly, and catches her fist, shoving it down by her side.
“Fucking make me,” Polly snaps. “We are a team, Kelly. Always have been, always will be. If you go down, you’d better fucking believe you’re taking me down with you. You want to crash and burn, you do it with all of us. You’re not just one woman. You’re Kelly fucking Jones, and you’re St. Trinian’s, and if you fall, we all fall, and you don’t get to make that choice.”
“You weren’t there, Polly,” Kelly yells, and finally manages to shove Polly off her. Polly goes back easily enough, so easily that Kelly knows she let it happen. “You weren’t there, and you don’t know what they’ll do to you.”
“I’m not afraid of them!” Polly hisses.
Kelly knows, right then, what she needs to do. It comes to her so quickly, with such clear lines and angles that she can’t believe she didn’t see it before. It was always so obvious. Kelly gathers herself up, remembers the days when she was confident and in control and could laugh at anything, and gives Polly her best smirk. “You should be,” she says, no longer yelling. For this, she can’t yell. For this, she needs cold precision. “You’re too weak to deal with them. You know why I left, Polly? Why I took Annabelle with me and not you? Because I couldn’t trust you to handle yourself in the field. I couldn’t trust you to do what I needed you to do.”
Polly is standing not even a foot from her, and Kelly can see the instant that she shuts down. “You’re lying,” Polly says softly.
“No,” Kelly lies. “I’ve been lying for years now. But here’s the thing, Polly: you weren’t what I needed then, and you aren’t what I need now. You’re just that pathetic.”
And it hurts, to say these things, but Kelly needs to get rid of her. Kelly needs Polly to stay away, to stay safe because even if she said no, even if Kelly knows now that she waited too long, she needs the idea of Polly to remain. She needs Polly to remain, even if it isn’t with her. Even if she never speaks to her again.
Polly’s eyes flicker for just a moment, a quick glance to the side, a sudden purse of the lips, but then she looks at Kelly with startling finality. She presses up against Kelly, but doesn’t try to pin her again. She just looks at her.
“You’re lying,” Polly says, her voice flat, all anger gone and replaced with heart-wrenching stillness. “You’re lying.”
Polly does pin her, then. She pushes her back against the door, slides her hands down Kelly’s arms and holds her wrists. She looks at Kelly for just a moment, and then kisses her.
It’s nothing like the kiss from four days ago. Four days ago was all about desperation and fear and sadness. This is an angry kiss. It feels like Polly is trying to eat her, trying to consume her to keep her from getting hurt. Kelly feels like something is breaking inside of her, and she twists her wrists to free them from Polly’s grip. Polly lets go easily enough, but just crowds closer. Kelly puts a hand on Polly’s hip, uncertain, but when Polly slides her tongue into Kelly’s mouth, it’s like an invitation. She pulls Polly as close as she can, sliding her free hand under the hem of Polly’s blouse.
Then she remembers.
She shoves Polly as hard as she can, forcing herself to laugh, forcing herself to play the role. Polly looks at her, pupils blown wide, staring at Kelly with a look of such destructive rage that for a moment, Kelly is genuinely afraid of her. She has never been afraid of Polly in her life, but now- now she thinks she could be.
Kelly smirks. “Nice try. But I already know how you feel. I’m happy with Annabelle.”
Polly’s eyes are still wide, huge. She looks like she might cry. If she cries, Kelly doesn’t know what she’ll do. This is important, she needs Polly to hate her long enough to keep her safe, but if she cries, Kelly is pretty sure she’ll fall apart. But then Polly swallows once, twice, three times and jerks her head, a pale mimicry of a nod. She steps away from Kelly. There’s too much space between them all of a sudden, and Kelly wants to step forward, but everything about Polly’s body screams to stay away. And she couldn’t touch her anyway, even if Polly begged.
“Annabelle loves you,” Polly says, staring at the ground. “She loves you, and you love her, and I respect that. I respect her. But Kelly?” And she looks up at Kelly, eyes still dark. “Even if you want nothing to do with me, even if you’ve given up our friendship on top of… whatever else it was that we had- part of you will always belong to me. And that part you keep safe, no matter what.”
Polly pushes past her and opens the door, storming out as only Polly can, all feral grace and rigid spine. She walks right by Annabelle and pauses long enough to grab her arm and squeeze it before disappearing down the hall.
Annabelle stares at Kelly for a long while. Kelly stares back, not sure what to say. There isn’t anything she can say, really.
“I’m sorry,” she says, finally.
“If I thought you knew what you were apologizing for,” Annabelle says softly, already turning away, “I might be willing to believe you.”
Kelly closes her eyes and digs the heel of her hands into them. When she licks her lips, she can still taste Polly on them. She can already feel the guilt burning in her gut.
“You fucked up,” says someone softly. Kelly opens her eyes, and there’s Harriet, small and neat as always, her arms folded in front of her chest. She doesn’t look all that angry, though, despite her words. Kelly wishes she could have a moment to herself, just a moment, to fall apart and pull herself together again.
She sighs and sits down on the mattress, no longer caring about the dirty pants. She just doesn’t have the energy anymore. “What do you want, Harriet?” she asks, tipping her head forward until it rests on her knees. “Come to yell at me, too?”
There’s a long silence, and then the mattress shifts under Harriet’s slight weight. If Kelly peeks out of the corner of her eyes, she can see Harriet studying the ceiling, her hands resting on her thighs.
“I get it, you know,” Harriet says finally. She scoots further back on the mattress and pulls her legs up, crossing them pretzel style. Kelly looks up, surprised. Harriet’s been distant since they met up a few days ago. She’s wanted to sit Harriet down, talk to her, try to work out why she’s so angry, but there has been too much to do.
“Yeah?” Kelly asks eventually.
Harriet takes a deep breath, letting it out slowly between her teeth. “I understand that feeling of desperation, the feeling that if you run as fast as you can, you’re only going to stay in the same place.”
Kelly snorts. “The Red Queen effect.”
Harriet laughs. “You clearly spent a lot of time among the Geeks if you’re citing evolutionary theory in every day conversation.”
“It’s also in Alice in Wonderland,” she says, smiling slightly. Admittedly, she did learn it from Polly, but that’s not the point.
Harriet smiles fondly at her. “I spent seven years at St. Trinian’s feeling scared, sick, and desperate almost every day. I loved everyone so much, and I hated them. And then Polly left and gave me this stupidly huge project to complete, and do you know what I did?”
Kelly sits up, looking at Harriet. Harriet is studying the ceiling again, her braids swaying, the beads at the end clicking every so often. She does look happier, now. Harriet always broke her heart. “Annabelle said that you spearheaded a genealogy project and took the school by storm.”
Harriet laughs. “Oh, Annabelle’s so sweet. She also wasn’t there for the beginning. I shoved everyone away from me and tried to do it all by myself, because- because I’d lived with this project, this love and hate and pain for years already, and I didn’t want anyone to have to deal with it.”
Kelly licks her lips. “It’s different.”
“Of course it’s different,” Harriet says, rolling her eyes. “No one at St. Trinian’s was going to actually kill me, not physically. But for women like me, they sure as hell were going to try to kill my spirit, my drive, my hopes… and it’s a different sort of death, but it’s still death. I wanted to fix everything for everyone. I was going to save everyone. All by myself. But it doesn’t work like that.”
“No?” she says sarcastically.
“No,” Harriet says flatly. “Because you just wind up killing yourself and leaving the problem behind for everyone else to solve anyway.”
She says it simply, like it’s nothing, but it hits Kelly hard. She drops her head back down to her knees, forcing herself to keep her breathing even, desperately holding back the tears. She’s done nothing but fight with Polly since she came home, even before she deliberately shoved her away, and she doesn’t feel like she fits in London anymore. Annabelle’s gone back to it with ease, without even a second’s hesitation, but Annabelle was always better at fitting herself into whatever space was left for her. She feels alone and useless, like she spent three years doing absolutely nothing whatsoever.
“This has been the shittiest week,” Kelly manages to gasp out. She can’t breathe.
Harriet drops a companionable hand on her shoulder. She squeezes once, and then pulls her hand back into her lap. “It’ll get better.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because you’re going to pull your head out of your arse, and you’re going to talk to the rest of us, and we’re going to come up with a plan. We’re St. Trinian’s. We don’t know the meaning of the word failure.”
Kelly smiles into her knees, choking on her laughter. This is why she loves her alma mater; because no matter what the disaster, no matter the wreck that is her life, she’ll always find a way to smile because of them. She reaches her hand out, grasping desperately, and Harriet takes hand, squeezing lightly.
“I don’t know what to do,” she admits, lifting her head. She knows what she should do, and she knows what she needs to do, and those are two very different things right now.
“That’s all right,” Harriet replies. “We can figure it out together. In fact, we already have.”
The first thing she hears when she enters the garage that Andrea and Taylor have clearly spent far too much time renovating is screams. They’re hoarse and exhausted, and Kelly freezes. She never thought that they would resort to torture, no matter what anyone said. She forces herself to breathe, and looks over at Andrea, who is calmly filing her nails. Andrea doesn’t even look at her, just says, “Listen to the pitch.”
When the next scream comes, hoarser than before, she realizes that the voice is obviously female. She gives Andrea a confused look, but Andrea is ignoring her in favor of her nails. When she looks at Harriet, Harriet is smiling.
“She volunteered,” Harriet says. “I wasn’t much impressed with her teaching, but this- well, she’s quite possibly my favourite teacher of all time.”
“It takes balls of brass to do what she’s doing,” Bianca says, nodding at Kelly in greeting. She’s sitting on an ugly pink sofa next to Peaches, who is staring intently at the door. Annabelle and Polly are sitting on a rickety wooden desk next to one another, Polly’s hand wrapped loosely around Annabelle’s wrist. Celia is sitting on the floor in front of them with Chelsea and Celia. Kelly frowns.
“Where’s Taylor? And Anoushka?” she asks.
“Anoushka is in there,” says Peaches, pointing at the door on the left, the door where the screams are coming from. She points with her other hand at a second door. “Taylor is in there with Ansdale.”
Kelly nods. “What’s the plan?”
Polly’s look is cool, but it’s controlled and doesn’t look particularly murderous toward Kelly, which she’ll take as a minor victory. “Scare him,” she says flatly. “Scare him enough that he fears us more than he fears MI7.”
“Shouldn’t be hard,” Chelsea adds. She’s painting her nails. Kelly really doesn’t understand Posh-Totties. “We made him just about piss himself when we were First Years.”
“Or second formers,” Chloe adds blandly. She’s playing Angry Birds on her mobile. Kelly doesn’t understand how they can sit so calmly. There’s a woman screaming through one door, and the man who tried to assassinate them through another. Most people would be at least nervous at this point.
“It won’t be that easy,” Kelly warns, moving to sit next to Peaches. Peaches moves over to give her room. “He was government when we were children, but he’s MI7 now. They train us.”
“Even if you aren’t a field operative?” Annabelle asks. She gives Kelly a skeptical look. “I know I don’t know Ansdale, but I have met some of MI7’s office personnel over the years. None of them were trained beyond basics because they were just office personnel; they were never meant to go into the field.”
Kelly nods slowly. “That’s true. But Ansdale isn’t just office personnel. He’s Beth’s assistant. She would probably ensure that he was better trained than your average assistant.”
“Pointless to argue about this, innit?” Bianca interrupts, rolling her eyes and tossing her hands in the air. “Either he cracks or he don’t; we’ll find out soon enough.”
“Besides,” Andrea says, finally looking up from her hands and offering a ghostly smile, “Taylor is going to interrogate him. She’s the best.”
The door on the left opens, and Anoushka walks out, grinning. A moment later, Miss Dickinson follows her out, one hand rubbing her throat, her eyes scrunched up in irritation. Chelsea jumps to her feet and walks over to hug their old teacher, careful to keep her nails from smudging. Kelly blinks, surprised. She’d expected Miss Fritton, not their old English teacher. She was obviously there for rescuing Kelly, but she’d assumed that was a one-off thing.
“Thank you for doing this,” Chelsea says, pulling back.
Miss Dickinson smiles at Chelsea, and then turns to look at the rest of them, her smile fading away. “They hurt my students,” she says, her voice cracking. “I want these bastards to burn.”
“As do we all,” Polly says, standing. She walks over to the second door, the one where Ansdale is presumably being held. She presses her ear against the door, listening for a moment. Kelly watches her, tries to really look at her. She’s paler than normal, pale enough that her freckles are standing out. She’s too thin, her cheekbones prominent.
Kelly did that to her, she realizes. She looks sharply over at Annabelle. Annabelle looks- healthy, actually. There’s more colour in her cheeks than there has been in two years, and the stressed, panicked look has faded somewhat. And she realizes that Annabelle has looked unhealthy for two years because of her.
When she scans the room and looks at all the women gathered, she realizes- they all look stressed and scared and sick, and maybe Kelly didn’t torture them for two years, like Annabelle, or three, like Polly, but she’s made their lives hell for a few weeks now. She took their lives and destroyed them, and Kelly knows what she needs to do. She doesn’t quite know how she’ll do it yet, but she knows what the endgame is.
She sucks in a deep breath. Harriet looks over at her, smiles, and nods. Kelly tries to smile back, but she knows Harriet is wrong. She can’t include them. Not if she wants to keep them alive.
“He’s crying,” Polly says with satisfaction, backing away from the door. She rubs her hands on her skirt, heading back for the desk. Kelly wants to grab her wrist, wants to tell her how sorry she is, how sorry she will be, but she can’t. She swallows thickly and averts her eyes.
“Won’t be long now,” Andrea says, sounding satisfied. “Once she gets them to cry, it’s over in a matter of minutes.”
Kelly looks up at Andrea. She puts aside everything else and tries to focus on the conversation going on around her. “He’s MI7, though.”
“Oh, please,” Andrea scoffs. “Taylor could get you to crack, if you were in that chair.”
“I doubt it,” Kelly says, lifting her chin and trying to act the part. “Whatever we can say about MI7, they do train their agents well.”
“But not their assistants,” says Taylor, walking out of the room and shutting the door behind her. She looks satisfied, her grin sharp. “He was ridiculously easy to break. But then, Ansdale was always rather pathetic.”
Anoushka starts giggling, a manic sound, but infectious. Soon, everyone is giggling, even Kelly. She can’t help herself. She covers her mouth with her hand and drops into a crouch, trying to muffle her laughter. It isn’t the time. It doesn’t matter, though; she has tears in her eyes, she’s laughing so hard.
“Do you remember when Chloe’s mastiffs took him down at the ankles?” Anoushka asks, her voice twice as high as normal. Kelly snorts from between her fingers. She remembers the betting pool they had; a Chav fourth former named Lia Burke had won, with three minutes and twenty-seven seconds.
“Ansdale as a piñata!” Chloe howls, holding her stomach, her mobile discarded on the floor.
“The school play!” adds Peaches, grinning. “Watching him run out of there screaming…”
Miss Dickinson looks around the room, raising her eyebrows. “I suppose I should be pleased that I escaped with only a mild dunking and mental scarring,” she says lightly, which just sets them off again.
