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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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Tartra holds sovereignty over Present Day, giving them the ability to make limited changes.

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Minimap

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

17 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.
Tommy McConaugh [3] A paranoid taxi driver.
Brie [3] A loser with a suit.
Noel [1] The Lead Agent on Osono's case.(Deceased)

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Setting

2 Characters Present

Character Portrait: Alexander Stall Character Portrait: Xander
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#, as written by Tartra
He wasn’t sure about this. Her and him, his lead and the A-1... Maybe it was the way her eyes had glued to him the minute he stepped on the scene. Maybe it was the way she’d seemed to need to stand out as the most welcoming of all of them. Maybe it had to do with her actually saying – with a straight face, but when did that change – the word ‘fangirl’ and meaning it. Whatever it was, all of them, none of them, some combination, Jason felt wary. Melvin or not-Jean was getting a lot of her attention and it was a little unfair he didn’t have to work for it. Jason couldn’t blame him. As an A-1, Melvin-Jean-Eric-Jeffrey was supposed to command total respect. Plus he seemed like a... decent enough person. That was something extra rare because the A-1 level of Agents – the few of them deigned skilled enough to merit such an enormously powerful ranking – were known to be the most ruthless the Agency had to offer, and here the man had taken it upon himself to ask some A-5’s name. A-5 Special, since he had a suit, but all the same, Jason was sort of looking forward to working with him.

‘Glad’. Yeah. He’d take her word on that.

“My dear lady, if there is ever the smallest question on your lovely mind, don’t wait to ask,” Eric said, shining like a shard of the sun. “I’m here to help – or stand back and watch, ‘cause I am blown away by how spectacularly you three put this plan together. Ambush in Charlton? Genius. Who came up with that? I love ‘em – and I tell ya, I’ve been around the past couple of months to check in on some of the other groups.” He winced, shook his head, and hissed out a pained breath. “Not lookin’ good. Butchered beyond belief, most of ‘em. You know some Agents’ve been chasing their targets for six years?” Benoit glared. The look sent Eric laughing, and with his newly established body, he threw a gigantic arm over the Frenchman’s shoulders and pulled him in for a crushing side-hug. “I’m just joshin’ you, Benny! You got a hard kid to catch! I’m surprised you made it thisfar.”

Benoit was murderous.

“Eric,” he said stiffly, “let me go.”

“Sure thing! But Ms. March – Stephanie’s fine I hope, and feel free to give me whatever name you like, but not ‘Jean’, I guess – I’m joking. You’re too uptight, Benoit, and we’ve gotta work on that – Stephanie!” He bowed his head. “I am impressed, to put it simply. Never have I heard of something so elaborate being slapped together to catch a girl whose powers aren’t even active.”

“They’re active,” Jason said. He flinched when the A-1’s eyes switched to his, in full view now that he was wearing normal, thick-stemmed glasses. He made himself relax when he realized how open the look was. Nothing to fear so long as they were on the same side, but something told him it’d be in their best interest – and for more reasons than career development – to stay in Eric’s good graces. Not that it felt hard. Jason was energized just by being around him, and he confidently went on to explain, “Our target’s powers very recently turned active.”

“Oh?” It wasn’t Eric’s fault. Jason hadn’t been updating the report. He’d been distracted, what with his goggles and everything... “Well – damn! I came at the fun bit, didn’t I? So how far along is she? Fully functioning? Barely crawling? Somewhere neatly in-between?”

“Ah...” His lead would have to field that one. For now, Jason offered a quick, “She’s not at full power.”

“Ooooooh – I hate that,” Eric said, but the grin on his face played with the news as if it was the greatest thing he’d heard all year. “When there’s one last trick up their sleeve? They hide it ‘til the end, ‘til you give up and think ‘if she’s not using it now, she never will’, then they wait for you to go in for the kill and – BAM! Head explodes. Yours, I mean, not theirs, ‘cause how much harder would this job be, right?”

“Significantly less,” Benoit said. “In case you still fail to grasp the bitter concept, our work is not for fun. We are trying to keep the world from falling at the hands of idiots who cannot control themselves. If they all decided to kill each other, there would be no need for us.”

“So serious,” Eric said. “We should get you a little cape saying ‘Captain Killjoy’. You can fight crime with the power of making people feel bad about enjoying a nice day.”

“There has been nothing ‘nice’ about today,” Benoit snarled. His teeth were grinding around the cigarette in his mouth. “I pray you remember not everyone shares your sick sense of adventure.”

Sharper than ever, Benoit turned on his heel and stalked to the elevator, losing a touch of that Agency-bred grace as he threw his hand on the switch. He wasn’t waiting for them, clearly, and Jason swore the man would’ve flipped the A-1 off if he’d been in any body other than his old friend’s, rank be damned. It stung. ‘Resonated’ was more the word, probably. Jason felt bad. The Flunky had been an asshole and he was relieved to be rid of him – and gaining Eric was a massive improvement – but he’d been getting along with Frenchie. It was too bad there was no one left on his team, courtesy of Alexander picking them off one by one, but if Benoit truly needed someone to... well – Agents never ‘talked’ to each other about anything, so whatever the next closest alternative to that was, Jason hoped the lead had someone there to help him.

“I remember when I first met Jean,” Eric said, sagely. “Young guy, half this size, greener than the Irish at Oktoberfest – wait, that’s German – but – still, showing potential. Good Agent, as it turned out. Never had a chance to officially chat with him, but competent and obedient and what more could you want in hired help?” He clapped Jean’s hands together. “Enough of that! That’s depressing! Let’s focus on getting this done. Jason!”

“Yes, sir?”

That sent a flutter through Eric’s face, who ‘awww’ed at the show of respect and only stopped himself from patting Jason on the head because he could’ve crushed his skull with the massive hand. Instead, he asked, “You mind givin’ me a quick recap on what’s been happening so far? Don’t wanna miss some crazy ‘don’t wear red or your bones will melt!’ super-trivia about Miss. Stewart. Got some insight into what ol’ Alex can do, so you can numb the details on him.”

“Even the charging?”

“What charging?”

So nobody knew about it?

“Jean died because of some built-up release of energy from Alexander,” Jason said. “He was supposed to – Jean was – be protected by lenses Benoit had ordered to counter the abilities.” Eric looked utterly lost. “The lenses. They’re contact lenses. He and Benoit wore them under their sunglasses. You should be wearing them now.”

Eric poked his eyeball, then shrugged and said, “Nope.”

“Well –” He wasn’t crazy! Even if he didn’t have proof of the charging, his lead and Benoit would confirm the lenses. It was all they’d talk about. “Let me... just...” He walked over to the fallen body of Melvin and began to hunt around it, almost expecting the answer to pop out at him.

“What was that about ‘built up’?”

“He – Alexander – started making a whirring noise,” Jason said, refusing to give up his search. “His eyes started glowing, the whirring got louder, there was a flash of light, and then Jean died.” The sunglasses. They were beside the wall, either lost when the Flunky had fallen or cast off when Eric had put on his glasses. Jason picked them up and turned them over. “They’re... melted.”

“Melted? Really?”

No, not really. Not exactly. It seemed more as though they’d been pierced, as if someone had jammed a pole through the centre and pushed. The plastic, hard as it was, had given way to a sharply defined hole. He didn’t know what to make of it. He would’ve liked to have gotten Benoit’s opinion, show him the new development, but even if the man had been down here instead of waiting for them upstairs, he might’ve been too busy grieving to bother with something like this. He hadn’t seemed to have had a lot of patience for the mere suggestion of it. He’d shut Jason down the moment he’d brought it up. Eric, however, seemed very intrigued, and he stood by Jason’s lead as he enthusiastically gestured for the pierced shades to come over.

“Here,” he said, unsure of how to explain it. He’d said the most he could say, after all. “I guess it must’ve destroyed the lenses, then.”

“Maybe, maybe,” Eric happily mused. He ran a finger over the back of the puncture. “This is certainly new.” His face lit up like a firework. “What’d I tell ya? They wait for you to think you’re safe, then they burn a hole through your brain. Let’s keep this in mind from now on, lady and gent.”

“So the lenses are useless,” Jason muttered.

“He always thought so. He’s very quick to chuck ideas, even when they’re his,” Eric said. “A mirrored surface was what Xander used to catch Alex in the first place. Everyone was thrilled to’ve found a weakness, but him – nope. He proved them wrong. Early testing, back before we began the process to eliminate Alex for good, dropping Xander into that lovely coma he enjoyed so much – made him a little bonkers, by the way, as if being an Agent wasn’t proof of that already – explained to us the most a mirrored surface could do was stall the attack a little. The reason it’d worked before was because Alex was and is an untrained child.” The A-1’s voice took on a distinctly admiring tone, and his next words flowed with praise for everything that had happened. “The things these people can do if they have the right person pushing...”

Jason could hardly imagine doing what these Agents did. Leaving his body for someone else’s? No thank you. He was suffering enough from his goggles, which he still had yet to put on. He was scared of the damage he’d find in his system, but that fear was beating back the withdrawal he’d been running through without them. In the car, he promised himself, he’d get to work fixing them. It’d give him something to do besides think about what had happened the last time he’d been in the back seat with his lead.

... Speaking of ‘things they could do’.

“Just curious,” Jason said, uncontrollably lowering his voice in concern. “You wouldn’t happen to know of any long-term effects from exposure to Alexander’s powers?”

“You mean the two month thing?”

Jason’s eyes popped open. Eric hadn’t even looked up from examining the shades.

“Uh... Yes. Yes, exactly that. What – uh...” He felt uncomfortable asking with his lead so close by. She didn't need another reason to doubt him, especially after she’d expressed Jason’s involvement in the plan – which was about as good as saying as she needed him in his books. “What do you know...?”

“Don’t worry about it. I never had a problem.” ...Alright, it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out this man’s main ability was switching from body to body. Eric realized this and grinned again, going on to say, “It’s no big deal. If you want, ask him. We should get going, by the way. Don’t want to set this brilliant plan back by dawdling – here, you hold on to these.” Eric handed him the sunglasses, then gestured to the elevator. “After you, Stephanie. You’ve earned that right.”

Jason suddenly remembered the kid in chains. He’d been quietly standing by the wall, trying to disappear and doing a miserable job of it. He pointed at the boy and asked casually, “What about him?”

“He knows where to go,” Eric said.

The kid did know. He started walking right away, back around the corner he came from.

“There’s – just... there’s one other thing,” Jason said to the man. Eric waited patiently, managing to avoid the tiniest ounce of pressure. “Could you get a techie moved to Charlton? Gary Sanders. He’s my eyes at HQ. He has whatever files that were backed up for my suit. Our target – uh... wiped my system. I’d like to recover as much as I can as soon as I can.”

Was it dangerous to send someone like Gary to the place his target and Alexander were headed? Yeah, a little. But Jason didn’t care. This was as much his fault as it was his target’s.

The A-1 didn’t blink.

“No problem, Jay-jay,” Eric chimed. “I’ll find a phone and get a call out. Consider him there. So – what was that about a ‘wrench in the relationship’?”

Jason smiled, and the first breath of life flew into him. So there was a chance this could be fixed. Great. Wonderful, even. He just didn’t know why he still felt... wary.

* * *


He heard her say his name, in the second it took for him to try to draw a breath, his mouth was covered and – she was kissing him. Well... alright, great! The shock of it dulled the joy he knew he’d be skipping over later, but for now, even as she ran her hands over him, especially when her palm brushed by an unfairly agonizing part of his arm – what the hell had happened? – he was pretty damn distracted. Into her mouth, he couldn’t help a quiet cry of pain, and when she pulled away moments after, he kicked himself for making any noise at all. He really, really needed to learn how to shut up around her. That was what started this in the first place.

She’d been crying. Over him. Alex’s mouth fell open, as much from surprise as from filling his lungs with air, but he couldn’t think of anything to say. This had never actually happened before. He’d learned that getting this close to someone was the stupidest mistake he could make. This didn’t feel stupid, though. He’d leave it to fate to decide that ‘mistake’ part.

“Sorry I...” No, he was on the right track. He needed to apologize for something, he just wasn’t what. “Sorry I almost... uh... did that.” By which he meant ‘died’. “I’m... Am I okay?”

Toe’s broken, ribs’re broken, knee’s bent, two fingers’re cracked, shoulder’s sprained and formerly dislocated and I’m pretty sure I bit my tongue. Oh – and the concussion and the internal bleeding and all that fun stuff.

“So the usual?”

The usual.

“Glad to know you’re on the job.”

He felt like hell. He looked like hell. Gwen was staring at him as if he was hell. When she said they couldn’t make it to the hospital... They needed to do something to fix this. No matter what, they’d have to be ready to fight again. More importantly, he needed to feel better – now – so they could hurry up and get out of here. They’d have to leave his pain behind so they could make it through this. His neck was less sore already. He could have a breath without his throat clamping around it.

... O... kay...

Xander drew a little farther away for reasons Alex didn’t have the energy to wonder about. He threw everything into climbing to his feet, stumbling once but making it in the end. And of course, his roommate would chug along on this for hours before he said a word. At least he wasn’t dead? Fine, in the long-run he’d be grateful, but right now, he was thinking a permanent nap would be just what the doctor ordered. He tried to shake it off and focus on what she was saying, but it was harder than it seemed.

“How do you do this?”

I think happy thoughts. Now – if the two of you don’t mind taking a break from your mouth-rape, I’d like to get my coffee.

The disdain in Xander’s voice was over the fact that it would not, in fact, be coming from Starbucks. Alex pretended it was something else and prodded him with a weak grin, “You’re sure you’re not just jealous?”

Jealous of what? Go ahead and fuck like rabbits if you want – this’ll be the greatest threesome in history.

Xander!

I’m just sayin’!

“One thing I’m gonna miss about you being in control of my body,” Alex muttered, “there’s no hope of putting a gag on you.”

Sounds sexy. And before Alex could complain – Coffee. Now. We have time for that and it’s not like anyone has a choice. I’m tired and you’re not doing this without me.

It was both an order and a fact. Coffee it was. It’d give him the minutes he needed to make sure he wouldn’t keel over. Years of putting up with this had him versed in what would kill him and what wouldn’t. After that, as soon as that was done, they leaving this place and never coming back.

“Alright, let’s go get coffee.”

The jitters would be good for him. They’d keep him awake.

Setting

3 Characters Present

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Stewart Character Portrait: Stephanie March Character Portrait: Osono "Ozzie" Wallace
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#, as written by Ten
All at once, Gwen was of the mind to actually feel embarrassed about kissing Alex, but only when she got a headful of Xander's commentary about it. As he first referred to it as "mouth-rape" she blushed and turned to look away, while nervously tucking her hair behind her ears again. Then Alex decided to play along and goad him on it and the ex-Agent had the nerve to allude to them having sex! Not only that, but he had the audacity to suggest that she'd even consider allowing such a thing while he was still occupying Alex's head!

Gwen fully admitted that she liked Alex and that she was physically attracted to him - what she'd originally considered a sexual attraction to Xander had merely been her attempt to cling to someone who could protect her, she now realized. But after a while he proved to be less and less predictable and began wearing her down with her constant need to second guess him and demanding she look after him while at the same time she was left trying to keep up with his longer stride. As a result, she pined and yearned for some stability in personality, someone she could depend on to think clearly and rationally and she realized he'd been the voice echoing in her and Xander's heads all along.

So there was the possibility that now her attraction to Alex was along the same vein as it had been with Xander - and she fully recognized that - but it was more that she wanted to be around him and found comfort in his physical presence rather than a desire to jump his bones - although there was that as well. Even though her behavior towards Xander had suggested otherwise earlier on, she was not the type of person to just give everything away for free, especially not to someone she barely knew. Despite the impression she must have left him with, after flirting with him and then kissing Alex the way she just did, she still found enough self-pride to get defensive about his suggestion that she was a slut.

If he were still physically in the body, she would have slapped him as hard as she could. Thinking that, she was glad again that he wasn't. For a moment longer, she considered kissing Alex again just to prove to the stupid bastard in the "backseat" that she didn't care what he thought, but she figured that wouldn't be fair to Alex to let the stupid ex-Agent constantly dictate how their relationship developed. He was here with her now and they could move forward however they liked. She did however, pause at the opening of the alley to give him another bright smile, reaching forward to rub off a bit of dried blood still crusting on the edge of his chin, before leading the way to the coffee shop. He wasn't a baby and it hadn't been a mothering gesture but another display of her need to touch him again.

As they walked, she hadn't realized just how much she'd missed him until she kept glancing at him and feeling excited to see him in the body, instead of that haughty, wolf-like strut that Xander always adopted. His steps were still a bit pained and she felt a pulse of sympathy and worry for him; but mostly she was excited. So excited, in fact, that she started talking and didn't stop, her voice coming out with an eagerness like a schoolgirl chatting with her best friend.

"It was really awful back there," she said almost gravely. "I didn't think we'd make it out of there alive. The guy fighting you - I mean, Xander - he was so big, when he missed a hit, he put a dent in the walls. And then he started throwing him around... When he grabbed your neck, it was like from your chin down to your shoulder disappeared within his massive fingers."

She held her hands up to her own neck as they walked along, to illustrate what she meant, although her hands were comically slender in comparison to what she described. "And he just started squeezing and I could feel it, there was barely anything holding him back from crushing you and before Xander zapped him, he was just about to break his - I mean your - neck."

She'd been really worried, not only for Xander, but through the whole thing wondering if Alex was alright. Ever since she'd needed to shut him off because of the pain he'd been going through - no. It had been way before that. Gwen had been worried about him ever since Xander had passed out in the taxi for the first time and Alex had been unable to control the body. It felt like it had been a week ago...

She shook her head and let out a sigh and then her eyes opened wide and she gasped a little as she turned to him and touched him lightly on the shoulder. "And when Xander zapped him it was bigger than anything I've seen him do! It was beautiful, like nothing I've ever felt before - well, it was a bit like back at Roaster's and I was underwater again for a while..."

That made her think of the veins of brass she'd seen inside Xander and the two Agents and how every thought and memory had been open to her eyes as if she could reach out and touch them. She still didn't understand what that was and she was silent for a few moments wondering, her eyes trailing after a small Oriental woman walking in the opposite direction, looking at her as if the circuits and strings would show up again. But they didn't and she shook her head and turned back to Alex, her expression brightening as she met his gaze again.

"And my fight wasn't a day in the park either," she said with a humored shrug. "That jerk, Jason, stole my goggles - well, I guess they were his really - and he almost choked me trying to pull them off. Like a little whiny brat yanking on them from behind me." She rolled her eyes as if she were talking about a child throwing an embarrassing tantrum in public. "And then he went invisible like the ladder and the doors outside that building, and that would have been fine if I could have felt anything from him. I didn't have any trouble getting into his head before and he even seemed like he didn't know what he was doing - but THIS time..." She shook her head again and let out a harsh breath. "He musta been getting pointers from Stephanie or at least gotten his act together on the ride here."

Gwen's eyes lit up with sudden hilarity and she giggled and skipped ahead a few feet, stopping to wait for Alex to catch up before she continued walking beside him. It took her a few minutes to recover from the private joke enough to let him in on it. "On the way here, apparently Stephanie took out her pent up frustrations on him, and ended up groping and using his thigh and practically his crotch for a scratching post in the backseat of the car!" she snickered again before continuing on, her hand lightly touching him before drawing away. "These people are like something from a soap opera, I swear! And the little spoiled brat just sat there and took it - although, frankly, considering what he was up against, I don't blame him. The woman is...insane. I mean, seriously, there is something wrong with her."

"The few times I've connected with her, it's like she's not even real inside - everybody has a solid structure within that I can explore. She's full of stairs that lead nowhere and endless rows of paper walls that I can't see through." She shook her head in wonderment. "And I don't think it's something that can be fixed - even when I touched the real her, when I first used the goggles, everything about her was twisted and broken. She's obsessed with me for some reason. I mean, I know I'm her "target" or whatever, but her pursuit is almost...personal. It's almost like she wants to eat me." She stopped and shook her head, blushing and laughing a bit nervously. "I mean, not like cannibal or anything weird... It's hard to explain."

"And then there's that thing she does with her thoughts - like she shuts everything down inside and it gets really loud, so much that even when I don't touch her mind, I can feel it and I can't hear anybody else," they were nearing the coffee shop now, green cursive lettering above the door declaring it "Mandy's Cafe". By this point she'd calmed down in her excitement a lot and spoke in a sober tone. "That's why I want to hurry and get us out of here. So we can get to Charlton and get you what you need and you can be free finally - no offense Xander, but honestly, you're a bit of a ball and chain sometimes." She made a pointed gesture with her eyes at the coffee shop they were nearing and cast him a teasing grin. They were making this stop for him, afterall, and if it had just been her and Alex, they wouldn't have made the stop.

The grin slowly vanished once more as they neared the doors to the establishment and she said, "But the point is... I really don't like being around her. Not only does it feel like she actually is trying to swallow me right in the middle of everything, but it cuts me off from feeling anything. Even my own thoughts. I can't fight her like that - you saw what happened in the hallway back at our apartment building. She's like a demon and she won't stop until I'm completely worn down. So, if we can find Xander's body and get him in there without facing her, then all the better."

A person leaving the coffee shop opened the door for them and let them inside and she finally fell silent, taking in a deep breath and letting it out. She remembered the last time they were in a non-Starbucks establishment, and she was not eager for Xander to repeat his routine of making a scene just because they weren't at his favorite restaurant. But as they walked through the doors, and approached the counter of the cozy place, she became aware of someone else already harassing the employee working the place.

"Just do it right, this time!" the smoke-weathered feminine voice said harshly. "I need to hurry and catch a bus."

"Alright," the man in his early thirties said while standing at the machines behind the counter, busily putting whipped cream topping on her order. "And... you wanted just caramel drizzle on this?" He turned to look at her uncertainly with a bit of worry creasing his brow. This was the third time he'd fulfilled this order, but after the second time, she'd changed her mind from the chocolate and caramel mix. Dean had a feeling she'd done that just to mess with him - she'd been complaining about needing to catch a bus for the past 20 minutes she'd been here.

Osono glared at him and said, "If you guys just offered a Caramel Frappuccino, we wouldn't be having all this difficulty."

The man did a double-take at her, once again making note of the short blonde, spiked hair, nose ring and jacket with torn sleeves at the shoulders. "This isn't Starbucks!"

The woman let out a sigh and nodded her head. "I'm really glad you understand the core problem, Dean. Now do that over before I have to set you on fire. There's chocolate drizzle on it."

"Dean" had been in the middle of putting a neat plastic covering over it as she'd said that and he realized he hadn't been paying attention to what he'd been doing and added chocolate drizzle to her order again. As his shoulders slumped he went about preparing her drink again repeating over and over to himself the word "caramel".

Standing beside Alex a few feet away from her in line, Gwen raised an eyebrow at the woman's flippant threat, and her eyes widened briefly to realize the woman actually meant it, and she glanced sideways at Alex as the woman's ranting reminded her heavily of Xander. But after a few moments, Osono decided to behave - merely picking up stirring straws from a small container on the counter by the register and idly tossing them at Dean's back while he remade the coffee she'd wanted - so Gwen turned away and began thinking back over what she'd told Alex.

There was one part of their time in the labs that she hadn't recounted to him yet and it was an important part: Stephanie had played a trick on her. That brought up the question of "why" she would even go through the trouble of making something up and thinking it right when Gwen decided to reach out to her. Remembering her own reaction to the false information and the memories she'd gotten from Jean in a moment when he'd been focused on Xander, she understood the reason for the ruse. She also realized that on some level Stephanie could sense when Gwen touched her mind - enough to know when to start thinking over that fake plan; she doubted Stephanie had sat there thinking it over and over blindly.

Turning to Alex she said in lower tones, "I realize that it seems awfully unrealistic to try and plan not to meet up with her again - even attempting to avoid it seems like encouraging a false hope. She did something weird back there at the...facility or whatever you want to call it. When I knew she was in the building, I tried to reach out to her to see if I couldn't spy on her a little bit. I think she knew I was watching her though - she started thinking to herself about a deal she and the other Agents," she paused and looked around then, but nobody was near enough to hear her speak in that low voice - who bought coffee at 4 in the afternoon? "About a deal they were making with you and Xander. The main idea was that you'd both get immunity from the Agency's influence if you handed me over to them in Charlton."

She blushed slightly to remember how angry and hurt she'd been to hear that. Looking at Alex now, she couldn't believe she'd fallen for it. He couldn't. He wouldn't do that to her. Shaking her head slightly, she continued on, ignoring the exclamations from the woman still ordering coffee. "Anyways, I think she did it to make us split up and... she probably doesn't know that I know the plan was fake. I don't know... I just thought I'd mention it as something we could possibly plan for to catch her - them - off guard, maybe."

Osono was done with her order now and tossing a crumpled $10 at the bedraggled Dean, before swiftly turning away with her drink gripped in one hand. Walking by, she roughly nudged Alex's shoulder and sneered at him, not stopping to call over her shoulder, "Watch it, turd-face!" before she was wandering out the doors of the establishment. Gwen looked at Alex worriedly and probed his shoulder mentally to assess the damage, but other than what was already wrong with him, she couldn't tell the difference. Still, it made her mad that people could be so rude.

Dean finished wiping the counter and sweeping the 2 dozen stirring straws littering the floor behind the counter into a pile before he breathed a sigh of relief and turned to them with a clear expression. After what the guy had just been through, Gwen felt kinda bad that he still had to fulfill Xander's order yet. Looking over the menu, she realized she was hungry and needed something in her stomach before they left the city. Turning to Alex she asked, "Could I get a cinnamon twist?" It felt pathetic to ask, but after he'd bent her bank card in two, she didn't have much of a choice. She was broke.

***

There was that energy again, that magnetism in his voice and every expression. Even knowing the motivation behind it, she could not help feeling flattered and humbled when his tone became so respectful towards her. And his calling her "his dear lady" and "Miss March" made her blush internally. Never before had she made a connection with her last name and Playboy magazine until he said it, and it had been a long time since anyone had spoken to her that way, let alone called her a "lady". And who was saying it only compounded the glowing feeling she experienced within her inner mental layers.

As once again, Benoit and Eric devolved into the sparring that went on between them, she took the moment to look over at Jason, wondering how different things were going to be with the A-1 now on their team. It hadn't been something she'd considered until now, but Jason's current occupation as her "toy" might be cut short with Eric in the same car with them. She doubted she would be able to get away with as much and although she assumed her assault on Jason's leg had gone unnoticed by both the French Agents, she had very little doubt it would slip past Eric, no matter how well she thought she was hiding it. It made her feel a little remiss that she wasn't going to be able entertain herself that way anymore.

Stephanie's attention was drawn back to the current situation as Benoit angrily waltzed past and boarded the elevator in a huff. She internally rolled her eyes while staring blankly after him, wondering if he was going to be a big baby for the rest of the time Eric was on the team. She understood on some level that it had to do with grief and the fact that the A-1 was wearing his dead partner like a muscled suit, but still, she felt a measure of scorn towards his display of emotion. There had only been one or two people in her life that she would consider herself having gotten "close" to on a personal level, but even if she was in Benoit's place with them, she was simply too fascinated by the body transfer process to feel any amount of pain or loss from the disrespectful way that Eric would wear their skin.

For several moments, Stephanie felt a burst of rage filled jealousy crashing like a wave against an oceanside cliff within her, barely a ripple registering on her face, as Eric turned to Jason and began asking him about HER case and target. Who did the little twerp think he was? Although she did admit, he was technically her assistant on the case and thus, Eric was right to ask him for an updated report - but he still could have asked her and been within line. As she listened to Jason recount what exactly he'd been trying to tell Benoit about, she completely forgot about pouting.

Charging? That didn't sound good... There was definitely no way Gwen had not been affected by that and Stephanie felt a pulse of fear deep within that the target had rushed ahead of schedule as a result. Stephanie's iron will and training would still work, as would any other Lead Agent's general training, but that last bit of room for error was completely gone. Even if Gwen hadn't had time to practice her new skills by the time they encountered her again in Charlton or where ever she ran off to, if Stephanie wasn't on her guard constantly while engaging her in battle, it would be all the opening Gwen would need.

At that thought, Stephanie found herself once again looking at Jason and her eyes narrowed. Alright, so now she was completely clear on what had happened to Jean - and they even had a very obvious visual to go along with the story, besides the walking talking previously dead man. But what had happened between Jason and Gwen? Looking around the hallways and the terminals, Stephanie made note of the different dents in the walls and immediately attributed them to Jean's fists. Looking over Jason's body, she noticed that even the withdrawal that had been crippling him for most of the trip thus far had dissipated, leaving him standing upright and fit as ever. Had he taken the emphasis on phase 2 too literally and just let her go? Had Gwen done something? Or...had Jason just willfully let them both go?

It was an absurd thought, but she couldn't help having it and as she walked ahead of the other two men towards the elevator, the thought continued to needle at her, even as she dutifully responded to the questions asked of her. "Stewart has the ability to think and feel the thoughts and emotions of those around her. I'm absolutely positive, sir, that at your level of training, you will have no difficulty blocking her abilities. As far as anything special, you'd have to watch out for... There's nothing extraordinary. She will eventually develop the power of suggestion, but it will only work on the weak-minded."

Standing beside Jason on the elevator, she waited until Eric had glanced away and the disk beneath their feet began it's ascent, before she reached behind and grabbed her partner's ass in a small squeeze. He clenched delightfully before she let her hand fall back to her side. All thoughts she'd had previously, worrying about the A-1 detecting her harassment of her colleague were completely absent. At this particular moment, even as she hid the fact she'd touched Jason at all, she really didn't care if the higher ranked Agent knew what she'd done.

"The "wrench" I deployed recently was a side-plan I came up with after it became apparent that Stewart was using my partner's stolen goggles to connect with us psychically over long-distance in an attempt to spy on us. I correctly predicted that she would make the attempt again once we were within range of her powers - which is 1 mile, by the way - and I decided to use the opportunity to inspire suspicion and fear towards her traveling companion, Alexander. It's my belief that separating the two of them will make Gwen considerably more vulnerable to capture."

"Since she now believes that the man who's hands she's put her life into is planning on making a deal with us and double crossing her, she will no doubt desire to leave him, especially as his behavior - as he grows more rushed to reconnect with his previous form - encourages such a belief. By the time they reach Charlton, she will no doubt take the opportunity to leave him behind and venture on her own. So even if we do not capture her at the facility in Charlton for whatever unforeseen reason, she will be alone and defenseless and it should be a piece of cake to snatch her up after that."

As they stepped off of the platform, she could not take it any longer and swiftly put out a hand to stop Jason from following Eric out the front doors. "If it's alright, sir," she said to the A-1 Agent who stopped and cocked a questioning eyebrow back at her. "I would like a moment alone with my partner. Nothing personal - I just need to go over something regarding the case." He paused to think about it and she dove ahead, "We'll just be one minute, sir. I won't be long." He seemed to consider something for a moment longer but finally gave her the okay and headed out the front doors of the building, the heavy metal clanging shut behind him, leaving the two Agents alone in a limited circle of light.

Stephanie barely waited a moment for the fading daylight to disappear from the room before she turned to Jason and swiftly delved her fingers into the curly locks on the back of his head. Wrenching him forward, her fist tightened it's hold on him and her mouth cut off any verbal protest or cry of pain he might have uttered. It was not a kiss in the strictest sense of the word but more of her smashing her face into his mouth-to-mouth, her breathing going up a few tempos as she swayed her head from side to side roughly. Then it was all teeth, and she was biting and abusing his bottom lip harshly, tugging and pulling on it until she heard him give in and groan softly in pain, before she finally let go and drew back to look at him coldly.

She did not release her hold on his hair as she stared into him but took a moment or two to calm her breathing before she spoke in her characteristic monotone. "What happened, Jason? Hm? What really happened? Oh sure, I was there when you gave your reports, but an Agent is dead, the target is gone, and ...there's not a scratch on you." Her grip tightened briefly as if she meant to correct that, but she quickly continued on. "Did Alexander threaten to fry your mind too? Were you scared after watching Jean fall to the ground with a hole in his sunglasses? It's perfectly understandable, but what I'm having difficulty comprehending is what happened before that."

"You must have had some time to engage the target. Did you? All Agents are given some amount of mental training, or did you fumble with that just like you did with your goggles? I see you got them back and I'm very happy for you." She did not sound happy at that moment. "Did you just slip them off of her face and then huddle off in a corner to tend to your wounded computer system? Or did you actually put a little effort into fighting with her? The point was to make it NOT look like we wanted them to get away. Did you screw up again?"

Stephanie pulled him closer so that they were cheek-to-cheek but not touching, all except for her hand in his hair, and with her lips hovering at his ear she said, "She read your mind, didn't she? Did she know things? Embarrassing things? Did it get you flustered? Were you distracted?" Her voice drew lower down to a whisper as she came to the next part. "Did she say things in an odd tone of voice? Did she make...suggestions that you couldn't seem to refuse? Is that how she got away?"

Pulling back from him, she searched his features with those hollow, dead eyes and found no recognition in response to her words. She'd confused him a bit, it seemed. But the paranoia that what had happened to Jean had awakened Gwen's powers fully would not leave her alone. Maybe something else had happened.

"If I find out later that her powers have reached the last levels and that you knew about it this whole time without saying anything, you will have to wait until after 6 months of medical leave before you'll be able to re-apply for a new assignment. Understand?" As she asked the last question, she roughly jerked his head as she shoved him away and let go, giving him her version of a glare as she awaited his response. Just a few more minutes of alone time left - any further explanation he had to offer to enlighten how he was able to escape unharmed would have to be given quickly, but she would not be satisfied until she got it.

The one thing she was most paranoid about was that for some other reason Jason had let the target go. She wanted to know that she could trust him when the time came to execute part 2 of this plan - she would get Gwen's body with or without his help, but she would not stand for it if he got in her way. Eric got a new body and switched skins seemingly whenever he felt like it - with a minor bit of procedure thrown in of course - and after watching him fill Jean's shoes so effortlessly, it increased her feverish need to be inside Gwen. Her own flesh was beginning to itch and ache, growing weary and tight, like someone winding a tourniquet around her core. She needed to get out and right now, Jason's assurances that he was not going to betray her - or hadn't already - was crucial to her not ending his life on the spot. NO ONE would threaten her new life. ... No matter how delicious their cries of pain tasted...

Setting

2 Characters Present

Character Portrait: Alexander Stall Character Portrait: Xander
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#, as written by Tartra
What –” THE FUCK?

He shut his mouth before he made any serious noise, but the hand that’d just finished molesting him again still got a sound out. He jumped, tensed, then couldn’t help look up at Eric for... any kind of reaction. Something. The man wasn’t facing him. Jason was about to roll his eyes at the flawless timing his lead had when he noticed the side of the A-1’s face was brighter than before. He was laughing? He was laughing. Great. So that was another of his superiors who thought this was hilarious. He was glad to know he was so damn funny, but as he opened his mouth to try to catch the man's attention – blind eye or not, if it happened precisely when Eric was staring at them, his ‘lovely’ lead would get torn apart thanks to protocol – and get a defence against her that way, she beat him to it and humbly requested time alone. The instant she got the go-ahead, she dragged him off and – oh, come on!

Her hand was in his hair and was pulling at it sharply, clenching her fingers around it and proving exactly why he needed to shave it off. The sudden fierceness of her mouth against his, her teeth raking against his lip before devouring it, kept him from thinking of anything to say even as he felt his chest move towards her, drawing back a second before it got caught up in her attack. He stood there and let it happen, not sure if he wanted to continue chalking this up to an inside joke. It would make it easier to deal with if he kept telling himself she was trying to see how long it’d take for him to crack – which was a glaring ‘never’, so long as he concentrated on his work, but that changed when she let his face go and left her hand where it was. He didn’t know where her other was hiding, but if it wasn’t on him, he didn’t care.

“I wasn’t –” She didn’t let him explain. She yanked at his hair some more, cutting him off. Then, as if she took his lack of an answer as an admission of guilt, she went on, hitting with words harder than she’d ever managed with her body. Was she... taunting him?

Jason had his limits. It was one thing to accuse him of failing to put his all into stopping them. There weren’t any scratches on him – she was right, she always was – and any normal person should’ve seen that and questioned his involvement, but the way she kept going, bringing him closer and carving at his ear with her breath, was slowly taking him to his breaking point. She knew exactly what had happened down there. When she asked if his target had read his mind, he knew his face had twitched and given it away. That didn’t stop her from demanding about it, forcing him to put into words how disturbed the entire fight had made him. He’d thought he’d done a decent job with putting the girl out of his mind, but it flooded back as if his target’s voice was spilling from his boss’ throat. It drove him crazy.

Why in fuck did everyone assume he was being an idiot for staying quiet? He knew it put him in a terrible position. Not fighting could get this bumped up to an on-the-job relationship, and although the penalty for that was considerably less worrisome, it’d be like an axe to his credibility. But he didn’t have a choice. The Agency’s big response to any sort of problem was ‘suck it up and figure it out’. Unless she stabbed him, there wasn’t going to be any transfer and he wasn’t screwing up his prized reputation just because she made him a little squeamish. He’d handle this. He’d hold out until she gave up or ran out of use for him. Trying to challenge what she was doing and prove that, yes, he did have a spine and, no, he wasn’t going to take this shit like a snivelling servant might’ve been great for his self-esteem – and there was always the chance she’d be so blown away that she gave him a glowing review, something he scoffed at before the thought was finished – but was so likely to blow up in his face, he was better off waiting until he was out from under her control.

His breathing had picked up, too. It was out of anger instead of the exhilaration she or someone with emotions would have had running in her veins. He could’ve stopped her. He had a few ideas about what he should have been doing to respond, but he ignored them and vowed to keep a level voice. He wasn’t playing her game because the way he saw it, lashing out would’ve been the easiest answer he could’ve had and she wanted it. Saying nothing was more of a punishment and took more resolve. If she wasn’t for a rise, though, at least he didn’t have to worry about saying the wrong thing.

“Our target isn’t known for being physical,” he said. She wanted a robot? Fine – he’d be a robot. There was no warmth or coldness in his words. Even if he couldn’t copy her mental defences, a trick he desperately needed to look into, he could at least mimic the way she spoke to him. “I recovered my equipment and prepared to recapture her. Unfortunately, I was caught up in watching the other fight between Jean and Benoit’s target. By the time I returned to my assignment, I got orders to let them go.”

Alright, that sounded dumb.

“It was that kid Eric brought out,” he went on. “He wasn’t in chains and he seemed to know what he was talking about. I don’t know... The way he told me leave them sounded... reasonable. Authorized. I can’t explain it any better than that. Maybe you should ask the A-1.”

She’d let go, but she might as well have stayed clinging to him for all the personal space he had left. Jason was going to change that. His goggles, left to hang from his wrist while he debated when to fix them, hadn’t stopped calling his name. He accepted it and strapped them on, immediately cringing when he saw a great, big, spectacular nothing. No parts of his environment were automatically being recognized, no information was being fed to him from the Agency database, no recognition of who he was or what his relation to the woman in front of him was supposed to be – strictly professional, minus the occasional groping – and every strand of data he’d laboriously entered... His name was still attached to it, but such a crushing hopelessness fell over him that he barely saw it as a reason for celebration. If she hadn’t been standing there, he might have genuinely crawled into a ball and stayed like that for hours.

It'd actually happened. It'd been reset.

This was beyond a loss. His body was numb. He couldn’t be in here with her any longer, not while this was happening, but as he moved his legs and started walking, he felt an unbearable detachment from his limbs and a quiet revolt from his stomach. He was a stranger in his own skin. He could feel his suit – the suit – wrapped around him, moving as he moved instead in a way he didn’t think about. That familiarity, that unity and connection more than anything seemed to hammer it in. He didn’t waste his time trying to do something about it now. He couldn’t do anything, in fact, and until he had a minute to get a fucking grip, he didn’t trust himself to wear his goggles without falling apart. So... that was that, he told himself. Not only was his life readily offered to be run by a woman with zero qualms about bodily harm and a thing for domination, but his last comfort in the midst of this chaos had been destroyed by the one girl he never thought would be a problem. He'd been lied to. That profile was wrong. His target was a sick, heartless psychopath, and little wonder she’d been getting along with Alexander. Both of them were fucked in the head, and as his sorrow overflowed into wrath, he found his hands gripping the goggles with a vengeance he didn’t want to rein in.

Had this become personal? Hell yes. Would it get him to forget that their targets needed to be alive? No. But the wording of that law didn’t say shit about what condition they had to be in. A bullet through the brain might’ve been more than they deserved, but he’d settle for a hundred in their legs, in their arms, in their shoulders – anything that counted as non-lethal but that’d get the point across. His body seized up and his throat tightened. He was supposed to wait for an order to leave, but he didn’t have the patience for it. He headed for the door, and if his lead wanted to follow, he’d be fine with it. For now, though, until this blew over, if she came near him again with whatever thought that’d started her in her ‘let’s jerk around Jason until he snaps’ mission, she’d get what she’d wanted. He’d snap. And then he’d go after her precious Gwen. As for Alex? Oh, well, he’d have to think of something special. He wouldn’t want the ‘Agent Assassin’ to feel unappreciated.

His lip hurt.

* * *


Alex had missed a lot more than he’d thought. The way Gwen explained, it was as if he’d been lost in that white emptiness for days instead of the... twenty minutes? Yeah – instead of the twenty minutes the fight seemed to have lasted. He wasn’t sure if that counted the trip outside or not. What he was more concerned about was what Xander had done to end the fight so quickly. The French guy never brought along anyone who wasn’t at the very top of their game. The fastest they’d managed to wrap something up was in a little under an hour. What she described as ‘bigger than anything she’d ever seen’ wasn’t exactly swimming in details, but if there was anything left to explain to him, it didn’t seem like she was the one with the answer.

“Sure. Cinnamon twist.” He was hungry, too. He’d get the same thing for now, but they’d have to stop for a real meal soon. “And Xander?”

Like – twenty espressos mixed with ten espressos and stirred with a cup of espresso.

“So... three dark roast?”

Blacker than night.

The fight seemed to be in his favour for now. So long as the Frenchman didn’t rush to get a replacement, Alex wouldn’t have to worry about anymore major fights from here to Charlton. The problem was what was going to happen to Gwen. If he could say anything about the Agency, they didn’t screw around. To have so much knowledge over what she could do before even she knew she could do it, and then to use it against her like that... They’d been planting ideas in her head. That explained why she’d been so angry when they’d met up at the elevator, before the headache started. He’d have to ask how something so explosively painful could be gone already, but first thing first: what else had they said to her?

“Two cinnamon twists and three, black, dark roast coffees,” Alex said, handing over whatever credit card fell out of his wallet first. Glad to see they hadn’t forgotten to bring his bag before they left. As if they needed another issue to sort out. “Large, please.”

I can see it on his face, Xander said, sounding bitter. 'I am going to take this pathetically simple order and fuck it up to high hell’. I can’t trust someone who doesn’t know the difference between chocolate and caramel. I feel so bad for that girl. What a horrible day she’s having ‘cause of this guy.

“No one’s as perfect as you are,” Alex mumbled. Back to hiding his conversation from the upstanding citizens of Elmira. He was glad this was going to be over soon. “Gwen, how do you know that’s all the information they fed you? What you said about his body being in Charlton... That has to be a trap. Or it will be, now that...” Aw, crap. “Where the hell is Nathan?”

Who?

“The one you were beating up.” As if that narrowed it down. “The kid we had with us.”

Oh, David. Dunno.

“What do you mean you don’t know?”

Forgive me for placing higher priority on not having your tiny neck crushed instead of watching the shrimp that probably ‘ported away. Wah, wah, wah, why can’t we go to Starbucks? What’s it matter? We got what we wanted out of him. There’s nothing he can say that they don’t already know and he’s already shown he knows how to escape.

“But he knew the lab –”

He knew parts of it. He had no hand in getting us inside or even finding the place. The banshee was the one who did the most for us and – again, forgive me if I decide to withhold a little trust from the chick who drinks pancake syrup like water. Besides, we’re not hitting up the same lab anyway.

Alex sighed and ran a hand through his hair, stopping to rub the gigantic bruise on the back of his skull. So Xander had a point and they didn’t need David. He didn’t think it was right not to care about where he ended up, though. Crazy or not, he was just like them: stolen by the Agency, mashed into a new way of life, and trying to escape before they caught him again and did something even worse. But it wasn’t like he could help now. If they wanted to be heroes, they’d have to keep going and look after themselves before they thought about saving the others.

“We’re going to go back once we have this under control,” he said – to Gwen, because he doubted Xander cared very much. “If we know where Nathan’s body – uh... bodies are, we might be able to put him back together.”

If he’s alive.

“Well... We’ll save whoever is.”

That’s very noble of you, Xander said, breezily. Can I have my coffee now?

Alex took the order and juggled his wallet around until he had a hand free enough to give Gwen her share. Then, before he got an earful, he promptly pushed the three cups back and told the guy, “I asked for black.”

“That’s black.”

“No, this very clearly has something in it,” he said. “I can see the lines.”

The guy looked into the cups, winced and shook his head.

“Sorry,” was the answer he had for Alex. “That other girl – the maniac – kept asking for caramel.”

Took your ass long enough to get it right.

“I’ll remake it...” But he said it in the kind of voice that meant he really, really didn’t want to.

It’s fine. Let’s go.

Alex blinked and scratched his ear. For a second, it sounded like he’d heard something crazy.

“Are you... sure?” That was a trap. That was definitely a trap. Even as Alex asked, his hand moved forward to push the coffees back across the counter. “I don’t want to spend a day hearing you –”

Dude, it’s fine. Take it and go, let’s move.

And with that clarified, he turned and gave Gwen his most obvious ‘what the hell happened’ face he had in his bag of expressions.

“Okay...” Alex shoved the cups into a tray and gave the barista a short nod of his head. “You’re completely positive?”

Just drink the damn thing! How’re we gettin’ out of here?

He thought about it, and as the three of them – ‘three’ was a number he used figuratively – headed for the door, he began to absently sip the closest cup to his face. He almost spat it out and threw the tray to the ground when the terrible taste of too-dark coffee swirled around his mouth. An aftertaste he could put up with, but holy crap. People drank this stuff on a daily basis?

“You’re not having any?” It felt like something he should’ve asked sarcastically, but he meant it. “You’re supposed to take over my mouth before I have to actually consume it.”

I’m tired.

“You’re too tired to drink coffee? You?”

Hey, unless you want my first act of power to be your fist up your ass, put the fucking coffee

“Alright, alright! I’ll drink it. Geez.” He was very happy to have the caramel in it. Even if it barely made a difference, it was better than drinking it straight. Ugh. Awful. And, unfortunately, worse because it wasn’t the Starbucks swill he was used to. “We’re going to come up with a plan on the way to Charlton. A real one this time.” Xander. “You might be on to something about using their stupid lie against them.” It was unbelievable that they thought it would’ve worked. It hardly made sense anyway. “It’s not like I would’ve said yes to those body-snatchers, but I haven’t spent more than a minute in a room with them without someone trying to kill me. As far as cutting a deal goes, that’s not quite on the table.”

And turn in Gwen? How could she think that? He knew they’d only been wandering around together for a couple of days – the ‘living in the same building’ deal didn’t count if they’d never talked to each other – but he would’ve hoped he’d made a better impression on her. Was he really still a threat?

Xander, because he’d been returned to riding in the passenger seat, was back to picking up on his thoughts. Or feelings. Or something. That still hadn’t been cleared up. Anyway, he took that opportunity to demand more coffee and shoot out, Oh, no, you’re fine. I’m the rogue Agent. No one trusts me. Just forget all the shit I’ve done for you and everything. I’m used to it.

Even that robot-woman would’ve rolled her eyes.

“Yeah, and it’s completely unfair because you go out of your way to make sure we feel we can count on you.”

I think ‘not getting murdered’ is right up there ‘reliable’. But whatever. I’m the bad guy.

“We love you, Xander,” Alex said. “You’re our hero.”

Eat shit. Then, as an afterthought, he threw in a quick, And keep drinking. It’s like I’m stuck in here.

“... What?”

Not like you.

Oh.

“But he made a good point,” Alex said. “How are we getting out of the city? Are you going to be okay with travelling all night? I can sleep on the way if I have to so don’t worry about me.”

Setting

4 Characters Present

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Stewart Character Portrait: Stephanie March Character Portrait: Rudy Quin Character Portrait: Osono "Ozzie" Wallace
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#, as written by Ten
There it was again. That thing he was always doing whenever she treated him this way - he was ignoring her. Well, her naughty behavior, anyway; he was still answering her questions in the dutiful way that her rank demanded of him. But the ass grope, the kiss, even all the shit she'd put his leg through on the car ride here, was going unchallenged. And they were completely alone in this moment. THAT was very significant to her. He could have railed at her and said anything he wanted - so long as he kept it in here and his words out of earshot of anyone else, she would have let him have his say...and then she would have threatened and taunted him some more. But he wasn't even taking the VERY clear opening he had to confront her!

Stephanie found herself stunned again, even as she listened to him finish a more detailed report of what had happened, she blinked at him and felt her heart racing, the beat thundering in her ears like a galloping horse. God...why did he have to be so tempting...so strong-willed and vulnerable...? Why couldn't she just let it go and focus on what was important? Even as she had that thought, her pursuit of his breaking point firmed even more solidly in her mind and she vowed not to give up until she had him begging at her feet.

He could have discounted the first bit of stroking against his leg as something else, but this had long ago gone past something either of them could just shove under the rug. That's why she saw his refusal to react as an admission that he was playing her game. Silly boy. Men much more resolute and firm of mind and spirit had bent at knee and back before her. How dare he think to challenge her. And Stephanie vowed, right then and there, that before she was ready for the body transfer, she would hear that delightful, pleading note come from his tongue.

Thinking that brought her back into focus on the case and she was once again strictly paying attention to what he was telling her - although she did take a moment to smirk at the distant and withdrawn tone he'd adopted. Nathan had given him orders? Was he kidding? At his suggestion for her to ask Eric about it she agreed, that was a good idea. What was going on here? Did it have something to do with that special secret project he'd been on about when presenting the boy to them downstairs?

Then she felt herself distracted once again as he slipped his goggles over his face, for the first time since he'd gotten them back no doubt. Her breath caught in her throat as she watched sorrow and pure grief ripple through his features and his entire body before everything tensed up and it disappeared. Oh, sweet mother of... Goodness, that was yummy. How badly she wanted to push him further right then, just to see if she could get him to actually cry - she had no doubt she could find the right buttons to push - but then there was an anger she was all too familiar with, coming off him in waves. He was playing the statue game again, but Stephanie had spent enough time studying emotions and how they were displayed to be able to see it in his steps as he turned away from her. Afterall, his mask wasn't flawless like hers was, and even as much as she wanted to play with him some more, their time was up.

