Chapter 1: One
She can't help the scowl that crosses her features as she takes in the group of new recruits in the room below. They're a soft little bunch, as far as she can tell, already beginning to wilt after an hour of combat training, a few of them heaving out pathetic spurts of breath in an attempt to right the racing of their hearts. She might pity them, if she cared to feel anything much about them at all.
But she can tell enough already, can tell they're not cut out for the life they think they've just signed up for. There's a wispy lad who certainly assumed he could use his computer skills to some sort of advantage and skip past the physical realities of this line of work. The tall one in the corner is stumbling over a conversation with the trainer, and from the frantic movement of his lips it appears he's struggling to make it through a single sentence without mincing his words. There's a third who she thinks might be attractive - if she had a thing for complete and utter arrogance - and she knows without a second thought that he's the type who jumped on this opportunity for how sexy he thinks it all is.
She knows better, knows it's not all James Bond storylines and sipping cocktails with beautiful companions. She knows how quickly what seems sexy can fade into loneliness, like a heavy weight that slowly breaks a person down, year by year, until they're barely recognizable. She's far too accustomed to the racing of a heart that's been in the field a day longer than planned, fighting tooth and nail for its own survival. An hour of combat training in a cushy, padded room will never even begin to scrape that surface, though she knows those three young men will leave today thinking otherwise.
She turns away, schooling her face back into an expression of harsh indifference. There's no use in wasting time studying new recruits; they rarely ever make it through enough of their training to be invited off the floor below. And while she does venture downstairs on occasion for a sparring match of her own or to brush up on skills that've been shelved for too long, she's never deemed it appropriate to do so when the recruits are still present. God forbid they might see her and think themselves worthy of a conversation or, worse, a fight that would barely get her blood pumping.
He approaches near silently, appearing at her side without a word in much the way he usually does, shoving a cup of coffee into her empty hands. He's quieter now than he once was, years of training softening the loping steps of the boy he was at thirteen. She can still sense him from a mile away, the memory of floppy hair and crooked smiles never quite gone from her mind.
"There's a briefing," he mumbles, eyes flitting over her shoulder to make his own assessment of the fresh blood. He must not see anything spectacular, either, if the slight huff of breath across his lips is anything to go by.
"He's here," he says softly a moment later.
She tenses, though she doesn't want to, quickly straightening to cover the way the mere mention of him unnerves her. Coffee sloshes slightly in her cup, pulling his eyes to it, but he doesn't say a word about what he can see.
"Ten minutes, yeah?" he offers instead, nudging her arm with a scabbed up hand. She nods as he walks away, taking the proffered reprieve for what it is: a moment to regain control, to extinguish the anxious flutter that fills her gut whenever she knows he's near. Ten years hasn't minimized the fearful resentment that lives inside her bones and she's resigned herself to the belief that it'll never truly be gone. If she's only ever given the power to control one thing in her life, though, it will be the ability to tamper down the feelings he can illicit. It's a gift she'll gladly take.
She takes a sip of coffee from the cup in her hand, grimacing instantly as it hits her tongue. It certainly won't be a mid-morning pick-me-up, but it is effective in shifting her focus and for that she's grateful. She stalks across the room and deposits the cup on her desk, dropping into her chair with a sigh. The room is alive with the tapping of keyboards, the gentle murmur of hushed voices and guarded conversations. Someone across the way is speaking Mandarin into a headpiece, the lilting rise and fall of it like a gentle melody. She closes her eyes and lets all the minutiae blend into a dull hum as she tips her head back, instead zeroing in on the way breath fills her lungs, stretching her chest before escaping slowly through her nose. Her heart rate slows, the thump thump of blood in her veins settling back down into a reasonable tempo until, finally, she feels that familiar mask slip back into place and she's once again in control.
She lifts her head to survey the room once more, her eyes pulled to the spot where she'd been standing; the only window the one that opens to below, one-way glass that's mirrored on the other side to allow them all the privacy they've been trained to crave. The rest of the room is cast into an unnatural light by the patterned hanging of fluorescents, buzzing softly in predictable rows across the ceiling. Cement swallows what little comforting glow they give off, eliciting a chill that seeps into her being on the rare occasions she allows herself to get caught up in it. Wires run down the walls, mindfully organized and branching off in bunches to desk after desk after desk, all equipped with technology that once made her head spin and now barely bats her eyes.
She studies faces as she glances around, features of people she's been taught to recognize but never given permission to truly know. Identities aren't pertinent, she'd once been told, Unless they're saving your life or ending it. She knows a few of them enough to be aware of the names they go home with - she's not so naive as to believe that all of them are legally given - but the majority of the people who fill this room are nothing more than call signs on debriefs, background characters that flit in and out of her life without garnering any attachment. She's learned, sometimes painfully so, that delving deeper only ever ends in heartbreak: in disappearances the agency hushes away or blatant assassinations they drill into her head like warnings. As if she doesn't understand the way his mind works, the way he fights to keep her weak beneath his hold. Her isolation is his greatest power.
She glances at the watch on her wrist, rising reluctantly from her seat when she sees that her ten minutes is up. She tugs roughly at the bottom of her suit jacket to straighten it as she moves, her hands continuing a path down her thighs to wipe the collection of sweat from her palms. Just one brief, she reminds herself, Then he'll be gone again. It's all the pep talk she needs before she strolls across the open office, bee-lining directly towards the single door on the south wall. It opens a second before she gets to it, her partner stepping aside to usher her in. He's still clutching tightly at his cup of coffee, as if it isn't the most vile concoction she'd ever tasted. She slips past him and into the briefing room.
She's always found it easier to breathe in this particular space, mostly because it's home to another wall of those one-way windows. She eyes them gratefully as she drops into one of the chairs at the long table in the center, turning slightly to take in the view. They overlook the lobby of the building they're in, disguised behind the gaudy emblem of the company they claim to be a part of, nearly three-stories completely lined with true windows. Sometimes the warmth of the sunlight below permeates into this room, warming it and her skin with relative ease, casting her mind to memories long ago lived. It's always made it easier to focus, somehow; the feel of sunshine seeping in.
Today she's not as lucky: the world outside is cast into darkness by the cover of clouds, sheets of rain soaking the streets and tracking their way inside amid the steady stream of people who move through the lobby during the day. She feels her face bunch up as she watches the men in sharp business suits below, the brisk movement of their limbs like a flashing neon sign that spells out cocky. They're all so sure of themselves, the men who work for the company their operation hides behind, all of them locked into a credence that they are at the top of their game, the best of the best, assholes with offices on the very top floor. She knows better.
Her partner drops noisily into the seat beside her, finally relinquishing his hold on that cup of sludge. He drums his fingers on the edge of the table, some indiscernible beat that deepens her scowl as the thought of pushing his forehead into the coated glass beneath his fingers flits across her mind. She bites her tongue instead, tensing her jaw until the pinch of her teeth is almost too much to bear.
The door swings open once more, the hair on the back of her neck instantly standing at attention as it does. Her teeth squeeze harder at her tongue, the metallic sting of blood prickling at her taste buds before she has the good sense to let go. He tips his head slightly at her as he walks to the head of the table, lowering himself into a chair. It's all he affords her, that one silent acknowledgement of her existence, before he turns his attention to the man seated beside her.
"Cain," he says, "I take it Nightingale was a success, then."
Cain nods tersely, his hands slipping back around his coffee cup, knuckles turning white. "I sent my debrief off to Barton this morning," Cain answers, his words clipped, the edges of his voice all raised hackles and clenched fists. It's been a while since she's been witness to this side of Cain Dingle, the bloodhound that sits just beneath the surface, and it sends a flood of warmth through her chest to know it's reappeared for her. That he's willing to bare his fangs towards him.
It makes him smirk, though, the crack of teeth between his lips almost foreign amidst otherwise stony features. "Then it should already be in my inbox," he says, "Good." He turns his head then, taking her in once more, his blue eyes sweeping across her face as if he's trying to find something. She wants to scowl, wants to taunt him with some sarcastic comment she won't have thought of until it's tumbling from her throat, but the irregular thud of her heart has returned and she feels frozen beneath his gaze. He nods - once - as though he's found whatever he was seeking and the simple action is effective in unnerving her further, a damp sweat breaking free across her palms. It's been months since he was last this close, months where she felt sane and certain and capable, and yet, somehow, she always comes back to this. This feeling.
"Charity," he says, "I take it you're well."
She hates feeling like this. So she huffs out a little snort - a pathetic one, barely a fraction of the woman she can be, but it's enough to make her feel a tiny bit of something else. Something that tastes a little like strength as the words pass her tongue. "I didn't know that was any of your business, Mark."
He smiles for real then, the pleasure at her snarky response splitting his face in two, reaching upwards to crinkle the skin around his eyes. He used to love her like this: combative and angry, nervous and on edge. He's gone long periods of time ignoring her existence, nothing more than professional and distant, but every few years that part of him reappears to push at her buttons. And every time she can't seem to keep herself from giving him exactly what he wants, his satisfaction like a boiler plate beneath her blood, tipping her into his trap over and over again.
Cain clears his throat. "I take it there's an assignment?" he asks, lifting his chin in the direction of three folders laying in the middle of the table.
Mark Bails nods, his stoic expression falling back into place, his own mask rebuilding that wall that sits between him and the rest of the world. Those men in the lobby are nothing in comparison to who he is, inconsequential playing pieces in the face of what he is capable of. They'd quiver in their penthouse offices if they knew the exploits of the man on the third floor, knew the world he's created with the heavy fist of his authority. But then, if they did, he'd probably have them killed.
He presses a button on the remote in his hand, a screen behind him illuminating with a grainy CCTV image and a mug shot. A buzzing fills her ears that tunes him out as he speaks of targets and surveillance and gathering intel, all things she'll read about in the mission brief on another flight to another city. She doesn't really care how he phrases what they're about to do: it's just another day, another job, another moment that she exists under his control.
The hum of fear that pulses within her is almost loud enough to convince her to stop trying to fight it. Almost.
She flicks through the pages of the mission brief, securing in her mind the names and faces that make up the case. She traces her finger across a number, burning it into her brain on the off chance that it serves some relevance later. It won't, most likely - most of these little details never do - but it's never caused her harm to be prepared. Lord knows she can't depend on Cain for things like that.
No, the man who sits across from her has a tendency to approach these assignments with more brute force than careful consideration, throwing fists before all the cards have even been shown. She was like that once, too, when they were younger. It was a common ground they shared, the lash of anger that sat heavy in her gut. It licked and flared and sprung to life like a flame inside of her, burning everything that stood in the way. She's had to learn to tread more carefully, when her life depends on a calm exterior, but she knows that ferocity still smoulders somewhere deep within her belly waiting for the moment she finally lets it out. It's closer to the surface in Cain, fewer years of training notched into his belt than what he needs to extinguish it completely. It's probably why they work well together, truth be told, his quickly flaring temper scratching the itch she feels to unleash her own. Even when it doesn't serve them, even when it causes more trouble than it solves.
And it does, cause trouble, sometimes. There've been more times where she's wanted to strangle him for the stupidity than not, moments where he's lead them into a situation that could've been avoided. Because he's not prone to letting her lead, still so caught up in this idea of himself as her protector, as if more than twenty years haven't passed since she was the little one. As if an entire lifetime hasn't filled the space between then and now. She's long been able to hold her own. But he still bristles when there's an inkling that something's off and she'll never tell him how she feels when he does. He can see enough, of who she is; it's not safe for him to see any more.
"Moira says he's staying for a bit this time," he offers as a break to the silence.
She looks up from the folder in her lap, shrugging slightly before turning back to the stack of papers sitting atop it. "I'm not his keeper, Cain."
"No, I know," he mumbles, "I just thought you might want to know."
She feels her hackles rise at the insinuation, her self-protective side eager to push back against his attempt at thoughtfulness. "'Cause knowing there's tigers in pens at the zoo is a real help to people when they escape, yeah?"
He huffs, his features scrunching in her peripheral. "Just thought knowin' might make it easier for you to stay out of his way, but if you're goin' to be a c-"
"Don't," she cuts off, that fume of anger in her belly licking just high enough to turn her gaze fiery when she lifts it back up to meet his. "I can handle things on me own."
"Sure, Charity," he mutters, rising from his seat and moving further down the plane, "Whatever y'say."
She makes a face at his back and tosses the file on her lap into the seat beside her, puffing out a sigh of exasperation as it lands. She can see the world slowly appearing through the fog of clouds beyond the window, dotted greens of countryside getting more and more frequent through the wisps. They'll be on the ground within the hour, hopping into the life that's been laid out for them with passports and fake IDs; different people with different, made up problems. It's a relief, to hang herself up for a little while and put real, concrete distance between herself and Mark Bails. But she knows now that he'll still be there when she returns and somehow that feels worse than not knowing at all.
Two days pass before they're back on British soil, another success in the books despite the unorthodox way Cain had gone about it. He'd worn that cape of anger from the moment they'd gotten off the plane, stepping on her toes at every turn, his bumbling idiocy well and truly intact. She'd tried to get him to back off, to give her the space to gather the information they needed without him, but the fists had started flying before she'd been able to regain control and it had all exploded outward from there. It's satisfying, in a way, to see how he winces as he moves through the office upon their return.
Her own frustration bubbles close to the surface, the desire to strangle him barely tempered down. She has half a mind to throw him under the bus in her debrief, point out all the mistakes he'd made that'd nearly cost them the entire operation and then sit back to watch the ensuing cascade of shit that would come from it.
But then, one of those bruises on his ribs is from a guard that had lunged at her, so he had been good, if only for a moment. Long enough for the possibility of tarnishing his reputation to be just past the cusp of things she'll do today.
She drops into the chair at her desk, already dreading the list of things she will do today. The return from a mission means a good chunk of time at her computer, combing back through forty-eight hours of work and formulating it into a summary of pertinent information for the higher ups to read. It's the most mundane part of the job, the task she commonly skives out of at every opportunity, but Cain is sporting a hefty bruise on her behalf and it's probably the least she can do, considering.
Moira appears at her side before she can even log into the database, though, her face tight in that Moira sort of way she has. Charity cocks an eyebrow at her, waiting for an explanation. "He's asking for you," she murmurs, glancing over her shoulder at Cain a few feet away. "In his office."
The flash of worry that crosses Moira's eyes is gone again fast enough that she almost misses it, but when she follows Moira's gaze to Cain she can see a matching expression painted plainly across his face. It's a sharp blow to her gut, the realization that he's shared a history that belongs to her with Moira, of all people. But then, of course he's told her; of course he's opened up that little satchel of secrets like they're his to tell, as if it's his job to humanize Charity to the woman he goes home to. Anger roils in her stomach, propelling her away from them both.
The door to Bails' office is already open when she gets there, his back to it as he surveys the world below through another of those one-way windows. She knows his opens up to a second training room, the one he'd instructed her to use exclusively in the beginning. It's been years since she's stepped inside it, well aware that just opening the door will raise goose pimples across the back of her neck whether he's watching her from above or not.
"I want you to see something," he says, not turning his head, like he knows the second she's within the same space as him. The thought that he's so in tune to her sends a shiver down her spine. He jabs a finger at the glass and she dutifully steps forward, careful to keep a few feet of distance between them as she takes in what's happening below.
There's another group of recruits on the mats, a little older this time. Six altogether, spread out around the room in off-kilter clumps, the tiniest one of the lot poised in the center. She's the only woman, too, Charity notes with a tilted head, and she looks ready to take on the entire bunch on her own. One of the men approaches the woman, hands already raised in front of him as if he intends to grab her. But she's faster and he's on his back before his fingers even graze the front of her shirt. She's already whirled around on a second man before Charity can register what's going on, swiping his legs out from under him in one quick swish.
She is actually taking on the whole group of them. And winning, surprisingly. In less than a minute she has all five of them down, taking in her handiwork with a smug little smile as the instructor slaps her on the back. It's slightly impressive, Charity'll give her that, even if it's just the beginning of how those skills translate into the field - a single blow is never enough to incapacitate - but that speed will serve her well as she progresses through the six months of aggressive boot camp they all endure before their first mission.
Charity schools her face into a look of indifference when Bails turns her way. "What do you think?" he asks, setting a hip against his desk as he watches her.
She shrugs, shifting slightly as she feels his eyes graze down her body. "She's not field ready," she offers haughtily, crossing her arms tightly over her chest.
He chuckles, the sound grating against her already strung-out nerves. She should've gone home, when they got off the plane, should've showered and cleared her head before coming back into the office. "I think she might be," he says, his own arms moving to match hers, more of his weight leaned against his desk. His eyes dart back to the woman in the room below, watching as she sweeps sweat-soaked bangs from her eyes. "She'll go with you to check out that lead."
"Excuse me?" she exclaims, whirling on her heels to face him fully.
There's mirth on his lips when he looks at her but his eyes are steely, no room for argument against his decision despite the defiance curling around her tongue. She feels the fight flow out of her like shedding skin, the layer beneath raw and vulnerable to his whims.
"Best get ready to go," he says, "Wouldn't want to keep your new partner waiting."
Chapter 2: Two
Charity and Vanessa begin their mission.
Welcome to the true beginning of the slowest burn I've ever written.
She tugs at the blanket draped over her shoulders, pulling it tighter around herself. It's because the plane is cold, she tries to convince herself, not because another set of eyes have been seemingly glued to her since she sat down. They feel incessant and prying and she's taken great care to not meet them with her own, choosing instead to flip through the mission file Bails had given her as she'd been dismissed from his office. But she's read every page a couple of times now, absorbed all of the information supplied and then some, and the weight of the other woman's gaze is starting to become unbearable.
"What?" she finally snaps, shutting the folder on her lap forcefully.
"Oh, so you can speak." The other woman's voice is rough around the edges, the ends of her consonants dropping away like they don't belong. It's instantly familiar and Charity feels herself bristling at the unexpected way that makes her feel, the disconcerting tug backwards to a time in her life when that accent was commonplace not at all welcome on a plane in the present.
"You do anything but stare?" she grumbles, reaching up to yank the blanket tighter once more. She hates the feel of other people looking at her, hates the curious way some people let their eyes wander up and down her form, always lingering just a little bit longer than they should. It feels as concrete as hands sometimes, the gaze of another person.
"Not much else to look at," the other woman shoots back, just as quick with her retorts as she'd been in the training room.
The match in wit feels much the way her accent does, uncomfortable and unwelcome as it spreads a burst of warmth low in Charity's belly. Her scowl deepens, her tongue doing that thing it does when she's lost in thought or frustrated or anytime she's not actively thinking about not letting her tongue do that thing. She bites it, briefly, before pulling it back into her mouth.
"Try a window, yeah?" Charity suggests, her eyes finally flitting up to meet the ones that've been boring into her for the better part of an hour. She's pretty, up close; the other woman. The sweat that had been matting her fringe earlier has dried and the shorter pieces of hair have been tamed into two sections, pushed back on either side of wide blue eyes. There's a flash of what Charity assumes must be exasperation that crosses those, but her gaze remains firm and her lips pinch up into a straight little line. She's all blonde hair and precise bone structure and delicate features and then Charity realizes she's staring, too, so she turns away, forcing her eyes to drift to the front of the plane.
"It's just... I don't even know your name," the other woman admits, her voice gentle like she's carrying some dark secret across the space between them, "And God only knows what we're about to walk into."
It feels wrong, the surge of comfort that tone of voice elicits. Charity shrugs, trying to dislodge the sensation from her skin. She gestures to the file still in her lap, an identical one on the seat beside the other woman. "God wrote a mission brief. Stop staring at me, you might fancy a read."
The other woman shakes her head, that blonde ponytail swishing across her shoulder briefly. "I've already read it," she says.
Except, Charity is quite certain she hasn't even touched that folder in the hour they've been on the plane, too busy drilling holes in the side of her own head to glance at anything else, so she cocks an eyebrow up and looks at her once more. "Got x-ray vision, you?"
It makes the other woman jut her chin out, the little jibe, those blue eyes narrowing ever so slightly in challenge. And it's good, Charity thinks, that she's already getting under her skin; better for everyone if they don't get along.
"Had some time while I waited for you."
That's true: Charity had been later to board the plane, tugged aside in the corridor on her way out of the office by an overbearing Cain. He'd found it necessary to remind her to be at the top of her game, to keep her head up and her eyes open. Because it's unsafe, to be walking into an operation with such fresh blood, and she knows she can't risk dropping her guard for even a second lest it get her killed. You stay alive, he'd said, like that isn't always the plan. Like that isn't always the goal. He knows as well as she does that this is just as much a test of her, that Bails is probably getting his rocks off at the very real notion that this one could go south real quick.
He's been doing that more lately - throwing wrenches into things, holding back information that could've helped until she's already escaped slightly scathed. It's been years since he's sought out pleasure in this way, a near decade since he's purposely put her into danger just for the hell of it. She's grown accustomed to relying on a second team in place, on a communication device in her ear, on having an extraction unit one phone call away in case she needs it. He's been plucking those delicacies one by one, until the last mission was just her and Cain dropped into the field.
Now she doesn't even have Cain.
"I'm Vanessa," her companion offers, scooting closer until she's seated directly across from Charity. She lifts a hand up, holding it in the air between them with an expectant look on her face.
Charity gives it a sideways glance before turning her attention to the window. The sun is setting along the horizon, a deep orangey glow burning the edges of the sky. It'll be dark by the time they get where they're going. She urges her spine to relax, sinking deeper into her seat. "Don't matter much, babe," she mutters, curling her body around the armrest in pursuit of something comfortable, "You'll be called Erin when we land. Know that if you read the brief."
Vanessa leans back in her own seat, clearly affronted. Her arms cross over her chest and a tiny muscle in her cheek twitches, like she's clenching her jaw tighter than it wants. Good, Charity thinks as she closes her eyes, Hate me.
Vanessa is across the aisle again when Charity stumbles awake, bunched up in a seat by one of the windows with the file folder sitting delicately in her lap. She does that thing Charity saw one time in a TV show, where her tongue darts out to wet her finger before she oh so carefully turns the page, and it does something funny to the beating of Charity's heart. But she can't be faulted, really, when her body is still slightly heavy with sleep and her mind is still stuttering to catch up. Or at least, that's what she tells herself.
Charity stretches out her limbs with a long sigh and instantly feels blue eyes settle back on her in response. They narrow quickly, that chin jutting out once more as if Vanessa has been brewing on their argument the whole time she's been asleep. Like a festering sore, Charity thinks and almost laughs out loud at how very apt that probably is. She's good at being a pain, good at being something that hurts.
"You always just fall unconscious?" Vanessa asks, her voice like a sharp bark in the otherwise quiet space of the plane.
And she doesn't, not really. She's spent more hours laying in beds that didn't feel right, staring at ceilings that didn't fit, just wishing for sleep than she'd care to admit. She's carried an exhaustion around on her shoulders for years now, finding gratitude in the days that leave her so wiped she can do nothing but sleep. She's not sure why she did on this flight, when normally she stares out the window for the entire duration praying for a reprieve, watching as Cain snuffles and snorts through his own peaceful slumber. But she has and there's no time to dissect that fact - not that she wants to.
Charity shrugs, rising from her seat, putting on a cloak of nonchalance like a second skin. "Part of the job, babe," she mutters as she saunters down the aisle to the back of the plane. She only hears Vanessa's huff of frustration before she closes herself into the tiny washroom.
They're close to their destination, she can tell by the way the plane chucks ever so slightly, like the pilot is twisting and turning to line them up with a runway. It'll be something small, relatively private, not commonly used for commercial flights. They'll taxi to some out of the way spot, their unmarked private plane, and climb down the stairs to some dark, forgettable car that's waiting for them to drive away. She wonders, sometimes, what the people who see the whole ordeal think, what they're told by the men Bails pays to keep everything quiet. She likes to think that maybe someone somewhere believes she's a movie star, that her life is glamorous and spectacular and full of adoration.
There's a duffel bag on the little counter surrounding the sink and she unzips it to fish out the roster of makeup that's always supplied. There're two outfits underneath: tiny, skimpy dresses she'd never normally be caught dead in. She pulls the red one out, holding it up against her body as she examines it in the mirror. She likes when they choose things that aren't at all her taste, things that feel itchy and unnatural when she puts them on, if only because they draw the line so sharply between Charity and the alias that it doesn't take much to tumble into the new identity.
She's called Melissa this time, a ditzy 29-year-old from a borough of Toronto. It's been ages since she last used a Canadian accent, but it makes sense that someone from a bustling tourist city would choose to explore a country known solely for its wine production. They're supposed to say they're visiting to celebrate some milestone, hitting up the tiny country to drink their way through the impressive vineyards that dot the countryside. She wishes that were true, that they would be spending time trolling through grape fields beneath a warm, summer sun.
They've been sent to investigate a club, though. A supposed hub of operations, if the tiny man who had broken beneath Cain's wailing fists was to be trusted. He'd only given the name of the place and the city it was located in before Cain had seen fit to put him out of his misery, as usual not caring whether there was more to be learned. She wishes there had been, if only for her sanity, because it really is only God who knows what they're walking into and she's never known God to be on her side.
She decides Melissa wears her hair up, pulling her own long curls back off her face in a messy bun. She goes over the top with the makeup: dark, smoky eyes and sweeping lashes and an exaggerated, pouty lip. She tugs on the tiny red dress and the chunky heels and when she looks in the mirror at her reflection, there's no Charity left there to see. It's in that fact that she finds her strength.
Even if all of this goes south, even if everything turns to shit the second they get off this plane, she knows one thing for certain: she'll go down guns blazing, just as she always has.
The hotel Melissa and Erin have been booked into is lavish, to say the least. It's over-the-top to say the most. The expansive lobby is dressed to the nines with crystal chandeliers and marble floors and a deep maroon carpet that's probably worth more than Charity's entire flat. There are lush views of the city's botanical gardens glowing in artificial light beyond the windows behind the front desk and Charity feels the aching tug of want to get lost in the greenery. But Melissa is not Charity and Charity is Melissa now, so she glances at her hands as though they're fresh from a manicure and paints a look of boredom onto her face. It's the little things that keep her safest, she knows, if she holds them steadfast; the intricate details of each alias are as important as the big ones.
Vanessa opens her mouth first when they reach the front desk, all of her vowels suddenly flat. It sends a ripple of something through Charity's chest before she realizes: Vanessa's pulled out the Canadian accent without even muttering a few practice words beforehand. She watches, a little in awe as Vanessa navigates the conversation, her mouth moving in that way that people from North America's do - like all the words are coming from the very middle of her tongue instead of the front.
"Erin Matthews and Melissa Davis, we have a reservation," she's saying, all bubbly giggles around the edges of her words. She flips her hair over her shoulder as she speaks, tossing a glinting smile in Charity's direction. "We just flew in from Toronto - did you know it takes twelve hours to get here? God, if I'd known half my day was going to be spent on an airplane I would've had a few more drinks at the airport bar."
She pops her chest up and outwards as she talks with - or at, really - the young man pulling up the information on their room. She'd followed Charity's lead on the airplane once she'd emerged from the loo, disappearing herself as Charity had locked their mission briefs away to be destroyed. Vanessa had wandered out a little while later in the other of the skimpy dresses, her hair set free from the ponytail to curl around her shoulders, her face as done up as Charity's. The black dress is flattering on her, pushing her cleavage into front and center view and leaving little else of the curves of her body to the imagination. The boy behind the desk is spending equal amounts of time looking between his computer and the line between her breasts, scarcely chancing a glance up to take in Vanessa's face.
That'll help, Charity thinks, he won't have a clue what either of us looks like.
"Oh, I would kill for a drink," Vanessa continues, grasping at one of those long strands of blonde hair and twirling it around her pointer finger, "Are there any good clubs around here?"
The boy pauses for a moment before he nods, his eyes flitting upwards to hers for barely a second before falling back to the computer screen. "Is some in city center," he tells them, his voice thick and full and very eastern European, "North from here. Good DJs."
Vanessa laughs, the sound loud and whimsical and beautiful and musical and Charity swallows roughly, watching as the young man does the same. "I love your accent," Vanessa gushes, "I am so going to enjoy listening to everyone speak while we're here. God, we must sound so bland! Right, Mel?"
She turns those blue eyes back on Charity, tilting her head slightly as she does. Charity shrugs, looking away quickly. "I guess," she mutters. Two words are all she can manage, the accent still like choking through a mouthful of mud. She doesn't usually speak to hotel staff when she checks in, usually disappears into her hotel room and gives herself a few minutes to try out the taste of her words in a different voice. She's not like Vanessa: she doesn't sit in a car giving directions in British lilts and then walk up a set of stairs to suddenly become Canadian.
Vanessa's jaw does that weird twitchy thing for a second before she looks back at the boy, her smile slipping back into place. "Mel wanted to go to Italy, but that's just so cliché, isn't it? I told her you guys make the best wine here and that we just had to come and visit. And besides, it's my birthday we're celebrating, so I should get final say, right?"
The young man nods, shoving two key cards across the desk and a pamphlet that seems to be all about the amenities. "You room 45 on top floor. Elevator there," he points across the lobby to a gleaming bank of lifts, the shine of the chandeliers reflecting off the doors, "We help you with luggage."
This is the fanciest place Bails has ever selected as their base of operations, far more often opting for something with less visibility and more opportunities to be anonymous. The only ritzy hotels Charity has been in have been as a trophy on someone else's arm, always under the direction to charm her way into the path of the information the agency seeks. She clutches a little too tightly at the suitcase with Melissa scrawled on the tag, her fingers scraping across the forged Air Canada flight sticker wrapped around its handle as another young man in a suit pulls it from her grasp.
This can't be right, she thinks. Because, yes, Bails has been caustic and manipulative and never in pursuit of her wellbeing as long as she's known him, but she's never seen him be indulgent. Well, not for other people, anyways. She tries to think of a note in the brief she might've not paid as much attention to, some passing remark about something of pertinence regarding this hotel, this area, but she's certain there was nothing. No, she has no reason for why Bails has had their room booked in this particular building and that fact alone sends a surging wave of discomfort through her.
Vanessa yammers on as they ride the elevator up seven flights, her words increasing in speed and complete jibberish to Charity's wandering mind. She catches a couple things here and there - shots, getting wasted, dancing - more of the back story and the alias that Vanessa's set the ground work for so brilliantly. It's nauseating, a bit, how easily she's filled the new identity, that bubbly giggle tumbling from her lips like its second nature. God, Charity almost hates her for it.
But, then, it's those little things that Cain sometimes ignores that have always made Charity feel safer. It's true that people can forget what is silent and less obvious, but it's far easier to hide in plain sight. She's witnessed more people prone to glancing past what seems normal and she's used that to her advantage for years. It's stifling, suddenly, to have Vanessa on the same wavelength, to feel the undercurrent of an alliance ruffling the waters between them.
Charity ducks back into herself, following Vanessa and the young man out of the elevator and down the hall, the chunky heels on her feet clicking slightly as she walks. She ponders the possibility that they were Bails selection, though such a task is so far below his pay grade it seems absurd. It'd be fitting, for him to seek out even the most mundane of things to hinder her success; the shoes are already aching around her toes and she can't even imagine how she might accomplish running on the cobblestoned streets outside should she need to.
Vanessa slides the keycard into the lock and the door does a little beep beep before it opens, swinging back to reveal another obnoxiously over-the-top room. A little sound flits out of her mouth, something like a gasp that she turns on the young man as Charity stalks past them both. There are two large beds, a little sitting area, a bathroom that must be entirely marble, the works. But Charity is dragged to the window, to the impeccable view of the green gardens below, to a memory that dances across her vision with all the grace of a freight train. She wonders then, too, if Bails has made a few of those mundane decisions; seemingly inconsequential things that he knows will skew her focus.
