Warnings - See Part 1.
THE SPY WHO KILLED ME
Part Five (Conclusion)
"We come bearing gifts." Natalie raised the brown paper carrier bag, which bore the logo of the Chinese takeaway down the road and was emitting an appetising aroma. "Food ..."
"... and drink," finished a grinning Gary, flourished three bottles of something called St. Peter's Wheat Beer.
"Beer with Chinese?" Jemma rolled her eyes, but stepped back to let her visitors into her flat. "No thank you. I'll make us some green tea."
Jemma ignored Gary's insult and led her friends through to the cramped kitchen. There, she found the box of green tea bags at the back of a cupboard and looked a query. Natalie nodded; Gary shook his head. She filled the kettle with water and switched it on, then pulled out two china mugs and some plates, forks, and serving spoons. With much bumping of elbows and apologising they set about decanting the contents of the carrier bag's containers.
Natalie glanced meaningfully at the two sets of breakfast crockery drying on the draining board. "We brought enough food for four."
"Thanks. But I'm afraid Ash isn't here."
"All the more for us." Gary opened a plastic container and gave a pleased grunt.
"Gone to sort out her flat?" pressed Natalie.
"No." Jemma tried not to pout. "Chasing Khaleb Abdusamad."
Gary looked up at that. "They've spotted him?"
She helped herself to some egg fried rice. "At Fenchurch Street station."
"Yes!" He pumped his arm then returned to piling more than his fair share of sweet and sour pork onto his plate. Jemma rapped his knuckles with the back of a fork and he sucked them, adopted a wounded expression, then began making inroads into the barbecued spare ribs instead.
"So why aren't you with her then?" Natalie's spoon of bamboo shoots had frozen halfway to her plate. "You're her partner, aren't you?"
"Orders," said Jemma shortly. "Besides, I'm on leave and I knew you two were coming round."
The kettle clicked itself off. She poured boiling water onto the teabags. While the tea brewed, she pulled out a couple of trays and began piling the things onto them.
"Let's take it through. There isn't room to swing a cat in here." She grabbed one tray, marched through to the little living room, and placed it on the shabby coffee table. Her friends followed her, and while she made herself as comfortable as was possible on the stiffly upright dining chair they took the sagging settee.
"Thompson's?" mumbled Gary round a mouthful of pork.
"What?" Jemma looked up from her rice.
"Were they his orders?"
"Oh. No. Ash's." She frowned, feeling her sense of grievance coming back. "She went all mother hen on me."
"Now that I'd like to see," murmured Natalie.
Jemma ignored the little redhead's aside. "She said she didn't want me anywhere near Abdusamad."
"Can't blame her after yesterday." Gary stroked his moustache. "How's your stomach, by the way?"
"Bruised. That pod door sill really dug in." She sighed. What was it about her midriff and bruising? Maggie would have a field day. "I can look after myself, you know. Talk about one rule for her and another for me!"
"She's just looking out for her partner," said Gary. "Can you blame her? After what happened to Sam Carney? All that stuff with Jeff Morand and his partner Martin Cork is bound to have hit a nerve with her too."
"Even so," grumbled Jemma, who knew she sounded like a spoiled brat, but couldn't seem to help it.
For a few moments, there was only the sound of chewing, crunching, and slurping. Then Natalie, who had spotted Ash's shabby exercise mat and dumbbells in the corner of the living room, asked, "So how long's Ash going to be staying with you?"
Jemma shrugged. "Until she gets her flat fixed or finds somewhere else to live, I suppose."
"Have you slept with her yet?"
The piece of King Prawn Jemma was eating went down the wrong way, and she spent the next few moments coughing and choking. Gary fetched her a glass of water from the kitchen and she gulped it gratefully.
"Nat!" said Jemma, when she could at last catch her breath.
"Come on, JJ. Don't be coy." The redhead grinned. "It's obvious she's not sleeping on this settee. It's too small for a start - you'd have to chop off her off at the ankles to get her on."
Gary stroked his moustache thoughtfully. "Jemma's only got a single bed," he pointed out.
Natalie gave him a droll glance. "Exactly. If the two of them are sleeping in that they must be on very close terms."
Jemma's cheeks were burning. "For all you know, I could have borrowed a camp bed."
"Aha." Natalie smirked. "'Could have' but didn't, right?"
She scrubbed her face with her hands. "Not that it's any of your business," she said through gritted teeth, "and if this goes any further that us three I shall never speak to you again, but -"
"Oh my god, you have slept with her!" Gary's eyes were wide.
"Yes, I have." I can't believe we're having this conversation! "Satisfied?"
"Shouldn't that be what we're asking you?" chortled Natalie. "Blade's got quite a reputation in that department." She winked. "Did she live up to it?"
Jemma groaned. Why me? Her friends sniggered, while she tried to regain her composure, though that horse had bolted long ago. "Yes, she did," she managed at last.. "And I am very satisfied, thank you very much. Now can we please change the subject? When was the last time I interrogated either of you on your sex lives?"
Natalie leaned forward and patted her hand. "Sorry. But you can't blame us for being interested. When it's someone as famous as Blade ... " She gave Jemma an arch look.
The phone rang, to Jemma's secret relief, and she got up to answer it. "Hello?"
The sound of her Section Head's voice made her heart skip a beat. "Mr Thompson. Has something happened to -"
"She's fine, Jemma." She could hear the smile in his voice. "There was a shootout at Fenchurch Street before she got there, and Abdusamad got away. But I thought you'd like to know that Blade's just reported in. She's picked up his trail and is in a speedboat heading down the Thames."
Jemma put a hand to her mouth. "Speedboat!" Gary and Natalie exchanged a glance.
"It shouldn't be long before she reels him in. I'm sending reinforcements just in case."
"Oh." She paused. "Thanks for letting me know. I was wondering how she was getting on, but she always turns her phone off so it won't give away her position ..." In fact if Natalie and Gary hadn't been here embarrassing the hell out of me, I'd probably have chewed my fingernails down to the quick worrying about her.
She put down the receiver and turned to her waiting friends. "Did you get that?"
"Most of it," said Natalie. "A speedboat, eh? Typical!"
Jemma had to laugh. "That's Ash," she agreed.
She wandered over to the hard chair and retook her seat. The rice and pork was tepid now, and she pushed it around her plate then set it aside. Gary pointed at it enquiringly. "Help yourself ... Dustbin."
He ignored her insult and started to wolf down her food. She reached for her mug of tea and took a sip.
"So Ash's visit to your parents was a mixed bag, then?" prompted Natalie.
An age seemed to have passed since then. "Yeah. Mum and Dad liked her a lot, but Maggie ..." Jemma sighed, remembering her sister's behaviour.
"Does she know about you and Blade?"
Jemma blinked, then realised what Natalie meant. "Oh. No. She knows we work together and are friends, of course, but ..." She shrugged. "Normally her comments would have been like water off a duck's back, but Ash was feeling really sensitive that day..."
Gary looked surprised. "Was it her time of the month or something?" Natalie elbowed him in the ribs. "What?"
"Honestly, Gary," said an exasperated Jemma. "Sometimes I think you're still a caveman at heart. ... If you must know, she'd just finished a session with Dr Aston, and it left her feeling offbalance."
"Ah." Natalie nodded in understanding "I've heard quite a few agents say that. The Doc does seem to stir things up and it can take a while for them to settle again."
