Write Off :: The Day before You Came

Write off (3)

Occasionally, you come across something that you don’t remember writing. That is the case with this week’s piece, sitting in a folder that had a bunch of house correspondence in it. It was produced for a writing challenge on Livejournal, and if the save date on the file is correct, produced in May 2004. What makes this a bigger surprise, I’ll be honest, is the genre it was written for.

Buffy-titlecard

I’m a HUGE Buffy fan. I don’t make a song and dance about it, but it was a massively influential part of my life. Ironically, I never felt a huge affinity to the female characters in the show, but was more drawn to the men, especially the character I chose to do this fiction prompt for. I wasn’t attracted to him either: he was me, more or less. I couldn’t identify with any of the major protagonists, except him.

This is Daniel Osbourne (Oz) Fic. It happens before Season Two of Buffy begins. I’d never written Buffy fanfic ever, so decide how I did for yourself.

oz

It’s very much rated R for adult stuff too. I warned you.



The Day before You Came

Oh yes, I’m sure my life was well within its usual frame
The day before you came



the sky goes on forever

Oz turned seventeen in the slow, kohl-rimmed blink of her eyes: ancient in the moment of transition, bones brittle and painful in skin that now crawls with heat and dust. Her mouth is sucking the life from him, teeth on skin drawing blood as she slurps all too slowly across his stomach, destination crotch. Part of his brain, the smallest synapse, needs to prevent the inevitable: too late, boy, the flesh has won, desire is king… thankyewverymuch. He prays for strength, rain, time to stand still, but it’s the briefest of battles. The pills have slowed his world to a crawl; worm speed, worm food her food, kith and kin with the dirt and the fire ants. A thousand miles away the festival shows no signs of abating, the hurricane of noise and sweat building slowly towards optimum destruction. He needs to escape but he’s trapped here all night. The van was traded for a handful of chemical promises, the band’s gift to him on this night of evolution: something special to mark the transition. He wanted to just play and leave yet something stopped his passage. Someone. She smelt of smoke and mirrors, UFO’s and conspiracies. Flame red hair, eyes sharper than diamond… reminding him of a girl he wants to know, but doesn’t know how to ask. That’s for another time.

it should be cold not close to boiling i’m going to combust

The band bought him to Rachel, Nevada and now LuLu is showing him what girls who spend their puberty in the shadow of Area 51 know about secrets: smeared liberally with silver body paint and wearing only a g-string, she whispered in his ear she’d not hurt him, just give him what he wanted. Before he could protest she took him to a tent where her friends giggled and preened, replacing the dull brown polish on his nails for silver and gold, marking his forehead with an iridescent red star. In turn each one filled his mouth with champagne, then sucked the remnants dry, passing pills from tongue to tongue as they did so. Next he danced with them all: myriad fingers moving seamlessly from ass to crotch to zipper to balls, girl-women all-too-trained in the art of instant and painful arousal. Surrounded by the Sisters of the Conspiracy he became a child of the desert, at one with the night before the world got too fast: kaleidoscopic colours, audio overload quicker than either brain or body could cope with. Maybe he should have asked someone what he was taking, or maybe he shouldn’t have drunk anything first. Food sometime today would have helped, but he’s too lost for sense and good advice, too busy losing the battle with the substances. He’s past gone and coming back on the return stub.

LuLu weaves delicate snail-trails of saliva up and down his naked chest: teasing his expectancy, silver paint mixing with adrenaline and pheromone desire. As her mouth finally, blissfully wraps around his cock it’s the catalyst to his chemical reaction: mind and body separate in a burst of light and sound. He’s outside himself looking down on them both, amused that he can fly and get blown simultaneously. Great place to be spaced out: if he drifts too high will they send the Stealth fighters to intercept? Maybe he’ll just disappear in a puff of denial instead…

little green men yeah right big silver women mmmmmmmmmmm

Sunnydale has broadened his horizons: he used to be the ultimate skeptic, now he’s not so sure. There’s something in the air out here, not like the East Coast where he came from. They’re crazy, insane, affected… scared. He never got the fear, not until they passed the City Limits sign. Then it was obvious, that it had been there, traveling with his family: ingrained in him. He just never knew what it was.

Something clicks, a light goes on. His body is beginning to buck, semen shooting into her open mouth, pouring across his stomach, a huge tide of unstoppable reflex. He feels nothing, the drugs have blocked all signals to his brain: forced to watch the moment pass whilst simultaneously trying to work out how he gets his consciousness to fuse back with his body, Oz can’t understand why he doesn’t care. This is a big deal, remember? You should be there, in there… Seed runs away, scattered to the ground where it begins to grow, pale silver tendrils wrapping themselves around his legs, restricting his movements. He needs to stop her, hold her, tell her how grateful he is but there’s a rrrip of foil and something strange on his cock and her words in his ear we need to be safe, right? He tries to reach down, to stroke her hair and kiss her neck but the ground gives way as he feels her muscles around him and in him and

ohmygodit’shappeninghavetogetbacknowaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhh

It’s over before it’s begun, the second spurt as she digs her nails into his arms, drawing blood as she screams into the night, drowned by a sudden throbbing bass rumble as the sound system overloads, plunging the entire desert into darkness. He’s no idea how long he’s been conscious, when he passed out or whether he dreamed the whole thing in the first place… then he feels the sudden burning feeling in his throat and the nausea is too sudden and violent to ignore. LuLu is stroking his head and asking if he wants to chuck any more… He’s lying next to a tent, inside which the lead singer of the headline band has one girl on his face and another around his dick, moaning expletives as the pair drag their painted nails across his body. He’s moshing, surrounded by hundreds of rabid drunken bodies, slick with sweat and caked in dust and silver paint…

“Oz?”

Consciousness is sudden, painful to every sense that still functions, ears complaining at the familiar scrape of metal on rubber as his van’s side door is pulled open. Outside it’s too warm to be the desert at night, the vague smells of vegetation and civilisation at the end of a long and hot Summer. He’s back in Sunnydale. Somewhere between Friday and right now he lost a whole weekend in a haze of stop-motion images: he knows what happened, just not the how and the why. Gotta stop doing this or you’re gonna explode. He feels like he could sleep for a week, but ten hours will have to do… there are too many questions but not enough words as someone lifts him, puts his arm over their shoulder, drops him on his bed, drives away in his vehicle.

It can wait until the morning.



Oz wakes up.

The sun is far too bright through the cherry wood blinds, smells of the desert clashing with familiarity, seeping through his semi-conscious defences. He aches in places he wants to forget, but the pain in his soul is too insistent to ignore. Emotionally he’s dead, having killed his own hopes thanks to too little independence and too much stupidity: that is enough to wake him, to force a body abused by the world to demand attention. He only just makes it to the bathroom before he vomits: it’s close. After the first retch there’s nothing but bile and pain, yet it keeps coming, spasm after spasm: the brutality a reminder of the perils of his situation. Finally, blissfully, he looks up and focuses on the clock: 8.45am. Downstairs there is movement, his family well awake. No way to avoid this, just take it head on.

It takes an hour in the shower and bathroom to return his physical state to something approaching normal, and he’s grateful for the acetone he finds in the bathroom cabinet. He’s all out himself, and he remembers all to clearly what happened the last time he went downstairs after a weekend away with the remains of his own efforts on his nails. Rebellion in this family has to happen, sure, just a step at a time. Right now, he’s doing it with clothes. The only souvenir of the weekend that’s not covered in either semen or vomit seems a good place to continue the resistance: that shirt the guys stole for him when he refused to enter the brothel, late on the Saturday night. Everyone grabbed some kind of a souvenir, that was the deal. Instead of sampling the women for himself Oz sat in the van, playing his acoustic, making a note to himself that when he gained manhood, it would be with someone special.

Yeah, and that promise lasted all of a day. Maybe it’s time to stop just doing this stuff and start thinking about the why. Maybe it’s time to get serious and find some new guys to hang out with on the weekends… Jesus, he sounds so old, and he is, a whole year gone, lost in the dust. Can’t ever get it back, remember?

Time to make a change.

Oz clears away the detritus of his weekend, wrapping his clothes and stashing them in his guitar case, to wait for the moment he can clean them without his mom seeing the stains. Then he opens all the windows, letting the Sunnydale air wash through his room, blowing the last of the cobwebs away while he braves downstairs and does something about the ache in his stomach. He arrives in the kitchen just as his mother is clearing away the breakfast things: his bowl and plate remain, Mom prepared to extend serving for his benefit. They never talk; it’s enough just to be there every morning, to keep up the pretence of routine. The smell of cooking batter should make him ill, instead there is a level of familiarity that soothes his senses, settles his stomach. He hasn’t eaten for over a day, it’s time to take the plunge and see what happens. After the sixth mouthful of pancake he knows things are returning to normal.

This next year at school will be different: he’s gonna work hard, do well, and work out how to make something of his life. Plus, he’s gonna find some new friends, special people who won’t get him stoned, then leave him in a pile of his own excretions in the middle of the desert.

Or who will steal his van when he’s unconscious.

”Sweetie, did you hear me?”

Mom is talking to him, and he’s not listening.

“Sorry, say that again?”

‘You haven’t forgotten, have you? You promised to babysit Jordy for Aunt Maureen tonight… you haven’t got anything planned?”

Jesus, after what’s just happened he could do with some monotony, plus Jordy’s too hyperactive to allow him to think for too long. That’s no bad thing. Yeah, babysitting will be cool.

What’s the worst that could happen?


 

Write Off :: Don’t Get Fooled Again

Write off (3)

I promised before I went away on holiday I’d be dragging up some of my old work from numerous backups, and today we stand with the smell of 2004 in our nostrils. In fact, the piece I’m going to post after this (and you’ll see why I’m not tagging it on the end, simply providing a link) was written between the 8th and 28th of April of that year. I was at the  time a fairly rabid CSI fan (I still love them, just don’t have time to do all the derivatives justice) and was particularly enamoured by the inaugural spin-off, set in Miami. It was the first time I’d felt confident enough to approach a stranger’s prompt challenge too (though there are fics that predate this, one of which I have already got lined up for next week.)

For now, cast yourself back to the first year of CSI: Miami, and then go lose yourself in eleven thousand words of fanfic. I was so organised back then I have the original .htm document saved to boot, with fanfic headers and everything. Boy, was it a different world a decade ago…

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Negotiations and Love Songs


Write Off :: Negotiations and Love Songs

Write off (3)

Title: Negotiations and Love Songs

Author: AlternativeChat

Fandom: CSI: Miami. Season One, after ‘Tinder Box’ but most definitely before before ‘Freaks and Tweaks’. A couple of spoilers from Season Two (mostly regarding Speed’s past) but apart from that, pretty S1-specific. It’s Ensemble time!

Rating: R

Feedback: Oh, yes please.

Archives: Ask permission first. Should extract the digit and make my own page, I suppose…

Summary:We owe it to each person who passes through here to discover the truth, whether we like the outcome or not.” A routine case is sometimes all it takes to push everyone’s emotions to the surface.

Author’s Notes: Written for the ‘A Thousand Whispers’ Challenge, between 08 April and 28 April 2004. I’ve had Miami on my brain for a while, and I find the best way of dealing with such obsessions is to put stuff down on paper. So, long time CSI watcher, first time writing for the genre, submitting for your reading pleasure. Thanks to the usual betas.

Inspired by the following:

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

Negotiations and Love Songs


==

Some days, you don’t cope. You can’t.

Ultimately, it’s what makes us human. The real measure of character is the way you deal with others when you’re not able to handle yourself.

My brother used to say that if all else failed, then it was time to hit the bottle.

Whatever else he was, Raymond Caine wasn’t dumb.

==

Tim Speedle can’t handle the loneliness.

