“It’s okay, Q, I like it when you get me all wet.”
The shim Héloïse was using to probe a suspect sunroof seal slipped from her hand and landed on the passenger seat with a boomph. Héloïse leaned her forehead against the roof of the Q-Car and closed her eyes. Still? she thought. Even now?
028 slid into the driver’s seat and retrieved the tool, radiating delight. “You dropped something,” she drawled. Héloïse tried valiantly not to look down her blouse.
Not that valiantly, if she was being honest.
“Shouldn’t you be reading your case file for the 37th time?”
“Trying to get rid of me?”
Héloïse looked at her watch. “Yes. For the next three hours. Yes I am.”
“And then?” 028 asked innocently, as if they hadn’t been planning this for weeks.
“Then you’re going to get exactly what you want,” Héloïse replied, returning focus to the leaky window.
“Promise?” Practically purring.
“You won’t back out?”
“Good.” 028 stood up and walked around the car. “I’ll see you tonight.” She leaned in and lowered her voice. “Héloïse.”
“And then avocado slices, sprouts, and this aioli that, God, Q, will curl your toes.” 028 was fantasizing about the number three sandwich on the list, her voice lilting with excitement. Héloïse kept sneaking little glances at her as they walked. "Shay loves that one."
“Mmm,” she hummed as 028 went into detail about focaccia holes.
“Where are you?” 028 nudged her with her hip.
028 grinned and tapped her on the head. “You’re miles away, darling. What’s going on in that brilliant brain of yours?”
“Oh… I just…”
Héloïse stopped and mussed nervously at her own hair. “I just didn’t know you were the godmother type,” she blurted. “I mean… whatever that means. Agents don’t…” She struggled to not be a dick about it. “I’ve never known an agent who has kids. Or godkids. Or a life, for that matter.” Somewhere in her mind a pot picked up a phone and rang a kettle.
028 brushed a curl behind Héloïse’s ear and smiled at the shiver that followed. “Her father recruited me. Command. I was his last before he retired.”
“And then some old grudge-drunk dipshit killed him, right after Shay turned six.” Héloïse watched 028’s shoulders sag and eyes dim and hated every second of it. Might have to come up with some sort of dipshit elimination device, she thought.
“Then I was recruited again!” she said. “This time by Ozzie. Couldn't turn down her mom asking me to be godmother.”
They resumed their walk, arms grazing this time.
“It’s not all glamour and guns, you know,” 028 quipped, a hop in her step. “Making the world a better place. Hakuna matata and all that jazz.”
“No,” Héloïse murmured. “No, it’s not.”
“Kids, families, carnivals.” 028 pointed to the shimmering lights up ahead. “Get to them early so they don’t fall through the cracks. It’s an interesting alternate universe.”
“One that appeals to you?”
“Sometimes!” 028 laughed. “Like when I have to fish a live bomb out of my tummy. Then it appeals to me a lot.”
Héloïse mulled it over, tried to imagine it - house, children, a little dog. Domestic bliss. It felt awkward, foreign; a day in ill-fitting clothes.
“Shay!” 028 yelled and broke into a trot.
Ten rides, two plushies, and a frankly irresponsible amount of cotton candy later, Héloïse balanced three sodas and a plate of nachos on her arms and returned to the tricera-tabletops where 028 and her goddaughter waited, huddled together in laughter and warmth.
“See?” 028 said to Shay, nodding toward Héloïse. “A human blep.” Héloïse’s ears turned pink as the tip of her tongue.
“My dad used to do that when he helped me with my homework,“ Shay sputtered out between giggles, grabbing an extra-cheesy chip and crunching down. “He wothant ery goo ah maffs.”
“How did he end up working at a bank then?” 028 laughed. Squeezed Héloïse’s knee under the table, a quick reassurance.
“I dunno. Mom said he liked boring jobs.”
Héloïse tried to gauge her sadness. Not that she could do anything about it besides buy more sugar. What the fuck did she know about kids?
“He was supposed to bring me here, y’know.” Glee in her eyes.
“Is that so?” 028 feigned surprise.
“Yeah!” Bouncing now. “To ride the Tonnerre de Zeus, so I can get my Adventurer badge!”
