Conflicted Interests
by Sängerin

Zoe was getting ready for bed, relaxing after their dinner with Mariella, when Tom knocked on her door.

'Just a minute, Jack,' she said. While they were in that house, while they were on this assignment, they were Jack and Katie. She pulled a robe on over her night clothes. 'Okay: come in.'

He had a rakish grin on his face. 'Shy, Katie? We are brother and sister, you know.'

'That only goes so far,' she replied.

He came into the room and sat down on her bed with a sigh. 'So. Good dinner.'

'You didnít burn the spaghetti: well done.'

He glared at her, but there was a smile behind his eyes. 'Mariella seemed to enjoy herself.'

'No thanks to your attempts at dancing.' Zoe had loved watching Mariella dance, had loved laughing at Tom's ineptitude as he stumbled around the floor after her.

'Enough joking,' he said, his hands up as though to ward her off. 'I'm only doing my job.'

'You're enjoying yourself, though,' she replied, unable to refrain from teasing Tom for his obvious interest in Mariella.

Tom sighed. 'I donít like playing her against Rafa. She's too sweet.'

'She's involved with a Columbian drugs cartel. She's Rafaís mistress: she's not naive and innocent!' Zoe sat down, perching on the end of the bed, a carefully measured distance away from Tom.

'In some ways she still is,' Tom insisted.

Zoe studied Tom's face. They'd been through some extraordinary times together. She trusted him, and she could read him. 'Remember who she is,' she said, warningly. 'She's a target, and you cannot get involved.'

Tom had no answer to her warning, and for a few moments they sat in silence. Zoe remembered the office gossip about Tom's fling with Christine Dale. She remembered some of her own brief, regrettable dalliances, and sighed.

Tom looked at her. 'Whatís that for?'

'I was just thinking,' she replied. 'The service really narrows the pool of prospective partners.'

Tom smirked. 'That's why they tell us to keep it in the family, after all.' He held out a hand to Zoe with a wicked glint in his eye. 'What say you?'

She swatted his hand away. 'I say no. You're a sweet boy, Tom. As innocent and naive as Mariella.' Tom spluttered, but Zoe continued. 'I like a little more tang.'

Tom raised his eyebrows. 'Have you and Danny ever...' He trailed off, but the question didnít need to be finished.

She shook her head, but she didn't tell him that they came close, one drunken night. She didn't tell him that she was glad of the interruption that stopped it.

'What about you,' she hesitated, looking down at the bed, anywhere but at Tom. 'What about you and Helen?'

'She wanted to,' said Tom. 'I was with Ellie then. I'm no playboy - one woman in my life is enough at a time.'

She didnít say so, but she admired him for that. For his honesty, and for his ability to go so far and no further. She had learnt that monogamy didn't give her what she wanted, that life was too short for such exclusivity. And she had learnt that, if she ever did venture into monogamy, it wouldn't be with someone sporting XY chromosomes. It would be with someone like Mariella. She didn't say this to Tom. She never would. There was a lot she wouldn't tell the one person she could talk to about anything.

Later, when Tom had gone to his own room and Zoe had gone to bed, she lay awake, her warning to Tom swirling through her head. Remember who she is - you cannot get involved.

Zoe had been attracted to Mariella from the moment she saw the Columbian woman on the surveillance tapes. Dark, lithe, and with a disarming and deceptive air of innocence, she haunted Zoe. Mariella was beautiful and vulnerable. For the sake of the assignment - for the sake of breaking the Chala Cartel - Zoe was willing to exploit that vulnerability. But Zoe knew she was vulnerable herself: vulnerable to Mariella, and the way she would drink in the sight of her whenever she was in her presence. She wanted to protect Mariella, and such an attachment to a target was dangerous enough in this job. But the wish to protect Mariella went beyond duty to admiration and beyond admiration to desire.

Remember who she is - you cannot get involved.

Zoe repeated the phrase as a mantra until she finally fell asleep. But her dreams were filled with a seductive, dark-haired beauty, and Zoe awoke ashamed of herself and conscious of the fact that both she and Tom would be fighting against temptation, as well as against the security threat of the Chala Cartel.

 

The note from "Durbyfield" and the meeting with Tessa on Oxford Circus unsettled Zoe even further. Zoe was caught up in her violent attraction to Mariella, and in the intricacies of pursuing the cartel. The sudden re-appearance of her sometime mentor and occasional bed-partner was entirely unexpected. Since the day Tessa had left Thames House in disgrace, Zoe hadn't seen her. Since the moment a text message containing new contact details had arrived on Zoe's phone, there had been no contact between them. Tess had been contacted once by Zoeís section, but Harry - who had his own history with Tessa Philips, a fact that was an open secret on the grid - had coordinated that meeting himself.