"Thank you so much," Vanessa's saying to the gentleman, standing watch as he lifts their suitcases onto the dresser. Charity can hear them behind her, exchanging pleasantries before the door closes once more and the room falls into silence. The gentle comfort of the memory that has engulfed her gives way to the dark burning edges of it, the pieces that are vivid and painful grabbing roughly at what little self control she can muster. It's a feeling that she's all too accustomed to, one that says if she opens her mouth to speak she'll shatter. Into what, she's not sure, but then she doesn't care to find out.
Vanessa's the one to break the silence, that veil of calm falling away with the door securely shut. "Do you ever speak?" she all but roars, her vowels round and comfortable and familiar once more. "Or am I s'posed to do it all?"
Charity's shoulders tense, her body tightening at the onslaught of anger, at the sound, at the accent far too close to what haunts her, too similar to the memory still loud and unforgiving in her mind. Her restraint splinters in an instant, her body whirling sharply on its heel. It propels her to the suitcases, opening the one with Melissa on it forcefully. She digs through the mess of clothes until her hands are wrapping around a more sensible pair of wedges, shoes she can see herself making a haste getaway in. Moira's always been onside, at least. "Didn't seem like you needed me to," she mutters as she kicks her feet from the ridiculous heels, dropping herself down onto the edge of a bed.
"Well, excuse me," Vanessa snaps, "For doing our job."
Charity looks upwards then, watching as Vanessa's arms fold across her chest. Her jaw is tight again - or still, probably - that muscle in her cheek twitching uselessly. It's futile, the way it protests, when Vanessa so clearly grips at her emotions like they belong, like she's justified and right and not incredibly stubborn. It bristles under Charity's skin.
How dare she be angry, really, when she's just walked out of training and into this fancy, ritzy little world that Bails has supplied them with, not for one second considering how much very real danger they're potentially in. She hasn't even an inkling of the fear that's settled in the pit of Charity's stomach, hasn't a basic grasp of the man she now works for and the games he plays. It makes Charity want to slap her, to shake her shoulders and tell her this isn't some evening of dress up.
But what's the point?
"Look," Charity says instead, shoving her feet into the wedges and standing back up so she towers over Vanessa. She closes the distance between them with two long strides, stopping only when she has to glance down her nose at Vanessa's indignant little face. "It's all good and well that you're keen, but I do things my way. I'm not here to be some glorified hands-on teacher for a brat from boot camp."
Vanessa straightens, rising slightly like some dog on attack. Charity can see the image clearly in her mind: the bared teeth and the lifted hackles and the lunge before the bite. "Like I need you to show me how it's done." It used to sting, when the teeth sunk in, before her skin was more scar tissue than anything else.
Charity laughs, stepping around Vanessa in the direction of the suite door. "Oh babe," she murmurs, "You really think any of that is like the real thing?" She turns when she reaches the ornate wood, leaning back to press the bare skin of her shoulder blades against. Vanessa's arms have fallen to her side, like she's deflated slightly in the cool indifference Charity's tossed her way. "You might be top of your class back there, but it means nothing if you can't stay alive out here."
Chapter 3: Three
Charity and Vanessa's mission doesn't go as smoothly as one might hope.
I've written about four different imaginings of this chapter and I think - I hope - that finally it's what it should be.
Frustration – with Vanessa, with Bails, with this whole flaming mission – bubbles and fizzes in the pit of her stomach even after they’ve left the hotel room, gurgling uncomfortably as she taps her foot impatiently in front of the lifts. Vanessa had slipped out behind her, not touching the door, just fitting herself into the space between the frame before it had clicked closed. She’s like that, Charity thinks, Makes room for herself.
Charity wants to run down the seven flights of stairs to the ground floor and burst through to the outside panting for breath, gasping for air like she hasn’t filled her lungs in years. It’s stifling, all this uncertainty, and it feels like an itch that she just can’t scratch. An itch that makes her want to peel the skin from her bones.
Melissa Davis is calm, though; disinterested and aloof. Short on words, too, if Charity holds to the identity that’d been crafted in the lobby. She rolls her eyes upwards to the ceiling, trying to secure herself within the person she’s supposed to be. The numbers above the lift begin to change, slowly rising to their floor.
Vanessa is looking at her again. Charity doesn’t want to meet her gaze, but she can feel the wariness radiating out of the other woman’s pores like a perfume. Like a scolded child, Vanessa is, still convinced that perhaps she’s a little bit right despite all the evidence to the contrary. Wavering slightly, though, beneath the coldness Charity has tossed her way.
“I’m sorry,” Vanessa whispers, tugging Charity’s eyes unwillingly in her direction.
She tries not to settle too long on how blue they are, on how easily Vanessa has rallied into that place post-argument where people are supposed to make up. Charity doesn’t do that – doesn’t want to do that. She looks away, holding back a sigh of relief when the elevator pings and the doors open.
Quiet falls around them all the way to the lobby, Vanessa seemingly retreating into herself when faced with Charity’s indifference. It’s good, though, to have Vanessa be a little intimidated by her – it’ll make it easier to shed her presence and get to work.
Because everything is unsteady, whether Vanessa realizes it or not. The changes with Bails are weighing on Charity, the world around her bending and tilting over itself until there’s nothing left for her to do but fight to hang on. She wonders if it will drop away suddenly, if this life of hers will explode into fragments in her grasp and leave her suffocating in the resulting emptiness. She wonders if Bails will let her live to see it happen.
Vanessa scrambles to keep up as they cross the lobby, hastening her steps to match Charity’s long strides. The air outside the front doors has chilled, the hand of a summer night wrapping gently around the city. It pulls goose flesh to the surface of Charity’s skin, her bare arms prickling at the light wind. She briefly considers flagging down a taxi, but there’s still a heavy dose of that angry fear pumping through her veins and it feels good to pound her feet against the cobbles.
There’s a tug of want that surfaces below it, a nostalgic desire to head in the direction of the Botanic Gardens. If she could, she’d lose herself under the shadow of the trees, run her fingers through the soft grass, bury her nose in the flowers. Be the little girl she was before – before Bails and the agency, when everything was open and wild and free.
She’s not sure if she will survive this time. This lead they’re following is shaky at best, the hotel far too visible for her liking. She knows near nothing about the club she’s guiding them in the direction of. And the Garden… the Garden feels like a message, a subtle reminder of all he is capable of.
Charity turns quickly, glancing in the direction of its front gates in the street behind them. Nothing seems amiss, not a soul wandering around who would warrant a second look. She wishes there’d be something obvious: a poorly disguised sniper on a rooftop, a man in tactical gear slipping into a darkened doorway, someone lurking inconspicuously by a bench. It’ll never be that way, though – death and fear and danger creep up like a travelling fog, invisible until you’re in the heart of it. She can feel it, though, her senses bracing for a coming fight.
“What are you doing?” Vanessa whispers from beside her.
It’s wrong, that Vanessa doesn’t know. That Vanessa can’t see the darkness that skulks around her now, waiting patiently to pounce. Charity’s aware of the story the new recruits are told, about the covert operation the agency pretends to be. She’s heard it recited back by other agents, men and women alike who believe with unbreakable conviction that they are on the right side of good, that they work for a company so important the government can’t even acknowledge its existence.
It’s painful, to know that there are people who meet Mark Bails and buy the story that he wants to bring justice. That they can go about their lives without ever seeing him for the monster he really is, never learning the truth that lurks just beneath the surface.
Vanessa might not survive this either. Bails could have them both gunned down on these very streets, could execute their disappearances with a snap of his fingers. He could be sending them directly into a trap and never say a word. She wonders if there’s anyone in Vanessa’s life who would notice her absence, whether there’s someone back in England who waits up for her on late nights.
She turns back around without a word, leading the way as they carry on up the road. She wants to laugh as Vanessa stumbles slightly over her own feet, rushing to keep up. The sound dies before it reaches her lips and she swallows the desire, a hard lump of fear taking up residence in her throat instead.
“Why did you do that?” Vanessa asks again, her voice louder this time when she’s stuck a pace behind Charity. The flat vowels have returned, the alias slipped back on.
Charity shrugs, turning up another street and increasing her speed. The thud of her wedges against the stones feels satisfying, her legs jolting with every step, muscles clenched tight. She runs her tongue around inside her mouth, pushing the accent against the backs of her teeth until it tastes familiar. “It won’t be on the exam, Erin,” she mutters when it does.
There’s a line of people on the sidewalk when they round the next corner, lit up by the glow of a neon sign. A bouncer’s stood in front of the building, looking altogether bored by the crowd of men waiting to get in. Not a single woman among them she notes, which is a very good sign for them.
She stalks past the line, throwing an extra sway into her hips as she approaches. It doesn’t go unnoticed: several pairs of eyes rake down her body simultaneously. She focuses on the man guarding the door, smirking when his gaze lifts from her bare legs and slowly meanders towards her face. He smiles when he meets her eyes, glancing over her shoulder at Vanessa.
It’s enough, apparently, although she’d truthfully enjoy a bit more of a challenge if only to clear her head. He steps aside without a word, nodding them along into the club. She knows his eyes are still on her as they pass, can practically feel them caressing her ass as she walks.
The club is loud, the bass pounding against the walls and all through the push-pull of bodies that fill the dance floor. Beyond the entrance, it’s impossible to move a step without brushing up against another person. Hands linger in the small of Charity’s back or slide slowly down her arm, all of them eager to coax her attention in their direction. It’d be flattering, in another life.
Vanessa presses close at her heel, trying to stay together as Charity sashays her way through the crowd. It’s the best moment for them to separate, though she knows instinctively that Vanessa won’t see it for the kindness that it is. But it feels as though there’s a sabotage heading their way, the imminence of it like a dark cloud slinking closer in Charity’s mind. If she can create some distance between them, maybe Vanessa can swerve whatever’s coming.
Maybe Vanessa can be safe when Charity isn’t.
She turns to face her, pressing their cheeks together. “Enjoy yourself,” she whispers into Vanessa’s ear before pulling away to disappear into the pulsing bodies. She doesn’t bother looking back over her shoulder to see the other woman’s response; she can already feel the absence of her warmth as she nudges through the crowd.
She eyes the ceiling as she moves, gyrating slowly when someone sidles up behind her. Their desperate little hands clutch at her waist as she counts security cameras without lifting her chin. There seems to be six pointed towards the dance floor, three more trained on the bar, and a whopping five are angled in such a way that they can see down a dimly lit hallway just past the loos.
It’s that spot that warrants her attention, certain there’s something to be explored back there. Offices, hopefully; desks filled with paperwork that may verify the story the agency has been given.
The agency wants the truth about the operation they believe is running behind the scenes in this building, some glimpse into the business hidden by the front of the club. Arms, Bails had suggested; weapons dealing. Bring me back something, he’d told her as he’d handed over the mission brief.
There’re bouncers standing guard at each of the club’s exit points, big heads moving side to side like human lawn sprinklers. Not a substantial threat, as far as Charity’s concerned, their substantial width more likely to inhibit their movement than cause her any real trouble.
The real obstacles are the collection of men situated on the balcony above the dance floor, high enough up that they can certainly see far more than the perpetually revolving heads. There’s six of them it seems, all muscular in a different sort of way: less bulk and more obvious training, their limbs long and graceful as they pace close to the balcony railing. She spots a bulge beneath a suit jacket as one of them turns to retrace his steps and a shiver instantly shoots up her spine.
A well-trained combatant is one thing, but a well-trained combatant with a gun is something else entirely. Perhaps arms dealing isn’t as farfetched as she may’ve hoped.
She thinks of Vanessa then, elsewhere in the club. She wonders how far they’d gotten with weapons training before Bails had pulled her from boot camp, whether Vanessa’s ever felt the barrel of a gun pressed against her head. Whether she’ll have that moment of paralysis when she sees one. Whether she’ll have the wherewithal to disarm an adversary.
Charity shoves roughly at the hands still pulling at her hip bones, sliding out of the lecherous grasp and making her way back across the room to the bar. The dimly lit hallway demands her gaze as she passes, ideas already forming inside her head.
The amount of security in this club is too great for simply protecting expensive alcohol and a string of celebrity DJs. And, sure, there is a wave of dread sitting heavy in her gut, but perhaps she can ward off whatever’s coming by returning faster than expected. If she can complete the mission tonight, she can be back on the plane tomorrow and strolling into Bails office by the afternoon. Maybe even hours before whatever he’s setting into motion can begin.
The thought is really all the incentive she needs before she’s sauntering across the bar space in the direction of the loos, throwing a little extra fumble into her step as if she’s had one too many to drink. She glances upwards at the guards on the balcony, watching as they repeat their steps in a what seems to be a predictable pattern. She makes note of the briefest moment of time where none of them appear to be looking her way.
She slips a finger beneath the strap of bra, playing up like she’s adjusting it as she uses those fake, staggering steps to toss her body against the wall beside the bog door. There’s a tiny device hidden beneath the lace, pressed close to her skin the way it always is. She pulls it free with an over-exaggerated tug of the strap, the little metal apparatus fitting securely into her palm. It’s no bigger than a coin, easily concealed from view. She pops it open, running her thumb gently around the button in the center.
It takes a moment, before the window of opportunity is there again, a deep breath filling her lungs in the second prior. And then she’s pressing the button and all the camera lights are flicking out at once and she’s dashing down the hallway out of sight.
There’s a set of stairs at the end of it that she descends quickly. The hallway on the floor below is even dimmer, the thump of the beat from upstairs the only noise that fills it. She slinks down the corridor, shooting glances at doors as she passes them. When she reaches one with a keypad lock, she pauses.
It takes a few seconds, but the scrambling gadget in her bracelet still works after all this time and the light on the keypad flashes green. She turns the handle and slides her body through, wary of the possibility of someone on the other side.
The room she’s found is a small office, a dark wood desk situated in the middle. She’s lucked out – she knows she has – because the space is empty. She slowly releases the breath she’s been holding, glancing around as she does so. There’s a wall of bookcases to the left and three filing cabinets to the right, things she’d love to scour over, but there’s a time limit to how long those cameras will be out of commission and she has to choose her snooping carefully. She settles on the desk, rounding it and pulling open drawers frantically.
There’s a black book in one of them, the pages filled with names and dates and what looks to be quantities. Someone has scribbled codes into the corners, numbers she recognizes from another document Bails had shown her once. This will be the something Bails wants, she thinks, the something he’s looking for.
She reads as quickly as she can, flipping pages until she can feel the names like they’re burning holes inside her brain. She chances a look at her watch as she shoves the book back into the drawer where she found it, the time allotted by her camera trick nearly up. She dashes to the door, checking both ways before rushing from the room.
She’s halfway up the stairs, the dance floor nearly in sight, when a hand emerges from the darkness and wraps around her wrist, her arm yanking as she’s pulled back onto the landing. Her heart hammers loudly in her chest, muscles tensing and recoiling from the fingers holding her. There’s a distinct urge to defend herself that explodes through her limbs, tempered only by the feel of a smaller body pressing against her side, tepid skin brushing against her own.
The hand at her wrists loosens, a familiar voice ghosting across her ear. “It’s me.”
“What the hell you doing?” she spits, tugging her arm from Vanessa’s grasp like she’s winding up to strike her. Anger buzzes beneath her skin, fizzling for only a moment before her watch beeps to inform her that her time is up, the cameras once more blinking, her safe escape foiled.
And it’s all Vanessa’s fault.
She wants to lash out, wants to call Vanessa names and make her feel how truly foolish this decision she’s made is. God, she wants to shake her again, this daft idiot. Too green, she is, too eager; too afraid of being left behind.
But there’s no time for all of that – now she’s got to figure out how to get them both out of this mess. The only saving grace is that there appears to be no cameras on this piece of the stairwell, so at least they’ve got an extra moment for Charity to sort this issue out.
Vanessa speaks before her thoughts can get too far. “One of the guards,” she whispers, looking quickly over her shoulder up the staircase, “I think he saw you come this way. A couple of them were assembling before I slipped in here.” Her hands flutter in the space between them, grasping at the air nervously as she speaks.
Charity bristles, tucking herself further toward the wall behind her. “And storming after me was the best choice then, was it?”
Vanessa’s head practically snaps in her direction, her brows already furrowed. “I had to warn you,” she says like it’s the most obvious thing in the world, like Cain wouldn’t have left Charity to her own devices in the same situation. “We’re a team, aren’t we?”
She snorts, crossing her arms over her chest as she looks away. A team, she thinks, like I’ve ever been a part of one of those. Her and Cain have been partners for years and not once has the word ‘team’ passed between them on a mission. Vanessa’s known her for all of a few hours and already she’s considering them allies.
“I have a plan,” Vanessa murmurs, pressing closer, “If you’ll hear it?”
She’s a bit of a conundrum, Vanessa. Frustrating and irritating and stubborn and somehow still so bloody open book it’s nauseating. “Go on, then,” Charity mutters, easing herself away a little more. Her back thuds against the wall, the smooth bricks cold against her spine.
“Kiss me.” Vanessa’s hands float back up into the gap between their bodies, her lip disappearing between her teeth for a moment in concentration.
“You what?” Charity asks.
“Kiss me,” Vanessa repeats, “Make them think we came back here for a cheeky snog.”
There’s a rebuttal on her tongue that doesn’t escape before the sound of heavy boot falls fill the hallway above them, what sounds like three men quickly heading their way. Charity surges forward, wrapping her hands around Vanessa’s jaw and connecting their mouths with an urgency that pulses through her as swiftly as the wild thud of her heart.
Vanessa folds into it beautifully, her hands slipping around Charity’s waist as soon as their lips meet. She nudges her thigh in between Charity’s legs, pushing it upwards and taking the hem of Charity’s dress with it. She releases a moan when it meets Charity’s center, as though Vanessa knows exactly what she should be finding there even if she isn’t. Charity tangles her fingers into the loose waves of Vanessa’s hair, her ears trained on the approaching guards.
A flashlight moves over them a moment later, stopping at their faces. Charity’s the first to pull away, watching intently as Vanessa slowly opens her eyes, so effortless in the façade that she’s deeply aroused. Her pupils are wide in the second their gazes meet, a warm blushing colouring her cheeks as she turns towards the light illuminating them.
“Can I help you?” Vanessa asks, all bravado, that Canadian accent perfectly back in place.
Someone obscured from view clears their throat, the sound distinctly male. “This area off-limits. You cannot be here.”
“Is that so?” Vanessa’s voice takes on a tone that sounds twinkling and sweet, not too dissimilar to the one she’d used with the young man at the hotel, as if she’s totally accustomed to charming her way out of trouble. “I didn’t see a sign.”
The beam of light pointed their way shakes slightly, a hushed murmur exchanged in another language before one of the men speaks again. “Is no sign, just not allowed.”
A pale hand rises to Vanessa’s chest, flat against her heart in some sort of over-the-top dramatization of shock. The edges of her eyes seem to soften, although there’s a lick of what might be sarcasm wrapping around her words. “I am so sorry, gentlemen, I had no idea. We’ll get right out of your hair.” She makes a move to climb the stairs, easing to the left to pass them.
One of the men steps in front of her, his form large and looming with his features still eschewed by the light. “No, you break rule,” he says, effectively blocking them onto the little landing.
Goose flesh rises on Charity’s skin, the space instantly feeling far too small for her liking. The men in front of them appear larger than they had on the balcony, the reality of the danger they’re in becoming too heavy for her already frantic mind.
She could hold her own if she needed to, she knows she could, even though it’s probably been too long since she’s had to. Vanessa had been fast in that training room, there’s no doubt about that, but Charity’s not entirely sure those skills are going to translate to the field or if she’s going to be expected to fight three men on her own. She could definitely handle one, more than likely two, but not three… Most certainly not three, the way these guards appear to have been trained.
She swallows roughly.
Vanessa reels back slightly, stepping in front of Charity as she does so. Her jaw does that twitchy thing again as it tenses at the implication. “I didn’t know there were rules, sir,” she declares, her voice controlled despite the bite Charity’s heard in the presence of that clench every other time it’s appeared thus far. It’s brewing beneath the surface, she thinks, Vanessa taking charge of her reaction even when her emotions are roiling. “Or I wouldn’t have broken them, would I?”
The flashlight finally lowers, the men’s faces coming into view. The one closest to them shrugs, the two flanking him staring at them with hard eyes and frozen features. There’s a bulge beneath each of their suit jackets that raises the hair on Charity’s neck, the shiver of fear filling her every sense.
Vanessa shifts closer, pressing her back against Charity’s front. It’s oddly comforting, to be shielded like this, even if Vanessa’s nearly a head shorter. Warmth radiates off her in such close proximity, igniting something brave in Charity’s chest.
She meets the eye of one of the guards, watching as the corner of his mouth tweaks slightly. It’s the tiniest little crack in the wall he’s put up, but it’s all she needs, as accustomed as she is to seeking out the weak points. This man is attracted to her, to them, likely even aroused by the scene they’d concocted.
“Babe,” Charity says softly, closing the space between her and Vanessa and smiling coyly at the guard. She slips a hand around Vanessa’s waist, splaying her fingers on the other woman’s belly. “There’s no need to defend my honour,” she whispers into the side of Vanessa’s neck, pursing her lips into a kiss against the thump of Vanessa’s pulse. The guard’s eyes follow as she moves her hand higher, shifting along the underside of Vanessa’s breast. “I’m sure he knows what it’s like when two people can’t keep their hands off each other.” She winks at him then, holding back a smirk when his Adam’s apple bobs in his throat.
Vanessa leans back in her arms, rubbing a hand along Charity’s forearm and tilting her head slightly until their temples are brushing. She’s breathing hard, the quick expansion of her lungs obvious when she’s wrapped in Charity’s hold like this, but her demeanor doesn’t falter in the slightest, totally cool as she navigates the conversation. “We just wanted a minute alone together, sir,” Vanessa murmurs. “I’m sure you’ve been reckless before, too, for a beautiful woman.”
The first guard looks back to his colleagues. The one to his left doesn’t remove his eyes from Charity’s hand, entranced as she strokes her thumb along the curve of Vanessa’s breast. There’s a decision made in the silence between the other two, a barely imperceptible nod the only sign of their agreement. The first guard turns back to them, stepping aside slowly. “Not again,” he tells them gruffly, “This hallway off-limits.”
Vanessa smiles shyly as they pass him, looping her arm through Charity’s and grasping tightly at her hand. Her skin feels near scorching, her fingers like fire when they rest in the curve of Charity’s elbow. “Thank you, sir,” she says softly, blushing slightly as they hurry down the hallway and back out to the club.
She keeps hold of Charity’s hand as they navigate their way through the bodies still pulsing to the beat on the dance floor, wordlessly heading for the exit and the cool night air beyond. She pulls Charity along once they’re outside, her heels echoing on the cobblestone street.
The sound is drowned out only by the ferocity of her voice when the club is a couple blocks behind them. She drops Charity’s hand, a storm of fury on her face. “What the hell were you thinking?”
Charity can’t seem to help but laugh, a burst of it falling from her lips before she can swallow it down. Her skin is still sticky with sweat, raised hair and chills dancing on its surface, the thrum of fear only taking a back seat while her lungs fill with elation about their escape.
“You think it’s funny?” Vanessa barks, “That you could’ve been killed?”
It’s not, but Cain would’ve met a situation such as that far differently than Vanessa just did. Vanessa, who’s stood in front of her all spitfire and fury and, somehow, just saved them from what could’ve devolved into a gunfight. She’s too green, too eager, yes, but there’s a sureness in the way she’d handled the development that spreads like wildfire through Charity. It’s a sense of belonging, maybe, though Charity bristles instantly at the thought.
“What were you thinking?” Vanessa asks again, taking a step forward.
Charity crosses her arms over her chest, building up a silent barrier to the fierceness radiating from Vanessa. She takes a step back, easing herself further into the darkened alley they’ve stopped in. Instinctively, she surveys the street around them for listening ears. It probably doesn’t matter, not really; they haven’t switched back to their real accents, they aren’t speaking the local language, and it can’t be entirely uncommon for two women in tiny dresses to be arguing in the street late into the night. The moon is high in the sky, the city long ago tucked into their beds, and all is quiet save for the distant, bouncing beat of the club.
The silence brings with it a bit of clarity, shuffling away the gratitude she feels for Vanessa’s quick thinking and replacing it with the anger that had been there first. Because it hadn’t actually been necessary – she’d still had a few seconds to slip back into the club. She could’ve evaded security on her own if it had become a problem.
Vanessa’s plan had put them face to face with those guards, men who will remember what they look like if the mission requires them to return. They’ll recognize the two women they just caught making out, no doubt in her mind.
The anger in her belly begins to catch, the smoulders giving life to flames. They lick and build upward into her chest, radiating through her with a vengeance. She lifts her chin before she speaks, her eyes surely dark in the muted street light. “That I would’ve been just fine without your little interference,” she spits, satisfied by the rough edges of the words as they leave her mouth.
Vanessa straightens like she had back at the hotel, more bared teeth and raised hackles. “Oh really?” she growls. Vanessa steps closer, lowering her voice until it’s not much more than a whisper. “And how exactly was that going to look, then, when three men came after you with guns?”
Like her funeral, probably.
Vanessa softens abruptly, one of her hands coming up to cup Charity’s elbow. It feels familiar, her touch, Charity’s body leaning into it before her mind can scream at her to stop. “I thought you said this was all about staying alive?” Vanessa murmurs. “How do you plan on doing that if you don’t let me help you?”
But that’s her life, it is, and it has been for more than twenty years now: surviving no matter the odds, no matter the circumstance, no matter the men with guns around every corner. She’s spent most of it getting out of situations just like this, worse than this, and never once has she had the privilege of expecting someone else to have her back, not really. And she hasn’t needed it, hasn’t needed anyone to swoop in and save the day. Safety is for other people, she thinks, but not herself. It’s why she’d walked away from Vanessa in the club in the first place.
Only, Vanessa’s hand at her elbow is sending a surge of warmth through her not entirely dissimilar to the one that had appeared when she’d used her body to shield Charity’s own. It’s a comfort, she realizes, but one that doesn’t belong to someone like her.
One that never will – Bails himself will make sure of it.
She shrugs out of Vanessa’s grasp, the spot where her hand had been instantly chilling in the night air. There’s a part of her that wants to reach back out, to rest her hand against Vanessa’s skin, but she silences it the second it makes itself heard. It’s better if you hate me, she thinks.
“The same as I always have,” Charity says as she turns and walks away.
Chapter 4: Four
Charity begins to open up to Vanessa.
I just want to extend heaps of my appreciation to each of you who are reading along and commenting. You're the greatest motivators as I continue to work on this piece and I'm incredibly grateful for the support.
See you back here in two weeks?
The list of names is still burning in Charity’s mind when they arrive back at their hotel room, a distinct swirl of letters crossing her line of vision. She rushes to the sitting area in the corner, dropping gracelessly into a chair and reaching for the complimentary notepad in the center of the table. She rips a few pages from it before grabbing a pen so she can set to work. The burning eases slightly when she starts to scribble furiously, filling the page in quick, looping strokes.
She can feel Vanessa watching her from across the room, that incessant gaze back in full force. Charity chances a glance in her direction, taking in the crossed arms and the furrowed brow before turning back to the paper in front of her. She fills the first page and then shoves it aside, starting on a second.
“What are you doing?” Vanessa finally asks, inching closer.
“Found an office,” Charity answers, not bothering to look up again. She doesn’t stop as she speaks, her hand moving as if on autopilot. As if she, too, is watching herself from the other side of the room. “Had a book with some names in it.” The sensation is familiar, comfortingly predictable.
Vanessa arrives at her side near instantly, leaning over the table at Charity’s elbow. “So, you’re just writing them all down?” She grabs for the first sheet of paper Charity’s filled, looking over what she’s written on it. Charity can practically feel her eyes widening as she does, her mouth dropping open in genuine shock. “Why didn’t you take a picture of it?” She nudges herself closer, watching over Charity’s shoulder as name after name flows out of the pen, frantic movements scrawling them across the second sheet of paper. When it, too, is filled, Charity pushes it away.
“With what camera?” Charity asks, scrunching up her face. “Didn’t get a meeting with ops before they carted us off, did I?”
Vanessa’s body presses against Charity’s shoulder, skewing her focus but not the speed with which she works. That warmth from earlier blooms again; the comfort she’s not allowed to feel. One of Vanessa’s hands lands on the table beside Charity’s. She flinches at the proximity, curling her fingers into a tight fist.
“But you had that other device,” Vanessa murmurs, “The one that blacked out the cameras.”
A gift, it had been – the bracelet, too – from someone who had cared enough about her to want to keep her safe. Before Bails had gone and taken that, too.
Charity shrugs, her eyes glued to the paper in front of her. “A friend made it for me.” She scribbles in silence for a moment, filling the third page and then reaching for a fourth.
Vanessa’s voice is noticeably softer when she opens her mouth again. “How?”
There isn’t a need to elaborate any further, to explain her confusion at the sheer magnitude of information that seems to be effortlessly spilling out of Charity’s head. Charity’s seen it stump other agents, too, other people not privy to the world of Mark Bails’ making. “I have a photographic memory,” Charity lies, as she always does, the words as second nature as the rest of this.
But Vanessa isn’t buying it. “That’s a lot more than a photographic memory.”
She’s not wrong, not in the slightest. It had taken Charity herself years to realize that this skill wasn’t something normal, that a so-called ‘photographic memory’ didn’t give most people the ability to regurgitate things they’ve seen like the turning on and off of a tap. She’d felt like a robot when she had, like someone had scooped out all the human inside her and left a machine in its place.
Charity sighs, leaning back in her seat and tossing the pen from her fingers with a flick of her wrist. Four sheets of paper litter the table in front of her, each one meticulously filled with every name she’d read in that office, every date, every quantity, every code. All of them written with that same robotic accuracy she’d once believed others were capable of.
Freak, hovers at the edge of her thoughts like a bruise, taunting remarks she’d much rather forget. She wipes a hand across her face, desperate to free her mind from the influx of information still dancing close to the surface of her memory. It’ll never be gone, but the list of names begins to retreat and the burning feeling eases and it creates enough space in her head that it finally feels like she can breathe again.
It’s not really any of Vanessa’s business, that pesky how. It hadn’t been Cain’s, either, or Moira’s. There’s no one she’s told herself, the truth always skittering out as a weapon, useful only for someone else to hurt her. It feels like picking at a scab when she thinks about laying it all out to be examined, like exposing a wound beneath that hasn’t fully healed. Even a half truth leaves her feeling raw and unprotected, vulnerable in ways she tries very hard not to be.
But a bit of it creeps onto the tip of her tongue before she can rationalize why she even wants to tell Vanessa. “I was…” She swallows roughly, choking back the hard lump that forms instantly in her throat. “I was trained to do that.”
Charity pushes away from the table, hurrying to her feet like the room has gone up in flames around them. It’s desperate, suddenly, the need to put some space between herself and Vanessa. She’d run if she could, as fast and as far from here as she could get. She stops at the window instead, curling into herself as she stares down at the gardens below.
She can remember how everything looked back then, when her own world wasn’t quite so vast but the pieces were becoming as overwhelming and out of her control as they are now. There’s a voice inside her head that reminds her of safety and love and home, rough edges and dropping consonants and those rounded vowels. She squeezes tightly at her own waist, fingers clutching at the red fabric of the dress that doesn’t feel right.
Vanessa is gentle and quiet and tender when she moves to Charity’s side, her head tilted slightly as she looks up at her. “There was a program,” she murmurs, her bottom lip lost between her teeth for a moment as her brow furrows. She turns toward the window, folding her arms over her chest. “The Soviets were running it.”
It slices through Charity like a blade, that Vanessa has any knowledge of Project Helix. That she might possibly be aware of the countless hours of footage the CIA had been able to uncover. The ache slithers down her spine, her arms coiling further around herself as though she might become small enough to disappear.
“They were training children to be agents.”
