Reset to Zero
Arden Powell © 2017
All Rights Reserved
New Year’s Eve, 2017
Agent Azzerare could see the doors from his seat, though it didn’t look like he was watching them. He scanned the crowd with careless ease, his drink held aloft in one hand, elbow resting solidly on the bar counter. He had a strong jaw and olive skin, with a pair of thick-framed black glasses on his face, and he looked perfectly at home amidst the city’s rich and beautiful who swam through the penthouse party like ornamental fish, their suits and gowns shimmering like scales.
Azzerare’s appointment was late.
It was cutting close to midnight. The clock tower in City Square was visible through the floor-to-ceiling windows that ran the length of the suite, its great hands nudging ever closer to the hour. The buzz of conversation grew louder as anticipation mounted, though it wasn’t so near that the countdown had begun. The heavyset watch on Azzerare’s wrist marked the time with perfect accuracy while monitoring his vital signs, sending the readings in live time back to Control. Az kept his breathing slow and steady; there was no need to indicate to her that anything was amiss.
Vulpe would be here, even if Azzerare wished he might break tradition just this once and make himself scarce, for both their sakes.
His hindbrain prickled in recognition at the footsteps and the subtle wash of cologne, and he smiled ruefully into his drink; his body recognized them before his conscious mind did.
“You’re late,” he observed.
“I’m not,” Vulpe said, sliding into the space at Azzerare’s side as if he’d never left. “As if I’d miss our tenth anniversary.”
“Sentimentalist,” Azzerare said.
Vulpe didn’t look changed. Seeing him here in the flesh, Azzerare could pretend it hadn’t been a year since he’d last laid eyes on him. He was still slight, still lean, with cheekbones high and sharp like razorblades, and long nimble fingers made for picking pockets and playing the piano.
Vulpe smiled and ordered a drink with a single gesture.
“You look well,” Azzerare said.
“As do you,” Vulpe agreed, running his eyes over the smart lines of Azzerare’s suit. Bespoke; Italian. He had moved up in the world since his promotion. “The lifestyle looks like it’s still agreeing with you.”
“As much as it agrees with anyone. I think I’m starting to get too old for it.”
Vulpe raised his eyebrows and sipped delicately at his drink. Azzerare didn’t try to hide his interest as he watched Vulpe’s throat bob as he swallowed.
“Old,” Vulpe said. “If you’re old, your Management must be absolutely prehistoric.”
“You’re not wrong,” Azzerare said.
Vulpe leaned in closer, though not close enough to touch. It was always like this, at first; they flirted with the idea of personal space until they were accustomed to the company again. “Is it the gray?” he asked, scrutinizing the streaks of silver near Azzerare’s temples. “That’s new, I suppose. I like it though. It becomes you, darling. You look very distinguished.”
“Thank you,” Azzerare said drily. “I’ll keep that in mind when I next see my reflection.”
Vulpe leaned back and waved him off. “I think you’re imagining things. Why? Are you considering retiring?”
“You know people like us don’t get to retire.”
“Your company is terrible,” Vulpe said, “And you’re still terrible at recruitment.”
“I haven’t tried to recruit you in years.”
“I’ve never been so glad as when you gave me up as a lost cause,” Vulpe admitted. “It’s so much more romantic only seeing each other once a year, don’t you think? I can’t imagine us getting along if we had to see each other day after day, let alone actually work together on a regular basis.” He shuddered dramatically, one hand pressed over his heart.
“I think we would have worked well together,” Azzerare said. “I just dread your attitude toward paperwork.”
“You’ll never have to know!” Vulpe said cheerfully and raised his drink in a careless toast. “To not knowing.”
Azzerare clinked it dutifully. “To not knowing.” The liquid swirled amber and they tipped their tumblers in unison.
Vulpe knocked his back and hissed at the burn, setting the empty glass with a satisfying thunk on the countertop. “God, they do have the best stuff at these things,” he said. “That’s the real reason I keep coming back,” he added, looking sideways at Azzerare, a smile playing around the corners of his mouth. “Never mind anniversaries and all that—it’s the booze I’m after.”
“Of course it is.”
Vulpe laughed, and Azzerare’s heart lodged in his throat.
“Ten years, though,” Vulpe said, turning to look at him properly. His eyes were bright and fond and colored with something like awe; Azzerare was sure his looked the same underneath the nerves. “Ten years feels like something special, doesn’t it?”
Azzerare reached out and grasped his hand. Vulpe’s fingers unfurled and wrapped around Az’s wrist, brushing up against the heavy face of his watch. “Vulpe, listen. What we talked about—”
Vulpe stilled. Under his skin, Azzerare could feel Vulpe’s pulse skip a beat before resettling.
Vulpe extricated himself delicately and adjusted his cuffs without meeting Azzerare’s eye. “I remember,” he said. “Is it relevant?”
“I’m afraid so.”
Vulpe laughed. It sounded forced this time, like it might shatter as soon as it escaped his lungs. “Right,” he said. “Well, I guess we had that talk just in time.” He leaned against the bar top, all tense lines, a coiled threat of fight or flight, but when he looked at Azzerare, his eyes were clear. “So? Are we going to do it?”
“Well, I don’t really care for the alternative,” Azzerare admitted. Just the thought of it made him sick, and he had done…so much. He had done everything Management had ever asked of him and more, toppling governments and putting bodies in the ground. None of that had ever made him flinch before.
“All right,” Vulpe said. He took a deep breath and plastered on a grin. When he took Azzerare’s hand, he clenched it tight like he didn’t trust Az if left by himself. For his part, Az had no intention of letting go. “All right. So let’s do it then.”