There are days when the job breaks his heart, and he still can’t work out exactly how, let alone tell anyone why. His salvation, until circumstances got the better of him, came from the fragments of his past, failed relationships clung onto with mounting desperation. Memories however are no longer enough: there is more comfort in the almost tangible solace of his workplace, in the arms of a woman who he is beginning to believe has no idea of his existence outside the Lab. So, to appease his increasingly delicate ego he begins their fictional seductions on home turf. He works as always, hoping that Calleigh will sense his chaos within: his head down in the imitation of analysis will sound the alarms: she’ll intuitively understand his inner turmoil, and in that moment the pair will connect. They’ll end up semi-naked, pushing evidence aside as they kiss frantically… and then reality, inevitably, will destroy the moment.

On days like these, in lieu of a twist of fate, he’ll take the half-heated memory home and lie in bed, or maybe the tub, and pretend he’s never acknowledged the existence of CSI’s anyplace, let alone Miami. Instead, he’ll make slow, practised love to her on a beach, maybe after dinner or a great night in a club, occasionally in a bigger and better version of his apartment: when he comes it’s surrounded by her warm, welcoming flesh and not his own hand. Then she’ll hold him as he cries into her hair, the scent of gardenia and honeysuckle drowning the truths he can’t face.

Sometimes, he’s just too poetic for his own good.

Instead of her it was Horatio who found him today, concerned about his continuing guilt over the death of Sergeant Hollis during the botched drug disposal: Caine also took the time to praise him for the forensics that bought Danny Maxwell to justice. It was his boss who spent the vital five minutes to allay his fears and make him realise he doesn’t want to toss the whole damn thing and walk away just yet, and that’s one moment of connection his subconscious refuses to entertain as a basis for anything.

Instead, he decides to drown his sorrows.

Thursday in Miami, early May: any other day, season, year… it’s exactly the same. All that changes are the colours of the bikini tops and the names on the designer labels. The rest is eerily consistent: Tim tries to forget as he gets out of the cab what happened to his life to push him in the direction he’s taken, into criminology almost by accident. He knows he’s got a better chance of picking up a woman tonight by claiming he used to be a contender than he ever will trying to make forensic science sound sexy. Nerd or Dude? Always, ALWAYS take the dude option. That way the soon-to-expire condoms in your night stand might see some action.

The club is surprisingly busy, shining eerily in ultraviolet under his feet as he walks down the stairway. There’s that same knot in his stomach, making his way into a new place after what happened at Club Descent, but as time goes on he knows the fear fades. Things improve over time, remember? Just like the pain that became a bruise, which would have been your funeral were it not for the intervention of kevlar. Focus here, not then. Tim checks for exits as a matter of necessity: three, none chained. Okay: drink, then date. He’s ordering before he’s registered anyone to talk to, has a neat Jack Daniels in his hand before he’s spotted a potentially pretty twenty-something who looks as if she might have a couple of brain cells worth exciting. He’s even ready with a suitable yet deliberately neutral opening line.

He doesn’t notice his boss propping up the glass and chrome bar until it’s too late.

“Don’t you have to work tomorrow?”

Horatio smiles in that half-cocked way he has, clearly amused he’s busted one of his team on a school night: Tim’s stuck to the spot, quickly conceding that fate could be making a point: this may not be the best time to continue thinking with your dick. Like it or not, it’s time to engage brain and maybe, just maybe, take a look at the issues that bought him here in the first place. Tim knows from bitter experience that running away can never find you the answers you need most. Pulling up a stool, he sits with Caine in silence and is suddenly embarrassed: neither of them bothered to change clothes before they came out. He’d kill for thumping bass and the need to shout every word: instead, the bar is uncomfortably quiet. He can’t think of anything to say, of anything at all. His mind is the blank he’s wished for so many times before. So, what the Hell do I say? Okay, here’s a thing: why not try the truth? It might work…

“I really needed a drink.”

Speed eyes his glass with suspicion before downing the liquor in one hit, ignoring the way it makes his eyes water. Somehow doing this just seems wrong. Horatio never drinks. He just doesn’t, but there he is doing it right now, disposing of the rest of his drink without a flicker of guilt or concern.

“You’re not the only one.”

There is an edge to his boss’ voice that makes Speed nervous: he knows this mood, it’s the one which normally accompanies an attack of righteous indignation. Except work didn’t involve a principle to be fought for, no injustices needed championing. If anything, this was the day when there was nothing to worry about. Instead of being focussed, everybody relaxed: and when that happens, all the shit that you’ve been keeping away from the fan…

It’s Tim’s turn to talk, and he realises that Horatio is waiting for a response, holding the door open for him to walk through. Something maybe about to happen that’s been hinted at for months in their working relationship but never actually materialised. They could start to get to know each other, form a bond that’s not simply professional. No point in running, right? Just be cool and ask him what’s wrong. Speed realises the prospect of chatting up an unknown woman is infinitely more attractive than what he’s about to do, but not actually what he needs: that’s a minor revelation, enough to provide him with the courage for his next move.

“So, what’s your problem?”

==

Calleigh loads up the last pile of laundry from the machine with a small sigh: she’s working on the weekend again, and her mother thinks she’s asking for the shifts deliberately, avoiding a confrontation. Mom, if it were only that easy. She doesn’t want to duck either of her parents, but there’s too many questions that she’d want to ask about Dad, not enough answers she can continue to stomach. She realises in that moment just how alike her and Marie Louisa Duquesne are, that daughter in her own way is simply mimicking the blinkered actions of her mother. Ignore it, hope it goes away, deal with it when you have to.

Not unlike the two weeks’ worth of accumulated laundry.

The ancient machine clicks into life and a look at her watch makes Calleigh realise she’s not eaten since lunch. The takeout place’s number is committed to memory so she has no need for such luxuries as speed-dial, but tonight it’s just not enough. In lieu of a frenetic and action-packed social life she could do with being anywhere but her cramped and unkempt apartment: it’s time to kick back, let loose… start the process of getting a life outside work. Beer would be an attractive accompaniment, but not too many. Hard to be critical of her father if she can’t moderate in herself.

What is needed is a night out. Once the concept is reconciled in her own mind, it’s time to persuade Alexx of the plan’s many merits.

“Are you kidding me, girl? We have to work tomorrow. Horatio will blow a fuse if he knows we’ve crashed curfew…”

Calleigh smiles at what she knows is mock indignation in the Coroner’s voice: like, you’re afraid of Horatio, right? Of everyone in the Lab, Alexx is one of the few people who can get away with bending the rules, a fact which has been used to the rest of the team’s advantage since the first time the two women snuck out for a midweek session of ‘social relaxation’. It took a lot of persuading to get Alexx to jump the fence the first time: the portion of her mind that wasn’t on the job obsessed about kids, then husband’s reaction in almost equal measure. Alexx’s husband understands that it’s good for her, the occasional break in routine as essential as making sure the kids do their chores. Plus, Calleigh remembers that Alexx’s son and daughter are with their Grandma for the week. She’s had three nights to reacquaint herself with her husband. One evening out won’t hurt.

Please say yes.

“If we eat it’ll disguise the beer. Can we get Andy to drive us?”

Calleigh waits for a response, watching her underwear sloshing quietly behind the glass, lost for a moment in the movement of water and clothing; reminded of the way the muddy canal swirled around the silver Porsche as Delco supervised it’s extraction from the water earlier that day. She almost retched when the driver was finally released from her watery tomb. Early twenties, with eyes the colour of jade and perfect auburn hair down past her waist. Such a waste.

“I can persuade my husband to act as chauffeur, if you promise you won’t spend the whole time obsessing about what Horatio will say?”

“Oh, to hell with Horatio.”

The words feel good as they leave her, as the realisation dawns that there is only so much professionalism one woman can stomach. There should be moments when it doesn’t matter, when you flaunt the rules because you spend so much time on a normal day being bound up by them. If Horatio Caine wants to consider the evidence in the morning then let him: it’s no longer about being right. It’s about switching off.

“You go, girl. I’ll be at yours in fifteen.”

Seven minutes later, rummaging through her hangers for something suitably sexy but modest, Calleigh decides that maybe the pair of them should eat at the new restaurant she saw on the way to this morning’s crime scene. She’s read a couple of articles in the press and online about it: food depressingly average, but if your hunger is for meeting the smart and the funny on South Beach, it’s the place to be. Smart and funny would be a start. Someone to talk to, who will hold her after days like today, tell her it’s okay. Make her feel human again.

Anything to stop her thinking about the damn evidence.

==

I could have ordered pizza on the cell.

Delco waits quietly, watching the local kids outside mixing Ollies and kickflips, for the pepperoni and extra chilli he watched being made by hand to emerge from the oven. He scuffs his foot on the tiled floor, absent-mindedly thinking of all the things he forgot to do back at the Lab. I left my machine on. Again. The tech people keep bugging him to turn it off, but it’s not important. None of that side of his life matters right now: just doing the job, and doing it well is hard enough.

Today was not a good day.

He can’t get the image of the woman out of his head, as they dragged the 911 4S Coupe out of the canal. He’s salvaged too many cars in his time, lost count of the makes and the models, but he always remembers the passengers. This one… so many of the victims he recovers are too young to die: kids, babies, even the unborn so often unwitting casualties of someone else’s circumstance. The women always get to him. She got to him. Long, auburn hair, eyes like kelp, reminding Eric in some bizarre fashion of that painting, the woman in the seashell… Horatio knew the name, and now Delco can’t remember. He’s too tired, too full of regret and anger and despair… and whenever he closes his eyes he sees Connie Wilkes, the woman he met that fateful night at Descent: zigzag lines from the autopsy across her torso strangely comforting as she lay on Alexx’s table, another victim of somebody else’s horribly misjudged ‘accident’. Except that time he was there when it happened, in the thick of the drama: with all his training unable to save a life he cared more about than he realised, caught in the crossfire between duty and desire as she and countless others lost their lives. When he kissed her in the middle of the dance floor, an amused Speed looking on, she tasted of white wine and excitement: he wonders if he’ll ever want to kiss another woman like that again.

Some days, I hate this job.

The pizza guy is waving at him, demanding his $1.99: Delco feels the first sign of tears pricking the corners of his eyes: acutely embarrassed it is only when he gets to the intersection that it registers he gave the guy $10 and didn’t wait for the change. To Hell with it. He makes a detour at the Liquor store, exchanges a few hasty greetings in Spanish with the owner, and is back in his apartment with six cans and a meal he suddenly has no desire to digest. Eric’s beginning to wonder if time itself is conspiring against him, that each hour at the office can sometime seem like a lifetime, but when he gets home huge chunks slip through his hands with ease. The time since that night at Descent however is dictated by different rules. The smell of smoke is always a heartbeat away, the terror of being trapped in darkness never further than his next blink. He’s been sleeping with the lights on, reminded of the last time the job screwed his life. Everything is a reminder of the last time.

Delco knows that if he wants solace he’ll need to navigate the trauma before he can move on, just keep living the days and surviving the nights a while longer. If his Mother were here she’d suggest finding his answers in Church, but that’s not an option he’s happy or capable of considering. Delco would want to know how God could allow someone as beautiful as their mystery woman to lose her life, how an individual with as much promise as Connie could have her life stamped out with such force: it’s an argument he knows he doesn’t want to have any time soon. Religion is supposed to help people in times of trouble, but all it gives Delco is a pain in his chest and the feeling he should have done more, when he knows he gave everything he had. He stares listlessly at the food until it’s almost cold then dials Speed, hoping he can pretend he’s coping with a friend he’s pretty certain isn’t either, and that he won’t have to eat another meal on his own. When there’s no answer he considers going over to check where Tim has gone: instead he takes a beer, switches on the TV, and tries to lose himself in other people’s troubles.

==

The neighbourhood is oddly familiar: Tim’s pretty sure he dated a girl who lived a couple of blocks from here, a small brunette called Krissy who tasted of ginger and who hated giving head. He’s constantly amazed at the random nature of the memories he can recall, that he’ll lose his keys for the bike but can taste skin simply by being in the vicinity of an ex’s home. Caine is paying the cab driver, talking to him quietly by the kerb. It transpires Horatio used to work with his wife, and Speedle wonders how many people his boss doesn’t know in this town. Crime is such a part of what happens here, that maybe it’s inevitable. Good evening and welcome to Six Degrees of Separation, CSI-style.