It’s too much, to stand still when she can remember it all so vividly: the school with the barred windows, the fields of green beyond them that were never within her reach. She’d had a room there, a bedroom all her own but that had lacked any of the things she’d had at home. Just a bed, just a window, just a door.
She stumbles across the hotel suite, anxious to escape the memories pushing at the back of her eyes. She can hear the twist of the lock as clearly as if she’s still trapped in that room, the sun rising in the distance through the window pane. The woman in black had always come when the sky was orange, turning the latch from the other side of the door. She’d been an escort down the hallway, leading Charity to the classroom where she spent her days without ever saying a word.
Bile burns in the back of her throat, desperation pulsing through her so fiercely it feels as though she was in that room only yesterday instead of more than twenty years ago. She doesn’t want to feel Vanessa watching her anymore, can’t bear the thought of looking at her and seeing the pity that’s surely all over her face. There’s a victimhood in the way this hurts, a vest of weakness that she doesn’t want to wear.
Charity throws herself into the bathroom, slamming the door behind herself with a bang. She holds her fists against it for a moment, begging her heart to slow its panicked beating, daring herself to fight this wall of emotion that’s threatening to consume her. It’s a dark place at the bottom of this pain, a hollow pit she won’t resurface from if she lets herself fall into it again.
She pulls at the wedges still on her feet, dropping them unceremoniously onto the tiles below. She rips urgently at the fabric of the red dress, jerking it away from her skin until it falls to a puddle on the floor. She tugs the band from her hair, blonde curls cascading down her back, fingers busy until she stands in the middle of the bathroom naked and panting.
It’s a relief, to turn the shower on hotter than she normally would, to step under the spray and hiss when it makes contact. It’s liberating, to envision scalding this history from the surface of her, to be like a shedding snake as the day rinses from her body. Makeup traces dark trails down her cheeks, but not from tears. No, she won’t give in to the burn of them behind her eyelids, won’t indulge in the release it might bring. She stands under the water until her skin is as red and angry as her mind.
When she shuts it off, she imagines it slicing right through the ribbon of anguish that keeps pulling her backwards in her mind. The world is clearer, slightly, when she steps out of the shower stall. Her reflection makes more sense when it’s distorted by the steam coating the mirror.
She wraps herself in a complimentary robe before she emerges from the bathroom, slipping quietly into the hotel suite. Vanessa is sat bolt upright on one of the beds, her face scrubbed clean of all the makeup and her hair returned to that tight little ponytail. There’s something that looks an awful lot like worry painted distinctly across her features, her bottom lip yanked into her mouth as she rocks it side to side between her teeth.
Vanessa scrambles from the bed when she notices Charity’s presence, rushing across the room to close the distance that stretches between them. She stops short in front of Charity, her hands reaching up like she intends to touch before falling back to her sides. “Are you okay?” she asks.
It makes Charity laugh, the softness Vanessa threads into her words when she speaks, this quiet concern she has for Charity – a woman she doesn’t even know, who doesn’t know her. “Yeah, babe, m’fine,” Charity mutters, stepping around Vanessa to the suitcases. She digs around in the one that says Melissa, unearthing some knickers that she slides up her legs with her back to the other woman.
“You just don’t seem fine,” Vanessa whispers.
There’s an oversized t-shirt in the pile of clothes, too, another ripple of thoughtfulness from Moira. She’d like to be sickened by it, Charity would, but for the moment she feels nothing but gratitude for the break from the alias. She drops the robe from her shoulders wordlessly, pulling the shirt up and over her head.
“And you shouldn’t say you’re fine, if you’re not.”
It’s so far reaching, such a belief, so beyond the realm of realities in this line of work. It’s a testament, Charity thinks, to the good in Vanessa that she’s still managed to hold onto that. But it shows her juvenility, too, that she might hope for some humanity in a job that requires them to be fluid and malleable and never true to themselves. It’s not the words of a spy, and it changes the shape of the air around them almost imperceptibly.
She turns slowly to face Vanessa, eyebrows rising slightly when she sees that the other woman has her eyes averted to the floor, another rosy blush warm on her cheeks. Her heart skips for a moment at the sight, at the forming of the very idea that Vanessa might be trying to supply her with some semblance of modesty.
Vanessa, who’s had her tongue down her throat.
“It’s not right, what they did to you,” Vanessa continues, those blue eyes flicking upwards quickly to meet Charity’s own. “You didn’t deserve that.” There’s something dark that slinks behind Vanessa’s gaze then, creeping closer. The line of her mouth goes thin and tight, her jaw tensing.
She’s becoming well acquainted with this, with Vanessa’s anger; Charity can recognize the twitch of muscle in her cheek as clear as day. It’s grounding, this familiarity, urging her towards the wall of indifference she’s expected to be. “You don’t even know me, babe,” Charity answers.
There’s a tingle that dips into her fingertips, the kind of sensation that tells her she’d like to reach up and hook them around Vanessa’s face, to bring the other woman to her mouth and lose herself in something much more carnal. She hasn’t allowed her thoughts to creep back to that kiss in the stairwell yet, though if she does she knows the desire to explore the way it feels to kiss Vanessa without danger lurking around the corner will become overwhelming. It’s the curse of adrenaline, the insatiable need to satisfy that comes after a mission, in the middle, in the breadth of time before one begins.
Vanessa’s head tilts, her eyes dancing across Charity’s face as though she can sense the direction her thoughts have taken. The tug of her lips softens, the edges of them lifting upwards into an almost smile. “I’d like to,” she whispers between them like a secret, “If you’ll let me.”
But that wall is there for Vanessa’s protection as much as her own, a defense against the darkness that Bails swirls around her life with a practiced hand. It does no one any good to bend into the comfort of another person, to seek out the light that is so easily extinguished.
Charity snorts, stepping backwards from the cocoon of warmth that exists around Vanessa. “Fancy learning all about the poor programmed girl, yeah?” The longing to touch dissipates when the space between them grows, Charity sauntering over to the bed closest to the window. “Wouldn’t be half hard to count all the brownie points you’d earn.” She tosses back the covers, slipping her body into the safety of the cool sheets – anything to stretch that distance to the brink.
“That’s – that’s not…” Vanessa’s mouth opens and closes like a fish, grasping uselessly for some crumb of words to say that might save herself.
It’s cruel, what Charity’s doing – she knows it is, can feel it in the sharp wave of regret that fills her stomach when she looks at Vanessa left gawping and guilty stood in front of the dresser. Only, she’s never been very good at pulling back once the knife’s gone in and so she pushes a little more, drives it home, watches as the blade disappears and all that’s left is the hilt.
“Save it, babe,” Charity mutters, wrapping the covers tight around herself and turning away. “Rather pretend you never bloody existed.”
The words seem loud, pressed so close to her ear, breath ghosting across her skin, but they’re barely more than a hushed hum. She stirs slightly, things not quite making sense while sleep still tugs at her mind.
It’s clearer the second time, skittering through her when she registers the panic. Her eyes fly open, wide and uncertain as she takes in Vanessa perched close to her side. Vanessa, who is shoving clothing at her nervously, glancing quickly over her shoulder as she does so.
“You have to get up,” she’s saying, “We have to go.”
Vanessa crosses the room crouched low, grabbing the four sheets of paper still laying out on the table and tucking them into the pocket of her jeans. She’s dressed already, her hair pulled back tight again, her hands busy as she moves with hurried steps about the room.
“What’s happening?” Charity asks as she lifts her body from the bed, tugging jeans up her bare legs and pushing her feet into a pair of trainers Vanessa’s left on the floor for her. There’s a gentle glow of the coming sunrise outside the window, the city around them soon to be slowly waking in the burning pinks of morning. She hasn’t been asleep long. She reaches for the lamp beside the bed.
“No!” Vanessa squeaks, lunging across the room to stop her hand. “Don’t turn on the lights.” Her fingers are warm when they close around Charity’s wrist, but her eyes are wild and dancing, not settling on a spot before they move away again. “They’re in the gardens,” she whispers, looking over her shoulder to the window and the open curtains, “They’ll see us moving.”
A flash of memory fills Charity’s mind, a raised hand wrapped securely around a gun. She jumps when the bullet bursts from the chamber, the spark of recollection too vivid to feel far away. Vanessa’s hand squeezes tighter at her wrist, pulling her back to the present.
“We have to get out of here, now,” Vanessa murmurs.
Vanessa moves to the dresser then, grabbing a few items of clothing from the suitcases and shoving them roughly into a small backpack as Charity changes from the large shirt she’d been sleeping in to the black vest top Vanessa had pushed into her hands. She watches as Vanessa packs everything they’ve already worn – the skimpy dresses and the underwear and the pyjamas, even disappearing into the bog for a moment to gather what Charity had abandoned on the floor – bringing with them the things that have the majority of their DNA.
It won’t be enough; there are sheets and the shower drain and little bits of their hair that have surely fallen, but Charity can see the training surfacing and she knows what it means. Vanessa doesn’t expect to return to this room. Vanessa doesn’t expect that they won’t be followed.
“Who’s in the gardens?” Charity questions, crossing the room and taking the bag from Vanessa’s hands to stick her own sleep shirt inside. She zips it closed with shaking fingers, slipping her arms into the straps to secure it on her back. Vanessa trembles in front of her, seemingly lost for a moment without a task to hold her focus.
“The guards from the club,” Vanessa tells her, the shape and tone of her voice one that Charity hasn’t heard before. Gone is the bravado and the anger and the fury, something else taking up residence in their place. “They’ve come after us.”
She wonders then if her mistakes were more drastic than she’d intended – she hadn’t been careful enough before blacking out the cameras, there’s no guarantee an alarm hadn’t sounded when she’d scrambled that lock. Her device wouldn’t have reached far enough to work if there’d been another camera in the office and she hadn’t even bothered to check before she’d started snooping, too busy trying to avoid the lurking danger she could feel creeping up on them. Her thoughts had been elsewhere, ignoring the hazards right in front of her.
Her distraction may very well be their downfall, not a sabotage from Bails.
There isn’t time to ask more questions, nor space to explore what the arrival of the guards might mean. Vanessa hurries to the door, peering through the peep hole for a moment before throwing it open. She doesn’t wait to see Charity follow, dashing down the hallway in the direction of the stairs. The lifts ping behind them as they round the corner into the stairwell, hushed male voices filling the corridor. Charity’s heart stutters in her chest, her eyes widening as she looks to Vanessa.
Vanessa is already running full tilt up the stairs, leaping over them two at a time. Charity races behind her, adrenaline pumping hot through her veins, her mind struggling to connect the woman in front of her with the one who’d stumbled over her feet to keep up with her yesterday. Vanessa is a completely different person suddenly, certain and graceful as she leads them to the roof.
The access door whines out a protest when they open it, Vanessa quickly pushing it closed behind them to silence the sound. The sky is still dark around them, the early morning air cold against Charity’s sweat-covered skin.
She wants to peek over the edge of the building, wants to get a look of her own at the men Vanessa says are in the gardens, if only to solidify for herself what’s happening instead of relying on blind faith. But then, there had been men in the hallway. Vanessa had gotten them out of the room with mere seconds to spare.
Or they were just other guests and all of this is a farce.
“How’d y’know they were in the gardens?” Charity asks.
Vanessa tosses a look in her direction before darting across the roof to another door. She pulls a lock picking set from the back pocket of her jeans, setting to work on the old metal doorknob. “Couldn’t sleep,” she mutters flippantly, “Spotted some movement down there.” The lock clicks and she eases her tools out of the keyhole, returning them to the kit before shoving it all safely back into her pocket.
“And you could tell they were the guards from the club, from seven stories up?” Charity presses, seeking out the holes in the story but still following when Vanessa swings open the newly unlocked door and steps through.
The room inside is full of machines and contraptions, an exhaust fan whirring loudly above their heads. The shaft of the elevators is cut into the floor in front of them, gaping and echoing as one of the lifts stops somewhere below with a ping. Charity pulls the door shut behind them, holding onto it for a second longer than necessary as she tries to steady her breathing.
“Had binoculars, didn’t I?” Vanessa says over the noise, leaning daringly over the shaft for a look. Charity’s stomach lurches at the sight, gooseflesh erupting on the back of her neck. “Ever ridden one of these?” Vanessa asks, lifting her chin in the direction of the thick cables that run down the center of the opening. Her smile is wide when she turns fully towards Charity, her eyes vibrant with something that looks an awful lot like excitement.
“You’ve lost your bloody mind,” Charity hisses, taking a step back from the hole. Like hell she’s climbing down an elevator cable, men with guns be damned. “Go ahead, then, I’ll take the fire escape like a normal spy.”
Vanessa laughs, stepping around Charity until she fits into the infinitesimal space Charity’s left between her back and the door. Charity reaches out nervously, instinctively, grabbing onto the wall in case Vanessa’s about to push her. Be a real plot twist, she thinks, to get all this way and then die like a character in a Soap.
But Vanessa lays a soft hand on Charity’s shoulder, chuckling in such a way that the sound seems to vibrate down Charity’s spine. She unzips the rucksack on Charity’s back and pulls something free from within it, setting her mouth against Charity’s ear as she closes it again. “Don’t worry,” she murmurs, her blue eyes twinkling when Charity turns her head to look at her, “I’m not half terrible at this.”
“Don’t know if that’s something to brag about, babe,” Charity mumbles beneath her breath, trying not to gasp when Vanessa steps away from her to walk confidently to the edge of the shaft.
There’s a weird little device in Vanessa’s hand, small and cylindrical with what looks like two handles on its sides. She opens it like a book, leaning out across the opening to secure it around one of the cables. She’s still holding it when she looks back at Charity with a satisfied smirk, her body a dash through the air above the hole.
“Where’d you get that?” Charity asks, trying desperately to redirect her thoughts from the shaking fear that Vanessa’s pose brings forth.
Vanessa shrugs casually, her free arm swinging. “I’ve got friends, too.” She nudges her chin up once more, directing Charity’s attention to the device beneath her hand. “Only got one of these, though, so we’ll have to go down together.” She holds out her other hand, twisting her body slightly like she’s inviting Charity to cling to her side.
And she doesn’t even want to consider the possibility – wouldn’t, in any other time or place – but the access door whines outside on the roof, the voices of men echoing just beyond the wall, and it’s enough to propel her forward into Vanessa’s waiting arms, squeezing her eyes shut before the two of them are…
Chapter 5: Five
Charity and Vanessa make their escape.
I would like to take a moment to formally apologize to whomever keeps an eye on Canadian internet usage for the google searches I did while writing this chapter. I solemnly swear that I am up to only good, but the same can't necessarily be said for these characters.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Vanessa’s contraption brings them to a gentle stop at the bottom of the shaft, poised a few feet above a service elevator that sits stationary at the lowest floor. Charity opens her eyes only when they’re finally still, bravely lifting her chin to take in the seven stories above their heads. Her heart beats gracelessly within her chest, wholly aware of the pesky phobia she’s failed to snuff into silence. Her arms tighten around Vanessa’s neck, that fear present even as Vanessa eases them down onto the roof of the lift, her arm secure around Charity’s waist, both hands clutching the handles on the device.
It’s a silly memory that rushes forward in this moment, frivolous and inconsequential even as it fills her mind. She can feel the scrape of tree bark beneath her palms as certain as Vanessa’s hair, wind blowing gently across her skin despite the relative calm of the space they’re in. She remembers falling from the branch, the breath knocked from her lungs when she hit the ground, the world spinning for a second before it cleared. She feels breathless now, but for another reason entirely.
Vanessa’s hand lowers to Charity’s waist, squeezing for a moment before she pulls away. “Wouldn’t have pegged you as someone afraid of heights,” she teases, her smile near infectious when Charity turns her head to look at her.
Charity drops her arms from around Vanessa’s neck, instantly embarrassed by her blatant show of weakness despite the casual way Vanessa’s called her out on it. There’s a second memory that flits through her thoughts then, less gentle than the first: grasping tightly at sharp metal poles as her hands trembled, voices below instructing her to jump.
She can remember being called up to Bails office afterwards, can remember his anger at the hesitation she’d exhibited before letting go to fall to the mats below. There’d been no room for humanity in training when he was watching from above, no space to be anything but the agent he expected her to be. How disappointed he would be to know that falling still makes her pause, that heights still make her heart race, that he hadn’t been entirely successful in moulding her into all he wished for her to become.
“Don’t make a real habit of riding the lifts like this,” Charity mutters, stepping further away from Vanessa as she does. Her voice sounds too harsh even to her own ears, the words leaving her lips like chewing gravel.
Vanessa’s smile falters, her face shifting to disappointment before that mask of determination lifts back into place. She unclasps the device from around the cable, closing it with a snap and stepping around Charity to shove it unceremoniously into the rucksack on Charity’s back. She tugs a little harder than necessary as she closes the zip, lifting the pack completely from Charity’s body before letting it go again. It hits the small of her back when it lands, a stark contrast to the warmth of Vanessa’s arm that had been there moments earlier.
“Is it fun for you?” Vanessa grumbles as she kneels, fiddling with a few screws on the roof of the elevator. They come free easier than they probably should, pulled quickly from the metal hatch they’re likely intended to secure.
“What?” Charity asks, glancing upwards again. One of the lifts above them pings, the doors opening at what she counts out as the fourth floor. A beam of light leaps across the shaft, illuminating the grease covered cement walls. She steps out of its line of sight instinctively, looking down to be sure Vanessa’s free of it, too.
Vanessa’s looking at her when she does, those blue eyes searching her face in the dim light they’ve briefly been afforded. The doors above close, shutting them back into darkness. She can still feel Vanessa’s gaze as her eyes readjust, as certain as a hand upon her skin. Normally such a look would make her shiver, but there’s something lingering where Vanessa’s hand had stopped on her waist and suddenly being seen such as this doesn’t feel the way it always has.
“Winding people up,” Vanessa says after a beat. Charity can see her faint outline as she turns away again, redirecting her focus to the final screw between her fingertips. Vanessa lifts it free, dropping it into the small pile she’s made at her side. She nudges at the metal plate they’d been securing, easing it off and producing another thin stream of light from below, peering into the tiny crack she’s created. She breathes out slowly before she lifts the plate away fully, revealing the empty metal box beneath them.
The doors are open, exposing a service hallway just beyond. There’s a faint rumble of what sounds like washing machines and dryers in the distance, echoing minutely off the cement walls. Charity stills, straining her ears for the movement of hotel staff, certain they’re on the precipice of being discovered, but there’s nothing.
Vanessa nods once before slipping her legs through the open hatch, lowering her body into the space until just the tips of her fingers grasp the metal edge. She drops to the floor near silently, crouching down and peeking around the corner of the doors. She looks back up to Charity, raising her hand in a thumbs up to say the coast is clear.
Charity rolls her eyes, the action so juvenile and so ridiculous that she can’t help but feel a bit of exasperation at it. But something reminiscent of a smile tugs at the corner of her lips just the same.
She sinks to her knees on top of the lift, twisting until her feet fit through the hole and she can maneuver her body into the box below. Her forearms burn as her fingers squeeze tightly at the edge of the opening, her body stretching until the floor feels within reach. It’s still startling when she lets go, that gap of space, her stomach dropping in the second before she lands. She squats down beside Vanessa, glancing along the corridor as well, sucking in a steadying breath to calm the flutter of her heartbeat.
To the left, the walls are lined with those oversized rolling bins she’s seen in films, a few still packed to the brim with miles of white fabric. White sheets, white towels, white tablecloths. The scent of fresh laundry fills her nose, overwhelming in such a confined space. She can hear the thump of something heavy and wet being tossed around inside a dryer, but no murmur of voices, no staff chattering away as they begin their day. It must be too early, Charity hopes, grateful for the solitude they’re being afforded to make an escape.
Vanessa slips down the hallway to the right, tiptoeing as she leads the way. A wave of awe washes over Charity as she follows her, realization dawning that Bails had been right: Vanessa was ready for field duty. The woman before her has been nothing but quick on her feet, easily adjusting to each obstacle in their path. She’s brave, Charity can see now, not at all like those young men in the training room with their panting breaths and shaking hands.
She barely seems like a new recruit at all.
Vanessa guides them to a door tucked into an alcove at the end of the hall, one of them green emergency signs glowing above it. She twists the handle expectantly but it doesn’t budge, her features scrunching up even as she reaches into her back pocket for the lock picking set once more. “Shouldn’t lock a fire exit,” she mutters beneath her breath.
There’s a rebuttal on Charity’s tongue that doesn’t see the light of day, a jibe at how at ease with all of this Vanessa shouldn’t be yet, halted by a flurry of movement to their left. It pulls her attention away from watching as Vanessa fiddles with the knob, a man emerging from the laundry room that notices them immediately.
He’s young, she notes when she turns towards him, long and lanky like that of a boy. Cain would have him down in a second, one precise hit knocking him unconscious. She could, too. But there’s a feeling stronger than a desire to survive that beats within her chest as he approaches, protective suddenly of this lad whose face pinches together in confusion when he speaks.
“Ce faci?” he calls, picking up his pace as he heads in their direction. [What are you doing?]
Her heart sputters, recognizing the words, the burning feeling pushing forward again. “Noi nu vrem probleme,” she answers, her hands raising in front of her, her body responding without any of her own conscious thought. [We don’t want any trouble.]
His steps slow, coming up short a few feet away. One of his hands hovers above a walkie talkie strapped to his belt, partially concealed by the too-large waistcoat hanging off his shoulders. "Nu ar trebui să fii aici jos,” he says, shaking his head slowly. His fingers twitch, hesitating as he looks at Charity. [You shouldn’t be down here.]
Charity can feel Vanessa behind her, hidden slightly from view, her breath picking up speed as she fumbles with the lock. She’s panicking, she can tell, afraid of what this boy’s presence could mean for their escape. Charity could still take him out – it wouldn’t take much to render him momentarily incapacitated.
"Vă rog," she pleads instead, "Daţi-ne drumul." [Please. Let us go.]
The lock clicks, a slow breath released from Vanessa’s lungs as she stands up behind her. She can hear tools being shoved back into the lock picking set, fabric rubbing against denim as it’s returned to Vanessa’s pocket.
Every moment of this mission with Vanessa has been different, her cunningness replacing the need to throw punches. Charity can see Cain clearly inside her mind, wrapping an arm tight around this boy’s neck, squeezing until his eyes roll backwards in his head. Vanessa remains behind her, silent and complacent to whatever decision Charity makes. Like night and day, they are; Vanessa more the sun amongst a sky full of clouds.
And Charity likes it, she realizes with a start.
She tilts her head, watching the young boy in front of them, entranced as a war of indecision plays out across his face. There’s a gentleness in his dark brown eyes as they flick from Charity to Vanessa, considering. "Vă rog," Charity says again, certain that his resolve is crumbling. [Please.]
It seems enough to convince him, his arm falling away from the walkie talkie as he nods. Vanessa responds instantly, grabbing for Charity’s hand as she opens the door, tugging them both through it. "Mulţumesc," Charity whispers before it shuts behind them. [Thank you.]
The alcove on the other side is small and Vanessa presses close against Charity’s side. She’s gawping when Charity looks down at her, eyebrows lifted upwards on her face. Disbelief, Charity thinks, fitting the pieces together. “Didn’t peg me as that, either, yeah?” she snaps.
Vanessa doesn’t leap at the bait, pointedly soft when words tumble off her lips. “You speak Romanian,” she murmurs, a dribble of amazement seeping into the statement.
Charity straightens, casting her eyes in the opposite direction. Vanessa’s hand has settled in the crook of her elbow again, warm and familiar and a million things it shouldn’t be. She wants to shrug away from the touch, wants to seek out some distance and remove herself from this feeling and this intimacy… but it had been so cold when she had the last time, as though her body wants for the heat of Vanessa. “I don’t actually,” she mutters, trying not to dwell on the tickle of Vanessa’s fingers against her bare skin.
A puff of breath surges past Vanessa’s lips, knocking against Charity’s chin. “You do,” she argues, shaking her head, “You just did.”
This is the moment the awe falls away, Charity can sense it in the second before it happens. Like whatever is stretching taut between them is on the verge of snapping, breaking in the face of who she really is. Because she’s not worth getting to know – she’s not anything like what Vanessa seems to want her to be. “Programmed, remember, babe?” She is nothing more than what they made her, nothing more than what they designed her to be. Nothing without me, he’d said.
She watches as the realization dawns, creeping slowly across Vanessa’s face like a morning dew until Charity feels as though she’s drowning in it. She yanks her arm out of Vanessa’s reach, wrapping it tightly around her torso. Her fingers toy at the curve above her waist, the spot where she imagines a motherboard might sit if they’d been able to install one. She’d switch it off, if she could; cut the power and let the world around her fade to lifeless black.
“You’ve memorized…” Vanessa starts but doesn’t finish. Her eyes dip to the floor, her brow furrowing slightly as she thinks.
Charity can remember clearly the soundtrack that had played through the speakers as she was supposed to be sleeping, phrases and words in languages she’d never heard before. She’d tried to keep track at first, curious about what it all meant. But it had hurt so much sometimes just to think or to breathe or to merely exist – she remembers that pain distinctly. It had been easier to shut her thoughts off, to ignore what her life had become and stare listlessly at the walls until the sun rose and the woman in black returned.
She turns away from Vanessa; can’t bear to keep looking at her, truthfully. Bails voice is loud inside her head, saying all the things he has for as long as she’s worked for him, uttering words that twist and turn and burn and bruise until the edges of her mind are sharpened to painful points. She knows enough not to poke them, knows how she’ll bleed if she does. She swallows roughly instead, peering around the corner of the alcove.
The hotel’s parking garage stretches just beyond the wall, dozens of cars scattered about in the various spots. The hotel must be fairly booked, plenty of tourists here enjoying the summer sun and sprawling countryside for cars to fill nearly all the spaces. The early morning hour means all is quiet, not a soul yet ready to begin their day. Charity breathes a sigh of relief at the lack of people, clutching at the cold cement.
Vanessa presses close to her side, tugging more air from Charity’s lungs. “Camera,” she murmurs, warm breath tickling the skin of Charity’s shoulder. She lifts her chin, her eyes guiding the way to the blinking security camera above their heads. It’s the only one, rotating slowly as it surveys the garage.
“Really should work on their security protocol,” Charity mumbles, watching the camera move for a moment. The route it takes is unchanging, perfectly balanced amounts of time spent to the left and right, easily avoided with a bit of practice.
She can practically hear Vanessa smile before she adds on to the thought, her voice gentle and sure when she does. “Have to send them an email later, remind ‘em the point of emergency exits an’ all.”
The furrow and the pity are gone when she looks to her, the line between Vanessa’s brows smoothed out into something else. It’s softer, this, and warm; and it flicks like a spark in Charity’s belly, that comfortable feeling taking hold once more. A muscle twitches in Charity’s cheek, the corner of her mouth tugging upwards of its own free will. Vanessa’s hand wraps around Charity’s bicep, squeezing briefly before she pulls away.
Vanessa reaches into the front pocket of her jeans then, her knuckles disappearing as her fingers grab onto something hidden inside. She pulls it out slowly, carefully, as though the item clutched in her fist is a thing to be cherished. She raises her hand in front of Charity, holding whatever it is out so she can take it.
She does, her eyes frozen to Vanessa’s face as the cool metal hits her palm. She’d know it anywhere; the weight in her hand, the texture of the ridges, the click of the tiny hinge as it opens and closes. She’s spent hours of her life fiddling with it between her fingers, lost in the memories of the person who’d cared enough to make it for her.
It’s never been from her sight for so long, always shoved beneath her bra strap or tucked inside a waistband, pressed close to her body until the metal was warm to the touch. Until the guilt of having it was quiet and motionless and a part of her. She’d dropped it on the bathroom floor last night, when she’d wanted nothing more than to crawl out of her skin, forgotten it in the pile of clothing she’d ripped from her body.
Vanessa tilts her head, looking at her in such a way that suddenly it feels like she really is drowning, like she’s trapped beneath crashing waves that are stealing breath from the deepest hollows of her lungs.
“Seemed more important to you than any ol’ gadget,” Vanessa admits, stepping away until her back is flush against the opposite wall of the alcove. Another blush colours the top of her cheeks, her bottom lip invisible for a moment before it pops out from between her teeth. “Handy, now.” She flicks her eyes towards the cars in the lot, chin lifting in the direction of the black sedan they’d arrived in. “You driving, or should I?”
She knows nothing, Vanessa; isn’t privy to the knowledge of what occurred for this little device or the woman who’d pushed it into Charity’s waiting hands mere hours before Bails had seen fit to have her eliminated. Charity can picture her with aching precision, can remember her with a pain that throbs in the middle of her chest. Vanessa knows nothing of the remorse that lives within Charity’s bones and, yet, in the hurried escape of their hotel room, she’d thought to rescue this little contraption. Thought it best to peel it out of the pile of clothing on the bathroom floor and shove it safely into her pocket.
“We don’t leave in the car we arrived in,” Charity chokes out, speaking past the lump that has appeared in her throat. She looks towards the cars in the lot, analyzing, trying to focus on levelling out her breathing. Her heart stutters, thumping erratically before she can get it back under control. She spots a little hatchback that looks promising, unassuming in that it’s not too far off what one would imagine two women driving across the countryside.
“We’re nicking cars now?” Vanessa hisses, leaning closer once more. Her body seems to thrum at Charity’s side, a bundle of nerves at the very suggestion.
Charity chuckles, glancing upwards to the camera again. “How many locks have you picked in the last ten minutes, babe?” The camera swings on its arm, red light blinking.
Vanessa huffs. “Only one that shouldn’t’ve already been open,” she mumbles, folding her arms over her chest. Her jaw is tight again when Charity looks down at her, though she’s not sure whether the evident frustration is at the little jab or simply the wrongdoings of the world. Be fitting, Charity thinks, for Vanessa to care so strongly about following the rules. She’s probably keen on justice, too, likely believes all the best of the world around her.
“Pick one more for me?” Charity asks softly, nodding in the direction of the hatchback. “Only get a couple minutes out of this thing.”
Vanessa’s answering smile is enchanting, something swimming in the blue of her eyes that Charity doesn’t recognize. She pulls the lock picking set from her pocket once more, retrieving the tools she’ll need and clutching them tightly as she crouches low, her body poised like she’s about to run a race.
Charity opens the device in her hand, running her thumb around the button in the middle as she always does. She takes a deep breath, letting the air fill all the spaces in her chest, slow and steady as she releases it through her mouth. She feels the world around her tighten into focus, both eyes and mind centered on the task ahead. She nods once and then presses the button.
As soon as the light on the camera goes out, Vanessa darts across the parking garage to the hatchback. She’s faster than Charity’s seen her be yet, fingers a’ flurry as she works on the driver’s door lock. It’s open in less than thirty seconds, Vanessa springing upwards and away to let Charity drop into the seat when she throws the door open. Charity tosses the rucksack into the back seat as Vanessa presses the button for the power locks, rounding the car for the passenger’s side.
There’s a fancy pen sat in the cup holders of the console, metal and sturdy and most likely expensive. It’s a bit big to fit into the gap around the edge of the panel beneath the steering wheel, but Charity pushes until it wedges inside, sending up a silent prayer that it doesn’t break when she uses it as leverage to pry the panel off. Vanessa lowers herself into the passenger seat just as it comes free, exposing three clumps of wire hidden inside.
“You know how to hotwire a car?” Vanessa asks. Her lock picking set is out of her pocket again, laid across her lap as she searches in the bundle of tools for something sharp.
Charity shrugs, grabbing for the one that most closely resembles a small knife. “Bit of a family trade,” she mutters as she strips the wires, twisting two together. She wraps them carefully around the battery connection, the lights on the dash almost immediately coming to life in response.
“So, you can do it quite fast, then?” Vanessa whispers.
