I swallow. “Some lab coat came to the server room as I downloaded the data. I tried to tranquilize him, but I remembered I already used all my darts. He was three steps from escaping and reporting.”

His eyes twitch. “And why didn’t you go for the carotid?”

I scratch my neck. “Because I didn’t have enough time to think, I had to act.”

“Had to act?!” he bursts, then stands, knocking over a bottle of water, I watch it roll my way and fall, “You seem to forget a crucial detail about your occupation—no blood is allowed. If someone is to report you, you abort, whatever data you have gathered already is more than enough. And if all else fails, you put them to sleep. The switchblade is there to protect against dangers outside the mission range!”

“If the council had given me a chance to train as an assassin, you wouldn’t be lecturing me for killing.”

He clenches his scruffy jaw, grey hairs almost white in the harsh neon glow overhead, “I’m not responsible for you not having the capabilities to be someone else’s trouble, you’re not my daughter.”

I pull a lock of hair behind my ear. “You said you’ll listen to the worries of the apprentices.”

“And you’re no longer an apprentice. You’re no longer a novice. If not for your careless approach, you would be one of our best.” He clears his throat and drags his fingers along the glass desk, “I’m sorry, this has sapped most of time and absorbed all hope of sleep, but I have finally come to a decision.”

I lift my head from my dark shoes. “What? What decision?”

He frowns, pausing to look at me as if it’s the last time. I find myself recalling the days when I was seven years younger, following the pile of novices who tried to mimic his movements as he crept through the makeshift training area with vehement purpose.

“I’m afraid you’ve crossed the line that I’ve drawn, four missions failed in the last season alone because of you throwing my commands into the garbage-heap section of your mind, which I’m sure is overflowing. You’ll go to your quarters, gather your things in one of the suitcases under your bed, say your goodbyes, and take the vow of secrecy before you leave us.”

I look at him, wide eyed, unblinking, until the neon almost burns my corneas. “What’re you talking about? Are you exiling me?”

He folds his arms. “I am aware we have few men and women as it is, but keeping you around is putting the whole bureau at the mercy of barbarians looking for retribution for a stabbed ally. I could procure you a job in one of our sister companies, but I’d have to file a report to stop you from attempting to join our main ranks in another country.”

My teeth almost crack under the pressure I’m exerting on them. “But I’ve been here for almost a decade! I have more experience here than most of your clumsy novices, who, by the by, are gossiping about you and plotting to take your place whenever they’re gathered—”

He kicks the swivel chair behind him and it hits the wall. “Enough! I won’t hear any more of your envious outbursts. Send my salutations to the council when you present them the report.”

“I will not present anything!”

“That’s an order!”

I reach boiling point, feeling the vein on my forehead pulsate. I lunge across the glass table, knocking over the picture frame and two computer mice someone had fun breaking. My hands end up around his throat, and I strangle him ceaselessly against the blank wall. His muscles are thick, but his age stops him from prying off the arms that lifted sixty-two kilograms since early adulthood. He chokes as he stares at me with steel-grey eyes.

“Listen. I didn’t spend most of my lifetime doing lame errands while the council members sat on their asses so you could kick me out. I think it’s pretty clear that I’ve worked hard to get here, in fact, I wanted to get elsewhere, and I’m stuck with the likes of you and the novices who stop whispering as I enter the mess hall. There’s nothing you could do that will move me from the perimeter.”

His short nails dig into the dried blood on my hands, leaving macabre claw marks. He kicks up and his knee knocks the air out of me, I double over, clutching my gut. He yells, “Code sixteen!” and moves to the other side of the bright room, shielding himself behind the unpacked crates of equipment, as if hiding from a rabid animal. His cloudy glass door is wrenched open, three guards step in and race against the clock to herd me into a corner and shoot me with their tranquilizers.

One of them, the blonde one out of the brunettes, charges towards me and knocks me to the ground, we slide together on the slippery tiles until friction appears. I reach for my switchblade, but his hands come and struggle to hold my wrists. The two behind him escape their trances and join him, one wields his Colt and aims it at me, while the other frantically searches his pockets for plastic handcuffs. The spymaster comes out of hiding as if he’s leaving a cave, he watches as his men restrain me and feel up and down my body for weapons. They find my bloody switchblade, the blonde’s lips part and he examines the spymasters unscathed body, then the switchblade disappears in his front pocket.

The spymaster looms overhead, fuming, yet swathed in horror. I almost fail to detect the shaking of his head.

“Take a good shower while you’re in your quarters, since you won’t be having another for a long time.” He points to the exit and instructs the men to lock me in my room until I finish collecting my belongings.

