The Other Kind of Roommate

Present Day

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a part of The Other Kind of Roommate, by Tartra.

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Present Day is a part of The Other Kind of Roommate.

20 Characters Here

Alexander Stall [105] The Host of this mental fun-fest.
Xander [103] The other roommate.
Gwendolyn Stewart [95] A romance novelist with empathic abilities.
Stephanie March [58] The cold-hearted Agent on Gwen's case.
Osono "Ozzie" Wallace [25] Loner on the run with a hot attitude.
Rudy Quin [15] Probably shouldn't be an A-3. In fact, why is he in the Agency at all?
Salvatore Robinson [5] Taxi driver.
Brie [3] A loser with a suit.
Tommy McConaugh [3] A paranoid taxi driver.
Noel [1] The Lead Agent on Osono's case.(Deceased)

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#, as written by Tartra
... He was going to take this time to double-check Quin's status as an A-3 – simply for curiosity's sake. As he said, Eric had yet to lock in any consistency for how those changes were processed, and if Benoit was set to put a polished foot into the air formerly containing one chipmunk's head, he wanted to know how hard he had to kick to make the paperwork worth it. He wouldn't have this problem were the A-2s showing discretion. Stewart or no Stewart, Quin didn't fit his employment, let alone whatever rank Eric had reduced him to. He lacked the aptitude for playing nice. It made him dangerous to his work and everyone else's. They gave that a team? Benoit's incredulousness was the same as when it had circled Elias' promotion. Selfishness was not a trait to reward with greater authority, not even if it already seemed to be the basis of every Agency staffing decision since its inception. Honestly, it was as though their management had taken to sneezing while filling in the Case Lead documents, and whoever's name best matched the resulting scribble got the job. Perhaps it was why Eric was so cavalier in stripping ranks: there was a constant 40% they'd been issued via allergies anyway.
 
His head hurt. That couldn’t be a good sign. Never mind – status, now. Benoit blinked and scanned his eyes across the internal display, grateful for the artificial distance of it hovering several inches away instead of crushed against his pupils as it actually was. He –
 
<<Don’t do it,>> the lenses roared. Then they cut off the request.
 
Obviously he hadn’t installed that. And by the way, what the hell? During the silence following Quin’s inane blather, he took more time to be absolutely sure his lenses had chosen to deny his query in a stern panic minus any other further explanation. He blinked again, thrilled to be hiding it under tinted shades, and asked for the profile with seething restraint. There came the same reply. Experimenting, he drew March’s records. It displayed. He stole up a random employee’s data. It also displayed, albeit noting, <<You punched him twice and that is enough.>> Had he? The text shone readily, regardless. Quin’s had not. Benoit wanted to frown, but he liked the idea of making the boy wait for no apparent reason. He remained composed, allowing the quiet to build before deigned to end the goblin’s misery.
 
“Alright,” he finally began. “This is how this will work.” He put a hand to his chest deliberately, gesturing to himself slow enough for Quin to follow along. “My name is Benoit. I am the lead on the Alexander case. You are Agent Quin, in charge of the…” What was the name? “… the fire-girl case.” He would have liked to have looked it up, but it was blocked. Another urge to frown swept in. “As you are aware, your target has gone. Mine as well. They are both with a classified, external group.” He chose not to define the fire-girl’s – or Alexander’s – willingness in that. “They are together. It should mean they’re safe.” Safe among Anti-Agents. He had said more ridiculous things.
 
Hold on. Why had his lenses implied the sole reason he would have for researching a name was to find out whether he could punch it? … How were they capable of implying anything?
 
He thought about it.
 
... Really, Jean. A nanny-cam. That was supposed to have been a joke. God forbid the man ‘retired’ without a sense of humour – or a withered grasp of sarcasm – but it looked as if that was what had happened exactly. His fingers felt suddenly empty without the cigarette he’d inexplicably lost between moving from the curtain to the central monitor. As he busied himself with re-lighting his way to an early grave – unless Jean had done it on purpose and whatever was cutting access to Quin information was the result of a painfully annoying misassumption that he knew how to be funny morphing into legitimate inspiration and, because he utterly refused to do something half-assed, left Benoit with a brand new puzzle to solve while he was on the cusp of hangover. That man had the worst sense of timing, too. He wanted to sleep, not decode inconsistencies, but years of Jean and his thing about whatever was in writing – it needed to be enshrouded, it had to be complex, because even though he had left the rebels, the Agency knew no mercy – meant Benoit could only see clues and would for as long as it took to scratch this paranoid itch.
 
It was hard to miss a friend when there was no sign he had gone. Except for Eric, Jean might have been in another room. Being annoying. That, or hilarious to tease. Benoit admitted if the power was on his side, he likely would’ve tossed Jean in with Bergmann. He faulted Eric immensely for it, but Jean would have survived. He would also sulk for a week and a half, which was entertainment in its own right.
 
“Normally, my target runs independently. As of late, however, he has twice involved himself in something he abandoned five years ago,” Benoit went on. “A partnership. He partnered with the Stewart girl and she served as a weight around his neck. Pulled properly, as she seemingly was, she could throw him off-balance.” Stewart forced Alexander to share her concerns, ignoring that he had his own to fumble with. What should have been an exhaustive sprint towards a different coast ended at a city less than a gas tank away. They remained there for the night. Whose decision had it been to find a hotel? The guest would never have accepted it, and the host held no sway in that respect. March, he remembered, did something to the girl, and while he recognized such a turn of events may have trapped them where they were, the distance between the old apartment and Vestal betook a stop well in advance of the norm – and natural survival. He couldn’t ask for a better weapon against their thief. Peter came damn close, but thanks to Stewart, Elias was in a stasis cell. “I should think whatever connection they had was palpable. You caught her at La Madeleine, did you not?” He shook his head. “I don’t know how you stomached a dinner with them. But at least I don’t have to explain their effect on each other.”
 
Alexander avoided attachments; he did not avoid people. Through his small doses of tolerance, he gave Benoit an understanding of how involved a woman had to be before she was invited anywhere. The guest grasped ‘subtle’ about as well as Jean did ‘risk’: awfully, terribly, and when it counted, apocalyptically lethal. Granted, Benoit couldn’t say how deep any of it was because he wasn’t, but for Stewart to go with Alexander, even Alexander-the-host, a desperate level of trust needed to be in place. For a Pain Eater, trust came in two varieties, and since the guest wasn’t branded with cursive G.S. initials, it had to be assumed they were screwing.
 
<<Don’t do it.>> It was the tone, not the message, that called him. It was worded in the same, familiar cadence as the second alert, but with twice the panic. The second was more a polite reminder.
 
 “Now your target is with him. Alone, I might add,” he indeed added, “in a sea of hostile strangers. I wasn’t entirely able to keep up with what you... explained…” He believed he put in an admirable effort towards making that word sound sincere. “You briefly mentioned your target. I am confident you have a complete prediction of how she might respond to Alexander in this context, but he poses a certain unpredictability for those not aware of how he responds likewise. Therefore, in the interest of preventing our cases from tangling –” Or in untangling them, as that case may be. “– I propose a trade.” Benoit blew a cloud of smoke at the monitors. “What was on that tape after it ended? What did Alexander do? In return, I can give you the course of actions he takes regarding those of your target’s ‘attributes’.” And those of Stewart’s. “I imagine it will fine-tune your expectations for later. It may also be the difference in taking her back versus dragging her by the hair.”

It was him being nice.

Madeline Bergmann had, in her office, a closet filled with fun trinkets. It stood in the farthest corner of her room and proudly swelled with its assorted contents. Those contents had been organized in the rough shape of a human being – by limb. While this meant the shackles and gags were easy to find, it equally meant glancing at any item lined along waist-height brought on potentially irreparable emotional trauma. He had every intention of using them in lieu of a blade. Without confirmation on Quin’s rank, harming him would be a terrible gamble. Humiliation? The Agency didn’t care as much. So that would work.

* * *


This was gold. All of it. Weist hadn't stopped talking since they'd come in and he wasn't showing signs of slowing down. Agent Donovan had given them permission to stock up on supplies for potential attacks – and they were, sort of. Higeuros and Gordon were on the other side of the massive room, looking for guns. He and Weist volunteered for the crap job of gathering ammo for them, since every gun in the world was useless without bullets and battery packs, leaving them plenty of time to talk about what the hell was going on around here. The Agency was fucked, and it was glorious.

'Spy' was the wrong word for Franklin's assignment. He was part of an outreach program, like an ambassador from the R ranks to the A's. He was here to learn. He was also here to blow the heads off asshole intruders, but first and foremost, he represented Security in closing the gap. There swam a big divide between what these guys called 'public' and 'private' Salcon. Comms was particularly pissed by it. They hated waiting on intel for more than two minutes, so decades of restricted access really rubbed salt on their wound, and then the lockout of any group not exclusively dealing in Targets of Interest sent them spiralling into... hate orgies. They'd been taking it out on everybody, so now as a step towards better internal relations, each A base had a 'public' person making rounds. 'Pubbys', they were 'affectionately' called. The goal was to hit a compromise on what could be intersectorally shared, then use that to rejig clearances and let more circles into the loop. Salcon wanted all its forces back under the same fold. It was supposed to happen diplomatically and there was huge support for it from other groups – not from Comms, but if C ranks had their way, the Agency would go back to being a specialized mop-up crew – but... the point of the Split – capital 'S' – six years ago was shooting for the opposite. The Agency wanted to get the hell away to stop outsiders from sticking their fingers in people who exploded buildings by blinking. They dragged their heels on every agreement, and even this'd been soaring to limbo. Eric Patten got the ball rolling. R's were invited to suss out danger to public personnel. T's were here to study overlap and decide how their experiments could be mutually helpful. Agent Patten had a love affair with S's already. Comms was not allowed in. The Agency hated them, and it was just Comms who was shocked that that would matter. Half the friggin' reason this place was so damn secret was because C ranks weren't riffling through it. And Franklin had to hand it to the A's for planning that: he'd never, ever thought they spent their days catching superhumans – and that he'd be a part of it! As an observer, but he couldn't get much more. Practically the only ways to be hired was to get born into it or accidentally find a target and drag that poor sap in, demanding work and saying that was their cover letter. He'd flipped when his R-5 offered this. He was shaking on his first day and didn't have anything to report for a week because his mind was reeling over these walls. Elmira was serious shit.

“They're allowed to kill each other?”

This was a massive room. Elmira loved shoving their shit in one place. Those archives? Those fucking archives – he meant 'Archives' with a capital 'A' – his head nearly popped off and rolled around in them from it. That was a massive fucking room. Rooms! Apparently the Archives were layered, and rows of what was on the floor could be lowered or lifted to bring a new set of quasi-corpses. They'd fiddled with it to grab that Nathan kid. This room, the Weapons Cache, was just filled with... damn – he didn't know the names for some of it. And he was R! R was Security – R had open access to whatever T cooked up! He didn't think the Agency could top that, but looking at the metal walls and metal ceiling and metal floor, seeing baskets sat in clusters and filled with grenades he thought were high-tech but were thrown in like apples on display at a store, then the overhead baskets hanging down overflowing with more, got him to change his mind. The Agents didn't let those quasi-corpses go to waste. They worked the magic out of each of them and spent years turning it into something they could duplicate. That stuff, the powered tech, got the actual shelf space. They were lined like books in a library, with tiny blue barcodes underneath for easy requisition. There were scanners at the door that lit their display with full weapons specs. They gave vague references to what abilities were incorporated – mostly what abilities they countered, like piercing psychic ice-blocks or clearing illusions – but what he liked was minimum rank required. When Higeuros radioed in what ammo to get next, Franklin scanned it. Those two hadn't picked a thing lower than A-5. They were allowed to handle these? Agent Donovan had said... but there was gonna be a boot up their ass like no other if any of this was damaged.

“'Course not,” Weist replied. He was the one member of Team F who didn't mind talking to him. “No one's allowed to do half the shit they do, but what they're excused for depends on who they are. Pain Eaters get a fuckin' pass – can't blame 'em 'cause they're crazy, can't charge someone for killing one 'cause they're dangerous and self-defence is assumed. It's like having a stick where both ends are short. Higeuros!” To the radio. “Pack Type 44108 or 44118?”

108, dumbass.

“Plasma RPG. Hand-held,” Weist noted. “Very fuckin' nice.” He cleared a whole cubby into his bag.

“Dylan's mom was a civilian. Why did Lawrence's get away with...” Franklin didn't say it exactly. “You know...” He'd been warned about accusing someone, even if they weren't here. “She got away with it.”

“She got the punishment she wanted,” Weist corrected. “She got Dylan, and then she went to the other two who were suddenly a lot more cool about givin' their kids to this psycho that may or may not've murdered the fuck out'f the last mom that said no. That's how she got Trevor and Marshall, remember?' No. Because they'd done a hundred awful things and taking kids was on the bottom of the fucked up scale. The Eliases made sure. “She would've taken Roland too if his mom wasn't a little bitch. She straight says, 'Lawrence's mom, of course I'm on your side, I'll do everything you tell me, I'm a good girl!' One less mouth to feed but one more soldier in the trench. Can't turn that down.”

Franklin had asked what the deal with them was. The Eliases, he meant. Two hours later, his ears were screaming from the fun ways the brothers got along. He knew A gave its folks extra lines of slack in trade of the stress they went through, and Weist was forever explaining to Weathers that PEs had more for being Agent-raised since they were twelve. The Agency assumed accountability like parents did for their... well, twelve-year-olds. But this redefined 'job security'. It pretty much renamed 'hostile environment', too.

“So she murdered her to get the kids and waved death threats in the air – to... what – like raise a personal army?”

“The story goes she didn't want two she-devils raising the kids of her husband.”

“Lawrence's mom and him got married?”

“In her head, they did.” Weist was picking through shock cells. “In her head, her husband was a saint. Those bitches got their harpy claws in his brain to seduce him, so they had to die or she at least had to take the kids away and preserve their father's honour. Truth is?” He empty another cubicle. “Their father was a slut.” Shrug. “It's kind'f a running joke. When Marshall worked here, every time someone asked about his family, he'd sum it up as, 'Dad was a whore', and when someone challenged it, he'd actually trace back to prove that yes, this started 'cause pappy couldn't leave his dick in his pants.”

The guy liked to talk like he'd worked here for years. It was months. Franklin had joined four weeks after him. Still – it made a damn difference. The Puerto Rican used to be in the military's Special Ops. as a jack-of-all-trades for infiltration. He was an information dealer and Agent Donovan didn't actively hate him, which were the two reasons Franklin had for getting as far as he was. Eric Patten might have approved the public rounds, but although they loved their leader, Agents were cripplingly wary of strangers. They were slow to trust. They were also cliquey as hell – no team mixed with any other. Suits stayed especially segregated. They were to the A's what Comms was to the parent corp., and since PEs were to the Agency what the Agency was to Salcon – elaborate badasses designed and bred to complete missions – that explained that rivalry.

Pack Type 27889.

Weist rolled his eyes and looked at the aisle he was in, then snapped back at Higeuros, “I'm in the 40k's, dick.”

So walk your ass to the 20k's, princess. Fuckin' wire guns are at stake here! They shoot bolts of razor wire!

“Someone's losin' a head.” That didn't sound like it bothered anyone. “So none of this rings a fuckin' bell?”

“Comms,” Franklin flatly justified while Weist led him through the endless rows. “They don't talk with us. At us, but not with.” There was 'segregated' for you. “They think we're cavemen.” And while he did feel like an idiot for not knowing about the family, the Agency was free about its gossip whereas 'public' Salcon's had to go through them. Lawrence Elias worked in C. No wonder it never hit headlines. “They'll probably tear this out if I add it to the updates.”

“This shit's important,” Weist said. “You can't move ahead without knowing where you've been. That's double when the past's not dead.” He turned a little grim. “Marshall's out there. The feud's still on.”

“You think it's a problem?”