She doesn’t register it at first, the change in Vanessa’s tone, too focused she is on lining the starter wire up with the other two on the battery connection. Just one little spark will be enough to get the engine rumbling hopefully, but the sound of Vanessa’s fear creeps into her consciousness before she can do it. She looks up then, meets those wide, blue eyes and knows.
“We’ve got company.”
Charity doesn’t look over her shoulder, can’t when it comes down to it. She presses the wire where it needs to go, the engine bursting to life. She knows the men storming the parking garage will all turn their way, guns raised in front of them. She pushes hard at the accelerator, revving the engine as her hands twist the wheel to break the steering lock.
Vanessa drops low in her seat mere seconds before the first bullet hits the car. Another follows closely, glass exploding as it collides with the rear windscreen.
Charity swings out of the parking spot without checking her mirrors, her eyes glued to the space directly in front of them. She can hear Vanessa beside her, breathing hard, jumping each time a bullet ricochets off the back of the vehicle.
The exit to the parking garage isn’t far, her foot heavy on the gas pedal as she steers them in that direction. She can see men in the rear view mirror when she finally decides to look, running after them with weapons still raised, the cascade of gunfire slowing as they run out of bullets.
It’s only as the quiet falls that she hears it. “Moneta,” someone is yelling, “Moneta.” It doesn’t belong here, that name – not in this place, not in this country. Not from these men.
They reach the exit of the parking garage, the slowly rising sunlight beyond grabbing hold of the hood of the car. Escape is so close, just a moment from her reach. Vanessa leans towards the dash in anticipation, urging the car forward with her body. But Charity looks back, searching, trying to find the source of the sound.
“Moneta,” comes again, a gun securely in the hand of the man who yells it. He squeezes the trigger, a bullet released from the chamber that shatters the glass in her side mirror. She presses hard on the gas pedal, tires squealing as the car propels out of the parking garage and into the street ahead.
She doesn’t need to look back anymore to know that this is when the world around her finally implodes. She can feel the ground giving out as surely as the thudding tempo of her heartbeat, life as she knows it dissolving quickly within her grasp. She turns the car towards the edge of the city limits, revving the engine until it roars beneath them, looking only to the road that lies ahead.
There’s nothing left for her behind them.
Apologies if Google Translate did me wrong with the Romanian. What I hope are the correct translations are in [boxes] at the end of the paragraphs, if that wasn't clear.
Chapter 6: Six
Charity and Vanessa keep moving.
I didn't originally have this chapter, but it felt wrong to go any stretch of time without this narrator watching them.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
They stay silent in the car long after the city is just a blip in the rearview mirror, the sky blending into burning oranges and pinks as the sun lifts higher on the horizon. The road they drive is met on either side by sweeping cliffs of green, rising above the two of them and the little car that’s now riddled with bullets.
They’ll have to abandon it, Charity thinks; the broken rear windscreen will entice far too much attention when the day fully begins. They’re probably only got an hour before people start to venture out of their homes, some semblance of a morning commute putting more vehicles on the road, more heads turning in their direction.
It’ll be worse once the car is reported stolen, once the police are searching for the license plate. She hopes that’s even further off, that the sorry saps they’ve ruined the day of are enjoying a blissful lie-in before all goes to shit.
And to shit it will go because she hasn’t a clue of what to do next. Any other mission, she’s had resources: people to call, places to hide, shady dealings that would put the right tools in her hands. But all of those things come with the price of a connection to Bails, a tax she now knows she can no longer pay.
She replays the final shot in her head on loop, watching over and over as his hand squeezes the trigger, the bullet arcing through the air before colliding with the mirror. She can hear his voice as clearly as if he were right beside her, passing a cup of coffee into her waiting hands.
There’s nothing left for her to do now but drive. It’s easier to breathe with every mile she puts between herself and the city, easier to focus on anything else but the gaping hole that seems to be opening beneath her feet. She’d been right to think that everything she had was about to be yanked away, to expect to suddenly be thrust into a world where all she once knew is gone.
“Moneta…” Vanessa whispers when the sun is high enough in the sky that it makes them squint, long beams of light reaching through the center of the car. Charity pulls down the visor to shield her eyes, terrified to look Vanessa’s way. “That man was calling you Moneta, wasn’t he?”
The name had been a thing to cherish, the first time it’d been given to her: Moneta, the goddess of memory. The code name Bails himself had chosen for the remarkable young agent who could remember everything. She’d felt powerful beneath it, capable of so much more than her peers. They’d told her she was gifted and she’d believed them – it’d been easy to when the things she could do were beyond even her own comprehension.
She’d known before, though, that she was different. Bit like a party trick it was, beneficial for the occasional gambling man who could pay enough that she’d have a hostel bed to look forward to. Being at the agency had unlocked talents she hadn’t been aware of possessing, the depths of her abilities expanding unimaginably until she’d felt untouchable. It’d come with a sense of belonging, that, as though her whole life had been leading up to being in a place where she mattered.
The excitement of it all had quickly developed into a driving force pushing her through boot camp. They’d applauded her and spoke of her potential, envious of the speed with which she learned. And it had brought her to great heights, graduated her from the training two months before her fellow recruits. Life had looked brighter from up there on cloud nine.
But he’d shattered the image within the year, calling her into his office after yet another successful mission. There’d been nothing less than pride exuding from him as he spoke of the program he’d nicked from the Soviet military and run successfully on British soil without anyone ever becoming the wiser. She’d been fascinated at first, listening intently as he spoke of hypnosis-based training, amazed that an agent could spend an entire day working through protocol after protocol and then come to with no recollection of what they’d just done. It was mind-boggling to consider that the human brain could retain that information, that an agent trained in that fashion would still be able to call on those lessons in the field.
Her entire body had gone cold when he’d pulled out the tapes.
Hours upon hours of footage he’d had, videos of teenagers in a room with barred up windows. They’d assembled guns and taken them apart again, their hands still too small to even be holding such things. They’d stood motionless in the center of the room, reciting pages of information with robotic precision. And then she’d watched as her fourteen-year-old self had dismantled a bomb and the world as she knew it had imploded.
He’d called her Moneta, told her everything she’d become was his very own creation.
Her answer to Vanessa’s question feels like razor blades as it leaves her throat, splaying her from the inside out. “Yes,” she murmurs, even as the desperate need for it to all be untrue engulfs her, the dark shadows of her past blurring the edges of her vision.
Vanessa goes quiet at the admission, but Charity can feel her gaze trained on her again. It’s a bit stifling, like it was back on the plane, made more so by the knowledge that Vanessa is analyzing her, thinking. “Is that your name, then?” Vanessa asks when enough time has passed that Charity’s heart rate has doubled in speed.
A breath escapes Charity’s lips loudly, nearly a burst of laughter but falling short somewhere on the way. She shakes her head quickly, eyes glued to the road in front of them. It’d felt like a name, at the beginning; an identity she could hide in. It’s a message now, a warning, a reminder that she can never go back to who she was.
“Do you know him?” Vanessa presses, her body twisting in the seat so she’s facing Charity fully.
She feels too close again, Charity thinks, a glance in her periphery enough to see the fingertips hovering at the very edge of Vanessa’s knees. It’s overwhelming, when Charity wants nothing more than to curl into herself, to become so small she disappears completely.
The cliffs around them seem impossibly big, the world inconceivably vast, and somehow this body of hers still feels too large amidst it. Like she’s taken up more real estate than should be allotted to a single person. She nods at Vanessa, unable to speak past the swirl of nerves churning inside her gut.
Vanessa doesn’t ask who he is, though; doesn’t fill the air around them with the thousands of questions that are certainly spiraling through her mind. She sits immobile as Charity sucks in shuddering breaths, shifting her eyes to the road as Charity attempts to breathe slowly out her nose. And Charity watches her through the corner of her eye, grateful for the way Vanessa settles back in the seat.
The tension coiled tight in both their bodies is palpable: Vanessa’s shoulders are rucked up around her ears and Charity’s heart has yet to slow its pace. The quiet feels freeing, though, the rush of wind pushing past the shattered rear window building like a hum around them. Simple white noise seems enough to fight back against the darkness of her thoughts, pushing them away however minimally they’ll go.
Her eyes move in Vanessa’s direction, sweeping down her profile before Vanessa turns and catches them. She expects to find a barrier there behind the sea of blue, something guarded in the way Vanessa looks at her. There should be, Charity thinks, Vanessa should be terrified of her, of the world Charity’s chucked them both into it. There isn’t one, though; Vanessa’s eyes are as open and trusting as they’d been when she’d first introduced herself.
“He works for the agency,” Charity murmurs, glancing back towards the road. She can picture him perfectly in her mind, that gun raised in front of him the moment before he fired. He’d shifted his arm slightly, as his fingers had wrapped around the trigger, purposely nudged his aim off course. It’d been miniscule, the shift, easily missed by the untrained eye, but she’d seen it for what it was. It’s the only chance she’ll be given, the only opportunity she’ll have to get away.
A gift, for their Moneta.
Vanessa twists in her seat again, her hand reaching across the console in what appears to be an unconscious move. She pauses a second before it settles atop Charity’s thigh, jerking it back towards herself. She cradles it against her chest as if it’s been burned, sucking her bottom lip in between her teeth at the same time.
Charity closes her own around her tongue, tightening the muscles in her jaw until it hurts.
“They’re trying to kill you,” Vanessa says, clearly aiming for some sort of nonchalance that falls flat. There’s a tiny bit of something else that flits in around the edges of her tone, squishing the words until she clears her throat with a delicate cough.
Charity nods, uncertain of how to convey that she’d known this was coming eventually. He’d told her as such once, that she was the first one he’d take out if the need arose. She poses an unusual threat to the safety of his operation, her mind filled to the brim with information that could destroy the agency he’s created. He’d offered up the truth like a rite of passage, as though she might feel important by the notion of her death.
She’d never expected he’d send Cain to do the job, though.
She can’t help but think then of the boy with the floppy hair, who’d tugged her by the hand at thirteen. She remembers how he moved above her, how the light of the setting sun had illuminated his eyes and she’d seen what she’d thought was love reflecting back at her. There’d been a decade of her life where he was nothing but a memory, a story she told herself on the nights she couldn’t sleep.
The story had turned concrete in the aftermath of an attempt to leave the agency, Bails requesting her in his office to point out the newest recruit in the training room below.
She can feel tears burning behind her eyes, pressing forward insistently and without welcome. She swallows roughly, trying desperately to suck them down, to pull the feeling backwards into the hollow of her chest. It doesn’t do, to cry. Doesn’t fit, to mourn the things that have always been slated to expire. The road ahead blurs slightly though, one pesky tear sneaking out without her permission. She swipes angrily at her cheek, pushing the traitorous wetness from her skin.
Vanessa’s fingers creep back across the console, resting gently just above Charity’s knee. It’ll be her undoing, she thinks, this tenderness that Vanessa keeps edging her way. This softness that dulls the sharp points of her being, that warms spaces inside her that have been cold for so long.
Cain had been a gentle place to land once, too, his brittle pieces coinciding with her own. He’d been easy to fall into in the wake of a mission, adrenaline pulsing through their bodies louder than anything resembling desire. He’d changed in the time they’d been apart, nothing like the boy of her memories who’d aged alongside her, concocted into a man by her own wishes. The thrash of his rage had become a comfort if only in its predictability, a constant to depend on in a world that never was.
Vanessa’s a stark contrast there, too: her anger falling away faster, the clench hovering in her jaw but going no further. It’s too much, Charity thinks, more than someone like her deserves.
“We can split up at the next rest stop,” she finds herself saying, though her heart squeezes painfully in her chest at the very idea of being alone, “Leave the car there. You can find your own way, yeah?”
Vanessa’s hand leaves her leg at the suggestion, the air around them turning frigid. “Where will you go?” Vanessa asks. Her voice trembles slightly, though Charity tries to convince herself she’s imagining it. Because it’s absolutely absurd to even think that Vanessa doesn’t want to separate either, completely ridiculous to feel a need for a person you’ve known less than twenty-four hours.
Isn’t it? Charity wonders, Isn’t it?
She doesn’t need Vanessa, not really. They’ll both be better off leaving the car behind and separating themselves from all this physical evidence. She could nick another, maybe, and drive until she reaches the border. She certainly doesn’t need a navigator to accomplish that.
Probably won’t be able to cross that border, though, because Bails will surely be watching. And she hasn’t an EU passport with her or a contact in her arsenal to get one. He’ll have her caught in a matter of days most likely, tugged off into custody or shot down before she even realizes he’s found her.
No, Vanessa will be safer on her own, away from the chaos about to unfold around Charity.
“You’ll want to get across the border before the sun goes down,” she tells her, keeping her eyes glued to the road so she doesn’t see how tight the line of Vanessa’s mouth has gone. Can’t be reading into things like that – not now, not when their lives are in danger. “Get a train ticket or find an airport, something. I’m not sure how far you’ll get with that Canadian passport, but it’ll have to do. They’ll be watching for the alias, so just get as far as you can before they pick you up.”
She wants to tell her to look over her shoulder, to keep an eye out for snipers on the rooftops if she ends up in a city center. But she doesn’t even want to think about a reality where Bails still comes after Vanessa. She wouldn’t put it past him, taking out a hit for merely being an accessory to Charity’s own existence. Probably send Cain to do that, too.
“The less they think you know, the better.”
“Why do you work for them?” Vanessa whispers, so far from the words Charity’s expecting that she nearly veers them off the road with how quickly she whips around to look at her. “Why do you work for an agency that would try to kill you?” Those blue eyes turn glassy as she speaks, an ache being painted clearly across Vanessa’s face.
And Charity’s not sure why it’s there, can’t make sense of whatever Vanessa’s feeling when she herself is trying so desperately hard not to feel anything at all. She turns back to the road, her heart thudding like a traitor inside her chest.
There are million different answers to Vanessa’s question: lies, half truths, complete falsehoods, and one, single reality that she’s never been able to shake. But not a lick of them are simple, none of them easily shared to make sense of the years she’s spent trapped beneath Bails’ hold.
She could probably talk for hours, given the chance, just pulling apart all the moments that have shaped her life. Be therapeutic, maybe fill up all the empty holes he’s left. And there’s a lot of those, all kinds of spaces where she feels the hurt of things he’s plucked from her: people, places, memories that should’ve belonged to her alone, freedoms she might’ve deserved if it weren’t for him.
“I haven’t had a choice, babe.”
It’s a fluff of an answer, drifting away in the wind seconds after it’s left her mouth; doesn’t even scratch the surface of all the reasons that have been forced down her throat to make her stay. It seems enough to help Vanessa make whatever decision she’s been struggling with however, her head nodding once as though to finalize it. The determined push of her jaw returns full force, the glassy sheen of her eyes retreating in its wake. Charity watches it all happen, entranced by this force of nature inhabiting the passenger seat.
“I’m not leaving you,” Vanessa says, broaching on a tone that leaves no room for argument.
There should be one, though, Charity thinks. She should protest the idea, should insist that Vanessa puts some distance between them for her own safety. But the relief that washes through her hits as hard as a crashing wave and it’s all she can do to remember how to breathe.
Vanessa’s hand crosses the console once more, settling on Charity’s thigh and squeezing gently. “You’re not alone, okay?” she assures, blue eyes soft and certain when Charity meets her gaze.
It’s not a true statement, as far as Charity’s concerned: she’s always been alone, always will be. But she wants to believe it when Vanessa says it – almost really does. She swallows past the lump that balls up in her throat, the press of tears even more insistent than before.
The world ahead is dark, the future bleak, but this moment… this moment with Vanessa feels altogether pure.
“Let me drive, though, yeah?”
Vanessa manages to unearth a map from somewhere in the car as Charity drives them to the next turn off. She’s still hunched over it when Charity takes the exit off the highway, thankfully ahead of the morning commute. She tucks the car into the first patch of trees she can find, between two stretches of farm land that look to be empty for the time being. It’s good that, when turning off the car would mean risking a second hotwiring of the engine that might not work.
Charity’s the first out, rounding the vehicle slowly to analyze the damage. There are bullet holes all over the back of the hatch, obvious pock marks in the silver paint. She’ll have to disguise it at least, she thinks, surveying the ground around the car for a large rock.
Vanessa’s leaning against the passenger door when Charity stands back up, clutching a stone bigger than her fist. She jumps when Charity smacks it hard against the lift gate, sputtering away with a hand pressed to her chest. “What are you doing?” she practically squeals, dancing on the tips of her toes as Charity hits the car again.
“Trying to make it less obvious we’ve been the target in a shooting range,” Charity offers by way of explanation as she continues banging the rock against the back of the car, dents appearing atop the bullet holes in her wake.
“By making it look like we’ve been through an asteroid field?”
It makes her pause, tilting her head slightly as she stares at the hatch. The windscreen is still completely blown out and the driver’s mirror looks like the surface of windblown pond. The few dents she’s made on the boot disguise some of the bullets, but it’s not quite enough. She drops the rock with a sigh. “We’ll have to get rid of it.”
Vanessa edges closer, her voice lowering from the shrill noise it had been. “And then what?” she asks, her hands disappearing into the front pockets of her jeans. Her shoulders rise up around her ears, dropping barely an inch after a breath.
Charity shrugs, folding her arms over her chest. She hopes Vanessa can’t see how far out in left field she truly is, floundering in the fact that she no longer has Bails’ contacts readily at her disposal. She’s never done this without resources.
There had been one mission, in Kiev, that had left her with only the clothes on her back and she’d been certain then that it was going to be the end of her. But there was a safe house, a number for a man who’d made her a passport, a few flights that took her meandering across Europe. She’d arrived home only a couple of days later than expected, still with the information they’d sent her to retrieve.
It’d felt lucky at the time, a great accomplishment. She can see now it was circumstance.
“We’ll nick another,” she suggests.
Vanessa sighs, dropping her chin to her chest for a moment. Goody two shoes, Charity thinks, doesn’t even want to rob a car when our lives depend on it. “What happens with this one, then?” Vanessa asks, lifting her head once more so those unwavering blue eyes can settle on Charity’s. “Do the police find it, or does the agency? And when they do, how long do we get before they’re hot on our tails again?”
Charity drops her face into her hands, rubbing slowly at the ache that’s developing behind her forehead. “Alright,” she mumbles, “So it’s not a good idea, either.” She runs her fingers through her hair, raising her head as she does to look at the mess of a vehicle in front of them. “What choice have we got?” she whispers, her voice near disappearing on the breeze that rustles through the trees.
She looks upwards as the leaves dance in the wind, the memory surging forward as it always does: the feel of grass beneath her fingertips, the tickle of a blanket at her cheek. The sun had been so warm that day, her skin growing hot and her eyelids heavy, the leaves on the trees above so green and so bright they’d nearly taken her breath away. There’s a hand reaching out to stroke her hair when Vanessa speaks again, yanking Charity back to the present.
“I know a place we could go, somewhere we could hide the car. They won’t find it.”
That distant summer day retreats, Charity’s vision clearing when she looks to Vanessa. “Where’s that, then? Narnia?”
Vanessa scrunches up her face without turning to look Charity’s way. “More cottage than wardrobe, actually.” Her hands slip back out of her pockets, rising to cross over each other in front of her chest. It feels like a wall between them suddenly, this protective stance that Vanessa’s adopted, this pose that doesn’t quite fit the certain woman who’s led the way all morning.
“You just happen to know of a cottage we could go to?” she finds herself asking, her voice harsher than probably necessary. It feels good to nudge a little, though, to give Vanessa a justification for the barriers she seems to be building around herself.
Vanessa only nods in response, eyes glued to the license plate on the back of the car. It’s got a mark from a bullet on it, too, right in the middle of the letter E.
There’s more bite to Charity’s words when she continues, as though she’s got that knife in her hand again and she can’t help but push until the blade disappears. “You do know we’re not running around the Dales, yeah? This is a completely different country than the one we live in.”
Vanessa’s jaw instantly does that thing, the muscle twitching once more. God, she’s practically a book at this point, her anger a chapter Charity feels like she hasn’t stopped reading since their plane first took off. “I know,” Vanessa mutters, crossing over to the driver’s side of the car. She runs a finger over another bullet hole, her brow furrowing as she does.
Charity sighs, feeling her resolve softening slightly. “It’s not got your name on the front door, has it?” she pries, her voice still sharp though she doesn’t intend it to be so. She tries to make it lighter, gentler; “Because if there’s any connection to you, babe, they will be there waiting for us.” She’s not sure if she succeeds, but Vanessa looks up at her again anyways.
“It doesn’t,” Vanessa whispers, “It’s not anything they’ll find.”
Charity wants to believe her, she really does – can practically feel the desire wrapping taut around her stomach. She’d like more than anything to give up all this doubt that sits heavy in her gut, to shed those pieces of herself like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon, or a moth, more like; crawling out of this cage she’s lived in so long to be something else. Something new, something free. “How can you be so sure?”
Vanessa bristles, tucking her chin again. Whatever’s forming between them feels gargantuan, mountains Charity’s not sure she can climb. Or that she should. “I just am, okay?” Vanessa quips.
“And what?” Charity asks, stalking closer until she can set her hands on the roof of the car. She leans forward, her torso pressing against the sun-warmed door, the rumble of the engine vibrating against her skin. “I’m just supposed to trust you?”
Vanessa’s features bunch up, her face contorting into something Charity doesn’t quite recognize. “Do you?”
Trust is a funny word, though, Charity thinks. It’s not something she’s ever given without consequence, not something that’s been returned without Bails ultimately interfering. He’s distant now, more so than he’s ever been, and that fist of control he wields over her has loosened when he lacks the knowledge of her whereabouts. She could rejoice in it, maybe, could dance in the sudden freedom and throw all cautions to the wind. But then, the lessons still hold steadfast, the memories of people stripped away still all too familiar.
“No,” she tells Vanessa, “I don’t.”
It’s not anger that greets the admission, nor frustration or confusion. It settles between them like a simple reality, a definitiveness that requires no argument. Vanessa nods again, solidifying the words in understanding, in righteous fact.
“Not much choice, though, do you?” she concludes, reaching for the handle of the car door to swing it open again.
And it’s clear, suddenly, that Vanessa is giving her an out. She could walk away right now: could march across the field on the other side of all these trees and not look back. Vanessa may’ve already chosen which path she wants to take, but as far as she knows, Charity hasn’t. It’s Charity standing at a crossroads, now, and Vanessa is waiting to see which way she steps.
Charity opens the passenger door, dropping into the seat. Vanessa joins her a second later, a tentative little smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. “Drive then,” Charity mutters, “Before I change my mind.”
Music is a huge factor in my writing, and so I have a rather extensive playlist curated of songs I've been listening to that set the mood for scenes or help me to get into the headspace of a certain situation. I've collected the first five that match up to the story thus far and shared them on my tumblr with little blurbs on why they relate for me, if anyone else finds that sort of thing as interesting as I do. You can check it out on my blog here: https://jmflowers.tumblr.com/post/184987503506/the-epithet-companion-playlist-part-one-1-back
Thanks for reading!
Chapter 7: Seven
Charity starts to discover Vanessa's truths.
This is my favourite chapter I've written to date, end of.
You'll likely have to suspend your disbelief slightly, though, because my utter Canadian-ness probably doesn't completely match up with the realities of driving through a European country.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Vanessa’s surprisingly adept at keeping to the back roads. For the rest of the morning, she follows a meandering path that loops them up and around the countryside, heading towards a spot near the northern most point before the border.
She’d drawn almost all of the route right onto the map with that expensive metal pen still sat in the cupholder – Charity’d been a bit stunned it was even intact after being used to pry open the panel beneath the dash – but she had very deliberately refrained from marking their destination. Charity’s stared at the map for long enough to deduce the proximity to both bordering countries will likely leave them with their choice of which way they’d like to go, but there doesn’t seem to be much else to gather.
Vanessa’s no help on that front, either. Save for the occasional request for a direction, she stays silent, and other than flicking upwards to check her mirrors, her eyes remain focused on the road ahead. It’s the first time in nearly two days Charity hasn’t felt Vanessa watching her and it’s unnerving, strangely, to suddenly be without.
The quiet gives space for Charity’s thoughts to stretch to full capacity and she takes the opportunity to go back over the last few weeks at the agency, replaying conversations in search of the moment when everything changed. Surely there’d been a warning of sorts, a pitying look or some strange use of a word that she hadn’t picked up on right away. Moira’s a bit of an odd duck, but even unusual behaviour from her should’ve dinged something on Charity’s radar.
It’s not been there, though – except for those final whispers of caution from Cain before she’d left to board their plane. You stay alive, he’d said, and she’d thought him overbearing, berated him in her head for ever doubting her abilities. Had she known then that he’d be the one…
The change must’ve been quick, then, she thinks. She couldn’t have noticed signs of what was to come if even the people around her hadn’t known it was coming. Bails must’ve brought it with him on his return, whatever it is.
She tries to still the swirling thoughts in the face of that understanding, but they twist and turn furthermore, flipping through moments with a dizzying speed. Her gut lurches, rumbling loudly despite the distinct wave of nausea that fills her mouth.
The sound pulls Vanessa from her own head, though, a smirk playing at the corner of her lips. “Due for a stop, are we?” she asks, layers of mirth flicking off the end of her tongue.
It’s the first time in hours Charity’s even thought to check in with her body, but abruptly the need to stretch her legs and relieve her bladder feels overwhelming. And implausible, too, when they’re driving stretches of open countryside in a very noticeable bucket full of bullets. She grimaces.
“I think there’s a petrol station at the next fork,” Vanessa suggests, dropping a hand off the wheel to poke at the map laid across Charity’s lap. “Probably far enough away by now.”
They’re not though, Charity thinks; there’s no such thing as far enough away. There’s nowhere on earth they’ll ever be able to hide from Bails, not a place or a time or an instance where he won’t be able to find Charity. The fear grabs hold again with a shaking force, squeezing tightly at her insides, pushing forth a cold sweat despite the heat of the sunshine filling the car. “I don’t…” she chokes on the words, trying without success to swallow past the lump in her throat.
Vanessa’s eyes find her quickly, widening when they take in the wild look that’s certainly dominating Charity’s face. She slows the car, easing onto the shoulder. “Hey,” she says as she puts the car into park, “Hey, it’s okay.”
Charity nods dumbly, trying with all her might to shove down the strangling feeling that’s filled her chest. It’s okay, she repeats like a mantra inside her head, It’s okay.
Vanessa’s hands wrap around her wrists, pulling her attention from her lap, her face yet another picture of concern. It floods her with anger suddenly, something snapping harsh and real that tightens the muscles in her arms, that floods her mind with only the thought of throwing her fists. She tugs out of Vanessa’s grasp, slamming her hands against the dash. Vanessa flinches at the sound.
But there’s something satisfying in the burn that fills her palms, so she pounds them against the dash once more, sucking in a shaky breath only as the frustration begins to cool. She wants to run then, wants to thump her feet against something solid, wants the flurry inside her head to quiet.
Wants to back Bails into a corner as impossible as the one she’s in.
And it feels wrong, to pull Vanessa along in all of this. She knows all too well what has come of every person who’s ever attempted to extend kindness or understanding in her direction. It feels selfish, to crave the comfort that Vanessa exudes, to wish to believe the whispered promises when the presence of Bails in the world feels like a dark cloud looming overhead.
At the end of it, she still exists as his property. He still wields a power far greater than any other she has ever known. He’ll kill Vanessa, too, if given the chance. Both their lives hang in the trembling balance, their every move a risk.
“We can’t stop,” Charity declares, pushing her hands off the dash with a hard shove. The skin of her palms ache from the force of her blows, certain to be red if she flips them over to have a look. “The agency will be watching.”
Vanessa frowns, the tension in her shoulders relaxing slightly when Charity settles in her seat again. “We could black out the cameras,” she offers, glancing up expectantly to see if the idea suits.
But Charity shakes her head, running a frustrated hand through her hair. “Cain knows about my device, I think that’s what clued him in to where we were at the hotel.” It’s the only logical explanation she’s been able to come up with for why those men stormed the parking garage - the door at the top of the elevator shaft hadn’t opened while they’d been in there. She can’t use it again, not when they’re likely to be watching the entire country for such clues, their line of sight too vast to even comprehend enough to evade it.
Vanessa’s mouth goes thin. “Cain,” she spits, “That’s his name, then? That man?”
Charity glances up just in time to catch the twitch of that muscle in Vanessa’s jaw, the sudden anger wholly misplaced. She tenses, already bracing for a fight. “He was just following orders.”
“He tried to kill you,” Vanessa argues, her hands bunching into fists in her lap.
That’s not the whole story, though, as much as she might like it to be. It’d be easy to cast Cain aside as a traitor and push thoughts of him from her mind, hate him for doing as he’d been instructed. But he hadn’t done precisely that, in the end, and the slim possibility that he might still be on her side is a glimmer of hope she wants to cling to. “He gave me an out, Vanessa,” she whispers, scratching nervously at a mark on her jeans. “He didn’t miss, he aimed at the mirror instead of me. He could’ve just shot me and been done with it, but he got my attention and he let me know that I needed to be wary of anything to do with the agency.”
Vanessa’s chin juts forward, working slowly back and forth for a moment. “He didn’t save you,” she says after a beat, stretching out her fingers again and rubbing at her thighs.
Charity shrugs, turning away to look out the window. There’s a flock of birds in the field on the other side of the road, pecking at the ground before rising as a group into the air. They land again a second later, as though they’re called to flight by the wind that blows against their feathers, as if they’ve no choice but to lift from the ground and float. “Don’t much need saving.”
She wonders if she’ll be like that, in a life without the agency. Whether she’ll feel a longing inside her bones to return to all of this, to go back to the only way of living she’s ever really known. Or whether more memories like that summer day will be enough to sustain her, more blowing breeze and dancing leaves and naps beneath the sky. She hopes for the latter, prays that the training hasn’t become a deep, intrinsic part of her.
“Do need a bog, though,” she mutters, shifting in her seat as if to reiterate the point. “Suppose I’ll have to settle for a tree.” Charity scrunches up her features as she surveys the fields around the car, not a one in sight.
Vanessa laughs, drawing her attention. “Look mighty pleased by that idea,” she says, already nudging the car into drive. She pulls them back out onto the road, heading towards the hypothetical upcoming fork she’d mentioned earlier. “We need petrol, anyways, and I’ve a way to get us in and out without much fuss.”
Charity scoffs, leaning back and looking at Vanessa incredulously. “How’s that then?” she asks.
But Vanessa just smiles. “D’you trust me yet?”
If it’s even possible, Vanessa becomes more secretive as they near the petrol station. The more Charity presses for information about her supposed plan, the tighter the line of her mouth seems to go and the more infuriating it becomes trying to get anything out of her. The lack of knowledge about whatever the hell is supposed to keep her safe makes Charity’s skin feel itchy and foreign, her mind racing through all the things that could go wrong.
“Please,” she begs one last time, “Just give me something.”
Vanessa shakes her head, already pulling into the station and stopping the car next to one of the pumps. She unhooks the patches of wire from the connection beneath the dash, killing the engine for the first time all morning.
“I won’t go to the bog if you don’t tell me,” Charity threatens, regretting it instantly. Vanessa meets her eye with a gaze that says she’s absolutely calling Charity on that bluff and shrugs as if it doesn’t matter to her. Charity huffs in frustration, throwing herself from the car.
They take turns nipping to the loo, Vanessa filling the gas tank while Charity has hers. She tries to ignore the little voice inside her head that says this means she trusts Vanessa – because she doesn’t, nor will she any time soon – but she has given up some control for the time being.
That niggling voice sees fit to point out how unlike her that is, too. Even on missions with Cain, she’d never fully conceded control, regardless of how much he insisted he knew best. It’s a strange sensation, letting go, and it twists into a tight little ball of discomfort in the pit of her stomach. She wants to be frustrated by it, fuelled by anger or something close to it, but then Vanessa climbs back into the car and hotwires the engine and all those feelings rush away to be replaced by amazement.