So, she allowed him to break protocol and take his leave without waiting for her permission - making a note to come up with a punishment later - following behind him out into the bright glow of late afternoon. Eric and Benoit were already waiting for them in the car, Benoit sitting in the back and almost pouting from getting kicked out of his usual place in the front passenger seat, and Eric smiling easily as Jason approached the driver's side with an almost obvious eagerness in his steps. Of course, anything to get away from sitting next to her for the next two days. Luckily, the seat behind the driver's was left open for her, so she'd still have access to him. Quickly, they both settled in and Jason got the car running and was driving back down the hill down to the main road and they were heading on their way.

As the scenery passed by the car in a blur and silence dominated the air once again, Stephanie began to feel strangely stifled. It could have been the fact that the past 32 hours she'd spent more time in the car than she was used to or maybe it was the added pressure put on her shoulders from watching Eric switch bodies and having her "toy" moved out of comfortable reach. For whatever reason, her designer suit was starting to itch on her skin and she found herself suffocating and burning up. For several moments, she tried adjusting her position, first leaning a little towards Benoit and then switching to lean more towards her door, folding and then refolding her legs - but every which way just seemed more uncomfortable than the last and she was growing frustrated by the restrictions of space.

The air in the car was growing tight in her lungs and her skin slightly flushed as her fingers idly began to undo the ebony buttons on her scarlet suit jacket. Opening it up seemed to help considerably, but it still wasn't enough and there was barely a pause as she began to take it off all the way. Cleanly ironed fabric slowly slipped from creamy, bare shoulders, the natural, healthy golden cast of her skin emphasized by the setting of the orange sun, and she gently set the article of clothing on the seat between her and Benoit. What was left after it's removal was a slimming black tank top with inch thick straps and a neckline that dipped low enough to show the top mound of each breast, her ample busom accented by the form-fitting top. Her dress pants were of the same shade of black and all together, her slender body and natural curves led the eye along in smooth, uninterrupted lines from top to bottom.

Even with the heavy and restricting suit removed, Stephanie still did not seem satisfied and started to roll her window all the way down. Leaning slightly towards it, she closed her eyes for a few moments and took in slow deep breaths, trying to clear her head and cool down. Hair that was normally pulled back in a ponytail at the nape of her neck, started to release small strands of flaxen silk to whip around her face wildly in the wind from the window. The fresh breeze helped, but the rest of her body suffered in the cocoon of the car and she shifted restlessly in place.

Turning towards Benoit, she did not look at him but grabbed the top of the seat separating them and reached across him with her other hand to roll down his window as well. No contact was made between them, but she was definitely invading his personal space and didn't seem to either care or realize it. The slender and graceful slope of her neck and collar bone was right at level with his face, hovering about 6 inches from him, and from the way she was turned towards him, he would get a perfect view down the middle of her shirt - if he happened to be looking, that is.

Once his window was down, she sat back in her seat once more, "It's hot in here..." her only explanation, murmured as if she couldn't be bothered to offer more. Still, she did not feel like it was enough, as if she were stuck inside a slow moving shell with the sun beating down on them. Reaching forward quickly, she smacked Jason lightly on the back of the head and demanded, "Roll down your window." Waiting for him to comply, she sat back again and laid her head against the headrest and closed her eyes briefly, letting the air flow across her between the two windows and filling the backseat. She considered asking Eric to roll his window down as well, but since the current air flow seemed to be working to ease the heat that had been filling her, she decided to let it go.

It wasn't really clear what was wrong with her and she didn't even know or consciously realize that she was acting strangely. It seemed perfectly reasonable that after hours of being stuck in a car with men, that her body would resist being shoved into the same situation again. Now she felt much more at ease however, having freed herself from the confining garment she wore almost all the time - except when she was sleeping - and it did not occur to her that the way she'd gone about it and the way she was dressed now, was somewhat inappropriate and a bit unprofessional.

Sitting upright again with her eyes reopened, she started to smooth the loose strands of hair back into place, but they'd already gotten free from her hair band and would need to be reinserted to become apart of the whole again. Slipping the band off of pale, golden strands that dipped just below her shoulders, she was starting to pull it all back again before she realized how good it felt to have it all out for once - her hair being tied back also a constant part of her attire. So, instead, using her fingers like a comb, she ran her hand through her hair and let it spill fully over her shoulders in a straight, golden waterfall and tossed the hair band onto her red jacket, instantly forgetting about it the moment it was gone from her grasp.

With the cooler wind blowing through the car now, there came a dryness and she only realized it when she attempted to rub her lips together and they seemed to scrape and drag at each other. Reaching into the pocket of her jacket, she pulled out a small hand mirror and her lipstick and began to reapply it - Jason had taken some of the color with him when she'd attempted to eat his face - and she found herself studying her own features for the first time in what felt like forever. Stephanie knew she was an attractive woman, but every time she looked at herself and caught that blank stare looking back at her, she cringed internally. Heaven knew she'd given up a lot for this case - willingly, one might add - but she'd been unhappy with more than just her looks for a long time even before she'd known who Gwen Stewart was. But the original self-loathing was always exaggerated every time she looked herself in the mirror now, and after watching Eric take over Jean's body, she felt a new surge of excitement to remove herself from her own skin.

Snapping the mirror shut, she looked to the front passenger seat with a piercing eye and began to scoot forward in her seat so she perched between the front seats. As a result, her waist and thigh slid up against Benoit's and instead of removing herself and giving him space, she allowed the physical contact to remain, preferring to ignore it. When she spoke, her usual emotionless facade was shaken loose to hint at emotions just under the surface. "Tell me about the body transfer process. Everything that you know about it," she said to Eric in a barely deferential tone. "How was the idea originally thought up? What was it like the first time you did it? What is it like to switch bodies? What does it feel like to be Jean?"

Anyone listening to her could almost detect an almost aroused tone to her voice, but it was so mixed with her usual deadpan, it could be shrugged away as something on the wind. It did not occur to her to consider Benoit's feelings about the subject of conversation, but even so, her knee lightly swayed against his in a surreptitious stroking gesture.

"I want to know about your personal experiences with the process, mostly," she added some of the emptiness returning to her voice.

***

Only when Alex mentioned him, did Gwen really remember Nathan. She'd been so fuzzy after they'd left the facility - and the circumstances around their leaving had been so strange - she'd forgotten her earlier concerns for the people inside the kid's head. The first thing she thought of was that poor woman lost inside and then that jerk David constantly torturing her and pushing her around. So, when Alex turned to her and told her that he planned to eventually help them out, a smile of admiration spread across her lips and she found herself sighing softly, content all over again to have him back and running the show. If it had still been Xander, not only would his concern for coffee have been the overriding detail occupying all of his attention, but he probably would have never looked back or ever thought of the kid again.

Even before Alex knew there was something wrong, Gwen detected it and her heart fell through the floor as the man behind the counter set the cups onto the counter. Oh, Dean, why couldn't he just have done it right? Why did he have to screw this order up? But as she was cringing, waiting for Xander's response to the problem after Alex expertly identified the order had been messed, she did a double take and ended up meeting Alex's eyes when he gave her a completely flabbergasted look. Hiding a smile, Gwen began to eat her cinnamon twist - it was not fresh, having been baked sometime earlier in the day - but it still wasn't too hard and crusty not to enjoy and managed to melt in her mouth with every bite.

Out on the street again, she lightly clung to Alex's thoughts, moving with his consciousness as she stayed beside him physically - her tongue eagerly licking at the pastry when her own mouth filled with that hard coffee taste - and she looked at him guiltily as he considered the other part of the plan she'd stupidly fallen for. She didn't know how to tell him how convincing Stephanie had been, or how she'd felt like a throw away nobody compared to what the Agency was purportedly offering. And of course, it hadn't been him who her suspicions had fallen on - Xander had been in control at the time and she hadn't known if she'd ever get a chance to see Alex in the flesh again before they got to Charlton.

Xander of course picked up on this easily and although she was glad she didn't have to fumble awkwardly to explain to Alex that she did trust him, she found herself getting mad at the other man's tone. The question Alex asked went ignored as she swallowed the bite of cinnamon pastry in her mouth and turned on him with an angry look.

"Are you actually going to play that card?" she asked Xander, seeing through Alex to the man underneath, hiding and pouting in fatigue at the back of his mind. "Seriously? Oh, sure, you've saved my life a bunch of times, but you haven't done anything to inspire a feeling of safety when I'm around you. If I'm not being dragged this way and that by your crazy whims that constantly put us at risk, then I'm dragging you around and trying to figure out what I should be doing not to get us all fucking killed. Even when you were conscious, I felt like I was alone! If it hadn't been for Alex, I would have left! You treat me just like you treat Alex and everybody else - we're all afterthoughts when it comes to whatever you feel like doing. And don't try to deny that the thing you liked most about me was that I'm a convenient pair of eyes to add to your little quest."

She shook her head angrily and looked away but she wasn't done. "So, go ahead and pretend you're a misunderstood victim and we're all just ungrateful bastards. 'Cause there's just absolutely noooOOOoooo frigging reason why we'd all be walking on eggshells around you, after you've bent over backwards to make us feel like you're dependable or at least half-way SANE!"

When her eyes were turned back onto him, they were a bright sapphire shining in the light of the early evening descending upon them and she said, "And how about a little gratitude yourself!? You always assume you're so frigging important and act as if we should be fawning over you! Well, if anything that David jerk had to say was even remotely true, then YOU'RE the one who has to worry about fading away! So this whole walking into a trap at Charlton thing is us doing you a fucking favor!"

Pausing for breath, she felt the heat of anger still burning at her tongue and she quickly rushed ahead with it. "If there wasn't that sliver of doubt that you'd end up taking Alex with you when you decided to die, then I wouldn't think twice about letting whatever's gonna happen to you, happen."

That wasn't true and immediately after the words left her mouth, she was sorry she'd said them. She was extremely grateful for everything he'd done for them - for HER - but most of the things she'd said about how he'd made her feel was true. She was just an object to him, a nifty toy to help him out when he fell over and lost control in public. Even so, there was more to this current plan then just the necessity to get rid of the threat he presented to her friend, it was to help him too because he had been very instrumental to keeping not only her alive, but Alex as well - for years. But she couldn't bring herself to take any of it back or let him know that wasn't really why she was doing this. Instead, she turned her head away from him with a sigh and said, "Let's just go."

Looking further down the street, back the way they'd come, she reached out to the area to make sure they weren't being followed. No doubt they were, but at least not the way they'd left the facility. Probing the surrounding area and the bus station, she found a bus that would take them at least halfway there - reading the mind of the driver was particularly pleasant and simple, especially with the detailed map he provided - and she nodded in that direction. "Let's take a bus out of the city. And I'll be fine as far as traveling goes." Taking another bite of her pastry - feeling bitter in her mouth now and grown cold during her rant - she tugged lightly on Alex's sleeve and led the way, seemingly unbothered by her flash of anger.

Approaching the line of idling vehicles, the air became thick with exhaust fumes and she almost tossed away her meal for the taste it put in her mouth. As they boarded the appropriate bus, Gwen searched the rows for a seat and noticed immediately near the back, the woman from the coffee shop. Of course, she had to be on this bus. There were still some empty seats near the back and she led the way to a row not too far from the rebellious woman. There were three seats in the row that they chose, all nicely cushioned but definitely displaying the wear and tear of public transportation, and Gwen allowed Alex to take the inner most seat next to the window. Glancing back between the rows, Osono had not even noticed them and was busy listening to some heavy metal music with barely intelligible lyrics. Turning back to Alex, she finished her meal and settled in her seat, hoping that the stops the bus had to make wouldn't put too much of a delay on the trip itself. She just wanted all of this to be over as soon as possible.

Osono was busily bobbing her head to the beat blaring through her skull when her small dark eyes trailed to look out the window and she tensed. "Shit...!" she muttered under her breath and turned off the music, tugging her headphones off and tucking them away again. Frantically, she searched the bus for something and found it a few seats away, quickly rising from her seat and plopping down in the empty spot right next to Gwen. For a moment, she sat there and continued to look around warily, her mind working a mile a minute to come up with a plan - at the moment, opportunity was being a cold bitch.

"Hey," she finally said turning to nod at first Gwen and then Alex, not recognizing either of them from their brief encounter earlier. "I don't mean to impose upon you guys, but I'm gonna adopt you for a while." She lifted herself up a little in her seat and looked around to try and see the front of the bus and quickly plopped back down as if she'd caught sight of something she'd rather not have seen. Turning to give them a chagrined look, she said, "Someone's...following me..."

Gwen's eyes popped open at that and the first thing she thought of was Agents, but quickly discarded the thought. No, that was absurd. Not everybody was involved with the Agency like they were. And she abandoned the suspicion completely as a man approached them with a relaxed smile on his face, slipping into the empty row in front of them. Leaning over the backs of the chairs, he didn't even seem to notice the people sitting next to her as he said, "Ozzie! I finally caught up with you! Who're your friends?" The slender man was particularly short, with a handsome, youthful face, and short light brown hair, but other than seemingly kind of a dork, Gwen couldn't sense anything about him. Not even a direct age. It wasn't like he was an Agent, but rather more like Xander - she could sense things about his body and occasionally snippets of information made it through to her reach, but anything conclusive was still evading her grasp.

From the way that Osono reacted however, she was surprised at the degree of hate the woman had for him. Apparently he'd been following her for a long time... At his question, she turned to Gwen with a semi-pleading look in her eyes, so much so that she felt moved enough to help her out a little. "Uh, I'm Stacy and this is my boyfriend...Ben." That didn't sound too much like it had been made up on the spot, did it?

"Ah, cool, cool," he said nodding with that ingratiating grin again, finally turning to eyeball first her and then Alex. "I'm Quin. Nice to meet you both. Ozzie, do you mind...?" He made a gesture with his neck and patted the seat next to himself as if he wished for her to leave them and join him privately instead - it almost had the hint of a relationship to it and if it hadn't been for "Ozzie's" extreme loathing flaring up when he asked, Gwen might have assumed from his behavior alone that the two were involved.

"I'm with people, Rudy. Just go choke and die, alright?" Even with her completely acerbic tone, Quin or Rudy or whatever, seemed more amused by her response than a normal person should have been.

"I would, but see I'm kinda hesitant to turn my back on you. I almost lost you in that explosion at the gas station back in South Beach - I lost my Chevy, by the way, and I'm now suffering litigation for a discarded cigarette butt that wasn't mine..." even though he wasn't looking at them anymore, mostly focusing on the woman sitting next to her, Gwen got the feeling the guy was saying all of this for their benefit. He was surreptitiously trying to make Ozzie look dangerous. It proved to be unnecessary however... "I was scared that you might have gotten hurt in all of that."

"Oh? Well, personally, I'm upset that you weren't," was her response, thrown back flippantly.

"Ha! Oh, you!" he said as if she were joking - but she wasn't. Turning to Gwen and Alex he said, "Don't you just love that about her? So feisty! Mm!" His light voice uttering drooling praise was cut short as a harsh buzzing hum started and he jerked upright slightly with a small surprised look. Even before he said anything, Gwen could feel the vibration in his pocket.

"Oop! ♫ Someone is texting me! ♪" he said in an almost flamboyant, sing-song tone of voice. Turning back to Osono, he held up a finger as he dug into his pocket with the other hand. "Just a second, now you stay put! Don't go getting lost!"

"I recommend that you do..." she murmured as he disappeared on the other side of the barrier of seats. A hand drifted to her forehead and she rubbed her temples in a soothing manner before whispering in their direction, "Do either of you have any aspirin on you? Or possibly a gun to put me out of my misery?" The implication was for her to shoot herself in the head, but from probing into the other woman's mind, she realized it was much more likely for Osono to use the weapon on the man who'd followed her onto the bus.

Glancing at Alex, Gwen gave him a small questioning look and pulsed,

What do you think?

Setting

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Character Portrait: Alexander Stall Character Portrait: Xander
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#, as written by Tartra
What did he think? ... That was a good question. Alex didn’t want to get involved in anything beyond what they were already dealing with, but when that girl – psycho-coffee fanatic number two – sat down and practically demanded they talk to her, he winced, kept his mouth shut, and hoped that’d be enough to get rid of her. No dice. She was still turned around for a chat, asking for help in a way he couldn’t decide was supposed to be sarcastic, and the only response he could give was slinking farther into his chair. It hurt doing that, by the way. Not only did his skull hurt, but the rest of his back hurt, too. He must’ve been slammed around more than Gwen said, or else slammed through something a hundred different times. He was surprised he could walk. His body felt numb and light, much more than it should’ve. Maybe it was a delayed reaction to the pain. Once more, he’d be in for some fun if the full force hit him, but it wasn’t looming over him like last time.

But anyway. Them. He didn’t have to be a mind-reader to know something wasn’t right. If Gwen was questioning these people... He tensed. The idea of anyone being Agents always made him freeze, but he settled down. It was fine. She would’ve told him if they were after them. If they were, that... emptiness she felt when she was around the Agent woman would’ve been the first thing she picked up on, and if they weren’t after her, then they wouldn’t have been prepared enough to fend her off and she could’ve easily jumped in and found out who these two were. He figured, anyway. He knew less about Gwen’s powers than she did, and she’d only had them for two days. Three soon, now that the sun was getting low. Hard to imagine they’d done so much in such a tiny amount of time. That was his life in a nutshell. The sooner this was behind him...

Okay. How did he do this? Did he think real hard or just – ah, forget it. He’d whisper. He was better at that than any mental back-and-forth. What he did with Xander barely counted at all.

“I think we’re gonna be stuck with them for a while,” he said, very low in his throat. He could barely hear what he’d murmured, let alone this stranger. That meant he was banking on Gwen picking up his words as he ran them through his mind. It was the best he could do. “Unless you want to try a different bus.”

Ha, ha! Yeah, right. There was even less a chance of that than anything else he could think of. No, they’d have to grin and bear this, or least try to politely extract themselves from the situation. He wasn’t sure it’d work. He doubted it would. If this girl had been bold enough to stomp over to them before, she’d probably follow them around no matter what they said. And that other guy, the one following her, if he could believe she was likeable enough for anyone to want to be in her space, didn’t seem to have any problem with forced socialization either. Great. How long until they were at their stop? Any chance he could get a clock to watch the seconds die around him?

“Uh... No. Sorry. All out.” Except for the near-full bottle in his bag. “And... that’s a ‘no’ for the gun thing, too.”

He let out a breath, trying to imply that that was all the words he had for her, then casually let his eyes wander around the rest of the bus. There wasn’t a lot to see – the bus was pretty typically ‘bus-like’ – so it didn’t take long to examine his surroundings. When he was done and noticed upsettingly that the girl was still here and that her guy friend hadn’t stopped chatting on the phone, he gave a lifeless and tight-lipped smile before settling deeper – impossibly, he’d found more room to slink into – into his seat. He hunched his shoulders and hung his head. If she was going to talk, he could at least bore her to death with how useless he was at conversation. Hell – Alex wouldn’t talk to Alex right now. He looked and felt like he was going to fall over. Actually, that wasn’t a bad idea. It might’ve seemed like an awkward position, but this was kind of comfy. They’d be left alone if they were asleep, right? So... perfect!

“I’ll just – uh... take a nap,” he muttered. “Had a long day. Good luck with him and everything.”

And good riddance.

... Crap. Comfy or not, that damn coffee –

Alright. He’d close his eyes. It amounted to the same thing, didn’t it? In the meantime, until the too-strong taste wore out of his mouth, he’d do the thing Xander was incapable of and come up with a strategy for what they were facing.

The big guy was dead but the invisible one had his goggles back. Alex had seen very little of what they could do, but there’d been so much stuff running across the screen that their ability seemed almost limitless. Then again, there’d been that ‘reset’ thing. That should take the bite out of that guy, but really, they’d never been the problem. It was the invisible-but-not-exactly-invisible trick up the Agent’s sleeve. Twice, he’d been caught off-guard by it, and Gwen had had her turn, too. She’d said he’d shut himself off to her? So what was the defence against it? Whatever magic Xander kept casting whenever they met, he wasn’t sharing. ... And he’d been quiet for a while, Alex realized.

“Xander?”

....

“... Xander?”

... Uh...

“Are you okay in there?”

... Aaaaand more silence. He didn’t have the patience to find the secret behind it now. Xander was probably sulking and there were bigger things to worry about.

Okay. The invisible Agent was a problem. Creepy ‘can’t read my thoughts’ lady was a big one, too. She didn’t have to wait for Gwen to peek inside to attack. He remembered what had happened in the hotel and it wasn’t so hard to put the picture together or even guess that the woman could do things that would’ve had the Agency trailing her if she hadn’t been a part of them. But hey, maybe that was exactly what had happened. Nathan seemed to be caught in some messed up orgy of people picked and stolen. That maze of stairs Gwen had told him about? That could’ve been a million different people, dead or alive, struggling for control over the last thing they could call real. .... Or the woman was just really, really fucked in the head. One of those. Maybe both?

And then the Frenchman. That was an issue that refused to be resolved. How many times had he corned him and Xander? How long had he had them on the run? Through all the years and all the faceless goons, that one determined Agent had stood against them. It wasn’t like he ran off at first glance. Half the time, whoever hadn’t been killed had to the drag the Frenchman away, because he wanted to see what else Alex’s powers could do and Xander was more than happy to oblige. So... big guy dead? It helped a little. Aside from the hope that grieving – which was a hope in and of itself – would throw him a little off his game, nothing had changed. Alex wouldn’t be surprised if the man popped up with a new army in his pocket to tear the bus apart.

This was hopeless. Their best chance was flying on the wings of pure luck: if they got in, if they found Xander’s body, if they found the transfer machine, if they figured out how to use it, if they could fend off all the security that’d been roaming around – and it’d be Gwen by herself because Nathan was long gone – then they’d be okay, barring some horrible accident that cut off the transfer halfway and screwed over everyone. But it was the chance he had to take. Whatever was in the Agency building at Charlton, it was the only thing he could say would fix his life. Gwen, though... He didn’t want to say it – much less think it, but too late because it was in his head now and she probably could hear him – but she’d be safer off on the outside. He refused to put it into spoken words, though. As selfish as he thought it’d be to keep dragging her down the path of no return, could he honestly say she’d feel better if he suddenly left her out now? ... Well... maybe... but that was her decision. From what he could see, she wanted to help him. Back at Roasters – so long ago and hardly relevant anymore – she’d been perfectly capable of walking away. He trusted her to back out if this became too much for her.

He would’ve liked to have been able to say ‘no’, except for a certain someone axing that option like a lumberjack on meth.

“Xander?”

...

This was going to be a long bus ride.

* * *


He felt more grounded than he’d ever been since this mess had started. Jason had left the goggles around his neck, aware that they were useless, but still feeling a warmth at the tips of his fingers that let him know he was going to be okay. Relatively speaking, of course. There were six other things he had to worry about and they’d destroyed his chance at focusing on them by making him drive. He knew he was supposed to. It wasn’t as if one of the leads or the A-1 would do it, but he had more on his plate than anyone else. Whatever was going on in Eric’s head was his personal secret, but Jason was well aware that aside from ‘obtain target, kill target, take target’s body’, there wasn’t a lot on everyone else’s agendas, no matter what they tried to tell him.

His hands gripped the steering wheel as if trying to wake up. There was strength in them again. That was a good sign, and he was glad the world had stopped spinning in time for him to do this. He couldn’t imagine having to ask if someone else could get them there because he was dizzy, let alone what they’d do if he crashed. He’d successfully avoiding swerving the car into a tree when his lead asked him to open his window – which he did, but now the evening’s icy air was hitting him in the face – and he was making fairly good time. Depending on how long they decided to stop for, and he was praying they at least slept like normal human beings, they’d make it to Charlton well within the two day travel.

“Miss Agent, you will remove your leg from my personal space before I snap it off.”

Eyes forward, eyes forward, Jason kept his focus on the road –

“Is there a party back there?” Eric sounded like he’d been about to answer Jason’s lead but had changed his mind at Benoit’s out-of-nowhere statement. “Why am I never invited to these things?”

“Because you kill everyone. Nobody likes you.”

“Fair enough. Clearly one of us is more popular,” Eric said, grinning at the rear-view mirror. “Should I leave you two alone or...?” Quick pause, followed by the feeling of a murderous glare that the man must’ve learned from Alexander. Eric giggled at that as well. “Fine, fine. Let’s stay professional, kids. Stephanie can’t be distracted if she’s gonna hear the answer to this. It’s a lot to take in, you know.”

“I swear to God...”

By which I mean ‘to understand and absorb’,” Eric cut in. “Geez, Benny. I only say half the things I do because you point them out. I’m not always trying to imply something.” And then there was another pause, as if he was about to imply something immediately after that. “I’m serious! I’m a good guy!”

“Whatever you want to say, say it,” Frenchie spat. “Having you here is bad enough without suffering your endless voice.”

The A-1 had a great laugh over that. In between his mighty breaths, which shook the car that had only just managed to hold the Flunky when he’d been sitting still, he got out a delighted, “You know I love this guy, ‘cause he’s breathing. Anyone else and I would’ve had a new body to float into. Not exactly a trade-up, but I think I’d make my point after I throw you into a series of increasingly embarrassing situations to shatter the reputation you’ve spent some years building and render a funeral or even a record of your name useless because no one would ultimately care to associate you with any part of their memory except for the ‘what a dickweed’ part. No joke, I have done that before. Jason!”

Eyes on the road. Keep focused but polite.

“Yes, sir?”

“Ever hear of ‘Ian Kenneth’? Small administrations guy, worked some backwoods office in Alaska.”

“... No.” Wait. Wait a minute. Yes, he did! “Or – was he the one who –”

“Ran around the corner because he was ‘late for a meeting’ and got my searingly hot chocolate all over my arm and was later found puking on his regional director’s dog?”

... Uh... Yeah. That guy.

“That was charming,” Benoit muttered disapprovingly.

Jason took his eyes away from the straight, empty line he was driving in to gape at the A-1 beside him. Both impressed and thoroughly grossed out, he loudly asked, “That was you?”

Eric lifted his fists in the air and knocked them against the roof of the car in triumph.

I am a magnificent god of wrath! All shall hear my name and tremble!” And as an aside, “But really, I don’t take kindly to people ruining whatever corpse I find for the week. Holding off decomposition is one thing. Healing wounds? Like a paper cut? Out of my league, unfortunately, so you can imagine what the boiling point of chocolate decided to do to my skin.” He rolled his eyes at what must’ve been Benoit’s expression. “Ah, it’s fine. The guy had cancer. I gave him about a month before he was snuffed out anyway, so at least he goes down in history as ‘that guy who puked on that dog’ instead of Mr. Nameless Number Zillion and Four. Cool, huh?”

That was some serious dedication to ruin someone, to put it lightly, and that poor dog had only been the first in a string of twenty total bursts of insanity.

“I gotta say...” Jason couldn’t finish that with anything better than a slow shake of his head and a stunned look of amusement. It was refreshing to find an Agent who wasn’t ashamed of being crazy, but it was the tiniest bit unnerving to be trapped in a moving metal box with him.

“Yeah? Yeah? I know – it’s hilarious, and it worked out for everybody,” Eric said. “His family got a good windfall out of the insurance, the Agency had a fun time watching it, that church got a brand-new alter, and that baby at the baptism – well! He’s gonna have some lovely pictures to look back on one of these days. Who says religion can’t be entertaining?” Another eye roll. “Alright, well, obviously Benny does. Fine – back to the boring transfer stuff, if that’s what you’re gagging for.”

Whatever enthusiasm Eric was pretending not to have leaped up the minute he began talking about it. His eyes brightened behind his glasses and his entire body beamed with exhilaration.

“The transfer process, in two words, is fucking miraculous. Pardon my French and all that.” Benoit grunted. “I was terrified – not gonna lie to you – that I was going to end up like every other victim who stumbled into the unfinished technology. I walked in expecting a death sentence. What I got was... a death sentence. Technically. The whole ‘can only live in dead bodies’ thing, it’s a bit of a pain. I’ll get to that in a minute, but – first. Stephanie. You can’t believe your good luck. Going for a mark knowing full well that the only risk you’ll be taking is ‘Gwen might get away’ or ‘her powers might be too much for me to control’? I would’ve been nuts to have that! There’s not a reason in the world for you to panic. Every single bug’s been worked out, every process tested and retested, and the whole system guarded against the slightest hint of sabotage... You’re living in a golden age, my dear. You should be beyond pleased with what you have to work with.

“As for the transfer itself, I’ll say the basics won’t have changed. You’re gonna feel numb, then you’re gonna feel dizzy, then you’re gonna feel like your mind’s getting ripped out of its skull and sucked through a tube. That part’s not fun and not a lot of Agents can handle it. I was out for half a year before I woke up. Lucky me, because it didn’t take long to go stir-crazy in there.” He shrugged. “Not everyone makes it. The good news is, if you don’t take to your target and get lost in there forever, we can always pull you back out and put someone else inside. We put on a new cap of four months for you to get your bearings and take over, largely because there’s a half-dozen others ready to take your place. No more of this two year, three year, or – one time – four year wait.”

Jason immensely relieved that he wasn’t going through any of that. He’d stick to his withdrawal in terms of ‘worst thing to ever happen’.

“The idea to do this wasn’t extremely novel. Some people had powers, other people had money, and there’re only so many things that’ll happen when you get that kind of mix. The Agency wants me to ramble on about how this is to protect the general public, first by removing untrained civilians from sources of so much destruction and, second, by developing an army of super-soldiers to police the world and blah-blah-blah. I’m not one for ideals or morals or whatever you want to call it. I took this job because it looked fantastic on my CV, and I accepted this opportunity because I love being stronger than everyone. People like Benoit frown upon that school of thought, and anyone who’s getting giddy over killing their way to superhero-dom has a few ‘me’ issues to work out, but as I always say, if you can’t fix it, embrace it, and I embrace the hell out of everything. That project of mine, precious Nathan, is the door to a new era. Leave it to me to come up with the next best way to stomp the competition to dust.”

He almost expected Benoit to say something about that. When the man didn’t, Jason finally glanced at them in the mirror. Benoit had a fairly accepting expression on. While he might’ve hated Eric’s motivation – and Eric himself – it didn’t stop him from praising the work underway. The silence was more of an agreement than anything, but that dropped off Frenchie’s face when he realized the A-1 hadn’t finished. It was back to something that seemed like a headache, which the man tried to cure by immediately going back to smoking.

“I’ve only needed to use the Agency’s transfer method once. My target, my first and only ‘official’ case, had quite the trick. I think it’s obvious what that was, but in case you can’t puzzle it out, it’s the power to jump from corpse to corpse. How’d he find out he had it? Who knows? What kind of kid walks around shooting their mind at dead guys? It’s sick, I say. Never liked him, Edwin. But that’s the old way of doing things. Up until maybe... the seventeenth? Sure – up until the seventeenth success, those to be transferred didn’t obsess about whoever they were taking over. We couldn’t care less. I doubt I’d recognize a picture of my target, and that goes for anyone else who made it. Our focus was on the powers. It was all we wanted. If we started putting faces to what we were killing...”

“That’s not how it works,” Jason said. He immediately chomped on his tongue, only to venture out an apologetic, “I mean, that’s not what I’ve witnessed. My lead seems... You can ask her.”

“Don’t have to. I know what’s going on. We’ve had about twenty years since my time in the chair,” Eric told them. “After the ten thousandth Agent died and got stuffed into a jar beside their old body, the Agency encouraged more... I wouldn’t say worship, but that’s exactly what it is. Now they want you to breathe the air your target breathes, drink the water your target drinks, feel the world in whatever way your target feels so it lessens the shock of being inside someone else. Works like a charm. Suddenly that panic of ‘I’m no longer the person I was born’ fades away because you’re happy to be where you are in a way the powers alone couldn’t entice you. Shortened the average to a few weeks, though the odd one’ll still take those capped months. How many are there now? A hundred? Two hundred? All active Agents fully in tune with their new form.”

“Your project is listed as number 35,” Jason said.

“So? It’s not like he’s the most recent capture. We’ve had him for a while. In fact, I picked him because he’d been around for so long. It’s the rest of the hardy crew that’s minty fresh.”

“What hardy crew?”

Eric smiled.

“A-1 only, Jay-jay. The perks of the promoted.” He leaned back in his seat. “Now Stephanie, I think I’ve answered all your questions, besides the last one because I have no strong feelings one way or another – it’s all about the powers and he’s got none – so I hope you’d be willing to return the favour and answer one of mine: that target of yours, the fair lady Gwen, run off with Benny’s two-minded Lancelot... I know you said she was psychically gifted but – uh... how strong a force are we talking about? The strength behind her, is it ‘burn a country with her brain’ or more of a ‘cheat on exams’ sort of thing? I have to know what I’m up against.”

“She poses no significant threat, other than hearing our plans prematurely,” Frenchie said, annoyed that Eric would think differently. “She is as easy to influence as a child. Alexander should be our concern.”

“Awwwwww! It’s like watching a mommy bear maul a hunter too close to her cub,” Eric cooed. “I like to know every side of my environment, Benoit, and you’re a little biased on the ‘who’s more dangerous’ front. Besides, I know how to handle him. Try to remember I’m the guy who won over Xander in seconds. Let’s the trust the professionals, shall we?” The man’s attention switched back to Jason’s lead so distinctly, Jason almost heard a click come off of it. “If you don’t mind sharing, what was it that brought you to this girl? Random assignment or personal preference? Almost everyone has a different answer, and it’s sort of my hobby to keep track of them.”

Setting

4 Characters Present

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Stewart Character Portrait: Stephanie March Character Portrait: Rudy Quin Character Portrait: Osono "Ozzie" Wallace
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#, as written by Ten
Stephanie felt herself instantly tense when Benoit addressed her, not only because of his tone but also with what he said. What the--? What the fuck was that jerk-off talking about? She wasn't anywhere near the big crybaby and his bubble of personal... Looking down at her leg, she blinked blankly for a moment or two, staring at the nonexistent space between them as they sat knee-to-knee. Not only that but before she'd cast her eyes downward, she could have sworn she'd also been moving her leg...against his...

There was an almost perceptible frown on her face as she kept her eyes from meeting his and gently yet quickly moved her leg away from him. She hadn't even realized she'd been touching him at all - not really, although thinking back she did recall the movement that had placed her leg there and the very conscious decision to leave it touching him, and even the idle stroking that had gone on - but mostly, it had completely slipped her notice. How very strange... How long--? But then she blushed internally as Eric cracked a few jokes about it - how embarrassing! She didn't know whether to be angry at Benoit for making her faux pas so blatantly obvious to everyone in the car or to be mortified that she'd done that to him in the first place, let alone the fact that the A-1 Agent now knew about it.

But more than anything she found it troubling that she hadn't even been aware she'd been doing it. Under normal circumstances she would have bitten anyone's limbs off if they'd even considered entering her personal space, let alone touching her, period. Ever since she'd started playing with Jason it seemed she couldn't keep her hands - or body parts - to herself and it was a most unnerving development. Something she'd have to work harder to keep an eye on. No, not just an eye, she needed to get a grip on herself! Otherwise, she'd make herself look incompetent in front of not only another Lead but her superior as well. If she still wanted to be considered when it came time for the body transfer, she had to make sure they knew she could handle it. She was still a professional.

Instead of acting embarrassed, once her gaze had left Benoit's leg and returned to the face of the man in the front passenger seat, she held firmly to a blank expression and did not look away from him. She was not going to even allude to the fact that the contact Benoit spoke of meant anything to her. It was a simple mistake and she'd gotten too close. It was over now. So, she waited patiently for Eric to eventually start answering her questions, her focus keeping her firmly in her own place perched between the two front seats, and hanging on his every word.

During his speech, she learned several things that had slipped by her before, one of which was the history behind the power he now possessed and another was the fact that Eric had motivations that did not fit in with the textbook goals the Agency put forth as the main focus behind body transfer. It made her glance at Benoit for a moment, knowing that he felt the opposite way, and in truth, she'd thought she was a minority in the way she felt about Gwen. The powers were a nice plus and she liked to tell herself that she was doing all of this to fulfill the Agency's agenda, but really, she hadn't felt that way ever since she was first made a Lead on Gwen's case.

The rest of what Eric said was like listening to a really juicy, dirty erotic tale and she found herself feeling that mixed burst of excitement and jealousy pulse through her internal layers as he spoke about his personal experiences - not only with the body transfer process itself, but the use of his original target's power which was essentially a very similar exchange, in her mind. It was all deliciously morbid as well and she found herself looking over Jean's form as he mentioned something about delayed decomposition. How very interesting. Even the description of the supposed pain of her mind being sucked out of her body had her restraining a heavy panting gasp in her throat.

Then she was left blinking blankly as he turned to her and addressed her with his own series of questions. The first couple were fairly simple and Benoit got it mostly right in responding to him, but she felt she had a bit more to add, especially with the new situation revolving around Jean's death. Sitting back smoothly in her seat, she leaned a hand on the window and felt the icy chill of the night air cover her skin and fill her bones.

"Well, Benoit is correct to a degree," she said in a deadpan voice, tossing her blonde hair over her shoulder and out of her face as the wind danced with it. "The most we'll have to worry about from Gwen is the power of suggestion she will eventually develop. It will be the last degree of intensity that her powers will reach, being able to see every thought, emotion and memory and every nerve in the bodies and minds of those around her and manipulating them with a coaxing word, or implanting a thought in their heads. There is no A-3 level Agent that will fall to it - and anyone higher doesn't even enter into the equation of possibility.

"However, if she is able to focus all of her mental and psychical energy upon the task, she could turn any one of us into a puppet for however long the suggestion lasts for. The downside - for her - is that it will require an extreme amount of focus and effort. Even if she's practiced using the ability and has a firm handle on it, if she is not completely focused on the task, there is a mental recoil that could stun or even injure her. Not only that but it will drain her energy completely to "take over" someone of an A-3 rank and will leave her completely helpless and useless for a while afterward."

She sighed in a bored fashion and let her hand trail out the window idly, feeling the freezing wind prick her fingers and palm in a satisfyingly painful manner. "But as Benoit mentioned, she is not a real threat. Gwen is used to order and routine, of having a clearly defined space that is hers. She is weak in this chaos of constantly being hunted and easily malleable as a result. To top it all off, she is emotionally fragile at the moment and I severely doubt she would have any time to practice her abilities let alone the power and focus it would require to achieve any of the things I've mentioned in such a short time. It's simply not possible."

She fell silent for a few moments as she considered his last questions, her mind wandering through memory, briefly reliving the moment when she'd been handed the case file. "Richard Graninger, my training manager," she started, looking out her window, lost in thought. "My superior officer, Lotte Schwartz, received a call from him suggesting the particular case for me to work on. I was stuck working on Nathan's case at the time and since it was mostly in the lab at that point, Graninger thought I would be better utilized working in the field." It made her internally smile to think of how even though they'd been separated for two years, Graninger had still been keeping tabs on her and influencing her career from afar. She'd easily put a stop to that as soon as she'd signed onto the Stewart case, however.

"The case file landed on my desk but they left it up to me to take it or decline. She's an author, so I took the time to pick up what she'd written - two books published at the time - as well as digging up all I could on her current history. It was a lot and I was surprised since they hadn't had a file on her for very long - her newly established fame with her romance series made surveillance and information gathering pretty easy in the beginning. One thing I remember focusing on was her dating history, especially when I really got into her books. She wrote a romance story in a fantasy setting with a very upbeat yet realistic look at life and love. At times it seemed her writing could get a little dark, but there was this overabundance of optimism that bordered on naivete.

"In the past four years since she'd graduated high-school, she'd gone through 37 "steady" relationships of varying degrees of seriousness. 37. How could someone go through that many failed romances and still write like that? I remember asking myself," she looked around the car, realizing that she'd been talking for a while and stopped for a moment. They probably didn't understand the magic that Gwen possessed, the depth and soul that was clear in her writing, the longing for passionate connection and the blissful hope that out there somewhere there was someone for everyone. For the first time in a long time, Stephanie felt like a woman rather than just an Agent. Disgusted, she crushed the feeling and buried it and looked back out the window.

"Anyway, I was interested in what made her tick as a person and found a desire to get inside her head. At the time I had been working on a technique to shield myself from distractions and broaden my sphere of focus - the Emotion Desensitization Program - and it just happened to fit perfectly with what little they knew about her powers. So, I decided to take the case. As I developed and honed the technique I'd created for myself, it instantly got me a promotion once my superiors saw how it could be utilized against Stewart. When they found the flexibility with which I could maintain the EDP and how hard it was for other Agents on the team to develop it for themselves, I beat them all in the audition for body transfer as well."

Letting out a breath she looked out the front window and watched the road move by in the beams of the headlights. A sudden urge, from unknown origins, came over her then and she leaned forward to perch between the front seats again. Except this time, her attention was on Jason instead of the A-1 Agent. The fingers of her right hand slipped forward soundlessly and latched upon his earlobe, stroking the soft flesh in an enticing gesture.

"Pull over. I want to drive," she practically purred in what was clearly a sultry tone of voice. Of course, her being a Lead, he could not question her demand and as he slowed down and made his way to an idled stop on the shoulder of the road, her forefinger and middle fingers gently caressed his neck and played with the short curls around his ear. Even as seductive and light as the caress was, there was an ever present threat in how close her manicured fingernails were to the sensitive flesh of his throat.

As soon as the car came to a stop, she instantly moved from her seat and opened her door, stepping out into the cold night air. There was nothing but countryside bordering the highway and the buzzing sound of crickets could be heard in the sea of black that had descended around them. The headlights still shining upon the graveled edge of the pavement looked alien and menacing with the silhouette of black trees against the dark blue horizon. Swiftly, she switched places with Jason, fitting snugly into the front seat and moving her buttocks back and forth slightly, enjoying the warmth he'd left behind, if only for the fact that it was a small piece of him. It reminded her vaguely of what she imagined sitting in his lap would be like.

Adjusting the rearview mirror slightly she said in a monotone voice, "I must be honest with you, gentlemen - it's probably been about 4-5 years since I've driven a car." With both hands firmly on the wheel, she turned to look Eric straight in the eyes with only the light of the glowing dashboard to illuminate her stony face and said, "And I have to say, I'm a little excited." She couldn't sound less excited if she tried, despite the turbulent emotions running through her now. Without waiting for a response, the wheels screeched slightly as they began spinning upon the asphalt and she barreled back onto the main road, almost running into other cars as she seamlessly blended back into traffic.

Stephanie did not just play with the speed limit - she frigging abused the gas pedal as if pressing on it harder and harder was something she had no control over. But as always, the smooth expressionless tone of her features did not change and she swerved perilously between other cars on the highway, going much faster than anyone else and waiting until the last moment before avoiding a collision with any of them.

"So, Eric, I have to ask you," she said still in her unwavering deadpan, the wind tossing her golden locks about her bare shoulders. "And I mean no disrespect, sir or to imply anything. You must know that I idolize you and have the utmost respect for you and your genius - if I had the ability to do so, I would be drooling over myself just from sharing the same car with you." The car jerked haphazardly to the right as she quickly changed lanes and changed back around someone going the actual speed limit. There wasn't even a blip on her radar and she barely twitched her leg to relieve the pressure on the gas pedal for the movement.

"There's something that's been bugging me about the targets escaping from the facility and it regards the account my partner gave me when I questioned him more in depth about it. I understand that there are certain things about your position that give you leverage over the rest of us here. But I'm not fond of secrets. My partner informed me that he was ordered to let the targets escape by none other than Nathan - the pet project you're so excited about." She swerved again cutting off someone trying to change lanes ahead of her. With the windows down the blaring of the horns from two other cars she flew past could be heard very clearly but she didn't seem to notice.

"Now, my partner is not a stupid man and he doesn't bend to authority very easily - has a habit of talking back, if you hadn't noticed. And I'm wondering what exactly happened to move him to obey someone that is clearly not an Agent let alone a superior one. I'm not asking you to part with sensitive information, and in fact letting the targets escape was indeed part of the larger plan anyway. But it's bothering me, sir, and I was wondering if you might shed some light on the situation that might set my mind at ease." The car sped past a large semi-truck, the breath of it's large frame gusting into the windows for the few seconds before they passed it completely and still Stephanie continued to zig-zag through traffic oblivious of nearly hitting everyone she passed.

"It's not a big deal," she said blandly, with a small shifting of her shoulders that could have been a less defined shrug. "I'm just curious is all."

***

Gwen was having headache problems of her own. Three people around her - one which she was trying to communicate with telepathically and trying to keep track of his thoughts on the current situation, another appeared to have memories of a long relationship with a "friendly stalker" and the last kept her busy trying to catch any thoughts that happened to flutter out of his walled up psyche. It was hard enough when she couldn't control the flow of what came into her head, but splitting her focus three ways seemed impossible. It seemed like every time she stopped to examine Ozzie's memories, Alex or Rudy would have a thought drawing her attention once more - with Rudy, if she wasn't there focusing on him when it happened, the thought or memory was like a shark fin appearing and then disappearing above the surface of deep, murky water.

Not to mention it was frustrating as hell that people still wanted to talk while all of this was going on. With Alex, it was alright, half of it was him articulating thoughts directly to her. But when Ozzie started speaking, it divided Gwen's already split attention and she found herself wishing for the woman to just shut up and think to herself quietly for a while.

"Yeah, great," Ozzie said with a roll of her eyes as Alex settled back in his chair and began closing his eyes. Looking to the seats just in front of them where Rudy had disappeared, she said, "I didn't mean to saddle you guys with this, but I really can't be alone with this guy. He's a fucking nutjob. I appreciate you guys for putting up with us." There was no offer to leave if they wanted her to - probing her memories, Gwen realized this was a bit of a habit for Ozzie to use other people as a distraction to get away from the man.

"Why don't you just tell the police?" Gwen asked as if it were an obvious solution, casting a sneering glare towards the backs of the seats in front of them. She knew what it was like to have to deal with someone's unwanted attention and she didn't like the kind of person who would try to own someone's life like that. "Sometimes, their involvement is all it takes to deter a stalker."

For a moment her attention was diverted back to Alex as he started to question and search for a response from Xander. She waited for a few seconds, focusing on him and waiting for a response but when he got none, she felt a pang of guilt run through her. He was probably still mad at her about her exploding on him earlier. She still didn't know how she was going to apologize or explain to him that she was grateful for all that he'd done, and Gwen began to worry that he'd be giving them the silent treatment for the rest of the trip and possibly not lend a hand to help them when they broke into the facility at Charlton. Even as Alex began to think through some sort of plan, Gwen knew as he did that they probably wouldn't make it in, let alone back out again, without Xander's help. Crap, why did she have to get mad at him now? Hopefully he'd get over it by the time they got there.

A slight tugging on her consciousness brought her to "peeping" over Rudy's shoulder as he typed busily at the tiny keyboard of his phone, with the speed of one who barely thought about the act of moving his finger over the keys. She wasn't able to directly read Rudy's mind, but she could see clearly what he was typing and the responses from the person he was messaging.

come on baby you know i luv ya . don't be like that .

I'm serious, Quin! Quit fooling around!

relx got it all under control . im not messing up this time .

"I can't. The cops already don't like me," Ozzie said, responding to her suggestion, pulling Gwen's attention from Rudy's conversation. "And I doubt that even if I was a perfect angel, they'd lend a hand. You just don't know this guy..." She trailed off as she got lost in thought and Gwen followed her along a trail of memories that told a very clear story.

Osono met Rudy 7 years ago when he'd first moved into her apartment building - the first in a long line of apartments that Ozzie had rented over the years - and he's introduced himself as a dorky kid possibly with a crush on her and trying to make friends. Despite his obvious failings of connecting with Osono on a social level - the two had very different interests in taste - he had an unassuming way about him that eventually had her tolerating him to the point where they were hanging out constantly. That's when the trouble started.

Inexplicably, people began to follow her, men in unmarked vehicles would appear out of nowhere and attempt to grab her and drag her off somewhere, men with mirrored sunglasses would corner her in alleys and any police she encountered seemed to want more than just what they appeared to want - a cop had pulled her over once for speeding and even though she'd been on her best behavior, he'd insisted on taking her down to the station as if she were suddenly a murder suspect. And it all happened whenever Rudy was around and despite the man's continued reactions of astonishment and incredulity in face of these situations, Ozzie had begun suspecting him right away.

Especially when she tried to run and he'd insisted on going with her to "help" her out. After being with him so much, it had been an afterthought and even though he didn't take the whole thing as literally as she did - he seemed to think he was in some geeky TV show about conspiracy theories or something - she was a little remiss to be alone. Now, she couldn't get rid of him except for short periods of time and only ever experienced trouble with these nameless people when Rudy showed up again.


Gwen's eyes opened wide a few inches to discover that and instantly latched back onto Rudy and his conversation, hoping to glean more from him and her heart jumped into her throat to read what was being typed.

target will be acquired this time . stuck on bus . sending schedule to you now .

Good. A squad will be waiting to pick her up at each, just in case she decides to disembark. Try not to alert her of anything this time.

wat? me? no way! have the bed sheets cleaned and redy 4 use . tomorrow will be coming in i guarentee it .

Alright, Casanova.


Instantly, her hand slipped into Alex's, their fingers molding together and she gave him a tense squeeze.

Trouble! she pulsed to him frantically. I didn't realize until now because he was just a little spotty and I couldn't get a firm handle on him - I didn't think anything of it at the time - but from what's in her memories and from his text conversation... I think he's an Agent and he's after her. It could cause problems if he figures out who we are, though.

"Ahhh, sorry about that," Rudy said with a sigh as he popped his head back over the seats, leaning over the backs to talk to them and tucking his phone into his pocket. "Friend of mine was wondering where I am - supposed to meet her for some hot sex later. Did I hear somebody say 'Xander' over here?" The abrupt switch in conversation itself was a bit disturbing, but the question itself got Gwen to tense up again and she squeezed Alex's hand once more. It didn't help that Rudy waited a few minutes before continuing on, seemingly not noticing or caring that Alex had his eyes closed.

"From Buffy, right? The Vampire Slayer? Great character and loved the show. Joss Whedon is a genius. Never really got into Angel though - seemed a bit too emo for my tastes what with the whole 'tortured soul' thing--"

Gwen had been distantly aware of Ozzie's anger when he switched onto the subject but it was still a bit of a surprise when the woman suddenly kicked the main seat that Rudy was leaning on. The hinge of its back was rather loose so it flopped forward easily and jolted him a bit. When he'd righted himself he looked at her levelly and with a mockingly serious tone of voice shook his finger at her and said, "That wasn't very nice. Now I know you're excited about the topic, but I was talking. You need to wait your turn. I'm sure we'd all love to hear your input on why Firefly shouldn't have been canceled."

