Author's Note: Based on the following prompt with a few changes: "Person A and B are sleeper agents, located in a remote town, posing as roommates under aliases. They get to know each other during their life together, become good friends and/or fall in love while no orders come from the headquarters. At the height of their happiness together, a message comes to Person A - only person A. It states that person B is a threat to the cause and must be neutralized."
The movers left the boxes in crammed stacks in the living room. He suspected this was because they weren't actually movers and had no real moving experience nor did have a clue what was in the unlabeled boxes.
His new partner eyed him from the empty kitchen. He knew her name, her date of birth, the day they'd been married, the name of her mother and deceased father, her hometown, the high school she'd graduated from, and that she had a severe allergy to various nuts. He also knew everything was falsified except for the allergy. She said nothing to him before grabbing a box and slicing through the packing tape with a box cutter. It was filled with bath towels and toiletries.
By the end of the day he'd unpacked at least ten of the boxes and stopped counting hers. His wife was determined. They slept on opposite sides of the queen-sized bed in silence. Her scarlet hair tickled his ear but he made no attempt to flick it from the edge of his pillow. She hadn't given him permission to touch her outside the parameters of their assumed identities and only in public.
He decided that was fair enough.
He worked in an office that sold monogramed uniforms to a local private school and a few other, smaller, clients. His job was to proof designs before they were sent to the machines, and enter the hard copies of previous client files into a newly purchased database. The entire system was behind by at least a decade and it was all he could do not to yawn for eight hours straight.
His advanced degree in information technology and computer science, and experience growing up poor above a mechanic's garage would be completely wasted until the phone hidden in the false bottom of the first kitchen drawer on the right came to life. Which it hadn't – and he had no idea when that would happen.
She stayed at home. Every day she served dinner at six-thirty. It was clear right away that her obvious skill with blades did not equate to a well-prepared meal. For the first three weeks her learning curve was difficult for them both and his lunch was a burrito from a food truck that visited the shopping center parking lot across from his office building.
He wasn't sure which she resented more – the fact that she was playing housewife or the fact that she was painfully bad at it.
In a way he wished he'd never spoken up in the meeting that would turn out to be his last as an agent whose opinion mattered. At the time his emotions ran high and everything felt so urgently important. Only now did he realized his mistake and the consequence. He'd been pastured. Put away on a shelf until he was either forgotten or remembered just in time to be expendable.
Late at night when her breaths were even, and her hair crowded him unapologetically, he wondered what she'd done to be pushed out of sight alongside him. Thoughts like those were immediately followed by recollections of her expertise with knives in the kitchen and he usually abandoned the train of thought altogether.
It didn't escape his attention that, when it mattered most, she'd clutched the tablecloth instead of his arm. Her eyes widened and her mouth opened in an attempt to breathe as she crumpled to the floor. The other guests crowded around in shock as he snatched her handbag, tore a slit in her dress, and stabbed her in the thigh with her epinephrine injector.
Her mascara was smudged when she was released from the ER. Since arriving the temperature had dropped an easy thirty degrees. He loaned her his coat for their walk to the car. Snow had caked the windshield and the Christmas lights draping the houses on their street blurred together like melted crayon shavings. She left his coat on the rack and headed straight for the shower.
His eyes were already closed when he felt the mattress dip beside him.
"Thank you," she whispered.
"You're welcome," he replied.
On New Year's Day he got bored. Starting with the kitchen drawer directly below the one containing an empty box of batteries and a false bottom, he began to not-so-casually inspect their house for monitoring devices.
"What are you doing?" she asked, swirling the wine in her glass.
"Satisfying my curiosity," he said.
"Why? Does it matter?"
"It does to me."
"Curiosity killed the cat, you know." Her smirk was grim when he glanced up before moving to the next floor cabinet.
She shrugged and left him to it.
"Can I help you?" the cashier asked. His eyes scanned the bouquets before smiling his most friendly smile.
