Afternoon sunlight filtered through the window's dusty glass and thin curtains, which gave a blurry view of the icicle spires and lofty statues of Milan's famous Duomo. Triela sighed softly, threw off the rumpled sheet, and swung her legs over the edge of the bed to plant her bare feet on the worn carpet. As she bent over to retrieve her undershirt from the floor, she said, "This doesn't mean anything."
"I think it does," said the blond-haired boy still lying in the bed behind her. "But I know what you mean. It won't stop either of us from doing what we have to do."
She dropped the thin cotton sheath over her head; it ended at her slender hips, leaving her half naked still. "I really don't understand how this happened. Why didn't you shoot me?"
"Well, you had a gun muzzle under my chin too." He gazed unsmiling at her back.
"No." She reached into her collar and pulled her hair out, spreading it across her shoulders and down her back. "I mean, in Montalcino."
The bedsprings squeaked as he rolled toward her and propped himself on an elbow, letting the sheet slide down to his waist; she flushed, thinking of all the heedless noise they must have made earlier and wondering if it had penetrated the walls. "I don't know, really. I just couldn't. I kind of regretted it afterwards."
She nodded, although she didn't really understand. If it had been her, she'd have put a second bullet in his skull just to make sure.
"At least I wouldn't have gone to Hell alone."
"Yes you would have," she murmured. "I don't have a soul."
"Nothing." She gathered half her hair up and began to tie it off. She kept her back turned to the bed, feeling oddly shy.
It had happened at the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, arguably the first modern shopping mall in Europe. Built over a hundred years before, it resembled a city intersection lined with ornate three-story buildings with ground-level shopfronts. But the streets between the elaborate facades were tiled instead of brick, and the space above was spanned by greenhouse-style barrel roofs of iron and glass. Hilshire, on his way to a long meeting with some Section One people and not wanting to leave her waiting, had turned her loose in the shopping district for the afternoon. Although he'd given her money to spend, she hadn't used any. Instead, she'd wandered and window-shopped and people-watched, feeling out-of-place among so many happy idle civilians.
At the center of the mall was a mosaic of a prancing bull, rather like the Lamborghini logo. Tradition held that if you placed a heel on the bull's testicles while making a wish and spun about, it would be granted. The appropriate spot on the tile was ground away by innumerable heels; Triela doubted so many wishes could ever have come true, but she'd got in the short line. When her turn came, she'd made a wish, spun once, and, smiling, stepped away – and nearly bumped noses with the Padania assassin who'd bested her in Montalcino.
He'd taken off at a run, twisting and turning through the crowd, reaching into his light coat. She'd sprinted after, only a few steps behind at first but losing ground for the entire length of the crowded gallery, unable to close because of the people who'd turned to stare at the blond-haired boy and simply wouldn't get out of the way.
At the entrance, she'd burst into the sunlit open street, and she'd looked around wildly, tails whipping around her face, afraid she'd lost him. Then she spied him fifty meters down the way and resumed the chase. The thinner crowd was no hindrance to her, and she'd closed the distance quickly.
Just half a dozen steps ahead, he'd ducked into a narrow side street. She'd drawn her 230, expecting an ambush. She hadn't expected to find him waiting right around the corner. They'd collided again, and she'd felt the stones of the alley wall smack against her back, and him pressing up against her to pin her against the wall. She'd gotten her gun up between them and pressed the muzzle into the underside of his chin. Then she'd felt the cold metal beneath her own.
"What the devil." A man's voice at the mouth of the alley just a few steps away, unseen past her attacker's shoulder. "You, what are you-"
Witnesses, something the Agency couldn't afford, especially in Milan, the seat of Republican power and a place where the government's grip on the media was tenuous. If anybody saw a young girl kill a man just a block from the city's heart, their present mission would be compromised, maybe even aborted. But she couldn't let him go.
"Stop," a woman had said. "Leave them alone. Arturo, were you young once?"
"I don't think-" She'd heard a shoe scrape.
Suddenly she'd seen the two of them as they must appear from the alley mouth. Pinocchio's greater height and wide shoulders had hidden their weapons, and nearly hidden her; she doubted the man could see her face below her eyes. He had just seen a big blond-haired boy pushing a smaller girl up against the wall. If he thought she was being attacked, he would interfere, even call the police…
She'd made a quick decision, and reached up behind Pinocchio with her free hand, placing it flat on his shoulder blade. His eyes, a double handwidth from hers, had narrowed in understanding – and amusement? He'd tilted his head and bent it down, his jaw pressing defiantly against her pistol. She'd felt his hand at the back of her neck, bigger than she would have guessed; it had cradled her head, gently tilting and tipping it as he'd brought their faces together. They'd kissed with their pistols still under each other's chins.
