Author: Guede Mazaka
“It was the phone call. Wasn’t from anyone on payroll, or from the higher-ups,” Will said in a low voice. Then he slid his hands beneath him and pushed against the couch so Elizabeth, who was mostly cushioning herself on him, wasn’t jabbing the metal stars dangling from her belt into his legs.
For her part, she rose and rocked to let him move, but didn’t look up from the sheaf of papers she was reading. Her newly-enameled scarlet nail flicked the page. “There’s that double homicide he’s worried about. This close to Christmas, we certainly don’t need a gangland war breaking out.”
“And since when did you see Jack get snippy over a gangland issue? He knows that sort of thing too well for it to seriously bother him.” The laptop on the table in front of them beeped, and Will had to strain to reach around Elizabeth. He scrolled through the numbers before backtracking and correcting a line of code. Then he hit ‘enter’ and waited for the program to finish running again.
Elizabeth now was scribbling little hexagons and random letters in the margins of the paper. When she caught him peeking over her shoulder, she whapped him on the hand. “I think you’re being paranoid again. Can’t you just let Jack explain himself first? For once?” she whispered.
Nursing his hand, Will flopped back with a disgruntled air and stared at the ceiling. She usually took Jack’s side when it came to keeping secrets in general, though when it came to keeping secrets from her, Elizabeth was completely for prying them out of Jack. Contradictory, and why Will loved her, but still rather provoking. “You’ll get the laptop in a moment. That should teach you to forget yours in Anamaria’s car.”
“I was distracted,” Elizabeth pouted, putting down her pencil. Since it wasn’t about Jack any more, she went on with her complaint in a much louder tone. “And I hope so, because it’s so much easier to visualize this with the modeling program. God, working out spatial configurations is such a pain on paper.”
“Configurations of what?” asked the third person in the room. Horatio was full-length on the sofa next to their chair, hand over eyes while he waited for Elizabeth’s special hangover cure to kick in. Poor man, he’d been assigned roving duty in the party districts for the past week, and the dark circles under his eyes were showing it rather hard. Though he still looked better than Groves, who’d been partnered with him—Theo had come back yesterday with an irritated air and a fist’s worth of busted knuckles, which neither of the two men had wanted to explain. “Sniper positions?”
Will and Elizabeth exchanged a look that communicated exasperation and shrugging at Horatio’s monofocused dedication, and then she turned to answer the question. “No, nanochemistry. See—” she held the paper horizontally over Horatio’s face “—this group’s just synthesized an anthropomorphic molecule they’re calling the NanoKid, because it…well, looks like one. So I was attempting to work out a synthesis for the NanoPearl.”
Horatio gingerly lifted his hand and cracked open his eyes. “As in…Jack’s ship?”
“Exactly. Though I’m stuck on how to do the sails…” The clip on the side of her pencil slowly slipped from Elizabeth’s cheek to just between her lips. She absently nibbled as she looked down at the extremely sketchy-looking boat shape on her paper, having apparently thought of something. After a moment, she remembered to pull in her arm so she wasn’t shading Horatio’s face from the ceiling.
The other man raised an eyebrow at Will, who felt likewise but obeyed the rules of boyfriend-duty and kept his face blank. Smiling a little, Horatio resumed playing the fainted lady. “Elizabeth? I thought you said this should start working in a few minutes.”
“It should be working—”
And a loud slam cut off the rest of Elizabeth’s words. Archie bounced into the room like a kitty-toy in the paws of a furry maniac and immediately went for the couch. “Horatio! You wouldn’t believe what this morning was like! I wrecked…you’re looking rather pale.”
“But I’m rather grateful for fortuitous timing, else I’m sure my head would’ve exploded just now,” Horatio muttered, slowly pulling himself into a sitting position. He frowned at the many wrinkles he’d acquired and started brushing them smooth. With which task Archie appeared delighted to help.
Rolling her eyes, Elizabeth stretched to pat Horatio on the shoulder. “See? I swore it’d work.”
“And thank you very much—Archie, you were in an accident? Are you all right?” Big eyes looked worriedly up at Archie, who twitched and looked as if he wanted to pounce again.
Not that Will could blame Kennedy, considering how much like a—“Puppy,” Elizabeth whispered, giggling.
“I’m fine.” The annoyed look Archie shot her way made it clear he’d overheard, but he forewent snarking back in favor of unloading his story on Horatio before it burst him open. “It all was settled an hour ago. Marconi was having lunch and Esperanza walked in—I don’t think it was planned, but anyway Gillette and I managed to get them to kill each other, so it’s all over. Marconi almost got away, but I wrecked his Saab with my bike, and—oh, the fireball was amazing, Horatio.”