Unprecedented shame washes over me as I stuff the folded picture of my friend under the stack of dirty, identical t-shirts. Her gentle smile now looks morbid as she glances at the lens of the 4K Panasonic that took her photo, the gradient wall of the assassin console was behind her. I can’t bear to keep looking at the disappointed glare without falling to pieces. Once the novice who introduced me to the craft, she’s now across an ocean and commanding a bureau of her own, perhaps also yelling at a few insubordinate good-for-nothing members.

I move from the open suitcase and lean against the metal bedframe, my thighs begin to numb from the coldness of the immaculate tiles. I stare at the clinical whiteness of the painted walls, the stark contrast of the blackness of everything else. An armchair in the corner, a desk by the wall, the scarfs I’ve piled on a plastic chair, the hardcover volumes on politics and culture, and my dark heart.

The air vent is blowing heat to cut through the glum coldness of the room, but it did little to eliminate the low temperature from the ground. I shiver and pull my jacket closer. I then notice the metallic smell of dried blood, and I lift my nose in repulsion. I shrug it off, throwing it over my head and hearing it thump against the clean blankets.

I pull my sleeves towards my cold fingers, then hug my chest. Whenever I close my eyes, I see the eyes of the spymaster as they begged me to release him from the death-hold. What have I done? I have massacred my future with one silly move. If I hadn’t done that, if I had kept my lips sealed and trudged off to my room right away, he’d be willing to give me a job in those companies at least twenty-percent affiliated with the assassins. The pay would be horrible, but what else can I do with my experience? I can’t just find another secret society in need of stubborn initiates.

I sigh, then push off the floor and gather a fresh uniform from my open, almost empty closet. It’s the usual outfit I wear when I’m off duty. I recognize how leaving the bureau wearing this uniform is terribly inappropriate, since when I see myself out of the door, I’m no longer a part of this thousand-year war, but there’s nothing else to wear. The past years stripped of me what little identity I had before, leaving me nothing but a blank slate willing to be morphed into whatever form the mission required.

Spies are meant to adapt to this quivering reality—completely flawless in their transition from one face to the next. I was Sonia Fiorucci, the Italian employee at one of Abstergo’s top suppliers, my knees perpetually raw after scrubbing their floors for two years. I was Sherlyn Stafford, the secretary hiding in plain sight, my suit coat bulging with letters that ‘lost the way’ to the manager’s desk. I am never myself, I never find my reflection without a pang of unease and even suspicion. My eyes—did these eyes belong to the same young woman seven years prior? I doubt it, for these eyes have seen bellowing tragedies even veteran eyes would find disturbing.

The legs of the spy outfit drag behind me on my path to my bathroom, finding not one speckle of dust to gather. I lock the door behind me and toss the clothes on the countertop, and spend the next two minutes staring at my bloody fingers while the water begins to warm. I scrape the brown gore from under my nails and quickly undress, I climb in under the trickle of water, which is tepid, but slowly and continuously warms.

I wash away the congealed blood. I run my fingers across my scalp, my eyes close against the mist. I suddenly hear the unmistakable muffled thump of someone’s sport sneakers, one of the sounds I’ve been trained to thoroughly recognize after years of practice. Despite the assault of scalding water, I open my eyes and peer through the translucence of the closed white curtain. A faint knock disrupts the foggy atmosphere, then the door opens to let someone in. I pull the curtain slightly and glance out, a green gaze pierces the damp air.

“Jacob?” I ask, hiding behind the curtain and keeping myself warm under the soft trickle.

He hesitated, then cracked his knuckles. “Yes, it’s me. I’m sorry for not knocking, I thought you’d be elsewhere…”

I furrow my brows at the excuse. “Yeah, didn’t you see the men standing outside? Wait, why did they let you in?”

“Peter’s my friend. Not the sort of friend that would risk his career to let you out, but the kind to let your close friend in.”

I chuckle, then peer out the curtain, holding its corner over my chest and feeling its coldness stick to my damp skin, “Okay, what do you want?”

He tutted, “Relax, I wanted to sit with you, to comfort you. I heard the news, obviously, came as fast as I could.”

“There’s nothing you could do.”

He stares at me. “I can help you. Not here, though. I can barely build rapport with the spymaster for my own benefits. I know a group in Europe, people not related to us or what we do.” He itches his fourteen-day scruff and wipes dew from his cheek. Fog escapes through the cracked door behind him, his features become clearer.

“A spy agency?”

