Valse di Fantastica
Jim Miller knew the Dvali owned half of Prague and had their tendrils in most of Europe, but that their overseas operations were comparatively lackluster, so when he was given a report indicating they had made their presence known in the United Kingdom, disconnected as it and several other nations had become from the European Union, “surprised” didn’t begin to cover how he had felt. Further reading let him to something even more interesting, necessitating closing and locking the door to office just so he could focus on this new information.
The first thing was a name: Radich Nikoladze. Once the leader of the Prague branch of the Dvali smuggling operation, he had been forced out after Agent Jensen’s machinations, per the request of one Otar Botkoveli, took out all his remaining power and put him on the run. A small-time manhunt had been organized to try and find him, but the police had more – or less, depending on how much money they received – important things to do. Interpol hadn’t wanted to spare manpower just yet, and Task Force 29 didn’t consider him a high priority.
Except for... now, it seemed.
Miller fanned out the documents on his desk and studied them carefully, ignoring the bustle outside his door, muffled by the tight seal. Nikoladze had been found in London, of all places – probably using the huge city outside Dvali territory to get lost, and counting on London’s location on the global “beat” to be useful – and had been caught by one of the city’s many surveillance networks. That had been the start, but what had truly kicked it off was information fed by a mole inside the city’s criminal network, indicating that Nikoladze was about to make himself well-known.
Miller slid out a full-color image of the Shard, the tall glass pyramid that had long ago changed London’s skyline, and scanned the attached memo. Located roughly one-third of the way up and running to the fifty-second floor, bought from a Chinese company in the mid-Twenties and remodeled by the Santeau Group under contract, was one of the most expensive and grandiose hotels in all of London, and here, in its grand ballroom and broad hallways, there was a meeting of corporate and financial elites to be held. Worse yet, these weren't just famous philanthropists, CEOs, and shareholders – no, it had long been confirmed that suspected and exceptionally powerful criminals would also be present.
He hesitated before continuing, nerves getting to him. The Shard was some distance from the Apex Centre, but felt too close for comfort even still. It was probably visible from the upper floors, what with the Centre’s distinct, twisted golden towers and ultramodern geometric design. Though London had a task force division all their own, even as the youngest of the European branches, Joseph Manderly – that wombat of a bureaucrat, whose perfect suit and unsmiling, pudgy face drove him up the wall in ways he tried not to let Auzenne know about – had ordered Miller to provide the agents to go.
First Dubai, now this. At least this time was discreet, but he was still beginning to wonder.
But not now. It was not the time for wondering.
His concerns were answered by the next piece of paper, indicating that Manderly had asked Prague’s branch because they had already extensively dealt with the Dvali. Flimsy, he thought, but he had already tried arguing, and though he made himself too useful to get rid of, he didn’t want to risk the wrath of the faceless men and women who puppeted his fate, and could decide at a whim to cut him off. No oversight. No checks or balances.
He kept reading. No. Not a meeting – a gathering. A “white-tie affair”, all silk suits and evening gowns, where men and women in platinum jewelry would fawn over each other and prattle on about how wonderful they were. There would be expensive cars and valet parking. He knew the type, and couldn’t stand them.
Scheduled for “two weeks” from now, it required special entry badges – procured by their mole, of course – and expensive clothes. This wasn’t a place for business-casual or blue-collar workers. No, this was a place where a woman’s dress was expected to reach the floor while showing off her decolletage, where a man’s suit could have real gold threads woven into its lapels and no one would bat an eye, where a necklace of blue diamonds inlaid in palladium would get an adoring look, and a bracelet of gold would get a shrug.
Further down, he found the expected budget. Two weeks. Two weeks to prep his team. A maximum of four agents could be sent, and they had to be ready to mingle. Nikoladze was expected to be at the party, but in order to remove him, they would need to find him in his suite afterward. Which would mean going through guards – the building used Tarvos and several other private contractors – and heavy security. Which meant stealth. Which meant...
The photo of the Shard creased in his grip. Which meant Jensen, by far their finest agent whenever he needed a scalpel to keep things quiet. And he couldn’t go alone. If Mac stayed behind again, he would be furious. But then, at an event like this, there was no way two men wouldn’t stand out, particularly when one was an Aug. While anti-Aug sentiment had dimmed a little in the wake of the Human Restoration Act’s failure, it hadn’t died.
There weren't many women in the branch who had the skills needed. The only active female field agent in the CT unit was far too abrasive, lacking the tact needed to take on such a job.
He hesitated. No, not the only. She was one of two now, the other having finally been transferred less than a week ago, and her warm demeanor hid steel nerves. A former Marine, the best marksman they had, and, in spite of her augmented arm, she had the harmless appearance that would make it easier to mingle with the millionaires. She had, after all, been itching for a chance to be out on the field, with the London op having been a bit short.
But would she be able to pull off what was essentially an infiltration op? Could she be counted on to back up both his senior field agent and sole augmented stealth expert?