"I'm not entirely convinced that's a good thing," muttered Jemma. Then she shrugged. "But Weatherby must think so or he wouldn't have hired him, would he?" She sipped her tea. "I felt offbalance after my session with Aston too, guilty about Remington. It's why I went to visit him."
Gary stopped swigging from his bottle of beer. "Aston talked to you about Remington? Isn't that a bit ... unethical?"
Jemma's brows drew together. "Why? "
"Well, him being Remington's nephew and all."
She blinked in confusion. "What are you talking about?"
Natalie was staring at Gary. "Yeah. Spill it, Gary."
"I was in the filing room at HQ last week, doing research for this really boring assignment." He glanced at Jemma and grumbled, "We don't all get to go to Rio you know."
"Oh, do get on with it," ordered the redhead sitting next to him.
Gary pouted. "Anyway, I just happened to come across his file, that's all. Aston is Ian Remington's nephew. In fact Remington provided a reference."
"But he's got red hair," objected Jemma.
"How many uncles do you know that look like their nephews?" asked Gary.
"Good point." She bit her lip. "But how odd! Why did he never mention it?"
"Perhaps he's ashamed," suggested Natalie. "Being related to that stuffy prat is something anyone would want to keep quiet."
Gary gave her a quelling glance. "Or maybe he just felt that stopping a patient dead in her tracks the moment she started talking would be unhelpful."
Jemma racked her memory. She thought that it was Aston who had brought up the topic of Remington, but she could have been wrong.
"His first name's Keith," added Gary, raising the bottle to his lips once more.
"What?" Jemma had lost the thread. "I thought it was Ian?"
"I was talking about the nephew," he said with exaggerated patience.
Keith Aston. KA. A feeling of deep unease spread through her. That strange prickling sensation must be the hairs on the back of her neck standing up.
"Are you all right, JJ?" asked Natalie. "Only you've gone as white as a sheet." Her friends were regarding her anxiously.
"Sorry. I just realised something." She stood up, her movements clumsy. The chair went flying and the coffee table juddered.
Gary rescued his beer before it could topple over. "Hey! Watch it."
"I must tell someone." Jemma reached for the phone and punched in the numbers for HQ. The ringing tone seemed to go on forever. "Come on, come on." She drummed her fingers on the sideboard and stared unseeing at the photos of her friends from training school, taken on the day they graduated.
"Hello," said the voice at the other end at last.
"This is Jemma Jacobs. I need to talk to the Counter Intelligence Section Head urgently." She tuned out the murmur of conversation from Natalie and Gary.
"Oh." For a moment she couldn't remember this week's code. Then, "Oh.... It's sparrowhawk."
"Thank you." Moments later she heard the ringing tone again.
"Bill Thompson," came a familiar voice.
She let out her breath in relief. "It's Jemma."
"She's fine." His voice was instantly soothing. "But I'm afraid she's incommunicado at present -"
"I'm not -"
"- as her phone's at the bottom of the Thames. So is her gun come to that. If you could perhaps have a word in her ear when she gets back, get her to take it easier on office equipment? I don't mind, but it does put a strain on the departmental budget."
"She swallowed more river water than is good for her, but it shouldn't do her any lasting harm. Anyway she asked me to let you know that Abdusamad's safely in custody and she's on her way home, but first she's going to pick up her car from the pound then get a change of clothes from her flat -"
"Will you let me get a word in edgeways?" she shouted. "This is important!"
A startled silence greeted her outburst. "Er, go ahead, Jemma," said Thompson, "I'm listening."
She took a breath. "Sorry. Look, this is going to sound completely insane, but I think we've been looking down the wrong end of the telescope on this one. Remember that report Ash and I turned in about Chislehurst, those initials that Janus scrawled on the floor?"
"Yes. Suppose that doesn't stand for Khaleb Abdusamad but for Keith Aston."
"Don't you see? It all fits. This is why the MOs have been so confusing. There have been two independent hostiles at work, and their motives and methods have been quite different."
"But the Organisation's psychologist -"
"Has a medical background," she finished. "Aston would have known what anectine does and how to inject it too. Don't you see? It's the perfect cover. Every one of the our agents is scheduled to have a session with Aston - and I'm betting if you check the records, you'll find that both Martin Cork and Louise Brande saw him before they went off the rails."
"Look. Aston's an expert on brainwashing, isn't he? Odd that he couldn't help Corky at all. Suppose he didn't even try to help him. Suppose he was the one who planted the suggestion to kill Jeff Morand in the first place."
"Jemma. Why would he do that?"
"He's Ian Remington's nephew. He might think that I caused his uncle to take early retirement and want to get back at me for that."
A thoughtful silence met that last statement, then Thompson said, "Why Cork though? He wasn't involved in Remington's early retirement."
"He was a dry run," guessed Jemma. "Only once Aston had proved his method would work did he trigger Louise's conditioning so she would try to kill me." The more she thought about it, the more all the pieces were falling into place.
"These are very serious accusations, Jemma." Thompson's tone was sombre. "You're saying one of our own is a traitor."
"Yes. And when similar accusations were placed against Blade, she was taken into custody and interrogated." She escaped with my help, of course. But that's another story.
"There's certainly enough substance in what you say to merit an investigation. I'll have Aston picked up right away." The Counter Intelligence Section Head paused. "I'll let you know what happens, Jemma."
"Thanks." She rang off and turned to face her waiting friends.
"Is Blade OK?" asked Natalie.
Jemma smiled. "Stomach full of Thames water, by the sound of it, but other than that ... She's on her way home."
"In that case." Natalie stood up and hauled a complaining Gary to his feet too. "We'll get out of your hair."
"Oh, but you don't have to ..."
"What, stay here and witness two love birds playing kissy kissy? I don't think so." She rolled her eyes at Gary's obvious disappointment and murmured, "In your dreams, sunshine!"
"When you put it that way," murmured Jemma. "Let me show you the door."
Jemma dried the last of the plates and put it away in the cupboard. The flat reeked of Chinese food, but at least this time she'd had the pleasure of eating it. She placed the empty beer bottles next to the overflowing waste bin, and made a mental note to take them to the bottle bank. Then for the umpteenth time she checked her watch.
How long does it take to get a car out of the pound anyway? There'd be paperwork, she supposed. And a fine to pay. And if Ash was calling in at her flat on the way back to get a change of clothes too...
If her phone wasn't at the bottom of the Thames, I could call her, find out where she is.
That gave Jemma an idea. She went through to the living room, picked up the receiver and dialled the number of Ash's flat. The phone there had survived the blast. If she's there now ... But all she heard was the answerphone message.
"Damn!" She slammed down the receiver and began to pace. That's when she heard the sound of a key in the front door.
Jemma rushed out into the tiny hall, just in time to see the front door opening and the tall figure of her partner framed in the doorway.
"What kept y-"
Strong hands grabbed her by the throat, cutting off both speech and air, then slammed her hard against a wall. A shocked Jemma gaped at her partner, only now noticing the pinpoint pupils, the expression of barely held-in-check ferocity.
She brought up her hands and tried to pry loose the long fingers wrapped round her throat. They wouldn't budge. Already darkness was creeping around the edges of her vision. If she didn't break Ash's stranglehold fast ...
Jemma brought up a knee, but Ash evaded it easily. Then a technique she had learned in Mac's self-defence classes came back to her, and she rammed her thumbs into the nerve points on Ash's wrists. Nothing happened.
Don't tell me I got it wrong?