The man and woman didn't leave. She'd grown anxious. What were they waiting for? What did they want to see?
"You're too stiff," he'd whispered, his lips brushing hers as he spoke. "Act like you're enjoying it." He'd kissed her again, lips parted this time, and her mouth had opened of its own accord. His tongue had entered her, tentative at first; she'd stifled the impulse to bite down and spit it out.
And something had happened. As his tongue and lips had explored, and his body heat had leached into her, she'd felt an odd warmth of her own build and spread, seeming to soften her insides. Other parts of her had swelled and tautened and grown strangely sensitive. Suddenly she'd been acutely aware of everyplace they touched: his thigh between hers, hips pressing together; his forearm at the small of her back, pulling her tight against him and trapping their gun hands; her forearm pressed hard into his chest, and his between her breasts; his muscles under her hand, which was now traveling slowly over his back, doing some exploring of its own; the pressure of his shoulder against hers, still pinning her against the wall; and of course the now-warm steel bumping softly under her chin, but that hardly seemed important. His tongue had returned home, and hers had gone visiting.
Some unknown time later, she'd heard the woman's voice again, pitched low. "I think you've seen enough, you old pervert. Let's go." Footsteps receded and were gone.
Her breath had stilled. With the witnesses gone, what would they do next? They'd each held a tiger by the tail. She'd clung to him, uncertain, and very aware of his grip still tight around her. If he made a sudden move…
He'd murmured in her ear, low and rough. "We could shoot each other later." A pause. "If you want."
She'd swallowed: she could still taste him in her mouth. "Okay." Her voice was deep and husky, a stranger's.
"I have a place close."
"Okay," she'd said again.
His grip had loosened, just enough to free their gun hands. "We both holster, dead slow, on the count of three."
They'd walked three blocks to his flat with their arms around each other's waists, the fingers of their free hands intertwined in front of them, looking very much in love – and effectively tying up each other's hands. Neither of them had spoken, afraid to break whatever enchantment was on them. And, after all, what did either of them have to say?
The building was a seedy-looking walkup, the granite stairs to the entrance rutted with age. The bare wooden floor of the hallway had creaked as they'd made their way to his door. Once there, he'd pulled his hand free of her fingers, and she'd tensed, fingers twitching for her gun. But he'd held up two fingers and slowly reached into a waist pocket to retrieve a key. Inside, the grubby and impersonal little apartment had looked very different from the neat comfortable hideout in Montalcino; she'd surmised it was an accommodation for transient RF operatives.
Undressing had seemed more like a negotiation than an act of passion. They'd stood face-to-face just out of reach as they'd carefully shed gear and clothing an item or two at a time, watching each other with a weird mix of apprehension and excitement. She'd felt more exposed removing her sidearm than her skirt and blouse.
When he was down to briefs, he'd held his arms slightly from his sides and turned slowly, letting her see he wasn't hiding anything. His body was smooth and lean, the muscles well-defined and rolling under the pale skin; unthinking, she'd wet her lips as her eyes traveled over him. She'd been wearing briefs and sleeveless undershirt, no bra; when he'd finished, she'd likewise brought her arms away from her sides and turned.
He'd wrapped arms around her from behind. She'd nearly put an elbow into him before she'd felt his lips on her neck, and then all thoughts of resistance had melted away.
He said, "This was my first time."
"Me too," she said as she lifted her shirt off the footboard. "Sort of."
"Sort of? What does that mean?"
She shrugged into the shirt and began to button it up. "I was told I was gang-raped when I was younger. I don't remember it."
He took a moment to digest that. Then: "We didn't use anything."
Her fingers paused two buttons from the top. "Don't worry. You won't catch anything."
"I wasn't thinking of that."
"Oh." She started turning her options over in her head. How difficult would it be to lay hands on a morning-after pill? Priscilla would help her with a minimum of questions, she thought. But dare she take it without consulting the doctors? If she did that, they'd tell Hilshire. Ferro could keep the doctors silent, but Triela knew she wouldn't; the operations manager would tell Hilshire herself, and Director Lorenzo too…
"If you are," he said, "you're not thinking of keeping it, are you?"