No, Aria Argento was a lot of things, but from what he knew of her, a fool was not one of them. Though she was a marksman first, she was adaptable enough that he knew she could fill the fourth slot without question. He would have to double-check her file, or just ask Auzenne, to be certain, but he felt no real concern.
But what of the fourth agent? Who else could he spare?
The door to his office hissed open, briefly letting in the perpetual dull roar of the outside, before shutting again. With that came the click-click of heels on the hard floor – a sound that absolutely did not belong in this office, he thought, but without even looking up, he knew who they belonged to. She always walked the same way, carrying herself as though she glided down a red carpet under admiring stares, and had an easy smile that affected even him.
“Doctor Auzenne,” he muttered, “what brings you in?”
“Ah, look at you, back with your witty little rhymes. Got something else from Joe, I see?”
He tried very, very hard to scowl at her, but when he looked away from the papers and found her large, dark eyes smiling down at him, he found it as difficult as ever. “Nothing I can’t handle.”
“Is that going to be your go-to response, Jim?”
Seeing she wasn’t going anywhere in a hurry, he set the Shard photo down and gave her his full attention. Auzenne was one of the very few who dared use his first name on a frequent basis, and the only one he couldn’t get himself to tell her off for. Today, she wore a canary-yellow top with black trousers, and on anyone else, the ensemble would look ridiculous, but on her, somehow, she made it work.
“Only when you interrupt me,” he muttered, but couldn’t hold what little semblance of sternness he had. “Did you need something from me, doctor?”
“Jim, can’t you just call me ‘Delara’ once in a while?” She stood just on the other side of his desk, one hand in her pocket and the other holding what looked like a glass of iced, milky coffee. For a moment, she swished it around, then took a sip and savored it before saying, “We never got to talk much after London. Makes me feel... like a dentist. Or...” She raised an eyebrow. “...as I’ve been agreeing with Jennifer, a gynecologist.”
Miller didn’t quite understand the context for that, but figured he probably didn’t need to. Whatever it was that would make women reluctant to visit a gynecologist, he didn’t want to know. “I said I’d come in when I could. I almost died, Auzenne, and I need some time to get my head on straight.”
“No, you’re avoiding me.” Bending at the waist, she waved the hand holding the glass. “Come on, I swear I won’t bite. I’m nice, I promise. I know we got off to a bad start–”
“Look, doctor, I’m very busy, so–”
He almost forgot what he was saying. “What?”
“Delara.” Her tone was that of talking down an argumentative child. “I have a name, you know.”
For a long moment, he stared at her. He always tried to maintain an air of perfect professionalism on the job, tried to keep everyone at arm’s length... but even he slipped up, calling Aria by her first name, or Fletcher by his nickname. “Actually... Delara, you might be able to help me.”
“Ooh, sounds fun.” Moving to the corner of his desk, she sat and crossed her legs. “Hit me.”
In the quiet, the sound of ice clinking against glass seemed obscenely loud. “I just got a report indicating we need to send some agents to London, again, to capture an ex-Dvali member.”
With a mouthful of coffee, Delara made a sound of recognition, waved her hand again, and swallowed. “Yes, right, Radich Nikoladze, right? Joe sent me some information. Not much, but a little. Guess he thought I could help.” The glass half-empty in her hand, she propped her chin on the other and raised both eyebrows. “Bet I can guess. You’re trying to figure out who to send, right? Who’d work out good and all?”
“That’s exactly it. I’ve already decided on Jensen and MacReady, but I wanted to send two women. Do you think Aria is up to the task?”
“Oh, certainly.” Delara didn’t sound at all concerned. “She’s eager to please, and there’s a lot of skill wound up tight under that skin of hers. With two Augs, it’ll be easier to get Adam in and out of that place. It’s a... party, right?” She used one hand to spin the photo of the Shard around and studied it a moment. “Heard it’s a view to die for up there. Anyway, yes, Aria should be fine. She can provide great backup in a tight spot.”
“Then that leaves the question of who goes with Mac. Ideas?”
Delara’s brow furrowed. “Well... hmm.” She blinked and settled her chin back in her palm. “Well, I’ve talked to almost everyone here, and there’s not... many. Most of the women here are great analysts and hard workers, but I, ah, don’t think they can pull off the ‘slinky evening’ look, no offense to them.” A brief, wry smile reached her lips. “There’s a few good agents from Cybercrime, but... I don’t know.”
Miller felt as though someone had flipped a switch. “What about you?”
Delara blinked and looked at him as though he had grown a second head. “Ah... I mean... I probably cou... Wait, I’m not even under your jurisdiction, not technically. I’d have to clear it with Joe, and...” Her mouth twisted, but then, some of the tightness fell away. Her eyes closed. “I’ll talk with Joe, but... sure, I can probably do it. Sounds dangerous, but maybe it’s time to get out from behind a desk.”
“Good. You’d need an evening dress and all the rest of the details. Let me know.”
“This is quite an.... extravagant affair.” She looked away. “Do you have any idea how much a suit would cost, let alone a dress that could pass muster for a place like this?”
