Given all of the absolute shit the universe had seen fit to put her through within the past year, she figured that God or Buddha or Mother Nature or whoever the hell would give her a fucking break, but no, of course not—Eve couldn’t catch a break if she had sticky tape attached to her hands and the break was moving slow as sap in a Connecticut winter.
Which is how she found herself awakened from a dead sleep, surrounded by Build-a-Bear stuffing, a thawed and leaking bag of frozen veggies, and a half-drunk bottle of wine, by the one person on the planet she’d give anything to see six-feet under. Of course she couldn’t actually see her, not in the dark, but that damn smell. Cloying in the worst way, etched into her olfactory receptors from now until eternity, with the terrible intermingling scents of worn bus seats and strangers’ farts.
“Do not scream,” Villanelle said, her hand latched over Eve’s mouth. “You know, you really should lock your doors.”
But Eve wanted to scream, and shout, and rage, but that would probably make Villanelle superior and smug, despite the fact that she always invariably had the upper hand given her complete lack of conscience. Maybe Eve wanted to take her tongue and lick sloppy and gross over her fingers to get her to pull her hand away, but, knowing Villanelle, that would make her smug, too.
There really was no winning for Eve.
“Put these on,” Villanelle instructed, and Eve felt a soft thud of something land on her hips. “And get your trainers.”
“It’s the middle of the night.”
“And I’ve got a plane to catch in the morning, so we don’t have a lot of time.”
Her eyes had adjusted to the darkness, so she saw the form of Villanelle settle on the side of her mattress, paw at the wine and the bottle of Paracetamol on her bedside table and finally flick the switch on the lamp next to her. Eve blinked against the dim light as Villanelle came into view, her bruise from their earlier exchange angry and uneven, lilac patches burbling out against her eye socket and forehead.
She felt herself on the verge of tears suddenly; because Villanelle was ballsy and unpredictable and cruel and Jesus she just wanted to sleep for days, to ignore the fact that she’d slapped her like some teenager in a bathroom catfight and then kissed her while inverted and wrathful, her heart thundering and her body flashing with fever and heaves of disgust. She couldn’t stop blinking; against the light, and Villanelle’s bruise, and the gleaming plastic rhinestone at the top of that damned bear’s fairy-princess crown.
“Change. Now,” Villanelle instructed one more time, before tearing herself away and walking toward the kitchen. Eve watched as she filled a glass of water and left it on the counter. “If you’re not outside in ten minutes, I’ll be back. And if you finally decide to lock your door, I’ll come in through the window. Ten minutes. Don’t forget your trainers.”
Villanelle walked out the door and slammed it behind her, and Eve was left with the annoying and mortifying notion that Villanelle had not addressed anything about their encounter on the bus… even though Eve wished she had.
“Yes. It’s open 24-hours.”
“I don’t care if it’s open during the apocalypse, what the hell are we doing here at three in the morning?”
“I had other things to take care of and I have an early flight. This is the only time I have available.”
“Other things... you mean shooting Carolyn.”
“I did not shoot Carolyn, I didn't even know she was in the car, at first. I probably frightened her, though.”
Villanelle took out a plastic key reader and waved it at an electronic receiver. She pushed through the doors of the gym and strong-armed Eve inside with her, immediately bypassing the lockers, fire extinguisher, front desk, benches and cubbies, directing her toward the middle of the mat. Villanelle tossed her bag down and then sat on the floor, her shorts riding up along the trunks of muscular thighs, her neon pink trainers stark and visually jarring against the maroon of the mat.
The television was tuned to BBC News, and Eve could hear one of the anchors droning on about wildfires, or international oil futures, or a royal family member packing up and legging it out of Buckingham, or something… it was hard, because she was used to the whoosh and clatter of London, cacophonous and constant and overwhelming with its grey noise. But here, so late, it was relatively silent. She heard the rustling of Villanelle’s shirt sleeves and was reminded of late nights and soft sounds in the backseat of a borrowed Toyota, thirty years ago in a field in Connecticut. Everything felt new and fresh and raw and Villanelle in front of her contorting her fit self into increasingly more convoluted positions did not make this any easier.
“It might come as a surprise to you, but normal people don’t like being dragged out of their homes and forced into spandex at three in the morning,” Eve finally said.
“Hmmm, but your ass looks great.”