So, Mr Speedle, many relationships between now and Krissy Whassername?

The front door is already open and Tim realises he’s being stared at from the porch. Horatio is waiting for a response.

“Has your curiosity waned with the cab ride?”

He’s still not sure how the two of them decided to leave the bar, to come back here and drink when they could easily have stayed all night. You said you had no idea of where Horatio lived, and he offered to show you… and now you’re here all you can think of is Krissy…

“Sorry, I was remembering a girl, she used to live around here. Krissy something…”

Caine’s curiosity piques immediately at the subject matter.

”You don’t recall a surname?”

Hard to believe that Speed deals with the empirical on a daily basis… he struggles, the alcohol beginning to dull his reaction times. Proof spirit is an alcoholic liquor, or a mixture of alcohol and water, containing 50 per cent of its volume of alcohol having a specific gravity of .7939 at 60° F. He knows enough about the science to understand why he can’t give Caine what he wants, at least not immediately. Concentrate.

“I remember lots of other stuff: she was a Scorpio, had this thing that looked like a spider tattooed on her shoulder only it wasn’t… Heinkle. Her surname was Heinkle.”

The recognition that immediately crosses Horatio’s face is quickly matched by a rapidly sinking feeling in Speed’s stomach. Horatio knows her. No, worse than that, he knows the family.

“You mean Peter Heinkel’s daughter…? She was doing shifts at Club Minerva last Summer, making money to help her through her Masters in Criminology at State. Pretty girl, but a little young for you, right?”

How the hell does he do that?

Tim shakes his head and smiles, despite himself: not for the first time since their half a dozen drinks at the bar he makes a deeper connection with his older superior. Caine’s expressions have relaxed by degrees, the body language increasingly open. After the ice broke and melted, they talked mostly about work, the events of the last few months being placed in joint perspective. However, there were a reassuring number of moments like this when they were just guys, not a pair of rather over-obsessive professionals.

Tim leaves Krissie behind as he walks inside the house, remembering the animated discussion while they waited for the cab over the merits of Calleigh on duty, and especially in black. Horatio admitted he had trouble making eye contact with her for days after she caught the Downtown sniper, emerging from the high-rise in that black t-shirt which left nothing to the imagination. Any darker outfit from that point on was a killer, humour not intended. She wears more revealing stuff than she used to, maybe that’s a good sign. However, if she knew what her colleagues were thinking half the time she’d probably come to work in sackcloth.

Calleigh would look fantastic in the sack.

This place puts Tim’s apartment to shame: immaculate, sparsely furnished, but with just the right number of high-tech gadgets. There’s the latest B&O stereo in the corner, an 18” LCD TV with surround speakers. Caine disappears almost immediately, returning with half a bottle of Jack Daniels and two glasses, pouring liquid over ice without an invitation. There’s hunger in Tim’s belly, and he hopes the refrigerator isn’t as sparse as the house.

“When did you last eat? Lunchtime?”

The concern is more obvious than it was when Horatio stopped Tim in the hallway earlier. For a moment they’re father and son, worry and appreciation to the fore. Speed can’t lie.

“Half a sandwich and a Coke. I’m pretty hungry.”

This is the longest he’s ever seen Caine without the shades: eyes a paler blue than he’d registered before, almost translucent in the mute interior of the house. There’s no mistaking that he’s having trouble maintaining eye contact for more than a couple of seconds. The sunglasses aren’t just there because it’s bright in the Miami daytime, he hides behind them. They’re a defence, just like everything else.

“I’ll make something. It’ll help with the hangover.”

Twenty minutes later he’s eating Bacon Club sandwiches with Swiss Cheese and Kettle Chips, with ESPN playing on mute. The picture on that TV is pretty good. Horatio sits beside him, on a leather couch that’s somewhere between chocolate brown and black, and the two eat in silence. Twenty years might separate them in age, but Speedle can begin to see so much of himself in the older man: he’s suddenly scared this is how he’ll end up: alone, isolated… they’re both lonely, already one for three without trying. He’s determined not to be like his superior in as many of those respects as possible. There’s enough emotion eating him up without taking on any more.

“So, how do you cope?”

Caine stops, the sandwich cleared from his plate, and reaches for the bottle as he considers the question.

“With the disappointment, or the guilt?”

It could be… as if he knows what I’m thinking,
Tim surmises. It never occurred to him that maybe the reason they get on so well is that they have a lot in common, two decades notwithstanding. If Caine were Delco’s age, they’d be working together. Maybe even partners. There’s a thought to conjure with.

“I was thinking about the loneliness. I hate that. If there’s someone who gets it, who’s there for you… you can cope with anything, right?”

The bourbon stays in the bottle a moment longer, waiting to be liberated, as the words Speed’s mouth didn’t mean to release but somehow did hang expectantly in the air. The smile this time comes from Horatio, yet it’s not directed at him: instead Tim finds his gaze following to where the older man has been distracted, a picture by the TV. No fancy frame, just a plain wooden surround. In a flash of deductive clarity he surmises that Caine took the picture himself, that his superior is recalling the past with a fondness that seems strangely out of character.

Detective Yelina Salas and Raymond Caine Jr throw sand at each other on a Miami beach, unaware that the moment has been captured forever.

“Indeed. Anyone who understands you is precious: you should never let go of them.”

Tim knows as much as Calleigh about what happened, which is close to nothing, concerning the circumstances surrounding Raymond Caine Senior’s demise in the line. He’s all too aware of the rumours, whispers of dirty money, that Caine himself almost walked away from CSI after the incident. Grief can do strange things to people, that he knows from personal experience. He has no idea what it must be like to lose someone you love to a bullet, but he knows a lot about what it’s like to be left behind. Suddenly he wishes he had more wisdom to share, that he were the elder partner in all this. In the absence of experience, all he has to offer is support. His defences are coming dangerously close to being exposed, the opportunity his subconscious has been waiting for months to exploit…

“I wish I knew how you feel. Actually… I think I do.”

Tim’s rational brain is screaming at him to stop but he can’t hear it, the alcohol preventing him from braking. He’s going to hit this head on, because he feels a sudden, amazing empathy for his boss and his situation. Caine’s eyes have softened to darkness, watching him closely, but Speedle can’t see them either, he can only imagine the smoothness of her pale skin and the sweetness of that honey blonde hair… he doesn’t care about anything else. He wants to be with someone. He needs something. Her.

“Tim…?”

Caine’s never used his Christian name before, not ever. This should be enough to bring him back to reality, but it isn’t. He’s gone too far to save himself. The die is cast.

“I think… I think someone… I don’t know if I’m crazy or not, but sometimes…”

“She looks at you and the breath gets sucked from your lungs. You can’t move, or think, or do anything but stand and stare in wonder.’

Tim thinks the words as he watches them come out of Horatio’s mouth, a bizarre juxtaposition of two different people, the same emotions, a second of confusion and clarity. His brother’s wife, their colleague… his colleague, their friend…

“Detective Salas?”

“Calleigh…”

The room shifts oddly into focus, enough for Tim to see Horatio laughing, really laughing, and for Speedle to be confused at what he must have said to provoke such a reaction. It takes a few seconds before the older man stops, his demeanour indistinct, blurred by too much emotion and alcohol. Part of Speed knows he’s missed a prompt someplace, briefly unable to remember what was just said. Maybe he’s just thinking too hard. An arm reaches over, a hand on Tim’s shoulder, and he knows what is coming is important, that he needs to listen.

“If it’s what you both want I won’t have a problem, and I’ll make damn sure nobody else has. But know this: if it affects your work, even one iota, you’re not the professional I know you are capable of being.”

Tim’s head spins, the alcohol suddenly too much for a rational mind that realises his boss said it would be okay to have a relationship with a colleague. Part of him knows it’s what’s been holding him back for at least the time he’s known her, and now he needs to process the consequences. Trouble is, he has no idea how that’s gonna happen, or how long it should take.

One thing however is now absolutely beyond doubt: he has to ask her for a date. If she blows him out, no matter.

He has to know.

==

The restaurant is nearly empty, as it’s later than either of the women realised. One cocktail at the bar Andy dropped them off at morphed quickly into a pitcher, and both are finding vertical a little more of a challenge, Calleigh especially. Her heels are half an inch too high, but the calf they accentuate more than makes up for the temporary inconvenience. Pity the only men who have noticed the black and white skirt and crisp white blouse would have had trouble saying her name correctly, let alone spelling it. Alexx made the sensible clothing decisions: elegant dress slacks and a sparkly halter top, plus almost flats. Calleigh thinks for a moment of the pair of kitten heels she found buried in the back of her closet, as yet unworn. An impulse buy, and one as yet she has not found the right person to share with.

Not for the first time this evening she finds desire taking control, wondering what Tim will be doing away from the crime scene: he’s bound to be with Delco, drinking beer in violation of their working parole, talking cars and the latest additions to the lab’s growing electronic arsenal of detection equipment. He won’t be thinking about kitten heels, least of all what she’d look like wearing just them and a smile, her hair piled up on her head just waiting to be unpinned…

“Hey dream girl, table’s ready!”

Alexx’s quick blow to her ribcage brings Calleigh swiftly back to reality, as the maitre’d steers them to a table near the bar. There are no eligible men here, Calleigh notes. In fact, the only men she can see who are close to her age are quite obviously going home with each other and not her. The Herald lied, as it seems to do a lot of late. She should cancel her subscription, if she actually had one.

There’s no time for starters, it’s far too late, and Calleigh is reminded that you should never eat after ten anyway by Alexx, who then proceeds to order a full seafood platter with a large green side salad. Faced with such gastronomic finger giving, Calleigh throws caution to the wind and points a little too decisively at the surf and turf, medium rare. She does it mostly to watch the reaction it gets from her companion, whom she is well aware hates her steak anything other than burnt.

“Well, I’ve finally gotten used to the blood at work, so what’s a bit in your food?”

Alexx shakes her head before proceeding to demolish first the breadsticks and then the vodka diet she ordered, effusing far too animatedly about how the team should hang out together more often, that Horatio needs to chill before he has a heart attack. Calleigh’s mind won’t stay still: at the mention of his name she starts an impromptu review of the way her boss treats her, the obvious respect he has for her abilities… the way he’ll sometimes look at her, or indeed be unable to if she’s chosen a low cut blouse or shirt. She recalls the morning after she inadvertently took a huge hit of coke from what she though were a pile of Italian tiles, how he’d insisted she stay home and recover in her own time. He’d come to see her that evening, spent an couple of hours talking about the side effects of cocaine, what she might expect to feel and suffer in the days that followed. He is the gentlest of men, easy to embarrass if you know how… and sexy, in a way she finds difficult to quantify.

I wonder what he’s like in bed?

”Excuse me?”

Oh my, I think I said that last bit out loud. Alexx is waiting for an answer, her eyes bright points, hand grasping her fork with the same precision as her scalpel. The embarrassment is palpable, no place to hide when you’re already half cut and your accomplice for the night is even further gone. Time to swallow what’s left of her pride and tackle her mistake head on.

”Oh. I was… you know, it’s been a while since I did anything in my bedroom beside sleep, practice bad yoga and fold laundry. I’d consider just about anyone right now, if they were clean, polite and didn’t expect me to pick up the tab.”

A vague deflection is not enough for Alexx, Calleigh realises. She’ll have to name names. Well, here goes nothing.

”Do you think our boss is-”

“Yes! Smart is always sexy, and smart plus wounded soul makes for the best combination. If I weren’t married… Hell, he likes me, I tell him what he wants to know, I listen when he’s got theories to elaborate. You keep your hands of my Horatio, you hear?”