Total convert. It amused Will to no end how quickly the stuffy Brits had caught the same bizarre, easygoing glee that pervaded all of Miami—even Bush was more relaxed about disregarding London’s so-called guidelines, and every time Will glimpsed Sharpe, the man had a huge grin on his face and the ruins of another bit of mischief smoking behind him. It certainly helped Jack’s workload to have more of James’ men doing fieldwork in the streets. With the intracity competition held down, Jack could spend more time and resources on strengthening his position throughout the underworld network between the Caribbean and South America. Which, after all, was what he was supposed to be doing, but the local druglords would keep getting expansionist ideas.
So maybe Elizabeth was right, Will thought. Maybe he should just leave it, since it could be nothing more than the pressures of the job. Maybe he should.
The laptop beeped. Upon checking the data this round, he found that everything had gone as it should, but the efficiency definitely could be improved a bit. Just a little more nitpicking, and it’d be perfect. “Horatio, if you’re feeling well enough to grope Archie, you’re feeling well enough to go find a closet,” Will said, carefully not looking. He pinched Elizabeth, who carefully was looking. “Liz, give me a few more minutes, okay? I just want to try a couple tweaks.”
She opened her mouth, then closed it and studied Will with the oddest expression on her face. But all Elizabeth said was, “Geek. All right—I’ll just fiddle on paper a bit more.”
Archie snorted and paused in the act of bundling Horatio out the door. “Fiddle if you like. We’re going to celebrate a job well done, like proper spies.”
The sofa cushion just missed him. In a sulk, Elizabeth folded her arms against her chest and stared narrow-eyed at the departing laughter. “Come the New Year’s Eve party, he’s going to regret throwing down that challenge.”
Will’s stomach suddenly felt queasy; this year they’d done Thanksgiving in New Orléans and, due to a few high-profile homicides, had had to spend Christmas working. So New Year’s was scheduled for the Black Pearl, and the girls were planning to make it a big party to make up for Christmas. Elizabeth and Scarlet were ringleaders, but Teresa and Giselle had both developed disturbing mischievous streaks. And God help everyone, but the traditional party always included a CIA vs. MI6 prank-war.
Reading him like a book, Elizabeth grinned and ruffled his hair. “It’s Miami, Will. What more could we possibly do?”
* * *
Jack read the request form a second time. Once he’d determined that no, the words would not go slipping off the page if he stared long enough, he gave in to the inevitable and whistled appreciatively at it. Not that it was necessarily that good-looking, but there was no reason to offend it anyhow.
Head in his hands, James rubbed at his temples. “A snow machine. They can’t be serious.”
“Certainly be a novel way t’chill th’drinks,” Jack offered, settling back in his chair. With the tips of his fingers, he shuffled Elizabeth’s party-proposal outline into the other papers, which represented the final form of three months’ collaboration, as well as one exhausting afternoon with which Jack was glad to get over and done. Maybe if he left it in there long enough, some of the dull, boring sobriety would wear off on it and save him the trouble of having to be responsible.
But the other man merely groaned and raked his fingers through his hair. Then Jaime remembered it was in a ponytail and, cursing adorably, pulled out a comb from the desk to redo it. “You’re not going to agree to it, are—Jack, damn it. You will not leave it to me to say no to Elizabeth, and whoever else she’s got on her side. You always drop that in my lap.”
“Well, they do tend t’listen t’you better. Jaime, y’make a wonderful figure of authority—can y’truly blame me for deferrin’ t’that?” Jack briefly considered batting his eyes at the end of that, but rejected it. What with all the long-lashed handsomes working under him, Jaime had to have developed an immunity to that particular brand of coyness by now.
Apparently, Jaime was developing an immunity to Jack’s general wheedle as well, because he looked Jack straight in the eye, grim as any preacherman, and pointed that comb like it was a teacher’s yardstick. “Yes. Yes, I can.”
“Y’wound me, love. Truly.” Well, they couldn’t have that. So Jack eased himself out of his chair and into James’. Or rather, Jaime’s lap, whereupon Jack proceeded to walk his kneading fingers up and down James’ shoulders.
James promptly slumped into it, letting his head loll to rest against Jack’s chest, arching up into the massage, though as was typical of him, he didn’t yet drop the argument. Though he did drop the comb. “Jack. This is not fair.”