“Not a dedicated one, no. But they could use intel like every other secret group.” He inches closer and traces a finger down the curtain’s edge until he nears my hands. His touch hovers dangerously close to my radiating flesh, “I’ve missed you. I’m sorry I wasn’t here for you when that prick decided he was fed up.”

I cut him off, frowning, “What would you do? You would’ve pulled me away from him, but it’d be pointless since it already happened and he would never forgive it. And if you didn’t interfere—or worse, help me get him—you’ll end up on the streets with me.”

He smiles, then caresses my cheek with his finger. “Whatever course of action, it would be better than seeing you off while I stay here.”

The water beat down my shoulders, splattering him, finding its way down his simple t-shirt and black jacket. His skin glistened, misty and raw. He smells as if he has just come back from a long mission, which could be true, since I haven’t seen him before being dismissed to my room like a rebellious child. I’ve missed him, why would I lie about that? Because of my incredible ability to ruin anything remotely linked to happiness? Maybe, but maybe because my head is swarming with thoughts of survival. Not the ones related to eavesdropping in a dark, faux-deserted hallway, but the ones as basic as food and warmth.

I scour my mind for people who can house me, but I’ve ruined so many relationships because of my recklessness. I dropped one guy’s family heirloom and refused to glue the ceramic pieces together, I called a high-ranking woman names because she insulted my attitude and sloppy techniques, someone’s lopsided comment ticked me off and I knocked her out. It never ends with my temper. I know it, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. Jacob’s the only person who I can’t deter with my mindless actions.

I look at him, his endless smile that always jolts me out of my reckless actions. Seeing his eyes, feeling his presence, it’s serenity. The thought of him stops the frequent haze of overthinking. He’s a drug. When I wake up from his intoxication, I am left with the bitter aftermath of what I’ve done the day or hour or second before. It’s painful, relying on someone’s existence so much. It’s tremendously unhealthy and would make couple-consultants cringe—after they rub their hands together, that is. Jacob has often stopped me from causing tragedies, and look what happened when he disappeared on an errand for a couple of hours.

“Jacob?” I say, voice cracking. He looks up and I tell him, “I’m scared.”

“I’ll help you, don’t worry. Don’t be scared. I’ll do anything I’m capable of doing to find you somewhere to belong to.”

“What if I fuck it up again? You know I will. You know I’m a disaster waiting to happen.”

He grins, then cups my face, his hands are cold, they smell of rust and freshly-unwrapped electronics. “I’ll be there to pick up the pieces, like always. I promised you long ago that I’m not going anywhere, I’m not leaving you to suffer through anything. No way.” His hair darkens two shades as it soaks up the water, it’s nearly black, and his bright eyes contrast greatly, like moonlight against a remarkably starless night sky.

I don’t have to ask him why. Or how he found it in his heart to be held partially responsible for every little fuckup. Even after he notes the fallout is too much of a mess to be fixable, he fixes it. He saved me from a demotion to hard labor two stories below when I impulsively deleted valuable folders from the servers after one of the technicians decided to make fun of my performance on a mission, which was a failure. It’s a loop, but he’s standing in the midst of it, reassuring me, trying to put a stop to it.

I know he cares, and maybe the reason went over my head. But no matter how complex our relationship, I’m simply glad he’s around.

He gently holds my wrists and moves them from the curtain. I let go, hesitant.

He grins. “What? I’ve seen everything already.”

“Yeah, that’s why you’re so eager to get another glimpse.”

He rolls his eyes and sweeps my hair from my eyes. His short sleeves are dripping. The waterfall is covering him gradually; with every little splash, his clothes become damper. First at the collar of the low-cut t-shirt, then the water begins to spread out like wings. His hands slide down my slippery neck until he finds my breasts. He massages the peaked muscles, firm after years and years of two-hundred sit-ups a day. My nipple found itself between his index and middle finger, and the magical, insistent friction makes me shudder. My libido shoots through the roof, buoyed by the urging graze of his lips against my jaw. His entrancing murmurs, uttered against my neck, are meant to bolster my courage and tidy my jittering form, but they only make me weaker.

His skin is wet and sticky with mist, he shrugs off his jacket and soaked t-shirt from his thick body and presses himself to me. My breasts are trapped between his chest and the arms that hold me as if I could float away. As he kisses me, his short nails scrape down my back, forcing a rush of goose bumps to erupt under my skin. I moan in frustration, my matted eyelashes flutter and I pull away. He is breathless, and his fuzzy chest heaves to welcome the thick air into his lungs.