“I know how much Mac likes his expensive suits, and I’ve heard him go on about their four-digit prices more than once. Proudly, I might add. Not that I really have anything to say.” Miller looked down at himself rather pointedly, at the tailored ASOS suit that wasn’t on the “ridiculous” end of pricing, but enough that he could remind everyone around him that he was the one in charge. “And I’ve heard him talk about four-figure suits more than once, so, I suppose so. But I haven’t the foggiest on a dress.”
“A good dress will cost a pretty penny, as the saying goes, but it’s worth it. Aria might not be tall, but she’s still in great shape. She’ll turn heads. Throw me into the mix, and, well...” With a twitch of one brow, she took another sip of her coffee and smiled. “Look, Miller, I’ve been told all my adult life that I’m considered, well, attractive, even beautiful. Put me there with her in a nice dress, and we’ll have no trouble at all.”
For a moment, he imagined her in a fine evening dress – something to emphasize her narrow waist and long neck, maybe – before pulling those thoughts back in. “Fine. Talk to Manderly and see what you can do. I’ll let the others know we can start getting things scraped together for this little expedition. You’ll be going out of the country, and...” With a soft snort, he looked back at the Shard. “Well, it won’t be easy.”
“It’ll be fine. It’s like an old-timey spy movie. Handsome men, expensive drinks, and... caviar.” She wrinkled her nose at the word, almost making him smile. “Well, no harm no foul, as long as I don’t have to eat it. Foul stuff. But, I digress, again. I’m bad at that.” Fabric rustled as she slid off the desk, then looked down into her coffee, as though it hid innumerable secrets within its depths. “Well, I should get going. Talk later?”
“Eventually,” he told her, injecting as much firmness as he could manage.
One tiny smile was all he needed to know it hadn’t quite worked. “I guess that’s fair. Don’t work too hard.” And with a dull thunk, the door slid closed, and he was alone once again.
Don’t work too hard. In the aftermath of feeling like someone had poured ground glass through him, witnessing his life slowly wander before his eyes, and having to take bedrest for days and renew all the vital nutrients lost as the Orchid had wreaked havoc on his body, those words had a different connotation altogether. Burying himself in work had been the best way to forget everything – the divorce, his daughter, superiors pressuring him eternally from behind mirrored glass – but now, bearing an awareness of his own mortality...
It was strange, staring briefly into the void yawning before him, at the stark line of his body’s death, and suddenly wanting to grasp every thread of life he actually had.
Whatever lay beyond that end, he had decided during recovery that he wasn’t ready to face it yet.
It’s like an old-timey spy movie.
This was an undercover operation, throwing three agents and a puzzlingly mysterious psychologist into unknown danger, where they would have to mingle with powerful elites over thirty stories in the air, smack in the middle of a city that was so huge that it hid innumerable secrets... and yet, at the memory of her words, he smiled a little.
It would be a tough operation. It would take all their skill, finesse, and bravery. But to say it wasn’t a little ridiculous and sounded as though it had walked right out of a pulp novel would be lying.
Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all.
Two weeks later, and five weeks after the “Stormsurge” op, it was nearing Christmas in Europe, and the continent had begun to behave appropriately. In the mountains and inland locations not warmed by sea-winds, snow fell, sometimes piling atop that which had already fallen, coating the mountaintops in blankets of white that disappeared into low clouds. A light dusting of snow coated the streets of Prague, dry and not even ankle-deep, accompanied by a bitingly cold breeze and just-below-freezing temperatures. Even in places where the snow did not fall, the temperatures plunged, exacerbated by shifting climates, even bringing snow-rain mixes into the lower elevations.
London had gussied itself up for the annual holiday, eagerly dressing in bright colors and a rainbow hue of lights lining the streets, the streets bearing a fine powder-coat of white snow that blew around at the slightest provocation. The air had gone crisp, but not unbearably so, cool enough to bring a sting of red to one’s cheeks, but not enough to bring numbness to exposed skin. Perhaps encouraged by the season, anti-Aug sentiment seemed to have plunged, at least for a while, with no one seeming to care that there was an Aug dressed as Santa working tonight. Even the shop windows proclaimed their acceptance of Augs and pleaded for “peace on Earth”.
At least everyone seemed to have the right idea. It was hard to knock them for it.
From the mid-story suites at the hotel they had been put in, Aria Argento could just see the Shard, glittering in the failing light, above the skyline. Much of London had been rebuilt over the past decade or so, adding ultramodern skyscrapers and residential towers, bringing the cramped global city fully into the modern age. The longer she gazed at it, the more nervous she felt, but she couldn’t quite pry herself away from the window.
A week ago, she and three others had been brought to the briefing room, the doors sealed behind them, with only Jim Miller there to talk. None of them had been given any prior hint as to what it could all be for, leaving them instead to look at each other in puzzlement before Miller began to explain himself.
She could still remember the surge of adrenaline and nerves as he began to outline what was expected of them. At first, Miller made it sound like Stormsurge, a snatch-and-grab that might involve firefights and sneaking around. It was only when he had told them there were four, and only four, agents going, and that it would involve a party and one of the most elite hotels in the entire city...