“No.” The relaxed rolling of James’ head made his ponytail slip over one shoulder and slink about over the back of his neck to intermittently reveal lovely soft patches of skin. When one showed itself, Jack craned down and dropped a kiss on it.
A slight sigh escaped from James, who brought up his hands to cup Jack’s hips. “I’m sore,” he muttered, nuzzling at the gap where Jack’s collar flagrantly didn’t close. “Will practically attacked me in the car last night.”
“I can see that,” Jack chuckled, licking at some of the marks from that. He flicked his tongue-tip over the little red dashed half-circles, then pressed the flat of his tongue down to tease a bit more sound from James. The fingers on Jack’s hips tightened. “Suppose I should get around t’teachin’ that boy some manners.”
And it would figure that just when Jack was ready to turn his soothing of James—who really did deserve it, considering—more substantial, a serious thought would intrude. He did his best to quash it, but since it involved an irritant, the damned thing dodged his blanketing lust and swung into his mouth by way of the constant reassessing part of his mind. Nice reflex to have, but it could be a frustrating one to click off.
Actually, that sounded rather like James’ perpetual concern over propriety. “Rubbin’ off, but th’wrong way,” Jack muttered. “Supposed t’be me providin’ th’improvements.”
James’ head came up long enough for him to have an excellent idea of what Jack had been eating and drinking in the past few hours. Then he nibbled down the side of Jack’s neck, pointedly rolling his hips up into Jack. “If your ego needs stroking, I’m sure you can bribe Elizabeth to do that for you. Now—damn, I can’t reach. Jack, second drawer…”
“Second? What was wrong wi’ th’first?” Jack obligingly groped behind him, danced his fingers through pens and pencils and spare clips, then produced the tube. He grimaced at it. “Always feel like I’m about t’brush m’teeth.”
With a sigh, James flopped back in the chair and eyed Jack. Then he tucked his hands in Jack’s sash and began to methodically unwind it as he spoke. “First you rub my shoulders and then you have issues with commercial packaging. What is it?”
The sash was a tricky thing and had tangled better men than Jaime, so Jack was obliging enough to bend and twist and basically wind it neatly around James’ wrists. For the moment, he tucked the lube beneath his arm in favor of pulling James in and having his way with the other man’s mouth. That was always a dead-certain way to improve the mood, and it didn’t fail Jack now. When he finally pulled back, licking lightly at James’ breathless pants, he was feeling fine enough to talk without mistaking it for whining.
“Will. I’ve been told that techs are a paranoid lot, but he’s startin’ t’take th’cake. Ever since th’mess wi’ our plans for retirin’.” One-handed, Jack popped off the cap and squeezed a gob of clear stuff onto his fingers. He made one attempt to screw the cap back on, but stopped when it looked as if he was going to embarrass himself. The tube went over his shoulder and hopefully didn’t squirt too much when it plopped onto the desk.
Sash being only an improvised hindrance and therefore not too effective, James had gotten Jack’s shirt open and now had his hands halfway down Jack’s pants. Damnable place to stop and look up with thoughtful eyes. “I don’t suppose you’ve considered sitting him down and—no, not getting him drunk. Talking. He’s been in my bed more than yours for the past few weeks, and I’ve the impression that even when he’s sleeping over at yours, you haven’t been in it.”
“Y’can’ be blamin’ me for bein’ busy,” Jack scolded. Then he rocked up, sorely missing the heat of James’ lips on him, but that would be taken care of in a minute. “Or havin’ a nice Turner warmin’ y’r bed.”
Less than that, as it turned out. Though he still looked a bit disgruntled as he dipped and swirled his tongue over Jack’s appreciative prick. James’ hands went between Jack’s legs to both support and tease, tickling the ends of the sash against Jack’s thighs. “No, but it’s a little worrisome when he starts saying your name in his sleep. Will isn’t as obvious when he misses something—Elizabeth will ring you up and demand you come back immediately, but—”
At that point, James had glanced up and apparently become transfixed by Jack’s face. Understandably enough, though Jack was a little preoccupied with attending to himself. It had been a while since he’d had the time to do this. “All right, all right.”
“And don’t fob him off with nonsense,” James muttered, dragging his eyes back down so he could nibble at Jack’s cock and make Jack hiss and hurry. “He can tell.”