"No, quit geeking up the bus or I'm gonna set your shorts on fire," Osono said in an irritated tone of voice. Gwen blinked when she got a flash of memories of Ozzie setting other things on fire and she realized that the woman didn't need matches to do so. She gave Alex another squeeze.

Rudy looked down at himself for a moment as if he were inspecting the current state of his undergarments and looked back up asking, "You mean they aren't already?" There was the slightest pause and then he smirked and licked a fingertip, placing it on his backside with a hiss.

While Ozzie was busy groaning at that, Gwen was pulsing to Alex,

He's contacted someone and they're going to have people waiting at all the stops - at least until she gets off. Do you think we should just wait or--

"So where are we headed?" Rudy asked Ozzie, seemingly having forgotten Gwen and Alex for the moment. "What stop are you getting off at?"

"What stop are you getting off at?"

"Hm, I asked you first."

"Yes, but my response is dependent on getting off at the stop after yours, hopefully with several miles separating us," was the terse response.

Rudy looked up at the ceiling and thought to himself for a few minutes before finally saying, "Yeah, I think we should get off at Hammondsport, then." It was the last stop on the bus's schedule. "We gotta stick together, Oz." Gwen promptly informed Alex about the bus schedule before thinking,

I think she will follow us until we get rid of him. Considering who he's working for, I think it'd be a good idea to do that as soon as possible anyway. Maybe we can get the bus to stop early...?

"How about I sing us a song?" Rudy said, taking out his phone again. "I've got They Might Be Giants and Weird Al in my music files--" he was jolted again as Ozzie gave another forceful kick to his seat, but he was more prepared for it this time and it barely unhinged him at all. "I know you're excited to hear my lovely voice, but your exuberance is making me feel bashful."

"Does that mean you'll shut up?"

There was a long pause as he continued to scroll through the music on his phone. "No," he said with an absent-minded smile.

Setting

2 Characters Present

Character Portrait: Alexander Stall Character Portrait: Xander
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#, as written by Tartra
Did anybody mind if Jason freaked the fuck out about the way she was driving? Yes? No? Some kind of an answer? Anyone?

Benoit didn’t seem to care. He barely moved as the car skidded left and only just missed tearing off a front bumper. It probably had less to do with her dormant skill and more with the wrath of God saying he wasn’t getting out of this that easily, but it could’ve also been the mystical air the A-1 had around him. He seemed to naturally make things better by simply being around. Jason wouldn’t have been surprised if he went outside and found the car wrapped in a cocoon of joy and good feelings, like he almost expected it to be already. He certainly wasn’t complaining about the new and psychotic driver. He wasn’t moving either, but it was because he was flowing with the motion – the man was a master of his form if he’d already figured out how to do that in a cramped seat – rather than killing it with hate like Frenchie.

Eric was taking his time answering. He leaned his head back against the rest, idly fixing his glasses to return them to their proper place, and traded his outrageously gleeful attitude for one more thoughtfully content.

“‘Just curious’,” he murmured, talking over the car’s engine and the screaming drivers outside. “Sure, I guess you’ve got a right to wonder about it.” He turned his head towards the rear-view and gave Jason a knowing smile - as friendly as before, he noted, but decidedly more focused. Jason snapped to attention as best he could. “Do you mind...?”

Elaborating. Eric wanted Jason to explain what had happened. Again. For the third time. Orders were orders, but it wasn’t as though he was hiding some crucial detail from his lead that he’d sown only to reveal after a certain number of requests. He took a breath, dug his hands deeper into the sides of the car, and then dryly recited, “Moments after Jean was killed by Alexander, I was approached by the boy you said was your project. He told me to let them go, not ask questions, then gave them both directions to the exit. I’m not sure when he left. By the time the leads arrived, he’d vanished.”

“He didn’t teleport, that’s for sure,” Eric said. “If he got that working, he wouldn’t’ve hung around the halls. So he walked off, and you didn’t see him.”

“Uh...” He wasn’t being accused. Still, it felt that way. “Yes.”

“Huh. Little bastard’s slippery. That’s why I’ve gotta keep him in chains,” he said. “Everything on him’s there to cancel out something.” Eric thought it over for another minute. “Well, Stephanie – there’s not a whole lot I can say. As far as I’m aware or otherwise obligated to inform my favoured underlings, there are two personalities inside Nathan’s consciousness still considered active cases and flight-risks. But it couldn’t be Maggie – she’s too crazy from her post-transfer coma to string more than three words together, and it couldn’t be David ‘cause he’s more of the ‘run the hell out of there, don’t waste my time going back’ kind of guy. So I don’t know. You’ve given me something to think about. I’d hate to think I’d have to put up with this a second time.”

Benoit gave an annoyed grunt. He’d picked up on the subtle invitation to ask Eric to explain, too.

“What do you mean by ‘a second time’?”

“Oh, you know,” the man said, as if he couldn’t bear reliving the frustration. “There was this problem with one confidential part of Nathan that wouldn’t go away. Don’t worry, it’s under control. It’s not like anything would happen, even if he made it out of his shackles. He learned his lesson after he tried and failed to sabotage a few of the Agency’s toys. By the way, Jason, you’re an A-6 now.”

... What?

“Excuse me?”

“Yeah – sorry, it’s protocol,” Eric chirped. “I’m sure he was convincing, but I can’t let a guy who allows some random kid tell two identified targets to book it down the nearest escape hatch go unpunished. Sets a bad precedent.”

Wait – wait – wait – wait –

“Did you demote me?”

“Yup.”

... Wait – wait – wait – wait –

“You can’t do that!”

“Sure I can. If I want, I can make you an A-20.”

“There isn’t –”

“That’s the beauty of it, Jay-jay! I can create another level purely to have something else to drag you through.” From nowhere, he’d produced another stack of forms and started leafing through them. “Don’t take it personally. And don’t be so glum, chum! If you want, you can keep the A-5 and I’ll break your neck instead. I’m dandy with either option, I just need something to put on paper. Sign here, please.” And he magicked up a pen to go along with it. “Nice and bright.”

This wasn’t happening. This was... a nightmarish... thing. He was having another suit-induced hallucination out of grief or out of stress, but it... it felt real enough. His hand was limp and weightless as it reached for the document – already filled out, so when the hell did that happen? – and that nearly convinced him he was dreaming, but his fingers hit a very solid sheet, one whose skin as pale as the warehouse and whose ink, dead-faced and blunt, was laughing as Jason’s eyes went over it.

Demoted. A demotion slip. He had to sign to acknowledge that he’d received and accepted what had happened, and although he should’ve been delighted he’d reached a high enough level to actually be informed of situation instead of having it stuck on his file for him to stumble across days later, a bitter tang took over his mouth and choked him.

“I really...” Head swimming? Throat closing? Hands shaking? He was grateful that his lead had forced the windows open, otherwise he would’ve passed out. “I really have to sign this?”

“Afraid so, Jason. But you can keep the pen,” Eric said. “It’s got a little happy face on it. Makes me smile when I’m down. And there’s a little spring, so you can flick it when you’re bored! The Agency thinks of everything. Stephanie, can you spare a sec to sign, too? As his lead, you’re required to blah-blah-blah, the Agency hates rainforests.” He held out his hand for the one he’d given to Jason, clearly intending to give it to her. “Benny, you wanna sign? I feel bad leaving you –”

“You have enough from me.”

“That’s a ‘no’, then. Jason, let’s get a move on. It doesn’t even have to be your name – draw a star, make a circle, write a big ‘fuck you’ if it floats your boat.”

Jason was taking so long because he couldn’t keep the pen steady. He dropped it and lost the stupid thing behind his lead’s seat. As he reached down to scramble for it, he knocked his head against her chair, and that, paired off with the insanity behind the steering wheel, did not make this the most comfortable position to be in. He could hear the A-1 laughing at his antics and kicked himself – literally, as if it wasn’t already horrible – for being dumb enough to get into this mess at all. He took back what he’d said before about this case being a curse. It was, most definitely, but he didn’t have the right to say it then. Now he meant it.

“Here,” he said hoarsely, illegibly scrawling across the line that’d been pointed out. He handed it back as if his soul was attached to it, and when Eric proudly took the form away and held it ready for his lead whenever she decided to stop running over small animals, he felt a rush of energy leave his body and he slumped back into his seat. That was when a different form was pushed towards him. “What’s that one?”

“That one’s for the suit.”

... A-6’s didn’t get suits. They weren't trusted.

“You’re taking my suit away.” His breathing was picking up. “You’re... Are you serious?”

“It’s not like I’m gonna make you strip this second,” Eric said. “Buuuut it goes without saying it’ll add to your record if you’re caught wearing that once these get processed.” Not once had he ever made a mistake like this. Perfect. He’d been perfect. “If it’ll make you feel better, I can’t hand them in until we get to Charlton. Unless, of course, you’re in a rush and want to head back to Elmira.”

“No. Charlton’s fine.”

It wasn’t fine.

“You had a fellow Agent killed and you let two targets go,” Benoit said, growling beneath a stream of smoke that pushed against the window he’d rolled back up. “Thank God we planned for one of those, otherwise I would have broken your neck myself. Consider this something ‘light’.”

“Right. Plus – you could always earn it back,” Eric went on. “It might take longer than what you’re hoping for, but you seem to be good at your job. From what I hear, not from what I’ve seen.”

His first chance to work with an A-1 and it had to be precisely when Jason was at his lowest. It made sense. If everything he worked for wasn’t being shredded, would there have been any need for Eric to come with them?

“So I have my suit until Charlton.”

“Right.”

“And then...?”

“You go back to doing what you do,” Eric said. “You’re not being fired! You’re just losing a gadget or two.”

“Nothing new.”

What? So – Benoit hated Eric, but was perfectly fine about ganging up with him? Thanks a lot, Frenchie. Good to know whose side he was on.

“That’s true,” Eric agreed. “Didn’t you get those back a few hours ago? Aren’t they wiped?”

“That’s why I asked for you to bring Gary to Charlton,” Jason explained. “I was trying to restore them!”

“Then that’s a ‘yes, they were stolen by my target and then they were wiped’.” Eric shook his head. “That’s a shame, Jason. I expected more than this. A guy doesn’t get to be an A-5 without proving himself and I’m just not seeing what whoever promoted you saw.” He gave a look to his lead, his smile growing the tiniest bit impatient. “What happened to the rest of your team? Is he all you brought?”

“The others are dead,” Benoit muttered. And at the sharp look he got from Jason, the man curled his lip and harshly fired, “Is there a problem?”

A-3. Higher rank. He shut his mouth and went back to staring out the window.

He’d said he’d had six things to worry about before. That had jumped to nine. An A-1 thought he was pathetic and that’d wreak havoc on any other assignments he’d be considered for, he was losing his suit and ultimately the entire point of being involved with this assignment, and now, apparently, in lieu of anyone better to blame – since his precious Alexander was too fucking wonderful to do anything wrong – Benoit had fallen one measly step behind outright pinning the Flunky’s death on Jason. That was a dangerous axe grind, and there was no way to prove that he’d done everything he thought he should’ve. That kid had been so in charge and so knowing... If anyone else had been there, they wouldn’t have questioned it. But they weren’t, and the only other witnesses were probably halfway to Charlton. As if they screamed ‘credible and compliant’ anyway.

This time, he didn’t bother mourning his loss. He’d save it for whatever else was coming. And something else was coming, purely because there he could think of two other ways this week could go terribly, terribly wrong. That was Murphy’s Law, wasn’t it?

Well.

Damn.

“So! Now that’s more or less settled,” Eric said, “how much longer ‘til we get out of this car? I could go for some corporate jet right now. Anyone else?”

* * *


Why the hell did everyone around him have to be a part of the Agency? Somehow, some way, everything came back to those people. Peter? Agent in disguise. Xander? Agent in disgrace. Gwen? Agency’s newest target. And now these two? No. No more of this. He’d had way the hell enough and there was too much for him to deal with as it was.

Stop the bus early? That sounded helpful. He felt bad for whatever that guy wanted to do that girl – not like it was a hard guess – but he couldn’t save everybody at once. Alex straightened up and let the news flood him with desperate strength. And the bus schedule. Gwen was right – it wasn’t going to take them very far, but even where they were now, where they were going to, they should’ve been able to find a direct route. The next stop was... Terreston? A small in-between town, he figured. Never heard of it. He hadn’t heard of a lot of these places. Oh, the joys of constantly being on the run. If he got paid to find new places, he’d be rich by now.

“We’re getting off,” he mumbled. “It’s fine if she follows us – we’ll lose her later – but we can’t be stuck in here with them.”

That went double if he was going to sing.

Agents at all stops... or whoever else the guy had called. It should’ve been enough to justify an extra large helping of brain-fry, but if this girl knew who the Agency was or what they wanted with her, any display of what he could do would have her attached to their hip until they could stick her in a cage. Alex admit, he would’ve liked more help with what they were going to do. As far as storming the gates was supposed to go, they were pretty weak on an army. But that meant they had to go with stealth, and they couldn’t stealth with three people nearly as they could with two. It was for the best. And if they managed to find a way to help her and everyone else once they’d gotten Xander out of his head, that’d be even better, but until then...

“Come on. The next stop is two minutes away.” After that, according to what Gwen had shown him, they’d have to wait a half an hour to get the next one, and then two hours as they headed into the next major city. By then, the careful hope that whoever had been called wouldn’t be there yet would been picked up, broken, torn into pieces, melted into a plate, then chucked off a mountain. “Hurry. We can’t miss this.”

And what did Xander think of the idea? Anything yet?

...

Whatever. Off the bus, where they could deal with Mr. Sour-Pants, too.

Alex could see a small station through the darkening windows. The sun was gone now, but he could make out a crowd all the same. A crowd of normal people, he meant, not hyper-bloodthirsty super-assassins waiting to tackle them to the ground and suck out his brain. He stood up and pulled his bag onto his shoulder, pleased to know it wasn’t shrieking in pain but still getting a solid grimace on his face from the weight.

“Okay. We’re going now. This is our stop.”

Dude.

What?

Ah, crap. That made it sound like he was inviting them. He shouldn’t’ve said anything!

“Good luck with your – uh... whatever it is.”

There. Better. Now they knew he was ditching them rather than trying to ‘save’ anyone. If it got the message across, fantastic. If not... well – they’d be somewhere more open. If he needed to fry-and-flee, that’d be an option again. With that in mind, he gave a look to Gwen to try and get her on her feet.

“We’ll get something to eat while we’re here,” he told her. “I don’t think that pastry’s going to last me through the night.”

Setting

4 Characters Present

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Stewart Character Portrait: Stephanie March Character Portrait: Rudy Quin Character Portrait: Osono "Ozzie" Wallace
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#, as written by Ten
As Jason retold the report she'd been given, she listened closely to Eric's voice as he gave his answer, searching for any subtleties that weren't explicitly expressed in the words themselves. If there were, he was hiding it well, seemingly genuinely shocked about the circumstances of the targets escape. It was a bit of a let-down, but Stephanie still kept in reserve a bit of doubt. It seemed a constant now this feeling that someone was always keeping something from her or trying to deceive her in some way. Nobody could be trusted.

Her suspicious sniffing was brought to a halt however when Eric made the announcement about Jason's sudden demotion. Instantly, Stephanie's eyes skittered to the rear view mirror and she watched, while keeping a general eye on the road, as Jason's expression went from one of confusion, disbelief and then horror. Her heart began pounding wildly in her chest even as the car slowed to a more reasonable speed, and she was completely oblivious as all the people she'd almost crashed into before began passing her, throwing offensive gestures at her on their way by. She was completely wrapped up inside the car and operated the vehicle purely on auto-pilot.

When the stack of forms was passed into the backseat, she almost burst into a smile at the completely lost look on her partner's face, the expression instantly cut off at the A-1's offer to kill Jason instead. For a few seconds Stephanie's heart fluttered with excitement at the thought and possibility of Eric then transferring again - and into JASON no less! - but she grew sober at the idea of losing her toy. For the most part she returned to basking in Jason's misery as the first levels of what was happening to him were finally hitting home, each moment drenched in muscle twitches upon his face. She bit the inside of her lip to keep in a moan when she watched him realize he'd be losing his suit as well, the leather of the steering wheel creaking as her grip tightened to keep the emotions in as she beheld that barely hidden look of sorrow.

God, he was so fucking gorgeous right now. Empathy or pity was completely nonexistent inside her inner layers; there was nothing but pure unadulterated lust and desire. If only he were within reach! With a few well timed pinches and stabs with her fingernails, and a expertly aimed smack to the face, she could have gotten the tears to flow most definitely! The image of Jason blubbering helplessly or even screaming with rage excited her beyond belief and she had a bit of trouble focusing on the road as her vision began to swim. Good Lord! What was this man doing to her!?

There was a moment when her head cleared enough for her to feel a flash of protective anger when Eric bad-mouthed her partner, but upon rational consideration, she had to agree. She felt the same way. Jason had not turned out to be all that his rap sheet had played him up as and she realized she'd gotten to the point of not only expecting it but tolerating it. Which was why she hadn't thought to really punish him when he'd told her the reason he'd let the targets get away. She'd been...preoccupied anyway.

As the stack of papers was set beside her on the divider between the two seats, Stephanie's eyes couldn't help but leave the road, looking down at the still wet and sloppy signature. Even in the dim green lights she could see the shaky hand the letters were scrawled in, the absolute despair it articulated. It was a permanent scar upon his record and a statement of his submission to the authority of the higher ranked Agent. As forced as it had been, Jason had willingly put his name down on paper - like cutting off both of his arms and offering them up to the A-1 in a grand sacrifice to his will and dominance. It was a thing of beauty and something she wanted from Jason more than anything else he might be good for.

Even in the dashboard lights she could see the slight shine of moisture, her heart thundering in her ears and making everything else sound like it was coming to her through water. The hand on the inside of the car drifted from the steering wheel to lightly dab her slender middle finger upon the tail end of the last letter, coming away with a pinprick of dark liquid. Lifting it up, she looked at it and rubbed her thumb against it, smudging the wetness until it left a black stain upon her finger tip. Then she moved it to dip between her lips, her tongue touching upon the bitter stain to taste his glorious shame and humility.

"Mhn," she murmured in a soft, aroused grunt, before snapping to attention, her hand flying back to join the other on the wheel and righting it. Instantly, she stopped drifting into the left lane and was once again in her own, and she adjusted herself in her seat surreptitiously, realizing that she'd almost crashed them into somebody driving beside them. Clearing her throat, her voice wobbled just the tiniest bit before returning to her usual flat tone.

"J-jet? Well, we've just passed Mansfield a few minutes ago," realizing that she was going 10 under the speed limit, she started to reapply pressure on the gas pedal. "I hadn't planned on stopping until Hammondsport - it's 1/3 of the way there and seemed like good ground covered for the night. But I suppose we could fly if you want, sir..."

She trailed off into silence as she once again berated herself internally and desperately tried to reestablish the control she'd lost. What the fuck was going on inside her mind? It was becoming increasingly clear to her that whatever control she'd once had over every aspect of her personality, emotions and appearances was crumbling rapidly. But the worst part of this realization was that she was losing herself so deeply, she worried she wouldn't even be aware of it when she eventually lost her hold completely. Charlton. She just needed to hold out until Charlton. All of this wouldn't matter once she got inside Gwen's body. Then she would be free...

***


Hearing Alex mumble to her that they were getting off, she nodded slightly and felt a burst of comfort that he was handling things now. And even though Gwen was almost positive that Osono had Agents after her, Alex's thoughts about not letting her know that they were in the same boat seemed like a smart move. Although it did seem like a good idea to keep Ozzie with them - it always helped to have an extra set of powers under their belt especially if they were able to keep it a secret from the Agency. Just one more card up their sleeve. If Xander was planning on sitting this Charlton ride out, then they could use all the help they could get. No offense to Alex, but Xander really was like a superhero in berserker clothes.

And just like that, it was decided and none too soon either. Music started to play with heavy bass thumping through the speakers on Rudy's phone and his voice came out in a halphazard parody of singing.


"♫ They see me mowin' my front lawn, I know they're all thinking I'm so white n' nerday. Think I'm just too white n' nerday. Think I'm just too white n' nerday. Can't you see I'm white n' nerday. Look at me I'm white n' nerday! ♪ " Quin stopped and blinked as Alex rose from his seat and offered words of farewell, clicking at his phone to halt the music.

"Dude, you guys're leaving? Seriously, I can sing this just as fast as Al can! You're gonna miss a great performance by yours truly!"

When he saw that neither Gwen nor Alex was convinced to stay and they made their way into the aisle, he shrugged and said, "Hey, your loss. Have fun. Say goodbye, Oz." He was busily typing at his phone as Gwen, Alex and then Ozzie passed him heading to the front of the bus. "Oz? Oh? We're getting off now?" Stumbling out of his seat, he eagerly made to follow her.

"I am," she said in a dismissive tone and Gwen sensed that her following them without asking to tag along had something to do with her forcibly "adopting" them earlier. She'd done this countless times, never making any friends from it but riding on people's natural decency and generosity and sense of obligation to her once they'd met Rudy. It was either that or she set one of her new "friends" on fire and slipped away from Rudy during the chaos, which Gwen still didn't understand how she did that.

"Well, then I am too!" Rudy said tagging along behind her down the aisle. "I gotta watch your back! ...Usually because you're walking away from me. But we gotta stick together! I'm like the Goa'uld from Stargate SG-1--"

Quin flinched as Osono turned abruptly and made like she was going to punch him, but stayed her hand as she realized they were surrounded by people. "Quit it," she said simply and with a final glare at him, she turned and continued to follow Gwen and Alex off of the bus.

"So, did I hear you say something about food, Ben? I put my vote in for Mexican!" like a dork, as soon as they stepped off of the bus, Rudy raised his hand and waved it as if he were a kid in school, looking eagerly between the three of them. Upon closer inspection however, Gwen got the hint that he was doing it to draw attention to himself for anybody who could be waiting. Searching the crowd, she probed all the minds of those present and none of them had a hint of recognition to the young man. Still as they proceeded down the sidewalk in the dark, passing beneath the occasional streetlamp, the tension did not leave Gwen. It was especially not comforting when she noticed that Osono had looked through the crowd for the exact same thing and only when she'd satisfied herself did she start looking for something big and explosive to set on fire.

Although it was her usual method of escaping both her "borrowed" company and Rudy, Gwen was not eager to be in the middle of such destructive elements. Ozzie didn't usually leave behind anything good, literally a trail of blood and tears. "Er, Mexican sounds good! How about you...Ozzie? Where do you want to eat?"

"Don't care," was the response, and Ozzie did not look away from her perusal of the area to address Gwen, much to her dismay. Luckily, she was distracted a moment later as she noticed Rudy texting on his phone again and she began to get angry again.

"♫ First in my class here at M.I.T.- Got skills, I'm a Champion of DND- MC Escher that's my favorite MC...♪" he murmured to himself in song. "So, we're getting enchiladas? My treat, by the way. If they got 'em, does anybody else wanna try those habaneros with me? I totally dare you guys."

Gwen could feel his fingers moving to type their location and asking where his "team" was and she grew frantic wanting to stop him but not knowing how. Suddenly she sensed that Osono wanted to just knock the damn thing out of his hands - apparently she knew that he wasn't talking to some clandestine girlfriend on the gadget.

You should. Gwen pulsed inside the woman's head without thinking about it first, a sort of fuzzy feeling coming over her. Realizing what she'd done, she almost felt worried that she'd be discovered but then keeping the connection with the other woman, she blinked in surprise as Ozzie took the thought as if it were her own and proceeded to act on it.

Stepping toward Rudy forcefully, she slapped his hand and said, "Enough sexting! You're not fooling anyone into thinking you actually have friends!"

Her hand slammed into his and his loosely held phone sprung into the air from between his fingers, spun once before plummeting to the pavement. At the same time as Osono stepped forward however, she nudged into Gwen roughly and caused her to trip. By the time the phone clattered to the sidewalk a foot from Rudy's shoes, gravity was tugging Gwen down, her knee smashing into the screen and keypad with all her weight resting on it. There was a soft plastic crinkling as she gained a semblance of balance and started to move off of it.

A feeling of pathological hatred came from Rudy, but by the time Gwen looked up at him, it was gone and he was just left staring down at her in mortification. "I'm sorry, Rudy," she said pathetically, playing up the sorrowful tone in her voice. She looked down at the crushed and cracked phone beneath her and shook her head weakly. "I'm so so sorry..."

You don't know what sorry is, heifer...but you will.

Gwen instantly looked back up at him at that thought that passed through his consciousness, but as she did, a tight-lipped smile came to his lips. "It's fine, Stacy. Don't worry about it. Shit happens." Allowing him to help her to her feet, she could feel Osono smirking to herself pleased with how that had turned out - she'd been planning to stomp on the thing anyways - and Gwen dusted herself off. As she approached Alex's side again, she watched as Rudy bent to pick the phone up gingerly and looked at it as if he'd actually lost someone inside it. After a few moments, his expression cleared and he was following them again, but he was no longer as chipper as he was before.

Turning to Alex, Gwen pulsed,

Heh, I think I made a friend. Nobodies here looking for her yet, and he's currently really sad that nobody knows where he is right now - I got it before he sent his message - so that should buy us a bit more time.

"You know, it's been a long day for us, so I think I just want to get something quick, like take-out. Sound good to everyone? I'm not in a sit-down kind of mood." Rudy remained quiet with his hands in his pockets and Osono smiled at that, feeling a lot more at ease with being around them.

"I'm game for any kind of meaty something. Burgers?" Ozzie put in and looked first at Gwen then to Alex for approval.

Despite the pressure still being on with three people around, Gwen was feeling a lot better as they made their way further and further from the bus station.

Setting

2 Characters Present

Character Portrait: Alexander Stall Character Portrait: Xander
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#, as written by Tartra
“I want to go to that.”

Xander was talking again! ... What the hell was he talking about? What thing?

Oh.

Well, it was good to know he’d wasted no time in throwing them in the thick of things again. He wasn’t sure how much of an effect the coffee had had – Alex still doubted it did anything, but thanks to David’s pep talk about ‘naturally discovering one’s secondary source of energy’, he wasn’t surprised to find the guy bouncing back – but he’d managed to take over Alex’s mouth and fingertips. Never the hands if he could avoid it, because that was too much work, but the gist of what he wanted to do was clear through the basic steering, and what Xander wanted was to point two blocks down the street.

It seemed like every place they stopped in had a overly huge, overly snobby, overly rich restaurant conveniently within walking distance that was probably crowded by as many Agents – just their luck – as the rest of the cities they’d been in. That was precisely what Alex was looking at now: two storeys tall, surrounded by a lush garden, riddled with fountains tall enough to see from way over here...

“Is there a point in telling you –”

Nope!

Xander started walking, either expecting everyone else to follow or not caring if they did. Alex could feel a protest bubbling in his throat about how casual the guy was being when a confirmed – sort of – Agent was right beside them, but it got cut off when Alex was spun around and his arm was thrown over Quin’s shoulders.

“You, buddy, are like my angel right now. It’s about time I got someone new to talk to instead of the idiots I’m normally surrounded by.” Alex. Other one. “We need some time to get to know each other. Where’re you from? What do you do? How’d you crazy kids meet? And your treat? Quin, I might end this date with a wedding ring and it’ll be going on your hand whether you like it or not. Friends forever!”

And then he let him go, doling out one last, good, crushing squeeze that nearly ended around Quin’s neck before it finished. In typical Xander style, he marched to the front of the group and picked up a careless pace, almost leaving the three of them behind if Alex hadn’t intervened.

I don’t like that guy.

“You could’ve fooled me.”

A free dinner’s a free dinner, but I can get it myself. I don’t owe him any favours. And sounding decidedly more pissed off, he added a low, But I’ll try not to be ‘ungrateful’ about it. Good God – that’d be horrible.

“So... you’re mad about what Gwen said.”

Alex would’ve put in the effort to roll his eyes or sigh but his focus was divided by the fresh fire in his foot Xander had unwittingly – or else completely on purpose – stirred up with his brisk walk.

Oh, no-no-no-no-no! What Gwen said was an eye opener. It really highlighted my debt to both of you – y’know, the one who’s too big of a pussy and too stupid to fight the Agents on his own and the one who’d’ve already had her brain ripped out if I hadn’t happened to think she was hot the night before she got attacked. My bad, guys. I’m such an asshole!

“If you only came out of your corner to whine about how hurt you are, save it. I don’t have the privacy to tell you to shut up,” he said.

Well – why don’t you get your gal-pal to send a message? You two seem to be having oodles of fun together, so I’m sure she won’t mind.

Alex couldn’t walk as fast as Xander could on this toe. It was getting to the point where he might’ve been happier taking a knife to it, which was odd because the rest of his body was considerably worse off but still felt numb and dull from when he’d shaken it off in the alley. The point was that he was slowing down, and if the others were following after him, they’d catch up quickly and he didn’t have the will to explain why he was talking to himself. Saying he was ‘crazy’ might encourage more questions, which could turn into an interrogation, which could lead these strangers to finding out who he and Gwen were, which could lead to their bitter, grisly end. In the short moments before he was stuck with the crowd again, Alex whispered quickly, “What are you going to do about him?”

About who?

“About the Agent.”

Which one? Apparently I’m

Alex took it as a sign there was nothing to worry about, otherwise he would’ve gone on and on about how Quin’s head was going to forcibly separate from the rest of his body. Still, Rudy was only half the problem.

“What about Oz or Ozzie or whatever?”

Who?

That time, he’d meant it. Everyone else knew it was their lives on the line – Xander’s more than anyone’s – and yet he refused to pay attention to the slightest thing.

“The girl,” Alex hissed. “Ozzie’s the girl.”

Oh. Thought you meant Australia. I was like, ‘what the fuck does Australia have to do with anything?’

“Xander...”

What about her?

Alright, not a threat. Good to know.

“Do you think..." This was probably a bad idea. "Should we keep her?”

Just ‘cause she’s a bitch doesn’t mean she's a dog.

“She could help us,” Alex said. His voice was jagged and hoarse. Now that he was on topic, then before anything went wrong and the option was no longer available, he had to keep walking fast to make sure he’d given Xander something to think about. This was swiftly turning into agony. “If he’s an Agent and he’s after her, then she’s got to have powers.”

And I would love to see you explain why she’s gotta jump into this shit along with us.

“We could make something up,” he replied. “We could trick her into thinking she has to come with us.”

Great idea, prissy pants! What, pray tell, did you have in mind? He didn’t bother waiting for Alex to sputter through a minute of nonsense. Or – wait. Let me guess. I have to make something up.

“You’re the better liar...”

The better everything, let’s not stiff me of my glory. Why do we need her?

“Xander, go over it in your head. If we’re transferring – however long that takes – then Gwen has to stop whoever attacks on her own. With someone else around –”

Someone with decent powers, and you’re not sure she even has them. He snorted. The kid’s got one Agent after her. One! And that’s after – from what I overheard – a few hundred near-escapes. I had a fucking army on my ass from day two. She’s useless. Huff. I’m sorry, I meant ‘your ass’. So ungrateful. You asshole, Xander!

“Look – stop getting mad at me when I didn’t say anything to you,” Alex snapped. “This is between you and Gwen. Leave me out of it.”

Very noble. I can see why she likes you better.

“I’m not –” His foot wasn’t going to hold on at this speed for forever. “If we still had David, I wouldn’t bring it up. Even if he was a snivelling coward, we could’ve beaten him into using his explosions a few times before he got away.”

I dunno about ‘coward’. He was pretty helpful in Elmira, bossin’ around the Agent who kicked your ass twice.

“It happened once –”

It’s a safe assumption that it would’ve happened twice if I hadn’t, again, saved you.

“... It happened once, and my point stands,” Alex said. “We need someone else.”

So ask her.

“I can’t.”

So get your girl to do it.

“And what if she –”

Then – oh no! You’re fucked! ‘Cause I don’t wanna do anything that gets someone else walking on precious fucking eggshells.

This was draining Alex's patience in the worst way. His teeth were grinding together and nails were digging into his palms.

“Will – you – get – over – it? It’s not as if I haven’t told you the exact same thing a million times before.”

Yeah, but this time I sad-faced for real. Xander’s voice got louder. Excuse me for taking offence to the words ‘go fuck off and die’.

“She never said that,” Alex told him.

‘I’ll let whatever happens happen, Xander, because you’re such a jerk and Alex is so sweet. He’s my honeybunkle and I’ll love him forever!’

“No more falsetto, please. You don’t sound like her. And that’s not what she meant.”

Right, right. ‘Cause I’m crazy, too. He thought about it. Oh, wait...

“Listen,” Alex said, forcing out a final plea before his foot refused to keep going. “You want this to work as much as I do. I’m asking you to consider stepping in to convince this girl to come with us if she proves to be even half-useful to have around –”

And worth the trouble she’s gonna cause. Or am I supposed to police that, too?

“Yeah, well... That’s part of the deal.”

Deal’? Alex had said the magic word. The cursed one, he meant, not the rainbows-and-sunshine type. I didn’t know we were making a deal. Alright – let’s see, what do I want out of this...?

“I need you to convince her and keep her under control so I can get you out of my body –” Alex’s hurried breath cut off in a quick cry of pain, and he stopped to bend over and run his hand over his leg. He could feel the pain in his knee and its slow crawl to his thigh. He’d been hoping for the bus ride, if not just to get the full story on the new power Xander had apparently discovered, then to get his weight off of this... this thing. His heart was beating heavily from the acid pulling through it and he couldn’t bring himself to concentrate on the source of his torture anymore than he already was. “If you wanna... just... take my foot for a while...”

Is that part of the deal, too?

What did he actually think he’d get?

Oh, ye of no imagination, how you pale before my insight, Xander said. I’ll think of something. I always do.

“It’s a little hard to make it sound like I’ve got a soul for sale when you’ve been gnawing at it for years.” The others were gaining on him and the restaurant was a few steps away. “I’ll buy you a Starbucks if you want. Whatever. Will you help?”

Xander considered it. It was too late for Alex to offer any last-minute words; the others were here and they’d arrived.

If she’s packing something better than an attitude, fine. It might make it worth the investment. But don’t forget – if I do it and I get stuck baby-sitting, you’ll owe me, Alex. I’m sick of this shit.

He made that very clear with a flash of anger that raced through Alex’s body. But not the foot. His foot was in Xander’s control, to his incredible relief. Much better. Much, much, much better.

“Hope you guys like... whatever this place serves,” he said. “Your treat, right, Quin?”

A free dinner was a free dinner.

* * *


“I feel sick.”

“You look sick.”

“I don’t think I want to take a plane.”

“You should have thought of that before the idea got in his head.”

Benoit was right. If Eric wanted to fly, they were going to fly, and Eric wanted to fly. The sole response he gave to Jason’s lead when she asked if he was sure he’d like to take a jet was a happy giggle, an excited nod and an overjoyed clap of his hands. The airport was a bit under an hour away from them, but with this particular driver, despite the fact that they were reasonably speeding now, they’d probably show up in twenty. The A-1 had taken the time to check in on his pet, and although she might’ve wanted to wring out his misery, Jason preferred not to talk to his boss – out of concern that he’d distract her from the road. He wasn’t avoiding her. He had no reason to. She’d probably leave him alone entirely thanks to the... ‘d’ word. In his opinion, A-6s weren’t as fun to screw around with as A-5s. Hell – he’d punched an A-6 once before, just because he’d been dared and it’d been a wild night of overtime. Was that anywhere on his record? No. A-6s didn’t complain about a thing. A-7s weren’t allowed to talk. A-8 to A-17? He could stab one if they were breathing too hard. There was no power left in his hands and he wasn’t sure why Benoit let him speak. Maybe the man was bored. Hate him or love him, once Eric’s mind was on something else, the rest of the world felt a bit bland.

“Make sure you brush his hair with the blue comb,” Eric was saying, on his thousandth instruction to whatever labbie in Elmira who’d been charged with watching the kid. “Don’t use the red comb because its bristles aren’t strong enough, but use the yellow comb when you’re done because he likes that.”

“I thought he said he didn’t care about the person he was transferring into,” Jason said softly.

“He doesn’t. But the body is of utmost importance.” Puff, puff. “I am sure you would see the point if you were assigned to be transferred.”

“You’ll forgive me if I’m sceptical of that happening anytime soon.”

“Mm.”

Puff, puff.

He blamed Jean for this, by the way. That stupid Flunky... If anyone should’ve been demoted, it should’ve been him. Who was the one person – aside from Benoit – that had the most intel on Alexander? Even if no one knew about the charging, he was an idiot for thinking a one-vs-one made any sense at all. Come on, Jason wasn’t even on the case and he knew that. Then again, if the Flunky was alive, he’d say the same thing about Jason’s screw up.

Dammit. He was a moron. But the kid had been so convincing... What was it about him that screamed ‘obey me’ that he hadn’t been able to ignore? If he’d had his goggles, he could’ve recorded it. If he’d had the cast-off sunglasses, he could’ve done something there too, but both options had been snatched away by Gwendolyn Stewart. He could never forgive her. Not that she was begging for it.

“You’re sure the targets die during the transfer process? How does it work?”

Benoit eyed him in annoyance. Jason nearly took the question back, but he forced himself to remember that until the papers were handed in and processed – and so long as he was talking to anyone that wasn’t the one responsible for making him sign – he was still technically an A-5. He tried to broadcast it across his face. Did it work? Unlikely, but Benoit had his own reason for not ending the conversation.

“I thought you said you could run the transfer,” Frenchie said.

“The program, yes,” Jason answered. “But I’ve never been near the equipment before and I only learned the technical parts because they told me to. Said it’d give me something else to fiddle with to make coming down here a fair use of time. This thing was supposed to be open and shut...”

“And look how that turned out.”

There were a lot of things he could’ve said to that. At least two of them would’ve gotten Jason shot. Instead he said, “But I know how to do it. What I don’t know is how it’ll work. From the target’s side, I mean. They’re supposed to die, aren’t they?”

“Not exactly.” Eric’s phone was off and put back into the magical space with those vanishing papers. “The targets have to be alive to ensure the powers don’t fade. They’re hung in a state of unconsciousness – beyond being asleep, a step away from being dead. They aren’t capable of getting out of it unless the transfer doesn’t hold, but if it does hold, and it’s supposed to, then it’s not a matter of willpower or faith. They’re gone, period, but only as theoretically as we need it to be.” He grinned. “Hence the Alex and Xander situation. You know about their split-control, right?”

“Yeah. I had the unfortunate pleasure of meeting the psycho face-to-face.” And before he’d gotten a new body. “He almost killed me twice, you know.”

Twice? Awesome. Count yourself lucky,” Eric said. “But that’s exactly what I’m talking about. Xander’s more than strong enough to hold his ground, but his trick to avoid getting pushed out was telling Alex that he was a part of his subconscious. What a guy. ‘You don’t have someone in your head, you’re just crazy!’ And he believed it! I’m tellin’ ya, I hope we get this sorted out minus the ‘death to Xander’. What a waste of resources, am I right?”

The memory of the eye-searing had Jason thinking the exact opposite.

“So my target will still be alive if my lead takes over,” he said.

“If you want to put it that way. It’ll be like life support forever – nooooot exactly a threat by any means.” The A-1 beamed. “I made sure of it. There is no way to get out. It’s like saying you’ll be fine with a bullet in your brain if you ‘believe’.”

“Didn’t you say your project had two personalities –”

“Ah-ah-ah! A-1 only!”

Oh. Jason forgot.

“You know a lot about the Alexander case,” Jason said. “I thought only Benoit was supposed to have access to it, even if you are a higher rank.”

“That’s usually how it goes, but I got involved ‘cause Xander’s just so cool and we thought we could get him set right,” Eric explained. He shook his head. “Poor Xander. So disappointed when I said we couldn’t help. We’d’ve had to take extract him entirely, and then with proof he couldn’t make the transition – didn’t matter if it was the technology’s fault or not – we’d’ve had to send someone else in. Like I said, it’s a different attachment these days, but having him walk around knowing somebody else got Alex’s powers would’ve been like... I don’t know – Benny jumping into Gwen.”

Benoit choked on his cigarette.

“Only a woman can transfer into another woman,” Frenchie said. “I am distinctly ineligible.”

“Right, right! You understand how insane it’d be,” Eric said. “And Xander – ha! He’s got a short temper the best of times. We weren’t overwhelmed by volunteers for who got to tell him, that’s for sure, so we decided we’d kill the guy and save ourselves the trouble. And that was when we found out he was an incredibly talented pup. Not only did he figure out that’s what we’d come up with, but before I could try bringing him in – no thanks to Benoit, here – he’d exploded my mind and killed me and took out half a dozen of our team. The rest, as they say, is le histoire.”

“Do not say that. Ever.”

“Au contraire, mon frère,” Eric told the Frenchie, grating the words against his smile hard enough to make the man cringe. “I’ll use whatever bon mot I need, largely because it’s appropriate, partly because I enjoy schadenfreude a little more than what’s healthy.” He rolled his eyes and smacked his forehead. “Dammit, that’s German again.”

Gwen wasn’t going to be dead. She wasn’t even going to suffer. The surge of morals around him clearly said he should’ve been happy. He could rest easy knowing that if he, down the road, disagreed with what the Agency was doing, he didn’t have to feel guilty about harming anyone. They’d be at peace.

Should have been happy. Instead, he was disappointed. He kept it to himself while Eric went on badgering Benoit, but he wouldn’t have minded if something in his lead’s transfer was a bit off. He didn’t want the process sabotaged, of course, but if dear Gwen was mildly aware of how screwed she was, it’d make up for everything she’d done to him.

“How long does it take for someone to go mad in the post-transfer coma?” He asked as much out of curiosity as anything else. When Eric’s teeth gleamed pleasantly, Jason offered a quiet shrug.

“Depends on the person. One woman made it four years. She was goobly when she got out at first – four years of nothing is a painful experience – but she straightened up fast. My darling Agent Maggie snapped after six months, though. What a shame that she was in there for a year. Xander did two years, a friend of mine did three – didn’t make it – but the average seems to be around four months.” Eric shrugged, too. “Doesn’t take long. I’d recommend you avoid it.”

“Of course.”

Four months. Then if Gwen stayed awake for forever, Jason would definitely feel avenged.

Right then, Jason felt less sick.

Setting

4 Characters Present

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Stewart Character Portrait: Stephanie March Character Portrait: Rudy Quin Character Portrait: Osono "Ozzie" Wallace
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#, as written by Ten
She didn't really know what to feel when he spoke up again, but any excitement or relief that might have been caused by Xander's reemergence was completely obliterated as she followed his pointing finger to the big fancy place at the end of the two blocks. There was no mistaking what establishment he meant and Gwen's shoulders slumped in dismay as she cast him an irritated look. See!? This was the kind of crap she'd been talking about! It would be so much easier, and quieter and even less risky if they just got a meal to go, found a secluded place to eat or even found a new vehicle and ate on the way out of here. These risks he kept taking put their lives in danger and it was completely unnecessary! She remembered a time when she'd thought he was doing it on purpose to leave a trail behind for those who were after them. She no longer felt that way, but still, he was trying her patience.

Right in the middle of sending him a pulse - Alex might not be able to convince him to eat somewhere more reasonable, but maybe if she got on her pretty little knees... - Gwen's thought was stopped short as he fell back beside the still moping and quiet Quin. The man had been poking gingerly at his cracked and dead phone trying to restore it to some semblance of life, and he blinked up at Xander distractedly. Looking down the block where they were headed, he shrugged his shoulders and said, "Uh, sure thing, Ben. Whatever everybody wants. I insist on buying, so...go ahead and pig out."

There was a significant difference to Rudy's demeanor now, not only distracted but even a bit numb. There was no longer any melancholy like there had been before right after the phone had been broken, but he was definitely not focusing on what was happening right now. Busy planning perhaps? The phone was gone, but he might be able to get it working again - she was still unsure of what he was capable of and now, the wall around his thoughts was even more impenetrable than before.

Turning to Alex, she was just about to try and convince Xander to eat somewhere else - hell, even Mexican if she could sway him - but she was halted once again by the tone of his internal voice. So, he was still pissed at her. God, and what an asshole! It was like he'd only listened to half of what she'd said and filled in the rest of the story to make himself out to be the victim! Alright, she fully admitted that she'd been a bit harsh and she had failed to mention that she was indeed grateful, but with the way he was acting now, there was no way he'd get an apology.

"Shit! Come on!" a murmured whisper said behind her and she glanced back to see Rudy slapping his phone against his hand in frustration, while trailing far behind the rest of them. Also glancing back, a smile appeared on Osono's face and she leaned towards Gwen as they walked, holding her hand palm upward to her. Gwen knew what she wanted instantly, but still hesitated before lightly tapping her hand with her own in a small "five".

"I gotta hand it to you, Stacy, that team work back there was genius," she said, a cigarette appearing between her lips as she chuckled in a raspy voice. "I've never seen the kid so sad or so QUIET."

For a moment, Gwen was worried that somehow Ozzie had figured out that she'd talked in her head, but there was no hint of it in the woman's mind. "It was an accident," she said with a sheepish smile and a shrug. "I didn't mean to fall on his phone."

"Sure, sure," Ozzie said nodding and dipping the tip of her cigarette into her cupped palms. A light flickered from between the cage of her fingers, and Gwen held back a gasp when she sensed that the woman wasn't holding anything that could have created it. But it was gone in a split second and Ozzie was inhaling from her freshly lit cig and blowing out a thin cloud of smoke as she continued on, as if nothing had happened. Normally people didn't notice. Normally people didn't last long enough around her to even get a chance to notice.

"But I woulda curb stomped it anyhow and then he woulda been pissy at me and bitching in my ear until he gets a new one," she said with a roll of her eyes. "With you and your little "accident" he can't be mad." Um, that was doubtful, especially when she felt her shoulder blades itch from the murderous glare he cast in her direction.

So, fire. Now she knew why the Agents were after Osono and she thought about sharing the knowledge with Alex and Xander, especially since they were currently discussing the benefits of keeping her around. But she caught the tail end of Xander being a bastard again and she instantly shut up. Fine. He didn't need to know - he was so smart, he could figure it out on his own! As far as their group was concerned, she'd already made the decision for him. And she decided Osono was coming with them. Now, she'd just figure out how to convince her to stay with them before he got a chance to and the deal between the ex-Agent and Alex would be off, right?

Looking at the rebellious woman, she was definitely more relaxed now, her shoulders held at ease and sucking on her cigarette in a pleasant way. If there was a better time to get the woman to open up a bit more, then she wasn't going to wait for it. "Why did you want to destroy his phone?" Gwen asked curiously. "Seems like a mean thing to do. I mean, I know he's annoying - and that singing was awful - but it seemed a bit cruel."

"Trust me, babe. NOTHING is too cruel for that little twerp," she said casting her dark eyes at Gwen and for a few seconds their gazes met and she could sympathize with that. Probing the woman's mind, she realized Osono knew that there was a connection between the phone and the faceless men and women who occasionally showed up when Quin was around. She wasn't exactly positive that he called them on the phone or what exactly - there were memories where the phone wasn't involved at all in some instances; these people just suddenly knew where she'd be and were waiting - but she knew that it was used as a signal of some kind at least half of the time.

She'd often contemplated destroying it, but when Rudy was unhappy, he was aggressively whiny and hitting him or threatening him did not shut him up. So, she was left weighing the benefits of getting rid of the phone and having to deal with the big baby. Lucky for her, Gwen's little "push" had basically made her think "Screw it!" and bought her some much needed relief. She was always on edge and needed a little break from running and destroying things and now she had at least a little time to relax.

Ozzie thought about sharing this information with Gwen and she wavered for a few moments, sucking deeply on the cigarette as she thought it through.
Gwen was a little disheartened when she decided not to but didn't have time to let the emotion register as Ozzie's hand went around her waist so they were hip to hip in a small hug. The gesture was a lot like the squeeze Xander had given to Rudy when they'd had a "pal" talk.

"Just know that you did me a really big favor, alright? I know it was an accident, but seriously, I owe you one," she said, shaking Gwen's body just a little before releasing her.

That made Gwen smirk a little. "Hey, no problem. I'm a pretty clumsy person; If it means getting him to be quiet, then I'll fall for you, anytime," it was meant to hint that their time together would be longer than Ozzie's normal encounters, but the wordplay made Gwen blush and Ozzie laughed.

"By the way, Stacy, I gotta ask...what is the deal with your boyfriend? Is he a tweaker or what?" She was currently referring to Alex's speedy walk added with the fact that he was clearly murmuring to himself.

"Uh...He has antisocial personality disorder..." Gwen said uncertainly. Osono had no idea what that meant but nodded her head slightly anyways, looking at his back. She at least knew what "antisocial" meant but all of it together just sounded like psychobabble to her.

"And schizophrenia," Gwen added. That was immediately understood and even though she was using the word incorrectly, Ozzie had been taught by pop culture to think the word meant "split-personality".

She sucked on her cigarette thoughtfully and breathed out a sigh of smoke. "Intense shit," she said, nodding slowly, almost as if in approval. She didn't really understand why, but Gwen was even more fond of the woman for that. Normally, hearing that someone had any sort of mental disorders like the ones she'd rattled off for Alex, they would have instantly been wary of being around the person - especially when it was obvious that he was unmedicated - and probably would have tried to put as much distance between themselves and the "crazy" person as possible. The fact that Osono was unaffected by the news and even seemed somewhat morbidly interested in the man, made Gwen feel better about how she'd gotten caught up with Alex in the first place. She wasn't alone in her fearlessness around the "mentally unbalanced".

As they came to a stop in front of the restaurant, near a high vaulting fountain with multiple tiers, Gwen decided to try once more to appeal to Xander's sense of sanity. "Please, can we go somewhere else? I'm really not in the mood for a sit down place. It's also not fair to make Rudy pay for all of us to eat here. And they probably won't even let us in anyways - these types of places usually have a dress code."

Not to mention the fact that these places are like Agent magnets, she pulsed at Xander. Are you naturally this absent-minded about your habits or are you doing it on purpose now just to spite me? Because I totally GET it - you're NOT trying to get us killed by engaging in this immature bullshit. Boy, you sure know how to prove me wrong.

"Please, can we just go somewhere quieter with less...pomp and pizazz?" she was practically begging him and the desperation could be heard clearly in her voice. Just once! Let him be reasonable when he wasn't too tired to put up a fight. Just. Once.