It’s good, Kelly thinks. They need it. She wonders how many of them have cried themselves to sleep in the past few days, since St. Trinian’s blew up. She and Annabelle have traded off. She wipes the tears off her face. She thinks some of those tears aren’t from laughter. She suspects she’s a little hysterical.
The laughter in the room dies off slowly, and Kelly just closes her eyes, working on calming herself. This isn’t the time to fall apart. Not when they’ve gotten something from Ansdale. She inhales through her nose, slowly, and then feels a hand on her shoulder. She looks up. Celia is giving her a rueful smile, her own eyes rimmed in red. Kelly forces herself to smile back, and feels herself calm down.
“What did he say?” Annabelle asks, getting them all back on track. “Anything we can use?”
“You all were right about them planning on pinning everything on Najwa,” Taylor says, walking over to her minifridge and pulling out a bottle of water. She immediately shoots a guilty glance at Celia, but then sighs and opens it anyway. “They thought they had finished her in Pakistan, but when one of her passports- did you know that girl has eighteen different aliases, only half of which are flagged?- showed up in the system, they realized they had failed. So they had to rearrange everything.”
“What are they planning on doing next?” Annabelle asks, focusing on the problem. She always had a way of keeping Kelly focused, too, in the field.
Taylor shrugs a shoulder. “Ansdale didn’t know much about the future plans. He knows the plan is to kill Kelly, frame it on Najwa, and then kill Najwa. They’re intending to plan a number of bombings on her. But it wasn’t Beth’s plan.”
Kelly looks over at Taylor, startled. She stands up, squeezing Celia’s arm before it drops from her shoulder. “What do you mean, it wasn’t Beth’s plan?”
“How much do you know about Beth Hardwick, Kelly?” Taylor asks, setting her bottle of water down. She folds her arms across her chest, looking ill at ease.
Kelly frowns, licking her lips. “Not much, honestly. She’s my handler; she was my contact with MI7, one of only a few people I was allowed to speak with, in order to keep things streamlined. Her affinity group was St. Trinian’s. That’s really it.”
Taylor nods, picking up her water bottle again. She glances at Andrea, then back at Kelly. “Did you know she isn’t anywhere near the top of MI7’s chain of command? She’s really more a middleman.”
Kelly thinks about that, pacing as much as she can in the cramped room. Chloe thoughtfully pulls her feet closer to her to allow her some more room, while Miss Dickinson and Chelsea move to lean against a wall together. “It makes sense,” she says finally. She looks over at Annabelle. “We always suspected that Beth couldn’t be working alone, that she had to be taking her orders from someone.”
Annabelle nods. “Or at least reporting to someone. Sometimes she would ask for the oddest details, things that didn’t really pertain to Kelly’s mission. It was pretty clear that she had been told to ask for certain information, information that related to missions other than our own.”
“What does all that matter, though?” Bianca asks, scowling. “So Beth Hardwick isn’t the head of MI7; she’s still the one trying to kill us all.”
“On orders from other people, though,” Harriet says, eyebrows shooting up as she makes the connection. “We get rid of Beth, another one will just come along and take her place.”
“But if we get rid of Beth,” Chloe says, “then it will take them ages to rebuild their information for the St. Trinian’s affinity group. No Beth, who’s been storing all the information; no Kelly, who provided the information. They basically start all over again, giving us time to completely dismantle the operation. We get rid of Beth, we have at least a year in which we can move freely and plan.”
Taylor clears her throat, swallowing a mouthful of water. “That’s where the problem comes in,” she says. She looks at Kelly. “Did you know Beth had more operatives?”
Kelly shrugs a shoulder. “I presume she had to have at least one or two more, but I was always her most effective, being a St. Trinian’s graduate. She told me everyone else she worked with was really auxiliary. Administrative.”
“No,” Taylor says. “She lied. Beth has two auxiliary operatives who really don’t do anything more than gather names in an office- sort of like Polly, they’re tech experts. But you’re right, they aren’t St. Trinian’s women. But her other field operative is. And apparently she likes taking us down.”
“You’re joking,” Annabelle says flatly. She shakes her head, looking at Kelly in incredulity. “We never- in the two years I worked with you, I never felt the presence of another St. Trinian’s MI7 operative. Did you?”
“No,” Kelly agrees. It has to be impossible. She worked for MI7 for three years, spent all three years running around the globe, and she never ran into another operative. Given that she was allowed to choose almost all her own missions, it seems- statistically unlikely, to borrow a phrase from one of the Geeks, that she would never run into another St. Trinian’s operative.
“The world may seem big, Taylor, but it’s really not, especially when your affinity group is miniscule. We were confined to criminal alumnae who no longer lived in the United Kingdom. Do you know how few people that is, in the end? It’s only a few hundred, total, and most of those aren’t involved in enough criminal activities to be even a blip on MI7’s radar. I was with Kelly for two years, and we only ran into… what, thirty-five women in the end?”
“Thirty-seven,” Kelly says, and stops. She closes her eyes, remembering the women they investigated. Some of them were relatively innocent, like Isabella (who still makes her cry, if she thinks about it too much, so she tries not to think about her anymore) or Ashlee. Others were-
Her eyes snap open. “San Ignacio,” she says, looking at Annabelle. Annabelle pauses in the middle of telling Taylor what exactly is wrong with her information. She looks back at Kelly, eyes going wide.
“You don’t think-”
Kelly looks at Polly. It hurts, but there is only one person in the room who will know. “Is there any reason why MI7 wouldn’t hire more operatives? Like, there wasn’t a hiring freeze or anything?”
Polly’s mouth twitches into a frown, a tell that Kelly remembers all too well. She’s thinking. “There weren’t any announcements about general governmental hiring freezes while you were gone,” Polly says finally. “MI7 doesn’t technically exist, but I would imagine that they have to run at least somewhat parallel to the general government. There’s no logical reason they would stop just because they hired you.”
“You really think-” Annabelle begins.
“They hired Hunter Lowry after she nearly killed us, yes, I think they did,” Kelly says. “Why else would she have suddenly stopped looking for us? She wasn’t someone we were told to go after specifically, but we gave MI7 all of her information; we didn’t even try to hold anything back on her. She was supposed to go down. I think they got her, but they convinced her to work with them instead.”
“Do we have any proof of that, though?” Anoushka asks. “Her name, it never came up at the bar, and I heard of you often enough.”
Kelly closes her eyes again, trying to think, trying to remember all that she can about San Ignacio and Hunter Lowry. It was years ago, only a few months after Annabelle met up with her in Beirut. And it was probably one of the most dangerous moments they ever had in those two years together, but things still fade with time.
“Does it matter right now?” Harriet asks. Kelly can hear the shift in the room as everyone turns to look at her. Kelly keeps her eyes closed.
“What do you mean?” Peaches asks, but she doesn’t sound like she disagrees. Kelly imagines that she’s facing Harriet, her face blank except for her bland, encouraging smile, her arms down to make herself look inviting. Peaches is a master of body language.
“Does it matter, right this minute? Do we need to figure out who the secret operative is right now? Because right now, that secret operative isn’t the one trying to kill us. That’s Beth.”
“You’re the one who said that if we get rid of Beth, someone else will take her place,” Bianca says. She sounds baffled and annoyed. Kelly bites the inside of her cheek to hold back her tired smile. She sounds exactly like she always did in school, when Harriet was rambling about one thing or another and Bianca didn’t know what she was on about.
“Yeah, so we can’t just take care of Beth and gives ourselves a pat on the back,” Harriet argues. “That doesn’t mean we should figure out how to take down MI7 and a secret operative right this moment, when we’re hiding in various houses and ducking bullets.”
“You’re saying we should get rid of the immediate threat first and then work on the larger threat,” Peaches says, and the smile is obvious in her voice. Kelly opens her eyes. Peaches has her arms down by her side, and her smile is bright. Bianca is pursing her lips and scowling at Harriet.
“It makes sense,” Anoushka says. “We cannot hope to take down MI7 right now. We do not have the resources.”
“Plus, Najwa is out there somewhere,” Polly says. “If we get distracted trying to take down MI7, who knows what Beth will do to her?”
“Put Alex and Jemima on it,” Annabelle says suddenly, looking up from where she was staring down at her lap.
“No,” Harriet says instantly. “No. They’re just kids.”
Annabelle rolls her eyes. “I’m not saying we send them to take down MI7, I’m saying let them start working on gathering information and resources so that when we’re finished with Beth, we’re not starting from the beginning again. They’re good at research, and they want to help. They won’t be in any danger.”
“They are just kids, though,” Chloe points out. “How much can a few kids do?”
Kelly gives Chloe a flat look. “Do you remember what we were doing when we were their age?”
“I can help them,” Miss Dickinson says, waving her hand up by her shoulder. “And I’m sure Camilla and Fiona have some investment in seeing MI7 fall; they’ll probably want to help.”
“Probably all the kids will want to help,” Chelsea adds. “If MI7 is targeting St. Trinian’s, that means they’ll be on a list at some point, possibly sooner rather than later. Put Tania and Tara on it to organize them.”
“Well, that’s good and all,” Bianca says, tossing her hands in the air and sighing loudly, “but what do we do right now? What is our goal in the next twenty-four hours?”
They all look at each other, not sure what to say. Kelly doesn’t know where to go. There is too much they need to do. St. Trinian’s is gone, they’re refugees in various safe houses, Najwa is on the run and they have no way to contact her, they have an MI7 assistant in the garage- things are a bit out of control.
“We need to sleep,” Peaches says firmly. “We’re exhausted and we’re running on adrenaline. We get rid of Ansdale, we go back to my parents’ house, and we get some rest.”
“Agreed,” says Polly, looking at Peaches. “We drug Ansdale, dump him down by the Thames. Let MI7 deal with him. I doubt they’ll be happy he failed to assassinate Najwa.”
Kelly nods. “Where do you keep your drugs around here?” she asks Andrea.
Andrea smiles beatifically. “I’ll get them and have Taylor bring them to you, if you want to get Mr. Ansdale ready for transport.”
Kelly imagines her grin is less beatific and more dangerous, but she doesn’t mind. She’d like a moment alone with Ansdale. “Thanks, Andrea. That would be lovely.” She winks at Annabelle, who offers her a small grin, and then walks over to the door leading to Ansdale, opening it and walking in.
Ansdale is tied to a chair in the middle of the room, zip ties keeping his arms and legs restrained. Kelly gives him a slow, angry smile. Ansdale’s face contorts with rage.
“You!” he yells.
“Always so unoriginal, Mr. Ansdale,” Kelly says, walking over to him, enjoying the sound of her heels clicking on the cement floors. She really admires what Taylor and Andrea have done with their kidnapping facility. Every aspect of it is theatrical, which just heightens the sense of danger. “It’s good to know nothing has changed since I was twelve.”
He visibly calms himself, taking in a huge gulp of air, his chest straining against the ropes. “You’re all going to die, you know,” he says.
Kelly ignores that, coming to a halt in front of him. She raises her eyebrows, smirking. “Hunter. Lowry,” she says precisely, enunciating the consonants carefully. He flinches, and Kelly lets herself grin. He never had a poker face; it’s one of the reasons why he was never cleared for any sort of fieldwork. “We’re not going to die, Ansdale. We’re going to take you down.”
“You may have scared me when- when I was younger-”
“And we were twelve, yes.”
“But you don’t scare me anymore. MI7 is bigger than you can ever imagine. You’ll never be able to bring it all down.”
“We’ll start with Beth,” Kelly says, tapping her foot against the floor. “And then we’ll get Hunter Lowry, who will lead us straight up the chain, and then we’ll take apart MI7 bit by bit. MI7 is just a government organization, Mr. Ansdale, one that the government doesn’t even officially recognize. But we’re St. Trinian’s. Nothing ever defeats us.”
Ansdale’s breath is coming faster now. Taylor walks through the door, but Kelly doesn’t look at him, focusing on Ansdale, watching for his tells. “School spirit is dead,” he spits. “Beth pays better and has insurance, and all you have is dead girls and no hope. Grow up and move on.”
Kelly narrows her eyes and gestures for Taylor to come over. Taylor’s smile is much nastier than anything Kelly remembers from school, and she claps a chloroform soaked rag over Ansdale’s nose and face. He lashes out, struggling, but Taylor’s knots hold true and he’s still restrained by the zip ties. Kelly takes a vicious pleasure watching his eyes go foggy and dim.
“We just dumping him by the Thames, then?” Taylor asks, dropping the rag on the floor. “We’re not worried about him going back to MI7 and telling him everything?”
“He works for Beth,” Kelly says, watching Ansdale. “His failure is her failure. They might know we’re coming now, but they already knew that. And we’re going to keep Beth too busy to worry about him.” She kicks Ansdale’s ankle, and then sighs. “Let’s get rid of him and get some sleep.”
It’s late by the time they get back to Peaches’ house. Taylor punches her in the arm and sleepily heads for the bedroom she’s sharing with Andrea for the time being. Kelly rubs her eyes and looks at the stairs. She doesn’t want to go upstairs and find Annabelle gone. And if she stays down here, she’s sure to run into Polly, whose insomnia has been worse than usual since everything happened. She isn’t sure which option is worse.
She grabs the banister and heads up the stairs, imagining a funeral march in her head.
Kelly wants one of the other women to be in the hall, waiting to talk to her so she has an excuse to delay seeing Annabelle, but for the first time in days, everyone is in their bedrooms. None of Peaches’ family members are up, either. Sometimes Kelly sits with Punya. She’s learning how to crochet from her.
She stops in front of the bedroom door, takes a deep breath, and walks in.
Annabelle is sitting in the bed, wearing her pajamas and reading a book. She looks up at Kelly and gives her an exhausted smile. “Hey,” she says.
Kelly sits down on the edge of the bed, toeing off her shoes. “I kissed Polly,” she says. She doesn’t want to hide it from Annabelle. She deserves better than that. She deserves better than Kelly, really.
“Okay,” Annabelle says. She doesn’t sound angry. She doesn’t even seem particularly surprised. Kelly twists to look at her. She has a sad smile on her face, but she doesn’t look angry.
“Honestly, Kelly, everyone knew you two have been in love for- forever. I may not have been at St. Trinian’s with everyone for the entire time, but I am friends with the others. When I told Chelsea that I- that I had a crush on you, she very gently explained the status quo to me.”
“There is no status quo with Polly and me,” Kelly says, swallowing around her lie. She pulls herself onto the bed, sliding down to rest her head on the pillows. Annabelle rolls over, propping herself up on her arm and resting her other hand on Kelly’s stomach.
“That’s not what I saw,” Annabelle says gently. She traces something on Kelly’s stomach. It takes her a moment to recognize it. It’s Arabic. Habibiti. She smiles, despite herself.
“Annabelle, I love you,” Kelly replies.
“And you love Polly, too. You’ve always loved Polly. And she’s always loved you. I get it, I do. And you told me. That’s what matters.”