“I never fob. It’s top-quality excuses I offer!” Jack protested, leaning backwards to scoot his reluctant prick away from James. Then he dropped down on James’ lap, draping his hands over James’ neck, and kissed at the edges of James’ wide-eyed gasp to hide his own strain at the sudden stretch. The other man tried to grab Jack’s waist, but the fabric around his wrists wouldn’t allow that. “Watch the sash, Jaime. Else you’ll be buyin’ me a new one.”
James simply groaned. And for the next few minutes, they exercised some of their executive privileges in a very energetic and creative way. Probably wasn’t exactly what Langley had had in mind with that last memo, but Jack had always been for the more interesting interpretation.
Too bad that didn’t allow for manipulation of reality, since above and below had been squeezing Jack for time fairly hard of late. It was about time he did a little house-tending. Starting with Jaime, who was a delightfully conscientious man who had the loveliest expression of ecstasy Jack had ever seen. Grinning as long as he could in the face of his own oncoming peak, Jack bent down and sealed his lips to James’.
* * *
Elizabeth was of the fifteen-minutes-before school of packing for a trip. And she honestly did have good reason: with their lives, she never knew what new twist might come up, and it was far easier to rush packing than to rush repacking, once one had gotten the hang of it. No matter what Will said, it was more efficient. As for forgetting, she’d never once left out something she couldn’t buy at a corner mart, and he had no reason to laugh at her toothbrush collection when he kept stealing them for “delicate work” with his microchips and wires and mini-soldering torch.
“So Anamaria’s taking you to Puerto Rico with her?” Will asked. He had his head buried in his laptop again and was tapping furiously away, while the rest of him flopped about on the bed. First his bare feet would knead at the pillows—someone had better remember to do laundry while Elizabeth and Anamaria were out of the house—and then his hips would roll to send him sideways. Eventually, the lure of the screen would bring him back, and he would flop back onto his belly to type some more.
Elizabeth stopped and put her hands on her hips. After a moment, Will looked up.
“You—oh, sometimes I want to smack you. Except then you do that disturbing thing that makes you look like a puppy.” She went back to sorting out bras and knives. “Why do you pick at Jack so much?”
Now Will was fully distracted from the computer program, and moreover, was looking a bit panicky, which meant he’d be quicker about honesty. That was good, because Elizabeth was a minute behind on packing and still had her shoes to go through.
He narrowed his eyes at her, as if she was the one with something obviously nagging at the insides. “Wasn’t this conversation an hour ago?”
“Will.” The high heels were all right, but Elizabeth hadn’t realized how many of her casual sandals she’d broken during foot-chases. When she had time, she’d have to wrangle another shopping spree, possibly with Giselle, who had been muttering about the ugly conservative pumps she had to wear for her restaurant-manager cover. Going out with Scarlet or Anamaria always ended with Elizabeth buying ridiculous six-inch stilettos.
“Yes?” Apparently, boyfriend was going to play obstructive today. Will probably thought that if he stalled long enough, then Elizabeth would have to go and consequently forget all about it over her trip.
He knew her far too well.
Of course, Elizabeth was nothing if not evolutionary in her ability to handle Will. “We’re going to Trinidad first. If you’d been listening—but you weren’t. And I think I’ve guessed your distraction.”
For a moment, Will attempted to brazen it out, but one glower from her and his defenses crumpled. His sigh corkscrewed as he rolled onto his side and stared at the far wall. “It just…bothers me. If it’s work, he could just tell me and have it end there. If it’s not…”
A first look at the contents of her suitcase told Elizabeth the last pair of shoes wasn’t going to fit. She gave it a second look, but the situation didn’t change. “You used to pick at James like this, and then you stopped.”
Will mumbled something, but then shrugged off his annoyed expression and snickered. “Well, his mother hit on me.”
Elizabeth blinked. Then reached in and carefully shifted a few shirts before ramming her shoes into the newly-freed space. “That would change things.”
“Yeah…” The word trailed back to another morose look from Will, who absently crawled up to help Elizabeth force the suitcase shut. He held down the top while she quickly snapped all locks and straps, then grabbed her into his lap and nuzzled her squeal.
A few minutes of play later, Elizabeth was snug in his arms, but staring dismayed at his continuing glumness. She had all the manner of remarks on the tip of her tongue, but somehow none of them seemed to have the right tone to them. So in the end, she waited.
“I just am never quite certain of where Jack’s coming from. Not—not him, but—well, Anamaria’s family makes it easy to see why she does things her way, and meeting James’ parents explained a lot,” Will finally said. He pecked her on the nose. “Never met your family, but from what I can tell, they weren’t much of an influence on you, anyway.”
