He shaved in the shower, then soaked for twenty minutes in the oversized tub. Changed into a black pair of trousers, a fine cotton long-sleeved shirt of the same color, and a dark brown belt. His feet kept their combat boots. He thought about Artemis.
Before, he had made certain not to make assumptions as to what her nationality was, along with what she was hiding from. Yet he'd had a feeling, pending further investigation, that she was from an exotic background. Partly it was her appearance, her manner, the way she dressed. And Green Arrow's trust in her didn't seem poorly based.
He decided that he would have to test her.
He picked up his communicator, tucked it into his ear, and spoke, "Contact. Private channel. Artemis."
A mechanical voice responded, "Acknowledged. Private channel available."
There was a hiss of static, a single chirp of ring, and her voice was there in his head.
"You and I need to talk," he told her as a way of greeting. "Now."
"Is this a mission thing?" she asked.
"No. This is a getting-to-know-you thing."
"Thirty minutes," she said. And then she hung up before he could argue.
"Dammit," he muttered. "Contact. Redial."
When the chirp subsided and he knew that she was on the line, he didn't give her a chance to say anything. "You should probably stay on the line long enough to figure out where to meet me, don't you think?"
"I already know where to meet you." Her voice sounded certain."The Saint Augustine, fifth floor, room five fourty-four."
He said nothing.
"Your communicator has GPS and uses a satellite, Red. I'll be there in thirty minutes. Now don't bother me."
He gritted his teeth and clenched one fist, wishing that he had his bow in hand. Things always felt more controllable when he had a weapon. She's probably trying to throw me off-balance, gain just a little leverage by forcing me to wait. Forcing me to deal with something I'm not expecting. Two could play at that game.
There was a liquor store on the bottom of the hotel, and on impulse, he went inside. Something caught his eye: a bottle of thirty-year-old Laphroaig for three hundred U.S.
But life is so short.
There were a small selection of CDs by the register, and he picked up a few. Eva Cassidy, Live at Blues Alley. Chris Botti, When I fall in love. Mark Douthit, Groove. All of them good, the next best thing to being there, and Roy was familiar with them all due to his love of music.
He took everything back to the room and took two crystal glasses and a bucket of ice from the minibar. Set them down on the coffee table with the Laphroaig, along with a bottle of mineral water. The CDs were inserted into the room's multidisk player, programmed for "Random and Repeat." A moment later, the music started filling the room. He paused, listening to Chris Botti doing "Time To Say Goodbye," the melody and melancholy notes seeming to clarify, and somehow frame, his feelings about Artemis: part pleasant anticipation at seeing her again, but mostly deadly concern at her possible role in the team. If she was an infiltrator, and if she turned out to be an enemy, perhaps even a member of the Shadows, he would have his hands full.
The League of Shadows was impressive, even to Roy. They very much like a Terrorist CIA. They dealt with the collection of intelligence, destabilization of governments, covert ops like paramilitary activities and assassinations, and so on. What made them uniquely special was that their main lifestyle for the past two thousand years has been destruction of one civilization after another. So their blades were always sharp. They trained their operatives very, very thoroughly, and as consequence they were the best at what they did.
There was a knock on the door that broke him away from his thoughts. He unlocked the door and Artemis slipped inside without a word. He had to keep himself from staring when he took in her details.
Artemis was not in uniform.
She was wearing a jade green dress, something fine, maybe raw silk. It was cut just above the knee, with three-quarter-length sleeves that hid her shoulders, and a deep V cut in the back. Her shoes were patent leather stilettos with open toes. There was a handbag to match the shoes, and a silver Omega watch encircling her left wrist. It was a man's watch, large and heavy, but somehow seemed to accentuate her femininity while showing masculine strength. Her hair was swept back and away from her face. Overall, she looked controlled and sleek, sophisticated and sexy.
None of it, especially the shoes, would be ideal for combat, escape, or evasion (if it came to that). He realized that she must have chosen it for some type of operational imperative.
"Why," he said first, "are you dressed like you're going to the prom?"