“Thought you weren’t keen on nicking cars,” she teases as Vanessa puts the car in drive, easing them back out of the station and onto the road.
Vanessa rolls her eyes. “I’m not, but that doesn’t mean I don’t know how.”
Charity leans closer, inching her way into Vanessa’s personal space with sudden interest. “Have you robbed a car before, Vanessa? My goodness, what would father say?”
It makes Vanessa laugh, one hand lifting to shove Charity away playfully. “Give over. I’m not the perfect angel you seem to think I am, you know,” she says, returning both hands safely to the wheel at the correct nine and three positions, “I have broken the rules a time or two.”
“Oh yea?” Charity presses, “What have you done?” She tries to picture it: Vanessa as a teenager, denim jacket hanging off her shoulders, cigarette dangling from between her fingers. It doesn’t coincide with the woman sitting next to her, smiling brightly as the sunlight illuminates her blonde hair like a halo. Charity sets her head back against the headrest, turning to watch Vanessa’s profile as she drives.
Vanessa lifts a shoulder, her expression turning mischievous as a smirk quirks the corner of her mouth. “I was a bit wild in university,” she admits, “Drank more than my fair share.”
A smile splits Charity’s face, the image in her mind shifting to be replaced by an inebriated Vanessa slurring her words and giggling. “We’ve all done that, babe, hardly makes you a rebel.”
The corner of Vanessa’s mouth lifts higher. “I’ve slept with some people I probably shouldn’t have, but I s’pose that’ll fall in your ‘everyone’s done it’ category, too, yeah?”
Charity frowns at the portrait that confession produces but nods just the same, tugging a knee up towards her chest.
Vanessa’s eyes twist to the left for a second, searching her memory for something. Her lower lip disappears between her teeth again, chewed thoughtfully. She’s quite beautiful, Charity thinks, enthralled as Vanessa’s face changes, her thoughts on display across her every feature. “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?” she asks suddenly, hauling Charity back.
It’s the point in most conversations that she’d throw out something truly heinous – true or not – in the pursuit of the rise it would cause. Or because it’s the easiest way to push other people away: drawing out their fear of her. She shrugs instead, a million answers vying for attention in her mind but not a single one slipping out onto her tongue.
She looks towards the window, watching the world beyond as it races past. It should concern her that the desire to push Vanessa away is disappearing so rapidly, should fill her chest with panic that someone is fitting through the cracks in all those carefully constructed walls she’s built around herself.
But Bails feels more distant with every mile on the odometer and all this freedom feels like power and maybe, just maybe, she’s gonna get away this time.
It’s nearing dusk before Vanessa turns the car off the road and onto a dirt drive, slowing as they pass through the cover of trees. She’d kept to her route the rest of the afternoon, growing quieter as they neared the end of the directions she’d drawn. It’d been silent in the car for the final hour, no more requests for a turn read off the map or assurances that no one was following them. There’s relief in finally reaching their destination, Charity’s head spinning from the lack of noise.
The house beyond the trees is precisely the cottage Vanessa had described, although derelict and abandoned-looking. Shutters hang haphazardly around the windows, clearly once caught up in the wind of a storm and yet to be repaired. There’s a barn in the distance with more holes in the side of it than a slice of swiss cheese, rays of setting sunlight stretching through them.
Vanessa pulls the car around the back into a little garage that appears to be a second away from toppling, the beams practically groaning at their presence.
“This where you hide all them bodies, then?” Charity taunts, eyeing the buildings around them cautiously.
Vanessa scoffs as she tugs the wires from beneath the dash, shutting off the engine. “Got a nice hole dug for you already, if you fancy it,” she retorts, throwing open the driver’s door and climbing out of the vehicle.
It shouldn’t make Charity smile but it does, instantly grateful for a teasing camaraderie. All the silence in the car has left her feeling on edge, fear snaking down her arms like a rampant fury. There’s an uneasiness that seems to be settling into her bones, brash and unforgiving as it rattles its way through her core.
“Shall I just climb right into it,” she offers, pushing herself up and out of the car seat, “Or did you want to have some fun first?” Her legs crack in protest, stiff and uncomfortable after so much time spent in the same position. She limps for a second before pausing to stretch, coaxing her muscles to release.
Vanessa laughs, rounding the car to watch Charity work out the kinks. “Might have to get you there with a wheelchair,” she suggests. “Getting old?”
Charity makes a face at her back as Vanessa passes her, following along when she begins to lead the way towards the rear of the cottage.
The steps onto the wrap-around porch are wonky, warped by rainfall and years of disuse. They creak when Vanessa puts her weight on them, apparently oblivious to the possible danger. Charity pointedly stays on the grass, watching intently as Vanessa digs through a pot of soil tucked into the corner. It takes a couple minutes, but eventually her hands triumphantly emerge covered in black and clutching a key.
“Aha!” she exclaims, skipping across the wooden deck to the door.
“Another feat of incredible security,” Charity jests, “Have to send this lot an email an’ all.”
Vanessa turns back with a wicked grin when the key fits into the lock, smearing the door knob with soil as she opens it. That’ll need to be washed, Charity thinks, Basically a holy grail of her fingerprints. But she trudges up the steps after her, carefully avoiding the spots that look rotten. She crosses the threshold of the tiny house, coming to a halt just beyond it.
It’s another world entirely inside.
There’s a couch in the middle of the room, pointed towards a fireplace with a stonework mantle. The floors are wood that has clearly been cared for in ways it hasn’t outside, covered in spots with handwoven rugs. There’s a kitchen just beyond the living space: a little table and a hot plate on the counter and open shelves filled with cans of food.
She knows instantly what Vanessa’s brought her to and it’s like running face first into a brick wall, this revelation. That feeling that had been creeping down her arms goes ramrod thick and painful in an instant, every muscle in her body tensing for a possible ambush.
“Just knew a place, then, did you, Vanessa?” she spits, the venom that’s wrapped around her words as clear as day. It’s satisfying to say Vanessa’s name this way, like the taste of it is bitter on her tongue, all the syllables sharp when they come tumbling out.
It makes Vanessa go still, her hands poised mid-air above the kitchen sink.
“Who’s coming after us, then?” she presses further, glancing around the tiny space as if they might already be lurking in a corner. “How long until they get here?”
Vanessa turns, soil still dark on her pale skin, bits of it stuck beneath her fingernails. Caught red handed, Charity thinks, or black. “It’s not –” Vanessa starts, her explanation cutting off when Charity raises a hand between them.
Because it is – it’s exactly what it looks like, exactly what Charity’s imagining. Vanessa, the supposed new agent, the woman she was told to essentially babysit on her first mission, has brought them to a fucking safe house.
“Who are you working for?” Charity asks.
There’s a list of possibilities already forming in her head, people she has met in passing through the years, contacts with their own goals and teams. Bails is at the top of it, because it’d be fitting for him to throw her into one situation knowing he had something far more sinister in mind. She’s spent the whole day hoping she might actually escape him, trying to put some faith in the woman who’d seemingly had their wellbeing in mind too, only to be taken right to where he wants her to be. And, God, it hurts more somehow to imagine her death at Vanessa’s hand.
No, she’s got to get out of here.
Charity whirls quickly, stalking back across the threshold and out onto the porch. She’s less cautious this time about the patches of rot, thumping down the steps and onto the grass. There’s nowhere to go, though, nowhere she can even fathom that might award her some protection.
Vanessa’s behind her in an instant, grubby fingers reaching out as though she might be able to stop her. “If you’ll just let me explain,” she pleads, rushing to keep up as Charity storms through the long grass towards the barn. “Please, just give me a second.”
“A second?” Charity scoffs, “Is that all you need before they get here? Just a second to keep me on the property so someone else can snatch me up?” The very idea feels like a knife blade in her gut, turning roughly to worsen the wound. “Nice try, babe, but I’m not falling for it.” The barn looms ahead, equally perilous and ridiculous as a hideout, but she can’t seem to make her feet stop. She can’t seem to make her brain think.
“No one is coming,” Vanessa swears.
And just like that, everything freezes. The thudding of her pulse is loud in her ears, but her legs cease moving and she can feel the evening breeze blowing through her hair again. There’s birdsong dancing on it, chirping melodies that feel out of place with all this dread. Long grass tickles at her knuckles, nudging her hands like they might be inclined to open from the tight fists they’ve balled into.
“No one is coming,” Vanessa says again, “No one even knows we’re here yet.”
The yet makes her heart stutter. “I don’t plan on being here when they do.”
The stillness seems to have kicked her brain back into gear at least, a plan already formulating. She’ll have to walk for a while, probably spend the night in the woods. It’s not her favourite, camping, but then it’ll be easiest to just curl up and sleep beneath a tree. She probably won’t even be able to sleep, though, if she’s honest with herself, so she might be better off to just keep moving. She wonders if there’s a patch of border where she could just walk across, where no one would notice if she did. North or West, though, is the question – which country is she more likely to have some luck in?
“He will kill you if you leave now,” Vanessa whispers, breaking through Charity’s thoughts, stepping closer even though she should be wary of the sharp waves of anger Charity knows are radiating off her. “He will find you and you will be dead before morning.”
Charity turns, surprised to find actual fear on Vanessa’s face. “And how do you know that, babe?” she asks, watching as the expression is covered by a look of determination, Vanessa’s walls lifting firmly back into place.
She’s showing her cards now, though, and she must realize it because her face goes a little pale despite the tight line of her jaw. Vanessa might still have a whole bloody deck in her hands, but Charity’s distinctly aware that she’s just seen far too much of it – more than Vanessa should probably be waving about. “Mark Bails is not a good man,” Vanessa murmurs, a flash of fear crossing her eyes as she says his name. “He’s not anything he says he is.”
And that’s the ace, that – Mark Bails is the last person a recruit meets at the agency, his name nonexistent until they’ve proven themselves in the field. It’d been three missions before Charity herself had been officially introduced, the whole ordeal dished out like some sort of honour. She’d lapped it up like a puppy back then, preening at the attention he gave. “Who do you work for?” she asks again.
Vanessa shakes her head, pulling her arms around her middle. Her hands leave swipes of soil across her shirt, dark marks like wounds at her waist. Her mouth seems to move without her conscious thought, more truths exposed even as she throws up her barriers. “He’ll be in custody in a matter of days.”
Custody, not extinguished or snuffed or eliminated. Charity’s heard them all to describe the end of another human’s life, placeholders for a reality the agency has always tried to minimize. Vanessa uses the word custody much the same, as though it’s a suitable answer to a question far grander than such simple comprehension. Sacred like, almost.
“Who do you work for, Vanessa?”
She finally goes quiet then, hunching around her arms like she’s in actual, physical pain. Her lips press together and she shakes her head, silently refusing to answer the only question Charity cares to ask. The only question that truly needs answering.
“You were right,” Charity whispers, “You’re not who I thought, either.”
It’s easier then to turn back around, to get her legs moving once more towards the barn and the woods beyond it, already seeking to put as much space between herself and this place as she can. She tries to ignore the ache that fills her chest with each step, her heart protesting what her head knows is right.
“I’m undercover,” Vanessa yells after her, far too loud for such an admission.
She stills again, that feeling of wanting to shake Vanessa for the stupidity returning with full force. It very nearly propels her back around, the motion only stopped by the press of her own teeth into her tongue. Vanessa’s stalling, she thinks, saying anything to get Charity to stay put. It’s working, too, because she doesn’t move even when she hears the crunch of grass as Vanessa approaches.
“I’ve been undercover for six months,” Vanessa confesses when she’s close.
Charity scoffs, tightening her hands into fists at her sides, her own fingernails digging painfully into her palms. “Seriously, babe,” she hisses, “Have they taught you nothing?”
She can clearly picture Vanessa shrugging behind her, can imagine the rosy blush that should be colouring her cheeks. She can practically feel Vanessa’s walls crumbling down around their feet, some sort of connection appearing between them that she’s sure is meant to cajole her into doing the same.
“You make a rubbish spy,” she says instead, standing up straighter.
Vanessa huffs. “Not much of a mission left to protect when we’ve just spent the day in a car more shrapnel than paintjob.”
A flurry of birds rises suddenly from the trees to their left, Charity’s head whipping to the side as she instinctively drops into a crouch. A squirrel scampers across the branch they’ve abandoned a second later, its tail flicking and twirling as though it’s not entirely at fault for the frantic beating of her heart.
She can see Vanessa clearly from the new position, also ducked down in the tall grass. She rolls her eyes as they both stand back up, brushing at an invisible bit of fluff on the front of her shirt.
Vanessa folds her arms across her chest, more dirt smearing along the bare skin above her elbow. “The mission was to infiltrate your agency,” she mutters, turning briefly to look at the house, “But we’re clearly not going back there now.” Her eyes are softer when she turns back, shoulders lifting slightly into a little shrug.
Charity frowns, matching Vanessa’s stance by crossing her own arms. “You could still,” she suggests, “Pretend like we parted ways.” Probably get killed in the process, she thinks.
Vanessa shakes her head, dropping her hands to her side. “I must’ve been found out, they pulled me out of boot camp a month early.” She winces at that, as though she’s reflecting on a mistake she might’ve made, some slip up that alerted Bails to the previous training she’s obviously had. “And anyroad, where would that leave you?”
“Excuse you,” Charity huffs, leaning away as the wave of offense washes over her.
“Please,” Vanessa retorts, her arms folding up again, “Like you’d be anywhere without my help. Caught by those guards back at the club, or still asleep when the next ones charged the hotel room.”
A burst of anger surges up from her gut, her face contorting into a sneer. “I’d be just fine, thank you. Would’ve gotten back out onto that dance floor without that lot getting a good look at my face, for starters.”
A puff of air blows loudly out of Vanessa’s nose, her jaw jutting forward. “You didn’t even realize they were coming after us,” she argues, standing up taller as she does.
Charity shrugs. “And how’d you know then?” she presses, tightening her arms across her chest, “Wasn’t even the guards from the club down in the garden and we both know you didn’t have no binoculars to get a good look.”
Vanessa pales, biting down hard on her bottom lip.
“Same way you had that device in the elevator, yeah? And the way to get us in and out of the petrol station? And, look at that, this handy little safe house, too.” Charity steps closer, leaning into Vanessa’s personal space, watching as Vanessa grows flustered beneath her stare. “Who do you work for?” she asks again.
Vanessa sighs, tucking her chin towards her chest to shield her eyes. “I can’t tell you,” she whispers, “Not yet. I haven’t been given clearance.”
Charity steps away quickly, a rush of panic thudding through her chest. “Do they know about me? The people you work for?” She looks to the sky then, terrified there might be something circling overhead, some incoming plane ready to scoop her up and take her away. There’s nothing but clouds above, glowing pink in the evening sun.
Vanessa’s watching her intently when she lowers her gaze. “They don’t,” she promises, “Not a single thing.”
Relief floods through Charity, her arms falling heavily to thump against her thighs. She releases a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding, her chest deflating as she hunches back over herself. She’s in the clear, for the time being, momentarily invisible to the attacks that could come from all sides.
“I won’t tell them,” Vanessa swears, taking a step forward into the space between them, “Not if you don’t want me to.” Her hands lift like she might close the gap, her fingers fluttering near Charity’s elbow before dropping away. “But will you come inside? Please?”
She shouldn’t; there’s a voice inside her head that screams at her to turn around and run from this place, from Vanessa and all her secrets, to place bets on distance instead of promise. But just the proximity of Vanessa fills her with that warmth once more, some semblance of comfort bubbling up within her chest and burrowing its way around her heart.
She should turn around and leave, but she doesn’t. She should shut off this part of herself that is tilting into the gravity of Vanessa, but she can’t. She should do a million other things, but she follows Vanessa back up towards the house despite all of them.
There’s not much else she has left to lose, anyways.
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Chapter 8: Eight
Charity's resolve crumbles further.
I think I can say with at least 98% certainty that one of you has perhaps been waiting for this chapter in particular.
Tiny sparks... big fires.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Vanessa heads for the sink first, scrubbing at her hands beneath the slowly trickling water. She repeatedly glances over her shoulder as she rubs the dirt from her fingers, as though she’s afraid Charity might nip back out the door if she takes her eyes off her for too long. Charity’s heart tha-thumps inside her chest as she turns to avoid Vanessa’s gaze.
She wanders the kitchen while Vanessa is otherwise occupied, peeking into cupboards and twisting cans on the shelf. There’s a few plates and some mugs covered with a fine layer of dust in one, a couple pieces of cutlery in the drawer. There’s beans and soup and a single can of peaches on the shelf and, surprisingly, none of them are expired quite yet. It’s well maintained, this place; better than some of the safe houses Charity’s been to in the past.
Charity stows that fact away, adding it to the list of things she does know about Vanessa’s true employer. They’re very clearly well equipped – able to complete drops and share intel without Charity even being aware it was happening right under her nose. Although she’s been distracted, she supposes, her thoughts running in all directions.
Vanessa retrieves a kettle from within one of the cupboards Charity hadn’t explored, tucking it in beneath the tap. When it’s full, she sets it on the hot plate to boil and then turns her body fully towards Charity, watching intently as she meanders around the room. “You’re safe here,” she murmurs.
Charity scoffs, tightening her hands around the back of one of the chairs pushed in at the little table. Safety has been a foreign concept for decades now, replaced by a tingle of fright that’s crept up and down her spine without ever receding. She’s become accustomed to it, fuelled by the predictability of the feeling.
Because she lives for the constants, Charity, clinging to them however miniscule they may be. It’d been that way with Cain’s anger, with the unwavering anxiety of this life, with the inevitability of Bails’ constant sabotage.
It’s a bit like that with Vanessa, too.
She pushes the thought away as quickly as it appears, squeezing harder at the chair. It’s been less than two days since she first boarded that plane and somehow that’s been more than enough time for Vanessa to get under her skin, to misdirect her thoughts and her focus to places they shouldn’t go.
A lash of anger courses through her in response, a silent fury of acknowledgement that it was probably in part Vanessa’s presence that’s kept her from noticing what was going on behind her back. She’d never thought she’d be clueless when presented with a double agent in her midst, so blissfully oblivious to all the little cues she’s been so carefully trained to pick up on.
“I don’t work for the bad guys,” Vanessa continues, turning away as she does to reach into one of the cupboards. She pulls two mugs from the shelf, washing them quickly beneath the running water. She doesn’t look back at Charity this time, her shoulders hunching up around her ears as she scrubs dust from the cups.
It feels stifling again, to be stood so close to Vanessa, to have the gap of space between them barely more than an arm’s length. Her muscles tighten as she watches her, as though her body wants nothing more than to reach out and touch her, to close her fingers around that soft spot above Vanessa’s wrist and give in to the warmth that radiates around the other woman. “That’s the thing, though, babe,” Charity whispers, “Nobody thinks they’re the bad guys.”
Her mind fumbles backwards to that kiss, to the black of Vanessa’s pupils when they’d separated, to the feel of Vanessa’s hands curling around her waist. Every touch since has carried a similar energy, heavy with the weight of an arousal Charity knows she shouldn’t be feeling. There’s an intoxicating gravitational pull that flits around Vanessa, one that Charity can feel herself falling into.
That’s been part of the distraction, too – Vanessa, reaching across the abyss even when she’d be better off not to, closing the distance even when Charity’s brain is reminding her it’s integral to step away. She is soft in ways Charity has never learned how to be, gentle in a way that Charity craves.
Vanessa looks up at her then and her eyes are so blue it feels impossible not to get lost in them.
Charity turns away quickly, shattering the moment with a twist of her head. Her heart thuds heavy in her chest as she crosses the room, her arms folding over themselves like a shield. It seems wrong, to be thinking this way about Vanessa. To be feeling anything like this at all, when Bails is alive and capable of so much destruction.
“They’ve been watching him for years,” Vanessa admits, shifting nervously on her feet as she drops her eyes to the floor. “All of his cells have been infiltrated. There’s nowhere left for him to run.”
Only, that seems even more absurd. Because Mark Bails answers to no one, is destroyed by nothing, exists in a world of his very own creation where mere human beings can’t touch him. He has taken everything and everyone Charity has ever cared about, plucked them from her life as effortlessly as the petals from a flower. No, he won’t ever be stopped. She won’t ever be completely free of his control.
She thinks then of the garden; the green leaves and the warm sun and the hand stroking her cheek. It had been easy, then, in the moments before it all exploded. The afternoon had stretched as long and endless as the smile on her face, her life still a place that felt like home. She remembers how the wind had grabbed at the dark tendrils of her mother’s hair, blowing it wild around their little cocoon, twinkling laughter falling beautifully from her lips. There’s a twinge in her chest for that summer day, for the feeling of forever it had brought.
It’d been the last time she’d ever felt really, truly safe.
Vanessa crosses the room with both mugs clutched in her hands, offering one up hesitantly for Charity to take. It’s barely dark enough to pass as tea, just some rusty coloured water with sugar crystals clinging to the bottom of the mug, but she wraps her hands around it like a lifeline anyways.
Vanessa takes a sip of her own as she lowers herself slowly onto the edge of the couch, making a face before resting the mug on her knee. “Never tastes quite right without milk,” she murmurs, eyes trained on the liquid in her cup as she speaks.
Charity nods, blowing a breath through the rising steam.
The quiet settles around them again, weighted down by things that should be said but neither of them quite ready to break the spell. Sunlight creeps around the edges of one of the curtain-covered windows, trailing across the floor towards Charity’s feet. It burns a path of orange along the wood, like wisps of fire licking at the fraying corners of the rug.
“I haven’t lied to you,” Vanessa says, wading through the lull of silent reverie when it has stretched wide around them. Her fingers fiddle at the seam of her jeans, scratching out an irregular rhythm above the stitching.
Charity hums, turning to set her mug on the mantle above the fireplace. She slides her hand over the stonework, catching a finger in the mortar between two particularly smooth ones. “That doesn’t change much, Vanessa.”
Vanessa sighs behind her, but Charity doesn’t turn around. Her finger marks a path along the mortar, trailing up the fireplace until she reaches a fork.
“It’s not because I don’t want to be honest with you,” Vanessa whispers.
Charity glances to her left, following the path with her eyes to see where it goes. It twists and turns up the side of the fireplace, rising towards the ceiling above.
“But I’ve not been in touch with my handler since last night and she’s a bit of a stickler when it comes to following protocol. She’ll probably have my head as it is.”
The path to the right is shorter, dropping away quickly towards the hearth, the final bit of it burned black by past fires. Charity strokes her finger side to side, calculating her next move.
“I’ll tell you everything I can, though.”
She slides her finger to the left, following the mortar as it goes higher and higher until she can’t reach anymore. She drops back to her heels, turning finally to look at Vanessa. “Will the people you work for try to kill me?” she asks.
Vanessa’s face morphs quickly, her head shaking adamantly. “Never.”
Charity nods, crossing the space in front of the fireplace to lower herself onto the other end of the couch. “Then at least they sound better than mine.”
A hesitant smile creeps across Vanessa’s face, her blue eyes crinkling around the edges. “I promise you’re safe,” she swears, “Even if it doesn’t feel like it.” Her free hand lifts, settling on the back of the couch. Charity swallows down the urge to reach out and touch it.
“Any chance for a better cup of tea?” she asks instead, smirking when Vanessa’s expression brightens ever so slightly.
Vanessa shakes her head, though, that ponytail swishing side to side for a moment. “Not tonight, I’m afraid. But I could make us some dinner?” She turns to look over the back of the couch at the open shelves. “What d’you fancy… beans or beans?”
They huddle over bowls of soup at the kitchen table, sipping quietly. Vanessa had discovered a packet of stale crackers stowed away in the back of a drawer and split them evenly between them both, crunching her own over the top of her bowl until they melted into a soggy lump. Charity opts for dipping, soaking each one in the warm broth before pulling it to her mouth.
It’s not a whole lot better than the flavourless cup of tea Vanessa had presented her with, but it’s the first Charity’s had to eat in more than twenty-four hours and a grateful warmth fills her belly in recognition. When she reaches that point of full and content, she slides the bowl away from herself and leans back heavily in her chair.
“So, what can you tell me about your employer?” she asks, watching as Vanessa relaxes too, matching her pose across the table.
Vanessa shrugs, licking her spoon clean before setting it down beside her bowl. It clinks against the wood of the tabletop. “Can tell you more about my mission than them,” she offers, folding her arms up over her torso.
Charity nods. “Go on, then.”
It coaxes a smile out of Vanessa, her eyes glittering as Charity shifts forward a bit in her seat. “I was assigned six months ago, like I said. Tasked with being recruited by the agency, to gather intel about the training process an’ all.”
“How’d you go about getting recruited?” Charity sets her elbows against the table, leaning further forward with interest despite the air of indifference she knows she should be wearing.
Vanessa smirks. “That’s classified.”
Charity’s tongue pokes out of her mouth without thinking, her nose scrunching as she makes a face. “Classified,” she mimics. It makes Vanessa laugh, music-like as it had been back in the hotel lobby, Charity’s gaze pulled to Vanessa’s mouth where it lingers, entranced.
It’s Vanessa who swallows roughly this time, her lips pulling tight together to silence the sound of her laughter as she does. She presses closer, leaning against the table to match Charity’s stance. “How were you recruited?”
The question throws her thoughts backwards, her subconscious instantly flipping through her data bank of memories to replay the correct one. It’d been January, cold enough that she’d been more grateful than usual for the hostel bed she’d managed to afford for the night. A bit of a splurge, that, but worth it for one night of peace when she was well aware she wouldn’t be able to indulge again for the rest of the month.
The other girls had presented her with a fairy cake before she’d headed off, a single candle pushed into the meager icing, the cake beneath no longer soft in the way it should be. She’d clutched it between her hands on the top bunk, closed her eyes and pretended the candle was lit before making a wish. A better year, she’d hoped for – nothing grand, nothing fabulous, just something better.
How lucky she’d felt the next morning, when that man in the hostel kitchen had shoved a card into her fingers and told her that she could have more than this. How improbable it had all seemed to be presented with a means of escape. She hadn’t trusted it at first, of course not, but she’d dialled the number within the week, when the cold had numbed her fingertips and filled her bones and she was no longer sure she’d ever be warm again.
“They approached me,” Charity says, rubbing at her forehead to clear the memory. “The day after my eighteenth birthday.”
Vanessa nods, brow furrowing ever so slightly as she thinks. “Had you already been trained like that, then?”
It’s only fair, that Vanessa has questions of her own, Charity thinks. Even though her heart goes funny and her palms start sweating before her brain can even begin tugging at the memories. She tries to hold them off, she does, but they flit across her vision forcefully and she can feel her face hardening as they arrive.
Vanessa pales at the other side of the table, instantly backtracking. “It’s okay,” she swears, waving her hands in front of her like she might ward off whatever she’s seeing fill Charity, “You don’t have to tell me.”
But it might be easier, Charity thinks, to get it out now. To show Vanessa a few of her cards, too, and let her see how deep this whole mess truly runs. Because she hasn’t a clue what she’s signed up for, not an inkling of the realities of the agency Mark Bails controls.
“I don’t remember much about it,” she starts, her voice already hoarse and pained. The words feel like they’re clawing at her throat as they rise up, taking on a life of their own even as her heart screams at her to stop.
Vanessa nods in understanding, stretching her palms out on the table top as though she intends to reach for Charity’s hands. “Project Helix they called it, right? It was designed to be forgotten.”
That’d been the case for her: large black spots of time looming inside her head. She can remember her bedroom, the walk down the hallway, then nothingness until the woman in black was locking her in again, the sky beyond the window already growing dark. Whole days had passed for months on end without her remembering any of them beyond the thudding pain inside her brain.
Vanessa shifts in her seat. “How’d you end up in a Soviet training program, then?”
“I didn’t,” Charity whispers, dropping her eyes to a crack on the surface of the table. She nudges her thumbnail into it, scratching at the untreated wood within. “Bails replicated the project in Britain.”
Vanessa gasps, pulling back suddenly and leaping from her chair. She paces across the kitchen, her jaw tighter than Charity’s seen it be yet when she turns back to retrace her steps.
“He improved upon it,” Charity continues, her voice robotic even to her own ears, repeating the information Bails had shared with her as he’d beamed with pride. “Project Helix had only been successful with children. Bails… he figured out how to make it work for teenagers.” She swallows, feeling the lump forming slowly in her throat. “He said it was more ethical, that.”
Vanessa whirls. “More ethical? More ethical? Training teenagers against their own will as opposed to children?” She snorts, her arms folding impossibly tight against herself. She frowns for a minute, anger radiating off her in distinct waves, every muscle seemingly coiled for a fight.
And then she looks at Charity and it softens somewhat, concern fitting into the spots between. “How old were you?” she asks.
It rushes into her like a tsunami then, engulfing her every sense, tears pushing hard at the back of her eyes. She wants to give in, wants to sob at the ache that settles low inside of her, surging upwards until it clogs in her throat. She wants to scream and throw her fists and curse the world that made this happen to her, curse the father that let it.
But it doesn’t do, to cry. Doesn’t serve to wallow in the shadows even when she can’t seem to find the light beyond them.
She pushes from the table, crossing the room for the fireplace. She sets her hand against the cold stones, begs the chill beneath her palms to ground her to this place, to this moment, to this safety Vanessa swore is hers to have. She wants to believe in it so desperately it makes her legs shake, her body crumbling beneath the weight of a life she’s longed for.
“Thirteen,” she croaks, “I was thirteen when they took me.”
Vanessa slips back out to retrieve the rucksack from the car only when Charity has moulded herself into the couch, unmoving as years of memories threaten to consume her. She jerks when Vanessa drops the bag onto the cushion next to her, flicking on a single lamp that fills the room with a gentle glow.
The little cottage has grown colder with the sun finally hidden behind the horizon, the air of the summer night chilling around them. It seeps into every corner of the room, amplified by the sound of crickets echoing loudly just beyond the door. Charity feels as though a creeping fog has come in with it, a dull haze blurring her thoughts as she watches Vanessa unpack the bag.
Vanessa pulls out clothes first, folding each item carefully before dropping them to the floor at her feet: both the dresses they’d changed into on the plane, the shirt Charity had slept in briefly the night before, a couple pairs of pants that look clean. A bit of a planner, Vanessa is, it seems.
From beneath the clothes appears the contraption Vanessa had used in the elevator, two toothbrushes Charity never would’ve thought to grab, and then a chunky satellite phone. Vanessa taps a finger against it thoughtfully, looking to Charity to gauge her reaction.
“I should check in,” she murmurs, teeth sinking into her lower lip. “If that’s okay?”
Charity nods dumbly, expecting Vanessa to get up and move away to do it. It’s what she’d do – huddle around the phone until it was impossible to get a good look at, conceal her actions from everyone’s view but her own. Only, Vanessa types in a code with the phone laying on her lap, lifting it to her ear to hear a high-pitched noise that emits from it in answer.
Charity’s throat clogs at the transparency, a flash of anger licking in her chest for a moment at the brazenness Vanessa is opting for. She wants to shake her, remind her that they’re not on the same team, but her heart skitters uncomfortably as a thought pushes forward: Vanessa trusts her. Vanessa has chosen her, regardless of what she’s heard of Charity’s past.
“You really do make a rubbish spy,” Charity says, attempting a smirk when those blue eyes flick upwards quickly to meet her own.
Vanessa sticks her tongue out in answer, laughter dancing around her as she stands, dropping the rucksack to the floor beside the couch. She strolls across the room to a single wooden door, twisting the handle that protests loudly like it hasn’t been used in a while. She re-emerges a second later, clutching a duvet.
She tosses it over Charity’s lap, the scent of musk and earth rising from the fabric at the movement. It’s not nearly big enough to reach to both corners of the couch, Vanessa settling nearer than before to refrain from being halfway uncovered as she pulls it across her legs, too.
