It was intolerably, blisteringly hot in Arizona, especially after the few months in the ass end of Alaska. Meryl regretted wearing jeans and t-shirt, even though they were the only civilian clothes that still fit her after returning considerably bulked up.
She rolled up the sleeves and tucked them under the straps of her bra. She leaned against the too warm concrete wall of the Phoenix International airport.
She wished she still had the pack of cigarettes she stole from Dave before leaving. She didn’t like smoking all that much, but it was good to fill the time.
It made her think too much about the taste of his mouth anyway. Better this way.
A bright blue Pontiac Sunfire that had seen better days about a decade ago honked at her. She leaned down and saw Mei Ling sitting in the driver’s seat, grinning at her.
She opened the passenger’s side and slipped into the seat. Empty fast food containers crunched under her boots.
“Aren’t you warm?” said Mei Ling, looking behind her to drive out of the stopping lane. She was wearing a white sundress that made her look incredibly girly.
“Horribly,” she sighed, turning the AC vent towards herself and letting cold air wash over her overheated skin. “It’s like being on the surface of the sun.”
“Missing Alaska already?”
“Hell no,” she lied, but only a little bit. She didn’t miss it that much, only sometimes when she woke up and there isn’t a hairy dog tucked against her back, when she looked out a window expecting snow, when she fell asleep without a large hand resting on her side.
She didn’t miss David. Really. Honest. Men could all get screwed as far as she was concerned.
And that was probably why she accepted Mei Ling’s offer.
She’d actually yelled when the codec call had gone off in her head. It had been long enough she’d completely forgotten she even still had the necessary nanomachines. She’d smiled, though, when the cheerful, slightly accented voice had come through.
Am I bothering you?
“Mei Ling. It’s been a while. Not at all.” She’d been lying on her bed and not answering the phone since coming back. She was terminally bored.
I hear you came back from your...stint in Alaska.
“News travel fast, huh? I hope you don’t have relationship advice for me, because I’ve heard it all already.”
Mei Ling had laughed, and it was such a cute laugh she’d chuckled herself. Oh no. Not at all. I do have a job for you, however.
She’d sat up. “I don’t think I’m ready to go back to combat.”
Well, hopefully you won’t have to. All I need is a bodyguard.
“Are you in trouble?”
No, not yet at least. But I have a few tech conferences to visit, and it’s not wise for a young woman to travel alone with classified material in her trunk.
“I’d say. Why didn’t you ask Da...Snake, though? I think he’d be glad to have something to do.”
People ask nasty questions when your plus-one is a man twice your age.
She’d laughed, feeling just a little self-conscious at thinking that just a week ago she was riding that man twice her age’s face like a stolen snowmobile. “Fair.”
So what do you think? A month or so of road trip, boring conferences and fancy buffets, all paid. And you get to spend time with me! Just us girls!
She’d opened her closet, wondering if any of her civilian clothes would even fit her anymore. “I’m in. Sounds like fun.”
That’s great! I’ll send you the details and the plane tickets right away. Thank you so much.
Anything sounded better than watching daytime tv and missing an asshole, anyway.
“Where did you rent this bucket?” she asked, propping her booted feet on the dashboard.
“This is my own car, actually.”
She dropped her feet immediately, and Mei Ling laughed. “I don’t mind. She is old but she’s a good car.”
Meryl tucked her feet under the seat instead. “Did you drive here?”
“Yep. Can’t get some of my kit on a plane for international security reasons. Nor the little present I brought you. It’s in the glove compartment, by the way.”
Meryl opened the slightly dodgy hatch to find a handgun sitting on a crumpled pile of driving documents. They were alone on the road so she pulled it out, inspecting it quickly. Brand new Glock 26, clean and oiled and loaded. She clicked the safety on and off and on again. “Nice.”
“If everything goes well you won’t need it, but it’s a good thing to have.”
“How dangerous is your kit anyway? What is it, nukes?”
Mei Ling laughed. Her nose crinkled when she laughed. “Oh no. It’s what I could get de-classified of my soliton radar work. Which is not much but it’s still massively above current technology, and we all know men think complex technology is much safer when it’s out of a little girl’s hands.”
Meryl rolled her eyes. “Men. They’re the worst.”
“That’s why I asked you. No overconfident nerd would ever mess with you.”
“Am I that scary?”
Mei Ling’s smile was slow, her eyes glancing off the road to once-over her. “With those biceps showing? You could make most of the nerds I know burst into tears.”
Warmth crawled up the back of her neck, but thankfully she was still overheated enough it probably didn’t show.