“A roller coaster?” Héloïse blanched.
“Yes!” in unison.
“A wooden roller coaster?”
Shay began to list off facts about the coaster, each more terrifying than the next. Héloïse scanned the grounds for an escape.
Then they were walking toward it.
Then they were in line.
Then they were stood underneath the towering tracks. Héloïse felt her stomach do its own loop-the-loop. The rickety old thing screamed ‘death trap’, and she quickly demurred when they found there were only two seats left in the car.
“It’s fine. It’s fine. I’ll take pictures of you as you go by. From down there.” Pointed toward salvation. “On the ground.”
028 drew up close to Héloïse on the platform while the attendant helped Shay get belted in. “You’re afraid of heights.” Not a question.
“I’m afraid of falling to my death from a 100km-per-hour unguided missile.”
A patient smile.
“But your job…”
“Is different from your job.” She pointed to 028. “Skyscrapers and balconies.” To herself. “Bench.”
“So,” 028 leaned in so her breath fluttered into Héloïse’s ear. “Outside on the balcony at the beach house is out of the question?”
Héloïse was suddenly dizzy. Not just because of heights.
The voice dropped a couple notes. “What if… we’re up against the house, not the railing?”
“That…” Héloïse stuttered. Stopped and started again. “That would be acceptable.”
028 stood straight up, nodded, and turned back toward the cab. “Noted.”
Héloïse managed to snap out of her daze in time to capture a single blurry photo of the pair.
Eventually Shay’s sugar buzz lost its battle against the late hour, and she leaned her head against 028’s shoulder on the Uber ride home. Héloïse kept her shoes tucked in next to 028’s and tried not to get lost in this new side of her. The depth of her compassion. Her vulnerability.
Shay’s mother met them at the door, equal parts grateful and sad. 028 hugged her, the knowing a weight on them both.
“Q,” Ozzie called as the pair walked off. “Take care of her.”
“I will.” “She does.”
A fond smile. The porch light winked out.
They took their time walking back, cozy and slow, the spell only broken when they reached Héloïse’s door. 028 dropped a kiss on her nose and started to pull away.
“Come inside?” Héloïse asked softly.
“You know I can’t.”
“I believe you can.”
“We have a mission briefing at 0500.”
Héloïse put one hand on the doorknob and slowly turned, backing in, her other hand gently grasping 028’s.
“We’ll just sleep.”
028 snorted, eyes rolled toward the sky.
Héloïse heeled her way into the doorway and wrapped her fingers around 028’s wrist. Couldn’t let her go. Could not. “Really, just sleep. Scout’s honor.”
Head dropping just a bit. A need. “Marianne…” she whispered.
028’s grin melted, and she followed Héloïse in.
Héloïse stared glassy-eyed into the darkness while 028’s gentle snores serenaded her. Didn’t want to think about Command, about his little girl growing up without him, about an emptiness that could never be filled.
She closed her eyes and tightened her arm around Marianne’s waist.
The Q-Lab was quiet, the air filled only by the buzz of computers and various gizmos. Héloïse and Headquarters watched the wall of monitors, hands gripped on the edge of the desk. 028’s micro-cam was sending back crystal clear video and audio - Héloïse was quite proud - and they followed her every move into the dark building.
“Ah, I’ve found the first alarm.” Camera angles shifted, twisted, turned. “Looks easy. Hang on.” A few snips later and she was through the door. Héloïse exhaled. “Are you nervous, Q? That’s sweet.”
“No. I am invested in the successful execution of the mission.”
Was she nervous? Héloïse drifted for a moment to explore the question, the feelings. 028 - Marianne; no longer just 028 - courting danger again. But that was her job. And it was Héloïse’s job to protect her. She snapped back, angry at herself.
“What is that?”
“Where?” 028 slowly circled round.
A bright white light stunned Héloïse and Headquarters. The image on the monitors quaked.
“Fuck.” 028 sounded alarmingly calm; the men shouting at her, not so much. Body hits, kicks, cracking bones, the sounds of fighting, spatters of blood on the camera. Then silence.
“028, code in please,” Headquarters tried.