“What? When was the last time you had work-out clothes that fit?” Villanelle asked, thrusting her feet forward and bending at the hips. Her torso stretched all the way down her legs so that she could wrap her hands around the arches of her feet and tug, pulling against the muscles in her calves like a damn Russian gymnast.
“Eve,” she continued, “when was the last time you had workout clothes that did not double as loungewear?”
“I run, okay.”
“Not from me. You come barreling at me with your little fists.” Villanelle raised her hands at that, curled her fingers together, and started flapping her balled-up hands at some imaginable foe. “And then you end up on your back between my legs.”
There was fire and lightning and an earthquake and hell if Eve knew, Thor’s hammer or Carrie’s telekinesis or some other fuck-all power because her hand was behind her head and suddenly it was across Villanelle’s face, for the second time that day, and it stung like hell. Eve loomed over her as Villanelle crouched, and she wondered if this was what it felt like to sprinkle paprika into a corpse’s open mouth.
She was breathing hard for the second time that day, and her heart was thudding for the second time, and she felt like she was going to shit herself for the second time, and-and-and—
“Okay,” Villanelle said, making a show of working her jaw side to side, her tomato red cheek a lovely contrast beneath the purple of her bruise. “I probably deserved that. But you only get one.”
“One?” Eve asked, stubbornly.
“Come on,” Villanelle commanded, rolling to her feet. “Come over here.”
“You’re already here, Eve,” Villanelle said. “And we’ve got… we need to talk. We need to talk about today, when you kissed—”
“Not now,” Eve answered, shaking her head, then instantly regretted it. She could barely move her neck, her own bruise hurt so much. It was swollen and swamp-green and it made her feel old and frail. Nothing like Villanelle. Nothing like how Villanelle made her feel most days.
“Okay,” Villanelle said, her arms raised in surrender. “No talking. But before I leave London, you’re going to learn how to throw a punch.”
“What, what? You heard what I said.”
“I’m sorry. Is this some kind of impromptu self-defense training?” Eve asked. She could hear her voice creeping into the edge of hysterical territory, a high-pitched and incredulous shriek. “Because the only person I need defending from just dragged me out of bed at three fucking A-M.”
“Wrong,” Villanelle argued. “You are a woman alone in a city. You investigate dangerous people. You don’t carry a weapon.”
“Normal people don’t carry weapons.”
“Yes, well, normal people don’t attack other people in very expensive suits on public buses. So let’s prepare for the abnormal, shall we?” Villanelle moved from the center of the mat and over toward one of the corners of the gym, bypassing the cardio machines and free weights. “You didn’t stretch, so you’re going to be sore.”
Eve followed, because she really didn’t know what else to do. It was easier to walk twenty steps across a gym mat than sit with her thoughts, and the smell of Villanelle, and the stupid acknowledgement that she’d once again purchased clothes that fit Eve perfectly, and that her ass did look fantastic in the gym mirrors. It was easier to follow her and think about impending soreness than stew over how her arms and chest and entire torso felt after she hacked a man to death with an axe; after a metal bullet had passed through her body and mangled her insides.
“Stand here,” Villanelle said, and Eve did.
Suddenly, Villanelle reached out, struck, and Eve was on her back, staring up at the ceiling.
“What the fuck?!” Eve muttered.
“Your stance is shit,” Villanelle said. “Get up. Stagger your feet.”
“Stagger. One foot forward, one foot back—like skateboard. Turn your torso to the side. Less area to strike, and your center of gravity is weighted more evenly.”
Eve grumbled but did so; and this time, when Villanelle’s arm pushed against her, she faltered, but didn’t fall.
“I don’t see how this is going to help me with anything,” Eve said. “If your bosses want me killed, they’ll have me killed. Sniper. Poison. Something… less close.”
Villanelle stared at her, her lips pursed, cheeks doing some uncomfortable twitchy thing, eyes gleaming. Eve was transported back to six months ago, in shock, feeling her way through a Roman ruin, gravel underfoot, Villanelle’s voice guiding, prompting, pushing her forward. There were physical tells now, Eve could see; where frustration hedged into disappointment, into a resigned sort of fury. Eve couldn’t handle another attempt; better for Villanelle to kiss her now, properly, close, with her arms around her shoulders, and then promptly snap her neck and leave her on the floor of this abandoned gym, so she wouldn’t have to keep thinking about it.
“They won’t want you dead,” Villanelle said, finally. She pushed her again and Eve stumbled backwards, but remained upright. “You are not important.”
