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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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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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#, as written by Tartra
“Sir?”

Eric stopped walking and turned around, hitting Jason with a delighted curve of his mouth from this apparently pleasant interruption. His phone was in his palm and he’d been tapping away at it, but although he took his other hand away and patiently let it rest in his pocket, the phone stayed out and stayed in the picture. If he was working, Jason could... no. No, he couldn’t come back later. This had to be settled now.

... But if Eric was busy...

“Jay-jay! What’s cookin’ in that brain of yours?”

A massive weight fell from his shoulders. Permission to speak. He didn’t have to put this off.

“Sir,” he said, “I feel it’s in the Agency’s best interest to allow me to carry on in this assignment.”

“Oh?”

Jason felt awkward again. That one sound told him more than anything else Eric could’ve said. It’d been polite and happy, but it was sceptical too, and the way the A-1 was waiting for him to keep going was like an impossible challenge to prove himself. If Jason did it, he’d get what he wanted and have that salvage option for his record, but it’d seem as if he’d told Eric – to his face – that he was wrong. If he didn’t do it, Eric would be thrilled, but then Jason... and Stephanie...

“I’d like to be able to do it while remaining in possession of my –” He’d been demoted. “... in possession of the Agency’s suit.” Jason stood with his back tall, trying to will his way to winning this with through posture alone. Considering everything else that seemed to impress the man, it could actually do the trick. “I understand the protocol surrounding your decision, but I’d also like to remind you of my record to this point. I’ve put in several solid years of wearing this and I’ve brought in hundreds of very specific and very tangible accomplishments in almost every Agency division – including the public ones.” He felt like he’d said this a thousand times already. If he had, it was good to know it was consistent when it got replies: Eric, beyond his smile, looked damn bored. Jason sighed. “Sir, I can be here all day trying to convince you –”

“Oh, don’t do that.” Now beyond his smile, Eric looked pained.

Jason went on. He refused to give up.

“You have the authority to ignore protocol at the drop of a hat.” He felt very stupid explaining to the A-1 what the A-1 could do. “You’ve been doing it all day – and all of yesterday!”

“Have I?”

“No.” He paused, long enough to let the flutter of panic in his chest do its work. He meant ‘yes’, obviously, and anyone who’d been following along knew Eric had been more than loose with rules since he’d arrived, but calling attention to it outside of thanking the man wouldn’t do much besides piss him off. A-1s were supposed to enforce procedure, in paper and name if not in practise. In fact, they were supposed to do it more than anyone. “No – you... I...” Crap.

“Jason.” It was Eric’s turn to stand tall. As if he hadn’t already been a behemoth in the Flunky’s skin. “I adore seeing how devoted you are, and your perfect record – it’s – oh, it’s so fascinating –” And a master of sarcasm on top of everything else. Was there anything Eric couldn’t do? “– but I’m little confused about the point you’re trying to make. Are you fighting to stay with this case or are you trying to get your suit?”

“My suit.” That much was obvious. Jason needed it more than he let on, and considering he’d ‘let on’ by breaking into sweats, shaking, collapsing and having a nap on his lead’s lap... “And my case.”

“Ah. Cute.” Jason could feel Eric’s attention waning. “Bit of a gamble, though.”

The man had gone out of his way to ignore half the things going on. True, a lot of it had to do with Eric not really caring, but here they were at Charlton and Jason knew, whether or not its ownership was still up for debate – and there were two answers to that one: Jason’s and reality’s – meant nothing in face of the fact that he was wearing it. The papers hadn’t been processed yet, or if they had, no one had come for his throat about it. He was very much a ‘later rather than sooner’ kind of person. He’d never grasped the concept of ‘getting it over with’ when the chance of getting out of it would lurk behind him, and he took to off-chances like they were written in stone rather than air the way they were supposed to be. Despite that mini-philosophy, which had never failed to serve him well, Jason opened his fat mouth and dimly wondered, “How so?”

“Well... aside from the absolute, glaring, neon-yellow, pedestal-hopping obvious, both those things are mutually exclusive.”

“Are they.” A statement, not a question. “... How so?”

The A-1 slowly closed his eyes and raised his massive fingers to pinch the bridge of his nose. Shaking his head, he let out a quiet laugh, the kind a man would normally make when they were amazed past all belief or at the end of their patience and getting ready to murder the thing-that-would-not-shut-up. Jason didn’t blame him for either of those options, but he did have a preference for which one Eric went with.

“Jason.” Still shaking his head. “Jason, Jason, Jason.” He stopped. He put his hand out and clapped it on Jason’s shoulder, a little more roughly than it needed to be even after he factored in the size of it. “I’m gonna make this easy for you – just... really spell it out, so try hard to follow along with what I’m saying, okay?” He waited for an answer. He got a weak nod of the head. He grinned. “Great! So here it is: your suit...” Jason knew what was coming. “... or your case. Pick one. And move over.”

Pardon?

Eric, with the hand on his shoulder, gave him a push towards the wall. It wasn’t rough but it startled him all the same, and he would’ve asked about it if the man hadn’t stepped away as – what the hell was that?

“... Was... that Benoit?”

Unless you’ve got a dick that can fuck across a building, you’re going completely the wrong way!

That... shadow had already vanished down the hall and around the corner, but the instant Eric’s voice rang out, Frenchie came back long enough to give the A-1 the fiercest middle finger Jason had ever seen. Then he was gone again.

“... He’s fast.”

Unbelievably fast.

“Yeah – and useless. That’s the French for you.”

“PATTEN.”

Oh geez. Jason and Eric, in that one instant, were more alike than any two people on the planet. They both turned to face the woman click-click-clicking down the hall, but when the awkwardness of having to stare at her settled in, it didn’t take much to realize it was for different reasons. Jason wasn’t sure how to act around a woman with a permanent sneer across her face, and the way she glared down at him – and she did it while being shorter by an inch – as if she blamed him for something he had no idea of knowing about put him more on the spot than he’d ever been or wanted. Eric, meanwhile, looked more stuck on coming up with a polite reason to kill her. When that failed, he stuck out his chin, turned his nose up, pulled the corners of his mouth down – he was mocking her.

“MAD-DEE-LINE.”

And then they just stared, long enough for Jason to forget they could move. Finally, Eric broke the contest with a new and overly sweet smile, one that scrunched up his nose and turned his eyes into friendly, closed half-moons behind his glasses. Madeline scoffed at it and stormed away, flicking her hand as she walked in a way that would’ve gotten a whip to snap if she’d been carrying one. ... Was it invisible or something?

“Is there some history between you two?”

“Not in the traditional sense. Like any reasonable person knows, it’s best to stay away from Agency women. Jason.” Eric laughed. “But seriously, make up your mind. Where is she, anyway?”

“She – uh...” Good question. He’d left her with Gary. ... Aw, shit. He left her with Gary. “She’s... on her way, I’m sure.”

“Uh-huh. Well – you two get to work. Hurry up with the Xander thing – I want it running in twenty minutes. And what’s that guy... who is he?”

It scared him that Jason knew who he was talking about.

“Quin?”

“Yeah – him. Call him, find him, figure out where the hell he is. Honestly – I know Benny’s got a way of doing things, but this is two cases now. Let’s speed it up, children.”

The way Eric was walking towards the lobby set off a burst of insight in Jason’s head.

“Sir? Are you not going to be handling the stasis cell?”

“A-1 stuff.”

And that was that as far as an explanation went. Eric headed down the hall and disappeared around the same corner Benoit had gone by. The hollowness set in soon after. Despite all the tension he’d had to cut through to even make it to standing in front of him, the most he’d gotten was a ‘mutually exclusive’ choice? What sort of choice was that? If he took the suit, he’d be abandoning his assignment, and if he left it behind, he’d pass out a third of the way to Elmira. Talk about a no-win scenario...

Jason!” Gary. “Look at ‘im standing all proper, like he’s talking to the Queen. Dude – loosen up a little! You’re ruining my story!”

Jason frowned. This wasn’t the time to be relaxed. Still, he realized he might’ve been stiff. He’d gotten into the habit of standing with his arms folded behind him when he had nothing better to do or when he’d finished talking to someone he felt he had to act more formal around. Hey – Benoit did it almost the time when he wasn’t being terrorized by Eric or... his new ‘friend’, so maybe it was the natural Agency way of being polite. That meat it was something to be proud of not, not laughed at by a man who thought ‘the moon is made of cheese’ was only stupid because it would’ve gone stale by now.

... And again: aw, shit.

“What story?”

Gary was ecstatic to go over it again.

“Mardi Gras! You earned all those beads!”

“Gary, can you – just...” Jason managed to do a half wave and get him to detach himself from his lead, from who he’d managed to steal an arm from to link his around it. He waddled over with a slightly bemused grin on his face, completely oblivious – for now – to why he needed a ‘talking to’. “So... exactly how many stories have you gone over?”

“Uh... well – it’s only been – like – five minutes.” That was a reli– “I gave her the highlights instead.”

“‘Highlights’.”

“You and that old guy hitting on the camel, you and that other old guy hitting on the cow, you and yet another old guy hitting on those ducks... The entire week was you getting lost and winding up with some old dude, flirting with some animal after three bottles of tequila.” Gary shrugged. “I dunno. She got a kick out of hearing you drank so I figured I’d run through a few parties. She definitely got the message about tequila.”

“Go stand in the corner.”

At least Gary knew what that meant. His shoulders slumped and he gave a pitiful whine, but he quietly marched to the nearest part of the wall and stood there facing it in silence.

“Always with this stupid corner... It’s not even a corner, it’s a wall...”

The point was to do it without talking. If Jason could, he’d leave him there for the night, but the corner only bought five minutes of silence before the man got bored and wandered off to wreak more havoc.

“Gary is stupid,” was Jason’s explanation. It was true. Forget about him. “Eric isn’t going to oversee the stasis cell’s installation. Benoit is... running around somewhere. He went towards the lobby but I have no idea if he’s still in the area.” Or the building. Or the country, for that matter. “We’re supposed to have the cell in place in twenty minutes.”

It was more than ample time. They just had to go downstairs to the loading bay and meet whatever truck that’d been considered secure enough to make the trip. He could only wonder how they’d packaged the thing; the heavy wires and tubes that’d been stuck in the other four couldn’t have made for an easy delivery, and he wouldn’t be surprised if they’d jammed the whole thing into a cube of metal. That’d make for getting the cell out to install a bit harder, but he trusted the Agency in their work. They never got into anything they couldn’t crawl out of again later.

* * *


“This might be the saddest thing I’ve ever seen. Sparky – get off her, please. You’ve made your point.”

Too. Much. Pain.

‘Agony’ wasn’t even hinting at the searing surge of torment peeling away the nerves around his foot. What scared him more than that was knowing Xander still held off the last bit. Alex wasn’t sure if it was something he wanted to thank him for or tell him to stop doing, because he needed the one who could act to not run out of strength halfway through. But the pain... And Xander pushed at his knee, straightening his leg out of its limp.

“Ow.”

Suck it up.

At least he had the courtesy to squeeze a condolence in there, around the starkly unsaid, ‘Can you try being a man for once?’

“Look at this mess. You’re lucky it’s Saturday or there’d be hell to pay for making us clean it up by morning.” Xander didn’t walk towards the women. He was walking to the other guy, the one bleeding in the near three inches of water. It looked like Agents didn’t half-ass it when it came to fire safety. “Anyway, you’ve failed here. I’m not surprised – most of you are horrible at your jobs – but I did think you were smart enough to avoid getting hit on the head with a pot. This is the last time I have faith in any of you.”

... He wasn’t talking to the female Agent at all. Aside from note to Osono, he’d been chatting to the one who was unconscious, which made no sense because he was the one who wasn’t a threat anymore. Despite that, despite the extra effort he made of wading Alex’s foot through the water, the feeling of it raging through his limb and hanging off every inch of skin it could cling to, Xander kept his eyes on the fallen one. He would’ve liked to ask if he had a plan for dealing with Osono, who’d be just as dangerous if she felt betrayed, but there was a firm hold over Alex’s mouth as it twisted into a friendly smile. That thing creeped him out when he saw it reflected back in the mini-ocean. It really did look like Peter’s. A little out of practise, maybe a bit more sane, but... yeah. Pretty on the money.

“I know, I know – ‘it’s not fair ‘cause no one said it was a test’. Well...” Xander was flipping the man over. The Agent gave an uncomfortable grunt before flopping face-first into the water. “Still hear me? Wonderful! As I was saying, you gotta look at it like this was the Boy Scouts – prepared for anything, as they say. Unfortunately, if you need to grab a few tips from children to remember to do your job – you’re recon, right? – then I gotta say, your involvement in the future of this organization is not lookin’ too bright.”

A thin stream of bubbles was winding up from the water. The Agent was drowning.

“You – uh...” Alex kept his voice very, very quiet. “You have to do it this way?”

It was so... personal.

Peter – Angry wave. – had this thing about keeping bodies ‘intact’. Smothering, drowning, crack-to-the-head-and-hope-for-brain-damage... You remember.

He’d been trying to forget. The Agent started to burble, though, and Xander had not let go of the man’s shoulders. It was almost a perfect image of what they’d dealt with when they’d wandered around with the traitor. He’d been keeping the guy submerged, and when it looked like – through an enduring instinct for survival – that he, in light of his wound, had recovered enough sense to turn his head and escape, Xander turned it back. With his finger – one finger, Alex noted, in that oh-so-adorable way Peter’d been crazy about.

“As for you –” And this time he was talking to the woman. “Not much better. You’re still awake, so – I guess – that’s a point on your end, but I do remember ordering a pack of minions that weren’t dumb enough to stick so close to their victims if they had no intention of getting into a fight. And – I’m sorry, at what point were you actually ordered to engage in such shenanigans? I don’t remember writing that down.” Xander shook his head and tut-tutted. “At any rate, I feel it’d be best to let her decide what to do with you. So what do you think, dear Osono? Take her back to Charlton or fire her ass right now?”

And then he laughed, delighted with his pun.

If we take her to Charlton, we won’t need to ask her about the codes. It won’t be as suspicious.

Could he hold out until then? Because as hard as he was trying, it was getting harder and harder to not collapse from the gnawing scrapes that’d reached his stomach.

I’ll do what I can.

Not a ‘yes’. Alex hated when it wasn’t a ‘yes’.

And the drowning Agent, underneath his hands, slowly began to relax.

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#, as written by Ten
The fire woman was weakening. Brie could feel it through the arm that wrapped around her captive's neck and the rest of her body keeping the Agent pinned on the ground even as she restrained her. Just a little bit more pressure and the woman would pass out and then Brie could--

Oh, the other one was back. She'd almost forgotten completely that he was even here and had assumed when he hadn't come to his friend's rescue that he'd run off or was busy fighting Six. As he came back into the picture however, Brie halted the pressure she was applying, while Ozzie pulled at her arm with her fingers trying to loosen her grip, and she tensed, expecting the man to come to the other's aid now. But he didn't. Following the direction he was going, she finally noticed the body of her colleague a few feet away and internally scoffed that he'd been dispatched so quickly.

Of course. She was glad she hadn't decided to depend on him at all, but now she was stuck doing all the hard work by herself. And this guy was going up to him - was he going to kill Six? She didn't personally care for Six beyond the fact that he was a member of her team, but she wasn't going to allow him to kill off a fellow Agent without a fight. With that thought, she briefly tightened her hold on Osono's neck, getting a choking sound to come from the fire woman before she hesitated again and started actually listening to what he was saying.

This...didn't seem right... The tone he was taking was almost like he thought he was in charge or as if he knew them or something. But that wasn't possible. That wasn't...

Then she caught sight of that smile stretched on his lips and her spine turned into a rod of ice, freezing every muscle stiffly in place. No. No, it couldn't be! She'd only seen the A-1 in charge of her squad a handful of times but she knew that grin anywhere and it chilled her even more to see it on the face of this stranger who was suppose to be the target of this mission. And she also knew enough that he tended to change appearance by switching bodies - she'd never personally seen him do it, but rumors spread through the squad and she'd seen him pointed out with a new face often enough that there was no doubt about what the man could do.

But this didn't make any sense! They'd been sent here on his orders! What was he doing here? Her unasked questions were answered quickly by the next thing he said and her eyes widened a fraction of an inch as a feeling of illness warped her stomach muscles. Barely a blip of emotion passed through her as Six was pushed face-first into the water, instantly knowing that the man was being punished, the only worry going through her head realizing that might be her in a few seconds.

God...a-a- test!? And they'd failed!? All of a sudden, her earlier realization of the immediate mistakes she'd made became all the more real now knowing they'd been under superior surveillance the whole time.

No! No, no, no, no! This didn't make any sense! WHY was he here? Why would he set up this mission just to test them? Try as she might, Brie couldn't stop coming back to everything she'd heard about and seen the man do and watched with sudden horror as Six attempted to struggle only to be corrected with a solitary finger, her eyes instantly focused on the appendage. That was it. She couldn't deny this any longer. She'd fucking screwed up and oh, fucking God, the A-1 was here to personally deal with their team's failure.

A surprised shock ran through Brie when he turned to her, his voice suddenly addressing her directly and instantly, the two women disengaged as she released her captive and sat up in the puddle on the ground.

As soon as Osono was let go, she rolled off of the other woman and sat on hands and knees, a hand going to her neck and coughing slightly as she regained her breath. What was going on? What was Alex talking about? The stuff he was saying... it was almost like he was a part of them...

Then the old paranoia reared it's ugly head and she felt the sudden weight of loss and doubt fill her to think of everything he'd said and done being a lie...just like Rudy... But any anger or fear that came with those thoughts were cut short as he brought her into the reprimand he was giving the female Agent. She sat on her hands and knees, tensely staring at him for just a few seconds - he was acting so differently now, talking like he was in charge of these two people and almost like he knew things about the Agency. Then again, what he'd said did get the Agent to let her go and he was including her as a figure of authority...sort of... It was a game. He was pretending and in those breaths of a second, it all clicked and she no longer doubted him.

Turning to eye the Agent woman, Osono massaged her throat and stood in the water, drawing Brie's attention and making note of the ripple of fear behind the clouded mask the woman wore on her face. Osono said nothing for several moments, a malicious smile spreading on her face as she looked over the woman who'd been busy fighting her for the past 20 minutes. Hm... Did the woman really believe Alex's little act? It was a pretty good job, if she was honest - it was like he was a totally different person and even his voice had changed a bit - so, maybe it worked. There was one way to be sure.

Running a hand through her hair that was sticking to her head with water, the air around her body heated up and crackled with energy, her clothes drying out in mere seconds. Finally, she let out a smooth breath and smiled again at the Agent. "She's proved she's next to useless as an Agent," she said in her raspy voice and turned to Alex, setting her hand alight with a halo of fire. "Let's cook her. It would be the merciful thing to do at this point."

All this time, Brie had been watching the interaction, making note of the subtleties and looking for any logical reason that THIS WAS NOT ACTUALLY HAPPENING. But everything, even the way the woman acted towards the "supposed" A-1 had Brie second guessing herself. When the fire made an appearance her muscles imperceptibly tensed as she sat crouched in the water on the floor. So...the woman wasn't a target but actually with him? This...this wasn't right...

Then again, it occurred to Brie that the A-1 himself was said to possess powers and was able to hop between the bodies of dead people - which she also realized that Six was quickly becoming, but couldn't force herself to care beyond the promised threat it presented to herself - so, another Agent with powers was not completely improbable. Also, with the goals the Agency had with higher level "transfer" Agents and case Leaders, it was basically to turn these super-powered freaks into Agency personnel.

But several minutes ago, this woman had been freaking out and arguing with this man, to the point where she'd set the sprinklers off. ...Then again...this had been a "test" at that point and she could see the usefulness of using the water to pinpoint her hidden location while she'd been in stealth mode - at least as a plausible ruse.

Alright... it looked like the woman was serious and it was definitely time to stop debating with herself about this. The longer she went without explaining things, the more likely it seemed that Patten really was going to let the fire woman burn her to a crisp. Having reached her decision, she stood up stiffly in the water and turned to the A-1 stiffly, her head held high and her arms held rigid at her sides.

"Permission to speak, sir," she said in a deferential voice, her tone clipped and serious.

The way he looked at her, it appeared it was somewhat expected that she give some sort of report or explanation. For a moment, she hesitated again, pausing to look him over, her brows twitching in suspicion. She couldn't help but be struck again by how surreal this whole thing was, but the need to obey her superiors overrode all of her doubts - it had to be Patten... the things he was doing and that sunny grin and absolute disregard for the lives of those under him... there were just too many things that rang true for the man in charge of her unit. Although she'd never personally engaged the A-1 in conversation before, from the few times she'd caught glimpses of him and seen him interact with others, this man before her fit too perfectly. And from what she'd heard, the man was sadistic and a stickler for the best of the best on his team even going so far as to install a monitoring system on the unit's superficial thoughts and emotions. Several men she knew had been blasted with what could only be described as a "taser to the brain" for merely glancing at her ass. It wasn't too far-fetched to assume he'd pull something like this just to get rid of any weaknesses in his elite units.

Alright, now to come up with something to explain what had gone wrong. She remembered what had happened - Six had entered the building ahead of her and they had trailed a few hallways behind the fire woman while she'd stalked through the building. Then they'd gotten alerts in their masks of the second target coming up behind them and had moved forward so as not to lose sight of either of them. Six had slipped ahead while the woman had been distracted to help cage them in and she'd been stuck in between. And then things had gone wrong from there... There was a very simple way out of this.

"I was following Agent Six's lead, sir," she said, pointing rigidly at the drowning man - he was almost certainly dead by now and wouldn't be able to defend himself. "It was in my best interest at the time not to argue and the situation got quickly out of hand." She glanced at Osono again, mostly eying the flames on her hand before looking back at the A-1. "Upon my discovery by the alleged 'target' I ascertained that she was enough of a physical threat to warrant an attack. My intent was to merely subdue her and...regroup with Six at base."

She stumbled slightly to realize how stupid that sounded. She did feel very threatened by the woman who wielded fire like it was a part of her and at the time she'd attacked her...she hadn't really had a plan except "attack first". Then while fighting, she'd gotten lost in just trying not to get killed. Which was dumb. It was true. She hadn't been given orders to engage the targets at all; she was merely here to observe and she'd not only blown that, but she'd done the opposite of what she should have in this situation.

But apparently, the fire woman seemed pleased by this and shook her head in an undecided and thoughtful fashion, pressing her lips together in consideration. Finally, the fire disappeared and her hand went to rest on her hip as she turned to Alex.

"That was some really stupid bullshit," she said nodding her head in a sardonic manner - she might be getting the hang of this "Agent" thing, at least enough to get by. "But I can understand the need for immediate action that I forced her into - which was my intent." Yeah, see? She knew the game. "I think a low grade will be harder on her than a quick death. Charlton it is." There, that was her final verdict, since it was more than clear little miss Agent had fallen for Alex's "Agent in charge" act. Suck it, Agent bitch; you just got owned!

Brie's gaze narrowed once more as the woman detailed her final decision which was apparently to grant her mercy...? This wasn't right... Not that she was ungrateful, but the things Brie had said did not seem grounds to grant leniency or even all that convincing to the woman hell-bent on setting her on fire. The burn on her leg itched a little but she ignored it as she mulled the decision over, trying to find a reason why these red flags were illogical. It would have helped if Six was still conscious or even alive, because then she could have gotten a second opinion about everything. She was alone and she had to figure this out on her own.

But all she could really come up with was that this didn't feel right. Looking back at the man however, had the effect of erasing some of those doubts. He was here now and this was really happening. Who cared if the fire woman was in a forgiving mood - for whatever ungodly reason she couldn't even begin to understand, but was thankful for, nonetheless. All that mattered was Patten and what he ultimately thought. He was the man in charge, afterall... and if rumor was to be believed, mercy from him was like getting shat upon by a giant from myth and legend - you didn't care, just glad that you were alive.

***

The gushing continued as the Puppy went on with his little stories, eventually slipping his hand from hers to link elbows with her instead - which Stephanie barely noticed at all as she giggled over every new image he put into her head. Goodness! Apparently, Jason was quite the party animal and loosened up incredibly when offered the right kind of drink - Tequila it seemed was the right button to push, which she added in place of "something alcoholic" on her mental shopping list - enough that he had trouble deciphering the difference between species when making come-on advances. Maybe she could get him drunk enough that he'd forget she was his boss and he'd flirt with her, and possibly even sing her a pretty song as well...

Finally, the two of them reached a bend in the hallway and Stephanie's giggles quieted as her sights were once again filled with Jason. The way he stood there...so relaxed yet dignified, exuding confidence from every pore... And the posture itself was the way she'd seen other Agency men stand as a default "at rest" position that they used when standing around not doing anything. On Jason, however, it put her in mind of a general or a soldier, standing at ease and yet tense and battle ready. Thinking of him in such violent and dutiful terms got her hot all over again and a blush dusted her cheeks as she drew nearer.

Puppy was called from her side then and she reluctantly let him go - her little gold mine full of cute Jason stories; she'd corner him again some time and get him to spill EVERYTHING eventually - and stood patiently watching as the two conferred privately for a brief moment. Apparently, Jason was disappointed with the subordinate and the chubby man left him to stand at the wall as if disciplined. Under normal circumstances, it would appear to be a small thing - one subordinate issuing orders to another that were obeyed with little to no argument. But the whole display had a bigger impact on Stephanie, especially since she'd just spent several very laid-back minutes with the Puppy.

Jason enforcing his authority over anyone was an incredible thing to see - the slight reprimanding stance he took; the very flippant nod towards the wall as if the order was so beneath him, he couldn't be bothered to think about it for a second longer and he fully expected it to be obeyed without question; the ripple of harshness and disappointment through his body and in his eyes. It all seemed so loud to her and for a few seconds as the Puppy was banished from their presence, she felt a little breathless and stared openly at Jason, drinking in the sight of him... so commanding... so...domineering... She held back a moan by biting her bottom lip.

Then it was her turn to be addressed by him and being within his gaze again made her feel like she was back in that room with him...or back in the plane bathroom...being held in place by his firm grip, smelling him, pressing into him... Quickly, she snapped out of it enough to hear what he was saying and she felt a little saddened that he seemed to act like nothing had happened. In the back of her mind, she realized he was focusing on the correct things right now - just as she should be - but there was that part of her that couldn't let it go. He was just too beautiful and warm and real and..very within her reach. And to top it all off, she wanted him to discipline her like that, to take that towering stance over her and order her, scowling, to stand at a wall because she'd done something naughty.

Even though his attention was elsewhere, she felt that urge to push his buttons and get him distracted enough that he might yell at her again. Just to savor that moment of bliss from being the object of his reprimand. So, that was the first thing she did, was put her hands on him. He still had his hands clasped neatly behind his back, so her first impulse to grab his ass was thwarted by his arms being in the way. Instead, her hand slithered up his right shoulder to drape her arm around his neck, pressing her body close on his right side and playfully drawing circles with her fingernails in his chest through the suit - she would find a way to get it off of him somehow and then there'd be some real damage for his skin.

"Nonsense," she purred, looking coyly down at his chest as her fingernails dug into him, scratching through the thick fabric. "The Pup was very informative and kept me highly entertained. I greatly enjoyed hearing about the you 'outside of the suit'. It helped me remember there's a man of flesh and blood inside here." The last was accompanied by her left leg inserting itself between his, enticingly stroking upwards with her knee as she brought her bright green and fire-filled gaze to meet his eyes.

"There's something I'd like to address about our...conversation, earlier," she said with a small smile at her hesitation over the word. Yes, "conversation" was what she was going to call that. "What really stuck out for me was I very clearly remember you promising to get nude." She'd heard it! "And I cannot help feel disappointed that we've been apart about 10 minutes and you're still clothed." The hand draped around his shoulders played with the curls at the nape of his neck, while her other hand continued to try and leave raised welts, scratches and designs on the skin underneath the suit. Other than a small imperceptible tensing in his muscles, he was not budging and she immediately realized he was very fixated on their orders at hand.

With a begrudging sigh, she ran a hand through her hair, stroking his inner thigh with her leg and said, "20 minutes? It would take no time at all for me to lick your skin from head to toe. I could do it in 5 minutes." Nothing. He wasn't biting. She'd have to get him drunk after all.

Another sigh and she glared while stabbing him in the chest with a finger repeatedly as she spoke. "Very well! But I'm your boss, Jason and I demand that you stop teasing me! It's simply not nice at all and you're deeply frustrating my desire to get into your pants - which for some spiteful reason don't seem to want to come off!" She grabbed as much of his form-fitting suit as she could just at his neck and pulled him close so she whispered inches from his face, glaring into his eyes. "I have needs."

Fine. If he wasn't going to play or even get upset with her, then she'd just save that game for later and concentrate on the orders they'd both been given for now. Stepping at least a foot away from him, she let out an annoyed breath, running another hand through her stringy, blonde hair.

"Benoit is useless," she finally said, regaining a semblance of composure, despite the very obvious irritation rippling under the surface. "The last I saw of Madeline, she was on the hunt and I doubt she will allow him to remain involved if she can easily pass the duty onto us. So, it's best not to depend on him. If he shows up, all the better. If not... he's not necessary. It's not something I've done before, but it shouldn't be too complicated to get it done in what's left of our 20 minutes." She was most certainly pouting about not getting her way, but at least she was making an effort to "work" now.

Turning fluidly from him, she began to walk down the hallway in the same direction she'd been going with the Puppy, her hips swaying enticingly, fully expecting Jason to follow her, but not bothering to look back. Eventually, they made their way downstairs to the lobby, Stephanie keeping her distance and murmuring angrily to herself. By the time the front doors leading to the street became visible, she instantly forgot about Jason and her sexual frustrations when she caught sight of the "delivery man" standing about the front doors. Outside was a very large truck parked at the curb, so long that out the front door windows it stretched out of sight while filling the view massively.

Stephanie approached the young man in his mid twenties, a tooth pick held between his lips, wearing a very casual T-shirt and jeans with a gray, loose over shirt with "Todd" scrawled in cursive on his right breast and Agency issue sunglasses obscuring his eyes. As she came to stand before him, he removed his glasses respectfully and tucked them away, revealing a long angular face and heavy eyebrows bordering very dark and semi-paranoid eyes.

"You in chahge?" he asked, removing from his belt a small mechanical box with a key pad and screen on it. He held it up for her without a word and she put in her Agency code before taking up the small plastic tipped "pen" and placing her signature on the tiny screen - which was a lot less "xeroxed" than the way she'd signed her name on the forms Master had given her last night. He pulled it back from her and took a look at the screen, while scratching at the side of his nose thoughtfully.

"Oh," he said in pleasant surprise, his bushy eyebrows bouncing in shock as he read what came up on the screen. Then he punched in a few numbers and replaced the box at his belt. "Alright, Miss Mahch. I'll drive it around back and staht unloadin' it, then. We've got equipment in the back foh luggin' it around, so I'll put it whereveh ya want it." There was a slight Boston flare to his words but it was very subtle, she noticed.

"Yes, please do," she said stonily. "I'll let you know where it goes as soon as you remove it from the truck." He nodded in an easy-going manner. "Oh, and Todd," he stopped turning away from her and looked at her expectantly. "I expect you to go as quickly as possible." He kind of scrunched his eyebrows down for a moment and looked around without moving his head as if slightly confused and disturbed by the order, but gave another curt nod and left out the front doors.

Turning, she glared openly at Jason, while at the same time managing to look extremely hungry as she undressed him with her eyes, and turned away from him with a huff, stalking towards the back of the building. He's still clothed! Hmph!

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This was exactly what he’d been trying to avoid. One tiny moment of pure crazy, and now it looked like the floodgates had opened. As if he should have expected anything less. This was what happened when Jason stopped thinking for half a minute: his lead spent damn near an hour sliding over him, having significantly more fun messing with his mind than any person had ever had a right to, and he had to stand there and say nothing because his retarded luck would make anything he said three times as bad. If he stayed still and kept quiet, though, she’d get bored and leave him. ... Or was that bears? Pumas were the ones you had to scream at – he knew that much – but whatever. It worked. She’d stopped.

“Right behind you, boss.” There would be no getting naked while he was conscious. “I just need a second.”

And a second was all he had. His lead was getting away.

“Dude.” Gary was still facing the wall and his voice was muffled by it. “I couldn’t see a thing that happened, but it sounded super hot.”

“Don’t make me tell Diana,” Jason muttered. “You remember what I said? About keeping this to yourself?”

“My lips are sealed, bro!”

“Until you find a pork roast.” And before he could take off to find one – that was no exaggeration; Gary had immediately started looking for a kitchen – Jason stopped him and said, “Stay here. Please. I don’t need you running around, too.”

“I can’t watch the box thing?”

The ‘box thing’ would be joining the other four in that room. How they were going to get it up here was beyond him, but he hoped it didn’t involve manual labour. The Agency was more than advanced enough to manage some kind of system, but it was right up their alley to have a score of A-9s cart the thing up on their backs. Whatever built character, they said, and it was fantastic cardio.

He’d pass.

“No. Wait here.”

“But –”

He caught up in record time – before she’d even left the stairs – and he dutifully waited at her side, minus the distance he’d put between them that his sanity demanded he keep in place, while she handled the signing off. She’d been right before: where was Benoit? With the way he went on and on about how great Alexander – both of them – was, Jason had assumed he’d’ve been around to throw a fit over who’d been in charge of driving the truck. Then again, the Agency wasn’t known to make mistakes when it signing personnel. Maybe he was the Eric of the delivery division and he only seemed incompetent. Jason supposed it didn’t matter so long as the cell was here in one piece. Speaking of which, it was about time they got a look at the damn thing.

... His lead was glaring. Of course. And he almost made the mistake of trying to say something to break the heated silence, but she took off towards the elevators without a word. Well, on the bright side, at least she wasn’t making this ‘awkward’. This was obviously and clearly all in his head, and he wasn’t going to push it. If she wanted to keep quiet and try to wait an answer out of him, he was all for her trying, because patience was his greatest strength and his added motivation of never wanting to speak of their ‘conversation’ again, at this rate, he’d be happily taking it to his grave. The ball was in her court but he wasn’t playing so... there. He’d ignore her. He’d ignore it. He was almost delighted they had the delivery to deal with because it’d give them something different to think about until he could get her to drop it entirely.

The elevator ride down was very quiet. It was longer too, but that was because they were going deeper than the parking lot. Thanks to the Agency and their unique packages, they couldn’t afford a passer-by to peek into their garage and see what the good people of their Charlton base were up to. It wasn’t so much farther but it was certainly out of prying eyes. Unfortunately, it was exactly as red as the rest of the dying office.

The loading bay was as bare save for the few scattered columns left to hold the ceiling up. As they walked into the orange glow, which felt colder than it should have this time of year, they heard the faint rumble of an engine overhead. The sound was having a field day with all this space to roam in; it bounced and echoed and carried through the floor, and as it got louder and they saw the truck’s headlights rolling down the ramp on the far side, Jason’s eyes went to work on the smaller details and picked out the cloud of smoke not far from where they were. An ally. Finally. He had no idea what was going on with Frenchie and that A-2, but if Eric was happy with it, how pleasant could it have been? There was someone to sympathize with what he was going through instead of laughing like he’d been on the plane.

Maybe he shouldn’t have rushed to join him, but his lead was plenty offended with his not-naked as it was.

“We didn’t think you’d be here,” Jason said.

“This is my case.” And a very neutral breath added still more smoke to the pile. “Miss Agent, I take it you signed the forms. My thanks. It saves me a trip.”

The floor had been marked, he realized. There were different coloured squares – large ones – in the different corners. The one the truck had pulled to seemed green, although it was hard to tell in this light, and it was closer to the centre of the room than any of the others. It drove across but stopped its back wheels on its far edge, then slowly unfurled a ramp in the middle of the maybe-green shape. It took its time, as if it was somehow afraid of hurting the cement, and nothing else happened until three others hopped out of the back and stood around doing delivery things.

“How long is this going to take to set up?”

“It varies. Alexander-the-guest was kept in an older model. It works as fine as any other, but I imagine the size will add to the time.” He didn’t look concerned by it. “We have hours before they arrive.”

“Eric wants it done in twenty minutes,” Jason said. “He mentioned it five minutes ago.” Nine, actually, but who was counting?

“What Eric wants and what we can do rarely ever agree. He can wait. Or he can handle this himself.”

There was a heavy clatter. One of the delivery men said something Jason missed. This was immediately followed by a heavier clatter and a long, metallic whining. The door to the truck’s trailer had begun to rise at last, revealing another wall of metal behind it. That second wall was what began to move. Very slowly, it inched from its makeshift shelter, the top of the trailer splitting open to give it room to turn down and follow the ramp into the square. The delivery men stood watching as if their sheer willpower was what was helping it along. Instead, it was gravity, and a third, jarring, heart-pumping clank rang out as the metal box tilted down and slammed against the ramp. Its weight drove the edge into the ground and gouged it, but whatever gears had been moving the container held it firmly in their grip and went on easing the box gently into place.

Once again, Benoit should’ve been doing something about the care his cargo was getting. Jason didn’t know a lot about the transport of these things, but he was fairly sure it was supposed to be better than this. Instead, Frenchie was smirking into his cigarette, enjoying the little show.

“Shouldn’t you say something?”

“Like what?”

“Like...” Jason drew a blank. “What if they break it?”

“Break steel? By dropping it half a foot? Have some faith in your Agency’s technology.” He was still smirking. “So long as the cell is intact, I don’t care what they do with it.” This was the man who’d gotten touchy when Jason had implied Alexander was less than godlike. Now he was content to let that Agent’s original body get thrown around? “He’ll survive, but I doubt it matters in the end. My plan is to catch them while the reverse-transfer is underway, not after.”

There were a lot of questions about how that’d work or how the real Alexander would fare if it was interrupted, but Jason decided to focus on the part a tiny bit more relevant: “What happens after that? To the body?”

“I don’t care. Maybe I’ll kill him and give Eric a new soul to haunt.”

Everyone hated everyone – except for his lead, who exercised a very healthy obsession in screwing with Jason.

“I’m guessing you haven’t forgiven him for sabotaging you,” he said.

“There is that. But mostly, he’s a selfish prick.” Another clank. What the hell was going on over there? “Even his name spells ‘me’.”

Mystery solved. He’d been right, back in Elmira. There was no one else who smiled that proudly after killing somebody.

“So it’s Marshall Elias? Inside the real Alexander?” Frenchie’s silence said ‘yes’. “Ah. Well – that explains why it’s taken six years.”

“Mm.”

Jason was pretty glad none of this called for getting their old colleague back on his feet. He’d had his fill of that man back in training. He didn’t need a reunion.

And still another clank. This time, the gears groaned loudly and the metal box stuttered on the ramp. Before it looked as though it’d pull away and smash into the floor, however, they caught a hold of themselves and went back to work, fulfilling their duty at long last. The edge of the box had touched ground, even if the rest of it was on the ramp. Now the two of the three men who’d jumped out were securing tiny anchors to keep it from moving while the third was slowly directing the driver to move ahead. Painfully, with only a few sparks to go with it, the truck crawled away and pulled the ramp out from under the box. It slid off smoothly – about time they did one part of it with grace – and only the faintest thud was heard when it’d completely been unloaded. The first step was done. Step two was getting it up there.

“How –”

He didn’t have to ask. The answer came an instant later. From the ceiling, directly above the green square, a massive panel swirled open and four black claws, almost as big as trees, reached down and waited at the painted corners. The two men who’d secured the anchors now went to work attaching those claws to the box. Somewhere in there was a stasis cell, but it looked like it wouldn’t crack until it was up there with the other four. That meant Jason and his lead had to go all the way upstairs again. ... That meant another elevator ride.

“If you find Eric, tell him we made his stupid deadline,” Benoit said.

“You’re not taking the elevator?”

“Of sorts.” Frenchie threw his cigarette on the ground and strode towards that box. “Be sure to remind the German she has no reason to be involved with this.” And then he climbed on the box, gesturing to whoever was running those claws, and stood with a flawless balance as the whole contraption rose up and pulled itself through the closing panel. Whatever the A-2 was doing to him must’ve been brutal. Or maybe he had a ‘thing’ for travelling on stasis cells.

He was alone again. He was back with his lead. The delivery men – A-14s, probably – had no interest in sticking around now that their work was finished. They were already rolling up their ramp and getting the trailer’s door closed. In another minute, they’d be gone.

“Twenty minutes,” Jason said quickly, just to remind her Eric was waiting on them. “We should go up there. Now, I mean.”

And with clothes.

* * *


And I ask you: is there anything better than paranoia?

Was there something faster? His foot –

“Recons,” Xander told her, “do not fight.” It sounded like a fact, and he’d said it with a lagging note of condescension, like she was stupid for not knowing that already or for knowing and fighting anyway. More importantly, he said it as he was walking up to her, because Xander, as ungodly swell with pain as he was, had zero concern for Alex being... not. His foot – dammit – it felt like it was splitting along his ankle! There was no way that was just a broken toe – no way – and if it was, and if it still wasn’t quite full strength thanks to that teeny grip Xander hadn’t let go of yet, how the fuck was he supposed to handle it when he was on his own again? And that wasn’t going to happen for another few hours – the guy had plenty of time to make it a thousand times worse! He – “They get the suit because they’re so bad at it. The suit lets them stay out of the way and stick to the shadows so the real Agents can do their job. Your stunning inability to grasp this simple concept concerns me, but you got some brownie points with your ‘let’s blame it on the dead and save my ass’ stunt. It... pleases me.” He smiled serenely. “And it’s what got you a car ride instead of a bath. In fact, I think you owe Sparky a ‘thanks’ for pitying you! If death’s not in your immediate future, I’ll put you in her hands, and that, dear lady, is as close to a miracle as anyone in here gets.”

Hurry up.

One sec.

Hurry up, hurry up, hurry up

“But you’ve got plenty of time for that.” Xander tapped the Agent on her nose, and the only thing that stopped him from throwing in a precious ‘boop!’ was the energy it’d take to move his mouth. “Right now? Nap-time!”

Finally!

Alex collapsed, causing almost as big a wave in the water as the Agent when she fell. That’d been quite the jolt – focused and direct – and she’d be out for... he was guessing it’d be as long as they needed to get to wherever the hell they were driving to. And he’d like to ask if Xander was sure that’d been a smart move and if he knew – one hundred percent knew – where that place in Charlton was, but his foot, holy fuck his foot holy fuck holy fuck holy fuck

Deep breaths.

Deep breaths’? Alex could barely hyperventilate his way to air! His lungs were failing and his vision broke out into white and his leg locked up and sank to the floor –

... It’s gonna get a little worse.

“... ‘Worse’...” That was what he’d meant to say, anyway. His throat...

I just need ten minutes.

No.

You don’t exactly have a choice.

No, no, no!

I’m exhausted. I literally cannot hold on for more than fifteen seconds.

No, no, no, no, no, no, no –

Xander let go.

Breathe! Breathe – fucking breathe – do something

You can pass out if you want, but don’t drown.

Alex blinked. Heavily. Deeply. For an instant longer than he’d wanted to, and when he opened his eyes, the pain...

He was lying in the water now and it was swishing around his ears. His entire body ached from the chill of it, and the shooting fire he got from his foot when it idly twitched did nothing to compensate the cold. His teeth felt weighty, like he’d been gritting them for a while, and the side of his head pulsed with agony in time to the beat of his heart. He could feel it everywhere. His gut was outlined by the pounding as his chest rose stiltedly to let air in. But, he noted, there was no new torture from his leg.

You passed out.

“... I –” His throat needed a minute. He gave it one, because he didn’t have a choice with that, either. “... I did...?”

Ten minutes, like I promised. Kept both these ladies waiting.

He was going to have to explain that, too. His entire life was an alibi and it was getting hard to keep track of.

“You...” Ten minutes. Was that all he needed? “You can... handle...?”

Yeah, I got it. And how long did he have it for? Don’t know. I’m gonna have to lay off again in the car.

Dandy.

He sat up. Even if there wasn’t any new pain, it didn’t make it comfortable. He wheezed despite his best effort not to, and for what felt like an eternity, he couldn’t bring himself to bend his wounded leg to stand. That was... Ya gotta do it. ... Okay.

“Osono,” he said, his voice sounding shallow and thin in his own ears, “I’m – uh... You’re going to have to drag... her... out there.” To the car. They were bringing her along. She’d have to sit in the trunk because there were only two seats in the Audi, but with ‘nap-time’ in effect, he’d bet comfort wasn’t going to be an issue. “Just... give me a minute to stand up.”

Or ten. Or twenty.

We have to get Gwen.

Fine. Two.

Alex forced his knee to play along as he did his best to put his weight on his good leg. It worked, mostly, but what didn’t managed to get a tremor through his spine. It was too bad he hadn’t landed closer to the wall, because that would’ve been nice to use to get up.

He wondered if he could get a wheelchair. Like – a rocket one. That’d be pretty cool.

Five bucks says we can score one off the Agents.

Heh. Yeah. Maybe.

“Alright.” Shit... He needed to start coming to terms with this being permanent. “Alright. I’m up. Let’s try to get out of here.”

Phase one: find the codes or the next best thing – complete. Phase two: find Gwen, put Xander back – coming up, and coming up fast.

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Focus was a hard thing to reestablish after everything that had happened. Especially in the tight space on the ride down in the elevator. She wanted to touch him, to put her hands on him again, to explore his mouth with hers AGAIN. But she knew from his behavior upstairs that he wasn't going to bite right now and all it would do is frustrate her further the more he refused to react. Even so, rage still pumped through Stephanie to be left standing almost practically shoulder-to-shoulder with her partner and not being able to do a damn thing about the feeling he'd churned up and left burning warmly deep inside her.

For several minutes she stood in agony as they descended, half of the time cursing herself internally for not just grabbing him and raping him and then the other half of the time cursing Jason for not just grabbing her and "raping" her - she'd play rough and fight him back, so it still counted. In her mind at least. And his silence only proved what a brick wall he was going to be about the whole damn thing. Until she got a few hundred swallows of Tequila into him, at least.

Finally the ride was over and she would have let out a sigh of relief when he fled from her side so urgently, if she hadn't been immediately distracted by the truck coming down the ramp into the wide open space. All thoughts of elevator rape and Jason evaporated as her attention fixated on the truck and what the men inside it were doing. Another stasis cell. Another...empty body. She swallowed thickly. This was what her cursed flesh would become once she made the jump into Gwen and began her new life. Just a few hours...

Joining Jason and Benoit, she was not listening as she fully entered spectator mode, her eyes latching onto every mechanical movement of the cargo being propelled from the back of the truck. Her obsession with the process and the fact that the body still existing in the stasis cell could be re-entered at any time and used again, made her associate it to some degree with Gwen and her "fertile" transfer state. So, when things started to bang loudly and the whining began, Stephanie did not blink, staring holes into the box of metal as it emerged, her arms held rigidly at her sides as if afraid to move lest she cause everything to fall apart right then and there.

As the box slid down the ramp, she held her breath and flinched violently when it hit the ground with a loud bang, a gasp held in her throat and her teeth grinding painfully. Of course, any words shared between her two colleagues was lost in the hum that filled her mind and she stared off into space while the men continued to work.

She was thinking of Rudy... remembering him mostly. That short, scrawny, geeky kid in training, not nearly good enough with computers to stay with the techies and thinking himself so much above them that being a "top secret agent man" was within his reach. It was immediately clear to everyone in their training unit that he wasn't serious enough for the grueling day-to-day task of keeping up with the rest of them. But it was rumored that he had family pressing money and sponsorship into Agency pockets to keep him in despite his constant string of failures. Someone at home had been desperate to keep Quin away and busy and she had vague suspicions nobody would have been sorry to see him killed when pushed beyond his limits. But everything was hearsay and Stephanie had no real clue about the man's past or where he'd come from.

Her experiences with him in training had been enough to give a clear picture of who he was, however. She hadn't been too busy with her sexual endeavors to notice him and his bumbling idiocy during training exercises and the few times they actually were in a classroom setting had been torture. Mostly, she remembered the lackadaisical manner in which he handled information he was given, often interrupting the instructor to insert unnecessary and unfunny jokes right in the middle of crucial education. She remembered specifically a time when they'd been practicing with weaponry and Rudy's gun had gotten stuck. The moron had not paid attention to instruction or protocol and stood shaking the weapon and slapping at it, semi-pointing it at the man standing beside him as he put it up to his ear to listen to the firearm like a fucking god-dammed cartoon character trying to "hear" what was wrong with it's interior. Needless to say when it eventually went off, trainee William Whitehorne did not thank him for the bullet to his spleen.

The man was an utter fuck-up and she still stood by what she'd said to Master before; he should not have been allowed to become an Agent, let alone waste the Agency's time by using the training program like a frigging playground. But he was an Agent and somehow the unceremonious handling of Alexander-the-guest's body reminded her that this ultimate Agency retard had Gwen in his custody. Her Gwen. Her body.

Stephanie did not notice when Benoit finally left as a wave of nausea filled her and threatened to make her sick all over the concrete floor. Images flashed in her mind of all the worse case scenarios - Gwen's body bloodied and bruised beyond recognition; Gwen fleeing into the night, free as a bird and disappearing forever without Alexander or anybody else who could be tracked; and worst of all, Rudy's car flaming and crashing into a semi truck on the highway and the resulting explosion sending up fiery pillars of blackened smoke, Gwen's body charring within the twisted steel cage of the vehicle.

By the time Jason turned to speak to her, she was trembling and breathing in labored gasps, pain swelling inside her to even think of the possibilities. She ignored what he said as she turned to give him a wild, green-eyed look, a frantic note entering her voice. "What if he shows up empty handed? Wh-what if he's hurt her?"

A thin fingered hand reached out to grab ahold of the top of his left shoulder as if to steady herself, but she clung to him while keeping their bodies apart. "What if he's killed her?" she asked sadly, her chin wobbling with the threat of tears in her eyes. "I couldn't live with that. I can't face that." She was sobbing softly now, but still she gripped him tightly with her one hand, swaying in the space separating them as a wave of blinding electrified pain lurched through her. Everything ached and screamed and she just stood panting wildly, hanging onto him, her fingers digging into his shoulder through his suit.

For several more moments she debated with her stomach about whether or not she should be sick before swallowing it down and stamping the feeling into submission. Staring at a point somewhere far away but about level with his chest, she murmured with cold promise, "If he's laid a hand on her...I'll kill him." She swayed again, still not touching him except for the one hand seemingly keeping her from tipping over. Then hilarity entered her green eyes as they stared at his chest but did not see his chest. Images of everything she'd do to that weasel flashed in her mind and the bloodlust and insanity that threatened her vision, consumed everyone else she could think of as well. In the midst of it she did not recognize Jason, but familiar faces such as Richard and Master fell before her like deer to a pack of wolves, the ending just as bloody.

"I'll fucking kill everybody," she said with a sudden smile that broadened with girlish glee. Then laughter came spilling forth, haphazardly escaping her lips in a despairing tumble, loud as she doubled over with the force of it, the sound echoing in the open space. Greasy strands of blonde hair fell into her face as she shook, her hand no longer digging into her partner but still resting on his shoulder as joy violated her and left her gasping and trying to catch her breath.

When she stood again, the pain had cleared from her eyes and the laughter stopped with nothing but a saddened smile left behind and she glanced around the room, either not noticing or not caring anyone who remained within ear-shot. Then the smile disappeared as she began searching frantically for the box that held the stasis cell - she did not remember seeing it leave. For several seconds, she was assaulted by the fear that someone had taken off with it right under their noses - how did they get in? With the truck? the elevator? - even irrationally thinking that Alexander-the-guest's body itself had gotten up and walked away. The irrationality was gone in seconds however as she looked up and remembered hazily seeing Benoit riding upwards on the box, and she sighed and relaxed.

"Upstairs. Right," she said with a small nod towards the ceiling and let go of her partner to begin a wobbling walk towards the elevator.

The ride up was not nearly as pleasant as the first had been, tears immediately starting to fall as soon as she entered the small space. There was no explanation for it. Not even in her own mind as she stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Jason once again. She even forgot he was there as they rose upwards through concrete and steel.

She just wanted this whole thing to be over now. Fatigue drenched her whole body and filled her with those terrible aches and pains in every limb, gravity latched onto every joint and seemingly tugging her blissfully towards the ground. And for a reason she could not even begin to fathom, she felt incredibly scared and lost, like a drowning woman forced to hold her breath for too long and running out of air any second without the surface in sight. So she stood, swaying with the elevator, rubbing her bare arms and sobbed softly, tears streaming down her face and her nose starting to run. Sniffling, she grew irritated as droplets of clear watery snot ticklishly dripped off the tip of her nose and she wiped at it with her hand frustratedly, growling under her breath.

"Just stop fucking crying all the god-dammed time!" she screamed suddenly, her hands hovering like claws over her face, threateningly close to her eyes and the offending tears they shed. But the angry tone she took didn't make her stop, instead making it worse.

Memory surged up and engulfed her with it's warm embrace and it suddenly felt like she was back in the base in her hometown. She'd been on Osono's case, part of the undercover recon surrounding the troubled young woman suspected of being able to create and control fire. Stephanie had been one of a team of a dozen others, including a low-ranked Rudy at the time, and she'd been out in the field trailing the woman as she went shopping in her new neighborhood. It was a simple job and Osono was fairly oblivious to anyone around her except when they directly engaged her, so it was easy to stay unnoticed while also remaining close.

In the middle of the grocery store it had hit her. Watching Osono out of the corner of her eye, she saw a different woman set a jar of pasta sauce into her cart and it triggered an unwelcomed memory. About him. Such a simple thing, that jar, but instantly flashing in her mind's eye she saw herself standing in their kitchen cooking dinner with Richard... One of those blissful times when she'd felt complete. Rinsing penne noodles out in the sink and his arms moving around her to hold her, lips kissing at her neck and stubble tickling her; he was always giving into the temptation to touch her, except when they were in public. A necessary restraint that she did not fault him for one bit and which she was constantly pushing the limits of, only to be taught delightful lessons later about teasing him. He was always teaching her...

Richard'd left her only a month or two ago at that time but it still hurt so much she suddenly cringed and felt her insides falling apart right there in the middle of the store. So, she'd aborted her mission and returned to base, where she'd broken down in the elevator, alone and feeling unwanted and abandoned all over again. Where she was now. Left empty and discarded by the man she loved.

"I hate you..." she whimpered aloud, the words coming through a fog of pain she thought she'd escaped when she'd constructed the EDP. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with him, she did not look at Jason but stared ahead at the elevator doors, her hand trembling as it rested on the wall of the small cylindrical box. And she sobbed again, just like all those years ago. "What do I have to do to convince you to stay? When will I ever be good enough? Just tell me, please! I'll do...anything...for you..." A begging note had entered her voice as she repeated exactly what she'd said that afternoon alone in the elevator, word for word, the note of her voice different this time around as the recital hit new levels of unburied pain. Anything further she had to say cut off suddenly as she found herself blinking at orange light when the elevator doors opened again.

Blinking and tears drying quickly, she realized this wasn't Grissom, her hometown, and she wasn't on Osono's case anymore. Recent memory hit her like a hammer to the skull and the past evaporated like smoke from Benoit's cigarette. This was Charlton. Gwen was coming - Rudy was delivering her. She was in an elevator - she looked over to finally notice Jason - with her partner. And she had a job to do. 20 minutes, he'd said. How much time...? The thought was left unfinished as asking was not the important part. She gave Jason one more haunted look but didn't say anything as she stepped forward on unbalanced feet and proceeded down the hallway leading to the room with the stasis cells, hugging herself with her hands cupped on her elbows. She was done saying things for a while...

***

Osono watched with interest as Alex continued to tear the female Agent down, the dark haired girl's body turning to stone as he came up to her. She could practically feel the need to stay strong coming off the other woman in waves just by looking at her, and there was obviously a war within her not to break down and cry in front of someone she assumed was her boss for some reason. It didn't make much sense to her why the woman was suddenly listening to Alex, because other than the fact that he'd just ruthlessly killed her team mate or whatever, and the tone and attitude he adopted, it seemed like such bullshit because of one factor - the girl should not have recognized him.

There was something Ozzie was missing about the whole altercation and despite her earlier jumpy conclusions and the very obvious answer that the girl DID recognize him as a leader of some kind, she discarded that answer. For one thing, he'd killed his own "fellow Agent" and for another, he'd included Ozzie in his charade as an authority figure. If he had been planning to double cross her - which he surely would be IF he was indeed an Agent - then he was going to extreme lengths, shooting himself in the foot, just to continue the ruse that they were on the same team. She couldn't see how that would benefit him. Of course, then again...there'd been Rudy...

A second later all doubts and questions were shoved aside as suddenly both the woman and Alex collapsed to the watery ground. Ozzie blinked and rushed forward, hovering over him and looking down at him wildly as he lay gasping and twitching. Nudging him gently in the side with her boot, Ozzie cocked an eyebrow and said, "Ya alright?" She hoped he was. Ozzie definitely wasn't going to be hauling his ass to the car like he was a damn princess or something.

She cocked her head to the side curiously as his eyes closed and he suddenly wasn't moving anymore. "Shit!" she breathed as she crouched down beside him and touched a hand to his neck feeling for a pulse. When she finally found it, she let out another harsh breath of relief and bopped his shoulder very lightly with her fist in irritation. God! Freaking asshole was taking a nap!

Standing, she glanced over at the Agent woman and hurried over to her side to feel for a pulse as well. It was there, slow and steady but strong. So, "nap time", eh? She assumed that what he'd done to the woman was that special power Gwen had given him, but she'd also assumed that the thing was lethal. She was glad to find out that it was not, but she began to wonder when the Agent would wake up. Would Ozzie have to play the acting game without him? She didn't know if she could bullshit her way long enough to get them anywhere safely - she barely knew anything about these people and here Alex had been spouting off shit about recon and suits or whatever. She wouldn't be able to do it without him. Not believably. As much as she'd love to find out how the rematch with Little Miss Catsuit would go, she would hate to ruin their chances of getting Gwen back by making them start this whole thing over, finding another Agent with codes or whatever they needed.

Getting up from the girl's side, she wandered around looking for her gun that had fallen during the fight, her boots causing small waves in the water. Finally she found it and picked it up, dribbling like a tiny fountain as water poured from it's every little crevice. Carefully, she heated the air around it, evaporating as much of the moisture as she could before tucking it away in her waistband again and standing. Glancing in Alex's direction she realized she really was going to have to carry him someplace else if he was going to sleep; the water was freezing and he shouldn't be laying in it like this.

Something brief and small stirred within her at that moment. Something she had felt vague, ghost whisperings of in Starbucks. She felt the need to take care of somebody. To take care of him. He was nowhere near close to her emotionally and if she'd really had her way she would have just lit him up like a Christmas tree and walked away. Well...maybe she would have. She wasn't really sure now. He was still an annoying prissy bitch though!

Sighing, she'd just decided to go over to help him when he started to stir. Stopping to watch, she waited until he was making moves to stand before going over and geting in his face. "Jesus! What the hell!? You nearly gave me a heart attack! What's wrong with you!?"

It was more than clear that whatever the fuck was wrong with his stupid leg was getting worse as he hobbled to a standing position and stood there like he was about to fall over again. Not wanting to be the reason for further delay, she made sure not to touch him even though she had a very strong urge to lay a reprimanding punch to his shoulder. After the initial burst of anger, however, she found she lost the spark for it, as his current pathetic position took a lot of the fun out of being angry at him for being...well, pathetic.

She paused for a moment, scowling thoughtfully and glanced at the girl before looking back at him. She REALLY didn't like him, but...she needed him and right now, he needed her too and she couldn't curb stomp the desire to care anymore than it already had been. With a roll of her eyes, she stopped him before he could take a step forward and said, "Hold on, Mr. Wet Pants. Before you go freezing your ass in the car and getting those nice rental seats all wet..." She stood with about a foot of space between them and thumbed at her nose as she looked him over. The air around him shimmered and crackled with heat and within seconds his clothes and hair had dried out to the point where they wouldn't be uncomfortable to sit in.

Then she was stooping down to grab the female Agent's arm with one hand and without saying anything, slid her other arm underneath Alex's and grabbed onto his waist. She didn't want to draw attention to the damn thing, but of course the idiot was starting to protest. Aggressively she looked at him, keeping a firm hold on him. "Just take it, alright, dummie? I swear to God, I'll sock you so hard... Oh, Gwen power up- better not tooouuch me too rough!~" she said the last in a deep, mockingly stupid voice - obviously mimicking what she thought his voice sounded like - and rolled her eyes. "Shut up, whiny asshole! Come on."

Thankfully, he didn't fight her as she hauled both him and the Agent woman outside, but broke off from her without her giving any complaint once they'd exited the front doors. Once outside in the charred grass, Ozzie picked the woman up and tossed her over her own shoulder as they walked the rest of the way to the car, not seeming to break a sweat under the load of the 123 lb unconscious woman. Looking to Alex for direction, she was a little surprised when he wordlessly indicated the trunk, but she had no problem with it, opening it from the driver's side. Well, looked like they wouldn't have to deal with Invisi-Lady until they got to wherever they needed her. Slamming the trunk closed over the still wet Agent, she whistled to herself as she got back behind the wheel.

"Where to now, Hoss?" she asked, superficially adjusting the rearview before glancing at him. "Charlton, yeah?" She had the car already running before the GPS was set.

***

"♪ And the moth defeats the mouse and man, it's messing with the plan, it can't be believed! ♫" Rudy sang to himself as he turned onto the street in front of the Agency Charlton base, tapping lightly at his steering wheel a small beat. Finally, after all that he'd been through he was here and more than ready to dump the psychic broad onto those who wanted her - he wished them all the most terrible, miserable luck with her case. After the hell she'd put him through, it was only fair that whoever she got handed over to next got just as much if not worse. Especially considering it was Stephanie. He was still sore about how she'd suddenly, inexplicably become a prude back in training and after those wild times they'd shared! It didn't make sense and Rudy nursed the 6 year grudge with bitter satisfaction.

"♪ 'Cause it's just a hummingbird moth, who's acting like a bird that thinks it's a bee! ♫" his male, falsetto voice continued as he pulled into the parking garage of the large, dark and looming building. The gunshot wound in his right shoulder had stopped bleeding some time ago and so had the cut in his forehead. But there was still a slight swelling to the bruises that distorted his features and dried blood caked the right side of his face and all down the right side of his body, his clothes stiff and darkened where the blood had drenched him through.

Whistling airily the rest of the tune as he found a parking spot, he turned off the car and turned to his unconscious passenger. Gwen sat slumped to one side of the car, her hands and feet still cuffed, and her eyes closed as she leaned against the window. When he'd switched cars back at that church, he'd retaped her mouth, just to save himself the trouble of having to deal with that in case she woke up, but he'd kept her pretty pumped full of drugs throughout the ride. Now, as he looked at her, he suffered a bit of a quandary. How the hell was he gonna get fatso upstairs to the lobby? There was an elevator around here somewhere of course...there had to be...

Getting out of the car, Rudy popped his head above the roof like a scrawny meerkat searching for danger, his eyebrows bouncing in relief as he saw the light of the elevator flush against the far wall. Oh, thank God. He didn't need to carry her up stairs. Going around the car to the other side, he was faced with a white drawn heart and the word "4ever" on the window, obscuring Gwen's face from view. Opening the door, he jumped back a few steps as gravity pulled her down to topple face-first to the pavement. Glancing around guiltily, he rubbed his hands together, spit on them both and then rubbed them together again before attempting to grab ahold of her.

Putting pressure on his legs and bending his back low, he held her underneath her armpits and tugged her in stops and starts the rest of the way out of the car, so she was laying parallel between his stolen vehicle and the one he'd parked beside. Letting go of her, he stood up and took in a few lungfuls of air and repositioned himself to start pulling her in the most direct route towards the elevator. Then, grunting and wheezing and stopping frequently, he proceeded to drag her to the beacon of salvation against the far wall - Oh, sweet baby Jesus! Why'd he park so far away!? - pain burning in his bad shoulder.

Several times, grunting and sweating, his worn sneakers slipped on the pavement, causing him to fall hard on his hip bones, and by the time he made it within a few feet of the elevator, he was gasping desperately for breath and pulling her by a wrist, dragging her inch-by-inch to the double metal doors. It almost seemed like there was a harsh wind blowing from that direction that seemed intent on wearing him down and halting his progress.

But on he fought through exhaustion as white spots appeared in front of his eyes and he grew light-headed, his voice coming in loud grunts and groans of exertion. He was finally reduced to crawling with her, his arm waving to reach up to the key pad to put in his code. Rudy didn't even touch the damn thing before collapsing against the doors, with her in his lap, black filling his vision and sucking him under.

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#, as written by Tartra
The slap of the door as he shut it sounded heavy on his ears. The small reprieve he had before Osono got in the car couldn’t be wasted, even if all he wanted to do was sit there and breathe. At least his clothes were dry again – one small mercy in the face of all the other crap – and he was pretty thankful for it. He’d tell her once she was done dumping the Agent in the trunk.

It’s not permanent.

His foot.

“Thanks, Doctor Xander.”

It might hurt real bad and it might be stiff for a while, but I don’t think it’s permanent.

“How long, exactly, is ‘a while’?”

... Umm...

“That’s what permanent means,” Alex muttered. “Good to know you gave me a keepsake. Glad to know I didn’t even have to ask.”

Can I rest now? I’m really tired.

“I know.” Whatever crazy, inhuman, masochistic endurance Xander’d grabbed from the Agency or just been born with, Alex was grateful for it. If he didn’t have it, and because asking him to control his fucking temper over a latte was out of the question, the guy would’ve worn out forever ago, and with the way Xander had been wearing out already... If anyone else’d been inserted inside his head, then ignoring the whole ‘you were the one who broke my foot, jerk’ reality, everyone would’ve been caught. And if that wasn’t enough, while in the midst of any other time Alex would’ve been left to handle his foot by himself, now that he was on the move, he couldn’t begin to describe how fortunate he was to have a maniac in his brain that at least carried some benefit. But – still, and he could not stress this enough, this was Xander’s fault in the first place. And Starbucks’. “How long?”

I want a full break. I’d like the whole ride down there... But Alex needed to be able to handle it. To be fair, you were standing before you pussied out and fainted. You’ll be sitting now.

That made a difference?

It’s better than nothing.

... Fair enough.

“But not all at once,” Alex said.

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Xander was rolling in sincerity with that one. Then again, maybe he was being honest, because Alex wasn’t immediately crippled with the full force of his shattered limb. It was starting as a hollow ache instead. He wondered how long it’d take before all of it got thrown at him.

The trunk had slammed. Osono was walking back to the driver’s seat. He hadn’t said a whole lot to her since the – uh... ‘Rudy is a horrible person’ thing... but he was thankful for that, too. If even Xander hadn’t made a dent – at least a dent – in her anger over it, he needed all the time and Agents he could get to help her blow off steam. Now that it was over though, sitting on bad blood like this was only going to explode in his face if he didn’t handle it. Or try to, anyway.

Don’t look at me. And you’re at two percent. Goin’ on five.

His foot twitched. It didn’t help at all.

“Yeah. Charlton,” he said, trying to focus on her when she got in. “And... where in Charlton... is...”

Seven percent. Ow. Don’t ‘ow’ yet. You’ve got a lot to go. And just go to Charlton – anywhere’s fine.

“You don’t have the address?”

Not the exact address.

“Xan–” Cover.Gwen. I thought you knew where you were going.”

There was a little huff and a blasé rehashing of the ‘eight years when it was really six’ crap before he officially answered, It’s why we’re bringin’ the Agent. She’ll know.

Alex might’ve had a better answer for why that was horrible logic based on nothing, but Xander said ‘nine’ and he got distracted.

“We’re – just... going to Charlton for now. Once we get there, we’ll worry about the exact location,” he said, reaching for the GPS. After a few buttons, he had it set on some store downtown. It’d put them in the heart of the city and they might even drive past the place. If it stuck out as sorely as the one in Elmira, it’d be all they needed. “Let’s hope our new Agent friend doesn’t mind the trip.”

* * *


Jason took it back: now the floodgates had opened. It wasn’t as if he’d deluded himself into thinking his lead was anything less than what the Agency wanted – borderline insane, and maybe beyond it a bit – but he still had to force himself not to take a step back when she grabbed onto him. He should’ve been used to it by now, but there it was: she was still a pro at unnerving him.

He tried not to say anything when she declared war on the planet, but it got harder as it went on. When they made it to the elevator and she started crying, he was torn between politely ignoring it and trying to help her. ‘Help her how’ was a minor detail he ended up not having to figure out, but it left its mark. He knew where he stood with an A-3, but where he stood with her was by far the most mind-numbingly annoying question he’d ever had to answer, and while he’d thought about it, she kept talking.

At first he assumed she meant him. He was the only one in there after all, and with the question over whether or not he’d stay with her until the end of this only recently resolved – as far as he knew – he’d logically decided her emotions – ha! – were getting to her and she’d simply forgotten. No, it didn’t hold up in front of what she was saying. There was too much weight in her words and he knew she wasn’t so attached to him that he’d be the target of it. In lieu of anything else to do, he fell back on his knowledge of the Agency hierarchy and didn’t press her. If she wanted to explain, she would have. If she wanted him to ask... Better safe than sorry. He shut up. And then she walked away and left him standing at the elevators.

What the hell was going on anymore? This was the hundredth time he’d mulled over it and he was even farther away from the explanation than he’d been in the beginning. It wasn’t this case that was doomed; it was him. ... And this case. They went hand in hand.

Ding!

The elevators ‘dinged’. Charlton had happy chimes to announce new arrivals but they couldn’t get new lights? And why had no one turned on any of the others? When the sun set, it’d be pitch black.

“Hiya, Jason!”

“Eric. Sir.” Jason gave a respectful nod of his head. He immediately choked on whatever other word he’d had bubbling up and took half a minute to breathe again. “Is that –

“Look who I found downstairs! Gwen! And some other guy! Isn’t this exciting?”

Eric was positively delighted with this turn of events. Jason wasn’t sure if he should join in or be horrified. When had they arrived? Why were they passed out? Was – that...?

“Is he one of us?”

“Common sense says ‘yes’,” Eric sang. “Must be Rooty-roo. Would you take him to... the... uh... What’s the place you go to when you’re... not good?”

What was he talking about? And if it truly was Quin, what the fuck had happened to him?

Eric had Gwen – his target – sitting on his left arm and leaning against his neck the same way a child would with its parent, minus the ‘conscious’ part. Rudy, meanwhile, had been left to dangle under Eric’s right arm like a log or a newspaper. It wasn’t hard to see who had the priority in the A-1’s eyes and Jason had a fairly good feeling it was less to do with chivalry than anything else.

“Oh. Oh – the – uh... sick bay.”

“That’s it! Sick bay!” Eric said the name stiltedly, like he wasn’t too familiar with the term. It made sense. Thanks to his powers letting him dump any body he picked up and his Agency-issued lack of concern for anyone around him, he wouldn’t have much use for a place like that. “Take ‘im there, will ya? Just dump him in any ol’ corner – I’ll get to him when I can.”

“And...” He couldn’t believe it. She was here. “And her?”

“Stephie’s been looking frazzled,” Eric said, almost sympathetic. “I don’t want her hearing Gwen’s arrived and then running down the stairs and breaking her neck in a mad dash to see her. I’ll let these two meet up and then she can go to the...” He spaced out for a moment, long enough to carefully roll out the words. “... sick bay.”

You’re taking her? Now?”

“Why not?”

“Because she’s more than frazzled,” Jason told him. “She’s... unravelling.” And that was the best case scenario.

“This’ll make her feel better!”

“Sir – I wouldn’t chance it. Anybody else and I’d wholeheartedly agree, but Stephanie –”

“Okay, okay. A-6s know best,” Eric trilled. “I’ll take them both to the... sick bay. How’s Xandy?”

‘Xandy’?

Right, him.

“The stasis cell has been unloaded and brought upstairs,” he reported. “I’m not sure about its final status, but Benoit went up with it. I’m sure it’s been handled.”

“Ah, geez. He’s with him alone? Look – take them,” Eric said, shoving Gwen into his arms and half-dropping Rudy on the floor. “I’ve gotta get up there.”

“Is something wrong?”

“He might’ve said his plan called for keeping Xander alive but he’ll switch it up on a dime.” The man was already walking away and calling back over his shoulder. “He’s a sensitive guy, that Benny. He’ll hold a grudge to the day he dies. Take care of ‘em, Jason!”

“Will do, sir,” he shouted back.

Alright, this he could do. He could manage this. Gwen rested limply in his arms, breathing but virtually dead. Those were not good adjectives to use with her, and if Rudy had had any sense, he would’ve shown up as a blank slate instead of painting himself in bruises to show what a pretty picture he could make out of his blood. His lead would probably go right for his throat. There was what Eric had promised on the plane, too. The stars were not shining in ‘Agent’ Quin’s future.

... Where the hell was the sick bay?

* * *


So.

They met again.

Circumstances had certainly changed. Improved, in some respects. For one, the man was not talking.

Benoit did not appreciate his forbiddance to stand in front of the stasis cell and gloat. That woman was stalking the entire floor, looking for him. Good God – if he had to put up with even another minute of that, he’d blow his own brains out before the seconds hit double-digits. Regardless, the room was bare enough to allow a clear view from his corner. Marshall Elias was a fine addition to the other four, his cell as red as the rest of them, painted lovingly as the traitor he was.

Idiot. The worst that would’ve happened was removing him from Alexander. The technology was new, undeniably, but re-transferring was a minor feat in comparison to everything else. All the man had to do was accept his failure and move on, which shouldn’t have been difficult considering how he’d ‘picked’, to put it lightly, through a hundred others. He had no respect for these people. It was disgraceful. Benoit was disgusted, but with the Agency’s decision more than the decidee. A dog was a dog – it couldn’t help what it was. Those in charge should have shown more insight in whom they deemed worthy of promotion to a lead. What on earth had they thought would happen?

He would have blamed the man’s nature as his fatal flaw; unfortunately, his nature was what led him to be a Pain Eater and Jean had been too worthy of a soul to share that one’s horridness. He was, in fact, was too worthy for many hands Fate had dealt him, and his latest tragedy was the worst blow of all. Benoit wasn’t even sure who to blame for it; both Eric and the fake Alexander had done their part, and as a result, he had to settle for hating them both. He was so sure in this, there was no blood to boil. Such a thing was beneath him anyway, as he prided himself on keeping a level head. Unfortunately, much of that meant he couldn’t dwell on what had happened to his friend. Not now, not when his hands were tied putting up the precious A-1.

That would change.

For now, he turned to the task at hand: getting Alexander-the-guest to prove himself as the selfish bastard he had always been. The beauty of being simple-minded was that he was easy to predict. Benoit had already guessed his movements. After he spent some time bragging about the front-and-centre placement of his cell, he would willingly waste his time commenting on the inane – likely ‘reminiscing’ over how wonderful it had been to be his original self, and if it was true, why in fuck would he waste everyone’s time with this nonsense – and then waste more time trying to work the transfer himself. He was already impatient over it. Benoit refused to strike until Alexander was in the process of separating. It was a narrow window thanks to the marvellous advancements made – he accepted that he owed some manner of gratitude to Patten – but the entire reason for his success was his impeccable agility. And dexterity. And reflexes. If it involved movement, he was in his element, and he took pride in knowing he was only an A-3 because he had refused to move up. He wanted this. The advantage he would gain was undeniable.

Once this was over, he was draining the cell and putting his cigarette out in the man’s eye. Alexander-the-guest wouldn’t be there to feel it, but it would make him happy.

Idiot. Absolutely an idiot.

That boy had no sense of severity in any situation. He’d hopped in his cell with the air of someone stupid in thinking they would be ‘out’ again in a year. Not so. And Elias had been told as much going in, though he chose to skip every other process if it meant hurrying things along. He’d been so eager to shove in everyone’s face how he had won and was going to rule the Agency on the back of Alexander’s gift. It was little things that pissed Benoit off the most: he had refused to cut his hair and now it bobbed around his head. It had been long enough to curl over his ears before he left, which had been yet another safety regulation he saw no reason to abide. Even his extremely-temporary-teammate saw fit to tie hers back – or at least she had until Patten showed up. The rest of the man was details that would have made a very useful Agent: six feet of height, strongly built, broad-shouldered and trained to forget pain. His face was obscured by the bulky mask in place to let him breathe through his suspension, but even so, his grating smirk didn’t have to be seen to irritate.

What a waste. Alexander-the-guest had been built to be the perfect marriage of speed and strength; not a master of either skill, but an expert in the use of both. There’d been a surprisingly small number who managed outrun him – Benoit led that pack by a mile – and he’d seen fit to narrow the bridge between him and those of greater strength through the suit he’d insisted on working with. Frankly, he’d succeeded spectacularly, and Benoit admit it because he gave credit where credit was due, but the problem with that son of a bitch was he knew he had done well. The arrogance he’d wielded through his tiny revelation devoured the talents that birthed it. He’d forgotten his place almost immediately after his first recommendation and from there had spiralled utterly out of control. There was an overwhelming sense of satisfaction in seeing him bottled up. It was fitting, and it was wholly deserved.

Idiot, idiot, idiot. The only use he would serve now would be as bait to lure Patten out of Jean, but the thought of some demonic smile-smirk hybrid haunting him for the rest of however long the A-1 insisted on hanging around almost made him gag. And it wouldn’t work. Seven feet with what Eric had now versus six feet for what Elias offered? It wasn’t a good trade. He wasn’t desperate enough to go for it if, as it stood, he dwarfed everyone around him.

Oh, the things Benoit had planned. The anticipation – he enjoyed it more than he thought possible. Playing it over and over in his mind would have him entertained for years. It was the least he could do. Again, for now.

“THERE YOU ARE.”

Shit.

Provided he survived this.

* * *


They weren’t far into their drive. By ‘not far’, Alex meant ‘they’d pulled out of parking and made the wheels move a little’, but every tree came from an acorn. That’s deep. And it was true. Now was as good a time as any to start walking on that thin ice again.

“... About... what happened...”

He stared right ahead. He was nowhere near Xander’s level of deception, and because that guy had already set the bar on how to talk pathetically – was Alex ever going to get to be in charge of his own life? – and he’d never be able to mimic it, it’d be best to just avoid looking at her altogether in case his ‘emotions’ didn’t match up or whatever. It normally wasn’t a problem and he had the I’m-A-Crazy-Person alibi, but now was not the time to risk pushing any buttons. Aside from the Rudy thing, he meant.

“I don’t know what the – uh... relationship is between you and...” This was the point of no return. “... you and Rudy. I don’t know if I want to know either, if it’s possible for anyone to explain. But I get that it’s... strong. Unbreakable, maybe – I mean... if I’m getting it right.” He probably wasn’t. He took a breath and tried to sound steadier through his voice. It wasn’t easy with Xander now at ‘eleven’. “Gwen had the same problem when we first met.” Wait. “With me, I mean. I did... well – I did a lot of stupid stuff. Nothing serious, nothing she couldn’t fix, but more than once I ran into one of them because I figured I could handle it or they wouldn’t come after me or... I don’t know. I guess a part of me figured if I didn’t believe in them, they’d go away. She had her hands full is what I’m trying to say.”

Not to hijack your conversation or anything, but I still have my hands full with you. It’s like you’ve got a death wish. Thirteen.

Ow, ow. It was like he’d hit his foot on a sharp corner but the shock didn’t fade right away – and when it did, it wasn’t by a lot.

“Anyway,” he went on, “if I can’t understand what’s going on with the two of you, I can at least appreciate how hard it’d be – minimum – to shake off. I know it won’t happen in a day. ... And I guess I – just... Well, Gwen’s gone and I see you making the same mistakes I did, so it’s not hard to figure out why I’d be on edge, even if – ow!

Dude – what’d you expect? Fifteen.

“Go up by ones,” Alex hissed.

And drag it out? That’s gonna be worse.

“I told you not all at once,” he said, “and this goes right back to the band-aid thing: yes, it is possible to take it off painlessly if you try having some patience.”

Uh-huh. So – you plannin’ on storming the gates all by yourself ‘cause I won’t have time for my full rest or are you gonna stop being a bitch and let me do this?

“The first one,” he shot back.

Figured. To which I say, ‘seventeen’.

Ow!

Hey – I could make this go a lot faster! You’re lucky I’m being nice.Nice’? Go back to your apology or whatever the hell that is.

Fine. And reluctantly, Alex admitted this wasn’t the time to worry about it. Only seventeen? Crap.

“Anyway,” he said for the second time, trying to ease back into his solemn tone, “I’m stressed, so when it comes to the more delicate truths in life – like...” He was trying to be careful with his wording, but how else could he say it? “... Rudy being an evil Agent bastard who kidnapped Gwen, I’m not in the best state of mind to explain it. So I’m sorry. I meant what I said, just... not how I said it, and I’m sorry.”

That was the best he could do. If it wasn’t enough, then it wasn’t possible for him to manage it.

Twenty.

“OW.”

This has officially become entertaining. Twenty-and-a-half. Pussy.

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Alright! Charlton! Yeah! This was it! Finally! After tagging along with the 'Swan Lake' reject on this little side quest, they were finally on track and ready to actually save Gwen. Looking at the GPS and what Alex punched into it, she realized they still had a little ways to go, but now there wouldn't be any derailing from the final course. This was it. Showdown time. And Osono was excited.

She was scared too, of course, but mostly excited. In all her dealings with Agents thus far, it'd mostly been in public places like restaurants, motels, shopping malls, parking lots, etc. They'd even cornered her on a freaking train one time. But there'd rarely ever been more than 8 or 10 diving at her at one time and if there was more then there was always open space at her back or an EXIT sign that led to freedom. All it took was an explosion or firewall and they were left with an empty spot once the smoke cleared. Those that didn't die, anyway.

But this was different. She'd be walking straight into the hive and there was no question that getting out would be a lot harder than getting in, especially if They were alerted to their presence while they were still inside. Which, the Agents no doubt would be with what they were planning to do - unless for some miracle reason They left Gwen unguarded. Ozzie was inexperienced with the inner workings of these people as it was, so she was going to assume that They were going to make it as hard as possible. If it ended up being easier, then that was great! But she wasn't going to expect nothing but the worst case scenarios to occur. Not knowing much about these people made that a little difficult to prepare for, and she was about to ask Alex if he knew anything that might help her fill in the blanks, but then the idiot started talking on his own.

And the first thing he said instantly put her on edge, especially when the name 'Rudy' came from between his lips. Defensive anger bristled within her, her hackles almost visibly raised as he continued to speak in that semi-uncertain tone of his and she gripped the steering wheel tightly to keep herself from punching him. She tried to focus on the road while he spoke, but it was a bit difficult as she reached new levels of rage with each passing second.

At mention of Gwen's name, she calmed a few notches, the red blurring her eyesight and the heat of violence filling her bones subsiding enough for her to actually hear him. But the presumptions and comparisons he was making had her on the edge of screaming at him. That feeling continued to boil inside of her, even when he stopped to talk to himself - or his internal version of Gwen or whatever the hell it was - and she took a bit of delight in the hisses and exclamations of pain that he was obviously still going through from the phantom pain assaulting his leg.

Hastily throwing together a plan of where she was going to dump his body once she was finished with him when he once again stated the fucking obvious about Rudy as if she were an idiot and didn't already know, she paused when he apologized. It didn't stop the train of wrath she was riding but it slowed it down considerably, especially when she understood what he was trying to do. Not attacking her again for liking Rudy - although there was a little bit of that - but rather attempting to make amends when he'd done that before. And as she let the anger inside simmer down enough that she was no longer gripping the steering wheel in an attempt to restrain herself, she also realized that he had been trying to explain why he'd said what he had. Because he was worried about Gwen. Just like she'd thought back when they were checking out of the hotel.

She could forgive him for that at least, because in a way, she understood. The reason she'd gotten so defensive about it in the first place was for similar reasons, this whole ordeal putting her on edge about whether or not they'd make it in time to help her friend or not. Ozzie wanted to keep telling herself that she wasn't going to accept failure. That no matter what, they were going to get her out of there. But the truth was she wasn't even sure they'd make it inside to find her still alive...or herself, if what Alex said they did to people like them was true.

Even though she sympathized and even appreciated his apology, she'd been perfectly fine before and would have loved him to death if he'd never fucking thought to mention the name Rudy ever again. He needed to know that and he needed to understand why, because apparently getting angry when he talked about Quin and threatening to burn his skin off when he did wasn't getting through to him. God forbid they needed to have this discussion for a third freaking time.

"Do you want to get freaking knifed?" she asked casually as if she were asking if he wanted to eat somewhere. She glanced at him with a very neutral expression before shrugging nonchalantly. "Because that's what it sounds like you're saying to me. ~'Please, Osono!'" she said in that same deep and stupid sounding voice from before. "'Cut me and fuck my shit up because I can't shut my stupid face!~" She shook her head and huffed an exhausted laugh, running a hand through her short hair which had dried plastered down on her skull instead of spiked up.

"Alright, since you wanna be dumb but you're at least making an attempt to not be a jerkwad about it, I'm gonna explain just a few quick little things to you. Just so that it's clear and you don't end up thinking 'Hmm, well maybe if I talk about him MORE she'll feel LESS like killing my stupid ass'. Because Alex, honey, that can't be further from the truth and it's not gonna change no matter how many fucking times you feel the need to bring up his name.

"It's no secret how I feel," she said soberly, not looking at him and still at this point not willing to say the actual words aloud. "And you were wrong earlier. There isn't anything better for me, alright? You call Rudy a sleazeball because he killed a guy and kidnapped Gwen. What about me? Who the fuck did you think you got into the car with? Do I look like a freaking angel to you? This thing with Gwen is the first time in years that I've actually attempted to do something to help someone else. That I've tried to do something other than actively hurting everyone I meet.