Ms Duquesne laughs but isn’t listening, even when the food arrives and the conversation turns back to the current case. Part of her, having dismissed the fact her boss is both brilliant and undeniably attractive, won’t leave the idea of his sexuality behind. So what if I could lose my job? So what if I’m over two decades younger? I bet he’d treat me with respect wherever we were, and I know he’d love my kitten heels with a lot more than a smile. With the first bite of bloody steak clarity finally surfaces, perceived fantasy just that, no form or credibility. She doesn’t want Horatio, it’s just another excuse, more defences to hide behind. Her shell is crumbling, hastily shored walls flooded by the beginnings of an early hangover and a truth she doesn’t want to address. For a second she has to stop and look back, down into the muddy water, wondering what it was like for the auburn haired girl in the Porsche: unable to escape, slowly having the life suffocated from her in a vehicle that Calleigh will never be able to afford on a female CSI’s wages. Then, in a moment of premeditated madness she orders two tequila slammers and deliberately, forcefully pushes everything away: lust, guilt, desire and anger. All that matters is the briefest moment of blankness, a second where she can forget everything that chases her, that tries to capture and wound a spirit already damaged by the job, weighed down by each life she’s seen lost. Maybe that’s why her father drinks like he does: he doesn’t have her strength of character, she can rise above it. And she will.

Just not now.

In the morning, she can dry out her conscience and start again. For now, what she craves more than almost anything is oblivion.

==

It’s official: according to what he can ascertain from his TV, the World has gone crazy.

Delco has spent an hour looking for something, anything to distract him from his own reality, and all that television can offer him is other people’s view of life, distorted and ultimately warped. He can’t understand why perfectly attractive and healthy people want huge amounts of plastic surgery to give them back bodies they should have looked after in the first place. He doesn’t care if half the country wants to be a pop star, or the other half wants to marry a millionaire. Hell, even the TV cop shows tonight are reruns, stories he knows backwards, the same plots endlessly recycled. CNN wasn’t worth the effort: he doesn’t want to know about preparations for a war that he’ll never subscribe to, that he thinks ultimately is unnecessary. It seems from where he’s sitting that all the rhetoric is covering the real agenda, another excuse for the US to meddle in other people’s history, ultimately for no discernible gain. Wherever he looks, he’s reminded of what life is really like: whatever happened to escapism? Isn’t that why people immerse themselves in the first place?

In the absence of anything exciting on 56 channels he forces himself up, to the collection of DVD’s piled under the TV, looking for something he’s not seen or that at least will allow him some chance of switching off whilst watching. The last time a DVD was in the machine Speed was here, the day after… there it is again, the constant memory, the smell of burnt flesh in his nostrils and the vision of Connie lying outside Descent on the asphalt, pale and pained. An hour later she was dead, eight hours after that she was Alexx’s next assignment… The anger is sudden and painful in his stomach, the need to break something, anything almost irresistible until he finds the strength to stop, to concentrate, to let it go. Slowly, the feeling leaves him.

When his hands stop shaking and he’s wiped away the last of the tears on his sleeve, he goes to the bedroom and returns with his Diskman plus the compilation Calleigh made him, classical pieces to chill to when he’s had a hard day. Without another thought he sticks on the headphones and turns up the volume, pushing himself back into the couch, forcing himself to relax. If he tries hard enough he’ll manage to block it all out, just long enough for his body to quieten and for the pain behind his eyes to abate, albeit briefly.

All he needs is patience.

==

“She was beautiful, wasn’t she?”

Tim can’t believe he’s still here, but he is. He’s sitting out the back of Horatio’s house, drinking the last of his Corona and smoking like a teenager. He has to be really drunk to even consider a cigarette, but as he’s not polluting his lungs alone it doesn’t seem so bad. The turf he looks over is almost impossibly neat, and there is just no way he can imagine Horatio in the garden. Maybe it’s artificial. Yeah, he’s faking.

I can’t believe what I think of to hide from the truth.

“Yes, she was. Eric thought… she looked like Bottichelli’s ‘Venus’”

Caine shows absolutely no signs of intoxication, yet emotion is unmistakable both in demeanour and body language. He smokes with the practised ease of a professional, not breaking stride, abandoning the glass and now drinking the last dregs of bourbon straight from the bottle. Once emptied it is deposited on the decking with a little more force than needed. The boss isn’t invulnerable after all. You knew that, didn’t you?

“After twenty years, I can stop thinking, I know how to block it out. Sometimes, I lose concentration. I get caught.”

The night hangs between them, around the patio, closing in on Tim’s tired limbs, seducing his consciousness into submission. He closes his eyes and in flashback can remember what the girl looked like on Alexx’s table: how even in death she remained luminous, her skin’s paleness serving only to make her more desirable. The thought of attraction to the dead immediately repulses him until he recalls Alexx’s comment, the way she smoothed the girl’s hair… the tears in her eyes even after the examination.

Oh, sugar: so beautiful, why on earth did this happen to you?”

He’s stopped seeing them as statistics, somewhere along the line he started looking at these people as living and breathing victims, even after they arrive in the morgue. Alexx identifies with her subjects on a personal level: that’s how she remains sane. It looks as if he’s subconsciously travelling the same path. Horatio is motionless, staring out into the distance, across the city to another place: reliving a memory he doesn’t want, which won’t leave him alone. The past, face it: it’s a bitch.

“Venus reminded me… I was nineteen, she was twenty-one…”

Tim watches as his boss struggles with the tears, trying to prevent the inevitable emotions spilling over and out onto the manicured grass. Now he’s unsure what to do next: stay, call a cab, say something profound. Forget the profound, just say anything.

“I… I didn’t think it got to you like this. I honestly thought you were invulnerable. You know, like when Megan left…”

When Horatio turns to face him the tears are all too obvious, and suddenly there’s nothing left to hide. Their joint past, all at once: the hearse being rammed by the car, bullets hitting first the concrete and then Hollis, Horatio feeling the spot on Speed’s chest where the bullet should have been. Delco kissing that girl… Connie, then there being nothing but smoke and flame, the taste of soot in his mouth, the cries of people burning to death. Everything together, the alcohol and the pressure, before Speedle realises that they’re both crying, and for only some of the same reasons. It’s a lifetime before he’s able to stop, before he registers that Caine has gone: then he’s lonelier than he can ever remember, and that starts the tears again, harder than he’s cried since he grasped the realisation that he’d never speak to his best friend again.

“It’s okay, Tim. It’s okay.”

He doesn’t know how but he’s inside: a coffee in his hand, black and strong, the steam prickling his wet face. Opposite him, sitting on the glass coffee table, Horatio comforts with an expression he’s never seen until now. He’s too drunk to make any kind of response, but there’s no need: he understands, and everything is okay. Tim hopes it’s respect he’s feeling from Caine: he’d be happy if what he’s sensing is protective care. It’s been a long time since he’s talked to his parents, to any of his family: he misses having someone to just hang with who understands what it’s like for him. It makes him feel safe.

For a moment, the loneliness abates.

“When’s the last time you took some leave?”

The question catches him off guard, it’s a long moment before Speed can get his mouth and brain to co-ordinate.

“I… I had a couple of days… after the Caplin murders, I think. To be honest I’m having trouble thinking right now.”

That changes Horatio’s face from concerned to amused. He’s laughing at his drunk subordinate. Yeah, thanks for that.

“You might want to consider it. I think you could do with a break.”

“You’ll approve it?”

Caine nods, as he picks up the ‘phone next to him. Tim watches as he calls a cab, and has half of the coffee working on his system before the yellow blur has pulled up outside the house. It takes all the concentration and co-ordination he has left to stand, to get to the door without wobbling. He has his hand on the doorknob when he feels a palm on his back: the world shifts back into focus, albeit briefly.

“Speed, drink some water.”

He nods, remembering all the advice he’s been given as he opens the door…

“Hey!”

Speedle jerks awake, and it’s apparent after a few long seconds that he fell asleep in the cab. The driver, he notices, is the same guy that took him and Horatio from the bar… of all the cabs in Miami, what are the chances of the same one twice in an evening? Then it dawns on him: this was prearranged.

“I’ll charge you if you drool any more in the back.”

Tim rummages in his jeans for a wallet, but he’s being waved away, and it’s far too long before he gets the relevance. Horatio even paid.

“You’re good son, all covered. Go to bed. If you’re not in by eight you know what’s gonna happen…”

Ain’t that the truth.

The key takes six half-assed attempts to get in the lock but the clothes are easier to remove, all before he hits the lounge, which resembles a war zone in comparison to where he’s been. Tim’s almost in bed before he remembers Horatio’s advice: he’s slowly digesting his second pint of water before he notices the light flashing on the answering machine: suddenly he’s sober, looking for his pager. There could be a major incident in progress: shit, why didn’t he think sooner…?

The pager is clear, and sobriety is helped more by the rush of adrenaline than any amount of liquid. Trying to control the sudden shaking, Tim sits on the single stool that isn’t covered in clutter by his kitchen counter and pushes the ‘Message’ button, afraid of what he might hear.

“Speed, it’s Delco. Thought you might want to share a $1.99 special. Call me.”

BEEEP.

“Tim…? Hi, it’s Mom, I didn’t think you were doing nights any more? Anyway, your brother is coming up to see Dad and me in a fortnight, I was wondering if you’d be free to come spend a few days at home with us while he’s here? If you can let me know that would be great, thanks. Oh, and I hope work’s okay. I love you, sweetie…”

BEEEP.

He can’t stop the tears, this time there’s no worry about his boss in the same room… until he realises what he’s just heard. It’s a frantic scrabble to rewind and replay the last message, because he can’t believe what he thinks just happened.

“Hey Tim, it’s Calleigh, you know, that devastatingly attractive and sexy blonde you work with… anyways, I thought I’d give you a call to see if you’re okay an’ all, because it was a pretty rough day today, and I was kinda hoping that we could… well, when it’s not a work night, we could have maybe a drink or a meal or… well, you know, anyway I’ll see you tomorrow, hope you’re okay. Night!”

Suddenly he can’t stop smiling. Not because he knows she’s drunk too, or the fact that she called him: suddenly, he’s not the only one who’s lonely. Maybe he can do for Calleigh what Horatio did for him… Life is full of possibilities.

However bad the hangover, tomorrow just got a hell of a lot better.

==

Oh, to hell with Horatio.

The bath closes around Calleigh as she sinks into the cool, magnolia-scented water, her bathroom filled with the quiet opening bars of Zero 7’s ‘Distractions.’ Yes, she should be in bed, as it’s almost a quarter past two, but she knows damn well she won’t sleep until she’s done something about the knot of tension that’s been her lower body since she left the restaurant. Calleigh is an expert at winding herself up sexually and ending up with nowhere to go but either the bathroom or her night stand drawer for solace. Tonight, the alcohol makes the frustration worse than she can remember for a long, long time. She’s still not sure what started it all, either. She keeps thinking back to Horatio, but he’s not her problem. Sure, she always falls for the quiet ones, the attitude-filled guys who keep most of their opinions too close to their chests for their own good. The ones that she thinks, at least in her place of work, keep hoping that she’ll do the legwork and make the opening gambit, thus negating any embarrassment on their part.

Speedle, you’re kidding yourself if you think I’m going to make the first move.

As she closes her eyes and slips deeper into pleasure he’s staring at her as has often happened when they’ve been paired together, listening to her tell him some obscure gun factoid with what she knows is only half an ear. His gaze drifts down to her breasts, making no effort to disguise his actions, and without a thought Calleigh brings her hands down to block his view, gently massaging her own nipples, bringing back to the hardened state they’d maintained for most of the evening, rubbing angrily against her underwear, demanding attention. Tim’s mouth opens in stunned amazement as she begins the deliberately slow process of removing her shirt, a button at a time, the lower half of her body swaying provocatively, and before she’s reached the last tiny pearl fastening the distance has vanished between them: his hands are either side of her face, kissing her with a sudden tenderness she finds surprising.

”Why didn’t we do this sooner, Cal?”