"The same reason why you're dressed like Edward Cullen." She held both arms out to the side, open and inviting. "I don't suppose you'd feel comfortable strip searching me for weapons? You know. Seeing as how I'm not trustworthy and all."
There are all sorts of weapons in the world, and Roy reminded himself that when this girl was dressed for work she was anything but unarmed.
"You women." He showed his back to her and walked into the room. "Always wanting to be felt up."
She lowered her arms back to her sides and looked at him. She smiled in that sly, arrogant way she had…a little bit teasing, but mostly amusement, and inviting for others to join in the joke.
"You trust me so much you're not going to search me?"
"Not necessary." Nor would it be wise. His heart had started to run at a slightly higher pace at just the prospect of getting both hands on her body. "We trust each other for now, right?"
"Riiiight," she agreed, letting the smile linger for a minute without looking away. "Can I take off my shoes, then?"
"Why?" he asked, thinking of that idiot shoe bomber who had tried to bring down that flight from Paris a few years back.
She shrugged. "They're not exactly comfort incarnate. And anyway, isn't it customary to have a guest make herself at home?"
Cute. A way for her to obtain more maneuverability in case of combat. "This isn't anyone's home," he said. "Either way is fine."
She bent forward, raised her right leg behind her, and reached around to a strap at the back of her ankle. Roy noted that she didn't need to touch the wall or otherwise support herself to perform this maneuver. Her balance was good. She repeated the maneuver with the other shoe. In the half-light where they stood by the door he caught a tantalizing glimpse of skin and curves as the front of her dress slipped momentarily away from her body. The view wasn't accidental, he knew, but it was undeniably a nice one.
He kept his own boots on, and lead her into the room. She glanced over at the coffee table. "Laphroaig?"
"Thirty years old," he said, nodding. "You know it?"
She nodded back. "One of my favorites. I like it even better than the forty. That sherry finish...just great."
Not bad, he thought. She was right. The thirty-year-old, finished in sherry casks, mingles ocean tang and sherry sweetness like no other whisky. It offers a smell and taste unparalleled even among Laphroaig's other outstanding bottles. Roy was experienced with whisky and other fine drinks due to a misappropriate amount of offhand education provided by Ollie, but that probably wasn't the same story for Artemis. He wondered what else she would know, and where she had learned it from. She was obviously adept when it came to combat, clothes, archery. And now whiskey. What else? Music? Wine? Cultures? Tantric sexual techniques?
He tried not to speculate too much on the last one.
They sat near the coffee table; Artemis took the couch with her back to the wall, while Roy took the stuffed chair near the couch.
"Would you like a glass?"
"I'd love one. Thanks."
He poured them each a healthy measure in the crystal tumblers. He handed her a glass, raised his own, and said, "Can chen," smiling with his eyes as he did so.
She paused, looking at him. "What?"
"It means, 'Cheers,' in Vietnamese."
For one second, he thought she looked angry, and then she smiled. "Etuatuko," she said, and they both smiled as they drank. Responding in Navajo was a good recover, he would grant her that, but that pause, and the momentary reaction that had followed it, was enough of a tell.
After a minute she asked, "How much do you know about me?"
"Not a lot. Mostly speculation. Probably the same amount you know about me."
"You think I'm Vietnamese?" She gestured to her smooth face, her white skin, her blonde hair. "Don't you think that's a little much?"
Roy shrugged. "Yeah, you're right. Beautiful young woman, Buddhist-levels of concentration, trained in combative arts probably from the day she turned seven? I don't know what I was thinking. Call me crazy."
"Is that really all you're going on?" One hand was slightly raised, palm upturned, as if making the sign for a question mark.
"What else would there be?" He took another sip of the whisky, and cut to the chase. "Artemis, I need to know what you're hiding from my friends."
She stayed silent for a second, considering. "You're being hasty. That's not like you, seeing as how you're more of a cautious type. If I tell you everything about me, you'll either assume that I'm lying, or probably find some way to make the others not trust me."
"I already don't trust you," he said. "And the others probably already know. Megan may be respectful of privacy and pure of heart, but even she can read your mind without you knowing it, especially if she has an ounce of protective instinct for the rest of the team."