Her lungs burned. White specks were flecking her vision now, and a roaring was growing in her ears. In desperation she tried again, digging in her thumbs much harder this time. For a long moment nothing happened, then the grip around her throat relaxed.
Jemma twisted free, sucking in a welcome gulp of air as she did so. But the danger wasn't over. Already Ash was shaking the feeling back into her hands, and reaching for her once more.
She turned and ran for it, getting barely three paces before something wrapped itself round her legs, bringing her crashing to the floor. Dust and carpet fibres made her sneeze, then she twisted onto her back. Ash had brought her down with a flying scissors. Normally she would have enjoyed having Ash's long jean clad legs wrapped around her (the jeans were clean and dry - she must have reached her flat before the conditioning kicked in, then). But this time she knew the outcome would not be a pleasurable one. Using a nerve block on Ash's inner thigh to paralyse her momentarily, Jemma once more struggled to her feet.
The bedroom was at the end of the little hall. If she could lock herself in, bar the door ... And then what? Call HQ for backup? The phone's in the living room. And that wouldn't be the end of it anyway. Remember what happened to Corky. Ash isn't going to stop coming after you. She's relentless. They'll have to kill her or lock her up. Is that what you want?
She hurtled into the bedroom, slammed and locked the door behind her, then leaned against it, panting. It juddered, as something, or rather someone, cannoned into it from the other side. Jemma looked round for something to provide a barricade, her gaze alighting on the dressing table and the single chair. In two steps she reached the chair. Bringing it to the door, she jammed its back under the handle.
Might slow her up a bit.
The door juddered again, and a screw popped out of one of the hinges, but it held.
Then came a period of silence while Ash presumably contemplated the obstacle between her and her quarry.
I have to stop her, thought Jemma. But how? Jeff couldn't stop Corky. And as for Louise .... She saw again the tall woman in the red dress plummeting into the murky brown waters of the Thames, and hastily pushed the image away.
My death or her sanity. Some choice!
But maybe there was a third option. She suspected that Aston could have broken Corky's conditioning if he had really wanted to. Maybe another psychologist could do the same for Ash? But getting Ash to him for treatment while she was in this state wouldn't be easy. Jemma was lucky to have survived this long. If Ash's pistol hadn't been lying at the bottom of the Thames, she would probably have been dead within seconds of the front door opening.
A door panel disappeared in a shower of splinters as a fist exploded through it, grabbing for her. Jemma jerked back out of reach. Another panel disintegrated and Ash reached through the gap. She dislodged the chair, turned the key, and opened the bedroom door.
Jemma had hoped that icy blue gaze would never be fixed on her in anger, but now it was and it made her blood run cold. Sleepwalkers had tiny pupils like that, didn't they? Was Ash in some kind of waking dream ... or nightmare? And if so, who did she think Jemma was? A hostile?
"Ash, wake up. It's me, Jemma," she shouted.
But her partner showed no sign of hearing her. Like a panther stalking its prey, she advanced on Jemma. Under other circumstances, Jemma would have paused to admire this display of deadly grace, but right now ...
An idea came to her. Darting under an outstretched arm, she lashed out with her fist, catching the healing knife wound in the back of Ash's right shoulder a resounding blow. Her partner's face twisted with pain and she stumbled, but she quickly regained her balance and blocked Jemma's route to the door.
Jemma dived under the bed. Dust bunnies made her sneeze as she burrowed further in. What kind of hiding place is this, stupid? Sure enough, her progress was brought to an abrupt halt by a fist closing round her right ankle. The tightness of the grip made her cry out, then she was being unceremoniously dragged out into the open, cracking her temple a glancing blow on one of the bed's legs on the way.
A dazed Jemma blinked up into the angry eyes of her lover. "Stop it, Ash! It's me." But the silent woman simply got behind her, squatted, then grasped Jemma's chin with one hand and the back of her head with the other.
Jemma's heart almost stopped from fright. She knew that move. One twist and I'm dead. There was no time for thought or subtlety. The chair was within reach, so she grabbed it by one leg, twisted, and lashed out at Ash - it was heavy to wield one-handed but desperation lent her strength. Her partner ducked, raised arms shielding her from the worst of the blow, but at last Jemma had enough time to scramble to her feet and race for the door.
Halfway down the hall, she sensed rather than saw Ash leaping towards her, but this time it was Jemma's turn to duck and raise her arms. Acting on instinct, she used Ash's own momentum to boost her body up and over, turning just in time to see her crashing headfirst into the wall.
Her partner crumpled to the floor.
A horrified Jemma rushed forward, sure that Ash must have broken her neck. Crouching beside her, heart in her mouth, she hesitated then reached out a trembling hand. The pulse was faint but it was there. Thready at first, then it gradually steadied. Jemma sat back on her heels, putting her hand to her mouth to cover a sob of relief. Only unconscious.
As her heartrate slowed to normal, she considered her options. Tie Ash up? Then call HQ and get them to send an ambulance and a straightjacket? But she had no idea how long her partner would be out. And when she came round, she would still be under the influence of that bastard Aston's conditioning. There must be a way to snap Ash out of it. But how ... other than to allow her to complete the action she had been told to do?
Jemma glanced down at her partner, relieved the closed eyelids hid that terrifying gaze for the present, then checked her pulse again. Stronger now. She stroked the soft cheek of the woman who was trying to kill her. Then a glimmer of an idea surfaced. It would be risky, but it might just work.
She got to her feet, groaning as the fresh bruises made themselves known, then staggered into the living room. The cardboard box was in the bottom of the sideboard, and she tugged it out into the open and began to sort through the unofficial 'souvenirs' of her time at training school.
She should have turned them in, but she had never got around to it. Now she was grateful for the oversight. She picked up and discarded a knuckle-duster, garrotte, phone tap, several rounds of Uzi ammunition, a telescopic sight for a rifle, a silencer that wouldn't fit her current pistol ...
Heart thumping, Jemma grabbed the small cardboard box and opened it. Five bullets nestled inside. She pulled one out and examined the numbers etched into the metal casing - it would be the greatest of ironies if she got it wrong - then gave a satisfied grunt and stood up. Her Browning automatic was in its shoulder holster in the sideboard's top drawer, and she pulled the pistol free, ejected the magazine and the chambered round, then set about emptying the magazine.
As she worked, she glanced anxiously up at the clock. This was taking too long. With clumsy fingers she pressed the replacement bullets into the spring-loaded clip, fumbling one and having to stoop to retrieve it from the carpet. When the box was empty, she threw it aside, and slotted the magazine into the pistol.
Jemma was still buckling the shoulder holster straps as she hurried into the kitchen and ransacked the cupboards for the things she needed. Two pieces of kitchen towel should be enough. She crouched and searched for the bottle without which her whole plan would fail. At first she couldn't find it. Oh, God! Suppose she'd used it all? Then she saw it and her heartrate calmed.
Grimly, she set to work. The results were messy. She only hoped they would be convincing enough for her purposes.
Jemma made her way back to the hall and Ash's side once more. Her partner had changed position, and her eyelids were fluttering. It wouldn't be long n-
Eyelids opened, and an ice blue gaze fixed itself on her. It was dazed at first - Ash must still be groggy from the blow to the head - then it cleared and was replaced by hatred and anger, the intensity making Jemma flinch in spite of herself.
As Ash sat up, Jemma thought, It's now or never. She drew her pistol and pointed it at her partner.
"Hold it right there"
Ash ignored her order, and got to one knee.