"And I want you to know how serious I am about it," she said defensively, realizing that it sounded a little bad that her one good deed was to correct something that was her fault to begin with. As she went on, a gravity entered her voice and she did not look away from the roadway in front of her, semi concentrating on driving. "When I say that I'll do anything to get her out of Their hands alive, I mean, I'll do anything. There's not a damn thing holding me back from causing a whole city to go up in flames if it means saving her."

She shrugged and gave him a look that very obviously articulated an apathy about the thought of causing such destruction and the death of thousands of people. It wasn't exactly true...because she DID hold a measure of guilt very close to her heart when it came to thinking about all the people she'd hurt over the years and how blindly selfish she'd been. But when it came time to make the decision on whether to act or not to act for a specific course, she did not hesitate about things like "lives will be lost". The end goal was what was important and that was what she meant to get across to Alex.

"And it makes me no better than Rudy just because I'm trying to save someone. So, please, don't compare the mess I've got with him to what you and Gwen have. It's not the same and there's no way you could possibly understand what it's like to be so alone in the world that you'd not only settle for the guy trying to kill you on a regular basis, but to actually be in love with him. I'm not going to apologize for the way I feel and you're not gonna convince me to give him up because I've got something better for my life or some idealized bullshit. I know what I am.

"So, just know that's the gist of it and shut the hell up or I'm gonna gut you like a fish, friend or no friend." Ozzie shrugged and smiled wryly at him to show him she was semi-joking about her threat and rolled her eyes. "We're fine. There's no need for more shit to come outta your mouth about it. The less you talk, the more I like you, and the more you talk about Rudy, the more I start to think your head might look good on a stick. Got it?" She looked at him for clarification, then nodded curtly. "Good. Now leave me alone and just let me drive. Listen to the god-dammed radio or take a freaking nap. I don't care."

She let out another breathless laugh and leaned on her hand against the window with one hand on the steering wheel.

***

Leaving Jason's presence before had been a relief because of the pressure of her desires weighing upon her. Leaving him behind now after that felt like torture with every step. Even so, as she lamented over the little scene she'd made in the elevator, Stephanie had trouble focusing on it as pain once again coursed through her body. At the top of the stairs back on the upper walkway, she leaned against the railing and closed her eyes trying to catch her breath and feeling like she'd run a thousand miles.

Internally, she berated herself for her stupid explosion in front of Jason, silently mouthed curses leaving her lips without her seeming to notice or too weak to keep them inside. Telling herself she wasn't going to do that again, she shoved the illness and weight cracking on her shoulders away from herself and slipped her broken and weathered mask back into place. The EDP with it's comforting cold shield of emotionless allowed her to stand up straight again and breath in deeply without feeling like she was going to spit out her stomach. But even peripherally she was aware of the holes in it, emotion still present on her face as she slowly calmed herself down.

It was going to be alright. She just needed Gwen, that's all. She was going to be fine as soon as Gwen was here and in her grasp again, everything would be fixed. This body was the problem. Those awful memories that she thought she'd escaped were coming back to haunt her now for some reason and she was being forced to relive them. When she went through the body transfer process she would finally be able to discard this body and start fresh in brand new skin. She'd be free of these shackles the EDP put on her and she'd be free of that old pain. Hope filled her and steadied her as she turned into the hallway off the walkway, and she felt herself coasting through a haze while cocooned in the comfort of the Emotion Desensitization Program.

Walking back the way she'd gone with Jason before, she came upon the spot where the chubby subordinate still stood at his disciplined spot and immediately the EDP was discarded as her face brightened dramatically.

"Puppy!" she exclaimed happily, walking with an eager step towards him, coming to stand at his side. When he turned his eyes to look at her in obvious surprise with a mixture of what she assumed to be delight and trepidation, a girlish giggle left her lips. "Turn away from the wall and look at me. Talk to me." Her voice took on an almost childish tone as she tugged his sleeve with gentle fingers made tiny by the youthful gesture. Apparently, he took that for an order and obeyed and she smiled again, her green eyes twinkling in a friendly manner.

Then her face grew mockingly serious and almost sad as she pouted. "My target isn't here yet and I think the delivery boy may have killed her," she said in an exaggerated sad tone. But the sharp, sorrowful gasp that left her at the end of it was real, and for a moment her chin trembled before she could continue. When she did, her arms came out from her sides opening wide towards him in an inviting manner. "I need hugs."

Again, she pouted cutely, but when he seemed to hesitate - was he debating whether she was serious or was he just having difficulties coming to terms with the fact that she was asking him at all? - her expression instantly flashed into "adult Stephanie"/slightly irritable mode as she said, "Hug me right now, Pup!"

He hopped to her order then, and her face smoothed out calmly as she enveloped him in her arms like the huge teddy bear he was, her face resting over his right shoulder and not minding the greasy hair in her face nor the smell of nacho cheese something coming off of him. For a few moments, she let out a few more small tortured gasps, shuddering in his hold as he somewhat comfortingly - and awkwardly - rubbed her upper back. But finally she drew away and let out a long breath, seeming to come back to herself in more ways than one.

"Thank you," she said in a somewhat more subdued manner. "Things get a bit stressful around here from time to time... I really needed that." Remembering once again that Rudy had Gwen, she stifled the urge to hug him tightly once more and instead cleared her throat and tucked her hair behind her ears before saying, "I have a little job for you. Jason is stressed as well and my hugs don't really help. I was wondering, if you might be able to find some of those Oreo copy-cats that he likes and bring them to me. It's a small thing...but I think it'll make him happy if I gave them to him. Could you do that for me, Puppy?" Stephanie paused and gave him her prettiest smile then, while still ready to smack him down and order him to fetch those cookies if he were to say 'no' for whatever, inconsequential reason.

***

"I need to stop," she said suddenly as they started nearing the highway. Coming up alongside one of the last gas stations, Ozzie turned into the parking lot without asking him about it more. Something else had entered her mind after her little chat with Alex and it had been bothering her for the past several minutes. There was something very final about this mission they were about to embark on, a kind of live or die ending on the horizon. That, mixed with her small mention of her terrible past had her actually remembering the things she'd left behind and she had the urge to do something before they went any further.

Parking the car, she turned to him and ignored the pained look he gave her - the big crybaby - and said, "Look, I haven't eaten anything since yesterday evening and that was fuckin' breadsticks at that stupid restaurant. I'm hungry and if I'm gonna be driving the whole way, I just need to grab something quick that I don't need to sit down while eating. I'll get ya somethin' if you want? And I need some cigarettes before I blow my brains out." She really did need all of those things and she knew even before she got out that she was going to need more time than that to do what she needed to do. But there was no way she'd ever tell him about it.

"I also need to take a wizz," she added unabashedly, slipping on her army jacket and checking the money stuffed in her pocket. It was a lie but the bathroom break would be a good cover.

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He’d been tensely waiting for another answer that would’ve made sticking his neck out to apologize worth it. By the time they stopped and she started getting out of the car, he realized it wasn’t coming. So what the hell did that mean? Everything was as crappy as it’d been since yesterday except now he’d been raised to a level where she didn’t actively look for something to stab him with instead of turning the car around to find one? Thanks a lot, Osono. It was wonderful hearing the only reason she had for not ‘knifing’ –

“Get me a bottle, diapers and a handful of Nyquil.” But hey, if it’s your period that’s making you cry, we can always get you tampons. “And food! Something with meat in it. And candy. Like... a lot.”

He wasn’t hungry.

Don’t care.

“I don’t know how much longer I can take this,” Alex muttered. He’d waited for her to go before he opened his mouth – she didn’t want to hear him and he wasn’t keen on chatting with her, either – so now I’m stuck with it. “Why don’t you talk to her? You’re having more luck than I am.”

Probably ‘cause I’m not whining about how mean she is every five minutes. I’m gonna put your hair in pigtails.

“I’m being serious. If you’re not watching my foot, handle her. There’s a noticeable lift in her fucking attitude whenever you step in.”

Punching Alex in the Face: I swear it’d end a war the way it brings people together. Twenty-four.

Alex sucked in a sharp breath that turned his entire body rigid. He let it out once the jolt passed, but he didn’t relax. The one bright spot in her stopping and wasting even more time was that he was able to keep his foot still. Outside of the short releases of control, it was dead and silent. Every muscle in his toes sat waiting for the first hint of permission to move, and he knew when they did, they’d strike up a fury of Hell through his leg, so he was grateful they were at one place long enough for him to lull his sizzling nerves to sleep.

“She should’ve eaten at the restaurant.” He could practically feel Xander hovering over his shoulder in there. “You’re not getting a ‘thank you’.”

Twenty-seven.

A few minutes passed as they sat they sat there. A few seconds after that and he got anxious.

“... How long is she gonna be in there?”

They haven’t done the transfer.

“You don’t know for sure.”

I do. Xander and his ‘theory’. It freaked Alex out when he tried to go over what the guy could’ve possibly pieced together to come up with it, but in light of this new pit stop, it was better than just crossing his fingers. Still... She’s probably gonna be a while.

“What? Why?”

Settle down. I’ll get her if she’s a twenty minute no-show but give her some time. Give her ‘time’? Unless you wanna hurry her along. Goodness knows you’ve been having oodles of luck so far.

That didn’t take Alex off the high-alert he was suddenly on. The quick call to attention in his mind went straight to his foot, too. A toe twitched or a piece of dust landed on it – didn’t matter – it was spasming and screaming and curling into itself –

Aaaaaand now we’re back to ten. Nice job. Maybe we should get you to a doctor.

You think?

You’re right. Dumb idea, Xander said. Eighteen.

Eight

Stop moving your foot, he scolded. I’m tired. This has to pick up. I can’t keep babying you.

Alex couldn’t spare the breath he needed to point out the obvious in that one. Instead, through his panicking gasps, he shot out, ““Why is she going to be a while? What’s so hard about getting food and going the bathroom?”

I think she’s up to something else. She kind’f had an air around her...

“What sort of ‘air’?”

An ‘I’m up to something else’ one.

“That isn’t what I meant,” he snapped. “Is she trying to kill someone, is she trying to rob someone –”

I think the order in which you placed those is the most telling feature of your partnership with her.

Alex craned his next at the gas station. There was nothing special about it: big windows, chips and pop and all that other crap, a few other travellers crammed inside and a highway of cars storming the pumps on the side. The bathroom was inside of there and had to be off to the left because he didn’t see any sign of her and that was the only part of the small building without something to look through.

“Twenty minutes is too long,” he mumbled.

Give her ten to come back in view.

“Then what?”

You two can have another conversation, Xander said. If you’re bored of bringing up Rudy every other word, maybe you can lecture her on smoking this time. That’ll go over even better.

... That wasn’t a half-bad idea. He hated the smell.

And you blame me for not having friends.

“I had friends before you showed up,” Alex told him, settling into his seat. “Ten minutes. Then we go inside.”

* * *


Jason had a hard time getting them to the sick bay. The problem came from trying to decide who to take first. If he brought his target, he risked the shockingly rat-face pseudo-Agent waking up and running off to rub his target’s arrival in everyone’s face. If he brought Quin, however, it meant Gwendolyn Stewart, the entire reason their small team was here, would be left in the hallway to be found by a) someone random, b) Gary or another fool who’d go giddy over it, c) Alexander and whatever pile of Rescue Rangers he’d pulled together or d) his lead. That was by far at the bottom of his list of things that’d keep him alive until tomorrow, no matter what the hell had been going on, and although he was a little loathe to admit it, he was almost grateful she’d taken such an interest in Eric. With the A-1 up there, prowling around with a feast of cookies and whatever else in those eternal pockets, she’d be too distracted to leave his side and wander down here. In the face of that, he’d probably be in the clear.

Pros and cons. Gwendolyn Stewart was the flight risk but she’d have to stumble around for a minute or two before she realized the door was over there. It was still bright outside and that didn’t help, but although the bodies of the Agents Frenchie had quietly dispatched had vanished, the blood slicks hadn’t left. She could always slip on those, fall again and knock herself back out. If she was stupid enough to run around with Alexander... Quin was only a problem because Jason didn’t want his lead to know yet. If he woke up, he’d lose himself in the maze of this place looking for her and the clock of how long everyone had before some gigantic reaction let loose would immediately begin counting down. This needed to be broken to her gently. All that... crying... and the way she’d been acting... If they wanted her sanity intact, she’d have to be eased into everything until the transfer. He would show her Gwen was here, not report it and have her run down in a panic. Eric was right about that and Jason was not about to forget it.

All of this, however, was ignoring one obvious solution: that he take them at the same time. But he didn’t have a cart or anything and there was no way in hell he could care them both. He wasn’t that strong. He looked bigger than he was.

“Quin.” He nudged the little Agent with his foot. No reaction. “Quin!”

The longer Gwen stayed asleep, the better. They didn’t have any serious equipment – none he knew about – for handling her powers if she woke up. Another reason for him to tell his lead, but one thing at a time.

Okay. He was picking her up. She wasn’t too heavy in his arms but he’d never liked carrying anything, from a plate to a couch. This would’ve been a lot worse if she’d been struggling. Thanks for that, Quin, you target-swapping midget. And as for the midget...

* * *


This was the greatest day of his life and any past life he or anyone else on the planet could’ve had. Gary’s head was gonna explode and nobody, not even Diana, was going to take this moment away from him.

“I will find you those cookies,” he announced. “I will find them and I will wash them and I will paint them gold and I will stuff them down Jason’s throat the very second he tries weaselling out of it!”

AND HE WOULD. Both of them – Jason was crazy like that, always tryin’ to push that stuff off like he was too good for it and then diving at ‘em like they were crack the minute they were laid out, but if he tried running away because ‘I’m a professional, Gary!’, then Gary was grabbing ten boxes and making him eat every single one. That’s what Stephanie March wanted? That was what he would do!

“I’m loving the enthusiasm from this little corner!” OH MY GOD ERIC PATTEN WAS BACK. “I feel so pumped – and I don’t even know what you kids are talkin’ about! It’s great!”

I ate your pocket cookie!

Silence.

Long silence.

Even more silence after that.

There, in that hall, Gary stood face-to-face with Stephanie March and Eric Patten, and they said nothing. They said nothing! They stared at him and – ohgodohgod – oh shit, oh God – they probably thought he was so screwed in the head for even talking to them! Answering Stephanie March – Stephanie March! – after she finished telling him to do something was completely and totally different from taking one look at the A fucking 1 and screaming in his face that Gary just devoured the most precious gift he’d ever been given or would ever be given again in his life! Yeah, yeah, the wedding rings...

“Well...” ERIC PATTEN WAS TALKING OH GOD OH GOD WHAT WOULD HE SAY? “You were sort of supposed to.”

He was?

And I did it with pride, sir!” Retroactively. “I am honoured to contribute anything and everything to further the mission of our great Agency!”

“I’m a second away from making this guy an A-2,” Eric said. And then he laughed – and it was the most glorious sound Gary had ever heard. He loved these people. He loved all of them. Jason was great and everything, but these people... How in hell could anyone not go bananas over getting to work with them? He’d give up his left eye if it meant he could join! Jason was so ungrateful. “To the cells? Benny and Xander – not a good mix. Hurry up, hurry up, hurry up.”

He was walking off. But... but he hadn’t said who he wanted to come with him. Well – Gary sure as fuck wasn’t passing this up! It was his life’s mission to get Stephanie those cookies, but if she’d be okay with waiting for just a minute more...

“Agent Stephanie March?” Her name! Her name had come out of his mouth and it was amazing! He felt like such a top employee! He should get pictures of this. He should get autographs! “I’m – definitely – don’t even think I’m not – ‘cause I will, I promise – but I want to – uh... see the jars... of people...”

“Everyone can see the jars of people! That’s what they’re there for! Party in the jar room, children!”

Gary could’ve collapsed, but that would’ve meant he couldn’t go see them. And Eric was already gone – disappeared, half-rushing to get wherever he was going – so it was him and Stephanie in the hall again.

“Agent Stephanie March,” he valiantly repeated, offering his arm to her. “I would be absolutely, exceptionally delighted if you’d let me escort you to the jar room. In case the hugs weren’t enough – and Jason would punch my face in if I said anything else. So would my wife. Can I walk with you?”

If she wanted him to crawl, he would crawl. Heck, he’d’ve let her ride on his back if it wasn’t so wonky every now and then.

* * *


“Just keep her contained,” Jason said, moving his hands around like the answer would magically pop out of his palms. “If she wakes up... drug her. Do whatever you can to keep her quiet and unfocused. The whole of her strength comes from concentrating. Keep that under control and you’ll be okay.”

“I’ve never done this before,” the A-8 said. “I didn’t even realize these people were real.”

“Tell me about it.” They’d done nothing but cause trouble for him. “But it can’t be too hard. Can you do this?”

The A-8 looked at his unconscious target, shrugged her shoulders, then pulled out a syringe.

“I’ll try.”

“Thanks. And – please, for everyone’s sake...” He limply waved at the bruises on her. “Could you...?”

“I’ll try.”

“Thanks,” he said again.

Now he was off to scrape the other lump off the ground, quickly leaving the too-white sick bay behind with nothing but heavy straps keeping his target chained to a bed. The little bastard better not’ve moved or – so help him – Jason would pound him into the ground.

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A smirk danced on her lips as he listed off a few things that made her do a small double-take and scrunch up her nose in amusement. He was joking, of course, but it didn't seem like Alex to make a joke like that at his own expense. Especially not when he was basically calling himself a big baby, which, she had to agree with him about. It was an odd thing but it got her to half-smile as Osono set her feet onto the pavement and heard him rattle off a few things which she took as a more "realistic" list. Nodding curtly, she slammed the door and walked up to the little gas station mini mart, shaking her head about what he'd said. Most of the time she hated Alex, but sometimes...he was a funny little dude. Weird and crazy as shit, but funny.

As she approached the clear front doors entering behind a man who did not hold them open for her, she immediately pushed Alex and his weirdness out of her head. Quickly, she looked around the small place and found the bathrooms in a small hallway on the west end of the establishment. And right between the different gendered doors, nestled against the wall within a small three sided box, was exactly what she needed.

Standing at the mouth of the small corridor she got on her tip-toes, glancing back the way she came and out the front windows, craning her neck to look above the three or four aisles of junk food, but she couldn't see Alex or the car from here. Good. There was only the slight assurance that the bathroom story would hold him off and force him to give her some privacy, but he didn't have that much respect for her to wait for too long. Especially if it gave him the opportunity to whine at her for something else.

Taking in a deep breath, she approached the phone and stood with her hand on the headset in it's cradle, waiting for a man to fully enter the restroom beside her before picking it up off the hook. Digging in the pockets of her leather pants, Osono inserted several fat coins into the slot, trying to swallow even though her throat had suddenly gone dry, the saliva on her tongue seeming to dig it's heels in and scrape down the inside of her neck, choking her. She hated checking in like this, but at times it seemed inevitable, an urge she could not stifle. After all the things she'd done and the people she hurt, she never cried about it and it was very easy to brush it off and not think about the past. These phone calls not only forced her to remember everything as if it happened 20 minutes ago - which was hours worth of sin and destruction spread for her selfish needs - but they also reminded her of before... What her life had been like before she'd lost everything...

Standing at the small half-box, Ozzie rested her free hand on top of the machine while the other pressed the now lightly buzzing headset up to her ear, each silence between the rings punctuated by small crackles and a mechanical humming that conveyed empty space. Like her call was being shot out into nothingness hoping to get caught by someone out there waiting for it. As was usual for these phone calls, she tried to imagine what he was doing right now, glancing outside at the sunlight still coming through the windows of the gas station and ignoring the faces of those around her. It was about 3 or 4 on a Saturday, so he was probably in their old den, getting ready for Sunday, working on some church related papers or writing out a new sermon with his old leather-bound and weathered scriptures sitting in his lap. She remembered the old musty smell of those pages...

The old, faded, baby blue phone in the hall would have rung with it's melancholy chirping echoed a mere second late further in the house in the living room. He was probably rising from his creaking chair, carefully setting his book and papers aside before leaving the room, wearing his plain clothes while at home. He would probably wait a few beats, staring down at the phone as he removed his reading glasses, inserting them in his shirt pocket with long, slender and wrinkled fingers. She imagined his face, weathered and worn in it's old age but holding an immeasurable amount of kindness and gentleness, his hair graying and his bangs long but combed back elegantly.

He was probably staring down at the little boxy, wooden table set flush against the wall, the small lamp giving off a faded yellow light over the phone and the knitted doily covering the tabletop, a small notepad and pens set aside for taking messages because they never got an answering machine. The wallpaper would be the same because there was no doubt that he wouldn't have touched it, leaving everything the way it had been before She'd passed on. And he probably glanced down at the small picture in it's standing frame there, right beside the phone, their family captured in a happy moment one summer when they'd taken a trip to Busch Gardens. That picture had always been there since the day they'd taken the trip and she wondered if pain entered his eyes as he looked down at himself and her mother smiling happily and Ozzie with her arm around--

Osono shook her head and took in a quick breath when the headset pressed against her face clicked and connected on the 4th ring. Her fingers toyed with a screw on the top of the phone box as she held her breath and waited.

"Hello?" came the deeply graveled response, a small static crackling and the echo of distance in his words as they floated to her ear.

Osono finally took a breath but said nothing, waiting and listening to the silence before he again repeated the questioning word. There was an endless amount of patience in his voice, as there always was and always had been. Even when teaching and disciplining her as a little girl when she just didn't want to learn the lesson that life didn't always go her way, he'd never lost that patience and never seemed annoyed with her.

This time wasn't like the others when Osono called after she'd done something stupid or had just gotten out of trouble by the skin of her teeth. It was different because now she was headed towards trouble and she knew there was a good chance that she'd never speak to him again. She didn't want to think that way, but she couldn't pretend that she was invincible, especially when there was so much about the Agents that she didn't know. Danger lay ahead of her and now that they were officially on the right track with nothing else in their way, it had reminded her that she might not get another chance.

But like all the other times she'd called, silence filled the void between them, and the goodbye she desperately felt bursting within her chest, got caught and tangled in her vocal chords, strangled to death before it even reached her lips. So, she stood, her mouth closed in a firm line, her fingers still playing with the screws on the phone box, closing her eyes briefly as he said "Hello?" for a third time. He never hung up on her even though in all these years of running, she'd never uttered a word, allowing him to greet her plaintively and wait for a response that never came. It was always her who ended it and she usually could last to the fourth time he said it before she couldn't stand it anymore and hung up.

The fourth "Hello?" didn't come this time. Instead, his soft, ancient sigh echoed to her ears through the phone lines seeming to come from some hollowed, mournful place. And finally new words came from his end hitting her to the core, the sound making her feel almost scared enough to slam the phone down and run, but held captive by his voice.

"Osono," he said softly, pausing, hoping for a response before going on when it was obvious none was coming. "I know it's you." She shivered slightly, rooted in place as she imagined - remembered - the way he'd be looking at her now, understanding and sympathy filling his blue-grey eyes. "She's gone now, Ozzie. I saw you at the funeral and it's okay, we don't need to talk about what happened there... But it's just me now." There was a long silence then and she bit the inside of her gum harshly, still not tempted to say anything but feeling strangely comforted and yet shamed by his voice. "I'm..so sorry... Just come home. I just want my daughter back. ...If you're in some kind of troubl--"

Before she realized she'd made the decision, the headset was set gently back in the cradle and coins were rattling through the phone to the slot at the bottom, the metallic clacking seeming to wake her out of the trance she'd been in. Her breathing was slightly heavier and she stared at the phone for a few moments longer, mulling over his words before she turned away from it without a second glance.

Ozzie's face was set in stone as she started to walk through the short aisles of snacks, blindly wandering back to the front of the mart and the doors before she remembered that Alex had wanted stuff. She remembered she'd needed some things too, but all of a sudden, she was overcome by an extreme aversion to the place and a desire to leave, as if her dad was still back in that hallway, waiting inside the phone threatening to call out to her again.

Turning back into the aisles, she tried to remember what Alex wanted and her eyes danced over the different foods before grabbing a few things randomly and stuffing them into the wide sleeves of her army jacket. Feeling the small plastic wrapped food items crinkling within her inner pockets, she immediately headed for the doors, not even bothering to glance at the counter or the man who stood behind it. The door made no alarming sounds as she passed through and the fresh air and sunlight outside had her rushing back to the car as if she were a bird set free from it's cage.

Silently, she slipped back into her seat, closing the door and sat for a moment trying to remember what she was doing, calming her breathing. Glancing down at the GPS she let out a breath through her nose and gave a short nod to herself. Right. Gwen. Buckling her seatbelt and pulling out of the parking lot, she reached into her inner pocket and silently tossed a bag of spiced beef jerky and a jumbo bag of Skittles into Alex's lap, not even offering a perky or snippy comment like 'they were out of diapers'.

As they pulled out onto the highway and the speedometer crept up to the fifties, putting her in the fast flowing river of traffic, the weight of the phone call left her and the tension eased from her shoulders. She let it fade into the background of her mind the further they traveled from the gas station, before finally it was gone and it felt like nothing had happened. Except now, the illusion was threatened by the silence, her thoughts leaning back towards the past and the phone call, her father's voice echoing in her ear with his solemn, lonely tone.

She didn't really know what to think of what he'd said. It had been a surprise to hear him say anything other then "Hello?" first of all, and second of all... Ozzie didn't know what she'd expected, whether it was to be punished or hated by him. Forgiveness was always a possibility because he'd been like that forever, always willing to offer a second chance, even to those who probably didn't deserve it. But for him to apologize... He hadn't done anything and that just made everything worse. That in the midst of all her shame and destruction, of running away...he'd blamed himself for everything. It made her sad and made her feel guilty, that her absence had caused that reaction in a way and it just compounded how selfish and conceited she'd been about everything. Claus had been her little brother, but she wasn't the only one who missed him...

That in turn made her think of Alex's semi-apology and she realized she'd been more than unnecessarily rude to him about it. And she didn't really have a reason. Not a good one. She could keep saying she was stressed about saving Gwen in time, but every time she used that excuse it felt pathetic to let it stop her from making connections, especially when Alex was obviously willing to make some kind of effort. And the whole Rudy thing...

"I wanted to thank you...for what you said," she didn't look at him but kept her eyes on the road, her expression somewhat neutral and her voice as well. "I don't know why I got so mad before or at any time... I mean, true, you do irritate the shit out of me, but it's no reason to be such a bitch. We got enough to deal with, ya know? So... Sorry... I guess." She shrugged uncomfortably but still didn't look at him. This was probably the second time she'd apologized to him and still, it hadn't gotten any easier.

"I don't mean to get angry about Rudy and stuff... The whole thing is just kinda retarded. But anyways... Thank you for not being a complete asshole about it even when I get all up in your face...and threaten to kill you..." Then she let out a breath between her lips, suddenly feeling a whole lot better about the whole thing, even though she expected him to turn around and be a jerk or whiny bitch again. It sort of didn't matter what he did; at least she'd tried to make amends too and that was enough for now. She couldn't erase the past, but she could definitely stop using it as a crutch to justify her poor behavior.

It was right around then that she realized she'd forgotten to get anything for herself - least of all cigarettes - but other than a small quirk of her lips, she said nothing about it, not wanting to bring up questions about what else she'd been doing back there other than buying the things she'd so "desperately" needed to stop for.

Glancing at Alex finally, she said, "Do you mind if I ask what's wrong with your leg?" For once, there wasn't a rude comment waiting in the wings at her words and there was genuine curiosity when she glanced at him again, her eyes falling briefly to his feet. "I mean, you've had a limp since I met you, but sometimes it seems like it's causing you problems but then you're fine. I don't want to assume that I'm gonna be going into this thing alone and need to drag you both out by myself, but... I mean, are you gonna be okay?"

There was the hint of concern, but it wasn't directed at him completely, but more worried about how much of this she'd be doing on her own. When it came to fighting, it was no problem and she was only a little worried about dealing with too many Agents or whatever all on her own. But she depended on Alex for what he knew about these people and if he passed out while they were inside... There was only so much she could do and capture wasn't an option she wanted to think about.

***

The exuberant response that the Pup gave her delighted Stephanie and she giggled softly at his threat to shove the cookies down Jason's throat - the image that put in her head immediately made her think 'Awwwww' - and clapped her hands softly, like a little girl watching a cute animal do a terrific trick. Instantly she stopped at the sound of Master's voice and turned to him, her eyes brightening an incredibly glossy sheen as he approached. She hadn't been planning on saying anything and forgot everything except her worship of him until the Puppy suddenly shouted drawing a wide, green-eyed look, like a cat that had been startled.

From the way Pup was looking at Master when he said it, she knew that it was directed at him rather than herself and she waited for Master to say something, while staring at the Pup and blinking blankly. Pocket cookie? What did that mean? And was it necessary to shout over? The situation quickly dissolved seconds later when Master spoke again and the Pup declared a very robust dedication to the Agency and Master himself. Stephanie was almost caught up in his fervor about ready to do the same in practically the same tone of voice before her attention was once again violently jerked away by Master mentioning the cells.

Right! That's right! Alexander the guest's body and Benoit! Once again Pup returned to the land of the living as she remembered him and he stuttered brokenly and apologetically to her about wanting to see the bodies. So caught up in the excitement that was Master's cajoling encouragement - like the Pied Piper whistling a tune that unleashed a very physical pull on her body - she flippantly abandoned her earlier violent thoughts to throttle the Pup if he dared to refuse her mission to seek out Jason's treat. The gentlemanly gesture of him offering her his arm sealed it for her and she smiled in a modest way.

"Why thank you--I thought you'd never ask," in a playfully grand voice, as if he were asking her to a ball or something, and she linked her arm with his and practically skipped along with him as if they were on the yellow brick road. As they neared the corner, she eased up a bit but the excitement still coursed through her like a raging river and she squeezed Pup's arm to herself when it occasionally became too much to physically contain.

"I didn't realize you were married," she commented as they turned the corner, Master ahead of them a little ways but not too far. "Are you happy together? Do you love her? How much would you risk for her? Are you the type of man to get up and leave when there's trouble, or do you stay and fight?" A hardness had entered her 'friendly' tone and she gripped his arm tightly within the crook of her elbow, before it subsided and she smiled sweetly down at him again. "I wanted to get married once... I waited for him to ask me but he never did." She smiled again but it seemed more of a reaction to something than actually expressing an emotion of pleasure.

"As you can imagine, I'm sort of done with waiting for men to get any sense in their heads. Weddings are more for women anyway and if I want one, I need to step up and claim what's rightfully mine. If you grab me some Tequila along with the cookies, I'll invite you to mine and Jason's..." she giggled then at the look he gave her, not even seeming to realize there was anything wrong with such a pronouncement about her partner, but her mind was quickly wandering away from the subject anyway, so it didn't matter much.

"Have you ever wondered what it'd be like to be someone else, Puppy?" she asked in semi-dreamy tones. "To exist inside someone else's skin?" The hand not linked with his arm came across her body to scratch meanly at his captured forearm through his sweater. He jerked slightly, but she kept their elbows locked and continued to walk along and talk with him as if nothing untoward were happening.

"It's been my ideal for years, ever since I first laid eyes on a lab filled with hundreds of body tanks. Seemingly spread out for miles, a green glowing army of empty shells. And on that day, I immediately thought, I could be one of them. Does it seem an odd thing to aspire to? To want to flee the cumbersome flesh you were born with, shed it like a pile of dirty clothes and grow delighted at the thought of yourself being empty..."

Sharp, pointed fingernails began to gently trace the lines of his knuckles, the muscles twitching under the razor-like nails that threatened to cut him but left no mark. She could almost feel the blood pumping frantically through him, carrying each engorged cell through layers of fat and buried muscle, his heart pumping swollen and exhaustively in his chest. Stephanie didn't understand the playful desire to slit his wrists - it could have had to do with the fact that she actually was annoyed that he dared to defy her, or that he and Jason were such great pals he'd be willing to do anything for him and probably have the favor returned, or the fact that he had a wife and wore her ring proudly, the gold band on his finger glaring in the half-light that filled the hallways, mocking her with something that had slipped through her fingers, once upon a time; it could have been a lot of things - but she did not fight it and allowed the feeling to exist, hate swimming through the gaps and Swiss cheese holes in the EDP that fitted loosely over her features.

"Just think of it, Puppy!" she said turning to him as they walked along, a bright light filling her green eyes with an excited and predatory look. "Being inside someone else's skin; looking out from someone else's eyes and seeing yourself, seemingly asleep inside a loving, sterile case of liquid. To leave your old flesh behind and become someone else...

"And it's not just the bodies that are glorious, but the whole process!" an excited laugh left her and she gripped the Pup's arm close to herself as she went on, her other hand inserting itself in his to squeeze and dig her nails into his palm, a passion entering her voice as she continued. "It's something you take from someone else. Your life force sucked from your own awkward body and shoved into the mind of another, enforcing your will upon your new form, and consuming them until there's nothing but you, dominating them from the inside out..." She was silent as they came within sight of the room, just a few feet of hallway separating them from it and she spaced out briefly, shivering to remember Jason in that room - where was he...?

"Every time I see one of them, lost in their endless sleep and half-death, I long for it. I long to see myself locked away in a watery bed, and to walk away from it in stolen flesh," when she turned to the Pup again, there was something very wet and glassy about her eyes and she smiled in a tilted way before pushing ahead towards the room.

***

Rolling over onto his side, a groan split from Rudy's throat as his skull creaked in a vise and his stomach lurched with the movement. Everything sorta hurt, but after a few moments of blinking at the dimly lit ceiling, obscene yellow light helping his vision relax, he knew he was going to be okay. Sitting up, he panted a little and glanced around himself going through the motions of first, wondering where he was, then remembering and second wondering where everyone else was. And Gwen, his whole reason for being here, was missing.

"Shit!" he cursed, swinging his head this way and that, his face feeling numb and distorted like a catcher's mitt, eyes wide and looking around the shadowed halls for any trace of her. She'd been tied hadn't she? He tried to remember and instantly felt a burst of relief to remember that he had put cuffs on both her hands and feet after the diner incident. God... That felt like a lifetime ago and his nose pulsed numbly to remember what had happened when he'd dared to take the restraints off of her.

No, she couldn't have gotten far... And although there was a very good chance that she'd used her powers on some low-level idiot - just like she'd done with Hoskins - he was hoping that the drugs hadn't worn off yet. What time was it? He instantly started looking for a clock, but there was none around from what he could see. If it wasn't too much later, the drugs should still be working, but she tended to absorb the chemicals faster than he'd expected the first time and...he wasn't exactly sure anymore how much he'd given her. He'd just sort of filled the syringe about half-way each time and injected her with it every hour after he'd stolen the Yugo.It was annoying not knowing what time it was. And where the hell did everybody go?

It was very possible, since he was expected to arrive here that some underling had come by to take the girl off to...wherever she was needed, but why wasn't anyone here to greet him? He didn't expect it to be anybody important - well, okay, he always expected someone important to wait for his arrival and greet him respectfully, or at least issue him a thanks - but it would have been nice if there was somebody here. Showed how precious the damn psychic was, didn't it? The instant they got what they wanted, they forgot about him. Yeah, thanks a lot for going through psychic torture Hell, Rudy--now hit the frickin' road!

With another low grunt, Rudy got to his feet and stretched painfully before walking a few steps into the main corridor. There were some stairs over there and the front doors just beyond, but still no sign of life. Wandering by the stairs, he casually tipped his head back to look up - pretty snazzy place, if a little on the dark side; Heh. Join the Dark Side - and grimaced as the action caused a bit of residual fluid to drain down his throat from his broken nose. Instantly, he choked and realigned his head causing an airy popping to start up in his inner nasal cavity. Wincing, he waited a few beats as the pressure increased and a sneeze jerked through him.

His whole body spasmed with the abrupt movement and his feet which had been resting in a puddle of sticky something lost their footing and gravity yanked him to earth. "Fuck!" he cursed automatically as he fell, his buttocks slamming into tile and causing him to hiss in pain, rocking back and forth as it sent shock waves up his spine. Using a hand to lever himself up, he paused when it touched wetness, picking it up to look at his fingers and palms painted unevenly with dark, almost blackish red.

"Oh, Jesus!" he whined in disgust, shaking his hand as if that would help get the stuff off of him. "No welcome party; lights for shit; leaving your piles of gore all over the place with no 'Caution: bloody floor' sign! What kinda place is this?" He paused and fell silent for a moment and glanced around at the empty space, suddenly looking for something other than people. "Wait...am I being Punk'd? Ashton Kutcher, you dick!"

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Jason sighed.

The walk from here to the sick bay was about five minutes on his own. With the halls as dark as they were, wandering through them felt like a backwards horror movie: here he was, stalking towards some guy he’d left lying on the ground, out cold, surrounded by puddles of congealed and too-dark blood, sitting under the one orange light the building hadn’t burned through while the rest of the place looked like it’d been deserted, and yet his life was the one on the line. He should’ve been grateful when he heard a new voice from where Quin had been abandoned. It meant the midget hadn’t run off even if he’d been trying. Thanks, Frenchie, and in almost the same way, thanks Crazy German. Those blood spots couldn’t’ve been there without them.

“Agent Rudy Quin,” he flatly greeted, stepping over the puddles he’d seen fit to memorize. He stopped and sighed again. He’d sighed those words out, actually. His lead’s words came back to haunt him. The way she’d brushed off any notion of this man being good at his job seemed to have rubbed off. He’d almost expected someone like this small man, even though his logical mind kept saying the Agency wouldn’t hire anyone who didn’t at least look fit for work. It was a stupid thing to hold onto. Hadn’t he learned by now people – particularly Agents – were nowhere near rational? Prone to patterns, maybe, but practically insane. ‘Practically’. “It’s nice to know you made it. Thank you...” It didn’t sound right giving gratitude to this guy. Good thing Jason didn’t wholly mean it. “... for bringing my target in. I know Gwen, with her powers active, wouldn’t’ve made it easy.”

Busted lip, busted nose, busted face... Gwendolyn Stewart, despite her defence classes, wasn’t supposed to be a warrior. What’d happened?

“It goes without saying this ‘thanks’ is on behalf of my lead, but try not to milk it,” he said. “You seem like the type who’d try, and considering the condition you’ve brought her in, it might dim your glory.”

That warning was completely unnecessary. No matter what his quick-sweep analysis was telling him – people weren’t rational, Agents were crazy, stop treating this like a normal assignment – Rudy Quin had yet to fail a mission Jason knew of. He’d lagged spectacularly at getting his project wrapped up for reasons Jason was sure were about as solid as fog, but holding it against him meant holding the Alexander case against Benoit, which didn’t seem fair. And what did he know? He hadn’t even met Quin yet. Maybe he was a fine Agent who’d simply been saddled with a target hard to get close to. She had fire powers, didn’t she? There. That was probably it.

Jason looked down at the shrimp who’d landed on his ass in a Jell-O pool of nightmares. If cold analysis wasn’t working, he sure as fuck wasn’t switching to ignorant naivety. Luck. It’d been luck. And this Agent had nothing over him. The papers hadn’t been processed, but Eric had said lower and lower ranks as their conversation had gone on. A-5? Not so different from an A-6, he told himself. Besides, his papers hadn’t been processed either.

Yet.

“The sick bay is that way.” He pointed. Briefly. “I was going to carry you, but since you’re awake and... ‘painted’... I think I’ll step back from that.”

He didn’t want to take any risks with this. Rudy Quin was not going to bother his lead.

“Get yourself cleaned up,” he said, almost ordering it through a mask of impatience. “I need to reconvene with the lead Agent on my team. She’s with another A-3 and an A-1.” The A-2 had to be around somewhere as well. “Don’t show up looking like that, for everyone’s sake.” And to be nice, Jason added, “Please.”

* * *


Beeeeeeeef! He caught it happily. What – no Smarties? Skittles? Skittles aren’t as good as Smarties...

Osono was back with seconds to spare, but she was far away in another world when she got in. She seemed... lost, he guessed, and he only used that word because he didn’t know enough about to her to call it something else.

Ooh – they’re sour! Never mind!

Alex quietly cleared his throat while the wheel turned under her hands, waiting long enough for them to be half-out of the parking lot before he tried talking to her.

“Are you –”

Alex.

He dropped his voice and whispered back, “Yes?”

Y’know how you said she doesn’t hate me and I said it was ‘cause I wasn’t talking?

“Yeah...?”

Do that. And with a faint firmness, Xander tacked on, Now is not the time.

Duly noted.

They drove in silence and he let his attention stick with getting the candy open, which his freshly possessed hands – thanks to a new strength that came from ‘twenty-one’ – ow – and ‘twenty-two’ – ow! – then proceeded to mix together with the jerky because not only did Xander want him to die, but to do it with the foulest taste in his mouth he could manage.

His head picked up when hers did.

She was apologizing. Shit – he truly was a girl if that actually meant something to him. And the fact Xander didn’t feel the need to jump in and agree must’ve meant he was right.

“I get death threats all the time. The coffee thing...” Gwen. Gwen was the one who knew about the coffee thing. “You know – Starbucks. Other people. They – uh... get snippy when you take too long to order. Really – just... try not to sound like you mean it and I’ll...”

“– stop crying when my feelings get hurt.”

... Yeah.

He should’ve said something else. No. But he wanted to. Hearing her mention Rudy while not sounding like she wanted to snap his neck brought the need to apologize back to her, make sure she knew it was over and make doubly sure it wasn’t going to spring up again later. With a massive effort, Alex kept quiet. It was the best he could do if she wanted to forget it’d ever happened. Then came her turn to dig into something he wanted to explain as little as anyone was able. Alright – he couldn’t seriously say he didn’t expect this to come up, but he’d been so focused on finding out whether she was up for this that he’d forgotten Osono had no idea how he’d fare.

“Xander,” Alex mumbled. “You want to field this one?”

“Foot’s fine,” he said.

Well done. That answered everything and nothing at the exact same time.

Twenty-five. We’re makin’ progress again.

“I’m trying to rest it,” Alex said. “It’s nothing serious.” He was lying. “Alright – it didn’t start as anything serious. My toe broke. From there, I think my whole foot broke, and this city to city race hasn’t been helping.”

Twenty-six.

“Slow down!”

Can’t slow down. Gotta go fast. Fast, fast, fast, fast, fast. Twenty-seven!

More jolts. Alex grit his teeth and idly pressed his fingers into the sides of his seat. He kept talking, though. He wasn’t going to end what he’d been saying when he hadn’t gotten to the reassuring bit yet.

“It’s very, very uncomfortable,” he said, powering through the cough his throat wanted out, “but it’s not a problem. Part of me, at least, doesn’t think so, and if that’s the part that’s handling it...”

Thirty! And while Alex turned his head to keep her from seeing the massive wince on his face, which probably hadn’t inspired confidence the way the unignorable cough of pain – his throat won – had, Xander went on to excitedly say, I like shouting the numbers out. It’s like I’m Santa Claus, only the badass version ‘cause I hand out pain! Everyone is a naughty son-of-a-bitch!

“What I should probably remind you of –” Cough, cough, cough. Alex forced it down and went back to this. “The restaurant. My foot was broken then, too. If I have to move, I can move. It looks worse than it is.”

Sour beef Skittles. Why isn’t this an official flavour?

“Anyway,” he told her, “as long as we’re discussing what we have to deal with, now’s as good as time as any to let you know there’s a side-quest we have to go on.” It was bad enough he had to talk through the agony. Could he get through three words without someone jamming meat-candy in his mouth? “We’re going to get Gwen; that’ll never change. After everything we’ve been through, I refuse to let them do what they’re planning. But... I have to take care of a situation, too. I don’t know how long it’ll be, but I do know, in that time, I’m not going to be able to fight.”

Hopefully after, that’d change.

“It’s in our advantage,” Xander jumped in, lazily chatting around the even more sugar he was snacking on. “Quin didn’t have a lot of tech on him, and since he’s the one with the most knowledge on your power, the rest won’t be prepared at all. Me, on the other hand, they’ve been waiting for. When the dream team show up – a girl, a guy and two French bastards – you get to sideswipe ‘em. Thanks for the help, Sparky! Glad to have you on the team.” He shook the Skittles bag. “And thanks for these. I’ll give you an honourable mention when I patent it and get rich.”

Two people total would buy it and they would both be brain damaged.

“I won’t leave you to clear them out alone,” Alex went on, “but you’re going to be a one-woman army for a while when they’re done. Let’s hope there’s... oil or gas or something around.”

And a fast exit.

“Well... we can make one of those.”

Very true. Thirty-two!

* * *


Good God – it was like a parade of people he hated. He was trapped in a room with all of them, and Eric, to no one’s surprise, insisted on making it worse.

That woman had appeared while he had stood in the light of the stasis cells. Getting out of that mess was not the problem; the very talent the Agency had hired him for lay in handling these situations. Over the next ten minutes, Benoit had slunk into one corner, waited for her to stomp around the room on a wild hunt, then disappeared to the far side again the very moment she drew too near. It was almost adorable the way she refused to give up, but the fact that her success would mean going back to her office – Agency women were insane. He stayed away. He stayed far, far away. She had no chance of finding him, and with his patience unbreakable and her other responsibilities pressing on her schedule, she would have shortly had no choice but to abandon her search and torture someone else instead.

And then, Eric Patten.

“Benny!” His spine turned to ice at the very sound of the vulture’s voice. His cheer was nauseating. Benoit would have accepted it, ignored it, if not for the massive hand – the hand stolen from Jean – that reached out and plucked him from the shadows. “Been worried about you!”

Fuck you fucking asshole showing her where he was –

She found him. When she had heard Eric’s voice, she turned to investigate, but the split instant Benoit’s location had been pointed out, her back straightened, her eyes narrowed, and her hair snapped through the air as she whipped her head to lock onto him. There was no mistaking what had happened: she had caught his scent and avoiding her now meant leaving the country entirely.

“Eric. I want you dead.”

“Ohhh – you just need more wine. Maddy! What’re you doin’ in here? Keepin’ him busy, I see. Thank you, my lady.”

“UNHAND HIM, PATTEN.” She was coming over.

“You’re the A-2!” And Eric pushed him towards her – “Benoit, I’ve got it from here. If you two wanna take off and do whatever, I’m completely okay with that.”

What?

“I need you away from this guy,” Eric said, waving at the five cells. “I don’t quite... ‘trust’ you not flick the kill switch on him.”

And again: what?

“I have no intention of doing any such thing,” he seethed. “‘Trust me’? What the hell is wrong with you?”

“Hey, hey, hey. Let’s not get uppity about this. I know you and Xander had your little headbutts, so I’d rather not run the risk of you doing anything to compromise the plan.”

My plan, Eric, that March and I had in motion long before you popped up.”

“Yeeeeessss,” the man rolled out, grinning widely as the woman arrived and coiled around Benoit’s left arm. Right away, half his circulation ended abruptly, violently and tragically. “But there’s the added problem of ‘if you’re here, she’s here’, and I don’t like her.”

Eric smiled. Madeline did not return it.

“IF YOU HAVE FINISHED WASTING MY TIME, PATTEN, I WILL LEAVE YOU WITH YOUR SICK TROPHY.”

She meant Charlotte, the woman who had been pushed from the centre stage to make room for Alexander-the-guest. Benoit agreed: it was very sick. Preserving the body of the gifted was entirely different from preserving that of an Agent’s. Such an act was a sign of honour, out of reach of traitors, and the only reason the guest hadn’t had his stuffed in a furnace was because the body he transferred into was alive. He would have been burned if Alexander failed to survive, but as it stood, the case was technically open. Charlotte Carter, whose target had long since deceased, held no similar excuse. Eric just wanted her around.

“I don’t trust you with her, missy,” the A-1 said, chipper. “Don’t think those appeals are gonna come to an end.”

“QUANTITY DOES NOT MAGICALLY MAKE REASON. YOUR THOUSAND LETTERS STILL HAVE YET TO BEST MY ONE.” With that, she yanked on Benoit’s arm and started dragging him towards the door. “WIPE YOUR GERMS OFF MY CELLS WHEN YOU’VE FINISHED, PATTEN. MY CELLS.”

Eric had a good chuckle over her words, but his hand raised to scratch the side of his glasses. That was not a good sign by any stretch of the imagination.

“I think you pissed him off,” Benoit muttered.

“Tell me you didn’t enjoy it.”

Who knew? The first thing from her mouth not screeched at the volume of a jet was something he appreciated. But she thoroughly ruined any sliver of goodwill by tightening her grip and destroying the smallest hope of blood ever getting through his arm again. He was not going back to her office.

“Miss Agent!” Thank God. “You will have to excuse me, Miss Bergmann, but I need my arm.”

“IF SHE GETS AN ARM, I GET AN ARM. THAT IS HOW THIS WORKS.”

Sure enough, Stephanie March had her own new toy to play with. This world was cruel and set against him.

“Regardless.” Perhaps with less grace than he’d intended, he detached himself from her. “Come, Miss Agent. Inside. Now. Hurry.”

Yes, he was back with the A-1, but at least he didn’t have to worry about someone jumping him. Then again, the fat one looked too happy to be here...

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#, as written by Ten
Rudy was still busy chuckling to himself about his little private joke - private because no one was around to appreciate it! - when he heard the voice of someone else. Instantly, from his sitting position he whipped his head around at the approaching Agent, his eyes widening with an excitement of finally seeing someone here and narrowing when he didn't recognize him. As he went through a very begrudging introduction, his voice dripping with apathy - God! Was it too much to ask for these people to act a little grateful for what he'd been through for them? - Rudy's eyes quickly danced up and down the other man's form before settling on and scrutinizing his face.

This was obviously a low-level Agent, closely related to the Stewart case - no doubt Stephanie's newest little lackey by the terms the guy used - of a moderate high rank, judging by the suit he wore, although Rudy couldn't remember if it was A-6's or A-5's who got to wear them. Hmm, maybe you had to be A-4? Whatever. This wasn't what he'd expected and it definitely wasn't what he felt he deserved. Especially not with the tone the other man was taking with him, directing him to get cleaned up as if he were a parent telling a child not to embarrass them in front of company.

He didn't know this man, but Rudy prided himself in reading people and he knew when others were seeing the word "Idiot" written on his face. He also knew how to make the situation better and worse, and despite being used to being labeled as an incompetent fool, it was still not something he enjoyed. He was an A-3 and the Lead on a very big case! Technically Eric Patten had demoted him, but this pompous pretty-boy didn't know that! Against all odds, he'd done something none of these assholes could and they sent their middle-guy to come and sneer at him as if he were a waste of space or a stain on their gloomy establishment. Oh, yeah! He had to rush and get himself cleaned up! What did they think was he gonna do? Mess up their pretty floor?

"Well, I gotta tell ya," Rudy said with a cheerful smile, no longer bothered by the blood on his hand and using it to lever himself up enough to get his feet underneath and back in a standing position. His whole backside was wet and sticky with blood, but he stood relaxed as if it were just a part of his outfit. Standing now, he had to look up slightly to meet the guy's eyes - freaking giant-people with their obscene height! - but he didn't let that affect his laid-back manner and when he started talking his voice sped up easily, each new thought bursting forth from his lips like rapid gunfire.

"It definitely wasn't easy. The experience was a bit like that movie, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, except 10 times worse. I of course played the part of the ever witty Steve Martin and she played the role of the fat, lovable idiot. Except minus the lovable part. The flippin' whale made me lose two of my phones and everyone within a few feet of us was suddenly overcome with the urge to lay into me for no fucking reason. Like, attack of the meat puppets, man. And this," he indicated his body and face with a small circular wave of his hand. "Just a flesh wound. I can deal with it later. You know, pump myself full of antibiotics and anesthetics and just 'slap a bandaid' on it. Preferably one with Spiderman on the back or Hello Kitty - by the way, superhero themed bandages actually work to heal you faster. I kid you not.

"And what the hell do you mean 'the condition I brought her in'?" he asked, suddenly getting an annoyed tone to his quick, clipped voice. "What are you--An A-fuckin'-10? Who the hell do you think you are? This is bullshit. So, I smacked her around a bit. I think it was more than warranted for the the situations in order to subdue her, especially after she killed my assistant and I was left alone having to deal with her. Sorry. My bad. I shoulda stopped to brush her hair and put a frickin' bow on her after the mind-controlled police officer shot me in the chest. Any other important suggestions you wanna make to me, a superior Lead Agent? I'll take it all down and put it in a memo titled 'Use This When You Run Out Of Toilet Paper.'

"Anyways, right now, I'm just a little peeved that Stephanie isn't an immediate part of the welcome wagon. I'm sorry - no offense - but I really didn't want to answer to and explain myself to a nobody or rather her new fuck-buddy or whoever the hell you are. No doubt if you're working anywhere close to her you got the chance to tap the Agency Slut and I'm sure she's 'busy' right now giving someone else a taste of something we've all gotten a bite of," including her superiors, Rudy thought with a small unkind grin. 'Rising star' my ass.

"But I'm over 9,000 percent positive that she has time to close her legs long enough to talk to me and hear what I have to say, since I'M the one who did her fucking job for her. I didn't have to abandon my target, who is probably miles away from where I left her by now, to make this stupid fucking delivery. That shit ain't free and I'm owed a very specific favor. It's an insult that your 'Lead' is not here to personally witness the result of my efforts." Again, he made a small motion over his person as if it weren't obvious to anyone who even glanced at him.

"So, quit wasting my time, you useless A-20 loser and get out of my way, okay?" he said, sweetening the comment with a dorky grin. There. That should get him what he wanted and he'd definitely put the other man in his place. Not only that, but he was probably tired of hearing Rudy talk by now and would willingly point him in the right direction just so he didn't have to deal with him anymore. It was how it always worked when Rudy opened his mouth. He loved how easily pliable people were.

***

As Benoit appeared from the doorway, his eyes lighting up with relief for once at the sight of her, there was a very brief moment when amusement twinkled in Stephanie's eyes to see the beautiful black swan encircling his arm like a python. Such a cute couple, she thought wonderingly, once again admiring Madeline's beauty before wincing slightly at the A-2's screeching voice. Then there was the flutter of something within Stephanie's breast, something deep inside the pit of her stomach that curdled at the image the two presented. That almost frantic whisper in Benoit's eye mixed with a little glimmer of pain as his arm was hugged tighter; the possessive and obviously painful squeeze the woman put on his limb; the defensive tone she took with him just bordering and hinting at something below the appropriate public relationship.

Standing there, face to face with the dark pair, their aura decidedly foreign and clinging to a sense of propriety and dignity that Stephanie could not touch with her fully tainted American blood, it was like looking into a twisted mirror of herself and Jason. Glancing back the way she'd come, longingly waiting for him, once again feeling a weight on her shoulders that inspired a heartbreaking fear inside - what was that? Something was breaking... something was very wrong... he could fix it...he could - she clutched apathetically at the Pup, once again scratching at pudgy, soft skin and trying to stifle the urge to scream.

A battle raged within her as Benoit stepped forward to usher her into the room, Stephanie surreptitiously glaring at her shadow-haired mirror image for no reason other than an irrational jealousy, delight filling her as the French Agent was freed from her, walking back into the room he'd just left. And yet still, another part of her wanted to shove him away, push him back into the dark embrace of that seductress, even as she wanted to keep her from him and keep them from each other, as she and Jason were separated. Where is he?

Upon entering the room, Stephanie took everything in once more - the glorious tanks she'd just finished describing to the Puppy set along the wall still, now moved aside to fit the newcomer into the middle, their red glow soothing and yet setting her heart to galloping through her chest. And there, in that space just by the wall where he'd set the feed of his goggles like a movie theater, was where Jason had... A pleasant shiver coursed through her to remember being in his arms, his lips dancing over hers, passion filling him and surging into her like she was a wire plugged into him and brought to electric life. Even so, a pang of regret quickly followed to remember the elevator ride that preceded her return to the room. It was odd to think of what happened and she wasn't really sure what had triggered the memory now, but she was not fond of how strong it been and how much everything still hurt from so long ago. Most of all, she really hoped it wasn't something Jason would want to talk about or feel conflicted by. Heaven forbid the past should control her life again and end up pushing him away. Cookies would help. And tequila would smooth everything over.

Her hands kept a firm hold on the Pup, even though they'd now "arrived" and he was done escorting her, seeming to comfort herself in Jason's absence by cutting and recutting into his palm with her fingernails. The position was a tad awkward, their elbows locked together and her opposite hand reaching across herself to clutch at the hand of the arm she'd captured. But standing there...remembering Jason's body and hands...looking up at the empty, soulless bodies of ex-Agents and feeling the yearning pull to become one of their ranks and escape the shadow of inner demons... She dared not let go, lest she fall apart right here. Right in front of Master. That was a fear that still shocked her into alertness, especially when she tricked herself into thinking she caught a whiff of Jason's scent still lingering in the air and worried frantically for a moment that the others could detect it too.

Because along with the memory of her recent "conversation" with Jason, she also remembered her talk with Master in this room from before. She'd reached her final decision to keep her partner with her and although she didn't think it'd be important or that he'd bring it up right now, she felt like someone had doused her face in ice cold water being inserted back into the room with him here. She felt exposed and almost transparent, her eyes trying to stay on the jars along the one side of the room but occasionally drawn to that spot again, instantly darting to glance guiltily at Master. Trying to tell herself she was silly and acting foolish, she shoved the internal battle aside and cleared her throat, glancing at Benoit finally to keep her eyes busy.

"So, this is the great 'guest?'" she asked with the slightest doubtful inflection in her voice. It wasn't as if it was completely unbelievable. He had the standard Agency look - fit, good height and strong build - although hair a bit longer than what was normally seen or permitted on field Agents. But other than that, her interest hit a brick wall. This was Benoit's part of the plan reaching it's setting stage and she was glad for it, she really was... but it brought back to the forefront her anxiety about Rudy arriving safely with something other than a corpse on Charlton's doorstep. And he was just the type to consider that a "mission completed" from what she remembered about him.

Still, it did no good to pout in front of the Master, even as bile rose in the back of her throat along with thoughts of a thoroughly cooked Gwendolyn Stewart flashing in her mind, and Stephanie set her chin and forced a serene smile to her lips. "After a long road trip, it looks like things are finally coming together, the trap fitting in place. Feels like we set up this plan ages ago..." She swallowed, briefly sneered at nothing, then smiled insincerely as she re-focused on the French Agent. "How exactly will the reverse transfer work? He's been gone for a while hasn't he? Does he know how the process is done? Even if it's not much different from a regular transfer, I can't imagine that things are the same as they once were. I know the important part of the plan is to have him stuck in the middle of transferring - or at least it originally was - but are you positive you can keep him distracted with this long enough?"

Without realizing it, something had entered her tone, but even though it alarmed her, she allowed it to stay as she laughed humorlessly. "I don't mean to be rude, but ever since this partnership started, you and your team have been as much responsible for failure as my own. I don't want to shove in your face the very deliberate 'allowing him to get away because you expected him to fall over' or something, from the apartment building - and that turned out perfectly, didn't it? Scraped him right off of the side-walk, didn't you? And the very lackadaisical air with which you handled your pursuit, following behind him at a specific distance and stopping for fucking breakfast when we were just a few miles away from them. Oh, and Jean was excellent on his own, clearly efficient, at least wounding him enough to slow him down before underestimating his power and paying the price for his mistake - what a way to retire from the case!"

She took a shaking breath and turned to look at the tanks again with shiny eyes. "I want to have faith in you. I want to think that this'll work. But this part of the plan will effect both of us and I'll not have you ruining my part of it just because he surprised you. I will not fail like you have for 6 years - or however long you've been chasing the same person and allowing them to get away over and over again. But if you DO fail in keeping him tied up with this...whatever, I will not hesitate to do what needs to be done to protect her from him. Regardless of what that means for you or whoever might take your place." Not that she was directly saying she fully expected him to die in failure but...well, yeah. And of course, by "necessary actions" she wasn't overtly implying that she'd kill his target either, but...a bullet to the brain could happen to anybody. Even the all-powerful and mighty "Xander". And it'd definitely put an end to a very real problem.

The bitter annoyance didn't leave her voice as she once again cleared her throat and asked, "So, how exactly does it work?" feigning just enough interest for now and hoping Benoit said something that restored some semblance of hope that she wouldn't be left to deal with this alone. Rudy's impending failure to deliver what he promised had her feeling incredibly pessimistic about everything - she was surrounded by incompetent fools and she did not want to lose herself in their ranks. She would not and at this point it wasn't a matter of choice. Once Gwen was in her arms, she would die before letting her go...and kill everything that came within 50 feet of them both until she'd gotten her prize.

***

The general mood in the car - specifically Osono's - greatly improved when Alex started to speak. Which seemed a bit contradictory for how she'd felt before, but things were a bit different now. She'd actually, seriously apologized for once and had fully expected him to either be a bastard about it or to get sappy about it, thus making her regret saying anything. But he did neither, his tone understanding but not overly sympathetic and even tossing in another joke about himself. It made her fully release the tension she'd felt building and actually let the situation rest and fully put it behind them. Okay, so maybe she didn't actually hate him afterall and he could be alright some of the time.

But then a different kind of tension started to creep in replacing the other as he went on. First, there was a brief mention of a 'coffee thing' and for a few seconds she was left quirking an eyebrow in confusion trying to figure out what he was talking about. Yeah, they'd gotten coffee and...? She wasn't sure exactly what she was missing. His quick correction and addition didn't really help, the new statements climbing over the previous one haphazardly fitting together but not really. Sure...death threats and people in line... but so far she hadn't really witnessed anything like that from him. In fact, Ozzie had been the one to start shit in Starbucks, not him. And she hadn't really been paying attention when he'd ordered... Was he talking about when he attacked those people and stole their coffee? Then why bring up waiting in line and ordering at all?

Despite the confusion, the earlier ease that had settled on her shoulders allowed her to shrug it off and nod her head in relaxed understanding - even though she didn't really. She rolled her eyes when he gave a very abrupt answer to her question about his foot - obviously the damn thing was not fine, but if he wanted to act like a macho man and brush off the one time she tried to show concern, then he could knock himself out. But then he changed gears and started to explain things a bit more indepth to her and she snorted briefly when he said it was "nothing serious". Yeah, okay, so maybe he was trying to make up for the "mushy" feeling in the car by acting like a hot shot now and she had to admit that despite it being just as annoying as him whining, it was also a little amusing.

Jumping a little when he suddenly told her to 'slow down' she glanced at him as if he were crazy. "I'm not going very fast, ya big baby," Ozzie said in a slightly irritated tone, shrugging with her eyes once again fastened on the road. Even so, she slowed down from going 10 over the 55 mph limit to just 60 and tried to keep the car from rocking too much, based on the assumption that pain had caused the outburst.

She'd almost relaxed again when another surge of tension twisted in her shoulders at his mention of "a different part of himself". What...what did that mean? Immediately, Osono thought he was probably referring to the internal/psychic connection he had with Gwen, but something about the begrudging and doubtful way he said it tickled the back of her mind. Trying to tell herself she was crazy, she shoved the feeling aside and rolled her shoulders, frowning at the road as he went on, the tension subsiding but staying put and lurking in her shoulder blades and spine. Out of the corner of her eyes, while on a particularly smooth and straight expanse of highway, she caught him turning away from her and coughing and that really didn't help the growing suspicions or the half-extended concern she felt towards him at the moment. Just sitting here, the car barely jolting around and the guy was going through agony. Had she just not noticed how bad it was before?

Then she decided that no, that wasn't it, as he continued to speak, bringing up the restaurant fight. She's been a bit preoccupied at the time, but she DID remember seeing him fight and being impressed by the way he'd moved. Glancing at the cringing, coughing thing sitting in the seat next to her now, Osono once again returned to that "other part of me is handling it" comment he'd made. How could he move like a ninja at one time and then fall over, pass out and struggle to stand like a newborn baby deer the next? Had things really been that physically taxing between then and now? They hadn't done anything, certainly nothing to handicap him where going 60 mph in the smoothly cruising and practically brand new Audi - and with shocks that moved like creamy butter - made him ball up in physical torment. They couldn't be moving less inside their little cocoon if they'd been sitting still - and Ozzie was in no way a crazy driver, despite the speeds she was going.

All of that could be set aside as idle suspicions and fantasy - he'd already explained all of this to her about the protective powers Gwen had extended to him and the copy Gwen had left of herself in his mind to keep him company - and she could easily disregard it as silly and foolish idle wonderings encouraged by the recent stress of events. But several red flags shot way into the air when he started to go over what to expect when they got to Charlton and mentioned a "side-quest" that would render him unable to fight for an unknown length of time - was he planning on passing out again? And to top it all off, there was something very odd about the way he said these people would be expecting him.

Again, if he'd been traveling with and protecting Gwen for a while, it made sense for the Agents who were after her to also know about him and expect him to try to rescue her. But that tickling flared up, blaring loudly in the back of her head, itching like crazy with suspicion and doubts. And once it started it wouldn't stop, unable to be pushed down and silenced again, realizations and theories dawning on her like lightbulbs flashing on in a darkened room. All at once, she felt a small flash of anger at how he'd lied - and he DID lie, she was sure of it now, everything fitting together so perfectly, it couldn't go back to the original mold - but then amusement followed, making her want to laugh at how simple everything was and how she'd stupidly ignored the obvious.

"Alex," she said, her nose crinkling a little and a faint smile touching her lips. Glancing at him, she made sure she had his attention before continuing. "Do you have powers?" A look crossed his face, quickly shuffled under the outer layers of skin like a broken vase under the living room carpet, but she saw it and nodded to herself with a small raspy laugh as she focused back on the road. "Heh, 'kay." No need for further explanation, although it certainly would be welcome. After foolishly taking that crap he'd given her about Gwen, she was pretty open to anything that might resemble the truth. Of course, then again, at the time, she'd been willing to assume anything about Gwen, having just learned about someone else having powers other than herself. Alex had shot that to pieces when he'd opened the box of what the Agents intended goals were. Anybody could have them now and it was much more likely that Alex possessed some of his own and that he himself was a threat to be captured rather than going in a roundabout circle to say he was riding on Gwen's coattails.

And that was another thing.

"And that thing in your head...? Your 'mumble buddy'?" she looked at him again and although he was much more guarded this time, she'd already made up her mind and wasn't really asking him anymore. "Gotcha."

Slowly she let out a breath and shook her head a little as she passed someone going to slow in front of her, the turn signal providing a clicking soundtrack to the otherwise smooth transition. "Well, I don't know what you've gotta do or whatever and it's really none of my business. But I'm there to help you out and keep the both of you safe until we're free and away. So, 'one-woman army'? I can do that." She made a small finger gun and clicked her tongue as she winked in his general direction - not chancing another glance at the moment as a large truck inched close to the car's backside, keeping an eye on it in the rearview.

"And don't worry about there being oil or gas. It'd be nice to have around, and definitely make things easier, but you know..." she shrugged. "I'll work with whatever's available."

If it was an office building like the one where they'd found the other two, then it might be a little difficult to get things going and it was very likely that the only thing flammable would be human flesh and whatever people were wearing. Ozzie didn't really plan on using too much fire anyway, except as a last resort. Because if there was any kind of alarm system like in the other building, then she'd be screwed as soon as the sprinklers started. She could still heat everything up and dry everything out and push the fire to stay alive despite the moisture, but it was a sap on her energy that she did not need in a tight situation like this.

Luckily, being in the car and sitting down again was giving her back what she'd lost from the last fight, but she had to be careful. It wasn't going to work to go barging in there covered head to toe in flames and whipping fire around uselessly if it was going to leave her empty and drained before they found Gwen and started to make their escape. So, she'd be cautious when using her powers, only releasing it when it was necessary and rely on physical attacks for the most part. And now that these people weren't useful for codes or anything, she didn't need to pull her punches anymore. That meant quick and easy knock-outs and plenty of broken bones to spare. Thinking that, she smiled again, feeling a small burst of adrenaline burst through her.

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#, as written by Tartra
She crossed the line.

As her words changed, so did his; before a sound escaped his lips, a seething wave rose up and out of him – but Eric, the one person who would have been the most interested in hearing Benoit erupt, stopped him from saying anything. The man gave it away when his eyes lit up. Benoit knew that look; he’d been plagued with it for weeks before he finally gave in and let the fool prance around his case. Behind his lenses, his eyes tore from March to the A-1. What she said... He would deal with it shortly. If Eric was up to something, and he always was, they had to be sure the ground on which they tread was stable.

‘Retire’. Well said, Miss Agent. That one word would haunt him for years.

“It doesn’t matter how it works,” he told her. His voice was low. Too low, because Eric had turned from hanging behind his latest friend and politely listening to her speak to readying himself for a fight. What should they say that was? Defending her? Hilarious. They were certainly getting along well. “The point is Alexander-the-guest has never used this technology before, save for enduring the transfer before his escape. If you’re so interested, ask your friend.”

He had meant the young one, Jason, the boy who insisted he knew how to operate the controls, but the giggly glob of cookie dust spoke instead.

It aligns the nerves in one brain –”

“I don’t care.”

It shut him up. The fat man’s grin slid from his face when Benoit’s gaze was upon him. He went back to the mauling his new owner draped against his blubbery arm, of which he had yet offer a complaint over and frankly seemed honoured by.

“Don’t be mean, Benny,” Eric said. “The little guy was just trying to be helpful.”

Said ‘guy’ was as flattered by that as the clawing.

“As much as I appreciate the assistance, his aid is unnecessary.” He turned back to her. “And I appreciate your concern, as unnecessary as that is, too. My tactics are my own. I am under no obligation to explain them to you.”

“No one’s sayin’ you can’t do it,” Eric said. “We just like hearing it every now and then.”

They liked wasting his breath. He doubted any of them would follow along with why he worked the way he worked, simple though it was, and he lost all hope in March understanding if what she said had been what she truly believed. His candidacy for transfer was a strong reason for his assignment to this case, but the driving force was his success in the captures he had made before the Agents were officially established. He earned those victories because he had learned to understand what he faced before running into the fray. He took extra care when it came to Alexander, and those who instead insisted on rushing their work were dead.

Every.

Last.

One.

It made no sense for Jean to have fallen. He had every warning and example he needed for what awaited impatience and Benoit had explicitly heard him say he wasn’t so desperate for glory that he’d forget everything to run at the chance to take Alexander down, and he’d proven it a dozen times by stopping to think about what it meant to charge at someone who could kill him with a look, particularly after that very person had endlessly bragged about surpassing every defence the Agency had put up and could never stop gloating that he was the only one who knew Alexander’s weakness but if the son of a bitch had just co-operated and shared the knowledge before he botched his fucking transfer then Benoit would have countered it years ago and Jean would never have died. For starters.

“Alexander will not pose a threat,” he said – begrudgingly, if he was honest. “Mind your own case. Once she arrives, you can go.”

Then she could fall into whatever trap Eric had in store for her. The A-1 would never show any interest in a person unless they served some use in furthering his agenda. The reward of going along with it could only be said to outweigh its punishment if one considered ‘living’ good enough pay. He could warn her – should have, maybe – but... ‘retire’.

“I HATE THIS ROOM.” Madeline was back on his arm, crushing it. “WE ARE LEAVING.”

“So soon?”

Eric hadn’t meant it. The walrus, on the other hand...

“You can’t go! You’ve gotta tell me what’s going on! Is there gonna –” At once, his eyes bulged and his voice hushed, as if he was suddenly afraid of the wrong person overhearing. ... Who? Only the five of them were here. He hated lower levels. They were too impressed by everything. “Is there gonna be an attack?”

Bravo.

“Yes,” Benoit said. “Here.”

“In here?! But – we’re in here! I’m not trained for this!”

“Ask Eric. He brought you, not me.” He gestured to the grip on his left arm. “I have to leave. Orders.”

His eyes landed back on March. Madeline’s grip tightened. Immediately, and in direct response, Eric loomed over them again. So that was it. The fight had changed. Their increasingly apparent feud had reached a new phase and they had divvied up those around them to start a war in teams. He didn’t know if it was better or worse they picked this way rather than lunge at each other’s throats, which Eric had fuelled by giving Benoit over against his will, but that outburst, whether Gwendolyn’s lead had come up with it alone or had it planted in her head, had counted as a point for Eric and Madeline wanted it back. He could feel her pushing him to fire his own retort. No. For all the patience he had, he was not about to spend it playing their stupid game. If this was Eric’s agenda, it was shallow, and he was not surprised because what part of the man wasn’t?

“Keep it clean, kids,” the A-1 said. Then he shrugged. “Or not. Whatever takes more time.”

“THIS WOULD BE EASY IF YOU GO AWAY.” Madeline stopped pushing to him to answer and started pulling him towards the hallway instead. “THE NEXT TIME YOU DIE, PATTEN, STAY DEAD.”

“Watch it, Bergmann.” A happy flash of teeth swept that up, but before the memory was washed away in his immortal and ungodly cheer, Eric scratched the side of his glasses and Benoit felt her flinch. And then her nails were nearly digging into his bone. “Why can’t we just play nice? We’re all friends here! We’re a big ol’ Agency family!”

Madeline reacted to that as if it was the greatest insult he had ever given her, but she used a decidedly different tone when she answered. It was familiar; not unlike what he had used when Eric had ordered he sign Jean’s body over.

“STAY AWAY FROM ME,” she snapped.

“Ah, ah, ah!” The man wiggled a finger. “‘Stay away from me, sir’.”

She scoffed and sneered and then yanked on his arm like she was trying to rip it off. She wanted to go, now, and Benoit only held it against her because he knew he would have to escape again.

He didn’t move. He didn’t move because although he was not a soul of any sharp emotion when he worked, he felt a knife in his throat. The immediate thought should have been that it was below him or that, if it wasn’t, he would handle it when he was no longer pressed to lead other matters. Now, it almost made him change his mind about whether or not he went along with them. They would never let up until he did, because without him and March doing their dirty work, the fault was on them for being unprofessional. He cared less about that than anything else.

Let it go. Or be civil.

Neither?

“For the record, Miss Agent, this ‘partnership’ began when your subordinate fucked up. Keep in mind I haven’t blamed anyone for this mess, but I work on the rule of an eye for an eye and my colleague is dead.”

“You’re gonna kill Jason?”

Eric sounded surprised.

“I would never harm another Agent unless they attacked first. I’m not you.” The man grinned. Benoit would have scowled at him if he could mustered the interest. “I take your words as wisdom and not a threat in blind ignorance of my ability to retaliate. I swear to you, I will show the utmost prudence in keeping Alexander contained, because what a shame it would be if he found your goggled friend a third time.” He shrugged. “But he’ll be fine, I’m sure. And you’ll be fine. It isn’t as if he’s Gwen. Right, Eric?”

“Hmm?”

“How disposable are lower ranks?”

“Very,” Eric told them. He said it like a fact rather than a preference. “Some more than others. And some less,” he threw in breezily, which certainly had nothing to do with Madeline’s snort of anger.

“Then I am assured no one would have any need to mourn the name of one who died,” Benoit concluded. “And I am assured they would never bring it up again, not on the off-chance someone was. Never again, Miss Agent.” His eyes were on the woman facing him. She had made her point. “Ever.” So had he.

“THEY AGREE.”

With that decided, Madeline hauled on his arm. This time, Benoit walked out. He would run from her later and return to that room when it was time to strike, but for now, he’d stay quiet. He was sick of everyone. For five fucking minutes, they had to shut up, because he’d go mad by the end of the day if they refused.

* * *


“Xander...?”

I’m trying to plan how I’m gonna make my grand entrance. Should I be screaming something? Should I kill everyone at once or kind of leave a few to spread my glorious name, then come back and finish ‘em off later?

... Seriously?

This is gonna be the boss fight! Think about it, he said. The giant’s dead, that woman’s gonna be distracted, if suit-boy’s still around then I’ll just break his neck and be done with it and if Rudy’s there... He couldn’t’ve been giddier if he was on crack. The crack of life, buddy. I’m excited for this. The French guy’s all alone and I’m fuckin’ gunning for that doucheturd.

And then he went back to eating his Skittles – what little of them he could taste since he’d wrapped the beef jerky around them.

Alex shifted uncomfortably in his seat, and for the first time since he’d gotten into this car, it wasn’t because of the foot. Alright, so... what was the protocol here? Because he noticed it changed from person to person on top of every five minutes. With Gwen, Alex got screamed at, but with Peter the truth had come out in practically a heartbeat, and in the end Peter had been working with the Agents while Gwen was one of the few people he felt could trust. But Xander had made the ‘let Peter know!’ call because he’d been in the Agency and had freaked over telling Gwen ‘cause he was paranoid of those guys sending someone else after him... so neither situation gave him a clue of what to do now.

The longer he took to the answer, the faster Osono was going to draw her own conclusions. She had already, technically, but there was still time to maybe... go back to acting like he was normal.

Xander, seriously.

You said you wanted me to train you. If he could’ve, Xander would’ve shrugged. Thirty-five.

“How in hell is this supposed to ‘train’ me? You’re leaving me out to dry,” Alex said inside his throat. “Handle this. Or at least –”

Another mouthful of Skittles was jammed in his mouth and he choked on them.

Figure it out, Xander said. Thirty-six.

Alex’s foot had reached a point where it didn’t take a break between the spasms anymore. They were very small trembles – practically hidden behind the shaking of the car, which had gone down immensely thanks to her going easier along the road – and they weren’t so much painful as irritating because they weren’t in his foot but his calf. There were a few sharp twinges that still hurt, but as long as he kept everything under his ankle steady, he was doing okay. Minus the upped intensity each minute.

He needed to get a better poker face.

“I –”

Much better. Like – actually get one. Please.

Thanks.

“It’s... not something I have an answer for exactly.” Which was the truth, considering he didn’t. The truth didn’t count if he wasn’t supposed to hand it out. Was he? “Just... Let’s stick with ‘no’. To everything – just... Yeah. I mean – ‘no’.” Crap. “Moving on...” To what? “Uh... Rudy. I mean –” Shit! “Not like that – it’s just...” Xander was enjoying himself immensely. “Okay, it didn’t look like he had anything specifically to fight you. He had that gun or whatever and that was weird, and that Agent – in the trunk – had a cat-suit and it could’ve been flame resistant. So... basically, is there anything you know about the Agency making weapons guaranteed to knock out your fire? ‘Cause that’s what we’re going to have to clear out first, before anything.”

If everything went as they expected it to and he was out for however long it took this transfer to finish, he had to be sure they weren’t leaving her fight off some sort of water god.

Too bad we don’t have those goggles, Xander said. They probably don’t have the access to it, but I could’ve taken a shot at shutting down any hoses lying around. And sprinklers.

“Is there any other way to do it?”

... Maybe?

Alex rolled his eyes.

“Well, you were the guy who couldn’t work a hotel phone.” But could, allegedly, fly a jet. And a train and a submarine and a tank. Allegedly. Not allegedly. “Maybe we can find someone in there...”

He might not’ve decided to answer directly, but he did let his voice rise just a tad higher than before. He’d gone right back into all-out whispering once Osono guessed – he was terrible at this – but even if he wasn’t going to go back to blatantly hiding behind an even more blatant lie – Xander was pretty damn good at it, considering it’d made sense for so long – he might as well stop holding out on her. She knew he was talking to someone, anyway. He just hoped she didn’t start asking for a name like Gwen had.

Thirty-eight. Who’s going in first?

“Huh?”

Tactics, man.Tactics’? If you’re working with more than one person, you need to have some kind of plan.

“You didn’t ask for one at Elmira,” he muttered.

I didn’t really expect Gwen to have to fight. Here, I know Sparky’s goin’ in guns blazing and I’d prefer to know where I’m not supposed to stand. So who’s going in first?

“Why don’t you tell us? That’s your job.”

No, I don’t really work like that – that’s not exactly... He mind-shrugged again. I’m a do-it-myself-‘cause-everyone-else-is-stupid kind of guy. I don’t do ‘teams’. ‘Pairs’. Whatever the hell this is.

He was going to have to if this had any shot at working.

“Osono, who’s going in first? Because... I want to know where I should be.”

Thirty-nine.

Xander swooping in to talk cut off Alex’s short cry of pain.

“If they’re expecting me, they’re set up for me, so you’ll almost definitely catch ‘em off-guard right away, but if Rudy’s there, and he knows I’m hurt and he’ll probably guess you tagged along for the war, then it’s only a little less likely for them to’ve rigged a trap up for you. They’ll be lying in wait if they’re warned.” That was why Alex wanted to know if there was anything in store for her, but it sounded liked Xander just assumed they did. “If I go in, I can get them focused on me, giving you that tiny opening to smash ‘em in the face ‘cause they – for sure – won’t have time to switch over to anti-burn. It’s just a matter of whether or not I’m rested enough to get out of the way when they shoot.”

“Will you be?”

If you’d take the damn foot, I would.

Like that was happening.

Hmm...

“It’s not happening,” Alex snapped. “Stop thinking about it.”

It’s good practise for when you do have to do it.

“Easing me in’s going perfectly okay,” he said. “Don’t screw me over now.”

‘Screw you over’? Easing in’s for pussies, Xander told him. I’m making you weak. Throwing you in is the pain eater way – trust me.

“I don’t! Not at all! Not in the slightest,” Alex said.

Then I can’t promise anything. Then he added, Bitch.

Now Alex had double the dose of fun of dealing with what he was already going through and the new fear of Xander suddenly changing his mind and slamming the full of force of it into him. More than anything, he was going to enjoy not having to put up with this when the transfer-back-thing was over.

You’ll miss it when it’s gone, Xander hummed.

His foot wouldn’t. It was counting down to when they arrived. Four more hours if they kept going like this, but maybe three if they sped a little. He was torn between wanting to stay put and asking her to hurry. They had Gwen to find, he knew that perfectly well, but considering what they were going to be up against – if anything, because there hadn’t been a lot in their way at Elmira – he wasn’t fully in the mood to rush.

* * *


‘Whale’ hit him as very, very odd. Jason needed a moment to realize Quin was talking about his target. The shirt she’d been wearing barely fit her! He could hardly imagine what Eric would be called if Gwen was supposed to be a ‘whale’, especially if Quin didn’t recognize who he was talking to. Given how the man had switched bodies and he was quick to assume anyone he didn’t recognize was a lackey, this was going to be a very explosive and ultimately bloody introduction.

“First of all, keep your colourful comments to yourself. I’m giving you a warning because you won’t get one from my lead. Second, I don’t know what kind of warped reality you’re playing in, Quin, but that ‘condition’, those ‘few slaps’ – which, by the way, I remember Eric telling you exactly not to do, around the same time your tiny ass was cut in half – are almost exactly what my lead is going to pick up on. You should be grateful she’s not here to snap your neck this second. Congratulations, you have some time to come up with some crazy excuse for why you shouldn’t have a...” What was his lead’s thing? Oh yeah. “... a hand shoved through your throat. Honestly, I’m expecting it to happen even if you did bring her here, and I’m more than a little surprised Eric didn’t crush you already.” He’d said he was going to. It was going to be fun watching the two of them talk. “Finally, noble superior, you will watch your fucking mouth when you talk about Agency personnel. There’s no witnesses here, asshole, and I can break you like a twig.”

And that was everything he would have said if Quin hadn’t been a higher rank.

Dick.

“I apologize,” Jason said, trying to avoid talking through clenched teeth, “for any hardships you endured at the hand of my target. My condolences for the loss of your assistant, and I can assure you Agent March would be here if she wasn’t with...” Wait – where was she? She’d rushed upstairs, but where to? Had Eric found her? Gary? Benoit? ... Crazy German? “If she wasn’t preoccupied.”

What Quin had said about her was stupid. It was stupid because Quin was stupid. He was childish and petty and who the fuck did he think he was saying anything like that? Fantasy-Jason was right: there were no witnesses here. Would ever take advantage of it? No. He wasn’t that sort of person. But he wanted to. In his darkest corner, the urge was there, and he was keeping the shrimp’s words in a very reachable thread of memories. His hands, behind his back, tightened into fists.

“She’s preoccupied with talking to an A-1.” Just because he wasn’t going to snap Quin’s neck over it didn’t mean Jason wasn’t fighting back. He’d felt Eric’s voice when those two had been talking over the phone, and if knocking out the other side of this one’s mouth was off the table, he’d make his battle subtle. Jason worked well with subtle. It was one of his best talents. “The issues you faced on the way here were due to a lack of information. As such, I’m obligated to brief you on our current status in securing Stewart to prevent any further challenges in our work.” He sounded very professional. All of his practise was paying off. “We recently were joined by Eric Patten, who’s taken an interest in our work. He’s here now, actually. Upstairs. You’ll most likely see him when you find my lead. I’m sure he’ll be happy to reward you for your services on top of whatever she offers you. Have you met Eric before? He’s very influential. Whatever favour you feel you’re owed, he’ll undoubtedly be able to provide.”

Like ‘not being murdered for killing five of his team’. Was that specific enough, Quin?

“I ask that you be brief in your report to Agent March,” he went on. “She’s been in an aggressive mood lately and too many details might encourage... an unstable reaction.”

Jason couldn’t stop him from telling her, could he? The extent of his control over the situation didn’t go that far, but the very least he could do – had to do – was make sure she wasn’t hurt by the news. Was it better or worse for her to be told than to see the damage? Worse, he decided. At least if she saw, she’d feel better knowing she was now there to protect her future self.

That transfer was really going to happen. Soon, and he had yet to make up his mind about whether he should be... something.

“If you are going to tell her, you should be thorough. Be sure to mention your injuries, but I’d advise against withholding any details concerning Stewart’s physical state.” He nodded, as if this was a very wise choice. “The tranquilizers were a good idea, Agent Quin. Be sure to mention those. A lot.”

Yeah. Stephanie would love that.