Weist did, but this went above their ranks. They had another order from Higeuros for a pack in the 60k's. Franklin moved, following closely, interestedly watching the wall as they passed a board of 'spike-things'. The weapons were PE exclusive. They looked about as feral, too. There were hundreds lined as high as the ceiling, each a golden colour and forged from an alloy the Agency wouldn't name. They came in pairs beside their twins, and they'd been organized by a vague, blade to curved scheme. He didn't understand. Those on the left were useful; they were knives welded to knuckles fashioned out of the handles. Those in the middle were thick railroad spikes, ending either in points or flat edges sharpened by rage. They were the transition between straight implements and deepening curves to the rounded spines. The right was where he stopped recognizing advantages. It was flooded by the same concepts, but the metal bent so exaggeratedly that they became brass-knuckled fishhooks. The knuckles themselves didn't help with where they were placed: on the back of the hook, pushing the point to carve his forearm if he walked with one in hand. The angle he'd have to hold his wrist locked the damn joint up. Fighting with it...

He'd stick to guns.

“... I've got a theory, Pubby.” Theories were dangerous. A rumour was shared like currency, but stitching several into speculation was crossing a reddened line. “You hear people saying –” Franklin'd heard Weist saying... “– that Eliases are PSAs on what you shouldn't do.” Yes. Again, he'd heard that from Weist. “What I think is they're more than a cautionary tale. I think they're a history lesson.” Did he now. “Draw a map with the milestones Salcon hit getting where they are tonight, and besides it stretching decades longer, you won't find a spot out'f place with the family. Their dad in Siberia, meeting Trevor's mom, is like Salcon experimenting with pills and winding up with a zillion mutated genes and then all those people had babies and now we have a fuckin' mutant crisis on our hands.”

“Their father's dick made mutants?”

No!” Weist scowled. “Their dad went to Siberia and fucked the first woman he met. That's Salcon – it's like Salcon – going into half their bread and butter: genetic alterations, what they call 'medicine' from way, way, way back in the day. Then their dad goes home to the States. He finds a new chick, knocks her up and: Lawrence. That's like Salcon getting serious and building oversight for its medical patents. It was arm's length, advisory management, mostly 'bout hovering over geneticists' shoulders but not touching shit, just running it. Early Communications, before they put that science under S.” S was Stratified Research and Development. They ruled the organic projects. T, the Technology and Counterintelligence sector, did the inorganic crap. T made things that went boom. “Lawrence's mom gets crazy and starts spoutin' shit about being in love. That's early C screaming at Salcon, saying they need more policies in place, more contingencies, 'cause it's looking like most of the drugs Salcon wants commercialized, not just military, are gonna fuck people right the fuck up. Salcon thinks it's for the better though, and early C is like, 'No, no, no', but Salcon's like, 'Whatever, don't tell me what to do'. And then their dad goes back to Europe – Britain now – the same way Salcon goes back to bigger experiments.”

“Why did they think screwing with people was for the better?”

“They were got good results,” Weist said. “The labs were showing trials with subjects stronger, faster, harder –” He hummed for a sec. “They thought they were improving humanity so much that they could make a perfect human being. Salcon starts by looking into perfect soldiers. This would be when their dad is announcing he's gonna have a kid in every country he's in 'cause he's a whore but he's gonna be an infamous whore. They got ambitious, you see, and they made progress. Salcon's labs started showing crazy shit, and their dad fathered Dylan.”

“You told me Lawrence's mom found out,” he reminded.

Fuck yes she did.” Weren't they getting ammo? “When their dad leaves, she flips out, finds out what he's been up to, sees he fucked some other woman, sees that woman's pregnant, goes hysterical.” Weist chuckled. “Early C saw Salcon's trials and almost shit itself. It demanded that the company take action because some subjects were getting out and some were passing on effects like STDs. There's also this rush of leaked secrets – like, y'know, how Lawrence's mom found out – and other companies independently reproduce Salcon's pills, their crap rubs against Salcon's, Salcon's dominants but changes, and next it's not just superstrength or superspeed but superhero pop-ups happening.”

“But none of this made it to the news.”

“That's what K's for, Pubby,” Weist replied. “They public-relationed that shit to the ground. So Salcon freaks and realizes, 'holy shit, I have a problem'. Their dad jumps back to America, Lawrence's mom is happy, but right when you think he's going to her again, he veers off and stops at Vegas. Knocks another broad up, there's Marshall, and there's Salcon deciding the best action is to set up a focused team within the R's to do intense, motherfucking damage control. They make...” Weist paused for effect. “... the A ranks. Salcon's happy 'cause it thinks the problem's solved, so it goes back to its experiments, except now they're fully geared to get that perfect solider dream right.”

Sure, why not?

“You think hindsight hurts?”

Pretending to be productive, Franklin grabbed something off the shelves. He didn't know what it was, but chances were that if they said they'd fired them, he could keep a pack as a souvenir.

“It did eventually. Their dad goes to Europe one last time, now to Italy, and he makes a certain female friend. He introduces her to Lawrence's mom and they become decent besties. Then he fucks the Italian chick and flies off – hence, Roland.” They were in the right place for more of Higeuros' orders. Their bags were heavy. They'd filled three each already. “Early C was thinking Salcon turned to safe experiments, only to get sideswiped by 'ha, ha - sweet, we can makes our dudes into gods'. Salcon is then like, 'Wow, I made this much worse' because more secrets get out and it does what it thinks is the only thing it can given the fact that there are now folks with lasers in their eyes being born: it forms a task group. It's never done that before – their dad has never been to South America before – but it knows it needs to get out of regular recalls, containment of escaped trial patients and recovery of its corporate secrets, because since it's gone to the masses, it has to be stopped-stopped.” Franklin didn't have the chance to ask how that turned out before Weist flashed a tanned-face grin. It was too excited. It made him uncomfortable, but didn't stop him from paying attention to, “Do you know about the rebels?”

“No?”

“The rebels,” Weist repeated. “They were the trial patients who didn't like how they were being stopped. The first generation of superhumans depended on pills Salcon gave to sustain their abilities. Their children didn't need it. They were sustained by regular food – fruit, meat, vitamins, the normal things rather than concentrated chemicals. They were more than dangerous to Salcon's containment efforts. The rebels were slow growing 'til Salcon brought out the X sector. I can't even tell you what the X stands for because they were shit-canned in the next five minutes. X killed and forcibly terminated second generation mutants, kicking that hornet's nest into a pile of more fucking hornet nests. The rebels rallied, got organized by one of our own, and an all-out war breaks loose.”

“I never heard of it,” Franklin said.

“K,” Weist told him again. “You wouldn't've. No one heard. It still happened – and their dad got himself killed fighting it. Salcon's experiments also stopped – it woke up to what it was doing. But now it had to handle the aftermath, and early C was right at the front of it, exactly how Lawrence's mom starts seeing these kids and making up her mind. Medicine development, its weaponized versions, and its effective damage control – Trevor, Dylan, Marshall – get swept into the A's mission of using its technological experiments on its people to buff 'em up and deal with the situation quietly. C's guiding them through all of it, making sure it's in line with corporate policy and choking them on their leash. Same as Lawrence's mom: she's getting all three of them into Salcon, signing off on training, until it comes to a head and Dylan learns what she did to his mother. He's not happy. That's the start of the divide, but it starts slow.” Weist had all but abandoned getting ammo packs. He was invested in describing this. “Trevor and Dylan're already in the PE program, Lawrence's being groomed to take over his mom's throne, Roland's set too, who cares about the sixth, but Marshall's on the fence 'cause he's fucking ten and ten-year-olds can't decide on candy. He's supposed to be going into Comms like Lawrence, but screw that noise, Dylan puts him on the PE path, forges Lawrence's mom's signature, gets them into PE residence – and, one more time, Marshall's fucking ten, Dylan was fourteen, Trevor was sixteen, and they got permission to live in the same complexes as full-fledged fucking Pain Eaters. Lawrence's mom was pissed!”

“And Comms would've been...?”

Weist didn't believe it wasn't obvious.

“The A ranks told Comms they couldn't work under micromanagement, so they applied to get top secret status and Salcon gave it to them. How do you think Comms was?”

Weist, holy fuck,” the radio burst. Franklin jumped, “Jesus Murphy and Christ – you have to see this!

There was no hesitation. Weist and Franklin dropped their bags and trekked to the farthest corner of the Weapons' Cache. It was where they'd left other two to giggle at the toys like children, and they weren't far from it now. What the hell had they been doing? They'd barely moved, except for reaching the garages. The farthest wall wasn't a smooth end. Nine dividers had been evenly installed to create ten deliberate dead-ends for assigned storage. This corner slot was gingerly ransacked. There were two things in it and both torn open: a stubby stand that was oh-so-plainly locked a few hours earlier, and a crate.

Weist, for his part, got to the point. He nodded astutely and declared, “Yeah, your mom could fit it in.”

'It' was the size of a stasis cell.

“Fuck off.” Team F's version of 'hello, friend!' “Guess whose it is.”

“No one good's.”

Gordon was squatted on the ground beside the pried off wood. Franklin didn't like Gordon. He was too quiet and his blue-rimmed glasses made his eyes too big. He was an IT Tech from the lower A ranks, but because he was Agent, he got his 'accepted by the Team' status automatically. In a side-by-side comparison, Franklin's rep was better in every way, but he'd made the mistake of not having parents who already hunted superhumans, or at least ones that debugged the systems the real ranks used.

Patten's.”

“That sounds about right.” Weist stepped forward, walking not to the crate but the sleek, polished, black casing inside it. He put his fingers on its gleaming surface. When he removed them, the traces of his prints winked before serenely drifting drifting away like snowflakes. Something was in there. “Open it.”

WHOA, WHOA, NO.

“We can't –”

“Fuck off, Pubby,” Higeuros snapped. That was Team F's version of 'fuck off, Pubby'. “It's got a visitor's button. We're visitors.”

Franklin could have snapped back if he wanted. The good part of being on the outside was there wasn't any farther he'd be kicked, but Higeuros and Weist were friends or something. As absorbed in the casing as Weist was, his reports couldn't afford losing his exposition machine. Franklin reined himself in and neutrally asked, “What's the button do?”

“Jesus – I don't know,” Higeuros said. “I didn't press it yet.”

Actually, maybe he said 'genius'. Higeuros was a rough-shaven, Mexican A-10. He spoke clearly, but sometimes his accent ran in and messed with his pronunciations. Either way, fuck you, too.

“You can't press it,” Franklin ordered. “It's not ours, it's Patten's, and you don't – Weist!

“We're visitors.” Fucking hell, these people! “Calm your tits, Pubby. Donovan cleared us. If something goes wrong, he's the one who gets the blame. Remember what I said about blaming Pain Eaters?”

“Was that the part before or after you said they can't get blamed, either?” Like for killing a rookie team over dissecting A-1 property, but Clemens might murder them first! “Why the hell didn't you take it out of the crate at least?”

The black casing was growing.

It pulsed with promise. A fine line down its centre mirrored a French door design, the kind that flowed open like a present. From its sides spiralled a thin breeze, and it whirred with charming delight. In a delicate air, it let its doors brush outward, laying its skin upon the pine wood surrounding it. The crate wheezed at the movement, hoarsely coughing as the black casing danced on without a pause. Its desire was to stretch its wings, and following a shattered series of pops as the nails ripped from their joints, the divider beside them buckled in agony and cleaved away at the casing's insistence. Whirring, singing, the casing dragged the crate to its death, and it cheerfully sighed while it ignored the ruin at its feet. It had won.  It was pleased. An elegant puff swept the hapless fibres off its surface. Now it waited for their words, fluttering from the thought of a loving audience.

... Patten's, huh?

“Fuuuuuuuuuck...” Higeuros whistled low. Team F's version of being impressed. “Fuck – that's a suit...” Not one Franklin had seen them wear. “Gordon, scan it. Find out what it is. Fuck, this thing wants to kill.”

Talking about super soldiers...

Gordon went to the barcode resting on the inside of left door, but they didn't need to read the specs to agree with Higeuros' statement. This suit was mean. On a wall, close to the rows of spike-things, there hung a generic suit for whoever needed a back up. Suits were supposed to be slim, second skins designed to live in the shadows. They were built light for quick escapes and sprints to exits. They were Agency colours, thick on dark hues, nearer to black than not. This... was not that.

“It's a prototype,” Gordon droned. “It's powered armour.”

“Shit.” That meant something to Weist. His eyes popped and he suddenly leaped back. “Shit!”

“Give him the scanner, techie,” Higeuros said.

Gordon tried, but Weist snatched it from him. Franklin perked up. Whatever this was, it was new.

“Powered armour is special?”

“Very special. Special as fuck.” Weist swiped at the screen. “Powered weapons are kids' play to make compared to it.”

“Kids' play to use,” Higeuros added. He'd wandered to the new suit, too. “Ask that dipshit –” Gordon. “– or Team J, God rest their stupid ass. Shit, Pubby, I bet you could do it off, too.”

“Thanks,” Franklin said.

Higeuros glared.

“Powered weapons are based on active abilities. That's the flashy shit you'll see in briefing clips. Offensive moves, generally. The nerds love 'em for how easy they are to perfect.” Weist bounced his head to point at the gun strapped on his buddy's back. “If they want that to shoot fucking lightning, the nerds know they've got it right when it shoots fucking lightning, and you just use it as a standard point'n'click. Powered armour?” Weist snorted. “Damned impossible to figure out. It uses passive abilities, ones where you don't 'fire' but 'focus' if it's not automatic. There's no guarantee they'll get it like the mutant did, and there's less chance you'll pick it up or be able to power it later. The only armour that actually works in this place like that is the suits, and you've seen those guys.”

“Not really,” he admitted.

“They're druggies,” Higeuros said. “All of them. Higher'n fuckin' kites.”

“Masks are bad, goggles are worse. Their attention's split by that trippy interface,” Weist said. “Focused powers draw their energy from the wearer. They have to be sustained through concentration. A person can't do that all the time, so they use the drugs to stay focused. Focus long enough and they fuse with it. Break their concentration – or lower it – and they go loco. One told me: it's not the drugs they get addicted to, Pubby. It's the fading and the attention span they have to have to fuel it. The whole suit works as a system for that, so they'll get bad enough where just taking off their masks sends 'em spiralling. It's sick.”

“Mental Pain Eaters,” Franklin figured.

“Yeah. Hardcore. And all that for camouflage.”

“Fuckers promised invisibility in the 80s,” Higeuros muttered. “But they said we'd get hoverboards, too. Where're those?”

“This is a prototype.” Weist jiggled the scanner. “This thing? This is not a normal suit. It's not. Fuuuuuuuuck...” He must have read something. “This damn thing's running a repulsion field.”

Higeuros screeched like a girl at that and rammed his hand into the prototype's stomach like the asshole he was. His hand then flew off like it'd been blasted from a cannon.

No fucking way,” Higeuros laughed hysterically. “Guys! Guys – try this! I can't touch it!”

It was white. That was the first difference. Gone was the muted and shy, black, reclusive colour scheme. This was a brilliant white. It demanded to be seen.

The suit was packaged like a doll in plastic, its arms positioned wrist-out but on a slant in towards its thighs. He could see the dark gray gloves. They stood out from the armguards around them. No, 'armguard' was misleading. The forearms were made into a metal bulb that reached over the knuckles and extended back beyond the elbow into a skewer. Its surface looked smoother than silk, but loudly unapologetic for its strength. It flexed proudly, arrogantly, shamelessly displaying its skill. The metal bulbs had small openings underneath large enough for a fist to tuck inside, and was so devoted to the idea of breaking sternums that the image of an outstretched hand instead was awkward and unwieldy.

Everything about the suit fit in within that arrant confidence. The sides of the ribs were gray, giving it the lean shape of a hunter. The calves were dark, and those shadows travelled to coat the soles and toes of its feet. Under the biceps were last places to be coloured. Other than that... The helmet. To the left of the suit, in the upper corner of the casing, was a helmet. Very Daft Punk; it covered the head, coldly eyeless and sliced sharply to throat, defining the jaw. Its face was a shield of that familiar gray. There was a rise on the half of the helmet he could see, most certainly for an ear, but with another flat disc welded onto it. That wasn't for aesthetics. It must have been a scanner.

“Damn,” Gordon said. “You really can't touch it.” He was trying. “Fuuuuck...”

“Repulsion shield. The harder you hit it, the harder it reflects,” Weist was saying.

This suit had been armoured. Its fabric was as thick as leather, but the silkiness carried on to the eye. The shoulders had been sculpted into round covers, slimmer than football padding but decidedly worked to blast ahead with tackles. They were set on either side of the prototype's broad chest, leaning away from the high collar covering its neck. The chest was emblazoned with the Agency's logo. The sections down its torso gave the highest flexibility, probably close to acrobatic by the looks of it. It did want to hunt. The lack of weight on the legs said as much alone. It wanted to run, pounce, drop on its pray, and the soft padding in place of woven shoes meant that sad bastard wouldn't hear his death until it was on top of him.