"It's my wife's birthday."
"Roses are always nice," she offered. He decided the cashier couldn't have been more than seventeen.
"I don't think she cares for roses," he muttered, thinking of the heap of bushes she'd dug out of the flowerbeds the previous autumn while he was still learning all his new co-workers' names. "What are these?" His fingers brushed the petals of a cluster of bright orange and purple blooms.
"Gerbera daisies." The cashier wrinkled her nose. "They're not very romantic."
When he presented his wife with the flowers, her forehead crinkled.
"What are these for?" she asked taking them from him in confusion.
"It's your birthday, isn't it?"
"My... oh. I didn't think –" Her words trailed off and she quickly turned to snip the ends off the stems before placing them in the vase. "Thank you for not bringing roses."
Before falling asleep that night he glanced over at her. She was just as awake as him.
"They're not watching. I've checked everything including the attic and crawlspace."
He'd almost given up on a reply when she whispered, "My real birthday is in June."
The flier was printed in Comic Sans. He hated it immediately. Her stare couldn't be avoided, though.
"We have to go," she said working the spatula a little too forcefully than he thought strictly necessary.
"Because it's a Neighborhood Block Party, and we live in this neighborhood. Fitting in is part of the job!" she exclaimed with exasperated incredulity. "Everyone will know if we don't go."
He shrugged. She huffed.
"Listen, I spent all day on this potato salad that's been seasoned within an inch of it's life specifically to overpower Minerva's stupid, snobby chicken rub. This salad is the product of a week's worth of flavor deconstruction, perfected chopping technique, and research." She glared at him and he could feel the sting. "You will go with me."
"Is upsetting Minerva really that important to you?"
Over the past eight months, he'd learned a number of her expressions and mannerisms. This particular stance and quirk of eyebrow indicated he had very little choice in the manner.
The way she smiled to herself as she scrubbed the empty salad bowl before joining him in bed that night made him chuckle.
"My real birthday is in December," he said, not looking away from the ceiling. She didn't respond for a long moment.
"Roses were my sister's favorite. She..." There was a deeply hesitant pause before she continued in a whisper. "She got me into this. I was recruited to make them trust her."
He turned his head to the side and watched her stare at the same ceiling. "I'm sorry. I was brought in by a college professor five years ago. For the first time in my life I felt important."
"I was sixteen." When she finally looked at him, her eyes were the saddest he'd ever seen anyone's. "It's been ten years and I'm afraid the price to get out is so high I can't afford it anymore."
He knew it was a bad idea. Feelings shouldn't make up any part of his position with her. They were partners. They had orders. There had to be a purpose to all of this waiting, and he was pretty sure that purpose wasn't to fall in love with his fake wife.
Did he love her? Was that what made him smile when he arrived home after a boring day of data entry and insufferable water cooler chat? How had he gone from studiously ignoring her hair on his pillow to not minding it so much he liked it? When had their silent evenings of staring at reality shows on television turned into flirtatious banter about the cast?
Somewhere between the realization that their agency didn't care about their day to day lives and sharing secrets in the dark, he'd grown attached to her. He enjoyed her presence and craved the sound of her laughter.
Somewhere along the line, he'd forgotten that their life was a lie.
Her gasp of delight thrilled him. She pulled the fluffy, black kitten from the box and brought him to her chest. The tiny ball of fuzz purred loud enough for him to hear from the other side of the couch.
"Does he have a name?" she asked.
"The shelter said his name was Pantherlily but –"
"Lily is fine," she muttered pressing her nose into the downy fur. "He smells like your shampoo."
"Ah, well –" he cleared his throat. The kitten had been an impulse gift and he hasn't thought to purchase supplies beyond a litter box, food, a handful of toys, and a bed. "I've never had a cat before and I didn't think he'd need a bath until I got him home and he smelled like a kennel." When he met her eyes again she was smiling.
"Thank you. No one's ever gotten me a birthday gift before."