"I said hold it, or I'll shoot."
The older agent launched herself at Jemma, and it took all of Jemma's selfcontrol to allow herself to be overpowered and the pistol twisted from her fingers. She landed on her back with a thud that almost made her lose her grip on the soggy piece of kitchen towel in her left hand. She blinked, and found herself staring into the muzzle of her own gun.
Her heart hammered violently in her chest, and sudden doubt assailed her, turning her sweat clammy. In this terrified state, would she be able to invoke the required trance?
Icy blue eyes glared down at her, and the woman Jemma loved said, "This is for Jemma." Then Ash pulled the trigger ...
Ash knelt, arms wrapped round herself, trying to breathe round the agonising knot in her chest. Hearts really can ache.
The pain would ease eventually, wouldn't it? If she could just ride it out? The pounding in her head would lessen, her shoulder would stop burning. But those were just physical wounds. Their emotional equivalents were a different matter. Just the thought of what she'd done made her chest tighten even more.
She lifted her head and glanced at the limp form lying next to her before tearing her gaze away. The front of Jemma's blouse was a bloody mess. One small hand had tried to stop the flow of blood from the bulletholes, but it hadn't done much good - the blood had squeezed between the fingers. Ash's gaze crept back to the horror then away again.
Someone was whimpering, a low, inarticulate sound of an animal in distress. Ash realised it was her. She should call someone, she supposed. The police, ambulance, HQ ... But it was too late anyway, wasn't it? Besides, her thought processes were as slow as treacle, and as for getting to her feet while the world was spinning...
She shook her head, trying to clear it. Part of this reaction was shock, she realised. The result of her abrupt transition from violent waking dream to horrific reality. One minute she had been trying to take out a hostile, the next, she was here in Jemma's flat, pistol in hand, its magazine empty, the spent cartridges surrounding her. As for Jemma herself ...
Ash tried to curl into a tighter ball. She had been convinced that Patrick Byrne, leader of the Real IRA cell that led a ferocious terror campaign on the UK mainland, had murdered Jemma. But Byrne was dead - she had killed him two years ago. The reality was ...
She wasn't dead until I shot her. I killed my own partner!
A wave of nausea surged through Ash, and she leaned to one side and retched. Since she hadn't eaten for awhile, nothing came up and she was reduced to painful dry-heaves. A gentle touch on the back of her neck startled her, and she twisted round, wiping her mouth on the back of her hand.
A familiar face, its expression concerned, was regarding her. "Ash?" A small hand pushed the hair back from her sweaty brow. "Are you all right? Your pupils are back to normal, thank God."
Ash's surroundings blurred, and her limbs went weak. She leaned against the wall for support, trying to catch her breath and to make sense of this latest turn of events.
It's impossible! I emptied the magazine into her. (Never mind that at the time she had thought it was Byrne.) I'm hallucinating.
Fearfully she raised her eyes. The ghost, if ghost it was, was still there and now it was holding out a soggy red mess of paper.
"It isn't blood."
"What?" Before Ash could jerk back, a forefinger had smeared something over her lips.
"Taste it," ordered the ghost.
Ash blinked, and for a moment her stomach threatened to revolt again. I'm supposed to taste Jemma's blood? Then she licked her lips. Tomato ketchup!
Ash tried to get to grips with this unexpected piece of information.
"They were blanks," continued Jemma, her green gaze intent. "You didn't hurt me, Ash. Look."
She unbuttoned her blouse, revealing a white cotton bra streaked with blood (With ketchup, amended a shaky Ash) and smooth skin, bruised but remarkably whole considering Jemma had just had five bullets fired into her at point blank range.
Vision wasn't enough, though, only touch would convince Ash that this was real. She reached out a trembling hand and stroked Jemma's abdomen. The skin was warm to her fingertips, and it moved under her hand as Jemma sucked in a breath. Of its own accord, Ash's hand moved upwards, cupping a bra-clad breast, stroking the nipple beneath the cotton with her thumb.
"Tsk!" said Jemma. "Any excuse to cop a feel, eh?" But she didn't pull away, instead she cupped Ash's hand in hers and pressed it closer.
Ash's surroundings slowed their spinning from a foxtrot to a slow waltz, and the ache in her chest began to ease. Then she remembered something and felt a moment of fear. What if I'm dreaming?
"You didn't have a pulse," she accused.
"I do now. Feel it." Jemma held Ash's fingers to her wrist.
A steady rhythm pounded against her fingertips. "How ..."
"It was too slow for you to detect it, that's all."
Ash blinked. "A biofeedback trance?"
Jemma nodded. "I was worried I wouldn't be able to trigger it fast enough, but I managed. I hoped the deception would be enough to break the conditioning. Looks like I was right."
Relief flooded through Ash, and for the first time in what seemed like forever, the ache in her chest disappeared and she was able to breathe freely. Her eyes blurred, and, unbidden, a sob emerged, followed by another. She realised to her embarrassment that she was crying and she couldn't seem to stop.
"Oh, love!" cried Jemma.
Strong arms wrapped themselves round Ash, pulling her close. The thought of being covered with ketchup made her hesitate only for a moment, then she leaned into her partner, tears streaming down her face, her muscles limp from release of the dread and tension that had been with her since she became aware of her surroundings and that she had shot her partner.
This is real. She soaked up the concrete presence of her partner, the hand stroking her hair, the soothing gibberish that Jemma was crooning to her, and revelled in it. She's alive.
"I thought you were dead," she sniffled.
"Well, I'm not."
Her urge to cry faded, but she remained where she was, content to accept the comfort offered. "I thought I'd killed you."
"I was rushing back home to protect you, and all the time I was the greatest threat."
"It wasn't you. Aston must have triggered your conditioning somehow."
Ash grunted. "Last thing I remember, I was at the flat checking my answerphone messages. Guess it was one of those." She frowned. "Did you say Aston?"
"His Christian name is Keith."
Her heart thumped in her chest as she untangled the meaning behind what Jemma had just told her. "KA?" Jemma nodded. "You mean all this time ..." Jemma nodded again. "Shit!"
She remembered the man in the white coat with the soft lips and even softer handshake, sitting in his doctor's office, probing into her most intimate thoughts with his inscrutable gaze. And in the background throughout the session had been the sound of running water and birdsong ... The penny dropped with a clang. "A subliminal audio tape."
"My thoughts exactly." Jemma brushed an errant strand of hair out of Ash's eyes. "He's Remington's nephew. Guess he didn't like my part in his uncle's retirement." She sniffed. "Seems a little extreme to me."
"My my, you are in a repeating sentences mood today, aren't you?" said Jemma with a smirk
Ash ignored that as a sense of urgency swept over her. "Shouldn't we go after Aston? If he's been brainwashing agents..."
She made to rise, but Jemma wouldn't let her and continued to stroke her hair. "I've told Thompson," she said calmly. "He said he'll take care of it."
"Ah." Ash relaxed. "Thanks." She pursed her lips, impressed. "You worked all this out on your own?"
Jemma nodded. "Not bad for the junior partner, eh? Told you I could look after myself, didn't I?"
"And thank God you were right!" Ash leaned in for a kiss. She had meant it to be a light friendly kind of kiss, but it soon changed into something more intense, and much more urgent.
Maybe it was her recent brush with death, but Ash's libido would not be denied, and Jemma seemed to have no intention of trying. Ash's aches and pains vanished as a higher imperative took over. Soon both women were gasping, their faces flushed, and Ash had ripped off what remained of Jemma's clothes and was pressing her mouth to Jemma's breasts.