Charity finds herself leaning towards Vanessa’s body before the little voice inside her head can remind her not to. Because the energy feels different now, without the weight of so many secrets between them. There’s an understanding rippling through the air, thick with the comfort and warmth that Vanessa exudes without even realizing.
“I still don’t know your name,” Vanessa whispers, tilting her head onto the back of the couch. She stares up at the ceiling, her face illuminated in an ethereal glow by the lamplight. Charity imagines running a finger along the line of her jaw, tracing down the slope of her throat to that hollow above her sternum. Vanessa tips her head sideways, turning to look at Charity. “Are you ever going to introduce yourself?”
She tries to think of all the names, all the aliases, all the other people she’s ever had to pretend to be. Melissa and Natalie and Virginie, Stella and Margot and Laura. Twenty years of other identities span across her mind, her own name growing irrelevant in the midst. She’s had an entire lifetime of being anybody but herself – different passports, different countries, different histories burned into her brain if only because they were a means to survive.
It’s distant, the memory of the last time she spoke her real name aloud. She’d been in boot camp, then, green and eager and working hard to please. She remembers the girl who’d taken her hand, smiling with relief at the prospect of a friend.
Vanessa already knows more of her truths than most, wiggling her way in enough that Charity’s lifted stones she thought she might never overturn. And she’s stayed steady while it happened, stepping closer instead of pulling away, reaching out for Charity in spite of what she’s heard. She’s different, Vanessa, unlike anyone else Charity’s ever encountered.
The need to touch her flares loud and unrelenting, her hands lifting quickly from her lap. They surge across the space between them, wrapping around Vanessa’s jaw before her thoughts can catch up. They both freeze for a moment, watching each other for a wink of hesitation that never appears.
Vanessa follows easily when she tugs her closer, leaning forward just as much of her own accord. They meet in the middle, breath mingling for only a second before Charity closes the gap completely, wrapping her lips around Vanessa’s.
It’s different, this kiss, softer than the last. Vanessa’s mouth flutters to life, sucking gently on Charity’s lower lip. The sensation barrels through her, rolling over itself before landing low in her belly. It spreads like wildfire, the warmth, stretching outwards to the tips of her fingers.
And it’s intoxicating, to finally give in to the gravity of Vanessa, to fall headfirst into the feeling that’s been insistent in its need to be heard. Vanessa’s hands reach out and grasp her waist, squeezing out a moan that lifts upwards through her chest before tumbling free.
Vanessa matches it with one of her own, teeth tightening around Charity’s bottom lip as they separate. Her fingers curl at Charity’s hips, her eyes hooded as they open. Her pupils are wide again, a thin sliver of blue barely visible around the edges.
“Charity,” she whispers, nudging her nose against Vanessa’s until the breath of her name can ghost across the other woman’s lips. “My name is Charity.”
The answering smile is slow, hooking the edges of Vanessa’s mouth as they lift. “It’s nice to finally meet you, Charity,” she whispers, tightening her fingers as her eyes flutter closed. She presses forward, seeking, smiling even as she kisses Charity again.
And it’s even easier, then, to fall back in.
It makes me the happiest little clam when you stop by to say hello on tumblr.
Chapter 9: Nine
Charity comes to a decision.
Happy Canada Day to my fellow true north, strong and free folk!
I think this chapter leaves off at the perfect point for me to take a three week break (instead of the usual every other week posting) to focus on some stuff in my personal life. I'll be back with chapter 10 on the 20th - promise.
Hope you enjoy!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
It’s hours later when Charity’s eyes flutter open, taking stock of the room still faintly illuminated by the gentle glow of the lamp. There’s a thin slice of sky visible through a crack in the curtains, the world outside gone impossibly dark while they’ve been asleep. Vanessa shifts behind her, one arm thrown over Charity’s waist beneath the duvet that tightens before she releases a slow breath.
There’s a buzzing on the wood floor below, Charity realizes then, the noise certainly what had roused her. She groans, squeezing her eyes shut again, tugging the duvet up around her face. Vanessa mumbles something incoherent in answer and then tips away, rolling out from under the covers to snatch at whatever the source of the disturbance is.
It’d been an otherwise restful sleep, a welcome reprieve after so many days of not-quite-enough. They’d dozed off on the couch when their kisses had grown lazy, Vanessa’s eyes opening less and less but her smile persistent even as she’d succumbed to the exhaustion. Charity had attempted distance at first, curling herself into the opposite corner, but even as she’d snored, Vanessa had moved closer. Close enough to wrap an arm around her, apparently.
Charity cracks one eye as Vanessa crosses the room, clutching the satellite phone hard enough that her knuckles have gone white. She presses it to her ear when she reaches the window, turning so that her mouth isn’t visible when she begins to whisper. A single finger troubles into the musty fabric of the curtain, setting loose a cloud of dust particles.
The change in Vanessa’s posture is enough to yank Charity fully into consciousness, shifting as quietly as she can to sit upright. Her back aches in protest, still stiff after all those hours in the car the day before and clearly ungrateful for a night spent on the couch. She pushes her hair back from her face, trying not to moan at the shock of pain that yells out at the movement, zeroing her focus in only on what she can gather from Vanessa’s body language. She wishes Vanessa would turn ever so slightly, just enough to allow her to have a go at reading her lips.
Vanessa hunches, though, her chest practically concave as she moulds herself around the phone. Her shoulders seem to rise higher with each passing second, nearly connected to her ears by the time she finally hangs up. She pauses with the phone dangling from her hand at her side, straightening her spine as her chest inflates with a breath, her shoulders lowering on the steady exhale until she finally looks more like Vanessa again.
But then she turns entirely and her face is so tightly pinched into a smile that doesn’t quite reach her eyes and Charity knows it’s all a façade.
“You’re awake,” Vanessa murmurs, stalking across the room to drop the phone onto the cushions beside Charity, not slowing as she passes. She carries on towards the kitchen and the kettle still sat atop the hotplate, thrusting it under the sink to fill before returning it. She twists the knob on the burner beneath, fidgeting with the edge of the counter as she stares, waiting for it to boil.
“Can’t get enough of that rubbish tea?” Charity tries, tugging at the duvet until it balls up on her lap. She wants to stand, though, wants to move into the kitchen and get in Vanessa’s face and demand an explanation for all this kinetic energy buzzing around her now. It seems to radiate off her in waves, retightening all the muscles in her back and spreading outwards. Stress, mostly, Charity thinks, but something else, too.
Vanessa shrugs, a jittery laugh bubbling up as she nods mechanically. “Love it,” she swears, reaching out to scratch at a swipe of something dark near the knob on the hotplate. She taps out a beat against the plastic when the spot doesn’t respond to her fingernail, quick and rhythmic like a clock.
“Your employer?” Charity pries before she can convince her big mouth not to, immediately dropping her eyes to her own hands that have tangled their way into the fabric of the duvet. It’ll be easier, she thinks, to take a blow if she’s not looking at Vanessa when it happens. Be easier to nurse the wounds she can already feel forming.
Because it has been luck, really, to have had Vanessa to count on thus far. She hadn’t needed to bring Charity here, to feed her or give her a place to sleep. It’s a privilege, all of this, an honour that she can’t repay with anything but gratitude.
“Yeah,” Vanessa whispers, “Extraction orders.”
It’s only right to have it be taken away again.
“S’pose I’ll be off, then,” Charity says, nodding as she pushes herself up off the couch. The duvet drops to the floor at her feet, the chill of the early hour immediately raising gooseflesh on the newly exposed skin on her arms. “D’you mind if I take this, if you’re in good hands now?” She grabs at the rucksack Vanessa had dropped on the floor the night before, already reaching for that oversized shirt in the pile of folded clothing.
Vanessa whirls around, brows furrowed. “You what?”
Charity shrugs, sifting through the pile of things to grab one of those toothbrushes and a pair of pants. Not much she’ll need, really, just a few things to make her feel human enough to keep going when she’s not sure where she’s headed.
“You don’t need that,” Vanessa protests.
It picks at the scab she can feel her mind already creating, frustration flaring loudly at even this mild attempt to thwart her. She rolls her eyes as she flicks through the pile of things one last time. “It’s a bloody bag, Vanessa, your people can buy you a new one. Place like this in their roster, they can probably buy you two.” Satisfied there’s nothing else that’s worth carrying, Charity zips the rucksack closed and tosses it onto her back. “Thanks,” she mutters.
Vanessa beats her to the door, throwing her arms across it like the action might actually be enough to stop Charity from leaving if she really wants to. “God,” she breathes, “D’you always just kick off like this?” Her chest rises and falls quickly, her eyes dancing as they search Charity’s face. “Where’re you gonna go?” she asks, soft again despite the rigidity of her arms.
She’s not got an answer to that question – wouldn’t give one, even if she did. She can feel her hackles rising like she’s some flimmin’ bloodhound, all her senses on alert to whatever’s begun rumbling in the air between them, to the barrier of Vanessa’s body intentionally blocking her way. There’s a fire building in her gut, hot with that intrinsic need to fight back. “Oh come on, Vanessa,” she manages, her voice tightening with the effort of trying to contain all the anger and the hurt that are stewing inside, “This has been fun, yeah, but who are we kidding?”
The sharpness of her words make something change in Vanessa’s eyes, the blue giving way to a sheen that’s more steel than sky. Vanessa straightens, her arms dropping from the door to fall heavily to her sides. Charity watches as her teeth clench together, grinding forward and setting her jaw into that perfect, determined line once more.
It’s different this time, though, when Charity lifts her gaze back to her eyes, to the burn around the edges of the blue that look more like the creeping in of clouds on a clear, summer day. There’s another sort of wall stacking up between them, a barricade to something that Vanessa is tucking safely away from her reach.
It throws sparks on the fire, feeding the embers toward the crescendo. “Did you really think this was gonna be some happily ever after escape?” she spits. Like a knife again, she is, always pushing just that little bit further than is necessary.
Vanessa’s face falls, embarrassment briefly colouring her features before the mask slips back into place, her emotions carefully guarded once more. There’s no flurry of protest in its wake, no adamance that Charity’s words don’t ring true to what she’s wished. She steps back towards the door, her posture deflating minutely.
And though she doesn’t want it to, even a glimmer of all that unabashed light within Vanessa tugs at her chest, pulsing and unrelentless as it squeezes at her heart. Not fair, that, not right when it’s better for her to go. She shrugs, stepping backwards as her arms fold across her stomach, pleading with the bits of her that are bending to not give way. “They’re not gonna be pleased to see me, babe,” she says, twisting just enough so that she doesn’t have to keep looking into Vanessa’s eyes. “It’s better this way, yeah?”
“Is it?” Vanessa whispers. “Leaving you here, in the last country the agency saw you in? Knowing they want you dead? I’m s’posed to just get on a plane and pretend like it doesn’t matter?” Her voice cracks on the last note, tumbling off the cliff they’ve been hovering at the edge of so perilously. There are tears trailing down her cheeks when Charity turns to look at her, falling in quick succession without so much as an attempt to brush them away. It sticks like a knife, this show of vulnerability, pricking and painful at the ache that’s already thumping in her chest.
“It doesn’t, babe,” Charity murmurs, “I don’t.” It sounds like Bails speaking inside her head, echoing of words he’s repeated more times than she cares to count. The times when he’d told her someone was gone because she was too much to handle, because she didn’t matter as anything more than an agent, when he stripped people away because he could tell how much she cared about them.
What she feels already for Vanessa is grand like that, vast and consuming and easily destroyed. Something men like Bails will seek to rip from her, to dangle above her head and laugh as she tries to reach for it. Maybe Vanessa’s people aren’t like that, maybe they really won’t try to kill her too, but she can recognize the expiration date that will be placed on this. This safety, this warmth, this feeling that comes about from being near Vanessa. They won’t like it, she thinks, not one bit.
Or worse, they’ll see who Charity is and what she’s capable of and the want for her skills will be far greater than the desire to hurt her. Another agency, another decade of answering to someone else, one more lifetime of being a pawn in someone else’s scheme. She’s tired of living her life this way.
“I can’t,” the words catch in her throat, grabbing onto the end of a sob that rips through her with more force than she’s expecting. And it’s infuriating, to give in to the tears finally, when she wants nothing else than to be fierce and indifferent and unaffected. But Vanessa is wavering in front of her, her own eyes like reflecting glass, and it’s so easy to crumble for a moment. “I can’t keep answering to someone else.”
Vanessa moves closer, reaching once more, pressing forward even when Charity instinctively flinches as though she’s about to be struck. Her hands fall to Charity’s wrists, tender and gentle, warm enough that Charity finds herself relaxing into the touch. “They’re going to find Bails,” she swears, thumbs stroking across the web of veins beneath them, “They’re going to take him down.”
It’s a pipe dream, that, but Vanessa says it with such conviction that it’s impossible to doubt she believes it with her whole heart. As though Justice is her middle name and she’s never known a world where it didn’t exist.
“Please don’t make me leave you here,” she begs, moving close enough that their toes knock together, ducking slightly to catch the downturn of Charity’s gaze. “They’re not sending me back to the agency, or to headquarters. You can come with me and get off on the other side and just walk away, if you need to. I understand if you do.” She shrugs, that determined set of her jaw shifting into place for a second before it drops away again. “But please don’t make me leave you here to die.”
And she wouldn’t, in another lifetime, sway so easily to the will of another. Wouldn’t soften into the soft brush of thumbs or the pleading gaze or the little voice that tells her to just kiss her. She’d be out the door already, if this were anyone else, charging through the field in pursuit of a plan she hadn’t sorted yet, resolute only in her own abilities to get through.
“You’re so strong, Charity,” Vanessa says then, looking down to their hands, slipping her fingers into the spaces between Charity’s. “Stronger than I think you even realize.” She swallows roughly, faltering for a moment before she lifts her chin. “But I think sometimes the strongest thing a person can do is trust another.”
A slew of faces flash through her mind at that: the girl in boot camp who’d shaken her hand and breathed out a sigh of relief, gunned down in the field a year later by a sniper they never captured. The man who’d sworn he was in love with her, who spoke of marriage and children and a permanence Charity had thought possible, murdered in his apartment as a warning from Bails to fall back in line. Cain, who’d been beside her on countless missions, who’d jumped in front of punches intended for her, stood in a parking garage with an order to kill.
And the woman who’d shoved gadgets into her clenched fists, promising that all this darkness would end someday, that there was light at the end of this tunnel, that Bails would get what was coming to him. She’d become one of the missing, her name added to the list of people presumed dead. Bails had claimed her disappearance as his own accomplishment, using her loss like a whip against the challenge in Charity’s eyes.
It doesn’t feel strong, when she remembers all who’ve been hurt because of her. It feels volatile, to give in to the weight of Vanessa’s plea, selfish to ask anything more of her when Charity’s seen how it ends. Bails has thrived on her isolation, on the shattering of hope that’s come along with absence. He has seen the blaze inside of her burn brighter and grabbed hold of every opportunity to douse it down to embers, eager to see it wash away into oblivion.
Vanessa’s hand is grounding in her own, the lace of their fingers like a tether to something greater than herself. The memory of their lips moving together like a beacon of light in a storm.
Bails hasn’t succeeded. Try as he might, he hasn’t managed to silence the fury and the fight and the faith that wells large inside of her, growing bigger in the aftermath of every blow. He has sliced her down to the knees, made her feel small and inconsequential, and still she has stood back up.
The light from the lamp has cast a decadent glow across Vanessa’s features, like a halo swirling round her head. There’s a hypnotic sort of colour blooming in her eyes, their shade of blue changing beneath the gleam of tears. It’s that drowning feeling again, Charity thinks, her body already tipping forward to get lost in it.
Their noses brush in the moment before she captures Vanessa’s mouth, sighing as Vanessa melts into the kiss. There’s a familiarity present that wasn’t there before, forged somewhere between last night and now, hands falling comfortably into curves and tugging gently at hair.
And maybe it’s not rational or right, maybe it will all fall apart before it can even begin, but there’s a gift in the way her fingers find the button of Vanessa’s jeans. There’s something whole in the swipe of her thumb across her navel, searching for permission before seeking out the wet warmth between her legs. It’s real, this feeling that makes her keen against Vanessa, that tightens the hands at her shoulders as she meets her clit.
If nothing else, at least they’ll have this.
“Have you done that before?” Vanessa whispers, stroking a hand through Charity’s hair. They’d ended up on the floor, curled atop the duvet, lost in the sensation of each other’s bodies.
Charity can feel it causing an ache already, the rug and the blanket not quite enough to soften the hard edges of the wood below. She shifts slightly, settling more of her weight onto Vanessa, nuzzling into the curve of her neck before her mind can tell her to pull away completely. “Once or twice,” she murmurs, kissing at the skin beneath her mouth.
Vanessa exhales slowly, angling her head away to give Charity’s mouth more space. It’d been a welcome discovery, the enthusiasm with which Vanessa participated – the sighs and the moans and the assurances to keep going. So different from their kiss in the stairwell, when the moan that had erupted from her had been edged with force. The actuality of Vanessa has been soft like Charity expected, whimpering and panting as she came around her fingers.
The way she leans into Charity’s touch is far more aligned to the woman she’s been since they left the hotel. It’s relieving, that, to find more predictability in the way Vanessa exists.
“You’re very good at it,” Vanessa says, already chuckling as the words leave her mouth. She raises a hand to her forehead, covering her eyes.
It’s endearing, to see her with her walls down, to know the freckle on her right shoulder and the embarrassed smile that hides under the masks they wear. She’s become acquainted with the spot on Vanessa’s neck that makes her back arch, with how a well-placed nip makes her toes curl. She’d like to explore her more, Charity thinks, find the ticklish and the intoxicating and memorise Vanessa’s body in ways only she is capable of.
What a gift, to know that she’ll be able to recall this for the rest of her life.
Vanessa seems to reach that conclusion at the same time, shifting slightly to find Charity’s eyes. “You never forget this either, do you?” she asks, lifting her hands to Charity’s cheeks to hold her still.
She goes for a smirk, shrugging as she drops her gaze to the bare skin of Vanessa’s chest. “Did you want me to, babe?”
The muscles in Vanessa’s shoulders tighten again, rising momentarily before relaxing back down. Charity tentatively lifts her eyes, meeting the blue of Vanessa’s still searching her face. “No,” Vanessa whispers, shaking her head.
It’s enough to draw them back together, mouths meeting sloppily as an urgency rushes into the air between them. The sun is nearing the horizon beyond the window, the crack of sky that’s still visible growing lighter, their time together nearly up.
Vanessa breaks away first, breathing hard as she pushes hair off Charity’s face and secures it behind her ears. “Will you come with me?” she implores, biting at her lower lip. “You don’t,” she swallows, gasping in a breath before continuing, “You don’t have to see my people. We don’t have to tell them anything, if you don’t want to.”
There’ll be a plane, Charity presumes, at an airfield near the border that hasn’t been marked. One they’ll board quickly, the pilot inside and ready to take them wherever Vanessa’s people are sending her. She’s not sure if there’ll be another agent, someone to meet Vanessa and debrief her through the flight, to gather all the information they need as they pull her out.
Not likely that, she hopes, more accustomed herself to hours spent in a room with a camera poised at her face, answering question after question for agents beyond the mirrored glass. She imagines Vanessa’s employer is much the same as Bails, documenting everything onto servers, a team of people sifting through decades of files when it’s suddenly relevant again.
It’s not terribly farfetched, then, to think she really could get out of the country with her and walk away on the other side without ever coming face to face with whoever Vanessa’s working for. They’d have her picture, yeah, but she could be invisible again before they acted on that knowledge.
“Who are your people?” Charity tries once more, smiling as Vanessa’s eyes roll in their sockets.
“I can’t get clearance to tell you if I’m not telling them you’re with me,” she reasons, sliding her hands down Charity’s back. Her fingers stop just below Charity’s ribcage, digging into the tight muscles that have been causing her grief all morning. She massages silently for a moment, loosening the knots with the pads of her fingers. “We could tell them,” she suggests after a bit.
It almost sounds good, when Vanessa’s hands are doing wonders for the ache, but the voice in her head screams out in response. Because it can’t be a good idea, to get wrapped up in another agency, even if she wants nothing more than to stay wrapped up in this moment with Vanessa. She sighs, dropping her head to Vanessa’s shoulder.
Vanessa nods, the reaction clearly answer enough. She strokes a hand along the back of Charity’s head. “Should probably get going.”
“You could tell me who they are without the clearance,” Charity tries, knowing even as the words leave her mouth that Vanessa won’t give in. She wonders if maybe it’s not Vanessa’s handler who’s the stickler for protocol but Vanessa herself, too keen on justice and the rules to give in to even the most minor of missteps. Fitting, that, like a bloody woodland fairy in tactical gear.
“How about,” Vanessa begins, lifting a finger to Charity’s chin to guide her back to her mouth. She kisses slowly, resolutely, her lips saying more than her words likely will. “I tell you what my extraction orders are, and we go from there?”
The hand still at Charity’s back slips lower, dipping into the curve of her bottom and squeezing the flesh it finds. The sensation shoots like a rocket through Charity, a pool of arousal instantly forming between her legs. She moans in response, rocking her hips against Vanessa’s thigh.
And it’s stupid, she knows, to follow a woman out of the country for this. She tries to tell herself it’s because of the stability, because there’s no other option, because Vanessa has been unwavering in other ways. She tries desperately to convince herself that she’s going along with this plan because it’s a means to an end, a safety she’s not been privy to in a near lifetime, something to depend on when everything else in her life has been ripped away.
But she knows it’s not true the second Vanessa’s mouth closes around hers again.
Charity follows as Vanessa moves through the cottage, returning the kettle to the cupboard, drying the mugs and setting them back on the shelf. She drops their spoons into the drawer, righting the kitchen to the way it’d been when they’d first walked in. She looks it over with a critical eye before giving a nod, crossing the space to the door she’d opened the night before.
The room beyond is quaint to say the least, a single window above a lumpy looking bed that Vanessa tosses the duvet back onto. She moves to a chest of drawers in the corner, opening the top one and searching through a pile of things inside. She pulls out two hooded jumpers, tossing the second in Charity’s direction.
It’s cold when it smacks against Charity’s chest, more of that musty smell wafting into the air. She slips into it before she can change her mind, certain she’ll be grateful for the extra layer when they exit the cottage into the morning chill.
The night has been disappearing steadily since they finally managed to pry themselves apart, tugging jeans up their legs and combing fingers through their hair. Vanessa had let Charity use the tiny bathroom first, collecting up their things into the rucksack and washing their dishes while she waited for her turn. Charity had felt useless in comparison, puttering around the kitchen and sweeping up imaginary crumbs while she waited.
Vanessa manages to unearth two pairs of socks, too, dropping down onto the bed to put them on. She offers the other pair up to Charity, smiling at the flash of gratitude Charity knows she can see before she takes them.
It’s strange, to have socks be a luxury again. They’d been a privilege, in her younger days, in that gap of time between the school and recruitment when she’d had nowhere else to go but the streets, much like everything else she’d been left without. But she’s not had to want for anything physical like this since she first began working for Bails, the only light in all the turmoil he could churn.
She supposes she’ll have to get used to it, now, like she did before; cold feet and uncomfortable beds and the odd stretch of time too long to go without a hot shower. She feels too old, though, to be stumbling ten steps backward to what she’d had in her teens. Less willing to settle, perhaps.
“You ready?” Vanessa asks, tugging her out of the silent reverie.
She leads the way back through the cottage, grabbing the rucksack full of their things from the living room floor. She offers it up to Charity to take as she lifts the key from the window sill, opening the cottage door.
The sky is beginning to burn orange with the rising sun, wisps of pink forming at the edges of the clouds. There’s a steady sound of bird song dancing across the breeze, the wind still chilled by the hand of night. Charity wraps her arms around herself, clutching tightly at the jumper as she crosses the threshold.
Vanessa locks the door behind them, moving across the porch to drop the key back into the pot of soil where she’d found it. She buries it deeply again, pulling away with her hands stained black. She chuckles when she spots the face Charity’s making at her, wholly unable to hide her bit of disgust. Vanessa shrugs, though, bounding down the creaking steps to rub her fingers in the dew-covered grass.
The dew soaks into their shoes as they tiptoe through the field towards the barn, leaving swipes of wet across their jeans. Charity trains her eyes on Vanessa’s back, trying to silence the thoughts screaming out for her to run, the thump of her heartbeat one second away from overwhelming fear.
She wonders what Cain would think of this development, of her agreeance to go along with Vanessa to wherever it is they’re going. He’d call her insane, most likely, remind her that they’ve always been better off depending only on themselves. He’d sworn by that for years, before Moira, before he had someone else who had his back.
Maybe Vanessa’s right on that, too, maybe there is a bit of strength in trusting someone else. Maybe all this safety she feels is because she’s not holding all the weight on her own, because the woman in front of her has shouldered some of the burden. Vanessa turns as they reach the barn door, smiling at Charity with a glittering brilliance before she slips through the crack.
It’s the perfect opportunity to take off, she realizes with a start, her thumbs already hooking into the straps of the bag on her back. Vanessa within the barn, all of their things within Charity’s own possession, the morning sun still just on the cusp of the horizon. She could be gone within a moment, disappearing into the world without Vanessa even noticing right away.
It’d be easy, to go now. To leave and depend only on herself again.
She shifts from foot to foot, considering. It’s not like they owe anything to each other, or that Vanessa will suddenly be in grave danger without her. Her people are coming for her, will take her home to safety whether Charity is beside her or not. There’s nothing more to keep them together, if Charity really thinks about it, no real reason to continue with whatever this has become.
She doesn’t need Vanessa to survive, she doesn’t think. Bails surely believes she’s out of the country by now, or dead by Cain’s misfire. Escape seems feasible in the coming light of a new day, the list of possibilities growing by the minute.
It hurts, though, to even picture the crumple of Vanessa’s face when she realizes Charity’s gone. Because she can see it perfectly now, knows exactly the movement of her lips and the colour of her eyes, can taste the salt of her tears as clearly as if she were still kissing her cheeks. It’s less a gift now, to have Vanessa imprinted within her mind, to be able to study her features as the thudding of her heartbeat begs for her to leave.
And it’s not entirely the memory of Vanessa gasping out in ecstasy that keeps her rooted to the spot, nor the ache of desire to no longer feel so alone. Because beneath the feelings, beneath the attraction, there’s something more that Vanessa offers with all her sunny disposition and trembling touches. There’s an assurance of a world without Bails, a promise of a life where he might be destroyed.
It’s curiosity, perhaps, that has Charity stepping towards the barn, shifting her body into the crack Vanessa had disappeared into. It’s hope that has her following the sound of Vanessa’s voice across the dirt covered floor, the dream of a future where she might be free.
It’s Cain’s voice inside her head that’s screaming out for her to run.
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Chapter 10: Ten
Charity and Vanessa finally make their great escape.
Wow, did that promised three weeks feel like nearly five to anyone else?
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
There’s evidence of the horses that must’ve once lived in the barn littered throughout it; tack abandoned in the first stall Charity passes, a rusted wheelbarrow and a shovel in the next. There’s a pile of something dark and crusted in the third – manure, maybe, but long past the days when it would’ve been recognizable as such.
The whole building smells of earth and moss, the ground soft beneath her feet from a past rain still holding in the dirt floor, straw scattered about that’s turned black and rotten from the moisture. There are a few tendrils of sunlight creeping through the holes in the walls but not nearly enough to illuminate the space completely. They cast sideways across the floor from the left, where the sun is still just breaking the horizon; long trails of the burning orange of morning.
She finds Vanessa near the opposite end of the main aisle, partially hidden behind a stack of bales she’s quite certain are crawling with mice and other creatures she doesn’t want to consider, all with them legs and weird tails and nasty claws. She shivers as she passes it, keeping her back to the wooden slats of the wall as she tucks herself in behind Vanessa’s crouched form.
Vanessa’s hunched herself over a fraying tarp, tugging at its knotted ends to free them from a collection of spokes that are pushed deep into the ground beneath. She grunts with each yank, wiping at a sheen of sweat that forms on her forehead with the effort.
It pulls her attention for a moment; the furrowed brow and the bottom lip tugged taut between her teeth and the whole Vanessa-ness of the situation. She’s proper distracting – has been, but even more so now that Charity knows what else that mouth can do. It sparks at the arousal they’ve only just reeled in again, her body alight with wonder at this new facet of Vanessa.
Always in the gutter, she thinks.
“Did you want to help?” Vanessa suggests, tossing a look over her shoulder that Charity recognizes now as exasperated, just a hint of actual frustration visible in the downturn of her lips. She can feel herself preening at it before the answer has even formed in her mind, her tongue leaping at the bait to taunt.
It comes with a shrug, her arms folding up across her torso as she leans back against the wall. She chances a smirk, nearly breaking into a full out grin when Vanessa’s eyes roll dramatically in response. “Dunno, babe,” Charity says, biting her lip to reign in the laugh that threatens to spill, “Looks like real hard work. Best leave it to the professional.”
Vanessa huffs, her brow furrowing further as she turns back to the task. Charity catches something bright in her eyes, though, before they’re trained on the tarp again; something that says she’s as delighted by the teasing as Charity hopes she might be. It ignites that warmth in Charity’s belly once more, lifting the edges of her mouth as her eyes drop to the floor.
She scuffs her shoe through the dirt, disturbing a spot that’s been well packed down. It’s darker beneath the top layer – more soil than sand like she’d expected.
There’d been a beauty like that to Vanessa, once her clothes and inhibitions had been stripped away; profound and consuming like, a depth she hadn’t anticipated when she’d first surged forward to kiss her. It’d caught Charity’s breath, that, looming above Vanessa’s naked form with her hair splayed out across the duvet like some fallen angel. It’d stolen the air straight from her lungs and stalled her wandering hands and brought a weight into the moment she hadn’t intended to find there.
Because it hadn’t been an entirely thought out decision, kissing Vanessa. And she certainly hadn’t planned to do anything more, either – not that she regrets it, of course – but it’s brought about a change. She can feel it morphing within herself, taking on a shape she can’t quite recognize yet.
It must be occurring, though, since she’s stood here and not halfway across the country already, looking down at Vanessa who seems different in a way, too. Softer, maybe, like the blue in her eyes has changed hue overnight.
“Wouldn’t want you to break a nail or owt,” Vanessa mutters, blowing out a sharp breath as the last corner of the tarp pulls loose from the spoke. She shoves her fringe back off her forehead before hoisting herself to her feet, groaning audibly as the muscles in her legs undoubtedly send out a protest to being bunched up for so long. They pull Charity’s gaze, watching intently as Vanessa drags the tarp into a corner of the stall, revealing whatever it’s been covering.
It’s a motorcycle, though not a pretty one. The silver of the handlebars has gone dark with the beginnings of rust, the black leather of the seat cracked from years of overuse or disuse – Charity’s not sure which. It’s old and decrepit looking, but Vanessa smiles down at it as though it’s a ticket to the moon, something akin to pride stacking its way up her spine as she straightens.
She reaches forward, grabbing for the back of the bike to hoist it onto the tires. It’s too big for her, Charity thinks as she lunges for it, grabbing the handlebars before the whole thing can topple over onto Vanessa. It earns her a smirk, once the motorcycle is stable, a knowing glint surfacing in Vanessa’s eyes mere seconds before she opens her mouth to mock.
Charity cuts her off. “You know how to drive this, babe?”
Vanessa nods quickly, dropping her gaze away to the bike. She runs a hand across the seat, her fingers catching on one of the cracks in the leather. She frowns, trying to smooth it all back in place.
“Only, you look about half the size of it.”
Vanessa lets out a disgruntled sort of sound at that, turning to look at Charity with her jaw gone tight again, her chin lifted a little higher into the air. About ready to throw a punch, Charity thinks, the spitfire of Vanessa returned once more.
“Had one in university, didn’t I?” Vanessa says.