She hasn’t an answer as he begins to nuzzle the side of her neck, one hand drifting down to squeeze her ass while the other remains gently resting on the side of her face, tickling her ear. She pushes the stray hair from her cheek and vaguely registers the change of tempo, too focused on her own fingers, the escalating pressure she needs to release, the almost pain that’s spreading across her stomach. Her back hits the crime scene wall with an audible thump, the evidence forgotten as Speed’s hand moves from her behind to the front of her slacks, looking for the fastening, opening the zipper without breaking stride. He’s still wearing his latex gloves and the feeling of rubber on sensitised clitoris is enough to almost make her faint, her knees giving way beneath her. Tim’s other arm slips around her upper torso, his face mere microns from hers, his eyes burning into her flesh as he puts all the effort into her orgasm and nothing else. Her breath is short, skin boiling the water around her as she feels the beginning, clouds rolling across clear blue skies, thunder rumbling through her brain, more aroused by his observance of her than she ever thought would be possible. He times the kiss to perfection, as she feels her muscles tighten and the rush of adrenaline he silences her small cries, their first proper kiss as she soaks his gloved hand, the water spilling quietly over the edge of the white porcelain and onto the wooden floor.

It’s seems to take forever before she’s able to distinguish the reality from Tim’s imagined cologne, to register the clock reading nearly three am, and to recall the fact that before she spent nearly an hour both masturbating and then losing consciousness in her bath that she left a message for Speed on his answer phone.

Oh, Lord. So much for making him do the legwork…

Calleigh has to be at work, focussed and sober in just over four hours. She can manage one of those three, the other two she’ll just have to fake. As for Speedle: she’s given him the rope, it’s up to him whether he chooses to hang himself or tie them both up…

That’s tomorrow’s problem, with all the others.

==

He can’t breathe.

Eric’s in the water, looking for a car he can’t seem to locate. A sudden movement to his left is a distraction from his task, a flash of light followed by a moment of panic: something knocks the mouthpiece from his almost-numb lips, a dark shape that swims away in a heartbeat. Desperately scrabbling in cold salt darkness he can taste and then see blood, the thin trail snaking from a cut on his hand. A drop is all that a shark needs to make him dinner: to hell with the car… he has to get back to the boat, but he can’t reach his mouthpiece and his vision is beginning to blur…

Delco wakes with a start, the Walkman cord tangled around his neck. It’s a struggle to release himself, but finally he’s free. He knocks the two cans of beer that were half-heartedly drunk alone onto the floor, the clatter of metal on ceramic suddenly harsh and painful in his ears. It is far too long before he re-orientates, to grasp he was dreaming, to slow his breathing to normal. The clock on the VCR clicks silently to 3:27 am and it’s another interrupted sleep, fully clothed on the couch. Deep down, something in Eric snaps. Too many times. He doesn’t want to spend another night in his clothing, he needs to get the job out of his head, and the only way he can do that is by filling his brain with something else, anything that doesn’t resemble either guilt or disappointment.

One hour later he’s cycling, the bike that cost him almost half a month’s wages cleaned and checked before he stripped to vest and boxers, pushing himself for the first time in weeks. He’ll do an hour on the bike, a couple of hundred press-ups and sit-ups, then he’ll clean the apartment until it’s feasible to get back into work without people thinking he’s committable. Seven am should be early enough. Then he’ll spend an hour at lunch writing down the names of all the women he’s failed to either call or contact in the last six months and work out which ones he’s safe to try and resurrect as potential dates. A quick calculation as the bike goes into pursuit mode and there’s going to be half a dozen names he can choose from, maybe more. Even he should be able to salvage something from that kind of average.

On the way down his virtual hill, he’s relieved the depression was outpaced by fatigue and only two beers. He hates to think what it would be like explaining a hangover away to his boss.

==

This is why you don’t drink on weekdays.

The pain won’t shift from between my eyes, too insistent to ignore. I woke up fully clothed on the couch ten minutes before I’d have ignored the alarm, the last thing I remember a distinctly uncertain Speedle almost falling out of my home into Pedro’s cab. Thirty minutes in the shower helped, as did Tylenol, but what I really need is a major incident to force the adrenaline. That way I focus without the need to think. Age brings some benefits, the ability to switch into gear without breaking stride being the one I’m gonna have to rely on today. I just hope to God I don’t bump into Yelina on the way up to the Lab, because I have no wish to explain why I both look and sound like shit before I get to work…

Horatio, let it go.

The looks of surprise I get as I walk across the lobby make me think I’ve done the right thing: if this is the general reaction, I’m gonna get even better responses from the team. Of course, pressing the elevator button is suddenly a minor feat of dexterity, negotiating the packed car requiring more care than I’m possessing. As the doors open I’m filled with sudden optimism, enough to push the fatigue and the effects of too much bourbon briefly to the back of my mind.

”Good Morning, Lieutenant. Here’s your messages.”

They change the desk staff daily, I’m certain. The latino brunette who hands me the small pile of notes smiles, brightly enough to make my eyes hurt, even behind the glasses. I should take them off: no, I’ll wait, ‘cause I know I’ll be instantly exposed. Alcohol and tears, my eyes always swell, giving me away. I always promise it’s the last time, and it never is. The pain never leaves me, but last night it wasn’t an issue. Thanks to Speed.

If I read my colleagues correctly I’m thinking it won’t be just Tim and I who are grateful I got Pedro to swing past Starbucks on the way here.

Everyone is working, where they should be, except me. I find Delco, looking impressively sober, sitting in front of AFIS and fiddling with the remains of a Pecan Danish. His smile broadens when he registers the refreshments.

“Latte Grande, right?”

His surprise is more obvious than I expect. I don’t think anyone’s ever bought him coffee since he came here, junior techs or otherwise. Amazing how the smallest of gestures can brighten your day.

“Is it someone’s birthday?”

A quick glance at AFIS confirms what I’d suspected: our mystery woman has never committed a crime. No hits here, or on CODIS. She was an accident that just happened. A statistic. A set of unfortunate coincidences.

“I was overtaken by an uncharacteristic bout of generosity. I would suggest… that you make the most of it.”

Delco’s already popping the top from the cup, sniffing the steaming liquid, his mind where mine is, working the possibilities. He’ll do the computer simulation on the crash, already re-creating the mechanical failure he’s convinced is the root cause. Coincidence number one, of what will undoubtedly be many.

“Oh, I intend to. Yeah, I checked again, CODIS is blank, it’s no surprise. I find it hard to believe she ever did anything illegal in her life. I’m still betting on brake failure.”

You and me both, Delco. You and me both.

“Chase the garage, I want to check the Porsche when you’re done here, okay?”

I’m already out of the door, assured Eric will be on the ‘phone without a second thought. My next recipient is also working hard, rapt attention on her task, and doesn’t see me push open the lab door. It’s not hard to see why Tim’s smitten. I’m betting he’s not the only one.

“Oh, Horatio!”

Calleigh’s voice sounds odd, deeper than usual, and that plus her hair piled high on her head is enough to make me smile despite myself. She is a rare beauty, and were I twenty years younger and not already entwined in my own private relationship hell… I’d think about it. I really would. Instead, I’ll just enjoy the view. She almost skips across to me before liberating the Iced Mint Tea I know she favours from the cardboard tray. Then I get the suspicious look, her head tipped a little to one side, mouth pouting just enough to push a half smile from me.

“So, what’s the occasion? You don’t normally buy refreshments, did I miss a memo?”

“Well, I needed something special, to kick-start the day. You get to share.”

Her eyes on inspection are a little bloodshot, the unmistakable smell of tequila seeping from her pores, despite the mint gum and additional application of perfume. You can never fool a CSI, she knows that. A blush begins, high on her cheeks, and I can’t help myself, I have to ask.

“Did we have some fun last night?”

The embarrassment spreads, across her face and down her neck: she looks away, immediately agitated. I know this reaction, she’s expecting to be chastised. That’s the last thing on my mind.

“The job gets to everybody, Calleigh: remember that. You’re not human if it doesn’t. It helps to indulge occasionally, just don’t make it a habit, okay?”

I know what’s coming: an animated explanation, with an excess of hands and a little too much apology. This should be entertaining.

“Look… Horatio, I really don’t drink that often, in fact if I’m honest I don’t really drink at all, and when I do it’s nearly always the odd beer except last night when I, I mean we-”

Before she can finish I take off my glasses, watching as she takes in my appearance and grasps that she looks a thousand times better than her boss: her eyes widen first in surprise, and then understanding. There is the smallest shake of her head, a second of disapproval, the look I’ve seen her use before on her father. I’m honoured.

”Oh. Well, then I don’t need to tell you… oh. Okay. You should know, Alexx looks far worse than you. She mixed her drinks.”

”I’m betting Speed won’t be faring much better than me either.”

The mention of his name is enough: her eyes flit away, and I know without doubt it’s not just Speed who’s considered the prospect of a relationship during the last twenty-four hours. The words my brother always threw at me rise up in my throat: Off-duty relationships, no matter how well-intentioned, can be viewed as a conflict of interest in court. I also know that there is an exception to every rule, it just needs to be found. Maybe they’ll be it: God knows, with the luck they’re both having they deserve a break between them.

Calleigh’s desperately looking for something, anything to occupy herself with so I won’t see that the blush that was embarrassment has turned into something else. I’ll allow her a chance to settle alone, and I’ll go see if what she said was true, that Alexx is suffering with the other curfew-breakers. I find her in the Mortuary, back to the world, in what I’m guessing will be a fairly competent impression of hard work. Let’s see.

I walk up behind her, depositing a Double Moccha on the counter, trying not to disturb either her concentration or the mass of paperwork. When there’s no immediate response I realise it’s up to me to break the silence.

‘Calleigh says… you look worse than I do.’

Alexx doesn’t turn around, instead she picks up the coffee with obvious suspicion, before delicately sniffing the cup. Only then does she move to face me, and I realise that Calleigh wasn’t kidding. Alexx is suffering.

“She was worried what you might think. She wasn’t the only one, until about five seconds ago. I had nothing to be afraid of.”

I watch her relax with the first sip of caffeine, tension slipping away from slim shoulders, unconstrained without her lab coat. She’s waiting for my considered reaction. I think, for the first time today, I’m ready to tackle some truths, at least with one member of my staff.

”What I think… is that the quiet days are more dangerous than when we’re busy.”

Comprehension is never slow for Alexx, she gets my meaning almost instantly, nodding carefully in agreement. Neither of us are sharp, but both can grasp the significance of days when the only thing to worry about is the backdated administration.

“We lose our focus on the job, and it falls back on ourselves, right?”

“So, we look in instead of looking out, and that is always dangerous.”

Alexx’s eyes cloud, just for a moment, and I wonder what her personal hell must be, where her mind travels when it has no place else to go. Of all my team she’s the most stable: husband, kids, almost a normal life… I can’t do anything as she begins to cry, the tears rolling down her face in eery silence. As I go to put a hand on her arm there is the smallest of rebuttals, he head telling me no, it’s okay, I’m okay. I know where she is right now, what is causing this.

“It’s just not fair, Horatio. She was so young and had such a future ahead of her. She drowned, and…”

The pictures of Jane Doe lay across the metal counter, snapshots of a life lost without explanation. No foul play, no suspicious circumstances.

An accident, pure and simple.

”Alexx, even when there’s no story to tell, we still have to do the job, give closure to those who need it. We owe it to each person who passes through here to discover the truth, whether we like the outcome or not.”

She wipes away the tears, steeling herself to what must be done, to clear the body for release. Except we still don’t know who she is, where her family lives, who will mourn for her when they discover her untimely demise. This story isn’t over yet, and we still have a job to do, all of us. I have one more team member to find, and this will be harder than anything else I’ve done for a while. I let a large part of me slip last night, for no other reason than I found myself connecting with someone I thought I had nothing in common with. It just goes to show how wrong you can be.

Leaving Alexx to work and grieve alone, I find Speed in the Staff Room: sitting with a coffee from the machine, his head bowed in quiet suffering. I feel a need to chastise him, that he forgot what I told him to do. I didn’t follow my own advice, I never do. I can’t make him feel guilty without doing so myself.

“You need a refill?”

Tim almost jumps at the sound of my voice, a good thing that the plastic cup is empty. The guilt and apology are palpable.

”H… I’m sorry, I… I just need a while for the coffee to kick in. Actually, another one would help. Thanks.”