Only then, when she thought of satin dresses and silk suits, of thousand-credit champagne and platinum earrings, had she felt her stomach drop through the floor.
Miller hadn’t given them as much as she had hoped for, only passing around copies of a memo and bringing up an image of the Shard on the main screen. Its glass-pyramid edifice was awe-inspiring and beautiful, encapsulating so many different types of businesses that it made her head spin. Taking up the thirtieth through thirty-fifth floors was the Zen Hotel, rebuilt by Santeau Group through a joint operation with a powerful Chinese company out of Hengsha. This was where they would need to enter, mingle, and find their target before the party ended. Afterward, they would need to enter the suites and find Nikoladze, take him out, and get him out of the building without alerting security.
At first, Aria had balked. The idea was exciting – spy pulp novels brought to life, infiltrating an elitist party while wearing expensive clothes – but the execution terrified her. She could run, follow orders, shoot better than anyone in the Prague branch, but wear a dress costing thousands of credits? Mingle with billionaires who had a trophy wife on their arm? Carry herself with absolute confidence and take on the stress of the mission at the same time?
“Horrifying” hadn’t begun to cover it.
But then, sense had slowly returned. She had never personally encountered the Dvali, and never made a name for herself outside TF29. In a sea of silver spoons, she would be a harmless-looking unknown, as Miller described her. Beyond that, Mac was joining them this time, and he already looked the part in his daily choice of sleek black suit and tie. It was the addition of Delara that really intrigued her, since the woman wasn’t under Miller’s direct report, but had somehow gotten dragged into this and didn’t look at all concerned.
And beyond all of that was their fourth agent, who had spent most of the briefing standing off to the side and looking vaguely bewildered, even through the ever-present mirrored eye-shields. Always dressed in the expensive, fitted coat that made it very difficult not to notice the body underneath, doing nothing to hide the wide shoulders and sturdy build she had never before seen in action, Adam Jensen looked the part, too, and though he hadn’t said much beyond muttering snark Miller had glared at him for, at least he had taken it mostly in stride.
Mac had then made a point of telling “the two Augs” that they had to stay together, or it would look “downright odd” to outside observers. After all, with the men in nice suits and the women in sleek evening gowns, all of it costing a pretty penny, doing anything else would only draw attention to themselves. In a post-Incident world, pairing a Natural with an Aug was frowned upon at best and caused riots at worst. At the very least, it usually led to accusations of fetishism, which, while not totally out of place in a gathering like this, just wasn’t worth it.
So, the Augs were to be paired up, which would at least cut down on the dirty looks.
Which had, of course, done nothing to help her confidence. Whispers of Aria harboring a poorly-hidden attraction to the branch’s only other augmented agent went around regularly, though no one was ever cruel enough to say anything directly to her, or outright anywhere else. Though Adam was always calm and kind to her, that didn’t make her more comfortable in the ways she needed. Oh, no, it only made her more nervous, knowing that the scary-looking man bristling with military-grade augmentations was just... nice.
And the thought of him in a sleek, fitted suit tied her stomach up in knots she couldn’t undo. There was something about a sharp-dressed man that could get her going, but seeing how good he looked just in his normal clothes only made her think that she wouldn’t be able to form coherent thought if he looked any better.
Mac had to know something was up, just by the steady side-eye he gave her while Miller droned on a bit longer about this or that. Aria had tried to focus, but her hands toyed with each other, metal fingers entwining with organic ones, over and over, knowing it was stupid and doing it anyway. He was just a fellow agent, doing a job, dragged out on an op he certainly hadn’t asked for, and he would do it, even if a little grudgingly.
But, though it was slow going at best, they were beginning to get to know each other a little better. From the moment she had laid eyes on him, she had been drawn to his appearance – like a knight, she thought, dark and mysterious, a protector and a shield – but gotten to know him by stumbling a lot. A lot. Beyond the pretty face and warrior’s body, she had found a kind, calm man who didn’t speak willingly of himself often, but still gave her small pieces of himself, now and then, always with that same gentle tone.
Being paired with him on an op was one thing. Having to go to such a high-class event, both of them dressed to the nines and under the watchful eyes of the event’s security, though, was quite another.
Aria squirmed, shifted from foot to foot, and closed the blinds, forcing herself to stop staring at the Shard. They were only booked for a single night in this hotel, which was significantly less ritzy than the Zen, and had arrived early enough in the morning via a supersonic jet that she had been able to spend what few precious minutes she could get sleeping the edge off... and it hadn’t helped, her mind consumed by so many thoughts that she couldn’t parse them.
One that was foremost was that of her dress.
Resisting the temptation to open the blinds again, she instead turned her back and stared at the gown, hanging on the wall to show off its brilliant color and fine fabric. Made of satin, it had felt beautifully light and airy when she had tried it on to have it tailored, but it exposed so much skin...