Gwen's complaining got Osono to think that her new friend was upset though. Smoothly, Ozzie slipped up to Gwen, a slender finger with a few hard silver rings upon it nestled beneath her chin tilting her head up as Ozzie's lips pecked her lightly on the mouth. The impulse was so sudden and immediate, Gwen didn't have time to sense what she was going to do before she did it. She blinked and blushed beet red, but as Osono drew away, she sensed from the other woman that the "smooch" was merely intended to unsettle her as well as showing a hint of friendly affection.

"Cheer up, Stace. Me and Rudy will take care of everything. Besides, I know schizo's got his heart set on this place. Right?" she winked at Alex and looked for Rudy, who instantly tucked his phone away and hurried to follow both women into the establishment. As she passed him, Ozzie gave a small friendly punch to Alex's shoulder and Rudy murmured an embarrassed "Heh." before the three of them disappeared through the spotless front doors. Gwen cast a glance back towards Alex, even as reluctant as she was being dragged along by her new friend.

Inside, the ceiling went all the way up to the second floor, vaulted with intricate moldings in the arches and painted an creamy white with light green accents, cut in half by a second floor that covered only half of the restaurant and around the sides. Two large chandeliers, ornate and unbelievably complex, hung from the ceiling, one lower than the other to accommodate the ground floor. And right before the doors was a marble desk, cream colored with dark green veins running through the stone and gleaming. A grand stair case stood a few feet behind it and went up about midway between the first and second floors before branching off to the right and left. The bottom floor before the stair was littered with tables and there were more clustered in groups along the walls beneath the overhanging walkway. Behind the stairs was the kitchen and above it, was the main hall of the upper floor littered with the priciest tables. Music was being played from somewhere above, from an indoor instrument.

As Rudy approached the counter, he handed the maître d’ a card pulled from his pocket just in time for the man to look up and regard their rag-tag group. "A table for 4, please," he said adopting a smooth, haughty tone of voice.

"Sir, I'm terribly sorry," the man behind the counter said, eying them each - but especially Osono - with distaste. "But you'll have to leave. We cannot serve you here."

"No, I believe you'll be more than remiss if you refuse my business," Rudy said in a low voice, giving the man an easygoing smile as he passed an I.D. across the counter as well. The manager cocked an eyebrow and sighed but took the card and looked it over. After a moment of staring he blinked and his tone changed. Probing his mind, Gwen sensed that he recognized the name as a prestigious family that Rudy was the youngest son of.

"My mistake, Mr. Quin," the man said in a deferential tone, a dutiful smile coming to his lips as he handed back the I.D. "Would you prefer a table on the top or bottom floor this evening, sir?"

"Top. And could we get the singular table in the center of the room, please?" He cast a look back at the three of them and said, "I'd like to treat my friends well."

"I'm very sorry, sir, but there are 4 reservations for that table the rest of the evening," the maitre d' was definitely sorry that he couldn't fulfill that request and praying that Rudy wouldn't be angry with him.

But Rudy was not bothered or hindered by such an admission. "They can sit somewhere else. I'll pay extra for those seats - more than any of those reserving it will, I'm sure - just scan the card."

"Yes, of course," the man, bowed his head with another tight smile and slid the bank card through the small machine, instantly getting a beep of approval. "Enjoy your meal at La Madeleine and if there is anything else you need, do not hesitate to ask, sir." Handing the card back to Rudy, another man, shorter and in a plain tuxedo, approached them. Several menus were tucked under his arm and he waited for them to follow him.

"Thank you," Rudy said with a smile and put the cards away before leading the way trailing the new waiter to their table.

On the ground floor, they passed a large fountain in the middle of the room as they walked in a line down the thick aisle between the opulent tables. Several people who were already seated were dressed in lush evening gowns and finely tailored suits and many of them paused to stare as they passed by. Gwen had grown somewhat used to this from her first time eating someplace big with Xander, and Rudy didn't seem to care either way. Osono was also used to turning heads, but she made a point of sneering and glaring at people, surreptitiously making lewd gestures as they passed, causing the innocent bystanders to instantly avert their gazes nervously.

On the second floor, the space spread out on all sides, but most notable was the large ceiling to floor windows against the far wall, overlooking the gardens and fountains surrounding the property. A grand piano was being played nearby. The waiter led them to a table that was right in the middle of the room, with both a clear view from the doors below and from anyone outside in the street below. The table itself was covered in a richly woven white table cloth, with their napkins folded into the shapes of doves and several different forks and knives at each place setting. The chairs were all cushioned and carved with intricate designs and all one piece, heavy as the servers pulled them out for each of them to be seated .

The waiter hastily plucked the "reserved" sign from the tabletop with a white gloved hand and began reciting specials as he handed out the menus to everybody. "Tonight, the specials are the Veal Tenderloin and crab cake served on a crispy potato galette with truffle and lobster sauces, the Fricassee of Snails and wild mushrooms with green asparagus, served in a puff pastry shell and the French onion soup gratinéed with swiss emmenthal. Can I start everyone off with some drinks?"

Rudy looked over the menu with an eager eye and when he spoke, he'd adopted his usual dorky tone. "Do you guys have any soda pop?"

The waiter paused and said, "We have fountain drinks, yes. Basic Pepsi products, sir."

"Hm, that's a 'No' for orange soda, then? Alright, just give me a regular cola."

The waiter took the rest of their drink orders and promptly left them alone, and finally Rudy turned to Alex who sat on his right side at the table. "My family owns a few hospitals, all big time doctors and whatnot. Except me, heh. But anyways, I get a big allowance every month just to disappear and keep quiet, and it allows me to do pretty much whatever I please. So, there's no price limit. Get as much as you guys want." It was more than clear that Rudy was enjoying the moment and being able to splurge on new friends, but there was the slightest hint of something else. Almost smugness. Whatever it was, it made Gwen nervous to be here in the middle of everything where everyone could see them.

"I use to take Ozzie to places like this all the time back in Grissom. But...well, she couldn't stop getting into trouble - she's like a magnet for chaos. So, I kinda just stopped trying, heh." He shrugged at the glare she gave him and laughed sheepishly. "Well, what's the point of setting up a luxurious and expensive meal, if something always happens to upturn the table?"

Conspiratorially, he whispered at Alex, "Hopefully nothing will go wrong, but I apologize before hand, Ben ole buddy, if anything happens that I can't control. The girl is like a frigging tornado." There was nothing but affection in the comment but still, Ozzie took a sip of her water and spat it at him. "Or some other natural disaster."

***


Focus. Focus. Focus. she intoned in her head, the blank mask once more in place over her features, smoothing them out to stonily regard the road. Stephanie kept an ear out with the current conversation but mostly her attention was on driving, trying to focus on something other than her partner for once. She had to reestablish control. There was no excuse for this behavior and how she kept on slipping. Looking back on all that had happened, she began to grow frantic as she realized it was getting worse. What had happened? It was easy enough to blame Jason, but that hadn't been the start of it, it had merely been a symptom. Even back in the apartment, she'd made the foolish impulsive decision to stay behind rather than follow Benoit's plan. With that in mind, it almost made the progression of events feel inevitable.

No! I'm in control. I'm in control! I'm in CONTROL!! It wasn't too late to fix this and correct her current errors. Obviously, something was wrong and her training with the Emotion Desensitization Program was unraveling. Maybe she'd grown soft with it after keeping it employed constantly for such a long period of time? If that were the case, then she needed to return to the basics. That made her remember the moment of it's birth in her mind all those years ago.

It had been the night Richard had left on reassignment. The Agency had recently become official and she had just completed her training as an A-6 level Agent. During her training in the previous three years, Stephanie had been a bit unruly and known within the tighter circles for being especially kinky. It was a novel and taboo subject in her hometown area and she was used to being sought out in secret or seducing her fellow Agents in training. Very rarely did anything last very long, as those looking to be dominated by a woman broke easily and those who weren't didn't measure up enough for her to willingly submit. Either way, her partners had been many and brief. It kept her from growing bored.

Her proclivities were so exciting to the Agents stationed in her hometown, that she was surprised to find someone else familiar with the lifestyle. So, Richard was unique, like her and they both stood out in the crowd of vanilla lovers. As her training manager, he'd been in a position of authority over her and nothing, not even the private lives of his trainees, went unnoticed by Graninger. Her propensity for eating men for breakfast, lunch and dinner, was a hot topic and her personality intrigued him.

She had been wild and untamed, and he was dominant and merciless. Upon some of their first conversations, she'd hated the way he directed her conversation and had tried to rebel in small ways whenever she could. It did not slip by him however, and he pushed his authority upon her and forced her to submit when giving him reports of her training exercises. Always demanding so much of her, to the point where she felt helpless to resist and assert her own identity. It got to the point where she'd willingly given him everything he wanted, and his praise was like the light of the sun upon her making her bloom.

With everyone else, she was a cold-hearted bitch, but Graninger could get her to go through all of her combat exercises 20 times over in an hour if he so desired it. Needless to say, the two were connected, a perfect match, and when they became lovers, Stephanie grew and blossomed beyond what she would have been capable of under her own steam. So, naturally, when he made plans to leave to an assignment up north, she felt as if he were abandoning her. He wished for her to stay in that small city where she'd grown up among a bunch of amateur nobodies. Where her new promotion to A-5 would mean something and she'd be able to make a difference. Put simply, he'd grown bored of her. And she'd learned all she could from him. Love or anything like it could not keep them together any longer.

There had been a lot of pain and anger after he left and as she was assigned to first one case and then another, the stress of her emotions and pining for her ungrateful lover became too much. It was either 'get rid of them' or 'lose her status as a rising star in the Agency'. Driving the car now, zooming past other drivers and her hair blowing in the cold night wind, she remembered that pain. Crying at night alone in the bed she'd shared with Richard, aching as if her heart were being torn in half all over again, months after his departure. And then the hatred of him, the absolute loathing for the mess he'd left her in, forcing her to be strong without him after he'd demanded her complete dependency for years. How cruel! It all seemed distant now, like a small light flickering far away and barely noticeable except when she concentrated on it.

As the Nathan case had come to a head and Maggie was inserted into the kid's brain, she'd began to worry about her future cases and others she might be working with. Her emotions were slowing her down and she couldn't bear to replace the love she'd lost - it would have all been phony anyways; no one could ever compare to that man. Those emotions needed to be gotten rid of and shut off somehow. She needed to stop feeling.

A lot of the first steps in the EDP that she developed had to do with meditation, and clearing her mind. Studying cognitive psychology, she was able to add a more scientific and mental approach to systematicall separating her psyche from itself and constructing internal walls. And finally, to help grease the wheels and broaden her focus, she'd utilized entheogens - psychoactive drugs to affect her chemistry and help the process along.

Now thinking back on it, she'd had the most success in constructing the different layers while using Atropytamine. She needed to go back to the basics to reestablish the crumbling layers and that would be done most efficiently if she had the drug in her system. But she hadn't needed to take any since the first year of becoming the Lead Agent on Gwen's case and thus didn't have any back at her base and most certainly none on her at this moment.

Her attention was drawn back into the car once she heard Jason asking questions about the transfer process. Something about the questions themselves made her look at him in the rearview, just in time to catch him shrugging at Eric. 'Just innocently curious' my ass, she thought, giving him a penetrating look. What are you thinking of, my little pet? What plots are brewing in that beautiful, curly head of yours?

Whatever. All she knew was that if the bastard got between her and her goals, he wouldn't be alive long enough to mourn the loss of his suit. As soon as they got a moment alone, she'd make sure he knew that - and she'd let him know WITHOUT losing her focus! She couldn't afford to lose any more ground or to play any of these silly games. The less...intimate contact she had with Jason, the better, and she was certain he'd gone on failing long enough. He'd just been demoted to A-6 but she'd make him feel it with a crushing stiletto heel.

As they entered the airport, she swerved around back, the wheels gliding over the smooth runway to where the smaller, private business jets were kept. The car skidded sideways for several meters as she came to a rushing stop beside the line of jets and she left her seat barely blinking an eye at the smell of burned rubber. Turning to Benoit, she wondered if she might ask him about the drug but there was really no reason for him to be carrying it. Besides that, she got the feeling that ever since Jean's death, he had a shorter fuse in regards to her and her partner - he had to make up for the lack of glaring dislike being expressed for them, afterall. Then she glanced at Eric and began wondering about his seemingly bottomless pockets. Would it be untoward for her to ask him about it? Probably. But she really didn't have a choice. She was losing her mind and she didn't trust herself to survive the plane ride without slipping even further.

Coming around the car to his side, she touched his arm as he began to approach the planes, and stopped him. When she spoke, her voice was low so as not to be overheard by the other two men and in a firm monotone. "I'm sorry to bother you, and I know this is probably unprofessional of me," God, she was such an idiot! Focus. "But I was wondering if there was a slight chance you might have any Atropytamine or any other psychotropics on you, that I might be able to borrow." Please, don't ask me to explain why. PLEASE. Don't ask me to explain why.

Setting

2 Characters Present

Character Portrait: Alexander Stall Character Portrait: Xander
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#, as written by Tartra
Jason saw a look in her eye he’d never thought she was capable of: desperation. It was faint and restrained and he might’ve been wrong, but he doubted it before he accepted that answer. If she’d been angry or happy or sad, he would’ve been great with calling himself stupid and going back to swearing his everlasting hatred for his target, but he knew what that was. It was the one thing he’d always be able to recognize, and the only part that tore into his mind more than discovering she had an emotion or two after all was not getting to hear what she was asking the A-1 about. But he heard his answer.

“Standard issue, Stephanie. Have a box, try not to overdose – the usual jazz.” And from out of his left pocket, Eric pulled out a small, rectangular carton, barely bigger than a glasses case and bullshit because there was no way in hell he had room in there for that plus the millions of files he seemed to summon on an hourly basis. And then he went on to come out with another sheet, handing it to her moments after the carton was in her hand. “You’ve gotta sign for these puppies, but no rush. I know where to find you.”

And off he went to the great steel jet whistling airily to himself, dropping back into a world of his own. Jason had noticed that, too. In the Elmira lab, the man’s attention had been on nothing but them. By the time they’d gotten into the car, he could’ve sworn the A-1 had been with them forever, even when he’d chopped a solid rank off of Jason’s throat. Now, though... Eric’s mind was elsewhere. He threw a smile to him and Benoit as an afterthought when he passed instead of as an instinct like before. It had something to do with that pet project of his, Jason figured. The split attention could cause some problems if Eric truly wanted to help take on his target and Alexander, but in the meantime, so long as they were only travelling – and as long as he kept the Flunky’s dead body dancing on those strings – he could do whatever he wanted.

Jason stopped him before he got too far away.

“Sir? Eric?” And a glorious grin was his answer. “May I ask what just happened?”

“With what? Stephie?” Eric chuckled. “I try not to pry into other people’s lives. You can ask her.” No sooner had that come out of his mouth than he burst into a lovely, sing-songy tune of, “Oh Benny! Got a question or two for you –”

“Piss off.”

“You’re adorable! So – any new info on the thing that slaughtered Jean?”

“...”

Fine. He would ask her. As Eric threw Benoit into a too-strong hug that could’ve crushed him, dragging his prisoner off to chat about the wonder that was Alexander, Jason went to his lead, not sure what he should be saying to her but convinced it had to be something. Until those papers were in, he was still an A-5 and he still had full rights over his suit, which meant he needed to know if something was going on behind the scenes. That made sense in his head, at least until he was standing in front of her. Then his careful work at trying to look as bored of the world as she was broke.

“Are those –” No, it was a waste of time to ask that. He wasn’t dumb. Out of everyone here, he was the authority on what she had in her hand. “Can I ask what you’re planning, boss?” It’d come out stronger than he’d meant it to. Pent up anger, he supposed, and maybe relief at finally being on the other side of an interrogation. “It's not that I don’t trust your dedication, but it’s sending a mixed signal when you say you want our target caught but pick those out from Eric.” And what the hell was Eric doing with them anyway? “These aren’t toys.”

He wasn’t lecturing her. For one thing, he wasn’t suicidal. For another, he didn’t have the time to do it, because once his mouth had closed, he heard a furious shout of, “Stop standing there and get on the plane.”

The A-1 had getting under Frenchie’s skin to a science. He was giggling away, going on to talk about something Jason was too far away to hear and that drew an expression over Benoit’s face that nearly vowed the man was going to stab Eric in the eyes. He admit it: that would’ve been interesting to see. Jason had seen the Flunky fight before, but there was something different in their superior that he refused to share with them. What was it? A special kind of training? Some super weapon he’d stuffed down his pants with everything else? Whatever it was, he was wary about what would happen when it was finally revealed. Eric seemed nice enough, but sometimes stereotypes were put into place for a reason, and rumour had it nothing screamed ‘expendable’ to an A-1 like anybody who was a lower rank.

There was more to it.

He was going insane. Frenchie’s warning was... understandable. They were supposed to be on the move and sitting around to chat about the chemical cocktail she’d collected went against that, but the sound of the man’s voice shocked Jason into remembering he wasn’t alone with her. He wasn’t annoyed – God no. He stood up straight and tried feeling grateful to know she couldn’t try anything under their eyes, as had been so lovingly demonstrated on the ‘good’ car ride. But... he was well aware of how intrusive it’d been – seemed like, he corrected himself. It was as if there’d been an audience for a show Jason had wanted private. That was what had annoyed him.

This case was going to be his death, but rhere was no point in talking about this now. He had a very valid reason – extremely valid – for letting out a flush of frustration at what he knew she was going to do. Training with the suit put him around enough people on doses lighter than what she was packing and it’d taken days for them to double up on it, weeks to double up on that, and then every month was another addition until they gave up everything or collapsed in a frothing mess. And then there was the personal experience... Nothing related to his suit – he wouldn’t lie about that – but considering the crap he was almost expected to be put on, the Agency needed people who’d ‘proven’ they could handle something strong. His hands twitched irritably at the memory of it. No, he wasn’t suicidal, but if he was, he’d grab that box and stomp it to oblivion.

“Do what you want. I’m sure you know best.”

He didn’t stick around to convince her. He shouldn’t’ve bothered showing an interest anyway. If she thought she knew what she was doing – he doubted it, for once – he’d have to trust her. And it was all the more reason to stay away from her. His hands twitched again. With his goggles back but as broken as they could be, his body was reaching out for anything to call a fix, but not that, not again. He did what the other lead said and started off for the plane.

“You’re looking pale, Jason,” Eric said, almost as if he approved. “You okay?”

“Yeah. Yes. Yes, I’m fine.” He looked around. “Where’d Benoit...?”

“Inside already. He thinks he can ditch me, but it’s a metal tube that’s gonna be a zillion feet in the air. Where’s he going to hide?”

The tiniest flicker of loyalty came over Jason again. Since he’d been on a roll analyzing everything else, he trusted his gut when it decided he was making up for coming off a little cold to his lead. Even so, the strength that came with it could’ve been better spent than by saying, “He’s not in the most stable state right now. His friend died hours ago and you’re... wearing him.”

There was a short silence following this. Eric began to chuckle.

“You... are... priceless!”

“Pardon?”

“I cannot get over you,” Eric laughed. “You’re like that kid from that movie – that – uh... With Scrooge?”

“Tiny Tim?”

“Tiny Tim – that’s the guy! You’ve got this faith in everyone that’s – just... I don’t believe it. Really!”

“I’m sorry, sir,” Jason said slowly, “but I’m not sure I understand.”

“I know you can’t,” Eric cooed, ruffling Jason’s hair. “That’s what makes you priceless. So innocent! It’s great!”

He turned to leave, heading up the metal stairs to the jet they’d parked beside.

“Sir –” Jason was trying again. Uh... Why? “I just think you should take it easy on him. He’s upset. He’s worked with Jean –”

“For forever. Meaning eight years. And since the day our Alex escaped,” Eric said, nodding. “Ah, he’s fine. Tell me he’s mad about scuffing his shoes – that, I’ll believe.”

“That seems a tad unfair,” Jason replied. “I understand and respect –” The keyword. “– you’re allowed to recover Agents who’ve been killed in action, but when they’re that close, you can’t –”

And that was another keyword. At ‘can’t’, something flashed in Eric’s eyes. Not a muscle in the enormous man had moved but Jason was acutely aware of how much smaller he was than the A-1. Barely feeling his arm as it moved up to awkwardly hold his other elbow, he waited for the moment to die before he tried breathing again. Fuck, he hated when these people cornered him like this. Where the hell was Stephanie – his lead?

“Jason. You’re priceless.” It didn’t sound as warm as it’d been before. Now the air around the word felt... taunting, rather than admirable. The man was halfway up the steps with a hand curled around the railing. The lightest touch lingered between Eric’s hand and the metal, and somehow that still managed to reek of power and the Flunky’s strength. “I don’t know how you do it in this business, because I couldn’t believe in half the things you do.”

“... Sir?”

“Benoit. Come on. You feel sorry for him? Honestly? Come on – honestly?”

“Yes.” Jason fumbled over it. “I don’t pity him but... I sympathize with his loss. Jean and I didn’t see eye-to-eye –”

“He doesn’t care.” Eric was an inch away from rolling his eyes like it was the most obvious thing in the world. “He doesn’t.”

“... I...”

“It’s easy to misinterpret,” Eric said, chipper. “From what I hear, you lower levels have these weird... What’s the word... Feelings! Right! Lower levels have ‘feelings’. But don’t worry – you lose those at A-4. Mr. A-3 in there? Hasn’t had an emotion since the minute he was promoted. I’d say the same goes double for your lady-friend, what with that desensitization thingy of hers.”

“Emotion Desensitization Program.”

“Yeah! Nifty! Anyway, believe me when I say Benny’s about as bent out of shape over his ‘loss’ as he’d be if he got a hangnail. I’m almost surprised he still remembers Jean’s name.”

Except that didn’t make any sense. Benoit and Jean had gotten on like an old couple – Flunky had been literally dictating what his lead was supposed to eat, and he spoke with such reverence and idolization of Benoit. There hadn’t been an order delivered that wasn’t received with ready obedience and enthusiasm. And Eric said Benoit wouldn’t miss that? The more Jason turned it over in his head, the more he was convinced the A-1 had to leave Frenchie alone. He couldn’t imagine what it must’ve been like to be the only two out of how many that Alexander had picked off, only to come back and nearly finish the job.

“If –”

“You can ask him,” Eric cut in. “You don’t have to take my word for it, but you have proof already. The only person someone like Benoit would mourn is his target, the same way Stephanie would only mourn hers. She hasn’t said boo about the rest of her team, has she? And how long has she been working with them? You’re new to the team – you don’t know. She and him and I and anyone else who made it to the high levels aren’t mentally capable of forming the attachments you young’uns take for granted. As far as being people goes, we ain’t.” He shrugged, pleased with this title. “That’s what makes Xander so dangerous to deal with. He’s as inhuman as anyone in our rank, but he’s figured out how to fake it and – worse – hide among those who still have a heart. Plus, he’s insane.”

He was confused. He looked back at where he’d left his lead to fiddle with the garbage she’d wound up requesting and tried putting what Eric said into his picture of her. It almost seemed to fit. It’d explain why she had no problem shutting herself down to build up the EDP – it wasn’t as if she’d keep her feelings by the time she took on the case.

What did that mean for him?

“So...” He took his gaze away from her and loosely brought it back to the A-1. “She doesn’t... they don’t care? About us, I mean. About their team.”

“Think of it this way,” Eric said. “Our teams are like a gun. You don’t mourn the bullets, right?” He smiled. “Try not to stretch the metaphor, even though I know that’s what you’re tryin’ to do. Just accept it. See my point for what it is and you’ll feel much better.” He laughed again, then headed up the rest of the flight. “So innocent!”

“Boss.” His voice was tired and he felt drained. Somehow, that conversation had taken a lot out of him. “Boss, let’s go. We don’t want to keep them waiting.”

* * *


“Wine. I’ll have wine. Lots of wine.”

Alex managed to get it out before the waiter got away. Although Xander had heard, he didn’t say anything about it. He was probably imagining ways to knock the bottle over before any went down his throat. That was the plan, actually. That cork was going in the guy’s mouth if he couldn’t stop fighting.

Didn’t these two use to like each other?

He felt his lip curl at the sight of Osono spitting water on the table. Less than an hour with her and he was already calling it quits. Gee thanks, Xander. A sit-down meal was just what they needed.

“Yeah, bitches be crazy,” the devil in his head soundly agreed. “But I’m up for a show.”

He didn’t know who Xander was talking to, him or Rudy, but he doubted either answer spelled good news.

“So... Rudy...” Alex politely cleared his throat. “Why don’t you – uh... tell us about how you two met.” He didn’t care in the slightest. He just needed him to talk so Alex whisper away to Xander to his heart’s content. “Don’t mind me. I’m going to go over the menu.” And he flipped it in front of his face, hiding away from the two they were trying to keep in the dark. “So what are you up to now?”

Huh?

“What’s the plan?”

What makes you think I’ve got a plan?

“Xander, you are the most impulsive, reckless, thoughtless, careless, suicidally-thrill-seeking being I have ever met or even heard of in my life,” Alex murmured, “but you want your body back. I know you have a plan beyond ‘let’s see how badly I can piss off Gwen’.”

Right. ‘Cause everything I do revolves around her. Alex felt a smile tug at his face for a moment. He didn’t drop it in time for Xander not to notice. The fuck’s your problem?

“Nothing.” Well... “You know something, Xander? For a while there, I think it did.”

What did?

“You. Doing stuff. For her.” The smile floated back. “You never did say why you helped her in the first place. I had my reasons but –”

Don’t get any dumb ideas, Xander snapped.

“I’m not, because it makes perfect sense. Why else would you take what she said so personally?”

He hadn’t forgotten about Vestal. That hug, that dinner, that kiss... Sure, Xander hadn’t been awake for that last one, but he’d still, technically, been a part of it. There’d been a mood that'd built up between them that’d started with the simplest things. When Gwen’s nose started bleeding and Alex ran back to his apartment, who’d been the one to remind him – twice – to get a towel for her? It wasn’t a whole lot and the guy probably hadn’t even realized it, but considering who they were talking about... So maybe she’d dropped out of whatever crush she’d had on Xander. It didn’t necessarily mean he

Hey, Alex?

“Yeah, Xander?”

You wanna fuck yourself, buddy?

That wasn’t exactly a ‘no’.

I’ll stab you.

“No, you won’t – Xander, okay, cut it out!” Alex got his hand back and he irritably jerked it away from the cutlery, falling deeper behind his menu-shield to mutter, “Sensitive, huh?”

The plan’s to cause a scene somehow. I need an Agent here. A high-ranking one.

The fuzzy glee in his stomach over having found Xander a heart sank heavily into a pile. It was a pretty obvious change in the subject – one that did nothing to torpedo his new theory – but it was incredibly effective. Alex had no choice but to play his role and let out a horrified, hysterical and hushed cry of, “What?”

Like I said, not everything I do’s about her, he answered. Like I said even earlier, everything I do has a reason. We need an Agent down here and I’m hoping something between these two goes on and gets me what I need.

“Xander,” he asked carefully, “are you trying to get us killed?”

No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no.

“Really?”

Not completely.

That made him feel better.

It should. Anyway, it’s not as though you have a choice, Xander said. This isn’t a crazy whim. It’s a tactical solution to our problem of getting inside the Charlton base.

They couldn’t do this here. Rudy... If he was an Agent – obviously the wrong type or Xander would’ve torn what he wanted out of the guy already – then, cut off from the others or not, it’d be dangerous to say anything in front of him. Alex was on his feet in an instant, losing control of his foot a split instant before pain went screaming up his leg, and turned to Gwen determinedly to say, “I have to go to the bathroom. Can you help me there? My foot’s still... bad. Uh... just get me whatever you think sounds good. The special. The first one. I’ll have that.”

Setting

4 Characters Present

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Stewart Character Portrait: Stephanie March Character Portrait: Rudy Quin Character Portrait: Osono "Ozzie" Wallace
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#, as written by Ten
As the small carton was handed over to her, Stephanie smiled in her internal layers, her fingertips burning and tingling as she grasped the box laying between her and the one thing that would ensure her continued success. Nodding her head dutifully at his instructions, she took the sheet of paper from him and waited with bated breath for him to inquire about it's use. He didn't. And she wouldn't tell him. No doubt he didn't care either way actually. None of them needed to know how badly things had gotten for her. In another 48 hours, it wouldn't matter.

This was her ticket to finishing this case without a hitch. If she took these drugs it would help her re-establish the control that was eagerly slipping from her fingers with every passing moment and it would help her remain firmly rooted to her goals. No more mistakes. No more impulsive behavior. No more emotions. That truly was the best part of this whole thing, was the erasure of the weakness within her heart.

She was busily looking over the papers Eric had given her - just a simple form, already filled out with an empty line at the bottom waiting for her signature - when Jason was there interrupting her thoughts and invading upon her privacy. All at once, she found herself getting angry with his questions and especially his tone. Who the hell did he think he was? She knew what she was doing and she didn't need him to look over her shoulder and make sure she was doing the things she was suppose to. If the A-1 didn't give a shit then Jason certainly had no right to pry and worry about her.

Besides, he just didn't understand. How could he even begin to comprehend what it was like for her the constant pressure and struggle that brewed within her- especially when her first impulse after he told her to do what she wanted was to choke his stupid ass until he passed out. It wasn't easy and she hated him for even assuming he was in any position to give her a fucking lecture. She knew what was at stake and she knew what she needed to get the job done.

Thankfully, he left her after that and she let out a small breath, turning the case over in her hand nervously until she consciously forced herself to stop. She didn't have a choice anyways. Everything was falling apart around and within her and she needed to do something. If Eric or even Benoit knew or found out how bad things were getting... Suddenly nausea overcame her at the prospect of being taken off of her case and a second after that she felt the urge to scream when thinking of someone else being assigned to capture Gwen. Her Gwen. Is that what Jason wanted? For her just to break down and be removed from duty? No, he couldn't possibly understand.

Watching him and Eric standing on the steps of the plane, she couldn't hear their conversation but found herself growing annoyed when she noticed Jason looking back towards her a few times. The little prick! What was he saying? No doubt Eric and Benoit had noticed something wrong with her behavior, but most certainly Jason knew something was wrong with her. He was an A-6 now, she really shouldn't be worried... He wouldn't dare to complain about her now would he? Oh, God and what if he was telling Eric about the things she'd done to him!? Was he filing an official complaint!?

No... No, he couldn't. He wouldn't dare. It seemed fairly plausible however, especially with how he'd finally gotten out of her reach long enough to say something to someone. But even as she sweated about it and fiddled with the case in her hands, she realized how absurd it was. No, he wouldn't. He just wouldn't. Calming down somewhat, she looked at the case in her hand and realized, from the panic in her frantically beating heart, that she needed these now more than ever. She could not wait a moment longer. Tucking the sheet of paperwork she'd been given away in her pants pocket, she ran a hand through her hair and let out a harsh breath before opening the case.

It opened like a small book with three small vials tucked in little straps on one side and four hypodermic needles about as long as her middle finger and half as thick on the other side. The backing of the case was a black material, something akin to velvet. Gently she ran her fingers over the vials, turning each of them slowly around so she could see their labels and she hissed through her teeth when a small tremor ran through her wrist. This insanity would stop now. Roughly, she took out the vial labeled Atropytamine and one of the syringes, closing the case and tucking it under her arm as she uncapped the needle.

Her hands were steady as she appropriated the right amount of liquid into the needle, even moreso when she realized how little privacy she currently had and the fact that she didn't even care. Just a few seconds and it would all go away. Just a few more seconds and she would no longer need to worry about forcing herself to stay under control.

One dosage - 10 ml - and she set the vial aside with the case as she looked for a vein. She glanced up for just a moment to see if Eric and Jason were still speaking - her partner appeared to have angered the A-1 from what she could decipher from body language - and she tapped at the inside of her elbow. She didn't have time to mess around with a tourniquet, but luckily she didn't have to as her aim got her precisely what she wanted on the first try. Without a hint of hesitation, she pushed the pump down and watched the clear, slightly purple/gray liquid fill her arm.

After it was done, she recapped the needle and started to tuck it away before a small hum began to grow within her body. A breath she felt the need to release was cut off as a sharp tingling began first in her skin and then her eyes. She remembered this feeling very clearly now and she would have smiled in satisfaction if she was capable of it. The effects of the drug made her feel both numb and hyper sensitive. When she looked around, it seemed nothing escaped her attention - immediately knowing how many jets were lined together on the runway, distances between them and the spatial relation between herself, the jet they were boarding and the car, her hair loosely blowing about her shoulder in the cool night air, even right down to some debris and sand that had not been cleared away from the smooth asphalt - all the information taken in at once and filed away in the appropriate slot in her mind.

Her body was suddenly standing more rigidly as if she was a collection of steel girders inside instead of bone and flesh, and her pupils were dilated leaving nothing but a sliver of grey-green iris around them. And inside she was a hollow shell. The worry and paranoia, the anger and shame, even the lust that had been haunting her inner layers - all of it was silent and dead. There was nothing but a thick cloud of nothingness where her heart should be. Perfect, she thought in a bored fashion as she put the vial back into the case and tucked it away in her back pocket.

As Jason called to her, she walked with a quick and sure step back towards the car, opening the door and reaching in for the paperwork she still needed to sign about Jason's demotion. Stephanie glanced in the backseat and saw her suit coat and hair tie, but left them both there as she slammed the door shut and approached the plane. Climbing the steps, she said in a hollow voice, completely drained of humanity, "Do not assume you know anything about me. Ever. And mind your place lest I stick you in a grave."

She felt nothing stir within as she slid past him making sure not to touch him as if doing so would infect her somehow. Her eyes swept over him, taking in every detail within a matter of seconds - the curl and texture of his hair, the worn and weary look on his face, the fibers of the suit he was wearing - before she'd fully passed him and entered the plane.

Within, there was a large amount of space between the seats, the aisle big enough to stand two people side-by-side and each seat as large as a comfortable leather loveseat with leg room to spare. Stephanie passed the galley as she walked into the main seating area and her eyes swept over everything in a bored fashion, internally hyper and making note of everything from the temperature of the air circulating through the space, to the wood grain of the panels on the walls. The rows of seats themselves faced each other, the first seats with their backs facing the front of the plane and the other two, occupied by Benoit and Eric, facing forward. Moving almost robotically, Stephanie took her seat to the right of the entrance and settled in as much as the drug in her system would allow.

When Jason was seated, she listened ambivalently to the sounds of the door closing and the jet starting to move on the runway finally picking up into the air. A small table was flush against the wall on it's side and hinged to her seat, and Stephanie pulled it out to set the paperwork down on it. Clicking the smiley pen once, she found where she needed to sign - not even a ripple going through her at the sight of Jason's wobbly signature - and she quickly laid down her name in a severe yet beautiful scrawl. She took out the other sheet Eric had given her for the medication and repeated the gesture, every line of her name in exactly the same spot as if she'd printed it out from the tip of the pen.

She was in the middle of clicking the pen back into place when there was a gentle hand on her shoulder. Through the fog that now consumed her, Stephanie felt a ripple of irritation as her sensitive skin took in every detail of the light touch - the weight of the hand, how many fingers were touching her, the texture of the other person's skin. Along with the contact came a feeling of warmth and along with that a surge of panic that she was feeling anything at all. It needed to stop.

"Ma'am, would you like a drink--Aaaahh!!!" the stewardess's calm and friendly voice cut off sharply in a cry of pain as Stephanie's hand whipped out lightning fast to grasp the other woman's fingers.

As a reflex, her own touch was not pleasant in the least as she held the woman's first three fingers and bent them back violently. Slowly, as if she was just now becoming aware of what she was doing, Stephanie turned to look at the hand she held, her eyes darkly tracing over every muscle and bone in the awkwardly arching fingers. She could feel the woman's muscles spasm in pain, the bones of her fingers creaking together threatening to snap with more pressure applied, and the woman stood beside her in the aisle whimpering and swaying in agony, begging in a soft plaintive voice for Stephanie to release her.

There was the tickle of something deep within, but Stephanie was so numb she could not decipher what it was - pleasure or discomfort, it was hard to tell which one. There was a moment when the stewardess's voice moaned sharply as Stephanie began to bend her fingers even more, seemingly effortlessly trying to break her hand, but it stopped as Stephanie suddenly let go.

The woman nursed her wounded fingers and Stephanie stared up at her with cold eyes and said in a completely dead monotone, her voice inhuman with it's lack of any hint of emotion, "Do not touch me. I'm not fond of physical contact."

The woman got a horrified look on her face and cradling her hand, rushed off towards the galley behind Stephanie's seat. Ignoring the muffled weeping she heard just behind her head, Stephanie moved the table back into it's spot against the wall and held out the papers to Eric, the sheet for the chemicals on top of the other paperwork. After he took them back, she sat back in her seat, her spine straight as an iron pole and every muscle tense and ready for action. Turning to the window, she looked out as the city lights grew smaller below them, nestled in a sea of black like the night sky reflected above, feeling nothing but bored and restless in response to the sight.

Eventually, the stewardess came back out of the galley, her hand neatly wrapped in bandages and she inquired about beverages or snacks for the occupants of the jet - and it was more than obvious when she made an effort not to touch Stephanie, her manner even more meek and tremulous when asking her questions, seemingly loathe to engage the female Agent at all. Pitiful and unprofessional, were Stephanie's thoughts as she ordered nothing but water from the woman casting her out of mind as if she were nothing but an insect. In her current state, it did not occur to her to be alarmed that she'd had the impulse to hurt the woman in the first place.

***


"Well," Rudy said smiling suggestively towards Osono at Alex's question - he received another glare in return as the woman began to play with her knife on the table. "It's a bit complicated but I used to live in a loft in the Financial District in Grissom but I wasn't making a lot of friends with the people my parents and brothers knew and kept pissing people off for some strange reason." He rolled his eyes and shrugged as if he just couldn't fathom why as if even the thought of someone not liking him was an absurd idea.

"Anyways, so, I decided to slum it for a while and moved into the same apartment building Ozzie was in. She was the first person I met and we instantly hit it off." From Osono's memories, Gwen sensed that wasn't in the least bit true. Rudy seemed at least somewhat perceptive in mentioning that people didn't like him, but from his first encounters with Osono, he acted like he couldn't tell when someone didn't want him around. Under normal circumstances, not knowing what he was, his persistence in following the young woman around could have been disregarded as him being an oblivious moron. But Gwen knew that it was all an act and Ozzie knew it to some degree as well.

It was like a game the two played, to not let each other know what they really knew about each other. From what she gleaned of Osono's personality, Gwen couldn't grasp why she'd put up with him like that for so long - she obviously knew he was involved with Agents somehow and even Rudy's demeanor wasn't a very good act and would likely fall apart if he was confronted. It seemed that at least half of the time, Osono fell for the "geeky little brother" act he played with her and the other half, she was thinking of ways to escape the chaos he always brought down upon her.

"Ever since then, we've been tight," Rudy said, casting a fond smile at Ozzie. Osono said nothing back, but Gwen got a very clear image in her head of Rudy being shoved into traffic and getting run over by a semi-truck.

As Gwen eavesdropped on Rudy and Osono's thoughts during his tale, she also listened idly to Alex and Xander's conversation behind the menu curtain he'd put up. She found herself blushing occasionally at the things they said but was especially wondering about Xander's current plan. What did he mean? What was he thinking? She blinked at Alex in relief when he stood and started to excuse himself - asking for her assistance - and Gwen tried to ignore Ozzie nudging her with her elbow.

"I can help you, Ben," Rudy said, hopping up from his seat before Gwen could even move. "I need to take a leak anyway. Ozzie, can you get me the Shrimp Crepe Florentine?"

"Eat shit, loser."

"That's great. Thank you," he said with a smile as if she'd said something more pleasant, again seemingly oblivious to the hate the woman had for him.He heard what he wanted to hear.

Gwen looked at Alex helplessly and pulsed to him,

I would join you, but I don't know how to convince Rudy not to go. He says he's gotta pee and he really does. It would be odd for me to come with you guys. I'll stay here and keep an eye on things, okay? We'll talk about this in a little bit.

Already, Rudy was ushering Alex away from the table, saying, "Come on, let's take a look at that foot, buddy. What did you say was wrong with it? Quite a limp ya got there. Heh, you're walking like that dude in District 9. Are you changing into an alien species perhaps? If so, I probably can't help you..." And on and on he chattered, citing this TV show and that, talking Alex's ear off as he lead the way to the restrooms.

Turning to Osono, Gwen blinked as she leaned towards her and said in her raspy voice, "I was about to tell you two to get a room with the googly eyes you both were trading back and forth. So, he's a kinky fella, huh? And sorry about Quin - he has difficulty understanding social cues, in case you didn't already notice."

"Oh, no, I mean, well," Gwen said uncertainly. "Well, I mean, yes, I noticed."

***


"And it was hinted in the final episode of season 3 that the Face of Bo was actually Jack Harkness," Rudy's energetic voice went on as they entered through the bathroom door together. "Can you comprehend the implications of that? It's absolutely mind-blowing!" There were three other men in the room with them, one at a urinal and another washing his hands and the bathroom attendant sitting on a stool by the sink. The sink continued the cream and green veined marble of the front desk and the accents of the larger rooms of the restaurant were repeated here in miniature.

As he stood at a urinal, Rudy went on, either unaware of whether or not Alex was interested or ignoring the fact that he wasn't. "And the Waters of Mars has got to be the scariest shit I've ever seen in my life, just short of a Xenomorph and a child zombie. Near the end, I think the moral complications about what the Doctor did to save those people from the base and changing history was extremely profound." As he finished and zipped back up, he gave Alex a raised eyebrow look and said with absolute sincerity, "Doctor Who is the best show out there, hands down."

The last man left the room as he approached the sink, whistling the Doctor Who theme song as he washed his hands and took the towel to dry them from the bathroom attendant. "So, Ben, what exactly happened to your foot, if I might ask?" There was something flippant and distracted about his voice as he spoke, almost as if he were just speaking to say something. Walking to the door, he nonchalantly turned the lock with a harsh click.

"Sir, please, don't do that. Other customers will need to..." the elderly bathroom attendant said in mild protest. As Rudy turned around, he reached into his pocket and pulled out what could have been a cross between a beeper and a lighter. As his hand smoothly and quickly raised to point it at the man, a small mechanical clicking resounded and the thing grew with intricate parts and pieces to envelop his hand. In the seconds it took to have his arm up and aiming at the old man, the gun had fully formed around his hand with his finger on the trigger. A small whine started a second before an orange flash left the vertically oblong muzzle and the light left the gun to disappear into the old man's body.

"Grk!" was what came from the attendant's mouth in a brutal cry as he seized up and fell off his stool, falling to the ground in a heap. Without missing a beat, Rudy turned from the door to point the gun at Alex, a severity entering his features that was not there before.

"Sorry, Ben, but this is the way it's gotta be," he said with a flash of that same geeky smile. He was clearly not sorry in the least. "It's Stacy, man! If she'd just kept her fat, clumsy, cow ass away from my phone! Everything I had was on that thing and she had the nerve to fucking sit on it! I mean, you should know - no one should ever come between a man and his gadgets. Luckily, I will be able to transfer any data from it to the new one I get, but it's unforgivable. Your girlfriend is gonna die, brah. And because I can't stand when people get all sentimental and shit and come after me for revenge or whatever, I'm just gonna clean up the whole mess this time and kill you too."

He smiled happily again, cool and steady as ever. "Any last words?" his finger inched over the trigger and the high-pitched whining started as the weapon charged to fire again.

***

Gwen was sipping at her water, following Alex's thoughts as he disappeared into the bathroom with Rudy and contemplating how to ask Osono to join them. How should she play it? If she came out with the whole truth outright, it might scare her off and she'd be suspicious. But if she fibbed or kept from her where they were really going and what they were getting into, it would be a betrayal of her trust when she finally found out and it didn't seem fair to ask her along when she had no clue what was really going on.It was a tricky situation and if she didn't handle it properly, they could lose her.

A waiter came up to the table with a basket of breadsticks and set them down before asking, "Does everyone know what they want? Or should I wait for the gentlemen to return?"

"No, we're good, and all set," Osono said with a rough smile. Pointing at Rudy's seat she said, "For that turd right there, if you guys have any stray animals running around out back, or some manure for the gardens lying around..."

An odd feeling came over Gwen then as she looked past the waiter. At first, she hadn't noticed anybody and there was barely a signature coming from that area, but as she stared and listened to Osono paint a fowl picture for Rudy's order, Gwen saw somebody standing there. Blinking, she reached out and probed the area roughly until she realized there really was someone there and her eyes widened as she noticed he was holding a weapon and pointing it at the table. Gwen ducked under the table with a small yelp as she felt the man in the suit start to pull the trigger, but at the same time, Ozzie rose from her seat and hurled her stake knife like a dagger. Catching the guy in the chest, he toppled over and Gwen raised herself up in her seat to look around.

Further downstairs, Gwen started noticing more of them and her panic levels rose as she counted at least 15 different Agents hiding in plain sight among the tables down below. 5 of them stayed behind to block the door and the other ten made their way to the stairs and started heading straight for them. What was even more disconcerting in this moment was that Ozzie saw them too.

ALEX!!! AGENTS!!! she pulsed frantically, not taking the time to notice that Rudy currently had him hostage as she sensed at least 20 more Agents guarding the back of the restaurant.

How did they know where they were? How did they find them? "Osono, we need to get out of here now!" she said to the other woman, but before she could protest, Ozzie had walked over to the railing above the stairs and was vaulting over it. Gwen ran to the edge of it to look over even as she sensed the other woman fighting with them, in full brawl-mode. She only moved when she sensed some of those guarding the door aim several high-tech guns at the upper floor and flattened herself to the floor as a boom reverberated through the space, glass shattering from impact and their table upturned violently.

XANDER HELP ME, PLEASE!!! she screamed in absolute terror.

Setting

2 Characters Present

Character Portrait: Alexander Stall Character Portrait: Xander
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#, as written by Tartra
I cannot believe he’s talking while he’s taking a piss.

“I know.”

I’m offended. I’m actually offended. It’s like he took the guy code and wiped his ass with it.

“Just about.”

He felt his head shaking.

You know I felt sick when he got up? I don’t have your stomach but I still got a lurch when he said, ‘Let’s party in the bathroom, Xander!’ What a psychopath. He’d probably follow me to the stall.

Alex was pleased to find Rudy’s blather drowned out whatever he said. There was no fear of anything being overheard, and the old man in the corner could’ve guessed whatever he muttered was a humouring word for the other guy. It also gave him some time to go over the one thing he’d been able to understand in the midst of their new Agent friend’s rapid-fire nonsense: was he getting a limp? Was this becoming permanent?

“Speaking of –”

Dude!

“What?”

I just said it’s against the rules to talk in the bathroom! And eyes down, pixie puff. I don’t need that view.

What view? He’d been standing by the door with his head turned determinedly away from anyone breathing. Clearly, that wasn’t good enough. There was a tug on his neck and now he was staring at a grey spot on the white tiled floor. Scuff mark, probably. Someone wasn’t picking up their feet when they walked. If they kept that up, what with the dress code the restaurant enforced – tried to, anyway, but leave it to Xander to run into the one other person who couldn’t be bothered to get out of jeans – and the price tag on nearly everything the patrons were wearing, they’d ruin a perfectly expensive pair of shoes in a week.

“So when do I get to pee?”

Need to? Squeeze in. You’re all about sharing, right?

“I’ll hold it.”

Good man. Camel man. Man of camels!

“That’s going to get sexual really fast, so cut it out now.” Alex shuffled under his shirt and rubbed his arms. Shoulder ached, back hurt, but he was fighting it. With his probably jet-black, battered foot under the care of Mr. Invulnerable – less scary when he remembered the alternative was walking on it himself – his only real concern was that it was cold in here. He should’ve brought a jacket. He should’ve bought one back in Vestal. Too late now, but maybe there’d be a shot at shopping as they kept on riding to Charlton. As a matter of fact – “Hey, we’re probably going to have to get you clothes. I don’t think you’ll be dressed if they’re keeping your body in a tube with the others.”

... Are... are you... seriously thinking about me being naked?

“... No.”

Out of the bathroom. Out of the bathroom right now.

“It’s a legitimate concern,” Alex explained.

Out. Of. The bathroom.

“Shut up. He’s done.”

Oh, I’m so glad you were paying attention!

Rudy had not stopped talking. When did he breathe? Did he? Apparently not, because Alex hadn’t heard him break for anything longer than a switch to a different pile of stupid. When he finally settled on something remotely relevant to anyone – Alex’s foot – he was almost so grateful that he tried to respond.

“My foot –”

Whoa, whoa, whoa. Hold on.

Why? What was happening?

He shifted in his skin again, leaving his arms crossed against his chest as he watched Rudy go to the door. Xander’s control grew to something close to battle-ready long before Alex heard the click of the lock, but they were both sharp enough to see the toy come out of that pocket and Alex felt he was entitled to roll his eyes when the old attendant got shot. No – he didn’t mean it that way. He felt bad for the man who might have had a family he was going to see to celebrate his fast-approaching retirement, but... a gun? Rudy was using a gun? It was as if he was trying to insult them. A rocket launcher, maybe, would’ve been a nicer choice, purely because it wouldn’t’ve been screaming, ‘Here you go, kill me with this so you don’t get tired from melting my brain.’

Amateur. Alex could handle this himself.

Or he would have, if Rudy hadn’t let the last bit slip out.

He might’ve drawn attention to the freakishly unnatural speed Xander had once or twice before, but it came up now just as suddenly as ever. Without the slightest hint of any real movement, spurred on by what could only be called witchcraft, he’d gone from resting wearily on the wall with an eye locked onto the miserable – but kind of cool – pea-shooter to standing directly behind Rudy and slamming the guy’s head into the very door he’d tried using against them.

No, I don’t have any last words,” Xander snapped. “You don’t talk in the bathroom! You’re creepy as shit, man! What’s wrong with you?”

He took no-talking seriously. He’d left his hand on the back of Rudy’s skull too, ready to smash it into the door a second time once he got tired of grinding the idiot’s face into it.

Gwen’s warning was like a bullet to his gut. Perfect! More of them! Alex wanted to point a finger, but there were so many curses that drew these people that it was literally none of their faults anymore. Xander had a plan, anyway. He doubted it went as far as how to safely get out of the restaurant without murdering everyone, but it meant he’d been prepared to handle this.

They hadn’t ordered yet. Last time, they’d barely touched their food. Eating in public was getting steadily more troublesome.

“She needs us,” Alex said. “They’re out there already!”

She can manage one or two. Xander was having a blast crushing Rudy’s head. I’m starting to like these intimate facilities.

New Agent versus ex-Agent and the old school was winning by a lot. So much for the magical gun.