I pass him the last of the order and come sit opposite, waiting for him to take a sip, to relax in my presence. It’s a while before it happens, but finally his gaze comes back up to meet mine. Now I need to ask the question I’ve been dreading since I woke up.

“You remember last night?”

Speed bites his lower lip, and I wonder whether he’s considering a lie. I hope I’m wrong.

“Bits of it, when I wasn’t drooling or feeling sorry for myself. I… I seem to remember that we have something in common.”

There it is. The tie that binds us, the truth neither of us will never admit like this, in the light. Two hopeless romantics, lured by the siren’s song of women, their complex beauty just beyond our reach. Responsibility and convention hold us back, make us weak, stealing our souls: never allowing us to dream.

Drowning us in the same way as Jane Doe, an unfortunate consequence of a set of unforeseen circumstances.

“Indeed we do. It appears we both have a fondness for expensive whiskey.”

“Yeah, plus we’re both useless at telling people how we really feel. Actually, not people. Just women.”

I’d guess he remembers everything. I wondered whether maybe he’d lost it in the moment, but I should know better. Speed is sharp, one of the brightest I’ve had through these doors. Can I trust him with the truth I still can’t consciously admit to myself, let alone her?

“You know-”

“It’s okay, H. The secret’s safe with me, especially as I have as much to lose if you decide to…”

“I have no intention of letting anything upset the delicate working harmony of this department.”

“So, what you’re saying is, if I screw it up it’s my problem and not yours…?”

“Speed, you are as smart as you are honourable.”

He finally puts down the coffee before leaning back in the chair, a rare smile spreading across his face. We are almost too alike, him and I, and now I think we both understand what it was that drew us together last night, and why this won’t be the last time him and I share a mutually created hangover. Of all the people I could have run into, it’s appropriate it was him. It was almost… poetic.

“Nice coffee,” Speed remarks, the obvious embarrassment in his demeanour directed not at me, but at the memory of someone else, a relationship now more than simply fantasy in his mind. If he can believe that anything is possible, it shouldn’t be a leap for anyone.

Least of all me.

FIN.

DEFAULT :: Part Sixty-Two

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London positively rejoices in the understanding that not only has Summer arrived, but it intends to remain firmly in charge of the city for as long as possible. Ronni owns no qualms over sitting in traffic either, windows open in the DB5 which was her only concession to keep as the new Poster Girl. She could have ridden the bike in, or even free run, but had worked late last night pouring over paperwork and assessments in bed. Her flat’s due for redecoration early next month, changes she’d wanted to make but never gotten around to implement, and now with the hike in salary? She could move, but there’s no point. The original accommodation that came with the promotion’s got a squatter who refuses to leave, and who’ll own the deeds outright anyway come the Autumn. Once her tenure’s done, and assuming nothing changes? She’ll just move down the river a bit and spend extremely long weekends in Scotland. Ronni’s beginning to warm to the idea of holidays in the north, especially as she can be flown there and back with the minimum of fuss.

The future, as it stands, is packed with possibilities that make her vibrate with excitement.

It’s the first time she’s been back to the Barracks since the refit was completed, and the place looks particularly well packaged with fresh paint and understated signage. Ronni parks in her space and stands, looking at the rectangle of tarmac that remains the only external concession to what she has now become. Being the first woman to hold the 007 designation might sound like the amazing made real, but in truth there’s only a few people who’ll ever get the relevance. To everybody else, she’s just the female in the suit.

That’s all she’s ever wanted to be: anonymous, yet useful.

She signs in without ceremony, new receptionist giving her scant attention. He’s more interested in social media on his phone, until registering sign-in details illuminating on screen. Then Q’s now standard issue custom unit is almost dropped in surprise; Alistair Greer is staring at her, Ronni waiting for brain to catch up with understanding.

‘Good Morning Ms Flemmings. I’m sorry, we weren’t expecting you until 10am: I have internal mail and messages for you, one moment please.’

They’d offered her full name back, but Ronni’s not bothered. The question of using Bond’s had been raised, then dismissed, because as Tanner pointed out keeping that legacy associated with the number is not anything a sane person would get involved in. Instead this is just what it always was, except the designation’s increased by three. This morning’s schedule should include a Senior Staff meeting, routine small arms assessment and then lunch with Q, because they now make the time to go to expensive London restaurants to spend their Civil Service wages on things that matter to them both. He’s standing, looking at her with amusement, wearing a Spencer Hart suit that would have been off the radar a year ago. There’s gym time too, on the quiet, she knows because the man wants to be ready for her next mission, whatever and whenever that might be.

Any chance they have to work together from now on will be seized with customary thoroughness.

‘Good morning 007. I’m going to keep referring to you by designation because I think it really does suit you. I assume you don’t have an objection?’

‘Q, you’re still in charge, so who am I to ever contradict?’

He hugs her as the receptionist returns with a file and some envelopes, handing them over with what probably passes for starstruck awe in MI6. The Quartermaster accompanies her into the large open-plan reception area, all stripped chrome and live news feeds, world running its course as they pass. Emmanuel is at his station, smiling as she acknowledges his presence, watching the growing team in Data Encryption standing front and centre, defending the country electronically. The future however is him with a gun, because she’s seen his scores and is well aware that prestigious talent won’t ever go to waste here again, not while Andrew holds the reins. Rachel dominates the whole left side of the Facility now, Lizzie her ultra efficient PA, pretending to be in charge of one thing but instead owning so much more. Her demeanour and enthusiasm is brilliant, carried with the confidence of a woman who finally found, embraced and beat the hell out of her true calling in what many would consider the twilight of her career.

Finally, they turn the corner to where M now resides full time, as he maintained that you didn’t keep the man in charge away from where the action happened. He’d sensibly given up the 1950’s for good, but this area’s less chrome and more wood and warmth. The office is still obscured, but instead of fake padding and Whitehall veneer the dividing wall is a living, breathing representation of London itself, permed from the range of security footage the Department keeps tabs on across the capital. It is an ever-changing collage of the city, alive and vibrant in an early June morning, and Ronni is temporarily distracted by the beauty of montage.

‘This wall is beyond impressive, Q. I could stand and watch for hours.’

‘I’ll do the same with the view from here.’

Bond is staring from his desk, smile her immediate reward. She’s not seen him since Friday morning, as he’d insisted on spending time acquainting himself properly with Q’s new technology suite. The glasses are a surprise too: she knew he’d been never be truly comfortable with the contacts. If he wasn’t a field agent, then it didn’t matter, besides they make him look… distracting. There is the lightest of touches to her hand and Q is gone, leaving her to wait while he goes and gets M for the Staff Meeting, and Ronni approaches one of many new mission briefs. James looks oddly comfortable sitting with his effective demotion, and that’s a surprise that will take some getting used to.

‘Good morning, 007.’

‘Bond. I approve of the eye wear.’

‘I thought you might, I’m just grateful to not have to do contacts ever again.’

‘Who knew you’d be squeamish?’

‘You live and learn, as I have in the last three days. Been a long time since I pushed myself into something new. I’m looking forward to being the unchallenged geek in this relationship.’

‘You shouldn’t do labels, they’re divisive.’

‘Knowing what you are is useful, a label helps other people understand the context. That’s why when I call you 007, everyone knows that’s their benchmark. I approve that you finally became the metaphor. I feel that, more than anything else, makes all this worthwhile.’

He makes her blush, warming body in ways that are continuing to prove both surprising and fruitful. The long-term plan is that he becomes her handler, but requires a measure of training first. He’ll also keep the desk occupied that used to be Moneypenny’s because he thought the juxtaposition sent exactly the right message to anyone in the building who didn’t grasp exactly what had changed between Spectre’s unmasking and their eventual downfall. This is the new world order not just for the Secret Service, but beyond. It is no longer about an outdated methodology or ancient beliefs: anybody, regardless of their ethnic and sexual background, was capable of doing any job.

Bond stands on cue as M appears from his office, Q at his arm, smiling with a warmth Ronni’s not seen in him before, extending hand to shake hers.

‘Good morning 007, I trust you’re comfortable with your new working space?’

‘I am sir, Q’s done a fabulous job of integrating old and new, and I am looking forward to being an operational part of process as well as in the field. I’ve taken a look at the applications for Active Consideration you sent at the weekend, there’s a lot of good to be considered in the selections.’

‘Indeed, this is possibly the best group of individuals we’ve seen for close to a decade, present company excluded. Bond, I’d also appreciate your insight on this. You can redirect calls back to reception while we’re occupied.’

Ronni’s predecessor is already two steps ahead of the boss, tablet in hand, stenography skills surprisingly adept for a man who couldn’t type with more than two fingers a month ago. That had always been his problem, serially overachieving had become something of an advantage when it came to keeping up with organisational requirements. In fact, nobody did competence now quite as efficiently or stylishly as he did.

No-one understood the importance of Secret Service evolution quite like James Bond.


FIN


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DEFAULT :: Part Sixty-One

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Sitting alone, surrounded by construction chaos at the unfashionable end of the Barracks, Ronni still can’t reconcile what’s being asked of her, and knows why. In the end, it was never her decision to make: knowing how she now feels for Bond, taking away what he is would be not only unfair but cruel, and yet here she is about to do just that. She’d left him asleep without guilt that morning, for the first time since their return to London, not wanting to wake him before coming here. He’d finally begun to let go, switching off outside of pressure. To disturb that would have been selfish and thoughtless, yet it makes a potent point in itself. He’d left the number back in Paris, but that wasn’t the end of the story.

Her bosses had anticipated this, as so much else. She didn’t need a form or an interview, just him to let go. The fact it hadn’t happened at home, either hers or his, was part of a plan she is vaguely aware of, events being manipulated outside of her control. James is up to something, but what this means is still nebulous, uncertain, and she’s having too much fun to push.

‘Are you ready to render me obsolete?’

Bond stands in jeans, trainers and a t-shirt she’d bought, knowing his love of Thom Yorke. He could be any average guy in his forties, nothing in this disguise that separates from the best 00 the service had created since his predecessor. Except Ronni knows better, about so much of this. All had been willingly given when asked, he’d held nothing back at all. A part of her understands why this is so hard as a result, but has never told him.

This is probably the moment when that changes.

‘I don’t want you to leave.’

His face softens, smile unhindered as he comes to sit next to her, yet with intended distance between them.

‘Is that really the truth?’

‘I have an enormous affinity to Q, and I’ll work with him in a heartbeat, but I never really got to be with you at length in the field, and if you walk away from the number that’s it, there’s no chance to change your mind.’

‘It would matter to you if I did?’

‘I just wish… this hadn’t been so personal, all of it. I never began this journey to be the centre of attention. I just wanted to be something, without the need to be labelled or categorised, and in the end that’s all it was ever going to be. I’m just sad we never had the chance to be a true professional partnership.’

‘What if it had ruined what we are becoming now?’

‘You think it could have happened?’

‘After a while, it had to be a possibility. Q knew how much trouble Maddy could cause, they were already preparing to deal with it after Blofeld died. I was the one who ruined everything. I’m sorry I didn’t realise that sooner.’

‘So what happens if I take the number?’

When you take it I compensate. Same way I always have. Except this time, I show how much you matter to me.’

Then something happens to him, and Ronni is reminded of their first meeting at Carnagie. Back then, he’d been sent to make her stronger. Now this decision allows Bond the dignity to let go. For a man who thrived on symbolism and gesture, doing this here mattered far more than she’d ever really grasped. This could become an opportunity for him to make a difference in another fashion, that the job can be more than simply self destruction and despair. The fact he’ll wait for her is still something hard to believe, because if the right woman came along there’s a good chance he’d revert to type. Except since that week in Paris there’d been an undoubted change, desire sublimated into something else. This is still a need, yet with understanding that’s part of a larger picture.

‘You have a plan?’

‘Do you honestly think I just make this up as I go along?’

‘Sometimes, I have my doubts.’

‘Well, in this case, I have your back, and then some. Stop failing to fulfil your potential, Flemmings. Go tell M and Q you’re the senior 00 in the field.’

The last word is his; undoubted ego, suitably assuaged.

