Chapter 23 of Connection Concealed: Bears

June 12th, 2061. San Francisco, Fireblue territory, North American Province, 20.55 local time 

Louise put down her cases with gear next to the old desk. She looked around. Everything seemed the same as it had yesterday. It had taken them longer to get to the transmission site by the ocean, though. It was almost 9PM. She switched on the desk lamp.

Behind her, El stood, shuffling her feet. Louise exhaled slowly, trying to keep a lid on her frustration. Things had gotten really uncomfortable between them the moment they had started the tour around the network facility.

Sure, they had spoken to each other but only when needed for the inspection. It was as if they had both decided to focus on the job at hand and put what had just happened between them in the freezer.

And it was killing Louise. She wanted to say something. Anything. That is, anything that would end the sadness in El’s eyes. The awkwardness between them seemed to be taking a toll on her too. “I need to do something,” Louise thought. “But what?”

“Okay, I’ll let you work. Just knock on my door when you’re ready to go,” El said.

“Wait,” Louise blurted out, spinning around. This was her chance. “Why don’t you stay?”

El pushed a bouncy curl back behind her ear.

Louise gestured at the other desk. “It’s just us. Seems a bit silly to be in different rooms, right?”

El glanced at the desk and tucked her hands in her pockets. “Yeah, okay, sure.”

Louise smiled to herself as she picked up one of the cases and took out her terminal. She heard a chair move and when she straightened up, El was sitting and staring out of the window. The orange light of the sunset gave her face a warm glow.

Louise studied her beautiful profile for a few moments, the butterflies in her stomach wide awake. But then El caught her staring.

“What?” she asked shyly.

Louise switched on her terminal, averting her gaze. “Nothing,” she said, blushing, pretending to be at work.

A few moments later, she had to stop herself from looking up at El again. Louise opened the software she would use to create the report instead.

Making this report seem like she had done a thorough inspection would be a challenge. She had been distracted all afternoon. Images of her and El on the desk had kept flashing through her mind.

She had done her best to look for evidence of recent renovations or other things that seemed out of place. There hadn’t been much to see, though. The location clearly had not been in active use recently.

Louise still had plenty to report on, of course. She had to tell the teams Hobbs was in the hospital at the presidential residence. That would certainly set off alarm bells. Louise would have to make it seem like she had everything under control.

She stretched her fingers a few times. Where to start? Hobbs’s accident. How to describe his encounter with Stucky? She pictured the scene and chuckled.

“What’s so funny?” El asked.

Louise looked up in surprise. Shit, had she laughed out loud?

“I was thinking about Hobbs.”

El’s eyebrows shot up. “That makes you laugh?!”

“Hardly,” Louise said, grinning. “I was thinking of Stucky attacking him.”

El crossed her legs. “It wasn’t an attack!” she said with a wide smile.

“I know, I know,” Louise replied. “He just wanted to play.”

El nodded. “Yeah.” She turned back to the window then.

“I’m glad he’s doing better,” Louise added quickly, trying to keep the conversation going.

El scratched her cheek absentmindedly. “Yeah, he does seem less upset.” She inclined her head. “And a lot wilder.”

“True,” Louise giggled. “He’ll definitely keep you entertained.”

El folded her hands in her lap, looking down at them. “Yes, I don’t know how my aunt kept up with him.”

Louise fidgeted with the power button of her terminal.

“How are you coping after her death?” she asked carefully.

El’s expression instantly became guarded. Louise forced herself to keep looking at her, waiting patiently. After a few moments, El visibly clenched her jaw and shifted in her seat.

Louise was about to give up and comment on the sunset, to change the subject, when El clicked her tongue softly as if making a decision.

“I’m heartbroken,” she admitted, her voice almost a whisper.

Louise’s mouth went dry.

El looked at her from under fragile eyelashes, cheeks flushed. “I miss her every second of every day.” She shrugged tiredly. “But I have to be strong. I don’t have time to be sad.”

Louise was up from her chair before she had given it any thought. Once she was standing in front of El, she wasn’t sure what to do, though. El met her gaze, her expression open, her eyes expectant.

Louise clumsily sat down on the floor. “Tell me about her,” she said, her hand running up and down El’s lower leg.

El wiped her cheeks with her sleeves, sniffling. “You tell me something about yourself first.”

“Eh, why?”

El shifted to the edge of her seat. “After our ‘job interview’,” she said, making air quotes with her fingers. “I realized you have told me almost nothing.”

Louise played with a loose thread at the bottom of El’s slacks. “I haven’t?”

“Nope,” El replied dryly. “I think you owe me some embarrassing stories or you know, just basic info.”

Louise nodded slowly. El was right, of course. Louise wasn’t one to share many details about herself. It didn’t come naturally to her.

“Okay,” she said. “Let me write my report and then you can ask me whatever you want.” Her stomach was queasy.

El slapped her knees. “Great! I think I’ll start with ex-girlfriends.”

The churning in Louise’s abdomen intensified. She tried to laugh but it didn’t sound all that convincing. There was no way she could ever tell El about Michelle. Just no way. Michelle would kill her if she found out.

And what would El say when she realized Louise had been in a relationship with the woman who is in charge of the effort to force the Fireblue rebels to their knees? That would not play out well, Louise guessed.

“Not much to report there,” she said, hurrying to get up and behind her desk. “I certainly wasn’t playing hide and seek in my bedroom at 15.”

El stuck out her tongue, laughed and turned to look out of the window again. Louise was off the hook. For now.