“What's Patten have this thing for?”

“Trophy, maybe,” Franklin guessed.

“No.” Weist stepped back up, determined. He reached out to the case, but not towards the suit. He had moved towards the casing's door. “These.” He'd found something. “Fuuuuuuuuuck... Higeuros!”

At once, Higeuros stuck his nose in.

“Fuuuuuuuuck,” the guy agreed.

Gordon, too quiet, stayed quiet. Useless jerk.

As thrilling as waiting in silence was, Franklin was uncomfortable standing in wreckage unless something made it worth his while. He cleared his throat before venturing, “What'd you find?”

“Contacts.” Weist had a small, white case he clicked open. “Glittery contacts.”

“Blue tint, tiny mirrors, same box as the suit is in...” Higeuros was hovering. The black casing whirred. Neither he nor Weist gave a shit. “You think this fits your theory?”

“What theory? The milestone one?”

Yes, the milestone one,” Higeuros spat. “The only theory he talks about. Fucking Pubbys – you've been here for three months and you're still lost.”

“There's a part two,” Weist then said. “Salcon's past aligns with the Eliases, but the Eliases aren't done.” He raised the small case. “Marshall was here two days ago. That suit's too big for a normal one and it, according to the read-out, got dropped off yesterday. Pop quiz: what are the odds this prototype's here, the exact size of a guy who broke in on Friday, being a coincidence?”

“Marshall's a PE,” Franklin responded.

“The Agency's damage control.” He gave the contacts to Higeuros, who casually stuffed them into the door. The whirring stopped. The black casing sighed contentedly. “So far.”

“What else is it supposed to be?”

“I don't know.” A moment passed. “Don't know,” Weist murmured again. More to himself, it felt like. He lifted his hand to the suit. “But that's not damage control.”

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#, as written by Ten
Seriously? He'd just spent the last few seconds attempting to provoke a response and the guy just wanted to sit and stare at him? Honestly, he was just going through the motions with this and his expectations and interest were already pretty low - it was like 'Oh, here's somebody new to talk to... meh...' He was already tired and worn out but in the absence of any immediate words, or anything the least bit entertaining going on, Rudy let his vision drift back to the screens behind the man, allowing himself to focus on Osono's face once again. Even now, looking at her expression frozen in a tolerant grimace, he couldn't decide whether he was concerned for her safety or not. He wanted to say not because there was a very supple and voluptuous muscled lady within reach to pine for and torment himself with. But there was a niggling in the back of his mind that kept pressing to be acknowledged. Feelings and things he didn't want to let in, lest he be forced to act upon them.

Rudy was so fucking tired and he desperately wanted to go back to the way things were. Back before Noel died, back before he even knew who Gwen Stewart or Alex or Eric Patten were. Things used to be so much simpler. There were a lot of memories Rudy looked back upon fondly, things he and Osono did on their travels together that made him smile to think of now. Even sending Agents after her and scaring the shit out of her, making her fight and run for her life, had it's moments of joy for him. But there was one week in particular that stood out above the rest. She'd been on the run for 2 years already and Rudy was taking a break from attacking her to just hang out with her and renew her trust in him. It'd been in the ass-faced middle of nowhere and they'd been trekking along the country roads because she felt like walking - Rudy didn't argue because the isolation and slow pace made it easier for him to relax. It always made him nervous to let her get around people as there was no telling what she'd do when outsiders were thrown into the mix - as could clearly be pointed out with the current Alex and Gwen mess. So, scenic country, amidst the birds and the trees, walking dirt roads, even in the rain, he was perfectly fine with. Because it meant it was just the two of them together. And it wasn't just him who liked the isolation but her as well. She acted different around people, seeming to see both threats and distractions when surrounded by a crowd.

And she treated Rudy different too. Rudy almost always had the "little brother" button on whenever they were together, but when they were alone she responded to it more readily. In a city or inside a full building he suddenly became expendable and it felt like even when she was standing right beside him, she was slipping away, ready to dart into the mass of faces and disappear. It probably came from his habit of vanishing on her before sending in his goons for an attack - because he wasn't going to get in the middle of that and accidentally become a target, of either flames or his own men. It became almost like they were racing each other to see who could disappear first to avoid the upcoming battles with all of their messy questions. Just the two of them, on those country roads, stopping in those sleepy towns, she was suddenly stationary. For once, Ozzie was relaxed and not constantly on guard, searching for a way out... looking for a way to leave him.

Walking all day on empty roads, talking her ear off about his latest fandoms and occasionally getting playfully wrestled to the dirt to let off some steam. Then eating at greasy spoons and staying at crummy motels that only ever saw business from truck-drivers and the sleepy locals. Nights spent watching whatever crap passed for television in those nondescript towns that nobody went to, laughing at old '80's porn they found in one of the rooms, clogging their youthful arteries with pizza and buffalo wings. And then finally snuggling down to sleep on one of the pair of queen sized beds amidst a blanket of snack food and wrappers. Any plans he had in place could be put off for another day and there was nothing that needed his immediate attention or focus. During that week he actually forgot, like he never could before or had the opportunity since, that the Agency was even a thing or that he had any responsibility to it. He was just a dorky kid on a road trip with his girl, no expectations and no schedules or deadlines. They didn't need to be anywhere or answer to anybody.

That week would always be first and foremost in his mind when thinking of what had been lost when Alex entered the picture. Although a day like that week hadn't happened again as tensions grew and she got smarter - while he got more playful in his approach and Noel became more possessive - the hope never left that there was another empty road and no-place town just around the bend. They'd never get that week back now. Even if by some luck, Alex decided to leave her alone, it was over. Not only would they never get selective amnesia again but now that memory, if it'd been a pleasant one for Osono too, would forever be tainted by the ever present lie shadowing his relationship with her. That was why he hated that son of a bitch, Alex. Fine. If he had to, then he'd admit it, he loved Osono and he wanted to be with her but couldn't because of that jerk and his sexy dick - seriously, how fucking long was that thing??? Even Smoking Man here wanted a piece - but also Alex had done everything in his power to pulverize any appeal Rudy could have still clung to. And now that Rudy's power was gone, he was no longer able to protect her anymore either.

If he was perfectly honest with himself, that was another thing he missed. Not Noel herself, because good God, the woman was obsessed and in all their play sessions she was probably attempting to kill him, only to be dissuaded half-way through by her overwhelming lust - not that Rudy was complaining; on the brink of bloody, gasping, terrifying death and being forced to orgasm was exactly where he wanted to be every time. No, mostly he missed how simple she'd made things for him too. As obsessed about Osono as she was, nothing compared to how obsessed Noel became with Rudy and it was extremely easy to play upon that. All he had to do, after a few days of hanging with Osono, doing the "little brother" thing, was launch a half-assed attack, simultaneously scaring Osono back into her defensive shell and appeasing Noel with a lame attempt to do his job. Then, he'd meet up with Noel - while being fully aware of the direction Ozzie ran - attempt to 'apologize' for screwing up again, allow her to punish him, to ease her own guilt at playing such a passive part in their continued failures, and then they'd spend the next few days fucking until she grew tired of torturing him. As he went running after Osono again, Noel would clean up the mess, send in another request for a team to aid him in the capture and then she'd wait for his signal before sending the troops in. Over and over. There was a certain lack of obligation in the system they'd set up as well, a barely acknowledged yet deliberate ignorance in the game that allowed it to continue being played.

On the surface, Rudy was a bit disgusted with how stupid and malleable the women in his life were but he'd actually loved the way things were. He didn't want to be here, dealing with the fear that his target was dead or possibly in a coma. He just wanted to run to Noel, snuggle up to her and let her do horrible things to him, make her happy enough that she'd come here and deal with Patten and all these boring, powerful people herself. And then he'd wake up in the morning, look at the HSA and Ozzie would be blinking with a small fire somewhere. Then, magically, Eric would be appeased, Ozzie would have dumped Alex and Rudy would be able to run right back into the spot that was surely still there waiting for him to occupy it.

Right around then, Rudy became aware that Smoking Man had been talking to him... for a while, it seemed, as he caught the tail end of the conversation. "Duuuude, you're really boring," Rudy said with a shrug and a dorky grin. "Totally my bad but I didn't catch any of that. But let me go ahead and take a guess at the synopsis of it: 'something something Alex and I'm a really stuffy European dude.' That's probably what I would've gotten out of it anyway, even if I had been paying attention."

Scratching at the top of his head, Rudy shrugged again and got up from his chair, his speedy voice only slowed down a few notches due to his fatigue. "Listen, I'm really freaking tired, Crowley, and Alex is the last person I wanna waste any more energy thinking about right now. I'm not even sure what the hell you want me to say. He didn't do anything. When I saw him with my target, I tried to murder him and he just stood there while I shot some invisible armor wearing dude. In fact, despite not even trying to dodge the shot, it didn't look like he even knew the guy was there." Rudy paused dramatically and lazily pointed with a thoughtful finger. "We might want to check up on the possibility that he's developing secondary powers, like the ability to suddenly materialize human shields out of thin air." He thought about it a moment longer, hastily threw away the few jokes springing to his tongue, and then shook his head when he realized he didn't give a flying fuck. "Don't worry about any trade or stupid shit like that. It's not like you know anything that I fucking want or need anyway - unless you happen to know the significance behind the existence of cats and dogs on Capri, in the series Battlestar Galactica? Seriously, loved it, but there's so many questions that are still bugging me about the finale. Anyway, as much as your offer to sit here and listen to you drone on even more about Alex is tempting, I think you've already properly prepped me for bed with what you've said so far. No homo."

"Alright, Jean Reno," Rudy said with another jerky shrug as he walked towards the door. "I'm gonna head off to find somewhere to crash for the night. You keep it real, bro, and if I never have to see your boring, faggot ass again, it'll be too soon." Not waiting for a reply, Rudy waltzed out of the vault and left the office, wandering into the hall while stifling a yawn with the back of his hand. When he was alone, he automatically took out his phone and checked the HSA again. There wasn't even a flicker of surprise in him at all when the results showed up blank and he was beginning to wonder what he was even looking for anymore.

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#, as written by Tartra
“How long do you expect him to be out?!” Her hands flickered. She was seething. “You’re trusting Buzzy’s judgment, and that girl has two settings: overblown and exaggerated – at best.”

“She’s their top field analyst.”

So? You think it doesn’t prove how warped their faith is?” Glue flashed brighter. The windows shone. He was trying to drive. “Danielle will be busy explaining Patten’s drop-in to Cryptic. She doesn’t need –”

“It’s not your place to decide what she doesn’t need.”

Blinding.

“Not mine, but you can take what you want if it’s neat?”

“She knew what I was doing. Stop that.”

“You shouted it at her,” Glue roared, “while she was frenzied. She didn’t have the mind to make those choices!”

That wasn’t her decision, either. It was dawn. By now, Danielle’s powers had settled. They didn’t last for long. Rarely did she let them grow like this, and she was lucid when she sent the call for Magnus to meet at a road outside Charlton. Glue joined, having heard the broadcast and being upset he’d sent her ahead at all, and waited with the trucks originally drawn as decoys but redesigned to carry the cargo he’d introduced. Danielle forbade her POIs’ delivery in the same vehicle. This pleased Charlotte’s driver – Tops, escorted by Gosig – to no end. That twitchy runner liked Alexander less than the Russians did Patten. The Cubans might have lacked direct encounters given the Agent under his skin was Cold Extreme, but the stigma made up for it and travelled far: Alexander changed his plans too often for them to feel there was a plan. A lot was said of Caprice’s branch, but spontaneous wasn’t. Nothing scared them like chaos. That’s why Patten was a ‘business man’, their second-highest honour. His goals were damned near inevitable. Charlotte’s were merely foretold.

Glue didn’t know where to focus. Her gaze flinched from the inner dash to the window, then off to the truck in front of them. Danielle may have wanted her shipment split, but she refused to let a non-Cuban drive without a guide and the real Cubans wouldn’t ride in this one. She’d had to accept the three machines moving in a line. He followed Tops and Gosig. Danielle was behind them both, her eye locked on the back of his rig should the worst happen and Alexander escaped. Charlotte’s truck led the party on the chance the worst happening involved an accident. The others were free to trip – explode – but not hers. Glue looked away, at him, awaiting his response.

“Don’t think about it.”

Think about the sunrise.

“I can’t. We need these idiots.” Then calling them idiots wasn’t the brightest – “Now maybe King Caprice won’t fuck off as soon as we arrive and he sees the kid, but he’s got his hand so deep in rubles…”

“If the Russians go, the Cubans go.”

Cryptic considered Alexander a nuisance, but a thumbtack served as a warhead when news of Patten floated in. Buzzy wouldn’t resist telling everyone. Likely the Russians were already gone.

“And there go our shots at winning,” Glue said. She suddenly sighed, leaning back. Her fourth wind was spent. “We don’t have odds. We have fragments. The old branches didn’t manage at full strength.”

“We aren’t after what they were.” The Russians wouldn’t have come this far otherwise. Magnus stretched his fingers around the weathered strip bound to the steering wheel. His tone weighed into his next words. “You have to understand that.”

“It’s hard to trust somebody to lead you to paradise when that someone’s sitting in a stasis cell in front of you,” Glue retorted. “She’s dead. We’re following a dead woman. Danielle has put our lives in the hands of someone who swore it was ‘part of the plan’ to let the person we’re trying to kill end her. Cryptic may be petrified of a loud sneeze, but at least it’s from a monster who’s still alive.”

“Charlotte’s spirit is alive.”

“That’ll be a wonderful phrase to chip into her tombstone,” Glue grunted.

Danielle wouldn’t give two words of a move before they reached it in the plan. It was true their branch was the only group to avoid Agency infiltration because the blood rites they imposed were too extreme for charades, but the woman didn’t trust anyone with the secret of Charlotte’s legacy. Charlotte had told her not to. That much, Danielle revealed. The secret of the plan’s existence was stored within the Nordic circle. Bergmann could have unearthed it, as the Germans uncovered everything, but they cherished the woman too and were desperate enough not to care whose list they were running through. The other remnants of the old branches failed to prove themselves as flexible. Nordic-by-blood or not, Glue was in constant conflict with the Kingdom’s attitude. It was that attitude that brought those branches to their knees in the first place.

“Charlotte’s death set the Agency back decades. It was the start of their undoing,” he said, noting the greenbelt beside them. They’d be at the away camp soon. For them, it served as a checkpoint before reaching the Union site. For Alexander and his friend…

Not everyone made it past the checkpoint.

“Riiiight. By letting Patten free to dance into a spot where he directly controls their resources. Yes, I can see how you’d think it crippled them.”

The words of the Brits from her mouth after she’d promised given herself over. Magnus regretted the Charlton Agent. He’d been selfish. Glue needed it more.

“She saw farther than us.”

“You’re talking like she was a prophet.” Magnus gave her a look. Glue excused herself. “Well, at least someone’s memory was honoured. I haven’t seen an eyelash bat at the rest of the slaughter, but good on Danielle for fulfilling the dream of a woman who told the Nordics not to interfere against our genocide.”

She’d divided them in her mind. Once more, her hands flared with sparks. The anger was muted but alive. He bit back a fast reproach.

Glue was deceptive in her strength. At a glance, a person could imagine what it took to fight Magnus. He was, as he’d admitted earlier, well-built and firm in his strides. His whip-like, golden hair had returned to its softened state and nestled down his back, but the long ends could snap in instants to the razor shards his body became. His face morphed from a subtle and carefully set frame of elongated features into a nightmarish snarl of metal teeth, steely skin, and clustered spikes jutted out below his eyes. He wore his shirts pre-shredded these days – elbows gone, shoulders bare, holes dotting his spine – and swore off shoes’ inconvenience. Glue took to sneakers, yoga pants, and an exercise top for support. They were white, blue and green, respectively. She was slight, having hardly any body fat and appearing too weak to lift herself up stairs, but when she ran, she moved like a river, curving through the war to arc a bomb at those escaping her impish smile. The red of her light was too sharp for the blonde while she sat throwing a quiet tantrum in the truck, but in battle, the Nordics praised it as a beacon, as their signal, and worked in every chance to use it as a mark for a fight. It was why Danielle had let her lob globs at the Charlton base coming in.