He doesn’t touch her, wandering away with a casual confidence that tells Ronni he knows how this goes down. If there is a plan for the future he’s not yet shared it, but it won’t be hard to illicit the truth, because when returning at the end of the day to his flat to share news of a promotion, he’ll insist on celebrating, and this time there’ll be no need to refuse the offer. She’ll want to lose herself inside calm, quiet confidence that won’t ever do anything but reassure a troubled mind.

Taking his number really is the best thing she’ll ever do for them both.


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DEFAULT :: Part Sixty

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EPILOGUE



The Barracks is in chaos, but this time
as part of a larger plan.

With the site of Milbank now scheduled for redevelopment as both park and outdoor theatre, celebrating the previous M’s love of Shakespeare, there is a need to upgrade a building that has remained largely untouched structurally since the late 1970’s. Money was approved without even a whimper from Westminster, mostly due to the French offering considerable assistance and long-term investment, including a permanent secondment of senior technical director Alex Dubois to a new European Security Taskforce. Q’s happy to share Sundays with someone other than his cats, and the improvement of his demeanour means everybody gets an easier ride. Life continues apace as construction moves forward, Ronni happy to lose herself in process and at Bond’s flat.

No-one presses the issue of promotion until the day after 004’s passed fit for active duty.

Up until that point she’d been assessed daily, passing everything thrown at her with a confidence that never existed before. The psyche scores remained as impeccable as range cards, and Andrew doesn’t ask why she stopped shooting 7’s and replaced them with Q’s. Lizzie maintains a constant narrative on Eve and Charlie’s progress as they mop up Spectre hotspots across Europe, and Emmanuel spends an hour with her at lunchtimes learning Yoga. She alternates sleeping between Docklands and Pimlico, and were it not for the fact this is treading water, everything would be perfect.

On Friday morning there’s another envelope, sticking up between the rows of her keyboard, and the decision becomes inescapable. With a heavy heart Ronni walks to Q’s temporary office and knocks, unsurprised to find M already there with a mug of coffee. He too has a Scrabble letter, gift from Moneypenny on her ‘retirement’ as his PA, and it is good to know the man has softened to his task as well as the Quartermaster. Tanner’s mug sits on a pile of files but the man himself is absent, and that’s all Ronni needs to know. The inevitable can no longer be avoided. Senior Staff has called her here for an answer she still isn’t comfortable giving.

‘Good morning Sir, Q.’

‘We still don’t have an application, Flemmings. Was Andrew wrong about you?’

‘No, Sir, he wasn’t. I knew you’d ask eventually, I just wasn’t sure when. Now you have, I can admit there’s one more problem left for me to solve.’

‘Which is?’

‘At no point since you asked me to apply have I spoken to the previous 007 about how he feels concerning my potential promotion. Whenever I try and broach it, something always comes up.’

M doesn’t break stride, Q the undisputed queen of impassivity. Ronni knows the banter remains part of her remit: however, should she accept the top job, that’s a situation which will require alteration going forward. On reflection, that’s the first thing that changes. No more innuendo, instead focus on compassion over sexuality. That she can keep for theatre as a last resort, where her first response will always remain a shot to the groin if threatened.

‘We had anticipated this might be the reason, and asked Bond to be here this morning as a result. I’d expected you to come together -‘

‘- until I reminded Gareth there was a good chance you were allowing the man to enjoy his retirement, away from both expectations and innuendo. Rest assured, 004, this will be the last time you’ll be assessed on your ability to out double-entendre your superior officer.’

‘Thank Christ for that, this I will agree is a bloody stupid metric. Who do we have to blame for it?’

‘One has to go back three M’s, if memory serves. The 1970’s were so very depressing, and not simply for the fashion choices. So you see, Gareth, we have a lot more to change than simply ordinance supervision and time management standards.’

Watching these two bicker over protocol is oddly reassuring, and as Tanner appears Ronni’s almost comfortable with the possibility of taking the number. Except there’s a regret that hasn’t yet been vocalised, that she’ll really need James here to discuss. As the younger and older man continue their exchange, Tanner comes to put a hand to her arm, quietly steering them both out of the office.

‘It’s been like this since Q opened Pandora’s Box and told Whitehall half their metric frameworks would have to be scrapped. Needless to say whatever happens, nothing gets to be the same any more now Andrew’s decided to drag everyone into the future. Bond’s on his way, take all the time you need. I think this senior staff meeting’s running all the way to lunchtime.’


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DEFAULT :: Part Fifty-Nine

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The Merlin’s going through the last of its pre-flight checks as Ronni emerges into the hanger, dressed in attire she hopes Tanner will consider low key yet smart enough to announce e-mail has been read, understanding this summons from M is to be taken seriously. No jacket, dark blue silk blouse, black trousers and high top trainers she’s pushed hard to get London to accept as better footwear than the Bally boots they’d given her after Stage Two of training. It was certainly easier to run in the Merrells, plus eight hours in these wouldn’t give blisters. The small things were changing the landscape, a step at a time, and that made this worth the trauma that came with the potential upgrade in number.

It would be that which pulled her here, quite apart from saying goodbye to LaCroix and Moneypenny. They were fit for duty: she wouldn’t get that stamp until Q emerged from his extended downtime with Alex, and the French doctor stopped shaking her head at Flemmings’ blood work. As for Bond…

‘Where’s 007?’

Tanner’s casual too this morning, suit trousers, shirt and no tie, and there’s a second to consider lying about her presence alone that Ronni decides is probably best ignored.

‘He’s asleep, Will. I think I may have worn him out.’

The Chief of Staff almost keeps a straight face: Ronni’s eyeroll is enough to tip them both over into laughter. M is by the helipad, talking to 003 and 009, obvious pep talk before they depart for Amsterdam. Nobody has asked what she’s been doing away from official business for three days because everybody accepts that an inter-agent relationship can be acceptable as part of this job.

‘Under the circumstances I may well tell the old man the truth. Knowing him I’ll get some comment on Bond’s fitness needing re-assessment and that we can’t have him failing on existing operational parameters.’

‘He’s off the books, Will.’

‘No, just no longer part of the Section. He may have resigned but you don’t leave this job, as you well know. Right now he’s languishing in administrative limbo.’

‘Well, wherever he is I think he deserves the sleep. As his turnaround times have dropped, I suggested he take the afternoon off.’

‘The man’s not getting any younger, after all.’

Something is being held in Tanner’s hand, cream envelope passed over without ceremony, and now it’s very much not about being called here to wish people goodbye and more around what happens next.

‘He was however asked to inform you that the senior field 00 position is officially open. I’m assuming this was overlooked, with good reason. You are expected to apply.’

‘I’m assuming I wouldn’t be required to take the name, because that could make things more confusing than they need to be.’

‘Thanks to LaCroix and Moneypenny, Whitehall is officially relaxing the requirement to inherit your predecessor’s name. You just get the senior officer’s number instead. There’s more to it than that, but we’re already planning details to be discussed on your return to London.’

Their conversation is interrupted as Moneypenny appears, all smiles, Charlie not far behind.

‘You’ve exhausted him, haven’t you?’

Ronni can’t help but blush, especially considering the last private conversation over coffee, when the details of Bangkok had been revealed. However now it’s more to do with M’s arrival, and his clear satisfaction that Tanner’s begun her recruitment process.

‘I’m not sure I should comment further on the inability to show with the Boss here.’

‘Do I need to reprimand the ex-007 for failing to consistently do his duty, 004?’

M’s comment isn’t embarrassment but more laughter, sense that somewhere between London and here everything changed forever, not simply for her and James. This is family, like it or not: a group of people who care about them both as a unit and alone above the need to be entirely professional. They are stronger together, as Moneypenny and Charlie are alone. The choices made do not need to be held or imposed any more: this isn’t about being right, rather more around getting the best from disparate individuals.

‘Bond’s made Ronni happier than at any point I’ve known her. I think maybe he’s earned some downtime. Perhaps after ten years of being the best there was, we should all cut the guy a break.’

Charlie’s wisdom, undoubtedly, wins the day and closes this discussion, and then it is hugs and smiles as 004 watches her compatriots walk back to the waiting Merlin, ready to complete a mission they’d begun several months previously. She’s expecting management to stay but both are already walking away, back to the Control Centre, no more comment to be made. Ronni stands and watches the chopper lift off under LaCroix’s control and vanish from view, camouflage dome opening and closing, and stands for some time in silence, before opening the envelope that signals her transition.

The paper inside is blank, and Veronica Flemmings understands why.


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DEFAULT :: Part Fifty-Eight

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It was Bond’s care that made the difference: how he touched, respect held between them which transcended everything else. Even after all that had happened, he’d not lost that depth. This wasn’t the same man she’d first met in Scotland either: edges were smoother, less painful to hold. He was more whole than at any point since they’d known each other, and it was all because she’d shown him compassion, travelled half the globe to complete a task once promised for her. This time there was conclusive, concrete proof of his redemption, body and soul, and in the most damning way possible.

May this debt never need repaying, let it form the foundation of a relationship that redefines every rule.

Between food, showers and sex they’re back on the bed; Bond is propped on an elbow, staring absent mindedly at the space where her hip ends and waist begins, and Ronni puts hand to his face, pulling him back to the moment. This smile is rarely seen outside of bedrooms and intimacy, and that’s a shame, because it is amazing when it happens.

‘This ought to be our default state. Pre and post coital.’

‘That use of a metaphor I don’t have a problem with.’

‘I never promised anything with this job, and neither should you. I can however guarantee at least one constant. You and I are indivisible as long as we’re both alive.’

‘Isn’t that the same as being married?’

‘No, this is far less legally binding and considerably more fun.’

When he kisses this time the taste is Venice, diesel in the water, reminder of how close she’d come to failing to cover that beautifully contoured back. The memory makes her shudder, sudden fear needing reassurance: his loss would matter, more than any other life cherished, because it would be losing a part of what she has become, and now Ronni sobs into skin that moves to enclose, surrounds to absorb her shaking. The tears keep coming, unaffected by anything except the need to release a permanent fear, leached away by the man who knows only too well what failure does to your mind. Finally he moves, face level with hers, thumb rubbing tears aside.

‘Tell me what you’re thinking.’

‘The next time you have sex with someone whilst working please try to fully consider the consequences before committing yourself.’

‘You think this is a possibility?’

‘That’s how you do this as well as you do, it isn’t acting. There’s always an upshot.’

‘If I could refrain from thinking with my prick and just enjoy myself alongside it?’

The expression is utterly not him, so long ago when she accused him in London that there’s laughter and amazingly Bond blushes, unable to hold her gaze. Then she makes him, hand back to his face, so there can be confirmation of what’s said next is truth.

‘If you carry on doing this job -‘

‘But I won’t. I meant what I said in Bangkok. I’m done. As of midnight yesterday the 007 position’s officially vacant, I’m off the books for good.’

‘This is what you want?’

‘I have no choice. My eyesight’s gone, Q had to get contacts prescribed after I returned from Venice, my distance vision’s deteriorated and I’m not having surgery. There is no choice, I’d fail the medical automatically.’

‘So, what does that mean for us?’

He doesn’t instantly answer: clear concern, uncertainly over what his decision will represent in the long term. Then there’s a softening, relaxation in arms around her before he pulls them closer still.

‘You have at least ten years ahead of you as a 00, possibly more. It would be a truly selfish man who’d come to try and pull you away from the ideal you’ve always aspired to, especially if his tenure as a 00 was at an end. I have to be honest, because of how much you’ve come to mean to me. I want you to achieve everything, be whatever you want for as long as you live. When life allows, all you’ll ever need to escape reality will be here.’

His mouth’s tenderness on tear-stained face kisses away concern, allowing him to enclose as the traditional takes over, as had been the case when he needed to feel in control. His weight on her, inside in a movement is reassurance, sanctity and there is no need to argue any point. He is hers, and that is all that is required. No words, instead demonstration is the key. Normally she’d let them leave rational behind but this time Ronni stops. Buried inside, this was the man only she saw, and had never questioned.

Until now.

‘Tell me what this is.’