"No one? Really?"
She kissed the kitten's questing nose. "No one. You're the first."
When he came home from work Lily was perched on the back of the couch, watching the entryway to the kitchen intently. He left his keys on the table and found her with her hand in the sink drain. Her face was red and she was clearly flustered to the point of irrationality.
"What's going on?" he asked. She whirled around in surprise that quickly devolved into something he'd never seen from her before. A tear slipped from her eye and she yanked her hand from the drain to wipe it away.
"I, uh, I just lost something," she muttered.
"It must have been something important," he said, slowly crossing the kitchen.
"My wedding ring. I took it off to wash my lunch plate and I wasn't paying attention and knocked it down the drain with the soap and now I can't –" She took a deep breath and made to reach down the drain again. "I can't find it."
"Hey, stop." He grabbed her wrist and peered into the drain himself. "It's just a ring. We aren't even really married, I'm sure –"
"Your'e right," she snapped, cutting him off. "It's just a stupid ring." Her following laugh was harsh. "I can't believe I was so upset."
He watched with raised eyebrows as she stalked from the kitchen and took Lily with her before shutting herself in their bedroom.
The couch was not as comfortable as their bed. He stared at the new ceiling until just after midnight before dragging the toolbox from the garage. Plumbing wasn't his field of expertise but WikiHow was very helpful. After a good scrub with dish soap and a spare toothbrush, the ring glittered just as it had when they'd removed the set from the envelope.
Their bedroom door wasn't locked and she was awake with a purring Lily on her chest when he cautiously sat on her side of the mattress.
"I'm sorry for being a jerk," he said, reaching for her hand and sliding the ring back into place. "The ring –"
"It was unfair of me to assume you could read my mind," she whispered.
"Tell me what you're thinking, then." He waited as she nudged the cat aside and sat up in bed. She didn't let go of his hand as she ran her fingers over the matching band he never bothered to take off, even while sleeping and bathing.
"You remembered my real birthday."
"It meant a lot."
"I just wanted to make you happy. This –" he gestured around their room. "Isn't easy. For all I know we've been stuffed away and –"
"I wouldn't be upset about it if we've been forgotten." Her words drew his eyes back to her face and he found her expression earnest. He couldn't help but return her honesty.
"I don't think I'd be upset either." He leaned into her and let his forehead rest against hers. She squeezed his hand and her nose brushed softly against his cheek as her breath fanned over his lips.
"It's Erza," she breathed.
"Jellal," he managed to say just before kissing her.
"It's been a year," she said suddenly. He looked over at her but her eyes were still glued to the television.
"Just about, yeah."
"What if they haven't forgotten? They don't forget things." Her voice was barely a whisper when she met his eyes. "The people at the top do not forget."
"How do you know that?"
She grimaced. "Don't take this the wrong way but you're a nerd. You work on computers and process information. People like me..."
"What are you, Erza?"
"A killer," she murmured. "I've done a lot of killing. I've crawled in windows and crept down hallways and jumped from closets. I do the leg work you calculate from a desk." She paused but didn't look away. "I've been doing this for a long time. They don't forget."
"I opened my mouth in a meeting and contradicted my boss's boss. That's why I'm here. They think they're punishing me."
She shook her head slowly. Sadly. "No, Jellal. This part isn't the punishment. This is the countdown."
"The last time I felt happy was a long time ago."
"Are you happy now?"
Her hand came up to rest on his cheek before sliding down to his neck. She lifted herself over his hips and his arms circled her waist. Her thumb brushed over his eyelid and cheek before she kissed him gently.
"I am. And I am terrified."
He nearly dropped the glass of water when it happened. She was sleeping, tangled in their sheets, and he'd left the bed for something to drink. The buzzing repeated twice before he realized the sound was coming from a kitchen drawer. That drawer. The first one on the right.
