I begin to slip free, to tell J.J. we've failed, when the girl's hand tightens on mine. I look down into the glitter of her sparkling eyes while her thoughts dig inside me, the flare of power in their dark depths, and make up my mind.
"Bot," I say.
"Welcome," she answers in a man's voice.
I dive before she can attack further, knowing before she moves I've miscalculated. This bot is far stronger than I expected, though as I turn and leap into a memory of Ms. Ming sipping wine while bathing in a pool of some milky substance, I feel my own power only sharpen and deepen. Try as he might, the creator of the bot is no match for me.
No one is.
I'm out of her mind with the bot throwing a surge at me, chasing me free. Something shudders inside, a hint of fear I haven't allowed control in a very long time. And then, I'm snapping into my own body again. Thank goodness, too. My poor brain will never recover from the sight of Ms. Ming naked. I blink, already turning to J.J., who doesn't need to be warned. He's tugging on my hand, has me on my feet. I look across the way to the other box, see Ms. Ming rise, her bodyguards heading out the curtained exit.
"I take it things didn't go as planned?" He grins at me. Like all of this is highly amusing.
I suppose it is, in a way. I've never had more fun, as terrible as that might sound. "No joy," I say, following him to the exit, calculating how long it will take to exit below and trying to weigh the possibility of innocent casualties from a gunfight if it comes to that. Of course, we're far from intermission, so at least the theatergoers below won't be at risk.
J.J. doesn't give me the chance to go down, pulling me up, winding toward the back of the theater. I scan the building for the touch of the bodyguards, feel them closing in, and then, with a hint of shock, encounter the mind of the one who almost caught me in Ms. Ming's head.
He's here, watching, waiting. Not attacking. Leaving her vulnerable. He must know she doesn't have the information I seek. But, that means he knows more than she does. Should I risk it? His mind is a temptation like I've never felt before, luring me to take a dip, a peek...
I slam physically into J.J.'s back, shaking myself free of the lure of that other mind. My British counterpart staggers, the door before us slams open. Two familiar forms wait for us with grins on their faces.
"About time you two showed up." Agents C1 and C2 appear poised and perfect as always, their twin faces flawless, tall, powerful bodies-C1 in a tux like J.J.'s, C2 dressed in a long, plunging gown of pale amber-built more for athletics than secret service work. I groan and roll my eyes, pushing past J.J. and the pair of CIA operative siblings and into the back stairwell.
"I didn't need backup." Instantly, I regret speaking as we run together up the steps toward the roof. I can only assume they have a plan of escape. Mine is gone out the window with their appearance.
"You're welcome." C2 bumps me with her hip as we reach the top of the steps. A door below crashes open, the sound reverberating while we leap out onto the rooftop of the opera house. A helicopter hovers, blades throwing wind and debris about, making me squint.
C1 spins, bows, blond hair sweeping over his brow. "Your chariot awaits."
I'd call him an i***t except I adore him, naturally. And I'm too busy dodging gunfire as we run for the churning vortex of the sleek, black helio waiting for us. I turn to see one of the bodyguards with his gun leveled at J.J. and my mind reacts. Mentally, I dive inside the bulky man's consciousness with a sword of thought slicing through his brain and cutting off his ability to wipe his own butt let alone pull a trigger. He goes down in a heap while J.J. grins at me again.
"Saving my life must mean you love me," he yells over the patter of bullets and the whup-whup-whup of the helicopter blades.
C1 and C2 are both seated, leaning out the opening with cool precision, firing at our pursuers, all a day at the beach for those two. I leap onto the platform and spin to salute Ms. Ming as J.J. hauls himself inside, the helicopter already rising at a rapid pace. In a flash of inspiration, I insert myself into her mind and plant a seed. Just to be nice from time to time.
The only disturbing moment is when the consciousness of the man protecting her touches mine.
Until we meet again.
He'd better hope he has his best game on.
The helicopter drops us at our jet, powered up and waiting to wing us back to the States. J.J. pulls me toward him when I try to exit the helio and follow my fellow CIA operatives, tugging me into his lap. I'm acutely aware of his gun. At least, I think that's his gun pressing into my hip.
Nice to be appreciated.
"Stay in Europe for a bit." He strokes my cheek, his rough with shadow. "I could show you the sights, take a few days off together." He presses his lips to the tip of my nose before I can stop him. "You won't regret it."
I pat his face and stand. "Keep dreaming, MI6," I say, following with a wink and a smile so he stays tight on my leash. I let my hips sway a little extra in my Dior gown, knowing he's watching, feeling his eyes on me.
Let him watch. I have him right where I want him. When I need him. For work.
Just work. I swear.
C1 and C2 laugh at me, but don't comment. I settle into the leather seat of the private jet after a quick trip to the small bedroom in the back, engines humming beneath us, comfortable again in my jeans and black leather jacket. I hand the bag with the dress over to C2 who shrugs.
"Keep it," she says. "You might need it again."
"J.J. certainly seemed to like it." C1 makes a kissy face. So childish.
"The mission failed." I hate losing. Makes me broody. I stare out the window at the dark Atlantic below. "But, at least we know where the mastermind lives. His headquarters. I'll have to keep digging to find out his identity."
"Leave that up to the powers that be." C1 settles back into his chair. "We've done our part, some of us more than others."
"I thought you two were reassigned." It comes out grumpy and sour, not my intention at all. I know none of us have choices when it comes to our work. But, they've been my partners since I can remember, and I don't take losing them lightly.
C2 reaches forward and pats my knee, long, blonde hair undone from her updo, sweeping over her softly tanned cheek. "We have been," she says. "But we were in the area and couldn't resist one last mission."
No way will I ever tell them how much that means to me.
The Atlantic coast of the US looms quickly, the supersonic engines carrying us to our destination in a matter of minutes. I can't imagine ever traveling the pedestrian, normal way ever again. Within a half hour, the limo is dropping me off a block from my safe house while C1 and C2 wave from the back seat.
"Be careful out there." C1 sounds concerned, not his jovial, good-natured self, a frown pinching his smooth brow. He's handsome, I'll give him that, but reminds me too much of a Hollywood star with those perfect teeth and flawless blue eyes. "You won't have us to protect you anymore."
"I'll be fine." What's with the uncharacteristic sudden darkness?
C2 looks sad, her matching face a feminine version of his, cleft chin and arching eyebrows almost surreal in their beauty. "It's just... we've had your back for so long. Ever since the-"
I cut her off with a sharp chop of my hand. That mission is long in the past and is going to stay there. I was young, a green rookie who didn't know how to handle herself. A lot of time and a lot of missions have gone under the bridge since then.
C2 nods, sits back, her blue eyes still worried. "Take care, Kitalia. And watch your six."
I let them go, refusing to feel anything. Just partners from time to time. I can handle things on my own or the bosses wouldn't have reassigned them, would they?
The back window of my retreat gives way under my touch as I escape to safety and the only place I can relax. I circle the long, wide room, feet quiet on the hardwood floor. I test a cushion on the low, white sofa, check behind the abstract painting I placed there as an obvious target for bugs. Clean and clear, just as I left it. I stride for the back of the apartment, to the white marble bathroom and a chance to shower off the tension of the day in luxury. But, even as I strip and enter the heat of the water sheeting from the rain head above, trying to unwind, to convince myself I did my job to the best of my ability, he lingers.
The other psychic assassin. He probably thinks he defeated me, blocking me and using a bot against me. He has no idea who he's up against. I'll find him, somehow.
And when I do, he won't know what hit him.