He’s absolutely not expecting conversation during coitus, that much is obvious, and brain has to stop body, shifting away from her.

‘What do you think I’m doing?’

‘I don’t know, that’s why I’m asking, because at some point we have to have the conversation somewhere. This is probably the right moment.’

Ronni’s wondering if this will be a mistake, whether she should just enjoy the process and not worry about motivation, but suddenly this is part of a puzzle that needs completing, just as it was when the Swann family’s involvement became apparent. James takes weight fully onto elbows, looking down at the question, assessing a response with more care than expected.

‘This… is what we do best. This is the most pleasure I ever give or receive. It would be a fight until the last breath before anyone separated me from you.’

Ronni’s brain processes the statement, allowing inference to rise and fall. Then she reaches up and pulls him back, mouths joined as they were in Venice. As one needs, the other gives, until both are at peace. He remains buried, lost inside, suddenly no need to disturb the shift of emotion from either side of the scales. Yet then he is the one who withdraws, forcible separation, making her face the thought germinated between them. They both know what the problem is, and it is Ronni who breaks the silence.

‘You won’t say the word, will you?’

‘If I did, Veronica, this whole relationship becomes something else, and you know that. Definition is everything, right up to the point when it destroys what you own. I don’t need to say the word, and neither do you. We just are.’

‘The evolution of a traditional norm?’

‘No longer requiring words to specify what you can be. Simply the right number.’

‘Ultimately, all I need is myself?’

‘Indeed. You don’t require a man for pleasure, could orgasm perfectly satisfactorily without. I’ve seen the toys you bought on company time, more than grateful you’ll allow electronics in the bedroom. What I bring is an ability to stop thinking about what you are, if only for a while. Without that, neither of us would be nearly as powerful.’

‘They sent you to make me stronger, back at Carnangie. Is that still what this is?’

‘I’m here to finally dismiss your metaphors. Loyalty and devotion not as weapons, but foundation for something far better. To last until we die, however that happens.’

‘You were the ideal. That’s no longer the case?’

‘I know romance and happy endings aren’t the same now as they were half a century ago. You’re the new benchmark, I’m here to cover the arse you so enjoy watching and ride your success into obscurity.’

Then Ronni understands: he really is done, tenure packed and expedited. Once he retires for good it isn’t just the ethos that leaves the room, it’s the tropes, expectations that exit too. No longer does the 00 designation pull the early 1960’s along with it. That era truly is history, and life moves forward. Finally, the license to kill enters the 21st Century, and LaCroix is a dead man the next time she sees him.

Bond rolls onto his back, hands behind head, trying to look disinterested but not fooling anyone. Ronni knows he’s up for more, but trying not to crowd. Instead she shifts back to straddle, covering a groin already moving to readiness. You’d think for a man his age he’d need more downtime, but apparently that half of his body’s still happily enjoying itself somewhere in the 1990’s.

‘So why are we still talking, Mr Bond?’

‘You stopped me, I’d normally be done and desperate for a cigarette.’

‘Since when did you smoke?’

‘I give up about once a year but there’s always a packet somewhere. Q just looks the other way. A man’s gotta have some surprises, or how does this all stay interesting?’

Ronni never knew, and Bond’s file at no point had mentioned the fact. Suddenly, there’s a need to discover what else about 007 might come as a surprise, and with the opportunity to quiz him at leisure, there’s no time like the present.

If they stopped fucking like teenagers maybe she could even consider a list.


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OBLIGATORY DISCLAIMER:

Everything related to James Bond (007) belongs to Eon Productions and Danjaq LLC, except the bits in here that are mine and I made up. I get how this works.

DEFAULT :: Part Fifty-Six

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Everybody else is enjoying the moment, but Ronni just wants to run.

Changed into sweats, she’s on her second circuit around what the French call ‘La Grande Tour’: at night, this place has an almost unworldly quality, something most definitely out of a big budget science fiction spectacular. She wanted to climb up the structure but was quietly but firmly dissuaded by Alex, which said in her mind that there’s probably a way if there were time to do the homework. Everybody else is at the reception put on to officially celebrate the Tour’s fully operational status, despite large sections of the structure remaining a combination of bare girders and construction. The success in eliminating Spectre’s leadership from the landscape will be front page news for every newspaper, already trending worldwide across the Internet. Ronni doesn’t care she was the heroine, and just wants to imagine this is the run home to a warm flat and green tea. Even caffeine has lost its allure, because inside she’s dead.

This is how it feels to kill someone and relish achievement at the time.

Guilt begins to shift on the third lap, fatigue in legs ignored: endorphins rush, brain releasing the truths taught but only now accepted. Your license to kill is not carte blanche to become inhuman, judge and jury. Each fatality must be weighed and considered, their passing reasoned and reflected, relevant despite the action. She’d watched a man murder his own sister because of the threat sanity presented to his actions. Capturing him would simply have perpetuated the myth, that MI6 entertained this pursuit as acceptable. With his demise at her hands, again the board is cleared and pieces placed back.

Except there is no idea what game to play next.

Exhausted yet relaxed, sitting in the main hanger after a fourth circuit, Ronni listens to the night shift at work, maintenance and continued construction. These are soothing sounds far more acceptable than being forced into other people’s conversations. She doesn’t want to drink either, because losing control isn’t a state that holds any kind of interest. Mostly solitude beats everything and, with a stab of revelation, comes the understanding that this is how the job should work. If she’s going to deal with fallout for the rest of her career, then listening to a focussed mind is important in grasping how to cope with pressure.

Sitting crossed legged on a large pile of crates, the surroundings of La Grande Tour help soothe remaining stresses. Closing tired eyes, she breathes in calm and expels the drama. Bond had kept his promise. He’d protected Madeline until the end, and they’d ripped out the heart from an organisation which was dead in all but name. It was no surprise he’d consider leaving now, never returning to the number. Considering the toll it had taken on his life, 007 should have been more than done a long time ago.

As eyes open, James stands opposite, genie finally without a bottle for comfort. Staring with concern, approaching with distinct lack of theatrics, the inevitable can no longer be ignored.

‘You want to be disturbed?’

‘By anybody else? No. Always by you.’

Coming to sit beside her, still in mission gear, Bond appears far less comfortable than she remembers, as if the uniform suddenly stopped being appropriate or acceptable. He pauses to consider, taking in the space, obviously troubled for a lead in.

‘I did leave this job, once before, but the previous M never processed the paperwork. That was also because of a woman: I’m depressingly predictable if you do enough research.’

He turns to stare into her soul, memory of Vesper still as bright as ever, yet comfortable with the admission. Lynd’s significance has never dimmed in James’ heart, as it was with her and Scott. Their substance moulds both, in different ways; without this trauma they’d not exist as close as they do to the other. Then he can’t look at her any more and has to stare somewhere, anywhere else and Ronni grasps that there’s still work to do in setting all the demons to rest. For a long time he remains, no need for any more explanations. What matters most, at least now, is simply the presence.

‘Remember how I told you I struggle with conversation when I’m not working?’

‘You may have mentioned it, yes.’

‘I’m woeful when it comes to discussing emotional issues. Mostly because I just pretend they don’t exist and carry on regardless.’

‘There was that time in the Barracks when you told me about how you coped with the pressure.’

‘After which I almost ran out of the changing area.’

‘That’s happened to me too. I can sympathise.’

The silence that follows is beyond telling, and 004 knows why. To complete her transition, one act remains… except Bond’s not willing. That had been apparent since they returned from Paris, before she’d left the celebration reception… and now, unable to even meet her gaze, 007 knows what’s coming next. The juxtaposition of their roles in theatre was complete, but life afterwards appeared in flux. This was the moment she took charge here too, like it or not. The power was hers to wield as she saw fit.

With an almost theatrical deep breath, it is time to redefine two existences.

‘Correct me if I’m wrong, but when a mission is successfully completed, as the senior 00 in the field I’d be expected to celebrate with the individual that assisted me. I’m afraid that if I do, it could destroy the most important relationship I’ve ever had.’

Ronni exhales, unassuming acquiescence, comfortable grasping the significance of her statement. James’ shaking hand slips across her leg, resting without movement: fingers wrap around his and remain, reassurance in a simple action that’s needed. All the symbolism in the world didn’t matter one iota: this is what they have become.

‘Do you mean that, Veronica?’

‘I’ve never been more sure of anything since the day I decided I was born to be a spy.’

‘Doesn’t that cause something of a conflict of interests?’

‘Amongst other things, yes, but however far I run I’m never going to escape the inevitable, so I may as well accept it and see what happens.’

‘That sounds like an appropriately considered response. That’s very you.’

It is painfully awkward, two of them sitting together, that passion has effectively evaporated under the undoubted weight of vocational expectation. When she looks to him Bond is fixated on fingers, still won’t meet her gaze and only then is Ronni aware that she isn’t the problem. In the time before they’d slept together he’d kept distance through professionalism, but this is different. If she didn’t know better… and so it has to be his move.

‘What would you like to do tonight, James?’

‘Not screw this up.’

‘You think that’s a possibility?’

‘I have no idea. It is probably significant at least three people told me to come and find you, none of them considered it a test and not once were the words ‘assessment’ or ‘metrics’ used. I knew you’d want the time alone, the last thing you need now is to play the 00 endgame. After that, let’s be honest, I don’t have a fucking clue.’

Ronni has to smile because that’s what he generates inside, capacity to be so much more than possible alone. What happens now however is briefly beyond her understanding, as this is never a situation she’s experienced as an adult. She stares at the faded face of a Poster Boy who lost everything he was for an ideal still worth dying for, and wants to hold him, and so does. Both arms wrap around torso as head leans into his shoulder. Ronni closes eyes and tries to send him some of her calm, in the hope he’ll relax. The tension within his frame is inescapable, and then comes enlightenment. He doesn’t want to touch me.

He’s afraid he’ll ruin this too.

Ronni finally lets go, staring off into the Hanger, desperate for inspiration. Having someone else to consider is suddenly welcome distraction from everything else, surprise that then rocks brain with force. They’d used each other as physical relaxants in the main, and it had never occurred that the same could be considered for the emotional. He was lost, stuck and unable to feel confident that he could interact successfully. This was the job you promised to maintain for him before you became 004, one person who doesn’t destroy his emotional frailty.

This job now presents an unexpected bonus: you get to present terms going forward.

‘As this is unknown territory… perhaps I could resolve both our issues, whilst defining some new metrics as I go. That’s part of the remit as senior, 00, isn’t it?’

Bond’s head turns, interest obviously piqued as Ronni uses the job to solve their impasse.

‘You intend to make this complicated or can I do one word answers?’

‘Yes or no works just fine.’

There’s the first hint of a smile, that concerns are being assuaged. Before Ronni feels confident enough to vocalise thoughts previously kept very much private, Bond shifts suddenly, up and off the crates, standing next to where she remains sitting.

‘If I told you tonight I just wanted to sleep with you and nothing else, no sex, would you be able to accommodate that, 004?’

The smile this action creates inside Ronni causes stomach to flutter: having offered an easy route, simplicity of a one word answer, James took the responsibility instead. If the depth of his care wasn’t abundantly apparent already, this could be understood as the benchmark to end them all. They don’t need the job to define each other, just themselves.

‘Yes. A thousand times.’

Relief in his whole body is palpable, this was the desire all along. He’s not expected to perform or hit a target, not with her, never with her. The next question however is a little more problematic, because since Ronni’s been here she’s not existed anywhere except the Infirmary, this hanger or the control centre.

‘So, how do we make this happen?’


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OBLIGATORY DISCLAIMER:

Everything related to James Bond (007) belongs to Eon Productions and Danjaq LLC, except the bits in here that are mine and I made up. I get how this works.

Supremacy

As I mentioned yesterday, I have finally completed Default. The last problematic section was knocked off on Friday, and it will be going to beta read starting tonight. All things being equal? The last ‘episode’ will be published on November 18th. 

After that, you’ll have a PDF file of the entire 77k to read at your leisure on the 19th.

We now return you to the regularly scheduled NaNoWriMo countdown 😀