Now, having seen Tessa once again, Zoe found herself staring at Tessa's phone number, debating whether or not to call. She discussed with Tom and Harry whether they should break cover with Mariella. She gossiped with Sam and Ruth over how good Tom and Danny looked in Army uniform. She and Danny agonised over whether Sam was betraying them, and why she was, and how. And the image of Tessa standing in Oxford Circus stuck in her mind as her phone number blinked on the screen of Zoe's phone.

She made the call. She went to a secluded, private hotel theyíd used before. The desk clerk said that "Ms Durbyfield" was already there, and when Zoe opened the door to their room, Tess had no chance to speak. Zoe crossed the floor, placed her hands on Tessís shoulders, and kissed her, hard. Never before had Zoe been the instigator - it was always Tessa who took the lead in their encounters. This time it was Zoe who pushed Tess back against the bed, who teased Tessa's lips with her tongue until Tessa opened her mouth, who was the first to reach around and unclip the other woman's bra. The body that Zoe devoured - the body she kissed and caressed and nuzzled and licked, the breasts that she palmed and stroked, the lips that she covered with her own - the body was Tessa's. But the woman to whom Zoe's passion was directed was Mariella. It was Mariella's black curls Zoe wanted to smooth, but Tessa's straight, slightly greying red hair that was under her hands. It was Mariella's slim hips, her skin the colour of milky coffee that Zoe wanted hold to herself, but Tessa's paler form that felt Zoe's lips and tongue. And when Zoe had worshipped the body, replacement though it was, and brought it to peaks of sensation, and Tessa turned to reciprocate, Zoe closed her eyes and put her head back, and imagined that the hands and mouth that were now caressing her were those of a young samba dancer, rather than those of an ageing and corrupt security officer.

In the strained silence as both women pulled on their clothes and tidied themselves, Tessa regarded Zoe curiously. 'You were using me,' she said. Before Zoe could reply, Tessa smiled proudly. 'I taught you well.'

 

Zoe and Mariella grew closer in the next few days, and Zoe became more comfortable and less distracted in her presence. Mariella smiled and laughed, and reached out to touch Zoe's arm or shoulder often. Zoe was almost able to believe that Mariella might be flirting with her, and she began to imagine the possibilities of life after the operation was over. So did Tom, only he imagined them out aloud.

'It wouldn't be the way it was with Ellie,' he said one evening, this time while they were cleaning the kitchen after a late meal of take-out. 'We're breaking cover tomorrow. No more deception.'

'TomÖ' Zoe said, trying to caution him.

'It's Jack, remember.' He put an arm around her shoulder. 'And I'm allowed to talk about girls with you - you're my little sister.' He grinned.

After a moment, Zoe shrugged his arm away. 'I won't say anything more,' she promised, and she wished that Tom would say nothing either. But he continued to speak about Mariella - sometimes about the operation, and sometimes about Mariella and himself. He was almost puppy-like on these occasions: exuberant and hard to tame. And he worried away at his current bone, mentioning Mariella again and again until finally Zoe's patience ended.

'If you like her so much, how can you be planning to send her into the arms of Ross Vaughn? If you're so sure she's innocent and naive, why are you doing this to her?'

Tom stared at Zoe blankly. 'Because it's my job.'

Zoe flung the tea towel on the counter and left the room. 'Good night, Jack,' she snapped over her shoulder as she shut her bedroom door behind her. Zoe's instinctive desire to protect Mariella was as strong as ever, proving to herself the dangers of becoming emotionally involved with a target. She spent another night reminding herself not to get involved; and another night dreaming vividly of Mariella.

 

She had tried to save Mariella.

She had called while Mariella was with Vaughn, but there was no answer. She had called the next day, checked the gym and their regular coffee shop. Mariella never appeared.

Tom had gone to Mariella's apartment, and Zoe let him go alone. She didn't dare look at Mariella's tortured body. She wanted her memories to be of Mariella full of life, of salsa dancing and a beautiful face lit up with laughter. Of afternoons of almost flirting. Of light touches and significant looks.

Of what might have been.

She went home early to raid Danny's liquor cabinet and have a good cry, the way she always did when life kicked her in the guts. In the late post was a note from Tessa. Zoe was grateful that it wasn't a video: the one that had arrived at the grid had been painful enough.

The note was terse, and had been written quickly.

She was beautiful.

Zoe crumpled the note in one hand.

 

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