Kelly closes her eyes against the sudden rush of tears. She doesn’t know how to explain that that’s all gone now, that what she trusted she always had with Polly is in shambles. She doesn’t know how to tell her that she can’t trust Polly to always be there for her, because she can’t tell Annabelle why. She can’t tell her that she’s screwed up too much in the past week and a half, and Polly doesn’t want her anymore. She doesn’t want to tell Annabelle that she just purposefully destroyed her entire relationship with Polly in the space of five minutes. She doesn’t want to admit that she’s scared she’ll have to do the same to Annabelle. She grabs Annabelle’s hand and pulls it to her lips, kissing it gently. She’s tired. She’s tired, and she doesn’t have any idea how they’re going to do this.
“I’m sorry,” she says.
“I don’t care, Kelly. Not about that. What I care about is that we’ve worked as a team for two years now, and the second we’re back in London, you cut me out of the loop. Like I’m a child.”
“You’re twenty, Annabelle.”
“And you’re twenty-one. That doesn’t make you a world-weary adult. We’re a team, Kelly. What’s more, we’re a great team. Don’t you dare start treating me like a child,” Annabelle says, smacking her lightly.
“I’m sorry,” she says again.
“Shut up,” Annabelle says. “Just stop cutting me out. Don’t forget- I was right by your side for two years, getting shot at and running from bad people.”
“Yeah,” Kelly says, shutting her eyes and knowing that it’s all her fault. “Yeah.”
Kelly wakes up in the early hours of the morning, Annabelle’s arm swung lightly over her waist. Kelly squints at the alarm clock, trying to make out the numbers. It’s four twenty in the morning. She’s only been asleep for a few hours. She licks her lips, trying to figure out what woke her up. She sniffs and starts to roll over, and then pauses, sniffing again. Then she bolts upright, shaking Annabelle.
“Wake up!” she snaps. “Wake up, the house is on fire.”
Annabelle bolts awake, two years of combat instincts built into her. “Go get the kids,” Annabelle says, already halfway out the door. “I’ll get the others, make sure they’re moving.”
Kelly shoves her feet into her boots and follows Annabelle out the door. All the kids have been kept on the ground floor with the teachers. There are only a few of them- ten total now. The rest have been sent to their parents or to what Peaches dismissively calls “caves”- small, tiny houses with steel built in the walls, trapdoors in the floors, and guns in every nook and cranny. Kelly is glad that most of them are gone. She can’t imagine this will help their nightmares any. They’re split between two rooms, used to living with many more and only comfortable sleeping in crowds.
Kelly doesn’t know where the fire is located, but she doesn’t see any flames on the ground floor. She throws open the first door and shakes Matron’s shoulder. “Matron,” she says. “Get up. There’s a fire, we need to evacuate the kids.”
Matron is awake instantly, and maybe she doesn’t have combat reflexes, but she does have the reflexes of the only medical personnel at St. Trinian’s. She’s up and sweeping the youngest girl into her arms, ignoring the sling she’s supposed to be using, before Kelly has even reached the second bed, shaking Tara’s shoulders and trying to seem reassuring. She moves onto the next bedroom as soon as the kids are following Matron, looking terrified but keeping calm, like any good Trinian’s girl would.
Miss Fritton is there, and Kelly wakes her quickly before moving onto Jemima. “Jemima,” she says. “Wake up, honey, we have to go.” Jemima murmurs sleepily and rolls over, tugging her pillow over her head. Kelly can’t help but smile- that is also a St. Trinian’s response. She looks over and sees Alex giving her a confused look. “Get the others up, Alex. The house is on fire, we have to go.”
Alex moves quickly, and finally Kelly just gives up on waking Jemima up and pulls her into her arms.
When they get out in the hall, Kelly frowns. It still smells like smoke, but she still doesn’t see any fire. She looks over at the stairwell and sees Annabelle leading the others downstairs.
“Do you see fire anywhere?” Kelly asks to anyone.
Annabelle shakes her head. “I didn’t, but are we really going to risk it?”
Kelly shifts Jemima in her arms and sighs. “Peaches, you have some more safe houses in London?”
Peaches rests her hand on her mother’s shoulder, frowning. Nimala nods slowly. “They aren’t specifically safe houses, but I do have a series of abandoned office buildings that we- well, used to run some unsavoury business deals out of. I haven’t used them in years, though, not since I first took over- they’re not even listed on the records of any of our shell companies. MI7 won’t know them.”
“All right,” Polly says, nudging past Yvette, who is clinging sleepily to Chelsea. “Let’s go. Just as a safety precaution.”
They start trekking out, but Kelly hangs back, looking around the hallway. Something doesn’t feel right. When St. Trinian’s was on fire, it was fast, deadly, specifically designed to ensure that no one could escape. The bomb and the fire that followed were meant to create massive casualties, and it was only dumb luck that allowed them to escape with injuries and only twelve deaths. This is too slow, and Kelly hasn’t even seen flames yet. She can’t figure out why this fire should be so slow. It’s almost like-
Kelly realizes instantly what MI7’s plan is.
“Get down!” she screams. “Get down, get down, get down!”
Kelly has never liked action films because she hates the concept that things slow down during a disaster. In her unfortunately extensive experience, things speed up when the danger is most imminent. Now isn’t an exception. She can hear the guns going off, but she’s already on the ground just outside the door, covering Jemima and reaching desperately for Alex. She can hear screams. She looks around wildly, seeing a bullet hit the ground only inches from her hand. The Kaluwitharanas keep potted plants all around their door, in a line and made of concrete, probably just for this reason. She scoots frantically, shoving Jemima behind the nearest planter, out of the line of fire. She rolls back, feeling an ugly stinging along her calf and knowing she’s been hit, but that doesn’t matter- she’s been shot before, and she knows the difference between a graze and a full on hit. She’s been grazed, and she’ll be fine, but Alex is still curled up in a ball in front of the door, covering her head and screaming.
Hunter Lowry was a gun runner.
She reaches Alex and drags her over to Jemima. Jemima and Alex immediately wrap their arms around each other, burying their faces in each other’s necks. Kelly sits up, still safely hidden behind the planter, listening for more snipers.
Hunter Lowry was a gun runner, and learned how to handle every gun herself. She took special delight in taking out her enemies herself. She never left it to her associates. It was always personal with Hunter.
And it’s always personal with Beth.
Kelly spares two seconds to hate herself for introducing them.
There are fewer shots now. Kelly glances around the planter and can see that most everyone has found a hiding spot. Except-
“Fuck,” she whispers. It’s Peaches’ father. He’s lying facedown, and he’s not moving. She leans out, hoping to reach him, but a bullet slams into the ground right next to her hand and she flings herself backwards. She feels a hand on her ankle and looks down to see Alex’s terrified face.
“Don’t,” Alex mouths at her. She grabs the girl’s hand and squeezes it tightly. When she was thirteen she was blowing up chemistry classrooms, solving plumbing issues, and trying to figure out how to become Head Girl. She wasn’t escaping burning buildings or getting shot at. Being a St. Trinian’s woman isn’t supposed to be about actually fighting for your life.
When she finds Beth, she’s going to kill her. If only because she took away this girl’s childhood.
She closes her eyes.
A moment later, there are hands on her shoulders. She snaps her eyes open and sees Polly looking down at her, eyes wide and scared and thinking. “We need to go,” Polly says, tugging her hand. For a moment, their earlier fight doesn’t matter. In times of crisis, St. Trinian’s women come together.
“The kids,” Kelly says, looking wildly at Alex and Jemima.
“Chloe and Anoushka are funneling them out. These two are the next to go,” Polly says, tugging more insistently. She’s keeping low, and Kelly hears another bullet hit the ground. The snipers are trying to keep them pinned in place, she realizes. She swallows, glancing around the planter. Peaches’ father- Suresh, his name was Suresh, he and Nimala flirted shamelessly in front of everyone- is still lying on the ground. He still isn’t moving.
“Suresh,” she says.
“There’s nothing we can do. John, Miriam, and Allen are staying here,” Polly says.
Kelly only knows John, but she guesses that the others must be other household servants in the Kaluwitharana home. She looks at Alex and Jemima, glances one more time at Suresh, and then lets Polly pull her along.
If there is one thing Kelly has learned from three years of having to make a run for it at a moment’s notice, is that you don’t spend a lot of time looking around. You focus on your destination and what’s in front of you. So it’s only after they’ve run for a few miles, slipping through alleys and climbing chain link fences, taking strange shortcuts through council housing and running over a bridge, that Kelly looks to see who she is with.
Polly and Annabelle, Harriet and Bianca, though she isn’t surprised by that grouping. Yvette, but no Chelsea, which does surprise her. She can place Anoushka and Chloe- and she hopes Chloe’s kids are all right, because she will never, ever forgive herself if they’ve been harmed- and she imagines Peaches is with John. She doesn’t know where Chelsea, Celia, Taylor, and Andrea would be, and she hopes they made it out all right. The kids and the last of the teachers, too. The Kaluwitharanas, who never asked for this.
She isn’t the praying sort, but she thinks she could become one.
Annabelle, who has been leading the way, draws to halt by a block of apartment buildings. Kelly presses a hand to her chest and tries to catch her breath.
“We need to reach Najwa,” Bianca says, inhaling sharply. “Fuck, I’m out of shape.”
“Why do we need to reach Najwa?” asks Yvette, looking around. She’s keeping watch for them, Kelly realizes. And if Chelsea trusts her, then she will too.
“They’re trying to put an end to this,” Annabelle says, running a hand through her hair. “They’re done being subtle-”
“Don’t think burning down a school is exactly subtle,” Bianca interjects.
“They need to tie up all the loose ends. We’re in the end stage now. Total annihilation,” Annabelle says. “It’s the only thing that makes sense, it’s the only reason why they would lure us out of the Kaluwitharanas’ house and open fire.”
“They’re going to kill Najwa to shut her up,” Harriet realizes. She rubs her hands over her face quickly. “Fuck.”
Polly licks her lips and shifts awkwardly. She isn’t wearing shoes. Kelly isn’t surprised. She and Annabelle have learned to keep their shoes by their bed, shoe laces yanked wide open so they can just slide their feet in, but they learned that after fleeing in the dead of night three times. She glances around. She and Annabelle are the only two with shoes on.
“Kelly, did she give you any hints about where she was going when you spoke to her?” Polly asks, jumping up and down and rubbing her hands along her arms. She isn’t looking at Kelly.
“No,” she replies, shaking her head. Their conversation was brief, but she imagines that she would remember if Najwa told her where she was going. “No, she didn’t tell me anything.”
“Are you sure?” asks Harriet. “She was- she liked riddles, she liked Buddhist kohns, she was practically obnoxious with how obscure and vague she liked to make things. She made people work for knowledge.”
Kelly hates this, she is so fucking done. She screams, keeping her mouth closed. She’s frustrated, but she isn’t going to bring their enemies down on their heads. She clenches her fists and smacks them against her thighs. Polly catches her wrist and yanks one hand away. “I don’t know!” she snaps, yanking her wrist out of Polly’s hand and glaring at her. “I’m not- I wasn’t close with her, when we were kids, and I’ve only ever really known her as The Grandmother and guess what? The Grandmother is practical and realistic and uses straightforward language because she’s a commander. The Najwa you knew is gone, guys. I’m sorry to say it, but St. Trinian’s Najwa is dead, and Pakistani leader Najwa is the only thing that remains.”
“Fucking bullshit,” Polly snaps, glaring back at Kelly. “We are the culmination of our experiences. We can’t just cut out a portion of our lives.”
“Well, she did! She isn’t the woman you know anymore! And neither am I, so back off!”
Kelly leans back against the brick wall and takes a deep breath. Polly stares at her, her mouth pinched and eyes narrowed. She looks like she wants to say something, but she doesn’t get the chance.
“Kelly,” Bianca says gently, shoving past Harriet, Polly, and Annabelle. She grabs Kelly’s hands and holds them gently. “Kelly, you’re an excellent fucking spy. The fucking best, blud. Najwa told you something because she knew either you would understand it, or one of us would. What did she tell you? You can do this.”
Kelly looks at Bianca. She looks gray and exhausted. She’s wearing boxers and a sports bra, she must be freezing. “She- she said she was a danger to Annabelle and Polly. She said she never agreed to get caught. She-” Kelly pauses and frowns. She wasn’t paying much attention to Najwa when she spoke, just trying to get her to come with her, but remembers now. She looks over at Polly. “She told me to tell you that London is calling.”
Harriet wrinkles her nose. “What the hell does that mean?”
Polly looks at Kelly, her eyes going wide. “London calling,” she breathes. “London- London Calling, as in The Clash.”
Bianca makes a face at Polly. She lets go of Kelly and backs up. “What are you talking about, mate?”
Polly starts to pace, her eyes darting everywhere. “The Clash was Najwa’s favourite band,” she explains.
“Really?” Harriet interrupts. “She never told me that.”
“Najwa- she liked to give each of us pieces of herself. She gave me her love of punk music. Her favourite album was London Calling and her- her favourite song was Guns of Brixton.” Polly pauses, her head snapping up. She looks wild and brilliant, and her smile is dangerous. It’s Kelly’s favourite smile, and it’s the first time she’s seen it in three years. And it isn’t directed at her. “I know where she is.”
Polly takes them to a long block of council housing in Brixton. Kelly can’t help but wrinkle her nose. She has friends who grew up in council housing, of course- Polly among them- but she’s never been able to get over her dislike for them. They’re dirty, more often than not, and the close press of people isn’t cozy, like it was at St. Trinian’s, but suffocating. Given how at home Bianca looks, though, and that Harriet seems somewhat comfortable as well, Kelly thinks that she may be the minority here.
Kelly glances at the doors around her. She’s seriously disturbed by council housing, far more than she’s ever been by the poor districts in Mumbai or Riyadh or Jimenez. There’s something acceptable about close housing and poverty conditions in cities around the world, but not so much here in Brixton. She’s aware- thanks to Polly- that a significant number of St. Trinian’s girls come from poor families, and that probably means some of them live in council housing, and she shouldn’t judge it- but she does.
“Najwa grew up in Brixton,” Polly tells them. “And for most of her life, she lived in this building. I visited her right after she graduated to get some tips on leading the Geeks. If she’s giving us clues that lead to Brixton, she’s pointing us here.” She stops in front of a door, biting her bottom lip. She glances at Harriet, then looks back at the door. Carefully, she raises a hand and knocks.
“It’s us,” Polly says softly. “If you’re there, please open the door.”
The door swings open almost immediately. Najwa is standing there, wearing jeans and a hoodie, no hijab in sight. Kelly is pretty sure it’s the first time she’s ever seen her hair, having always been in a different dorm or waking up much later. It’s a glossy black.
“The shooting is on the news,” Najwa says, ushering them inside quickly and giving a quick look outside before she closes the doors. “Is anyone hurt?”