"What? No." She pictured herself gravid with child waddling after a fleeing suspect. What could be more useless to Hilshire than a pregnant cyborg? Besides, if she lived to bring a child to term, it would grow up without a mother. Would the Agency take care of it? She shivered.
"Good." He was silent a moment. "The next time we meet, one of us will probably die."
"Yes," she said, finishing her buttons. "You will."
He went on as if he hadn't heard. "As far as I know, I've never killed an unborn child. I suppose it'd be ironic if the first one was mine."
She reached into the breast pocket of her shirt for the boar's-head necklace and drew it out. The jeweled eye winked at her as she began to wind the chain on her wrist.
"Not anymore." She fixed the clasp. She turned to him. "I found-"
He had a pistol in his hand. She almost leaped before she realized it was resting in his palm and not pointing at her. "That's mine."
"Not anymore." He smiled in a way not entirely nice. Or entirely not nice.
She touched the clasp again. "Trade?"
"Give up my only firearm? I don't think so, little girl." He brushed a thumb across the 232's frame. "This isn't just a gun to you, is it?"
"No personal questions, remember?" It seemed a very bad idea for them to actually get to know each other.
"I own more weapons than I can carry," he said. "But this is my favorite pistol. Sometimes, I'll dry-fire it over and over, remembering you lying on the floor at my feet waiting for my bullet." He eyed the necklace on her wrist. "That was a gift. I thought it was lost in the house somewhere, and I'd never see it again. Sometimes I touch my throat when I remember it's gone." He smiled at her. "I'm glad you found it. It's cute to see you wearing my token like a girlfriend."
She felt a twinge of irritation … and guilt? Aside from a wristwatch she hardly ever wore, the purloined necklace was the only jewelry she possessed. "I took it so I could see you buried with it, that's all."
He nodded. "Maybe. But it says something, that you made sure it was safe on your wrist before you even covered your ass."
She suddenly realized that she was still naked from the waist down. She turned away and bent to retrieve her briefs from the floor, and straightened abruptly, blushing, when she realized what she'd just done.
"Thank you," he said, and she blushed even harder.
She stepped quickly into her underpants, painfully aware of his eyes on her. Angry now, she said, "Enjoying the show?"
"Very much." His eyes met hers. "I don't have much interest in girls, usually. I don't understand how this happened either. And it makes me kind of angry too."
She stepped into her skirt and reached for her boots and stockings. She glanced about, but the only place to sit was on the bed. She'd stepped out of the boots and removed the stockings standing on the opposite foot, but putting them on was slower and more difficult.
"I won't try to touch you or anything," he said. "I know we're done."
She perched on the edge of the bed and bent to slip a stocking on her right foot. He said to her back, "Your partner. Are you going to tell him?"
She pulled up on the stocking. "I would, if I thought you'd be here when we came for you." This strange and fragile truce between them would end when they parted, she knew, but if he was willing to let her get out the door unchallenged, it seemed only right to let him know exactly how soon they would be enemies again.
She finished putting on her boots, stood, and moved slowly to the battered bureau where she'd left her jacket – and her holstered weapon. Splitting her attention between the boy in the bed and the bureau, she saw him take the gun in his hand as she reached for her shoulder holster. Slowly she removed the weapon and laid it on the bureau before donning the shoulder rig. Then she gripped the 230 low on the butt, keeping her finger far from the trigger, and slowly slid it into the holster. She slipped on her jacket, and, now fully dressed and with no reason to linger, moved toward the door.
Again, she was surprised by his speed. His hand was on the door, holding it closed as she turned the knob. He was naked and close enough to touch and staring into her eyes. "You could at least say goodbye."
"'Goodbye' means 'God be with you "It didn't seem appropriate," she said. "Neither did 'good luck'."
The corner of his mouth twitched. "You know, for just our second date, this was really something."
"The third will be even better." She forced the door open and quickly entered the hall.
Hilshire was waiting at the entrance where he'd dropped her off; she spied his tall dark form from fifty meters away as she came through the mall toward him. He looked her over while she struggled to hold on to her composure. "You didn't buy anything?"
He looked up and around, taking in all the shops. "In all this, you couldn't find one thing you wanted."
"No," she said, examining him just as carefully, looking for clues that he'd done something foolish or dangerous in her absence. "Nothing I wanted to keep."