She swallowed and rubbed her temples. She was going to this op with a colleague. A colleague. Not a date. He wouldn’t be at all affected by her, brown-haired and pale Aria Argento, showing more of her body than she was remotely used to. If anything, he was far more likely to be distracted by Delara, whose grace and elegance made her feel mousy in comparison, and who would probably look like a queen in her floor-length, navy blue evening gown.
Just a colleague. Just a colleague.
But the mantra, unsurprisingly, didn’t help. Instead, she just looped endlessly through the idea of the man she was, beyond all doubt, attracted to, in a fine suit she hadn’t seen yet, much too close to her when she was baring far more skin than she was used to. Whether he took notice or not, just the thought of a hand landing accidentally on her bare shoulder, or drifting too close to her waist, made her feel... pleasantly nervous.
Colleague. Colleague. Colleague.
Aria looked through the open bathroom door at Delara, who was currently invested in perfecting her makeup. Once she was done, she had agreed to help Aria do hers, since she hadn’t done it herself in so many years, and certainly never tried to do anything special enough for such an extravagant event. Nervously, she eyed the red gown on the wall, almost feeling as though it would pounce on her.
Delara wasn’t wearing her gown just yet, working in only her underwear and a shirt for the moment. “Just another minute. I need to spray this down, and you’ll be next. Don’t put the dress on yet, okay?”
She groaned. “Why not?”
“Because I don’t want to risk getting anything on it. It’s satin.”
Again, she eyed the gown. Despite herself, though, she had loved the feeling of its skirt swirling around her legs when she’d given it an experimental spin. In order to wear the thing properly, she would need to wear a strapless bra and seamless underwear, since the dress was tailored to fit like it was painted on, which had the weird effect of making her feel both rather naked and... oddly sexy.
“Alright, did you put on the bra?”
Aria sighed. “No. Gimme a minute.” She removed her loose travel clothes and replaced them with the items that had been set aside for her, finding the fabric smooth and soft. For a moment, she stared down at herself, wondering why it had the effect of making her feel so... female. She liked it.
Moving into the bathroom, she waited patiently, not allowed to see herself in the mirror just yet, as Delara laid down several prep layers before smoothing her skin tone with a concealer that felt light and cool. Only after painstakingly preparing the rest of her face did she move on her to her eyes and brows, which took the longest, with two different brushes and multiple dips into a palette that went from a shimmery off-white to the deepest black she had ever seen. Eyeliner, shadows, and mascara, all applied with a masterful hand that never wavered or lingered too long.
“Almost done,” the other woman muttered as she applied two different colors to her lips, neither of which she saw more than a glimpse of, then stepped back to admire her work. When Aria tired to turn her head, however, Delara stopped her before she got far, then told her to shut her eyes and hold her breath. A few sprays of a cool mist later, a bit of mussing about with her hair, and she was told to open her eyes and look at last.
Aria didn’t quite recognize the woman in the mirror. Her skin tone smoothed out and touched with blush and bronzer was enough, but Delara had spent the most time on her eyes. A sheer rose-gold in the near corners of her eyelids faded into a shimmery silver in the center that became near-black at the far corners. Above each eye, transitioned smoothly into the wings, a misting of dark gray and translucent shimmer completed the look. Her eyebrows had been filled in and tapered slightly, drawing immediate attention to her eyes.
She kept staring, vaguely aware of Delara looking pleasantly smug beside her. “I have... you.... bedroom eyes? Really?”
“Well, yes. I mean, you are going to quite the gala.”
Biting the inside of her lip, she leaned a little closer. It was her, still plainly visible, but her face had been skillfully done up with an almost come-hither sort of look that belonged on a film starlet more than her, yet she couldn’t deny made her feel beautiful. Her lips had been done up with a combination of a pale rose color with a touch of reddish-brown. Almost instantly, she felt a surge of confidence, and as she glanced between herself and Delara’s makeup, which used a similar but lighter technique of several dark layers to emphasize her larger eyes and much longer lashes, she wondered if maybe she wouldn’t be under the other woman’s shadow.
“Adam will be pleased to have such a beautiful woman working with him tonight.”
The concealer barely hid her flush, though her ears turned pink, and some of her confidence immediately deflated. “What does he have to do with this?”
“It’s okay, Aria. Don’t worry. Still, Adam looks good in just his normal wear. He’ll look perfectly at home in a suit.”
She forced a nod, trying not to think of him in a suit. “Okay, then. Can I put the dress on now?”
“We should probably do that, actually.”
Aria wandered back out into the main area in a bit of a stupor, wondering how fifteen minutes of makeup work could so transform both her look and how she felt, and picked the dress off the hanger. Carefully, she slipped into it, the cool folds of satin like a dream against her legs, and pulled her augmented arm through the single sleeve. The dress was simple, made of red satin and cut to floor-length, with a slit up one side to the hip, exposing much of her leg. Her natural arm was bare, the dress cut to loop under that shoulder. Far more skin than she was used to, indeed.
Thankfully, it fit perfectly and held up without a fuss, though she felt strangely lopsided when she took a step. The hem was off the ground even when she stood flat-footed, since she had opted for flats instead of heels, brushing her ankles with every small movement she made.