None of them know quite what to say. Kelly looks at everyone, unsure, and then Harriet clears her throat. “Peaches’ father, we think. I don’t- it looked bad, what I saw.”
Najwa grimaces. “They’re closing in, I think. They have a plan.”
“Mostly involving our deaths, I think,” Annabelle says dryly.
“Oh, great. God, Chelsea is so lucky I love her,” Yvette mutters.
“We need our own plan,” says Kelly. Najwa points them toward a ratty, smelly old sofa. Kelly sits herself on it, figuring she’s sat on worse, and it looks like Najwa has hoovered recently, at least.
Najwa squints at them, grabbing a scarf off a chair and tossing it over her hair. “Then why are you here?”
“If they’re finishing up, they’re coming for you,” Harriet explains. She tugs the blanket on the back of Najwa’s sofa down and wraps it around herself and Bianca, tucking herself into Bianca’s side. Bianca drops her arm around Harriet and kisses her hair. Kelly looks away. The only empty place is next to Polly. Sighing, she settles herself against the arm where Polly is perching. Polly’s arms are covered in gooseflesh.
“We need clothes,” Kelly says abruptly, staring at Polly’s arms and then looking down at Bianca’s feet. “And shoes, if you have any.”
Najwa’s smile is serene, but just as deadly as Kelly remembers it being in Pakistan sunsets. “I have enough clothes to clothe an army. In all different sizes. One is not a fugitive in London without a variety of disguises.”
“Chelsea really needs to explain St. Trinian’s to me,” Yvette sighs. She is the first to stand though, tugging her ratty cardigan around her. “I’ll take whatever clothes you have, though. It’s fucking cold.”
“Bloody fuck, yes,” Bianca says, standing.
Kelly starts to follow them, but Polly grabs her arm, not looking at her. Kelly stops, waiting. If Polly is stopping her, there must be an important reason.
“We need to bandage your leg,” Polly says after a moment, jerking her chin down toward the floor. Kelly follows the angle of her chin and is surprised to see that her calf is covered in blood. She remembers belatedly getting hit by a bullet at some point.
She shrugs one shoulder, a mannerism she learned from Polly when they were young. “It’s fine. It’s just a graze.”
“I’m sure it’s fine, but you’re bleeding everywhere. You won’t be any good to us if you keep losing blood,” Polly points out. She raises an eyebrow, looking at Kelly out of the corner of her eye. “I could get Annabelle to drug you, if need be.”
Kelly feels herself almost smile, struggling to squash it. Polly finally meets her eyes, her smile cold and vacant. Kelly blinks a little. They’ve always been horrible at staying angry at each other, but this- this is different.
She really did it, she realizes. She destroyed nine years of friendship in just five minutes.
“No, we’d better save the drugs,” Kelly says, licking her lips and looking away again. “Just in case. Let’s get this taken care of.”
While everyone else is getting dressed, Polly carefully cleans her leg and examines the wound. She sits as still as possible. Her leg doesn’t hurt, really- probably a side effect of the adrenaline- but she isn’t going to tempt fate. Polly’s hands are sure and swift, but gentle, and soon her calf is swathed in bright white bandages that she got from Najwa. Polly stares at the bandages for a while, her hands resting lightly on Kelly’s calf, and behind the exhaustion and sadness in her eyes, Kelly thinks she can see a flicker of something else.
“You’ll survive,” Polly says. She stands up and her eyes go distant again, calculating, the flicker of something else disappearing abruptly. Kelly winces. “I’m going to find something to wear,” she says, and leaves Kelly sitting on the sofa.
Kelly follows after a beat. She’s cold, too.
Bianca takes it upon herself to microwave them all a couple of cans of soup, doling it out in mugs and bowls and whatever else she can find in Najwa’s small but functional kitchen. They’re all clothed in possibly the most ragtag, mismatched outfits ever, but Kelly doesn’t think any of them care. None of them are Posh-Totties, after all. They’re warm, at least. They have shoes. There’s soup. That’s all Kelly cares about. Najwa perches herself on a bookshelf and looks at them all. “What’s the plan then? I’m oddly reluctant to blow them up.”
“Your kids,” Annabelle murmurs. She’s sitting on the floor in front of the sofa, cradling her mug of soup between her hands.
“Shockingly, I’d rather them remember me as a woman who fought for her homeland than a woman who blew people up just because,” Najwa says dryly. She folds her arms. “The plan?”
Kelly can feel the heads all turning to look at her. But she has nothing for them. She has nothing except a week’s worth of exhaustion and three years worth of lies. She doesn’t know what to do, and she just- she isn’t Kelly Jones, Head Girl anymore. When she was sixteen and everyone looked to her, she still thought they were all invincible. She thought nothing would ever stop her. She thought she would win, no matter what.
It’s a lot easier to have all the answers when you think you have nothing to lose.
She lets out a slow breath through her teeth, trying to think of what to tell them. They’re looking to her for a plan for a reason. She can do this. One last time.
When she looks over at Polly, Polly’s eyes are on her. Calm and in control, just like when they were twelve and Kelly was planning tricks on the older girls, just like when they were fourteen and creating defense systems, just like when they were sixteen and getting the teachers reinstalled, just like when they were eighteen and saying goodbye. Even after days of doing little else other than argue with each other, even after wrecking their friendship, Polly still looks to her, ready for whatever she says.
“We lie,” Kelly announces, holding Polly’s gaze and feeling her heart break one more time. But Kelly is a spy. She forces her cocksure grin onto her face, trying to remember when she was seventeen and queen of the world.
She knows what to tell them.
And she knows what she needs to do.
None of them feel safe enough to contact the others, and Najwa offers to put them up for the night, tugging out blankets and helping them make various nests on the floor and sofa. Bianca and Harriet wind up on the sofa together, Harriet sleeping on top of Bianca and looking so comfortable that Kelly suspects it’s their preferred way of sleeping. She supposes it makes sense- Bianca is six feet tall in her stocking feet, while Harriet just clears five feet. Yvette creates a little nest for herself on the floor next to them, holding her mobile close. Polly, Annabelle, and Kelly wind up sleeping together in the remaining pile of blankets, and Najwa disappears into her bedroom.
Kelly can’t sleep.
It isn’t just the stress of the week, of the years, or concern that at any moment MI7 assassins will find them and kill them, though she has to admit that it’s a valid concern. It’s that she knows what to do, and she’s told them all a plan, and she hates it. But it’s necessary.
A little after six in the morning, Kelly slips out from underneath Annabelle’s arm and goes to Najwa’s bedroom, quietly opening the door and slipping inside. She presses her back against the door and looks at Najwa. Najwa sleeps curled in a tight ball, and Kelly can make out the outline of a gun on her nightstand.
“Najwa,” Kelly whispers from what she considers a relatively safe distance. Najwa bolts upright, reaching for the gun, just like Kelly thought she might. But she stops herself as soon as she recognizes Kelly and even in the dark, Kelly can see her frown. Her own lips quirk in response. Polly once complained that Najwa’s frown was etched into her face.
“Kelly? What’s wrong?” Najwa asks.
Kelly laughs, knowing it sounds bitter and harsh, but she can’t find it in herself to put on the mask right now. It’s dark, and this is Najwa. If anyone will understand Kelly right now, it’s Najwa. “What isn’t wrong would be the better question,” she says softly, picking her way in the dark to sit on the edge of the bed. Najwa moves to give her room, and Kelly tips herself back to lean on the wall, her legs dangling over the edge of the bed.
Najwa sighs and puts a hand on Kelly’s thigh. “Is that the question you want me to ask, then?”
Kelly smirks and closes her eyes. She has always appreciated that Najwa carefully asks what is needed, rather than making an assumption. Najwa never asks the wrong thing because she asks what the right question should be.
“I feel like I’m a failure,” Kelly confesses. She feels Najwa shift and holds up a hand, stopping whatever she was going to say. “Not because I’ve- I’ve let people die, or because I feel like I failed in my goals for these past three years, though that’s somewhat true. It’s because- because I know that I’m never going to stop disappointing everyone around me, and that the choices I’m making will… hurt people. Have hurt people already. And I’m doing it anyway.”
There’s a heavy pause. Kelly listens to the sounds of her breathing, listens to Najwa breathing, listens as they slowly synch their breathing in a way that she has always found to be almost unique to St. Trinian’s. Most schoolmates don’t slide into almost meditative breathing techniques together; but then, most schoolmates don’t have reason to.
“What are you planning, Kelly?”
Kelly opens her eyes and tips her head to the side, looking at Najwa and smiling faintly. “You understand sacrifice, I think, Najwa.”
Najwa nods once, short and clipped. “Of course. But I understand that the sacrifice has to actually be worth it.”
Kelly closes her eyes again, too tired and sore and just sad to argue this. “It is,” she says simply.
A hand slides into hers. Najwa’s skin is warm, and Kelly holds on tight, almost scared to let go. “Then I will support you and do whatever you ask of me.” She squeezes Kelly’s hand back. “Tell me what you need.”
In the morning, texts are sent out.
Shortly after, Chelsea sends a mass text that simply reads “I feel dirty.” It’s an old code- terribly old, in fact, so old that Kelly needs it explained to her by Polly and Harriet who have an unfortunate encyclopedic knowledge of St. Trinian’s codes. This code dates back to World War II, apparently, and it adds up to: meet at the Turkish Baths.
No one ever said codes had to be extremely complicated. They just need a reference that the people involved understand.
After a lengthy discussion, they decide that not everyone should go. It will bring too much attention, and as it is, they’re probably already being watched again. Kelly will go, and Bianca. The rest will remain at Najwa’s flat and work on contacting other St. Trinian’s women around England.
Apparently, they weren’t the only ones with the idea of sending only a few. Kelly is sitting on a bench outside the Turkish Baths with a newspaper, Bianca reading the local news section, Kelly the foreign, when Chelsea strolls up, followed by Anoushka and Taylor.
“Did everyone make it?” Kelly asks immediately when they stop by the bench.
“The kids are all right,” Anoushka says, and then hesitates. Her eyes go flinty. “Peaches’ father is dead.”
Kelly cringes, rubbing her temples. “How’s Peaches?”
Taylor shakes her head. “Devastated. Angry. She’s holding herself together, though. She’s waiting for the plan.”
Kelly looks around at everyone. They’re grim. Exhausted. She wonders how many of them have eaten since the shooting. She wonders how this is all happening without the government cracking down. She can’t imagine that no one noticed a house in Upper Belgrave getting shot up.
“Newspapers are saying the shooting was due to gang violence,” Bianca says, folding the newspaper and tucking it under her arm.
Taylor’s eyebrows shoot up. “In Belgrave?”
“They don’t know what to do,” Anoushka determines, looking to Kelly for confirmation. She nods. Anoushka has spent three years tending a bar frequented by spies of all nations. She knows the game at this point. “They expected to kill most of us last night, and then would have said it was for terrorism, yes? The Kaluwitharana family is known for being criminals, even if no one can prove it, and it would be easy to kill everyone and then say they were housing terrorists.”
“We screwed it up by living,” Kelly agrees.
“You’d think they’d figure out we’re a bit harder to kill, innit?” Bianca snorts. “That’s twice now they’ve set a death trap and we’ve dodged it.”
“They think we are schoolgirls. They believe we are foolish and just- little girls,” Anoushka agrees, shrugging.
“People are dying,” Chelsea says suddenly, her voice strangled. She’s been distant the entire time, glancing over her shoulder every few seconds. Kelly wonders how well she knew Peaches’ father. “We might be avoiding a mass death, but we’re still dying. We need to strike back. We need to end this.”
Kelly nods. “We have a plan.”
“Good,” Chelsea says, her voice hard. “What do you need?”
The plan is fucking simple. And stupid. Kelly hates every aspect of it, even though she made it up, because it relies far too much on the belief that MI7 is made up of fools. MI7 has underestimated St. Trinian’s, but they’ve never been stupid in and of themselves. They won’t fall for the same thing twice, and Kelly knows it. She suspects that Annabelle and Polly are suspicious, but it doesn’t matter. The plan just needs to mobilize everyone because while the plan won’t work, her other plan will.
Kelly will call Beth and tell her that she’ll turn herself in for the opportunity to strike certain names from the list of St. Trinian’s criminals. They’ll arrange a point to meet so that they can negotiate her new contract. It makes sense, Taylor argues, for Kelly to be willing to sell out the women she doesn’t know in order to save the ones she does. It’s a St. Trinian’s tactic, underhanded and vicious and self-serving. It plays into how Beth sees St. Trinian’s women.
But it will be a ploy. When Beth arrives with her team to collect Kelly, to negotiate, the rest of St. Trinian’s will come down on their heads, eliminating the threat. It will be a message to the rest of MI7, a promise, a message, a warning. St. Trinian’s women know what it is to fight and survive, and they will do whatever it takes to protect their own.
Messages have gone out, taken around the city by St. Trinian’s women who aren’t under a microscope. In times of crisis, it doesn’t matter what walks of life they’ve chosen. They will help each other no matter what. So Eve Anderson, detective inspector, chats with Tammy, arsonist extraordinaire, and Emily Toshiba, forger and fence, passes messages to Terri Loveland, librarian, who passes them to Janice Towers, factory worker. If the women themselves won’t be there, then their equipment, their expertise, their ideas will be. If they are not there, then they are holding back the police, or creating distractions, or getting people out of the country. They all have a part to play, they’re all essential in this machine of a plan.
And it’s all a lie.
Kelly sits on Najwa’s sofa, carefully cleaning her HK Elite. She keeps her focus small, trying not to look around the room at the gathering of women who are handing out weapons, communication devices, rolling out blueprints for their designated meeting place and deciding who will be where. She doesn’t want to see Polly tacking up the blueprints and color coding battalions. She doesn’t want to see Annabelle carefully adjusting Harriet’s stance, her arms around her as she murmurs instructions on how to aim, how to take the recoil, how to bend the elbows. She doesn’t want to see Najwa talking about how ambushes work best, or Bianca shouting down the phone at one of her friends who works down by the river. Peaches is handing out handguns, Chloe the newest design of earbuds. Chelsea is encoding messages and decoding them as they come in.
It’s all in vain, because Kelly has no intention of being rescued. The lie isn’t the bargain; the lie is everything else.
She trusts that Annabelle can handle bringing down the rest of MI7, including Hunter. If anyone can bring down Hunter, terrifying psychopath that she is, it’s Annabelle. She trusts the others to protect themselves. But Kelly has tried to live her life around one philosophy these past few years: you don’t help bring down a St. Trinian’s girl. If she follows through with the plan, she already knows Beth will see right through it, will escape, and will probably take out a large number of them as she goes. And no matter how easily they use military language and tactics, they are not soldiers.
Only one person here is, and that’s Kelly.
She can’t go back, either, for the same reason. All St. Trinian’s women, no matter how old or how young or how depraved or how good, are her family. She can’t draw a line in the sand- only these women and no others- which she would have to do if she worked for Beth again.
She can’t stay. She can’t go. There’s really only one option left for her. Kelly glances up at Najwa, who catches her eye and nods briefly. Kelly looks back down at her gun, carefully putting it back together.
