On the second day of the climate summit in Brussels, dinner was served promptly at nineteen hundred hours. There were two options, a vegan and a not-so-vegan. Angela Clay chose the vegan, listening to but not engaging in the light-hearted conversation at her table with a strained half-smile.
After dinner was an intimate cocktail hour, if a hundred people in a tight room could be considered intimate rather than claustrophobic. It was hard to escape.
It was the secretary for the French delegation, Michelle Sauvineau, waving and coming towards her with a man in tow. Angela knew Michelle from several events and had foiled her well-meaning matchmaking attempts in the past. This time, she wouldn’t be so lucky. The man Michelle was dragging along by the arm was tall, athletic, with an angular, amber face and straight dark hair. He was grinning at her. Angela braced herself. Michelle had no idea she and this man had already had their meet-cute a year ago.
“Here is Ms. Angela Clay, from Toronto, Canada. Angela, this is Dexter Martin, from New York. We’re finally all in the same place! I thought you should meet before the vote tomorrow and everyone takes off.”
“Glad to meet you,” Dex Martin said.
Angela returned the greeting with a cool handshake. Her lips tightening, she resisted the urge to wipe the smug look off his face with a backhanded slap. Dexter must have sensed the impulse and his smile widened. Obviously, he thought this ruse was hilarious.
“What field are you in? Michelle told me but I don’t remember,” Dex said, the picture of civility.
“Astrophysics but I’m working for a mitigation research lab in Toronto.” Her resumé had been faked, but of course he knew that already.
Angela tilted her head to the side and squinted at him. “And you? Sorry, I just don’t recall anything Michelle said about you.”
“I’m an analyst with the U.N. Security Council, based in Manhattan.”
“Okay, now we’re all friends! A bunch of us are going to check out this great bar near the square in a bit. Have some drinks, a little dancing?”
Bubbly, bright Michelle was not aware that she was talking to two opposing agents who had been working her and various other government employees and research scientists for the past several years.
Dexter winked at Angela over Michelle’s head and said, “Drinks and dancing sound good. You should come out.”
Angela shook her head with warning eyes but when Michelle gripped her arm and practically ripped it off with the freakish strength only the petite seemed to possess, she sighed and agreed to go. She might get some intel there and it could very well end up being her last night of relaxation for a while.
When Michelle’s attention was caught by one of her colleagues, Angela leaned closer, and Dex bent his head to listen.
“Behave, psychopath,” she murmured.
It had been chilly that day, high up on the mesa. Angela’s pilot had dropped her off on a lower plateau and she had climbed for an hour to reach the crashed drone. She retrieved the intel it carried and secured it in her vest, sparing herself only a moment to hydrate before heading back down. From where she stood, the ancient Pueblo cliff dwellings in view were stunning but melancholy in their abandoned isolation.
Then Dexter had appeared. She recognized him from a photo array, knew his alias, and some of his skillset. A long knife was strapped to his thigh and his desert-camouflage vest was flecked with fresh crimson.
“Great. There goes my ride,” Angela sighed, annoyed.
He stared at her, then finally said, “Hello. I think you’ve got something of mine. May I have it?” Pleasant, he gestured towards her chest.
“I’m sorry, no.” She had been just as polite.
Dex’s eyes, chocolate-brown in the glow of midday, were amused yet sharp. “Pretty please.”
This time when refused, he pulled the knife. Angela shook her baton, extending it to full battle range. Dexter charged. He was fast, the fastest she’d seen in a while and she’d seen her fair share. She parried all his blows, metal clashing against metal, then she kicked him in the stomach and sent him flying back. He landed hard with a grunt of pain but rolled over and up again in an instant, leading with a fist that she barely slipped. The punch didn’t land but his knife hand did, slicing across her side. It wasn’t deep enough to stop her, but it burned like a line of fire.
Dex’s eyebrow quirked with curiosity when her face remained impassive, not showing pain or anger. Angela rushed at him, feinted right, twisting midair to swing the baton across the back of his skull with all her strength. She felt the satisfying connection and heard a cracking sound, equally satisfying, when he crumpled.
There was only one way down. She had to pass him. As Angela skirted his prone body to get to the ledge, a hand gripped her ankle, then another was at her waist, then he was squeezing her throat from behind. She jabbed an elbow into his mid-section. Dex swore, but he captured her arms, pulling her back against his body in a strong clinch. His straight black hair, hanging to his jawline, blew against her cheek as he panted. His hold wasn’t brutal but firm. She waited, breath catching in her throat, for that blade to swipe across her throat and end her.
Unable to believe she had lost, shame swept through her. She would be remembered as a failure. They would strike her name from the book of heroes for weakness, incompetence…
Then in her ear, Dex had rasped, “You’re good. This doesn’t end today.” He touched the spot over her breast where she had pocketed the intel but released her without taking it. Angela spun, baton raised in reflex, but he backed away, hands up in mock surrender with that infuriating smile. “I won’t tell if you won’t.”