“Our part –” Magnus leaned on the terms as he followed Tops around a bend. He wanted to remind her she was a part of them now. “It didn’t ask for us to help then.”

“It would’ve made the difference.”

Wistfulness didn’t suit her.

“It wasn’t supposed to. Today, it is,” he said to her. “You’ll have your revenge. Plenty of it.”

“Yeah.” Part of her was convinced. It lifted her head. “But I won’t have it trusting her. I can’t forget the people she sacrificed.” A long list. “I mean… we were hers, and she merrily orchestrated our deaths to reap rewards we, years later, have yet to claim. She’s done almost as much damage to us as the Agency.”

“Those were bitter losses,” he agreed, solemn. The Nordics knew the price. Charlotte’s legacy centered on the highest cost for the maximum gain. In the end, it would settle peacefully, but not even a child was spared before then. “You’re still not killing Alexander.”

“We fucking know everything about him!” This would her fifth wind, flawlessly prompt as usual. “The Germans have his files! We know the bloody fuck inside that head! So he hates the Agency. He hates us,” Glue insisted. “Look at everything he’s done while he was employed by Patten’s bitch-puppets. We’re his playtime!” She snorted. “Won’t help them, won’t help us, won’t help anyone since he hasn’t got ties to anyone, and Danielle wants him brought to the away camp? For what? To stare longingly into each other’s eyes?” She’d bounced in her seat. Sulking at his silence, she pouted into it again. “What was he doing here anyway?”

“Transferring.”

The skip to the what was proof they were on the same page, and that the why was obvious: Patten. It took care of the when, as well. Some carrot had been dangled and Alexander went running. The carrot was, as Magnus attested, a broken stasis cell and a boy strapped in a chair.

He had had kids. Girls. Two. He’d had nephews, as well. Glue hadn’t. When she saw the boy, she thought only of the savage haunting him, not of the child who’d been forced to house it. Make no mistake – the first glimmer of life might have set Magnus off to wrench Alexander’s face from his torso, but there hadn’t been one. Buzzy was to thank. The Russian held a nasty knack for abruptly being shrewd where her lover-boy was involved. And he was just a boy. Magnus was in his mid-forties and Alexander was probably half his age. The friend, too. Glue was closer to them.

“Transferring?” Glue’s ears perked up. She straightened, pupils fixed. “Like the Ruskie said?” Magnus didn’t like those names. “… Did he do it?”

“A transfer takes days. From Buzzy’s report, he had hours.”

A split second after Glue ran through the notion, furrowing her brow as she turned the concept over, but before she’d spat a decisive, “I should be back there,” he cut in.

“He’s bolted to the wall and masked,” Magnus reminded. The metal band shaped to cover the boy’s eyes was an idle trophy. It’d served as a promise of the Nordic’s readiness to fight the most unlikely of enemies. Few of them expected Alexander to hold still – while breathing – for it to be attached, but it seemed the ring was fated to serve the purpose it dreamed to. Both arms, both legs, and the band itself were clamped to trailer’s insides. Alexander’s friend would find herself the same when she awoke – except for the band. She’d been blindfolded but with cloth. Were she to have a power, they rested assured it wouldn’t be the same as his. There was a danger in that, and it was why Danielle opted to escort her personally. “It’s more likely you’ll break him loose than detonate him into unconsciousness a second time.”

Tops’ truck followed another curve to face towards the sun. Magnus blinked at the brightness, then pulled the visor from overhead to shield from it. Glue huffed as she relented. She’d realized they’d come full circle and her work hadn’t been rewarded by convincing him to attack. Magnus… frowned. He worried about why she’d failed. An uncomfortable twist gutted his nerves and his grip tightened on the wheel. It was the same awkward feeling…

“How are you doing?” Glue gave him a sidelong glance. She didn’t want to switch from sulking yet but damn if she wasn’t cursed with compassion. “Wound down?”

“I wasn’t wound up.” The weathered strip of the wheel groaned softly. “He’s a kid.”

“He’s Alexander. Don’t shower him with sympathy he doesn’t deserve.”

Magnus never used to.

The conversation had taken a sensitive edge. He tried imagining other days, ones where the boy slew with a self-satisfied grin, but they were faint. The memories that were clear didn’t hold the same… rage.

“That man had a family.”

“What man?” Ah-ha. She’d found a balance between her moods. “The Agent? In Charlton – that thing?” He shrugged. “Magnus.” She was offended. “Tell me you didn’t call it a ‘man’ as if it was.”

“I didn’t feel like I was destroying them.”

The spark, the fury, the blessed vengeance… They were what led him to the strike forces and the Nordic army. Time let it give way to something worth reconsidering.

It was it was: a bland step down a routine path. If she was going to take offence, it should be about how casual their assaults were now.

“You’re…” Her concern won. Glue lifted her head, somewhat shyly. “… not leaving me, are you?”

“No. Although I think I’ve worn out my purpose.”

“You’re quitting?”

“I’m not quitting.” She was too panicky. “But there are limits, Glue. It’s getting harder to say I’m not living in the past.”

That was not what she wanted to hear.

This wasn’t a sixth wind. This was outrage. Locked within the fervour of the Nordic’s war against the Agents was his and her personal vendetta against the people who took their families. She depended on it, and she was not prepared to let anyone take it away.

“They made you murder your children,” Glue snarled. Her arms had braided close to her body. She continued with her voice holding stiffly in check. “Is that living in the past? Seeing their faces? Their madness – their possession – their theft? How they came for you?”

“Alexander didn’t do it,” Magnus said, unfazed. “That was the year he’d toured Vologda. It wasn’t the man at Charlton, either.”

“Who cares?!” She had shouted. “They’re Agents! I bet his tart's one, too!”

“It’s not your decision,” he blasted back at her. “The answer is no, Glue. You’d do well to accept it.”

The look on her face nearly screamed betrayal moments before it breezed away. A profound calmness washed her eyes, and though her fingers still flashed, she’d assumed a role of admirable respect.

“Yes, of course. Danielle knows what she’s doing.”

Sparking, betraying that she’d found no peace at all. It was the Kingdom branch’s method of managing conflict: ignore it, force it down, and then solve the problem when moment arose. Magnus returned to watching her, gripping the wheel with renewed passion. He liked Glue, but she was a wild card. All the Kingdom transfers were. They were allies, but as fairweathered as the Russians in their own way.

“I’ll put in a word for you,” he offered. “When Alexander starts trouble, you’ll get to kill him.”

She smiled. Her sparks never ceased.

“At least we know who he’ll hurt if the option’s available,” Glue mumbled. “He hates Patten. I suppose the enemy of my enemy… is also my enemy’s enemy. It’s a start.”

“Is it?”

“It’s more than what I had a moment ago.” She yawned. “I’m napping. Nudge me when we let him loose.”

There was a please at the end of it. Magnus returned his attention to the road. Another half hour south and they would arrive to meet the strike force. He hoped Alexander survived until then.

As for the girl, he naturally hoped she lasted. He just didn’t hope that hard.

* * *


Jason pried his goggles off and ran a hand along his head. Some of his curls were matted to his neck from the thin sheen of sweat itching his skin. He felt terrible, probably looked terrible and the work was exhausting. He’d spent the night – the little of it he got between the run from Charlton through to daybreak – dragging preferences to order under the strain of mental connections he’d never created and were giving him for it because of that. He did it in silence except for the harsh hiss as the updates resettled themselves, but no one bothered him about the noise so he felt good about keeping the volume down. His eyes were likely bloodshot. They burned whenever he blinked, and there was an odd pain bulging under the left that flared when he closed them too long. His entire body was refusing rest if it meant reconnecting with his suit. He couldn’t sleep if he tried, he guessed. He didn’t know. He hadn’t tried.

“There’ll be time later,” he muttered, not lying. There had to be. He was tying a ‘when’ to it, but post-transfer, post-Elias, post-whoever-the-Anti-Agents-were-supposed-to-be, metaphorically or actually, Jason would eventually stop. Until then, there was plenty to do. There was too much. No matter what he focused on, he was guilty for ignoring something else. He couldn’t trust his prioritization when it labelled everything as the utmost of importance. Fixing his goggles… It was the one chore he saw results fall out of. And it was good to get away – to just… to just think and clear his head, not to dwell on his mistakes. He was moving forward. That counted.

Some good news: he didn’t have to start from scratch like he feared. Several old templates were in the Agency’s database. They were ancient ones that didn’t get issued to new suits anymore, but coupled with the settings he saved biennially, settings too advanced to be restore half-cocked unless he wanted his mind sheared by ruthlessly precise – but out-of-date – configurations, he’d scraped together a light impact skeleton he could operate. He wasn’t out of the woods; no customization lit his head with lightning the same as wrong tailoring, but he’d hopped the difference in climbing a mountain with a broken leg and crutches and putting his leg in a cast and being hauled up. Slow but steady, and not as unbearable if he took breaks.

More sweat ran into his collar. His suit brushed it off. That panic he’d had ever since Alexander robbed him of his property had left the backseat, and he could feel himself returning to what he used to be. His hands weren’t shaking. His gloves fit him perfectly. Even ‘perfect’ stopped sounding hollow to him. It was a thing, a concept, an idea in his reach he just noticed he hadn’t actually quit aiming for, like his suit had fought the rupture by going on in the background until he repaired the crap at the surface. Like… isolating a wound… It was clinical and he’d admit it was robotic, but as the right parts of his thoughts clicked on and the hysterical, hyper-emotions clicked off, his chest burst with sudden appreciation for the system he knew – even if he’d forgotten for a few days – he could count on. He wasn’t entirely dead yet! He could do this!

This…! This – ‘this’, what was ‘this’?

… Shit.

Oh God. Yes, he was slowly coming back to life, but everything he was coming back to –

“I should not be on this plane.”

Just as well. The trip to Elmira was short, but they hadn’t made it yet. There were pitstops every hour and odd layovers of doing nothing. Awake, he stared out the window, noting that again they were turning to land. He wasn’t at a point where he might understand what was happening yet, but he did know he’d walked into this: if he’d given his suit back five minutes earlier or stayed in Charlton at Eric’s command – oh, fantastic, then he could be the first in line to meet Elias when he jumped up. And the Anti-Agents. Elmira didn’t seem better, thanks to the draining odds of him showing up on time. Less of his curls were soaked when he ran a hand through them now, but it was as nervously and embarrassed as when they’d all been.

The other suit. Yes – her. That was another good thought snapping on, and he ran with it.

“Hey,” he said, holding his excitement in check. He said it twice in case she’d missed it while floating on the chems. “You told me you heard Eric gives people whatever they want, so long as they do what he wants later, right?” He didn’t get why he was asking. He didn’t have a plan. He just knew he needed to take a tally of everything. He wanted a list of everything around him. His goggles were starved. “So how do you know what he wants from someone?”

He could use this, his suit insisted. Still for what, he had no clue, but there was a rising scream in his ears roaring that, for his lead’s sake, he had to fix… something else – his finger wasn’t on it. But he knew it had to be done.

She didn’t have to care for him to help her.

Which was good. Because she didn’t.

* * *


Keep it down in there, or I’ll send you back to Caprice in the pieces I can still pick up.

‘Ey – sorry, boss!

Bastard twits,” she spat. They flinched respectably. The wall between the trailer and the truck’s cabin had had a hole ripped through its flesh. She agreed to ride with these idiots. She did not agree to let them go unsupervised. If there was a problem with the draft, they could walk home. “Your part’s finished anyway.”

They don’t know what you’re saying,” Dalton slobbered.

“They would if they’d learned Swedish like I said.” Thankless brutes. To be honest, she counted on the request getting lost inside their traffic. Bad enough she had to grapple through in English to talk to other branches. Imagine the stress they’d be adding were the Cubans to grab a Nordic tongue as well. Besides, it offered privacy, which was in short supply lately. The Union site was gussied up as a tribute to their alliance. Instead it was a cesspool for ulterior motives. Anyone know what happened when spies got put in a pit of more spies? Spying. Lots of it. Those who couldn’t leave their fingers off someone else’s stuff already had a few chopped off. Not much of an example than it was another precaution to ward against. Spying in the shadows from a veil of false security was almost as bad as doing it in the open. At least then they wouldn’t have to pretend all was well. The Russians were the worst for it. The Germans showed surprising restraint. “How long do we have?”

Dalton bellowed the question in the common language.

Got maybe – I’unno – an hour?

“Precise as hell, too,” she snapped. “I’ll take Caprice at his word that these are his best. He’s never been the type to demand on-job discipline.”

They drive good.

Excellently. It was why they got away with their shit.

“Stop sniffing her. She isn’t an Agent,” Danielle said, meandering through the trailer.

How can you tell?

“Because she was with Alexander,” she replied. She couldn’t see through her fingers as easily. She wiggled them experimentally, then clenched them. Nice stretch. Everything was getting a workout when she returned. Her shoulder had held up decently, but him hauling the staircase out of its place to beat Agents to death with it called for a range of lateral presses, and her quads – shit, she should’ve focused more on them. Her fault. She never denied her responsibility. “Blondie’s a random innocent or she’s a corpse.”

Or a good actor.

“Patten was a great actor and that didn’t end as planned.” It would be a theme soon. A veritable ‘running gag’. “Alexander has a nose for handling Agents. Something must’ve clicked right with her.” That was the concern. This was the second girl he’d gone running with within a week, after five years of being their infamous, noted, reliable recluse. Why the company? Why the movement now? Orchestrated? Yes, of course. Patten’s presence confirmed it but his arrival was ever the face of predictable unpredictability. Discounted. It was Lamarre’s which carried meaning. For him to go ahead to wait for his mark and be so confident Alexander would appear… Breton would die to hear this if he wasn’t dead already. To her it looked like Alexander wasn’t the only person jerked around. Her head had been crushed by clouds when she learned it but the theory barged through unimpeded: maybe Lamarre figured it out. It would explain how he managed to jump on the horse again this soon. He’d probably intercepted one text or call, slapped two and two together, then dumped Breton in Elmira at the most convenient hands in his arsenal. Alexander was an accepted conclusion. Lamarre knew that. Everyone did. The Agency was so aware that half the investigations they normally unrolled were kept furled. It’d be funny to see how they reacted if Danielle put a bullet in the kid’s head. “Dalton.” Provided she picked the gun route. She didn’t mind flair with private executions. It was good for morale. “Wake her up.”

You want her to talk, too?

“Yes,” she said, obviously, “so leave her jaw intact.”

‘Don’t eat it’ was that command in less words. Dalton laughed. It was a guttural, choking noise peppering his speech. Her powers didn’t provide emotional restraint, and as he rode his high of victory in Charlton, his tripled-sized, kris-capped chin burbled happily. He alternated from that to ravenous silence, drooling down his neck from over his fanged rows of shark teeth. His nostrils flared to the size of apples and swallowed the smell of the girl’s faint wounds: minor bruises, some scrapes after being carried by their mutant cheese grater, and the sweet tinge of burnt skin Buzzy left behind. Not long now. Another six hours and her density would be released. He could chop his yellow hair again and she could be more than a rather stubborn spider-web of an obstacle. She watched him beginning to pale. They were both fair, but she spent more of her time outdoors. He spent more grinding down his nails, and as their palms sluggishly dropped to soup bowls instead of serving plates, their fingers and toes withered and felled their tips to his idea of ‘proper hand hygiene’.

She didn’t change. Insubstantial, she retained her original physique. She wore the body of a goddess and every pound of it excelled. Her arms bulged, her legs rippled, her core was sectioned into grids, and transferring her brother's mass to join her own doubled their talent but tripled that of four average men. Dalton shaped himself for show, using any offered needle to bulk up. She held out for strength. That she’d gotten this enormous anyway was show for her enough.

She was dressed. She’d taken a rose sports top and blue sweatpants while she’d remembered, and though it wasn’t as fresh as two days ago, before she’d grown too large to freely – or voluntarily – change, she damn near smelled like daisies. The burden she placed on her branch to handle her pre-switch levels wasn’t going to be exasperated by sweat. Dalton hadn’t had his bath since the fight. With a night’s journey under his belt plus his swearing that cotton shirts' wicking away was a joke, she appreciated not having to truly ‘be’ here. It didn’t help that he smoked. Tobacco seeped from his pores. The white shirt he wore was stained yellow, and his sweatpants were drenched black.