They move in two days.
Kelly just has one.
She picks up her phone and sends a text.
That night, she rolls over and kisses Annabelle. She doesn’t care that there are fifteen girls sleeping on the floor and the sofa, in chairs and tables and wherever else they could find the room in Najwa’s tiny flat. She doesn’t care. She needs to kiss her, needs to touch her, wants to run her hands over Annabelle’s stomach and tangle her fingers in her hair. She wants to feel her.
Annabelle kisses her back, just as fierce, but then pulls back, her smile bright. “We can’t,” she whispers. “There are fifteen other women in here.”
“I thought you liked more adventurous sex,” Kelly murmurs, rolling on top of Annabelle and smiling down at her. She can see the dark shape of Polly a few feet away, her chest rising and falling slowly. She can also see Chelsea sprawled out just a few inches above Annabelle’s head. She doesn’t care.
Annabelle laughs softly and leans up, capturing Kelly’s lips with her own. “I do,” she says, “but not in front of my schoolmates.”
“Thought that would be your favourite part,” Kelly says, and bends to kiss Annabelle’s collarbone. Annabelle wiggles beneath her and Kelly grins into her sternum.
“Maybe,” Annabelle hedges, as close as an admission that Kelly is going to get, “but we can’t. Not now.”
She sighs and lets herself drop so she’s lying on top of Annabelle, burying her face in the crook of her neck and shoulder, breathing in her scent. Annabelle reaches up and strokes her hair, gentle and calm, just like she’s managed to be for two years now. Kelly reaches over and grabs Annabelle’s free hand, tangling their fingers together.
“I love you, you know that, right?” Kelly asks softly.
“Yeah,” Annabelle says, sounding amused and surprised all at once. “Of course. I love you, too.”
Kelly shuts her eyes. She waits a long time until she feels Annabelle’s breathing even out, feels the slight twitch of her arms and legs as she drifts into deeper sleep and then, very carefully, sits up. Annabelle doesn’t wake, just sighs slightly and shifts. Kelly pulls the blanket up to cover her and stands, glancing around the room. Everyone else is still asleep as well. She gives them a quick look over, trying to memorize their shapes in the darkness.
She doesn’t have a choice, but that doesn’t mean she likes what she has to do.
Kelly carefully steps over people and opens the door to Najwa’s bedroom. Najwa is sitting in the middle of the bed, her legs crossed. She meets Kelly’s eyes instantly.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” Najwa asks, calm. She doesn’t even seem like she’s judging Kelly. She just seems… sad. Tired, maybe, but then, Kelly imagines she misses her children and her home and a fight that was a little less fruitless than this.
Kelly nods. “Of course. This is the only way.”
“It isn’t, you know,” Najwa says quietly, watching her as she walks around the room, picking up the pieces she’s hidden in here the past few days in order to prevent Annabelle or Polly from figuring out what she was really going to do.
“Of course it is,” Kelly snorts. “Otherwise I wouldn’t be doing it.”
“You could tell Annabelle or Polly. Peaches. Chelsea. Anybody else. They could help you. They could come up with a plan that will actually work, rather than the flimsy one you threw together in order to lift everyone’s spirits and throw them off the track.”
Kelly scowls and glares over at Najwa. She hasn’t moved from the bed, still sitting with her legs folded. She’s holding the last piece Kelly needs for the plan in her lap. “If I bring them in on this, I risk their lives.”
“I think they’d be willing, if it meant you wouldn’t go through with this.”
Kelly drops her head into her hands, sighing. There are tears pricking at her eyes, but she ignores them, as she has done for three days now. “Najwa, you’d do anything for your children, right? Absolutely anything?”
“Yes. But Kelly, my children aren’t grown women who’ve been making plans and running heists for years. My children are children.”
Kelly ignores her. She knows Annabelle wants her to remember that they’re partners, she knows that Polly has looked like her world shattered since Kelly told her she didn’t need her, but Kelly knows, knows that neither of them is prepared to deal with this. And they shouldn’t have to. This is Kelly’s responsibility. She’s the one who joined MI7 without reading the fine print, thinking that being a spy would be fun and exciting. She’s the one that dragged Annabelle and Polly into this. She’s the one who hunted St. Trinian’s women for three years without thinking, really thinking, about what MI7’s endgame could be. This is her fault and, therefore, her job to fix.
“Is it ready?” she asks, turning to Najwa and hoisting her bag over her shoulder.
Najwa nods. “Of course.”
She doesn’t move, and Kelly sighs. “Can I have it, please?”
Najwa’s jaw tightens briefly, the only sign that she’s upset, and she hands Kelly the bomb she’s been piecing together since Kelly asked three days ago. “Polly’s never going to forgive me,” she says softly and for a moment, Kelly hesitates. Because it’s one thing to know that Polly will never forgive her, another to know that she’s dragging Najwa down with her. But then she takes the bomb, tucking it quickly in her bag, and shrugs, suddenly angry. Angry because Najwa is trying to guilt her into staying, and Kelly needs to leave, and she would have thought Najwa would understand.
“To be honest, Najwa? I don’t think Polly was ever going to forgive you for leaving her in the first place.”
Najwa’s smile is angry. “Well, you’d know.”
Kelly ignores her and tugs open the window, slipping out into the dark streets. There’s no point in saying goodbye.
Kelly has spent three years lurking in shadows, it seems. There are glamorous aspects to being a spy- she attends fancy balls sometimes, drives beautiful cars on rare occasions. But her life is no James Bond film. She spends most of time in alleys and crowds, spends far too much time in warehouses and factories, either abandoned or not. She has crawled through sewers, not nearly as large as the cinema makes them out to be, and she’s hidden in closets. She’s sat in cafes for hours, drinking bad coffee and terrible tea, just hoping for someone to give her a hint about what her next job should be. She’s pushed a broken down car up hills and run after it when it went down the hill. She’s been given a hickey by a mule. Her life has not been glamorous, overall.
Tonight is no exception. They selected a warehouse to meet Beth and, more specifically, selected the warehouse where Beth kept Kelly when she returned to England. The same warehouse that the others rescued her from. The Warehouse of Maximum Cliché, as Chelsea calls it. It was largely for practical reasons- they only had three days to put together their assault, and this warehouse was familiar to them already. But it was also symbolic. St. Trinian’s women enjoy their symbolism.
When Kelly was captured, she thought they were going to kill her in that warehouse. It’s astonishing how things haven’t changed much in a month. She smiles bitterly to herself, carefully pulling out her files and the portable hard drives that Polly keeps all the information on. Polly’s been hauling her hard drives and flash drives everywhere. Kelly doesn’t want to imagine her face when she finds them missing.
She stacks them all onto a table, thinking about the information she’s managed to gather on her sisters and schoolmates over the years. She’s found enough information to annihilate entire industries. She could cripple governments if she gave away the wrong bit of information on the wrong St. Trinian’s woman. It’s too much. Nobody should have all that information. Not MI7. Not her. Kelly sits herself on top of the table, her bag in her lap, three years worth of information around her, and waits.
She waits for maybe two hours, and then she hears the familiar near silent shuffle of Beth’s shoes. Kelly doesn’t bother to turn, knowing with unerring accuracy that Beth has a gun trained on her head, just in case. She just sits and waits, because she knows that Beth won’t just kill her. She’ll need to talk to her first. She’ll need to see if her asset is salvageable.
“I had my people sweep the building,” Beth says, finally walking around to where Kelly can see her. She is holding a gun. Kelly bites back a smile. She likes knowing that she can still predict her employer.
“And?” Kelly asks, knowing perfectly well what she’ll have found.
“You didn’t bring backup,” Beth says.
“No,” Kelly says. “You taught me to rely on no one.”
Beth smirks and lowers her gun. “Didn’t think you tried to learn anything from me. Thought you were too busy betraying your country.”
“Betraying MI7 isn’t the same as betraying my country.”
“MI7 is part of the government,” Beth says sharply. “Betraying one is betraying the other.”
“Then I’m a traitor,” Kelly replies easily. “It isn’t the worst of the things I am.”
Murderer, her brain supplies helpfully. Liar. All in all, being a traitor doesn’t really mean much to her, not anymore. Some St. Trinian’s women hold true to the idea of Queen and country, but they are few and far between. Kelly used to be one of them. She used to believe in government, in her government.
She was wrong.
Beth frowns tightly, the look strange. She’s usually smirking or smiling, a vicious little psychopath smile. “You know, I worked in MI5 and MI6 for years before I was recruited to MI7. I’ve seen people loyal to all sorts of causes. I’ve rarely met people as loyal to an idea as your people are to your school. I’ve never understood it.”
Kelly sighs and lets her hand rest on the files that Annabelle put together for her over the years. Dossiers of women scattered all over the world; some expatriates, others still citizens, just prone to travel. Surveillance photos and yearbook photos all mixed together. Her other hand remains on her bag in her lap.
“Have you ever been alone, Beth?” she asks, feeling the need to explain. Beth will never understand. She’ll never even try. Nonetheless, Kelly feels an urge to make her understand, to force her to see that the criminals she’s been killing are also people. “Have you ever stood in a crowd of people and known that you will never, ever fit with a single person around you? That no matter what you do, these people will never understand you?”
Beth purses her lips and shifts her grip on her gun, letting it rest on her thigh. “No,” she says, a brief moment of honesty. Beth is a sociopath, in Kelly’s humble opinion. She lacks the ability to empathize even as she is the best of chameleons. It doesn’t really surprise Kelly that she doesn’t understand the sense of being so utterly alone because Beth, at least, knows how to blend in a way that St. Trinian’s women either never learned or never wanted to learn.
“Then you wouldn’t understand what draws us all to St. Trinian’s. It’s being alone your entire life and then, suddenly, miraculously, finding that you were never as alone as you imagined. That there were people who would stand by your side simply because you were there, and you were real, and you helped them not be alone anymore, too,” Kelly says. It’s the only way she can explain St. Trinian’s.
“MI7 could have been that for you, Kelly,” Beth says, and she actually sounds sympathetic. Almost regretful.
Kelly smiles sadly. “No, Beth. You couldn’t. Because you’re loyal to an idea- Queen and country, patriotism, whatever you want to call it. I’m loyal to people, and I’ll do whatever it takes to defend them.”
“Including work for MI7 again,” Beth says.
Kelly slowly moves opens her bag, never letting her eyes leave Beth’s. She needs to keep Beth distracted for just a little while longer. She just needs a few more minutes, and then she’ll be able to end all of this.
“You were never going to let me come back, Beth,” Kelly says.
Beth’s abstract smile sharpens suddenly, a shark grin with too many teeth. “No,” she agrees, shrugging eloquently. “I would never be sure of loyalty. How could I be? You betrayed us once. It’s easier, after that.”
“Are you going to kill me, Beth?” Kelly asks. She doubts it. Beth, despite her casual cruelty and blasé attitude towards human life, rarely kills people herself. The gun in her hand is for show. Beth loves to torture people, but she finds killing dull. Beth is here to point a gun and keep her still enough for other people to kill her.
This is what Bianca, Chelsea, Peaches, and Polly missed while they were finessing this one final plan: Kelly knows Beth, knows what she would do, knows how she thinks. And Beth isn’t stupid. Beth knows a trap when she sees one. Beth knows when a deal is too good to be true. Beth knows how to make contingency plans. Beth has people all over this building to protect her and kill Kelly and whoever else is with her, and that’s how it would have been if Kelly had done this according to their plan. Her friends would have been killed while someone put a bullet through her brain from long distance. Kelly would never allow that.
The zipper is almost all the way open now. All she has to do is slip her hand inside and push a button, and everything will be over in ten seconds. Kelly can take out Beth and her operatives in one fell swoop.
“Do you want me to kill you?” Beth asks. It sounds genuine. “You’re going to die either way. If you’d prefer it were me doing the killing, I can make that happen.”
Kelly remembers when she first met Beth. Beth was the one who recruited her, still two months from graduating. She’d seemed sweet and sly and smart, and Kelly has always been fond of people who are all three. She’d reminded her of Polly, if Polly were more charismatic and open. She was sincere and enthusiastic and Kelly had been seduced by the idea of being a spy, of bringing England’s enemies to justice. And it was silly, really; it was too good to be true. But Beth had a way of making everything sound ideal and perfect, and Kelly wanted to do something with her life, not just sit at home trying to teach herself to knit.
Now, she sounds the same way: sweet, sly, smart, and sincere. And she’s talking about putting a bullet through Kelly’s brain, and Kelly still wavers, just for a moment.
In that moment, all hell breaks loose.
There are sudden gunshots and Beth swings around, raising her gun up at the catwalk above them. Kelly jumps to her feet, forgetting the bomb in her bag and pulls her own weapon, not sure who is attacking. Beth turns to look at her, and Kelly forgets all about the idea of a sweet, sincere Beth- she looks enraged, her eyes wide and her mouth pulled back into a snarl.
“Who did you call?” she screams. Her gun is pointing right at Kelly’s chest. Kelly keeps her gun even with Beth’s head. This is not how she intended it to end.
“I didn’t call anyone,” she yells back, because she didn’t. She didn’t tell anyone what her plan was, not Annabelle or Polly or Peaches or-
She told Najwa.
And Najwa was never her friend. Najwa was always, always Polly’s friend.
Beth must see the realization in her face, because her face contorts with rage. “What did you do?” she asks, less a question and more a demand. She lifts her gun a little higher. If she fired now, her bullet would go straight through Kelly’s neck.
“They aren’t supposed to be here,” Kelly insists. Keeping her gun aimed at Beth’s head, she gestures to her bag, forgotten on the table. “I came here to make you a deal.”
Beth glances at the bag, but her arm doesn’t waver. Kelly learned how to fire a gun when she was taking anger management courses at St. Trinian’s, but Beth was the one who honed her skills. If Kelly really thinks about, she owes her entire set of survival skills to St. Trinian’s or Beth. It’s a terrifying thought.
“What’s your deal?” she asks.
Kelly licks her lips. “It’s a simple deal. You back off, or I blow us both up, here and now.”
Beth lets out a bark of laughter. “Oh, that’s cute, Ms. Jones. Really. Bargaining really isn’t your strong suit.” Kelly doesn’t laugh. She knows Beth doesn’t believe her, but that doesn’t matter. Beth sees Kelly’s face and lets her face settle back into its customary vicious smirk. “You know, I do believe that you came here with every intention of killing us both. You love the idea of self-sacrifice. You love the idea of dying for your friends. But Kelly?” Her smile widens, terrifying and cruel.
“What?” Kelly asks, guarded. That’s Beth’s victory smile.
“Your friends are here now. You can’t blow us up.”
Kelly knows instantly what Beth intends and pulls the trigger even as she’s flinging herself to the side. She can hear both shots as she tumbles to the ground, her right thigh flaring with red hot pain all of a sudden. She lands on her back, one hand going to her thigh and the other raising the gun and pointing it aimlessly. Beth is a few feet away, crouched on the ground, holding her arm. She’s breathing heavily.