“I’ll follow you to wherever you want to go. Lead the way. Sir.”

This guy was going to die. Jason would try to be respectful at the funeral.

* * *


The minute Madeline Bergmann was out of sight and the sound of the heels of her shoes had faded, something magical happened. Gary felt his muggy, mortal, un-miracle-y breath get taken and, instead, like he was riding a unicorn, rainbows and sugar wrapped him up and filled his beard with the sweet scent of... life. A shadow he hadn’t even noticed just up and disappeared, and it was all because that glorious wizard of glee had waved a sparkle wand and sent that thing packing. This was amazing – he had no idea he would ever be in a room with Stephanie March floating on his arm and a ginormous flashlight of everything beautiful in the world shining like the golden shun from the top of his head to the whole twenty million feet to his toes. Oh man – Eric was awesome, so it kind’f sucked that Gary had to ruin everything by screaming at the top of his lungs, “WHY ARE WE BEING ATTACKED?

The A-1 barely jumped. Well – barely, ‘cause he’d shouted as loud as he could, and he hoped Stephanie wouldn’t be mad at him ‘cause he’d been on his bestest behaviour since he’d met her – if she gave him scars on his arm, he was yanking them off and framing them and worshipping them for the rest of his life – but he just couldn’t wait for them to talk about it later ‘cause he needed to know now!

“Something wrong, Gary?”

“NOSIR!” ... Wait. “I – I mean... sort of. Yes?”

Eric was not the tiniest bit upset. He even laughed about it, got Gary laughing too, and then he asked like he was a guardian angel, “What’s up?”

“Sir... Ma’am... Honoured, respected super-Agents I have to get autographs from so I can show my wife...” Didi was not gonna believe any of this! “I’m – uh... I didn’t actually know there was gonna be an attack. I sort’f just got called in ‘cause someone said Jason wanted me in here, but he’s been busy around downstairs and I’m just having the time of my life and I’m not really trained for anything hand-to-hand and I’d probably die.”

“‘Die’? But you can’t die!”

WHY? WAS GARY IMMORTAL NOW? DID THE MAGIC ERIC-CLOUD OF LOVE CURE ALL? THIS WAS THE BEST DAY EVER!

“Well – I – I’m gonna try not to, but what I’m really asking is – sir...” He took a quick breath in. “Is there a closet or someplace I can hide?”

More laughter, as pure as the air and as bright as the moon! He needed to record this or something. Where was Jason and those goggles?

“Don’t worry, Gar.” HE’D SAID ‘GAR’ LIKE IT WAS A NICKNAME THAT WAS HIS NEW NAME NOW! “Ol’ Alex ain’t gonna hurt ya.”

...

...

Wat.

“Uh... Sir?”

“Don’t worry ‘bout what Benoit said, Stephie – he just needs a hug. I’d give him one, but I’m pretty sure he’d punch me.”

“Sir? Sir, sir, sir, sir, sir, sir –”

“Yeah, Gary?”

“Ummmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm...” He could’ve stretched that for – like – twenty minutes, but he didn’t have time to waste right now! “So – when you said ‘Alex’, you meant – like – some guy who was just in the mood to break a place, not – like...” Super Ultra Agent-Murderer Like-It’s-Going-Out-of-Style-and-It-Would-Have-to-Once-All-the-Agents-Were-Dead Alex. The one he’d... maybe... accidentally sent Jason to... Completely by mistake! Was not his fault – at all! Not on purpose! ... Was he here for revenge? “Not – like... that Alex... right?”

Oh shit. Gary was gonna die.

“It’s A-OK, everybody. He’s not a problem.” Said the A-1 with humongous fists! “I’m a little more interested in where everyone else’ll be.”

Hiding! He’d be hiding!

“Wherever you need us,” he half-stammered.

That was what Jason would say. The dude had a thing for being dedicated to helping.

“I know someone’ll be on a plane to Elmira soon,” Eric chimed. “And Benny... ah – who knows where he’ll go? And as long as Madeline stays way the heck away from me...” He lit up like he’d just thought of something, then daintily spun around to look at Stephanie. “There is one thing I’m not too sure about.”

What is it?

Forget about the attack for... two seconds, then he’d go back to having a mini-meltdown. This could be his chance to help!

“The transfer, you goose,” Eric said, reaching out a hand and ruffling Gary’s hair. Then he went back to Stephanie. “Who’s gonna run it? ‘Cause Xander can’t. And unless Alex’s secretly been reading a Stasis Cell 101 book, we’ll probably have to steer them in the right direction if Benoit’s ever gonna get the chance he’s looking for.” He rolled his eyes. “See – now this isn’t right. I shouldn’t have to have this conversation with you. You’re almost done here, but since the lovely Madeline has to be babysat, Benny’s not around to talk this over with. And – anyway, he doesn’t have what we’re looking for, which almost hits me as a little short-sighted unless he was plannin’ on running it himself.” Eric thought about it. “Can he?”

GARY COULD! HE COULD RUN THE TRANSFER! HE KNEW HOW!

I can do it!

Eric looked thrilled with his enthusiasm, and Gary knew he would because he was so totally ready to do this!

“Weren’t you the one passing out a second ago?” Gary got a poke on the nose and it was adorable! “Can’t have ya saying you’re gonna run off and hide when we need someone standing in the same room as Alex.”

“... Oh.”

“Hey,” Eric told him, “it’s not like I’m saying you can’t lend a hand. These guys just wanna be extra sure everything goes right – so that’s why I’m thinking we get Jason to hang back for a bit.” He held up his palms like he was trying to calm down Stephanie down before anything even happened. Yeah – as if! If that magic-cloud could get a bull to chill out, there was no way even Stephanie March could get freaked out. “It’d only be until Xander shows up and – don’t worry about Jason getting into trouble. Xander wants his body, Jason can give it back to him, and when the transfer underway and Benny doing his thing, there’ll be no one around to hurt him as he skedaddles his way back over to you. In Elmira. I get nervous thinking she’s gonna get away again so I’d truly feel better if the two of you were back at the national lab as soon as you can get out the door.”

National lab? In Elmira? Another transfer? Gary’s heart was gonna beat out of his chest!

“Why doesn’t she do the transfer here? I’ll do it for her! Can I? Can I please?

“Tell ya what,” Eric said. “You nudge her into leaving with Gwen and beelining to proper facilities and I’ll let you stand around and watch it all happen. Sound good?” BETTER THAN ANYTHING HE COULD’VE EVER HOPED FOR! COULD HE TAKE PICTURES? WAS HE ALLOWED? “I don’t want the transfer here when everything’s about to get crazy. I don’t want to have to push around a new Gwen in her coma for however many months she’s out cold for. What a waste of effort!”

HE WAS SO READY FOR THIS.

“When can we go?” This was really happening this was really happening this was happening for real! “Now? Right now?”

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#, as written by Ten
More murmuring to himself. It seemed to be the consistent response to anything she said, so Osono had to wait while "they" talked it over, concentrating on driving for the time being and hoping she'd eventually get some sort of realistic admission from him. When he was finally addressing her, he started alright, then blasted it all away by telling her "no". Just...no? What the f--? She had to admit that although he lied about having powers - which, despite his denial, it really only confirmed and solidified it as he stumbled to change the subject - she'd been feeling more amused about the whole thing because of how ridiculous it all seemed now. How silly and foolish she'd been, which she was perfectly willing to take responsibility for.

His refusal to give her anything concrete or to even apologize for it did make her feel angry, but she shoved it aside when he started talking about something else. Fine. She wouldn't confront him now. She basically knew what was up anyways and they had more important things to deal with than reiterating the whole "Alex is an asshole" thing. Knowing what she did about him and his personality, it would no doubt come up again later.

The new concerns he brought up got her to thinking critically again, feeling pumped and yet a little hesitant about the upcoming battle. "Well...I haven't really seen anything from these guys that's been an active or successful repellent. I mean, they don't show up in full body sci-fi suits or anything, ya know? Every once and a while I'll face a few guys who are dressed really slick and just won't light up as easy as I want...but I've told you before about the flammability of skin. I'm not kidding. And there's always something exposed to give me that opening because they always attack me in public and gotta look normal, I guess."

She shrugged, trying to remember if she'd ever seen anything strange used by these people over the years, but other than what she considered typical guns, nothing really came to mind or stood out. And Ozzie had no idea about the gun he kept referring to Rudy having. If she was more willing to believe the idiot wasn't capable of violence, she would have called Alex a liar about that too.

"As far as 'where should you stand'? I don't really care. I'm not gonna burn ya, if that's what you're worried about. I've never done anything like this...especially not on a team or anything like that, but I'm pretty good as far as controlling where it goes and what it does. Besides, I'm not really looking to bring the flames out until you're...passed out again or whatever you're gonna be. I figure that'll be about the mid-point of everything and I should have enough energy to just burn a freaking hole through everything that moves after that."

That's about the time that she realized she hadn't really mentioned to him about that other weakness that her powers had. It was another one of those things that she was reluctant to give Alex, merely because he could be a jerk and well..if thing in his head that he kept on trying to talk to was what she thought it was... How safe would it be to tell him everything? Then again, if he really meant her no harm, then keeping it from him would only hurt them if she ended up fizzling out in the middle of everything and leaving him stranded.

"I mean, it's not a big deal... I can keep it up for a long time and there's plenty I can do just using the air as fuel. What happened back at that office building is a really bad example of how well I operate, one, because you freaking pissed me off and I lost my cool and two, because I wasn't allowed to kill ole whatshername. But it's not how I usually do things. I've been surviving for years by not relying entirely on my gift except as a distraction, mass kill or escape plan." Not really true. It was about half-and-half whether she'd whip the fire out in non-defensive situations in the first place and whether she'd go all the way to burning her enemies when they finally showed up. "It does have a bit of an energy limit, but it's a wide edge with lots of room to move about in. Now...about Rudy..."

It was still a bit awkward to talk about him like this, to think of him as an Agent, but it was definitely getting easier. And Alex was certainly helping. That did not mean that she liked it. "I think you're giving him way too much credit while also forgetting the fact that there's no reason for him to suspect me of following you there. But, worse case scenario, we'll assume that he knows. If he's in charge to any degree for preparing for me...I still don't think we'll have much to worry about. Do you want to know what his strategy is and has always been - at least as far as I've been able to figure out?" She glanced at Alex, giving him a level look. "You remember how he popped up out of nowhere and followed me around and then later, those guys showed up and charged us? Yeah. That's basically been on repeat for the last 6 years of my life. Not the capturing Gwen thing though...that was new. And don't--!"

She glared at him warningly. "Don't tell me how obvious it is that he's always been with them, alright? I know how stupid it looks but... You don't know what it was like and you don't know how...how he is. Sometimes, he'd show up and hang around for a while before shit started happening and it was like old times, back when we first met and I had a life and a job. And there's never been more than about a month in between times when he shows up, usually coming out of nowhere a few weeks after the last time I saw him."

Alright, rehashing this wasn't helping and it certainly wasn't pertinent to the planning in this situation. "The point is, the dumbass hasn't changed tactics for 6 years. Which, you can kind of get where I'm coming from as far as thinking these Agent-people or whatever are halfwits - it's all I've ever encountered from them. So, assuming he knows I'm coming and has the chance to cook up something in preparation... I'm honestly more worried about whatever the people who're expecting you have in store. But from the fact that you're falling apart and still able to kick ass, I don't know whether to take that as a point for or against them being idiots too. I mean, our trunk buddy is certainly playing with a full deck--didya see the look she gave me when I told you I wanted to cook her as punishment? Ha!"

Osono took a pause to belt out a raspy giggle, shaking her head in amused disbelief. "Anybody who mistakes me for someone in any kind of authority position has either got some perception issues to work out OR the whole organization is really as fucked up as I'm thinking it is. I mean, if they've got people like ME running the place..."

She shook her head and was once again fixated on the road. "Who goes in first. Since they're expecting you, I say we give 'em what we know for a fact they're already lookin' for and then I'll be at your back and totally pull the rug from underneath 'em. Sound like a plan?"

***

As soon as the word "apologize" came from the man's mouth, a smug smile plastered itself across Rudy's bruised and misshapen face. Worked like a charm. After the long line of failures and hardships he'd been suffering lately, it was good to finally be back on track with things working the way they were suppose to. And he couldn't help but notice that Stewart wasn't here. Maybe she'd contributed more to his bad luck than he'd originally assumed? Well, no matter. She was gone and out of his hands and a weight had been lifted. His mojo was back!

When the lackey hesitated before stating Stephanie's current location, Rudy instantly zeroed in on it, his eyebrows coming down in a considering look - especially when he brought up the A-1.

"I'll bet she is," Rudy murmured in a voice rife with implications and a matching smirk. So, it looked like his old training camp buddy was still at it, working her way up the Agency ladder the old-fashioned way. Knowing what he knew about her, it didn't surprise him in the least. Typical Agency woman.

There was the hint of worry passing over him like a cloud to hear that she'd focused her attentions on the A-1, Mr. Patten. The guy who'd threatened and demoted him and made Rudy almost wet himself through the phone lines - the jerk. Obviously, she was busy pursuing her own goals and planning ahead, aiming high, etc. But with Patten wrapped around her finger, it was very possible that Rudy'd still be in hot water with the both of them, especially if Patten felt the need to protect her - and from Rudy's experience, women like Stephanie were always dominant, no matter whether they let you ride on top or not. It took a special skill set to turn the tables on them without them realizing how much control they'd lost. Not having really met the A-1 officially yet, he wanted to assume Eric had that particular strength of character - he certainly seemed like the "in-control" type - but still, he could feel that axe hovering over his head again...just a little bit.

On the plus side, if Rudy played his cards right, the little bit of info he had on Steph would work to snare both her AND the A-1 and get him what he wanted in the end. Nobody wanted their own plans disrupted or their closets opened wide for public review - and this Patten guy would no doubt suffer some sort of consequences for an "unprofessional" relationship. A-1's couldn't be exempt from everything since they had a standard to uphold...right? So, they'd likely agree to his very simple demands just to get rid of him. This predictability of Agency personnel had gotten him where he was today and although he'd never gone up against an A-1 before, if the guy was shagging Stephanie - and this suit-dude had definitely just let it slip that he was - then he'd be just as humanly fallible as the rest. Piece. Of. Cake.

And these thoughts only continued to grow and blossom the more the other guy kept talking, stars glowing in Rudy's eyes to hear words like "reward" and "influential" and his own words repeated back to him "owed", "favour" and "provide". Why, yes, ALL of that, please and thank you. They even sounded better coming from suit-guy's mouth as if they were hiding even greater promises than Rudy himself had implied. Even though this guy had been a bit of a goody-two-shoes smart-mouth to begin with, Rudy was definitely growing more and more fond of him by the minute. Not enough to be friends or anything but he'd learned his lesson quicker than most and although not exactly the perfect picture of humble, he'd at least changed his tone to being more cooperative and respectful. Not to mention the dude was a fountain of information and he didn't even seem to realize how much ammo he was giving Rudy to play with. Heh, sucka.

When he mentioned that Stephanie was in an "aggressive mood lately" Rudy snorted loudly and cocked an amused eyebrow. "Are we talkin' about the same chick, here? Blonde woman? Works for the Agency? Likes torture and eats men for breakfast? You think she's cranky today, then you just haven't been around the bitch long enough. It's pretty much a constant with her."

Although Rudy was really beginning to doubt how closely this guy knew his own boss, he was definitely liking the sound of "unstable reaction." Not to say that Rudy had a death wish or anything but...he remembered the creative imagination Stephanie put to work when she got violent. And that'd been exactly what he'd had in mind when he'd let his fist pound into Gwen Stewart's face the few times it had. The look Stephanie would give him and what she'd possibly DO to him in her anger... Oh yeeaah... It'd make everything he'd suffered through at the hands of possessed truckers and assistants, worthwhile. Suit-dude probably hadn't gotten a chance to enjoy his Lead's fists of rage, but Rudy most certainly would!

The blackmail thing was the real ticket to getting what he needed, despite the pissing and moaning Rudy'd done over his condition and what he'd gone through and whatever else he'd mentioned to this guy about how important dropping Gwen off was - it was a whole other separate thing. Even though he'd been forgiven by Mr. Patten, there was still the demotion to deal with. And Noel had outgrown her usefulness when she'd kept important information from him and gone over his head with the whole "specialized Agents" thing - which he was almost certain now that it'd been a trap to snare him in this kind of trouble and knock him down a few pegs. He had been getting a little...comfortable with jerking her around lately. Heh.

Picking up Gwen had given him the opportunity to redeem his actions back at the restaurant - namely keeping Patten from killing him for losing his men - but the blackmail of past and present deeds would secure him a position back where he'd been, independent of Noel and her manipulative lies. And when the time was right, he had enough on her to damage her career as well. Revenge margaritas for everybody!

"Hey, and thanks for the tips, but I already know what I need to tell her," he said with another bruised smile, as if the man were toeing that line of propriety again. But, Rudy was willing to forgive the guy for speaking out of turn. Afterall. He was someone new to talk to!

Making his way to the stairs - that's where he'd said Stephanie and Patten were, right? - Rudy kept speaking over his shoulder at the goggle guy while talking again in his rapid, excited tone. "So, are you one of those losers who didn't 'get' the ending of Lost? Do you need me to explain the season finale to you? You remember the whole 'alternate timeline' thing right?"

It wasn't an actual question and regardless of what the other man said, he was going to give him his long-practiced rant about it. Other than briefly slipping on the bloody steps - and doing the splits sideways, before he achingly righted himself - Rudy's mouth was speeding off, a fountain of useless knowledge with barely a breath in between sentences.

***

She felt a deep sense of satisfaction that her words had hit their mark and Stephanie definitely expected him to fire back with barbs of his own - the heat of adrenaline still pulsing within her, making her feel eager to blame him for everything that had gone wrong with this case. He'd gotten his toy and hers was probably dead in a ravine somewhere with an idiot. And it was HIS case that had tripped her up in the first place. How was that even fair?

Then Master was there, delightfully soothing and she couldn't help getting the feeling that despite her willingness to get petty and even dirty about things, he had her back. It might have been the fact that Master and Benoit had been at odds since he'd first shown up, but she was comforted by the assumption that she had his support.

Her case had been EASY before Benoit had stepped into the picture. Now everything was becoming so complex - extra long time spent with a sexually appealing partner, drugs being needed to deal with all the stress, an elaborate trap set up just to capture two people, an A-1 coming along for the ride, etc. And now if/when Gwen arrived, Stephanie would need to hop over a few cities to wait and pray that the fool her target had been traveling with didn't come looking for her and try to take her back. She couldn't help but feel justified, now that Gwen was practically dead - just waiting for the confirmation, Oh God... please let him arrive safely with her... - in being angry that his original plan, the one that involved Alexander, was falling into perfect symmetry, while she was losing everything.

'No one’s sayin’ you can’t do it'. Uh, no, actually, that was exactly what she was saying. On the slim chance that Gwen was still on her way here, alive and perfectly safe, Benoit could not hide from the fact that he had yet to lay hands on his target in any fashion. How long had Alexander been upstairs at the apartment before he'd come rushing back down to ruin her life? Not long enough, Benoit.

Stephanie did not excuse him for "the guest" being an ex-Agent, nor did she excuse him for "living" where others had fallen - she and Jason had both lived through it. If it were really all that great a feat, then he had to weigh it against the fact that his target was a moron and should have been caught ages ago for making simple mistakes like "allowing dangerous people to live". She didn't even feel sorry that Jean had died - Master looked so much better in his skin and it felt like they hadn't really lost the French flunky with him around.

Benoit had failed. Jason had failed. Jean had failed. She had failed. She was surrounded by incompetence, stuck in the muddy hole with these pigs, unable to climb out and clean herself off. And it was driving her crazy thinking that this pompous ass probably had it all 'figured out' and would end up letting the moron slip past him yet again or worse, somehow pointing both Alexanders straight at Elmira where she would be.

And although he kept himself somewhat civil, he wasn't really saying anything to change her new outlook on the whole situation - nope, it was almost a certainty. If Gwen wasn't running free or dead, then she would be before the plan had reached fruition. Before Stephanie got what she really wanted - what she needed. And it would all be thanks to this jackass and his inability to see past his own nose!

Stephanie faded out during the drama between Master and the A-2, not really caring that the two didn't like each other or the reasons why. She respected and was fond of them both and wouldn't choose sides. The way they acted like bickering children in front of lower levels was one of those things she was perfectly willing to turn and look the other way from. Idly, she kept scratching at the Puppy, feeling calmed by the plushy sponginess in his skin to her sharpened nails and let the explosive voices wash over her like a soundtrack to her mutilation.

When Benoit was addressing her again, she visibly bristled at his implied threat against Jason - putting Alexander into the equation only made it sound like the guy was a missile that could be pointed in a specific direction - and she glared hatefully at him as he turned before she could respond. Even so, she had no idea what she would have said. Master was still here and despite her earlier breezy considerations about the whole "Jason situation", she was not going to openly admit anything by defending her partner or calling Benoit to task for his words. Especially not when Benoit himself hammered home how little the A-6 Agent was supposed to mean to her in comparison to her case.

Fine. She wasn't going to talk about Jean anymore. Big deal. If he'd just do everything he was suppose to and do it right, she'd never have to see his snobby face again after this. And Jason wouldn't be threatened either. Thinking of Jason made her feel sad all over again, watching the door eagerly, tempted to leave and go look for him. She needed him here with her. She couldn't take all these stupid snobs and overly expectant bigwigs surrounding her all the time. She needed him here to hold her and erase the horrible things Benoit had said and the visuals that accompanied his statements.

There was a slight tremor running through her when the Pup was suddenly exploding with sound and she turned back to stare at him as if she intended to choke the life out of him. Madeline could get away with screaming because she was an A-2, but there was no excuse for the Puppy to shout in her ear--! Oh. He was upset about the coming battle. That made sense. He was someone that Stephanie fully expected to die when Alexander showed up. And she was as saddened by the fact as she would have been if he were an actual dog. Some lower levels were less important than others.

In response, Master was charming and full of good humor as always, warming Stephanie in an odd way while still making her feel on edge and alert in his presence. She wasn't as affected as Gary was by it, but when Master laughed, a certain look came over her face, like that of absolute worship or as if she were tempted to sing that chorus of joy herself. And amidst his ever admirable attempts to disperse the Puppy's fears, he turned to her and told her "not to worry", his voice coming like that of a friendly father-figure to her ears, full of understanding and good will. She almost swooned but nodded instead, forgetting Benoit and his nastiness all because the Master told her to.

And then he had to throw glitter and fireflies into the air and bring a blush to her face with that "Elmira" comment. Oh! Why, yes... she was going to be flying to Elmira VERY soon. Everything was going to be alright. Master said so.

She blinked hazily, her attention fixated on the large man as he addressed her with another concern, following him blindly along in this half-brainstorming conversation - she honestly didn't want to think that the Master didn't have everything all figured out like the omnipotent God he appeared to be, but she was just as eager as the Puppy to help him, to offer her assistance, to be needed by him and validated by his resulting glory. There was something almost apologetic and modest when he said this conversation wasn't meant for her but she instantly forgave him at the mere implication. And his reasoning definitely had her furrowing her brow trying to think but also secretly waiting for the Master to lead her to the answer he wanted, which...he eventually did.

Stephanie had been nodding her head tightly to everything he'd been saying up to this point, practically numbed by her all-encompassing need to please and follow him. But then the small, adoring smile and light in her green eyes vanished like a building crumbling. What...? Jason? Jason!?!?!? Her whole body tensed as she gave him a very penetrating look, filling her lungs with a VERY deep breath through her nose as if she were getting ready to scream. When his hands came up defensively, the mere gesture commanding her body to calm down, whatever unearthly noise that had been building inside her halted itself from escaping.

So, she didn't scream or shout or cry. She wanted to. She adored the Master to such an overwhelming degree that she felt like they were part of the same person when she was around him, rather than a separate entity with her own thoughts and feelings. But the urge to let out a roar of rage, slice his thickly muscled throat with her fingernails and tell him to go fuck himself was VERY real and very strong.

Once again, however, Master's voice took on that particular timbre... On the outside, it could feel like he was running this new plan by her first for her approval, but deeper down, he'd already made the decision and she felt powerless to say anything contrary to his will. And all the while, as much as she wanted to break down and cry and beg him not to do this to her - after what Benoit had SAID!!! - he was filled with overflowing sympathy and confidence that rushed over her like cooling water.

It was...a good plan. To be truthful. And Master was right. Alexander would not harm someone who could give him what he wanted...would he? Master said he wouldn't and she felt his promise in those words - especially the phrase "skeddadles back over to you", so simple and lighthearted. And then to top it all off, he was once again calming the inner panic that Rudy would show up dragging a corpse on a leash, by talking about Gwen in the present tense. Making her real with the simple reverberation of his voice, showing yet more support for Stephanie and what she was trying to do, in not so many words telling her that he knew she could do it. And that more than anything else he'd said - logically reasoned, yes, it all made sense not to do the transfer HERE; they'd been over all of this already! Keep up, Pup! - made her calm down and release that large intake of breath she'd pulled in when he'd first said Jason's name, in a long, uneven sigh.

"Okay," she said with a firm nod, blinking slowly at Master again. Trusting him, again. And turning to the excited Pup, feeling indirectly caged in by his exuberance because of Master's orders to him, she smiled wanly and nodded at him as well. "Soon. We can leave as soon as--"

"Then I was like, 'Don't Mess with the combo master??," Rudy's voice could be heard from the hallway rambling on in full-tilt 'story-mode'. "Your 'combo' counters are horrible. Of course an opponent can always respond, the idea is how difficult is it for an opponent to respond. I'll Terror, Dark Banishing, Oblivion Ring, Path to Exile, Unsummon your Fusion Elemental.. can you do that to Uril, the Miststalker? Of course not. And it is with that reasoning that I am saying Uril is a better card in general compared to Fusion Elemental.'"

The familiar rapidly moving voice was getting louder the closer he got and Stephanie slowly turned with widening eyes towards the doorway, Rudy seemingly drawn there by the red glow cascading into the dimly lit hall.

"I totally said that to him too," his haughty voice went on. "The little snot was so pissed and kept trying to argue with me about it, but he didn't have a leg to stand on. Do you know what it's like to get an arrogant 12 year old brat to run crying to their mom during a Tournament, Jason?" During their trek upstairs, he'd gotten the goggle-dude to give him his name. "It's freaking hilarious, especially when you've totally owned them in the matches. All that practice - wah, wah wah! Big man knows more about Magic cards than me! Pfffft!"

A heavy tempo had gathered in Stephanie's lungs as she stood watching that very familiar, short man approach the room, walking breezily along but looking like hell had taken a shit on him. Her immediate concern was not for him or his condition but for what his arrival promised and her eyes were frantically searching beside him on either side for Gwen. Nothing. Her eyes widened and zipped to Jason who was shadowing him, but there was no one in his hands either! Her eyes were back on Rudy as he stopped and entered the room, her gaze clinging to every small wound and blood stain on his person and trying to make some sort of sense of it all in relation to the fact that GWEN WAS NOT WITH HIM!!!!!!

Quin's rant fell silent as they came abreast of the doorway and he stepped towards it, eyes sweeping over the people present before focusing on the stasis tanks behind them. "Oh, man, I totally read this in issue #305 of Tremor Tower. And," he paused for a 10 second beat to let his eyes travel over each tank and their contents individually before seemingly coming to a crucial conclusion. "None of these clones look alike. You need to fire your genetic engineer." He nodded sagely and then made a lazy "finger gun" in Master's general direction. "You're welcome," as if he'd just given them some really important advice.

Stephanie would have rolled her eyes if she weren't standing rooted in place, her body trembling ever so slightly - how could he make jokes right now??? Did he KNOW why he was here??? The idiot... unless he was doing it on purpose to deflect for some reason...!!!

"Is that...Stephanie?" Rudy asked in a mockingly shocked voice, arms spread wide in disbelief as he stepped forward a foot or two. "Wow. ..Goin' for a kinda trailer-trash/secret agent look, huh? I like it." It was very hard to tell if that was genuine pleasure in his voice or if he was mocking her.

His eyes left her to quickly glance over the other two in the room, instantly coming to the conclusion that the man she was clinging to was the A-1--no, wait, scratch that. That sparkle and "really happy to be here" look in his eyes was too lower level. So...the guy with glasses and...20 lb. hams for fists? Damn.

"Thought I'd find you two together," he graced them both with that knowing smirk, not hindered in the least by the presence of lower-level Agents. They could definitely start this conversation right here - the sooner he was back in his comfy status, the better. "Especially with the buzz circulating. After all these years, haven't changed your game at all, have you, Steph? And looks like big ole Mr. Pa-ten has got a taste for more than 'sugar and cupca--Stephanie! No wait--! Stop!!!" The lewd smile that had dominated his face as he began his little "I know what you've been up to" speech, instantly disappeared to be replaced by fear as she started walking swiftly towards him, violence defining every slender curve of her body.

Enough bullshitting! She had no freaking clue what he was going on about but it was not what she wanted to hear! Rudy danced back a few steps, whipping his head around, looking to hopefully hide behind Jason, but the suit-guy was giving them a wide berth as if he'd anticipated this. Shit! Turning back to her, any plans to run were demolished when her fist crashed into his face, and like Charlie Brown getting beaned by a baseball on the pitcher's mound, his body left the ground to sort of hover in place - short legs flying in the air and one shoe coming off - before slamming down on his back.

Stars filled his vision and he blinked several times trying to regain focus, fresh blood decorating a few teeth in milky red color. "Is that...how you say...'hello'?" he wheezed up at her, new pain making the skin of his cheek feel tight...or like it was hanging off the side of his face with muscle exposed. A quick tap with his fingertips proved that to be untrue, everything remaining intact but the flesh felt mushy and soft like rotten fruit. "Just like old times, eh, Steph?" having enough arrogance left to grin at her with red stained teeth.

But she ignored his immature jibes, focused in on one thing and one thing only - the hell she'd been going through for the past 12 hours since their phone conversation. "Where is she?"

From his comfy spot on the floor, not wanting to get up just yet, his eyebrows bounced in surprise and he turned his head to glance at Jason, in a slanted, upside down manner. Hmm, unstable reaction... Looking back at her, he gave her the simplest, most honest confused face he could muster and asked, "Who?" a second before he was gasping in pain again, her high heeled foot coming to stand directly on the bullet hole in his shoulder.

Feebly, his hands gripped her leg and pants, his feet working wildly at the smooth floor trying to find purchase, tiny tortured grunts and murmurs coming from his lips. "Don't fuck with me, Quin! Tell me where she is, like a good boy. Why is she not here with you right now? Did you hurt her? Did she escape you? Is she ALIVE??? I swear to God, if you've laid a hand on her...!" It wasn't just anger pulsating in Stephanie's voice anymore, but pure, unadulterated madness on a flaming train of rage, her green eyes sparking erratically. The leash holding her back from the edge was very thin...

Sweet baby Jesus, she looked so hot right now. And despite the agony screaming in his face and wounded shoulder, Rudy took the time to actually appreciate that once again, he was getting exactly what he wanted. Stephanie had always been a looker and that hadn't changed with her current haggard appearance. Green eyes like an Amazon jungle, her expression filled with something just as wild and untamed, giving him the most bowel-loosening, guilt inducing look he'd ever seen. Towering over him like a Goddess of death, curves covered in black, slimming fabric with her foot on his chest...punishing him...owning him...promising to do such awful, naughty things to him... It really was like training days all over again.

Even though he could sense she was at her limit of tolerance, everything about this pain had him feeling drunken with ecstasy and filled with adrenaline and...other hormones. Abandoning his blackmail plot for the moment, he decided just a little more...he could take it. "Listen, in hindsight, if you wanted information about something, you shouldn't have hit me in the head," all of which was said through gritted teeth as she put more of her weight onto him, the pointed heel practically stabbing into him, causing fresh blood to pool from the wound and over the top of her black shoe. Alright! That's enough! He was going to freaking pass out!

"I don't know!I don't know! I just woke up and she was gone, alright!? Ask that--" One of the hands clutching her calf and ankle came away and had been starting to point at Jason indicating him as "that dick over there" but at the word combination "she + gone" a small gasp left Stephanie's throat and she was stepping off of him. Quin had zero time to recover and no more words were traded between them as he was grabbed up by the front of his shirt and thrown through the doorway, the female Agent having no problem lifting his scrawny form in one hand and tossing him just as easily.

Then she was on him, lifting him from the ground just to make it easier to pound her fists into him, a hollow crack resounding with an echo, followed by a few teeth clattering on the floor of the hall. During this time, Quin's grunts and yelps of pain started as articulating a very real agony, something that even if the meaty sounds of her knuckles against his body were suddenly silenced, his voice alone could carry the weight of translating the brutality of what he was going through. But very quickly...his voice morphed into a confusing mixture of pain and pleasure, disturbing as a soundtrack to the scene, but becoming almost erotic if one were to close their eyes. And Stephanie herself was completely lost to the hate spilling out of her body, her training kicking in to make each rage-filled blow like a fluid dancer - despite the fact that eventually Rudy stopped trying to shield himself with his hands and flopped around like a doll, making him hardly an opponent worthy of each stance and graceful maneuver.

She didn't know whether to interpret "gone" as meaning Gwen had run away or that she was DEAD, but it didn't matter. The moron didn't have her! She'd been so close to getting everything she wanted and he'd shot her plans - her life - to pieces while spitting jokes out the side of his mouth like it didn't matter. He didn't deserve to live. So each fist in his stomach and every knee smashed into his face was done with an efficiency and edge that she no longer possessed inside her mind, the automatic training taking over and controlling her movements in her feral grief. She would kill the son of a bitch and rid the Agency of this useless tumor once and for all!

Not more than 10 minutes had passed before she was ready, chest rising and falling with barely contained sobs, positioning her victim sitting on his knees with one fist buried deep in his hair and viciously twisting his head at a vulnerable angle. Her other hand, nails shining in what little light there was, formed together with flattened palm and straight as an arrow, ready to put another lethal hole into Rudolph Quin.

Dazed, his whole body throbbing sickly, blood oozing from reopened wounds and several new ones, and yet pleasantly intoxicated by the whole event, Rudy opened swollen eyes to look up at her as she began to draw her hand back. That's when the pleasure and pain engulfed systems of his brain started churning again, stumbling to work properly - he knew what that was! Oh shit... he was gonna die! Nowaitaminute! What was the safe word???

"She's here!!!" he croaked in a half-scream, bruised and deformed eyes opening as wide as they would go. She hesitated at the admission, and he took that opening to wheeze and sputter weakly at her - he couldn't die! He had to fix this! "She's...here, in the building somewhere... We arrived by car and I had her...unconscious in the parking...garage..." Slowly the hand meant to attack him was being lowered and her other hand clutching at his sweat dampened hair was falling limply to her side, the rage contorting her features clearing to stare and gape at him as if she were going to fall over. "Sorry...did not make that clear. Stewart IS alive...a bit banged up - we had a rough time getting along...she's a bitch and all... but she'll be fine with a couple of Hello Kitty bandaids."

He was swallowing thickly at every pause, his voice actually level for once, full of fatigue and relieved to be given the opportunity to explain before his throat got ripped out. Needless to say, thoughts of bringing up the blackmail plan at this moment were miles away from his mind - Hoo! Boy! Jason hadn't been kidding! "I don't know where she is...in the building...check the cafeteria or wherever you guys keep food here... I took an involuntary nap by the elevator ..lost track of her... Ask your buddy with the goggles where she is, he seems pretty on top of things--"

Rudy's voice cut off as she suddenly plopped to her knees in front of him and was pulling him against her in a tight embrace, his nerves and internal alarm systems screaming as she clung to him. With her face buried over his shoulder, he quirked his eyebrows in confusion as she held him, not knowing what to make of this sort of behavior from her, especially not when her shoulders started to quake and the sound of her softly crying came to his ears. A disturbed sneer put itself on his face and his eyes darted around uncertainly as he awkwardly patted at her back in a gesture advertising in bright neon how uncomfortable he was right now. What the hell? Wasn't it bad enough that Stephanie was hugging him but she was...crying too? He was in Bizarro World, wasn't he? That had to be it.

Like free-falling, as soon as he'd uttered those blessed words, Stephanie's rage train had halted, spinning out into empty air. Alive. Here. Safe. Her target. Her new body. Gwen...

After being in such a tumultuous emotional state, she couldn't help but laugh in relief and suddenly she was, the sound bubbling up inside her as she still held onto Rudy's slender form. Tears stopped flowing as she finally sat back to look at him and he was looking at her even more warily now than he had in response to her anger. And she had to laugh at that too.

"Thank God! You stupid, masochistic bastard," she said with a smile, Rudy twitching as if she'd slapped him with the expression. "You CAN do something right." Gwen...was alive! Finding new strength and energy in that thought and even feeling a new pulse of adrenaline coursing through her, Stephanie stood fluidly and stared down at him, her face beaming like sunshine and making him wince through the bruises. "Thank you for going against your natural urge to fail and bringing her to me. As grateful as I am, this doesn't change the fact that I severely dislike you, wish to see you dead and hope that we never have to encounter each other again in the future."

She stood for a long while, silently watching him as if waiting for an answer. Rudy's head was hurting more than the beating she'd given him accounted for, but he drowzily snapped his head up at her and muttered an ambiguous "'Kay." before she seemed satisfied and turned away from him, casting him out of mind like a coat tossed aside.

"Pup! We can go now," she commanded in a pleasant yet authoritative tone, snapping her fingers once at him--Oh. He was beside her. Quick for his size, wasn't he? And she could practically feel his "tail" wagging as he stood at her side, barely containing his excitement behind a mask of pure elated joy. Stephanie was half-tempted to pat him on the head in response.

Then she was looking towards Jason and her eyes instantly glanced in Master's direction, the bright smile she was wearing growing sober as she remembered his new version of the "skip to Elmira" plan. Stephanie hesitated. She knew where Gwen probably was, based on Rudy's half-assed report to her, instantly ready to search out the infirmary somewhere in the base - that crack about the cafeteria made no sense, but then again, he was an imbecile; nothing about Rudy made sense. There was a very physical pull dragging at her body in that general direction, needing and wanting her target - Gwen was IN the same building as her! She'd be able to see her, talk to her, TOUCH her!!! And she'd never ever let go! - but she was held in place by the necessity to inform Jason of the change in plans...and the extreme lack of willingness to do so.

Master was watching. He trusted her to do this.

Silently, her hand searched out the Puppy's arm where he stood beside her, feeling a bit of courage return to her as nails bit into his forearm. "Jason," her voice wavering with the EDP monotone, the holes within the mask giving her enough room to breathe in deeply before continuing. "You're going to be staying behind to help the situation here and get Alexander moving in the right direction for Benoit to spring his trap. Your knowledge of the transfer process and availability will be crucial for everything to work. As soon as things are underway, you will join me in Elmira."

During this, she did a fairly good job of pretending to be the emotionless 'boss' that she was, but she broke briefly, letting a skittering glance at Master hold her back from making too much of a scene. "I will see you there, afterward," trying to command the universe with what was left of her crumbling will power, her eyes latched onto his and trying to silently make him understand that she didn't want this. Trying to tell him that she had faith in him to succeed. It was Alexander that she was afraid of.

Then she glanced once more at Master, hating him and adoring him in that one second, before she turned away, tugging the Puppy along with her. When they'd gotten some distance down the hall, she murmured to the Pup, "We need to stop off at the restrooms for a minute. I'm going to be ill..." He would be fine. Master promised her.

***

She did not want to wake up. There was something very pleasant about the state of unconsciousness that possessed her, numb and comforting within a fuzzy cocoon inside her head. But there was also the hint of something menacing about it, like a shadow hovering over her while she slept. Not to mention the small gulp of panic that jolted through her when at the slightest drawing away from it, the consuming cloud clung to her like restraints holding her down. Actively fighting against it now, Gwen finally realized she actually was tied down, rising from the depths to become aware of her own body again.

She couldn't move. Not just the straps across her chest, arms and legs that she could feel the tense weight of, but something deeper in her limbs as she twisted her arms and shifted. Each small movement felt like an incredible chore, draining her for the few seconds she tried to press against the restrictions, her own bones feeling 10 times heavier than they normally were. And fluttering her eyes open was even more of an effort, instantly squeezing them shut against painful white light stabbing into her corneas.

Squinting, she tested her bonds again only to give up when her arms melted into the hard thing beneath her, sighing in defeat and trying to get a look at her surroundings. White walls. Sterile floors that glistened in the harsh lighting. Smooth...metallic surfaces that shined as if polished... Blinking with deliberate effort, Gwen forced her eyes to open wider to take everything in, remembering...remembering... Her head was as heavy as everything else but in her prone position she couldn't see past the mounds on her own chest, rising and falling rapidly as her breathing grew more frantic, knowing what she would find but needing to see it.

With a supreme amount of exertion, she lifted her head from the hard surface beneath her, her eyes wandering over her own body and letting out a tiny sob of distress that sounded incredibly far away in her throat. She was strapped down to a table or a cot or something. Just like David in the brief memories she'd stolen from him. And she knew where she was. Not exactly, but there was only one place she could be. Rudy. The hellish road trip. He'd been taking her to Charlton--

Someone was in the room with her. Even as she limply turned to let her eyes wander in the general direction of the presence, she was reaching out mentally to touch them, her ability acting as sluggish as the rest of her like she was tossing a piece of string and aiming blindly. God...what had he injected her with? It seemed harder to shake than the other times she'd risen from unconsciousness in the hotel that they'd stayed in...

The female Agent had noticed her as well, hair pulled neatly back into a coal black bun, her almond shaped eyes, thin arching eyebrows and slightly olive tinged skin giving her an exotic appearance, but looking incredibly understated in her white uniform with thick black stripes down the sides. She'd been standing nearby, busying herself with small tasks, organizing and cleaning things, within sight of the young woman that had been brought to her, idly worrying about her charge waking up. When Gwen had started to move and make noise, Karen came back over to the side of the cot she'd been strapped to, reaching over to a tray that Gwen could barely see from her position. But from the contact she'd established - not much, since Karen put up mental walls that kept her out of the more personal depths - she knew that the Agent meant to drug her again.

'Nuuu..." Gwen whimpered weakly, shaking her head loosely from side to side, her nose growing red from unshed tears gathering in her eyes, as the other woman brought from the tray a small cotton swab and wiped at an exposed spot on her arm. Because along with remembering where she was, Gwen also remembered why she was here. Stephanie. Rudy was bringing her to Stephanie and now that they'd arrived... She couldn't black out again! She needed to escape! But so far, opportunities were not presenting themselves and she was still too physically and mentally sluggish to do anything.

"Please..." she begged softly as Karen silently reached to the tray again, her hand returning with a tiny syringe filled with a light grey, clear liquid.

A man with dark hair and eyebrows and a blue-collar delivery man uniform stepped into the room and stopped as Karen looked up, the needle point halted an inch from Gwen's skin.

"Oh. Uh...sorry... Didn't realize anyone was in here." Dark, agitated eyes swiftly moved around the room, while he smiled uncertainly at the nonplussed female Agent. His pronunciation came out slightly off - the word "here" sounding like "he-uh" - but Gwen could not place the accent and was having trouble reaching out to him. Thankfully, Karen was fully distracted by his intrusion and set the syringe aside, turning from Gwen to address him in professional tones.

"You're one of the street level Agents aren't you?" she asked in a clipped voice. "What do you want?"

As she stood up straight and turned her willowy form to talk to him, the man's nervous gaze swept quickly over her appreciatively, noticing through her plain uniform and homely make-up the natural assets that she possessed. Gwen only knew he noticed because of the feedback she got from Karen, who instead of hauling his ass out of there right away, responded with restrained curiosity - she knew what that haunted look in his eyes meant, but...he was kind of cute. After a bit of fumbling with her focus and pushing herself to concentrate, Gwen was finally able to reach out to him too, finding him a lot more open than Karen was.

"Well...I..uh..." Todd was searching for something to say, other than the truth, because this gal was obviously higher level than him and would probably write him up for venturing into this section of the building without clearance. He and the other guys who'd come with the delivery truck were supposed to be outta here already, but the trip back down to Mass. was gonna be hell if he didn't...stock up first. "I was here droppin' offa body and uh...one a' the guys hurt himself. Thought I'd run up here and see if I couldn't find any pills or somethin' to shut 'im up before we hit the road."

Comprehension dawned in Karen's face but she did not for a second believe the story he was spouting - and it had very little to do with the strained look in his eyes or the edgy pauses as he tried to come up with the lie right in front of her. She was done being entertained. "You're not authorized to be here and you need to leave before I call security to escort you from the building," she said coldly, setting her shoulders back in an authoritative posture. As an A-8 she wasn't very high on the foodchain but she was definitely higher than this scumbag.

Todd cracked a weaselly smile at that, obviously trying to recover the good will that had possessed her a moment before. "Come awn, help a guy out? Just a bottle or two of Agency pain killers - it doesn't need to be reported where they went, 'cause I doubt anybody'll miss 'em."

"I'm sure your 'friend' will be fine taking something over the counter from Rite Aid," Karen responded with a slight mocking inflection in her voice. "Besides, that's against the rules." She turned away from him to superficially adjust the things on the tray by Gwen's cot pretending to ignore him, but she was still listening.

"Yeah..." he said with a lazy grin by the doorway. "Anythin' else goin' on down here that's against the rules?"

Karen wanted to balk at the implication and to blush about the tone that had entered his voice, to deny him what he was asking her to do - and how dare he even ask! - but right then she'd locked gazes with Gwen, who's blue eyes seemed to glow an unnatural cerulean color making her thoughts about rules and such seem to sink further and further away.

"No, you have to leave--" Karen started to say, before breaking in the middle of her sentence and looking at him oddly. Then her eyes glanced at one of the clear glass and metal framed cabinets against the wall that held the stuff she knew he wanted. Biting her lip a little, she looked back at him. "Over there," she said with a small jerk of her head, and the surprise in his eyes melted to one of satisfaction as he glanced warily behind himself and proceeded over to that side of the room.

It had worked! In all honesty, Todd had expected the uptight bitch to toss him out with nothing, but here she was givin' in like a good gal. Ladies couldn't resist that ol' Southie charm. As he crossed the room to the cabinets she'd indicated, peering over his shoulder every few steps to make sure no one else had shown up at the door, Karen let a hand trail to her forehead, her eyebrows wrinkling as she frowned at the floor. She wasn't supposed to be doing this... She wasn't supposed to be allowing him access... But she was given another mental push when Todd motioned her over.

"It's locked," he said, standing with the glass paned doors open and tugging at a small metallic drawer amidst the shelves, showing her how it would not budge.

Karen hesitated a moment more but was wandering over to him, pulling a small ring of keys from her pocket - the keys themselves had no teeth but were 3 inch long, thin square-shaped rods, unseen codes burned into their metal surfaces. As she drew closer, Todd stepped a little out of her way, but caught a whiff of something soft and fragrant from her like a sucker punch to the face. Looking down at her - she wasn't short, but her head was down-turned towards the locked drawer as she searched out the appropriate key - he noticed up close the particular Persian diamond shape to her dark eyes, long lashes fluttering over high-cheekbones and...

Looking away while she worked, he sniffed and rubbed a thumb at his nose, his eyes falling on the young woman on the cot, noticing for the first time that she was strapped down. Gwen had regained enough motor control to crane her neck back to watch him from a slanted angle, and her eyes bored into his as well as she probed and poked feebly at his mind.

"Wazzat?" he asked with a small nod in Gwen's direction.

Karen glanced at what he was talking about, her head turning and shaking loose a strand of dark hair to drape along the side of her face and curl at her chin. "Classified. Don't worry about it," she said casually, turning back to the cabinet and inserting the right key, the lock releasing a series of high, metallic "pings" and "clicks".

Swallowing thickly, she tugged the drawer open and motioned at it, but he was still looking thoughtfully at the girl on the table and had to be nudged before he was aware she'd finally opened it. Instead of walking away and going back to work, she felt a slight pressure to remain where she was and stayed nearby as he looked through the drawer of restricted medications for what he wanted.

There was something Karen Kraft was supposed to be doing... That other Agent, the one with the specialized suit had told her to be careful about something, but everytime she tried to focus on the thought, her attention was drawn back to the dark eyed delivery guy.

"So...what part of Boston are you from?" she asked casually, feeling like she suddenly really wanted to know more about him - which she DID, but the urge was so pressing and strong, seeming to cast aside the responsibilities of her station.

Looking over the different bottles and vials in the cabinet, Todd paused and a small smirk tugged at his lips to hear her question. He didn't know why but it suddenly seemed really funny, even as something else deep inside nudged at him and got him to glance at her. She was biting her lips again, her olive, golden skin now painted with a small noticeable blush and that piece of black hair still framed the side of her face... His hand, moving of it's own accord, drifted up to gently tuck it behind her ear - and surprisingly, she allowed him to do it - their eyes meeting as he said in a low teasing voice, "That's classified."

There was a whirlwind of sudden movement and a rush of hormones clashing between them and the two Agents were pressed lips to lip, the drugs in his hand forgotten and dropped as arms like snakes coiled around eachother frantically. Heated breathing accompanied the sound of other things on other shelves being disturbed as the two haphazardly and blindly danced about in an attempt to find purchase or leverage...or something to better facilitate getting at each other.

Gwen lay where she was, staring silently, her breathing calming as she clung to the two threads of suggestion that grew stronger by the minute, buying herself enough time to build up her strength and lift from the fog that still swam at the edges of her mind. And...for the time being she couldn't help but feel a little proud of what she'd set into motion - not just the fact that her powers were growing, but also...she was not just a fantasy-romance novelist but had become an actual orchestrator of such in real life. Maybe...if she escaped from this hell...she could drop the whole 'writing" thing and become a match-maker?

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#, as written by Tartra
It was really hard to be a good friend when he was so completely, totally, absolutely omega excited, but Gary was trying his hardest. When Stephanie asked to go to the ladies’ room, he’d almost – well, he’d wanted to – picked her up and ran her over there, ‘cause if she needed help and he was the only one she trusted enough to ask – awesome! – then he sure as heck wasn’t letting her down. He’d given her his entire arm to hang onto and gently walked her out of the pantry – ‘cause it was a room full of jars, and he bet Didi would’ve gotten a kick out of that ‘cause she always kept tons of jars in their pantry – and into the hall, hoping he remembered enough about this place to find the bathroom fast enough. But as honoured and giddy as he was to be getting her to where she wanted, following her orders like he, Gary Sanders, was actually on a field team instead of stuck behind a computer at base all day, he felt pretty bad for Jason.

Poor kid. Gary had never seen him looked so messed up and what’d happened back hadn’t helped out at all. Unless it meant it’d helped out by making him worse, ‘cause in that case, it’d definitely lent a huge hand. Jason’d never been a jock-y, muscly type – until the little Agent showed up, Jason hadn’t just been an ant next to Eric, but to the three dudes floating in those stasis cells too, with special mention for the guy in the middle – but he’d been way sicker when Gary’d first shown up and given him a hug. Suit withdrawal was a hard thing to handle, but he’d been taking it incredibly well, even if he didn’t count the kid still actually having it on. When he and the little Agent popped up, Jason was even better. He’d been hiding a tiny grin Gary figured out was meant for the fight that broke out, so obviously those two weren’t friends – Gary would’ve known anyway – and Jason was banking on Stephanie dishing out a bit of payback, but that grin slipped off half a second after she threw that first punch.

Man, what a crazy fight! It was so cool – Stephanie was all like, ‘I want my target, bitch,’ and the little guy was all, ‘You can’t have her, ha, ha, ha’, and Steph was like, ‘O RLY?’ and practically put her elbow down the little guy’s throat! And then everything that happened after – geez, he wished he’d recorded it or something! How bad did it suck that the only room in this place without cameras was the one where all the good stuff happened? Oh, right, right – Jason. No, he was being serious about it. Gary was worried. On top of not being a giant, Jason never bought into the whole ‘we’re Agents and we like blood so GARRRRRR give me blood!’ stuff. He didn’t kill people, he didn’t really fight people even though he was trained – and from what Gary heard, when he’d gone up against Alexander, he’d sort’f had his ass handed to him – and he’d been happy to get involved with this even if he didn’t believe in it ‘cause, no matter what happened, his involvement began and ended at find-and-recover, which they’d had a really deep conversation about that didn’t really relate to what was going on this second so maybe Gary shouldn’t be thinking about it right now so he stopped and went back to was important, so it all boiled down to Jason going from ‘my boss is definitely going to kick his butt’ to ‘oh shit, my boss is kicking his butt and possibly committing homicide’. That part, Gary understood. It was every other face Jason was making that was freaking him out.

“Bathroom! Finally!” A dinky sign pointed at a door. He brought Stephanie up to it, then stopped. “Uh... so... I’ll just out here for you.”

He had to give her privacy, right?

Gary waited smartly outside the door – shoulders back, up straight, exactly like any A-10 even half as cool as him would’ve done – and tried to remember what he’d been thinking about a second ago. Jason! Right! Sorry – just... Stephanie was super distracting in the ‘I AM AN A-3 AND I CAN KICK ASS WITH MY MIGHTY FISTS OF RAGE’. But anyway – Jason had not been happy during that. He’d been a statue where he was and perfectly silent, and when Gary and Eric were watching the incredible show in front of them, he’d sort of stopped watching and stared at Stephanie instead. Just Stephanie. And whatever he’d been seeing, it must not have been good. What was interesting about it was that it wasn’t good in am ‘I’m extremely concerned about you as a person’.

Awwwwwwwww! It was wuv! Which didn’t explain why Jason was nowhere to be found now, but still – awwwwwww! His anniversary was gonna have to be a double-date, and if Jason tried to smack him for asking, Gary was just gonna tease him about it until that smack turned into a punch.

Did that mean something was wrong with Stephanie, though? It seemed like, ‘cause Jason didn’t pull that face unless he meant it. Should he be asking her if she wanted something else? If she was sick – like, more than just ‘I need to puke’ sick – then he should try bringing her to a doctor or something. There should be one around here, somewhere. ‘Course, even if he didn’t, anything else that was going on would have to wait until after she was finished in there. Okay. He’d wait, just like he’d promised.

He hoped Jason showed up soon. Gary wasn’t cut out for this level of fun.

* * *


Xander was getting restless. Alex decided to ignore it, fully aware that he only had about four minutes before the guy forced him to pay attention to whatever he antsy about. In the meantime, he gave a polite nod of his head and told her, “Yeah. Yeah, I can do that.”

You’re gonna have to with the way this was going. Pull over.

“What?”

Pull over, he said.

“... Why?”

“You’d be amazed at the people they put in charge,” Xander said. “And I hate to say it, Sparky, but you’d fit in. You’d get your own team of psychonauts in less than a week. Pull over.”

It was unnerving because it was true. Osono was right up the Agency’s alley when it came to handling a situation. She would’ve gotten a medal for jumping to setting the Agent in the trunk on fire if she hadn’t fallen for the charade, and since that kind of threat loosely translated to ‘you have irked my patience and I am moderately annoyed, though you remain in my good graces so be happy I’m not actually angry’, she could probably get an entire group under control with the threat of her fire alone. If she could keep it up, they might be able to raise a small army.

Please tell me you donn’t think fighting Agents with more Agents is even close to a legitimate idea.

“It only counts if I say it out loud,” Alex muttered.

Really? ‘Cause just I said ‘pull over’ – like – two seconds ago and I can’t help but notice how not-pulled over we are. Xander immediately began taking over. Now I’ve gotta waste all the energy I’ve been building up ‘cause you can’t handle your body parts. And out loud, he added, “Don’t pull over. I’m gonna open the trunk from in here.”

Why the hell was he opening the trunk?

‘Cause that’s where the Agent is.

Yes! That’s where the Agent was! Good going, Xander!

“That’s why you shouldn’t be opening it,” he said. “She could be awake.”

Is this the ‘no shit’ game? I love the ‘no shit’ game. He’d pulled the foot under his control, but only part of the way. The rest of the pain was something Alex had to manage on his own, which he did, hardly wincing at all, but Xander was using it as a cattle prod to get him to turn around and paw at small button that’d flip his seat down. T-minus ten seconds until Alex was contorted into a shape he would’ve never been able to get into on his own. If she’s awake, I'll fix it, obviously, but I doubt she is. Your powers are the one thing you’re good for, so try to have some faith in ‘em.

“Osono, don’t mind me, okay? I’m just being crazy and opening the trunk to check on the Agent.” Or something. “... I’ll get back to you on ‘why’ later.”

She’s got something I want, Xander said.

“The codes?”

Better.

“Yeah, because more suspense is exactly what I need,” Alex snapped. “Maybe we should pull over.”

Too late! Xander had the back of the seat unlocked, having already turned around and pushed as far into the glove department as he could to make room. Now in the single worst position a cop could possibly find them in, he bent over the half-down seat and slithered on top of it, hooking a hand onto one side of the trunk and shoving the other on the back of Osono’s seat to help out. So he did it. Hooray. The seat had been folded down and he was the king of that tiny castle. She still in there?

“Would she have really jumped out?”

Possibly.

As in ‘she would if she had the chance’.

“Let me rephrase that,” Alex said. “Would she have really jumped out without you knowing and going after her?”

Fair enough. Xander stuck his hand into the darkness. Thanks to the way everything was angled, the only thing Alex could see was shadows. If the Agent was awake, he hoped she wasn’t a cannibal, because he’d seen this sort of thing in movies a hundred times and would prefer if his hand wasn’t ripped off as a snack. Here she is.

“Awake?”

I’ve got my finger in her ear, so if she is, she’s got a pretty awesome fetish. Agents were gross. Ex-Agents were doubly gross. She’s out. I’m going in.

“To do what?”

To find a cellphone if I’m lucky. To find a working cellphone if I’m very lucky. He crawled in far enough to stick his head inside the trunk. Alex couldn’t see anymore, except for everything that wasn’t in here – a bit of the car door, some of the window, a sliver of the windshield – and the thinnest outline of their captive, so he left it up to Xander to go rooting around in whatever pocket he came up with. With all the crap they made us do for this stupid job, phones better have an upgrade to waterproof by now.

“Do you think you can call Rudy?” Except... hadn’t Osono stomped on that? “Do you have some sort of contact or –”

I’m calling Peter.

Alex had to stop getting surprised about the stuff Xander said he was going to do so shortly after he said it. It left him no room to be more surprised when he said something worse later.

“This might be a silly question,” he said, “but could you kindly explain why the fuck would you try to call Peter?

Because I need to talk to him.

Dark. Out of nowhere, his voice had turned dark. Alex backed off like he always did when Xander used his flat and half-dead anti-Peter voice. Normally it just disturbed him, but right then, it brought a bit of comfort. So this was not something Xander wanted to do for the hell of it. He had a reason this time, even if he was taking forever to share it. Alex kept quiet as the guy shuffled his arms in the darkness, listening as the quick sound of a zipper being opened and closed rang out every so often. After about five minutes, he was coming out of the trunk and clutching a thin, black, shiny cellphone in his right hand that he juggled around while doing the opposite of what he’d done before to get back into his seat. He plopped down with a happy sigh, pleased with himself, grinning at Osono and then at the phone before giving up nearly all his control. The weight of the pain flooding through him again knocked every ounce of breath out of his lungs, but unfortunately, it was only a touch beyond the level it’d been at before Xander had scooped it up to scavenge their prisoner. Forty-one? Forty-two?

Fifty. Fifty? See? Jumping in’s not that bad.

He very strongly disagreed. His foot throbbed angrily and it soared all the way up to his chest.

“Does the phone work?”

You sound like you don’t want it to.

“I don’t. Not really.” Should he bother asking again? “... Why are you doing this?”

Because Osono brought up a very valid point. ... Which would be...? The look the Agent in the trunk gave her.

... That? That meant something? It’d just been about how screwed up the Agency was. What did it have to do with Peter? Well – exclusively with Peter, because he was as messed up as any of them.

“If you’re going to explain, can you do it out loud so I don’t have to translate and have you laugh at me when I get stuff wrong?”

Fifty-two. Pause. Fine.

“I’m calling a guy named Peter,” Xander said. His voice had gone from bittersweet to stiff and slightly set to murder-mode. “He’s an Agent, he’s a fucktard and I hate him.” He didn’t like the way that’d sounded, because he threw in another and more spirited, “Hate him.” To put it mildly. “He’s always had a team to push around, but I didn’t think he’d actually have two minions who wore a suit. That fading, quasi-invisibility crap is high-tech shit and I want to know what the fuck he’s being doing to get those.”

He was running his fingers down the length of the phone’s side, feeling for any switch to let him turn the thing on. He found it eventually. The screen lit up in a brilliant cascade of colours, and at the bottom right-hand corner of it, Alex saw the same symbol he seemed to trip over whenever Agents were around. It was their logo. That seemed to make this worse.

“There might be a password on it,” he pointed out.

Knowing him, it’s something retarded like ‘buzz, buzz’. The phone finished loading. It’d been waterproof after all, and just as Alex suspected, there was a prompt for a password. Ooh – touchscreen. Someone’s too good for buttons. He went back to explaining. “Basically, I’m calling the jerkoff ‘cause I want to know how much of his filthy fucking hands he has in this right now. Everything changes depending on where he is.”

“He’s not going to tell you –”

“He will. Trust me on that. And trust that what I’m doing is not a huge mistake.” Did Alex have a chance at stopping him if it was? “That girl did not ask a single question when I heavily implied I was her boss. That was fear in her eyes, and that level of unquestioning obedience – while expected of everyone – is only as automatic is that if they’re fresh out of training. He’s using new people and that means he’s actively running the show.”

“But we have to call him? We can’t just assume the worst?”

“The worst is way more than what we can handle, because the worst is him sitting at a desk in... wherever his main base is.”

Xander was typing away on the keyboard. Unlike Gwen, he didn’t care about how many tries he got. He was going at this through brute force – and the phone was letting him. Great security, guys. It was even better than letting them waltz up the hill and into the place at Elmira.

“We don’t want him at a desk?”

“One way or another, he’s going to be able to call in reinforcements. One way or another, there’s going to be a delay in them showing up. One way or another, he’s going to avoid the fight completely, but the problem with having him at a desk is that we won’t have the luxury of our kicking their collective ass serving as a distraction. If he’s at a desk, he’s calm, collected, not in a grave and that’s the last thing anyone wants.”

Alex tried going over that.

“Okay. So you’re gonna ask him...?”

“Where he is, what he’s up to, how the fuck is he still alive... Y’know – the natural points of conversation,” Xander said. “Got the password.”

“What was it?”

“Buzzbuzz.”

“Peter’s stupid.”

“Yup.” At last, Xander was scrolling through a contact list. There were a sizeable number of names in there, but unsurprisingly, no one named ‘Peter’. What now? “We call the one named ‘Lead’.” Xander let a finger hover over the name, stopping only because he wanted to look Osono in the eye. “So. Any questions, or can I do this?”

* * *


“I really should’ve recorded that. I feel like I wasted such a rare opportunity,” Eric said. “Maybe I can get ‘em to fight again later.”

What the hell had happened...?

“She...” It didn’t make sense. “I didn’t hear her properly. That... What she said – I... must’ve hallucinated...”

“Withdrawal from the suit?”

No.

“No, just...” Jason ran his hand through his hair. A strand got caught on his glove, and the quick jolt through his body almost underlined exactly what the problem was. She was leaving him behind. Behind. “I heard her wrong.”

“Maybe. I’ve gotta make a call,” Eric said. “I get twitchy when I don’t hear from Nathan in a while, especially considering what’s been happening with him.” He got his flip-phone out of his pocket. The thing was slim in anyone’s hands, but in his – the Flunky’s old ones – the thin strip of technology was almost lost. “Mind staying?”

Jason slowly lifted his up to face the man. His mind felt slow and heavy. Nothing anyone was saying was making a lot of sense. Why was he like this?

“Stay?”

“Yeah. Stay. I’m a people-person and that means I need people around,” Eric said. “Since Benny’s gone sulking, I’m adopting you. For now.”

Stay. She’d told him to stay. It didn’t make sense. And it shouldn’t have gripped him as hard as it did. He should have felt a huge leap of exhilaration the moment she’d said those words, but the only reaction he’d given her was a mute nod out of reflex. Hadn’t he tried to quit her team entirely before? Hadn’t he been going nuts trying to get away from her this entire time? This should’ve been a vacation – he should have wanted this order, or at least accepted that, because it came from his lead, he was meant to follow through with it. This didn’t make sense...

“Eric,” he let out slowly. “How long have I been standing here?”

The A-1 checked his watch.

“Twelve minutes. Kind’f creepy.”

That was twelve minutes she’d had to get as far away from him as she could. But... he didn’t get it. She’d said she needed him around and he’d told her he’d be with her on this until the end. But maybe that wasn’t the part he should be concerned about. For the hundredth time, this case had brought out a new first for him: he was strongly considering going against a direct order.

“I have to talk to her,” he said. “I have to ask her why.”

“‘Cause you’re the best man for the job,” Eric answered. “Plus, she said so.”

Yes! Exactly! His mind kept coming back to that. Orders were orders. It was her job to come up with the plan and his job to follow the instructions.

... He couldn’t. She’d told him...

“I’m going to talk to her.”

“I wouldn’t,” Eric said. “She seemed kind’f worn out by all this.”

“And I’m the reason for it,” Jason told him. “I brought Quin up here for some... stupid ‘shut your face’ fight. Did you see her? I can’t let her go off on her own like that!”

Eric raised an eyebrow. If Jason didn’t know any better, he’d’ve sworn the man had backed away, too.

“You realize this is Stephanie March we’re talking about, right? The A-3? Soon to be A-2, as I promised.”

Yes. Yes, yes, yes – he realized that, he realized all of that, and common sense was telling him that because he realized that, he shouldn’t be acting like this. Orders were orders, Jason. It was how he’d gotten his perfect record in the first place.

“... I have to talk to her.”

The A-1 was almost surprised, but he shook it off with a pleasant smile and a harmless shrug.

“Go talk to her, then.” He would! “Your funeral.”

“I’m sorry?”

“No, no. Tell her that.” He pointed to the hall and shrugged again. “I know what you mean. As fantastic as Stephanie is at her job, this might not have left the best lasting effect on her. There’s almost a guaranteed chance she’s going to kick your ass if you go up to her now. You’d be better off letting her cool down and meet up with her at Elmira.”

Sure. That, he could understand. Even if she wasn’t fully ‘in’ on why he’d brought Quin up here to play stupid games and drop the news on her exactly like he didn’t want to have happen, she wasn’t stupid. She would’ve at least been able to say that it was his job as her subordinate to filter out anyone who wanted to meet her but failed to contribute anything worthwhile to her work. His foresight should have picked up on this going too far. He should be grateful she hadn’t broken his neck to put him back in line. And she would, if she wanted to. On the plane, she’d been a step away from stabbing her hand through his neck.

... And on the plane, she’d said she needed him.

“I should apologize.”

“I don’t recommend it.”

“But I have to go with her!”

“You will,” Eric said, “when you’re done here.”

“She needs me to help her on her case,” Jason insisted. “She has to transfer into her target, doesn’t she? I can do that!”

“So can the techs in Elmira.” Eric was playing with his phone. “So can that Gary guy, from what he says.”

Gary!

“He can run the transfer in my place.” It was the trick of the light, because there was no way the A-1 had rolled his eyes at him. “Or – there should be techs here, too!”

“On vacation,” Eric said. “And Gary has a wife, Jay-jay. You want to put a married man in harm’s way? He’s not even trained in combat.”

“And I’m better? Alexander fought me twice and he won both times –”

“And now you know what to expect, thereby giving you an advantage based on your advanced interactions. Keep in mind you fought him twice and lived. No one else has done that, not except Benoit. You should be proud.” Eric gave him a pat on the shoulder and then immediately went back to toying around on his phone. He was... texting someone or... or emailing them. Something that involved typing. He was pressing buttons faster than Jason had known was possible on top of it, too. “Keeping you here is the smartest decision she could have made because it means she’s putting the most capable person in the right spot.”

That was true. If Alexander decided to attack, Gary would be ripped to shreds. He couldn’t do that to Diana. Somehow, it felt even more wrong with their anniversary around the bend. But...

“Benoit called ahead.” Yes, Eric had rolled his eyes. He did again when he had to look up from his small screen for the umpteenth time. The blue light bounced off his glasses but the words weren’t clear enough to read. Whatever it said, Eric was impatient to get back to it. “If he called ahead and asked for a stasis cell to be transferred here with the intent to perform a transfer – maybe not complete it, but start it – then he should have had someone standing by –”

“When did he make the call?”

Jason thought about it. Days ago, months ago, decades ago – time had been blending together for him.

“He called on day two,” he decided.

“Back when Jean was alive?”

“Yes.”

“Then if both technicians – and there’s only two listed here because how many transfers are done in this gefängnis – that’s German for ‘prison’! – when you’re better off doing it in Elmira – are on vacation, it means he didn’t bother reserving one of them and that means he had someone else lined up.” Eric gave him the look of a quizmaster. “Jean, maybe?”

Ha! The Flunky? He was muscle, nothing more!

“I hardly think –”

“Did you ask him?”

“No...” Come on. Did he have to? The way everything had happened – the way the plan was formed – there was no way the Flunky had ‘secretly known’ how to manage a transfer. “If he had known, Benoit would have called again after Jean’s death.”

“Mm-hmm. Because he’s been thinking greeaaaaat ever since then, right?” He chuckled and kept typing. “You missed the warm-up show before the March-versus-Quin spectacle. Who knew he’d take one death so personally?”

Reason after reason after reason. It was so easy for Eric to come up with them because he was completely right. Jason had to keep digging for ways to come up with something to protest with. That should’ve been the sign he was looking for to stop fighting and accept his new role. He was meant to stay here. Yes, it was risky, but it was what Stephanie wanted.

“... She said she needed me.” His words fell out and hung in the air. They felt cold and lifeless as he stared at them. He was being stupid. He knew he was being stupid. “She said she wanted me to be there for her, with her, when at the end of this.”

And Eric did not look up. Until the instant he spoke, Jason wondered if he’d even heard.

“When did she say that?”

“Huh?”

“That she needed you.” Tap, tap, tap on his phone. “When’d she say it?”

It sounded nearly clinical when it was from Eric. Merry though it was, it was raw and unfamiliar. When she’d said it, it’d meant something. Now, he wasn’t sure.

“A few times over the course of this mission,” Jason said. “In the plane, in the car –”

“Before your little make-out session by the cells?”

What –

“You know about that?”

“I’m an A-1, Jay-Jay,” Eric laughed. “It’s my job to know everything. And it’s my job to speculate on anything I don’t know. If she went from mauling your mouth every ten seconds to suddenly and – I cannot stress this enough, because you seem to be missing this modifier – temporarily leaving you behind, maybe something happened that cooled her off.”

“What? What happened?”

Snap.

Eric’s phone had closed.

He left it in his palm and cloaked his hand around it. His fingers cradled the device lovingly, but Jason couldn’t help realize that he was poised to crush it whenever the mood hit. The blue light on his glasses was gone. What was left was the quickly overwhelming red from the stasis cells behind him. It outlined his body in the softest way it could, shadowing every feature not immediately claimed by its glow. The smile hadn’t left his lips, but it seemed sombre now. Sympathetic. Then he suddenly shrugged and jammed his phone back into his pocket, turning as if ready to go but without the slightest hint of truly meaning to.

“I dunno, Jason,” Eric said. “Maybe she wants to get away from you.”

That was not the answer Jason wanted to hear.

“What do you mean ‘get away’? I’m on her team,” he said.

“Yeah. You’re on her team,” the man agreed. “That’s why she’s giving you orders. But maybe she needs a break.”

“‘Break’?”

“She was having a blast screwing around with you,” Eric said. “Hey – I would’ve put a stop to it if it was really anything major –” Jason doubted that, because everyone seemed to get a kick out of it. “– but she thought it was a good game. Then, after a while, I think that playful poking around grew into something... bigger. Which I might have to actually act on at some point, but ‘out of sight, out of mind, out of my jurisdiction’.”

... This didn’t... make sense...

“You’re saying she likes me –”

“She’d better not like you. It’s against the rules. Highly inappropriate.”

“... Okay. You’re saying she’s... attached to me but... somehow...” Jason shook his head. “What?”

“I’ll put this as simply as I can,” Eric said. “She was playing around with you, and whether you wanted to or not, you were playing around with her. Then, quite recently... it stopped being a game.” Once more, he shrugged his giant shoulders. “I think she needs some time to think. This is big stuff for an Agent. I think you hand in your heart at A-4. Not that there’s any ‘heart’ stuff going around – inappropriate! Not allowed.” He smiled.

Jason didn’t know what to say. He stood there stupidly, trying to put it together.

“What should I do?”

“Let her think,” Eric said. “Let her go to Elmira, have some one-on-one time with her target, sort everything out in her head – and her new head – and then go over and get this dealt with. I think the problem’s got a lot to do with the timing of your budding not-romance-because-that’s-against-the-rules. She’s got a lot to think about as it is without something else gumming up the works.”

Jason was gumming up the works. ... He was confusing her. She was leaving him behind because... Shit. Shit. He’d fucked up. She was right to leave him here.

“Oh.”

“Hey,” Eric soothed. “Don’t beat yourself up.”

“It’s hard not to.” Almost impossible. He felt like such an idiot. “... So... I just let her go?”

“For now. I keep saying it and you keep forgetting, but it’s only for now. You’ve got some things to think about too, I bet. This is the time for that.”

Yeah. It was.

“I should talk to her. Just to say ‘good luck’. She’s my lead, after all.” And this was supposed to have been a working relationship. “I’ll – just... I’ll say ‘bye’ and then I’ll... get ready to do this Alexander thing.”

Eric nodded.

“That’s the right thing to do. Don’t linger on it – just... say it and go. Don’t give her more to think about.”

No. He wouldn’t do that to her. With a breath and a polite nod to the man – and a chipper wave goodbye from him – Jason slowly walked towards the door. He did pause briefly, however, to quickly ask, “What are you going to do with him?”

Eric glanced over at Quin, kind of bored.

“Oh, I don’t know. Everything loses its thrill when it’s already half-dead. I’ll probably just make him beg again ‘fore I crush his head with my godly fists. He’s good at it. Makes my heart flutter.”

Fine. Fuck Quin.

Jason marched out of the room and down the hall, determined to talk to her before she left.

‘Goodbye’ and get out. ‘Goodbye’ and get out. ‘Goodbye’ and then get out.

* * *


Doo-dee-doo-doo... Waitin’ outside the bathroom... Doo-doo-dee-doo... Leanin’ on the wall... Doo-dee–

Footsteps. He looked up and then down the hall. Hey, look who was walking over here at long last!

“Jason! Dude! Finally – you took your time coming over,” Gary said. “Listen – I gotta ask you about what happened.”

“Not now, Gary.”

Whoa. Talk about depressing. Jason sounded like a zombie, which fit ‘cause he was walking like one. What was up?

“You okay?”

Jason nodded. That was a lie.

“I’m okay.” Bigger lie. Gary could read this guy like a book. “Is she...?”

“Yeah! Yeah, she’s in there.” Gary gave a little knock on the door to prove his point. Then he realized that as long as he was knocking, he might as well keep knocking. “Hey! Stephanie! Jason’s out here!” And when he looked back to talk to Jason again, he got a faceful of death glare. “What?”

“Thanks, Gary. I appreciate it.”

Touchy. Probably the suit.

Jason walked up to the bathroom door and stood in front of it, like he wasn’t sure what he was supposed to do. His eyes weren’t even on it – they were sort of on the ground, if he could look through the wood. He was like a guy on death row right now. It wasn’t right. Gary had to stop himself from saying anything because this one of those moods that he knew Jason needed silence for to think. After a good wait, he lifted his hand to knock, but that took a moment to actually happen, too. He was caught between wanting to stay and go, but he made the right choice by going through with it. Three quick knocks, one lasting longer than the rest, and then he was carefully gathering his breath to speak.

“You can just shout,” Gary told him. “If she’s not answering, she –” Death glare. “I’ll shut up.”

He looked grateful. He knocked again to be sure, but when there still wasn’t a response, he took the advice and spoke anyway.

“Stephanie –” And he abruptly stopped, only to start again the ‘proper’ way. “Boss.”

“You can call her ‘Stephanie’, you know. It’s her name –”

“Gary.”

“I’m just trying to help!”

He got ignored. Jason was hovering an inch away from the door, focused on getting out what he’d come here to say. This seemed serious. Gary wasn’t sure if he should give them time alone or not.

“I just came by to say good luck,” he said. “I – just... didn’t want you to go... without hearing that.”

His eyes were closed and his head was low. He looked tired and torn and trapped where he was. With the new silence he was sitting in, Gary got the message that that was all he was going to say, but for Jason to still be here, still in front of the door as if he was waiting for her...

“... Is that it...?”

“Yeah. That’s it,” Jason muttered. His mini-spell had been broken and he stepped away. “You’re going with her?”

“I hope so,” Gary said. “That’s it? You’re not gonna say anything else?”

“Gary...”

“No – come on! You clearly want to say something else. It’s written all of your face!” So was the death glare. “Jason, get back over there, dude!”

“Gary –”

Dumb kids! Gary grabbed Jason by the arm and pulled him back over to the door. There wasn’t a drop of resistance while he was doing it. Everyone always told him to shut up, even when he was right. Not this time! He wanted that double-date.

So,” he prodded. “Go say something!”

On the bright side, Jason looked way less miserable standing by it again, like those two steps closer had made a difference in the end. On the other, now he was definitely caught. He was rubbing the back of his neck in that nervous way he was partly famous for. And, as usual, when he couldn’t come up with anything to say, he gave Gary another death glare. Those lost their effect after a while.

“What am I supposed to say?”

“How about ‘I’ll miss you’? That’s a good one! Ooh – or say ‘my heart will bleed without you’!”

“I’ll be gone for hours, not years,” Jason fired at him. Awwwww – he was angry because he was embarrassed! Wuvvy, wuvvy wuv! “I’m going. I said all I could.”

“Okay, fine.” Hey – get back here! This was happening! Gary had his arm again. “Then you get to sit here and wait for her to talk to you.”

What?”

“That’s how this works! You say your thing, she says her, you finish the job, you profess your love –”

“Gary –”

“– and then you go make babies!”

Gary!

“I don’t make the rules, dude! This is how it happens, and you’re gonna sit here and let it happen or I’m gonna punch you in the nads!” Without another word from the unmarried one, Gary pounded on the door. This was even more exciting than the fight! He had tingles everywhere! “Stephanie! Jason wants to talk! He’s not leaving until you get out here, and this is the only way to get out of the bathroom!”

“When this is over, I’m hurting you.”

Then Gary would just have to stand at the wedding with a limp.

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#, as written by Ten
Rudy was still clinging to consciousness long enough to hear Stephanie say something to the goggle-guy and to watch her, through a darkening haze, hurry off with her arm linked with the tubby guy. Oh. Well, that was most likely the A-1 then - the two seemed chummy enough as they wandered off together - although he didn't exactly fit Rudy's idea of what an A-1 would look or act like. With the weakly firing synapses of his pummeled and pain-drenched brain working exhaustively to analyze the scene, it fit with his assumptions on what Jason had said about the two. And he, of course, pushed it further to envelop his vision of Stephanie as a man-eater with even the most ruthless men in the Agency wrapped around her finger and reduced to giddy, sex-hungered puppies.

It wasn't long after Stephanie left the room, that the urge to lay down came over him. And just as suddenly, he was, unable to remember making the decision to move from his kneeling position to a prone one, but not in any real state of mind to argue with gravity about it. When he became aware of himself again, blinking painfully and growing cold in the pool of his own blood, he sat up with extreme effort and realized he was alone in the room with the muscle-head. Hm. When did that Jason dude leave? How long had he been gone? It felt like Rudy'd had his eyes closed for only a second.

Everything ached, especially the hole in his shoulder and he could feel that urge to sleep tugging at him again, but nonchalantly shrugged it off. If it was one thing Rudy was good at, and his years of "playing" with Noel had prepared him for, it was being able to stay conscious through excruciating amounts of pain. He would have made a great addition to the Pain Eaters division if it didn't demand so much discipline and actual work from him. Speaking of getting out of work...

There was a moment of panic when he realized that Stephanie had run off with Mr. Patten, keeping the man fully out of Rudy's reach. But then he considered the fact that if the A-1 was already catering to her needs behind closed doors, and so wrapped up in her that he'd follow her command at a snap of her fingers, then anything Rudy might want to hold over his head would probably be useless at this point. The relationship didn't seem that big of a secret with how they acted and that meant Quin threatening to tell on them would probably not worry them in the least. Which meant they were either too high up for them to be touchable or it really didn't matter as much as he'd assumed it did. Maybe A-1 ranks really were exempt from everything...

Either way, it left him back where he started. Having to deal with Noel. And there was only some of the wounds he'd received that he could blame on stuff Stewart had done to him on the delivery trip; Noel would most likely see through ALL of it and assume that Stephanie had attacked and shot him. And she would be pissed about it, but not at March. No, whatever had happened and whatever story Noel came up with in her own head, to account for his appearance, it would all be Quin's fault. Because that's what constituted "cheating" between them - when he got his ass handed to him by another woman. Especially when she and he both knew...it had been an intentional chain of events.

Considering the fact that the A-1 hadn't killed him but merely demoted him for misplacing the lives of his elite unit, the way Noel had set him up actually didn't turn out as badly as it could have. Still, it wasn't the end result that made him angry. It was the fact that he knew she'd intended for things to go badly by NOT telling him who's men they were - probably hoping that Rudy would end up blabbing too much and get choked through the phone by Patten. During their clandestine relationship over the years, Quin worked very hard to put up an intricate facade of submission towards his partner, allowing her to feel important and in control of him. While at the same time, he'd subtly manipulated her with her desire for him, allowing Rudy the freedom to do whatever he wanted if he remained close and pretended to be her boy toy when it was convenient to do so.

It worked to keep things running smoothly and it kept Rudy comfortable in his cushy position as an A-3. The fact that she'd deliberately manipulated a situation in order to make him look bad in front of a superior, meant that she'd caught onto his game and was willing to fight back. And that was not good, especially now that he was a lower rank than her. Going behind her back and turning his attentions to manipulating someone else this soon would only backfire - she could be a crazy, possessive bitch, sometimes - so for the moment...he was stuck...with her.

At least she wasn't here and he could start formulating a new plan on how to move things forward. With Patten and Stephanie gone - and Steph ready to slice his throat before she'd let him talk to her again - he'd have to think of something else to eventually get back on top. If Noel knew the rules to the games he played with her head, it would be harder to use her to climb that ladder again. No doubt the demotion was planned as well and she'd want to keep him firmly in her pocket from now on, instead of letting him run around on his own out in the field. Shit! He was totally gonna miss Arisia this year!

Finally, gathering enough of his wits to actually consciously return to the room, he set his sights on the big guy whom he had yet to hear a single word from - probably some moderately low-level lackey who they kept around to act as muscle. He definitely looked the part of a lumbering moron. But! He was someone new to talk to!

Getting slowly to his feet, staying hunched over as his shoulder and head screamed foul obscenities all along his nerve endings, he let out a hissed breath and finally straightened his back, shaking his head and swaying before turning to the giant - fuck! Wow! GIANT! - with his dorky grin. "Low blood sugar, heh," he said with a smug nod, acting as if he DIDN'T have a plum stuck to his face where his right eye should be. "I tell ya, it's just not a good week until you're sent to the hospital for blunt force trauma after a violent encounter with a psychotic woman. But don't tell my Lead that I said that. Speaking of, gotta find a phone. Dark Lady will wanna hear about where the target's run off to." It would help if he actually knew, but he could make a few guesses based on their last hours together.

His normally rapid fire voice came out with a slight wavering tone, like something hinged was squeaking loosely in his throat, but it did not impede the excited mode of speaking that he usually adopted. And his one usable eye, surrounded by purpled and blackened flesh but not as swollen as the right, blinked hyper-alertly as he looked around, not seeming to notice or care about the drying streaks of gore coming from his nose and temple. Rudy's voice only came to a halt as he peered around, his eye brightening as it fell upon his shoe and he stumbled over to it, taking several minutes to bend over and pick it up without losing his uneven footing.

"Heh, I bet that shit looked awesome, yeah?" he said, gesturing with his sneaker at the taller man. "Hey, are you on the Stewart case too?" Not a real question because he didn't wait for an answer. "Have you ever seen her - Steph - follow through with that hand-jugular thing? Oh...my Gawd...dude! Never in my life have I ever seen a more beautiful woman covered in blood and enjoying herself so immensely, I kid you not. Definitely something to see before you die." That last statement was accompanied by a few deliberate pokes to the guy's arm and an excited nod as if he'd suggested trying a delicious meal at a well-known restaurant.

And just because he couldn't help himself, he leaned in a little and asked in a conspiratorial whisper, "So...how long has Patten been tapping that? Did it start recently or have they been together for a while? Honestly, don't know much about the guy, but he seemed to have a bit of a stick up his ass the last time I talked to him. And now..." he glanced in the direction Stephanie went, gesturing with his thumb and cocking a displeased eyebrow at the lackey. "Kinda lame. I'm a bit disappointed, you know? Totally expected to get the Darth Vader treatment or something. Either Steph lobbed off his balls in just a few hours or he was a bit of a pansy to begin with. All talk and no action--pfffttt! And I'm not surprised with the way the guy went on - playing badass one minute, then flipping sunshine the next. Can you say, psycho? Course, I wouldn't blame him, seeing what she ended up doing to Graninger."