What if she doesn’t talk?

She would talk. Danielle would ask nicely.

“You can eat her.”

He laughed, louder. Dalton pounded on the wall of the trailer above the girl’s shackled and bolted wrists. The force leaned the weight off the other side’s tires. She heard the Cubans scream angrily. Fuck them.

It is morning, little child. The sun rises for you.” His words were smooth past the heft of his d’s. The serenade of vowels, particularly his u’s, softened the bellow to a wild parody of praise. “We come for you to see it. We want you awake.

The girl’s eyes had been covered by a thick cloth. Danielle’s outline circled the bindings, checking that they were in place. They were. The rusted iron left a dark red ring around her hands. She didn’t appear comfortable. The girl had a chance to fix that. Unlike Alexander, who’d defined where he stood, the unknown this captive brought gave hope to her miserable party.

“You can assure her we intend no harm if she cooperates.” Danielle paced. Her feet were too high off the ground to touch but the action set her along rested thoughts. “I want the detailed answer of why she’s with Alexander and why Alexander allows her to be.” Her words drifted like a dream. The beauty was even if the girl heard, unless she spoke Swedish, Danielle continued failing to suffer interruptions. “I want to know what happened to the last girl. Does she know her? Was a trade made? Did they know of Alexander and seek him? Why Charlton? What do they hope to achieve?”

One by one, Dalton relayed her questions, pausing to imagine the translations. Danielle watched curiously, awaiting a response but more eagerly attending a reaction. It would be her sign. There were emotions Agents couldn’t fake – raw emotions wrenched into their voices – that still fled the bounds of what the guilty could. Had Alexander been, through this girl or the first, taken on a rouse against the branches, then regardless of whether the Agents employed her, Danielle wanted the news. Besides, Charlotte said they needed ‘two from inside’. Here were two like that: from inside.

I’m ready to kill her,” Dalton offered. Cleverly, through the haze of strength, he added, “If she tries anything.

He was unquestionable. But he was still sniffing –

“Stop it, Dalton.” Charlotte wasn't wrong. Danielle looked at the girl in mild consideration. “Keep the option open.”

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#, as written by Ten
"Ozzie will you walk me home from school today?

It was her job.

A loving smirk graced her lips. Adoring green eyes looked up at her with unrestrained hero worship. Soft, baby fine black hair running through her fingers as she tossled his small head playfully. A sweet disposition and overly polite manner was contradicted by the faded skull and crossbones across his shirt, mimicking the silver accessories adorning her every surface. Detailed representations of death as her sign of rebellion and his sign of kinship. Her little pirate buddy.

"No can-do, Santa! Working late this afternoon 'cause I gotta make the moola. You'll be a'ight. I'll just see ya when I get home."

It wasn't a big deal. Just a residential walk from the schoolyard. Cars shouldn't be driving faster than 10 mph on those streets. Besides, he was freaking 10 years old now. He knew the road rules.

It was her fucking job.

Cheesy 70's rock blasted on the speakers in the cluttered store. A couple of nobodies looking through the record selection, lazily weaving through the maze of overstuffed boxes and shelves. Outside on her smoke break, she bobbed her head to Van Halen's "Hot For Teacher" heard muffled through the door. Ken poked his head outside to tell her she had a phone call. Her mother was on the line calling from the hospital, barely able to speak through the throat-catching sobs.

It was her fault...

Standing by the open casket, looking down at the small boy nestled inside. So peaceful, he could be sleeping. The crushed organs and bones of his body hidden by the dark blue Sunday suit he wore. He would never attend another Mass yet he'd be stuck wearing it for all eternity. She wished he was being buried in something he could play in. He needed his jean shorts and baseball cap in Heaven. All of a sudden she wanted to laugh and scream at the absurdity of the thought.

Why didn't she just walk him home?

Home, but not really anymore. Everything felt off, stuck in stasis, waiting for him forever. Standing in the middle of her room surrounded by pieces of him. Mementos and stuff they made together littered upon her dresser like a model landscape of popsicle stick treasure boxes and lego castles, up against a backdrop of marker pirate ship drawings hanging on the wall. Stick figures rendered in their likeness aboard blobby brown vessels tossed on choppy blue streaks or standing on pee-yellow mounds next to tropical trees, burying overstuffed cubist chests, piled with pointy crowns, asterisk jewels and scribbled coins. Adventures on the high seas with the Cap'n and her First Mate.

Why had she been so selfish?

Standing on the dark street, watching the burning house of the man who hurt him. Warmed by the heat and crackling life of the fire, singing it's music of destruction and whispering to her wounded soul. Reveling in it's ethereal delight as a burst of orange flame explodes out the first floor windows with raining glass. The smell of charred flesh and cooked human fat forever drenching her soot-covered clothes, the bitter aroma of death and revenge stuck deep in her nostrils. Replacing the innocent smell of bubblegum Transformers shampoo and chocolate smeared kisses placed upon her cheek. A distant siren wails

Firetruck sirens from the past morph unceremoniously into a deep voice bellowing in her face, reality crashing with the dream like a bowling ball barreling down the lane. Not only is the abrupt wake-up an annoyance she could do without but add onto it the fact that she can't fucking see or move and it just rolls together to make her a goddamn ball of sunshine. As the voice continues booming at her in it's boisterous and disturbingly playful tone, the only coherent thought she can put together is What the fuck is going on?! Then it all comes rushing back to her.

Charlton. Alex and Xander doing the transfer. Marshall's hunky body. The sleeping/dead people. The sudden darkness. Someone attacking Alex with a taser or something. Smacking a teenaged girl in the face with her elbow. Then a scorching, electrical pain and lights out when she couldn't fight anymore.

And that's all she can fucking remember. Where the hell is she now? Who the hell is this asshole talking to her? Why can't she fucking see or do anything? Osono's irritation reaches a peak when the damn ogre-voice tells her to cooperate or he'll hurt her - and what the hell was that? Was he fucking translating for someone else? Sure fucking sounded like it - and she realizes that not only is she restrained and blindfolded but they're transporting her somewhere as well. Oh, fucking Hell no! Sorry, bitches! Not today! Reaching out for the fire burning in her breast and envisioning herself surrounded by matches - and latching onto the engine of the truck as well, grasping for the gasoline and it's juicy combustible nature - a wave of exhaustion piggy-backing on a headache puts an unkind halt to her destructive impulses.

It's so fucking close! Right there! She can feel the heat wanting to build up inside her, her body itching to feel the warmth of the flames bursting to life but when she reaches for the spark, the ache pulsating through her skull makes her wince instead. No! This can't be fucking happening! Seriously! This is not a good time for her to have trouble getting it up! Frustrated by her helplessness, Osono huffs out an angry groan, bumping the back of her head against the wall of the truck, twisting her shackled wrists and arching her body in feeble attempts to struggle. No good. Her bindings are made of metal or something. Even if her head wasn't pounding and she could use her fire, it'd take her several minutes to heat up the metal enough to get free. The stupid fatigue draining her hits harder as the full realization of her weakened position finally sets in and she slumps against the wall with a long, annoyed breath released through her nose.

That's when she actually starts paying attention to Mr. Inside Voice. What else is she supposed to fucking do? It's not like she's got a lot of choices. And although the original fear that these were Agents and she was 'captured' captured has died away, she's still really freakin' irritated and wants nothing to do with these creeps. Not Agents but what Moosh-Moosh warned them about - those 'others' attacking the base. People with powers? And she's suddenly reminded of how she got in this situation in the first place. What she'd originally interpreted as a taser in that young girl's hand actually wasn't anything in her hand at all. Those blue sparks had been coming from Pigtail's fingers and they hurt like a son of a bitch. Then it occurs to her that it's probably the teeny-bopper's fault that she can't use her fire right now. That little bitch! She better not be anywhere near her when Ozzie gets back on her feet, because there's seriously gonna be some fucking payback! That is... if she can recognize her. The room had been pretty dark.

By the time things finally grow quiet, there's only one thing she cares about in everything that's been said. Fuck these people and their questions and fuck their retarded agenda! Glaring through her blindfold, Osono's raspy voice growls with a heated sneer, "Where the fuck is Alex?! What have you son of bitches done to him?! If you hurt so much as a hair on his head, I swear to fucking God that I will set fire to everything within a mile radius! That's not a fucking joke. EXPLOSION! You hear me?!" It's a desperate move but she's out of options. If it means she can escape, then she's willing to do it, even if it means violently propelling herself through the air amidst twisted metal and shards of glass. Also, threatening them when she can't really do anything is probably not the smartest idea but they tied her up like this for a reason: caution. If they're scared of her and what she can do, then at least it puts some of the power back into her hands. "I'm not telling you a damn thing until I know he's okay!"

It was her one fucking job! The whole reason she'd been brought along on this little side-quest on the way to helping Gwen: she was supposed to watch over Alex while Marshall went through the retransfer. 'A one-woman army'. That's what he called her because he trusted her to handle herself if things got hot. She was supposed to protect him and instead she let him down at the critical moment. Panic starts to rise up in her throat when she begins to consider that Alex might not even be with them - just because these morons are asking and talking about him doesn't mean they brought him along as well. Did they leave him behind? Is he in the hands of the Agents? Or did they capture him too? After what he went through, getting strapped to that insane-looking chair and half his brain being sucked out - and added onto his stupid gimpy foot - she can't imagine that getting electrocuted by that girl did him any favors. Wait... Was it finished? Did... did Marshall even make it out before the room went dark? What would have happened if they got grabbed before he fully transferred?

For several seconds she struggles with the grinding lump in her throat as she realizes how much she probably cost them with her failure but she shakes her head and takes deep breaths to quell the rising guilt. There's nothing she can do about it now except move forward and take steps to fix this mess and the important thing right now is making sure her friend is alright. And if he's not... well... there was a delicious engine within reach and this goddamned headache wouldn't last forever.

***

"Do I look like Eric to you?!"

Brie blinked, her mouth dangling open and frozen in her position leaning forward threateningly across the table. Wow. She hadn't realized she'd blurted that out until she was done shouting. Coming back to herself, it was like waking up from a dream, realizing the stupid goggle-head was talking to her again and she was already talking back. It wasn't what she meant to say - in fact, she hadn't meant to say anything at all, really. Kind of embarrassing but she didn't apologize.

She was so fucking tired. The drug in her system felt so fucking good the way it had brought everything into focus, her mind absorbing details and information and organizing it for her in neat layers of importance according to threat and interest level. It was especially fun with the occasional landings they went through, getting to go through the intricacies of take off and landing repeatedly, her mind swimming with every little detail of the plane's preparation sounds. But it didn't let her sleep and she'd been up the whole night. Now that morning was finally here, she could feel the neat layers crumbling. Everything was a little too much - too noisy, too grating, too soft, too hot, too cold, too bright, too dark. The temperature fluctuations and movement of the air currents in the cabin crashed in a jumbled mess with the sounds of the other suit's hissed breaths and she suddenly had a very intense need to inspect the minute details of the grain in the surface of the conference table. All. At. The. Same. Fucking. Time. There was no order to it, no progressive processing of these different things; she was aware of everything happening around her simultaneously, forced to interpret all the details at the exact moments they filtered through her senses, with no buffer to ease the mass onslaught of information.

This wasn't how it was supposed to be! This wasn't the euphoria and delight she experienced when she first injected herself with the goggle-bearer's drugs. She couldn't stop herself from counting the little puckered pores that made up the armored fabric of his suit and her eyes couldn't stop following the stitches in the seams of the chair he sat in, while also humming in her throat along with the changing gears of the aircraft's engine as they prepared for some change in direction - Uggggggghhhhh! She'd had enough! She wanted to get off the ride now, both figuratively and literally. Brie knew what the problem was because it was exactly what he foretold, the effects of the drug wearing down but she no longer found the patience within herself to cooperate with him. She didn't give a fuck about bargaining or helping him or Eric Patten or this suit's boss or her job or ANYTHING! She just didn't give a fuck about anything else! And she was too tired and stressed to even consider that she had something to lose by being rude.

"I don't care," Brie grated out raggedly from her throat, her clenching teeth making it almost impossible to force the words out. "You keep asking me all these questions like I'm some sort of Eric-fucking-expert. I told you, I don't know Eric Patten. I've never met him. I've only seen him." When she stared fixedly at a sweat droplet running down his neck and couldn't stop herself from analyzing it's slithering path while at the same time counting how many times he blinked, Brie let out a strangled laugh, and began to scratch jaggedly at her arms. "I don't know who you think you're dealing with but there is literally nobody who can fucking help you answer your questions. There is nobody who can help you fucking save her. Whatever Eric has planned for your Lead, it's going to happen because he's already got ahold of her and you can't stop it and you can't fix it. Understand? There! You failed! End of story! Now, please, can you give me another boost like you promised! I'm fucking losing my mind here!" She was shouting again but she didn't care and couldn't stop herself anyway. There was only one thing that would solve her crisis right now and it was the only thing that mattered.

***


The morning landing couldn't have come soon enough. Not that he was eager to get away from the stifling awkwardness in the plane's cabin once everyone was awake again and together, having to deal with the repercussions of the night's activities. Anjie's icy tone and refusal to look at him even as they passed each other in the bathroom doorway definitely wasn't cause for any discomfort or anything. Of course not. And it certainly wasn't like Fin was feeling pressured at all by Creasy's offer to join their division, even with the older man constantly casting thoughtful and fatherly smiles his way, while tending to the very hungover Jewish kid already on his team. Yeah, it was none of that. Fin just wasn't happy about the coffee the flight attendant gave him, that's all. As soon as he hit the ground, he was searching out the nearest Dunkin' Donuts on the way to the Charlton base. After the night he had, he needed something with actual flavor and punch to it before meeting up with Patten.

If he was truly honest, that was the real reason he was relieved to be stepping out of the plane into the morning sunshine. After all the small hints here and there from first Graninger and then Creasy, Fenton was going to finally find out for himself what an evil, underhanded bastard Eric Patten really was. The suspense was killing him! Seriously, though, he'd paid his dues to the Agency with a year of playing a gerbil in a laboratory. Now, he had the name, the uniform and the Agency issued watch and pen and he was more than ready for some actual work. This was it. Everything he'd waited for. He was stepping off the plane not only to meet his new boss but also to face his destiny. The thought occurred to him that it was very likely, as nothing but an A-12, he might get relegated to just doing paperwork - good thing he had his trusty pen ready! - but he refused to let it put a damper on his mood. So long as he was an Agent doing Agency work, he was fine with pretty much anything. The name was important and besides that, Creasy had made a good point: there was always room for advancement if you were good enough.

Yeah, even Anjie shoving mutely past him in the airplane doorway couldn't obliterate the optimistic gleam in his eye. Well... he gave her a dirty look, but the glimmer of hope and confidence was still in there. Honestly, she was acting like he'd admitted to murdering baby seals when all that'd happened was he rejected her sexual advances - as if he wasn't allowed to say "no" to sex while sporting a hardon. Talk about a double standard. He couldn't figure out if it was just what he said to her that wounded her pride or if there was something else he was being blamed for without being aware of it - in that case, passive-aggressively punishing him without telling him anything was a very effective method of leaving him just as clueless as before. If anybody should have been upset about not getting any sex last night it should have been him! She seriously needed to just get over it already.

There was a very expensive looking, dark blue car gleaming at the bottom of the stairs and although the back door remained open, Fin did not follow Anjelica into it's cave-like interior. Instead, he stood at the bottom of the steps, glancing around at the empty airport lot, enjoying the crisp breeze and adjusting his uniform for the 50th time to make sure he was all zipped up and tucked in. He glanced up when Haggins emerged from the plane, giving the kid a sympathetic smirk as the Doc winced painfully in the sunlight and swayed at the top of the stairs. At least he didn't look like he was going to throw up anymore and his skin had lost that greenish pallor. As he gingerly made his way down the steps, clinging to the railing with one hand, Fin couldn't help himself and asked, "Ya alright there, Pukey? Not gonna hurl big, bloated chunks again, are ya? You know, contrary to how you're feeling right now, I hear a greasy breakfast is just the thing to fix it right up."