The image shook and spun again. A bloody face peered into the lens. A male face. He grinned, and Héloïse nearly buckled. A deafening crunch and the monitors went black.
“Who else knows how to operate the VIVALDI?” Headquarters demanded.
Héloïse scoffed. ‘VIVALDI’ he called it. Because apparently Velocity Induced Vibrating Atomization Laser Deployment Instrument was too complicated. “028,” she said.
“Exactly. And she’s offline. That leaves you.”
“I’m not a field agent.” Héloïse wasn’t trying to be modest. Nor was she afraid. This was simply the truth: there are agents and there is a Quartermaster. One of those was not suited for field work.
Headquarters slammed his papers down on the desk. “Pardon me, Q. Do I need to reiterate the critical importance of this mission?”
“No, I just think…”
“The theft and transmission of DGSE top-secret data will not be tolerated. It puts our agents at risk. That means it puts our country at risk.”
“I am aware of…”
“The VIVALDI can stop it. You can stop it.”
“And you will stop it. Be at the helipad in 30 minutes. You’re going.”
Héloïse was certain four hours of jaw clenching would shatter her teeth to bits. Did they have to make these things with so many fucking windows?
“Q, we’re about 10 minutes out.” 003 turned in his seat to give her a thumbs up. Héloïse couldn’t pry her hands from the safety straps to respond in kind.
“Don’t worry. Headquarters and I will be with you the whole time,” he said. Nice man. Probably thought he should be the one going in. Probably right.
The chopper settled with nary a bump. She dropped down and ran low to the Q-Car, glancing back as 003 lifted off again.
“Q, status check please.” A bit of tension released at 003’s familiar tenor.
“Green. I’m a go.”
“Very well. Target is now two blocks away.”
“Confirmed.” Cut the lights and gas motor. Switch to electric. Running silent up to the old hotel.
“Remember, Q, you are to locate the VIVALDI, deploy it, and return immediately. That is your mission.”
Héloïse didn’t actually tell Headquarters to shove it up his ass. Certainly thought it though.
“We do not have intelligence that 028 is in that building anymore,” he warned.
Well, they were all about to find out, weren’t they?
Deep breath. Doorknob. Go.
Héloïse screamed when the knife sliced into her shoulder. Again. And again. “Keep looking!” the goon shouted.
She realized they were digging for a tracker. The minuscule trackers all agents had. Héloïse was supposed to get one too. Told Headquarters of course she’d implanted hers. Hadn’t. Never left the Q-Lab. Why would she need a tracker?
“I don’t have one!” she yelled. Tried to wrench away what was left of her arm. “I’m not an agent! I’m just a tech!”
“I’m just a tech,” she panted. “A technician. I install telephones, run wires. If someone’s computer is broken, I fix it. I’m not an agent!”
“Bullshit. Then why are you here?”
“Cameras,” Héloïse moaned. “They want eyes in the building.” A bit surprised how quickly, how easily the lies sprouted in her brain and spooled out of her mouth.
The men huddled together. Mumbled, heated words. They turned back toward Héloïse.
Everything went black.
When the blindfold was removed Héloïse found herself sat smack dab in front of a very impressive gaming laptop, with what looked to be an equally impressive amount of malware.
“Fix.” Goon One’s breath nearly made Héloïse pass out. Might be a bad idea.
“Fix?” Hearing and comprehension not up to spec. Probably the blood loss. At least they rubbed some dirt in it.
“You fix computers. Fix this one.”
Just then the door slammed open, startling them both. Goon Two lurched in, holding a bloody cloth to his head.
“Fucking bitch!” he roared, stumbling into the tiny kitchen.
Héloïse swallowed her smile. She’s here. Nearly obscene relief. She’s here. But where?
Luckily she was sitting in front of a very impressive gaming laptop. Logged in. With admin rights.
Hours later Héloïse had successfully coded a tracker, a backdoor, and a key logger. She was just about to permanently disable the firewall when she smelled a presence behind her.
“Why taking so long,” Goon One burped out.
“Laptop’s fucked. You can’t keep…”
Héloïse lowered her voice. “You can’t keep going to those spammy porn sites. All they do is fill the computer with garbage.”
