JUNE 12th, 2061. San Francisco, Fireblue territory, North American Province, 06.00 local time
Louise blinked a few times while Eleanor’s words sunk in. Woodward and Eleanor were a couple. How on earth had she forgotten about this? It certainly made Eleanor liking her less credible.
“Not that I want her,” Louise thought.
She knew she was lying to herself, though. The goosebumps all over her body told her as much. She had been about to kiss Eleanor. For the second time!
And Eleanor had stepped away just in time. For the second time. She wasn’t into Louise. Probably not even into women. Louise was usually very good at knowing that kind of stuff. How had she gotten it so wrong here?
Then again, what about all the flirting? She hadn’t imagined it. Even Hobbs had noticed the long looks El had given her. “She must know I’m gay,” Louise realized. “She’s using it against me.”
“Louise?” Eleanor asked.
She was standing surprisingly close all of a sudden. Her eyes were searching Louise’s face. Louise’s gaze snapped to the door. It was closed. She quickly scanned the room. It was empty apart from her and El.
“Where’s your…,” she stopped.
“Where’s my what?” El asked, looking around.
El waved a hand at the door. “Off to check on Hobbs.”
Louise frowned. She had completely zoned out for a moment, apparently. She had no idea what El and Woodward had just discussed.
“I should do the same,” she finally stated and started walking to the door.
El stepped in front of her, holding up a hand. “Wait, please,” she said softly.
Louise averted her gaze, tucking her hands in her pockets.
“You can’t run away after accusing me of lying.”
Louise huffed. “I’m not running away.”
El arched an eyebrow, shifting her weight to her other leg.
“What do you think I lied about?” she asked.
Louise shook her head in disbelief. “Like I’m going to tell you.”
“Something is clearly bothering you. Tell me.”
“No! This is not…” Louise said, needing a moment to find the right words. “I am here on a mission! You are under investigation. Stop acting like we’re…”
“Like we’re what?”
Louise blew out an exasperated breath. “We just can’t talk like this.”
El stared at her for a long moment. It made Louise uncomfortable, but she managed to stand her ground and stay silent.
“Fine,” El said. “Then don’t tell me why you’re upset. But I promise you: I haven’t lied to you about anything.”
Louise rolled her eyes. “Stop it!” she pleaded. “Stop pretending you like…” She quickly closed her mouth. Heat rushed to her cheeks. Damn, why was she such a blabbermouth around this woman?!
El crossed her arms. “Stop pretending?” she asked. There was an edge in her voice that hadn’t been there before.
Louise looked away. She didn’t know what to say. She had already said too much, so she just shrugged.
“Okay,” El said, “I’ll stop pretending for the both of us.”
Louise’s eyes snapped back to El, unsure what she was talking about. El moved so quickly Louise didn’t have a chance to stop her. The first thing she registered was the scent of peppermint all around her.
Then, hot, full lips pressed against Louise’s. Electricity rippled down her spine. Her knees almost buckled. The fluttering in her stomach was so intense she gasped against El’s mouth.
Hearing herself lose control, made Louise snap out of it. She raised her hands and pushed El away, a bit more forcefully than she had intended to. “Don’t,” she said breathily.
El looked at her with wide eyes. The hurt in them was obvious.
Louise touched her own lips in a daze. They were tingling. Her heart was beating fast. She yearned to stop thinking, walk over to El and kiss her back. She closed her eyes in an attempt to control herself.
“Look at me,” El whispered.
Louise frowned, refusing to open her eyes until the fire in her blood had calmed down.
“Look at me,” El repeated, louder this time.
Louise just squeezed her eyes shut even more.
But then fingers grabbed her lower arm and El was so close Louise could feel her breath tickling her cheek. Her eyes opened against her will.
“It’s a surprise for me too,” El said hoarsely.
Louise was mesmerized by El’s light brown eyelashes. They looked so fragile up close. Every little part of El was so damn beautiful. She wanted to place tender kisses on every single spot. It scared the living hell out of her.
“No! You’re just playing a game,” she lashed out.
El blinked. “A game?”
Louise pointed at the door. “I know you two are together!”
“W-w-what?” El stammered, taking a step back.
“You and…Rick!” Louise spat out, feeling a lot less triumphant than she had expected to feel. She found no joy in stating this out loud. “I know you’re just faking this to get under my skin.”
To her own horror, Louise’s eyes were filling with tears. She had no idea where they were coming from. Her whole body had changed from buzzing with desire to total deflation in less than a minute.
“Well, congratulations,” she added bitterly. “You succeeded. Proud of yourself?” She knew she would regret this confession later on, but she didn’t care right now.
El closed her eyes. Her shoulders slumped. “I give up,” she croaked, then blew out a shaky breath. “I give up,” El repeated.
Louise’s throat tightened. God, she had hoped it wasn’t true. She had hoped this crazy energy between them had been real. Being around El had given her a weird sense of freedom, a temporary escape from her life with all its frustrations.