At the mention of that, Haggins stopped in the middle of the stairwell and closed his eyes while breathing heavily through his nose, obviously trying to gather himself before shooting an annoyed look at Fin. "Please, don't mention vomit. Or food. Or anything. In fact, how about you just don't talk to me?" Aw, somebody was a little cranky. "I told you, I didn't want to drink."

"Hey, now, don't be like that," Fin said soothingly, stepping in front of the lad before he made a move towards the car. "I was just trying to get you to loosen up and have a good time and you did, didn't you?" Haggins, who seemed to be having difficulty recalling the events of last night, furrowed his youthful brow and gave Fin a considering look. Then, apparently deciding to take Fenton at his word, the kid's shoulders relaxed and he nodded his assent, smiling sheepishly as Fin squeezed his shoulder with a laugh.

"Yeah, I guess it was pretty fun." That little blush was adorable! And it was very reassuring that he didn't seem to remember anything about Fenton's interrogation. Good times!

"See? Now, I know the aftermath isn't much of a blast but trust me about the greasy food and just remember to keep yourself properly hydrated next time."

Haggins made a small quirk with his lips and shook his head so that the long curls dangling in front of his ears bounced and then he grimaced again as the motion obviously got him a reprimand from his stomach. "I... don't think I'll be partaking in that ever again, actually."

"Well, don't cut yourself off completely," Fin said, sticking his hands into his pockets and shrugging. "You never know what might happen when you're presented with the opportunity again. Sometimes, you just gotta let go and live a little. If there's one thing you can learn from this it's that life's too short to keep such a tight leash on yourself all the freaking time." Haggins seemed to appreciate this advice better than the breakfast suggestion.

At the sound of voices, they both glanced towards the back of the plane where they could see Creasy standing near the open and exposed rear end of the aircraft, directing the driver who was digging within it's confines. After the one glance, Fin was done looking but when he made note of the "awestruck/breathless" expression on the boy's face, he turned back for another gander. Creasy had been the first to wake up that morning and had already changed clothes and refreshed himself by the time anybody else even opened their eyes. In place of the beige and cream suit he'd worn yesterday, he now donned a crisp black suit, the jacket left unbuttoned, exposing the robin's egg blue dress shirt underneath - still, no tie, Fin could see, and unbuttoned just enough to show off a little bit of collar bone. The effect was the same as it had been yesterday, very casual and relaxed yet clean and professional. If he had to be perfectly honest, then yeah, sure, Creasy was a pretty good looking guy for someone of his age. Standing there with that air of dignified authority with his hands tucked coolly into his pockets, broad shoulders, slim waist, with sunlight glinting off his dangling silver earring and shining through the bristles of the trimmed halo of dark hair around his lips - he certainly looked like the romantic ideal of a roguish gentleman. If you were into metrosexual Southern California guys who liked to show off their chest hair and wear sandals to work. That's when Fin slowly turned his head back toward Haggins.

Fin resisted the temptation at first. He really did. Had a really intense internal argument with himself and everything. It's not a good idea to stick my nose into things that are none of my business. I shouldn't be manipulating people like this. What would Graninger say? He kept expecting Graninger's smug, raspy voice to chime in like it did with everything else having to do with agency relations and rules of conduct. Then it occurred to him this was exactly the type of thing Graninger did to him and other people all the time. Well, I did learn from the best.

The captivated look on the boy's face only lasted a minute but when Haggins turned away, Fin caught his eye again and nodded at him with a knowing smirk. Disturbed by this and a bit flustered that he'd been caught ogling his boss, Haggins reacted like a startled rabbit and glanced worriedly away. Fin forced his eyes back to his own when he put his hand on top of the kid's left shoulder and said in a confiding whisper, "Oh, and don't worry, your secret's safe with me. I won't tell a soul about the things we talked about last night, although, I still think you should give it a chance and just tell him how you really feel." Creasy was sauntering towards them and Fin glanced at him and glanced back, patting Haggins before releasing him. "When you're ready, of course."

"Wait--! What?! I don't--!"

"Everything alright over here?" Creasy asked with an amiable grin as he came to stand next to them.

"Yes, sir! Just giving my buddy here some advice about what to do for breakfast after that nightcap he had." Fin turned to Haggins and nodded sternly, speaking as if he were reiterating something he'd already said and counting off the different items on his fingers. "Big ole plate of hashbrowns, greasy sausage, greasy bacon and some good old fashioned eggs and toast and you'll be fine. Just what the doctor ordered!"

"Right. Thanks," Haggins mumbled with a blush, only half playing along as he began moving towards the vehicle. Oh, look at that. The poor lad looked a bit concerned and distracted now. Well, if the kid honestly didn't remember the conversations from last night, it was the least Fin could do to imply the admission of hidden feelings that had never been uttered.

Although his demeanor was a little possessive at first, Creasy relaxed when his young associate ducked into the backseat of the car. Fin took the opportunity to shake the man's hand and give him a stout slap on the back. "So! I will see you cats in Charlton!"

"Sure thing," Creasy said easily, giving him another warm smile. "Are you sure you don't want to ride with us? I could take the front seat and let you kids all sit in the back together?"

"Ooh, tempting," Fin said with a mocking nod, then tilted his head with a chagrined shrug. "But I think I've got my own ride coming to pick me up." He wanted to make a couple of jokes about that but now that he was sober, he was a lot less inclined to hint that he and Anjelica may have had sex right under her boss's nose. So, instead, he left it at that, since Creasy seemed to get it anyway, nodding in understanding and moving past Fin to the open door. At the same time, the driver moved past them both carrying a large box-shaped, silver case, like what one might use to transport a piece of expensive equipment or weaponry. Fenton was momentarily distracted, watching the guy tuck it into the trunk but his curiosity was derailed when Creasy's door slammed shut and he spoke to Fin through the rolled down window.

"We'll see you in Charlton, then."

"Yes, sir!" Through the window, he could see Anjelica in the far seat, pouting moodily and refusing to look at him still and Haggins sitting next to her was already back to work reading over some paperwork. And actually, now that he saw them all sitting back there together, it looked like there was plenty of room for 3 people. Still, seeing how Anjelica's crossed leg bobbed agitatedly and the way Haggins pored through his files like a man trying to get his mind off of something, Fin did not regret his decision to decline the ride. Although, it looked like it'd be fun times all around. No doubt!

As the driver took his seat and closed the door, Creasy said, "We're going to be pretty busy hunting down some folks, though, so, if we don't see you... remember what I said about digging into things, Fin."

"I most certainly will, sir. And you remember what I said about vodka." That got a small chuckle from the older man, who decided not to comment and shook his head in amusement as the car drove away.

It wasn't until they were out of sight that Fin actually thought about what he told Creasy and decided it'd be a good idea - rather than waiting here for a couple of hours - to double check and make sure he had a ride. Taking out his phone, he texted Graninger to let him know that they'd landed.

Meet up with Quin at the base. You're part of a deal I made with him so don't go straight to Patten. Meet up with Quin and he'll direct you from there.

ya how am i getting to the base btw?

I'm pretty sure the airport rents cars.

"You've gotta be kidding me...." Fin murmured with a small slump of his shoulders. Maybe he should have taken that ride, dammit!

you didnt send a car for me?

No and I sincerely doubt Rudolph Quin sent you one either.

Well, this was just great. Honestly, he should have expected this but after stepping off of the airplane and seeing the car waiting for the Docs... Fenton had been under the delusion that Agents got that sort of treatment and since he was an Agent now and due to meet up with important, higher ranking people, he thought they'd actually make an effort to show they wanted him around. Getting taxis and renting cars from the airport was something he'd done as a civilian nobody. Trying to remind himself that the name was important and that being called an Agent made a difference, Fin made preparations to call a taxi for himself.

Don't be late.

Oh, haha! Sure thing, boss, and thanks for the heads up!

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#, as written by Tartra
So I’m think-king,” he said from where he kneeled beside the girl, “while I don’t regret you ripping a hole through the truck… probably, you shouldn’t’ve ripped a hole through the truck.‘Cause the Cubans were in it, and they had heard the tantrum. He put a sing-songy twist at the end of it – all of this was fucking fun.They’re absolutely telling Caprice.” HA HA! HA HA HA HA-HA!

“Goddammit.” She was doing that thing the French taught her: crossing her arms in a tangled wall. The Agents bred it into their Pain Eaters to keep them off-balance and not kill anyone. Danielle used it to last through conversations she really felt should stop. It was basically the same, except she didn’t have Agency conditioning, so watching her stay calm with only tips she bummed off the France branch was – pthhhhhhhthrrbrrbrr. Lookit her face. Lookit her face! It was so red – lookit how red it was! She was a ghost and she looked like her face was melting and next he thought of sauce and tomatoes he was hungry, he was hungry he could kill them, he could do it it was easy, he could reach he could eat he would eat “What’s the worst they can say?”

'Help, help, we’re in exactly the danger we signed on for’?

“Works for me. Settle it.” The Cubans were chattering in the front seats. Dalton stretched his arm and banged beside the jagged tear split between them. He yelled something, or else just yelled, and they quickly went Cuban-quiet. Now they were background noise. “Did she say anything good?”

She wants to kill us; that’s something,” he answered. “You didn’t catch it?

“I barely understand when you talk.” This was true. Danielle knew a whole ten phrases and all of them were how bad she was at English. She understood it well enough – save for ‘I like butt’. He’d had her repeating it perfectly to welcome guests until an aunt she’d tried to impress told her what it was. His arm still hurt. “No ‘or’?”

Dalton’s job was obvious. He was fluent because he’d paid attention in school. It fell to him to translate what the American whined. He didn’t hold it over her head, he just mentioned it when she was up an extra peg. Right: in short, the point of his involvement was making sure she never overshot into Ultra Bitch. Super Bitch was fine – she was their second-favourite – but Ultra Bitch had an ego that spread like fire and no one was so dumb as to call her out while her temper flared. She was a warrior queen, a stallion amongst ponies. This one time, when they were nine, he’d told Danielle she could fly if she ate a handful worms ‘cause worms became butterflies, which sat his job description as The Mighty Runner of Interference. She united the scattered branches but he helped enough survive to be united. They were welcome, by the way. He wasn’t always intangible. His knee still hurt.

I figured…” more blood more blood more blood more blood more blood “You normally don’t…” Negotiate or care. That was a gift from Charlotte: if it was meant to be, any measure that would have to be taken either already was or was the next natural step. His sister’s demands – ‘who are you, why are you here’ – by and large fit what the other person thought reasonable to trade, or they waited five minutes and something changed and oh, suddenly the captive was willing to have it on the table. Ta-da: Charlotte! So whatever was on the other end of ‘or’ didn’t need to be explained. It would come. And Dalton got to dodge a terrible joke. “I was gonna punch her.” Punch her. Kill her. Punch for food food was chained it was chained in front and under his nose he could smell it it was delicious he was starving he starved he starvedI don’t have to punch her.

“Might smarten her up. I’m not dragging live weight to Union. Not if it doesn’t talk.” Dead was alright. She got as much or more from pawning a corpse. Good ones kept the Cubans busy for almost a day. “I want this done before the checkpoint.”

Fine, fine. He cracked his knuckles and got his Smarten Up Fists ready.

Boss!Kill.’Ey, boss!” He took too long. The Cuban pulled its head inside the cabin again. “’Ey! ‘S’not ‘er, it’s t’e ot’er one!” And straight back: “‘Eeeeeeeeey, ot’er brot’er! Whatchu doin’, man – wha’s gon’ on, ‘ow’s life? Where’s your sister – she floatin’ ‘round ‘ere?” With – just – the stupidest grin. Dalton chose not to answer. This moron didn’t care. His mood instantly withered. “‘An’ ‘ow’s our senorita – how y’doin’ in ‘ose chains, girl?” Its black eyes had settled on the captive as a break from squinting at the trailer’s shadows.

What do you want… you?

He didn’t know their names. They never stopped long enough to be asked.

Me? Wha’ – you t’ink I wan’ somethin’?” The Cuban laughed. “Man, I don’ wanna die – you think I wanna die? I don’ wan’ nothing – look at you! You’re big an’ scary an’ you got ‘at – fuckin’ – like – slobber goin’ on, like –” He wiped his chin. “Yeah! No way – no way, I don’ ever interrupt someone scary like you. T’at’s not me. Dalton. Dalton – man, I fuckin’ swear, ‘at’s not me.” Five seconds went by of it staring at him. The Cuban’s neck bobbed along with road. Its arms pinched over the edge of the hole like legs tucked to a small body. With dark hair, gangly wrists and a long, yellowed nail jutting from its left pinky, the shrivelled brat was a pigeon incarnate, home to roost. Dalton hated pigeons. “‘S Caprice. King Caprice – you know, he’s jus’ – yapyapyapyapyap – all t’e time ‘f you let ‘im. He’s like, ‘I wan’ t’is shit righ’ now,’ an’ I’m all, ‘No, King, y’fuckin’ crazy, King, Dalton’s in ‘ere an’ he’ll fuckin’ kill me,’ an’ he goes, ‘I’ll fuckin’ kill you,’ an’ you know Caprice, I’m like, ‘Okay, King, you’re in charge, don’ tell anyone I don’ earn good shit’. Me ’n’ Laro – Laro’s drivin’ so ‘e sent me ‘ere – we talked an’ we’re wit’ everythin’ – we love you, Dal, an’ all you Vikings – but Caprice, ‘e’s got a message, an’ he don’ like what ‘e been hearin’ outta chicka-wow-wow. T’at’s you, girlie.

I mean, I don’ know ‘ow ‘e found out – Caprice, ‘e’s jus’ fuckin’ everywhere, but he knows, you know? An’ not t’be rude or nothin’ – ‘cause we love you Vikings,” the tweaker promised, possibly mercifully wrapping up. “We love you, but King Caprice tol’ me t’say t’at if missy ‘ere does true on ‘at fuckin’ boom’f ‘ers – like, boom, t’at fuckin’ explosion, she said – man, is she f’real? ‘Cause ‘e says if she does good on ‘at, he gon’ carve it out your ass, an’ if he carve it outta your ass, ‘e gone’ carve it outta my ass. T’is is his truck an’ ‘e wan’ it back wit’ its tires an’ teeth, Dal.” … Was… Did it stop? Dalton wasn’t sure. What he unpacked from the blather was – “Oh yeah, an’ t’e cell team called ’r… somethin’. Fuckin’ Nightstalk – ‘at fuckin’ Brit – ‘ey, Laro! Tell bitchy-queen t’calm ’is ass – she’s not even in ‘ere!

What the –

Nightstalk called?” He reared up. “For what?

I’unno.” The Cuban yawned at its perch and shrugged. “‘E said somethin’ like ‘is guys gotta pro’lem – but you know t’em Kingdom kids: ‘Why you gotta touch my shit all t’e time – man, ‘m British, you fuckin’ Cubanos, you don’ know who y’dealin’ wit’, we know people, fuck t’is shit, man’ – an’ me – ‘s like, ‘t’ey give me such crap, Dal, an’ t’e rest’f us, an’ bitchy-queen’s t’e fuckin’ worst ‘cause ‘e’s no diff’ren’ even after t’e boss beat ‘im. Man, you gotta talk t’your sister – ‘cause, you know, I’m happy t’ey gotta home ‘n’ all, but you fuckin’ wanna talk about attitude, you talk ‘bout them. It’s nuts. It’s fucked.”

Nightstalk called with a problem,” Dalton’s plate-like teeth grinded. “Why didn’t you start with that?

Caprice wanted ‘is first.” He soaked inside his rage and all the Cuban offered was another, even less satisfying bounce of knobby shoulders. “‘Sides, bitchy-queen wanted Danielle. You’re not Danielle, man. Laro, right? El no tiene cojones – not like her anyway, ah-ha-ha! No offence, Dal.

Blood. He wanted blood. He craved blood he needed blood. The pressure in his brain was swelling. His vision blurred his breath grew hoarse his eyes sharpened on the flesh he craved. He blinked it away. It returned. He blinked it away. More red. More red. Red red red red red a stream of it of redDanie–

“Noope, not coming out. Wasn’t worth it the first time,” she said. “Won’t be worth it the second.”

But I’m starving,” he whined.

“Good.” Danielle’s fingers were at her temples, massaging the indents with tight movements. “When you eat one of them, the other’ll shut up. Although with my luck, you’ll give him more to ramble about.”