Grinning to herself, she grasped the fabric beside the slit and gave a quick spin. The red satin billowed out, exposing her entire leg in the process and making her stop suddenly. Even though it had been cut in such a way that it easily held itself up of its own accord, she still felt as though it would just drop off at any second. It made her feel feminine and undeniably sexy, but the tradeoff was the shock of cooler air up to her nethers, which felt very strange indeed.
By the time she had begun strapping a pistol to the leg hidden under the dress, Delara had gotten into her own dress and let her hair fall around her shoulders. Her dress had a square opening in the center that plunged down to just below the highest point of her ribs before stopping, a few inches wide at most. It also had a slit on the leg, but this one was on the left and only reached her knee. The only adornment on the fabric was a small grouping of tiny synthetic diamonds on her left hip that gathered the fabric in an asymmetrical design emphasizing the line of her body.
Aria shook her head, grateful that she had been able to wear a bra at all, and tightened the straps for her pistol until it felt comfortable. Being the type of party it was, no one would be bothered by a small sidearm, or so their intel had told them, and she wasn’t about to take any chances. Their dresses had been very specifically selected to look like high class while also emphasizing their feminine traits, and as long as she kept that in mind, she would be fine.
Last was the jacket to keep London’s cold air off her shoulders, which she looped over an arm for now, as it was far too warm indoors to put it on just yet. With her pistol’s straps hugging her thigh and the simple, comfortable shoes on, lacking heels – unlike Delara’s, unsurprisingly – she finally felt the part.
“The boys will meet us in the lobby. Ah, and we’re ahead of schedule, perfect.” Delara looked at her. “Well, are you ready to see what they’ve got up their sleeves?”
At the thought of Adam in a suit, she almost stuttered, but caught herself. “Didn’t I hear something about... Armani?”
“I think we did.” The other woman smiled. “Let’s get going.”
“Sooner, the better,” she muttered to herself, and switched off all the lights except for a small, dim one in the corner for when they returned. The door automatically clicked shut behind them; Delara tucked the keycard away to somewhere she didn’t see and led the way down the wall. The plush carpet underfoot dulled their steps and deadened most of the other sound, and she heard nothing from any of the other suites they passed. The men had shared a suite on this same floor, much as they had, but she’d forgotten the number.
The hotel was relatively new, built in the current fashionable style of straight lines, soft accent lighting, high ceilings, and glass panels. Every suite was secured with the most current security measures, while heavy doors covered in white enamel and laser-etched with geometric designs blocked any malicious attempts at entry. The lighting was white and soft, provided by recessed sources hidden along the edges of the ceiling. Their floor was the third one, so both opted not to take the elevator and just use the stairs. Made of marble and traced with a silver banister, they were so shiny and perfectly smooth that it felt like blasphemy to even set foot on them.
When they entered the spacious lobby, the only other people there was a family of four checking in and the receptionist, their fellow agents nowhere in sight. Delara sighed and took up a spot on one of the loveseats, crossing her ankles and pulling her phone from somewhere Aria didn’t care to know about.
After a minute, she sat next to her and propped her chin on one hand. She couldn’t imagine any reason these two men in particular could've taken longer than them to arrive. Unless... maybe something had happened? Maybe they had gotten into some sort of trouble, or caught up in an argument? While cordial enough, she knew their personalities clashed at just the right angles, which led to arguments, Adam’s voice taking on a dangerous tone that scared any observers quite a lot, and Mac’s irritated, raised voice in response.
Which Adam sometimes found amusing, he had once admitted to her, which in turn Mac picked up, which only made things that much worse for them when it happened.
They only sat there for a few minutes, but to Aria, it felt like hours. While Delara contentedly tapped away at her phone without much expression, she amused herself with thoughts. Mac wore a suit on the daily, sometimes without a tie and sometimes with, usually with a white undershirt, and always in an understated style that belied how incredibly high the price tags really were. He probably wouldn’t vary far from that, maybe using a darker color or slightly different style, but there was little true mystery there, so her mind wandered off.
Adam only wore his expensive trench coat every day, usually over a skintight shirt that was completely practical, so all she could do was guess at what he would show up in. She thought she had heard the “Armani” brand mentioned in passing, as she had told Delara, but she had also heard a few others tossed about, so whatever had ultimately been selected was a complete mystery to her... and the wait was killing her.
She stood, shook out her skirt, dropped her jacket on the loveseat, and turned to look through the floor-to-ceiling windows at the darkened sky and brightly-lit streets. Not all that long ago, she had been briefly aware of London speeding by under the VTOL as they had made their way to the Apex Centre, but hadn’t had much chance to take in the skyline from the upper levels or appreciate the scenery before the entire thing came to an abrupt end. They had been hustled from the Centre shortly thereafter and flown right back to Prague. This was the first time she saw London proper.
Seeing it on television, or in movies, or on a mission brief, just wasn’t the same as being down in the grit of it.
