In a lifetime of empty rooms, this was another.
Was it the breath of air as Sark opened the door, a scent or a warmth which should not have been there? Something different among the dark shapes of the hotel room furniture? There was no time for him to wonder: he dodged to the side as the door swung closed behind him and drew his gun. The room was still. He shifted his weight, preparing for the attack he knew would come.
A shadow detached itself, slow and deliberate, from all the others; it became a form, a woman, her hands open and empty. "You don't need that," she told him.
"And yet, oddly enough, I feel much happier to have it in my hand." He reached to the left and flicked on a lamp, without taking his eyes from her. It was a year since he had seen Irina Derevko. In the soft light, the fine lines around her eyes and mouth were smoothed away. He reminded himself: appearances are always deceptive. Total darkness would not erase the knowledge and experience that had placed them there.
She took a step toward him, and he shifted to the side, keeping his distance. "You no longer trust me," she said.
"Even my tolerance for betrayal has its limits. You did hand me over to the CIA." One step, and then another. They were not quite close enough to touch.
"You shouldn't have disobeyed me."
His teeth flashed in an insincere smile. "Next time, I'll try to remember that. Have you had a productive year?"
"I keep busy." Her kick was aimed to knock the gun out of his hand. He jumped back, an arm raised to block, considered dropping the gun just to be rid of it. His first shot went through the air where she had just been; it hit a pillow and sent feathers drifting into the air. The second went wild as she jumped at him. Turn, block, kick--he switched the gun to his left hand and his right connected with her jaw. She blocked the next blow, caught hold of his left arm and twisted. He ignored the pain and let the motion turn him, then used her own momentum to flip her over his body and away. She was up again in a second: he dodged and blocked what he could, felt the blow to his ribs, rolled away over a chair to avoid another high kick. Came up in a crouch with the gun pointed square at her chest, too close to miss.
"Don't move, Irina."
The low sound of her laughter made the hair prickle on his arms. "Do you think you could do it?" she asked.
"Would you like me to find out?"
In the faint light, her smile looked genuine. "Not tonight. I have missed you, Sark."
"You'll pardon me if I don't believe you." His heart was speeding from the combat. She took a step forward. "Irina," he warned. From where she was standing, she could reach out and take the gun from him.
"You aren't ready yet," she said.
He shifted his weight back and stood in a smooth motion; she let him do it, remaining where she was, her arms half-lifted, the familiar half-smile on her face. He could feel his heartbeat, the pulse in his neck, the air still between them. His mouth was dry.
She took the final step, letting the gun touch her ribcage. Her fingers came up to rest against his cheek, and he turned his head to kiss her palm. His hand was going to cramp on the trigger. "One day," he murmured.
"One day," she agreed.
He realized that he was waiting for her to take the gun from him; in the past she would have done so by now. Closing his eyes briefly, he exhaled, then engaged the safety and tossed it aside.
They were much the same height, now. He smiled into her mouth as his hands, brushing her spine, found a knife strapped to her back; her laughter at his hesitation was a puff of air against his cheek. Sheath, strap and all, it followed the gun across the room. Then it was his skin shivering under her fingers, his breath caught against her throat, sharp pain when her teeth closed on his ear. "Are you afraid?"
He shook his head. "I knew you would find me, in the end." He dropped her shirt to the floor and bent his head to taste her skin.
"You know what I am." It came out as a hiss.
A gasp was the only response he could make. She was all smooth warmth, familiar and far beyond him. He felt the ice in his heart melting to seek its home under her breast and broke away, fearing the emptiness that would be left. But her hands were holding him tight and her mouth made demands on him; he let her pull him with her down to the bed.
He balanced on his arms and took a ragged breath. "I know you, what you are," he reminded her.
Her smile never changed: from one year to the next, in one country after another, it was the same mysterious curve. "I never forget that." She arched back as he moved down her body, all his focus on her shifting form, shaping her with lips and hands until she was solid and real and he could believe in her presence. Her hands trailed fire down his skin, caught in his hair and brought him back up to her. Now he saw her lips slightly parted, her breathing ragged to match his own. "Mine," she had called him in the past, taking him in to the one home he knew, "Mine." Tonight, she used no words to claim him, but when he finally collapsed against her, told him, "Stay."
Afterwards, as he watched her find her clothing, he asked her what she meant. "The game is dull without you, Sark," she said.
"If you missed me that much, you could have broken me out of custody."
She shrugged into her shirt. "Captivity doesn't seem to have damaged you. I knew you would find your way out in the end." She looked up and met his eyes. "I know you."
"One day I may surprise you."
"Oh," she said, "I expect it, one day." Her clothing in order, the knife reattached to her back and her calm mask fixed on her face, she paused at the door. "Good night, Mr. Sark."
"Good night," he told the door as it closed behind her.
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is owned by JJ Abrams, Bad
Robot Production, and ABC. No copyright infringement intended, and no
Original story elements my own. Title and title quote from
Dorothy Dunnett, A Game of Kings.
Many thanks to Ann Ripley and Rez for encouragement and beta-reading.