It’s enough to conjure another imagined version of her in Charity’s mind: Vanessa, sat atop a Harley with her blonde hair flicking in the wind, a black leather jacket pulled tight around her from. It’s a hell of a picture, that, one that makes Charity swallow down a lump in her throat as her eyebrows lift higher. “Did you really?”
The challenging demeanour falls away again in an instant, Vanessa’s face splitting in two with the force of her smile. A bubble of laughter tumbles off the edge of her lips, a sparkle of mischief twinkling bright in her eyes. “Wouldn’t you like to know?” she asks, running her hand back across the seat to the edge, yanking upwards until it lifts. She pulls a key from inside the compartment she’s opened, holding it up proudly for Charity to see before sticking it into the ignition.
Charity rolls her eyes. “No wonder you’re such a rubbish spy.”
They’ve even had the forethought for helmets, Vanessa’s lot; tucked away safely in a sealed bin in another corner of the barn. A couple pairs of those daft, oversized safety glasses, too, that Vanessa had insisted they wear despite Charity’s grumble of discontent.
She’s grateful for it, now, with the wind whipping harsh around them. For the musty jumper, too, that’s taken much of the sting out of the crisp morning air as it rushes past her arms.
She clutches Vanessa’s waist as they round another bend, following in the lean that Vanessa guides them into. She ducks down enough behind her to block most of the air as it bunches up forcefully in the movement, smacking hard against Vanessa’s sleeves in what would surely be a raucous of noise, if only she could hear the fabric flapping over the sound of the engine.
The bike rumbles loudly beneath them, though, chucking every few miles as if it might like to give out, the purr and the whines and the roar drowning out everything but the lash of the wind as it thunders past her ears. As steady and persistent as the road below.
Charity lifts her chin, once they’re driving straight again, peeking over Vanessa’s shoulder at the motorway stretching in front of them, sunlight still burning low across the green fields surrounding and sparking a warm glow across the asphalt. They’re headed North, towards a private airfield Vanessa says isn’t too far – she’d sworn as much as she’d lugged the bike over to a canister of petrol, trying to assuage Charity’s fear that there wouldn’t be enough.
Truthfully, the uncertainty had been slightly tainted with shock at the preparedness of Vanessa’s people, far more accustomed herself to simply having to make do. There’s been enough missions in her history that’ve demanded an ability to fly by the seat of her pants, it’s overwhelming a bit to have someone else so clearly a step ahead of whatever they might need. Unnerving, even, to consider a world where an employer would care this much about her safety.
The thoughts had tumbled effortlessly to Bails from there, to his smug face as he’d handed over the mission brief that had brought her and Vanessa together. She can feel them skittering back to him again, her gut already churning as if he might be able to reach her though her mind, her muscles tensing with the arrival of fear.
“Y’okay?” Vanessa yells over the noise, half her words caught up in the wind as they fly past Charity’s head.
Of course, Vanessa notices those things – spends half her time communicating with just her hands, the other half with only her eyes. Charity returns the favour by squeezing gently at Vanessa’s waist, not trusting her own voice to hold strong enough to be heard. The fear bubbles angrily in her belly, rising upwards to blaze a trail through her chest; a heartburn called Bails.
The corners of Vanessa’s mouth tug in answer, lifting for a moment into a tiny little grin before her brow furrows in concentration once more. Her eyes are hidden behind the reflective lenses of her glasses, but Charity can picture them in her mind, now, the colours of Vanessa’s expressions growing clearer with each minute spent in her presence.
It’s one of those things she’s learning about Vanessa, added to the list of traits she’s unearthed: the Girl Scout level preparedness and all the words hidden in a brush of her fingers and that niggling belief she seems to have in the good of the world. Bits of who she really is, maybe, but remnants of years of training, too, so ingrained in her now it’s hard to separate the two.
It’d be easier if she could split them apart, Charity thinks; make a list of the things that are Vanessa the woman and Vanessa the spy and take only the parts that will make them both safe. Vanessa the woman is who had cried out in ecstasy against her, panting and radiant at the breaking of dawn. Vanessa the spy is someone else, someone with an agenda she’s still trying to figure out and employer she still won’t name.
Charity’s more like Vanessa the spy as far as she’s concerned: wading through an ulterior motive she’s not yet ready to invest in, clinging to a desire that will ultimately only suit herself. God, she’s a walking disaster if Vanessa were only willing to look a little harder, capable of destruction at every turn.
Not like the Vanessa she imagines, with her proper childhood and the chance to choose her career and her agency that seems to care about its agents above all else. Charity nearly laughs out loud as she tries to fit herself into a life like that, baulking at the very idea of that kind of goodness in her own life.
It’s not the sort of thing she deserves, that – she’ll never be worthy of the light that drifts and floats around Vanessa like a constant breeze, never be entitled to a future that looks so full of promise.
Maybe, she thinks, I’d best remember that.
The airfield is as close as Vanessa had said; less than an hour after leaving the little cottage, they turn off the road toward a collection of large metal-sided buildings. Hangars, she knows, though they’re all sort of fashioned to look more like barns in the middle of the open field. It’s not much of a disguise, but it does the trick enough that even she doesn’t notice the runway along the back stretch of the property at first, only mildly hidden by a spattering of trees.
The sun has risen high enough in the sky now that the summer heat feels near stifling with the bike slowed down and the wind stilled once more. Charity carefully lifts a hand from Vanessa’s waist to tug at her jumper, lifting the fabric from her chest for a moment.
Vanessa guides them over to the furthest of the buildings, the only one with the doors pushed back slightly on their runners, Charity’s hand returning quickly to her side to hold on as Vanessa drives the bike through the nearly-too-small crack to stop alongside a small private plane.
It lacks all the fuss and markings of most, simplified to a clean white paintjob and a touch of gold around the door. Nicer than even Bails’, Charity thinks, trying not to gawp at yet another flash of the wealth of the company Vanessa’s working for. It tickles at the fear inside, all this capability they clearly have, their reach of what’s possible more than she wants to consider.
Vanessa the spy flashes through her mind.
Vanessa kills the engine once her feet have dropped to the ground, holding the bike steady as she yanks the helmet from her head and the glasses from her face. Charity drops her eyes to the clench of muscles in Vanessa’s legs, watching as they jump against the teeter of the bike, keeping them both upright as Charity pulls her arms from around Vanessa’s waist.
It’s easier, that; to focus only on the strength and stability of Vanessa, to look away from the man who appears at the top of the stairs and brings with him more of that feeling of impending doom she can’t seem to shake.
“Woodfield,” the man calls, “Weren’t expecting you for another hour still.”
Charity looks up just in time to see Vanessa’s face split in answer, a wide smile lighting right up into the blue of her eyes. “Barton,” she hollers back to him, “They let you out the Dales?”
She takes it as a sign to swing her leg over the bike, stepping away from it and Vanessa and whatever is about to unfold. Vanessa follows her lead, climbing off the bike with a graceful ease that she knows would flutter at arousal in another time but instead gets lost somewhere in the churn of discomfort in her gut. She can feel Barton’s eyes on her as she stumbles back another step, ducking her head so the helmet can block more of her face from view.
“Good behaviour,” Barton laughs, his steps echoing in the hangar as he bounds down the stairs of the airplane to meet Vanessa at the bottom. He scoops her up in a hug in an instant, her helmet still dangling from her fingertips, tight enough that Charity’s certain Vanessa’s toes are mere seconds from being lifted off the ground.
It’s a distraction technique, though, she realizes with a start, lifting her eyes quickly to watch the slight movement of his lips, whatever he’s saying too quiet to be overheard but enough of something else to return a rigidity to Vanessa’s spine. Her heartrate speeds up in an instant, thumping out a beat that feels an awful lot like run, run, run.
Vanessa pushes away from him, her brow furrowed as she does. “You’re not,” she says, glancing briefly over her shoulder to catch Charity’s eye. “As far as the agency’s concerned, it’s only me you’re extracting.” She drags her attention back to Barton, standing up straighter as she lays out the demand, looking up to his face with a fury that makes her seem taller, somehow. Her voice has gone as sturdy as her posture, no space left between the words for an argument he doesn’t appear ready to make.
Almost like a scolded child he is, nodding along, but his expression remains unchanged: appraising and untrusting despite the gentle tone as he speaks. “Sure that’s the best choice?”
The guilt hits like a wave then, smacking hard against Charity’s chest. She sways with the weight of it, stumbling backwards even further. It’s a lot, what she’s asked Vanessa to do for her, much more than she’s asked of anyone else for longer than she cares to think about. Lie to her people, for starters; hide Charity’s presence from her employer. And now, to ask another agent to do the same.
Too much, Charity thinks, Far too much.
But once more, Vanessa is unwavering: her spine holding straight as she lifts her chin. “I’m certain, ta,” she says, the sharp line of her jaw resurfacing in a determined fervour. She turns to set her helmet atop the bike seat, leaning enough as she does so that she manages to catch the downturn of Charity’s gaze, hidden still behind the reflection of her glasses. Charity imagines that doesn’t stop Vanessa from seeing the troubled waters of fear she’s wading through, though, reading her like the turning pages of a book.
She’s smiling softly when Charity finally musters enough courage to meet her eye. Vanessa steps forward, around the bike, crossing the tentative threshold Charity’s laid out in front of herself, cautious in her movements as though Charity is a wild animal about to be spooked by her presence. She reaches up with gentle hands that settle on either side of the safety glasses on Charity’s face, pausing for a moment to make room for Charity to shy away, for Charity to lock herself up behind them in the hopes that she’ll remain unrecognizable.
It’s another opportunity to run, Charity knows, to kick off and leave without Barton ever actually seeing her face. Vanessa’s fingers tap softly at the tops of her cheeks, patient as she waits for some sign that she can pull them off. Charity nods, slowly, eyes glued to Vanessa’s as they come into a clearer view.
“Hi,” Vanessa murmurs, stroking a strand of hair out of the way.
She should protest, Charity thinks, should tell Vanessa this isn’t going to work, tell her of the bitter ends she’s brought about with merely her presence and warn Vanessa off from the inevitable. It’d be better for everyone if she were to leave now, to pretend like she’s never even known the woman stood before her. Pretend like she’s not already bared pieces of herself to this person that makes her feel warm and safe and a million things she’s always been told weren’t hers to have. Because she doesn’t deserve it, she knows she doesn’t, but, God, wouldn’t it be lovely if she did?
“Look at me,” Vanessa whispers, tugging Charity out of her thoughts by reaching for her hands. She laces their fingers together, lifting them to settle securely against her chest. The thud of her heartbeat is just barely recognizable where it pushes at the back of Charity’s hand. “Just out of the country, yeah?”
Charity shifts her gaze to Barton stood beside the plane, watching them both with that analytical sort of way she’s seen on countless other faces before. He’s trained, too, she knows; surely able to deduce something from the way her body seems to lean towards Vanessa’s without much conscious thought. She yanks her hands out of Vanessa’s grasp, dropping them to her side and trying with all her might to ignore the slight fall of Vanessa’s smile.
Vanessa nods, like she knows or she understands or is trying to communicate something that Charity’s too shaken up to figure out. “He’s daft, Barton,” she says loud enough for him to hear, smirking when he lets out an indignant ‘Oi!’. “But not daft enough to cross me.” She tilts her head towards the plane, to the promise of an escape, to a way out on the other side.
It should feel like climbing a mountain, Charity thinks, should feel insurmountable and debilitating and all those unnerving, gut-churning things she’s felt before when the path in front of her was paved with uncertainty. It should feel like it did when Cain was beside her still, when they didn’t know where they were going or how they were getting there or whether they’d be alive come morning.
Because it’s not quite rational, this – boarding a plane with a woman she’s only known for less than a handful of days, with another agent she says will keep his word. Without even a clue of the people they work for or the organization she could potentially be entangling herself with.
It’s completely mad, all of it, trusting another spy.
Only, it doesn’t feel it. Not when Vanessa’s looking at her, softness crinkling at the edges of her eyes, a smile lifting the very corners of her mouth. It feels familiar, the warmth that bubbles up in her chest, like that summer day that’s always just a breath from the front of her mind.
For once, she doesn’t let the rest of the memory flood her senses, doesn’t lose herself in the rhythm of her stumbling feet and the stream of tears racing down her cheeks. She doesn’t even hear the gunshot in her head as she tugs the helmet from her head, doesn’t remember all the ache and hurt and loneliness that came after what was good.
For the first time, she clings only to the illusion of safety.
“Where are we going, then?” Charity whispers as the plane taxis across the runway, building speed before it lifts into the sky. She feels her stomach bottom out when it does, her insides lurching for a moment as the ground starts to fall away.
Vanessa has grown altogether more relaxed since the door of the plane closed behind them. She’d chucked off her jumper the minute she’d settled into a seat, balling it up beside her head and leaning into it to look out the window. Her eyelids appear to be getting heavier the longer she watches the world grow further and further away below them, all the tension she’s been wearing like a cape slowly leaving her body with every passing minute.
She looks different, Charity thinks, as though she’s peeled off a layer of armour, too.
“Somewhere quiet,” Vanessa answers, twisting in her seat enough that Charity catches a glimmer of blue before her eyes flutter closed. She sighs softly, the breath and the sound drifting across her lips in a way that squeezes at Charity’s stomach.
“Have you been there before?” Charity presses, dipping her chin in the hopes that Vanessa might open her eyes to look at her again.
Vanessa reaches a hand across the space between them instead of answering right away, settling it atop Charity’s thigh with a sort of intimate familiarity. Her thumb rubs against Charity’s jeans, sparking a chill that twists its way up into her chest. “I have,” she murmurs after a while, tendrils of sleep already slipping a slight rasp into her voice. It doesn’t take much longer before her grasp starts to go slack, her breath evening out to match the constant buzz of air around the plane.
It’s in the coming quiet that Charity finally loses the tentative hold she’s had on her thoughts, the rest of the memory forcing its way to the forefront of her mind. It feels like tumbling backwards off a ledge, one last huff from Vanessa all it takes to suddenly return to her own heavy eyelids beneath the blazing sun.
There’s a rustle of leaves as clear as day, birds chirping in harmony to the breeze floating across her skin. The smell of airplane is overtaken by something else, something she no longer has a name for but can recall with all this burning clarity. The blanket scratches beneath her fingertips, still rough in places with the starchy newness it’d had in the store.
She remembers picking it out, drawn to the swipes of green and greys unlike anything she’d ever seen before. Her mother had hummed and hawed over it, pretending as though she hadn’t enough change to buy it, too. Charity had seen the lie in the twinkle of her eye, giggling raucously as they’d skipped over to join the queue with the blanket safely in her mother’s arms. It’d only been through the wash once before their trip that day, not yet soft in all its spots.
Not like her mother’s hand as it had stroked down the side of her cheek, drifting back up her face to tangle into the curls of her hair. “Sleep, my sweet one,” her mother had whispered, each of her words wrapped so lovingly in the warmth of her laughter. It’d been like a cocoon, that; the perfect place to land.
Her dark hair had been dancing in the wind the last time Charity had looked at her, before the pull of sleep had engulfed her. She would’ve stared longer, she thinks, if she’d known what was to come. Would’ve watched her mother until every piece of her was impossible to forget.
Vanessa’s head drops to her shoulder, yanking Charity back to the present for a second. Her mother’s laughter fades as she looks around her plane, her heart thudding painfully within her chest as she braces for what comes next. There’s no halt to this memory, no off switch when it comes to the darkness of after that’s already pushing at the edges of her mind.
“Charity,” she can hear her mother yelling, “Charity, run!”
She’d never been awoken like that before, with such urgency, with such a frantic need to rip herself from the comfort of her dreams. Her mother’s face had been pinched tight when she’d finally found it, all the veins in her neck visible as she’d fought against the man holding her arms.
Charity remembers a flash of something that had been dark and unfamiliar at the time, pushed into her mother’s hair to still her movements. She knows it now, knows the intent of the men who had come for them that day.
“Mum,” she remembers screaming, leaping from the blanket to rush across the clearing to her. She hadn’t made it there, grabbed instead by another pair of hands that had tossed her away hard enough that her back had thudded against the tree. She can remember the scrape of the bark through her shirt, the air tumbling from her lungs with the force of the blow. Her heartrate had skyrocketed in response, adrenaline rushing in to fill her veins.
The start of the fire within her, she thinks sometimes, that crash against the tree sparking the need to fight that still sits heavy in her gut.
But her mother’s eyes had been pleading then, her voice cracking as she’d begged Charity to run. She’d dropped to her knees as the grip around her arms had tightened, her head tipping sideways towards her shoulder as the gun had pressed harder into her skull. “Don’t look back,” she’d cried.
And so, Charity had obeyed, scrambling away as fast as her legs would allow her. It’d been like a dream then, knowing she needed to scream but no sound echoing off her lips, her body struck immobile except for the pounding of her feet against the grass, the gasping of her breath as the tears had begun pooling behind her eyes. She’d prayed instead, prayed for someone to come and save them.
The crack of the gunshot had come next, louder than anything she’d ever heard before, the sharp pop of the bullet like an arrow barreling through her heart. She hadn’t known then, what it meant, but she’d known well enough to let the sob rip from her mouth. Known well enough to run until her legs gave out, too afraid to look back and disobey her mother’s final words.
It takes every last bit of self control she has to keep from crying out in the quiet of the plane, the push of tears in her eyes as painful as they’ve ever been. She lifts a hand to her mouth, urging the ache to slip back down into the valley of her belly, untouched and fermenting where she’s always needed it to be. It doesn’t change a thing, all this hurt, doesn’t bring back the one person who tried so hard to keep her safe.
Vanessa shuffles in her sleep beside her, fingers tensing where they still rest against Charity’s leg. The warmth burgeons against, contrast to the shadows threatening to overtake her.
Too much, Charity thinks, Too much for someone like you.
I'm still hanging over on tumblr, if you'd like to say hello (or read my rambling about writing life).
Chapter 11: Eleven
Charity takes her next step.
Six months. Seven drafts. Finally, I have won the battle.
Charity Dingle, you are the most stubborn creature I have ever written.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
She doesn’t manage to sleep. For hours, Charity counts the ins and outs of Vanessa’s breath like seconds passing on the clock and prays for a reprieve that never comes. By the time there’s nothing but clouds to look at outside the window, the ball of ache inside her chest has morphed to stone, more painful with every beat of her heart.
It’s near the end of all this warmth, she knows, all this comfort brought about simply by being in Vanessa’s presence. There’s an illusion of safety here that she’s been clinging to for days that’ll be stripped away the second they land, disappearing in the face of an employer who will be waiting for Vanessa’s arrival on the other side.
And she can’t go back to that world, now she’s teetering on the edge of it.
Years she has waited for a moment just like this, when she could finally unwind the proverbial noose from around her neck and walk free in a life of her own creation. No longer a pawn in someone else’s scheme, no longer a missing piece in someone else’s puzzle, no longer a puppet on the end of someone else’s strings. For the first time in more than a decade, there’s no one at her back, whispering directions on what to do next.
She hadn’t thought it would look like this, though: uncertain and wobbling and so chock full of risk that bile stings at the base of her throat. It’s not relief that’s settling into her bones now, spreading through her like a slow-moving fog, but rather resignation.
Because there’s no other choice but this.
There’s not an out, she knows, if she goes with Vanessa. It’ll just end with another recruitment, once Vanessa’s employers discover who she is and what exactly she’s capable of. It’ll be another lifetime spent serving their agency’s wishes on offer, wrapped up neatly in bribery and coercion without an opportunity to refuse. No, it’s safer to leave now; safer to duck into the uncertainty of the rest of her years spent running from Bails and all the chaos he can create.
She tries not to think too hard about it, while Vanessa snuffles in sleep beside her, desperate not to let her head fill with memories of a time already lived in the dark corners of alleys, tucked up small in doorways to hide from the beating rain. It’ll be different this time round, she hopes, maybe a tiny cottage at the edge of the world where she can wait out her days in solitude.
It’s no use to fight it, though: the demons flood her thoughts mercilessly, twisting and curling themselves into the hurt that’s already built up like concrete inside, solidifying further into something that feels inky and black in the middle of her chest.
There’s an effortlessness in tumbling into the aching, to give in to the wounds that will never heal. Because she’s seen it before; how they fester and reopen, how they prick and pull until they’re gaping enough to swallow her whole. And they will, she thinks, they will eat her alive and leave nothing but carnage in their wake, another trail of people left behind whose only fault was daring to get close enough to be destroyed.
Saying goodbye to Vanessa will be just another blow, another plaster ripped from her skin and left to burn until there’s nothing but scar tissue left in its place.
Only, there’s a spark of light in the resignation. It sings like hope above the inky blackness, praying that running now will be the thing that saves Vanessa. That she’ll be better off without Charity and her darkness to extinguish all the good in her, returned home to a life and a family and an agency that will protect her from the snaking tendrils of Bails’ control. That they’ll guard the glimmer of faith that lives inside her like a beating heart and keep her safe within an existence and a future that she’d chosen for herself once – a life that is stable and decent in all the ways she’s been for Charity these last few days.
It’s the final nail in the coffin of Charity’s decision.
Because Vanessa’s the sunrise: the softening shades of navy blue, the curls of orange and pink just beginning to lick at the undersides of the clouds, the yellowed brilliance of the sun as it finally breaks the horizon. She’s new beginnings, bursting in to split apart the wisps of night, and she’s done exactly that since the moment Charity had boarded that very first plane. She’s stubbornly resilient, if nothing else.
And it’s fitting, really, that their entire history has been tinged with those same golden beams of light, two days together spent waking with the dawn. That’s when she’ll remember Vanessa most, she thinks. Just as she remembers her mother in a burst of the wind or the tickle of grass beneath her fingertips, in the rustle of leaves above her head and the warmth of sunshine against her cheeks and that all-consuming feeling of coming home.
She remembers all of them with something good, with something that surges through her like that sense of belonging always has – forged over and over amidst the turmoil of this job, a ping of familiarity that made it possible to survive. Because it’s the people who have made it all bearable, living in a world of Bails’ creation, even when he plucked them away. It’s the people who’ve always been the hardest to lose.
Cain, with his inconsumable cups of coffee pressed into her quaking hands each time her mind began to spiral down into the shadows. Moira and the little kindnesses hidden in mission bags: oversized night shirts and comfortable shoes and reminders of Charity’s own humanity while out in the field. The woman who’d snuck gadgets into back pockets with whispered instructions, whose devices were held tight against Charity’s skin by bra straps and waist bands and her unfailing believe that Charity would always be able to make it out alive.
And before all of them, the man who’d kissed her good morning when she hadn’t brushed her teeth yet, smiling even as she’d shied away in embarrassment. He’d come with a promise of forever – marriage and children and a future that had never been given the chance to see the light of day.
He’s taken so much, Bails, entire lifetimes chipped into pieces until they were unrecognizable. It’s near impossible to make out where the path leads next when every step so far has a hole to mark it, craters of loss she can feel herself tipping over into if she peers at them too long.
Only, she’s tired of falling now. There’s an exhaustion settled into her bones that throbs with the very idea of trying to remain strong for one second longer, that resists the very notion that Vanessa’s people could win. Because there’s nothing left to win anymore, no future left to reach out and try to grab hold of.
There is only letting go.
Vanessa’s breathing changes suddenly then, picking up speed before tumbling into a hitching gasp as she sputters awake. She tips backwards in her seat as it happens, yanking her hand from Charity’s leg and her head from Charity’s shoulder, leaving behind a chill in their absence. Her eyes go wild, bouncing frantically around the plane while she makes sense of her surroundings.
It takes a minute, before she returns from whatever world she’d been in. A bad dream, Charity assumes, something heavy and foreboding settling into Vanessa’s subconscious, too. She watches as Vanessa’s shoulders hike back up around her ears, all that calm she’d been wearing when they boarded drifting off to somewhere else, somewhere distant and unreachable.
When Vanessa turns to look at her again, there are storm clouds behind her eyes.
There’s a piece of her that screams out at the obvious distress splashed across Vanessa’s face. It’s loud and persistent as it hollers at her to pull Vanessa in against her chest, to rock her side to side until the thumping of her heart slows back down to something manageable. That’s what Vanessa would do, she knows; reach out and comfort like it’s second nature.
But there’s a voice of rationality inside her head, too, that reminds her how much safer it is to begin the process of detaching now. That knows how much easier it will be to let the walls reconstruct between them and stop crossing the divide into… this. This gravity.
That’s exactly what it is with Vanessa and it’s precisely what has made her so easy to open up to. There’s a pull between them that’s been impossible to ignore, that still feels like electrical currents charging through the air, connecting the tips of Vanessa’s fingers to Charity’s own skin. But she’ll be burned, she thinks, if they touch again; marked for all eternity with a tattoo of this moment, here, together.
“Sorry,” Vanessa says softly, wiping at the corner of her mouth where a small trail of drool had formed while she’d slept. The edges of her eyes crinkle as she offers up a tentative smile, the final remnants of sleeping lifting slowly from her expression.
The god damn sun, Charity thinks, watching as the storm retreats from behind Vanessa’s eyes and the blue clears back to that shade of summer sky she’s grown accustomed to these last few days. There’s an ease to the way Vanessa looks at her now, as though whatever obstinance had made her gaze so hard at the beginning has been carved away at, roughed down into something smooth. Something that softens even now, lifting away whatever brittle bits had surfaced in her mind while she’d slept.
Only, it doesn’t do a thing to alleviate the pain settled like a lead weight in the center of Charity’s chest. If anything, that softness in Vanessa’s eyes only serves to make her want to scream. It tugs at the ache until she feels as if she might like to rip it from her lungs and go back to the beginning. Before Bails, before the agency, before this list of people she’ll never have again.
Anger sparks in her belly instead, static and burning as it tightens its way through her limbs.
She wants to unlearn this feeling that’s smuggled its way into her gut, that yells out at her that she needs Vanessa. Wants to unravel this craving that has burrowed into her bones and swears that everything will be fine if she just leans forward and kisses her. She wants, more than anything, to unweave this desire to hold onto something good that she can never, ever fulfill.
Agencies find ways to break bonds between agents, she knows that, has seen it herself time and time again. They’re excellent at severing ties, claiming safety in all the places where Charity has always tasted selfishness. The agency first. She knows Vanessa’s people will do it to them too, if she were to follow her back into her world – just a lost soul clinging to a tiny beacon in the darkness. They’d squash it faster than she could muster up a protest, shattering whatever’s simmering between them in some half-dished attempt at maintaining the greater good.
If Vanessa even wanted her, that is. She’s probably already drinking in breaths that feel like a great relief, Charity thinks, her lungs expanding further than they have for days now at the possibility of no longer having such a burden at her back. It’ll be good for Vanessa, to say goodbye. A chance to start anew without a flicker of guilt to hold her down.
And Vanessa being okay matters more than the fearful inner voice that begs Charity not to go.
“Almost there,” she offers flippantly, shifting in her seat to pull her gaze from Vanessa’s. She tries to garner some interest in the front of the cabin, but everything looks sort of blurred and unimportant now that she knows the life that’s waiting for her on the other side.
“How long was I out?” Vanessa asks, steadying her breathing as she runs her fingers through the knotted mess of her hair. Charity recognizes the rhythm of the technique she’s using – four counts in, seven seconds held, eight back out. Her heart must still be racing, she thinks, the dream still too close.
She shrugs, squeezing her fingers together in her lap. “A while.” The plane starts to chuck in that way they do, signalling that they’ll be beginning their descent before too long. The clouds will grow thinner outside the window, whatever country Vanessa’s people have brought them to appearing slowly through the tufts.
Vanessa sighs, leaning forward slightly in her seat. “S’pose that means you’ve decided then?” she questions softly, angling herself as if trying to catch Charity’s gaze.
She can’t look at her, though, can’t see the defeat or the disappoint or whatever else is going to rush into Vanessa’s eyes once she knows that this is the end. That, hard as she’s tried, Charity won’t be coming along on whatever pipe dream has been concocted in her mind. Charity drops her eyes to her lap, tugging roughly at the seam of her jeans.
“And there’s nowt I can say to convince you otherwise, yeah?” It’s not defeat in her tone where Charity is expecting it; Vanessa steps back into business with that same sort of effortlessness she’s had when meeting everything else. Impenetrable, almost, like nothing has quite touched her.
Charity turns slowly to look at her, ready then for the jutted-forward chin and sheer determination written plainly across her face. She’s not prepared for the shimmer in wide, baby blues she finds in their place. Vanessa the professional, but Vanessa the human, too. “No, babe,” Charity manages, feeling the words catch in her throat.
Vanessa the spy, Vanessa the woman.
Vanessa scrambles to her feet then, tumbling past Charity and into the aisle. She wipes roughly at her cheeks as she moves, hurrying towards one of the overhead compartments at the very front of the plane. “You’ll have to be quick, when we land,” she says, tugging on the latch and pulling free a carry-all when it opens. “Barton won’t taxi us to the terminal – there’ll be a car or summat waiting for me.” She frowns, dropping the bag onto the seat and unzipping it. “You take it, though, it’ll be easier to get out of the airport in that than on foot.” She stumbles back down the aisle towards the rucksack Charity had dropped on an empty seat when they’d boarded, grabbing it and shuffling back to the carry-all to begin packing the contents of one into the other. “This’ll be easier to carry,” she mutters by way of explanation.
Quick and efficient, Vanessa is, with her jaw worried so tight it looks as if it might snap. She zips the bag closed and then stares at it for a moment, her brow furrowing as her hand slips into her back pocket to pull free the lockpicking set she’s kept close at arms for days now. She chooses the sharpest tool from the pile – the one Charity had used to strip the wires in the car – and rips into one of the shoulder straps of the bag. She slides her fingers into the gap, digging around as though she’s searching for something.
They emerge with a small tracking device a moment later.
The bark of angry laughter is quick to burst from Charity’s lips, her eyes closing as she drops her chin to her chest. Of course, she thinks, of course Vanessa’s people have been watching all this time. And how truly righteous of Vanessa, to have left it so long, to only be playing this card in a moment when it will suit her – to make Charity think she can be trusted. To make Charity think she has her best interests at heart even now, as they’re parting.
“When were you going to tell me about that?” Charity growls, rising from her seat to stalk down the aisle towards Vanessa. She takes the offending object easily from Vanessa’s fingers, lifting it towards the light to get a proper look.
It’s top quality, that much is certainly clear, not any larger than a ten pence coin. Dismissible, if she hadn’t spent all these years trained to spot things just like this. This one is silent and smooth, though, without all the obnoxiousness that had come along with the tracking devices the agency had supplied herself and Cain on rare occasions. Just another flicker of their wealth, really, an obvious sign of what Vanessa’s people are truly capable of.
A spike of fear churns amidst the anger in her gut.
Vanessa sighs, snatching the device back and tossing it to the floor. She covers it with her trainer, pressing it into the carpet until a telltale crack sounds out. She steps back slowly, eyes trained on Charity’s face, to reveal it snapped in two. “You could make kicking off an Olympic sport, yeah?”
Charity frowns, kicking at the broken pieces on the floor. It feels like walls closing in, to know there’ve been eyes on them for days now, when all she’s been trying so desperately to do is disappear. “They’ve been watching us.”
Vanessa scoffs, tugging roughly at the handle on the bag. “Me, actually, not you.” She lifts it in one quick movement, shoving it in Charity’s direction. It lands with a thud against Charity’s chest, her arms closing mechanically around it. “And you should be thanking them an’ all, or we’d be stuck somewhere in a car run out of petrol with your lot breathing down our necks.” She huffs as she turns away, dropping into an empty seat and folding her arms up across her chest.
The plane tilts suddenly, twisting enough that Charity catches a glimpse of the world slowly coming into view even as she loses her footing and lands hard against one of the seat backs.
“There’s one in the car an’ all,” Vanessa adds, pulling her knees up to her chest, “So you’ll have to dump it somewhere if you’re so set on running.”