Kelly takes the moment to check her leg. It’s bleeding, but she’s pretty sure it just clipped her. It isn’t serious. She drags herself to her feet, keeping an eye on Beth.
“You shot me,” Beth says, her voice low.
Kelly staggers a little, trying to avoid putting weight on her leg. “Seven years St. Trinian’s, three years MI7, I’d hope I know how to shoot.”
Beth looks up at her, eyes dark. “You shot me.” She sounds, if possible, even more furious. It’s all the warning she gets before Beth lunges at Kelly, forgetting about the gun in her hand. Kelly tries to dive to the side, but her leg buckles and she falls, landing on her knees, lifting her gun instinctively. She could shoot Beth, she knows- she knows she should shoot Beth, but she can’t do it. She stares down the barrel at Beth and doesn’t pull the trigger again.
Beth scrambles after her and gets in underneath her guard, knocking her gun to the ground. Kelly tries to grab it, but Beth punches her, sharp and swift in the jaw. Her next hit slams into her thigh, right where the gun wound is. Kelly sucks in a sharp breath, falling backwards and grabbing her leg.
Beth crawls on top of her, wrapping her hands around Kelly’s neck. She lets go of her leg, grasps at Beth’s hands and tries to pry them off, but Beth is strong, much stronger than she looks, and Kelly feels like an idiot because wasn’t it Beth who always bragged about how people underestimated her? Wasn’t it Beth who trained her in hand-to-hand? She forces herself to focus, to ignore the fact that she’s not getting any air, and balls her hand into a fist, punching Beth hard and hearing the satisfying sound of her nose breaking. Beth lets her go immediately, her hands flying up to stem the flow of blood. Distantly, Kelly can hear more gunshots and screams, but she doesn’t pay attention to them. She pushes Beth off of her quickly and struggles to her feet, lifting her hands immediately to fight her off again.
Beth clambers up, blood flowing down her face. Her face is- not at all like the Beth that Kelly has known for three years. Her eyes are blazing with hatred and rage and she isn’t suave and charismatic anymore. Kelly knew already that this was the real Beth, the Beth that no one saw, but it’s shocking to actually see it painted on her face.
“I’m going to kill you,” Beth says, her words somewhat garbled but still chilly. “And then I’m going to find Annabelle, and I’m going to peel her skin away and laugh as she cries for you. And once she’s dead, I’ll find Polly again- she was so easy to capture the first time, did you know?- and I’ll make her beg. You aren’t going to come out of this alive, Kelly, and your death will just mean that everyone else will get to die, too.”
Kelly feels something inside of her snap. She screams and dives at Beth, lashing out with everything she has ever learned about martial arts and hand-to-hand and surviving. She remembers boxing at St. Trinian’s, and fencing, and field hockey, and she remembers making Polly smile for the first time, making her laugh; she remembers meeting Annabelle and the way she raised her chin, trying so hard to act something that she wasn’t. She remembers the school burning and covering Jemima while bullets flew around her. She’s been waiting three years to fall apart, weeks of holding back her breakdown, and now. Now it’s time to let it go. She’ll take it as it comes.
When the haze clears, Beth is underneath her, bleeding and laughing and Kelly pauses, because her hands are around Beth’s throat in a strange role reversal and they’re covered in blood and she’s angry and scared and she’s a wreck, but this is the first time she’s felt like she had a real choice in killing someone.
And Kelly has killed a lot of people in three years, but she never had a real choice. Even when she was going to blow herself and Beth up, she felt like it was her only option. This is the first time she’s been a free agent, and she isn’t sure if this is how she wants to live her life, knowing that she pinned a woman beneath her- a woman who was bleeding and helpless, a woman she could take to her friends- and killed her with her bare hands.
The hesitation is enough. Beth flips her, quickly and efficiently because Beth was an excellent instructor and an even better fighter, and Kelly finds herself pinned much more thoroughly this time.
“You’re too soft, Jones,” Beth says softly. Kelly blinks hazily. It was the first thing Beth said to her after a training session, when she took Kelly apart swiftly and methodically. Kelly never considered herself soft- how could she, she was from St. Trinian’s- but Beth told her repeatedly that she was too kind, too sweet, too willing to let an enemy take advantage of her. Beth told her, three years ago, that hesitating would end up killing her.
She was right, Kelly realizes. She wonders how long Beth has known she would betray her, and if Beth trains agents so that she knows exactly how to exploit them when the time comes to eliminate them.
Kelly wishes she had realized this two weeks ago. For all that she knew Beth, she didn’t know Beth well enough.
Beth reaches over and picks up a discarded gun- Kelly’s, she realizes, recognizing her HK Elite, knowing it far too well. Beth smiles at her, her nose still pouring blood, blood in her eyes, her face scratched upon from Kelly’s nails. “Here’s the only deal you were ever going to get, Jones: you lose,” she says, and places the barrel of the gun against Kelly’s forehead. “I win.” Kelly closes her eyes.
The gunshot is loud, but not nearly as loud as Kelly expected it to be with the gun pressed against her head. She frowns and opens her eyes.
Beth is staring down at her, eyes frozen and glazed over in death, a round hole in her forehead. Her body remains upright for a moment longer and then topples over. Kelly scrambles out from under her, mortified, and immediately swings around, looking for the sniper.
On the catwalk above her, Polly is standing, a smoking gun in her hand.
Kelly doesn’t remember much after that.
Everything is very loud for a while, and too bright. She stares up at Polly for a long while, and Polly stares down at her, but then Annabelle is by her side, somehow, and she can see Peaches very gently take the gun away from Polly, who has yet to break eye contact with her. She sees Peaches collapse just afterward. Annabelle leads her away, and then Chloe takes her, carefully cleaning her wounds and murmuring soft things, singing gentle lullabies and childish tunes that Kelly hasn’t heard since she was a toddler. Miss Fritton is there, and Matron, and there are other people too, but Kelly doesn’t see them.
“There’s a bomb,” she says eventually, loudly, to no one in particular. There are too many people around her, and Beth is dead, and nothing is making much sense. “It’s in my bag.”
“Why is there a bomb in your bag, Kelly?” asks Andrea, and she sounds so gentle and kind that Kelly can’t help but start crying because this is all wrong.
“Because I was going to blow us up, so that she couldn’t hurt you anymore,” she says, and then she tips sideways into Anoushka, who mutters in Russian, and it’s more soothing right now because Kelly spent three weeks speaking nothing but Russian when she was just out of St. Trinian’s and in some ways it’s more familiar than English.
She remembers more lights and more sounds, and she remembers blood and bruises. Not her own, but others. While she was with Beth, the others were storming the warehouse for the second time in a month in order to rescue her, and there were more injuries this time because this time there were trained MI7 agents and not just regular guards.
She remembers Annabelle holding her wrists in her hands and kissing her fingertips.
And then- nothing.
She wakes up in an unfamiliar bed in an unfamiliar room. She blinks, reaching up to wipe her eyes and winces. She looks down at her hands. Her knuckles are covered in gauze and tape, and her one wrist is carefully wrapped. She touches her right eye with her fingertips and winces again. It’s probably black. She slides her hands down her body and her fingertips catch along bandages wrapped around her torso. Her ribs. She forgot. She carefully flexes the muscles in her legs. She feels bruised, but she doesn’t think anything is broken. There’s a new bandage around the bullet wound in her calf.
Carefully, slowly, Kelly pushes herself upright. She pauses, looking down at the foot of the bed. Annabelle is sprawled out, her face mashed into the bedclothes. She looks exhausted, even in sleep. The side of her face that Kelly can see is completely bruised, from chin to temple. Her arms are wrapped in bandages, wrist to elbow. She looks awful. Kelly stares at her for a long while, and then reaches out to touch the tips of Annabelle’s hair where it’s spread out on the covers.
“Annabelle,” she whispers. Annabelle doesn’t even move. Usually she wakes up at just the barest movement, the slightest sound, but not this time. Kelly watches her sleep for a moment, and then gently eases herself out from under the sheets. She doesn’t just want to sit here and watch Annabelle sleep; she needs to find out how the others are.
She slides out the door to her bedroom, finding that she’s in Chloe’s house, it looks like. There are toys scattered around in the hallway, and piles of laundry that seem to be made up of tiny clothes. She can hear quiet voices down at the end of the hall, so that’s where she heads, limping a little.
She walks into a kitchen and finds Polly sitting in an uncomfortable looking wooden chair, Hannah curled up on her lap and sucking her thumb. Chloe is standing by the sink, Hazel carefully cradled in one arm, the other arm being used to stir a pot of what smells like stew on the stove.
They both look all right. Chloe’s lip is split and she seems to be favouring her right side a little, but she’s mobile and able to juggle a child and cooking, so Kelly thinks she’s probably okay. Polly looks pale, but unharmed. She looks up when Kelly walks in, her face blank.
“You’re up,” she says simply.
“I’m feeling a sense of déjà vu, actually,” Kelly admits, walking to sit down in the chair next to Polly and holding out her arms to Hannah. To her surprise, Hannah buries herself further into Polly, hiding her face in Polly’s ugly jumper. Kelly blinks, but drops her arms in her lap. “I think I wandered into a kitchen and found you with Hazel, last time, but still.”
“Yes,” Polly says, nodding. She stands up, scooping Hannah with her. Hannah shoves her face further into Polly’s neck, wrapping her arms and legs around her. Polly gives Kelly a cold, distant nod, and then turns to look at Chloe. “I think Hannah is ready for a story. Would you like me to take Hazel as well?”
Chloe nods and Polly shifts Hannah over into one arm, taking Hazel in her other, balancing a child on each hip in a way that seems dangerous to Kelly but Polly does with ease. Polly walks by her, not even giving Kelly a final glance. Kelly watches her leave, listening to her quiet murmurs about pigeons and hotdogs and how yes, she’ll do the voices. Then she turns back to Chloe.
“How is she?”
Chloe raises her eyebrows. “She’s got some bruises, but she’ll live.” She turns back to the stove, stirring as though the world will end if she stops. Kelly watches her. That wasn’t what she meant, but she suspects Chloe knows that. She doesn’t understand any of Polly’s relationships anymore, but the one between her and Chloe is perhaps the strangest. They could barely stand one another in school. Polly tended to avoid the Posh-Totties as a general rule, and while she and Chloe were always cordial, they were never friends.
Now, apparently, Chloe will lie in order to protect Polly. From Kelly. She can feel her gut twisting.
“Chloe,” she says softly.
Chloe twists to look at her over her shoulder. “Kelly,” she says.
Kelly sighs. “Chloe, is she okay? Really.”
“Well, let’s see. Her best friend, her friend since she was twelve- her friend she’s been in love with since we were kids, mind you- ran off with the intention of blowing herself up with a bomb and, in order to save her stupid best friend, she shot and killed a woman. And all of this was after, by the way, said best friend and love of her life basically said that she didn’t want her around anymore.” Chloe turns around, her spoon dripping stew on the floor. She doesn’t seem to notice. “Yeah, she told me about that. How do you think she’s doing?”
Kelly looks down at her hands and starts to pick at the bandages around her knuckles. She doesn’t want to see what they look like underneath the gauze and tape. “Not great, then.”
“She’ll survive,” Chloe says simply, turning back to her stew. She pulls down a bowl from the cupboard and ladles out a generous portion, putting it in front of Kelly. “Eat.”
“The others? Is everyone…” Kelly trails off, not wanting to ask if she’ll be attending funerals in the next few weeks. She’s kept track of everyone she’s ever killed. She doesn’t want to add her school friends to that list.
Chloe sits down across from her with her own bowl of stew. “Peaches will be in the hospital for about a week. Maybe longer. Taylor has a broken arm. Anoushka needs to see a dentist- she’s missing a few teeth. Everyone else has cuts and bruises, but they’ll be okay.”
Kelly picks up her spoon. “What happened to Peaches?”
“She was shot,” Chloe says. She says it easily, but when Kelly glances up at her, she can see how pale she is, how tightly she’s holding herself. “Collapsed lung.”
“Where was John?” Kelly asks, shocked. Of everyone, she’s never worried about Peaches, because Peaches has had John her entire life. Kelly can’t even imagine Peaches without John hovering somewhere in the background, wandering the grounds, driving the car. As long as he was alive, Kelly is sure he’d never allow anything to happen to his Miss Priya.
“He was unconscious. She got shot protecting him.”
“Is he all right?”
“Concussion. He hasn’t left Peaches’ bedside. He texts me every half hour with her condition.”
Kelly nods slowly. “They’ll be all right,” she says, and takes a bite of the stew. It’s good, she realizes, even though she can barely taste it. She doesn’t feel like eating, though she knows she has to.
“Yes,” Chloe says, nodding too.
They sit in silence for a while, carefully spooning stew into their mouths. Kelly can hear Polly down the hall, whisper-shouting something about driving a bus. Hannah and Hazel are giggling, the sound of their voices making something in Kelly’s chest relax.
“I should talk to her,” Kelly says, putting her spoon down.
Chloe pauses, her spoon hovering above her bowl. “About what?”
“She’s never- she-”
“She’s never killed someone?” Chloe asks, her eyebrows going up again. “Is that what you’re getting at?”
Kelly nods. “Yeah. And… I have. I should- I should make sure she’s okay.”
“Are you okay?” Chloe asks.
It’s a strange question, and Kelly stares blankly at Chloe. Kelly knows, intellectually, that she’s not okay. She hasn’t been okay in years, and she knows that- she’s been struggling to hold it together for weeks now. But no one has asked her if she’s all right, if she’s okay, if she’s going to make it through. Chloe is the first person to ask her and she doesn’t know what to say. She doesn’t know which question to answer, because there are a lot of things Chloe could be asking about.
“I’ve killed a lot of people for the job, Chloe,” she settles on saying.
“And are you okay with that?” Chloe asks again. She puts her spoon down. “Because Polly needs to talk to someone who has come to terms with killing a person, not someone who still throws up about it at inopportune moments.”
Kelly snorts. “Other than Annabelle, I’m the only one who has killed people, so she’s not exactly spoiled for choice here.”
“No you’re not,” Chloe says, pushing her bowl away from her. “I’ve killed someone.”
She’d forgotten. She’d honestly forgotten that the reason James wasn’t around anymore was because Chloe killed him. The last time Kelly was in London, she’d helped Chloe move in with James, her belly growing big with Hannah. James had laughed at the number of clothes that Chloe had. He’d made an excellent casserole for supper. He’d played salsa music and butchered the tango, Chloe giggling and yelling at him to stop. James had kissed Kelly’s cheek when she left.
And a little over a year later, Chloe had killed him.
“I forgot,” Kelly whispers, stunned.
“I didn’t,” Chloe says, standing and clearing the bowls, taking them over to the sink. “I can’t forget. But I’ve come to terms with it. And I’ve forgiven myself. Can you say the same?”
Kelly licks her lips. “No,” she says after a moment. “I guess I can’t.”