"Oh God!" panted Jemma, "yes, please, but not here."
Ash glanced round the hall, seeing the ketchup-stained carpet clearly for the first time. She grimaced. "I see what you mean."
She surged to her feet, bringing Jemma with her, then swept up the smaller woman in her arms and carried her towards the bedroom.
"Very Rhett Butler," giggle her startled partner, until Ash stopped her mouth with a kiss that brought groans from both of them.
If the door had still been whole, Ash might well have kicked it in, such was her overwhelming urge to have her wicked way with Jemma. But since what was left of it was hanging from its hinges, nothing hindered her as she carried Jemma through the doorway. She deposited Jemma on the bed, which squeaked in protest. Must oil that bedframe ... maybe later. While the flushed blonde grinned up at her, she tore off her own clothes then joined her on the bed.
"Now about that slow pulse rate of yours," she leered. "Let's see if we can speed it up."
If Ash had wanted proof that her lover was real, she could ask for no better evidence than this: Jemma's smell, her touch, her taste, her gasps and groans, her trembling as Ash stroked and caressed her to ever higher levels of excitement, and finally her shudders and cries of release. Then it was Jemma's turn to return the favour.
Later, sated and with their limbs in a lazy tangle, they returned to the subject of the traitor psychologist.
"So, potentially," said Ash, following the thread of her thought, "everyone who had a session with Aston could have been conditioned. And all it will take is a trigger? Even you?"
Jemma nodded. "His replacement will certainly have their work cut out defusing us all."
"Bloody shrinks!" muttered Ash.
"Tell me about it."
Jemma hummed softly to herself, then her brows drew together as she contemplated the wrecked door. "Look at the mess you've made of my flat! Broken door, ketchup everywhere... It looks like I've had a really rowdy party."
"You can't blame me for the ketchup," protested Ash.
"True." Jemma sighed. "There's no way the landlady's going to give me my deposit back now."
"I'll buy you a new door and a new carpet," offered Ash. "She doesn't need to know."
"That's sweet of you, but it's not necess-"
Somewhere a phone rang. Jemma turned a rueful look at Ash. "I'd better get it." She disentangled herself, got up, and disappeared in the direction of the living room. Moments later, she was back.
"Hey, I'm up here," complained Jemma.
Ash pulled her gaze away from the pert breasts with some difficulty. "Well if you will strut around dressed - or rather not dressed - like that."
"I was not strutting." Jemma sat on the bed and looked at her. "That was Thompson. They've picked up Aston and the bastard has not only confessed, he's bragging about what he's done. They can't shut him up."
Ash rolled her eyes.
"But anyway," continued Jemma, "the good news is: he left records. Everyone he ever brainwashed has a special notation in their file." She pretended to buff her nails on an imaginary lapel. "And I wasn't among them."
"That's a relief. I was wondering if you might return from answering the phone with an overpowering urge to kill me."
"That's not conditioning, that's my normal state," joked her partner,
Jemma had been staring at Ash's breasts, and now she tore her gaze away and folded her arms. But her hardening nipples and the steadily increasing flush of her fair skin had already given her feelings away.
Ash chuckled and clasped her hands behind her head. "If you want me to speed up your pulse rate again, you only have to ask." Jemma cocked her head to one side and pretended to consider. Ash snorted and held out a hand. "For God's sake, come back to bed."
Jemma grinned and took her hand. "If you insist."
It was 7am according to the alarm clock on the bedside cabinet, and from the sound of it raining heavily. Ash stared up at the sloping ceiling while she got her bearings, then sat up... or rather tried to. Yesterday's battering, followed by the life affirming bouts of lovemaking had caught up with her. With a groan, she tried again, and this time made it to a sitting position.
She was tucking the folded pillow behind her back for support, when Jemma stirred. Green eyes regarded Ash blearily, then widened.
"You've got a black eye!"
"Have I?" Ash felt the tender area around her right eye and sighed
"It's a real shiner too." Jemma ran a hand through tousled blonde hair and sat up, frowning. "Did I give you that?"
She thought for a moment. "Must have."
"Sorry.... Hey, waitaminute!" Jemma had been looking at the clock and now turned an accusing glare on her. "Did you go to sleep?"
"I think so. Why?"
"You shouldn't have, after that blow to the head. You were out for quite a while, you know."
Ash shrugged. "Well, it's your fault. Sex always puts me out like a light." She yawned and rubbed the sleep from her good eye. "Anyway it can't have been too bad a knock. I'm still here, aren't I?"
Jemma's gaze softened and she leaned across and gave Ash a hug. "Yes you are, thank God."
Ash returned the embrace. "Ditto." She glanced at the window, and at the rain beating down on it. "What a lovely day."
Her partner followed her gaze. "Well, it's not as if we've got any sightseeing planned. We've got that debriefing at HQ to do today." She reached around Ash's shoulder and examined the temporary dressing she had applied in the brief respite between making love. "Get the company doc to treat your shoulder wound. Don't want it getting infected. As for that thick skull of yours, you'd better check you haven't cracked it."
Jemma rolled her eyes. "If you won't take care of yourself -"
"And you should get your neck looked at," interrupted Ash, brushing her thumb over the livid bruises that had appeared round Jemma's throat overnight. "Does it hurt?"
"Sorry. Didn't mean to leave my fingerprints all over you."
"A tattoo would have been better," agreed Jemma, smiling.
Ash blinked. "You'd wear my name?"
The smaller woman cocked her head to one side and considered. "Maybe. Ash is only three letters long after all. Now if your parents had christened you Frederica..."
She laughed and caressed the curve of Jemma's shoulders, before pulling her close. "We should get up," she said, making no move to do so.
"We should," agreed Jemma, snuggling against her and sighing in contentment.
Ash allowed her eyelids to close and was drifting back into a pleasant doze when Jemma's stomach rumbled. She opened her eyes and glared at the offending body part. Then her own stomach gurgled and she felt suddenly hungry. Come to think of it, she hadn't eaten since breakfast yesterday.
"I do believe they're ganging up on us." Jemma was looking down at their respective stomachs and grinning.
"Yeah. Little monsters." Ash patted her gurgling belly. "So shall we get up and have some breakfast?"
"Sounds like a plan."
Ash twiddled her thumbs and waited for the Organisation's doctor to finish examining her partner. Her own shoulder wound had been neatly restitched and bandaged, and an x-ray of her skull proved it was still in one piece. Sometimes it pays to be hardheaded.
Her gaze drifted round the room, skimming past the curtained-off examination area, the desk and computer, the shelf groaning with huge medical tomes, the plastic replica of a human spine, and several cartons of drugs unavailable to ordinary GPs, among them the antidote for truth serum.
Curtain rings clinked, and a smiling Jemma reappeared, the Doctor close behind her.
"Everything all right?" asked Ash, rising to her feet.
Jemma nodded and cocked her head at the grey-haired woman with the rimless spectacles, who smiled pleasantly and said, "Just bruises, I'm pleased to report."
Jemma busied herself retying the scarf Ash had given her. With a rueful smile, Ash unfolded the sunglasses she had brought with her for similar reasons and put them on.
She checked her watch. "Ten minutes. We'll just make it." With a nod of thanks to the Doctor, who was taking her place behind the desk and pulling the keyboard towards her, Ash crossed to the door. When Jemma joined her, Ash reached for her hand, then hesitated. Her partner wrinkled her nose and grasped Ash's hand firmly, before leading her out into the corridor.