The ground shuddered underneath them. Xander didn’t flinch, save to lean more pressure on his latest victim. The mirrors in the back wall swelled with anger, one of them cracking as a distant explosion went off near the centre of the restaurant.

Near Gwen.

“Xander,” Alex croaked, blinking as the tiny chandeliers flickered. “We have to go.”

If he was going to shake off the suggestion in favour of killing the man in his hands, the heart-slicing shriek of horror erupting in their ears put a stop to it. There was no last second conflict about whether he should finish the job or be by her side; as fast as he’d gotten to Rudy, he threw the half-cracked head away and snapped the lock open.

He’s fucked when I’m done, Xander promised, streaking back to where the table used to be but refusing to break his stride once he flicked his eyes over her. She’s fine there. His sights switched to the group stalking the front entrance. Them? Not so much.

“Watch my foot,” Alex said. “Xander? Watch it!”

Yeah, yeah.

And the first thing he did was launch himself in the middle of the five.

Guns everywhere. Bigger guns, louder than what Rudy had fired. At the back of his thoughts was Osono, who he’d managed to make out as a blur before he whipped past. They’d be in two different places for now. The small comfort in knowing she had powers was aided by the fact the other thousand attackers were spread out. Sure, they were rushing for the stairs to mount one large strike, but by the time that happened, Xander would be ready to deal with them, too. It was almost a safe way to see if the new girl would be worth anything in a fight.

Whatever the explosion had been, they shouldn’t’ve done it. The two glass panels lining the entrance had been left with jagged edges and enough space to fit a human head through. Alex knew this because the first neck his hand latched onto was pulled back, pushed ahead, and thrown onto that tattered lining. Xander’s aim was too perfect to doubt the first Agent’s fate. In the instant before he let go to dig his hands into the next pair, a sharp line split across the man’s throat, threatening to burst before his eyes left to pull Two and Three in for their disaster.

... Not normal. This wasn’t normal at all.

It might not have been the best way to describe him, but Xander was methodical when he fought. Good and violent – no one was arguing that – but controlled and precise at every turn. In front of Roasters, inside the alley, more than definitely in the Elmira lab halls, he moved with nothing but focus that bided its time until the crucial moment crawled from the darkness. The way he was acting now, the extra effort he was giving to make sure these Agents felt the life slipping from them... Slicing a throat on leftover glass? Grabbing Two by the face and crushing his head against the door? Not in the way that he’d done to Rudy – that’d been playtime, more or less. The force Twp met when his skull collided with the immovable wood killed him in that breath. Agent Three followed the same path to his grave, only harder and faster as Xander built up momentum, a torrent of rage built from nothing burning in his eyes as Alex fought to see.

“Hey – wait –”

He didn’t wait. He kept going, fiercer, deadlier, possessed... A field of heavy hatred had clicked around his body, clawing the remaining guards before his hands got anywhere near them. It wasn't until a savage howl of fury Alex hadn’t known his throat could make that the other two moved to get a hold on their weapons and aim.

Too late.

Agent Four made the mistake of locking eyes with him. That ended predictably, but Alex winced when he realized Four had been granted a mercy the others had been starkly denied. Only Agent Five was left to guard the entrance. From Four’s falling corpse, Xander found a gun and broke it against this survivor’s mouth. Silence. That was impressive training. Blood and teeth rained from Five’s lips, but not a sound lived to escape. It seemed like they were back to being targets of quality soldiers. It should’ve brought a smile to Xander’s – Alex’s – mouth or even a satisfied smirk, but it was heartlessly ignored as Five was knocked to the ground and held by the jaw of the gun in his hand.

“That answers my first question,” Xander murmured. His words rolled out in a softness severe as the haunting echo of Gwen’s mental plea. He slid the muzzle up to Five’s shattered face, drawing a trail through the red that it drove in, then said, even fainter, “Number two: who’s the highest ranking Agent here?”

Five said nothing. His dead eyes floated aimlessly towards Alex’s. That was it. He was still. The fact that it wasn’t out of fear and instead from steel-willed disinterest in his wellbeing scared him more than Xander’s unravelling patience. With the message received, Alex felt his hand tighten around the trigger, fire, and end another life.

“So... uh...”

We’ll talk after.

Shit. So something was wrong – more wrong, he meant, than getting ambushed by thirty people. Gwen’s desperation had brought Xander to her aide like the loveable nightmare he insisted on being, but that unleashed... rawness... But it was going away. Those five Agents, specially trained and waiting by the door, must have been the only ones at that level. Alex could see the roughness in everyone else – still dangerous, but not the same. He couldn’t imagine what this fight would’ve been like if they hadn’t been stopped before they’d started. The element of surprise had saved their ass again.

Now to fight the other million.

“Uh-oh! Xander’s packin’ heat! You assholes better be wearing a whole lot of hats.” The mighty smirk had returned to its throne. Playtime was back and there were bullets to waste. “I’m feeling headshot-y.”

Gwen, Alex heard him say. Doing okay up there?

* * *


Ring, ring.

“Huh,” Eric said, pleasantly surprised by his phone's screen. “Looks like we’re missing a show, children.”

Jason had had enough of shows. He pressed into his seat and relaxed in the privacy around him, trying to forget that phones weren’t supposed to be allowed on airplanes but betting the Agency had mastered some fantastic techno-babble to get their A-1 off the hook.

Eric was talking to him. Jason blinked and dragged himself back to attention, exactly where he didn’t want to be.

“Pardon?”

“I said it looks your girl got hungry.” From over his seat, above his head, Jason had a phone waggled at him. It was too far away from him to read, but obviously Eric planned on sharing. “Just got a note saying my boys found her at a restaurant.” Quick pause. “And then they shot her.” Another pause. “My mistake – shot at her. Geez. For a pack of semi-elites, they’re twitchy.”

Benoit’s head turned to address the man, gruffly demanding, “They found only her?”

“Nothing on ol’ Xandy yet. They just got there, though. It’s an automatic update. Give them a sec to – oh, they’re dead. He’s around.” Eric shrugged and stuffed the phone away, burying it under the cabinet of forms and pharmaceuticals already in his coat. “Here’s a tip for handling your minions: always keep a live feed running on their brainwaves. You can’t imagine the stuff it says about their status. No porn on the job in my ranks! I got a zapper to hit ‘em from across the globe!”

Frenchie was satisfied with the answer and shooed the stewardess away to better ignore everyone. Jason politely declined any service for now, too. Honestly, he didn’t think she’d puttering around them so quickly after what’d happened – which the other two couldn’t be bothered to acknowledge. It stood as a testament to the willpower of every Agent. Jason didn’t want to know if he could stand up to it. He liked his hands, thanks very much, and he especially liked sitting in a seat separate from his lead.

She’d drugged herself up, ignoring the warning he’d dared to give. But fine – whatever. If she wanted withdrawal, she could have it. A fuzzy thickness built up on his tongue as he remembered what that’d felt like to go through. How long would the effects last for her? She was supplied thanks to the admirable unconcern of Eric, but that could only get her so far. This case was going to end with him scraping her off the ground, and then her half-molesting him as punishment for trying to help. It was nice to see he was so appreciated, so why the hell had he gotten on the plane at all? He should’ve called it quits and slunk off. It wasn’t like it’d ruin him anymore than the demotion had.

Alright, stop. He wasn’t going to feel sorry for himself. He could do that later. Like it or not – the answer was ‘not’ – he had gotten on, and as long as he was here, he was going to make sure he had every detail he needed.

“What were ‘your boys’ doing around a restaurant?” Jason frowned. “How did they know where she was?”

“Dunno. Didn’t give the order.” Feeling chatty, quite unlike the rest of them, Eric went on to elaborate. “Every A-1 has a band of elites they train and lend out to other groups. Someone must’ve put in an request to borrow five of mine. And it looks like that someone’s getting fired for walking ‘em to their grave. And by ‘fired’, I mean ‘shot, then stuffed in a can and shipped to Mexico’. Y’know Hawaiians used to be cannibals? True story. It’s why they like Spam – perfect substitute for flesh. Yum, yum. Maybe I’ll the send the buttface there.” His entire seat stretched as he shrugged again. “Ah, well. At least those were my lowest elites.”

“Who gave the order? Why have them assemble there?”

“Dunno. It’s outside my circle of interest.”

Yeah. Expendable bullets. Jason got the idea.

His lead had made that clear. The way she’d talked when she first got on the plane and how she’d moved specifically to avoid the slightest contact with his being – because now he was suddenly hands-off – spelt out precisely what she thought about him. He didn’t say anything to her about it. He mutely looked on while she signed those papers, signing away his life without the tiniest twinge for anything that didn’t directly relate to her fucking Gwen. Screw it, then. Maybe he would leave when the plane touched down. He had his own crap to worry about and the less he had to deal with her, the better.

“When do we get there?”

“Charlton? A few hours,” Eric said. “Hope you don’t mind waiting for your pets to catch up, but I like to make sure my warzone’s ready before I’m at my last ten minutes.”

Hours. Good. Jason would be gone in no time.

Setting

5 Characters Present

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Stewart Character Portrait: Stephanie March Character Portrait: Rudy Quin Character Portrait: Osono "Ozzie" Wallace Character Portrait: Noel
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#, as written by Ten
Osono's army jacket flew up about her arms as she fell, landing heavily on her feet in the middle of the stairs where the newest batch of people after her were gathered. When she'd thrown the knife and killed the first guy, a few women sitting nearby upstairs had screamed and rushed from their tables. The people down on the ground floor however, had not yet become aware of anything wrong. That is until the explosion hit and shook the place down to it's foundation. As shattering glass deafened those inside the restaurant, a few more screams pierced the air and people were running from their tables en mass, abandoning their pricey meals for the safety of the exits.

There were three men currently on the stairs with her and Ozzie's fists lashed out with pounding strikes. She'd grown up in a rough neighborhood, starring in more than her fair share of bar fights and as a result, her fighting was a lot less graceful than Xander's. The first guy charged with his fists up and ready, blocking her first few hits. She didn't expend too much energy on those, but when she found an opening, all of her might went into it to knock the wind from his lungs and bruise his internal organs. When he fell, she stepped lightly over him to meet the other two. The second guy's face turned into hamburger under her fist in a matter of seconds and when the third tried to grab her from behind, she grabbed his balls and yanked and twisted them sharply. All it took after that was an upper cut to his nose and he crumpled to the uneven ground of the steps.

Glancing up to the second floor where the large explosion had landed, she tried to see from where she was if Stacy was alright. She was the first person she'd met in years that she could consider at least the beginnings of being friends - she didn't want anything bad to have happened to her because of Ozzie's problems. She relaxed and smiled when she saw the other woman poke her head through the large hole in the railing, her blue eyes watching the goings on with a restrained amount of terror.

Smiling to herself in relief, Osono turned back to the others who were quickly approaching her and she left the stairs. Looking around, she noticed that not all of the people had left the restaurant and some were huddling in the corners, using their tables as shields. She didn't want to start setting fires with innocents around, but sometimes she just had to make sacrifices. Her eyes drifted over the rest of the area and found Ben fighting several men near the doors and she smiled more to herself. Heh, go Ben! Whoo!

As she stepped onto the ground floor, she decided the safest way to protect Stacy from getting any more battered than she probably was, was to block off the stairs. She didn't want to take the chance of someone slipping past her and although they usually only focused on her, those guns hadn't been aimed at Ozzie. If they were targeting the people whom they found in her company, she couldn't risk depending on the fact she was usually in the spotlight.

The air around her tingled with heated current and her already short, blonde and spiked hair bristled even more than it already was. She slipped her army jacket off of her shoulders and held her arms out a little from her sides, her fingers splayed loosely. Inside her mind she imagined a match striking alight and the air near the stairs sparked with flame. The lacquered railings and steps caught fire, the flames moving upward to engulf the whole stairwell and nothing but the stairs, the flames reaching an invisible barrier when they got to the edge of the steps. The two still living men who'd fallen to her beating, caught fire along with the steps, lurching and screaming amidst the flames like souls being tortured by demons in hell. She could feel the swaying fire hungrily consuming the oiled lacquer and wood underneath, crackling and hissing happily in her ears and filling her whole body with a blazing warmth like the sun itself was shining within her breast.

With her back to the heat and light, Osono's hair seemed like it was made of fire as well and her dark eyes and sneering smile made her the perfect image of a devil. The men who were now merely a foot or two from her, hesitated at the sight of her - most of the others she'd engaged hundreds of times before were dead and gone now, so these guys were new. Even though they'd been briefed on what to expect from this case, other than the fire-retardant suits they wore, they had no other specialized training when it came to dealing with her.

"Come on, fellas," she said in her smoke-weathered voice, her dark eyes gleaming in the new dancing orange and blue lights. "Let's play."

That broke whatever spell they'd been under and three men charged her at once, with two others on their heels. Even after the energy she expelled to create the fire on the stairs, Osono was given a boost from the living flames themselves. Her arms and muscles surged with electric energy and strength was dragged from deep within her and propelled through every limb. Fists lashed out to pound into the rib cage of the first man, bones breaking and piercing internal organs. The second had her hand grabbing him by the neck and squeezing as her combat boot smashed down on his shin at a perpendicular angle, splitting the bone in half with a loud crunch. It wasn't much of a deterrent for the last 3 who came diving at her.

______


As the flames lit up, Gwen squinted and shielded her eyes as she leaned back from the railing overlooking the stairs and let out an amazed breath. Watching first Xander and then Osono fight, she silently cheered them on from where she was, looking around for any way she might help. It seemed they had everything under control, and the best thing she could do was stay put and out of the way. Her attention was drawn from the fight when a burst of hate came from behind her and she quickly turned to meet a seething and enraged Rudy.

Blood obscured one side of his face, dripping liberally from a wound in his temple, and he stumbled once or twice as he made his way through the debris of the old table towards her. His features were contorted with rage and she could feel it coming off of him in waves as he came to stand over her, aiming what could only be a high-tech gun right at her head.

"You both have been more trouble than Osono ever was. I'll be doing the world a big favor, taking you out," he said in a broken, angered voice.

The high-pitched whining of the gun charging made Gwen shrink back with fear and she held up her hand to fruitlessly ward off the blast. He couldn't do this! He was an Agent! If he killed her, no doubt he'd get in serious trouble from the Agency for eliminating her right? She couldn't imagine Stephanie letting him live after killing her precious target. She could still get out of this.

"Wait! You don't want to kill me!" she said suddenly before he could pull the trigger. Her voice reverberated thickly and filled the space with a slight echo. Her eyes almost seemed to glow an incandescent blue. "You need me alive."

For several minutes he blinked in astonishment and at first as his finger drew off of the trigger, she thought it had worked and he was listening. "Whoa... that's some Jean Gray/X-Men shit for a stupid little whore like you to be wielding," he said, seeing her clearly for the first time. Whatever effect her new "voice" had on Alex and Osono, it bounced right off of him without a trace. Except he was clearly aware of the attempt she'd made and realized she wasn't just a normal person anymore.

"Much too powerful to have slipped the Agency's notice. I bet you're someone's lost puppy, aren't you? You're right!" he laughed suddenly. "I don't want to kill you! That's like a beggar setting fire to a pile of cash!"

No, she did not want to be used as this guy's currency. At least he wasn't going to shoot her now, but she needed to find some way to get away from him. As she surreptitiously searched the debris around the railing for something to disable him, she pulsed to Xander,

I'm in a little bit of trouble. The Comic Con reject knows I have powers now. And I don't think those stars in his eyes mean he wants to let me go.

There was a length of wood from a chair leg just a foot away from her and she eyed it hungrily while watching him warily. If she made a dive for it, he would most certainly shoot her. But he no doubt was already thinking of contacting the Agent on her case - there was no way she'd go into Stephanie's hands without a fight. Without giving herself another moment to contemplate the repercussions of it, Gwen bolted from her spot by the edge of the railing, her hand grasping frantically for the carved, wooden stick. Rudy was there, wrestling her for it and even as she grasped it and thrust the jagged edge at him, he held it off before effortlessly knocking it from her hand.

"Sorry, Buffy," he said smugly, his one hand grabbing her by the arm and pulling her to her feet, while the other pointed the gun under her chin. "Maybe I should have said, 'I don't want to have to kill you.' But I will if you make this too hard for me. No skin off my nose and I've got a nice get out of jail free card." Glancing over the railing he could see that Xander had killed all of the men who'd been ordered to guard the door and Osono was just about done with the rest. It was definitely time to go.

"Say goodbye to Ben, Stacy," he said with a small smile as he began dragging her to the back near the restrooms. Nearby they turned a corner into a niche with a sign above it that glared a baleful red and said "EXIT". Rudy made it down the stairs with her quickly, only because everytime he got the chance he jerked her this way and that and the concrete steps lurched beneath her as gravity threatened to pull her down to kiss them. Out the back door into the fresh night air, there was a black car waiting and at least 20 more Agents approaching the building together. There were tables outside amidst bright and shining lamps, gardens and fountains decorating the scenery. The white and green tables were topped with hastily discarded meals from patrons who'd run away. No one was around to help her.

Xander! He's got a car! He's got a fucking black car! Please don't let him take me away! her internal voice had grown frantic as she saw in her mind's eye the contraption that Nathan had been put into that had been the vehicle for the banshee being inserted into his head.

She couldn't do that! She didn't want that! The muzzle of the gun against her throat was hot from being charged and she knew he was just as likely to shoot her on accident as he was to do so on purpose if she struggled.

Please, I can't...! I can't...! I'm sorry for everything I said! I didn't mean it! Please, just help me! Don't let her inside my head! practically weeping now in desperation, even openly as Rudy approached the men waiting by the car.

One of them had a syringe and he blinked in obvious confusion at the sight of Gwen, even moreso at the blood dribbling all over Rudy's face and clothes. "Gimme that!" Rudy said, quickly shoving the gun into the Agent's hands and grabbing the syringe from him.

As soon as she felt the gun leave her, Gwen started to flail violently, her arms scratching at his neck and face and her elbow whipping out to catch him in the gut. The guy was made of air and none of her blows hit, dodging her as if she were a simple child. Slipping past her defenses, there was a sudden prick in her neck and she choked as he stabbed her with the needle in the side of the throat, pushing whatever was in it into her body.

"This was meant for Ozzie, but I doubt she'll mind if I give it to you instead. Extraneous circumstances and all that," he whispered in her ear. She continued to struggle against his now crushing hold on her but all of her limbs grew weak and in a matter of seconds, she was limp in his arms.

Alex... I can't move... I can't...move...

As she passed out in Rudy's arms, he quickly shoved her through the open car door into the backseat. Looking at the man who'd had the syringe he held out his hand and demanded, "Give me your phone!" Roughly, he swiped the small slender cell that the other man offered and gave one final look at the building he'd left in chaos. "We're not to be followed under any circumstances."

"Understood, sir," the man said dutifully as Rudy ducked into the car and slammed the door shut. There wasn't even a breath of a second as the car peeled out and drove off into the night. Dialing on the new phone he'd acquired, Rudy shoved Gwen's body over carelessly to give himself more space in the backseat. Waiting for someone to answer, he touched the wound on his head gingerly and played with the now gummy and congealing blood decorating his fingertips.

"Hello? This is a private line - who is this?" Noel asked in an irritated voice.

"Yeah, hey, it's me, sweetcheeks," Rudy said, returning to his pleasant, dorky tone of voice.

"Quin! Goddammit! Where the hell have you been!? I've been sending you text messages nonstop but your phone was disconnected. Then I got your signal at La Madeleine's and sent the team there - I hope that's what you wanted."

"Yeah, that was perfect, babe," he said with a smile into the phone. He could always count on her to know exactly what he wanted without him having to say it. After years of working side-by-side and sharing more than just case files between them, she better have adopted some relational intuition. "Noticed some flashier guys mixed in with the usual muscleheads - somebody upstairs suddenly fond of us or what?"

"I specially requested those men," she said with a bit of reservation. She'd been putting all her money in the pot with this particular run-in. "Why? Did they do well?"

"Heh, well, they're dead. Just like everybody else," he smirked as she let out a resigned sigh. He glanced at the young, unconscious woman who occupied the backseat with him, her body shoved awkwardly against the door. "At least I didn't come away empty handed."

There was a long silence and he smiled again. "....You-You HAVE HER IN CUSTODY!!??" He pulled the phone from his ear as the speakers screeched with Noel yelling into the receiver. He giggled slightly to imagine her reaction sitting at her desk, practically hyperventilating at the idea of him finally capturing the target. It was almost a shame to let her down yet again.

"Not HER her. Encountered somebody else's targets I think. I need you to find out if there are any cases currently on the run - a guy and a girl. The guy moves like fucking Batman and has a crazy temper over stupid shit. And the girl has mind control powers or something."

This was their usual pattern. Most of the time, Noel was the one in charge and took over directing him and punishing him, but every once in a while, she allowed Rudy to take this tone of voice with her. "Get the girl's Lead on the phone. I've got a present to deliver and I need to know where to send it."

***

Stephanie tensed even more than the Atropytamine made her at the mention of Gwen at a restaurant, her eyes hollow and fixated on Eric's phone. The numb cloud within her shifted and swayed when he said she'd been shot and as panic threatened to rear it's ugly head, Eric amended the statement to say she'd just been shot at. She was sitting on the edge of her leather seat as she waited for more news on Gwen - annoyance fluttering to a small degree as Benoit inquired about his own case - but a few minutes later all hope of more information was cut off as he reported all the men dead. Of course. Alexander. Gwen's hero coming to the rescue.

It was a small comfort knowing he was there to protect her from stupid Agents acting trigger-happy but at this point, she didn't even know if Gwen was dead or alive. She wanted to feel angry about it or at the very least distraught or worried, but other than those first small ripples through her internal layers, there was nothing. No comfort in emotions to fall back on to release the pressure her agonized thoughts put her through. Inside her head, there was nothing going on except taking in and analyzing information. The rest was emptiness. It was like drifting in the middle of nothingness, blackness surrounding her. It's alright, she thought dully, even her internal voice lacking any emotion. This is exactly what I asked for. It's a good thing. Less chance for mistakes to be made based on emotionally charged action. It's a good thing. It's a good thing.

Even as she was trying to convince herself of that, she knew she couldn't just sit there and not find out what happened.

"Sir," she said respectfully to Eric. "If I might borrow your phone? I need to know how it went and if Stewart is dead or wounded," she tried not to listen to the dead tone in her own voice, tried not to be scared by it, especially when it regarded the possible death of her target. The more professional I am, the less they have to worry about me not being capable. It won't do to get panicky now if it turns out nothing is wrong.

As accommodating as ever, Eric handed over his cell phone and she automatically began putting in the phone number for her base. Her hand ran through her straight blonde hair, pushing it away from her ear as the phone was fit snugly against it.

"Hello, this is Stephanie March - is there any information currently coming in for the Stewart case--" she paused as the person on the other line interrupted her, spouting off new information.

"Yes, there is an Agent Quin trying to contact you. We've been calling your phone for the last 15 minutes."

Stephanie got an image of her suit jacket back in the backseat of the car, her phone chirping merrily from her pocket. How had she missed that? It would have been useful.

"Oh? Well, I'm here now. Put him through." The man assented respectfully and the line went silent for several minutes while Stephanie sat staring blankly ahead. When she heard the man come onto the line, she immediately jumped into the conversation. "Agent Quin? This is March on the Gwen Stewart case. You have some information for me?"

"Heeey! Stephanie! The little hotty from training camp, yeah? Remember me? I had a habit of wearing Star Wars T-shirts to training practice and you let me cheat off of you on a test once. We had a fling once or twice. Remember?" Rudy said on the other line. He still had the same voice, and even if it weren't for the memories he listed off, she would have remembered him from that alone.

"Yes, Rudy, I remember. You cheated off of me? When?" She did not remember that and she would have been annoyed if it were possible. A nervous laugh came from the other line and she decided to drop it. He was such a manipulative little prick - two could play at that game. If he wanted to reminisce, well, she could do that. "And if by 'fling' you mean tying you down and making you squeal like a pig when I used my stilettos to crush your--"

"Anyways," he interjected uncomfortably, clearing his throat to cover his now unsettled tone, moving beyond the current topic smoothly. "Long time no see. Always knew you'd make it big. You had the drive for it. While I was chasing down my own target, I got beaned in the face by another and thought she probably belonged to somebody. Are you missing someone special?"

Stephanie expected to feel something then - relief, hope, surprise, ecstasy - anything at the hint in his voice, but the emptiness stared blankly right back at her. "Yes," she said in a deadpan voice. "You found Stewart? Is she alive? Is she wounded?" There wasn't any concern either inside or out - she was merely gathering necessary information.

"The girl who tried to play a Jedi-frigging mind trick on me? Yeah, she's peachy. Grabbed her out of convenience. She's currently wrapped up in chemical restraints and I need to know where you want her deposited."

Stephanie hesitated. Grabbed her out of convenience? Instead of his own target? Rudy had always been a second-rate Agent even back in training but she doubted this was for free. "What are you asking for?"

"Heh, I'm that transparent, eh? Might as well be as blunt as possible then. I'm going to be in a bit of trouble real soon - broke somebody else's toys, somebody important and blahblahblah - so I may need you to use your influence to get me off the hook." Before she could respond to that he added, "We'll talk prices when I meet you where ever, 'kay? Now where do you want her - under the Christmas tree or beside the menorah?"

She would have laughed if there was any way she could connect with happiness right now. He thought she had influence? Was he high? Knowing him, it was probable. So, he'd been the one to order the A-1's elite Agents to that restaurant. By Eric's own mouth, that person was going to die anyways, so she didn't see the dilemma of Rudy's deal. She wasn't attached to his or anyone's memory enough to hesitate when killing them to get what she wanted. Basically, she was getting this for free, regardless of what Rudy imagined was going to happen.

"I'm on my way to Charlton right now," she said, glancing at Benoit. "Is Alexander following you?"

"Who? Oh, you mean her psychotic boyfriend? No, I've got men blocking the way. He might have wrestled with 5 no problem, but there's no way he's gettin' past 20. He's a fuckin' dead man."

Either Rudy had not heard of Alexander or he was just too stupidly arrogant. The mere fact that he gave the man the title he did let her know that Alexander would indeed dog his trail the whole way just to get Gwen back safe and sound. Fine, she wouldn't have to go out of her way to help Benoit. Besides, there were transfer facilities in Charlton and it was the most convenient course of action. "Bring her to Charlton. I'll be there waiting for you."

"Yep, yep. And remember our little deal, Steph," he said with a gleeful smugness. How could she forget? She might get the chance to carry out his execution order. If the drugs wore off by then, she might even get the chance to enjoy it. With that, she hung up on him and handed the phone back to Eric calmly.

"Thank you. That was definitely...informative," she said in monotone as she settled back into her seat. "I didn't realize Rudolph Quin was promoted to Lead. Whoever signed the paperwork for that decision needs to be shot in the face. I only knew him in training and he was always a lazy, narcissistic, fuckup but it doesn't sound like he's changed one bit. He should have never made it above A-6 rank if allowed into the Agency at all."

She sighed without inflection and leaned upon her armrest. "Anyways, apparently, he's captured Stewart - while leaving his own case behind for whatever imbecilic reason - and he's going to meet us in Charlton with her. Since he's under the delusion that his regular A-5 and A-6 Agents can hold Alexander off, no doubt he's following close behind as well. Just a minor alteration of the original plan but it's still all going as we originally set up. And at least she's still alive."

Again, there was no relief or excitement or happiness in response to that thought, not even inside behind the walls she'd put up. It caused her to glance blankly at Jason, but only for a moment as she continued. "Aside from trying to use her as leverage - even if I wanted to try to convince you not to punish him for having your men killed, I don't understand why he thinks I would be successful; he obviously doesn't know who he's dealing with - his own target, Osono, might be involved now too. Not sure. From what I remember of that particular case back when I was part of the team gathering intel on her, she didn't make social attachments very well. Now that Rudy's out of the way, and fully distracted, she might take the chance to disappear again."

She ran her hand through her hair before taking another sip from her water. "Still, it might be best to prepare for her. Lest we get burned."

Setting

2 Characters Present

Character Portrait: Alexander Stall Character Portrait: Xander
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#, as written by Tartra
He might not have been the fastest at assessing a situation, but Alex knew this fight was over. The restaurant was littered with fallen threats, lined by men and a few women draped across tables or collapsed on the rugs. With ten left on the lower floor – nine –and that on the verge of being handled –

She’s hogging them!

Of course she was. What a whiner.

“You’ve had enough fun,” Alex said. “You just finished killing five super-Agents in under a minute. Let’s go to Gwen.”

Gotta get the lock off this dumb gun. I hate how protected these shits are.

“Or we’re going to Gwen to make sure she’s okay. She didn’t answer us.”

One second, one second...

Alex’s hands were fiddling at a latch and knob at the base of the gun’s grip. Xander was trying to unscrew something and taking his dear sweet time.

“Would you hurry up? There’s no point in you fighting them,” he said. “They’re not a challenge, right? They’re boring?”

What planet were you living on where I turned down shooting somebody in the face? Chill out, fruit fish. It’s almost off.

“Xander!” Another ‘one second’ as his hands kept twisting. “It’s not like she’s doing anything you didn’t get to do!”

And then the stairs lit on fire.

He was far enough away for him to’ve stayed where he was without his face singing from the heat, but the sudden burst of light and sharp crack as the railing went up in a blaze had him trip back a step. His other foot stayed where it was – holy crap, that’s awesome! She’s my hero! – and it kept him from running too far, but it didn't meant he couldn't see the shadows twisting in agony and hear the hellish screams from within.

“There’s people in that,” he said, staring stupidly at the flames.

‘Agents’, not people. Looks like a fun barbeque, Xander said. Broke a nail, by the way. Sorry. Sort of.

“It's fine...” Not this. He was torn listening to them shriek. Osono was standing in front of it, proud as though she’d accomplished something, and she gave no sign of remorse as she moved on to the next wave of attack, and while he should have been too used to Xander’s handiwork to get a groan from his stomach, the heavy weight of his nausea was there. She was brutal. She almost surprised him when she didn’t pull the other three into the flames as well. “My God...”

What’s your problem?

What was his problem? Could he not see what was happening?

“She murdered them,” Alex cried. “She – just...”

... Uh-huh... There was a click and then the gun was nestled firmly in his palm. I’m gonna murder those other guys now. Close your eyes if you’re squeamish. I don’t need to see to shoot.

That was completely different! As far as Xander went, ‘soul’, ‘conscience’, ‘mercy’ and ‘morals’ were as real as unicorns and leprechauns – a nice thought, but exactly that. Osono was someone who came from a normal society and given three people their final breaths without a thought about it. His throat clenched as the shadows stopped moving, falling into a pile of charcoal as the new girl crushed ribs and broke lungs. Then she was finished with them, waiting for the last three, but as they leapt towards her, hurling themselves over the pile she’d built at her feet, a different type of light went off. Muzzle flare. The ring of the gun was a fatal melody, too familiar from the years the Agents had shot at him. The last three fell with chunks of metal lodged neatly in their temples. Xander was very happy. He said as much when he dragged Alex up to her.

“Damn, Sparky.” He was grinning. “You should learn how to set bullets on fire. It's not gonna make them any more dangerous, but it’d be really, really cool.”

Gwen’s pulse cut off the answer Alex had been ready to give. The way she worded it set him on edge. Rudy knew she had powers? As in... she’d used them and they hadn’t worked?

“If you’re done torturing your victims,” he said, wiping Xander’s happy look off his face, “I’d like to use the stairs.”

Do you see the problem when people stay alive? The one time I don’t rip somebody’s head off, they start raining chaos the minute my back’s turned. Alex’s head moved until he was looking at a wall that’d been shot to hell. A smashed table was under it and at the top was another broken rail lining the second storey. Forget the stairs. Let’s use that.

He began to walk immediately, enjoying the distance he put between himself and the pyromaniac. He’d been right about one thing: as far as extra muscle went, she’d be great to have around. Unfortunately, he’d been wrong about wanting her. Osono was crazy. Look at what she’d done! He couldn’t trust her to watch him while he was being transferred. Were Gwen’s powers failing her? Then she couldn’t promise she’d keep the woman in check. They’d be better off being two. It’d worked so far.

“You’re going to jump that?”

Wall climb, kid. See the gouge in the middle?

“No.”

Xander raised the gun up and fired a deep trench in the centre of the distance. With it empty, he chucked it to the side, nodded at his latest improvement and then said, See it now?

“There’s innocent civilians in here, Xander. You can’t fire like a madman when there’re innocent civilians.”

I didn’t do anything like that. Move over. You can’t make this on your own.

Did he argue it? No. With stunts like these, he was glad to hand over control. Alex watched as he was brought back a short ways and thrown into a run towards the railing. He pounded on the ground and drove into the table, jumping in the air and digging his hands into the gouge. It was too high for anyone – even him – to make it in one leap, but at the centre-trench, Alex got worried. They didn’t know how much time they had before Gwen’s trouble grew out of control, but he couldn’t tell the guy to go faster. He was already moving as quickly as he could for someone putting so little pressure on a wounded leg. He had to leave it hanging as he deftly brought up his good one into the gouge beside his hand, and then balancing on those toes, he readied himself to grab the shattered rail and launched himself the rest of the way. He caught it, held it, rolled through to his destination, then sat up in his spot on the ground with an effort more obvious than Alex would’ve liked. Especially now.

“You okay?”

Sure.

“Then move! Rudy has her!”

I’m pretty sure I know, he replied, losing the sharp edge purely to say, They went through in the back. Must be an exit.

Gwen’s voice came to them again. She wasn’t worried anymore. She was panicked, terrified. If they had a van, they were trying to take her away, and if they were taking her away, it narrowed down exactly what they wanted to do with her.

“Go! Go!

Your foot –

Run, dammit!”

So Xander ran, but not until he stood and stopped swaying. Even then, it was clear he was worn out. The weakness he’d been suffering must not have been fixed in Elmira even if the other things had, but there was no way Alex could sprint like he could, so the guy was just going to have to suck it up. And go faster – come on, Xander!

If you think it’s so fucking easy, you do it.

And then again, Gwen cried for him. She was apologizing now, as if the reason Alex wasn’t there was because Xander was still nursing his grudge.
“Great job, asshole,” Alex spat. “She’s blaming you. Are you happy?”

As expected, Xander had nothing to say, but there was a distinct increase in speed.

* * *


He could almost say he was glad for her. Someone had done their job for them. He was glad for himself too, because now he had no reason to stay. As added bonus, he’d heard what he needed to hear from her. After the flat greeting she’d given to Agent Quin – not a name he recognized – there was something about crushing and stilettos. She might not have finished her sentence, but there were only so many ways it could’ve ended. Jason was one in a line, then. He felt sorry for whoever came after him, but maybe his lead would luck out and find a lackey who enjoyed it. How about Agent Quin?

“‘Burned’, huh? And ‘Osono’ sounds like a familiar name.” Whoosh. More papers. This time, they were files. “Right, right. Her. She’s a wild one. No surprise Mr. Quin can’t take her. I bet you’d manage, Benny.”

“Of course I would. Fiercer cases have closed by my hands in time for early lunch.” He had another cigarette out. No wonder he needed a new body. His lungs must’ve been flooded with cancer. “Whoever this idiot is, ‘shit’ is not strong enough to describe him.”

“Don’t be so harsh, Benoit,” Eric said, grinning. “Doesn’t him living through a night of Xander score him any points?”

“I should think my target merely refused to kill a man so pathetically outclassed.”

“... We talking about the same ‘Xander’ here?”

“Then maybe he was distracted by killing your men,” Benoit told him.

Eric had a good laugh over that. Jason was waiting for Benoit to take offence to that, to hammer in what the loss was supposed to mean, but he said nothing. He turned back to his window and puffed away, unconcerned by the thought. Or, as Jason hoped, maybe he’d given up trying to explain it to the A-1.

“Sir... Eric.” The man had turn his entire body to look back. “Could I speak to you?”

“Chat away,” he replied.

“No – uh... I mean privately.”

If he’d made up his mind and he wasn’t staying anymore, he might as well make it official. He could almost hear Eric telling him to take it up with his lead, but she wouldn’t have the forms on her and the most he needed from her end – and about the only she’d give him – was a signature. So he’d talk to Eric. He’d have him sort it out.

“Sure thing,” the A-1 burbled. “Come on up and you can whisper in my ear.”

... Was he serious?

“Oh... Okay.” Jason got out of his seat slowly, waiting for some sign that said he was kidding, but – no, Eric let him walk up and actually expected him to whisper. “I need a form to resign from this case. I was supposed to contribute as an A-5 in possession of a suit. I don’t have that anymore. I’m wasted space.”

It quickly occurred to him that Eric didn’t need any explanation of any kind. The instant he’d explained what he needed, the sheet was produced and put into his hand. But he didn’t let go. It stayed between his fingers when Jason tried to take it.

“Not that it’s any of my business –” That spoke volumes about how little he cared, considering this was exclusively his area of management. “– but are you sure you want this on your record?”

“With all due respect, Eric, my record’s a lost cause.” He’d been perfect, now he wasn’t perfect, so what the hell did it matter? “This is better for her work, anyway. It’ll free up a slot for a different A-5 to join my lead’s team.”

“Sure.”

The form was his now. ... And it’d already been filled out. Not for him personally, but all the general information had been pre-scrawled on the usually empty lines. How many people asked for this sort of thing? It’d be rude to ask, so he vaguely promised to look it up back at headquarters. He took the form to his seat and set to work writing in the rest of it, brazenly ignoring any last-minutes cries of protest. He was going through with it. He’d be thankful in the end. If he had to start over as an A-17... Well – that wasn’t likely to happen, but if he had to, he could find some other way to be perfect.

Yeah. This was a good idea.

Or at least he’d tell himself that until he believed it.

* * *


“She’s gone.”

No ID on these guys. No phones, no computers, no way to communicate... And there was Xander, sounding so blasé. We’ll have to guess where they took her.

Maybe he hadn’t heard.

“She’s gone.”

There’s only two places they could go: on to Charlton or back to Elmira, unless there’s another spot Gwen didn’t find out about.

Alex waited.

“And?”

... And my money would be on Charlton, since everyone after us is probably on their way, too.

“Xander,” he said. “Gwen is gone. She is not here. They took her.”

He expected some smartass response over having pointed out the obvious three times or an almost psychic assurance that they’d have her back within seconds – minutes, at the most. Neither came. Instead, Alex had a thin breath leave his lungs and briefly felt his body ripple in guilt. Blunt and slow, his only answer was a quiet, utterly ignorable, Yeah.

His eyes burned. His body was drained. He kicked one of the twenty Agents’ unconscious arm and wanted to spit at it. A pack of them had been left behind as a... deterrent or something. It was clear Rudy hadn’t clued in as to who he’d been dealing with. It took six minutes for Xander to chew through the group, and only that long because he was tired from the first fight, from the run, from whatever was sucking out his energy, but that didn’t strike Alex as a good enough excuse. Forget what he’d said about the guy and Gwen. He wasn’t used to Xander having feelings yet, but guilt? He was sorry? Why wasn’t he chasing the car down? They’d done it a hundred times before!

I can’t. Those two words took a while for him to say, and they surged with resentment from having been stuck in a weak body. Your foot’s broken.

That was his defence?

Alex rolled his eyes and shot back a hefty, “What’s wrong? Pain suddenly too much for the almighty ex-Agent?”

You tell me.

Xander gave up control.

Collapsing went without saying. At once, the full force of what Xander had been keeping away flew back and stormed up his leg, crushing his gut under a steel grip and stabbing into his lungs until he couldn’t breathe. The ground scraped his arm as he mindlessly dragged himself across it, as if a part of him thought he could crawl away from the agony. The only reason he hadn’t instantly blacked out or been driven insane was because of a miracle holding it away from the same grief as the goggle-headache.

“Xan–” He choked on his breath. His entire leg spasmed as the torment roamed free. “Xander – stop –”

It was gone. Mostly. His leg gave another massive shudder as it slowly relaxed into movement. Alex laid there long enough to be sure there was no hope of catching the car now. He was beginning to think he wouldn’t be walking soon.

“What the fuck did you do it?”

Gave it a pedicure. What the hell do you think? It’s broken. Oh, broken! Right. By Xander, during the tantrum Xander had thrown. Come on. Get up. Let’s go back inside.

For what?

To eat, you idiot. You’re starving.

Xander had a new toy to threaten him with. The very idea that, at any moment, he’d run out of strength to keep his foot at bay brought an overwhelming obedience over Alex. He scrambled to his foot, crying out as his leg bent for the first time after that. He weakly caught his balance, then dragging his dead foot behind him, went in through the exit. There’d been a dead Agent holding it open for them. Good to know they could be useful at times.

“So that’s it?” He wanted to break down. “It’s over? She’s gone?”

The feeling he got as an answer was much more promising than before: disgust at the mere suggestion that’d he’d given up and the sight of his fist punching into – ow. Alex rubbed his jaw.

Stop crying. I’m getting her back. More to himself, Xander added, I owe her that much.

“Then how are we going to find them?”

Rudy? Rudy Quin? If that’s his name, we can look him up, he said, at Charlton.

“We’re still going?”

We don’t have a choice. You’re falling apart and I need my body back. We go there, we find where he went, we make the transfer... He stopped. More guilt, more loss, then abruptly nothing, as if he hadn’t meant to share that with Alex at all. Then we find her. Hopefully in time.

“That’s fantastic.” Alex said nothing else until he was back where’d they been sitting less than half an hour ago. Their table was destroyed, but at least there was another that had food on it. And look at that – untouched, like it’d been laid out for them. "Do you like fish?”

No.

“Me either.”

Yeah, I know. Where’d Sparky go?

“Who cares? Maybe she ditched with the rest of them,” he muttered. “We never decided she wasn’t an Agent.”

I thought you wanted her to come along.

“I changed my mind,” Alex spat, shovelling the halibut or salmon or... or monkfish – whatever – into his mouth, trying not to taste it. “That okay with you?”

... Well...

He could’ve slapped the guy. He settled for sneering, “You want her to come? Do you actually only do the opposite of what I want?”

I was fine with keeping it at the two of us so long as we went for a speed or stealth mission. In your condition, I can’t do either.

“Then the pain is too much?”

Pain’s got nothing to do with it. It’s nerves. If your foot physically shuts down, we’re fucked in a fight. No – we’re gonna have to try brute force on this one. It’s the safer way to play it.

“Who knew there’d be a day when you got cautious,” Alex said, wryly.

Yeah. Well... Apparently, there’s someone counting on it now.

Xander had shut himself away again. Alex couldn’t know for sure what he was thinking, but if the glimpses he’d gotten before were worth anything...

“How long do we have?”

I don’t know.

“Ah.” Alex turned back to his plate. “Shit.”

Yeah. Shit.

Setting

2 Characters Present

Character Portrait: Stephanie March Character Portrait: Osono "Ozzie" Wallace
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Osono could feel the heat of the fire coursing through her, singing it's chaotic song and filling her with life. She loved the flames, felt like she was a part of them, and it's dancing lights shone in her eyes with a crazy brightness. So when the last three guys charged at her, she was not only ready for them, she was filled with a desire to tear into them, to unleash the full masterpiece of the fire. Even through the crackling blaze that filled her ears, she did not miss the sound of gun fire and knew instantly what had occurred as each man fell to the ground around her.

Blinking, tension began to leave her body as she looked around the space and realized there was nothing but civilians left, those few too stupidly scared to run away. And of course, Ben. His praise was an odd thing to hear and she smirked casually, about to offer her own compliments for what she'd seen of his fighting style. But then all at once, he changed and addressed her as if he were disgusted. Victims? Torture? What...? Did he mean the guys who'd been trying to kill her? Was he seriously upset that she'd killed them, or was he mad that she'd burned them alive? Then why the hell had he--?

Oh. That's right. Stacy mentioned that about him. That whole, schizo and antisocial psycho disease, or whatever. As soon as that explanation came up in her head, she no longer felt angry at him for not understanding what the whole fight had been about - afterall, she didn't see anybody still breathing over in his corner of the room. And she was about to turn down the fire on the stairs when he was off shooting at the wall leading to the second floor and climbing up it like a freaking monkey man. Ozzie watched for a few minutes as he painfully dragged himself over the ledge through the busted railing and then she turned to the stairs herself to follow him.

In the minutes since they'd started, the flames hadn't eaten too deeply into the foundations of the wood, but a few steps groaned as she put weight on them, fire quickly growing smaller around her feet. It felt like something was falling asleep inside her. She wasn't getting tired, but it was something else separate from herself that was dwindling and fading away. And just because she was reluctant to let it go completely, she left a few straggling flames burning on the stairs, hissing and breaking through the wood happily. She ignored the charred remains of those who'd been consumed by the fire and also ignored the stench of burning flesh as she stepped over them.

When she got to the second floor, she looked around and just barely caught sight of Ben running down the small niche with the EXIT sign over it. She took a few moments more to look around for Stacy but the girl wasn't here. Maybe she was with Ben and they were running? If Osono was in their place, she'd do the same thing. In fact, that was exactly what she should be doing right now. There was also no sign of Rudy and everybody who was willing to put up a fight had been killed so...she didn't really need them anymore.

With one glance towards the way Ben had gone, Ozzie let out a harsh breath and ran back down the stairs. As she reached the ground floor, she grabbed up her jacket and slipped it over her shoulders and headed for the front doors. Stopping with her hand on the glass, she looked outside to see the fountain out front and the street cluttering with people. Some were from the restaurant - if the way they were dressed was any indication - but a lot of them were just bystanders gathered to see what the commotion was. Ozzie snickered to herself briefly to think of the explanations they'd try to come up with for tonight. The only sobering thought was that she knew some of the guys after her were part of the police force sometimes and they'd probably try and cover the truth.

Quickly, she made her way back upstairs - she'd at least follow Ben and Stacy out the back way and hopefully she'd get out without running into anyone important. Before she made her way to the small hallway he'd left through, she went to the large, shattered windows along the back wall and looked out to make sure no one was there. Gaping in surprise at what she did see, she stood staring for several moments at the scene of carnage.

The fountains and gardens in the back of the restaurant were now littered and accented by death, corpses strewn about on the ground amidst the tables and a lot of them laying limply in shrubbery and dipped in fountains as if they were nothing but discarded dolls. Alone among them stood Ben looking off down the road that swooped in close to the back of the establishment - it looked like it could have been for delivery vehicles or something - murmuring to himself. Stacy was nowhere to be seen.

Ozzie stood for several moments trying to piece together what had happened - obviously some sort of fight had occurred. Had Ben fought and killed all of those men by himself? It really was no surprise from what she'd seen of how he fought, but he couldn't have been down there for more than 10 minutes. Needless to say, she was more than impressed. But Stacy's absence and the way he stood there as if he'd lost something, set a whole new tone to the scene. Something had definitely happened to his girlfriend. Had she been taken or what? And why?

She'd been selfish. All this time that she'd been chased by these nameless people, she'd assumed it had something to do with her gift. Never before, while she encountered them time and time again, had they ever paid any attention to anyone else. She'd just automatically assumed she'd been the one they were after. It never occurred to her that they took regular civilians too. And that made her wonder if it was her fault. Did they take her away because she'd been close to Osono, or was Stacy just somebody important that they were threatened by?

After a little while, Ozzie's attention was drawn back outside the window to watch as Ben crumpled to the ground under his own weight. Her brow furrowed and her mouth hung open in confusion as she watched him helplessly crawl for a few seconds, his leg jerking and convulsing in agony before finally lying still. Jesus... The guy was really broken up about losing Stacy and for the first time in a long while, she felt something akin to sympathy stir within. Along with it came guilt when she once again thought about herself being responsible for Stacy's disappearance.

She would help him find her. Ozzie had no idea how she would even begin to do that as she had no idea who these people even were. But she could do something she'd never done before - next time they showed up to ambush her, or next time she saw Rudy, there would definitely be some interrogating going on. All they needed was one left alive and she had a few ideas already on how to get them to talk. They would find Stacy and they'd get her back from where ever the hell those guys had taken her. Even if it wasn't Osono's fault that she'd been taken... there'd been a connection between them. Osono had latched onto the pair out of desperation and Stacy had reached out to her in return. Nobody had ever done that before.

She was just about to leave the windows to head downstairs and join Ben - drag him up from the sidewalk and slap him around a bit to motivate him - but then he was getting back up, and limping towards the restaurant. Was he coming back up here to get her? That was also new. Those who got out of sight of her usually kept going and never looked back. Then again, Ben had seemed really psyched when he'd found out what she could do...well, at least half of him had.

Waiting by the back windows, she turned to see him trudging from the EXIT and wander to an empty table. Was...was he eating? "Holy shit..." she murmured with the beginnings of a smirk touching her lips.

Walking over, she stood in front of him by the table and folded her arms. "So...they take Stacy right from under you while you're flinging bodies left and right and you...stop for dinner? You're a class act, man," she shook her head and laughed without amusement. She unfolded her arms and leaned them on the table to give him a piercing look.

"Do you have a plan other than stuffing your face and moping about your girlfriend? If so, I want in. Those people were here for me, not you guys and it's my fault they took her." There was no room left for argument in her voice - she wasn't going to let him out of her sight and even if he somehow felt the need to just abandon Stacy to whatever fate they had in store for her, Ozzie was going to drag his ass with her as she searched them out. Hopefully things would go easier than that though.

"Unless you're still butthurt over me putting into practice 'kill-or-be-killed' on the guys who've been chasing and shooting at me for years." Or did he think it was 'cool' again? Only then did she remember that he was suppose to be mental and she wondered if it was really a good idea to sign up for a road trip with the guy who couldn't make up his mind about whether or not he liked or hated her.

***

Of course, Eric had Osono's file right in that file cabinet he called a "pocket". She would have been surprised that he had THAT particular file on him and she would have had the impulse to go over and root around in there to find out what else he had - suspicious pockets were suspicious - if the walls constricting everything that wasn't an objective observation allowed her to entertain such frivolities. As Eric and Benoit once again went off on another semi-related tangent, she left them to it and returned to the nothingness filling her, allowing herself to feel like she was disappearing.

That is until Jason spoke up. Instantly she looked at him, her deadened gaze narrowing at his use of the word "privately". More conspiring against her back? What the hell was he up to now? Luckily, she wasn't going to be left wondering, as the A-1's idea of "private" was a lot less accommodating than everything else about him. Surreptitiously, she leaned until she was on the edge of her seat and listened closely to the whispers traded between the two men.

He... He was resigning from the Stewart case? It was like lightning struck through the top of her body and she sat there, the numbness inside shifting enough to allow her to feel something akin to astonishment. Well, it was really no wonder. After all she'd tried to do during this trip to make him feel useless without that suit and now he wasn't going to be wearing it much longer. Plus, the fact that the case was practically over with Gwen in custody.