Get it together, she was telling him, get it together, pull it together, Dalton, strain. She carried the bulk of this for weeks. He could last an hour for her sake. Then she would let him switch. Later. ‘Settle this’, she’d ordered. ‘Settle them.

Dalton’s stomach groaned.

Give me,” he snarled, “the phone.

Don’ get mad at me! I’m only tryin’ t’help. I’ll hol’ it f’you – ‘ey, ‘ey, ‘ey, no, I’ll hold it. Caprice don’ wan’ t’is girl killin’ ‘is car an’ I don’ wan’ you crushin’ up my phone. ‘Ey, speakin’f the girl though, Dalton – don’chu ‘ave an interrogation or –” he cracked his fangs at the pigeon’s moulting face “Okay, okay, calm down, holy fuck! Okay! Screw it, y’wanna talk t’bitchy-queen, ‘s’cool! Man…

“Danielle?”

Nightstalk’s voice rang clear. A sudden… thrill… whisked over him. Nightstalk. HA-HAHA. Nightstalk! Next to Scissor, Night was the best to piss off! The bastard took everything personally and already Dalton tasted impatience hovering above leashed frustration!

No. Me.

“Dalton?” Such displeasure! “She’s – oh, you’re still –” That fumble was Night ‘composing himself’. It wouldn’t do to be ‘unprofessional’. The guy worked for a gang of mercenaries, anarchists and drug runners; provided he made it a day without shanking anyone, he held his spot at the top of the civilized pyramid. Night didn’t realize nobody cared, least of all Danielle, who he badly hoped to impress. Dalton was not a close second. Like Scissor, their dislike was mutually acknowledged. “Oh.” Twat. “This is important. I need to speak with her.”

HAHAHAHAHA!

No.

Instant offense. Dalton felt delightfully wicked. In his mercy, he pat the captive girl roughly on her head. She was being a good prisoner to wait like this.

“You didn’t ask her,” Nightstalk snapped. “Ask her!”

What an attitude. The Cuban bobbed in agreement, language barriers be damned.

Alright, alright. Dalton obliged.

Danielle. Night says he’s got a problem.

“Oh boy, I’ll bet.”

HAHA!

She doesn’t feel like chatting,” he relayed. “That’s still a no.

Sqqqqqqqqqqrrrrrrrrrp.

There was the glorious sound of Nightstalk’s hole puckering closed. Dalton howled in laughter. These Kingdom scraps couldn’t get it. They liked their old ways of ‘the queen served her people’. They expected to access her as a basic right. Welcome to the Nordics, pricks. The lion pride served Danielle – and Danielle didn’t wanna come out. Dalton was shocked she’d bothered with the Cubans at all. Well, lesson learned, it appeared. He was gonna bite off the pigeon’s hand within the hour. It hung there waiting.

“Fine,” Nightstalk did slllloooowwwly concede. “How long do I wait?”

‘Til she does feel like it. That’s my guess.

“Dalton.”

Yes, dammit, the girl! He felt rude. He hated when people underestimated his threats; ignored completely probably wormed itself under the child’s skin.

Sorry, sis. Night, get back to Charlotte.” But he wasn’t done! His jaw ached as it crashed together, trying to find something – anything – it could eat or mock. “We –

“It’s Buzzy. Buzzy – and Alexander – mostly Elias – but it’s Buzzy in the thick of this,” their chivalrous fellow blurted. Oh my. That wasn’t composed. It didn’t sound composed in the slightest. Dalton should kill him for not being composed it would be hysterical “She broke him. She was disconnecting Charlotte and she shut Elias’ cell shut off. She screamed and – and Scissor panicked and attacked me thanks to her!”

Even Scissor was sick of him. If this was English, the Cubans would’ve had a comment or sixteen.

“I hope he’s not saying that’s the bad news.”

‘Cause Danielle liked most of what was in there when he told her.

No Elias leaves less to track,” he realized. “We won’t need to replace the French guy!

“And Buzzy’ll kill herself in grief!”

Right. There was also that.

HAHAA-HA-HA!

My sister lent ears to your mewling, Night,” Dalton said. “She smiles upon your tidbits.

“She’s not supposed to smile! She should be concerned!” On he mewled. “Buzzy’s place wasn’t anywhere near me or Scissor. She shoved into our mission, seduced him, attacked me through him, and in the middle of it she breaks the thing Danielle specifically ordered not be touched!”

“I ordered no prisoners.”

“Wh-what?” Dalton relayed his sister’s sentiment twice. “Oh.” Night sounded trapped. He couldn’t pretend he hadn’t heard. “I… well – Magnus was the one to physically pick them up.” HA! AH-HA! “I caught them but he could’ve… But Buzzy,” he Britishly sobbed. “She’s not sad. She can’t simply switch between forlorn loss and being okay in a matter of hours, but she’s all over Scissor. I am asking, as a formal request, for Danielle’s permission to restrain her. She’s obviously done something – it’s not right!”

He makes this shit up,” Dalton swore. No branch fucking worked like this, ‘requesting permission’ like a knighted pig. He was glad the Kingdom was dead. It took effort grabbing the stick from the Germans’ ass; imagine yanking the sceptre from these cheeks. “Buzzy’s not that smart.

“No,” Night readily agreed, “but she thinks she is, and she would never hurt Elias. Maybe she helped with the transfer or… well – we don’t know who’s in Alexander.”

“End it,” Danielle said. Dalton waved the phone away. The Cuban closed it mid-“It could be Lamarre! Or Patten!” and nestled into the cabin, home for now. “He’s got half a decent point.” Oh, it killed her to say that.

You’re thinking Lamarre’s in Alexander?

That could be why – “I don’t give a fuck who’s in him, we have him in chains,” she rattled off. “What matters is why they bothered.” Her arms tightened across her chest and her weight shifted to a leg. “Ask her.”

Do you want that punch?” She shrugged. ‘Either way.’ Dalton pounded on the girl’s ribcage. The blast ran through her collarbone. He could see the skin ripple from the impact of his fist. “Let’s hope you explode as fast you complain and not as fast as you think, otherwise I’ll have Alexander stuffed inside twelve boxes and mailed to every continent before you even light your fuse.” She didn’t have a bomb. Magnus checked before he put her in, and Dalton, reserving his faith for a child-breaker’s judgement calls, checked again. It was where half the girl’s bruises had come from. “Some friend to get him killed demanding if he’s been killed. Be smart. If you’re gone, how will he survive? I thought that’s why he brought you.” Or, as Danielle most definitely heard, “It is time now to wake and think of your duty. How he will bleed when you abandon him like a fish.” She made broken English sound fancy. “If it’s still him. That’s your new question,” Dalton continued in English, babbling growls and accent and all. “You were found by him and a transfer chair. Why did Alexander make the trip?” ... Um... Drooling. Pressure. Famine. He lagged behind. “Why’s this the part that matters?

“Because it’s short.” Captives liked giving long answers, he sleepily recalled her explaining once. It gave them more time to bullshit a smart lie. “And after five years, he picks today to swap back into his body? No. How long has this been their plan? What prompted it?” She was much better at catching this stuff while switched-out. “And stop drooling.”

He got a little on the girl. Yick. He wiped it off. Or patted it in. Who could tell?

I’ll find you a rag from somewhere. Eventually. On the bright side,” he smoothly comforted, “I’m not eating you.

* * *


“Hello? Hello?!” Dammit! Damn that stupid, fucking Viking! Dalton hadn’t asked Danielle. Danielle would have never hung up on him, but here he was, putting away a phone wailing piteously in its dead dial tone. He sucked down a ball of resentment, seething because of it, and then he... and...

“You’re so right! He is like a cow.” That voice was like raking a cheese grater down his spine. “He chews his own vomit and serves his shit in a pie. Ooh – you’re so clever!” Her blue eyes batted a hurricane in her ‘lover’s’ face. Scissor swooned, delighted. Then she noticed Nightstalk was watching her and snapped, “Can I help you? He’s always staring at me – he’s such a creeper.”

He tensed his jaw. Scissor only met her four months ago and swore he was in love with every scrawny bit of her. That’d been day one. Day two had been a nauseating love affair, day three had been a weird break up, day four was some ridiculous Romeo and Slutiet drama, and whatever else they could think of, Nightstalk had a front seat to it. Buzzy lacked the barest shame and Scissor demanded a babysitter. Nobody wanted this job. Half didn’t think anyone needed to do it. As much as he enjoyed working with the Nordics, they were buried in their faults. Subtleties were lost on them. Minor issues shored up around their feet and they took notice just when it all went to merciful hell. It was more fun for them to fix a big problem than constantly play janitor to the small stuff. Well, being a janitor was an important role somebody had to swallow. It was up to him, was it? Fine. He would sort it himself.

“Night,” Scissor called, vacationing from his girlfriend’s tongue, “what did Danielle say?”

He made out to reply but her mouth had the edge of always hanging open.

“Danielle doesn’t talk to anyone after she’s switched,” Buzzy drawled, lazing on her pet. “I bet Dalton hung up on him.”

Scissor used to think for himself, if anyone could believe it. Now, instead, he shrugged as if ‘yes, that makes sense’ and abruptly decided, “I’ll ask at the checkpoint.”

“I managed it,” Nightstalk bit off. “She told me she was looking into it.”

“And that she’s buying him a pony,” the brat giggled.

And that she appreciated my initiative,” he corrected. That stopped her. Buzzy gaped at him with the disgustedly bored expression she always tugged on when someone set the story straight. He hadn’t, not really, since Dalton didn’t pass the message along, but if Danielle spoke with him, it was roughly along the lines of what she would’ve said. “It’s more than she’d tell you.”

Buzzy blinked and turned her eyes away – up, like they were caught mid-roll – and twitched the corner of her lip into a scandalized sneer.

“Okay, sooooooo... You’re the cow now, ‘cause that’s bullshit. Danielle’s never appreciated – like... anyone. Ever. She’s not gonna start being grateful for you. She doesn’t even like you.”

Scissor didn’t say a word because he had his hand under her shirt. Some friend!

“She likes me better than you,” Nightstalk reminded everyone.

“Oh my God, are you serious? Whatever – I don’t work for her!” Buzzy twisted her feet to rest more snugly on the back seat’s window. Besides flipping her stupid, blonde pigtails and their stupid, pink bows, it was the greatest dismissal in her arsenal. She was fully reclined and ready to doze. He hoped the seatbelt tangled around her neck. “I’m here because Cryptic asked, not because she likes me.” Her voice sparkled like a princess. He hoped the seatbelt cut her head off. “It doesn’t matter if she does anyway, ‘cause if she wants to stay in my branch’s good graces, she has to treat me like an angel.”

Nightstalk was sure angels weren’t as big of whores.

She was the worst insult of this trip. Bad enough he’d been assigned to out-of-the-way work – technically the entire point of being here, but wrangling a stasis cell wasn’t nearly the badge of honour it should have been – but to then be walked over by this Russian harpy... She’d even forced herself into their truck. It wasn’t a ‘truck’ truck, because they were riding with the convoy – at the back – rather than the big Macks, but it was still reserved for the SCR team. Nightstalk was riding as the passenger and Scissor should have the back to himself. It hadn’t even been a question. Buzzy simply walked in, claiming the beige and pleather 4x4. The Cubans were meant to run those controls. It was his hard luck that the first time he wanted one to run a mouth at her, he got the truly silent driver. It wasn’t fair.

Glue! Glue was friends with Magnus, and Magnus said he would end up driving Alexander’s body!

“I have to make a second call,” he announced, accepting that they didn’t care. Glue would care. She hated the whisper of Alexander’s name. She would check on that note, if she didn’t as a favour. He remembered being on good terms with her, and Nightstalk couldn’t think of anything that changed. Carefully he let a cloak of shadows surround his head. He wanted to mute the sound and dampen the morning sun they were driving into. The back of his mind wondered how CryShadow was getting along with the daybreak, but it was probably under someone’s car, either enjoying the ride or shuffling under the shade. Its scream... Nightstalk shivered. “Glue? Glue, are you free to speak?”

Did Patten weep like a whore when Lady Pimp died?” There was a question he wasn’t asked every day. “I’m busy, Night.

“Glue. You recognized my voice.”

He liked that.

You’re the only prick with English as his mother tongue who’ll speak Swedish to another Anti with English as her mother tongue,” she replied, not as unkindly as it appeared. Glue was a stiff woman. Friendlier than this meant she was skinning an Agent. “I recognized the over-doing it. What do you want?

“I need you to check Alexander for...” For... “... tampering.” And yes, he’d returned to his native speech. He didn’t see why it was a problem when they all spoke it now. He’d had to insist with Scissor and his girl, who’d insisted the other way for the full trip to Charlton. If they’d been overheard in the halls or garage, it was much less likely with Swedish that – but Scissor hadn’t cared. “The Russian insisted she help. After we were nearly caught waiting for her, she sent Scissor to attack me and botched Elias’ cell somehow. Not that I’d feel bad to see him suffer well overdue mental trauma, but for our sakes, we should be sure it is still Alexander.”

“If it’s not?”

“All the good graces in the world won’t stop what I’ll be sure Danielle levels at her,” Nightstalk promised.

He could hear her confliction. She must have known Danielle wasn’t already backing this, or he wouldn’t have been the person calling. But she hated Buzzy too, and Alexander most of all. Nightstalk swallowed in his throat.

“Night,” Glue began, “what’s the goal here?”

“I want to keep our new branch safe.” ‘New’ wasn’t the best word. The Nordics adopted them a few years ago. “Also, I’m sick of Buzzy’s face. She’s the shining example of what’s wrong with the Union. The others caught desperation in the air and they’re taking advantage of it – the Russians, the Cubans, not the Germans but purely because they’re in more dire straits than we are. The Nordics are supposed to be noble. I’m tired of Buzzy putting her feet on our window and smearing our good name with her snark. She did this on a whim!”

“And in return, you’ll risk breaking an alliance on your own whim?”

Glue seemed halfway amused. It was hard to tell with her. Was that condescension? She didn’t normally talk down.

“If Buzzy has actively participated in whatever happened to Alexander before we found him, the alliance is broken already. I’m simply bringing it to light.” She was quiet. The silence was as stony as she was. “I’m serious. I’m not going to stand here and let her and the rest of them make fools of us. I didn’t join for th– ”

“You’re fucking mental.” Crap. He’d lost her. “Are you telling me this is about honour? Did you forget how that turned out for us the last time?”

“I was there –“

“The Americans,” Glue snarled, laying into the word, “clipped off Kevin Wald’s head and dropped us on Arthur – who, though there should be no need to reiterate, wasn’t so much a coward as he was a snivelling traitor. There’s been no honour left, and you’re mental – unequivocally mad – if you think you’ll scrounge it out from amongst them.” He swallowed again. His mouth was strangely dry. “Danielle took in those of us with anything left to give and shared a chance to finish the war. That’s where your honour lies, not fighting your best mate’s girl.

“They aren’t together,” he protested.

“Nightstalk,” she gnashed, “if your only interest is in saving face from Buzzy, I can’t help you. I joined to stop the Agency from murdering innocents.”

“I did, too – of course I did, but don’t you think that’s harder with people like her around?” There was frigid nothing. He closed his eyes in a merciful plea. “Does that mean you won’t check?”

“Fuck off.” ‘Not for you’ was the whisper underneath. “I’ll have Alexander sorted when the day fucking calls for it, not to gather evidence for your one-man execution.”

Probably at the checkpoint. Yes, the checkpoint!

“But you’ll at least let me know what’s happened,” he begged for the future.

The wailing dial tone returned. Suddenly angry, he jammed the miserable plastic in his pocket and pulled back the shadows. Buzzy’s harpy laughter instantly returned. He scowled deeply as it paraded through his ears.

Ugh, he’s back.”

“Hey, Night! Any use?”

“Yes,” Nightstalk said quickly. Too quickly. He smoothed his features over. “Yes, it went well. I heard what I needed to hear.”

It was the truth, he admitted sullenly. He had heard. He squinted into the morning, settling into a private world of thought to sort this himself. From the giggles in the back, the muteness at his side, and the abandonment at his pocket, he saw his lonely road ahead. Somebody had to save them. Once more, Nightstalk accepted the chore thanklessly. They would appreciate it later. This time, he knew they would.