"Wonder what Thompson wants to see us about now. I thought we covered everything at the debriefing."
It had been an exhausting session. Every section in the Organisation had been affected in one way or another by Dr. Aston's clandestine activities, so all the Section Heads were present. Weatherby himself turned up, frowning and nodding his craggy head from time to time. Since he rarely attended meetings these days, it showed the gravity with which he regarded the situation.
To Ash's pleasure, Corky had been allowed to sit in too, since the events under discussion had a direct bearing on his case. When he entered the room, he was handcuffed between two burly guards, but she was confident those restraints wouldn't stay on him for long.
She patted the gentle giant's shoulder, and said a few kind words. His gaze at her was envious, and she knew why. She had only spent a few minutes believing she had killed Jemma but the agonising memory would linger much longer. Her nightmare had proved to be just that, vanishing in the light of day. Corky hadn't been so lucky.
If Jemma hadn't taken such a risk to snap Ash out of her programming ... She shuddered and pushed that thought away.
They had put Jemma on the stand first, then Ash. The questions came thick and fast, as the Section Heads picked over every little detail from their particular point of view, sucking the marrow from the bones of recent events until they were satisfied that they knew everything there was to be known.
Finally, they came to their conclusions. Undoing the conditioning in several top agents' brains was top priority. A specialist in the mind, an expert in the area of brainwashing and deprogramming, was being flown in from the USA. He had already conveyed his considered opinion that, since Ash's conditioning had already been triggered once, she was no longer susceptible and needed no treatment. She was extremely glad to hear it.
While he was in London, they intended asking the expert to take a look at Keith Aston too. Not that they held out much hope for returning him to a semblance of sanity. Thompson had brought with him video footage from his first two interrogations. It was clear the psychologist was as nutty as a fruitcake and a psychopath to boot. That he had managed to hide both facts for so long showed that he was also a formidable actor - except when drunk.
She sighed. Poor Janus.
It turned out that Aston was a regular at the small time burglar's pub. Janus hadn't known then who this Jemma Jacobs was that Aston raved about whenever he was blotto, but he soon found out. When the buck-toothed little man learned she was Blade's new partner, and that Aston was planning to take his revenge on both women, the lure of some quick and easy extra cash had proved irresistible. Unfortunately the psychologist wasn't too drunk to notice his drinking partner's overly keen interest in his affairs and had taken steps to eliminate Janus too.
But Aston and Abdusamad were no longer Ash's problem. Let someone else worry about them for a while.
"Maybe Thompson has a new assignment for us," she suggested, as they walked along the corridor towards their Section Head's office, clasped hands swinging, ignoring the glances coming their way. She found she was humming under her breath and knew the cause of her cheerfulness was walking beside her.
"He'd better not," objected Jemma. "We're still on leave."
"Some leave! Assignments are more restful. Talking of restful ..." Ash glanced at her partner. "Why don't we fly out to Tenerife for a few days? We've still got time. Sand, sea, sunshine ... Hmmm?"
"Oh! Could we?" Jemma's face had lit up like a child's at Christmas.
"I don't see why not. After all, my flat isn't habitable yet. And I did a pretty good job of wrecking yours." Jemma gave her a wry nod. "Seems stupid to stay here when there's a perfectly good casa going to waste in Santa Cruz."
Jemma squeezed her hand. "Hey, I'm not the one you have to convince."
"True. Well, as far as Thompson's concerned, we've tied up all the loose ends - Abdusamad and Aston are safely locked up, those agents at risk have been identified - and as you pointed out, we are still on leave."
Their Section Head's secretary looked up as they entered her office and smiled at them both. "He's expecting you," said the well-bred woman in the navy dress and pearl earrings. "Go on in."
Ash rested her hand on the small of Jemma's back and guided her into Thompson's office.
"Jemma, Blade." Their boss looked up and stroked his moustache. "Come in, come in."
Both faltered as they realised he wasn't alone. A thin man in a pinstriped grey suit was sitting in a chair in front of his desk.
Remington. They exchanged a wary glance.
"As you see, here is someone to see you," said Thompson.
An expression of dislike flickered across Remington's face when he saw Ash. Then he leaped to his feet and approached Jemma. Ash bristled and prepared to defend her.
"I'm so sorry," bleated Remington.
"I had no idea Keith felt like that," he continued, "or that he'd taken things this far. If only I'd known I'd ... " He made a gesture of helplessness. "Well, I'd have stopped him of course."
Ash wondered cynically just how exactly the prim ex Section Head of Security would have done that. Her partner, however, was clearly more forgiving.
Jemma took the hand he was holding out to her, pressed it, and said, "It wasn't your fault, Mr Remington. He fooled us all."
"Such a promising boy," muttered Remington, whose face was as haggard as Ash had ever seen it. "I knew he was upset about my having to take early retirement, that he shared my opinion that the Organisation owed me more ..." He flashed Thompson a look, then lowered his gaze and shook his head. "Well, well, that's water under the bridge I suppose. "
Ash wondered if he would ever acknowledge his own part in this sorry mess. Probably not.
"His mother will be devastated when she finds out that Keith ... had a nervous breakdown."
Nervous breakdown, my arse! What about murdering Janus? What about causing Corky to kill Jeff and then have to live with the anguish of it? What about sending Louise Brande to her doom in the waters of the Thames? Aston's plans had been premeditated, cold-blooded, ruthless... She opened her mouth to say so, saw the almost imperceptible shake of Thompson's head, and subsided. Remington no longer worked for The Organisation; some information was no longer his to know.
"In fact I'm really not looking forward to telling her." Remington regarded the Counter Intelligence Section Head with something like resentment. "Are you sure it will be best coming from me?" Thompson gave him a silent nod. "Well, well." He sighed and shrugged his acceptance. "Perhaps you know best."
"Let's hope your nephew can get the treatment he needs," soothed Jemma.
"Yeah. Perhaps he just needs to see a good shrink."
Jemma shot Ash a quelling glance, but Remington hadn't caught the gist of her sarcastic murmur and in any case, he was bent on ignoring her.
"That's kind of you, Miss Jacobs. I knew you'd understand." He glanced at his watch. "I have to go now. I have to deliver this ... shocking news. What a tragedy." He shook his head. "Such a promising young man."
With a nod towards Thompson and Jemma, he made for the door, sidestepping round Ash without a word.
"Don't let the door bang your arse on the way out," she muttered.
"Behave." A warm hand slipped into hers.
She turned to find Thompson regarding the interaction between the two women with interest. Oops! A faint blush came to her cheeks. "So," she said, pretending nonchalance. "Is that all you wanted to see us about, Boss? An apology from Remington?"
"Not quite." Thompson glanced out of the window at the pouring rain, then turned back to them, a faint smile on his lips. "Your leave so far seems to have been quite eventful."
"I'll say!" Ash removed her sunglasses to reveal her black eye, and gestured wryly at herself. "We're a mess."
He chuckled. "Well, you've had worse. But it just occurred to me ... Since your leave got cut short by what turned out to be an assignment after all, I am extending it by two weeks. Does that sound fair?"
"Whoohoo!" Jemma pumped the air with her fist.
He smiled. "Apparently it does."
"Canaries here we come," added her exuberant partner.
"You planning on staying at that casa of yours, Blade?" Ash nodded. "Then get going. And enjoy yourselves."