After a few moments, she grew dimly aware of voices coming from the stairwell and turned to look. It only took a moment longer to register one of them as very clearly Mac’s, his strong accent and – as much as she would never, ever want to tell it to his face, or to anyone’s – rich tone echoing down effortlessly and instantly filling the lobby. He wasn’t speaking all that loudly, but that particular tone could get anywhere.
Then came the responding voice, and she felt a tiny spike of adrenaline and nerves, right before both of them came into view from the second level and down the stairs.
Mac, not to her surprise, had donned a suit not radically different from his usual selection, this one was silver. There was no tie, only a deep blue undershirt to break up the sea of shimmering fabric. Judging by how it moved with his strides, it was probably made of wool, which would work great in the chilly weather. He looked perfectly at home in it, and his gait was somehow both purposeful and a little bit lazy, as if saying look how awesome I am.
Most days, she could only stand him so much, but even she had to admit he looked good.
Then her gaze shifted to the other man, and one hand gathered a handful of her dress, not really knowing how else to react. Adam always looked good – always, even when just in his body armor and looking ready to go headfirst into a firefight – but this was on a whole different level. He had been given a black suit that shimmered in a way different from the way Mac’s did, with a black undershirt of matte fabric, and there was not a spot of color to be found otherwise. The cut drew her eye top to bottom, inviting her to look, to appreciate the length and lean strength of his body, and the way he moved made her realize that, while not completely at ease, he wasn’t having a difficult time.
She managed to remember to open her hand and let the dress fall once more. The way it fitted drew her attention to the line from shoulder to hip, then back up. The black fabric, in combination with his dark hair, gave him the sort of “tall, dark, and mysteriously handsome” look that made it seem he’d stepped out of a spy novel.
Until they reached the lobby floor, both men were more interested in each other and making sure they didn’t stumble down the oddly-cut steps than the people in the lobby. “Why can’t you just do it? The only other people there with sunglasses will be bodyguards. We can’t have you doing it, you dumb git.”
“Is it really that important?” Adam sounded exasperated, and finally looked away when he reached the floor. Though she couldn’t see his eyes, she knew, instinctively, that he was looking at her, and it made her feel self-conscious, but not in an entirely unpleasant way. Suddenly painfully aware of the slit up her leg and the bared shoulder, she resisted the urge to hug her arms closer to her body, caught between wanting to try and cover herself with everything she had, and stand there, chin raised and shoulders back, looking the part she needed to play.
“Well, look at you.” Mac walked straight to her and stopped a few feet in front of her, giving her a once-over and ending with a pleased look on his face. “Marvelous. You’ll fit right in, probably. And you, Delara... what, are we going to a party, or to some fancy premiere at the cinema? What is with that getup?”
“I’m glad you approve, Duncan.” Delara rose from the loveseat and moved closer, smiling. “You look amazing.”
“I know. Are you ladies ready to get on with this?”
Adam had stopped at the bottom of the stairs, but now approached her, moving with the sort of graceful gait that sent too many mixed messages for her to parse. “I’m... kind of glad I didn’t get to see what you’d be wearing before this all went down.” Above the shields, one eyebrow rose. “You look beautiful.”
It took her a few beats too long to realize he was talking to her, and her alone. “Thanks. Same to you.” Pause. “I mean... you look good. Good in a suit. Never seen you in a suit, and it...” She took a breath. “Thanks.”
“Jensen,” Mac grumbled, “shields. Off. Now.”
Adam gave him a sidelong glare. “Are you just used to getting your way, or you doing this for show?”
“He has a point, Adam,” Delara told him. “I know you’re used to keeping them up, but for our purposes, you should leave them down. Don’t worry, you won’t be seeing these people ever again.”
Silence followed her words, while an expression of vague disgust crossed his face. “You’re not letting this go, are you?”
Delara opened her mouth, but Aria cut in without thinking. “I’ve never seen your eyes.”
The look of disgust vanished; he pursed his lips for a moment, and then, with a faint snick, both shields retracted into the sheaths on either side of his eyes. Cybernetic replicas, the irises dark with a gold ring around the pupil, framed with short, thick lashes darker than his hair, met hers. “Alright, fine,” he muttered, “you all get your way this time. Are we going to stand here all night, or can we leave now?”
Aria studied his eyes a moment. They were deep-set under finely-arched brows, and though she had thought they would be unnerving, they were anything but. Rather, they were beautiful, and she had a hard time looking away. Only when they met hers again did she realize she had begun to stare, but looking away felt like admitting to some terrible crime, so she just kept looking back at him, giving him a slight smile.
To her relief, the lines of his face relaxed, and she thought she spotted a faint half-smile of his own.
“Are you two done?”
Aria tore her gaze away so fast, she wouldn’t have been surprised to get whiplash. “Are you?” she muttered, moving away to snatch her jacket off the loveseat.