"I know that." She sipped from her tumbler, sighed as the warmth flooded through her, closed her eyes, and continued. "Let's not forget Robin, too. Trained under the world's greatest detective and all that." She looked at him squarely, displaying some of her old aggression. "We understand each other. We understand the situation we're both in. The more you push me, the more you compromise my ability to be one hundred percent out in the field with the others."
He put down his glass and stood up.
"Artemis," he said slowly, his voice dropping an octave the way it always did when he felt seconds away from having to take decisive action, "we're here to find a way to coexist peacefully. You constantly parading the fact that my friends trust and rely on you doesn't help either of us. Don't make me decide that you're a threat to them."
"Or what?" she said, looking up at him.
Roy didn't answer.
She put her glass down, then stood and faced him. "Are you going to break my neck? Most men couldn't. I'm not a flower, you know. But I know you could. You're cold, Red. You do what you want, and you don't care how it will affect others."
She took a step closer to him. He felt an adrenaline surge...but he couldn't identify the reason behind it. A second ago he had reacted to her the way he reflexively did when something revealed itself to be dangerous, but now...Roy wasn't sure. It was hard to put it in the right context. His increased heart rate forced my lungs to breathe faster, but he controlled it, not wanting her to see.
"Maybe I am a threat to them," she said, her voice even. "Not because I want to be, but because of the situation. I have secrets, and my team relies on me to have their backs. It doesn't matter my intentions, does it? A liabilty is a threat. So? You're a man, right? Do what you have to do. Eliminate the threat." She took a step closer, close enough for him to smell her, to feel something coming off of her body, heat or some electrical thing. He felt more adrenaline push its way through his chest and gut.
"No?" she asked, drilling into his eyes with her own. "Why not? You know how it's done. Here." She reached down for his hands and brought them up to her neck. Her skin was warm and very smooth. He could feel her pulse against his fingers. It was beating surprisingly hard, as fast as his own. He could feel her breath against his arms, hear it moving in and out through her nose.
Roy hadn't meant to try and bluff her, but somehow he had. And now she was calling him on it. Fuck.
She lowered her arms to her sides and tilted her chin slightly upward, the posture maximally submissive, and yet at the same time it was mocking and insolent. He looked down at the shadowed hollows of her throat and was almost defeated by the thought of how easy it would be to sweep his hands down over her shoulders, catching the material of her dress along the way, bringing the garment down to her waist and belly in one smooth motion, exposing her breasts, her skin, her sex.
It was there if he wanted it. Right there, ready for the taking, only two slight hand movements away. Roy knew that, and he knew this was by design, their moves to be choreographed on her terms, where she offered what he wanted like a kind pet owner offering milk to a kitten, maybe petting its head while it greedily lapped at the leavings.
Roy was suddenly angry. The feline imagery helped. He removed both hands from her neck and took a careful step away from her. His mouth had gone dry. He picked up the glass and took a long, slow swallow. And another. Sat back down, as calmly as he could.
"I was right about you," he said, leaving her standing. "You really can't help yourself."
Her eyes narrowed a fraction, and Roy knew he was right. He'd fought against men like her in fights around the world. They had their money move, one technique that always worked for them, but if he could get past that one move, if he could survive it and keep fighting, they were off their game and couldn't recover.
"What's it like, having that power?" he went on. "It must be difficult, talking to a guy without trying to give him a hard on. What are you going to do in a few years from now, after your pheromones have all dried up? I don't see much else to you. Maybe there was, once. A long time ago. But there's not much left now, is there?"
Her eyes narrowed more and her ears seemed to flatten against her skull in an almost feral anger response. It's about fucking time I got the upper hand on her.
"Are you going to sit down?" he asked, gesturing to the couch. "Like I told you before, I'm not going to strip search you. And I'm not here to kill you."
She grimaced in the way that made him wonder if she had just imagined herself beheading him with a rusty spoon, and dipped her head forward as if to say, All right. Message received.
She moved back to the couch and finished what was in her glass. Roy picked up the bottle to pour her another. She raised the glass as he did so and they noticed, simultaneously, that both of their hands were shaking.