His brisk tone indicated that the meeting was over, as did his sitting down at his desk, reaching for a manila file, and pretending to study its contents. Ash exchanged a glance with Jemma and indicated the door. They were half way there, when their boss added, without looking up, "Just make sure you come back fit and rested and ready for your next assignment."
"Thanks, Mr Thompson." Jemma squeezed Ash's hand. "We fully intend to."
"Are you sure this is a good idea?" Ash switched off the ignition and turned to regard the woman sitting in the Lotus's passenger seat. "Last time I was here, your sister treated me like some kind of criminal."
"Well Maggie might not even be here, but anyway that's her problem not yours." Jemma undid her seatbelt and opened the door. "And it's only polite to tell my parents I'll be out of the country for the next few weeks."
"There's this wonderful new invention," said Ash, undoing her own seatbelt. "It's called the telephone."
"Ha ha." Jemma got out - she was getting better at extricating herself from the bucket seat, Ash noted - hunched her shoulders against the rain, and sprinted up the drive. In the porch, she turned. "Come on, cowardy custard," she shouted, beckoning, then she pressed the doorbell.
Ash rolled her eyes, donned her sunglasses, and followed at a more sedate pace, arriving just as the door opened to reveal Jemma's smiling mother. If her partner grew middle-aged as gracefully as her mother had, Ash would be well pleased.
"I didn't know you two were coming. What a lovely surprise." Janet Jacobs hugged her daughter then stood back to let them enter. "If I'd known, I'd have baked a cake. Your sister's in the sitting room."
Jemma raised an eyebrow at Ash who shrugged. No session with Aston today - she could deal with any of Maggie's barbs without needing to flee.
"That's a lovely scarf," commented Jemma's mother. "Hermes, isn't it?"
Jemma glanced at herself in the mirror, touched the scarf around her neck, then nodded. "Ash gave it to me."
Janet Jacobs gave Ash an approving nod. "You have good taste." She led them towards the sitting room, pausing at the bottom of the stairs with her hand on the banister to yell, "Phil. Jemma's here. And she's brought Ash with her."
"Really?" called a distant male voice. "I'll be right down."
She turned back to Ash. "It's so nice to see you again, dear. Have you and Jemma been enjoying your leave?" She glanced at a raindrop-spattered window then back at Ash, her fair brows drawing together. "And aren't you going to take your sunglasses off?"
Before Ash could come up with a plausible reason for keeping them on, Jemma had distracted her mother by looping her arm through hers and was saying, "Guess what, Mum? We've got two weeks extra leave, so we're going to spend it in the Canaries."
"My goodness! What have you done to deserve that? No, don't tell me. The Canaries? Weren't you there a few weeks ago at that 'Carnaval' thingy?"
Thumping footsteps on the stairs preceded the appearance of Jemma's father. "Hello, hello, hello." Phil Jacobs swept his youngest daughter up into a bearhug. "What's all this I hear about the Canaries?"
"I have a casa there," explained Ash.
"All right for some! We used to have a little caravan in Conway. It was fine when the weather was good, but when it rained ... Sounded like peas on a drum." He gave Jemma a final squeeze before releasing her. "You and Maggie used to get through those Join Up The Dots books at a rate of knots, didn't you, Jemma?"
Jemma rolled her eyes. "Thanks, Dad. Can we keep embarrassing tales of my childhood for another time? You'll be showing Ash my baby pictures next."
"Now there's an idea." He grinned at his daughter's look of outrage then moved through to the living room.
"Look who's here," Ash heard him saying. "Your sister and her friend." She couldn't make out Maggie's reply, though the tone sounded sulky. Ash squared her shoulders and followed Jemma and her mother through the door.
An open library book, a romance by its lurid cover, lay face down on the arm of the settee next to Maggie. She smiled up at Jemma as her sister took her place next to her, then glowered at Ash, who preferred to fold her arms and lean against the wall.
"Jemma," said Maggie. "I wasn't expecting to see you here."
"Last minute decision. I wanted to tell Mum and Dad we'll be out of the country for the next few weeks."
Maggie's gaze flicked to Ash's face then away again. "You're going with her?"
"Yes. And I'd really like it if you'd stop being so rude to Ash," said Jemma, twisting so she could hold Maggie's gaze. Her sister's cheeks flushed a delicate shade of pink, emphasising the family likeness between them. "An apology for the way you behaved to her last time would be a good start."
Maggie's jaw jutted. "Why should I? I didn't say anything I didn't mean."
Janet and Phil Jacobs were observing this confrontation between their children with something like alarm.
"Sisters," explained Jemma's father, turning to Ash in embarrassment. "Perhaps we should leave them to it." He rose to his feet, and so did his wife.
"I'll go and put the kettle on, shall I?"
Ash unfolded her arms and straightened, quite willing to leave the two sparring siblings to it, only to find herself pinned in place by a green glare.
"Stay put," ordered Jemma, whose cheeks were now as fiery as her sister's. "You too, Mum, Dad. I have something to say to Maggie about me and Ash, and I want you all to hear it."
Ash blinked, shot Jema's parents a sheepish glance, and obediently resumed her arms-folded pose against the wall. They sagged back into their chairs and regarded their youngest as though she had suddenly grown another head.
"Well?" prompted Maggie. "Go on, then. What's this something you have to say to me, Jemma? And does it have anything to do with that? Because if it has, then that woman is certainly not getting an apology from me."
Ash followed the direction of her pointing finger. Jemma's scarf had slipped, and one of the livid marks at her throat was showing. She winced.
"That is so unfair!" said Jemma. "If you only knew the number of times she's risked her life for me."
"Not very competently, it seems," riposted Maggie. "Who had their hands round your throat?"
Ash unfolded her arms and straightened. "I did," she growled.
"What?" All eyes turned to regard her.
"Ash!" An exasperated Jemma surged to her feet. "This isn't helping."
Phil Jacobs was regarding Ash as though he had never seen her before. "You did that to my daughter?" When Ash didn't answer he turned to Jemma, who was now standing directly in front of Ash.
"Yes, Dad, she did." Jemma yanked the sunglasses from Ash's face, almost taking her ears with them. "But only after I did this to her."
A shocked gasp echoed round the room as Ash's spectacular black eye was revealed in all its glory. Someone sniggered. To Ash's surprise, it was Maggie.
"Shouldn't you be fighting enemy agents rather than one another?" The gaze she turned on Ash was amused.
"We were, as it happens," said Ash dryly. "You should see the other fellow."
"This isn't funny, Maggie," said Jemma with some asperity. But the mental image of Jemma giving the much taller and stronger Ash a black eye seemed to have gained a firm grip over her now giggling sister, and, if the attempts by Jemma's parents to keep a straight face were any indication, it was contagious.
Jemma threw Ash an outraged glance, but Ash merely shrugged and smiled. Laughter was a great tension reliever - if anything could clear the air, this could....
A little later, when all present had regained their composure, and Janet Jacobs had made a pot of tea and distributed chocolate biscuits to those who wanted them, the conversation continued in an atmosphere that was far more relaxed and pleasant that it had been.
"Did you two really beat each other up?" asked Jemma's sister, who seemed to have forgotten her hostility towards Ash and was now regarding her with interest.
"It's a long story," said Jemma, "and since I signed the Official Secrets Act I'll probably never be able to tell you all the details, but ... Yes. There was a traitor in the Organisation who wanted to kill me and he tried to use Ash to do it."