He made a small, vague circular motion in the air with his finger - also decorated with drying streams of blood splatter - and rolled his eyes with a knowing grin. "All Agency women. Same story over and over and the madness is catching." It wasn't like the information was useful to him now, so until it became necessary to report back to his Lead - Gawd! He freaking hated being an A-5! - a little gossip couldn't hurt. The two obviously weren't hiding it - holding hands in public and using terms of endearment like "Pup" - so everybody had to know something about it. And Patten was at the highest rank; no doubt everybody had something bad to say about him.

All these thoughts of having to eventually confront Noel, and trash talking Stephanie and Mr. Patten were eventually quieted and subdued when he started to think of his target again. Ozzie. This was probably the longest he'd ever been without his phone - which had a built-in tracking system that monitored the specific, spontaneous combustion patterns that she was known for - and it felt really weird not to be able to just reach into his pocket and peek at where she currently was on his radar. Even during the different ComicCons and card game Tournaments he stopped at on his "chase", he always kept an ear out for her location, plotting where he could meet up with her next to surprise her.

Not to say that he was anywhere near as obsessed about the case as Noel was - she was the actually transfer buddy - but he liked to keep everything in control as much as he was able. If he was going to play hooky while pretending to do his job, it was necessary to be on top of things all the time, lest an actual explanation became necessary. And in such situations, it helped if he always knew more about her whereabouts than those asking the questions. It hadn't ever come up and even Noel kept interrogations to the minimum, but it never hurt to have back-up.

But now he was completely without any of that knowledge that kept him from getting into trouble and it left him feeling a bit empty and anxious. Had she made it past the Agents in the restaurant okay? Noel certainly hadn't been futzing around when she'd sent that fucking army down upon them - but last he'd heard even the 20 Agents left outside were dead and Noel certainly would have said something if she'd captured Oz. It was like those transfer Agents had a disorder; pissing their pants excitedly and unable to contain themselves with anything regarding their cases - and Stephanie's behavior only emphasized and carried such assertions to their rightful conclusions.

Noel was stuck back at the base, waiting for updates from him and probably wouldn't be aware of it until the last possible moment if Ozzie had been wounded - meaning, she wouldn't know a damn thing until he saw fit to tell her, and him currently without his phone... And those Agents had been equipped with guns. If Osono was hurt or shot she wouldn't go to a hospital because of the threat of hidden Agents - he'd done a pretty good job of slipping a few Agents here and there into police and government uniforms enough to make her wary of authority, further isolating her. So, depending on where exactly she might have gotten a bullet wound...she might be okay, for a while...

It was all stupid. Unlikely imaginings and getting worried over nothing. That was the concussion talking - he'd gotten beaten in the head area enough today that his brain was probably resembling hamburger right about now - and it might be a good idea to wait to think about these and other concerns until a doctor got a good look at him. "Any idea where the hospital is in this place?" he asked the mammoth Agent, scratching the back of his head idly and smiling crookedly. "I need like, some serious Hulk bandaids and pain killers and a new change of clothes - these ones are totally wearing me. Literally, heh."

***

As soon as she made it through the door, she paused only to turn the lock in place, a blur in the mirror as she rushed for a stall, instantly on her knees before the porcelain throne that awaited her there. Nausea shook through her whole body along with labored gasps as she tried to keep the feeling at bay, fear quaking through her fingers as she pressed against the metal walls of her prison for support. Stephanie tried not to think, but the situation she'd just left behind, like a delayed shadow, followed her into the room and she whimpered as a gag rippled through her.

She was alone. There's the Pup. Doesn't count. Nothing but a low-level computer geek. She was alone. Not only that, but she was setting Jason, the one person she truly cared about other than herself, gently into the lion's mouth and turning her back. Running away. Just like Richard did to her...

It was different. The two were not the same. Still she couldn't escape the similarities after everything she'd done with him and after all she'd said. Their promises... He would be fine. He was strong and smart. He lived through Alexander twice already and he would do it again. Jean had supposedly lived through Alexander a few times too... In her mind she got an image of Alexander with lightning bolts shooting from his eyes piercing and melting through Jason's goggles--

A dry heave shuddered through her body as she leaned over the bowl, her esophagus violently peeling itself inside out, but nothing came up. Not having eaten or drunk a damn thing since the last time she'd been in this position there was nothing left inside her, her stomach rumbling with an echoed emptiness as the intensity of the urge subsided and she sat back a little. Gasping, tears streaming down her face, she looked up at the ceiling, a lonely bulb hovering up above her little enclosed space. Feebly, she was trying to cling to Master's words, the things that he'd said making her feel good and happy inside despite the harsh reality of what he'd commanded her to do.

Master said that she could do it without him and now that Gwen was most certainly here and alive, everything inside her clicked into motion, ready to get back onto the right path. Her destiny. What she'd been hunting and craving for four straight years, her life and everything that was inside her disappearing down a drain while she waited for this final moment of fulfillment. But she didn't want to. Not without him. Not when his life was at risk. She felt like she was sitting at the card table, pushing Jason forward, lying on a pile of chips, while Master juggled the dice in his massive hands. Stephanie was putting everything into the pile with the certainty that he could command the cubes to fall exactly how he wanted them to, based on the hope that whatever he intended was good for her too, rather than setting herself on the pile of chips with her partner.

No. Of course. Master was beautiful and full of grace and despite his magnificent claims to evil, he would keep his word to her. He promised. Alexander wouldn't hurt Jason so long as he did as he was told and at least appeared to help the ex-Agent in his attempts to get his body back. A willing and able Jason meant a happy and non-violent Alexander. As Benoit's scathing words came back to her, another image flashed in her mind of Jason falling from Alexander's grip, collapsing lifelessly on the ground with scorched and smoking holes where his beautiful eyes should be.

"No! Please, stop!" she whimpered sorrowfully as she bent back over the bowl, her hands plunging into her hair to keep the flaxen curtain from her face.

After a few moments of her stomach debating whether to abuse her some more, roiling like an unhinged sea inside her body, it finally retreated back again leaving her with a deep, grating headache in it's place. Running her hand through her hair and letting out a heavy breath through pursed lips, her fingers stopped as they hit a speed bump of tangles. Raking her fingers through the tiny snarl, forcing it open, she blinked hazily when her hand came away with a thick net of blonde hair capturing the appendages. Staring blankly at it for a minute, she rapidly swiveled her fingers to remove the hair-glove and deposited it into the still clear toilet bowl where her light strands stuck to the surface of the water.

How odd... Her hair was normally healthy and sleek, with no split ends and didn't break very easily - she used special products ordered from overseas and worked hard to take care of it. Blonde hair, she mused. In just a short while she'd be a brunette. Oh, how she longed for that. Hours spent back in her base looking over a dozen high-quality, candid photos of Gwen with her thick, dark brown locks swept up in a messy bun while she puttered around her apartment, or spilling over her shoulders in loose wavy curls while she was out in public. Wanting that hair rather than her thin, bone straight, blonde mop - as well-cared for as it was, it was merely a part of a superficial hygiene regime that put forth an air of professionalism and untouchability - wanting to run her hands through that dark-colored thickness on HER scalp. To own it.

And it would finally be hers, everything just within reach. Breathing deeply and wiping her face clear of tears, she stood within the stall using the walls for leverage and wobbled slightly as she stared down at nothing. She needed to focus on Gwen now. There was nothing she could do for Jason, no goodbye she could offer now without opening a can of worms in front of Master and anybody else around. The only thing left for that situation was to hope that he would survive Alexander for a third time and that he wouldn't hate her when they met again in Elmira. But she couldn't go out there and meet Gwen like this - a sloppy, weeping mess because she missed her partner already. She needed absolute focus.

Ignoring the throbbing pain in her temple and the still present illness in her gut, Stephanie tucked her hair behind her ears and reached into her back pocket where the small box Master gave her still rested, taking it out and turning it over in her hands. It was either this or Jason standing by her side, because as much as she was grateful for Master's belief in her, she couldn't do this without him. But she was going to have to. Stumbling to the long sink, her attention focused on the carton, sniffling and trying not to think about Jason and failing, she opened it up and started to set things out on the counter by the sink.

That was when the first knocks came and she ignored the Pup and his impatience. Just a minute! Just one...minute...and she'd be fine. She'd be perfect without him. Neither of the vials left were Atropytamine and she tried not to remember what happened to it or the advice that Jason gave her back at the airport. Picking up the vial of a similar, stronger drug, Lachesis, she paused when the Puppy's excited voice came through the door.

Jason? He was outside? He'd followed her? Her eyes grew cloudy for a moment and she pressed the vial to her lips thoughtfully, trying to think of what she should do. If she'd wanted a chance to actually explain to him, to actually TALK to him before she left, here it was. But she was immobilized by the necessity of using the drug in her hands - she wasn't going to stop, she couldn't, but if she left the room to see him, she wasn't coming back in here either. There wouldn't be another moment to stop and take a break once she was moving and sweeping Gwen off to where she needed to be. If she let her guard down for even a moment, with how powerful Gwen must have become by now - if Rudy's condition was any sort of reasonable clue - it would be all Stewart would need to destroy her.

There was another soft knock and a shiver ran through her, knowing instinctively that it was Jason's hand on the door now, imagining him standing just on the other side of it. When he said her name, a sudden warmth filled her, loving the way his voice shaped the syllables, before she scowled slightly and clicked her tongue at his self-conscious correction. She hated and loved that. Loved that even after everything, he was still stuck on being reserved and holding her at arms length; always so dedicated to the work they were trying to do, loyal to the Agency to the end. But she hated how it kept getting in the way, building mazes and walls between them.

There was a bit of silence and she drifted to the door to be closer to him, leaning slightly against it with her face pressed to it's smooth surface and holding the vial in her lightly curled fingers. What did he want to say? What was so important that he'd disobey her orders to stay where he was? What was so strong that he had to leave the presence of the A-1 to get it out to her before she skipped onto a plane and even more distance spread between them?

When the words came, an exhalation of breath left her and her hand slid across the surface of the door, her eyes searching through the thickness trying to find hidden messages in his voice. That was it? Surely there was more... Stephanie hated it when he called her 'boss' and kept himself professionally distant. But now she hated it even more and she silently cursed the Agency when she felt him draw away, a physical coldness descending upon her when she knew he was no longer right there beside the door. If that was all, then she wasn't going to look like a fool or make HIM look like a fool by rushing out there, sobbing, clinging and professing her love. Not when it would only make him feel awkward after what little he'd offered - or was willing to offer - in return.

Goodbye, then, Jason.

Turning away from the door, she went back to the sink, sniffling lightly and breathing heavily as she pulled one of the thin, small syringes from the case. Tossing the hair from her face and firming her lips in a grim line, she began to fill it with the softly yellow and clear liquid. Just like before in the jet bathroom, Stephanie caught a glimpse of her reflection, directly in her line of sight with the vial held before her, but this time..she stopped and set them both down as she stared. Green eyes, bright and vibrant and encircled by darkened flesh, set in a pale mask met her gaze. Because that's what it looked like; a mask of flesh clinging to her skull. Not nearly as extreme as a concentration camp victim, but everything was distorted beyond her normally smooth, vibrant and youthful features.

Her thin, delicately pointed nose looked almost beak-like in the middle of her face and there was something hollow and yet bloated about her cheeks and forehead. Her eyes were a little sunken and shadowed by her thin, light eyebrows, and the only things that had any color left at all were her eyes and her lips, seeming to bulge and swell from the rest of her face with their obscene amount of green and red. And her hair hung limp and almost choking white about her shoulders, clearly in desperate need of a comb or water or...something to bring it back to life. Licking her strawberry lips hesitantly, she reached a hand forward and touched the shiny surface, her brow crinkling as she searched her features for anything she recognized. Strangely, there WAS something familiar about the way she looked now - she resembled her mother the last time Stephanie saw her. Which said a lot because the woman had been pushing fifty at the time and her body had been torn to shreds by her chronic alcoholism.

She jerked slightly and blinked her watery eyes in surprise when another rapid knocking came at the door and Gary's muffled voice came through the barrier again. Jason...he...he was still here? And he wanted to talk to her. He was waiting to speak directly to her. The hand that touched the mirror came back towards her to rest on her cheek as she tried to think quickly, looking down at the things set up on the sink. The syringe, half filled with pale yellow liquid, glared hauntingly up at her and for a moment or two, she hesitated when she thought about what he would think of her if she decided to take it. But just like back at the Hammondsport airport, she didn't HAVE a choice here. Master's orders prevented him from coming with her...but Gwen... She needed something to help her get through this.

He wanted to talk to her... Everything seemed so confused and hard lately, but her thoughts drifted back to when she'd confronted him by the cells, giving him the opportunity to fully leave her and get everything he wanted back. He'd chosen her. Jason, the man who for the whole time she'd known him, being concerned and destroyed by the imminent loss of his precious suit, defined by and proud of his perfect record and all he'd worked for, had rejected the chance to get most of it back just to be with her. When she'd given him the order to stay, she'd been restrained by the situation and unable to speak freely to him about what she wanted and what she needed from him. Now, without the A-1 breathing down her neck - at least, she hoped he wasn't out there, waiting with Jason and Pup - she had the opportunity to tell him all that had been caged in her throat at that moment.

Tucking her hair behind her ears again and sniffling firmly, she finished filling the syringe with Lachesis, again at 10 ml but twice as strong as the Atropytamine, and stuck it into her arm. Breathing unevenly and swaying on her feet, she recapped the needle with a very deliberate movement and tucked it back into the case with the vial, depositing it all back into her pants pocket. It was taking longer to take effect than the Atropytamine had, but she could feel it working, slowly each door of emotion closing inside her with heavy slams as her pupils shrank to mere pinpricks.

Then she was turning from the horrible stranger in the mirror and adjusting her black tank top and smoothing her hands over her pants before unlocking the bathroom door and opening it. Emerald eyes were filled with nothing but Jason as she stepped from the room, the door falling closed at her back, Pup and anything else forgotten as merely a foot separated her from her partner. For half a minute, she just stared, not saying anything and not looking like she was going to, the drug in her system humming through her veins and pulling all her internal strings tight. Then she was stepping forward, closing the inches of distance between them, resting against him with her head on his shoulder and releasing a long sigh.

"Hold me...just for a minute..." she said sadly, her voice half-muffled against him.

Standing there for a few minutes, her hands resting close against his sides, she rubbed her face gently against his chest, breathing in deeply the smell of him. The panic and nausea that had been plaguing her ever since she'd left his presence, instantly fled with the feel of his muscled and warm body this close to her and filled her with a renewed strength and calm. Lightly humming the tune to "Wanted, Dead or Alive", she went through a few bars before she was able to lift her head and actually look at him again.

"Luck," she said, nodding slowly and growing thoughtful. He probably would prefer if this was a professional goodbye...which she hated. "I accept your well wishes and offer them to you in return. I really need you to stay here now... Yet again, we cannot depend on Benoit for anything. It'll be the apartment all over again and he'll come out in the end snobbily saying 'Oh, vwell, I meint to doo zat.'" And her mocking French accent was accompanied by a sardonic roll of her eyes, her expression firming as she locked eyes with him. "I can't go through that again. It was infuriating enough the first time, but this is it. I have her and I'm not going to lose her. Once we're together, the EDP should be more than enough to neutralize Gwen's powers completely. The only reason this could fail is if Alexander gets between us again, because for whatever reason, whether it's love or not, he is attached to my target and he WILL get in the way if we allow it."

Looking down, she impulsively reached for his hand, holding it in hers and running her fingers over his knuckles musingly. She was unhooking his glove now and slowly slipping the fabric from his fingers, her eyebrows arching briefly as actual skin came into view. Once the glove was removed completely, she was running her fingers over his bare skin, smoothing over the back of his hand and his palm, reveling in the pulsing heat of his flesh. Pressing his hand to cradle her face, her eyes finally came back up to his face as she whispered, "I wish you would touch me like you own me..."

Everything came to her through a haze, the feel of him so close and warm causing deadened and drained emotions to flutter and surge within her like bubbles in soda water. Given the actual freedom to express herself, it came out stifled and blurted, urges deep within shoving emotions to be expressed and grabbing them back at the last minute, releasing shadowed versions of them. Her breathing was soft and restrained and she closed her eyes as she rubbed her lips to caress across his fingers, allowing herself this one quiet moment of impropriety. His skin...Jason's skin... She'd touched him before of course, and there was plenty of proof of that under the collar of his suit. But this was different. This was almost like HE was touching her.

"Jean wasn't suppose to die," she said soberly, moving his hand off of her face and looking down at it held in both of hers. Again, she remembered her fight with Benoit and the implication that her partner would become another victim of Alexander, but the urge to weep about it escaped her. "Something went wrong and he underestimated the ex-Agent. Something which Benoit has done for years and seems intent on repeating. Part of me wants to believe it had a purpose, that he was just trying to feel out the entirety of what his target was capable of. But enough is enough. Now we're depending on him too and I'm not willing to allow this to become a part of some other, BIGGER plan that involves hunting them both down again.

"We have a chance to win and this part is absolutely crucial," she was looking down at his hand again, stroking his palm idly. "You're the only one I trust to make sure it all falls into place. To make sure that our mission and case succeeds. And I have absolute faith in your ability to do this. But... you're important to me." Stephanie looked up finally, fully in the grip of the Lachesis and unable to shake her flat tone of voice, the mask of the EDP slipping over her features and keeping them immobile and expressionless. "I hope I don't need to explain why - if I DO, after everything... then I don't know how to fucking help you or make my feelings clearer. You're not just your rank and you're not just your suit."

She briefly brought his hand up to her lips and kissed his knuckles before releasing him and handing his glove back. "Do not make the same mistake Jean did. Alexander might be an idiot, but he's a wild dog if nothing else. When we start thinking that we know exactly what he'll do, that's when we lose. I need you to promise me..." Her eyes drifted to finally notice Gary standing nearby before locking once more with Jason's. "The Pup and I will be waiting in Elmira with a bottle of tequila to celebrate. I want you to promise me that you'll meet us there. Don't call me your boss and just say the words as if you have to. I want to hear you say my name, the way I love to hear you say it and promise me that I won't be drinking alone."

Even through the now fully activated fog of the drug in her system, Stephanie desired more than anything to hear those words from him. With Benoit's cryptic threats still buzzing in her head, and Master sounding almost like he was just trying to placate her.. she would only believe he'd be alright if she heard it from Jason's lips. Because truthfully, only he could control what he would or wouldn't do and he was the only one who's words meant anything to her anymore.

Lachesis was quickly strangling every emotion she had, gutting and disemboweling every feeling and internal sensation - the berserker version of Atropytamine - so the moment of guilt she had for taking the thing was quickly silenced before it had a chance to fully register consciously. He would understand. He'd said it himself back in the car - the case was what was important and they all did what they had to in order to make sure everything happened according to plan.

***

There was one very big problem that Gwen was starting to realize about her original plan as strength slowly returned to her body and mind. Although the first part of the plan was working great - Todd and Miss Kraft were more busy trying to undo buttons while they did the tongue tango, than worrying about whether Gwen was conscious or not - and it gave her plenty of time to get most of her wits and feeling back in her limbs from whatever awful thing Karen had injected her with.

But now...she couldn't get them to stop. For a few minutes, she completely abandoned them to doing their own thing, the suggestion already strong enough that it no longer needed her attention to maintain it, and she began moving her arms within her restraints trying to get them loose enough that she could maybe slip a hand free and unbuckle herself. Not working. Whoever tied these on her had obviously done so with the threat of gravity suddenly reversing itself in the very near future being the forefront of their concern. Not only were the straps across her body thick and tight but placed strategically over different parts of her arms, keeping her from bending her elbows properly. Okay...

So, she tried to see if she could somehow reach the tray that Karen left nearby - along with the syringe and vial of knock-out drug the Agent woman had originally used, there were also bandages, surgical needle and thread and a scalpel - which, Gwen tried not to think about the possible reasons that was set out right now. But the position of the tray itself was about level with her shoulder and up by her head. Unless she quickly developed a go-go-gadget jaw, there was no possibility of nudging it close enough where she could maybe get the scalpel to use somehow.

Finally, with a soft groan in her throat, she turned back to the two lovebirds, picking up the threads of suggestion from before and trying to twist them so one or both would suddenly think it was a good idea to let her go. It was something she'd learned pretty quickly during her time with Rudy that if the thought wasn't already present in the person's mind, then there was nothing that she could build upon or use. And despite the small thought having entered both of their minds at some point, she found herself battling a wave of chemistry that could not be stifled or quieted. She'd have better luck trying to block a tsunami using her own body as a "wall" - which, as she attempted to wrestle the threads and make them calm down, it eventually became exactly like that.

The force of nature couldn't be undone and the more she tried to slip in thoughts like, Hmm, mebbe I should release that gal ova thah befoh scooping dis lady; just so's she's not stuck thah fah houhs without a bathroom break ohr sumthin' or Gosh! I really wanna show this guy what's under my uniform...but it's really awkward with that girl watching us. Damn! I should probably just untie her and make her go away! the more annoyed the two seemed to get with her presence. But only in a slightly neglectful and ignorant way, rather than the extremes that Gwen was hoping for. Meaning, they both broke their lip smacking long enough to glance in Gwen's direction before hurrying over to the supply closet and joyfully locking themselves inside it.

Another, louder, frustrated groan ripped from Gwen's throat and she plopped her head back down on the cot in defeat. As she heard Karen's muffled giggles come from within, she whispered a prayer that they'd knock over something fumy and pass out in there just before "it" happened and end up waking with bad tastes in their mouths from the experience. Or something just as unpleasant to destroy the romance she'd unleashed upon them.

Up to this point, Gwen hadn't really ventured much outside the room psychically, trying not to alert anybody of her presence but more...afraid of finding Stephanie's signature and unwittingly letting the woman know she was here and awake. The only possible reason Gwen could think of for her not being here, leering over her was 1. she probably was unaware her target was here or 2. she DID know but was busy elsewhere and had left Karen with her bottles of drugs and syringes as a safeguard(which did not seem like a Stephanie idea at all, so it was really just possibility number one). And the longer she could keep Stephanie busy with whatever it was she was currently preoccupied with doing, the better. An involuntary shiver ran through her to remember that awful static and how alone and disoriented it made her feel and she was filled with an even stronger desire to immediately remove herself from this place before she was forced to encounter it again.

Pushing the intense fear from her mind, she started to hesitantly reach out beyond the room, looking for somebody who might be open to her snares, keeping herself focused as she touched upon different minds in the rooms nearby. There was one fellow who seemed like a possibility - an A-10 who ran maintenance on computer systems for others in his department, and had a crush on the pretty Kraft, who might be convinced to abandon his work station to pay her a quick visit - but Gwen was suddenly distracted by a familiar signature stalking in the hallway. It wasn't someone she immediately recognized and she found herself going crazy trying to place where she knew them from, before worry set in. They, whoever they were, were walking straight to this room!

Before Gwen really had a second longer to prepare for it, a woman appeared in the doorway, clacking highheels coming to a smooth stop with hands clinging lightly to the door frame. Honey blonde, shoulder-length hair with pixie bangs gave the rest of the short woman's appearance an almost girlish feel, especially as dark, doe-like eyes looked around the room, searching for something. When they fell on Gwen however, recognition brightened within the large orbs and her plush, rose-bud lips curved into a playful smile, cute, chipmunk-esque teeth barely visible between them.

"I know you..." the woman said in a pretty British accent, her body moving with a natural coquettish seductiveness as she walked into the room. Cocking her head curiously to the side as she came to stand over the cot, she gave Gwen an avid, too-hungry look, forcing her to shrink back as much as the straps would allow. "The grand...Gwendolyn Stewart. Am I right?"

Gwen didn't respond, but the woman smiled again anyway, obviously intensely pleased to see her for some reason that she wasn't really sure she wanted to know the root of. And again, although she couldn't feel anything inside the woman's head, blocked off with a controlled intensity that rivaled the corpse-like signature of the odd "Mr. Patten", there was something familiar about her mental signature that was just at the tip of Gwen's tongue. Who the hell was she?

"I've been hearing a lot about you for the past two days. Quite a little trouble maker, aren't you?" The mysterious young woman had turned her attention from Gwen to the small tray beside the cot, her fingers lightly tracing over first the needle and then the scalpel, pleased by the metallic textures of them. Even when she wasn't looking at her, Gwen got the feeling the woman was still studying her, analyzing her every expression and movement. Needless to say, it was not only creepy but extremely threatening to be in her presence.

There seemed to come an end to her child-like joy and she turned back to Gwen with a different intensity filling her large dark brown eyes. "Where is he?" When Gwen blinked at her with a lack of comprehension, she seemed to loom closer without moving an inch, suddenly taking on a spider-like aspect with Gwen playing the part of the fly caught in a web. "He's most certainly not dead, pretty little psychic. He's here somewhere and if I know anything about the little pillock, it's that he's extremely lucky. So...not dead, then where?"

Quin.

Not Gwen's thought but a harsh mental pulse from the woman before her. Everything Gwen had ever felt from Stephanie in regards to thoughts of herself - the all-encompassing hunger, and violent, soul-consuming obsession - were magnified ten-fold when the man's name drifted to Gwen's consciousness. And along with it, there was a hate and lust that struck deep into the most primitive levels a person had in their psyche, all swirling around just beneath the surface in this woman's head and focused with targeted precision at Rudolph Quin--

"Noel...?" Gwen breathed, her eyes widening as she remembered the few text message conversations that Rudy had engaged in during the time she'd known him. Even then, Gwen hadn't been able to reach through the phone lines to the woman's head very far, but it was unmistakably the same person. And Noel smiled at her in response, pleased to be recognized.

"You know of me? Does he think of me often?" she asked sweetly, something sick and coy entering her eyes at the mere implication that the man was as obsessed with her as she was with him.

"No, actually. Hardly ever. And usually not in a flattering light either..." That instantly hardened the girlish woman's features, suddenly straightening her back and looking off somewhere in the distance thoughtfully. Gwen really tried not to eavesdrop, but the walls that had been there before weren't as rock solid as they originally seemed to be, and now thoughts were spilling out of her and flowing over Gwen like thick, warm blood, gushing from Rudy's veins--

"You tell me where he is right now." The horrific, gory fantasies were silenced and Gwen gasped a little, looking up at a very stoic Noel, once again guarded and statuesque. "It's bad enough he had to get involved with this stupid side-quest in the first place, abandoning his, MY case because he's too foolish to grab the right girl. But now this delay is taking too long and I'm done playing games. I followed a trail of blood droplets and bodies straight to here and I found the car he stole, down below - a wedding? Really? So, I know he's wounded and I know the malevolent Eric Patten is still aiming for him - you don't misuse a superior Agent's resources so carelessly without grievous repercussions - but I can't be arsed to search the entire bloody base before such consequences come to fruition. I'm sure you've noticed, and if your bruised state is any indication, there is no loyalty across cases, especially not with me." There was a pause for a sweet smile that no longer held any measure of sweetness it had before. "If you don't want something awful to happen to you, then you'll point me in the correct direction, immediately. Understand?"

This was the Agent who was after Osono? No wonder they had yet to catch her. No offense to Ozzie at all, who could probably do just as well if there were actual, competent people hunting her, but Rudy wasn't the only one running around with his thumb up his ass when it came to his case. Noel was way too concerned about Quin for anything else to ever enter into her sphere of focus, and that in itself was kind of hard to understand; what did she see in him? Alright, so it was clear the woman was off her rocker and willing to do anything to get her man back under control where he belonged, so any more brutal "honesty" was probably not smart if she wanted to test Noel's dedication to her threats. But there was something remarkably unbalanced about her that left her open to certain manipulations - and no, Gwen was not about to reach out and actually search for Rudy. He had an aversion to her mentally touching him and might alert whoever he was with if such a thing were to occur. So, careful, but hit her with something hard...

"He's with the woman who's been chasing me," even as her voice shook fearfully, her tone was pregnant with implications and she licked her lips nervously while Noel digested that information.

There was a long silence, Noel visibly bristling at mention of the other female Agent, obviously familiar with Stephanie to some degree. "Oh?" she said softly, no longer looking at Gwen but fully immersed in imagining what a meeting between Rudy and Stephanie actually entailed. It was a mixture of something Gwen expected to see in films like Fight Club and Unfaithful and she instantly retreated from the jealous fantasies before they overwhelmed her completely. Jesus! Was there anybody on the Agency payroll who didn't have severe mental and/or emotional issues?

Each pause that Noel took to fantasize really only lasted a breath of a second, but felt like they went on forever with the blonde woman staring off at nothingness, trying to come to grips with the fact that her secret boyfriend was and had been plotting to meet up with his old flame this whole time. Would Gwen do the polite thing and inform her that Rudy really was an idiot and had been planning to blackmail March and thus, was probably dead if he actually followed through? Would she inform her that Stephanie currently had a fixation on her own partner that kept her from seeing anyone else as remotely interesting or deserving of life, including Gwen herself? No. So, she instead watched as the gears of Noel's tortured psyche worked to put things together, building up to a climax that was shattered by a muffled female laugh coming from the supply closet.

Gwen's heart actually went out to the woman in sympathy as those girlish features cast a very sorrowful look at the closet in the corner of the room - which was only tempered by the odd, twitchy tic Noel displayed, when one eye blinked half a second quicker than the other while she continued to stare. Even without having a clear view of what was in the woman's head, Gwen could see it all registering across her youthful features - the metaphorical peanut butter on the mouse trap Gwen had thrown out being eaten up greedily as she put two and two together. Rudy's clearly wounded state, yet absence from the main room of the sick bay. Stephanie's target lying unsupervised when Noel herself had witnessed the thousands of collected files that detailed her rabid obsession with Gwendolyn Stewart. And...even more dubious rustling sounds coming from the supply closet.

Eyes glazed and watery, wearing the saddest look Gwen had ever seen in her life - emphasized by the woman's almost virginal features - frozen in place by the muted vocalization of what she thought was her lover having an affair, she stood completely defenseless by Gwen's cot. Now was the time for the mouse trap to snap shut.

"You should let me go," Gwen said softly from her prone position, her voice echoing in the room like ripples on a pond's surface.

As soon as Noel's attention was drawn away from the closet, a few of the defenses weakly stood up, but Gwen had already inserted herself past them and wasn't going to be dislodged by anything the woman did. "Why...why would I do a silly thing like that?" she asked, her voice wavering weakly, trying to get control of herself and failing as a man's muffled voice burst out in excited exclamation from the closet.

"Because, it'd be the perfect thing to get back at them both. Just imagine it, the two of them celebrating in there, thinking they've won, thinking that they've gotten one over on you, only to emerge and find it all disappeared in an instant. How dare she get what you've been waiting for without even having to work for it! How dare he keep you on hold for years with constant promises only to abandon you for that slut! And after all you've done for him!"

Gwen could see everything, all the memories Noel had of years of covering up Quin's mistakes, years of whipping him into submission and then pumping him up, making him her prized little toy. Years of aching for her new special powers and being denied by repeated stupidity over and over, with barely veiled hints that he was romantically involved with her target. In truth, Gwen was saying nothing new but practically reading from Noel's internal teleprompter that she kept stifling again and again, trying to reason herself out of taking any extreme action against him. No more. Now she was being forced to hear it all said aloud and Gwen gladly worked through the woman's pain to make sure the suggestion hammered home, breaking this mouse's fucking neck.

"All those sacrifices! All of those risks! And he KNOWS what will happen to you if anyone were to find out everything you've done for his benefit! Does he care? They're both laughing at you. SHE is laughing at you, getting everything you deserve. STEALING everything that is rightfully yours! Releasing me will be the worst thing that could ever befall them both - imagine their feeble attempts to explain it, to try and assign blame, tearing at each other in the process. Stephanie will be left scrabbling to fix it as I disappear into the aether and Quin will come rushing back to your arms, a wounded and sorry failure. Both of them humbled and punished for their ignorance and arrogance."

The scary part of this wasn't the fact that at any moment, Noel might decide to actually check the closet and find not Stephanie and Rudy but two nobodies, thus breaking the whole charade. It was the fact that even if Gwen hadn't been pulling her strings so strongly, the desire to do such a thing didn't enter Noel's mind and she willingly agreed to Gwen's proposed plan of revenge without one ounce of proof that any of it was based on truth. It was the combination of the massive amount of power that Gwen felt coming from herself completely overwhelming the female Agent and Noel's own imminent emotional breakdown and vulnerability that made her shiver in revulsion as the Agent began to unbuckle her straps.

All of them - she was sure of it now. The entire Agency was actually run by escaped mental patients. It was the only explanation that made sense...

***

The response he gave was not what she expected. Well, the first part was and Ozzie felt better that they now had a definitive plan of action for how things were gonna go down once they arrived. But the next part was a bit unsettling. Okay, so she was somewhat right in her joking analysis about the Agents. Whether that meant she should actually start worrying or not, she wasn't--wait. Did he just tell her to pull over?

Probably his foot was hurting him again or something and she rolled her eyes while shaking her head. "No. Suck it up, big baby. We're not gonna stop for any more distractions, alright? We've wasted enough time as it--what!?" He was gonna what? "Why do you--?" but any questions she wanted to ask about what he was doing or why, were cut off as his seat flipped back and he was wiggling beyond her field of vision, forcing her to constantly whip her head around to keep an eye on the road while trying to look at him.

"What do you mean 'check on her'? I thought you said she wouldn't wake up until we got there!"

Alex wasn't listening, busily muttering to himself somewhat loudly as he fiddled around back there. She kept silent, trying to keep an eye on traffic while watching him in the rear view, cursing under her breath as he roughly nudged the back of her seat and half of his torso disappeared into the trunk. For a few minutes, she contemplated actually pulling over and sticking her nose back there in his business, but before she could make the decision to move over the appropriate number of lanes to reach the shoulder of the road, he was back, beaming at her and holding what looked like a pretty fancy cell phone.

Did he give her any sort of explanation NOW? No. But his muttering was definitely getting louder and she took a moment to actually look uncomfortable when he asked himself to explain things out loud and mentioned something about laughing at himself... Okay...kinda freakin' me out here, Alex.

The thought came too soon, especially when Alex's voice launched into an actual explanation of what he was doing but...it wasn't Alex's voice. Not only was the tone different, possessing a gravity that she hadn't heard from him before, but also the quality of it was different in a way that sounded like somebody else was in the car with them. But that wasn't the reason she needed to freak out again. No, that didn't come until he started talking openly to himself, switching audibly back and forth between the voice that she was familiar with and this other, new tone of voice that actually made him sound serious, like a man in control. And it didn't help things that the two were having a conversation right in front of her.

The entire situation set Osono's hair on end, but despite that, she stayed quiet and listened to what he was actually saying, slowly calming as she realized what she was witnessing. Alright, so, a little while ago when she'd reached her own conclusions about what was really going on, and all the implications therein, it hadn't really hit home until just now. It was real. Everything Alex had said about what these people could do and what they WANTED to do, was real. And holy shit! He knew that because...

When he finally stopped and turned to her for her opinion, she met his gaze before turning back to pay attention to the road, trying to wrestle through what he expected from her right now and what she actually wanted to say. She was actually grateful that he'd been thoughtful enough to include her up to this point... at least, she hoped that was what that was instead of someone just accidentally leaving the internal microphone on...

"So, they got to you..." her raspy, smoke-weathered voice was solemn as she finally spoke. "That's how you know what they plan to do to Gwen; because that's what they did to you." Alright, she felt the urge - the need - to actually say it out loud. "They put an Agent in your head."

Ozzie shook her head and glared out at the cars sharing the road with her. For some reason, saying it made it more real, but it didn't make things better. "How the hell do you freaking do that to somebody?" There wasn't any denying it either. What Gwen told her about him, back when she was "Stacy", wouldn't fly with what Ozzie was seeing. It wasn't just mental illness or whatever, but two very distinct and different people in there. She could hear it. Not only that, but back at that office building she saw the changes come over him - that really HADN'T been Alex!

And now...they were headed to an Agency headquarters or whatever, to jump right in the middle of their forces with one of their own on the opposing side. Again, she was struggling with her doubts about trusting him, new arguments springing up where old ones had died - so, Alex ACTUALLY had an Agent in his head and that Agent wanted to call some other Agent guy and figure out what their plans were, fully expecting this "Peter" to be honest with him about it? At least, that's what he said, and she had to sort of hope they didn't talk in code and alert this guy to what their little team was planning on doing. And then, when they got to Charlton, she was gonna be left alone for a bit while he did something he wouldn't explain but most likely had to do with either his foot or the Agent in his head. How did she even know that what he was planning to do would be good for Alex and Gwen? And despite the familiarity of their bantering, it was clear that Alex had reservations about trusting this guy as well, questioning everything he said as if he couldn't believe he was even considering the suggestion.

Suddenly she was feeling incredibly tired from all of this and she didn't know what to really expect from him anymore. Either of them - Alex and the Agent he'd apparently been hiding. On the one hand, she was somewhat confident in her ability to handle whatever he could throw at her, whether he ended up acting fishy during his phone call, or turned around and started issuing orders for Agents to attack her in Charlton - it didn't matter. She'd handle it all the same way - she'd blow like a fucking volcano and everybody would get to re-enact Pompeii with her. Easy.

On the other...although she hadn't given him much information about her weaknesses, she WAS kinda leery of what this guy knew and what he could possibly do with that information. No longer was she taking past situations as proof of his loyalty, but rather assuming that whatever he wanted to do, he couldn't because he was stuck in some guy's head. But despite his wariness, once this Agent explained things to Alex about the phone call, the guy willingly gave into the plan and seemed to accept it. Should she trust Alex and how he treated this guy? Could she trust Alex? He'd lied to her a bunch of times during this whole trip and now, suddenly, with the "appearance" of being open and honest about his little duality problem, she didn't know what to do with that. It was somehow more threatening than his made-up stories had been, where he was just a guy torn up about getting his psychic girlfriend into trouble.

Clinging to the fact that Alex was probably the one stable part of this whole thing - he had powers too, and no doubt he neither wanted the Agent in his head nor intended to be double crossed - she decided to trust Alex's judgment for now. Letting out a long, heavy breath, she shook her head and shrugged her shoulders wearily. "Questions? No, not really. I mean, you pretty much explained everything. And honestly, it seems like a good idea to talk to the guy in charge, to help us figure out if any of this will work or not - if you really think he'll be honest with you about it, although I don't really see why he would be." Unless he somehow thought they were still friends and were planning something together...

Osono grimaced like she had a bad taste in her mouth that she wanted to spit out, but shook her head wearily again. "Do what you gotta do. Make the call."

She ran a hand through her short blonde hair and contented herself with keeping her attention on the road for now, ready to keep an ear out for everything he had to say on this side of the phone - would he be offended if she demanded that he speak clearly and loudly while he called this Peter guy? Since 1. if he really WAS helping Alex and Gwen out and on their side and any verbal oddities would possibly alert Peter that he wasn't traveling alone and 2. if he wasn't, she wanted to use any whispering or muttering or odd backwards talk as an excuse to burn the inside of the car, she decided to keep that thought to herself. But then something did occur to her and she interjected before he could do or say anything else.

"What is your name? Not Alex's name, but your name. It'd make me feel better if I didn't have to refer to you as 'The Agent guy in Alex's head'. Your REAL name, please - quit fucking lying to me, thanks."

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#, as written by Tartra
SHE DID NOT LIKE THIS DESK. TOO WEAK. HER NAIL CUT A HOLE IN ITS WOOD EVERY TIME SHE TAPPED AND THE SOUND IT MADE AS IT DIED WAS PATHETIC. SHE DID NOT LIKE THIS CHAIR. TOO HARD. THE SEAT HAD NO SUPPORT AND ITS FRAGILE BACK BENT WHENEVER SHE LEANED ON THE CUSHION. HAD SHE WANTED A STOOL, SHE WOULD HAVE ASKED FOR ONE. SOMEONE WOULD PAY FOR THIS INFERIOR ARRANGEMENT, AND SHE KNEW WHO. THIS WAS PATTEN’S DOING. THAT SMUG IDIOT WOULD DO ANYTHING TO GET TO HER, WHETHER OR NOT IT HELD THE FLAIR HE SHOVED DOWN EVERYONE’S MOUTH, SOLELY OWING TO HER DANGLING HIS GIRLFRIEND OUT OF HIS REACH. IF SHE HAD NOT KEPT A CLOSE EYE ON HIM FROM THE INSTANT HE ARRIVED IN HER BUILDING, SHE WOULD HAVE ASSUMED HE SPENT EVERY MINUTE HERE GIGGLING ABOUT HIS ‘SENSATIONAL PLAN’ TO ‘RUIN’ HER FROM THE ‘BOTTOM UP’. THE LOWLY THOUGHT OF HIS VOICE SNICKERING – THE OLD ONE HE HAD STOLEN, BEFORE JEAN, WHO HAD NEVER SNICKERED IN THE ENTIRE TIME SHE HAD KNOWN HIM, UNLIKE THE INSUFFERABLE ASSHOLE PRANCING IN HIS SKIN – DROVE POISON THROUGH HER VEINS. THE ONE UNDERSTANDING THAT KEPT HER IN HER PLACE WAS HOW LAUGHABLY HE FOUGHT HIS TRUE WARS. PATTEN WAS A PERSON WHO WOULD DRAG A MAN THROUGH COAL TO PUNISH THE SLIGHTEST OFFENCE, BUT AFTER YEARS OF FIGHTING FOR CHARLOTTE, THE MOST HE HAD MANAGED WERE A FEW LETTERS, SECURITY PROBES... AND NOW A CHAIR. AND A DESK, BUT THE DESK STILL HAD ITS USES. THE DESK WOULD BE ROUND ONE.

AS FOR HER CAT, IT WAS HARDER TO SAY. THIS WAS A MAN WHO HAD NEVER SUPPORTED THEIR CAUSE BUT WHO HAD ALSO NEVER TURNED THEM IN. OTHER THAN GETTING HIM ON HER DESK, ANY DIRECT FORM OF INTERACTION HELD AN IMMENSE RISK. HE MET THE CORE CRITERIA – HATED PATTEN, KNEW THEIR ROLES, WAS EXTREMELY, EXTREMELY FRENCH – BUT DESPITE THE GOOD WORD PUT IN FOR HIM OVER THE YEARS, ONE STEADFAST CONCLUSION HAD BEEN REACHED: BENOIT WAS NOT LEAVING THE AGENCY AND THAT MADE HIM HER ENEMY. HER FRENCH ENEMY. VERY FRENCH. THE DESK WAS ALSO ROUND FIVE. AND SEVEN. AND TWELVE. REGARDLESS, THIS PUT HER IN A DELICATE POSITION. FROM WHAT SHE HAD GATHERED, ORDERS WERE ORDERS AND HE FOLLOWED THE HIERARCHY AS CLOSELY AS ANYONE. IF PATTEN HAD SENT HIM TO GUARD HER AS A SORT OF TETHER, THEN THE WORD OF AN A-2 WOULD NOT BE ENOUGH TO CHANGE HER PRETTY KITTY’S MIND. SHE HAD TO LOSE HIM IF SHE PLANNED ON ANY PROGRESS BEING MADE. HE WASN’T STUPID; HE WOULD HAVE TO ASK QUESTIONS, ESPECIALLY FOR WHY AN A-2 WOULD LEAVE HER BUILDING UNANNOUNCED, AND IF PATTEN HAD NOT ONLY TOLD HIM TO WATCH HER BUT REPORT, THEN HE MIGHT AS WELL HAVE BEEN ORDERED TO ATTACK. FORTUNATELY, HE HAD YET TO SHOW ANY SIGN OF THAT, MEANING ONE OF TWO THINGS: HE EITHER HAD NO IDEA WHAT SHE WAS DOING OR ELSE PATTEN DIDN’T. THERE WAS A CASE TO BE MADE FOR NEITHER KNOWING – THAT JACKASS HAD ENOUGH REASON TO COME FOR HER ALREADY – AND WHILE THERE WAS THE SLIM CHANCE THAT BOTH KNEW, THE LENGTHS PATTEN HAD GONE TRYING TO DRAG HER NAME THROUGH THE MUD, USELESSLY WORKING TO DISCREDIT HER ENOUGH TO HAVE CHARLOTTE SHIPPED TO WHERE HE FELT SHE BELONGED, SPOKE OF A THIN DESPERATION THAT WOULD HAVE GRABBED AT THIS KNOWLEDGE WITHOUT HESITATION. PATTEN COULD NOT KNOW OR THE AGENCY WOULD HAVE COME FOR HER BY NOW. THEN THE IDIOT COULD STAY IN THE DARK. HER TRUE PROBLEM WAS HOW TO HANDLE HER CAT.

“BETTER?”

“No.”

POOR KITTY. AS MUCH AS SHE PLANNED FOR DIRTY, UNSPEAKABLE THINGS HAPPEN TO HIM BY THE END OF THIS HOUR, THE SILENCE IN HIS BREATH CONVINCED HER TO WAIT. THEY WERE CERTAINLY COMING TO THE END OF THAT – FIVE MORE MINUTES AND THEN SHE WAS CHAINING HIM TO SOMETHING – BUT FOR NOW, IT WAS THE LEAST SHE COULD DO. SHE WAS CONCERNED. HE BARELY FOUGHT WHEN SHE BROUGHT HIM BACK INTO HER OFFICE, AND HIS EVERY PROTEST WAS HUSHED EVEN AS SHE LOCKED AND BOLTED THE DOOR. TRUE, HE VANISHED THROUGH THE FIRST BARRICADE IN SECONDS WHEN HE ESCAPED BEFORE, BUT THE LOCKS SHE USED THIS TIME WERE CLEARLY STRONGER AND HE STILL HAD NOT FLINCHED. ALTHOUGH... HE WAS DIFFICULT TO JUDGE WITH HIS EYES COVERED, AND THE MOST SHE COULD SEE OF HIM WAS HIS SIDE AS HE IDLY FACED THE WALL ON HER RIGHT, BUT HE HAD OTHER TELLS, FIRST AND FOREMOST THAT HE DEVOURED AN ENTIRE PACK OF CIGARETTES AND WOULD NOT STOP REACHING FOR NEW ONES. THE PIECE MISSING FROM THIS PICTURE WAS PACING, BUT HER KITTY WAS TOO REFINED TO WASTE TIME ON THAT. SHE COULD FEEL HIM PACING ON THE INSIDE, ANYWAY. THE MAN WAS MARRIED TO THE BITTER CONCEPT OF MOVEMENT, BUT APPARENTLY ONLY EVER SHOWED IT OFF AROUND HER. SHE WAS SPECIAL. THE REST OF THE TIME, HE RESTED QUIETLY IN THE SHADOWS. IN THEIR EARLY DAYS, JEAN HAD WHINED THAT HE WAS ‘LAZY’. IT SEEMED EVERYONE HAD THAT OPINION AT FIRST, AND IT SEEMED ALMOST AS MANY TOOK IT BACK BY THE END. THE WOMAN AGENT – NOT FRENCH, NO ONE NEEDED HER NAME – HAD YET TO DO SO. WHAT AN INTERESTING DYNAMIC, AND IF SHE SPOKE TO HER CAT LIKE THAT AGAIN, MADELINE WOULD BREAK HER THROAT. UNTIL THEN, THE FACT REMAINED THE WOMAN ALREADY HAD, AND NOW SHE MUST BE SURE HER KITTY WAS WELL BEFORE SHE MOVED ON TO ANYTHING ELSE.

NOW ARE YOU BETTER?”

“No.”

DAMN.

SHE COULD BE PATIENT. SHE REMEMBERED HOW. THE BEST THINGS CAME TO THOSE WHO WAITED, AND HER SUPPORT WOULD PUT HIM INTO HER DEBT. SHE EXPECTED A FULL REPAYMENT, PLUS INTEREST, PLUS PATIENCE FEES, IN... FOUR MINUTES NOW. THE CLOCK ON HER DESK MADE THE RIGHT DECISION BY COUNTING DOWN. IT HAD BEEN TAKING SO LONG THAT HER HAND HAD STARTED TO REACH FOR IT. SHE WENT FOR IT AGAIN, ROCKING IT BETWEEN HER FINGERS. HURRY UP, STUPID CLOCK, OR YOU WILL JOIN YOUR BROTHERS IN THE SHRAPNEL PILE.

“WOULD TALKING MAKE YOU BETTER?”

AT HER WORDS, HAVING BROKEN ANOTHER SHORT SILENCE BETWEEN THEM, HE TURNED HIS HEAD TO FACE HER.

“Talking about what?”

“I DON’T KNOW. ABOUT WHATEVER PEOPLE TALK ABOUT WHEN THEY SAY THEY WANT TO TALK.”

SHE HAD THE FEELING HE WAS ROLLING HIS EYES. SHE INTENDED TO COMMENT ON THE NOTION WHEN HE INTERRUPTED HER INSTEAD, SUGGESTING, “Why don’t I give you a signal or something? I’ll wave.”

THE CLOCK MADE CLICKING NOISES AS SHE ROLLED IT AROUND. OVER THE THIN NOISE, SHE ASTUTELY REMARKED, “IT’S GOING TO BE HARD TO SEE WITH MY TONGUE DOWN YOUR THROAT.”

HE COULD TRY AND DENY IT, BUT HE ONLY HAD THREE MINUTES AND TWELVE SECONDS LEFT. WHY DID HE INSIST ON PUTTING IT OFF? IF HE WAS UPSET, THIS WOULD CHEER HIM UP. SHE WAS MORE THAN WILLING TO PROVE THE POINT. SHE WOULD EVEN LET HIM TAKE OVER.

“I’ll tap,” HE MUTTERED, MORE RELUCTANT THAN SHE PREFERRED. AND MISTAKEN, FOR WHICH SHE HAD TO RESPOND.

“BELIEVE ME WHEN I SAY YOUR HANDS WILL NOT BE FREE FOR THAT.”

“Just stop talking,” HE TOLD HER. VERY LUCKY. AT THE LAST MOMENT, HE REMEMBERED TO BE POLITE, AND SO HIS WORDS, WHILE QUITE INFORMAL, ENDED WITH A BRUSHED NOTE OF RESPECT, COMPLETE WITH THEIR DELICATE FRENCH FLAIR THAT SENT A RISE THROUGH HER CHEST. TWO MINUTES. AT MOST. “I have enough to think about without adding you to the list.”

PATTEN. ASKING WOULD HAVE BEEN POINTLESS WHEN SHE SO ASSUREDLY KNEW THE ANSWER. HER CLOCK HAD BEEN PROMOTED. RATHER THAN SERVING TO DAWDLE THROUGH A COUNTDOWN, IT GAVE HER A TOY TO PUT HER GRIP ON OTHER THAN PATTEN’S STOLEN NECK. THE MAN MADE HER SICK. HE WAS SICK, AND LOGIC FAILED TO DICTATE WHY HE, OF ALL PEOPLE, HAD LATCHED ON TO SOMEONE AS DISTINGUISHED AS HER KITTY AND THE NOT-FRENCH WOMAN. IT COULD HAVE BEEN ANSWERED WITH HER NEXT QUESTION, THE ONE THAT HAD PRESSED ON HER MIND FOR HOURS: WHAT WAS PATTEN DOING POSSESSING JEAN? SHE KNEW HOW HIS POWERS WORKED AND THEIR ONLY KNOWN AND KEY RESTRICTION WAS FOR VICTIMS TO BE DEAD. JEAN DYING, AS UNFAIRLY UNLIKELY AS IT STOOD, WAS IMPOSSIBLE WITHOUT LEAVING A MARK, AND UNLESS PATTEN HAD SPONTANEOUSLY GROWN THE STRENGTH TO HEAL HIS CORPSES AT LONG LAST AND HAD DONE THE UTMOST THOROUGH JOB IMAGINABLE IN THE TIME SINCE JEAN HAD LAST CHECKED IN, WHICH HAD BEEN YESTERDAY TO REPORT AD COMPLAIN ABOUT AN INCOMPETENT CHILD WITH WHOM THEY HAD MERGED PATHS, SHE SUSPECTED FOUL PLAY. THERE WAS NO LEGITIMATE WAY OF WINNING, BUT THE GHOST COULD BARELY REMEMBER HIS ONE RULE OF ‘THERE ARE NO RULES’ THANKS TO HIS ABHORRENT GAME OF IGNORING EVERYTHING THE AGENCY STOOD FOR AND THEN FORCING THE HANDBOOK ON ANYONE WHO INCHED OUT OF LINE, LET ALONE FOLLOW THE BASIC LAW OF CIVILIZED WAR. IF THE ELEMENT OF SURPRISE WAS IN HIS HANDS, ANYTHING FROM AN ELEPHANT TO A WHALE HAD REASON TO TREAD LIGHTLY. UNFORTUNATELY, HER CONCERNS COULD NOT END THERE, AND AT THAT UNDERSTANDING, HER NAILS BIT INTO THE SIDES OF HER CLOCK AND STAYED THERE.

THERE TRULY WAS NO NEED FOR CONCERN. THE LOWEST SCENT OF WEAKNESS WOULD HAVE HAD HIM AT HER DOORSTEP, AND WHILE HE PRESENTLY WAS AT HER DOORSTEP, IT WAS AFTER A HALF-PLANNED THRILL RIDE TO PLAGUE HER CAT WITH HIS BEING BECAUSE PATTEN WAS A BUBBLY FOOL WITHOUT ANY SENSE OF RESTRAINT. HE DID IT ALL THE TIME WITH EVERYONE ELSE AND NOTHING HAD COME OF IT, AND SHE INCLUDED THE OTHER ARMY OF MINIONS HE ALSO SENT TO WATCH HER EVERY SO OFTEN. SHE SHOULD BE CELEBRATING. SHE WAS FINALLY ‘DANGEROUS’ ENOUGH TO WARRANT AN A-3’S GUARD NOW. AND FRENCH! HAD SHE MENTIONED THAT? WHEN THE TALONS OF FATE ROSE FROM THE EARTH AND PULLED PATTEN TO HIS FIERY PIT OF TERROR, SHE HOPED NOW THE REVENGE OF THOSE HE HAD WRONGED BROUGHT BACK TO TORMENT HIM FOR ETERNITY STUNG HIM A TINY, TINY BIT LESS. SHE WAS SOOTHED. UNTIL HE BROUGHT ON ACTIVE, DEDICATED MONITORING, SHE WAS SAFE, AND CONSIDERING SHE WOULD BE FULLY AWARE OF THE RIGOROUS APPLICATIONS PROCESS FOR SUCH MONITORING ON TOP OF IT – THE AGENCY’S FAVOURITE TIME-WASTER, SHE HAD NOTICED, AND GREATLY ENFORCED BY PATTEN EVEN IN THE FACE OF OBSTACLE IT PERSONALLY POSED FOR HIM – AND THAT IT WOULD TAKE AGES BESIDES, SHE HAD TO WONDER IF THEY TRULY ESTABLISHED THE SYSTEM OR IF ONE OF THEIR THOUSANDS OF ENEMIES HAD SLIPPED IN AND DONE IT INSTEAD.

PATTEN WAS STUPID. AND THROUGH THE SILENT CONNECTION SHE HAD MADE WITH HER NEW PET, SHE COULD FEEL A RESOUNDING AGREEMENT. IT DID NOT, APPARENTLY, MEAN THEY WERE ANY CLOSER TO STRIPPING. THAT WAS FINE – SHE LIKED HIM IN HIS SUIT AND THESE CLOTHES COST TOO MUCH TO CARELESSLY THROW TO THE SIDE – BUT CONSIDERING HOW ACCOMMODATING SHE HAD THUS FAR, HE OWED HER SEX RIGHT NOW. WHAT WAS THE PROBLEM? HE HAD SAID NOTHING WAS WRONG, AND WHEN HIS ASSURANCE FAILED TO IMMEDIATELY REMEDY THEIR SITUATION, SHE HAD GONE AHEAD AND INQUIRED AS TO WHETHER SOMETHING ELSE, FOR SOME UNFATHOMABLE REASON, WAS DISTRACTING HIM. AGAIN NO, TO THE SQUABBLE IN THE STASIS CELL CHAMBER, TO WHETHER HE WAS GRIEVING, TO WHETHER IT WAS THE SAME QUEASY CHURN IN HIS STOMACH SHE ALWAYS GOT WHENEVER PATTEN INFECTED HER BREATHING SPACE, AND NOW SHE WAS MADE TO SUFFER THE CONSEQUENCES OF EITHER NOT GUESSING THE ANSWER DIRECTLY OR HIM HAVING REALIZED SHE WAS MUCH LESS AGGRESSIVE WHEN SHE THOUGHT HE WAS SAD. HOW COWARDLY. SHE TWISTED ONE ARM AND SUDDENLY SHE WAS ‘VIOLENT’.

...WELL, SHE SUPPOSED EVERYTHING ELSE SHE DID TO HIM COUNTED, BUT ONLY JUST. HE HAD GOTTEN THE SHACKLES OFF, HADN’T HE?

“ENOUGH.” SHE WAS ON HER FEET. THE CLOCK DROPPED ON HER DESK AND SHE SLAMMED HER HANDS INTO THE WOOD. THE SOUND WAS ENOUGH TO GET HIS HEAD TO TURN, BUT NOTHING MORE AND ONLY FOR A MOMENT. “I AM TIRED OF WAITING. IF YOU CANNOT BE FORCED –” THAT HAD NOT BEEN DISCOVERED THROUGH LACK OF TRYING. “– I WILL ATTEND TO OTHER MATTERS.” ENSURING PATTEN WAS NOT DESTROYING HER BUILDING WAS ALMOST AS IMPORTANT AS UNWRAPPING HER GIFT. “YOU WILL FOLLOW WHEN YOU TIRE OF TEASING ME.”

HER CAT SMIRKED. GOOD TO KNOW HE WAS ENJOYING HIMSELF ON SOME LEVEL.

THE OFFICE IN WHICH SHE REIGNED THRIVED IN THE CORNER OF HER BUILDING’S SECOND FLOOR. SHE MADE A POINT OF SITTING CLOSE TO THE GROUND RATHER THAN HIDE FURTHER UPSTAIRS. IT HELD MORE AUTHORITY AND ENSURED NO ONE COULD ENTER OR LEAVE HER PREMISES WITHOUT HER EXPRESS ACKNOWLEDGEMENT. FOR SITUATIONS OUTSIDE HER DIRECT LINE OF SIGHT, SHE HAD THE SURVEILLANCE ROOM, HIDDEN UNDER THE WEIGHTED CURTAINS SHE USED TO COVER HER WALLS, WINDOWS AND TOO-BRIGHT DECOR OF THE LAST A-2’S PATHETIC RULE. LIGHT, SHE HAD DECIDED, REACHING BEYOND HER MIGHTY TAPESTRIES FOR HER MAGIC ROOM’S HANDLE, WAS THE GREAT DISTRACTION OF THE WORLD. THE WEEK SHE HAD REMOVED IT FROM HER CASTLE, HER STAFF HAD TRANSFORMED FROM WEAK-WILLED, ABSENTMINDED, HYPERACTIVE DOGS INTO CALCULATED SYMBOLS OF EFFICIENCY. WAS THERE ANY WONDER WHY SHE WAS HELD IN SUCH REGARD? PATTEN SHOULD HAVE BEEN PROUD, CONSIDERING THE PAGE SHE USED WAS DIRECTLY OUT OF HIS BOOK: THIS BUILDING WAS LAUGHABLE TO CONTROL WHEN SHE ASSUMED EVERYONE WAS DUMB AND COULD NOT BE TRUSTED.

“Where are you off to?”

“WHAT DOES IT MATTER?” SHE GAVE HIM A POINTED LOOK. “WOULD ANYTHING CHANGE?”

“It might.” HE WAS LYING. AND AS IF HE KNEW PRECISELY WHAT HAD PASSED THROUGH HER THOUGHTS, HE SHRUGGED AND ADDED ON, “You aren’t having much luck with me so far.” SHE KNEW IT! HE WAS DOING IT ON PURPOSE! TO WHICH HE REPLIED, “Not completely.”

SHE SCOWLED.

“GET OUT OF MY HEAD.”

“And now you don’t want me in you. Make up your mind.”

HE WAITED FOR HER RESPONSE TO THAT. BY THE EXPRESSION ON HIS FACE, SHE HAD TO ASSUME HERS WAS OBVIOUSLY IN DEEP CONSIDERATION OF HIS WORDS.

“ALRIGHT,” SHE SUPPOSED. “BUT YOU TOUCH NOTHING!”

SHE GAVE HIM A POINTED LOOK, THEN TURNED BRISKLY AND FLIPPED UP THE CURTAIN. THERE WAS THE HANDLE TO HER BEAUTIFUL, TWELVE BOLT, EIGHT HINGE, SIXTEEN CENTIMETRE-THICK STEEL DOOR, AS UNOPENED AS SHE HAD LEFT IT AND COLDER THAN ARCTIC ICE TO THE TOUCH. THE HANDLE WAS SET TO RESPOND TO HER HAND – AND ONLY HER HAND, WHICH HAD PAID FOR ITSELF DURING SEVERAL OF PATTEN’S AFORE-MENTIONED INVESTIGATIONS – AND IT GAVE A SEASONED CLICK AS THE LOCK DISENGAGED. THE DOOR SURGED WITH LIFE AS THE BOLTS RETRACTED, ITS INSIDES SPINNING AS IT FREED ITSELF FROM ITS POST AND GROANING LIGHTLY BEFORE IT PULLED AWAY AND SLID INTO THE WALL. IMMEDIATELY, HER EYES WERE WASHED BY THE GLOW OF HER FORTY-SEVEN SCREENS EMBEDDED IN EVERY SIDE OF THE ROOM, EACH FILLED WITH THE SMART ILLUSTRATION OF EXACTLY WHAT WAS HAPPENING IN HER BUILDING. IN THE CENTER, PROUDLY KNEELING BEFORE THE LARGEST AND CENTRAL SCREEN, WAS HER TRUE CHAIR, OUT OF REACH OF ANYONE WHO SOUGHT TO RUIN HER THROUGH POOR LUMBAR SUPPORT. THIS WAS HER GREAT SANCTUARY. HER CAT LOOKED QUIETLY IMPRESSED, AND RIGHTLY SO.

“I find it hard to believe there are others here,” HE SAID. “Other than your death squad, this building seems abandoned.”

“MY WORKERS ARE OUT OF SIGHT UNTIL THEY ARE NEEDED.” AND IT WAS HIS FAULT FOR JOINING UP WITH PATTEN. HER ‘DEATH SQUAD’ NEEDED MORE PRACTISE. OR AT LEAST THE NEXT ONE WOULD. “THERE IS NO SMOKING IN MY ROOM.”

HE STARED AT HER FOR SEVERAL SECONDS, TOOK THE CIGARETTE OUT OF HIS MOUTH, POLITELY COMMENTED, “Oh look, I suddenly lost all interest in you,” AND THEN PUT THE CIGARETTE BACK IN. “Amazing. I’m back to entertaining the idea.”

THAT IS CALLED BLACKMAIL!

“Actually, it’s prostitution.” AND ANOTHER SHRUG! “I can’t be the only one getting nothing out of this. Be grateful I haven’t asked for more.” HE SNORTED AT HER! “The market these days... And what is Eric up to?”

I DON’T KNOW!” SHE COULD NOT BELIEVE THIS! HE WAS INTENTIONALLY PLAYING GAMES WITH HER! “YOU CANNOT –”

“Who is that?”

HER FISTS WERE BALLED AND HER TEETH WERE CLENCHED, AND THOUGH SHE COULD CRANE HER NECK TOWARDS HER CENTRAL SCREEN, THE GLOW OF WHICH HAD TAKEN ON A MOCKING HUE AND ONLY FURTHER ANNOYED HER, HER BODY WAS TENSE AND POISED TO FIGHT. HE IGNORED HER IN FAVOUR OF WHAT THE HIGHER-RANKED BUFFOON WAS DOING. MOVEMENT CAUGHT HER EYE AND STOLE HER BUDDING OBJECTION, BUT SHE HAD NOT GIVEN UP. THIS WAS HER BUILDING AND HE WAS HER CAT AND THAT WOULD NOT CHANGE. IN THE MEANTIME, WHAT WAS PATTEN UP TO? WHO WAS THAT?

“HE IS NEW. HE IS NOT ONE OF MINE.” SHE STRODE TO HER CHAIR, WORKING HARD TO KEEP FROM STOMPING AND MANAGING FAIRLY WELL. AFTER HALF A MINUTE IN HER SEAT AND WORKING TECHNOLOGICAL SORCERY NO ONE ELSE WOULD UNDERSTAND, SHE BLANDLY NOTED, “HIS NAME –”

“Quin. He must have brought Stewart.”

MORE ‘GUESTS’. SHE WAS ILL.

“HOW MUCH WORSE IS HE THAN PATTEN?”

“Ask March. I have yet to meet him.”

“THEN HOW DO YOU KNOW WHO HE IS?”

“March was expecting him. And it’s on your list of entry codes – immediately following, I might add, a failed registration of Eric’s. Did you lock him out?”

YES,” SHE SNAPPED, “AND HOW DID YOU KNOW?”

“I take it that list was meant to be secure?”

“AS IS EVERYTHING INVOLVING MY FACILITIES. THAT IS WHY THEY ARE CLASSIFIED AS SECURE.”

“So they are,” HE SAID. “A week earlier and they would have remained as such, but I recently invested in newer technology saying I have a free pass to all Agency data.” HE POINTED TO HIS SUNGLASSES. “I like keeping track of people, too.”

SHE CROSSED HER ARMS. HE WAS AMUSED.

“THAT IS A LOT OF ACCESS FOR AN A-3.”

“Yes,” HE PROUDLY AGREED. “It is.”

THIS COULD NOT BE THE MAN JEAN HAD TALKED ABOUT.

“MY KITTY IS MUCH LESS HONOUR-BOUND THAN I WAS LED TO BELIEVE.”

“Which is still more than you should,” HE TOLD HER. “And stop calling me that.” HE POINTED AT THE SCREEN. “Does this have sound?”

WHO DID HE THINK SHE WAS? OF COURSE IT DID. IT TOOK A MOMENT FOR HER EYES TO LEAVE HIM – THIS WAS AN INTERESTING REVELATION SHE HAD TO THINK ABOUT – BUT SHE FLICKED HER HAND ACROSS A SWITCH AND BOMBARDED THEM WITH NOISE. WHOEVER THIS QUIN WAS, HIS VOICE WAS GRATING. AND HER CAT, READING HER MIND AGAIN, HAD FOUND SOMETHING WORTH CHUCKLING ABOUT. SHE FROWNED AT HIM, SOMEHOW PUSHING IT TO A LAUGH, BUT WHATEVER THE SMALL MAN HAD BEEN SAYING, HE HAD FINISHED. NOW HE HAD TO LISTEN.

PATTEN AND HIS TRICKS WOULD NOT WORK IN HERE. THE ONLY FEELINGS SHE HAD FROM WATCHING HIM WAS IMMENSE CONTEMPT FOR THE INVASION OF HER PROPERTY AND SATISFACTION IN KNOWING HER CAMERAS WERE PERFECTLY ANGLED. THERE WERE NO BLIND SPOTS, NO SHADOWS, NO ROOM FOR ANYONE TO HIDE, AND IT ROBBED HIM OF ANY MEANS TO INTIMIDATE IN HIS TRADITIONAL WAY. UNFORTUNATELY, HE REALIZED THIS, AND THE BLATANT CHANGE IN HIS DIRECTION WAS LOUD ENOUGH TO HEAR. HE WOULD BE FRIENDLY, HE HAD DECIDED. HE WOULD GRIN AND HE WOULD LAUGH AND HE WOULD CHANNEL THE SOUL OF A PLAYFUL CHILD FOR EVERYONE TO GIGGLE AT AND TICKLE. THEN HE WOULD KILL THEM. OVER A DOZEN TAPES OF HIM DOING EXACTLY THAT – IN HER BUILDING ALONE – SAT IN HER FILES, NEATLY COMPLIED FOR ANYONE WHO WISHED TO SEE A MESS. THE PIXELS ON HER SCREEN WERE USED TO IT ENOUGH TO SHINE IN ANTICIPATION, EAGERLY AWAITING THE DAMAGE SHE WAS SURE WOULD HAVE TO BE WASHED OFF EACH OF HER STASIS CELLS. IT BEGAN, AS IT ALWAYS DID, WITH THAT – STUPID – SMILE. JEAN WAS NOT MEANT TO HAVE THAT SMILE BUT IT STRETCHED OVER HIS FACE AS IF IT MEANT TO CONSUME HIM. THOSE TEETH MADE HER NAILS CURL INTO THE ARMS OF HER CHAIR, AND THE MERRY STEPS HE TOOK TO BREAK THE DISTANCE BETWEEN HIMSELF AND HIS NEW ‘FRIEND’ – NOW LIKELY MARKED AS A BACK-UP CORPSE OR ELSE AS DECORATION – BROUGHT BILE TO THE BACK OF HER TONGUE. HIS MOUTH WOULD NOT STOP GROWING. IT BECAME A SHINING LINE THAT NEARLY SPLIT HIS FACE IN TWO, GLEAMING AS HIS LIPS BROUGHT ON A STIR OF UTTER JOY AND ENDLESS ENTERTAINMENT.

“YOUR FRIEND DID NOT DESERVE THIS.” SHE SNEERED AT WHAT JEAN HAD BECOME. SHE EXPECTED AN AGREEMENT TO FOLLOW HER WORDS, BUT THE SOUND OF EMPTY SPACE RANG IN HER EARS. “KITTY?” HER KITTY WAS GONE. SHE INTENDED TO FIND HIM, BUT PATTEN’S VOICE – JEAN’S VOICE, UNFORGIVABLY WARPED – SWEPT OUT AND CURIOSITY COMPELLED HER TO STAY.

“Rudy, I’m so sorry! I had no idea you expected that much,” HE SAID, INSUFFERABLY WARM AND FULL OF DEVOTION. “Geez – now I just feel like I’ve failed you. That isn’t a happy feeling! Maybe...” HE PONDERED THIS WITH A FINGER ON HIS CHIN. “Well... would you prefer the Darth Vader thing?” THEN HE MOVED. HIS HAND GRABBED THE AGENT BY HIS NECK, SWALLOWING THE BOTTOM HALF OF THE LITTLE ONE’S HEAD WITH THE REST OF IT. THEN INTO THE AIR, LEFT TO DANGLE BY HIS THROAT, WAS PATTEN’S NEW TOY, VERY CLOSE TO BEING HANGED AND BLEEDING FROM WOUNDS THAT HAD VALIANTLY TRIED TO CLOT. TO NO ONE’S SURPRISE, HE GRINNED, CLEARLY HAVING DONE THIS AGENT A FAVOUR. “So? Better? I mean – sure – not authentic, obviously, but it’s the best I can do since that one –” HE NODDED AT THE CENTERMOST CELL. “– snatched the Force away after he blew up my brain. Only one person on the planet with telekinesis and he smooshes it into paste! But I digress – you were saying something about Brannigan? Wilkerson? Something like that? Do go on, Rudy! I love stories! And then we can have a chat about everything else you said, ‘kays?”

SHE WANTED HER CAT. IF THE AGENT HAD NOT BEEN TORN APART ON SIGHT, SHE HAD TIME BEFORE THE MAN CHOSE TO FINISH HIM. WHERE WAS HER CAT? SHE SPUN IN HER SEAT. HE WAS NO LONGER IN THE ROOM. HE HAD LEFT HER! UNACCEPTABLE! SHE WAS ON HER FEET WITH TWO SHARP STRIKES OF HER SHOES AND OUTSIDE OF HER VAULT IN SECONDS. THE LOCKS WERE STILL ON THE DOOR, SHE NOTED, SO HE HAD TO BE SOMEWHERE –

“YOU ARE IN MY CHAIR.”

“This is my chair now.”

AND HE LOOKED COMFORTABLE IN IT, EXCEPT FOR THAT HE WAS SMOKING FASTER THAN BEFORE. HER CONCERN HAD RETURNED. SHE WOULD IGNORE THE THEFT OF HER CHAIR UNTIL THIS WAS ADDRESSED.

“YOU ARE UPSET.” HER WORK TO CALM HIM DOWN HAD BEEN UNDONE AND HIS GENTLE SENSE OF PATIENCE HAD BEEN TRADED IN FOR A RAGGED LINE OF HATE. HER EYES NARROWED AT WHOSE FAULT IT WAS. PATTEN’S TECHNIQUE HAD EVOLVED: HE NO LONGER NEEDED TO BE IN THE ROOM TO PICK AT THOSE ON HIS LIST. “I WILL FIX IT.”

“I’m well enough to refuse your generosity.” HE SAID IT AS HE PRODUCED HIS MILLIONTH SNACK OF POISON. “Go back to watching. He could be up to something.”

PATTEN WAS ALWAYS UP TO SOMETHING. THIS WOULD END NO DIFFERENTLY THAN USUAL. SHE SHOULD BE HERE WITH HER CAT. HE WAS UNHAPPY. ALSO, THEY WERE NOT PRESENTLY HAVING SEX, AND THAT SHE COULD NOT ABIDE. THE DECISION WAS MADE FOR HER WHEN SHE HEARD BUZZING FROM INSIDE HER VAULT. A PHONE CALL. IT WAS NOT FOR HER, BUT FOR PATTEN, AND SHE SO ADORED LISTENING TO HIS CONVERSATIONS.

“YOU WILL NOT GO IN?”

“I’ve had my fill. But by all means, enjoy.”

“AND YOU WILL STAY,” SHE SAID.

“You put locks on the door. I can’t get out.”

HE WAS LYING AGAIN. SHE FROWNED FOR AS LONG AS SHE WAS ABLE, IMPRESSING UPON HIM THE EXTENT OF HER DISAPPOINTMENT SHOULD HE FORCE HER TO HUNT HIM DOWN A SECOND TIME. WHEN HE NODDED IN RESPONSE TO THIS, AS CLOSE TO CONSENT AS HE WOULD GO, SHE TURNED BRISKLY AND RETURNED TO HER VAULT TO PLACE THE CALL’S LOCATION. FROM WHAT SHE GATHERED, THREE SEPARATE SCHEDULES WERE IN PLACE: PATTEN AND HIS RUSH TO HAVE THE STEWART TRANSFER COMPLETED, HER KITTY AND HIS TIMED APPROACH OF ALEXANDER, AND DANIELLE’S SHOW OF EXPLOSIONS TO BE DELIVERED IN A SIMPLE MATTER OF HOURS. IN ORDER FOR THE LAST ONE TO WORK, THE FIRST TWO HAD TO SUCCEED. ANY NEWS COULD BE THE HAMMER ON THEIR GLASS CASTLE OF PREPARATION, AND SO EVERY WORD HAD TO BE MONITORED. ON A MORE POSITIVE NOTE, CONSIDERING THE COMPANY PATTEN KEPT AND HIS DISTINCT SENSE OF HOSPITALITY, THE WORST THIS CALL COULD DO WAS SPEED THE URGE TO KILL HIM. SHE SUPPORTED THAT WHOLE-HEARTEDLY. IT MEANT SHE COULD PLAY HER KITTY THAT MUCH SOONER.

* * *


Why did it sound like whenever Osono said she’d go along with what they were doing, she was quietly charging a firebomb to set off in the car? Oh, right, because she probably was. And who could blame her, thanks to their spectacular timing? Five seconds after she stopped freaking out over Alex maybe being an Agent, the ‘great revelation’ about there being a real Agent with them popped out. He should’ve been acting crazier or – hell – after all these years, he still didn’t have one foolproof explanation for what was going on with him? Anything was better than the truth. And did Xander have any extra motivation to reassure her? Nope! Not a drop! Not from what Alex was feeling, which was jack shit like it usually was. He could hope he all wanted, but he had a damn good hunch that unless it was spelled out, Xander wouldn’t bother doing anything to make her feel better about him riding around in his head before he called an even worse guy. And his name? Really?

“Don’t waste your breath, he’s not gonna tell you,” Alex muttered. “Just call him Xander like everyone else.”

And ‘everyone else’ was turning into an uncomfortable list.

“‘Cause I won’t respond to anything else. For the record, it’s Marshall.”

Hilarious. Anyway, what they would have to do – No, seriously. Doubly hilarious. Whatever. Can I do this now?

If she was already on the edge of her seat, they weren’t going to keep leaving her in suspense. The phone would use its speaker so everybody could hear and Alex would go nuts trying to fill in any gaps along the way. That was assuming they made it to Peter, though. He got the logic behind the call and everything, but... man... Was all the information Xander wanted really Peter-exclusive? So long as they were parading around as him, Alex was sure they could’ve squeezed one or two secrets out of the girl in their trunk. Come on – how hard was it to say ‘where’s the last place you saw me?’

I’m hoping to get something more up-to-date.

“Directly from the guy whose name makes you froth,” he said. “You want to hear his voice. As in... his voice. Talking.”

I don’t ‘froth’. That’s beneath me. And yes, I have to hear his voice so I know if he’s alive. This was sounding more like a personal call by the second. Oh – I’m sorry, boss. I didn’t realize this only pertained to my interests.

“Just promise you won’t go crazy if it turns out he’s still around. You’re already jumpy and you’ve only got my finger over the number.” And he was twitching it like he was on crack. Or on Starbucks. “And that’s ‘if’ – remember. If.”

Aren’t we Mr. Fucking Sunshine? ‘We’ were not. If Xander had eyes, he would’ve been rolling them, which followed the rest of his mood on its steady decline. I hate you when you’re optimistic. But sure, whatever, ‘if’. Calling.

He pressed the screen. The little bar flashing ‘Lead’ lit briefly, then dropped away as the main call screen went up. Alex put it on speakerphone before this went any further, and then in a flash of foresight he really wasn’t used to, put the phone in a nestled groove on the dashboard, one that could’ve been installed purely for that purpose or to hold CDs or tapes or... Nobody used tapes anymore. CDs then, he guessed. Since they were on the highway, he wasn’t expecting any sharp turns to knock it out of that hold, but it sure as hell kept it away of his – meaning Xander’s – hands when he decided to break things. Alex expected it to happen whether or not he got his reunion; the guy had a fairly set way of handling things that bothered him and a ‘no answer’, as he had firmly noted many times throughout his life, was just as bad getting one.

“I don’t know every detail of what you’ve gone through,” Alex said, making sure the phone would stay put, “but I’m guessing you never got the full ‘evil, crazy bureaucracy’ side of the Agents before. These people really like knowing who’s in charge and they run themselves like a government-meets-army. I don’t even have a full idea, but I’m willing to bet no one besides their leader truly does. So...” The mechanical chime was aggravating. He gave a nod towards it, then because he had time until the Agency answered, scratched the back of his neck awkwardly and kept trying to explain. “Peter is... well – Xander says he’s higher up on the food chain than anyone I’ve run into so far. I met him a year after I ‘got’ this guy.” Quotation, quotation, and Alex did the hand gesture on top of it. “Peter said he was one of us. He had powers and he basically tried to talk us into going to the Agency so they could finish the job or whatever the plan was, but it didn’t work. Sometime during the middle of it, the wrong thing was said and two weeks later I was melting his brain. ... Not literally.”

“And then I smashed a rock through his face until I saw the ground again,” Xander said. “Very literally, so why the fuck is he back?

“Calm down...”

I am calm!

And they weren’t picking up. Peter might have been important – or something – but if one of his lackeys was trying to reach him, shouldn’t he have been in more of a rush to check in? He had no reason not to. There was no way word could’ve gotten out about them kidnapping the woman so there shouldn’t have been any fear of an enemy drilling them for info, and if there had been another invisi-Agent in that office, Xander would have seen it. But if there was, well... wouldn’t Peter want to know the circumstances surrounding his minion? Wasn’t he all about knowing everything on everyone? Which should’ve been sign number one that something was up, by the way, back when there’d been something like trust between them. Peter had known too much and too easily, but before Alex could start giving himself crap for missing it – along with every other thing he deserved to get crap for – the phone stopped ringing, a flicker of life flew through the silence, and then a sweet, serenading voice chopped at their ears with a fork. Peter? No. Unless he’d turned into a woman.

Happy early evening, sir or madam! You’ve reached Cindy of Eric Patten’s office, and how may I be of service this lovely day?

Every word that came out of her mouth made me want to punch her. I can do that, right? She’s an Agent, so it cancels out being a chick.

The good news was the thought of violence had perked Xander up. As the woman on the other end waited patiently for his response, too merry to scratch at the quiet with a ‘hello?’ or ‘are you there?’, Alex felt more at ease asking questions again. Keeping his voice low, this time to avoid being heard over the phone rather than by Osono, he whispered, “Who did you call?”

Dunno, but it reeks of douchebag.

“We found him?”

Or the mothership. Was it too ridiculous to wonder if the Agency had a hundred like Peter? This woman had the ‘warm’ but not so much the ‘fuzzy’, and the guy had prided himself on mastering both. It was that careful mix that’d wormed his way into Alex’s circle, and even if he tried telling himself it was only because he’d been naive then and now he was smart enough to pick out the differences, Cindy and her friendliness felt too trained, like someone had pinned little hooks on the corners of her mouth instead of letting her be the center of all that was unbridled joy. Xander was right, though. Peter’s mark was on this. If they didn’t find him, they’d find whoever sent him. “Happy early evening to you, too! You’re sweet for saying that!”

Thank you! I’m so glad to hear you think so!

“I’m glad to hear you’re glad I think so! Goodness, I’m so glad!” Sarcastic-happy dropped to regular sarcastic. Xander must’ve been making himself sick. “I’m looking for a friend of mine. Peter Halsted?”

That’s wonderful, sir! There’s nothing like finding an old friend to reunite with, especially when they’re part of the Salcon family!

Salcon?

Parent company. Medicine and crap. It’s what funds our little shopping sprees in the super-powered market. Didn’t I mention that?

“No.”

Mentioned some of it. “Yeah! Friends are great. How about that name?”

Tickity, tickity, tickity. The woman on the other end typed fast and loud. They could hear her humming to herself while she did it, but once again, it sounded more put on than anything Peter had done. Not that it didn’t feel sincere – part of her was happy, at least – but it definitely landed more in the dress wearing, flower picking, Kool-Aid drinking, cult member department than he was comfortable with. These people got under his skin like they’d been invited.

I’m sorry, sir, but I’m afraid your friend’s name isn’t listed in our public database. I’ll have to ask for your identification code to confirm your access for an advanced search!” She said it like it was the most novel idea on the planet and she was a genius for coming up with it. Xander gagged. Alex agreed.

“Well, Cindy, I sure golly-gee would like to hand it over, but since your shitty group decided keeping track of those things was the one part of their security program they would enforce, mine’s been deactivated. So I’ll tell you what: I will give you a identification code, you tell me if it still works, and if it does, just patch me on through so we can skip through fields and have picnics and do everything friends do because we’re friends and friends are great. Sounds good?”

I’d have to –

“Do it now? Do it now. 337-04-A2-4. And while you’re doing that, you saintly woman of my dreams, I’m going to be trying not to puke on this frail body that’s recently turned out to be a rental because your nasally voice has pushed me to that edge.”

Cindy took it as an order and plopped into her work with a dainty whistle of a song. She got absorbed in it enough for Alex to almost forget about her, freeing him up to say, “Please don’t call my body a rental.”

What would you call it?

“Besides ‘mine’?” Alex huffed. “How about ‘stolen property’?”

It’s not stealing if you gave it away. You had your chance to fight back, laser eyes.

“Fight against the zillion swarms of your guys versus me for forever? Oh, that’s fair,” Alex said. “Well – to you guys, it is, but the real world calls that ‘one-sided’. Not to mention the piles of guns, tech and endless professional strategy they kept trotting out...”

And yet they still managed to fuck up month after month – just a parade of failing and sucking at life. He could hear Xander shaking his head. Retards. And they were against letting me jump in. Took me a week, and that’s counting travel time.

“... I think I like hearing you brag about that less than you calling my body a rental.”

Nobody likes a sore loser, Alex.

It was a bad sign when words like those didn’t bother him. The stupid jab made him grin. Out of every Agent he could have had jammed inside his head, he got the one who thought this was a game rather than a moral war like the rest of them. Time made him grateful for it, as far as putting up with this went. Hell – Peter made him grateful for it. If Xander didn’t have a massive ego scribbling pointless stuff like ‘rules’ and ‘obeying the hierarchy of power’ out of his Big Book of Words, the Agency would’ve only had to say ‘come back and let’s finish this’ for Alex to have met his end. He guessed it’d worked out the same way for Osono. They were both lucky. Arguably.

Good news!” Gah! From out of the phone burst Cindy, instantly spouting nonsense. Good news? What the hell definition was she using? “It looks like your friend is still around after all! Except...

Of course there was an ‘except’. Alex didn’t even have to ask, but he did.

“Except?”

Except it seems the identification code you gave me has been...absorbed into someone else’s account. It’s as if he was completely replaced!” Duh.

“Just tell me who’s running around as him now,” Xander said. And how to serve his balls when I feed ‘em to him.

It’s the darndest thing! The absorbed account says the employee is deceased, but the overall account appears active!

“... Great! Totally not what I asked but... great!”

The name of the overall account is...” So they’d beaten security again? Should he pretend to be surprised? “Eric Patten! That’s my boss!

“Xander,” Alex said, “who’s he?”

How the fuck should I know? Some asshole.

“Is it Peter?”

I’ll know when I talk to him. But at least one person had earned a reward. Xander made the effort to stick some enthusiasm in his voice just for her. “Cindy, you’ve been a big help, but I need you to do one last thing for me by putting that guy on the phone.”

I won’t be more than a minute! I’ll get him on the line as soon as I can!” Yup, they’d beaten security. And she was gone, as completely as before. It was like she was diving into a black hole – no wonder she’d scared him when she’d come back with her ‘good news’. The least they could have done was given them some waiting music to take the edge off or... something.