Eve raised her flat palm again. “Oh fuck off—”
Villanelle caught her hand by the wrist without even looking at it, her gaze boring into Eve’s angry expression, picking it apart until Eve felt like some children’s game of organ removal, with tweezers and red alarm lights and electric shocks every time someone hit a nerve too closely.
“I said you get one.” Her grip tightened against Eve’s wrist until she felt her metacarpals grinding, forcing her to grit her teeth against the pressure. “No wide swinging,” Villanelle said. “Tuck your elbow in. Make a fist.”
Eve stared back, her arm still tense in Villanelle’s grip.
Eve made a fist.
“You have a short thumb,” Villanelle said, stroking her index finger over the bony protrusions of Eve’s wrist. “Brace your first three fingers, index, middle, ring, with your thumb. Hope like hell you don’t strike with your pinky, or you will have a boxer’s break.”
“Try to hit with the second and third knuckle,” Villanelle said, skirting her fingers on top of Eve’s fist, bringing it down in front of her chest so that she could see where Villanelle was pointing. “The point of impact will spread most over your hand there. Hit them in the face, but practice on the bag.” She gestured over to a big black bag hanging in the corner.
Eve stalked over, Villanelle following, and made the fist Villanelle had shown her. Thumb under her curled fingers. Careful not to hit with her pinky.
She threw her fist against the bag and almost missed completely, but Villanelle stepped behind the bag and put her weight into it to keep it in place.
“Again. Remember your staggered stance from before?”
Eve moved her feet in place.
“I’m going to… right here,” Villanelle said, and she pointed toward Eve’s hip.
Before Eve knew what was happening, Villanelle was behind her, and she was cradled in the crook of Villanelle’s body, hips fitting behind Eve’s ass and her arm running the length of Eve’s own until it curled over her wrist.
“Rotate your hips like this,” Villanelle instructed, snapping her hip behind Eve’s own, and really, after everything today, there was no way in hell Villanelle wasn’t doing this on purpose. The space where her hand fit under Eve’s tank top was flaming hot as oil in a skillet, and Eve was just waiting for the second she would spontaneously combust.
“Then use the ball of your foot—the ball, Eve, not the heel—and twist, like… like you are smushing bug into the floor.”
Villanelle had her hands on her hips and her lips at her ear and Eve was mad, god was she angry, and hot and sad and frustrated and ready to absolutely wail on this stupid black bag in this stupid gym with this stupid, fascinating assassin practically grinding on her from behind.
“Get in your stance,” Villanelle said, stepping away, and Eve did. “Snap your hips… good. Again.”
Eve moved her body like Villanelle showed her, striking out with her arm, fist curled with her thumb in place, hips twisting, foot rotating, eyes locked on the nothing in front of her.
“Again,” Villanelle said, moving behind the bag. “Now aim for the letters.”
Eve hit the bag, connecting solidly on the first strike.
“Do it again.”
Eve hit it again.
“Keep going until I tell you to stop.”
So, Eve did. She pounded the shit out of that bag. Villanelle told her to pause after two minutes, walking her through a jab, a hook, and an uppercut. She showed Eve how to throw the weight of her back knee into the meat of the bag, then yelled at her to hit and keep hitting. The knuckles on Eve’s right hand were red and angry, but Eve didn’t care. She kept going.
“Jab. Cross. Jab, cross, hook, uppercut, knee, knee, grab onto the sides, hit it with your knee, keep hitting it—“
She was sweaty and mad and angry and sad and she wished the bag was Villanelle, she wished it was Niko, was Aaron Peele, was Carolyn, was Raymond—
“Hit it again,” Villanelle said. “Jab, jab, cross, use your legs, Eve.”
She kept going. Her hands were stinging, were red, eventually, the white letters on the Outlast bag turning pink then ruddy then brown as her blood leaked and skin flaked off against the pressure of her madness, of her fury. She thought about germs and the news anchor on the television and Villanelle’s lips, and how sweet they were, and razor blades in lipstick and kissing the blood away, smearing lip prints on her collar bone and twisting the knife further into her gut next time—of burying her face into her stomach and suffocating there, happy to curl her stinging knuckles into flesh and rip it apart until the hands holding the punching bag in place came round to shove a blade into her ear and stir her brain to mush.