He laughed. “Fat chance of that changing.”
“Look.” Grabbed a pen and pad. Jotted down the site from memory. “This one is better. All good stuff, no viruses.” Handed him the paper.
The dour expression rained skepticism down on her. Maybe give him a wink? Usually a double-eyed disaster. Shrugged instead.
He huffed. Then pocketed the note.
Héloïse nodded and turned back to the screen. Felt the pen solid in her sleeve.
Héloïse awoke on the cold floor. Barely rested. Should be used to sleeping in shitty places, she thought. At least the Q-Lab had a cot.
She sat up and squinted into the darkness. Careful, quick, she dug into her pants pocket and pulled out the tiny smartwatch prototype she’d been working on for more than year. Lovely little thing. Practically art. Practical art.
Tick tick ticktick. That damn sound was back again. Up in the air duct. Distracting. What was that?
She brought up the laptop’s files. Building floor plans. Company directories. What’s being used, or had been, what might not be. Careful with the screen glow.
Tick tick ticktick.
Had to figure out where she was, and where 028 was. Scanned the records, narrowing it down. Probably on one of the lower floors. Upstairs maybe destroyed by fire; that explained the odor.
Tick tick ticktick.
Not careful enough.
Ash, snot, and blood dripped from Héloïse’s nose. She rolled onto her side, then slowly onto her knees. Felt strange. Shivery.
Looked down. No button-down. No pants. No place to hide gadgets now.
Tick tick ticktick. There it was again. ‘Not a rat or bird,’ Héloïse thought. ‘Too consistent.’ Mentally catalogued it.
She stumbled to the corner. Dug down behind the towering pile of trash bags. Grabbed the pen.
Tick tick ticktick. ‘Repetitive, but not random.’
Jiggled the window lock. Must be a hundred years old. Easy work.
Tick tick ticktick. ‘Inside, so not rain.’ Kept puzzling it through.
Tick tick ticktick.
Héloïse stopped. Heart stopped.
Tick tick ticktick.
Tick tick tick tick tick. Ticktick tick tick tick. Tick tick tick ticktick.
Ticktickticktick. TickTICK. “Hi!”
Ecstasy. “Code in.”
“Code in now.”
“What r u wearing?”
‘Fucking fuck’, Héloïse thought. Didn’t mean it.
“Do u still have it?”
Heavy footsteps thundered down the hall. The air grew oily and foul.
“Click it n go.”
“4th floor now.”
“U here now or I stay.”
“Oi!” The remote bounced under Goon One’s shirt when he threw open the door. Héloïse tucked the pen into her fist.
Héloïse stretched up to the window, one arm trying to do the job of two. As a last-ditch effort, she swung her feet out and back again, then hurled herself onto the ledge. She squawked as her boyshorts ripped down the back.
And that’s how 028 found her.
Barefoot, dusty, covered in blood again. Why is it she's always covered in blood?
“Q, you didn’t have to get all dressed up for me!” 028’s whole face a bloomed into a smile.
An exasperated sigh. “Concentrate. Put the Velocity Induced Vib… put it next to the door and get up here.”
028 retrieved a little silicone pouch from somewhere - it was too dark to tell - and pressed in a code. The VIVALDI sprang to life. She deftly set it up, placed it behind the door, and limped to the window. The toes on her left foot pointed in directions toes don’t usually point. Gruesome. Gritting through it.
She giggled and patted Héloïse’s exposed bum. Suddenly wrinkled her nose, wretched a little. “What is that smell?”
“Come on.” Héloïse latched on to her shoulder.
“Is that you?”
“What? No!” Nodded toward the festering piles of raw garbage in the corner. And also Goon One. 028 gaped at Héloïse, eyebrows high. Impressed? Too hard to see.
028 grasped her hand. That’s when she noticed the coil of trash bags, one end tied to the window.
“We’re four floors up.”
She side-eyed out the window. “Accurate.”
“You’re afraid of heights.”
“Then what are you doing?”
Héloïse hoisted her up, pulled the remote from around her neck and clicked a series of buttons.
“It’s the only way I can get you out of here. Let’s go.”