"Why don't we call that a tie," he offered. A peace offering.
She smiled and took a sip of what he'd poured. "You're good, you know. Exceptional."
"Yeah, so are you. GA wouldn't have taken you on if you weren't."
She shrugged. When she spoke, she used her hands again. "I had previous training before him. He's teaching me how to use the only weapon I ever really liked."
"You don't like using weapons?"
"Only the bow." She made a fist with one hand. "I prefer to fight up close. The bow…it lets me be just as effective from a long way off."
"I'd like to spar you sometime. What technique do you like best?"
She looked at him for another long moment, studying him, weighing the pros and cons, before finally exhaling and relaxing. "Krav Maga."
Roy's eyes narrowed. Krav Maga-loosely translated as Contact Combat-was the self-defense system developed by the Israeli Defense Forces. It dealt with very fast, very brutal attacks that were delivered with the intention of maximum damage to the receiver. There were plenty of clips of it on Youtube. In this modern day and age it's taught all over the world, so experience with using the system certainly didn't mean the practitioner was Israeli. But the League of Shadows had a series of training grounds in the nation of Israel, and Artemis already knew Roy suspected where she'd originally come from. In this context, her acknowledgement served also as a tacit admission.
"I like Krav Maga. From what I know about it, it's very practical."
"It's all in how it's taught," she said, nodding. "And how you train. Most martial arts are taught as religions, teaching things that are based on faith instead of fact, even if they're not sure it's a solid faith. But I don't want that luxury. I need to use something that I know works." She took another sip, recalling memories. "They took it a step further for me than for most, because my missions are special. I'm alone in the field for a long time, usually without access to any weapon. Or at least, a usual weapon."
"How'd they train you?"
She looked straight at him again. "You know how. A lot of scenario-based conditioning. A lot of contact. My nose was broken during training, can you see it? I had it fixed, but you can still see the scars if you look closely." She tilted her head, allowing him a closer view. Roy looked, and saw a hairline mark at the bridge of her nose, the remnants of a bad break made good by a skilled plastic surgeon. It would be invisible if he didn't know to look for it.
He was very aware that their faces were closer than usual.
"Mostly MMA. Boxing, wrestling some judo thrown in," he said. Not leaning back. "But I prefer to shoot."
"What else?" she asked, gesturing to his legs and torso. "The way I see you move, the way you carry yourself, the way you watch me, and from what I can tell about you right now, you don't behave this way from doing archery as a hobby."
"I learned the basics of aim just because it was a hobby. Green Arrow took me on as his partner, and when that happened he taught me the special stuff. But it helps to have spent some time in the feild, a few years or so. That's when you start to develop a certain attitude towards learning what you can, wherever you are."
For a few moments, neither of them spoke.
Then she asked, "What are you thinking?"
He waited a second, then said, "I like how you use your hands when you talk."
She glanced down at her hands for a second, as though checking to see whether they were doing something right then, and laughed quietly. "I don't usually do that. You pissed me off." She looked away from him, probably mentally scolding herself.
"You weren't only doing it when you were pissed."
"Oh. Well, I do it when I forget myself."
"How often does that happen?"
"You should do it more often."
She looked back at him. He didn't look away. The look was noticeably long, definitely frank. Possibly inviting. "Tell me why you really wanted me to come here tonight."
Roy got up and sat next to her on the couch. One of her eyebrows rose a notch and she said, "This is unexpected." But she was smiling a little, those warm notes of irony and humor in her eyes. "Some people might call what you're doing 'mixed signals,'" she said.
He looked at her for another moment, then leaned slowly forward. She watched him, her eyes focusing on his, then dropping momentarily to his lips, moving back to his eyes again. Roy paused. Their faces were a few centimeters apart. He could smell her perfume, something he had never smelled before. She smelled nice.
Roy leaned his head forward and kissed her.
She accepted the kiss but didn't exactly embrace it, and after a moment he drew back slightly and looked at her.
"I thought you said you weren't going to do this."
"You just kissed me."