Chloe tips her head down, and then turns around, folding her arms over her chest. “Then I’ll talk to Polly about how to live with killing someone. You talk to her about trying to kill yourself.”
Kelly wants to protest that, wants to say, I wasn’t trying to kill myself because she wasn’t, that wasn’t the goal. It was just the end result. But Polly has never really been the sort of person for whom the ends justify the means, and for Polly- and the others, she thinks- it wouldn’t have mattered how exactly Kelly died, just that Kelly died. So she doesn’t argue, just shrugs.
“I didn’t see any other way out,” she says.
“That’s because you’re a total idiot,” Chloe says. “But I think you’ll be hearing that a lot over the next few days. Go talk to Polly. Send the kids out here, they need to eat.”
Kelly stands up, carefully pushing her chair in. She likes Chloe’s kitchen. It’s small and somewhat cramped, with the full table and the high chair for Hazel, and it’s somewhat dirty, with toys underneath her feet wherever she moves and small splatters of food on the linoleum and the counters. It looks lived in and feels like a home. The kitchen in Peaches’ safe house was sterile and cold. Kelly likes it better here.
She walks back down the hallway, pausing long enough to poke her head in the bedroom and see that Annabelle is still sleeping before she walks into the room at the end of the hall. Polly is sitting on the bed, a girl tucked under each arm and a book in her lap. She looks up when Kelly walks in, her small, tired smile fading away when she sees her. Hannah sees Kelly and immediately shoves her face into Polly’s side.
Kelly frowns. “Hannah, what’s wrong?”
In response, Hannah just tucks herself further into Polly. Polly sighs and strokes Hannah’s hair. “It’s all right, Hannah,” she says quietly. “It’s just Aunt Kelly. She’s not going to hurt you.”
“Why would she think that?” Kelly asks, aghast. She walks over and crouches by the bed, not touching Hannah. She can see Hazel watching her from the other side of Polly, her eyes big and blue, just like Chloe’s. “Hannah, I would never hurt you. You know that, right?”
“You look scary,” Hannah mumbles, her words just barely audible.
Kelly sighs, resting her forehead briefly against the edge of the bed before looking up again. “I did something silly, Hannah, and I got hurt. So I look a little bit scary right now, but that doesn’t mean that I’m scary,” she explains. Hannah twists and looks at Kelly, her eyes just as big and blue as her sister’s and mother’s.
“You made Mummy and Aunt Polly cry,” Hannah says accusingly.
Kelly looks up at Polly, but she just stares at her impassively. Kelly swallows. “I’m sorry, honey. I didn’t mean to.”
“Mummy says that just ‘cause you don’t mean something doesn’t make it all right,” Hannah insists.
“Your mummy is right,” Kelly says. “I’ll make sure to apologize to her.”
Hannah stares at her for a moment longer, her eyes suspicious. Then she nods and offers Kelly a tentative smile. “All right,” she says. She tugs away from Polly and wraps her arms around Kelly’s neck. Kelly smiles and hugs her back gently.
“Your mum says it’s time for dinner,” Kelly says, pulling back and signing for Hazel.
She and Polly hustle the kids out of the room. Polly smiles after them and tries to follow, but Kelly puts her arm up on the doorframe, blocking her route of escape.
“I think we need to talk,” she says. Polly raises an eyebrow.
“I’d rather not.”
“Polly. We need to talk.”
Polly purses her lips and frowns, but then shrugs one shoulder and goes to sit back down on the bed, pulling her legs up against her chest. Kelly closes the bedroom door and leans against it. It’s a reversal of how they stood just a few days ago. Now that she’s got her here, she doesn’t quite know what to say. She doesn’t know where to start.
“I’m sorry,” she finally decides upon.
“Do you know what you’re sorry for?” Polly asks immediately.
She nods slowly. “I didn’t talk to you, or anyone else. I never even tried to come up with a real plan. I nearly died. You had to save me. I lied to you. A lot of things, really.”
Polly’s eyes are vacant. It’s been years since Kelly has gotten that look from her. Maybe since they were fourteen. Fourteen wasn’t a good year for them. “I just don’t understand, Kelly. I’ve tried very, very hard, but I don’t.”
Kelly swallows, her throat sore. She moves to sit next to Polly, but seeing how tightly Polly is holding herself, she sits down on the ground next to the bed instead, resting her back against the mattress and letting her head fall back so she can see Polly. “Do you know what I see when I look at you, Pol?” she asks. Polly glances at her from underneath her glasses, so Kelly continues. “I see someone who is too thin, too pale. I see someone who spent three years worrying herself sick.”
“That was my choice, Kelly,” Polly says softly, but Kelly ignores her.
“And I look at Annabelle, now that we’re back in England, and she looks so much healthier and happier and how could I take that away from her? Trouble followed me home; it’s my job to take care of it. And if you expect me to honor your choice, then I need you to honor mine.”
Polly turns her head, resting it against the wall. Kelly watches her for a while, trying to figure out where they stand. “My choice didn’t involve getting myself killed,” Polly says softly.
“But it could have, Polly. That’s why I made my choice,” she says, sighing.
“Because I can’t protect myself,” Polly says dully. “Because you can’t trust me to do what needs to be done.”
Kelly swings around onto her knees, grabbing Polly’s hand. “I was lying, Polly. I was trying to- to push you away, to-”
“To protect me. Because you can’t trust me.”
Kelly stops. Polly looks down at her and this time, her eyes aren’t cold. They’re just dead. “I would trust you with my life,” Kelly whispers.
“Then why didn’t you?” Polly asks, and carefully extracts her hand from Kelly’s. She stands up and nods courteously. “If you’ll excuse me, I understand that supper is ready.”
When Annabelle wakes up, they have a long talk. It involves Annabelle throwing random stuffed animals and other toys at Kelly, shouting about how she was supposed to be by Kelly’s side, that Annabelle walked away from everyone for Kelly, and how dare she make light of that sacrifice, because as happy as Annabelle was to do it, as much as she loves Kelly, it was still a sacrifice.
Kelly stands there and takes it, allowing Mr. Fuzzy and Bun-Bun to hit her in the face. If Annabelle wasn’t going to forgive her, then she’d be throwing something harder than stuffed animals, and she deserves to vent. Kelly nods at everything Annabelle says, and when she finally runs out of steam, she looks at her and says, “I’m sorry.”
“Just… don’t,” Annabelle says, her voice breaking. “Don’t ever do that to me again.”
She starts to cry, and Kelly pulls her into a hug. Kelly pleads for forgiveness, Annabelle pleads for Kelly to stop being so stupid, and they wind up curled together on the bed, foreheads pressed together.
“I love you,” Annabelle whispers, kissing Kelly’s tears away. “I love you, and you keep pushing me away.”
“I love you, too,” Kelly murmurs, tilting her face to catch Annabelle’s lips. “And I’m sorry, I’m so fucking sorry.”
“Don’t die,” Annabelle begs, brown eyes scarily desperate, terrifyingly sad. “Don’t die, and I’ll forgive you.”
“I won’t,” she says, but she will, someday. “I won’t, not yet.”
“Okay. Okay,” Annabelle says, and tucks her face against Kelly’s neck.
Polly, meanwhile, won’t be alone with her, Chloe is giving her sharp, angry smiles, and while Hannah is no longer hiding from her, she isn’t exactly running to greet her Aunt Kelly each morning. Hazel is more welcoming, but Hazel isn’t even two.
“I don’t know what to do,” Kelly says to Chelsea over the phone. Chelsea is at the hospital with Peaches. They’re trading off, making sure that Peaches is never alone. She’s off the ventilator now, but she’s still on an oxygen mask. “Polly won’t even look at me.”
“Are you sure it’s all about you?” Chelsea asks. Kelly can hear the heart monitors beeping in the background. “She did just shoot someone.”
“She thinks I don’t trust her,” she replies.
“You said you don’t,” says Chelsea.
“Did she tell everyone about that conversation?” Kelly asks, feeling slightly annoyed. She never imagined Polly as the sort to tell everyone her secrets. It used to take her weeks to pry the most inconsequential bit of information out of Polly. Apparently she’s just giving it away now.
Chelsea sighs, and she sounds irritated. Kelly wishes she could see her face. “She pretty much had a nervous breakdown when Najwa told us where you were, Kelly. I don’t think she meant to tell anyone, but it just sort of… happened.”
Kelly rubs her forehead and presses herself further into the corner. She’s sitting between the nightstand and the wall in the bedroom she and Annabelle are sharing. It’s actually the guest bedroom at Chloe’s house. Apparently, Polly usually stays there, but she’s sleeping in Chloe’s bedroom for now. “Shit, really?”
There’s silence on the end of the line, and then Chelsea says, “Hold on, Peaches wants to talk to you.”
Kelly’s eyebrows shoot up, but she waits patiently. She was under the impression that Peaches wasn’t really able to talk yet.
There’s a rustling sound and she can just make out the soft whoosh from the oxygen mask, and she hears, barely, Peaches’ voice. “You broke her heart.”
It wasn’t what she expected to hear. “What?”
There’s a long pause, and Kelly can just picture Peaches struggling to get enough air to speak again. She hasn’t been to visit yet, but she can see the image in her head as clearly as if she had. “She thought she had one person,” Peaches says, pausing and taking another deep breath, the air rattling enough that Kelly can hear it even over the shitty mobile connection. “One person to rely on. And you broke her heart.”
Kelly closes her eyes and gently thumps her head against the wall. “I didn’t mean to.”
“But you did,” Peaches said, barely above a whisper. There’s a clunking sound, and then Kelly hears Chelsea say, “I’m not her best friend or anything, Kelly, but I know Polly enough to know that she tries so hard to avoid getting hurt. And you managed it. I forgive you, and I know you were trying to protect us, because that’s, y’know, what you do, but I’m also really, really angry at you. For Polly’s sake. And Annabelle’s.”
Then the phone clicks off, and Kelly is left to stare at her hands.
In the end, Kelly goes to the one person that might know what to do, the one person who knows Polly almost as well as Kelly. Harriet lives in a dorm, apparently, which Kelly only figures out as she walks up to the address she found in Polly’s phone. She knocks twice on the door, shifting awkwardly, and waits.
Harriet opens the door just a few moments later. She has stitches on her forehead, two fingers are splinted, and she’s walking with a slight limp, but otherwise she looks okay. Better than some of the others. Kelly waves a hand, feeling like she’s eleven all over again. “Hey,” she says.
Harriet immediately slams the door in her face.
“Harriet,” Kelly says, closing her eyes and dropping her head against the door. “Please. I… I don’t know what to do.”
“Maybe stop being an utter fuckhead,” Harriet says through the door.
Kelly smirks. “Yes, well. I need help with that.”
The door opens suddenly, and she has to catch herself on the doorframe to prevent herself from falling. Harriet is frowning up at her, her hair no longer in braids but instead haloed around her head. Her glasses are slightly lopsided, and she’s wearing sweatpants. There is ink on her hands, Kelly notices idly.
“She’s one of my best friends,” Harriet says, sounding desperate and sad and scared, and Kelly has a quick flash of Harriet when she was twelve-years-old, tiny and terrified, and she can’t believe she reduced her to that so quickly.
“I wanted to keep her safe, but I screwed up,” she confesses.
Harriet stares at her for a moment longer, and then gestures that she can come in. Kelly enters immediately, frightened that Harriet will change her mind.
Her dorm room is small, and the space that isn’t taken up by the bed, the dresser, and the desk is taken up by a shitty looking keyboard that has seen better days. There’s paper everywhere Kelly can see, sheets of white covered in black scribbles. She picks one up and looks at it. There are music notes scribbled everywhere. Harriet reaches over and gently plucks it from her hands and waves her into a desk chair. “I have about twenty minutes before I need to leave for my next class,” Harriet says, dragging over the second desk chair and sitting down. “What are you here for?”
She looks at her in amazement. “Did you honestly return to class after storming a warehouse full of government officials?” she asks. She can’t imagine that, she can’t imagine the feeling of fighting MI7 one night and going to a tutorial the next morning. It seems incongruous.
“Yes,” Harriet says bluntly. “Why are you here?”
Kelly nods and tries to relax. Harriet is probably angry at her, probably wants to hit her, but she won’t. Harriet is safe enough. “I don’t know how to fix things between me and Polly,” she confesses.
“You won’t,” Harriet says simply, and Kelly feels her stomach plummet.
“Why?” she asks, feeling so fucking helpless it’s ridiculous. She’s an MI7 agent, she’s a St. Trinian’s woman- she never feels helpless.
Harriet gives her a long look, settling her elbows on her knees and steepling her fingers. Despite how beat up she looks, she still looks somewhat better than she did in school. She bites her lower lip, and then nods, seeming to come to a decision. “You understand that she killed someone for you, right?”
Kelly nods. “Yes.”
“You get that she did that right after you told her that you had no use for her, that she couldn’t do what you needed her to do, right?”
“Really? Do you really understand that?” Harriet asks, skeptical. “You told her she was useless, and she went and picked up a gun and killed someone. You lied to her, repeatedly, and then she killed a woman. For you. Can you really understand that?”
“I’ve killed people before, Harriet,” Kelly says caustically, frustrated. How many people does she have to tell- she has killed people with guns and bombs and knives and, just once, her bare hands. She knows how awful that is.
“After someone told you that you were useless and pathetic?” Harriet asks. Kelly looks at her, confused, and Harriet gives her a twisted little smile. “Do you understand that she probably wouldn’t have even picked up a gun if you hadn’t told her that you had no use for her?”
She licks her lips, trying to find something to say, but Harriet stands up and paces around the cramped room, looking distracted and irritated. “Do you understand that she doesn’t even care, so much, about killing someone, just that she feels like she spent three years constantly failing you? Do you get that for three years Polly has done everything she possibly could to keep you safe from however many hundreds of miles away, and when you came home, you threw that in her face?”
“Do you understand,” Kelly says quietly, “what it is like to love someone so much you’d rather them hate you than see them dead?”
Harriet turns, wrapping her arms around herself. “What about Annabelle?”
Kelly doesn’t know how to explain the difference between Annabelle and Polly. Because she loves- is in love- with both of them, could never make one love less than the other. But somehow, she knew that what she did would be understood by Annabelle in a way that Polly never would. She licks her lips again. “I knew Annabelle would understand.”
“And how is that fair, Kelly?” Harriet bursts out, shaking her head. “How is it fair that you are willing to go blow yourself up for the sake of a woman you’re in love with who isn’t your girlfriend, and willing to trust that your actual girlfriend will understand? Can’t you see why this situation is beyond fucked up?”
“Annabelle understands because she was with me for two years, and saw what it’s like!” Kelly shouts, suddenly losing her temper. Harriet is in University, couldn’t possibly understand, and she doesn’t know why she’s even here. She should have gone to someone else rather than some kid who’s never done anything hard in her life.
Even as she thinks that, she knows it’s wrong. Harriet’s entire life has been hard. Just a different sort. Kelly scrubs a hand over her face.