He makes up his mind. He unbuckles his belt and lets his pants and boxer-briefs fall with abandon. He rushes in behind me, letting the water cascade down his body. The sight of the water splashing on the faintly-carved muscles of his abdomen makes me bite my lip. He is still thoroughly soft, but the gleam in his eyes means this wouldn’t be the case for much longer. His hand darts to my center, his fingers glide up and down the reddening flesh while his thumb brush over my nub in repetitive circles. I hold back a moan, then glance at the door he left open. Perhaps it was deliberate, perhaps everyone in the bureau would know that I am his—a final truth to cling to after I’m gone. And I convince myself that I don’t mind. If there are social consequences for ignoring the rules of discretion, I won’t suffer them since I’m leaving.

I push myself to the warmth of his hand, my core trembles and my knees buckle. I bury my face into his neck, the gathering droplets of water and sweat and need press against my parted lips. I bite down on his shoulder and begin stirring against his touch. The scalding water is hitting my back, inflaming the scratch-marks he made. Standing on my tiptoes, I force him to me until his hand is between us. I can feel my deep, quickening pulse in my nether regions. His member is rising, and presses against my thigh as if begging. I take two quick breaths and a white glow overtakes my body, I release against his wet, hot hand. Moans escape my lips, echoing and mingling. I come down from my disorienting high and open my eyes to look at him.

I almost can’t believe the look of unadulterated lust in his bloodshot gaze. His cheeks are a mellow, pinkish coral and the faint freckles dotting his nose seem darker. I kiss him, my resolve to take control melting after the extinguishing wave of my orgasm. He understands and turns me, he presses me against the cold, tiled wall. My hair sticks to the tiles. My leg bumps against the soap dish and it falls inside the bathtub, an extravagant show of exploding soap-water splash against our feet. Jacob lifts my leg by the thigh and wraps it around his waist. I am wholly exposed to him and my center awaits the second when his teasing converts into something else. One hand massages my thigh while the other seizes a fist of hair closest to my scalp. He leans in and his tongue brushes over mine, I am lost in a sea of lust; for a moment, I can’t remember where we are. The engorged tip of his member rests against my nub, Jacob uses a tantalizing moment to move his waist forward, nearly forcing me against the wall. My core is taut and enflamed after my recent orgasm. I am dizzy with need.

He pushes in, and I release a groan that sounds aggravated. He is practically silent, but his eyes widen and narrow consecutively. The ghost of a moan dawdles thickly in his throat until it escapes his parted lips. We move together, the water between us producing an audible and repetitive slap that could be heard from my bed. My eyes roll back and I almost sink, but his arm holds me tighter. His hips push against mine, and I stare at the connection. He grunts and follows suit, green eyes unfathomably dark. My hand drifts to my nub and I rub it furiously, I orgasm again, my walls constricting around him. He hisses as if he’s been burned and releases inside me.

We’re both shaking, he leans against me, his nose against my cheek. I reach up and trace the scar that interrupted the perfection of his stubble. Somebody in another bathroom flushes the toilet, and the water’s temperature shifts considerably, it splashes bitterly against us. The flush begins to fade from our bodies. We laugh and hop out of the tub, steadying each other. A cloud of mist erupts between us, water evaporating from our skin. Naked, I kiss Jacob and sigh against his lips.

As if my kiss was magical, a ridiculous thought comes out of his smooth lips, born out of his addled mind, “Forget it, I’m going with you.”

I laugh as if he told me an unforgettable joke. The slowly-waning period of afterglow is unfit for decision-making and foolish words, such as uttering the words I love you. But Jacob decided to risk it. His jade eyes seem to glow with certainty, and I falter at his apparent honesty.

“What do you mean? You belong here, as I belonged here once. You can’t leave because I was kicked out.”

“I can, and I will.” He shifted, then held my shoulders, “I’ll be damned if I let you go, if I never see you again…”

This is Jacob—the irrational, terribly-masculine creature that I thoroughly missed. But two irrational beings in the same equation is unhealthy, almost deadly. I hold his wrists and gently pry them off.

“You’re not doing this to yourself. I’ll be fine, I promise.” I smile. “You told me you’d find me another job, I’ll take you up on that offer.”

“You’ll be alone for quite a while.”

“I’ll have the thought of you to keep me going.” I embrace him. The air-conditioner is blowing warm wind, but it reaches the bathroom lukewarm. I start to shiver.

I move back, then scrutinize his sculpted features as if it’s the first and last time I’d see them.

Maybe it’s a relatively-newborn fling, and maybe it’s more. But I abandon my thoughts, turn, and escape the foggy aftermath of our lovemaking. I realize, with a heavy heart, that I’ll spend the rest of my days wondering, wandering, and wallowing until I know the truth.

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