“More waiting...”

Don’t get comfy, Xander said. I’m the only one who’d’ve asked for that kind of search. He knows it’s me and he’s on his way.

“And you’re not going to go crazy?”

Nope.

Bullshit.

“Osono, brace yourself,” Alex dryly told her. “This guy throws tantrums like you wouldn’t believe.”

... The car felt... lighter, suddenly. It was all the warning he got before a spotlight of joy flashed out of the phone and blinded everybody. Xander was not pleased by it. He specifically clued Alex into this by letting a tremor blaze through his mouth, and it came from ferally crushing his teeth together and grinding like he wanted them to crack. Everyone else found out because he started growling. That was two steps under frothing, by the way, and boy this was shaping up to be a terrific, un-regrettable plan. On top of the cast, Alex was going to need braces – and aspirin, because a flare of pain had sprung out from the front of his mind. This was why having an Agent in his head sucked beyond the obvious.

The first time Xander had taken over to do his crazy, superhuman ass-kicking, Alex – admittedly stoked he was such a closet badass – was screaming for three weeks when it was done. Sprained ankles, torn ligaments, somehow a nerve that’d slipped out of place so a brand-new wave shot out whenever he bent his joints... It was the fun cost of getting to do everything Xander could when Alex had taken very special pride in swimming two laps across a pool and only touching the bottom four times. He was over it now because of the tons of practise, but it was just half the warfare and Alex had refused to do ‘concentration exercises’ to learn the rest because he’d get a migraine that’d knock him out for days by the time it was over. And what did he care? If Xander had been a crazy split-personality, then as long as one of them could do it, the other didn’t have to, and because Xander had run out of patience exactly five seconds after that, they’d easily agreed to forget about it and go do whatever they wanted in their private corner except for ‘extra special’ occasions. Apparently, this counted as special. Like, a lot.

If he wanted to be clever, then his senses were like a really big garage door – the kind warehouses used, the ones with a thick chain to it move up and down, and his was rusted in place a foot off the ground. It wasn’t like he was complaining since the gap gave him enough room to get in and out without any sort of problem and it was all the average person needed to survive, but if he had an old, giant, rusted, warehouse, room-for-an-elephant door, then Xander had a shiny, new and clean ‘I’m an Agent so everything’s impressive’ normal-sized one that swung open like angels had installed it themselves and oiled it with their tears; ten times better but much smaller, which was his fault for trying to steal a body like an asshole, but right now it wasn’t enough for him. The moment he caught a whiff of sound on the other end of the phone, Xander ripped that rusted garage door open and forced every ounce of mental focus the human brain was capable of to turn on. Alex’s mind was flooded by a world that tore at him from every angle; too bright, too loud, too alive... The sound of the Audi’s tires hacking at the road as it drove along screeched in his ears and the air picked up the taste of metal, huge in his lungs and pooling once it carved down his throat. Fuck the door thing – this was officially a point-blank fire hose in his face.

“Whoopsie-doodle!”

Dammit dammit dammit dammit dammit – at those two words from the other side, Alex was squeezed – the whole of his brain was squeezed – into a vice grip that broke the super-world he’d been trampled by and slammed him into new line of total concentration. Xander didn’t bother telling him to shut up because that was what the locked jaw was for, other than the charming bonus of psychopathic rage, but he did knock everything that wasn’t the phone out of Alex’s thoughts and send his eyes digging at each atom the naked eye could pick out.

“Xander, seriously,” Alex hissed through the clenched teeth, keeping full control of anything below his knee. “Just look at it like a normal person!”

Did he have to remind everyone that they didn’t know if it was Peter, or if there was any real relation besides ‘this guy worked for the Agency so he’s automatically added to the list of minds to fry’? What was the point of hyper-analyzing a phone?

Unless...

Was it booby-trapped? Could they do that? Could they booby-trap phones? Because he’d seen –

I hereby declare you in-fucking-capable of shutting your dumb ass up.

Then Xander locked him out of half his head. Alright, well, that was a neat trick Alex had never known about. The rest of the world returned to him, but still too loud and minus anything as eye-catching as the stupid phone. The pounding in his skull was gone too, but it didn’t matter much because his leg smugly took its pain-throne back when part two of this crap kicked in and it reflexively tensed.

“Sorry about that, folks! New hands! Couldn’t grab my phone,” they heard. “What can I do ya for?”

There was none of the tinny, mechanical edge that should’ve been mixed in over the speaker. Instead it was a warm and cresting surge of delight floating gleefully around as if they had someone else in the car, and because no one else was saying anything – Osono had a pass, the other Agent was unconscious and stuffed in the trunk, but Xander was keeping his mouth shut when he asked for this? – Alex was the first to speak up. He hesitated, not sure how he should start this thing, then said as steadily as he was able, “Holy shit.”

Then... nothing. No words, no sounds, no breathing, just silence. It gave him the seconds he needed to think because he knew whose voice that was. He relived an entire week when he heard it, and every other week they’d let the traitor run with them came back when it spoke for the second time.

“Is that a good ‘holy shit’ or a bad ‘holy shit’?”

He wasn’t joking, and no one could say that so innocently.

“The bad one, Peter,” Alex said. “It’s the bad one.”

They could hear – or Xander could, because Alex could only somewhat make it out – the sound of cheeks and the corners of a mouth crinkling in serendipity. So two things he learned: first, the creepy smile was still going strong, and second, Xander was right about Peter wanting to talk. That crinkle was the crinkle of familiarity. There was no disguising who was talking to who, and Peter was apparently all for it because otherwise he would’ve hung up.

Alex?” Like he was amazed. “Is that really Alex? Get out of town, you maniac! Long time, no see, buddy – how’ve you been?”

“Alive,” he said, pushing around Xander’s seething and his locked jaw. “No thanks to you.”

“Me? Why me?”

He was serious.

“You tried to kill me, dick,” Alex snapped. “You hunted me down and tried to drag me –”

“Is this about the restaurant? Because that wasn’t my fault,” Peter said. “These lackeys keep clearing security and whisking my guys to every random corner. I heard you killed them, by the way! Don’t worry: I forgive you. And I have more.”

Xander was hovering over his shoulder, burning a hole through the back of his mind. Alex shook him away and half-stuffed him back into his corner. The guy wasn’t thrilled about it, but he didn’t complain. Bad sign, but Alex would ignore it.

“I meant everything,” he said. “Yeah, the restaurant, but you trying to crack my head open to pull me out of it –”

“Oh, that. Really? It’s been years, Ally, and it wasn’t anything personal. You’ve gotta learn to let go a little! Xander has not been a good influence,” Peter tut-tutted. “I wasn’t trying to kill you. I was trying to drag you to my secret Agency base so we could put you in a super-vegetative state and run around in our new laser-eyed skin! Completely different! And if anything, I’m the one who should be angry! I happen to remember a very stern conversation I had face-to-face with a hunk of cement.”

“But that’s not personal either, right?”

“Of course not! We’re all friends here! Killing people’s practically how I say ‘hello’ and it darn near makes you family!” Alex heard gagging just then. It was coming from over the phone and it sounded pretty close. Before he could ask, Peter explained. “I’m choking someone to death as we speak! It’s a little counterproductive seeing as how I’m trying to get info out’f him, but what’s an interrogation without a good ‘ha, ha, now you can’t breathe’?” Peter would know better than Alex would. Maybe even better than Xander, and that said something. “Besides.” Alex tensed. The thinnest edge found its way into Peter’s voice. “It’s not like it worked. How mad can I be?”

“I’ll tell Xander to use a bigger rock this time.”

“So he is there! Gosh, he’s quiet,” Peter said. If Alex wasn’t so sure he was using a cellphone, he could’ve sworn he would’ve been curling the cord around his finger. “Still pissed?”

A sharp line of hate spiralled down his spine and exploded through the rest of his limbs. The ends of his fingers twitched and went rigid, then stretched and tore at the air until they found the seat and gouged the cushion. Xander’s answer was ‘yes’. Alex’s answer was ‘no shit’, but he said instead, “What do you think?”

“I guess I did throw him a low blow,” Peter said like he was shrugging. “Normally I’d say ‘my bad’ but he forced my hand. Plus everybody signed consent forms, so why’s he acting like it’s my fault?” Another spiral, scraping his bones as it cut through. “Anyway, since you surely didn’t call to talk about how completely Xander brought everything on himself –” Xander was going to destroy him. “– what’s up?”

Alex thought about it. He probably wasn’t going to have another chance to ask him anything. Peter might’ve been A-OK answering the phone, but Xander was shovelling more self-control than Alex knew he had into this and was he positive the guy was going to make everyone pay for it later. Alex wasn’t going to survive doing this twice. The easy questions seemed so obvious that it felt like he’d be wasting his breath on them, but Peter had a nasty habit of purposefully misinterpreting everything and skipping over important details because ‘I’m pretty sure I implied this earlier. It’s not my fault you weren’t paying attention’. Alex didn’t know how much time he had on anyone’s end. There were so many clocks counting down...

“What are you planning? And –” Alex cut in quickly before the guy started rambling. “– where are you planning it?”

“Right to the heart, huh? Well, I can’t say Mr. Choking-To-Death’s gonna appreciate it, but – sure! I’ll clear a few things up! Basically we’re planning to ambush you midway Xander’s re-transfer so we can get the two of you out of the way. You’re gumming up the works, kids! I mean – hey, I think you’re awesome, but Benny’s past the point where he gives much of a shit about what happens to you two anymore. Not that I’m knocking you for it, ‘cause it worked out really, really well for me, but you probably shouldn’t’ve played so rough with his BFF4L. It’s made him half-‘out to kill you’, half-‘gotta do my job’ and just a smidgeon of ‘KNIFE GOES THROUGH XANDER’S EYE’. Actually, I think that last one’s always been part of the plan. He really doesn’t like you, Xandy. He thinks you’re irresponsible.”

Alex doubted Xander cared.

“What else?”

“Well...” The gagging hadn’t stopped. “Not a whole lot else you don’t know about. Stephanie’s busy with the transfer into Gwen, I’ve got my guys here keeping tabs on Maddy, and I’m mostly here to make sure they arrive at Elmira safely.”

He didn’t know who half these people were.

“‘Mostly’?”

“Mostly,” Peter confirmed. “I’ve got my own project to worry about, but helping them helps me so it’s imperative I make sure you’re dealt with.”

“By ambushing us,” Alex said. “And by telling us we’re going to be ambushed.”

“That’s the plan,” Peter said, trailing off at the end.

“... But that’s not what’s happening?”

“Not if you believe the rumours,” he exclaimed. “The rumours that say ‘by the time you two get here, the Agency’s gonna be the least of your problems’.”

Alex went on the defensive and shot back quickly, “If there’s something bigger in the works, why the hell would we want to come down there at all?”

“‘Cause I miss you and want to throw you a party and ‘cause it’d really help me out if you lent a hand? Or! Or – hear me out! Or because I’m standing a three feet away from a certain stasis cell with a certain ex-employee’s body floating around inside and I am more than willing to press this tiny red button –”

YOU GET ONE INCH CLOSER AND I’LL RIP YOUR INTESTINES OUT YOUR DICK!

Thank you, Xander. Thank you so much. Because it wasn’t enough for him to shriek like a monster inside Alex’s head, he had to scream it outside too, for surround sound.

“Xandy’s here! I was worried you –”

Listen to me, you fuck nugget,” Xander snarled. “I have spent literally every waking moment of my life planning how to kill you. I have every factor considered, every option weighed, and I have obliterated the smallest fucking hope that if Hitler and the Chupacabra raped Stephen Hawking and sacrificed the hate-baby’s soul to Satan, that child still couldn’t come up with a better way to fuck your ghost ass over. For the absolute love of God, I am begging you, do not force me to top what I have planned because you found a way to piss me off even more. I swear to fuck I can’t do it, but I will go batshit insane trying anyway.”

“My goodness,” Peter said. “I didn’t know you cared so much! Well – now I almost think I should flick the switch, just to see –”

Everything starts with my fist so fucking far down your throat, I pull your balls out from the inside!

“Huh. That just doesn’t seem possible. Even less than the dick-threading thing. But anyway, you get my point: you have ample motivation to come down here,” Peter explained. “Xander wants his body back and I’m willing to bet he’ll be the teeniest bit more interested in what we’re trying to do if that route gets permanently cut off. It’s in everyone’s best interest for you to be in Charlton, Ally! See? Help me help you! And everyone else! Yaaaaaay – we’re all winners!”

“So you’re after us again,” Alex said.

“Again? I was never after you to begin with! You and Xander were a stepping stone towards me being even greater than I was and I needed to test out a few new powers. No offence, but as fun as brain-popping sounds, it’s not my cup of tea. I need bright and flashy and your seizures are too ‘not that’. Although...” Peter’s voice grew warmer. “I hear you’re packin’ a new kind of punch. Found a pair of sunglasses with holes through ‘em, and since I can’t quite recall the memo saying we have pipes added to our standard-issue arsenal, I’m thinkin’ it’s a new trick pulled out your sleeve. Plus, I have it on video. I’m getting it shown to Benny – he thinks it doesn’t exist.”

“I’ll give everyone a firsthand demonstration.” ... Of whatever he was talking about. Alex had been in la-la land during the Elmira fight, but Gwen had seen it and she’d called it impressive, too. “Anything else I should know?”

“Is there ever?”

“Then I’m hanging up,” Alex said.

“Wait! I lied! One more thing! When you were running around with Nathan, did he sound Australian to you?”

It was such a stupid question, Alex wasn’t sure he should answer it.

“Why would that matter?”

“I’ll take that as a ‘yes’,” Peter said. “The little bastard...! Alright, well – see you in a few hours! And if you wouldn’t mind disposing of the Agent you captured when you’re done with her, I’d be much obliged. I can’t stand letting useless staff live. Cakes and sprinkles!

And – click. That was the end of that.

Alex’s jaw relaxed as Xander let go of it. His arms were back under his power, too. His neck still felt stiff and his fingers hadn’t stopped clawing at his seat, but an immense weight fell off him as his senses dialled down to normal. He was glad that was over. Xander took it pretty well, considering the occasional flare of frenzied loathing Alex kept having to push away. Disturbingly well, actually...

“You – uh... okay?”

Sen-fucking-sational.

That was better than what Alex expected.

“We didn’t ask him how he was still alive.”

He waited for the accusing ‘no, you didn’t ask him’, but was relieved to get a bitter ‘That’s the only thing he would lie about,’ instead. He would’ve told us if he wanted us to know. And it doesn’t matter.

“It might if you shoot him and he doesn’t die again.”

It doesn’t matter right now. He’s not gonna stick around when we get there. If he is, then he’s not gonna give a shit what we do. He won’t fight.

His eyes flicked over to the phone. Begrudgingly deciding against tossing the thing out the window, he reached for it and stuck it in the glove department. After that, he looked at Osono.

“Out loud, please. She can’t hear.”

Xander mumbled something Alex couldn’t make out, but he gave in.

“Did any of that shit he said sound like he was lying?”

Trick question, possibly rhetorical, but Alex said, “No.”

“No. Why? ‘Cause he’s an arrogant prick who holds himself ‘above’ that. If he says he’s getting ready for something bigger than us storming the place, we should be getting ready, too.”

“He said that was a rumour,” Alex pointed out.

“Yeah, and he also said he always fucking listens to those. Pay attention, retard.”

Geez, sorry. He couldn't remember everything.

“Then what are we supposed to do?”

“Everything we were in the first place,” Xander snapped, like somehow Alex was making a mistake for asking these kinds of questions. “The problem isn’t how we’re gonna put me back in my body, it’s why. As in, ‘why the fuck is he so eager to get me back in there’? He knows I’m just gonna rip the skin off his face when I get up. There’s literally no benefit in bringing me back, unless there’s every benefit in bringing me back.”

“Oh great! So now not only are we heading for a trap, it’s one designed to get their Xander-Weapon!”

Maybe. Don’t worry about it.

“‘Don’t worry about it’?” Now it was Alex hanging onto the seat. He sat up straighter, thoroughly annoyed. “I’m not going to hand you over if they’re just going to turn around and sic you on us!” It’d suck double for him, seeing as how Xander was the one who took Alex down in the first place. “But they’d have to have some kind of brain-washing machine to do it though, right?”

“Not necessarily.”

Alex’s eyes popped open.

“... They... wouldn’t necessarily need one because...?”

“If you ask me whether I’m rejoining them one more time, I’m gonna open this door and jump into traffic.”

“... But that means you won’t, right?” Xander unlocked the door. “I’m asking so I know for sure!”

“You won’t know for sure because I don’t. I told you the option isn’t off the table and that hasn’t changed. It’s why I said if you have to kill me, don’t wait ‘cause I won’t,” he spat. “Do I have any specific plans to skip over to the recruitment office? Fucking – of course not, but Peter’s gunning for me to pull this off and I don’t know what he’s waiting in the background with.” Xander took that time to seethe for half a minute before getting a grip and talking. “What I meant is that if he’s preparing for more than the shitstorm we’re throwing at his ass, I might wake up in the middle of an even bigger attack, which means he’s expecting me to just kill everything and either hoping I die mid-slaughter or getting ready to shoot me in the face when I’m done. I don’t have to be on their side to help them, dick cheese, even if that’s what Peter’d prefer. But anyway, don’t worry about it.”

He’d been following along until those last four words.

“It’s hard to take you at your word after you finish detailing –”

Do you want me around forever? Because I promise you, by the end of this week, only one person is going to be in here, he roared. “We’re going to Charlton, we’re getting my body back, you two can do whatever the fuck you want after – with or without me – but we literally cannot move forward until we put an end to this shit! Everyone get that, or is someone else gonna run around on a broken foot?”

That was a brilliant thing to say next to fire-woman.

“Calm down –”

Choke on a dick, Alex,” Xander fired in his face. Then he sealed himself away in his corner and raged, barely keeping to himself in there and slamming against Alex’s mind.

So Xander was sparing them the worst of it, but it was happening with all the grace of a supernova. He was really leaving a great impression.

“Don’t – uh...” Time for damage control, if he could manage it. “Don’t get the wrong idea. He’s not... that bad.” That bad. “He’s on our side, at least. He’s the reason I’ve made it this far and you two’ve been getting along great.” Which was true. Practically every time his mouth had opened and she hadn’t looked like she wanted to slap him for it, it’d been because Xander said something, not Alex. That included when he lied through his teeth. “Let’s – just... be a little more ready for them to throw something at us... But on the bright side, it doesn’t look like Peter knows you’re coming.”

Or Peter didn’t care. Or it didn’t matter in the long-run.

Shit.

* * *


He had to say something. There had been three specific breaks between her words that he could’ve used to say something – anything – and instead he’d...

“I’m not ready for this.”

Any of it. People? Social interactions? He had a life, he had friends outside of work, and he knew if he managed to hit the rank he’d been dreaming of since he’d joined, he’d have to manage a sea of subordinates and join the office politics of everybody else. But that was it. In his mind, he’d cooked up a world of bossing other Agents around, chatting offhandedly with others at his level about how useless underlings were and how stuck-up everyone above him was, choosing what work he wanted to take on and advancing it at whatever pace he felt comfortable with. The world of A-4s, A-3s, A-2s and – he should’ve been more excited about this – A-1s had always been so magical to him, and if he was honest with himself, getting a firsthand feel of how they interacted made it so much more inspiring. He could be one of them someday, he’d thought. Maybe he couldn’t do what she or Frenchie or even the troll could, but what he could offer was worth the Agency’s investment. The sick swallow of regret in his throat when he’d been pushed down to A-6 hadn’t crushed his dream, only dragged it farther away, and he’d slowly returned to the understanding that he could still do this if he tried. He could. But he couldn’t.

Getting a team meant leaving hers. It wasn’t as if he’d expected to work with her forever, but the Agency evaluated on a milestone basis. Once his lead was transferred into Stewart, they’d size him up and see if he was worth moving up the ranks. Eric’s demotion... Jason could appeal to him. Eric seemed willing enough to listen, and if he pointed out that he’d fixed the mistake he’d made by making damn sure his lead completed her mission, what force of nature would stop the A-1 from re-promoting him on the spot? But that was the best-case scenario. If Jason didn’t merit in the Agency’s eyes by then, he’d have to find a new milestone to hit to have them reconsider. He didn’t know when that was coming. Not everybody got a second chance. All in all, he was calling this his one shot at making it and it was happening too soon. He wasn’t ready to go.

“... Dude?”

Jason’s head popped up. It’d lowered at some point but – what did Gary want? He was jerking his head at Stephanie – oh. Oh!

“I don’t mean this,” Jason told her quickly.

No. He didn’t mean this.

She said he could call her ‘Stephanie’, but that was the core of the problem. The minute he stepped away from his dream of everyone in this business serving some unseen master as nothing more than robots, they became people. Quinn, idiot that he was, had feelings and a list of reasons for why he acted the way he did. Madeline had hours upon hours of scrambling to claim the status she’d achieved. Benoit was suddenly humanized, and it destroyed every ounce of silent loathing Jason had for him after their targets teamed up and ran away together. And Eric! Jason didn’t know what to think about him. If Benoit was somehow everything the Agency expected, and there were remarkable similarities between him and Jason’s lead, then Eric was everything the Agency wanted to be: ambitious, in control, planning something no one wanted to or could question... It wasn’t what he wanted to think, mostly because it meant Eric had become the unseen master Jason feared – as if she was making it easy on him, the way she actually called the A-1 that – and that his lead had no choice to follow. Jason couldn’t let her. On any other mission, she would have only had to blink and have it be enough for him to leave her. On any other day, Eric’s order of ‘keep it brief and then get back to waiting for Alexander’ would have taken total precedence over anything else. Nobody had to think hard to realize this was not those times.

“... Dude!”

Shut up, Gary. This was about her.

She’d taken his glove away. She’d given it back, but only after she’d brought his hand to her face. He’d felt her. His fingers had drawn lines across her, as terrified as they were to move under her hold in case they broke whatever excuse that let them get away with this. The warmth of her skin had caught him off-guard, striking in harmony what he’d hoped to taste and precisely what he hadn’t wanted to. Then her touch had turned cold. She might have spared Jason from having to feel her fall fully to something dead, but it was enough for him to want to pretend it hadn’t happened. If there was anything he was good at besides fucking up royally, it was ignoring what wasn’t strictly professional.

Except now he knew he sucked at that, too. She proved it. He could scream for years that it wasn’t right, but she said she wanted him to own her. He – just... he hadn’t earned that right.

He would. If that’s what she wanted.

“I’m coming back,” Jason decided. “I’m coming with you.”

“Dude –”

What, Gary?”

“Jason – bro –” Gary looked nervously between them. “Uh... Eric?”

Eric had said he was going to stay. Stephanie had said he was going to stay. Everyone was saying he had to stay, but fuck that, he wasn’t, he was going with her. She needed him, and he’d promised her he was going to be by her side, and for maybe once he could clue into the fact that whenever he tried doing something for himself, it backfired. She needed him. He was not going to abandon her.

“I know. I’ll talk to him.” The A-1 said he supported her decision to have Jason stay behind, but he was even more excited to have the Stewart transfer wrapped up. Having Jason go would work out for that and he could do what he was sure was in his power to keep her from falling apart. Those drugs... Why? After he’d warned her... They’d wear off and she’d kill herself trying to up the dose. The least he could do was watch over her for that. “He’ll understand.” Eric was obligated to understand.

Gary skip-hopped-waddled to Jason and purposely turned them so she couldn’t read their lips. Rushing it, and tripping over his words a little, the fat man whispered, “Bro. Jason. I’m proud of you and everything, but are you sure this is smart? Aren’t you – like... some main part of this plan now?”

“Benoit’s plan? He should’ve thought about that,” Jason said, exasperated. “Dead Jean or no dead Jean, Alexander is his problem, not mine.”

“Yeah, but...” Gary trailed off. He started thinking. The effort he was putting in was impressive, and with the way that puppy-eyed smile picked up on his face, Jason realized it’d paid off. “You and her...? Don’t do this unless you know it’s worth it. ... Is it?”

“No idea,” he said. “But it’s not like I can screw up any worse by trying.”

The way Gary’s face lit up, it was like Jason had pulled out a damn wedding ring.

“Okay! Okay – uh...” Gary was trying to be aloof. He was not doing a good job. “I guess... Agent March and I will – uh...” He shrugged, as if he was innocent of thinking about... whatever was going through his mind right now. “We’ll be waiting for you. At the door. Waiting. For you.”

Subtle. Like a lightning bolt through a library.

He gave her a final look before he walked off. It didn’t sit right inside him. Her eyes were blank and didn’t feel like they were looking at anything, and Gary’s giddiness made her more of a statue than Jason thought possible. They were back at the beginning. This was what she had been like when they first met, but he couldn’t enjoy it. There was no strength, because it was desperation. He felt lost having to walk away from her at all, but Jason couldn’t send anyone else with this message. The more the thought turned in his mind, the more realized this would be less of a favour and more of a trade, and Eric had already explained the bargain.

“If you can still hear me, don’t leave until I get back.”

Nothing. No response. If there’d been a reaction from her, it was too fast for Jason to have seen. He’d depended on his goggles for that information. He could feel his strength leave as he stood there. He had to get this over with before he dropped again. He could pass out on the plane. With that decided, and with a quick burst of energy to his knees to keep them steady, Jason squared his shoulders, turned, and set off to find Eric. Jason knew precisely where he’d be.

He was proud of himself. His first steps were confident and steady, and he made it down two hallways without anything more than a quiver down his arms and a grating determination twisting in his gut. That ended soon enough. The closer he got to the stasis room, the darker the corridors grew. There were less lights leading towards it now, as if it was a quiet warning to anyone who wasn’t supposed to be there. The effect was... tangible. Jason’s strides were shorter and their steady rhythm was going off-beat. By the time he turned the last corner, the end of it gleaming the hollow red of the tanks, more fittingly dressed like the mouth of Hell than he would have asked for, the withdrawal came up on him. The suit was too tight and it scraped on his skin. His collar pulled around his neck cut a mark against his throat. The soft padding of his boots snapped to an intolerable roar, and when he buckled, his left leg collapsing under his weight, the sound of him grabbing the wall to catch himself ripped through his ears and made him admit what was happening: he, despite every cell in his body screaming to reconsider, was giving his suit back to the Agency. That was what they wanted, and if he was going with her, it was the only chip he had. His eyes stung and just then did he notice the cold-sweat on his face. Some part of him was trying to keep him from doing this and it would blind him if it had to. No dice, because he wasn’t stopping. That was a shame, because neither was the attack.

Eric’s voice floated down the corridor. Jason didn’t care who the man was talking to, except that it was to someone he could interrupt because he had to. Walking was painful as he pressed on. He had to drag himself along that wall to keep going and he knew waiting at the door for the A-1 to finish up was not an option. This was worse than it’d been when he was demoted, worse than when he was on the plane, worse than when he was on the car and it was building in chest because who the fuck did he think he was choosing to split with his suit before its time? It was a lovers’ quarrel at its finest and Jason would never forget their final moments. How much more rending would this have been if he’d taken the drugs he’d been offered?

“... I’d be much obliged. I can’t stand letting useless staff live. Cakes and sprinkles!” Then a plastic clack. Eric had been on the phone. Did that mean he was free to talk? “Okay, Rudy! Back to you!” Yes, he was free to talk.

“Eric,” he called, sounding hoarser than he’d planned. “We need to talk.”

This was a cozy portrait of insanity. Even through his punishing haze, Jason still was thrown off by it. Eric was lazily putting his phone in his pocket with one hand. The other, ending the mystery of the feeble gagging that’d danced about as a sick theme song to his journey, had Rudy dangling from it two feet off the ground. The goblin’s neck had been completely engulfed by it, and Jean’s hand had been big enough to swallow up Quin’s chin, jaw and collarbone, too.

“Jason,” Eric pleasantly greeted. “Sure, sure – come on in! Don’t mind Rudy, he can wait! He’s tough, he’s patient! What’s on your mind?”

“Stephanie.” He said it as clearly as he could. Jason pulled himself to his feet and told them to shut up so he could stand. In another moment, he gathered enough of his focus to walk into the room, stopping six feet away from the A-1 and twitchy dwarf choking in his fingers. “It’s my case or my suit? That was what you said?” Eric blinked at him. “I’m picking the case. You can have this back.” And to prove it, Jason clumsily yanked the goggles off his neck and held them out. He could almost hear their scream as they passed over his head. “I’m going with her to Elmira. Now. Right now. I even told her to wait.”

“So that ‘make it fast, just say bye and then get back here’ thing...?”

“She doesn’t want to leave me,” he said. “Or...” He was being too presumptuous. “She isn’t trying to get away. And she needs someone there with her –”

“Gary?”

“Gary is one of the nicest people I know, but he’s not going to be enough to help her,” Jason explained. “Neither are the drugs, neither is having Stewart around... You need to let me go so I can be there for her, or she’s not going to last long enough to make the transfer. She could die before she makes it off the plane.”

“I don’t think that’s true,” Eric said. “She’s pretty tough.”

Considering he’d used ‘tough’ on Quin, Jason wasn’t putting a ton of faith into that word.

“It’s too risky. We’re at the last stretch of this case and this is where we can’t afford to let anything slip up,” he answered. “If you’re going along with Benoit because you understand the threat Alexander poses, there’s nothing in the way of you seeing how dangerous this is on top of that.”

“I do recognize the threat Alex is. That’s why I’m on board with you staying here to counter it.”

“But it’s not my case! It’s not my job –”

“It is if Stephie says it is,” Eric cut in, “and I thought she was pretty clear on that, Jay-jay.”

“She was clear on what she wanted me to do but not why.” Eric let out a soothed breath. That should have shut Jason up, but it didn’t. He started talking faster instead, and louder. “Benoit is the one who’s supposed to have this sorted out. He called ahead to reserve this place and I can’t honestly believe that someone who’s worked on this for as long as he has – and who has a new motivation to catch the bastard after Alexander killed his friend – would utterly fail to have some sort of a back-up plan in place. I’ll ask him if I have to! I’m sure he’s just forgotten to mention it to you or just assumed you’d know, but what that means is –”

“Jason.”

“– if you’d let me ask –”

“Jason?”

“Eric, I’m serious. This isn’t a question anymore. You laid out your terms, I’m giving in, so handing over my suit means I’ve bought my permission. Now – just –” Jason gestured to the goggles. “Take them and I’ll go. I’ll find something else to wear.”

And there was silence. That was happening a lot to everyone involved in this. He hated it. Silence meant time to fully recognize what he was saying and who he saying it to, and the last thing he could stand right now was the full weight of Eric’s rank sinking in. The time was over sooner than Jason expected, however. Equally as however, the A-1 didn’t seem as bubbly as he had a moment before.

“Take a break, Rooty-roo,” the man said, unceremoniously opening his hand and letting the newest A-5 drop like a boulder. Idly picking at the stem of his glasses, Eric walked over, and although Jason knew he couldn’t stand up for much longer, he responded by straightening his back and trying to look as presentable as he could. “You two are something, huh?”

“I’m just trying to do what I said I would. And I said I’d be there for her.”

“That’s what she wants? You know that for sure?”

No. Actually, everything she’d said, if he took it at its face value, said that although she didn’t enjoy giving the order, she’d done it for a reason. Her exact words pinpointed why he had to stay, and – again, that damn silence – as whatever she’d put into her system cleared her voice to make her message clear, he couldn’t deny he was violating the most direct of direct orders from his boss and the most direct of indirect orders from her boss. Her ‘master’. Fuck, he was stupid...

“Yes,” Jason insisted. “I know that for sure.”

This meant he was doing it for himself. How long did he have to wait for this to backfire, too?

“Well...” Eric’s face... He looked perkier. Happier? Was he... Impossible. Was he going along with this? “Ah – who am I to say ‘no’? Are you really gonna listen anyway?”

“No, sir,” Jason honestly replied. “But I’m doing it with the utmost respect and assurance that what this –”

“Jason, it’s okay. I get it,” Eric said, smacking the back of Jason’s neck. Too hard. The sting of it pinched him. But if that was the only other price he had to pay, why the hell was he complaining? Smack away! Eric was... He was actually alright with this! “Just promise me something?”

“Yes?”

“Please, please, please, for the love of God, don’t get caught doing anything.” Eric wagged a finger in Jason’s face. “And don’t ever mention anything about it to me. And don’t ever do anything around me. And don’t ever try to get me to cover for you, ‘cause it’s bad enough I’m turning a blind eye to this at all! Are we clear?”

“Yes,” Jason said. His blood was pumping. He was exhilarated! “Yes, we’re clear, we’re perfectly clear!”

“Crystal?”

“Yes! Of course! You won’t know –”

“Fantastic,” Eric said. Another smack. Fortunately, it was softer. “Now make with the changing, give me the suit, and you two can do all the stuff that I am never, ever, ever gonna know about.”

Holy shit. Holy shit! Everything else was still real – maybe he was making a mistake by going, maybe his lead didn’t really want him there, maybe he was being selfish by trying to get everything to bend around him – but... he had permission from the A-1 to...! He could...! He was dizzy from all this, and damn near light-headed!

“Thank you,” Jason said, meaning it more than he knew.

“What was that?”

“I said ‘thank you’,” he tried again. Why was his mouth so heavy?

“Jason?” Eric sounded far away. “You okay?”

“I’m...” The dizziness was getting worse. “Yes, I’m... I’m fine...”

“This isn’t because of the suit, is it? I don’t actually expect you to strip this second.” Eric... sounded... foggy... Like he wasn’t... real... “Just bring it to Elmira and take it off there. What the heck am I gonna do with it?”

Jason heard a thud. He couldn’t be sure exactly, but it sounded like someone had collapsed. But... he couldn’t... think enough...

“... Wha...”

“... Okay, you take a nap. I’m gonna back to chattin’ with Rudy.”

A nap. Yeah. A nap... and then he’d... plane...

* * *


He could hear her pacing in that room. At any moment, she’d charge out and come after him again. As it stood, while a desk was far from ideal protection, it would buy him the seconds he needed to get through that window. He might have to rip a board off it and enjoy a one-storey fall, but there were no bars behind or before the glass and that meant if she tried to get in front of the door – having learned her locks were pitiful attempts to keep him in here – then the window would have to be his alternative way out. He would have said the ceiling – up the bookcase, through the panels – but he had less of an idea of what awaited him there. She seemed like the type to expect the lightly-structured tiles to appeal to him and, as a result, to have secured the hell out of it. More likely than not, her walls separated this room from the rest of the building altogether. He would be trapped, forever, watching her stalk around the floor below in a patient bid to wait him out, and he would spend the rest of his life up there.

So long as she refrained from bothering him this instant, he was fine where he was for now. Having her in there, Eric elsewhere, and the woman and her two pets somewhere else had brought a comforting tide of peace he thought was lost in this mess. He had no intention of questioning it; he needed this, and he enjoyed it on its own. What did concern him was difference between how he was using – smoking, relaxing, not being molested – and how he should have been.

Jean was dead. Putting aside everything else, it raised questions regarding his next steps. What to do about Alexander... Anything really, he supposed. The easy answer was ‘his job’ and he was leaning towards it. Five years of dicking around on this... He should have wanted it to end, if only to clear suspicion that he was not the one to handle this. He admitted his failure for the one year he had put an honest effort in, but he chose not to blame himself. It had still been a contest because Alexander-the-host had not been fully attained and the other contenders had liked the guest’s idea of sabotage and went mad with it. Thankfully that changed when Alexander-the-guest bashed in the head of Eric’s then-latest trophy and Benoit was given an actual team and – more appreciatively – exclusive rights on the matter, but considering it had also been what had set them into motion and their oh-so-great need to let that animal of a deserter run loose and cause his endless chaos had yet to fade, specifically because Eric was still alive and planning whatever they thought he was planning, perhaps Benoit should let it go for another month or so. For Jean’s sake, out of respect for his memory. No more after that. Loyalty to Jean and loyalty to his idiot friends were two entirely distinct ideas. One month, maybe less, likely less, and then he was doing his damn job again. Fuck this ‘please ignore us’ bullshit, as if Benoit was on their side.

‘Anti-Agents’. What a stupid name. He was glad Charlotte was dead, that traitor.

“KITTY!”

Shit. She was back. If she even glanced at that rope, he was gone.

“Yes, Miss Bergmann?”

“I AM GOING TO ELMIRA.”

God only knew what Frenchman was over there to terrorize.

“I’d help you pack, but you’d rape me as soon I pick something up.”

He reclined in her chair instead. She seemed displeased with his answer, probably because he has guessed her plan, and she stomped her foot as though that was going to change his mind.

“YOU ARE COMING.”

“I am not.”

She stomped her foot again. Benoit was unmoved and went back to his cigarette. He could light a new one off the look she gave him.

“I NEED YOU TO TELL ME WHO ELSE HE HAS IN MY BUILDING,” she said. “I WANT TO KNOW IF HE PUTS THEM ON THE AIRPLANE.”

“He will, most likely. Just assume the worst and you won’t need me.”

Now go away. He was still sore from ‘playtime’ and if she stayed here any longer, she’d be at it again.

“YOU ARE COMING!”

He regretted saying anything at all. Madeline was now paranoid, which she had demonstrated through her spy-system but was proving once more by doing this. Apparently Patten had been on the phone with Alexander – who had called who, why had they called, and what did this mean for what anyone had planned? – and mentioned ‘his guys’ that he had ‘keeping tabs’ on her. When pressed to explain, Benoit had politely informed her of what he’d thought she’d already knew: at least thirty of Eric’s people, all wearing suits and using them to stay out of sight, were scattered around her building. Two specifically were outside the medical bay, keeping watch over Gwendolyn Stewart’s door as the one legitimate use for any of them. Benoit didn’t know how long they had been there – she’d asked – or why they were there – she’d asked – or how Eric had gotten them inside her building in the first place – she’d asked that too, but he wasn’t psychic, obviously – but he was surprised she was only finding out now. There were so many of them and they’d popped up on his lenses like fireworks when he’d scanned her security screens. He’d even nodded to a few of them when he’d first entered, pleased they weren’t stupid enough to fight him as well, and she should have at least remembered Patten’s personal bodyguard would have been there. The thought had never crossed her mind. It wasn’t leaving it now.

“I have work to do here,” Benoit said. “It's the reason I came to Charlton. I am not about to leave before I’m finished.”

“AND WHAT DO YOU EXPECT TO DO? TRANSFER HERE? ALEXANDER IS AFTER GWENDOLYN. GWENDOLYN IS GOING TO ELMIRA. LET THE REVERSE TRANSFER COMPLETE AND THEN PICK OFF THE WEAKER ONE WHEN HE ARRIVES.”

Ha, ha. No.

“I’ll pass.”

KITTY!” Stop calling him that! “I AM ORDERING YOU –”

“Eric told me to stay.”

The beauty of that was Benoit could not be blamed, even around the order. He could break this chair across her head and she would love him all the same if he told her Eric had ordered it. Thank you, blind hatred. If he had known it would have been that easy from the start, he could have avoided so much more.

“YOU WILL NOT LEAVE THIS ROOM.” She was using her business voice. She must have meant it. Benoit puffed away politely. “YOU HAVE NO REASON TO LEAVE THIS ROOM. THE CAMERAS WILL LET YOU SEE WHAT YOU NEED TO SEE.”

Did she want him to guard this place? He could nearly guarantee that Eric’s staff had been in here already. Not now, but some time before.

“Just make sure your technicians are in place,” he said. “As I’ve mentioned, Alexander cannot manage the transfer alone.”

“I HAVE TOLD THEM TO ACT HELPLESS WHEN HE ARRIVES. THEY WILL BE IN PLACE,” she assured him. “HE WILL THINK HE HAS CAUGHT THEM HIMSELF.”

“Good to hear.” He waved. “Enjoy your flight.”

“YOU INSIST YOU WILL NOT JOIN ME?”

She was frowning at him. This one differed from the rest. It seemed... concerned about something. He would have to ask her.

“Is there any particular reason why I should want to?”

“SEX.”

Of course.

“Enjoy your flight, Miss Bergmann.”

Finally, she understood. And she had seemingly already packed. She had a smooth, black bag across her shoulder that he only saw when she turned to leave.

“LOCK THE DOOR. DO NOT LEAVE THIS ROOM.”

“Okay.”

She wasn’t gone.

“DO NOT LEAVE THIS ROOM.”

“Okay.”

“KITTY.”

And this was the second trick he had learned: he put a hand over his heart and dearly told her, “Bien sûr, ma vache.

She would have jumped him if she hadn’t been honest about leaving. He’d only said it because it threw her off the point she wouldn’t take an answer for.

“I KNOW WHAT YOU SAID.” And she loved it anyway. “WHEN I RETURN, I WILL BRING A STRONGER CHAIN.” ... Implying that was a gift of some kind. “AND YOU WILL BEHAVE.”

“I imagine that’d take the fun out of it for you,” he said from behind the arm he’d leaned on her desk. “Go. You’ll miss your flight, and then you’ll be stuck here with Eric.”

That did it. Finally, she left. She shut the door heavily and he lunged from his seat to lock it behind her. For the hell of it, he went to her security room – locking that door and claiming that chair, too – and watched her go down the halls. This was certainly a thorough set-up. There was no corner of her building untouched and the screens on both his right and left enjoyed a regular cycle of the other rooms. He turned his focus from the central screen, however. The less he had to look at Patten pretending to be Jean, the more sane he would be by the end of it. Besides, Madeline had gone directly to March. She had better have earplugs if they were going to be on a plane together.

YOU,” Madeline screeched the instant she was in earshot. That left her roughly at the other end of the hall. “WE ARE GOING TO ELMIRA. GET YOUR GIRL.” And then walk-walk-walk without another word or interest in a protest, which the fat one at March’s side had tried blubbering out.

Benoit had to admit that it was entertaining when it wasn’t directed at him, but now that she was gone, the headache was showing up. Where was the alcohol in this place? She was German – that had to schnapps in one desk or another. Which he found within seconds. Thank God for practise. He could down this, get drunk and sober up just in time for Alexander to be dealt with. Or he could drink through that, too. After all, he ‘wasn’t leaving this room’.

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#, as written by Ten
Xander? Sounded like the name of an alien from one of Rudy's Sci-fi shows. If that's what he'd answer to... Not that she really planned on addressing the Agent specifically, but it did make her a bit more comfortable giving him a name. But only a little bit.

Osono let out a testy breath when Alex started talking and responding to thin air, obviously having a conversation that she was hearing only part of. But she kept silent and waited with the patience of a boiling tea kettle, expecting to be included again at some point, while also paying attention and trying to gather as much as she could from Alex's words alone. Then he completely surprised her when he hit call and set the phone on the dashboard, the sound of a ringing chirping emitted from it's speakers. He'd...changed it so that she could hear what the other guy was saying when/if he finally answered. Caught off guard, she slowly released the burning heat she'd started to collect in the interior of the car, and relaxed just a few notches. It was enough of a gesture that she regained some of her original trust and she gave Alex a small, grateful look.

She listened quietly as he explained a bit more of what he knew about these people and the effect of his words got her pumped up, ready for a fight, again. His history with this Peter guy reminded her of Rudy - not that the situations were anything alike - and she wondered why that little geek hadn't tried something like that in the very beginning. There had been a time when she'd trusted and liked him and probably would have gone with him to an Agency base if he'd convinced her it was another one of his stupid conventions.

And once again, she was made aware of the "other" guy, when he vehemently interjected at the end, followed by Alex's voice trying to calm him down. She forgave herself for not noticing the differences earlier - that is...if 'Xander' had talked very much at all since she'd met him; she wasn't sure - because it DID sound like Alex was suddenly, violently pissed off. The transition between them was so smooth, she didn't realize the other one had spoken until Alex addressed him as if he had.

Osono involuntarily tightened her grip on the steering wheel and clenched her teeth when a woman's voice suddenly came out of the phone, talking like one of those people who were just a little too excited that they'd "found Jesus". After a minor bit of muttering - which she didn't get defensive about, for once - suddenly Alex sounded like he was trying to imitate Cindy in cheerful greeting. But there was something different enough about his tone, that she suspected Xander had taken the reigns again. It was tricky and most noticeable when the two talked to each other, but the change was there and she was starting to get the hang of identifying who was saying what.

Even as irritating as that phony, Cindy, was, Ozzie broke a small smirk and shook her head in amusement when Xander responded with a mocking gushiness, like a less than subtle ice pick stabbed into the cheerful woman's eye. And despite this entertaining back and forth continuing for a few rounds, the smirk eventually disappeared off her face when she remembered how serious things were. It wasn't a joke. Cindy had a typical receptionist flair of course - and was insufferably dim as well - but these people had databases and needed access codes to run computer searches. Not that this was news to Osono - it was why there was an Agent in the trunk - but she'd momentarily forgotten, when Cindy joined the conversation, that they were going to try to break into one of these places. And these people were a lot more organized and prepared than they were.

Xander lost his "fun" image when he was able to promptly provide a code and listed off numbers and letters in a level stream. Even when immediately after, he made another sarcastic gibe at the sickeningly happy woman, it didn't restore Osono's good humor. She was remembering how he'd handled that female Agent, like he was her boss or something, knowing things and getting her to obey him with barely any fight. And he'd known she'd have a phone on her and where he'd needed to look... There'd been a few moments there, where she would have been willing to accept him as being on their side, but his being an Agent was becoming a less and less comfortable prospect, by the minute.

During all of this, Ozzie had kept her eyes mainly on the road, of course, but when Alex started talking to himself again, she gave him a quick look, surreptitiously watching him. This. This is what those "hidden behind his hand" and "against his shoulder" conversations looked like when they were had out in the open. It was a little unsettling in that, 'Dude, there's no one there' way, but at the same time she found herself pitying him. Not just for the sort of pathetic 'specialness' that he exuded while doing it, and not just for the fact that he actually shared a body with someone he didn't like and didn't trust. But also because of what that had probably done to his life. Almost the entire time she'd been with him, Alex had a habit of muttering to himself and had tried to conceal this fact in different semi-casual - yet really obvious - ways. It was hard to imagine that it was easy for him to make friends. And from what he was saying, it sounded like Agents were constantly on his tail as well and that meant moving around from place to place. She definitely knew what that kind of life was like.

The sudden smile on his face made her think that possibly she was wrong to feel sorry for him, just like he would be if he felt that way towards her. He wasn't weak and he'd found a way to cope with things.

Cindy returned, filling the car with her upbeat voice again and said a bunch of things that Osono didn't quite understand. She couldn't really tell if Xander understood what she was talking about either. What was an 'absorbed account'? Was that when they put an Agent in someone's head? Then why was the 'overall' account, her boss, an Agent? Apparently, Xander thought it might be the same guy they were looking to talk to, so Cindy was thankfully gone again - hopefully, for good - when he ordered her to connect him to her boss.

It was sorta funny when Alex asked himself if he was 'going to go crazy' but she tensed just the tiniest bit when he warned her about Xander's tantrums. She didn't know quite what to expect, but if the anger he'd already displayed in just considering the possibility of Peter still being alive was any clue, then she imagined things would be worse if/when he actually ended up talking to the guy.

The first sign of life from the other end of the phone was...definitely not what she expected at all. Well...first of all, who the hell even says 'Whoopsie-doodle'? Except possibly 3 year-olds who liked making up words and bastardizing others in their own baby language. Osono's attention was drawn momentarily back to Alex again as he murmured something through clenched teeth - was he hurt? Was Xander doing something? - but then the sunshiny voice was coming back through the phone, prattling about something that didn't make sense to her. New hands...?

Everything about this rubbed her the wrong way. Not the phone call itself, or Alex talking to him and identifying him as 'Peter'. But the guy himself made her very uncomfortable in a way that she couldn't really define the root of. And she didn't want to. His voice made her feel threatened and uneasy and really angry, like a flutter in her gut and a random desire to send her fist through a glass window - despite everything about it being boisterously friendly and even possessing a sense of innocence. Wasn't that enough of a reason, to simply not like whoever he was?

It made her feel better to keep her eyes off the phone and on the road, but even as she paid attention to the growing, evening traffic, everything inside her was focused on the voice coming from the speaker. She bristled when he mentioned the 'restaurant', thinking that he was somehow involved in the attack on her and the capture of Gwen, but he sorta placed the blame back on Rudy again when he mentioned that lackeys could...what? Rent his army out for different missions or something? Wondering how many of this guy's "men" Rudy had signed out for, and thus wondering how many of Peter's men she'd killed over the years, she hoped it was a lot.

Then a chill ran through her, when the plan, THE plan that Alex had told her about - what the 'Agents' were trying to accomplish by abducting people - actually came straight from Peter's mouth, in plain English. And the joyful detachment from the words themselves made her feel sick all over again about Rudy. This guy was so...happy. He knew exactly what the Agents were doing and he seemed perfectly alright with the reasons why. Was Rudy like that? If he was after her...he had to know what was eventually going to happen to her, didn't he? Peter's cheerful attitude also put her in mind of Rudy's "best friend" act. The apathetic distance that covered his true intent and allowed him to smile breezily while he attempted to slaughter her. Or, if they believed Peter's reasoning, "merely" torture and identity theft.

A new sound appeared alongside Peter's voice and Osono glared when the man flippantly brought up the fact that he was currently in the middle of interrogating and killing someone. And Alex had said she'd fit right in with these people. Did he really think she was like that? Now that she knew and understood what they were like, she was actually offended by what he'd said.

For several minutes, while Peter talked and basically answered Alex's questions about their plans, she blinked and sneered a little bit at the phone as if it had done something horribly, disgustingly wrong. He was actually telling Alex their plans??? Seriously, even after she heard that aggravatingly cheerful voice coming through the speakers like a Cherub had begun floating around inside the car, Osono would have believed that this guy was sharp, if someone told her that he was. And the fact that he apparently was causing death and pain for those around him and seemed to revel in it, just made his menacing factor shoot through the roof. But now he was handing out their plans as if Alex had performed some agile, verbal-slight-of-hand to get it.

She was momentarily distracted from wondering if the guy was a moron or not, when she heard that sound again and cocked her head to the side a little, and leaned towards the phone, as if trying to draw the noise out more clearly. Something about it tickled at her brain, but she couldn't figure out what it was. Whenever Peter wasn't talking, then Alex was and she couldn't get a clear grasp on the choking sounds. Then she sat back in her seat with a disturbed frown when she realized the morbidity of trying to hear the sounds of someone dying. But still, even as the conversation continued and that gagging became somewhat audible between words or in small pauses, she could not shake the feeling that--

Alex's warning had faded by now, so she was unprepared for Xander's enraged outburst and nearly jumped out of her skin when he screamed. Thankfully, she kept the Audi steady, but she blinked at him warily and the car was filled with a surge of heat as Xander went on to threaten and verbally abuse the Agent on the phone. Wow. She'd been really, really wrong when she suspected he'd try and reveal their plans in some way to his Agent "friend". She knew a lot of it had to do with the past he had with this guy, but she didn't truly understand Xander's verge-of-insanity anger until Peter spelled it out for her: his body. His original body(they kept those? Ew). That's what they were going to Charlton to do. That's why Alex was not going to be able to fight for a while when they got there. And she didn't really know how to feel about that...

Again, she felt like she was missing crucial parts of the puzzle when Peter talked about himself and mentioned "trying out a few powers" and needing something that was bright and flashy, as if he'd been considering taking Alex's back when they'd known each other. How many times could an Agent be taken out and put back into people's heads? How many people could one Agent jump into? How many powers did this Peter guy have? Did he still have them if Xander had killed him - or at least the person who's brain he'd taken over? And about that...

Osono glanced at Alex when Peter mentioned 'sunglasses with holes through them' and she wondered what exactly it was that he could do. Until very recently, she'd assumed that he was weaker than her - although, still pretty skilled with fighting - and that she'd be able to take him out without breaking a sweat if he caused her any problems. But now...she wasn't so sure. He had an Agent in his head - which she was starting to get a better and better view of their menacing qualities, as well as Xander's capacity for rage and violence - AND he did something that could cause seizures and possibly break through sunglasses. Not a terribly big threat, but it was the unknown that made her cautious - how much bigger did things get, beyond that point? And plus, Peter seemed to know a lot about Alex and Xander and even he was surprised and impressed by his attack power.

Then Peter asked one more senseless question and hurried through a very emotional dismissal of the Agent they'd captured and hung up with his bizarre farewell still echoing in her ears. Even though the pressure of the man's presence had officially "left" she did not relax, instinctively knowing that things weren't over as Alex began talking to Xander again.

Whether out of a nervousness about how she'd react - because she was obviously capable of sadistically taking joy and pleasure out of killing people, remember? - or out of genuine politeness towards her, Ozzie was grateful when he transferred the conversation to out in the open for her, again. And now that they'd returned to their side-by-side back-and-forth, she was immediately able to pick out the different inflections in each of their voices - Xander being a faster talker with a fiercer tone of voice, while Alex wasn't exactly calmer, but his tone and pace were steadier.

She was distracted from their resumed planning when Xander openly berated Alex for missing an important detail regarding Peter's revelations - something which she didn't even think he said in this conversation but which Alex was expected to remember about the guy they hadn't seen in years. It wasn't that it was unfounded or the mean name he used, but she ended up getting defensive about what he'd said, anyway. Was he the one? The one who kept being a dick to her through this trip? The one who kept on bringing Rudy up like he knew the guy the way that she knew him? Thinking back...she wasn't sure; she couldn't tell the difference between them from her memories - he'd never sounded like he was someone else, except when they'd fooled the Agent woman. Other than a natural bite to his voice when he got angry or when he was saying something to hurt her, she didn't recognize or see it like she could now.

Well, she was assuming it was Xander who'd said those things - from the point when she'd even discovered he existed to now, he'd been a bit of a sarcastic, hateful jerk and Alex had been the calm, rational, and reasonable one. And now she felt guilty that this whole time, she'd just thought Alex was an asshole, when it was more likely the Agent in his head blurting shit out.

These new realizations and conclusions were practically confirmed when Alex asked a fairly reasonable set of questions - questions she DEFINITELY wanted a straightforward answer to - and instead of answering them, Xander threatened to jump out into traffic! Not only was she annoyed because it was an immature thing to do, but he seriously, arrogantly expected when he vaguely hinted that he might double-cross them, that he shouldn't be fucking called on it! Even when he did explain himself - which...actually turned out to be a reasonable point - he acted like these were things that should have been obvious to everyone else. Which they weren't - how were they suppose to know what was in his or Peter's heads. He acted like, despite being an AGENT, he shouldn't be expected to explain himself if he implied that he might be willing to rejoin the other side. If she didn't know any better, she'd think that he was being a bit too defensive and uncooperative.

Then with a few last fired words, the tantrum was over and Alex was hesitantly attempting to smooth over the dust he'd kicked up in his rage. And she really felt bad then, because of how much she'd hated him before and realizing that he hadn't deserved any of it. He was the one who was actually trying to connect, here. They could have saved themselves a lot of trouble if she'd known there were two people in there rather than just assuming Alex was only nice to her to manipulate her and/or make her let her guard down to then lash out at her again. Stupid, Xander! The sooner we get rid of him, the better!

She couldn't tell if he was being sarcastic about her getting along with Xander, but she dryly said, "Yeah. He's a real sweetheart." And she paused to roll her eyes. "Anyways, I guess the plan really doesn't change then, huh? I mean, there's the possibility that we'll need to kill the guy that's in your head, once you get him out."

She stopped and pressed her lips together, glancing down at the GPS - their little car-arrow was practically on top of the star marking Charlton - and at it's direction, she turned off of the highway. Fighting with Xander or provoking him would not be a good idea right now, even though she was very willing to tear into him for the way he'd been treating her and the way he'd been treating Alex. She thought about Alex and how he'd be stuck in the middle - again; just like the other times she'd exploded on Xander for saying something crass. He shared a body with this guy so she'd basically be yelling in his face too, probably making it more difficult for him to control and calm the guy in his head. And as fired up as she was about everything, including the sticky situation where she didn't even want Xander to be in Charlton with her anymore, she realized he'd just gotten off the phone with a really bad guy and probably could use a break from constantly getting slugged in the face. But she wasn't going to forget!

"You were right though," she said, the car smoothly following the curving road and casting long shadows on the guardrail and foliage beyond. "I really...had no idea what they were like. That guy..." She shook her head and scowled out the windshield, hearing Peter's sunshine voice flippantly discussing murder in her head again and burning up inside with the desire to beat the shit out of him. "I think I have a little bit better understanding of what these people are like. Even though Rudy has never shown me anything like that." There was...something nudging in the back of her head, but she couldn't quite grasp it. And then it was gone.

She shrugged. "I think the plan will still work as it is. What more could we add to 'charge inside throwing fists and kicks, you...getting his body back while I stand guard, and then searching for Gwen while we burn our way out' that wouldn't take into account something worse suddenly appearing in our way? And you can whip out the 'sunglasses destroyer' move when things get really tough."

Wait...what had that guy said about Gwen? He'd said someone was already working on the 'transfer' - which she now knew/assumed meant 'sticking an Agent into her head'. "That guy...Peter...he said Gwen was going somewhere else, didn't he? Elmira." He'd said "they" when he mentioned it, so that meant that "Maddy", or whoever, wasn't going there alone. Wherever Gwen was going, Ozzie was going to follow. They were going to get her out of there.

As they started passing a few houses and shops dotting the roadside here and there, the setting sun painting everything orange, the GPS finally spoke up, informing them that the arrow had reached the star on the map. Letting out a reluctant sigh, Osono said, "Alright...now where is this place? Xander, do you know? Or do we just drive around and sorta hope that we'll know it when we see it?"

The city rose up around them and lights were starting to be turned on along the streets, mimicking daylight in the encroaching twilight as they passed shops, a hotel and a college campus with a large, illuminated football field. She thought about how the other building they'd broken into looked, but from the outside, it'd just been like any other office building. Osono didn't want to waste any more time. Gwen was heading off somewhere and they had to get to her before her "transfer" happened and now they were being expected while something just as big, if not bigger was being expected right around the same time.

"Let's pull over and wake up catsuit-lady; she might know where it is. That is, if you're up to playing pretend again, Mr. Agent." She tried to sound sympathetic, but now she couldn't shake the impatience and scorn from her voice, so ended up just sounding reluctantly tolerant instead.

****


Okay, this was bad. And he was completely willing to own all of the blame for not being able to breathe right now. Except...it was totally that Jason dude's fault. Rudy knew something was wrong as soon as the big guy started smiling, but what exactly the problem was didn't "click" until that familiar happy voice started coming from the giant's mouth. Seriously. How the hell did he fuck that one up?

He knew that wimpy guy Steph ran off with wasn't the A-1! But damn Jason told him she was with Patten, which at the time, Rudy assumed he meant they were in an illicit relationship AND that they were upstairs engaging in such illicit activities right at that moment. That fat guy was the only one she seemed even remotely interested in, with her hands pawing all over him and calling him pet names. She hadn't even looked at this muscle-head once! So, clearly, the idiot wearing that gay-ass suit was the one to blame for getting him confused, and Rudy was going to make damn sure the goggle-wearing asshole paid for putting him in the massive hold of this sunny Sith Lord. Just as soon as he finished making the list of "Important Things to Ask Immediately When Meeting Someone for the Very First Time" which #1 of course was "WHAT IS YOUR FREAKING NAME?"!

Clinging to Eric's thick wrist with both of his hands, Rudy continued to gag while the guy ignored him and chatted happily on his phone. And Rudy listened, despite being a bit light-headed and his lungs burning as they struggled to suck air through the tiny straw that his throat had become. Trying to absorb anything he could use to improve his current situation, he found himself distracted from choking AND mentally recording names, when Eric painted a picture of what was clearly a description of the body transfer. He said he'd tried to do that to the guy on the other line, so.... the person he was talking to was a target?

Immediately Rudy thought of his own target, Ozzie, wondering where she was. Briefly he released his weak hold on Patten's arm and out of habit, reached a shaky hand halfway down to his pocket before he remembered his phone was not in there. Everything had gotten so complicated...especially when he'd started his revenge quest against Gwen and Noel. He hadn't had time to stop and check if Ozzie was okay and what her location was. But he'd been confident the entire time that delivering Gwen would secure his life and that blackmailing Stephanie would get him his rank back. He'd assumed that he would be able to return to his case and pursuit without any more trouble or bumps in the road.

And now he was probably going to die. Most likely the next person assigned to the case would be able to capture Osono instantly. He'd completely lowered her expectations to the point where she had no real concept of what a team of Agents could do with a well thought out plan, and he'd utilized the very efficient and infallible Heat-Spectrum Analyzer in tracking her(which wasn't it's original use). She was especially done for when the new Lead thought up the ingenious idea to use flame-retardant suits and water hoses - which any sane person would, right away - to weaken her further and ensure a speedy victory. And with him dead, Noel would no doubt be able to move onto her transfer, finally, after all these years. Erasing Osono and taking over her body and powers... He disagreed with Patten. The body transfer WAS death, and Rudy had basically killed her.

Getting angry for no reason whatsoever, Quin continued to wheeze and choke around intended curses as his neck spasmed within the A-1's grasp, and the wounded Agent pulled and tugged at a thick finger, feebly attempting to dislodge his hold while glaring at him through swollen bruises. Which actually turned out to be another bad idea when the hand around his neck absent-mindedly - and...playfully - tightened in response and Patten bragged about Rudy's current situation to whoever he was talking to. Yeah, 'Teehee! He was havin' a fuckin' blast and feeling closer to Patten already! Close enough to hit him with the Aurora as soon as the Incredible Hulk's back was turned!

As soon as the guy had grabbed him and lifted him like a weed being yanked up from the ground - and it took exactly that much effort for the colossus to do it - Rudy had frantically begun stumbling over an apology for the inappropriate things he'd said, begging and whimpering for mercy. Fuck that. He was pissed now! ...He still wasn't really sure why he was mad...but he wasn't going to let some pompous, smiling freak push him around! He came here to make some deals and get his demotion reversed and he wasn't going to take 'no' for an answer - even if it came in the form of putting him in a grave. And there was no way in hell that he was going to let some phony try and take his case from him!

Rudy blinked hazily through a struggling gasp when it started to sound like the A-1 was detailing their/his ambush plan to the target on the phone - who he now knew was Xander/Alexander aka "Ben"; the psychotic loser who attacked him in the bathroom at the restaurant - and for several minutes he began to wildly wonder why Patten would do that. Then he realized he didn't care and faded out for the rest of the one-sided conversation, trying to figure out what he was going to do about this current "neck problem" he was having. Patten had told the other guy that he wanted information out of Quin, so that meant he was going to put him down and allow him to talk at some point. So Rudy had to figure out what information the A-1 wanted and how much he was going to give him. If he spilled everything right away, Eric would kill him once he wasn't useful anymore. But if he didn't tell him enough, he'd probably kill Rudy anyways just for jerking him around.

Finally, Patten was hanging up his phone and addressing him with an overly friendly tone of voice. Rudy struggled with his throat to force curses out, making more wet, garbled choking sounds, but Patten was no longer looking at him as someone else entered the room and started talking--!!! Jason! That dick! Put me down! I'm gonna fucking kill him! Rudy would have liked to move his arms in a vague, clawing motion at the bastard who'd gotten him into this mess - or at the very least make a menacing 'I'm watching you' gesture - but everything below his shoulders was drained of strength and a little numb. No wonder, with his lack of oxygen, bruises that littered his body from head to toe and all the blood that had poured out of him during the course of the day.

Momentarily, Rudy was distracted from his exhausted hate when he focused on what the other guy was saying and...it suddenly became clear to him why he'd been tricked. So Jason had gotten a taste of poon-tang! Wait...he and Patten were knocking boots with the same woman? Well, not really surprising - it was Stephanie afterall. The thing that shocked him was that the A-1 seemed to be aware of the other relationship but didn't seem all that jealous. Then again, maybe it was a strictly "business" thing, rather than an actual, loving affair. Rudy could totally sympathize with that.

His musings were cut short as he was suddenly dropped, and for the first breath of a second when the hand released him and he fell, his mind giddily celebrated his freedom. Then he landed and pain exploded in his side, back and hip and he lay in a crumpled heap, gasping and trying to re-inflate his burning lungs. Mobility slowly returned to him through the fog of agony, giving him a feeble control over his limbs, and his head laid sideways on the ground, watching the two men continue talking in a slanted angle. At the moment, he didn't focus on what was said, only glad that Patten was now thoroughly distracted by his rival, and frantically tried to goad his body into responding to him, urging himself to get up and shoot the damn bastard while he wasn't paying attention. Sadly, the struggle took longer than he wanted it to, so he was groaning and wincing his way into a sitting position by the time Patten was turning back to him.

He didn't let himself stop and think, but pushed himself up off the ground with a burst of fear and rage, stifling the moan of pain that threatened to explode from his lips as he wavered and stumbled on his feet. His hand quickly retreated into his pocket and back out again, and he took several steps back from Patten while tiny bits of metal flew up and coalesced into a menacing, oblong mass covering his right hand. His shoulder protested from him using that arm, but he ignored the aching bullet wound as he gestured violently with the gun pointing at the A-1, and screaming a string of angry obscenities.

"Stay the fuck away from me, you crazy son of a bitch!" he shrieked, his voice reaching a higher pitch than it was used to and breaking as his throat protested. He paused only a moment to cough several times and swallow painfully before his mouth was running a mile a minute again, keeping the Aurora pointed steady at the taller man's broad chest and charged with a neon orange glow. "How the fuck was I suppose to know who you were? It's an easy mistake to make - you look nothing like a flamboyant, homicidal fruitcake - which, by the way, just so you know, that is exactly what you sound like on the phone. And I bet I'm supposed to say 'I'm sorry' now, for all the things I said about you behind your back but technically to your face, right? Well, I'm not! I'm glad you got told off - I bet it rarely happens, huh? 'Cause you're so fricking 'badass' and shit! - and I'm doubly glad it was me that got to say it!" He paused only a second to think that over.

"And I hope you die of rape-cancer!" he said with bravado, attempting to stand his ground but inching further and further out of Patten's reach, as if he might suddenly spring forth at any second and grab ahold of him again. "That restaurant thing? I told you before; that was Noel's fault! I didn't issue one order to those guys! I didn't even talk to them! I had MY plan and then Noel thought she'd be cute by grabbing my attention in the middle of the fight. So, your guys or not, it had nothing to do with YOU! She knew they'd probably die and she did it to get back at me! Demote her!"

His heart was pounding fiercely in his chest and his blood was running hot through his veins, sweat starting to form and collect on his body through his shirt, chilling him. It was intoxicating talking back to this high-ranking asshole as if he, Rudy, was the one in control for once. As if he had nothing to lose. But his insides had completely turned to water at the thought that he'd irrevocably passed the point of turning back: he was threatening an A-1 with a weapon and cursing him out; this wasn't technically something he was suppose to survive from. But the thought of death just made him angry again when he imagined someone else taking over his case.

"You will not lay a hand on me again. My father owns and runs the very large and illustrious Quin® food products company and he has generously contributed billions of dollars in funds to the Agency's pockets. He knows where I am and he would not be happy to learn of my death. And I don't think your boss would be pleased to get slapped with a fucking lawsuit and murder charge, in addition to losing a very good financial friend in the business world." Alright, so he was completely talking out of his ass now. His dad really did own a big snack food company and Rudy was aware that at different times in his Agency career, money from heaven had come raining down to save him from any trouble he was currently in. But he had no idea how deep Quin® was connected with Salcon or the Agency itself. Knowing his father...he would never stick his neck out far enough to risk damaging the empire he'd spent his entire life building. And Rudy lied about that too; there was nobody in his family who would give a rat's ass if he died. They all hated him, just like everybody else.

And just in case that wasn't enough to discourage the man from attacking him again and possibly crushing his skull or breaking his neck this time, Rudy pointed the gun a smidgen to the right and fired a warning shot. A flash of orange light exited the mouth of the gun, sped across the room and disappeared into the wall to the right of the door, accompanied by soft, electrical "whispering" sounds that grew in volume at the impact. Currents of electricity raced through the metal of the wall and slightly tugged and warped the door out of shape with a small metallic whine, like a beefy poltergeist was making it's presence known with a minor display of strength. With the gun pointing back at Patten he said, "What's blackmail without a little 'hee hee, now your insides are all turned into flan'? Just give me a reason; I'm excited to see how 'badass' you still look when I fill your body with a thousand amps of electrically charged hyper beams. Actually...I'm just really curious how many times I'll have to shoot you, to kill you." He was a lot bigger than other people Rudy had used the gun on. Could the Aurora take him down with one hit?

His eyes danced for a split second over to Jason's form on the ground and he remembered,"It wasn't hard to guess that you were boning Steph. Back when I knew her, she was sleeping with everybody, including higher-ups. I thought, 'Hey, why not an A-1?' you know? It's how she's advanced her own agenda before and with you wrapped around her finger, I'm sure she could pretty much do whatever the fuck she wants. Listen, I don't care what you people do, take turns with her or have a threesome or...whatever! I'm so over her now - although I'll admit, it was really freaking hot getting her to play rough with me today; she hasn't lost any of the sexy, wild rage that she's always had. Anyways, I don't want to cause anybody trouble, alright? But I will if I have to. I want--"

His back finally hit one of those over-sized pickle jars, but he didn't chance a glance at it, keeping his eyes on Patten, and looking for all the world like a rabid and bloody little raccoon, backed into a corner. "I need my rank back. I can't do anything as a fucking A-5! And no one is going to lay their grubby paws on my case! Osono is MINE!" That came out a little more vehemently and possessively than he'd intended, but he brushed it off and pressed on. "I've been working this for 6 fucking years. Undercover. I know everything about her and have her whole life and every aspect of her personality and powers freaking burned into my brain tissue! That controlling, sadistic bitch, Noel, doesn't even come close to matching me and she's the one who's going to eventually get something out of it when we finally catch her. I've worked too hard on this to let someone else take the reigns and run the show.

"Over the years, I've cut her every connection with the real world, isolated her and kept her drifting and scared and I've done it all while STILL keeping up the act of being her friend. She knows ME. She trusts ME. I'M her only fucking friend in the whole world and it's MY god dammed hunt; MY glory for finally bringing her in. I want my freaking rank back, you... crazy... Care Bear with a growth hormone problem!" Rudy glowered as intensely as he could with his swollen features, standing with the red glow of the tank pressing against his back - he could feel it, the light. It was cold, like clammy death curling it's corpsey fingers over his shoulders.

"Make me an A-3 again, full Lead over Osono's case, and I'll forget all about you and Steph and I'll never mention it to anyone. I won't tell people about her and Jason and what I know about her and Graninger, either. It might have been a long time ago, but I'm certain that it will cast doubt on her entire career if people were to find out that she had an affair with our training supervisor. I have proof and I have dates - you can check the records yourself and see exactly when she started getting 'high marks'. I'm not lying and I'm not bluffing. But that's all I want and I swear, just sign the paperwork and you'll never hear from me again."

Finally, he stopped and took a breath, swallowing the uncomfortable dryness in his throat while watching Patten warily, his gun still targeted at the giant. Yes, this was a good idea. Things would be fine. It wasn't how he usually did things, threatening and intimidating people to make them do what he wanted - annoying them worked well enough most of the time, but it wasn't going to fly with this guy. Patten only spoke in the language of force and violence. So, he didn't have a choice and it was one of the last cards he had left in his hand. He was going to fight to keep Osono, even if it meant he'd lose everything else.

"Do we have a deal?"

****


As soon as the leather straps were loosened and removed and her feet touched the floor, Gwen was moving as quick and as far from Noel as she possibly could. But she didn't seem to have much to fear from the female Agent who completely ignored her now, in favor of standing and staring at the door in the corner of the room. Gwen could sense that she was dangerous, but even as Noel's fingers, like spider legs, curled around the neglected scalpel and held it in her fist, all of her rage and pain was directed at the couple she thought was currently occupying the closet. By now, things had escalated to a more vocal level behind the wooden door - Good Lord, Karen! Now she was just being obnoxious! He wasn't that good! - and as she listened, Noel's mind swarmed with intense and grisly fantasies of revenge.

Apparently, the original psychic suggestion of Gwen's plan to 'anonymously release her and let Rudy and Stephanie destroy each other while trying to fix the problem' had been tossed out the window. Untying Gwen had invigorated the small, blonde woman, filling her with a sense of abandon and a thrilling freedom, to the point that 'not getting caught letting a target go' no longer mattered. All that filled her mind was Rudy, and she was eager for a confrontation with the lovers, hopefully ending in one or both of their deaths. She didn't even seem to care about dying, so long as she got to spill Rudy's blood. To own him in his final moments...

Shivering at the intensity of that obsession, Gwen retreated from the Agent's mind and left her standing by the cot to continue plotting her murder-suicide vengeance, alone. Making her way to the door, she cautiously peeked through the vertical, rectangular window set in the top left corner, about eye-level and above the doorknob. It was really dark in the hallway and even as hard as she squinted in both directions, Gwen couldn't make out any light-sources illuminating what was beyond the room. Nothing, except the small square of light spilling from the sick bay window onto the floor, now half shadowed with Gwen's invasive silhouette.

Licking her lips and pressing them together in concentration, she psychically reached out to see if there was anyone out there or anyone nearby that she might accidentally run into while trying to make her escape. There wasn't - at least not in this hallway - but she got a very strong feeling that something wasn't right. In a few rooms nearby, Gwen could feel the mental signatures of several Agents flickering like a bunch of candles spread out in a dark, cavernous space. Most of those minds, she couldn't see into - they had efficient, internal walls to block her - but she could still get a living impression off of everybody who was within her current reach. This hallway...it wasn't empty but there was no one out there. At least, no one she could sense, and she wasn't really sure what to make of that or how she should move forward.

Sudden movement from behind caught her eye but by the time she focused her abilities back onto Noel and half-turned to see her, it was too late, her hands grabbing greedily onto Gwen and pulling her from the door. Once she was over the initial shock of the attack, Gwen's body remembered her self-defense classes and she lifted her arm and her bent elbow flew back to strike the Agent in the face. As confident as Gwen was in her ability to protect herself, that rapidly changed when Noel immediately fought back. The female Agent dodged her strikes effortlessly, feinting attacks and her fists rushed past Gwen's defenses much faster than she could move to block them, proving with just a few swift movements who was more skilled between them. And Noel did not have the reservations or caution that Stephanie did for her target, so when the blows landed, they did so with the savage intent to cause pain and crippling injury.

It took less than 4 minutes for Gwen to become disoriented and fall to the floor on her back, deposited there by a dislodging sweep of the Agent's foot. And Noel immediately pounced on her, straddling Gwen mid-chest and high on her abdomen, her skirt riding up to bare her thighs but remaining unconcerned about modesty in her vicious glee. After a small bit of maneuvering, the blonde woman had Gwen's arms positioned under each knee, using her weight to keep them in place. She might have appeared to be a female version of Rudy as far as height went, but there was nothing frail or weak about her, Noel's slender form possessing more than enough muscle and weight to put pressure on the body beneath her and keep it from moving.

Gwen shook and squirmed helplessly, breathing heavily with a bleeding nose and a cut on her lip, blue eyes staring anxiously at the woman above her. Noel cocked her head to the side, honey locks falling prettily over her shoulder, and gave her a sickly sweet smile, once again flashing her neat, cute, chipmunk teeth. "I've thought it over," she politely informed Gwen, with no sign in her lilting accent of being out of breath. "And I think it would hurt Stephanie a lot more if I were to kill you instead. It's a much more permanent punishment, wouldn't you agree?"

Sometime while Gwen had left her alone, Noel's internal walls had returned, standing firmly in place once again, blocking her thoughts and emotions from Gwen's sight. Even so, Gwen realized she was still unfazed about getting caught. Obviously, things had escalated to a 'If I'm going to burn, then I might as well bathe in gasoline' mentality.

She hadn't realized it until now, but the sounds from the closet had changed, and she briefly extended her mental reach in that direction at the same time that she dragged her eyes away from the woman sitting on her. Things had come to their expected conclusion in the small, dark space amidst the supply shelves, the afterglow make-out session completed and clothes being returned to their former positions - albeit with a button or two torn from Todd's uniform in a violent fit of passion. And now, the spontaneous lovers were seeking to leave their impromptu hovel of romance. Except they couldn't. Before she came after Gwen, Noel had shoved a metal chair under the door knob, jamming it shut, with the intent to keep from being interrupted while she finished Gwen off. And both of the closet's occupants were fairly distressed about this fact and made such known with muffled, urgent calls for help and heavy banging on the inside of the door, while continuing to fruitlessly twist the door knob.

Her eyes latched back onto Noel and she tensed when she realized the Agent had brought the scalpel with her, and was sitting with it perched teasingly between her dainty forefingers. Her eyes were not on Gwen but on the thin instrument held suspended before her, dreamily absorbed in the smooth metallic surface, but not distracted or relaxed in the least. Licking her lips nervously, and ignoring the taste of blood, Gwen decided to try to manipulate the woman and possibly get her to let her guard down again. If she could just upset her enough to make her lose control, Gwen could get back inside her head and possibly steer her in a more submissive - and gentle - direction.

"You never confronted your father for what he did," as soon as Gwen started speaking, those pretty, dark orbs had shifted down to her, seemingly surprised by her victim's sudden desire to talk. Trying not to let her fear show, Gwen pressed on, encouraged by the woman's attentive silence. "All these years, holding that pain inside, letting the hate grow. Torturing and abusing men, punishing them for daddy's sin."

Noel quickly recovered from her shock and cleared her throat, arching a condescending eyebrow. "I don't know what--"

"Yes, you do." Uncertainty flickered in those bright eyes in response to the confidence swelling in Gwen's voice. Drawing from Noel's memories when they connected earlier, she attempted to ignore her vulnerable position as her voice grew stronger. "It's a vile thing for a 5 year old to suffer through, made even more monstrous since he continued to do it for 13 years. Taking advantage of you, violating your trust and love for him. Even when you left, you could never escape the agony of his abuse. Always feeling him in the room with you and your lovers. And now you've become the predator, the bloodsucker. Not just of the men you hurt and sleep with, but yourself as well. Taking daddy's place as the abuser of that little girl."

Gwen didn't need to see into the woman's head to know that her words were having an effect. Her brown eyes had a glassy shine to them now, fixated on Gwen, and her pitiful expression strongly resembling a fragile and lost child. And she paused, psychically probing at Noel's mind as she felt a sudden weakening in resistance, like attempting to peel a stubborn sticker, digging at a loose edge with her fingernails. Just a little more...

"He may have twisted and corrupted your love, but you're not unlovable. You've survived and you're strong; you can still heal. And Rudy could still love you, if you let him. If you finally made peace with what happened."

Then it was gone, the blocks slamming back into place and those shining eyes instantly lost their helpless and despairing expression. "Silly girl," Noel murmured, smiling in a detached way, one eye blinking a second faster than the other. "It's 28 years too late for me. I'm afraid I'm beyond fixing. As for Rudolph, he could never love me. He has no space in his heart for anybody but himself."

Gwen grew cold when the scalpel took center stage again, and she searched for something else she might be able to goad the Agent with to keep Noel from killing her. And she internally berated herself for how much she'd miscalculated things. Shit! I almost had her!

"Since you're so interested in my relationship with Quin, I suppose I could teach you a little more about it before you die," she offered breezily, regaining the threatening posture in her skinny form. With the grace and attitude of a sadistic child, she brought the scalpel down to touch flesh, Gwen's whole body going rigid beneath the Agent's weight. Gently, the cool metal of the surgical knife trailed across her cheek, over her chin and down her neck, following the carotid artery down to her collar bone. It wasn't cutting her - yet - but Gwen could feel it's pointed tip lightly dragging over her skin, and she tried not to move, whimpering softly as her heart pulsed a harsh and erratic beat.

"Rudy always loves this game..." Noel said in a soft whisper, her eyes no longer seeing Gwen but looking through her.
As soon as she stopped touching him and fell silent, things began to rapidly change inside of her. During her little speech, with the help of the Lachesis, the EDP had coated her insides with a thick varnish, dulling every emotion. But now, in the resumed silence and no longer touching his warm body and skin, the internal seal was hardening, every muscle and nerve of her face loosened to the point where she couldn't even feel it anymore. Stephanie didn't have a face; a stone block sat in it's place on the front of her skull. The crushing weight of it would have made her collapse to the ground if every other muscle in her body wasn't tightened rigidly, her limbs and spine turning into steel girders. Her nerves hummed with life, vibrating with a concentrated readiness for action and movement and inside, her emotions or even shades of them were silent, allowing the other, logical parts of her brain to work freely, unhindered by distractions.

When Jason spoke, she stared blankly, waiting for him to say more, instinctively knowing he wasn't finished. Explain, was the level, monotone thought as she watched him with a reserved distance. Even as dead as her emotions currently were, she was still waiting to hear what she'd asked for, expecting him to at least indicate in some way that he understood the plan and was dedicated to it. Dedicated to her. This was Master's plan and it would work. It only made sense. Despite her reluctance to do Benoit's job for him, the two cases were practically inseparable. Alexander was a threat and if Benoit couldn't or wouldn't stop him, then Stephanie and her team would. Simple.

She blinked in a noncommittal manner when he spoke up again, his voice indicating that he was worried she'd get the wrong idea about what he'd said and possibly become upset about what she thought he meant. She didn't and she wasn't. There wasn't any muscle twitch, fleeting glance or nuance in his voice that escaped her rabid attention, so she did not and could not misinterpret his meaning. Now she waited with excruciatingly flawless patience for him to actually tell her what she wanted to hear. Stephanie watched as he thought things through silently, working the different pieces together, little muscles in his brow and around his mouth twitching and flexing as different thoughts and ideas passed through and were examined. Saw the concern in his eyes as he looked her over. So, she already anticipated what he was going to say before the words actually came from his mouth.

He was being foolish. A part of her that had gotten used to her emotions, expected to feel relieved and even adoringly excited about his choice. That same part expected to be angry that he would dare disobey her AND the Master, when she'd clearly detailed to him all of the risks involved. But those useless feelings never came up and thus she was not distracted by their influence on her decisions. Like a calculator balancing an equation, she went over the different options and how she should proceed.

He wasn't coming with her. She'd meant everything she'd said to him - even the more emotional parts. She could not trust Benoit and Jason was the only one available with all of the necessary skills. Alexander had gotten in the way before and had been traveling with her target over a span of 2-3 days. With Gwen's powers, and the life-threatening situation, it was plenty of time for the two to gain emotional and psychological attachments.

Briefly, she calculated the probability of Alexander following her to Elmira once he discovered Gwen's whereabouts. There was a big enough risk - especially if he lived through the ambush AND had his original body back, forcing them to deal with 2 men - that she decided it wasn't worth it to depend on the possibility of Alexander disappearing into the woodwork again once he and the guest were separated. Once they split and their power was divided, it might be easy to eliminate first one and then the other. But it might not as well - if Alexander had been living with the ex-Agent in his head this whole time, he might have learned a thing or two to help himself stay alive and the two might be stronger working together. The easiest and most vulnerable time to get rid of both men was during or immediately after the reverse transfer. Simple.

This was a good plan and she wasn't going to change her mind. However, she could see very clearly, through the waves of emotion on his face, that trying to convince him further would only waste time and breath - and since he seemed to be responding negatively to her EDP shroud, it might even make things worse if she tried. She could directly deny any romantic attachments to him, wounding him intentionally so that he'd return to acting professionally and obey her without question. But it was unpredictable how he would react to that once she was gone, and what he might do in his anger if he then felt betrayed and cheated.

Stephanie wanted to believe, in such a situation, that he'd remember himself and his duties, his record and his reputation, and do his best to finish the mission and get it over with. But he wasn't acting rationally at the moment, and the current state of his record and reputation might make him think that it was unsalvageable and increase his chances of sabotaging the case out of spite. And even though she could not feel anything right now, she knew she did really like him. Even if he did his job right and everything turned out as planned, such a course of action would taint any relationship they might want to have after the dust finally settled.

She understood, even without him explaining, why he said he was coming with her. Earlier, in an overwhelming burst of emotion, she'd forced him to promise to stay with her, erroneously thinking that he was the glue that held her together. Which she could see now, wasn't true. She was fine now. And she would be fine. Her mind had never felt more clear and focused and her body felt like a volatile weapon. She knew what she needed to do and she had a direct path pointing her towards her goals. The Lachesis played a big part in her current state of mind, but she had plenty of it left to ensure she could keep going right up until the transfer. And there was always the third vial after that...

She also knew he was concerned about the long-term effects the drugs might have on her, and that he felt obligated to look after her. There were some risks with depending on the drug, but she knew her limits and she could handle this by herself. She was a grown woman.

Stephanie could see clearly his devotion to her and the case and on the one hand it was admirable, but on the other, she knew it wasn't his job that he was thinking of. And that was completely her fault for not taking control of herself earlier. If he confronted Master and stood up to him, there was the possibility that the A-1 would get angry and take even more from him for the offense--

He was turning away from her now. For a long moment, he held her gaze and from the look in his eyes, she could see what he was going to do. His suit. Master had clearly drawn the line for her when she'd asked, on her partner's behalf, to let him keep it. And she already knew Jason was willing to give it up for her - because he'd said so himself. There had been a time when she would have selfishly demanded that he go through the pain of withdrawal just so she could keep him with her. But she'd gone past that point when they'd arrived at Charlton and she saw how much it would hurt him. She couldn't let him do that...

When he spoke to her again, she felt nothing in response to his words, and her eyes zeroed in on and analyzed his posture and movements as he righted himself and headed down the hall. He was already hurting again and he hadn't even talked to Master yet. If he stayed here, any deals he made with Master, in regards to the suit, would be void - he wouldn't need to take it off if he didn't come with her, no matter what he'd say or promises he'd make to Master now. Simple.