She stood shocked as Dex saluted her, ran and leaped off the edge of the cliff.
In the year since then, Angela performed her legitimate research while deciphering Dex’s intel, sending in her coded reports and training, harder than ever. He must not have mentioned their clifftop meeting because she heard no complaints from her bosses. For that, she was grateful, but her pride was wounded. Losing that fight had been deeply disturbing, after all her years of training for hours a day, forgoing kin and comfort to ready herself for this mission.
Angela had expected to see Dex at this critically important summit. Pretending they hadn’t already met had been simple enough but, as she prepared for the night out with him and Michelle, pretending she didn’t want to know him would be harder.
Underneath that easy-going, cheerful surface, she had seen the sinuous serpent within uncoiled, felt that barely restrained aggression, but there was still something compelling about him despite that, a gentleness she thought she saw in him. Being undercover meant being alone, surrounded by people with her true self invisible by design. Dex touched her and looked at her as though he knew her. She hadn’t known she needed that.
Still, it was a bad idea to underestimate him, to imagine kindness in any enemy. He had spared her life on a whim and let her take the intel as a game, nothing more. She would play his game for one more night. She just needed to watch Dexter Martin, as he was calling himself, and make sure this time she didn’t lose.
A short time later, Dex was waiting for Angela and Michelle with a little impatience in their hotel lobby, not too far from his own. The latter’s matchmaking schemes usually caused him headaches but this time, he thanked whatever Fates controlled the Universe as he masked his growing excitement behind his usual laid-back demeanor. He wanted more time with Angela Clay, as she was calling herself, despite the built-in hostilities. He had barely survived one encounter with her, but he was willing to risk another. Foolish, he knew, but it was the truth.
Then he saw Angela walking towards him. Her full lips were turned up at the corners with wry amusement. Dozens of long braids swung at her shoulders, adorned here and there with shining bits of gold. He was more than a bit wowed. He’d had this same reaction when he had first seen her photo in his dossier.
It was difficult to understand. Part of Dex’s job was charming his way into an asset’s confidence, sometimes their beds. He wasn’t hard up for a warm body if that’s all he wanted. When it happened again on that mesa, he had to accept this pull to know her went deeper than that. She was splendid, an undiscovered country he wanted to explore.
He regained his usual light charm. “Hello, ladies. Just letting you know I’ll be taking it easy tonight. If I end up crashing after one drink, don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
“You’re so funny!” Michelle exclaimed. “Angela, last time I saw him in New York, he drank ten rum and Cokes. Ten! And the next morning, he was there by nine o’clock like he was in bed all night instead of dancing like a crazy person.”
Dex hadn’t been drunk. He was always working.
Angela grinned. “I’m not much of a drinker, so please take it easy when it’s time to pass out the shots.”
“Can’t handle your liquor?” Dex asked.
Angela made a face at him, flipping her braids over her shoulder. “I just don’t like getting out of control.”
“Angela needs to be in control. I’ll make a note of it,” he murmured.
“Okay, guys, I’m calling the Uber,” Michelle said as Angela shot him a look.
It was a Friday night and the bar was packed. After a few rounds, they found their way downstairs to the dance hall, full of suits in town for the summit. Dex and Angela separated, each working the room as everyone around them grew drunk and happily uninhibited, enough to spill things that weren’t supposed to be divulged before tomorrow’s final vote on the climate accord.
Finally, Dex found her and held out a hand, inclining his head towards the corner where the music wasn’t as loud.
“Please behave in here,” Dex teased as he pulled her closer. He wasn’t referring to fighting.
Angela pulled back, searching his face as if unsure of his meaning. “I will if you will. What have you heard?”
“Why would I tell you if I’d heard anything?” he countered with light mockery. “You haven’t been very nice to me tonight, considering.”
Dex pulled her closer still against his chest although the music didn’t call for it. “Considering you’re still alive because I let you live. I’m not one to call in favors, I just thought I’d remind you of our friendship.”
Angela laughed, low in her throat. Her eyes seemed darker in this pulsating light, skin shining blue one second, green the next. Mesmerism wasn’t listed in her skillset, was it?
“We’re friends?” she mused.
“In my culture, you’d owe me your life, but I thought ‘friends’ would make you feel more comfortable.”
“I’d feel more comfortable if you stopped playing with me.”
“You don’t want to play with me?”
Dex felt her shiver at his words. It happened again when his hand caressed the hollow of her back. Angela leaned into him. Their eyes caught and held until it became too intense. He wanted to be alone with her. Time was too short to pretend otherwise. Dex took a deep breath and nodded his head again, this time towards the exit.
“Are we ready to leave?” he asked.
“Is this part of your job?”
She considered that, then decided. “Alright. What about Michelle?”