“Not too much,” Elizabeth agreed. She propped herself up on an elbow and considered him and their years together. “So…you want to meet Jack’s…well, we only know that he’s got a father.”
Will restlessly moved in what appeared to be a shrug. He didn’t say anything, but the mulish quirk to his mouth was still there, and he clearly hadn’t let go yet.
It might be coming down to his father, Elizabeth suddenly thought. Then she wanted to dismiss that, but her systematic side made her stop and pick at it a bit. Though she’d believed Will had made peace with his father’s long absences and then violent death, he still…or perhaps it was that he had made peace with Bootstrap, but that didn’t necessarily mean he wasn’t still reacting to it.
More psychology classes when she’d attended college possibly could have been useful. As open as Will was, he did shut down when it came to some subjects, and Elizabeth had the hardest time sorting through all the defenses he could throw up. Luckily for him, she was determined and not easily put off. “You know Jack won’t leave, or let you leave. You know you can trust him. You know you love him. Isn’t that enough?”
“It should be,” Will said with abrupt savagery. He thumped his head a few times against the head, an expression of utter frustration on his face. “It should be, and—isn’t that the door?”
“Fille, I gave y’two weeks’ notice, an’ an extra half-hour!” barked the hallway. Heels clicked firm staccatos closer and closer.
Cursing, Elizabeth rolled off Will and grabbed her suitcase, swinging it from the bed…to the floor, where it thudded hard and nearly pulled out her arm. A grunt of pain escaped her, but she cut it off in favor of grabbing Will by the chin and kissing him soundly. Then she let go, but not without one last word. “Just give it a little more time, all right? If that phone call wasn’t work, then it was personal, and personal might mean family. Jack gave you plenty of time about your father.”
“Da was—Jack did—okay. All right.” Will obligingly nodded, then stopped and thought. After another second, he nodded again, but more slowly and meaningfully. “Have a good trip. And you’d better run.”
“Coming!” Elizabeth grinned and dashed.
* * *
Jack was halfway out of the office, undoubtedly to go deal with Will, when his cell rang. And after so many years in the field, James had learned very well the slight difference in sound between a casual call and one that meant business. His premonition was confirmed a moment later when Jack’s face went serious and he aboutfaced to make a few quick hand gestures to James.
To anyone else, they’d be utter limp-waisted nonsense, but to James they were deadly serious. Perhaps two gangs were out of the way, but if that happenstance had actually been choreographed by the Columbians, then that completely changed the situation.
“Jaime? Goin’ t’swing over t’m’office,” Jack called, shadow already slipping out the door.
“Twenty,” James replied, pivoting and waving Theodore over. Fortunately, most of their respective teams were in town, so rustling up people for an emergency operation shouldn’t be too difficult.
On the other hand, this was going to delay the resolution to whatever was troubling Will and Jack, and most likely till the New Year’s Eve party. James winced. Internal issues and alcohol never mixed well. And they would all be on the Pearl, in fairly limited space with God knew what practical jokes…
“Sir?” Theodore was patiently waiting for orders.
Shaking himself, James returned his attention to the matter at hand. “Complications with Marconi. Find Gillette and Hornblower—Gibbs will be by for a meeting in ten minutes, and we’ll decide who else to call in.”
The other man was already punching at the speeddial on his cell. Good man, Theodore. And a fairly good friend of Will’s…
Ordinarily James left the flashes of insane genius to the others, but currently none of them were either around or willing to meet the issue head-on. He could hardly blame them, considering how little he was looking forward to doing that himself, but someone did have to.
And damn Jack for maneuvering him into this again, even if it clearly hadn’t been a conscious act. “Theodore?”
Who stopped in mid-conversation with what sounded like Gillette. “Yes?”
“Call Giselle, too. And…before Gibbs shows up, I’d like the four of you to give me a full outline of the New Year’s party.” James was careful to keep his face as smooth as possible. “And please don’t prevaricate—I know perfectly well that you compete with Will and Elizabeth to see who can do the worst. We outnumber them this year, and I’ve no intention of seeing us lose again.”
He left Theodore manfully trying not to choke and stepped back into his office to strap on his gun holster. After struggling for another minute, James gave in and let himself have a small laugh. It was certainly an abuse of his position to not only sanction party hijinks but also to manipulate them, but if he could kill two birds with one stone, then it might just be worth it.
Suddenly James was looking forward to the end of the year.