Still, there was something about the whole thing ...what was it? Was it disappointment? Anger? Excitement? No. She felt betrayed. How could he do that? He didn't even want to wait to see the case through to it's end - he was that eager to get away from her. And there was something else in what he said, a hint of something in his voice when he mentioned that she could find someone to replace him. Was he pouting about something? She tried to think over what could have possibly spawned this thought process for him...well, other than the fact that he'd been tortured and molested. Had it been the drugs she'd taken despite his advice and snoopy warning? It was just shallow enough for her to believe it was the real cause.

Whatever it was, as he sat down and began to finish filling out the form, she found herself breathing hard as anger started to fill her. It was a slow burning at first, but the more she thought about what he'd just done, the more enraged she became. A fantasy flashed in her mind's eye of her standing up, tearing the seatbelt from his chair and choking him with it while demanding he sign the fucking document. As the vision cleared away, and she looked down at her hands gripping at each armrest, she realized she could not allow this to go without him being punished.

As soon as she had the thought, she'd risen smoothly from her seat and crossed the aisle separating them, leaning upon his arm rest as she bent close to whisper in his ear. "What. The fuck. Do you think you're doing?" she asked as he paused while in the middle of writing. Her voice was soft and yet slowly the monotone was being shaken loose to let in the anger and hate quickly filling her body. "How dare you go above my head like that to request a resignation form. I am the Lead fucking Agent on this case and you need my clearance to even consider such a thing. As it is, I should choke you to death right here and now for disrespecting me in such a manner. And for what? Because you're still sore I didn't let you reprimand me at the airport?"

She was breathing heavily now, her whispered breath cascading on his ear and what little skin showed above the collar of his suit. Her hand reached forward, clawed and slightly trembling as it smacked in the middle of the sheet he'd been given. Her fingers contracted into a fist, pulling the paper with it into a crumpled mess in her palm.

"Even if you get a new one, I'm not signing it," she whispered harshly, her voice biting at him with every word. "You're the tool I picked out from the shed and I'm not tossing you back until I've gotten what I wanted."

The crumpled paper was tossed aside and her hand made it's way to his lap where it groped near his groin, her nails digging in just the tiniest bit. Leaning even closer to him so her nose nuzzled at his ear lobe, her hair falling over her shoulder to brush along his neck, she whispered even lower, "I fucking own you. We're not done until I'm no longer standing here in this form, so buckle up and shut up until the ride is fucking over."

For a few moments longer, she stayed close like that, pinching his inner thigh and breathing deeply of his musky, manly scent. Then she blinked and drew back to look him in the face, her hand leaving his lap. For several minutes longer, she stared him down like that before moving away and drifting back to her own seat. Flippantly, she tossed her hair over her shoulder as if nothing had happened and cleared her throat just the tiniest bit before bending down to pick up the balled up document. She unraveled it and smoothed it out and briefly looked it over. Glancing at Jason, Stephanie's eyes met his and she gave him a small smile as she methodically began to tear it up into small, thin strips.

Amidst all of this, it did not occur to her once that the numbness inside her had faded almost completely. That is until she was in the middle of tearing the page and her hand shook as she gripped the two pieces she was currently ripping apart. Staring at her trembling hand, it suddenly hit her what had just happened and that she was no longer coasting under the influence of the drug. That stupid Jason! It was all his fault! Everything had been blissfully, coldly fine until he'd had the nerve to upset her like that. Now, she could feel the case in her back pocket pulsing at her painfully and she ran a quivering hand through her hair as she once again got up from her seat.

As she passed Jason, she stopped beside his seat once more and looked down at him with a sneer. "You see what you do?" she breathlessly whispered in accusation. The torn paper strips in her hand came forth and she shoved them forcefully in his face, her fist making brief contact with him, covering him in a small blanket of litter before she stalked away to the restroom.

Once she'd locked herself inside she instantly took the small carton from her pocket and opened it before laying it out on the counter by the sink. As she took the appropriate vial from it her eyes drifted up briefly to catch her reflection. Her skin had lost a bit of it's healthy golden cast, dimming and waning with a pale white and her light hair hung half over her face in limp strands. There was the hint of dark circles forming under her eyes and she blinked in astonishment as it took just a split second delay for recognition to set in.

Had she looked like this in the car when she'd adjusted her lipstick? The sun had been setting then and in the dim light she thought she'd looked okay. But then again, she'd been pretty loathe to look at herself at the time. It couldn't be the drugs. She'd just started taking them and although they did eventually wear on a person's body, there was no way they'd have these effects this quickly. Maybe it was the stress her constant emotions were putting her under?

Whatever it was, it was inconsequential, she decided and went back to setting out the things she needed. She wouldn't be in this body much longer. Gwen was on her way to Charlton, nicely packaged and ready for the transfer. Besides, even if it was the drugs, it wasn't like she had a choice now. Her little explosion at Jason was proof of that - if she let up for even a moment, her emotions were waiting, ready to be set free. But she'd taken a full dosage. It shouldn't have worn off that quickly - they'd only been on the jet for 45 minutes or an hour. Whatever. 10 ml was obviously not going to cut it. 20 should help give her that longer boost that she needed so she wasn't left running to the bathroom again before the jet landed.

Setting

2 Characters Present

Character Portrait: Alexander Stall Character Portrait: Xander
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So she was still here. Wonderful. Alex looked up when her hands dropped on the table, but after that, he went back to eating.

“You’re breathing on my food,” he told her. “Stop it.”

Like it’ll make it worse. Should fish be grey? Fish shouldn’t be grey. I don’t trust this.

“Probably crawling with mercury,” he muttered.

Does that mean it’s flammable? Hey – can she re-heat this?

Ignoring the rudeness of asking the lunatic if she’d like to be a microwave, Alex refused to put the question to her. Big or small, he didn’t want her help, and any favour would instantly put him in her debt. Then again, considering he’d done her the service of wiping out the army in the back – You? – she could’ve owed him her life right now. She should be grateful he wasn’t calling it in. Osono was right: this was her fault. If she’d just left them alone on the damn bus... Why the hell had she attached herself to them? If what she’d said was true, she’d gotten away from Rudy a million times before. Why did she suddenly need help – their help – to get away? Unless it was how she got away. Maybe there was a list of people she’d thrown to the Agents in trade for her freedom.

How very Agent-like.

She should’ve run off like he’d expected. There was no point for her to hang around. The entire reason Alex had stayed hidden for so long with a hellish night-wraith in his head was because the way he killed was natural. Sort of. Seizures were hand wave-able. Giant gusts of fire for zero possible reason had to be investigated and analyzed and picked apart and studied... The Agency had to be at their wit’s end pulling the media away. Why they’d had any trouble finding her was beyond Alex’s understanding. Provided she was innocent, he reminded himself. If she was one of them, she could’ve had something worked out or arranged for times to cause a scene. Killing other Agents to build up credibility didn’t sound like something the organization would be against. Hell, Peter had worked hand in hand with Xander when they’d trusted him. It just seemed weird that they’d try it twice. Or maybe that was the point.

“I’m not doing this again,” he said. His mouth was full of fish. He doubted even Xander knew what he’d just uttered. Swallowing heavily, still weak from everything that’d happened today, he waved his fork in Osono’s direction and stiffly asked, “What stopped you from killing your pal Rudy? You obviously don’t care about melting people and it sure as fuck would’ve ended your problem years ago.”

Needed an alibi? A way to connect to victims? Peter hadn’t needed it, but she was no Peter.

Fuck that guy.

Alex agreed.

Stacey is now gone because of you. I appreciate your kindness in admitting it, but I figured it out on my own. Wasn’t hard. And as far as having a plan goes – sure, whatever. I have a plan. I always do. I plan for everything – every variable and make sure every piece is in its place.” Enough fish. It sucked anyway. He stood and scowled at her, his teeth slowly showing from under his lips. “You know what I didn’t plan for?”

The suspense is killing me!

“You. And I’m not going to give up the little control I have by changing things around for you to come with me,” he said. “You’ve been a big help, but if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go before the rest of your friends show up and try to grab me, too.”

Sooooo... That’s a ‘no’ to the brute force plan, huh?

“She’s not coming.”

His foot was like a dead weight on his leg. Either Xander didn’t have the energy to keep moving it, or he couldn’t. He didn’t know which one was supposed to scare him more. He could almost feel the pain in his leg and that, on its own, was enough to make him stumble. But he caught himself and pushed his chair away, scooping up his bag – and Gwen’s, because she’d want it when they got her back – and throwing one on either of his shoulders before shuffling off.

Don’t take the stairs.

“I don’t think I could manage it,” he mumbled. “We’ll go out the back.”

You’re sure this is a good idea?

“What? Leaving her crazy ass behind? Definitely. You saw what she did to them.”

Yeah, which is why I can’t get why you don’t think she’s fantastic.

The EXIT sign loomed in front of them. Alex trudged towards it, unsure and unconcerned if or when the proper authorities decided to walk in. It didn’t matter. If they tried anything –

Oh boy. That’s not hypocritical.

“It’s different,” he spat.

It’s a textbook double standard. But don’t mind me. You’re adorable when you’re scandalized. Awwww – I’m gonna miss you!

“Shut up, Xander. You’re an idiot. You’re not taking this seriously.” Through the back halls, bit by bit. Slow going, but at least he was making progress. “Who was the one that went ballistic when he found out about Peter?”

Me. And it was sensational.

“Exactly. And at the hotel – back in Vestal – what’d you tell me about Gwen? That you gave her... what? Forty percent of your trust?”

I have it at sixty now.

Sixty?

“You still don’t trust her? Xander – she means everything to you –”

Hey, hey, hey! Let’s not get carried away.

“You should trust her,” he said. “She’s been with us this far and now she’s in danger.”

Right! And I’m sixty percent sure I’m doing the right thing by believing that. Alex roared with annoyance. She could be a very good actress. Very good.

The guy brought a new world of definitions for ‘paranoid’. That proved Alex’s point completely.

“You were maybe worse than me when you said you couldn’t catch up to the car,” Alex said, “but you’re still not giving up the thought that she’s against us. And why? Because we got burned before. Peter ruined any faith we have in anyone – ever – and you know that much better than I do. So what makes you think we should bring her along?”

Extra muscle.

“Extra muscle we can’t control,” he said. He rolled his eyes. “Fine – that I can’t control, which screws us both over if you run out of strength. ... How’s the foot holding up, by the way?”

Holding.

“Good. Anyway, we can’t risk it.”

He was being final. That was the end of the discussion.

I have to explain this, don’t I?

“It’d be nice,” Alex said. “I don’t know why you think I can follow your logic.”

It’s the same deal with that David guy.

“His name was ‘Nathan’ and I don’t see how that relates to her.”

Effort. It’s about the effort. The Agency’s lazy! They could come up with an infallible plan made to cut off my every escape – and any chance of someone helping me – but it’s way easier to send mook after mook until they finally take me down, especially after I blew their last grand scheme to shit. Peter. Think about it. If she put this much effort into setting up a scenario that involves taking Gwen away and bringing us in, she’s not going to blow it now. If anything, she’d want us to go to Charlton. She’d be reinforced there. If she could take me – she can’t – she wouldn’t be wasting her time.

“You want to use her,” Alex flatly concluded.

Might as well. If she gets us inside, that’s more than enough. If she’s innocent – hey, great. If not? I’ll kill her. No skin off my dick. And you’d want to keep an eye on her, if she is who she says she is.

“Since when did ‘keeping an eye’ on somebody outrank ‘running the hell away’?”

Xander said nothing. He must’ve been thinking about his answer. Alex, meanwhile, had made it outside. The crisp night air stung his throat and he blinked against the coldness. Was he taking a bus again? No. Gwen said they wouldn’t get him the whole way. Train? Car? He could steal one...

Corvette, Xander said. You weren’t kidding about those five being super Agents.

“What?”

The Corvette it was. A bright yellow one was parked a little ways off, obviously the property of someone who’d been dining here tonight. Hopefully, they wouldn’t mind. Just to be careful, he dug out the putty and marker at the very bottom of his bag. Xander had insisted on stuffing it in the little sack of essentials he’d had at his old room. It was mixed in with the gauze and wrapping, left inside a small white case no bigger than a plum. Time for some arts and crafts.

They had a symbol on them, Xander went on. A bee. On their shoulder.

Oh, come on.

“He’s alive? You blew his head apart!”

No joke. After he’d fried Peter’s mind, Xander had taken a rock and smashed his skull like a pumpkin. Alex still hadn’t gotten it out of his head.

He’s a slippery bastard.

“That’s a great understatement,” Alex snapped. “He almost killed me. He almost killed you.”

Keyword’s ‘almost’. I figured it out in time. Fucking traitor. Xander seethed. Then he said, The point is, he’s back to wherever the hell he was before and now he’s commanding some of the higher-up goons. He might have an army.

“What are we supposed to do?”

Blow them to pieces. Avoid them, he said. Or set them on fire.

Alex had only done this a few times before. He took the putty out, found the L, and slowly shaped the letter into an E. Then he turned the P into a scraggly B – which Xander corrected, thankfully. The 6 became an 8, the I turned into 7 – Scrap the 7. You can’t squeeze it in. And then he coloured over it. There. Not perfect, definitely wrong if someone looked at it, but if they were on the road, they’d be fine. It might even fool the cops if they were behind him. It’d give them the extra second to think if they needed it.

“You think she’d do it to her own team?”

If it is her team. She seemed fine with it before.

Osono was no longer the big problem.

“You’re sure that’s what the bee means? Just because he had one scratched on his glasses –”

It’s him. I know it is.

He was dead serious. For the second time today, Xander’s voice was grave, lifeless and determined. But it was also worried. Alex couldn’t let that go.

“What happens if he finds us? He shot from forty percent to a hundred and ten pretty fast for you,” he said. “I don’t even know what turned you – unleashed you – on him in the first place. It was back when I thought you were a voice in my head.”

Nothing fancy. He made a deal and couldn’t deliver. I got out of it before I paid my half.

“And what was it? What’d he want?”

You. There was no emotion surrounding it. The answer was purely a fact, plain and simple. Don’t worry. He lied. I won’t fall for it again.

Now he wasn’t trying to hide it. Alex sighed gruffly and went to the side of the car. He didn’t have to jimmy the lock open – the stupid owner had forgotten. And he’d left his lights on. No keys, though. No problem.

“You won’t fall for it again unless...?”

Unless he lies better. It figured. He’s a very good actor.

“Isn’t everyone.”

That wasn’t a question. It ushered in a short rest from words as he threw the bags into the back and clawed at the panel beside the pedals until it broke open.

Red wire. Red wire. He had no patience. Move over and let me do it! You’re fucking it up.

“Sorry I’m not a seasoned criminal,” Alex said, letting his hands fall away from his control. “... You think she should come with us?”

It’s a decent gamble. She doesn’t know who we are. And if she does and is only pretending, she can’t afford to blow her cover yet.

“Win-win?”

Win-not lose. Best I can give ya. Four minutes ticked by. Suddenly, the car roared to life. Sexy. Let’s bounce.

Fine. He’d take her. But the first toe out of line that he saw... He couldn’t let her ruin his chances at getting back Gwen. Xander must have known that. He wouldn’t take this risk unless it’d help her.

... Would he?

Osono!” Alex had the windows down and pounded on the horn. “Hey, crazy! If you’re serious about coming, hurry up!”

I’m driving.

“Like hell you are,” Alex said. “Last time –”

I have the foot, I touch the fucking wheel. Anyway, you drive like my grandma.

“Do you have a grandma?”

No, most Agents were born in tubes. It’s faster than trying to recruit. ... He was joking. Yeah. Joking. Call her again.

Osono!

Where was she? Backing out already?

What? After you asked like such a gentleman?

He felt doubly annoyed knowing it was Xander – of all people – calling him impolite.

“She’s got twenty seconds,” Alex said. “Then we go.”

Do me a favour, Xander added. Try not to scream about who we are. I’d like to keep her in the dark for a little longer than an hour.

He just wouldn’t let it go.

Osono!

* * *


His lead had a lot of nerve telling him he had a lot of nerve. Jason grabbed his arm rests and crushed them with his fingers, irritably shaking the scraps of paper off his head the instant she took off. This was the thanks he got for warning her not to kill herself? He was helping her! He knew what that crap could do, and she was sticking it in her arm like it was the cure to cancer. If she thought that was going to be the end of it, she –

“‘Tool from the shed’,” Benoit breathed out. “I may have to hold onto that.”

And that was the cue for Eric to burst into earth-shaking, mountain-crushing laughter. The man nearly broke his chair leaning into it, gasping for breath as if he wasn’t already dead. He was slapping his knees and holding his gut and wiping his eyes and – as Jason caught a flicker of movement from the other side – he realized Benoit was chuckling, too.

“I’m glad you’re both so happy,” he said, carving holes in the chair through the gloves. “Eric, I want out of this assignment.”

“I can’t –” Laughter. “I can’t –” More laughter. “I can’t –” Even more laughter. “I can’t breathe!”

Jason had been pleasantly obeying the basic rules of airplanes. He’d been wearing his seatbelt whenever he was sitting, but now it was hurting him. The belt was suddenly too tight. He grabbed at it, trying to rip it open, and failing that, stumbled through some too-complicated process of unbuckling the damn thing.

“And where are you going?”

Frenchie was smirking through his toxic fog, eyes glinting behind his shades.

“I’m getting her to sign,” Jason said.

“But the ride is not over,” he replied. “Maybe you should sit down.”

Buckle up!” Eric was struggling for air amidst the raucous guffaws. “Buckle up, buckle up, buckle up!

“Shut up! Both of you! This isn’t funny,” he spat. “She’s been – fucking –”

He stopped. The words wouldn’t come out. This was the perfect opportunity to tell them what’d been going on, but it wasn’t working. He brought a hand to his throat as if checking for a chain around it. Nothing there. He didn’t understand.

“She’s been what?” The A-1 had managed a loud gasp. “What else? I gotta hear this!”

“Maybe we should take a different plane,” Frenchie said. “I think you need alone time to work this out.”

That set Eric off again. Jason’s ears hurt. He saw the stewardess poke her head out before vanishing once more.

“Jason –” Yet more laughter. “Jason – I’m sorry – I’m – I’m so sorry –” He didn’t sound very sorry. “I’m not laughing at you – I’m – just –”

Yeah, yeah. A flight and a show. He hoped his lead was proud of herself.

“May I have a new sheet, please?” He shouted to make himself heard. “Sir? I need another form.” Louder still, he tacked on a sharp, “And maybe you’ve got something for... disciplinary... stuff...”

“Sounds kinky.”

And Frenchie could shut the hell up! Eric was roaring at the man’s words – the only one, he might add, regardless of how many people were in the airplane – and, although he was ecstatic to give him another document, it was crumpled from him gripping it so hard in his mirth. He couldn’t stop wiping his eyes. There were tears streaming out of them. It hadn’t been that funny!

Eric quickly replied, “It was a little funny.”

Frenchie snickered. If he wasn’t a fucking A-3, Jason would’ve...

Nevermind. He had what he wanted. He grabbed the sheet and stormed to the back, trying to decide whether he wanted to break the door in or pound on it. He settled on a sharp knock, the sound of which sent both men howling.

“Open up,” he hissed. “We need to talk. You have to sign this.”

Nothing from in there. Maybe she’d overdosed and killed herself. With what she’d just done to him, with the shit she’d put him through, he couldn’t say she wouldn’t deserve it. She’d ruined him. He should help her ruin herself.

“Knock louder!”

Shut up, Eric!” ... Holy fuck. Did he just say that? To an A-1? A coldness ran through his body as he felt the world turn to stone around him. Thank God it unfroze a second later, breaking at the noise of Eric laughing harder than ever. “Hey, boss. Open up!”

This wasn’t happening. This wasn’t happening. If he had a corner to do it in, he’d be rocking back and forth.

“Go in,” Frenchie called out. “An A-6 can’t pick a lock?”

Fine. She wanted to play it that way? He had his suit. He’d get it open. Immediately, his pick came out of his wrist and he jammed in the small opening beside of the word ‘occupied’, maybe harder than necessary but in a way that felt intensely satisfying.

“Hey, Benny. Think maybe we should go up to the cockpit?”

And what Frenchie said to that almost made Jason blackout. Needless to say, they both disappeared shrieking.

“Telling me crap like ‘this is what I do’,” he snarled to himself. “What about you, huh? This is your fault.” The door was open. “Finally. Let’s talk.”

Setting

2 Characters Present

Character Portrait: Stephanie March Character Portrait: Osono "Ozzie" Wallace
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#, as written by Ten
The vial was in her hand, upturned with the needle poking through the sponge top, and she let out an uneven breath as she began to withdraw the pump, completely unaware of the scene she'd left behind outside. There was nothing but her and the Atropytamine, closed off from the rest of the world. As the syringe filled with liquid, she caught sight of herself in the mirror again, her reflection directly in her line of sight as she concentrated on the vial. There was the sense of her life slipping away, draining from her just as the drug was being drawn from the vial. Swallowing thickly at that train of thought, she focused once more on the numbers printed on the side of the syringe, the clear, purplish grey liquid slowly consuming them one by one.

Then there was a harsh knock at the door. Despite herself, Stephanie jerked a little and blinked, letting out a shaking breath as she turned to glare at the door to the small room. Through the thin metal barrier - decorated on this side with a few anonymous warnings and instructions with basic illustrations - she could hear Jason's voice come through. It was slightly muffled but there was no doubt about what he said. The little bastard! He'd gotten a new form and he wanted her to sign it? And he just couldn't wait for her to come out of here to kick his fucking ass for daring to ask AGAIN!? Was he fucking mental? Had she not made herself clear before or was he just suicidal now? Had Eric and Benoit said something to him about it - she'd made just as much secret about their conversation as Eric had made his with her partner.

Not only were his current actions completely insane with how their last conversation had gone - and he knew, he fucking KNEW what she was capable of - but it was also radically inappropriate. She was in the fucking restroom! Stephanie hadn't hidden the fact of what she'd come in here to do, but for all he knew, she could be on the freaking toilet and half-naked in here! And there he was, just pounding on the door eager to chat! Taking in a deep breath, she shook her head and returned to what she was doing. From the anger that was swelling within her, she knew she needed the drug in her system before she dealt with Jason again. Otherwise, there was just no telling what she would end up doing.

Finally, the syringe was filled at 20 ml and she set the vial onto the edge of the counter. For a few seconds, she searched the room for something to use to tie off her arm, but feeling the chemicals gnawing at her, she quickly decided it didn't matter. Standing beside the sink, she over turned her left arm, holding the syringe in her other hand and searched for a vein. The thick blue rivers in her forearm could be seen fleeing from her elbow to trickle up her wrist and she smiled a little as she pointed the needle in the middle of one of them at an angle. Something else was going on with the door - a small, mechanical clicking that she didn't understand - but she shoved it away as she willed her hand to stop trembling. No more distractions. She would do this. And whatever was happening outside, she'd be better prepared to deal with it afterward.

The slight tremor in her wrist had just about settled down and Stephanie was getting ready to push the needle point through her flesh when suddenly the door burst open and Jason came inside. The bathroom was a lot classier than those on other airplanes, but there was still only enough room for 3 or 4 people to move about comfortably. As a result, Stephanie took an abrupt step back as the door opened inward and her hip bumped into the counter edge.

The vial that had been resting there teetered before clattering to the floor, but the ground was made of linoleum tile and the glass was thick enough that it didn't break. Stephanie wasn't done moving and she took another step back to give Jason enough room to enter, the sole of her highheel putting her weight on the tiny glass bottle. The sound of it crunching wetly and the harmless, sickly sweet medicinal odor of the Atropytamine, filled the air.

Stephanie gasped harshly before blinking and looking down at what she'd done - what Jason had made her do. The pieces of the vial were somewhat stuck together in a torn mosaic as the label kept the glass together. But the bottle itself was flat and busted open on either end, the metal cap dented and crushed. Purple-grey liquid pooled under her feet.

She felt ill. She felt weak. Oh, God, what have I done? There were still two other vials left in the pack Eric had given her - much stronger drugs than the one she'd selected to start with - and she still had what was in the syringe. But the rest of it was gone. At this particular moment, not having the drug in her system and spiraling wildly out of control, she didn't even consider that she could get replacements in Charlton. All she saw was what had been destroyed, what had been taken from her and as her eyes drifted up to regard the man now sharing the bathroom with her, she saw nothing but red.

The tremor running through her body no longer had anything to do with her needing another dose of the drug but rather with the escalating hate and anger growing within the core of her being. Openly glaring, her eyes widened and turned a bright emerald green as irrationality took over and her emotions overwhelmed her.

"You son of a bitch!!!" she shrieked before flinging the syringe to the side and charging at him.

It didn't take her long to span the distance between them and her fist slammed into his cheek bone, hammering into his skull with one brutal hit and shoving him back into the door violently. Her knuckles were red from the blow as she drew her fist back again and surged into his stomach with another savage hit. Even through his precious suit, he had to have felt that.

"You stupid, fucking moron!" she yelled as she hit him again and again, blind with rage. "You just had to be a problem, didn't you? You can't just follow orders can you!? Because you're an arrogant, lazy, whiny little bastard! What did you think was going to happen with you coming in here and challenging my orders? Huh!? TALK, you fucking pussy!"

She had the front of his suit in two fists now and swung him from the door to slam him into the mirror. For safety reasons, the glass was not of the regular sort and merely buckled when the back of his head collided into it.

"Shut up!" she bellowed, cutting off anything he might have to say to explain himself. She didn't want to hear his stupid whiny voice! She didn't want to see his pathetic, incompetent face anymore! Now more than ever, Stephanie knew she would only be satisfied with this punishment if his blood was shed and his life ended. She would get rid of this problem once and for all. Screw him and his disobedience!

Her hands left his suit, one of them snaking up to grab a fistful of his hair and wrenching his head violently to the side to expose his neck. Her other hand drew back, her fingers together and flat like a knife, fingernails sharp and glistening in the lights above the mirror. She stared at him with a wild look in her eyes, her hair falling over one side of her face and her chest rising and falling rapidly with exertion. Heat flowed through her veins and a kinetic energy surrounded the hand she'd now turned into a weapon - preparing to use it on him in much the same way she'd been about to disable Gwen two days ago. This time, she'd go for the kill and aim to slice into his jugular with one fluid strike.

"There's only ONE way you're getting out of this assignment early..." she whispered hoarsely, grimacing as her hand drew back, ready to spring forth for the final attack.

Stephanie's eyes were fixated on his exposed neck just above his collar and right under his chin. Her focus was so deeply ingrained in this area of his body that she noticed the tremble when he swallowed, the bulge of his veins as they snaked through his throat. That vulnerable flesh... open and unprotected... the lines of muscle stretching elegantly as she twisted his head to the side to expose it... God! It was a beautiful sight...

Inside, the anger continued to boil with unreleased wrath, but something else began to form and flower right on top of it. When her hand should have been moving through the air and cutting through his neck, her mouth found it's way to the target instead. Suddenly, her hand had left his hair to rest flat against the mirror, her arm straight like a pillar blocking him from the doorway, and her body was pressed tightly against him, her hips wedged between his legs.

Feverishly, her lips moved across the flesh of his neck and jawline, teeth nipping with a savage intensity and her tongue whipping out to stroke at each little mark she left. Her breathing was erratic as she reached his lips, enveloping them with her own to continue the bite-and-tongue-lashing dance, her free hand moving up to undo the notches of his suit at his collar. As more of his neck was exposed her mouth moved south again, teeth dragging wantonly along the vein she'd been about to puncture with her fingernails.

"God, you're so fucking bad...!" she murmured in a harsh reprimand, her teeth leaving a trail of red welts on his collar bone and her right hand moving down to grope his ass and press him more firmly against her.It wasn't enough! He just wasn't close enough!

Finally, after several minutes of squeezing and biting/suckling on him, she tossed her head slightly to remove the hair from her face and looked him in the eyes. Hers were clouded with lust, the green brighter than they'd been in years, but even as captivated as she was by her own desires, there was a strength in her features as she looked him over. With her breasts pressed firmly into his chest, Stephanie's hand slithered back to his front, moving up along his side to where his rib cage would be underneath his suit. Watching avidly, her fingernails clawed a jagged path, digging into him, scrapping all along his side under his left arm, and as every twinge of pain flickered over his face, her breathing quickened excitedly.

"Are you going to force me to take what I want," she whispered huskily, a small, seductive smile playing upon her lips. "Or are you going to give it to me, like a good boy?"

There was little doubt that she was asking out of playful spite - there was no choice for him to make. She was already well on her way to getting "it" from him as her hand continued to wander and her body swayed against his rhythmically.

***

Ozzie waited not without a bit of impatience for him to respond to her seriously - she was going to ignore the accusation that she was breathing on his freaking fish; he was lucky. Normally, she'd be just offended enough to get reeeaal close and start obnoxiously hacking and coughing inches from his plate - but when he did, he had a mouthful of food and she couldn't hear him clearly.

"Huh?" she said with a rude sneer. When he cleared his mouth of debris - which watching him talk with his mouth full was nasty, by the way - he was suddenly asking about Rudy and she blinked defensively.

"Well..." it was hard to explain. She'd never wanted to believe that Rudy was anything other than what he seemed, a geeky and annoying, harmless little turd. She'd had her suspicions of course, and she knew something was going on, and everytime she got away by the skin of her teeth she promised herself she'd char his ass to oblivion the next time he showed up. But there was something about the guy. The few times he caught her when she was alone, he followed her like a puppy dog, chatting her ear off about his nauseating interests and annoying everyone within a few feet of him.

Something about his presence brought out the big sister in her and although she fucking hated his guts, and suspected he was the root of all the trouble she'd suffered, it was that feeling that always stayed her hand when ready to blow him up. She didn't understand it at all herself - even now, she was planning different ways to finish the job for next time she met up with him - so she couldn't even begin to explain it to someone else.

But Ben's questions didn't make her feel like explaining, especially not with the way he'd addressed it to her. It made her want to take that fucking fork and shove it so far down his throat it--anyways. It made her bristle defensively. She didn't need to explain herself to him - she'd made a mistake and she'd been humble enough to fucking cop to it, which was something she never did for anyone. He should be grateful she was offering to help him at all!

And then as he continued on, Ozzie found her fists balling at her sides, shaking with the effort it took not to reach across the table and beat the shit out of him. God! Rub it in, why don't ya!? Asshole! Everything about what he said had the effect of making her feel even more guilty and useless than she already did with what had happened. Of course he blamed her! She should have realized he would. Still, she'd thought if she approached him with enough of a contrite heart and at least trying to make up for it, that he'd set his anger aside and allow her to come with him.

Forget it now. She was withdrawing her offer and she wasn't going to trail his stupid ass either. He thought he was soooo freaking macho and epic that he could get Stacy back with his hands tied behind his back. Fine! The jerkface was on his own. He probably had as little information as she did anyways and she could figure out where they'd taken his girlfriend without his help! And he would feel really stupid when he found the two girls together eating at IHOP after the grand rescue. ...Alright maybe not IHOP... Somewhere with a barbecue, maybe.

As he got up from his seat - stumbling awkwardly - she murmured to herself, "Ass," and waited till his back was turned to make faces and gestures at him. She wouldn't hurt the arrogant fucker because Stacy liked him - God only knew why - but she'd let all her frustration out now in the form of a gestured "Fuck you!" and "Smell it!"

When she had it all out of her system, he'd disappeared with that stupid gimpy limp down the small hallway to the exit and she turned away, kicking at an almost whole shard of plate. Alright, so she was on her own. Again, although unwillingly this time, so where did she start in her search? Looking over the area where their table had been she noticed the basket of breadsticks that the waiter had brought them just before all hell had broken loose. Well, he had the right idea anyway - no use searching for Stacy if she let herself go hungry.

Walking over, she crouched down and picked out a few sticks of bread and began to eat. She was busily stuffing the pockets of her jacket with them, with one hanging out between her lips when she noticed under the tablecloth there was a body. Uncovering it, she immediately recognized the guy who'd interrupted their dinner. Stacy had been the one to see him first, and if she hadn't made to hide under the table, Osono would probably not have realized she'd had a gun pointed at her head.

The man was in plain clothes, drab but not cheap, just really unremarkable. His eyes were semi-closed and what little she could see of his eyes they were glazed with unmistakable death. Her steak knife jutted from his chest, and blood had drenched the carpet underneath his body. Tossing the breadstick she was eating away, she began to search through his pockets with as much reservation as she would have if he were just asleep - meaning none at all. There was nothing on him. No wallet, no I.D., no cell phone. The guy didn't even have a pack of chewing gum.

"Dude, what's wrong with you people?" she asked him, shoving the body in frustration. As she did the tablecloth moved even more off of him and revealed the gun he'd had laying by his side. "Hello..." she said pleasantly, picking it up and looking it over. It appeared to mimic a glock with a silencer, but it was of a make and model she'd never seen before. Still, it only took a few minutes of messing with it to figure out how it worked and she checked the clip to make sure it was loaded.

Satisfied with that, she tucked it into the back of her pants and stood with a small grunt and walked away from him. Now what? Well... she'd need money if she was going to go anywhere - after coffee and a bus ride she only had a few dollars left in her pockets - so that was next. She had to find the main office where they usually kept the safe for a neato place like this. Jumping down the stairs three at a time, she went through the kitchen on the ground floor.

The long room was divided into three aisles, counter tops and stove tops in the middle two columns and shelves full of extra food and supplies bordering the walls all around the room. It was empty in here and there was a fire burning what appeared to be some shellfish in a pan on a stove that had been abandoned. The fire roared in greeting and she smiled as the warmth of it tingled inside her breast, but otherwise she ignored it. Walking past one counter, she came upon a pan with a full chicken roast inside it, sitting cold and ready to be stuffed into an oven. Wrenching a raw leg free from it, she continued to walk through to the back as it caught fire in her hand.

Five or ten seconds she let it burn before blowing quick at it and instantly silencing the fire. The chicken was no longer pale and bumpy flesh but charred a nice crispy brown and she took a hearty bite from it as she entered a small hall in the back of the room. The hallway itself led out to a small delivery area and there was a door off to the side before it. Kicking it in with her combat boot and busting the lock in a rain of splinters, she chewed noisily on the chicken as a startled old man yelped from where he was hiding huddled behind his desk.

He was a bit portly and balding with a thin pencil mustache and dressed as if he owned the place. "Wh-who are you?" he asked worriedly, sweat dripping down his face and making his spray-on tan run and stain his collar.

"Grim Reaper," she replied glibly around a mouthful of chicken, only half paying attention to him. "Wanna take a trip? I swear, where I'm going, it's just like the Bahamas."

He looked around warily, licking his lips as if he wasn't sure how to respond and she said, "No? Alright then. Beat it before I decide to take you somewhere less pleasant." He hesitated. It was obvious he didn't believe her story, but he was contemplating whether she was dangerous enough to obey or not. Stepping into the room, she only stopped chewing apart the chicken leg to thrust her hand forth aiming it at a stack of papers on his desk. It took a few minutes for the air to dry up enough but when it did, the top sheets caught fire with small flames crackling happily.

The gentleman exclaimed in horror, shrinking away from the stack and she stamped her foot to get his attention again. "I said MOVE, dumbass! Bells toll and all that shit!"

She didn't need to tell him twice and he whimpered weakly as he moved from around the desk to flee out the door, flinching away from her as he passed. When he was gone, it took an effort of will to get the fire to obey her and like a drug, she was reluctant to let it go. But the barrier she'd made on the stairs - keeping it restrained from spreading and slowing it's consumption of the wood - had taken a lot of energy out of her. All of these little fires were not as much of a drain, but the papers were quickly being eaten away. She didn't want to leave it going because she wasn't sure she could stop it once it got big enough, so she slowly closed her hand into a fist and snuffed them out completely.

Walking around the desk, she began to search through the drawers, keeping an idle hold on the drumstick, and found a key for a safe. Then she heard a loud engine coming to life and revving powerfully. So, either Ben had found a car or someone was being a dick - because they didn't have one. Turning to the safe, she started to search through the ring of keys for a few minutes until she heard someone yelling what sounded like her name.

The honking horn accompanying it made a smirk come to her lips unwillingly and she scrunched her nose up. "Shit! I knew it!" Ha! The dumbass DID want her help finding Stacy. Well, he'd been really mean to her, so she wasn't willing to forgive him just yet, even though she smiled again when she heard him call her name. After a few more minutes fiddling with it, the horn was getting to her and she tossed the keys away in frustration as she turned and ran to the door.

Down the rest of the hallway she went through the delivery room and out the back doors that let out to the street. She stood for just a moment looking around for him, taking one last bite of chicken before tossing it away into the shrubs of the garden. Spotting the car - a fucking sweet ride which she whistled at - she dusted her hands off and jogged to it slipping easily into the passenger seat.

Ozzie barely got her foot inside the car before he was backing up out of the space and driving off and she shot him a hateful glare as she closed her door.

"What made you change your mind?" she asked in her raspy voice, not looking at him but watching the road as he sped away from the restaurant. "Does this mean we're friends now, or are you still gonna be a dick to me? Should I be ready for more verbal attacks - because believe me, you may beat me in a physical fight but you ain't got nothing on me when it comes to verbal abuse. I can dish it."

It was obvious that she was still prickly about what he'd said in the restaurant and she sighed, realizing this wasn't a good way to start - in fact, he was very likely to toss her out on her ass if she didn't behave. "Alright, I'm...sorry, okay?" there was a hesitance before that word, as if it were hard for her to say and when it finally came, it was rushed and terse, as if she were slapping it down in irritation at being made to give it up. "I didn't mean for this to happen and all I want is to get her back safe and sound. I swear, if you really hate me that much, you'll never hear from me again after that."

"As far as traveling together goes, I don't got a problem with not talking and I can provide for myself so you don't got to worry about me. I just want in on where we're going and what I gotta do to help Stacy. You an' me don't need to be friends." Reaching into her coat pocket with one hand, she brought out a half filled pack of cigarettes and took one out with her lips as she rolled down her window a few inches. Turning to Ben, with the cig held loosely between her lips she shrugged and said, "But if you wanna fight the whole time, I ain't got a problem with that either." Without touching it a small spark lit the end of the cigarette, glowing a bright orange and red as she sucked in a breath.

Setting

2 Characters Present

Character Portrait: Alexander Stall Character Portrait: Xander
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#, as written by Tartra
The fleck of fire caught his eye in the worst way. He was glad – almost – that Xander was driving; even as tired as the guy was, it was safer than Alex's sudden lack of attention on anything that wasn’t that cigarette. He grit his teeth at the sight of it, then snatching his right hand away from the wheel, he rolled down his window, grabbed it out of her mouth and flicked the thing outside.

Feel better?

“Much.”

It wasn’t that he had a problem with smoking – although the smell was awful and it was a bad habit to have – but if there was anything he could do to make her day a bit less fun, he’d go for it. Besides, he didn’t want to have to add ‘cancer’ to the list of things she’d done to him.

So spiteful, Xander said. You’re supposed to be the nice one. We can’t have two crazies.

Yeah, well...

“We’re gonna have to set some ground rules,” Alex told her. “I don’t want you here, but a voice in my head seems to think bringing you along isn’t a terrible idea. I’m only warning you once: if that changes, ever, I’ll kill you, because I’m not running the risk of dragging someone along who might try to kill me. Got it?” And in a lower voice, he added, “And I don’t think I need to explain what happens if we don’t make it to Gwen.”

You’d better not.

Right. His powers were a secret again.

I’m worried that you have to think about it so hard.

“Rule number one, so we don’t start this off on the wrong foot –” Yeah, that’s a lost cause. “– don’t use your powers in public. What you did back there was stupidest thing I’ve ever seen. I mean, sure, I’ve done –” Not five seconds after I just finish saying it. Great job, retard. “I’ve seen what someone... y’know – like you can do. It’s impressive. It’s powerful. It’s also the most attention-grabbing show anyone could make, and as a person who’s supposed to be running for their life, you’re not doing a hell of a lot to stay undercover.”

If this were me meeting you, you’d be at a negative trust level right now. -37%, Mr. Potential Agent.

He took a deep breath and steadied himself. This was a lot more difficult than he’d realized. Maybe Xander was right to not trust him with this stuff.

Ohhhh, really? I’m right? There’s a shocker.

“So that’s rule one. If we’re up against the Agents, you do whatever you have to, but if there’s other people around, you need to keep it quiet. You can’t cover up a fire by saying it was an accident and you’ll be drawing them to you – to us for as long you’re tagging along – like... well – like moths to a flame. And I can’t waste time dealing with those psychos. We’ll buy you a lighter or something.” What else? “Rule number two: don’t wander off. Forgive me for being presumptuous, but you don’t strike me as a ‘people person’. If I’m not wasting time with Agents, I’m not wasting time hunting you down ‘cause someone made fun or your hair or whatever.”

-48%.

“This is why I have no faith in your trust levels. It’s arbitrary,” Alex hissed, snapping his head sharply to the other side to block Osono’s view. “There’s no way that could’ve changed by 11% in under a minute.”

Allow me to assure you that all my values are based on very specific criteria and highly calculated algorithms. For example, right now you sound like a dick. You know who else are dicks? Agents. Make that a solid -50.

“And you’d know.” Xander seemed praised by that. Alex rolled his eyes and tried not to say anything else. Conversation was out of his league for now; his throat hurt from breathing, his chest felt like there’d been a vice clamped around it, and every now and then, there was a quiet spasm in his knee, as if the pain rolling in his foot was trying to claw its way out, and the keeper of that door had to be losing strength. “We need to stop somewhere.”

That’d be the smart thing to do. He needed to get off his foot and rest – not for his sake, but for Xander’s. The less moving around he did... maybe... somehow it’d give him strength to draw from. He didn’t know if it’d ever happened before but the thought alone was enough to convince him. At the very least, if he was sitting, his weight would be on something else, and maybe he’d be in a better state of mind to take on part of the burden and give Xander a break.

My hero.

Except that it sounded ragged. For a voice in his head and no real lungs to go along on, Xander was pretty out of breath.

“We’re stopping.” There were a few hotels around. It was practically an instinct to head for the biggest, shiniest and probably most expensive. His wallet was still in his bag – that was a small mercy – but he had to wonder how badly the credit charges were going to hit him. Or at least whoever Xander had sent the charges to back when he’d made the cards, if it was a real person at all. Oh well. By the time anyone figured it out, two more days would’ve passed. He was in the clear for now, but after that, they’d have to find another way – preferably one that didn’t involve ‘working’. “We’re going in there. We’re staying for the night.”

For the night?

“We’re – I’m – this is not the time for us – me – anyone to be going up against them,” Alex said. “We don’t have the element of surprise anymore! They’re after us! We don’t have a choice. We rest one night –”

For what? Why? What the fuck is a night going to do? Keep driving. We can make it by tomorrow evening.

And instantly, his knee twitched.

“I can barely believe you lasted this long. If you expect me to be in any shape to cart you to your dumb body, we’re stopping,” Alex hissed. To pass that one off, he tried coughing into his arm. Suspicious? Maybe, but as long as she didn’t hear anything that let her piece stuff together, he didn’t care what she thought. He was used to it anyway. “Sorry. But I’m serious about stopping.”

But we can make it –

He took his hands back. It wasn’t hard. If Xander had put up a fight, it’d been so pathetic that Alex hadn’t felt it. That settled it, then. They were stopping, resting, and then they’d get Gwen.

“We don’t even know where she is.”

... Ahhhh, shit! What now? I forgot to keep one of those assholes alive!

“One of the Agents?” He was pulling into the hotel’s driveway, rounding the island of roses and ivy spread over a rock pool. “Too late now. You killed them all.”

Yeah, I gotta stop doing that. But in the meantime – fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, I’m so stupid. That was important! We needed those dickwipes to get us into the Charlton base.

He’d been talking to Xander for a very long time. He didn’t care what she thought about him, but it wasn’t as if he wanted her to think he was a complete psycho. He kept his mouth shut, hoping that his thoughts were loud enough for the guy to pick up on. It was a simple message: why can’t we get in the same way as Elmira?

“The codes.” Alex shook his head. “Damn.”

Obviously. They’d gotten in before because of the codes Gwen had had. Hell – they’d found the place because of Gwen. She’d gotten it from the goggles and the guy whose mind she’d read; Alex had neither of those things. He was ready to ask if they could do the rooftop break-in, but putting his foot under more stress was exactly what he was trying to avoid. His hands tightened around the wheel, out of frustration for yet another problem they’d run into and out of nervousness at the sight of the valet. He gave the red-suit a quick smile and wave, trying to be casual about his refusal. He had to handle parking the car on his own, what with that no key business. Starting it up in the morning... They’d probably have to switch cars. In fact, he shouldn’t have this car anywhere near the hotel. While he felt safe enough driving into the one dark corner, devoid of any streetlights, buried in the back of the lot, he’d be running the risk of someone sneaking too close and calling the cops.

But his foot...

This is a nice car, Xander said. It’d be a shame to lose it.

“We’ll find you that tank you wanted,” Alex muttered, kicking at the wires left exposed beside his feet. The car shut off and he stiffly grabbed his and Gwen’s bag from the backseat. Without further ado, he threw himself into the lofty task of pulling his dead leg away from the pedals and onto the pavement. He waited briefly to see if his foot would move. It didn’t. Xander was running on reserves and whatever he had left was in keeping the pain away. It was too bad he didn’t have a crutch, but at least he had experience. “I can’t believe that time you crushed my ankle in a car door actually came in handy.”

I can’t believe you picked getting your ankle crushed by metal over getting me a latte. It’s like you’re mentally incapable of learning from your mistakes.

“Here,” he said to Osono, his breathing short as his leg groaned against the movement. “Take my bag. It’s just clothes and stuff.” He’d been smart enough to stick his wallet in his pocket and he’d rather her set fire to his things than any of Gwen’s. “Just carry it up there and I won’t ask anything else from you.”

Except for the hundred other things we’re gonna ask her to do later.

“That’s more ‘tell’ than ‘ask’,” Alex mumbled. He was standing, finally, and he took it as an accomplishment that he was able to shut the car door. It felt like he was slamming the cover down on another chapter of these screwed up two days. Almost three days. Yup, this was just another week. “Penthouse?”

Uh... yeah?

“Just making sure.”

There was not going to be any disappointing him here. The hotel was built from a white and lavish stone, gleaming in the moonlight and shining out of every sparkling window. The red awning hung over a grand carpet leading into the front door. For once, Alex shrank back at the sight of it. A limousine had pulled up to the curb and out stepped two men in finely pressed suits and three women with sleek, silky dresses. They looked kind of panicked getting inside. No doubt about it: they were from the restaurant a certain someone had finished turning into ash. Damn. Witnesses, he guessed. ... And he could use that.

They have an hour on us and we’re about twenty hours away from Charlton. If they don’t get out of the car, we can take a train or something and beat them there – barely. If they do get out of the car and switch to something faster... Well – they still have to wait for whoever’s getting transferred in to show up. Then the actual transfer process...

“Alright, here’s the plan,” Alex said. “In case anyone asks, we were at the restaurant. Uh...”

La Madeline.

“We were at La Madeline, we were there during the attack, there’s people in there who saw the same thing, and we only have to say that we... I don’t know – that we followed a limo here for the hell of it.” He shrugged. “It’s not perfect, but it should do the trick. If they ask about our clothes, they were hit by the fire.”

And if they ask about us not going to the hospital?

They wouldn’t. Because... they wouldn’t. But Alex obliged the guy and gave a hushed, “That’s when people get seizures.”

Sounds good to me. Oh – except for the whole ‘let’s piss a day away here instead of hauling ass to get Gwen who’s a day and a half away from having her brain yanked out of her skull’.

“You can’t be a hero if you can’t move. One night of rest is better than nothing.” He sighed. Gwen’s bag was heavy on his good shoulder and the strap cut into him. He absently stuck his thumb under it, trying to curl the edge into something less than a sabre, but when that didn’t work, he chose to be satisfied by having something for his fingers to play with. “Okay, Osono. Let’s get going. Try not to barbeque anyone on the way in.”

* * *


Jason, in a word, was proud of his analytical skills. He’d mastered basic and advanced logic, he had a good grip on common sense and reasonable deduction, and as far as his observation went, he was a cape and a pair of working goggles away from being Superman. When he walked in and found her, instinct drew him to the needle at her arm and then immediately to the small vial that fell, crashed and was crushed open. The smell of it was sharp and intensely familiar. It was nothing he’d used or considered, but although it wasn’t effective at fighting the symptoms of the suit, a lot of men and women that’d been given one had seen fit to sample that juice, too. Good stuff, from what he’d gathered. He completely understood the look of loss on her face, still weirdly cold a split second before it snapped to oh sweet shit she was coming after him.

He’d been trained to fight – sure – but he wasn’t a fighter in that sense of the word, and all the observation in the fucking universe didn’t give him a damn chance to hide from her psychotic fist – holy shit, what was in that needle? Steroids? She picked him up, snapping his head back after politely plunging her fist through the gut of his suit, then – okay, he’d blacked out for a second. Good thing he hadn’t missed out on all that pain, because that was the fun part.

She hadn’t wasted a breath breaking him apart. His head was ringing and he was choked by the awkward twist she’d forced his neck into. So this was it. This was how he was going to die. All in all, not a bad death. Private airplane, in the bathroom, crazy woman and drugs all around him... As far as autopsies went, his was going to be in the top twenty. He could feel her eyes already pressing into him and unwillingly shivered under it.

He felt the hand leave his hair first, but only because that was the easier thing to process. What he realized next explained itself in wildly... no, it was simple enough. While the panic that she’d gone entirely insane and was going to chew a hole through his neck had taken a moment to get rid of, it’d vanished under the smooth and frenzied feel of her lips against his skin, overshadowed by the feral bites she was taking out of him, then utterly forgotten by the violent awareness of her fingers picking at the collar of his suit.

That observation stepped in. Suddenly, the smell of the drugs was like a distant perfume. With her so close, she was taking center stage. Her body was outlined by his, her nails were in every inch they could find, and when she ended her attack long enough to... challenge him, her eyes...

This was going too far. This was too much. She was a lead Agent, she was an A-3, she was a professional, she was his boss, her boss was on the plane, this was a bathroom – the list for why she was a maniac for even thinking this was going to end in some way other than her ass being handed over to her kept going for as long as she stood like that: melded into him with her breathing quick and excited, hands draping and raking against his suit and the flesh underneath, between his legs – what was wrong with her? What was wrong with him? Why hadn’t he said a damn thing?