 


 

90 tense minutes later, Louise gave up on the report. She had done the best she could under the circumstances. It was dusk by now and the night sky would set in soon. She got up from the chair.

She gathered her terminal and the case with the portable satellite. “I need to go send this thing.”

“Want me to wait here?” El asked.

Louise considered the question. She could ask El to stay inside and be off the hook for a bit longer. But that didn’t feel right. Plus, she loved talking to her and didn’t want to go back to the awkward silence or distance between them.

“No, what if there is a bear?” she said in a serious tone.

El snickered. “A bear?”

Louise pointed at the door. “I heard there are still bears out here.”

El grimaced. “Not many.”

“Guess I won’t need your protection then,” Louise sighed dramatically.

“I don’t know,” El said, now playing along and frowning deeply, “There are other scary things out there.”

“Oh really,” Louise replied and headed for the door. “Better bring your secret weapons then.”

It was a beautiful evening outside. The sky was a dark, purple blue. The crickets were loud, the waves were crashing into the rocks in the distance. Louise had grown fond of the atmosphere here.

“This shouldn’t take long,” she told El, who was now walking next to her.

“Take your time,” El replied. “I’m in no hurry.”

Louise stopped at the place where she and Hobbs had sent their report the previous two evenings. She opened the case with the satellite. “Yeah, I noticed you didn’t mind waiting,” she commented, her curiosity getting the upper hand. “Didn’t you get bored?”

El shook her head vehemently. “No, not at all. I needed this.”

Setting up the satellite wasn’t that hard, even without Hobbs, Louise quickly realized to her satisfaction. She straightened up and looked at El. “Needed what?”

El took a few steps away, towards the ocean. “A day of peace and quiet.”

Louise carefully positioned her terminal next to the satellite before she spoke. “Peace and quiet?” she asked in a challenging tone. The memory of El’s breathy whispering and whimpering against her ear was so vivid it sent a jolt of pleasure through her body. Peaceful and quiet was not how she would describe their day together.

El slowly turned around and met her gaze. “Okay, not all quiet,” she said huskily.

Louise couldn’t see the color of El’s eyes from this distance but she remembered the shades of grey well. She yearned to get closer. She wanted to kiss El again. She wanted a lot more than kisses.

El pointed at the terminal. “Better get that going…” she teased.

Louise lowered her eyes reluctantly. “Yeah,” she agreed, clearing her throat. “Just give me a few minutes.”

She worked in silence. El, in the meantime, walked to the edge of the cliff and stared at the ocean. Once the file was being transferred, Louise hurried to join her there. She had a bit of time while the report was uploading.

“I love it here,” El said.

“Me too,” Louise replied after taking in a deep breath of salty, night air.

The moon was bright and its reflection on the water spectacular.

“You do?” El asked, surprised.

Louise nodded slowly. “I never get to see this at home.”

El was silent for a few moments. “Where do you live?”

“Ah, here come the questions,” Louise thought. “Apartment near the base,” she said.

“Do you like military life?”

Louise glanced sideways. El was staring at her. “Yes, of course,” she answered.

“Why did you enlist?”

“To impress Michelle,” flashed through Louise’s mind. “I wanted to prove I could do it,” she replied. It wasn’t a lie. Not entirely.

She didn’t give El time to ask whom she had wanted to impress. “My parents weren’t very supportive of me. I rebelled, I guess.” Not a complete lie either.

El snorted. “By doing something very responsible and selfless?”

Louise smiled sadly. “They didn’t think joining the army was responsible.”

“Really?” El mumbled. “What about your sister?”

Louise grimaced. “They always liked her decisions in life a lot more,” she admitted, not able to keep the bitterness out of her voice.

“How so?”

“Both of my parents are academics. My sister also teaches at a university now.”

“Oh.”

El kicked a small rock. Louise watched it fly off the cliff and down into the water. She suddenly wondered if her parents would ever visit her in prison. Probably not.

“My aunt gave me a hard time for years. I know what it feels like,” El said softly.

Louise turned to her, intrigued.

A loud bleep from the terminal stopped her from asking what El meant.

El nodded in the direction of the sound. “Gotta go see what’s up?”

Louise ran a hand through her hair. The wind was picking up.

“Yeah,” she said grudgingly.

They walked back to the terminal together.

When Louise checked the screen, she immediately saw the alert that indicated an incoming file had been downloaded. The teams back at home had sent her updated instructions. She glanced up nervously.

El had wrapped her arms around herself, rubbing her upper arms. “Everything okay?”

Louise squinted at the screen. “Yeah, all done. Give me one more moment…” She hesitated, her finger hovering over the file.

What was in there? Probably some new information about El or the rebels in general. Or maybe further instructions on how to approach the mission. Louise didn’t want to know any of it. Not right now at least.

“I could wait until Hobbs is with me,” she figured. Wouldn’t it be better to read the instructions together anyway? That might not be possible until tomorrow morning, though. She would have to lock away the gear as soon as she arrived at the residence.

“Fuck it,” she thought, “I’ll come up with an excuse for Hobbs. I’m not going to ruin this evening.”

Louise tapped the icon to switch off the screen, knowing full well she was choosing denial. She looked up and smiled at El. “It’s getting cold. Let’s go home.”

El nodded and started walking to the small building. “Home, huh?”

“I mean, the residence,” Louise corrected herself.

“Hmmm hmmm, right,” El said.

Louise grinned. Being in denial wasn’t all bad.

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