She considered chasing after him to get one last word in and try to appeal to him or assert her dominance over him. But giving Master his suit was something he felt he needed to do despite the plan and her orders. More irrationality. She didn't want to try and reason with him when he was like this. It would be better for him and for her if she left without him, without saying anything. She'd already said everything she needed and wanted him to know, and everything was laid out clearly for him - the case, the plan, her feelings towards him. Once she was gone, he'd be forced to return to the last words she'd spoken to him. He would understand then and he would not be hurt as much by it. It wasn't a rejection so much as it was a mute disagreement.

Stephanie looked at Gary finally, who she'd seen fit to ignore until now, and instantly returned to doing so when Madeline's shrill voice suddenly rang out through the hallway. Stephanie looked in her direction and blinked apathetically at the other Agent. We? Madeline was coming with them? ...Why?

She expected to feel overjoyed and excited about the A-2's attention, or at the very least curious, nervous and paranoid about it, but there was nothing inside of her except cold compliance. She did briefly consider the possibility that Madeline intended to benefit in some way by accompanying them or out of protectiveness towards Benoit, seeking retribution through sabotage. But she remained unworried. There was always a very logical solution and reaction to every situation. Madeline would not get between her and Gwen, no matter what the dark-haired woman thought she was doing or was planning. And high or low rank, Stephanie had no malice or compunctions about eliminating all and any threats. Things were simple. Very, very simple.

****


Gwen's screams were stifled by the hand clamped tightly over her mouth, Noel's palm absorbing the sound and draining the strength out of the fear and anguish in her voice. Noel's eyes shined bright with a child-like glee, voraciously soaking in every shade of panic that she was causing within her victim, wielding the scalpel with a practiced ease. Todd and Karen had fallen silent, at some point becoming aware of something maleficent occurring on the other side of the door and realizing that the closet represented a cage that they'd been temporarily shut into.

There was a cut in the tiny pink shirt that Rudy had bought for her, the split extending down to separate the "i" and the "r" in the word "Flirt" printed on the front of it. The slice opened like a "v", baring her collar bone and upper chest, smooth skin rising and falling rapidly as Gwen's lungs kept up a panicked pace. She struggled, but Noel's thighs hugged her in a vice grip, and her knees crushed Gwen's arms into the floor, acting almost like a tourniquet and numbing the limbs. Gwen shook and sobbed helplessly against her gag, reaching out desperately for the comfort of Xander's protective signature in one last dash of hope that he was somehow close enough to save her.

She didn't find him, but she immediately stiffened, eyes going wide and her voice silenced when her psychic reach had touched upon someone else she knew. Like a hole in the universe consuming everything in it's path and moving steadily towards them, the familiar static became audible inside her head. Gwen's attention shot back to Noel and a muffled scream burst from her throat, as the scalpel finally bit into her skin. The psychotic, girlish woman giggled above her, drawing a thin line in Gwen's chest, as if she were dissecting a frog, or carving letters into her flesh. A bit of the female Agent's mind became visible then, although her thoughts had been reduced to primitive and vicious torture fantasies - some of which, she'd actually tried on people before.

And when the pain came again as Noel started to cut another bloody line near the other, Gwen couldn't help but feel relieved when the woman's twisted thoughts disappeared from her sight within the consuming cloud of static. When the door opened, Noel peered over her shoulder and a jolt of surprise ran through her body as she gaped at the woman standing there...and Gwen stared too. The Agent who had engaged her in her apartment building no longer existed - tall, with smooth curves and flawless edges, richly sophisticated and hauntingly robotic - Stephanie had completely transformed since the last time Gwen saw her. Of course, there was the hair-style and her clothes were different, but her body now possessed a pathological rigidity and the color of her skin had been drained of that healthy golden color. But the biggest changes were in her face and her eyes, the flesh clinging to her skull and petrified, her eyes overwhelming her features with dramatic green color and filled with an aching misery that Gwen could see very clearly through the mask.

Why hadn't anybody removed her from her position? They HAD to see that something was wrong with her even if they weren't aware of the changes she'd gone through. Or they were possibly ignoring it on purpose? Allowing her to keep going for as long as she could before the pressure broke her and then carelessly sweeping her out of the way for someone new to take her place. What was wrong with these people?

"March..." Noel breathed, shaken from her surprise from seeing the woman that she'd thought was locked in the closet now suddenly appearing on the other side of the room. As soon as she'd entered the room - followed by an odd, portly fellow and another woman who's face was dominated by a constant scowl - Stephanie's eyes had latched onto Gwen, staring with a deep, apathetic emptiness. Now, she turned her gaze to Noel, who had dropped the scalpel onto the floor beside her leg, blood painting the blade. Swift and silent, her face a hollow, expressionless mask, she crossed the room and grabbed Noel by her hair, dragging her off of Gwen. Even though she was free and terrified, Gwen merely sat up and quickly scooted back up against the cabinet behind her, spellbound and staring.

Noel was held firmly on her knees, her honey locks twisted around Stephanie's fingers, and she was watching with a polished indifference as the smaller woman began to babble and cry. "Please, please, please, Stephanie, just wait! ...I can explain what happened!"

"I already know what happened," she said in extreme, lifeless boredom. "You let your guard down, allowing my target to fool you by using her powers, and then, for whatever reason, you had an emotional fit and decided to torture and kill Gwendolyn Stewart."

Noel's hands were lightly resting on Stephanie's wrist, frozen in their protest, her brow contorting in despair and her mouth bobbing silently as she tried to think of something else she could say to defend herself.

"Your weakness is a detriment to the Agency and must be purged," she intoned with a severe finality. "And you should have known better than to touch something that belongs to me."

And then Stephanie moved, her hand striking out and retreating back again, quicker than Gwen's eyes could follow the agile movement. It took a few minutes for Gwen to realize what happened, with the bit of blood painting Stephanie's fingers, and bright red flowing over Noel's white blouse from the hole in her neck, drenching the right side of her body in a pulsing fountain of gore. Static prevented Gwen from seeing anything inside Noel's head, but she knew the Agent was dead as Stephanie released her and gave her a small push to the side, gracefully stepping over the lifeless body and approaching her target.

Gwen tried to give Stephanie a fearless look, but after watching the woman kill someone so effortlessly, she actually had the urge to cry instead. The Agent came to stand in front of her and reached onto the counter above Gwen's head, her attention drawn to something else momentarily. She took that moment to glance at the man and woman who'd accompanied Stephanie - the chubby fellow looking excited or possibly anxious and the dark haired woman...just looking really, really unpleasant. Reaching forward to probe into their minds, Gwen hit nothing but the static that blared from Stephanie's head, and it was the same when she tried to check on Karen and Todd again. Reaching beyond them and beyond the room, the cloud of crackling noise never ended, no matter how far she went; as if the world outside and all the people in it had vanished.

Swallowing thickly and realizing how much trouble she was in, Gwen turned her blue eyes back up to Stephanie, who was just finishing cleaning her hands with a sanitized towelette. Gwen flinched a little as the Agent smoothly crouched down in front of her, using another moistened cloth to wipe up the blood from Gwen's face and chest - even as dead and intense as she seemed right now, she was incredibly gentle and methodical.

After a bandage was applied and neatly taped in place on Gwen's cuts, Stephanie stood and said, "Since it is obvious that you've grown stronger - Noel was an old companion of mine and a strong Agent - and you seem to have no reservations about using your powers to try to escape, I will not insult your intelligence by asking you to behave. And you will not undermine my authority by entertaining the hope of survival. So, let's eliminate the bullshit right away, alright?"

Static roared inside her head, feeling like someone stabbed a needle into the back of her neck and into the base of her skull. Pain flared up along her spine and the back of her head, blinding her and a shuddering gasp exploded from her throat. Gwen sat on the floor, breathing heavily and weakly touched a hand to the back of her neck, trying to ease the still buzzing nerves while she looked up into the death-like face of her tormentor. The pain receded somewhat, leaving her feeling sore in an internal way, but now the noise had almost become something physical - like a small creature crawling uncomfortably behind her eyeballs, making her blink rapidly and squint at the sensation. The awful static crinkled and crackled loudly, continuing to emanate in pulsing waves from Stephanie's mind, while green eyes stared blankly down at her.

"I have you now... and we're going to stay together...forever," Stephanie said in a voice that made Gwen shiver. Then, like a chainsaw being inserted into her frontal lobe, another violent burst of static filled her mind. Her scream echoed through the corridor, high and loud, but it died down in seconds once the pain retreated, leaving her with a numbing ache in her head. Gwen did not fight as Stephanie pulled her up to stand, requiring all of her concentration not to throw-up or pass-out.

"Alright, let's go," Gwen heard the Agent say through the fog and she had the vague sense of walking with Stephanie dragging her by her upper arm. But other than the feeling of moving and a distant pressure of the ground under her feet, Gwen was almost completely disconnected from the rest of her body, unable to see and unable to move without assistance. And still, the static clung like a humming blanket over her brain.

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#, as written by Tartra
Well, this wasn't going to get him drunk. Either she'd watered it down in a final bid to terrorize him or he'd severely overestimated German advancements against sobriety. He tried again and waited. It didn't taste watered down and the bottle was new  - unopened, anyway - so he supposed he would have to drink all of it and see where it got him. In the meantime, he had his choice of show. Madeline and the dumpy one were off to endure still more travelling, while March skipped the direct route to take the time to stab some other woman who'd been in the middle of God-knew-what with the Stewart girl.

Overreactions aside, because far be it from him to discourage a catfight when someone was nifty enough to put their hand through another's neck, but the most that situation had called for a was a swift kick to the face, and March was going to have to dig through a pile of paperwork Benoit didn’t envy her for on top of the mass rounds of explanations as to why she’d so willingly offed an Agent his lenses picked out as an – now former – A-3, unless she hid behind Eric for that as well, he had learned one thing he no longer needed to ask about: Eric’s suit-wearers were not here to serve as a defence. Likely not as an offence either, because those tended to come as part of the security deal. They proved as much by failing to intercept Stewart… escaping, or whatever had been going on, and the ten scattered around the floor and the four within grabbing distance of the girl had yet to move following the strongly one-sided scuffle. Information, then, was the name of their game. ‘Information for who’ was obvious, on who, on what, until when or why were questions that would have to be put to Eric directly. And he meant by someone else, because Benoit wasn’t interested enough to find out. If the reasons were protected – protected in the official sense, not in the A-2 ‘classified’ version – and if this not-quite-sure-if-it-was-working schnapps needed to be finished, and if this chair was too comfortable – so comfortable – to get out of, he’d simply have to be satisfied in knowing that they weren’t spying on him and, as such, didn’t actually matter.

Quin mattered even less to him, but on the other hand, he was waving a gun around. At an A-1. At Eric Patten, the A-1. At Eric Patten, ‘I am twenty feet taller than you are and my invisible bodyguard is on your left’. If the man wasn’t so clearly riding the high of having dealt with the Jason situation, which Benoit truly would ask about… eventually, then he might have handled this himself, too. Instead he took his phone from his pocket, idly pulled his attention away from Quin and his light-shooter, and neatly said, off-handedly, “Squiddie, bop ‘im for me.”

This show. Benoit picked this show.

Eric had waited until Quin made it to his last word before he’d given the order. Squiddie – real name protected, his lenses said, along with rank, ID, D.o.B and any other  thing that might have hinted this person existed – followed his example, politely standing in place until the air cleared of her owner’s voice. What followed was an impressive display of movement, nearly instantaneous and brightly fluid in its execution, but Benoit was taking extra note of the fact that he was still faster than she was and he did it without an Agency suit. It was the only reason he felt comfortable around the ‘woman’. She rarely spoke, never unless asked, and to this date, he had no real proof that she wasn’t a robot. Eric enjoyed implying she was. This was more evidence towards that.

Three things occurred in that fair moment. First, she dropped the bag of crap the A-1 insisted she drag around. Second, her fading broke and she came into view. The third bit was more of a multi-step action: her elbow cracked into Quin’s, knocking his aim towards anything that wasn’t Patten; her steps fell into his steps, and she’d gone from beside the squirrel to in front of him; her arm – the one she hadn’t struck with, the left one – and her leg shot at his, her fingers grabbing his right ankle and her right leg sweeping the whole of his left off the ground; pulling the freshly captured foot inwards and upwards, Squiddie turned the Oompa Loompa horizontal in the air, and she followed through to stretch past him again, settling in to stand behind him and never loosening her hold on his limb; then finally, with less of the grace and more brute force than Benoit would have used or preferred, she yanked Quin completely upside-down and held him up by his tiny feet, inches above the bare floor. He hung there, swinging slightly until her grip tightened and put an end to any movement around her.

“On the count of using harsh language in and around Mr. Eric Patten’s personal space, you have earned... one bop.”

She bopped him. This consisted of her dropping him on his head, letting a sizeable thud strike through the room, then bouncing him off his skull so he was suspended again. Eric wasn’t watching it. He was listening, because bone-meeting-ground was one of his favourite sounds, but he was too busy tapping on his phone to watch.

“On the count of directing said language towards Mr. Eric Patten’s person, you have earned... one bop.”

Squiddie had an airy voice. The speaker in her mask filtered it into something close to metallic, but underneath, her voice was there. Eric had had it installed because she wouldn’t take it off. Whose idea that had been was entirely debatable. Considering it was a hardened, helmeted version of what any other suit-wearer would have had to cover their head, black and glossy holes in the front serving both as her interface and her only means of seeing out, he should have quickly been able to point the A-1. Then again, this was an Agency woman, and she’d not only volunteered to work for Eric, but she’d turned down the salary to go with it. Anyway, she bounced Quin off the ground again.

“On the count of using said language despite explicit warnings from Mr. Eric Patten, you have earned... one bop.”

That was the part that threw everyone off.

It was an undeniable fact that Eric wouldn’t go anywhere without his pet. He was attacked so often, it was a wonder he left home at all. So Eric’s story went, but Benoit had noticed a rather long list of his proudly reported deaths, suggesting he kept Squiddie on a leash to do petty shit like this rather than serve as a true guard. For those who knew about her, they were satisfied simply knowing she had no intent to interfere. It did not, unfortunately, mean she wasn’t there. In the first car, she had stayed in the trunk with her bag, rattling around when March started to drive. In the plane, she sat beside Eric’s seat and hung on to it during take-off. There had been room for her to legitimately sit when they switched to ride in the limousine, but she had opted for the floor and quietly slipped her bag on the seats instead. Invisible. He wondered if March knew about her. She hadn’t acted like it, but no one had. The fact that her pet had made no mention of it was embarrassing; Jason had a suit of his own and that was more than enough to let him see anyone else around who had faded. It came from familiarity with the technology. He supposed the boy had been distracted, but he hardly saw that as a decent excuse. And Madeline, of course, had no idea. Quin was learning the hard way. Eric had told him not to swear during that phone call on their flight. Squiddie was here to make doubly sure the message had been received.

“On the count of desiring Mr. Eric Patten’s death, you have earned... one bop.”

Aside from the headache or concussion or brain damage he would be stuck with when this was over, Quin shouldn’t feel too badly about earning that one. Benoit saw it as a freebie. The world was hard-pressed to find anyone who wouldn’t have gotten it.

“On the count of attempting to correct Mr. Eric Patten’s interpretation of events, you have earned... one bop.”

“And another demotion, but I didn’t think I’d have to spell it out.” Squiddie paused at his words. Eric waved at her to keep going, adding in, “Worry about the forms after.”

“On the count of terminating Mr. Eric Patten’s five subord–”

“Y’know what? Skip that one. That’s more on Xander than on him.”

Truly, Eric’s mercy knew no bounds.

“On the count of attempting to intimidate Mr. Eric Patten, you have earned... one bop.”

“And he’s messing up the floor,” Eric sang.

Quin was bleeding. Whether it had rolled up from his earlier wounds or dripped from a new one entirely, there was a dark stain building in the spot where his head hit.

“On the count of vandalizing Agency facilities with your fluids,” was the response, “you have earned... one bop.”

“I’m blown away by you good sir,” Eric said, finally snapping his phone closed and putting it back in his pocket. “I never thought I’d meet someone who’d use the ‘do you know who my father is’ defence. I’m tempted to forgive you for pulling a gun on me just because you had the balls to say it! And what a twist – like... snack foods!” He laughed. “People get rich off of anything these days.”

“On the count of attempting to use Mr. Eric Patten’s words against him, you have earned... one bop.”

“As for me and Steph – why, Rudy,” Eric said. “Look at you, picking up on our super-secret, totally underground, 100% unverified beyond your uncanny insight into my and her relationships with other people, just like a spy! Bop him for that, Squiddie.”

“On the count of being like a spy, you have earned... one bop.”

“Now that that’s mostly water under the bridge, let’s get to what you wanted.” Eric started pacing. One of his arms was tucked across his chest, and the other’s elbow was resting on it, tapping a finger on his chin. “Thinking... Thinking... ‘Do we have a deal’? Do I want to make a deal? See – this is weird, I don’t usually put too much thought into it. I’m basically all about coming to a compromise even if that person has so rudely addressed me. I sort’f see it as my duty to make sure people get what they want when they ask, ‘cause if they’re coming to me – hoooo, they must be desperate!” Squiddie showed no signs of her arms tiring. If she – or if Eric – wanted Quin to hang there until eternity, she could do it. “Trouble is, the people who jump over usually have something I want. For that, I am disappointed, Rudy. The gifts you come bearing are lacking in the worst way. Stories about ‘me and Steph’? Sure, go ahead, I don’t care. Her and Jason? Heck – if it’d probably help me, why would I put a stop to it? As for her and – dammit, Rudy, stop saying his name so fast. Squiddie?”

“Graninger. On the count of failing to say a name at the appropriate speed, you have earned... one bop.”

His head was amazing. It looked like it was still in one piece.

“Making me have to ask twice.” Eric shook his head. Squiddie bopped Quin. “Like I was saying, as for her and –”

“Graninger.”

“– I actually asked about that before my dear friend Alex gave me a ring. You glossed over my innocent inquiry, and based on that, I’m forced to assume you’re either full of shit and that this guy probably doesn’t exist – which I doubt, ‘cause no one can lie with a face as honest as yours – or you’re not as quick to spill the beans as you would have otherwise led me to believe.  So!” He clapped his hands and spun around excitedly, locked onto Quin as he slowly made his point. “What’s left from you? Leaving me alone? Aw – but Rudy, we were just getting to be friends!”

“On the count of not wanting to be Mr. Eric Patten’s friend, you have earned... one bop.”

Now she was making things up.

“I deal in people, Rudy. I have money, I have information and I have all the technology I could possibly want. What I don’t always have is the right man for every job.” He kindly gestured to his personal punisher. “Squiddie is not the social butterfly you think she is. I can’t send her to do any of that diplomatic ‘talking’ stuff ‘cause she’ll’ve murdered everyone by the time introductions were over. It’s what I love about her. You don’t have that, and unfortunately, you don’t exude the scent of skills that could make up for it. Depressing, yes, but not impossible to manage, because you have something I like to call ‘drive’. And you have it in spades! And in honour of that timeless trait, yes, I will make a deal with you. But not the one you’re thinking of, not yet.”

PATTEN.” Somehow, Benoit had known she was about to shriek. Part of it was because he had seen her walk to a wall out of the corner of his eye, and from the screen displaying the disaster March had made of her colleague, he had seen her flip a panel open and start pressing buttons. There were intercoms around here, it seemed. No one was safe. “YOU WILL TELL YOUR MEN THAT WHILE THEY INFECT MY HALLS, THEY WORK. CLEAN THIS UP.

“Would you listen to that,” Eric exclaimed, checking his watch. “Figured it out in only... four years, three months, three weeks and a day. Sure, do what she wants. And take Jason to the...”

“Sick bay,” Squiddie droned.

“Make sure he’s comfy!” Madeline’s cameras, even in their infinite invasion of privacy, managed to have blind spots. Benoit didn’t see the other faded minion until he walked into the room and grabbed Jason’s legs to drag him. Or, as far as Quin could tell, a ghost was doing it. “I’m thinking I should hold off on taking his suit. I’m digging the whole ‘I’m so guilty’ angle.” Eric thought about it. “Yeah... I’m gonna go with ‘guilty’. Sorry, Rudy, I keep getting interrupted. Where were we?” He tapped at his chin again. Apparently Quin hanging while he bled to death wasn’t enough to jog the man’s memory. “... Something... about... making a deal – right! Wow! Man, you’d think I’d had better stuff to think about with the way this thing is going! Ha, ha, ha! That’s not right at all! So anyway, here’s Deal 1.0 – we’ll talk about your other crap if this gets handled.” With the way his every gesture seemed so practised and in place, Benoit was caught between thinking Eric had either rehearsed all of this in advance or had been in these situations far, far more often than anyone wanted to say. “Bring someone I can use and I’ll take that as your actual bargaining chip. Then we can make a new deal, and depending on the quality and/or success of who you brought me for potentially another suicide mission, I’ll vary my willingness to laugh in your face the next time you come crawling to me and start waving a gun around. Or kill you – vary my laughing and me killing you. And as for Osono – weeeeeeell... I think I’ll just file that away for the next time something like this comes up. Not for any particular reason, mind you, but just in case I need to inform coworkers of an unsupervised, unclaimed target running around blowing people to high hell. Goodness. That’d make her sound kind’f dangerous, huh?” He shrugged. “Ah, well. Toodles, poodles! Got me some evil shit to do!” Then he wiggled his fingers and walked away.

Squiddie dropped Quin. She faded the instant he hit the ground and stalked after her owner. Jason was already dragged halfway down the hall by this point. His legs were going to be sore in the morning. Granted, it could have been worse, but he sympathized nonetheless, up until the point where his lenses flashed.

Proximity alert. Alexander was in the city. Knowing the guest, even if they had a full idea of where to go from here – which, judging from the length of time it took to get here versus the actual distance, appeared not to be the case – all that bitching he’d heard from the vault when Madeline eavesdropped on their conversation meant Benoit had a good hour before he had to move. This was good news, because he took back everything he said about the Germans as their sneaky, sneaky drink hit him at last, so he was going to stay here and spin around in this incredible chair because God he loved this chair so much.

* * *


He almost wasn’t ready to leave the highway. The asphalt and railings had gotten so familiar that he exit brought a wash of bile through his throat. He didn’t know what the point of that was. He’d had plenty of time to get ready for the impenetrable fear of the impending doom from walking into the Charlton base and it was too late to start complaining because everything had started coming together. Osono had put the point on it: what else was there to add? He’d had his time to throw out a sensible, ‘hey, you two, I’m glad you’re ready to finish this, but could someone explain what the fuck are we doing?’ In the face of her determination, Alex could’ve found a way to talk her out of it and Xander, if she dropped out, might’ve seen sense in waiting longer. Thanks to that phone call...

“Yeah, Elmira. That’s gonna be stop number two.” He didn’t add that the city was in the exact opposite direction. They weren’t getting another chance on this, so everyone had to stay focused. “There’s a short list of steps we have to handle before we can get to her there. We’ve got to take care of this first.” Meaning the Agent. “Xander?”

Sup.

That’d been... strangely upbeat.

“We’re here,” he said.

Looks like.

“We need you to act like Peter again.”

Mm-hmm.

... The call had only been ten minutes ago. Alex hadn’t complained when the hellish pounding in his head had cut short and switched to a light tingle in his spine, but he felt a look of distress come over his face as he realized he was a dumbass for not saying anything. Xander didn’t go from ready to rip the road apart to mellow and content unless... never. He didn’t. So...

“Are you... okay with that?”

Noooooooooooooooooooo. I’m busy.

... What the hell.

“Uh.” This could have been a stupid question to ask, but... “With what?”

I am having an epiphany.

And then the tingle in his spine became a gentle, satisfied hum. Alex said to himself again: what the hell?

“You’re – ” He stopped. He paused. Then he asked, “Huh?”

I am enlightened, Alex. I have reached a plane of knowledge known only to a chosen few.

... Yes. And Alex bet they all sounded crazy as hell, too.

“That’s... good for you.” He pointed at a side road after that – immediately after that – because it looked like it led to a small parking lot behind a building. It was coming up on their left and looked, from the thin angle he could make out, dark and shadowy. He had a knack for hiding spots. Since they were going to be ‘handling’ one of Peter’s people, they could probably use the privacy. “Let’s go in there. It feels deserted.” The whole town did. It was warmer and redder than the sterile white-grey-steel Elmira, but it was late in the evening and everyone had gone. The streets were... “What is it, Xander?”

Don’t you want to hear my enlightenment?

“... Not really, but thanks.”

It’s very good enlightenment, Alex. I’ve learned something. I’d like to share it with you.

Alex was drawing a lot of breaths right now. It might’ve had to do with the clear feeling of Xander, more intense than he could’ve pulled off if he’d had a separate body, staring unblinkingly at the back of Alex’s thoughts. It could’ve also been the sound of his voice having landed perfectly in the center of Cindy, Peter, and a serial killer who’d gotten a lobotomy and wasn’t just thrilled about it, but perky. He couldn’t remember a single thing Xander had done that hadn’t scared him or made him nervous, but he could count on one hand the number of times the guy had genuinely creeped him out. ... This was one of them.

“Please go back to your uncontrollable fury,” he said.

Silly Alex. I’m beyond that now.

Reason 472 for why they shouldn’t’ve called Peter: this.

“Xander, snap out of it,” he said, steadying his leg as the car pulled into the tiny lot. He’d been right. The place was empty. Better, there was a fence around it and trees pressed up against that, thick and leafy and the best cover they could get when they were sitting outdoors. “If we park in the corner, we’ll be practically invisible. We can –”

All my life I’ve wondered what it’s like to be angry. The hum was slowly turning into light pinpricks. No, that was wasn’t messed up at all. And the ice down his back? Normal. Definitely. Sometimes I thought I got close. Now I understand it’s beyond what the mind can understand.

“It sounds like Children on the Corn meets Barney on meth,” Alex muttered.

No, jackass. It’s skull-fucking horror meets the cruel of excuse of death and rage, Xander said, normally. But then he went back to using the voice that made him sound like he was a sewing a coat of skin together for a dog, and in this example, everyone had to just assume the dog was dead and had been dead for a while. Was he being specific enough about how... weird this was? I can see it, Alex. I can see the true face of wrath.

“That’s good. When you talk to the Agent, I know you’ll be very convincing about it.” In the meantime, he turned and stretched to sneak up with strap of his bag from the back. “I’ve got rope in here.” Xander was on another planet, so Alex was talking solely to Osono. “I want to tie her up in case she tries something. I don’t trust her or any of them, even if we act the part.” They were going to have to come up with an explanation for it, though. “Any suggestions –”

Say Sparky did it to fuck with her a little more, Xander said. That tone made it sound like Alex was giving him a headache. It was a big improvement. Payback for fighting, punishment for fighting, just for the hell of it, how do you not know how to do this by now?

“He says we can explain the rope by saying you tied her up,” Alex relayed. “You’re the bad cop.”

There’s a certain point – Was he still talking? – that a guy can hit where everything on this planet turns. The sun boils, the oceans bleed, children drown on the shores of futility and the only things you can think about are how much you hate everyone breathing and how they’ll never die enough for a death for you to find peace. How adorable. Headache gone, enlightenment back in. There’s more. Oh, Alex definitely didn’t expect any less. There’s a point beyond that point, Alex. That’s where Peter is.

“Beyond drowning kids in blood oceans?” He had the rope and the courtesy to tell Osono, “This conversation is exactly as messed up as it sounds. Don’t forget to act like you did at that office.”

He opened the car door, but he hesitated again. Getting out meant moving his foot and moving his foot meant excruciating pain. He was going to have to deal with it eventually, but the twitching had only stopped an hour ago. Add that to Osono having done a decent job at keeping the car steady, and he was finding less and less motivation to do anything. Maybe the rope would work as a cast. What did he need for that? Sticks?

Alex.

“For fuck’s sake, what?”

I know how to beat him, Alex.

“Is it with a brick or are you gonna say his name like you’re stroking a doll of his hair, too?”

I’m going to destroy his soul.

... Xander said it so honestly that it was hard not to instantly believe him, even with the tilted voice and – “Stop touching my hair.” Great, so pens weren’t his biggest threat anymore. Now that he’d opened his fat mouth, he had to watch for his-hair goats having sex with his-hair horses.

You’ve got a shit-poor grasp on how the animal kingdom works.

“And yours is too damn thorough,” Alex shot. “Destroy it how? Why his ‘soul’?”

So if he comes back, he’ll be too fucked up to survive. Xander’s teeth were baring. He could hear them reaching out for flesh. Dumb fuck should’ve never answered that phone. He pulled me to his level for one terrible instant, and now I know how he thinks.

“That’s the great thing about enlightenment, I guess.”

I’ve been building up a full list of shit to piece together when I had the time, he said, getting excited. This road-trip? It gave me time. I don’t know what Peter’s full plan is, but he said enough for me to pick a starting point.

“Which is?” His foot twitched. “And not to distract from this or anything, but could you help me out over here?”

Bitch, you didn’t even try to do it yourself. I’m not your damn servant.

“It’s broken,” Alex said. “It’s not like I can walk on it.”

Get your ass up and get the hell out of this car, Xander said. I have to as least see you stand before I can decide what to do with it when I’m out.

“Well, because you asked so nicely...” He undid his seatbelt and pushed the door open the rest of the way. And winced. “About Peter?”

He’s got a project in motion. We’re making things tricky? It’s gonna get worse.

“Messing up his plan is probably only going to annoy him. If that.” He put his hand on his knee. He was going to pull it up and slowly lower it to the ground. “He took the murdering pretty well.”

I’ll see how it goes. Xander sounded confident. He’s put a lot of effort in so far. I doubt he’ll be as cheery once I fuck it up to high hell.

“Effort into what?”

His project.

“You already know what it is?”

... You don’t?

“... No?” Xander’s disappointment was impressive. “How am I supposed to know?”

Alex, what’s two plus two?

“Huh?”

Alright – so that tells me everything I need to know. Hey! Get up. Before I break your other foot.

He wouldn’t, but Alex moved. Crap the pain hit him, starting as soon as his ankle had to hold up its weight half an inch off the ground. The faint numbness of the part Xander still controlled was no help – I’ll let it go, then. – but he appreciated it all the same. It just wasn’t enough for him to concentrate and hold his leg still so his foot didn’t swing, and as it got higher – ow, ow, ow, ow, ow, ow, ow, Xander do something please!

One and an eighth of a second. Pathetic.

A heavy hit of nothing burst through his limb. The thing was completely dead to him, all the way up to his hip. He could feel the gnawing shocks still clawing at his gut, but on the whole, the relief of it nearly brought a tear to his eye. He refilled his lungs, gave a quick look to Osono to make sure she was getting out too, then put his hands on the side of the door and hoisted himself up. And it was longer than a second and an eighth.

I’m sorry, did I hurt your pride? A second and a ninth, how’s that? Alex’s leg clunked out of the car. Yeah, thanks, just slam it on the ground, that’s perfect.

“Sorry.”

He couldn’t help it. Pain-free was amazing, but it was like he was dragging a midget around now.

You’re lucking I’m psyched about fucking him over, otherwise I’d smack you. Xander considered this. The first part, thankfully. I think I’m gonna cackle maniacally for a while. I might drool on your shirt.

“If you hang onto my foot, you can do what you want,” Alex said, getting his balance back.

That was the cue for a roll of rabid, uncontrollable laughter to erupt from Xander’s corner. From the sounds of it, he was enjoying a serene vision of everything he was going to do when he met back up with his ‘friend’. Peter’d picked the wrong guy to piss off.

“Let’s get ready,” he said. “Pop the trunk.”

* * *


I hate you.

Running and running and round and round and running and running and round and round...

Stuck in a fuckin’ tank, inches from havin’ our minds pulled out our asses, and you want t’run on th’hamsta wheel. Dopey bitch...

Running and running and round and round and running –

So’m guessin’ it is too hard for you t’pretend to give a shit about wha’s’appenin’ to us? Not as though’m tryin’ t’cut into your playtime, but – oh yeah – they’re gonna fuckin’ kill us!

She knew, she knew, he wouldn’t stop saying it. Nothing they could do, they were trapped, but they had a wheel to run on. Running and running and round and round... but he didn’t like the wheel.

Y’know... I think I might’ave a tic. Every time I come out, I get a twitch on me face and it doesn’t stop. Y’know where I think’at’s comin’ from, banshee?

No.

From you. From you – from bein’ stuck with you, ‘cause out’f thirteen otha littl‘elpless souls, I get with th’twat who can teleport but’s got a fuckin’ death wish she wants finished first. And now I’ve got a tic. You gave me a tic – I am gonna die in some kid’s body with an idiot crowdin’ this new head, and I am going t’die with a tic. You might think that’s petty, banshee, but I swear t’you that havin’ a tic on top’f all this makes everything much worse.

Yes. He wouldn’t stop talking about it.

Oh dear! Is my desperate need t’escape with my fuckin’ life startin’ t’grate on your precious nerves?

Yes.

Oh, piss off and get back t’work tryin’ to teleport.

She’d tried. She’d tried she’d tried she’d tried.

Well, four times is th’most you can do, what can I say, at least y’tried.

She might have been crazy, but she knew what sarcasm was.

I hate you.

He wouldn’t stop saying it.

She liked it here. It was peaceful. She liked the water. It was blue. The air came from the big pipe at the top. That big pipe kept the tank from sinking any deeper. The food came from the big pipe on the left. It was beside the table and chair and kept the tank from swinging that way. The garbage went through the pipe to the right. It was beside the toilet and sink and it kept the tank from swinging that way. It was simple. She could understand. She liked the way it looked. The tank was clear and she could see through every wall. She couldn’t see to the bottom of the water because there was too much, but she didn’t mind. He minded. He wanted to know how far away the surface was. She couldn’t see to the top of the water, either. He couldn’t swim. She didn’t know how long he could hold his breath. Here was safe. Here she had a hamster wheel. It was big enough to run on. It was fun. She had been on it all day. She knew it was all day because they had a clock. He didn’t like that clock. He hated the hamster wheel the most.

I want t’get out’f here, banshee. He said it slowly. She was happy on her wheel. I don’t want some prick takin’ my powers’n walkin’ off with them. You’re too stupid t’figure it out, but you don’t want that. You want t’get out’f here and run around a real field where there’s lots of hamsters –

She didn’t like hamsters. She only liked their wheel.

Fuckin’ dammit stupid bitch get th’fuck off th’fuckin’ wheel!

Bell chime!

Glorious! Th’doctor! This’s exactly what I wanted at this particular time.

The doctors didn’t come into the tank. One had tried, a long time ago. It had taken a day to clean the mess. He had been tired after. The doctors learned not to come in. The doctors used a TV to talk to them. The TV was at the bottom of the water. The ground lit up and she could see it through the tank’s clear floor, and the doctor’s face would light up and they would talk and their face would be big and they would have a conversation. The bell chime meant they were coming to talk. She liked talking to them. It meant she didn’t have to talk to him.

Listen.

Not again. Not more.

Listen. She had to listen. She couldn’t get away. I’ve been thinkin’ about th’logic of havin’ us down here. I can’t swim – She knew. – and it makes sense t’stick me someplace where that’d be a problem, but they must know you’re not afraid to. So why bother with th’tank at all? Why not stick us in th’air or somewhere we’d both get cut off?

She didn’t know. She didn’t want to hear more of his plans.

I’ll tell y’why, he said. I think it’s th’only thing they have on us. F’some reason, keepin’ us in dirt, keepin’ us in a metal room, keepin’ us hangin’ from th’sky were turned down, an’ they instead spent ‘ow much money makin’ this ridiculous box...

She didn’t care.

Don’t get it? Can’t you – for one quick sec – understand what’m tryin’ t’say? This is our only weakness! That’s got t’be it! There’s not even any guns around ‘cause they know we can’t get out’f this place! We have t’get away from the water, and then we’ll be free –

They would be trapped.

No, no, no, y’stupid –

With each other.

... Oh. She was right. Well – maybe f’now! I can honestly think’f a few worse things.

Like what?

I dunno – dying comes t’mind, he shouted. We can’ave all the time we want on th’outside, but in here, we’ve got clocks tickin’ down! I don’t what otha powers you know we have – ones we can’t use anyway, or at least you can’t – but I’m positive we can get out on our again if we just get out’f here. Come on, banshee! Help me out!

She couldn’t teleport.

You’re gonna keep tryin’ ‘cause you’ve got nothin’ better t’do, he said. ‘Til then, I’m carryin’ us out. If I’ve got t’blast through every one of their heads, I will.

He wasn’t going to explode his way out. He didn’t have the energy.

Then I guess you’ll be lookin’ for some strawberries, ay? So? Are we doin’ this?

She had no choice.

Damn right you’ve got no choice. I’ve’ad about enough of this.

How would it work?

Play sick.

They already played sick.

Yeah – and he gave th’word t’drag us t’the medic the instant he caught word of it, didn’t ‘e?  If Patten’s so desperate t’protect his assets, he’s not gonna risk us cryin’ wolf and meanin’ it.

They would work harder to make sure they couldn’t get out.

I expect as much. He was thinking. Okay. Okay – got it. We say our powers’re missin’.

Why?

Two reasons, he said. One, it makes sure we’re conscious. I don’t want ‘em druggin’ us’n’testin’ our vitals in our sleep. It’ll defeat th’whole purpose and we don’t have time f’that. But two, more importantly, we can stall.

But they would know they were trying to use their powers. They would be prepared.

It’s not a perfect plan, he admitted. It’s th’best we’ve got, though. It’ll work. The bell chimed again and he didn’t like it. That’s th’minute warning. They had warnings to make sure they were ‘decent’. Play sick. We can’t say we made progress and risk pullin’ out a talent we don’t actually have. We’ll say I lost mine. Mine’s louder. You keep tryin’ t’teleport.

She would help, but she wouldn’t be much help.

I know. I really know. He was upset. If there’s anything t’be grateful for, it’s’at at least we’re alone t’plan this. Can’t imagine how impossible it’d be otha’wise. Two chimes. The doctor was arriving. Good luck, banshee. Don’t mess this up.

She should have told him about the third voice. She didn’t want him to lose hope. She already lost hers. Now all she had now was her wheel.

* * *


Gary was staying very quiet. He did nothing anyone could say ticked them off. He breathed through his nose, he walked toe-heel, he kept a safe but reachable distance to make sure everyone knew he wasn’t freaking out and was a sneeze away from wetting his pants and he never, ever, ever tried asking the understandable question of, ‘WHAT THE FUCK HAPPENED? Are you serious – did that happen – what happened happened in his eyes?’ Because that was rude, or something, and he knew it was ‘cause Jason always got after him for stuff like that. Finally, the stuffy kid’s stuffiness had paid off, or else he wouldn’t’ve had a clue about – “Oh my God she’s not dead!

She was getting up! She was getting up, getting up, and no one else was going nuts over this! Why weren’t they going nuts?!

“IT’S PATTEN’S TOYS, IMBECILE.” Madeline Bergmann didn’t look like wanted to waste time explaining. She had a hand on her hip and a glare in her eye and she was looking at his pants but why was she looking at – “WIPE YOUR FEET.” Then she turned and went back to leading the way to the elevators. Gary was gonna catch up in a sec, but he needed a minute to...

... minute to...

There’s blood on my shoes! There’s blood on my shoes, I stepped in the A-3 – THERE IS BLOOD ON MY SHOES!” Get it off get it off get it off get it off get it off he bolted for the closest carpet he could find and scraped his sneakers over every inch they could reach –

“DUMMKOPF!” Now Madeline sounded really ticked! “GET AWAY FROM MY CARPETS WITH YOUR FILTHY TOES.”

Oh man, he’d smeared A-3 all over them and even in the weak, orange light and the fact that these things were black, he could totally see the mess he was making out’f them. He leapt back and started dabbing more prints on the floor, but now he had nowhere to wipe them ‘cause he couldn’t use the carpet but there was blood on his shoes and he had to get it off!

“I’m sorry!” He had to say it! If Stephanie was fine with offing an A-3 – Noel something, Noel something, he remembered the face but he couldn’t remember the name because his mind was trapped in a frozen block of terror – then Madeline was a good itch from the right mood for getting rid of a lowly A-10 she definitely knew was only tagging along because he wanted to see this thing but was now seriously considering if he was in over his head with. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry!”

“STOP WHINING AND HURRY UP.” And he was right by her side because that was what she wanted! “GET AWAY FROM ME, YOU IDIOT. YOUR BREATH SMELLS LIKE PROCESSED CHEESE.” So now he was away – he was far away – whatever Madeline wanted he’d do and if Stephanie blinked the tiniest bit, he’d be there doing anything he asked – oh crap, he was going to die – this was why he didn’t do the stuff that meant he had to go outside – he was screwed and scared and – “WALK.”

He was walking! He could do that, he’d been walking his whole life! He was – just... well, even in his panic, he couldn’t help noticing they were missing someone important right now, and even though she’d been so nice to him and even given him a hug, he had no idea if Stephanie’d be cool with him talking because she’d come out of the bathroom acting a hundred percent different...

“A-Agent March?” Half of it was fear, half of it was trying to tell himself to think about how lucky he was to see someone like her do her work and do it on somebody who wasn’t Gary. “We’re supposed to be waiting –”

“NO MORE WAITING.” Madeline brought them to their destination. She didn’t really wait for them to get there before she breezed past all the elevators to head for the back wall and... and find a secret box-panel-thing to open and flip a switch – oh man – Madeline had a private elevator! Were they all going in? Could they fit? Some of his excitement bubbled up again but she crushed it when she went back to staring at his pants – “WIPE YOUR FEET.”

But... he’d already... Oh God there was more blood on his shoes! How could there be more blood on his shoes – there was another pile right behind him and he’d just walked through it because he couldn’t see in this light and it was so dark in here and it was getting late and the sun was setting and who was leaving all this stuff around here anyway?! And Madeline didn’t even care! She hadn’t blinked when Stephanie had dished out a firsthand – HA, HA, HA – demonstration of her crazy... crazy thing – he was shaking but he missed not getting a picture and that was a horrible thing to say in his head when someone had died – before she’d found a speaker and yelled at Eric to do stuff about it.

“I’m so sorry, Agent Bergmann,” he pleaded. “I’m not doing this on purpose!”

“YET STILL YOU STEPPED IN ALL THREE POOLS.” Her arms were crossed, but she took one out to point at the puddle a tiny bit beside his heels. “THAT ONE TWICE. CONGRATULATIONS.”

... Three?

“Wait! Where...” He wasn’t supposed to be asking question, so shut up, Gary! Shut up! “Where’s the third one?”

“ON THE STAIRS.”

Yup, she totally said it like it was an everyday thing. She didn’t even stop to turn around from putting a code into the secret box-panel. It caught him off-guard a little, but he recovered fast enough to blurt out, “Agent Bergmann?”

“WHAT?”

Okay, that was a bad sign. Gary should keep his mouth shut now but – “Who put blood on the stairs?!” Man, he could not be making this worse by getting any shriller. He was like a pudgy Mickey Mouse! And she turned her head like she was gonna swallow him in a bite because –

“MY CAT.” ... She smiled about it. Gary smiled back, too. It stopped him from following up with a peppy, ‘What kind of pets are you keeping here?!’ Then the elevator opened and she said, “GET INSIDE.” Gary started heading in – “YOU. YOU ARE NOT BRINGING YOUR SHOES.”

His shoes were off his feet so fast, it was like they’d evaporated. Really, he’d just kicked them off into the corner, just as quickly filled with the tearful regret of messing up her building some more but – uh... problem solved because they started floating in mid-air what was happening in this place there was way too much excitement in here and he didn’t know how much more he could handle.

“So...” He pointed at the floating shoes. They were moving fast. “You have ghosts...?”

“PATTEN MAKES HIS SPIES WEAR SUITS.”

Was he clean enough? Were his feet okay? He hoped so, because he hopped into the elevator after her, crushing himself up against the wall to make sure Stephanie and Gwen Stewart had as much room as they needed to get in.

“Hey,” he said. Her head snapped to look at him. Her smile was long gone but he’d just thought of something. “They have to be ghosts. They’re invisible!”

“AGENCY TECHNOLOGY PERMITS A MANIPULATION OF THE MIND –”

“No, no, I mean – I know –” ... Did... uh... He wasn’t sure, but did he... just interrupt an A-2...? Talk faster, talk faster – she might not notice! “It’s just that I work with someone who wears a suit –”

“THE SICK ONE.”

“Right, exactly – so... I know how the fading stuff is supposed to work,” Gary said. “I can... well – I can actually see the people. You’re supposed to build up an immunity to the trick after a while and it’s been a while for me.” She had ghosts. There were ghosts in her building. Don’t call a priest because he couldn’t get in here past all the ghosts. “Whatever that was, that’s not a suit. Not – uh... not a normal suit.”

Madeline looked like she was frowning less. Still frowning, though.

“INTERESTING. SHUT UP NOW. MARCH, GET IN. BRING YOUR GIRL.”

“What’s at the top of this thing?” He said ‘top’ because there weren’t any down buttons.

“MY HELICOPTER. SHUT UP.”

“You have a helicopter?!” He’d never been in a helicopter! They were going in a helicopter – it was helicopter time! “Well, alright! I’m – ow –”

She slapped him in the beard!

“ONE MORE WORD AND I SEND YOU TO MY CAT.”

... Okay... The one that left blood everywhere and she seemed to be proud about...

“I’ll –”

“WHAT DID I SAY?”

He shut up. As his reward, she didn't hurt his beard again. Baby steps, Gary. He'd eventually - oh man, she frowned like she could hear his thoughts so he stopped thinking -

* * *


“Nice knots, Bettie Page, but you didn’t have to go all bondage on her. She needs to breathe to talk.”

“She’ll manage,” Alex said, shuffling back from his handiwork. It seemed sturdy. “Everyone does.”

“Everyone spits out tiny gasps of information I have no need for because I really don’t give a shit what they have to say. For once, I’d like a clear answer before I kill someone. By the way, I’m killing her. Heads up.”

“We’re playing it safe. Do whatever you want after we make sure we have the right address.” They needed to get to Gwen and they had to beat whatever timer Peter’d put on getting Xander back to his real body. He didn’t know if it was a bluff or not. If they truly were playing it safe, they’d get back in the car and go straight to Elmira, because the sheer knowledge the guy had been in the same room as the real Xander at any point in time should’ve been enough to kill their hope at doing this. Who was to say there was a body anymore? And if Alex was honest, if it’d been him plotting everything, he wouldn’t’ve bothered at all. Xander was getting weaker, and although there was the chance Peter didn’t know, the French guy had been around from the beginning and the news had to have spread from him. Xander wasn’t hiding that he thought that was the point, that Peter was trying to draw him in to make sure he got his berserker back before he disappeared. It changed the air around this. It meant this wasn’t a spur of the moment ‘take advantage of the situation’ deal. It’d been planned by someone who knew what they were walking into and the consequence for messing something up. They wanted their ex-Agent back and they sounded prepared to pull it off, but through it, there’d been a few things suspiciously overlooked. “She’s not waking up.”

They’d be fine. What Xander hadn’t answered... Alex was being paranoid. They’d be fine.

“I’ve gotta stop overestimating everyone’s tolerance for this thing.” Yeah, who knew frying someone’s mind could be so effective? “Wake up! Some of us have shit to do.”

It’d taken fifteen minutes for Alex to be satisfied the Agent was properly tied. He hadn’t taken her out of the trunk the entire time, and she’d been turned up and over as he got her arms, legs, neck and torso immobilized. He’d been banking on the rope being the one thing that wouldn’t disappear if she tried that vanishing trick of hers, but now that it was finished and he could loom over her, it was obvious she wasn’t going anywhere, magic act be damned. It didn’t mean squat if she wasn’t awake to try it.

“I’ve got a water bottle in my bag.” He didn’t expect it to do anything, though.

“Too bad I can’t just punch her in the face. Turns out that’s not the cure for mental trauma.” Xander took over Alex’s hand and poked at the woman’s eye. “Think a double dose’d work?”

“If I’m stupid for saying ‘fight Agents with Agents’, you’re stupid for thinking ‘more seizures will fix seizures’.”

“They could cancel each other out,” Xander countered. “You don’t know, you’re not a doctor.”

“Or you could kill her,” Alex re-countered, “because ‘look at me, six years and I still don’t know how these powers work’.”

“To be fair, I haven’t had a lot of practise with controlled application.” He was opening the Agent’s eye. “Just a tiny jolt –”

“No!”

Alex could imagine this. In Starbucks, he’d been asked if he’d put any thought into what would happen once they split up. ‘Xander would stick around’. No problem. Except for the not-so-simple time-lapse between Xander getting into his body and Xander then leaving. For all the input he’d had until now, the guy hadn’t done a lot to explain what it’d be like. The re-transfer process... He didn’t even know how long it was going to take. He’d have to be defended, he understood that, but when it was done, how was Alex supposed to get up? Could he move right away? Was there another... coma he’d have to go through? And that was on the simple side of things. Whatever effects he ran into, he had to quintuple it for Xander. Six years outside his body... There was no guarantee he’d wake up right away. How long did they have to wait for that?

“We could hit her with the car,” Xander said. “That’s always a good alarm.”

“We’re not hitting her with the car.” How did that make sense?

“We could break her legs,” he suggested instead. “Snap an arm, crack a rib...” He waited like he expected Alex to jump on board. “... No go?”

“Pain makes you pass out, Xander. I’ve got six different anecdotes to prove it, and they all starred you,” Alex said. “We’re not torturing her.”

“I didn’t say ‘torture’.” Just heavily implied it. “She’s unconscious and she’s either coming out of it on her own or we need to hit her with a shot of adrenaline. Soooooo... start the car.”

“You’re not running over her,” Alex said. “If it’s adrenaline she needs –” Which, despite his ideas for how to get it, sounded like an okay plan. “– there’s other ways to get it.”

“... Like setting her on fire?”

“Not –”

“It’d be controlled and regulated by someone with express insight into skin’s flammability,” Xander pointed out.

... Alex still remembered that. He pushed it down. It took some effort.

“We’re not setting her on fire, either,” he said.

“Well – I’m not waiting ten hours for this bitch to have her beauty sleep. Get her ass in gear, monkey butt.”

They hadn’t talked about it. But he was being paranoid. It couldn’t be a real issue if it hadn’t been brought up by now. Xander likely had some secret plan stashed away he just hadn’t bothered sharing because he never did. Or because he was distracted by the brand-new level of immense and total satisfaction that’d swept over his old undertone of wild loathing for the Agency. The guy was the only one with a spark still flickering brightly. Alex was tired. Osono seemed tired. Everything Gwen must have been going through... He could almost hear the echo of the few words she’d reached him with. She’d be okay. She’d make it. ... But Elmira wasn’t going away.

“Ten minutes,” he said. “We smacked her, we shook her and she’s bound to be close to shaking it off by now.” The blast hadn’t been so intense that it’d keep her down for days. “We’ll wait ten minutes and then we’ll –”

“I’ll get the engine running.”

“And then we’ll consider alternative options,” Alex scolded. “Settle down. Save it for Peter.”

“I’m not hitting Peter with a car.” But he thought about it. A second later, he murmured to himself, “Or should I?”

Ten minutes also gave him another short rest to enjoy. He reached a hand to rub his forehead, grateful that his leg was taken care of but annoyed that every other injury was now clamouring to take the spotlight. He leaned against the backlights of the Audi and let out a breath.

“Step one’s complete. Step two, we get the address. Step three, we get to the base.” Step four, step five, step six... “This is gonna be a long night.”

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#, as written by Ten
"What the hell is a Squiddie? Rudy didn't have long to wonder about it when he became aware of someone else in the room with them and understood that this was the person who Patten had been talking to. And they were fast - he learned that right away when his gun was knocked out of line - and before he had a moment to even react, he was swallowing his heart as he sailed through the air and flipped upside down. He barely had time to adjust to his new orientation before the invisi-Flash person spoke and promptly answered the question of "What does 'bop' mean?"

Pain wasn't really something new to him at this point, having carried it on his back like a parasitic brother ever since he'd left the hotel with Gwen Stewart this morning. But he was still able to reach new heights of it when he was slammed head first into the ground. Oddly enough, as the top of his skull pounded and he blinked his bruised eyes rapidly, there was really only one thing on his mind as he listened to the semi-mechanical but vaguely feminine voice coming from the person holding him.

Wait...that's a chick? He wasn't even really listening to what she was saying as he sort of tried to peer up in her direction, his mind reeling and his neck and jaw jarring harshly as he met the floor for a second time. Oh God... This...is so fucking hot!

On the third or fourth "bop", he dropped his gun, the thing clattering to the ground and falling apart like a bunch of Legos, and the tiny metal pieces dematerialized neatly back into the small trigger handle that he carried around. His arms stayed awkwardly hovering about level with his rib cage at first, but then as more trauma was administered to his brain, they hung limply by his head. Thus, the positioning put an extra strain on his already reopened bullet wound, pain lancing through his shoulder and blood drooling from it, down his collarbone and neck. But he didn't care.

In addition to the agony rippling from his skull in jagged waves, Rudy experienced a confusing blend of fear and arousal every time his head made contact with the ground. He simply could not focus on the stuff she was saying with what he was currently going through - although he really tried, getting off on the fact that he was being punished, yet again, by someone of the female gender. So, he was more or less left with a swirling mixture of incoherence and pain-filled pleasure as she continued to scold and discipline him about something-whatever.

Yeah-yeah! Bop me again! UGH! Ohhhhhh...fuuuuck... okay...that's...e..nough... wait... maybe just...one more..time... He honestly didn't know what he wanted, feeling excited and yet everything hurt so freaking bad. Which only made him MORE excited. All he knew was, if she kept going like this, he was either going to climax or pass out. Possibly both.

Drunken with ecstasy, he sobered quickly to realize that Patten was still here - for a little while there, he'd been lost in a world where it was just him and her; she saying things and him blissfully enjoying not listening to her. Quin really struggled for focus when he heard Eric's voice and had to fight for it again every time Miss Sexy Dominatrix decided to punctuate the A-1's displeasure with another attempt to crack his skull open. But it was REALLY hard - that's what she said - and despite the comforting nature of Patten's tone, he found himself incredibly unsettled the more the man went on.

He'd screwed up...again. His plan really seemed perfect for getting what he wanted, despite the fact that he barely knew Patten and he hadn't really talked to Stephanie in years. So...they weren't together? Well, that was just really screwy, because that Jason douche totally thought they were fucking. Not really having anything else to bargain with except the possibility of Stephanie not wanting people to know about her past, he'd latched onto what was possibly the biggest weakness the A-1 could have. Even when the evidence didn't match up, he'd clung to it because otherwise, Patten would have been exactly what he was right now: untouchable.

And then Rudy's thought processes were scrambled again as he got bopped twice more for bringing Graninger up, in his panic --Sweet, motherfuaaaahhhh--!!! Even when Patten started talking again, his head swam and he airily wondered if Squiddie was seeing anybody and if asking for her number would get him anything - possibly it'd "earn" him another bop!? Patten clapped his hands and suddenly turned around, drawing Rudy's wobbly attention back to him - momentarily shaken loose a second later with another headbutt to the floor - but he blinked and swallowed thickly, watching the A-1 Agent as he started to tear Quin's hopes and confidence to shreds. But wouldn't ya know, he handed it right back a minute later.

A deal? Yeah, sure! Anything to not get killed today! Then an incoherent blast of decidedly feminine screeching came from somewhere, but Rudy didn't really have the energy to move or to look around for the source, even though he desperately wanted to - how many possibly violent and angry women did they have in the base today? How freaking lucky could a guy get? Noel would be so pissed when she heard about him cheating on her like this. Then again, if Patten wanted to make deals, he might not have to depend on her anymore after all.

Then Eric was saying stuff about Jason and his homo suit and--whatever, not about me, not important. He didn't notice Jason being dragged away but flinched just the tiniest bit when Patten turned back to him. The new deal that he wanted to make instantly made Rudy's stomach drop through the floor - especially when the A-1 decided to bring Osono up, basically threatening to interfere in her case. But it didn't make him mad this time. He just felt an overwhelming sense of hopelessness. He didn't know anybody like that - at least, not anybody with skills who would be willing to do him any favors.

Couldn't Patten want something else? Like the 1984 limited edition, mint-condition, still-in-it's-box, Tropical themed Yoda action figure(with beach chair, pina colada drink, and palm tree accessories)? Rudy had all 5 copies that were ever made and their value was at $10,000 each. But he'd happily hand them over if Mr. Patten would just give him what he wanted.

Rudy was still coming to terms with the fact that this conversation - this "negotiation" - was over, when the lovely beast holding him suddenly let him go, his head clunking to the floor before the rest of his wounded and aching body followed. He'd practically forgotten that she'd been holding him this whole time and a shiver of desire swept through him about the same time as a gasping nausea, from physical pain, wrenched through his crumpled and gently spasming form. Ohhhh....the things she could probably do to a man... - and at the moment, he was just thinking of foreplay along the lines of more of this awful, yet magically erotic "bopping". He cracked a bloody smile when actual, sexual thoughts and imaginings occurred to him.

"I think I'm in love..." he muttered.

****

Gwen.

She was touching her.

She was holding her.

Everything else was eclipsed by the fact that she now had firm possession of her target, and all of her senses and attention aimed and focused in on Stewart. Despite this rabid amount of concentration being fixated on the girl, there was no emotion to accompany it. No sense of victory. No relief or sentimental fondness. Stephanie was empty, inside and out, except for the harsh logic which demanded she pay attention and make sure Gwen did not and could not escape ever again. Other than keeping aware of her immediate surroundings for any possible threats to this goal, she pretty much ignored the drama of what was happening in the room, waiting patiently for the higher ranked woman to decide it was time to go.

And she watched as Noel's body was lifted, blinking blankly and instantly zeroing in on the cause of the movement before Gary was squeaking about it, and her eyes didn't leave the dead Agent as she thought about the recent trail of events. She did not regret killing Noel but there was no malice or hostility in the decision or the act. It simply made sense to her that it needed to be done.

In the seconds that Stephanie's eyes had swept over the scene - first latching onto Gwen and analyzing her current state and wounds, which, thankfully, were all pretty superficial - she understood exactly what was going on. There was a level of instability in Noel's face and eyes that told her everything she needed to know - this was an amount of damage that she would not come back from. Whether it was Gwen's fault or the madness had already been present, there was no fixing it except in the way that Stephanie had ultimately chosen - all determined in those tiny seconds before crossing the room to grab ahold of the shorter woman. It was her target and thus, her duty to "clean up" the situation and she felt like she'd done that very efficiently.

Even though she currently lacked the ability to reminisce, she did wonder how Noel had gotten to that state. The short, British woman had been 4 years older than Stephanie and the Lead on the Wallace case back when Stephanie was working on the team as an A-5. Noel had always possessed a girlish and youthful disposition, but she'd been an aggressive and demanding Lead as well. Stephanie shared a lot of the same interests and they'd been friendly outside of work, but it never went beyond an occasional coffee or lunch together. When Richard left and Stephanie was having difficulty dealing with the loss, Noel had understood and allowed her to take some time to get her head together. She'd also suggested the utilization of pharmaceuticals to dull the pain and allow her to keep working. When Stephanie had put requests on the woman's desk for testing out several emotion-inhibiting drugs, Noel had handed the forms over to her without question. She'd been fond of and respected Noel.

So, what had happened to change her so dramatically was something she could only speculate about, but she suspected Rudolph Quin was involved somehow. She didn't really know why she thought that, except that Quin had changed from how she'd known him as well. He'd been a virgin masochist when Stephanie had been involved with him, but now...things had gone way beyond what he used to be capable of. Back when they'd been in training together, he'd passed out when she'd tied him up and dripped hot wax on him. Now, he was carrying around a bullet wound like it was a fashion accessory and he'd stayed conscious while she'd stepped on it - not to mention through the entire, resulting beating. And then there'd been Noel's... dark proclivities and the two had been working on the same case together.

As soon as Madeline began walking, Stephanie was moving as well, pulling Gwen along by her arm. Stewart could move and stay on her feet, but that was as far as it went. Her eyes were closed and there was a small wrinkle of pain or sadness above the bridge of her nose, and her lips stayed semi-parted with her head bowed just the tiniest bit. Her movements went as quick or as slow as Stephanie wanted, but there was no push or direction behind them, completely dependent on the Agent's steering. She was a living doll.

This was what the EDP had been designed for. In the beginning stages, it had been about something else, but as soon as Stewart entered the picture, her efforts had become focused on combating and controlling the psychic's powers. Now, not only was her mind completely shielded, but the mental walls were expansive enough to interfere with Gwen's abilities. And all of that training had paid off. Sure, the Lachesis was helping a lot, but it was a state of mind that had become a part of who she was, and thus, she was able to handle it with efficiency and ease.

When Gary said her name, it was like he'd spontaneously popped back into existence, and she merely glanced in his general direction apathetically, before glancing away again in a silent agreement with the A-2. At first, she was perfectly willing to ignore Gary for this entire trip. Master had told him to go along to help her with the transfer, but she wasn't going through with it until Jason was safe and by her side. And if he was there, then HE'D be able to help her with the transfer. Gary was coming along to stay out of the way of things here and merely following Master's orders for him to accompany her.

So, she didn't care about how he felt or what he did, so long as Stewart stayed safe and firmly within her hold. But then her rationality kicked in and she thought it might be a good idea to inform him about the "Jason situation". It would set him at ease to know that she did have things under control and thus he might stop panicking and upsetting Madeline - and the less virulent the A-2 was, the more cooperative she was likely to be. She not only had a duty to Master in keeping him safe, but to Jason as well. They were best friends, he'd said, so it required her to take decent care of him and keep him out of trouble. Afterall, he was a fish out of water here.

When they arrived at the A-2's private elevator, Stephanie waited patiently for things to get moving again, idly listening to the conversation and surveying reactions and emotions. Yes. That was indeed a smile when Madeline mentioned Benoit - who Stephanie understood to be "her cat" in this case - and it's mere presence confirmed all and any suspicions that Stephanie had about their relationship. She couldn't muster the desire to care about it, but it was information she filed away as a possible relation to detecting the A-2's motives and any possible threats that might present to her case.

Stephanie was more than ready to go by the time Madeline was ushering them into the elevator, but everything came to a halt when Gary kicked off his shoes and they remained in the air. Before, when one of Master's invisible men had picked up the corpse in the sick bay, she'd brushed it aside in preference to thinking about and remembering her old Lead and friend. But now, her attention focused on it and her logic began to hyper analyze the possible implications of having hidden soldiers positioned around the base.

Obviously, first and foremost, they were here to watch Madeline. Master had expressed enough animosity towards the female Agent that it went without saying, he probably did not trust her. So, that was at least one primary reason for their presence. But that brought up a hundred other questions and considerations. How many were there in the base? Where were they situated? Had they only been following Madeline around, or had Master seen fit to snoop and spy on everything going on in the base? How often did they report to him? Did they need to? On the jet, Master had been aware of his men dying by Alexander's hand and had known their location and that they'd fired weapons in the restaurant. In the middle of a fight with an ex-Agent, Stephanie doubted that any of his men had stopped to type up a report to their boss. So, was Master's input from them automatic? Was he able to receive information on everything that they'd seen and heard?

Stephanie admitted, she had not been acting appropriately ever since she got here. At some point, the EDP had fallen out of her control and her emotionless mask kept slipping off. Not an excuse, but merely an explanation. Depending upon where Master had his men positioned, they could have been present during every one of Stephanie's manic slip ups. He hadn't brought it up or indicated that he knew, but now she was seeing hints of it in the different things he'd said to her. Specifically, the way he'd handled the presentation of the "Jason staying in Charlton" plan.

IF he'd been aware of Stephanie's erratic behavior - and she was definitely one of the first to concede that things with Jason had reached a serious level, compared to the playful way in which they'd started - then it was possible that he'd order Jason to stay behind in an attempt to control her. Why he wouldn't simply punish her or call her to task directly, when he had more than enough power to do so, didn't make any immediate sense. Unless, he wanted her to finish the transfer into Gwen. As much as Stephanie had wanted to believe that he liked her and that fondness could have been a good enough reason for him to want to help her, she now doubted such, very much. He'd said so himself; he did not make attachments like that. And with how fond of Benoit that Madeline was, she doubted that the A-2 would not have prepared and provided for their arrival, with the necessary men available for the reverse transfer to take place. That meant there was no logical reason for Jason to NEED to stay.

Master was getting something out of her transfer and he was getting something from separating her and Jason. But he'd done a good job of keeping his motives and projects hidden since he'd been with them, so the exact reason why he would do this was something she could only make guesses about. It did not change much - Jason would probably still be alright staying here and his involvement would eventually help her in Elmira. And besides that, she could not change her mind now. It was too late. She was with Gwen and she was not going to veer off of her course. The transfer was within reach now. No more detours!

Stephanie heard Madeline call for her, but she ignored her for a minute or two, watching the hallway in the direction of the stairs and thinking through everything. Finally, her muscles clicked rigidly and she was moving robotically towards the elevator, dragging Gwen along swiftly, stepping in it and squeezing into the small space. The doors closed and they began moving, but it was barely felt at all, seeming like they were all just standing in an unmoving closet together.

"Gary," Stephanie eventually said, her voice sucking the warmth and life out of the air around her. "About Jason: I know what he said, but I'm the Lead on this case. I already gave him his orders and thoroughly explained to him why it has to happen this way. Besides, Master will not take his suit away if he stays - not if he wants Jason to be able to function properly and do as he's told. He will be fine and he knows what is expected of him." Yes. That was simple enough to let Gary know that she was in charge, was fully aware of the risks and confident that things would happen according to plan. "I cannot go through with the transfer until I get the all-clear from Benoit, so when we get to Elmira, I insist that you find those things that I asked you to get for me before." When Jason did eventually leave Charlton to join up with them, he would have to remove his suit; some cookies would help him feel better and some alcohol would dull the pain. She did not look at him and continued to do so when Gwen began muttering weakly.

"...Xander... please...help... I need..."

Stephanie's attention instantly swept to the girl standing beside her, turning to her and looking her over to make sure everything was as it should be. Her eyes were still closed - although the wrinkle in her brow was larger, as if she were concentrating - and her voice had been dreamy and frail, her head still tipped slightly forward. She was trying to reach Alexander through Stephanie's shield. How foolish.

Reaching forward, Stephanie gently closed Gwen's mouth - which, the simple action got it to stay closed with Gwen in this easily manipulatable state - and brushed her brown hair out of her face. Adjusting her firm hold on Gwen's arm and brushing a stray wrinkle off of the tiny shirt she was wearing, Stephanie stood facing forward once again, waiting for the elevator to reach it's destination. And she began to wonder about Alexander. From everything she'd been told about the man, it was apparent that the guest was a fierce and troublesome person. What exactly was Gwen's relationship with the two men? What had gone on between them?

Losing sight of Gwen had been a terrible mistake and as a result of it, she no longer knew exactly who Gwendolyn Stewart was anymore. It almost felt like she'd been disconnected from a part of herself, and Gwen had changed and experienced so much. That first fight in the apartment building had been like battling her shadow, knowing everything that Gwen would think and do, blending with her. And the panic and desperation had been clearly felt in every move that she threw in Stephanie's direction. She'd been weak and afraid, just like Stephanie knew she would be, it being consistent with Stewart's state of mind for the past year. But she hadn't stayed that way.

It could have been argued that Alexander or the guest probably convinced Gwen to attempt the eavesdropping on Stephanie's thoughts, using her partner's goggles to breech the distance. And she had been confident that the mere backlash of the event, even when the pain of it faded, would be traumatic enough to keep her mousy, little Gwen from attempting it a second time - at least, not until she'd had more time to gather the courage for it, which curiosity necessitated that she would. It had barely been an hour later when they'd stopped for breakfast and Jason had suddenly come up with the idea about Alexander the guest wanting his body back - which, Stephanie had figured out almost immediately had been a result of Gwen invading her partner's mind.

It was a small thing and Stephanie had ignored the larger implications of it at the time, merely taking it into account when she put forth her plan in anticipation of Gwen's apparent willingness to test her powers if she felt safe from harm at such distances. But things should have become clear to her when Gwendolyn had read her mind in Elmira and taken in the false information she'd fed to her target. The EDP layers of her mind were impenetrable and Stephanie, even at that time when she'd begun entertaining playful advances towards her partner, had retained complete control of information going in and out of each layer. It had been isolated. There was no way Gwendolyn would have been able to detect that they were lies. It was even set up in just the right way to keep Gwen from asking Alexander directly about it.

But she had not reacted the way that Stephanie had predicted. Something had gone wrong and she'd not only left with Alexander, she'd stayed with him until Quin had captured her - and they'd been at the restaurant with Rudy and his target; that right there spoke of an established ease and trust between them. She'd gotten stronger. Not just her powers but her personality as well. When Stephanie had faced her again, there had been fear but she was full of a quiet confidence now and a willingness to fight. Even now, when there was no hope and the pain was enough to put her in a catatonic state, she was struggling to break through the shield and reach her friend. What had Alexander done to her target?

The elevator doors opened on the seemingly static elevator, the scenery beyond the door changed from the ground floor to a concrete and red brick rooftop outside, the sky open above them and the sun disappearing in the west. Even so, there were a couple of lights positioned around the top of the building, illuminating the large space. The first part of the roof was smooth and empty, with 4 steps leading up to a heliport platform on the far end. Positioned on it and resting on a large, white stenciled version of the Agency logo, was a shining black helicopter.

The body was wide and long, with large, glossy windows on the front half, while the tail tapered down to an almost rigid point, possessing a second, smaller rotor at it's tip. The propellers were already moving, apparently alerted of their arrival by either the movement or code put into the elevator. And although it had not picked up enough speed for take-off yet, as they left the elevator and proceeded towards the platform, the gusts violently whipped Stephanie and Gwen's hair about their faces.

Madeline went first, stalking ahead quickly, with Stephanie dragging Gwen along behind her and Gary following her like a shadow. And they boarded in that order, filling the four seats in the belly of the chopper, cramped close together and Stephanie taking the seat next to her target - unable and unwilling to release the girl from her hold. Then the wind was cut off and the thundering noise of the rotors was muffled as the side door was slammed shut, and the blonde pilot glanced back at the A-2 before taking off.

And just like with the elevator and the sick bay, everyone else became a silent movie playing in another room, while she held Gwen's hand and brushed the hair from her face, making sure the girl was still in a neutralized state. And despite the still new and confounding behavior of Stewart still looking like she was concentrating really hard on something behind her eyelids, Stephanie was not worried. It no longer mattered who Gwendolyn Stewart was, because in just a few hours, she would be Stephanie March.

****

Maybe she should have tried harder to be nice to the guy they needed for the next step in this adventure. She couldn't hold up the act on her own - possibly Alex might help and attempt to act the way he was supposed to, but the Agent girl would probably notice the difference and wouldn't fall for it again. But Ozzie had felt the need to subtly let him know that she wasn't pleased with having to depend on a possible traitor. And now, from the one-sided conversation, it kinda sounded like he was giving Alex trouble about helping them.

She resisted the urge to join the discussion, because she was mad and annoyed now and really had no idea what the real problem was - was he pouting now? Still raging? What was going on? And since he seemed to have enough to deal with right now, she didn't get mad at Alex or ask him to translate/transfer their conversation to out in the open. So, keeping her mouth shut, she followed Alex's direction when he pointed out a promising looking turn off and even directed the Audi into a corner when he suggested it.

Slowly she started to relax, when despite the clearly weirded out state he was in, Alex acted like they were definitely doing this - and even told her what explanation Xander said they were going to use for the rope. Clearly, the temperamental Agent dude was on board with this, so it left Ozzie relieved but still confused. If he wasn't pouting or throwing a temper tantrum still, then what was he doing? When Alex addressed her with that casual reference to the conversation he was having with the guy in his head, Osono cracked a grin and opened her door. Yeah, okay. Things were alright.

He didn't get out immediately, apparently still talking with Xander and having difficulty with his leg, but she'd had enough driving and sitting, and stood up to stretch her long legs. Looking around at their surroundings, she couldn't help but be impressed by Alex's choice in location. All the windows in the building that blocked their view of the road, were dark and silent, and there was a fence surrounding the lot. She breathed deeply, watching as the trees surrounding the lot turned pink in the fading light and leaned upon the roof of the car. Waiting until Alex was stepping out - still talking to himself - she slammed her door shut, coming around the car as he did, ready and wielding the keychain with the small remote attached to it, already pushing the small button with a picture of a car and opened trunk on it before he asked.

And just so that he wouldn't have to, she lifted the trunk and grabbed the still unconscious Agent, hoisting her out and depositing her on the cracked and worn out asphalt. Then Ozzie stood back and allowed Alex to tie her up, not really sure what to say about his apparent familiarity and expertise in doing it. Watching him, she thought about all that had happened during their trip and made an effort in trying to separate things that Alex had said to her and stuff that Xander said, attempting to add up the points and determine her current relationship with the two men.

Well, let's see: there were the constant, scornful jibes he'd made towards her tendency to set people on fire - which, she'd only done once and to Agents who'd been attacking and trying to kill her. But she hadn't helped things by bitchily flaunting her ability and willingness to do so, threatening to do it at every turn, just to spite him. It seemed like Xander being the Agent, he might be suspicious and wary of people with powers. But then again...from what she now knew about Them, it was probably more likely that he'd be fond of her destructive and violent behavior. That meant...Alex was the one who'd made all of those snide warnings against her "barbecuing" people, like it was a pleasurable hobby of hers rather than her biggest and most effective defense.

Then there'd been all the times he'd complimented her and occasionally called her 'Sparky' - which she was actually annoyed by while at the same time sort of enjoying the fact that he'd given her a nickname. She was willing to bet that the times he'd called her that it had been Xander who'd done it, because of the slick and smart-mouthed way he talked. For the same reason, she also suspected that Xander wouldn't have been stupid enough to keep bringing Rudy up and hurting her feelings about it...

So. What was the score? Ozzie let out a breath through her nose and adjusted her position to leaning on her other foot. It was really hard to know how to feel about it all. Because for one thing, even though she was now almost positive that this whole time she'd actually been fighting with Alex, who'd been acting like a jerk towards her, he was the one being nice and considerate to her now. And even though she could pretty much rely on the probability that Xander had been the one who'd actually put forth the occasional approving comment...he was an Agent, and that meant he was part of - or at least HAD BEEN a part of - the organization that had ruined her life. So now, she was left with the confusing mixture of hostility towards the enemy in their midst and yet desiring his continued approval.

And Alex... she couldn't really find the urge to hate him, anymore. What was even more troubling, was when she realized on a certain level, she'd actually been enjoying herself when trading barbs with him. Like a really mean game they'd been playing.

Realizing that she'd been staring at his face while she'd been thinking, she suddenly put on a scowl to cover it up and looked instead at the cat-suit lady. When he was done, she cleared her head and focused on preparing herself for playing pretend while he attempted to wake the bitch up. But it wasn't working. From their discussion, what he'd actually done was gave her a seizure or something - so that's what his powers were; she'd originally thought it might be more electrical from the way those people in the coffee shop had started jerking and spasming when they'd fallen from their seats. And then there was what Peter had said...

A few times while they talked things over, Ozzie unwillingly cracked a smile at some of the things they said and she had to keep reminding herself that this was serious. But she couldn't help it! That shit about using the car was actually pretty funny. Knowing it was Xander, the Agent, who was talking didn't really hammer in while he said those things. Although she fully believed he was willing to run the girl over and would probably not regret whatever happened as a result, she couldn't help but be amused by the immaturity of the suggestion and entertained by the two men's back and forth, with Alex actually trying to convince him that it was in no way a good idea. They were like real-life cartoon characters.

Finally, when it seemed Alex was going with the plan to just wait the girl out, her smile faltered a little to watch him lean wearily against the car, rubbing at his forehead. Even though she had an idea of how to wake her up, she stopped and let the guy have a moment to just take a break. She still felt an urgency to get moving as soon as possible, but a couple of minutes couldn't hurt.

Coming to stand beside him, she folded her arms and nudged him loosely with her elbow, and gave him a mockingly weary sigh. "It's almost over, penis-neck," and she laughed about that again, when she realized, it had been Xander who'd drawn that on him - Oh my God! That's fucking awesome! What a dick! "Oh, God..." she said, smirking and shaking her head. "All this time, I thought you were just a crazy asshole. Now looking back, I realize that each was only true for one of you. It'll be a bit of a shame to split the comedy pair up, but I guess 6 years is a long time to be without your own head space."

The sun was going down now, everything painted blue, and the color almost hovering tangibly in the air about them. It had a bit of a calming affect on her and she smiled again. "It's been a wild ride... kinda don't want to get off, heh." And then she glanced at him, giving him that smile before it suddenly faded. Fuck! What the hell was she talking about? And what was she doing??? Smiling prettily and batting her eyes? Ugh! The stupid twilight was getting into her head and making her soft!

To cover it up, Osono rolled her eyes and turned the faded smile into a dry smirk, giving him a playful punch on the shoulder before stepping away from him and moving towards the Agent girl. "Come on. Let's get started and get you guys separated. I know how to wake her up."

And just making sure he knew she understood the rules, she rolled her eyes sarcastically and tapped her fingers as she counted. "And 'No burning or torturing'. Got it. I'll be gentle."

She stepped to stand over the unconscious Agent, her feet planted on either side of the woman's body and smoothly crouched down to hover over her. Then she casually reached out and pinched the Agent's nose closed. It took a few seconds but suddenly the Agent's eyes were popping open and a large gasp exploded from her mouth, her chest rising as she tried to suck in a gulp of air, which ended in her coughing when the ropes around her body prevented her lungs from opening any further.

As soon as the woman woke up, Ozzie took her hand away from her, waiting a moment for the coughing and gasping to stop. It was pretty dark now, but in the darkening blue she could see the Agent's head moving groggily from side to side. A spark flared and filled the space between them with light as Ozzie loosely held her hand up, the appendage swarming and swirling with dancing flames. The girl flinched and squinted against the sudden light, but was suddenly blinking in remembrance as her eyes adjusted and she saw Osono's illuminated features.

"Thanks for deciding to finally join us," Ozzie said with a sneer, as if the woman had been deliberately staying unconscious just to piss her off. "I'm feeling bored and cagey. Since you're such a willing and available victim, I decided, 'What the hell? Let's start part two of your punishment right now.'"

The woman's eyes widened a bit and she started to move her arms within her binds, but immediately found the rope to be unforgiving. "Yeah," Osono commented casually. "Couldn't have my prey squirming and trying to protect yourself. And apparently, having someone running around while on fire is hazardous or something." Rolling her eyes and shrugging as if it was an annoying and stupid fact of life. "Although, it's very pretty." And Ozzie could see each new degree of fear and dread as the phrases 'prey' and 'person on fire' registered in the Agent's mind.

Brie was extremely groggy but waking up fast, a headache making her thoughts fuzzy and increasing her sense of panic as her disorientation only heightened the feeling of helplessness that clung to her. Her eyes darted around worriedly, but she didn't want to look away from the fire woman to try and figure out where they were, keeping her gaze latched onto the blazing hand and the shadowed face hovering beside it. All the doubts she'd felt before were slow to return in the fogginess, so for now she accepted her situation and the very real possibility that she would be burned alive.

"I-I-I thought you said you were going to let me live. You said staying alive to face the consequences would be worse for me--"

Ozzie's other hand swooped out from the shadows at her side and she grabbed a fistful of Brie's short, brown hair, bringing her other hand close to the Agent's face to hover near her skin. "YOU'RE the one who failed your test, jackass! Don't mistake my previous generosity for anything other than a whim, which can just as easily be flipped at my pleasure. My happy pills have worn off and I feel like hurting somebody! And guess what? You won today's special prize, bitch!"

The Agent was trembling beneath her, the woman's eyes squeezed closed and she was whimpering softly as Osono's fire-hand leered in front of her face. Ozzie was keeping a firm hold on the flames, controlling how much heat actually touched the woman, but even so, it was bright enough and close enough that it was still incredibly threatening. She actually expected Osono to torture her and kill her. She didn't even need a good reason other than 'she felt like it'. And it was all because this woman was used to dealing with people like this, accepting of her place as worthless because of her subordinate status.

And as Ozzie watched her cry and shiver, a surge of pleasure and satisfaction coursed through her. Finally punishing one of these people, face-to-face. Getting her to feel the fear and threat of death that Osono had been stuck with for years. Finally taking the power and control away from this nameless enemy and dominating one of them. This woman feared her sadistic, manic wrath - Osono could totally be that for her. She could become this woman's pain and terror, paying the Agency back for the loss of her ability to feel safe anywhere.

Then she stopped. No. It hadn't been this woman who'd done that to her. It hadn't even been the nameless enemy which they were facing up against now. It'd been Rudy. Everything that the Agency had done to her had been because of him...and herself. Facing this bitterness and understanding what these people were really like on the inside and recognizing her own responsibility for what her life had become, she vowed to punish the real culprit and put an end to it once and for all.

Feeling kind of sick, she let out a small growl and shoved the Agent's head away as she let her go and stood up, the light of the flames on her hand rising with her. But she stayed where she was, standing over the woman and looking down at her, trying to hang onto the role she was playing, even though she really, kinda wanted to stop now. "How about we start this barbecue from the feet up? Maybe I'll stop halfway through, melting the flesh off of your legs and just leaving you with nothing but the crisp bones for you to stand on?"

The tears on Brie's face glittered in the light from Osono's fire, her eyes shining and horrified. But she did not argue, merely letting her eyes dance from her to the now revealed man standing nearby, silently begging and pleading for mercy. And Ozzie was nauseated all over again. Any time you're ready, Alex. Join the frickin' party...

****

Rousing, Rudy blinked his eyes weakly, realizing that he was naked and wet and not remembering how the hell he'd gotten that way. Where the fuck am I? Sitting up defensively, instantly regaining a sliver of alertness, he flinched when his head came under the spray of the still running water spout on the wall. Looking up at it, he remembered. The locker room. Right.

Not wanting to pass out and possibly get punished for "sleeping on the job" if Eric happened to come back, Rudy had crawled from the red pickle-people room, leaving a trail of blood as he went. Turning down the hallways, he'd eventually come upon a door with a little "man" symbol above it, and had gotten shakily to his feet before he'd entered. He initially intended to merely splash some sink water on himself and call it "good to go", but he was delighted to find that the room actually possessed showers and an aisle or two of lockers. And he was the only one in the room, so privacy was his - at least, for now. The journey of actually getting undressed took a while, since he couldn't seem to stay on his feet, his head pounding and feeling heavier than the rest of him, and his clothes soaked with blood and sticking to him. But he eventually made it, on wobbly legs standing beneath the nozzle on the wall in the small side room with tile-to-tile walls and floor.

He'd passed out when the water hit the raw flesh of his bullet wound, a burst of stinging pain finally tipping the scale of endurance and dragging him under.

He didn't know how long he'd been out, but decided not to dwell on it, getting to his feet again and finishing up as best he could without hurting himself too much more. And he didn't dawdle, pushing his now fragile form to it's limits to keep working for him, urging his bruised limbs to go faster. He knew what he had to do and he wanted to get started as soon as possible. On his crawl here, he'd had time to think about what Patten had said and decided that he was going to take the offered deal. The man fucking terrified him and the less he had to talk to and/or deal with him, the more comfortable he'd be. But Patten hadn't said "no" to Rudy's requests. He'd just changed the pieces on the table. There was still a chance that Rudy could become an A-3 again and keep his Leadership over Ozzie's case.

The warm water soothed his aching body parts and the shower itself cleared his head, so when he turned it off and walked from the room, he was able to do so with better motor control and more ease than he'd entered with. Toweling himself off, he got dressed in an extra uniform that he'd found, emptying the pockets of his jeans and tossing the old clothes into a large trash can under the sink. The pants he put on were made for a taller gentleman, so they needed to be rolled up at the bottom, and a belt to keep them up, and they were dark gray, almost black, with a thin, yellow stripe up the outside of each leg. The black boots were a bit big, but he could wear them - and they also made a fun "S.W.A.T. team" boot noise when he clunked around the room.

The dime-sized bullet wound - which had an exit hole in his upper back - actually stopped bleeding after his shower, so he put on the plain white T-shirt that the uniform came with. He'd still need to hop down to the sick bay eventually and handle it, but for now, so long as he didn't piss anyone else off, it'd be alright. He'd washed his face in the shower as well, and other than the swelling of his bruises and the gash at the bridge of his nose, everything seemed in one piece. It would scab up and look kinda hideous for a while and his nose would probably heal crooked, but that was sufferable; he really didn't have the time or the patience right now to worry about "looking pretty", and the damn thing didn't hurt anymore anyway. The uniform was completed with a thin jacket - the same colors as the pants, and the simple stripe design repeated on the sleeves, with an Agency logo on the left breast - which he left casually unzipped.

Once he was dressed, he then proceeded to raid the lockers, opening them all with one shot from the Aurora, and regaining a bit of his former lucidity as he searched through them. His head still hurt really bad - did Squiddie like flowers or chocolates? Would asking her to have his babies be too forward? - but his mind was clear and he was already making a mental list of acquaintances who could help him with the task Patten had set before him. Finally, he found what he was looking for - a cellphone. Somebody else's. But it was a really killer phone so, now it was his. At least, until someone possibly bigger than him asked for it back.

Looking around, he decided to stay here to make his phone calls to retain some level of privacy - they wouldn't put cameras in the bathroom; that'd just be perverse! Turning the phone on, he rapidly tapped the buttons, putting in the number that he had memorized by heart.