Mac looked both amused and slightly irritated. “We’re ahead of schedule, so the sooner we get moving, the more likely we’ll get there before anyone notices. We need to go over the plans one more time.” He led the way out the front door, where the surprisingly cold air nipped at her skin, reminding her to slip the jacket on. “Delara, how are you walking in those heels? And how are you not cold? That’s a lot of skin to be showin’ off.”
“What, is that you, Duncan MacReady, worrying about me?” The teasing note in her voice was impossible to miss. “And is that also you appreciating the dress I was given?”
He gave her an utterly deadpan look. “Don’t psych me, Auzenne, I don’t like it. It’s an observation.”
Aria smirked. “Sounds like she struck a nerve, Mac.”
This earned her a glare from him, but she just grinned back.
After a minute of standing in silence, he muttered something and dug around in his suit jacket before pulling out a phone and bringing something up. Delara just stood next to him, looking amused, one ankle crossed behind the other and hands on her hips.
“Too bad coming to London is just for a job,” Adam murmured at her shoulder. “It’s a beautiful city. Kind of reminds me of Detroit, back in its heyday. Would be nice to have a chance to see more of it.”
“We kind of will tonight,” she said. “I heard the views from the Shard are absolutely incredible.”
“And London’s doing better than Detroit.” He made a thoughtful sound. “Here’s hoping this all goes off without a hitch. It seems like a bad idea to get into a fight that far above the ground.”
She shrugged. “Then, let’s just not get into any fights.”
He snorted. “Easier said than done.”
An automated taxi pulled up to the curb then, opening its doors without being prompted. All four of them got in, finding comfortable seats with soft material and a mostly bare interior in the rest of the car. The door closed, and the car moved off into London’s perpetual traffic, expertly weaving its way along.
“Alright, one more time.” Mac had sat in front and now twisted in his seat to face the others. Delara, sitting beside him, turned as well. “We’re here for Radich Nikoladze. He’s staying in one of the suites, but we don’t know which one yet, and we aren’t snatching him until the party’s over. It’s supposed to run until midnight, and it’s just nineteen now, so it’ll be a long one. Don’t turn your back on the drinks, and don’t let the Tarvos guards bother you.”
“Tarvos, huh?” Adam sighed. “They’re popular.”
“Because they're good, ex-Belltower or not. First, we need to find Nikoladze and get a tracker planted on him. From what we know, he likes women. A lot. Delara will deal with that part.”
“I was volunteered,” she sighed. “Getting up in the face of a dangerous criminal doesn’t sound fun.”
“Then, we need to make our rounds and gather all the info we can about the security situation. Drugging the guards isn’t off the table, but no matter what, Nikoladze will not be easy to get to. Expect trouble.”
“That’s why we’re here,” Aria said.
“We’re going as couples,” Delara said. “I’ll be with Mac, and you and Adam are together. You don’t have to say you’re a couple, of course, but it’s going to draw the least suspicion. I guess Mac and I will just... need to play up the ‘bickering couple’ angle, right? Since we get along so well.” She patted his arm.
Mac made a face. “It’s best. Two Naturals, two Augs. If anyone asks, play it up. No one should recognize our faces, but be careful anyway. Keep the suspicion off.”
“Do we know anything about the suite?” Adam said.
“Yeah, we got the works. Pressure sensors, laser tripwires, cameras. Can’t do anything about the cameras, tied as they are to the hotel’s security desk. That thing is watched around the clock, so no getting in. Any attempt to cut the cameras will set off the alarm. Per what we got from the hotel’s audits, they need to store video data for three years before it can be purged. Any interruption will be noted, and our faces will be there a long time.”
“Unless we get it scrubbed,” Aria pointed out.
“Sure, but that takes time, what with all the red tape, so keep your heads down and play it cool. With any luck, absolutely nothing will go wrong, and we’ll walk out with this ratbag without a fuss.”
Adam sounded like he spoke from too many years of experience when he muttered, “Because that always happens.”
Mac gave him a quick glance. “If anyone asks, remember your aliases?”
“I know he’s Derrick Walthers.” Aria nodded at Adam, who returned her nod with his own. “I’m Rosa Romano.” Pause. “Well, it isn’t terrible, at least. But it does make me think of cheese.”
“It’s not like we drew them out of a hat, but it sure feels like it, doesn’t it?” Delara shook her head. “And I’m... Abigail. Did anyone actually give me a last name?”
“Of course we did,” Mac said. “It’s Blanchard, remember?”
“That’s a terrible name,” Aria muttered.
“I wouldn’t have picked it,” Delara admitted with another soulful sigh. “Abigail Blanchard. Quite a mouthful there.”
“And why do you get to keep your first name, Mac?”
“Because it’s common enough that no one cares. But I got slapped with ‘Hemingway’ as a surname.”
Aria looked at him for a long moment. Of all four of them, Mac happened to get the least ridiculous name, and the one that sounded the most like it had come from a spy novel. Of course he had. Silently going over the names again, she settled back in her seat to watch the scenery go by while Mac fiddled with his phone, then tucked it away.
“Almost there,” he said after a minute. “Let’s get this done and go home.”
Adam said, quietly, “This should be interesting.”