"I have a problem with following rules. Even the ones I make up."
"A few minutes ago you were shooting me down, remember?"
He shook his head. "That wasn't you. That was your character. I'm not interested in her."
"How do you know you'll be interested in what's behind her?"
"I like what I've seen so far."
"Maybe you were right. Maybe I'm not supposed to be here."
"That would be very sad if it were true."
"You're the one who said it."
"I was trying to get under your skin."
"Show me I was wrong, then."
She fell silent, and looked at him again. Another long time. She leaned forward and they kissed again.
The kiss was better this time. There was an uncertainty about it, the tentativeness of a cease-fire, the sense of something moving slowly but with a lot of momentum behind it. She opened her mouth wider and their tongues met. Again, the feeling was tentative: an exploration, not a hasty charge. A testing of the waters, not a heedless plunge. A minute passed, maybe two, and the kiss grew less cautious, more passionate. Less deliberating, more a thing unto itself. It ebbed and flowed as though it were in obedience to some kind of force that was taking both of their control and dissolving it. Roy took in all the different aspects of her mouth; her tongue; her lips; her teeth; her tongue again; the delicious feel of the whole, this new threshold to so much of whoever she was.
She took his lower lip between her teeth and her lips and held it there a moment, then released it and gradually eased away. They looked at each other.
She bit her bottom lip.
The tension between them built, stretching like a bowstring being pulled back until it was thin, taunt, ready to snap.
For a final moment, their eyes met.
It was enough.
Their eyes didn't just glance into each other—they locked onto each other. Him seeking her surrender to what they were both feeling; her simply seeking a way out from making this mistake. She couldn't get attached with him like this, it was so dangerous for the both of them.
"Oh, dammit," she muttered weakly. "You bastard…"
Artemis had never been kissed so intimately before, though, and she was finding it much more pleasing than any previous embrace. His body's essence, though, was something more. Something ancient and long forgotten, a strong scent that stirred Artemis in a feral manner that she'd never expected. And she kept on kissing him. He parted his lips with a growl of satisfaction, and speared his tongue deeply into her mouth. She met it with her own, and they locked in combat, eagerly. He tasted… masculine. Untamed. Like pure, raging testosterone shaped in human form. Their teeth met as the kiss intensified, biting, their lips pressing hard and tongues spearing in a duel.
Her dress had a mind of its own; without any conscious effort on her part, the damn thing naturally slid the thin straps over her shoulders and fell, collecting into a silk ripple into the floor.
He found a nipple and squeezed, lightly at first, then harder. Artemis moaned and bowed her back, thrusting her breast more firmly into his hand. It was positively burning. He plucked and teased her, like it was the string on a guitar. She felt it plump and harden, so tight she thought it would burst. A wicked thrill ran through her as he suckled her bottom lip as if it were a ripe fruit, lightly bringing his sharp teeth down on her sensitive skin.
Quick as a cat, her legs leaped up and wrapped around his waist tightly, hot against his hardness. It was all she could do not to rub against him until she came.
Her arms came around his shoulders, and she almost moaned to find how muscular and strong his back felt beneath her hands. Her hips moved and ground into his pelvic area, and she could feel his hard cock straining to burst through the fabric of his pants. One of his hands speared itself into her hair, clutching at the base of her neck, while the other clasped tightly at her bottom.
His mouth moved from hers to trail a hot path downward, from her jaw, to her neck, down to the hollow at the base of her throat, where he suckled and laved. Artemis keened, a high, helpless sound of mindless nirvana. The sharp suction against her neck, coupled with her throbbing nipples and his clutched hand in her hair... it was all going to drive her insane. She'd had a lover before, but this? The mixture of pain and sex? This was practically combat!
Sharp teeth bit down on her neck, and she absolutely lost it. Her hands went to his strong back and she sank her nails into him like some sort of she-devil cat, clenching her legs tightly, humping him like a bitch in heat. Her tongue roved over his jaw, his ear, his neck.