And it rang...and rang...and rang... Where the hell was she? His first thought was that Noel was ignoring him on purpose but then he realized, that didn't make sense - it wasn't his phone, so how could she know who it was? Cursing silently to himself and tugging his drooping pants back up a bit, he put in another number. This one, he typed slower because he didn't remember it quite so well, but he entered the right numbers anyway. On the second ring, a familiar voice appeared, uttering the neutral command "Talk." Authoritative and "no nonsense" as ever.

"Granny! Heeeeeyyyy! 'Sup? How's my favorite A-2 Agent?" Rudy asked, getting his regular dorky grin back and his voice returning to it's rapidly flowing speeds.

There was the slightest pause before the raspy voice on the other line said, "Quin," in chagrined recognition, and then there was the hinted breath of impatience before he continued in a tolerant yet condescending tone. "I told you not to call me that. It's either 'Graninger', 'Sir', or if you prefer, you may call me by my title."

"Yeah - heh. Okay," was the breezy response, quickly brushing the warning aside. "Hey, I hear you're not in the recruitment biz anymore, yeah? No longer stuck training a bunch of incompetent nobodies. That kinda sucked for you, didn't it? Finally on top now, though, right? With your own base of operations and teams of Agents in-" wait...where was he now? "Spokane. Washington! Sweeeeet. Respect and all that."

"Oh? You heard about that? I've 'heard' that you're now an A-6, dropped down from a completely baffling A-3 position. News travels fast doesn't it?" came the smug and snarky reply. "Congratulations, you're exactly where I always expected you to remain - sucking at life." Before Rudy could ask the question How the hell did you know about my demotions? Richard talked over him. "I've been keeping an eye on you over the years - I have an idle interest in your bizarre methodology."

"You've..been stalking me? ...In that case, do you happen to remember where I put my Magic cards? I misplaced them this morning. It's my Elemental Tournament deck with all my highest level cards in it; I'm goin' outta my frickin' mind, here."

There was a long pause and then the other man's voice had lost whatever good-humored patience that it had possessed. "Is there something you wanted Quin, or did you just call to chat? Cut the bullshit. You may be content to sit around licking your genitals instead of actually doing something productive, but I don't have the time to waste playing games with you."

Okay. Time to change gears and lighten it up a bit. He could usually sway Graninger in certain directions by being an annoying twerp, but it wouldn't work if he laid it on too heavy in the beginning. He was more likely to hang up if Rudy pushed too much right away. Taking a deep breath, he sat down on a bench and wiped his sweaty palm on his pant leg.

"Okay, I won't waste your time," Rudy said, his voice gaining what could possibly pass for a "somber" tone. "I need your help--"

"You used up all of the favors that I could possibly be generous enough to give, 6 years ago. Besides, there's nothing that you have that I want that I couldn't just take from you anyway."

"Oh. Well, shit... Look, Patten's not gonna let me have my case and rank back unless I have something to work with. I'm at negative numbers right now..."

Rudy's voice faded as a raspy laugh came through the phone. "That's what you get for pissing off an A-1, genius. I don't give a fuck about your problems, Quin. You had your fun, probably got a very nice lesson in humility, and now it would be smart for you to just shut up and step down gracefully. You're lucky you even have that."

Frustratedly, he ran a hand through his wet, spiky hair and grimaced when he touched the still sensitive parts of his scalp. Even so, he didn't stop, poking and prodding at the bruises, the renewed pain filling him with a burst of determination. "Stephanie March is here."

As if he couldn't remember her, Graninger drawled her name in a thoughtful tone. "March?" A grunt of amusement came to Rudy's ears. "She was one of probably a thousand recruits that I oversaw and handled the training of in that class alone. What makes you think I care?"

"Because," Rudy said, picking at the yellow stripe on his leg. "I know what you did. A man doesn't dedicate himself to a project like that without retaining some sort of...attachment. Have you been stalking her too, Granny? Heh." Even though he'd seen the two of them together, and knew for a FACT they'd been in a relationship, he was leery about attempting the "blackmail/affair" thing again. So, he decided to go in a different direction.

"She's getting ready for her transfer, but it's not a done deal yet. Something's going on around here and I'd bet big money that shit ain't gonna happen the way everybody planned - and yes, I'm talking about something interrupting the transfer." Jason had seemed worried about that when he'd been talking with Eric. "AND, I'm pretty sure she's on some kind of drugs currently, so...you know..that's always a good thing to throw into the mix. Who DOESN'T enjoy a little meth in a stressful and potentially chaotic situation? Am I right?" He had no clue if it was true - it was plausible with the way she'd looked and her manic behavior - but honestly, Rudy was scraping at the bottom of the barrel for anything that'd get Graninger on board.

"I know you don't want anything bad to befall our precious Steph and I think Patten is cheering for her too." Hadn't Jason said something like that...? "I'd really like to help out and do my part to make sure the coked-up whore gets safely planted into her target's body, but the funny thing is -- I don't have what they need. And for some really odd reason, none of my potentially better off and more skillful friends are answering their phones. Except you, so..."

"Hm," it was a curt noise expressing neither amusement or displeasure, and Rudy bit his bottom lip agitatedly while he waited for the other man to mull it over. Come on, you old codger, throw me a bone, here.

"You surprise me Quin," Graninger said finally, his smoke-weathered voice taking on a smoother, oily smugness. "This was actually pretty well-thought out - for you. Did someone else write this plan for you?"

"Mommy only helped a little!"

That actually got a graveled chuckle from the other man and Rudy started to relax a little bit. "Alright, you've got my attention, if only for the fact that I want to hear the rest of your 'grand' plan and see what happens as a result of my interference." It was so nice to hear that somebody in the world had faith in him. "What role do you need me to play in this little game of yours?"

"Alright," and Rudy took a moment to silently pump his arm and fist in victory. Now, just gotta reel him in, baby! "Steph needs to go through with the transfer. It's better for me if I help Patten and he seems to wanna help her so, I need somebody who won't die AND who's skilled in combat." He wasn't exactly lying about the state of things, but he WAS leading Graninger to believe that whoever he offered up would be working to help and protect Stephanie. Which...he had no idea if they would or not; Patten hadn't said exactly what he needed this person for. He'd thrown Steph into it because he knew Richard would put more effort into protecting her, even if it meant helping Rudy in the process. And he was pretty sure that she could take care of herself, so everybody would get what they wanted in the end.

"Hmmm... yeah, I think I know just the guy," Graninger said thoughtfully. "I trained him myself, so I know he'll be efficient and he can't be wounded, so he won't die-" That sounded freaking awesome! "-but..." And then Richard's voice trailed off into a dramatic pause, making Rudy feel uneasy.

"But what?"

"Well, he's technically not an Agent. And before you ask, no, he's not a target either, although he does have powers. Let's just say he's...a person of interest. He's classified as 'invincibility' and so far, everything we've thrown at him during testing has failed to have any impact. Blades, guns, acid, explosions, you name it. Not only has nothing left a mark, but the guy doesn't even feel it. Other than that, he's pretty much like anyone else; shooting a bazooka at his chest will knock him off his feet - for a moment - and although we can't break any of his bones, HE can't break anything else - punching holes through steel and juggling mini-vans is a bit beyond what he's capable of. His strength lies in his ability to keep getting up and we have yet to find a limit to it."

Well that was really neat. Kinda like Superman. ...Except without all of that other cool shit the Man of Steel was known for.

"He wasn't even on our radar until about a year ago when a team in Seattle was chasing down a girl who could manipulate blood. He was traveling with her and seemed to be helping her, but when she was on the verge of killing the Agents - which I have no doubt, with the way her powers work, she would have succeeded - he turned on her and enabled the Agents to have their capture. And then he had the balls to demand a job. I won't bore you with the details, suffice it to say he works for us. But loyalty is a hard thing to pin down, even with action to back it up. He's dedicated to the cause, of course, but late in the interview process, I started to suspect that he's had mental training of some kind. Considering that we had no idea who he was before he showed up on our doorstep, it seems kinda shady."

Wait...none of that sounds good.

"It's not really anything you'd have to worry about, I'm sure, but it hasn't been thoroughly investigated yet. He's sort of operating in a 'limbo' position right now, without an official status, so he'll follow orders from any Agency personnel - even a dipshit like you. Do you still want him?"

Rudy didn't really know what to think. Like, 'wow, this dude sounds like the bomb that'll knock Patten's socks off, but he might be a mole of some kind.' Why would Richard offer him this guy, to supposedly help Stephanie out, if he might end up being a traitor and possibly screw everything up? Was he hoping to make Rudy look bad? Would he do that if Steph was at risk? Maybe he'd gotten it wrong...maybe Graninger didn't really care about her...

His head fucking hurt - God, Squiddie! Would you just marry me, sweetheart? - so he rubbed his forehead and leaned forward to support his elbow on his knee. Alright, no. No. He wouldn't do that. Rudy had seen the two of them together multiple times back when he was in training - and the fact that his whole tone changed when Rudy brought her up, said very clearly that he still loved her. He wouldn't give Rudy a dud if it meant Steph might suffer for it. He's just messing with me, that's all. Trying to make me nervous. He probably knows I'm fucked and desperate, and is getting some sick pleasure out of making me sweat. Jerk.

Besides, if this invincibility guy turned out to be an assassin or something, then how could the godly Mr. Patten face up to a guy he can't even hurt?

Having made his decision, he sat up again and put on his dorky grin. "Hell yeah, I still want him! He sounds like a freakin' super soldier and seriously, that's what we need right now." This was going to be the best bargaining chip ever!

"Alright. His name is Fenton Powell, but we call him Fin. He's currently running an errand for me, but he should be back around 8 or 9 tomorrow morning. The soonest I can get him to you is 24 hours. Since he doesn't have an entry code of his own, I'll be letting him use one that keys into my name and marks him as my representative. Good luck." Well, if Graninger had been trying to dissuade Rudy from wanting the guy with all that "fishy loyalty" and "under investigation" crap, he seemed pretty pleased that Rudy accepted the offer anyway. Then again, from what he remembered of Graninger, he did shit like that to manipulate people. Lucky for Rudy, it takes one to know one.

"Wait, do you know where to send him? I mean, do you know where I am?" He hadn't told Graninger his location...

There was a pause before the older man gave him a sardonic reply. "Don't be stupid, Quin."

And Rudy was left listening to the lonely dial tone. Well...alright then! Cool! Despite the ache that still permeated his skull, and the fact that he was still feeling queasy about his meeting with the A-1, he was actually confident and calm. He had "currency" now and as soon as this Fenton dude showed up, he'd be able to convince Eric to reverse the demotions and then he could go back to what he was doing before and forget any of this ever happened.

He stopped a moment, remaining on the bench, and continued entertaining fantasies about the fembot-psychopath-tigress, Squiddie - would she insist on being on top, like Noel always does? Thinking of Noel, he snapped out of it and typed her number back into the phone. It would be safer to figure out where she was and what she was doing, just so that she wouldn't screw up any of his new plans. It didn't ring. An empty, bleeping disconnection signal reverberated against his ear drums. Okay...now he was worried. And annoyed.

That stupid bitch better not get between me and this case, or I swear, I'll fucking kill her. And I'll make it look like an accident too.

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#, as written by Tartra
“She’s not fighting it.”

And she wasn’t begging for her life.

Smart kid.

Alex didn’t think so. This wasn’t normal, even for an Agent. This woman was not fighting in any shape or form. When Osono first moved in with her threats, there’d been a few futile jerks of her arms he could in no way describe as anything but a reflex. Other than that, she was acting like this was deserved. Or not deserved, but expected. She was treating this as though it was normal and her half-whimpered question about what Osono had said before came out as if she was helpfully keeping her superior on track with her schedule rather than pleading to get away. His mind was twisting trying to understand it. He knew what was at stake for them – the thought he knew, anyway, because they seemed pretty damn obsessed about getting it: his powers, and everyone else’s powers. Alex might have sworn up and down about the hell his eyes dragged him through, but he didn’t hate what he did. Everything had a use that didn’t need to be about killing someone, but these people had brought it to new heights, ones Alex was sure, even with their godly tech, they had no way of achieving. They couldn’t all think they were going to get powers, could they? And even if they did, how was this worth it? For their prisoner to take one look at the flames on Osono’s skin and tell herself there was no point in saying something – even just calling them crazy – was... well, insane! He couldn’t stop coming back to that word, but what else was he supposed to say? This wasn’t a warrior mantra about going peacefully into the night. This woman was terrified and she was saying nothing because somebody had told her to expect this as part of a fair deal.

His faith in humanity couldn’t take that as an answer. There had to be more.

“Xander?”

He heard a sigh. It was the type of sigh that normally came instants before Alex got told to, unless it specifically related to what was going on, shut the hell up. Fortunately he was in a good mood after figuring out whatever secret he thought Peter had, so instead, grinding in exasperation, Xander asked, What?

“Were you ever like that?”

Don’t be a dick, Xander snapped. I’ve never been caught in my life.

“I don’t mean caught! I mean... everything else,” he murmured, leaning away from the scene in front of him. “Like her. Were you ever like her?”

This was followed by a long and annoyed silence. He was ready to ask again, but Xander picked up on it and told him flatly, Stay focused, idiot.

“I am focused. I’m focused enough to realize she wouldn’t run if I untied her. She’d sit there until we finished her off or until we told her to go.” An uncomfortable shiver went down his back. He quickly looked it over, hoping it was a clue from Xander saying he was on the right track. No. Just Alex. The Agents were creeping him out again. Xander wasn’t giving off any sign he was interested. He was taking his own advice and watching Osono work. “I just don’t get the payoff.”

You wouldn’t.

“Excuse me?”

You pick the shittiest time to think about stuff, Xander said, almost growling. Pay the fuck attention and stop talking. It’s like you do this on purpose!

Fine! He’d shut up!

Great! Thank you. And because he couldn’t just let it go, he snorted, Let’s see how long you last.

Alex opened his mouth but closed it right away. No, he wasn’t giving the guy that satisfaction. He knew how to be quiet and he understood how important it was to keep the image up. Osono was trying hard to put the Agent in her place – actually, he doubted it, because this probably came more naturally to her than anyone else he’d run with before – and considering his job was to stand there and not screw anything up, he wasn’t ruining the mood of terror she’d built by distracting them. He’d stay by the car and wait until he – Xander – saw he was needed and joined them. ... But there was fire on her hand and in the Agent’s face. It wasn’t as though a few whispers were going to stand out.

“I think you should explain the Agency.”

Now Alex’s hand was clamped over his mouth, crushing his jaw and making his teeth grate against his lip. After a minute of that, which felt great and was very much appreciated, Xander loosened up a molecule of space and said, sounding confused, Wait, what?

“I think,” he tried replying, not coming anywhere close because his mouth was both twisted and clenched, “you should explain the Agency.”

What about them?

“Everything,” he said. With his non-possessed fingers, he freed his chin a little. “Everything I didn’t – I couldn’t – figure out from fighting them.”

But that’s all you need to know.

Alex wasn’t allowed to be interested? Xander said it like he couldn’t fathom any reason for it.

“It’s not what I need to know. It’s what I want to know. These people make up the biggest part of my life. They’re organized and –”

Worry about this after.

That was easy for him to say! He knew about them already! He’d worked for them for... for however many years he’d conveniently chosen not to mention. Alex, for all the infinite wisdom he kept passing on to Osono, had seen about as much as her: an army and some hierarchy, but he’d only known about that second one because he didn’t wipe them out before they had a chance to talk to each other. So she was lucky on that end, he guessed, and the stuff he’d been thinking about in Starbucks came back to hit him, too. She didn’t let the Agency tell her what to do, but he had, and as they were coming to a close on this chapter – no matter what they ran into later, no matter what happened to him or to Xander or to Gwen... nothing should have to happen to Gwen – he was facing the stark reality of being one hundred percent blind in fighting them alone because he didn’t have a damn idea of what they were like. Life might have been worse if he’d known he didn’t have a split personality, but it wouldn’t’ve been so ignorant. The most basic of questions, like how they were hired, how they were trained, how they got along with each other – all that stuff, and beyond to hit the barest of bare, like ‘how do you get paid’, ‘how did you hear about them’ and ‘do you commute to work or something?’ Splitting didn’t just mean losing the ability to defend himself. When this re-transfer finished, he’d be back to where he’d been before the Agency had caught him, and memory said that hadn’t work out too well. He wasn’t asking for a lot but his life depended on it. He’d been living under so many assumptions he’d never noticed had been put into his head by a stranger. Although he had those instincts, he didn’t know why he needed them, and because he put so much effort into erring on the side of caution, he’d run through the rest of his years forever staring over his shoulder, permanently paranoid and stupidly looking for something he wouldn’t see.

These damn Agents... He should ask point-blank: how the hell do you sleep at night? But somebody else, because Xander didn’t.

“What are you going to say?”

Shit Peter would.

Things an Agent would say. He’d have to follow on the heels of what Osono was doing. Alex looked at her again. She was very good at this and Xander seemed right about saying she’d fit in. It was weird how easily she was getting a reaction. The Agent was already in tears. Part of him wanted to feel sick about it and he couldn’t help but give in out of habit, but he kept it down and in control. He’d asked her to do this and it wasn’t her fault pretending to be psycho – he double-checked but he was okay with ‘pretending’ – looked so close to the real thing. And she hadn’t needed to agree to what he’d set himself against. Xander wouldn’t’ve. Just to make sure he wasn’t riding that high horse as much, he made special note to remind himself she hadn’t taken the Agent out of the trunk any worse than he was planning to, either. She was controlling herself. He’d call it rude another day, but for now he was amazed she could manage it. She was probably saving it for Rudy. ... Or the ex-Agent in his head. Osono was easier to read than Gwen, mostly because of the ‘wow, this car got really hot very fast’ reflex. She hadn’t liked hearing Xander was who he was. Yeah, a second ago, she seemed alright with it – he knew those two would’ve spent the entire trip adding to his neck and the farm orgy if they could – but that was because the guy was still on a leash. Once they got to when they did it, around the time they saw the whatever-device he’d have to get strapped into, it’d change from a manageable challenge to just...

“Osono, you’ll ruin her suit. The Agency has to pay for that,” Xander said, cheery as he walked over. “Besides, what kind of leader would I be if I just killed someone every time they screwed their one shot to shine and/or demonstrated crucial weaknesses in their defence that could've easily been abused and directly lead to our ultimate downfall? We’re here to learn from our mistakes! That’s what tests are for, I’m nothing if not a man of second chances! So a make-up quiz, I think, is just what the doctor ordered.”

Mindless devotion and endless loyalty: the two things every Agent prided themselves on. It made it impossible to figure out how anyone got promoted. They didn’t expect her to ever be in charge of anything. If they had, they wouldn’t’ve mailed her to them with a ‘please kill me’ stamp. She didn’t have the right spirit, in case he wanted another reason. His years of running on his own gave him a lengthy opportunity to study who was after him and he’d picked up on the differences between the guys in charge and the ones taking orders. Day and night, he’d settled on, and even the bosses stepped down when their bosses showed up. Whoever sat at the top of the pyramid devoured the center stage and everyone underneath it, and they did it without taking any of the blame because there’d always be someone lower to order into being a scapegoat. Now he had that power, made all the stronger by standing like this and lording over her. His stomach flipped once, but on the whole, he was doing okay with the insight. He did wish she’d stop crying. Agents almost never let on they were people and this was one of those times he didn’t have the right to take, but the control he had over her emotions wasn’t being overlooked. He could tell her to stop and she would stop.

Would she prefer that? Would it help? He couldn’t ask her outright ‘cause she’d lie or tell him what she thought he wanted to hear. From where he stood, getting her to calm down helped everybody since –

“Stop crying.” She stopped. Xander added to his Peter Grin. You know what’d help? It you stopped yapping in my ear.

He could hear Alex’s thoughts!

You’re an idiot.

… He couldn’t?

“Relax,” Xander soothed. “It’s easy. I figure you can use the boost to your self-esteem after that embarrassingly pathetic loss to my lovely associate here.” He held up his hand and folded his thumb. “Four questions. For every question you get right, and I mean ‘answer to my satisfaction’, I’ll untie a limb. For every response failing to tickle my toes –” On the inside, Xander sounded like he’d mentally thrown up. “– I tie up something else. Seeing as how the only space left’s around your neck, there’s not a whole lot of suspense to keep you in about which one I’m gonna start with. On the bright side, when that’s over, I won’t have to think about what to end on ‘cause you won’t be around to appreciate it! Isn’t it wonderful how that works out? Let’s start!”

Four questions? They needed two.

“I’m gonna run you through what I want explained so you know what to think about. Don't be afraid to just ask if you need something repeated, 'cause Osono's here to help you! She’d be happy to lend a hand,” he said. “She might even give you a hint!” And that, in itself, was also a hint. It was Osono’s cue. She was the one who could get away with acting outside of how Agent was supposed to. This woman didn’t know her, and with ‘Peter’ saying she could do what she felt like, the Agent couldn’t complain about it. Xander, on the other hand, was getting to the ‘sticking my neck out too far’ line. If he had to keep talking, he kicked up the threat of saying something wrong. Alex believed in him and his track record with this kind of con was flawless, but there’d been enough of a weight on his shoulder to feel light and freer when it fell off precisely when he heard where the guy intended to stop. “Let me think – what sort of question would be good for you? I don’t want to give them away, but you’re not the brightest bulb in the box so I can’t make this too hard.”

Or obvious, Alex wanted to add. The Agent was listening carefully, alert behind her teary face.  Her ears had to have been waiting for anything that let her get out, whether or not she thought herself as worthy of using it to bargain for her life.

Stop breathing down my neck, Xander scolded.

Sorry.

“Question number one.” He dragged the words out, tossing them around in his mouth. They passed through his teeth so sweetly, no one could’ve guessed they’d tasted like acid on his tongue. “This very second, we are in Charlton. Can you use your magic powers to tell me why we’re here?”

He was taking the ‘you’re screwed’ path, huh?

She could actually know, he said. I picked what’s going to happen to her. I’m not gonna waste what little intel she has before then.

He expected to get everything out of her in four questions?

The shit I care about. If she can’t answer, she’s fuckin’ useless to me.

“Question two! Where did I just come from?”

Ha. ‘To his satisfaction’. If the Agent had the smallest clue, she’d give them a full list of places Peter had been around. Alex might not’ve known these cities, but he’d travelled across the country more than twice. He could take a stab at finding a pattern. If not, that was what Xander was for.

“Question three!” He scratched Alex’s chin. “Where am I off to next?”

“Specifically.”

I will bust your skull open if you say another word.

… Sorry.

Dipshit.

“And question four,” he finished. “Who is in charge of that facility? That’s the fastest one to answer because I, of course, expect all my staff to have a full list of Agency superstars in the front of their head. I saved it for last ‘cause it’ll use the least amount of oxygen. Not that I think you’ll get the others wrong! You’re recon! If you can’t fight, you can at least inform, right?” Xander leaned in. “Riiiiiiight?” He smiled wider, then straightened up with a hop. “That’s right! I always have the best employees! You make me so proud of you! Until you fuck up in the simplest ways, I mean. Which you guys do. A lot. Repeatedly. Then I’m not so proud.” He shook his head. “Ten minutes to spit it out? It’s like I’m too generous.” Finally, Xander gave his ‘associate’ a silent go-ahead to help her take her second test, glancing back at the Agent just long enough to look excited and say, “Good luck!”

Dude. Seriously? I can’t tell you how much I need mouthwash. You’d better have some shoved somewhere. And my fucking mouth hurts from smiling like that! Fuck I hate this asshole!

Hold onto that. There was still a lot left to do. And after this, he was shedding some light on the shadowy organization.

Don’t hold your breath for anything fancy. I zoned out during 101 Week.

That was fine. It was a start. All Alex wanted was a solid start.

* * *


Oh gaaaaaaaawd…

Spinning had been a terrible idea.

He would have thought the other six times he found a chair, fought it, then lost would have offered him such genius in advance, but these awful things had it out for him and would not stop until he was destroyed. He would be, he admitted it, because the cushiony pricks were always too soft and too damn recliney and the fucking ergonomics of this one was like a stupid angel had come down and carved the little shit to perfection, and that was the glaring sign it was not to be trusted but the fucking thing could spin and fuck this was such an amazing chair! When he puked, because he could feel the German wonder-drink still sloshing in his stomach even though he stopped twirling five minutes ago – or maybe ten minutes ago, but clocks were hard – he would have the pride of knowing it was on the prettiest seat an ass had ever rubbed against. He would be breaking his two year streak of not doing that, which was unfortunate, but it would be in her private room and he knew he could blame it on Eric, which was hilarious. Why had he even been mad about that douchebag joining their group? Planning all the ways to subtly wreck his shit was the most fun he could have in light of the whole…

Yeah.

Well, he was going to have to find more to drink, wasn’t he? That sounded like a brilliant idea. When he could stand, it was the first thing he would set out to do, because more of what the wonder-drink had been, please. He had his pride to protect and a fucking mickey was not taking him out. It would explain why he was hanging off the side of the chair, however. The wonder-drink had been good shit. Unless it was the spinning that was getting to him.

That meant it was the chair’s fault.

“Hiiiiiiiiiii!”

Oh for shit’s sake.

“I locked the door,” he said, not bothering to sit up when the moron bounced in. Eric was worse when he was upside-down, but Benoit was willing to attribute it to the nausea and Quin’s meeting with the Grim Reaper and his pet still fresh in his head. “Go away.”

“You’re drunk again,” Eric cooed, ignoring him and skipping around the vault. “That’s adorable. And helpful! It means you’ll be complacent.”

The man was going to choke on those words.

“Madeline will murder you if she learns you broke in here,” he told him. “She hates you.”

“Glub-glub to you too, Benny!” Retard. Eric floated from screen to screen, ooh-ing and ahh-ing at the lights and images. “I’ve heard so many stories about this place! She’s got a really nice set-up here, huh?”

“It seems extreme,” he replied, changing his mind and taking the effort to slowly pick himself up, “but no more than sending an army of watchdogs to hound her while she works.”

Eric looked at him. He blinked. Then he broke out another of his stupid smiles and repeated, “You’re adorable!”

“I know. Bergmann keeps going on about it, in-between trying to put a collar on me, which was in-between her chaining me to shit. Have I thanked you for that yet?”

For a moment, he wondered if it was right for him to swear this close to an Agency authority. He normally worked to avoid it regardless of how much he had of anything. Again: practice. This was, however, Eric, who not only had little interest in such words until it suited the mood to have some, but he deserved it in Benoit’s highly expert opinion. Anyway, it ended up not mattering because the A-1 laughed and simply explained, “You know you basically said ‘higgljuzzgiv’, right? That’s 100% what I heard.”

“I said you should go,” he articulated. “I need a break from your annoying presence.”

“Alright, that was clearer, but it was in French. Too bad Maddie isn’t around. She’d be going crazy over you,” Eric said. “Hey – uh… speaking of which… where is she?”

“Fuck if I know.” Oh right. He did know. “Elmira. With March.” Good riddance to them both. And the fat one. “They left a while ago. Where were you?” Of course, he would have already known that had he watched the screens rather than kill himself by spinning.

“Still French. Fortunately, I heard ‘Elmira’.” Ooooooh – Eric did not sound happy. No – he did – Benoit just meant… behind it. Under it. Whatever – he was thirsty and Eric was pawing at the controls for the central screen. “That won’t do. I’m gonna have to give her a call.” Madeline had been angry when Benoit cracked through her building’s admittance log. How upset would she be to hear her secret vault was getting played like a piano by the one she marked as her personal immortal enemy? The screen was lighting up with options and menus that made him ill and worse off. “Don’t suppose there’s another chair around here?”

“If you move me, I’ll throw up on your shoe.”

Still French, but I get what you said. I’ll stand.”

He could do the salsa if it meant Benoit could keep his seat.

This floor was tilted. How was everything stopping itself from rolling around? He pondered this until the ringing around the vault stopped. Silence... That wouldn’t last for long. She had speakers on all forty of her screens, and now she was on each of them, angry in a way he hadn’t thought to give her credit for. Wherever she was, it looked cozy. The inside – from the few corners he could see that didn’t have her face in them – was nicely upholstered. Beige. Clean. He would steal it if she brought it back. That might have been the wonder-drink talking, but he agreed with the idea nonetheless.

“PATTEN.” Her voice had been impressively restrained. Too bad they could still hear her trying to crush Eric’s face with her voice. Then her mouth twitched, which he plainly saw, for such was the glory of video calls. And the wonder-drink, because although he took the twitch and the growing curl of her lip as what it was: the calm before the storm and the acoustics in here were... in short, this would make him deaf, but at the other end, dear Lord this was going to be funny. “PATTEN –” She sputtered a bit in rage. “WHERE ARE YOU CALLING FROM?”

“From your building,” Eric said, sounding surprised. “I’m right where you left me.”

He may have intended to segue into how he was in Charlton and she was not, but Madeline bit through his words with her own before Eric could do more than draw his breath. Benoit reclined into his hate-chair. Somehow, the magic of this had taken down his illness.

“PATTEN.” The tension was rising! “ARE YOU IN MY OFFICE?”

“Of course not,” he exclaimed. “I know you A-2s mark your rooms as your oasis...ses... and I would never defile the sanctity of your castle by sneaking in where I’m not supposed to be!”

“THEN WHERE ARE YOU?!”

“I dunno. I think it’s a security room,” Eric said, overjoyed with this prospect. “Hope you don’t mind I had to kick the door in to get over here! There were a lot of locks on your door and I couldn’t figure out how else to do it.”

Madeline could make the most amusing expressions. As Eric went on, her eyes bulged ever slightly outside the realm of what the human face should do, devoid of any wrinkle, knit or crease along her skin to make more room for it. Her mouth had gone rigid and her shoulders had drawn up, and although she managed to speak against the crunching of her jaw along the top of her teeth, Benoit heard her hit a height of bottling her fury enough to form sounds he would have called ‘contained’ in the same way he could have said it about a tornado having only destroyed a few cities and only a few millions of people: sarcastically and in poor taste.

“PATTEN.” Ha, ha, ha! Her eye was twitching, too! “GET OUT OF MY OFFICE.”

“I’m not in your office.” Eric looked at him. “Am I in her office?”

“Don’t drag me into this.”

“See? He said no,” Eric translated. “Okay – so I might’ve had to sneak through to get to here, but don’t worry! I didn’t snoop. Oasis!”

She was going to have an aneurism.

Madeline chose to play it safe. It had taken Benoit all of ten minutes to piece together that this room, while in the vein of the Agency’s faith in its staff, had not been expressly approved. A few flicks through the permits and blueprints later, he then realized this room wasn’t listed anywhere. Had there been documents discussing it, they were hidden, and while he doubted she couldn’t shrug her shoulders and say some half-excuse to make up for it, another perk of her trusted rank and one he was moderately envious of, the paperwork was unavoidable. Forms for each day would have to be registered, and if she managed to pawn it off on a lackey, she still needed to sign and thumbprint all of them and the Agency checked for stamps. Needless to say, if she had been sitting on this for as long as he expected, Eric was in a perfect position to ruin her next eight-to-ten months. With this knowledge likely in mind, Madeline, more incensed and audibly crushing her phone around its camera, asked, “WHY ARE YOU CALLING ME?”

“Just sayin’ hi,” Eric responded, tucking his arms behind his back and rocking on his heels like a child. If Jean was in a grave, he’d be spinning right now. Oh God why did he think that word? “Wonderin’ what you’re up to, wonderin’ how you’re doin’, wonderin’ why on Earth you’d be going to Elmira...”

“IT DOESN’T CONCERN YOU.”

“Well, you either left because I’m here or because I’ve got stuff over there,” he said. “It’s okay, I’m not mad. I just want to know the itinerary. I can throw together a whole welcome party for you!”

“STOP BEING ALIVE, PATTEN,” she snarled. “AND STOP CALLING ME!”

Eric immediately called her back when she hung up. Shockingly, she refused to answer.

“That’s just rude,” he said, hurt. “She changed her number! That’s a week’s request to get! Benny!”

“What?”

“Get her number for me!”

Didn’t he have people to do it for him? He had dozens crawling around these halls this moment!

“If she changed it –” Benoit could guess how many times this had to have happened for the switch to be instantaneous, but it wouldn’t do the truth its justice. “– I imagine it’s because, like I said, she hates you. My advice is to leave her alone.”

“… So is that like your ‘thing’? You forget English? Do you understand what I’m saying?”

“Unfortunately.”

“Is that a yes?”

His mood had plummeted when Eric walked in. It had yet to improve.

“Yes.”

“I know that one!” Good for you. Close your fat mouth, Patten. “So the number?”

“You won’t understand me anyway.”

And of course, Eric, gleaning this message, took out a pen and paper. Fine. He’d look her up.

It took a moment to remember how to use his lenses – ‘intuitive’ his ass, and why was he wasting this technology on a damn phone number – but he got her profile. He vaguely waved his hand to get the paper put into it, and while he had no trouble with that chore, picking up the pen and positioning it in his hand – his left hand, where it did him no good but fuck it, he was using it anyway – was the most complicated bit of acrobatics he had done all month. Now he had to make numbers, shit…

“It’s freaky how hard you’re concentrating,” Eric said, getting his nose directly in the light he was trying to use. “By the way, what’re you writing? French numbers? ‘Cause I can’t read those. Write them less... bad.”

“Va chier.”

… Wait, what was he writing? This wasn’t a nine.

“Thank you, Benny,” Eric sang, peeling the number from his grip. Benoit hadn’t taken the pen off the page yet and he was horrified to have left a line of ink down the middle of it. The motion of trying to get it back failed him two ways, first by grabbing at nothing, then by incurring the wrath of the chair. It couldn’t have been more than eighty degrees, but the turn made him gag. “Hopefully she picks up! She’s got a bad habit of blocking any number I call from.” Benoit could guess that happened with many different people. “I’d get you to do it, but I can’t trust you not to drink the mic.”

It was a smart move on his part. Benoit didn’t trust himself not to try, either.

The ringing dragged on for longer than before. He could almost see her trying to ignore it, refusing to put her phone on silent out of indignation at having to place any effort into it at all, not when she had so thoroughly told the A-1 to leave her alone. So much for that. She had less patience than he knew any person could lack, and they could hear her in the middle of choice words as she took the call and returned to glowering at them. This time, it was just the one screen, but he felt confident in gauging that her anger was exactly as consuming as it had been before.

“WHAT?”

“Hi Madeline – I guess we got disconnected,” Eric said. “We always have the worst reception when we talk!”

“PATTEN, FOLLOW MY WORDS,” she fumed. It looked like her arms were crossed now, though she left her hand enough freedom to hold her phone. “I DON’T KNOW HOW YOU CALLED ME BACK –”

He could have described exactly what raced through his body as Eric decided to, in an effort to show his answer rather than explain it, which the idiot did anyway, grab his chair and pull it over, whipping it around so he could face the camera that seemingly had only been focused on the happy mountain, but he chose not to on the grounds that he needed his strength to keep himself from stabbing the man in the neck for it directly in the center of his stolen throat. Madeline, meanwhile, infuriated the A-1 dare find her twice, seemed noticeably happier now that she could ‘see’ him, so there: one person was getting something out of this.

“Benny got it for me,” Eric buzzed. “You’re not gonna get mad at him, are you?”

“Hi Madeline,” he said. It may or may not have come out as an unintelligible slur.

She peered at him, then squinted, then leaned away, then leaned back in, then studied him closely and she was making him very dizzy doing that, then finally she asked, carefully, “DID YOU DRUG HIM?”

“No! I’d never do that to widdle Ben-Ben! He screwed himself up,” Eric said. “Lookit how sad he is!” He wasn’t sad. “He misses you!” He sure as shit did not miss her. “How can you take off like that and leave him when you’re responsible for this? For shame – leaving alcohol around? It’s his personal kryptonite!”

“HE’S DRUNK?” And with those two words, she morphed from hellish and violated to absolutely mesmerized by the thought of how much she could have put him through had she been there. “THAT’S ADORABLE!”

“That’s what I said!”

“I’VE NEVER SEEN ANYTHING MORE ADORABLE IN MY LIFE!”

“Wait, wait, wait!” Then Eric pushed him. He pushed him – and Benoit – fuck, he wasn’t stopping that. He accepted it and simply despised them both from his new settlement: back to hanging over the armrest. “Isn’t that hilarious?! He just flops over! Awwww, but he still looks so sad!”

Of course I look sad! You pushed me and –

HE’S SPEAKING FRENCH!

Right, right, that...

“So let’s see,” Eric said, preparing himself to count. His fingers were up and he wiggled one whenever he scrounged up a new point. “He’s drunk, incapacitated, in need of a very big hug, and he’s stuck speaking French for as long as he’s got booze in him.” Don’t ask where he got it. Don’t ask where he got it. Don’t ask where he got it... “And you’re on a plane to Elmira, throwing this away.”

“Fuck you, Patten.”

Could he at least pretend this was something other than whoring him out? It wounded him when Eric wouldn’t try to hide it. His self-esteem was taking a critical dive.

“STOP TRYING TO SELL ME WHAT I OWN.” Oh really?! “MY KITTY ALREADY KNOWS TO WAIT,” she added, smiling confidently. “I AM COMING BACK FOR HIM WHEN I AM FINISHED HERE. DON’T TOUCH HIM AND STOP FEEDING HIM.” ... Did she actually think he was a cat? Was that... was that a real thought in her head? He had been getting worried that eventually she would – and this had only occurred to him halfway through the spinning – figure out he had stolen from her ‘personal reserve’ of wonder-drink. Now he was thinking he could use this. Humiliating? Perhaps. But as long as she kept the chains out of this, there weren’t... too many drawbacks to playing along for an extremely limited and regulated amount of time that only ever occurred in areas with a vast number of exits. “DON’T CALL ME AGAIN.”

“Don’t make me have to call you,” Eric said, “and put Stephie on the phone! I’d like to talk to her.”

Madeline’s eyebrow quirked in an unusual mixture of expectance, annoyance and mistrust, but she kept it out of her voice, specifically by screaming over it, as she replied, “SHE CAN ALREADY HEAR YOU.” Because it was a video call. The speaker was automatically on.

“I’m aware she can hear me,” Eric chipperly informed. “I’m equally aware that if I begin talking to her, you’ll hear me.”

“GETTING PARANOID IN YOUR OLD AGE, PATTEN?”

Look who was talking.

“Don’t make it worse by giving me more reasons!”

His words had finished with a giggle. Madeline’s had finished with a frown. Benoit was going to keep sitting here, saying nothing until he was sure it wouldn’t be the last thing he said. Although to be honest, he was miffed the attention was drifting away from him – until Eric made sure he was ‘still breathing’ by shaking the bastard chair. Then he returned to enjoying being ignored.

Her hands were tied this time. Despite his friendly tone, it had been a direct order. Madeline rolled her eyes fiercely but took the command and made it work. With a sarcastic smirk at the phone, she shut off the camera and left them with soft rustling as it was passed to the other. Eric found some mystery cue to start talking. He sounded back to his old self again, but Benoit couldn’t completely tell. Because he was drunk. Thinking was hard. Leave him alone.

“Hi Stephanie,” Eric said, speaking slightly quicker than he usually did. “Sorry I have to rush, but I don’t trust Maddie not to yank this out’f your hands after – like – ten seconds. Good luck on your trip and everything and I’m sorry you got stuck with her...” Eric didn’t have the widest range of emotion in his voice. Aside from obscenely happy and annoyingly happy and cupcake-sprinkle-sugar-cake crap happy, it was hard to pick out anything resembling a change in his tone. When his voice lowered now, it stayed true to that, but for the first time since he had arrived, something deliberate framed his tidings. It wasn’t enough to get Benoit to lift his head, but he decided against tuning this out.  “Madeline isn’t technically allowed to be there. It’s not against the rules, but there’s a certain amount of notice to be given and she’s bypassed all of it. I’m not worried about you being incapable and you’ve never seemed the type to get distracted, but as much as I trust you, I have to say to keep your guard up. Gwen is your number one priority, but if you wouldn’t mind making Maddie a close second...” And as an afterthought, “And – hey, if you find a window or something that sort’f looks Lady German sized, I can guarantee not too much of a fuss would follow any ‘accident’.” He didn’t do the air quotes, but close enough. “Anyway, that’s it. You’ve got enough to think about. Really good luck, okay?”

“ENOUGH.” More rustling. Eric had been right about having to rush. “I WANT NO MORE OF YOUR VOICE.”

“Madeline...” Eric shrugged and smiled at her voice. “Have a nice trip.”

“ENJOY YOUR STAY IN MY BUILDING.”

Benoit’s ears perked up.

Eric hung up the phone. He stood in place for several seconds, but for once, he didn’t see fit to break his silence by rambling. Instead, he was waiting for Benoit to ask his question. Fine, he might as well. Sitting up, not enjoying the latest calibration, and guaranteeing what came out of his mouth was in the right language, he inquired, “What do you care if she goes to Elmira?”

“Spectacularly little, in regards to what she’s capable of.” He shrugged again. “I dunno. She might surprise me.”

“And you aren’t worried about a surprise?”

“I do trust Stephanie to handle it. Up to a point, I mean,” Eric said. “Man, that sucks. It’s hard knowing so much stuff you’re not actually supposed to know. I keep almost telling people to ‘look out for that’ or ‘guess what’s coming’!”

Benoit frowned.

“Like what?”

“Odds and ends, she'll be fine, don’t worry about it – so! What’re you up to? Down for the count?”

“Hardly. I’ll be ready to act in twenty minutes, and by my watch, we have over forty.”

“Hmmmmmm...” Eric hummed for much longer than that, but Benoit was more concerned by the atrociously familiar stance he was adopting as he did. He had his hands clasped together, except for his indexes, because those he used to tap on his chin as if he was considering an option or wondering how to approach a topic, as if Benoit wasn’t well aware that whatever came next was an order, not a request. “Y’know – I think Maddie might have something else tucked around in here. You know those Germans! Always stockpiling something!”

“You must be mad,” he said. He put his arms on the rest as if he was about to stand. It was still too early for that, but he was taking considerable steps towards it. “I have everything timed to be ready for Alexander’s arrival.”

“You’re gonna be sober by then? Seriously?”

“Seriously.”

“Oh. Oh, well... that’s good! That’s good news!” Not to Eric, it wasn’t. Benoit narrowed his eyes. “Just... I’ve been putting some thought towards your plan...”

No.

No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No.

“Never,” Benoit told him. “Whatever you’re thinking, stop thinking it. I will not allow you to interfere again.”

“I learned several very important facts when I ran with Xander, Benny,” Eric said. “Facts that, I’m sure, haven’t changed yet.”

What facts?” Why in fuck was he even asking?! “You aren’t doing anything! You aren’t touching my case!”

“Here’s what I’m proposing –”

No!

Shit, his mind was still fuzzy! As obvious – blatantly, outrageously obvious – as the list of reasons why Eric should keep his shitty hands to himself were, he couldn’t list them all at once like he wanted to.

“Benoit, you still get Alex. That isn’t changing for you, buddy,” Eric said, trying to sound compassionate and doing a miserable job because fuck Eric. “It’s just that I happen to live on a ‘waste not, want not’ mindset and I’d really, really hate to see a flipping Pain Eater get tossed out. I mean – I’m proof of that already!”

One, that was a shitbag thing to say. Two, Eric was insane. He’d never denied it before, but now its depths were being revealed. Eric was crazy – he hadn’t even finished drooling out what the details of his fucking fucktarded fucked plan were and already Benoit could smell the putrid stench of disaster wafting off of him. Had Patten been working in isolation, he would have welcomed it upon the man, because like he could not emphasize enough, fuck Eric, but this was the critical moment of what he was working for! Jean and his agenda was something else, but he couldn’t factor in anything if this man was genuinely standing before him and explaining that he wanted to let Marshall Elias out of the cage he’d been kept in that Benoit had celebrated over for a fucking good reason.

“What part of ‘no’ aren’t you understanding, Eric?”

“The ‘no’ part,” Eric admitted. “I mean... you get that I’m going through with this, right? Your bitching and moaning isn’t going to change my mind. I’ve been planning this for a while.”

“You’ve been planning to bring a rogue Agent to complicate every possible thing we could ever get our hands on later?” Oh, and as for important details: “He went rogue, Eric. That means he stopped listening to us, Eric.”

“I’ve got it covered.” Smile, smile, smile!

“Bullshit you do,” Benoit thundered. “Get away from my case!”

“Would it help if I said –”

No! It! Would! Not!

“Benny, I like you. You’re a fun guy to hang around,” Eric said, switching gears louder than Benoit would have expected. The man dropped his ‘please let me do this’ charade and regained his old role, and the juxtaposition dumbfounded him. Benoit leaned back in his chair, unsure of what was coming but bracing himself for the worst. “There’s not a whole lot of people I can say I respect, but you’re one of them. You’ve got these... ethics. You have a very practical idea of what’s right and wrong, and despite your shenanigans when the ol’ A-2 leaves you unsupervised for ten minutes, you’ve never strayed from a logical – and occasionally moral – approach to furthering the goal of the Agency. It’s something I can count on, that I do count on, which is why I’m treating you like the sensible adult and –” He paused for added emphasis. “– colleague that you are and informing you, in no interpretable terms, that I am going to do this, and it’s with that undying sense of admiration for everything you are that I also extend to you this choice: you can do this the easy way, or you can do this the Jason way. I could not be more tolerant of either or, so whad’ya say?”

Benoit should have seen that coming.

“... I reserve full rights to call you a retard when you die from this.”

And he would.

“Reserved.” Eric clapped, as if it sealed his words in stone. “Now I don’t have to lock you in here! Yaaaaaaay! Benoit has my trust now!”

More bullshit, and not what he needed to know.

“How is this going to change things for me?”

God help him... This far into what was happening and now Eric was bending the plan again.

“It won’t. In fact, you’ll have less work to do,” the A-1 said. “You were gonna interrupt the transfer? Now you won’t touch it. Let it happen.”

“And in the meantime, what do you expect me to do?”

Eric’s grin grew painfully wide. He tilted his head and questioned politely, “What did Madeline tell you to do?”

Several unspeakable things, actually, all of them thanks to this asshole shoving him at her, but most recently, “She told me to stay in here.”

“Well, Benny,” Eric said, brightening the room with his shark grin, “that’s what I strongly suggest you do.”

Benoit’s eyes had drifted open at some point. He narrowed them again now, crushing his nails into the chair.

“Why?”

“Because like I said, ‘waste not’.” Eric reached over and gave him two heavy pats on the shoulder, beginning to leave after a casually offhand, “Stay where you’re safe.”

Crap. Now he had to turn in the chair to keep an eye on him. His gut did not appreciate this.

“Safe from what?”

There was no answer. There was no direct answer, at any rate. As Eric left her office, Benoit caught him singing, “Madeline, Madeline, what are we to do with you?”

Hmm.

So... where were the rest she’d supposedly stockpiled? It seemed like he’d be here for a while.

* * *


... Okay... Okay... Nothing to be worried about because it was all okay... He’d sit here twiddling his thumbs until he stopped trying to talk. He did that a lot. Whenever he got nervous, he rambled ‘til he passed out or until someone let him go home. Not that... okay, he stood by what he said about this being the best day of his life ‘cause he’d gone from hopping down to Charlton to fix Jason’s goggles and already knew his boss – ex-boss? – was gonna scream at him even though he’d totally saved Jason-not-Jason telling him to reset it and that wasn’t his fault ‘cause how was he supposed to know it was stolen and if Jason’d just called him this whole thing could’ve been dodged to actually meeting Stephanie March and getting to talk to Madeline Bergmann and now he was on a helicopter with both of them and he was living on the strength from the greatest cookie he’d ever eaten and it came from Eric Patten’s pocket, so he wanted everyone to know he was overwhelmed with gratitude and fandom and honour at being special enough to be in their presence and breathe their air but... these guys were – like... professional bad-asses and he stuck out like a tiny thumb and it sucked that he didn’t even have Jason around so he could tell himself, ‘Okay, I don’t have anything to do with this and I’m only here because I asked Eric Patten and he said yes, but I’m helping my boss get stuff done...’ But they’d left him. Jason’d said to wait – but – like... they hadn’t. Gary expected to him to call sooner or later and ask ‘what’s up’ but he didn’t wanna answer that ‘cause the guy would be heartbroken under his dumb ‘superior Agents don’t have emotions so I don’t want any either grrrrrr!’ routine, and with the way Stephanie was totally glued to what she was doing...

And – uh... yeah, he also didn’t want Jason to call for that other reason, either. Madeline was pretty angry – umm... except by ‘angry’ he meant ‘walking to the Gates of Hell’ – she didn’t seem to like him very much already and even though her eyes were closed like she was trying hard to calm down after her chat with Eric, her arms were crossed really tightly and her eyebrows were pointed in a superhuman look of thought domination, so he was hoping he didn’t have to interrupt her by getting his phone out and he didn’t want to find it to put it on silent so it wouldn’t bug her and he didn’t remember if it was already ‘cause sometimes he just kept it on –

“WILL YOU BE QUIET?”

He screamed. So – um... no?

“I-I’m sorry,” he said. “I wasn’t saying anything!”

“I CAN HEAR YOUR FAT HEAD CHITTERING TO ITSELF.”

He was nervous! He was just nervous – he always chittered when he was nervous! Well – he’d never called it that but – oh God she opened her eyes and she was looking at him! OH GOD!

“I’m sorry,” he yelped. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry!”

“I’M SURPRISED YOU DON’T WORK FOR PATTEN,” she said. Her voice was so cool! “YOU SEEM THE TYPE TO MANAGE HIS PUBLIC SIDE: HAPPY AND STUPID.”

Did she mean that? All at once, the fear in his heart faded and it was filled with inspiration and dreams and – oh God she was looking at him again! The fear was back! Sweet Sally, it was back!

“I’m sorry – I’m sorry – I’m sorry,” he gasped. “I’m just – psyched to be here – and everything – uh... I’m just...” Come on, Gary! He could do this! “I’m just – uh... I’m a big fan. Huge fan. This is – like – six things off my bucket list and I can’t think of anywhere else I’d wanna be.” Okay, he was probably smiling like an idiot, but at least she’d stopped frowning as much and she’d closed her eyes for the third time. “Uh...” Uh-oh. He was pushing his luck, wasn’t he? “What’s it like being –”

“I DIDN’T TELL YOU TO TALK.”

“Oh – right! Okay – uh...” He’d shut up then. If Jason was here, Gary would’ve gotten a smack on his head. He figured A-3s and A-2s didn’t do that ‘cause whenever they hit someone, somebody’s head exploded. He twiddled his thumbs again, completely stumped about whether he should be traumatized for seeing what Stephanie did. It was really grisly... Did Jason know about it? What did he think? “Hey... Agent March? I wanted –”

“NO TALKING!”

He shut right up and twiddled his thumbs and looked out the window and didn’t move. For five minutes. Then he drifted back to the inside of the cabin and looked around again. It was really nice. It was probably like the limo of helicopters, with two benches on either side and two wide windows on the others. He – uh... he’d been sitting on the benches at first... but he’d gotten carried away when he ‘trembled in excitement’. Madeline made him sit on the floor. It was okay, though! It was carpeted and really fluffy and soft. This place was just missing the bed, ‘cause otherwise it could’ve a hotel! The bit where the pilot sat was cut off by a black window, giving them even more awesome stuff to look at, and Madeline’d put it up because... he might’ve gotten carried away pointing out all the buttons and switches and how smart the pilot was for knowing what they all did, too. She’d been flattered, but Madeline... Having it up meant there was no more sound from the outside. They couldn’t hear the propeller at all – it was like was a pin could drop and they’d hear it! If... if it landed on something hard, he meant. Like on the door or something, not the carpet for the seats. But how was that supposed to work? It meant he’d have to throw it, and the extra force and therefore the extra sound defeated the purpose – “Sorry!”

“I CAN ACCEPT THE PAPERWORK OF THROWING YOU OUTSIDE,” she said. What a kidder! And that was exactly what he’d tell himself right up until she did it... “I AM TRYING TO THINK.”

“About what?”

She kept her arms crossed, but she flinched like she was gonna hit him. So luckily, she changed her mind and just stretched her fingers instead. Then her eyes moved over to Stephanie, thoughtfully considering whatever she’d been thinking about before, and when she stretched her fingers again, Madeline said to her, “YOU KNOW HE WANTS SOMETHING FROM YOU.” ... Who? ... Eric? “HIS INTEREST IN OTHERS BEGINS AND ENDS AT WHAT HE CAN GET FROM THEM. HE HAS A PLAN FOR YOU. DON’T TELL ME YOU DON’T KNOW THAT.”

She wasn’t totally yelling anymore. She was still booming and it wasn’t like she’d gotten quieter, but Gary thought it sounded less crack-your-ears. This was ‘serious voice’. It got him even more interested, and he hadn’t thought that was possible!

“What kinda plan? Like... a bad one?”

“BAD FOR ANYONE HE DOESN’T LIKE,” she said. “NEED I EXPLAIN HE ONLY LIKES HIMSELF?” ... He seemed like an awesome guy – oh – whoa – Madeline totally just guessed what he was thinking! He didn’t breathe until she took her glare off and gave a science-y look at Gwen Stewart. “ISN’T IT CONVENIENT THAT HE ARRIVED AS SOON AS YOUR WORK HIT ITS SNAG? YOU GOING THROUGH WITH THIS, TRANSFERRING INTO HER...” She shook her head. “I CAN’T TELL WHO WANTS IT MORE.”

“Ummm...” Not to... interrupt... but... “Why is that bad? Wouldn’t you want an A-1 to be.... y’know – helping...?”

“HE’S HELPING TOO MUCH,” she said, getting tense. “HE STAYED BEHIND WHERE ALEXANDER CAN FIND HIM. THAT IS NOT AN ACT OF CHARITY. HE EXPECTS MARCH TO REPAY THIS DEBT.” Back to Stephanie, and then right to the point. Gary couldn’t believe he was allowed to hear this! “ONCE YOU GET YOUR GIRL, HE OWNS YOU. BODY AND SOUL, YOU WILL ANSWER TO HIM. I HAVE SEEN IT SEVERAL TIMES BEFORE. THE ONLY DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THEN AND NOW IS HOW MUCH MORE CARE HE PUT INTO SUPPORTING YOU.” Stephanie was special, too! ... And Madeline didn’t think that was something to be proud of! Why was he still cheering! He stopped when she curled her lip, but she was pointing it at Agent March for once. “OR MAYBE HE LIKES THAT YOU’VE BOWED TO HIM ALRADY. YOU WORK FAST TO CURRY FAVOUR.”

Hey, now... That didn’t sound polite.

“We’re all just trying to get along,” he said, sounding weak the instant her attention flooded back. “We’re... all friends...?”

I AM NOT ‘FRIENDS’ WITH HIM.” ... The Gates of Hell had opened. Yup. Opened right up. “AND ANY FRIEND OF HIS IS AN ENEMY OF MINE. THINK OF WHAT YOU’RE RISKING, MARCH.” Her eyes flashed. “YOU DON’T EVEN HAVE HALF THE STORY.”

She turned her head away, ending the one-sided conversation, leaving Gary alone to look up at Stephanie. ... Not a lot to read on a face like hers. If Jason were here, he’d know what to say. Gary didn’t, so he’d just stay upbeat in case Stephanie needed a sunny face. ... But not so sunny that he’d make Madeline upset. This was tricky. It was a good thing no one expected him to do anything, or else he’d be in a lot of trouble.

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The further away from the Charlton base that the helicopter flew, the smaller everything outside of Stephanie's world became. She did not listen to the phone conversation, barely aware of it at all despite sitting with her back straight as a pole and staring right at Madeline while she talked. Staring through her. The voices came through a tunnel, all meaning and inflection drained from the words, reduced to a blurred cacophony to her ears. Even the sound of Master's cheerful voice could not register as more than a diluted warbling.

Stephanie was absorbed with Gwendolyn Stewart. Her hand clasped around her target's, feeling her warm pulse mirroring her own through their touching palms, as id Gwen's life was pounding and echoing through the empty caverns of Stephanie's body. The distance they traveled was no longer measured by how far away Charlton was, but how much closer they were to Elmira and what awaited them there. The goal was in sight and her skin shivered and itched in anticipation of her eventual transformation.

In addition to thoughts of her transfer, Stephanie also found her concentration tested by Gwen's state of mind. Occasionally, her doll-like fingers would come to life and lightly spasm in Stephanie's hand, like a tiny slumbering creature rousing in the Agent's robotic grasp. Her breathing changed, every once in a while jolted from the placid, level tempo of her static condition to something almost resembling consciousness - an awareness that understood she was trapped and softly fearful, her lungs taking in tiny, rapid gulps of air before becoming docile and slumbering once more.

Was she still trying to contact Alexander? Was she STILL attempting to escape? It was ridiculous and she would have even said laughable if hilarity had been within her reach at the moment. The Emotion Desensitization Program was fully active, each layer bolted shut and scraped clean and raw within her mind. It was unbreakable and Gwen would never get through. And if the girl woke up, Stephanie merely had to direct her concentration at the wounded and timid probing of Gwen's presence just at the edge of the her consciousness to render her target helpless again.

Someone said her name. Well, a version of it - Master's nickname for her. As Stephanie focused on the people around her, the volume and distortion of their voices cleared and she patiently waited for the current squabbling to resolve itself, making note of Madeline's eventual acquiescence to Master's authority. But she did not move to take the phone, nor was it offered to her and she blinked dully at the other woman as it was held up and pointed in her general direction. Not moving an inch, she sat listening to Master's voice as it continued to come through the speaker, seemingly unaware of not being held confidentially to her ear. Now that conversation was directed at her, she latched onto every word and nuance in his tone, reading the possible hidden meanings in the words themselves and also picking up on what was possibly not being said.

First, she was given orders to basically keep an eye on the A-2 Agent and be ready for... what? What exactly was she on guard against? Did he think that Madeline would interfere with her transfer or was he worried the female Agent intended to mess with some other project of his in Elmira? Either way, it didn't matter. The latter question was irrelevant and the former was a situation Stephanie had already considered and planned for. His authority and rank was enough to ensure her obedience, even though her emotional loyalty was no longer present, and despite not needing his permission to kill the A-2, she accepted it as an order. He would not have assured her that she would be free from responsibility unless he expected her to kill Bergmann. But whether he was warning her that it would be necessary or merely adding it to her to-do list, she couldn't tell.

Secondly, her thoughts drifted to Master himself to hear him compliment her. "I’m not worried about you being incapable and you’ve never seemed the type to get distracted"... Was he reprimanding her? Without a doubt, he'd known things were going on between her and Jason from the beginning; he was far too intelligent and vigilant for her to think she'd ever truly been successfully "sneaky" while he was in the same premises as she was. And add onto that the things he'd said and hinted at during their conversations in Charlton - basically promising her that there would be opportunities and time to develop her relationship with her partner after her transfer. During a great bulk of the time she'd known Master, she HAD been distracted and barely capable of executing the small tasks he'd set before her without falling apart.

It was a warning, not praise. He'd taken Jason away from her, the one thing he probably thought had been holding her back and was now leaving her no excuses for further failure. That admonition was also unnecessary. This project was her life and this grand moment was what she'd been working for, which was why even when Jason attempted to join her, she'd left him behind. Whether Madeline had men available for the task or not, Jason would make sure the transfer occurred and Alexander was incapacitated. And she knew that these favors and this immunity were not gifts he handed out to everybody. Although she was aware that Master had been manipulating her, she did not see how she wasn't benefiting from this plan and decided it wasn't really important. Who cared what he got out of it? She was doing what she wanted. Period.

And then he was gone. Once more in the silence of the helicopter, Stephanie let her surroundings fade away as she returned to thinking about Gwen, the girl's sleepy hand gently squeezing her own before falling dormant again. With a glance at her, nothing had outwardly changed - her eyes were closed, her mouth still obediently shut and a tiny wrinkle sat in between her dark eyebrows - and Stephanie would have immediately been able to detect if the girl was awake of not. Looking over those gentle features contorted in futile concentration, Stephanie tried to remember why she wanted to become Gwen Stewart in the first place. Beyond and underneath the icy hold that the Lachesis had over her, there was a stronger, deeper compulsion pushing her towards this transfer. With her head clear and alert she could probably analyze the source of this feeling of imminent catastrophe that was urging her forw--

When Gary screamed, Stephanie's bright green eyes were drawn placidly to him, once again remembering that he existed only when her gaze fell upon him. Apparently, Stephanie's attempt to calm the man down had worked but he was still bothering Madeline. The last thing she wanted was for the woman to be tense in this still relatively small space, but she understood that his anxiousness and ability to get under Madeline's skin was not something he had any control over, and decided it wasn't worth the effort to try shutting him up again. Besides, once Bergmann began to talk to Stephanie, she didn't seem to mind Gary's occasional interruptions and even responded to him in a decent manner - at least, with as much decency as one could expect from Madeline.

And just like with Master speaking to her, Stephanie targeted the sound of Madeline's voice and picked apart each word as they reverberated against her ear drums. But in the end, there wasn't any content there for her to care about either. It was basically information she was already aware of and whatever extra knowledge that Madeline possessed, she was only willing to mention it for now. That was alright. It would change nothing.

What exactly did the woman want? Was she worried that Stephanie might interfere with whatever it was she intended to do or was she trying to get her support? Either way, she didn't care; she had her orders. And she thought about that for a moment. Madeline had made her stance very clear and was vocal about her opposition to Master and his goals. Stephanie's transfer into Gwendolyn Stewart was one of those apparent goals. But Madeline's threat to her case was something she'd already considered and was prepared to deal with, so whether it was an open threat or not did not alter the established plan.

As far as owing a debt to Master went, it was a little late for buyer's remorse at this point. As long as she got inside Gwen's head and got to keep her options with Jason open, there was nothing else that she wanted. Master was certainly welcome to own her and in a way she felt he already did. He was an A-1; it wasn't like it made a difference since he could pretty much order her to do whatever he wanted anyways. Whether she was directly returning a favor or paying a debt seemed a trivial specification to make.

How to proceed? Obviously, Madeline had said what she wanted to say and considered the conversation over. But would it be better if she let the woman know how little she cared about her infantile war with Master? What would she really be saying, though? Madeline at least felt some level of sympathy towards her, enough to want to "reason" with her and stop Stephanie from making what she considered to be a mistake. But she was obviously motivated by her own goals.

She expected Stephanie to defend him and to not be bothered by the current situation. From her apparent opinion of March and the way she'd ended her little spiel, she seemed to assume that saying anything more would be pointless; that Stephanie was beyond convincing.

"I know," she said dully, looking straight at the dark-haired woman. There had not been more than a minute or two of silence in the helicopter before her voice invaded it with an emotionless that contrasted sharply with Madeline's animated voice. "It's something I've only recently become aware of. Distraction. Blind infatuation." She glanced at Gary. "Celebrity worship. My perception has not been working at it's highest capability. I am seeing clearer now, and despite being unable to express displeasure at the moment, this is not something that I want to happen. But I don't see any other options. If you're asking for my support with something, my hands are tied.

"My lover is standing close to where Alexander will be as well, and it has only been within the last hour that I've realized, it was something He made happen, without a clear reason why. I thought He cared about me and I thought it was a good plan, but now it appears that I've allowed myself to be manipulated. Either way, Jason is out of my reach now. From my own experience, I have learned that you have to make sacrifices to fuel progression, giving away parts of yourself as currency until you finally reach the top." No emotion, but as Jason passed through her mind and was shoved coldly aside, a thin trickle of blood seeped from her right nostril. Not even a flicker of change registered in her marble features as Stephanie's hand drifted up and wiped it away.

"I cannot have the things I want and remain intact." With a small tissue she'd fished from her pocket, she neatly cleaned her fingers and face before continuing. "Unless you can help me, I'm going through with the transfer like He wants me to and I will allow Him to have whatever is left of me afterward. If you can't, then shut up and leave me alone. I'm busy."

Gwen softly murmured something, and Stephanie held her hand again after tucking the tissue away. The contact instantly got the girl to quiet down. Eventually, she was going to need to deal with this fighting spirit in her target and crush it somehow. Not that it made any real difference in the end.

***

She missed Six. It was weird to feel that way because they'd barely ever talked outside of what was necessary for them to communicate as team. But she couldn't stop thinking about how her first impression of him had been that he was attractive and nice looking. Her job made it nearly impossible to consider a relationship with him, but it wasn't just him she was thinking of. ANY men she would have liked to date...guys she hadn't even met yet... all of those opportunities now gone forever. No eventual promotions. No family of her own someday.

And Brie kept going over all the things she would never get to do in her life because she was certain she was going to die. Her boss was going to let this crazy woman kill her. All of the fight left her as she looked back and forth between them, sobbing as she visualized goodbyes to friends and loved ones. The tears continued to flow when Patten stepped forward finally to talk to her, seemingly unable to stop crying either out of a frantic relief or a hopeless pessimism. A second chance? Was this real?

At his order, she abruptly stopped weeping and was able to somewhat compose herself with thoughts of this new prospective quiz. She wasn't going to die! She'd prove to him that she deserved to be a part of his team. But when he described the little quiz he was setting up for her and the penalties for wrong answers, she started to lose a bit of her confidence. It was only 4 questions though. It shouldn't be a big deal. Afterall, it was specifically her job to know things. Yeah, she could still do this.

Tremulously, she cast a quick look at the fire woman - who he called 'Osono' - as the woman cracked her knuckles idly, seemingly unperturbed by the fire that now covered both of her hands. Focusing back on the A-1 when he started thinking aloud, she wet her lips nervously and gave him a determined stare. She could do this. She was ready.

But when it came, it wasn't what she expected. Charlton? Immediately the name rang a bell for her but she spent several seconds wildly trying to figure out what kind of answer he wanted for this. Then the second question was upon her. This too confused her; did he want to know the city where they just came from; the one where she failed her first test? Or did he want to know where he'd been immediately before that when she and Six had first gotten the mission order from him?

By the time the third question came from his lips, she started to lose hope that she was even meant to pass this "quiz". It seemed like every question was so vague so as to have multiple different answers if taken in a certain context, that he failed to elaborate on. Almost like this "second chance" was just him messing with her and a trap for her to fail. Unless the actual information wasn't important but how eagerly and readily she provided answers for every possible meaning. Briefly, she contemplated the possibility that the quiz was like her test before where she was supposed to assume and treat them like the enemy - a kind of prep-interrogation situation - but she didn't think so because--

Wait a minute... What was that? Something happened. It was so subtle and quick, she couldn't be sure she even saw it, but suddenly, despite the heat radiating from above her, she was very, very cold inside. If that was what she thought it was, then for a split second, Eric Patten had seemed like somebody else. She didn't know who; just not HIM.

Even as the doubt and suspicions began to creep back in, she was wildly trying to find justifications for it not to be true - he was insane. Clearly that was indisputable and should excuse him for all and any abnormal behavior. Even accepting that, the bright red flag that had shot up, when he'd said that one word, would not go away. It just didn't feel like the right kind of crazy. When she and Six had first come upon the office building and found the two "targets", Patten had talked and acted differently towards Osono then too, before the charade was broken. It was probably a part of that. ...But why would he be pretending now?

As much as she tried to get away from it, she couldn't deny, that small moment had seemed like a slip in an act rather than a tiny act itself.

By the time the fourth question came, everything fell apart and the doubts rushed in. Every little mannerism and smile seemed glaringly obvious in how phony and put-on it was, and she realized that her earlier belief that he was her boss was actually clouded by her fear of "what if it really is him?" Either way, her fear quickly fled now as she watched him ramble on with an over-enthusiastic tone of voice and expression. She was still scared, of course - whoever these people were, they could and probably would kill her once they were done with her. And they knew enough about the Agency and the A-1 Agent to be able to at least do a fairly decent impression of him. But she wasn't terrified in her soul like she would be if this were the real Eric Patten.

Alright. 10 minutes to answer. What to do? Did she answer quickly and hope that they spared her or did she try to stall? Letting them know she was onto their ruse would not be smart, since it was much more likely for them to think she'd been trained not to reveal information to people outside the Agency - she had been, but that was beside the point - and kill her because they thought she was unbreakable and useless. These were still the targets she'd been sent to spy on and gather information about. And she was still going to do that and live to file a report. If it meant she had to play their pretend game to do it, then so be it.

It had been 2 minutes since he'd given her a cheerful 'Good luck!'

Licking her lips to wet them, her dark brown eyes darted from one to the other as she cleared her throat and spoke. "I-I-I'm having difficulty concentrating. Please, just untie me for a second. I really need to go to the bathroom..." she ended pathetically. While she'd spoken, she kept her eyes focused on the guy who'd so far played a pretty forgiving and amiable Mr. Patten, hoping for a bit of stupid mercy.

But as soon as Osono heard her whimper out her plea, the tall woman made an irritated click with her mouth and was suddenly grabbing ahold of Brie's hair and shoving an emblazoned hand in her face again. "Cut the bullshit! Are you an elite fucking Agent or not? You are fully expected to hold it for 10 minutes and this pathetic attempt to get more time is almost enough to warrant a total failure."

Osono paused when she noticed that rather than crying like last time, Brie was now frantically trying to get her face away from the fire and was dribbling and sweating in her animalistic panic. Disgusted and beyond frustrated with this idiot, she made a fist and slammed it - still on fire - into the Agent's face twice, Brie's head bouncing back against the concrete as Osono let go of her hair on the first punch.

"Knock it off!" she yelled in reprimand - a little late though, since Brie was no longer crying or spitting but breathing heavy, bleeding from both nostrils and with a long blistering burn in the shape of a comet on her cheek and on the bridge of her nose.

With a defensive exhalation of breath, Ozzie stood and walked a step away from her - standing on the opposite side of her than Alex was - and folded her arms with her legs spread and standing firm. "You can have a potty break after. 5 minutes left, sweetheart." God, she really hated this...

Okay, so stalling wasn't going to work. The only hope left for her now was to answer his questions as quickly as possible and hope that they untied her enough to allow her to escape and put in a report. Hopefully she could get far enough away before she was burned alive...

Turning her head towards the Patten impostor, she spoke in a wavering voice, looking at him in a way that made certain he knew pleasing him was very important to her. "You're returning to the Charlton base - where the message and our orders supposedly came from - building number 90 on Essex street, run by A-2 Madeline Bergmann and you're going there to..." 2 minutes left. "...finish dolling out my punishment, possibly further test me, simply send me on my way to file back into my team ranks with an encouraging 'Lesson learned!' OR to wash my blood off of your hands."

Brie swallowed thickly and glanced at Osono but quickly looked away again to avoid the woman's murderous glare.

***

By the time Rudy was back on the ground floor, he'd almost completely recovered from his traumatic ordeal with Mr. Patten and the sensual, luscious, sex-kitten Ms. Squiddie. The aches in his wounds and bruises were practically gone - or at least, they'd gotten to a point where his body had adjusted and he barely noticed the pain anymore. And as he searched for the nurse's office, he sauntered along in a natural gait, chomping on a peanut butter and onion sandwich he'd made for himself when he'd stumbled onto the "cafeteria" earlier. It was actually just a break room with a coffee maker, fridge and vending machine - with his last name advertised on the side of it in big flowy lettering. Lucky for him, he'd found enough ingredients lying around in the sparse cupboards, to make himself a decent sandwich.

The top of his head still throbbed dimly, but he hummed happily to himself as he chewed his crunchy, gooey meal and poked his head into a few rooms here and there. Not very many people around. And no sign of Eric or the voracious succubus either. Earlier, he would have been terrified of coming face-to-face with the Dark Lord again, even with his new bargaining chip holstered in his pocket. But his fear had dimmed along with the pain and now that he'd spent more than half an hour by himself, he was much more relaxed and feeling optimistic about more dealings with the giant.

Before he opened the next door he shoved the remainder of his sandwich into his mouth and stepped past the threshold, blinking when his eyes fell upon the lone occupant.

"'oo fm'nk!" he mumbled around his mouthful of dry bread crust and thick, sticky peanut butter, angrily glaring and pointing accusingly at the unconscious man lying on a cot. Then he realized Jason wasn't in the proper state to endure a rant right now and he wandered nonchalantly into the room, letting the door click shut behind him.

Ignoring Jason and the discarded pill bottles littering the floor in front of the glass cabinet, he swallowed the rest of the mess in his mouth and worked his teeth and gums while casually searching through the medical supplies. Rudy didn't notice the jumbled and jarred state of it's contents - or the sweaty, passion-smeared hand print on the glass door - merely poking his finger among the clustered products, and making small, bored "-peesh-peesh-peesh-" sounds under his breath. Alrighty. What exactly did he need for a hole through his body?

Idly digging a finger in his teeth, he was busy reading a label on a clear vial when a small musical chirp came from his pants. Bringing out his new phone, he peered at it and smiled pleasantly as the words on the screen informed him that his HSA program had finished downloading. His attention now diverted, he tossed the vial back into the cabinet and began typing in the codes and temperature readings that he knew by heart. And then he adjusted the Analyzer's base map(300 ft. radius) to include a field of about 40 miles and bracketed the time within the last 2 hours(if he got no results, he'd just extend the time and search again). Finally, he pressed enter.

There was barely a second before a map appeared on his screen and for a moment, seeing where the mark was, he thought perhaps he'd done something wrong or screwed up somehow. So, letting out a harsh breath, and adjusting his position to stand irritatedly with his weight on his left foot, he went back through and adjusted the measurements. He left the degrees the same(because he KNEW those were correct) but lowered the map to only 10 miles and the time to within the last half an hour before very deliberately pressing enter. Come on, stupid thing. Work.

A new map came up but it was merely a zoomed in version of the last map, showing a clearer view of a city with a light outline of visible streets and thicker, yellow colored highway lines branching out from either side of it. This city. Charlton. And there was a nice, bright reddish-orange dot of heat marked on one edge of the city just within the borders. At first, Rudy had assumed that the newly downloaded program was merely confused and was for some reason pointing out his own heat signature on the map. Now having a closer look at where the mark actually was and it's distance from the base, he knew it was indeed showing him exactly what he'd asked for.

"Oh, fuck..." he murmured, an involuntary smile rippling over his lips as his other hand drifted up to rub his mouth in a vague attempt to erase the expression. Osono. What the hell was she doing here? Had she followed him? As much as that thought temporarily boosted his ego, he knew it was a bit unlikely. Then how? But more importantly, why? Even if she was following him, she'd never chased after him before. She usually went the other way after he launched an attack.

Well, whatever she was doing here, within the last half hour she'd used a lot of fire - not an inferno or anything but this wasn't a spark for her cigarette or warming up her coffee. This was serious temperature, a defensive fire, intending to hurt somebody. The smile disappeared as he thought about what that could possibly mean, especially this close to the Agency base. Was it just some random jerk haggling her or was it a person who'd been irritatingly popping their gum while she waited in line behind them? Or... was it Agents? A sudden chill filled him along with a flash of heat that made him grit his teeth. He certainly hadn't sent anybody after her. That meant someone else had.

Not Noel though. She was dead. He'd learned that when he'd looked up her profile after he couldn't get ahold of her for the 50th time - at the sight of the deceased label now pasted onto her profile, his very first thought was "Oh thank God... Now I don't have to strangle the bitch." And that was that.

So, who? Patten? This early? He hadn't done anything! No, no, no, no... He was working on a deal with the guy. He wouldn't touch Osono unless Rudy did something stupid like pull another gun on him. But now that it was on the records that Noel was no longer alive and he was no longer the Lead on the case, someone else might have already shuffled the paperwork around and made a dive for her. Fuck! It was HIS case! It hadn't even been 24 hours since all of this shit happened! Goddammit! Why did the Agency have to be so fucking efficient?!

Sniffling and his eyes watering for some really bizarre reason - damn...allergies! - he quickly brought up Osono's case file and let out a small calming breath to see that the Lead position was still "pending". Okay. Nobody was after her yet. He still had time. She was probably just getting upset about something completely non-Agency related.

Wiping his eyes and nose, he did realize that now things had escalated, becoming way more serious than they were before. She was in the city merely 2 1/2 miles from the base, wielding fire and pissed about something. Someone could notice and they probably would. And he didn't even want to consider the possibility that she could find the base or that she was even looking for it. He needed to find and talk to Patten NOW. This Fenton dude wasn't here yet, but he could still get started talking deals with Eric. He had to get on top of this case before someone else did. She was HIS and nobody else even had a right to touch her!

A sound from the other side of the room interrupted Rudy's possessive internal explosion and he pivoted towards it, his eyes quickly searching for the source. When it came again, his whole body jerked with tension as he watched the door handle of the closet turn against a chair edge that was blocking it. Absentmindedly, he slipped his phone back into his pocket and pulled out the Aurora, the gun clicking rapidly together over his hand as he inched his way warily towards the corner of the room.

The door knob shook a few more times and then stopped and a hushed whispering came from within along with a faint scraping and rustling. Denying every bone in his body that screamed 'I've seen this movie before! The guy dies! Get out! Get out!' he moved the chair out of the way, holding up his lightly humming gun as he reached out and turned the knob. Flinging the door wide, he bounced back a few feet, releasing panicky breaths as he targeted the slithering and dark, creatures within.

Oh, no, wait. Those were people. As the first stepped out cautiously and looked about the room, Rudy lowered his gun and quirked an eyebrow. Then he spotted the girl and a lewd smirk crossed his face, accompanied by a small, obnoxious chuckle when he noticed the disheveled appearance of both. That's hot. But why were they barricaded in there?

The guy had a uniform shirt on that Rudy didn't recognize and his dark eyes moved about agitatedly, looking sufficiently freaked out as he seemed to search for some expected terror. As soon as he realized that Quin was the only one in the room besides them, he swiftly crossed to the door and left, barely casting a look back. If the woman was offended by his hasty exit, she didn't let it show and quickly stepped from the closet as well, neatly adjusting her white uniform and brushing her waist-long, silky black hair over her shoulders and tying it up as she walked to the middle of the room. Rudy on the other hand turned in a small circle watching the two separate and then focusing just on the girl... then focusing on just her perky--

She was giving him a discreet, annoyed look and he gave her a dorky grin in response. Such pretty, large, exotic eyes. Angry eyes. Whatever she'd been thinking quickly melted away to a more neutral expression as she spoke. "Thank you for opening the door."

"Hey, sure, no problem" he paused a moment and glanced back at the still open closet before turning back to her and giving her a knowing grin. "So, uh...what happened in there? A lil' bit a' on the clock hanky-panky, yeah? Did he give it to ya good?"

Yep. The annoyed look was back - so sexy! She looked like she maybe wanted to hurt him a little bit - oh, baby! But then the anger did it's little vanishing act again and her thin eyebrows arched arrogantly as she twirled her hair into a neat bun and snapped an elastic band around it to hold it in place. "I do not want to talk about that. Besides, it's not appropriate." And her slender form turned gracefully and walked back to the closet with the precise and elegant steps of a soldier.

While she busied herself with ignoring him and cleaning up the closet - apparently the shelves and supplies were thrown in disarray by recent activities within - and he leaned upon the wall beside it, relaxed and playful, slipping the Aurora back into his pocket. "Come on, don't be a scaly prude," he said coaxingly. "Spill the juicy details! Was it dirty? Are you a naughty girl - did you let 'im go bareback? Are you a screamer?"

She emerged from the closet, still not looking at him as she held a few items in her hands and reclosed the door. But he noticed the pink blush shining through the olive tones of her skin and he poked his tongue out the side of his smile in wicked triumph. "You let him spank you, didn't you?" Rudy asked as he followed her across the room where she threw the things she carried into the trash can - apparently supplies that had been desanitized or damaged.

When she turned around to face him, she was definitely angry again, with a wild look in her dark, almond shaped eyes. "Is there something you need? If not, then I demand that you leave right now. I have work to do."

Mmmm, feisty! ...maybe he could push her further and get her to forcibly throw him from the room. Her expression softened once more as she looked over his shoulder and finally noticed Jason still laying on his cot. And she made sure not to touch him as she slipped past Rudy and positioned herself by Jason's side, fussing over him - checking his pulse, opening each eyelid and flashing a small light into them, gingerly touching his head looking for any bumps or open wounds.

And Rudy scowled with a narrowed gaze at the unconscious Agent. Then he was standing beside her, taking a small, flat stick from her uniform pocket and lightly jabbing Jason in the neck and face with it. "Eh, he's a'ight. He just fainted. Like a girl."

The female Agent didn't say anything but quickly snatched the tongue depressor from his hand and shoved him away without letting very much of her body touch him. And Rudy backed up willingly to sit casually on a neighboring cot. "I, on the other hand, am in serious need of medical attention." No reaction. "I'm a lot more injured than Miss Weepy Fruitpie over there."

"Really?" she asked distractedly, finishing with her inspection of Jason and finally, reluctantly, turning towards Rudy. Hm, she didn't look like she believed him. "Where are you 'injured'? Head trauma?"

"No, I have a-- Wait... why was that your first guess?" he asked suddenly, pausing as he began to lift his shirt.

"Your face."

At first, he thought maybe he should be offended. Then he remembered how he looked. "Ha, no that's fine. Actually, I have a bullet wound in my shoulder and it goes all the way through. I got it several hours ago and was only recently able to clean it, but..."

When he was able to lift his shirt enough to give her a little peek at it, her expression cleared from annoyance and suspicion to a tolerant and professional concern. "Take off your jacket and shirt," she ordered and left the cots to rummage through some supplies on the counter against the far wall.

"Yes, ma'am," he muttered pleasantly. Smiling to himself, Rudy obeyed, tossing his new uniform jacket and shirt on the cot beside him and idly kicking his dangling feet. When she returned, she did not look at his face - even though he clearly pressured her to do so, focusing on her eyes and facial features in a friendly and open manner - but instead kept her eyes on his wound and her expression guarded and distant. She instructed him to lay back and after donning gloves, she cleaned and stitched up the small hole in his right shoulder. It took all of 3 minutes, but even so, the flesh around the wound was sensitive and sore and she was poking him a bunch of times with a needle. Needless to say, the discomfort of the small amount of pain was like a sensual teasing and warmed his blood as he watched her work.

When she was done, she filled a syringe with a smoky, transparent liquid - it looked a little bit like soapy water. "What's that?" he asked, watching interestedly as she flicked the side of the syringe to get rid of a stray bubble.

"Just an antiseptic mixture including a few chemicals to accelerate healing," she said in formal tones and injected it into his arm. The bite of the syringe's needle pricking into his arm got an instant physical reaction from him, but he stayed still until she was finished. "Alright, you're all set. You can go now." She sounded relieved to be rid of him. He almost felt bad for disappointing her.

"Actually, I do have one more problem," he said giving her a seductive look as he smoothly sat back up on the cot. She was still standing close, but her attention was focused on cleaning up her supplies and taking off her gloves. As soon as the first glove was slipped off and her nude hand was set free, he grabbed her wrist and pulled her towards him. "I have a bit of swelling in my lower extremities," he said in a husky tone positioning her hand right on his crotch. "Perhaps you could help remedy the situation..."

He caught her by surprise, so for the first couple of seconds she stood still in shock, but then she was suddenly stabbing him in the leg with the syringe and jerking out of his grip. "Ow! Jesus!" he said, hissing as he pulled it out of his flesh and tossed it away, rubbing the spot with his hand and giving her a hurt look. "That was mean! ...Do it again!"

"Put your clothes on and get out now!" she yelled, pointing aggressively at the door. "And you can be sure that I'm writing you up for sexual harassment!"

For several seconds, Rudy just sat there blinking blankly at her. Then he let out a breathy laugh and cocked his head like a curious puppy. "What is that? Sexual harassment. Is that even a 'thing'?" He felt giddy as she huffed and rolled her eyes, stomping away from him towards the glass medicine cabinet. Slipping his shirt on and tying the arms of his uniform jacket around his waist, he hopped off of the cot and hurried after her.

She obviously expected him to either leave or stay where he was because he surprised her again when she bent over to pick up the fallen pill bottles, his hand inserted itself snugly between her legs and grabbed a nice fistful of pert ass-flesh - accompanied by a cheerful honking sound as he squeezed her. And Rudy got to appreciate her speed again as she gasped and whirled around, slapping him on the cheek.

"Ouch..." he muttered, frowning slightly as he rubbed his face. Then he blinked and jerked his head back a little bit as an angry finger was thrust inches from his nose.

"Are you aware of the Agency's policy on molestation in the workplace? Keep it up, dickwad; I'll sue your ass!" Oh wow, she sounded serious.

He gently pushed her finger out of his face and gave her a know-it-all look. "Mmkay, first of all, go ahead and sue me. I doubt you'll reach a price high enough to get me scared and homeless anytime soon. Secondly, who says 'dickwad' anymore? What are you? A middle schooler?" She huffed again and went back to picking up pill bottles and putting them away while Rudy kept talking. "And thirdly: molestation? Seriously, I don't know what that means. I think you're just makin' up words and playing hard to get."

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#, as written by Tartra
Madeline might not’ve meant to keep talking after she’d said her thing, but when Stephanie snapped the silence, somehow... kinda making it quieter even though she was saying stuff, she turned her head back to look at her while she listened. It was respectful, right? Gary thought it was, up until the A-2’s mouth started turning. Then she just plain ol’ smirked and laughed to herself, going right back to staring outside, like Stephanie wasn’t saying anything she wasn’t completely expecting. Except for ‘shut up’. She looked back when Stephanie said ‘shut up’. She – uh... she’d definitely wanted to hear a nicer comment, but she changed her mind about whatever she’d been planning on saying back – and Gary guessed it wouldn’t’ve been any nicer because these ladies weren’t getting along at all, not from what he was seeing – and another smirk went on over to her. Madeline thought Agent March was being funny, but not in a good way. He’d just work on being invisible for the next whatever hours now... please?