Tiny cute genius girls who knew stuff about guns had no business making flirty comments like that.
Mei Ling’s car might have been a bucket on wheels but their hotel room was nothing short of swanky. Huge beds, balmy air conditioning, a breath-taking view on Phoenix sprawling under them, a bathtub with lion feet.
It sure was quite a change from her half abandoned apartment. Or a musty cabin where every surface was covered in dog hair and guns.
“You can shower first,” said Mei Ling, flopping onto one of the beds with a sigh, as if Meryl hadn’t been the one carrying the suitcases and all her mysterious cases. Her sundress fluttered, flashing her bright yellow underwear.
Meryl looked away. “Thank you.”
Showering felt so good, especially in a huge marble and bronze bathroom that had soft fuzzy towels to wrap oneself in. Meryl felt all the grime of plane travel wash down the drain along with the expensive complimentary soap.
There were computers and cables all over the room when she returned to it. Mei Ling was sitting cross-legged on the bed, two laptops open in front of her and several pieces of machinery hooked up to them.
Mei Ling held up her hand, then tapped at her ear. Oh. Codec call.
She sat down on the other bed, towelling her hair absently as she watched Mei Ling type inhumanly fast, and also get increasingly angry, red flushing her cheeks.
“Over and out,” she grunted, tapping her ear way harder than necessary. She then let out a frustrated scream as she flopped back onto the mattress.
“Oh, nothing,” she groaned. “Just the CIA being very concerned for my well-being, aka they would prefer a man to present my fucking life work.”
Meryl had never heard Mei Ling swear. She had no idea she could swear up until five seconds ago. “Typical.”
“They’re already annoyed I decided to bring my work to tech conventions. Apparently the only accepted course of action when you develop things they like is not ever letting anybody else use it.”
“Well.” She got up to dig into her duffel bag for a clean pair of underwear. She only had one bra and it was all sweaty. She didn’t feel like putting that on, so she kept the towel. “It would make the field uncomfortably even if every warmongering country got a hold of your little radar.”
“I’m not going to sell it to terrorists, Meryl,” huffed Mei Ling with an eye roll. “There are very important humanitarian and even simply industrial applications to my technology and the CIA won’t hear none of that.”
Meryl snorted. “Doesn’t surprise me. They hate that whole humanitarian thing.”
Mei Ling put her face in her hands and groaned. Then she rolled off the bed. “All right. I need to get my head off this crap. Let’s go out.”
Meryl dropped the towel and crouched into her bag. If Mei Ling looked at her, she did not check. Honest.
The shirt she’d worn on the way in was soaked in sweat. She made a face as she sniffed it and reached for the only other option, a faded Foxhound shirt entirely too big for her that screamed “I stole this from Solid Snake” at anybody who dared to listen in mile radius.
“Do you have any extra clothes? That looks warm for August in Arizona.”
“Can’t fit into any of them anymore,” she grunted, zipping her jeans up with some difficulty.
Mei Ling grinned, picking up her backpack. “Oh, that’s perfect! Let’s go get you some nice clothes!”
“I don’t really need....” she’d never been one for girly shopping.
“You kind of do though. You can’t go around for a month with only your ex’s clothes as backup. Especially not come at tomorrow’s shindig with them.”
Meryl stopped in the middle of tucking her gun in the back of her jeans to groan. “Please tell me I don’t need to wear a dress.”
Mei Ling smiled, tapping her lips with her finger. “You could wear a tuxedo! You’d look amazing in one.” She did a cute spin in place that made her dress flutter. “But no, you don’t. It’s not exactly on the high side of formal dress code, but looking a little less like my grizzled bodyguard could help.”
“And look like what?”
“My date, maybe.” She winked. She actually honest to god winked. Meryl refused to blush.
“Fine. Let’s play dress up.”
It was hard to deny Mei Ling things, she was starting to discover.
At least Mei Ling seemed to be as clueless about fashion and shopping as Meryl was. They ended up browsing aisles of faded t-shirts in a Goodwill, because Meryl refused to let Mei Ling buy her clothes and her severance pay wasn’t all that spectacular after a few months.
“Oh! This one!”
Meryl stared at the shirt that was being held in front of her. “That’s a crop top.” It was also bright pink.
“You can pull it off. Your stomach is so flat!”
“I’m not wearing a crop top to a nerd convention.”
“Fine, but what about wearing it to travel? Much breezier than a t-shirt.”
Meryl hesitated. Then picked the coat hanger from Mei Ling’s hands and piled the shirt on top of the small pile growing over her arm.