"But you stopped him?" pressed her anxious mother.
"Yes." Jemma gave Ash a smile. "We did. And that's why we now have a fortnight's extra leave." She laced her fingers through Ash's. "And while we're clearing the air, I have something else I'd like to tell everyone. ... Ash and I are more than just partners. We're um -" she took a deep breath - "going out together too."
There was a moment's silence, then the sound of tea sipping and biscuit munching resumed. Everyone was taking this revelation remarkably calmly, thought Ash.
"Aren't there regulations against that kind of thing?" asked Phil Jacobs.
Ash tensed. "You mean about two women ..."
"About partners," he clarified.
"Oh." Ash relaxed and smiled inwardly. Should have known Jemma's parents would be fine about it or she wouldn't have told them. "As a matter of fact there aren't, Mr Jacobs. The Organisation doesn't encourage relations between agents, but it doesn't forbid them either." She took another bite of her chocolate biscuit, chewed thoughtfully for a moment, then added, "I checked."
Jemma blinked at Ash's shit-eating grin, then turned a deep shade of pink and hid her face in her hands, which made her family laugh. Ash patted her on the back.
"So you can see," she said, sobering and turning to address her partner's sister, "I have powerful reasons for ensuring that no one ever harms a hair on Jemma's head."
"Sorry," murmured Maggie. "I didn't know."
"That's OK," said Ash. "The older sister thing - I understand. And I'm glad you're looking out for Jemma."
Maggie smiled. "Thanks. I'm glad you are too."
Jemma raised her head at this touching display of mutual backslapping. "How many times do I have to tell people?" she asked plaintively, "I can look after myself."
"Of course you can," soothed Ash, Maggie, Phil, and Janet Jacobs in unison. After an exchange of startled glances, everyone began to laugh, and Jemma buried her head in her hands once more.
"Told you it was a good idea," said a complacent Jemma.
Ash pulled up at the traffic lights and smiled at the younger woman. "You did indeed. Glad I'm no longer on your sister's hit list."
"So, what now?"
"Well, I've got us tickets on the first flight out to Tenerife tomorrow morning." Ash drummed her fingers on the steering wheel and willed the lights to change. They didn't. "Before we go, I need to speak with the builders about my flat. After that ... How does fish and chips, packing, and bed sound? Not necessarily in that order."
"OK. What should I pack?"
Ash leered at her partner. "The tiniest bikini you have."
Jemma snorted. "Dream on!" Ash pretended disappointment. "Oh all right then, pervert."
"Yes!" Ash pumped her arm. "But to return to your question - just throw your passport, some sunblock, and a few clothes in a travel bag. And I mean a few." She hid a grin. "If what you took to Rio was travelling 'light', I hate to think what your idea of 'heavy' is."
"Hey! I didn't know what to expect," protested Jemma. "It was my first proper mission with you, OK?"
Ash laughed. "I was only teasing."
Jemma wrinkled her nose. "I know."
"Oh, and have a think about wallpaper," she said, aiming for nonchalance.
"Wallpaper?" Jemma looked at Ash as though she had lost her mind.
"Yeah. The decorator says they no longer make the patterns I used to have in the hall or the sitting room. So have a think about what you'd like instead."
Jemma blinked. "You want me to choose the wallpaper for your flat?"
"And new carpet, and a new three piece suite ..." Ash turned to regard her partner. "I want you to feel comfortable there, Jemma, at home." She paused, feeling suddenly unsure of herself. "I like being with you, and I was under the impression you quite liked being with me. So I was thinking we could maybe make it a more ... permanent arrangement."
Jemma studied her, green eyes grave. "I thought the idea of me moving in with you scared you half to death."
Ash felt her cheeks warming. "Was it that obvious?"
Her partner nodded. "To me, anyway." She paused. "What changed your mind?"
Jemma's eyebrows rose. "What?"
Ash sighed and tried to explain. "That close shave you had on the London Eye was bad enough - I thought I was going to have a heart attack. But when I came round from my conditioning and thought I'd killed you ... Well, let's just say I woke up to how I really feel about you."
"And how do you feel about me?"
Ash grimaced. "You're going to make me say it, aren't you?"
Jemma nodded. "And?" Her mouth twitched.
"I ... I ... oh, for God's sake!" muttered Ash in self-disgust. "Why is this so hard?"
"You ... like me?" prompted her partner.
"Yes I bloody like you," growled Ash. "You also frequently drive me nuts and you have lousy taste in films and music, but that's beside the point."
"Um ... just 'like'?" pressed Jemma with a smirk.
"Oh all right. ... I think I love you ... but it's something I'm not sure of. Satisfied?"
Green eyes widened. "You're quoting the Partridge Family at me?"
"Oh for pity's sa-" Ash stopped speaking for the simply reason that Jemma had got her in a liplock. She lost all track of time.
Somewhere in the distance a horn sounded. Then another ... and another. Ash crashed back to awareness of her surroundings, untangled herself from Jemma, and put her foot down. The Lotus stalled and the chorus of horns became a cacophony, as she put the sportscar back in gear, restarted the engine, and put her foot down once more. This time, with a satisfying roar, the Lotus left the other cars standing.
"Good grief!" said Ash, when her bloodpressure was back to normal. "You're going to be the death of me."
"Ah, but what a way to go." Jemma paused, then said with a grin, "And for the record, I think I love you too. I think it was love at first sight."
"Really? When I was cutting off your air supply at the training school you loved me?"
"Well, maybe not then. Later though. Of course you couldn't love me at first sight because my face was covered in boot polish."
Ash chuckled. "That was the reason, undoubtedly. ... Ow!" Jemma had poked her in the ribs.
They drove on in silence for a few minutes.
"Glad that's settled," offered Ash.
"I haven't said I will move in with you yet."
"Um. Well, there are several other good reasons for you moving in. You hate your poky little flat ... plus there's ketchup everywhere ... and when mine's repaired, there'll be plenty of room for two."
"Well whose fault is the ketchup, I'd like to know?"
Ash didn't disdain to answer that one.
"Hmm." Jemma put a finger to her lips and pretended to think. "I don't know whether I could live with someone who laughed at my choice of car."
"Did I laugh?" protested Ash. "What I meant to say was, I think it's a wonderful car. It has character, just like its owner, who by the way is great in bed. And did I mention that orange is my favourite colour?"
Jemma snorted. "Nice try but I don't believe a word ... except the bit about me being great in bed, of course." She gave Ash a sly smile. "Next question: If I were to move in with you, would you promise to behave?"
"Good answer." Jemma leaned over and planted a kiss on her cheek. "All right then. I'll do it. While you're lying on the beach in the blazing hot sun ogling all the pretty blondes in their tiny bikinis, I'll be thinking about wallpaper." But she didn't look upset at the prospect, and soon after, she started humming a happy tune (sadly off key, but Ash could bear it if she put her mind to it).
Ash shook her head and concentrated on her driving. She wondered where their next mission would take them and how much trouble her young partner and lover would land her in, then pushed such thoughts firmly from her mind. If nothing else, recent events had shown that Jemma could more than take care of herself and that they made a good team. The future would look after itself; for now, there was a fortnight in Tenerife to look forward to.
And as the little red sportscar surged on towards London, Ash joined her voice to Jemma's.
Huge thanks go to my fellow bard Advocate for her speedy beta reading and error catching.
My thanks also go to members of the Xenanet mailing list who helped with suggestions for sportscars Ash might drive and with medical information.