“You’re lost.” Ohhhhhhh no – that was not a friendly reply. It came out ten times worse ‘cause that was the first thing she’d ever said without – like... belting it. Invisible faster, invisible faster! And yeah, that was his only hope, ‘cause the cabin got super tiny when Madeline leaned forward, enough to put her elbows on her nears, and that sucked out any room to hide. “I think you are also confused. I have never dreamed of helping you or asking for your support. Patten’s stink has only been so great on a handful of others. You’re his new prized possession, and you can’t be saved. You tell me ‘you know’ as though you weighed what you think you’re getting against what he is handing you. In my mind, I am hearing both sides of whether to give you my advice. But you know, March? Although it may sound cruel, I think I’ll learn to enjoy myself this time. Patten can pull a show from it, so why shouldn’t I?”

“Because it’s –” Great going, Gary! She was looking at him again! He had to finish talking now. “... wrong...”

“IS IT WRONG?” And there was the belting. Madeline straightened up and crossed her arms and her legs. That was doubly ticked off, he felt. “I FIND IT FUNNY. STEPHANIE MARCH, THE WONDER CHILD, PUMPED TO THE TEETH WITH LIQUID CONCENTRATRION, CLAIMS SHE THINKS CLEARER THAN SHE EVER HAS BEFORE, AND YET I KNOW SHE HAS LEFT HERSELF BLINDER THAN A BAT WITH NO HEAD.” Bats weren’t actually blind – that was a common misconception, and it sounded like she’d mixed it up when a headless chick– fat head chirp, right, he remembered, and he balled himself back up in his corner. Why didn’t she like him?! “AND A LOVER, YOU SAY?” She smiled. That wasn’t very friendly, either. “HOW CUTE. I’M SURE YOUR BOY IS EXCITED TO LOCK LIPS WITH A HOLLOWED OUT GIRL HE HELPED DRAG FROM HER HOME AFTER STALKING HER FOR HOWEVER MANY WEEKS HE’S BEEN ON THE JOB. IT ALMOST MAKES ME GLAD ERIC’S LATCHED ONTO YOU. WHEN YOU WAKE UP AND SEE YOU HAVE NOTHING LEFT, HE CAN KEEP YOU DISTRACTED BY LETTING YOU KILL FOR HIM.” The closer she got to the end of that sentence, the darker her face had gone. She was in 100% scowl-mode, and she used it to add a mean, “YOU KNOCKED ONE OFF ALREADY. GOOD FOR YOU. IT MADE A MESS OF MY FLOOR.”

H-hey! Come on! Quit it! This was the worst timing ever to be picking a fight! Stephanie wasn’t giving him any clue about what she was thinking, and if Jason wasn’t here, well... well – it was up to him to watch out for! That meant he had to make sure there wasn’t a fight at five million feet, and because Stephanie had ended her first one – the one at the Charlton place – really specifically and because Eric – Eric Patten, the one they were talking about – had said all that – okay, he head to be joking, ‘cause he was an A-1 and he wouldn’t really let Madeline get tossed out a window – then Gary had to get into the middle of everything to take the heat off. Look over here, everybody! Everyone laugh at the fat guy! Then they could joke and have a good giggle, and maybe they weren’t gonna be doing each other’s hair in a month – well, they could if they laughed really hard – but the point was just to make it to Elmira. So... take a breath, Gary! He was going in!

“Jason will – uh...” No, no, he was not backing down on this one. Keep the peace, people! Why was everyone always at each other’s throats? Was it him? ‘Cause he hadn’t seen any of the kissy love that’d led up to the face masching in the people room, so either he had some hilariously bad timing or he just brought a world of terrible news wherever he went. Either one of those... sucked, basically. But he’d figure it out later! “She’ll have Jason! Jason is going to be there.” For sure. Definitely!

“CERTAINLY,” she said, totally not agreeing. “FOR AS LONG AS SHE HAS HIM BEFORE PATTEN PICKS HIM UP. HE’S IMPORTANT NOW. MARCH MADE HIM IMPORTANT.”

Pick Jason up? Why? Jason was cool, but didn’t he get demoted? And wasn’t he losing his suit?

“I don’t get –”

“‘LOVER’.” She didn’t laugh that time. Her eyes were glued to Stephanie’s unreadable ones. “IF YOU CALL HIM THAT IN FRONT OF ME, THEN PATTEN HAS KNOWN FOR AGES.”

Yeah... And Gary had been thinking. Jason had been left behind, right? There were a lot of ultra-complicated-mega-strategy-top-Agent points for it, and Eric seemed really cool about it, but Agency relationships... It wasn’t like they weren’t allowed! Half the org’ had gotten together after one job or another. Three-quarters of them were practically family by blood by now, and here was how he’d met his fluffy DiDi. For all the lectures and griping and rules about ‘hands off’, he knew from the gossip and from the weddings he’d eagerly jumped to made their bosses sound a lot like they were quietly encouraging a little of the light hand holing from behind the scenes. It did make it easier to find people to work for them later, and it had grown a few super soldiers in process. The best sneaky people came from other sneaky people, and it wasn’t like they could grab Pain Eaters and Frontliners and other guys-who-did-so-much-they-might-as-well-have-powers-but-amazingly-didn’t-which-made-them-more-incredible Agent stars from off the street. It was the on-the-job stuff that got tricky. The people in charge didn’t hate anything like they hated a mission going south, so a bit of him wondered if Jason hadn’t gotten left behind because... Eric made this sound very important...

“Mr. Patten didn’t want them together, huh,” Gary said, trying not to sound hugely bummed out.

“ARE YOU STUPID? ERIC COULD NOT BE HAPPIER ABOUT THOSE TWO,” Madeline spat. “CONGRATULATIONS. YOU HAVE PROVEN THAT YOU FEAR EVERY POSSIBLE ANGLE YOU HAVE NO REASON TO, AND IN TURN LET YOURSELVES NEGLECT WHAT YOU SHOULD HAVE GUARDED AGAINST. I TAKE IT BACK. I CAN’T ENJOY THIS. I THOUGHT YOU HAD BEEN PULLED TO YOUR END, MARCH, NOT SPRINTED TO IT.”

“What does that mean?” What did that mean?

Okay – whoa – Madeline was not allowed to look so mad about having to explain stuff if she was gonna be mysterious about it. They didn’t know what she knew! And from the way she spoke, she knew a helluva lot. He wanted to ask if it was all from practise, but she might smack him for it, and he didn’t want to mess up such a nice helicopter by getting teeth everywhere. Would she ever do that? Had she ever done it? If Stephanie could put her hand through someone else, it made a little sense to think that Madeline knew how to knock a few teeth out with a good slap.

Too much chirping?

“DOG,” she said. “COME HERE.” Come... where – come over? To her? She was looking at him, so... yeah, he guessed that was what she wanted. He shuffled to her, and a teeny bit more obviously afraid than he should’ve been, he waited for her to – “OPEN YOUR MOUTH.” Open his what now? “STICK OUT YOUR TONGUE.”

Well, he’d had worse orders. One time, he’d really gotten an A-7 mad, and he had – tongue out! See? Tongue out, no head chirps, no more – “OW!

“AWAY FROM ME.” Then she wiped her fingers on the couch ‘cause she’d – just... she’d pinched his tongue! She’d pinched it! Was there any blood or...? Well, no, but it stung a lot. Gary shuffled back to where he’d been, really hurt and sad. “IT’S FOR YOUR OWN GOOD. IF I CONTINUE TO HEAR YOUR VOICE, I AM GOING TO POISON YOU.”

He’d heard that one before. He just wished this time it wasn’t from someone who could actually get away with it. He had an anniversary to plan!

“Sorry, Agent Bergmann –”

WHAT DID I JUST SAY?

sorry sorry sorry sorry sorry sorry sorry sorry

“WITH ALL YOUR TALKING, I CAN’T UNDERSTAND WHY YOU HAVEN’T HAD HIM EXPLAIN ALREADY,” she told them. “THAT IS HOW HE WORKS, MARCH.” Just Stephanie? ‘Cause he was the one asking and all... “YOU BEGAN HIS GAME THE MINUTE YOU FIRST SPOKE TO HIM. LET ME TELL YOU THE RULES I TOOK FIVE YEARS TO UNDERSTAND: THE MORE HE KNOWS A PERSON, THE DEEPER INTO HIS WEB THEY ARE, THE MORE HONEST HE IS ABOUT EVERYTHING. EVERYTHING.”

“Why?”

Weird. His tongue felt kind’f rubbery. He stuck it out again, ‘cause maybe that pinch was doing it. Aw man, why’d she have to pinch him? He hadn’t been trying to talk that much, he was just curious!

“BECAUSE HE THINKS IT’S FUNNY,” she explained. “HE LIKES IT. HE ONLY STEPS FORWARD WHEN IT GAINS HIM IN SOME WAY AND PERSONAL ENTERTAINMENT – FROM EGO STROKING ABOUT HOW SMART HE IS – IS AT THE TOP OF HIS LIST. IT’S HIS GUIDING MOTIVATION! IT’S WHY HE’S SO UNBEARABLY STUPID!” She’d put a lot of thought into this. Gary wasn’t sure what to think. His tongue was distracting him, sort of, so maybe that was throwing him off. “HE ANSWERS EVERY QUESTION BECAUSE HE KNOWS HE’LL NEVER BE ASKED THE RIGHT ONE. HE PRIDES HIMSELF ON SEEING HOW LONG IT TAKES TO SOLVE HIS RIDDLE, AND ONLY TODAY HAVE I SOLVED MINE. THE ONE LIE HE EVER FED TO ME – THE SMALLEST, SIMPLEST, MOST INCONSPICUOUS OF TALES – DEFINED EVERYTHING HE HAS EVER SAID TO ME AND DONE.” Gary was going back into his ball. It was safer trying to hide. Madeline was getting worked up about this and he didn’t like it. His tongue was floppy. “THAT IS WHAT HE HAS BEEN DOING TO YOU. HE LIED ONCE, TOLD THE TRUTH EVER SINCE, AND NOW HE WANTS TO SEE HOW FAR HE CAN TAKE IT BEFORE LETTING IT CONSUME YOU. I’D SAY WITH YOU, IT’S OBVIOUS. HE PICKS THE GAME THAT SUITS THE PLAYER, AND YOU, HIS IRREPLACABLE STEPHANIE, WANT TO BE SOMEONE ELSE. THE SMELL OF DESPERATION IS INESCAPABLE. LISTEN TO SOMEONE WHO HAS LIVED THROUGH IT: THIS IS WHAT HE IS AIMING FOR. YOU WANT TO BE HER, BUT HE WANTS TO MAKE YOU NO ONE. HE WANTS YOU TO FOLLOW AS A SLAVE, NOT AN EQUAL, AND HE WANTS YOU TRAPPED AND STRIPPED OF WHAT MAKES YOU WHO YOU ARE. YOUR LIFELESS HEART WILL BE IN HIS HAND UNTIL THE DAY YOU TURN TO DUST. THERE IS ONLY ONE OTHER PERSON I KNOW OF WHO ALREADY FILLS THAT ROLE, AND SHE HAS NO NAME BEYOND THE PET NAME HE GAVE HER. THAT WILL BE YOU, MARCH. WHY CAN’T YOU UNDERSTAND THAT THAT IS GOING TO BE YOU?” Then she shook her head, like she couldn’t believe what she was saying. “I’M WASTING MY BREATH. I TELL YOU YOU’LL BE A SLAVE, AND ALL YOU MUST HEAR IS HOW ONLY ONE OTHER PERSON EVER MADE IT THAT FAR.” She had her hand in her pocket. A moment later, she had her phone out again, and once more, she was leaning forward, offering it to woman across from her. Gary curled out of his ball to watch with giant eyes. “YOU WON’T BELIEVE ME BECAUSE IT’S MY WORD AGAINST HIS. HE IS PROMISING YOU THE WORLD, BUT HE IS WORKING TO BE YOUR WORLD AND YOU’RE HALFWAY THERE. SO CALL HIM. ASK HIM. PIN HIM TO THE WALL. DEMAND AN ANSWER AND KNOW IT’S THE TRUTH BECAUSE HE THINKS YOU’RE TOO DEDICATED TO EVER QUESTION YOUR PLACE.”

Didn’t she say she wasn’t gonna help?

“Uh thuht you wurn gonna help.” His tongue was numb! “Uh... Ay-jun Buh-muhn? Ay-jun Buh-muhn, Uh can feel muh thungue.”

“I KNOW. THAT’S THE POINT.” She frowned at him. It softened when she brought it over to Stephanie, but it stayed put. “IT WON’T HELP YOU. WHEN YOU HEAR IT FROM HIM, IT WILL DESTROY YOU. THAT IS THE POINT. I THINK YOU’RE FOOLISH, MARCH, BUT I DON’T HATE YOU. I SIMPLY CAN’T AFFORD ANOTHER TO JOIN HIS RANKS. EITHER YOU PULL THE TRIGGER NOW OR HE PULLS IT FOR YOU, BUT NO MATTER WHAT YOU CHOOSE, YOU WILL NOT SURVIVE. I ONLY WANT IT OVER BEFORE HE GETS WHAT HE WANTS.” She shook her phone. “CALL HIM. HEAR WHAT HE HAS TO SAY. TELL ME HE’S YOUR ‘MASTER’ AFTER THAT.”

* * *


His heart hurt. Jason woke up.

He knew what it meant.

Jason was an embarrassment. He’d collapsed in a pathetic pile when his lead had needed him the least, and he’d still been surprised she wasn’t here. He was a moron. She had her target and Eric’s blessing to reach Elmira and take the last steps she would ever as the woman he knew. She’d trained for this, waited for it, and Alexander was bearing down on them, threatening to take Stewart away. He was nothing less than incompetent for expecting anything else, much less her hovering around while he scraped himself from the floor. How could he demand that? As far as she knew, she’d given him what he wanted. He’d spent 80% of this case at her side and had done nothing but fail her and try to resign. If he didn’t try to catch her, he could let himself pretend he’d collapsed on purpose to free his lead from him. He should’ve wanted that anyway. It was the professional thing to do, and it was the right thing to do on top of it. What’d happened between them no longer had a side. What she’d started, he’d returned, and he’d done it without a clue about what was supposed to happen or how he planned to live with it later. It’d led to him somehow stringing her along, and he’d hurt her enough with it already. She was doing things alone, and whether it’d been infatuation or being as insane as everyone made it sound, it’d be easier to shake it he stood aside before she made the switch. He couldn’t help her and he was required to come to terms with this, because as incapable of anything else as he was, he could give her the one thing she’d been searching for through the chaos of this case: a clean break, a chance to start over, and peace of mind he refused to wreck because he wouldn’t be with her.

His heart also hurt because someone had stabbed him.

A blast of steel had shredded through his body, ripping through his chest and flooding him with pain. His body seized as an unforgivable current jolted to every end of him, screaming as his veins shook and tried to burst. Jason roared in a gasp for air and felt his lungs tear as they collapsed and ballooned, whipping his arms as he blindly scratched to grab something – anything –

“Come on, Jason. You’re okay.” Eric! Eric, Eric, that was Eric! “It’s just adrenaline.” Why was he giving him adrenaline? “I need you on your feet, kiddo. Try to slow it down with those breaths, alright?”

“W-wh–”

Jason was drowning. Jason was dying. His jaw was spasming too hard for him to put a word together.

“Easy there. Think slow thoughts.” If he hadn’t been feeling each of his nerves explode, or if a massive shudder hadn’t crushed his collarbone as it squeezed his shoulders to powder, he would have been reassured by the sound of the A-1’s voice. Then it left him, moving over as the man started talking to someone Jason could only hear because his eyes were open but he couldn’t see. “Don’t mind me! Just act like I’m not even here! You silly ducks go on with your respecting-Agency-personnel-guidelines fun!”

His mind was crackling with blood. The noise of energy drilled at his ears. He couldn’t get away from it, couldn’t move couldn’t run couldn’t hide, and his gashed thoughts could only pull together long enough to understand Eric was hanging onto him to keep him hurling himself off whatever they’d put him on before it exploded in horror because he couldn’t feel the rest of his body. The suit! The suit was choking him! It wanted him out, it wanted him dead, he’d fucking lost everything.

“Wh-when did she go?”

His throat was raw and it was weeping with his blood and sweat and tears and his skin was shaving off in rusted squares of flesh – “A second ago. How’re you feeling?” Withdrawal. It had to be and it was slaughtering him and his bones were crumbling as the suit strangled and strangled and strangled and strangled. “Can you get up?”

Jason couldn’t move.

“Help –”

His body screeched again. Eric had propped him up more gently than any person should have managed, but his hands felt like iron and this was death. Everything he’d wanted was being taken away and Jason felt it centred on the spot the needle had plunged through.

“Hmmmmm.” Jason could hardly hear him, but he tried. He had to force his senses home. He had to. He had to breathe. “I’m gonna give you something else.”

“Wh...” Talk, dammit! “W-what?”

“Can’t give you the good stuff or it’ll shock your system and kill you,” Eric pleasantly pointed out. “What a company we work for! You can’t use their medicine unless you already haven’t used it!” He was fine with adrenaline he didn’t need any more!

“I can’t,” he panted hoarsely. “I can’t – have any –”

“Pish posh.” Jason nearly collapsed when Eric let him go and headed for the counter and the cupboards overheard. He could barely make them out, and even less of the closet beside them. Two of the cupboards were locked, but the third swung free and he, in his delirium, could swear he felt a gentle breeze. Eric immediately rooted through it. “I know, I know. You’re all about saying no to drugs and I’m very proud of your dedication, but time’s a-wastin’! We’ve got guests coming, Jay-jay!”

The back of his eyes were frayed and his pulse was beating in his teeth. Something, his body begged. He couldn’t.

“Sir,” he rasped.

“Butter Juice!” He’d found something. He turned around and shone like an angel, walking back with a tiny glass bottle in his fingers. It would have fit neatly in Quin’s palm. In the Flunky’s, it looked like a thimble. “See? No problem!”

“Sir, I can’t!” The adrenaline was pulling into him, almost like it was settling down. If he focused harder... “I can’t.”

“We give this stuff to children, Jason.” Where was... This was the sick bay, wasn’t it? This was – “It’s like a liquid band-aid. For your brains. Through your neck.”

Butter Juice made a person smell butter while they were on it. He’d admit there were worse things – real things – to be offered, but his hands had clenched as soon as they’d heard the name. Kids’ stuff or not, he wasn’t taking anything. He’d come this far clean and he wouldn’t throw it away because it was all he had left. All.

... But this case... had brought on a lot of other firsts...

“No.” And Eric couldn’t make him. “No. No.”

“Jason,” Eric said, sounding patient but restless. “You look awful.”

He looked awful?! That was... what – that was the excuse?

“I know I look fucking awful,” he raged, immediately consumed by a hate for everything he couldn’t fucking do. “Stephanie is gone, I’m losing my suit, I couldn’t get my fucking target back after I lost her to some kid telling me shit and I don’t know why, I’m demoted, I’m going to die in two months –” If he lived that fucking long at all! “– and now I’m supposed to fight fucking Alexander for the third damn time when I can’t even stand and he’s not even my fucking case! He’s going to kill me, Eric, just because he can, but any other fucking person on this planet could see how fucking ‘awful’ I look and spare my life because they know I’m too fucking inferior to waste time with and that’s not the worst fucking part!” He was screaming in the face of an A-1 and he couldn’t give a shit about how easy it’d be for Eric to put all five of Jason’s limbs in wildly separate rooms. The man had on a face he should have been paying more attention to: quizzical and studious, like he wasn’t exactly sure if he was supposed to be as entertained as he blatantly was. He seemed to want to hear what Jason had to say, not because of what he was getting across, but because of how he was, thoroughly impressed by the audacity Jason had to make it this far. Jason had to quit while he was alive. It wasn’t like he knew where he stood in Eric’s eyes. Benoit had the best idea of what he could get away with, but he hadn’t been offering lessons and Jason learned by seeing how other people worked in the same situation, and Frenchie wasn’t dumb enough to ever cross the secret, jagged line Eric seemed to always move around. Benoit was allowed to openly resent him; Quin, meanwhile, got strung up by his neck, after he’d brought Gwen Stewart to them. Jason would have to assume Eric saying he looked ill meant he was being pitied. It was better than nothing, so it would have to do, because he couldn’t stop at being stupid and useless. He had to be selfish and remember that Eric had said he could go. If the A-1 had given him more time to think about what he was doing, maybe he could have accepted his fate... “Something is wrong with her. She’s tough – you said she was tough – but she’s been pushing her limits this entire time. I was part of what was helping her! And now I need your help to get to Elmira before she transfers and disappears!”

“‘Disappears’?”

Eric was asking honestly, as he always was, as he always did, yet again genuinely intrigued by the notion that some effect would be triggered to tear Jason’s lead apart and had decided to press for more information. Jason should have been paying attention to that too, but he’d leave it for another day. If he could use whatever quasi-friendship Stephanie had built up with the A-1, he would, but simply knowing that made him feel as if he’d slid onto thin ice. This was not trying to turn information against someone. It was trying to find common enough ground to get Eric on board. He couldn’t save her alone.

“... I don’t know,” he admitted. “She’s been getting close to some edge. Whatever’s happening, it’s getting worse.”

“You’re not inspiring a lot of confidence.”

Shit.

“She can do this,” he said quickly. “Eric, you can trust her. You do trust her because you’ve been helping her, too! She’s done everything to get this case to where it is and she’s dedicated to a fault, but that’s why I need to get to her. She’ll destroy herself in the Agency’s name, in your name, and I’m the only one who can stop that.”

“Exactly what are you planning to do, Jason?”

“I –” No. Wait. “I...” ... Wait... “... What do you mean?”

He’d asked to stall. Jason felt alert. Sick, woozy, ready to fall to pieces, but alert, and it let him feel a shift he hadn’t felt before. Eric didn’t move or change, and Jason could only see joy in his eyes and hear an ocean of warmth in his voice. But something was different. Eric was watching him now.

“If you were with her,” the A-1 rephrased, “what would change about the situation? What’re you bringing to the table she can’t make this transfer without?”

It wasn’t a threat. It wasn’t a reprimand. He tried to sense it. A challenge?

“Whatever she needs,” he answered. “I’ll help whatever way I can.”

“Okay. And you expect the plane she’s on – helicopter, jetpack, I forget what she took – to turn around and get you?”

Innocent. Friendly. An entire level was swimming underneath those words.

“When she arrives in Charlton –”

“You want her to wait?” Eric’s eyebrows raised a little. His glasses took on a shine Jason had to squint against. The light of it brought a stunning sense of clarity, reminding him of what had happened, why he was here and she wasn’t. She’d already been given a choice to wait. He’d already said staying behind was best for her. “You’ve been talking a lot about your skills, Jay-jay. I haven’t seen any of them. Every mistake that’s been made so far has been directly linked to something you did. Alexander, the goggles, Elmira... Now you have a chance to redeem yourself because your lead gave you a direct order to assist somewhere else, you’re not just throwing it back in her face, but you’re trying to convince me to send you to the only person you’ve been successfully and systematically hacking apart.” ... He wasn’t. She’d asked for him before... “She says she’s waiting on Benny’s word that Xander’ll be handled before she moves on. I’m giving you my word that he’s been handled.”

“You can’t promise that!”

“Really? You’re gonna go with that?” Eric rolled his eyes. “I’ll let you in on what I can’t do, Jason: I can’t afford to let you go anywhere with a damn, damn good reason. You’re a mess, she’s a mess, you’re both a little messy, but like you cleverly pointed out, I trust her. More than you. She’s playing her part divinely and I couldn’t be prouder of what she’s accomplished. You, on the other hand, brought this all the way to Charlton. And now back to Elmira.”

Jason’s eyes had fallen to his feet as he sat up on the sick bay’s bed, crippled. What Eric was saying... It wasn’t careless. There was a reason for it. The man wanted a reaction he wouldn’t get because Jason felt himself collapsing in a new way. His will was failing him. As it ran down to fumes, he thought to ask one last thing, just able to muster the interest to care about the answer: “Am I really better off fighting Alexander?”

“No. But he’ll be here in forty minutes. Butter Juice’ll take the sting off of things. Barely – but... y’know.” He sighed loudly, humming at the end of it, and then he turned and abruptly headed for the door. “Well – this was disappointing!”

“... I’m going.”

“What’s that?”

“I’m going,” Jason said. He refused to look up. Carefully, he brought his weight off the locked arms he’d been using to keep him off the bed, balancing to get ready to put his feet on the ground. A feeling of desperation had come over him. It was from the final threads of prowess he’d used to get his reputation in the first place. He’d put his duty to his lead before everything else, and even if it killed him – three times, it almost had – it was why he’d been so strongly recommended for this assignment. Everything he’d heard through the snippets he had about her old life... He wasn’t like the others she’d worked with. Alright, so he was likely as useless as the others Alexander had torn through and he knew he fell under Quin based on what’d been happening, he was persistent as fuck and he’d walk if he had to. He owed it to her. “I’ll drop off my suit when I get there.”

“Ladies and gentlemen, I do believe he’s serious,” Eric said. “She’s got a solid head start on you, Jay-jay.”

“I know. I’ll call her.”

“On what phone?”

... She’d left hers behind a while ago, before they’d even got on the plane. If she had a new one, he couldn’t get it. Such a high-level request meant two weeks of clearance checking and security analysis.

“Elmira’s,” he said. “I’ll call ahead.”

“Good thinking, good thinking,” Eric carolled. “And if she fails to get the message?”

“A fresh transfer takes hours to complete,” Jason worked out. “If she left a second ago, I can make it. I can talk to her while they’re scanning her mind.”

“There also tends to be a lockdown of the building a transfer’s happening in,” Eric noted. “If the transfer’s started and there’s no door to get through...”

“I’ll crawl in through the window.” He was being sarcastic, because Elmira didn’t have windows. “I’ll figure something out when I’m there!”

“Or I could give you this.” Jason heard rustling. Eric’s wonder-coat had brought out more forms. He stepped over with them, and smiling ten times wider than a minute ago, and politely handed them over. Jason took them half-warily. They didn’t explode when they were in his hands, so he accepted it as a sign that they were safe to leaf through. “You ever hear of Doctor Li?”

“No.”

These were access forms. These were golden tickets to getting around.

“You will. Once you get there, just ask for her. She’ll be the frown-y one who thinks everyone’s an idiot – close and trusted ally of yours truly, nearly a woman of my heart if she didn’t think I was an idiot, too. Those skinny arms would stick a sword through anyone’s head who asked to hang around when this thing happens,” Eric explained, “but I’m thinking she might make an excuse for you if you give her those.”

“I don’t understand.” Every access code and every sign off. Watching a transfer was not a free event. For all the hanging around Gary was doing, Jason knew he wouldn’t actually be let inside. But Eric had put... What the hell? “What are these?”

“Demotion forms.”

And one of the signatures of it was smudged.

“You’re giving me these?”

“To do with as you please,” Eric whistled. “A-6s don’t get suits.”

“But you demoted me!” He was holding these forms. He was holding them. “I lost my target! That kid!”

“Actually, I made you sign the papers to demote you, and I, having hired very lazy help – Squiddie – never got around to processing those. I’m not carryin’ ‘em around all day – what’re you, nuts? These pockets are full enough already! As for letting Gwen go – oh, don’t worry! Somewhere, there’s definitely an A-2’s trying to kill you with his brains. Protocol is extremely strict, Jason,” Eric said. “I think it’s safe to say your rep is shot, and I still can’t believe you actually did that back there! Little Nathan was so dirty and... Australian!”

“But then why –” He wasn’t complaining! He wasn’t – he – just... He didn’t get it!

“You bombed an A-3’s assignment, but you delivered on an A-1’s.” Eric squeezed his cheek. “Don’t worry. I won’t tell Xander. He’s gonna be pretty mad on his own without letting that slip.”

... This was impossible, but the documents were in his hands.

“I can go?”

“You can go,” Eric said. “I said you could before you passed out. And then I never said I changed my mind – you assumed that.”

... What the fuck?!

“You could’ve said something!”

“I like letting people figure it out on their own,” Eric told him. “Don’t you feel empowered now? Plus, I stand by what I asked: what were you planning to do when you got there? Stephie’s head is in a good place thanks to some liquid gold, but it doesn’t last forever, right? I’m not having you mess things up by playing the ‘oh, gee, don’t know if I like her yet’ game right in front of her. Also, you’re a present.”

Jason’s heart was pounding again. For once, he embraced the feeling.

“Why am I a present?”

“She’s worked ridiculously hard and she has pushed her limits, so I’m sending you over since you finally seem more willing and able...” Eric instantly brought himself up short. “Not that I’m suggesting anything! But she enjoys your company. Even if you don’t make it on time, I think she deserves to at least know you’re trying to get to her, and not because I told you to. In fact, you told me – geez. Way to hurt my feelings, Jason! Ooh – be sure to mention that! She’ll like it!”

“Sorry,” he said, distracted, feeling lightheaded as he tried to put this all together. “But... Eric – you’re serious about this?”

“Right now, you’re the one who’s not doing everything he can to get on a plane.” Shit, he was right. Jason started trying to get off the bed. “Okay, okay, hold on, cowboy! You’re more messed up than she is, Mr. Fainty!”

“Butter Juice is kids’ stuff?”

“Well – yeah –” Eric seemed surprised. “Are you actually taking it? I was kind of saving it for if you failed and I had to stick you in the face to get you ready for Alex.”

... ‘Failed’.

This had been a test.

“You were expecting me to fail?”

“I always plan for the worst-case scenario,” Eric said, “but I was sure you’d be all, ‘love? What is love? I must not call love ‘love’ and then go to her and pretend that it’s not love some more because that never gets old, ever’. I had strong grounds to have faith in you. You tried to throw your suit at me twice. After trying to sneak both of them by me.”

“Eric,” Jason said, clearing his head to have room for this. “... Are you... trying to set me up with Stephanie?”

“Uh-huh.”

“What – why?”

“You two are so cute together,” the A-1 giggled. “And I really have to make sure she lasts long enough to actually show up to Elmira, ready to transfer at a second’s notice. Drugs don’t last forever, but love goes on for extra-squishy-special length of time! Seriously, you weren’t kidding about helping her. I dunno if you’re the best in the universe, but you’re the best in the world, so... go to her, my child! Fly, fly! And please don’t collapse again.”

Jason had his suit back. He wasn’t doing anything like that.

“The Butter Juice,” he said. “What’s in it?” He didn’t research ‘kid stuff’.

“Fennel... lith... Chemistry? And science? Chemistry and science!”

“Phenethylamine,” Jason said. “You’re giving me chocolate.”

“And science! I said it wasn’t a problem,” Eric shrugged. “But it goes in your neck. It’s like an energy drink. Red Bull, only less than that. A lot less. Like... I could just give you coffee and some other chemically stuff...”

Jason rolled the back of his collar down. It felt sore.

“Go for it. I’m going to need it to get on the plane. You’re letting me take a plane, right?”

“Yeah, I’ll get a car for you. Call Elmira on the way, I’ll try to get in touch with Di Fuhrer again – probably throw more French at her.” Eric paused. “I really think I might be a pimp. Darn it, Benny – why’d you put that in my head? Anyway, here’s a needle.” Eric seemed to have had way too much practise with one. “... You seriously don’t have to take it. They have coffee at Elmira –”

“I need to get to Elmira first,” Jason said.

“Okay.” Poke. “There ya go. How’s it feel to be a druggie now?”

“Is this addictive?”

“Depending on your opinion of butter.”

“I’ll be fine,” Jason assured him.

“Great! Then I’ve gotta go. This was stop four on my tour of Madeline’s kingdom and I’ve got – like... tons to do to get ready.”

Eric tossed the needle away and waltzed to the door, pausing to pat Quin – Quin? – on the head. The tiny Agent was enough of a distraction for Jason to come close to missing out gratefully, “Eric? Thank you.”

“Don’t mess this up, Jay-jay! Woo her! Appropriately! Within the bounds of basic hygiene – I’m trusting you to figure out whatever the hell that means. And show Benny the tape before you go!”

He hadn’t stopped walking. In under a second, Eric was gone to float around a different room of the base.

A test. That’s what this had been. All of this had been some... elaborate... overdone test. And he’d passed it.

Jason had done something right.

* * *


This shit had to stop. It wouldn’t, because everyone in this thing sucked. Everyone who worked for her sucked. She was going to kill everyone who sucked who wasn’t already dead and then she’d dig up their graves – they weren’t getting graves – she’d kick over their urns – socks! They were getting socks! She was burning them alive and sticking their ashes in socks and burning that alive and flinging whatever was left into an ash pit so they could sit there forever and blow around which’d be great ‘cause it’d give them a break from sucking! She was coming close to having a panic attack. There was a tic – a tiny tic, twitching constantly – on her cheek. It making her mental and she was waiting for the one excuse she needed to go berserk...

Her phone rang. She picked it up. She read it.

GOD FUCKING DAMMIT!

So in ran Dalton, freaking out because he’d heard her scream, and that twitchy asshole couldn’t ever just fucking knock like a normal person!

“Danielle?”

Why the fuck is Breton dead? When the fuck did he die?

Dalton had a choice. He chose to look confused. Dalton had made the wrong choice. She whipped her phone in his face. It went through his head. That wasn’t helpful.

“A few days ago, Danielle,” Dalton said. “We told you.”

OH MY GOD, you did not tell me! I would know if you told me!” Dalton had another choice. He kept his ugly mouth shut. She almost regretted chucking her phone at his face, but then she remembered why she’d thrown it and applauded her decision. “So what does this mean? What does this mean?

“I don’t know, Danielle,” he stammered. “I guess we – just... move on.”

Dalton, I wish I had enough things on my desk to throw at you. You’ll notice it’s all along the walls right now. That’s because I never get to hit you with anything because you always hog the transparency. But do you know why I keep throwing things at you, despite its blatant futility from your power hogging?

“... ‘Cause you’re a bitch?”

Mom told you to stop calling me that!

“... Then stop?”

Stop. Stop. Sure – ‘cause she had elevated levels of stress. That happened when she had to drag around two people. Not that he cared. He couldn’t stop hogging the fucking transparency, so her best bet was to stop.

Dalton.” His ugly mouth was shut again. “Do you know why I’m upset about this?

“Because he died and you think we didn’t tell you,” Dalton said.

Because he did two things for me, Dalton,” she said, spelling it out for her idiot sidekick. “He kept tabs on Elias, and he gave us Lamarre. You know what we don’t have now that he’s dead?

“I’m not answering a rhetorical question.”

Guess what we lost, Dalton!

“In someone’s defence,” Dalton incorrectly responded. “Don’t pick the desk up. You aren’t that strong. In someone’s defence, Lamarre was never really on our side. He just wasn’t calling Breton out. We didn’t lose anything. And Elias is around. Buzzy’ll find him. It’s the only thing she’s good for.”

Dalton was right. Buzzy would know. Where the fuck was she and why wasn’t she here? Why had nobody told her this shit had been going on? Everyone in this camp sucked!

She better be out there, Dalton,” Danielle said, stomping through her crummy grey tent and out the flap to hit the field. What the fuck – it was night now? They’d agreed it was gonna be a daylight strike! Oh – Bergmann was going down for this, unless stupid ugly Dalton hadn’t told her something else! So apologies to Bergmann – God damn it, Dalton! She did not have the blood pressure for this! This field was wet now, too! Morning dew was supposed to be in the morning, or was that another thing that’d been left out?!Scissor!

Scissor was sitting by the campfire, roasting some crap she’d be having for dinner. He looked over at her, awaiting orders. Excellent plan of action!

“What’s up, Danielle?”

Did you know Breton died?

“Yeah, Danielle. We came right to you with it.”

EVERYONE WAS A GODDAMN LIAR!

“Could you trust me on this? I’m telling you, you were told,” Dalton said.

She probably had been told. Scissor wouldn’t lie to her. If Dalton would stop hogging the transparency, she could rest enough to get some damn short-term to long-term memory going!

We’re switching tonight, Dalton. Ten damn days? I can’t even remember what I ate yesterday!” She marched down the hill, almost slid down it, then walked heavily around until she gave up and turned to the ugly one. “I don’t see her.

“Danielle!” It was Scissor again. She turned around. “Cryptic called you.”

When?

“A second ago. He left a message – said he didn’t want to talk to you ‘cause he knows you didn’t switch so you’re probably PMSing all over the place.” FUCK. CRYPTIC. “He says Madeline’s heading to Elmira. We’re one step closer to a go-ahead.”

Heading to Elmira?

“Tell me you at least remember that,” Dalton said.

Shut up, Dalton!

“You don’t remember.” Dalton was astounded. “Danielle, I think we should switch. That’s two days you don’t know about. A lot happened.”

We’re one step closer to a go-ahead, Dalton. I can’t switch. I have to be here to fight.” Two days were gone? That was two days worth of switching. Dalton should be crazy they were gonna get to pop around a building and beat Patten’s fucked up army to a pulp! If she switched now, she was wasting precious energy! “Just give me the Cliff Notes. Where’s Buzzy?

“I don’t think you wanna talk to Buzzy now,” Dalton said. “You’re gonna be in for something big.”

How big?

“Let’s just switch.” Stupid ugly ghost, floating around the air like that! They would switch when she said they would switch! They had not gone through all this – she had not gone through all this – just to give it up now! They got Bergmann’s signal? The Charlton base was theirs. And that she remembered. Ha, ha! “Danielle, things have changed...”

Cliff Notes, Dalton!

Where was Buzzy?!

“Breton’s dead.” Yeah – laugh it up, asshole! She knew that one, even if someone hadn’t gotten around to tell her. “That happened in Elmira.”

What happened in Elmira?” Oh. My. God. “Why was Elmira just mentioned? What the fuck is going on in Elmira?

“Oh boy.” Dalton got in front of her and put his dumb hands on her shoulders. She couldn’t even feel it – what a pointless gesture! “Danielle. I told you all of this as it happened. Scissor told you all of this as it happened. CryShadow and Heat Storm put literal papers in your hands documenting everything, and you, four days ago, as it was going on, and you still had the capacity to think with a level head, took it like a trooper, and like the leader you are, you explained – point for point – why none of it, except for the Lamarre thing, was likely going to hurt us in the long run.”

She scowled. She scowled – she really did – and she scowled hard.

Spit it out, Dalton.

“Alexander got mixed up with another case and now he’s loose in Charlton. Before you go crazy – wait – before you crazy –”

WHERE THE FUCK IS BUZZY?!

Everyone around the camp scattered, ‘cause they knew she was just gagging to break someone open like piñata. She’d fucking do it – ten days! Her fists were like titanium and they were going right up someone’s ass –

“Patten is also in Charlton.” She stopped walking. “That’s probably why Bergmann isn’t.”

... Patten’s here?

“He is here.”

She pointed.

He’s in that building?

“He is in that building,” Dalton confirmed.

I think me’n’Buzzy are gonna have to have a talk.

“We don’t know what he’s up to and we don’t know where he came from,” Dalton said, “but until we hear from Madeline, we’re forced to assume the worst.”

The worst, the worst. She’d had it with the worst. The camp was calming down again. Why couldn’t she be calm? The second this fight was over, her and Dalton were switching, and then he could be the crazy one who stomped around – there she was! Stupid twit, just sitting on a rock and staring at that stupid fucking building they were gonna trash anyway so she didn’t know why the dumb girl wanted to keep looking at it, like she was gonna get attached!

What’s the worst, Dalton?

“That he knows absolutely everything we’re –”

Shut up. Patten’s retarded.

“Yeah, you said that,” Dalton informed her. “That’s one of the reasons we’re still going through with this, even though there’s Agents running around in there being directly led by him.”

Patten’s too stupid to lead anybody.” She whipped around and looked at that dumb ghost. “I’m not scared of that dumbass. If he’s here, then fuck yes! I get to kill him for the twenty-seventh time! You think he’d be sick of it by now!

“I think he enjoys it,” Dalton said. “I think he likes knowing you can’t really kill him.”

Not yet, but this is damn fucking close. Damn close, sir! Hit ‘im where it hurts!” She might not be calm, but she felt a lot happier! “BUZZY.

Buzzy jumped a foot in the air and dropped the computer she’d been holding ‘cause she was stupid.

“Danielle! I didn’t hear you coming!”

Bullshit. Everyone hears me. Quit it with your wet dream and tell me why the fuck is Elias here?

“She looks stupid when she does those eyes,” Dalton said. Those were the correct words to describe this. “Tell her I said she looks stupid.”

Dalton says you look stupid. You look stupid, Buzzy.

“I don’t care,” Buzzy said, swooning. Like an idiot. “He’s here, Danielle!”

Oh, my God, you are so messed up.

“Tell her to google Stockholm Syndrome.”

Dalton says to google Stockholm Syndrome,” Danielle said. “Why is he here, Buzzy, you stupid kid?

“I think he’s going to transfer!”

She said it all breathy like that was a good thing, in her annoying, bubbly, high-pitched, diabetes-sweet voice. So how many times had Danielle been told that? She turned expectantly to Dalton, waiting to see what he had to say. Dalton gaped at her.

“I never heard that,” Dalton said.

... Good mood crushed, happiness destroyed.

What the fuck do you mean he’s going to transfer? Dalton – we can’t let that happen!

“We won’t let it happen, Danielle,” Dalton said, quickly. “We’ll stop it. How does she know anyway?”

Buzzy, you stupid kid, how the fuck do you even know?

“Look!” She held up her computer. It was a dumb map on a screen with two dots on it. “See this one? This one is a truck.” YES SHE COULD SEE IT WAS A TRUCK. “This one came from six states over, from the secure lab in Helena. The super secure lab. Then it stopped here, dropped off a stasis cell, then left. That was Marshall!”

“She would know,” Dalton said. “She stalks the guy.”

You’re a freak, Buzzy. I’m not talking about his stupid stasis cell –

“It’s not stupid!”

Don’t kill her! Don’t kill her! We still need her, and without Breton, she’s the next best thing!” Ooooooooohohohohoho – Buzzy was lucky Danielle still had a bit of the ol’ thinking tools grinding away in her two-person brain. “Keep asking what you were asking.”

I was doing that,” she told his face. “Buzzy, where’s Elias?

“He’s here, too.” She wasn’t picking up her screen this time. So did that mean she had any proof? “I can feel him.”

“... Tell her to google ‘daddy issues’.”

Dalton says to google some fucking insight into your daddy issues. Elias killed your cousins, idiot!

Buzzy smiled the dreamiest smile she’d probably smiled all week, if Danielle could remember.

“I know.”

Oh God, I’m gonna throw up if I keep talking to her,” Danielle said. She walked away. But first she told that blue, baby doll nightmare, “I hope he stabs you when you’re in the middle of sucking his dick. God, why did we even bring her?

“Every team needs one nutbar,” Dalton said, floating beside her. “And someone stealthy. Until you start switching, she’s the best we have for that, too.”

We put our plan in the hands of a lunatic with sparkplugs for hands. Whose idea was that, huh? Cryptic’s? That asshole! The minute this is done and he finishes his part, him and his stupid hugbox can fuck off back to where they came from!

“What are we going to do, Danielle?”

I’ll tell you what we won’t do,” Danielle said. “Patten thinks he’s being fucking clever! Patten thinks we aren’t gonna notice! If he shows up, and then Elias shows up, but the Alexander is MIA – Alexander is MIA, right? If he’s made it to Elmira?

“If Buzzy says his stasis cell is here, I’d say we guess he’s on his way.”

Fuck. Now we have to handle that in case shit goes down.

Everybody here sucked.

“You’re taking a long time to say ‘let’s hit the kill button on his body’,” Dalton said. “Elias is dead, we grab Charlotte, then Cryptic can make his attack.”

No, that’s what retarded Patten wants us to do. You think it’s a fucking coincidence? It’s a trap, Dalton! The guy’s trying to cover all his bases and he did something to that cell to try to throw us off! Well – it’s not gonna fucking work, ‘cause we’re not gonna play by his rules!

“So we aren’t going to do anything?”

Alexander shows up? We take that son of a bitch and put his ass on lockdown. No Breton? Then he fucking stays in one spot until we know how to lead him around again,” she said, walking back towards her crummy tent. “A spot away from Buzzy. GOD DAMMIT, BRETON! Scissor!

“Ma’am, yes ma’am?”

We’re close to a go-ahead but we don’t have a go-ahead? If Bergmann’s fucking off to Elmira, why in fuck’s name don’t we have confirmation?

“Can’t say, Danielle, but I called her to double check and her number’s been changed,” Scissor said. “You know the drill. Dinner’s up in five.”

Two weeks through the normal channels, two days by the wrong ones – for fuck’s fucking fuckers, Bergmann was getting a bitch slap to the face if she didn’t have a miracle for why they had to wait for her to contact them. She kicked the flap on her tent open and walked back inside.

Dalton!

“You want to switch Danielle?”

I want to switch,” she said, “but I can’t. I need to be out here.

“It’s okay, Danielle,” Dalton said. “You’re not that big of a bitch.”

Bergmann isn’t gonna screw us over, right? I don’t trust anyone who’s not one of us.

“Bergmann might screw us over,” Dalton said, “but she hates Patten more than any of us. And those Germans of hers, they’re on our side. We’ve got a powerful team behind us. We can trust them not to betray us, but the most I can say is ‘they’ll do their best not to screw up’.”

And Cryptic isn’t gonna fuck us either, right?

“No. He promised he wouldn’t,” Dalton said. “Go rest, Danielle. I’ll write this down for you.”

Ha, ha, ha! Write it down? In another two hours, she wasn’t gonna be able to read. Oh man, her hands were going smashing through every bone in Patten’s newest body. This was going to be great. She could think of three things that’d screw the mission, but as long as she made Patten bite the big one again, everything was going to be fine.

* * *


Yeah. Like there’s gonna be blood. Stupid Agents, seriously...

Shut it down, Xander. They needed to talk about this.

He didn’t have to be told twice. He was happy to oblige and didn’t waste time trying to talk the girl back into his trust. Instead, he reached down and grabbed her head, and with the Agent complying nicely, made a full sweep of eye contact before hers rolled painfully into the back of her skull. Xander was content with this. The guy even grinned before Alex pushed him over and took back control.

“Are we gonna believe that?” He was asking both of them, waving his hand at the Agent that’d dropped to the ground when he let go. “Are we listening to her?”

“Why not? You think it’s a trap? ‘Cause newsflash: that keeps the odds at 1:1.”

“I’m worried, Xander,” Alex said. “This could be a different kind of trap. She could walk in first to fake us out or try to go in last –”

“You fall for that? You deserve to die.”

Or,” he continued, ignoring how bored the guy was now that there was no one around to mess with, “they give her a fake address and we all walk in and all of us die together.”

“‘A fake address’.” Xander thought he was retarded. “Yes. Because I know when I get caught – except I don’t – I’d go straight for my mental rolodex of conveniently located death houses, built exclusively for that purpose ‘cause, hey, you never know.”

Alex didn’t know! That’s what he’d been trying to explain! He had no idea! Appear, surround, attack; that was his exclusive knowledge on how the Agency fought, mixing it up by adding either more guys and more guns or a smaller place to fight with three insanely overpowered warriors. But those guns? They were too advanced for him. Those guys? There were always too many. And the warriors – holy crap – the warriors! When he’d been on his own, he’d been fortunate not to have to deal with a lot of them, and every time he did, the hand of salvation would come down from the sky and set up such an inexcusable stroke of luck, Alex more than once wondered if he had a second ability hanging around. He didn’t, because eventually his luck ran out, and Xander had brought on the next level of what he’d had to deal with from here on out. The Agency might have been toning down their focus, but whenever they remembered he existed, what they threw at him was their best. They weren’t going back to lobbing softballs once he went returned to being him and only him. They might even pick up steam, hitting harder and faster because then he’d be at his weakest. So yes, fine, a ‘death house’ wasn’t the most realistic guess he could have made, but he was working with nothing but shadows of monsters in his closest. In his mind, even saying they had dragons guarding their doors didn’t sound too place out of place. And the people they’d hired to let him think there really were dragons...

“She could have been a dancer,” Alex muttered to no one. “A gymnast, a swimmer...”

“A prostitute.”

“You’re hilarious.” He headed for the Agent, now to tug her up and stuff her back in the trunk. He pulled her halfway at least, to where he got a clear view of the burns and tears on her face. “Do you guys know this is gonna happen?”

Hmm?

Shedding light on that closet started now.

“When you signed up,” he asked carefully, trying to word whatever he said to get the most revealing answers, “did you know life was going to be like this?”

“Yeah.”

“And you signed up anyway?”

“I signed up to be a pain eater. This chick’s a damn scout-and-out. She’s not supposed to take hits – so again, congrats to the Agency for sending a suit to die. That’s three times this week, and if I didn’t count this as a hobby, I’d be pissed by now.” He felt his toe twitch. “Sparky! Can you give me a hand with her? Alex can’t lift for shit and I’m trying to save energy.”

Night had finally fallen. It’d been creeping up quietly as they’d done this routine, but Alex had been thrown off by the shadows of the trees and hadn’t noticed the drooping sun had dissolved into a weak glow beyond the fence. If everything worked out, by morning, he’d done with this, but that still left the problem of where to hide next and how to fend for himself on the back of whatever threat Peter was. And about what would happen to Xander. Gwen would be saved, and while she’d be on the run too, she’d have a better chance of getting away than he did. Osono? She hadn’t stopped being a wildcard. She’d just upgraded to a wildcard in his deck. He wondered what he was to her. He hoped the Agent hadn’t taken away too much of her mood.

“You’re a pain eater?”

“Wow, that sounds really weird coming from you.” But Xander was going to explain it. “Pain Eaters – capital P, capital E. One of several divisions the Agency has and without a doubt the most badass. That’s why you’re still alive.”

“And it sounds like it’s why you’ve got no problems breaking my foot,” Alex snapped. “What did you do?”

“Kicked ass.”

“Xander, seriously.”

“Seriously. Trained, ate, punched people in the face, went to bed, did it again the next morning. Perfect life.”

“‘Perfect’? That’s perfect to you?” Okay, so that put every puzzle piece in its proper spot! “How is that ‘perfect’?”

“Settle down, Suburbia. Some people have families, some people have cars, and some people have swinging a fist through someone’s face at Mach One Million and a Half. Everyone is different.”

“But I thought there was a reason for you joining them,” Alex said. He slammed down the trunk door with an angry slap, locking the woman inside. “I thought this was a crusade you – just... forgot or gave up because you’ve been with me for so long, but you’re actually telling me you joined the Agency just so you could... punch people?”

“Sometimes kick. Right in the face!” Alex was horrified. Xander was laughing. “Dude, relax. I know what you’re thinking.” And could he explain that, too? “Yes, there’re guys who see this as an epic war between chaos and order and new balance and status quo and on and on and on... I just didn’t care about that.” Through his voice, he’d shrugged. “I could’ve if I wanted to, and it’s not like you can’t go from punching to actually making a tangible contribution to what the bosses want, but it’s rarer for Pain Eaters ‘cause we’re so intense about what we do, and we’ve got such a bad reputation for it, as you’re in that slot, you’re there for a long time. And I was in my long time, enjoying it ‘cause I figured ‘what the hell’.” Alex didn’t say anything for a minute. Xander took it as his cue to ask, “Would you prefer me to be an Agency zealot?”

“No.” Of course not. He’d already reasoned out why this was better. “It just sounds shallow.”

“It is shallow, I agree with you, but I had two options growing up and I figured I’d take the one where I wasn’t behind a desk. Also, punching!”

“Glad to hear you had it narrowed down so fast...”

“Save it, fruit cup. Get in the car. Let’s bounce!”

90 Essex Street. Trap or no trap – but almost certainly a trap – they had nothing else to go off of, and unless he thought he could think of some way to ask if the Agent was telling the truth, they’d have to check it out. He’d plug it into the GPS when he finished hobbling to the Audi’s door. Osono was going to have to keep driving. He’d offer, but he couldn’t really take her place. Damn, his foot was going to be like this forever.

“Then we were right,” Alex said, after he’d finally sat down and pulled the seatbelt around him. “Gwen and I. You can’t feel pain.”

“No, you were wrong, like I told you before,” Xander said. “I can feel pain. I just don’t give a shit.”

“And you were born like that or...?”

“Trained. That’s part of training.” ... Alex didn’t feel comfortable asking for details. “Yeah, that’s probably for the best. It gets graphic.”

Wasted talent. If he’d wanted to fight, why couldn’t he have joined the army? Or become a cop or a firefighter or something that didn’t involve kidnapping people on a regular basis? Kidnapping to start the process, never mind what they did once they had their victims.

“You never asked about the people you fought? Did you know about the transfers?”

“I had my fair share of knowledge. More than most people in the business, actually. You don’t get a lot of information unless you’re the right rank for it.”

Ranks. Right. They had those.

“What were the ranks?”

“Aw, man. I’ve gotta list them?” Were there a lot? “No – but they’re organized... oddly.”

“What’s – ‘oddly’, what’s that mean?”

“There’s no straight path up,” Xander said, as if he’d meant to add ‘for one thing’ to the end of it. “There is at the very top, but not at the bottom. You can go – like... A-14, A-12, A-7, A... I think if you’re looking to be a techie, I think you stop at A-5. I think. I’m not sure. It depends on what you’re in for and half the ranks don’t matter. You’re not a ‘person’ until you’re an A-5 and you’re not anything until you’re at least A-10.”

“How far did you get?”

“A-4.”

“That’s good?”

“... Yeeeees...”

That was a great answer, Xander, good work.

“So it’s not good,” he said.

“It matters who you ask. It’s a capped rank, meaning they made it specifically to be a promotable dead zone. The problem’s they don’t mention that, so you’ve got all these ambitious pricks lined up at A-5 thinking they’ll go A-4, A-3, A-2. Nope. A-4 means A-4 forever.” He shrugged again. “Hey – I thought it was a genius idea. I stop just before I get nailed with any actual responsibility, plus I get to pull rank on 90% of everyone around me? So much fun.” Alex could imagine. “I abused the shit out of those people, which is exactly what they expected me to do, which is exactly why they put me there. Which meant my brilliant master plan worked flawlessly.”

“Yes, I can certainly see how flawlessly it turned out.”

“That was me deviating from the master plan. The master plan was perfect.”

And here was the road to Stupidtown.

“If it was perfect,” Alex asked, “why’d you do something different?”

“To prove a point.”

“Was it a retarded point?”

“... In hindsight.”

“Thanks, Xander,” Alex said, laying on the sarcasm harder than he’d ever had. “I just wanted to be extra sure you ruined my life for precisely no reason.”

“Hey – it wasn’t like I was trying to get you. I just grabbed a file and went with it.”

Holy shit, that’s ten times worse,” he cried. “So you randomly ruined my life for no reason!”

“You saw the guys that were chasing you, right? You saw how ‘Alex bad, Agency good’ they were? ‘Cause I just want to be extra sure you know you’d be dead if it wasn’t for me stepping in there and then later killing each of them in an incrementally legendary fashion.”

“You picked me out of a pile,” he grunted. Then he said, louder, “Why am I not surprised that that’s how I ended up with you? I’m not even angry – I might’ve actually been expecting you to say something like that!”

Xander paused. After it, he asked, “Would you feel better if I said I narrowed the pile down a few times first?”

... Possibly.

“How many times?”

“Pfft – I dunno. Eight?” ... Eight wasn’t bad. “There’s a lot of crappy powers out there. For every one guy who kills people with his eyes and every girl who spits fire – that’s you, Sparky! – there’s eight whose arms’ll drop off and ‘magically’ attach on again later. But you were in a dead heat with a guy who could talk to animals. Fucking squirrels, man. I was all for that.”

Telling sign number two that he’d gotten too used to the crappy reasoning Xander had behind everything: Alex had just been told his stiffest competition was a man who could talk to squirrels, but for whatever, that tempting offer had been turned down and Xander had picked him instead. And Alex was flattered. In that dammit-Xander-you’re-an-idiot way.

“They wouldn’t promote you –” Smart move, Agency. Don’t be a dick. That hurts me. “– but they’d let you take someone else’s body?”

“And that’s why I left the master plan to prove my retarded point. I got promoted, and it fucking sucked. A-3s are the worst rank ever. No – A-2s are the worst rank ever, but A-3s are for sure in second place, ‘cause even though A-2s have the shit-boring job of managing all the HR crap that comes from having an entire domain under them, A-3s have to manage a team of ungrateful bastards and secretly chase a kid who farts lightning through the city. Then there’s the dozen other A-3 teams all trying to catch the same guy and it turns into a race and everyone hates everyone and – surprise! After all that, you still fail the transfer!”

“And then you die,” Alex said.

“Technically. Technically, you’re permanently trying to overtake the original mind, so you’re alive, just in a coma until you make it work.”

The jars of people he’d seen in Elmira... The people who’d been in the green and yellow tanks, pushed into rows and abandoned...

“They’re alive,” he said. “Back in that room, they were all alive.”

“Half are empty, because they’re what was transferred out of. The original’s kept until the transfer’s complete, just in case,” Xander said. “They failed transfers get put in storage until they do wake up or a way to force the transfer to work comes along, since they can’t be reverse-transferred when past a point of attachment. They’d kill themselves, so the Agency leaves them in there. It’s better than saying they’ve lost everything. And there’s families and stuff who go by.”

... That didn’t sound...

“The Agency’s...” He was confused. “The Agency’s... being merciful to them?”

“Trying to be. It’s more hopelessly optimistic,” Xander said. “That’s the story of the company. It’s why they started off making medicine.”

“I thought the point was to steal our powers,” Alex said, resentfully.

“That’s the objective, not the goal, and I’m not the guy to talk to about that.”

“But it goes against everything the Agency stands for!”

“Everything you’ve seen,” Xander said. He said it calmly. “You’re the victim. You’re not gonna see it the same way.”

“As in ‘good enough to die’?” His confusion had turned to outrage. This was ridiculous! “You people –” Ex-Agent, asshole! “Fine – the Agents spend every waking moment of their lives planning to one day find some person who’s trying to live their life and rip them away from their families, and maybe not quite kill them, but kill everything that makes them alive, and they won’t even stop –”

Alex. I’m not guy to talk about it. There’s a bunch reasons floating around for why the Agency does what it does that I didn’t bother picking up.”

“No, but you still used one that let you work for a group that doesn’t just ‘almost kill’ other people, but actually kills each other,” Alex fired. “Why, Xander? I’m asking why! Who the hell would ever think –”

‘Kills each other’?

“Slaughters!”

Man and woman and people not much younger than him had each shown up and tried to kill him, were horribly mismatched, and then forgotten about. Entire waves had been thrown at enemies and been decimated. That could’ve been Xander at any second, and he called his life back there ‘perfect’? There shouldn’t have been any of them left at all!

“Alex,” Xander said, “how many Agents do you think I’ve killed?”

“Billions,” Alex said, angry.

“Before I left.”

“Thousands,” he said. “Hundreds of thousands and thousands.”

“Zero.”

“Zero what?”

“Dude. Agents don’t kill other Agents. That’s fucked up.”

... What the hell was he hearing?

“What are you talking about? You’re always say –”

“Whatever you think I said, I was exaggerating when I said it. Don't get me completely wrong, 'cause I beat the shit out of lower ranks every single day, but that’s because we Pain Eaters are impressively violent and we thought it was funny and so did everyone who wasn’t getting their assed kicked, but I never killed another Agent until I booked it and they made the mistake of trying to kill me – and they only did that ‘cause they assumed when I went rogue, the first thing I’d do was go on a mass rampage and destroy them with my bare hands. Turns out that’s the second thing I’d do. I’d like my body back now please.”

“But the Agent –” Alex half-turned like he was going to reach through the backseat and pull the woman they’d captured out to show him. “She was –”

“It’s Peter.” He felt a burning fury starting to pick up in the centre of his core. “Peter is fucked up. I don’t know how many times I can tell you that before you believe me, but he’s fucked up.” Short embers started flowing down his throat as he breathed. “Any Agent who does kill another is as fucked up as he is. It’s 40% of how he builds his army. Higher ranks? If it does happen, that’s where, but there is a planet of corruption that has to be around before they ever even think of it. I only remember three times, where an A-3 killed an A-2, an A-2 killed another A-2, and A-1 killed an A-5. Trust me when I say it’s not something that gets tossed around.” Xander’s voice turned bitter. “But maybe I’m old-fashioned. And if I am, I’m got Peter to thank for it. Guess how.”

He guessed. The wall around his chest said he got it right. And on the first try and everything...

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#, as written by Ten
Blatantly disobeying the implied order he'd just been given, Rudy drew his hand back and quickly smacked the slutty Agent girl on the bottom, the perky flesh beneath her uniform bouncing a little from the impact. After he was rewarded with a punch to his stomach, he happily swallowed his lungs and wandered gingerly over to the familiar voice of the A-1. Good. So he was still around and Rudy didn't have to search through the whole base for the guy. Remembering the data he'd gotten off the HSA, he stood by impatiently, waiting for an opportunity to dive into the conversation between the other two and say what he needed to say. But equally accessible to his memory was the pain from the last time he was rude to the A-1 and, showing some uncharacteristic restraint, he eventually decided it'd be better NOT to interrupt.

What the hell? What was wrong with Jason? Oh, right. He rolled his eyes when it became clear that the problem was the guy's faggy suit or Stephanie or something-- whatever. In a second Rudy had his phone out and entertained himself for a few minutes by playing games on it, his thumbs moving with the practiced speed from having spent 50% of his life in front of a hundred different game systems. But after the 7th time he died, and Jason started screaming in Patten's face, his attention was diverted back into the conversation, a restless expression skittering over his features. Weren't they done yet? Yeah, yeah, fuck, 'I'm Jason and I'm gonna die and it serves me right for tricking people into getting their asses kicked by an A-1-- blahblahblah!'

The irritation he felt towards Jason's pathetic bawling was only alleviated by the bold and out of line things the guy was saying, and Rudy waited in malicious anticipation for Eric to beat the crap out of someone else for a change. But Eric disappointingly failed to punish the guy when Jason started whining about Stephanie again and Rudy exhaled heavily, in irritation. It wouldn't be so bad hearing all of this dumb shit about Steph and this queerbait gettin' it on, but he just didn't have the time for it right now. Every minute that ticked by he felt a growing pressure weighing down on him, and obsessively, he checked his phone to make sure his target wasn't blowing things up yet.

10 minutes was entered into the time slot and the spots of fire from before were gone - but he knew where they had been. That was a good sign. That meant it was something Ozzie had control over and she hadn't just set a fire and left something burning - like a building or a person. But until she started another fire, she was off of his radar and he was divided about wanting her to use it, so he could find her, and desperately hoping that she wouldn't, so that no one else could.

Back in Eric and Unitard Man's world, he realized things were coming to a close and eagerly got himself ready to start talking a mile a minute to the man who could, and probably would, save him. But Jason just wouldn't just shut the fuck up and then... the most unfair thing in the universe happened.

What. The. Fuck?!

Did that really just happen? Eric overturned Jason's demotion - which Rudy'd had no clue about until now - and for what? Oh. Okay. That was great. Fucking perfect. So, not only did that gay-ass loser get away with screaming and cussing at an A-1, but now he was being rewarded because Eric apparently wanted to fulfill a life-long dream of being "Agency matchmaker". How did that even make sense?!

Rudy hated his life. He really did. But now, he hated Jason even more. No. Not hate. Hate wasn't a strong enough word to describe the depth of the loathing currently aimed in Jason's direction. Not only did that dick trick him into screwing up his own chances at redemption - and got him into deeper shit than he would have on his own - but NOW, because those two were best fucking buddies, Jason got everything he wanted from Eric, handed to him on a silver platter. And there was nothing, no pain, no punishment or obvious trade of goods and skills that preceded it - the way that Eric was demanding from Rudy. Eric just gave it to him.

As Eric walked by and touched his head, Rudy became distracted from his new mission to glare a hell-fire hole through Jason's skull. Remembering his own problems, he quickly turned to Patten to start talking his ear off, but froze when he realized he wasn't prepared for Round 2. Did he have everything he needed to make sure things went his way, this time? Sure, Graninger had agreed to give him Fenton but... Rudy didn't trust that guy. It was very possible that he would wait here forever for this invincible man who might never show up. There was nothing tying the puppeteering A-2 to the deal they'd made except his word - and that wasn't worth anything to Quin. Rudy had asked for something and Graninger had verbally offered him something. They weren't friends and not only did Graninger not owe him anything but Rudy most certainly wasn't selling anything valuable. It wasn't a done deal until his bargaining chip actually got here.

So, he wasn't ready. He couldn't do this now. But even as he watched Eric leave the room, he realized he couldn't wait for Fenton to get here either. He NEEDED to move now or else he'd lose everything. But first...

Looking over at Jason, an ugly sneer crossed Rudy's face as he surged forward to close the distance between them. "You stupid fuck!" he hissed through clenched teeth, violently shoving Jason in the chest with one hand. Then he was talking, his normally quick speech pattern speeding up to abnormal levels as the volume of his voice increased and filled with unbridled rage.

"They weren't sleeping together, asshole! You got me in a lot of trouble with that trick you pulled! Oh, yeah, REAL funny - my neck almost got turned into taffy by fucking King Kong because of you! Laugh it up while you can you son of a bitch! This shit ain't over and I won't forget! You'll be sorry!"

He had to get out of here. He had to find Ozzie. Turning around, he stalked grumpily towards the door, and just because he couldn't help himself and he was still buzzing with that intoxicating rush of anger, he paused in the doorway to shoot his mouth off some more. "Oh, and congratulations to you and that psychotic slut. Really, truly. You guys are fucking made for each other. And it's great to see that she's finally gotten more discriminate about who she sleeps with. Hell, even I got a ride and I didn't even deserve it. I didn't even have to fuckin' earn it.

"But, you know, I shouldn't be telling you that. I'm sorry. I'll shut my mouth. Go ahead and live happily ever after and continue to hump her brains out. Just one last word of caution, from a guy who knows her history: if I were you, I'd get myself tested for ADD and SPDs before I committed to anything." Those were real things, right? "Smell you later, queer."

Alright, enough of that. He had more important things to worry about right now than that skanky cunt's love-life. He wasn't jealous. He just didn't want either of those two to be happy, especially after what they'd both put him through. He should have never grabbed Gwen Stewart and for probably the hundredth time today, he regretted the path his life had taken as a result of that one bad decision. That stupid cow's bad luck would never wash off of him... Whatever; moving on.

Back in the hallway, Rudy started walking quickly, his new Agency-issue boots clacking hollowly whenever there wasn't any carpet to muffle the sound. Weaving through the maze, his mind was a blur, his brain scrabbling frantically as he tried to figure out what he had to do next. Okay, the Yugo was still in the garage - hopefully - he could use that to catch up to her without wasting too much time. He just needed to get to the elevator without being stopped and THEN figure out where she was and where she was headed. And then he had to figure out a way to scare her off without a team of guys to fling at her.

Repeatedly, Rudy glanced behind and around himself, not stopping as he continued to speed walk through the shadowed corridors, but there was no sign of anyone either behind or in front of him. And alright, he admitted it; now that he'd decided what he was going to do, he was terrified of running into Patten and needing to explain himself. Well... what did it matter, anyway? It wasn't like he'd been ordered to stick around. All of the shit that was currently going on around here had nothing to do with him. He could leave whenever he wanted. They didn't need him.

Finding the elevator, he impatiently pressed the button over and over, and warily watched his surroundings to make sure no one was coming. He knew the real reason he was sweating was not whether Eric would let him leave or not. It was the probability of being asked WHY he was leaving. He could always lie - in fact, he enjoyed doing so, frequently. But there was something about Eric that made him feel like the man could see right through him; like he couldn't hide. He'd be exposed no matter what he said and then he'd be dead.

Finally the elevator opened and he slipped inside and agitatedly pressed the button to go down, his eyes darting around nervously before the doors finally closed. Releasing a small breath, he relaxed just the tiniest bit as the elevator descended, having successfully made it past the first obstacle. Now he just needed to get into his car and get to Osono before she attracted any attention. He had to get her out of the city somehow without compromising her trust in him, and he had to keep her away from the Charlton base and out of Agency hands. And most importantly, he had to do it before Alexander arrived and kicked the fucking beehive.

40 minutes, Patten had said.

***

As soon as the girl fell unconscious again, Ozzie let out a breath and visibly relaxed. Glad that's over. She'd been more than willing to allow Xander to step in and take over, even though it meant SHE was left with the job of punisher in case the Agent got out of line. It hadn't seemed like it would be a problem because the catsuit lady was pathetically broken down and pretty much willing to do anything to salvage her life. That had changed during the second part of the interrogation. Osono didn't understand how or why they'd been made but she did know when it had happened. And in her opinion, everything went downhill from that point forward.

Now, even though she was happy she no longer had to deal with pretending to be a merciless psychopath, she almost wanted to continue to torture the hell out of the girl just to get some truthful answers. In response to Alex's question: No. Osono did not believe anything that girl had said. But for lack of any other leads at the moment, she kept her mouth shut and helped Alex shove the Agent back into the darkness of the trunk.

The continued banter between the two men was enough of a distraction to keep her from worrying about where this address would lead them, and she found herself smiling again at their comfortable, yet aggressive, familiarity with each other. And it was really strange but it had almost become normal to see both voices coming out of the same mouth. After a while, she could forget that there wasn't two guys physically present. Even though she had nothing to contribute to the current topic, she listened interestedly anyway, taking in each new bit of information voraciously, hungry to finally understand this organization after all of these years.

A smile curled on her lips to hear Xander explain to Alex why he'd become an Agent and the reasons he eventually got himself shoved inside the guy's head. And it was made even funnier because of Alex's reactions to it. Sliding into the driver's seat, she felt as if a weight was lifted off of her shoulders and despite where they were going and what they were going to do, she no longer felt on edge and paranoid while in the car with him/them. So Xander wasn't like the others. He wasn't like Peter. Even though he'd still joined the Agents and still apathetically talked about the process like they weren't talking about what they were talking about, Osono no longer considered him a part of that group. In fact, she even sympathized with him - a lot, actually - and she understood the appeal and power his position and training must have given him. Even though her life wasn't much of a life anymore, she did admit that she enjoyed fighting and beating the crap out of her enemies. Her fear of being killed or captured was constantly balanced by her ability to completely decimate everyone around her, almost effortlessly.

As soon as Alex typed the address into the GPS, Osono restarted the car and used the parking lot to turn around and head back out the way they'd come in. She kept her eyes on the road, alert and watchful now that the streets were dark with only the light of street lamps to keep the roads from disappearing, but she continued to listen quietly. One thing that occurred to her while Xander explained things was what was Rudy's rank and department or whatever? She had a hard time believing that he was in any position of authority at all - even though as Xander had been kind enough to point out, the biggest requirement seemed to be brawn over brains - because he just wasn't that type of person. Stubborn, persistent and manipulative, Rudy didn't have the confidence or the balls to make anyone willingly follow him. Then again... she was no longer afraid to admit that there was a lot she didn't know about him.

She also wondered once again if Rudy knew about the transfers and whether or not he was trying to capture her so that HE could transfer into her - that would be weird... and creepy - and why he became an Agent. Was it a simple "Nothing better to do" like Xander or was his story more complex than that? Did he believe and support the Agency goals or was he just "trying to do his job"?

Adjusting her grip on the steering wheel, Ozzie glared out the windshield when she realized what she was doing. She was making excuses for him - again - and trying to find reasons why she shouldn't kill him on sight as soon as she saw him. It didn't matter why he'd joined the Agency or what his motivations were. He was still a liar and had stolen 6 years of her life. Opportunities, relationships, dreams; crushed, broken, missed and discarded. She could have gotten over herself at some point and actually do something productive with her life. She could have reconciled with her parents and gotten to be by her mother's side before she died of cancer. She could have found a Satanist-anarchist-metalhead boyfriend and taken him home to tease her folks with promises to marry him. All wasted and fucking gone now.

No more excuses. She wanted her life back and the little idiot was going to pay for everything she'd lost.

Realizing that the mood in the car had changed, and not just from her but from those two as well, she glanced at Alex and smirked playfully. "So... wow. Xander's dream job involves kicking in faces and punching people? Be still, my heart." When Alex looked at her she let out a raspy, teasing laugh and slapped his left knee.

Then something occurred to her. "Hey... wait a minute... Does Gwen know about Xander?" Well, she had to, didn't she? If she had mind powers and all. "Which one of you is she dating? Or are you both bangin' her? You are, aren't you?" She smiled knowingly and cocked a lewd eyebrow. "You dogs." Another sly chuckle left her throat.

***

The biggest question that had been on her mind before she'd opened her mouth was 'Does Madeline intend to sabotage my case?' Depending on the answer, Stephanie planned on eliminating the woman right here where there was less room for Madeline to fight back - or run away, but she doubted the A-2 would do that. But apparently she did not see Stephanie as a threat and she wasn't falling for her helpless act. Even so, listening to her, it didn't seem like she really understood Stephanie at all. And that led Stephanie to come to two conclusions: Either Madeline was stupid or she was faking too.

She could make a case for both being true since the other Agent did a great job of running in circles with her words, saying just enough to inspire doubt without really saying anything. If she was an idiot, then she pitied March more than she saw her as an actual opponent. That was good. It meant Stephanie didn't need to kill her and they could both leave each other alone and stay out of each other's way. But whatever feelings of sympathy or responsibility that Madeline felt towards Stephanie's situation, from what she was warning against, her 'concern' was largely misplaced.

She would have Gwen and she would have Jason. Stephanie was not worried about losing either, but even so, Madeline's grim predictions of the future did not sound like a bad way to live. So long as she was out of this flawed and disgusting body she would be perfect, and everything that followed would be the whipped topping on her existence. She'd still be alive and starting fresh. Besides, Stephanie wouldn't lose herself completely so long as she had Jason by her side. And not only did she believe he would be there, but Madeline assured her that he would be safe from harm and able to fill that position and Gary confirmed that her partner was ready and willing to do so.

But if this show of concern was just a large fabrication, then she was only making herself seem unthreatening to Stephanie's case and eventual transformation. Without meaning to, Stephanie's first impulse was to take Madeline at her word and roll her eyes and yawn about the whole stupid thing. However, maybe that's what Madeline was waiting for. Maybe she was trying to get her to let her guard down?

One thing was for sure: she was not bluffing about what she said Master was planning to do. She would not have offered Stephanie her phone if there was a chance that she'd take it and actually talk to him. But her reasons for even giving Stephanie a second chance at being convinced were immediately clear in what she stated would be the end result of these revelations: Madeline was trying to eliminate one of Master's devoted followers to gain some sort of point in their little war. Not trying to help her. Then she didn't listen to directions very well, did she?

"You're right. I should call him. ...At the very least, just to make sure...and shut you up."

Ignoring Gwen's progressively changing breathing patterns, Stephanie reached out and took the cell phone from the other woman's fingers. Robotically typing the numbers in, with a small exhalation of breath, she looked straight at Madeline while the speaker trilled hollowly in the small space. When she heard him answer, there was a moment's pause as she felt Gwen tugging her hand to free herself from her grasp and Stephanie looked over to find the struggling girl still half-asleep. But only just.

"Hello, Master," her dead voice greeted distractedly, readjusting her hold on Gwen and tightening her grip until her target stopped moving. "I know you're busy and I know we just spoke a little while ago, but Bergmann has been saying things... I just wanted to make sure about something-- please, don't get the wrong idea. I trust you and you've been nothing but kind and supportive of me... I adore you, Sir, and I want to believe that our goals are the same...and I want to believe that you adore me too. But I cannot go through with this if you're setting some sort of trap for me. I want the truth and I want your promise."

She looked up to stare at Madeline again and in a voice devoid of any energy, but with a touch of sarcasm, she asked him, "You said I could kill her, right? You will protect me if it could be reasonably argued that she'd been pushed down the Elmira base elevator shaft? I want your word that this won't end up harming me if an accidental death looks less like an accident and more like she tried to block bullets with her face."

There was a ten-second pause before she continued in a dull, vaguely complaining voice. "She's bothering me. My target is waking up and the current dosage of Lachesis in my system will wear off soon - I can already feel it because she's pissing me off enough that I'm very seriously considering making the helicopter window 'Lady German sized'. I cannot afford a break in my concentration right now but she won't stop screaming. Even after she's been politely threatened.

"You're an A-1. She'll obey you. Please, Master, make her shut up. Tell her not to talk to me during the rest of this ride or I'll consider it provocation and her trying to deliberately sabotage me - which is reason enough to take action to protect my case." Releasing a bored sigh, she held the phone back out to Madeline and - with just the faintest hint of smugness - stonily said, "It's for you."

***

"This is bullshit, Alex! There's nothing here!"

20 minutes later, the hilarity had been sucked out of the car and they sat, parked, in the dark, in a vacant lot. Almost immediately as soon as they started to leave the shops and office buildings behind, traded in for the slums and eventually warehouses, Osono realized that the Agent bitch had fucking lied. But the anger from this realization didn't really hit her until the little GPS arrow reached it's destination and she looked around to find nothing but an empty spot where something had once stood, with trash littered around the edges of the neighboring building. And THAT certainly wasn't an Agency base, with crumbling brick and boarded up windows, the dilapidated office looking like it was on it's last legs and ready to collapse.

Ozzie smacked the steering wheel and turned to him angrily. "What the hell are we going to do now? She's not going to tell us where it is. Not unless you let me torture her; pain will be a great motivation. I'll get her to--"

"Hey, baby. Lookin' for a date?"

Annoyed and startled, Ozzie turned her head to look at the owner of the voice and gaped at the short man standing leaning on her rolled down window. Looking the same as ever, Rudy gave her a dorky grin, as if it was the most normal thing in the world for him to appear here and now. Where did he come from? Glancing in her rearview mirror, she thought she spotted a car parked haphazardly at the edge of the lot, which maybe hadn't been there before.

"Wait, you're not a cop, are you?" he asked giving her a mockingly wary look.

With the utterance of that joke, Osono finally recovered from whatever shock she'd been in and she struggled to remember the plans she'd made to kill him. Face to face with that boyish smile and those familiar, immature mannerisms, she remembered all of the times he'd played her exactly like this in the past. Thinking about how much she let him manipulate her, and how confident he was that it would work again this time, she gritted her teeth as the rage flooded in. "Didya get it?" he asked with another confidential smile. "'Cause those are things that a hooker would say and we're in the poor section of the city. Not that I have any experience with that sort of thing or any--What the hell are you doing with THAT douchebag?!"

Finally noticing him, Rudy was suddenly pointing into the car and glaring possessively in Alex's direction, but Osono didn't let him say anything else as she snapped into action. With him leaning down into the car window like he was, Ozzie easily reached over his shoulder and grabbed a fistful of the jean jacket he was wearing, jerking it forward and over his head. He let out a muffled sound of protest, but as soon as his head popped up from the other side, her other hand - now making a fist - slammed into his face, hitting him right between the eyes and slipping his arms clean out of his sleeves.

While he stumbled back, groaning and holding his nose woundedly, Ozzie carelessly tossed the jacket towards Alex's lap, and keeping her eyes focused on Rudy, she opened her door and said, "I'll handle this." As she left the car, she took the boiling heat with her, stalking towards Rudy as he sniffled and gave her a defensive look.

"Ozzie-- Ozzie, wait! Please! Let me explain--it's not what you think!"

"Oh, it's not?!" she yelled, stomping across the hard packed dirt and kicking a crushed can out of her path. "It's been you all along! Every time I let you come back because I thought we were friends--"

"We ARE friends!"

"--but the whole time, you were the one I was really running from! Do you have any fucking clue what you've done to me?!" His mouth bobbed open to reply but her fist was there, plunging into his gut and knocking the air out of him. "You've ruined my life!" As he wheezed and coughed, doubled over, she grasped his head and shoved it down into her knee. He lost his feet and fell back onto the ground and Ozzie only stopped her attack to pick up a rusty metal pipe laying nearby.

"Always running! Always hiding! Never safe anywhere and you were always right there beside me, drawing Them to me!" He lay back on the ground, gasping fearfully, half supporting himself on his elbow and raising a hand to shield himself - a lot of good it did him when the pipe came down, smashing into his wrist. There was a dry snap and immediately, Rudy began screaming in pain, his voice actually sounding like a grown man for once, rather than the falsetto that she expected. He was silenced a second later when she swung the pipe like a golf club and his head whipped violently to the side.

Laying back on the ground, he moaned softly, his head and limbs moving weakly in vague attempts to squirm away from the pain, but remaining directionless and random. Tossing the pipe away, Ozzie crouched over him and just started punching him over and over, everywhere she could reach. And other than the occasional agonized flailing, Rudy didn't move or fight back.

"I've lost everything and everyone that matters to me! Lost my home and my family! My mother's funeral, Rudy! I never got to say goodbye to her!"

Adrenaline and heat filled her body and despite her labored breathing, she was far from finished. She'd make sure he knew everything he'd done wrong before she finally burned him alive. Grabbing the front of his T-shirt, she drew her fist back, ready to punch his face into unrecognizable mush, but she stopped. His cheek was reddened from where she'd hit him and his nose was bleeding, streaming off to the left side of his face, and he looked up at her with fear for probably the first time since they'd been together.

It made her feel weird, and she didn't know how to react, but without realizing or even consciously deciding to do it, she was suddenly kissing him instead. His body jerked beneath her at first - was he as surprised by this as she was? - but then his lips parted and he was returning it. It was like a release of aching pressure inside her, soothing and comforting to finally do this - had she really been waiting for this from him? - but it also hurt her as well.

After just 15 seconds, she pulled away, still holding him by his shirt and catching her breath. "My one good thing," she said sadly, tears filling her eyes but not falling - she mustn't do that. She couldn't be weak. Not in front of him. "My one good thing and you ruined it." The lovestruck look that had been swimming in his eyes was faded now, replaced with a bereft and confused expression, after she spoke. She glared at him and clenched her teeth. "I hate you," she said, hating him again for the way she didn't mean it and hating him some more when she had the urge to cry about it like a stupid little girl.

Rudy didn't know what to say. NONE of this was anything that he expected. His undercover persona had been shattered and there was no recovering it. But he no longer felt scared that she'd possibly kill him, drawn to her by the tears glimmering in her eyes. She was so beautiful. And sad. He'd made her sad and he was strangely proud of himself, smitten by this vulnerable side of her.

For the whole 5 minute beating, the entire world had faded away from him leaving nothing but the two of them caught in this intimate and twisted moment. But now, he remembered everything and frantically tried to bring to mind the reasoning that had pushed him to come here in the first place. There had to be a logical explanation; something he wanted to do and a direct reason why! Then an abrupt calm spread over him when he realized...and finally admitted to himself what she had become to him... what his Agency career now meant to him.

Rudy's good hand drifted up to cradle her face - and she let him touch her, seemingly waiting for some sort of response or admission of guilt from him. But he could only think of one thing to say. "I know," a soft smile touched his lips. "And I'm not sorry."

Leaning up, he captured her lips again, moving his mouth against hers, tender yet insistent. And she kissed him back.


She wished she deserved a happily ever after like that...

But she didn't and with that realization, the day-dream fell apart, revealing the soft glow of the Audi's internal lights. The closer the tiny arrow got to the star on the map, the more anxious Osono became. She was driving herself crazy wondering what they'd find when they eventually arrived at their destination. Was this really it? Was there an Agency base at the end of this road? Or did they need to find another secluded spot so Osono could burn Ms. Agent Liar's feet until she told the truth? But the biggest thing she worried about was Rudy. Would he be there? If they did happen to find him in the base, would he act like he always did or would the mask finally come off?

The thing that drove her nuts, though, was trying to figure out and plan how she would react to either scenario. If imagination Osono's opinion of her own will was any indication, things did not look good for her finally setting herself free. There was no way she'd actually let herself kiss that little fucktard. But if he started playing his geeky 'little brother' game - EVEN in the middle of the Agent's headquarters and EVEN if he happened to be wearing a uniform - she'd probably let him live. She tried to shove such an absurd decision out of the way; tried to replace it, but she couldn't deny how she truly felt about the situation. If Rudy acted like an obnoxious yet innocent man-child and told his stupid jokes, she did not feel right about just setting him on fire and watching her only friend-enemy burn alive.

But thinking of the future, it only made her mad. No! She couldn't fucking do this anymore!

Glancing down at the GPS screen, she guessed they had about 10-20 minutes before arrow and star become one. Then she cleared her throat and looked at Alex, urging herself to shut up even as she tried to convince herself to say something.

"Hey," Ozzie paused and let out a silent breath. She was so fucking stupid. "Do you think... we'll see Rudy there?" Oh, great. Could she try not to sound like a teenager hoping to see her crush at the mall? "I mean, if he is..." Okay, shut up! shut up! Shut up! Start over, dumbass!

"I've learned a lot recently and I know better now - I'm not an expert of course, but it's enough to change my mind about some things I was willing to let slide before." Another pause. How to say this?

"I can't keep doing this. And if it were anybody else, I could deal with it. Even if they keep pestering me for the rest of my life, I can deal with it. ...But not Rudy." And here comes the stupid part. "If he's there... if we see him... Can you do me a favor and...make sure I kill him? I won't ask you to do it - and don't, I don't want you to do it; I'LL do it. And I can do it. I just... need a little help, I think. If he's there and your there and it looks like I won't go through with it, can you just remind me what a scumbag he is? Remind me that I'll never have a future with him still coming after me."

Gragh! That was so pathetic and weak! Inside she raged and berated herself, skin crawling with her self-loathing, but she couldn't make herself take it back or "nevermind" i