With shaking hands he tossed aside the empty battery box and yanked out the false bottom of the drawer. The face of the phone lit up with a pattern of numbers and letters he recognized. It was his pattern, meaning the phone would only unlock with his thumbprint. His lungs refused to fill with air as he pressed his thumb to the button.
UMaNQ2-1280: Your partner has been compromised. Neutralize immediately. Confirmation required for extraction.
He stared at the screen in disbelief. She'd been right and the countdown was over.
He woke alone. She was waiting for him in the kitchen. Lily sniffed the edge of the phone that still sat on the counter.
"It's dead," she said pointedly. "I assume that means you received orders."
He watched her with a broken expression and slid his hands into the pockets of his pajama pants. "I did."
"I see." She sighed and brushed her hair from her face. He'd had his hands in the same hair only hours before.
"I won't do it," he whispered.
"They'll see it done whether it's you or not," she spat. "Don't you get it? This is your punishment. Not the last year of playing house. That was part of the set up."
He blinked in confusion.
"God, you're so naive." She wiped her cheeks but one tear had already dripped to the low neckline of her silk nightgown. The dark spot held his attention. "I'm the throwaway. I should've known but I was too distracted to figure it out."
"I'm sorry, I –"
"Wake up, Jellal!" she shouted. "You were supposed to come here and fall for me. You're such an easy mark, of course they didn't even need to watch us! Now you have to kill me for the good of the agency, express a proper amount of remorse for challenging the system, and go back to clicking away on keyboards, thankful for the learning opportunity." She began to pace the kitchen. "It's a two birds, one stone situation. They can shove you back under their thumb, and get rid of me in one strike."
"Why do they want you dead?" he asked softly.
"Because I can't cash the check my sister wrote for me," she whispered. "I've been in for too long. I know too much. I'm a liability now. To be honest, I'm a little surprised they didn't just slit my throat in my sleep." Finally she stopped pacing and grinned at him in a way that curdled his blood. "I suppose I should be grateful that my welcome ran out when someone needed to teach you a convenient lesson about loyalty and knowing your place."
"Erza, that's –"
"The cold truth of it? Yes."
"I'm not going to kill you."
"They'll kill you if you don't." Her grin melted away into a sad grimace. "We've both got a timer, Jellal."
"What if we just... left."
He took a deep breath and started to calculate in his head. "What if we just left?"
"I don't –"
"Pack a bag for us and the cat, and we'll leave. Today. Now."
"But they'll –" She gathered Lily from the counter and to her chest.
"They won't." His lips started to curl into his own brand of dangerous grin. "Like you said, I've spent most of my time clicking away on a keyboard in a half empty office monitoring data exchanges. A well-read high school student could do that. If you want to leave with me, we can. I can make it happen."
"We should leave now," she breathed. "Is the car safe?"
"Of course it is," he said, tossing the phone back in the dummy drawer. "I rewired it back in February. What did you think I was doing in the garage all that time?"
She nodded and dashed from the kitchen to their bedroom. He exhaled heavily and leaned against the counter. His tinkering with the car had started out as a way to kill his boredom. Hopefully it would be enough.
Lily napped on a pile of blankets in the backseat. The sun glinted off the hood of the car and when they crossed the border, Erza reached over to pull one of his hands off the steering wheel. Her palm slid against his as one thumb brushed over the empty spot on his ring finger.
He knew she kept two expertly sharpened blades between their mattress and box springs. He knew the block in the kitchen wasn't only filled with steak knives. He knew about the two loaded guns in the linen closet and the one she kept under the driver's seat of their car.
She'd taken to Spanish easily. To him, it was like falling back on an old pillow. Maybe she would never stop sharpening her knives or cleaning the firearms or side-eyeing every shadow in the street, but if he could make her forget about why they needed to be careful even for a few moments at a time, he'd consider himself a success.
He bought the new rings after their first month in Salinas. They sat in the first kitchen drawer on the right for a year before he thought she was ready to wear hers. After that, the drawer sat empty.