They swept the safe house together. Three working arms and three working legs. Clear. Héloïse collapsed onto the little sofa with a groan and looked up, expecting 028 to join her. But her attention was on the window, then the door locks, the alarm keypad. Anywhere but on Héloïse.
“Hey,” she murmured. “It’s okay. We’re here. It’s secure.”
028 slowly turned around, hands on hips. She glared into Héloïse in a way that made her flinch.
“Why didn’t you leave?” 028 demanded. Her tone was foreign; hard, sharp talons tearing to Héloïse’s skin.
“An agent’s job is always the mission, Q,” she scowled. “Always.”
Héloïse stared at her, stunned and defenseless. “I’m not an agent,” she said carefully. “I’m the Quartermaster. It’s my job to keep you safe, and that’s what I did. My mission is you.”
028 didn’t budge. Héloïse thought she might lash out, might let the bubbling emotions explode. Instead, eyes glazed and absent, 028 turned and limped into the kitchen without another word.
Héloïse’s shoulders dropped. Adrenaline gone, fatigue slithered its way through her. She grabbed something, anything from the closet and shuffled into the bathroom. Hesitated for a moment. Then closed the door.
Tick tick ticktick. “Q?”
Eyes barely functional. Sat on the built-in in the enormous shower. Héloïse wasn’t sure who came up with such an idea, a bench inside a shower, but she wanted to kiss them. If she ever moved again.
The warm water spattered and spit as 028 sat down next to her, voided around and refilled. Felt the fingers travel up her arm, toward the weeping wounds on her shoulder. Not the only thing weeping.
028’s soft thigh pressed into Héloïse’s. Arm lifted into her lap. She smelled the soap, twitched at the sting and burn when 028 gently very gently started to clean away the blood. Would take forever to heal. Might need a skin graft.
Héloïse slowly opened her eyes.
“They shattered your foot.” Her voice a ghost.
“No.” 028 shook her head.
“I did that.”
028’s delicate hands continued, a potter fixing a fallen form. “I did that. When I heard you screaming. I tried to kick my way out. Metal is hard, as it happens.”
Héloïse could only stare. Shuddered out a breath. Broken. Broke herself into pieces for her.
She softy traced her fingertips along 028’s jaw. “Marianne. I’m…”
“You’re what, baby?” she whispered, eyes still on her work.
The hands stopped. “Sorry for what?” Confusion in the furrowed brow.
Eyes squeezed shut. “I don’t know.”
Marianne slowly stood, drew Héloïse with her. “Let’s get you cleaned up.”
Close, so close, just enough space for smooth hands on silky skin, holding each other up, together fusing cleansing healing inside and out.
Then they were dry and Héloïse was kissing her, mouth desperate trailing across her nose, cheekbone, chin, lips finally lips soft warm wet familiar, closer, towel up around her neck, drawing her in, drawing her out toward the bed.
Careful, so careful of the injured foot, she backed her into, down onto the mattress. Tugged the towel away and dropped it to the floor, followed by her own. Followed by Héloïse.
Marianne laughed softly and spread her knees. “Oh really?”
Héloïse shivered with want.
She laid her head back and threaded her hand into Héloïse’s hair. “Yes,” she breathed. “Yes, always, yes.”
Awed, reverent, slow to move. Héloïse brushed her fingers under the strong thighs, placed cotton candy kisses on the insides, felt the tremble travel all through her. Nearly in tears she kissed stroked nudged finally licked and circled, little moans filling the air. Couldn’t say whose or for how long not long enough.
“Do that tappy-tap thing you do with your tongue.” The very sound of craving.
Héloïse nearly burst with happiness. And… pride?
She looked up in (mock) confusion, enjoying the view, hands following eyes roaming up and over satin skin, still slowly teasing between words. “The tappy-tap thing?”
“Yeah, you know.” Exasperated. “The tappy-tap thing.” She stuck her tongue out and did… something. Mimed it. Héloïse just shrugged her shoulders and let her go on.
“I know you know what I’m talking about,” she breathed. Getting furious again. Agitated. Same but different. Loved it.
Héloïse smoothly replaced her tongue with her fingers, stood, slowly, sore and bruised, and turned her body onto the bed.