But now, Louise had no choice but to face reality. This whole other beautiful world, and this stunning woman, were one big trap. A trap the rebels had set for her so the mission would fail.
Instead of feeling angry about it, Louise felt broken. She had lost her belief in what was wrong and what was right. Now she knew there was nothing to replace it with. She was lost.
Louise bit the inside if her cheek. She felt like she was going to start sobbing soon. She needed to get out of here.
“I’m going to check on Hobbs,” she said with effort.
Eleanor didn’t stop her on her way out.
Woodward was waiting for Louise in the lobby.
“I’ll take you to him,” he said.
Woodward was the last person Louise wanted to see right now. But it’s not like she had a choice. She gave a curt nod and followed him. He didn’t say another word.
The few moments of silence gave Louise a chance to recompose herself. She pinched her own arm a few times to get rid of the tears that were still brimming in her eyes.
She could hear the wind rage outside but didn’t know if the rain had arrived yet. They walked into some sort of small hospital less than a minute after she had left Eleanor standing in the middle of her office. She cleared her throat.
There were two beds, a nurse’s station and several more doors further ahead. They were labeled ‘OR’ and ‘Imaging.’ “Well equipped,” Louise thought. She wasn’t surprised. This was the presidential residence after all.
“I’ll be back,” Woodward said and left, seeming somewhat in a hurry. Louise wondered if he was going back to talk to Eleanor. Probably. She pictured him holding El in his arms for a brief moment. She pushed the thought away.
Hobbs was lying in the second bed. His eyes were closed, but he looked less pale. A monitor was standing next to the bed. Louise walked over.
“Hey,” she said softly.
Hobbs didn’t respond. His breathing was remarkably calm, Louise now noticed. He was vast asleep.
“He’ll be out for a few more hours, I think,” a woman said. Louise spun around and found the female paramedic staring at her curiously.
Louise scoffed. “You knocked him out?”
The medic looked at her with open disapproval now. “He has several badly bruised ribs. He’s not going anywhere for a while anyway.”
Louise took a few moments to process the information. And more importantly, the implications. If Hobbs was out for more than a few hours, she would have to inspect the third location by herself. Hobbs wouldn’t like that.
“Can’t you wake him up? Maybe give him a strong painkiller?” she asked the medic.
The medic pointed at Hobbs. “That’s what he asked for and that’s what we gave him.”
Louise turned around to look at Hobbs again.
“I warned him about drowsiness as a side effect,” the medic said, while she walked to the other side of his bed. “He said he could handle it.”
Louise rolled her eyes and shook her head. That sure sounded like Hobbs. “When will he be able to get back to work?”
The medic pushed a few buttons on the screen next to Hobbs’s bed. “Depends what his line of work is,” she stated casually.
Louise opened her mouth to tell her the truth, but then remembered she wasn’t supposed to tell anyone who they were and why they were here. Woodward and Eleanor had given clear instructions on what to say.
“He does network audits,” she replied, sticking to the script.
The medic studied a graph on the monitor. “So not much physical activity?”
Louise thought for a moment. She considered switching tasks with Hobbs. What if she inspected the facility while he checked the logs? No, that wouldn’t work. He wouldn’t know what to look for.
“Some,” she admitted. “Mostly walking.”
“He might need to rest a few days first then. Let’s see how he feels in the morning.”
Louise rubbed her cheek as she was thinking. She knew she had a decision to make. She could either do today’s inspection by herself or postpone it until Hobbs was able to join her. Both options would complicate things a lot.
“Thanks,” she mumbled to the medic.
“No problem. I’ll be here if you have any more questions.”
Louise made her way out of the room and headed in the direction of the lobby. She needed a moment alone to think things through. She would go up to her bedroom so no one could try to influence her decision.
Unfortunately, it seemed Eleanor and Woodward were waiting for her in the lobby. She could hear their voices at the end of the hallway as she approached.
“Rick, I’m fine, okay,” she heard Eleanor say.
Louise stopped walking, still out of view.
“You don’t look fine,” Woodward said.
“please, not here.”
“Then let’s go into your office.”
“No, I have to go talk to First Lieutenant Thomas.”
“She made you cry!”
“Rick! Not here! Anyone can hear us.”
It was silent for a long moment. Louise tried to breathe without making a sound.
“Okay, okay, later then,” Woodward finally replied.
“Let’s go talk to her. We need to convince her to cancel today’s inspection,” Eleanor said.
Louise tilted her head. “Oh really?” she thought.
Well, this made things a hell of a lot easier for her. She no longer needed to think things through. If Eleanor Lucas wanted her to cancel today’s inspection, Louise was going to do the exact opposite.
She straightened up and walked into the lobby, startling both Woodward and Eleanor.
“When can we leave?” she said coolly.