* * *


It should go without saying we won’t allow food on the premises, either. This is expensive equipment. We can’t have schnitzels or borscht breaking it. Punishment for failing to adhere to this includes detainment, suspension, loss of pay – ‘cause you’ll be the ones covering repairs – or termination. Depending on how we feel about what you broke, that termination’ll be less of the paper kind and more of the type with lead. Any considerations or unreported changes to the plan have to be authorized by Dr. Grace Li. But don’t bother. She’s not authorizing anything.

SO IT APPEARED.

NO FOOD, NO DRINKS, NO PETS, NO WOOL, NO PHONES, NO CAMERAS, NO UNREGISTERED CHEMICALS, NO MAGNETS, NO SHOES THAT SCUFFED, NO PERFUMES, NO MUSIC, NO UNMARKED BAGS, NO PURSES, NO UMBRELLAS, NO WIRES, NO LOOSE AMMUNITION, NO NAKED BLADES, NO FLARES, NO SPONGES, NO METAL GROOMING SUPPLIES, NO SCREWDRIVERS, NO RAZORS, NO CLIPPERS, NO CLIP-ON EARRINGS, NO FOLDERS LARGE ENOUGH TO CONCEAL A WEAPON IF HOLLOWED OUT, NO BOOKS OF OTHERWISE SIMILAR DIMENSIONS, NO FLASHLIGHTS, NO OUT-OF-SEASON WEAR, NO KEY CHAINS, NO REMOTE CONTROLLED DEVICES, NO TIMED DEVICES, NO DIGITAL WATCHES – SHORT OF ‘NO CLOTHES’, GRACE LI HAD DENIED EVERY POSSIBLE ITEM ON PAIN OF INSTANT EXPULSION FROM HER BUILDING. IT COULDN’T HAVE BEEN A MORE HOSTILE SIGN FOR VISITORS THAN IF SHE HAD OUTRIGHT BANNED THEIR LANDING.

THE STAGE WAS SET FOR THE TIP OF THIS ICEBERG. MADELINE’S HANDS SQUEEZED THEIR OPPOSITE ARMS. THEY WOULD DESCEND SOON, WITHIN MINUTES NOW, BUT THE SOURED MILK OF APPREHENSION HAD ALREADY CURDLED IN FEAR INSIDE HER STOMACH. SHE WAS SCARED. SHE WASN’T SO YOUNG THAT SHE GAVE IT AWAY AND MARCH’S BLANK EYES GAVE HER A LOOK TO REFLECT, BUT SHE FELT THE PAIN INSIDE HER STOMACH. SHE TRUSTED EVERYONE TO DO THEIR JOB, BUT SHE DIDN’T BELIEVE SHE WAS SAFE. IT WOULD KEEP HER ALERT. LI WAS RUTHLESS AT THE FIRST TWINGE OF INSUBORDINATION, AND MADELINE DIDN’T HAVE THE WEEKS TO TRUDGE THROUGH QUESTIONING. AT LEAST PATTEN PICKED HIS BATTLES. HIS S-1 COULDN’T LET ANYTHING PASS WITHOUT A DAMN COMMENT.

MEANWHILE, THEY HAD TO SUFFER THIS INVALID. THE ONLY SECTOR MORE UP THEIR ASS WITH REGULATIONS THAN S WAS THE AGENCY’S INCONTINENT GRANDFATHER: R. SHE WAS SURE HER KITTY KNEW THE HISTORY BACKWARDS AND FORWARDS, BUT SHE WAS SATISFIED BY, ‘FIRST THEY WORKED TOGETHER, THEN THEY STOPPED’. EXCEPT THEY HADN’T REALLY WORKED TOGETHER. THE AGENCY WAS THE DARK HORSE EVEN AMONG ITS KIN, AND THE SPLIT, OUTSIDE THE A-RANKS, WAS SO LIGHTLY REGARDED THAT THREE MEMOS WENT OUT BEFORE THE PUBLIC SIDE ACKNOWLEDGED THERE WAS A NEW GROUP AT ALL. AGENTS WERE DEADLY, DANGEROUS PSEUDO-ASSASSINS TALLYING BASTARDIZED LEAPS IN HUMAN ADVANCEMENT, BUT THEIR LOW-PROFILE ATTITUDES MADE IT IMPOSSIBLE TO EARN RESPECT. THEY WERE STILL MERELY SPECIALIZED R’S TO MOST, AND SO WHEN THEY WERE ADDRESSED, OTHER SECTORS USED SMALL WORDS. WAS IT ANY WONDER WHY PATTEN WAS CHERISHED? THE AGENCY HAD A PUBLIC CHAMPION NOW, ONE TO HOLD SECRETS IN THEIR PLACE BUT MESMERIZE THE AUDIENCE WITH HOW MUCH HE COULDN’T SHARE. DESPITE HER HATRED OF THIS COMPANY’S VERY SOUL, MADELINE HAD FELT A SLIGHT CONTENTMENT THE FIRST TIME SHE’D DENIED A C-RANK BITCH ACCESS TO HER FILES. SHE HAD PRINTED THE POLITICALLY VICIOUS LETTER SHE WAS SENT. IT HUNG ON THE WALL IN CHARLTON. SHE WOULD NEVER SEE IT AGAIN.

“STEWART,” SHE SAID FLATLY. “WE ARE HERE. DO NOT FORGET WHAT WAS TOLD TO YOU.”

AND THE DOG...

THE SICKLY THING HAD FAINTED EARLIER, BUT SHE KNEW A PRETENDER WHEN SHE SAW IT. HE WAS PLAYING DEAD. FINE. THAT WAS NOT A CONCERN. HER QUESTION WAS WHETHER HE COULD PLAY SHUT YOUR FAT MOUTH. WOULD IT DO HIM GOOD ANYWAY, ASSUMING ‘GOOD’ WAS CATCHING HER WITHOUT EXPECTING TO LIVE? MADELINE DID NOT KNOW. MARCH WAS... OFF. THE DOG WENT IGNORED. WAS SHE ABLE TO STOP ANYONE LIKE THIS?

USBs¸ CDs, DVDs, whatever you save stuff on, are especially banned. You are not permitted to take anything with you. If we could, we’d wipe your memory, but we can’t yet. Trust me, we’re working on it.” THE IMBECILE PAUSED WITH A SHUFFLE OVER THE MICROPHONE. SHE WORKED OUT THAT TWO ESCORTS WERE THERE TO MEET THEM. MADELINE HADN’T HEARD THE OTHER SPEAK, BUT GIVEN WHAT THE FIRST GRUNTED AFTER THESE BRIEF CONFERENCES, SHE GUESSED THE SECOND WAS THE SMART ONE. “‘Working on it’ is a figure of speech. Or maybe it’s not. You aren’t authorized to ask.

THANK GOD FOR THIS QUALITY. ELMIRA WAS MEANT TO HAVE EMPTIED ITS SECURITY AS PER THE PROTOCOL SHE SPENT YEARS WRITING IN. SHE WAS WORRIED THE REMNANTS WOULD CAUSE THEIR OWN PROBLEMS. NOT LIKELY. BUT THEN, LI WASN’T A WOMAN TO LEAVE HERSELF – HER WORK – UNCARED FOR. SOMETHING ELSE WAS THERE, BIGGER THAN THE TINNY VOICE PIPED IN THROUGH THE HELICOPTER’S SPEAKERS. SHE DIDN’T PLAN ON RUNNING INTO IT WITH THE RUSSIANS NEARBY, BUT ALL THE SAME, THE UNKNOWN SPOILED HER CALM. THAT, AND SHE JUST ADMITTED TO COUNTING ON CRYPTIC TO SPARE HER FROM LI’S RESERVES. PERHAPS SHE SHOULD HAVE STAYED... BUT THEN SHE REMEMBERED HOW NORDICS ENDED FIGHTS. IF THEY DIDN’T BURN THE BUILDING, THEY POISONED THE AIR WITH THE CHARRED FLESH OF ANY CREATURE THEY DID NOT ENTER IN WITH. SHE HELD PROPORTIONED FAITH IN DANIELLE PERSONALLY. THE NORDIC BRANCH, DANIELLE’S POWERS, HER BROTHER AND ALEXANDER, MADELINE DID NOT. AT THE MINIMUM, THE RUSSIANS WOULDN’T GET CONFUSED AND KILL HER. SHE CHOSE THE BEST PATH. IT SAVED HER FROM ARGUING ABOUT ‘ALEXANDER’S PRESENCE AS SABOTAGE’ WITH A HULKING, SWEDISH MESS OF TRUST ISSUES. PATTEN’S SPIES WERE A MINEFIELD, TOO. SOMETHING WAS MISSED. SHE WAS NOT ALLOWED TO MISS. IF ANYTHING HAPPENED, THE CRUSHING GUILT TO FOLLOW WOULD BE IRREPARABLE, AND THE GERMAN BRANCH WASN’T STUMBLING ON A THIRD CHANCE.

... about the escort.

I know what I’m doing, Horton. Learn something,” THE FIRST BARKED. “And as for the escort process, understand that we are your lifeline. This area is under total lockdown.” UNOFFICIALLY. SHE IGNORED IT. “Anyone we do not have attached to our waists will be shot and killed on sight. Any sudden movements or wrong turns or fingers getting itchy to touch will be repaid by the full force of our Agency wrath.

THIS WAS AN AGENT. THAT MAN HAD IMPLIED HE WAS AN AGENT.

WELL... THEN.

THIS WAS WHY THOSE UNDER A-10 WERE A DAMN EMBARRASSMENT TO THE WHOLE ORGANIZATION: THEY WERE INDISTINGUISHABLE FROM AN R-RANK. ANY AGENT WORTH SOMETHING WOULD BE PAST THAT LINE BY NOW. CANNON FODDER, THEY WERE LABELLED. DISPOSABLE BRUTES THEY THREW AT THEIR ENEMIES UNTIL A SIDE RAN OUT. THEY WERE LOYAL TO A PAYCHECK AND POINTED A GUN THE RIGHT WAY FORWARD, BUT THEY DIDN’T MATTER. THEY MERELY PREFERRED TO THINK THEY DID. THIS PLACE WAS RUN BY LESS THAN TWENTY PERCENT OF THE HANDS THEY EMPLOYED. HER NEW ABSENCE AND MARCH’S IMPENDING DEPARTURE WAS GOING TO BE A SORE LOSS.

Washroom breaks are scheduled and timed. It’s your responsibility to use these facilities when they’re offered, because we aren’t stopping every hour to wait for you to freshen up. Failure to adhere to these requirements ends in swift and merciless discipline. This is all explained in those forms you had to sign to get in here. We’re here to keep this lab safe from you. We are extremely talented at that.

IMAGINE WHAT LOSING THEIR CAT WOULD DO.

... the forms when... otherwise they...

IT WAS A PIPE DREAM. DAMN JEAN FOR STARTING IT... NOW SHE COULDN’T CAST THE FANTASY FROM HER HEAD.

JEAN WAS BIASED AT ANY RATE. AS A PAIN EATER, AS A FRIEND, AS AN EMOTIONALLY BONDED SPIRIT, MADELINE MORE THAN ONCE HAD QUESTIONED WHO WAS TRULY GROOMING WHOM. OBVIOUSLY HE SWORE TO HIS STORY’S TRUTH AND KEPT TO IT, BUT IF THE MAN DIED A YEAR LATER INSTEAD OF DAYS AGO, WHAT WOULD HE HAVE DIED AS? LAMARRE SEEMED MORE OF AN AGENT THAN EVER. HIS VOICE LINGERED IN HER EAR FROM THE PHONE CALL. IF JEAN HAD BEEN RIGHT, THERE OUGHT TO HAVE BEEN LESS RESISTANCE, NOT MORE. IT WAS ALL WRONG.

That’s it,” THE SPEAKERS CRACKLED, FINISHING A SHORT DIATRIBE ON HAVING THE PROPER FORMS ON HAND – OR FACE DEATH. “We’ll have a car to your landing zone shortly.” LANDING ZONE? WHERE WAS THE LANDING ZONE? “You’ll be forty minutes out. Naturally, Dr. Grace Li doesn’t want you arriving at the lab. You’ll have to be driven.

MADELINE PROCESSED THIS.

FUCKING LI.

“LAND THE HELICOPTER ON HER ROOF,” SHE COMMANDED THE PILOT. “SHE’S AN S-1.” AND MADELINE HELD SOMETHING THAT TRUMPED A RAGGED PACK OF GRUNTS. “I HAVE PATTEN’S GIRL.”

* * *


“You’ve never worked with goggles, have you?” As in, alongside someone using them. “It’s not the same as a masked suit,” Jason said. “The focus is completely different.”

He couldn’t snap. He wouldn’t. Ten variations of ‘What a bitch’ rocked his mind the second she screamed, but he held them in since that wouldn’t help. It took more effort than he thought. Her attitude was pissed him off – what was wrong with her? She was an A-5! Forget the drugs he’d given her – it was impossible to make it to his rank without an ounce of self-control, but shouting back wasn’t going to bring it out in her. There was too much hostility surrounding them and he had to turn the tension down. He took a breath, let his head clear before he spoke, and then tried to do the thing he’d always sworn he was: be professional. The other suit worked for Eric. Jason liked Eric, but A-1s carried rings of doom. He’d felt it. Whether or not she’d only seen him, he guessed it would feel worse working for the man. He was going to be patient. But firm. None of him was happy about this, but unlike Quin, she was a direct peer. He practically owed her the benefit of doubt, so he’d started to explain himself.

“You have it easy. Masked suits search, find and report.” Scout and Outs, they weren’t cleverly called. Masks were what everyone thought of when suits earned a mention. “You’re eyes. You go into dangerous areas, but you don’t have to work at creating a story. You just tell the story you see. And put up with fabric scratching your face every day.” He hated those masks. They were like steel wool on his skin. The difference they made in fading, though... He needed the itchy boost to reach the places where he could do his job. “I have to stitch clues together and recreate scenes using whatever I can dig up. I’m required to answer those impossible questions no one can, like if a psychic who doesn’t know she’s psychic will turn on us or the odds are that she’ll find protection from a guy who happens to be an expert in killing us.” Side note: pretty good odds, actually. “You use fading as a weapon. I use it as a defence. You use information as trivia. I use it as life blood. You get into places I would never think of risking. I break into data no one should have access to.”

It was the line between ‘their drugs’ and ‘his drugs’. Masked suits’ calmed them down. They had fanciful potions of blind courage and stupidity, depending on the strength. Suits with goggles got assigned cocktails of Ritalin and caffeine on steroids. They didn’t just have to be awake for analysis. Their analysis was all they were allowed to think about. If goggled suits didn’t overdose, they died because they starved. The Agency called this a good work ethic. It made them sitting ducks during reconnaissance, though, which was why the masks were sent in. They lived a loose hunter/gatherer set up. Jason probably could’ve been spared a lot with someone else to do the scouting for him. But then he never would’ve been assigned to this case because his Lead wanted someone to do both alone.

“I’ve had a really shitty, last few days.” It was a bit of an understatement. “I’m tangled with Alexander and the Agents who run his secret case – well, the last one, anyway. The second Agent died and his boss is blaming me for it. I had my goggles stolen and that put me with withdrawal until an hour ago. It’s not gone because my target reset them –” He felt the sting of anger and pushed through it. “– but I’ve gotten a third of my old settings back in place. I’m on a plane that’s following a flight plan from Hell because we aren’t there, and it’s all to stop my Lead from doing something she hired me to help her do. Anything I try is going to annoy Eric, and I can’t afford to have that happen.”

He just realized what he’d said. Oh God. He was working against an A-1. He was gonna be sick.

“I...” Buckets of nausea poured over him. “If you can’t give me answers, let’s try cooperation. We’ll – just... give it a shot.” Or however many it took. Jason knew this girl knew more. He wasn’t asking the right way, that was all. “Can we try that? Truce?” He did save her life. “Then maybe we can start again. You’ve got a lot of rumours, and that’s perfect – I can use those. Maybe you can tell me about the other side of things. What does he do with people he doesn’t like?” An A-1 was an A-1, after all. Even Eric had to have a few enemies. “I want to hear what to look out for. And I can share what I know.” He could always tell her what he’d saved her from. His goggles had to have something else about it.

But fat chance she was getting any boost. He told her what it cost. It wasn’t charity.

Keeping a straight face and talking softly, his best swing at swing ‘pleasantly neutral’, he finished with an open-ended, “So?”