“Show me.” She tucked a pillow under Marianne’s head and carefully swung a leg over to the other side. Wet. Jolted at the touch of her, smiled, switched her fingers with her mouth again. Melted into her.
“You are so bad,” she heard. Then there it was. Marianne took her clit into her mouth and sucked lightly, tap-tapping the tip with her tongue. Héloïse started to have trouble focusing.
“Oh,” she stuttered. “That.” She couldn’t hold back her laughter any more. She let the vibrations bleed into her thighs, followed suit when Marianne scraped her nails down her back and squeezed. Heat hotter than the shower stretching between them, slick and sweat and sweet words useless just feeling gauging trying moving together. Tap tap taptap.
Tap tap taptap.
Héloïse in a haze. “Are you…?”
Tap tap taptap.
Tap tap taptap.
She considered for the half-second her brain was functional reciprocating but of course couldn’t remember ‘0-2-8’ and certainly wasn’t going to attempt ‘Marianne’ so instead she just came and before her legs gave out she slid two fingers inside and circled circled circled until hands cupped her face and gently drew her away.
“So you would have left me behind?” Héloïse asked. There was no malice. Only tranquil touches, feather kisses, connections, bodies sewn together, breasts and legs and skin.
“No.” Softer. Softest. “I’m sorry.” Marianne dotted tender kisses on her cheek. “I shouldn’t have done that.” On her forehead. “I was scared.” Her temple. “But I shouldn’t have pushed you away.”
Héloïse relaxed more deeply. New boundaries crossed, new borders being drawn. Necessary, strong, wanted. “I don’t know what we’re going to do,” she murmured.
“I do!” Awfully cheery given what they’d just endured.
“You’re going to go back to the Q-Lab and never go out in the field again, and I’m going to go off and save the world with you in my ear keeping me safe.”
“That’s what you want?” Héloïse filled with warmth. “Not the kids, families, carnivals?”
Marianne sighed. “You. In my ear. Keeping me safe. That’s what I want.”
“Good. Me too.”
“You won’t ever go back out?” Marianne looked at her sternly. “Ignore protocol, disregard the rules of engagement, disobey orders, get caught, stripped…”
“I thought you liked me stripped,” she grumbled.
Marianne nipped at her ear. “Mauled, coerced, punched, forced to confront your biggest phobia…”
“And complete the mission?” Héloïse protested. Marianne tweaked her nipple. Hard. “Okay, okay!” Héloïse howled. “I won’t.” Pinch. “I won’t!”
“Good.” A satisfied nod, and Marianne rolled her over, soothing with her warm mouth and fingertips.
Héloïse started to fade out into bliss.
Always with her. In her ear. Keeping her safe.
Headquarters sent a private jet this time. Nice of him. Héloïse was pleased to keep her teeth.
And her arm. Medical marveled at the damage, and could only shake their head when presented with 028’s self-mangled toes. Then they re-installed (installed) the trackers.
“Excellent job, Q. The VIVALDI worked exactly as intended.” Headquarters nearly clapped her on the shoulder but caught himself in time.
“Good.” Of course it did. She tried to remember as many synonyms for ‘sarcasm’ as she could. 028 lobbed a stress ball at her head.
“We didn’t find anyone at the location,’ Headquarters droned on, oblivious, “… of course, it was melted… but the fools actually went to the DGSE fake porn site and the code you wrote kicked right in. We’ve got all the intel downloading now. 011 is leading a team to their last known.”
“Moths. Flames.” 028 was swinging ‘round in a chair and shot Héloïse a look that vibrated all the way through her. Then she pinch-pinch-pinched her fingers together and Héloïse had to fake a coughing fit to cover for the sudden flush.
“Truly, Q, well done.” Headquarters gave her an awkward swinging ‘hurrah’ fist pump. “You’ve got another debrief at 0900 but after that why don’t you take some time off. You…” His eyelids twitched at the state of her. “You look like you could use it. Go spend a few days at the beach or something.” He stacked up the case file and tottered off toward the exit.
The look 028 gave her then was of an entirely different ilk.
“That would be acceptable.”
And oh, it was.