Dex pointed his chin at the couch where Michelle sat giggling with Florian, her Belgian crush. “I think she’s in good hands.”
Angela went to check in with Michelle just the same, who confirmed she was hardly intoxicated and very sure who she was spending the rest of the evening with.
It was a fast ride back to the hotel. Neither spoke, just went with fingers intertwined upstairs to his room. He pulled her inside and closed the door, but when he held her, he could feel her trembling again. Dex cradled her warm brown cheek with his hand, palm calloused and scarred across the knuckles.
“I wouldn’t bring you here to hurt you,” he told her. Through her thin blouse, his finger found and traced the raised line left by his blade the year before. “I’m sorry about this.”
“I know,” she said. “I’m just wondering if this makes sense.”
Angela saw the scars on his throat and touched them with gentle empathy. It moved him in a way he couldn’t explain. They kissed, with just the barest pressure, until desire became need and need became hunger. She ran her hands up to his shirt and into his hair as Dex worked on unbuttoning her blouse. As he pulled her backwards, towards the neatly made bed in the center of the hushed room, she smiled, then a soft sound escaped her when his lips found her throat.
“Dexter, or whatever your real name is, if you tell anyone about this, I’ll have to kill you.”
Dex laughed, then groaned, pulling her down, down below doubt or worry or the weight of the future to a place made of pure pleasure, one that was just theirs. “I believe you.”
In the morning, when Dex awoke, Angela was already up. She was going to attend the conclusion of the summit, even though they both already knew what the vote would be. Dex was staring up at the ceiling when she returned. He wasn’t going. There was no point.
“It’s hard to believe this is really happening,” Angela said. Dex sat up on the bed, watching her dress. For once, he felt short on humor. “I cracked your code. Three more days, then that portal will open up. We’ll be at war and all of this will probably be destroyed.”
“I knew you’d crack it,” he said. “I wanted you to have a shot at being ready for what’s coming.”
“Maybe it’s naïve of me, but I still don’t see why we can’t just talk to them first.”
“Talk, to Earthfolk? I’m sorry, Angela, but naïve is right. They’d just shoot first,” Dex said.
“It’s our fault it’s come to this. We left them on their own for too long.”
“We agree. Our High Council will try to save as many of them as possible, but we can’t just sit back and continue to do nothing. That’s not an option anymore.”
“Your Council is really prepared to cause the deaths of a billion relatives, to save them from themselves? How benevolent.” Angela’s face was tight.
Dex felt himself grow tense. “What about your side? Your High Council thinks stopping us is going to save them? If you intervene, it’s going to be a catastrophe, for everybody.”
“Then fall back!” she exclaimed, eyes flashing. “Make them call it off. Otherwise, you won’t leave us a choice but to fight.”
“Angela.” His voice was sharp, then it softened. “I really don’t want to spend the time we have left together arguing about history and politics. That’s them. This is us. I just want to enjoy you.”
Angela looked pained. She nodded, subdued by his plea. Dressed in last night’s clothing, she twirled for him, braids flying as she struck a pose, trying to lighten the mood. “I’m about to make the walk of shame. How do I look?”
Dex whistled. “Gorgeous. Your cover should have been a model. Come here.”
Angela went to him for another long, deep kiss and an embrace. Her familiarity felt way too good.
“We could wait to send our reports,” she suggested with hesitation. “I don’t like you or anything, but I could do with another week. We could relax, have real drinks. Stay in bed all day.”
The temptation of such a week nearly undid his resolve but even as far as he’d already gone, there was a limit. His loyalty had never felt heavier than it did at that moment.
“I wish I could. I mean, I don’t like you much either but…a week with you would have been good. Great, actually.”
Silence enveloped them again as soft, golden bars of light sifted into the room. Angela studied him, and he gazed back, not hiding his longing.
“What?” Dex asked.
“I want to remember your face.” When she tried to get up to leave, he squeezed her harder, then cleared his throat and let go. “Anyway, what’s your real name?” she asked as she put on her shoes.
He grinned. “Dex is my real name. I’m Dexor, son of my mother Mortana. Bird Clan from the Kobo Mountains in Ka’lam.”
“If I’d known they made them like you in Ka’lam, I would’ve visited a long time ago,” she said, and his smile broadened. “It was nice meeting you, Dexor. I’m Jelani, daughter of my mother Kaleea. Burnt Rock Clan. We live by the old sea in Ka’sim.”
“Jelani…” He tasted her name. “I like that. Only three syllables, for a Ka’simmet name?”
“I got lucky. My Third Father had a twenty-four syllable he was set on.” She went to the door then paused, looking at him over her shoulder. “Dex, if we meet again, on the field, do me a favor and don’t take it easy on me. I’ll be fighting to win next time.”
“I don’t doubt it, Jelani.”
Dex saluted her. She winked at him, eyes full of promise, as she closed the door.