The way she spoke turned a switch in his mind. For a full, solitary moment, he met her gaze with perfect strength. In that time, behind his freshly clenched teeth, he spat out a harsh, “No.” In that time, his hands knew what to do. In that time, his arms went under hers and he grabbed her by the shoulders, then unceremoniously pushed off the wall she’d thrown him to, and his grip did not let up. It clenched around her, keeping her escaping despite the blatant fact that he was the person who should’ve been trying to run. He didn’t. And for reasons he was too fucking stupid to bother questioning, when he stomped forward and put her deranged ass into a corner – yeah, he could do that shit, too – with the full intention of leaving her there, because he’d done his part by making sure she wasn’t dead and only wanted her to sign the forms now soaking in the remnants of the vial, he lost that analysis and logic and common sense and went ahead to bruise his mouth against hers.

He was so screwed now, the last thread of reasoning told him. He ignored it in favour of forcing whatever space between them the fuck out of the room. One of the hands on her shoulder tore from its post and found a new home at the base of her skull. He was holding her in place, crushing his hand between her and the wall as he kept finding ways to get closer. But all that – even now – was miraculously restrained. As much as he was against her, as tight as his fingers were around her, he couldn’t allow anything to wander. There was still that sense of... not refinement, not with the way his tongue whipped across hers, but an annoying sense of ethics that would not shut its mouth about how horrible this decision was and how many losses he could cut if he stopped this second.

... When he’d said ‘no’, he’d meant for that to be the end to this. Once again, the good little boy had given his boss an answer. Whoo-fucking-hoo.

Setting

2 Characters Present

Character Portrait: Stephanie March Character Portrait: Osono "Ozzie" Wallace
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#, as written by Ten
Control and domination were completely intoxicating, almost as much as his pain and discomfort was, the little flickers of movement upon his face heating her body to the depths. Even as she took charge of the situation and kept herself from being lost completely to the whims of her body, she was still locked within the room with him, lost to the rest of the world. The rest of the plane, the other Agents on it with them and the whole case and mission to Charlton had fallen off the face of the Earth. She was consumed and fixated on her desire and right now, that was to teach her little bad boy a lesson. To torture and toy with him. To make him murmur in delight and squeal in the pain she caused his body to suffer.

Stephanie hadn't truly realized how much she missed it, the old days before she'd become a Lead Agent, before she'd been yoked by responsibility. Jason had let her taste and sample that old version of herself a couple of times in the past few days, but here and now she was living and breathing it and she couldn't get enough. Proudly, she awaited his response, expecting him to be cowed by her authoritative presence like the many who'd come before him. She expected at the very least, she'd have to punch him a few times before he'd finally submit and allow her to get to the good part of this game.

What she got instead however, was something she had not even prepared for in her wildest dreams. The look that came over him caused her to pause and her eyebrows to bounce a half an inch in surprise, even as a buried tremor ran through her. It was followed by a second as his voice cut through the air in a rough whisper, and her eyes narrowed at the negative tone.

Before she could react, he had ahold of her and was propelling her backwards, a small growl leaving her lips as she met the opposite wall. How dare he defy her! At first, she'd taken his denial and following movements as a refusal to participate - which she was more than happy to correct him about - but when his lips crushed into hers, she took it to mean he wanted to dominate her. Did he even know who he was dealing with? Had he gone mental!?

For a few moments, her hands grabbed fistfuls of his suit at his shoulders and sought to push him off when his body once again melded into her. As his tongue stroked at hers however, another tremble fled through her and a hum escaped her throat, her whole body melting against him, her hands no longer clawing at him to push him away but rather to pull him closer. Stephanie couldn't help the new reactions that spiraled within her as his rock, hard muscles pressed against her through his suit, creating an immovable barrier between her and freedom. Her hands clung to shoulders that were a lot broader than she'd realized before, a leg moving up to curl around his backside, and her lips moved with his even as they smashed together in a violent dance.

All this passion, welling inside him and she'd had no idea. She hadn't seen it, merely tempted by the victimhood and flashes of defiance he'd chosen to show her. Why doesn't he touch me!? she thought wildly, goosebumps covering her where his fingers cradled her head. As strong as he was and powerful his presence had become, there was that duality again. A dignity and respect still imbuing his assault, causing her to grow eager for things to move forward.

She wanted him like this. Strong and controlling, consuming her, owning her while still seeming to await her command and following her lead. Even as she felt that way however, realization and the real world crashed down upon her as she realized the reason for his restraint. He was her subordinate. She was a Lead Agent. And this was a plane. Everything came flooding back, invading her isolated little world and her chest rose and fell rapidly with a bit of nauseous fear to remember that the A-1 was still on the plane with them.

They needed to stop - no, she needed to stop - right now. They probably had a few minutes left before their time in here together became more than obvious in how inappropriate it was. And she could not let this jeopardize everything she'd worked for - GWEN! God, what was she doing!? She was so close and here she was flirting with disaster! She needed that body and after everything she'd done, everything she'd sacrificed to get this far, she could not allow herself to ruin it for a brief moment of bliss with her colleague.

However, as these thoughts ran through her mind, she continued to touch him, her hands running through his soft, curly hair, lightly tugging on the locks and letting him grind his lips against hers, his tongue exploring her inviting mouth. She didn't want to let go, not yet. Not when everything was so...yummy. Even worrying about Eric being on the plane, it only added to the adrenaline coursing through her filling her veins with vibrant life with every touch from the man sharing the small space with her. It had been so long since she'd let these walls down, since she'd breathed and every new lungful brought her Jason's musky scent. It was too new, too precious to just toss it away now. Besides, he didn't seem to be in much of a hurry...

Along with remembrance of Eric and Benoit sharing the plane with them, also came the memory of why Jason had entered this room in the first place. The drugs also came back up but were discarded from thought a moment later.

He'd wanted her to sign that form again. His resignation from the case. With all these realizations coming back to her, it felt like no time had passed, and even with him kissing her forcefully back, it felt like if she stopped them now, nothing would change. He would still want to withdraw. He'd still want to abandon her. Just like Richard had...

Her chest grew tight before she quelled those old emotions, now made more real by her present desire for Jason and the life he filled her with, as she broke the kiss but kept him close. "I need you...!" she gasped against his neck, nuzzling slightly into his thick, muscled shoulder, breathing deeply of his scent, clinging to every last piece of him before she forced herself to let go. "Don't..." her voice was hoarse and she cleared her throat as she drew back to look him stolidly in the eyes. "Don't leave me."

As the words left her mouth, Stephanie knew they sounded pathetic and a small, embarrassed wince rippled across her features, fully bringing her out of the spell her arousal had put her under. God! After all she'd put him through and demanded of him, after everything HE'D lost because of her and the best she could come up with to convince him not to go was 'Daddy, please don't leave me'? Good fucking God, if she were faced with that, she'd leave herself just for being so utterly ridiculous.

Her eyes left him almost immediately after that, and she kept them away as she gently, yet forcefully wriggled out from underneath him, her body growing cold even as she squirmed against his form. Standing apart from him in the middle of the room, she looked into the mirror and began to quickly adjust herself, running a hand through her hair, smoothing down her tank top and wiping her mouth so it didn't look so blatantly like she'd been sucking face with someone. A few times her eyes fell to Jason, only to retreat quickly when she saw him looking back at her. Whatever had been there a moment before between them, was probably completely gone now with her stupid, whiny begging. He must think I'm such a loser...

It didn't even make sense, her wanting him to stay. If anything, she should be gladly signing the papers and helping him on his way. The constant stress he put her through and the nonstop temptation - she could toss the drugs away if she could just get rid of him. But she didn't want to. There was no future with him, not with all the plans she'd laid - at most they'd have two or three days before she left and became someone else and went on to complete her assignment for the Agency. So, logically, she had nothing to offer him, nothing to sway him except that...she wanted him with her. It was so incredibly selfish, he might as well leave.

As an afterthought, she reached onto the counter by the sink and grabbed up the small carton Eric had given her. Closing it up she tucked it into her back pocket with a resigned sigh. Underfoot, the glass of the broken vial crunched and crinkled with the paper of the form he'd brought in with him but they both went ignored as she turned to the door. With her hand on the latch, she stopped and looked back at him, forcing herself to meet his gaze. He must think she was completely insane...

Her eyes fell upon his neck again, drawn there this time by the dark, slightly circular markings peppering his flesh like a frigging leopard. Some of them were red welts but a few were unmistakably hickeys. The fact that their little tryst had left behind identifiable marks made her realize they needed a mutual agreement on the events that had taken place in here, lest they both lose something upon leaving the room.

Stepping forward, she began to reattach the clasps of his collar as she spoke. "You were thoroughly reprimanded," she said softly, her eyes meeting his as the slightly raised, reddened flesh encircling his collar bone in several small patterns, was obscured from sight. "You almost died, but I was able to convince you to withdraw your resignation request without needing to take your life. You now agree that it would be best to just finish the assignment, with only a few days left on the case, so as to not shred your record any further." The last clasp on his collar was fastened and most of the marks were hidden beneath it - one or two peeked above the fabric of the suit, but they were placed just so with the boundary of the suit touching his flesh, that they might escape indepth scrutiny.

Stephanie continued to look him over to make sure everything else fit - his cheekbone was slightly puffing now from the first blow she'd laid upon him, and her own knuckles, red and a bit swollen, would attest to a beating - but a smudge of dark lipstick decorated the corner of his mouth and she reached up to lightly rub it away. As it faded her eyes drifted up to his again and she opened her mouth to say something more - maybe apologize, or explain herself - but with how pitiful she'd been with begging him, she silenced herself. No, there was nothing more she could say that wouldn't compound upon how pathetic she was right now. Best to just leave it and not blur the lines between them anymore than they already were.

Turning once again, she stood for a moment at the door, squared her shoulders, replacing the old, emotionless mask and opened the latch before stepping out, hoping that the practiced explanation she had in mind would be sufficient - but really praying that Eric wouldn't care enough to ask for it. Walking from the room, she resisted the urge to look back inside as the weight came barreling back down upon her shoulders. It was practically on a physical level, suffocating her, as if every foot that brought her out of there was adding a ton to the whole mass she was currently balancing.

At first, she didn't understand the reaction, keeping a firm hold on her mask and not letting it shift for a moment to reveal the panic going through her. But then she recognized it as the sweet, sick smell of Atropytamine. Jason had interrupted her before she'd gotten a chance to redose herself, and now the need came back upon her full force after leaving his presence. She chalked that up to him being an incredible distraction more than any kind of block against the chemical's effects on her body. Because that was absurd.

As soon as the door to the bathroom had opened, the flight attendant had peeked out from the small galley near the front of the plane and Stephanie instantly zeroed in on her, walking with a rigid, robotic grace down the two person wide aisle. Standing at the opening to the small cubby hole, she drew attention to her beat up hand when she ordered, "Get me some wrapped up ice for this. Now." She didn't really need ice as the wounds and swelling barely registered for her with everything else she was currently feeling, but more to draw attention to the fact that her knuckles had been giving a pounding recently. She tried not to think about the way Jason's face and flesh had felt with every blow, despite the comfort it offered.

When the flight attendant started to busy herself fulfilling Stephanie's request, she noticed Jason had left the restroom and she looked at him. For a moment, the mask shifted as she felt that magnetic pull again, but was firmly put back into place as the other woman handed her an ice pack wrapped in a small hand towel. It was too late to go back in there now...

***


Right in the middle of that first exhalation, the cigarette was yanked from between her lips and she blinked in astonishment, a small gasp of irritation leaving her now empty mouth. "What the fuck, man!?" she murmured in annoyance, contemplating dragging out another cigarette and keeping it out of his reach. But she didn't have that many left and she still needed money, so she didn't want to risk losing another one in a similar manner. Besides, everything was still kinda touchy. Even though he'd allowed her to get into the car with him, she got the feeling he would kick her out any minute just as easily. Until she had established a solid rapport with him, she needed to play the game his way and be good.

Osono was eating her words a moment later as the next thing to leave his mouth was the word "rules". Rolling her eyes, she nodded chagrined, hoping that the list wasn't long - she had an unbelievably short fuse tonight after everything that had happened, and she already knew it was not a good idea to beat the shit out of him while he was driving. But the guy just wanted to make it as difficult as possible.

First off, there was the mention of the voice in his head and she rolled her eyes a second time. In the next breath he was threatening to kill her out of the same sense of distrust he'd had for her in the restaurant and she had to bite her lip to keep in the rude retort. He thought it'd be so easy? What? Did she just look like someone who was easily victimized? Or was he just shoving his 'big balls' around now because he had control of the situation? Needless to say, it made her want to punch him and ask for clarification on that part of his "plan" specifically.

Even if she'd wanted to or been able to do so at that moment, she was left blinking at him in confusion as a new name passed from between his lips. Gwen? Who was...Gwen? From the way he phrased the sentence, there was no doubt who he was talking about and Ozzie doubted that he forgot his girlfriend's name. So...Stacy-Gwen had lied to her? Sure it was just a name but it set the stage as an introduction between people. Why would she lie about that unless she were hiding something?

Osono was still stuck on wondering about it as Ben started to go through his list of rules and she refocused on him enough to snort derisively. How long did he think she'd been doing this? She'd been running from these guys for almost 6 years now and she'd never been caught, despite the fact that she frequently started fires - sometimes as a distraction, sometimes as a threat and sometimes on accident just because she was so pissed off about something. She didn't need him to tell her when and how to use them and she instantly shrugged his rule off as inconsequential because of that. Fire was hers and she'd do with it as she saw fit.

But then she was instantly on edge in her seat, frowning at the streetlights out the windshield. He'd...what? There were others like her? And how did he know about them? How did he know that she was running - had she said that??? What had Rudy said to him in the bathroom...? Oh shit... Suddenly everything started to click together and Ozzie found herself glancing at him warily from the corner of her eyes.

It made sense. Rudy was with them and they'd just happened to take Ben's - if that even was his real name - girlfriend. That was probably why Gwen had given her a false name - she must have had powers too! If that was the case, then was Ben HER Rudy? No...that didn't make sense. Not with the way they'd been introduced and definitely not with the looks the two of them had shared. You couldn't fake googly eyes the way Gwen had been making them.

Or maybe...he'd been undercover to get close enough to her, like Rudy had done with Osono. But then why had he been fighting them, if that was the case? God! This was all so confusing! What was going on with these people!?

Her attention was focused back on what he was saying just in time to hear him go into "rule number two" and she bit the inside of her lip worriedly at the word "Agents". Is that what they were called? Or was he just calling them that to give them a name? All this time, Osono had nicknamed the people after her "Them"; there hadn't really been any reason to call them something else and it fit with her perception of them as a secret government organization, 'The Man' trying to keep her down.

She looked at him sharply as his voice grew low and muffled and he spoke into his opposite shoulder. No words could be heard but she guessed right away that was the point. God, what if 'the voice' inside his head were really just part of the ruse? What if he had a microphone or something and was talking to them right now? Rudy seemed to do that too. Uneasily, she shifted in her seat, looking away from him but keeping an eye on him as she watched the road ahead of them. Willing her heart to slow down, she tried to tell herself not to panic - for one thing, it would not help her to start making wild and irrational accusations and for another, she didn't have enough energy to control any 'accidents'. It wasn't his car but she doubted he would enjoy it if she were to start randomly setting fires - especially when he found out she couldn't help it.

Busily breathing in and out deeply through her nose, she looked at him again when he said something about stopping. She tried to find something sinister in the comment but as they approached a large hotel, she relaxed a few notches. It was when he started repeating himself that made her tense up again, mostly because she got the feeling he wasn't speaking to her. And she continued to get that feeling as he murmured under his breath and the drove up to the establishment and parked in a far corner.

As the car came to a stop, for several moments, Osono contemplated just opening the door and disappearing into the night, but that was the panic talking. There were still so many questions running through her mind and the only thing she was absolutely certain of, amidst all the wild suspicions and doubts, was that she no longer trusted Ben. Stacy--Gwen was different, because she'd been such an open and innocent person, so she was still pretty sure that Gwen had been taken by Them, the Agents or whatever. Realizing that Ben was very possibly one of them gave her a rare opportunity that she'd thought she would need to wait a long time for - she needed answers and to find out where Gwen was being kept and here she had someone who knew things.

Stifling the need to run for her life, she watched him leave the car - seemingly in pain because of his leg - and quickly followed suit, keeping a wary eye on him the whole time. A small annoyed "tch" escaped her lips as his bag was shoved at her, but she didn't make any more of a fuss than that as she put the strap over her shoulder. It was something easily accessible that she could search through, possibly when she had him incapacitated.

More muttering to himself - or perhaps whoever was on the little microphone in his ear; which, you'd think They'd get him a better, more discreet way to communicate. Maybe with Gwen being so clumsy, Rudy's phone hadn't been the only one she'd ended up breaking? - before he was turning to her with a hashed together plan involving the restaurant. Osono nodded slightly, giving him a narrowed look, but she said nothing.

The tone he took with her when he ushered her along, provoked a response however and she said in her sandy voice, "Yeah, you know me. Always ready for a roast." The truth was, he didn't know dick about her, but he would soon find out everything that was necessary.

Approaching the doors behind him, she kept silent and looked around warily for any more Agents - maybe this guy was like Rudy and they showed up randomly when he was around? As they entered and walked up to the check-in counter, she forgot to put on her best "afraid for her life" face, but the woman manning the computer seemed to take Osono's agitated watchfulness and Ben's weariness as symptoms of shock. So, when he started spouting that nonsense about them being part of the small crowd fleeing the French restaurant, the woman bought it without suspicion. But not without questions.

"Oh, my God," Peggy said in amazement, her red curly hair done up in a loose but fashionable bun and her big eyes blinking as she shook her head slowly. "We all heard about that on the radio in the break room and then a few people from there started coming in. It sounds absolutely horrific. Do they know what happened yet? We heard some people were fighting."

Before Ben could respond to that, however, Ozzie stepped forward and said in a blunt voice, "Yeah, it was some fucked up shit that went down. I'm feeling pretty traumatized and all, and I need to freaking lie down, so if you could...?" And she made a motion for the woman to finish up the transaction and hand them their key. At first, she didn't blink when Ben ordered the penthouse, that is until she realized why that didn't seem odd to her - Rudy often got that room. Those brief times when they'd been running together in the beginning, he always insisted on staying in the most expensive places he could find and they practically had the penthouse reserved for him, where ever they went. When it occurred to her that Ben had done the same thing, Osono raised one eyebrow at him, but kept her mouth shut, casting another anxious glance around to make sure none of those "Agent" fuckers was hiding anywhere nearby.

The ride on the elevator was excruciating, if only for the fact that they were alone in an enclosed space and she felt like any minute he was going to put the jump on her. Rudy had never attacked her or raised his hand to her, no matter how many times she'd done so to him, but even though Ben copied a few of Rudy's habits, she was acutely aware of him being a completely different person. She had no idea what to expect from him, or if she should even expect anything - Rudy continued to play his undercover game and she had the feeling that he only did so because it still seemed to work on her.

Off of the elevator, there was a long hallway with two double doors spaced a short distance from each other. Upon entering the first, however, it was apparent that the second pair of doors was still a part of the same room, with just a different exit down the hall. It was the only room at this level. Walking into the room, Osono's eyes quickly swept over the luxury and rich furnishings, searching corners and crevices as if every gleaming floor tile and silken drapery were hiding a threat in plain sight.

When she was satisfied that there was no one else here, she proceeded to one of the large tables in the room and unslung the bag on her shoulder, unzipping it and over turning it over the polished tabletop. Quickly, she rifled through his clothes and picked out the passport that had been stuffed in among his things. Opening it up, she made another noise with her lips and pulled the gun from the back of her pants and aimed it at him as she turned.

"Who the fuck is 'Tom Ferguson'? Huh?" she asked acerbically, tossing the passport away in irritation. It was useless - no doubt it wasn't real either. He was just full of lies and she was done being fed stories. She wanted something real and she wanted to find and help Gwen. She was no longer blaming herself for the other woman's capture however.

"She trusted you!" she said through gritted teeth, sneering at him with her finger on the trigger. "Is that what Rudy was suppose to do to me? Get close. Get me to love him and trust him so he could just shove me away in a black van someday? Too fucking bad They don't know my type!"

She stopped yelling for a moment and took a deep breath. "I can't believe I didn't see it before - I mean, it should have been fucking obvious with the way you put your arm around him like you guys were old highschool buddies. Rushing off to the bathroom together to whisper and plan in private. Did you guys just decide to trade targets, or what? Well, what the fuck are you waiting for? I'm right here, asshole!"

Her dark eyes were bright and wild, looking around the room and yet always coming back to him, anger and fear filling every inch of her and all of her muscles tensed with threat. "You almost had me fooled with the way you fought Them - I just thought I was lucky to find a guy who knew freaking Matrix style karate. Now I know! I know it's because you were trained like Them! You're one of Them!"

The air in the room was quickly heating as her panic rose, all the moisture sucked up and everything drying out and growing crisp. Swallowing thickly, she grimaced again and shouted, "I want to know who the fuck you people are and I wanna know NOW! What do you want from me and Gwen!???" She was an inch away from sparking and losing control of the situation and she took a deep breath and said through a barely restrained voice, "If I don't get some answers now, I will blow up this whole fucking room! And you bet your ass, I'll be the only thing walking out of here unscathed."

Explosions were not something she could do without the right ingredients present, even if she had enough energy to create something big enough to fill the whole space. As it was, she was more likely to set something ablaze by accident and she definitely didn't have enough energy to make it go away once it started. She just hoped he wouldn't call her bluff, because a potted plant catching on fire because she was scared was a lot less impressive than the room exploding spontaneously.

Setting

2 Characters Present

Character Portrait: Alexander Stall Character Portrait: Xander
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#, as written by Tartra
“Oh boy. I hope we gave you two enough time.”

Jason didn’t say anything to that. He did take his hand away from his collar, though. The fabric felt too harsh against his skin and he knew for a fact there was evidence plenty of what the hell had just gone on. Why? What possible reason did he have for taking this from bad to worse? As if the harassment hadn’t been enough, she was set to blackmail him. One word and she’d have Eric or Benoit in the know and then they’d rip the suit off his back right now! Shit, this was horrible, and he grit his teeth because he knew he was fully to blame. He was stupid for walking in there and he was stupid for not walking out – out of her trap, which she’d probably been planning from the minute she’d had her fun in the car.

Too harsh on his skin. He had no choice but to scratch at it again, warily eyeing the other two as they sat down in their seats. Benoit sat, at least. Eric jumped on his and nearly broke it. The whole thing gave a loud grunt of pain as he reclined and stretched out, leaning far enough that the chair had almost become a bed. Upside down, the man smiled broadly, then excitedly declared, “I was flying the plane. Could you tell?”

“No, sir.”

“See? He thinks I did a good job,” Eric said.

“I imagine he was distracted,” Benoit replied. “I, unfortunately, was there to watch as you let go to ‘see what happened’.”

He had a glass of wine in his hand. It seemed bigger than what was normal. It also drained twice as fast.

Jason took a breath.

“I’ve decided to stay,” he mumbled. “So long as I’ve made it this far, I might as well see it out.”

Snort. He hoped Frenchie could feel the glare to the very bottom of his throat. It didn’t look like it.

“That’s fantastic! I’m delighted to hear you’ve changed your mind,” Eric said, sounding exactly that.

“However abruptly.”

Jason grit his teeth harder. No one ever knew where they stood with higher level Agents. Did he seem more suspicious because he wasn’t offering an explanation or was it smarter to let... his lead handle it? Or would that make it worse, like she was trying to bail him out?

“I changed my mind,” he finally explained, “because this case done enough damage. If I help close it, I can say I made the best of an awful situation.”

“That’s excellent thinking. Isn’t that excellent thinking, Benny?” Another snort. “Benny says ‘yes’. And I agree! You’ll be able to walk back to headquarters with your head held high, proud you didn’t give up and ready to serve as a model for others to stay diligent and dedicated even after a tremendous mistake. I should promote you back to A-5 – I’m just that impressed!”

“... Really?”

“Sure! ‘Course, the whole ‘letting Alex and Gwen get away’ thing reminds me why I demoted you in the first place, but I’d be thrilled to comment on your profile that you showed tremendous tenacity, riiiiight under ‘takes orders from little kids in hallways leading to the direct escape of two high-profile targets’.”

Benoit seemed to perk up at that.

“‘Two’?”

“Yup,” Eric said. “Two.”

“When did the girl become so important?”

“Awwww, Benny,” Eric cooed. “I’m not saying Alex is less important. He’s great and I adore him! I simply happen to think she’s special in her way, too. I mean – anyone who needs a whole system whipped up purely to make sure Gwen doesn’t pop into their mind and explode their thoughts is packing a pretty good punch.”

Jason guaranteed it couldn’t make more chaos than was already in his lead’s head.

‘I need you.’ ‘Don’t leave me.’ What the hell did that mean? The instant he’d walked in there, she’d gone straight for his face. He was surprised she hadn’t picked out his eyes, but he was guessing it would’ve been harder to explain. When she’d changed her mind and started groping him again, he’d been almost content to know he understood the situation: she was a lunatic who had no problem doing whatever popped into her head under the eyes of an A-1 but wouldn’t go any further than that because she had too much to lose. Then all of a sudden, he lost his grip. He’d... accepted the invitation and... and then... that. And she said that. And then she stopped and left, as if she didn’t want to do this anymore, leaving him behind to feel numb everywhere she hadn’t dragged her hands across him. So what... unless...

Okay. He got it now.

The motivation behind it was up for grabs. She could’ve been doing it to pass time, to put him in his place, as part of a team-exclusive hazing or on orders of someone else. Who knew? The Agency could’ve told her to screw with him as part of a test. He wouldn’t put it past them. Aside from hunting people with special abilities and patting themselves on the back about what good work they were doing, the organization’s founders – the real ones, the ones who ran the Agency and everything else the company did – had marked their favourite pastime as ‘fucking around for shits and giggles’. What their motivation could’ve been was equally as hidden in insanity. Whether it was for a social experiment, punishment for the zero mistakes he’d made, a test of calibre – whatever – it all fit as rational explanations behind why anyone would take it this far, but frankly, if he never got an answer, he didn’t care. What mattered was getting the hell out of here before she threw the final strike.

She was trying to ruin him. She was working to run him into the ground. Actually, that gave him an answer: spite. He’d come to her with a flawless reputation and she’d either hated it or hated him for failing her. Understandable, he admitted that, and he’d expected something like revenge, but she was actively destroying everything he’d ever accomplished by setting him up with... well – with every charge he’d been planning to throw at her. He thought about it and came together perfectly. What happened in the car had been its own thing; easily deniable and hand-wavable even if he complained. She might’ve been satisfied with if he’d fucking said something, but his silence must’ve been enough to convince her to go on with it. Then, because he’d made everything worse by listening to that stupid kid in Elmira, she’d upped her need to tear apart and lured him into that bathroom to build up some rape story or something. That ‘I need you’? Precious. And she’d used it so he’d think they were on the same page about not wanting the others to know and pull out that distinctly rehearsed – she’d come up with something that meticulous in half a second? Bullshit. Bullshit! She wanted him to say it first so she could turn around and say he’d forced the story on her and then have Eric kick his ass out of the plane instead of wasting time with forms.

Still... it didn’t explain why she’d leave marks on his neck. And the forms – crap – he’d left them in the bathroom. They were soaked with drugs and he had bruises and there wasn’t a mark on her. If he said she’d come after him, Eric and Benoit had every reason to believe it.

... Maybe it was more subtle than that? She was after him, he knew that much, but no matter how he worked it over in his head, he couldn’t understand her plan. And there had to be a plan. A woman who’d made it past A-5 wasn’t so reckless that they’d do this without a goal in mind. If he kept at it, he’d eventually see the pieces in place and be able to protect himself.

Wow. He really was a pussy. But she was a calculating bitch from hell who wouldn’t stop until he’d broken at her feet, so it evened out.

“Your phone’s ringing,” he said, instantly annoyed by the metal sound.

Eric pulled his mouth into a bubbly ‘o’ as if he was surprised by the news, then sat up in his air and righted the seat. The most Jason could make out was his elbow as he dug into his pocket and took out his phone. It beeped, obviously on, and then he heard a relaxed and upbeat greeting of, “Did you kill her yet?”

“He won’t shut up over losing his five,” Benoit’s voice floated over. “I can’t understand why he’s suddenly so fond of them. I doubt he’s ever even met them. No – he just gets off on stomping out anyone who loses his property.”

... Was he slurring?

“Benoit,” Jason said, “how much of that have you had?”

“Enough.” That was a ‘yes’ to the slurring. “I’d understand if it was Stephanie calling to complain about you being dead. There’s too much love around you both and it makes me sick. But he’s as liable to shoot one of his minions as not, so there’s no sense in him getting pissy about it now, except that if there’s a dream to crush, he’s the first to line up.”

“Benoit,” Jason said, a touch slower, “are you drunk?”

“No. Well...” And then he waved his hand at Jason as if he was whining about something unimportant. “Come back when I start crying about Jean – who, again, I have more reason to request a ‘permanent resolution’ for than him, because I know his name.”

“Are you allowed to be drunk?”

“Maybe. But perhaps I wasn’t clear,” Benoit said. “He was flying the plane and he let go. And it’s not as though you two were around to say anything. I hope the bathroom is clean.”

‘Clean’ was a relative term.

“Yeah? Then ask her if she’s got some sort of excuse for knocking off five of my guys,” Eric said. “She wasn’t there? Then ask her who was and kill that guy. I want someone’s head in my office by the time I get back... you. ‘Kay, thanks!” The phone clicked. The man leaned back in his seat again. He would’ve been in Jason’s lap had the chairs been closer. “I think I’m gonna take a nap. We’ve got a few hours before we land and it’s been a long day.”

“Signing papers is hard,” Benoit said. “I simply don’t know how you do it.”

“Benny,” Eric sang back. “Go back to drinking.” The perfect enabler, the man produced another bottle of whatever the other lead had been downing. “Here ya go. This should tide you over for a while.”

“I hate you. I don’t think I’ve said that enough.”

But he took the bottle.

“He’s adorable, isn’t he? Don’t worry about him – he’s French, it’s what they do,” Eric said. Then Jason’s lead caught his eye and he sat up again, halfway, showing the faintest twitch of concern the human face was capable of. “Miss March, what happened to your hand?” He stopped himself and turned back to Jason. “And what happened to your face?”

“I was thoroughly reprimanded,” he grunted. “But it’s solved. It’s fine.”

He’d figure it out. Sooner or later, he’d know precisely what she was hiding up her sleeve. Until then, he tucked his chin closer to his chest and angled away from the A-1’s eyes. If Eric saw the welts, Jason wasn’t going to be the one to explain them. Those were on her. ... Unless it was part of her plan to have to explain them. Unless it was part of her plan for him to think that and pre-emptively explain them. Had anyone seen already?

Benoit had the right idea. And Eric, once again, was psychic.

“It’s red and it’s Italian,” the man said, handing yet another bottle over the back of the seat. “Don’t know what it tastes like, though. I’m not a drinker.”

“I’ll fill you in after,” Jason said.

“Would you? What a sweetheart. Steph, you up for some red-Italian? I think there’s some white-Italian around here, too.”

If there was ever a complete report written about what was happening here, Jason would burn it and whoever wrote it to the ground.

* * *


What was with all these people having guns? Was there some kind of a sale? Were they giving them away? Where the hell had he been when they’d handed them out?

Can we sit down? I’m getting... woozy...

His foot throbbed.

“Yeah, let’s sit,” Alex said. Louder, more directly to the raving pyromaniac an instant away from turning them all into charcoal – unless she meant what she said about walking out of this unscathed, which must’ve been some fun perk she’d picked up to go along with the melting – he said again, “I’m sitting down. My foot hurts. Try not to shoot me.”

On the bright side, the penthouse had delivered. If there was one thing he could complain about, it was that it was too rich. There was a thick smell of money around them he couldn’t shake from his nose. They were heavy on gold and white in this place, but a dark wood had blessed with the task of making up the furniture in here. It’d been smoothed and glossed and ornately carved, from the bed in the far off corner of the room – just behind the wall and polished door boasting acres of space for its guests – to the curved edges of the table Osono had slammed his bag on, seconds before chewing through it. She had to look through his stuff, didn’t she? At least she hadn’t gotten to Gwen’s. That was one small mercy.

How angry would you be if I said I can’t actually feel your foot? I mean – it’s there and I guess I can wiggle it around and stuff...

“Just stop,” he said, limping to the couch. If he’d been in the mood to appreciate the pearl-lined cushions and gilded embroidery, falling into it would’ve been more pleasant. “Can you – just... sit, too? And possibly stop trying to kill everyone? I know it’s your ‘thing’ but I’d rather not have to fight you right now.”

I mean – it’s not like I can’t feel at all. And maybe it’s because I’m tired. You’d probably feel it.

“I don’t want to feel it,” Alex muttered. “What do I say to her?”

I dunno. Tell her you’re not an Agent.

“Would you believe that?”

I don’t believe anyone about anything. And just so you know, I’m not technically responsible for what happens to you or your foot. You’re the one who decided not to go to the hospital immediately after I told you it was broken. Which might have had something to do with the ‘date’ that’d started this. Also not my fault. Your hormones, not mine.

He rolled his eyes. Then he remembered Osono had no idea he was talking to Xander and could only conclude he’d been rolling his eyes at her. He cleared his throat, trying not to make any sudden movements beyond the walk to the couch and going over what his options were. No telling her about his powers, no telling her anything personal, no trusting her if Xander wasn’t sure she wasn’t an Agent – but there was only so much he could lean into that if the guy still thought Gwen was a possible threat – and no doing anything that’d turn the suddenly tropical climate into a burning inferno rivalling the sun. Not a lot of wiggle room, he grimly noted, and it didn’t help that she was so much more high-strung – and dangerous – than Gwen had ever been around them.

“No one is trading targets. I’m not one of ‘them’,” he began, already hating how he’d sounded. “I’m here to help... well... Okay – you know her name isn’t Stacy. ”

Congratulations.

“And... I think it’s obvious my name isn’t Ben. But I’m not here to work for them. They’re...”

Come on, Xander. What next?

Dude.

Oh, right.

“They’re after her.” And only her. “She’s like you. Except not like you because she’s...” As right as it would’ve been, saying ‘sane’ was not the best way to finish that. “She has mental abilities.” Play it down. Bare minimum. “She can communicate with us... you know – with her mind.”

We haven’t heard anything from her yet.

There was nothing in his voice to hint at whether that was good or bad.

Alex sighed and ran his hand through hair. When had this become so complicated? Having people chase him was something he was used to. Bringing someone else along wasn’t so much harder, but trying to convince a person in almost the same situation as him that they were on the same side? Or at least that they weren’t enemies.

He turned his head to the side and quickly whispered, “Can you handle this?”

Sure can! But it’s that or the foot.

“Just feed me lines.”

No can do. Gotta have the full Xander attitude. Tell me it’s not true. ... It was a little true. Fuck yeah. I’m sexy, even as a disembodied voice.

Fine. He’d do this by himself. Again.

“The Agents... uh... they are... a group of people after anyone who has powers,” he explained. “They’re crazy. The minute they have you in their sights, they don’t stop until they win. They’ll throw people at you until something breaks. Right now, they’re after Gwen. Stacy. And now they have her.”

Bile rose to the back of his throat.

Fire...

He pushed it down. He wasn’t going to smile, but scowling wasn’t a good idea.

“That Rudy guy? I’ve never seen him before. He pulled a gun on me in there – exactly the way you’re pulling one on me now – and he did that because he knew I was trying to help Gwen. If anyone traded targets, it’s him and the woman who was hunting her before. And... I don’t know what his plan was for you. Or why I put my arm around him, which was really dumb because it only happened out of some stupid fight I was having. You know, the one that led to us going to a restaurant where –”

He stopped with a strangled hack of a cough as his foot exploded to his mouth. In one river up the side of his body, every muscle seized and tore and burned –

“I’m going to say this once, out loud, to make sure everyone hears.” – his foot was splitting his leg in two – “On the very long list I have of people I want to kill, Gwen is at the absolute bottom. Barring her putting a knife in the centre of my face, that won’t change. Are we all clear, or are there any other jackass accusations I have to clear up?”

It stopped. It stopped – sweet merciful fuck, it’d stopped. His hand went out and grabbed the arm of the couch, squeezing it as if that’d get rid of everything. His side was still rigid and still reeling from the shock, but he could breathe again and nothing extra was coming from his foot.

Explain that one, shit face.

“That was... my... nothing,” he gasped, hurling out the words through a tightly clamped neck. “My foot. It’s... it acts up... and stuff... But that was true. That... was true...”

He was never going to be able to run.

Not with that attitude.

“Stop it,” Alex hissed. He coughed again, almost stuck on it until he coughed one last time. Okay. He was okay. He was good. In agony on one perfect half, but... he’d live. “Look, Osono, I can only say so much. Gwen... she’s not someone I’d ever hurt. I mean... I’ve been helping as much as I can. And I didn’t... You’re alive, aren’t you? You saw me fight – you said you liked it. If I was after you, why didn’t I take you down then? I had...” There was no way he was getting off this couch, and the instant he had a chance, he was getting a crutch. He had to handle it alone once Xander was gone and he refused to spend his first minute of freedom passed out from torture. “I had a gun, alright? I could’ve shot your leg... your arm, your shoulder, whatever, but I didn’t. It’d take less than a second to turn on you, but I didn’t. But if you don’t trust me, that’s fine.” He did the best he could to gesture at the door. “You can go. You know where I am. I’m not going anywhere until morning.”

You know that friendly barb you spat about not needing to explain what happens if we don’t make it to Gwen in time? Xander’s voice turned low. That goes for you, too.

Yeah. Yeah, he knew.

“It’s up to you,” Alex said. “Either... come with us, do what you said you wanted and help, or go. Anything after that, you roll with it, because that’s your choice and you have to back it up.”

And of course Xander had left the aspirin at the Vestal hotel. Would it have really helped?

Not in the slightest. Let’s get some morphine!

It was the sort of thing Alex had once expected would shut Xander up for a while. Unfortunately, and he’d paid for that mistake later, it hadn’t. At all.

“I’m sleeping. And I’m leaving early,” he said. “Decide fast.”

Setting

4 Characters Present

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Stewart Character Portrait: Stephanie March Character Portrait: Rudy Quin Character Portrait: Osono "Ozzie" Wallace
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#, as written by Ten
Having been in emotional states like this before, Ozzie knew the thoughts to stay away from - the ones that would absolutely trigger the reaction she was trying to hold off. Mostly it was words like, "ignition" "kindle" "combustion" "spark" and images of fires bursting to life. As she stood high-wired with the gun pointing at his face and listening to him speak, she could feel the warmth in the room reach an apex and a match appeared in her mind's eye. Frantically trying to calm herself down, she imagined it being dunked into a glass of water. It helped.

Not surprisingly, the things "Ben" said did help calm her down as well, but there were still so many things that he did that made her think he was jerking her around. First, even as she was threatening his life and about ready to obviously pop, he still found the frame of mind to mutter to himself. The calming breaths she was taking didn't do jack shit when paranoia creeped up her shoulder blades again. Who did he keep talking to? The voice in his head or the little microphone he was hiding somewhere!? The fact that he couldn't make it any more obvious was like an ineffectual murmur in the back of her head as panic ran with the idea that he was getting pointers on how to "negotiate" with her from someone.

Secondly, he had this way of speaking as if he were searching through a pile of stuff he wasn't supposed to tell her. On the one hand, she understood that with a gun to his head and explosion imminent he'd have to choose his words carefully. But on the other, all it made her think was that he was trying to think of something other than the truth to shut her up and calm her down. That wasn't the kind of response she needed right now, especially not when she was seconds away from doing something that would reveal her hand. Once she'd regained her energy back, she would have no problem setting the whole room ablaze. If she let herself panic now while she was weak, he'd know her setting the draperies on fire was the best she had right now and might take advantage of that weakness.

Other than that, the things he was actually saying got her to start breathing again and thinking somewhat rationally. He was right. He could have taken her down at any time if that had been his intention and at the time, if he was an "Agent", he'd had enough men at his disposal to help him take her into custody or whatever. But instead, he'd left her alone and fought and killed them all single-handedly. She could have left at any time and she hadn't been able to convince him to take her with him - he'd been more than ready to just leave her before making that last minute decision at the car.

All of a sudden, all her suspicions seemed more than wildly crazy, they appeared to be downright idiotic. But in her defense, he HAD been acting strangely all evening without a better explanation given except the one Gwen had offered. And after dealing with Rudy and his stupid little games all these years, an elaborate ruse just to gain her trust seemed highly plausible. What was she suppose to think?

More than his offer that she could leave at any time - and the almost weary acceptance of the fact that she might actually go - what finally got her to lower her gun was his revelations about Gwen. So, her suspicions in that regard had indeed been correct! Gwen was able to talk to people with her mind? Seemed severely limited compared to what Osono herself was able to do, but it wasn't a contest. Suddenly, Ozzie didn't feel so much alone anymore and felt an even stronger connection to the woman she'd just met this evening. Someone else like her. Ben had mentioned there were others before, but now having someone she knew possessing powers like she did, helped solidify the fact for her.

And Ben had stayed with her. From the way he spoke about Them, it seemed like he'd been dealing with these people for a long time. How long had he been running with Gwen? She had to admit, him not being a target did present something almost romantic about his dedication to his girlfriend and protecting her. Again, Osono was assaulted by guilt to realize she'd really screwed things up for the both of them.

As the gun was finally lowered and her shoulders relaxed, she let the heat in the room fade back down to normal temperatures. Not really sure what to say to him and not wanting to apologize for a second time tonight, she turned away from him and headed towards one of the balcony windows. Sliding the glass door open, she rested against the metal frame and let the cool night air flow into the room to help return some of the natural moisture to the room as well.

Looking over at him, she folded her arms, still holding the gun loosely in one hand and sneered a little at him. "You're really weird, you know that?"

It was the closest she would get to an explanation for her behavior or even remotely close to something resembling an apology for threatening him. She wasn't really sure how to talk to him other than that. The truth was, despite feeling considerably more at ease with the current situation, she honestly didn't like Ben. She didn't want to know his real name or anything about him. She didn't want to help him with his foot - whatever the hell was wrong with it - and she didn't really care if he suddenly fell apart because of it.

If she could find Gwen on her own, she would have taken his offer and left him behind. But she couldn't - she didn't even know where to begin and as far as information went, Ben outmatched her by at least 10 miles. As much as she knew about these people, he didn't need her. Hopefully she'd be able to make up for it and be able to contribute in other ways and help fix the situation she'd created.

Looking out the window, she could see La Madeleine's - mostly because of the distant flashing lights of police cars and fire trucks, so she was really guessing that it was the restaurant and not some other fire. There were probably Agents swarming the place because of the fire she'd caused - and no doubt the manager hadn't kept his mouth shut - and they were most likely searching for her trail now. She could now finally agree that possibly Ben was right about that. Setting fires in public wasn't the smartest thing to do. That was when something else he'd said occurred to her.

"Rudy threatened you?" she asked, looking back into the room at him.

In all her time spent with him, Rudy had never indicated that he even knew how to fire a gun let alone the fact that he'd never possess one. There had been times when the little weenie wouldn't shut up about this science fiction show or that freaking comic book and she'd been forced to get physical. She'd done everything from breaking a few of his fingers to pulling his hair and the shrimp had never even raised his voice in anger in response. To hear about him actually having the balls to pull a gun on someone...and kidnap someone... it didn't feel like they could be talking about the same person.

Even though she disliked Ben, she was past not trusting him anymore - at least for now - and she didn't doubt that what he'd said about Quin was true. So, it was out in the open and official now. It was real. Rudy was and had been with Them all along. She wasn't surprised though. Deep down, she'd always known.

"You asked me before why I didn't kill Rudy when I had the chance," she started, lost in thought at first and then looking directly at him. "I guess I could ask you the same thing."

That's as far as that went. She still didn't have an explanation for the way Rudy worked - especially when it had been made more than obvious to her that he'd been involved for years - but she knew it was something akin to pity with a bit of mutual play-acting that always stayed her hand. It was stupid and she was fully responsible for letting Rudy into her life over and over again, so she really wasn't in any place to accuse Ben for not doing what she'd failed to do for almost 6 years.

The room had returned to normal as far as temperature went and with the fading heat also went the rest of her energy, drained from her muscles and bones with the chill of the night air. She'd be lucky if she could create anything right now, and along with the loss of energy came the natural fatigue her body was suffering. Nonchalantly, she reclosed the balcony door, not bothering with the gossamer curtains that got stuck outside.

"Alright, schizo," Ozzie said, tucking the gun back into her pants as she approached where he was sitting on the couch, stopping just a foot away. "If you're going to sleep, can you drag yourself over to bed on your own or do you need me to help you?"

She didn't really want to - in fact the less she had to personally deal with him right now, the better she'd feel - but she was still feeling responsible for everything, even freaking out a moment before and it was the best she could offer by way of amends. Still, she hoped he said "no" and she could leave him to find her own corner of the room - preferably as far from him as possible - to settle down in.

***


"Come on! The way they ended the series was complete genius and should have satisfied all the fans!" a familiar voice said.

She felt stiff and her shoulders ached. Slowly, Gwen found herself sluggishly rising from consciousness and the first thing she became aware of besides the voices in the room, was the aches and pains in her neck and back. She was sitting up in a straight backed wooden chair, the cushions on it barely helping with the way her neck cradled her head against her chest, her hair creating a curtain around her face.

"Nuh-uh, boss," a second voice she'd never heard before said around a mouthful of food. "The whole 'we were dead the whole time' reveal was a total cop-out and the creators need to be euthanized for taking such a lame and unsatisfying direction for the conclusion."

Gwen tried to move slowly, her shoulders and neck screaming in agony, before she realized that her hands were bound together behind the chair with her arms looped through the armrests and her ankles were bound as well. Tugging lightly, and twisting her wrists within the circlets around her forearms, she came to the conclusion that they were cuffs of some kind. Each wrist was encircled by a thin, cable bracelet, but they hooked together in the middle and all her shifting around could not move them. They did not cut into her wrists either but they molded to her skin closely so no matter how she flexed or twisted her arms, the pressure did not shift or move with her but stayed constant. Moving her feet resulted in the same.

"Just-- shut up, Hoskins!" the first voice, which she now identified as Rudy, sputtered in irritation. "You obviously didn't listen to anything Jack's father said in the church and you don't really understand what happened in the Epilogue! Lost was an epic series and as soon as I file the paperwork I'm demoting you for your lack of taste!" He let out a frustrated sigh before continuing. "Look, she's finally waking up."

Blinking and squinting at the light in the room, Gwen opened her eyes and slowly looked around, memory flooding back to her in a rush. Even as she looked around and took in the lavish hotel room - a very modern design, all black, red, grey and white with smooth surfaces and sharply sloping angles with very little design and details - she was frantically reaching out for Alex and Xander. Nothing. They weren't anywhere nearby. Reaching out even further, extending her powers as far as they would go, she still came up with nothing. She did learn however, from eavesdropping on a few others within the mile radius that they were in Hammondsport - how had they gotten here so fast? How long had she been out? And where was Alex?

"Hey, sleepy head," Rudy said in a chipper voice, leaning his elbows on the table to leer at her from his seat. As she looked back at him, she noticed that the blood was gone and he had small adhesive bandages keeping the split in his scalp together. Other than that and the slightly perceptible bruising along one side of his face, centralized around his forehead and cheekbone, he looked no worse for wear. "Surprisingly, I guess you weigh less than Osono, since that pharmaceutical sample I gave you should have knocked you out for much longer." He returned to the lobster on his plate and used it to gesture with as he shrugged. "My own fault really. I totally misconstrued the content of that globular mass on the back of your hips."

Gwen blinked slowly at him. Was....was he calling her fat? Probing his mind she was met once again by that silent wall he'd had up since they'd been on the bus together. But the other man sitting at the table with him - and enjoying a very succulent steak - was an open book. Vince Hoskins was a 25 year old low level Agent, newly recruited to Ozzie's case as an in-field assistant to Rudy. He wasn't exactly sure what had happened to the team that had the case before him since the reports were extremely vague on the matter, but he wasn't exactly the questioning type. So far, Rudy hadn't made a very good impression, besides his friendly tendency to talk a lot, but Vince just wanted to keep his head down and finish this assignment without any trouble. He didn't have a perfect record, but it was all the more reason to not screw anything up if he could help it. Despite Rudy's constant promises to demote those on his team for arguing with him, so far, they seemed superficial threats at best.

"Anyways, since we made such good time on this delivery so far and your ass-face boyfriend seems to have abandoned you as a lost cause," Rudy continued, airily breaking open the bright orangish red claw in his hand. "I decided to stop for the night and have a big meal and a nice warm bed. The car was nice and all, but your phone-crushing ass was hogging the backseat."

Along with the jab about Alex, clarity came to her at that last comment. Okay, so, he was still pissed about her accidentally falling on his cell phone. Jesus, the guy was a bigger baby than Xander. At that thought it made her wonder worriedly if he really had given up on her. Would Alex let him? They didn't have much time left to get Xander into his body. Would he waste time to chase after her? Again, she found herself reaching out for him and felt herself start to choke up a bit to realize she was completely alone with this psycho who had a grudge. And delivery...?

"You hungry, tubby?" he asked while digging out the meat from the shell, pausing in between swallows to address her as if they were friends. "I'm sorry to say you missed the fajitas earlier, but we still have a few more options for you - the room service is excellent here. Since stone-cold Steph is an old friend of mine, I feel obligated to keep you in somewhat nice condition for when I finally hand you over, so it seems only fair after ruining your dinner earlier, that I offer an alternative."

Gwen had been looking around the room and probing the floor they were on for anyone outside who might be of assistance - the most she learned was that they were on the top floor, alone, and they were staying in a modern hotel called the "Quartieri" - but she instantly looked at him with wide eyes when he mentioned Stephanie.

A small smirk appeared on his face as he watched her reaction and he said, "So you know your Agent's name, huh? No surprise there, with what you can supposedly do. I looked into it. She doesn't keep any detailed Agency files on you, but I had a friend of mine hack her personal computer and we found a shit-ton of information." He dipped a long, slender piece of meat into a small bowl of melted butter and slurped it into his mouth. "I knew some of these transfer Agents got obsessed, but Steph takes the cake. File after file of audio of just you breathing. It's some really sick and fucked up shit." He rolled his eyes and then paused as if he thought of something else. "Course, then again, it IS Stephanie. I wouldn't be surprised if she also collected your old clothes and wore them in her private time."