“And whose fault is that?” Harriet shouts back. “You asked Annabelle to come with you, made Polly stay here, and you wonder why she doesn’t understand? Look at it from her side, Kelly.”
“I’m trying,” Kelly yells, and it’s more of a wail. “I’m trying so hard, and that’s why I came to you.”
Harriet pauses in her pacing and looks down at Kelly. She softens immediately, kneeling in front of her and gathering up her hands, careful and gentle by the bandages still wrapped around her knuckles. “You were doing everything you could to protect Polly for three years. And for three years, Polly and Annabelle were doing the same thing for you. But one you brought with you, and one you hid away, and Polly cannot understand why you wouldn’t let her save you.”
“Because I love her,” Kelly says, her voice breaking.
Harriet’s smile is sad. “But you love Annabelle, too. And she was always by your side. Why did you send her away, Kelly? That’s what Polly wants to know. Why did you send her away?”
And Kelly doesn’t know, and she starts to cry, too worn out to find the answers.
They meet at the teashop.
There really aren’t any other meeting places anymore, what with two of Peaches’ homes gone or off limits, and St. Trinian’s itself a collapsed wreckage. Celia’s teashop may be a well known meeting place for Trinian’s women, but it’s also in the middle of a well populated street, and none of them relish trying to find a secure spot in a moment’s notice.
They’re all diminished, Kelly sees as she takes a seat next to Andrea. Polly is sitting next to Peaches, who looks fragile. She’s newly out of the hospital, and Kelly can just see bandages poking out from the edge of her sleeves, from the bottom of her collar. She isn’t smiling or frowning or anything. She’s just staring down at her hands, Polly’s hand wrapped gently around one of them.
Annabelle and Celia are standing by the counter, quietly arguing. Kelly watches them for a minute, but decides she doesn’t care. She’s too tired and she just can’t manage it right now. Harriet and Bianca are wrapped around one another, as per usual, and Chloe and Chelsea are talking quietly to Miss Dickinson and Miss Fritton, the kids curled up on Chloe’s lap. Yvette is sitting next to Chelsea, not saying a thing, just listening. Taylor is next to Andrea, and though she’s holding her hand underneath the table, she, Anoushka, and Matron are chatting about the bar that Anoushka owns. Alex and Jemima are sitting next to Tara and Tania, looking small and too young. Najwa is standing behind them, and she doesn’t look small or young. She looks old. Kelly stares at her, and slowly, Najwa turns her head and looks at her.
Polly once said that Najwa seemed to have a frown permanently carved into her face, but Kelly has never thought that. Her mouth has always been stern, but she’s rarely seen her frown. Instead, she looks impassive and blank, and her face doesn’t communicate a thing. Kelly stares at her for a long time, but Najwa doesn’t look away. She doesn’t look the least bit apologetic for telling everyone what Kelly was going to do. She doesn’t look sorry for causing Peaches to wind up in hospital or the various cuts, bruises, and gunshot wounds everyone sustained. She doesn’t look sorry at all.
Kelly wants to be angry at her, but she isn’t. She’s certainly not grateful or happy, but she understands why Najwa did it. She steals a quick glance at Polly out of the corner of her eye. Polly isn’t looking at her. Her entire attention is focused on Peaches, though she looks over at Chloe and the kids every now and then, signing something too quick for Kelly to catch.
If she was Najwa, Kelly knows, she would have told Polly. If only so Polly lost faith in one person, rather than two.
Annabelle and Celia walk over to the rest of the group. Kelly turns her immediate attention to Annabelle. She looks… serious. Stern. Not the sort that made Kelly love her when they first met, when Annabelle was trying so hard to be something she wasn’t, trying to stare down Kelly and make her feel like less- this is something different altogether. This is why Kelly took Annabelle with her, she knows suddenly. Because Annabelle is flexible and malleable and a chameleon, and Annabelle becomes what the situation requires.
Oh, Kelly thinks, stunned. Oh.
“We need to move fast,” Annabelle says, spreading her hands wide and addressing the group at large. She looks like Kelly, staring down at everyone and taking charge without thought. Kelly can’t take her eyes off her. “Beth gone, that’s only the first step. Now that we’re not actively dodging bullets, it’s time to focus on Hunter Lowry and the rest of MI7.”
Everyone nods. “The trouble is, of course,” Celia says, taking over from Annabelle, “that we aren’t sure if Lowry was really a puppet of Beth’s, or if she was tied into MI7 as a whole.”
“Does it matter?” Bianca asks, raising her eyebrows and frowning. “From what Kelly and Annabelle have said, doesn’t seem like she’s one to back down, yeah?”
Kelly clears her throat. “I don’t think she would have stopped trying to kill me if I hadn’t passed her over to Beth,” she admits.
Annabelle nods. “Agreed. Hunter Lowry needs to be taken care of no matter what. So does MI7. We’ll figure out if they’re still linked as we work. Celia and I are proposing… sort of like two teams. One to focus on Lowry, another to focus on MI7.”
“And, like, sharing what we find, in case Lowry is still working directly for MI7,” Celia adds.
“Highly informal, for the most part. But if we try to focus on both, we risk dividing our concentration,” Annabelle says, nodding.
Kelly glances around the table. They look grey, tired. If she looks harder, she can see where people are holding themselves carefully, where clothes don’t quite hide the bandages. They looked… defeated. Perhaps not in spirit, but they certainly don’t look like they can handle the entirety of MI7 and Hunter Lowry right now. Not while they’re still trying to recover from their last catastrophe.
“We need more people,” she says, before she can stop herself.
“You’ll have them,” Miss Fritton says grimly. “The girls are… quite eager to meet those who destroyed the school.” Beside her, Matron nods, her smile more a grimace.
Kelly nods slowly. “We’ll take their help, but… I can’t say I’m eager to involve schoolgirls, even St. Trinian’s schoolgirls, in something potentially fatal.”
Peaches inhales slowly, drawing everyone’s attention to her. Kelly can’t help but admire that, even injured, she manages to hold court over everyone. “There are others,” she says carefully. She bites the corner of one lip, and then nods decisively. “Everyone will know, now, about St. Trinian’s. They’ll want to know what they can do. Who is to blame. Who they should be fighting.”
Polly looks away from Peaches and nods. “St. Trinian’s raised warriors. They’ll be looking for a fight.”
“Even if they know it’s dangerous?” Yvette asks.
Polly grins suddenly, sharp. “Especially if they know it’s dangerous.”
“In the meantime,” Annabelle says, regaining control of the discussion with an ease completely unfamiliar to Kelly, “we’ve divided people into groups for safety. We’re spreading out across London for now. We’ll be passing messages through various networks. Chelsea will be handling the codes. You’ll get more information later.”
Kelly stands as soon as Annabelle dismisses them and heads straight for Najwa. She’s wearing a hoodie and jeans, trainers scuffed and dirty. She has a bag slung over one shoulder. She’s leaving, Kelly knows. She recognizes the traveling look.
“You aren’t sticking around?” she asks, keeping her voice low. She isn’t really worried about anyone overhearing them- everyone else is busy discussing their boltholes and who they’ll be staying with- but just in case.
Najwa shakes her head, tugging the hood up over her head. “I have three kids, Kelly. A husband who doesn’t know if I’m alive or dead. I need to get home.”
Kelly nods slowly. “Did you say good-bye to Polly and Harriet?” she asks.
“They know I’m going,” Najwa says.
“But did you say good-bye?”
Najwa’s smile is twisted. “Understanding, now, the importance of good-byes?”
Kelly folds her arms across her chest and shifts from one foot to another. She purses her lips, studying Najwa’s face. She has a timeless look to her. While Harriet looks better for having been out of St. Trinian’s, and Polly looks pinched and thin from three years of worrying about Kelly, Najwa looks exactly as she did when she was a school girl. Najwa is a survivor, the hardest kind, Kelly knows. Najwa has steel in her spine and granite in her eyes, and no one was ever going to rip her world away from her, not without a fight.
“No,” Kelly confesses. “But I… I understand why you did what you did.”
Najwa arches an eyebrow. “Do you?”
“You weren’t going to be the one to destroy someone’s world,” Kelly says. She doesn’t know for sure if that’s why Najwa did it, but she thinks that’s why she would, if their positions were reversed.
Najwa smiles at her, a real smile, small and quiet and more beautiful for it. She adjusts the bag on her back and nods. “Some people are worth dying for,” Najwa says quietly. “But others are worth living for.”
She reaches out and kisses Kelly, gently, on the forehead. “A-salaam alaiykum,” she says.
“Wa-alaiykum a-salaam,” Kelly replies, and then Najwa brushes past her, waving her farewells.
She and Annabelle are packing their things. They can’t stay with Chloe, not in this house with the kids. They’re the biggest targets, the ones with a bullseye on their foreheads, and they can’t afford to drag the children into this. Chloe isn’t staying in her house much longer either. She’s taking the kids and staying with Anoushka in a small flat owned by Eve Anderson, the detective inspector. Kelly, Annabelle, Polly and Celia are going to stay with Violet, a former Chav leader and a good friend of theirs.
It’s a good plan, for the time being, Kelly thinks. There were arguments against staying with other St. Trinian’s women, but they eventually decided that they couldn’t risk anyone else, and that Trinian’s women, at least, would have an idea of how to protect themselves. And separating for a little bit will spread MI7s resources thin and Hunter Lowry even thinner. She can’t hit them all at once. Even if she goes after one group, they’ll have time to warn the others.
Chelsea is organizing the codes, writing them and disseminating them each and every day through a secure mobile that Eve gave her. There are benefits, it turns out, to having gone to the same school as a known detective inspector. Her location alone is known to no one except Annabelle and Celia. Most everyone else has a general idea of who is going where, but Chelsea is an unknown, for her own safety.
Peaches and what remains of her family are staying with John and his parents. Kelly had tried to talk to Peaches before they left, but Peaches had just smiled sadly at her, an uncanny echo of her usual smile, and told her that they were all right, that she wasn’t angry. Kelly wishes she had been angry. She knows how to deal with anger.
“Are you still angry at me?” Kelly asks suddenly, breaking the silence in the bedroom. Annabelle looks up from where she’s folding her trousers.
“No,” she says simply, and goes back to tucking the trousers into her suitcase. Kelly watches for a minute, watches while Annabelle sticks socks into one compartment, pants in another. She watches Annabelle leave behind her heels in favor of trainers and ballet flats. As Annabelle is tucking her toothpaste into the top compartment, Kelly sighs.
“Why?” she asks.
Annabelle turns to face her and sits down on the edge of the bed, studying her. Kelly holds her gaze. Annabelle has never made her fidget or feel nervous. She’s never made Kelly uncomfortable, or afraid to hold her look. She doesn’t know if it’s because Annabelle never could, or if it’s because Annabelle never tried, but it’s nice, to be able to look someone in the eye and not feel like it’s a contest.
“You did what you thought was best,” Annabelle says finally, crossing her legs and leaning back against the bed. “You were wrong, but you wanted to do what was best.”
“So we’re all right?” Kelly checks.
“Yeah,” Annabelle says, standing up again and reaching for her hair brush.
Kelly watches her for a while, neglecting her own packing. When she first met Annabelle, the girl had been thrust into a situation where she was alone and scared and uncertain. And she’d still tried to stare Kelly down, an indomitable spirit hidden beneath her pressed skirt and carefully arranged braid. Annabelle was unique among most St. Trinian’s girls if only because she had no idea who she was while holding onto the very core of herself- and that core was purely St. Trinian’s, a smile made of knives and an unwillingness to lose. She was willing to become whatever was needed in a moment and could lie like a rug, but deep down, the real Annabelle remained.
And that was why Kelly brought her along, and not Polly, she knows now. Because Annabelle had the ability to become anyone and still be her, underneath it all. Polly wasn’t nearly so flexible, less willing to give up her hard fought self, and when she did become what people needed her to be, she gave her whole self to that.
She needed Polly home because, if she’d taken her, she wouldn’t have known the Polly that came back. The Polly she grew up with and loved would have disappeared in favor of something else. With Annabelle, that was never a risk. Because Annabelle is a natural liar, and Polly is not.
“I love you,” Kelly says, sounding almost desperate. She cannot imagine what it must take to hold onto oneself so thoroughly, like Annabelle did for two years. She can’t imagine that strength. Kelly knows to the very core of her being that she’s doomed, was doomed the moment she accepted MI7s job offer, was never going to escape this intact, didn’t escape intact, is actually a walking disaster, but Annabelle can still fold her laundry with a fussiness that changed and adapted depending on the country and the character but returned the moment she set foot in England.
Annabelle looks back up at her, smiling. “I love you, too.”
“No,” Kelly says, frustrated. She walks over to Annabelle and puts her hands on either side of her face, staring into her eyes. “I love you.”
Annabelle watches her for a moment, and her eyes soften. “Yeah,” she says, and kisses Kelly.
She goes to find Polly once her bags are packed. They’re leaving in less than an hour, and she needs to see her before they have to hide again. Before they’re back to handling disasters and managing crises. She needs to see Polly as Polly, her closest friend, the woman she loves with every part of herself, the one person who understands her best. Not Polly the operations manager who somehow always knows what to do.
She isn’t sure what she can say. Because she doesn’t think Polly really wants to hear an explanation of why Kelly kept her in England and took Annabelle with her, and she doesn’t think she wants to hear why Kelly felt that taking Beth down with her was a good idea. She doesn’t think Polly wants explanations or apologies or anything like that. Because Polly is a genius, and she knows Kelly best of everyone, and she probably knows exactly what Kelly’s excuses are already. That isn’t what Polly needs.
She finds her in Chloe’s study, sitting on the window seat, her head leaning against the glass and a book in her lap, forgotten. Kelly watches her for a moment, waiting to see if Polly will notice her, but Polly doesn’t look away from whatever she’s watching out the window. Kelly bites the inside of her cheek, and then walks over to her.
“I don’t know how to fix this,” Kelly says, sitting down across from Polly, the window seat small and cramped but still large enough for both of them. Polly looks away from the window and raises an eyebrow. Kelly pulls her knees, resting her arms on top of them. “I don’t know what to tell you. I don’t how to make it right. But…”
She trails off, sighing. She can’t offer her excuses or explanations or apologies. She won’t want them, doesn’t need them. She still doesn’t know what to say.
Polly is looking at her impassively, but she’s at least looking at her. She hasn’t lifted her book, she hasn’t turned back to the window. She’s waiting, Kelly realizes. She’s giving her a chance. She realizes, in a flash, what Polly needs.
Polly needs a promise.
“But I wanted to let you know- I will make it right.”
Polly tilts her head to the side, and her smile is small- but it’s there. “You think?”
Kelly can’t help it. She grins and reaches out, capturing Polly’s hand in hers. “No, Polly. I don’t think. I know.” It’s a promise. It’s the only promise she can give.
Polly’s smile suddenly flares across her face. It’s a wide smile, her dangerous smile.
It’s Kelly’s favourite smile. And it’s just for her.
“Well, all right.”