She ended up with two pairs of cargo shorts and a pair of ridiculously short shorts that Mei Ling would not let her put back, the stupid crop top, five nondescript tank-tops and t-shirts and, incredibly, a dress.
“It looks so good on you,” sighed Mei Ling dreamily. “It’s like it was made for you.”
Admittedly it was hard to find dresses that fit her nicely and didn’t make her look like a man in a dress, and this one somehow managed. Black, knee length, loose enough to wear a thigh holster, and shoulder cut-offs that didn’t pull uncomfortably at her arms. If things went south at one of those fancy parties she was already dreading, she was not going to be hindered by her dress. Nor her shoes, because it looked just fine with combat boots.
To make up for the extended bout of girliness, they picked up greasy pizza on their way back, and ate it on Meryl’s bed in their underwear, watching a bad Hong Kong action movie on tv.
Now this, this was the kind of evening Meryl could get behind.
Meryl knew a tech conference was going to be boring, but she had no idea just how much everything people said was going to fly miles above her head. She truly felt like a dumb grunt when surrounded by hordes of people that reminded her of Otacon way too much.
Thankfully Mei Ling spent most talks pointing out who was who, explaining what they were talking about in Layman’s terms, and which of the interchangeable nerds wrote erotic Transformers fanfiction in their spare time.
And when she stepped onto the stage herself, it was hard not to feel proud of her. The audience’s vibe changed sharply as she spoke; men who were rolling their eyes at the literal teenager on stage slowly turned to look at her, leaned on their knees, started taking notes. Mei Ling was confident like only somebody who’d had the fate of the free world in her hands could be, and when she was done, people would not stop asking questions, even after she’d stepped down. Meryl had to cut through a large swath of nerds for them to get through, and was glad to be finally useful.
At least the party had food and free booze. Meryl still felt out of her depth, especially in a dress, but many things were easier with a mouthful of deviled eggs and a glass of cheap champagne in her hand.
And even better with Mei Ling with her arm linked into hers, chatting with nerds in ill-fitting suits and laughing that cute laugh of hers and resting her head against her arm whenever they were left alone for a few minutes of grace.
“You holding up okay?” she asked.
“Regretting wearing heels,” she sighed. “And drinking that last glass of champagne.”
Mei Ling slipped off her heeled sandals as soon as they were outside. It was still impossibly hot, the sidewalk warm even through Meryl’s boots, but Mei Ling didn’t seem to mind. She hummed as they made their way back to the hotel, swaying slightly and undoing her hair to let it tumble down her bare shoulders.
“You know, I was scared of coming here,” she said, hands behind her back, not turning around.
“I’ve never really spoken in public before. I’ve never been good at socialising....I am just like all those nerds in there - spent my teenage in my dorm room programming and watching cartoons.”
“You wouldn’t be able to tell.”
Mei Ling glanced over her shoulder. “Shadow Moses was my first job. They gave me half an hour of training and stuck me on the codec to help Snake save the world.”
Meryl stepped ahead, draping her arm around Mei Ling’s shoulders. “You still did a lot better than I did on my first job.”
She laughed, losing balance a little. “We were both tossed in the deep end and told to swim, weren’t we?”
“We really were. And you know what? We made it. We ain’t my uncle or Snake but the world is still standing and we had a part in that. That’s pretty awesome.”
“Hmm.” Mei Ling looped her arm around her waist. “That’s a good way of putting it.”
“Those nerds were clinging to your every word tonight. You are smarter than all of them put together.”
Mei Ling leaned in, and her head kind of rested on her breast instead of her shoulder. “Some of them are very smart! But you’re right. I shouldn’t let myself get intimidated.”
“No, intimidating is my job,” she grinned, flexing her free arm.
Mei Ling laughed all the way through their hotel’s lobby.
Meryl dropped heavily on her bed as soon as they were in their blissful oasis of air conditioning, reaching under her dress to unstrap the holster. Mei Ling wriggled out of her dress, padding around the room in her underwear.
It was nice. It felt a bit like being back in the Foxhound girl barracks.
“I’m gonna take a shower before bed,” she said, hovering over her. “Do you need the bathroom?”
“I’m good, go ahead.”
Mei Ling smiled, and leaned down to press her cool lips on her cheek. “I’m happy you’re here with me, Meryl.”
Meryl swallowed, a ribbon of warmth unfurling in her stomach. “I’m happy to be here, too.”
She fell asleep before Mei Ling came out of the shower, dress bunched around her hips and a dumb smile on her face.
She really was happy to have said yes.