It’s green below, beyond even her own comprehension. Bright and beautiful to a painful degree. The clouds part slowly, but she can see it now.
“Which is daft, if you ask me,” Vanessa continues, indignant as ever.
She knows where they are, once the cliffs come into view, can remember clearly arriving here as a child aboard a boat, her fingers tangled up in the dancing waves of her mother’s hair. She’d registered the green then, too: green as far as the eye could see, green to the edges of the earth. Green beneath the tears that had welled in her mother’s eyes.
A gasp catches in her throat, lodged against the lump that has formed. It’s not home, not really, but it’s close enough.
“You won’t know,” Vanessa murmurs, digging her chin into the tops of her knees, her eyes trained on the world outside the window, too. “When it’s all over.”
Charity lowers herself slowly into a seat, clutching tight to the bag in her lap. It’s heavy, loaded to the brim with things she’d never even think to grab but that Vanessa has felt necessary for this next step. Girl Scout, echoes in her head, building into a loop that drowns out everything else.
Because she can’t look at Vanessa and see the tears swimming in her eyes. She can’t think about how little time they have left together, when she can hear the landing gear moving beneath the plane, readying for the runway that is rushing towards them.
It’d felt like some almighty moment, back in the parking garage; the instance where life as she knew it changed forever. There’d been a poignancy to seeing Cain in the side mirror, gun aimed in her direction, every bit of security she’d known for decades ripping away from her grasp like flesh stripped from bone.
But this… this is different. This is really it; the rest of her life, now, spent on the run.
The airport appears in the distance. The ground rushes closer. The landing gear hits the runway.
And all of it feels like stepping off the edge of a cliff.
“Be safe, yeah?” Vanessa pleads.
Plummeting into the great unknown.
The motel is quiet, off the beaten path and remote enough from the tiny village that Charity feels like she’s made the right choice when she walks through the door.
The woman behind the desk barely blinks when she pays for a few days stay with a handful of the bills she’d discovered in one of the pockets of Vanessa’s hastily packed bag. They’re crisp and clean and without corresponding serial numbers, just as Charity had expected from Vanessa’s people. Although, they certainly have each of those numbers on file and will be waiting for the moment they appear in circulation.
The woman gives her a key without much fuss and she doesn’t stare too hard at Charity’s face or ask a bunch of questions Charity’s not yet sure how to answer. It’s comforting to imagine that the whole interaction will quickly be forgotten, tossed aside in favour of the episode of Jeremy Kyle playing on a screen beneath the desk.
The room is tucked around a corner towards the end of the hallway on the second floor. She keeps her hood pulled up around her head as she shoves the key in the lock, grateful for the mess her curls have become if only for the shelter of her face. She can feel the cameras watching as clearly as the device still pressed tight against her skin, but there’s a voice in her head that swears it’s better now to be unmemorable than invisible.
When the door clicks shut behind herself, she finally takes a minute to breathe.
There’s a bed that takes up the space in the middle of the room – a single with a deep hollow that runs through the center of the mattress. To the right, a tiny loo with one of those half-size tubs and a shower head that looks like it won’t do much more than trickle. A mini fridge sits beneath the window, unplugged, and a crappy tv hangs from a rather unstable looking mount on the wall.
It’s not much and yet, somehow, it’s everything.
Charity drops herself onto the mattress, squeezing her eyes shut when it groans in protest at her weight. The backpack falls easily from her shoulders, another relief after so much time spent carrying it. It’s been hours since she abandoned the car, miles crossed on foot to build a bit of distance.
She’d thought about pulling the bag apart earlier, scouring the contents for another tracking device and chucking whatever excess Vanessa had seen fit to include but probably wasn’t necessary. While she still had the car, maybe. But it hadn’t felt safe, to sit behind the wheel any longer than she had to, her focus well and truly trained on simply getting as far away from Vanessa and the airport as she could.
And, of course, it had started to rain not long after she’d tossed the keys into a ditch.
She pulls the damp jumper from her skin first, throwing it into the start of a pile on the floor. She toes off her trainers and her jeans are added soon after, peeled from her legs as she shivers. There’s gooseflesh across her arms when she ducks beneath the drip drip of the shower head. The water is warm, though, and that’s enough.
The little things are enough.
She can remember clearly a time in her life when a chance to bathe was a delicacy meant to be cherished, that patch of time between the school and the agency when she’d had nowhere to go but the streets. How refreshing it had been, to play with the soft spirals of her own hair as they dried, focused on something other than her father’s face as he had slammed the door.
When the feeling has returned to her limbs and there’s no longer a rat’s nest atop her head, she steps out of the shower and wraps herself carefully in one of the supplied towels. The bag is still sat atop the duvet on the bed, as if waiting patiently for her to finally unpack the contents.
She tugs the rest of the cash out of the side pocket first, laying it out across the bed and counting it three times. She’d spent a fair bit of it on the room, but there’s enough there for at least a few more weeks. Long enough to get out of the country or steal some more, hopefully.
The first thing within the main pocket is another hooded jumper, only slightly damp from where the rain had snuck in around the zipper. She tugs it on over her head, breathing in the unfamiliar smell. Beneath it are a few clean pants, a couple pairs of socks, and a vest top that looks far too small but that stretches easily when she tugs at it. She pulls on one of the pants and a pair of socks before tossing the towel onto the floor and sprawling out across the bed.
There are black tights under the rest of the clothes that look about three sizes too small and she tosses them aside onto the pile on the floor, silently remind herself to at least hang the jeans up to dry in case she needs to move again.
The rest of the contents are pretty straight forward: a torch that’s much brighter than she’s expecting when she flicks it on, a pocketknife that boasts a corkscrew and a nail file, six granola bars that immediately become five, and a burner cell phone she pops open to investigate. She hurls the battery into the pile of wet clothes while she runs her fingers around inside the open compartment, searching for something that feels out of place. When she finds nothing, she tosses it aside, too.
There’s a compass and a first aid kid and a packet of matches that’s wrapped in plastic to protect them from the rain, a water flask and some purification tablets and even a bottle of meal replacement that isn’t set to expire for another few months. She’s thought of everything, Vanessa has, prepared Charity for at least a week or two of making do with just the contents of the bag.
Or a school camping trip, maybe.
She’s prepared her so well, in fact, that she nearly stops looking inside for more and almost misses the small white card buried at the very bottom. The ink has blurred a bit with the seeping in of the rain, but the message and the intent are clear: a phone number and then
In case you change your mind. V.
Thank you, thank you, thank you to everyone who has waited out this monster hiatus with such graceful understanding. Your patience and continued interest means absolutely everything.
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Chapter 12: Twelve
Charity chooses a different path.
Whaaaaa? Yeah, I'm not abandoning this story - it's just been a really strange five months. Hopefully this makes you smile, and I'll see you all back here in less time than the space between chapters 10, 11, and 12.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
She’s been in the country less than twenty four hours when it happens.
She’d filled the day in the motel by pacing the floor, circling uselessly in the space between the bathroom and the bed, mentally rationing out the remaining granola bars and meal replacement drink as if preparing to hunker down might help.
There’d been a plan to stay put for a few days; make use of the money spent on the room. It’d done nothing to quell the nervousness bouncing frantically within her stomach, but it had been a start - somewhere to dig her feet in for a moment, before it was time to leap again. It’s been so long since she’s had roots.
The fear had kept her knee bouncing even when she’d finally lowered herself to sit on the edge of the bed, willing her legs to take solace in the rest. They hadn’t listened until the sun dipped below the horizon, the room cast briefly into shadows before giving way to complete darkness.
There’s no moon in the sky beyond the window now, nor a glow creeping in around the sides of the curtains, and the pitch black lifts some of the weight off her chest. She lies back on the mattress and uncurls her fists, stroking softly at the crescent-shaped ridges left behind in her palms with the pads of her fingers, wondering if all this tension will become permanent in time.
Or whether she’ll ever again find an interlude to the Pandora’s Box of her mind.
The motel room door rattles on its hinges, the tell-tale sound of a key sliding into the lock like a trumpet in the silence. There isn’t time to run, when there’s not a chain on the door to keep it latched, and she kicks herself then for not caring about it earlier. For even thinking that she might still have time to find somewhere more secure.
Her heart stumbles over itself so quickly that she’s not certain it doesn’t momentarily stop.
Just a sliver of light from the hallway stretches across the floor before the door is shut again, the stillness of the room broken open by the breath of another. She moves, then, scrambling backwards on the bed until her spine hits the wall. The mattress groans with the shift of her weight, squeaking like a neon sign pointed in her direction. The breathing gets louder, coming closer, footfalls soft against the worn carpet.
She wonders, distantly, whether this is what it feels like to be blind.
“What part of run wasn’t clear?”
She can’t make out his features in the dark, but they light up inside her mind: sharp stubble and harsh eyes and that irritating way he rolls his lower jaw when he’s mad. She can smell his sweat like he’s fresh from a fight, his breath still heaving slightly as he leans over the side of the bed.
“I really thought you were smarter than that, Moneta.”
She lunges at him before she’s even fully thought it through, filled with an urgent, angry need to wipe what is surely a smug grin off his face. He grabs her wrist before her hand makes contact, chuckling quietly as he tightens his hold.
“Careful, now,” he murmurs, “Don’t give me a good reason.”
Charity twists, yanking her arm free from his fingers. “Aren’t you going to anyways?” Her voice sounds small beneath the lurking weight of his presence, scratchy and raw to even her own ears. She swallows, catching on the lump of panic welling in her throat.
Make it quick, she prays, make it painless.
He laughs again, louder this time. “Nah, not yet.” There’s a shuffling of feet as he moves away, the sound seeming to trace around the bed towards the window. Sure enough, the curtains lift for a moment a second later. “Bails is as daft as ever, but he won’t be for long.”
She swallows once more, the ball of panic shifting lower into her chest. “He hasn’t found me?”
Cain moves, the curtains falling back into place and the sound of his shoes on the carpet the only signs she gets to know it’s happened. She counts out six long strides – one less than it’d taken her to pace the full length of the room – and then a thump like his hand has landed heavily on the doorknob. “Think you should be more concerned that I did.”
He’s gone as quickly as he arrived, one more beam of light from the hallway stretching across the motel room floor before the door shuts behind him. She waits only a beat and then she’s on her feet, frantically pulling on clothing as she rushes to flip on the bathroom light.
Everything from there becomes steps in a meticulous play, long ago written and rehearsed to near perfection: items shoved into the rucksack haphazardly, eyes scanning the room for anything out of place in the dim light. No trace of her time here can be left behind, not a single mark of the few hours spent worrying herself to the very brink.
She pulls the pack of matches from the side pocket of the bag, lifting them carefully from within the plastic and lighting one above the bathroom sink. She swirls the flame around inside the drain, watching as hairs catch and burn. When it starts to lick at her fingers, she drops the match into the drain, the flicker extinguished as it lands in the water settled at the bend of the pipe.
In the small tub, she turns on the shower, twisting the shower head around to catch any flecks of hair she can’t see still stuck to the porcelain. She stumbles back out to the bedroom, collecting up the sheets and the duvet and the single pillow from the bed, hauling them all into the tub beneath the spray. She tosses the single towel she’d used on top of the pile, then leaves the water running, quietly hoping that someone from the motel staff will come by to clean before there’s a flood.
Charity slips back out to the room and grabs those too-small leggings from the crumpled mess within the rucksack, wrapping them quickly around her left hand. She lifts the bag onto her back, looking around the room one last time.
The final step is the most important one: an attempt at erasure of prints that could connect her to this motel. She starts at the window, working backwards towards the door as she wipes every surface with the hand wrapped in the leggings – the window frame, the TV, the mini fridge. She wipes the key she was given for the room and drops it onto the little table beside the bed, easing into the loo to wipe the taps. She finishes at the doorknob, smearing Cain’s prints as well as her own before she peers through the peep hole into the hallway.
It’s quiet beyond, the lights dimmed for the night, so she doesn’t waste any time considering an alternative. She shoves her wrapped hand into her pocket the second the door is open, pulling her hood up over her head as she walks as calmly as possible towards the stairwell. The cameras, maybe, are how Cain found her, how Bails will know that she was here, but there’s no time to erase the feed when there’s an imminent cloud of danger brewing like a storm above her head.
Or it was something else, something she hasn’t even thought of yet, that guided Cain to where she was hiding. He’s known her inside and out for years, been witness to the darkest parts of her life for decades. He knows things about her life that she hopes no one else ever will.
Charity lurches down the stairs towards the first floor, ears pricked to attention. The alarm above the emergency exit door at the bottom is as old as she’d hoped it might be, a short string of wires trailing out of it before disappearing through a hole in the wall. She presses upwards on the very tips of her toes, reaching as far as she can, but only manages to graze them with her fingertips.
Less clean, then, she thinks as she drops back down onto her heels, digging into the rucksack for where she’d stashed the pocket knife. It’s a bit of a favour, maybe, to make as much of a mess as she’s about to – a good reason for the motel management to upgrade their security. At least, that’s what she tells herself as she opens the pocket knife to the corkscrew, clutching it tightly in the hand still wrapped with the leggings.
She pushes up on her toes once more, angling the corkscrew tip so it lines up with where the wires connect to alarm. In one quick movement, she slams it inside, leaping away as sparks rain down her arm. The light on the device flashes once before flickering out.
And just like that, she’s running again, storming out the emergency exit and into the still summer night.
The sun has nearly set before she feels safe enough to stop again, her limbs quivering from overuse. She’d been too afraid to be stationary, hurrying through little blips of towns, limbering over hills and stonewalls and farmer’s fields with some vague sense of direction.
Every woman sat out on the front porch of a tiny cottage had made her heart beat faster, every sheep herder over the cusp of a cliff adding to the building desire to break down and sob. The jeans, still damp when she’d pulled them on back in the motel, have rubbed her skin raw in protest. But finally, finally, the National Park she’d been searching for stretches around her with a gaping nothingness, the well-beaten path far behind her.
There’d been storm clouds looming on the horizon for much of the day, threatening a downpour before the night is through, and the last of the straggling tourists have likely already heeded the warning. The weight of moisture in the air feels equal parts suffocating and free.
She collapses against the base of a tree, tossing the rucksack down beside her, just as the last of the sunset disappears, the light fading softly to muted blues. A memory flashes across her conscious thought; a night just like this one spent huddled in a doorway as the rain fell sideways across the sky.
These moments of stillness have been precious for a long time now, doled out like gifts amidst the reckless patterns of chaos. Every morning, handed over like a gleaming pearl to be cherished. Every night-fall clutched in her fists like the first real, gasping breath after choking.
She’d thought it would make the bitter end an easier pill to swallow: she’s always known it was coming, always braced for the impact of its arrival. Only, now that she’s staring down the barrel of the proverbial gun, it feels too soon.
And it’s not some farfetched belief that there’s more to see or do or accomplish. It’s not some theft of the last shred of faith she had in the world. It’s hollow in a way she hadn’t been anticipating.
As if, maybe, it’s a service to Bails to give up the fight.
The thought hits as sharp as the first drop of rain, slicing through the air to strike her skull with a harsh coldness that tugs the breath from her lungs. It’s followed by another and another until, finally, the clouds open up completely and the world around her is engulfed by the pounding of the rain.
She shivers beneath the tree, tucking herself in tight against the trunk. The rucksack tumbles from her side as she moves, rolling away into the beating rain. She shuffles forward, grabbing it quickly before scurrying back in under cover.
Something scratches beneath her finger where she’s latched on, a sharp edge poking at her palm. She pulls her hand away, staring down at the little white card she’d shoved into the side pocket of the sack.
In case you change your mind. V.
The ink has blurred, blue spots soaking through the once pristine cardstock. It flashes across her vision like new, held between her fingers in the dim light of the motel room; all eleven digits of the phone number as clear as day.
“You won’t know,” Vanessa had murmured, “When it’s all over.”
It’s ridiculous to hope for – she knows it is – but it has to be better, doesn’t it, than wasting away her final days on a promise of her own death? Sat under trees in the pouring rain, praying that Cain doesn’t find her again? That Bails doesn’t track her down?
Doing exactly as he would want her to.
The burner cell is tucked within the big pocket, buried beneath enough clothes that it’s still mostly dry. The battery is stuck further down inside, harder to reach. She shoves it into the compartment and watches as the screen comes to life.
Vanessa will be safe, she hopes, protected by the sheer wealth of power her people herald. It won’t be a death sentence now, she prays, to call her and beg for a lick of the security she can offer. To call her and swear that she was right, maybe; that Bails can’t win this time.
To call her and plead for one more second of all that warmth.
It rings and rings and rings. She considers hanging up, her heart thumping heavy with fear. The rain is insistent, working its way through the tree branches and the hooded sweater to coat her skin. Ten, eleven, twelve times it rings without an answer.
And then –
She very nearly deflates with relief, the sound of Vanessa’s voice on the other end like a beacon of light barreling towards her. Not a train, though, she hopes. She can hear the rain echo through the other end of the receiver, her breath drowning out in the downpour.
“I changed my mind.”
A gasp rushes out on the other end of the line, the sound choked like it’s been tugged by a sob. “Okay,” Vanessa whispers, “Okay, I’ll come get you.”
No, not a train; sunshine.
Two flashes of the headlights, they’d said, as though another car might pull into the park at this hour. Like maybe there’ll be someone else who’ll drive the dirt road as far as it will go and shine a light out towards the hill that rolls down to the lake.
It’s the underbelly of trust, she knows, bared and uncaring of the sharpness of her claws. It ripples out around her, Vanessa’s faith, screaming into the rain-soaked air that Charity is someone worth believing in. That Charity is someone worth fighting for. The feeling makes her skin crawl, as if it’s grown too tight all of a sudden and she needs to shed a layer.
Because she can still hurt her, she knows; she could still dig in at those soft spots Vanessa exposes and take a bite. Even if she doesn’t mean to, even if it’s the last thing in the world she wants to do.
The headlights are brighter than she’s expecting, cast high and illuminating the pouring rain. Almost an hour on the nose, just as Vanessa had said. Charity crouches low in the grasses at the top of the hill, waiting. Every stitch of clothing she’s got on has been soaked through and it’s hard to keep from shivering as she watches.
The headlights flick off, the night somehow darker in the split second of their absence. Once, then twice, the action repeats.
It might not be Vanessa, she thinks. Her people might have tapped that phone with some piece of technology Charity doesn’t even know exists yet. They might’ve used the last two days to convince Vanessa that Charity is better off turned in, interrogated or tortured until every last bit of information inside her brain has been yanked free to be examined.
But it’s impossible to see into the car, in the dark, impossible to know for sure. Fear bubbles up again, louder somehow than it’s been all day.
It’s Vanessa’s voice that pulls her back, the memory of Vanessa’s fingers slipping between her own. I think sometimes the strongest thing a person can do is trust another. Vanessa’s light, shining brighter than any headlight ever could.
Charity stumbles down the hill before her thoughts can catch up with her and drown out the sound of Vanessa in her mind. It’s too late to turn back once she’s moving, too obvious that she’s a human form running through the rain.
She can’t see Vanessa until she’s almost reached the car, standing a step back behind the headlights, every noise drowned out by the rain and the car engine and the thrumming pulse of fear in her veins. She can’t see Vanessa until they’re crashing into each other, until Vanessa is slamming into her chest and wrapping arms around her back with such force it very nearly knocks her off her feet.
It’s something large and unexplainable that keeps her rooted in the moment, when the voices in her head scream out to run. Something vast that she doesn’t quite understand that pulls her arms around Vanessa’s shoulders, that tugs Vanessa closer, that buries her nose in Vanessa’s hair.
“I thought you were dead,” Vanessa breathes out, squeezing tighter. “I thought, I thought –” the sob that breaks the sentence is louder, somehow, than the beating rain. Charity feels Vanessa shudder with the force, feels it crack in her own ribcage. I should be.
Charity shakes her head, closing her eyes. “It’s gonna take a lot more than Bails to take me down.”
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Chapter 13: Thirteen
Charity and Vanessa reunite.
What a year, eh?
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Vanessa’s thought to bring towels.
There are two big, fluffy ones on the backseat when they get in the car that look like the sort you’d find folded neatly on the shelf in some housewife’s linen closet. Vanessa reaches into the back to grab them, depositing both on the armrest between the front seats.
They’re even softer than they look when Charity runs her left hand across them; worn-in as though they’ve been through the wash a few times. Well-loved and long-used.
It feels ages since she’s had anything like that herself. Since she was first handed the keys for her flat back in London, maybe; a gift from the agency for another job well done. There’d been a white duvet on the bed when she’d moved in, crisp as a showroom, and she’d washed it three times in a row just to drag the starchy stiffness from it.
The towel is like a warm hug when Vanessa loops one around Charity’s shoulders, carefully pulling it tight and managing to drown out the chill of the pouring rain with that Vanessa feeling. It swirls around inside Charity’s chest, twisting and tugging until the butterflies in her stomach have spun themselves into knots.
“I’ve got dry clothes, too,” Vanessa says, turning to reach into the backseat again. Water drips from the end of her ponytail as she moves, adding to the puddle across her upper back.
“Wait,” Charity whispers.
Vanessa stills, lifting her eyes slowly to meet Charity’s.
They’re blue like they were on the airplane, when they’d thought they were saying goodbye forever, shining brilliantly beneath a shimmer of tears. It’s obvious even now, in the dim glow cast by the car’s interior lights. That gravity again, Charity thinks, pulling her in so it’s impossible to look away.
She’s less graceful than Vanessa was when she unfolds the towel and tries to wind it around Vanessa’s shoulders. Her wrist knocks against the steering wheel and she narrowly misses nudging her fist into Vanessa’s chin and when she curses a little under her breath, Vanessa starts laughing.
And Vanessa’s laugh is like sunshine.
Even with a sheen of tears still in her eyes, Vanessa’s goodness is a beacon – a lighthouse, maybe – guiding Charity home to safe harbour. It should be stifling to feel so surrounded by it after days of that old familiar darkness, but Charity finds herself leaning into it, revelling in it, speaking through it.
“I missed you,” she confesses on a breath, inhaling sharply when she hears what she’s saying.
Vanessa softens further, the edges of her eyes crinkling as she blinks. “I wasn’t sure you’d call,” she admits.
Charity sighs, letting her own gaze drop to her fidgeting hands. She tugs at the edges of the towel, burying her fingers in the fabric. It takes a moment, for the words to not feel like razor blades in her mouth. “Cain found me.” Almost a full day later and the thought of what Cain could’ve done still makes her heart beat faster, the punch of a sob clogging itself in the base of her throat.
Vanessa’s hand closes over Charity’s, squeezing gently, doing that Vanessa thing she’s been doing since the moment they met. A beat passes, the touch slowing the thumping in Charity’s heart. When she finally finds the courage to lift her chin, Vanessa is looking at her intently, the stark line she’s grown to understand as determination visible in the clench of Vanessa’s jaw.
“He didn’t hurt you,” Vanessa murmurs, the end lifting upwards like it’s half a question and half a declaration. As if, maybe, she’d personally harm Cain if he had.
Charity shakes her head, watching as Vanessa deflates with a sigh of relief that has her tipping forward in her seat. Her forehead lands softly against Charity’s own, her eyes closed as they breathe the same air.
That feeling in Charity’s chest explodes.
It happens slowly at first, the kiss. Charity’s hand finds its way up to the back of Vanessa’s neck as Vanessa’s nose brushes against her own. They pause with their lips barely touching, testing the waters, before crashing together with an urgency that sparks fire in Charity’s gut.
Because Vanessa’s a good kisser – Charity’s known as much since their lips had met in that dark stairwell. She’d cemented it on the couch in the safe house, all hands and moans and teasing teeth as they’d kissed and kissed for what felt like hours. It’s been hard to ignore the memory even amidst all the chaos of everything else, snippets of it pushing their way in incessantly.
Only, the reality is so much better.
Vanessa kisses her like the world isn’t ending. Her fingers wind into Charity’s rain-soaked curls and a hum of pleasure lifts from the back of her throat that sends Charity’s insides tumbling. She nips at Charity’s lower lip and smiles as she leans back in and it’s good again, like it hasn’t been; like Charity is worth more than she’s always been told.
Charity gasps when they pull apart, sucking in a breath that feels larger than her lungs.
“You’re shivering,” Vanessa murmurs, stroking a tender path down Charity’s cheek.
She is – she can feel every hair on her body stood at attention, the shakes bouncing through her like a dancing livewire. It’s the chill of her wet clothes and the drying rain on her skin and the sense of security that comes with being in Vanessa’s arms once more all rolling together into an electric current that is rushing through her veins.
“I’m okay,” Charity swears, reaching for Vanessa, losing herself in the taste of her lips.
For once, Vanessa doesn’t argue.
For once, neither does Charity’s heart.
Time seems to move differently, with Vanessa. The night doesn’t stretch as hopelessly in front of them, the darkness fading softly into morning before Charity’s even expecting it to. Sunlight peeks up over the horizon as they drive towards the city, the crisp air of a late summer morning wafting in the open windows.
Charity’s curled up in the passenger seat while Vanessa navigates the motorway, knees tucked up against her chest with her chin resting atop them. Somewhere between the comfort of dry clothing and Vanessa’s off-key but in tune humming, her eyelids have grown heavy; two days of running effortlessly shifting into exhaustion so deep it settles in her bones.
She’s near half asleep when Vanessa stops mumbling along to the radio, speaking for the first time since they merged onto the M2. Maybe it’s the fog of fatigue that keeps her hackles from rising up, her guard slipped away in the absence of adrenaline.
“What really made you change your mind?” Vanessa asks.
Charity sighs, inhaling slowly behind it. She tilts her head just enough to look at Vanessa, her knees digging into her left ear. There’s a tuft of hair fallen loose from the underside of Vanessa’s ponytail that flutters in the wind and it draws her attention for a moment before she remembers to answer. “I told you – Cain found me,” she murmurs.
Vanessa nods, worrying her bottom lip into her mouth as she checks her blind spot before smoothly changing lanes. She’s even more meticulous now, driving on British soil. Though the manic circling and random speeding of days before have calmed, she checks her mirror with agency-level frequency and three times she merges between cars when she doesn’t really need to. Vanessa the spy is well in form, losing a tail that likely doesn’t even exist. “And?”
Charity lets her eyes momentarily drift shut again, the desire to sleep tugging persistently at the edges of her mind. “Does there need to be more?”
Vanessa shrugs, squinting at something through the windscreen. The sleeve of Charity’s discarded jumper lifts into the air in the backseat, dancing gently on the incoming breeze as it dries, and it tugs Vanessa’s gaze back to the rearview mirror. She drops a hand from the steering wheel, dragging it through her fringe and tucking some of it securely behind her ear before opening her mouth. “Maybe,” she whispers.
The new jumper she’d brought is soft beneath Charity’s fingers, handmade loops of wool like takings of a cloud against her skin. She strokes it slowly as she watches Vanessa, fighting hard against the barbell-weight of her eyelids. “It’s like you said,” she offers, losing the battle for a second, “They find me, they kill me. End of.”
Admitting it makes Cain’s voice loud in her head again, the memory of his breath against her cheek as sharp as if his hand were still wrapped around her wrist. She startles at the closeness of it, her eyes whipping open once more – just in time to see the split second where Vanessa’s chin juts forward before relaxing.
“You wanted to keep running, though,” Vanessa presses.
And maybe it is exhaustion, or fear, or the overwhelming comfort of being close to someone that makes her feel safe that draws the warm prick of tears to Charity’s eyes. They clog in her throat and she swallows roughly around them, trying to muster up the strength to breathe past the feeling. “I did,” she croaks, twisting so Vanessa can’t see the single tear that tracks down her cheek.
It’s surely the softness of Vanessa’s voice that coaxes another tear free, two of them dribbling down the side of Charity’s face. She swipes at them with the back of her hand, praying that Vanessa won’t notice her breaking. She tugs her knees tighter against her chest like a force field.
“And you don’t now?” Vanessa asks.
All at once, it hits her: two days of running, stumbling across the countryside alone. The hours spent huddled beneath a tree, trying and failing to avoid the downpour. The smell of Cain’s sweat as he’d slipped into her motel room, invading her senses in a moment that could’ve been her last. It’s too much; Bails and an unspoken death sentence and the elevator shaft and the safe house and week now of everything she’s ever really known being yanked out from under her feet.
And right at the front of her mind, pushing at her consciousness like it’s let the space, the memory that started it all – a gun, pressed to her mother’s head.
“I’m tired, Vanessa,” she manages, the words tasting like salt as more tears roll down her face. “I’m so tired.”
Hours pass before Charity’s eyes flutter open again, the sun beaming down through the windscreen from much higher in the sky. The car is parked, the engine shut off, and Vanessa sits silently in the driver’s seat, peering out the window at an empty children’s playground.
“Sorry,” Charity mumbles as she wipes at her face, wishing away the feeling of dried tear tracks on her cheeks.
Vanessa startles, twisting quickly from the window as though she’d forgotten she wasn’t alone. “No, no,” she says far too loudly, wincing herself at the noise. She clears her throat before speaking again. “You’re fine. Sleep when you can, right?”
Or never sleep at all, Charity thinks.
“You work for the mob or something?” Charity asks instead, looking around the car at the cookie-cutter predictability of the houses lining the street. As if God himself made a gingerbread village of red brick and white-framed windows and stamped each one with a little garden full of flowers.
Vanessa frowns, following Charity’s eyes. “How d’you mean?”
“Never known an agency to operate out of suburbia before,” Charity chuckles. Save for a bike leaned against one of the many matching wrought-iron fences that separate the houses from the sidewalk, there’s nowt that distinguishes one home from the next. Hell, even calling them homes seems like a bit of a stretch.
“Oh!” Vanessa says, realization dawning, “Oh, they don’t.”
Charity lets her eyebrows slide higher on her face, dropping her gaze to the car keys sat stationary in Vanessa’s lap as her lips pucker. “Right.”
“I didn’t want you to wake up in some parking garage,” Vanessa admits, thumbing the keys as she looks down, her cheeks flushing.
It shouldn’t set free a flood of butterflies in Charity’s stomach, the way Vanessa stumbles through her words, but it does. It shouldn’t be endearing, that Vanessa seems embarrassed but wholly willing to share that she cares, but it is. Because, sure, Charity likes kissing this woman and she enjoys the small handful of times they have now explored each other’s naked skin, and maybe she really loves that being around Vanessa makes her feel safe or hopeful or… whatever. It’s nice to have someone who wants to touch her or hold onto her or protect her.
But this? This feels an awful lot like falling.
“And I wanted to be sure,” Vanessa continues, her eyes still glued to the keys in her lap as she fidgets with them. “That, you know, you were…”
“…Sure?” Charity offers, trying to fill in the blank.
Vanessa nods, squeezing her eyes shut. “That you were really done running, now.”
It’s scary, the falling. Terrifying, to be vulnerable in the face of another person. But Vanessa looks up, that glint of hopefulness ever present on her beautiful face and it’s just so bloody easy to do it.
“Yeah,” Charity breathes, “I am.”
The process isn’t all that different from what she’s used to: the fingerprint entrance to the parking garage, the guard in the lift who checks Vanessa’s identification while eyeing Charity carefully, the floor that can only be reached with a special sequence on a hidden keypad. Vanessa’s people are less extravagant than Charity’s expecting, their offices as routine and streamlined as Bails’.
It feels so much like they’re back in London that she’s half expecting to see Cain waiting at his desk when they round the corner to a small, nearly empty office.
The woman who greets Vanessa does so with a dizzying brightness, swooping across the tiny space to pull her into a tight hug. Her dark hair brushes against her chin as she steps back, analyzing Vanessa at arm’s length. They share a smile, wrung through with familiarity, before the woman’s eyes lift to Charity.
“Rhona Goskirk,” she greets with an extended hand, “And you must be the new asset.”
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