“Eve… Eve, wait—”
Broken champagne bottles and expensive perfume and white roses spelling her name and her favorite sweater, yes it was attached to the undershirt because it was easy, God, her life had been so easy before—
“Eve, stop, Eve…” Villanelle blocked her next two punches and caught her as Eve collapsed in a sweaty heap, her entire weight falling forward, unable to stand, unable to function, because her life was in a tailspin and she couldn’t even walk away from the person who shot her; she just kept following and falling and chasing and slurping up that bait like the idiot she was, because there was nothing like Villanelle and there never would be again, and the second it was over it was well and properly over, and Eve didn’t want it to be, even if she collapsed before the finish line, wherever it was, whatever it was…
She felt fingers on her cheeks so she had to look away; focus instead on her shaking hands and the way the blood ran down the inside of her wrists, how the veins protruded and the skin tightened every time she flexed them.
Villanelle wiped the tears off Eve’s nose, off her chin, and moved the baby hairs that had flown out of her ponytail back behind her sticky face. BBC News droned on, until a viral video of a fist-fight breaking out on a London bus played on jerky cell phone footage, Eve’s own scream of rage sounding tinny and insubstantial through the speaker.
“Hmm, we look good on tv,” Villanelle offered, releasing Eve and maneuvering so she wasn’t practically sitting in her lap. “Horrible angle, of course, but really—“
“You shot me,” Eve said, fresh tears falling over her eyelids. “I killed someone and you said you loved me and then you fucking shot me—”
“If we’re not going to talk about that video on the news,” Villanelle said, and Eve caught the moment where she flung her head back and knocked her forehead into Villanelle’s skull. She felt the phantom pain pulse from the inside of her cranium. “…then we’re not going to talk about Rome.”
“Then what are we talking about? What are we doing?’
“I don’t know. I didn’t know, at first, when it all started. But now… I’m not trying to—I—I just had work here. I wanted to see you.”
“But Rome,” Eve said, unable to let it go. Could she ever let it go? “Even after—“
“Konstantin told me you were alive,” Villanelle said. “He said he saw you. I had to come.”
“Well… guess you can blame him for that, then,” Eve said, gesturing to the bruise over Villanelle’s eye.
“No, this was you. Big stamp across my head, says ‘Property of Eve Polastri’.”
“Hmm,” Villanelle shrugged a shoulder and the scoop of her t-shirt fell over her neck, a light sheen of sweat on her skin. “What time is it?”
“After four, at least,” Eve said, squinting at the monitor.
“Shit,” Villanelle said, standing. “I’ve got to go. Early flights at Heathrow are the worst.”
Eve stood too, her arms still shaking, and suddenly they were face to face, Villanelle with her height looking down, carefully, slowly, reaching for Eve’s fingertips. “Warm milk, for your hands,” she said, bringing them to her lips. “It gets pink and swirly… looks like candy floss.”
She kissed one palm, and then the other, and Eve let her, because all the fight was gone.
“Then, once they have the scabs, use Vaseline at night, and cover your hands in socks. Use ones that do not match. You will ruin gloves if you try with them.”
“How many gloves had you ruined?”
“Very many,” she said, readjusting the bag on her shoulders.
“And where are you now?”
Villanelle took a step back and pulled a water bottle out of her bag, and a towel, and a tenner, and threw it all down next to Eve. “Does it matter?”
“What’s that for?” Eve asked, indicating the money.
“Cab. Bus doesn’t run so early.”
“I could walk,” Eve argued. “If someone tries to mug me, I can punch the shit out of them now.”
“Not with those hands,” Villanelle said, tilting her head down at Eve. “Goodbye, Eve.”
Villanelle was at the door before Eve got the courage to say it, but it came out, hot and intense like magma:
Eve scrambled to collect the items at her feet, muttering shit! every time her hands stretched, her knuckles stinging so badly she wondered if she still had any pain pills from her surgery left over.
Villanelle paused, her cheshire-cat grin blooming over face. Eve watched her nod as she swung the door open, then immediately pulled the fire alarm lever on the front wall. She disappeared from sight as emergency sprinklers rained down on Eve.
“OH MY GOD, FUCK YOU!!!”
Two weeks and a hundred reams of financial statements from international crime organizations later, Eve received an advert in the mail for some fancy-ass skin balm made of sheep’s placenta, great for dried or broken knuckles, ideal for hands that needed rejuvenating. There was a sale on it starting in two days. It was manufactured in a small shop in Barcelona.
Later that evening, Eve booked a flight for Spain.