Gwen was barely listening or paying much attention to him anymore as fear started to grip her by the throat. Stephanie. He was taking her to Stephanie! Alex wasn't here to protect her and there was nothing stopping the woman from inserting herself into Gwen's body if she wanted to! She couldn't let that happen! At least not without a fight. Frantically, she started to think of a plan while keeping herself as outwardly calm as she could.

Rudy suddenly snapped his fingers at Vince and pointed to the myriad of covered dishes arrayed on the black shining tabletop. "Feed her," he said to Hoskins, instantly turning back to his own meal and fully expecting his order to be obeyed. For a moment, Vince's face fell and his thin shoulders slumped, but he got up without complaint, only glancing at Gwen once. Looking over the different dishes and uncovering a few, he selected a pasta dish with bow tie noodles and a heavy, meaty sauce.

In the middle of chewing, Rudy shook his head and waved his hand in a canceling gesture. "Dude, that is full of carbs. Give her the chicken. The cow could use something lean in her gut for once." Again, Vince made no complaint as he reached for the lemon garlic chicken, but internally he berated his boss for the choice. Apparently, the chicken had been Hoskins next choice for a meal selection and he was sore for being made to give it to her.

Begrudgingly, Hoskins came around to her side of the table and set the plate down in front of her. Unfurling one of the black, silk napkins, he tucked it into the front of her shirt politely, and began to cut the thick chicken breast into medium bite-sized pieces. Realizing that she was still very hungry, Gwen opened her mouth willingly when he offered the first bite on the end of a fork, seemingly not wanting to get too close to her.

Having finished his lobster, Rudy started to pull Vince's plate over to himself as he asked, "Hey, you done with this? Looks delicious. I'll finish it up for you."

Startled, Hoskins turned to watch as his boss began to systematically finish the steak he'd been savoring, his mouth opening to protest but nothing coming out before it closed again. Angrily, Vince turned back to Gwen and forcefully stabbed the next bite and shoved it in her face. Fuck! And he calls the girl fat! If he weren't an A-3, I'd shoot a hole through his bottomless gut!

Swallowing the piece he'd given her, Gwen jumped on the opportunity and whispered in a low voice that echoed, " You should."

Slowly, Hoskins looked at her, blinking sluggishly as he lowered the fork with the next bite on it and stood from his seat. He was just angry enough that he was following her thought, but when he turned with his weapon pointed at Rudy, he stopped.

Rudy's chewing slowed as his eyes met the barrel of the gun in his face and he quickly looked Hoskins over and then glanced at Gwen. "Dude, relax. I'll get you another one, if you're really that pissy about it."

Hoskins arm trembled a little and sweat started to bead on his forehead. "B-boss..." he murmured anxiously, filled with doubt. Gwen didn't have time to let him change his mind; she needed to get out of here and getting rid of Rudy was the quickest way.

" Do it!" she said loudly, panic filling her even as she mentally shoved him.

It worked to get Hoskins' finger on the trigger and the gun clicked loudly as it loaded, even as Vince nervously gulped. Instantly, Rudy set aside his silverware and held his hands up a little, staring Hoskins straight in the eye.

"I want you to think about what you're doing right now. This isn't something you would normally do, is it? Think about your career and what will happen next after you pull that trigger. Do you honestly think that will be the end of it?" Vince was trembling even more now but he did not lower the weapon, keeping it aimed at Rudy's forehead from a foot away. "Just put it down. It's not your fault, buddy, alright? She's messing with your head right now and you need to regain control of yourself. You're not going to get in trouble for this - I promise - but you need to put it down right now."

Gwen could feel Rudy's empathetic tone starting to click inside Vince's head as he took big gasping lungfuls of air. " Shoot him!" she yelled in desperation, shaking her cuffs, her voice reverberating against the walls before fading. But it was no use, he was already lowering his gun, letting it fall from limp fingers. Helplessly, Gwen whimpered as she saw the charged light on the top of the gun slowly fade.

Standing fluidly, Rudy came up to Hoskins and put his hand on the man's shoulder as he profusely began to stutter an apology. "Boss...I'm so sorry... I don't know what happened... I swear, I would never...!"

Then the air crackled and burned with energy as a discharge was emitted from the gun Rudy had used before and Vince fell in a lifeless heap on the ground by the table. "Yeah, yeah, yeah-pffft!" he said, sticking out his tongue and making a small noise at the corpse.

Gwen was busy staring at the body of the fallen man - the man she'd basically gotten killed - so she wasn't paying attention to Rudy until he was standing right in front of her, carelessly kicking the body out of his way. When she looked up though, her vision exploded in black and white stars and her head whipped violently to the side when his fist slammed into her face. Her head reeled for several moments as pain filled her cheek, but she was gasping in fright a moment later as Rudy surged forward and grabbed her face, turning her to look at him.

"I want to explain something to you, since it might not be clear to your simple mind. I assume following logic is not in your skill set, so I know it's hard but let's do it together - that's what she said," he smiled cheerfully but from the tension in his body and filling the fingers that dug into her cheeks, it was more than obvious he was ready to snap her neck. "I hate you. The only reason you're alive right now, is because I need to use you to help clean up a little mess I made with some of my Agency friends. Believe me when I say, I didn't plan for you and I certainly don't have a plan for being without you. But as you can see, I have no trouble scrapping ideas that just don't seem to work at any given moment. I'm kinda a bit ADD like that."

He got closer to her and she shrunk back defensively, flinching at the cold look in his eyes. "Do not think for a minute that you're not disposable. Despite the attention the Agency has given you up to this point, you are NOT somebody special. You are NOT somebody important. You're nothing but a potential guinea pig - a plaything for people with the means and desire to manipulate the flesh and lives of others. Your death will be as much a loss as if one were to melt a plastic toy soldier in a kit of thousands. No one is going to save you. No one is going to help you - as you can see, I'm not afraid to destroy the lives of innocents that get in my way or pose a threat. If you want to live to see Stephanie, then I suggest you do the smart thing and mimic an actual mail package. Anything less than that, and I'll fill you with bullets and walk away to find something new to do."

With a harsh jerk, he released her and stood back up, seeming to regain his earlier demeanor within a few seconds. Glancing at Hoskins' body he looked back at her and said, "I also hope you know that this," he indicated the corpse. "Means you won't be eating for the rest of the trip, since I can't be arsed to hand-feed you." He looked her up and down tied as she was to her chair before continuing. "But from the looks of it, you could stand to lose a few pounds, eh, Jabba?"

After that, he returned to his seat and continued to eat while Gwen fought the urge to cry. God, where the hell was Alex? She couldn't do this on her own...

***


Stephanie moved over to her seat as she let Jason handle the explanations, keeping her newly acquired ice pack on her knuckles and occasionally checking the swelling. She would have said something in addition to Jason's words, especially with the small quips Benoit kept making, but decided the smartest thing to do was to keep her mouth shut. It would look too much like she was being defensive if she decided to add anything. So, even as Benoit drunkenly murmured about "love" being between her and Jason, she kept her stony expression and ignored him.

Besides, she had enough problems already without adding to the suspicions the two other men already had. For one thing, even with just one dose of the Atropytamine, she could feel the familiar withdrawal gnawing at her. She'd dealt with this before, so she knew what to expect - mostly, it would just feel like gravity had added 100 pounds to her body for a couple of hours and she might end up becoming a bit emotional - but it didn't make the rest of the plane ride any more fun. Mostly, she was willing to suffer through it, because the withdrawal itself made her realize that Jason had been right. She remembered what the drugs were like and what they could do and it was not smart to tie herself down with them, no matter how much it would help to erase her emotions that way. Especially not when the only drugs she had left right now were of a much higher strength than she'd ever tried before. She'd just have to let herself ween off the Atropytamine and by the time they landed in Charlton, she'd be free of it. Hopefully.

And for another thing, she was worried about how Jason was reacting to what had happened. He didn't say much and she wasn't sure if he was putting on an act looking all pouty to throw off suspicion, but it made her nervous nonetheless. She'd basically admitted everything to him - bore her soul in not so many words. Did he feel rejected because she wasn't willing to ruin her carrier just to become involved with him? Or possibly it was what she'd said afterward that had made him feel like she was caging him in? Stephanie didn't understand it and everything was too complicated for her to work through it without speaking to him again.

When Eric offered her a drink, she shook her head slowly, still lost in thought. No, that was definitely something she didn't need right now, not when her impulses were already so loose. She needed to focus on the case on getting Gwen and fulfilling her destiny. When the stewardess walked by, Stephanie stopped her and softly inquired about anything sweet she might have to snack on. When the woman brought her some thin, shortbread cookies, Stephanie opened the bag on her lap and began to lightly chew on one.

Even with her firm belief in this case and love of the Agency and what it stood for, at this particular moment, she was just emotionally fragile enough to let her mind wander. Maybe she'd been mistaken about Jason's responses to her in the bathroom. It had been years since she'd been with anyone and she was a little rusty on what the different reactions meant. It was strange, especially since at one point, she'd been so well-versed in seduction and manipulation.

Thinking about Jason made her remember why she'd taken the Gwen Stewart case and why she'd applied for body transfer in the first place: her life sucked. Not only was she a horrible person who could do nothing but get enjoyment out of hurting others, but she was incapable of connecting with others. Gwen not only wrote about the hope that love could bring and the healing itr caused between two souls, but she lived it everyday of her life. Even after the incident with the stalker, Gwen still finished her last book in the Nightshade series and it was the perfect happily ever after anyone could ask for.

Stephanie wanted that. Not just the fluffy romantic love in the words that Gwen wrote, but the unshakable optimism that lived in the other woman's heart. Gwen had no trouble finding others who were willing to love her, and she never held back her own emotions from them. Something Stephanie had thought she'd been capable of at one point... and recently had tricked herself into thinking once again...

Glancing at Jason, she thought back over what had happened in the restroom and how he was acting now and she knew that even if things were okay..they could never be together. He'd never want her. Nobody would.

Suddenly, without warning, a sorrowful gasp left her throat and tears began to stream down her face. Setting her cookies aside, she held a hand up to her mouth as she started to weep openly, turning her face away from the others on the plane towards the window. For several moments, her shoulders continued to shake as she silently cried, and the flight attendant, concerned, tapped her shoulder briefly, offering her a small plastic wrapped stack of tissues.

Defensively angry, Stephanie jerked them out of the other woman's hands and glared at her through her tears. "Beat it, wench!" she said through an emotional voice. The flight attendant took a moment to flinch before scurrying away, and Stephanie began to unwrap the tissues, sniffling as she dabbed them at her eyes and cleaned her face off. This couldn't get any worse, and she couldn't look any more pathetic.

After the tears finally stopped, she began to feel restless and gently kicked off her high heels, letting her bare feet rub against the smooth carpeting. Grabbing up her bag of cookies, she left her seat to sit Indian style on the floor in front of Benoit. She didn't say anything about her little emotional outburst and tried not to look at Jason as she offered Benoit some of her cookies before taking another for herself.

"When Quin finally delivers Gwen, I hope you'll understand if I leave you to do whatever with Alexander," she said, returning to her usual monotone. "I want to start setting her up for the body transfer as soon as possible." She did look at Jason then, but quickly discarded him from thought a moment later. It did not help anything to dwell on the things she could not have. She needed to focus on the future already laid out for her, lest she lose everything.

Setting

2 Characters Present

Character Portrait: Alexander Stall Character Portrait: Xander
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#, as written by Tartra
‘Schizo’, huh? What’d put that idea in her head?

“I’m going to stay here,” he said. “I need every second of rest I can get if I’m really going to move tomorrow.”

The crisis was over, everyone was intact, and the painful tension in his neck that hadn’t come from his foot had started to peel away. There must have been an angel watching over them, because there was no way he’d been responsible for anything that’d changed her mind. He was terrible at standoffs. Alex blamed a lack of practise, but it wasn’t his fault they always boiled down to staring contests and it wasn’t his fault if he had a good trick to win those when they happened. He didn’t know if it would’ve helped back then, though. With her on the edge of exploding, he might’ve gotten away with killing her, but his seizure-death-ray could’ve also been the trigger her powers needed to volcano the entire hotel.

Working with her was going to be a mixed bag. If patience wasn’t her virtue, they’d have to rely on her strength, and while he knew he’d have to wait before he asked what she could do – at least until he got the gun off her, he couldn’t risk her thinking he was sizing her up – if he didn’t get an answer soon, he’d either walk her to her death by sticking her in something she wasn’t ready for, ruin his plan by backing out at the last minute or severely exceeding his expectations, or run him to his grave after getting sideswiped by a move she’d quietly kept up her sleeve. Not that he wasn’t guilty of that. She knew he could fight – part of him could – but the insight stopped there if he wasn’t letting her in on it. One mistake, one misplaced look, one step in the way of what of other was trying to do, and she’d be frothing on the ground while his skin melted from his back.

Teamwork. That was their answer. It was an obvious solution, but he shook his head. To get that to work, they’d need more trust than what they were shuffling around. He had a feeling she wouldn’t’ve been so quick to aim a bullet at his face if she didn’t hate him. Maybe later he could talk her into chalking it up to stress somehow. He’d get Xander to do it.

Or you could try not being a douchebag and see how that works.

... Or he could get Xander to do it.

You’re never gonna learn if you don’t try it yourself..

There’d be time for that later. Right now, they needed to make sure the tension in here was down around ‘tolerant’, and if he sucked at standoffs, how did Xander think playing nice was going to go? Every time he blinked, he saw shadows in a fire falling to the ground, and on the back of his neck were faint beads of sweat from the sauna she’d cooked up a second ago. Better let the professional handle it so she didn’t see how little he meant whatever apology she might’ve wanted. They’d told her they didn’t want her following them off the bus, and even if it hadn’t been explicitly stated, they’d damn well laid it on thick enough for her to have picked it up. He couldn’t believe she –

“Before you run off –” Alex froze, waiting on the unbelievable torment to spring up from his foot. “– I should say thanks for helping out with those Agents. Considering the fiesta I was having with your evil-almost-boyfriend, who by the way, really needs to work on that basic bathroom etiquette, something worse could’ve happened to Gwen than getting picked up. This way, we have a shot at saving her.” Xander shrugged, like he was making the best out of it. “So thanks. Even if you made the same mistake I did. Damn – I needed one of ‘em alive. Damn, damn.”

Now we’ve gotta go on a hunt and find one of those assholes, he went on muttering. Just one code and we’ll get in. That’s it. That’s all I need.

Alex would keep an eye out. Mostly, though, he was going to take it easy. Xander hadn’t stuck him with the full weight of his miserable limb, but a solid ache had come out of it when he’d split his attention to talk to Osono. He reached out to rub it, had his hand yanked away – almost thrown into his face – and got another ache for his wasted effort. Disappointed even that was enough to make it worse, he looked at the woman again and tried to smile. It came out tight-lipped and forced. He was hammering that first impression home, wasn’t he?

“So good night,” he said lamely, unsure of what else to do and guessing that a wave goodbye wouldn’t be so bad. It sure as hell looked stupid when he did it, but he felt he got his point across. “I’ll wake you if I’m up first, if you’re sure you want to come.”

She did. That was the weird thing. She seemed genuinely interested in helping out on this.

Maybe Gwen got in her head. OoooOOOOoooOOOooooh!

That could’ve been the reason. It wasn’t out of a debt to him. Alex almost wanted to think it was possible, but Gwen only had her powers for two days. Would they be strong enough for that, especially from wherever they’d dragged her? She hadn’t talked to them yet. What if it’d already...?

They haven’t done the transfer yet.

“Glad to hear you sound so sure.”

He meant it. Alex had had his fill of Xander being human. Outside of the restaurant, plainly admitting she was gone, had flipped his stomach harder than the showdown he’d had with their new ‘friend’. No more of that again. Ever. He’d take the childishly self-absorbed robot over what the hell that’d been any day.

Well, excuse me. I didn’t realize you were gagging for an Agent after all the bitching you pulled on me.

“If we’re up against Agents, we need an Agent,” Alex concluded. “Stay focused. I’ve told you that before.”

Probably, but I wouldn’t know. You say a lot of shit I don’t listen to. His back moved as if he was trying to sit up. Get me paper.

“... What for?”

To write on, you idiot. That was more suspicious than just wanting paper. Since when did he write anyone? Since someone wanted to waste a night on fucking sleep instead of hauling ass to Charlton. I need to make this worth it. And anyway, I could use better company than your foot.

Alex sighed. He lowered his eyes to rest on his shoe. There was no way it was ever coming off – and if it did, there was absolutely no way it’d go back on.

“Are you going to be okay to watch it? Are you... tired or anything?”

Paper.

He looked around. There was a fancy-edged pad on the corner of the coffee table. With a good stretch, he nudged it over, managing to keep the silver pen from rolling off. Xander used his left hand to drop the pad on his chest, deftly clicking the end of it and immediately getting to work.

“... Uh...” Alex squinted. “You’re doing it in Braille?”

Russian Braille. In case anyone gets sticky fingers.

“... Alright.” Ten points for creativity, but he felt uncomfortable like this. “Would you mind using my right hand? I –”

Nope. Gonna write through the night, I need the hand with the stronger grip. You stud, you.

Xander.”

Go to bed. Your voice is bothering me.

Even if the guy couldn’t see it, Alex glared at him. He got the idea Xander thought it was funny before he felt his eyes close. Fine, fine. He’d go to sleep. It was the reason he’d wanted to stay here in the first place.

“You’re sure they haven’t done the transfer? She’s okay?”

If you’re worried, get up and let’s go.

The pen was lightly jabbing him like a machine, uniform and constant in its movements. Xander seemed absorbed in it already. Absently, a thin tingling came over his wounded heel. Hopefully, he didn’t get attacked by it tonight.

“How long did it take for you to transfer?”

A week. Shut up.

“Why a week? I thought –”

Old tech, now it’s new tech. Shut up.

Alex did, for nearly a second. With his eyes forced into darkness, he was beginning to realize how un-tired he was. He’d pay for that in the morning, he knew. For now, he asked, “What’re you writing?”

‘A hundred ways to kick Alex’s ass if he doesn’t shut the fuck up and go to sleep’.

Ah, one more couldn’t hurt.

“Where’d you learn Russian? And Braille?”

I’m very seriously considering putting this pen through your neck.

“Are you Russian? Are you blind? Are you left-handed? Is that –” The light jabbing stopped. “I’m just curious. It’s not like I won’t find out in a day anyway.”

Then it won’t be a long wait. Now if you’d kindly close your trap so I can think, I’d be much obliged. He went back to writing. Can’t keep wasting my strength on babysitting. And you know this is twice you’ve gypped me out of a bed. In a row.

“I’m sure she won’t mind if you crawl in,” Alex grunted. “I give it ten minutes before you try to sleep with her anyway, and fifteen before you do.”

Poppycock. It wouldn’t take that long.

“Mind the burning sensation. There’s probably eight ways to get it from her.”

And you’re surprised she doesn’t like you. Fire’s a sterilizer, f-y-i.

“I didn’t ask for her to like me. I don’t care. She’s here to get us to Charlton and then she can throw herself on the next bus and ruin someone else’s life,” Alex told him. “What makes Gwen so special she suddenly wants to help? There’s no reason for her to put her life on the line.”

Mm.

“That’s a lousy answer.”

Dude.

“Okay, I’m sleeping,” Alex said, sick of talking to him anyway. “Good night. Wake me up.”

I went from a high-class assassin to a glorified alarm clock. These’re tough times.

Alex dropped away faster than he’d thought. The tiny bit of satisfaction he got out of it was knowing he’d been right about needing to rest. In the morning, he swore he wouldn’t stop until he found her again.

... In the meantime, he’d dream up a way to hate Osono less. It’d be in everyone’s best interest.

* * *


Was she crying?

“Oh, no,” Eric tut-tutted. “That won’t do. I can’t nap when there’s tears.”

Fortunately for him, Jason’s lead handled the problem alone. She’d gotten up and settled down beside Benoit, who’d graciously accepted her offer and come back with his own: a full glass pushed into her hand whether she wanted it or not.

“Believe me when I say we’ll all need more of that to get through this,” Benoit said. “Except for Eric. He’s powered by loathing and the blood of children.”

“Speaking of which!” Eric had his phone out and was dialling excitedly. “Thanks for reminding me, Benny. I’ve gotta check on little Nay-Nay.”

He did that. He was chatting instantly with an Agent on his team.

“I don’t trust this ‘Quin’,” Jason said. “He’s going to hand deliver our target? Why waste the time? He should’ve dropped her off in the care of someone else and gone back to work catching his.”

“You sound upset,” Benoit said. “Shouldn’t you be thrilled your work is done?”

Not in the slightest. With his target apprehended, there was no shot at redemption left for him. He didn’t want her to escape again – time to let her powers grow would make her virtually invincible – but he needed something to do. If that ‘Quin’ was going to get the glory for bringing in his lead’s pet, the suit slayer, then maybe there’d be hope for him there, too. If he found a way to get to the fire woman...

“Nathan! How’s Elmira treatin’ you?” Eric nodded like he was listening intently. “Good, good – glad to hear you’re rested up. Who’s watching you? ...Well – great! Put ‘er on!”

“What do you think happened to his target?” Jason wasn’t entirely comfortable asking any of them a question. If the A-1 was on the phone and his lead was... something... then it meant he was stuck asking Benoit. If the man had just a little less poise, he would’ve been singing about now. Jason certainly would have, but it turned out Frenchie was better with wine than he’d ever be. “Do you she ran off?”

“Why wouldn’t she?”

Jason tried to ignore that answer in favour of having a little hope. Benoit didn’t know the girl; his specialty began and ended at Alexander. Then again, he was probably talking of out common sense. If he’d changed plans to grab someone else and take off, would he honestly expect his target to wait around?

“You’re keeping him fed and everything, right? I know it’s only been a few hours, but I worry. I mean – the last time a certain someone let him prance around on his own, he ran into Alex after a week. Can you imagine the work I would’ve wasted if he let it slip I’m alive? Xander would not be happy and then I would not be happy,” Eric said, picking at the end of Jean’s shirt. He seemed sombre now. His voice was still loud, but it was softer than it’d been before. “Where’s that head I asked for?”

He hadn’t done anything with the bottle Eric had passed over. He’d simply let it sit on his thigh, on its edge, idly picking at the cap with his glove. On the one hand, it wouldn’t make anything worse. On the one hand, he could use something to lose his stress. On the one hand, it beat having to not think about his lead and what she was up to. On the other... there was... probably a good reason or two.

He opened the bottle.

“I’m going to take it as permission to drink if the rest of you are doing it,” he said.

“Peer pressure,” Benoit said. “You aren’t very reliable on the ‘think for yourself’ front. You should work to improve that.”

“Thanks.” Jason opened it faster.

Click. Eric snapped his phone shut. The man was back in that world of his for a while, until he turned around and smiled serenely. Jason couldn’t quite make it out from where he was sitting, which was immediately behind the A-1, but it looked as if his eyes had fallen on his lead.

“You’re more than welcome to do whatever you need to make sure your job is done,” Eric said, “but I have to supervise. And frankly, I’d prefer to have it done in Elmira. I trust the equipment there more than any backwoods lab.” His head craned to face Jason. “As for you – oh, I certainly hope she isn’t gone. Big plans for her. It’d be nice if I could talk to the lead in charge, but apparently –” He wiggled his phone at all of them with a distinct air of annoyance. “– no one’s picking up.”

“I’ll order the caskets,” Benoit replied.

“Would you? I’ve had my people ring their people for two minutes and nothing. They’ve got orders to keep trying but...” He shrugged. “I dunno. Someone’s getting fired – that’s all I can say.”

Jason had missed the joke. Eric was laughing again.

“What do you want us to do? Find our target and bring her to Elmira? That opens the door to another chance at escape,” Jason explained. “We should keep the distance we have to travel with our case as small as possible. Charlton might not be as advanced, but it’ll do the trick. It’s safer.”

“That’s very reasonable of you to say. And very true,” Eric said. “Let me ask you this: what about Alex?”

Jason frowned.

“What about him?”

Benoit was offended.

“From what we know,” Eric began, “Alex and Gwen are on their way – were on their way – to Charlton to do a wonderful, fluttery, butterfly reverse-transfer. That puts him on a direct collision course with where we’re going this instant. Owing to the fact Alex was in miserable shape leaving our happy home, it’d make sense for them to want to continue what they’d started, get his body back, then make a play to save his dear lady. But we have a jet.” He waved his hand at the window in the case they’d forgotten they were in the air. “We beat Alex to Charlton, we get your Gwen, we whiz over to Elmira, then Xander has to drag a bloodied corpse a full trip and a half to find us. Trust me: going to Elmira boosts our chances. That is safer.”

It didn’t matter if Jason found a hole in his logic. Eric was sitting forward again, relaxing in his seat. He must not have wanted to discuss it any further. As if to prove it, the sense of him returning to his thoughts flooded the cabin and brought on a hefty silence. Jason couldn’t bring himself to break it by asking for a glass, so he did the considerate thing and drank from the bottle. With any luck, no one planned on sharing with him. With even more luck, by the end of the hour, there’d be none left to share.

Setting

2 Characters Present

Character Portrait: Stephanie March Character Portrait: Osono "Ozzie" Wallace
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#, as written by Ten
Oh, good! That was a relief! Not only did she not need to haul his cripple ass up and tuck him in, she got the bed too! And Osono didn't even pause to think of the pain she'd seen him display both here and at the restaurant and how he probably needed the bed more than she did right now. If he didn't want it - whether out of some chivalrous notion because she was a woman or because he was too pathetic to limp from one space to the next - she wasn't going to play some stupid social game of "No, you go ahead, I insist!" just to convince him he was wrong. In her mind, if you offered, then you expected it to be taken - just as she had when asking if he needed the help in the first place. Not her fault if he wanted to screw around and play "nice guy" games without knowing she didn't participate in bullshit.

So, she was understandably eager to get to it - not only to explore the kind of crib this place housed, and to get the hell away from his creepy ass but also because she was incredibly tired herself - and ground her teeth together as he stopped her to continue talking. But she paused as it sounded like he was actually grateful for her involvement back at the restaurant. And here she'd been under the impression that she'd done nothing but screwed his whole freaking life up and thoroughly disgusted him with how she'd dealt with the Agents on her end. She waited for him to get touchy-feely about it, but he didn't and kept it pretty low-key and distant while still allowing her some amount of praise in her efforts. It almost made her want to insist he take the bed. Almost.

Then he said something about needing one of the Agents alive and she assumed it was for the same reason she'd planned on finding one of them before he'd let her join him. So that was a bit disheartening. Apparently he wasn't so chock full of information as she'd originally thought and these Agent-people still had something more that he needed. She didn't know why but she'd been hoping when he'd said he had a "plan" back there, that he actually knew where he was going and what he was suppose to be doing. Maybe she'd get to set her public fire afterall.

Ozzie tapped her booted foot lightly for a few moments, waiting for him to say something in conclusion when her eyes drew back up to watch him spaz out a little with his hand. She raised a curious eyebrow that instantly vanished as he did something that REALLY sent a shiver up her spine - the jerk freaking smiled at her. Needless to say, the moment was incredibly awkward and Ozzie couldn't help the slight curl to her lip and narrowed gaze she gave him in return - who the fuck are you smiling at?

And then he was uttering the magic words and she quickly turned from him, not even waiting to see him wave dumbly at her. If he never pulled that kind of facial expression with her ever again, it would be too soon. And even though it had been extremely awkward, as she was walking away from him towards the part of the room that was sectioned off for the bedroom, she did actually appreciate him saying what he did. She could have guessed from him allowing her to come with him that he appreciated her help on some level...but it was still kinda nice to hear it.

That got her to remember the reason they were even together - this was for Gwen. He'd made no secret that he blamed her for what had happened and although it had just occurred when he'd told her off at the restaurant and could be blamed on trauma and stress or whatever, it was more than clear that he didn't like her. And from her own behavior back, he would have to be a dense idiot not to realize the feeling was mutual. But if he was willing to set that aside enough to make the situation better for the goal they were both striving for, then she was too. For Gwen. But she curled her lip again as she closed the dark wood doors separating this part of the room from the other, silently praying that he didn't expect her to get mushy or soft or anything stupid like that. She didn't usually like people and Rudy put up with a lot of abuse - to the point where it almost seemed like he liked it sometimes. She'd need to get used to traveling with someone and not being a bitch constantly. Hopefully they'd find Gwen quick.

Turning to look into the room, Osono stopped sneering instantly, her face blossoming in her own version of a smile as she regarded the bed she'd get all to herself.

***

As the wine-glass was placed in her hand, Stephanie politely took it from Benoit, pleased on some level to be sharing "snacks" with him, but she did not drink from it and just let the glass rest on her folded thigh as the conversation continued. She understood what he meant and a part of her agreed, but another part of her was still worried about her loss of control of the EDP. And already, she was feeling the weight of the Atropytamine starting to press more and more on her shoulders. It was a contest to keep focused on the conversation while still keeping her back straight and stop herself from slouching. Alcohol might help relax the effects but it would also loosen other things about her that really didn't need any more loosening as it was.

When Jason voiced his concerns about Quin, Stephanie wasn't really sure what to say at the moment. When she'd been in training to become an Agent, Rudy had been a part of the same group as she was and under the same supervisor. Back then, she'd been involved with doing her own thing and enjoying life before she needed to buckle down and get serious. But from what little she remembered of the other Agent was from the times he made a spectacle of himself during training and the intimate affair they'd had.

He'd been into the scene and willingly became one of her toys at the time, but he was not a true submissive personality. Although he gained a certain amount of pleasure from being forced to do things by an authority figure, there was always something under the surface with him, some private part of himself held in reserve that never gave in. And he was a manipulative little bastard. She wasn't sure what he had planned as far as bringing Gwen to her, but she knew there was going to be a string attached to the gift. But another thing she remembered about Quin was that he had a tendency to half-plan, so she was depending on that for whatever ace he thought he had up his sleeve.

While Eric had been on the phone, Stephanie had been paying only slight attention, nibbling on her cookies and listening to Benoit slur at Jason in their little back and forth. But when the phone clicked shut, her focus fell on the A-1 and she felt her eyes get wide and her gaze hard as he mentioned taking Gwen to Elmira for the transfer. Everything seemed to fall away from her then and for several seconds she struggled with the urge to scream. No! She'd planned for Charlton! All she needed to do was hold on until Charlton! This flip-flopping around would take longer and keep her from her goals for an even longer time! She didn't want to! She wouldn't!

As always, her partner anticipated the appropriate questions to ask and voiced them - as far as observations and gathering information together, he still had that skill regardless of whether the suit was helping him or not. Eric's elaborated explanation got her to understand and calm down about it, but she didn't like it any more than she had before. Of course it made sense and she knew Alex would jeopardize everything if he were present while she was trying to get what was rightfully hers, but still! The delay seemed to add another weight onto her shoulders and it was becoming harder and harder to bear.

Letting out a stressed breath, and without pausing to think about it, she took up the glass Benoit had given her and quickly emptied it with several gulps. She'd never been a very big wine drinker, but from as far as she could tell, it was fairly decent and a certain numbness descended in her shoulders where the current pressure had been building. Silently, she tipped the glass at Benoit and he willingly poured her another from his bottle. In the middle of her third glass was when she finally decided to slow down, the weight in her shoulders mellowing out until she couldn't even feel it any more.

Lounging back on the floor and holding herself up with one stiff arm, she unfurled her legs and let her bare feet rub into the carpet, tipping her head back to regard the lights in the cabin. She could wait until Elmira. Everything was finally coming together and the road ahead seemed to twist and swerve perilously, but the goal was in sight and within reach. And this thing with Jason, whatever it was anymore, she wouldn't let it get in her way.

That thought made her think of how he'd been in the restroom with her, the pressure of his hands on her shoulders as he'd pushed her back into the wall. She'd wanted to break him, to uncover his hidden self, to find out what made him tick. She'd only been playing for most of the trip, without any regard for things actually going anywhere. He'd been an idle distraction and something to occupy her time while she pursued her target. A toy to play with and then toss away when it was time to get down to business.

But what had happened in there had been serious. She'd let herself become excited by the prospect of owning him, willing for at least 10 whole minutes to throw away everything she'd planned for in pursuit of him. And then the way he'd reacted... She wanted that. It wasn't possible and it wasn't ever going to be possible, but she couldn't deny the fact that she greatly desired to be his. For the first time since she'd become a Lead Agent, she found herself torn between her desire to continue with her mission and her desire to stay as she was. For the first time...she actually had the desire to stay.

They sat brooding in silence for almost an hour before she started to feel uncomfortable sitting on the floor. With a soft, breathy groan, she rose from the ground and stretched slightly, taking her still half-full glass with her as she wandered over to Jason's seat. Gently, she nudged his arm out of the way with her hip as she perched upon his armrest and clung to the back part of his chair to keep herself sitting and balancing there, half-leaning into his personal space.

"As soon as I heard about it, I was smitten by the idea of the body transfer," she said softly. It had been a while since Eric had said anything, and although she didn't want to disturb him and kept her voice low, she was at a point where she didn't really care. "Not just the glamorous allure of gaining someone's powers and being able to wield them as my own - although that is certainly nice, it wasn't what really hooked me about the process. It was more the process itself - sucking your mind and consciousness out of your body and placing it into someone else's. The ultimate domination of someone's life from the inside out. To become someone else..." To not be me.

"It was with that in mind that I've prepared all these years. I gathered as much as I could know about her - everything, right down to the last detail, until the cadences of her life were so ingrained within me, it was like I already was her. Grooming myself for the final transformation." She adjusted her position slightly on the armrest, allowing her body to brush close to him for a moment and practically sitting in his lap. "I knew exactly when her powers were meant to awaken, predicted everything accurately about what we were to expect from her."

For a moment or two she fell silent, her leg curling under his to rub the top of her bare foot against the back of his calf and ankle in a small, hidden gesture. She didn't know why she was confiding in him. It wasn't like it would change anything. But for some reason at that particular moment, she wanted him to know these things and she didn't see a point in stopping once she'd started. It occurred to her that Benoit and Eric were still within ear-shot, but that didn't seem to matter either. "By the time I finally gave the order for her capture, I didn't even really consider myself as me anymore, but a shadow of her. Do you know what it's like to suddenly wake up and not recognize yourself? It's both beautiful and terrifying."

Glancing out the window beside him, dawn was quickly approaching in just a few hours more, the black-blue of the sky already chasing away some of the stars. She drained her glass and looked at the emptiness within the belly of the cup. "Don't worry about Rudy," she said, her voice returning to the icy monotone and her tattered mask fitting back in place. "From the conversation I had with him, he seemed to be under the impression that he was in some sort of trouble - which being responsible for the death of Eric's men at the restaurant, he is. And he seems to be under the delusion that he has something with which to bargain. I have a few ideas of what it might be, because of our history together, but it's nothing to worry about. Like with everything, he underestimates everyone involved, especially me. If he knew any better, he'd understand that when it comes to her, I'm not fucking around with bullshit and nothing will stand in my way."

Having said what she'd wanted to get across, she stood from her perch and left his side to sit back in her seat with a small sigh. Watching out her window, she waited for the sun, sleep not finding her despite the fatigue that seemed to drag within her bones.

***

In the night, Osono had opened all the curtains in her secluded room, so when the sun started to peek over the horizon, she could feel the distant ball of fire making it's ascent into the sky. It was like being awakened by a song as the light cascaded onto her face, the chill of the night rushing into the far corners to hide in the still clinging shadows. Dreams escaped her as she squinted with a half-smile and stretched at the just barely lightened sky, the rays of light filling her with a distant energy that was more a comforting presence than any actual physical boost.

The bed had been glorious, as they usually were in these high-class places, and she tossed the covers off before venturing to step lightly on the chilled carpeting in her bare feet. Still dressed in her tank top and black pants, she rushed to the bathroom and quickly got herself cleaned up before slipping her boots and heavy army jacket back on. Peeking into the other room before she entered, she saw that Ben was still here and on the couch where she'd left him. Remembering yesterday, she felt a bit of distaste fill her at the prospect of being with him again - he seemed so much nicer like this; couldn't she just lug him around in a state of constant sleep? - but she was eager to get moving.

The sun had barely made it above the horizon fully as she walked into the room to open the curtains in here and open the balcony door. Reaching into her pocket she dug out her cigarettes and lit one up, letting out a long, drawn out sigh of smoke through the open door. Letting the cigarette hang from her lips, she approached the couch and tapped him lightly, yet insistently on the cheek. "Hey...Hey you..." she said softly, trying to be non-obtrusive.

Then she quirked her lips and slapped him with the flat of her palm to leave a nice stinging sensation across the right side of his face. "Hey schizo! Time to hit the road! Get yer lazy ass up!"

Setting

2 Characters Present

Character Portrait: Alexander Stall Character Portrait: Xander
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#, as written by Tartra
The night had taken its dear sweet time to pass. More than once, Alex had woken up, panicking over the lost feeling in his foot but remembering why he’d been okay with it when Xander let a blip of pain fall through to shut him up. It happened three times during the night, he figured, and all the while, that jabbing on his chest had gone on.

He was awake before he thought he was awake. His eyes were closed and he drifted in and out of a half-real dream, slowly warming to the feeling of daylight but too stuck in his fatigue to rise to it. If it hadn’t been drilled in to him over the years that moving around on whatever he was using as a bed was a bad idea, he would’ve rolled over. On his side, a hand could’ve flopped down, and the smack of it on the ground would’ve been enough to at least take a look at what was happening around him. But it was fine. He was tired. This was nice, laying here like he – “What the fuck, Xan-sono.”

‘Xansono’?

The anger flooded back in. He’d sat up and brought a hand to his face, curling his lip back and nearly baring his teeth.

“You couldn’t stop her from doing that?”

Stop her? Hell – she beat me to it.

Great. He had to put up with this shit from two people.

“Glad to see you’re up,” Alex snapped. “Sort of.” So much for being nice. This is how it was going to go? Fine! He was better at handling this garbage than being friendly, anyway. “Let’s try to – dammit – what the hell!” Again! Again he’d been hit in the face, this time by his own hand – which shouldn’t’ve surprised him in the least, but had somehow managed to.

Ha, ha – now you’re schizo and you have tourettes. And because that amazingly wasn’t enough, in the split instant Osono took to blink, Xander slapped him for the third time. Let’s move, patty-cake. Quit standing around.

He wasn’t even standing! He was still sitting on the couch, and by the way, everyone in this room was an asshole. And seriously? She was smoking again? That wasn’t what he wanted to wake up to! Hadn’t this week been horrible enough with one more thing to dig at him all day?

“Don’t you fucking dare,” he hissed at the twitch in his left arm. Louder, to Osono, just as reluctant to talk to her as last night, he said plainly, “I’m going to the washroom. Stay here.”

He now regretted giving her the bed.

Oh – so now you want the bed. Okay.

It was bright in the room she’d come out of. Sunlight spilled out of the door, heating the carpet and making a soft path he was sure would’ve helped with his foot. He didn’t have the frame of mind to waste his time hanging around in the bathroom when he got to it. He’d seen stuff like it before, even if he absently admitted it was nice. The novelty had worn off. He’d been in there for only five minutes and every last one of them was spent wondering what the hell he was going to walk back into when he went out there. When he did go out and found everything more or less singe-free, he was even more annoyed. Her not burning things probably meant she’d been snooping, and while he could say she’d been ‘justified’ to dive through his bag to get his passport – one of four, actually – he frowned at it like everything else he’d seen her do.

On the couch was the pad of paper he’d left Xander to fiddle with. Alex realized the guy hadn’t been writing when he woke up, but he might’ve just stopped to enjoy the smack in Alex’s face and forgotten to go on with it. That very clearly turned out not to be the case. As he got back to where he’d been sleeping and found the paper lying there, a quick glance and study of the bend in every page proved he’d been writing until he’d run out of room.

“Russian Braille,” Alex muttered, rolling his eyes. He picked it up and leafed through it. They were very pretty dots. Good work, Xander. And he supposed there was no point in asking how he’d written so neatly with his eyes shut. “What does it say?”

It lists our next move, he replied. On there’s a bunch of addresses and shit. I think – I think those’re the locations of some Agency bases. Small ones. Offices, really.

“You want to go there because...?”

We need an Agent.

“And you expect to ring on the doorbell and ask them what you want?” If this was going to be another conversation, Alex better start coughing or something. He picked rasping very lowly and very quietly in his throat. The schizophrenic thing was a good excuse. Had Gwen come up with it? She’d made it much easier on him. “How many addresses are there?”

... Five.

“That sounded confident.”

I’ve never been here before. I’m going off of what I can vaguely remember from the old days.

“‘The old days’? Six years ago?”

Eight.

“I bet half these places don’t exist anymore,” Alex said. He leafed through the dots again, like he was trying to verify the information. It was stupid for several reasons. “We’re not going to get anything out of it.”

I know two important facts. Number one, we – meaning her and me because you sat in the back like a bitch as usual – killed a lot of Agents yesterday. They’ve got to be scurrying to get a hold of us. Maybe they were expecting it if it was just her, but throw me into the equation, throw in a definite survivor – That meant Rudy. – and you can bet your ass they’ve got another team out combing the place for us. It’s too much of a threat to let lie. Number two, those addresses, while very likely abandoned, are still on record as having been Agency-owned property. We knock out one? Coincidence. Two? They know something’s up. Three, and we’ve sent a very clear message. By the time that happens, they’ll know where we are, then we grab a good one and get a code or two from his skull.

“That’s assuming these addresses are right,” he grumbled.

Yeah, well... Best I can do. But we might get lucky and run into their forces without having to hunt them down.

It’d be quite the timesaver.

“These are on the way to Charlton, right? We’re not going out of our way?”

That first one is. The rest are relatively on the way. I think.

“And you’re sure this is what we have to do?”

We need an Agent. After that, the rest of it falls into place.

“About that,” he said. “What’s the rest say?”

Just stuff. Just sort of guessing at what we’d be up against.

Alex frowned and put the pad in his pocket, muttering, “We’re screwed if you needed every page to sum it up.”

They’re high estimates. I wanted to cover the worst-case scenario. Plus, I forgot – like – half the Braille contractions and those pages are tiny. There’s much less on there than you think.

So he said. What was Alex supposed to do, double-check? ...Wait a minute.

“How long did it take you to do...?”

I was done at around four-thirty.

And if it was seven or so now, that meant he’d had about two hours to do whatever he’d wanted... and he’d had a pen...

Alex turned around and made perfectly sure Osono couldn’t see. Then, almost terrified at what the latest ‘masterpiece’ would be, he lifted up the front of his shirt and –

“Wow.”

Yup!

“That... is... incredibly graphic.”

‘Graphic’? What? It’s adorable! I drew a farm.

“No – I get that it’s a farm,” Alex said. “It’s everything else. Like the people.”

I’ve got some sheep in there and some goats...

“In the middle of a writhing orgy. Thanks, Xander. Now I have another reason to not be allowed in public.”

I even put it upside down so you could see it properly. I was gonna do it backwards, but I thought an hour and a half of effort was enough. ... An hour and a half still meant he’d – And then I spent the rest of the night drawing a penis on your neck. Sorry, but not really. I think we should frame it.

And as Alex was marched to march to the bathroom a second time, firmly smacking his arm over his neck – he knew he’d felt something, he knew he hadn’t woken up at night for the fun of it – and ripping a washcloth from the mound of towels hanging on the wall, he exploded in a seething, “We’re supposed to be getting Gwen! We don’t have time for this, you moron!”

Awww, you’ll miss it when it’s gone. Jesus. Alex could’ve almost called Xander ‘nice’ for telling him about the neck ink, because if he’d walked outside with that still on his skin... Lighten up. Gwen’s going to be fine. The way I see it, she has three days before anything happens. Maybe two. We’ve got plenty of time.

“Yeah? This coming from the dick who whined for an hour about spending in a hotel?”

I worked it out, Xander said, in a voice that would’ve been soothing if Alex wasn’t washing a penis off his neck. I’ve got a solid theory in place that keeps her safe for a while.

“What theory?”

It’s got everything to do with Peter. Half the humour in his words died at the mention of that name. Xander paused for a moment, as if he needed a break after saying it, then pushed on a decided, He’s back. Those bee-guards were proof.

“Not a lot of proof,” Alex pointed out.

Exactly the right amount. He’s back. He’s alive. I don’t know how, but he is. Another break. Something like a pissed off huff. And the way I see it, he’s got enough reason to want you, Gwen and Osono alive for another day.

Twenty different thoughts flitted through his mind, all of them more plausible than the last. Alex stopped scrubbing long to ask, “What reason?”

Don’t worry about it now. Let’s stay focused on the job and leave Peter and his fucked up projects for another time.

‘Fucked up’ was definitely the proper term. Peter was sick. Something had been very slightly off about him even in the overwhelming charm he’d thrown out years ago. The fast taste of what it’d been when they’d tapped into it had been what Alex needed to be proud of Xander for killing him. Having him back... It felt like something was hanging over their heads, not quite ready to leave the shadows and swing at them, but certainly close enough to breathe down their necks.

“Two days? You’re sure?”

Two days, I’m positive. Three days, I’m fairly sure. If we go now, we should make it to Charlton by evening. If I drive, I mean.

“Or we take a bus,” he said. “After her, there’s not much worse we can run into, and I don’t think it’s smart to take the Corvette. The owner could’ve reported it by now.”

Fine, fine. A stupid bus. That’ll mean late evening. Then he added, She’ll be fine until then. It’s not like Peter would let anything happen to her now.

There was the question of how Peter would make sure of that floating in the room. Alex ignored it. He didn’t want Xander’s opinion. Just this once, he’d stick to being ignorant and hang on to the hope that that traitor called the shots from behind some desk rather than slink onto the front lines.

“No more pens,” he muttered, before tossing the inky-cloth in the sink and heading outside. He hobbled to his bag and took out his deodorant. That’d have to work in place of a new shirt for now, because he’d prefer to use the time spent changing on moving to that bus.

“Morning, Sparky,” Xander popped in over his shoulder. “Sleep well? ‘Cause that bed looked awesome. By the way, we’re gonna hit up Starbucks, then blow some shit to the moon. You know. Their buildings. Sound fun?”

If he was getting giddy about destroying something, Alex could only imagine how happy Osono would be. She struck as the type of person who’d drool over an exploding office. One more point against her, he mentally noted.

“We’ll be in Charlton by night, apparently,” Alex said, wrestling back control. “We have to move fast, though. Come on.”

* * *


Don’t think about it. Don’t think about it. Don’t think about it. Don’t think about it.

It didn’t matter how close she was. He knew what she was trying to do. Jason stubbornly refused to move his leg when her foot rubbed against it. He was sick of her game and he was backing out. To commemorate that decision, he took another swig from his bottle.

He tried not to listen to what she was saying. It wasn’t anything important – or at least nothing directly related to his work on the case – and he knew giving in would grant her another edge over him. But she was sitting so close... Don’t think about it. Don’t think about it.

He didn’t. He went to sleep. He didn’t have much of a choice, since Benoit wasn’t talking and the A-1 seemed to be mulling something over. It wasn’t until he got sunlight in his eye that everyone was let in on what that was. It looked like his lead had had an effect on someone after all.

“That was beautiful,” Eric said through a grand, weepy smile across his face. “What you said? Stephanie? That was gorgeous. You’re really something. You’ve got this... this passion I can’t wrap my head around. It really puts a point on how far I’ve fallen. I used to get excited, too! Now the only thing I’ve got left is the highest rank in the Agency, a bitchin’ sweet army of underlings, at-will access to every piece of tech this group’s got to offer, and all the corpses I could ever need. But I don’t have love, man! Y’know? Love.

“You can manage,” Benoit grunted.

He seemed to have woken up when Eric broke the silence, and if the sharp irritation on his face was any indication, the man’s voice was making a certain someone’s hangover jump from perfectly ignorable to steadily ill.

“That’s what they say,” Eric said. “But you’ve gotta wonder if there’s anything more to life than ‘managing’. What would I have been like if I’d done something else?”

“If you had picked a profession that didn’t involve raping the sanctity of death? Don’t be foolish, Eric,” Frenchie said. “This is what you were meant to do.”

“I like to think I’d be a doctor. I’m all about helping people.” Benoit didn’t bother pretending he had an answer to that. Jason laughed a little – in his bottle, though. “Anyway, Stephanie, you’re an inspiration. I truly hope you get exactly what you’re aiming for, so you can show the world and the Agency what a successful transfer is supposed to be. I’d like to see that. I’d also like to have a one on one chat with your friend. He’s the guy? Hang on a sec.” Eric’s phone was open again. “Lyddie! Hey – run the name ‘Rudy’, would ya? He’s some backwater A-3 or A-4 on the fire girl case – sweet Ozzie. Let him know we need to chat. Like – now. And that his rank drops a level every minute I’m stuck waiting. And that three minutes means he dies.” Eric turned to them and silently mouthed, “I’m kidding – he dies anyway.” Then he grinned and swept his hand in front of his neck as if he was putting an end to any urges to ‘tell’. “Oh! And be sure to say ‘good morning’.”

This probably wasn’t what Jason’s lead had meant by not having to worry about him anymore.

He looked over at her.

No, no, he stopped looking. He stopped. He went back to not thinking about it. That was what she wanted. Another puzzle piece had filled in while he’d slept: she tried to let him think she was opening up to him, let see something he could call vulnerable, spark a need to give back and open up in nearly the same way, except it’d be different because she wanted him to be honest. No. Hell no. He had his friend, Mr. Wine, and if they were at war in his gut and his head right now, he was satisfied with the relationship. Doubly satisfied, actually. If Quin died, maybe he could take his place. Jason couldn’t be any worse at it, that was for sure. The thought made him laugh.

Ow. His head. He rubbed his temples and winced. This was why it wasn’t a smart idea to follow the cues of a man who’d gulped down three bottles without so much as a hiccup. Jason was not cut out for drinking this. He’d manage. He’d survived his suit’s withdrawal. It was just a pain to have to go through it again, especially coupling it with the fact that his withdrawal had sunk in once he’d signed that form.

“How much longer until Charlton?”

“Twenty minutes,” Benoit said, looking at his watch. “We had to stop at another airport because Eric wanted ice cream.”

“That’s right,” Eric chirped. “I got some ice cream while you guys were sleeping. I would’ve offered you some but – uh... well, Jason didn’t wake up and I didn’t want to bother our insightful Miss March. And Benoit hates joy, so he wasn’t allowed any.”

... Ice cream. Ah, the great perks of the A-1 rank.

Did anyone mention that stopping for ice cream could’ve been a bad idea if Alexander made it to the Charlton before they did? What was he saying – of course not. If Jason had been asleep, the voice of reason had gone with him. At least they were ready to land shortly. They could make up the time.

Landing was not going to be fun in his condition.