Roy released her hair and placed his fingers between her legs. Her crotch was wet, completely soaked. He trailed the very tip of his fingernail between her skin, found the folds of her vagina, then parted them. Artemis closed her eyes and moaned, and when he slipped two fingers inside her, so tight and tiny, her whole body shook.
Glancing over her shoulder, she saw him look around wildly. To the left—a dresser. He shoved her over to it. There were valuables on top. He swept them to the floor. Artemis was suddenly bent over, her arm savagely twisted behind her back, him bearing down on her arm and pinning her there with his torso. She struggled, but Roy was too strong.
He quickly ripped his zipper open and undid his belt, his pants pooling around his ankles before being kicked to the side. She turned her head and saw his enormous erection, and wanted it, immediately. He stepped between her legs and spread her thighs wide open, ending with his hands and fingers tightly grasped onto the firm muscles in her legs and naked ass. Her breathing was more like labored gasping now, yet so, Roy realized, was his.
Still pressing down on her, he started strumming her clit. Oh fuck, why did he have to tease her like this, didn't he know what she was practically begging for? Maybe he just wanted to torture her a little more. Torture the both of them.
"Do it," Artemis gasped. "Do it now, or I'll kill you, I swear to God."
Her heart was pounding so hard she felt it thudding in her skull. Her fingers and toes were tingling, and she breathed raggedly when he kicked her feet even farther apart and pushed his two fingers back inside her.
"Stop playing!" she ordered. "Do it already!"
He pushed another finger in, pulled out, and slapped her ass hard enough to sting. She gasped, and felt so incredibly turned on. There was wetness on one cheek, put there from his slap with three wet fingers, and she bit her lip sharply when he ran his tongue over it, cleaning her.
He wiped some of her wetness against the head of his cock, and slammed into her with one smooth, quick thrust. He screamed loudly, taking in such a long, ragged breath that Artemis felt the sound of it run into her. Like a feedback screech through a microphone. He started pounding into her, looking down at her. The side of her face was pressed into the smooth wood of the dresser's top, her eyes squeezed shut, mouth open and panting and making tiny noises, in pain or pleasure or both, neither could tell. Her cheek was red with flush. He kept going. She didn't know how to slow him down. She couldn't stop him.
An eternity went by. Then another. Artemis forgot who he was, forgot who she was, forgot why they were there. There was only the dark room, the heat, and a singular rhythm as old as the rocking sea.
Artemis heard a deep growl and realized that she was making it. She opened her eyes and looked at him, pleading. "Harder. Fuck me harder. Don't stop. Don't ever stop."
He let go of her wrist and took hold of her hips with both hands. She gripped the edges of the dresser and moved up onto her toes, raising her ass higher and pushing it into him. Her lips were moving quickly, soft enough that she couldn't even hear herself. Her legs were trembling. He felt her starting to contract against him, tightening, tightening like a vise.
Her lips were moving faster and faster, trying to speak words but getting nowhere. Her mind was done for, completely disoriented, and she was trying to say what she wanted but instead kept voicing it in her mind without any sound whatsoever.
Please keep going, I need it, make me feel complete a little more before you pull out, it feels like I'm dying and living and dying and living, all at once, nobody ever did this to me, don't stop, don't stop, dear God don't stop, I can make you cum, I want to feel you cumming, I haven't felt your cum, I want to feel it, I don't care, just get it in me, keep pushing, keep stretching me, I'm going to burst, you're like a piston, oh GOD what are you doing, how can you do this, I've never felt this, this isn't normal, sweet God I need it, I want it, don't ever stop…
Finally, Artemis felt his cock fill her completely, stretching her walls, the texture of its exquisite friction deep in her sheath. She felt full to bursting, and it was such a deliciously wicked pleasure to be filled in such a way.
The pounding in her head seemed to fuse together with everything else, her legs, her ass, her clit, her whole body, his body above and inside her.
Everything. She finally realized that she was coming, and he was coming, and it was so wet and so good. She was burning up from the inside, her entire body and bones turning to liquid, her muscles clamping up and spasming, when would it end, it was too much, so torturous, she was coming, waves were shooting out of her, he was shooting into her, she was dying, oh, it was so fucking good she never wanted it to end!